Note: The movie’s been out a few months now, so any spoilers you stumble across herein are your own damned fault.
I loved Rogue One. It is my favorite movie in the Star Wars franchise short of Empire Strikes Back, just edging out Return of the Jedi for the second spot. A lot of people didn’t like it as much though. They are, of course, entitled to their opinion, but I think the movie deserves an explanation for the root of my glowing praise. So, let me answer the movie’s criticisms with why I feel those perceived weaknesses are actually strengths.
Critique 1: It Didn’t Feel Like a Star Wars Movie
Okay, so Rogue One does not have the same tone or style of the other Star Wars movies. This, of course, was intentional, as this movie is not meant to be exactly like the other Star Wars movies. This is one of its chief advantages, in my opinion.
First off, last week I explained how I felt that Lego Batman was a miserable slog primarily because the source material has been permitted to stagnate. Same thing has been happening to Star Wars for some time now. My chief criticism of The Force Awakens is that, while I love the characters, the plot of the movie was formulaic, dull, and often nonsensical – Abrams is just pushing the buttons labelled “Star Wars” and not really doing anything new and interesting in terms of plot, setting, or even dramatic tension. Star Wars, it is assumed, has to be a family story about the mystical struggle between the Light and Dark Side. Throw in an alien monster (at least 1 per movie, every movie), one lightsaber duel, one space battle, and one commando raid of some kind and I’ve just described every single Star Wars film with two exceptions: Empire Strikes Back and Rogue One.
Rogue One is not a family story. It’s not even a tale of good vs evil. It’s a war movie – specifically, a straight up homage to World War 2 movies like The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, and The Guns of Navarone.
This is a story about a bunch of rag-tag commandos with conflicting priorities who team up to to take out a fascist superweapon and, in the process, almost all die. They gun down stormtroopers. They go undercover. Get locked inside restricted facilities. They fight on top of high towers and/or mountains. They have a sniper. There’s always one dude you aren’t sure you can trust. The mission seems impossible. No one will remember their names. And on and on and on…
We always knew the Empire was the Nazis, but this is the first movie to actually show what that means.
Yeah, it’s not your average Star Wars story, but it’s a story that makes all the other Star Wars stories (1) make more sense and (2) gain a greater sense of what’s at stake. The Empire is depicted in its full brutality here in a way the other films don’t bother. We get a broader sense of the scope of the world and the risks people have to take. So, no – there are no Jedi, no Skywalkers, no glorious victories, no larger-than-life stunts. It’s regular people trying to do incredible things. I love that.
Critique 2: The Characters Aren’t Greatly Developed
Okay, on the one hand I can see what you’re saying – they could have done a better job in some spots of making these people more rounded and involved. That said, I actually liked the stripped down character development they got. First off, I don’t think the character development was weak, in particular – it just asked you in many places to draw your own conclusions. These aren’t people who discuss their feelings regularly anyway, so there was no Luke-and-Leia-on-the-Forest-Moon confessionals. For what it’s worth, I understood their motivations just fine. I know why Cassian didn’t shoot Jyn’s father. He wants to believe Jyn is right – he doesn’t want to kill innocent people anymore. It eats at him the whole movie. Does he come out and say this? No. He never does and, yeah, its unclear. Hell, I could be wrong (though I don’t think so).
Then again, what is gained her is that this movie allows us to connect with the characters not as characters but in the sense that they can (and are supposed) to be ciphers for us to occupy. This was the same tactic used in those World War 2 raid movies – character development was always sparse, and it was sparse to allow the audience (many of them actual WW2 veterans) to put themselves in the shoes of the characters. You don’t really give a crap what Clint Eastwood’s character’s name is in Where Eagles Dare. You just want to picture yourself with the MP40 gunning down Nazis.
In this same way, I submit to you the following: Rogue One is the film impersonation of every single time you and your friends pretended to be soldiers of the rebellion on school playgrounds from around 1980 until 1990 (with some variation given your actual age, of course). I know me and my friends used to play as rebels getting blown up (and blowing up) stormtroopers in my backyard for years and years. Did our “characters” have names? Not really – we were “the guy with the super-huge gun” and “the guy who knows jedi powers but isn’t a jedi and, oh yeah, he’s blind and really cool.” It’s that. They made a movie about that. Yeah, the character development isn’t super deep, but it doesn’t have to be to get the job done.
Critique 3: The Whole “Death Star Plan Transmission” Was Silly
Okay, first off: debating “realism” in Star Wars is a ridiculous place to start from. I’d follow up with this: if you gave this movie crap but didn’t get frustrated by The Force Awakens, you’re being a raging hypocrite, because this movie made vastly, vastly more sense than any single part of that movie.
But okay, let’s entertain the debate for a moment. Why is it so hard to get the Death Star master plans, anyway? Here are my suggestions:
- They are made deliberately hard to transmit because they are super-secret plans.
- There is no precedent for nor is their evidence of any kind of “Galactic Internet.” Transmission of incredibly complex and dense data across interstellar distances is likely very, very difficult.
- The world-shield on the data haven planet made it hard to get the data transmitted.
- The data could not be instantly copied and distributed to multiple Rebel ships because of how large the files likely were and the rebel ships were not equipped to transmit such data easily.
- They had to keep it on that one chip because that chip represented the easiest, most secure method of transport for the data which, again, was of such size it could not be easily contained on the Tantive IV.
- R2-D2 is magic.
There, settled. Now it’s your turn to explain to me how the Starkiller Base is supposed to work, how some fringe group built it, and why it’s so damned easy to blow up, and the astrocartographical phenomenon that allowed people in star system A see the explosions in system B as two distinct points of light rather than one tiny blip.
Overall, I loved this movie. It was tense, it was different, and it makes me like all the other movies more, which is itself a reward for watching that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I hope to see more like this – more departures from the Star Wars script, more risks being taken to make the franchise last and be fresh and interesting. More franchises could use such treatment.
Every author, from time to time, imagines what their books would look like as a movie of television show. Now, the vast majority of us never have that experience, granted, and an even smaller sliver of those that do actually see the book come to life in a way they imagined it, but that doesn’t stop us from trying anyway. So, I’ve been thinking about how to cast my books, and this is what I’ve come up with.
Ron Perlman (Banric Sahand)
So, first on the list is the big bad from Book I, the Mad Prince of Dellor, Banric Sahand. I needed an actor who was big and an imposing presence, somebody with a big voice and who can be really menacing. I got Ron Perlman, which I think is pretty damned spot-on. He’s been playing a lot of heroes in the movies of late, but this guy can play a hell of a villain.
And that’s just what Sahand is.
Michelle Pfeiffer (Lyrelle Reldamar)
Tyvian’s mother needs to look regal and sharp. She needs to bear her age well and have the Reldamar eyes. This is a tough one – I had a lot of ideas here – but I settled on Michelle Pfeiffer for her ability to command a scene above most other things.
Levi Miller (Artus)
It’s something of a fool’s game to bother casting somebody in their early adolescence, since in two or three years this kid will look nothing like Artus anymore, but this guy (from the movie Pan) is the right age with the right look and so on. Granted, if the movie ever were really made (and I’m not holding my breath, superfans), I’d honestly expect the Artus role to go to an unknown. You’d need somebody to grow with the role, in any event, as those who are reading No Good Deed right now can probably attest.
Charlize Theron (Myreon Alafarr)
Myreon is supposed to be tall, graceful, and no-nonsense, all of which Theron can definitely pull off with panache. She’s also able to effortlessly take Tyvian’s breath away, and Theron does that to me, why would Tyvian be any different?
Part of me, though, would like to see Theron play Lyrelle, though, if for no other reason than her portrayal of the evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman.
Gwendoline Christie (Hool)
Since Hool is mostly going to be CGI, what I was mostly looking for here would be the voice. Christie’s voice fits really well, but I also gave some serious thought to Viola Davis. In any event, it should be a woman with a relatively deep voice or someone with a lot of vocal force. Plenty of options there, I suppose, but Christie was who jumped to mind first.
Neil Patrick Harris (Tyvian Reldamar)
Took me a long, long time to nail this one down. I went from Damian Lewis to Chris Pine to any number of other leading men, but I’ve settled here, on Harris, because he’s got the best damned smirk in the business, and that is Tyvian’s go-to expression. He’s also got the right build (though Harris is a bit too tall), and we’ve all seen that he knows how to dress, so yeah, he’s got the whole thing sewn up. Honestly, to some extent Tyvian is a weaponized Barney Stinson, so it all makes a perverse kind of sense.
Well, that’s all I’ve got for now. I have ideas for some of the more minor characters in the two books, too, but let’s not get bogged down in minutiae. I’ll let the casting directors have fun with Carlo diCarlo or Gethrey Andolon, Hacklar Jaevis and Maude Telversham. Authors can’t have all the fun, can we?
Superhero movies have a problem. This problem is endemic, evidently, to their nature and I am uncertain it can be solved unless our expectations of superhero movies change fundamentally. In brief: if a superhero movie is made and it is successful, another one, by definition, will also be made. However, as this movie must surpass the original, the makers of the film invariably choose to expand the next film in scope, cast, and budget. The result is a movie that is not as good as the first, but just as successful. This leads to a third, and the same thing happens (only the third is not as good as the second) and so on until, at last, the final film in the franchise either fizzles, the cast gets tired and moves on, or it dies some other, more esoteric death (perhaps involving the death of a cast member, legal issues, scandals, etc.).
Allow me to explain in more detail.
Stage One: We begin, first, with a superhero. This superhero has his own movie and it is his (or, more rarely, her) story. We see how they become who they are, we are introduced to their struggles and are hopefully inspired by their ability to overcome their foes. Huzzah, huzzah – everything is wonderful.
This first movie is, by far, the easiest to get right – one main character, one external and internal conflict, one story arc to manage, one villain to face, and so on. It is basic, mythic, Campbellian storytelling that human beings have been doing since Gilgamesh. Now, notably, the movie can easily still be terrible, but so long as it makes money at the box office, it hardly matters. Stage 2 approaches.
Stage Two: So, now we’ve got this movie studio that feels it’s discovered a money-making machine, and they’ll be damned if they don’t capitalize. The thing is, though, that you can’t just make the same movie twice – you’ve got to move forward, wow the audience, blow their minds. So they add more moving parts to the story.
It should be noted that there is no objective reason the second story has to be worse than the first. Indeed, some franchises actually do improve in the second installment (Captain America: Winter Soldier, for instance). If they do so, however, it is because of two things: (1) the second story didn’t incorporate more characters, but instead incorporated more complex character conflicts for the hero to resolve or (2) the first movie was terrible and there was nowhere to go but up.
Much of the time, however, neither of these things is the case. You wind up a movie that is pretty much like the first one, only louder and bigger and needlessly more complicated. It can still be pretty entertaining (Iron Man 2) or notable (Batman Returns), but it lacks a certain something that the first one had.
That something, by the way? It’s called “authenticity in storytelling.”
Stage Three: If it ain’t broke, why fix it, right? The second movie made money, so surely the strategy of the producers was the correct one: bigger is better (forgetting, of course, that the audience was coming to the theater on the promise of the first film, not the quality of the second)! But now they need to make another movie! And it needs to be even biggerer! HOW CAN THIS BE ACCOMPLISHED?!
Easy! This time you don’t just add one or two new characters to the mix! You add an additional 2 or 3 on top of the last film. New love interests (everybody loves love quadrangles, right?), the return of an old villain who teams up with a new villain and then both of them encounter a third villain who is tangentially related to the first villain in some way (looking at you, Spider-Man 3), the artificial raising of the stakes (first he saved the city, next time he saved the county, now he is going to save the city from the county and, therefore, the WHOLE WORLD WILL WATCH!), and on and on and on. And of course there are new allies, new sidekicks, new sideplots, and soon the whole thing becomes unwieldy. Everybody needs a story arc, but not everyone gets one (the movie’s got to fit into 2 hours, people!), and so characterization becomes more hand-wavy, more cliche. Our main guy? The hero we tuned in to see? His screen time is reduced, his arc is more predictable, and he very likely fails to undergo significant growth.
But, for all that, the damned movie is still fun, right? Well, maybe. A lot of franchises die right here, a lot of actors get tired of all the green-screening nonsense. If they go on, however…
Stage Four: MOVIE ARMAGEDDON! Now the franchise is so damned popular, it can have everybody in it. Distinguished actors from across the globe sign on for cameo roles that nerds freak out over. The special effects are absurd abominations for the eyes. People actively forget there’s supposed to be a plot. Character growth? Bah! We want explosions and our hero standing on the crushed remnants of the enemy android army. The only dialogue should be witty banter or over-the-top, Gandalf-in-Return of the King-esque speeches about it “being time” and “time growing short” and how “the time has finally come.” The movie is a complete and utter clusterfuck. Nothing makes sense, almost no character has sufficient screen time to be interesting, and all of us are basically going just to see how it all works out, just like people attend playoff games after their teams are knocked out – just to see what happens, ultimately, and to tell other people about it. It’s not a story anymore, it’s an event. And this is the end. It can go no further.
The MCU Anomaly
Now, I know there are those of you out there who are holding up Marvel’s interlocking franchises as proof that this dilemma has a solution. The solution, of course, is that you have individual movie franchises that keep things a little small (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, etc.) and then giant ensemble movies where you don’t need to do character development as much because we all already know these people (The Avengers). This, however, is not solving the problem, it is merely dragging it out. The individual films still tend to degrade (Iron Man 3, anyone?), the giant ensemble movies are still fun-but-stupid (Avengers: Age of Ultron was nonsensical, folks), and we are still locked in a steady, downward slope that even new Stage One films (Dr. Strange!) will only serve to slow a bit before they, also, are wrapped up in the morass. Basically, what I’m telling you is that The Infinity War Part 2 is going to be the greatest movie clusterfuck of all time.
And I’m totally going to be there to see it.
No, this post isn’t about The Black Cauldron. That wasn’t a good movie, it just had a magic sword and skeletons and we saw it when we were seven or eight years old. No, rather this post is going to be about what I consider to be one of Disney’s most underrated animated features, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I figure if I’m going to rant about overrated movies (see previous post), I may as well mix in some positivity, too, and keep the tone even.
Anyway, nobody saw Hunchback, and it’s something of a shame. While I’m not here to claim that it is the best Disney feature ever (and it certainly isn’t quite that), I am going to defend it as being a very good or, at least, a notable and ambitious one. Because it is all those things, you see – notable, ambitious, and very good.
People who hate this movie love to harp on the fact that it ‘tromps all over Victory Hugo’. This accusation, if stripped of all vitriol, is strictly accurate – the film changes the story significantly to fit its purpose. Most notably, the ending is not a tragic one. However, Disney isn’t really telling the same story Hugo is, anyway, and tragedy is never their aim here. Hunchback is a story about accepting and embracing difference and diversity, and that it does. Indeed, I’d say it does a better job with its central theme than The Lion King does with its own (adolescence and maturity) and, indeed, I would go further to say that the Lion King would be the movie better suited to a tragic end. That, though, is an argument for a different post.
Even beyond the lament that this two hour movie does not manage to encapsulate a 500 page French romantic novel, the other problem is that the movie seems to shift in tone rapidly. On the one hand, you have themes of genocide, lust, inhuman cruelty, and isolation and then, on the other, you’ve got wisecracking gargoyles and pithy dialogue from Kevin Klein. The shift is jarring and sometimes too much. I would argue, though, that this particular critique is not in any way unique to this particular Disney film, but rather present in all of them. The only difference is that the themes most other Disney films attempt to tackle are significantly less intense and, therefore, the juxtaposition is less obviously obnoxious. For example, Mushu (of Mulan) is every bit as idiotic as the gargoyles, as is Timon and Poomba (The Lion King), as is Jacques and Gus (Cinderella), as is the little hummingbird and racoon in Pocahontas. They are silly comic relief and, while they are often better managed than in Hunchback, I’d argue not substantially so. It’s just that we have trouble accepting that people might tell lame jokes while some lunatic judge is burning people alive inside their homes.
I would argue that Disney’s primary problem with this film is that they didn’t go far enough, honestly. They wussed out on telling a really, really powerful story for fear of terrifying children. This is a sensible fear, I suppose, but I think that Disney underestimates children (and always has). I think they could have cut the silly gargoyles and made an even better movie. All that said, the movie they did make is a fairly impressive work, especially considering the strictures under which Disney movies are forced to operate.
As adults, we are aware that the world is full of horrible things happening to innocent people for horrible reasons (I gesture vaguely in the direction of the Middle East). We live in a world full of hatred, fear, bigotry, and violence. Few Disney movies have ever bothered addressing this or, if they do, they have cleaned it up and dumbed it down to the point where the message is empty and meaningless, made to play poor second fiddle to some uninspired love story. Hunchback doesn’t do this. Its violence is unapologetic; its villains are not just evil, but realistically evil. This film explores racism better than Pocahontas, explores the evils of patriarchy better than Mulan, and has a main character who copes with his own self-loathing far more convincingly than Simba in The Lion King.
I’m not going to give a synopsis here, but I will mention a few points of note:
- Our villain, barely five-minutes in, is about to commit infanticide because a baby is both ugly and a member of an oppressed minority. He is only stopped by the threat of God’s judgment, and resolves instead to support the boy by keeping him in exile and telling him he’s a horrible monster for his whole life. If you think crap like this doesn’t actually happen, turn on the news.
- The movie unflinchingly examines the importance of looks (both beauty and ugliness) in how society treats you. Esmerelda is molested and (basically) sexually assaulted. Quasimodo is subjected to incredible cruelty by the general population in one of the hardest to watch scenes in a Disney animated feature.
- The villain plans genocide. The climax of the movie deals with him trying to burn gypsies alive, one after another, in front of an audience (wow). It shows children the wrongness of treating different people as less than you, and does so both powerfully and accessibly.
- There is a distinct appeal to the divine in this move (obviously – it’s a cathedral!), but it is worth noting that this is the only Disney movie I can think of that overtly discusses religion in both its positive and negative senses. The cathedral is both a place of punishment and isolation as well as protection and salvation. That is a pretty nuanced and (I feel) pretty accurate way of thinking about organized religion.
Beyond that, the film is beautiful. The animation is spectacular and contributes to the themes. In the opening number, the cathedral of Notre Dame is presented as a character, and the imagery that surrounds it supports its role as central moral axis of the film. Now, in the absence of any other substance, this might fall flat. However, the cathedral and medieval Paris serves as an excellent backdrop to the difficult themes already discussed and the filmmakers know this, and they use it. When Frollo trembles before “the eyes, the very eyes of Notre Dame”, the effect is heart-stopping. We simultaneously are given a glorious musical and visual image, but also gain greater insight into Frollo’s character – a man living in terror of his own dark soul. At the end, when boiling lead (or oil, but I assume lead, since that would make more sense) is pouring from the rainspouts of the cathedral, the religious imagery and themes of the film could not be more clear or more harrowing.
The music, likewise, is sophisticated and interesting (well, mostly – a couple songs are just there to be happy, and I refer you to the tone problems the movie has as described above). “God Bless the Outcasts” and “The Bells of Notre Dame” are particularly good.
Nuanced Characters (well, a few)
Phoebus and Esmerelda are pretty stock characters, I will agree. Esmerelda is the more interesting of the two and has better lines, but she’s still just the ‘feisty gypsy woman’ for all that, and Demi Moore’s dialogue delivery is a bit wooden. That, though, is more than made up for by the protagonist and antagonist of the film, Quasi and Frollo. Quasi is very well drawn and his gradual climb to self-confidence is inspiring to watch, primarily because he doesn’t realize he’s doing it until the end which, to my mind, is how most of us change anyway – without self awareness or that crystal clear moment of epiphany. Then there’s Frollo. He’s a simply fantastic villain, and no mistake. Evil, twisted, and actually understandable. History is full of his analogues – a man so convinced of his self-righteousness that he becomes a monster and, even as he realizes it, cannot and will not do anything to change. He prays for help but asks for the wrong things. He is a victim of his own bigotry and lust, and this only makes him more evil. He’s great fun to watch, even as he makes your skin crawl.
The idea is often advanced that this stuff is too much for children – that they can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t understand it at their age. I think that idea is wrong. Children can watch this movie and understand enough – Frollo is cruel and evil while Quasimodo is good and kind. The heroes in this film treat everybody (even Gypsies) kindly and believe everybody deserves the same chance. Does this miss a lot of the overtones and deeper themes? Yes, of course, but so what? It is enough for them to see it and maybe, just maybe, set some seeds in their mind that grow into the kind of things we want our kids to be: even-handed, just, inclusive, and merciful.
If you haven’t seen Luc Besson’s Lucy, you are using at least 10% of your brain. It looks like one of the stupidest movies of the year and, indeed, this review by Christopher Orr of the Atlantic seems to confirm my suspicions. If you like reading exhaustive pans of foolish movie ideas, by all means read it. Otherwise, just pretend Lucy never happened and go on with your life. It has all the hallmarks of an overly simplistic, music-video approach to a concept that is much better understood than the filmmakers seem to have considered and is, in fact, not really as interesting as they would have us believe. To borrow a phrase from my friend Whitaker, it’s a dumb person’s idea of a smart movie.
If that phrase and Luc Besson seem to belong together, there is a reason for that: he’s done this before. Indeed, I’ve found most of Besson’s work to be, at best, ‘shallow and watchable.’ It only goes downhill from there. His best movies barely manage to make sense and yet, for some reason, some of them are adored and held up as classics. Chief among these is The 5th Element. It has been described as a ‘tour de force’ and ‘wonderfully entertaining’ and, well, I have to disagree. The 5th Element is one of those movies that is good until you think about it at all, at which point it becomes terrible. Of course, as Roger Ebert said in his review:
We are watching “The Fifth Element” not to think, but to be delighted.
So, fine. The trouble is that the ‘delight’ offered by this film is of the most fleeting and shallow variety. Pacific Rim has more depth than this, and that is saying something, let me tell you.
What It Does Well
The 5th Element is a visual masterpiece – I won’t deny it that. The visual effects were stunning for their time and still hold up today, and the costume and set design is interesting and innovative. The most (and only) thing the movie can offer is a series of stunning visual displays. Seen for the first time, they do, in fact, stun. The problem with effects-as-story, though, is that they don’t last or make a deep emotional impression (which I discuss here in greater depth).
For all that, the effects make the film watchable, which is as high as it can really go. Yes, it is watchable. Yes, it is basically entertaining. However, it’s the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy – brightly colored, weightless, sweet, and wholly lacking in substance.
Now, let’s discuss its flaws, shall we?
The Plot Makes No Sense
So, basically what we have here is an ancient evil that shows up every 5000 years to ‘destroy life’. This evil is a big fiery/dark ball of (something) that floats (somewhere in space). The only way to stop it is four magic rocks and the Fifth Element – a girl who is the ‘perfect being’. Said girl is blown up on her way to Earth along with the Space Penguins who are bringing her there. Modern science rebuilds her, though. Then she escapes. She meets a cab driver. They go on a mission to a cruise ship to get the rocks from a singing squid-woman. Then, it’s back to Earth to stop the ultimate evil, which presumably would have been successful had no one had any matches or Leeloo refused to
make-out with Bruce Willis. The defeated evil becomes a new moon. So, what is wrong with this? Where to begin:
- If you’re the Space Penguins taking the World’s Only Hope back to where it needs to fight the Final Battle, wouldn’t you hire an escort of some kind? Maybe put a gun on your ship? *Something?*
- Why are people helping the thing that will Destroy All Life? Aren’t they alive? The Evil gives no sign it plans on leaving survivors, so, what the hell is Zorg’s excuse?
- Since the Mangalores blew up the Space Penguin ship so easily, why don’t they just blow up the cruise ship, too? Why bother with the whole hostage situation nonsense?
- So, if every time the evil is defeated it makes a new moon, how do they know it will come back in 5000 years since it only seems to have been here once. You need two times at least to establish a pattern. If it’s been here more than once before, where are all the other moons? How did life survive the first time through in order to tell the tale?
- If the great Evil is going to destroy all Life, why does it only go to Earth? Do all the other planets not count? Is it just going to kill planets one at a time? Seems inefficient. Seems like it could just dodge the 5th Element and kill all the *other* life in the universe first.
- Why does the government need to suborn a radio sweepstakes to get Dallas on the space cruise? Got to be an easier way.
- The Blue Diva can’t give the rocks over *before* the concert? What is so damned important about the concert, anyway?
- So the advanced Space Penguins still use Earth/Air/Fire/Water as some kind of elemental guideposts? How the hell did they end up with spaceships?
I could go on. And on. And on.
But Seriously, Nothing Makes Sense
It isn’t just the plot, though – it’s also every single solitary aspect of the world. Well, okay, with one or two notable examples: First, the multipass (makes sense) and, second, the fact that Rudy Rod is so damned annoying and does a radio show (also makes sense, considering the distances data needs to be transmitted and, generally speaking, how
annoying pop culture figures are in real life). That’s it. Everything else makes no sense. To enumerate:
- Flying cars are a bad idea and probably won’t ever happen unless everybody is on autopilot, and even not then.
- The cops seem content to blow up their whole city to pull over an errant taxi driver and, by the way, why do their cars have a million machine guns?
- Are there only five people in the world government?
- How the hell does the president know or care what this random priest thinks?
- That naval officer who fired his missiles when the president was expressing his doubts would be court martialed.
- Why do people ooze oil from their heads when talking with the Evil?
- Where the hell is everything, anyway? Like, where is Earth in relation to the Evil in relation to the Diva’s cruise ship? It doesn’t seem to make any physical sense.
- So, when the Blue Diva said she’d bring the stones to Earth, what she really meant was “I’m going on this cruise, right, and you can meet me there at some point when I’m kinda-sorta near Earth, but not exactly.”
- Why the hell is there a dude on a blimp selling things outside a window? Isn’t he going to be hit by a bus?
- Where does all the crap in Dallas’s apartment go when it slides into the walls, seeing how it must maintain the same volume since Leeloo wasn’t crushed when she went up in the shower.
- Are you trying to tell me that a being that can pummel a dozen armed aliens into unconsciousness/death is going to be shocked and appalled at the existence of war? Holy hypocrisy, Batman!
The Characters are Flat
There is not a single interesting or nuanced character in this film. Not one. Everybody is a caricature of something. There is no character arc for anybody. Dallas is basically the same guy he was at the beginning of the movie, except now he has a girlfriend. Leeloo never learns to talk like an adult and never reconciles her horror for war with her own violent tendencies. The President never figures out what’s going on. Zorg is a jerk and then dies. The Priest is just the Priest and has no other definitive characteristics I can name. Ruby Rod is basically Shaggy from Scooby Doo, except with confidence and his own radio show. Zzzzzzzz….
I could go on, but I think you get my point. This movie does not deserve the hype it has received over the years. It is pretty and (kinda) fun, but ultimately pointless and nonsensical. As Luc Besson’s best movie, it goes to show the limitations the director labors under – he is a visual master, but his stories are the stuff of a fifteen-year-old’s chapbook. I should know – I’ve got stories like this in my fifteen-year-old chapbooks. They’re not good, guys. Come to think of it, they’re a lot like The 5th Element.
Do you remember a time when you believed there were people living on the moon? Or Mars? Or Venus? I do.
I’m a kid – no older than eight – reading Ray Bradbury in a sunny room, thinking about the color of the kids’ raincoats on Venus. A casual browse through my shelves will reveal reams of construction paper upon which has been illustrated a wide variety of spaceships, including the Costello – an interplanetary craft based upon the rough outline of the swing set in my backyard. On the floor, scattered about on their launch pads, a legion of Lego spaceships point through the skylights of my bedroom, waiting for lift-off.
This is me before true scientific understanding had dawned. Before I had my subscription to Odyssey, before I learned everything I could about the Solar System and beyond. This was when I still thought there might be Martians and wondered whether they were friendly or not.
Explorers was released in 1985. I did not see it in the theater – I didn’t know it existed until probably a few years later, when I was browsing through the local video rental store (remember browsing the rental store? Man, I loved that!) and saw it sitting on the shelf. The movie was, along with The Goonies, a representation of all my idealized childhood fantasies. A couple kids manage to build a spaceship out of junk in their backyard and fly off to explore the universe. Never mind how they did it (I don’t really remember – something about a computer program that makes bubbles out of thin air, I guess – this was also back in the days when computers were tantamount to MAGIC). The important point is that three kids, without the need for adults, built a spaceship and went off to explore space.
List off the films that did this in the 1980s – had kids/teens on the forefront of space exploration/science fictional adventure:
- The Last Starfighter
- Space Camp
- Flight of the Navigator
- My Science Project
- Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
- Back to the Future
I’m probably missing some, too. In any case, I grew up thinking fantastic adventure was just around the corner. All I needed to do was meet a crazy inventor or stumble upon a meteorite or get locked in the National Air and Space museum after dark and discover, to my shock and wonder, that the Apollo Capsule still worked!
And when I did manage to travel through time or open a portal to another world or fly off to Mars, there would be people there. Life, in this halcyon age of my imagination, was as common in space as it was here on Earth. Every planet would have a secret ecosystem of aliens creatures waiting to be explored and (possibly) zapped with a ray gun. There would be cultures of intelligent creatures there, both primitive and advanced, and I would make friends and enemies, establish diplomatic relations, and so on. I swore I’d have a flying car by now and that space stations would be places people went for vacation or stopped over on their way to Saturn.
I was wrong, of course. Space isn’t really like that or, at least, it doesn’t appear to be. It is vast and mostly empty and our planet is a little island of blue all alone in a sea of black, not just one member of an archipelago of habitable worlds. Getting off this rock seems harder and harder, even as it also looks to be more and more essential that we manage it. I wonder if this is just part of growing up for everybody or whether my generation was uniquely spoiled – probably the former. I also wonder: do the kids of today have similar dreams? Do they hope to explore the Great Unknown? I worry sometimes. I seem to meet a lot of young people who don’t bother looking past the ends of their noses and whose ideas of the future involve merely a steady job and a 401K (if that).
That’s not enough, though. We need to look further than the necessities of our own survival. We need to be dreamers – crazy dreamers – if we’re going to have a shot. When somebody accuses of you of riding moonbeams, you need to take it as a compliment. It’s gotta be better than just squatting in the dirt, right?
We have at this point had enough actors play Superman that we can have a conversation about who did it best, much as is done for James Bond and Batman and (for some reason) Jack Ryan. For me, the order goes like this:
- Brandon Routh
- Christopher Reeve
- Tom Welling
- Dean Cain
- Henry Cavill
- George Reeves
I’ll accept argument about the lower four, but not the top two. Chistopher Reeve owned that part – it was part of his being, much like Sean Connery will always be Bond and Johnny Weismuller will always be ‘the’ Tarzan. Brandon Routh, though, gives us the most interesting and balanced performance, bar none. His movie is the best Superman movie. When I think of Superman, I am either thinking of #1 or #2 on that list.
Superman Returns gets a bum rap. People seemed to have not liked the movie, and I don’t quite understand why. To be fair, Routh is simply playing Reeve playing Superman to some extent – it’s the exact same character in the exact same plot continuity – but excised of a lot of the stuff that made Reeve’s movies silly. Instead of a fairly flat tale of Superman flying around and saving people, we get an in-depth character drama circling around one of the more interesting love triangles in superhero-dom. Oh, and we have Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, and I don’t think anybody can seriously suggest anybody did it better than he did. Even Gene Hackman pales next to Spacey’s sharp, witty portrayal.
Anywho, in Superman Returns, Supes comes back after being gone for five years – he journeyed to Krypton to see what was left. When he gets back, the world has moved on without him. Most interestingly, Lois Lane is now engaged and has a kid. Lane is the same high-octane reporter and no-nonsense girl, Clark is the same befuddling goofball, but now we’ve moved on from the will-she/won’t-she anticipation of the Superman/Lane relationship. This is good – it was a bad idea for a relationship, anyway. Clark, though, isn’t quite willing to let go.
Enter the other man. Lane’s fiancée is (surprise!) a nice guy. A good guy. He’s handsome. He’s tall. He has a job. He’s good with the kid. He’s kind to Lois. He is a completely, 100% decent human being deserving the girl he’s got. I LOVE that about this movie. I am so very, very tired of the old superhero trope that reserves the affections of certain women (named Vale, Watson, Lane, Potts, and so on) for their specific heroes, as though they are some kind of franchised and licensed appendage to the male lead. No, bullshit – Lois Lane didn’t wait for Superman. Why should she? Some jackass flies off for five years and, what, she’s gonna just hang around? Not her. Oh, and the movie also gives her the respect of assuming that an intelligent, capable, and strong woman like Lois is able to pick a guy who isn’t a jackass, a liar, a jerk, or any of that crap. She doesn’t need to be rescued from her own life by some guy in a cape. Sure, she needs to be rescued from a crashing jumbo jet and a sinking boat and what-not (she isn’t a superhero), but Lane has her life figured out. She’s living it. She doesn’t need Superman. Well, almost certainly not.
That, right there, is the central conflict of the story: Lois might not need Superman, but does she want him? Clark may not have her, but should he get her back? Yes, yes – Lex Luthor is in the midst of a dastardly plot and Lois gets mixed up in it and Superman has to stop him – but the purpose of that plot is to demonstrate and explore Clark and Lois’s feelings for one another and their new relationship. This is interesting on a number of levels, not the least of which is this: the writers realize that the only conflict interesting enough to sustain Superman is one that he cannot punch his way out of.
Did any of you get bored in Man of Steel after the 45th straight minute of indestructible people punching each other? I did. I mean, jeez – they are invulnerable superbeings. Throwing them through a wall isn’t going to do crap. They know it. We know it. Everybody knows it – why do we go through the motions? Man of Steel seemed fueled by the juvenile and visceral enjoyment involved in destroying large portions of real-estate with immense special effects budgets. Yeah, it’s fun, but it lacks a certain trueness to the character. Brandon Routh safely stopping the crashing jumbo jet from smashing into the baseball stadium and then setting it on the field was iconic. Every part of that scene was quintessential Superman – the guy who is so good he can’t be from this world. That’s what it’s all about.
Cut back to him and Lois, we are watching a genuine moral dilemma. Superman possesses the power to get Lois back – nobody doubts that, not even Lois. She still has feelings for him and could probably be convinced, as much as she might not want to be. In the end, though, Superman doesn’t get her. Lois chooses the other guy. The other guy distinguishes himself as a hero in saving Lois. Superman backs off, knowing this is for the best. It’s a little bittersweet, but we feel good – this is the right decision. That, to me, is what Superman is all about. He is about making the right decision. He is about taking the high road, despite his feelings. No movie or show has ever told his story better than Superman Returns. Not that I’ve seen, anyway.
Unfortunately, such subtlety seems to have been lost on movie-going audiences. They much prefer the near-genocidal violence of Man of Steel and a character who is less ‘super’ and more aloof and detached. Cavill’s Superman is a stock hero – he’s Wolverine in different underroos, he’s Batman with laser vision, he’s yet another version of the ronin, the disgruntled knight errant. A good character, sure, but not who Superman is. Superman is the Paladin. The incorruptible, unachievable paradigm. People seem to think that’s boring, but I disagree. People just don’t seem to think hard enough about how interesting and difficult journey it is to do the right thing for the right reasons at the worst times.
If you haven’t already, you will probably see the trailer for the new movie I, Frankenstein very shortly. For this, I am profoundly sorry and wish there were some way I could spare you the experience but, alas, I cannot. Hollywood has too much money tied up in that abomination, and they have every intention of stuffing it down your throat.
Now, I haven’t seen the movie and I didn’t read the graphic novel, so I suppose I leave myself wide open to criticism when I say that this movie will probably be unutterably terrible. Unlike Pacific Rim (which also was not a good movie by any objective appraisal), I, Frankenstein doesn’t even look like it will be fun. It looks like a maudlin, overly CGI-ed monstrosity representing a music video director’s idea of ‘gothic.’ We get to watch Frankenstein’s monster fight with gargoyles or something, which is a scene I doubt anybody was secretly hankering for, and we are led to believe that the monster is humanity’s only hope, which is so cliché at this point as to be an open insult to the viewing audience’s intelligence. Aaron Eckhart, who I like a lot and is a fine actor, evidently has a few house payments to make and this is how he’s chosen to do it. Fine – more power to him.
However, this film bothers me on a level beyond its apparent lack of quality. Plenty of crappy sci fi/fantasy/horror movies are made every year and very few of them actively annoy me the way this one does. In this case, the thing that sets this film apart is the title: I, Frankenstein. First of all, the monster is not Frankenstein nor would the monster ever willingly take his creator’s name. Victor Frankenstein created the monster and the monster destroyed him by systematically murdering everyone who mattered to him in his life. Dr. Frankenstein visited nothing but horror and hatred on his creation, and the creation responded in kind. To have the monster identify himself as his most hated enemy is bonkers and demonstrates either an ignorance or indifference to the source material that I find rankling.
Why does it rankle? Well, the whole point of the novel Frankenstein is about man’s relationship with his creations or, more broadly, about the ethical dilemmas surrounding scientific and technological research. Conflating the monster and the creator into a single entity or, as this film seems to do, having the monster self-identify with the creator removes what is interesting about the story in the first place. Granted people have been calling the monster ‘Frankenstein’ since the early 20th century – it may sound snooty of me to quibble with what has become common parlance – but to me the difference is essential to the essence of what the monster is about. If the man is not in the story, what are we left with, exactly? A big, strong man with scars? So? He is alone, he is apart, and the denial he feels from his creator drives him to do terrible things. Remove that motivation and all you have left is a grouchy man.
Now, I suppose the film could deal with the monster’s feeling of isolation, which would be understandable to some degree, but one has to wonder what he’s been doing for the last two-hundred years if not figuring out where to fit in. Additionally, having a loner character act as savior to the people he hates has been done to death, most recently by Hellboy, which at least has a better comic book pedigree to draw on.
World-building in comtemporary/urban fantasy tales is a tricky thing. Rare are the stories in that genre that I feel do it well (Jim Butcher’s work comes to mind). Too often these stories are the fevered imaginings of the adolescent mind (and not in the good way), beginning with the phrase ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ and then trailing off into indulgent, scarcely sane explanations of a normal world containing people with incredible properties. The more egregiously the author violates the ‘normal’ world with the ‘special’ world, the harder suspension of disbelief becomes until, eventually, you get something like this film. This nonsense is just slapped together to the point where you can see the seams in the work, much like Doctor Frankenstein’s stitching is still visible on his creation.
That, then, is the final irony. I, Frankenstein is, itself, a monster. It was made in a laboratory of a different sort – one featuring advertising executives and movie producers instead of scientists. Using laptops and powerpoints instead of beakers and test tubes, they have given life to a creature they intend as beautiful – a blockbuster movie to entertain the masses and coax a river of money to flow into their pockets. Instead, though, they’ve created an ugly thing – something dug up from the grave and not fully understood, made to walk about against its will. Rather than cheer, we recoil in horror. We abandon it in its infancy, leaving it bitter and alone and forgotten in the lower recesses of Comcast’s On-Demand menu. It leaves behind it the corpses of those fools who sought to bring it to life and, as punishment, are relegated to directing Vin Diesel vehicles for the rest of eternity.
Or so we can hope.
Last year, after I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I handed out prizes rather than a review. I intend to do the same, here, but before I do, here is my brief review: It was a fun movie and I liked it. Is it true to Tolkien? No. Well, not really. They’ve decided to change the overriding tone of the story. They’ve made it more adult and more complex so they can fill three movies and have it still be interesting. In that sense, it works. I am interested and I had fun. I like the original book better, in that I feel it is a better self-contained story. This, though, wasn’t terrible. Not great, but certainly not bad.
Enough of this, though. To the awards!
(though, if you haven’t read the book and don’t basically know everything that happens already, how on earth did you come across this blog, anyway?)
The Walt Disney Memorial Award for Outstanding Theme Park Advertising
Screenwriter: Okay, so now the book says the dwarves get sealed into barrels and float down the river for days and days while Bilbo hangs on. Everybody comes out weak and miserable.
Producer: That doesn’t sound like much fun. Why don’t we have them ride in open barrels? That way they can fight while going down rapids.
But…why wouldn’t the elves just shoot them? Why wouldn’t they tip over and sink? Why wouldn’t the barrels sprout leaks after being shot by arrows? How the hell do all those dwarves manage to choreograph tossing swords around without dropping any? Where the hell did the goblins come from? Why is the fat dwarf suddenly dangerous because he’s stuck in a barrel?
Awww…who cares? It was fun. And we’re all going to be sitting in barrels in a theme park someday while holographic goblins shoot at us with arrows and we’re going to love the hell out of it, so let’s just all stop complaining.
Runner-Up: Gold Surfing with Bilbo
The Homer and Langley Collyer Award for Poor Housekeeping
Look, I understand that Smaug wrecked the place, but let’s face it – Erebor had some serious organizational problems long before the dragon kicked in the door. Why the hell did they mint so many goddamned coins, anyway? Even assuming this was a good idea (I’m not an economist), why didn’t they store it all in boxes or something? You can’t expect me to believe that Smaug spend the last century or so wheedling out boxes of gold from tiny rooms and piling it all up – he doesn’t have the manual dexterity. No, the dwaves must have piled all that crap up already, to the point where it obscured architectural features and probably killed people in stupid gold avalanches. The more I think about it, the more I’m forced to say that Thror was the Scrooge McDuck of Middle Earth and tried to go swimming in the stuff. This, oddly enough, makes Smaug the Beagle Boys. Weird.
Runner Up: Laketown or, as I call it, ‘Fire-hazard-burg’
The James Bond Prize for Stronghold Infiltration
Traps are called traps because they are traps. If you walk into a trap, you are not smart unless you have a plan for getting out of the trap again. You are also not smart unless, by walking into the trap, you gain something from being temporarily trapped. The only thing Gandalf seems to learn is that Sauron is secretly Andy Warhol, and who is he going to tell? Probably some moth, I guess. You know, for an old guy, Gandalf really is a fan of the ‘let the bad guys beat me up for a few days just on the off chance they tell me their evil plans’ strategy. No wonder he needs that staff to walk around.
Runner Up: Bilbo ‘I can’t seem to keep my invisible ring on my finger’ Baggins
So, you have travelled across the world for months, undergone untold harships, angered elves and goblins alike, made promises you can’t keep, stolen things you shouldn’t have, and climbed a damned mountain all to get yourself to this place and then, after about three minutes of trying to get in, you give up and go home? The fuck?
I mean, seriously guys – the hobbit you dragged along really shouldn’t be the guy who decides to stick around and solve the riddle. He doesn’t have skin in this game. It isn’t his blood oath he’s trying to fulfill. Sheesh. Show a little patience.
Runner-Up: Tauriel (OMG isn’t he DREAMY) the Elf
There you go, folks – tune in next year!