I watched the pilot of the new Muppet Show the other day. I like it – a number of the gags were hilarious, I liked seeing all the gang again, and I thought the trope/show structure was fun and has a lot of potential. Yeah, it wasn’t the greatest thing I ever saw (a lot of the jokes fell flat), but I liked it and will watch again. I went to sleep that night thinking that it was a pretty solid rebooting of the franchise and that it should do well.
Then, the next day, I saw all the rage. All kinds of backlash from all kinds of places (this one on i09 is a good example) talking about how they “ruined the Muppets” and made them unlikeable and cynical and dark and so on.
And I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. Really.
Maybe it’s because I, myself, am a fairly cynical and dark human being. Maybe it’s because, as I have small children, I’ve watched almost all the Muppet movies not only recently but many, many times over, but I don’t think this show has changed the Muppets as characters all that much. Sure, sure – the format has changed. The vaudeville acts and the musical numbers have been sidelined (temporarily, perhaps), but the Muppets themselves? Not buying it. Here, I hope to rebut the claims made using evidence from pre-existing Muppet properties.
Claim #1: This Show Has Made the Muppets Cynical and Mean
First off, I would ask somebody to please point out where the cynicism in the pilot is in the first place. Is it from Kermit’s sarcastic remarks? Please! He’s been making those since forever. Point in case, in The Muppet Movie (going all the way back to 1979), Dr. Teeth and the band paint Fozzie’s Studebaker to make it less conspicuous – by covering it with rainbows and star patterns. The following exchange occurs:
DR TEETH: Doc Hopper will never recognize you now!
FOZZIE: I don’t know how to thank you guys!
KERMIT: I don’t know why to thank you guys.
Not enough evidence? Consider how often Kermit facepalms in front of the crowd. Consider how many times he chews out Gonzo for doing something crazy. Consider the number of times he has had it and freaks out on his friends (happens in Muppets Take Manhattan, It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Movie, and even The Muppet Movie). It happened on the original show all the damned time. It was a recurring subplot.
Or maybe you felt the sarcasm was a result of how Fozzie was treated. Except of course you are forgetting that he has always and forever been treated this way. He had a dressing room in an alley in Reno in The Muppets, he was shot at and had things thrown at him in The Muppet Movie, he’s been fired, he’s been beaten, thrown from a moving vehicle, and so on. Just because.
As for cynicism, the Muppets have always had their cynical moments–usually at their lowest point, usually just before the pivot into the third act or even as part of the first act: they just lost the theatre, they just got fired, they just got thrown out of their home. Hell, at the start of It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Movie, Kermit is contemplating suicide, just like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. The “cynicism” people are pointing to in this new television series seems to me evidence of the fact that the show is just starting and the Muppets are stuck in a rut. A rut they can break out of or recover from. It’s only the pilot guys.
Claim #2: This Show Has Muppets + Sex! OUTRAGE!
Yeah, I guess you guys have never paid much attention to this show. There has always (ALWAYS) been sexual humor in the Muppets; you were just too young to get it, because it went over your head. Much like this sexual humor would go over any kid’s head. Seriously, where was the actual raunchy sex talk? Fozzie made a “bear” reference, but what little kid is going to get that? Do they ever discuss sex? Fozzie is just dating a girl and they talk about having children. Animal mentions “too many women.” That’s it.
But beyond that, have we forgotten about Animal’s track record? Here, let me remind you:
That scene involved Animal chasing a blonde out of a theatre at the start of The Muppets Take Manhattan. What did you think was on his mind?
Not enough for you? What about Gonzo’s weird thing with chickens (obviously NOT Platonic–he gives her mouth-to-mouth later on in Muppets Take Manhattan and it is played for all it’s worth). Oh, and – Dear God! – did you forget all about the It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Special in which Kermit, like George Bailey, is experiencing an alternate universe in which he never existed. In that alternate universe, he encounters this image:
That is Scooter, dressed in tight pants and leather dog collar, gyrating in a steel cage inside a seedy nightclub. Yes. Scooter.
Oh, and is it the Muppet/Human love affair that creeps you out? Have we forgotten that such love affairs have occurred consistently and forever since the Muppets’ inception. How many of the male guest stars on the original Muppet Show did Piggy lust after? Did we forget her fantasy involving Charles Grodin serenading her while she swam about in a silver swimsuit in a synchronized swimming routine during The Great Muppet Caper? Did we forget Kermit’s budding romance with Juliana Donald’s waitress character in Muppets Take Mahattan?
Yeah. Yeah, I guess we did.
Claim #3: They Threw Piggy Under the Bus
Okay, yeah – Piggy is a narcissistic, delusional, fame-addled lunatic in the new show. She is the target of fat jokes and played up as crazy.
Except that she’s always been a narcissistic, delusional, fame-addled lunatic who has been the target of fat jokes and played up as crazy.
Piggy has never bothered to remember Gonzo’s name (not since The Muppet Movie), she has never bothered to care about Kermit’s feelings, and she has always, always, always been portrayed as a character with less talent than aggressive self-interest. She is the quintessential diva and has always been thus.
Now, you can say that this is an unfair depiction of a strong woman, and I would certainly agree with you, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is her portrayal. Piggy ditches Kermit as soon as she gets a phone call from her agent in The Muppet Movie (in the middle of a date). She lies about her identity in The Great Muppet Caper to impress Kermit and to indulge in her own delusions of grandeur. She lies to Kermit again in Muppets Take Manhattan when she claims to leave town but, instead, sticks around and stalks Kermit out of jealousy. In the original show, she is constantly locking herself in her dressing room, making unreasonable demands, screaming at people, and Kermit is there nodding and trying to calm her down and taking the heat. In The Muppets, they have Piggy playing a corpse on a gurney in a mock episode of Scrubs and she refuses to play dead and inserts herself in the scene to the frustration of the rest of the cast. She is that person.
I will readily agree that Piggy has good qualities. She is tough, smart, willing to take risks, assertive, and has a mean karate chop. She saves the frog’s bacon (pardon the pun) on several occasions, granted. Ultimately, when push comes to shove, Piggy is a good person and does the right thing. Which, of course, is actively demonstrated in the pilot episode when she and Kermit apologize to one another and promise to be honest.
As for the fat jokes, well, they are artifacts from a previous era and should go. Mocking Piggy for her weight and size was a giggle in the 1970s, but not anymore. If I have a critique of the show, that’s the primary one – that joke landed as crass and mildly offensive.
This is the first episode of a series that, presumably, will build upon the emotional relationships and allow characters to evolve. To claim they “ruined the Muppets” is both inaccurate and premature. If you think this Muppet Show was dark and sarcastic, you just haven’t been paying attention to the Muppets overall for the past 40-some-odd years.
Now, what is missing from this pilot is the feel-good, hopeful songs – things like “Rainbow Connection” and “Somebody’s Getting Married” – as well as the zany vaudevillian stuff. If that was your primary draw for the Muppets, I’m sorry about that. Let’s not pretend, though, that these Muppets aren’t the Muppets we’ve always known and loved. They’re just doing a slightly different act.
The Blog Tour chug-eth along!
My book was also featured on Rainy Day Reviews, though it’s just the book description and the old “About” page from my blog here (and, by the by, I’ve updated said About page to be a bit less amateurish. You’re welcome.).
Finally, if you want to read THE IRON RING (and who wouldn’t? I mean, honestly, it’s a wonderful time!), but hate Kindle or Nook formats, you can now download it directly from Harper Collins using their HC Reader for both iPad and Android tablets/phones. Click here to buy!
Read it? Like it? Leave a Review Please!
So, have you read THE IRON RING yet? You have? Thank you very much! What’s that? You’ve *LIKED* it? That’s even better!
Now, I’ve one last thing to ask: Leave me a Review! Leave one on Amazon, leave one on Goodreads, leave one on Barnes and Noble! Without reviews, nobody will know my book exists, and if nobody knows it exists, nobody will buy it, and I’ve got a lot more Tyvian Reldamar adventures in me! So, please, review the book once you’re done! Thanks so much for all of your support!
(Alternately, if you hated my book, I guess you should leave a review, too, to warn off other dopes from being fleeced by my nefarious con-game of writing books. I’m hoping you folks will be in the minority, of course, but in the interest of fairness, I include this message. So there.)
It took me a very long time to make my way through Season 3 of TNG again, but what can I say, I’ve been busy.
Anywho, I finished it a few weeks ago and finally find myself with a little time to give you my picks for the best and worst episodes of the season. Part of the reason I’ve put it off is that the decision on either end is a very tough one. Honestly, none of the episodes were truly abysmal and a great many of them were very, very good. How does one pick from among the episodes “Sarek”, “The Most Toys,” “The Enemy,” “Who Watches the Watchers,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” and, of course, part one of “The Best of Both Worlds?” Man.
Well, here’s what I decided. Your commentary and personal preferences welcome:
The Worst: “Menage a Troi”
First of all, just look at that title. Look at it, I say!
Just a little skeevy, isn’t it?
Well, that about sums up the episode in general: a little bit skeevy. Now, it doesn’t quite go to the lengths of actively offensive, but it flirts with idea.
Synopsis: A Ferengi, Daimon Tog, falls in love with Lwaxana Troi for no particularly good reason, even though she violently and publicly rejects him. No matter – he decides to kidnap her and also manages to kidnap Deanna and Riker, too. Then they fly off. There’s a Ferengi doctor that wants to study Betazed physiology to try and make mind probes or something. You know what? It hardly matters. This is an episode about a Ferengi forcibly abducting and then sexually harassing and assaulting a woman.
Now, the Ferengi are depicted as hopelessly incompetent and goofy and Lwaxana is basically in control most of the time. She tolerates his attentions in order to give Deanna and Riker time to figure out how to escape and signal the Enterprise – they do. At the end, Picard has to pretend to be Lwaxana’s jilted lover in order to force her return. We all chuckle. The end.
The thing wrong with this episode is twofold: (1) The Ferengi are unpardonably stupid at every single juncture and (2) the whole schtick with this episode is a bit creepy. Almost everybody is forced into unwanted romantic and/or sexual situations and they are played off as a laugh. Granted, the Picard bit is funny, but everybody else seems to be cutting the Ferengi a bit too much slack here. This is the episode (I think – it may have been mentioned in an earlier episode) where it is revealed that the Ferengi don’t believe women deserve clothes and, while our heroines are appropriately displeased, it seems like, in the end, everybody’s going to treat this like some kind of ridiculously funny anecdote instead of something that is really, really upsetting. Given how cartoonishly stupid the Ferengi are here, I guess that makes a degree of sense – they are absurd – but still, I feel like this kind of thing should be really bone-chilling.
On a darker note, the episode does make me wonder what the kidnapping/rape situation is in the 24th century. I mean, if you’re a psycho bent on sexual assault, can’t you just beam your victims up from anywhere? That seems to be really, really worrisome – terrifying even. Did Star Trek ever accelerate the creep-factor on this to its rational conclusion? I’m not sure – I don’t think so. Still, it is something that chills the blood.
Except not here because, you know, funny.
The Best: “Who Watches the Watchers”
First of all, an explanation is in order: I did not pick “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” for two reasons. Firstly, it would be a bit obvious and, secondly, the first part is really just the set-up – the good stuff doesn’t happen until the next episode in Season 4. Perhaps I’ll talk more about it then.
Synopsis: The crew accidentally reveal themselves to a primitive culture while observing them for study, leading the primitive people to being believing in a god figure they now call “Picard.” Riker and Troi infiltrate the society to try and undo the damage, but bad things happen. People are accused of heresy. The poor guy on the planet starts begging Picard to bring his dead wife back to life. Crazy pants nonsense ensues. The only way Picard can stop it is by having the prime believer shoot him with an arrow to demonstrate his mortality. Finally, then, they are able to convince the primitive people that they are not gods, but just mortals with advanced knowledge.
I picked this episode from among many other fine episodes this season because I feel it exemplifies what Star Trek is (and should) be all about: the triumph of reason over superstition, fear, and violence. The frustrating Picard feels at being equated with a god is palpable – he is angry and upset over how such a misunderstanding will likely set these people back. They will abandon what they can learn with their eyes and ears and minds for the subjective “truth” of an unknowable god who dictates to them through prophets more likely to be chasing their own personal demons than being in touch with the Almighty.
Aspects of the episode are silly, but the performances are very compelling and the drama very real. It is the embodiment of Clarke’s insistence that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and it shows the lengths one must go to dispel that illusion. I think this episode is right at the heart of what this show was basically about – intelligent beings trying to be the best they can be without needing to fall back on mysticism or hogwash to make them great. I love it.
Anyway, those are my picks. What are yours from Season 3?
(promptly falls off horse)
JONES, SR (to Indy):
Lost in his own museum, huh?
As much as I aspire to be Indiana Jones and would even be tickled to be Henry Jones Sr., I am, I must admit, much more like Marcus Brody than anybody else. I possess vast armchair knowledge and, as of this writing, lack much field experience. Yet, I am very conscious that I stand on the threshold of, perhaps, changing all that. Maybe.
I’ve done some housekeeping around here. I ditched the stuff in the sidebar nobody ever clicked on and I made it easier for people to find my work, should they be inspired to do so. Furthermore, for those of you who like to swing by regularly, I encourage you to follow/like me on Amazon, Facebook, and Goodreads. Of the three, I am most active on Facebook and then Goodreads. The Amazon page is a work in progress.
Anywho, I’ve been adventuring in Goodreads more and more, lately. I think it’s a great place to connect with your fellow readers, talk to your favorite authors, and find interesting books to read. I’ve spent entirely too much time adding books I’ve read to my shelf, and it’s been fun rating and remembering all the books that I’ve come across.
For all that, though, I’ve not written a review yet. I’m hesitant to do so. Yeah, I’ll give a rating, but when it comes to putting together my exact thoughts on the work in question and writing them out, I worry what that might mean for me. Now, for the rest of the universe, you should write reviews (bad or good) for the books you read. It helps the authors (in the case of a good review) and it can help your fellow readers (in the case of a bad one). Try to be fair, don’t be insulting, etc, etc, but you should do it. For me, however, the question of whether to review or not becomes more complicated.
The Fantasy and Science Fiction world isn’t huge, really. I am about to enter it as a new author and go full bore to try and make a name for myself in that industry. I’ve got an award coming to me (Writers of the Future), I’ve got three books on the horizon, and for me to start writing reviews for far better established authors than I, while tempting, has no discernible upside for me. On the one hand, if I dislike the book and say so, the author might read that, remember my (rather memorable) name, and next think you know I’m sitting on a panel with the person at a convention sometime and it gets…awkward. On the other hand, if I write good reviews only, I start to look more like a kiss-ass than somebody providing his honest opinion, and that’s not very good either. Given the odds of me actually having to interact with and even possibly work with these authors in some settings, it is perhaps best I keep my opinions to myself as much as possible.
Then again, I’m not much for self-censorship. Ask me what I think of you and I will tell you straight. You might not like it; I might not like saying it, but I will anyway. So, I’ve decided that, while I will give a 1-5 star rating to the books I read on Goodreads, I won’t write reviews (good or bad) as a kind of personal compromise. I also will try and stop reviewing my prospective peers here, on this blog (which I have a few times in the past). It strikes me as some kind of bad karma, maybe. I don’t know. Perhaps I’m overreacting. Or underreacting. Who knows?
So, yeah – a bit of a new look here for the blog, a resolve not to write too many reviews, and an entreaty to check me out at all those places. That about covers it. Thanks everybody!
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.
Just finished John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. It had been recommended to me by a variety of people for years, and has received glowing praise, including one guy – a writer and industry insider I met – who called it ‘the best military scifi out there.’ Now, I’d been hearing a lot about Scalzi in general, as he’s very popular, and I’d read a couple short stories he’d put out in various venues (which were okay, but not fabulous), so I picked up Old Man’s War to see what all the fuss was about.
As it happens, I’m still not sure.
Now, I’m not saying that the book is bad – it’s not and, indeed, as an introduction to the subgenre that is military SF, it’s a great place to start – but there really isn’t anything all that exceptional about the book. I liked it, more or less, but it was kinda…well…boring. I felt like I’d read it before. There was nothing flashy, nothing new, nothing to get my blood going. The science he discusses was interesting, but most of it I’d heard elsewhere before this (from sources published prior to Scalzi’s book) so it wasn’t precisely riveting. The dialogue was snappy, but it seemed like everybody was approximately as clever as everybody else, which sort of made it bland. The characters weren’t flat, really, but also fell just short of compelling. I wasn’t fully engaged with the struggle of the main character, John Perry, mostly because he didn’t undergo any kind of change and encountered precious little conflict. It was a book that seemed to avoid creating an antagonist.
If I felt like I’d heard this story before, it’s because I have. It’s been told a lot, actually, and it’s the basic ‘join the army, go to war, change your perspective’ thing that’s shown up over and over again in both the military SF genre and military fiction in general. It started all the way back with All Quiet on the Western Front (or possibly earlier, though that is the most influential book for the modern era), continued with The Dirty Dozen and its WWII cousins, went on to be showcased extensively through the Vietnam War era with movies like Platoon and then, later, with Full Metal Jacket. Robert Heinlein did it with Starship Troopers, and, when it was made into a movie, Paul Verhofen did it again, but gave it a distinctly different feel. The short-lived Fox series Space: Above and Beyond did it, as did Timothy Zahn in the Cobra War series and William C Dietz did in Legion of the Damned. Basically, if you’ve read or seen any of those books or movies, you’ve essentially already read Old Man’s War.
The trope shows alarmingly little variation. It goes like this:
Step 1: Guy joins army for reason (x), but doesn’t really know what he’s getting into.
Step 2: Guy goes to boot camp, wherein he meets Drill Sergeant (see figure A), who is tough and mean but who whips the group into shape and, even, comes to begrudgingly respect his recruits.
Step 2A: Guy bonds with buddies in boot camp.
Step 3: Guy goes to war, feeling he’s tough, but then meets real soldiers, and realizes he’s wrong.
Step 4: Guy gets in first engagement, earns respect.
Step 5: Guy’s friends start to die. This has (x) effect on guy.
Step 6: Guy is finally involved in The Big One–some pivotal battle–and manages to achieve some manner of distinction (only guy who survives, guy who saves the day, guy who saves his buddy, etc., etc.).
That’s it. Story over.
Now, the good Military SF stories shake this formula up a bit in various ways. Heinlein, of course, is the template since he’s the guy who ported this story into science fiction first. How you change and/or depart from the template is the way you distinguish yourself from the pack and add something new and interesting to the story. Additionally, since the external conflict in the story is so abstract and impersonal (especially in sci fi, where the enemy is mostly inhuman and noncommunicative), the really important aspects of the story are the internal conflicts and/or the message being conveyed by the author about war.
War is, at its heart, a deeply political subject and most authors tell this story for the express purpose of engaging with it. This can be very interesting, and creates a lot of variation in the structure. Zahn in the Cobra Trilogy, for instance, deals with PTSD in cybernetic super-soldiers. Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front, seeks to expose the cruel lie of a ‘glorious or just war.’ Deitz’s story is one of redemption, wherein you have a former criminal coming to terms with his new role in life. Scalzi’s is about…
Being old and in space? No, could have been about that but nothing was really done with it. Finding the love of your life again during wartime? Nope, not really. Kinda, maybe, but, again, that plotline doesn’t go anywhere. Is it a political message about the necessity of war? No. Again, potentially, but not really pursued. Is it anti-war or pro-war? Errrr…ummmm…I sort of have to say both? There are moments where either side is supported, but the author doesn’t really come down on one side or the other. This would have been okay, if the general thrust of the story was to show some kind of moral ambiguity or conflict over the necessity of war, but that was very much absent. It’s more like Scalzi just doesn’t want to talk about it. He’s more interested in battle scenes and blowing things up and fancy technology – all of which is cool, mind you, but the lack of anything else leaves the story a bit thin. Light. Hollow.
Perhaps, in the end, I just had really high expectations that weren’t met. I was looking for something that would cement this story in the pantheon of scifi lit for years to come, but it wasn’t there. This isn’t literature – it’s a fluff tale of explosions and battles and, for all that, it isn’t even as full of Awesome as some other stories in the same category. It was just another story about a guy (in this case, an old guy) who leaves home to join the army and has random adventures against a rotating cast of aliens. You know, that old yarn.