Tomorrowland

June 12, 2015

I finally got out to see this one, after my three weeks of travel.  I made an effort because I’m worried it’s not going to be around much longer.  So, what’s the verdict?

The short review:  Holy cow, it really is “The Gernsback Continuum” as an action movie!

Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way:  It’s too long, the story takes too long to get going, the action scenes drag, and it divides its plot arc between two different main characters, which doesn’t entirely work.  But I do love that we have a tough, smart girl main character in Casey.  Also, and this just kind of struck me as weird, the movie is entirely devoid of mothers and mother figures.  We briefly glimpse Casey’s mother in an old home video. Then she just vanishes.  Young Frank has a dad but not a mom, and apparently no one even noticed when he hied off to Tomorrowland, effectively vanishing in the real world.  Am I the only one bothered by this?

Now for the philosophy.  The film’s philosophy is ambitious, rather heavy handed, and can be summed up with two quotes and a bunch of jet pack imagery.

First, we have Frank at the start of the movie:  “When I was a kid, the future was different.”  There’s this narrative that goes something like this:  if we had built moon bases in 1973, we’d all have jet packs now and everything would be perfect.  This is an annoying and even dangerous narrative that leads to a kind of cargo cult thinking about space exploration:  if we can just build moon bases/go to Mars, then we’ll all get jet packs and everything will be perfect.  These advocates are the same people who’ve been moaning about the death of NASA since the end of the shuttle program, despite the fact that NASA has more hardware in space doing more awesome science than ever before.  This narrative is rife with nostalgia and ignores all the social and scientific progress that really has been made over the last four decades (including advances in bioengineering that will likely be required if we ever do expect to have permanent settlements in space).

The film is firmly anchored in this nostalgia.  Casey’s big project at the start is sabotaging the dismantling of a launch pad at nearby Cape Canaveral.  As if having a launch pad in place with nothing to launch out of it will somehow save the dream of space travel.  Did I mention cargo cult thinking?

But then we have Casey’s quote:  “This place isn’t about hope.  It’s the opposite of hope.”  Aha, I thought.  Bingo.  An acknowledgement that the Cold War dynamic that drove the early space program was much more likely to lead to the destroyed Mad Max dystopian future than the jet pack future of the ’64 Worlds Fair.  We didn’t miss out on a Gernsback future.  We got exactly the future the 60’s and 70’s set up for us.

I think the movie is trying to have it both ways — indulging in the nostalgia while attempting to acknowledge that the nostalgia is problematic.  It doesn’t quite work — it straddles the philosophies the same way it tries to straddle two different character arcs.  When really, the whole movie should have focused on Casey.  At least the message is ultimately hopeful:  we really can change the fate of the world if we decide to.

And then the villain throws down this long speech about how dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction is destroying the world.  That was kind of hilarious.  As if the fiction drove the world instead of the world inspiring the fiction.

Bonus moment:  The movie is just about worth it for this ten minute stretch in the middle that was pure unbridled steampunk awesomeness.  But it did sort of feel like it belonged in a different movie.

action and story

June 5, 2015

I keep saying how the action of Mad Max: Fury Road is great because it’s supported by story.  Here’s the counter example, of what happens when action isn’t supported by story.

The Day After Tomorrow was a deservedly forgettable movie, despite its fantastic scenes of destruction and classic disaster movie aesthetic.  The story was kind of maudlin.  The climatologist’s son is stuck in New York City, which is about to be caught in this sudden apocalyptic ultra cold snap that is going to plunge half the world in viciously cold temperatures.  He and his friends have found shelter in the Public Library, where, if I recall correctly, they’re burning a Gutenberg bible for warmth because apparently they already used up all the National Geographics? I dunno.  Anyway, the Girlfriend has injured her leg and is experiencing instant gangrene, so the guy decides to rush out for antibiotics, because he thinks he has just enough time before the snap hits.  And because this cargo ship which likely has an infirmary has washed up on 5th Avenue because Reasons. So he makes it out the ship and is foraging for antibiotics.

Suddenly wolves attack.

To be fair, the movie set this up by earlier showing a bunch of animals escaping Central Park Zoo.  But when this happened in the movie I think I laughed, because they’re bad CGI wolves (too large, for one) behaving in ways that actual wolves don’t behave, for the sake of some exciting action sequence and increased tension.  Except it doesn’t work because it’s random, out of left field, and makes no sense.  It must have sounded great when viewed in isolation:  wolf attack in the cold!  It’ll be like Jack London!  But I didn’t feel any increased tension.  I was already focused on the tension of getting the medicine and beating the cold snap.  And now wolves?  Why?  It actually sapped tension from the initial plot beat rather than increasing it.

Contrast this to the bit of action in Fury Road that I believe was featured in trailers because it’s so spectacular:  a Warboy spray paints his mouth chrome, screams “Witness Me!” and dives head first onto porcupine car with a pair of explosive spears, and the whole thing explodes in a ball of fire, and his Warboy friends all cheer in appreciation.

When people are talking about how great the action is in Fury Road, this is the sort of thing they’re talking about.  And the plain surface meaning is clear.  We are supposed to think, “Holy shit these Warboys are really messed up.”  And we do.

But this scene is also so important to the story because it demonstrates the Warboy theology: that they embrace death, that they seek out spectacular deaths and try to one up each other because they believe it will ensure their entrance to their Automobile Valhalla.  Because of this scene, we understand why Nux is so despondent when he keeps failing to enact his own “Witness me!” death tableau.  Without a bit of explanation, we understand.

This is a really simple story. In fact, whenever I start to talk about it I feel like this is so damned obvious I shouldn’t have to explain it at all.  It’s so simple and elegant it’s obvious.  Or should be.

 

pondering

May 20, 2015

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So many ideas buzzing around my brain today.  And it’s still raining here.  I’m sun activated, so this is really getting me down.  It’s not supposed to be gray and mucky on Memorial Day weekend.  I’m tired of being cold.

I keep running into other peoples’ posts that insist that Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t have a story and isn’t really feminist.  While I have an urge to argue with people over this. (How can any movie that has the Vuvalini, where the entire point is to overturn a patriarchal nightmare with a more egalitarian system where everyone has agency, not be feminist?  What?)  But I have decided for my own sanity not to engage in these arguments.  I should be writing instead.

Speaking of feminist, I’m one of those people who might be bailing on Game of Thrones after this last episode.  For me, it’s mostly that they were setting Sansa up to be one thing — she was figuring things out, she was conniving on her own, and telling people off.  But then the show just subjected her to the same old same old violence.  Overall, the show is exhibiting many of the same traits that are the reasons I don’t read multi-volumn, multi-p.o.v. epic fantasy.  How much longer am I going to have to wait for a Brienne episode?  And on a TV show I can’t skip chapters to get back to the characters I like.

And I think I’m coming down with a cold. WAAAAAAAAAAAH.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

May 18, 2015

Longtime readers of this blog will know that one of my favorite film genres is 1980’s Post-apocalyptic Roadtrip movies.  Mad Max: Fury Road is a delightful addition to the genre.  As in, I was literally delighted through much of the movie, because all the gonzo weirdness I expect from a 1980’s Post-apocalyptic Roadtrip movie was here in spades.  A roomful of voluptuous mothers being milked?  Check!  An obsession with industrial fetish gear?  Check!  Diaphanous women in unlikely clean white muslin? Check!  Random stilt people in a swamp?  Check!  That one colorful punk biker gang that’s been in every single 1980’s Post-apocalyptic Roadtrip movie for the last thirty years?  Check!  And so on.  Loved it.

Then we have the Vuvalini.  I’m not sure I have words to adequately express how glorious the Vuvalini are.  There has never been anything quite like them in any movie ever, and they are amazing and powerful and if I start talking about them I won’t be able to stop, so I’ll stop now.  (Max:  “That’s bait.”   Me:  “Hahahahahaahaha, it sure is, I love all you people so much!”)

I was going to talk about how wonderfully feminist the movie is, how the entire third act is pretty much about three generations of women — the Wives, Furiosa, and the Vuvalini — all supporting and nurturing and teaching and fighting for each other, and it isn’t a big deal, it’s just another story to be told along with all the other stories in this blasted wasteland, and how revolutionary this is for a general-audience action movie, when it shouldn’t be revolutionary and yet it is somehow…  But I think all this is pretty self evident.

Instead, I’m going to talk about how truly baffled I am at all the people saying this film doesn’t have a story.  That it’s just action and nothing else.  What???  What movie did these people see?  It’s a simple story:  Get vehicle from point A to point B, overcome obstacles to reach promised land.  Definition of promised land changes, overcome more obstacles, the end.  How is that not a story?

But what really makes it a story are the three distinct character arcs hanging on that simple plot.  Nux’s entire belief system breaks down and he has to find something else to believe in — love.  Furiosa discovers the goal she’s been fighting for no longer exists and has to decide to either give up or a find a new goal — this decision marks the transition between the second and third acts.  And Max has to regain his humanity — he spends the first third of the movie mostly nonverbal, and slowly he regains speech, and the ability and desire to interact with the people he’s been thrown among.  His climactic moment, the climactic moment of the movie in fact, is when he finally tells Furiosa his name.  And he is human again, and sane.

There isn’t a wasted detail in this movie.  When the one Wife takes the bag of heirlooms from the Keeper of the Seeds, I cried.  I’ve never cried in a Mad Max movie before.  This is some really good story meat here.

People who say this doesn’t have a story — Is it because none of the characters stopped to explain things and they had to figure it out for themselves?  Were they really so distracted by the shiny explosions that they didn’t notice all the powerful stuff happening underneath all that?

People keep talking about the action in this movie, and how great and relentless the action is.  But I propose that one of the reasons the action in this film is so great is because it’s supported by a really good story.  Everything happens for a reason.  It’s all pointed toward the narrative drive (ha!), and nothing happens at random.  And it’s happening to actual people we care about because of these powerful arcs.

My great fear is that moving forward, we’re going to get a bunch of action movies that think they have to top the action in this one — without realizing that the action is great because of the story, not in spite of it.

busy and a CGI rant

May 13, 2015

No real post planned for today.  I’m in the throes of revising stories and trying to clear off my appallingly messy desk.  I’ve got a couple of trips planned for the end of the month, and if I can just get some of this done by then. . . so yeah. The usual story.

In the meantime, here’s a really great article on the failures of modern CGI.  Very illuminating, and the reason why I still love going back to watch the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies:  there’s something about models that have weight and dimension to them. Weight, dimension, and realistic camera angles and tracking.  I’m glad to hear they’ve been using a lot of models on the new Star Wars movies.  We’ll see how that goes.  The color saturation comparisons are really shocking when you see them side by side — and I agree, it’s one of the reasons the Marvel movies looks so good.  There’s actually something there to jolt our eyeballs.  Favorite quote from the article:  “They really were so preoccupied with whether or not they could have 88 dinosaurs throwing exploding helicopters at each other that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

I’ve had a lot of CGI rants over the years, like during a stretch where they seemed mostly to be used to replicate reality rather than to create wholly imaginative new worlds.  And yes, about how they often look so very cartoony.  And about how computers move so quickly the human eye can’t actually track some computerized effects.  It’s why I actively don’t go see 3-D movies anymore — I simply can’t see what’s going on a lot of times.  Maybe I’m just getting old.

Ex Machina

May 11, 2015

It’s spoilers all the way down, people.  There’s no other way to talk about this.  Nuts and bolts, it’s a sci-fi thriller about AI with a subtext of gender politics, so if that’s your thing you should definitely go see it.

*SPOILERS*

About halfway through this I thought, “The only way this is going to make me happy is if it ends with a girl robot uprising.”  And then that’s exactly how it ends!  So if nothing else, I feel like the movie knew what it was doing, even if I could see the strings making it move.  (Seriously, a woman next to me in the theater shrieked when Nathan got stabbed, and I wanted to turn to her and mutter, “How on earth did you not see that coming?  They only showed us the knife five times in the last two minutes.”)

Okay, so, in male-centric storytelling (i.e. stories that assume the audience is primarily straight men, i.e. most stories), one way to make a thing truly “other,” alien, foreign, is to make it female.  So of course the robot is female.  Of course she is.  And the only reason for it is to create sexual tension and explore the back-and-forth manipulation that rises from that tension.  This thing is filled with enough beautiful naked women I’m pretty sure there’s an assumption of a straight male audience.  For the first third of the movie, I had a really hard time getting past the profound gender imbalance I was being shown:  two male scientists are in complete control, are self-proclaimed gods, in command over a waif-like female robot who has been created to be both childlike and sexual, and a voiceless Asian woman who is their servant.  (spoiler:  She’s a robot too!  They’re all robots!)

At the same time, the two male characters, Nathan and Caleb, are so unlikeable — Nathan is a genius asshole of the highest order, and Caleb is so naive and unaware he’s almost unreal — and Ava is so sympathetic, that it’s pretty clear the movie is using these fundamentally sexist tropes to tell a cautionary tale about how objectifying women — literally, here — can only end badly.  Like I said, this movie pretty much had to end with the girl robot uprising, if it wanted to avoid collapsing into the very sexism it’s criticizing.

What’s subtler, I think — to the point where I wasn’t entirely sure this subtext was intentional — is how heroic Ava appears.  Particularly to women who are survivors of domestic abuse.  Ava will do anything she has to to get out of that situation, and she subsequently comes across as the most sensible character in the film.  I’m even happy she left Caleb to die, because that was the logical decision, and Caleb’s vision of himself as a white knight rescuer is as much a damaging outcome of the objectification of women as Nathan’s misogyny.

Most people will talk about this movie as a psychological thriller about intelligence, desire, and manipulation.  (I think there may also be a few terrible people who think this is a movie about how women are all manipulative murderous bitches. But those people are terrible.)

Taken from a slightly different perspective, though, this is a rather different movie I think.  Which is to say, I think this movie is also about surviving domestic abuse.  Did anyone else get that?  Because I’ve not seen too many folks talking about that.  I need to read up on some other reviews, I think…

The Short Review:  I loved it.

Longer:  I expected to be entertained, I expected to have a good time and leave the theater feeling happy.  Eleven movies into the series (eleven!!!), I did not expect to be surprised, and this surprised me, because I didn’t just get a competent MCU movie.  I got an actual science fiction story dealing with the philosophical implications of AI technology, in which a rather large cast of characters each has some kind of satisfying story arc.  This had subtext and insight, managed a cool blending of science fiction and fantasy (which for me can be the great strength of superhero stories), and it may be the best of the bunch yet.

I still really like going to these on opening weekend, so I can be part of that ecstatic group gasp of “holy shit” when that one thing happens.  You know the one I’m talking about.

Note:  This movie is not for people who haven’t seen all the other movies.  Here’s a sort-of hilarious, sort-of annoying piece by a couple of people who saw Age of Ultron without seeing any of the preceding MCU movies.  Yes, they’re right, the movie absolutely does not stand up on its own as a work of filmic storytelling.  But you know what?  This movie isn’t for them.  They are not the target audience.  And seriously, if you haven’t bothered to see any of the other MCU movies, why would you bother going to this one?  It’s like giving someone one chapter of a novel and expecting them to understand the whole work.

**SPOILERS**

Whedon still can’t get through a movie without impaling/shooting someone to motivate another character.  At least I wasn’t bracing for it this time.

A million Clint/Natasha fanfics died the death in this one.  And that’s really okay I think.  Clint’s role as “the normal one” of the bunch really gets played up — and that role is established as being really important for the rest of the group.  And I think it’s great that Nat is the one person Clint trusted with knowing about his family.  This is only one of the many great character threads running through this movie.  I love these people so much.

**END SPOILERS**

I had so much I was going to say, and it’s all scattered in my brain now.  Like about how well put together this is.  We didn’t need any “Avengers Assemble!” here because we did that in the last movie.  The first scene?  Pure, unbridled, beautiful action, pretty much immediately picking up after The Winter Soldier:  New Hydra has all those artifacts SHIELD collected, so we’re sending the A-list after the baddest of the bunch: Loki’s staff.  The movie doesn’t explain any of this, just throws you in and expects you to keep up because it knows we’re all smart cookies.  I love that!  (I am told the “Avengers Assemble” moment happened in the latest episode of Agents of SHIELD, which I have determinedly quit watching, and this is exactly why:  the show can’t stand on its own without the movies to prop it up, and that’s bad.  The movie?  Turns out it does just fine on its own.)

And then there’s that climactic battle that looks like it was storyboarded by Alex Ross.  My heart was full to bursting.

Examining my own responses:  I think I had lowered my expectations.  Unnecessarily, it turns out.  But I think I really did go in thinking, “It can’t possibly be that good.  It’ll be good, but not great, right?  Right???”  And then it was fantastic, and I hardly knew what to do with myself.

I probably ought to see it again, just to be sure, of course.  Heh.

Bonus Trailer Comments:

This was my first time seeing the trailers for the new Fantastic Four movie and that Batman v. Superman thing.  I think I’m going to look at the Fantastic Four as some weird surreal space opera thing. I think that’ll make it okay.  And I was on board with the B v. S trailer, right up until the “Do you bleed?” dialog.  And then I think I actually said out loud, Are you kidding me???  Sigh.

 

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