Archive

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Thoughts on DAIKAJU BARAN, KING KONG vs. GODZILLA (Japanese), and SPACE AMOEBA

Thanks to some new discoveries I recently made on Archive.org, I’m now able to tie up some loose ends in my kaiju review series. A couple of years ago, as my series trailed off into the dregs, I offered my thoughts on Varan the Unbelievable, the 1962 American adaptation of the 1958 Toho film Daikaiju Baran. Now I’ve seen the original Japanese film at last, and it’s almost a completely different film, but not much of an improvement. Apparently it was shot as a 3-part TV special at the request of kaiju-hungry American distributors, then converted into a feature when the Americans dropped out. Which may explain why it feels so half-hearted.

We start with a rocket taking off. The Space Age is here (says the narrator)! Weird stuff happens in space, doesn’t it? Well, weird stuff happens on Earth too, and that’s what our movie’s actually about! Fooled ya! And now for something completely different: butterfly hunters. Sent to a remote mountain area called “the Tibet of Japan” (a line cut from later releases when the Tibetans complained) to investigate an unusual butterfly species, they defy the warnings of the local superstitious tribe not to intrude on their god’s territory and get killed by something off-camera. Back at the institute, a stock trio of Handsome Scientist, Plucky Lady Reporter, and Comic Relief Photographer convince the head scientist (whose actor is sleepwalking through the part) to send them to investigate the deaths. (One of the fallen butterfly hunters was the brother of reporter Yuriko, but this barely comes up.)

When our heroes arrive, the villagers are praying for forgiveness from their god, and Handsome Scientist (Kenji) berates them for their superstition. When Obligatory Cute Kid runs off after his dog, Kenji’s scornful condescension somehow convinces the villagers to abandon their lifelong belief system and storm en masse into the forbidden zone after the boy (even though Yuriko already tied a note to the dog saying that she and the boy were fine and waiting for the fog to clear, so why bother). Naturally, this provokes the giant lake monster to emerge and trash their village. Somehow, Kenji instantly recognizes it as “Varan,” which we later learn is short for “Varanopode,” a supposed dinosaur species (though it’s based on the monitor lizard, genus Varanus).

The rest of the movie is about the military’s attempts to kill Varan before it can get to a major city, even though the evidence is that it’s content to stay in its lake as long as nobody bothers it. But they bother the heck out of it with poison bombs, then with flares that ignite the surrounding forest, prompting it to reveal diaphanous gliding membranes and fly off with a jet-engine sound. Oops! There follow the obligatory montages of military maneuvers and attacks, including minesweeping tactics by a naval brigade that surrounds it underwater, but these efforts fail to deter its movement toward Tokyo. Of course it’s heading for Tokyo. It’s a young kaiju out in the world for the first time, so it needs to take in the sights, y’know?

Back at military HQ, Sleepy Scientist is basically useless and fatalist, but wait! Handsome Scientist 2 has shown up (Fujimura, played by Akihiko Hirata, who was Dr. Serizawa in the original Godzilla). “Say, Fujimura-hakase, we hear you’ve developed a super-explosive we can use.” “Yes, I invented it for dam construction. I’m convinced it’s not ready yet and can’t possibly work on Varan, but nonetheless I already have a film cued up to show you.” Fujimura explains that the explosive is only effective if it’s set off inside something rather than outside, but instead of devising plans to address this weakness — say, hiding it in a big pile of fish in Varan’s path — everyone just shrugs and ignores the problem.

So when Varan comes ashore that night, Kenji (remember him?) bravely drives the truck full of useless explosives up to Varan and runs, and the explosives go off under Varan and predictably do nothing. But Sleepy Scientist notes that Varan is swallowing the flares being used to light the scene (a behavior he said he noticed back at the lake, though I don’t think that was shown), so they tie the rest of the explosives to the flares, and that’s the end of their Varan problem.

This may be the only kaiju movie where the military actually succeeds in preventing the monster from reaching and destroying a major urban area. The whole plot is driven by the prospective threat to Tokyo or other cities, but for once that threat never becomes a reality, except for a few buildings around the docks where Varan comes ashore. It may be part of the reason this film was never very popular. Even though this is only Toho’s fourth kaiju film (after the first two Godzilla films and Rodan), it feels routine and formulaic, and doesn’t even take the formula to its usual climax. Varan isn’t a bad design, but it comes off as a hybrid of Godzilla, Rodan, and Anguirus. The film offers little novelty or substance. Perhaps that’s why it was 3 years before Toho made another kaiju film, the far superior Mothra.

The main merit here is Akira Ifukube’s score, built around two main themes: the Varan theme, which Ifukube would repurpose as Rodan’s theme from 1964 onward, and a version of the familiar Godzilla monster-rampage theme that would be further developed and reworked in King Kong vs. Godzilla and Mothra vs. Godzilla (I don’t recall offhand if it was used in Godzilla Raids Again).

I also finally found the Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla, whose American adaptation I covered back in my first “Thoughts on Godzilla” post back in 2012. I disliked the US version and its dull framing sequence of reporters in news studios, and I perceived the underlying Japanese film as a lame, goofy comedy aimed at kids. It turns out that the original film is a lot better than I thought. Though it does have a good deal of humor, it’s clever, brisk, and balanced effectively with the serious aspects.

Indeed, the opening minutes have a stream-of-consciousness flow that reminds me both of sketch comedy like Monty Python and of the opening of Joss Whedon’s Serenity. A corny B-movie narration about the mysteries of Earth turns out to be an intro to a kids’ science show, which is being watched skeptically by its sponsor Tako, the advertising director of Pacific Pharmaceuticals, a Groucho Marx type who comically berates his staff for sponsoring this lame show. (Tako is Japanese for “octopus” and is also an insulting epithet.) The show’s host reports on a US submarine expedition to the Arctic, which leads us onto the sub, where the English-speaking crew detect “Chellenkov” (i.e. Cherenkov) radiation from an iceberg — the harbinger of Godzilla, breaking free from the ice where he was trapped 7 years before at the end of Godzilla Raids Again. That sub crew is toast.

Incidentally, when a white, English-speaking helicopter pilot spots Godzilla, he pronounces the name “Gojilla.” Which is interesting, since  I gather that Toho had chosen “Godzilla” as the official English rendering of the name back in 1954 or so.

Meanwhile, Tako hears of a mythical monster on Faro Island (subtitled as Pharaoh Island on the version I saw), where Pacific Pharmaceuticals has been researching the local berries, so he sends the two male leads, Osamu and Kazuo (respectively the brother and boyfriend of leading lady Fumiko), to capture the monster as PP’s “sponsor” (I think he means mascot). He’s upset that Godzilla’s getting all the attention — “there’s even a movie!”

Cue stereotyped brownface islanders dancing and chanting to their unseen god, who becomes un-unseen when a giant octopus (i.e. mostly-real octopus on miniature set) attacks some villagers and King Kong comes to drive it off. Whereupon Kong gets drunk on berry juice and calmed by native singing, letting our guys capture him and tow him back to Japan, until he breaks loose. He randomly ends up running into Godzilla, who’d attacked a train that Fumiko was randomly on because she was pursuing a false, never-explained report that her brother’s ship had disappeared. The first battle’s inconclusive, and the military tries to stop Godzilla with an electric fence that works until Kong smashes it, since he apparently literally eats up electricity (an artifact of the Willis O’Brien King Kong vs. Frankenstein premise that evolved into this, or rather its intermediate Godzilla vs. Frankenstein stage).

The film doesn’t succeed in establishing Godzilla as the greater threat, since he’s mostly just wandering the wilderness while Kong attacks the city, including another train that Fumiko is on. Out of all the millions of people in Tokyo, the one Kong picks to be his Fay Wray is the sister and girlfriend of his two captors, even though he’s never met her before. What are the odds? Anyway, he beelines for the Diet Building, which looks a bit like the top of the Empire State Building but is a lot shorter, so he just sort of loiters around it rather than climbing it, and our heroes use the berry juice and recorded island music to knock out Kong, who’s then airlifted to Mt. Fuji to fight Godzilla. The fight unfolds like a Popeye cartoon, with Godzilla trashing Kong decisively until a bolt of lightning strikes the latter and makes him strong to the finach. The finach being the two monsters smashing a historic castle, like you do, and then falling into the sea, with Kong swimming home and Godzilla’s fate unresolved (until his return in Mothra vs. Godzilla, which is practically the exact same story done better).

Still not one of the best, but much better than its US version, with a better balance of humor, character, and action and a better score by Ifukube. It’s a bit revisionist, the first movie to claim that Godzilla was created by nuclear testing rather than merely made radioactive and driven from its natural feeding grounds. There’s some dialogue from yet another Akihiko Hirata scientist about Godzilla having been born in Japan somehow, and a later emergency broadcast clarifying for some reason that Kong is a “real animal” while Godzilla is a monster born from radiation. Did the fleeing populace really need to know that?

It’s also noteworthy for a broader range of special-effects techniques than usual. There are a couple of stop-motion animation scenes, of the giant octopus’s tentacles seizing villagers and at one point in the Kong-Godzilla battle, and some good use of what appeared to be rear projection to combine the human performers with footage of the giant creatures. There’s also a bit in the climax with puppet versions of Kong and Godzilla going at it in a long shot. Unfortunately, the regular monster suits for both Godzilla and Kong are crude-looking, and even though this version is more serious than I thought, Godzilla’s performance is often somewhat goofy compared to his previous two turns and the one to follow.

That leaves only one more major Toho kaiju film: 1970’s Space Amoeba, the last kaiju film Ishiro Honda directed under Toho’s studio system (though he’d come back for Terror of Mechagodzilla) and the first made after the death of effects director Eiji Tsuburaya (and Toho’s failure to give him a tribute credit angered the filmmakers). This is a multi-monster film, but was dialed back considerably from its planned global scope due to budget cuts. Unfortunately, the copy on Archive.org is the international English dub, which is quite badly acted by the dub cast, but includes the 3 minutes cut from the American version Yog, the Monster from Space.

The titular amoeba appears as an animated blue cloud (created similarly to the Star Trek transporter effect, it seems) that hijacks an unmanned Jupiter probe (oddly in the form of an Apollo-type capsule) and flies it back to Earth, where it’s spotted coming down by reporter Kudo, but nobody believes his story. By coincidence, the pretty Ayako recruits him to take photos of the remote Sergio Island, where her company plans to build a tourist resort, and which happens to be exactly where the capsule came down. They’re accompanied by Kudo’s scientist friend Dr. Miya, who’s going to investigate reports of monsters on the island, and Obata, a corporate spy pretending to be an anthropologist.

The foursome hears that one of the company’s advance team was eaten by a local monster, Gezora (which Obata finds amusing), and when they arrive, they find the supposedly friendly islanders (whose island was occupied by Japan in WWII) actually mostly hate them (gee, I wonder why) and fear the monster’s wrath. Which proves well-founded, since the monster shows up right on cue and eats the other advance team member, while leaving a local islander, Rico, in catatonic shock. Gezora is a clumsy looking squid monster (actually based on a “kisslip cuttlefish,” though the dub calls it an octopus) whose eyes glow blue underwater but who somehow has red eyes once it emerges, and that can goofily walk upright on its tentacles (whose skin texture is more like elephant trunks). The film’s monsters are smaller than most kaiju, with Gezora being 30 meters in length.

Everything in this film seems to show up immediately after it’s mentioned. Kudo sees the space capsule right after reading a headline about it. The group encounters Gezora almost immediately upon starting their investigation. Later, Kudo and Miya dive, find the space capsule, and are again immediately attacked by Gezora, which lets them go when a pod of stock-footage porpoises swims by, then destroys the village, whose natives are praying to it with stock audio of the native chants from King Kong vs. Godzilla. Ayako notices that fire hurts the creature (which, really, duh), so the guys say they need gasoline — and I’m not kidding, the fleeing villagers instantly show up just happening to carry a dozen cans of gasoline!! Whaaaa??? Anyway, they burn Gezora and it flees to the depths and dies — and the blue sparkly space amoeba emerges from it and floats off…

The gang’s next bit of luck is stumbling onto a WWII ammo shed, just in time for the emergence of the crab monster Ganimes. Kudo eventually manages to blow the crab up along with the explosives shed, but the blue sparkles flee it again, and then Obata gets taken over by a stray piece of the amoeba, which speaks in his mind, informing him that he has the honor of being the first human “we” have possessed and intend to use to conquer the world. (So why didn’t “they” just possess the islanders instead of mucking about with sea critters? And why doesn’t he grow giant like the critters?)

Dr. Miya somehow magically intuits the alien’s existence — and then, creepily, the villagers throw a wedding for the Gezora survivor Rico and his girlfriend while Rico is still walking around in shock like a zombie, which raises all kinds of consent issues (not to mention logistical ones — how can he say “I do”?). But Kudo’s camera flash shocks him back to consciousness (supposedly by association with the monster’s light, though it only glowed underwater and it attacked Rico on land), and he mentions that he was saved because a flock of bats drove the creature away. The guys remember the porpoises and realize ultrasonics will hurt the alien, so they plan to trap the bats in a cave and release them when needed. Possessed Obata has been going around burning up all the batcaves, though, and when he’s discovered, the alien outs itself and scoffs at the puny humans. But Ayako’s pleading awakens Obata’s humanity and he fights the creature, releasing the bats. The bats appear to have been briefed on the plan, since they circle over the last two possessed kaiju — another Ganimes crab and Kamoebas, a spiky-shelled mata mata turtle with an extending neck — and drive them crazy, making them fight each other. The heroes’ impossible dumb luck holds, because the monsters’ fight happens to move toward an active volcano that didn’t seem to be there before. Their fight somehow makes it erupt, and they fall into the caldera, into which Obata throws himself to destroy the last of the space creatures. The heroes look onto this erupting volcanic nightmare from a reverse daylight shot with normal white clouds in the sky, and Kudo laments that he can’t tell anyone this implausible, ridiculous story, which is maybe not the best way to end a mess of a movie like this.

I mean, really, it doesn’t make any sense at all. On top of everything else, if the monsters were normal animals turned giant by the alien that just crashed there, why was Miya going there in search of previously reported monsters? Apparently this script went through a lot of drafts due to the budget cuts, and a coherent story seems to have been sacrificed in the process. And the monsters are pretty underwhelming. Kamoebas was the most interesting design, with its dinosaur-like spiky shell and telescoping neck, but it was underutilized. It doesn’t help that the English title spoils the mystery. The Japanese title is Gezora Ganime Kamēba Kessen! Nankai no Daikaijū, literally Gezora, Ganimes, Kamoebas: Battle! Giant Monsters of the South Seas. Which is maybe a grander title than the movie deserves.

Advertisements

Thoughts on Legendary’s GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (Spoilers)

I got an overdue advance check this week, and figured I should catch Godzilla: King of the Monsters while it was still in theaters — which seemed uncertain, since apparently it didn’t do well at the box office and is already going out of release. So I’d need to go a bit more out of the way than usual. I considered just waiting for home video, since I have other stuff I need to focus on, but I wanted to at least see the monsters on the big screen, even if I didn’t get to see them in 3D like with the 2014 film. Anyway, I had some business at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and it turned out they had an office near one of the theaters that still carried the movie — which also had a grocery store and an Arby’s nearby, so I could do four things on one trip, which decided it for me.

So anyway… Godzilla: King of the Monsters should not be confused with the 1956 Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, the Raymond Burr recut of the 1954 original. It’s easier to tell the titles apart in Japanese, since the Burr film’s title was translated literally into Japanese as Kaiju-Oh Gojira, while the 2019 film’s title is merely rendered phonetically as Gojira Kingu Obu Monsutāzu. Maybe that’s fitting, since in some ways G:KotM is a very, very American action film, while in other ways it’s truer to the Japanese franchise than any other US Godzilla movie.

We open with scientist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), who lost her son in the climactic battle of the 2014 Godzilla and is estranged from her husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), a naturalist studying “alpha frequency” vocalizations in wolves (based on a theory of wolf behavior that’s arguably been discredited). She’s living with their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) at a Monarch site in Yunnan Province, China, where that secretive monster-research organization is monitoring a Mothra egg that hatches as they watch. When the containment field is sabotaged, Emma uses a device called ORCA (developed by her and Mark to communicate with whales) to use the “alpha frequency” for kaiju — sorry, Titans, as they’re called herein — to calm the rampaging larval Mothra. The sabotage is the work of an unnamed ecoterrorist group led by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), which kills most of the Monarch team but takes the Russells and ORCA with them.

Meanwhile, in one of those movie-style US Senate hearing rooms that don’t look much like the US Senate chamber, returning Monarch characters Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins of The Shape of Water) are arguing against Senator CCH Pounder’s plan to turn over Monarch to the military and kill all the Titans, which Serizawa-hakase argues are vital to the Earth’s balance, especially Godzilla, who officially hasn’t been seen for five years. They get called away by news of the attack (on Titan?) and go to recruit Mark, an angry know-it-all who wants the Titans dead for what they did to his son, and who, on hearing that his wife and daughter are in danger, prioritizes shouting “I told you so” and being a self-righteous jerk over actually trying to help find his family. In a meeting with the Monarch team, he speaks out of turn and condescendingly lectures the team on what they should be doing — something pretty obvious that these dozens of trained experts should’ve been able to figure out on their own, but no, Mark is the designated hero so they all have to be dumbed down so he can get the glory. Oy. The scene also introduces two more Monarch scientists: Ilene Chen, the resident mythologist (the ever-luminous Zhang Ziyi, with a boyish haircut) and Rick Stanton, the obligatory wisecracker (Bradley Whitford trying very hard to be Charlie Day from Pacific Rim).

Jonah has Emma work to awaken “Monster Zero,” a three-headed dragon frozen in the Antarctic ice. Of course, this is King Ghidorah, with his Monarch appellation being a nod to one of the better-known English titles of his second film (usually known as Invasion of Astro-Monster). Meanwhile, an antsy Godzilla nearly attacks Monarch’s deep-sea base where they’re secretly monitoring him, and once again this whole organization of monster experts is made to act like idiots so that the obnoxious angry white guy can do all the thinking for them. Honestly, Mark is as irritating a know-it-all as the kids in the Showa Gamera movies. But he actually acts against his hotheaded destroy-all-monsters preference and urges them to back down from the alpha predator, which satisfies Godzilla so he goes on his way to Antarctica. Monarch gets there first in their flying wing, the Argo, in time to confront Jonah’s terrorists and try to get the Russells back. There’s a clumsily staged moment where Mark by himself with a pistol is implausibly able to hold a whole squad of rifle-carrying soldiers at bay and demand his family back (I think maybe the team of snipers backing him up is the justification, but it’s not very clear and it feels more like he just has movie hero plot armor). But Emma picks up and activates the detonator that frees Ghidorah, and we realize she’s been with Jonah all along.

So Ghidorah attacks the Monarch team and Godzilla shows up just in time to save them, for the first of several times in the film. I wasn’t expecting this marquee fight so early in the movie, but it’s inconclusive, with Godzilla giving the team time to escape, though Dr. Graham is killed by Ghidorah — something that should’ve been a big deal but is quickly lost in the shuffle. Emma then calls up Monarch to explain her actions, saying that the Titans need to be awakened to restore the balance of the Earth that humans have destroyed, and she advises Monarch to start making use of those bunkers they’ve been building to protect humanity from the monster apocalypse. Mark emphatically disagrees with her philosophy, and Madison is caught in the middle.

Also, Jonah has Emma wake up the giant pterosaur Rodan from his volcano nest in Mexico, which draws Ghidorah to the scene while the thinly drawn “G-Team” soldier characters try to rescue the nearby townsfolk. Ghidorah trounces Rodan and goes after the Argo, leading to Godzilla’s second last-minute arrival to save the humans. But our old friend Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) has already launched a new weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer — namesake for the weapon Daisuke Serizawa used to destroy Godzilla in the original film, but protested here by his namesake, since his buddy Godzilla will be killed. Indeed, the blast appears to kill Godzilla (along with all the fish within a 2-mile radius), but Ghidorah inexplicably survives — which Dr. Chen realizes means he’s not part of Earth’s natural balance and must be an alien. Ghidorah emits his own alpha frequency to awaken all the Titans at once (the rest are all original Legendary designs, including a new MUTO) and control them to terraform (or, well, de-terraform) the Earth to his liking. Emma is dismayed that Ghidorah isn’t acting like she expected, but Jonah is fine with letting humanity get trashed. Weird that Emma gets mad at Jonah when it was her own idea to wake Ghidorah.

Meanwhile, the adult Mothra emerges beautifully from her cocoon (how nice for an American film to get her gender right at last) under the observation of two Monarch scientists — Joe Morton as an older version of Dr. Brooks from Kong: Skull Island and Zhang Ziyi as Ilene Chen’s twin sister Dr. Ling. Yes, Zhang is playing a version of Mothra’s twin heralds, and there’s a bit inserted about how she and her sister are the latest in a long line of twins connected to Mothra, a cute but random bit that serves no story purpose beyond fanservice. Mothra uses her divine light to help revive Godzilla, and Mark realizes that the only way to stop Ghidorah is to replace him with our planet’s indigenous alpha kaiju. So he’s now made the turnaround from wanting Godzilla killed to seeing him as the savior of the planet. It makes him marginally less obnoxious, I guess.

So Monarch takes a sub to Godzilla’s underwater lair, strongly implied to be Atlantis (furthering the connections between Legendary Godzilla and ’90s Gamera). There’s an unexplained natural radiation source that looks like falls of lava, but it won’t heal him fast enough. To speed his healing, they have to set off a nuke near him, but their launch system is damaged, so Serizawa chooses to sacrifice himself to deliver it manually. It’s an interesting symmetry — the original Dr. Serizawa sacrificed his life underwater to kill Godzilla, and this one does the same to save Godzilla.

So Madison figures out that she and Jonah’s people are holed up in a Monarch bunker in Boston, and she somehow gets past a trained group of terrorist soldiers, steals the ORCA, and escapes to Fenway Park to use its sound system to broadcast ORCA’s signal to calm the Titans rampaging across the globe. (Those must be some hellishly loud speakers, guys.) Ghidorah’s having none of that, and comes in to attack Madison, who’s saved when Godzilla shows up with the whole US military at his back, an impressive and unusual visual. But in a nod to Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, the nuke charged Goji too much, and he’s minutes from going critical. Plus Ghidorah’s called in Rodan, who turns out to be a total suck-up to anyone who beat him in a fight and is now Ghidorah’s loyal lackey, taking on Godzilla’s ally Mothra in an aerial struggle. There’s a moment where Godzilla is almost killed but Mothra sacrifices herself to revive him, much as Rodan did for him in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II.

Meanwhile, Emma’s broken off from Jonah and gone to save her daughter, leading to a reunion of the family at last, but Emma stays behind to atone, using ORCA to distract Ghidorah so her husband and daughter can get away. We never actually see her death, but it’s pretty much a certainty, since Goji’s reached critical mass and is in full-on BurningGodzilla mode as in Destoroyah, and then some, literally melting skyscrapers as he walks past. (It’s not only a very impressive visual, but a rarity for Hollywood to acknowledge that heat can propagate through the air; usually people in action movies can be inches away from molten lava or an explosive fireball and be totally unaffected.) He releases his nuclear energy in spherical blast waves, saving himself and crippling KG so he can finish him off. The other Titans show up and bow to Godzilla, reacknowledging him as their alpha. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. (Yes, they not only heard the Fenway Park speakers from all over the world, but got to Boston that quickly from all over the world. Dr. Stanton had some vague dialogue earlier about the “Hollow Earth” tunnels established in Kong: Skull Island somehow providing near-instant, wormhole-like travel for kaiju, presumably to set up this moment. Consider my disbelief unsuspended.)

There’s no followup on the Russells, just a credits montage of headlines painting an implausibly rosy aftermath as new life blooms in the wake of the Titans’ destruction and Monarch has gone public and everything is awesome except suddenly there’s a lot of news about Skull Island and something weird seems to be happening there, come back next year for Godzilla vs. Kong, but first, watch this post-credits scene teasing another potential sequel, a tease that depends on the American “Oxygen Destroyer” being a whole lot less disintegratey than Daisuke-san’s version.

Okay, not a perfect film, and it had some of the common failings of American action films — most of all the obnoxiousness of Mark as its male lead. The problem with Hollywood’s tendency to default to white male heroes is that it all too often doesn’t bother to make them interesting or likeable because it’s presumed that they’re automatically worthy of our focus. There were times during the movie when I felt it would be better if Mark wasn’t in it, if Serizawa and Chen were the main protagonists on the Monarch side, and if the film had let the mother-daughter dynamic be the key family element instead of bringing a cliched estranged father into the mix. Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown are both strong actresses who could’ve carried the emotional arc of the film without needing Kyle Chandler, who plays a rather stock character without bringing anything special to it. Ooh, I can imagine a better version of this film where Joe Morton’s Dr. Brooks is the male lead, Emma’s mentor and Madison’s surrogate grandfather who has much the same philosophical conflict with Emma. What a waste of Joe Morton to show him in only one scene.

It’s also very American in how pure and dualistic its morality is — Titans are either good or evil, and the good ones protect humanity and pretty flowers literally bloom in their wake. There’s a token acknowledgment that we’d be helpless before their power and have to deal with a lot of destruction, but this is quickly glossed over. Many of the best Japanese kaiju films (and some of the not-so-great ones, like the Netflix anime trilogy) are about challenging human hubris, forcing us to realize the Earth doesn’t belong to us and there are greater powers than ours. G:KotM only pays lip service to the idea and then turns Godzilla into a superhero actively protecting humanity and fighting alongside us.

Still, it’s nice that Serizawa and Chen are able to school the American characters on some Eastern ways of seeing things, like Chen’s explanation to Mark that Asian dragons are seen as protectors and redeemers. And this is the first American Godzilla film that really shows deep knowledge of and reverence for the original series, with a number of fannish references and Easter eggs. Best of all, Bear McCreary’s score incorporates Akira Ifukube’s iconic Godzilla theme and Yuuji Koseki’s “Mothra’s Song” throughout the film, the first time any of the classic kaiju themes have been used in a US film (though Ifukube’s Rodan and Ghidorah themes are not used). The film is pretty true to the “characters” of Mothra and King Ghidorah, with the former as a luminous figure of awe and benevolence and the latter as a ravenous destroyer (with its three heads snapping at each other like a pack of angry dogs). I guess the portrayal of Rodan as a hench-monster is consistent with his role as Godzilla’s ally/assistant in later Showa films, though he’s playing for the other side now. Legendary Godzilla, however, only seems true to the later Showa version of Godzilla as a heroic protector of humanity, and does feel more like Gamera in some ways.

Still, this is as authentic a Godzilla film as has ever been made in America, a good effort to capture the spirit of the franchise, even if it’s filtered through American sensibilities. The action sequences are massive and impressive, with some imaginative choreography and camera work. And despite my dissatisfaction with the male lead, the character work in the film wasn’t bad overall — not as good as Kong: Skull Island, perhaps, but not as bad as claimed by many of the reviews I’ve read. The actors were reasonably good, particularly Charles Dance, whose Jonah reminded me very much of Ian McKellen’s Magneto. Though I found Bradley Whitford’s performance disappointing since it was just non-stop snark with no depth.

Godzilla, Mark & Madison Russell, and Ilene Chen will be back in March 2020 for Godzilla vs. Kong. Hopefully the new Titan-friendly Mark will be less of an obnoxious know-it-all this time. Well, at least Jessica Henwick will be in it.

Spoilery thoughts on AVENGERS: ENDGAME, with spoilers (Spoilers!)

I made sure recently to see Captain Marvel before Avengers: Endgame came out, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see Endgame right away, since it looked like the theaters would be jam-packed in the first week or two. I didn’t want to go to the theater and find the film sold out. My Facebook friends told me that the major multiplexes were showing it on a bunch of different screens at once, so it should be possible to get a seat, but looking at the seat reservation pages online, it looked like I’d have to settle for something on the edge or too close to the screen (I generally prefer the very back row in the smallish theaters that are common today). And there was an extra fee for ordering online, and I’ve never done that and didn’t want to go through whatever registration or rigmarole would be needed to do that. So I was undecided. But yesterday it looked like the theater I usually go to had added an extra showing for Tuesday morning (discount day, when I’d prefer to go), and since it was a late addition, it had more open seats than the ones around it. So on Tuesday morning I checked and saw it still had plenty of open seats, so I decided “What the heck” and drove over to the theater. I was able to get just about the exact seat I wanted, or at least the one next to it, but the seats around it were reserved already, and I ended up with a somewhat talkative couple next to me, which got distracting at times. And nobody but me seems to listen to the announcement about turning off their phones anymore, though the people around me did seem to stop texting once they got drawn into the movie.

So the spoilers begin below, and I’ve inserted a “Read more” cut for the front page of the blog, but here’s some extra spoiler space for those of you coming to it through Goodreads or Facebook or wherever:

.

.

.

Final warning:

.

.

Read more…

Finally, my thoughts on CAPTAIN MARVEL (spoilers)

Since my advance check finally came last week, I finally got to see Captain Marvel yesterday (I still waited for the Tuesday discount). I wonder if it was just coincidence that the multiplex had Captain Marvel and Shazam! (based on the Fawcett/DC character I grew up knowing as Captain Marvel) running in adjacent theaters. I wonder if anyone’s gotten confused and asked for the wrong movie.

Anyway, Captain Marvel is a pretty good movie. I like its structure — the way it introduces us to the character of “Vers” in the present after she’s lost her memory and then gradually has her discover her origins (a nice break from the usual origin-story format), and the way it integrates the flashbacks into her real-time POV as dreams or memory-probe findings, which is deft and economical. And it’s effective in the way it handles the Kree and the Skrulls, setting us up to believe we know who the good guys and bad guys are, only to turn it around in a surprising way. I honestly didn’t see that twist coming. Which is partly because I’m used to seeing Jude Law in more or less heroic roles and know Ben Mendelsohn mainly as Rogue One‘s villain, so the casting helped to fool me. Also because the Skrulls are usually villains in the comics, although the loss of their homeworld is a plot point there too. (Come to think of it, if the MCU Skrulls have been reduced to scattered refugees in the 1990s, that explains why they’re not a significant presence in the 21st-century MCU.)

It was also a surprise, and a pretty nice touch, to tie the origin of Carol’s powers into the Tesseract, and along the way to explain how it ended up in SHIELD’s possession (although that’s a bit of a retcon from what we’d previously been shown about Howard Stark recovering it from the ocean floor; apparently the new version, according to the MCU Wiki, is that Stark helped found Lawson’s Project PEGASUS, although I don’t recall that being stated outright in the movie). They also connected their version to the original comics origin (of Carol getting her powers from Mar-Vell, the original Marvel character to use the Captain Marvel name) in an unexpected way, assigning the name Mar-Vell to Annette Bening’s scientist character.

Speaking of the project, it was weird to have the alien characters talking about a “lightspeed engine” created by a backward civilization like humans as some revolutionary breakthrough when they were already routinely far surpassing the speed of light by making hyperspace jumps. I mean, sure, we learned that the search for the lightspeed engine was just a cover for the (distinct) things that the Skrulls and the Kree were respectively searching for, but it’s implausible that it would even work as a cover story, because it doesn’t sound like something new or important to an already FTL-capable civilization.

As for the Earthbound stuff, it was interesting to get a look at a younger, more relaxed Nick Fury. It was more than just digital de-aging; he was a lot more whimsical and playful back then, which was an interesting choice, though kind of revisionist (but then, the character’s been revisionist since the moment Samuel L. Jackson was cast in the role). It was good to see Phil Coulson too, but he didn’t really serve that much role in the story beyond the indulgence of having him there. Well, I guess his actions do help lay the groundwork for why Fury placed so much trust in him later on, but aside from that one moment in the stairwell, he didn’t really have that much to do that any generic exposition-spouting subordinate couldn’t have done.

I’m not sure the friendship between Carol and Maria Rambeau came through as strongly as it was meant to, since most of it was just glimpsed in flashbacks, and most of the present-day (well, 1990s present) Maria’s role in the film was dominated by exposition and action. But young Monica and her relationship with Carol rather stole the show, which is good because Monica’s presumably the one we’ll see again in the sequel, although she’ll no doubt be played by a different actress.

As far as actors go, I’d say the standout here was Ben Mendelsohn, who did a great job making Talos a complex and engaging character and working equally well when we thought he was the villain and when he turned out to be the nice guy in need of help. Jackson and Gregg did their usual good jobs with what they had to work with. Law was effective too, although Lee Pace was just as wasted as Ronan here as he was in Guardians of the Galaxy, and Djimon Hounsou only had a little more to do here than there. Gemma Chan was also sadly underutilized.

As for Brie Larson herself, she was reasonably effective, but I’m afraid I find her a little bland. Carol/Captain Marvel in the comics has been a breakout character, impressive in her strength of character, charisma, and heroism as well as her physical power. I haven’t read many comics she’s been in, but I’ve read a fair amount of Ms. Marvel and seen her through Kamala Khan’s admiring eyes, and I remember Jennifer Hale’s effectively strong performance as Carol in the animated The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Animation and gaming fans know that Hale is a pretty hard act to follow, and I’m afraid I find Larson a little underwhelming in comparison. She’s not bad in any way, but her performance just doesn’t really grab me the way Scarlett Johansson, Hayley Atwell, Gal Gadot, and others have grabbed me. (Like just a couple of nights ago, I was watching Caity Lotz in a guest appearance on Arrow as Sara Lance/White Canary, and there was a moment where just her facial expression and a single line reading made me think “Damn, she’s a compelling performer.” I’ve never had such a moment with Brie Larson in anything I’ve seen her in.)

I also feel the film was maybe a bit too humorous and light in the later portions. As a rule, I like most things that involve cats, but the business with Goose in the climactic portions of the film got a little too silly for me, and the explanation for how Fury lost his eye was a bit dumb.

Anyway, now I’m inevitably speculating about what role Carol will play in Avengers: Endgame. Since her powers come from the Tesseract/Space Stone, that kind of makes her a walking Infinity Stone, which is probably why she could be the key to beating Thanos. Too bad Fury never actually told the Avengers who it was they were named after and what she could do — it might’ve saved some trouble if they’d known to call her in sooner. (And if Goose had been there, he probably could’ve just swallowed the Infinity Gauntlet right off of Thanos’s arm.)

Oh, I almost forgot — the opening tribute to Stan Lee. That was beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes. “Thank you, Stan.”

Thoughts on GODZILLA: THE PLANET EATER (spoilers)

January 10, 2019 1 comment

Netflix has now released the conclusion of its Godzilla anime trilogy (Part 1, Part 2), under the English title Godzilla: The Planet Eater (Gojira Hoshi o Kū Mono, which is more literally “The One Who Harvests Planets/Stars”). While it’s the culmination of what was set up in the first two films, in many ways it’s a very different story, less action-packed and more philosophical — and not all that much about Godzilla.

The film opens with the crew aboard the Aratrum in orbit arguing over the events of the previous film’s climax, conveniently providing a recap. The Bilusaludo/Bilsards are outraged that Captain Sakaki Haruo, our protagonist, passed up his chance to kill Godzilla in order to instead stop the Bilsards’ Mechagodzilla City from becoming an even worse threat. The human crew argue he probably did the right thing, and it leads to a schism with the Bilsards seizing the engine room and trapping the ship in orbit. But that won’t amount to much, since the Bilsards’ role in this narrative is all but over.

Down below, Professor Martin tells Haruo that Yuko, his love interest from Part 2 who was infected by Bilsard nanometal, is brain-dead, her body only kept alive by the nanotech. It’s a rather ignominious way to drop her from the story. Meanwhile, the Exif priest Metphies (still pronounced “Metophius”) is convincing the surviving soldiers that Haruo was saved from the nanometal by a miracle (though Martin quickly figures out what was obvious from Part 2, that it was the Houtua natives’ healing sparkle-dust that immunized him), and the soldiers both on Earth and on the Aratrum are implausibly quick to be converted to the Exif’s cult, with Metphies and his priest counterpart on the ship using Haruo as his Messiah figure but controlling the narrative so Haruo can’t actually get a word in to refute it — and Martin’s too afraid of being burned as a heretic to point out the simple truth. It’s all implausibly easy for these soldiers to be turned into religious fanatics, even given their fear and despair about Godzilla.

Anyway, the twin pseudo-Mothra-heralds Miana and Maina both consecutively get naked for Haruo, your conventional “My natural role as a primitive tribal babe is to be sexually available for the hero” cliche, although for unclear reasons he rejects the former twin and sleeps with the latter. (Pretty short grieving period for Yuko there, champ. Her corpse is literally still warm, though that’s admittedly because of the nanotech.) That frees up Miana to confront Metphies and discover through her telepathy that he also has telepathy and is planning devious things with his priest buddy on the ship, so Metphies captures her, and Haruo has a fortunately symbolic dream about Metphy cooking her as soup. But there is real soup, which Metphy serves to his converts with a sermon about how the soup ceases to exist but lives on as part of something greater. (Somehow I don’t think “But we are not soup” is going to go down in history as one of the great philosophical statements.) The collective prayer of the converts, combined with Exif crystal techmagicology, draws the Exif’s extradimensional god, Ghidorah, to this plane. In perhaps the film’s most effectively chilling sequence, the soup drinkers are devoured one by one as the shadow of one of Ghidorah’s heads/necks intersects their own shadows, with the focus of the camera ending up more on the horrified reaction of the last one to go.

The impact up in space is more dramatic — a singularity opens up by the Aratrum and a golden Ghidorah head and endlessly long neck emerge, evidently made of pure gravitational energy and wrapping around the ship, causing chaos and distorting time (the bridge crew gets a message from the engine room 40 seconds after it was destroyed and reads their own life signs as ceased several moments before it happens), ending in an impressively rendered explosion that creates auroras in the Earth’s atmosphere below.

Somehow the folks on the surface never figure out what happened to the ship, just that they’re cut off, but they don’t have much time to wonder. Three singularities form in the clouds around the dormant Godzilla (remember him?), and a long, snaking energy neck emerges from each one. Martin watches in bewilderment as the Ghidorah heads latch onto Godzilla and start draining his energy while he’s unable to touch them in return. The instruments show nothing except gravity distortions, but the observers can see and hear Ghidorah. Martin figures out that the monster must come from another dimension with different physical laws and is being guided by an observer in our dimension — no doubt Metphies.

Haruo confronts Metphies, who has replaced his own eye with the Ghidorah-linked stone he’s been carrying all trilogy. He uses his telepathy (or the stone, or both) to overpower Haruo physically and show him mental visions explaining the Exif’s nihilistic philosophy: All civilizations advance until they invent nuclear weapons, which breeds their destruction and triggers the birth of a Godzilla as the ultimate life form, and then Ghidorah comes to feed on the Godzilla and complete the cycle… which somehow destroys the planet too. The Exif see death as inevitable and thus a blessing to embrace, so they worship Ghidorah, having deliberately sacrificed their planet to it and sending their surviving priests out to make sure other civilizations repeat the cycle.

But Maina and Martin give Haruo a hand, communing with the Houtua’s god — an unhatched Mothra egg — to counter Ghidorah’s influence. A vision of Mothra frees Haruo from Metphies’s control, and he remembers his parents’ love and optimism as a counter for Metphies’s despair and nihilism. He also realizes Metphy caused the explosion of his grandfather’s shuttle in the first movie. He overpowers Metphies in his mind and in reality, breaking the stone and the link to Ghidorah. Which, by what Martin said before, should have made Ghidorah unable to exist or interact in our realm, but somehow it makes Ghidorah sufficiently subject to physical law that Godzilla can destroy its heads one by one, followed by the singularities they emerged from. (If they’re connected to a single body, we never see it except in visions.)

We then get a pop-song montage of semi-still images of the soldiers burying their weapons and hooking up with the conveniently numerous primitive tribal babes (who, remember, are evolved from insects, yet evidently interfertile with humans), until Martin eagerly tells Haruo that he’s used a bit of nanometal from Yuko’s still-living corpse (remember her?) to restart the surviving Vulture aircraft, and says he can use the Bilsard tech to recreate all their advanced civilization — which gives Haruo a mental flash of Ghidorah’s screech and Metphies’s dying warning that Ghidorah would always be watching for humanity to destroy itself again. Haruo then has a final talk with Maina about whether she fears and hates Godzilla. She says she fears him like lightning and tornadoes, but her people have no word for hate. You don’t hate a force of nature, you just learn to live with it.

So Haruo takes Yuko’s body into the Vulture and sacrifices himself in a kamikaze run at Godzilla, asking the kaiju with his final breath to make sure every last bit is destroyed this time. Godzilla obliges and is hit by the wreckage, but probably survives. After the credits, we see the Houtua acting out the past battles in effigy and praying to Godzilla (or Mothra, or both?) to devour the things they fear.

Okay, so, that was pretty well-made, but pretty nihilistic and Luddite. The Godzilla series has always revolved around cautionary tales about the dangers of the misuse of technology, but this trilogy comes down a little too hard on the idea of technology being intrinsically destructive, and this film in particular takes some narrative shortcuts that don’t quite work. It’s also an oddly slow, somber, talky film for the finale of a trilogy — quite a change from the first film’s excessive action in its third act, but maybe a bit too far in the other direction. And what action it has is pretty static. It’s the only Godzilla movie I’ve ever seen where Godzilla hardly moves at all. He spends half the film dormant and recovering from Part 2’s climax, then moves exactly once to the location where he confronts Ghidorah, a battle that’s conducted with Godzilla staying in one place except when he’s briefly levitated by Ghidorah. While the design of this extradimensional-gravity-god version of Ghidorah is striking and novel, the kaiju action in this trilogy overall has been largely disappointing.

Still, in my last review I did express hope that this film would be the richest and deepest of the trilogy, and from a philosophical standpoint it pretty much is, if you like that sort of thing. But I think it falls short in other respects, from character to action to the extent to which it actually uses Godzilla as a presence rather than a concept. All in all, the Godzilla anime trilogy was interestingly different and in some ways impressive, but ultimately underwhelming.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — FALLOUT (2018) Movie Review (spoilers)

September 5, 2018 3 comments

I had to wait a bit until I had some money to spare, but I finally saw Mission: Impossible — Fallout. This is the second consecutive film in the M:I series to be written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, and the first time that any director has done a second M:I film. Every film in this series since the fourth one has built more and more upon its predecessors, and this is the one that connects most directly to previous films — primarily McQuarrie’s previous installment Rogue Nation, but with major links to M:i:III, and a surprising connection to yet another installment. It reunites nearly all the main cast from RN: IMF agents Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg); IMF Secretary Hunley (Alec Baldwin); rogue agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson); and villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). The one no-show is Jeremy Renner’s Brandt, whose absence is never acknowledged or explained. (It was allegedly due to Renner’s commitment to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is odd, because his last appearance as Hawkeye was two years ago.) Notably, the film also brings back Michelle Monaghan’s Julia, Ethan’s bride from M:i:III, last seen only in a cameo in Ghost Protocol.

Unlike its predecessor, Fallout starts slowly with Ethan having a nightmare: He’s marrying Julia, but the priest is Solomon Lane, who recites the litany of how Ethan failed and abandoned Julia before they’re vaporized in a nuclear blast. It’s a handy way to re-establish Julia and Ethan’s backstory for the audience, and a nice callback to III, which also started off with a focus on the Ethan-Julia relationship. I felt Rogue Nation was less successful at substantive characterization than the previous two films, but Fallout was off to a good start with this. (Although it can sort of be read to imply that among his other superhuman powers, Ethan Hunt has developed precognition.)

Ethan then gets the secret briefing — oddly delivered to his home in a vintage miniature reel-to-reel tape recorder (with built-in video projector) hidden inside an old book, at once an homage to the classic briefing scenes and a departure from them, since they’ve never been delivered straight to the lead character’s door before (kind of defeats the whole purpose, doesn’t it?). We get an infodump (in McQuarrie’s voice) about the Apostles, the remnants of Lane’s Syndicate from RN, and their terror attacks around the world (including a plague outbreak in Kashmir) designed to tear down the world order and bring the devastation from which they believe a new peace will spring — a thematic link to the motives of Ghost Protocol‘s villain, though no explicit connection is drawn. The Apostles, led by a mysterious guy code-named John Lark, are trying to buy three stolen plutonium cores to make nuclear bombs.

We jump right to Ethan and Benji buying the (improbably lightweight) plutonium cores from the thieves, with Luther running ops from the van as usual. The movie deals with the overlap between Luthor’s and Benji’s tech-support roles by moving Benji fully into the field-agent role rather than the mix of both roles he played in the prior two films; this also fills the void left by Brandt. But he doesn’t really do much besides banter with Ethan, and the buy is just a straight-up buy, no hidden gambits or stratagems. When another faction takes Luther hostage and demands the plutonium, they, not the IMF, are the ones who pull a devious trick, using the threat to Luther’s life to distract Ethan from the cores so they can steal them. At this point, I was afraid that this would be another film that was M:I in name only, ignoring the intricate schemes and tricks that defined the original series.

But then we cut to a scene where Wolf Blitzer reports that three nuclear bombs have gone off in Rome, Jerusalem, and Mecca simultaneously. The TV is in a hospital room where Ethan and Luther confront the satisfied bomb-maker, who’s told he’s awoken from 2 weeks in a coma after a car crash. He agrees to give them info on Lark if Blitzer reads his manifesto on the air, figuring there’s no harm now that the good guys have already lost. I was feeling much better at this point, because I recognized the “trick the bad guy into thinking they’ve already won so they give up the info” gambit from several M:I episodes, most prominently “Two Thousand,” which also involved finding stolen plutonium. (See also “Operation Rogosh,” “Invasion,” and “The Freeze.”) Once he gives them the info on Lark, Ethan opens up the fake hospital set and Benji whips off his Wolf Blitzer mask, telling the guy that he’s only been out an hour, not two weeks. (I have a quibble with the end credits, because they list Blitzer as playing “Himself,” when strictly speaking he was playing Benji Dunn.)

All of this is before the main title sequence, which is much the same as RN’s sequence in being a flashier riff on the original show’s titles, with a burning fuse over clips from the adventure to follow. The music this time is by Lorne Balfe, and the theme is an interesting new variation on the Lalo Schifrin theme. Balfe’s score overall is effective and richly orchestrated, but a bit repetitive, not as thematically rich as the previous couple of scores.

After the credits, Baldwin’s Secretary Alan Hunley shows up in person (then why bother with the secret tapes earlier?) to send Ethan in to Paris to infiltrate a party where Lark has arranged to meet the seller of the plutonium. But there’s a bureaucratic clash as CIA Director Sloane (Angela Bassett) shows up, dismisses the IMF as “Halloween” playacting, and refuses to let Hunt go in unless he’s accompanied by her #1 hitman, August Walker. Walker is played by Henry Cavill, whose last involvement in the spy game was as Napoleon Solo in another remake of a ’60s TV series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Here, Cavill is playing a very different kind of spy, intimidating in his bulk but utterly businesslike, calm, and matter-of-fact. He makes nothing personal, holds no grudges, just does the job, but since that job is assassination, it’s an effectively unnerving characterization. In a way, it’s almost the dark reflection of Cavill’s Superman — that same relaxed, unaffected strength and ultracompetence, but directed toward ending lives rather than saving them. Anyway, here’s where the thematic conflict of the film is established. Sloane is willing to use a hardened killer to get the job done and doesn’t care about collateral damage. But Hunley tells Ethan not to beat himself up for choosing Luther’s life over the plutonium, because his refusal to sacrifice one life for many is his greatest strength. It’s a nice moment. Hunley’s feelings toward Ethan have clearly become far warmer and more fatherly between movies.

For reasons which the film has no interest in addressing, Ethan and Walker fly over the city in a military cargo plane and do a HALO (high altitude, low opening) parachute drop, an excuse for Tom Cruise to do one of his trademark for-real stunt scenes, a continuous take from the plane to (nearly) the ground. While the stunt dive is real (and frankly I’m more impressed by the camera operator than by Cruise, since he had to do all the same stunts backward and with a camera strapped to his helmet), the background is digitally altered to create a thunderstorm Hunt and Walker have to dive through, requiring Ethan to save Walker’s life after he’s knocked out by a lightning bolt, without Walker ever realizing that Ethan saved him. It’s a spectacular sequence, to be sure… but it makes no damn sense. A HALO drop is for infiltrating an enemy country or military camp, flying above the radar and waiting to deploy chutes until the last possible second to minimize detection risk. It’s something you do to avoid getting shot down by enemy artillery. Ethan and Walker had to infiltrate a party in the middle of Paris. Surely there must have been far simpler ways to sneak into the building.

Once inside, Ethan insists on doing things his way — identify Lark, knock him out, make a mask, impersonate him, buy the plutonium. Of course, things go very wrong and there’s a big fight in the men’s room, and Ethan is saved by the unexpected reappearance of Ilsa Faust, who kills the person they think is Lark before he can kill Ethan. She warns him that Lark is a target of assassins, and backs him up as he meets the contact while pretending to be Lark. The contact is a woman known as the White Widow (the scintillating Vanessa Kirby), whose dialogue subtly reveals her to be the daughter of Max, Vanessa Redgrave’s arms-dealer character from the first M:I film 22 years ago. It’s the second time a Christopher McQuarrie M:I film has called back to the original film, although it’s subtle enough to miss. I was wondering if Kirby might have been Redgrave’s daughter in real life; as it turns out, Redgrave was a friend of her family. Anyway, Ethan and Ilsa save the White Widow from assassins, though it’s unclear who the real target is. Afterward, we see Walker delivering Lark’s phone to Sloane and telling her it has data on it suggesting that Ethan Hunt is the real John Lark. But McQuarrie made a point of showing us earlier that Lark’s phone was shattered in the fight, while the phone Walker hands Sloane is intact. As if it hadn’t been obvious from the start that Walker would turn out to be the bad guy.

So anyway, the White Widow tells Ethan that she’s just a broker for the plutonium thieves; if he wants the Pu, he has to make a trade by breaking out Solomon Lane and delivering him to them. After Ethan swallows the need for this and asks what the plan is, we see a sequence of him and WW’s men ambushing the convoy and killing a bunch of cops to free Lane. Has Ethan compromised his morals that much that he’d kill dozens of innocents to prevent a nuclear holocaust? But no — it’s just Ethan visualizing WW’s plan in his mind, and he then decides he has a better plan. He rams the armored truck carrying Lane into the Seine (or maybe it’s a canal?) and leads the cops on a very lively, well-choreographed, beautifully shot chase through the scenic streets of Paris, while Benji dives down and frees Lane before he drowns. The bulk of this sequence is scored by Balfe’s version of the main title theme, and I was getting frustrated by the lack of “The Plot,” the leitmotif that traditionally accompanies the capers as they unfold. I was starting to worry that this might be the only M:I production other than M:I:II that omitted that motif altogether. But as soon as we get the reveal of Benji and Luther, extracting Ethan from the chase through an underground canal, “The Plot” is heard in its full glory, in something quite close to its original double-bass-and-snare-drum arrangement from the show.

But there’s a complication or two yet to come. As the team is loading the captive, hooded Lane into a car, they open the door to discover a hapless young traffic cop standing there, evidently giving a parking ticket. She sees what looks like a kidnapping and draws her gun, and Ethan tries to talk her down peacefully before Walker shoots her. She then gets shot by a group of WW’s men who’ve been looking for Ethan, and he shoots them down to save the young gendarme and helps her call for medical assistance. It’s a fairly touching moment, rather remarkable to see in a blockbuster spy action movie.

The next complication is Ilsa, who tries to kill Lane and inexplicably only wings him. After another long chase, Ethan gets Lane away from her, then meets her later and finds out that MI-6 wants her to kill Lane to prove that she isn’t a threat to them. Her original assignment was to protect “Lark” so he’d lead her to Lane, but she killed him instead to save Ethan. Still, she won’t let Ethan get in the way of her completing her mission, since MI-6 will kill her if she doesn’t. I gotta say, British Intelligence comes off really badly in these two films.

Since the Paris scenery has been exhausted by this point, the story arbitrarily moves to London, where Hunley shows up at an IMF safehouse and confronts Ethan about the Lark accusations, demanding that he shut down the operation, bring Lane in, and let the CIA worry about the plutonium. Ethan knocks him out, turns Benji into a mask-copy of Lane, and convinces Walker to give them a chance to do the job before he applies his sledgehammer methods. Once alone with Lane, Walker reveals that he’s the real John Lark and was working with Lane all along. But guess what — this Lane is actually Benji (though I can’t see how the switch was pulled off) and Walker’s just outed himself as the baddie, with Hunley’s willing cooperation in the plot. Hunley has Sloane on his cell and she sends in her troops to bring in Lane, but half the troops work for Walker/Lark and kill the other half, and the main characters fight, with Hunley making a good effort but ultimately getting killed by Walker. Which I guess I should’ve seen coming when they made him a father figure to Ethan. Anyway, Ilsa randomly shows up and helps in the fight, and for the rest of the film she’s treated as a full member of the team, even though we never see a moment where Benji and Luther go through the process of accepting her. Maybe the effortlessness of their acceptance is the point, but even so, it would’ve been nice to have at least a momentary acknowledgment, rather than feeling like we’ve sidestepped into a slightly alternate reality where she was already on the team.

But the film is focused on another action set piece of Ethan chasing after Walker over the London rooftops to keep him from escaping. It gives Cruise a chance to break out the Patented Tom Cruise Run once more, though after all this time the PTCR is visibly slower and more labored than it used to be. (I gather Cruise actually broke his ankle during this sequence and that the shot was kept in the film. I think it’s the point where he misses a jump, catches the building edge, and pulls himself up, but I couldn’t tell for sure.) Walker gets away, but not before revealing that he knows where Ethan’s ex-wife Julia is and will have her killed if Ethan follows him. After this, Luther fills Ilsa in on Ethan & Julia’s backstory, although his explanation of why they split up and how she ended up staying hidden doesn’t exactly align with the events of Ghost Protocol. But it’s more about establishing a character arc for Ethan, about how he couldn’t focus on the work if Julia were on his mind.

The team remembers that Lark’s Apostles released a plague in Kashmir, which led to the establishment of a medical camp. They realize that if the bombs were set off there, it would contaminate a glacier and poison a third of the world’s water supply. (It wouldn’t really.) They rush to Kashmir, but are in the dark about why the Apostles would want a medical camp there. I saw it immedately, though, once I remembered that Julia was a doctor. I should mention that it was established earlier that Lane was doing your standard recurring-villain thing where his evil plans were personally directed at the film’s hero, not just bringing down the world order but making sure that Ethan Hunt was on hand to see all his plans and loved ones brought to ruin. So this whole massive Kashmir strategy we’ve been hearing about since the cold open was all about manipulating Ethan’s ex-wife to be at ground zero.

(By the way, this opens a bit of a plot hole. When they caught the bomb-maker in the cold open and tricked him into thinking the bombs had been meant to attack three holy cities, how did they know he wasn’t aware of the real target? They took a gamble there.)

Sure enough, they find Julia at the relief camp. She’s now remarried, and what Luther said about Ethan’s divided focus never comes into play — or maybe he just underestimated his old friend’s ability to stay focused on the mission. Anyway, the IMF men find one of the bombs and Luther sets to disarm it while Benji and Ilsa search for the other, and Ethan takes off in a helicopter after Walker, who’s in another helicopter with the detonator. Benji’s sussed out that the only way to disarm the nukes is to shut them both down simultaneously after Ethan removes a key from the detonator, but only after the countdown has started. Walker has obligingly started the countdown, so Ethan just has to figure out how to get to him on a different helicopter while the others find and deactivate both bombs simultaneously. Julia finds Luther at his bomb and immediately asks how she can help. Ilsa finds the other bomb and must fight Lane, forced to choose between killing him and saving Benji’s life (of course she chooses the latter). Ethan goes through another insane series of almost-real helicopter stunts (though judging from the behind-the-scenes footage I’ve seen, they digitally altered the backgrounds again, adding snow on the mountains to make them more convincingly Himalayan) and a big climactic fight with Walker to get the key, and even though they’re out of radio contact with Ethan, Luther and Benji trust him to have succeeded, and indeed he has at the literal last second. How the detonator’s shutdown signal could get through when Ethan’s comms couldn’t is left as an exercise for the viewer.

But Sloane shows up to medevac Ethan to safety, finally convinced of the IMF’s value. Lane is taken alive for the second movie in a row (though Walker isn’t so lucky) and the White Widow delivers him to MI-6, clearing Ilsa’s ledger and presumably paving the way for her to finally join the IMF.

All in all, this is a much better movie than Rogue Nation and one of the very best in the series. Its action and intrigue are top-notch, and it does make a better effort at exploring character and relationships than its predecessor did. Although it isn’t entirely smooth in the execution. A lot of the action beats are set up in implausible ways, especially the totally pointless HALO drop, though they’re all so magnificently executed that it’s hard to complain. Also, it’s great to see the long-dormant thread of Ethan and Julia’s relationship finally brought to the fore again after being ignored in the previous film… but it’s odd how detached Ethan himself is from that exploration. Luther does more of the heavy lifting for that particular plot thread than Ethan does, through his exposition to Ilsa and his conversation with Julia while they disarm the bomb. Ethan and Julia get very little time together to really talk about anything. That’s actually rather disappointing when I consider how crucial their relationship was to III’s success.

What I really love about this film, though, is its repeated emphasis on the idea that what makes Ethan Hunt special is his concern for individual lives — something that isn’t just talked about but shown, as in the Paris sequences where he’s twice faced with the choice of sacrificing innocents to get the job done and instead makes a point of finding a better, less bloody way. It’s refreshing to see a spy movie that focuses on its hero’s efforts to save lives rather than take them. To be sure, Ethan and the team do rack up a body count of villains, but not a huge one by spy-movie standards, given that so many of the big action sequences are chases rather than fights. I like the idea that the IMF is about finding less violent solutions and protecting innocent lives. I’m not sure that was ever really emphasized in any previous film, though, or even in the TV series. True, nominally the IMF wasn’t allowed to assassinate its targets (as was stated explicitly in the pilot but left implicit otherwise) and favored more creative, subtle means of achieving their ends, but they did often manipulate or trick their marks into killing each other. I much prefer this emphasis on protecting lives. In Rogue Nation, McQuarrie played up Ethan as a driven, obsessive figure relentless in his pursuit of his foes, an unstoppable avenging angel. This time, though, he and Cruise chose to play up Ethan’s compassion in contrast to Walker’s businesslike ruthlessness, and it makes him a far more likeable lead. It’s one of many ways in which McQuarrie has improved greatly in his sophomore outing with Mission: Impossible.

Now, let’s see… Obviously the prior films that are the main touchstones for this sixth installment in the series were the fifth film (to which it’s essentially a direct sequel) and the third (through Julia). It also follows up on what the fourth film established about Ethan and Julia’s separation — and technically the Syndicate was introduced at the end of the fourth film, though its specifics weren’t established until the fifth. And it ties indirectly to the first film through the White Widow, daughter of Max. The hospital set sequence in the cold open is also a callback to the opening ploy in the original film, although both use elements from the TV series. Luther also tells Ilsa that there have been two women Ethan truly cared for in his life, but only talks about Julia. I thought at first that he meant Ilsa was the other one, but in retrospect I think it’s more likely he meant Claire from the original film. That leaves only the second film. IMDb’s Trivia page reveals that the helicopter’s “Terrain, pull up!” warning voice was the same audio used for the opening plane scene in M:I:II. But that’s a pretty trivial connection that barely counts, and it may be that it’s the same because it’s a standard aircraft warning (though I don’t know if it is). In terms of actual story and character elements, every prior film except II is acknowledged. Which makes sense, since II is by far the worst and the least characteristic of the series.

Still, the overall pattern stands — the level of continuity in the M:I films has been steadily increasing since Ghost Protocol. And I expect that trend to continue. I saw an article or two suggesting that Fallout seemed like the middle part of a trilogy — though the logic was that it had to be unfinished because Lane wasn’t dead yet, and I’m not at all fond of the casual assumption in American feature films that a story’s conclusion requires the villain’s death. Still, that aside, the question of what Ilsa Faust does next now that she’s free of MI-6 remains open. I would like to see her properly join the IMF; aside from Ferguson’s strength as a lead, it’s annoying that the IMF has been a boys’ club for the past two movies, and that no female IMF member has ever lasted for more than one movie. (Come to think of it, we saw as many female IMF members in the first film alone as in the entire remainder of the franchise. There were three women on Phelps’s team in the first act of that film. Thandie Newton in II was a civilian recruit. III had Maggie Q and Keri Russell, though not on the same team; IV had Paula Patton; V and VI only had Ilsa, who’s nominally a rival agent.) Really, at this point, they should probably think about phasing Cruise out or putting him in the “Secretary” role so Rebecca Ferguson could take over as the series lead. That way, they wouldn’t have to worry about the franchise ending as Cruise and Rhames age out of it.

Catching up on Netflix’s LOST IN SPACE (spoilers)

I’d heard mixed reviews of the new Lost in Space series on Netflix, but I was interested enough that it was one of the first things I watched after finally renewing my subscription to the service. And it didn’t take me long at all to decide that I really, really like it. The writing is solid, the characters and cast are good, the production values are terrific, and it’s just very entertaining all around.

I think what I like most about the new LIS, though, is that it succeeds in capturing what the 1965 Irwin Allen series was originally supposed to be before Jonathan Harris’s Dr. Smith took over the show: A drama about a family of very smart, resourceful people struggling to survive on a dangerous, hostile planet. A lot of LIS fans, myself included, have long lamented the wasted potential of the series, imagining the show it could’ve been if Harris’s popularity and ego hadn’t yanked it off course, marginalized most of the cast, and turned the show toward pure camp. There was a 1990s comic book sequel/revival from Innovation Comics, mostly written by original series star Bill Mumy, that was in that vein, getting back to the storytelling style of the early first season (updated for the era) and retconning the later, campier seasons as younger daughter Penny’s whimsical retellings of events in her diary. That comic ended up going a lot darker and somewhat more adult than the Netflix show, but I felt they were both trying for many of the same things.

There has been some reshuffling of character traits in the new show, though. The original John Robinson’s traits have been split between the new John (Toby Stephens) and his wife Maureen (Molly Parker), with John retaining the action-hero attributes and Maureen getting the scientific smarts and leadership skills, both of the mission and the family. I wasn’t crazy about this part, since the show starts off with John and Maureen estranged, much like in the disappointing 1998 feature film version. To me growing up, Guy Williams’s John Robinson was something of an ideal father figure, so I don’t like seeing him reimagined as a dysfunctional dad, although the new series doesn’t take it as far as the movie did and doesn’t take too long to heal the relationship. And it’s good that it makes Maureen a more dynamic and commanding figure. But I do wonder why modern mass-media fiction has so much trouble portraying good fathers.

Meanwhile, the original Maureen’s medical skills have been transferred to eldest daughter Judy (Taylor Russell), who’s only 18 here but had her medical training fast-tracked for the colony expedition. Penny (Mina Sundwall) is now an aspiring writer and is also the family’s resident wiseass — which seems inspired by Lacey Chabert’s snarky, scene-stealing Penny from the ’98 film, though Sundwall’s Penny is more laid-back, wry, and sardonic than Chabert’s chipmunk-voiced spitfire. Will (Maxwell Jenkins) is still a smart kid, but more timid and vulnerable than Mumy’s Will. They’re all very good in their roles, particularly Jenkins. Will Robinson is a critical role in Lost in Space, so it was important to find a child actor who could really step up and give a star-worthy performance, and Jenkins does really well.

The biggest changes are made to the Robot, Don West, and Dr. Smith, as well as to the nature of the Alpha Centauri expedition. Here, instead of the Robinsons and the Jupiter 2 making the journey alone, they’re one of multiple families aboard a larger colony starship, the Resolute, with the Jupiters being lifeboats that they and the other families use when the ship comes under alien attack — an idea also used by the failed 2004 The Robinsons: Lost in Space pilot from Douglas Petrie and John Woo. After the Robinsons crash, Will is separated from the others and comes across a damaged alien robot and its ship in damaged condition. Will plays Androcles, overcoming his initial fear of the Robot and selflessly helping it get free when they’re both endangered by a forest fire, which leads the Robot to save him in turn and forges a bond between them. I loved it that the bond was forged by Will doing something so kind, which really solidified him as a character to root for. It’s soon revealed to the audience that it was the Robot that attacked the Resolute, but apparently it has amnesia, and Will is convinced it (or rather, “he”) is good now. It even morphs itself into a more human shape (played by suit actor Brian Steele in an elaborate costume, when it’s not a CGI construct) and starts to emulate Will’s behavior, though it never talks other than to say “Danger, Will Robinson” or variations thereon. That bit kind of annoys me, an overreliance on a familiar catchphrase, and it’s hard to understand why it doesn’t say anything else. But the Will-Robot relationship and the questions raised by the Robot are handled nicely, and the costume is so cleverly designed that I was unsure whether it was real or CGI.

Meanwhile, the new Don West is no longer a major and hotshot pilot (come to think of it, the new John has inherited Major West’s military background, as he did in the 2004 pilot) but a working-class Resolute mechanic, smuggler, and hustler. He’s initially paired with the new version of Dr. Smith, played by Parker Posey — actually an impostor who’s stolen the identity of the real Smith (Mumy in a cameo) and will go to any lengths to cover up the crimes she was about to get imprisoned or spaced for when the Resolute was attacked. Posey’s “Smith” is an interesting reinterpretation, keeping the basics of Smith as a pathological liar driven by self-interest and cowardice but putting them together in a more nuanced, less comical way that’s marvelously, subtly played by Posey. Her Smith is not outright malevolent, nor is she a paid saboteur like the original Smith was at the start; she’s just a scared and broken person who tells herself she doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but who will do whatever she must to protect herself and her secrets, no matter who else has to suffer. It’s interesting the way the show manages to preserve the core relationships of the original in its own way. It gives Don West a reason to mistrust and dislike Smith (after they initially bond somewhat in episode 2, before her sudden and inevitable betrayal). It gives Smith an ongoing interest in the Robot (which she wants to turn to her side as her protector/enforcer) and in Will as the means of getting to the Robot, and essentially reinvents the first few 1965 episodes’ arc of Dr. Smith reprogramming and corrupting the Robot to serve his ends and Will trying to win it back. It’s a clever remix. One novelty is that Smith’s main relationship here is really with Maureen, who sees the other mature woman as a friend before eventually learning of her betrayal. But even that has a sort of a precedent in the original, since Smith and Maureen seemed to get along relatively well there (in part because he saved her life in the first episode).

The new show differs from the old in that it doesn’t deal with sapient aliens aside from the Robot and his mysterious builders. Here, the reason for settling Alpha Centauri is that Earth has been devastated by an impact event, and it eventually gets hinted — and it isn’t hard to guess — that the impactor was actually a crashed alien ship from which humanity stole an FTL technology allowing the Resolute to function, and that the Robot attacked it to recover the stolen property. (This is another idea the new series shares with the ’90s Innovation comic, which revealed that the Jupiter 2‘s FTL drive was salvaged from a crashed alien ship and that the “enemy agents” who hired Smith to sabotage the Jupiter 2 were actually aliens trying to keep humanity from reaching their homeworld. It’s interesting how this version seems to draw elements from every previous version, or at least coincidentally arrive at some of the same choices.) Otherwise, though, the Robinsons deal mostly with the dangers of the planet where they’re wrecked, both environmental hazards and dangerous animals, as well as with the other survivors who crashlanded in other Jupiters — an interesting innovation to the premise that allows a wider range of characters than just the Robinsons, Don, and Smith to be involved in the stories. It also allows for a more ethnically diverse cast; of the main leads, the only nonwhite character is Judy, who’s biracial, a product of Maureen’s first marriage before John. The supporting characters are far more diverse, such as the friendly Watanabe family (including Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Heroes Reborn‘s Kiki Sukezane); the prickly colony administrator Victor Dhar (Raza Jaffrey) and his son Vijay (Ajay Friese), who’s a love interest for Penny; and crash survivor Angela Goddard (played by Siren‘s Sibongile Mlambo and named for original LIS cast members Angela Cartwright and Mark Goddard), who was an eyewitness to the Robot’s attack and hates it for what it did. It’s unfortunate that the season ends with the Robinsons apparently isolated from the others once again, though perhaps there’s still room to bring them back as the series goes on.

But the focus on survival in a hostile environment, as well as the debates with the other colonists about how to deal with the problems and dangers they face, are a large part of what make the show so engaging. I like the kind of adventure stories driven by creative problem-solving more than the kind driven by fighting and violence, and this show is all about really smart people using their brains to figure out clever solutions to life-threatening problems, to rescue each other or themselves from impossible deathtraps, and so on. It’s just the thing I love to see, and it’s very satisfying. It also does a good job using the crises as an opportunity to advance character dynamics and drive emotional beats, and to generate conflicts over the best way to proceed in a situation with no good options. I mentioned not liking the ’98 movie’s dysfunctional version of the Robinsons, and that’s because I don’t care for the kind of conflict that would be easily avoidable if the characters weren’t emotionally immature jerks. That kind of conflict is a lazy cheat that writers too often fall back on. I prefer the kind of conflicts that arise between people who mean well and care for each other, the kind that come from impossible dilemmas where there is no simple answer and solutions are genuinely hard to find. One of my favorite episodes from the original LIS is episode 6, “Welcome Stranger,” where the idealized and loving parents John and Maureen nonetheless get into a serious debate about whether it’s better to split the family up to give Will and Penny a chance to get home or to keep the family together no matter what. It shows how you can generate meaningful conflict without requiring the characters to be screwed up or motivated by anything other than love and good intentions. That’s the kind of conflict that features heavily in the new show, although there are some tenser and more hostile moments in the early episodes before the planet’s challenges bring the family closer. While less idealized than the original show, it still strikes a pretty good balance that keeps the family more likeable than they were in the movie.

The show is also gorgeous to look at. The set, tech, and costume designs are bright and functional and plausible and excellent. The location work and visual effects for creating the nameless alien planet are terrific; the show is shot in British Columbia, but it mostly manages to avoid looking like just another show shot in the woods outside Vancouver. The tech and science are fairly well thought out and somewhat plausible, though there are a couple of scientific boners here and there (like Maureen talking about the difference between visual, eclipsing, and spectroscopic binaries as if that made a physical difference to the stars themselves rather than just how they were detected by Earth astronomers). The music is effective too, a rich orchestral score by Christopher Lennertz (Supernatural, Agent Carter) that incorporates John Williams’s third-season LIS main title theme as its principal motif (though I’m disappointed it doesn’t also reuse Williams’s leitmotif for the Chariot, the Robinsons’ ground vehicle). It’s a strong and entertaining show all around. It’s a family show, suitable for all ages, with very little profanity and only very chaste romance — but that’s also presumably why it’s focused so much on problem-solving and fighting natural dangers rather than interpersonal violence, and that’s a large part of what I like about it. And a family show that adults could watch with their kids was exactly what the original LIS was meant to be, just as it was meant to be a show about family survival in a dangerous alien realm.

All in all, it’s impressive that the Lost in Space remake has managed to fulfill the intended goals of the original show more successfully than the original did, as well as far surpassing both previous attempts at a revival. It took over half a century, but I’m happy to say that someone finally got Lost in Space right. And I look forward to seeing where they take it next.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,