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Thoughts on Toho’s Frankenstein duology

As I mentioned in my last Godzilla review post, I thought I might try to track down some of the films Toho made in the ’60s and ’70s about other kaiju. The available selection is piecemeal, but I’ve managed to track down a number of them. I’ll begin with the loose duology based on Frankenstein, which were the first kaiju films co-produced by an American studio. I hadn’t been able to find a copy of the first film through rental or the library, but I finally figured out how to use the statewide interlibrary loan system and found a copy in Cleveland. And while the English dub of the second film is available at Hulu and elsewhere, my local library had a copy with the Japanese audio as well. So, yay, libraries!

Frankenstein Conquers the World, aka Frankenstein vs. Baragon (full title Frankenstein vs. Subterranean Monster Baragon), came out in 1965, between the first two King Ghidorah films in the Godzilla series. It was originally based on (or plagiarized from) a treatment for an American King Kong vs. Frankenstein movie, then planned as a Frankenstein/Godzilla match-up to follow King Kong vs. Godzilla, but the plan to make Godzilla the hero didn’t make sense at the time, so they fortunately did the superb Mothra vs. Godzilla instead, eventually reworking their Frankenstein treatment with a new kaiju, Baragon, in Godzilla’s place, and Frankenstein as the hero. Confusing, no? (And yes, it should be Frankenstein’s Monster, but they call it Frankenstein here — or rather, Furankenshutain.) The film was partly financed by the American animation studio UPA, and it was plotted in part by American SF author Jerry Sohl, the writer of my favorite Star Trek episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver.” To appeal to an American audience, Nick Adams was imported from the US and cast in the lead role (the first of his two consecutive kaiju-film appearances, followed by Invasion of Astro-Monster).

The film begins in 1945 with German soldiers confiscating a beating heart in a trunk, loading it on a German sub, and delivering it to a Japanese sub. During the transfer, an Allied bomber sights sub, sinks same, but second sub scarpers safely. The sub’s Captain Kawai (Yoshio Tsuchiya) takes the cargo to a Japanese hospital, where a scientist (Takashi Shimura, who played Dr. Yamane in Gojira) explains to Kawai that it’s the indestructible heart of Frankenstein(‘s Monster), which they intend to study in hopes of using its regenerative properties to make soldiers indestructible. (Implicitly, this is a rough sequel to earlier American or British Frankenstein films, with Frankie’s immortal heart explaining his ability to come back to life over and over.) Unluckily for them, the hospital is in Hiroshima and it’s August 6…

Cut to 15 years later, and the Hiroshima International Institute of Radio Therapentics [sic]. There we find Dr. James Bowen, played by an English-speaking Adams with his dialogue dubbed in Japanese by Goro Naya. (In the English-language version, Adams redubbed his own dialogue.) He and his colleagues, Dr. Sueko Togami (Kumi Mizuno) and Dr. Ken’ichiro Kawaji (Tadao Takashima) are studying victims of radiation exposure and trying to develop cures, but the mood is somber as many of their patients face slow but certain death.

Bowen and Sueko discover a feral “waif” child that’s been wandering around Hiroshima killing small animals for food — something that was sadly common after the bomb, but odd over a decade and a half later. Sueko gives him food, which comes in handy later when the authorities corner him in a cave and Sueko and Bowen are able to bring him in peacefully to the Institute of Misspelled Therapeutics, where they find that he’s pure Caucasian (though he’s played by Sumio Nakao with green contacts and a Frankensteinian beetle brow and wig) and inexplicably resistant to radiation. He’s nonverbal but intelligent, and he’s quick to anger but not inclined to hurt people, especially Sueko. They determine that he was seen years earlier around the ruins of the hospital from the opening sequence, but how could he have survived being abandoned from infancy?

Captain Kawai, now working at an oil rig in Akita, witnesses its collapse in an “earthquake,” though we get a glimpse of a burrowing kaiju with a glowing nose horn. Later, he reads the news reports about the Boy (as Sueko calls him, even though he’s grown up and is now played by Koji Furuhata), who’s continued to grow at an accelerating rate, is now nearly two stories tall, and is rather cruelly being kept chained in a cage, with the shackle digging into his growing wrist. Kawai tells Bowen’s trio about Frankenstein’s heart, suggesting that the boy could’ve regenerated from it. Dr. Kawaji goes to Frankfurt to find the German scientist from the opening scenes, who advocates chopping off the boy’s arm or leg to see if it grows back, thereby proving he’s Frankenstein reborn. Horrifically, Kawaji thinks this is a peachy-keen idea, though Bowen and Sueko are morally opposed. But they’re too busy flirting over dinner, so Kawaji sneaks in to conduct the amputation experiment himself. (Sheesh, couldn’t you limit it to a small toe, say?) He has pangs of conscience and is interrupted by a TV crew whose bright lights enrage the Boy, causing him to break out of his cage and escape, stopping to peer into Sueko’s second-floor window and have a bonding moment before the cops drive him off.

Investigating the cage, the reporters find the shackle unbroken — and then are horrified to find Frankenstein’s severed hand crawling under its own power. They alert the scientists, who take it to the lab for study. Bowen has been urging the military and the media not to kill Frankie, since studying his regeneration and radiation resistance could be essential for science — much the same argument that Dr. Yamane used to argue against killing Godzilla in 1954. But with the hand, err, in hand, Kawaji argues that keeping Frankie alive is less essential. Anyway, Frankie manages to elude pursuit and live off wild game and raided livestock. He’s reached 20 meters and somehow his clothes have grown with him, though they eventually get tattered and replaced with skins. (It’s never explicitly stated that Frankie’s growth is the result of the heart’s radiation exposure in Hiroshima, but it stands to reason, since Frankenstein never became a giant before. If so, this would be the first kaiju-film appearance of the idea of radiation creating gigantism, an idea the Heisei era would return to.)

Finally, Baragon makes his first full appearance. He’s a weird kaiju, with lizard legs, a sort of armadillo-ish back, batlike ears, and a goofy, big-eyed face with a glowing nose horn. Frankenstein gets blamed for Baragon’s destruction and the military’s hunting him in full force, but the hand has died from insufficient nourishment as it grew, so the Three Scienceketeers need him alive again. Captain Kawai once again shows up to provide plot-advancing exposition, having realized that the glowing monster from the Akita earthquake is behind the carnage. Somehow, he deduces that it’s an ancient dinosaur that survived the cooling of the Earth (one of the dinosaur-extinction theories at the time) by moving deep underground. The scientific community scoffs, suggesting this wasn’t intended at the time to be in continuity with the Godzilla series, despite Baragon’s later cameo appearance in Destroy All Monsters. So Frankenstein is still being hunted, and only our three heroes are left to attempt to contain Frankie by finding where he’s most likely to go (Mt. Fuji, for a cool climate like his native Germany — indeed, it was snowing in the opening despite it being August) and airlift food there to keep him from roaming.

But Kawaji still has a more aggressive agenda, and his plan to kill Frankenstein and sample his remains happens to enrage Baragon, who goes on a rampage, endangering Sueko. Frankenstein comes to her rescue and the marquee fight is underway. It’s more fast-paced and acrobatic than your usual kaiju fight, since Furuhata is unencumbered by a heavy rubber suit — though Baragon (played by Godzilla suit actor Haruo Nakajima) is pretty lively too, prone to wire-assisted leaping. During the fight, Kawaji is endangered and Frankenstein saves him, gently carrying him back to Bowen and Sueko. The battle leads to a massive forest fire which provides a dramatic backdrop for the climactic battle, until Frankenstein snaps Baragon’s neck and then the ground (weakened by Baragon’s burrowing) collapses and sucks them both into the Earth. Kawaji learns his lesson and assures Sueko that Frankenstein cannot die, but Bowen has inexplicably had a change of heart too and ends the movie by saying he’d be better off dead because he’s just a monster. Huh? (The English dub goes with a slightly kinder “He couldn’t live in this world.”)

However, the 1985 “international” version restores a long-lost alternate ending the filmmakers shot at the request of their American co-producers, who were oddly enamored of the giant octopus fight in King Kong vs. Godzilla and wanted to see a similar scene here, whether it made sense or not. Ishiro Honda and his team grudgingly shot the scene, but ultimately left it out of both the Japanese and American editions — and it’s easy to see why. After Frankenstein kills Baragon, suddenly a giant octopus shows up out of nowhere — yes, a sea creature crawling on land — and flails nonthreateningly while Frankenstein attacks it and wraps its tentacles around himself to mime being grabbed, until they both fall into a lake that suddenly happens to be there, before we segue back to the final conversation. It’s an absolutely terrible, pointless ending and it should never have been restored as anything but a deleted scene. If you see this movie on the Tokyo Shock DVD, do yourself a favor and watch the “theatrical” Japanese version rather than “international.” (Meanwhile, the original US version incorporated a few more added shots of Frankenstein inflicting destruction during his rampage, but apparently no widescreen prints of this material survive, so they’re missing from the reconstructed English-language edition on the DVD set, though included in low quality as bonus features.)

The alternate ending aside, this is a really impressive film. It’s the darkest, most somber kaiju film since the original Gojira, with a similar acknowledgment of the suffering caused by the atomic bomb. The fact that the monster is essentially human makes him unusually sympathetic and lends a darker quality to the discussions about hunting the monster down and killing it. Baragon’s inclusion seems kind of random at first, but it serves a purpose once Frankenstein gets blamed for its attacks, and though it’s a silly-looking monster, the big battle is quite effective. Akira Ifukube’s score is moody and effective, and makes heavy use of what was apparently the only bass flute in Japan at the time. It’s surprising to see such a solemn, dramatic kaiju film in 1965, when the Godzilla films were starting to become lighter and sillier.

The following year, Toho made a sequel under the name Frankenstein’s Monsters: Sanda vs. Gaira, known in the US as The War of the Gargantuas. It’s an odd kind of sequel, though. Storywise, it’s a direct continuation of FCtW, with abundant references to that film’s events, and the lead trio are clearly meant to be the same characters. And yet all three leads are renamed and two are recast. Bowen is now Stewart (Russ Tamblyn, dubbed by Goro Mutsumi), Kawaji is now Majida (Kenji Sahara), and though the lovely Kumi Mizuno fortunately returns, she’s now Akemi rather than Sueko. (Some sources attribute the cast change to Nick Adams’s death, but that was two years after this.) They’re now based in Kyoto rather than Hiroshima. And the Frankenstein design has been changed to a full suit and mask that’s more apelike than before. There’s even a new flashback to Frankenstein’s childhood in which he looks more like a baby orangutan than a deformed human. It’s really weird that they made these changes, but it’s possible to look past the surface alterations and see the direct sequel it was meant to be.

It begins with the very scene the American investors wanted FCtW to end with, a battle between a Frankenstein and a giant octopus. They were really determined to get that octopus fight one way or another. This time it’s at sea, and the octopus attacks a smugglers’ boat before being attacked in turn by a hairy green ape-giant (not jolly at all), who then launches his own attack on the boat and eats all but one of its crew. (No doubt the redundant giant octopus was forced into what was meant to be a more straightforward scene of the sea giant destroying the boat.)  The survivor’s story of seeing “a Frankenstein” isn’t believed at first, but soon the creature attacks an airport, and the hunt is on. Much of the first half of the movie is the military hunting what they believe to be Frankenstein while our scientist heroes investigate, doubting the story. The Frankenstein they knew wasn’t a sea dweller like this creature, and there’s evidence of giant footprints in the mountains.

There’s an interlude where the green giant attacks an American singer (Kipp Hamilton) right after she sings a really dreadful song called “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat.” Now, this was a song I’d heard before in the Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated episode “Battle of the Humongonauts,” which I hadn’t realized was meant to be an homage to this film. I’d assumed the song had been written for the cartoon as a joke — I couldn’t believe anyone would write a song that bad in earnest. (Seriously, why couldn’t the monster have attacked Hamilton three minutes earlier?) Now I wish I’d seen this movie before that episode, so I could’ve watched out for more homages.

Anyway, the musical score makes plenty of use of one of Akira Ifukube’s most memorable military marches, the “Operation L March” (part of which was reused in the Destroy All Monsters title theme two years later, and the entirety of which was reused in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah in 1994) as the Self Defense Force prepares and launches its assault on the green kaiju. The assault sequence features the debut of the iconic Maser Cannon tanks which would reappear in later Godzilla films, perhaps the strongest continuity link (such as it is) between the Frankenstein films and the Godzilla series. The kaiju is injured and almost defeated when a second, tan-haired giant with slightly more human features and oddly scaly skin comes to its rescue and helps it to safety. This creature’s musical theme is just a slight variation on Frankenstein’s theme, which tells us what the three scientists soon figure out: That this is the original Frankenstein, the one they cared for in the past. If you squint a little, you can almost buy that this is the mature, hairier form of the earlier adolescent Frankenstein, or that he’s undergone some secondary mutation since we last saw him. The military dubs the maneating green creature Gaira (from kai, meaning sea) and the sandy-colored one Sanda (from san, meaning mountain).

The scientists conclude that Gaira is a clone grown from some cells that Frankenstein shed from an injury in the lake where he was briefly seen in the first movie, which somehow explains Gaira’s aquatic nature. This means they can’t just blow up the Frankensteins without spawning hundreds. Our heroes try to convince the military that Sanda, at least, should be protected, but the general just wants to use napalm and chemical weapons to destroy both giants utterly. After a pastoral interlude, Akemi/Sueko falls off a cliff and Sanda/Frankenstein breaks his leg saving her. He returns to his clone-bro and sees something that enrages him — it took me a couple of viewings to figure out that it was the clothing of a pair of vacationing boaters we’d seen earlier, now eaten by Gaira. A furious Sanda beats Gaira with a tree and drives him away.

Gaira ends up attacking Tokyo and Sanda comes after him. The military intends to attack them both, and Akemi/Sueko gets hurt trying to warn him, whereupon Stewart/Bowen confesses his love for her. I think the scientists’ arguments got through, though, since the military only shoots at Gaira while he and Sanda fight in the streets and docks of Tokyo, smashing the surrounding buildings with implausible, Man of Steel-like ease. (These kaiju are a lot smaller than Godzilla and his peers, so it doesn’t seem they’d be heavy enough to smash buildings that effortlessly.) Eventually their battle carries them out to sea, and the filmmakers must’ve been running out of ideas at this point, because suddenly an undersea volcano erupts and apparently burns up both Frankensteins, though it’s ambiguous enough to leave room for more sequels.

Even aside from the bizarre and gratuitous changes, this film is inferior to its original. It’s basically just more of the same, but without the ambiguity, since the heroes are all on the same page, convinced that Sanda/Frankenstein is a good guy and it’s just another case of mistaken identity, and Sanda himself is more saintly and less of a tragic, tortured figure than the previous film’s Frankenstein. Changing the kaiju to full-suit monsters makes them less human and less engaging (though at least they have visible human eyes). And too much of the run time is devoted to military maneuvers and attacks on Gaira.

The 1970 English-language version severs all connections to Frankenstein — perhaps because American audiences would’ve been puzzled by the reinterpretation of Frankenstein’s Monster as a Bigfoot-like giant? Instead, it posits the existence of hypothetical giant cryptids called Gargantuas — swapping out Mary Shelley for Rabelais. (It’s amusing to see the surviving smuggler mouthing “Furankenshutain!” and hearing “Gi-i-aant!” dubbed over it.) Gaira and Sanda are unimaginatively redubbed Green Gargantua and Brown Gargantua. (Poor Pantagruel gets left out.) Stewart is now just an expert in giant creatures rather than a Frankenstein expert, and he’s introduced earlier in the film, with several early scenes reshot to include him. (This actually fixes a major continuity error in the Japanese edition, which has the reporters show up to question Stewart about Frankenstein mere moments after he was first contacted, as part of the same scene. Here, there are several scenes between the initial contact and the press conference.) I believe this version also hints at the possibility of a second giant much sooner than the Japanese version does, which somewhat undermines the suspense. It also abandons all uses of Ifukube’s “Operation L March” in favor of the frequent use of a stock music cue that I got really sick of listening to after a while. Unfortunately, it keeps “Stuck in My Throat.” I fast-forwarded through a lot of this version. And somehow, with Russ Tamblyn dubbing his own lines in English, it’s easier to notice how lazily he walked through the part. In keeping with his lack of passion, the bit where he confesses his feelings for Akemi ends up as “I thought I’d lost an assistant.” All around, the English dub is an inferior version of an inferior sequel. Too bad, since Frankenstein Conquers the World is one of the very best kaiju films I’ve seen.

Spoilery thoughts on STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, with spoilers, in case you were wondering (Spoilers!)

December 31, 2015 4 comments

I was going to see The Force Awakens on Tuesday (which is discount day), but I did so much writing the night before that I couldn’t shut my mind down and hardly got any sleep, so I was in no condition to drive on Tuesday. I was going to wait a week, but I realized that the earliest 2D showing on any given day was cheaper than the 3D showings on Tuesdays, and I decided, what the heck, I didn’t see any of the other Star Wars movies in 3D. Plus I needed groceries and wanted to check out the new Kroger next to the theater (which turned out to be a huge shopping complex with a food court on one side and a mini-department store on the other). So I went this morning, and now I’ve finally gone from the avoiding-spoilers side to the talking-about-spoilers side. So if you’re afraid of spoilers, be warned there are spoilers here. Have I said “spoilers” enough yet? Spoilers!

Just to provide a little extra spoiler space (Spoilers!), here follows a brief anecdote of a good deed I done did on the way to the theater. As I was driving on a one-way street and came toward a red light, a car coming through on the cross street from my right started to turn the wrong way onto the one-way street. It turned out to make a full U-turn in the middle of the intersection, though I’m not sure if that was the driver’s intention or their correction after realizing their error. Either way, it wasn’t right. But anyway, the driver of the car ahead and to the right of me got out to yell at the other driver. I noticed an object fall from the yelling guy’s car, and realized it was his cell phone. So I rolled down my right-side window and yelled, “You dropped your phone, sir, you dropped your phone!” The guy picked up his phone and got back in. He didn’t thank me or anything. But if he was angry enough to get out of his car to yell at another driver, imagine how angry he might’ve been if he’d later discovered that he’d lost his phone. Maybe the favor I did was ultimately for someone else.

And now for something completely spoilery:

I’ve never been a huge Star Wars fan. The original trilogy was part of my childhood, along with the NPR radio series, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, and Han Solo at Stars’ End. And I still have a near-complete collection of Marvel’s original SW comic, which is just about my favorite iteration of the franchise. But it’s just something I watch and find moderately entertaining and well-made; it doesn’t have the same meaning for me that Star Trek or Doctor Who does. So I was able to come in without a lot of baggage or demands. Probably a good way to approach any movie.

Still, it was a lot of fun to see “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and that fanfare and the opening crawl — although I was a bit disappointed that the crawl was such clean digital text instead of physically printed text scrolled over by a tilted camera, since I’m that old-school. The opening line “Luke Skywalker has vanished” is a great way to start. And I liked how the opening shot evoked the nostalgia of the original film’s opening but brought an impressive new visual and stylistic twist, with the Star Destroyer in silhouette, and then the very Abramsesque montage shots of the Stormtroopers.

I knew to expect a lot of nostalgia and homage to the original trilogy, but I’m okay with that. I think George Lucas has said that he wanted the prequel trilogy to “rhyme” with the OT, to have some similar beats in a different way, but I think this film achieved that more successfully, mixing the old with the new. I could see the resonances, but I feel they were remixed in a fresh way… err, for the most part.

In particular, J.J. Abrams (who cowrote with Lawrence Kasdan as well as directing) has always been good at focusing on the emotional core of characters and their journeys. People make fair complaints about the plot logic in his stories, but I’ve always appreciated how deeply his stories are grounded in character and emotion, which makes them work despite the holes. It’s exactly what this franchise needed after the sterility of the prequels. I love the freshness of focusing on a Stormtrooper who has a crisis of conscience and deserts. It’s nicely subversive. Until now, Stormtroopers were always faceless myrmidons who could be disposed of without qualms, but now we get to see one as a person (John Boyega’s Finn), and it’s great. (The Clone Wars achieved something similar with the Clone Troopers.) It does make it a little incongruous, though, when Finn is whooping it up at his success at blowing away his fellow Stormtroopers during his escape with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Still, for a Star Wars movie to even touch on the idea of violence as a difficult thing to bear on one’s conscience is a major step forward, however inconsistently it’s handled. (This is one reason I liked the Marvel comics so much — the characters there expressed a regard for life that they never expressed in the films.) I’m not sure whether it’s a bug or a feature that we never get an explanation for why Finn had a conscience despite his lifelong brainwashing. It might’ve been nice to know what made him different from the others, but on the other hand, it’s nice to have a character just intrinsically have a sense of decency despite every effort to destroy it.

Finn and Poe bond pretty well in their brief time together, and Poe is reasonably charismatic and irreverent, but he doesn’t leave as much of an impression on me as the other characters, since he’s basically just a hotshot pilot and good guy, and because he’s missing for so much of the film (indeed, he was originally intended to stay dead). But after recently seeing Isaac be so effective as the bad guy and Domnhall Gleeson as the nice guy in Ex Machina (which is a fabulous film, by the way, go watch it), I was unsure how well they’d pull off the role reversal here. But Isaac was totally without the creep factor that seemed such an indelible part of his Ex Machina character — and just to get a bit ahead of the chronology here, Gleeson’s General Hux was startlingly evil and terrifying in his Hitleresque speech to the masses. They’re both quite chameleonic actors, and I’m most impressed, even if Poe is not the most impressive character on Isaac’s resume.

Speaking of lacking impressions, I’m afraid Captain Phasma didn’t live up to the hype. Or maybe she did, since she was touted as the new Boba Fett, and Boba Fett was a character who did and said so little that it always bewildered me that fans made such a big deal out of him. But I quite liked Gwendoline Christie in Wizards vs. Aliens (nope, never seen that thing with the thrones), and I wanted her to get more to do here. Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of her.

Of course, our main heroine is Daisy Ridley’s Rey, who was quite effective. Ridley is beautiful, but that’s not what she’s here to be, and she did quite well as the resourceful scavenger who’s had to pick up a lot of skills to survive and who turned out to have the makings of a hero without realizing it. (I’ll let my pal Keith DeCandido tear apart the stupid and sexist “Rey is a Mary Sue” meme.) I like her offbeat approach to problem-solving, like pulling the fuses in the maintenance ducts to open or lock doors. Her knack for piloting is nothing unusual in a franchise that’s largely about ships and pilots, and adds credence to the suspicion that she may be of Skywalker blood. She’s maybe a little underdeveloped as a character, but much of her story is clearly being held back for the next two movies. The original film at least told a complete story with closure for everyone (except poor Chewie not getting his medal) while still leaving room for more. I liked Rey in the present, but I would’ve liked more answers about her past.

Really, one thing I kept thinking while watching this movie was that I was more interested in the stuff that happened before this movie. Kylo Ren turning on Luke, Rey’s backstory, Finn’s backstory, etc. I wouldn’t mind seeing those stories told. Maybe that’ll be the next animated series after Rebels. Or maybe it’ll be in novels.

Kylo Ren wasn’t quite as iconic a villain as Darth Vader, but then, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? He’s a wannabe Vader, but he doesn’t quite have it down yet. But Adam Driver does a reasonably good job as a more angry and turmoil-driven villain than we’ve seen before; again, Abrams makes sure to ground it in emotional conflict, particularly family issues. Now, the one thing I did get spoiled on (because I read something I should’ve known to avoid) was THE big spoiler about who Kylo Ren was and what he did to Han Solo. So I knew that was coming. Even so, the way their relationship was revealed seemed a bit awkward. When Supreme Leader Snoke just casually up and said “Your father, Han Solo” in the middle of a conversation, I was thinking, “Dude, spoilers!” I would’ve expected that reveal to come more dramatically, like maybe between Han and Leia when they were reunited. Anyway, knowing what happened at the big moment didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the scene, because knowing it was coming gave it weight, and I was able to focus on the parts I didn’t know, i.e. how it happened, what was said, how it was set up. And that was done very well. Some good dialogue and acting there.

It was okay to see Han and Chewie again, still up to their old tricks. But Han was never a favorite character of mine. And they did seem to show up kind of randomly, though not as randomly as the Falcon just happening to be there on Jakku. At least we got an explanation later for how they found it. Harrison Ford did a good job, and it’s clear that Kasdan still loves writing Han. But really, it took this long for Han to try using Chewie’s bowcaster? It was nice to see Leia again too — and by the way, Internet, Carrie Fisher looks great. But it’s frustrating that we saw so little of Luke, and that we never got to hear his voice, which of course is Mark Hamill’s greatest asset as an actor. I hope he’ll have a big role in the next film.

Oh, of course I should talk about the real star of the film, BB-8. Well, the star of the first act, anyway. He is a very well-designed and well-executed character. Giving his head the ability to tilt in all directions makes him much more expressive than R2-D2 ever was. He’s a lot of fun. And he has a pretty good “voice” treatment too — distinct from R2, a bit more organic-sounding, but definitely much better than that irritating “wah-wah-wah” voice used for Chopper on Rebels.

Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata was pretty good as the Yoda-ish figure of the film, though I wonder if she could’ve been done as a puppet instead of by performance capture. I guess they wanted to get her facial performance onscreen as well as her voice. Anyway, Maz being a thousand years old is interesting; it means maybe we could see her on Rebels at some point. And Max Von Sydow’s Lor San Tekka might also appear as an associate of Bail Organa’s, say.

Storywise, I could’ve done without another plot revolving around a giant planetkiller weapon. That’s a well we’ve seen returned to a bit too often now. But as with Kylo, maybe the attempt at imitation is kind of the point — the First Order is trying to preserve the Empire, and all the Empire really had going for it was destruction. They’re trapped by their need to emulate the past, just as Kylo is.

Now, a lot of people have complained about the destruction of the Republic capital and the Hosnian system being visible across space from Takodana. It’s true that this is a trope Abrams has used before, in Star Trek when he showed Spock Prime seeing Vulcan’s destruction from the surface of Delta Vega. I always took that as symbolic, but it’s more literal here. Still, I’m not too bothered. It’s no worse than the question of how the Falcon got from Hoth to Bespin without a hyperdrive in The Empire Strikes Back. I’ve seen it theorized that maybe Hoth and Bespin were in the same star system, or maybe around the two stars in a close binary, say. A similar explanation could work here. Maybe “the Hosnian system” is a term like “the Jovian system” for Jupiter and its moons. And maybe Takodana is in the same star system and wasn’t targeted because it’s neutral. Anyway, Star Wars has always been space fantasy rather than science fiction (in Lucas’s own words), so it’s never really tried to be plausible. It’s an annoyance, but a minor one.

The bigger problem with the destruction of the Republic capital is that it’s so cursory. There were going to be scenes of Maisie Richardson-Sellers as Leia’s envoy to the Republic, someone we’d know and have some reason to care about when the planet was destroyed, but her appearance was reduced to a brief shot without dialogue as she saw the beam coming in. And since we never really see the Republic as an actual factor in the story, and since none of the characters have any personal connection there that we know of, its destruction hardly seems relevant. Still, getting to see the people on the surface at all is an improvement on the destruction of Alderaan. And so is the visual effect. I’ve always hated that the destruction of Alderaan was represented by a quick, instantaneous “poof,” a jump cut from a shot of the planet to the same kind of liquid-fuel explosion used for spaceships blowing up. I always felt it should be more like the effect of the wave-motion gun in Star Blazers or the destruction of the Genesis Planet in The Search for Spock — a slow, roiling upheaval that took time to build to a full eruption because of the vastness of the thing being destroyed. And we finally got that here, both with Hosnian Prime and at the end with Starkiller Base. So I appreciate that, at least. If it had to be a replay of something we’ve already seen, at least they handled the details better this time. (Although, no, we didn’t need another scene of X-Wings in a trench. That was just self-indulgent.)

Let’s see, what else… I like the way the climactic fight made it look as though Finn was the hero who’d save the damsel in distress from the bad man, and then turned it around and had Rey turn out to be the hero. I personally didn’t need that point made, I’ve seen (and written) plenty of female action heroes, but maybe it’s a statement that was necessary for a large part of the action movie audience. And it’s a trick Abrams has pulled before, in the climax of Mission: Impossible III. Although it goes farther here, since it’s not a temporary role reversal, it’s the emergence of the trilogy’s true hero.

See, this is why I don’t get the “Mary Sue” claims. A Mary Sue would overshadow everyone else from the start. Rey has a learning curve, and the fact that she’s the real hero of the story doesn’t become evident until the third act. Everyone treats her like the traditional damsel — Finn holding her hand, Ren kidnapping her and strapping her into bondage — and she subverts the role as much as Leia did in 1977, but this is the version of Star Wars where Leia turns out to be the hero and Luke ends up half-dead. (Okay, yes, Rey was coded as the Luke surrogate from the start by being on a desert planet and connecting with the cute droid. But no analogy is perfect.)

The resolution of the search for Luke is too sudden — R2 had the info all along, he was just taking a really long nap? And he woke up for no clear reason (although at first I thought it was in response to Chewie’s grief). I’ve read that he just woke up slowly after overhearing C3PO talk about the map, but they could’ve hinted at that by showing a standby light start to blink on R2 at the end of that scene, or something. Honestly, of all the returning characters (discounting the cameos of Ackbar and Nien Nunb), 3PO and R2 are the ones the story could’ve most easily done without. I didn’t feel their brief appearances really added all that much. Though R2 at least got to be a Macguffin of sorts again, even if he was a Macguffin nobody knew they should be after. (Which, if you think about it, is probably the best position to be in if you’re a Macguffin.)

You know… while a lot of what George Lucas has said about the franchise recently has been pretty ridiculous, he has a point about how he always tried to feature new and different planetary environments rather than rehashing old ones. Here, aside from the Tatooine-like desert planet, most of the worlds were forested and hard to tell apart. The only thing that set Starkiller Base apart from Takodana or the Resistance base planet was that it was snowing. It wasn’t as visually interesting as the mix of worlds we got in the OT and the prequels. (And when we did get a forest moon in ROTJ, it was a stunningly massive redwood forest. It was the ultimate forest, just as Tatooine was the ultimate desert and Hoth was the ultimate ice world. The worlds here looked kinda like Planet Vancouver.)

Still, I’ve never understood fandom’s criticisms of Abrams as a director. I’ve said how much I like his emphasis on character and emotion, and I think he’s a good director stylistically as well. In fact, I felt this didn’t seem to have enough of his usual style and sensibility, as if he were trying to conform more to the Star Wars house style. I would’ve liked it to have even more of an Abramsy feel.

Or maybe it’s just that John Williams was doing the score instead of Michael Giacchino. I have to say, I didn’t find any of the new musical themes to stand out as much as the old ones. Maybe it’s just that I don’t have the new themes burned in my mind from years of listening to the soundtrack albums as a kid, but the score felt underwhelming except when it quoted the greatest hits. And I was disappointed that the end titles didn’t conclude with the main theme reprise like they did in the OT. That’s as important a musical bookend as the opening theme. (But then, I was the only one who bothered to stick around to the very end of the credits.)

Speaking of which — the coolest thing in the credits was learning that a lot of the background voices were done by cast members from The Clone Wars, including showrunner Dave Filoni, sound editor Matthew Wood (Grievous/droids), Dee Bradley Baker (the clones), Tom Kane (narrator/Yoda), Matt Lanter (Anakin), Cat Taber (Padme), James Arnold Taylor (Obi-Wan), and Sam Witwer (Darth Maul, and now Palpatine on Rebels). Since Rey’s Force vision included a voiceover by Ewan McGregor and archive audio of Sir Alec Guiness, that means all three Obi-Wan actors’ voices are heard in this movie.

I guess that’s enough for now. This has been really long. Question: Is it worth seeing this again in 3D?

Syfy’s CHILDHOOD’S END review (spoilers)

Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End has always been one of my favorite books. I still have my first copy of the book, the 1973 Del Rey edition. So I was nervous when I heard that Syfy was doing a miniseries adaptation of the book. The initial reports and promos were discouraging. They suggested that the emphasis would be on the early “Are they invaders?” stuff that the book got out of the way quickly. And the casting news was disheartening. The book was incredibly progressive for 1953 in that perhaps its most central human character, Jan Rodricks, was a biracial Afro-Scottish man. Yet the miniseries over 60 years later had reportedly promoted the supporting character of Rikki Stormgren to the lead role and reinterpreted him as a Middle-American farmer (Ricky Stormgren, played by Mike Vogel), with no hint that Rodricks was being included at all. I was very disturbed by the implied whitewashing. Later on, it became evident that Rodricks (renamed Milo, played by Osy Ikhile) would be included after all, but it was unclear how prominent he would be. The first advance reviews seemed to suggest it was closer to the book than I feared it would be, so I went in with hope, but I still had my concerns. The following reviews reprint the comments I posted at Tor.com in their review threads.

Part 1: “The Overlords”

Well, it’s better than I feared, and truer to the book than I feared, but still imperfect. Mike Vogel was less bland and boring than he seemed in the trailers, and I suppose there was merit to the idea that a spokesperson from outside the existing authority structures would have less “baggage” than, say, a UN Secretary-General. Still, I’m hoping that now the focus will shift away from Stormgren and more toward Rodricks as in the book.

And I could wish for a more global focus. We hear about the international impact of the Overlords, but almost all the featured characters are Americans, except for Peretta, who’s supposedly Brazilian but has an American accent.

Colm Meaney’s character was way too one-dimensional. The Wainwright of the book was described as an honest man, even if his followers weren’t, and Stormgren’s abduction was by an extremist subsect of the Freedom League. I can understand the need to conflate characters, but even so, it would’ve been nice for the voice on the side of human freedom to be less obnoxious and hateful.

I also found the Overlords’ technology a bit too magical in its portrayal. Why erase the photos of the dead people used as illusory messengers? And while I suppose Karellen’s appearance fits the intent of the text and other artists’ renderings I’ve seen, I’ll always prefer Wayne Barlowe’s version from Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials, which was more plausibly alien and not quite as literal an interpretation. (It’s included among some other artists’ interpretations in this article from io9.)

Still, it hit a lot of the high notes of the first portion of the book, and the directing and script were reasonably good overall. They rode a bit too heavily on alien-abduction scare tropes when the pod came to Ricky’s house, but in retrospect, it seems like maybe the Overlords played it that way intentionally to attract coverage of the “abduction” so that the world would be watching when Ricky was returned safe and sound.

(Speaking of callbacks to earlier tropes, when Wainwright’s subordinate suggested calling the aliens Visitors, was that an intentional nod to V?)

Part 2: “The Deceivers”

Man… I thought part 1 was okay, but part 2 was awful. It had hardly anything to do with the book, and the parts that were used from the book were handled poorly. As I always feared would happen, the novel’s black main character (Rodricks) was marginalized in favor of a bunch of white characters, including Stormgren, whose role in the book was over by this point and whose inclusion here seemed to be mostly padding until late in the episode.

(I’m also not crazy about the way the miniseries perpetuates the tendency of American fiction to treat “Africa” as a single undifferentiated place that’s defined mostly by wildlife and/or poverty.)

Peretta, like Wainwright in part 1, was too broad and fanatical to be an effective antagonist. The miniseries can’t seem to make up its mind; it keeps trying to make the Overlords ominous and suggest they’re up to no good, but the characters who believe they’re up to no good are such crazy, unlikeable extremists that they have no credibility. I also don’t like the suggestion that Karellen drove Peretta to kill herself by using the image of her dead mother to lead her out the open door. In the book, the Overlords had far subtler methods to neutralize threats without the need for violence.

The worst part was the Ouija board sequence and what came after. In the book, the Ouija scene was a hint that humans were starting to develop telepathy, and Rodricks was present when someone asked the location of the Overlords’ home planet and the board spelled out an answer. Here, the board seems to have been some Overlord communication device, so there was no reason for it to be a Ouija board at all. And there was no reason why the Overlords would ask the magic baby to tell them the location of their own homeworld. And the way Milo figured that out was unconscionably stupid. Why would a communications beam between the ground and the ship have visible letters flying through it? Why would aliens use an alphabet based on the constellations as seen from Earth? That’s an idea ripped off from Stargate, and at least the Stargate movie (though not the series) had the sense to acknowledge that a different star system would have different constellations. But this miniseries doesn’t even know the difference between a constellation and a star system, having Milo use them interchangeably in his spiel. The gibberish explanation Milo gave for how he found the Overlords’ homeworld was so ignorant of basic grade-school astronomy that it’s an affront to Arthur C. Clarke to put it in an adaptation of his book, and at this point I was literally shouting at the screen in betrayed outrage. Okay, the book’s credulity about psychic powers and Ouija boards is one of its major shortcomings from a plausibility standpoint, but at least Clarke did his homework about the ideas he included in his books. This was an aggressively inept failure of research.

The one part that really works is Charles Dance’s performance as Karellen. I’ve always liked Karellen in the book, and I think Dance is doing a good job capturing his intelligence, urbanity, patience, compassion, and humor, even though the somewhat cheesy makeup design isn’t helping him much.

Part 3: “The Children”

The first half or so of the final installment was quite tedious. In the book, Rikki Stormgren was featured only in the first part of the novel, and the miniseries never really established a good reason for keeping Ricky Stormgren around beyond that. He didn’t do anything in part 3 except slowly die, and continue to be obsessed over his lost love Annabelle — which was ridiculous, since he’d been living with Ellie for something like 25 years at this point. It’s poor writing to have a story that spans so many decades and have the characters undergo no real change or growth in that interval. And having Ricky still be obsessed with someone he lost half a lifetime before just made him pathetic and was an affront to Ellie’s character. This didn’t work, and it had no bearing on the overall story. It was totally pointless. When Ricky eventually died, my reaction was “Finally, now we can get on with the actual story.” I kind of liked his character in part 1, but his and Ellie’s story should’ve ended then.

And the time wasted on Ricky could’ve been better spent fleshing out the plots that actually mattered and came from the book — the Greggsons in New Athens and Milo’s journey to the Overlords’ planet. The New Athens part was handled superficially — we just got one introductory scene with the guy in charge of the place, and the script’s heavyhanded approach to villains was still very much in effect — he seemed all nice on the surface, but was surrounded by garish artwork celebrating war and bloodshed and talking about how he’d rather burn New Athens down than lose it, and it became obvious what was going to happen. In the book, the fate of New Athens was a consensual choice by its citizens, with those who disagreed allowed to leave. Making it one lunatic’s unilateral act was more shallow and came off as gratuitous.

As for the children’s evolution and ascension, that was poorly handled as well. The scene where they floated up into the air was risible. I was staring at the screen in disbelief and asking, “Seriously? Seriously?!” Even before that, the miniseries seemed to be trying to rip off Torchwood: Children of Earth rather than adapting Childhood’s End. But the levitation scene was where they really lost it.

The one part of “The Children” that worked for me was Milo’s journey to the Overlords’ planet. This was the part I was most worried about — I feared they’d either leave it out entirely or have their white farmboy hero get to make the journey instead of Rodricks. So it was a relief that they kept it basically intact. It wasn’t perfect. They sort of lost the spirit of pure scientific curiosity that drove Rodricks in the book, instead having Milo do it because he feared a danger to Earth, and having him more concerned about that danger and his lost love (a relationship that was never sufficiently established to justify his pathos at its outcome) than about the discovery itself. And the depiction of the Overlords’ world was too hellish and not as rich and interesting as the visuals Clarke described. Still, they kept the essence of it intact, and after a night and a half that was mostly padding and lame subplots, the miniseries finally anchored itself in Clarke’s story again and brought it to essentially the same resolution. I’m not sure if I’m actually satisfied by that so much as relieved, but at least it wasn’t a total disaster in the end.

In the final analysis, I feel this miniseries should’ve been told over two nights instead of three. Lose all the Ricky/Ellie stuff after part 1, lose Peretta altogether, keep it to the plots that actually came from the book. It’s certainly possible to add new ideas to a book adaptation in a way that works and enriches the story, but they failed to do so here. The material invented to pad the story out over three nights was weak and ultimately rather pointless. Even cut down to four hours, this would still be a flawed adaptation, but it would be less flawed.

All in all, the miniseries never succeeded in establishing a consistent tone. It kept trying to make things seem ominous and suspenseful and scoring everything with scare cues, but the Overlords’ invasion and the children’s ascension were so gentle and benign that the attempts to make it feel dangerous and sinister never really worked. Especially when the human antagonists were consistently so fanatical and cartoonish. People often say this is a dark or pessimistic story, but I’ve never really found it to be such, because it’s a story of humanity ascending to become something greater. Sure, the transition is sad, in the way that letting your children grow up and leave home is always sad, but it’s not portrayed as something evil or unjust. It’s a natural transition that the Overlords make as comfortable as possible. This is what the title means. The end of childhood is the beginning of adulthood — in this case, for the human species. The irony is that it’s the grownups who are trapped in the child form of the species (because their mental patterns are too fixed to allow the transition) and the children who metamorphose into its mature form.

And the attempt to pass off that solemn and thoughtful tale as a horror story just didn’t work. At least, not for someone like me, who’s known the book since childhood. For someone coming to the story for the first time, I imagine that being set up to expect something evil and then consistently not getting it might’ve been off-putting too. It was trying too hard to pretend to be something it wasn’t. But then, maybe this was just too contemplative and nonviolent a narrative to work well on television.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , ,

Latest thoughts on fall SFTV

November 7, 2015 3 comments

Continuing my irregular series…

Updates:

Doctor Who has gotten stronger since the first couple of episodes this season. The stories have gone to interesting places and handled them well. The Zygon 2-parter currently underway has done a remarkable job bringing depth and complexity to a race I always saw as rather goofy before.

Minority Report has also gotten stronger as it’s moved beyond case-of-the-week stuff and delved more into the past and present of the three Precogs. The worldbuilding is still a mixed bag, though — sometimes there are some nice bits of plausible prediction (sea level rise, vat-grown meats), but sometimes the world is too similar to the present (e.g. no improvements in firearm safety in households with children). There are only a few episodes left now; FOX has already decided to end the show at episode 10, which was already planned as a midseason finale of sorts. I hope it isn’t too much of a cliffhanger.

Sleepy Hollow has been pretty solid — not as good as season 1, but not as frustrating or uneven as season 2. However, the constant shoehorning in of Betsy Ross, Colonial Superspy is irritating and the actress hasn’t gotten any better.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been puttering along just fine, with one exceptional showing in “4,722 Hours.” It’s a reminder that, for all that we celebrate serialization these days, the standalone stories are often the most memorable ones.

I’m still watching Blindspot, but I’m not quite sure why. I don’t really care about any of the cast other than Jaimie Alexander and Ashley Johnson. And it’s way too gunplay-driven for my tastes. But I am still vaguely curious about the mystery. Some viewers, myself included, are starting to suspect that this is a stealth time-travel show, since that seems the only way to explain the foreknowledge of whoever’s behind Jane’s tattoos.

The Flash and Arrow have been solidly fun so far, even though they’ve mostly been busy setting up the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow spinoff. But The Flash has introduced the multiverse and Jay Garrick, which certainly opens a lot of possibilities. And last week’s Arrow did something rather marvelous, which was to bring back the star of last season’s cancelled NBC series Constantine (based on a DC/Vertigo comic) and retroactively fold his show into the Arrowverse, as well as leaving the door open for his return in the future. The last time anything like that was done, I think, was when Homicide‘s Detective Munch was added to the cast of Law & Order: SVU. There was also that episode of Diagnosis: Murder in the ’80s (or early ’90s?) that was a sequel to an episode of Mannix from the ’70s. Not quite the same thing there, though.

But the big premiere from DC and Greg Berlanti is CBS’s Supergirl, which I am absolutely loving. Melissa Benoist is marvelously charming and likeable, and she brings enormous warmth and credibility to the character of Kara/Supergirl. She has a personality that reminds me of Lindsay Wagner from The Bionic Woman, along with a gushing charm and ready smile that are evocative of Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman. I’m glad we’re past the point where a female heroine has to be all tough and cold and aggressive to be seen as strong. Supergirl is unapologetically girlish and adorable, but the fights she gets into are intense and no-holds-barred, and the show is perfectly matter-of-fact about both, recognizing that there need be no contradiction there.

As for the rest of the cast, Mehcad Brooks is pretty good as James Olsen — not what you expect from Jimmy Olsen, but that’s the point, since he’s grown out of the cub-reporter years and is a grown man now. The rest of the cast is mostly okay, but I feel that David Harewood’s performance suffers a bit from being saddled with an American accent, and Chyler Leigh is a bit bland as Alex.

I like it that the show makes no apologies about being feminist. That’s not a dirty word, and it’s good that the show embraces it. At least, I hope it gets to continue to embrace it. I remember the ’70s Wonder Woman pilot having a front-and-center feminist message that got totally quashed after just a few episodes. Hopefully we’ve gained some ground since then. I hear a lot of fanboy whining about how they changed Jimmy Olsen or whatever, but I also hear a lot of people saying how excited they are to have a superhero show they can watch with their daughters, and that is so much more important.

I also love it that Kara is spending more time in Supergirl attire than in street clothes, something I don’t think we’ve seen in a live-action superhero show since Adam West hung up his cowl (except maybe for some Power Rangers episodes). I’m also really impressed with the Supergirl costume. People like to make fun of superhero capes and tights and trunks, but I just can’t see it. To me, it’s not silly-looking at all, because it’s Superman’s costume, and that makes it a cultural icon, a symbol of truth, justice, and the neverending battle against corruption and prejudice. Granted, some attempts to realize it in live action have been better than others. But when they get it right, it looks to me like something that should be worn with pride. And Colleen Atwood’s version of the Supergirl costume gets it right. I think Benoist looks very classy in it.

I also love how much time Supergirl spends in the air. This is like the anti-Smallville. That show promised “No flights, no tights,” because those things were seen at the time as goofy and embarrassing. But these days, the culture has embraced superheroes, so this show gives us flights and tights all the time, and it’s wonderful.

(One thing bugs me, though. Supergirl has earrings. Not clip-ons, but studs. How the heck did Kara pierce her ears? Heat vision? For that matter, why don’t the piercings instantly heal up after being made? Although I gather there are such things as adhesive or magnetic earrings.)

It’s interesting that this shares something in common with the ’84 Supergirl movie, aside from Helen Slater’s presence. Both stories are about Kara becoming Supergirl in order to fix a problem that she herself inadvertently caused — sending the Omegahedron to Earth in the movie, bringing Fort Rozz to Earth here. (Although I suspect that there’s a deeper story behind just how the fort got out of the Phantom Zone.)

I like it that there’s a clearly defined melodic theme, though episode 2 seemed to use a different one (or a different part of the same one?) than the pilot. It’s not one of the best Super-person themes in the history of the franchise — it doesn’t hold a candle to the Goldsmith Supergirl theme from the movie — but it’s appropriate for a superhero, especially a Super-hero, to have a clear fanfare like this. Most Superman-related shows have had strong themes for the hero, though this is something Smallville totally dropped the ball on until late in its run, because it went with Mark Snow’s atmospheric droning instead of something with actual melody, and then it just copied John Williams’s Superman theme, which just didn’t fit with the rest of the music. (Although later composer Louis Febre did finally concoct a decent heroic theme for Clark in the last couple of seasons.)

One last side note: People may notice that I haven’t said anything yet about the news that CBS is producing a new Star Trek series. This is because we hardly know anything about it yet, so the sensible thing is to wait and see. It’s not necessary to fill the voids in our knowledge with rampant speculation just so we have something to base an opinion on. There’s nothing wrong with having no opinion at all.

Well, I will say that every single time a new Star Trek project has been announced, it’s immediately provoked doom-and-gloom reactions from fandom. And here’s an item from Starlog #117 in which the TOS cast responds to the news that TNG is being made:

https://archive.org/stream/starlog_m…ge/n8/mode/1up

Shatner and Nimoy were skeptical, Kelley didn’t understand the idea, and Doohan pretty much called it a fraud. Nichols and Koenig sounded open-minded… and Takei was pitching a Captain Sulu series even then.  But of course, we all know how TNG turned out. So any opinions or assumptions at this point are hardly worth the effort.

Fall TV, Week 2 (spoilers)

First, a couple of updates, since my second looks at a number of shows have caused me to reappraise them:

Minority Report: I’m afraid episode 2 didn’t work as well for me as the pilot. There was some nice tech futurism (the microbiome analyzers were interesting, and the future version of a tablet is nice), but it wasn’t matched on a cultural level. All that pickup artist stuff and people using slang like “negging” and “booty call” is way, way too present-day for a show set 50 years from now, and that really damaged the credibility of the story and the world. It felt like a script for some ordinary, present-day cop show that was rewritten for this show. Which I doubt it really was, since it was written by the showrunner. But it doesn’t bode well for the quality of the mysteries — or the worldbuilding — going forward.

Some decent character work with Dash and Vega dealing with the aftermath of Dash killing the bad guy last week. I’m glad they addressed that instead of dismissing it. But I’m finding Stark Sands rather underwhelming as a lead. And the stuff about his inept attempts at detective work is getting old really fast.

Blindspot: I gave this one more chance, after reading an interview with the showrunner saying that there would be some major revelations this week.  I think I’m getting a little invested in it now, or at least curious enough to stick with it for the moment. Jaimie Alexander is definitely the main draw. Although it’s kind of nice to see Ashley Johnson — or rather, to hear her, since I know her mainly from her animation roles such as Gwen in Ben 10 and Terra in Teen Titans.

It’s occurred to me: We now have two series on the air, Dark Matter and Blindspot, that revolve around characters who’ve had their memories wiped and are wrestling with the question of whether they were good or bad people in their previous lives. And they’re both created by veterans of the Stargate franchise — Joe Mallozzi and Paul Mullie for the former, Martin Gero for the latter. Is there some causality there, or just coincidence?

The Muppets: I’m out. I was open to a more adult and “edgy” version of the Muppets, getting back to their roots in late-night TV, but last night’s episode was something I don’t think the Muppets have ever been before: mean-spirited and cynical. Kermit has become an angry, neurotic jerk, Fozzie is committing felonies, and the characters are just being generally nasty to each other, with no sign of the affection that always underlaid their squabbles in the past. It didn’t feel like a story about the Muppets; it felt like a generic modern sitcom plot acted out by the Muppets. Which is lame. If the Muppets are going to do something in the vein of a contemporary TV trend, they should be spoofing and subverting it (Veterinarian’s Hospital, Pigs in Space), not just playing it out by the numbers. More importantly, it just wasn’t very funny. In the pilot, I laughed a good number of times, but very little amused me here.

The one good point is that Pepe the King Prawn, the most annoying Muppet ever, was more subdued and less obnoxious here. But he was the only Muppet who was less obnoxious. And maybe it’s just symptomatic of the general out-of-character writing.

And now to the new stuff:

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Tuesdays, ABC): Pretty solid opening. Things have ramped up to a new level. More superpower action, new threats, new status quo for various characters. Daisy (formerly Skye) is looking pretty good in her action gear and new haircut. And a passel of movie references — nods to the alien attacks on New York, London, and Sokovia (though Ultron was kind of indirectly alien), an appearance by President Ellis, even a nod to “the Pym Technologies disaster.” (Which is perhaps an overstatement given that nobody died in that.) And the lines about the laws of man catching up with the laws of nature could be foreshadowing Captain America: Civil War.

Sleepy Hollow (Thursdays, FOX): This just screamed “soft reboot.” Last season ended with the core foursome reunited and standing together; now suddenly we learn they all went their separate ways and are only grudgingly coming back together, with Irving gone for good. That’s kind of an awkward transition. And the episode was so much about setting up the new status quo that it’s hard to get a sense of what the season will be like.

But while the core cast was still fun to watch, the episode felt like it was going through the motions. The Horseman was swept aside very cursorily. Abbie was given a new grizzled mentor figure to suffer a predictable, telegraphed death at the hands of a demon, like Sheriff Corbin 2.0, but we didn’t see any emotional aftermath to the event, any reaction from Abbie once the scene was over. Crane and Abbie cursorily reasserted their friendship, but the sense of deep warmth and connection between them wasn’t as strong. Crane was given a new Colonial-era love interest in Betsy Ross, but without the depth of feeling and need he had for Katrina — and so far, the only impressive thing about Nikki Reed in the role is that she makes Katia Winter seem interesting in comparison. And Jenny was just there to help out and make wisecracks. Before, it was the depth of feeling behind the characters and their relationships, the underlying passion, that made the show engaging and grounded its insanely silly plotlines. There didn’t seem to be any passion here.

Also, how is it that an experienced demon-hunter and FBI agent like Abbie can run into a woman named Pandora, who’s into ancient history and lore and who’s just arrived in Sleepy Hollow at the same time a new evil descends upon the town, and not immediately suspect that it’s the Pandora? That’s just dropping the ball.

Thoughts on fall SFTV so far (spoilers)

September 28, 2015 2 comments

Just to keep this blog active, some reactions to the first week of fall TV:

Doctor Who (Saturdays, BBC America): Still fun to watch, but problematical. Steven Moffat’s execution is brilliant, but his concepts are limited. He keeps doing riffs on the same few ideas. How many times has he repeated the premise of the Doctor facing the end of his life and trying to hide from it? Shouldn’t we have gotten past that after Trenzalore? (And why didn’t he give someone his confession disc the last two or three times he thought his life was ending?) And most of Moffat’s plots are driven by bad guys trying to find, capture, or destroy the Doctor. This is no longer a show about the Doctor exploring the universe, it’s a show about the universe obsessing over the Doctor. It looks like this season is continuing in that vein, with the questions being raised about the Doctor’s confession and why he truly fled Gallifrey.

Moffat’s writing is essentially professional fanfiction. It’s all an expression of his deeply felt fandom for the character and the mythology — both here in and in Sherlock — and the problem is that he gives all the characters in his stories the same fixation on the hero that he has. Not only that, but he writes stories that are basically dramatized essays about the franchises he’s writing in, with the characters analyzing and deconstructing the leads and the basic tropes. I noticed that way back in the Sherlock debut episode, where the villain discussed Sherlock Holmes in a way that more fitted a literary critic analyzing an iconic character than a real-world criminal doing research on some private detective. Sometimes Moffat’s deconstructions can be brilliant, but sometimes they’re more self-indulgent, and he tends to repeat the same ones over and over.

Still, the second part of the opening storyline worked better than the first, with less padding. And Michelle Gomez isn’t quite as annoying as the Master/Missy as she was last season, though I still miss the original Masters whose acting was more in the vein of Vincent Price than Robin Williams.

Gotham (Mondays, FOX): Okay… just… no.

This is Jim Gordon. The epitome of the one good cop. Maybe willing to bend the rules for the greater good up to a point, but still an intrinsically honorable figure.

But now the show has crossed a line. It’s had Jim kill in service to an organized crime boss. Now, I’ve been engaged in online debates about whether it would constitute self-defense, since Jim was the one who started the confrontation. I posed the question to James Daily of the Law and the Multiverse blog, who provided a timely answer. Apparently Jim’s killing of the mobster would constitute justifiable self-defense, because it meets the two exceptions that allow the aggressor to make that claim: one, that he attacked nonlethally and was met with a lethal response, and two, that he ended the confrontation and was pursued. However, that doesn’t matter, because the killing happened as a result of a felony Jim committed, which makes it felony murder, and that overrides the justification defense.

So the show’s Jim Gordon is now a murderer. There is no coming back from that. This goes beyond Superman snapping Zod’s neck. There was at least a flimsy self-defense justification for that. This is a permanent stain on Gordon’s character (the show’s version of it), and it destroys the moral core that has always defined him and taints everything he achieves from now on. This was supposed to be a show about how Gordon cleaned up the corrupt Gotham establishment, not a show about how he became part of the corruption. He’s no longer someone I can root for, because he’s a murderer. The only options are that he either confesses and pays his debt — which he won’t do since it would end the show — or he spends the rest of his life covering up the fact that he committed murder in service to the Penguin. No matter how much good he does from now on, he will have to keep lying and covering up the truth in order to remain in a position to do it, and that means there will always be corruption at the core of it. That is not the show about Jim Gordon I wanted to see, and I don’t know if it’s a show I can continue to watch.

Also, Bruce, who was the one good thing about this show, has been dumbed down. He should’ve been able to crack that door code methodically just by entering numbers until he got a hit — and it shouldn’t have been that hard to guess that the code was his name. And in his scene with Jim, he should’ve seen that doing an “ugly thing” to do good wouldn’t work, because it would put him under Penguin’s thumb forever. This show has been stupid and incomprehensible in its choices from the start, but the one thing that really worked about it was the portrayal of young Bruce Wayne. It really captured his intelligence, his discipline, his ethics, and his reasoned choice to cope with his grief by dedicating himself to protecting others from having to suffer it. Now, I no longer have faith that will continue to be the case.

So I do not plan to watch Gotham anymore. Just thinking about last week’s episode makes me feel dumber. I no longer have any interest in this mess of a show. There has been some morbid entertainment value in watching it just to see how insane and incompetent it got, but at this point I just find it depressing.

Minority Report (Mondays, FOX): This show got poor ratings and reviews, but I liked it quite a bit. It’s a logical continuation of the movie, even if its lead characters’ point of view about Precrime is sort of the opposite of how the movie turned out — although the complications and moral questions of the process were raised, and hopefully the ethical ambiguity of psychic crime prediction will be explored.

While several characters are returning from the movie, the only returning actor is Daniel London as Wally the Caretaker. The others have been recast, though Laura Regan resembles Samantha Morton enough (from what I recall of her) that I can buy her as the same person. I like Meaghan Good as Detective Vega. She comes off as a competent detective and a reasonably charismatic lead, and is also really hot. The pilot maybe played up her sex appeal a bit much, with the bikini photo and the plunging necklines and such, but I’m not complaining. The tech-support woman with the tattoo on her face (Akeela, played by Li Jun Li) is pretty hot herself.

I liked the futurism. The environment wasn’t quite as consistently high-tech as it was in the movie, and I doubt the show will be able to sustain the level of CGI that the pilot was able to feature, but it was a reasonable continuation within those budgetary limits. But the futurism is good in another way, namely in acknowledging the demographic trends of the American population and giving us a nicely diverse cast, much more so than the overwhelmingly white cast of the movie. Also — “Washington Red Clouds” instead of Redskins. I like that.

I didn’t find the time to rewatch the movie before this, so I’m not sure if there are any subtle inconsistencies. So far it seems pretty solid, although I’m not sure whether the twins were fraternal or identical in the movie.

Blindspot (Mondays, NBC): Jaimie Alexander made it watchable, but the FBI guy is kind of dull. The premise feels like a rehash of John Doe but with a built-in excuse for more pseudo-topless scenes. And the mystery seems absurdly convoluted. They were all asking “Why would someone do this overcomplicated and weird thing to this woman,” and it all just seems to underline that whatever explanation we eventually get will just be a contrived excuse for this premise.

Plus I don’t see how it’s sustainable. If the bearded guy faked the terror threat to make the FBI trust “Jane,” does that mean all the tattoos will point to fake crimes and false leads? If so, what’s the point? This is another show I don’t feel any desire to keep watching.

Also, how can they possibly do a show about a tattooed lady and not name her Lydia?

The Muppets (Tuesdays, ABC): I found this amusing at times, although the “reality show” format isn’t my cup of tea, and the modern Muppets are a shadow of their original selves. Still, I appreciate the effort to bring back some of the original edginess to characters who have become perhaps a bit too Disney-sanitized, though maybe the show takes the “edge” a bit too far into cynicism. And it does seem there’s an effort to give the characters some real dimension and “humanity,” so to speak. I’m still not sure about this one, but I guess it’s worth a further look.

Limitless (Tuesdays, CBS): I waited to watch the pilot until I had a chance to see the movie, which I hadn’t seen before. And I kinda hated the movie. Stylistically, directorially, it was impressively done, but the lead character was basically reprehensible, and the movie was entirely too much on his side. The whole thing was about this guy using illegal and dishonest methods to gain wealth and power, and he ended up succeeding — not because he deserved to, but because he lucked into something that let him cheat his way to the top at the expense of everyone who got in his way. No moral, no lesson learned, no consequences for his misdeeds except to the people around him, just pure self-serving wish fulfillment in a dog-eat-dog world. The movie never even bothered to make clear whether he actually murdered that socialite or was framed for it, because the movie was so completely amoral that it didn’t matter to the narrative if he did murder her, so long as he got away with it and continued his rise to the top.

Now, the only reason I bothered with the movie — having concluded from the reviews at the time that it wouldn’t be my cup of tea, and boy, were they right — was because I’d heard the series pilot was so well-received by critics. But the pilot didn’t blow me away. Its protagonist is definitely an improvement over the smug, selfish, contemptible slimeball that is Eddie Morra; Brian is just as much of a loser to start out, but he’s a decent guy who’s motivated more by helping other people than by advancing himself. But in a lot of ways, the pilot just felt like an imitation of the movie, right down to repeating some of the same plot beats and copying its stylistic devices.

The show has a bit more diversity in its cast than the movie did (the film’s cast was almost exclusively white despite being set in New York City), but I don’t find the FBI-agent partner all that interesting. And I’m not sure the premise or the execution is enough to make it stand out from the procedural pack. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a show about a protagonist whose advantages come from using an illegal drug — particularly with the downside of the drug being conveniently swept aside. It would’ve been more interesting if he did have to deal with the downside, if there were risks and costs to using it too often. It’s not good to make things too easy for the hero. This is another show that I don’t find a compelling reason to keep watching.

Heroes Reborn (Thursdays, NBC): I was really, really skeptical of this going in, unsure if I even wanted to give it a try. But it started out very strong, with the opening sequence in Odessa and the montage that followed it. It started to get a bit less interesting once it got to “Now,” but it’s still a lot better than the later seasons of the original, perhaps because it has less baggage.

It’s weird to hear the powered people called Evos, because the same name (as an acronym, E.V.O.) was used for the nanite-created mutants in the Generator Rex animated series. Also it bugs me that it’s using the same conceit as so many other similar series and using the term “human” for people without unusual abilities, implicitly defining the powered as nonhuman rather than just another subset of humanity.

The “El Vengador” plot kind of makes sense. If anyone were really going to fight crime in a mask, it’d probably be someone steeped in luchador culture. Although the plotline with the brothers and the mantle being passed on was kind of predictable and hokey. And I would’ve preferred it if the priest had been a normal person and had just been helping evos because helping the downtrodden is what priests are supposed to do.

The Evernow manga was put together wrong, bound on the left like an American book. Plus it was wider than it was tall, which isn’t like the manga I’ve seen, though I can’t rule out that there are some like that. And… seriously? She turns into a video game character? What kind of power is that? (Although I suspect she’s actually a game character turned into a flesh-and-blood girl by her father/creator’s power. She seems a bit too unreal in the flesh, in the way she dresses and the fact that she’s somehow unaware that her father created a game/manga character identical to her.)

I’m not thrilled by all the “It’s coming” stuff. Building the season around a looming apocalypse is a well the original series went to repeatedly, and I was hoping the revival would have some new tricks. Still, it’s got my interest enough to keep me watching.

Continuum (Fridays, Syfy): This is actually already halfway through its 6-episode final season, and it feels a bit rushed. But it does mean that a lot is happening in every episode. Although some of it feels a bit too abbreviated, like how quickly Kiera and Alec have gotten chummy with the surviving members of Liber8 after being at odds with them for so long. I mean, I know they have a common enemy now, but still, she sure warmed up to them in a hurry. And Brad Tonkin has become kind of a vague figure; his ambiguous agenda is critical to the story, but we aren’t getting any insights into what’s happening in his head. It also feels like they’re trying to have it both ways on the question of whether it’s possible for Kiera to return to her timeline and her family, which it really shouldn’t be anymore.

I’ve been having trouble with the idea of Kellog, of all people, being the ultimate big bad (although I think he may be a red herring with Curtis and the Traveler being the real threat), but Travis summed it up effectively in “Power Hour,” the latest episode aired in the US. Kellog represents greed, the profit motive above all other priorities, and that’s the same mentality that led to the dystopia of Kiera’s future and the worse dystopia of Brad’s future, as well as the mentality behind Piron’s co-opting of the police force and Other Alec’s turn to the dark side. (You could throw in Dillon’s moral degeneration, though in his case it was a greed for control and authoritarian power rather than wealth.) Greed is essentially the ultimate evil in the series, and out of all the time travellers, Kellog is the only one whose primary allegiance is to greed. So maybe it’s fitting that he ended up at the main villain. And his apparent benevolence early on could’ve been part of that, showing how harmless and appealing greed can seem to be. Although that’s probably reading too much into it.

Okay, so overall I’m not that impressed with last week’s crop of new shows. The imports Doctor Who and Continuum are the big ones for me so far, and otherwise, Minority ReportThe Muppets, and Heroes Reborn are the only ones I find worth continuing with, and none of them has unambiguously impressed me.

Luckily, the big guns are coming back pretty soon: Agents of SHIELD tomorrow night, Sleepy Hollow this Thursday (although with another new showrunner, so there’s no telling if it’ll recover in quality after the weak second season), and, thank goodness, the return of The Flash, Arrow, and iZombie next week. Still a month from Supergirl, though, and we have to wait until November for The Librarians, Elementary, and Jessica JonesPerson of Interest isn’t even scheduled yet. (I’m not counting Grimm, since I’m not watching anymore. It’s been getting increasingly bad for the past two seasons, and last season’s finale was enough to turn me off for good.) Will I post about those shows? Probably not regularly, but we’ll see.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — ROGUE NATION (2015) Movie Review (Spoilers)

The newest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects and Edge of Tomorrow, director of Jack Reacher) from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce. It’s the second M:I film produced by Bad Robot, and thus the third with involvement from J.J. Abrams (who directed M:i:III but apparently did not produce it, I was surprised to learn recently). It continues the trend of continuity between films and the ensemble flavor of Ghost Protocol, with Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn and Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt returning from that film, alongside Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Ving Rhames’s Luther Stickell, who has a sizeable role this time after having just a cameo in GP. Having both Benji and Luther prominently in the same film could be a problem, since they fill the same role on the team, but this is resolved by having them spend a lot of the film apart, with Benji supporting Ethan and Luther supporting Brandt. Paula Patton’s Jane Carter is neither seen nor mentioned, with the female lead instead being Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a disavowed British agent whose loyalties are unclear for much of the film.

The film rather wisely starts out by immediately disposing of the big vertiginous Tom Cruise stunt sequence that was inevitably going to be plastered all over the trailers and promotions and thus wouldn’t be a surprise anyway — namely, the scene where he clings to the side of a cargo plane as it takes off. Fittingly, Ethan’s first appearance in the film has him doing a Patented Tom Cruise Run to leap onto the plane, and his plane cling isn’t exactly Ethan Hunt Climbs Things but is pretty close. (Previously, Cruise has had short hair in every odd-numbered picture and long hair in every even-numbered one; here he’s sort of in between.) The sequence is fun and deftly directed, and Joe Kraemer’s score immediately makes an impression equal in strength to Michael Giacchino’s work on the previous two films. Like Ghost Protocol, the teaser leads into a main title sequence that homages the titles of the original series, complete with flashforward clips of the action to come, but in a more conventional way than GP’s titles — rather evocative of the original 1996 film’s title sequence, in fact. The main title arrangement is big and brassy in a way that evokes both the 1996 Danny Elfman version and the Ghost Protocol Giacchino version.

The evocation of the ’96 film is perhaps appropriate, since this is the first sequel to directly acknowledge any events from that film. CIA Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) mentions Ethan’s iconic Langley break-in from said film, along with the destruction of the Kremlin and other events of Ghost Protocol, as part of his case that the IMF is a renegade organization that should be shut down. He actually makes an objectively good case that its secretive methods are ill-suited to the modern age of transparency and accountability, but of course we’re supposed to be rooting against him and for Brandt, who argues that the IMF has been doing good work for 40 years — which is short by about nine years, I’d say. Has the original series suddenly been retconned out of existence? Is this proof that the movies are in a separate reality from the show? Or did Brandt just misspeak? In any case, the nebulously defined committee that they’re testifying to agrees to shut down the IMF.

But Ethan doesn’t know this, as he’s going to a message drop in London to get his next assignment. I had to squee at this sequence, because the drop is in a record store and the message is encoded on a vinyl phonograph album — a callback to the 1966 pilot episode!!!!! But with a couple of twists — first, that it uses a modern laser thingy to project graphics onto the turntable lid… and second, that it turns out to be a trap laid by the Syndicate, an evil organization that Ethan’s been hunting down since the closing moments of Ghost Protocol (said to be a year before, even though that was four years ago). It’s fun to hear the formula of the message subverted by the bad guys. Ethan sees a mysterious bespectacled man gun down the pretty store clerk who was his contact, before he’s gassed unconscious as the “self-destruct” part of the message.

Ethan awakes in the clutches of the Syndicate, which apparently plans to use torture to break him and turn him to their side. He’s helped to escape by Ilsa Faust, a mole within the Syndicate, but he finds from Brandt that he’s out in the cold and that Hunley doesn’t believe in the Syndicate’s existence. But he’s determined to find the bespectacled man and get justice, so he goes rogue. Cut to six months later, with Brandt working under Hunley and Benji as a CIA analyst who has to trick weekly polygraph tests to insist he has no loyalty to Ethan. But Ethan arranges to get Benji’s help at an opera in Vienna, whereupon he encounters Ilsa apparently trying to assassinate the Austrian chancellor, though there are two other assassins on hand to take her out if she fails. Ethan foils the assassination — the same way Ilsa had planned to — and they escape together, but the Syndicate has a backup plan and foils their foiling.

Ilsa breaks away to preserve her cover and report to Syndicate head Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), who keeps letting her live despite her “failures” because it’s convenient to the plot — err, because he sees “potential” in her. Meanwhile, Ethan explains to Benji that the Syndicate is an “anti-IMF,” consisting of former spies believed dead or missing and employing IMF-style tactics to fake deadly accidents in order to tear down the world order.

Lane gives Ilsa one more chance, sending her to Casablanca to break into an ultra-high security data vault, a job that Ethan and Benji end up helping her with when they learn it’s to access Lane’s ledger listing all the Syndicate’s agents. This is the sequence with Ethan diving into an underwater facility and trying to hold his breath for several minutes, and it’s another tour-de-force action set piece, with the underwater sound design being particularly impressive. Ilsa saves Ethan’s life when he drowns — the second time in the series that the female lead has gotten to bring Ethan back from the brink of death — but then she breaks away with the retrieved data, and Ethan and Benji literally run into Brandt and Luther as they chase after her. A car chase reminiscent of The Italian Job gives way to a motorcycle chase reminiscent of M:I-2, but Ilsa gets away.

She takes the data to Attlee, the head of British intelligence, and demands that she be brought in, but he turns out to be a ruthless bastard who insists she go back in and assassinate Ethan to prove her allegiance to Lane. He also deletes the stolen data on her thumb drive, though of course Benji made a backup, so Ethan’s team now has the only copy. And it’s not a ledger, but a “red box” file that only the Prime Minister of the UK can open. Clearly Lane intends to kidnap the PM. But when the team tracks down Ilsa to confront her, Lane kidnaps Benji in order to force Ethan to kidnap the PM. This was the plan all along. (Why? Seems needlessly convoluted.)

It looks like Ethan’s going to go through with it, and Brandt argues against doing something so insane. We cut to Brandt calling Hunley to tell him what Ethan’s planning. It’s pretty easy to guess that in between scenes, Ethan spelled out a con game that Brandt is playing along with, only pretending to betray him. Brandt lures Hunley to London, where they end up in a room with the PM and Attlee, the latter of whom maneuvers the PM into revealing to Hunley that the Syndicate was a proposal of Attlee’s to found a rogue agency that could act with impunity — a proposal that the PM rejected but that Attlee carried forward anyway. I guessed pretty early in the scene that Attlee was actually Ethan in a mask, since the actor they cast, Simon McBurney, seemed similar to Cruise in size and facial structure. And of course it was, though it’s unclear how Ethan deduced some of the things he reveals as Attlee. They’ve also lured the real Attlee to take the fall, while arranging for Hunley to take the credit for catching him. With Hunley now on their side, they use the PM’s biometrics to open the file, which is Attlee’s financial records intended to fund the Syndicate. (The most awkward moment in the film is here — just before the truth is revealed to Hunley, when he still thinks Ethan is coming to kill the PM, he issues an overwrought warning about how Ethan is this unstoppable force, “the living manifestation of destiny” or some such thing, which just comes out of nowhere and is way too aggrandizing to Ethan. We don’t even get a comedy beat of embarrassment when Hunley realizes that Ethan was standing right there listening to his overeffusive words.)

Lane sets up a trap to force Ethan to turn over the account numbers lest Benji and Ilsa be blown up, but Ethan outmaneuvers him — he memorized the data and erased the disk, so now Lane needs him alive. He gets Benji released and then protects Ilsa from being shot by Syndicate men, and this leads into a final chase through the streets wherein Ethan and Ilsa eventually get separated so that they can each have their own individual action climax. Lane shows up to confront Ethan directly, conveniently forgetting that whole “need him alive” thing, and Ethan leads him into a nice little trap set up by Luther and Benji — a trap that, refreshingly, ends with the villain apparently still alive and unconscious. And the way it’s done, which calls back the record-store incident that was Ethan and Lane’s first meeting, is more satisfying than Lane’s death would’ve been. Anyway, Ethan and Ilsa say their farewells — platonically, I’m glad to say, though that’s as close as the film comes to acknowledging that Ethan still has a wife out there somewhere.

The movie ends with an odd little scene where Hunley convinces the Nebulous Committee to reinstate the IMF, whereupon Brandt tells him, “Welcome to the IMF, Mister Secretary.” Now, that’s very odd. It implies that the Secretary is the head of the IMF. In the past, it always seemed that he was the secretary of defense or state, a cabinet-level post that oversaw the intelligence community. Having him be exclusively attached to the IMF and appointed by some kind of committee is hard to make sense of. It’s also a disappointing ending in another sense, because when Ilsa went off to her ill-defined future, I imagined the closing scene I wanted to see: Ilsa some time later showing up to a message drop and then hearing Ethan’s voice say, “Good morning, Ms. Faust. Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” I think that would’ve been a perfect ending. Concluding the film without formally bringing Ilsa on board feels incomplete, particularly since it leaves the IMF as an all-male outfit throughout the film.

Rogue Nation was a pretty solid action movie, very well-made. It doesn’t seem to have the plausibility problems of the first two films, and it has a level of humor close to that of Ghost Protocol. I’m getting tired of Ethan always being on the run from his own government, but at least it was set up as a continuation of the events of previous films. Indeed, I enjoy the way this film felt like a continuation of the previous one, even more so than GP did; it’s a refreshing change from the first decade of the franchise, where each film felt like an unrelated standalone. RN didn’t have as strong a character story at its core as the previous two, but what filled that void was the interplay and friendship among the core cast. This is the first M:I film where every member of Ethan’s team is a returning character, and that history gives weight to the character interactions, which is good, because the characters are given little development otherwise. There’s also Ilsa’s story as a reluctant double agent trying to balance her allegiances and stay alive — perhaps not very deep or emotional, but well-handled by Ferguson, who’s a very strong presence and an effective counterpart to Cruise. There’s a degree of male gaze directed toward her by the camera on occasion, but she never really feels objectified, since she’s so poised and in control.

I have particular praise for Joe Kraemer’s score. It integrates the Schifrin themes as strongly as Giacchino’s did, if not more so, and builds new motifs on similar chord structures so that it all feels of a piece, not only with the Schifrin themes but with the Giacchino scores, which did much the same thing. Kraemer actually uses “The Plot” more extensively than Giacchino did, accompanying a lot of the team’s machinations; although, like Danny Elfman in the first film, he never quotes the entire melody, sticking mainly to the first few bars. The most extensive use of “The Plot” is in the Casablanca sequence, where it gets reworked to have an “Arabian” sound to it.

The movie is not without flaws, though. For one thing, it fails the Bechdel test. Ilsa is the only significant female character; of the two others, one (the doomed record-shop clerk) is just there to be killed to motivate Ethan, and the other (an aide to Hunley played by Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu, who’s prominently credited for less than a minute of screen time) is apparently just there to satisfy the Chinese funding partners. Neither of them interacts with Ilsa at all. I’d say it passes the Mako Mori test, in that Ilsa has a clearly drawn arc of her own that isn’t about supporting a male character’s arc, but the overwhelming maleness of most of the cast is distracting. (The Nebulous Committee, for instance, consists entirely of old white men plus one token old black man.) Looking back over the series, though, it seems that none of the films pass the test fully, except maybe the first, which has three named women on the initial team, participating in the group conversation about the mission.

It also doesn’t feel as much like Mission: Impossible as GP did. It’s more in the vein of the second and third films in being driven more by big action than by devious con games. The sequence with the Prime Minister and Attlee comes the closest to an IMF-style con game, and the infiltration of the Casablanca vault has a touch of it (since it’s basically a variation on the classic IMF tactic of inserting fake credentials for a team member into the target’s records). But mostly it’s action over calculating schemes and deceptions, and Ethan and the team spend too much time improvising rather than playing out intricate chess games plotted in advance. The Nebulous Committee even argues that Ethan’s methods are “indistinguishable from luck,” which is pretty much anathema to the IMF of the TV series, wherein every move was calculated from the start and very little was ever left to chance. I regret that the film series has become so defined by its big action, because I’d love to see an M:I movie that was all about a big sting operation. Oh, and the Syndicate is said to be an “anti-IMF,” but its methods seem to consist mainly of snipers and bombs and the like. Dougray Scott in M:I-2 was more convincing in his use of IMF-style tactics for evil, and loyal readers, I’m as astonished as you to hear myself saying something positive about M:I-2. Granted, though, lack of IMFery isn’t a dealbreaker for an M:I movie; the third film had little of it, but it’s still one of the two strongest films in the series. It’s just that GP was the first film in the series that actually felt like Mission: Impossible rather than The Adventures of Ethan Hunt, and I was hoping RN would continue the trend. It did not.

And the lack of character development compared to the previous two films does disappoint me in retrospect. The dramatic tension among the team members played well, but there was little sense of backstory or personal lives like there was in the previous two films. It was all about the job and the plot business they were dealing with. The past two films gave Ethan a personal life that humanized him, but that was totally absent here, with Ethan defined totally by his quest to bring down the Syndicate. So it’s shallower overall, though not as shallow as the first two films.

If anything, RN reminds me of M:I-2 in a lot of ways. It’s a heavily action-driven film featuring a lengthy motorcycle chase; it features a villain using IMF-style tactics for evil; and it centers on Ethan’s competition with the villain for the allegiance of the sole significant female character in the film. But it’s much better in most respects: the action is less cartoony; the female lead is a protagonist in her own right and not merely a lust interest; and the rest of the IMF team functions as a full ensemble rather than just being tacked on.

So out of the five films so far, I would rank Rogue Nation as a close third behind the previous two films, and well ahead of the first two. I still think of the first two as failed pilots for a series that didn’t really get underway until J.J. Abrams took the helm. That series proper is now up to three films that have maintained a pretty consistent level of quality throughout. This is the weakest of the three, but by a narrow margin.

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