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Thoughts on STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (Spoilers)

I decided to go ahead and see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker this week. I’m still not in a position to spend much on recreation, but I figured everyone needs a break sometimes, and a matinee showing wouldn’t cost too much. I had a choice between a $6.75 Tuesday discount showing at the multiplex I usually go to or a $7.75 matinee at the nearby university-area theater that usually only shows art and indie films but makes exceptions for really big movies like this. I figured out that the greater driving distance to the multiplex would probably use approximately $1 worth of gas, so it roughly broke even, and thus I decided to go to the local place.

So what did I think of the movie? It was okay. It didn’t surprise, delight, and challenge me the way The Last Jedi did, but I feel it worked reasonably well as a continuation from TLJ, even if I was ambivalent about some of its decisions. It was fairly satisfying on the superficial level of bringing resolution to 43 years’ worth of storytelling and continuity, and as a work of action and spectacle and nostalgia, which is all that Star Wars ever really aspired to be in the first place (though it’s nice when it does manage to be something more). And it mostly served its core characters well, which has always been J.J. Abrams’s strength, even if it’s often been at the expense of plot coherence or logic.

One way TRoS fell short compared to previous Abrams films is that it had a weak opening. That’s a disappointment. The Force Awakens had a very striking opening scene, and Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III had a superb, intense opening. Abrams’s Star Trek films didn’t open quite so potently as those, but they both had reasonably strong action openings that efficiently laid the groundwork for the story and character arcs. TRoS’s opening, watching Kylo Ren fight ill-defined foes in search of some ill-defined new quest dropped on us in the opening scroll, was harder to get into — even kind of dull.

Part of it is the way the transition between movies was handled. I mean, sure, the original movies — pretty much the first seven, really — all started in medias res after a sequence of events we didn’t see, and the sequels all came after fairly long gaps that left plenty of room for events to evolve before we picked back up again. But it’s different with the Sequel Trilogy. TLJ picked up almost immediately after TFA, so the usual pattern was broken (although it’s the only time that it really did match the vintage serial-chapter format the series is meant to homage, with the recap being about the previous installment rather than unseen events in between — well, unless you count Rogue One as the “previous installment” to the original film). And this time, it doesn’t really feel like a lot of time passed between movies, so having a major instigating incident like Palpatine’s return revealed in the opening scroll feels abrupt and incongruous. If you’re going to have a gap between movies with unseen events, then it should feel like a lot of time has passed and the characters’ status quo has evolved, so that having to read about it in the scroll feels reasonable. In this case, though, there’s just the one thing — Palpatine’s return. Everything else, in terms of the character arcs and the Resistance’s status, seems to be picking up a fairly short time after TLJ. Wookieepedia says it’s actually a year later, but it doesn’t feel that long, because the characters’ status is largely unchanged. There’s just not as strong a sense of intervening time as, say, between the original film and The Empire Strikes Back, or between the prequel installments.

Another thing that didn’t work well for me, sad to say, was the way they worked in the late Carrie Fisher. I knew they only had a limited amount of footage to work with in order to incorporate Fisher into the film posthumously, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be quite this limited. All Leia does is utter a few isolated, generic sentences that the other characters’ dialogue struggles to recontexualize as part of their conversations, and it’s often rather clumsy. They’re able to create the visual illusion that Leia is standing there in the scene, but they aren’t really able to sell the narrative or performative illusion that she’s having the same conversation as the other characters, and her single-line contributions are a disappointingly small piece of the whole. Otherwise, most of Leia’s role in the story is written around her absence, with other characters talking about her or reacting to/explaining what she does wordlessly or offscreen. It sadly lessens the effectiveness of Leia’s arc in the film, and though I know this was the best they could manage under the circumstances, it just calls attention to how much Fisher’s loss diminishes what we could have had. Far more effective than the scenes where Leia is supposed to be present are the scenes after her death, when the filmmakers can finally express their grief at Fisher’s departure through the characters’ grief at Leia’s, and let the audience honestly engage with that loss at last. Chewbacca’s breakdown on hearing the news is the most poignant moment in the film.

I wonder if it would’ve been more effective to establish Leia’s death at the beginning of the film — instead of trying to fake her presence, turn her abrupt and unexpected loss into the catalyzing incident of the story. If Palpatine had announced his return by killing General Leia in the opening scene, that would’ve been a far more potent beginning than just some unseen announcement to the galaxy. It would’ve raised the stakes of his return and made the story far more personal. The remaining Fisher footage could’ve been incorporated as flashbacks, or recordings that the characters were rewatching to remember her. Her link with Kylo/Ben to redeem him could still have happened, but she could’ve done it as a Force ghost.

Now, as for the big revelation/retcon that Rey is Palpatine’s granddaughter, I have mixed feelings. I liked TLJ’s idea that Rey wasn’t related to anyone famous, that you don’t have to belong to some elite lineage to be powerful in the Force. I mean, come on, it’s supposed to be the universal energy field that binds all life together, not some special dynastic privilege. So I liked the way Rey’s humble lineage rejected the elitism of your typical chosen-one story. On the other hand, Rey’s arc in TRoS is also a rejection of that elitism in a different way. Yes, she’s exceptionally powerful in the Force because she has the Emperor’s blood — but ultimately that doesn’t matter to her identity. She rejects the idea of heredity as destiny and chooses her own path, and that helps inspire Ben to do the same. So it’s basically the same message, up to a point. I guess it still works, though I liked it better the other way.

The idea of Rey and Ben/Kylo being a “dyad in the Force” is interesting too; it helps explain the unique bond they had in TLJ, and why they have the unique ability to transfer matter physically between their locations when they’re connected — something I initially thought was just symbolic, but turns out to be a key plot point later on, which was pretty well-done. Still, I’m not entirely clear on why they’re a dyad. Okay, it’s Palpatine’s granddaughter and Vader’s grandson, but why does that do it? It’s a little random. But the way the bond between them drives their story is effective. It is a bit reminiscent of Luke redeeming Vader who in turn destroys the Emperor, but the redemption arc is better handled here, since Kylo has been a more conflicted figure from the start and the seeds of his redemption were laid sooner.

I guess the title The Rise of Skywalker has a dual meaning: both the redemptive (and literal, physical) rise of Ben Solo, the last heir of the Skywalkers, and the rise (emergence) of a new, self-adopted Skywalker in Rey, embracing the lineage as the student and effective heir of the Skywalker siblings — and as the, I guess, dyad-sister of Ben? So she’s the Skywalkers’ heir in the Force if not in the genes.

I was unclear on why Kylo repaired his mask and started wearing it again. It seemed like a regression after his “Kill the past” epiphany. Maybe that was what he wanted Palpatine to think, that he’d reverted to being an obedient apprentice while secretly plotting to join with Rey and overthrow Palpatine. That’s how I chose to rationalize it to myself as I watched. But if so, it could’ve been made clearer. It felt kind of arbitrary to walk it back, to restore the mask after the previous film made such a big deal of destroying it.

I don’t think Finn and Poe are served quite as well here as in the previous two films. They do get their moments of maturation, learning to become leaders and such, but their arcs aren’t standouts. Okay, we learn about Poe’s roguish past and how he’s grown into a leader, but that makes him more like Han Solo redux rather than the more distinctive character he was before. I liked the idea in TLJ that it was his image of himself as a great Resistance hero-pilot like Luke that made him arrogant and reckless, that he needed to have his heroic myths deflated and learn that life was more complicated than that. This retcon feels more conventional. And while it does lead to the introduction of a potentially interesting new female character in Zorii Bliss, she never really emerges as more than a means of supporting and advancing Poe’s story.

As for Finn, it’s disappointing that he isn’t paired up with Rose anymore, and that Rose herself is severely underutilized. (I mean, why is Dominic Monaghan even in this film? Why not give Rose his lines? It feels like a victory for the old-boy network at the expense of inclusion.) The new character Jannah that Finn is paired with is lovely, but is too much a mirror of Finn himself, another ex-Stormtrooper with a conscience, to be an interesting foil for him in the way Rose was. Jannah’s also little more than a plot device to assist Finn with his own actions in the story. Overall, this isn’t as strong as the previous two films at giving female protagonists their own independent arcs (the “Mako Mori test“). Even Leia’s arc (such as it is) is ultimately more about redeeming Ben than supporting Rey, and Rey’s arc is as much about helping Ben transform himself and complete his journey as it is about completing her own journey.

Still, one thing I’ll give the film is that it served the core trio well as a trio. All three films have been centrally about Rey, Finn, and Poe, but we haven’t really seen them as a group; technically Rey and Poe never even met in TFA, and Rey was on a separate journey from the others in TLJ. This time, we finally get to see all three of them journeying together and playing off each other for a significant part of the film, and their banter is a lot of fun.

Perhaps part of the reason the individual arcs of Poe and Finn aren’t that well-developed is the renewed emphasis given to some of the Original Trilogy characters in what are probably their final appearances. It’s nice to see Lando Calrissian again (and amusing that Billy Dee Williams is wearing one of Donald Glover’s Lando outfits from Solo), to catch up on what he’s been doing all this time, but that was secondary. No, the character who really shone here (no pun intended) was C-3PO. This was his biggest role in a Star Wars movie in a long time, and it was a fine showcase. He was funnier than ever in his commentary and reactions, but he also got a moment of true poignancy, when the other characters who’d taken him for granted and bossed him around and insulted him for all this time finally stopped and looked at him and gave him a choice, something they should have done all along, and he proved himself to be as great a hero as any of them, if not more so. Although the film kind of cops out later on by having R2 restore 3PO’s backup memory after 3PO insisted he didn’t have one.

It’s also weird that this trilogy (along with the prequels) has insisted on keeping 3PO and R2 mostly separate, rather than reviving the double act that made them so beloved in the OT. Sure, with 3PO, BB-8, and that new little droid that BB-8 adopted, there wasn’t much room for R2, but it’s odd how much he’s been sidelined in this trilogy.

On the villain side, Richard E. Grant is effective as the new villain Pryde, enough to make me curious to see how future tie-ins or animated series will flesh out his background (since he says he served the Emperor in the old days, meaning he was there somewhere during the OT). And though General Hux had a diminished role, it’s amusing that he turned spy for the Resistance purely out of his desire to ensure that Kylo failed. Also amusing that Pryde is genre-savvy enough that he wasn’t fooled by Hux’s “they shot me in the leg” cover story for a second.

Still, I’m not crazy about the reveal that the First Order were just Palpatine’s puppets all along. I liked the idea of the First Order as essentially Neo-Nazis — the new generation that misguidedly idolizes a past evil, that hates the progress and reforms made in its wake and wants to take things back to the good old days when their kind was dominant at everyone else’s expense. That idea gave the sequels a relevancy that this film undermines by reducing the FO to just Palpatine’s pawns. I mean, the same idea is there — the Emperor’s plan wouldn’t have worked if there hadn’t been a lot of people in the new generation who still clung to the Empire’s ways. But the emphasis was shifted here, with the FO basically rendered irrelevant and replaced as the Big Bad. It felt like a step backward.

So it seems the Sequel Trilogy echoed the OT straight to the end, with the middle film being the most challenging and unconventional and the third film being entertaining but relatively weaker and lighter. Still, TRoS did a decent enough job resolving its main character and story arcs, though it fell short in some respects and took fewer risks than it could have. It chose to emphasize nostalgia over innovation, which really is in keeping with the overall Star Wars phenomenon, since the whole thing is basically the result of George Lucas’s nostalgia for the things he liked as a child (Flash Gordon serials, WWII movies, samurai movies, Westerns, fast cars, etc.). It’s just that now it’s gotten to the point that the nostalgia in Star Wars is directed toward earlier Star Wars, since now it’s become the thing that today’s filmmakers loved as children. (It’s kind of wild how long the series has lasted while maintaining such consistency in style, right down to the near-identical opening and closing themes and credits fonts.) Still, I would’ve liked it if the series had ended in a way that looked more toward the future than the past, that expanded the mindset of the franchise and broke new conceptual ground the way TLJ did. TLJ felt like the franchise was starting to grow up, but this film took a more conventional path. It was fun, but it was less than it could have been.

Another really bad ’70s SFTV movie: THE TIME MACHINE (1978)

I was recently reminded of the existence of a movie I saw on TV as a child and rarely since: the 1978 NBC adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, starring John Beck as the Time Traveller and Priscilla Barnes as Weena. The main thing I remembered about it was its distinctive design for the time machine, which basically took the general idea of the machine from the classic 1960 George Pal movie, modernized it, and replaced its ornate circular design with a more high-tech triangular design. Well, that and John Beck’s very ’70s mustache and hairstyle. As for the actual story, I remembered virtually nothing. So out of curiosity, I went looking for it on YouTube. My options were a blurry print of just the movie, or a somewhat clearer copy with videotape tracking glitches (Beta, I think) and most of the commercials left in, as well as the introduction and main cast credits that are left out of the other version. I actually remembered a couple of the commercials from my youth, and getting a nostalgic glimpse of the advertising of the era was more entertaining than the film.

I mean, this movie is bad. Really, really bad. I thought I had somewhat fond memories of it in my youth, but it just goes to show that I had no taste back then, because it’s horrible. Really, I don’t know how this monstrosity came to be. It was apparently made as part of a series of TV-movie literary adaptations and historical films under the Classics Illustrated banner, though the intro glossed over the fact that those were comic books and tried to pitch it more as a Masterpiece Theater knockoff. Anyway, its writer, Wallace C. Bennett, had only a few previous writing credits, and its director, Henning Schellerup, had a prior filmography consisting exclusively of porn and exploitation films, though oddly he would later go on to direct a number of Bible-themed documentaries (while not entirely giving up the porn), plus a couple more films in the Classics Illustrated series and a Thomas Edison biopic. The directing is unremarkable, with slow pacing, flat performances, and mediocre effects work, but the writing is just awful and had me constantly wondering what the hell they were thinking and who thought any of this was a good idea. I’m writing this review just to get my frustration off my chest.

First off, it takes forever to get around to adapting the novel. It opens in space with a Soviet satellite being knocked off course and coincidentally heading straight for Los Angeles, where its nuclear reactor will detonate on impact (which is not how nuclear reactors actually work). The only computers powerful enough to let the military intercept it in time belong to a defense-contractor megacorporation whose name is actually Mega Corporation. Our hero Neil Perry (Beck) works for Mega, though he doesn’t show up until 9 minutes in, just in the nick of time to figure out why the computers are malfunctioning (it’s because they’re heat-sensitive and there are too many people in the control room) and correct the intercept missile’s course. Then he takes some time with his secretary to lament having to work on superweapons (what, a genius like him couldn’t get hired somewhere else?), before getting called in to the boss’s office to justify why he’s late developing the “Laser Death Ray” (that is literally its official name) yet has spent 20 million of Mega’s dollars on something else. The big bosses are played by Andrew Duggan and Parley Baer, but Perry’s direct supervisor, the most sympathetic exec of the three, is played by the stalwart Whit Bissell, a veteran of the 1960 The Time Machine as well as a regular in Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel (and John Zaremba, another Tunnel regular, appears briefly as well).

The meeting is the first scene that has anything to do with the book, since it’s the updated version of the iconic scene where the protagonist demonstrates his invention of time travel using a working miniature of his machine. (Bissell gets to flip the switch on the model this time, rather than just watching as in 1960.) But nothing about it makes sense. At first, Perry seems surprised that he’s being asked to account for the redirected funds, yet a moment later, jarringly, he says he anticipated the request and has brought a model. He then tells the execs about his time travel research for the very first time, which made relative sense for an 1890s gentleman inventor showing off his self-funded achievement to his friends, but makes no sense for a 1978 scientist-engineer reporting to his own direct supervisors within a corporate hierarchy. How has he gotten as far as a working model and full-size prototype without any of the prior theoretical and engineering groundwork being made public? Especially since we learn that he has subcontracted the construction of the power unit to another branch of the company, so there’s no way this is something he’s done all by himself. It just makes no sense within this context.

In any case, Perry’s bosses are underwhelmed by his demonstration and order him to abandon his time machine and go to work on inventing an antimatter bomb (because naturally he’s the kind of fictional scientist who’s an expert in every field at once instead of a single specialization). He’s disheartened, but the aforementioned power module gets finished a month early, so he decides to take a time trip to prove the value of his work. Rather than going forward as in previous versions, Perry starts out by going backward, and the rest of the first hour is wasted on a brief, pointless interlude in 17th-century Salem (where he’s burned as a witch and escapes from the pyre in the time machine) and an interminably long, equally pointless interlude in the Old West (where he gets accused of claim-jumping, shot at, arrested, and chased a lot), all merely to pad the film and presumably make use of some available backlots. All of history to choose from and they went for two of the most obvious, lazy cliches. Note that this version abandons the idea that the machine stays in one place relative to the Earth’s surface, even though it uses a crude approximation of George Pal’s stop-motion effect of buildings being built or unbuilt around the traveler. This is another thing that makes no sense.

It occurred to me to wonder if this film was meant as a backdoor pilot for a series, with Perry’s sojourns in the past being samples of the kind of weekly adventures he could have. But they’re just too superficial and plotless to work as “episodes” in their own right, since Perry hardly interacts with anyone except to be captured, threatened, or chased by them.

Anyway, Perry eventually gets back to the present, coincidentally just in time for a random co-worker to present him with a report suggesting that — shocker — the weapons Mega Corporation is building might devastate the Earth’s environment! Why, the ozone layer might start to become eroded as soon as the 30th century! Oh, my stars and garters! But according to the random co-worker, the bosses have dismissed the projections, saying there’s no proof what will happen in the future. With this convenient motivation just handed to him by a plot puppet, Perry hops back in his machine to get the “proof” — although he doesn’t think to bring any camera, recorder, or instruments forward with him to gather it!

It isn’t long (in more than one sense) before he sees nuclear explosions go off around him and lands in a radioactive wasteland, less than a century in his future. You’d think that would be enough proof to take back (if he’d bothered to document it in any way!!), but he has to get around to the novel’s plot eventually, so he gratuitously keeps going forward until the vegetation recovers and he winds up in the Eloi-Morlock future at last, although it’s only in the early 3000s instead of 802,701 AD, and the Eloi speak perfect English (despite a gratuitous fakeout scene where Weena initially remains mute for no good reason so that we’ll be surprised when she does speak). Also, despite not knowing what fire is, these Eloi are not passive, pampered sheep, but are descended from a segment of the population that chose to come up from underground and risk the hardships that the Morlocks feared. So they bear little resemblance to Wells’s Eloi. They even have a very good understanding of their history, thanks to a convenient local museum of weapons and war records that Weena shows Perry — complete with a display of a futuristic hand weapon with a card next to it saying “Laser Death Ray invented by Neil Perry.” Yes, really. Then, this simple, backward Eloi who’s never heard of fire shows Perry how to activate the museum video that explains the whole history of the end of the world with crisp narration and an unending orgy of military stock footage (including plenty of fiery explosions) — and I kept wondering, if this is how civilization collapsed, who the hell made the video documentary about it afterward???

Anyway, then the Morlocks attack and take several Eloi captive, so Perry goes down to rescue them and discovers that the Morlocks use them as livestock to consume. So the movie’s anti-war theme gets thrown out the window as Perry decides that the only hope for humanity’s future is to commit genocide, exterminating the Morlocks with the conveniently intact plastic explosives in the war museum. So he teaches the peaceful, idyllic Eloi how to commit mass murder with bombs, yay. (Okay, granted, the 1960 film had a similar beat of the Eloi learning to fight back. Still, it was less thematically muddy than this.) He then hops back in his time machine to bring his “proof” to his Mega bosses — though he doesn’t think to bring back any of those convenient video records from the future and has no proof except a totally unverifiable anecdotal account!!

Which… somehow… his bosses completely believe without question, without a shred of actual proof!! Aaaahhh!!

Yet they don’t care about his warnings of apocalypse, instead wanting to exploit the time machine to get ahead of their competitors on new weapons breakthroughs. Which Perry is suddenly opposed to once more, so he pops back off into the future before his bosses can take the time machine away from him. Instead of the ambiguity of the original and the 1960 classic, we see him happily reunited with Weena and the Eloi, who will now be able to rebuild human civilization… with a breeding stock consisting exclusively of blond white people. Oh dear. And just before that, to further remove any ambiguity, Whit Bissell was given a closing speech in which he expressed utter certainty that Perry and the Eloi would be able to rebuild a perfect society in the future. Try not to think about the implication of an all-white, all-blond civilization being humanity’s perfect future, or of getting there as the result of the total extermination of the only other race on the planet. I doubt the filmmakers intended that implication on purpose, though, because nothing whatsoever about this film had any real thought put into it.

(Meanwhile, if he left permanently for the future, then how did he finish the Laser Death Ray? Is the timeline mutable in this version? Maybe the sign in the museum just meant that he designed it and others finished it.)

This was just… so… bad. I’ve seen some lame ’70s sci-fi TV over the past few years (plus of course when it first aired in my youth), but this may be the worst example I’ve rewatched in recent memory. It’s just staggeringly inept and does no justice to its source material. It’s almost an insult to Whit Bissell to include him in this, rather than the tribute they presumably intended. (At least the insult to H.G. Wells and his classic would be made up for the following year with Nicholas Meyer’s Time after Time.) The story barely honors the source material except in broad strokes — which isn’t a bad thing if the original material has worth in its own right, but in this case the writing is incredibly thoughtless, directionless, and lazy, with its attempt at an anti-war theme sabotaged by its own incompetence. John Beck is miscast as the lead, never convincing as a brilliant scientist and never conveying a trace of the emotion he should feel when faced with the downfall of civilization. Priscilla Barnes is lovely as Weena, but not called upon to be anything more, and these Eloi are so mundanely human and show up so late in the movie that there’s little to say about them. The character-acting stalwarts like Bissell, Baer, and Duggan do their usual workmanlike job with what they’re given, but what they’re given isn’t much. I have to wonder why the people involved even bothered to make this. Or why I bothered to watch this. Seriously, folks, just go see the George Pal version again, or Time after Time.

Thoughts on DARK PHOENIX (or is it X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX?) (spoilers)

Thanks to my library, I’ve finally seen the last film in Fox’s X-Men series (discounting the not-yet-released spinoff New Mutants), which was shown theatrically under the title Dark Phoenix, with the X-Men supertitle restored for home video. Written and directed by Simon Kinberg — who co-wrote the franchise’s first attempt at the Dark Phoenix story, X-Men: The Last Stand from 2006 — it’s his attempt to use the rebooted timeline of the later X-Men movies to take a mulligan and try to get it right this time.

I actually thought The Last Stand was a decent film, though a flawed one. A major flaw was that its original goal of telling a cinematic version of Chris Claremont’s classic Dark Phoenix story (building on what was set up at the end of the second film) was hampered by the studio’s insistence on merging it with the mutant-cure storyline that Joss Whedon had introduced in Astonishing X-Men a few years earlier, so that Jean Grey’s story arc was reduced to a B plot for much of the film and didn’t have room to breathe. The new film lets Kinberg focus solely on Jean’s story this time out.

Dark Phoenix was a box-office and critical failure, so I didn’t go in expecting much. But I was pleasantly surprised. Certainly the film has flaws, some that I only realized after the fact and a few that stood out right away and took me out of the film. But overall, I found it to be a reasonably effective story, and on balance I’m satisfied with how it played out.

In some respects, the film uses the same beats as The Last Stand. It keeps the idea that Jean Grey always had extraordinary power that Charles Xavier suppressed with mental blocks, tarnishing his pure image and turning Jean against him when she finds out and the barriers in her mind fall down. (In that version, the Phoenix was purely an outgrowth of Jean’s own exceptional power. Here, it’s a cosmic force that merges with her, but it’s her exceptional power that draws it to her and enables her to survive the merger.) But the way it plays out is very different, feeling like a deliberate counterpoint to TLS’s choices, and I prefer this version, which turns out to be far more optimistic and better serves the characters and their relationships.

In other ways, though, the characterizations are a weak point of the film. It’s relatively short by modern standards, only about 100 minutes of story once you subtract end credits, so most of the ensemble cast gets only cursory attention and the plot is raced through. Some of the character transitions and motivations are too abrupt and extreme. Jean turns on the team too quickly after learning Xavier lied to her about her childhood, although to be fair, it is shown that she has no control when her newly unleashed rage takes over. But when she accidentally kills Mystique (to accommodate Jennifer Lawrence being too big a star now to be available/affordable for the whole thing, I reckon), both Magneto/Erik and Beast/Hank jump way too quickly to wanting to murder Jean in retaliation. It’s kind of silly the way it plays out with Magneto. Erik: “I stopped killing because I realized revenge didn’t make the pain go away.” Hank, a couple of scenes later: “Raven’s dead.” Erik: “REVENNNNNNGE!” Hank’s motivation doesn’t work much better — the film seems to suggest a romance between him and Raven, which I don’t think is something ever suggested in previous films (I could be wrong), and is unnecessary because their long friendship going back decades should be enough.

(That’s another flaw in the film, by the way — it’s set in 1992, three decades after First Class, and there’s no attempt to age the actors up.)

Some of the plot points advance in a similarly arbitrary and unbelievable manner. Mainly, the film is set in a time when the X-Men are admired worldwide as superheroes, mutants are accepted, and the President of the US has an actual X-Phone hotline on his desk… but as soon as one mutant, Jean, goes wild and attacks some local cops, all of a sudden the POTUS is ghosting Xavier and the TV news is talking about proposals for mutant internment camps. That’s way too abrupt a change in response to a single incident, and it badly undermines the film’s credibility. Yes, there would be a surge of bigotry flaring up after something like this, but it wouldn’t lead to such an instantaneous change in government policy; it would take time for anti-mutant pundits and politicians to shift the Overton window far enough.

A better alternative for setting up the climactic sequence — where the military takes the X-Men captive on a train where the bad guys attack them — would’ve been to spend more time on the machinations of said bad guys, the D’Bari (named after the alien species that Phoenix carelessly destroyed in the original comics, but here retconned into Skrull-like shapeshifters who want to capture the Phoenix Force that destroyed their world and use it for conquest). The D’Bari leader Vuk is played by Jessica Chastain (in the likeness of a woman Vuk killed and impersonated), but Elementary‘s Ato Essandoh plays her second-in-command, impersonating an FBI agent. It would’ve worked better if, say, Essandoh’s character had been shown pushing for a more aggressive stance against the X-Men and faced resistance from officials who still believed in them. I wonder if something along those lines was cut for time and replaced with the sloppy, throwaway voiceover line about internment camps.

One more weakness of Dark Phoenix, unfortunately, is the casting it inherits from the previous film. This time, Sophie Turner as Jean and Tye Sheridan as Scott/Cyclops have a much heavier burden to carry than in X-Men: Apocalypse, and it shows that they’re the weakest members of the ensemble. Turner has her occasional moments (though is nowhere near as appealing as her predecessor Famke Janssen), but she’s out-acted by Summer Fontana, who plays Jean’s 8-year-old self in flashbacks. Sheridan is completely dull and one-note as Cyclops; it’s a role that demands a strong actor to make up for being unable to see Scott’s eyes, and Sheridan totally fails to deliver. What’s more, he and Turner have no romantic chemistry to speak of. It weakens the impact of what should be a core relationship in the film.

Still, what ultimately works for me is how much more optimistically the Phoenix story plays out than in the original film version. In TLS, Magneto wanted to exploit Jean as a weapon for his war on non-mutants; here, he tries to keep the peace and stops her from harming a group of soldiers — and his desire for revenge only lasts for the second act before he chooses a nobler path. In TLS, Jean was so overcome by her runaway power and madness that she killed both Cyclops and Xavier, the two people she was closest to; here, it’s their love for her that reaches her through her pain and bitterness and reminds her of who she is. In TLS, Jean lets Wolverine execute her to stop her from killing her family, but here, she makes her own sacrifice by choice, embracing the power and evolving into something higher in order to save her family. Not only that, but the mature entity she becomes at the end is a really beautiful rendering of the Phoenix in its full flaming majesty, the sort of thing I kept hoping for in the original films but never got. Throw in the additional optimistic beat of that one soldier choosing to trust the X-Men and release them to help defend against the attacking D’Bari, and the upbeat turn the film takes in its last act does a lot to make up for its shortcomings, and works well as a rebuke to the nihilism of TLS.

The action in the last act is also excellent. The train attack sequence was very well-made, I thought, with some very creative uses of superpowers. I’m not crazy about superhero fights where the goal is to ruthlessly kill a whole army of attacking aliens — I prefer superheroes to save lives rather than take them — but the action was intense, frenetic, and creative. It’s the one place where the breakneck pacing did the most to help the film rather than undermine it.

By the way, one odd thing Dark Phoenix shares with one of its predecessors is an apparent desire to homage Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The climax and final scene of X2: X-Men United were deliberately meant to evoke TWOK’s ending, with the closing shot having the same kind of hint of the sacrificed character’s resurrection, a voiceover from said character, and a very similar musical sting leading into the end credits. Here, there’s a sequence where Vuk is tempting Jean with the power of the Phoenix and showing her a mental simulation of using its power to bring life to a lifeless world, and it’s essentially a higher-quality recreation of the Genesis simulation from Carol Marcus’s project proposal in TWOK (the first entirely CGI sequence ever used in a feature film, though beating TRON to the screen by only a month). Interesting to see the same idea executed with technology 37 years more advanced, though it seems a bit incongruous in this film. (As well as making me feel really old — has it really been 37 years?)

So, all in all, Dark Phoenix is a very flawed and inconsistent film, but it’s been a very flawed and inconsistent series. It’s far from the best film of the lot, but far from the worst, and for me the parts that work outweigh the parts that don’t. Despite its cursory, rushed storytelling, I feel it succeeded in its goal of getting right the aspects of the Dark Phoenix story that The Last Stand got wrong. And though it fills the same role of bringing about the end of an era for an X-Men team and film sequence, it does so in a better, more upbeat way that brings closure yet leaves more hope for the future (well, as long as you don’t think about the future Logan established, which may or may not be in the same timeline as this). I think that’s a reasonably satisfactory way to conclude Fox’s long, turbulent X-Men film series.

Thoughts on AQUAMAN (Spoilers)

I finally got a copy of James Wan’s Aquaman from the library. I’m very impressed. It’s a solid action-fantasy movie, not only with spectacular visuals and worldbuilding and very imaginative action choreography, but with pretty solid characterization and writing too. The plot is a pretty by-the-numbers quest narrative moving from one set piece to the next, but the characters have depth (no pun intended) and nuance, and even the villains have sympathetic qualities and at least partly valid reasons for their actions.

Most of all, I’m pleasantly surprised by Jason Momoa. Pre-Aquaman, I knew him only as Ronon Dex in Stargate: Atlantis, and back then, he barely seemed capable of enunciating vowels and consonants with any clarity, let alone conveying any degree of emotion. But he’s grown far beyond those mushmouthed beginnings and actually gave a really solid performance as Arthur Curry — still in the same basic gruff, tough-guy wheelhouse, but with much more skill, expressiveness, and nuance. If anything, I’d say he was one of the better lead actors in the film, although that’s mainly because both Amber Heard as Mera and Patrick Wilson as Orm/Ocean Master were fairly bland. Wilson in particular gave a flat, robotic, dead-eyed performance that kept his role as the main villain from being as strong as it could’ve been, though I suppose it helped convey his coldness and sociopathy to a degree.

Although what really made Orm despicable was something the movie depicted but never overtly called out as such — his racism. All his talk about Arthur being a “half-breed mongrel” is rooted in the fantasy backstory of Aquaman being half-Atlantean and half-human, but it gains an extra weight and relevance with the casting of the Polynesian Momoa as Arthur and the pale, blond Wilson as Orm. I guess that casting makes the point without the dialogue having to come out and say it. It underlines that, for all that Orm makes a valid point about humanity’s depredation of the seas, his persistent fixation on Arthur’s “impure” blood exposes the real hate and egocentrism driving his push for war. Indeed, given the diversity of the undersea races that Orm tries to force into an alliance, including fishy mer-people and crustacean-people, it’s clear that his intolerance of difference would’ve made him a bad leader. Which, again, feels very relevant right now.

I thought it was very interesting how they made Black Manta, here named David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a sympathetic figure through his close relationship with his father (Michael Beach, who voiced the Black Manta equivalent Devil Ray in the animated Justice League Unlimited), even while simultaneously painting them both as murdering pirate scum, and gave him a legitimate grievance against Aquaman for the latter’s callous refusal to save his father’s life, a decision Arthur would come to regret later on. It’s too bad, though, that the need to save Black Manta for the sequel kept the plot thread from having any real payoff. I suppose it paid off in Arthur’s decision at the end to take the more heroic route and spare Orm, but there should be payoff connecting more directly to Manta.

Back to the technical side, I was very impressed with the visual design. Lately I’ve come to feel that modern CGI movies are just too cluttered with things onscreen, and sometimes I get tired of the sheer visual overload. There were certainly plenty such images in this movie, but they didn’t seem as bothersome to me. Perhaps it’s because I saw them on my old, non-HD television and couldn’t see the details that clearly anyway, but maybe it’s because the images were so creative and unusual. It wasn’t just a horde of soldiers or orcs or whatever, but a wealth of exotic, novel, fanciful images of different types. And they weren’t all the same either — different sequences had different color palettes and thus different tones and styles. It was really refreshing how vividly colorful this movie was, unlike a lot of its DC Extended Universe predecessors and a lot of movies in general. The “Ring of Fire” battle sequence was the only time it fell victim to the “make everything blue and orange” fashion of so many modern films. Although one of the most stunning sequences was nearly monochrome — the “feeding frenzy” sequence with the Trench creatures underwater, lit only by the red of the flares. That was a truly amazing visual sequence unlike anything I’ve seen in a movie before.

It was also nice to see a DCEU film remembering to focus on the civilians. This was more a fantasy epic than a superhero film, but it did take time here and there to show Arthur saving people, or at least to show how bystanders were affected by the action, as in the Sicily sequence. Zack Snyder would’ve contrived some way to evacuate the town so he could blow up a bunch of architecture without having to bother acknowledging the existence of human beings, but the reactions of the townsfolk as their homes are barged into and trashed are an integral part of the flavor of the Sicily sequence — though it would’ve been nice to see some aftermath and cleanup, maybe Mera hydrokinetically hauling up some sunken treasure to help pay for repairs.

If I had a problem with the film, it’s that it was too fond of having quiet or personal scenes suddenly interrupted by explosions and villain attacks as a quickie scene-transition device. I think that happened three or four times, and it got a bit repetitive. The film was also a bit too in love with its elaborate CGI continuous-shot time cuts and swooping camera moves, which generally worked pretty well but were a bit self-conscious at times, as swoopy CGI shots usually are. Also, I’m just generally not a fan of stories about destined kings or chosen ones, although this one did a decent job of subverting that trope by stressing that Arthur was the least likely, least worthy king possible and well aware of it, and that his value was greater as a bridge between worlds and a hero to everyone than as a hereditary elite or whatever.

Also — ending spoilers here — why is Arthur the king if Queen Atlanna is still alive? Shouldn’t she be the ruler and he just the prince? Or is Atlantis a sexist society where only a man can rule? Well, to be generous, maybe he’s king because he defeated Orm in combat. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if he left Atlanna to rule Atlantis in his stead while he continued to operate as Aquaman out in the world.

So anyway, Aquaman is the sixth DCEU film I’ve seen (I’m on the library’s waiting list for Shazam!), and the third one I’ve liked, since I actually liked Justice League better than most people did. Although I liked that one with reservations, whereas Wonder Woman and Aquaman are both solid, enjoyable superhero films. Anyway, it does seem like the DCEU is finally on the right path.

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SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME thoughts (spoilers)

I finally saw Spider-Man: Far from Home yesterday, and as with Homecoming, I liked it up to a point but didn’t love it. It’s a bit problematical as a Spider-Man movie, because it’s so heavily rooted in dealing with the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame and the larger status quo of the MCU and Tony Stark’s legacy, so it’s more about using Peter Parker/Spider-Man to tell that story than it really is about telling a Spider-Man story.

I mean, sure, it tries to stay focused on Peter’s romantic pursuit of Michelle — sorry, “MJ” — and his travails with his classmates, evoking the classic formula where his duties as Spider-Man constantly get in the way of his personal life. But as I said in the Homecoming review, I don’t understand the movies’ love for putting Spidey back in high school, and I’m not a fan of the teen-comedy vibe these movies go for. I found most of the humor here clunky and mediocre, or a bit forced when it came to the antics of the teachers. And the romantic plot was pretty much totally devoid of tension or suspense, because it was pretty obvious that MJ was into Peter too and wasn’t into Brad, and it was less a question of “Can our hero overcome obstacles to win the girl of his dreams?” as “When will our hero catch on that she’s already chasing him?” — with the only obstacle being his own slowness on the uptake. Not that I can’t sympathize with that. In high school and college, I squandered at least two chances at romance because I was too dense to tell when I was being flirted with. But in this case, it felt like a foregone conclusion, so Peter’s anxiety about the outcome didn’t resonate.

There was an interesting premise in terms of Peter’s desire to be just a Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, a street-level hero, and to resist the pressures to fill Tony Stark’s shoes and take on global responsibilities he’s not ready for. And the movie did make pretty good use of Quentin Beck/Mysterio, doing a variation on his debut storyline of (spoiler alert) introducing himself as a hero and turning out to be a special-effects fraud, in a way that tied very cleverly into the larger MCU narrative. I guessed well in advance that the “Elementals” were a trick — anyone who’s seen more than zero previous Mysterio stories would see that coming — but I was totally unable to guess his real purpose and motives, and while the scene that finally explained it was a bit too stiltedly expository, the revelation of who Mysterio and his team were and why they were pulling this scam — basically that they were the Tony Stark Revenge Squad, so to speak — was totally surprising and totally effective, and bringing back a bit player from Iron Man as a core team member was a nifty touch, as was retconning Tony’s holotechnology from Civil War as Beck’s co-opted invention.

I also really liked the visualization of Mysterio’s illusions, the constantly shifting, surreal, dreamlike quality. It reminded me of something from the classic ’90s animated Spider-Man series, though I checked, and their own Mysterio episode didn’t have that kind of imagery; maybe I’m thinking of a dream sequence from another episode. In any case, it was quite visually striking.

Unfortunately, the central MacGuffin around which the plot revolves is where the movie failed to earn my suspension of disbelief. The EDITH system is just far too powerful and destructive a thing for Tony Stark to leave to a high school kid, no matter how much he trusts him. Back in Homecoming, we saw that Tony equipped Spidey’s suit with a ton of “training wheels” limitations that wouldn’t unlock until he’d proved himself responsible enough to use them. The lack of any such precautions on EDITH is contradictory and out of character. Even granted that Peter’s earned Stark’s trust by now, you just do not build a highly lethal automated weapon system without putting in a ton of failsafes and redundant authentication checks. You don’t build it so completely devoid of safeguards that it almost kills a teenager because of a verbal misunderstanding. You don’t build a system that treats maximum lethality as its default setting in the absence of clarity. Tony Stark was famously irresponsible, sure, but not this irresponsible, not this reckless and cavalier about technology of this level of lethality. The whole EDITH concept was just bad plotting, a ludicrous and poorly thought out notion that pulled me out of the film.

Maybe it could’ve been better if EDITH hadn’t been so lethal. Drop the completely unfunny sequence where Peter almost kills his classmates with the first drone — that was just a horrible idea. The whole defining theme of Peter Parker’s narrative is responsibility, and having him so cavalierly make a mistake that almost murders his romantic rival undermines that deeply for the sake of an ill-conceived joke. Give EDITH more safeguards, and have it default to nonlethal options (Tony was supposed to be a hero, after all, not a mad scientist), requiring extra verification to escalate to more destructive methods. Have Beck’s tech people hack the system once he acquires it, breaking those safeguards. They’re ex-Stark employees, so some of them could’ve been involved in programming EDITH in the first place. Then have them modify the drones to be more lethal. Then you wouldn’t have the disturbing scenario of Tony Stark handing total control of a thousand kill-first drones to a 16-year-old kid.

For that matter, I just realized there’s an inconsistency in the premise. Beck’s team was able to fake the mass destruction of the Elementals before they had EDITH, so they already had some pretty darn powerful killer drones. So why the hell did they need EDITH? What did it really gain them that they didn’t already have, besides volume? Egad, so not only does the MacGuffin make no damn sense, but there’s no real reason for the villain to be so eager to obtain it.

Unfortunately, this is the movie we got, and we’re stuck with it. As flawed as the story is, the execution was good as far as the action went. Some of the character work was satisfying; Peter was pretty much in character, and MJ was more likeable this time now that we got to see her softer side. I particularly liked the close relationship that’s grown between Happy Hogan and Peter, a nice change from the icier relationship in Homecoming. They’ve both turned to each other to fill the void left by Tony. I think this may be Happy’s biggest role yet in an MCU film, and it’s ironic that it’s not in an Iron Man film.

But I do wish the film had given us more of Spidey’s life in New York. I read that several such scenes we glimpsed in the trailers, of Spidey catching thieves just like flies and bantering with the cops about doing their job for them, were cut because the director thought the film had too many beginnings. But seeing the film with that knowledge, I feel the opening was too abrupt and cursory, and those scenes should’ve been left in. Seeing Peter’s early cockiness would’ve made it more potent when we saw him start to be overwhelmed by the public’s demand that he fill Iron Man’s boots; without that groundwork being laid, it doesn’t have as much impact. Plus it would’ve given us a bit more of Spidey just being Spidey in New York before getting to the out-of-his-element stuff in Europe. I know they’re putting those scenes on the Blu-Ray as a short film, but the movie itself feels incomplete without them. If they thought the film had too many beginnings, they could’ve ditched the opening “school news broadcast” sequence, which was a mildly cute but (again) stilted way of conveying exposition that was given in dialogue elsewhere. (Also, why are they doing a retrospective of “the Blip” 8 months after it happened? Why 8 months?)

From the beginning, let’s turn to the ending — or rather, the endings. Perhaps the thing I liked best about Homecoming was that it let Spidey succeed in saving the villain’s life and actually benefit from doing so. So I’m disappointed that this film went the more standard Hollywood route of having the villain die through his own actions. It’s a more cliched, less satisfying ending, and doesn’t serve the Spider-Man character as well. Also, I don’t think Beck was really a villainous enough character for such a fate to feel dramatically warranted; he was unstable, sure, but he had some legitimate grievances against Stark. Nor, conversely, was he a sympathetic enough character for his death to feel all that tragic or meaningful to Peter. So it just seemed like they killed him because that’s the routine formula for movie villains, which makes it underwhelming.

I guess the main value of Mysterio’s death is that it sets up the mid-credits scene where Mysterio posthumously blames Spidey for his death (and all the others the drones inflicted) and destroys his reputation. But come on, he’s Mysterio, the master of deception — he could’ve faked his death and had the same effect. He could probably maintain the deception better in life than posthumously. Well, in any case, it was a hell of a way to introduce Jameson at last, and it was a hell of a surprise to hear that familiar voice. (I wonder why they didn’t try to replicate JJJ’s flattop haircut this time, though. Just to be different from the Raimi version?)

As for the post-credits scene, I have no idea what to make of it. Was there a point to it in the larger MCU narrative? Was it setting up some future film? (Given the lack of Captain Marvel 2 on the recently announced slate, it’s hard to see how.) And just how long has the imposture been going on? It seemed like an arbitrary bit of weirdness and it just kind of fizzled out.

All in all, then, I guess I still don’t feel the MCU has quite gotten a handle on how to do a Spider-Man movie. Hopefully the next one will finally get to be just a Spider-Man movie, with Peter dealing with the fallout from the mid-credits scene (though I wonder how they can possibly work out the timing on that, unless they get to work on it really fast) and generally just living his own life and dealing with his own issues, rather than being so heavily immersed in the larger MCU story arc.

Thoughts on Toho’s submarine (and related) SF films (spoilers)

Filling in a few remaining gaps in my review series of Toho tokusatsu films, here’s a trio of films revolving more around super-vessels than monsters.

Atragon (1963), originally Kaitei Gunkan (The Undersea Warship), is a loose adaptation of a novel of the same name and another called The Undersea Kingdom. It opens with several people being abducted by strange, hot-bodied people (in the thermal sense, not the sexy sense). The abductees include retired admiral Kusumi and his secretary/ward Makoto, daughter of the long-lost submarine inventor Jinguji. A pair of comic-relief photographers, who are somehow the lead characters and are stalking Makoto in hopes of hiring her as a fashion model, get caught up in the kidnapping; the abductor says he’s going to take them to an undersea kingdom called Mu, the Pacific equivalent of the Atlantis myth (which I used to assume was Asian folklore but is just another “ancient myth” invented in the 19th century by Westerners, around the same time the modern version of the Atlantis myth arose). The abductees fight off the agent, but the admiral is sent a film from the Mu-ians, telling how they ruled the world 12,000 years ago and founded all ancient civilizations until their vast continent sank literally overnight. Now they’ve recovered and become super-advanced (we see miniature vistas of their futuristic-yet-ancient kingdom), and they warn Japan to halt development on the missing Jinguji’s newest super-sub — which they claim to be under Jinguji’s supervision and known to the admiral — or else they’ll send their god Manda to destroy the surface world. The threat is taken to the UN off-camera and promptly laughed off, so the Mu-ites start destroying ships and bridges and such.

The most advanced sub in the world (implausibly named Red Satan and crewed by English-speaking white actors, though not all with American accents) is unable to chase Mu’s attack sub below a certain depth, and when it pushes too far, it implodes in a nicely done visual effect (probably using some sort of suction inside the miniature). With no other options, the authorities ask Kusumi to tell them where Jinguji is, but Kusumi insists he doesn’t know, and grudgingly reveals that Jinguji was a deserter. Meanwhile, Makoto has yet another stalker whom the police pick up on suspicion of being a Mu agent, but he only gives his serial number until he meets Admiral Kusumi, to whom he reports that he’s Jinguji’s radio man and that Makoto’s father is very much alive. He leads Kusumi and the other main characters (including a bearded reporter who threatens to blab the story if they don’t bring him) to the island where Jinguji has built his super-sub, Gotengo (轟天号 Gōten-gō, essentially “S.S. Roaring Heavens” — generally called Atragon in English, short for “Atomic Dragon” for some reason). In addition to the usual submarine features, Gotengo has a drill on the front for underground travel, which I guess would make it both a submarine and a subterrene. And it can fly. Which would make it a… supermarine?

It’s all kind of moot, though, since Jinguji is quite the jingoist. He refuses Kusumi’s pleas to use Gotengo to save the world from Mu, because he insists it must only be used for the glory of Japan. The fact that the world includes Japan seems to be lost on him. But the reporter turns out to be a Mu spy who bombs Gotengo‘s hangar and abducts Makoto along with one of the photographers. This abruptly changes Jinguji’s mind about helping the world.

Down in the supposedly super-advanced Mu, we get one of the standard Toho tribal-dance sequences, and it’s interminable. Finally the abductees are dragged in and told they’ll be fed to the Mu god Manda, a snakelike dragon kaiju, if Jinguji doesn’t destroy the super-sub. But they never actually pass this threat along to Jinguji before he drills out of the wrecked hangar and flies to the rescue when a Mu submarine (with a Manda-shaped death ray on top) attacks Tokyo and a fleet offshore. Gotengo pursues the Mu sub back home, where the captives have snuck out some mining explosives and use them to take the Mu empress hostage and escape to the super-sub, which covers their escape from Manda. Several different-sized Manda puppets are used in different shots, and the one used in the early shots is really goofy-looking with bulging, muppety eyes, though another used later in the escape sequence has a more menacing head sculpt.

On Gotengo, the young Empress (who somehow has all her robes and heavy jewelry even though she G-ratedly shed them earlier to change into a diving suit) refuses to negotiate or surrender, so Jinguji kills Manda with the sub’s Zero Cannon, an absolute-zero freeze ray — which seems like a really unwise weapon to use underwater, but all it does is essentially coat Manda in fake snow until it stops moving. Then the sub drills into Mu’s power generator room and a team uses hand-held freeze rays to battle its way to the generators and plant bombs. The crew and the empress surface and watch the huge explosion (an interesting effect that appears to be achieved by dropping a bunch of colored dyes into a tank of water and split-screening it upside-down over a shot of the ocean, so it looks like fiery clouds erupting upward). The sub freezes the last couple of subs trying to escape, and Jinguji allows the empress to dive into the ocean and swim to her doom in the hellish maelstrom. So they’ve basically achieved the total genocide of the most ancient civilization on Earth. Um, yay?

Kaitei Gunkan/Atragon was apparently a big hit in Japan, but I found it quite a chore to get through. It’s very slow-paced and had little to hold my interest, and I watched it piecemeal over 3 or 4 sittings. The characters are superficial, and it takes a while for the action or the big FX sequences to get going. Jinguji’s resistance to using his sub to save the world is weakly justified and too casually resolved. The token kaiju Manda (only added because it was expected in an Ishiro Honda film) is crudely made and poses a minor threat. And it’s harder to like a film where the heroes exterminate an entire civilization than one where they defeat a giant monster.

Atragon got a loose remake of sorts in 1977 with The War in Space (Wakusei Daisenso, “Great War of the Planets”), directed by Jun Fukuda and transposing the action to space — most likely as a knockoff of that other space war film that came out in America about half a year earlier. When alien ships purportedly from Venus — mostly looking like flying acorns, but with a mothership described as a “giant galleon” by the crew of a 2D-painting space station that it destroys early in the film — start attacking Earth cities, Dr. Takigawa (Ryo Ikebe) is persuaded to complete building his space battleship Gohten (as it’s written in Roman script on the crew hats), which he’d resisted completing as unnecessary until an alien impostor attempts to steal his plans. He recruits a cast of nondescript male leads and his technician daughter Jun to finish the ship, which gets trapped in its hangar by an alien attack and must drill its way free much as in Atragon, but with lasers this time. (This version of the ship still includes a forward drill, but it’s largely useless here and for most of the film.) It then uses oxymoronically named “aerial depth charges” (at least in the badly written English dub they have on Archive.org) to blow up a fleet of space acorns before heading off for Venus, just in time for the token American crewman to learn his family was killed by the aliens and stare expressionlessly at the camera while a glycerin tear slides down his cheek.

En route to Venus, it turns out that male lead Miyoshi nobly left Japan to let second lead Muroi get engaged to Jun, who liked Miyoshi more. Muroi gets Miyoshi to promise to take Jun if Muroi gets killed on Venus, making it 100% certain that he will. Needless to say, Jun is not consulted in this. The crew then finds a piece of the destroyed space station improbably far from Earth, with a single conveniently placed corpse to bring aboard for services, and they don’t recognize the obvious trap. The “corpse” wakes up and abducts Jun, who’s taken to Venus, changed into leather bondage gear, and held captive by Commander Hell, a green-skinned alien in Marvin the Martian cosplay, and his “Space Beastman” sidekick that looks like Chewbacca with horns, the most obvious Star Wars ripoff in the film. Hell explains his people have a huge space empire based in Messier 13, yet naturally the only planet within 22,000 light years suitable to replace their dying homeworld is Earth.

Gohten lands on Venus and the scouting party finds the “galleon” behind a force barrier. The sub, err, spaceship launches fighters from a giant revolver barrel (no, really, and the hangar inside is too big to fit inside the exterior model) to take out the force field so Miyoshi’s team can get in to save Jun. Ironically it’s the token American who does a kamikaze run to achieve that. The galleon is also way bigger inside than out and looks more like a castle interior than a spaceship. All the soldiers get killed but Miyoshi, who’s thrown in a cell with Jun as hostages for Takizawa to turn over the ship, but Jun saw Hell enter his password and uses it to escape the cell, and they fight their way out of the galleon and return to Gohten.

Now, I’d expected that Muroi would sacrifice himself nobly to cover their return or something, but instead he’s just shot down from behind while calmly tooling his way back to the ship. Seriously? Anyway, Gohten is crippled in the ensuing battle with the galleon, so Takizawa sneaks off in the ship’s otherwise useless forward drill, which it turns out — according to a recorded message he somehow already had cued up for Miyoshi and Jun despite having no time to record it — contains a super-bomb he invented that could destroy the universe if the knowledge got out. He uses it to blow up the galleon and himself, and subsequently all of Venus, to ensure the knowledge dies with him. Gohten barely gets repaired in time to escape (gee, thanks for the heads-up, Skipper). And presumably Earth endures some unpleasant climate effects from the resultant gravitational shifts and the debris belt that forms in Venus’s former orbit.

Well, this was mediocre, forgettable, and silly, with cheaper and clumsier effects work than the original 14 years before. Some of its elements seemed self-parodic, but it was played as a straight war drama, so the serious and goofy elements undermine each other.

Saving the best for last, we jump back to 1969 for Latitude Zero, aka Ido Zero Daisakusen (The Great Latitude Zero Operation/Mission). This one is unusual among Ishiro Honda’s films in that it’s shot entirely in English with a mixed US/Japanese cast headed by Joseph Cotten, Richard Jaeckel, Akira Takarada, and Cesar Romero, and based on an obscure US radio adventure series by the film’s screenwriter, Ted Sherdeman.

Three men in a tub — a bathysphere crew including Dr. Ken Tashiro (Takarada), Dr. Jules Masson (Masumi Okada playing a Frenchman), and reporter Perry Lawton (Jaeckel) — are studying the deep scattering layer when they’re caught in an undersea volcanic eruption (a similar cloud-tank effect to the one in Atragon, but better done). They’re rescued by divers from the Alpha, an incredibly advanced nuclear sub captained by Craig McKenzie (Cotten), who tells Tashiro and Lawton that it’s neutral, belongs to no nation, and was launched in 1804. Dr. Anne Barton, the sub’s physician — a scantily clad young blonde played by Linda Haynes, whose line readings are even stiffer than those of the Japanese actors reciting them phonetically — advises that Masson’s injuries need more treatment than Alpha can provide, so McKenzie reluctantly calls off monitoring the volcano to return to a place called Latitude Zero (and longitude 180, where the equator and the International Date Line cross).

But the villainous Malic — played by Cesar Romero a year or so after the end of his tenure as the Joker on Batman — orders the crew of his own sub, the Black Shark, to destroy the Alpha. Apparently McKenzie and Malic were the hero and villain of the radio series, though the sub was called the Omega there. So the film treats their rivalry as long-standing. The flamboyantly dressed Malic is assisted by his lover Lucretia (Patricia Medina), who’s jealous of the Black Shark‘s female captain Kroiga (Hikaru Kuroki) and is cattily pleased when she’s beaten by the Alpha‘s superior tech tricks in a lengthy sub chase/battle, then is unable to penetrate Latitude Zero’s force field barrier.

McKenzie — who’s 204, a year older than Malic — shows Tashiro and Lawton the wonders of Latitude Zero (called “LZ” for short), a super-advanced, apolitical, post-scarcity anarchist utopia where the clothes are made of gold (extracted from seawater) and diamonds are used as flowerpot gravel. It’s basically as if Captain Nemo had invented the Federation. Tashiro is the Arronax of the film, intrigued by the utopian vision of LZ, while Lawton is the cynical Ned Land type, finding it too good to be true and suspicious of brainwashing and hallucinations (though he fills his tobacco pouch with diamonds anyway). He makes a good point about LZ’s failure to share their superscience with the world, though McKenzie insists they can’t until they can be sure it won’t be used for war.

Once Masson is healed, McKenzie explains how LZ’s teams recruit scientists from all over the world to come to LZ to conduct pure research without political, military, or commercial agendas — including one Dr. Okada and his daughter, both of whom Malic abducts to set a trap for McKenzie. The three newcomers and Dr. Barton volunteer to join McKenzie and his first mate Kobo (the only Japanese-speaking character in the film, played by Hitoshi Omae) for the rescue mission, and are equipped with an “immunity bath” that makes them temporarily bulletproof (and gives the men and Barton a chance to see each other naked, though it’s strictly G-rated for the audience), protective suits of a gold/platinum weave, jet-powered “elevation belts,” and gloves with built-in mini-weapons. The heroic menfolk leave the finally fully clothed Dr. Barton behind to woodenly pilot the Alpha (whatever happened to the large crew it had before?).

Meanwhile, Malic forces the Okadas to watch him punish Kroiga for her failures by surgically implanting her brain into a lion and sewing on a condor’s wings (which are somehow functional afterward), turning her into a griffin that he then enlarges with a growth serum and sics on the rescue team, though Griffin Kroiga instead just sits idly watching as they contend with various of the island’s deathtraps (what did Malic expect before the anaesthesia wore off?), so they’re able to reach Malic’s decidedly non-sterile operating theater and rescue the Okadas just before the professor goes under the knife. They have no trouble defeating Malic’s Bat Man mutants (Cesar Romero and Bat Men?? Why didn’t I notice that until now???), yet are somehow stymied when Malic releases a swarm of harmless actual bats (or superimposed footage thereof) to cover his escape.

The gang goes back to the Alpha, but Malic shows up in the Black Shark and subjects it to various attacks, including a powerful magnetic field trap, which it escapes by borrowing a trick from the Gotengo — it spreads its wings, fires jet engines, and takes flight. Malic is so vengefully obsessed with shooting down the Alpha with his laser ray that he gets the Shark trapped in the same magnetic field, and then the griffinized Kroiga finally takes flight and attacks the sub (again, what did he expect, really?), leading to both of their destruction along with the Shark. The entire island, like all respectable supervillain lairs, reacts to the villain’s demise by exploding for no apparent reason.

In the denouement, everyone chooses to stay in the paradise of LZ except Lawton, who gets picked up by a ship and finds his story disbelieved when all his film is blank and his diamonds are missing. Bizarrely, some of the crew are dead ringers for McKenzie, Tashiro, and Malic, as if we’re supposed to think it was all a dream — but then they find out (in Lawton’s absence) that a fortune in diamonds has been deposited in Lawton’s bank account, with none of them showing any knowledge of what it’s about. So Latitude Zero is real, and these guys just coincidentally look like the people in it? Huh? Wha?

Aside from that completely inexplicable ending, Latitude Zero isn’t bad as Captain Nemo riffs go. It feels almost like a backdoor pilot for a TV series, one that might’ve been fun to see. Granted, the acting isn’t great, for the most part. Joseph Cotten is basically just showing up for a paycheck, and the Japanese cast can only do so much with phonetically delivered English dialogue (the one fluent English speaker, Masumi Okada, has one of the smallest parts). Linda Haynes’s almost nonexistent performance (her first speaking role) can perhaps be excused by her youth and inexperience, as well as working with a director who didn’t speak English; here’s an interview with her about making the film. But Cesar Romero brings his supervillain A game to the role of Malic, gleefully chewing the scenery (only about half as hyperactively as the Joker would, but that’s more than enough), which makes up for a lot of the rest. It’s largely thanks to him that this film is so much more fun than the other two super-ship films. (Sorry, super-boat, since they’re submarines.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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