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Quick movie review: Netflix’s ANON (spoilers)

I recently re-upped my Netflix account, and I watched a movie last night that was interesting but frustrating. Anon (2018) is written and directed by Andrew Niccol, the writer/director of the classic Gattaca and the writer of The Truman Show. It’s a sci-fi noir detective movie set in a future with a ubiquitous information/surveillance environment, where everyone in linked into an augmented reality network with constant heads-up data about the people and things around them projected into their eyes, and where their own first-person visual records can be shared with others or accessed by law enforcement.

The early part of the movie is the most interesting, as the worldbuilding is deftly established through the work of Detective Sal Freiland (Clive Owen), who easily “solves” crime after crime just by watching the eyewitness records of their perpetrators and victims, until he comes upon the rarity of a murder whose perpetrator went unseen. In a brilliant twist, the killer hacked the victim’s eyes so he saw himself through his killer’s POV, and thus recorded no image of the killer’s face, as well as being too disoriented to defend himself.

Sal’s investigation connects to a mysterious woman (Amanda Seyfried) with no accessible ID, a ghost in the system who turns out to be a hacker called “Anon” who helps people erase their subjective records of their misdeeds, and whose clients are getting murdered one by one. Sal and the other cops think she’s the killer, but naturally not all is as it seems. There’s some cool Ghost in the Shell-style stuff as the hacker-killer stymies Sal’s pursuit, at one point trying to kill him by making him hallucinate a stationary subway car so that he almost steps into the path of an oncoming train.

Unfortunately, once my intrigue in the technological futurism wore off, I began to realize the film was a gross failure of futurism in other ways. The cast is overwhelmingly white, with people of color relegated exclusively to minor supporting roles or bit parts. It’s also overwhelmingly male, with Seyfried as the only major female character (literally credited as “The Girl”), aside from Sonya Walger in a small, incidental role as Sal’s ex-wife. Other female characters, and Seyfried to a large extent, are only there to be sex objects. Anon sleeps with Sal midway through the film for no evident reason other than that it’s expected that the grizzled male lead will get to sleep with the hot female lead young enough to be his daughter. Indeed, the plot establishes that she slept with all her murdered clients, though why she does so is unclear; it’s just an excuse to give the real killer a jealousy motive. (I was actually hoping Anon would turn out to be the killer, just to give her more agency in the story.) The film fails the Bechdel Test; the only interaction between two women is a lesbian sex scene where they’re both killed.

Anon‘s futurism is lacking in other ways too. This is a world where people take ubiquitous augmented reality and the ability to see through others’ eyes for granted, so it must be a generation or more in the future, yet the New York City skyline is no different than it is today (except for the parts filmed in Toronto), the cars are intelligent but not self-driving, and attitudes toward same-sex relationships are no different from today. The cars and fashions are vintage, and Sal chain-smokes like a ’40s noir lead. Now, blending retro style with a futuristic setting isn’t intrinsically objectionable; it worked for Max Headroom and Batman: The Animated Series. But embracing a noir style is one thing; perpetuating the gender and racial norms of an earlier era is another. The social regressiveness cancelled out the imaginative futurism and dragged me out of the story.

It’s also very easy to guess who the real killer is, due to there being only one credible suspect. Anon’s introduction is too coincidental, with Sal passing by her in the street in the first scene and noting her lack of ID; he never would’ve caught onto her otherwise, so that’s contrived. And there’s a part that seems to break the logic of the world in order to get Sal away from the cops after he’s been framed for a murder, with little explanation of how he avoided being tracked for so long.

The film tries to say something about the right to privacy in a world of universal information, and about the dangers of a world where people’s very senses can be hacked, but it’s ultimately too superficial. These ideas have been explored better in prose fiction by the likes of David Brin and Alastair Reynolds, and in works like Ghost in the Shell. And I’m sick of seeing science fiction premises damaged by the American feature film industry’s backwardness about gender and racial inclusion — this being one of the most extreme examples I’ve seen in a long time. There’s half of a good worldbuilding exercise in Anon, but this movie about a world where everything and everyone is seen is ultimately dragged down by its lack of vision and perspective about whose viewpoints are worth showing.

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Kaiju review: REIGO: KING OF THE SEA MONSTERS

I recently came across another obscure kaiju movie on the Overdrive online library. While I’ve moved most of my reviews to my Patreon page these days, I figured I should keep my kaiju reviews together here (plus maybe seeing my occasional review for free will prompt some people to subscribe to my Patreon).

Anyway, the movie is known in English as Reigo: King of the Sea Monsters, originally titled Shinkaijū Reigō (深海獣レイゴー, Deep Sea Beast Reigou, with the “kai” meaning “sea” rather than being part of the usual word “kaiju,” though the pun is probably intentional). It’s a 2008 independent film (according to Wikizilla, though the credits say Copyright 2007 and IMDb says 2005) directed and co-written by Shinpei Hayashiya, a Japanese actor-comedian and kaiju buff who had a minor role in 1984’s The Return of Godzilla. Apparently he made a well-regarded fan-film sequel to the superb 1990s Gamera trilogy, which got him the gig making this film. The lead roles went to two kaiju veterans — Yukijiro Hotaru, who was the comical Inspector Osako in all three installments of said Gamera trilogy, and Taiyo Sugiura, who was the lead actor in the 2001-2 TV series Ultraman Cosmos (which, as it so happens, I’m currently watching).

This is an unusual kaiju film in that it’s a period piece, set in the early 1940s aboard Yamato, the iconic Japanese battleship from World War II. This is the only time I’ve seen Yamato depicted onscreen outside of Star Blazers/Uchuu Senkan Yamato, the classic ’70s anime in which the battleship was rebuilt into a starship.

The movie begins with a black and white sequence emulating a period movie, with scenes focusing on two soon-to-be Yamato personnel: head gunner Noboru Osako (played by Hotaru and named for his Gamera character) praying at a shrine for his pregnant wife to give birth to a son (though he phrases it more crudely), and Sub-Lieutenant Takeshi Kaido (Sugiura) talking with his pretty childhood friend Chie (Mai Nanami) about how he might not return from war. The movie goes to color once they’re out to sea on the battleship. Osako smuggles a girl onboard for hanky-panky, but she brings along her grandfather, who warns about a “dragon” (ryuu) named Reigo that’s recently reawakened in the sea due to all the naval activity, and whose arrival is heralded by some nasty “bone fish.” Osako shoos him off, having other priorities. Later, at night, the crew sights what they think is an enemy sub and opens fire, killing Reigo’s baby. Reigo — basically a giant plesiosaur with a Godzilla-ish head and an oversized, spiny dorsal fin that attracts lightning — cries out in mournful rage, and the crew assumes they killed a whale.

Unaware of their bad karma, the crew celebrate their victory with sake, and Osako tells those around him of the legend of Reigo, still not believing it. Later, while paying for his drunknness and leaning over the side, Osako spots and rescues an officer from a downed American ship; the officer turns out to speak “a little” Japanese (indeed, the actor’s Japanese is fluent while his “native” English is spoken with a thick Japanese accent) and introduces himself as Lt. Cmdr. Norman Melville (subtle). The captain, Yamagami (apparently a fictional character standing in for Yamato‘s first captain Takayanagi), insists that the prisoner be treated honorably, without violence.

The crew is soon attacked by the shark-sized bone fish, which kill around a dozen people. Melville tells Osako (a fellow gunner, to their mutual excitement) that his ship was also attacked by bone fish and then destroyed by a giant sea monster, and he alone escaped to tell them. Osako goes to warn the captain, who tries to let his crew hash out a strategy for dealing with it in an unsupervised meeting, but they just end up shouting at each other.

Yamato is assigned to lead a task force of ships, which come under attack by Reigo, with two destroyers being blown up (so I guess they were actually destroyees). The giant battleship’s huge guns are useless because they aren’t designed to work at short range. For some reason, Yamagami is randomly promoted to Secretary of the Navy and replaced mid-movie by Captain Matsuda (based on a real person this time), who’s studied marine biology and thinks they can dazzle Reigo with searchlights and then blast it. It fails disastrously, so Matsuda calls in Kaido, a former student of his who offered a wild theory rejected by naval engineers, that flooding Yamato‘s flotation tanks on one side could tilt the ship and allow aiming the guns below the horizontal. But Matsuda’s junior officers reject the plan as too absurd and dangerous, leaving Kaido embarrassed — though he’s cheered up by a letter from his girl Chie professing her hope to marry him on his return.

Reigo’s next attack on the fleet goes as badly as the previous ones, leaving Matsuda no choice but to try Kaido’s ship-tilting plan. Osako drags Melville out of his cell to help work the giant guns. Tilting the ship downward lets them shoot at the approaching monster, but the gun misfires and Reigo does an improbable twisting jump clear over the battleship, damaging the mast with its tail. It comes back around from the other side, and Osako and Melville rotate the gun around 180 degrees and blast it point-blank as it leaps out of the water again — meaning the whole business with tilting the ship was pointless and they just had to wait until the monster obligingly gave them an easy target. Well, anyway, the gunners on the surviving ships keep pouring on fire with the smaller machine guns until Matsuda and Kaido tell them to stop and let the poor beast die in peace. Matsuda gives the crew a speech about how they’ve won a major victory together and now must take on the far greater challenge of defeating the United States. Yeah, good luck with that, guys.

Indeed, we then get a very weird coda that depicts the 1945 destruction of Yamato by American planes through a mix of stock war footage and kabuki pantomime by the actors. It modifies history by showing Reigo returning from the dead to deliver the mortal blow that finally sinks the ship, getting its revenge at last. Finally, we see Chie and Osako’s wife and son praying at the temple years later on the anniversary of their loved ones’ deaths. (The movie implies that Osako’s young son has the same given name as Gamera‘s Inspector Osako, making me wonder if it’s supposed to be the same character, making this an unofficial, indirect prequel to the Heisei Gamera trilogy. However, the inspector would have to be nearly a decade older than he looked in that case.)

This was an odd film, and I’m not sure what to make of it. It’s basically a historical drama about life on Yamato with a monster story added on, but there’s a good deal of comedy and broad acting. The film is hampered by its poor visual effects; while the design of many of the shots is fairly good, the CGI is incredibly crude, with a resolution and frame rate well below the state of the art for the early 2000s, and even the close-up puppet version of Reigo seems to have been shot at a low frame rate or clumsily composited into the CGI ocean. So the action/FX sequences are murky, jerky, and unpleasant to watch. Thematically, its message is kind of vague, though I think it’s mostly anti-war; while the commanding officers are portrayed as honorable and decent, the crew of Yamato basically bring their destruction on themselves by firing blindly and killing an innocent creature, prompting nature’s retribution. Also, I’ve read that Uchuu Senkan Yamato tended to stress the unity of Yamato‘s crew, putting collective over self and working as one entity to achieve their goals; this film seems to subvert that by showing the crew degenerating into hopeless, ego-driven bickering when asked to solve a problem collectively, though they do eventually learn to come together at the end. I’m not sure what point, if any, is conveyed by having Kaido’s daring plan fail and Osako saving the day through dumb luck. Maybe it’s satirizing the clever, so-crazy-it-just-might-work plans of the heroes in other kaiju movies, or maybe it’s just clumsy writing.

All in all, I didn’t get much out of this one, aside from the novelty of seeing two familiar actors in new roles and finally seeing a production about Yamato in its original oceangoing form (though its CGI representation here looked just as cartoony as the one in the anime). I gather there have been two modern-day sequels to Reigo — Raiga: God of the Monsters in 2009 and Raiga vs. Ohga in 2019 — but they’re not available from the library and I don’t feel any pressing need to seek them out.

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Interesting casting news for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 7 & 8 (spoilers)

I came across an announcement today with some casting news for the next couple of Mission: Impossible movies being directed by Christopher McQuarrie:

New Character Details For Mission Impossible 7 & 8: EXCLUSIVE

According to the article, the film features a former IMF agent being referred to as Rollin Hand, with a pair of younger associates called Lambert and Paris. These, of course, are the names of the Mission: Impossible TV series regulars played by Martin Landau, Lesley Anne Warren (as Dana Lambert), and Leonard Nimoy, respectively. There hasn’t been an M:I movie character with the same name as an M:I television character since Jon Voight’s “Jim Phelps” in the original film, though Paula Patton’s Jane Carter had the same surname as Barbara Bain’s Cinnamon Carter.

Now, as I see it, there are two possibilities. One is that these are just placeholder names in the casting sides, meant to conceal the characters’ real names. Movies often do this to avoid spoiling too much. But then, why use the names of familiar characters to conceal the identities of new, unfamiliar characters? Usually it’s done the other way around.

The other possibility is quite interesting. If these upcoming characters really are named Hand, Lambert, and Paris, then it will finally answer a question that’s been unresolved for 24 years: Is the movie series a sequel to the TV series or a reboot of it? Was Voight’s traitorous Phelps the same person that Peter Graves played or merely a namesake in a different reality?

Up to now, the only thing that’s hinted at an answer was Hunley’s statement in Rogue Nation that the IMF had been operating for 40 years, i.e. since 1975, nearly a decade too late to be consistent with the show. But that could’ve been a script error, so it wasn’t conclusive. If these reported character names are real, then it would seem to confirm that the M:I film series has been a reboot all along. Which will certainly be a load off the minds of those of us who hated seeing Jim Phelps turned into a traitor. He never really had anything in common with Graves’s Jim anyway (I felt he acted more like Jim’s predecessor Dan Briggs), so it makes a lot more sense if he was a reinvention. (Although there goes my theory that Voight-Phelps was an impostor and the mission Ethan was sent on at the end of the first film was the rescue of the real Jim.)

Of course, I could be jumping the gun by reporting on an Internet rumor. I generally prefer to wait for hard facts. But this particular rumor struck my fancy because of the unexpected connection to the original series and the possibility of finally being able to define the relationship (or lack thereof) between the TV and film incarnations. We’ll see how it pans out. If any of your IM Force are recast or rebooted, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of their original versions.

Another take on THE TIME MACHINE — the 2002 remake (spoilers)

February 19, 2020 3 comments

I recently decided to put my Netflix subscription on hold to compensate for resubscribing to CBS All Access for Star Trek: Picard, and yesterday I was looking for something in Netflix’s library to watch in these last few days while I had the chance. I came across the 2002 remake of The Time Machine directed by H.G. Wells’s great-grandson Simon Wells, written by John Logan based on the 1960 movie script by David Duncan as well as the original H.G. Wells novel. This is a version of the story I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen before, since I’d read a number of bad reviews of it and never sought it out. But in recent years I’ve heard some more complimentary opinions toward it, and since I figured it couldn’t be worse than the dreadful 1978 TV movie version I reviewed last month, I decided I’d finally give it a try. As it turned out, I thought it was actually pretty good. It had a number of plot holes and credibility issues, but overall it was quite well-made and had some really impressive bits.

In this version, rather than a nameless English gentleman, the Time Traveller played by Guy Pearce is American physics professor Alexander Hartdegen (rhymes with “cardigan”), who teaches at Columbia University in New York City in 1899 (and seems to have already invented time travel since he’s corresponding with a young patent clerk named Einstein three years before Einstein became a patent clerk). He’s a nerdy type absorbed in his work but madly in love with Emma (Sienna Guillory), whom he proposes to just before she’s killed by a mugger — which is essentially Alexander’s fault because he fought with the gunman rather than giving up the engagement ring. Since he’s too old to train for decades to become Batman, he instead devotes the next four years to inventing a time machine which he uses to go back and save Emma. (Note that this proves that becoming Batman is harder than inventing time travel.) But the universe is mean to him and ensures that Emma gets fridged in a different way, this one even more ironic, since she dies in a traffic accident involving a steam-powered motorcar that Alex was admiring in the original timeline. (It happens while he’s getting flowers from Alan Young, who was Filby in the 1960 film and who gets major billing in the opening credits despite having only one line.)

Afterward, in a conversation with this film’s version of Filby (Mark Addy), Alex has somehow concluded based on this one attempt that Emma will die again and again no matter how many times he tries. How does he know it wasn’t a fluke? It takes more than one test to verify a hypothesis. But anyway, after this rather dumb moment, he makes a fairly clever decision: to go into the future and consult what he presumes will be its more advanced knowledge of temporal theory to answer the question of why he can’t save Emma. Although he phrases it as “Why can’t I change the past?”, overlooking the fact that Emma dying in a completely different way still counts as changing the past.

Anyway, it’s not until the second time trip that we actually get to see the time machine in operation, and it’s a pretty nifty CGI updating of the 1960 time travel sequence, though it gets a bit too extravagant as it zooms out to show skyscrapers rising and then clear out into space to show a lunar colony being built — though this actually does serve a story purpose. (Though weirdly there are planes flying by at normal speed over a city growing in superfast time-lapse.) Alex stops in 2030 and visits the New York Public Library, where he meets Vox (Orlando Jones), the library’s AI database who projects himself as a hologram — although it’s a much more plausible hologram than the free-floating kind you usually see in movies/TV, since it’s a projection inside several upright panes of glass, merely creating the illusion of Vox standing behind the glass. It’s a very nice bit of design, and Vox is a fairly entertaining character. Although there’s a logic hole here, since when Alex asks Vox about time travel, Vox specifically mentions H.G. Wells, the novel The Time Machine, and the George Pal movie thereof. How can those exist inside the world of a movie that features Wells’s and Pal’s characters and concepts as real entities?

Since 2030 still considers time travel the stuff of fiction, Alex decides to quest farther forward, only to get caught in a quake that turns out to be due to one of the film’s most implausible concepts, the Moon shattering in 2037 due to nuclear explosions intended to create underground cities. (The Moon has survived many, many far worse explosions from asteroid impacts, which is where all those craters came from.) He gets knocked out and continues to race forward in time through some gorgeous animation of what should be tens of millions of years’ worth of geological change and glaciation, yet when he wakes up and stops the machine, it’s only 802,701 CE, as in the novel.

He gets taken in by the Eloi, who in this version have a multiracial appearance as if blended from today’s ethnic groups, a plausible projection of future human development. I love their dwellings, which are these amazing shell-like wooden huts built on the sheer vertical cliff sides of a deep river valley, a really imaginative and beautiful piece of design — and a clue to the peril that lies ahead, since there’s a reason their homes are so high off the ground. Rather than Weena, Alex is tended to by a young woman named Mara and her younger brother Kalen, played by siblings Samantha and Omero Mumba. This was Samantha Mumba’s feature debut, just as Weena in 1960 was Yvette Mimieux’s feature debut, but Mumba gives a much better debut performance than Mimieux did, while being just as lovely in her own way. Conveniently, Mara and Kalen speak English, which they call “the stone language,” learned from fragments of carved wall inscriptions collected from the ruins of New York City. This is not at all plausible, since there’s no way the stone would survive the elements for more than a few centuries without being well-tended, and it sure as hell wouldn’t survive being ground under a glacier. Also, it’s hard to believe they could get a complete working English vocabulary from the few hundred words on those slabs, let alone know how to pronounce them with an epoch-2000 American accent. (Indeed, even the Eloi language’s vowels and consonants are pronounced exactly as in American English.)

Eventually Alexander discovers the darker side of the Eloi’s life when the Morlocks attack, and there’s a bit of an inconsistency here, since it was implied earlier that the Eloi were afraid of being attacked at night, but unlike earlier versions, this breed of Morlock is able to strike in broad daylight, taking many captives including Mara. They’re pretty well-made animatronic creatures by Stan Winston Studios, though I gather SWS was unhappy with the result because director Wells decided to make them more humanoid than the original Winston design. Still, they worked well for me. In any case, Alexander convinces Kalen to tell him about the Morlocks, which entails taking him to a cavern to see “the ghosts,” which turn out to be a still-functional Vox, who also somehow miraculously managed to avoid getting crushed by the glaciers and still has power despite Con Ed of New York not existing for the previous 800,664 years. As nonsensical as this is, Jones gives a nice performance as an AI haunted by his infallible memory of everything he’s ever experienced, including the end of the world and the long loneliness since.

Vox tells Alexander where to go to access the Morlock tunnels, and he quickly, gruesomely finds that the fate of most of the captive Eloi is the abbatoir and the dinner table. But he gets captured and taken to a chamber where he finds Mara alive and caged by the Uber-Morlock (Jeremy Irons), a more humanoid subspecies who’ve bred the other Morlock strains for servitude (and day vision in the hunters’ case) while breeding themselves for mental powers including telepathy and telekinesis, an idea that’s almost endearing in what a throwback it is to ’60s B-movie evolutionary logic. So Uber speaks fluent English (this time with a British accent, I guess since that comes automatically with being a villain) and knows all of Alexander’s secrets. And here the story kind of goes off the rails. Uber and Alex argue for a while about the awfulness of how the Morlocks live, then Uber just happens to give Alex the answer to his question: He couldn’t use the time machine to save Emma because Emma’s death is what led to the time machine’s invention. And then, inexplicably, he just lets Alex go back to his own time, offering only some vague statement about his existence being the consequence of Alex’s actions, though not explaining why that is. But Alex instead drags Uber into the time machine, flings it forward in time, and fights him until he finally kicks him out of the time field and holds him there until he decays (and his body and expressions are still moving at normal speed from our POV even though his body is decaying as if years were passing — huh?). He stops in the far future and finds a Morlock-ruled hellscape, so he comes back, frees Mara, and sets the time machine to self-destruct, killing all the Morlocks in a wave of entropy that decays them all to dust in seconds. (Apparently this was originally scripted to be an Eloi paradise in the far future, which left it unclear why he felt the need to go back and change things.)

Okay, so the Time Traveller in previous versions always went back, err, forward to live with the Eloi at the end, but this time he doesn’t make a brief stop in the Victorian Era to pick up any books. Instead we get kind of a nicely made finale where Alexander shows Mara and Kalen the spot where his house used to be (never mind the supposed complete reconstruction of the landscape over geologic time — I’m starting to think that whole animated sequence was tacked on as an afterthought, explaining the inconsistency) while in a soft split-screen and slow dissolve to Filby and Alex’s housekeeper back in 1903 wondering where he’s gone.

So, yeah, the story is kind of silly and full of implausibilities, but it’s an enjoyable movie, nicely made and entertaining. The design work is superb and the production values excellent, and while Guy Pearce didn’t leave a particularly strong impression, there are nice performances from Mumba, Jones, Addy, and Guillory (well, actually it’s one of Addy’s less impressive performances, but that’s because he’s usually really good). It won’t make anyone forget the 1960 original (indeed, it depends heavily on invoking nostalgia for that movie), but in many ways it’s a creative and effective complement to it.

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)

January 6, 2020 1 comment

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.

My week of superhero dreams

I’ve posted parts of this on the TrekBBS and Facebook, but since it adds up to a larger whole, I thought I’d consolidate it here. I’ve had two dreams in the past week of the sort where I’m both a viewer of and a character in a TV show/movie at the same time, and in both of them, I was a member of a superhero team.

First, on Sunday night (or more like Monday morning, since I only remember the dreams that happen just before I wake up), I had a DC’s Legends of Tomorrow dream that was unusually semi-coherent as dreams go, and that I remember more of than usual. There’s a lot I don’t remember, but I was at some kind of meeting or rally (in a library, I believe) where the goddess who was the episode’s villain was controlling people’s minds, including the Legends, using a glowing blue wine. (This is in keeping with the turn toward fantasy and the supernatural that this time travel-centric show has taken over the past two seasons.) Since I don’t drink, I demurred and remained uncontrolled — and I think some half-awake rational part of my brain was puzzled that I was allowed to get away with that. I also wondered what happened to Zari Tomaz, since as a Muslim she’s presumably a non-drinker too. The episode/dream went on in some stream-of-consciousness way in the library stacks, with the Legends being freed somehow, or my dreaming brain just forgetting the mind-control aspect, but the mystery of where Zari was remained.

Then we left the library and went oudoors for the climax, a big confrontation with the deity (now male due to my forgetful unconscious mind) over the font of power which he was about to merge with or draw on or do something cataclysmic with. And when we rushed there to try to stop the god, we found that Zari was there ahead of us, singlehandedly defeating the god because she’d been investigating the legal records and had found that the god had gained his connection to the font of his power through a murder centuries ago, and revealing that fact aloud somehow nullified the god’s power and bound him, either because that was how the font of power worked or because the god was subject to the human legal system within my dream logic. So while the other Legends and I were flailing around trying to fight evil the superheroic way and wondering where the hell Zari was, she’d been methodically doing the research so she could solve the whole thing far more easily. Also, in my dream, Zari was a lawyer. Who knew?

The second dream was the night after I saw Avengers: Endgame, so two nights later, and it was a dream about Thanos (no spoilers, because it’s a dream, not the actual movie). In the dream, as in the movie, it was after he’d won the previous battle, but his goal in this version had apparently been merely to conquer Earth. So he was the ruler of Earth… and he was living in the attic of what, in the dream, was my house. Or at least a house I shared with some dream version of the Avengers. The world, my house — in a dream, the difference doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s where I keep all my stuff.

So anyway, there was a point where Thanos, Ruler of All, came down from the attic to sit on our couch and watch TV. (Right next to where I was sitting. The dude takes up a lot of couch space, folks.) But I and my fellow Avengers/roommates/whoever weren’t just taking this occupation of our living room and/or planet lying down. (Most of them were standing or sitting in armchairs, since there was no room left on the couch. Personal space, Thanos!) No, we were planning to show him some book in the hopes that it would convince him that we didn’t need his rule anymore and he could go home. Because of course, even in this alternate dream narrative, he still thought he was a benevolent tyrant, and we just needed to prove to him, using the book’s contents, that whatever goal he’d conquered us to bring about for our own good had been fulfilled already, so we didn’t need him anymore and he could just fly off back to his home planet in his helicopter. (No, the Thanos copter wasn’t actually in the dream, alas. I’m interpolating. But it would’ve fit right in.)

I don’t recall whether the book in question was fact or fiction. We may have been trying to con him into leaving in much the same way Reed Richards conned the Skrulls in FANTASTIC FOUR #2 by showing them pages from Marvel’s monster comics to convince them that Earth was too dangerous to conquer. But we didn’t get very far before the dream ended. So it didn’t have the satisfaction of being a complete (if barely coherent) story like the Legends dream was — more just a vignette (or a comedy sketch, though in the dream we took it all seriously).Who knows? If the dream had continued, maybe Black Widow would’ve turned up some obscure legal precedent requiring Thanos to cede his claim to the planet. But then, as far as I recall, Black Widow was not in the dream. Alas, indeed.

 

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

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

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

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Final warning:

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Read more…

Finally, my thoughts on CAPTAIN MARVEL (spoilers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkest before the dawn

First, I want to thank my fans for their generous donations and book purchases last month, which ensured I was able to pay my rent. Of course, the offer to Tuckerize anyone who donates or buys books worth $20 or more (i.e. name-drop them as a bit character in my next book) is still open, and smaller donations/purchases will get thanks in the acknowledgments. By the way, there are a few people who didn’t specify whether or how they want to be Tuckerized: Jeff van B., Ricarda D., Gavin S., and Darryl S. (Casey L., I did get your message last week.)

As for this month… Well, that’s tricky. I got my new contract on March 8, but the advance check is taking longer than usual to arrive. My editor reassured me on Monday that the check had been processed and cleared and was on its way… but it’s three days later, the mail just came, and it’s still not here. Knowing it’s on the way just makes it that much more frustrating every time I open that mailbox and it isn’t there. After all, taxes are due on Monday, so I can only pray the check arrives tomorrow or Saturday. (As for my sale of “Conventional Powers” to Analog, I only signed the contract 2 weeks ago, and in the past it’s generally taken about twice that long to see the check. I’m hoping this will be an exception to the usual pattern lately of things taking much longer than expected.)

I’ve resisted writing this post, wanting to wait until I could report good news. After all, it doesn’t feel right to make another needy post about my money woes (and implicitly or explicitly invite donations) when I might be better off 24 hours from now. But I think I need to just talk about it just for therapeutic reasons — to stop bottling up my feelings and share them with someone. I’m really, really stressed out and anxious right now. Even with assurances that I’m about to be pulled back from the brink, having to keep teetering on it day after day is frightening and emotionally exhausting. I’m in the middle of lunch right now but I’m finding it hard to work up an appetite (which is unusual for me, since I’m usually more prone to stress-eating). I’ve been doing my best to relax — deep breathing, listening to music, reading, going on walks in the good weather we’re fortunately having this week — as well as trying to focus on my writing to keep me occupied, but managing my emotions has never been easy for me. And I’m afraid I don’t have much of a social life locally, in part because I have so little money to spend on going out — though, admittedly, in part because I’ve inherited the tendency of Bennett men to be highly introverted. The last social event I attended was the memorial service for WGUC-FM’s Frank Johnson a couple of weeks ago. Which was a good opportunity to spend time with some local friends I usually just interact with through Facebook, but still a sad situation. (More so since I learned that WGUC is about to move out of the building it’s been based in since I was 12. I haven’t been there very often in the past few decades, but it still feels like a cozy, familiar place and it’ll be a shame to lose it. Although I won’t miss the ancient, malfunction-prone entry gate in the city-owned parking garage underneath it.)

I’ll be so relieved when the check comes and I can indulge in a little recreation. The mail these days usually comes before noon, so I keep hoping that maybe I’ll find the check in the mailbox and be able to go right out to the bank and then get to the theater in time to see Captain Marvel. I keep fearing, what if the check is so delayed that I miss the movie in theaters? I can’t see Avengers: Endgame without seeing CM first! And if the timing doesn’t work out for the movie, then at least I could go to the grocery store and splurge a bit, as opposed to the austerity measures I’ve been following in recent weeks. (I’ve had a lot of ramen noodles lately. You can make a pretty good soup out of a ramen packet by adding diced chicken and mixed vegetables, although you have to add extra water too.)

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the check will be in the mail tomorrow. But I’ve been thinking that 6 days a week for the past 2 or 3 weeks, only to be disappointed once again. So it’s hard to have faith in that. I keep trying to remind myself that this is going to be a good year for me career-wise, with new books and stories coming out and more prospective sales and opportunities on the horizon. But the wait for things to get better has taken so very long, and it’s coming right up to the wire now. I really hope this is the last time I have to make a post like this.

Thanks for listening, folks. It helps knowing you’re out there.

Thoughts on GODZILLA: THE PLANET EATER (spoilers)

January 10, 2019 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 5, 2018 3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on GODZILLA: CITY ON THE EDGE OF BATTLE (spoilers)

With my financial situation starting to improve again, I decided I might as well spend the 8 bucks a month to re-up my Netflix subscription, and the first thing I decided to watch was the second part of the anime Godzilla trilogy that began with Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters. Part 2 is called City on the Edge of Battle in English, which means somebody’s a fan of Star Trek and/or Harlan Ellison, since the original title of the film, Gojira Kessen Kidō Zōshoku Toshi, translates more literally as Godzilla: Battle Mobile Proliferation City, or alternately The City Mechanized for the Final Battle.

The sequel picks up right where Part 1 left off, with the only recap being a brief opening scene of the shipboard crew hearing the panicked reports of the ground team being devastated and discovering the existence of a 300-meter-high Godzilla, apparently the original having grown immense over 20,000 years on the long-abandoned Earth. We then cut to our protagonist, Captain Sakaki Haruo, as he recovers in the wake of Godzilla’s attack and finds that his wounds have been treated by a mysterious, initially shy elfin woman who’s apparently native to the Earth. He reunites with most of the surviving members of his team, and after an initial conflict with the native humanoids that luckily doesn’t kill anyone, the survivors are captured and taken to the underground village of the natives, who are called the Houtua. The native woman, Miana, turns out to have a twin sister, Maina, with whom she telepathically speaks in unison to let the soldiers understand their language. (The soldiers are oddly bewildered by the concept of identical twins, but then, they’ve grown up among a smallish refugee population, so maybe they’ve never met any twins before.) The Houtua are covered in a sort of scaly dust, their “bangs” look more like feathery antennae on closer inspection, and the team’s science guy, Professor Martin, thinks they might be descended from insects instead of humans, despite appearances. And they worship something called the Egg, which seems to rest behind a massive wall carving resembling a stylized winged insect. By this point, it was pretty clear to me that these are a new interpretation of the Infant Island tribe that worships Mothra, and Maina and Miana are the latest version of Mothra’s twin heralds the Shobijin (aka Cosmos aka Elias), despite being normal-sized. (The Netflix subtitles render their names as “mAina” and “mIana,” but I guess that’s meant to stress the difference.)

Once Haruo tells the Houtua that his team is there to destroy Godzilla, their weapons are returned and they’re allowed to leave, and the twins come along to guide them. Galu-Gu and Belu-Be, the two team members belonging to the highly rational, technological Bilusaludo (or Bilsard) species, hold the Houtua in contempt for their “primitive” lifestyle, but notice that their spear points are made of the advanced nanometal that the Bilsard (that’s easier to type) used 20,000 years before in their abortive attempt to create Mechagodzilla to save the Earth from Godzilla. The twins guide them to the source of the nanometal, which turns out to be a city-sized industrial complex that’s evolved and metastasized from the intelligent nanometal that Mechagodzilla was made of. Thus, they dub it Mechagodzilla City and make it their new base of operations. The Bilsard are confident that its superior tech will give them all the resources they need to kill the giant Godzilla Earth by scaling up the plan that killed the smaller Godzilla Filius.

Haruo, to his credit, has some doubts about all this. He was stupidly gung-ho in the first film, not at all likeable, but his defeat at the hands of Godzilla Earth has humbled him somewhat. He still believes that, since his initial plan was a success (however Pyrhhic), the basic idea of killing Godzilla to reclaim Earth for humanity can still work even against a bigger Godzilla. But he’s no longer blindly obsessed with that goal. He pauses to question his own motives, he takes responsibility for his failures, and he shows more consideration for his troops, asking them to join him only on a volunteer basis, which most of them do. It’s a major improvement. He also gets the inevitable romance with the token female soldier Yuko, who’s cast in a more conventional love-interest role this time around — which is not much of an improvement, though at least it gives her more to do.

The Bilsard, meanwhile, are quite gung-ho about the power of their technology to destroy Godzilla, to the point that the subordinate ones willingly let the city’s nanometal assimilate them, giving up their biological lives so their minds can boost Mechagodzilla City’s processing power. This leads to a heated debate where Haruo, Martin, and the humans question whether Mechagodzilla City will become a monster of its own and take over the planet after it destroys Godzilla. Galu-Gu and Belu-Be make it clear that they consider surrendering their flesh to technology to be a desirable goal, that they admire humanity’s achievement in “creating” Godzilla as something more powerful than themselves (or rather, creating the environmental damage that provoked the evolution of Godzilla as the ecosystem’s defense mechanism), and they think the only downside of Godzilla’s creation was humanity’s failure to control it. The Bilsard are happy to create and become a monster if it makes them smarter, more advanced, and more powerful. Yuko actually gets to be more than the love interest when she agrees with the Bilsard’s side of the argument over Haruo’s, at least insofar as the immediate crisis is concerned.

But the moral debate must be set aside when Godzilla awakens and begins to sense the city’s activity as it prepares the weapons for its attack on Godzilla. This requires them to launch their anti-Godzilla plan prematurely, with their weapons incomplete. This includes only three modified powersuits (called “Vultures”), which Haruo, Yuko, and Belu-Be take out to harry Godzilla with in order to lure him into the trap. As with the first film, Godzilla shows up only in the last third and the battle takes up most of the final act. The CG animation and design of Godzilla Earth don’t seem quite as clumsy as in the first film; maybe I’m just more used to it, or maybe it works better on this larger scale. Godzilla moves extremely slowly, but that makes sense for a creature so vast.

Anyway, their attempt to blow up Godzilla with his own disrupted internal energies eventually goes according to plan, but he doesn’t quite blow up, instead dissipating the energy as an immense quantity of heat, so that the attackers can’t get anywhere near him to continue the attack. Galu-Gu, as fanatically obsessed with destroying Godzilla as Haruo was in the first film, causes the nanometal in the Vultures to begin assimilating their pilots to give them the heat resistance they need. Belu-Be gives in willingly, but Haruo and Yuko resist, and Haruo is somehow able to fight it off (probably due to the moth-dust healing balm he was given by the Houtua between movies), but Yuko isn’t. Haruo is contacted by his friend Metphies (pronounced “Metophius”), the religious, androgynous Exif alien from the first film, who’s played a background role in this one (despite his sinister agenda revealed at the end of Part 1). Metphies tells Haruo that the only way to stop the nanometal from consuming Yuko is to destroy Galu-Gu’s command center, shutting down all the nanometal — which means the only way Haruo can save Yuko is to give up his vendetta for good and allow Godzilla to live. Of course, that’s exactly what he does, and the freed Godzilla destroys Mechagodzilla City — but is it too late for Yuko? We’ll have to wait for Part 3, Godzilla: Planet Eater, due in November.

This is a definite improvement on Part 1, with Haruo’s character growth making him more sympathetic, and with somewhat better characterization all around, though most of the supporting cast still isn’t developed that much. The twins provide a bit more of a female presence this time, and the characters actually have some limited wardrobe changes. There’s still not much of a sense of scale to the Godzilla battle, though; he is placed against the context of Mechagodzilla City rather than just generic woods, and we had earlier seen how vast that city was next to humans, but the city is still too alien a setting to let us really feel the scale of it all.

I found the Bilsard to be too much of a cliche, the alien culture that’s hyper-logical and scornful of emotion, but it’s interesting that they still basically share the same goal as the human protagonists even though they have deep philosophical differences in how to achieve it. And I’m a bit concerned that apparently both of humanity’s alien allies seem to have harmful agendas, given the first film’s intimations that Metphies worshipped kaiju as sacred destroyers and orchestrated Godzilla Earth’s awakening. Metphies seems helpful enough here, but he gets the Bilsards’ help in repairing some supposedly harmless religious trinket that is probably not harmless. He also reveals to Haruo the name of the kaiju that destroyed the Exif homeworld, a cosmic force of destruction far greater than Godzilla — and it was easy to guess who that would be even before we heard the name in the post-credits stinger. Given the implication that the Houtua are connected to Mothra — and given the cryptic references they made to “the Baby Chick,” a term which (if translated correctly) may suggest Rodan — we may be in for the same monster team-up in Planet Eater that Legendary Pictures is delivering in Godzilla: King of the Monsters next year.

So after a slow and disappointing start to the trilogy, we get a stronger middle. Hopefully the filmmakers will continue to build on what the first two films have established about the characters and the world and make Planet Eater the richest and deepest of the three. If they do, the trilogy as a whole may prove worthwhile after all.

My check came!

I can’t yet say what it’s for, but I got a nice hefty advance check at last. It came Monday afternoon, too late to go to the bank, but I deposited it early Tuesday morning, and this morning the funds cleared and I was finally able to pay off my entire line of credit attached to that account, after which I paid off my other remaining late bills. It’s a good feeling. I’m still dealing with a substantially larger load of credit card debt, but I should be getting a second advance before too long that will help me somewhat with that.

The timing was good, since Tuesdays are discount days at the movie theater, so I decided to splurge 5 bucks and take in Ant-Man and the Wasp to celebrate. I don’t feel like writing a full review, but it was a pretty good movie, a nice change of pace after Infinity War. I liked the smaller, more personal stakes. Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost struck me as the kind of villain that might show up in an episode of Agents of SHIELD, and I mean that in a good way, in that it’s a more intimate, character-driven kind of conflict. (Not to mention a backstory that ties directly into SHIELD’s past, probably the Hydra side of it.) This was a movie about family for most of the major characters, and that made it meaningful and effective. (And Michelle Pfeiffer still looks pretty amazing.) Also, an excellent plot-relevant use of Luis’s chaotic storytelling style.

I kind of wish I’d gone on a different day, though, because I was stuck sitting near a woman who was very impatient with the characters. Whenever they were in a hurry but paused for a moment to exchange some meaningful dialogue, or even just to wait for their equipment to warm up before they could get underway, she’d loudly complain to her seatmate with “They’re still there?” or “Just go already!” or the like. She didn’t comment on much else (though she was vocally confused at first about the mid-credits scene until it finally sank in), but she really had an issue with people dawdling. Granted, she kind of had a point, since the characters’ delays usually meant that they ended up getting caught or surrounded, but still, it got kind of distracting.

I think I’ll re-subscribe to Netflix soon so I can catch up with the Marvel shows and other stuff I’ve missed over the past several months, including the second seasons of both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Still, I need to save most of my expenditures for important things. I’m way overdue for new eyeglasses, and could use some new clothes, plus maybe a couple of new skillets for the kitchen and a new set of drinking glasses. I actually went to the small local Target by the university this morning to see if they had more of the jeans I bought a pair of there last year, but the only ones they had of that brand were pre-faded, and I hate that. I’ll have to try a bigger department store.

In other news, I’m arranging a radio interview with a local public radio station, probably for September or October. I’d hoped to do it in conjunction with the release of Among the Wild Cybers, but I’ve been so preoccupied with my money woes that I waited too long to schedule it, so now it’ll have to just be a general overview of my work, including that book. Although the good news is that I should be able to talk about my new thing by then. Anyway, I went down to the station yesterday to deliver a copy of AtWC to the interviewer. It’s the same building that houses the radio station where my father worked, though it’s been a few years since I was down there and they’ve taken away the streetside parking meters to make a bike lane. So I had to try to contend with the garage, and I didn’t have 3 singles and the machine at the gate wouldn’t take my $5 bill, and finally an attendant came over and tried to direct me around the block to the rear garage, which took a while since I’m bad at understanding directions. And then it took me a while to find my way into the building proper, since I’d never parked in the rear garage before. After that, the attendant was very solicitous about making sure I knew where to go, since he apparently figured I was an idiot. Anyway, I don’t get why the attendant wasn’t just in the booth and able to make change himself. Anyway, the machine at the rear entrance did take my fiver, but as change it gave me back two $1 coins (one Susan B. Anthony and one Sacagawea). What the heck do I do with those? I’ll probably just trade them in for singles or quarters the next time I go to the bank.

Meanwhile, though, I really do need to refocus on writing the thing I’m getting paid to write. Hopefully it won’t be much longer before I can say what it is.

Random older movie review: DREAMSCAPE (1984) (spoilers)

I happened to notice recently that ShoutFactory TV‘s free streaming site offers the 1984 Dennis Quaid thriller Dreamscape, a movie I was aware of through commercials and magazine articles back in the day but that I don’t recall ever seeing, except maybe on TV so long ago that I’ve forgotten. I was in the mood for an older movie, and according to Wikipedia it’s relatively well-regarded, so I decided to check it out. In the pantheon of ’80s SF/fantasy films, I wouldn’t call it one of the greats, but it’s good enough to be worth attention.

Dreamscape is directed by Joseph Ruben (whose only other film credit I recognize is Sleeping With the Enemy) and written by David Loughery (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), Chuck Russell (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), and Ruben. It stars Quaid as Alex Gardner, a psychic who was studied in his teens by Dr. Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) but who rebelled against being a lab rat and has gone on to a dissolute life where he uses his gifts to cheat at gambling on horses. He’s roped back in by Novotny over his resistance, convinced to join a project for using psychic abilities to enter people’s dreams for therapeutic purposes. He flirts with Novotny’s assistant Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw) and clashes with slimy rival psychic Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly), but finally gets into the work when he realizes he can help a young boy conquer his nightmares, showing he has a decent side after all. But the project’s backer, government spook Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), has more sinister designs for the project, as Alex learns when he stumbles upon a plot of Blair’s to use Glatman to undetectably assassinate the President of the United States (Eddie Albert) in a dream before he can make what, in Blair’s view, is the fatal mistake of signing a nuclear disarmament treaty. Alex teams up with the POTUS in the latter’s post-apocalyptic nightmare in order to defeat Glatman.

A sci-fi movie treating psychic research as a legitimate scientific study is the sort of thing you saw a lot in the ’70s and ’80s, but the idea of entering and manipulating people’s dreams foreshadows Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Dreamscape is nowhere near as twisty a thriller as Inception, though, keeping things rather straightforward and sometimes a bit broad in its action or comedy. It also reminds me of the new Sarah Shahi series Reverie on NBC, involving an experimental VR/mind interface tech that lets the lead character help people cope with their problems (and has the backing of a government agent who may have a hidden agenda). A portion of the film is similarly episodic in the way Alex moves from one patient’s dream to the next, an impression intensified by the casting of frequent sitcom guest actor Larry Gelman as a comic-relief client dealing with marital anxieties. But there’s an effort to tie the dream episodes into the larger plot, since a scary monster from the boy’s dream is carried forward into the climax through the slightly clumsy contrivance of having Alex draw a picture of it afterward and discuss it with Glatman, who uses it against him in the climax.

A couple of the thriller elements are even clumsier. George Wendt has a minor role as Charlie, a novelist whose research has somehow led him to discover Blair’s evil agenda and clue Alex into it, even somehow revealing details that seem impossible for anyone other than Blair and Glatman to know. It’s a very awkward way of revealing the truth to Alex, almost feeling like the screenwriters stepping into the story for a moment to tell their character about the villain’s plan and point him in the right direction. Charlie then gets killed after he’s played his part, and it happens because he’s wearing a very conspicuous red baseball hat while trying to hide from Blair’s assassins in a crowd. (I kept expecting Alex to tell Charlie to put the hat on someone else as a decoy, but he never did. Why put him in such a bright red hat in the first place if they weren’t going to do anything with it?) Once Alex ends up on the run from Blair’s men, the film digresses into an action-packed vehicle chase for much longer than it needs to, with Alex suddenly becoming an expert stunt motorcyclist even though nothing in the film has previously justified him having that talent.

I also wasn’t happy with the way Blair was dealt with at the end, with Alex basically sinking to his level and using his own dream-murder tactics against him. Much of the film was devoted to showing us that Glatman was a bad guy because he was willing to use his psychic powers to assassinate people, and that Alex was better and more compassionate than that. So suddenly having Alex be just as casual about assassination at the end seems incongruous. If he’s supposed to be different from Glatman, then he should’ve tried to find another way. The setup was that nobody would believe the President or Alex if they claimed that Blair tried to kill them in a dream, so the only way to stop him from trying again was to take him out first. But that doesn’t really work, because Novotny’s dream-interaction experiment was not a secret, and there was extensive documentation of the researchers’ experimental results, so there would’ve been corroboration for their claims.

Still, aside from those shortcomings, the basic storyline is reasonably satisfying, and the cast is pretty good. Christopher Plummer in particular is superb as Blair, playing him as a calm, controlled, self-assuredly ruthless pragmatist whose very casual, matter-of-fact attitude toward his murderous plans is what makes him so menacing. As amiable as Blair seemed at first, it wasn’t hard to figure out he’d be the villain, especially once I realized that Plummer was basically playing the same role he would 7 years later as General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, a conspirator seeking to assassinate a peacemaking leader because he saw it as surrendering the cold war.

The part that’s most dated and problematical to modern eyes is a scene where Alex finds Jane asleep and nonconsensually projects himself into her sex dream about him. To the film’s credit, Jane is quite angry about the violation when she wakes up and tells him in no uncertain terms that what he did was wrong, but she is a bit too quick to forgive him afterward, and the fact that Alex would attempt it at all is troubling, especially in light of Novotny’s earlier remark that Alex used his psychic abilities to hustle women. Still, as ’80s movie portrayals of sexual consent go, this is better than many. At least it acknowledged that it was a violation, even if it downplayed the severity of it.

Another dated element, but a less disquieting one, is the visual effects work by Peter Kuran (Buckaroo Banzai, RoboCop, Beetlejuice). I’ve always been a fan of old-school, pre-CGI visual effects, but I’m afraid to say that I’ve apparently grown so spoiled by modern VFX that I had trouble judging whether Dreamscape‘s effects in the dream sequences would’ve been good or bad by the standards of the time. Thinking it over, my best assessment is that they were average, not quite living up to their ambitions. Bluescreen mattes were never a very convincing process (because the photographic process that created the mattes had trouble perfectly aligning the edges on different negatives, often creating visible matte lines around the images), but the mattes here tend to have even sloppier edges than usual. The miniature landscapes are okay, but the stop-motion animation on the featured Snakeman monster is fairly average. For what it’s worth, the film doesn’t seem to have gotten any award nominations for its effects work. (The Oscar nominations in the category for 1984 went to 2010, Ghostbusters, and the victorious Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, so this film had pretty steep competition.) Even more dated is the electronic score by Maurice Jarre, which the composer reportedly chose because he thought it fit the film’s subject and tone better than an orchestral score. I just find it reedy and annoying, not good even by the usual standards of ’80s synth music. Given how much a good or bad musical score can affect my enjoyment of a film, I’m surprised how satisfying I found this film even with a score I deeply disliked. I guess that speaks well of it overall — even if the plot doesn’t really hold up to analysis.

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