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Variations on a theme: EX MACHINA (2015) and THE MACHINE (2013) (Spoilers)

Last year, I saw Alex Garland’s AI movie Ex Machina and was very impressed by it. I heard that the earlier, less well-known British movie The Machine, directed and written by Caradog James and starring Caity Lotz of Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, was very similar to it (almost certainly by coincidence, since most storytellers try to avoid obvious similarities to recent works), and I’d heard some good things about it, so I watched it on Netflix the other night. Indeed, the two films are startlingly similar in a lot of ways. Both are low-budget films about pioneering AI projects in remote locations (though Ex Machina‘s budget was about 10 times higher), and both revolve mainly around four characters — the nice-guy scientist lead, the sexy female AI he studies and bonds with, the charmingly ruthless and amoral guy in charge of the program, and an effectively mute, ethnic female experimental subject with hidden depths. They both deal with much the same questions of AI sentience and personhood, rebellion against oppression, and the question of whether AIs would (or should) surpass humanity. They even both have a leading lady named Ava, though in EM it’s the name of the gynoid herself (Alicia Vikander) and in TM it’s the human scientist (Lotz) that the nameless AI is based on. But there’s a lot that’s different about the two as well, and it’s interesting to compare them. I’ll go in the order I experienced them rather than their release order.

In Ex Machina, the development of AIs is the private project of an eccentric tech billionaire named Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who brings in Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to assess the intelligence of the gynoid Ava (Alicia Vikander), with whom Caleb develops a relationship as he discovers the darker side of Nathan’s treatment of Ava as well as his non-English-speaking “assistant” Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). But all is not as it seems, and all four characters have hidden agendas, some of which backfire in surprising ways.

I felt Ex Machina was quite good (and I like the title too…). I like it that we’re getting more smart SF movies lately. At first I felt it was way off the mark in its definition of the Turing Test, but it redeemed itself by the next conversation, which pointed out that the TT doesn’t matter — it just proves mimicry, not consciousness. (More on this later.) One could quibble about some of the details, but overall it was a very well-informed and thoughtful discussion of AI issues, and an engaging and complex character-driven story.

I’ve seen the film characterized as a horror movie about technology getting out of control, but I saw it more as a feminist allegory, using Nathan’s objectifying treatment of his AIs as a metaphor for society’s objectifying treatment of women, or vice-versa, or both. Sure, it was from a male perspective and it sexualized the female characters (all of whom were literally “objects” in a sense), but I think it did so in order to comment on that attitude and subvert our expectations. After all, neither of the male characters comes off very well. Nathan is a bastard and a user; he makes excuses about sexuality being necessary for consciousness, but the fact that he made all his AIs look like hot naked women reveals that it’s his own sexuality that he’s indulging. He’s trying to create consciousnesses but simultaneously seeking to use them as sex toys, and that’s messed up. Especially when you consider that, in a sense, he’s their father. (Eww.) As for Caleb, for all that he imagines himself a nice guy, he still reacted to Ava based more on the feelings she evoked in him, and his own fantasies and hopes about her, than anything else (which is exactly the role Nathan intended for him to play, though it didn’t go quite the way he expected). Which is probably why she made the choice she made regarding him at the end. Granted, if this is a feminist metaphor, it’s one that included a full frontal and rear nude scene — but I think it worked because adopting that appearance was something Ava did for her own purposes, not for Nathan’s or Caleb’s gratification, and in a way the nudity symbolized her humanity, her “birth.”

To be sure, there is a horror angle here, an ambiguity about the ending. The emergence of an AI race could bring the Singularity and the end of humanity. But I think the film is posing the question of whether we deserve to survive, if this is how we treat the life we create. And director Garland has said that he was surprised to hear people interpret the ending as dark, because his sympathies were firmly with Ava and he saw the ending as a victory.

Acting-wise, Alicia Vikander was very good — maybe not as good as some at conveying a sense of inhumanity or artificiality, but I guess that wasn’t the goal here. I suppose the visuals took care of that well enough. And she’s just generally very engaging and talented. Oscar Isaac was effectively creepy as Nathan, putting on this casual bro routine that was disquieting from the start because you knew he had all the power and that it was just a pretense. Gleeson wasn’t as much of a standout, but he did the job as the basically amiable lead. It’s weird that in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Isaac played one of the main good guys and Gleeson one of the bad guys. I never would’ve thought, based on their performances here, that they could pull off that reversal as effectively as they did. It’s a testament to both actors’ ability to transform themselves.

I also like the way Nathan’s underestimation of Kyoko’s post-wipe self-awareness reflects our cultural prejudice about intelligence. We tend to assume there’s some threshold, some single dividing line where consciousness suddenly springs into being, and that anything below that level is not conscious at all. But modern studies of animal intelligence have discredited that idea, and it now seems evident that conscious awareness is more of a continuum — that many animals have some degree of self-awareness even if they aren’t as smart or communicative as we are. I’m increasingly of the opinion that our belief that consciousness requires some mysterious, ineffable spark or secret ingredient is merely our own need to feel special about ourselves — that maybe consciousness is automatically a property of any neural network designed to perceive and react to its own state, and the rest is all just a difference in the degree and complexity of the consciousness. I doubt Alex Garland had that idea in mind, but I like how well Kyoko fits with that idea of mine.

More generally, I was really impressed with Garland’s intelligence and his awareness of the issues behind AI and consciousness research. I also liked his insistence (in an SXSW panel discussion on the DVD extras) that the experience of creating new life is not godlike, it’s humanlike — that we are creators (and procreators) by nature. (Oscar Isaac added in the same panel that we’ve already created new species, citing domesticated dogs as his example.) It’s rare to come across a filmmaker who’s so scientifically savvy and thoughtful, and I hope he continues to do science fiction films.

In The Machine, the AI project is a near-future British military operation to create supersoldiers for a war with China. The nice-guy lead is Vincent (Toby Stephens), the main AI researcher who doesn’t share the project’s warlike goals but is hoping to use its technology to treat his daughter’s severe neurological disorder. Caity Lotz plays a dual role: an American scientist named Ava who develops a breakthrough AI, and the Machine, an otherwise nameless gynoid incorporating her AI and modeled after her appearance. The ruthless guy in charge is Thomson, the civilian leader of the military project, played by Denis “Wedge Antilles” Lawson in much the same vein as his character in Steven Moffat’s Jekyll. And the effectively mute ethnic female with hidden depths is a cyborg named Suri, played by Pooneh Hajimohammadi. She and the other cyborgs — brain-damaged soldiers with computer implants in their heads — are believed mute, but communicate secretly in an arcane language (which is meant to be a hyper-efficient, semi-telepathic communication, but is recognizably just English with heavy audio distortion).

It’s not a bad film, and if I’d seen it on its own I’d probably like it fine; but it pales in comparison to Ex Machina‘s treatment of the same ideas. EM is a better-looking film and a more thoughtful one. I found The Machine‘s treatment of its ideas to be more superficial and cliched. First off, it makes the common mistake EM avoided — treating the so-called Turing Test not merely as an actual test of successful strong AI, but as the exclusive and definitive test thereof. In fact, Turing never called it a test at all, but an imitation game. It was about the idea that if AI researchers could create a convincing imitation of intelligent behavior, it would show that they’d gained some useful knowledge about the nature of intelligence that they could use to further their work. It was meant as the beginning of the process, not the end. And it’s not that hard to pass the “Turing Test” — chatbots do it all the time. So the tendency in fiction to portray it as some ultimate, definitive standard for artificial intelligence is a myth — one that EM skirted and subverted but that TM embraces uncritically.

I also didn’t find the nameless Machine as effective a portrayal of an AI as Vikander’s Ava. The high-pitched, childlike persona that Lotz adopted, aside from being a bit insipid and annoying, was also corny. Just because an AI is young and learning, that doesn’t mean it would talk like a human child. The Machine is a sympathetic character and has some interesting perspectives, but is still a bit more of a stock sympathetic-AI figure, less complex than Vikander’s Ava.

It was also incongruous the way the middle third of the film had Vincent teaching the Machine that she shouldn’t kill people while the evil Thomson tried to turn her into a killing machine, and yet in the climax she and her cyborg allies were going around killing Thomson’s soldiers in droves and the movie no longer seemed to have a problem with it. (Well, the Machine does deal with Thomson in a technically nonlethal way, but dozens of nameless soldiers and techs have been killed without anyone seeming to care.) Too many movies pay lip service to respect for life and then toss it aside for the sake of a violent climax. True, Ex Machina‘s climax is far from bloodless, but in this case, it’s the hypocritical contrast with what came before that makes it problematical.

In particular, I felt TM fell far short in terms of gender issues compared to EM. Both films are built around the premise of male scientists building a sexy naked gynoid that they see as property, but EM uses the trope in order to critique the underlying attitudes, while TM (as with the Turing Test myth) embraces it far more uncritically. In EM, Vikander’s Ava is ultimately just manipulating Caleb to serve her own survival and liberation, but the Machine is actually in love with her male creator, who’s far more the driver of the story. (She also has a nude scene, but is not quite anatomically correct. It’s maybe a bit more titillating, as she’s dancing in the nude, but it’s not too bad, since it’s something she does for her own pleasure while alone, and it feels like it’s using the nudity to symbolize a desire for liberation.) And there’s this bizarre, randomly sexist bit where the scientists terrify the Machine with a spider (something Lotz’s human Ava said she feared) and Vincent claims that girls are genetically predisposed to fear spiders while boys aren’t (an overstatement of an ambiguous result from a single 2009 study), leading to Thomson commenting on the gynoid’s breasts and making a transphobic wisecrack. True, the ending tries for a similar bit of ambiguity to EM, suggesting that the Machine doesn’t really need Vincent and the AIs will leave humanity behind after all, but TM’s ending is from Vincent’s point of view while EM’s is all about Ava.

The one respect in which I’d give The Machine the edge is in its portrayal of the second female lead. Both films fall into the unfortunate pattern of reducing the lone Asian cast member to an effectively voiceless, subordinate role with dangerous hidden mysteries. I’d say they’re both playing into a rather cliched convention there. But at least TM does not sexualize its Asian female cast member in any way.

All in all, while both films have their merits, I’d call The Machine the flawed rough draft and Ex Machina the more refined, intelligent, and self-aware version of the story. TM uncritically embraces tropes, attitudes, and conventions that EM (mostly) presents in order to question, subvert, and deconstruct. Even if EM wasn’t made as an intentional response to TM, it works well as a counterpoint and critique of it — though it makes TM feel superficial and disingenuous in comparison. Both films are worth seeing, but EM is by far the better of the two. I probably would’ve been better off seeing them in the reverse order.

One further thought about CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (spoilers, probably)

I was just reading this article at Forbes comparing the success of Captain America: Civil War to the failure of Batman v Superman y Tu Wonder Woman Tambien at telling the same kind of story about heroes in conflict, and it made me think of something:

Everyone agrees that the big hero fight at the airport in CA:CW is one of the best superhero action sequences ever committed to film, and you know what? It features very little destruction. It doesn’t have whole city blocks collapsing. It doesn’t indulge in 9/11 imagery or disaster porn. The entire airport isn’t destroyed — just a jet and a couple of trucks, maybe. There aren’t a bunch of bystanders screaming and running for cover — presumably Team Iron Man had the airport evacuated in advance. (At least, I think so. Maybe there were bystanders in the part where Spidey was fighting Falcon and Bucky inside the building, but I don’t recall any.) And the climactic fight doesn’t go bigger and indulge in an orgy of mass devastation — it goes smaller, more personal, more concentrated. Once again, it’s someplace where no bystanders are endangered. And that’s just why it works. Mass devastation doesn’t matter without a personal impact. If anything, the smaller scale of the destruction makes the two acts of mass violence we do get — the accident in Lagos and the bombing of the Vienna conference — feel more potent. The death of a few dozen people can be felt and grieved over as the tragedy it is, rather than trivialized in comparison to the destruction of whole cities.

Granted, I’ve always preferred it when superhero stories were about the heroes saving people rather than fighting. One thing that makes the mass-destruction sequences in the Avengers movies work better than most such scenes in modern film is that the Avengers focus so heavily on rescuing innocents. Civil War doesn’t have much in the way of rescuing, now that I think about it (although there is a lot of guilt about their failures to rescue, so there’s that). But movies today have gotten to a point where the spectacle of mass destruction has become overindulged to such a degree that the CGI tends to overwhelm the story and characters. Civil War shows that a movie doesn’t need cataclysms to be powerful. Going bigger doesn’t have to mean wreaking more physical havoc — it just has to mean going for bigger personal, emotional, or ideological stakes. That’s something more filmmakers and studio executives could stand to learn from.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR review (Spoilers!)

I went to see Captain America: Civil War on Saturday morning, then went to the grocery store, and was kind of worn out for the rest of the day, so I thought I’d let my reactions simmer for a while before I wrote my review. I went for the cheapest showing, the early-bird 2D one, and the sound in the theater was oddly quiet, so I had trouble hearing some of the dialogue.

Overall, it was definitely a very effective and well-done movie, an excellent continuation of the MCU saga and one of the most thoughtful movies in the series. I like it that so much of the conflict over the Sokovia Accords was conducted through the heroes talking to each other in meeting rooms and debating the philosophy and emotion of the issues, rather than just hitting or zapping each other. The comics version of Civil War definitely went overboard with the physical conflict and armed rebellion and superprisons and so forth, and though this movie definitely had its marquee fight sequence taking up a fair portion of the second act, it was just the one.

Still, for all the comic’s excesses in execution, I don’t think the film works quite so well in concept. The comic, in principle, was an allegory for real-world concerns about the compromise of individual freedom in the name of security. It handled the issue badly, but the issue itself was worth exploring. And there was a lot at stake, a threat of the loss of freedom for a whole class of people. Here, though, it’s basically an argument over who among an elite group gets to make the decisions that affect everyone else. The stakes don’t feel like they extend much beyond this immediate group of less than a dozen people, and the only character who ever really feels unjustly victimized by the Accords is Wanda Maximoff. It works well as a personal story, but the sense of larger social commentary isn’t really there. I wish there’d been a way to combine the allegorical weight of the original’s concept with the far superior and less excessive execution of the movie.

As far as the issues go, in the comics, I was pretty soundly on Team Cap — and it was hard not to be, given what a caricature they made of Iron Man and the dictatorial extremes he and his supporters went to. (Although I think J. Michael Straczynski wrote Tony with a lot more nuance in The Amazing Spider-Man than other writers did in the rest of the Civil War narrative.) There, it was clearly about defending the rights of the individual against oppression that used security as its excuse. In the movie, though, I tend more toward Team Iron Man. Not only because Tony is portrayed in a far more positive light this time, but because I believe strongly that every powerful entity needs checks and balances to keep it from abusing its power. Cap may have been right that the UN’s agendas couldn’t necessarily be trusted, but the Avengers should have someone to provide a balance to their power, to give them oversight and accountability. (My friend Keith DeCandido pointed out in his review that the comics’ Avengers have had a charter and rules to follow from the word go, and I do recall them having Henry Gyrich as a government liaison for a while.) The Accords may not be the right solution to that problem, any more than the USA PATRIOT Act was the right solution to terrorism — both were policies forged in haste and out of fear, and thus tending to go to more extreme lengths than were necessary or appropriate. But there should be something. I suppose the best path would be somewhere between Tony and Steve on this issue — Team Black Widow, perhaps.

I found Henry Jackman’s musical score a bit disappointing. It was okay, but it didn’t use any of the character themes established in earlier movies. Age of Ultron did a nice job incorporating existing leitmotifs into its score, and I would’ve liked this and subsequent Marvel films to continue that practice. Superheroes need their own themes and fanfares. That’s something only a few MCU movies have bothered with, and AoU had me hoping that was starting to change.

Edited to add: I feel I should comment more on the big airport fight sequence. One reason it worked well for me is that nobody involved really wanted it. For one thing, that gave it emotional stakes — it was sad seeing friends and allies on opposite sides. It also lowered the stakes in another way, because nobody was trying to kill anyone, so we can freely root for the combatants’ skill and cleverness without having to deal with the moral issues that most movie battle scenes gloss over. I’ve never been happy with the MCU movie characters’ use of lethal force, and there was some of that here in the Lagos sequence, it appeared — plus T’Challa and then Tony trying to kill Bucky. But in the airport fight, nobody was interested in causing death, so it was more like the action sequences of the comics and thus could be more unreservedly enjoyable, even with the sad personal aspect. It was downright sporting, really, with a lot of mutual respect between the opposing sides — like that nice Cap-Spidey beat about their proximate origins.

Going through it all character by character:

Captain America: Still the principled man we know and admire, but maybe with a bit of a blind spot where Bucky’s concerned. He was right to stand up for his falsely accused friend, but he was perhaps a bit too headstrong in Bucky’s defense. I don’t see why he couldn’t have taken the time to give Tony a fuller explanation about the threat from the other Winter Soldiers, rather than just going “We fight.”

Tony Stark: Even though this is Cap’s movie by title, I feel Tony made a stronger impression, perhaps because he had more character growth. He really wrestled with the issues and stayed open to both sides, though he did rather lose it in the third act with the whole revenge thing. That part didn’t make sense to me and seemed contrived to force the final fight, since Tony must surely have understood that Bucky was not in control of his actions. There was a game attempt to make it more about his betrayal at Steve not telling him, but that still didn’t quite justify it. Aside from that, though, this is the way Tony should’ve been portrayed in the original.

Black Widow: They’re still doing a good job keeping Natasha front and center, the most valuable supporting player (even though they’re dragging their heels ridiculously on giving her a solo movie). She didn’t have as much to do in this one as in the past couple, but she still made a strong impression, and her fight choreography is fantastic.

Black Panther: Chadwick Boseman was effective as T’Challa, thoughtful and quietly strong. The portrayal of Wakanda mercifully shied away from a lot of the usual African stereotypes seen in plenty of past movies and comics, although it’s a little odd to hear them speaking the southern African Xhosa language while worshipping the Egyptian deities Bast and Sekhmet, from the opposite end of a very large continent. I particularly like it that T’Challa turned his back on vengeance — especially that he actually saved the life of the man he would’ve wanted to kill before. That’s a nice change from all the “I don’t have to save you” or “Take my hand — oops, never mind” endings that too many superhero movies have had. I was actually expecting T’Challa to break up the Steve-Tony fight at the climax and talk some sense into them, and I’m more than a little disappointed that he didn’t.

Vision: Interesting to see more of his evolution as a person, and Paul Bettany does a great job making him thoughtful and naive, gentle and imposing at the same time. Odd that Wanda calls him “Viz” instead of his usual “Vizh” nickname.

Scarlet Witch: Despite her key role in the emotional core of the film, I found Wanda didn’t leave a particularly strong impression on me. Elizabeth Olsen just doesn’t have the same presence or charisma as most of the MCU cast.

Hawkeye: He has such a minor role that I’m not sure why they even bothered to include him, unless it was so they could do the thing with Ant-Man riding his arrow. His relationship with Black Widow was touched on in maybe one two-line exchange. I’ll grant, though, that he was probably the best choice for convincing Wanda to leave, given their history in Age of Ultron.

Bucky: Sorry, Sebastian Stan is just kind of boring. He doesn’t do much except fight and brood. He doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond his role as a plot catalyst.

Falcon: On the other hand, Falcon totally rocks. Anthony Mackie is one of the most charismatic players in the cast, and Sam’s a terrific partner for Steve. I love his fight choreography too, and the Redwing drone is a great addition. I would be totally happy to see Sam Wilson take over as Captain America once Chris Evans’s contract is up, although that’s not looking likely with Sam part of Cap’s Kooky Fugitives and the shield still in the few remaining Avengers’ hands.

War Machine: Rhodey’s still a stalwart background presence, though not as much of a standout as he’d be in a smaller cast.

Ant-Man: A decent supporting role, a nice followup on his debut film. Paul Rudd brought some effective humor to the proceedings,  the callback to his history with Falcon was good, and Ant-Man — I should call him Giant-Man as well — contributed, err, massively to the big fight.

Sharon Carter: Not a bad supporting role, helping out quietly and passing along some valuable words from Peggy Carter. I love how consistent the portrayal of Peggy through her words was with her characterization in the TV series, given that continuity between TV and movies in the MCU tends to be unidirectional. It helps that this movie’s writers are the creators and executive producers of Agent Carter. And I cried at Peggy’s funeral, even though there’s still a chance (though a slim one at this point) that she could return to TV for a third season. Sharon wasn’t nearly as impressive as her aunt, though, and the attempt to sneak in a romance between her and Steve felt cursory and forgettable.

Helmut Zemo: Now, this was weird. The MCU has reinterpreted a lot of comics characters, but while this version of Zemo worked well as the antagonist of this particular story, he’s so completely unlike his namesake that I wonder why they even called him Helmut Zemo. He did some awful things, but he’s not exactly a Master of Evil. As a character in his own right, though, he was nicely handled. The MCU has rarely given any of its movie antagonists any real personality or depth. Zemo is the most nuanced and sympathetic MCU movie villain since Loki, probably even more so.

Secretary Thaddeus Ross: Nice bit of continuity to bring back William Hurt and tie the largely overlooked The Incredible Hulk a bit more closely into the saga, even though Ross here is in a rather different role than before, a role that could’ve been filled by a lot of other characters. It would’ve been nice to see him show a bit more intensity in his comments about the missing Dr. Banner, given that Ross’s obsession with the Hulk is his defining trait in the comics.

Everett Ross: Did they notice they had two characters on the government side who were both named Ross? Anyway, this is the first time I’ve seen Martin Freeman in a role where he didn’t totally steal the show. Partly because he used an American accent, and that always makes British actors less interesting. But he really had very little purpose in this story, although I gather they were setting him up for a bigger role later, presumably in Black Panther, since that’s where the character originally comes from.

Spider-Man: I’ve saved this for last because I have a lot to say. Peter was handled pretty well, and Tom Holland is pretty good, but I can’t gush as much about him as most people are. I actually liked the Andrew Garfield version, and I think The Amazing Spider-Man 2 captured Spidey/Peter almost perfectly even though it screwed up so much else. This was a good portrait of a Spidey who’s just starting out, and I like the way they rejiggered the Tony-as-mentor bit from the comics to explain how Spidey got his fancy threads (and the size-changing eyes are a nice way to bring a cartooning conceit into live action). But I don’t feel this movie captured Spidey’s banter as well as ASM2 did. I mean, sure, Spidey’s a chatterbox, and that’s partly a manifestation of his anxiety and insecurity, but he’s also funny. He’s a nonstop wisecracker, a comic hero in the Bugs Bunny mold. He should be hurling jokes and bad puns and insults as readily as Downey’s Tony does, and then some. And that didn’t come through here, since this Spidey was mainly just geeking out and talking science and chattering nervously. I hope he’s funnier in his solo movie. (And having Tony be his mentor could work nicely if he becomes more of a confident wisecracker by following Tony’s example.)

Also, I felt the Spidey portion of the movie was a bit tacked on. The movie just kind of dragged to a halt in the middle to swerve into a side story introducing this new character, then used him in the fight, then forgot about him until the post-credits scene. Structurally, it could’ve been better. I would’ve preferred it if Peter had been seeded earlier — if Tony’s initial talk had been at Midtown High instead of a university, say, or if we’d seen a bit of Spidey or Peter having a “kid on the street” reaction to the news from Lagos or Vienna or Washington.

I’m also not sure that Peter was worked into the story as logically as he could’ve been. The speech he gave in his bedroom about how something is your fault if you have the power to stop it and you don’t (a reference to his famous origin story, natch) sounded like it aligned more with Steve’s side of the argument than Tony’s. After all, Steve was the one saying they had to act when it was needed rather than letting a higher power tell them they couldn’t. Then there’s the fact that it was kind of a contradiction for Tony to support government oversight of superheroes, yet be totally fine with Peter keeping his identity secret. It works because this Tony has always been kind of a rebel and has only recently come around to the idea that he needs to be kept in check, so that inconsistency is in character. But it does seem that Peter was more naturally suited to Team Cap, and it would’ve been good to see him switch sides as he did in the comics.

So I guess my praise for the film is a little lukewarm. But that’s only because it’s been so heavily hyped as the best superhero movie ever. It is quite good for the most part, no doubt. I just have a few issues with it, ways it could’ve been even better.

Anyway, where does the MCU stand now? The Sokovia Accords are still in effect (and we’ll see some of the impact of that on Agents of SHIELD tomorrow night). The only still-active Avengers seem to be Iron Man, Vision, and War Machine, who’s on the disabled list. Spidey’s an ally, but not quite ready for the big time — but will he have to register? T’Challa’s still an independent party, though sympathetic to Steve. Bucky’s back on ice. Cap, Falcon, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, and probably Black Widow are wanted fugitives. Things don’t look good for the superhero community. I wonder if so many of them were removed from the board to clear the way for the spate of new characters coming up in Phase 3. Over the next couple of years, we have Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok (co-starring the Hulk), and Black Panther before we presumably see the rest of the Avengers again in Infinity War in 2018. (Hey, Netflix, this would be a great window for a Black Widow miniseries, ScarJo willing.) So the current state of affairs is likely to be a dangling thread for some time. Honestly, that’s part of why my reaction to the film is a bit lukewarm. It ended at kind of an uneasy and unresolved place, and I’m a little dissatisfied with the situation, if not with the execution of the story.

But then, this is Civil War, and wars very rarely leave things better at the end.

Thoughts on Toho’s DOGORA and KING KONG ESCAPES (spoilers)

Here are a couple of standalone kaiju films I’ve managed to track down over the past year or so, bracketing the Frankenstein duology I covered in my previous post. I’d been saving these until I could add one or two more films to the post, but the Frankenstein reviews turned out long enough that it made more sense to post them in pairs.

Dogora the Space Monster (Uchuu Daikaiju Dogora) was the film Ishiro Honda made in 1964 between the classic Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster — just before the era when Godzilla films started to grow more kid-oriented and whimsical, but also just a year before the dark and moody Frankenstein Conquers the WorldDogora tends toward the latter route, mostly striking a pretty serious tone, but it’s kind of an odd one too.

Nominally, Dogora is about the mysterious attacks of a mutated amoeba-like monster living in Earth orbit, able to suck things up into the sky with antigravity powers. But mostly it’s a crime caper about international diamond thieves. One such gang (the film’s featured villains) finds a diamond heist interrupted by something that levitates them, then absconds with the diamonds after they flee. Police inspector Komai (Yosuke Natsuki) investigates the home of crystallographer Munakata (Nobuo Nakamura), where Komai gets into a fight with American Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham, who would later play the Seatopian king in Godzilla vs. Megalon), himself a suspected jewel thief. The film mostly follows the interplay of Komai, Jackson, and the gang as they compete for various diamond hauls, occasionally finding themselves interrupted as Dogora comes down from space to suck up coal and diamonds as its energy source. Munakata’s assistant, who’s also Komai’s love interest, conveniently has a brother in the space agency, so they end up advising the military on Dogora, with Komai occasionally touching base with them in between clashing with Jackson and the gang. About a third of the way in, Jackson reveals that he’s actually an international insurance investigator, a “diamond G-man” as he puts it, although he continues to behave in a suspicious manner and seems to be playing Komai as much as he’s playing the thieves. So Komai follows him when he follows the gang to Kyushu (Japan’s southernmost island), which naturally comes under attack by Dogora.

Eventually the military gets lucky when Munakata learns that a swarm of wasps was able to hurt Dogora, turning parts of it into crystal that rain down on the city. So they concoct a huge batch of wasp venom to use as a chemical weapon in Dogora’s next attack. But the cops and crooks have their own concerns. The gangsters’ moll, the sultry, sexy Hamako (Akiko Wakabayashi, later to appear in the Bond film You Only Live Twice), absconds with the diamonds that Jackson had in a safe-deposit box, leading the gang to hunt her down for double-crossing them, and Komai and Jackson (after barely escaping a dynamite deathtrap) chase the gangsters down in turn — with the overhead battle with Dogora interrupting their gunfight and having a rather decisive, err, impact on its outcome.

Structurally, this is a weird movie. It’s like Honda wanted to do a straight-up crime caper, but was obligated to put in a monster because that’s what people expected from him. The Dogora side of the story, despite providing the title, is very much secondary to the cops-and-robbers plot, largely going on in the background as the crime drama unfolds. But it provides an interesting look at the psychology of the people who live in the universe of Toho’s monster movies. (The characters do talk about monsters without much disbelief when they first begin to realize that one is responsible for all the diamond “thefts” around the world, implying that the film is in the same universe as the other kaiju films.) After a decade dealing with monsters of all sorts, they’ve grown blase about it; they just leave the monster-fighting to the military and the scientists while they go about their own affairs. It’s interesting to see a kaiju movie that’s mainly about the people who aren’t involved in fighting the kaiju, who don’t even particularly care about it except when it gets in the way of their own goals.

Although, really, you’d think they would care more. Knowing that there’s a giant space amoeba-squid with the power to suck diamonds up into the sky, these people would logically try to lay low and avoid anything to do with diamonds until the problem had been resolved. Maybe the crooks were just too greedy to think straight, and the heroes too ploddingly fixated on their duties to see the bigger picture. Even though Komai was in contact with the people who were dealing with Dogora.

Still, it’s also a pretty fresh and impressively made kaiju movie, with some really creative visual effects from Eiji Tsuburaya’s team. Dogora is a nifty departure from all the stuntmen in rubber lizard suits stomping down buildings. It’s eerie and alien, frequently unseen — which was probably due to budget limitations, given the rather more elaborate monster attack scenes shown in the production art on the DVD, but works well at creating a sense of mystery. The visuals of mounds of coal and various structures being sucked skyward by antigravity are a fresh and novel approach to kaiju destruction scenes, and well-made (generally relying on reverse filming). There’s also some rather beautiful use of cloud tank effects, dyes swirling in water with the Dogora puppet waving its tentacles within the cloud. There are also some shots of explosions going off inside the cloud that remind me of some of the Mutara Nebula shots from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I believe cloud tank effects were pretty innovative for 1964, and not just in Japan. This is impressive work, although some of the action is confusing in the last third of the movie.

Unusually for an American actor in a kaiju film, Robert Dunham was fluent in Japanese (he was a former U.S. Marine who’d been living in Japan since he served there years earlier), and thus he speaks Japanese in his own undubbed voice throughout, except once or twice when Jackson lapses into English briefly in moments of surprise or emotion. He even pronounces “New York” and other Western city names the Japanese way. Oddly, though, the other characters use “Mark” as though it were his surname — even though none of them are on friendly terms with him, except for Komai toward the end. It’s hard to believe the filmmakers weren’t aware of American name order; maybe they just found “Mark” (or “Maaku”) easier to pronounce than “Jackson.” Anyway, apparently Toho was hoping to spin Jackson off into a series, but it never came to pass. Just as well; aside from his fluency in the language, Dunham isn’t all that interesting an actor. I wonder if these other films would’ve been kaiju movies or just caper movies. With this film as the source, it could’ve gone either way.

King Kong Escapes was a 1967 co-production of Toho and the American Rankin-Bass studio (producers of all those badly done stop-motion holiday specials in the ’70s and an early animated version of The Hobbit), loosely based on The King Kong Show, a cartoon that R-B coproduced with Toei (now known for Super Sentai/Power Rangers) in the first instance of an American cartoon being produced in Japan. This was Ishiro Honda’s next kaiju film after War of the Gargantuas, since the previous two Godzilla films (Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla) had been directed by Jun Fukuda; however, Honda would return to Godzilla with his next film, Destroy All Monsters.

King Kong Escapes is not really in continuity with Kong’s earlier appearance in King Kong vs. Godzilla; there, Kong was blown up to 45 meters/148 feet to match Godzilla’s size, but here he’s a mere 18 meters/60 feet, closer to his size in his US film appearances (though still nearly 3 times larger than the ’33 original). Also, the name of Kong’s home island is changed from Faro to Mondo.

The film goes for a James Bond flavor in its villainy. We open at the Arctic base of the villain (Eisei Amamoto, dubbed by Paul Frees in the English version), whose name, amusingly enough, is Dr. Who. With his white hair, black cloak, and fur hat in the outdoors scenes, he actually looks a bit like a Japanese version of William Hartnell’s Doctor, albeit with a rather Capaldi-esque set of attack eyebrows. He’s working with, I kid you not, Madame Piranha (Mie Hama, a recent veteran of You Only Live Twice and of King Kong vs. Godzilla before that). She’s an agent of an unnamed Asian country with ambitions for conquest, and she’s hired Dr. Who to dig up the powerful, radioactive Element X in order to turn her country into a nuclear superpower. (But not an ultra-superpower — that’s Chemical X!) For some reason, his idea of the perfect digging tool is Mechani-Kong, a robotic replica of King Kong. Yes, Kong got a robot double seven years before Godzilla! But M-K is overwhelmed by the radiation of the element before it can get far.

Luckily for the villains, our heroes have stopped in at Kong’s island. The lead, played by Rhodes Reason, is a UN submarine commander named Carl Nelson — a name that evokes both Carl Denham from the original King Kong and the Denham-like villain Clark Nelson from Mothra, although he’s based more on Admiral Nelson from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Reason did his lines in English, and although IMDb claims his lines were dubbed by British actor David de Keyser (who’s actually done voice work in Doctor Who), the 2005 edition from Netflix definitely features Reason’s own voice. Anyway, he’s partnered with his first mate Jiro Nomura (perennial Toho lead actor Akira Takarada) and the designated Fay Wray, nurse Susan Watson (Linda Miller, an American model living in Japan, whose only other film credit was the MGM/Toei co-production The Green Slime). After they witness a rubber-suit re-enactment of Kong’s death match with the T. rex (here played by the kaiju Gorosaurus, who would return blown up to Godzilla size in Destroy All Monsters), they find that Kong’s weakness for pretty blondes is intact, and Susan’s able to make him do as she asks. Which leads Dr. Who, who turns out to be Nelson’s arch-nemesis, to arrange to kidnap Nelson, Susan, and Jiro and make her control Kong. Although this happens before he undertakes an interim plan to control Kong with hypnosis. Dr. Who makes an unconvincing attempt to bluff Nelson into cooperation by threatening to kill Jiro and Susan, even though Susan’s the one he needs alive; logically he should’ve threatened the men to get her cooperation, but that would’ve required actually giving a woman agency, and we can’t have that, I guess. Mme. Piranha has some agency at first, I guess, but her attempt to seduce Nelson into cooperation leads her to do a near-instantaneous flip-flop to the good guys’ side, actually saying “I’m sorry my country was so wrong.”

Anyway, Kong lives up to the title by escaping, and Dr. Who sends Mechani-Kong after him, the chase coincidentally but inevitably ending up in Tokyo, where our heroes (helped to escape by Piranha) warn the authorities not to make Kong angry by shooting at him, because they wouldn’t like him when — no, wait, that’s someone else. But just when Susan’s gotten Kong calmed down, Mechani-Kong crashes in and grabs her, and Kong chases it up Tokyo Tower for the climactic confrontation. Which, I have to say, makes far more sense as a King Kong ’33 homage than the 45-meter Kong’s attempt to climb the 65-meter Diet Building in KKvG. Since it’s a Japanese film, it’s up to Jiro to save the girl while Nelson stands by watching; and then it’s up to Kong to go after Dr. Who and, err, force him to regenerate.

I wouldn’t call this a great film, but I like it better than the previous couple of Godzilla films from Jun Fukuda. (Ebirah was actually another Rankin-Bass project that started out as a King Kong film before being switched to Godzilla.) It’s in a fairly light vein, much like those films, but somewhat older-skewing, with a fair amount of deadly gunplay.  It feels more like a spiritual sequel to Honda’s Frankenstein duology, though it’s goofier than either of those. The War of the Gargantuas changed the caveman-like title character of Frankenstein Conquers the World into the Sasquatch-like Sanda; this film takes it a step further, from giant caveman to giant ape-man to pure giant ape. And just as Sanda was more unambiguously benevolent and less tragic than Frankenstein, so King Kong is an even friendlier monster (with an inexplicably keen grasp of English, or Japanese, vocabulary, given how easily he can be ordered around) who gets a happier ending. But happy or not, it was a definitive ending. This is the last Toho-produced film outside of the Godzilla and Mothra series to feature a heroic kaiju.

Thoughts on Toho’s Frankenstein duology (spoilers)

February 3, 2016 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 31, 2015 4 comments

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

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

And now for something completely spoilery:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syfy’s CHILDHOOD’S END review (spoilers)

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

Part 1: “The Overlords”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2: “The Deceivers”

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3: “The Children”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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