Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Reviews’

More free Patreon samples!

I now have free samples up on Patreon for all three of my main membership tiers. I hope they entice at least a few more people to subscribe to my Patreon page.

At the $5 Reviews tier, up since last Tuesday, is the first of my weekly reviews of the 1988 syndicated Superboy TV series:

https://www.patreon.com/posts/40266250

At the $10 Fiction tier is a reprint of my 2017 Analog short story “Abductive Reasoning”:

https://www.patreon.com/posts/free-fiction-41459524

And at the $12 Behind the Scenes tier, I’m offering a glimpse of my worldbuilding notes for the Arachne-Troubleshooter Universe, an overview of the distribution of life in different parts of the galaxy:

https://www.patreon.com/posts/worldbuilding-in-41460817

These are pretty representative of the kind of content I offer regularly. I post a new review every Tuesday (I’ve got enough written in advance to last about a year at this point), and new (or sometimes reprint) fiction and Behind the Scenes content roughly once a month. Also, at the $1 Tip Jar level, I have a couple of posts’ worth of old cat photos you can check out (no new ones likely to follow, alas) and occasional advance glimpses at character and alien design sketches I’ve done for my fiction (which will eventually be reprinted here on Written Worlds).

Feel free to check it out!

Free Patreon review this week!

Today I’m starting a new TV review series on Patreon, of the 1988-92 syndicated Superboy (renamed The Adventures of Superboy for seasons 3-4), which was produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies and starred John Haymes Newton (season 1) and Gerard Christopher (seasons 2-4) as Superboy and Stacy Haiduk as Lana Lang. It’s a little-remembered series today, as it hasn’t been widely available, but the entire series is on DC Universe. While the first two seasons are inconsistent and often terrible, they do have some noteworthy moments, and are notable for having veteran Superman comics writer-editors such as Cary Bates, Mike Carlin, and Andy Helfer on the writing staff. The retooled seasons 3-4, though are a vast improvement, probably the best live-action DC television prior to Smallville (and I say that as a longtime fan of the 1990 The Flash). Seasons 2-4 also feature Sherman Howard as one of the finest screen versions of Lex Luthor ever.

This will be a long series of reviews, so in hopes of attracting some new subscribers, I’m making this first review available for free to the public. Just click here:

https://www.patreon.com/posts/40266250

Subsequent installments will appear weekly for Patreon subscribers at the $5 level and above. I hope this review will entice at least a few of you to join up — I’d like my reviews to be read by more than 20-ish people.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , , ,

Thoughts on SHAZAM! (1974)

Thanks to the DC Universe streaming site, I’ve just finished a rewatch of the 1974 Filmation live-action adventure series Shazam!, which I watched in first run on Saturday mornings as a kid. I haven’t seen the show in quite a long time, though I saw its sister show The Secrets of Isis on DVD back in 2009. I was expecting that it would have mostly nostalgia value and that from a mature perspective I’d find it rather silly. But I was actually surprised at how well it held up. Certainly it had plenty of contrivances and limitations and was made with an absurdly low budget, but it managed to be pretty decent in spite of that.

The show had legendary DC artist Carmine Infantino on board as a creative consultant from the company that was still billed as National Comics Publications at the time — and I’m rather surprised that I saw his name prominently displayed in the credits of this show every week in my childhood (at least in the first season), yet failed to recognize it when I saw it on comic book pages nearly a decade later. Anyway, it was a weird mix of fidelity to and departure from the source. Captain Marvel’s costume was an exact recreation of the comics version, his powers worked basically the same way, and there were a few passing references to Billy Batson working for a TV station, as he did in the comics (though nobody ever recognized him in the show, so either he worked for a local station or he wasn’t an on-air personality). But we never saw him at work. Instead, the implicitly teenaged Billy (Michael Gray, who was in his early 20s at the time) spent the whole 3-season, 28-episode series on an incredibly long vacation, tooling around Los Angeles and the surrounding countryside in an RV driven by his elderly mentor named Mentor (War of the Worlds‘ Les Tremayne), a new character created for the show. In place of the Wizard Shazam, the mythical figures who empowered him and provided the initials of the magic word that transformed Bily into Captain Marvel — Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury — appeared onscreen as “the Elders” in barely-animated cartoon sequences (static paintings with animated eyes and mouths) with a live-action Billy matted in, showing up once per episode to give Billy vague warnings about the problems he would face and the moral principles he’d need to apply in solving them. (All six Elders were voiced by Filmation producer Lou Scheimer. Some sources credit Solomon as his partner Norm Prescott, but I grew up hearing all of Scheimer’s voices — there weren’t very many of them — and I know them when I hear them.) As a kid, I saw the whole series in black & white, and I’m startled by how vivid the Elder sequences are in the remastered HD episodes on DCU.

Mentor is a mysterious figure. He seems like just a friendly grandfather tootling around in an RV with Billy, and Gray and Tremayne have a fun comic rapport as they tease each other, joke around, and occasionally get on each other’s nerves. But Mentor seems to have a connection to the Elders, sometimes repeating their words as if he were some Earthbound facet or agent of theirs, and in one early episode he shows up out of nowhere on a tree branch to give advice, as if he just materialized there off camera. Still, if the original implication was that he had some kind of supernatural connection to the Elders, that was abandoned by the second season. (Also, it was originally clear that he “heard” the Elders’ words when Billy visited them, but in seasons 2-3 he needed Billy to repeat them to him.)

(EDIT: Filmation historian Andy Mangels informs me that the series bible explained Mentor as a former host of Captain Marvel. Which makes perfect sense.)

Another change, incidentally, is that the Elders seemed more stern and proactive in season 1, sometimes sending out threatening thunderclaps when Billy and Mentor were tempted to use Captain Marvel’s powers for personal or frivolous reasons. By season 2, they seemed more indulgent, and there was one closing gag scene where Billy changed to Marvel inside the RV to win a petty argument with Mentor (the one and only time he was shown transforming inside the vehicle, although he did once change while tied up in a warehouse). I guess magic lightning isn’t affected by Faraday cages. Well, nobody ever seemed to notice the thunder or lightning when he changed, so I guess it’s pretty unusual.

Captain Marvel was played by two actors. In the 15 episodes of the first season and two episodes in the second, he was played by Jackson Bostwick, a bright-eyed, square-jawed muscleman who looked the part pretty convincingly aside from needing a haircut. But Bostwick abruptly walked out early in season 2 as a ploy to get a raise, and got fired instead, with the producers hastily casting a new actor, John Davey, to take his place for the remaining 11 episodes and three guest appearances on Isis. Davey was a less visually convincing Marvel, an older, rougher-featured, slightly flabbier man (though he was more toned up by season 3) who looked and sounded more like a blue-collar dad than a superhero. I gather that most people prefer Bostwick in the role, but at least in my current rewatch, I liked Davey much better. Bostwick had the look down, and he was amiable enough, but he was a limited performer who never felt natural in the role, affecting a constant grin that seemed forced and almost creepily ingratiating. Davey was a considerably more experienced actor who gave a much more unaffected, matter-of-fact performance. It might not have been as easy to believe he was the World’s Mightiest Mortal, but it was far easier to believe that he was actually a person involved in the story, rather than a performer mugging for the camera and reciting from a script. Certainly he was better than you’d expect from someone hastily cast in a single day after the first guy walked out.

(EDIT: Apparently the claim that Bostwick walked out over money was disproven; it was actually due to an on-set injury, and Bostwick won a Screen Actors Guild arbitration hearing over his firing and got compensated for it: http://www.angelfire.com/tv2/shazam/bostwick2.html )

The change in CM’s appearance was never explained on the show, and indeed, for some reason Davey’s first episode was aired the week before Bostwick’s last, perhaps to soften the transition. Now, since Billy/Marvel is essentially a shapeshifter, it seems there’s a built-in explanation for the change — except in Davey’s second episode, a criminal impersonates Marvel wearing a mask of Davey’s face and the public instantly recognizes him as the hero.

It’s worth noting that Captain Marvel’s screen time increased significantly once Davey replaced Bostwick. In season 1, he mostly just showed up for a minute or two at a time for one or two rescue sequences per episode, but in seasons 2-3, he sometimes had extended roles whose screen time occasionally surpassed Bily’s. (For instance, in the aforementioned episode, when Billy learns there’s a warrant for CM’s arrest, he Shazams and turns himself in as CM, spending most of the rest of the episode in that form.) Now, this happened soon enough that it probably wasn’t cause and effect — my guess is that the network asked for more screen time for the superhero even before the cast change. But I doubt that Bostwick could’ve handled the enlarged role and more extensive character interplay as well as Davey did.

While rewatching the show from my adult, more comics-savvy perspective, I found myself wondering what Billy/Marvel and Mentor did when they weren’t on the world’s longest vacation. Did this Earth’s Captain Marvel ever fight supervillains like Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind, or did he just deal with bank robbers, catch runaway cars, and save kids from falling off cliffs due to their poor life choices? For what it’s worth, the first Isis crossover episode had the Elders tell Mentor (the one time we ever saw him in the Elders’ cartoon space) that Isis was the only person on Earth who could help Captain Marvel put out a forest fire. So that tells us that their universe had no other superheroes, at least none on a comparable level of power. Of course, the existence of Isis (JoAnna Cameron) invalidates the Shazam! opening narration’s claim that Captain Marvel is “the mightiest of mortals.” He can just fly around and punch through rock and lift cars over his head. She has godlike power over the forces of nature and can reverse time itself.

On the classic “Is Captain Marvel a transformed Billy or another person who swaps places with him?” question, I’d say the show more or less came down on the former side. Marvel sometimes followed through on Billy’s conversations with Mentor or on his goals (e.g. getting a delayed lunch or winning a friendly bet), and Billy once used “I” to refer to something Marvel did. Marvel’s personality didn’t seem quite the same as Billy’s, but this version of Billy wasn’t as boyish as he’s usually portrayed and Marvel’s appearances were usually fairly brief. And we can assume that he’s putting on a more heroic persona for the benefit of the public, though he lets his guard down more with Mentor. To some extent, it depends on the actor. Bostwick’s screen time and talent were both too limited to convey any sense that Billy’s personality was in there. Davey wasn’t doing an impression of Michael Gray or anything, but his manner was similar enough that I can buy that they’re the same person.

The show occasionally had some notable guest stars, either established names from the era or earlier, including Lance Kerwin, Pamelyn Ferdin (who would later star in Filmation’s Space Academy), William Sargent, Ron Soble, Butch Patrick, Hilly Hicks, Dabbs Greer, Kung Fu‘s Radames Pera, Danny Bonaduce, William Campbell, and Linden Chiles, or young actors who would become prominent later on, including Patrick Labyorteaux, Andrew Stevens, and actor-director Eric Laneuville. Laneuville’s episode also featured baseball star Maury Wills in a cameo as himself, which dodged a bullet — I was afraid the episode would get white-saviorish with Billy/Marvel and Mentor showing the light to a couple of black kids, but the producers wisely brought in the African-American Wills to provide the lesson — even making him the only non-regular ever to appear in one of the closing tags restating the moral of the week for the kids at home.  Perhaps the biggest star who appeared in Shazam! was a young Jackie Earle Haley, better known for his work in another DC production, playing Rorschach in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. Quite a difference.

As for the main cast, Michael Gray had about five years of prior TV acting experience, but did very little acting after the show — surprisingly, as I thought he was pretty good. Les Tremayne had decades of experience as a radio actor, announcer, and narrator as well as a screen actor, known for The War of the Worlds and North by Northwest, but after this, he worked almost exclusively in animation through the early ’90s. Jackson Bostwick did a handful of roles in various later films, notably as “Head Guard” in TRON. John Davey went on working as a character actor for the next decade or so, appearing in six different roles in The Rockford Files and five in Barnaby Jones, with his final two credited roles in 1987, as a state trooper in MacGyver and a “Metrocop with Stunner” in the American pilot of Max Headroom.

Shazam!‘s production values were nothing to write home about, of course. The endless vacation was an excuse to avoid standing sets and shoot entirely on location (including several episodes shot at the familiar Vasquez Rocks cliff where Kirk fought the Gorn, and several uses of the Bronson Canyon cave area used as the exterior of Adam West’s Batcave). The visual effects were pretty basic, with flying shots for Captain Marvel not dissimilar to those from George Reeves’s Superman a couple of decades earlier. But they did some interesting flying gags where they tied Bostwick or Davey to a board and drove him around with a camera shooting his torso so it looked like he was flying close to ground level. They did a cool stunt with him dragging down a chopper in one episode, but in the episode where he caught a small plane and guided it to a safe landing, I realized after a moment that they just tied a dummy to the back of the plane. The most notable optical effect was the transformation shot created by the Westheimer Company, with Gray’s image fading into Bostwick’s and then Davey’s surrounded by animated flames and superimposed on live-action light and cloud tank effects. It’s mildly impressive that they actually went to the trouble of recompositing it for Davey rather than just cutting it short or replacing it with a simpler transition. But then, much like the stock henshin sequences in Japanese tokusatsu shows today, the “Shazam!” shot was a highlight of each episode, a ritualized moment the audience came to expect, so it makes sense that they’d put the most care into it.

Despite all this adult perspective, though, it was still a nostalgic treat to revisit Shazam! Filmation’s shows were my jam as a kid in the ’70s, and their music composed by Ray Ellis and supervised by Norm Prescott (under the pseudonyms Yvette Blais & Jeff Michael) was the soundtrack I used in my head to score my own life. I feel their wholesome, liberal, educational focus helped shape my moral compass, along with Star Trek. And early Shazam! fits particularly into my comfort zone, a reminder of that last year or so before I lost my mother, the one time I seem to recall feeling most contented and complete and untroubled, though it probably didn’t seem that way at the time. Maybe that’s why I found it so satisfying to revisit. I felt it was written and (mostly) acted better than I expected, but I could certainly be seeing it through rose-colored glasses. Still, that’s fine. I watch other shows with a more critical eye, but this revisit was purely for nostalgia, and I’m glad it held up for me.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , , ,

Update on ARACHNE’S EXILE, Patreon, and other projects

We’re still waiting for the Arachne’s Crime cover art to be completed and the book to be released, but in the meantime, I recently got the copyedits for the second half of the duology, Arachne’s Exile. I had to wrap up an assignment for Star Trek Adventures first, but I got that done last week and then applied myself to the copyedits. My editor Danielle correctly pointed out that the opening scene I’d written to recap the first book was unengaging, so I found a way to work the necessary exposition into the subsequent scenes more gradually and organically, and I got a nice new moment of character interaction out of it by turning an internal monologue into a dialogue scene. (To make sure I covered all the relevant exposition, I copied the cut recap scene into another file, bolded the text, and then unbolded each part I worked in elsewhere or decided was unnecessary, so I could be sure I didn’t miss anything.)

Along the way, I also realized that I could improve the pacing of the first few chapters enormously by moving forward a couple of scenes, so the intercutting between the two main groups of characters flows better. The new arrangement lets me re-establish more of the main characters and their emotional arcs and conflicts before getting into the heavy plot and science exposition, and it lets me postpone a crucial revelation so that it comes at the end of a chapter rather than one scene before the end.

After turning in the copyedits yesterday, I took a look at a recently rejected short story to see if I wanted to revise it one more time before resubmitting it elsewhere. I decided it was okay as it was, which is good, because I have another, major project that I really need to get on with, though it’s not something I can talk about yet. It’ll be keeping me busy for the next few months, though.

Also, I had occasion today to reread a story I wrote a while back and decided to abandon because it didn’t turn out the way I wanted. I had what I envisioned as a comedy idea, but the story I wrote didn’t turn out to be all that comedic. I just glanced at it to see if there were character names I wanted to cannibalize, but in reading it again, I realized it might be okay the way it is. Too bad I don’t have time right now to revise it for submission, but I’ll keep it in mind for later.

Meanwhile, I’m told that I’m close to getting an answer about another project I was invited to pitch a few months ago, and the prospects look pretty good. I’m trying not to get overconfident, but if I get it, it will be a great help to me financially and should be pretty fun to write — though it’s likely to make me even busier over the months ahead.

 

On Patreon this month, my fiction post will be a reprint of the Troubleshooter story “Conventional Powers,” originally published in the Sept/Oct 2019 Analog. It’s the first time my Patreon story has been a reprint rather than new/unpublished content, but hopefully it’ll be new for some of my patrons, at least, and I thought it was a good idea to have the story archived for people who didn’t manage to read it in Analog. It goes live on Saturday, August 8, a date I chose because it’s the anniversary of the day I conceived the character of Emerald Blair and the earliest form of the Troubleshooter premise (I remember it because it was 8/8/88). The following day, my Behind-the-Scenes Patreon post will be a glimpse at my Sol System geography notes for the Emerald Blair/Troubleshooter series, including some locations from as-yet-unpublished works. I’m also working on a couple of new pieces of Troubleshooter character artwork to accompany this month’s releases at the $1 level, debuting as a Patreon exclusive, though I’ll eventually repost them here.

Starting next Tuesday, my Patreon reviews return to DC Comics TV shows with a look at the short-lived 1992 Human Target series from the producers of the 1990 The Flash. That’ll be my shortest rewatch/review series yet, covering the unaired pilot and the seven aired episodes in four posts, after which I’ll begin my longest one yet, covering all four seasons of the 1988-92 syndicated Superboy series. That should take the better part of a year to get through, so I’ll probably intersperse some other reviews along the way for variety.

Kaiju review: REIGO: KING OF THE SEA MONSTERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , ,

My Patreon site is up!

Here we go, folks… I finally managed to get a Patreon page up and running:

https://www.patreon.com/christopherlbennett

I’ve decided to start with four membership tiers:

$1/month: The Tip Jar: Help me pay for food, rent, etc. so I can keep writing. In return, you get access to public posts, plus my gratitude and the satisfaction of being a patron of the arts!

$5/month: Reviews: Reviews of classic or recent TV, movies, books, etc. about once a week, plus access to public posts.

$10/month: Original Fiction: Fiction in my original universes, including some previously unpublished stories from my files, reprints of published but uncollected short fiction, original vignettes or bonus scenes featuring characters from novels such as Only Superhuman and Arachne’s Crime, and whatever else I can come up with, roughly once a month. Plus access to all the content from the Tip and Review tiers.

$12/month: Behind the Scenes: Annotations for my Patreon-first stories, as well as various behind-the-scenes content such as worldbuilding notes and articles for my original universes, deleted scenes, concept art, or whatever else seems to fit. Plus access to everything from the Tip, Reviews, and Original Fiction tiers.

 

For the launch, I’ve put up one post in each of the three main categories. For Reviews, I begin a rewatch of the 1990 CBS The Flash TV series starring John Wesley Shipp, commemorating that series’s retroactive addition to the Arrowverse as Earth-90 and its lead character’s pivotal role in the recent Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover. For Original Fiction, I’ve posted the first story I ever attempted to sell, “The Cat Who Chased Her Tail Through Time” from 1991, which was largely a celebration of my new kittens at the time, way too self-indulgent for publication in a pro magazine, but fun as a reward for my Patreon donors. Plus it comes with a few vintage kitten pictures, since cat photos are always a good draw. And Behind the Scenes offers annotations on that story.

Feel free to check it out, and let me know what you think. This is a new experiment for me, and there’s no doubt room for improvement.

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

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

New Character Details For Mission Impossible 7 & 8: EXCLUSIVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 19, 2020 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE STRANGER (1964): Australia’s first sci-fi show now online

An interesting piece of lost science fiction television history has recently resurfaced. The Australian Broadcasting Company has restored and re-released Australia’s first homemade SF series, The Stranger, starring Ron Haddrick as a mysterious, seemingly amnesiac man who calls himself Adam and ingratiates himself with uncanny ease to an Australian schoolmaster named Walsh and his teenage children, who subsequently discover he’s actually an alien scouting a new home for his people, a small group of refugees from a dead planet. The show had two 6-episode seasons, aired a year apart but telling one continuous story, and in the second season the story opens up considerably as the authorities and the world learn of the aliens’ existence and respond with predictable fear and mistrust, with hardline factions on both sides threatening to escalate the situation to violence.

There’s a good article about the show on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s site, and the entire series is available to US audiences on YouTube here:

The Stranger (1964)

The show has been compared to Doctor Who, and it does have a few similarities — it’s a children’s SF show with a (mostly) benevolent alien as its title character, and it’s shot in a similar way, recorded mostly in continuous takes as if live, with occasional flubbed lines and visible mikes as a result. But it’s a more grounded series, going for scientific credibility in most respects (aside from the humanlike appearance of the aliens), and telling a first-contact story that engages intelligently with the question of how humanity would react to alien contact, and works as a timeless (and currently quite timely) allegory about how we treat immigrants and refugees. Given that message, I wonder if there’s an ulterior motive to the decision to release this series for free viewing to American audiences now. If so, I approve.

Overall, I like the series. Haddrick is effective in the lead, reminding me of a cross between Martin Landau and Sherlock Holmes. His “Adam Suisse” strikes a good balance of amiability, otherness, and occasional menace when it’s called for. The story is effective, though very slow-paced, taking two episodes before revealing any overt science fiction elements. Yet in other ways it seems to rush through the plot; in early episode 2, it’s supposedly been just over a week since Adam started teaching at the lead characters’ school, yet the kids are talking about how he “always” goes bush-walking (Aussie for nature walks, I guess) on his days off.

It seems to me that the first season must have been quite popular, since in season 2 it appears to have gotten a major budget upgrade. There’s a lot more location shooting and action, as well as the story opening up to a much more epic scale. The aliens’ asteroid home Soshuniss (their language is incredibly heavy on sibilants) is represented in season 1 by a very Doctor Who-ish cave set, nothing but bare rock walls, but in season 2 there’s an elaborate high-tech command center plus an exterior ship-landing scene in a quarry. Okay, an SF show shooting in a quarry doesn’t scream high-budget, but overall the last half feels much more cinematic than the first, with some terrific location shooting at the Parkes Observatory in the outback, including a really suspenseful (if slightly gratuitous) chase sequence across the dish of its big radio telescope in the penultimate episode, compellingly vertiginous because the actors (and stuntmen in long shots, no doubt) are actually up there for real. I’m amazed the observatory allowed it. They were also allowed to shoot the finale on the steps of Sydney’s Town Hall and film inside the actual Prime Minister’s office.

Additionally, although the Soshuniss saucers were not a particularly impressive design, there were some pretty clever forced-perspective shots of them landing and taking off. There was one night shot that credibly appeared as if a full-sized saucer was landing on the lawn in the background between two actors in the foreground, but then I noticed a slight wobble in the “landed” saucer that revealed it was actually a model hanging on wires close to the camera. Aside from that wobble, though, it was a convincing illusion. They even made it look as though the pilot stepped out of the saucer — presumably the actor was on a ladder in the distance behind the foreground model. (This is why I love pre-CGI effects. The results are imperfect, but the various tricks they used to create the illusions were ingenious.)

The story got pretty suspenseful too, following the Doctor Who-ish formula of an ideally peaceful situation being sabotaged by fearful and militaristic factions on both sides, plus a devious billionaire trying to exploit the situation for profit and adding further complications. Although I feel that after all that buildup of danger and threats and ultimatums, the whole thing ended up being resolved a bit too easily and happily in the final part. There were also some ambiguities the show never really confronted, like Adam’s willingness to use his species’ hypnotic power over humans to achieve his ends and his sympathy toward the more hardline faction of his people in season 2. It’s understandable that he was willing to do whatever it took to save his people, and gray areas in a lead character can be good, but it often came off more as inconsistent writing.

All in all, though, this was a pretty good show, allowing for the occasional clumsiness of mid-’60s TV production. I do think a few of the actors had a tougher time with that kind of acting than others, fumbling a fair number of their lines (like when Owen Weingott’s Professor Mayer was commiserating with Walsh about his kids and said “I have a teejaner back home myself”). So it could’ve done with better casting in some cases and some improvement to the story pacing.

Overall, The Stranger is an effective series that handles the premise of first contact and the reaction to alien refugees in a plausible way, both scientifically and socially, and the second half is quite impressive from a production standpoint as well. I’m glad we got to see this, and I recommend it.

Star Trek: Review: The Captain’s Oath

Star Trek The Captain's Oath coverPaul Simpson of Sci-Fi Bulletin has just posted a nice review of Star Trek: TOS — The Captain’s Oath. (Full disclosure: Paul was my editor on a number of Star Trek Magazine articles I did a decade or so ago.) Here it is:

via Star Trek: Review: The Captain’s Oath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 6, 2020 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two of my stories made the Tangent Online 2019 Recommended Reading List!

My editor at eSpec Books, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, has just let me know that the Tangent Online 2019 Recommended Reading List has been released, and its short fiction recommendations include work by a number of eSpec authors, including yours truly. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I made the list twice — for the Troubleshooter story “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” in Footprints in the Stars (which they reviewed here) and for my fantasy debut “The Melody Lingers” in Galaxy’s Edge #39 (which they reviewed here).

I’m very gratified by this news, and thankful to the reviewers at Tangent Online. Hopefully I can produce other worthy stories in the year ahead.

GENESIS II/PLANET EARTH addendum: STRANGE NEW WORLD (1975)

Back in 2013, I posted my thoughts on Gene Roddenberry’s two failed pilots from the early 1970s, Genesis II with Alex Cord and its retooled version Planet Earth with John Saxon, both about a 20th-century man named Dylan Hunt who awoke from cryogenic suspension in a post-apocalyptic future and worked with an idealistic organization named PAX (or Pax, depending on the version) to try to rebuild civilization. In that post, I made the following remarks:

Planet Earth didn’t succeed as a pilot any more than its predecessor did… However, in 1975, ABC attempted to rework the post-apocalyptic premise one more time without Roddenberry’s involvement, keeping Saxon as the lead and retaining the name Pax, and using the Trek-inspired title Strange New World, but changing the rest of the premise and the character names… So it doesn’t count as part of the same series and I haven’t bothered to track it down.

Well, on a whim, I finally decided to track Strange New World down on YouTube and see if it was as bad as I’d heard. And it certainly is a mess. Nominally, they changed the premise and characters enough to make it legally distinct from Roddenberry’s creation, so he’s not credited for the production in any way. Which seems iffy, since the idea clearly did originate with Roddenberry, but it seems to have been an amicable arrangement, with Roddenberry moving back to Paramount to work on reviving Star Trek while allowing Warner Bros. to carry forward with this retooling of his concept.

But it’s a half-hearted retooling. They didn’t even bother to film a proper introduction to the new characters and ideas. Instead, the first 3 1/2 minutes of the 2-hour pilot (an hour and a half without commercials) are a prologue in which Saxon’s new lead character Anthony Vico tells the whole backstory through narration. In this version, PAX is a 20th-century organization that Vico works for along with co-stars Dr. Allison Crowley (Kathleen Miller) and Dr. William Scott (Keene Curtis, who would later play Grand Moff Tarkin in the NPR radio adaptation of Star Wars). The three are in experimental cryogenic stasis in a space station, which saves them from a cataclysmic, entirely offscreen “meteor” bombardment that destroys civilization (not sure whether they dropped the nuclear war to differentiate it from Roddenberry’s premise or to avoid controversy). They wake up 180 years later and descend to Earth to search for the PAX base where their friends and families await them in cryosleep (reminiscent of the Logan’s Run series leads searching for “Sanctuary,” even driving a similar ground vehicle). It’s a lot less effective to be told all this through narration than it would’ve been to actually see the characters’ initial reactions to waking up to find civilization in ruins.

The prologue is followed by what are essentially two routine hourlong episodes, and would probably have been re-edited as such had it gone to series. It feels like they’re trying to have it both ways, loosely continuing from the Planet Earth setup without actually using that setup. Oddly, there seem to be two different versions of the movie available, showing the two halves in the opposite order from one another.

In the version I saw on YouTube, the first “episode” turns out to be ten months after the prologue (despite some initial narration that makes it seem like mere days) and carries its own title, “Animaland.” It’s a rather dismal piece in which the trio winds up in the ruins of a nature preserve and get caught in a longstanding conflict between its protectors, who follow a holocaust-era game warden’s manual as their holy writ, and the near-savage poachers who have to hunt the game to survive. Allison gets captured by the wardens on suspicion of poaching and tries to win over their leader (Ford Rainey) and his heir apparent (Gerrit Graham) with her talk of being from the past and having knowledge to share, while the men end up convincing the poachers to help them break in to find Allison, with Vico making the incredibly reckless choice to give the head poacher (Bill McKinney) a deadly flare gun if he helps them. Eventually, the trio win the trust of the game wardens, then stay to help defend them from the poachers’ attack that Vico essentially caused, then convince them to change their rigid laws to make peace. I lost interest halfway through, then came back later and watched a lot of the rest at accelerated speed. The whole thing was quite darkly lit and slow-paced and not at all good.

The other half is a completely unconnected episode, though no separate title is shown onscreen. It’s a moderately more interesting, more sci-fi story where the trio are captured and subjected to eerie high-tech medical scans (involving solarization/overexposure effects to create some effectively weird and surreal images), then wake up in a utopian society called Eterna, albeit one that dresses them up in faux-Roman robes (with Vico in an oddly skimpy red toga). Their leader, the Surgeon (The Andromeda Strain‘s James Olson, not to be confused with Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen), and his assistant, Tana (two-time Bond girl Martine Beswick), seem welcoming enough, but Vico doesn’t trust the situation and hotheadedly beats up and accidentally kills a guard (Reb Brown), who later sits up in his coffin at his joyous “funeral.” Turns out this is a group of immortals who’ve lost the ability to reproduce and have survived by cloning themselves and harvesting their clones for replacement parts — an idea similar in some respects to Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Up the Long Ladder” 14 years later. The Surgeon is actually a 200-year-old former student of Dr. Scott, now suffering from the onset of dementia (though they still called it “senility” then) and hoping Scott will replace him as leader. Scott is tempted by Eterna’s scientific advances, leading to a rift with the aggressive, mistrustful Vico. But the cloning has cost the Eternans their natural immunity — they only survive thanks to a decontamination field that keeps germs out — and they hope the immunity factors in the trio’s un-cloned blood can cure them. So Scott participates in forcing Vico and Allison to become unconsenting blood donors — so much for medical ethics. But when the less invasive Plan A fails and Plan B calls for taking all of their blood at once (pretty shortsighted, since they could make more if kept alive), Scott helps Vico break free, and Vico starts a fight that gets ridiculously out of hand and destroys all the clones and the decontamination field, so all the Eternans die instantly from germ exposure. Yes, our hero just committed genocide. It’s a rather ghastly, morally bankrupt ending to a story that, while somewhat cliched, did have some interesting character work with Scott and the Surgeon.

Overall, Strange New World is a massive failure as a pilot. Vico is much less appealing than Dylan Hunt; he’s a dumb macho hothead quick to violence and paranoia, with no evident conscience or concern for anything except his own group’s self-interest. He’s basically a caricature of a generic 1970s action hero — right down to being given a gratuitous, completely unmotivated and chemistry-free makeout scene with Martine Beswick merely because such things were mandated for ’70s action heroes. As for Allison, though she does some effective reasoning/peacemaking with the game wardens in “Animaland,” she’s basically just there in the Eterna segment, and the actress does nothing of note with what little she’s given. Dr. Scott has the most interesting characterization of the three, though mainly in the Eterna segment and largely by default.

What’s surprising is that this pilot was directed by Robert Butler, who also directed the pilot episodes of Star Trek and Batman (and later Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman). He had a reputation as a go-to pilot director, yet the directing here was weak and lackadaisical, like he was phoning it in. Maybe he was uninspired by the script. Of the credited writers, Ranald Graham and Walon Green were both novices with no former science fiction credits (though Green would later co-write WarGames, Solarbabies, and RoboCop 2 before eventually becoming an executive producer on Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and several Law & Order series), and Al Ramrus was mostly a documentary writer who’d plotted one episode of The Invaders.

It goes to show that, while Gene Roddenberry had his weaknesses as a writer and never managed to get any SF shows other than Star Trek off the ground, he was still better at SF than most of his contemporaries in ’70s TV, save his own former collaborators like D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold. SNW followed the same essential format that G2/PE would have, aside from the altered backstory and characters, but the results are much shallower and dumber.

It’s interesting how many mid-’70s shows had this same general format of characters wandering a post-apocalyptic landscape and encountering a variety of weird, isolated cultures-of-the-week — see also Ark II (1976) and the TV adaptation of Logan’s Run (1977), as well as the 1974 Planet of the Apes TV series to an extent. Come to think of it, all three of those aired on CBS, the network that had previously turned down Genesis II. Maybe CBS’s execs just liked the premise and kept trying to make it work. Though apparently getting ABC interested was a harder sell.

It occurred to me briefly to wonder if maybe ABC and Warner Bros. might have gotten far enough along with Planet Earth to commission additional scripts or story outlines, or to sign up John Saxon for some sort of additional commitment, before the network decided to pass on it. If SNW had just been a way to amortize their investment in a pair of additional scripts, I figured that could explain the halfheartedness, and why the pilot is just two standalone episodes glued together. But on reflection, the stories don’t really feel like they were based on Planet Earth proposals, since the characters are too different.

More likely, it’s just that Strange New World is a cheaper version of the premise. It’s the same format as PE but with three leads instead of four, a simple ground vehicle instead of the more elaborate subshuttle sets and miniatures, and no PAX headquarters sets or recurring cast members. Relegating the space station sequence to a few shots in the intro was a lot cheaper than doing a proper origin episode (and the space FX shots may even have been stock footage, though I can’t find evidence of that). Making a pilot movie that could be recut into two standard episodes would also save money. So would hiring less experienced writers and producers. So that’s probably what it all boils down to — Warner Bros. retooling the premise to be cheaper in the hope that it would then be more appealing to a network.

Anyway, I have now put far more thought into analyzing Strange New World than it really deserves. It’s a weird, half-hearted afterthought of a project, a mere footnote to G2/PE, far less worthy of attention than its preceding pilots or its contemporary post-apocalyptic shows (and none of those were all that great anyway). If not for the peripheral Star Trek connection, it would probably be entirely forgotten. I was right to skip it the first time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on AQUAMAN (Spoilers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , ,

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME thoughts (spoilers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

.

.

Final warning:

.

.

Read more…

Thoughts on GODZILLA: THE PLANET EATER (spoilers)

January 10, 2019 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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