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

September 5, 2018 3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Catching up on Netflix’s LOST IN SPACE (spoilers)

I’d heard mixed reviews of the new Lost in Space series on Netflix, but I was interested enough that it was one of the first things I watched after finally renewing my subscription to the service. And it didn’t take me long at all to decide that I really, really like it. The writing is solid, the characters and cast are good, the production values are terrific, and it’s just very entertaining all around.

I think what I like most about the new LIS, though, is that it succeeds in capturing what the 1965 Irwin Allen series was originally supposed to be before Jonathan Harris’s Dr. Smith took over the show: A drama about a family of very smart, resourceful people struggling to survive on a dangerous, hostile planet. A lot of LIS fans, myself included, have long lamented the wasted potential of the series, imagining the show it could’ve been if Harris’s popularity and ego hadn’t yanked it off course, marginalized most of the cast, and turned the show toward pure camp. There was a 1990s comic book sequel/revival from Innovation Comics, mostly written by original series star Bill Mumy, that was in that vein, getting back to the storytelling style of the early first season (updated for the era) and retconning the later, campier seasons as younger daughter Penny’s whimsical retellings of events in her diary. That comic ended up going a lot darker and somewhat more adult than the Netflix show, but I felt they were both trying for many of the same things.

There has been some reshuffling of character traits in the new show, though. The original John Robinson’s traits have been split between the new John (Toby Stephens) and his wife Maureen (Molly Parker), with John retaining the action-hero attributes and Maureen getting the scientific smarts and leadership skills, both of the mission and the family. I wasn’t crazy about this part, since the show starts off with John and Maureen estranged, much like in the disappointing 1998 feature film version. To me growing up, Guy Williams’s John Robinson was something of an ideal father figure, so I don’t like seeing him reimagined as a dysfunctional dad, although the new series doesn’t take it as far as the movie did and doesn’t take too long to heal the relationship. And it’s good that it makes Maureen a more dynamic and commanding figure. But I do wonder why modern mass-media fiction has so much trouble portraying good fathers.

Meanwhile, the original Maureen’s medical skills have been transferred to eldest daughter Judy (Taylor Russell), who’s only 18 here but had her medical training fast-tracked for the colony expedition. Penny (Mina Sundwall) is now an aspiring writer and is also the family’s resident wiseass — which seems inspired by Lacey Chabert’s snarky, scene-stealing Penny from the ’98 film, though Sundwall’s Penny is more laid-back, wry, and sardonic than Chabert’s chipmunk-voiced spitfire. Will (Maxwell Jenkins) is still a smart kid, but more timid and vulnerable than Mumy’s Will. They’re all very good in their roles, particularly Jenkins. Will Robinson is a critical role in Lost in Space, so it was important to find a child actor who could really step up and give a star-worthy performance, and Jenkins does really well.

The biggest changes are made to the Robot, Don West, and Dr. Smith, as well as to the nature of the Alpha Centauri expedition. Here, instead of the Robinsons and the Jupiter 2 making the journey alone, they’re one of multiple families aboard a larger colony starship, the Resolute, with the Jupiters being lifeboats that they and the other families use when the ship comes under alien attack — an idea also used by the failed 2004 The Robinsons: Lost in Space pilot from Douglas Petrie and John Woo. After the Robinsons crash, Will is separated from the others and comes across a damaged alien robot and its ship in damaged condition. Will plays Androcles, overcoming his initial fear of the Robot and selflessly helping it get free when they’re both endangered by a forest fire, which leads the Robot to save him in turn and forges a bond between them. I loved it that the bond was forged by Will doing something so kind, which really solidified him as a character to root for. It’s soon revealed to the audience that it was the Robot that attacked the Resolute, but apparently it has amnesia, and Will is convinced it (or rather, “he”) is good now. It even morphs itself into a more human shape (played by suit actor Brian Steele in an elaborate costume, when it’s not a CGI construct) and starts to emulate Will’s behavior, though it never talks other than to say “Danger, Will Robinson” or variations thereon. That bit kind of annoys me, an overreliance on a familiar catchphrase, and it’s hard to understand why it doesn’t say anything else. But the Will-Robot relationship and the questions raised by the Robot are handled nicely, and the costume is so cleverly designed that I was unsure whether it was real or CGI.

Meanwhile, the new Don West is no longer a major and hotshot pilot (come to think of it, the new John has inherited Major West’s military background, as he did in the 2004 pilot) but a working-class Resolute mechanic, smuggler, and hustler. He’s initially paired with the new version of Dr. Smith, played by Parker Posey — actually an impostor who’s stolen the identity of the real Smith (Mumy in a cameo) and will go to any lengths to cover up the crimes she was about to get imprisoned or spaced for when the Resolute was attacked. Posey’s “Smith” is an interesting reinterpretation, keeping the basics of Smith as a pathological liar driven by self-interest and cowardice but putting them together in a more nuanced, less comical way that’s marvelously, subtly played by Posey. Her Smith is not outright malevolent, nor is she a paid saboteur like the original Smith was at the start; she’s just a scared and broken person who tells herself she doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but who will do whatever she must to protect herself and her secrets, no matter who else has to suffer. It’s interesting the way the show manages to preserve the core relationships of the original in its own way. It gives Don West a reason to mistrust and dislike Smith (after they initially bond somewhat in episode 2, before her sudden and inevitable betrayal). It gives Smith an ongoing interest in the Robot (which she wants to turn to her side as her protector/enforcer) and in Will as the means of getting to the Robot, and essentially reinvents the first few 1965 episodes’ arc of Dr. Smith reprogramming and corrupting the Robot to serve his ends and Will trying to win it back. It’s a clever remix. One novelty is that Smith’s main relationship here is really with Maureen, who sees the other mature woman as a friend before eventually learning of her betrayal. But even that has a sort of a precedent in the original, since Smith and Maureen seemed to get along relatively well there (in part because he saved her life in the first episode).

The new show differs from the old in that it doesn’t deal with sapient aliens aside from the Robot and his mysterious builders. Here, the reason for settling Alpha Centauri is that Earth has been devastated by an impact event, and it eventually gets hinted — and it isn’t hard to guess — that the impactor was actually a crashed alien ship from which humanity stole an FTL technology allowing the Resolute to function, and that the Robot attacked it to recover the stolen property. (This is another idea the new series shares with the ’90s Innovation comic, which revealed that the Jupiter 2‘s FTL drive was salvaged from a crashed alien ship and that the “enemy agents” who hired Smith to sabotage the Jupiter 2 were actually aliens trying to keep humanity from reaching their homeworld. It’s interesting how this version seems to draw elements from every previous version, or at least coincidentally arrive at some of the same choices.) Otherwise, though, the Robinsons deal mostly with the dangers of the planet where they’re wrecked, both environmental hazards and dangerous animals, as well as with the other survivors who crashlanded in other Jupiters — an interesting innovation to the premise that allows a wider range of characters than just the Robinsons, Don, and Smith to be involved in the stories. It also allows for a more ethnically diverse cast; of the main leads, the only nonwhite character is Judy, who’s biracial, a product of Maureen’s first marriage before John. The supporting characters are far more diverse, such as the friendly Watanabe family (including Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Heroes Reborn‘s Kiki Sukezane); the prickly colony administrator Victor Dhar (Raza Jaffrey) and his son Vijay (Ajay Friese), who’s a love interest for Penny; and crash survivor Angela Goddard (played by Siren‘s Sibongile Mlambo and named for original LIS cast members Angela Cartwright and Mark Goddard), who was an eyewitness to the Robot’s attack and hates it for what it did. It’s unfortunate that the season ends with the Robinsons apparently isolated from the others once again, though perhaps there’s still room to bring them back as the series goes on.

But the focus on survival in a hostile environment, as well as the debates with the other colonists about how to deal with the problems and dangers they face, are a large part of what make the show so engaging. I like the kind of adventure stories driven by creative problem-solving more than the kind driven by fighting and violence, and this show is all about really smart people using their brains to figure out clever solutions to life-threatening problems, to rescue each other or themselves from impossible deathtraps, and so on. It’s just the thing I love to see, and it’s very satisfying. It also does a good job using the crises as an opportunity to advance character dynamics and drive emotional beats, and to generate conflicts over the best way to proceed in a situation with no good options. I mentioned not liking the ’98 movie’s dysfunctional version of the Robinsons, and that’s because I don’t care for the kind of conflict that would be easily avoidable if the characters weren’t emotionally immature jerks. That kind of conflict is a lazy cheat that writers too often fall back on. I prefer the kind of conflicts that arise between people who mean well and care for each other, the kind that come from impossible dilemmas where there is no simple answer and solutions are genuinely hard to find. One of my favorite episodes from the original LIS is episode 6, “Welcome Stranger,” where the idealized and loving parents John and Maureen nonetheless get into a serious debate about whether it’s better to split the family up to give Will and Penny a chance to get home or to keep the family together no matter what. It shows how you can generate meaningful conflict without requiring the characters to be screwed up or motivated by anything other than love and good intentions. That’s the kind of conflict that features heavily in the new show, although there are some tenser and more hostile moments in the early episodes before the planet’s challenges bring the family closer. While less idealized than the original show, it still strikes a pretty good balance that keeps the family more likeable than they were in the movie.

The show is also gorgeous to look at. The set, tech, and costume designs are bright and functional and plausible and excellent. The location work and visual effects for creating the nameless alien planet are terrific; the show is shot in British Columbia, but it mostly manages to avoid looking like just another show shot in the woods outside Vancouver. The tech and science are fairly well thought out and somewhat plausible, though there are a couple of scientific boners here and there (like Maureen talking about the difference between visual, eclipsing, and spectroscopic binaries as if that made a physical difference to the stars themselves rather than just how they were detected by Earth astronomers). The music is effective too, a rich orchestral score by Christopher Lennertz (Supernatural, Agent Carter) that incorporates John Williams’s third-season LIS main title theme as its principal motif (though I’m disappointed it doesn’t also reuse Williams’s leitmotif for the Chariot, the Robinsons’ ground vehicle). It’s a strong and entertaining show all around. It’s a family show, suitable for all ages, with very little profanity and only very chaste romance — but that’s also presumably why it’s focused so much on problem-solving and fighting natural dangers rather than interpersonal violence, and that’s a large part of what I like about it. And a family show that adults could watch with their kids was exactly what the original LIS was meant to be, just as it was meant to be a show about family survival in a dangerous alien realm.

All in all, it’s impressive that the Lost in Space remake has managed to fulfill the intended goals of the original show more successfully than the original did, as well as far surpassing both previous attempts at a revival. It took over half a century, but I’m happy to say that someone finally got Lost in Space right. And I look forward to seeing where they take it next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My check came!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My very late and, surprisingly, rather positive JUSTICE LEAGUE review (spoilers)

Yes, I finally rose to the top of the library’s long waiting list for another DVD, this time Warner Bros.’ Justice League, directed partly by Zack Snyder with the completion and reshoots done by an uncredited Joss Whedon (who did get a co-screenplay credit with Chris Terrio). This is the fifth movie in the film continuity nicknamed the DC Extended Universe, and readers of my blog may remember that the only prior film in that series that I liked was Wonder Woman. I thought Snyder’s Man of Steel was strong and promising (though flawed) in the first two acts but was totally ruined by the dreadful and crass choices made in the third act. Whereas its sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (also from Snyder) was utterly incoherent, a loosely movie-shaped hodgepodge of unconnected moments revolving around ciphers failing to qualify as characters. I didn’t review Suicide Squad for this blog, but it was also pretty incoherent and clumsy. Its ensemble cast only had 2 or 3 characters with any development, and it put them in totally the wrong story for their purpose and powers. It had an inept story structure that spent too much of the first act on exposition and setup with no plot or stakes to motivate our interest, and that then jumped straight into third-act-level crisis with no buildup.

So I didn’t have much reason to be optimistic about Justice League, especially with Snyder being involved for a third time. Whedon’s reshoots gave me hope for a more coherent and character-driven story, but I heard a lot of negative reviews and fan complaints about the finished product, so I didn’t expect much. To my pleasant surprise, though, Justice League is a fun, watchable, largely coherent film, though not a brilliant one or an especially good-looking one. It’s no Wonder Woman, but it feels the way a movie about the Justice League should feel. It’s the only DCEU movie other than WW that I’d be willing to watch a second time, and indeed I already did before writing this review.

Certainly the Macguffin driving the plot is nothing special. CGI baddie Steppenwolf comes to Earth, steals three Mother Boxes he can put together to destroy the Earth, fights and trash-talks the heroes, yadda yadda. It’s the most superficial possible story you could get out of Jack Kirby’s New Gods characters and concepts, though Ciarán Hinds does a fairly good job of making an interesting vocal performance out of a very one-dimensional role, a villain who’s essentially just a video game’s final boss and looks like one too. Steppenwolf does have a motivation that could’ve been interesting — he’s an exile seeking to conquer Earth to earn the right to return home — but hardly anything is done with it, and usually he’s just a generic megalomaniac seeking to be worshipped. And the premise is illogical; if putting these three boxes together could destroy the Earth, why keep all three on Earth after that first ancient invasion was repelled, when the Green Lanterns and Greek gods who had cameos in the flashback battle could’ve taken them to space or destroyed them?

But that doesn’t really matter, because the plot is just the excuse for getting the team together, and that’s the heart of the story. It’s the characters and the cast that make the movie satisfying for me, even though the big cluttered Snyderesque CGI action sequences do little for me. (Some of the action works, though. I really liked Wonder Woman’s bursts of superspeed in her first fight scene against the terrorists.)

Well, I need to qualify that. The two main characters driving the story are Ben Affleck’s Batman/Bruce Wayne and Gal Gadot’s Diana (who still has never been called Wonder Woman by any character in the films). Affleck is okay as an affable lead, but I’m not entirely sold on him as Batman, and the attempts to lighten him up and give him a sense of humor feel weird for Batman, though he does have some nice moments of characterization regarding his history (such as it is) with Superman. And Gadot is oddly less expressive and engaging here than in her previous two turns in the role, as if she wasn’t as invested in it this time.

On the other hand, I quite liked the newcomers Ezra Miller as Barry Allen (never called the Flash onscreen) and Ray Fisher as Victor Stone/Cyborg (Bruce does call him “the cyborg” at one point — close enough). This version of Barry has more in common with the comics’ Wally West or Supergirl‘s Winn Schott, and it feels redundant to give him the exact same backstory involving his father in prison that the entire first season of The CW’s The Flash was built around. But Miller is funny and charming and vulnerable, and he brings a lot of entertainment value. I particularly like the “save one person” scene where Batman teaches him how to be a hero. Given that Snyder’s previous films largely ignored the whole “saving people” aspect of superheroics, it’s nice to see this one focusing on it more directly (I suspect that’s Whedon’s influence, given how much he emphasized rescuing civilians in the Avengers films). The Flash costume is pretty cool too — the design is a bit cluttered, but I like the idea of it as an anti-friction design, and the cowl has a nice bike-helmet quality to it that makes sense for a speedster.

As for Fisher, he wasn’t given too much to work with, just a couple of brief but effective scenes about his struggles with his new cyborg form and his resentment toward his father Silas (Joe Morton) for creating him. And his performance was hurt by the heavy CGI overlaid on it — oddly, even the human part of Cyborg’s face seemed to be a digital construct nestled in the Uncanny Valley alongside Steppenwolf. But Fisher’s vocal performance is very strong (though his voice sounds too much like Affleck’s and I sometimes got their off-camera lines confused) and he makes Victor an engaging and potent presence with a quiet intensity. As for Morton, he’s always nice to see, though casting him makes for a more sympathetic Silas than the comics version was, I think.

There’s also Jason Momoa as Aquaman/Arthur Curry. He was kind of okay, which is more than I would’ve expected from him. It helps that, in the years since Stargate Atlantis, he’s gotten somewhat better at enunciation and showing some expressiveness rather than just mumbling everything in a monotone. Although he did tend to be a bit too monosyllabic in the action scenes, without a lot in the way of decent banter, even though it seemed they were trying to play him as one of the funny ones. Meanwhile, Amber Heard was underwhelming in her one scene as Mera, Aquaman’s leading lady. Mera is supposed to be regal, commanding, and heroic, and Heard conveyed none of that. But then, she had nothing to work with besides a few lines of exposition, so maybe she’ll be better in the Aquaman solo film.

Of course, it took until late in the second act for Henry Cavill to be resurrected as Superman, except for the “phone video” scene at the start, which is kind of fun (“Did you ever fight a hippo?”). He did a fairly good job as Superman in the few scenes he got, certainly better than in BvS where he was more a plot device than a character. He finally got to play Superman as he should be, a positive, kind, optimistic figure whose priority is helping civilians and bringing inspiration. The movie’s plot depended on the premise that Superman had already been that to the world before his death, and that losing that hope had plunged the world into despair — which is a huge retcon from BvS, where Superman was portrayed as a subject of fear and mistrust for much of the world. And that’s another plot hole in the premise, by the way. The film claims that the world’s despair at the death of Superman was a moment of great enough darkness to trigger the reawakening of the Mother Boxes and the summoning of Steppenwolf after thousands of years. Really? Losing a superhero the world had barely had time to get to know was the darkest ebb in human history? More so than slavery or WWII? That seems unlikely.

That aside, it’s a retcon I’m okay with, because it’s the way Superman should’ve been portrayed all along. It’s notable that Superman is the one character here who gets frequently addressed by his superhero name even by people who know his given name, whereas the previous two films were embarrassed to call him that. (Although the film overall is incredibly sloppy with secret identities, with Lois calling the resurrected Superman “Clark” in front of witnesses, and Bruce and Arthur openly talking about Batman in front of a bunch of villagers who evidently don’t speak English but should certainly be able to recognize the name “Batman.”)

On the downside, Amy Adams did nothing here to change my opinion that she’s the blandest Lois Lane ever — especially since her whole arc revolved around her becoming useless without a super man in her life and no longer being Lois Lane in a meaningful sense, which is a highly unflattering portrayal. In Lois’s scene with Martha Kent, I couldn’t help thinking that Diane Lane would’ve been a far better Lois in her prime.

I guess the other main supporting player of note should be J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon. He kinda worked in the role, but he had so little to do here that he didn’t leave much impression. As with most of the other supporting players (including an uncredited Billy Crudup as Henry Allen), he was mainly there to set up an appearance in a future solo film for his associated hero — a film that may or may not happen, given how chaotic WB’s development slate has been in response to the lukewarm performance of Justice League.

By the way, while the CGI on Cyborg and Steppenwolf was distinctly video-gamey, I didn’t really notice the infamous digital upper lip on Henry Cavill, added in reshoots because Paramount pettily wouldn’t let him shave his Mission: Impossible — Fallout character’s mustache. But then, I wasn’t really trying to spot it. There were one or two closeups where I could tell that something was a little off, but not enough to be distracting from the movie. Maybe it doesn’t stand out for me because I’ve never been that good with facial recognition.

Danny Elfman’s score was pretty good, giving the film a nice old-school superhero-movie sound that probably helped make it more satisfying. But while Elfman reused his own Batman theme and included quotes of Hans Zimmer & Junkie XL’s Wonder Woman theme and John Williams’s Superman theme, I was disappointed that he didn’t revive his Flash theme from the 1990 CBS series. I can see why he didn’t use it; Elfman’s Flash theme was tonally a lot like his Batman theme, and it would’ve been a poor fit for this version of Barry Allen. Instead, Elfman contributed a more ethereal, slightly Philip Glass-ish piece, also slightly reminiscent of Blake Neely’s themes for The CW’s Flash, for the slowed-down Speed Force sequences. (Slow motion to represent superspeed? Holy Steve Austin, Batman!). Still, it would’ve been nice if he’d found a way to incorporate the melody of his 1990 Flash theme somehow.

All in all, Justice League is an imperfect film, and there are times when you can see the seams of the somewhat messy production process. The bits with the Russian family needing rescue, for instance, feel like an attempt by Whedon to add human interest to a sequence that Snyder probably designed to be in a totally abandoned area so that he could have large-scale CGI mayhem without having to bother with civilians, as he did in BvS. If so, it’s a limited and imperfect fix, but probably the best that could be managed within the parameters of the existing footage.

Still, the version of the film that we ended up with is watchable and satisfying because of the effectiveness of the characters and their interplay, and because it corrected or avoided so many of the previous films’ mistakes, despite the superficiality of the underlying plot and the weakness of a lot of the character animation. Honestly, it’s not that different from “Secret Origins,” the series premiere of the 2001 Justice League animated series, which also used a rather simplistic, underwhelming alien invasion plot (rather blatantly ripped off from The War of the Worlds, in fact) as a catalyst for uniting a team of heroes who were mostly being seen for the first time. The movie does feel like the pilot for an ongoing series, and it succeeded in making me want to see more, unlike nearly every one of its predecessors. The film apparently didn’t perform that well at the box office and threw the future of the DCEU into question, but for me, it succeeded in setting the franchise on roughly the right course at last.

Thoughts on AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (full spoilers)

Yup, I finally got around to seeing Avengers: Infinity War. I got paid for a writing project at last — a bit later than I’d hoped, but enough that I figured I could spare 5 bucks for a movie ticket on discount day (last week — I’ve been busy since). Honestly, that spoiler warning in the title seems almost unnecessary; despite all the pleas from the filmmakers for people to avoid giving away spoilers, it was less than a day after the film’s release that I got spoiled on the ending by something online, and people have been talking about it pretty openly on the Web ever since. Then again, there were several people near me in the theater who seemed genuinely taken aback by the ending, so I guess not everyone’s been spoiled. So be warned.

Honestly, I’m not sure the film offers much to talk about but the ending. I mean, as a single story culminating the plot and character arcs of 18 previous films and uniting nearly all their casts, it’s a logistically and structurally impressive achievement in its way. It’s kind of a miracle they even pulled it off and that it’s actually a coherent story overall. But the drawback of fitting in all those characters is that few of them really have that much to do. Oh, they get their moments to do their schticks and be the characters we’ve come to know and love, and we get to see various pairs or groups of characters meet for the first time and play off each other in novel ways. (I liked it that they paired Spider-Man with Iron Man and Dr. Strange, two characters he’s often been close to in the comics.) But opportunities for meaningful character advancement and growth are few. The most important character arc left over from previous movies, the conflict between Iron Man and Captain America, is all but completely avoided, with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers never actually meeting at any point in the film.

So it’s certainly a well-done film for what it is, one massive action crossover spectacular. I enjoyed it while I was watching, and had fun seeing the characters I liked do their things (though I could’ve done without Star-Lord, who was really kind of a moron here). I even enjoyed the unexpected return of a long-absent MCU villain in a new role as the Soul Stone’s guardian, and it was fun to see Peter Dinklage playing a giant. (Really, come to think of it, it makes biomechanical sense that a giant would have more squat, vertically compact proportions than an average-sized human, so that’s actually very logical casting.) But it left me feeling less than satisfied after the fact, because there wasn’t much else to it in the way of substance. The biggest thing that happened to any of the major characters, mostly, was that a lot of them died. And that quickly lost its shock value as it happened more and more throughout the film. Really, I’ve kind of gotten tired of lead-character death as a story device, because it’s been used so often. Not to mention that there’s no telling how many of these deaths will stick.

Thinking it over, the only heroes who really get any meaningful character growth are the pairs of Vision & Scarlet Witch and Star Lord & Gamora. And both couples have the exact same arc — one urges the other to kill them to stop Thanos, the other resists but eventually finds the courage to try it, but it fails anyway because of the Infinity Gauntlet’s powers, yet the first one still dies anyway after Thanos got what he wanted from them. With so many different characters to play with, you’d think they could’ve found two different arcs there instead of the same one twice. Similarly, Loki and Nebula play quite similar roles — former villainous siblings who largely redeemed themselves in their last appearances and now solidify their redemption. Except in this case, one lives and the other apparently dies (though as soon as it happened, I was expecting it to turn out to be another of Loki’s faked deaths, and Thor suggested later that it might be).

The one character who has a real, complete story arc in this film is Thanos. In a very real sense, he’s the protagonist of the movie — he’s the guy whose quest drives the story, we learn of his motivations and witness his choices and personal struggles as he pursues his goal and overcomes the multiple enemies opposing him one by one, and eventually he prevails against the odds. And of course he does see himself as the hero of the story, believing his goal is benevolent. Although of course he’s a hypocrite. If he has the godlike power of the Gauntlet and can rewrite reality to his will, why not snap his fingers and double the amount of food and resources available in the universe? Or multiply it by a hundred times so there’s more than enough for everyone? He’s too fixated on his obsession with Death (albeit not as literally as in the comics) to see a better way. Still, he was an impressively rich and nuanced character for an MCU villain, and marvelously played by Josh Brolin and the CG animators interpreting and augmenting his performance. Between him and Killmonger, this has been a good year for MCU villains. I just wish Infinity War had had more room to do good work with the heroes.

You know, one thing that’s bothered me about comics’ mega-crossovers is the way they require the individual series to twist themselves into knots to accommodate the big mega-events, often getting dragged off course and forced to change their plans to accommodate the new status quo when they’ve barely even gotten started. We see that here with Spider-Man and Black Panther, two characters who’ve only just had their solo series get underway and have already been yanked in a whole other direction. Not to mention that the relatively happy ending of Thor: Ragnarok turned out to descend into tragedy literal minutes after that film’s post-credits stinger. (It’s a good thing that I ended up seeing Ragnarok out of order after Black Panther, since it works better there, its stinger leading straight into the opening of A:IW.) I find that the DC Arrowverse shows on The CW have done a defter job with their multi-series crossovers the past two years; instead of swerving the individual series’ storylines off course or negating their plot developments to serve the crossover, they construct the crossover so that it serves and advances the individual series’ existing storylines and character arcs, even if it’s a complete swerve from them in terms of the basic situation and the enemy they’re facing. Granted, this past year’s Crisis on Earth-X crossover had the advantage that most of the heroes had already met in the previous year’s crossover, or at least at the wedding reception early in the story, so there weren’t as many getting-to-know-you moments taking up time as there were in A:IW. (And if you think it was also because they had a lot more running time in a 4-part crossover, think again. With each part only being 40-odd minutes including recaps, they had maybe 10-20 more minutes than the 2.5-hour Infinity War.)

Of course, the saving grace for Infinity War is that it’s just the first half of a 2-parter. Despite the shock of my fellow moviegoers when the film ended with half the cast dead or disintegrated, it’s obvious that the ending will be reversed somehow in Avengers 4, resurrecting at least the characters turned to dust by Thanos’s snap, if not the ones killed earlier as well. After all, several of those characters already have announced sequels coming up after Avengers 4. Meanwhile, the next couple of films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe-adjacent TV series are apparently mostly going to keep themselves in a timeframe before Infinity War, while Agents of SHIELD is saving its next season until after Avengers 4, suggesting that the next film will pick up pretty much directly after this one and mostly restore the status quo in a fairly brief time in internal continuity terms.

Come to think of it, the advantage of killing off half the huge ensemble of IW is that it may give the surviving characters in A4 more room to breathe and develop. In a way, I’m surprised that most of the newer characters like Spidey, Dr. Strange, and Black Panther got dusted while the established core cast like Stark, Cap, Thor, Banner, and Black Widow is intact. But at the same time, I’m not surprised. It makes sense to keep the focus on the big stars. But I, and probably a lot of people, had been expecting that this duology would bring about a changing of the guard, a passing of the torch to the new generation of MCU heroes who will be more prominent going forward. Still, maybe that will happen in A4. Maybe the reason to give the old guard the focus there is to give them a proper wrap-up to their arcs so the new characters can take the lead thereafter. We’ll see.

Anyway, I suspect we’ll learn in A4 that the reason Dr. Strange gave up the Time Stone to save Stark is that the one possible future he beheld where Thanos was beaten was one where Tony saved the day after the Snap and somehow reversed things. It figures that the fate of the whole MCU would revolve around Tony Stark. I wonder if maybe he’ll find a way to reset time and give Thor a do-over for that final strike. Really, why didn’t he go for the head? Or chop Thanos’s hand off? You’d think a warrior with millennia of combat experience would’ve known better. So that was kind of contrived.

Speaking of contrivances, it’s kind of weird that the last Infinity Stone Thanos managed to claim, the Vision’s Mind Stone, originally came from Loki’s scepter — which Thanos gave to Loki in the first place! So did Thanos not know he had an Infinity Stone all along? Or did he give it up as an investment, knowing it would set events in motion that would expose the other Stones on Earth? Maybe Avengers 4 will finally explain that plot hole.

Oh, by the way, while the audience I saw the movie with may have been largely unspoiled on the ending, given their reactions, they did know one thing that most prior audiences in my experience have not: that for an MCU movie, you stay through the credits. Usually I’m practically the only person who sticks around to the very end, but this time, most of the audience stayed. Although it helped that there was only one post-credit stinger here and no mid-credit teaser for the next film. If there had been two stingers, most of the audience would probably have left after the first one.