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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.

I finally saw THOR: RAGNAROK (spoiler review)

Well, it took quite a while, but I finally reached the top of the library’s hold list for Thor: Ragnarok. So now I’ve finally seen it, out of sequence (after Black Panther) because it took so long. (I almost got it a week sooner from a friend who was going to loan me his Blu-Ray, but it turned out I couldn’t get my inherited Blu-Ray player to produce a picture without connectors that my other equipment can’t handle.) Fortunately, there’s nothing in either Ragnarok or Black Panther that requires them to be seen in order. As long as I saw them both before Avengers: Infinity War, I’m good.

So what did I think of Thor: Ragnarok? Not much, really. It’s a moderately amusing bit of fluff, but is that really enough for a movie about the Norse Armageddon? A lot of really big stuff happens in this movie, numerous major character deaths and permanent changes in the Asgardian status quo, and none of it has any emotional weight because the director is more interested in the comedy. None of the characters really seem to feel anything very deeply; they just look distractedly upset for a moment and then get back to being wry and quippy.

In the original Thor, the conflict between the brothers Thor and Loki was the emotional core of the film. That same family conflict, also including Odin and Frigga, was the most notable part of the second film as well. But here, we have Thor battling the sister he never knew he had — indeed, the original bearer of Mjolnir — and the fact of that relationship has effectively zero impact on the story, beyond the plot mechanics of explaining how she was able to hold and destroy Mjolnir. It just lies there and nothing is really done with it from a character standpoint. Hela is just one more of the MCU’s long list of one-dimensional villains who are more obstacles than characters. Meanwhile, the entire character arc of her henchman Skurge — based on what I gather was a really powerful and beloved storyline in Walt Simonson’s classic Thor run — is conveyed almost completely through Karl Urban repeatedly looking sullen and conflicted. The fact that most of the established Asgardian characters are killed off as an afterthought also weakens the impact of the conquest of Asgard, since there’s nobody there whose point of view we can identify with for much of Hela’s invasion. (I’m just glad that Jaimie Alexander’s commitment to Blindspot spared Lady Sif from the cavalier carnage. Maybe she can still show up on Agents of SHIELD again sometime.)

Then you’ve got the whole Planet Hulk adaptation crammed in and overshadowing the storyline that the movie’s actually named for. Again, as an insubstantial bit of amusement, it was fine. Certainly it deserves credit for going whole hog on the Jack Kirby design sense more than any prior MCU movie (with Stan Lee’s costume being the most Kirbyesque thing ever). But honestly, I’ve never been a fan of Kirby’s artwork, and I find his designs garish and silly. And again, there’s not much substance to the plotline. Thor’s arc with Loki is one that should be quite effective on paper, but it’s directed and played with so little weight and so much snark that the poignancy isn’t there. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie (who isn’t really called Valkyrie, but is just a Valkyrie whose given name is unrevealed) has a lot of inner angst, but it’s only passingly addressed, rushed through like most of the serious and important stuff in this movie. And Mark Ruffalo is surprisingly disappointing as both Hulk and Bruce Banner. It’s good to hear Hulk speaking more than two words per movie at last, but Ruffalo’s voice isn’t really cut out for it, even electronically deepened. And as Banner, he seemed to be distracted and phoning in his part, the charisma and subtle emotion he brought in his previous appearances not in evidence.

I’ve heard a lot of praise for this movie, and I just don’t get it. Sure, it has its funny bits, which is fine as far as it goes. But a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie should go farther. The MCU’s films and some of its TV shows have plenty of humor, even outright comedy, but they also have emotional depth and sincerity and a real sense of stakes and danger. This movie only seemed to care about laid-back snark and put little effort into the rest. None of the characters really seemed to be more than mildly annoyed or disappointed about any of the huge, intense, tragic, dramatic stuff that happened, so it was hard for me as a viewer to care much about it either. It was an amusing way to pass 2 hours and a bit, but it provided no substance that lasted beyond the moment. It’s really quite dissatisfying after the fact. This is the way Asgard ends: not with a bang, but with a shrug.

“Hubpoint of No Return” is out!

It slipped my mind that yesterday was the on-sale date for the May/June 2018 Analog Science Fiction and Fact, containing my new story “Hubpoint of No Return,” the first new Hub comedy-adventure in Analog since 2013, and the first new Hub material to see print since the Hub Space collection in 2015. I’m quite honored to see that the story is featured by name on the cover:

Analog May/June 2018 cover

It’s rather mind-boggling to see my name given more prominence than luminaries like Wil McCarthy and the legendary Gregory Benford. I can only dream of being on their level.

The Analog site has a substantial excerpt up from “Hubpoint” available to read, along with a glimpse at the accompanying illustration by Josh Meehan:

http://www.analogsf.com/current-issue/story-excerpt2/

(Note to future readers: The above “current issue” link will probably lead to some other story after the end of June 2018.)

It’s a pretty cool illustration. I never imagined David wearing glasses, and Tsshar isn’t supposed to have a tail (assuming my single erroneous mention of one in the manuscript was successfully corrected in proofreading), but otherwise it looks like it captures the scene and characters quite well.

I learned of the issue’s release this morning in a rather nice way, when I checked Facebook and found a very flattering (though spoilery) review of the story at Rocket Stack Rank:

http://www.rocketstackrank.com/2018/04/Hubpoint-Of-No-Return-Christopher-L-Bennett.html

Money quote: “The best part of the story is the characters, who keep managing to be predictable in unexpected ways.”

I’m pleased that reviewer Greg Hullender plugged (and bought) the Hub Space collection of the first three stories. I’ve been hoping that the release of the new Hub stories would prompt new sales of the collection. But I’m also pleased that the reviewer felt the new story could be followed without prior knowledge of the series, so it could work as a new introduction and interest people in going back to the beginning afterward.

I’ve now updated my Hub page on my site, retitling it “The Hub Series” to account for the new stories (though the link address is the same) and adding non-spoiler background discussion on the story. Spoiler annotations will follow soon, but first I have to get my copies of the magazine so I can get the page numbers right.

Thoughts on BLACK PANTHER (spoilers)

I finally got around to seeing Black Panther yesterday, since I have a bit of money coming in and figured I could spare a few bucks to see the phenomenon while it’s still in theaters (and before Avengers: Infinity War comes out). I never got around to seeing Thor: Ragnarok in theaters — I’m in the hold queue for the DVD at the library, but there are about 1350 people ahead of me at the moment — but this was a film I had to see, given its rave reviews and its larger importance.

Usually when I go to see a film this late in its run, and in a matinee showing, I’m one of only a few people in the theater. For this film, though, the theater was fairly packed. And I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with an audience that was so emotionally invested in the film — with people who said “Oh, no!” when a supporting character was about to be killed or applauded when the hero made a grand entrance. For once, I wasn’t annoyed when people talked in the theater, because I was interested in the way people were reacting to this movie and engaging with it.

I don’t really want to go into detail about the plot and specifics of the film, since it’s all pretty terrific and it’s all been talked about really extensively elsewhere. I thought it was fascinating on a lot of levels. I loved the portrayal of Wakandan technology and architecture, of African designs and sensibilities extrapolated into modernity and futurism without colonial influence. It made for something really fresh and intriguing to see. And I love it that the film didn’t just depict an Afrofuturist utopia, but made it textured, with its own internal problems and conflicts and mistakes, and also confronted what it would mean to black Americans — both the sense of hope and empowerment it offered, and the harsh question of whether they had the right to maintain their utopia by abandoning others in need. Killmonger is certainly the richest, most sympathetic villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had since Loki, if not ever, since he had a legitimate viewpoint to offer, even if his methods were too violent. He was right that his people deserved liberation, but wrong to think that just adding more violence and oppression to the world would achieve that. I could tell from very early on that the film was likely to end with T’Challa realizing he needed to open up Wakanda to the world and offer its benefits to others, to make amends for Wakanda’s past through peaceful outreach and support rather than armed conquest. I’m very interested in seeing the answer to the question T’Challa is asked at the end of the mid-credits scene.

The cast was really solid, excellent all around. Michael B. Jordan is a standout as Killmonger, bringing enormous charisma while still being a credible threat. Chadwick Boseman is effective in the lead. Lupita Nyong’o is very good as Nakia, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. (This is the first movie of hers I’ve seen where I could actually see her face.) Letitia Wright (who had a recurring role in Humans season 2 as a troubled schoolgirl pretending to be an android) is lots of fun as Shuri, and I love it how the film just takes it for granted that their resident Tony Stark-meets-Q is a teenage girl. (She has the kind of vast high-tech underground playroom that I dreamed of having as a teenager.) I was impressed by Person of Interest‘s Winston Duke as M’Baku, a character who had to be handled very, very carefully to skirt the offensive implications of his comics counterpart, the villain called “Man-Ape.” He had to start out as a convincing antagonist and then reveal a more admirable side, and he pulled it off well. Martin Freeman did his usual excellent work as Everett Ross, going from a smugly clueless American to a stalwart ally who slipped comfortably into a supporting role, rather than trying to dominate the narrative. (I’ve seen this movie compared to a James Bond film, so I guess that means Ross would be Felix Leiter.) Andy Serkis was unexpectedly impish as Ulysses Klaue, who we initially were led to think was the primary villain but who ended up being secondary to Killmonger. In the comics, Ulysses Klaw was the murderer of T’Challa’s father, but Captain America: Civil War gave T’Chaka a different fate, so that arc was transferred to T’Challa’s friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), motivating him to turn against T’Challa and aid Killmonger. W’Kabi is a minor antagonist, but one who has a well-drawn arc and understandable motivations for doing the wrong thing.

One thing I found a bit distracting was the music, but that’s not really the movie’s fault. Before the movie, the theater showed a trailer for Spielberg’s Ready Player One, scored with a partly orchestral arrangement of the 1984 pop song “Take On Me.” (I don’t know pop music well, but I heard that song constantly on the PA at the UC Bookstore when I worked there.) Then the film came on, and the orchestral theme used for the Black Panther was exactly the same melody as the first six notes of “Take On Me”‘s refrain. So because of the trailer, every time I heard that leitmotif, I was reminded of the song. Otherwise, though, the score by Ludwig Göransson does some fairly interesting things blending African rhythms and styles with conventional orchestral movie scoring.

When I first heard that there’d be a Black Panther movie, I was concerned about how an American-made film would portray Africa, since there have been so many stereotypes and misconceptions about it in past films and TV shows. Some of the Marvel animated TV productions that have depicted Black Panther and Storm (of the X-Men) have been deeply rooted in ignorant stereotypes about Africa, tending to portray it as a single monolithic culture consisting of nothing but thatched-hut villages surrounded by wilderness. The ideal that I hoped for but wasn’t sure we’d get was a film that avoided all those assumptions and cliches, that did the research about modern Africa and portrayed it authentically. And this film essentially did fulfill my hopes. It’s certainly well-researched and rooted in real African culture rather than Western preconceptions, and it satirizes those preconceptions by contrasting them with the reality of Wakanda. Although its tight focus on the fictional nation of Wakanda means that it didn’t necessarily counter preconceptions about what the rest of Africa looks like. It would be nice, in a sequel, to see more exploration of Wakanda’s neighbors on the continent now that it’s not hiding from them anymore. Let’s see some major African metropolises like maybe Lagos, Nigeria, which is one of the largest and fastest-growing cities on Earth.

Still, that’s a minor note. Even if Black Panther doesn’t do all the work itself, its success will hopefully bring more attention to African-American voices and African culture, and perhaps other films can follow in its footsteps. (Pawprints? Sneaker prints?) That’s a change that’s long overdue, and I’m glad to see it starting to happen. Even aside from the importance of equal representation and diversity, it’s just good to have a wider range of ideas and perspectives informing popular culture, making it richer, inviting more people into the tent both as fans and creators. And it’s really satisfying to see an audience really engaged and excited by a movie like the folks around me in the theater yesterday. Black Panther, like Wonder Woman before it, was a movie that needed to knock it out of the park in order to dispel Hollywood preconceptions about what kind of films could succeed. And like Wonder Woman before it, the film met that challenge and surpassed it, and hopefully has opened a door that will never close again.

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BLADE RUNNER 2049 Review (spoilers)

My latest movie that I belatedly got from the library because I was too broke to see it in theaters was Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi-noir classic. And it’s the second movie in a row that I’m kind of glad I didn’t spend money on. While superficially impressive, it doesn’t have a lot of satisfying substance or really add up to much.

It’s rather odd to see a 2017 movie set in 2049 that’s a sequel to a 1982 movie set in 2019. What was futurism is now alternate history. But the film basically ignores this paradox and evolves the Blade Runner world 30 years in the future through a cursory text crawl at the beginning — a backstory that was explored in a series of online shorts before the film’s release (including a fairly impressive anime segment) but is barely relevant to the film itself. For all the text exposition about the Tyrell replicants being prohibited after a revolution and a resultant technological collapse, there’s little in the film’s 2049 setting that seems like anything other than a direct continuation of the original film’s status quo. Whatever was lost in that revolution and collapse is back in place by the time of the film — replicant slaves are even more ubiquitous and programmed not to rebel, the cyberpunk techno-dystopia looks much the same but with flashier (and more R-rated) holo-ads, despite the presence of wastelands beyond, and so on. So all that background worldbuilding seemed to serve the shorts more than it served the film itself.

Which leaves the film’s own story and characters to generate interest, and I’m afraid it doesn’t do that very well. The film is certainly good to watch — the visuals would have been worth seeing on the big screen, and the tiny text of the captions would’ve been easier to read there (I had to freeze and zoom to read them on my antique TV) — and at first, I liked its slow pace, which made it feel like a film from the era of its predecessor or even earlier (think 2001: A Space Odyssey). But after a while, I started to feel it was often too slow, too overindulgently edited like so many films today are, despite the retro feel it conveyed. It didn’t really need to be 2 hours and 44 minutes long.

But on to the characters. One thing that makes this film distinct is that most of its central characters are explicitly replicants or other AIs. Human characters (other than Rick Deckard, whose true nature is left as ambiguous by this film as it’s been for the past 35 years) are secondary and basically just there to perpetuate the power structure, and the story is centrally about replicants who either support or resist their enslavement. Ryan Gosling (an actor I remember being very bad as the lead in Young Hercules 20 years ago but who’s evidently improved since then) plays Officer K, a nameless replicant who works as a blade runner, assassinating older-model Tyrell replicants that were outlawed after the rebellion. (He’s a newer Wallace-brand replicant, of the supposedly safer kind made by Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace.) Now, this is a plot hole that I didn’t realize until after the film was over. Why are there any Tyrell replicants left? What Batty and the others were fighting for in the original film was life extension beyond their planned termination at 4-5 years of age. And they didn’t get it. So how are there still Tyrell models running around 30 years later? This wasn’t explained, as far as I could tell.

So anyway, K starts out loyal, but he comes upon the lovingly buried bones of a replicant who, according to the autopsy, died in childbirth. A replicant who could reproduce is a game-changer, and K’s lieutenant, inexplicably called “Madam” (Robin Wright), wants him to destroy all evidence of it, while Wallace sees replicant procreation as a holy grail he’s been trying and failing to invent, sending his head hench-replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to find the replicant child. K begins to suspect that he is the child, and goes on a search for the mother, who turns out to be Sean Young’s Rachel from the original film, and that puts him on the trail of Deckard, who doesn’t show up until a couple of hours into the movie. For a while, it seemed that the arc about K’s identity was playing out obviously and predictably, but that turned out to be a red herring, fortunately.

The thing is, none of this is quite as interesting as the conflict in the original film. Blade Runner worked because of the complexity and ambiguity of its characters. It was basically a story about a man gradually realizing he was the villain of the story and his victims were the ones on the right side. (Well, at least in the later edits. The original version’s narration alters the meaning of the climax, which is why I didn’t like the film until I saw a later cut and realized what it was really about.) Here, we have K going through a similar arc, going from a loyal blade runner to a resistor, but it’s basically for more personal reasons. And it’s less interesting as a story because there is no ambiguity to the antagonists. Like, at all. Niander Wallace is a cartoonishly evil eccentric who shows up for 2-3 scenes, a mercifully brief exposure to Leto’s tiresomely affected acting, but hardly very interesting from a character standpoint. (He’s also blind and uses creepy hovering “fish” drones to see, which perpetuates the unfortunate cinematic cliche of equating disability with evil.) And Luv is nothing but a one-note terminator, without anything remotely interesting about her personality or motivations. She’s just programmed to obey and that’s it. Which makes it disappointing when the film’s climax comes down to K fighting Luv over Deckard’s fate in a very small, claustrophobic setting, a single skimmer surrounded by a visual void. It’s an interesting directorial choice to bring the climax in to something so small and intimate after such vast, sprawling vistas, but climaxes that close in to tight character focus are successful when we actually give a damn about the characters, ideally on both sides. The film didn’t really succeed in creating that investment, so we just get a really long fight scene that feels extremely anticlimactic because it’s utterly devoid of any emotional weight or character relevance. Even Deckard doesn’t really get enough character development in the film to become much more than a Macguffin the other characters are fighting over. There’s not much connection between Deckard here and the person he was in the original. He’s just an old guy who has a dog. (When I first saw the rather wooly-looking dog in the shadows, I wondered, “Is that a sheep?”)

It doesn’t help that the other major female character in the film, Joi (Ana de Armas), is nothing but a sex hologram programmed to act like she’s in love with K. There are times when it seems that she and K have a real relationship, but it’s made clear to the audience before too long that Joi is simply a consumer product whose primary advertised feature is that she tells her owners what they want to hear. It’s also easy to guess, since she’s a Wallace product, that the Wallace people are using her projector unit that K carries around in his pocket as a tracker.  It might’ve been a little more interesting if it had turned out, as I expected it to, that Joi was an active spy for Wallace, tracking K’s every move and manipulating him into leading Luv to the child. Instead, it just turned out that they were passively tracking her, and there was a moment when it seemed that she had enough intelligence to want K to avoid tracking, but ultimately her story just fizzled out. I can’t even say she was fridged, since her destruction didn’t really motivate any particular action or decision on K’s part. There’s a bit where K sees a giant nude ad holo of Joi and seems to realize that she was just a toy telling him what he wanted to hear, but why didn’t he know that all along? Or did he know and just convince himself otherwise because he was so lonely? It isn’t really made clear. And the film could really have stood to devote more screen time to female characters who had actual agency and goals of their own, rather than devoting the bulk of its attention to a “character” who was literally nothing more than a nonsentient sex object created to pander to male fantasies. I gather that Villeneuve has said his intent was to comment on society’s objectification of women, but it’s not that much of a commentary if you just do the same thing yourself. And all that aside, it’s just hard to invest emotionally in a major character that is not actually a self-aware being. It’s not as if the other characters have a lot of depth to make up for it.

We do learn, rather late in the game, that there’s a replicant resistance whose primary characters are both female (the old Tyrell-model leader and the sex-worker replicant who gets in close to K), but neither of them gets as much screen time as Joi or Luv. And the resistance plot is just introduced and then doesn’t really go anywhere. Like Wallace’s unresolved quest for replicant procreation, it feels like a sequel hook that’s just left dangling.

I suppose the resistance leader scene does serve the purpose of revealing to K that he isn’t the child after all, that he just has one of the child’s memories, as most Wallace replicants do. And I guess that’s important. We were told at the start that Wallace replicants were programmed to be obedient slaves, incapable of rebellion. That’s why Wallace was permitted to make them after the prohibition of Tyrell replicants. For most of the film, we were led to think that K was able to resist because he was special, because he was the child of Deckard and Rachel and thus not Wallace-made after all. But it turned out that he was just an ordinary Wallace model — yet he was still able to resist his programming and defy his orders. Which means that all replicants are able to do the same. That is kind of a big deal, but it’s left pretty much implicit. I didn’t realize it until afterward. Although it’s the one thing I realized on further reflection that had a positive impact on my reaction to the film rather than a negative one.

Honestly, the whole Macguffin of replicants that can reproduce like humans — or rather, the premise that they’re this amazing rarity — seems implausible. Why is reproduction so hard for Wallace to emulate? If you can create something as incredibly complex as sentient thought, mere cell replication doesn’t seem that difficult in comparison. Other than that, though, if we just stipulate to the premise, I can see why it’s a big deal; for replicants, it means they don’t need human help to reproduce and can be free, while Wallace sees it as a way to expand the size of his slave force and accelerate his business empire’s spread across the stars (something only talked about and never shown — but is implied to have expanded far more than is plausible in just 30 years). But given what the film implies about replicants’ ability to resist, doesn’t that mean that Wallace is doomed to failure anyway? Not because of any hero’s actions, but because he mistakenly wants to give his own slaves the very power that would give them their independence from him? Even if he acted unopposed, he would still ultimately lose through his own actions (although he would kill Deckard and the child in the process). Which is another thing that undermines him as a villain. Ultimately, the main characters’ actions have little impact on anything except the personal. If anything, keeping the reproductive knowledge from Wallace just prolongs replicant enslavement.

All in all, then, Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel that does a reasonably effective job capturing and building on the visual style and feel of the original film and its world, but whose story doesn’t really carry much weight and whose characters are largely ciphers. It’s an impressive surface over weak substance, like far too many modern movies. By itself, it would’ve been an adequate and beautifully made cyber-noir thriller. But it falls well short of being a classic like its predecessor.