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It’s an alternate 1985 where God exists and he’s American, a retired hero must rescue people from a fire to get hard, and a vigilante screams out to be killed in a world that’s turned its back on justice. Watchmen is the most celebrated graphic novel from Alan Moore, the man who coined the term, and it remains, after all these years, an incredible story that weaves hard-hitting images with political, philosophical, and revisionist text. A sharp tale making an entire medium of entertainment take a look in the mirror – it’s small wonder Hollywood’s been scrambling for ages to get the film produced. But Watchmen is like The Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t belong to Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, or DC Comics. No, no, no. It belongs to its fans, and they are many.
Fans claimed that Watchmen was unfilmable, just like the aforementioned Rings. Indeed it does feel like an unsavory prospect; we open these pages and see superheroes sharing panels with scenes of sex, superheroes behaving rather like Mad Max in the original Mad Max, superheroes who’d rather blame the blue guy in the room for shooting a pregnant Vietnamese woman than take the responsibility for himself. Aside from graphic content and themes, Watchmen is of course a 12-issue comic, and each issue is an episode. One episode jumps around in time – how do you do that in a movie and keep things moving forward? All too often filmmakers don’t appreciate the disparaties in mediums, and believe that translations will always work.
Perhaps that is what happened here, but the end result was a fantastic experience, a movie version of a great story that maintains the great story and embodies the spirit and feel of the comic’s panel-to-panel nature. Every shot is thoughtfully composed – no doubt these guys took the Rodriguez/Miller route and went to the comics for the storyboards – the lighting and colors create a hyperreal image that only stops moving when the slow-motion button is hit. Just like in 300, Snyder’s use of slow-motion is appropriate because it slows on actions that were originally read on the page with eyes that linger and focus. It also gives the action an unusual rhythm as we move through hard streets and cavernous corporate buildings.
There’s a simple joy that fills me when watching a good adaptation, but it isn’t unqualified. As much as I like to study what actors were chosen and how well the themes translate, there’s something almost uncanny about hearing dialogue you’re familiar with. This was a major issue for me with movies like Memoirs of a Geisha and other flicks where I read the book right before watching (that one was for school): it feels very artificial when actors are speaking dialogue that originates from somewhere that’s not a screenplay; it’s difficult to fool yourself that these words came from the character’s head.
There’s also the issue that Watchmen is actually unfilmable, but I don’t believe it’s in the way that the collective masses tend to say. The problem is that Watchmen was a post-modern comic, and to nail this home (as if opening with Captain America’s death wasn’t enough) we have a comic-within-a-comic, which is read by a minor character throughout the story. We get glimpses of the macabre tale, Tales of the Black Freighter, every now and then, and it serves a purpose. Unless you’re watching the Ultimate Cut, a version that’s over 3 hours (the Director’s Cut is 2 hours and 40 minutes), you don’t get to see the Gerard Butler-narrated comic-within-a-comic. I haven’t seen it as standalone nor in the Ultimate Cut, but it doesn’t matter – it wouldn’t have the same effect.
Tales of the Black Freighter in Watchmen the movie would have no purpose because Watchmen the movie isn’t a comic. A movie that’s revisionist towards comics doesn’t have the same effect as the source material – it’d be like if Once Upon a Time in the West or Pulp Fiction were novels, and we had movie references from Shane and High Noon written out on the page.
I do feel like the problem is mitigated somewhat by the filmmakers – we hear the Ride of the Valkyries as the Comedian rides into Vietnam on a helicopter, a song that might as well just be called the Apocalypse Now song. That’s what it reminds us of, and coupled with Vietnam War imagery, we’re in familiar movie territory. That’s one instance where Watchmen the movie takes advantage of the medium’s asset to make it uniquely a movie.
I suppose that the superhero genre in film by the year 2009 was also in need of a revision, but of course Watchmen the movie made very little impact and like the equally R-rated Punisher War Zone a year before, didn’t make a box office splash. At least, not for a Watchmen movie. Hollywood would go on to take little notice, making Captain America, Iron Man 2, Thor, Green Latern, The Green Hornet, The Dark Knight Rises, another Superman, another Spider-Man, Kick-Ass, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men First Class, Jonah Hex, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World from 2009-2012 (fingers crossed for Nelvedine/Taylor’s Ghost Rider). Aside from Scott Pilgrim, I saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine and thought it was the dumbest crap ever, with precisely three seconds of gold (a wonderful reaction shot to a gazing Stryker during a ‘tense’ and ‘dramatic’ scene).
Without speaking for all of those above, X-Men Origins: Wolverine really captured what was wrong with the superhero genre. It’s stale, and it panders to a fan base. Instead of rich characters we have to fill out a quota of characters – alright we got steel man, invisible man, laser man, blue devil man, mega man, ultra man, woman man, cat man, Poke mans – and instead of a compelling premise from which to draw a decent story we have oh-my-gosh-let’s-pull-pages-from-this-this-this-and-this, ‘this’ referring of course to the bountiful source material in the case of X-Men.
Watchmen, to get back on topic, isn’t of course new, but is akin to Unbreakable and The Incredibles – yes we have superheroes, but we have a different type of superhero story. Many say, and I agree with this, that Watchmen is more a science-fiction story than a superhero one. It deals with cold war anxieties, experiments gone wrong, and at the end, alien invaders and outer limits – staples of the genre. Because we have a science-fiction structure with superheroes as the players in a greater tale rather than the center of the spotlight like the bat symbol, we open up so many narrative and thematic possibilities that modern filmmakers dare not tread. At the end of X-Men we’ve learned nothing – in fact nothing has changed for anybody. There is really no point except $300 million, or however much that particular movie made.
Maybe that’s cynical, but it did feel like a very, very commercial picture that didn’t go for the bar. Not that it was set high but anyhow Watchmen had aspirations, as a comic and as a film. As a movie, it had to hit upon what the fans wanted – an easy task, as everybody involved was a fan. It had to tell a cinematic story, not a simple adaptation. And most importantly it had to maintain what Watchmen was all about, asking questions about the measure of heroism and the morals of justice. Like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Watchmen treats every frame delicately, and the product is an extremely well-made film that looks amazing even during the most mundane bits. It’s violent, but not overly so where anything extreme, like sawing through arms or repeated strikes to the head with a cleaver, are very obviously CG and don’t look so great.
It’s a very nearly literal adaptation, but it’s a smart one. The filmmakers realized that 100% direct translation wouldn’t work – perhaps they heard the shouts – and went about constructing a slick, often disturbing, sometimes affecting, and always throught-provoking experience.
If you’re worried about the length of the Director’s Cut, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. I’m no good with long movies, and I watched this over the course of two nights. Personally I don’t see it as a problem because I like that as much of the comic was reproduced on screen as possible; this Watchmen is truly the definitive movie version – disregarding the Ultimate Cut, there will never be a more complete version, although the lack of the newstand guy and Black Freighter reader was noticeable.
It would be helpful, or maybe just interesting, to know what goes through our friend Takashi Miike’s head before he embarks on making one of these gangster pictures. He doesn’t seem to want to say anything, or revolutionize the formulaic genre, but he makes so many of them – there’s got to be a reason. I can’t imagine spending two years making a movie like Shinjuku Triad Society and ending up with something so bland, so unspecial. Say what you will about Ichi the Killer (it sucks), at least it was different, going all the way on the perverse meter and giving us a distinct, disturbing host of images to haunt our dreams forever.
Shinjuku Triad Society on the other hand ventures to the edge, but merely peers over. Sure, there’s more man-on-man cocksucking that I’ve ever seen on film, and a cop-on-the-edge who takes to rape and brutality whenever the chips are down, but in between all the “oh my god no” moments – the movie was practically asking for me to fall asleep. To be fair, I don’t really care about the crime-drama genre, and think that out of all of them the South Central gangsters will always be the most interesting, but there are a special few non-John Woo Asian gangster movies I really dig.
Takashi Miike is a director who I really, really want to like. Glancing over his filmography we find a range of colorful titles that pull me in – Full Metal Yakuza, Sukiyaki Western Django, Happiness of the Katakuris – and the movies of his I’ve seen all have great premises. In Shinjuku Triad Society, and by extension Ichi the Killer, we have an ultraviolent picture about some messed-up gangsters and a disturbing exploration into the pyschological darkness of Japan’s worst. Sounds good, but the execution is less like a Wong Kar Wai gangster flick and more like… mean-spirited characters I hate.
A Wong Kar Wai movie like As Tears Go By is thick with melodrama and has very little violence. Absolutely no sexuality or nudity – an experience with less (or no, rather) exploitative distractions from what it’s saying. With Shinjuku Triad Society, what begins as your by-the-numbers crime-drama descends slowly and painstakingly into a shambling, stumbling farce: aggresive but empty cinema. That’s also what I got from what I saw of 13 Assassins, a movie with an amazing trailer.
A criticism I recall regarding the films of Martin Scorsese that I totally agree with was that these characters are all jerks. Why should I care about their success? That’s exactly how I felt about this movie. None of the character appealed to me; the opposite, in fact. What is it about this movie that inspired Miike to make it? Couldn’t be the characters, or the story, or the themes, so it must be the violence. The entire movie feels like a vehicle for the gruesome violence, including one actually kind of ‘cool’ instance where the cop slams a chair down on a suspect lying on the interrogation table – we cut to big Japanese title letters on impact. Very effective.
Unfortunately the quality goes downhill from there but the classic Miike misogyny only ramps up. Boy, there’s nothing that entertains me more than violence against women. Forced sex? Color me impressed!
I’ll give the guy one more chance, but if I see another movie like this, I’m hanging it up on this dude. I hate to say “too Japanese,” because Japan is awesome, right? But…
We’ve had one feature film and two television series about it, and fan response has been lukewarm as the franchise’s relevance begins to decline. Star Trek is possibly getting popular again, Battlestar Galactica was huge – there are seemingly better options nowadays for space opera. George Lucas has been known to hold out on his fans, not quite on the level of Harlan Ellison perhaps, but by not delivering on promising projects, for example a live-action television show, he’s being frustrating again. Just like in 2002 when Attack of the Clones was released to only moderate critical success, a movie that should have washed the sour taste of Phantom Menace out of the fanbase’s collective mouth, but instead kicked off a brand new storyline, a saga within a saga that would become the face of Star Wars for nearly a decade, spanning video-games and books and yes, even a whole Star Wars movie. Episode 7? No. The Clone Wars.
So not only does the Clone Wars provide a face for the series in this modern time where fans scratch their heads, it also feels like a huge waste of time. Remember in The Empire Strikes Back, when Darth Vader tells Luke that he’s his father? I sure do, and it’s those major plot points that kept the series going back in the late seventies and early eighties, kept the fans interested and invested in what mattered in the long term for the narrative – the characters. While having not seen any of Star Wars: The Clone Wars (not to be confused with Star Wars: Clone Wars, which was actually kind of good), I can’t say anything for certain, but I just can’t imagine they add anythng to the series canon when we already have Episode II and Episode III. Assumedly they all lead up to Anakin turning to evil, so I suppose the best the show can offer you is original characters and scenarios and what comes of those.
But then, why bother placing it in the Clone Wars? Not only do we know the outcome, this is easily the most uninteresting aspect of the Star Wars universe, one that contains such things as retroactively inserted dancing CG aliens in 1983 and Jar-Jar Binks. There’s so many problems with the idea of a the clone wars, and I think they’re analogous to why the films that contained them didn’t really connect with the audience.
We have Clone Troopers being made, an infinite army serving the Republic, which will eventually fall and become the Empire. These clonetroopers obviously become the Storm Troopers, the inept soldiers who are constant laser fodder in the original trilogy. So if they’re going to be evil, are we supposed to root for them now? Certainly we never get to know any of their characters, but if they’re good I suppose we cheer for their team. The only problem is we know they’re going to be evil. They’re only temporary heroes, and so watching Clone Wars battles between clones and droids is like watching two sports teams go at it who aren’t from your local area. I have no stake in either, and the main heroes aren’t as personally invested in the clonetroopers’ plight as the heroes were with the Rebel Alliance in the original movies.
It kind of leaves you cold, when you’re indifferent to such a piece of what’s going on. That’s exactly how I felt about the prequel movies – disregarding entirely the fact that I don’t care much for the series as a whole – cold and distant. No sense of gravity to anything that was going on; truly the writers fell into the easy prequel trap, where yes we know the ending, so we should have something to combat that fact which minimizes drama and suspense, but nothing was done.
Also, the entirety of the Clone Wars occur in the Star Wars universe to serve a singular, tiny purpose, and this is something that a long time ago I brought up in conversation with a friend who’s a Star Wars fan. I said “It’s kind of dumb that we have this huge war that’s orchestrated just so that the Chancellor can control the clone army, on a narrative level anyway. It really makes the Clone Wars feel useless.” His response was “Isn’t that what war is in real life? Useless?” Fine, you can make that argument, but not with any evidence gathered from Episode I-III. The themes of those movies were corruption and the fall of republics. This segues nicely into the original trilogy, which was about redemption and the fall of empires. Assuming that Lucas is following the mold set by space opera in literature, we can say that after Episode VI the Rebel Alliance too becomes an Empire and somebody must stop them.
It’s a series that would then be about cycles throughout the ages, and it would be about history. It’s not so much that war is pointless in history, but that it’s a constant. Even if you disagree with that, and you feel that the Clone Wars were useless by necessity, the product of that uselessness is still a major negative on the series. We have clones and androids, two of the most expendable creatures in all of science-fiction, being pumped out on a galactic scale to do battle with each other. Sound epic? No, that sounds like you could kill one thousand clones and do no better than when you killed three hundred thousand droids last week. There is no weight to the conflict, which can’t be said of the rebels and empire war.
I guess in the end we’re not supposed to be invested in the clones at all, but the Jedi. And all the clone wars do is just serve that one plot point of the Chancellor becomes the evil emperor of the new Empire. That’s fine, but why do we have to have so much of it? Star Wars could and should be a series of over a dozen movies by now, but it’s like pulling teeth with the guy to make another movie – what exactly is he doing up there in his Skywalker Ranch? Doesn’t matter. If we don’t have more Star Wars movies, that’s just fine by me, but why out of all the possible films to make set in this universe do we get one about the clone wars? And it was animated! With animation you could have done anything; the continuation of Luke’s story maybe, or whatever happened to Boba Fett, which I know is a point of much interest on the Internet. Anything could have been done, and it would’ve been eaten up because Star Wars is and always will be the biggest and most popular franchise in science-fiction history, eclipsing Star Trek by a margin.
The clone wars is just one insignificant dot in it, starting from one throwaway line in Star Wars and all the way up to modern times with I don’t know three seasons of the second animated TV series?
Shit does look pretty rad though, especially in Episode II at the end. As much as I’ve complained about it, the clone wars bits of the movies are probably for me the most memorable. But they’re so stupid… I need a science-fiction movie with that level of fantastical visuals and the burden of something ticking under its creators’ skulls. Too much to ask for?
Why I saw this movie is a long, almost embarassing story that I won’t suffer you to read here. While I suffered in watching it, I felt compelled to report back here on this blog, because I actually had something to say. Something negative.
After seeing just this one entry in the lengthy franchise, in addition to twenty-minutes of Final Destination 2, I can’t fathom why anybody would ever return for 4 and 5, or even 2 and 3. These movies are formula, and their movie-as-formula isn’t exactly the problem, it’s the formula itself. The template these are all based on – vision, no one believes him/her, it happens, more deaths, more people don’t believe him/her – is built on frustration. The hero/heroine’s (let’s just go with heroine in reference to Wendy from 3) efforts to save people are frustrated, she is frustrated by the other characters’ aggresive ignorance, and the characters are goddamn frustrating to the audience because they’re drawn to fill out one role.
The frustration stops when a clamp comes down on somebody’s head or a truck tears the back of their skull of. These gruesome death scenes are the only moments when the story moves forward, so it’s nearly cathartic in its alleviation of the frustration, but in a really bad way. In addition, Final Destination the series trades on its death sequences. But the problem with a medium like this – movies – is that the death sequences are tethered to and held back by the plot, which is crucial to the formula. As a result, there are only five or six death scenes in the movie, and the only one longer than a split second is far from entertaining – tanning booth death.
The premise to the series is actually pretty good; it feels like an episode of The X-Files. I bring that show up specifically because the writers and directors and producers of several entries in this series were James Wong and Glen Morgan, huge contributors to the long-running television show. The difference between the show and the movie series is something that could have made this series legitimately good, and not almost-half-average: adults.
If the series had adults instead of teenagers, maybe there could have been a sense of engagement in any facet of the movies rather than none. Why does there exist the requisite that all modern horror movies must have screamy teenagers? Because they’re cheap? Because of Halloween? Some of the most famous horror movies of all time have adults – Alien and The Exorcist spring to mind. Teenagers can never be well-rounded characters in this context of light horror because adults have difficulty writing them both in general and for a teenage audience. They assume that we’re expecting a certain thing, and what we get is boo-yah douchebags and womanizers and OMG orange tan chicks, where characters are defined by their stereotype.
The problem here is that the key demographic – teenagers and younger – are notorious for being dumb. That must be how they’re seen by the writers, because these characters don’t have complex characterization or subtle nuances; the audience understands them because they tap into various, specific parts of the cultural lexicon.
I think that the series could benefit if not only we had adults dealing with this problem, but if it was a detective story. The detective must solve these crazy accidents before he goes too, though nobody believes him and he must endure being witness to bizarre fatalities. It could be a gritty, dark story that would work once, but it would work well. Final Destination 3 has a scene where characters – the fringe weirdos – are talking about how death is inevitable, and it made me think that if we were dealing with characters who weren’t just going for the laughs we could actually tackle interesting themes about life and death.
But the series has never been about themes. In fact, one of the themes in Final Destination 3 is control, where Wendy is a control freak. How do I know that? Because whenever anybody, even Wendy, is describing her, they say she’s a control freak. I swear ‘control freak’ is the most frequently used term in the entire movie. She likes to control things, and this conflicts with death, who also likes to control things. Okay, that’s fine, but what does it mean on a higher level? Nothing, it’s just superfluous motivation for our character Wendy to have conflict with death, as if dying wasn’t enough.
Final Destination 3D takes a more hackneyed detective approach, which isn’t nearly as good an idea to keep the premise fresh as seen in Final Destination 2, where a bunch of people were gathered into a room and tried to stay alive. That could have been cool, but I never saw the rest of the damn thing. In Final Destination 3, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character Wendy took a bunch of photos and notes how they correlate to the deaths. Shoddy theory, but that’s why she pulls a photo of the World Trade Center and notes how a shadow of the plane on the building anticipates that a plane was going to fly into it. What the fuck?
So she goes out with her friend, Kevin, and they try to save these morons before they’re killed. None of them want to stay alive. They’re all antagonistic, and I guess the effect here is that we’re supposed to be rooting for death to kill them. Either I’m just not cynical enough to ever think that these people deserve what comes to them, or I just can’t distance myself from these characters to appreciate them as characters who actually, really, want to die.
Another problem is that the only interesting thing about the movie is the relationship between Wendy and Kevin. I was surprised but I actually liked their budding friendship, but of course – it didn’t add up to anything. The ending is ambiguous, so maybe they all died. I’d have to watch The Final Destination to find out if they did, or if they’re still cool.
God, the acting is so damn bad in this movie, and I don’t want to do what I used to do when I wrote my little movie reviews for the school newspaper (go down the list, you know, the directing sucks, the acting sucks, the script sucks, the editing sucks) but I need to make an exception here. If they didn’t have Mary Elizabeth Winstead, maybe I wouldn’t notice, but a lot of these characters are poorly portrayed, if only as a result of the weak writing. It’s not atrocious writing, it just feels synthetic and a product of little effort. Even Winstead can’t salvage it because Wendy, like I said, is a control freak. That is her character. She is not a character. Control freak is not character.
As a last note, this series has the worst string of titles ever, more stupid than First Blood, which goes
Rambo: First Blood Part II
Just take a look:
Final Destination 2
Final Destination 3
The Final Destination
Final Destination 5
It’s comical because there is exactly one that stands out. I’ve never seen a horror franchise that actually goes back to the numbering after they’ve dropped it, which is the trend nowadays, not to have numbers. I guess I give them credit for 5, but hell – I’ll never see it.
There’s something downright philosophical about it. Abour gratuitous violence. About all the things that can happen to a human body. I’m not just talking your average big guy with a machine-gun mows ‘em down; I’m talking about guys who are seriously screwed up, seriously screwing up other people. Guns, fists, knives, stabbing weapons – it’s all good. Here are some of the best and most violent movies I’ve discovered from that wackjob realm we call Southeast Asia – I’ve tried to limit this list to one movie by each director, I guess so that maybe you can seek out the rest…
As for the Extreme Meter, that guages only the brutality of the violence. Let’s say that a 1/5 is like… La Femme Nikita. Violent, but not very. A 3/5 would be something in the range of City of God. Violent, but not overmuch. 5/5 would be like Ichi the Killer. But that movie is stupid. There’s not gonna be any tongue-in-cheek, Crank-like goofy violent movies. Sorry Ryuhei Kitamura.
The Man from Nowhere (2010)
Director: Jeong-beom Lee
Stars: Bin Won, Sae-ron Kim
This movie is pretty good. It holds your attention in between the set-pieces – but the reason to watch this film is for the ending fight sequence. It’s not enough to just research it on YouTube (I’ll provide the link), because that way you don’t get the catharsis. These assholes deserved what came to them, and holy crap did they get it bad.
Up until the ending we have a slow build of character, and I was pulled in… mostly. I hesitate to call this movie truly affecting, and it did afterall go for the happy ending, which can’t really be said for any of the other movies on this list.
It’s a good flick, very solid. I just wish he would’ve cut that stupid hair earlier. And isn’t that guy the guy who played Private Nam in JSA? I swear to God it is… I guess that makes me a racist.
Extreme Meter: 3/5
A Better Tomorrow II (1987)
Director: John Woo
Stars: Leslie Cheung, Yun-Fat Chow
Yes, even a John Woo movies gets a place here. Even though movies like Hard-Boiled and The Killer and even Face/Off are more remembered for the action and less for the bloody violence, A Better Tomorrow II shows the more brutal side of the director. The climatic gun battle is awash in crimson, and it shows up perfectly on those white walls. The scene is also notable for two later influnces: Cowboy Bebop and Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction. According to Wikipedia, anyway, Tarantino got the inspiration for the suits from this movie, and they sure do know how to take bullets. For Cowboy Bebop, we have a moment where two duellists kick guns over to each other before they fight, echoed in the final episode of the anime.
At one point the hero has a samurai sword, and I was recalled to another movie set in the modern day where a sword was used – The Yakuza. A great movie, but when people got slashed in the stomach they didn’t spray their insides out and flip over in slow-motion.
As a matter of fact, everything about this movie is extreme. The melodrama is cranked up to 11, and it may not work quite as well when the case was the same in Bullet in the Head, but it works to create an atmosphere thick with What the Fuck? moments, which is what counts here. It’s full of surreal moments, including those with the saddest gangster ever, and lousy, dirty Americans who not only partake in a terrorist bombing – in New York – but act overly aggressive and smash their plates at Chow Yun-Fat’s restaurant yelling – in slow-motion – FUCKING RICE!
It’s pretty wild, but like all of John Woo’s movies – with key exceptions *Paycheck* I guess – surprisingly emotionally effective at points. Whereas Bullet in the Head and A Better Tomorrow and The Killer were better at the melodrama and and had better character moments, this movie gets there halfway, but totally kicks your ass to make up for it…
Extreme Meter: 2/5
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
Director: Chan-Wook Park
Stars: Kang-ho Song, Ha-Kyun Shin
This movie is slow, contemplative, brooding, sometimes even cute – and all of a sudden something changes and people are dying. Then, people are killing, and it’s crazy. The turning point in this movie hits you just as hard as Ryu pops that guy on the back of the head with the baseball bat. Goddamn. The scene where he takes vengeance on the organ dealers was for a time the most violent thing I had ever seen in a movie. But then I saw Irreversible.
Unlike Irreversible though, I really like this movie. It’s all about misfortunes and lives unraveling around each character, as well as how these people deal with that.
Extreme Meter: 4/5
I Saw the Devil (2010)
Director: Jee-woon Kim
Stars: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi
Halfway through the movie I figured that I Saw the Devil was going to just be a depressed movie with no moral compass; appropriate then, that its fight scenes are incredibly brutal, and the violence totally over-the-top. And yet, the realism never wavers, even as people are having ankle surgery.
Choi Min-sik is no stranger to villains – whether he’s the North Korean terrorist from Shiri or Mr. Baek, child killer from Lady Vengeance, he always hits his mark despite looking pretty harmless. In those two movies though we never got to really see him go at it, and in this one he’s pretty wild. Several attempted rapes, several bludgeonings, several stabbings. He’s a savage dude, but this movie asks… were we to go after him, would we not become him?
It’s either the Nietzsche line or I guess don’t fight the monster lest you become it or whatever. In the end, this movie is about empty people and how like in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the snowball effect leaves everybody’s lives either taken or ruined. Pretty cynical, but perhaps logical given the subject matter.
This really does feel like somebody saw the Vengeance Trilogy and wanted to one-up it. It’s not as poetic or as beautifully shot/composed as Park’s movies (it comes close), but it’s a hell of a lot more violent. Holy crap. Lot of cringe-inducing moments.
Extreme Meter: 5/5
Inception is the movie that, were it to be made five to ten years ago, would’ve been the one to inspire me to want to be a filmmaker. It’s the perfect blend of science-fiction ideas and dazzling action/adventure filmmaking.
I recall talking about this movie for Episode 7 of Dreck Fiction, the podcast whose creation was the origin of this blog. Back when Podcast Co-Host and I talked about Inception for that asshole podcast that sucks and I will do anything to disown for fear that it will act upon me as though libel, I wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about the film as everyone else was. We agreed that it was director Christopher Nolan’s best, edging out even one of the three superhero movies close to my heart, Batman Begins, but maintained that it was still just a blockbuster with a brain, which is doubtlessly derogatory. Smart, but not intelligent, was the quote I recall.
How foolish I was, because on my most recent reviewing of the movie, I’ve turned around entirely on it. This movie is great great. A great film. Not a movie I’d consider one of my personal favorites, but a film I can appreciate as special and monumental for the genre. The major factor from Inception I failed to note in that audio review was that element of exploration which is so dear to the genre.
Never once in The Matrix does Neo say quietly to Mouse aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, “If I was just woken from what I percieved as the real world, how do I know this is real? Just because Furious said it was? And don’t give me that crap about doubting the doubter…” The Matrix built up a classically SF world, brimming with laws to be applied later on in its breathtaking 90 minutes. It doesn’t frequently explore that world though, doesn’t really delve into the Matrix-as-Descartes-exercise (think evil demon) to give us something new to think about. So when the sequels went on to continue not exploring, and didn’t contain the sleeper hit surprise of the original, people jumped all over them. (Story for another day)
I don’t want to turn this into an Inception versus The Matrix Trilogy debate, because personally I have a bias that would hinder the argument of this post. However, Inception on the other hand sets up its world slowly and measuredly throughout the movie, and explores it, sometimes doing both concurrently.
What I’m speaking to specifically is the unique character exploration in Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, the oddly named Dom Cobb. As his backstory with the deceased wife unravels, all sorts of ideas bubble to the surface and have tragic depth. Suddenly we’ve found that the Inception world has startling, heartbreaking implications, where realities can be confused and have dire consequence.
Yes, we’ve seen this before, and that was what made me write it off initially, which was truly what effected my first opinion on the film. In Oshii’s Avalon (2001) does the confused reality take place, this time with virtual reality. The difference between Oshii’s movie and Nolan’s is what they were both striving to achieve. Though they both employed the same trope, Avalon was going for intellectual depth while Inception was more emotionally-driven, making the former a foreign curio and the latter the crowd-pleaser that it is.
Afterall, interspersed between the touching moments with Dom’s wife are totally kickass action scenes, often in escapist, James Bond locales.
Dom’s wife, let’s call her Moll, like Molly, I don’t know – they say her name constantly but I don’t know what it is – had become lost to the dream world, and as we discover, this was due to Dom’s interfering: the proof of concept for performing inceptions. Now he blames himself, and this emotional situation he’s in and keeps going back to pushes the action forward, gives us things to think about, and makes the film unique. This specific character conflict could only come about through Inception‘s world building; Nolan has accomplished here an exquisite embrace of science-fiction’s conventions.
He is also capable of continually driving the story forward, and the balance he maintains between world continuity and logic with sound plot structure and story beats is masterful, inspirational work. We’re constantly riveted, and it’s a mix of elements that keeps us on that cliche seat-edge.
Most prominently, the script keeps the stakes high. It’s a wonderful screenplay, not because of the dialogue necessarily, though there are a few brilliant character interactions, but because of the weave it maintains between the world and the plot, a heavy burden it pulls off with panache. For example, after the crew enters the first dream they’re ambushed and Saito is mortally wounded. They take refuge in some warehouse and Dom freaks out because he didn’t expect a militarized subconscious. What we discover in this scene sets the tension bar high, because if the characters are killed, they enter limbo, a theoretically infinite sprawl of the unknown.
In any other movie, this would be like having a scene where the characters sit around and explain that if they’re killed, they die. Of course, we know that already, so in some way we’re desensitized to the consequence the characters face. That’s when characterization must be employed to make us invest in the characters’ survivals. In this movie, the consequences are laid out in a way that couldn’t be in a movie existing in the non-Inception universe, and they’re damn scary. We can’t be desensitized to it because we’ve never heard it before, and this makes the threat of death more real than it was before, silly as that may sound.
For the rest of the movie, we don’t want these people to die because that would mean spending an eternity in some freaky-deaky – or stark white – mind world. Now I said that other movies need characterization to make us care about characters dying, and that sort implies that Inception doesn’t have that. Well, that’s kind of true, but it’s not unfortunate.
I heard from a guy who heard from a guy that there are characters who are compelling because they change, and characters who are compelling because they don’t, like the Man with No Name, James Bond, even guys like Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop and Nikita. The guys in Inception, Eaves, Arthur, Juno, even Saito, are just that. They’re here to do a job, not go on a personal journey like Dom. They are the optimal supporting characters for a 90 minute-long narrative with this style: interesting and easy to watch, particularly Arthur and Eaves, who are totally badass, and have entertaining interplay between them.
Also keeping us riveted, and this does deserve a special mention, is Hans Zimmer’s score. Once again, the first time I saw the flick, I wrote the music off as the typical invasive Zimmer score, but have since come around to really appreciate the effect it has on the movie. The action is heightened by the throbbing, intense music, adding a layer of suspense that gives Inception a dark, edgy feeling, like what we’re watching is more brutal than it actually is. There were moments in the music, particularly around the snow base area, that felt reminiscent of Clint Mansell’s work in The Fountain, one of the most powerful scores in recent memory.
Inception is a perfectly flawless movie, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going gaga over it like I did with Scott Pilgrim. As much as I found more to enjoy in it than I did the last time I watched it, which was opening night last year, my inner sci-fan fan is still not satisfied fully, but never could be with this type of movie. Essentially the problem for me personally boils down to this: I much, much prefer Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell cycle to his Avalon, and I prefer Videodrome to eXistenZ. Virtual reality is for cyberpunk what time travel is for greater science-fiction: my least favorite trope. I find it to be a limiting foundation to build a story off of, and I found it hard to really latch onto what was going on in the film where I could with lesser fare like Terminator Salvation, as mentioned in the last post. The Matrix is, and always will be, the key exception.
Also, there is something on the – dare I say – meta level, that irks me. This movie is wildly popular. Not a bad thing, certainly, but almost… unfair. Does it deserve the popularity? Of damn course, if I can coin a phrase. But I do believe that its near-universal acclaim by critics and fans shields the movie with an armor that didn’t protect another movie I care about (somehow still, even after exorcising myself of the movie recently), Avatar.
Pardon my French, but Avatar got fucking shit on all the fucking time for being derivative. Ever hear of FernGully? I hadn’t, not before Avatar (though curiously I swear I’d seen the movie at a young age and liked it). What about Call Me Joe, Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and that one with the castles in the sky, where it was animated? No, not Castle in the Sky. Well, some of those we’ve heard before, but my point remains: those titles were dredged up from the past to taunt Avatar with for two different time periods. The first was when the trailer didn’t look so good, which it definitely didn’t, but even the executives at Fox agreed that Avatar wasn’t really a coventional trailer type of movie. The second time window was when the movie was released and blew the fuck up. The nerd minority in particular becomes hostile at popularity, like a feral cat – trust me, as a dedicated contrarian (read: dick), I know.
It’s easy for reviewers to use familiar terms when describing things, because the reader too can understand what’s going on. Peruse any online review of Dead Space and you’ll doubtless come across “Alien meets Resident Evil 4” boundless many times. Dead Space wasn’t, like Call of Duty or Fallout, an established triple-A franchise, though it tried to be right out of the gate. So it becamse easier to pidgeon-hole the game this way because it was only an alright game. And also, inconsequentially – just look at it. It really is Alien meets Resident Evil 4.
Avatar wasn’t nerd-popular because it was popular-popular. So nerds scrambled like the United States military in 1941 to come up with comparisons and point accusing, Cheeto-stained fingers at James Cameron. What about Inception? Don’t try to tell me that movies like Dark City, Strange Days, The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ, Avalon, and The Matrix aren’t obscure, because – FernGully? Come on.
By his own admittance, Nolan was trying to strike back into that era in the 90′s where we had those reality-what movies where we were never really on solid ground, he even likened Memento to the group to some extent. He also found influence in Paprika, a recent animated movie from the late Satoshi Kon about dreams.
That Inception didn’t catch never as much flak – if it caught any – about its influences as Avatar did pisses me off. Now, I have no problem with it taking influence, though this argument implies that in nerd-crying fashion, I’m really just upset that nobody seems to notice. It’s like injustice, but really, if people started to bitch about Inception being unoriginal, I’d probably have a bigger headache than I do now with just Avatar alone.
My theory as to why nobody compares Inception to Strange Days, though they share similar themes of indulging in lost fantasy, or Inception to Dark City, which explores a fantastical world within a world, is that Inception is a movie taken out of nerds’ hands. When this movie came out, people had high expectations, and they were all satisfied, a rare happenstance that I can only imagine is moviegoing ecstasy, something I would’ve felt if Machete was actually good. It has wide-appeal, being a star-studded flick – stars being Leo and Nolan, at this point – and holdover between Batman sequels, which will undoubtedly add up to huge by next year with Rises. The wide demographic wouldn’t want their darling Inception to languish in the genre of science-fiction, which it shares with Battlefield Earth and Dune (1984).
It may seem assholistic that I’d actually be upset by a movie’s popularity, but I can’t help it because Inception is exactly what we sci-fi fans need right now – an original SF work in film that’s worked, take notes Battle: LA, ahem – and it’s almost too successful. It’s not Blade Runner, which revolutionized a genre by appealing to the filmmakers only. Inception appeals to everyone, and I doubt that anybody will try to follow those footsteps and do the same, it’s just a bar set too high.
Indeed, we will never see Inception 2.
Well, that’s certainly enough of my gripes. I don’t have a real reason to dislike Inception, as you’ve no doubt concluded. It’s implaceable, very difficult to pin down. Especially when, afterall, it’s an amazing movie. Absolutely incredible. So at the end of the day, this really was a movie that required two watches to understand.