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The Wu-Tang Clan created a unique sound in the 90s by sampling old kung fu movies into violent but passionate hip-hop lyrics — there was a combination of the east and west that was slightly more celebratory than the other east/west mashup where 90s rap is concerned. This fusion of martial arts’ philosophical themes and styles with the poetic and hard-hitting music creates a fascinating aesthetic that’s sustained a multitude of titles since. We’re finally seeing a major, mainstream entry in this legacy, with directorial guidance from the RZA himself — an expert in martial arts films and no stranger to the movie industry.

If you want to know what to expect with The Man with the Iron Fists or just want to see where the RZA is coming from, check out the following…

Samurai Champloo

This doesn’t have direct involvement from the RZA, but director Shinichiro Watanabe is familiar with combining a distinct musical style with specific film genres. Here it’s chambara film and hip-hop, with a killer opening song and frequent, kinetic action scenes. Champloo is a very good anime series but suffers from Watanabe’s own filmography — his previous Cowboy Bebop is considered to be the greatest anime series of all time. When you follow that with a very good anime — well, you can do the math. The series is consistent, dramatic, and frequently humorous. The characters are fun, and the overall feel is hip and stylish. The ending song is also great.

Shogun Assassin

This is one of the few movies where the English dub is actually mandatory. If you see it in the original language track you’ll miss the dialogue that the GZA sampled into various instrumentals on Liquid Swords. It’s small wonder why this film made such an impact on the Wu-Tang founder — it’s a strange little gem, completely unafraid of excessive sprays of blood and even violence against women: the kind that might make you cringe, but it’s all in good fun. And what’s more fun than seeing a badass baby riding around in a baby cart built of weapons with his stoic samurai dad? The ultimate family movie. It’s actually an edit of the first two Lone Wolf and Cub movies, so it takes all the action bits, and leaves out assumedly plenty of story. The Lone Wolf manga was penned by Kazuo Koike, author of among other things, Lady Snowblood, the adaptation of which had a major influence on the next on the list…

Kill Bill

Yep, that’s him alright. An alarming deletion of scene from Part II, where Bill fights this let’s say, Dynamite, Samurai

The RZA scored this, the original ‘two tickets, one movie,’ dealio back from when we didn’t know about a Harry Potter 7 or Twilight 4. Luckily this is one of Tarantino’s best, a balls-insane mashup of Italian westerns, Shaw Brothers kung-fu, samurai epics, and the gorier pieces of Japanese cinema a la Fukasaku and Miike. The Man with the Iron Fists is being produced by Tarantino, so I imagine the RZA will be benefitting here from an established creative relationship, as he does consider the great genrebuster a mentor. It might also, however, be like Frank Miller coming off of Sin City with The Spirit. Let’s hope not.

Afro Samurai

I’ve only seen the first episode. Interesting, but I haven’t heard great things about it. This is probably more hip-hop than samurai, if Champloo was more samurai than hip-hop, but I’ve never heard anyone call it better than its Japanese counterpart.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Before the RZA’s directorial debut, Ghost Dog was definitely the quintessential Wu-Tang movie. It features Forest Whitaker as a Mafia hit man who lives by the code of the samurai. It’s a mostly tacit lifestyle, filled with night-driving and hanging out with the odd gallery of friends he amasses in a French ice cream truck guy and a scholarly little girl. It is a lifestyle punctuated by violence nonetheless, and the action in this movie is sparse but effective, particularly with Ghost Dog’s first kill.

Ghost Dog ‘sheathes’ his silenced pistols much in the way a samurai would a sword, and practices martial arts on the lonely New York rooftops, up there with the pigeons, his preferred mode of communication with the outside world. This is a quirky if uneven film, funny in places and dark in others, but overall an iconic example of the gangsta/samurai aesthetic, and proud piece in a legacy following films like Le Samourai and those of Kurosawa — it isn’t revision so much as it is celebration.

Celebration I’d say is a key theme. There’s an appreciation of many cultures, and a tolerance of such things that’s unprecedented in violent macho movies. Ghost Dog is very in tune with his inner spirit, and is able to communicate with his best friend the ice cream guy by pushing through the language barrier — it’s a deeper connection. The most telling scene is when the ice cream guy, fascinated by a man building a boat, yells down from a rooftop in French: “That’s incredible! How are you gonna get that out?” and gets “I don’t understand, but I have to get back to work!” as a response, in Spanish. The ice cream guy smiles and Ghost Dog nods, walks off.

This embracing of other people and foreign cultures is a cornerstone of this ‘subgenre,’ and I think there’s a lot to be gained in blending cultures, mixing philosophies and aesthetics to create modern mythology in film and music.

The RZA, who scored Ghost Dog, does appear in this film, credited as the “Samurai in Camoflague,” and though his scene is brief, it is perhaps the most appropriate role for him. Better at least, then the crackhead who gets killed in American Gangster. We’ll see truly how his acting skills (among other things) shake out on the 2nd of next month, but I have high hopes. He’s such a cool guy; it’d suck to see his movie fare poorly.

Oh, and the Italian gangsters in this movie are just crazy. If nothing else, watch this movie for them. They are not unlike the depiction of cosa nostra in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

So that should give you a general idea — these various titles the with direct involvement of the RZA, or that follow his approach to genre, are the Wu-Tang aesthetic and philosophy manifest in film and TV. The ultimate piece will be The Man with the Iron Fists, and if Ghost Dog and Kill Bill were the RZA’s film background, he’s in good shape.

Well shit — you see that picture with the eyeball!

Battleship falls (I couldn’t say ‘sinks’) and the half-billion dollar toy movie’s future is on the rocks. The Hunger Games and Twilight are the biggest franchises of the day, with the dedicated, built-in audiences that allow risky projects to process through the strict, Puritannical Hollywood system — books are, and always have been, the new hotness. I would prefer that over board game movies, but it’s still not the best case scenario. In the best case scenario, The Hunger Games and Twilight would still be among the biggest franchises of the day, but I could willfully ignore them, and go gladly to Foward the Planet Space, another huge franchise movie and part of the Planet Space planned trilogy.

What is Planet Space? It was a movie that came out of nowhere two years ago, a spec script pitched by a passionate writer and to a studio that actually likes movies, probably Lionsgate (though they still pedal commercial on the side). It blew up and now we have a trilogy. The second one looks even better than the first — except that it doesn’t exist. I’m not saying that there aren’t these types of movies (obviously with better titles) like District 9 and Moon, and to some extent, Avatar. What I’m saying is that there’s been a swelling in popularity in the adaptation, particularly that of YA fiction (more on that later) which has caused a bloating in the market that’s recently spilled over into television.

Not only is the book market now flooded with stories about teenage love (wait a minute — gross?) blooming amidst dystopic, oppressed society, but TV is now being infected by what is most popular and money-making. In the most recently released episode of the podcast On the Page: Screenwriting, an alarming statistic was brought to light, that 60% of the television pilots picked up this year are based on books. I have to imagine that at least 90% of that other 40% were sitcoms.

When I saw the pilot for Awake I knew I had to write ‘dedicated’ reviews for every episode to show some type of support, because these things are so rare. Terra Nova got cancelled and Falling Skies is looking no better despite heading into a second season, and I can’t help but feel guilty for not watching them. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t feel guilt. Terra Nova, despite combining the two things that equal my favorite movie ever, Spielberg and dinosaurs, didn’t really interest me. I didn’t want to watch it, but didn’t want to see it go. Just like Stargate Universe, which was kind of a slog to get through. It’s a shame that there’s slim pickin’s for original storytelling, and a worse shame that they get cancelled faster than you can say the — admittedly long — title, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

There shouldn’t really be anything wrong with adaptations. Some of the best scifi movies are adaptations of books and short stories, like Blade Runner, 2001, Jurassic Park, The Thing, The Fly, A Scanner Darkly — the list runs long. But the adaptation in my opinion, is a flawed practice in storytelling. The key is that so many writers plainly do not understand how to do it properly. It changes with every title. A Scanner Darkly was faithful, Blade Runner was not. They’re both good. This is confusing.

When you think about it, the adaptation is perfect as an idea. The author of novels is more qualified than the average screenwriter, because the average screenwriter has sold or published zero screenplays. The author of novels is vindicated as a commercial artist with book sales, and in the case of Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling, with election to god-status. We know that Harry Potter is a good story because we’ve read it as a book, making it much easier for the executives to get behind. On the other hand, nobody has ever seen this unproduced screenplay over here, so it’s up to the in-house script reader to sign off on it and pass it along to other gates for further inspection — and note that nobody working in this industry has ever been fired for saying “No.”

For movies, book publishing is like a filtration system, insurance that only the best gets through to the silver screen. Even when John Carter can’t quite jump to the moon, The Hunger Games will tear wallets while Fifty Shades of Grey peeks over a nauseating horizon.

But if most screenwriters don’t know how to adapt properly, we end up with stories that weren’t designed for the silver screen, and haven’t been reformatted. The Avengers opened to wide financial success and huge critical acclaim because the last half hour is one huge action scene — it may technically be an adaptation, but Joss Whedon’s no fool, and this isn’t his big screen debut (or adaptation). He knows how to maximize the method, and he knows how to be cinematic.

I’ve seen precisely one clip from The Twilight Saga, and it was the quintessential moment — Edward and Bella are standing in the woods, talking. I know there’s some action, and I know we like to actually see the guys with their shirts off, rather than simply imagine it, but this isn’t cinematic. I’ve forgotten what cinematic meant, which is why The Avengers was qualified nirvana (it was a great over-the-top action spectacle, but it’s still kinda dumb and about superheroes, so I’ll gladly take The Matrix or John Woo) because Hollywood has sat stagnant.

Let’s look then at a non-Hollywood movie (I think), Never Let Me Go, based on a book by a Japanese fellow. I reviewed this movie and I really liked it, but it wasn’t a movie. It was a good story projected onto a screen. Some would argue similarly against the Watchmen movie.

As an on and off fan of video-games I tend to follow that industry and note how it struggles for legitimacy, in the face of reviewers in the pockets of those they discuss, and journalistic output aligning with companies’ marketing agendas, and I never felt like movies need to feel that struggle, because after a hundred years, they’ve made it. But nowadays, we’ve been hollowed out. In retrospect, the 2000s weren’t as artistically bankrupt as I’d always complained about at the time — we picked up classics like Eternal Sunshine, Gladiator, Memento, No Country, Children of Men, etc. — but these movies have all felt like revelations.

Ultimately the problem with adaptations is that they’re gateways to laziness. We fall into trends because these trailblazers are such hot commodities, and then the market becomes oversaturated with Twilight lookalikes and wannabes. Meanwhile original storytelling, screenwriter’s storytelling, gets the shaft because there’s no money in that. There’s no money in the industry unless it’s tethered to properties from other industries. That’s… nonsense. Movies are just the bastard children of books and toys — just one step away from what I must assume is an unholy mess in the mold of Battleship: The Video Game, a video-game based on a movie based on a board game. Next we’ll be adapting the Twilight Monopoly game…

Also troubling is the young adult fiction trend. Now this is something of a personal bias, because I never read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. I never had interest in reading YA because when I was that age, I didn’t have an interest in reading. So I basically went from Magic Treehouse to Philip K. Dick, bypassing what I quickly grew to see as ‘fantasy bullshit for children.” The Hunger Games does seem interesting, as it depicts a genuinely strong female character in a scifi setting, but from what people tell me, these books aren’t exactly mind-benders. They are indeed aimed at young girls in the 12-14 age range, and so themes of female empowerment will be touched upon, but we can’t fool ourselves. The Hunger Games isn’t a pathway into more mature fiction, it’s a pathway to more The Hunger Games. It’s a brand, and it’s the brand that sells, not the themes, and not the message.

Our priorities need to shift, ultimately. There is that constant struggle in the moviemaking business between artistic integrity and commercial viability. Right now I feel filmmakers, whether they be screenwriters or executives, are lost in a deep maze. They look at a good spec script and say, “Talent. Have her do the Sandler rewrite.” Meanwhile they shop the safe, intellectually sedentary aisles of the bookstore and look at the latest release and say, “Story. This will be the next big cash cow.”

Like Prometheus, I guess I never really truly imagined the day would come. Prometheus doesn’t even feel real to me — the Alien cycle is the closest thing to Star Wars I have in terms of movie fandom, and not even those damn dirty execs want to touch that franchise after two clunky AVP flicks. Prometheus won’t have the iconic Xenomorph, but it’s got Stringer Bell, so the excitement factor is through the roof. 2012 is officially the next 2009 — John Carter, Prometheus, Total Recall, Cosmopolis, even The Avengers (which was good!), and I suppose The Dark Knight Rises (don’t care!) — and now I’m hearing news that a real live, actual factual Blade Runner sequel is on the books, but for truth? It’s a good time to be a scifi fan, at least on the big screen. On TV… I don’t know. People seem to like that AMC zombie show.

On June 1st, Prometheus lands (using Halo marketing-speak), and it’s success will not only signal the future of this series within a series, but how Blade Runner 2 might shake out. In my opinion, Ridley Scott hasn’t made a good movie since Gladiator — but has he had to? Most filmmakers can’t lay a claim to three of the greatest movies ever: Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, in this case, but Ridley Scott can. But now he’s doing something very, very important to the landscape of science-fiction — coming back to it.

Sure, we may tire of retreads and sequels, but the universe of Blade Runner at least, is rich (Alien is often said to be better unexplored, I agree) and inhabiting a subgenre screaming out to be revisited — hasn’t been done proper since ’03, though we’ve been getting recent respites in other fronts like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and a Ghost in the Shell… Lucas Special Edition every so often. All of these things have been hugely influenced by the 1982 greatest-SF-movie-of-all-time, and have roots in cyberpunk’s 90s glory days. I’d love to return, and maybe this new Blade Runner will usher in a new generation of creators tuned into artificial intelligence and cyborg proxy soldiers, to whom the name “Tetsuo” means spinning dick-drills and giant nuclear babies that explode and destroy Tokyo.

I wonder if this new Blade Runner will be influenced at all by the over-the-top Japanese sensibilities that were themselves influenced by the original tech-noir, and the debut novel of the godfather of cyberpunk. That would be a strange and rare cycle between east and west that I’ve only so far seen in westerns. There’s a back and forth in the lineage of chambara (that the right term?) samurai and westerns, which are linked thematically; each generation become spritual successors of each other — between Ford, Kurosawa, Leone, and now Miike. It’s interesting, and if it happened to cyberpunk I feel like it’d be as natural.

Although thematically all cyberpunk is pretty much the same — what is human? What… do robots do? How fun would VR really be? — and not as poetic in this regard with the gunslinger/samurai, ritualistic violence and honor parallel, Blade Runner might use a touch of exploration, though being novel certainly didn’t help it commercially the first time around. I just think that by 2016, maybe 2017 when considering a two-three year turnaround time for Scott (after a movie set in the Middle East following Prometheus), we’ve seen it all. Cyberpunk was considered dead — for Christ’s sake there’s a subgenre called postcyberpunk — Blade Runner’s had its day in the sun.

Look Familiar?

But there is something interesting, something I like to stress as often as its relevant (not often) is women in science-fiction. Two of the most inexpilcably successful SF franchises of the day — Resident Evil, going five strong and soon to be six, and Underworld, on its fourth — feature female protagonists. So we’re getting there, but how about good characters, and good movies? Alien was both, and we’ll get that again with Noomi Rapace in Prometheus — and then with Blade Runner 2, believe it or not.

Some of the earliest news on this recent development is that Scott and co. (Hampton, but so far no Peoples, I gather) are pursuing a strong female lead, and this is very exciting.

So what’s to concern over?

Well, I suppose that this is just another in the line of redos and continuations of old properties, but hey — Blade Runner is Blade Runner. I love The Thing ’82, so I was super-excited when the new one was coming out, but Blade Runner is like… personal top five, and without a doubt the greatest science-fiction movie of all time. More of the same would be a hell of a thing.

For more on Blade Runner, check out the Blade Runner Directory

Official trailer for Prometheus dropped yesterday. I’ve been plenty aware of Prometheus for a while now, being pretty enamored of The Sci-Fi Movie Page because I think that guy does pretty well with the news for movies of years down the line, but I guess it never occurred to me that Ridley Scott’s scifi would actually come out. To me it was similar to Metropolis, the Blade Runner sequel, or James Cameron’s Battle Angel. Too good to be true. But no, it’s actually done and here’s a trailer. I just about peed in my pants when I saw that post on The Movie Blog, and the trailer did not disappoint.

How could a trailer possibly be disappointing? Well, I don’t remember what I said about the first Avatar trailer either recently or in 2009, but that first trailer was pretty underwhelming. It was the art design that didn’t jibe, but because HR Giger’s on board for Prometheus — and it shows — Prometheus was immediately stunning. The cast is also amazing. I had known ahead of time, but Idris Elba and Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce and Charlize Theron are in this; that’s great, and really speaks to not only Ridley Scott, but where we are right now in terms of science-fiction film.

These are all incredibly talented actors, and they take this space romp totally seriously. I think that’s one of the good things that Avatar did for our perceptions of the genre in film. I remember seeing one picture from Avatar of Col. Quarritch holding a futuristic looking gun and thinking, man — that could be from anything. That could be a still from Saturn 3… or Virus (note that there was only sky for background). How far we’ve come, that movies like Avatar share the lifeblood of its shameful forerunners, and garner mainstream and critical attention.

2012 is shaping up to be a good year for scifi movies. You got this, you got John Carter, there’s Total Recall… well not much else after that but hey even one is good. Just like this year, and better than last year. But. Prometheus worries me for several reasons. Even though the trailer is undoubtedly Alien-tastic (it’s now very easy to decipher all that marketing speak about having “Alien DNA”) and super wow, this has Avatar written all over it. There’s a reason why I brought that partic title up twice before — not just because it festers in my mind minute-to-minute — this is the return of a great director to a genre he started in.

When Avatar was coming out late 2009, it was James Cameron’s first scifi movie since his best, Terminator 2. It had been over sixteen years, and I know because I was born shortly after T2. That’s a long freaking time, man, but Ridley’s been out of the game for exactly thirty, by the time Prometheus will be released, unless you count that classic Superbowl ad. True, he never took any extended breaks from making feature films, but I have yet to see a movie of his after Gladiator that approached passable. I hated Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, and Body of Lies — they were just mystifying to me. It got to the point where my roommate and I were literally contemplating who was the better director, him or Tony Scott?*

We went with Ridley, because even though Tony’s got… Domino, Ridley does have a holy three that are some of my all time favorites. But it’s been so long. Scott followed Alien, one of the most important movies in science-fiction, and the powder-keg that led to everything from The Thing and Aliens to Event Horizon and Dead Space, with Blade Runner, which is the most important movie in science-fiction, and the powder-keg to everything. Blade Runner is so goddamn good it’s hideous. It did have a source material though, and I wonder now if that’ll help Prometheus

From where I’m standing Prometheus will be a prequel, but in a weird way. It’ll be like the Alien movies are spin-offs of a much larger property that just so happened to come out ten years later. This is fine, but the Alien movies were very quiet in terms of their mythology. You know, like why robots? What’s Weyland-Yutani all about? And of course that immortal question that inspired this movie — what the hell is that dude in the Alien ship? There’s something poetic going on here, and I like that every filmmaker involved in the Alien series proper handled the world-building the same way, which isn’t to say they didn’t. The universe is in the details, and nobody’s going around talking about FTL and Xenomorph morphology.

Not only would they logically just not be thinking about those things or even know them, the film is a medium quite unlike the novel. In a scifi novel, world-building is key, and sometimes king. Movies only have 90 minutes, not hours of your time. The vaginal and phallic designs on the walls and in the creatures — that’s the world-building. In time, we may have explanations to everything, and it isn’t so much I don’t want to know these things, but the impact this movie will have on the Alien series is yet to be known. Those four movies are very important to me, so c’mon Ridley. Don’t fuck up. Don’t make me wait for the action sequel, Prometheuses

I’m just kidding. Prometheus looks great, I heart hard for it. And the last time I concerned over a movie, it was The Thing ’11, and that one turned out excellent. Of course, there were low expectations going in…

*I actually do like some of his stuff

We’ve talked about the movie’s thematic structure, how Rick Deckard becomes a robot over the course of the movie, having started out not far removed, and how Roy Batty is humanized as he accelerates toward his engineered death. The only weak link in the narrative extends from this point – the tears in rain monologue was of course very telling of Roy Batty’s character as human, but it was meant to reflect on Rick Deckard as a replicant. One of the endings of Blade Runner (never filmed) was Deckard taking Rachel up north and shooting her in the back, which would have worked perfectly after the monologue scene, where our hero must embrace the robot he’s become.

Of course, what we have in the Director’s Cut, which in my opinion is the most best Cut (I hate that I even have to make the distinction) is the taste that lingers – ambiguity, as some see it. I see it as a clever bookend and a confirmation on what we’ve observed earlier, that Deckard is in some sense a replicant, and the preface to a truncated denoument.

Of course, had Blade Runner shown Deckard shooting Rachel, which we may or may not infer happens after the credits, it may have suffered Boyz N the Hood syndrome: we didn’t have to be shown (or told, rather blandly) that Doughboy dies young, it’s been implied internally in the narrative. Not only that, but it seems to be pounding the sadness of the South Central situation on to near excess. So maybe we don’t need to see the guy shoot the girl, because it is in some way implied – as an extension of Deckard as dehumanized robot – but I see too many pros over cons to the scene.

Running with this thematic thing, the hypothetical shooting of Rachel serves only the plot, a payoff to the various discussions of “No [I wouldn’t come after you]. But somebody would,” but an actual displayed shooting of Rachel would have a grave tragedy to it because of the visceral nature of the act itself – its power lies in its existence, which sounds stupid, so in other words we need to see it in order for it to work. This is film, after all.

Rachel walks out into a clearing and Deckard is there behind her (I believe while snow is falling) mulling it over with that stoic and shadowed face, and then shoots her and walks off. He doesn’t like it, but he’s not human anymore, and this is the demonstration of that fact. That would solidify the themes whereas now what we’re sort of stuck with is endless ambiguity. Will Deckard and Rachel live a happy life together? (I guess that’s explored in the sequel novels – Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human through Blade Runner 4: Eye and Talon) Is Deckard a replicant? Will Gaff ever find true love?

So basically Blade Runner‘s ending should be like what Jin-Roh has. Kill the girl, embrace the wolf.

It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again – who does?
For more on Blade Runner, check out the Blade Runner Directory

In this year 2011, over a decade after The Matrix hit theatres and I was but a boy, I never thought I could ever be such a thing as a Matrix apologist. Of course, the sequels were poorly recieved so I had to defend those, but the original Matrix is one of science-fiction film’s proudest moments – from what I understood of critical consensus. Why then do I find that people can be so critical of it when it’s – on the level that they criticize it for – essentially Star Wars, operating on the same principle of gracefully synthesizing old tropes. Where Star Wars had Kurosawa and Flash Gordon, The Matrix had Gibson and Ghost in the Shell. It also, and this is something that Star Wars most certainly did not have, had a year that was appropriately surrounded by a bevy of cyberpunk and existential movies. We had, from 1995 to 1999, Strange Days, Dark City, Johnny Mnemonic, eXistenZ, and The Thirteenth Floor, and as Christopher Nolan will tell us, Memento. I can agree with that, though it lacks cyber and it has no punk.

If one day The Matrix actually came into your office and ripped you off, just jacked all your belongings and was seen only on the security feed, you couldn’t say a goddamn thing – it’d be crying wolf, as a legion of creatives has already beat you to it. It’s a fundamental problem the Wachowski brothers had with their universe. It’s hugely popular as a franchise in terms of finance, akin to Star Wars but obviously not as galactic (*laughs*), but have you ever really heard of a Matrix fan? As a devout science-fiction nerd, this is indeed something I’ve turned over in my mind not once but a frequently many times before.

A Star Wars fan has a Boba Fett T-shirt, a Phantom Menace poster – because I don’t know he’s a hipster – a Chewbacca bobble-head, and a preorder for Star Wars: The Old Republic, or KOTOR III-VI, if marketing jargon has been effective. The fan has a lot of universe to pick from, it’s so expansive and conducive to fandom. Same with Star Trek and Doctor Who and Buffy, I guess, though they might just say “Whedonverse,” which might as well just be Buffy for various reasons*. The Matrix on the other hand has something of a flawed universe if we’re speaking to fan-friendly terms.

The heroes in The Matrix universe are actively working to undo the universe. As a result it sort of feels temporary, and personally that’s something that doesn’t jibe with me. It’s definitely one of those weirdnerd things, but out of all the sci-fi universes I’d want to live in – where the Sprawl universe or Mass Effect ties for the top – The Matrix would be down near Ghost in the Shell, which is at the bottom because you can get real fucked up in that world. Being in The Matrix would just be no fun, and it does reflect on the movies, which are all very, very serious.

Despite some flashes of humor, all three movies and the one anime anthology, take themselves very seriously, and tonally that doesn’t always click with people. Not to harp on Nolan again but that’s one of the reasons why I can’t say without qualification that I like his movies, where even the jokes in something like The Dark Knight feel like they’re taking themselves seriously. At the same time though The Matrix always works for me, even if all the parts in Zion that don’t involve sexy robot-on-robot action come off something like… The Chronicles of Riddick.

I’ve said this before but The Matrix is not only exemplary in modern filmmaking (indeed such a general term), I’d also consider it to be the second best science-fiction film ever made, above Star Wars and 2001 and all the others. It fills out exactly what movies of this type aspire to – being hugely entertaining and taking the time out to allow the audience to think about what’s going on. Not even Blade Runner does that because not everyone can find it as entertaining. That being said, The Matrix doesn’t quite operate on the same intellectual plane as Blade Runner, where it’s existentialist questions and themes were upstaged a year earlier with Dark City.

It’s just a damn good movie that talked about all the things people have been talking about for centuries – Allegory of the Cave but the difference here is that the Cave is the Net, which I suppose makes it stretch only as far back as certain episodes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but it never gets old and had two not-as-good sequels and a universe that nerds can’t get behind. Hmm.

*Well I didn’t want to get into it above because I thought it was just a funny throwaway joke but didn’t want to bog down the already needlessly joke-heavy post; a gamble, of course. But it occured to me as I typed the word “Buffy,” up there that Joss Whedon has Buffy, a huge series spanning like seven or twelve seasons or something, and then Angel, which is a spin-off and occupies the same universe, a little later on he had Firefly, which was so short it doesn’t count, and then Dollhouse which was about four times as long but nobody liked it.

 

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?

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

In between the long but relatively short time gap with Terminator 3 and Terminator 4 – 2003 to 2009 – the writer of The War of the Worlds (2005), Josh Friedman, ran a TV drama based on the franchise. Wouldn’t you know it, it wasn’t half bad, but it wasn’t totally good either. It had minor faults running throughout its one and a half seasons, but the major issue with T:SCC was that it was based off of a franchise not known for its story.

The very first Terminator was a small movie with a great premise and a great execution. The sequel, Terminator 2, expanded on the first in plot and theme but essentially repeated the first. Terminator 3 was just a watered-down copy of Terminator 2, so there was never really a story beyond “Terminator goes back in time and another Terminator stops him from Terminating either John or Sarah Connor.” That’s something that couldn’t even be maintained satisfactorily for three movies, so I couldn’t imagine how the creatives behind T:SCC would even go about making a lengthy series in terms of serialized narrative.

With that in mind, Friedman in crew did a damn good job. Terminator 3 kind of set the precedent for repeating The Terminator‘s story, thereby worshiping T2 and striking originality from the series forever, so it does seem improbable that the show would’ve ever stepped out of the strict boundaries set by Jonathan Mostow’s movie. They explored some interesting areas, but in terms of science-fiction television, it would never find peace between stand alone and complex episodes like The X-Files or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and didn’t find the popularity that sustained a contemporary like Battlestar Galactica for so long.

Ultimately the show would be cancelled by FOX, much to the surprise of every fan of Firefly and other shows with Summer Glau. Dollhouse would also be seemingly claimed by the Summer Glau curse around the same time, but one of the real reasons it was cancelled was the less-than-satisfactory ticket returns for Salvation, which was hugely expensive in its own right.

It’s a shame because Summer Glau had to move on to The Cape, which I heard was really, really bad. She’s a very talented actress, but I am eager to see if she isn’t just a one trick pony, no matter how well she does the ‘distant and possibly insane creepy seventeen year old.’ She did a great job with her character, and was one of my favorite Terminators. Out of the four, definitely top three.

Something interesting to note about Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is there is a scene where Summer Glau’s character, named Cameron, beats the hell out of a character named Ellison. She throws him around a room and perhaps in this way, a vengeance has finally been fulfilled…

Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation is not a movie concerned with plot like Terminator 3 seemingly was, nor character like Terminator 2. Its focus was cycling through elements from the franchise; visual cues and requisite one-liners. Director McG was placed into an odd scenario, one that filmmakers probably strive for but pull a Gob and think they’ve made a huge mistake. Not only is this the Terminator 3 that Terminator fans were waiting for – one detailing the future war hinted at across the ‘original trilogy’ – but it’s a third sequel to, once again, a movie that never needed one. Instead of using the original movies as foundation, Salvation opts to play it safe, wherein if the movie didn’t exist, we wouldn’t notice.

By saying that I mean that it adds nothing to the series, never taking a dare and branching out into undiscovered country. That would afterall be outside the Terminator lexicon. Taking risks? Only in terms of finance (Salvation was like all other Terminator movies – super expensive, this one being around $200 million, according to Wikipedia.org). On a narrative level, there is no moving forward. Nothing happens in this movie that we couldn’t have guessed, just as was the case in Rise of the Machines.

Terminator Salvation charts John Connor’s rise to the Leader of humanity, and we see it through alternatively his and another character’s eyes. The writers didn’t seem to agree on who to choose as the main character, but this isn’t a bad thing. Similarly, all of the things thus far mentioned about how TSal doesn’t say or do anything isn’t bad either.

I wouldn’t expect anything more, and we live in an age where most genre fare in film looks back on older genre films with longing eyes. Guys like Rodriguez, Tarantino, Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, even Peter Jackson – these guys lead the genre front but have put out movies paying homage to other movies. Some of these have used their homage nature to say something new, as in the case of Shaun of the Dead or Death Proof, but they do tend to represent the positive side of modern geek-film, where the negative side is saturated with superhero adaptations.

TSal is sort of the same thing. It’s a good movie as made by a big ol’ Terminator fan. If you too are a Terminator fan, you’ll probably like this movie. If not, it’s a slightly-above average actioner set in a Mad Max post-apocalypse. No, we don’t get to see the big ‘cyborg’ wars with purple lasers; it’s a smaller conflict that’s less total war and more chase scenes. That’s perfectly serviceable, but I feel I have some bias towards this film that needs mention before proceeding:

I’m a big science-fiction fan, and two of my absolute favorite things the genre can offer are the following: robots, and when military and futuristic imagery are mixed. Space marines? I’ll never get tired of them. Space marines fighting robots? I got a semi. Even if John Connor’s Resistance soldiers aren’t technically in space, they’re still creeping around corridors like in Aliens and facing down the classic Endoskeletons. I really, really dug a lot of what was going on in the movie.

In this way, TSal was a return to form. The first two Terminator movies offered me striking and indelible images – the Endoskeleton rising from fire, liquid metal T-1000, Arnold with a laser-sighted pistol in Tech-Noir – and Terminator Salvation does just the same. I always think back to the scene in the SkyNet base where John and Kyle and kid are backing away from the Terminator while firing a grenade launcher – it won’t stop, guys. Really cool scene.

For people who don’t dig on robots and soldiers, or possibly prefer Transformers to get your robots n soldiers fix (barf), Terminator Salvation may come off as entirely too dispensable diversionary fare. It does come off as a movie that doesn’t really give a fuck – we don’t get to know any of these characters, with one exception, and there’s no sense of gravity to any battle sequence – whereas The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day had genuine characters. After all this time of waiting to see a full-grown John Connor, Kyle Reese and the good T-800 are still much more memorable heroes.

In addition, one of the curious things about Terminator Salvation was that it didn’t really have a villain, and one of the Terminator series’ claim-to-fames is great villains: the T-800 and the T-1000. But just like in Crank 2, I didn’t really notice the absence of a villain that was as great as in earlier movies. For other people though, this might be a hinderance. Even Terminator 3 tried to have a memorable villain, though she was pretty much totally farcical and kind of offensive.

The one unique element to compliment TSal with was Sam Worthington’s character. No, at the end of the movie nothing in the Terminator mythos has really changed, and for the first in a new trilogy there isn’t really any great plot-point to build off of, like the destruction of the Death Star for example, but we did get an interesting intro to the hero John Connor through Worthington’s character, Jake Sully. Or, Robot Guy, I guess.

It’s similar I guess to what they did in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and even though I haven’t played the game, I know exactly what was going on because it was such an infamous move – they replaced iconic hero Solid Snake with a… different, fellow… and he followed Snake around and saw him being cool from a third-party perspective. Interesting angle to take, but unfortunately the other character has to actually be cool. Robot Guy was actually much more interesting than John Connor, who was essentially Batman, but without the VOICE. Robot Guy on the other hand seemed to be something of a hamfisted attempt at Oshii/Shirow robot-guy-ian philosophy, “How could it not know what it is?” which is very phildickian.

Let me rephrase: sparknotes phildickian. It’s not a very deep exploration of Ghost in the Shell, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (though that was the novel McG made the crew read in preparation of the movie) themes, but at least it tried. Did Terminator 3 try – anything? No, but that’s no excuse for Salvation not being a truly good movie.

It’s a dumb action movie with cool images. The things that made the first two movies great were lost on Salvation, which was a fine but unecessary entry, speaking on a narrative level.

In Conclude

That’s the Terminator saga. Less of a saga than Star Wars or even Back to the Future, but it’s one of the most memorable moments in the annals of science-fiction movies. After 25 years we’ve had four feature length movies, one television series, one theme park attraction, countless spin-off video-games and novels, and an interesting but rocky future for whoever owns the rights to the franchise at the moment. Joss Whedon? No, we’re not that lucky.

Halycon had produced Terminator Salvation, and now they have their eyes set on an adaptation of Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick. Sounds good, but not for Terminator fans. My advice for those fans – do what I do, and just watch T2 again.

In the aftermath of watching Scott Pilgrim for the first time, I found myself in a strange situation. After watching movies like Hard-Boiled and Serenity, things I was very fond of, I immediately wanted to share them with everyone, and was fairly sure they’d like them. Scott Pilgrim was another, so I contacted various people and found that they had already seen it and ranged from being lukewarm on it to disliking it outright. During this summer, I’ve discovered that certain Internet circles I see myself as associating with don’t think much of the movie either. So here was a movie I loved, and nobody to share that appreciation with, which is why I wrote Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: An Appreciation rather than talk about it in real life with some person.

I’m not going to make this about some self-pity cry for help, but I will say that the movie’s poor reception on local and general levels (made no money, but hey – I didn’t see it in theatres either) has affected my perception of the film in this post-mortem period. The personal faults I have with the movie feel more glaring, like some of Michael Cera’s line delivery and a lot of the jokes, and I have had to accept that obviously this movie isn’t very well liked, but I do like it for reasons that are very personal and unique to me as an appreciator of motion pictures.

Even after all this time, I watch Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and I marvel every time and in the same magnititude. I marvel at the technical superiority employed by director Edgar Wright and Director of Photography Bill Pope, the mastery of craft that I find easy to both watch repeatedly and study (as an aspiring movie guy), the beauty of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who’s one of those people I just really enjoy watching in movies, and the crappiness of some of the jokes. It’s a movie that means a lot to me, the one movie that I could literally never stop talking about, but won’t devote the site to like I will with its flagship movie, Blade Runner. The film has so taken me, a power I thought I would have attributed to a darker, more thematically serious movie like Apocalypse Now or Oldboy, which are both amazing, but don’t match up with Edgar Wright’s PG-13 actioner for me on a personal level.

The movie has actually had the power to push me to read more books, because I couldn’t quite find what I found with Scott Pilgrim in the other movies I’d seen this summer; movies that people really like sort of fell upon glazed eyes: Mulholland Dr., Pi, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (the best of the bunch), The Wild Bunch, The Thin Red Line, Green Zone, and Brazil. None of them matched the bizarre and difficult-to-pin-down effect Scott Pilgrim had on me.

But for how long? Assumedly when I’m 35 I won’t give a shit about a romantic comedy about 20 year olds, so maybe I feel like I have to enjoy this fleeting movie as much as I can while I still do. Or maybe, and this was something that struck me while making my way through the James Cameron biography, The Futurist, maybe Scott Pilgrim was the Avatar that never was.

Of course, the two movies have absolutely nothing to do with each other, but I expected to fall in love with James Cameron’s biggest movie to date (for now), which by his own admittance, was the wrong way to go, “I think if everybody was embracing [Avatar] before the fact, the film could never live up to that expectation … Have them go with some sense of wanting to find the answer,” (James Cameron) and didn’t. Perhaps I’ve been waiting for that hole in my heart to be filled since it was punched into creation back in December 2009, and it finally was with Scott Pilgrim.

But that doesn’t make any fucking sense because last year I saw not only top twenty movies like Ghost in the Shell 2, Jin-Roh, and Jacob’s Ladder, but a movie I’d go on to consider one of my absolute favorites, JSA. Why didn’t those fill the hole or whatever? They’re complex, intense, dramatic movies, and three of them are exemplary in my “film as suduko” philosophy, where Scott Pilgrim does not. However, JSA is a drama ending on a note of tragedy, Ghost in the Shell 2 is beautiful but contemplative and not very fun, and Jacob’s Ladder is an intense journey striking with enthusiasm upon themes I find very frightening (but intriguing). With Scott Pilgrim, I finally found a movie that very simply, makes me feel good. It’s a conventional romance with action elements – light, funny, and highly entertaining. Exactly what I need sometimes.

I understand that where it lost audiences was in it’s conception, however. It’s a Kung Fu movie that doesn’t make Kung Fu a priority, instead opting for a musical approach, where action scenes are ignored after they’re over, like they didn’t even happen. It’s a movie taking cues from retro-games, trying to appeal to a very specific generation that prefers other things and is very picky. It’s a romantic comedy, but isn’t just for girls and isn’t just for guys. So who goes to see it?

Other issues I’ve come upon with respect to Scott Pilgrim are of course, Michael Cera. I agree that he’s not really much of an actor, and some of his weaknesses are evident here, but I think he was the perfect casting choice for the character: an awkward dude who’s skinny and would look funny Kung Fu fighting Chris Evans. One of the more jolting criticisms I’ve read was from a publication I enjoy quite a bit, ScifiNow. Basically they said that Ramona wasn’t a girl worth fighting for, so they couldn’t relate to motivations of our hero.

That’s absurd. I don’t want to talk any more or ever about Mary Elizabeth Winstead unless I have to again, but needless to say, I was pretty shocked to read that. Easily my favorite piece of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is Winstead’s performance as Ramona Flowers. Not only is she attractive and easy to watch, but she’s a truly wonderful actor who’s breakout role simply hasn’t come along yet. She’s a perfect fit for Ramona Flowers, the brooding, cynical, just-trying-to-get-by chick – and yet you wouldn’t think it based on her filmography up until that point. Edgar Wright saw something in the cheery young actress, and goddamn he was so right.

This is not something I wanted to write and certainly not something I wanted to post on Dreck Fiction; it’s the third in a series of posts about one movie, and a movie that only barely makes sense being covered here on this science-fiction/movies blog. My excuse is pretty lame, that essentially I’ve found the most wonderful and endearing cinematic experience in years in a movie that… kinda sucks? I shake my head at it but I think about it constantly.

People like to think that they have good taste, and pride themselves on it. I was always one of those people. The only reason I think Scott Pilgrim is lowbrow is because of its general reception by fans and non-fans of movies, video-games, and modern media culture. But it’s very important to me, and I feel like I need to mention it as much as possible here because I’ve found hardly anybody else to talk about it with.

I wish I could have written something more conclusive on my feelings about this movie, but it’s difficult – such feelings are more puzzling to me than with any deep science-fiction movie or book, so take this Final Assessment with a grain of salt, like the titles of the fourth and ninth Friday the 13th movies. I’ll get back to you when I’m a better writer…

I really like this shot

Spoilers for The Abyss, Avatar, my life

James Cameron is a champion of technology in film, and his latest thing is 3D. I’m among the majority that tends to scoff at 3D in movies and TV; there’s just too much about it I disagree with. But in the case of Avatar, 3D makes sense, and it is perhaps the only movie where the visually stunning gimmick has thematic significance, aside from maybe Friday the 13th Part III. It’s a movie where immersion is of the utmost import, such that it should stretch beyond the hero and onto the audience. We feel what he feels because it’s our journey of discovery too – he’s our avatar.

The award-winning filmmaker has always upped the ante with each movie in terms of technology, diving into one of the most difficult and technically challenging shoots ever with The Abyss (which nearly claimed the life of Ed Harris), and diving further with those deep sea documentaries and that critical darling Titanic. It’s kind of ironic, seeing as how his iconic Terminator would theoretically make him out to be some kind of creative luddite.

Alas no, and Avatar is the next step in this evolution, and it’s hands down the best-looking film of all time. Best visual effects, besting Transformers and The Lord of the Rings and Pirates 3 and even Terminator 2 by miles. Is it the most beautiful film? That comes down to art design, and I still contend that movies like Akira and Ghost in the Shell 2 achieve higher in that department. It’s something that can’t be overlooked or treated lightly – impressive doesn’t even begin to describe the quality of work here, so in the end I don’t think it’s entirely unfortunate that the visuals are the only thing the movie has going for it.

Now, for two years I had read every article online about Avatar, seen every production still and followed it closely such that the words Project 880 burned into my eyes; I had never been more excited for a movie. It was James Cameron’s return to feature films after a decade, and his return to science-fiction (more importantly) after nearly twenty years. Also note that the last time he made a science-fiction film, he made Terminator 2. Everything seemed to add up, and this was looking to be the most ambitious magnum opus attempted. It would be his first SF flick I’d be alive to see in theatres, so I was going opening night.

That decision came probably in 2007. Two years later, it was two days after opening night, a Sunday. Me and a friend of mine were able to see it at the IMAX, which was pleasant, as that screen was both huge and three-dimensional. Two and a half hours later I stumbled out. My friend was like, “Yeah that was pretty good. What did you think, Harry?” and I thought about it. And thought about it. And thought about it.

And I continued to think about it. I recall recording a podcast about it, but don’t remember what I said. Probably that it was good but not nearly as good as it should have been. Well it’s July 9th 2011 as I write this, it’ll probably go up tomorrow, and I’ll tell you one thing: I now understand what people feel when they hear the words The Phantom Menace. They cringe inside, they feel slightly embarassed.

As the months were drawing closer to December 22, 2009, the Internet was ablaze with a storm of “holy shit Avatar trailers… suck?” and I was one pissed off little nerdlet. That’s actually what made me break up with a podcast I had listened to loyally for like two years – Slice of Scifi. It was the very first podcast I had ever heard of, and was kind of a personal stepping stone into further nerdom, but when the first Avatar trailer was underwhelming and one of the guys said, “He should just stick to documentaries,” I couldn’t believe it. To be fair, I remember the other guys wrangling him in like “Hey. That’s too far,” but it was too late. I loved James Cameron. He had done only good for the world, unless you count those many ex-wives and one disgruntled Harlan Ellison (not JC’s fault).

I was like, “Have you people forgotten what this man has wrought?” Apparently T2 wasn’t like the greatest thing ever, and it kind of makes sense. I grew up watching the movie, and would only later discover the general consensus was that Aliens was actually his best film (this is in nerd circles, of course, where we don’t use the T word. No, the other one). My heart was broken; I felt betrayed, but my burning desire to confirm that Avatar would blow my fucking mind, man, burned all the brighter – and it burned for half as long, as the movie was nearing release.

In the aftermath, I still don’t want to hear commentary on Avatar, and fortunately have suffered only a minimal amount. It’s just hard because I acknowledge that it’s a bad movie, but I’m in denial. Also exacerbating my perception of the film is the fact that the visuals are out of this world. They elevate the movie, but it’s still a bad, bad movie. It sucks. Seriously, it fucking blows. Cameron took ten years to write this script? Should’ve been looking over Nolan’s shoulder – and I never thought I’d say that.

Apparently I can say that it sucks, but I won’t hear it from anyone else. It’s like if somebody is self-conscious, they can laugh at themselves nervously and say they’re weird, sure. But God forbid anybody else do the same. If I were in your position reading this (I hope somebody reads this) I’d be shaking my head and thinking, no, nobody should read this. It’s inappropriate.

But like I said earlier. It’s July 9th, 2011. It’s been awhile. I’ve had time to think, and I’ve come to my conclusions. I guess now I should tell you why. (Please God don’t let this be a Scott Pilgrim-lengthed post… it won’t be nearly as fun to write…)

The biggest problem I’ll always have with Avatar, and with James Cameron, is his treatment of the military in his movies. Aliens owes everything it is to Military SF like Starship Troopers – essentially Cameron pulled a Wachowski Brothers and said “I want to do this for real,” (preempting Verhoeven by ten years) referring to space marines, of course, who have never been seen before or since the 1986 movie. The military isn’t depicted unfairly or anything, but their ultimately being criticized in a Vietnam War allegory – situations occur where technologically advanced forces are beaten time and again by the lesser-equipped simply because they didn’t know what they were doing.

In The Abyss, the military once again dons the face of Michael Biehn, and they are spoilers the badguys. The Terminator actually offers an interesting view, one that I agree with – the marriage of technology and warfare seems to breed something we won’t be able to handle in years down the road, and here it’s depicted as Skynet. Isn’t it interesting that in order to fight this ungodly child we have to resort to warfare as well? That could have made an interesting study, but unfortunately that’s never what Terminator was about, and instead of something where we destroy ourselves with combat, we get Rise of the Machines.

And finally in Avatar we have the space military in all their glory – but they’re assholes. We have one qualifying line in the beginning where hero Jake Sully notes that these are sort of the rejects, a PMC squad working for a capital-c Company, think Weyland-Yutani. Alright, fine, they’re not really America’s military or Space America’s marines or anybody we should be rooting for, but the end product is still space marines are the bad guy. And that really rides me. I’m not some gun-nut who unconditionally praises American’s army, it’s just that my feelings about the military seem to conflict with Cameron’s various depictions, and goddamn it – it wouldn’t be so bad if the heroes of the tale, the Na’vi, weren’t so goddamn insulting.

I’m not even saying they’re disrespectful towards Native Americans – I’m saying they’re disrespectful towards me because they use the fact that they’re Native Americans, and nakedly so, to draw sympathy rather than use actual characterization. What does Zoe Saldana want? I don’t know, to save the trees. Oh so her character coincides with the message of the film. That means she’s a blank slate to which Cameron can paint his environmental theme – she’s like Mr. Exposition for the moral of the tale, and that’s bullshit. That’s not writing; the themes should come about in a more organic manner. We shouldn’t be tricked into getting the message, we should just get it.

Let’s look at these goddamn things, these Na’vi [from Zelda]: they’re interesting looking, but I don’t like them at all. Not only do they look like taller versions of Asari, they’re somehow worse, if that’s even imaginable. They’re cliche because they’re Out-to-Save-the-World Native Americans, and they’re uninteresting because Cameron thought that he didn’t have to write anything beyond that. Was that seriously your selling point? Did you actually think that that made these things compelling? That they liked nature? Are you fucking kidding me?

And we haven’t even touched upon the alien sex. I guess the most poetic way to show our hero becoming one with nature was to have him bump uglies with a nine foot tall cat, and (actually, does that even happen in the movie? I forget) I guess it’s just consistent enough with the other garbage going on that we don’t notice how zoophillic that is. It’s okay though – she’s hot. Look at that sexy tail… Well, at least Zoe Saldana is in real life actually very attractive, and – fun fact – another extremely good-looking woman, Yunjin Kim (Lost, Shiri) screentested for the same character. But anyways…

He tries to draw us into an unconventional romance through conventional means, and nothing could be more inappropriate or miscalculated. It’s true love and it has to be, as the message to stress with Avatar is be cool with everything and everyone. Cross-cultural boundaries should be breached, but more generally and more significantly, we need to have open minds if we want to save the world(s). Makes sense on paper, but in the film, it just does not work. Let’s look at some other unconventional relationships in movies, and the two that come into my mind maybe aren’t obvious examples of this which is itself not an obvious thing: JSA: Joint Security Area, an old standby on Dreck Fiction, and The Yakuza.

In JSA we have, and I hate this term, a bromance. What’s more, it’s a forbidden bromance, but let’s just call it a friendship. These guys aren’t supposed to be friends – it should be shocking that they’re even talking to each other. Their relationship develops very naturally throughout, and when it all comes crashing down, like they anticipated, it’s tragic. It works because we get a feel for these characters and we don’t want to see them fail.

With The Yakuza, we have an interesting relationship between two guys, Harry Kilmer and Tanaka Ken. What they have is both weaker and stronger than a frienship, because they share something important but can never just chill and hang out. Dialogue between the two is alternatively tense and poigniant, and it’s handled just as we should expect from such writers with pedigrees as Paul Shrader and Robert Towne.

So the fact that Cameron treats his odd relationship with normal terms – courtship, which is bizarre – is embarassing and kind of naive. There even could have been an interesting discussion there about cross-species relationships, but as it stands the Na’vi just persist in being no different from us afterall. This really is like Mass Effect, but that title – a video-game, mind you – makes up for it with surprising levels of characterization and a cool SF story.

Avatar has no such thing. Its story is template. Formula. Seen before. As much as those fuckings mountains in the sky are wowing and unprecedented (except for those wonderful Internet comparison photos, courtesy of a dozen beautiful minds), we can’t be entirely swept away because this story is so damn familiar. Story beats seem to be hit like somebody’s checking them off a list, and as a result, everybody is a stereotype or an archetype. There isn’t one original character in the entire movie. We have the tough-as-nails mentor with a heart of gold played by Sigourney Weaver, the tough-as-nails pilot played by Michelle Rodriguez, the guy who starts out antagonizing our hero until he becomes one of the People and then heroically sacrifices himself, the racist old guy (the only good character), the nerdy technician, and the flawless hero.

Star Wars is a similar situation, in that it used archetypes like the gunslinger Han Solo and the Hero’s Journey hero Luke Skywalker. But in the context of what Star Wars is, it makes sense and it works beautifully, which is why that movie is and will be remembered for being a good movie, but Avatar will be remembered for being pioneering. Unfortunately people and things that set the wheel in motion are forgotten when surpassed – think Willis O’brien when Ray Harryhausen came along.

The potential Avatar had was really the thing that pissed me off the most. It’s a science-fiction movie by James Cameron. It’s got dragons, it’s got space helicopters, it’s got war. How do you fuck that up? Big things and littles things. Big things like blank-slate characters, and little things like moments that just feel so out-of-place and immature, like when the rhinos pop out of the forest to victory music and overwhelm the enemy soldiers at the last second.

It’s a beautiful movie, and it will always look good because the art design will hold up, though I do think the mechs were better-looking in The Matrix Revolutions. The casting was good, the technology was in place, but the script needed work – about ten more years. And left in the center is one confused nerd, and I doubt I’ll even seek out Avatar 2 in the theatres. I just wish he’d drop this ‘trilogy’ bullshit and go ahead with Battle Angel. Maybe at this point in his career he needs established characters to work with, but who knows? Hopefully I’ll come to reneg on those words.

I’ve been wrong before.

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