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The movie winds toward a resolution that cannot possibly fulfill the needs of our young, young hero. As David, Ted, and Joe descend through their increasingly dark journey, we can feel it. The only door at the end of this path they stumble down is a fate akin to death — depressing, resolute, yet somehow worse, as even though we all die and that’s sad, we understand death. The end that slow approaches isn’t something David can understand.

Spielberg is responsible for some of the best science-fiction adventure films of all time. Jurassic Park is thematically dark — as a cautionary tale about man’s futility against powerful and ancient forces — but it’s infused by an inspiring sense of adventure that sees its heroes bound from set piece to set piece. There’s a great wonder in its world and its creatures; it brims with ideas as it does imagination. AI on the other hand is related on the surface to this earlier film, but is unremittingly bleak. I don’t understand how a filmmaker with such a filmography could make a movie without hope or any shred of light — I don’t understand why anyone would make a movie like this.

It tells the story of David, a robot programmed to love and designed to replace the son of a grieving mother. After the son comes back and David’s kicked to the curb at the one hour mark, the unblinking affection-droid stalks gloomily through an increasingly hostile and apocalyptic world on a quest to find the Blue Fairy. As the audience and everyone flesh-and-blood understands, David is chasing a delusion.

The sadness that drenches the film is a product of AI being pulled in two directions. Not Spielberg and Kubrick, but traditional drama and something… alien. Joe also believes David might find the Blue Fairy and turn into a real boy. Why would he think anything else? He’s a robot. They’re all robots, and that means that they’re damned to experience only a few things, think limited thoughts, and suffer the emotional toll. They themselves are being pulled in two directions: human and inhuman.

The movie required an eXistenZ moment, that brief flash that completely unsettles you — remember when Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) repeats dialogue in the same intonation to Jude Law’s character, as if trapped by the rules of the video-game and rendered momentarily inhuman? It throws your perception of reality off and that’s what Jude Law in this movie should have done. We should have been reminded that Joe and David are robots for the sake of compelling drama, but it seems that the writer is more interested in the generic.

Interest in the generic isn’t the issue here, but the cost of what generic requires — the weight on the story that keeps the characters from going anywhere. Or at least, going to a place that is, once again, a delusion. The movie wouldn’t be so bad if it was more of a cerebral story about robots searching for meaning, but it is instead a story about humans who are told they aren’t humans who can’t be humans but want desperately to be human.

AI operates on a broken premise of human drama with a question pervading every step of its narrative — the layers of unreality in this case add up to a disconcerting ending. The question dogs an audience sympathizing in David: Is he going to realize that his journey is futile? And if he does, is his face gonna fucking melt again? Here’s a fake person struggling against an impossible enemy, one manifesting as fake, artificial nothing.

The so-called aliens, as so many are enthusiastic to point out, give David a happy ending. His mother is alive for one day the last human on planet Earth after two thousand years. His mother is essentially programmed to love him, and he is programmed to love her, so it works out — a exercise in flailing. The aliens (the robots that constitute a generally very cool idea in SF, evolving into pure shapes after generations of human absence) don’t understand because they’re so removed from humanity. Here it is again — that as a science-fiction idea follow internal logic, but because the aliens conform to the lines of human drama, the whole thing is ridiculous. They may be executing correctly, but they operate on a confused premise.

The audience watches these fake things spinning out in their predetermined paths — this is what robots will do without humans. They’re like computers playing out computer business, but because this is an important drama by Steven Spielberg, it’s a clusterfuck.

Believe me, I hate the term clusterfuck. I don’t use it lightly. But AI is a horribly depressing movie that’s nearly offensive. It reaches but is constrained by its mainstream potential. It needed to commit to a style or genre, but didn’t. A good analogue in the film is the Flesh Fair. Good concept, but held back by cliches: the evil Christian shit, the Tron-reject motorcycles with neon dogheads mounted on the front, and the improperly motivated scene’s end. A movie likes this didn’t deserve to be another common denominator throwaway.

After being treated to a host of modern classics in the 1990s, science-fiction fans faced a cinematic drought once the decade turned, something that lasts even to this very day, where rare gems like Children of Men and District 9 come along far and few between to offer brief respite. Even though both of those movies were adaptations, they felt fresh thanks to keen filmmaking and sharp storytelling, and their contemporaries languish because the genre market is suffused with big names we’ve seen before on comics, novels, video-games, other movies, the shelves at Toys R Us, and – coming soon – board games. In most cases, this has proved to be quite the burden, as the commercial potential for such franchise titles pushes studios to pump them with many millions of dollars, which limits artistic risk-taking.

For such risk-taking we tend to look toward the indie scene, though as of late the line between independent film and big studio picture has blurred with the latter trying to ape the style of the former (Juno, Little Miss Sunshine), and the ease of access to industry standard tech for consumer-level videomakers. Great visual effects are no longer solely the territory of giants like Digital Domain and Weta Workshop, they can be found online in fan films like Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy and Portal: No Escape. It would seem then, that even the independent science-fiction movie could be dumbed down.

That is of course if you believe that effects and expensive things come at the price of good storytelling and compelling characters. There does exist that obnoxious stereotype where all indies are good and minimalistic like The Man from Earth and all studio flicks are overblown and underthrought like Transformers 3. Time and again this has been proven false, so don’t be heartbroken when you discover that Monsters, as directed by Gareth Edwards, looks the part of a Hollywood spectacle.

In it, we follow off-and-on anti-hero Andrew Kaulder, played by Scoot McNairy, and the ever-needy Whitney Able, played by Samantha Wynden, as they journey through a Mexico infected by a mysterious alien menace. Not much about the aliens, referred to as ‘creatures’ here, can be gathered from watching the film, and certainly not the expository opening text that sets the scene. We come to assume that they’re hostile, as we see a military platoon fighting one and running around screaming like an updated moment from classic 50s B-movie science-fiction.

This film does feel rather modern, escaping its pulp alien invasion roots by employing shaky-cam (a staple of the independent movie) and documenting a human story. Much like Signs and to some extent Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, the aliens are significant, but a background element. We get the sense in all three movies that Battle: Los Angeles is happening somewhere, but somewhere not here. It’s an interesting take on the invasion story, and it serves well here.

The alternative would of course be unimaginable and inappropriate, for Monsters, as we might surmise from its deliberate title (going in we doubt that the eponymous Monsters will shake out to be the aliens in the end), is a drama. Elements of reality cross over to this shattered landscape – Mexican borders, invasive American military, poverty, and xenophobia, and very quickly it’s known that the movie isn’t here to showcase explosions and car chases and Transformers, but bring to light ideas. Like the greatest in science-fiction, Monsters makes a grab at asking the big questions, challenging us to shake our noggin awake.

Whether or not it succeeds in this regard seems somewhat inconsequential – audiences can sit down with District 9 and have a laugh or two before being absolutely riveted, and never put a thought to what’s just under the surface. Monsters is the same way; not as exciting, but engaging enough to make a satisfying experienced, filled out by devastated and desolate but always beautiful landscapes, and technically hampered only by flat dialogue and spotty acting.

Kaulder and Sam climb their way up to an ancient pyramid for a night’s rest later on in the film, and look out over the US-Mexico border, which has grown to a superstructure and replaces the horizon. They’ve been through hell to reach this point, and remark on how odd it feels to be outside America, looking in. We feel that this movie could have ventured to prod deeper and benefitted, but know also that moments like these could have played out much more heavy-handedly. So while this may stand out in a line of grim superhero movies and giant robot spectacles, it doesn’t quite reach the bar set by Children of Men or Signs, but it was a hearfelt effort nonetheless.

The Chronicles of Riddick, written and directed by David Twohy, represents one of the biggest missed opportunities in recent years. The question I have is this: did it shoot too high, or did it not try very hard? It’s a tough call but I’ll have to go with – and this is a cop-out – a bit of both. Great pains were taken to put this character from Pitch Black into a greater universe, and measured creative actions were undergone to make it as cool as possible. Unfortunately I don’t believe that Twohy thought too far out of the box, or outside the box at all. When you think ‘space story,’ the first thought you may have is Star Wars. That particular franchise is very successful I heard, and had a war going on that the heroes fought on one side of. Want to know what The Chronicles of Riddick is?

I’ll tell you what it isn’t – very successful. Its critical and commercial failure, particularly the latter, can be blamed for the eight year delay between The Chronicles of Riddick and the expertly titled sequel The Chronicles of Riddick: Dead Man Stalking. Audiences didn’t seem to respond too well to the shoddy cinematography and editing during action, nor the underdeveloped characters, nor the length. I’ll take them one further; the chief issue with Riddick is its universe. The space war template is not served well here where it is in Star Wars because the enemies are so damned stupid. Indeed Stormtroopers and then droids were absurd enemies that posed no real illusion of menace – perhaps they posed a phantom menace – but they weren’t derivative and lame creatons known as the Necromongers, which are not only derivative and lame, but go on to influence the space story universe for the worst.

The perfect The Chronicles of Riddick movie, in my opinion, and a cool sidequel (is that a term yet? I suppose only Soldier really counts as one) and sequel to Pitch Black, would have Riddick out on his own in a galaxy that’s swarming with mercenaries, PMCs, space prisons (like Mass Effect 2), bounty hunters, and the occasional clawed alien. Twohy could have expanded the Crematoria sequence in the middle of the actual film into a feature, and it would’ve been fine. It wouldn’t have needed such a huge budget, and it wouldn’t have required such a lame universe, but kept in tune with the gritty original.

My own personal feelings on fantasy as a genre, as a well as the sword and sandal epic, don’t enter into this because even those who enjoy sorcery and magic will find those and other traditional tropes disjointed here when applied to the science-fiction world established in the first movie. In Pitch Black there were no Necromongers, and that’s how it needed to stay, because then we also wouldn’t have elementals and soul-stealing and something called the Underverse, which at this point I can only visualize as Robot Heaven from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. These things are all reinvented pieces of fantasy bullshit – which I hate – which is coupled with planets and spaceships and guns that shoot bullets but sound like they shoot lasers. Sure, everybody likes Krull because they saw it as a young age, but that movie sucks. Perhaps that’s not due to its genre-mixing, but rather its pacing.

I’m not some genre stickler who never wants to mix things, I mean the horror/comedy is one of my favorite genres, and has only let me down once, with Zombieland, but it is very necessary to mix these genres correctly, or cleverly, or with a purpose. Star Wars, to go back to that one again, started out mixing fantasy and science-fiction very well, with all talk about planets and spaceships and lasers coming first, and the Force coming a bit later. It totally fit within the universe, but the Necromongers are more invasive in the context of the universe than the narrative. They show up and I’m just dumbfounded. They’re a religious empire on a crusade to convert all of humanity, and this is just no good for Riddick, so he goes and fights with them.

Another problem with the Necromongers comes out of their interactions with Riddick. Just like the Stormtroopers and the droids were not threatening villains that could ever scratch the heroes, these guys are in a constant badass competition with Riddick, who aspires to be the ultimate badass. He can kill anyone with anything, so that’s a really difficult character to create a sense of vulnerability. That doesn’t really matter – we still root for James Bond even though we know he’ll never die, surviving even time and the Pierce Brosnan era (my personal favorite) – but it really reflects poorly on the villains.

Even when we did have Stormtroopers we had Darth Vader, but I’m not too into Colm Feore as a badass. I liked him better as a John Woo regular and his brief but memorable turn as the First Gentleman in 24: Season 8. Not only that, but these Necromongers get taken out so easily. It’s like the badguys and cronies in a movie like The Punisher or The Marine. I’m not convinced that these dudes will be able to take out John Cena, not for a second. Riddick in the universe is the most powerful being, and the Necromongers seem to bend to his will, as do the mercs and the prison lions.

The most telling piece of the the universe of Riddick‘s haphazardness in its media world is a Franchise Collection (I think that’s the releasing company) DVD set called The Riddick Trilogy, including Pitch Black (or The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black), The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury, and The Chronicles of Riddick. That they’re actually going to make a real trilogy with Pitch Black as a prequel is just perfect, because in a few year we may see, in some less sensical retailers, The Riddick Trilogy collection sharing a shelf with The Riddick Trilogy, containing The Chronicles of Riddick, The Chronicles of Riddick: Dead Man Stalking, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Live 2 Tell.

It’s not all bad. The Crematoria sequence is the closest in comes to being genuinely entertaining, rather than ironically for its B-movie dialogue and acting. There is something interesting, reflected in the killer character who finds trouble in his replication; this is speaking specifically to Kira, an older version of Jack from the first movie. The heartless killer (proven to have a heart by the end of Pitch Black so WTF) takes responsibility for his actions as measured in this killer jr. character, and the audience could potentially read remorse in our anti-hero, where he can actually see the monster he is standing in front of a mirror. I’m glad it wasn’t a romance, but every element, including this one, comes across weakly, as Kira turns about to be a whiner and not nearly as badass as she thinks. And it’s once again interrupted by the ubiquitous Necromongers. In fact, all the elements in the movie are spoiled; ruined by either the Necromongers or the audience’s inability to immerse themselves in a universe that seems to exist only in support of its eponymous character. The minor characters in Star Wars probably wouldn’t have the same sense of importance or specialness were it titled The Adventures of Starkiller.

Here’s an example of how one action scene is marred by this strangely niggling idea: the action scene is ‘the fleet is mobilized during the Necromonger invasion, several pilots go to war.’ First of all, I don’t know what the fuck planet we’re on. Let’s call it Helios Prime, going off of memory. Why should I care about this planet? Riddick has no stake in it. Oh – Keith David’s here. Space Imam. Second-of-ly, what fucking fleet? Why do we spend so much time watching the pilots fly their spaceships into the air doing their standard “WHOOO-YEAH” yelps and getting blown to pieces if they ultimately don’t do anything? I’m not just saying they ultimately didn’t defend the planet – I’m saying we could have easily not spent so much time. Riddick, from the ground level, could have been fighting Necromongers (or massacring, as it were) while in the background we see the dogfight. Eventually, towards the end of the scene we watch as the remaining pilots are taken out.

The scene sticks out to me because it seems reminiscent of Star Wars – the Hoth scene or the final assault on the Death Star in Return of the Jedi where we jump around to different pilots in the cockpit radioing things to each other. But those guys were aligned with the hero, so we rooted for them somewhat. We have zero stake in the pilots of The Chronicles of Riddick, and indeed this scene happens so early that we don’t really care, and at the end, it amounts to nothing. The planet’s overtaken, and to Riddick, nothing’s changed.

This movie could have been an interesting story – dark, space-faring science-fiction about the seedy underbelly of the galaxy and the occasional alien. From what I understand this is what the video-game Prey 2 is going to be – aside from a total departure from the original. The Chronicles of Riddick is exactly what everyone says it is: overblown. It’s really too bad, and I feel like this may be science-fiction’s second Heaven’s Gate in terms of original material. I know you’re thinking ‘it’s not original – it’s a sequel,’ but I’ll take sequel over remake, reboot, or even adaptation any day. A writer who sits down to his typewriter and bangs out characters, situations, plot points, and in the case of science-fiction, sometimes an entire universe, is incredibly valuable and increasingly on the decline. These people know that you can’t turn up gold in mined areas – though you often run the risk of turning up The Chronicles of Riddick.

It hardly feels original – note how many times I brought up Star Wars in this post…

The tagline should be: There’s a fine line between anti-hero and dick. This summer, it’s crossed.

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.

Man, I really missed science-fiction. The last few posts have been pretty Movie-centric in terms of the Movie/Science-fiction split on this website, so this should be a nice return to form. I guess the posts here do happen to reflect my movie-watching habits – lately I’ve been watching a lot of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – and I’ve seen some cool non-SF movies like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Mulholland Drive, it was nice to finally sit down with a movie about cops in the future.

It was also nice to see a movie I knew I was going to like – and liked! I assumed I would like End of Days, but it didn’t have the one liners or the action of other Schwarzenegger classics, but Minority Report certainly worked out. It’s a good movie.

It’s definitely a Spielberg thriller; elements of drama, elements of action, elements of genuine science fiction, but none of these are more pronounced than the others. Combined, it’s an entertaining film, but right in the center of Dick adaptations to the right of A Scanner Darkly and to the left of Paycheck. It’s a great premise, and throwing in this convulted murder mystery seemed to be the right way to go, but everything non-Philip K. Dick and not pertaining to the look and feel of the film was formulaic. The tortured backstory for Tom Cruise, the twists and turns, the one dimensional secondary cast – those didn’t add up to much in the movie’s favor.

In the original short story, “The Minority Report,” John Anderton is a middle-aged bald fat man, but in the film adaptation he’s Tom Cruise. That should begin to illustrate the level of adaptation we’re working with here: not quite as faithful as Linklater’s rather strict constructionist take, but then again not as overtly “Philip K. What?” as John Woo’s extremely embarassing outting, just another in his line of extremely embarassing American movies.

It is perhaps more Spielberg than Dick, but that is never a bad thing. Spielberg is ace at nearly everything when it comes to that little thing we call filmmaking, so Minority Report may not be one of his better science-fiction blockbusters, but this is really only due to of the weakness of the script.

A wonderful irony here is that the screenwriters didn’t take any risks. My guess is that they had only the gall for one risk, and that was adapting something by this author whose popularity was only beginning to show, and was kind of weird. The script isn’t wholly reflective of ‘weird,’ for example the PreCogs are just psychics rather than deformed and mentally challenged mutants, but this I believe actually works in the movie’s favor. In the end it’s really just bland dialogue that doesn’t allow the movie to get deep with either emotion or judicial philosophy and morals.

To go back to the PreCog thing – I remember hearing one complaint about Inception, and at first I took it as a legitimate criticism, but quickly realized why the movie was the way it was. Essentially the moviegoer was hoping to see more dream stuff, as assumedly inside someone’s dream anything is possible, so why is it that the craziest thing to happen was the buildings folded over? We could’ve had robot unicorns eating the sun but instead we had some pretty cool gun fights – what gives?

That’s an issue that comes to production and art design. Christopher Nolan was going for a specific look as he did with the very Blade Runner-inspired Batman Begins and the period piece The Prestige. Inception was meant to be something of a neo-noir, and it was science-fiction but not embarassingly so. It had to have consistent art design, and therefore couldn’t have superfluous robot unicorns.

This is analogous somewhat to the world of Minority Report, which is one originally created by Philip K. Dick. The author made a habit of writing stories where time travel and space travel often co-exist, where off-world colonies hide ESPers and where androids see the future.

Because of the limited scope of the screen, filmmakers like Spielberg and like Nolan need to streamline. Some elements that some viewers may find distracting of what’s most important in the narrative (like deformed mutants) need to be altered, or adapted, to fit with the Minority Report look and feel. It’s a movie about cops in the future, and it works pretty well, looks really cool, moves forward most of the time.

In this case and in the case of Blade Runner, we actually benefitted by less Dick. Odd, but certainly not every filmmaker is capable of such a thing.

 

A look back on the various movies that recall why I like movies any. This week, it’s the Steven Spielberg sci-fi blockbuster, Jurassic Park

Above Robocop, above Terminator 2, above even The Matrix, Jurassic Park is the biggest nostalgia movie for me. Most kids grow up watching Star Wars or Indiana Jones, no matter what generation. I might have seen Raiders at a young age, possibly Temple of Doom (very scary), but I had Jurassic Park. No movie made a more indelible impression on me than Steven Spielberg’s ultimate blockbuster.

My dinosaur phase assuredly lasted longer than most kids’, and I owe that to this film. I wanted to be a paleontogist like Dr. Alan Grant (perhaps so that one day I’d be invited to Jurassic Park) for many, many years until I read Time Traveler and Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs by Michael Novacek in junior high. I realized that I didn’t have the stuff to do it. So I chose filmmaking to be the path of mine, which requires the opposite amount of academic education.

So no, Jurassic Park doesn’t have the exact same effect on me over a decade since I first saw it (feels longer, trust me), but I do appreciate it still as not only my favorite movie of all time, but one that I’m not embarrased to admit to, not like I used to be because it isn’t an obscure hard-R-rated SF movie with a difference (Ghost in the Shell). It’s not highly intelligent, but I will no longer be apologetic for it. Indeed, despite being an adventure film blockbuster, the screenplay is actually quite effective at alternatively building a sense of wonder and great suspense that contribute equally to its thesis. The landmark visual effects aren’t exactly a detriment in that department of course.

As stated earlier, this is for me the ultimate nostalgia movie, and that makes it not only hold a very special place in my heart, but works in its favor in other departments. For example, I’ve seen the feature length behind the scenes documentary (narrated by James Earl Jones) and I’ve read a book or two about Stan Winston and his magical Stan Winston Studio. I know how they did all the dinosaurs, and can even tell when its a puppet and when its CGI. But for some reason when watching the movie, and its sequel, I don’t think about that. I just think, that’s a dinosaur, because that’s the dinosaur from my youth, the one I saw growing up and was fascinated with.

The production design in Jurassic Park always stands out for me. The industrial but very Animal Kingdom-esque resort design of the park is thrown into juxtaposition with the rainy jungles, and this creates such a cool place for dinosaurs to be running amok, but also draws attention to the unnaturalness of the situation. Metal gates interfere with ferns – this is not meant to be. And yet the movie progresses, our heroes descend further and further into the jungle, as nature is slowly taking over and pushing out the manmade. The sets also offer a foundation for which varied set pieces can take place, like the car falling from a tree or the death of Gennaro.

I think one of the main reasons why Jurassic Park holds up so well for me, and I’m not ashamed to say it’s my number one movie of all time despite being followed by more thought-provoking, more genre-legitimizing films, is because of its perfect sense of adventurism and escapism. Sure, being chased by dinosaurs fills the characters with a profound sense of terror as it would any sane person, but there’s that undying element of awe that so brilliantly marries ideas with effects. The characters appreciate the dinosaurs because they are dinosaurs, and so do we, but we know they’re effects. The effects just had to be that good in order for everything to work.

The escapism and high adventure is also shared by movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and even more recently in The Mummy (1999). As a kid, I used to approximate my enjoyment of this type of movie by the diversity in character deaths. Sounds bad, but I guess it’s true even now. In Jurassic Park, all sorts of dinosaurs eat people, they don’t just get shot like most action films.

I think that a more naive version of myself (one from a couple of months ago) would have tried to write this post and talk about all the philosophical elements that stem from the book by Michael Crichton. That would of course been an effort to justify my fondness for the movie by subscribing to conventional means of criticism. Now I believe that Jurassic Park just isn’t that type of movie. It isn’t a clever mix of thinking man’s SF with adventure film, it’s definitely more so an adventure movie with obligatory cautionary themes. They’re interesting, but not all that deep. What’s important in Jurassic Park is they way it makes you feel, not the way it makes you think. This is far better than sci-fi movies that attempt making you think, and don’t reach it.

The themes of technology exacerbating our relationship with nature to the breaking point are as mentioned earlier, interesting, but do serve narrative purpose. When I was younger, I never could fully appreciate the scope of what was going on in the story, the progression that the film has. Nature is starting to take over because people are corrupt and that is just what it does; the velociraptors (who are actually better described as Deinonychus) invade the interior safe zone we toured and established at the beginning of the movie, where the Jurassic Park project was being viewed at a comfortable distance. In the buildup to the climax, Alan Grant pumps his shotty and says, “there’s only the two raptors, correct?” or something like that, and I’m in this day and age reminded of that zombie/monster movie mentality of defense and singular location. Good stuff. Shame he only shoots once, like the BFG in the Doom movie. Shame doubly because that shotgun is so cool looking.

Speaking of raptors, let’s talk raptors for a moment. The beginning of the movie sees Grant setting up the main villains, describing the velociraptors as vicious predators while also giving insight on his own character. Raptors are great movie monsters, like the xenomorphs or anything else created by Stan Winston. In a different kind of monster movie, like Aliens, or even in a movie like Carnosaur, we’d see people shooting at monsters and monsters killing people. Not so in Jurassic Park. We get only a taste of this towards the end, as aforementioned; there are elements of the monster movie, and its place in the movie is deliberate. Jurassic Park is an adventure movie with a subtle technophilosophical agenda; the monster movie elements are a narrative device of sorts, where if we are in tune with Aliens or Carnosaur, we know what to expect when things start going downhill for our heroes, and that’s where the cautionary elements are born: out of the familiar.

This is a movie that stands the test of time for me, where I think that other movies I used to like (Tremors 2: Aftershocks) probably will not. Alan Grant was the first screen hero, Ian Malcolm the first comic relief. Nowadays I can say that the dinosaurs were the first time something that I really enjoy seeing that was outlandish and spacey was displayed onscreen. It really spoiled all of film for me, where very few movies show me visual things that I really, really want to see. The streamlined design of the creatures, their movements, all great stuff.

Ellie: We can make it if we run.
Muldoon: No… we can’t.

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