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So Act of Valor’s coming out soon, and I’m really not excited about it in the least. I got a huge beef with war movies, not just after seeing horrors like Black Hawk Down and The Thin Red Line, but after a dedicated evaluation of just what was wrong in premise with an entire genre of film. Obviously there are truly great war movies, chiefly Apocalypse Now, but I’ve found that war movies post-Saving Private Ryan, so barring stuff like The Dirty Dozen, have really taken hard to a style of what is essentially the self-loathing action movie. The movie may have all sorts of blood and violence, but it takes no pleasure in cinema violence. How could it? Unless it’s something fantasy like Inglourious Basterds, the movie’s historical, and won’t be all John Woo (not even Windtalkers was John Woo, though I did enjoy that movie highly). It’ll be gritty, showing guys falling apart and screaming. Take no joy in this, audience. This is a learning experience.

That’s fine, if you’re Apocalypse Now, a movie with a clear message and the smarts to back it up, but if you’re Black Hawk Down, what are you doing? That movie is two hours of war action, which as stated earlier, isn’t action to be enjoyed. BHD doesn’t then go on to make a point about war like even The Hurt Locker does, it just… goes on. And on and on… holy shit dude. That is, from the one review and trailer I read/saw of Act of Valor, precisely what Act of Valor is gonna be. I guess it started out as a recruitment film, so it’ll have even less of an anti-war message than anything before it.

Let’s talk then about the antithesis: Letters from Iwo Jima. Like Apoc Now, it’s an anti-war movie, one where the enemy isn’t in the enemy soldiers, but in fighting them. Come to think about it, how could they be the enemy? They’re America!

Letters from Iwo Jima completes, justifies, and stands alone with its companion film Flags of our Fathers as one beautiful statement from one of America’s most beloved filmmakers. Clint Eastwood has truly made one of the most humane and necessary films here, and if we’re speaking specifically to Letters, it’s quite entertaining as well. I say they ‘stand alone’ because we view Letters from Iwo Jima in the context of being American. For outsiders, not that we should care about them, it’s a movie about Japanese soldiers that happens to be more sentimental than most others. Of course, many would know that an American directed and created it, but its position standing next to Flags of our Fathers helps. That movie came first, and establishes the American perspective. Then we get Letters, and it’s the Japanese perspective. This connects the two, saying essentially that the problem here isn’t the damn Japs, it’s combat. Military institutions. War.

Even though general consensus, which I agree with, is that Flags of our Fathers isn’t as good [I don’t think it’s bad], it’s the requisite piece that completes the whole, the Act I of a two act structure — much like Kill Bill Vol. 1. Volume 2 is the important one, but we wouldn’t get there without the first. I do like it when this happens, even in less planned out circumstances like the two Clerks movies or the first two Terminators, where a sequel is created to form a dialogue with the original to say something greater than either individually does.

There are movies whose concept I could gush over, but the praise stops there, like The Expendables, or Avatar, but Letters isn’t one of them. The idea of Letters from Iwo Jima is great, but the film itself is also very good. At first glance, it may look like yet another Saving Private Ryan retread, with its washed out color and everything, but as we discover, the violence is minimal, the action is punctuation, and the photography is sweeping glides and careful composition. The music is also quite memorable, particularly the main theme.

There is a central tragedy going on in the movie, the Japanese answer to “why we fight.” Discussion of honor and being a soldier is brought into the narrative, with one scene laying out explicitly the deadliness of the Japanese way — they’d rather blow themselves up irrationally than continue on when all seems lost. Even our hero Kuribayashi feels he must sacrifice himself for his country; it’s motives so deeply embedded in the culture one couldn’t possibly refuse them, even when they must leave their wife and unborn child behind.

High-brow stuff, intelligently done. While it would be enough to have a good idea, then follow through and have it be well made, it’s also a movie of tremendous affect and emotional weight. It’s a great example of a movie that follows more than one perspective, in this case a commander and a soldier, and actually succeeds come payoff time. When they meet, it isn’t a slambang action moment or the Death Wish III “Got one for you DUDE!” though it is under an extreme circumstance. It’s a priceless moment, one of high emotional intensity — they’ve both been through hell alone, and now we see that no matter where you fall in rank, they’re both soldiers.

As much as I like Unforgiven, Letters from Iwo Jima is to me Clint Eastwood’s finest moment. No matter what he does from now on, whether it’s Hereafter, or J. Edgar, which was received less than positively, because of the level of quality he aspires to and reaches here with his war movie, he’ll always be one of the most significant filmmakers of his time, a genre literate Hollywood man with the rarest of things: a heart.

Truly an oddity, a filmmaker using his film to say something real.

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Perhaps we should be thankful; these current days of Matt Damon and Steven Spielberg have set a precedent for Philip K. Dick adaptations–they’re big deals. His name finally means something to somebody, and he no longer languishes in the low-budget genre ghettos. I on the other hand will approve of this shift in Hollywood with a nod or too, but reminisce fondly on the days of old, when the early Dick movie reflected the early Dick novels–they were small. Now, Total Recall and Blade Runner were big productions, but going through the years we have Next and A Scanner Darkly and of course Screamers, which were either indies, or given little fanfare, or not taken seriously, like the classic Arnoldo. Or all of the above. I could say–without vouching for Next–that they all constitute cult classics, and in the case of Screamers, it makes perfect sense.

Here we have a joining of names that would tickle any nerd–Dan “Alien” O’Bannon, Peter “Robocop Across the 8th Dimension” Weller, and Philip K. Dick. It’s a movie about killer robots, a war in space, and it’s a gritty, low-budget actioner that’s high on imagination. It also becomes something of an echo of John Carpenter’s The Thing, although I’m sure the original short story predates the 1982 flick. Screamers deals exclusively with Dick’s “What is human?” question, exploring the human-as-machine theme as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, though not in the same way.

As Steven Owen Godersky puts it, “Phil Dick’s third major theme is his fascination with war and his fear and hatred of it.” Screamers doesn’t use its war between the Alliance and the New Economic Block as mere backdrop as Total Recall does with its rebellion; it’s integral to the theme, as war will lead naturally to questions of humanity. The robot metaphor works as well as it does in other Dicks, but here it allegorizes that classic phrase, “Man’s inhumanity to man.” People are fucking each other over on Sirius 6B, fighting wars and leaving soldiers for dead. What better way to visualize this than to have a gunshot wound be filled with wires and servos?

Peter Weller, playing a character named Hendricksson, which I believe was his name on 24 as well, decides to make peace with the other side, but must trek across Screamer-infested, radioactive, winter terrain. He takes a young soldier Jefferson along with him, the lone survivor of a spaceship crash–he was headed to fight on another planet, which signals to the Alliance that Earth has moved on, and they didn’t get the memo, or weren’t supposed to. The idea of a faceless organization stabbing its expendables in the back is a common thread in the O’Bannon canon, and here it’s the military. We can’t trust these people.

So old enemies become friends, and they’re united against a common enemy–machines. Not only those who left them for dead on Sirius 6B, but the Screamers, which are Alliance-invented killer robots. Indeed Hendricksson and Jefferson meet up with two NEB soldiers and a black market merchant when they reach the enemy base, and must travel back to the Alliance compound to escape. Along the way they find something troubling, a little boy named David who turns out to be an advanced species of deadly Screamer.

Concern. Not only have the Screamers evolved by their own accord, they’ve become perfect illusions. The Screamers began as horrific weapons of man’s design, which tear soldiers’ limbs off before going in for the kill, as seen in the beginning of the movie. Now they look human–the line between human and killer machine has blurred, it seems. So this proves to be quite the conundrum, as Hendricksson will discover that another variation of Screamer is a wounded soldier, and there’s an as of yet unidentified “Second Variety.” One thing is known–the Screamers will repeat things because they can’t think of anything smarter to say.

This creates instant paranoia on the desolate battlefield of Sirius 6B, and we’re not sure who to trust. The final twist in the movie, which I shouldn’t spoil but would love to talk about, is essentially a repeat of what happens in Blade Runner–the line, it’s just so damn blurry. What does that say about us?

The premise in Screamers is great. Pure phildickian, and a setup for thought-provoking scenarios that make this film stand out among other scifi action movies. Helping it in this regard is the production design and art direction. The movie looks fantastic on a conceptual level. The ruins of industrial cityscapes, the bunkers embedded in hills, the underground laboratories–very classic imagery. Add on top of that that Screamers is Aliens, Doom, and all those movies where you have soldiers with big scifi rifles checking corners in metal hallways–there’s pretty much nothing I appreciate more in science-fiction film. Eventually the crew comes across the site of a massacre that screams Dead Space and Aliens: this was a settlement of some sort, complete with that Weyland-Yutani propoganda about colonizing a better world of tomorrow.

So yes, we have soldiers and futury locations, and they’re scouring those locations. Unfortunately the hostile element–the titular Screamers–are to me very uninteresting visually. They’re either little boys, Terminators in the flesh, or stop-motion robots. The stop-motion I like, but this movie being as low-budget as it is, they’re not on screen for very long. From a writer’s standpoint, I understand why the Screamers make sense as little tiny robots, but I much prefer big enemies in my scifi action movies. I’ll call this the Gort principle, for any of you who actually saw the 2008 remake, you’ll know that Gort goes on a rampage as a 500-foot tall robot, and then decides to manifest a cloud of nano-robots. Sigh, boring. Nanorobots can’t shoot lasers or smash buildings!

In Aliens and Doom and most recently The Thing, we had monsters that were either human-sized, or a little bit bigger. You’re probably wondering at this point what the freaking deal is, but there is a specific product resultant from an enemy’s size. Enemies are meant to be shot at, but when they’re tiny, shooting is often discouraged. It’s less exciting. This is all on a visual level, of course. In the end, I just wish there’d be a human-sized robot that didn’t have to look like a human. From what I can remember of this movie’s sequel (which will be covered soon), aside from the stupid The Descent-esque ending, there might be some stuff there.

But as it stands with Screamers, all we got are robots that simply don’t look that interesting, save the Type 3 fish-monster-dinosaur looking thing. That’s a nerdgripe for sure, and very minor, because at the end of the day, this movie kicks ass. It’s totally entertaining, and aside from some hinky acting every now and again, gets the taste of Paycheck out of your mouth. This movie also reminded me a lot of Doomsday, for one reason: there was an attention to the minor characters. In Doomsday, there were two or three redshirts, identifiable immediately. But they were great characters who had fun chemistry between them, and I didn’t want them to die. I liked Jefferson, and one could tell that Hendricksson did too. The NEB soldiers were actual characters, they weren’t just nameless grunts. This attention to detail is perhaps expected from a script co-written by Dan O’Bannon, but also telling of the movie’s quality and standing among movies of its ilk.

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.

It’s an alternate 1985 where God exists and he’s American, a retired hero must rescue people from a fire to get hard, and a vigilante screams out to be killed in a world that’s turned its back on justice. Watchmen is the most celebrated graphic novel from Alan Moore, the man who coined the term, and it remains, after all these years, an incredible story that weaves hard-hitting images with political, philosophical, and revisionist text. A sharp tale making an entire medium of entertainment take a look in the mirror – it’s small wonder Hollywood’s been scrambling for ages to get the film produced. But Watchmen is like The Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t belong to Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, or DC Comics. No, no, no. It belongs to its fans, and they are many.

Fans claimed that Watchmen was unfilmable, just like the aforementioned Rings. Indeed it does feel like an unsavory prospect; we open these pages and see superheroes sharing panels with scenes of sex, superheroes behaving rather like Mad Max in the original Mad Max, superheroes who’d rather blame the blue guy in the room for shooting a pregnant Vietnamese woman than take the responsibility for himself. Aside from graphic content and themes, Watchmen is of course a 12-issue comic, and each issue is an episode. One episode jumps around in time – how do you do that in a movie and keep things moving forward? All too often filmmakers don’t appreciate the disparaties in mediums, and believe that translations will always work.

Perhaps that is what happened here, but the end result was a fantastic experience, a movie version of a great story that maintains the great story and embodies the spirit and feel of the comic’s panel-to-panel nature. Every shot is thoughtfully composed – no doubt these guys took the Rodriguez/Miller route and went to the comics for the storyboards – the lighting and colors create a hyperreal image that only stops moving when the slow-motion button is hit. Just like in 300, Snyder’s use of slow-motion is appropriate because it slows on actions that were originally read on the page with eyes that linger and focus. It also gives the action an unusual rhythm as we move through hard streets and cavernous corporate buildings.

There’s a simple joy that fills me when watching a good adaptation, but it isn’t unqualified. As much as I like to study what actors were chosen and how well the themes translate, there’s something almost uncanny about hearing dialogue you’re familiar with. This was a major issue for me with movies like Memoirs of a Geisha and other flicks where I read the book right before watching (that one was for school): it feels very artificial when actors are speaking dialogue that originates from somewhere that’s not a screenplay; it’s difficult to fool yourself that these words came from the character’s head.

There’s also the issue that Watchmen is actually unfilmable, but I don’t believe it’s in the way that the collective masses tend to say. The problem is that Watchmen was a post-modern comic, and to nail this home (as if opening with Captain America’s death wasn’t enough) we have a comic-within-a-comic, which is read by a minor character throughout the story. We get glimpses of the macabre tale, Tales of the Black Freighter, every now and then, and it serves a purpose. Unless you’re watching the Ultimate Cut, a version that’s over 3 hours (the Director’s Cut is 2 hours and 40 minutes), you don’t get to see the Gerard Butler-narrated comic-within-a-comic. I haven’t seen it as standalone nor in the Ultimate Cut, but it doesn’t matter – it wouldn’t have the same effect.

Tales of the Black Freighter in Watchmen the movie would have no purpose because Watchmen the movie isn’t a comic. A movie that’s revisionist towards comics doesn’t have the same effect as the source material – it’d be like if Once Upon a Time in the West or Pulp Fiction were novels, and we had movie references from Shane and High Noon written out on the page.

I do feel like the problem is mitigated somewhat by the filmmakers – we hear the Ride of the Valkyries as the Comedian rides into Vietnam on a helicopter, a song that might as well just be called the Apocalypse Now song. That’s what it reminds us of, and coupled with Vietnam War imagery, we’re in familiar movie territory. That’s one instance where Watchmen the movie takes advantage of the medium’s asset to make it uniquely a movie.

I suppose that the superhero genre in film by the year 2009 was also in need of a revision, but of course Watchmen the movie made very little impact and like the equally R-rated Punisher War Zone a year before, didn’t make a box office splash. At least, not for a Watchmen movie. Hollywood would go on to take little notice, making Captain America, Iron Man 2, Thor, Green Latern, The Green Hornet, The Dark Knight Rises, another Superman, another Spider-Man, Kick-Ass, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men First Class, Jonah Hex, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World from 2009-2012 (fingers crossed for Nelvedine/Taylor’s Ghost Rider). Aside from Scott Pilgrim, I saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine and thought it was the dumbest crap ever, with precisely three seconds of gold (a wonderful reaction shot to a gazing Stryker during a ‘tense’ and ‘dramatic’ scene).

Without speaking for all of those above, X-Men Origins: Wolverine really captured what was wrong with the superhero genre. It’s stale, and it panders to a fan base. Instead of rich characters we have to fill out a quota of characters – alright we got steel man, invisible man, laser man, blue devil man, mega man, ultra man, woman man, cat man, Poke mans – and instead of a compelling premise from which to draw a decent story we have oh-my-gosh-let’s-pull-pages-from-this-this-this-and-this, ‘this’ referring of course to the bountiful source material in the case of X-Men.

Watchmen, to get back on topic, isn’t of course new, but is akin to Unbreakable and The Incredibles – yes we have superheroes, but we have a different type of superhero story. Many say, and I agree with this, that Watchmen is more a science-fiction story than a superhero one. It deals with cold war anxieties, experiments gone wrong, and at the end, alien invaders and outer limits – staples of the genre. Because we have a science-fiction structure with superheroes as the players in a greater tale rather than the center of the spotlight like the bat symbol, we open up so many narrative and thematic possibilities that modern filmmakers dare not tread. At the end of X-Men we’ve learned nothing – in fact nothing has changed for anybody. There is really no point except $300 million, or however much that particular movie made.

Maybe that’s cynical, but it did feel like a very, very commercial picture that didn’t go for the bar. Not that it was set high but anyhow Watchmen had aspirations, as a comic and as a film. As a movie, it had to hit upon what the fans wanted – an easy task, as everybody involved was a fan. It had to tell a cinematic story, not a simple adaptation. And most importantly it had to maintain what Watchmen was all about, asking questions about the measure of heroism and the morals of justice. Like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Watchmen treats every frame delicately, and the product is an extremely well-made film that looks amazing even during the most mundane bits. It’s violent, but not overly so where anything extreme, like sawing through arms or repeated strikes to the head with a cleaver, are very obviously CG and don’t look so great.

It’s a very nearly literal adaptation, but it’s a smart one. The filmmakers realized that 100% direct translation wouldn’t work – perhaps they heard the shouts – and went about constructing a slick, often disturbing, sometimes affecting, and always throught-provoking experience.

If you’re worried about the length of the Director’s Cut, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. I’m no good with long movies, and I watched this over the course of two nights. Personally I don’t see it as a problem because I like that as much of the comic was reproduced on screen as possible; this Watchmen is truly the definitive movie version – disregarding the Ultimate Cut, there will never be a more complete version, although the lack of the newstand guy and Black Freighter reader was noticeable.

 

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.

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.

War in film has never really worked out for me; as a genre in premise it seems to be a quick route to success, but the titles contained don’t always match such expectations. Truly, certain movies are critically acclaimed, like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, but these are too boring and too long for me to handle. With general consensus around The Thin Red Line being “it’s a beautiful and poetic war experience,” I figured it to be different, but it was just the same – in fact being a choice example for war movies that are too damn long and too damn boring for me to handle.

Movies like Apocalypse Now and Letters from Iwo Jima don’t have to depend on its battle sequences to be exciting, their crutches are good stories and good characters. At the very least they held attention by being consistent in narrative continuity, never feeling meandering or ponderous. What we have here with The Thin Red Line is three hours of people sitting, walking, talking, thinking, and occasionally fighting, in gorgeous jungles.

From what I understand of our current conflicts overseas, soldiers today sit around for most of the year, and their time doing that is punctuated by brief moments of brutal, adrenaline-pumped violence. The Thin Red Line seems faithful to this idea, but it’s actually unfortunate, as the end result feels like two and a half hours of inactivity.

The film is a mission movie, where infantry during World War II makes its way across an island fighting the Japanese and trying to reach some point, a ledge, perhaps. Simple premise, but that’s usually a good thing in this genre. Off of the premise, the rest of the movie is constructed of philosophical internal monologues, arguments over command, and battle scenes.

Seems like a decent formula, and it would be if the movie was a short film, but in fact The Thin Red Line is twice as long as your usual feature. Also not helping is the lack of a plot and a lack of compelling characterization, which while not always necessary, would have brought a lot to this movie.

I remember when talking about The Dollars Trilogy way back when I complained that there was rarely a plot, and this meant that there was no sense of development, so it grew increasingly difficult to be engaged. The Thin Red Line rarely changes location, and never does anything new past the first thirty minutes, so I made a dedicated habit of checking the clock – and was hugely disappointed every time I checked. It just never ended.

As for the internal monologues, I found that they were done much more cinematic-friendly here than something like Dune, but they couldn’t quite replace conventional characterization. I didn’t care about that one guy’s romance because I never got the guy’s name and didn’t know anything about him. Nick Nolte’s character was actually fairly interesting, and his exchange with John Cusack was probably the highlight of the film (aside from Thomas Jane), though it’s kind of insignificant in context, but everyone else is flat and rarely seen.

So what the poetic monologues do to the film is make it feel like listening to a really smart and confident but pretentious asshole talking about something he doesn’t know about – he makes things up and talks around things, but sounds good doing it. Just wish it didn’t take so long.

On a positive note, I liked the discussions of the afterlife, and the fact that the enemy was rarely seen, which seemed to be more plausible from the soldier’s perspective than what we as audiences are usually privy to. Also, the movie looks great, and this can’t be overlooked. The beauty of the setting is matched only by the grace of the camera capturing it, and this is intelligently juxtaposed with the violence of warfare. But if that’s all the movie has going for it, then it does afterall belong in the same league as those other war movies, which is a damn shame and a surpirse – it seemed to have actual aspirations, higher than recreating battle.

Spoilers for District 9

I think that the first time I saw the movie, sitting in the theatre in August 2009, I was kind of down on the very end, where Wikus doesn’t transform back into a human. Of course, I didn’t fully fathom what the transformation meant. I knew there was allegory, that District 9 was thick was metaphor, and some of it was pretty blatant. But the transformation was a visual metapor, and this was something that didn’t quite connect at the time. The movie ends with Wikus’ wife talking about the alienized hero, and we see him making a flower out of garbage – both are notes of hope, and even though the ending isn’t necessarily ideal for our fast-talking protagonist, we know that the future is bright because one person was able to sympathize with the Prawns.

So what’s more important than the bright future, or even the denoument preceding it, is the ending fight scene. Often laughed off as a cheap action movie third act, giving me flashbacks to the dreary criticisms of Sunshine and its infamous third act, so much happens in the final action sequence, a culmination that explodes with an energy typically lost on modern day SF movies (I’m looking at you, every superhero movie ever made with the exception of Punisher War Zone). This is the quintessential sequence to showcase the expert craftmanship employed by Neil Blomkamp, as it combines all the great editing and camerawork we’ve now gotten used to as established eary on – but there’s a difference, a sense of gravity and weight to everything that is going on.

Van Wikus dons a mech suit and gets Christopher Johnson to safety, and then murders as many hostile PMCs as possible in appropriately angry and gory ways. It’s surprisingly visceral. We feel everything that Wikus does, as he goes on cursing everyone out and firing off lasers and rockets. He’s finally embodied the true essence of empathy and cross cultural understanding: he had long ago crossed the bridge between the worlds of humans and Prawns, but now he is finally able to do something about it – and he’s pissed. That’s what District 9 is all about. It’s a more-than-clever movie that combines sociopolitical philosophy with hard-hitting, unexpected, jaw-dropping entertainment, and does it in such a way where the former is an extension of the other. It works out so well because this movie was a very personal work from director Blomkamp.

It’s not a Ghost in the Shell scenario where action and philosophy sequences are often segregated (often, not always – recall if you will the museum sequence filled to the brim with tiny little metaphors), the ideas are embedded in the actions and events, and these actions and events just so happen to have the polish of top-tier science-fiction action harkening back to 1991. That the culmination of ideas could happen in this moment of rage and chaos and violence and works so beautifully speaks to the general consensus of the movie – nobody saw it coming. The trailers made it look good, but I don’t think that anybody could have guessed just how great it would actually end up.

In fact, let’s for a moment examine the other major science-fiction movie of 2009, something that certainly won’t appear under the “An Appreciation” moniker – Avatar. It was on television today and I was watching the ending war scene like ‘yeah, yeah, this is pretty cool stuff. I love space marines…’ but as it went on I just kept shaking my head and checking my watch (even though I was watching TV). There was something just so idiotic about the whole thing, and I really need to revisit that complicated film. But anyways I realized why I didn’t like the Na’vi, and along with I just like space military better on principle – characterization goes a long way, and it was largely absent here. Such is not the case with District 9. There are no cheap archetypes here, no wise mentors or heroic sacrifices from secondary characters. It’s a film that feels and looks genuine, not overdone and underprepared (somehow).

With Elysium still in development, or late development, we still can only hope that the infamous ‘sophomore slump’ that has claimed so many filmmakers does not extend to Neil Blomkamp, because his debut is in the same league as John Singleton’s and Tarantino’s. It’s not only set a precedent for his career, but for the science-fiction genre, and nearly two years later it has yet to be matched.

 

It took me two and a half viewings to realize that after all, I did enjoy the Inglourious Basterds; the experience was just muddled by some requisite qualifications. This is not the QT’s finest hour, though it does follow the path he’s always followed, which was made most obvious in his most finest hour with the first half of Kill Bill. Indeed what worked so beautifully in the Kill Bill saga begins to fall apart here, so this is one of those cases where it’s a swing and a miss, but it’s a hefty swing.

The genre filmmakers to look out for nowadays seem to dabble in making movies paying homage to the flicks they grew up with – you know, your Eli Roths and Robert Rodriguez’s, even Edgar Wright and Takashi Miike – and leading them is Tarantino. By this time we could judge what Tarantino’s favorite genres are by just reviewing his small but impressive filmography, and note that western is high up there. There are moments in Basterds that feel downright Leone (or possibly Corbucci, but I suppose we’ll see that in Django Unchained), and these are the moments that work the best.

 

Otherwise you can break the movie down into a few pieces: tense dialogues, lighthearted dialogues, and really boring bits that seem to do nothing. Practically every moment with the character Shoshanna was unmemorable and really rather dull to me; I didn’t care for this character when she’s so obviously standing in the shadow of a tried and true archetype – the squad. The titular Basterds are The Dirty Dozen, are the Inglorious Bastards, are every men-on-a-mission movie men on a mission we’ve ever seen. When they’re on-screen, the movie actually comes across as more of a western, and this is hugely entertaining. When Shoshanna is on-screen, she’s usually just plotting, and this is so goddamn boring.

The best that this movie can be is entertaining, and I suppose that’s just what Tarantino set out to do with this one. Whereas legitimate themes could be extrapolated out of Death Proof, I feel that Tarantino wasn’t trying to say much here. Rather, he crafts an intricate escapist fantasy where Hitler was brutally murdered by Jewish soldiers, and everything is just like it was in the movies.

 

 

The genre-mixing and film-within-a-film are what pay homage to earlier movies, and it sets up this fantasy world where the one goal is entertainment. And it is entertaining – people don’t make movies like this, QT is one of a kind and I’m thankful for his cinematic contributions. When the movie slows down and gets involved with its characters, who by purpose must be archetypes, I too slow down and check my watch.

Unfortunately for Inglourious Basterds the movie also just made me wish Tarantino had done a straight western, and nix the war setting altogether. Even if he didn’t, he really should’ve called the movie Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France. Bit of a mouthful, but the joke would’ve landed better.

 

Quentin Tarantino. At this point I’d say he’s infamous – after his involvement with Grindhouse and the completion of his two-part magnum opus, people began to look back on his older stuff and realize that he’s been doing the same thing the whole time; he never changed. Reservoir Dogs was an homage to movies of its ilk, and Pulp Fiction was a melting pot of just about everything. Maybe people think he’s a one trick pony because this is all he does, on top of writing cute dialogue, but hey as long as he’s the only one doing it – or the only getting it right – I’ll eagerly await the releases of his future projects.

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