“Arrival” Review

arrival_movie_posterDenis Villenueve’s science fiction tale of peacefully bridging linguistic and cultural gaps could hardly come at a more appropriate societal moment, with financially dominant blockbusters struggling to outdo each other in excesses of quick-witted violence, and a political climate that reached a boiling point a couple of years ago and hasn’t paused to take a breath. Arrival slams the breaks on our all-consuming societal paranoia, forcing audiences to reckon with a slow, deliberate story of bridging inter-species divides and resisting the human urge to violence. Though its final act can’t quite narratively deliver on the near flawless setup, the first half of Arrival is an astonishing feat of visual and sonic immersion; a master-class of tension-building and question-prompting.

Arrival can’t be easily summed up, (nor would it be fair to a reader to attempt to) other than to say that Amy Adams plays linguist Louise Banks, a professor introduced through a brief, touching character sketch built around grief and tragic loss, who is then recruited by a colonel in the US Army (Forest Whitaker) to assist physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in translating for extra-terrestrial visitors that have appeared over middle-America, along with eleven other places around the globe.

In its slow-moving introduction to characters both human and alien, Arrival feels most akin to a particular subgenre of science fiction that deals in transcendent, quasi-religious narratives of first contact: 2001: A Space OdysseyClose Encounters of the Third Kind, and even Interstellar. Each film posits an ideal human who functions as much as an archetype as a person: Kubrick’s Nieztschean astronaut who subdues humanity’s rebelling technology, Spielberg’s St. Paul-esque convert who follows his bliss, Nolan’s humanist savior of intense paternal love, and now Villenueve’s teacher who fights for empathetic understanding and communication across linguistic gulfs. As in preceding contributions to this generic conversation, Villenueve (paired with cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson) crafts sequences that envelopes the audience in sensation, both aural and visual, anchored with cinematic composition that is both precise and beautiful.

Villenueve balks at deception in his set-pieces (rejecting filmmaking built on quick-cutting and shaky-cam to create the illusion of excitement that too often disguises the nonsensical nature of the action), instead guiding his camera in slow, smooth, and deliberate motion that allows the human eye and imagination to engage with every part of what is portrayed onscreen. He worked wonders with this methodology in Sicario to create a near unmatched and pervading sense of tension, and in Arrival he challenges the audience to participate in the work of bridging the gaps between them and the aliens themselves. Most notable is a gorgeous sequence depicting Louise’s arrival at the base camp just beyond the alien ship via helicopter, as the camera slowly swings over a perimeter packed with people desperate to catch a glimpse, through mist, and then into a lush valley, where bleak military tents sit before the cocoon-like vessel as clouds billow in over a ridge like a waterfall and Jóhannsson’s experimental score drifts and echoes alongside. The successive encounters with the alien visitors stand out as unique cinematic achievements, playing with the audience’s expectations, sending one’s mind scrambling to dissect and interpret every piece of aural and visual stimulation. It goes without saying that Villenueve has very quickly asserted himself as a master of atmosphere.

It comes as a bit of a disappointment, then, that the final act of Arrival ties the story up in a way that, while tidy and resonant on an individual level, is derivative of previous science fiction films and doesn’t pack quite the bewildering punch that 2001, Close Encounters, or Interstellar do. Perhaps it’s a bit of a high standard to apply, but Arrival clearly aspires to be considered alongside these giants of science fiction (the first encounter here contains a subtle nod to the irreversible moment of touching the monolith in 2001). It may succeed more on the aesthetic front than the narrative front, but that still leaves Arrival a high point of the cinematic year, chocked full of sounds and images that will haunt you long after leaving the theater.

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“It’s Treason, Then:” A Response to Eric’s Review of TFA

Warning: This post is spoiler-ridden.

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Bombad spoilers!

Eric and I agree on many things. His imaginative and well-thought-out approach to matters of art is not only inspiring, but worth emulating. While I rarely have any substantive disagreement with Eric on matters of art, particularly on Star Wars, when it comes to Eric’s review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I firmly disagree. While J.J. Abrams is not George Lucas, Episode VII is a worthy and significant addition to the heart and power of the Star Wars myth.

Defending Star Wars: The Force Awakens is probably the safest thing to do on the internet (besides mocking Donald Trump). After all, the film has received uniformly good reviews and is exploding box office records. The main complaint against the film, voiced by Eric, has been that it seems too much of a rehash, as if Abrams and his team were trying to recreate the original trilogy, as opposed to further moving and developing the galaxy far, far, away. Where Lucas created new ideas and worlds rich with imagination and complexity, Abrams seems to be reminding us of how great the original trilogy was (perhaps, even, with a cruel and undeserved hatred of the prequels). Instead of creating a Star Wars movie, he has created a graceful and colorful homage.

It is certainly accurate to say that The Force Awakens adopts many plot points from previous Star Wars films. There is a droid with a secret stranded on a desert planet, a scary villain with a mask and fearful dark side powers, a complex father-son relationship, a huge planet-destroying superweapon, a trench run, and even a Yoda-like mentor.

 

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It’s bigger, better, faster, stronger

If adopting previous plot points is a reason to be dissatisfied with a film, however, there can be no Star Wars. Star Wars nearly always re-establishes plot points. There is always a looming Dark Side villain, there is often a superweapon or at least a massive space-ship. There is not one, but two Death Stars in the original trilogy, and the second is bigger, tougher, and scarier. Even the spherical shape of this superweapon is modeled in the Trade Federation Lucrehulk-class battleship, which is visually most distinct from the Death Star because it has a built-in, more impressive trench circling it. General Grievous and Count Dooku are fascinating shadows of the conflicts of Darth Vader. There is a long and abundant series of similarities and echoes in the Saga that I won’t list here. It is vital to understand, however, that repetition is not a sufficient indictment against the new Star Wars. Repetition can do wonderful, fascinating things to a plot. Shakespeare himself was aggressively fond of repeating the same conflicts and concepts in new and interesting ways.

 

More complex complaints, like Eric’s, will acknowledge this point, but argue that VII fails to use those repetitions to “serve greater narrative purposes.” I would argue, however, that the narrative echoes in VII serve significant narrative purpose to the development of the Star Wars saga.

One of the central conflicts of Star Wars is what it means to bring balance to the Force. In the Phantom Menace and the Attack of the Clones, Anakin is raised in the Jedi Order believing that in order to be bring balance to the force, he must overcome the Sith. The Jedi are training him as a corrective who will destroy what they see to be the remnants of evil in the galaxy. To properly bring peace, you must wipe out the wicked. They are “too dangerous to be kept alive.” Anakin’s desire to end evil by destroying the wicked is ironically turned with great force on the Jedi as Palpatine identifies the Jedi as those who are spreading evil. Through love for his wife and future family, Anakin wipes out who he sees as the obstacles to love: the Jedi. In a climactic moment, Anakin allows Palpatine to throw Mace Windu off of a building, presumablymace-windu-palpatine killing him. Palpatine assures Anakin and the Senate that now they will have peace. There is not peace, however, for evil dwells in Palpatine and Anakin and the cast down Mace
Windu’s influence still lives in Anakin’s heart and the remaining Jedi.

At the end of the Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker  is faced with a similar problem. Palpatine tells him that he must strike down either Palpatine or Anakin. He must end wickedness through violent action. In perhaps the most compelling scene of the saga, Luke recognizes the good and evil in his father, seeing that both righteousness and wickedness are in conflict in the human heart. He chooses to spare his father and suffer cruelty from Palpatine. Then Anakin, again acting through love for his family, throws Palpatine down a shaft in the Death Star.  As The Return of the Jedi closes, we see a happy, peaceful galaxy where Han and Leia are together, Luke is becoming a Jedi, and the evil reign of the Sith is over. We are promised peace.

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Yub-yub

 

Like before, it didn’t work. There was a snake in the galactic garden. Kylo Ren dominates opposition with aggression reminiscent of Vader. The cruelties of the Empire have come again in full force. Han Solo and Chewbacca are smuggling again, and Leia is again waiting for a droid. The audience members are left to scratch their heads:

Why is Han not with Leia? Why is the Empire back? Where is Luke? Where is the peace we were promised?

The influence of the cast down Palpatine still lives in the heart of Ben Solo, the First Order, and perhaps even Luke. The shockingly “Star Wars” setting of VII is a reminder that the evil that Anakin has tried to erase is still living and breathing. Anakin, and maybe Luke, has made a miscalculation. Evil does not lurk in the teachings of the Sith, it lurks in the human heart. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said,“the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”

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Spoiler Alert

 

When Abrams underplays the new trench run and seems to cut out all of the galactic dread out of the new superweapon (except for a stunning planetary destruction scene), he isn’t poorly trying to copy A New Hope, he is broadcasting to the audience that the same conflicts that span across all six episodes are present in this film. He doesn’t need to rehash the dread and tension of the end of A New Hope because Lucas already brilliantly accomplished this. He merely is reminding the audience of the universe we are in. The film is not about Poe and the Resistance, they are the setting. The film is about Rey and Ben.

While the same conflicts of all previous episodes seem to be present and unchanged, the conflicts of the past are not invalidated. Han begins in A New Hope as an irresponsible scoundrel. He runs from responsibility and is selfish. As the films go on, he becomes noble, even self-sacrificial. In The Return of the Jedi, he is established as a righteous character, and his union with Leia seems to solidify this transition.

Those who idealize the original trilogy place a peculiar heroic emphasis on the scoundrel Han. They urged Abrams to give them characters that resembled the morally shaky Corellian. Those, like Eric, who were more story-conscious, mourned Han’s return to smuggling in The Force Awakens as an ignoring and erasing of Han’s moral development. What prequel and Abrams haters don’t understand is that that Han’s return to smuggling is not a return to the scoundrel, but the desperate mourning of a broken man. Understandably devastated by his son becoming a vengeful mass-murderer, Han cannot remain with Leia. As he tells her, he knows that every time she sees him, she sees her son Ben. Implied is that he also sees young Ben in the face of his wife. 

07_20162515_3d0dbd_2531196aHan himself describes his action as running from his grief. Han isn’t returning to smuggling, he is regressing to smuggling as a coping mechanism. He is running from his son’s betrayal.

This daring and mature development of Han’s character is not only surprising on the part of Abrams, but is breaking new and interesting ground in the audience’s understanding of Han. When Han leaves for the Starkiller base, he sets out with a goal nearly identical to the goal of Han Solo in VI. He is going to disable a shield vital to preserving a superweapon. But Abrams, using the old material of VI to bring new depth to Han, has Han sent out with a new mission. He is going to bring his son home, or die trying. When he sacrifices himself to demonstrate his love for his son, he is not scoundrel Han or general Han, he is father Han, an old man who loves his son. Han sacrifices himself, calling back to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s deaths in I and IV, but he sacrifices himself for love, like his father-in-law.

As Han falls down the chasm of Starkiller Base, his death is reminiscent of the death of Mace Windu and Palpatine. Ben Solo believes his struggle against the light is over now that he has slain his father, but like Windu and Palpatine, Han will still live on in Ben, and the conflict between the light and the dark is only beginning.

Han’s story illustrates how Abrams uses his host of references to the original trilogy and the prequels to powerfully develop the themes and characters of his story. While Abrams is not Lucas, he has brought out significant emotional themes to play in the new Star Wars films that should have all fans not only excited, but thinking.

Eric probably agrees with my thematic praise, but believes that these themes were not brought out enough by Abrams, and that is a discussion of filmmaking and taste, but these themes are present and vibrant in this film.

Now that I have discussed Eric’s main complaint against the film, responding to him as a storylover, I will now respond to Eric as a Star Wars fan.

Eric said that Abrams seemed to have jettisoned the “titanic visuals, new planets, and a mastery of mythological metanarrative” of Lucas.

To titanic visuals, I point you to the awesome Starkiller Base scene, the wide-angle and beautiful shots of Jakku, and the wide shots of the First Order Army (something we never got of Stormtroopers under Lucas).

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“titanic visuals, new planets, and mastery of mythological metanarrative” ~Eric Marcy

To new planets, I will admit that Takadona, and D’Qar look a lot like Yavin 4. Jakku, however, is a lot more than a Tatooine desert. Jakku’s economy, based on looting the broken hulls of crashed spacecraft, is a peculiar and interesting consequence of galactic war that is largely unexplored by Star Wars in the past. Starkiller Base even gives us a snowy forested planet, something unseen by the warm moon of Endor and the nearly lifeless Hoth. This environment is further explored as massive amounts of heat are fired from an edge, incinerating snowy forests in a harrowing display of power.

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“titanic visuals, new planets, and mastery of mythological metanarrative” ~Eric Marcy

 

Mythological metanarrative is a more complicated matter, but the sins of the Skywalker family following their progeny into cyclical conflict is a mythological pattern worthy of Campbell.

Eric later praised the prequels for “the revelation that good and evil do not always align with the light and dark sides of the Force,” a description that also aptly describes the moral complexity of Ben Solo.

Finally, Eric stated that “The entire construction of the Starkiller Base makes very little sense: how could the First Order, a remnant of the defeated Galactic Empire, mount the resources to construct a destructive weapon multiple times larger and more destructive than the most powerful weapons the Empire mounted in its heyday?”

Because Starkiller Base is built into a planet, it requires both less metal (which could be taken from the planet itself) and less coordination to construct. While hollowing out a planet is impressive, it is not nearly as impressive as the construction of a Death Star, which, while smaller than the planet Starkiller Base is built on, is about as large as the actual constructed material on the planet. The Empire, even a remnant First Order, has massive industrial power at its disposal. We don’t know how many planets the First Order controls, but it necessarily has an unimaginable amount of manpower. Finally, Starkiller Base was likely already started by the Empire, which was obsessed with the creation of superweapons.

No matter where you fall in this discussion, there has been nearly universal praise of the well constructed and exciting characters of Ben, Rey, Finn, and Poe. Even if you disagree with my broader point, we can all agree that Star Wars is in fresh, new, and good hands.

And to Eric, who mourns the loss of George Lucas, I say this:

“Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is.”

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Q.E.D.

“Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” Review

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_Poster PULLINGIt was inevitable that The Force Awakens wouldn’t quite be able to live up the swelling levels of anticipation that have been building in the years since Disney acquired the franchise. I had braced myself for a bit of disappointment on some level, recognizing that this sequel trilogy would never be able to totally recapture that rapturous wonder and excitement that the entire Saga, Episodes I through VI, had inspired in me as a child, but I couldn’t foresee the disconcerting and slightly traumatic realization that I had walking out of the theater: J.J. Abrams has delivered a well-made and enjoyable film, but one that feels more like a tribute to Star Wars than Star Wars itself.

Let me give the good news first: our new heroes are, for the most part, excellent. Rey, as played by newcomer Daisy Ridley, is particularly compelling. A young, rugged, but hopeful scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku, she follows in both Anakin and Luke Skywalker’s footsteps admirably. I’m especially pleased with the decision to make our primary hero a woman, giving young girls a heroic model who is also strong in the Force. Rey embodies everything we love about Star Wars at its best: she’s plucky, resourceful, and 100% earnest. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, likewise, is a scrappy Resistance pilot with both skill and spirit, similar to Wedge Antilles with a bigger role to play. His astromech droid co-pilot, the ball of both fun and emotion known as BB-8 does more than simply fill R2-D2’s role: his own beeps and twerps combine with his magical physical design to make him the single most charming element of The Force Awakens. Kylo Ren, as played by Adam Driver, also shines as an insecure wannabe-Sith, the first time we’ve gotten to see a dark side villain who appears to be straight-up psychologically unhinged.

While the new heroes themselves feel authentic, the narrative forged by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan unfortunately misses the forest for the trees, correcting George Lucas’s intentional shortcomings as a director (acting, dialogue) while jettisoning what Lucas brought as a visionary that made Star Wars unique (titanic visuals, new planets, and a mastery of mythological metanarrative). These failures do not necessarily make for a bad movie, as I will strive to explain, but instead leave The Force Awakens feeling distinctly out of sync with rest of the Saga.

The chief obstacle to The Force Awakens is the amount of fan-service and self-referencing present in the film, as almost every major plot point is recycled from the original trilogy and done in an inevitably inferior manner. While such a move is understandable from a business standpoint, as Disney and Abrams strive to assure fans that the franchise is in good hands, it does the narrative arc of the Saga a tremendous disservice. The Starkiller Base (the primary weapon of The First Order) is perhaps the most egregious offender. Its inclusion seems meant to simultaneously call back to both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, while attempting to up the ante by making a point not only of its ability to hit multiple planets but also its planetary-scale that dwarfs the Empire’s previous battle stations.

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Starkiller Base

Abrams and company here show an unsettling disregard for the metanarrative of the Saga they undoubtedly love and cherish so much. When Resistance planners bring up a schematic comparison of Starkiller Base and the Death Star, it comes across as a lazy attempt to top the stakes and gravity of the original entry. “Oh, so you thought what Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca had to wrestle with in the original trilogy was tough? Pssht. Gimme a break. Get a load of this thing.” But even in this attempt to outdo the original films, Abrams fails to provide significant reason to fear the technological terror he’s constructed on both a narrative and visual level. Unlike the destruction of Alderaan, clearly presented as Leia’s home system to provide some shred of emotional heft, when the Starkiller Base fires up its giant laser it takes aim at a system only vaguely known as part of the Republic and with hardly any knowledge given to the audience of why this system matters. If you missed the fact that it’s the capital system of the New Republic, you are not alone. Disney’s aversion to the political machinations of Lucas’s prequels is so powerful that they fail to give even the skeletal bones of political context A New Hope supplies.

Star Wars fans may object to my complaints on the grounds that Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace both call back to this structure, building to a climax that centers around destroying a space station from within, but Lucas understood that he couldn’t simply repackage the same threat, and so he forced the superficial similarity to serve greater narrative purposes. While one can easily argue that Lucas fails at this intent in The Phantom Menace, at least the droid control ship has no planet-destroying power, serving rather to reveal Anakin’s remarkable piloting abilities, and in Return of the Jedi the true menace of the Death Star II isn’t so much literal as symbolic, the station used as bait by the Emperor to lure the Alliance into pitched battle, a battle which itself provides the basis for the spiritual temptation of Luke Skywalker. But Abrams doesn’t realize what Lucas did: that calling back to the old familiar structure should also forge ahead into new ground within the context of the overall narrative, and here the failure is most obvious. The entire construction of the Starkiller Base makes very little sense: how could the First Order, a remnant of the defeated Galactic Empire, mount the resources to construct a destructive weapon multiple times larger and more destructive than the most powerful weapons the Empire mounted in its heyday? Lucas’s vision for the Saga understood that the universe he created must be consistent with itself while pushing towards new horizons, and Abrams at multiple points disconnects with that universe by remaining narratively static.

What made the Star Wars Lucas created so unique, so brilliant, so utterly unlike anything else ever to grace the silver-screen is its ability to call back to ancient myth, integrating its own stories in a cyclical fashion that continually sheds new light on the Episodes that have come before. The Force Awakens certainly cycles back to the original trilogy, but in attempting to simply restate previous entries louder and with more nostalgia than Lucas’s prequels, Abrams has missed the heart of Star Wars: he has not expanded our imaginative conception of the galaxy far, far away. The frequent and cute quips referencing the original trilogy might be fun in 2015, it having been roughly thirty years since we’ve seen our original cast in theaters, but a decade down the road, when The Force Awakens is simply part of a much larger web of the new Disney canon, I’ll wager it may feel more than a bit overdone.

Such nostalgia is redundant, as Lucas had already worked a self-referential system into his Saga with the cheesy one-liners that crop up repeatedly and consistently through both the prequel and original trilogies (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” “This is where the fun begins.” “Artoo-Detoo, where are you?”). In The Force Awakens, however, Abrams has taken what should be superficial reminders that we’re in the same hokey galaxy and made them the entire movie. The Death Star/Starkiller Base comparison is not the worst of it. Abrams recycles the trench run, the reactor core, the Emperor’s hologram, the Resistance/Rebellion as underdogs, Han Solo’s job as a smuggler (effectively negating his narrative arc, one of the more egregious rehashes), the cantina scene, Maz Kanata as a Yoda figure (even repurposing lines about the Force to much less effect) and the lush forests of Yavin 4 reappearing on both Takadona and D’Qar (it’s a curious imaginative decision to have two planets appear successively in the narrative with such similar and derivative visual palettes).

To a certain degree, one can’t be too angry at Abrams. Perhaps the source material is so beloved to him that he couldn’t help but simply give us what we’ve already gotten (a more cynical mind would see it as a safe attempt to court those disenchanted by the prequels). For all the derision that Lucas’s prequels received, it cannot be denied that they stayed true to the heart of Star Wars in a sense that The Force Awakens does not. Episodes I-III continually opened our eyes to an ever expanding universe, challenging the viewer with new and iconic sights and sounds (the classical Naboo aesthetic, the skyscrapers of Coruscant, the climactic duel on the lava planet of Mustafar) as well as challenging and profound mythic thematic material (the revelation that good and evil do not always align with the light and dark sides of the Force, the framing of Darth Vader as a tragic hero, the intricately plotted demise of a democracy through manipulation by fear). One can also easily forget that no one thought that the original Star Wars, A New Hope, would succeed, that Lucas received death threats for making Vader Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back, and that redeeming the trilogy’s main villain in Return of the Jedi rather than killing him at the hands of the hero is a fairly bold move for the swashbuckling adventure story Lucas originally set out to tell. By catering to what fans expected and wanted from Star Wars, Abrams neglects what sets Star Wars apart from most Hollywood franchises. What good are real sets and practical effects if they just deliver inferior versions of what has come before?

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Rey and BB-8

This is not to say that The Force Awakens fails at setting a grand stage for Episode VIII, and I remain hopeful that Rian Johnson will take the Saga in a new and exciting direction. I look forward to seeing new adventures with characters like Rey, BB-8, and Kylo Ren; I’m simply frustrated for the moment at having to watch them relive a previous generation’s. The new cast is truly remarkable, and though I may be disappointed in the way that Finn was written, I have to tip the cap to John Boyega for bringing obvious heart to his performance. It’s an inescapable reality, though, that only a few moments grasp for Lucas’s ambitious brand of visual storytelling: Rey and Kylo Ren locking sabers, Leia and Rey embracing in shared loss as the Resistance celebrates victory behind them, and a weary and weathered Luke Skywalker turning to face our young heroine. It is this final moment that filled me with the most hope for the future of the Saga. Luke’s robotic hand calls back to Anakin’s, his grieving countenance speaking of a man who has been beaten down by both the light and dark sides of the Force, all while Rey offers him Anakin’s lightsaber, pleading with the old to forge a path ahead into the unknown. In this moment we see the entirety of the Saga invoked at once. Past, present, and future are summoned through specific use of imagery that carries newly illuminated narrative weight, and I see a glimmer of the sort of storytelling Star Wars provides at its best. If only The Force Awakens had been able to tear itself away from the mirror long enough to realize the visionary potential hidden within itself.

At the end of the day, however, one can’t fault Abrams for not being George Lucas, and what may seem to some a scathing indictment of this sequel trilogy should rather be read as a wistful reflection on what we have lost with the passing of the torch. I insist on feeling none of the anger with which some fans regularly chastise those who cherish Episodes I-III, the films that formed the backbone for my imagination. There is much to like about this new installment, even if Finn’s character is incomprehensible (a bred-killer who defects and shows no signs of internal conflict), or Kylo Ren’s force powers are frustratingly inconsistent. One writer notes in his own review that Lucas stayed so true to the internal rules of the universe he created in the prequels that he consciously insisted on providing us with dislikable characters for the sake of a greater narrative. Abrams has done the opposite, providing us with likable characters at the expense of the logic of the Star Wars universe. We finally have formally good Star Wars movies, but I fear that the price may have been Star Wars itself.

What the Prequels Got Right: Count Dooku’s Hidden Role in the Star Wars Saga

Oft-maligned, Christopher Lee's wonderful performance as Count Dooku is given purpose by the power of the Saga's metanarrative.
Oft-maligned, Count Dooku is given purpose by the power of the Saga’s metanarrative.

Over the course of the last several months, wide-ranging conversation has taken place within the Star Wars fan-base regarding the imminent arrival of The Force Awakens, and alongside rampant and wild speculation has been a sizable amount of discussion reassessing the Saga at large. Typically this takes the form of maligning the prequels and holding up the original trilogy as the superior work. While such a conclusion is ufortunately pervasive, myriad aspects of George Lucas’s infamous prequel trilogy have been treated unfairly, the character of Count Dooku in particular. Episodes I, II, and III add a tremendous amount of thematic and aesthetic weight to the metanarrative of Star Wars, and Count Dooku’s role in the saga deserves to come to light, as the thematic links between Dooku and Darth Vader illuminate the events at the end of Return of the Jedi in new and exciting ways.

In Star Wars lore, General Grievous is often considered the primary foreshadowing of Anakin Skywalker’s fate in Revenge of the Sith: a half-organic, half-machine pawn of far greater and more powerful forces. As Star Wars fans also know, Grievous’s character in Revenge is rather shallow: a moustache-twirling henchman who serves little purpose other than to draw Obi-Wan Kenobi away from his apprentice while Palpatine seduces Anakin to the dark side of the Force. Dooku’s character has often been criticized in the same manner: he exists only to provide the late Christopher Lee with a villainous role and the audience with several obligatory lightsaber duels. Such criticism, however, neglects Dooku’s presence in several key prequel moments that correspond to important scenes in the original films.

A Skywalker, a Master and an Apprentice in the opening to
A Skywalker, a Master, and an Apprentice.

The key to unlocking the thematic significance of Dooku in the broader saga lies in his fateful duel with Anakin at the beginning of Revenge and its strong parallels to the battle between Luke Skywalker and Vader at the end of Jedi. In both cases a Sith apprentice (Dooku/Vader) locks sabers with a Skywalker (Anakin/Luke) before the Sith lord Darth Sidious (Palpatine). In each duel the Skywalker gets the upper-hand over the Sith apprentice by using the dark side, lopping off the saber hand (or hands) of their opponent before being faced with a choice: either strike down their opponent or show mercy. Palpatine then urges the Skywalker to strike down his now defenseless apprentice. Lucas further clues the audience in to the parity between these duels by providing visual connections. In both films Palpatine observes the duel from a rotating throne that overlooks a massive space battle, and in Revenge Lucas imitates the famed tracking shot in Jedi of Luke unleashing his rage against Vader to win the duel, only this time Anakin gets the better of Dooku.

A Skywalker, a Master, and an Apprentice.
A Skywalker, a Master, and an Apprentice.

The most revealing aspect of these two duels, however, lies not in their similarities but in the primary difference: the choice of the Skywalker when commanded to kill. In Revenge, Anakin decapitates Dooku, thus taking Dooku’s place as Palpatine’s apprentice and beginning his tragic arc towards becoming Darth Vader. Luke, however, rejects Palpatine’s order and shows mercy, an act of righteousness that leads to Vader’s redemption.

“Together we can destroy the Sith!”

Frequent viewers of the Saga should be able to easily acknowledge this parallel, but might argue it tells more about Luke’s character than it does Dooku’s or Vader’s.This is where one last connection becomes essential. In Attack of the Clones Dooku speaks to Obi-Wan after his capture on Geonosis. During this conversation, Dooku tells Obi-Wan that a Sith lord has taken control of the Republic. Obi-Wan doesn’t believe him, but Dooku presses the issue, declaring that “you must join me, Obi-Wan, and together we can destroy the Sith!” Alarm bells should be sounding at this point for anyone familiar with the revelatory duel between Luke and Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. Vader appeals to his son with near identical language, arguing that “you can destroy the Emperor” before his famed pronouncement: “join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son!” From Anakin’s boasting to Padmé at the end of Revenge that he intends to destroy Palpatine we can infer that he makes this appeal in earnest. But what if we assume the same about Dooku? Suddenly, a powerful foreshadowing of Anakin’s fate comes into focus.

“Together we can rule the galaxy as father and son!”

Dooku, like Anakin, is a well-intentioned Jedi who falls prey to hubris. Dooku perceives the evil corrupting both the Jedi and the Republic, realizes that the dark side presents the path to power, and arrogantly assumes that he can manipulate evil to good ends, working with Darth Sidious until the opportune moment, at which time he will strike down the dark lord and restore peace and security to the galaxy. Dooku, however, fails to foresee the depths of Palpatine’s cunning and is outmaneuvered by the Sith lord, finding his political machinations twisted and himself at the end of a lightsaber, with his former master ordering his death.

In the grand narrative arc of the Saga, therefore, Dooku warns the audience of Vader’s eventual fate. When Anakin holds two blades to Dooku’s throat, an audience that has seen Jedi realizes that Anakin is holding those blades to himself, and the staying hand of principle could prevent the tragedy to come. Even more powerfully, an audience watching Jedi will remember Dooku as Luke holds a blade to Vader’s throat, adding greater poignancy to Luke’s realization of how close he has come to becoming his father. It is an epiphany that never occurred to the young and prideful Anakin as he stood over Dooku, but it occurs to Luke, redeeming both father and son, and in highlighting this moment Count Dooku earns his place in the Star Wars Saga.

“Tomorrowland” Review

Tomorrowland_posterWestern cinema has become fixated on its own destruction. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian futures rule the box office, television screens and novels of America, from The Hunger Games to The Walking Dead, San Andreas to Mad Max: Fury Road. Leave it to director Brad Bird and Walt Disney to fire a shot across the bow of this particular cultural trend, with a massive injection of cinematic hope that is the science fiction/fantasy thriller Tomorrowland. Bird’s creation is a flawed film, but one that possesses a certain charm and ambition that still makes it worth a viewing for the refreshing creativity of the effort.

The script by Bird (Best known for his superb work on The Iron Giant and The Incredibles) and Damon Lindelof (Yes, the Lost and Prometheus writer Damon Lindelof) is a muddled and complicated affair that revolves around invitational pins to a futuristic and wondrous city in another dimension known as “Tomorrowland” given by the young android Athena (marvelously played by Raffey Cassidy). The primary plot concerns the invitation of Casey Newton (the plucky Britt Robertson) to this utopian land where the greatest minds of science, medicine and academia are able to collaborate in peace. Casey is a spunky young girl with a knack for solving mechanical problems who spends her free time sabotaging the government’s efforts to dismantle NASA’s Cape Canaveral launch site, at which her father is employed. To make sense of Casey’s invitational pin, which give her tantalizing, beautiful glimpses of this better world, Casey and Athena must unite with Tomorrowland-exile Frank Walker (George Clooney cast nearly perfectly as the grizzled, disenchanted inventor) to discover where Casey fits into the grander scheme of mysterious happenings surrounding Tomorrowland.

To go further in depth proves nearly impossible in a concise review, and Tomorrowland certainly struggles to juggle the multiple layers of intrigue within its own wildly imaginative tale. The first half of the film, as a result, is wildly uneven. Flashbacks to the 1964 World’s Fair and Walker’s childhood are Disney nostalgia at its finest, and the introductions to Tomorrowland for both Walker and Casey are wildly energetic and gorgeously realized. But the film struggles against itself when anchored in the real world. Tonally, this first act of Tomorrowland is clumsy, often jarring. For example, a scene in which the android Athena is hit by a car seems intended for laughs, but the effect is instead rather disturbing (watching a young girl’s body go flying rag-doll style, even with the knowledge that she isn’t actually a child, is enough to rattle even the most hardened of viewers). Another brief sequence at a nerd store run by two shop-owners, played by Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn, is decidedly unfunny and serves seemingly little purpose other than as an opportunity for Disney to show off its newly-obtained Star Wars licensing rights (the product placement here is sickeningly obnoxious). The character interactions between Casey and Athena also feel awkward and jilted, leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

Once Walker enters the scene, however, Tomorrowland mostly rights the ship. Clooney’s presence proves to be the missing ingredient, and the trio of main characters engage in frequent, lively, and engaging banter for the rest of the film. It is at this point that Tomorrowland figures out what its purpose is, and the ride to reach this fabled utopia becomes an enjoyable, focused, family-friendly romp that delves into some intriguing questions regarding cultural narratives. There’s a grand sense of fun to be had here, with one marvelously imaginative sequence revealing that the Eiffel Tower is in fact a launch-pad for spaceships. The plot also critiques society’s fascination with bleak, hopeless futures in intriguing ways. Many reviewers have protested that the villainous twist at the end was a bit of a letdown, and while yes, the actual engagement may leave something lacking (particularly post-Fury Road), the danger posed to and by Tomorrowland is a surprisingly thoughtful and insightful twist on the “save the world” trope so prevalent in blockbusters. One character even makes the claim that apocalyptic stories are the easiest and laziest ones to tell and embrace because they demand nothing of us. Blunt and heavy-handed? Possibly. But timely and thought-provoking? Most certainly.

Some may find the bizarre and awkward bits of Tomorrowland a bit too unwieldy, and understandably so. The pseudo-romantic history between Clooney’s character and the android Athena, created to remain young, may weird out those not used to the more unsettling implications of the science fiction genre’s explorations of human/robot relationships. On top of that, the jarring shifts in quality in the opening act may prove a bit too off-putting as well. But for those willing to bear out the awkward first half, a wildly imaginative thrill-ride awaits once the film hits its stride. Tomorrowland is flawed, but in daring to take on the Goliath franchises of the summer months, it’s hard not to admire the pluck of this imaginative story. While it may not topple the giants of apocalyptic storytelling, its bold and often charming assertion that such stories only serve a good and noble purpose when inspiring viewers and readers to actually seek to change the world for the better should give thoughtful film-goers a chance not only to enjoy themselves, but also to reflect on the formative influence of the cultural narratives they consume.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” Review

Max_Mad_Fury_Road_Newest_PosterTo give Mad Max: Fury Road a traditional review is to do George Miller’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece a disservice. I confess that I’m late to the party, having never seen the original Mel Gibson trilogy, but it’s hard to imagine that they’ll be able to hold a candle to this game-changing work. At once wildly thrilling, deliciously subversive, and shockingly thoughtful, Fury Road is a breath of fiery passion into the sputtering lungs of bloated modern blockbusters.

Miller’s long awaited continuation of the Mad Max franchise sets itself apart from the dime a dozen spectacles of the big-budget sort through the clear presence of craft. Where films like Age of Ultron overwhelm, Fury Road inspires awe. Where other films utilize simplistic thrills during action, Miller refuses to allow the dynamic energy of his set-pieces to ever divorce themselves from a sense of dread and terror. Heavily digitally-rendered films utilize camerawork that zips around haphazardly, detached from practical concerns, while in Fury Road John Seale’s maddeningly beautiful cinematography remains anchored to the all too real vehicles and human beings hurtling across desert wastelands. Superhero screenplays tend to bow to the demands of fan-service, softening blows and keeping the tone light, but Fury Road’s writers (Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) subvert genre-expectations at every turn, supplying fleshed out characters that defy stereotypes and face actual consequences for their actions.

Fury Road is essentially an extended chase sequence as Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) attempts a defection from her disgustingly despicable cult-overlord, King Immortan Joe, (Hugh Keays-Byrne) for the sake of smuggling his Five Wives (little more than sex-slaves/breeding animals in Joe’s eyes) to a place of safety in the barren post-apocalyptic world that is refreshingly devoid of deserted cityscapes. Mad Max (Tom Hardy) crosses paths with the crusading Furiosa, and the two reluctantly join forces to survive, relentlessly pursued by an enraged Immortan Joe and his army of War Boys. Amongst them is the eager warrior Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who, like his comrades in arms, worships Immortan in all his horrific power, and longs to die in glorious combat so that he may reach the halls of Valhalla.

This may sound like a rather straightforward and basic plot, (perhaps even stupid on a cynical day) but Miller wrestles some incredible complexity and heft out of the story and action. Fury Road is a minimalist film in regards to dialogue, the titular character often going for long stretches without much more than a grunt, and exposition is kept to the barest minimum. This allows the characters to fully inhabit and embody the hellish, remarkably well-developed setting, and the refreshingly physical performances from Hardy and Theron allow Max and Furiosa to speak for themselves and on their own terms. In a wonderful stroke of compositional daring, Furiosa emerges as the focus of the entire film, her martial prowess and firm moral core anchoring a film otherwise surrendered to depravity run amuck. Those craving a truly strong female protagonist in an action film finally have one to celebrate in the one-armed Furiosa, whose motivations are complex, developed, and moving, while her physical and moral presence casts a long shadow over the largely ambivalent Max. Miller’s depiction of the Five Wives also defies genre-expectations, as Fury Road stubbornly refuses to give in to the temptation to sexually objectify and marginalize. Each is individually given moments to speak and act as human beings. Their plight is portrayed as tragic and horrific, but their souls are strong, and they stand in stark defiance to Immortan Joe’s disgusting barbarism.

The film’s exploration of the barbaric tendencies of the human soul is notable as well. The chase weaves its way through a post-apocalyptic nightmare that has degenerated into tribal warfare. Multiple boundaries are violated during the chase, and the appearances of these various bands with their own individual motivations is particularly intriguing, and a credit to the thoughtfulness of the world-building. Most impressive, though, is Immortan Joe’s War Boys cult. As his horde rushes into battle accompanied by a blaring heavy metal rig (complete with shredding guitarist) it is clear that Miller has capitalized on the ancient pagan methods of whipping up battle frenzy as the War Boys employ suicidal tactics, imploring each other to “witness” their acts of immortal valor. Nux’s narrative arc proves remarkably compelling, and Miller wisely undercuts any tendency on the part of the viewer to get swept away in any “coolness” by drawing constant attention to the vileness and perversity of Immortan Joe’s character and army. This horde, built upon an insightful understanding of the religious impulse in a godless world, is one that inspires genuine fear.

This fear leads directly to what sets Fury Road apart from the majority of recent blockbusters: our heroes are in actual danger. I don’t want to spoil the experience for anyone, but suffice to say that the film makes very clear that nobody is safe on Fury Road. Couple that with the fact that a stunning amount was filmed without the aid of digital effects, shot on location with physical stuntmen and vehicles, and the action possesses an all too tangible menace. The battles between rampaging vehicles are not simply chaotic explosions involving vehicles suped-up for the simple sake of awesome-factor, but rather the result of the clashing of vehicles with appendages that have clear tactical purposes. Nothing lacks a legitimate and understandable combat function, and action sequences, anchored by at least the semblance of real-world logic in their physical nature, are shot in a fluid, digestible and comprehensible manner. Peril is far more impacting when the audience understands how the characters are imperiled.

This doesn’t even scratch the surface of the veritable blockbuster treasure trove that is Fury Road, from Tom Holkenborg’s pounding, cacophonous score to Seale’s painterly cinematography, this is a romp of the highest order, equal parts brawn and brains. Mad Max: Fury Road proves that one can have their cake and eat it too in the blockbuster genre. It is possible to be entertained at the cinema while also feasting on the bountiful and challenging delicacies of the greatest storytellers. If Fury Road doesn’t wake us up to the possibilities of truly daring and ambitious storytelling within the framework of a popcorn-franchise, we have only ourselves to blame when, twenty years from now, we’re all lining up to go see Avengers 10: Rise of Squirrel Girl and remembering when Miller gave us one last chance to escape escapism.

But for the moment, what a lovely day!

***

Caveat: The film is rated R, and deservedly so, for its intense violence. The violence is filmed similarly to The Dark Knight in that the most disturbing acts are wisely and tastefully kept off-screen or depicted in a blurred, unclear manner. The R-rating is more thanks to the sheer amount of violence and action onscreen. This is a film for mature audiences, with mature themes and mature consequences, not for children. One of the reasons I admire Fury Road is that the violence is not allowed to merely wash over the audience, but rather designed to batter the audience with the brutality of the actual events. Though admirable, this may be a bit too much for those easily disturbed by such things, and that is completely understandable. Fury Road is a must-see film that challenges the often flippant way that the action genre handles destruction and violence, but, with content like this, we must be able to agree that it isn’t a must-see for everyone.

“The Giver” Review

The_Giver_posterWith dystopian science fiction films featuring teenaged protagonists becoming all the rage over the last several years in Hollywood, it really is a shame that one of the better adaptations to come out of the recent craze (as well as by far the finest example of this subgenre of literature) seems to be slipping under the radar and receiving a negative critical reception that puzzles me. The Giver is hitting theaters at an unfortunate time, overshadowed by Guardians of the Galaxy as well as lost within the clamor of far inferior teenaged angst (see Divergent) and even seems a victim of some of the better results of the craze (The Hunger Games). Despite the relative lack of buzz, however, director Phillip Noyce’s interpretation of the children’s novel by Lois Lowry is a successful, provocative and occasionally moving film and, while it may not reach the soaring heights of its source material, it remains a fitting celebration of both life itself and the act of living it.

For those unfamiliar with the plot of Lowry’s novel, in Noyce’s interpretation the main character Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) lives in a future utopia (run by elders, the chief of whom is played by Meryl Streep) in which the greater community has done away with colors, deep emotions and diversity, believing it to lead to jealousy, hate and violence. Climate control prevents the seasons from changing, birth is closely monitored, family “units” are assembled artificially as opposed to biologically, and sameness is prized, except for the unique and distinct jobs given to each member of the community by the elders. Jonas is chosen to be the next “Receiver of Memory” and will be trained for the position by the current Receiver (played in a now familiar mentor role by Jeff Bridges), who shares with Jonas his memories of all the colors, emotions, experiences and feelings that the community has done away with (this exception necessary for the Receiver to fulfill his role as a provider of wisdom) but as Jonas begins to experience both the joys and the pains of the old world, he begins to see his community in an entirely different light.

The Giver’s best selling point is its visual flare which, under the direction of Noyce and cinematographer Ross Emery, not only lends a fleshed out and believable futuristic setting (characteristics missing from many young-adult films) but intelligently incorporates color and memory into the very fabric of the story. Initially drenched in black and white, the film gradually allows colors to flow in and out of the story depending on the character’s perspectives and emotions. At times a girl’s hair may glimmer in its actual auburn hue, or a bee flash yellow amidst the dull and pervasive gray, but suddenly, during one of many of Jonas’s memory receiving sessions from “the giver” a sunset gloriously bursts forth on the ocean, and the audience basks at the glory and majesty of this natural world we call home and are blessed to be a part of. Moments like these (the joyous and thrilling experience of sledding, the tragic violence of war) all revealed through the naive eyes of Jonas, restore our sense of wonder and shock at the true power of life experiences we have perhaps grown too used to. The power of contrast is evident throughout these sequences, and glimpses of life as we know it, life as it should be, life as it should not be, strike with a potency lost on those who have grown too comfortable with the miracle that is life.

Credit must also be given to composer Marco Beltrami who weaves a beautiful tapestry of sound, including a haunting main theme and some excellent choral-work, which helps the audience to look at their changing perspectives along with Jonas in an emotionally complex and nuanced manner. The acting is solid around the board (Bridges is a standout, while Thwaites captures the innocent and ignorant nature of Jonas), and a romantic subplot between Jonas and Fiona (Odeya Rush) is a delight, as two young people literally discover love for the first time and we as the audience are welcomed to experience the wonder of love along with them. The Giver explores a myriad of social issues within the greater life that it celebrates, touching on individuality, the price of security, human greed and even euthanasia and abortion. It really is rare to find a film marketed for the entire family willing to tackle such hefty issues, and the filmmakers should be commended for not shying away from the themes Lowry wove so intimately into her work.

Alas, however, the film is not perfect. Readers of the book may be disappointed as to the rapidity with which certain pivotal events happen, robbing them of some emotional weight, even if they still service the plot. A brief appearance by Taylor Swift in a significant role proves a bit distracting, but that is a relatively minor quibble. The final act of the film does squander much of the momentum that had been built up before, lacking some of the revelatory tension that drives the film to its climax. But thematically the ending holds up, bringing the ideas and themes of the film full circle. The Giver is by no means a perfect adaptation, some may claim it is flawed, but it captures the beautiful essence of the story in a visual fashion so remarkably well, particularly in forcing the audience to re-learn life, that I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants a meaningful, emotionally engaging and thought-provoking trip to the theater.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” Review

GOTG-posterCan someone please help me figure out why Guardians of the Galaxy is so immensely popular? Please? I desperately want to know. Perhaps I missed something, some crucial plot element tying everything together that provides sense to the madness. As a huge science fiction fan, a person who loved John Carter, (those who have seen Disney’s ill-fated space opera will appreciate the following statement) I cringed inwardly at the sheer absurdity and weirdness that the film put forth to be accepted as a necessary part of the story. Granted, Guardians delivered on its promises of having a crackling comedic element and some fun 70’s and 80’s throwback moments (kudos to whoever designed the theatrical poster), but Marvel’s big summer blockbuster wastes a remarkable cast and imaginative characters on a script that flounders in regards to logical and meaningful character development, leaving a film that may have entertainment value for the sheer novelty of it but offers very little else.

I really am not going to try to describe the plot of Guardians because, frankly, it doesn’t have much of one. Stuff happens, journeys are undertaken, lasers are fired, and it almost all is related to some purple light of doom called the “infinity stone” which the Guardians have in their possession. More important are the characters, and this is easily the film’s greatest strength. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt is perfectly cast) is a “Ravager”, which seems to be a cross between a bounty hunter, smuggler and treasure hunter. Basically, he’s an intergalactic scoundrel, with a cocky sense of humor and an “Awesome Mix Tape” of old 70’s tunes inherited from his deceased mother, who dies in Quill’s childhood on Earth. There’s also Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned alien assassin who defected from the service of Thanos. Wrestler Dave Bautista plays a tattooed hulk of a creature called Drax the Destroyer, who craves vengeance against the film’s antagonist for the murder of his family, and amusingly cannot comprehend metaphor. Most intriguing of all is the Han Solo/Chewbacca-like duo of Rocket Raccoon, a bounty hunter created from an awry lab experiment, and Groot, an ent-like tree, both ably voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively. Opposing all of them, and the entire galaxy, is Ronan (an imposing Lee Pace) a Kree radical who desires to purge the galaxy of wickedness, or something like that.

And that “something like that” really is the problem with Guardians. It takes a fascinating cast of characters, with great chemistry and quirky personalities and wastes them by hurling around galaxy-shattering events with little rhyme or reason. Ronan, for example, would easily be a highlight of the film, with hints of religious fervor and an intimidating villain’s get-up (and a wicked looking spaceship, the Dark Aster) , except for the fact that he really isn’t given much of anything interesting to do. He stalks around his imposing vessel bemoaning Xandarian wickedness and culture, but we have no idea what specifically he hates about Xandar, or what exactly his Kree religious beliefs are. These are essential motivators that would have been fascinating to explore, but Guardians wastes the chance for a truly engaging antagonist.

Likewise, the character development of the Guardians is shoddy at best. Essentially, the Guardians are a bunch of selfish scoundrels, until suddenly, for the sake of saving the galaxy, they aren’t, and then, after the crisis subsides, they become scoundrels again. No real reason is given for why these characters act so uncharacteristically and put their lives on the line for the greater good. Quill, at one point, leads them all in a group huddle and by the end they all decide to fight Ronan. Why did Quill have an unselfish change of heart? Why did the others go along with him? No substantive reason is depicted. Likewise, Quill’s romance with Gamora, and subsequent actions to protect her, spring out of nothing, without any progression or development of a relationship. The screenwriters apparently decided to make Gamora the token love interest, so, voila! Now she is! One second they are tense antagonists, the next Quill is making romantic advances. None of the romantic tension and back and forth wordplay that grounded a similar relationship in the original Star Wars trilogy (which Guardians tries desperately to emulate) between Han Solo and Princess Leia appears, and without this foundation the entire relationship feels hollow and contrived.

As I write this, though, I cannot help but think that fans of Marvel comics would be glad to explain to me the finer intricacies of Kree radicalism, and the finesse of the relationship between Quill and Gamora in the actual comic strip. As a matter of fact, they might also answer my questions as to why Quill was abducted from Earth in the first place (to be fair, there is a hint as to his true origins, but it is mentioned in passing as if it is of little significance), or why we should care about Xandar, or fear the Kree. But these questions are not answerable to the average film-goer, and are evidence of Marvel and Disney’s increasing hubris when it comes to producing these films. The Marvel films are becoming too interconnected and reliant on well-versed fans being able to comprehend absurdly complicated exposition, full of bizarre names and subtle connections that really do not add up to much significance plot-wise. As a result, the journey is unnecessarily complicated. What is Thanos doing in this movie anyway? It is a good thing I have friends who filled me in on who he was in the first place, because otherwise I would have been thrown for a loop by his random and unnecessary appearance. The makers of Guardians assume that we all have intimate knowledge of the comics, and only need a bit of exposition to catch us up, instead of actually showing us why these people, places, and events matter. This is an unfortunate forsaking of the storyteller’s duty to guide the audience. Marvel’s complex cinematic universe is beginning to feel less like intricate storytelling and more like a cheap commercial trick designed to lure viewers into the illusion of a big picture.

Guardians is certainly entertaining, I will admit, and the final battle was a grand throwback to Star Wars and Star Trek-style space action. But a preponderance of zinging one-liners in a space opera setting does not a masterpiece create. Guardians is a rapid-fire romp that moves so quickly we never really learn much of anything. The films it so ardently tries to imitate are at times hokey and cheesy, yes, but Star Wars (the most obvious of Guardian’s influences) at least gives us a journey for Luke Skywalker that clearly changes him from farm boy to war hero. By the end of Guardians, however, the scoundrels are still scoundrels, doing “something good, something bad, a bit of both,” and for some reason we as the audience are supposed to applaud. Han Solo was a scoundrel, and an entertaining one, but we clearly were meant to root for his maturing and the abandonment of his criminal past. Guardians of the Galaxy instead celebrates the fact that its violent and arrogant cast of characters is still, by the end of the film, violent and arrogant. It gives me pause to think about what this film’s popularity indicates about cultural entertainment trends at large, but in the meantime this sci-fi fan would rather get his space opera fix with a meaningful story attached to it.

In Defense of Boring Films

"The New World"
“The New World”

Just the other night I watched Terrence Malick’s The New World with my family. A poetic and beautiful reimagining of the legendary romance of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, it was a remarkable cinematic journey to undertake, as we found ourselves whisked off a land of profound magic, spirituality and humanity. Malick, in his direction, takes a leisurely route through the story, which leads to a resonant and powerful conclusion, but also a path that had several of us puzzling and even yawning at the numerous slow and tranquil shots of nature and simple human interactions. Perhaps frustrated by the film’s lack of action in the traditional sense, instead focusing on pensive reflection, a few of us complained vocally about the ponderous length of the story. But by the time the credits rolled, The New World had chastised us for our impatience, rewarding what we mistook for boredom with a remarkable amount of emotional resonance that would not have been possible without the meandering journey that came before.

I began to think on how Malick’s vision for The New World, taking a slow, beautiful and hypnotic pace that is so peaceful it threatens to lull its audience to sleep, is a complete antithesis to modern American society and culture. We demand speed and efficiency in all that we do. Our food must be made quickly and served immediately. Our packages must come within mere days of placing our orders. Our internet must provide information instantaneously. If we are not served what we desire within seconds, we are dissatisfied. Malick’s film is torturous to the audience of modernity because it requires its audience to wait, to soak in the scenery, to drink in deep and profound emotion that only comes with the passage of time. These qualities of patience and contentment, which allow for life to unfold at its own pace, are virtues sorely lacking in America today, and for this reason I wish to put forth a brief defense of slowly paced, immensely long, and tiringly boring films.

I include the word boring because, it must be admitted, the type of film I am defending has been known to bore many an audience. In conversations with fellow filmgoers I hear them lament the slow and deliberate pacing of the old epics, for instance, such as Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. When watching 2001: A Space Odyssey the modern viewer glances at their cell phone for the time, impatient at the camera’s lingering over spaceships participating in delicate dance, accompanied not by dialogue but by classical music (Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic has other glaring flaws, but its pace is most certainly not one of them). More recently, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, released in a proper director’s cut, moves at a snail’s pace, unfolding musings on the Crusades and faith over more than three hours with a surprisingly small amount of action for viewers expecting a Gladiator-like emphasis on masculine violence. One of my personal favorites, The Last Samurai, is also slowly paced, clocking in at just under three hours as it peacefully and methodically explores the fated old order at the turn of the 20th century. Some of the greatest films in American cinema, The Godfather, for instance, also move at a glacial pace, allowing sleep to remain a menacingly present threat for the viewer expecting frequent mobster violence.

So what am I trying to say by listing all these slowly paced films? I bring these up because too often have I heard fellow film-goers dismiss films such as these because they are “too slow, incredibly boring” and “sleep inducing.” I have even heard some complain that last year’s Gravity bored them from the opening sustained shot of Earth! (Considering it clocks in at only about 90 minutes, I find these complaints hard to comprehend.) Frankly, a slow pace by itself is an absurd reason to count off a story, and reflects a flaw in our modern standards for art and perspectives on life rather than something wrong with the film itself. Our culture has pushed forth an increasingly selfish and self-centered view of the world, and it is often reflected in the intersection of business and art that is Hollywood. When we go to the cinema, we go to watch films that have been marketed to meet our specific tastes. We have certain expectations, and we want what we want in a film (whether that be distraction, entertainment, humor, action, drama) and we want it immediately. We do not want to be challenged by our art. We want to be affirmed. We want excitement, we want a distraction, and we want it now.

"The Godfather"
“The Godfather”

The slowly paced film is offensive because it evokes reality. Real life is not a series of quick cuts and flashy maneuvers, stylized violence and sexualized models, (as in a myriad of action films, Transformers foremost in my mind) but rather a gradual progression of moments, moments that slowly build sometimes to profound sadness, and other times to profound beauty. The slow film does not distract us from reality, it instead invites us to draw connections between the images on screen and the lives we lead, challenging our preconceived notions. It will not yield what we want immediately, but forces us to wait as we wait in life. The Godfather is a masterpiece not because of its portrayals of gangster violence and savagery (though those are present) but rather is impactful because of its shockingly normal and understated portrayal of the Corleone family. We see them live, love and hate on a day to day basis. Think of the beginning of the film, an extended wedding sequence. Surely the modern blockbuster editors would cut down the wedding to a fraction of what it exists as in the final cut, afraid that audiences would lose interest. “We have to give them action, what they want is a powerful hook!” I can hear them complaining to Francis Ford Coppola. But I can just as easily picture Coppola shaking his head and replying “we cannot give them what they want, but rather what they need.” And what the story needs is for us to truly know the Corleone family, and to know the Corleones we need time with them.

In some ways, encountering the slowly paced film is like encountering a new family, a friend or a person. We meet them and immediately have our own expectations and desires of who we want them to be. Initially, however, we may be repulsed. “This is not who I expected,” we might say, “I don’t think I’m interested in this person because they are not who I want as a friend.” But if we dropped every friendship simply because it initially did not give us what we thought we needed, we most likely would miss out on all the things it offered that we actually needed. I have found that the best friendships are forged in difference, in transcending our petty expectations and, after time and patience, yielding fruit we never could have imagined.

"Kingdom of Heaven"
“Kingdom of Heaven”

Kingdom of Heaven, for instance, is a film I entered with expectations of a boldly heroic tale of the Crusades, based on my previous experience with Scott’s Gladiator and Robin Hood. Instead, the director’s cut meandered through the Holy Land, following the decidedly uncharismatic knight Balian as he attempts to found a kingdom of conscience in the midst of a remarkably murky and tragic religious conflict. Scott allows us to explore the conflict as it slowly builds towards Saladin’s Siege of Jerusalem, giving us time to weigh the sides for ourselves, noting the tragic honor of the leper King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, fuming at the disgusting bloodlust of the Templars, puzzling at the noble figure of Saladin and his violently eager lieutenants, all while repeatedly posing the question “is God real, and if He is, what does His Kingdom really look like?” The answer is only halfway given after a long, arduous journey that ends with a sigh of relief rather than a cheer of victory, and at times the film tested my attentiveness, threatening to lose my interest with line after line of dense dialogue and methodical action. But after the fact, I found Kingdom of Heaven dominated my absent-minded musings for weeks. What is the kingdom of heaven? I weighed the varying interpretations put forth by the characters Balian had encountered, and eventually Balian himself, and though I might not completely agree with the humanistic/moralistic philosophy Scott espouses, his ideas have much merit, and the time spent in a “boring” film rewarded me with a bounty of food for thought.

Would such meditation have been possible had the film been trimmer, leaner, and better-paced? Probably not, as the time spent within Scott’s story deepened my level of engagement. I began not simply to know the characters in an intellectual sense, but I began to know them in the sense that you know a long-time friend. And this knowledge, this time spent bored, made it possible for the film to challenge how I look at the kingdom of heaven on Earth. I find the leper king a fascinating moral example of a man striving to maintain peace in a world hell-bent on war and violence. I find the questions of faith challenging. Our film-viewing should not be intended to simply shore up our own conceptions of reality, or even worse, to distract ourselves from it. Let us surrender ourselves to the long, boring films which may not grab our selfish interest initially, but will bring immense rewards afterwards. But better yet, perhaps we should stop looking at people as those from whom we can immediately get satisfaction, money, or enjoyment. Instead, let’s open ourselves to investing in those we might otherwise brush past, give them a little time, and see what wonders their Creator might have embedded deep within.

“Edge of Tomorrow” Review

Edge_of_Tomorrow_PosterTom Cruise has made quite the name for himself as a reliable science fiction star. Notable mostly for Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report and War of the Worlds, Cruise also gave a phenomenal performance in 2013’s Oblivion before taking a leading role in this summer’s Edge of Tomorrow. Helmed by director Doug Liman of Bourne fame and also featuring English co-star Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow brings not only another fine performance from Cruise but injects originality and intelligence into the modern sci-fi blockbuster, a genre far too often crammed with mindless excess and a plethora of sequels and prequels. Audiences will be surprised at the humor, wit, cleverness and genuine character development Liman accomplishes in the film, and while it is no masterpiece, Edge of Tomorrow is a solid summer adventure that truly engages its audience with an original and exciting story.

The plot of Edge of Tomorrow is initially simple but grows in complexity. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is a public relations officer in the United Defense Forces, which has been formed to combat an invading alien species known as the Mimics. The UDF is gearing up for an invasion to retake Europe, and Cage is stationed in London. After attempting to blackmail his commanding officer regarding orders to accompany a camera crew into combat on the first wave, he is stripped of his rank and shipped off to fight in the invasion as a private. During the invasion itself, which fails, Cage dies in the act of killing a Mimic, whose blood splatters over his body, only for Cage to discover he has reawakened the prior morning before the battle. Cage is stuck in a time loop, repeating the battle and waking up the previous morning every time he dies, and attempts to enlist the aid of the UDF’s finest soldier, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), known as “The Angel of Verdun,” who turns out to have experienced a time loop herself. Cage, formerly attempting to desert, is forced to slowly put together how to defeat the alien threat and save the UDF invasion from certain destruction.

On the surface, this may sound mind-numbingly repetitive, but Liman masterfully edits and cuts the film so that the audience sees different parts of Cage’s efforts each time through, rarely repeating material already established in the time loop unless for dramatic or comedic effect. In fact, this comedic element is one of Edge of Tomorrow’s greatest assets. Cruise plays against his typical role by portraying a cowardly and incompetent soldier, and several jokes regarding his trial and error attempts (not unlike modern video games) are uproariously hilarious. Liman also utilizes the time loop device to force the audience to pay close attention to dialogue and action. This might be popcorn entertainment, but it is certainly not mindless shoot-‘em-up entertainment. Some fascinating character dynamics are introduced as well. Cage, for example, continually reliving his attempts to defeat the Mimics, slowly but surely learns more about his comrade Rita and grows to care for her, but she, always beginning the loop again from ignorance, is unaware of the amount of time and effort Cage has invested in both her and their mission. The combined acting talents of Cruise and Blunt are a joy to to watch, and both lend a sense of depth and gravitas to their roles, supporting a concept and relationship that could have lost legitimacy and believability fairly quickly.

Cinematically, Edge of Tomorrow takes many cues from the D-Day invasion (making a June 6 release date no small coincidence) and the battle sequences are thrilling in both their scale and execution. Liman balances competing tones fairly well, keeping the humor dark but the drama and combat far from being too heavy and disturbing to make such jokes inappropriate. There are a few humor missteps early in the film, one sight gag in particular which is surprisingly immature considering the thoughtfulness of the rest of the story, but fortunately most of the comedy is genuinely clever. The final act is a bit predictable and standard compared to the fascinating time puzzles and dynamics that precede it, but these are minor complaints when considered in light of what the film gets right. Genuine character development for both Cruise’s cowardly Cage and Blunt’s tough-as-nails Angel of Verdun add much needed weight to the proceedings, providing people to root for and not simply points of view for action set-pieces. Edge of Tomorrow provides a good reminder of a lesson that the Michael Bays and bloated franchises of the world desperately need to learn: just because a film isn’t deep doesn’t mean it has to be mindless.