Summer Film Roundup

Safety Not Guaranteed
Dir. Colin Trevorrow, 86 min., Netflix Instant

Strongly disguised as a romcom, this film rarely does much to approach the time travel genre other than assembling a motley crew full of personal regrets. I failed to buy in to the outsider magazine intern (Aubrey Plaza) finding anything in common with the Dwight-like time traveler (Jake Johnson). In the subplot, her chauvinistic (but secretly sensitive) boss and the Indian nerd intern (that, frankly and unfairly, stands in for every dork everywhere) have a debauched mentor/protege relationship in the frat boy sense, but that story line pans out with very few hijinks and a whole lot of the type of talk you expect to hear from your drunken uncle at the family picnic. *spoiler* WTF, the time machine works at the end?? So we were to believe that this was a serious time travel piece? What a disappointing ending.

AV Club: B
Dissolve: n/a
RT: 91%
me: C-


Only God Forgives
Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 90 min., Netflix Instant

It’s hard to comment too much on this director’s style, given that I only know him from this film (he directed the critical darling Drive [2011]), but he must have gone to the Kubrickian school when he was filming this piece: the slow panning shots with the jarring sound bursts, the monochrome lighting and color scheme (though supposedly he is colorblind, a difficulty I can somewhat identify with), the cuts to mid-range shots of actors in silent relief. The cinematography is great; if only, as A.A. Dowd points out, there were real characters in the film. Everyone is more of a description than a well-defined person. Ryan Gosling, as an emasculated, Oedipal drug dealer, barely even speaks let alone emotes. He’s more of a mannequin posing for the shot (except for one animated moment with his hooker “girlfriend”). The stoical nature of the characters and lack of facial expressions comes off like a Greek morality play (strongly suggested by the bleak title), but the film’s coldness leaves the viewer cold in turn towards the eventual resolution.

AV Club: C
Dissolve: 3/5
RT: 40%
me: C-


The Monuments Men
Dir. George Clooney, 118 min., Redbox

Clooney essentially presents us with “The Dime Store Ocean’s Eleven Crew Saves Art for the Rest of the Uncaring Idiots of the World Who Can’t Appreciate How Great it All Is.” So whereas I haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan (1998) in a few years, I could recount five or six of the main cast members defining characteristics (and maybe even the actor names as well). I just watched this film a couple of hours ago and I couldn’t tell you one damn thing about anyone but the top three stars (Clooney, Damon, and Murray), and even then I didn’t get much to recount. The dialogue apes Ocean’s and the mission, while interesting and important, would definitely be better covered by a PBS documentary than a film, as most of the action is spaced out and jumps from city to city.

Sadly, unless you have more than a passing interest in the history of that period and have taken an art history course as well (as the film provides scant discussions of art other than the Judeo-Christian lionizing of important icons), it seems more like a random race across unknown landscapes to save objects that we are told are very important, but can’t really appreciate on much more than a superficial level. One thing is clear: America has everyone’s best interest in mind and will preserve artworks from not only our own destructive impulses, but those of everyone else who can’t comprehend the magnificence of art. That may have been true, but the film strongly paints our country as the “last best hope for man on earth.”.

AV Club: C
Dissolve: 2/5
RT: 32%
me: D+

Well, that was a bunch or rotten onions. Hopefully the next crop tastes sweeter.

Star Trek: Into Darkness, and what we want out of films

Dir. J.J. Abrams, 132 min., in theater
**Spoilers ahoy**

Lately, with the death of Roger Ebert and my own critical reflection on the role of each of us as critics, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we want to get from the experience. What makes us consume art, and what do we bring to the table from our own experiences?

I wouldn’t say that I’m biased towards the Star Trek franchise in any way (many of the films and TV episodes are garbage), but I do have an affinity for this series more than I do for, say, the Star Wars films. Nor do I become rabid over changes in the the characters or story lines as iterations come and go (see for example the anger over adaptations like X Men: First Class that rewrite characters and origins stories). I also firmly believe that films live and die on the screen, and that asking people to “prepare” for seeing a film or telling people that you “get more out of it” if you’ve read the comic/book/etc. doesn’t excuse a bad film.

All that baggage out of the way, your film experience with Into Darkness is really going to vary depending on how much you know about the original 1960’s television series and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (which itself is somewhat dependent on the “Space Seed” episode of the original television series). I suppose your reaction as a critic and viewer depends on whether you are seeing a summer action movie with no conception of the Star Trek mythos, or if you are going to see what is essentially Star Trek XIII: The Wrath of Khan reimagined.

At the core of Star Trek is the balance between the Federation, an alliance where everyone is friendly and civilized (at least outwardly), and the rest of the unknown universe, which McCoy summarizes in his own cantankerous way in Abrahams’ Star Trek (2009): “disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.” Unless your a damned fool, you have by now realized that almost everything in conventional science fiction is an effort to translate contemporary problems of our society and our ever-shifting conceptions of what is morally acceptable into a tableau of alien worlds, advanced civilizations, and technology that lets humans surpass one or more limitations or natural boundaries. In the case of Into Darkness the plot revolves around our response to terrorism and the human desire to avenge the wrongs done to their kind. In the Trek franchise, Starfleet is a contradiction in terms: a peace-loving group of explorers who are simultaneously responsible for patrolling the borders and destroying enemy threats as they arise. Throughout every story line, the fundamental tension is how to manage threat deterrence while preserving the freedom of the Federation’s citizens, avoiding overt hostilities with other peoples, and generally not turning the Federation into the very things it fights against. Recent American history has a lot to do with the amplification of these concerns throughout the past few iterations of the Trek franchise.

Hence I find that McMillian’s review for Wired, especially his assertion that the plot is “scattershod,” to be a misreading of the film. If anything, Into Darkness continues along the same plot line as the entire franchise up to this point, including the last film. The film begins with the terrorist bombing of a secret Federation facility in London (a facility very similar to secret U.S. intelligence facilities documented by Frontline/Pro Publica over the last few years). After that, the Starfleet commander’s plan to extract vengeance and protect against further alien threats is elaborated on by degrees that are less “plot twists” than elements we’ve come to expect from the reboot franchise (e.g. a shift from exploration to militarization, paranoid xenophobia, secret extralegal intelligence organizations, etc.).

This returns to the dilemma I am concerned with: are you watching this a standalone film or as part of a larger series? Those who saw the last film will remember that the Federation of this alternate timeline was just attacked by the rouge Romulans who destroyed Vulcan and killed billions of people. Is it that much of a plot twist that the Federation has been secretly planning an aggressive defense strategy? Apart from dethawing the 20th century supermen to fight their secret war against the antagonistic Klingons, there’s not much out of the blue here, except for the fact that Khan is inexplicably a white Briton as opposed to a Latino man playing a Sikh.

Did the writers, as McMillian suggests, miss opportunities to comment more on the social issues of our day? I believe they certainly did. But releasing this film in the summer requires a certain balance between action/adventure (that appeals to a broad audience) and introspective science fiction (that typically draws worse reviews and lower box office takes). I’ve talked before on this blog about hard versus soft sci-fi, and people typically go to theaters in droves for action-driven, hard sci-fi. Crossing over into introspection, moralizing, and thought provoking conversations about the ethics of interspecies relations would be inappropriate for this film and its goals. A valid question that I haven’t heard asked is whether the Trek style of introspection is really suited for the theaters.

A motion picture is an entirely different beast than a television series, and reviewers of the first eleven Star Trek films tend to center on a single opinion: this film could have been a two-hour episode of Star Trek. Abrams’ films are both relieved of that burden and cursed with the baggage of taking a new direction. The original Trek series was very one-note in terms of its moralistic delivery system: typically a didactic chat by the main characters at the end of the show that often ended with highly forced laughter. Gene Roddenberry imagined a utopian society that used advanced technology to sweep away the ills of humanity, but it stemmed from the post-war optimism of the 1950s and turned a blind eye to the growing disillusionment with government resulting from the Vietnam war. The morals that were clumsily dispensed at the end of each episode praised humanity (often an embarrassing proxy for the United States) far more often than pointed out our flaws. I also think reviewers, after several series and numerous films, tend to forget the the original series was an action/adventure show; the budget didn’t allow for the flashy effects of Abrams’ films, but the ratio of fistfights to highminded debates was pretty close.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society via Flickr Creative Commons BY SA 2.0
Later incarnations of the series in film held true to Roddenberry’s original action oriented vision, and largely fell flat towards the end with the excessive cheese that accompanies minor moral tribulations overcome with homespun ingenuity and fair play. In each of those films, there are staggering moral consequences dealt with and just as quickly brushed aside. For example, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the first film) has to do with the dangers of forcing premature contact with the unknown. In that film, the deep space probe Voyager, long since forgotten, returns as an unstoppable juggernaut that was built by well-meaning artificial life forms in order to fulfill its mission and return to Earth to download its data; when it finds it can’t do that, it nearly destroys all life on Earth. By the logic of the above reviewers, we might expect a discussion at the end of the film about the dangers of recklessly shooting devices into deep space that make our existence known to life forms that are possibly far more advanced than ourselves, and whose intentions we have no way to predict. In fact, having any contact with any species is staggeringly dangerous, but sci-fi operates on the basis that we can accept and suspend our disbelief of those risks long enough to be entertained. If fans really want a “thinking man’s series” as AV Club reviewer A.A. Dowd seems to think, then a long-form television series is much better poised to deliver weighty discussions than films that come out once every two years or so.

To return one more time to the “what do you expect?” question, I think that has a lot to do with your experience with the material and your expectations for engaging with the film. I don’t pick up issue 13 of a serialized comic, then get pissed off when I don’t get the inside jokes about a character from Detective Stories forty years ago. I guess the problem is that I wouldn’t pick up that comic at all, but in the age of serialization I suppose we should be asking whether that avoidance isn’t a good thing for films, television, and literature. Serialized narratives are nothing new, but they do present the barrier to entry that demarcates pop-culture cliques. I have never watched Breaking Bad or Mad Men or Arrested Development, and I’m probably not very likely to start; I have no stomach for watching 50 hours of television just so I can catch up with current episodes. If we view Into Darkness in the light of serialization, is it any surprise that it would have a similar barrier to entry?

The “Easter eggs” and hidden callbacks to the original Trek series are more than just lip service to the fans. The film has the enormous responsibility of taking on the Trek cannon, which has been redone in numerous incarnations, and coming up with something that seems exciting and relevant to today’s audiences in roughly two-hour increments. This film, far from the crown jewel of Trekdom, is a serviceable entry that hearkens back to the cannon while offering the action movie with high quality visual effects that today’s audiences expect.

Star Trek Lunchbox
My Star Trek Next Gen lunchbox that my parents inexplicably kept for about 23 years, which I packed and drove home 500 miles with me last year. This proves without a doubt that I was the very coolest of kids in third grade.

A tale of two films: 2001 and 2010

In my science fiction course this summer, we watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) after reading the novel of the same title by Arthur C. Clarke. We also read excerpts from the fairly decent The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey edited by Stephanie Schwam (2000). After that, I decided to take another look at the long anticipated filmed sequel of Clarke’s second entry in his tetralogy, 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984), which was available on Netflix Instant. The former film is a painstakingly produced, enduring exercise in new-wave sci-fi minimalism which touches the very quick of one’s soul and excites the imagination, while the later film is a concession to commercialism that portends the coming domination of the lowest common denominator in filmmaking.

The recent release of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus has sharply divided critics and people I have talked to along the lines of hard sci-fi (plot/action driven, technically detailed) and soft sci-fi (introspective and pseudoscientific). In her recent review, A.V. Club film critic Tasha Robinson compared Prometheus to Solaris (1972[?]2002), both versions of which rank high on the relative scale of introspection and existentialism. I thought I would challenge why introspective (or “new wave”) science fiction has drawn such criticism by examining the case study of 2001 and its much maligned sequel.

2001 movie posterIn 1964, Clarke and Kubrick teamed up to produce a film based on one of Clarke’s short stories (“The Sentinel”) which would be a “Journey Beyond the Stars” (an early title of the film). As Clarke notes, many poor films were written at first as screenplays, and many awful novels were written as “novelizations” of films, thus both collaborators decided to flesh out the story as a full-fledged novel while simultaneously creating the film; this was beyond ballsy given their early projections of going from practically nothing to a finished novel and feature-length motion picture released simultaneously in only two years. In a comfort to those tackling impossible projects, two of the greatest writers actually worked for four years, and they would finish barely one year before the first lunar landing in 1969, an event which would define in real life whether their film would come across as futuristic and timeless or dated and hokey compared to real astronautical technology.

As Clarke churned out the novel, Kubrick enlisted a virtual army to begin set and model construction for the film. An oft-cited example of the frenetic pace of production: Clarke would often write chapters and present them to Kubrick, who would revise and film scenes, whereby Clarke would view the rushes (rapidly developed film) from a day’s filming and alter the novel accordingly.

In terms of vision, the two were not totally dissimilar, but both had separate agendas. Clarke’s characters in the novel are thinking creatures of emotion in a universe of wonder, while Kubrick sought to portray sterile and emotionless characters in a world of strangeness punctuated by moments of sheer terror. It was ultimately Kubrick who unintentionally got the jump on Clarke, whose novel was released a couple months after the film and was, much to Clarke’s chagrin, sometimes confused for a “novelization.”

I tried my best to explain to my students that comparing the novel and film is akin to apples and oranges, but without a full film curriculum possible (the course was a mere six weeks to explore all of sci-fi) the message was sure to fail. In any case, there is much to be learned by reading the novel and watching the film in succession, including a whole host of illuminations regarding the plot that are otherwise inaccessible to most casual film watchers.

The film itself is a technical masterwork, showcasing attention to detail and visual effects craftsmanship that are unparalleled in any period piece and still hold up far better today than many CGI visual effects produced three or more decades later. As mentioned above, Kubrick had specialists including draftsmen, architects, aerospace engineers, and consultants who were involved in the fabrication of NASA’s period technology all working on building the Discovery, the monolith, and other set pieces. Additionally, he and Clarke poured over the latest technical publications. As a result of his efforts, Kubrick was presented with an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Sweeping camera shots paired with the masterful manipulation of the models, such as the docking of the the earth shuttle with the international space station, all set to Strauss’ Blue Danube, are still beautiful and breathtaking to this day.

Kubrick was obsessed with producing a film which was not immediately dated by technological advancements of the very near future. With the spectacular technological and logistical feat of the lunar landing looming on the horizon, such a rapid deprecation of the film’s technology was a very real possibility.

Simultaneously, Kubrick was paradoxically adamant that the film not be considered a prediction, but rather a fable, and be interpreted as such. The clash of a hard science fiction masterpiece in Clarke’s novel, which contains a prescient level of technical detail about space travel, and Kubrick’s stripped-down film, which offers very little in the way of technical exposition, tethers the two works together in provocative and oftentimes frustrating ways: the novel reader can recognize the subtly silent exposition of the scenes, while the period audience and many critics were able only to gawk at spectacular visuals as their Dionysian drive for plot acquisition is inhumanely stifled by Kubrick’s minimalist aesthetic.

2010 movie posterBy contrast, 2010: The Year We Make Contact looks laughably dated in the 1980’s. The mod and futuristic set design and spectacular visual effects afforded by the painstakingly constructed models in 2001 are long gone, replaced by cheap looking reproductions and technology which looks very much lifted out of War Games (no disrespect). While the plot picks up somewhat near the original, the film is very much dependent on typical cliches. Roy Scheider as Dr. Floyd from the first failed mission has to team up with the hated Soviets to recover the Discovery before it drops out of orbit into Jupiter. The film lazily borrows the score from Kubrick’s film, inserting clipped segments of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra which was used to such stunning effect in the first film as merely an abbreviated leitmotif for the appearance of the monolith. Additionally, the film leans on the crutch of voiceover, with Scheider reading one-sided letters home to his wife which update the plot action on the mission to Jupiter. In short, it replaces Kubrick’s visionary aesthetic with a more crowd-pleasing, action-oriented plot.

As with most science fiction that we are used to seeing, there is light introspection coupled with an apparent lack of technical detail. While Kubrick gives us a visual essay on how space travel might work based on Clarke’s detailed writings and research, 2010 gives us just enough explanation to gloss over the extant problems so that the filmmakers can progress the meandering plot. There are incoherent details presented, such as squeeze-bottle liquid containers which would make perfect sense in a zero-G atmosphere, but make no sense when the characters are firmly planted on the ground. Come to think of it, it’s not clear how the gravity works on the Soviet spaceship. Additionally, HAL, an integral and complex character from the first film, is spoken to much like a child (or dog) in this film, and is seen only as an obstacle which must be traversed to escape the impending danger at the end of the plot line.

The most satisfying part of 2010 comes when Bowman’s character from the first film reappears to deliver a message from the non-corporeal star beings and warn the American crew marooned on the Discovery of their dangerous position near Jupiter which (SPOILER) will become a second sun in the now binary Sol system, with all of Jupiter’s moons now (possibly?) habitable for human life (I haven’t read the second book).

As Bowman delivers his information, he transitions through the various life stages we originally saw in the final act of 2001. He walks the deck of his former ship, and even converses with HAL, apparently more serene than his last embittered encounter. Having transcended corporeal existence, he can now understand HAL’s actions and even, possibly, forgive him (if such emotions are even in the purview of his new existence). It’s hard to say whether I appreciated this portion of the film as a part of 2010 or as a satisfying resolution to the enmity which defined their parting in 2001, though I feel the later is probably much more likely.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how sequels (or prequels) are a difficult matter to negotiate, and the difficulty grows proportionately with the gap in years between installments as film technologies and cultural zeitgeist (co-)evolve. While 2010 is not a “bad” film, it is hard to read both films as related other than the common characters and plot elements. In the ways that really matter, they couldn’t be further apart.

Moon (2009)

Liberty Films, U.K., 97 min. Dir. Duncan Jones

I tried to see what the deal was with Moon by doing a Google news search, but between Despicable Me and Twilight: 3/4 Harvest Moon, or whatever the new one is, I gave up immediately. I wanted to know where this film came from and how it ended up on my TV since I don’t remember any trailers or reviews, but it was in my Redbox list since like last year and is still available there (and on Netflix Instant Que).

The SciFi elements of this film exist to both provide a backdrop and premise for the action, but also to showcase the moral and ethical dilemmas inherent at the film’s core. It’s hard to summarize without giving away the many revelations at the heart of the film, so I’ll merely set the stage for you. Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2, Choke) plays Sam Bell, a solitary worker on the moon who collects moon rocks from giant skimmers that reminded me a lot of the harvesters in Command and Conquer (I know, supernerd). The moon rocks power “70% of Earth’s energy needs” and his job, while incredibly important, is extremely monotonous and drives him to distraction and disinterest. As with most endurance films, things start to break down right around the end of his time there, worrying his only companion: a robot that is ingeniously done up as the type you would see assembling cars, but with artificial intelligence that makes him capable of affection for Sam, even if it is programmed. Anyway, things are looking pretty good for Sam’s departure before an accident occurs, which will reveal a lot more about what’s going on up on the moon.

There’s a lot to like about this film. If you dug 2001: A Space Oddssey (1968) which is really a first rate science fiction film, then you will dig this. Moon has the benefit of CGI, but its use is not to generate poorly-rendered Rastafarian aliens: it serves as a tasteful and complementary backdrop to the set pieces which really make you think of Kubrick. Kevin Spacey does his best HAL as the voice of the robot, which cashed in on 2001 without completely ripping it off, but I don’t think his vocal performance could get any closer to the original monotone voiced by Douglas Rain.

The tension between laxity and the perfection needed to exist in a zero atmosphere environment where the slightest miscalculation or mistake can instantly kill you in the most painful way possible is really demonstrated here. There is one particular scene where Sam tries to pass off a minor mistake caused by psychological stress as a simple accident, only to have the robot grill him with questions. Every ancillary detail of the film (carving miniatures with a pen knife, botany, ping pong) is presented in a way which heightens the fact that we often expend an extraordinary amount of attention on what we like to do, and tend to treat the monotonous work of everyday which is critical to other people and our own survival as a cakewalk (perhaps to exercise control over that which we are masters of in order to defray the tension of the uncontrollable or that which challenges us the most…).

7/10: Speaking of diffusing some tension, a lighter side of the moon

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Paramount, 124 minutes, Dir. John Favreau

You know you’re a dork when you’re trying to explain to your wife on the car ride home why a new element couldn’t possibly be represented by the holographic projection that Tony Stark is viewing in his laboratory in Iron Man 2. But this revelation is no surprise to anyone reading this.

Despite it’s numerous scientific flaws, which admittedly one must overlook in order to enjoy a movie about a dude that flies around in an impenetrable suit and has a futuristic battery in his chest, IM2 falls short on so many aesthetic levels, which I will list here.

One: The film is a star delivery system. The screenplay fails to provide adequate lines and backstory for most of the characters played by major Hollywood actors. I still don’t understand why the hell Samuel L. Jackson was in this film.

Two: Apart from special effects wizardry, the cool technology developments are largely unexplained. Tony Stark erecting what looks to be a particle collider that shoots an energy stream out of a hole in the side that hits what looks to be a miniature middle school band triangle does not explain how he develops a new element. I love cheezy comic book science, but I like it to have some kind of connection with the plot, which was too much to ask in this film.

Three: Why is the role of “Rhodey” played by Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard? Think we wouldn’t notice?? Just like Matrix two, eh?? Wrong, my friend.

Four: Hey writers (this includes you, Stan Lee), the Cold War ended a while ago. Hence, the forced Russo-American arms race tensions seem a bit outdated. Is this a Tom Clancy novel?

This is the point where I would expand on the plot, but there isn’t really much to say. Stark (Downey Jr.) predicts that he alone will maintain “the peace” (even though we see nothing in the way of global peace initiatives or Iron Man’s hand in monitoring global peace–was there a war to begin with?), and then foolishly betrays the world’s trust by getting hammered at his birthday party in the Iron Man suit, which is probably one of the funniest scenes in the film. It all sounds very colonial, seeing as it’s once again the mighty U.S. alone (and a playboy millionaire at that) who will force the world’s haters into submission. This movie really only works if you suppress the urge to think about why anything is happening.

An 80’s style Soviet Cold War scientist emerges to avenge himself against the west for ruining his father’s dreams of becoming a bourgeois fat cat. One of the best lines: “after he was deported, he spent the next 20 years in Siberia in a vodka fueled rage.” Sweet. Way to flatten out the characters into razor thin caricatures.

I guess what sold me on the original Iron Man is that Stark undergoes an exercise in humility where he is forced to use raw talent and guile to outwit his opponents, and then reflect on the monster he created through his involvement in the military-industrial complex. It’s spelled out in huge letters, but the film has a point. This movie is Stark’s character delivering one idiotic one liner after another, and Downey Jr. brings a halfhearted performance. In part, the timing of this film may be off; I doubt there are too many people who care to watch the personal life problems of a billionaire playboy lamenting over his having to assume responsibility for the mess he created through his self-righteous arrogance.

4/10: He should really be called “Synthetic-Alloy-Wisecracking Man” in my opinion