Friday, November 24, 2017

Review - Justice League

           So I found myself in the most unfortunate of circumstances several days ago. I was in a pretty ugly car wreck and ended up flipping may car into a ditch on the side of the freeway. Through sheer serendipity (and a sturdy seatbelt), I was able to crawl out of the wreckage more or less unscathed, but, needless to say, my car was in a rather sad shape. While the relevant parties continue to evaluate whether or not it can be salvaged, I have been left without an easy means of getting to and from the movie theater, so I wasn’t really able to catch Murder on the Orient Express like I said I would. However, I have spent the past couple of days studying bus routes and transit maps meticulously, and I think I have finally been able to calculate the precise routes and number of transfers needed to make it to and from the closest theater. The downside to my newfound understanding of public transit, though, is that I am now yet again enabled to go see Justice League, a film that I have been looking forward to for all the wrong reasons.
          Yes, I had been planning to see Justice League, but only because I was expecting it to be really bad. Anyone who is familiar with my previous work will know that I have reviewed Warner Bros.’ attempts at superhero movies in the past, and that, each time, they have never failed to disappoint me in a myriad of ways. While Man of Steel was released before I started writing reviews for the blog, I can say that that it is ipso facto uninteresting by virtue of the fact that Superman is an inherently overpowered, unrelatable, uninteresting character. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice was bad insofar as it introduced us to one of the silliest iterations of Batman since George Clooney’s portrayal of the Caped Crusader in Batman and Robin, featured the overpowered Superman fighting an equally overpowered and uninteresting Doomsday, and hinted at the prospect of a cinematic installment of Justice League before ever even introducing the rest of the Justice League. And, despite its superficial success among a very superficial American audience, Wonder Woman was bad insofar as it was built on a foundation of very tiresome clichés, like situating the villains amongst the generic stock of WWI/WWII German baddies, presenting us with a female protagonist meant to shirk the gender norms of today while simultaneously conforming to some of those very same gender norms, and ultimately devolving into the same boring CGI punch-up that we saw at the end of Batman vs. Superman. Despite missing the mark so widely in its previous attempts at establishing a solid superhero universe, Warner Bros. seems determined not to be bested by Disney and Marvel and is now giving us Justice League, foregoing the formal introduction of Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg, and skipping straight to the inevitable CGI clusterfuck punch-up that has come to do define virtually every other superhero movie that is overcrowded with superheroes. And yes, after having now seen it, I can confirm that many of my predictions about Justice League’s performance were accurate - it’s plot is just as silly as Batman vs Superman, the characters are still painfully one-dimensional (with perhaps one, maybe two, notable exceptions), and it overdoses on CGI harder than any Marvel film so far, and arguably even harder than Batman vs Superman. I suppose the upside to Justice League’s failure is that I now have a lot of cannon fodder to speak to for the remainder of this review, but this is also to the even greater detriment of Justice League - I feel like I haven’t really had this much to say since my review of The 5th Wave, which, if you recall, won my award for the worst movie of 2016.
          But with so much to comment on, where do I start? Well, we can start right at the beginning. Justice League picks up not long after the events of Batman vs Superman, with Clark Kent dead and buried, a fact that the film is quick to remind us of with a close-up shot of a newspaper headline reading “SUPERMAN IS DEAD” within the first two minutes of the film. The remainder of the opening montage is then dedicated to illustrating just how much the world has gone to shit in the absence of Superman. We are served clips of scruffy-looking thugs trashing a fruit stand, police overwhelmed by the surge of rampant crime, and militant groups again empowered to terrorize a world without its beacon of hope and purity, Superman. *Presses the pause button*. Now hold on a second - I feel inclined to point out that this is an exceedingly bleak view of the world. Not that I am always the most ardent optimist - in fact, there are times when I think the world would be better served by a healthy dose of nihilism - but this almost appears self-serving. The logic here appears to be built upon the conditional statement that “If Superman dies, then society as we know it falls apart”. Looking at it a little differently, Justice League seems to make the assumption that humans are actually incapable of growing and thriving on their own, and in fact need an overpowered, infallible paragon of clichéd virtues to look up to in order to succeed (inadvertently necessitating the return of Superman later on). Such an assumption would be insulting were it not for the fact that it’s so misplaced in Justice League that it couldn’t even be construed as a passive criticism of modern society. The world in which the League operates is an unbelievable world, a world that exists in its own parallel dimension that poorly attempts to mimic our own. There’s nothing relatable about it - actual human societies have persevered through hardships and tragedies before, and while numerous symbols and monuments may have collapsed or been destroyed in the past, such events have never led to the inevitable downfall of mankind. If you further contrast the world Justice League gives us with the world that we are presented with in the Marvel films, a world much more like our own, where humans attempt to continue on with their daily lives despite the extraordinary adversity that may befall it, one may begin to see why Warner Bros. lags behind Disney in the superhero department - the DC Extended Universe presents us with an unbelievable world that faces extraordinary circumstances, where the Marvel Cinematic Universe presents us with a much more relatable world that faces extraordinary circumstances. And while I have confessed to not being the biggest fan of superhero movies at all, I can at least acknowledge that only one of these fictional worlds does a better job at creating the suspension of disbelief necessary for quality science fiction (and it’s not the DCEU).
          And all of that can be concluded just by watching the opening montage in the first few minutes of the film. Once that segment ends and we are adequately introduced to the unbelievable world the Justice League operate in, the film then wastes no time jumping into the action overloaded punch-up. One of the aforementioned terrorist groups du jour barges into a bank, takes a few dozen people hostage, and tries to blow up four square blocks of Metropolis/Gotham City/wherever the fuck they are in an attempt to make some kind of generic political statement. Enter Wonder Woman, who proceeds to dramatically come crashing through a thick wooden door (as opposed to just opening it) and deflect an entire clip of rounds fired from a fully automatic rifle using just her wrist guards with seemingly godlike precision and lightning speed, all while roundhouse kicking some of the other terrorist henchmen in the face. Later that evening, Metropolis/Gotham City/Generictown is still under attack, but this time, our perpetrators are not some disgruntled ruffians from off the streets or another nameless terrorist group, but the interesting combination of a burglar running across rooftops and an alien-bug-man-thing from outer space, at which point Batman promptly shows up and does battle with the alien-bug-man-thing while tying up our burglar on the rooftops. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away on an unseen-but-totally-present island in the middle of the ocean, the Amazon tribe that Wonder Woman hails from is called to the chamber of an ancient cube-shaped artifact housed on the island for safe keeping. Almost as if on cue, not long after Queen Hippolyta enters the chamber, our primary antagonist, Steppenwolf, teleports into the fray with his army of alien-bug-men-things (subsequently referred to as 'parademons') and proceeds to do battle with the Amazons in an apparent contest to see which team has the better CGI.
          Steppenwolf. Yes, the villain’s name is fucking Steppenwolf. I personally found it hard to take the remainder of the film seriously after this revelation, and I legitimately wondered how, say, Ben Affleck or Gal Gadot was able to discuss saving the world from its impending destruction with a straight face. The villain’s name sounds like the name of a some kind of dance, and so every time the discussion of how to save the world from Steppenwolf came up, I always imagined that, somewhere in the obscure corners of the world, like maybe a barn in some unheard of town in North Dakota, there was some kind of a hoedown going on where a group of nefarious individuals was doing the Steppenwolf in order to bring about the End of Days, in which the world would suddenly explode, Death Star-style, unless they were promptly stopped. Speaking of poorly designed characters, Justice League uses this opportunity to introduce us to Cyborg, a CGI supersoldier that looks as if he walked fresh off of the set of the most recent Transformers film. I find myself surprised that, in a world in which Star Wars has recently demonstrated that even the most ambitious of sci-fi titles can still use practical effects, puppetry, and motion capture to construct its universe beautifully, Warner Bros. stubbornly insists on going the Michael Bay route and just CGI-ing its characters to cartoonish proportions. Granted, I would certainly expect something more advanced than the clunky (though iconic) Robocop outfit from the 80s, but Cyborg seems to go off the deep end in the opposite direction, more or less scrubbing out Ray Fisher and replacing him with the newest Decepticon.
          And my comments on Cyborg are perhaps a good segue into another one of the most glaring problems with Justice League: its unrelenting blast of CGI. If I may yet again invoke my CGI drug addict analogy, Justice League is the dead body left to rot in the warm back room - while many entries in the Marvel universe may be sprawled out across the dirty mattress or bathroom floor, tweaked out of their minds on CGI with used needles scattered about, Justice League overdosed and died one week ago, but his friends didn’t know what to do with the body, so they just dragged the carcass into the back room with a boarded up window and left it there. Clearly, Warner Bros. has completely abandoned the concept of the “suspension of disbelief”. This is perhaps most evident in the ending fight scene where Steppenwolf has begun terraforming Earth into some kind of apocalyptic alien hellscape. You see, one of the advantages of Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is that it seemed very real - we were presented with a Gotham City struggling against varying levels of organized crime, much like a handful of certain American cities today, to which a rich military contractor gets creative with his company’s technology and pursues his own breed of vigilante justice. With Justice League, this effect is totally lost when the Batmobile is mounted with a railgun blasting alien-bug-men-things while speeding through what essentially amounts to a cross between Neverland and the planet Pandora from Avatar. Likewise, one can’t help but feel a degree of weird anachronism when Aquaman single-handedly engages a platoon of laser-wielding alien-bug-men-things armed only with a trident from the depths of Atlantis. It’s just a very poor use of CGI and world-building, and is reminiscent of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, where its over-reliance on CGI morphed it into something cartoonish and uninteresting.
          To be fair, there are a couple of things that Justice League does well that should probably be called out here. For example, while Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/Flash is not the most unique character I have ever seen (he reminded me a lot of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in the most recent iteration of Spider-Man), he certainly had more depth and complexity than Affleck’s Batman, Gadot’s Wonder Woman, and Cavill’s Superman, being forced into a situation where he has to reconcile his juvenile, semi-pacifist propensity for mischief with a newfound obligation to save his fellow man from impending doom. A similar observation can be made of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, a character who wasn’t afraid to stray from the cliché “the world is in peril and it’s our job to save it” attitude exemplified by the aforementioned trio of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman, instead preferring to be left alone in his Eskimo fishing village to ironically strut his tough-guy machismo for all 25 old people in the village to see. I think further praise can also be given to Danny Elfman’s musical score for the film. For those that know me, it is no secret that I have long been an admirer of most of Elfman’s work - I will confess that the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack still occasionally makes it onto my musical playlist - so I was very surprised to read that he was put in charge of the music during the opening credits. And it wasn’t particularly difficult to detect Elfman’s fingerprints on the score - during those scenes where Batman descends from the rooftops or the Batmobile bursts into action, the keen listener should have been able to pick up on the familiar tune of the Batman theme that he did for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman or the Emmy-winning animated series from the 90s. John Williams, perhaps one of the best composers in American history, gets his own homage as well, as the keen listener also should have been able to hear Elfman reference Williams’ Superman them during the scene in which Superman shows up to help the League in the final fight against Steppenwolf. Overall, it was nice to hear the throwback to the established themes that previous iterations of these characters have had - it provides a much-needed sense of continuity between the various DC IPs that notoriously have been plagued by reboots, reimaginings, and varying levels of success over the past several decades.
          Such pros, however, are not enough to redeem its cons, so in short, don’t bother with Justice League. It’s clear that Warner Bros. still doesn’t understand how the elements of fiction work, as all of my expectations that were set by previous installments of the DC Extended Universe were not ill-formed. From the shallow and silly characters to the even sillier plot to its virtual overdose on CGI, Justice League embodies everything that is wrong with superhero films today. As K. Austin Collins writes for The Ringer, I would seriously consider where my career is heading if I were Ben Affleck or Jeremy Irons or almost any other cast member in the film, as sticking with Warner Bros. is proving to be a sinking ship [1]. As I mentioned in my review of Batman vs Superman, there is the potential in the DC Extended Universe to explore and re-imagine many of those elements of these characters that have either never been explored before or have made an attempt at a silver-screen iteration in the past and have failed (such as an exploration of Batman’s more “sci-fi” villains). Instead of trying to tap into this potential though, Warner Bros. insists on trying to compete with Marvel head-on by creating it’s own version of the Avengers, but is, expectedly, being outdone at every corner. Perhaps one of these days, someone in the creative studio or marketing department at Warner Bros. will wise up to the fact that the DC Universe is falling apart around them and actually try to do something about it. It’s a pity because I have historically looked forward to the Fall and Winter movie season each year, as this is usually when the most impressive titles are released, but, this year, Justice League unfortunately leaves a sour taste in my mouth. But alas, there is a light at the end of this tunnel though, as there remains one important entry this season that will, hopefully, end this year with a bang: Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

[1] https://www.theringer.com/movies/2017/11/15/16656054/justice-league-film-review-zack-snyder-joss-whedon

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Review - Thor: Ragnarok

          Yeah yeah, I know - I said that I would write a review for Blade Runner 2049 back when I wrote my review of It. Obviously, that plan didn't quite work out the way that I had intended. In my defense, though, I found myself more preoccupied with another, slightly more ambitious writing project that had been in development for months, a project which I was finally able to produce a completed draft of. That project has now moved on to the reviewing and editing phase and, depending on how subsequent drafts turn out after edits, it may actually see the light of day in the near future. At the very least, if I can’t get any publication to take interest in it, it will be another piece for the blog. But now that October has passed (somewhat uneventfully, as far as writing goes) and November is upon us, I once again look towards the movie calendar for the remainder of the year and am quickly reminded why November and December are typically my favorite months for movies - Thor: Ragnarok, Murder on the Orient Express, and Justice League (God help us) all come out this month, while the title that has piqued my personal interest the most, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is released in December. And so, after falling off of the airwaves for October, it's time to dive right back into the writing fray with Thor: Ragnarok.
          Thor: Ragnarok is the third entry in the Thor series and the seventeenth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a set of monumentally popular comic IPs, owned by Disney, that perhaps single-handedly made the superhero film genre what it is today. I confess myself somewhat ambivalent about the prolonged success of the MCU. On the one hand, I haven’t historically been the biggest fan of the superhero genre, as such films typically undermine a crucial element of science fiction and fantasy known as the “suspension of disbelief”, which in turn kills the overall level of immersion for the audience and has a tendency to render the films more silly than anything else. Still, on the other hand, it would be disingenuous of me not to point out that there have been a number of occasions where the MCU has actually presented us with very relatable characters and compelling story elements, what some may perhaps consider the two most important things in any work of fiction. We saw this in the presentation of Ant-Man’s Scott Lang as your “average Joe” kind of guy, down on his luck, trying to earn the affection of his daughter and ex-wife, who just happens to find himself in a situation where the world is at stake, or in Doctor Strange, where the Doc is forced to reign in his arrogance and over-devotion to science as the very fabric of the cosmos unravels before him in the pages of Indian mysticism. Perhaps this is a sign that the superhero genre is actually starting to mature and understand that many of the over-the-top elements that it could get away with in comic books are held up to a higher level of scrutiny when such series are translated into film and presented to a broader audience, compelling film studios to realize that there is the potential for actual art when these series are critiqued from the perspective of traditional fiction. Thor: Ragnarok seems to more or less be aware of this, having come a long way since the days of the very uninteresting run-of-the-mill stories that constituted the early installments of the MCU. While still having its share of blunders, Ragnarok takes liberties with the series that other installments of the MCU have not, such as presenting us with a formidable female villain among other characters that don't quite fit the dry archetypes you find in, say, any Warner Brothers superhero production.
          Thor: Ragnarok presents us with the eponymous God of Thunder in search of the fabled Infinity Stones roughly two years after the events of Age of Ultron. His quest draws his attention away from his home of Asgard, where his mischievous brother Loki has masqueraded around as their father, Odin, and ruled over the kingdom with what can best be described as a laissez-faire approach to government. After defeating the great fire demon Surtur, Thor returns to Asgard, immediately recognizes Loki’s narcissistic vanity through the disguise and reveals him. Seeing the threat to Asgard in the absence of Odin, Thor demands that Loki take him to wherever he hid Odin. With the help of Doctor Strange, Thor and Loki find Odin on Earth, who reveals that he is dying and that his death will release his first-born child, Hela, the Goddess of Death, from her prison. After Odin dies and disintegrates into cosmic dust, almost as if on cue, Hela abruptly walks out of some kind of nether portal, defeats Loki and Thor, smashes Thor’s hammer, and casts them both off of the Bifrost bridge and into space as she launches an assault on Asgard. The remainder of film follows Thor’s quest to return to Asgard and save it from Hela. Along the way, Thor finds himself stranded on a mysterious planet, competing in some kind of gladiatorial event for the eccentric Grandmaster, crossing paths with the Hulk, and reluctantly enlisting his brother’s help in returning to Asgard and saving it from his evil sister.
          When compared to Warner Brothers’ attempts at establishing a solid superhero franchise (Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and Wonder Woman), Thor: Ragnarok illustrates just how solid an understanding of the elements of fiction that Disney actually has. Ragnarok actually has characters with depth and personality, as opposed to the one-dimensional, superficial personas that constitute virtually every character in the aforementioned Warner Brothers films. Thor, for example, puts his bravado on full display in the first five minutes of the film when confronting Surtur, as he has no qualms telling a fiery demon lord to hold on a minute as he rotates in circles while dangling from a chain in the ceiling. This is in stark contrast to the blatantly scripted melodrama of, say, Batman vs. Superman, such as when Batman asks Superman if he bleeds while looking tough and menacing. Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster is easily one of the most complex and eccentric characters in the entirety of the MCU, a powerful being that presides as what can best be described as “Lord of the Trash Planet” who has orgies on spaceships, hosts battle arenas with space gladiators, wears a gold silk robe, and refuses to address any of his servants as slaves. Now, if one were to juxtapose this with, say, Wonder Woman, I would imagine that one would find the Grandmaster to be a much more interesting antagonist than the overused and boring evil Germans during World War I. And while we’re making Wonder Woman comparisons, it may also be worth pointing out that Ragnarok actually had the courage to have a profound female villain. Not only was Hela sadistic and brutal, but she actually proved to be a formidable foe for Thor and crew, having previously slaughtered the Valkyries and smashed Thor’s hammer. Hela was a far more dangerous antagonist to be reckoned with, as opposed to Wonder Woman’s Doctor Poison, a character that was quickly relegated to the role of sidekick and whose screen time consisted of a few brief moments of her throwing vials of toxic gas every so often.
          I wouldn’t say Thor: Ragnarok was perfect, however. The two biggest things that I had a problem with are perhaps the two biggest criticisms I’ve leveled at almost every installment of the MCU since Age of Ultron: the over-reliance on CGI and the tendency of much of the action to devolve into one big, incoherent punch-up. I have, on numerous occasions, compared the superhero films of today to a drug addict sprawled out on a dirty mattress after having overdosed on CGI, and it’s clear that Ragnarok didn’t make any effort to sober up since The Dark World or Age of Ultron. I thought this was the most evident during the scene where Hela first arrives on Asgard and single-handedly destroys an entire battalion of Odin’s best soldiers without even breaking a sweat. There’s something very weird about watching a CGI version of Cate Blanchett spin around and do backflips with daggers while chaining together roundhouse kicks and conjuring an unending supply of weapons out of the aether - it’s like the very unbelievable CGI version of Christopher Lee in Revenge of the Sith, and it kills the suspension of disbelief. I’ve also found that one of the virtues that the MCU has over any Warner Brothers production is its slightly campy and light-hearted nature, as opposed to the poorly-executed doom and gloom of Batman vs. Superman, for example. But while the ending fight scene of Ragnarok can be applauded for its attempts at self-parody, it might have gone a little too overboard and crossed the line into utter silliness - Thor summons lightning bolts while the Hulk is fighting a giant wolf in the ocean while the Asgardian Skurge leaps from a spaceship dual-wielding M16s while Surtur is resurrected and destroys Odin’s palace while Hela is still doing backflips and roundhouse kicks while Loki is fighting skeletal zombie warriors. It’s a lot to take in to say the least, and is very reminiscent of the brawl at the end of Age of Ultron, which is to say that it might as well be illustrated with a cartoon-esque dust cloud and the occasional “KAPOW” flashing across it.
          Still, the pros of Thor: Ragnarok outweigh its cons, and I think it’s safe to say that Disney and Marvel Studios have started to perfect their craft with regard to superhero films, something I saw traces of in Ant-Man and Doctor Strange. It’s going to be interesting to see just how well Justice League performs later this month, coming on the heels of Ragnarok and attempting to carry on the success of Wonder Woman. If it’s anything like Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, or Wonder Woman, it’s not going to be very good, yet still get at least a moderate turn out, as the typical American movie-goer can be entertained by virtually anything these days. And, like Batman vs. Superman and Wonder Woman, I intend to write something about Justice League as well, likely comparing its performance to that of Ragnarok. But that is not for another few weeks, and I have Murder on the Orient Express to look forward to before that.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Review - It (2017)

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

          This summer just drags on and on, and any kind of enthusiasm that I may have had for it in June or July has now evaporated. Summer has historically never been my favorite season, and while I will admit to initially enjoying the clear blue skies as a nice reprieve from the copious amounts of rain that the Puget Sound area is famous for, any pleasure that I may have gotten from a relaxing stroll through the park on a clear day is severely undermined by my undying aversion to heat, of which this summer also brought in abundance and continues to plague us with. I feel like I am back in California - I would often complain about the seemingly endless summer season there, and was hoping that relocating to the Puget Sound area would present me with much more modest summers. But, alas, this doesn’t seem so, as the days are still far too long and bright.
          As another indication that this summer just needs to end already, I have concluded that the 2017 summer movie season was a flat out dud. Not in the same way that the 2016 summer movie season was a failure, however. The 2016 summer movie season (or, to be more precise, 2016 in general) was a failure because the movies that were released were just bad movies. The 2017 summer movie season, on the other hand, was a failure not because all of movies that were released were bad, but because there were virtually no movies released. Typically, I can browse Fandango on a given weekend and find a film that intrigues me that I may or may not see (there are many films I see that I never write reviews for). This summer, however, was wholly devoid of that effect. Using The Mummy as a starting point, there were only 6 movies that I saw from the middle of June to September: The Mummy, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Dark Tower, Dunkirk, Annabelle Creation, and It (and I was only able to see part of Annabelle Creation as I had to leave partway through the film). And it looks like I’m not the only one who wasn’t impressed with this summer’s movie offerings - as MarketWatch reports, 2017’s box office earnings will be among the lowest in over a decade [1]. Fortunately, though, my 2017 summer movie experience ends on a high, and disturbing, note with It.
          I have actually been looking forward to It. I haven’t written a review for a genuine horror film since 2015’s Crimson Peak, and, to be completely honest, last month’s review of Dunkirk was actually supposed to be a review of Annabelle Creation, but that opportunity was abruptly cut short, partially because I was extremely busy when Annabelle was released, making it difficult to actually make time to see it, and partially because I had to leave during the one opportunity I did have to see it. Adding to my aura of anticipation, as a fan of Stephen King’s work, I found myself disappointed with the film adaptation of the Dark Tower series, so I viewed the release of It just over a month later as an opportunity to restore my faith in the cinematic iterations of King’s work. Further still, after looking at the movie release schedule for the remainder of September, it looked like the well of creativity had run dry in Hollywood, as It was the only thing that seemed interesting this entire month, the one oasis in a cinematic desert. Needless to say, the environment was such that I had to put a lot of faith in It to both slake my thirst for an immersive horror experience as well as my desire for compelling writing material this month.
          It is a remake of a 1990 television miniseries, which itself is based on a 1986 novel written by King. Directed by Andy Muschietti, this iteration of It is designed to map closely onto the book, and features Bill Skarsgard as the sinister Pennywise the Dancing Clown, replacing the aging Tim Curry. To be consistent with a statement I made last month, I was of course slightly skeptical of its potential when It was announced - as I mentioned, films based off of books are generally not as good as the books themselves, especially since the other film adaption of a King novel this summer, The Dark Tower, was very underwhelming. Couple that with my observation that most contemporary horror films are really quite abominable, and one could be forgiven for predicting this to be another project that was fated to crash and burn. That said, the film still had a glimmer of hope going for it that made my personal interaction with it much more interesting - unlike the Dark Tower series, I have never actually read the novel. For me, this presented a clear test I could use to see how well the screenplay and Muschietti’s direction followed the book: if I could clearly follow the events of the movie without stumbling over any glaring plot holes and have it still be impactful, then Muschietti succeeded at extracting the core elements of the novel that would be necessary for a screen adaptation. To both my relief and my great surprise, Muschietti’s version of It actually succeeds at this - It was really unlike any other horror film I have seen in a very long time, and, in fact, was a great film in general, easily jumping to the top of my list of contenders for best film of 2017.
          It introduces us to The Losers’ Club, a ragtag bunch of pre-teen misfits who have to contend with not being the most popular kids in school, growing up in small-town America, and various family issues at home. Pause here. Already, It presents us with what I think is the most remarkable thing that it does well: it takes liberties with children. I have long made the observation that, in Hollywood, presenting children as anything other than innocent little cherubs who must be protected and unharmed is a kind of unspoken taboo. I cannot recall the last time there was a truly sinister child villain in film, for example (maybe Henry in The Good Son, but that was in 1993), or a sequel to The Human Centipede where the victims were children. This mindset, however, is completely thrown out the window in It. In the first five minutes of the film, for example, we witness a 5 or 6 year old child get his arm eaten off and flail around in a pool of blood before being dragged into the dark abyss of a storm drain. The Losers’ Club themselves, as well as their classmates at school, are a lot closer to what 11, 12, and 13 year-old kids are actually like, which is to say, far from innocent and harmless. This is apparent in the fact that the boys in the group can’t seem to help but make very crude “your mom” jokes and shout “what the fuck?!” every five seconds. Soon after we witness Bill’s (leader of The Losers’ Club) little brother get dragged into the storm drain, we fast forward about six months to see Beverly, the only female in The Losers’ Club, get called a slut in the bathroom at school and have trash dumped all over her. In short, It gives us a depiction of what pre-teens, both boys and girls, in small town America are actually like, as opposed to what Hollywood imagines they are like, or what parents would like to believe their children are like. And on that note…
          The other thing that It merits praise for is for being a film not about a killer clown, but for  being a film about kids who have to contend with the struggles of growing up in America and face the horrors of being an adult. Let me be clear about this: Pennywise is not the primary antagonizing force in the film. Rather the children’s everyday lives and interactions with society are the primary antagonizing force. I found this to be another one of the most glaring things about the film: there is always an additional cause for anxiety for The Losers’ Club aside from Pennywise. This is evident in the scene where Beverly is struggling to figure out which brand of tampon to buy at the drug store while trying to avoid her nemesis, Gretta. It’s present in Eddie’s over-protective mother, who embarrasses him in front of his friends and, at one point, berates the rest of Club, including an insinuation of Beverly’s “slutty” reputation. The group constantly has to jump through hoops to avoid Henry Bowers’ gang, the local bullies, who are always looking to harass and harm them, such as the scene where Henry carves a letter “H” into Ben’s stomach with his knife. This is present in Beverly’s abusive father, who seeks to keep her from hanging out with the rest of Club so he can sexually exploit her. This is also present in the fact that none of the adults in the film are able to see Pennywise at all and don’t seem to care when any of the children say anything about what they’ve experienced, similar to when we hear the stereotypical complaint from pre-teens that “my parents don’t listen to me”. Pennywise is simply the side-effect of all of this, the accumulation of the children’s fear and anxiety. This is not to say that Pennywise is a mere figment of their imagination - he has to be a real entity in order to actually kill the children and cause them to go missing. However, it would be interesting to see what Pennywise would be like if the town of Derry were less dysfunctional - if, say, children were actually well-behaved and parents actually cared about their children and listened to them and let them hang out with their friends. Would Pennywise be able to find the negative emotions it needs to thrive?
          Speaking of Pennywise, I believe some credit should be given to the acting in the film. There was some concern as to whether or not Bill Skarsgard would be able to be as genuinely creepy as Tim Curry in his portrayal of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Now, after having seen it, we can put any doubt to rest - Skarsgard was able to surprisingly juggle the silliness of being a circus clown with the vicious nature of a demonic entity that eats children without dropping any balls or bowling pins. The result was something very foreboding and ominous, a stark malevolence hiding behind a mask of lollipop pink and red balloons, a malevolence that the audience knew was always ready to pounce at its prey at any moment, but never quite knew when that would happen. The casting and performance of the children in the film should be lauded as well. Unlike many contemporary films where, instead of casting a teenager to portray a teenager, production studios cast a bunch of 20-somethings and try to pass them off as teenagers, Muschietti actually cast 13 and 14 year-olds to portray The Losers’ Club. In many ways, they reminded of The Goonies, albeit more vulgar and realistic - their experience shown through as the cast had the challenging task of pulling off some very adult scenes, including scenes where they were half-naked, which they managed to do without losing any of the drama or humor.
          In the end, I have absolutely no regrets about seeing It, and I highly recommend that any fan of horror fiction actually set time aside to see it, and I’m relieved that my summer movie experience ends on such a high note. It is shocking in the sense that it takes liberties with children that are largely considered taboo in the increasingly corporate politics of Hollywood production studios, where production decisions are regrettably made based on how much revenue a film can generate, as opposed to its potential for artistic value. There is something to be said of a film that challenges the status quo of presenting children as these wholly innocent and benign creatures to be protected and coddled and rescued when these very same children will likely go to school the next day and tell each other to go fuck off and die before throwing each other in trash cans. Looking ahead at the remainder of the year, there are a number of important titles on the horizon that have piqued my interest: Blade Runner 2049 in October, Thor: Ragnarok in November, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi in December. Unfortunately, much like this summer, these appear to be the only interesting titles being released this fall. In light of that, perhaps I can also use this as a time to develop another philosophical piece to publish to the blog...


[1] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-2017-summer-box-office-is-hollywoods-worst-since-2006-2017-08-25

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review - Dunkirk

          Yes, I know, I was away for two whole months. This was both deliberate and incidental. It was deliberate in the sense that, after churning out content for both May and June, I was slightly burned out and needed some time away from the keyboard. Between jumping over police barricades and walking halfway across Seattle on May Day, making sure I caught Alien: Covenant, bouncing from theater to theater to catch the Seattle International Film Festival while still writing my Covenant review, then writing a piece about the film festival, then being obliged to catch both Wonder Woman and The Mummy back to back and produce a piece on those, all while working my day job and juggling these with a philosophical piece I've been working on, I will admit that I was looking forward to taking a couple of weeks away from writing (which also coincided nicely with a vacation I had planned in Southern California for the beginning of July). However, those couple of weeks quickly turned into the entire month of July for those "incidental" reasons that I hinted at. Specifically, nothing interesting happened in July (or, nothing interesting that I would be in a position to write about - I'm sure very important stuff happened in the world in general). It feels as if no interesting movies came out, save for Spider-Man: Homecoming, there were no events happening around me that I could attend, and I wasn't able to make it to any conventions. As such, there was little material for me to put pen to paper about. Though this is not to say that I wasn't busy last month, ironically, as I have been preoccupied with moving into a new apartment and other personal events going on around me.
          But alas, here we are in August. My summer has moved beyond its apex and the chaos is subsiding, with events in my life starting to return back to their normal routine, allowing me to devote time to writing once again. It also appears that film studios felt that August would be the ideal time to release whatever projects they had in development. Perhaps the lack of offerings in July can be attributed to the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming during the first week - other studios may have been too worried about their projects being eclipsed by the latest offering in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and had reservations about releasing them around the same time (and I will say that, while not the greatest release in the MCU, Homecoming was perhaps the best Spider-Man release since 2002's Spider-Man with Tobey Maguire). As such, now that I am back in Seattle and done with my vacation, I figure it's time to go theater hopping again. A quick look at the movie calendar on Fandango quickly presented me with a few attractions that caught my attention: The Dark Tower, Annabelle Creation, and the recently released Dunkirk.
          The choice wasn't a particularly difficult one to make. As someone who has actually read and enjoyed the Dark Tower series of novels (The Gunslinger remains one of my all-time favorite books), I had the visceral feeling that the movie was just not going to do justice to the books, insofar as a movie based off of a book is hardly ever as good as the book itself. And, it turns out, after reading what other critics had to say about it and actually seeing it myself, my instincts were correct: despite a good performance from both Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, The Dark Tower was just lame. At the same time, while I am very much overdue for a review of a good horror film, Annabelle Creation is a hot-off-the-presses new release, and I unfortunately haven't been presented with the opportunity to go see it yet. As such, Crimson Peak will have to remain the only horror film that I have reviewed for the time being. I do not regret this decision, however, as Dunkirk is perhaps one of the most surprising films that I have seen in a very long time - surprising in the sense that I actually really enjoyed it when I was expecting not to.
          I acknowledge that I am a little late to the party on this one, and I will also admit that I initially wasn't planning on seeing Dunkirk. I have never really been drawn to historical war dramas - something about them has a tendency to just bore me. Perhaps it's the mundane nature of their content - one of the largest reasons that I'm not a huge fan of Pearl Harbor, for example, is the fact that a large portion of the film is spent following the day-to-day lives of two macho soldiers in the US military, something I am not particularly interested in seeing. Or perhaps its the exceedingly predictable nature of their plot that disinterests me - countless are the movies where the benevolent Allies go door to door confronting those evil Nazis who might as well be stock villains for any generic film at this point. We all know how that story ends already. There are some exceptions to this rule, of course. I actually enjoyed watching the ragtag Vasily Zaitsev duel with the decorated Erwin König in Enemy at the Gates, and any war film that takes artistic liberties with historical events is certainly bound to be less mundane (a la Inglourious Basterds).
          Given my general aversion to war films, Dunkirk was, understandably, not initially on my radar. However, my ambivalence towards it grew when I learned that it was a Christopher Nolan production. I have generally been a fan of Nolan's work, having thoroughly enjoyed Memento, The Dark Knight trilogy, and Inception. As such, I found myself seriously pondering the prospect of Nolan actually being able to add the necessary artful touches on a war drama to make it somewhat palatable. On top of that, it seemed as if I was being bombarded with endless gossip and reviews of Dunkirk everywhere I went, with most lauding it as some of Nolan's best work and even one outlet calling it one of the "best war movies of the 21st Century" [1]. "Surely," said I, "a film that is able to generate so much fuss that it is deemed to be among the 'best war movies of the 21st Century' must be doing something right." And so, much like my attitude towards Wonder Woman, as someone who desires to experience good fiction in all its forms, I found myself obliged to enter a darkened theater and experience my first war film in many years. However, unlike Wonder Woman, I was pleasantly surprised with how good Dunkirk actually was. Chris Nolan yet again manages to take what I would normally consider to be a rather mundane subject matter and add those artful flourishes to it that make it captivating.
          What exactly was so intriguing about Dunkirk? Well, perhaps the most fascinating aspect was the fact that Nolan was actually able to create an engaging experience with very limited dialogue, and much of the dialogue that was present was actually there to help explain what we were seeing. For example, the exchanges between the three RAF pilots during the "Air" segments were notably brief, and those exchanges usually explained that a German bomber was lining up to hit a British minesweeper, something that the layperson in the audience probably wouldn't have been able to infer otherwise. From there, we have to watch the drama unfold as to whether or not the RAF is able shoot down the bomber in time. Other scenes simply speak for themselves. There is another scene, for example, where we witness a large contingent of wounded, tired, and hungry British soldiers claw their way on board a military destroyer vessel bound for England in order to escape Dunkirk. However, not long after cozying up with a new warm blanket from the nurse and some crumpets and jam, the ship is hit by a torpedo and the audience has to then witness these same soldiers struggle to avoid the twisted metal of the damaged hull and abandon ship without drowning. Again, there is very little dialogue during this scene, aside from maybe some idle chit chat among the soldiers. And there is yet another scene where one soldier simply drops his rifle and walks into the ocean to commit suicide and drown. No words - he just casually walks into the water and disappears. This lack of dialogue serves to actually draw even more attention to the rising drama throughout the entire film, which is even further amplified by Hans Zimmer's musical score. Zimmer yet again demonstrates his musical prowess with a slow, atmospheric pacing that couples well with the drama, not unlike what we heard from him in the Dark Knight trilogy. The image of the lonely British soldier under dark grey clouds on the beaches of France, trudging into an unknown future, is made all the more tense by the violin strings rising in a foreboding crescendo. It was almost as if the music did the talking sometimes - one could quickly tell what the tone of the scene was simply by paying attention to the score.
          The acting performance from the entire cast, generally speaking, also merits considerable praise. It is no easy feat to portray a complex character simply off of mannerisms alone when dialogue is treated as a footnote to the drama. However, the ability of, say, Kenneth Branagh to convincingly convey sentiments of terror, anxiety, and sheer elation simply through facial expressions is a clear testament to his experience and background in Shakespearean drama, and the ability of other actors to demonstrate emotions and character to an English-speaking audience while communicating in other languages is also a commendable feat. For example, there is a scene where a handful of British soldiers are hiding out on a beached fishing ship, waiting for the rising tide to carry it back to sea so they can sail it back to England. After the ship incidentally also takes some Nazi practice fire, the group decides they need to lose some weight so the boat doesn't dip down to the level where the bullet holes might start leaking water in. The group begins to bully an otherwise quiet, reserved, and unfamiliar soldier, Gibson, into leaving the ship and risk getting seen by the enemy under the pretext that he is actually a Nazi spy. It is quickly revealed, however, that Gibson is actually an allied French soldier who has been quiet because he actually doesn't speak any English. As an audience, we have to witness Gibson make his passionate objection to being kicked off the ship in French, though his feelings of fear and dread are still made clear through his body language (and, for me, my ability to sympathize with Gibson is made all the more profound by that fact that I actually know a fair bit of French, enough to make out bits and pieces of what he was saying). Every actor in the film had a unique role, and, given the lack of dialogue, each actor was able to deliver on that role almost completely through facial expressions and mannerisms, and they were all able to do it flawlessly.
          Was there anything about Dunkirk that I didn't like? Perhaps the most annoying thing about it was that the costume design gave all the characters a sense of uniformity, which can be a good thing, but can also be a burden for the audience when one loses track of which character we are following at the moment. For example, I found myself sometimes lost as to which one of the three RAF pilots we were watching as they all, reasonably enough, were wearing the same uniform and had the same headgear and mask on. There were no identifying markings on neither their headgear nor elsewhere on their uniforms to tell them apart. Similarly, I also found it slightly difficult to distinguish between many of the soldiers in the film as they all seemed to be young British men with dark brown hair wearing dull brown army fatigues. It is crucial to be able to tell the soldiers apart, however, as the audience needs to know whether or not it's Gibson or Tommy or some other anonymous soldier that may have been shot or drowned. That said, this phenomenon amounted to little more than a small nuisance rather than a glaring strike against the film - after a brief moment of character disorientation when the scene changed, most of the audience should be able to realize which character is which and resume analyzing the drama in front of them.
          In short, many of the previous claims made by other critics about Dunkirk are accurate. Chris Nolan actually manages to take a very real and very serious event and add a degree of artistic flourish to it. The depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and desperation of the characters drives the film forward without the need for lengthy dialogue, though the action and drama is certainly augmented by Hans Zimmer's slow, pacing soundtrack. Again, I was extremely surprised; as someone who normally doesn't enjoy war movies, I have to admit that Dunkirk may very well be a contender for my top film of the year so far, and certainly shines above anything else that may have come out this summer, including Wonder Woman. Whether it remains in this position has yet to be seen, though, as there are several hot contenders slated for a Fall or Winter release that are bound to amaze more than almost anything else that came before them. As I have said once before, 2015 was a spectacular year for film while 2016 was abominable, and 2017 held promise. Coupled with Alien: Covenant and Spider-Man: Homecoming, Dunkirk may have just solidified that title for 2017.

[1] http://www.indiewire.com/2017/07/best-war-movies-21st-century-dunkirk-the-hurt-locker-1201856492/

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Review - Wonder Woman/The Mummy (2017)

Warning: Spoilers ahead!!!

           I am once again compelled to action. Even before I finished my review of Alien: Covenant, I found myself wondering what my next blog entry would be after it. I will admit that it was my intention to refrain from doing a film review for several weeks in order to make some progress on a philosophy project I am working on, but I obviously abandoned this plan when I wrote a quick piece about my experiences at the Seattle International Film Festival. After SIFF, however, I again resolved myself to not commit to other projects until I had finished my larger philosophy piece. And alas, I again find myself putting this larger project on pause in order to take another detour down the long, winding road of Film Review Lane. Like my previous blog post, this review will be somewhat impromptu as I wasn't initially planning on saying anything about Wonder Woman (or even seeing it for that matter). As such, it follows that, if I wasn't even planning on seeing Wonder Woman, I certainly wasn't planning on doing one of these "dual reviews". I might also point out that, up until just a few days ago, I was very ambivalent about whether or not I even wanted to see this remake of The Mummy, as my intuition, given the recent spat of horrible remakes, was telling me that this remake was going to be a disaster.
          But alas, I have a reputation to upkeep, so, as someone who was critical of Batman vs Superman, and has been vocal about the way Warner Bros. has been handling the DC Universe (particularly in comparison to how Disney is handling Marvel), I felt that I had an obligation to see what all the fuss surrounding Wonder Woman was about and report my findings. And, as someone who grew up watching black and white horror movies and includes Vincent Price on his list of favorite actors, it would seem slightly out of character of me to pass on a remake of what many would consider to be a horror movie classic. What makes this endeavor exciting for me is that I have never actually done one of these "dual reviews" before, so I at least get to try my hand with a slightly tweaked writing style. As a result, for the sake of length, I will cut out some of the normal filler I usually put in my film reviews (such as a brief plot overview), and instead jump straight into the pros and cons of each (mentioning plot points only when necessary). Rest assured, however, that I intend for this blog entry to be a little more in-depth than the piece I wrote for SIFF 2017, so without further ado...

WONDER WOMAN

          When it comes to anything in the DC Universe these days, Warner Bros. has a tendency to make me feel as if I am a clairvoyant, as Wonder Woman was everything that I expected it to be - in other words, not very good. Again, I wasn't initially planning on seeing it. However, Wonder Woman currently holds a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes [1], and has apparently broken several records for a female-directed film [2]. Indeed, it spent a considerable amount of time trending in the top 10 hashtag searches on Twitter for its first weekend of release, with A.O. Scott of the New York Times even claiming that Wonder Woman "briskly shakes off blockbuster branding imperatives and allows itself to be something relatively rare in the modern superhero cosmos" and that it even "resists the reflexive power-worship that drags so many superhero movies - from the Marvel as well as the DC Universes - into the mire of pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing" [3]. "Surely", I thought, "with so much praise and acclaim, and the New York Times actually invoking such bizarre, yet deep statements as 'pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing' in its clamor, there must be something worthwhile in Wonder Woman". Thus, I ventured to see it. Unfortunately, my faith in the views of the mainstream media, and society in general, was rewarded with disappointment as I found very little redeeming in Wonder Woman.
          As I first expressed to my sister in a text message after walking out of the theater, Wonder Woman has what I call "Superman Syndrome": she is just too overpowered, to the point of being boring and uninteresting. I previously leveled this same kind of criticism at Superman after seeing Batman vs Superman, and it's also the primary reason why, to this day, I still have not seen Man of Steel. I have argued in previous reviews that one of goals of good character development in fiction is to make a character relatable to an audience, to make a reader sympathize with a character's trials and tribulations, to make those experiencing the work of art actually have feelings towards that character. Unfortunately, this is something that DC seems to consistently miss the mark on. As I said in my Batman vs Superman review, there is nothing relatable or interesting about a character that can fly faster than a speeding bullet and shoot lasers out of his eyes. Likewise, there is nothing particularly intriguing about a character that can charge headfirst into No Man's Land and deflect machine gun fire with her bracers, or can suddenly work up the power to fire cosmic energy blasts and destroy Ancient Greek gods simply by getting angry.
          Of course, diehard Superman fans may argue that the complexity of Superman's character is actually interwoven into the inherent dichotomy and juxtaposition of the Man of Steel with his more mundane alter-ego Clark Kent, and there may certainly be something to be said of this perspective. But Wonder Woman doesn't even have this luxury (and, if I may point out, I have a suspicion that this is also not the aspect of Superman that most people focus on). Wonder Woman literally walks (or, in this case, sails) out of the aether and proceeds to just march towards the front lines of World War I, with no subtlety, depth, or complexity at all. The argument could be made that Dianna actually reveals her true character in her interactions with Chris Pine's Steve Trevor, simultaneously presenting us with a battle-hardened warrior and a clumsy, "comic-relief" style character who innocently shirks the social norms of early 20th century England. In one sense, I would be willing to agree with this assessment, but, at the same time, it's also not a very strong assessment. Wonder Woman's few moments of social interaction didn't really strike me as strong character development as they did a mere series of awkward moments, strung together in the same way a child would connect the dots in a coloring book. To perhaps further clarify my point, let's examine another recent superhero movie that I thought had much better character development: Marvel's Ant-Man. Ant-Man presented us with the narrative of an average guy with an unfortunate police record, down on his luck, trying to make ends meet while still wanting to be a good family man. It is through a wild twist of fate that he meets scientist Hank Pym and comes across the Ant Suit. This is in stark contrast to a character that literally pops out of nowhere and starts blasting Ancient Greek gods while fighting Germans during World War I (and for the love of god, can we pick a plot less tiring than the heavily cliche "stop the evil Germans during WWI/WWII" scenario?), all while wearing body armor that covers merely half her body. Only one of these characters is compelling, and it's not the latter.
          Speaking of other superheroes, I'd like to examine that statement from the New York Times a little further. Here's the full quote:

"'Wonder Woman, though, resists the reflexive power-worship that drags so many superhero movies — from the Marvel as well as the DC universes — into the mire of pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing. Unlike most of her male counterparts, its heroine is not trying to exorcise inner demons or work out messiah issues. She wants to function freely in the world, to help out when needed and to be respected for her abilities. No wonder she encounters so much resistance."

This statement strikes me as reminiscent of Voltaire's characterization of the philosopher Pangloss in Candide as a professor of "metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology". What A.O. Scott seems to be referring to when he says "pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing" is the tendency of other male superheroes to display a degree of psychological nuance or complexity ("exorcising inner demons or working out messiah issues", to use his words), as evidenced by Bruce Wayne's struggle with the death of his parents or Tony Stark trying to reconcile how the manufacturing of advanced weaponry actually keeps the world safe from death and destruction, a kind of psychological complexity that Scott seems to decry. However, such an assessment is strikingly odd, as such psychological complexity is reflective of the way people actually are in the world, and, as I suggested with my comparison to Ant-Man, one of the aims of good character development is to try and be a reflection of the way people actually are in the world. People in the real world, for better or for worse, don't have the luxury of being able to sail out of the aether and just drop untainted into the quagmire of daily human struggles - people are psychologically complex creatures that, depending on who you talk to, are either a blessing or a curse on the face of the planet. The "pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing" of other male superheroes then becomes a virtue, and is something that some heroes, like Wonder Woman or Superman, seem to grossly miss the mark on - it's what makes them relatable to an audience.
          Scott also makes the observations that Wonder Woman "is a glamorous and funny fish out of water" and that the world's "capacity for cruelty is a perpetual shock to her, though she herself is a prodigy of violence". These observations start to hint at what I thought was a really promising theme throughout the film, a theme that turned out to be poorly executed: the "perfect character in an imperfect world" narrative. While, as Scott points out, there is a sense in which Dianna is not quite perfect (this would require further discussion on whether or not violence can ever be justified), the case can also be made that we are at least made to believe that she is. Wonder Woman's exemplary virtues are constantly shoved before our eyes, from her constant desire to help the weak and hopeless on the battlefield, to her flagrant disregard of the very insular gender roles that women adopted in early 20th century England, to her steadfast determination to vanquish evil in whatever form it takes, like the cartoonish cape-wearing hero on the side of a cereal box. Indeed, one may be forgiven for actually being shocked at just how perfect (or near-perfect) Dianna actually is, and for feeling bad at just how inadequate us lowly mortals are in comparison. It is here that I faintly find a brief parallel to Candide, for Candide also presented us with a story about a character sheltered from, and untainted by, the corruption of the world around him, a corruption that he is quickly forced to interact with it. However, such a parallel to Candide is fleeting - one of the key differences between Wonder Woman's use of the "perfect character in an imperfect world" narrative and that of Candide is that Voltaire actually knew how to do it well. The point of the "perfect character in an imperfect world" narrative is to highlight just how imperfect the world actually is, and the interactions that particular characters have with that imperfect world, which is what Candide does. The point is NOT to sing the praises of the so-called perfect character, which is what Wonder Woman does. Human perfection is a poorly defined concept, and, as Nietzsche would tell us, our traditional notions of good and evil are nothing more than mere dogma. As such, taking a character that conforms to this dogma and putting her on a pedestal for audiences to admire and look up to in the face of the harsh reality of the world that we willingly create and, dare I say, desire for ourselves does nothing more than inculcate that dogma further in an insidious cycle. One of the aims of the "perfect character in an imperfect world" narrative is to help the audience develop the insight to break such dogmas, and it is in this regard that Warner Bros.' attempted use of this narrative structure flounders - it actually makes them worse. It is also in this regard that claiming that Wonder Woman "resists the reflexive power-worship that drags many superhero movies into the mire of pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing" is akin to Pangloss professing "metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology" - both statements are both utter nonsense.
          Overall, do I regret seeing Wonder Woman? I actually don't. For all of its glaring drawbacks, it was still, at the very least, entertaining, even if it was in a cliche and cringe-worthy way. And I won't deny that Wonder Woman, as a character, may be motivational to young, even adolescent girls (though this is arguably undermined when the film sends the message for girls to aspire to be like a high-heel wearing, scantily clad, outrageous superhero and to shame the disfigured chemical genius who also happens to be a woman with a questionable moral compass). It was certainly better than much of the trash that came out in 2016 (the Ghostbusters reboot seems like an appropriate example here), and may even perhaps surpass its predecessors in the DC Universe, Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad. But does it really merit a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and all of the acclaim that it is getting? No.

THE MUMMY

           As mentioned at the outset, my expectations going into this iteration of The Mummy weren't particularly high, and I didn't even need to see previous reviews or ratings to come to that conclusion. However, in case you were wondering, here are some numbers: it currently holds a meager 18% on Rotten Tomatoes [4], a not-much-better 34% on Metacritic [5], and is expected to rake in roughly $40 million during its opening weekend, which is still below the roughly $50 million that Wonder Woman is expected to take in during its second weekend [6]. All of that said, I honestly didn't think The Mummy was that bad. At least, it wasn't any worse than Wonder Woman. Don't misconstrue this as a complete acquittal, though - it also certainly wasn't any better than Wonder Woman.
          Perhaps my biggest grievance with The Mummy centers around the overall motivation for its creation. Nobody asked for this remake, or any of the supposed forthcoming remakes of classic Universal horror movies for that matter, especially since there had already been a remake of The Mummy which actually wasn't half bad. If I were a detective, the next logical step in the investigation would then be to uncover the true motive behind The Mummy's creation. Fortunately, it would take only a little bit of research to find a reason that seems highly suspect: the development of Universal's so-called "Dark Universe". It would appear that Universal Studios is not content with being outdone when it comes to bad ideas and, seeing the (questionable) success of the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes, felt inclined to jump on the bandwagon as well and attempt to cash in on a cinematic universe of its own. As such, Universal has endeavored to remake all of the classic horror movies that it produced during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, but, this time around, "Frankenstein" them together into a creation that will likely be just as abominable as the mad scientist's monster itself, with The Bride of Frankenstein lined up next for the chopping block.
          We have already been given a taste of the fruits of this labor in The Mummy - and it tastes very goofy. When Henry Jekyll (Russel Crowe) suddenly heads a secret agency that is tasked with finding and confronting the very nebulous and generic "evil" in the world, a secret agency whose name essentially amounts to "Totally-Not-the-Illuminati", we have stepped beyond the realm of genuine supernatural horror and into the realm of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, a flick that took many great literary figures and brought them together into a kind of dysfunctional international supergroup. The Mummy's attempts at tying the Dark Universe together is akin to Captain Nemo karate chopping machine-gun wielding British henchman and Dorian Gray getting into a knife fight with Mina Harker in a vaguely romanticized steampunk Victorian England, something that cannot be taken seriously (at least, from the point of view of someone looking for a horror film, which is what The Mummy is supposed to be). Again, nobody asked for this, so now the reputation and prestige of these classic horror movies will forever be tainted by the Dark Universe in the same way that the reputation of James Moriarty has been tarnished by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
          In addition to the silliness that it eventually devolved into, The Mummy also struck a nerve with its sheer number of inaccuracies and plot holes. One of the most incessantly annoying things that The Mummy did was consistently refer to Set as the God of Death. While I am not a professional Egyptologist, I actually do have something of a background in Classical Antiquity, and I can tell you that many Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom usually refer to Set as the God of Chaos or Storms, and not as a "God of Death". And while Set is indeed typically not considered a benevolent deity, the title of "God of Death" is usually conferred on his brother, Osiris (also sometimes on Anubis, for those that do not see the distinction between "God of Death/Resurrection" and "God of Embalming/Mummification"). Beyond this inaccuracy, there were a number of glaring plot holes. Early on in the film, Ahmanet strategically lures Nick and Jenny to a small abbey on the outskirts of London where the Dagger of Set is conveniently hidden in a reliquary right next to a sacrificial alter. It's not clear, however, how Ahmanet knew that. It's also not clear how that reliquary with the dagger was strategically placed right next to the alter or why. Perhaps more perplexing, it's also a mystery how Ahmanet was somehow able to know the dagger was in that particular reliquary, but didn't know that a crucial piece of the dagger was missing. Even before this dagger conundrum, there were the curious circumstances surrounding the excavation of Ahmanet's tomb. Specifically, there was one point where archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) notices the chains coming from the ceiling of the cavern that connect to Ahmanet's sarcophagus submerged in a pool of Mercury and immediately deduces that the chains are there to keep the sarcophagus chained down. Perhaps I am just grossly misunderstanding the intricacies of the engineering that went into designing Ahmanet's tomb, but the physics here doesn't make sense. If you want something to be chained down, you chain it to the floor, not the ceiling. On the contrary, one would chain something to ceiling in order to keep it suspended in the air. I also find it highly suspicious that Jenny can correctly deduce every bit of information about the tomb, including that fact that it was intended as a prison, simply by taking a quick lap around the room, without actually closely examining any artifacts or contraptions in there at all. She's like a detective that shows up at the scene of a crime in order to look for clues, walks into the room where the murder took place, looks around for a second, and then concludes there are no clues there and leaves.
          Beyond these grievances, was there anything I actually liked about The Mummy? Well, it did actually did have a couple redeeming qualities. For example, its use of color contrast reminded me of that in Alien: Covenant, which I thought was very effective and enjoyable. There was a constant shift between the bright, illustrious, gold tones of Ancient Egypt or the Middle East and the dark, grey, ominous tones of a mummified Ahmanet, haunting the stone alleys of London. In many ways, I took this as kind of a throwback to the black and white presentation of the original 1932 film. There is something to be said of telling a story with only black, white, and shades of grey - it adds an eerie emptiness to a work of art that highlights just how alone or otherworldly some of the characters may be, overshadowing a larger conflict simply by contrasting the shimmering gold sands of Egypt with clouds of dark ash and dust. I also enjoyed the fact that Universal seemed to emphasize the zombie aspect of The Mummy. Every other stock horror movie monster or horror villain had an archetypal predecessor that more or less defined them: vampires had Dracula, mad scientists could point to Victor Frankenstein, werewolves had the Wolf-Man, etc. (I will confess that I'm not quite sure what ghosts had - maybe Casper?) Zombies, however, have always been this kind of faceless mob, where their terror factor was at least partially contingent on their raw numbers - they never had a prima donna figure to shape them. However, this iteration of The Mummy seems to step into that role, as we constantly see Ahmanet reanimate the lifeless corpses of her victims, who slowly shamble to do her bidding, while we even get to see Ahmanet herself as an erratic shambler immediately following her liberation from her sarcophagus. Viewing The Mummy as a sort of zombie icon adds a slight level of depth to zombie fiction that has the potential to be taken in a number of directions.


          Lastly, allow me to make a quick observation about that thing that both films have in common. It should be obvious to even the casual movie-goer that both of these films have not-so-subtle feminist undertones to them, attempting to present us with both a strong female protagonist and a strong female antagonist. In theory, this is indeed something to be desired. I have long advocated for a stronger female presence in science fiction and horror films, and have written in the past about the value of the feminist movement in 21st century America. That said, in practice, both of these films stumble in the way they go about realizing this goal. The below quote that Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins provided to Entertainment Weekly highlights the problem with the attempt at a feminist statement in Wonder Woman:

"How would I want to live that's badass? [...] To me, [the Amazons and Wonder Woman] shouldn't be dressed in armor like men [...] It should be different. It should be authentic and real – and appealing to women [...] It's total wish-fulfillment [...] I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass, and look great at the same time – the same way men want Superman to have huge pecs and an impractically big body. That makes them feel like the hero they want to be. And my hero, in my head, has really long legs." [7]

This is the same kind of mentality that underlies Star Wars self-insert fan fiction, with Jenkins unironically advocating for what essentially amounts to "Wonder Woman Barbie". Don't get me wrong - there is nothing wrong with a woman wanting to be both feminine and badass, and I think there are many inspiring examples of women doing this in film, music, and literature. But I'm also inclined to say that the task of reconciling a woman's desire to be feminine with the desire to transcend pre-established gender dogma is a little more complicated than juxtaposing a babe in high-heels and a tiara with a blood-soaked World War I battlefield. It's almost like a Banksy painting where Sailor Moon leads the operation against militants in the Middle East. Wonder Woman's feminist slant further loses credibility when we also examine the fact that the other major female character in the film, mad scientist Doctor Maru, turns out to out be a disfigured villainess whose character is very little developed and contrasted with the "hot as hell", "wish-fulfillment", perfectly virtuous Wonder Woman. Doctor Maru doesn't even have the honor of being the primary villain in the film - she's the sidekick to a guy who also isn't even the primary villain.
          The Mummy's blunder when it comes to the handling of its feminist statement is a lot more egregious: it retcons a classic. I have a love/hate relationship with the notion of retconning a fictional universe - if a fictional universe is decidedly bad, by all means, an artist certainly has grounds to retcon it and make it better. Likewise, it approaches the level of cardinal sin to retcon a work of fiction that might as well be considered a priceless artifact. Hence, when The Mummy 2017 rewrites Boris Karloff's 1932 Mummy as a woman for no reason other than to cash in on a cinematic universe that is on a trajectory to take us to the furthest regions of silliness, we have essentially tried to re-sculpt the Venus de Milo as a man. Again, I am very much in accord that Hollywood is severely lacking a solid, sinister female villain, but it's pretty obvious that putting one in The Mummy is forced. The most surprising thing is that, out of all production studios, Universal certainly has the intellectual bandwidth to produce a film with a feminist statement that is both organic and profound (we saw this a little bit with 2015's Jurassic World) - I don't see what would be stopping them from writing an original script for a fresh new film with a female villain.
          If I may close with some suggestions for a solid female protagonist and a solid female antagonist to take cues from, a couple examples come to mind. 1979's Alien presented us with a woman who is scientifically-savvy enough to take part in a space mining operation, and, before long, is forced to confront an intergalactic walking nightmare with grappling hooks, flamethrowers, attrition, and a fair amount of blood, sweat, and tears. Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley was a genuine example of a strong female protagonist - a character incidentally caught up in the dramatic events that took place aboard the Nostromo who was forced to resort to any and all means to survive while remaining level-headed, independent of the fact that she was a woman. Now, if we are looking for a solid female antagonist, Lena Headey gave us a great example in 2012's Dredd. Headey portrayed Madeline "Ma-Ma" Madrigal, a former prostitute turned sadistic drug queenpin. Ma-Ma had no reservations, skinning alive anybody that crossed her and throwing the bloody carcasses from the 200th floor of a futuristic apartment building. There was nothing "Barbie" about her - her outfit consisted of nothing more than a minimalist tank top and black pants, a far cry from the sexualized body armor that Patty Jenkins believes women need to be wearing in World War I, and she was heavily tattooed and scarred. Oftentimes displaying far more intelligence than her male thugs, Ma-Ma was an intimidating force that only Judge Dredd was able to stop. Again, I don't doubt that a character like Wonder Woman can be inspirational to many a young woman. However, if we want to see solid female characters that are much more relatable, or representative of the way the world may actually be, then we would be better served by looking to Ripley or Ma-Ma for examples.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Review - 2017 Seattle International Film Festival

          I have lived in the Puget Sound area for just under two years now, but have never really had the opportunity to enjoy the Seattle International Film Festival, which usually takes place every summer from May until June. However, this year, now that I have a higher income and more flexible free time, I was actually able to get out and see what the rest of the world has to offer in the way of film. This will be a kind of impromptu piece as I initially wasn't planning on writing anything for SIFF at all, but suddenly felt the urge to do so as many of the pieces I publish on my blog are about film, so it struck me as kind of odd that I would remain silent when a film festival rolls into town. Besides, it's a quick exercise for me to keep my writing chops fresh while I decide whether or not I am going to do a review for The Mummy remake. The exciting part for me is that, while many of my previous film reviews were for big-budget Hollywood films, many of the films displayed at SIFF are independent, or produced by a studio that is not part of Hollywood at all, which gives me an opportunity to experience how the artists approach film without being tied down by Hollywood bureaucracy. Perhaps even more exciting, it gives me an opportunity to experience how other cultures around the world interpret each genre and add their own perspective to it.
          I only managed to see three films for SIFF this year. While I wanted to see more (there were apparently a number of notably popular entries), these were the three that both my schedule and my budget would permit me to see: The Osiris Child: Science Fiction Volume One, Napping Princess (sometimes translated as Ancien and the Magic Tablet in English), and Without Name. Below I provide my overall impression of each of these films with some general observations I had of each. Note that these reviews will be not nearly as elaborate as the ones I usually post to my blog - again, my decision to write this was something I felt in the moment rather than something I had planned out, though I nonetheless aim to build at least a brief case for ratings I give each film. Needless to say, for low-budget or independent films, they were all very good, much better than many titles that have come out of Hollywood these days, although some were notably better than others.

The Osiris Child: Science Fiction Volume One

          My first outing at SIFF this year was the Australian sci-fi/dystopian action flick The Osiris Child. Unfortunately, it also turned out to be the least memorable of the three films I saw. Don't get me wrong, The Osiris Child was still very much palatable, and remains light-years ahead of much of the rubbish that came out of 2016 (i.e. The 5th Wave). In that sense, my dissatisfaction with it should not be construed as a criticism of its failures so much as an acknowledgement of just how good Napping Princess and Without Name are in comparison.
          I found the plot to be particularly engaging: a hard science fiction story about a military pilot stationed in a base floating above a colonized planet who must defect from the military in order to rescue his daughter on the planet below after his superiors plot to destroy said planet in order to cover up an illegal weapons research project. However, beyond the plot, The Osiris Child didn't have much going for it. The visual effects weren't anything special or hypnotizing - if anything, they were comparable to the industry standard for a science fiction film with a somewhat large budget. The characters were rather stock and generic, with none of them being particularly memorable or relatable. Neither the landscapes nor dialogue were very imaginative, with most of the film taking place in a bleak and barren desert landscape (which looked suspiciously like either the Australian Outback or the Southwestern United States), and many of the interactions between the characters being painfully predictable. Overall, The Osiris Child very much had a vibe of being geared towards the adolescent audience, or perhaps those who have little experience with science fiction, the same kind of audience that would perhaps go see a movie like The 5th Wave. However, the big difference between The 5th Wave and The Osiris Child is that The Osiris Child is actually somewhat good.

Napping Princess (Ancien and the Magic Tablet)

         In contrast to my experience with The Osiris Child, Napping Princess is easily the best film out of the three that I saw at SIFF. Written and directed by Kenji Kamiyama, the same director behind Jin-Roh and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Napping Princess is an anime film that doesn't fail to showcase the depth of imagination that Japanese anime is all-too-famous for.
          Napping Princess juxtaposes what many would consider to be two very disparate fictional settings: a modern Japanese society trying to grapple with the unfettered progress of technological innovation, and a whimsical kingdom, full of magic and sorcery, that is constantly under threat of destruction by a fiery behemoth, blending them together into a narrative that at times takes playful swipes at those who are stuck in the conservative mindset of trying preserve outdated technologies and energy sources, while simultaneously admonishing us of the risks of mindless innovation. The characters are memorable and the dialogue is entertaining, at times making us laugh, at times making us cry, and at other times leaving us on the edge of our seats asking what will happen next. The plot flows seamlessly from the primary protagonist's dreams of pirates, enchanted dolls, and evil wizards to her waking experiences of cell phones, tablets, software code, and her mission to rescue her father from the clutches of a corrupt corporation, all while paying passive homage to the Kaiju and Mecha genres of Japanese science fiction. Overall, Napping Princess was an anime experience that I had not seen in a very long time, and easily got the highest rating of any film I saw at SIFF.

Without Name

          Without Name presented a radical shift in tone from The Osiris Child and Napping Princess. Without Name is an Irish thriller production, directed by Lorcan Finnegan and filmed on location in Dublin with a fully Irish cast. Billed as an "eco-horror" film (I've never actually heard of "eco-horror" before), the film follows a professional land surveyor, Eric, as he is tasked with mapping out and collecting data on a heavily wooded patch of land for an enigmatic client. However, something about the woods is not quite right...
          I will confess myself ambivalent with regard to my reception of the plot. It's not clear whether or not the woods are actually haunted, or if the events of the film are all in Eric's head, developing from a small case of paranoia and depression, which itself stems from his shoddy relationship with his wife and son, to full-blown psychosis, brought on by his increasing use of hallucinogens and his reading of a madman's ravings throughout the course of the film. In one sense, this may be a directorial oversight: there seems to be a push in the film towards the idea that the woods are actually haunted, but other events in the film don't quite seem to agree with this prospect. In another sense, this is part of the beauty of the plot - part of the detective work of trying to figure out what is actually happening is left up to the audience, provoking them to actually reflect on what they are seeing instead of just mindlessly absorbing it, which is a good thing. Aside from the plot, there isn't much to judge. The acting was standard, perhaps more emotional and dramatic than The Osiris Child, though not as memorable as Napping Princess. What little special effects the film had were nice, if only slightly seizure-inducing with so many scenes of stroboscopic lights. Overall, I would rate Without Name as a very interesting experience, perhaps more so than The Osiris Child. However, it's very slow pacing makes it such that very little actually happens in the movie, and, as such, it doesn't appear to have the same kind of energy or emotional appeal as Napping Princess.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review - Alien: Covenant

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

          It is a clear day in Seattle - those darkened rain clouds that this city is so famous for have, for the time being, ceased to blanket the sky with grey and instead have left us with a bright and pale azure. As I casually walk down the bustling avenues in this sprawling metropolis, a crisp breeze rustles through the tree-lined streets, and I am once again reminded why this place is sometimes called "The Emerald City" as I look up at the shivering leaves, fully grown and lush on this weekend afternoon. Alas, such a picturesque scene is my indication that summer has begun to creep into the Puget Sound area. And with the onset of summer come all of those traditional activities that Americans are apt to partake in this time of year. Hiking in the Cascade Mountains. Having a picnic with friends and family on the 4th of July along the shores of Lake Washington at sunset, anxiously awaiting the firework extravaganza. Navigating one's way through the hustle and bustle of Downtown trying to take advantage of this year's summer sales in Seattle's cosmopolitan shopping districts. Preparing brisket and ribs on a charcoal grill or in a smoker, and serving them with a side of cornbread and coleslaw on checkered plates at the neighborhood barbecue. Windsurfing or sailing out on the shimmering waves of Lake Union with the sun looming gleefully overhead. Friends sharing stories with a couple of beers around the fire pit at dusk. Indeed, many Americans have a lot to look forward to this summer. Meanwhile, while all of this is happening...I will be sitting in a darkened theater watching people getting their faces ripped off by Xenomorphs in Alien: Covenant.
          Yes, the 2017 summer movie season is finally upon us! And I underscore the "finally" in that previous statement - cinematically speaking, 2017 has been off to a sluggish start, with very little in the way of movies being released in January and February (at least, very little of anything that looked remotely interesting), and only a small handful of decent titles being released in March. Now, however, we have arrived at that time of year where film studios will try to capitalize on the extra free time families have, now that the children are out of school and adults tend to take advantage of their employer's PTO, and release a number of what are often billed as this year's "blockbuster" films between the months of May and August. Naturally, leading into this year's summer movie season, I reflect on previous years. I distinctly recall declaring 2015 one of the best years for film that I have seen in a long time, with the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Spectre, Crimson Peak, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens leading the charge into the future, handing off the banner to 2016 to continue down the path of innovation. Unfortunately, in stark contrast to its decorated predecessor, 2016's dramatic charge was cut short when its fearless steed stumbled right out of the gates and fell face-first into a pit of quicksand and died, as 2016 was an absolutely abominable year for film. The 5th Wave, my first cinematic outing of 2016, remains one of the worst films I have ever seen, with the likes of Gods of Egypt, Batman v Superman, Ghostbusters (2016), and Suicide Squad serving as additional dead weight to make sure that no part of the sinking horse is left sticking out above the sand. It wasn't until the closing months of 2016, when we were served Doctor Strange and Rogue One, were we offered any glimmer of redemption (I will grant Deadpool honorable mention as well). What is reassuring, however, is that, unlike last year, where my Spidey-senses allowed me to intuit that 2016's summer offerings were going to crash and burn before they even took off, I cannot sense such an omen hanging over 2017. My optimism is further reinforced by the fact that my summer kicks off with an entry in the Alien series, a series that I have long been a fan of.
          Now, having seen Covenant, I can say that my faith has been rewarded. Alien: Covenant is the sixth installment in Ridley Scott's acclaimed Alien series, a series that dared to blend science fiction with elements of the most shocking and atmospheric horror, the first of entry of which, 1979's Alien, has become the standard-bearer for the "lost in space" sub-genre of science fiction. Serving as a follow-up to 2012's thought-provoking Prometheus, Covenant continues what has been dubbed the "prequel" series of the Alien brand, serving as a kind of origin story for the Xenomorphs (the eponymous aliens). And Covenant certainly has some colossal shoes to fill. Alien and Aliens (1986) featured so many elements that have since come to define the series, allowing it to stand out from what can be considered your other "run of the mill" science fiction films: a strong female protagonist (this was virtually unheard of in science fiction before Sigourney Weaver's portrayal of Ellen Ripley), a successful blend of the slow, heavy atmospheric pacing of horror with the otherwise worn-out science fiction blueprints of the time (exemplified by the darkened, dangerous corridors of the ship where the mysterious Xenomorph could be lurking around every corner), and an approach to art design that pushed the limits of imagination (H.R. Giger's designs for the Xenomorphs and alien technology were famously both laughed at and deemed too spooky for audiences by Fox Studios). While reception of Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection has been mixed, Prometheus again renewed interest in the series, juxtaposing the verdant hills and flowing rivers of intergalactic landscapes with the dark, bio-mechanical, psycho-sexual demeanor of the Xenomorphs, presenting a yet-unseen artistic contrast in the Alien series. Prometheus also introduced a new layer of philosophical abstraction to the series by introducing the "Engineers", an advanced race of humanoid aliens, as a much more civilized foil to the primal Xenomorphs, and asking the question of where both the Xenomorphs and humans come from, the answer to which supposedly centers on the mysterious Engineers. Covenant continues this story of evolution where Prometheus left off.
          Alien: Covenant opens up in a bright, white, and semi-rotund room, with a grand piano tucked off to the side, a replica of Michelangelo's statue of David in the rear, and a soft, high-backed chair in the front, facing a large, panoramic window overlooking a green mountain landscape outside. Megalomanic Peter Weyland activates a new android (referred to as "synthetics" in the series), who quickly adopts the name of "David" after looking at the statue, to serve as his new companion in his quest to answer the ultimate question of where humans came from, refusing to accept that human genesis was a mere accident of nature.
          Fast forward several decades. In an effort to propagate the human species, the colonization vessel "Covenant" has charted a course for the uninhabited planet Origae-6, carrying roughly 1000 human embryos and 2000 colonists, including about 10 crew members suspended in a stasis sleep. Synthetic Walter, along with an AI simply known as "Mother", oversee the operations of the ship while it embarks on its journey to Origae-6, scheduled to take another 7 years. During its voyage, a nearby neutrino burst rocks the ship, damaging its power structures and the hibernation capsules of several of the colonists, including the ship's captain, Jake Branson, who perishes when his capsule bursts into flames with him inside it. The remaining crew are awakened from stasis just in time for terraforming expert Daniels "Dany" Branson to see her husband get cooked inside his capsule. Chris Oram, man-of-faith and first mate of the Covenant, assumes command of the remaining crew and they set out to repair the ship before continuing their voyage.
          While repairing the exterior power structures of the ship, chief pilot Tennessee's communication signal with the rest of the crew is interrupted by a rogue transmission broadcast into deep space. Back inside the ship, Tennessee shares a replay of the transmission with the rest of the crew, which is very distorted and fuzzy, but complete enough for them to make out that it appears to be a human signal. Mother is able to trace the signal to a nearby planet, which the crew is shocked to find is both uncharted and merely weeks away. Despite some passionate protest from Dany, Oram makes the executive decision to reset the Covenant's course for this new planet.
          Upon arriving above the planet's stratosphere, a portion of the crew descend from the Covenant to survey its surface. After struggling through a bit of turbulence descending through the clouds of an ion storm, the crew land on the planet's surface, which is covered with high mountains, thick vegetation, and crystal-clear lakes. While marching through the surrounding woods, a member of the expedition team, Ledward, ingests a thick, black, airborne spore spurted by a bizarre grey fungus while Dany makes the observation that there don't appear to be any native fauna on this planet - just native flora. Ecologist Karine and Ledward break away from the rest of group before the expedition comes across what appears to be a crashed alien ship. While exploring this inside of this mysterious vessel, another member of the team, Hallett, ingests the same black spore while Dany discovers the identification card of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, a member of the science vessel "Prometheus", which disappeared some 10 years earlier. As the team finds the source of the rogue transmission inside the ship, both Ledward and Hallett begin exhibiting symptoms of some kind of severe illness. Karine escorts Ledward back to the landing ship while the rest of the expedition team begin their trek back with Hallett.
          After the landing pilot and Tennessee's wife, Faris, fearfully quarantines Ledward inside a medical cabin aboard the landing ship, inadvertently locking Karine inside as well, a small, albinoid creature, erupts from Ledward's back, killing him. The creature proceeds to maul Karine before breaking through a window in the locked door of the medical cabin. Faris attempts to hunt down and kill the pale Neomorph using one of the military-grade rifles aboard the ship, but ends up blasting the very large canisters that read "EXPLOSIVE MATERIAL" in big, bold letters, ultimately blowing herself away while destroying the landing ship and their primary communication channel to the Covenant. The rest of the crew makes it back to the landing ship in time to witness it being engulfed in flames while, at the same time, Hallett violently coughs up another pale Neomorph, which scurries away into the tall grass as Hallett dies. While attempting to radio a distress call to the Covenant, the two Neomorphs return and attack the crew, killing a crew member by the name of Ankor and eating Walter's left hand. The crew manager to kill one of the Neomorphs, but the other proves difficult to hit. Before long, however, a bright flare explodes overhead and the remaining Neomorph disappears, and a mysterious figure emerges from the light and beckons what remains of the crew to follow him.
          This mysterious figure leads the crew to a dark and derelict city, populated only by himself and thousands of petrified, humanoid statues. He reveals himself to be the Synthetic David, the sole surviving member of the Prometheus, who had crash-landed on this planet in an Engineer ship with Dr. Shaw. During the crash, says David, Dr. Shaw perished and the black spore was released on the planet, killing all the natural fauna. At this point, Rosenthal, a member of the expedition's security unit splits from the group. Unfortunately for her, she encounters the remaining Neomorph, which decapitates her. Later, David finds the Neomorph hovering over the pieces of Rosenthal's body and tries to befriend it just before Oram arrives and kills it. Demanding answers, Oram pressures David into revealing what he has been up to these past 10 years: David has been secretly incubating the black spore and aiding in its evolution process, and that, contrary to the previous account of Dr. Shaw being killed in the ship crash, David had actually killed her and subjected her carcass to experimentation. Oram is then escorted down into a cellar-like chamber and shown a number of large egg pods by David, who claims they are the apex of his experiments. While peering into the top of one of the egg pods, a Facehugger erupts and latches onto Oram's face, implanting him with an embryo. Meanwhile, the few remaining members of the crew manage to re-establish communication with the Covenant and indicate they need an immediate evacuation. David stumbles across Dany who also learns of David's deceit, having found the mutated body of Dr. Shaw. Walter arrives to save Dany from David and a fight between the two synthetics ensues, all while a newly evolved Xenomorph erupts from Oram and begins hunting what remains of the crew, killing security operative Cole and injuring another security operative, Lope.
          Tennessee arrives on the surface in a small mining vessel to try and evacuate Dany, Lope, and Walter, who appears to have survived his fight with David. The Xenomorph also manages to hop on to the ship as it is trying to take off, causing Dany to go full Ellen Ripley and take on the Xenomorph outside on the ships mining deck. Dany manages to eventually crush the Xenomorph using the ships crane and the team is able to return to the Covenant. Not too long after arriving back on board, however, Lope dies as another Xenomorph erupts from his body, presumably from an embryo that was implanted in his injury. With the help of Walter, Dany and Tennessee manage to lead the Xenomorph into a large hangar, where, once again, Dany works up the courage to antagonize it, this time culminating in the Xenomorph getting impaled by a giant truck and knocked into space through the open hangar door. At the end of the day, Tennessee and Dany return to stasis to continue their journey to Origae-6. Just before Walter hits the button to force her to sleep, Dany asks Walter about a plan she had with Jake to build a cabin on Origae-6, a plan she had revealed to him earlier. Noticing Walter's lack of knowledge about this, Dany realizes that she is actually talking to David, not Walter, who then forces her to sleep. Alien: Covenant ends with David putting two Facehugger embryos in the refrigerator with the human embryos and asking Mother to continue the voyage to Origae-6.
          Despite my reverence for the Alien series, Covenant is not exempt from my normal modus operandi of weighing the pros and cons of a film in order to determine whether or not it is actually good. Fortunately for Covenant, however, its pros do indeed outweigh its cons. In particular, Michael Fassbender delivers what may very well be the best performance I have seen from him yet, and the art direction and design of Covenant remain faithful to the precedent set by Prometheus. This is not to say, however, that there aren't any questionable moments in Covenant. The overall plot seemed rather stock and generic, with the only real depth in the story centering around the motives of David. As a side effect of the comparatively shallow plot, Covenant doesn't seem to ask the same kind of thought-provoking questions as Prometheus, which I thought was one of the highlights of its predecessor.
          Michael Fassbender's performance in Covenant may very well be one of his best. Fassbender had the unusual task of portraying two characters, both synthetics David and Walter. The challenge in such a task is to portray them as two wholly distinct characters in the same film, which may not seem like a large hurdle for an actor, but the twist here is that they also have to be similar enough as to preserve those characteristics that mark them as synthetics. Fassbender, however, seemed to be able to do this with relative ease. Both Walter and David, for example, approach the world around them with the calm, calculated, and semi-indifferent demeanor that you would expect from an android - as soon David is activated, he seems to acquiesce to Weyland's commands without any kind of emotion or preponderance, much in the same way that Walter is able to calmly and coolly strut down the decks of the Covenant as the neutrino burst rocks the ship and the colonist capsules are damaged. Of course, all of this changes for David by the time of the events of Covenant, as his relationship with Weyland and the events of Prometheus have caused him to seemingly develop human traits and emotion, as demonstrated by his admiration for Shaw, an aspect of David that Fassbender is able to capture flawlessly. Even Fassbender's decision to create a contrast between Walter's and David's speech (Walter has an American accent, while David has a British one) helps to establish the distinction between the two significantly (I may also point out that I recently watched another film, The Circle, in which a noteworthy British actress, Emma Watson, attempted to do an American accent...let's just say that Fassbender's accent for Walter was more convincing). It is not too often that actors are tasked with portraying two different characters in the same film with virtually no change in their physical appearance, leaving it solely up to the behavior and mannerisms of the actor to mark the difference. As such, Fassbender's success in doing this adds a layer of depth to Covenant unseen in any recent science fiction entry.
          The aesthetics and art direction of Covenant also live up to the expectations set by previous installments of the Alien series. There is a principle in art known as contrast - the idea that human perception better notices those areas where colors and tones differ from each other markedly, as opposed to those areas where colors blend in or are harder to detect, subliminally resulting in the psychological side-effect of humans tending to remember those areas or events more. It is a very primitive and rudimentary principle, a principle that Covenant takes advantage of and utilizes to its maximum potential. I think both Prometheus and Covenant can be considered a "clash of tones" - on the one hand, we have the peaceful, verdant landscapes and natural beauty of the planets explored in both films, on the other, we have the advanced, white, pure, and digital beauty of human technology, as exemplified by Mother and the Covenant's computer systems, as well as the technology of the Engineers, and in a third hand, we have the dark, sweaty, distorted countenance of the Xenomorphs and their bio-mechanical domain, serving as a kind of chaotic virus infecting the perfect order of the other two. All three of these tones contrast in Covenant in the same way that white text contrasts with a black background, or red stars stand out against a backdrop of blue, a very simple yet profound contrast. And, as a further testament to the lasting impression of H.R. Giger, Covenant remains faithful to his works, presenting us again with the images of humanoid beings tainted with an appearance sometimes Lovecraftian (the Engineers' space suits come to mind), sometimes Freudian (many have pointed to the phallic shape of the Xenomorph's head as an example of the psycho-sexual undertones of Giger's work).
          Of course, Covenant is not without its flaws. Particularly, the plot this time around struck me as much more lackluster than its predecessor. Prometheus presented us with a very provocative narrative, asking the right kinds of questions and, at times, asking the audience to piece together events. A megalomaniac who refuses to believe that humans evolved from a primordial soup by mere chance sends an expedition into space to try and find the origins of life on Earth, an expedition that learns of the existence of a race of highly advanced humanoid aliens that have the ability to manipulate biological and genetic structures, even at a microscopic level. Wrapped in layers of religious allegory, these "Engineers" eventually become angry at humans and develop a biological weapon to exterminate them, but, much to the horror of both humans and the Engineers, they lose control of this "sin virus", a pestilence which brings about a destruction that actually constitutes the evolutionary steps of something more sinister. Indeed, reflecting back on Prometheus, I may be audacious enough to say that it may have had one of the better narratives we have seen in recent years. In Covenant, however, it wouldn't be too disingenuous of me to summarize the plot by saying that a team of human colonists land on a planet where a crazy android cultivated the evolution of the black spore and that "something more sinister" came along and wiped out most of the humans (i.e. they all get killed by a monster created by a crazy guy). There is just no depth to Covenant's story, save for maybe the mystery surrounding David's true intentions, but even this plot point is not enough to bring Covenant up to the level of Prometheus. Granted, Covenant's story is already leagues ahead of almost anything that came before it in 2016, and is not any more or any less engaging than Ghost in the Shell from earlier this year, which I enjoyed. However, I must refer back to those "colossal shoes" that I mentioned several paragraphs back - if a film is going to serve as an installment of the Alien series, and directly follow in the footsteps of Prometheus, it has to have a plot that does justice to its roots, lest it inadvertently undermine those roots and ruin all that was captivating about its predecessor.
          Overall, Alien: Covenant gets a recommendation. While the depth of its narrative may not live up that of Prometheus, all of the very basic things that you would expect of the Alien series are there: slow, atmospheric horror, vivid landscapes and imaginative technology, solid acting, and a faithfulness to Giger's art design. These things alone are already enough to make Covenant stand out from the rest of the sci-fi lot in recent years, and put it on par with most other big films that came before it in 2017, such as Logan and Ghost in the Shell. This leaves me optimistic for the rest of the summer movie season, and really gives me a good point of comparison as I expect the rest of the summer's offerings to be very eclectic and diverse, from the international indie films I will be seeing at the Seattle International Film Festival to the remake of The Mummy.