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.

Monday, May 1, 2017

In the Field - May Day 2017, Seattle

          It's that time of year again: May Day. Yes, May 1st, that day where members of the working class and disillusioned activists organize themselves in protest against those societal institutions from which they believe injustice, inequality, and oppression spawn, from capitalist economic systems to gender discrimination. Dating back to the 19th Century, May Day protests and celebrations have become an international phenomenon, with demonstrations having taken place in locations as far apart as Minneapolis and Moscow, from Canada to the Middle East. As such, given their revolutionary message, many May Day events are very politically charged, and are oftentimes at odds with the status-quo.
          It's no secret that, in the United States and Canada, May Day protests tend to tilt towards the left side of political spectrum, with many activists advocating for policies ranging from the rather innocuous expansion of social welfare programs to the more extreme implementation of socialist or communist economic systems. That said, May Day is not an exclusive event, having been frequented by anarchists in the past and even used as an excuse for those whose ideals tend toward the right side of the political spectrum to organize.
          In recent years, May Day protests have become a topic of controversy as they have become increasingly violent, and have put many American cities on edge. Video from May Day 2016 shows that police in Seattle utilized flash bang grenades, tear gas, and pepper spray to keep marchers corralled in a shopping center in Downtown Seattle [1]. Meanwhile, as calls from Seattle councilwoman Kshama Sawant to push the envelope of civil disobedience for May Day 2017 intensified, some critics have pegged the councilwoman as "dangerous" [2]. In 2012, May Day protesters in Portland marched through a mall downtown while simultaneously trying to keep the mainstream media out, claiming that the media is "bought" by "the corporations" [3]. Also in 2012, activists in Oakland were greeted by riot police with tear gas and zip-tie handcuffs [4]. A splinter group of protesters stormed a GAP store while white supremacists lined up for a confrontation with activists in Washington D.C. for May Day 2013 [5][6]. Indeed, there hardly seem to be a May Day that goes by without some kind of chaos somewhere.
          And at the end of the whole mess, there are always questions about who the martyrs were and who the antagonists were amidst the maelstrom. Were police displaying excessive force when apprehending protesters and stifling their 1st Amendment rights? Did protesters devolve from organized activists into an unruly and violent mob? Were activist groups responsible for the vandalism that occurred, or was it a lone-wolf who decided to take advantage of the situation and frame the protesters? In order to uncover the truth behind the answers to these questions, I decided to witness these events for myself first-hand. Seattle has a reputation for vibrant social activism, and has arguably had some of the most...exciting...May Day events in recent history. As such, I left my apartment this morning on May 1st, 2017, and ventured out into the city. Here is what I found:

My journey began at the University of Washington, where small groups of students were scattered throughout the university's Red Square in protest of unfair labor practices.

Squads of police were stationed around Red Square in the event that student demonstrations got out of hand, but...

Events at UW were so peaceful that many police ended up just relaxing inside, drinking coffee and playing with their phones.

I next made my way over to Judkins Park, just as the largest event of the day, the Immigration and Labor March, was emptying out of the park and making its way toward Downtown...

While still at Judkins, I caught a glimpse of this anarchist slogan on the side of a building.

While following the march, I sometimes had to cut several side streets in order to get ahead of police barricades. At one point, I came across these really curious characters...

The march eventually made its way into Downtown Seattle.

Even Antifa activists took part in the larger event (this image catches only some of them sprinkled throughout the larger group).

Speaking of Antifa, one of them had created this very intriguing sign, seen here at Judkins Park.

          By the end of the day, I had been following these events from about 10:30am to 6:00pm and had walked halfway throughout the city, from Judkins Park to Queen Anne. And, despite the reputation that May Day has in Seattle, May Day 2017 was much more mellow than previous years. There were no instances of violence during the time that I was running around the streets, but there were several tense moments when pro-Trump/pro-government activists led a counter-rally that crossed paths with the larger event, but these moments took place much later in the evening and were quickly handled by police, resulting in only 5 arrests [7]. That said, reports indicate that events in Portland, Oregon, and Olympia, Washington, were not as peaceful, and were in fact more in line with what one might have expected based on previous years, with protests in both cities being declared a "riot" [8]. As such, since events in Seattle were, well, uneventful, I still don't know what to make of the May Day protests, and the questions I had at the outset of my inquiry still remain.


Friday, April 7, 2017

Review - Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!!!

          It has been a very interesting three months of radio silence since my last blog entry, my review of Rogue One. Perhaps the biggest reason for my absence is that fact that I have actually spent the past few months researching and writing what will likely be my next entry in the "Philosophy" category, a project that is turning out to be much more ambitious than any of my previous philosophical endeavors (save my master's thesis), even slightly overwhelming. I will not reveal it here, as I don't like to make promises and not deliver, in the event that I end up dissatisfied with the final product and scrap it. Fear not, however, for, if it turns out to be to my liking, it will be revealed in due time. The other important reason for my radio silence has to do with the fact that I had a series of medical episodes throughout the month of March, one of which resulted in an injury to both my hands that, in turn, severely inhibited my ability to write for a brief period of time. Also fear not, though, for I have more less recovered from these medical complications and am now finally able to return to my normal routine in life. Lastly, the reason that I hadn't even ventured to write a film review for the past few months is merely a result of the fact that fuck all for movies actually came out before the first couple weeks of March.
          I cannot recall any title throughout the entirety of either January or February that even remotely interested me, except for perhaps The Great Wall, a film that only grabbed my attention insofar as it was a Chinese produced and directed film, and I was interested in seeing how the film production capabilities of the second largest film consuming nation have evolved in light of such progress. But, alas, I didn't end up seeing it and, according to most other critics, I didn't miss anything special. It is in March, however, that the 2017 film season really started to take off. We were served Logan in the early days of March, the latest entry in the X-Men film franchise and Hugh Jackman's last outing as Wolverine. This one I actually did manage to see, and I must say that I was rather impressed. Logan actually managed to break away from the senseless action sequences that tend to characterize superhero movies these days, instead presenting us with actual drama and character development, and approached the superhero formula from a different perspective. After Logan, the Power Rangers reboot was released around the middle of the month. I will admit that there was a part of me that was interested in actually going to see Power Rangers, not because I was expecting it to be a great expression of cinematic art, but rather because I was hoping it would be a mindless throwback to the original series from the 90s, complete with all of the cheesy and colorful action that makes films like 80s Arnold Schwarzenegger movies entertaining. However, also according to other critics, the new Power Rangers reboot doesn't even do that, with one review calling it "sadistic, ugly, and incompetent" [1]. So, instead, I actually saw Life, that movie where Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds are astronauts among a larger team of astronauts in the very near future who get trapped aboard the International Space Station after their team stumbles across a dormant alien life form and reawakens it. That one was palatable, if very mediocre - it was a very "by the book" entry in the "trapped in space" genre of science fiction, and was nowhere near as innovative as, say, Alien was in 1979. That brings us to March 31st, the closing day of what I would call a very cinematically active month, and the release of the remake of Ghost in the Shell.
          Ghost in the Shell (2017) is directed by Rupert Sanders and stars Scarlett Johansson, and is billed as a live-action remake of the Ghost in the Shell anime film from 1995, widely considered to be one of the most innovative anime films of all time, as well as a visionary entry in the science fiction genre. In the anime, Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg whose body is virtually all machine, save her brain, is part of an elite government public security force, known as Section 9, and is tasked with finding an enigmatic hacker referred to simply as the "Puppet Master" in a distant-future Japan. In Sanders' remake, Johansson portrays Major Mira Killian, a woman whose body was irreparably damaged in a terrorist attack, thus leading to her brain being recycled in a new prosthetic body, her memory corrupted, and her new persona being enrolled in the Section 9 anti-terrorist project to hunt for a terrorist hacker known as Kuze. I will admit to not being the most familiar with the original anime, having seen it once when I was much younger. However, its reputation proceeds it well, so, when word had reached my ears that there was going to be a live action remake, I, of course, felt inclined to develop an adequate background on the series and attempted to watch the original film as a refresher. It turns out, however, that the original anime proved extremely difficult to find, with only bits and pieces appearing on YouTube and little in the way of Netflix. Ultimately, I had to settle for Ghost in the Shell: Arise, an OVA that debuted in 2015 and served as a reboot of the series, attempting to keep all of the same themes as the original, but presenting it using the current trends in anime production. From Arise, I was able to parse out the general nature of the series and develop a foundation on the kinds of questions the series asks. I suppose the concern would be whether or not the Arise OVA is genuinely faithful to the original anime, but, reasonably enough, I can't address this concern without the original anime to compare it to. Still, some background is better than no background, so even if there is some dissent among Ghost in the Shell purists as to whether or not Arise does justice to the original, approaching Ghost 2017 from Arise is better than not being familiar with the series at all.
          My expectations going into an early afternoon matinee on release day I think were reasonable enough, and, coming out of it, my final verdict on Ghost in the Shell 2017 is a positive one. Ghost in the Shell 2017 excelled where I thought it would excel and was lackluster in those areas where my expectations weren't particularly high to begin with. I believe it goes without saying that it doesn't quite live up to the precedent set by Ghost in the Shell 1995 (I'm still deciding whether or not it even lives up to Arise), but I also think that those who expected it to were perhaps a little too optimistic in their preliminary appraisal. Particularly, the level of attention given to the aesthetics of the film merits praise, as the film was a visually stunning experience, and did an adequate job of sucking the audience into a semi-utopian cyberpunk future, where a city of seemingly perfect order teeters on the brink of dystopian chaos, and the people are so drugged up on cybernetic enhancements that the line between man and machine is blurred. And, despite several cries of whitewashing and cultural appropriation, Ghost 2017 makes several very interesting production moves that hearken back to Ghost 1995, and serve as a subtle reminder that Ghost in the Shell is, first and foremost, a Japanese vision of the future. That said, the one important area where I wasn't expecting anything spectacular, and, sure enough, Ghost 2017 failed to deliver, was illustrating a story that really asks and explores those profound philosophical questions about identity, reality, the direction that humanity seems to be going, and what it means to be a person.
          Ghost in the Shell 2017 opens up with the first-person view of a woman on a stretcher and various doctors around her discussing whether or not her brain should be salvaged. Predictably, they go through with it, and the woman's brain is then harvested and inserted into a fully mechanical prosthetic body in the image of Scarlett Johansson. During the birth and awakening of this new cyborg, the scientist spearheading the operation, Dr. Ouelet, praises the feat as the first successful brain transplant into a fully-functional mechanical body. However, her pride is quickly cut down as the CEO of Hanka Robotics, the group that designed the body and envisioned the project, a man simply known as Cutter, declares that the body was specifically designed to be part of a covert counter-terrorism cell, Section 9. Fast-forward one year. Major Mira Killian stands vigilant on the rooftops of skyscrapers that seem to phase in and out of reality, port scanning all open communications frequencies for any malicious cyber activities, quickly uncovering a developing terrorist attack on Dr. Osmund, a scientist formerly involved in a Hanka research project, who also happens to be hosting the President of the African Union. (If I may also point out, I immediately noticed that Dr. Osmund was portrayed by Michael Wincott, the same grisly voiced actor who portrayed Top Dollar in The Crow.) Section 9 springs into action, with The Major showcasing her ability to cloak and diving head first from the roof of a skyscraper into the thick of things, guns blazing, eliminating several terrorists, but not before Osmund is killed by a hacked Geisha robot. The hacked Geisha is disabled, with Section 9 suspecting the enigmatic hacker known as Kuze to be behind the attack. The Major and her comrade, Batou, then take up the responsibility of investigating Kuze further under the guidance of the head of Section 9, Chief Daisuke Aramaki. Their search leads The Major to "dive" into the digital memory of the hacked Geisha by connecting her brain to its A.I. The experience provides her with clues as to Kuze's whereabouts, but also leaves her memories corrupted, causing her to have mysterious hallucinations that get progressively worse as the film goes on.
          Section 9 eventually manages to track down Kuze, where they learn that he has an extensive cybernetwork that connects his mind to all sorts of nodes and endpoints, including the minds of other individuals that have been cybernetically enhanced. Momentarily isolated from the rest of her team, there is a brief showdown between The Major and Kuze where The Major learns that Kuze is also mostly cyborg, and that he is targeting Hanka researchers that were involved in a project known as "2571". Noticing several of her hallucinated images tattooed on Kuze's body, The Major realizes that, while she may have been the first successful full brain transplant into a cybernetic body, she was not the first attempt, when Kuze then reveals that he was rejected by Hanka as a failure. The Major lets Kuze escape as the rest of Section 9 shows up, and The Major herself then flees, now confused as to how she truly came to be. She eventually meets with Dr. Ouelet, who reveals that Project 2571 was a project commissioned by Hanka to try and augment a fully optimized robotic body with a human brain, and that The Major's original body was not actually damaged in a terrorist attack as she initially believed. Noting that The Major was the first success after 97 failures, Ouelet is unable to reveal who The Major actually was before the operation, as this information was not provided to her by Hanka. Now fearing that The Major knows too much, Cutter orders her captured and for Ouelet to terminate her. Before injecting The Major's brain with a destructive serum, Ouelet has a change of heart, and instead lets The Major escape after giving her the key to a mysterious apartment, just before Cutter kills Ouelet. The key leads her to an apartment in the slums of the city, inhabited by an elderly Japanese woman. The woman gives The Major a brief tour of the apartment, where she points out her daughter's old room, noting that her daughter had run away and never came back, now presumed to be dead. Noticing that many of the trinkets in this room correspond to images from her hallucinations, and the elderly woman revealing that her daughter was an anti-augmentation radical named Motoko, The Major starts to see the full picture. She communicates with Aramaki to reveal that Hanka had kidnapped runaways in order to harvest their brains for Project 2571, erasing their memories in the process, a project of which both her and Kuze were a part, and that her real name is Motoko. At the same time, both Kuze and Cutter overhear her conversation with Aramaki. Kuze meets with The Major at the location where they were kidnapped from while Cutter orders an assassination attempt on Aramaki, which fails, and orchestrates an attack on The Major and Kuze. Kuze's body is killed in the process, though it is implied that he lives on in his network, while the rest of Section 9 arrives to help The Major thwart the rest of the attack. Aramaki reveals Hanka's operations and Project 2571 to the Prime Minister and is authorized to execute Cutter, with The Major's permission. Ghost in the Shell 2017 ends with The Major embracing her identity as Motoko Kusanagi, and her mother in the slums, before returning to work with Section 9.
          As mentioned, there are a number of things Ghost in the Shell 2017 does well. The consensus seems to be that Ghost 2017 delivers aesthetically, with visuals unparalleled in any recent science fiction entry, a sentiment that I will quickly second. What is perhaps one of the most interesting things about the Ghost in the Shell series is that it is built on elements of the cyberpunk sub-genre of sci-fi, a sub-genre that, when compared to many other recent sci-fi films (see Life), gets very little cinematic representation. There is a sense in which this may be considered a virtue - cyberpunk, by its very nature, explores the relationship between computers, technology, and humanity, and the deep philosophical questions that arise therein, which, expectedly, requires the audience to have at least some interest in computers, technology, or these related philosophical questions in order for them to find it palatable. Accordingly, cyberpunk is great as a literary genre, but is very difficult to represent cinematically, with only Bladerunner and The Matrix coming to mind as the only two successful presentations of cyberpunk in film. Ghost in the Shell 2017, however, manages to succeed in at least capturing the cyberpunk visuals that defined the 1995 anime. Newport City (the city where the film takes place) blurs the line between reality and the digital world, where pixelated holograms of individuals walk casually amongst the metropolitan crowds of the early morning hustle and bustle, occasionally phasing in and out of existence in brief clouds of white static as if they were suddenly disconnected from the server of reality. Fully animated and interactive advertisements have replaced the traditional billboards that adorn the summits of monolithic skyscrapers, metallic and chrome. Human brains have achieved (or, depending on how you want to look at it, have been demoted to) a status equal to that of a hard drive, where one's thoughts can be erased with a mere press of the DEL button and one's memories manipulated by simply altering their mental source code. Children can be taught French or Japanese by simply downloading the language to that same cerebral storage unit (Ghost in Shell had introduced the "mental download" concept well before Trinity learned how to fly a helicopter by way of file transfer in The Matrix). All of this is presented visually, and presented well, in Ghost 2017, preserving some of the original aesthetic of the anime and giving us a refreshing presentation of cyberpunk in a mainstream film entry.
          Speaking of its roots in a Japanese anime, Ghost 2017 actually did a fairly good job of acknowledging them and expanding on Ghost 1995, contrary to the assessment of several other critics. Early on in its production, there was a noticeably loud outcry over Johansson's casting as The Major, with some arguing that, since Ghost in the Shell is a quintessentially Japanese work of science fiction, a Japanese actress should actually be cast in the role, and others going so far as to accuse Dreamworks of attempting to "whitewash" the series [2]. While I agree that it would have been very interesting to see an Asian actress lead a large Hollywood project, I also agree with a particular statement made by Marc Bernardin of the Los Angeles Times, that "the only race that Hollywood cares about is the box office race" [3]. For better or for worse, it should come as no surprise to anyone that a major Hollywood studio would cast Scarlett Johansson, an actress whose filmography includes a number of highly successful sci-fi roles (such as Black Widow in Marvel's Avengers and the titular character in Lucy), and whose name alone will undoubtedly lure in thousands of otherwise skeptical casual movie-goers. Again, it would have been quite a statement to cast an Asian actress in the lead role, a statement I would readily get behind, but I don't think Dreamworks' decision to cast Johansson in the role is so much a testament to some kind of sub-conscious racism on the part of Dreamworks as it is an insight into the one-dimensional minds of American movie-goers - instead of being intrigued by the story of a woman whose identity is transplanted into a machine in a future city that eerily parallels our own, regardless of whether or not that woman is white or Asian, American movie-goers are instead drawn to the mere presence of Scarlett Johansson, like a child distracted by a squirrel or a shiny object. Perhaps the lack of an Asian actress in the lead role would be more egregious if there were absolutely no references to the Asian culture that gave rise to the Ghost in the Shell series to begin with, but this is also not the case. Despite the casting of Johansson in the lead role, there are still a number of Asian actors in the film. Takeshi Kitano (a popular filmmaker in Japan) portrays Chief Daisuke Aramaki, The Major's commander, while we see Chin Han in the role of Togusa, one of The Major's cohorts in the Section 9 task force (most Americans would recognize Chin Han as Lau in Chris Nolan's Dark Knight series) and Kaori Momoi (another popular Japanese actress) in the role of Motoko's mother, first introduced in the mysterious apartment. Speaking of Aramaki and Motoko's mother, one of the most notable aspects of the film is that a large chuck of it is in Japanese, and not solely in English, particularly when it comes to Aramaki's dialogue, which serves both as a clear throwback to the original anime as well as a suggestion that the various themes and dilemmas presented in the film are not unique to the insular demographic of the English-speaking white American movie-goer, but all of mankind (something that, given Americans' near-sightedness with regard to the important aspects of a film, such as the plot as opposed to its casting, we apparently needed a reminder of). Lastly, it should also be noted that, contrary to the forecasted "whitewashing" of The Major's character from Japanese Motoko Kusanagi in the original anime to American Mira Killian in Ghost 2017, we actually have a regress by the end of the film, where The Major abandons the name of Killian and now responds to the name of Motoko while embracing her mother.
          All of that said, I can't completely defend Ghost in the Shell 2017 in every regard. My biggest criticism of it is one that I have also leveled at many other recent entries in the science fiction genre: if a film is going to explore very deep philosophical themes and questions, which Ghost in the Shell aims to do, those themes have to be presented and explored organically, and flow from the drama and the interactions of the characters. A film cannot simply tell us about these issues - it has to show us, to illustrate these ideas in palpable scenarios and make the audience do the brainwork. I posed this same kind of criticism of the character development of Jyn Erso in Rogue One. Rogue One simply told us that Jyn was an orphan hardened by the mean streets of whatever societal underbelly she grew up in, but we never actually saw that. We never got to see Jyn Erso make the questionable decisions in ambiguous moral dilemmas that we would expect from that type of character. Instead, we got a generic heroine archetype who we were lead to believe was the unquestionable protagonist throughout the film. A similar phenomenon happens with Ghost 2017. Very little is left up to the imagination or interpretation of the audience when Dr. Ouelet and Cutter are literally referring to The Major's brain transplant as like "putting her ghost in a shell" within the first five minutes of the movie. It's also very superficial to introduce the idea of "a ghost in a shell", teasing a potential discussion of the extent to which The Major is still a person, only to not actually have that discussion, or even address that point again, throughout the rest of the film. The Arise OVA at least touches on this question as a sub-plot, pitting The Major against that segment of the powers that be that consider her to be more of a machine than a person, thus rendering her as property of the state as opposed to an autonomous individual. It's a pity because there was the potential to explore a number of scenarios that really test this idea of personhood, and what we consider to be a person, scenarios that the original anime explored, that we just don't get in Ghost 2017, like when Batou transfers The Major's head to a completely different body at the end of Ghost 1995.
          In the end, Ghost in the Shell 2017 still gets a recommendation. What the film lacks in story and plot development, it makes up for in stunning visuals and it's treatment of the Japanese source material, which I think it acknowledges well, contrary to what several critics have claimed. One of the advantages of film as an artistic outlet over a piece of literature or poetry is that, like a painting or drawing, it is a visual medium. Dreamworks at least understood this much, providing us with a film in which virtually each frame carried with it an aesthetic virtually unseen in many other recent science fiction films. And again, the claims of "whitewashing" that have been thrown around are unfounded, as Ghost in the Shell 2017 in not an English-only production with some ensemble cast of American all-stars that I am sure many in the American public would have preferred to see, but rather an (attempted) exploration of some very important and very provocative philosophical themes, through both the English and Japanese languages, with a cast that, despite the casting of an American in the lead role, remains true to the Asian origins of the original Ghost in the Shell anime.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Review - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

          We have now arrived at what is perhaps the most anticipated cinematic event of the year. I am normally quick to call out when something has been overly hyped, but I think, in this case, I must make a special exception. 2016 has been an absolutely abysmal year for film (in stark contrast to 2015), so I can excuse the masses for indulging in celebration when a film comes along that offers a much-needed reprieve from what has otherwise been a smorgasbord of torture. I distinctly recall that, back in January, The 5th Wave left a very bitter taste in my mouth, and, in retrospect, served as an omen of things to come. I have since had to endure through the likes of Gods of Egypt, The Boy, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Ghostbusters (III), with really only Deadpool, The Conjuring 2, and Star Trek Beyond serving as feeble attempts to stop the hemorrhaging (which is to say that, while my attitude towards them was positive, they were unfortunately not enough recompense for how hard everything else failed). It wasn't until last month, in November, when the year is pretty much over, that anything comparable to the cinematic vision of 2015 came along in the form of Doctor Strange. And now, in December, we will be ending the year the same way as 2015, with Star Wars. Particularly, with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
          I'm sure that I don't need to remind people how much of a colossal exit The Force Awakens was for 2015. At the beginning of the year, during my review of The 5th Wave, I had questioned whether or not my perception of the early cinematic offerings of 2016 would be tainted by the fact that they came on the heels of The Force Awakens, what I would consider to be one of the largest success stories of 2015, in year that was already stacked with a number of successes (it also turns out that my evaluation of early 2016 wasn't tainted...other critics agree that The 5th Wave, for example, just sucks). Rogue One is Disney's 2016 attempt to top (or, at least, fair comparably to) The Force Awakens. As such, the marketing campaign for Rogue One has paced itself the same way as the marketing for The Force Awakens, with several time-release trailers throughout the year that were careful not to reveal anything of substance and Hasbro releasing all of the relevant toys and collectibles in advance (I will admit that I had already added a Jyn Erso action figure to my collection by the time the film was released). And the surmounting hype surrounding Rogue One illustrates just how successful this marketing campaign was, as anticipation for it had approached levels comparable to the hype for The Force Awakens.
          Rogue One is the first entry in what has been dubbed the "Star Wars Anthology" series, the second entry of which, a stand-alone Han Solo film, is currently in production. The entries in the Anthology series represent a significant break from the traditional Star Wars formula in that they are not intended to focus on the Skywalker family, the Jedi and the Force, nor anything that came before them in the Galactic Republic or The Clone Wars (i.e. the prequel trilogy). Instead, the Anthology series examines the Star Wars universe under a microscope, telling the individual stories that might otherwise get overlooked in the larger picture of the main saga. It is easy, for example, to get so wrapped up in the events of the Galactic Civil War that we never actually stop to ask who Han Solo is and where he came from. We may be so enthralled by Luke Skywalker's Jedi training in the swamps of Dagobah or his daring X-wing flight in the trenches of the Death Star that we never actually wonder how the Rebellion got the information necessary to attack the Death Star in the first place. Perhaps even more intriguing, we know that planets in the Outer Rim serve as nice havens for smugglers, brigands, and other ruffians, and are usually well removed from the conflicts that plague both the Old and New Republics. As such, there could very well be a dashing tale of piracy, action, and romance among the dark underbelly of, say, Jakku just waiting to be told, like the space version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Interestingly, Disney has finally decided to explore these untold stories of a galaxy far, far away, and remind us that, while the events of the The Clone Wars and the Galactic Civil War are still important, there is a lot more to the galaxy than that.
          This is a great idea in theory, and has a lot of potential, but, unfortunately, it looks like Rogue One is only a lukewarm example of it put into practice. Rogue One focuses on the events leading up to the first entry in the Star Wars universe, A New Hope. Set some time after the end of the Clone Wars, it follows a merry band of rebels as they track down the man that designed the Death Star and steal the plans for the Imperial battle station in order to discover any potential weakness. Directed by Gareth Edwards (of Godzilla fame), it stars Felicity Jones as sergeant Jyn Erso, an street-hardened orphan who turns out to be the daughter of Galen Erso, the designer of the Death Star. Speaking of Galen Erso, we yet again see Mads Mikkelsen have another crucial role in one of the largest movies of the year (recall that he portrayed villain Kaecilius in Doctor Strange). Diego Luna portrays Cassian Andor, an intelligence operative for the Rebellion who believes whole-heartedly in the cause, sometimes blindly. Ben Mendelsohn introduces us to Imperial Director Orson Krennic, head of the Imperial Research and Development department, who is overseeing the construction of the Death Star, and is in competition with Grand Moff Tarkin for Imperial military leadership. Forest Whitaker portrays Saw Gerrera, an extremist who believes in direct, violent action against the Empire, and whose followers sometimes find themselves at odds even with the Rebellion. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen portray Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, respectively, a blind monk with a devotion to the Force (almost Jedi-like) and a trigger-happy mercenary, also respectively. And throughout the remainder of the film, we catch brief glimpses of Mon Mothma, Bail Organa, C-3PO, R2-D2, a (bizarre) CGI version of Grand Moff Tarkin, and, of course, Darth Vader.
          Rogue One opens up with a flashback to Jyn Erso's childhood, where Director Krennic finds her family in hiding from the Empire in order to try and recruit her father to complete his work on the Death Star. Her family resists, at which point her mother is killed and her father abducted, while Jyn escapes capture, eventually being found by Saw Gerrera. Fast forward roughly 15 years. Jyn has assumed a new identity and is now in Imperial custody as a convicted felon and slave. Meanwhile, on a small mining colony in an asteroid field, Rebel spy Cassian Andor hears rumors that an Imperial pilot has defected with an important message from Galen Erso, and that this pilot has made his way into the clutches of extremist Saw Gerrera and his group of militants on the planet of Jedha. The Rebellion also catches wind of the fact that Jyn Erso, the daughter of the man that is designing the new Imperial superweapon, is now an Imperial prisoner and being transferred between prisons. Then, as an additional "meanwhile", Krennic is mining the planet of Jedha, a planet that, in the past, served as an important location for the Jedi Order in the Old Republic, for large amounts of Kyber crystals, which had previously been used in the construction of Jedi lightsabers. In a hit-and-run guerrilla tactic, the Rebellion finds when Jyn Erso is being transported, raids the transport ship, and rescues her (at which point we are introduced to K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial security droid). Taken back to the Rebel base on Yavin IV, Mon Mothma and the others in Rebel leadership convince Jyn to work with them on a mission to find Saw Gerrera and the Imperial defector on Jedha with the promise of ultimately finding her father.
          Upon arriving in Jedha, Jyn and Cassian find the capital, Jedha City, fully occupied by Imperials, with a Star Destroyer looming menacingly overhead, overseeing the mining of the Kyber crystals. While trying to covertly blend in and find contacts that will take them to Saw Gerrera, they coincidentally find themselves in the middle of a raid by Saw's space-jihadists on a small Imperial convoy. With the help of Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, Jyn and Cassian are able to avoid capture by the Imperials, but, instead find themselves captured by Saw Gerrera. It's at this point that the Star Destroyer over Jedha City interestingly leaves while the remaining Imperial forces evacuate. Unbeknownst to the city and the Rebellion, the Death Star has been completed over Jedha and Krennic is ready to showcase its abilities to Grand Moff Tarkin. While at Gerrera's base, Jyn and her group come across the defecting Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (portrayed by Riz Ahmed), and Jyn has an audience with Saw. Saw reveals a hologram message from Galen, describing that, though he reluctantly had to complete the construction of the Death Star, he also deliberately constructed a weakness: the central core of the Death Star is sensitive to pressure, so the right amount of pressure to the core from a large enough explosion will trigger a chain reaction that will ultimately destroy the Death Star, and that there are exhaust ports on the outside of the battle station that lead directly to the core, but are small enough to avoid detection. Jyn's meeting with Saw and her trip down memory lane, however, are quickly cut short as the Death Star fires on Jedha City, destroying the inhabitants and the remaining Kyber crystals, and starting a planetary cataclysm that quickly rushes to the far outskirts of the city, where Saw's base is located. Jyn, Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, and Bodhi escape with the help of K-2SO, but Saw, and Galen's message, are destroyed in the cataclysm.
          With Galen Erso's message destroyed, and, thus, no evidence on how to defeat the Death Star other than Jyn Erso's vague memory, the group sets out to find Galen Erso himself. They track him down to an Imperial research facility on the storm-ridden Outer Rim planet of Eadu, where Krennic has found him first and learned of his treachery. Having learned the location of Galen Erso, the Rebellion initiates a bombing sortie on the research facility, killing Galen in the process while Krennic escapes. Disenchanted with the Rebellion after watching Rebel bombs kill her father, Jyn confronts Cassian in a rather poignant argument, but is slowly convinced to go before Mon Mothma and the rest of the Rebel command and reveal what she learned about the Death Star. Appraising the situation as hopeless in the face of such odds, and without Galen Erso's hologram, many Rebel commanders vote against striking the Death Star and disband. Determined to not let her father's plan be in vain, Jyn assembles a group of about 20 stalwart volunteers, including Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, Bodhi, and K-2SO to infiltrate and sabotage the Imperial base on the beach planet of Scarif, where the master plans for the Death Star are housed. Using a stolen Imperial cargo shuttle, Jyn and crew manage to land on Scarif, where Jyn and Cassian infiltrate the base to find the plans while the remaining Rebel soldiers lay siege to the base to create a distraction. Incidentally, at the same time, Krennic and his Death Troopers arrive to comb the archives for any communications sent by Galen Erso. With word of the team's landing on Scarif, Mon Mothma and others in the Rebel high command are suddenly motivated to help, sending a portion of the Rebel fleet to Scarif to assist. What ensues is something akin to a large-scale military rescue operation, like the Star Wars version of Behind Enemy Lines or Black Hawk Down, where Krennic hunts down Cassian and Jyn while the Rebel fleet attempts to hold off any Imperial reinforcements. Ultimately, Jyn manages to find the plans, but any means of getting off the planet are destroyed as collateral damage from the battle above. In the end, Jyn has to transmit the plans via satellite to the Rebel fleet, Cassian and Krennic wound each other, and Tarkin shows up with Death Star, firing on the Scarif base, destroying Krennic, Jyn, and Cassian. Our ending scenes are of Darth Vader's arrival to cut-off the escape of the remaining Rebels and retrieve the stolen plans, transitioning into what would be the opening of A New Hope.
          I mentioned above that my attitude towards Rogue One can best be described as "lukewarm"; while it does a number of things well, there are a number of large blunders that simply can't be ignored, and this is important because, as an entry in the Star Wars universe, Rogue One inherently has a certain set of high expectations to meet. When I do my reviews, I usually form my general opinion of a film first and then jot down several notes before I read what others have to say. And while I don't always agree with the evaluations given to a film by most mainstream outlets, I can safely include myself in what appears to be a large consensus about the glaring things that Rogue One misses the mark on: character and dialogue development. Matthew Lickona of the San Diego Reader writes that Rogue One is mostly "a clunky attempt at a coldhearted espionage thriller, full of good characters saddled with bad dialogue, tense scenarios saddled with dumb action, and tolerable storyweaving saddled with bad fan service" [1]. David Sexton of the London Evening Standard mentions that he "can only report that [he] found Rogue One not just a dull but an oppressive experience, being force-fed a corporate product: a film that never comes alive, with none of the characters properly developed, none of the relationships gelling, the very adventure formulaic" [2]. For my evaluation of what Rogue One does well, I am also very much consistent with what other critics are saying, so I defer to Chris Klimik of NPR, who notes that "it's a tense, well-made spacefaring war movie about a desperate and demoralized band of insurgents standing up against a rising authoritarian regime" [3], and Ty Burr of the Boston Globe who mentions that "it offers more details of interoffice politics among the squabbling factions of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance than probably anyone but a mid-level manager cares for, yet you generally feel you're in good hands" [4].
          Poor dialogue and character development are perhaps the biggest blunders that Rogue One makes, and many of the smaller problems that Rogue One has tend to stem from this. Jyn Erso is described as something of a street-wise orphan, a clever young woman who had to steal what she needed to survive and tried to circumvent anything in her way, and through her actions, which include forging Imperial documents and inciting violence, ended up in Imperial prison. This certainly sounds like an interesting character, particularly for a female protagonist, and having such a character promoted to sergeant in the Rebel Alliance promises a lot of potential. The problem is that we never see any of this - we are simply told she had a rough time on the streets, but never see it. We never see her steal anything, and any time she engages in violence, the scenario is very black-and-white (i.e. Jyn Erso = good, Stormtroopers = bad). We never see Jyn demonstrate the questionable moral compass that someone with a rough upbringing is apt to have. She may say she is a "rebel", but never acts like it. I have in the past mentioned that character development is one of the most important parts of any fiction - it makes the characters relatable and allows the audience to establish an emotional attachment to them, and, when done really well, will even create an emotional investment in an antagonist. None of this is present in Rogue One, however. For example, Galen Erso's character is never really developed - we are given very little of his background and his role in the development of the Death Star is never really elaborated on, other than us simply being told that he is the lead engineer. In fact, he actually has very little screen time when compared to most other characters - we see him in the opening seen for several minutes, in hologram form for about a minute, and then for another two minutes on Eadu before he is killed by the Rebellion. And it is on Eadu that we thus see the result of this poor character development: nobody in the audience ever really cares when he dies. Sure, we can understand that Jyn is upset. But good character development would make the audience feel upset when something happens to a core character - it would elicit a reaction similar to what I am sure most Harry Potter readers felt when Sirius Black was killed in Order of the Phoenix, or Han Solo in The Force Awakens. And this scene undermines what had the potential to be one of the more compelling points to be made in Rogue One: war is never pretty for either side. Galen Erso dying to Alliance bombs had the potential to paint the Rebellion in a different light, which would be a new and profound approach to the Star Wars universe - if only we actually really cared about Galen Erso. In fact, I would have to say the only really memorable characters from Rogue One would be K-2SO and Krennic, K-2SO for having a personality wholly distinct from any other stock character is the film (which is really saying something, considering that K-2SO is a droid), and Krennic for actually displaying any kind of emotional investment into anything.
          Perhaps even worse than the poor character development (in fact, partly contributing to it), the dialogue is cliche, empty, and just generally bad. Far and away, Exhibit A would be Vader's cringe-worthy line "don't choke on your aspirations Krennic" while Force-choking Krennic. Darth Vader doesn't speak in puns. Writing in a pun as one of Darth Vader's lines is nothing short of blasphemy. The word "hope" is thrown around so often towards the end that one might be forgiven for expecting the Rebellion to just start using "hope" as part of their general naming convention, such as the "Hope"-wing fighter or "Hope" base. In fact, there appear to be some points where one might even think that the writers weren't even trying. There is a scene during the final space battle over Scarif, for example, where the editors copy/pasted Red Leader from A New Hope, including his line "get ready to start your attack run" and then simply added "...on the Star Destroyer" to the end of it. And on a side note, the copy/paste of Red Leader and Gold Leader from A New Hope was just kind of weird. To me, it quite literally looked like a new 2016 film where someone had superimposed the film reel from 1977 over it. The whole thing seemed really forced, and made the scene feel a lot like that "I think this might be photoshopped" internet meme [5].
          Of course, Rogue One has its redeeming qualities. The underlying general idea behind the film is already something commendable: a Star Wars film that doesn't focus on the Skywalker family and instead tells one of the many other stories to be told in the Star Wars universe. Edwards had remarked that Rogue One would be more of a war film than previous entries in the Star Wars series [6], and, as such, will perhaps be more suitable for more adult audiences. I can now say that there is plenty of truth to this statement, as the war motifs were a constant element throughout. I thought the surprise raid on the passing Imperial convoy by Saw's forces on Jedha was particularly interesting; I don't think it's a coincidence that Saw's guerrillas just happen to have the aesthetic of scarf-wearing, rag-tag militants in a harsh desert city occupied by an invading force. Likewise, the body count on Scarif during the Rebellion's attempt to rescue Jyn and Cassian was probably the highest we've seen in the Star Wars universe, likely higher than the pile of smoldering Rebel corpses the Empire left in its wake during the siege on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. And, while Ty Burr complained of the insight we were given into the "company politics" of both the Empire and the Rebellion, I actually thought that this was one of the things that gave Rogue One a sense of realism, diluting the tiresome black-and-white formula of "Rebellion = good, Empire = bad" that we are used to seeing. Speaking of breaking Star Wars convention, Edwards' attempt to paint the Rebellion in a more ambiguous light, instead of portraying it as the unquestionable force for justice that we are used to seeing, is a commendable attempt to provide a new perspective on the series, even if its execution was handled haphazardly.
          Praise can also be given to the overall effects and aesthetic of Rogue One. The ending scene on Scarif, in particular, deserves special recognition. A beach locale in the Star Wars universe was something not yet explored in the films, and integrating a large-scale tropical beach battle which includes Death Troopers and AT-AT walkers is certainly a first for Star Wars. The attempt to recreate the original look and feel of 1977's A New Hope was also an overall success. Jyn and Cassian, for example, have the same dark blue, black, and khaki wardrobe that we first saw in the opening scenes of A New Hope, while the Imperial army has a weathered, rugged feel to them (for example, the stormtroopers' armor and tanks on Jedha are covered in dirt and wear), more consistent with the DIY aesthetic that we get from the Rebellion and the war-tested feel we get from the Empire in the original trilogy, in stark contrast to the colorful, regal aesthetic we see in the Old Republic and Trade Federation in the prequel trilogy. Speaking of A New Hope from 1977, there seems to be a lot of discussion around the partial CGI recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. I will admit, seeing him initially first struck me as kind of weird; I could tell it was CG, but, I must say, it was some rather convincing CG. If this were 1995, someone could very well be fooled into thinking that it was actually Peter Cushing. Others, however, were not able to get past the small "unnatural" feel to the character, but this strikes me as a nit-picky detail. The CG that went in recreating Tarkin was done over an actor serving as a template, so he does not have the overtly cartoonish aesthetic that, say, Jabba the Hutt had when George Lucas re-released A New Hope with bonus scenes. I also found it easy to get over, so after the first few moments of seeing Tarkin, the CGI became a quick footnote.
          Overall, Rogue One is a Star Wars experience worth seeing. It takes risks, which already sets it out from not just other Star Wars films, but most other films of 2016. Granted, its execution of those risks is kind of questionable, but at least it does them at all. This doesn't appear to matter much, though - it already is one of the biggest successes of 2016, and opens the door to other untold stories in the Star Wars universe. In a year with some of the worst movies I have seen in a long time (such as The 5th Wave and Ghostbusters), Rogue One still served as a nice reprieve from the quagmire of silliness that came before it. And Disney doesn't seem to be slowing down here - as mentioned earlier, a Han Solo origin story is in the works, and the surmounting anticipation for Episode VIII grows larger everyday. Looking ahead, the cinematic forecast for 2017, in general, already looks like a large improvement over 2016, with my next big move experience likely being the Chinese-produced film The Great Wall at the beginning of February, and set to end with Episode VIII in December.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Review - Doctor Strange

          I have returned! Those who have been following the blog may have noticed that I was eerily absent for September and October, not having posted anything since my review of Star Trek Beyond in August. There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, contrary to what I announced at the outset of my Beyond review, I have still been on that kind of personal "vision quest" that I previously talked about - I was lamenting the fact that I am currently stuck in a career field that I have become quite bored with, and I was tearing myself apart trying to figure out whether or not I should embrace it and condemn myself to a life of boredom and security, or if I should still do what I have traditionally done and metaphorically burn it all down, risking everything I have to try and reap the greater reward. Add to that the mounting anxieties that seem to plague this wretched little planet (which I briefly outlined in my "Agoraphobia" article), and one can see that these past couple of months (nay, this entire past summer) has been one of the most maddening in a very long time. I found myself perpetually haunted by that question "what's the point of it all?", that question that I have been asking of the world since I was in high school several years ago. It felt as if I had created my own specter.
          Luckily, this past month has been something of a revelation for me. After several failed job interviews and watching various changes and shifts being made around the office at work, I was once again reminded of how silly everyday life is. Like John the Savage, disgusted with the Soma-suppressed minds of the Brave New World, I again realized I needed an escape from it all. By early October, I knew I had to get back into writing, but the time was not opportune - there were really no interesting films throughout September and October (at least, none worth writing about), and I hadn't researched anything for a philosophical article. Instead, I decided to catch up on some reading, diving into Plato's Republic, which, believe it or not and despite my background in Ancient Greek philosophy, was a work that I had never actually finished before. It didn't take long after embarking on that endeavor that I realized how much more enjoyable the philosophical world is over being a "working professional". Accordingly, I have spent that past couple of weeks entertaining the possibility of going back to grad school to pursue doctoral work as well as trying to secure a teaching position at a community college (the problem with the latter option is that it is very difficult to secure a tenured position in the community college system with a master's degree while there are candidates applying with a PhD). Regardless of how I wanted to pursue things going forward, I knew that the intersection of all of these things would center around my writing. The good news is that, while taking the time to research these options and ponder these ideas, several worthwhile writing topics have presented themselves - the impending release of Doctor Strange and Rogue One, as well as a new philosophical topic that I have been meditating on.
          And here we are, at the review of Doctor Strange. I should point out that, by the time of writing these first few paragraphs, the film hasn't been released to the public yet (it comes out next Friday). But, as one can infer from the above paragraphs, my enthusiasm for philosophy has once again been rekindled and, as we approach the end of October, one of those worthwhile writing topics has appeared in the form of the highly anticipated Doctor Strange. As such, I am once again itching to put fingers to keyboard and start doing the one thing that actually makes life meaningful and productive. And this wouldn't be the first time I have embarked on a film review without having actually seen the film yet - some may recall that I did this very thing with Ant-Man last year (eerily, almost exactly one year ago). Of course, I won't be able to get very far into this review without having seen it yet, but, much like Ant-Man, Doctor Strange will require a little bit of preemptive background that I can at least get out of the way now.
          Doctor Strange will be yet another entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe starring teenage-heartthrob du jour Benedict Cumberbatch. While I have at several points in past articles expressed my overall dissatisfaction with the MCU, if Ant-Man and The Winter Soldier have taught us anything, it's that there can occasionally be fleeting strokes of true genius in an otherwise incoherent clusterfuck. What makes Doctor Strange all the more interesting is that, like Ant-Man, he is a kind of "fringe" character in the Marvel Universe - not of the same mainstream ilk as, say, Captain America or Iron Man, but still having a notable presence in Marvel comics nonetheless. That said, I will admit that I had really only heard of Doctor Strange in the past, having never read the comics as a child (this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone - I have previously mentioned that I was never really into comics as a child, preferring more to read novels and poetry). As such, I had to do a little bit of research into the character both in anticipation for the film and for writing this piece.
          And it's from this point that I write having seen the film. Remember in the previous paragraphs when I said that there can be occasional strokes of pure genius in the Marvel Universe? This is one of those moments. Doctor Strange is unlike anything previously witnessed in the MCU thus far, bringing us a deeply imaginative character lost in very hypnotizing and bizarre landscapes. And while there are a couple of small misses with the story, this is by far a much more wayward and far-out approach to a superhero films than Captain America: Civil War and Batman vs Superman from earlier this year. Even from a conceptual level (i.e. a renowned neurosurgeon who becomes lost in the teachings of Eastern mysticism), Doctor Strange excels, and this is yet to say anything about the visual landscapes that seem like something out of an M.C. Escher drawing or the great performance by Cumberbatch that may very well rival that of Tom Hiddleston's Loki or Robert Downy Jr.'s Tony Stark.
          Doctor Strange opens up with the sorcerer Kaecilius (portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen), a student of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and his followers murdering the librarian at their compound in Nepal and stealing the pages for a dark and forbidden ritual from an ancient tome. Despite attempts by the Ancient One to stop them, Kaecilius and his "zealots", as the film refers to them, escape. Cut to New York City. Famed neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) showcases his skills, removing what would have been an otherwise fatal bullet from the brain of a shooting victim. As with any skilled and accomplished person, Strange takes a great degree of pride in his work, though perhaps a little too much as he savagely berates another doctor who had diagnosed this particular case as hopeless. We are also introduced to Strange's co-worker and on-and-off love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who reminds Stephen of an upcoming Neurological Society banquet event where he is slotted to speak. Again, we are reminded of Strange's high opinion of himself as we watch him prepare for the banquet, with his closet of fine Italian suits, his drawer full of Rolex and Omega watches, and the Lamborghini he just happens to have securely parked somehow at his penthouse suite in New York City. That said, there is quite a reversal of fortune when Strange violently crashes said Lamborghini on his way to the banquet, crippling his hands to the point of no longer being able to do his work.
          Strange tries everything to try and regain the functionality of his hands, from the cutting-edge of neuroscience and nerve restructuring to acupuncture and fringe medicine, again criticizing those who fail to help him, so sure that he would be able to do it better. Out of options, Strange hears of a man who was, at one point, completely paralyzed from the waist down, who is now not only walking again, but doing activities like playing basketball. After finding and speaking to this man, Strange makes his way to Kathmandu, Nepal, were he stumbles across Kamar-Taj, the sanctuary of the Ancient One, where Kaecilius had previously stolen the forbidden ritual. After a phase of doubt and arguing with the Ancient One, she eventually opens his mind, revealing to him the many different possible worlds that both exist and don't exist, the alternate dimensions in which creatures both horrific and beautiful threaten not just Earth, but many other worlds beyond time and space. Having embarked on his path towards enlightenment, Strange then immerses himself in Ancient Indian texts, poring through pages of Classical Sanskrit to learn the mystical ways of the sorcerer. Along the way, he acquires the Eye of Agamotto and the Cloak of Levitation, and learns that the ritual the Kaecilius and his followers stole was a ritual to summon Dormammu, a dark being behind the veil of time that threatens to destroy Earth. As can be imagined, Strange eventually finds himself in the position where he has to stop Kaecilius and at the same time learn the moral lesson that not everything is always about him.
          There are a lot of things that Doctor Strange does well that sets it apart from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From a conceptual level, the characters, story, and design are a lot more imaginative and creative than many other MCU offerings. A crippled neurosurgeon who becomes a time sorcerer by learning the ways of Eastern mysticism is a lot more interesting than, say, a guy running around wearing an American flag fighting Nazis, or an engineer who creates a robot suit. It may be worth pointing out that Ant-Man did this too - it is intriguing that the "fringe" characters of the MCU tend to be the most imaginative (such as an ex-con thief who stumbles across a suit that shrinks him down to the size of an ant). And while there may be some questionable aspects to the plot (a point which I will elaborate later), this same degree of imagination is echoed at several points throughout the story. Defeating a cosmic nether-being by putting the entire space-time continuum in an infinite playback loop, like your favorite song on repeat or a broken VCR, takes a larger degree of imagination than the Iron Man approach of firing a thousand rockets at it and hoping it dies.
          And this same degree of imagination is reflected in the special effects for the film. As is to be expected of any entry in the MCU, there is a large degree of CGI in Doctor Strange. But, unlike the CGI of previous installments in the MCU, the special effects produce a somewhat different result. Recall that I once equated the dependence of the MCU on CGI to that of a drug addict passed out on a dirty mattress with used needles strewn about the floor. The underlying strength of that criticism is the implied feeling of pity that one would have if he were to walk into the room to find the miserable wretch sprawled out across the mattress. The same concept can apply to Doctor Strange, but from a different perspective - that of the drug addict. Doctor Strange takes the special effects to an entirely different world, a world where kaleidoscopic hallucinations paint warped perceptions of reality. The special effects compliment the overall whimsy of the character - watching New York City fold and twist, with cars cascading down vertical streets like a waterfall, as Kaecilius tries to destroy the Sanctum Sanctorum, or watching Strange alter the flow of time by manipulating a broken watch highlight his mystery and intrigue.
          Of course, a large portion of credit needs to be afforded the actors in the film. Cumberbatch, for example, does a great job of showcasing a slow, steady, and, most importantly, relatable character shift. At the outset of the film, we are introduced to a doctor who is driven more by a desire to be the best in his discipline, as opposed to being driven by a genuine desire to help those who require his skills. This is in stark contrast to the Doctor Strange we are left with at the end of the film, a sorcerer who has been humbled by the realization that there is a lot more to the world than just his own success. Again, this character shift is steady, not abrupt - I have previously pointed out that there is an alarming trend in modern science fiction cinema where character development consists of simply telling the audience that the character is different, not showing them that the character is different. The unfortunate side effect of this is that the character is not relatable - which is quite a pity because relatable characters make a film a lot more memorable and profound by appealing to the audience's pathos, something that is crucial in any kind of drama. Tilda Swinton's portrayal of the Ancient One also deserves some praise here. The stock character that one would expect for the Ancient One would be some kind of generic sage, who speaks only in profound and epic one-liners, trying to convey a moral lesson even when doing something as mundane as sweeping the kitchen. But the Ancient One turned out to be nothing like this. Swinton's Ancient One was much more relatable, more akin to Morpheus from The Matrix than the cartoonishly epic Zordon from the Power Rangers series. Despite this, I will confess that I was mildly disappointed with Mikkelsen's Kaecilius. Conceptually speaking, Kaecilius is a blind idealist who will resort to violence to realize his ideal - a character archetype that we have seen over and over (see Voldemort, Kylo Ren, Poison Ivy, etc.). Virtually all of Kaecilius' lines consisted of some permutation of the phrase "Dormammu will conquer the world and I need to destroy you to make that happen". One thing that can make a film (or piece of literature, for that matter) even more profound is a villain that the audience can relate to or sympathize with. Kaecilius doesn't do that - what we are left with is a stock character that the protagonist simply just needs to defeat, not another personality that the protagonist has to come to terms with.
          On that note, I suppose now would be a good time to point out the few things in Doctor Strange that could have used improvement. I previously mentioned that the story missed the mark in a few ways. We are yet again presented with the increasingly tiresome story of "good guy defeats bad guy", which, when coupled with my above criticism of Kaecilius, is made all the more tiresome by the fact that the bad guy is a stock villain that was likely pulled out of a grab bag of stock villains. What would really have been a trip is if everything that Kaecilius said about Dormammu was true, and that the dark dimension that Dormammu sought to create was, in fact, a new paradise, a kind of Eden where Dormammu would improve mankind in the same way that Zeus molded man from clay. But alas, such a prospect is far to profound for modern audiences - we are just left to assume that "Dormammu = bad". Related is the cliche moral lesson that Strange has to learn. I had praised Benedict Cumberbatch's acting for his portrayal of a character that learns a valuable moral lesson by the end of the film. However, like the overall plot, this is a moral lesson we have seen before. The "egomaniac humbled by the events of the story" theme isn't new, and, in fact, we have already seen it before in the MCU (if I recall correctly, this is a lesson that Thor had to learn in the first Thor film). In many ways, it feels as if the writers didn't want to take any risks with the story - they wanted to rely on the trusted formula of "good guy defeats bad guy", while, along the way, the good guy learns not to be selfish while saving the world. It's a pity because, out of perhaps the entire Marvel Universe, Doctor Strange would perhaps be the one IP to take risks with. As the creative visuals illustrate, Doctor Strange, by its very nature, is far out, and anything is possible. As such, there is room to iterate on something truly creative when it comes to the story, an opportunity that I think our writers may have missed.
          Despite these points, Doctor Strange is still getting a recommendation. I can be content with a generic plot if the other aspects of the film compensate for it, which, in this case, they do. Conceptually and visually, Doctor Strange leaves one spellbound, a feat that other installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have never achieved. The concept of a neurosurgeon who learns the ways of Eastern mysticism and gets lost in a multiverse of infinite dimensions is a lot more captivating than an American supersoldier who punches Nazis, while imagery that can be compared to M.C. Escher drawings being put through the filter of a bad acid trip are certainly a lot less bland than the explosion-riddled clusterfuck that was Age of Ultron. Again, it may be worth pointing out that all of the "fringe" characters of the MCU tend to be the most intriguing. If this trend were to continue, perhaps we will also see this same level of creativity in Black Panther and Captain Marvel.