Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review - Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

          I have officially ventured into new territory with Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. This is the first movie I have actually seen in Seattle, as well as my first review of a movie that is neither a remake nor a reboot (Fury Road, Jurassic World, and Terminator I saw while I was still living in California), and already it feels slightly foreign. With Fury Road, Jurassic World, and Terminator, I had a point of comparison, or a foundation to build off of, in the earlier installments of those series. With Scorch Trials, I have a new and very active series that only has one previous installment, so that leaves me with very little ground with which to juxtapose it, other than of course its attempt at being a well-rounded science fiction film. It also feels foreign in the fact that I have learned the hard way that there is actually somewhere else in the world that has more expensive movie theaters than California.
          For those that know me, going to see the Maze Runner films may seem slightly out of character; it is a series targeted towards an adolescent demographic (a la Hunger Games), which I have historically found laughable (the Harry Potter series was the big movie series of my adolescent years, and while I will admit to enjoying the books as a child, in my adolescent years, I was busy watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Legend of Drunken Master, and Event Horizon while my peers were watching the Harry Potter films). Accordingly, it might be useful to note that my interest in the Maze Runner series more or less came about by sheer accident; there is a cheap, $2 movie theater near where I used to live in Southern California that screens movies right after their normal screening release in other theaters, for those that either missed the normal screening or for those that didn't feel like paying the $11 to go see a movie in California (apparently it's $13 in Seattle). This theater was one of my go-to movie theaters at the time, since this was back when I was still a barista and $11 was very precious (that's almost two burritos in San Diego, a city in a state where gas prices have hovered between $3.50 and $4.75 for the past three years). Earlier this year, sometime in February or March, I had a nice, long three day weekend, and all of my friends were either out of town or preoccupied with other matters, not to mention the fact that it had been a while since I had been to a movie. I looked at what was playing at the $2 theater at the time and found this movie called The Maze Runner, which I had never even heard of before. It's synopsis was the most interesting when compared to all of the other movies being screened at the time, so I said "what the hell" and spent an afternoon at the movies. Then it was about halfway through the movie that I realized who the target demographic was. Despite this, I actually found the first Maze Runner rather enjoyable, enough so that it piqued my interest in the film series so that I felt inclined to go see this second installment.
          The Maze Runner films are based on a young-adult sci-fi book series by James Dashner. Admittedly, I had never even heard of the book series before going to see the first movie (likely because I'm a little out of the age group for it; this is a very recent series). It was the synopsis of the first movie I read online that got me going to see the first one. In The Maze Runner, a group of adolescent males (interestingly later joined by one female) are mysteriously trapped in a small, lush oasis known as "The Glade", which is surrounded on all sides by a towering, complex monolith of a maze, with no memory or recollection of who they are or how they got there. Occasionally, some of the walls in the maze open up, allowing the boys to explore the inner corridors of the maze, perhaps finding new supplies or a way out. This is notably a dangerous endeavor, however, as the maze is crawling with giant, murderous, cybernetic insects known as "Grievers". The film starts with protagonist Thomas joining our group of scouts in The Glade, of course with no memory of who he is. However, apparently Thomas is the only one in the world with the cunning and leadership skills necessary to help the group escape from The Glade, as he eventually motivates the group (including the eventual female member, Theresa) to venture out into the maze and unravel the mystery of who they are and what they are doing there. It turns out, somewhat unsurprisingly, that the world outside the maze has been devastated by a deadly virus, known as "The Flare", that has driven the world's population mad and towards the brink of extinction, with only a handful of survivors and Earth's landscape left in a desolate, chaotic state known as "The Scorch" (take a wild guess as to where The Scorch Trials takes place). Thomas and his fellow Gladers are actually a new generation of youth that are apparently immune to The Flare, so they were captured by a mysterious, antagonistic organization called W.C.K.D., had their memories erased, and thrown into The Glade to study the inner psychological and neurological workings of their brains in order to try and find a cure for The Flare. The Maze Runner ends with Thomas and crew escaping the maze, the higher-ups at W.C.K.D. being killed off by a different, unnamed organization, and our heroes evacuating with said group into the desolation that is The Scorch. Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials picks up literally right where The Maze Runner left off, with Thomas waking up in the same helicopter he passed out in at the end of the first film.
          There are a few things that should perhaps be said about the first film before diving into The Scorch Trials. While it didn't do anything groundbreaking, The Maze Runner was a nice reprieve from the non-stop action, reboot mess that is the current state of science fiction and fantasy films in Hollywood. One simply has to look at Age of Ultron to see that sci-fi films have become like drug addicts; if CGI were a narcotic, and intellectual properties were users, then we would find many of today's sci-fi IPs sprawled out on a dirty mattress in a boarded up house with used needles strewn about the floor. The Maze Runner, in contrast, paces itself, and, instead of taking the Michael Bay approach to science fiction (explosions left and right), it seems as if it is trying to do justice to its literary origins (I say "seem" mostly because I haven't actually read the books).
          There is something very Lord of the Flies about The Maze Runner; as the film progresses, one can document various points where there are almost inevitable power struggles between the boys, particularly after the arrival of Thomas in The Glade. Factions slowly develop, with some taking the side of Thomas in that they think they should try to escape the maze, and others taking the side of Gally, another one of the boys in The Glade, one of the secondary antagonists in the film, who thinks that they should stay. On that note, there is an important question that The Maze Runner asks that a lot of the events and relationships in the film center around: is it better to stay in The Glade, where they know they're safe, but perhaps imprisoned, or try and leave The Glade, where things may be dangerous and uncertain, but also liberating? The spirit behind this question perhaps motivates the phrase "ignorance is bliss"; Gally certainly would rather live in ignorance and security, while Thomas desires to uncover the Truth, with whatever hazards that may bring. Asking this question ultimately earns the film my favor; while this question is not anything new or unheard of, it's one that hasn't been asked in a long time, and the fact that The Maze Runner even asks question at all is already more a claim to success than Terminator Genisys ever had. There were a couple interesting points in The Maze Runner that could have developed into interesting questions, but didn't, for a handful of reasons (i.e. when Theresa, a young, attractive female is suddenly dropped into a camp of adolescent males - a lot of things could have developed here, but those questions might have been too mature for an audience of American adolescents, and likely would have gone way over their heads). Despite this, the first Maze Runner film earned my favor, enough that, when I heard that a second one was being release this past weekend, I thought it would make a good topic for my next review.
          And thus we have arrived at The Scorch Trials. Those who are skilled in identifying the subtle nuances between different science fiction sub-genres will notice a pretty distinct shift of tone between The Scorch Trials and the first film. Where The Maze Runner had a distinct dystopian feel to it, examining a group of adolescent males trying to create a functioning society complete with social strata (again, like Lord of the Flies) while a larger faceless entity watched from a kind of "God perspective" above (think 1984), The Scorch Trials seems to abandon that framework, preferring to instead take the approach of something much more dire and apocalyptic, with vast forsaken wastelands (think Cormac McCarthy's The Road or the Fallout series of games), sprinkled here and there with the ruins of dilapidated cities and the small settlements of those who have managed to dodge both the spread of the Flare and the capture of W.C.K.D (a la The Book of Eli), as well as the crazed demi-zombies of those who have been infected with The Flare and now terrorize The Scorch (a la I am Legend). The Scorch Trials literally picks up right where The Maze Runner left off, so much so that one could probably cut out the credits of the first film and tape the two reels together with a piece of scotch tape and someone who didn't know better might actually think it was all one long film. Thomas wakes up in the helicopter that rescued our group of protagonists at the end of the first film, which takes them to a new, high security facility in The Scorch, where they encounter the survivors of other mazes. Having supposedly escaped the trap of W.C.K.D., the new facility, which promises to keep them secure and eventually take them to a new kind of "paradise", however, seems too good to be true, and Thomas immediately becomes suspicious when Aris, an interesting, slightly creepy boy from a maze full of women (much like Theresa was for Thomas' group) helps him sneak around the complex one night soon after they arrive (one well versed in Greek myth might think of the Amazons when learning about Aris' maze, but instead of Aris filling the role of Hercules completing one of his Labors, perhaps it would be more accurate to portray him as Paris earning the affection of Greek and Trojan women alike). As Fate would have it (and not surprisingly), it turns out this new facility is actually W.C.K.D. in disguise, and the man that runs the place, Janson, is actually under the direct command of Ava Paige, one of the higher ups at W.C.K.D. that was supposedly killed off at the end of the first film. Thomas and Aris quickly learn that this "paradise" that Janson is taking the maze survivors to is actually some kind of chemically induced coma, allowing W.C.K.D.'s scientists to harvest the relevant enzymes from their brains which may allow them to produce a cure for The Flare. It doesn't take long for our group of protagonists to orchestrate their escape, dodging W.C.K.D. security forces and bolting out the front gate into the chaos of The Scorch, where they encounter smugglers, rebel groups, old technology, and, of course, the crazies infected by The Flare.
          Like its predecessor, The Scorch Trials asks some very important questions. I found that the events of the film center around two questions in particular: 1) "Does the end ever justify the means?" and, in keeping in the spirit of the first film, 2) "Can ignorance really be bliss?" It's unfortunate that, also like its predecessor, The Scorch Trials merely presents the questions without ever really offering to answer them, and, on the few occasions that it does hint at an answer, it is usually the cliched view of the protagonists that we are just expected to accept at face value. (1) highlights the dilemma that W.C.K.D. presents for Thomas and crew. I think the spirit of the question is best equated to the utilitarian dilemma of the person that can save the crew of only one of two sinking ships; on the first ship is only a small handful of individuals composed of the person's friends, while on the second ship is a much larger group of complete strangers. More accurately, the aim of the question can also be captured by pointing to the dilemma of a scientist that has the opportunity to discover the cure for cancer, but in the process has to test the cure on live human subjects with potentially adverse and painful effects that may kill them. And such is the case with W.C.K.D.; it is the aim of Paige and W.C.K.D. that they uncover the cure for The Flare, and they seem to be on the right track. The unfortunate thing for our protagonists, however, is that "being on the right track" involves subjecting those that are immune to the disease to the deadly trials of the mazes, in order to cultivate the appropriate proteins and enzymes in their brains so that they can be harvested later. Accordingly, insofar as W.C.K.D.'s situation parallels the generic utilitarian dilemma above, one could try to evaluate W.C.K.D.'s position using the standard approaches given to the above dilemma. The common resolution, and the one that self-assumed righteous individuals are quick to take up, is that the larger crew of the second sinking ship (the complete strangers) should be the one that should be saved "for the greater good". On this view, the end of "saving a larger group of people" justifies the means of "sacrificing one's friends". Applying this approach to W.C.K.D.'s situation, then it would seem that W.C.K.D. is actually justified in its approach; the end of "finding a cure for The Flare" justifies the means of "sacrificing the maze survivors". If this is the most common approach (and seemingly the most intuitive), one is then left to wonder why W.C.K.D. are just unconditionally presented as the bad guys in the film? Alas, it is here that I think The Scorch Trials misses a great opportunity; instead of really entertaining the idea that "maybe W.C.K.D. has a point", the film doesn't engage the idea, nor even appear to consider it. Imagine how different, and perhaps more interesting, the movie would be if W.C.K.D. were actually presented as the protagonists of the film, and Thomas and crew, the antagonists. Or, on the other hand, if one would move to reject the common utilitarian resolution to the dilemma, and argue that one is perfectly justified in letting the larger group of survivors drown in favor of saving one's friends, which is fine, then at least engage the idea and explain why it is a bad idea, and why any alternative would be a better option, neither of which Thomas, or anybody else for that matter, seems to do. A lot of the other characters just blindly follow Thomas, no questions asked, and I imagine that many movie-goers just take it for granted that Thomas is a smart, confident, young kid, when, with a little bit of reflection and contemplation, one could potentially make the case that Thomas is a complete moron.
          Before addressing question (2), there is one last thing that can be said about (1) and the situations described in the above paragraph. Towards the end of The Scorch Trials, Theresa, the single female in Thomas' merry band of protagonists, actually sells out the location of the group to W.C.K.D., telling Thomas that it's better that W.C.K.D. find a cure, resulting in a violent, fiery raid by W.C.K.D. forces on a resistance group. One might look at this scene as a kind of counter-example to my above point that the film doesn't actually consider any alternative to Thomas' view. However, this conclusion would be too hastily drawn, and, again after a little bit of reflection, one would realize that Theresa doesn't really do that by the end of the movie. Theresa simply converts herself from protagonist to antagonist, and the effect that such a scene has the audience is that they simply start hating Theresa and sympathize even more with Thomas. In other words, in order for The Scorch Trials to really provide a counter-example to my above claims, we would need to see a real conflict of ideas, where the pros and cons of each are given equal consideration. As I think the above thought experiments illustrate, the morality surrounding the proposed solutions to these dilemmas is not clear-cut black and white. However, The Scorch Trials presents us with the red herring that the solutions to these dilemmas are supposed to be clear-cut. Instead of Theresa representing an alternative point of view that engages Thomas in discussion (either figuratively or literally), she simply converts herself into yet another hurdle for Thomas and crew to overcome. In short, she is not an adequate representation of an alternative point of view, but rather more of an emotion-jerker for the audience.
          (2) is actually a question that gets recycled from the first film. I mentioned that Gally was an antagonistic force for Thomas in The Maze Runner, preferring to stay in the safety and security in The Glade than venture out into the unknown of the maze and The Scorch. But much like (1), the audience is lead to think that those that actually entertain this point are crazy, as opposed to considering the prospect that, perhaps, it would be better to live in the sheltered, secluded oases that are The Glade or W.C.K.D.'s facility as opposed to endure the harshness of The Scorch. This conflict of ideas is readily apparent if one were to question what exactly it was that Thomas and crew actually achieved by escaping The Glade at the end of the first film, or by eluding capture by W.C.K.D. in The Scorch Trials. In fact, one might even wonder exactly what it is that Thomas is even hoping to achieve. W.C.K.D., for all intents and purposes, wants to find a cure for a disease that threatens to wipe out the human race, while it's not entirely clear what Thomas is doing. (One might argue that Thomas is simply concerned with his own self-preservation, and that self-preservation, in and of itself, is a sufficient impetus for action, a view I would be happy to endorse if I thought that it were applicable in this case. Thomas is presented as the apotheosis of righteousness in the films - selfless, compassionate, and brave. Thomas' character seems wholly at odds with one who is motivated by his or her own self-interest or self-perservation, thus it would seem slightly misplaced to try and argue that Thomas' motivation in the films is simply his own self-preservation where his character is meant to be otherwise). In this case, Gally's perspective at the end of the first film might have some merit to it; The Glade, while isolated from whatever possibilities and blessings that the rest of the world may present, is also safe from the world's horrors. Thomas, on the other hand, offers nothing but uncertainty and action without forethought. Don't get me wrong; I vehemently reject the idea that "ignorance is bliss", and much more favor the notion that, to truly find Paradise, one has to endure trials and uncertainty and ultimately find Truth, however pleasant or miserable it may be. The difference is that Thomas never actually makes this argument; it's just assumed from the outset of both films that Gally and Paige are wrong, which would be fine for the movie to portray if it actually made the case for Thomas' view, which it didn't. Both films seem to have Thomas and crew simply running in random directions, sometimes with particular destinations in mind, but without any kind of larger goal or aim.
          The tension between these two ideas surrounding (2) can be brought out even more if we put it in the context of Philosophy's famous "Sense Machine" thought experiment. This idea was alluded to very, very briefly towards the beginning of The Scorch Trials when Thomas and Aris found that the "paradise" that Jansen was leading the maze survivors to was actually a chemically induced coma. In general philosophical discussion, the "Sense Machine" scenario can be paraphrased as something like the following: suppose that, one day when you wake up, you are greeted by a scientist that offers you the opportunity to experience any sensation you so desire. This sensation can be anything, from feeling a cool summer breeze brush against your skin, to a visually stunning theater performance on Broadway, to having the greatest orgasm ever in a medieval harem. And every detail will be present; this sensation will feel exactly like the real thing in every way, so much so that one wouldn't be able to tell the difference between this sensation and any other experience of the exact same thing. And, even better, this scientist will be able to perpetually replicate this sensation, or other sensations of equal pleasure, and offers you the opportunity to experience them constantly, thus allowing one to forever revel in ecstasy and bliss. However, there is a catch: these sensations aren't technically real. In fact, in order to constantly experience them, one would have to be perpetually fixed to some kind of virtual reality machine, which feeds his or her brain the appropriate neural stimuli as to replicate the sensation in every detail. Not the "real thing" per se, but, from the perspective of sensation, one would not be able to tell the difference. The question that is then posed to participants in this thought experiment is a simple one: Would you do it? Would you enter the Sense Machine? Gally would, judging by his perspective in the first film, and both Paige and Theresa don't seem to think that it's such a bad thing to harvest the proteins from a maze survivor as long as he or she is being properly stimulated in his or her coma. The argument can then be made that it is a win/win situation for Paige and the maze survivors; Paige gets the cure for The Flare while the survivors are comatose, but the survivors don't even realize it because their brains are being given pleasant sensations.
          But, alas, like the alternative solutions to (1), this idea is never really entertained in The Scorch Trials. We are supposed to assume that morality in The Scorch Trials is as clear cut is as Thomas makes it out to be, nor is there ever any W.C.K.D. sympathizer present to make their case. If Jansen or Paige ever really stopped and asked Thomas why a life out in The Scorch is in any way better than a life in an artificial paradise, then the film would be getting at something fundamentally important. However, the film merely hints at the question, and doesn't really actually engage it. What would have been even more provocative would have been to have the case made in favor of W.C.K.D.'s artificial paradise, while Thomas' perspective is left unsupported. A moral 360 such as this would undoubtedly turn several heads, and, within the context of the larger "Sense Machine" thought experiment, it might have really motivated people to stop and actually try to explain why being hooked up to the Sense Machine is truly a bad thing, a feat that many will find, I think, painfully daunting. I am more than willing to support one who at least makes an attempt to explain why the Sense Machine is a bad thing, but, at least when it comes to the Maze Runner series, such a dissenter is absent.
          It may seem as if I am being slightly more critical of The Scorch Trials than I am lauding it. However, despite this, I cannot end this review without giving The Scorch Trials a recommendation. The previous paragraphs highlight the ways in which The Scorch Trials can be improved, but it would do the film a disservice to not underline the things that it does well. As mentioned, The Scorch Trials asks some very important questions, and although these questions are predictable, almost to the point of being cliche, the fact that it asks questions at all already sets it a cut above other recent science fiction films. Couple this with the fact that, also unlike many recent science fiction films, The Scorch Trials isn't so reliant on CGI to achieve its effects, nor is it the most action-heavy sci-fi film of the summer, then you have something that serves as a nice reprieve from a lot of other sci-fi films of the year, even if it just mediocre at doing so. The end of The Scorch Trials, right after W.C.K.D. raids the resistance group and recaptures a large portion of the maze survivors, including one of Thomas' merry band, hints heavily at a third film where our protagonists turn the tables and, instead of running from W.C.K.D., they attack W.C.K.D. head-on. Assuming that this third installment of the Maze Runner series is released at all, and that I am still doing movie reviews at that time, I can already forecast a point that I will hold it responsible for: we will yet again see the very same conflict of ideas described above, whether the characters in the film realize it or not. But, unlike these first two films where the conflict was most evident in relationships among the characters, this future third Maze Runner film will illustrate the conflict by means of violence and armed struggle. And, quite honestly, this is where the series has an opportunity to shine; a person's values can be made most evident in violent struggle, and, if the series really wants to illustrate the above conflict of ideas in the way that I suggested, where it actually makes the case for at least one of them, then the best time to do it would be against a backdrop of armed conflict, where each combatant expresses his or her understanding of what he or she is doing and why. Whether or not it actually will do this, well, we will just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A New Defense of the Liberal Arts

          It is a new month and I think it is about time for me to add to the "Philosophy/Journalism" category, especially since my last few entries have all been film reviews. I have gone through this past weekend silently debating with myself what exactly the topic should be. Initially, as a follow up to my Jurassic World review, and because this issue has coincidentally been shoved into my attention lately by various articles I have seen on the Internet, I was inclined to write a piece in defense of the antics of a certain feminist activist. But, since this would technically be my first piece in the "Philosophy/Journalism" category (the previous entry was more an "About this Blog" piece), I decided to shelf that idea for a later date. Accordingly, I had this brief moment where I had no idea which topic to pick out of the mound of topics I've brainstormed over the past week or so. It didn't take long, however, for me to naturally gravitate back towards a very particular one: the state of the liberal and fine arts in the United States.
          I've written about this topic before, but that piece never made it to the public eye. The advantage to this is that I can reference a lot of the stuff I said there and perhaps expand on it. The current state of the liberal and fine arts educational curricula in the United States is one that I've had a personal interest in for some time, which makes sense insofar as I was a student of the liberal arts through my undergraduate and graduate careers (I have a master's degree in Philosophy). And it is also a topic that I have a history with; it was brought up several times during the Philosophy Club meetings as San Diego State (where I was a graduate student), as well as the tuition hike protests at UC San Diego (where I was an undergraduate), and I even based a few lectures on it when I was an instructor at SDSU. But I never really wrote any major pieces on the topic, which I hope to change here. In essence, I think my approach to defending the liberal and fine arts educational curricula in the United States is a different one, mostly because a) it is based on a much more rudimentary assumption about the purpose of life, which simultaneously undermines a core doctrine of modern American society (this so-called "American Dream"), and b) there is, admittedly, a certain degree of nihilism about it, which some may initially find off-putting, though I firmly maintain the position nonetheless.
          There is this idea gaining momentum in mainstream American culture that the liberal and fine arts are "useless" pursuits, particularly in the face of disciplines with a larger "return on investment", such as the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Noah Kulwin paraphrases the problem well in The Daily Californian: "If you're to believe the 3 billion hastily assembled Yahoo articles about America's best-paying college majors, business and science majors will forever be relatively employable; and if you major in art history, you are truly fucked. Switch to a science major, so the story goes, or else be left behind by China, or Russia, or the information economy, or whatever" [1]. And there is evidence to think that Mr. Kulwin's understanding of the problem is not misconstrued. The popular website Reddit, for example, has a forum started by a user interestingly named "ohh_the_humanities" titled "I think the Humanities are useless", in which he or she argues that "I notice that the work load of Art History or English majors requires far fewer hours of intensive studying than does a more math-intensive subject such as Electrical Engineering. I was hoping someone could explain to me how expertise in these subjects contributes to our society in a way comparable to STEM focused subjects" [2]. At the time of putting this piece together, this forum had 56 comments, with some supporting the claims made in the original post. And, of course, there are Stanley Fish's multiple opinion pieces he wrote for the New York Times in which he argues that the humanities do not have the same kind of utility, and thus do not merit the same kind of funding, as the STEM fields [3].
          Supporters of this notion have suggested getting rid of the classic liberal arts education altogether in favor of focusing on STEM fields or trade skills, essentially turning America's higher education system into a network of glorified vocational colleges. Others have pushed to remove funding the various liberal and fine arts departments at American universities, as evidenced by Stanley Fish's articles (in fact, there was a period when I was a graduate student at SDSU where the Philosophy Department was under funding review and was essentially asked to justify having the amount of funding it did...several negative changes to the departments undergraduate curriculum were the eventual result of that). And this mentality isn't just confined to socio-political policy makers; I've seen and heard stories of friends, strangers, parents, and other family members express resentment at one's choice of college major in a liberal arts field (years ago, I had an application for a part-time job immediately rejected by a potential employer because I was a Philosophy major, and let's not forget the example of Ted Turner's father expressing his resentment at the fact that Ted was a Classics major [4]). And the list can go on, no doubt, but these are some of the more representative cases of an attitude that seems to be taking an increasingly stronger hold on mainstream American society (as evidenced by the sheer volume of opinion pieces written in support of it).
          This discussion of de-funding or removing the liberal and fine arts from the educational curriculum in the United States has ultimately given rise to what some have called the "Crisis of the Humanities". And much in the same way that proponents of the idea of axing the liberal and fine arts departments at American universities have grown more vocal in recent years, there has also been a growing counter-movement, spear-headed by collectives of students, artists, professors, and groups such as Occupy and Anonymous. Now, I am here to weigh in on this discussion and defend the liberal and fine arts curriculum at American universities. Again, I think my approach is a little different than some of the previous defenses given for the liberal arts in the past. In short, I argue that the criteria that most of anti-liberal arts crowd use to evaluate a liberal arts education are faulty criteria, rooted in poor assumptions that many in American society hold about what it means to be successful in life. A reflection on one's fundamental core beliefs about what constitutes a successful life will illustrate the problems with these assumptions and show that a liberal arts education can actually be one of the most rewarding things one can do in his or her life, and, thus, that the liberal and fine arts deserve to stay as a core part of the educational curriculum in the US.
          In order to respond to critics of the liberal and fine arts, it would be useful to describe in more detail the assumptions they hold that their perspective is based on, this so called "American Dream". Proponents of the "American Dream" believe that, in order to be considered "successful" in modern day America, one has to have things like a six-figure salary and a two-story track home in suburbia, and that only those that "work hard enough" get to reap its benefits. Those that take advantage of social welfare programs, like food stamps, for example, are just "lazy", a proponent of this view might say, and should be left to face the consequences of his or her poor choices. A student who chooses to major in one of the humanities disciplines should not expect to have any kind of employment upon graduation because, after all, they made the poor choice of majoring in something that does not have a good "return-on-investment". Some may say that this is a very insular characterization of the "American Dream", but there is good reason to think that such a characterization has become dogma in the United States. One simply needs to look at the nature of the critiques by Fish or other commentators who all seem to be preoccupied with money in their evaluations of both the liberal and fine arts disciplines, not to mention their evaluations as to whether or not someone has succeeded at life in America. And then there is the case of Rush Limbaugh berating an Occupy protester over her choice of major in Classics [5]. The model citizen, in this paradigm, would then be one who goes to school to get a degree in Computer Science or Engineering, makes a six figure salary, eventually buys a house, starts a family, and then retires and dies.
          And herein lies the core problem with this view: this also has to be the most boring excuse for a life that I have ever heard, and if this is what the "American Dream" consists in, one is in a position to question whether or not it is truly desirable. A fundamental assumption I have about life, one that I imagine would make sense to most people prima facie (if not just flat out be a priori true), is that life should be fun and enjoyable. The kind of lifestyle that critics of the liberal and fine arts are advocating is far from this. For most people, the "American Dream" consists of toiling away, day in and day out, in a cubicle or a warehouse or a retail store only to come home and turn on the TV. Many times I hear these people say they wish they had a different job. At the same time, these same people who are living the "American Dream" usually frown upon the person that lives in a cheap apartment, makes less than $30,000 a year, enjoys casual sex, and may perhaps occasionally do drugs or doesn't follow the teachings of some holy book. Again, this is all evidenced by the attitude that many of the above commentators have towards those students who "made the poor choice" of majoring in English or History. And yet, the ending for all of these people is the same: they die.
          Call this perspective nihilistic, but it is nonetheless true. The actress who lived lavishly with gold trimmed curtains and marble counter tops in her New York penthouse - she died. The politician who spent years fundraising for his election, fighting for the votes of certain demographics with promises of promoting the "American Dream" - he died. The student who had everything going for him, a bright young man who dreamed of being a lawyer and worked tirelessly at it, padding his resume with every kind of internship and certification, spent so much of his time trying to be a lawyer and succeed in his future - he got hit by car and died. The young woman who spent her days working in a bookstore, surrounded by the words of Keats and Wilde, who came home to a small room with only a mattress in the middle - she died. The ten year old kid who had cancer - he died. The rich businessman - he died. And in each case, we can ask the same question: what was the point of everything before they died? The aspiring lawyer toiled so much of his life working towards a goal that he never even got to see. All of the businessman's riches or luxuries of the actress' penthouse couldn't save them from the same fate as the cancer-stricken child or the humble bookstore clerk.
          The above reality is oftentimes forgotten, and some even find it disturbing, despite its seeming self-evidence. Given this reality, the question I posed a moment ago is not only valid but should be taken seriously: what is the point of everything if one is just doomed to die anyway? The best answer I have found to this question is what motivates my defense of the liberal and fine arts: the point is to have fun, to enjoy oneself. Some may perhaps frown at the bookstore clerk's lifestyle, branding it as a "dead end", but what they don't realize is that she is content with her humble life. She doesn't have to worry about passing the state bar exam, or securing a multi-billion dollar business deal, or living up to some kind of moral standard. She is truly free to enjoy herself.
          And some of the few truly enjoyable things in life, I have found, are the liberal and fine arts. This is not to say that the STEM fields are not important; on the contrary, the importance of the STEM fields is compatible with this view. But the liberal and fine arts provide a level of enjoyment in life completely distinct from the STEM fields. Perhaps Fish has a point when he says that "justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good." It is possible to make sense of this point using the "return-on-investment" terminology that critics like to use: education, particularly the liberal and fine arts, is not a means to an end, or its value is not proportionate to how much of a profit it can later generate. Rather, the liberal and fine arts themselves are the return-on-investment. Education itself is the goal of an education. Because, let's face it, the words of Poe or Dante or much more alluring than looking at graphs at a desk all day as an accountant, and the mindset that "the point of an education is just so that an individual can later have a career and turn a profit" makes education out to be another tedious part of that otherwise pointless middle period between birth and death we call "life". A day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is much pleasant than a day working in random office building x, or random grocery store y, and yet proponents of the "American Dream" tell us that we are supposed to strive to be in that office building, or have that six-figure salary, and aim to just retire and die, as long as we are more or less wealthy when we do so. Whether or not we're enjoying ourselves through any part of that process is irrelevant, the thinking goes.
          And it is with clarity on this fundamental assumption about life and the liberal and fine arts that one is now in a position to debunk the majority of the criticisms of a liberal arts education proposed by commentators. For, as outlined at the outset of this piece, a quick survey of the criticisms of the liberal arts illustrates that the large majority of them are based ideas about money or employment. Education in general, let alone the liberal and fine arts, is not about money or employment, contrary to what opponents make education out to be (though it should be noted that employment may very well be a welcome side effect). This idea is captured by the dictum that one should go to college and study what they want to study, or what they enjoy doing, not what will make them profitable later. For if a student studies what he or she enjoys, he or she will enjoy life, making it worth living. But if a student studies what will simply make them employable, even though it may be boring or they hate it, and then they go on to do a job that is equally boring or loathsome, then he or she might as well just commit suicide because his or her life is not enjoyable, and thus not worth living. "But how is such an approach to a liberal arts education compatible with the rising costs of education and amounting student loan debt?", one may wonder. "Certainly," critics will argue, "students will still needs to take out student loans to study History, but if he or she is not concerned with being employable after graduation, then they are bound to be stuck with that debt for a long time and the economy will suffer because of it." Opponents of the liberal arts curriculum in the US will say that these economic woes are the result of the student's poor choice in major. However, very few people, other than the students and professors themselves, seem to entertain the idea that the problem may not actually be the disciplines themselves, but the rising cost of education. An English degree does not cost roughly $30,000 (the estimated price for that degree at my alma mater UC San Diego for the 2015-2016 school year [6]). This inevitably begs the question "why do universities continually charge so much for an education?" The answer has to do with stuff that is, quite honestly, unrelated to education. For example, the Orange County Register reports that the highest paid person in the University of California system is the head football coach at UCLA. Not one of the professors, not one of the administrators, but the head football coach. How much was his total compensation, you may ask? $3.5 million [7]. While the students are amassing more and more debt, the schools are charging more and more so they can pay someone, whose only relation to academics is his employment at UCLA, $3.5 million. It really makes one wonder: perhaps if universities shifted their attention from extraneous programs like Athletics and refocused their attention on academics, the point of a university, this "crisis of the humanities" may see some kind of positive resolution...
          I don't expect this view to be particularly popular, though I consider it reasonable nonetheless. Critics of the liberal and fine arts are too focused on the relationship between the liberal arts and things like money and employment, when they should be worried about the relationship between the liberal arts and living an enjoyable life (where living an enjoyable life does not correlate with having a lot of money or having a certain kind of career). And, also contrary to the critics, the "American Dream" is part of the problem, because the American Dream, as it is usually proposed, asks that one live what can turn out to be a boring and tedious life. The case for the liberal and fine arts also isn't helped by the rising costs of education and mounting student loan debt. But, again, this isn't a problem with the disciplines themselves so much as it is a problem with universities charging too much for an education, in order to support things that have nothing to do with academia. In fact, I am inclined to side with professors like Monte Johnson and groups like Occupy and say that education is right, not a privilege that you put a price tag on, something that, right now, feels as if it is being treated like a commodity rather than a core component of human development [8].


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Review - Terminator Genisys

          Insofar as I have made multiple references to Terminator Genisys in my previous two reviews, it would only seem appropriate that I review it now. This is especially the case since, as I have previously mentioned, I have set out to review the representative sci-fi films of summer 2015, of which a new installment of the Terminator series will inevitably be a part of. I've noticed an eerie pattern developing here: many of the major sci-fi and action movies of this summer have either been reboots (Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World) or screen adaptations of long-standing IPs (Avengers: Age of Ultron). One might wonder whether or not Hollywood has run out of creativity and imagination. This is not to say that reboots are inherently bad (Fury Road and Jurassic World were quite the contrary), but, when one confines himself to a particular fictional universe, one has to follow the rules of that universe (for example, it would have been grossly out of place to have aliens invade while the Indominus Rex rampaged around Jurassic World). By constantly falling back on reboot after reboot, filmmakers tend to paint themselves as incapable of creating a new universe with its own characteristics and rules, a new universe which could potentially illuminate a yet unrealized facet of life by serving as an expression of art.
          I don't expect this review to be as long as my previous ones. There are a handful of reasons for this, but the most significant reason would be that Terminator Genisys is just bad. I could literally end this review right now by saying that almost every facet of its content and production that one can imagine is of poor quality, and this wouldn't be too disingenuous of a summary. However, it might be an interesting endeavor to try and give Genisys the benefit of the doubt and find those things that it does well that might actually be able to redeem it (though, I must say, this would require a degree of optimism beyond my possible potential). Besides, the Terminator series was initially one that, like Jurassic Park, asked many of the right questions, and presented those questions with great imagination and detail. It would be somewhat of an injustice to the early installments of the series to simply dismiss both Genisys and the entire series so quickly. As such, I will add some substance to this review, but again, it probably won't be anything like that of my Fury Road or Jurassic World reviews.
          The Terminator series emerged in the late 1980s as a series initially about a robot that gets sent back through time, by machines in a machine-dominated future, to try and kill the up-and-coming leaders of the human resistance against them. This series is famous for contributing to the lineup of campy action movies featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 80s and is more or less considered a core series that defined his career. The first installment in the series, simply dubbed The Terminator, directed by James Cameron in 1984, sees Schwarzenegger as the eponymous Terminator, a robot sent back in time from the future to kill Sarah Connor, the soon-to-be mother of John Connor, the future leader to the resistance against the machines. It is important to note that Sarah, with the help of Kyle Reese, a soldier sent back through time to defend her, survives the events of the first film and destroys the original Terminator. Terminator 2: Judgment Day, produced in 1991 and also directed by Cameron, is sometimes considered to be the best installment in the series, and sees Schwarzenegger return as the eponymous Terminator, but this time reprogrammed and sent back through time to defend both Sarah and John Connor from the T-1000, an advanced Terminator model consisting of liquid metal. Terminator 2 was memorable for being at the forefront of special effects for the early 90s, using those effects to really explore the dangers of an advanced world that inevitably gives way to the control of the machines. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines wasn't produced until more than ten years after Terminator 2, in 2003, and did not feature Cameron as either a director or producer. In Terminator 3, John Connor is an adult, more or less in hiding after the events of Terminator 2. Since his whereabouts are unknown to the machines, the machines send the T-X, a new model Terminator, back in time to try and assassinate those that would eventually become his officers in the future, including his not-yet-realized girlfriend. And much like Terminator 2, the human resistance sends back Arnold Schwarzenegger to defend John Connor from the T-X.
          It's at this point in the series that I pretty much stopped following it. On it's own, Terminator 3 was a decent sci-fi action film, but when compared to the first two installments, seemed very mediocre, and unlike Fury Road and Jurassic World, was unable to renew interest in the series among millennials, the demographic that it needed to attract in 2003. That said, I wouldn't consider this to be the most damaging thing to the series. What has probably hampered the series more than the mediocre success of Terminator 3 was the extremely poor and inconsistent handling of the series after that. Perhaps the biggest example of this has to do with the recent portrayal of John Connor. Terminator Salvation was the fourth installment in the series and featured Christian Bale as John Connor, a radical departure from Nick Stahl in T3. Thomas Dekker portrays an adolescent John Connor in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a hyped-up TV series that some question whether or not should be considered canon in the Terminator universe. The Dekker version of John Connor is supposed to be a continuation of the Edward Furlong John Connor from T2, but doesn't quite hit the mark in that it doesn't capture what was unique about the T2 John Connor. The John Connor in T2 was young, rebellious, and characteristically 90s, so trying to capture the traits of a 1991 character in a 2008 TV series requires a certain degree of observation and skill. Add to this the fact that, by the time Genisys is produced, the timeline of the series had been presented out of chronological order, so we are not quite sure where we are supposed to be with regard to John Connor and the current state of his character.
          Another component of the recent installments of the Terminator series that ultimately worked to its detriment has to do with the inconsistency of its production team. It is quite curious that the best installments in the series, the first two films, were directed and produced by James Cameron, and that, as soon as he left the project, the series was taken in several highly questionable directions. Terminator 3 was directed by Jonathan Mostow, while Salvation was directed by McG, and the jarring shift of tone in the series because of the shift between the two directors was apparent. While all of this is happening with the films, there is also this television series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, that is adding its own input, muddying the waters even further. One always assumes a risk in trying to augment a film series with a TV or book series; there is a thin line between a TV series successfully adding content to a fictional universe and a TV series adding nothing but calamity, which is more or less contingent on the stability of the film series at the time. Unfortunately for the Terminator universe, the film series was in this schizophrenic stage of inconsistent tone when the TV series was produced. The end result is that the TV series adds to the mess that is the current state of the film series as opposed to augmenting it.
          As one can imagine, towards the end of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the series stagnated and went quiet for some time. If one were to try and successfully reboot the Terminator series at this point, then one would have to try and bestow order on the chaos that was the state of the film series and fictional universe while also paying homage to the first two films. Enter Alan Taylor, yet another director to take over the series, and Terminator Genisys, his attempt at rebooting it and making sense of everything that came between T2 and Genisys. Which failed. Miserably. I want to try and be courteous to Taylor's attempt at saving the Terminator series, but I just can't seem to find any way that anybody with half a brain and familiar with the series can do that. Genisys makes so many wrong moves that one must really wonder how production was allowed (actually, it's not that much of a mystery; it's Hollywood trying to cash-in on the nostalgia dollar).
          Where should I start? There are so many things one could say about all of the wrong moves that Genisys makes that it's difficult to find one to start with. Perhaps I should start with the most broad and, in my approach, the most important one: the plot. All other errors held constant, if Genisys had a solid plot that, like Jurassic World, invoked the philosophical motivations of T1 and T2, then it might have actually been a decent film. Unfortunately, Genisys just completely goes in the other direction, retconning everything that was good from the first two films. Recall that, in the first film, Sarah Connor was a young waitress in Los Angeles, completely unaware of her role in the impending apocalypse and the future of mankind until both the Terminator and Kyle Reese show up. Genisys revisits this storyline, though focusing more on Kyle Reese as opposed to Sarah Connor. When Kyle Reese gets sent back through time, however, he shows up to an 1980s Los Angeles where Sarah Connor is already fully aware of future events, somehow already has Arnold Schwarzenegger at her side, has stockpiled an arsenal of weapons, and fights a younger CGI version of Arnold Schwarzenegger (presumably the Terminator from the first film), all before John Connor is even brought up in conversation. The justification for this is that, when Sarah was a little child (before the events of the first film), yet another reprogrammed Terminator was sent back through time to warn her about Judgment Day and protect her (the Terminator she has by her side when Reese shows up). It is important to point out that this more or less renders the events of the first film pointless; with this childhood Terminator by her side, there is no need for Kyle Reese to even be there (granted, he is supposed to be the father of John Connor, but even the need for this is called into question by the end of Genisys), especially since they manage to kill off the antagonizing Terminator in the first five minutes. It should be said that there are times when it is OK to retcon old canon and improve upon it (J.J. Abrams will supposedly be doing this with the Star Wars series), but this only works when the original canon is decidedly bad. On the other hand, it is an egregious error to retcon the canon when it is actually the highlight of the series, which is what we have here. It was the responsibility of Taylor and Genisys to fix the mess that was everything after T2, not let that mess consume the first two films as well. At this point, the only justification for Kyle Reese to be in the film is to properly direct Sarah Connor and her childhood Terminator friend to 2017 (using the time machine Sarah just has locked away in her basement), where Skynet, under the alias "Genisys", will launch Judgment Day, but "for real" this time, now completely bypassing the events of T2 (which took place in 1995).
          Genisys' mishandling of the plot doesn't stop there. After more or less making the events of the first two films a footnote on the series as opposed to building on them, Genisys undermines the importance of John Connor by seemingly removing him from the series completely. This is why I earlier questioned the importance of Kyle Reese; if we render the events of T1 pointless, then the only reason for Reese to be there is to father John Connor, but Genisys pretty much kills off John Connor and refocuses the series around Sarah. For example, soon after Kyle Reese is sent back to the 1980s by John Connor, Skynet, thought defeated in the future by Connor's resistance, infiltrates Connor's unit and kills him by transforming him into a new Terminator model, a model based on nanotechnology, which gets sent to 2017 to try and stop Sarah, Kyle, and Schwarzenegger's T-800 model from preventing the launch of Genisys (a.k.a. Skynet in disguise). There is never really any attempt to try and reverse the effects of Skynet on John Connor - Reese briefly entertains the idea when he initially realizes what has happened, but, towards the end of the film, Sarah Connor makes the declaration that the machines have "gamed" the system and that they (i.e. Sarah, Kyle, and the T-800) are the future of mankind. Perhaps this is supposed to be yet another justification for bypassing the events of T1 and T2, or perhaps Genisys is choosing to build off of The Sarah Connor Chronicles as opposed to building off of anything else in the series (it should perhaps be noted that the events of T3 aren't even mentioned or alluded to at all in the film). Again, this would be permissible if T1 and T2 were the bad parts of the Terminator canon, but quite the reverse is true. As such, refocusing the series on Sarah Connor and pretty much writing out John Connor, while shifting the role of science fiction action hero to a strong female lead, which is commendable, undermines yet another key characteristic of the Terminator universe.
          One could go on listing the other ways in which Genisys mishandles the Terminator universe. The T-1000 (the liquid metal Terminator from T2) makes a cameo appearance, if only for fan service since it gets killed of in the first five minutes of the film, which is kind of annoying considering the marketing for Genisys really hyped up the fact that the T-1000 is back. (Perhaps a note should be made here that doing something for fan service is a poor reason to do something, insofar as one's fans could very well have no sense of what it takes to make a movie good, nor any semblance of art or character.) The writing was exceptionally bad as well; Arnold Schwarzenegger's script, for example, reads as if someone watched the first three films, copy/pasted all of his one-liners together, and, whatever the result of that was, inserted some dialogue for Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese. And it should be noted that the dialogue in the film literally felt as if the T-800 was communicating to Reese and Connor in Arnold Schwarzenegger one-liners. For example, there is a helicopter chase scene where the T-800 has Reese fly the helicopter with him, the T-800, and Sarah in it above the helicopter with John/the T-3000 in it, to which Reese asks the T-800 what his plan is before the T-800 responds "I'll be back" (for about the third time in the film) and jumps out of the helicopter.
          And on that note, the last blunder that Genisys makes that I will point out is the insistence on bringing back Schwarzenegger and prolonging the series to kingdom come. It is clear at this point that Schwarzenegger is past the age of being the action movie hero that he once was, as evidenced by the very aged appearance of the T-800 in the film. And like many of its other blunders, Genisys tries to provide a justification for this with the phrase "old, but not obsolete", a phrase that is echoed by both Reese and the T-800 throughout the film. The problem with this justification is that Schwarzenegger appears to be past the point of adding anything unique to the series; as mentioned, his script for Genisys was notably bad, and he didn't have any outstanding acting moments that couldn't have been performed by any other actor. His character literally just walked around, shot stuff, and punched stuff - nothing even remotely close to the great performance at the end of T2 in the foundry, where really only Schwarzenegger could have pulled that scene off so well. At the end of Genisys, unlike the ends of T1, T2, and T3, the T-800 actually survives, however in a way that (perhaps to our great dismay and the further detriment of the series) is highly suggestive of further installments in the series. During the fight with the T-3000, the T-800 gets knocked into a vat of the same liquid metal compound used to create the T-1000. After the explosion at the Genisys complex and when the T-800 was thought destroyed, the "upgraded" liquid metal T-800 helps Sarah and Kyle out of the rubble explaining that he was "upgraded". Now we are left with the prospect that the series will continue, but, instead of a T-800 helping Sarah Connor, we now have Arnold Schwarzenegger in liquid metal form, which may perhaps be an excuse to buffer out his old age with liquid metal special effects in the future.
          It seems as if the prolonging of the series is inevitable, which, at this point, is starting to feel as if [insert variable director here] will drive the series further into the ground and keep beating a dead nostalgia horse. In such a case, we might try to console ourselves by asking what it is that Terminator Genisys does well. Perhaps the one point that deserves praise are its special effects. It's clear that the film took advantage of its Hollywood status and, continuing with the tradition of the Terminator series, demonstrated that it is at the forefront of special effects and CGI technology. For example, early on there is a scene where John Connor's resistance unit storms Skynet's compound in the future. The aesthetics of the compound are very nice; sharp, dark buildings with borders of glowing orange and red light, very reminiscent of Tron or Blade Runner or the machine cities in The Matrix. That said, after praising the series for its effects, I am inclined to sober up a little bit; many science fiction and action series in the past couple of decades seem to try and take advantage of the special effects capabilities of Hollywood, so, unlike the previous generations, where the effects in T2 were innovative, the effects of Genisys seem competitive, where it more or less seems like the standard that science fiction films are built around CGI and explosions.
          If you are looking for the creme de la creme of 21st century science fiction, then you won't be missing anything by skipping Terminator Genisys. If you are a longtime fan of the Terminator series looking to see if Genisys reorganizes the mess that is the Terminator fictional universe post Judgment Day, then you would probably be better served by skipping Genisys as well (in fact, you would probably cringe when you see how Genisys retcons the first two films). However, if you are a generic movie-goer who is so easily entertained by Transformers-style CGI and explosions, then, by all means, go knock yourself out - there is no shortage of action in Terminator Genisys, despite the complete incoherence of the plot, which more or less renders that action pointless.