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How I Loathed John Dies At The End and Became A Brony Instead (Sort Of)

I have this habit of maintaining skepticism for properties with devoted fan followings. It’s why I’m slow to approach various things, like anything written by Joss Whedon, for instance. I think a lot of times, fan discourse creates this echo chamber that distorts criticism and analysis into oppositional extreme viewpoints (“OMG SQUEE I LOVE IT!!!!!” vs. “UGH WTF THIS SUCKS”). I don’t like mob mentality, and I have no desire to be swept up in cults of personality or commodity, nor do I feel the desire to wear any fandom I do subscribe to on my chest like a merit badge. So, when I do come over to these kinds of artistic properties, I do it on my own time, when I feel like I can make my own opinion. I’m sure this makes me sound really contrary, and maybe I just am, but I like to make sure my opinions are my opinions, to the extent that such a thing is possible in an exaggerated capitalist society.

Which leads me to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Which, in turn, I watched in the aftermath of encountering another story that has a devoted, niche fan following: John Dies At The End.

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I wasn’t pleased with John Dies At The End, quite frankly. I know that it’s based on a book by David Wong, which is a pseudonym for someone who actually writes at Cracked.com (a website I like, for the most part). To be perfectly honest, after watching the movie I have no desire at all to read the book. It feels like a deliberate attempt on the creators’ parts to merge new-era Internet-style humor – flippant weirdness, a high emphasis on quotability as opposed to narrative – with a desire to make something akin to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai in the 8th Dimension for the 21st century. There’s a sincerity in Buckaroo Banzai that’s missing in John Dies, though, or something like it. Both movies are creative to the point of tossing off ideas like a Halloween kid tossing candy wrappers while he plows through his pumpkin bucket, but watching John Dies do that felt like an utter chore.

Sure, it had some cool elements – I like the idea of a sentient organism that is ingested like a drug and gives people enhanced powers – but the story itself felt like it went nowhere and I couldn’t have cared less about the characters. In fact, I found them gratingly annoying. I was essentially done with the movie about 35 minutes into it. I watched the next 30 minutes hoping it would get better, and when it didn’t, I watched the rest of it because I was already that far along  in the movie and figured I might as well finish it. It was one big waste of time that should have regaled me with its hip, flippantly surreal sensibility, but instead made me think of all the tendencies I hate in contemporary storytelling.

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So, when I finished John Dies At The End, I felt like a cynical, frumpy lump of human. I wanted to watch something else, something radically different from that movie so I could reach some kind of equilibrium. It was then I noticed that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is available on Netflix. Now, I know that the show has a devoted following, and I know all about the bronies, the adult, male fans of a show that is, for the most part, aimed at young girls. I also know that the show is, like John Dies At The End, very much a popular property on the Internet, where people make memes and remixed videos and things from the show and its characters.

So, I hit play and watched the first episode. Which then led to the second episode, because it was a two-parter. And when I was done with that, I watched three more episodes before going to bed. And then I watched two more before writing this.

Unlike John Dies At The End, I actually cared about the characters on Friendship is Magic. Let me reiterate that: I had a more fulfilling experience watching pastel-colored unicorns and ponies discover friendship and get themselves into various shenanigans than I did watching two twenty-something douchebags fire off quips and deadpan silly dialogue for its own sake while fighting a string of increasingly incoherently sequenced monster battles. I am the target audience for John Dies. I’m a twenty-something man. I like surrealism and weird humor and non sequiturs. I like the Internet and memes and Cracked.com. I don’t mind watching movies that may be a little less-than-polished so long as there’s something special animating them. And yet, when confronted with something essentially tailor-made to someone else’s projected identity of who I am, I prefer to watch Friendship is Magic instead.

The fact is, Friendship is Magic is a very sweet, watchable, entertaining television show, and you don’t have to be a little kid to like those things. Adults are perfectly capable of enjoying something made with heart and sincerity too.

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I liked the characterization on Friendship is Magic more than anything. The ponies at the heart of the show have distinct personalities that sometimes clash and sometimes agree, like you’d want from characters in any story. They don’t always get along, and they have their own individual desires and fears. They’re built off of a handful of key characteristics and developed as the story progresses, with their own backstories filled in by the episode. That’s smart writing in any genre.

The show is simply told and constructed, but not to the point of stupidity, and it never insults its audience by trying to dumb things down or speak down to the viewer. In fact, some of the episodes are rather cleverly written. It’s the kind of show I would feel good about my kids watching, if I had kids. Hell, I would even watch it with them and enjoy it as much as they do. (I would prefer they read, but if they must watch TV, they can start with Friendship is Magic and Adventure Time.)

Of course, being a kids’ show, Friendship is Magic does do a fair bit of moralizing, but the morals at the heart of the show are really admirable and heartfelt. The show makes a point of valuing characteristics that I would want more kids to pick up on, like compassion and humility. It also has a strong anti-bullying element that I wish I saw more often. There’s hardly any violence on the show at all, and I kinda like that. Not every story has to have violence in it to be interesting, and Friendship is Magic proves that. (There’s an Ursula LeGuin essay about the implied militancy of stories that demand the definition of conflict by the amount of warfare and fighting that I consider required reading for just about anyone, but I can’t think of the title right now.) The existence of this show creates a kind of variety that is sorely needed.

I guess what I’m saying in all of this is, I totally understand why people like Friendship is Magic now, and I appreciate the show quite a bit. I understand why the show has cultivated this diverse fandom of all ages and genders. Sometimes, you just want a sincere, heartfelt story, especially after something as calculated and obnoxious as John Dies At The End. Or, hey, you might be someone who likes both, which is fine; fandom shouldn’t be exclusive in nature. It’s like real life, where you can be friends with two people who are radically different from one another and wouldn’t be friends themselves because their personalities would clash too much. As for myself, I’d rather hang out with a story that’s comfortable with what it is than one that’s trying too hard to be what it thinks it should be.

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Movie Roundup: Mechas, Mugwumps, and Samurai

Time for another batch of movie reviews! I’ve watched a ton of movies in the past few months, but I haven’t written about it in a while because I’ve been busy with things, most recently with packing up and moving to Lawrence. Now that things are settled and I’ve got some free time, I can get back to this.

The big thing I’ve taken away from the last batch of movies I’ve watched (which is much, much bigger than the sample size here) is that my movie-watching tendencies are changing. For one thing, I am much more willing to give up on a movie now, if I get thirty or so minutes into it and it bores or infuriates me. I don’t like giving up on stories, and I always want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but the fact is that there are so many other stories out there that may or may not be worth watching, and the majority of the time it just isn’t worth spending two hours on a movie when the first forty minutes are terrible. Hell, most of the time I can tell within twenty minutes. I’ve even given up on movies right before the final stretch recently because I just couldn’t take anymore (for instance, House of 1000 Corpses and Calvaire). They were just doing nothing for me at all, and I figured, why bother?

I’ve also gotten much more critical of genre movies that I have been in the past. I’m pretty sure that’s due to the fact I’ve seen so many of them now. I’m beginning to see where some movies base what they do off of what other movies have done, less so out of homage and more so out of a lack of imagination. A lot of sci-fi/fantasy/horror movies don’t do it for me anymore because I can call all their shots now. So, increasingly I’ve turned toward other kinds of movies, most notably noir and historical dramas. I really enjoyed a trio of British crime films recently, in fact – The Long Good Friday, Layer Cake, and Croupier – that I didn’t write about here, but I do want to mention them so people can seek them out for their own viewing.

But, there are reviews to get to, and with that I turn to the biggest blockbuster of everything I saw, and one of the hot button topics in film this summer…

Pacific Rim: Before and at the time it came out, this movie was the leading cause for activism in my own geek circles. It’s a movie about giant mechas battling transdimensional monsters for the fate of the world. It’s basically a live action retelling of the cartoon mashups I used to make up with my action figures when I was 11. There are obvious touchstones for fans of Mobile Suit Gundam, Godzilla, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and Neon Genesis Evangelion (oh goodness, yes). A $200 million blockbuster made by nerds, for nerds. Pure fanservice. (Which goes a long way in explaining the outright defensive stance many people took on behalf of the movie before they even saw it.) And you know what? It is a lot of fun to watch. The visual design and polish of the movie is fantastic, and it is very well shot for a CGI-heavy blockbuster. Guillermo Del Toro does in fact know what he’s doing when it comes to spectacle. The fights themselves are awesome, easily the main reason to see the movie. The story? Not so much. Like I said before, it’s cobbled together from bits of other stories and the characters are cardboard, mostly. I’m also fairly certain Charlie Hunnam might be the new Keanu Reeves. That speech from Idris Elba’s character that they play in all the trailers? It sounds cool in the trailers, but when I watched it in the movie I had flashbacks to Bill Pullman’s pre-climactic speech in Independence Day. Still, there is much fun to be had in the movie, so long as you treat it like the spectacle it is and accept the fact that it isn’t terribly original.

header-pacific-rim-epic-wondercon-trailer-unleashes-jaeger-furyUpstream Color: I really wanted to like Upstream Color, much like I really wanted to like Shane Carruth’s first movie, Primer. There’s a very strong imagination at work in this movie, but it’s a primarily visual, cinematographic imagination. It’s a gorgeous movie: beautiful colors, texture, camerawork, etc. The sound is impeccable too, as is Carruth’s score, which stands up surprisingly well even when divorced from the movie. The story in Upstream Color is somewhat coherent, but still convoluted. The emotional component of the movie is definitely stronger than it is in Primer, which is quite a welcome change, as I think Carruth is a bit too cold with his characters. In the end, I think that Carruth has potential, but right now he is much more gifted as a cinematographer and director than he is as a writer and actor. I think he relies too much on obscurity in his storytelling, to the point of annoyance. He frequently defends his obscurity as part of his process in interviews, which to be honest kinda bugs me. His obscurity comes from the fact that he isn’t actually presenting the pieces of his stories in such a way that they can be properly reassembled at the end. There is a strong difference between a story about an inexplicable thing and an inexplicable story. Carruth shouldn’t confuse the two.

Upstream-colorLunopolis: I found this one on Netflix, and it wound up being a semi-pleasant surprise. IT’s shot as a faux-documentary about a secret alternate history of America involving moon bases, the lost city of Atlantis, glowing moon rocks, Men in Black, time travel, and other things. So, it’s sort of a mashup of different conspiracy-ish things, the kinds of things that make UFOlogists and Forteans perk their ears up. I happen to have a fondness for Forteana, so I enjoyed it for that component alone. It’s a movie that doesn’t attempt to disguise the fact that it’s trying to depict something that is batshit crazy (albeit fictional), and I admired that. The story itself is both good and not-so-good. Once it introduces the time travel component, things get unnecessarily twisty and convoluted, which is unfortunate because it’s otherwise still quite creative. The other thing is that the story is so packed to bursting with ideas that the backstory of the movie overalls the foreground story. So, it would be easy to classify this as a case of the filmmakers’ intentions outspanning their grasp, but their overall energy and creativity of the movie must be commended.

LunopolisCobra: Wow, this movie is bad. Like, really bad. Even by 80s action movie standards, which quite frankly weren’t that high to begin with, it’s bad. This should be a Reagan-era-approved, by-the-numbers “badass cop fights crime with disregard for the rules” movie, thoroughly mediocre. And yet, it doesn’t even clear that mark. What it is, is flamboyantly bad. It’s a Marty Stu piece for Sylvester Stallone, who basically hired George Cosmatos as a ghost director for the project, much like Kurt Russell did for Tombstone. The hero is so hypercompetent and macho as to reach the point of caricature, complete with random expertise and skills and improbable weapons storage. Every other character in the movie is basically there to pay testament to how much of a badass Stallone – erm, Marion Cobretti – is. This setup is also so thoroughly transparent that it turns into an unintentional comedy. So yeah, it does wind up falling into the “so bad, it’s good” category.

Troll 2: Speaking of so bad it’s good, we have this little treat. I recently tried to explain this movie to my friend, Matt Switliski. I’ll just quote what I told him: “You remember The Room? This is an unintentional comedy goldmine of the same caliber, absolutely. It’s about goblins, even though the movie is called Troll 2, and these goblins are vegetarians. They only eat vegetables. But they eat people. See, what they do is make people ingest this poison that turns them into vegetable goo, and then they eat that. Apparently, that works better for them than just eating vegetables. So, this family goes to this town called Nilbog – yes, Nilbog, ‘goblin’ spelled backwards – and the goblins come after them so they can eat them, and the youngest son is the only one who knows what’s going on because his dead grandfather told him – he’s a ghost. Oh, and there’s a scene where the goblin queen makes herself hot – really, all she does is dye her hair brown, take off her glasses, brush her teeth really good, and put on a dress – and seduces a guy in a trailer by dancing around with a corncob. And then they make out in the trailer and popcorn erupts in the air. It’s that kind of movie.”

Naked Lunch: This is one of the better David Cronenberg movies I’ve seen, a step below Videodrome and The Fly, but still quite good. It features a lot of ingenious, twisted imagery: typewriters that turn into alien cockroaches and, ahem, copulate; a disembodied alien head that dispenses drinkable liquid from one of its antennae; bug powder that double-functions as a snuffable hallucinogen; etc. All of this is utilized, however, in service of what is in fact a biography of William Burroughs filtered through the imagination that spawned his famed book, Naked Lunch. Even though it traffics in speculative detail, the movie feels very faithful to Burroughs, even affectionate at times. What may be the issue with this movie, however, is that you honestly need to read Burroughs’s book to understand this movie. Otherwise, you’ll marvel at the strangeness, but the references in the strangeness won’t add up the way they should.

394951457_640I Sell the Dead: Watched this one just the other night on Netflix. It’s nothing special, but is a pleasant bit of horror comedy done very much in the vein of Don Coscarelli and some of his movies, with a fondness for character interactions and horrific elements that ultimately come across as absurdly glib and fun. It’s a story of two gravediggers who sell corpses for money and their rivalry with other gravediggers, and also their encounters with some very peculiar creatures, namely the undead (along with a more distinctly science fictional critter that I won’t give away here). It isn’t really a story so much as a series of events from the main character’s life, told by himself to a priest while he awaits his execution. It’s the kind of thing that could easily see a sequel or two, so long as the people behind it continue to find stories to tell.

Cypher: Netflix kept tossing this movie at me as a recommendation, and so I finally gave in and watched it just to shut Netflix up. My verdict? It’s not particularly good. I really hope it doesn’t bear out too accurately as an indicator of Vincenzo Natali’s other movies, because I do want to see Cube and Splice eventually. It starts out promisingly, peaking about a third of the way in with a fondly Philip K. Dickian scene depicting a mass brainwashing in a hotel conference room, conducted by shadowy corporations whose only function seems to be instilling their employees with false identities and then brainwashing them in favor of newer false identities, without notable reason or purpose. If it had stayed in that weird SF vein, I would have loved it more. Instead, it becomes a standard corporate espionage “who’s double-crossing who” intrigue for the sake of intrigue. Also, the characters suck. So, no, Netflix, you blew this one.

cypherUpside Down: My God, this movie really sucked. The premise is sorta cool, sorta incoherent: two planets are locked in the same gravitational orbit around their sun, hanging out in space like a pair of those Chinese arthritis balls resting in the palm of your hand. Each planet has its own gravity that affects only the people and things native to it. A person from Planet A cannot stand on the surface of Planet B because Planet A’s gravity will pull them back. However, they can stay on Planet B if they wear or weigh themselves down with matter from Planet B, much like ballast. However! Matter from one planet will ultimately burn up when in contact with matter from the other planet, so you can’t use the ballast for long. Now, this creates a lovely visual style for the movie, with unique use of color and staging; lots of altered perspective shots, people running on ceilings, gravitational shifts, very cool. The science, clearly, is shit. You can’t even properly call the gravity of the two planets “gravity” because, well, that’s not now gravity works. It’s a force field, not a rubber band. These physical rules are only created to serve the purpose of the story. Problem is, the movie then proceeds to constantly break these rules whenever it serves to benefit the story, to the point that having them in the first place is mainly pointless. And on top of all of this, the story sucks. There is genuine potential to be had – the more affluent planet constantly takes resources and manpower from the other planet, leaving it poor and decrepit. This should have been a story of social upheaval and change. Instead, this background is used in service of a story about two bland, unlikable paper cutouts of people who fall in love with each other and their struggle to be together, which I frankly did not give a rip about.

13 Assassins: This might be my favorite Takashi Miike movie! Which is strange, because it’s also not particularly Miike-esque, in the sense of how people characterize him from his horror cinema. Also, I have a fondness for jidai-geki stories. Nevertheless, this is a well-made, rousing movie. It revolves around thirteen assassins (duh), more specifically twelve samurai/ronin and one woodland hunter who joins up with them randomly, and their mission to kill a nobleman who is causing problems for Japan because of his ruthless cruelty. So, they clear out a small town in the Japanese countryside and turn it into a giant deathtrap for the nobleman and his men. This leads to the final third of the film, entirely composed of the sequence where the nobleman rides into town and the trap is sprung. And it is awesome. The action is well-choreographed and seriously gratifying, never dull or boring, always intense, with some seriously inventive set pieces, my favorite being an alleyway pincushioned with swords, which the samurai proceeds to use as a makeshift gauntlet to mow through a procession of mooks. If it helps, imagine it as a smaller, Japanese variation on 300 with less abs, more substance, and no racism.

Walkabout: This movie haunted me during and after watching it. It’s a simple story: a boy and his sister are lost in the Australian Outback after their salaryman father goes nuts and tries to kill them, only to off himself and torch the family car. They reach the brink of starvation and are then rescued by an Aboriginal Australian boy, who takes a shine to the sister. This movie is a lovely experience, one of the most beautiful movies I’ve watched. Nicolas Roeg lingers on scenes of nature and animal activity – lizards, birds, kookaburra trees, water buffalo, all in their perfect natural functions – and really makes you adore it all and also lament when human activity spoils it, as happens later in the movie when some callous hunters nearly run down the Aboriginal boy and shoot an animal for no clear reason. It feels senseless, and that has much to do with the intense empathy the characters have for their surroundings by that point, and also for our empathy with it. The heart of the movie, though, is the sweet, awkward budding friendship/romance between the sister and the Aboriginal boy. They are keenly aware of their own bodies and also each other at a time when they are going through adolescence, growing comfortable around one another. They are also divorced by their respective cultures; one mistakes the other’s ritual for bad magic or insanity. It all makes you long for the ability to put aside language and culture and just reach a state of union, with other humans and with nature.

A Field in England: The latest movie from Ben Wheatley, who made Kill List, an intense little gem that still sticks with me. A Field in England is much, much stranger, but it sacrifices some coherence for that strangeness, which leaves it as a less enjoyable affair, though still worth watching. Basically, it’s a story of an alchemist, Whitehead, fleeing a battle during the English Civil War (we’re talking 17th century, non-Brits) who gets roped in with some grunts in service of an evil man named O’Neill who wronged Whitehead’s master and is now in pursuit of some treasure supposedly buried in the titular field. What this all builds up to is bantering about alehouses, torture, rune divination, ingestion of “magic mushrooms,” and an apocalyptic battle of the wills between a coward and a murderer. Even with its flaws, and it’s definitely far from perfect, it’s still worth watching for anyone in pursuit of distinctive cinema.

fieldVelvet Goldmine: Now this was a trip to watch. The whole thing is ostensibly the story of the rise and fall of this glam rock star named Brian Slade, along with his various love affairs and musical endeavors, and also his attempt to fake his own murder on stage, which wreaks horrible consequences on himself and others. If I had to describe the movie, it’s basically a glam rock concept album brought to life, something David Bowie would’ve done (which is funny, because Brian Slade is basically a thinly disguised David Bowie, with liberal doses of Oscar Wilde splashed in). The story structure itself is pretty inventive, told in a nonlinear style that assembles various pieces from interviews with characters who knew, loved, and hated Slade. It’s very much set up as a “who’s the man behind the mystery” thing, with a vaguely SF-nal feel to everything – Brian Slade has a Ziggy Stardust-like alter ego named “Maxwell Demon” (as in Maxwell’s Demon, the famous thought experiment) who, like Ziggy, is not of this planet – and really, glam rock itself is pretty SF-nal, when you think about it. Gender bending, identity politics, the power of music, glamours and façades, it all feels very fantastical when seen in a movie, but it was pretty much par for the course in the scene itself and its music. It was all about building a new mythology, and that’s something this movie absolutely nails. Another thing that’s totally nailed down is the music; this movie has quite possibly one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard.

velvet goldmine6Cemetery Man: One of the most peculiar movies I’ve seen recently, and definitely one of the most imaginative. It’s a total mindscrew of a movie, in fact. Rupert Everett plays the caretaker of a cemetery in a small Italian town, and he has what amounts to the worst job in the world, since almost anyone he buries comes back to life as a zombie. He doesn’t have much of a life, since the majority of it is spent either burying people or killing them again. He attempts to have a love life, but that ends badly too, especially since they often die, and he has to bury them, and you see where this is going. Except you don’t, or you won’t. I didn’t. I refuse to say anything more on the movie, other than to say it’s well worth watching, if you can get your hands on it. (Apparently, versions of the whole movie exist on YouTube! I don’t know how legal it would be to watch it, but if anyone wants to take the plunge, that would be up to them.)

Cemetery-ManV/H/S/2: I previously reviewed V/H/S, this movie’s precursor, and found it lacking for many reasons, namely the annoyance of the found footage formats, the lack of actual quality storytelling, and the dependence on obnoxious, unlikable characters. If those problems hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have minded the blatant shock value of the movie. Those problems are definitely addressed  all around in V/H/S/2. Hell, I even liked this movie. I found three of the four segments ultimately forgettable, but still enjoyable in the moment. The first segment is still the weakest part here, a bit about a guy who can see malevolent spirits after a cybernetic eye transplant, although it does utilize its jump scares effectively. The bit with the guy on the bike becoming a zombie, shooting everything from the POV of his bike helmet,  was fun but slight. The ending segment, with the alien abduction at the slumber party, is a pleasant surprise, with its science fictional trappings standing out from the usual horror of the movie. One of the segments, however, is worth sitting through the whole movie to see: “Safe Haven,” directed by Gareth Huw Evans and Timo Tjahjanto. This one, about a news crew investigating an Indonesian cult with decidedly sinister, demonic underpinnings, is a minor classic. The escalation of this piece is fantastic, and once the payoff begins and shit hits the fan, it crackles with energy and intensity. It’s simply brilliant.

If…: If this movie and a handful of other novels and movies I’ve encountered are any indication, I would never, ever, ever want to go to an English boarding school. Good grief, no. The boarding school in If… is downright fascist and chilling. The prefects are abusive snobs, the headmasters are ineffectual and unattached, the teachers are bundles of neuroses, and young men like Malcolm McDowell’s Mick Travis have to play revolutionary to get their points across without being beaten down. If…, then, is a great movie. It functions on multiple levels, as both a horrid account of boarding school life and as an allegory for what happens when people are manhandled by institutions larger than themselves. Because of this odd mixture of detail and intent, among other things, the movies gives off this impression of being realistic and fantastical at the same time, and so the proceedings are deeply weird, never more so than in the final minutes of the movie, where Travis and his friends stage a literal coup against the school. The violence in the movie isn’t terribly explicit, but it is frightening, especially the scenes of corporal punishment; there’s a moment about two-thirds of the way through where one of the prefects canes Travis repeatedly with running windups, clearly above and beyond the recommended level of severity, that stands out in particular. The coup at the end isn’t as frightening, given that’s the point where the allegorical reading of the movie bulldozes its previously established reality, but it is chilling in the context of what we’ve seen from actual school shootings in the real world thirty-odd years later. So, then, does that make If… a prophetic work? It’s not impossible.

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Movie Roundup: Klowns, Ghosts and Other Monsters

This will likely be the last movie roundup I do for a while, mainly because I’ve got a lot of writing and reading I want to get done in the next few weeks. I also want to post something to this blog that isn’t just a list of stuff I’ve read or watched for once, since I’m getting back into the habit of updating this thing regularly. There’s a few topics and questions I’ve been thinking about the past couple days, and hopefully I’ll steal away some time to write about them soon. That said, I’ve watched some notable movies recently, and as they say, sharing is caring, and I do care, so here we go.

Pontypool: I watched this Valentine’s Day, which was appropriate – not because it’s a sweet date movie, but because it’s set on Valentine’s Day in a town in Canada. Basically, the denizens of the town of Pontypool find themselves afflicted with a bizarre infection that turns them into crazed, hiveminded monsters. They’re like zombies in almost every way except for the brain-eating, although they engage in cannibalism at some points. The movie revolves around a radio jockey and his production staff, who have to at first figure out what’s going on and then try to warn people how to stop the infection later. It’s a clever movie with some great acting. The nature of the infection is very distinctive and unique for this kind of movie. The action of the movie is what I would call “stage-bound,” though it doesn’t happen on a stage, because it’s contained to the setting of a radio station studio. In that sense, it felt like I was watching or listening to modern variation on the classic War of the Worlds broadcast from the early 20th century. If you can overlook the lack of “action” for a strong story, it’s worth watching.

The Stone Tape: Rather neat movie overall. This one is really hard to find, since it was broadcast on BBC back in the 70s and it’s never received an official DVD release (it is available for download and rental on Amazon Instant Video, though). The premise: a tech development team moves their operations into an old manor home with a secretly haunted history; when they discover the presence of a ghost, they try to discover the source of the haunting, thinking they’ve discovered a new form of data storage. It’s a very scientific take on the concept of a haunting – in fact, from what I understand, this movie popularized the notion of “residual haunting,” the incident of a ghost or ghostly phenomena repeatedly occurring in a set sequence of actions in a location like a tape loop. This has since become the “Stone Tape Theory.” Nicely done, Nigel Kneale! Anyway, it makes a better science fiction movie than a horror movie – using science and computers to find an alternate explanation for the occurrence of ghosts and supernatural phenomena. Yes, the characters are prone to spells of back-and-forth exposition about this, but it all sounds so cool and brain-bending when you listen to it, so it ended up appealing to me. The ideas are better than the story, but that doesn’t mean the story is bad, just that the ideas are massive. My other major misgiving about this movie involves the female protagonist, the programmer who first discovers the presence of the ghost. Half of the time, she’s this strongly capable scientist who makes major breakthroughs in how to communicate with and then “record” the ghost; the other half of the time, she’s your typical hysterical, helpless female protagonist from any other somewhat sexist ghost story. It’s fairly annoying.

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The Chaser: Another Korean action-thriller, on the heels of The Man From Nowhere. This is a good movie, but not as good as Nowhere. A former-cop-turned-pimp finds out that his prostitutes are being abducted and murdered by a serial killer living in his city, so he uses the skills cultivated from his former trade to track him down. It’s a fairly exciting movie, but it suffers from being a little overlong and dragging too much in the middle when the police bring the killer in to their custody and wind up running around in circles trying to find evidence of his crimes. There’s a sense of something intangible missing from this movie that’s present in similar movies, like the aforementioned Nowhere and others like, say, Oldboy, that I can’t fully explain except to say that it’s a matter of personal resonance with the characters or their emotional contexts. It just feels a little more ordinary in comparison to other movies I’ve seen recently. Doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching, though.

Donnie Darko: I’d already heard all about this movie, owing to the fact that it’s a cult classic. When I went to college, every other student’s favorite movies were this and Boondock Saints. I had already heard every possible opinion about this movie – good, bad, indifferent – so when I finally watched it, I was in this bizarre situation where despite all I’d heard, I came to it with no expectations. Turns out I like the movie quite a bit (the original theatrical cut, not the director’s cut; I know there’s a world of difference between the two). It is a very weird movie, and the SF-nal/Horror-ish elements work well without a lot of explanation, simply because of what they lead the characters to do to themselves and others. What I noticed about the movie more than anything else? It’s a surprisingly funny movie, dependent on the irony of its frequently self-absorbed characters saying and doing stupid things. It’s also one of the few movies I’ve seen, aside from American Psycho, to honestly portray just how weird and alien the 80s really were. And yes, it has a pretty awesome soundtrack.

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Killer Klowns From Outer Space: Yeesh, this movie is lame, but I suppose that’s kind of the point. It actually terrified me when I was a kid; I never finished the movie. It’s exactly what it sounds like: killer aliens that look like clowns and use alien-circus-grade technology kill and abduct people in this little college town while a few people try to stop them and escape their clutches. Turns out it’s on Netflix, and I am now somewhat less scared of clowns than I used to be, so I decided, what the hell, I’ll give it another shot. Still couldn’t finish it, but for different reasons. It’s a B-movie, basically, and it never tries to rise above that or take itself more seriously. I watched the first fifty minutes or so because the filmmakers actually do come up with some unique ways of having the klowns terrorize people – in my favorite scene, a klown makes shadow puppets on a building wall at a bus stop before eating a group of bystanders with a shadowy t-rex. Once the novelty of watching the klowns wreak havoc wears off, though, there’s no real reason to finish the movie, other than simply wanting to finish the movie.

Trollhunter: This is right alongside Lake Mungo as my favorite found footage film ever. I’m very critical of the found footage style/genre/whatever in most instances where it pops up, for reasons I may have to get into with a future blog post. Trollhunter does not suffer for being a found footage movie, though, and in fact makes a good case for when it’s done well. Basically, an amateur film crew tracks down this reclusive hunter and finds out he’s been tasked with controlling the troll population of Norway, and so they begin documenting his adventures, which quickly become their adventures. There’s quality acting, for what the movie requires, and the story is inventive and clever and above all good. The faux-real style of the movie makes the appearance of the trolls all the more incredible when they appear, especially when the Moby Dick of trolls shows up at the end.

Dark Portals – The Chronicles of Vidocq: I liked this one in theory, but not in execution. It’s a detective story set in 19th century France, with all of its social upheaval and what-not. The main character, Vidocq, is basically the French version of Sherlock Holmes. The primary calling card for this movie is the stunning visuals and bizarre scenes and villain, a black-cloaked “alchemist” who can seemingly shapeshift and blend into the shadows/wall/floor anywhere, invulnerable to attack. Imagine my disappointment, then, to find that it’s mostly a by-the-numbers murder mystery with supernatural elements added in and too many plot points dependent on coincidence alone. The big twist with the revelation of the villain’s identity is fairly underwhelming too. There’s really no reason to care about the movie unless you happen to care for these kinds of stories. It is well shot, but I’ve seen better. Overall, it left me with a feeling of “meh.”

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The Skin I Live In: One of the strangest movies I’ve watched recently, and it also happens to be the first Pedro Almodóvar film I’ve ever watched. I’m, um, not sure how typical this movie is of his other movies, but I do know that I liked this one enough that I would readily watch anything else he does. It features maybe my favorite Antonio Banderas performance ever, as a mysterious, creepy doctor who keeps a woman locked up under odd circumstances in his home, watched over only by him and his maid, the only two people who seem to know that the woman is a prisoner there in the first place. The first thirty minutes are somewhat rough going, but the movie picks up big time as it rolls out the tragic backstory for the doctor and the causes of the woman’s imprisonment in the house. It also contains some industrial-grade twists, which impressed me with how unexpected they were. It all builds up to a surprisingly affecting ending. Definitely one of those movies that grew on me as I watched it.

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Movie Roundup: The Good, the Bad, and the Strange

Thanks to Netflix and the extra free time resultant from graduating grad school, I watch a lot more movies and TV than I used to. I didn’t watch a whole lot while I was in grad school because I had to really concentrate on getting my school work done in tandem with my full-time job and part-time teaching work. It’s nice to watch this stuff now because it gives me ideas of things I want to explore in my writing and provides an opportunity to study how storytelling works in other mediums.

So, on a regular basis, I’ll probably start posting lists like these, of movies I’ve watched recently and my take on them, in case anyone is looking for suggestions of their own or just want to start up a conversation. I’m always looking for further recommendations myself.

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover: A gangster/wannabe gourmand’s wife carries on an affair with a book depository clerk in the restaurant that they all frequent, with the head chef’s blessing. Things go very badly from there. Some very frank sex scenes and violence, though it works well within the overall aesthetic of the movie, which is very theatrical and even painterly at times. The cinematography and set design are lovely, and the soundtrack is great (Michael Nyman FTW; love his work). Some quality performances too. What held me back from really liking the movie was the chilly tone and presentation (which feels Kubrickian at points, to give you an impression of it) and the overlong running time; the movie drags on in places. Good choice if you’re in the mood for tragic love triangles, beautiful arthouse directing, and inventive revenge.

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Mother: Another revenge movie, of sorts, and this one is a doozy. A teenage girl in a rundown South Korean town is murdered; a mentally handicapped young man is fingered for the crime, and his loving (and zealously protective) mother seeks to prove his innocence. The actual story itself isn’t nearly that simple, and the supposed innocence of any and all involved gets substantially called into question by the end. I’ll say this right now: Mother is not a feel-good movie. It’s a tragic family/small town drama more than anything. Bizarrely, it reminded me of Winter’s Bone at times, because the poverty of the town is such an influencing factor for many of the characters (although it isn’t openly acknowledged to nearly the extent in Winter’s Bone). You wind up feeling horrible for just about everyone in the movie. That said, it’s masterfully written and directed (courtesy of Bong Joon-ho, whose movie The Host is high on my watchlist, and his writing partner Park Eun-kyo). Kim Hye-ja gives a stunning performance as the mother, one of the best I’ve seen in recent memory.

Requiem from the Darkness: I used to watch anime all the time in high school, but fell out of it in college. At the time, I simply couldn’t afford to buy much anime, being a broke college student, and I didn’t want to illegally download it. It slipped my mind until recently, when I found a treasure trove of anime series on Netflix. I decided to dip my toes back in the water with this series. It’s a macabre horror series about a writer exploring Bakumatsu-era feudal Japan, collecting ghost stories for an anthology, when he encounters three spirits who roam the land, setting traps for people who have committed atrocities and allowed their guilt to fester within them. Each episode is a self-contained story until the very end, where they wrap everything up. It’s actually a pretty good series. It’ll definitely work your horror jones, especially in the court of body horror, demonic/supernatural forces, and revenge stories (again!). The character design is, um, interesting. The show was pretty low budget, it looks like, but the animators ultimately turn it into a strength. Don’t watch it expecting a masterpiece and you’ll do just fine.

The Man From Nowhere: I kinda went on a streak of watching Korean films, starting with The Man From Nowhere and continuing with a few of the movies on this list. This one’s an action-thriller about a widower with an ex-Black Ops experience who hunts out a criminal gang (would there be any other kind) after they kidnap a little girl who befriends him. Way, way better than similar films, like Taken. The pathos that runs through the movie and the protagonist, Tae-Sik, makes you care a lot more about him and the little girl while he rushes to save her, as opposed to just witnessing mindlessly entertaining action. That said, the action is pretty killer, especially the climactic fight near the end of the movie where he confronts the remnants of the gang in a last bid to save the girl.

Santa Sangre: I’m not a Jodorowsky rookie; I’ve watched El Topo and The Holy Mountain, and I actually enjoyed both of them for what they were. I loved the surrealistic, philosophical imagination of the prior two movies and how fast and loose they played. Santa Sangre is a much tighter, more cohesive affair, though it still possesses that Jodorowsky touch. I’ve heard it described as Psycho adapted by Luis Buñuel, which is actually very accurate. Fenix, a former circus performer who underwent horrible family-based trauma as a child, grows up to aid his armless mother in committing murders. I’m in agreement with Roger Ebert, who essentially called this a psychic trauma horror story – a psychodrama, in more concise terms. It’s a surprisingly affecting movie, all told, though it also features plenty of WTF-worthy scenes and moments, most notably (for me, anyway) a funeral for an elephant and the worst tattoo session ever.

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The Last Circus: I wanted this one to be good, I really did. The trailer is so utterly crazy, I couldn’t help but watch this movie. Another one set in a circus, in fact. Sad Clown Javier, a wimpy sad sack of a man with a tragic history, meets Happy Clown Sergio, an abusive psychopath, and Segio’s trapeze artist girlfriend, Natalia (their relationship is seriously twisted – and unfortunate, given the real world issues of abusive relationships). Guess what? There’s a love triangle, and it leads to tragedy for all of them in the end. The path to that tragedy is the bulk of the movie, of course, and for the most part the movie is entertaining. It’s pretty insane overall, so you can’t ever take everything in it completely seriously, but it’s entertaining, and there’s an eye for historical context that provides an added reading for the events of the movie (it takes place during the Spanish Civil War). It’s a shame the final fifteen minutes of the movie utterly ruin its momentum by finally tipping over from absurd to overblown.

Reservoir Dogs: Hopefully all of you know what Reservoir Dogs is by now, so I won’t say much about it. All I will say is that this was my first time watching the movie (I’ve only ever watched Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill movies from Tarantino’s filmography). I enjoyed it! Great acting, sharp writing, inventive structure. It’s pretty hyped up as a cult classic, but it didn’t let me down.

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V/H/S: I’m very fond of anthology films, especially anthology horror films. I see them as the filmic equivalent of short story collections. V/H/S is getting a lot of love from people for being the latest, greatest horror anthology. There are some people on IMDB that absolutely rave about this movie. Honestly, I thought it was one of the most obnoxious, useless viewing experiences I’ve had in a while. There were a few inspired ideas and moments, but by and large the movie demonstrates a ton of things I absolutely hate about some contemporary horror movies and the found footage format. The opening story, with three “bros” going out on the town to seduce drunk women and then film sex with them, was so repugnant I almost turned the movie off right then and there.

Three… Extremes: Now this is how you do a horror anthology! Three great directors – Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook, and Takashi Miike – each contribute a forty-minute film (Dumplings, Cut, and Box, respectively), every one imaginative and grotesque in its own way. Dumplings gets a lot of love for being so blatantly horrifying (it’s about a supposed cure for aging, made from the worst ingredient you could possibly imagine). I’m a bigger fan of Cut, because I’m a big Park Chan-wook fanboy, and especially Box, which is a surreal, sad mini-masterpiece. Three…Extremes is worth watching for Box alone.

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The Good, the Bad, the Weird: This movie was a blast. It’s a Korean western loosely inspired by The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Instead of the American west, it’s set in 1930s Machuria, then under Japanese rule/oppression. The main characters – the titular Good, Bad, and Weird (a bounty hunter, hitman, and thief, respectively) – all chase one another to gain possession of a treasure map, while larger forces, namely the Japanese Imperial Army and Manchurian freedom fighters, chase them. I loved the spectacle of this movie and the glorious, seemingly endless action scenes and chases. There’s a prolonged chase scene toward the end, that takes place in the Manchurian desert, which I consider one of the best of its kind that I’ve ever watched.

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The Secret of Kells: Lovely animated film loosely based on the famed Book of Kells. I got sucked in on the basis of the animation alone, which is so crisp and distinctive, but the story itself is strong as well. Highly, highly recommended.

“Street of Crocodiles”: They have a pretty good collection of short films from the Brothers Quay on Netflix, including this absolute gem of a short film. The animation, puppetry, and set design are stunning. It’s actually a very haunting little film, despite the lack of an obvious, explicit story per se. I took note after note of running motifs and images throughout the film simply because I felt compelled to, because they somehow create this emotional algebra (putting it perhaps too succinctly) that I want to absorb for myself and my writing. Highly recommended.

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Brick: I enjoyed Looper, so I decided to go back and watch Brick, a murder mystery set I a high school in Califorina. At first, it’s really weird listening to these high schoolers spout off Chandleresque dialogue like its second nature to them, but by the end of it I was sucked in. Joseph Gordon-Levitt totally kills his role as the wounded, loner anti-hero who has to make sense of the sordid plot.

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The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Under most circumstances, I would consider Santa Sangre the weirdest film I watched in this batch of movies, but just before that I watched Buckaroo Banzai. Quite the madcap movie; I honestly feel like I need to watch it again, just because the movie throws so much at you and expects you to pick it up and keep running along. Trans-dimensional travel, aliens in human disguise, rock and roll superstar scientists, doppelgangers, government conspiracies, schizophrenic John Lithgows, the works. It is the kind of movie that might prompt someone to label it as “weird for the sake of weird.” That said, it is a fun movie, especially once you throw up your hands, say “screw it,” and just go along without trying to figure everything out.

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Mary and Max: A heartbreaker of a movie with some of the best stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen. It’s a simple enough story, with a sad, lonely little girl becoming penpals with a man afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome and the development and challenge of their friendship over the years. The emotional content of the movie is in fact very complicated and even tragic at points, or threatens to become tragic. Ultimately, though, the movie winds up being life-affirming, and it earns that nature without schmaltz or dubious sentimentality.

Trailer Park Boys: God, this show is hilarious. I absolutely love it… well, Seasons 1 through 5, anyway. Season 6 isn’t nearly as funny, and I watched eight minutes of Season 7 before deciding the show was no longer all that entertaining.  Still, I got a big kick out of the show while I could. For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s about the residents of a trailer park in Nova Scotia, initially centered around the misadventures of two drug dealers, shot in a mockumentary style that works pretty well. The show lives or dies on the strength of its characters, but they’re more than up to the task, especially the boozy trailer park supervisor Mr. Lahey. Totally worth it if you’re up for a laugh.

Lo: Check this Netflix description of the movie: “Lovelorn Justin sees his life change for the better when quirky April lands in the middle of it. When she’s abruptly kidnapped by a band of demons, Justin sets out to rescue her, with the help of the hellion Lo, who has an agenda of his own. Hell, musical demons and oversized rats complicate the path to love in writer-director Travis Betz’s horror-comedy hybrid.” This should’ve been right up my alley, yes? Problem is, it’s actually terrible. The “comedy” part of the horror-comedy hybrid is painfully unfunny to the point of being obnoxious, and the acting is annoyingly hammy and distracting. It’s like everyone involved with the movie tried too hard to make it quirky and theatrical. The whole thing feels utterly forced and lame. I turned it off halfway through; I couldn’t finish it. Very rarely do I not finish a movie, even if I don’t think it’s good.

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Die Monster Die!: Rather lame monster movie from the 60s loosely based on Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour Out of Space.” An American scientist who more closely resembles a flat-topped classic gumshoe travels overseas to visit his sweetie at her home estate, which happens to be the creepy old place up on the hill with a tortured family history involved strange meteorites and deformed relatives. Yeah, it’s got Boris Karloff in it, and there’s a certain retro movie monster charm at times, but the script is pretty bad and laughable, especially towards the end. Might be worth watching in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 sense, though.

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I Spit On Your Grave: I know that this is a cult classic of the slasher movie genre, but I found it almost completely unwatchable. I get that the movie is basically an indictment of men who commit atrocious acts against women. The whole point of the movie is a woman getting revenge against a pack of rapists by mutilating and killing them in horrible ways. That said, I found the actual rape scene extremely horrid and hard to watch. I couldn’t watch the whole thing because it hurt to watch it, so I fast-forwarded to the end of it. I get the argument that claims events like this should be depicted as realistically as possible so people can see just how damning these acts are, and in spirit I admire it…except that it’s still very traumatic to watch. I already know that violence against women is something I would never, ever condone or participate in. So, in my perspective as a viewer, it becomes less of a valuable moral lesson and more of an excruciating endurance test, and the rape scene in I Spit On Your Grave really does feel almost completely like an endurance test, which in turn makes me question the morality of the filmmakers. Anyway, I feel like that’s opening up a whole other venue of argument that I would actually like to engage in down the road, so I’ll cut this off for now by stating the other rather damning part of the movie, one that doesn’t really intersect with the moral dimensions of it: it’s truly, utterly boring and even amateurish at points.

Shrooms: I didn’t really care for this movie. It’s about a bunch of American students traveling to Ireland to go explore the woods and trip out on mushrooms – seriously, that’s the main reason they travel over there. Of course, they’re by-and-large unlikeable boors who you won’t mind seeing perish over the course of the movie, minus the Final Girl and her Irish would-be boyfriend. Of course, their Irish friend tells them there are dire consequences if they eat the wrong mushroom, which happens to look very much like the right mushroom they’re looking for. Of course, once he mentions that, one of the Americans ingests the wrong mushroom and gets totally messed up throughout the movie, notwithstanding the serial killer that suddenly starts stalking them. The movie seems to exist solely for the central conceit of the tripped-out victims seeing weird stuff and being killed in grotesque ways, because otherwise the story is pretty predictable and boring. The ending is even worse because they try to pull a total 180 on the perception of one of the characters, which, as opposed to saving the boring movie that led up to it, actually makes it even worse.

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A Tale of Two Sisters: Let’s end with what I would consider a truly great horror movie.  I feel like I’m coming to the party a little late on this one, since it’s been out for a while and it’s a bit of a modern classic of horror movies and Korean cinema. That said, it’s a great movie. It’s genuinely creepy and unsettling, and the movie sustains and builds true tension throughout. It also executes not one, not two, but three game-changing twists, two of which actually surprised me. The really great thing about the movie is that as much as it executes some expected and unexpected horror movie beats, the story is tethered to strong, complex characters with unique psychologies and affecting conflicts. At the core, this is just as much a Shakespearean family tragedy as it is a horror movie, which is exactly the way I like it.

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You Can’t Always Get What You Want: A Review of Prometheus

I need to make a full disclosure of bias, something I wish more critics would do (armchair or otherwise; and yes, I realize I’m an armchair critic): I wanted Prometheus to be perfect. I am a deeply devoted fan of science fiction. I wish Hollywood would expend more effort on science fiction projects than they currently do (I also wish they’d find projects that are actually good, but that’s another matter). I wish audiences weren’t so lukewarm-to-possibly hostile of science fiction projects (I also wish they weren’t so anti-science, which I suspect contributes to lack of interest in science fiction, but that’s a whole other matter too). I saw Prometheus as a great hope for science fiction cinema, something that could possibly help fix these problems.

There’s more. I wanted the movie to be great because it was a “big ideas” movie; an epic about space exploration, possibly seeking to restore a sense of wonder that some claim has been drained from a lot of science fiction and fantasy; a Ridley Scott sci-fi picture; etc. Before I even saw the movie, I had a lot invested in it.

A lot of people have responded very passionately to the movie so far in the sci-fi community – some positively, some negatively. I think they’ve projected a lot onto the movie because of these desires and expectations, and when you project that much upon something, whether a movie, book, video game, or whatever else, it alters how you experience it, in a possibly unfair manner.

Thus, I made several conscious decisions about what to expect – or not expect – from the movie:

  1. I would not expect it to be another Alien universe movie. I wouldn’t expect it to follow the template established, then run into the ground, by the succession of Alien movies.
  2. I would expect it to be a flawed project, because quite honestly there is no such thing as a perfect product. Actual perfection is pretty much impossible. Even if a given story is utterly magnificent, there is always something, however small, that can be improved.
  3. I would treat it like any other movie I might watch, straining for objectivity, however impossible that may be. I would not make excuses for its greatness if it were in fact not good.

I saw the movie yesterday at my local cinema. I set my 3D glasses on and sat back, paying attention, delaying ultimate judgment until the very end.

NOTE: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS (for the next few paragraphs, at least…)

On a scale of 1 to 10, I would set Prometheus somewhere between 7 and 8. It’s not a perfect movie, not close to it. I do think it’s better than a lot of people are giving it credit for, though.

The spectacle of the movie is the biggest selling point, surprise surprise. Probably the best implementation of 3D I’ve seen yet in a live action movie. The visuals – by that I mean everything about the look and presentation of the movie: the set design, the cinematography, the artistic vision of the movie – do match the intended story, which I would best describe as an epic. The movie does a wonderful job of generating a sense of wonder at both the universe at large and the alien world that the characters explore.

My favorite parts of the movie were when the characters were just exploring the settings they encountered, finding new wrinkles in it along the way: the tomb/storage room with the black good canisters and the murals of the aliens and their monstrous counterparts; the holograms of the space jockeys racing away from unseen dangers, an instance of the past coming back to inform the present (and foreshadow what was to come); the cockpit of the alien cargo ship, with its immersive display of the universe and all the planets in it, with corresponding orbits. The look on David’s face when he activates that display and steps into it is exactly what I felt at that moment: wonder.It’s nice to see a movie, regardless of genre, that is so strongly about exploration, about finding new frontiers for ourselves, and then celebrates exploration in and of itself. Yes, almost all of the characters in the movie die/suffer horrible fates (pretty much all of them suffer somehow) on that planet, but I would argue their suffering is not due to their exploration per se.

I like the central story of the movie a lot: alien race creates humanity eons ago using black goo, which I took to be a kind of DNA-warper/evolution driver type of material; alien race matrons humanity in its emergent state, up to the point when we can paint their likenesses on cave walls and take them for gods; alien race suddenly vanishes and retreats to wherever the hell they came from; humans discover the cave paintings and such later, discovering the location of their precursors, and venture into space to meet them and get existential with it; humans find out their precursors aren’t gods so much as inscrutable beings with their own agenda, divorced from what humans want that agenda to be; horror ensues. That’s a pretty good spine for a story.

Much about the alien precursors and their motivations goes unanswered, even at the end of the movie. This has torqued a lot of people, who read this as inattention to a vital aspect of the movie, resulting in plot holes. I don’t see it that way. Clearly, they wanted to set up the sequel, where Shaw, the protagonist, and David’s android head go into space and find the homeworld of the precursors, presumably to shake a finger in their faces. I am a little miffed at the blatant sequel baiting there, but not enough to ruin the movie for me. Also, the writers of the movie have no problem with leaving questions unanswered (hello, Damon Lindelof).

I recognize the practical reasons they left those questions unanswered. At the same time, I actually used that lack of understanding as a thematic touchstone for the movie. These alien precursors, like I said, are utterly inscrutable. They’re supposed to be. They’re so far gone from humanity, even as they share our DNA (although it wouldn’t be a total match, like the movie says; if it was a total match, they would be us). I don’t understand their motives, but I don’t cite that as a flaw in the movie, just a means of realizing how “alien” the aliens really are.

The characters are a mixed bag. They’re not all that fleshed out, not even the main characters. Much is left up to the inate ability (or inability) of the actors and actresses to make their characters interesting. The four characters that fare best are Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the head explorer; David (Michael Fassbender), the ship’s robot butler; Vickers (Charlize Theron), the head management of the trip; and Janek (Idris Elba), the ship’s head pilot/captain. Shaw and Vickers are two-dimensional characters, with Janek possibly qualifying as two-dimensional.

The best of the characters by far is David, who basically owns the movie. He’s three-dimensional. His motives are unclear, though he possesses them. His actions do not follow a typical black-and-white morality, neither good nor evil. He does things that have horrible consequences – poisoning Shaw’s honey and fellow head explorer Holloway; lying to the crew about his boss’s presence on the ship; resurrecting the last living alien precursor on that planet (and possibly telling it to go nuts on everybody, which it does) – but not because he wants horrible things to happen.

As a protagonist, Shaw is likeable; she has a moral compass that makes her sympathetic, and I admired her gut-level survival instincts and resourcefulness. Nothing she did surprised me, though, and arguably her character didn’t grow over the course of the movie. It’s up for debate whether she actually needed to change, and I’ll leave some wiggle room there. The whole “science vs. faith” thing that the writers attempt to hang on her character actually feels shoehorned in without much justification. I think they could have done without it. The movie already does a good job of evoking questions of religiosity and science from the movement of the story alone; they didn’t need to try and make it more explicit.

Everyone else? They’re archetypes. Vickers is the stone-cold executive with secrets; Janek is the gruff, honorable captain; Holloway is mainly a foil for Shaw, as the resident devil-may-care skeptic. Everyone beyond them is cannon fodder/meat for the story. Your mileage will vary on this. I dislike allocating characters as cannon fodder, especially when they’re so easily identifiable (and you will spot the dead meat within minutes of seeing them). It feels like lazy writing.

The characters also sometimes exhibit a maddening trait of turning into idiots. For instance, when an alien cobra pops up and hisses at you, back the hell away from it. And when a giant, circular spacecraft has landed on its side and comes rolling after you, take a right-angle turn and keep running.

Sometimes the more horrific scenes aren’t integrated into the story in an organic manner. When Holloway has Vickers torch him because he’s infected with a horrid contagion, that works because it’s implied that the black goo has that ability and it’s established that David poisoned him with it to see what would happen. When the geologist comes back from the dead to attack the crew onboard the ship, it just feels wrong. It’s supposed to be a tense scene, but there’s no real build-up to it. It just happens. It feels like a beat the writers had to add to the story to give it more “action” and kill some of the extra cannon fodder.

The connections to the Alien movies also seem to dissatisfy a lot of people, mostly because they expected more on that front. I see it pretty plainly: the xenomorphs (the titular aliens of the franchise) are the offspring of the space jockeys, the black evolutionary goo, and the proto-facehugger “born” from Shaw halfway through the movie. Assumedly, from there the xenomorphs evolved in multiple locations under similar conditions and proceeded to wreak havoc. That’s fine by me.

END OF SPOILERS

The movie is worth seeing. There’s a great imagination on display here, and the movie evokes a sense of wonder and amazement that I wish I saw more often. It’s not a perfect movie; the character work is iffy at times, and the shift from epic exploration to survival horror in the story isn’t nailed as smoothly as it should have been. A lot goes unexplained; if you don’t like questions going unanswered, this movie will bug you, but in all honesty I think the filmmakers want it to bug you. Don’t walk into it expecting the perfect sci-fi movie for the 21st century. Don’t expect it to be another Alien movie. And check your expectations at the door, preferably beforehand. Think about what you’re bringing to the movie that might make it into something other than what you’re provided, and think about why you’re bringing those things.

Is it an amazing movie, the movie I wanted it to be when I first saw the trailers and read about it? No, it’s not that movie. I created that movie in my head out of what I was given and what I wanted it to be. If I had held on to those expectations going into the movie, I would have been sorely disappointed. If we go into any movie expecting it to match the ideal version of it we create within our heads, we would never be fully satisfied. So long as you understand you won’t get everything you want from Prometheus and approach it with an open mind (as much as is possible), the movie will do quite nicely.

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