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May 12, 2009

Filed under: movies»reviews»action

Boldly Gone

Torie Atkinson at Tor notes that the new Star Trek movie is a pretty good action flick, but it's really bad Trek:

Nero's just seen his entire planet destroyed, yet when he goes back in time he utterly wastes the chance to change things. Why on earth does he not get his ass straight to Romulus, tell them about that supernova thingawhatsit that's gonna happen in the future, and give them some of his technology to plan for the eventuality? No, he's a boilerplate villain hellbent on a boilerplate revenge plot.

...There are Big Issues tossed around, but they're not explored in any meaningful way. The destruction of Vulcan is only there to make Spock emote--there's no hint as to what this means for anyone else, including humanity, the Federation, or the future. Nero annihilates his cousin race. The implications are astounding and interesting and never engaged with at all. We're talking about full-scale genocide. If you can't address that idea beyond 'It makes someone sad,' then you shouldn't be using it in your film.

Atkinson also, as you'd expect from a geeky sci-fi blog, points out a whole host of science-related plot holes. And although it's tempting to dismiss that kind of complaint as nerd nitpicking, particularly given Trek's non-reputation for scientific accuracy, there is a deeper point to be found there. Here's the thing: when the writers in the original series threw another minute of 'technobabble' onto the page to cover up a blatant last-minute deus ex, it was entirely in keeping with the earnestness of the show as a whole. It sprang from the same source as the preachiness that sometimes overwhelmed it. Fans mock its silliness, but there's also fondness there, since it meant the writers were still trying to say something.

Star Trek could be a painfully sincere program, a tendency that only got worse with TNG. It had faith in people, in progress, in technology, and it wore its heart on its sleeve. The technobabble was a part of that sincerity--sure, it said, we're just papering over the cracks in this episode's premise, but we refuse to let it slip by. We'll even draw attention to it with a jarring, pseudotechnical expository speech, that's how deeply and awkwardly we've bought into Roddenberry's vision of the future: one that might still have contemporary problems--racism, the Cold War, William Shatner--but can overcome them with a little human ingenuity and logic.

In the new Star Trek movie, they don't bother with the technobabble. Magical plot black holes created with 'red matter?' Scotty's transporter formula that can somehow hit a spaceship in warp from light-years away? (One wonders why anyone bothers with the ship in the first place, then.) Time travel that's a paradox only when the script demands it? Taming the franchise's runaway explanation habit was probably a good idea, but Abrams takes it too far in the other direction. It's just lazy: trying to get to the next action scene while avoiding any of the pesky social commentary (no matter how outdated) or sincere moralizing of the original. It's thrown away the heart and soul of the show for the sake of streamlining.

It's a pretty good movie. But it's not really Star Trek.

November 17, 2008

Filed under: movies»reviews»action

Scrap Iron

On a second viewing with Belle, Iron Man is a much more ambivalent film than it seemed the first time around. It's a movie about a superhero who does very little in the way of superheroics except defend his corporate interests. It's about an industrial magnate who wants to give up building weapons, but still for some reason has missile systems loaded into his post-conversion set of armor. And at heart, its main character is a guy who is capable of doing good not because of training or ideology, but because he was born rich and was once forced to confront his own unwitting privilege through a loss of control.

Many of these issues are inherent to the source material: any decent movie based on the Iron Man character, coming from a comic book as he does, is going to have to work around the shift in the medium. Successful adaptations--and Iron Man is very successful--have done so by minimizing the silliness of the genre, often keeping the main character out of costume as much as possible (the Spiderman movies use much the same strategy, as does the new Hulk, apparently). That said, the weakest part of the film is certainly at the end, when Obediah Stane goes on an armored rampage for no other possible reason than to fuel the movie's closing confrontation. After all, Stane is otherwise shown to be a shrewd manipulator and businessman, who's already working to move Tony Stark out of his position through channels both legal and illegal. There's no particular reason he should be bothering with a waldo-powered fistfight, except that it makes for exciting comic-book cinema.

Still, never mind all that. Because for a large chunk of its running time, Iron Man purports to be both self-contained and realistic-ish, meaning it doesn't matter that I know nothing about the comics and the characters that they set up. I don't need to know that Tony Stark, in the Marvel universe, is a long-time alcoholic, nor the complicated twists and turns of his business empire. I can happily ignore those in favor of the movie itself.

And what that movie presents, speaking glibly, is Batman without the ninja correspondence courses.

Tony Stark becomes Iron Man because he's held prisoner by a set of Afghani militants, and forced to recognize that his weapons are not being used to defend freedom and the American way, but also to arm guerrillas and terrorists. That's why he thinks he becomes Iron Man, but it doesn't address how he is able to do so, except indirectly. Because of course, Stark's ability to fight crime is based entirely on his wealth, his education, and his connections. He's an entitlement superhero. He has infrastructure.

This actually makes Iron Man a little old-fashioned, which is why a post-Cold War film adaptation is so interesting. As Matt Jones points out, Iron Man has a great deal in common with the classic Bond villains, who flaunted their wealth and power through elaborately-decorated lairs (or as Christopher Frayling is quoted in Jones' post, "machines for being a megalomaniac in.") The comparison with Batman, therefore, is actually flawed: when Bruce Wayne was traumatized, he responded by refining himself and acquiring new abilities separate from (although still funded by) his family's advantages. Tony Stark, in contrast, retreats back into the coccoon of Stark Enterprises. Batman is dangerous even when disarmed. Tony Stark, barring incompetent villains who provide him with raw materials, is not.

I don't think this makes Stark more or less sympathetic, although that's hard to gauge given Robert Downey Jr.'s charismatic performance. But it is illustrative of exactly how much the character is founded in privilege, and how much he still needs to grow. Indeed, you could make some very interesting social commentary with this as a starting point. In his 2007 book White Like Me, anti-racism activist Tim Wise comments on the rash of school shootings by white students at places like Columbine. He notes that those shootings by white students, which are characterized by their pointless, nihilistic goals, may in fact be spurred by the fact that white Americans are cushioned by their privilege. They are told by society that they are meant to be powerful and in control, and when they are placed in situations where that is not the case, they often lack the coping mechanisms to deal with them effectively. Privilege allows those mechanisms to atrophy, and the result is mania: school shootings, white collar crime, and other destructive behaviors far more common in white Americans than in the minority population.

As an explanations of Stark's transformations go, I think that's pretty good. His journey is roughly equivalent: a massive psychological shock delivered by the realization that he is not, in fact, an invincible force for good. And I think it's intriguing to consider the film in that frame. Because it's clear that while he's become more cognizant of the consequences of his actions, Tony Stark by no means understands how his new behavior is, in its own way, just as destructive as his previous arms dealership. He's trying to solve those old problems by using the same technocratic tools to reinforce his perception of self-superiority. The only change is the form factor--and the exaggeration of the privilege that caused his trauma in the first place, by placing Stark (instead of a trained military bureaucracy) directly in command of those dangerous technologies.

Of course, if Stark ever realized that, he'd have to conclude that the best thing he could do as Iron Man is take off the armor for good. And there's not a lot of Marvel marketing money in that scenario, no matter how psychologically or socially satisfying it might be.

January 18, 2008

Filed under: movies»reviews»action

Movie Review: Aeon Flux

It's hard to imagine what they were thinking with this one. I watched some of the original animated shorts a while back, just after they released them on DVD. In its original television form, Aeon Flux was bizarre, perversely sexual, and incredibly (almost pointlessly) violent--an utterly-incoherent throwback to Heavy Metal's drugged out wanderings.

So how do you turn that kind of visual candy into a live-action film? Apparently, you don't try. You write a pastiche of future-dystopia, throw in a set of visual non-sequitors, and cast Charlize Theron--who is a fine actress, but simply can't summon the kind of gaunt, sardonic brutality that the role requires. Director Karyn Kusama likewise tries her best, but can't direct an action sequence worth watching. Perhaps this kind of thing is really best done on the cheap nowadays--fans of Equilibrium who watched Kurt Wimmer's disastrous Ultraviolet will note the similar feel of Aeon Flux's panoramic scenery and expansive color palette, which (oddly) rob the gunfights of their impact.

I respect the attempt to turn such a weird little property into something that MTV could license for Burger King soda cups, but let's be honest: it never had a chance of being a good mainstream movie. The only way it could have been great would have been to embrace the genuine weirdness of its inspiration--become something like Naked Lunch with guns and S&M couture outfits. Even then, it probably would have been terrible--the show doesn't honestly hold up well today, particularly in extended viewing sessions--but it would have been a lot more interesting.

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