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March 7, 2019

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Stop trying to hit me

At the end of this month, in keeping with the horrifying march of time, The Matrix turns 20 years old. It's hard to overstate how mind-blowing it was for me, a high-schooler at the time, when the Wachowski sisters' now-classic marched into theaters: combining entirely new effects techniques with Hong Kong wire-work martial arts, it's still a stylish and mesmerizing tour de force.

The sequels... are not. Indeed, little of the Wachowski's post-Matrix output has been great, although there's certainly a die-hard contingent that argues for Speed Racer and Sense8. But in rewatching them this month, I've been struck by the ways that Reloaded and Revolutions almost feel like the work of entirely different filmmakers, ones who have thrown away one of their most powerful storytelling tools. By that, I mean the fight scenes.

The Matrix has a few set-piece fight scenes, and they're not all golden. The lobby gunfight, for example, doesn't hold up nearly as well on rewatch. But at their best, the movie's action segments deftly thread a needle between "cool to watch" and "actively communicating plot." Take, for example, the opening chase between Trinity, some hapless cops, and a pair of agents:

In a few minutes, we learn that A) Trinity is unbelievably dangerous, and B) however competent she is, she's utterly terrified by the agents. We also start to see hints of their character: one side engaged in agile, skilled hit-and-run tactics, while the authorities bully through on raw power. And we get the sense that while there are powers at work here, it's not the domain of magic spells. Instead, Trinity's escape bends the laws of time and space — in a real way, to be able to manipulate the Matrix is to be able to control the camera itself.

But speaking of rules that are can be bent or broken, we soon get to the famous dojo training sequence:

I love the over-the-top kung fu poses that start each exchange, since they're such a neat little way of expressing Neo's distinct emotional progress through the scene: nervousness, overconfidence, determination, fear, self-doubt, and finally awareness. Fishburne absolutely sells his lines ("You think that's air you're breathing now...?"), but the dialog itself is almost superfluous.

The trash-as-tumbleweed is a nice touch to start the last big brawl of the movie, as is the Terminator-esque destruction of Smith's sunglasses. But pay close attention to the specific choreography here: Smith's movements are, again, all power and no technique. During the fight, he hardly even blocks, and there aren't any fancy flips or kicks. But halfway through, after the first big knock-down, Neo starts to use the agent's own attack routines against him, while adding his own improvisations and style at the end of each sequence. One of these characters is dynamic and flexible, and one of them is... well, a machine. We're starting to see the way that the ending will unfold, right here.

What do all these fight scenes have in common? Why are they so good? Well, in part, they're about creating a readable narrative for each character in the shot, driving their action based on the emotional needs of a few distinct participants. Yuen Woo Ping is a master at this — it's practically the defining feature of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, on which he did fight direction a year later and in which almost every scene combines character and action almost seamlessly. Tom Breihan compares it to the role that song-and-dance numbers play in a musical in his History of Violence series, and he's absolutely right. Even without subtitles or knowledge of Mandarin, this scene is beautifully eloquent:

By contrast, three years later, The Matrix Reloaded made its centerpiece the so-called "burly brawl," in which a hundred Agent Smiths swarm Neo in an empty lot:

The tech wasn't there for the fight the Wachowskis wanted to show — digital Keanu is plasticky and weirdly out-of-proportion, while Hugo Weaving's dopplegangers only get a couple of expressions — but even if they had modern, Marvel-era rendering, this still wouldn't be a satisfying scene. With so many ambiguous opponents, we're unable to learn anything about Neo or Smith here. There's no mental growth or relationship between two people — just more disposable mooks to get punched. "More" is not a character beat. But for this movie and for Revolutions, the Wachowskis seemed to be convinced that it was.

At the end of the day, none of that makes the first movie any less impressive. It's just a shame that for all the work that went into imitating bullet time or tinting things green, almost nobody ripped off the low-tech narrative choices that The Matrix made. Yuen Woo Ping went back to Hong Kong, and Hollywood pivoted to The Fast and the Furious a few years later.

But not to end on a completely down note, there is one person who I think actually got it, and that's Keanu Reeves himself. The John Wick movies certainly have glimmers of it, even if the fashion has swung from wuxia to MMA. And Reeves' directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi is practically an homage to the physicality of the movie that made him an action star. If there is, in fact, a plan to reboot The Matrix as a new franchise, I legitimately think they should put Neo himself in the director's chair. It might be the best way to capture that magic one more time.

February 13, 2019

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

Sunshine

Sunshine wasn't particularly loved when it was released in 2007, despite a packed cast and direction by Danny Boyle. In the years since, it has somehow stubbornly avoided cult status — before its time, maybe, or just too odd, as it swings wildly between hard sci-fi, psychological drama, survival horror, and eventually straight-up slasher flick by way of Apocalypse Now. But it's intensely watchable and, I would argue, underappreciated, especially in comparison to writer Alex Garland's follow-up attempts on the same themes.

"Our sun is dying," Cillian Murphy mutters at the start of the film, and the tone remains pretty grim from there. The spaceship Icarus II is sent on a desparate trip to restart the sun by tossing a giant cubic nuclear bomb into it — a desparate quest, made all the more desparate by the fact that nobody on the mission seems particularly stable or well-suited to the job. Boyle sketches out each crew member quickly but adeptly, giving each one a well-defined (if sometimes precious) persona, like the neurotic psychologist, the hot-tempered engineer, or the botanist who cares more for her oxygen-producing plants than the people onboard (or, viewers suspect, the mission itself). NASA would never put these people in a small space for more than a day, but they're a marvel of small-scale human conflict almost from the very start.

That approach to character is emblematic of Sunshine's construction, which is really less of a plot and more of a set of simple machines rigged in opposition to each other. An early miscalculation in the position of the ship's sun shield leads to a series of cascading crises, each of which provides both physical challenge as well as ratcheting tension among the crew from dwindling resources. Yet there's only one real plot twist in the whole thing: the murderous captain Pinbeck of Icarus I, driven mad by his own journey toward the sun. Everything else is established clearly and methodically, with ample recall and signposting — it's the rare science fiction movie that doesn't cheat. Even Pinbeck's slasher-esque rampage shows up in clues for savvy viewers, who can clock a missing scalpel and scattered bloody handprints on rewatch.

Similar to an obvious inspiration (and personal favorite), Alien, one of the film's greatest special effects is the cast. Boyle gets a lot of mileage out of Cillian Murphy's After Effects-blue eyes, but you can't go wrong with Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, and Rose Byrne. Still, for my money, Cliff Curtis is the film's MVP: as the doctor/psychologist Searle, he's both bomb-thrower and mediator in equal measures. His obsession with the sun leaves him visibly burned, like a Dorian Gray painting of the crew's mental health. And yet, unlike Pinbeck (who he clearly parallels), Curtis manages to keep his perspective straight and a wry sense of humor — he may love the light, but he's not blinded by it.

So why isn't Sunshine canonized, especially in a climate-change world where "our sun is dying" passes for optimism? Why is it considered a misfire, when Garland's flawed Annihilation was seen as a cult hit in the making? It's still not clear to me. Maybe it just got lost in the shuffle: 2007 was a good year for movies, including There Will Be Blood for the serious film aficianados and The Bourne Ultimatum or Death Proof for surprisingly well-crafted genre fans. Or maybe it's also just too close to its nearest relatives: too easy to write off as "Event Horizon without the schlocky fun" or "Solaris, but for stupid people." Either way, it feels overdue for reconsideration.

January 9, 2010

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Wool and Water

'I can't believe that!' said Alice.

'Can't you?' the Queen said in a pitying tone. 'Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.'

Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said `one can't believe impossible things.'

'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'"

--Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Everything you've heard about Avatar is true. As a visual experience, it's lush and seamless. At the same time, the dialog is ludicrous, the plot is flimsy, and the message is sledgehammer blunt. It shamelessly fetishizes native cultures while perpetuating the lame White Man Saves Brown Blue People From Themselves plot. And for a director known for his strong female leads (Sarah Connor, Ripley, Lindsey Brigman), it largely relegates its women to background or supporting roles only. And long--oh, is it long. They could have chopped it in half, easily, and while it would have still been awful, they would at least significantly lower the audience's risk of deep vein thrombosis.

But these have all been discussed by countless people elsewhere (here's a good take). What struck me about Avatar, while watching a particularly leaden chunk of monologue, was the realization: not only did someone write this, they then paid someone else to deliver the lines, then threw further cash at a crew of animators to painstakingly render it--in 3D, no less. That's Avatar in a nutshell: vast, unfathomable amounts of money deployed in the service of incredible mediocrity.

The general viewpoint, by those who enjoyed the movie anyway, seems to be that these elaborate visuals compensate for the flaws in the writing, editing, and direction. Disagreeing with this makes me feel like something of a Grinch, since words like "wonder" tend to get thrown around when discussing its landscapes and weird alien horses, and I do hate being accused of a lack of wonder. We're supposed to applaud the extensive craft that went into Cameron's project, according to this view.

But from my perspective, we're a bit like the White Queen these days, in a state of constant suspended disbelief. We're surrounded by amazing images. During my lifetime, I've seen the state of the art go from the NES to the PS3, from stop-motion to Up. A few years ago they made Fred Astaire dance with a vaccuum cleaner in a commercial, an act which at the time was an arresting (if necromantic) idea, and is now pretty much unremarkable. My phone can superimpose directions to the nearest Waffle House on the view in front of me, for heaven's sakes. I see six impossible things before breakfast. Games or movies or whatever, it ought to take a bit more than a well-rendered forest scene to impress us, or pull us in emotionally.

So instead of applauding, I think about the stories that could have been told with this kind of technology if it were given to more playful or inventive directors--Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Chris Nolan, or Guillermo del Toro, for example. It's hard not to feel a profound sense of waste, because these are directors that have accomplished what Cameron is supposed to have done: show us something that we've never seen before. Even the Wachowskis (and there's something I thought I'd never say again): think about what a mind-blowing experience The Matrix was the first time you saw it. Now there was a movie that used novel, elaborate special effects to actively mess with your sense of reality, as well as to tell a story that--if not completely original--at least aspired to more than surface depth.

But then, maybe that's the problem. Set out to tell an interesting story that requires some new effects, and you get The Matrix or Dark City. Aim to blow people's minds solely through the power of your budget, and you get The Matrix Reloaded--or Avatar.

March 25, 2008

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Great Names in Direct to Video

"Tinarie Van Wyk-Loots."

That is all.

June 28, 2005

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The Power of the Darth Side

The Darth Side: Memoirs of a Monster has been passed around the Internet for a while now. It's a brilliant retelling of Star Wars IV-VI from Darth Vader's point of view, complete with Livejournal-style moods and running asphyxiation jokes. The author has collected it now into a single file, so you can read it chronologically. I don't say this for a lot of fan-fiction, but I really recommend it. At this point, the elder Star Wars trilogy has become a cultural artifact, ripe for adaptation. The Darth Side is Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to its Hamlet.

Future - Present