In the last four weeks, I watched as city after city was destroyed, buildings collapsing like Lego blocks at a day-care center. Nations collapsed, infrastructure wiped out, millions of people killed, millions more injured, probably billions more left starving and homeless.
“Probably” because we don’t know for sure; the human toll isn’t mentioned much. Not a big concern, evidently.
The damage is horrendous, spectacular, awesome; damage that just boggles the mind. Is there anything left? Well, the planet itself is sitting there just waiting to be smushed like an overripe plum. That will happen soon, no doubt about it.
I’m not fooling anybody, right? Y’all know I’m talking about movies. Particularly the four “tentpole” movies this summer. They all have one thing in common: utter destruction. The people who made these are gleefully destroying cities — mostly American, but a few foreign metropolises (metropili?) tossed in, too for good measure. Is there a message here? Are they saying that American, Western, civilization is doomed, and we’d better be prepared for the apocalypse that will either rain from the skies, roar out of the oceans or start with the bite of an infected neighbor?
Or are these guys just having fun?
Guys, yeah; the four directors — J.J. Abrams, Star Trek: Into Darkness; Zack Snyder, Man Of Steel; Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim; Marc Forster, World War Z — are all guys, and so are the screenwriters. Little boys playing with their toys, toys that cost millions to use. Where before the destruction of Tokyo once could have been done by dressing a guy in a rubber suit and having him stomp around on a cheap model of the city, now the work is done on computers (with an occasional miniature or large model thrown in). But the cost is on the scale of the virtual destruction: horrendous and spectacular. Meaning we consumers better march in droves down the box office and show our support for these magic-makers. (Heh, good luck with that, Lone Ranger.)
You wouldn’t think — at least I wouldn’t; maybe I’m just a drudge — to see this kind of thing in Star Trek. As one character in Start Trek: Into Darkness points out, the Enterprise was built for exploration, not war. Same with the Star Trek franchise. Alas, everything is dark, nowdays: Batman, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Alice in once-but-no-more Wonderland. Now that the ST series has turned into action movies of mostly bad-guy-seeks-revenge-against-James Kirk and/or Mr. Spock (even at the cost of his own planet), exploration has been pushed to the back burner. So, where to go for a nasty villain? Why Khan, of course. (And no,
Bandersnatch Cumberbund Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t Khan. Only the Shakespeare & Melville-quoting Ricardo Montalban has the proper [if over the top] gravitas.) And what does the remade Khan in the remade Star Trek do? Drop a starship on San Francisco. The apocalypse from an avenging angel.
Let’s pause for a moment among the carnage to ponder a few questions STID poses for us. How could a renegade admiral build a giant super-starship off Saturn (or Jupiter, I forget which) without anyone noticing either A, a giant starship hangar hanging around the solar system; or B, the drain on Starfleet resources in building said super-starship? How could Mr. Scott could approach said giant super-starship-construction complex in a shuttle without being detected? And how he was able to integrate into the crew without being unmasked? And most important, where the hell did Bones McCoy get that tribble?
Ahem, sorry. The producers, director and writers don’t want us to concern ourselves over such tribbles–uh, quibbles, instead just look in awe at that epic Vulcan-to-uberman fight on top of a speeding shuttle (or whatever it was) between the re-booted Spock and the ersatz Khan. Cool, huh? (No.)
Kirk does suggest, at the end of the movie, that the Enterprise will be going ahead with its 5-year mission to explore strange new things, etc., etc. Better get going, boys, ’cause I have a feeling your mission will be side-tracked by another crazy person ready to take out whole planets — maybe even a solar system or two — gunning for Kirk or Spock or Kirk and Spock.
I suppose someone will eventually ask who’d win a man-to-man fight: Khan or Superman. The answer has no meaning, of course, but corporations are building whole franchises on such ponderings. Take Superman, for example. Here, yet again, is another rewrite of his myth. (Boy, did Siegel and Shuster hit a nerve or what?). Only this time he’s more conflicted, darker, not so goody-goody anymore. Yes, that’s what we need in this world, a darker, moodier, conflicted superman.
Man of Steel (notice the clever way they never mention the name “Superman,” knowing we’ll all be fooled) spends a lot of time on Krypton, Kal-El’s birth planet. It’s an ugly world, with genetically engineered people doing only what they’re programmed to do. Kal-El is different, of course; the movie starts with his mom, Lara Lor-Van, Mrs. Jor-El giving birth to him the natural way. And that’s pretty much it for her. Thanks, Mom, for the birth scene, and a little bit of sad mom-love as Dad prepares to send the tyke off to Earth, now go die in a fireball. Dad, of course, will pop up now and then in virtual form to give his son advice.
Clark Kent (as he is known on Earth) does get to explore a bit more into what it would be like to grow up knowing he’s practically a god. He tries to fit in, but he looks like a nerd, so he’s treated like one (of course; he wouldn’t be heroic if he were, say, the quarterback on the football team). Don’t give in to your anger, (huh ‑ I swear I’ve heard that somewhere else), says adoptive Dad even as young Clark puts a dent into an iron fence post. Turning bullies into red mush would not be polite, you see.
As a young man Clark goes out in the world to find himself. The film switches to an episode of The Deadliest Catch as he’s confronted with a choice of exposing himself (with flames, no less) or letting men die on a collapsing oil rig. Everywhere he goes he’s faced with the same sort of dilemma and word starts getting around. An enterprising reporter named — oh, come on; who do you think? — starts tracking him down, threatening to expose him even more. The theme of taking odd jobs between his farm days and his super days was explored in It’s Superman! by Tom De Haven (2005). De Haven’s wandering Man of Steel does a stint as a Hollywood stunt man, which makes so much freaking sense you wonder why they left it out of this movie. Well, because then they’d have to pay De Haven royalties, wouldn’t they? He doesn’t get any credits in this movie, but I believe his mark is there.
General Zod, the bad guy here, is the apocalypse personified. He and his prison-busting Kryptonite cohorts plan to remake the Earth into a new Krypton. That it means the death of every human is no matter. Humans are soft, weak creatures. Time to replace them with strong, disciplined beings a step up on the evolutionary chain. Despite the best efforts of the American military, only Superman can stop them. If he’d just get over his angst and stand up like a man.
A big stickler in any Superman movie is his costume. It’s easy to portray it in comics; a few brush strokes can cover up the weird parts. Man of Steel gives him one that looks like the rubber mats you put on the floor; it must’ve been hot as heck for the actor. (And he wears his undershorts inside for the first time in Superman history.) But the movie also makes a point about the downside of capes when Zod grabs it, spins Superman around and around before letting go and sending the Man of Steel smashing through several buildings.
Now let’s talk about this smashing buildings stuff. By the end of Man of Steel, I was exhausted just watching the destruction of the city and watching building after building fall. Even the Daily Planet building is destroyed. In all this carnage, you have to ask, what happened to all the people? The buildings are empty as the combatants tear through them, the falling buildings land on streets devoid of bodies and no one inside is screaming as the structure comes apart around them. Only one person is trapped in rubble, but she’s part of the cast, so she’s rescued. If 9/11/01 taught us anything, it’s that collapsing buildings cause a lot of casualties. At the end of the movie, the Daily Planet staff is back in its newsroom as if nothing had happened. Amazing how these cities get rebuilt so fast.
OK, OK, it’s a comic-book movie. But sometimes when you ignore reality, when you ignore all of the consequences of what you have happen even in your fictional story, it all becomes just background noise. Not worth watching, not worth reading.
(Addendum, July 23: Buzzfeed.com had someone calculate the casualties and property damage. The result, as I expected, is horrendous.)
Coastal cities around the world are being ravaged by monsters from the sea. By now, we’re pretty sure the seas aren’t teeming with giant lizards or dinosaurs, radioactive or not, so where can they be coming from? Why, a portal in the bottom of the ocean. This means they’re aliens despite the attempt to put a home-grown spin on them. They come stomping out of the ocean like they did in the old Japanese monster flicks. And, as we all know, the standard military response just isn’t enough. Something else is needed. Something better, bigger, more powerful, more awesome. What can save us?
Giant robots. Yeah, that’s the trick.
That’s Pacific Rim in a nutshell. Oh, there are the stories of the pilots of the giant walking war machines, and stories about the people who design and maintain the robots (which in this case should be called “waldoes,” right, Robert Heinlein?), stories about the scientists trying to figure out what is going on, stories about idiot politicians who decide that giant walls are enough to hold back the horde. (“Hello? China here. Bad idea. Is anyone listening?”) But the main thing is the robot-versus-monster fights. Epic fights. Yes, cities are destroyed, but with such style, such panache. I mean, come on, when a giant robot picks up a cargo ship and uses it as a club, you’ve just got to sit back and let it roll over you.
There is a plot here. It’s the apocalypse, after all, and we need to keep that in mind. The monsters had come before, you see, but the atmosphere was not to their liking. So they waited as we humans pumped carbon dioxide and all sorts of other nasty things into the atmosphere. Now they’ve come to stay. Western culture to blame, right, so we’ll just stomp it into powder. But the nations of Earth cannot stand idly by and watch the destruction (though in real life several would like to see the United States get its ass kicked), so they band together to fight the invaders. A bit of fantasy there, eh? We can’t even agree to band together to cut carbon emissions.
But, just to be a stuck-in-the-mud, how many people are killed by these battles? We see people taking shelter (not always the safest place), but even so, it has to be at least in the thousands in each battle, but like STID and Man of Steel before it, the figures are just glossed over. Also, filmmakers still under-estimate both the power of nuclear-weapons blasts and the after-effects. Nice visuals, but remember how Indiana Jones survived a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator? That’s the level of physics we’re at here.
Pacific Rim does get one thing right: if there is profit in monster bones, parts or poop, someone will cash in. Greed — there’s your unifying force of humanity.
I don’t like zombies, movies about zombies, TV shows about zombies, comic books about zombies. I do not like zombies period. So I thought I could go without seeing World War Z because it is a zombie movie. However, a colleague urged me to see it, so I said, “all right,” girded my loins and went. I can’t say the surprise was pleasant — not for this movie — but more, say, intriguing.
Oddly, this film is the most human of the four. (But make no mistake — it is the most brutal of the bunch.) The central character doesn’t have super-powers, nor does he have access to super-powered technology. Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is a normal man with normal powers (despite the odd haircut). He’s just a guy trying to save his family.
The film does suffer from what I call the Only One Man Syndrome: only one man in the entire world can see the solution to the problem, only one man in the entire world can save humanity despite medical, scientific and research teams all over the world trying desperately to find the solution. Nope, all the scientific teamwork in the world is no match for this one man’s intellect.
That aside, the movie starts off innocently enough, a family headed to their respective destinations only to get stuck in traffic. Things slowly fall apart as the virus spreads and Lane finds himself in a desperate situation trying to save his family from people going berserk. Unlike the standard zombie film, though, the victims don’t just shamble around muttering “Brains, brains,” they hurl themselves at the uninfected, bite them, and move on. Lane times it and discovers it takes about 12 seconds for the infection to take over the human body. He works for the U.N. (the U.N. was in Pacific Rim, too; are Hollywood movie-makers trying to tell us something?), and his expertise is needed to lead a team in the search for a cure. He starts out with an expert in viruses and a squad of SEALS, but quickly he’s the only one left (see? the Only One Man Syndrome at work). He does save an Israeli soldier from the plague so she joins him.
A rogue CIA agent (are there any other kind?) tells him the Israeli saw it coming and quickly built walls to seal the plague-carriers out. Walls again. In Pacific Rim, they were ineffective from the get go; in WWZ, they’re more effective … for a while. They have as much success at keeping the zombie plague out as did the high walls around castles in Medieval Europe had in keeping the Black Plague out. Well, who in Israel could foresee zombies piling up their own bodies until they top the walls? There’s another message from your movie-makers: Walls might make good neighbors but are porous to weapons of the apocalypse.
Zombies don’t make physical sense, but they sure are popular. They can be seen as undead beings just wanting to eat like everyone else, or they can play the role of metaphor. What scares you the most? What’s happening in the world that makes you so damn sure the real apocalypse is coming? Pick your plague: zombies = plague-infected people, zombies = gay people, zombies = atheists, zombies = fundamentalists, zombies = immigrants; zombies = liberals, zombies = conservatives, zombies = teen-agers, zombies = adults, zombies = poor people, zombies = old people, zombies = people of color, zombies = white people … the list goes on and on. So when we see zombies stack themselves against a wall and go over the top to infect the “pure” people within, that’s the apocalypse. And it’s what makes them so popular.
So, there’s your message of the four films: be prepared for the apocalypse. It’s a popular subject these days; it seems everyone’s convinced it’s around the corner. More apocalyptic films are in the pipeline, several have come and gone already. So is Hollywood telling us Western civilization is doomed? The amount of destruction in the films seems to say yes. On the other hand, maybe it’s just some people having fun pretending to destroy everything.
But I’ll tell you, it sure gets wearisome.
So the 100th anniversary of the Star Wars movies has come …
Excuse me, not 100? Just 20? Huh – seems like a long, long time ago.
Maybe it’s because the known universe has been inundated with Star Wars-related stuff. The creators of Star Wars don’t want you ever to forget the films, which is why they re-release them every time new technology come along. When workable Smell-O-Vision finally reaches theaters, you can bet the odors that permeate Jabba the Hut’s lair will soon be wafting through the theater to your olfactory delight.
Some folks even have gone nostalgic in remembering where they were when the first film came out as if it was some sort of worldwide disaster. “Yeah, I was workin’ at my sewer job that year an’ I took my girl and we was blown away by it. We liked movie one and two, but the others kinda stank, knowhutImean?”
The wonder and excitement started right at the beginning when that huge spaceship rumbled over our heads bearing down on that poor little rebel ship, a scene that has become iconic in American film. Movie special effects had been slowly improving over the years, but the use of computers finally gave us believable spaceships. The later sequences of the fighters going up against the star destroyers (or cruisers or whatever, why does everyone fall back on the Navy for outer space terms?) enthralled us because they were new. Never mind that the battle tactics and physics were all wrong for outer space, it was a hoot to watch.
The story itself is as old as the hills; Joseph Campbell and all that, plus liberal helpings from Hidden Fortress, right down to the bickering servants. That’s OK, though, the hero’s journey story still resonates. Burying old plots under glittering special effects is a Hollywood tradition, especially these days. Look at Avatar.
Star Wars sometimes is called a western in outer space. No, it’s a fantasy, pure and simple. George Lucas knows fantasy, he does not know science fiction. Jedi Knights=wizards, light sabers=swords, Princess Leia=Princess Who Must Be Rescued, Darth Vader=Evil Dragon, the Force=magic, R2-D2 and C-3PO=dwarfs/comic relief, Han Solo=the expert swordsman/archer. Spaceships and blasters alone do not make a science fiction movie. Because of Star Wars, a lot of swordplay appears in so-called SF movies nowadays. Why? Because the filmmakers, harking back to days of ancient battles, likely consider one-on-one battles more honorable, or at least more visually spectacular. (Steven Spielberg parodies this when Indiana Jones simply shoots the tall guy with the sword. Was this barb aimed at Lucas?)
As I said, since that day 20 years ago, we’ve seen a relentless barrage of Star Wars movies, TV shows, Internet episodes, books, children’s books, dolls, toys, lunchboxes, bedsheets and who knows what else. It’s as if Lucas wants to expunge anything that doesn’t have to do with Star Wars (Star Trek especially). It’s not enough to make millions on the movies, he’s got to make billions with all that other crap.
I certainly wouldn’t want to live in the Star Wars universe. Beyond the lack of anyone in that universe having any sense of style (Jedi knights in bathrobes, anyone?) are the constant wars. A kid growing up seems limited to two choices as an adult: Storm Trooper or merchant. No art, science, exploration for the sake of exploration.
When Darth Vader first emerged from the smoke in part one—uh, part four—the first movie, I had hoped it wasn’t a human inside that carapace. I wanted whatever was inside to be more machine than man, that we would never see the being inside. Alas …
Let’s play a mind game here. Let’s suppose it played out as I had envisioned. Would it be a better film? Perhaps not, but it will be more intellectually satisfying. To me, at least.
Darth Vader is a creature formed out of pure malevolence and given life through manipulation of the dark side of the Force. Who gives it this twisted life energy? The Emperor. He’s physically small and we get only brief glances of his face. He stays in the background, rarely seen, but rules through terror and fear with his loyal surrogate as his enforcer. (This would need a stronger back story that just someone trying to take over an Imperial Senate, but one thing at a time, please.) Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda are hiding in their miserable little holes because they cannot stand against Vader. They tried soon after he was created and both suffered serious damage physically and mentally. Then along come this farmboy who not only revives old memories but demands his right to vengeance for the torture-murder of his mother and the death of his father. Kenobi and Yoda tremble at the idea.
Kenobi sacrifices himself on the Death Star to save Luke, Leia and the others, but it’s not a quiet death. He dies screaming as Vader not only pierces him with his light-saber but tears Kenobi’s mind apart with blasts from the dark Force. Even though the blast door slams shut as in the movie, Vader turns his energy on it and begins burning his way through. Luke screams at Han to get the hell out of there, but Han sort of ignores him until Leia – who can feel the malevolence, too – grabs Han by the neck and says “Get us the fuck out of here now!” He does, but barely.
In the attack on the Death Star, Vader doesn’t need wingmen, he just plows through the rebel fleet (maybe he doesn’t even need a ship). Vader is just about to smash Luke, but hesitates because the Emperor feels the Force around Luke and is puzzled. The hesitation is just long enough for Han to do his just-in-time schtick. (And it takes much more effort to destroy the Death Star because in my universe, the architects aren’t dolts.)
Yoda is reluctant to train Luke not because the boy is clumsy and ADD, but because he is too powerful. “Too much like his father, he is. From this will come disaster.” Luke does falls into the trap Vader has set. Vader toys with him while the Emperor confirms what he’s been suspecting. Luke is is barely clinging to life when the visage of the Emperor appears ‘twixt Luke and Vader. “You do not have to die, Luke,” the Emperor says. “Come with me. I can heal you, I can give you power undreamed of. You have it in you already, for I am your father.”
Cue denial scream, fall through the vent tunnels, rescue by
Han Han’s friend who betrayed him to Vader Leia, Chewbacca and the ‘droids.
In the final confrontation in the second Death Star, Vader again blasts Luke all over the place. The Emperor says all he has to do is acknowledge him as his father and the pain will stop. Luke refuses, but on the point of death, lets slips a thought about his his relationship to Leia.
“A sister!” the Emperor growls as lightning flashes around him. “I was deceived! Twins! Well, shall we have a reunion?”
The Emperor learns through Luke where Leia is. (And no, she’s not fighting alongside teddy bears to destroy the shield generator for Death Star 2.0. My smart architects and engineers know the best place for a shield generator is inside the shield it generates.) He dispatches Vader on a shuttle and after a brief skirmish captures Leia but brings Han as a bonus. Both are dumped before the Emperor. Han is chained to something and rages helplessly as the Emperor tortures Leia. “I offer you both power! I offer you life! I offer you a universe beyond your wildest imaginings! Acknowledge me or die horribly like your mother did. Oh, she lasted a long time, but there wasn’t much left when I got through. Leia? No? Luke? No? Then die, die, I made Vader, he’s my future, I don’t need either of you!!”
Leia’s screams ignite something in Luke. For an instant, his eyes reflect the look of the dark side, the eyes of the Emperor. The Emperor gloats for that second, but Luke reaches down inside to the lessons of Kenobi and Yoda, to the farm where his aunt and uncle were mercilessly slaughtered, into his soul that’s on the brink of being destroyed. He roars, breaks off the mental energy that had bound him. In a savage fight, he destroys Vader, tears him apart the way Vader did Kenobi. The Emperor is the one screaming now, and with Vader gone, he is diminished. Luke doesn’t hesitate, he grabs the Emperor and hurls him down the reactor shaft where he’s destroyed with the sound of a moth hitting a bug zapper. Luke’s body shakes as he wrestles with himself over which side ultimately will win. He dashes over to Leia, cradles her in his arms, finds she’s still alive, whereupon he relaxes, knowing the bright, good thing did survive and there’s hope for him, too. He can’t help himself: he weeps.
Now that’s a hero.