Two Notes on the Predator Series

After recently watching Prey—the latest installment of The Predator series and a tight, thoroughly-enjoyable action film—I had an epiphany: I had never seen the other movies. At this juncture, I have two of notes on these films.

Note the first:

The early films in this series have a clear thesis: humans ought to abstain from violence, but with some effort and enlisting enough people into the cause we can nip that impulse in the bud.

This is of course not the actual intent. Predators do not abstain from killing innocent or unarmed people because they are avenging spirits who use their technology to punish wrongdoers. Rather, they seem to be engaging in an eternal most dangerous game for which humans are the ideal prey since they exist in a Hobbesian state of nature (aka warfare), thus making the “innocents” an inadequate challenge. Inasmuch as these movies are more about the human characters than the Predators, the first two films offer remarkable social commentary about the United States and what the filmmakers think about humanity.

Note the second:

The success of Prey prompted people online to call for a series of culturally and historically specific Predator films. For instance, one person suggested a film set in Medieval Japan where we meet a Ronin who failed to protect his lord who had been attacked by a Predator. In order to regain his honor he must hunt down and kill the Predator.

My movie pitch goes in a somewhat different direction:

In Predator 2 (1990) a young boy carrying a toy Uzi submachine pistol encounters Predator in a Los Angeles cemetery. Predator’s signature triple-laser targeting system appears on the child, but clicks off when once it is established that the gun is just a toy and the wielder no threat. This establishes (for at least the second time in this film) that Predator only hunts dangerous prey. Once the lasers are gone, the child asks Predator if it would like some candy.

My movie opens with that scene, after which we get a montage that takes us forward between 50 and 70 years. The child becomes obsessed with Predators and their technology, joining government agencies tasked with claiming and improving upon Predator technology. It works, but this monomania caused the sweet, young child who offered Predator candy to become a sociopath and a ruthless tyrant who uses this technology to rule over a country (or even the world: adjust the stakes as necessary). He is a frail old man now, but still ruthless and violently suppresses all challenges to his rule using his improvements to the alien technology. His scheming lieutenants are now vying to become his heir, while he is working with Predator-derived technology to prolong his life.

However, his rule both brutalizes the weak and poses a challenge to the alien Predators, so they have returned to earth to end his rule and in so doing liberate humanity. He is, after all, the greatest prey of all. This film thus holds true to the core of Predator, but inverts its essential structures such that the “villain” is a human who is more technologically advanced than the Predators, while the Predators are now a scrappy underdogs who need rely on their instincts and teamwork to overcome their opponent.

Alexander (2004), revisited

For the entirety of my academic career, Oliver Stone’s epic biopic Alexander has been an object of ridicule. I praised a handful of casting choices when it came out (Angelina Jolie as Olympias, even if I don’t love what they did with the character; Anthony Hopkins as old-man Ptolemy), but otherwise loudly complained about the way the film warped history and have particular issues with the work of one of the main historical consultants.

In short, I was in line with the 16% score Alexander received on Rotten Tomatoes.

Outside a handful of conversations I hadn’t given thought to Alexander in a decade when I decided to show it this semester in a class called “The Afterlives of Alexander the Great.” Then two things happened: first, I discovered that 67% of reviews on Amazon gave it either 4 or 5 stars; second, I discovered that the movie is not as bad as I remember it.

First, despite hitting a few of my pet peeves in filmmaking (e.g. how will we know we’re in Greece if there aren’t schooling scenes with broken columns???), it is beautifully costumed in ways that show the increasing distance of the expedition away from Greece. I’m not wild about the script and Colin Farrell looks too old for teenaged Alexander, but the look is gorgeous and immersive, nicely capturing the fact that the Macedonians were leaving a relatively poorer part of the Ancient World for territories that were older and wealthier.

Second, Alexander tries to offer a psychological portrait of a king. I think this is where the critiques that it is a talk-y epic come from. I can appreciate the ambition even as it hews too far toward “Alexander the Idealist” for my taste, and the theatrical cut is overly concerned with an Oedipal interpretation that is deemphasized in the later cuts. However, this big swing also comes with drawbacks. For instance, one of the hallmarks of the ancient sources like Curtius Rufus and Plutarch is that they struggle to reconcile the great, humanistic idealist with the brutal and ruthless monarch.*

In fact, since all of our surviving narrative histories of Alexander campaign date from several hundred years later, they offer as much a commentary on monarchy and power as they do evidence for Alexander’s reign.

Stone’s Alexander struggles in much the same way, trying both offer a humanizing portrait of the great man and a soup-to-nuts biopic that covers the warts and all. The result is an uneven movie that swings from Alexander espousing idealistic platitudes about how Asians are people, too, to a wedding-night rape scene, to Alexander the tender homosexual lover, to him killing his loyal followers in a drunken rage, to showing his perpetual struggle for the approval of his parents. Trying to put it all in a single film that focuses this closely on Alexander lays bare just how contradictory our original sources can be.

*There are a number of books on this subject, my favorites being Elizabeth Baynham’s Alexander the Great and Diana Spencer’s The Roman Alexander.

Third, I was much more forgiving of how the movie warps the chronology, combining and compressing the battles. These scenes dragged in the film as it stands, so I could see how doubling or tripling their run-time would have just bloated the movie further without supplementing the attempted psychological portrait.

The obvious solution is that an entire Alexander story cannot fit in a movie. But Alexander predates HBO’s Rome (2005–2007), let alone Game of Thrones or a show like the Crown. The space afforded by a prestige drama, whether a single season on Alexander culminating in his death a la Ned Stark and multiple seasons on the period of the successors or an eight season run with three on Alexander is a much more appropriate format for this story, both because it better fits long-form storytelling and because a series would allow the creators and writers to develop characters other than Alexander, both Greek and Persian––an under-appreciated requirement for any successful adaptation of this story.

Fourth, one of the really interesting things that Alexander does is to frame it as being told by old-man Ptolemy, now a king in Egypt, in the process of writing his history of Alexander’s campaign. As with other points, I picked nits with the scenes, including that there is a fully-completed Pharos lighthouse and a statue of Philip with a Pericles helmet, but since Ptolemy did write a history of this period he is a natural surrogate as a narrator in the same way that Bilbo and Frodo Baggins tell the stories of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and Samwell Tarly writes Game of Thrones. The problem is that this framing device has layers of consequences for the story that the movie utterly disregards, leaving both superficial narration and a generic amalgam of the Alexander story.

To be clear, Alexander remains a hot mess of a movie. It doesn’t have much time for women, doesn’t do enough to get at the fundamental violence of Alexander’s reign, or spend enough time either humanizing the non-Greeks or exploring the sense of alienation that Alexander’s men, any of which could have made for a more compelling film than its psychological portrait. But it is also a hot mess with ambition in ways that give it more to think about than most movies that fail this spectacularly.

Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like About The Last Jedi

I saw The Last Jedi. As a friend put it on Twitter, this is, to date, the best Star Wars film of the twenty-first century. (Look at my excitement!) Like with The Force Awakens and Rogue One, my review is going to be a list of things I liked and didn’t like about the movie, a format shamelessly adapted from ESPN’s Zach Lowe. My usual caveats apply: I have read few reviews, almost none of the background on making of the film and it is possible I am mistaken about some aspects. These are things that stood out to me and may not be the same issues other people had.

Spoilers follow.

  1. While still in graduate school I took a class on the Latin author Seneca, who lived in the first century CE. We dedicated one unit to his plays, during which we read the Phaedra, a play about Theseus’ wife Phaedra’s consuming lust for her step-son Hippolytus who has no interest in her. Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of raping her and Theseus uses a boon to summon a monstrous beast from the sea to kill his son. Seneca infuses the play with contemporary themes, but the play is functionally just Euripides’ Hippolytus, with some new bits. No where is this more notable than in his description of the the sea monster, which more terrifyingly monstrous in his version. In short, this is what is happening in the new Star Wars movies.

    One review that floated by me on Twitter argued that the success of The Last Jedi is in its willingness to discard The Star Wars you know. I disagree. This is an Empire supercut, with dedicated homages to episodes IV, VI, and VII. The new movies are doing some things differently in terms of what story elements are driving plot, which I found problematic for other reasons, but the pieces are basically the same. When I pointed this out for the first movie, I was told to be patient because JJ Abrams was on board to reestablish Star Wars as a franchise and thus his agenda was to do exactly that. Wait for the next installment, they said. The good news, having seen the next installment, is that they are (probably) out of source material to work with now; the bad news is that this movie did basically the same thing.

  2. Continue reading Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like About The Last Jedi

Five Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Blade Runner 2049

I saw Blade Runner 2049 last night and though I would write some thoughts in the form of things I did and didn’t like about the film. This post will contain spoilers, particularly after the first point.

  1. Blade Runner 2049 is absolutely worth seeing on the big screen. Unlike some blockbusters that entice viewers to lay out cash with explosions, though, this film does with scale and attention to detail. This film clearly works from the same template as its predecessor and the overwhelming immensity of its world is a perfect match for for the theater. Most of the fight scenes are subdued, but it makes wonderful use of camera work, including an imaginative sense of scale, use of light and darkness, sound and silence, and an all-around immersive experience that conveyed depth. The same goes for small allusions where, for instance, Gaff (Edward James Olmos) makes an origami ram and Deckard (Harrison Ford) dreams of cheese. The run time is long, but all of that time is used.
  2. Continue reading Five Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Blade Runner 2049

Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Rogue One

I did this same sort of recap last year for The Force Awakens and figured I should just go ahead and do it again for Rogue One. Even though I am a book person and have read a lot of Star Wars books, I have read basically none of the novels set during the time of the movies. Still some caveats apply: I have read few reviews and almost none of the background on the reshoots, so it is possible I am mistaken about some aspects. Similarly, I these are things that stood out to me and may not be the same issues other people had. Overall: I enjoyed the experience of watching the film a great deal, but only if I didn’t think about it too much.

Fair warning: the rest of this post will contain spoilers for the movie, at least such that they exist. Anyone familiar with Star Wars is familiar with the ending writ large.

Continue reading Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Rogue One

An observation about the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I’ve consumed most of the recent Marvel content, mostly because it is available and easily watched. Calling it a drug would be too dramatic, but as far as televisual media goes, there are parallels. Some of it is good, some is pretty bad, but there is something that bothers me about the entire extended universe project: there is too much emphasis on the cataclysmic event.

Other people have written on this topic and accurately noted both that the movies are pivoting from this trope and that the material has often been strongest when dealing with the fallout from the events rather than dealing with the events themselves. However, my specific complaint has more to do with the TV show Agents of Shield. The show essentially deals with the relationship between normal people and mutated people. This season’s arc had to do with the unleashing of “Hive,” a being that can control people with mutations–and is the powerful being associated with the Devil that Hydra had been trying to bring to earth. His scheme involves a massive bio-weapon that would destroy humanity. The scrappy heroes have to fight against this thing that is much more powerful than they are. As one would expect, this leads to all sorts of tension and human stories, which, in a vacuum, work. But this narrative isn’t taking place in a vacuum. It is taking place within a larger cinematic universe.

Agents of Shield as a show about the events taking place in the shadow of the ECU movies works. It is a universe that has to grapple with increasing numbers of super-powered individuals and there are many more stories to be told there than simply reducing it to an “imminent doom” arc, but, after a season of doing just that, Agents doubled back down on the action, while nominally being a step down from the movie stories in terms of both resources (for production) and power level (resources and powers to apply within the story). The movies and the shows are doing different things, but still professing to overlap, which, in turn, leads to a dissonance and strains credulity.

James Bond

Elsewhere I wrote that one of my frustrations with Hollywood action films, above even escalating body counts, is the common scene of careless heroes wantonly causing collateral damage in the name of stopping “bad guys.” Yet, when I recently re-watched the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, I noticed the same type of collateral damage and was reminded of similar scenes in past installments, including Brosnan driving a tank through a Russian city, but the damage didn’t bother me nearly as much as in generic action films. Although the studio equation is not nearly so nuanced (boom = $), I wanted to tease out why the message in James Bond films bothers me less than the message in other films, even though the actual scenes are practically interchangeable.

James Bond to me: the perfect embodiment of British imperial hubris. Women, even if they really want to kill him, are compelled to sleep with him first, he has a tendency to tell everyone his name (useful for a spy), and, to the best of his ability, Bond operates as though no foreign government has the ability or authority to impede his mission. Bond is a sort of imperial terminator more than an actual hero meant to be emulated.

Because I see Bond as this sort of caricature, a personified tentacle of the Leviathan, collateral damage is par for the course. Perhaps this is a grim view of the state, and, certainly, government shouldn’t want to destroy cars and buildings, and should respect the territorial integrity of other states, but, well, as anyone checked the news recently? This minor difference makes it possible for my hackles to stay down when watching it on Netflix.

I don’t have anything more profound to say than that. Bond is imperial wish fulfillment. Flipping the narrative or turning the monomaniacal/communist/totalitarian/monstrous villain into a scrappy freedom-fighter would make Bond practically interchangeable with Mr. Smith from the Matrix.

Reflections on Guardians of the Galaxy

I read two reviews of Guardians of the Galaxy before seeing the film and heard two discussions of it since. The judgements, broadly speaking, fall into two camps: terrible soundtrack, shallow, cheesy, interchangeable with other action-comedies OR amazingly funny, clever, and beautifully composed. To these, I say “yes.”

Some bullet-points:

  • GoG was a ton of fun to watch. Chris Pratt was perfect for the goofy-yet-roguish hero (who really just wants people to take him seriously when he tells them his name is Star Lord). There were jokes, both verbal and visual and anytime it seemed that the film was going to fall back into serious mode, something would happen to remind everyone that this was a comedy first. Admittedly, some of the jokes were aimed at a younger audience and so erred toward the juvenile, but there were others, included dated material and topical inclusions, that had the adults laughing out loud and the kids silent.
  • Along similar lines (and as pointed out by the Grantland pop culture podcast), GoG maintained and even reveled in a sense of wonder in a way that is rare for action films.
  • I really enjoyed the jokes they got from tossing the whole story into space and then playing with what could happen when alien cultures bump into an American (well, human, but really American) culture.
  • The backgrounds were usually impressive, but, after the initial euphoria of the film wore off, it seemed to me that the world-building was minimalistic (in part because other off-world settings are usually backed up by extensive canons, such as Star Trek, in a way that this film was not). The approach worked here, but I would want more going forward.
  • GoG is incredibly referential, visually, cinematically, and in terms of plot. One of the reviews, though I forget which one, pointed this out in that GoG had little that was uniquely memorable. I agree with this critique, though I thought that this was by design. Nearly every shot, line, scene, etc referred the audience to something else. Likewise, the music drew the audience back to the 1970s, which I filed under “fun.” In this movie, it worked. I am skeptical that this model can work as a franchise. GoG made Scrooge Mc-Duck money (94 million opening weekend–largest ever in August), so it is guaranteed to be a franchise, of course, and I am sure that the subsequent movies will do well commercially, but I could see this being a reason to for the second film to be a letdown.
  • GoG was decidedly in the vein of good people do good things, bad people blow up things, and, in a refreshing change, they even made a point of having the good guys hold off the assault in almost its entirety until the line came over the channel announcing that the city was evacuated. I liked this. I just wish it had actually been true. First, the announcement came after an impossibly short time; second, in the scene that immediately followed the climactic crash, a crowd of (what looked like) civilians surrounded the heroes for the decisive event. Oops.
  • Saladin Ahmed speculated on twitter a correlation between shooter and adventure video games and the gratuitous on-screen body counts in action movies and, yes, GoG had one. For the most part, I think there is a reciprocal relationship between video games and movies and rising body counts, but I was glad that there was no one scene where I thought the sequencing was specifically designed for the video game tie-in.

In sum: GoG was fun enough that most of the cracks only showed through upon further reflection.

[Additional point: I agree with the critique that the film could have used more female characters, but I file this under a problem of Hollywood as a whole more so than this film in particular.]

Eleven Thoughts about “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Needing a break and looking to tear myself away from my usual routine, I went to the movies last night and watched the latest installment of the X-Men franchise. It was okay. Here are eleven thoughts I had at or that were stimulated by the film.

  1. I’m not wild about the secret or alternate history genre in movies (more so than books) because it is often done in a ham-handed way by going to the largest or most notable events in the past and attributing them to the central conceit of the story. It might appeal to some people, but I find it simultaneously dull and pandering.
  2. The longer a franchise runs and the more any of the movies nod toward true ensemble casts, the more likely that later installments devolve into a string of cameo appearance.
  3. I really like Peter Dinklage’s voice.
  4. Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto) is a brilliant character, and I like how Michael Fassbender/Ian McKellen play him. He is a powerful character, but beyond his manipulation of magnetism, he is a Holocaust survivor with incredible charisma and will power, one who melds both the outcast ideology of Zionism with the Nazi ideology of racial supremacy, a revolutionary and a terrorist, but one with a (e)utopian vision, a man who has a God-complex, but who is also a good friend. These combine to make him really compelling to watch.
  5. One set of cameos was mutants serving in the army in Vietnam. They are about to be taken away experimented on when they are rescued. It was early enough in the film that I assumed that this would be some sort of Chekhov’s Gun. In a way, it was, but the men being rescued only served as bit-pieces for a cheap tug on the heart-strings. Again, a ham-handed effort to show depth to the world of the story, but comes across poorly because clumsy sleight of hand reveals exactly how deep the story is rather than creating the illusion that this is just the beginning.
  6. I cannot think of a dramatic portrayal of Nixon that I have ever found compelling.
  7. There were some pretty special-effects in X-Men and between some good acting, interesting characters, and the effects, there were the makings of a good story. It made sense in the past-present are brought together for the time-travel portion of the plot, but the transitions between the two timelines were often nearly symmetrical, a feature that I found oddly jarring.
  8. The “present” timeline really only served to heighten dramatic tension to the movie, which was a waste, given the actors whose role was to sit around and act concerned…or over-used since its main point was to remind everyone that they were on a deadline that would inevitably expire just as the “past” timeline reached its resolution.
  9. The frequent glossing between “mind,” “brain,” “psychic energy” and the like bothers me. I realize that this is super-hero/comic book neuroscience, but I’m waiting for the Marvel documentary that explains “the science” at work here. In the meantime, this strikes me as a verbal dodge of the sort found in bad science fiction. I can suspend disbelief to a point, but when you start pulling obvious word-game mumbo-jumbo it is a bridge too far.
  10. I am a sap when it comes to the obligatory motivational speech about humanity with the proper musical accompaniment, but while there was the occasional excellent line in this film, the writing was not transcendent or even consistently clever and interesting. Good writing punches up good characters, and it is unfortunate when characters cannot constantly present themselves as interesting/intelligent/charismatic as they are supposed to be because the writing doesn’t allow it. But this may be a topic for consideration on its own.
  11. The central plot of X-Men is that they go back in time to rescue a defense contractor in order to save the future. It is a nice message that you shouldn’t kill people and the contractor doesn’t entirely get away, though only through his own hubris, not his experiments on people or the central project he worked on. But saving the future by saving a large defense contract is a fairly depressing conceit to hang your plot on. At least in the animated series they had to rescue the President.

There are eleven thoughts. The movie, with its 8.4/10 ranking on IMDB was solidly okay 7 or 7.5/10, plus or minus a bit depending on what you care most about in a movie. I had hoped to go somewhere where I could not multitask and didn’t have a dozen other things to do as a means of hopefully recharging my spent fuel cells. Sometimes the movie theater experience can re-focus me. I did not achieve the ideal outcome, but, in X-Men’s defense, it is entirely possible that I was unable to get that immersive experience because I have several dozen other things on my mind.

They just don’t make heroes like they used to

I watched GI Joe Retaliation…and feel the need to justify myself…it was background while I did odds and ends at home. The point is that I watched GI Joe Retaliation. It is a bad movie, but the impressive part is how much of the absurdness of the first movie they trimmed out and still managed to make a movie just as bad or worse. the lesson here is don’t skimp on writers, I guess.

For the uninitiated, GIJ I ends with Cobra having captured and replaced the president without anyone knowing. In GIJ II, the faux-president frames the Joes as traitors and has his Cobra allies wipe them out.♠ Of course, three survive and trek back from Pakistan♣ to find out why the President betrayed them and to stop Cobra when they find out the President is not hte President. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the world, the US military/Cobra have built a series of satellites that drop rods from space.♥ The not-President then brings all the nuclear powers, including North Korea (it is unclear whether Iran attended) to a disarmament summit at Fort Sumter, prompts them to launch their nukes (all of which are on missiles) by launching the US nukes at their countries and then coerces disarmament by himself volunteering to destroy the US nukes.♦ Voila! The threat of a nuclear holocaust is over! The president then demands their surrender, revealing the rods-from-space weapon and destroys London, just to prove his point. Cobra then threatens to destroy the rest of the countries in attendance, but the ‘Joes show up just in time to stop them and destroy the satellites remotely. Naturally, the bad guy escapes.♠♠ The ‘Joes, finally, are treated as heroes. Fine.

My big problem with GIJ I was the excessive destruction caused by the good guys as they rushed to prevent Cobra from destroying the Eiffel Tower.♠♣ This time was more of an old-school action flick where the good-guys are limited in their ability to cause collateral damage, but there was still a damage quota to fulfill♠♥….so they leveled London. Don’t worry, though, the ‘Joes saved Tel Aviv, so they can still call themselves heroes. But suspending disbelief about everything else, what about the fallout from this event? Let’s recap: the Not-President used the US military, presumably, to build a series of super-advanced satellites and then after a push of a single button launched the entire nuclear arsenal, used his sole authority to get the US military to launch an unprovoked attack on the close US ally.♠♦ That’s alright, though, because the bad guys did it and the ‘Joes stopped (most of) the destruction.

At the end of the movie, I quipped on Twitter that someone should make a mockumentary detailing reconstruction of the world post-action movies. The same could be said of the US position in the world. The ‘Joes might have won, but that does not change the fact that the United States military wiped out London and the resolution amounted to “oops.”

I do not hold with the doomsayers who claim a causal relationship between the violent movies and video games and violence in society, but there is an escalation of movie violence that bothers me. First, I dislike the wanton damage and tendency to shrug aside collateral damage by the people the audience is supposed to relate to. Second, blowing things up substitutes for dialogue and plot, which degrades the quality of the movie. When that happens, it is insufficient for those heroes to stop the first cataclysmic event because that would stop some of the “cool” CGI that is really the only reason people are watching. So bring back clever dialogue and, barring an actual narrative contingency, let the heroes stop entire cities from being destroyed. Please.

♠ Or at least the ones on the team we care about. There were surely more and with secret bases in GIJ I… *waves hand* these are not the details you are looking for.

♣ National borders matter not to super famous-yet-secret US commandos *waves han…you get the idea.

A real thing, actually.

♦ All nukes in this world are controlled by wireless/satellite capable briefcases carried around by world leaders.

♠♠ How else would there be a GIJ III?

♠♣ They failed there, too.

♠♥ Lives, sq km flattened, value of property damage…it is unclear what unit of measure Hollywood uses.

♠♦ A certain defense from Nuremberg comes to mind