Space Ramblings

Interstellar Movie Review – The Best Science Fiction Movie of the Decade

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Christopher Nolan’s big movies are overstuffed, wobbling shopping carts full of stuff that are always about to topple over. The Hitchcock and Kubrick shots, the frantic editing, the acting that varies between overwrought and flat, the plots that make less sense the longer they go on, but they’re still incredible to watch.

Interstellar is just that. A barely coherent mashup of 2001 and Contact, it’s a glorious mess that gets worse as it goes  along, that, like most big Nolan movies could have been 40 minutes shorter, and that’s still the best science fiction movie of the decade.

In an age of CG cartoons, Nolan is still trying to make movies and it shows. Spaceships, robots and explosions are in every other movie, but Interstellar is actually based on a science fiction premise, instead of playing with scifi toys.

Interstellar self-consciously references 2001, but also humanizes it. Interstellar may be much looser and messier than anything Kubrick would have tolerated, but it also provides the audience with human stakes in its stories about multi-dimensional evolved humans, black holes and temporal variances.

It’s an optimistic movie about the importance of space travel and human potential. It’s a science fiction movie that is about the strangeness of the universe.

The plot of Interstellar is a train wreck, but Matthew McConaughey drags it along with him in overwrought scene after scene with extra ham on top. He embodies the passion of a messy project. His character and his performance is Interstellar’s rejection of abstract idealism in favor of specific human needs.

Michael Caine’s Professor Brand and Matt Damon’s Mann prove to be unreliable sociopaths whose speeches about the greater good cover for their selfishness. But Cooper’s selfishness is always front and center. He leaves his family behind, not to save the world, but because he loves the idea of flying a ship. And he wants to leave the mission to get back to his family. It’s his human needs that allow a transhuman future to connect to his world.

It’s a subversive message that challenges the authoritarianism of so many science fiction movies.

2001 showed people becoming inhuman. Interstellar humanizes even the robots whose design abandons the humanoid form, but whose personalities pick up human traits. Becoming less human isn’t the path to evolution. Embracing our humanity is. It’s a clunky message, but there have been worse messages in movies.

Interstellar is badly broken and yet its ambition and dysfunction is a breath of fresh air. It has little in common with the usual Marvel or Hasbro toy line movie. Instead it’s a science fiction movie about messed up people making mistakes in a universe with a limited tolerance for human error, but also a universe with amazing possibilities.

And that is what science fiction used to be before it became the background for brand merchandising movies.

Mortdecai and the Critical Backlash Mass

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Mortdecai didn’t deserve all the hate thrown at it when it came out. It’s not a great movie, but it wasn’t anywhere as bad as the reviews which told everyone it was the second coming of Hitler, instead of a modern Pink Panther caper that sucked a lot less than the Steve Martin Pink Panthers.

But Mortdecai fell victim to the critical backlash mass.

A successful actor or director becomes known for one gimmick. The gimmick is irritating, but initially it’s also entertaining. Like Johnny Depp doing a wacky character, Robin Williams going for cheap tears instead of laughs or George Lucas making CG Star Wars cartoons. Then the backlash builds with every movie until it blows.

And it blows all over a movie that might not even deserve it. Like the critical backlash mass building against Robin Williams over Patch Adams and exploding over Jakob the Liar. Or Johnny Depp in Mortdecai.

The hate had built up with the fourth Pirates movie that no one outside China wanted. It hissed to a boil with Dark Shadows and The Lone Ranger, both flopped, and then exploded in violent rage with Mortdecai.

Depp’s Charlie Mortdecai is the weakest part of the movie, but also the part that holds the rest of the movie together. The script isn’t great and the movie could have used a bigger and longer climax (one of the few movies these days that you can say that about), but most of the working parts were okay. Visually it looked good. The cast was good, especially Paul Bettany’s Jock. And most of the jokes worked okay if you like them big, goofy and obvious.

But all the parts rubbed up against Depp’s Mortdecai. And Depp wearing wacky outfits and makeup already rubbed too many critics raw. Imagine Mortdecai with Jim Carrey in the lead and it could have been even more annoying, but it wouldn’t have been showered with the same amount of critic rage. They reacted to Depp’s Mortdecai as an extension of every annoying mannered character from Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd.

Mortdecai needed its own Peter Sellers. An actor who could just dive into the role sincerely, instead of prancing around with a mannered, “Look at me, I’m acting so goofy” air of an unfunny class clown in a high school production of Pirates of Penzance. Maybe Robert Downey Jr. could have done it. But Depp can just do exactly what he’s been doing since that long forgotten good Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It’s all he’s ever going to do now.

But Mortdecai was still fun. It wasn’t a great movie. Or an especially good one. It wasn’t even Hudson Hawk. But it was up there with a decent Moonlighting episode. What happened to it is the difference between viewing movies on their own or as part of a dynamic cultural dialogue. And that’s how critics, and everyone is a critic now, see them.

Mortdecai stopped being its own movie and became an extension of Depp’s other wacky movies and that became an extension of a trend in movies that had to be stamped out.

Depp recovered and went on working. Big actors are hard to take down. And Black Mass was just more of the same. And there’s an unfunny Depp video as Trump and another Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.

It’s the shakiest movies that are easiest to take down. Movies with no built in audience anyway. Like a caper about a wacky British art dealer and thief. Or a movie in which Adam Sandler plays a cobbler who can become other people. The stars go on, but the blowback destroys a smaller fun movie and the careers of smaller, maybe fun people.

Is anyone going to let David Koepp direct again? Would Tom McCarthy’s carer have survived if Spotlight hadn’t been in the can? Critics find a release in lashing out at annoying actors for being annoying, but the actors don’t go away, the people who took a risk and tried to make a different kind of movie and were lucky enough to get a major star to sign on, only to be wrecked by his backlash, who more often go away.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson Book Review

2312 is a bad book by a bad writer. It’s a pretentious book by a pretentious writer which is why it has a Nebula.

Kim Stanley Robinson can write well about terraforming. That is his whole career. Unfortunately he can’t write 11830394characters that you don’t want to punch in the face or come up with plots that are any better than those of a bad movie and he tries to disguise that with the usual scifi hack’s toolbox of orientalist references and random scientific terms.

2312 is the kind of book that John Varley’s Steel Beach should have killed. Not only did Varley thoroughly cover every new idea that Robinson holds up as if it’s a trophy he won at the fair, but he also showed why these neo-futuristic societies in which everyone sits around using super-technology to play with themselves in every sense of the word are dead. Kim Stanley Robinson didn’t get the memo. Neither did the writers who keep farting out the same crap.

But 2312 is worse than most of the bunch. David Brin’s Existence was deeply flawed, but it had new brilliant ideas in the mix. Kim Stanley Robinson doesn’t have those. 2312 has some great terraforming descriptions and that’s it.

Its plot makes so little sense that it would be unfair to blame it on drugs Its main character Swan is the most obnoxious main character in a novel ever. She’s either whining or throwing tantrums for hundreds of pages. The destruction on Mercury and the qubes aren’t a grand conspiracy, but petty fallout from something completely unrelated. There is no reason for most of the novel and its events to even exist. At one point the characters decide that the problem is income inequality on earth and so they dump a lot of wild animals on it. The wild animals eat some people in villages, but the characters explain that it’s okay and the animals also fixed all the poverty somehow.

You really have a problem when Philip K. Dick novels have plots that make more sense than yours.

To distract you from this, Kim Stanley Robinson inserts “lists” after every chapter to seem literary. But it would be more “literary” for him to construct a new plot instead of engaging in lit gimmicks that are as mediocre as his novel.

There’s not much to write about 2312 because despite its size, there is nothing there. There are some pretty descriptions of sunrise on Mercury. But if you want anything more than terraforming ideas and descriptions of sunrises, you’re out of luck. 2312 takes the kind of society Varley wrote about decades ago, subtracts anything that might be interesting and throws in annoying characters who still somehow lack the personality to be memorable.

2312 is a terrible book. By a terrible writer. I might have mentioned that.

The Unincorporated Future by Danni Kolin and Eytan Kollin book review

The Unincorporated Future by Danni Kollin and Eytan Kollin is an unimaginative mashup of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars the unincorporated futureseries, Tron and bits and pieces of Metaplanetary. Reading through it and John Varley’s Slow Apocalypse was a reminder that a talented writer can make a story where not all that much happens readable and untalented writers can take a war spread across the solar system and the destruction of entire planets and make it every bit as exciting as watching paint dry.

There were a whole lot of Unincorporated volumes before The Unincorporated Future that I didn’t read, but going by what I did read, I haven’t missed a whole lot. The story is one of those incredible never-done-before tales about outer planet colonists fighting the tyranny of evil corporations on earth. The blurbs compare this to Heinlein, but The Unincorporated Future has as much in common with Heinlein as Kevin J. Anderson has in common with Isaac Asimov.

The outer colonists are religious, not in the sense that it’s really a part of their lives, but every now and then they mention Allah and there’s a Rabbi who wanders around but does nothing useful. This gives them moral superiority when destroying planets. Moral superiority that the evil earth corporations lack when they’re destroying planets.

The Unincorporated Future is one of those showdowns between different Space-Hitlers, both of whom kill billions of people, but some of whom we’re supposed to root for, because they occasionally feel bad about it. Not bad enough to stop doing it. But bad. There’s also a Tron element in it that feels more like World of Warcraft, but that’s so lame it’s not even worth mentioning.

Some of this could be forgivable if either or both of the Kollins could actually write. They can’t. The dialogue is terrible. The cliches are rancid. And they can make destroying a planet every bit as interesting as ordering lunch. Most of the action manages to happen off-screen, even though it’s the only thing keeping the narrative going.

The characters are so one-note that they might as well be made of cardboard and hopelessly undeveloped. The dead savior is named Justin Cord. No, seriously. J.C. The villain does everything but twirl his mustache and rape his way around the novel.

What is truly sad is that someone made the decision to publish four of these, even though they would have barely passed muster in the 80s. It’s a sign of how poor the Science Fiction part of the field has become that this didn’t get tossed out the door. And you can’t even blame the Kollins for that.

The state of Science Fiction is so poor that John Scalzi is considered a major writer even though the only thing he can write is scenery descriptions. Once he starts writing people, he’s operating at Kevin J. Anderson’s level. Cory Doctorow is now considered a writer, not a punchline. So why not the Kollins. They can’t write and they’re recycling things that were cliches 40 years ago. They’re not even hacks, because hacks can at least write.

Bring ’em on.

Here’s a Suggestion for Galavant Season 3, Kill Galavant

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Seriously. Kill Galavant. Kill Isabella. Kill Sid.

Galavant does evil characters well. The best moments of the season focused on Richard, on Gareth and on Madalena.

After two seasons, the show developed a meaningful romantic relationship, not between Galavant and Isabella, but between Gareth and Madalena. And a heroic growth narrative arc, not for Galavant, but for Richard.

The season finale worked because it focused on Richard.

Villains are just more fun. And Galavant can only write them well anyway. Galavant is barely tolerable. Isabella is nails on a chalkboard irritating and always will be. Same for Sid. They’re insipid, irritating heroes. So get rid of them.

Season 1 wasn’t good. Season 2 dived into desperate gay jokes and parodies and fourth wall breaches like a drunken sailor. But it did get Richard, Gareth and Madalena right. So why not just stick with it? This is an unconventional show anyway. Make it a little more unconventional and make it a musical fantasy comedy about villains.

There’s precedent. Lots of precedent.

Surprise, the X-Files is Still a Confused, Unwatchable Mess

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Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.

The passage of time convinced a whole bunch of people that bringing back the X-Files would somehow reset it back to the show it was originally and not the confused, unwatchable mess it became in its later seasons.

How was that supposed to work anyway?

Nostalgia filtered out the terrible mess that the X-Files had become and people remembered the good stuff. But they brought back the zombie corpse of the X-Files to shambling life. Instead of the good stuff, they got more of that final season in which nothing made sense and nothing mattered and everyone was just phoning it in.

Is there any universe in which that wasn’t going to happen?

Star Trek got a second act in movie theaters because it acknowledged the passage of time, brought in new people and switched mediums. Without that, you got Star Trek the Motion Picture or Star Trek Phase II or the first season of TNG. The TNG movies were just more of TNG’s terrible final season made by most of the same people.

The X-Files just picks up where it left off. And where it left off was terrible. That’s the way it is for most shows that drag on for too long and lose whatever energy and craft made them work.

But don’t worry. The good folks at ScumCo Inc. will just reboot the X-Files just like they’re doing to 24 because audiences are so retarded and studios are so nervous that every intellectual property has to be rebooted so it can be kept around for all time.

Or at least until Generation X finally dies.

Paramount and its Stupid Star Trek Axanar Lawsuit

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I always wondered when a Star Trek fan film would become successful enough to draw a Paramount lawsuit. Why did Paramount go after Star Trek Axanar and not Star Trek Renegades?

Both are high profile productions. Renegades had more Star Trek cast members. Axanar made headlines for raising Kickstarter money. But it really is more of a fan film than Renegades which feels like an Abrams Trek effort to cash in on the franchise by trying to use it as material for something hipper and edgier that isn’t Star Trek.

Axanar isn’t stepping on Paramount’s turf. Paramount’s idea of Star Trek is to use it as fodder for a bunch of blockbuster action movies from the writers of Transformers.

Not a whole lot of overlap with Axanar.

But CBS/Paramount/Viacom/Whatever also decided to launch some kind of pay-per-view online Star Trek TV series and they may have decided to clear the deck of fan productions on YouTube.

But are the execs really stupid enough to think that fan series, which usually have bad acting, writing and effects, but give fans the kind of Star Trek they like, are competition for a pro series that will have nothing to do with Star Trek?

Suing fan films is stupid. Those fan films keep a fan community around. Abrams Trek and Abrams Wars make tons of money, but don’t create new fans. And the existing fans help pay the bills the rest of the year when there are no movies in theaters. They also like Star Trek content that’s more Star Trek, which Paramount doesn’t do anymore.

Paramount has been smarter than Lucas. It hasn’t gone after fan content because execs knew that fandom created unprofitable content that maintained fans who might buy things licensed by Paramount.

Although the plaintiffs have allowed ample cosplaying over the years and even permitted other derivatives like amateur Star Trek shows to circulate, the lawsuit illustrates that there is a place where no man has gone before, where the entertainment studios are not willing to let be occupied: crowdfunded, professional-quality films that use copyrighted “elements” like Vulcans and Klingons, Federation starships, phasers and stuff like the “look and feel of the planet, the characters’ costumes, their pointy ears and their distinctive hairstyle.”

That covers all the cosplaying, comic strips, parodies and every fan film ever made.

Paramount picked a really bad time for this. Abrams Trek Into Darkness and Skinny British Khan was hated by everyone. The Abrams Trek Beyond trailer is being booed. A Star Trek series needs a lot of goodwill from fans and suing a kickstarted fan series also pisses off everyone who donated to it. And with $1 million raised, that’s a lot of angry fans.

Paramount and CBS gave us this joint statement after the posting of our original article: “Star Trek is a treasured franchise in which CBS and Paramount continue to produce new original content for its large universe of fans. The producers of Axanar are making a Star Trek picture they describe themselves as a fully professional independent Star Trek film. Their activity clearly violates our Star Trek copyrights, which, of course, we will continue to vigorously protect.”

Treasured franchises don’t get canceled. Treasured franchises don’t get turned over to the writers of Transformers.

The X-Files is a treasured franchise. So is Star Wars. Paramount never treasured Star Trek. It ignored it. Then whored it out.

Why do fan films exist? They keep Star Trek alive.

A struggle over the U.S.S. Enterprise’s past and future helped sour J.J. Abrams on the “Star Trek” franchise and may have contributed to his decision to take on the “Star Wars” universe.

Yet this marketing assault pales compared to the one that Abrams and Bad Robot once envisioned for “Star Trek” and now plan to construct around the new “Star Wars” films.

Much to the dismay of Bad Robot, CBS’ merchandising arm continued to create memorabilia and products based on the cast of the original 1960s series and market them to Trekkies.

TheWrap has learned that Bad Robot asked CBS to stop making products featuring the original cast, but talks broke down over money. The network was making roughly $20 million a year on that merchandise and had no incentive to play nice with its former corporate brother, the individual said.

Paramount wanted to help J.J. Abrams kill Star Trek. But CBS was making too much money from the merchandising.

Did some Paramount exec decide that Axanar posed a brand confusion threat to some multiplatform rollout?

 

 

Dragon Age Inquisition – What Went Wrong?

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On paper, Dragon Age Inquisition was everything that Dragon Age II wasn’t. It was huge, massive and epic. It had original characters, a road story and a traditional fantasy quest.

No one could accuse it of just reusing the same bunch of locations. The Frostbite engine brought Dragon Age Inquisition close to something resembling an open world (though still with no day and night cycle) and many of them were stunningly beautiful. Even more gorgeous were the interiors of castles and fortresses. The Elven and Orlesian art were particularly amazing.

There was also an epic story. You weren’t poking around doing fetch quests in the same city for 5 years. Instead you were doing fetch quests across a vast landscape. But there was also the traditional struggle between good and evil.

So what went wrong?

1. Icon vomit – EA decided that the future was Assassin’s Creed. So all games must be AssCreedified. Bioware didn’t suddenly decide to listen to fans. They were under orders to make their own Assassin’s Creed game. And they did.

Dragon Age Inquisition was much better than the Assassin’s Creed games. You never have to follow around eavesdropping on an NPC. But it was full of the traditional AssCreed icon vomit.

DAI went crazy for collectibles. Collect tiles, collect shards, solve puzzle maps, collect gears, collect collectibles, collect icons. Worst of all, the shards and gears were door keys. And door keys were a design gimmick that died with Doom.

Some of these were voluntary, some were required to gain access, but even voluntary icon vomit is still icon vomit, it changes how the game is played and gets in the way of the story. If your landscape is filled with icons to clear, it’s not a magical place.

2. Story fail – The original Dragon Age had a good balance between a personal story and the larger struggle. Dragon Age II mired players in a boring personal story with no larger struggle. Dragon Age III is all larger struggle.

DAI had plenty of characters but most of them felt bland and lacking in depth. The central character is defined by his leadership of the Inquisition. And that means constantly being complimented to death. Personal growth is meaningless. The choices are between being polite or rude.

Worst of all, DAI Mass Effects you, dumping you at the center of a huge organization (while still having to do all the work, including micromanaging it) with strongholds you can get lost in. It’s epic, but also epically boring.

Between the icon vomit and micromanaging all the social and political tasks of the Inquisition, Dragon Age Inquisition doesn’t feel legendary. It feels like a job. CEO meets RPG.

Does anyone really want to play a game running an organization like The Inquisition?

And the story itself feels cut and pasted from a hundred other RPGs. It’s practically the story of Elder Scrolls Oblivion right down to rushing around shutting down portals to the demon realm. You’re even playing the “Chosen One”. Bioware throws in all sorts of twists and turns, but it’s not really enough.

3. None of It Matters – You can shape the Chantry or the Orlesian Empire, though you don’t much see the impact of that, and this time your choice between mages and templars actually matters. Somewhat.

The enemy is purely evil and insane. Even when it isn’t, you’re not allowed to talk your way out of misunderstandings. Instead you have to fight.

Bioware likes to pretend it gets gray areas, but all the story gray areas don’t change that you’re not allowed to play the game in shades of gray. Instead you go from pointless fight to pointless fight to cutscene. It doesn’t matter what’s in the codex if the only acceptable solution is to cut off the other guy’s head. That was the problem in Dragon Age II.

It’s still the problem.

The judgement scenes are a nice idea, but the original Dragon Age did it much better by just forcing you to confront the question of how to deal with nuanced villains. It made the game feel like a paperback fantasy novel.

Dragon Age Inquisition doesn’t feel like a story. It feels like a great engine with a lot of disconnected attachments that take you out of the story. And it gives you very little access or control over the story.

Dragon Age asked you to make personal decisions about how to save the world. Dragon Age Inquisition sets out to do the same, but somewhere along the way it again abandons player agency. Instead it flatters your ego and throws you into a simplistic story full of job tasks and fetch questions, pointless customizations and empty exchanges, instead of real decisions with consequences.

And it was a close thing.

Corypheus was always the wrong villain for the game. Solas was the right one. Instead he’s being reserved for a possible sequel. But Solas is the kind of personal nuanced villain Dragon Age Inquisition needed. Corypheus is the classic unhinged villain, a ranting egomaniac who wants to destroy everything to get his way. He has to be destroyed. But Solas wants to reshape the world while committing terrible crimes along the way.

A better game would have asked you what crimes you were willing to commit to stop him.

Unfortunately Dragon Age Inquisition wasn’t that game.

The Force Awakens is Bad Billion Dollar Fanfic

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Star Wars The Force Awakens is the same movie as the first AbramsTrek, a well-acted and well-directed jumble of fan service and incoherent story. J.J. Abrams and his team are good at milking nostalgia for the characters and look of a classic franchise. But all those callbacks and character moments are just paint on the hood of the same exact disposable incoherent CG fest that everyone else is making in which nothing makes sense and nothing matters.

The Force Awakens is a remake pretending to be a sequel. And it’s not a good remake. The Force Awakens marries the incoherent meaningless stories of the Star Wars prequels with a better class of acting and direction. If you ever wanted to see what the prequels would have looked like if they were made by a good director who panders to franchise fans, instead of tossing them aside for kiddie merchandising, the Abrams Wars movie is it.

And that’s all it is.

Harrison Ford is swapped out for Leonard Nimoy, doing his duty by passing the torch. But he’s just there to watch the brash young cast go through the motions of playing around in a theme park recreation of classic sets and moments.

The stories for Abrams Trek and Abrams Wars are so bad that they could be fanfic. But normal fanfic usually makes more sense. In Star Wars and Star Trek, the characters served the story. In Abrams Wars and Abrams Trek, the stories is just an excuse to bring characters together to remind fans of the original movies and shows.

It’s not all Abrams’ fault. But he somehow keeps making the same soulless movies that have no substance except to exploit the nostalgia and goodwill of someone’s else work.

The only thing that sets their stories apart from bad fanfic is the money and the cast. J.J. Abrams uses both to the maximum, squeezing out callbacks and references even when they don’t make any sense. And especially when they don’t make any sense. But he isn’t recreating Star Wars. He’s the kid who comes home from the theater after seeing Star Wars and makes up a Star Wars-like story in which there’s an even worse Death Star and a lamer Darth Vader, built on the biggest cliche in Star Wars fanfic and even its Expanded Universe, and some kids fighting to stop them.

And while Abrams’ fan service and callbacks look like shows of respect, they’re the prelude to covertly trashing a franchise. Abrams Trek I climaxed with the destruction of the entire Star Trek canon. Abrams Wars is moving toward those same objectives.

Abrams movies conceal their hatred for the original material they’re looting with a facade of respect right before they slip the knife in. Underneath all the flattering tributes is jealousy. As a director, J.J. Abrams hasn’t created anything new. He mashes up other people’s work and adds incoherent updates. He wants to be Spielberg, but he has no storytelling skills. He’s a good visualist, but like Zach Snyder and many other younger directors, a terrible conceptualist. He can capture the look of Star Trek or Star Wars, but not its substance. His movies play with big toys, but there’s no story behind them. There are character moments, but they don’t add up to anything bigger than the individual moment.

J.J. Abrams can bring in money for studios, but all he’s doing is turning bad fanfic into cutscenes for some video game that will never be made.

Can Justin Lin Make Abrams Trek into Star Trek?

The strange thing about the Star Trek Beyond trailer is that it actually looks like TOS. Justin Lin has talked about watching the original series and you can see it on screen.

It’s the first movie since Insurrection and ST6 that isn’t obsessed with an attack on Earth. Instead the crew crashes on a bleak planet. There are strange aliens, conflict and resolution. That’s a whole lot of TOS episodes right there.

Just having a movie focused on an alien planet, instead of another race to save Earth is already closer to Star Trek.

I don’t know the plot so maybe I’m completely wrong. But with Abrams back to his first love of Star Wars and Simon Pegg doing more of the writing than Transformers hack Roberto Orci, Star Trek Beyond might actually be closer to Star Trek than to Abrams Trek.

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