Sep 122018
 

This movie is so much better than Prometheus, and, as my brother said to me over the summer, it makes that earlier movie appear better in retrospect than it was at the time. This is fairly hesitant praise though and begs the question, what’s the problem with these new Alien movies? My thought is that they suffer from real confusion about their subject and their narrative obligations.

The most obvious of these obligations is that Aliens movies are about the xenomorph chasing humans in a labyrinth. The first two films and the director’s cut of the third stick to this subject and excel by offering variations on it. The second increases the numbers of monsters and people. The third explores the perversity which leads some people to empathize with a monster. The three later films, however, all stumble in their attempt to vary or enlarge that basic principle.

Alien Resurrection is, in a sense, the most confused and the most honest about its problems. Its representation of the xenomorphs approaches parody, which I read as an implicit, perhaps unknowing acknowledgement of the limits of the series’s basic monsters-in-a-maze premise. It gasps for air in an ultimately failed effort to develop story material from the veneration of Ripley and the ongoing ambivalence toward the inhuman android looming over each of the previous films.

Prometheus jettisons all of this in favor of origins and creation mythology. It aims to take a series based on a sci-fi revision of the dark house movie and turn it into “cinematic universe.” It is, in other words, what an Aliens movie looks like in the age of three (and counting) Spider-man reboots and The Avengers.

To the extent Alien: Covenant surpasses its predecessor—and it does—it surpasses it by overtly returning to the narrative touchstones of Alien and Aliens, repeating the iconic moments of those films as a narrative collage, as if these moments were established paroles in a generic discours. Ultimately though, I don’t think the film cares much about these moments or even its xenomorphs. The face huggers and chest-bursting and the slobbering, metallic beasts are more-or-less instances of the film pandering. What seems genuinely to interest the film but what it is too timid to embrace as its subject are the dangers posed by an uncanny and out-of-control synthetic intelligence, a motif found in every Aliens film since the first but that here seems to beg to be exploited as primary material.

It seems clear to me that in Covenant the true threat, the true parasite, is artificial intelligence lodged in an android body. This threat is a legitimate source of felt horror in our contemporary moment. The Aliens movies offer a vehicle for representing and exploiting it. But this latest film doesn’t do so, choosing instead to place its narrative chips on new stagings of familiar scares.

So as the credits roll, I feel relief. Finally, a real Aliens movie. Yet I also feel genuine disappointment because in this film, the true monster only shows—what?… itself?… himself?… the uncertain status of the artificial is part of its monstrosity, and it is this monstrous anti-humanity that seduces and captivates. Yet it reveals itself in only two or three scenes. So I walk away from the movie wishing that it had been different than it was and better.

 September 12, 2018  Movie Logs Tagged with: , ,
Apr 142018
 

A marriage comedy set in a world in which witches and future tech are at war with each other.

The lovers are kept apart in their youth by parents and counselors, all of them people with agendas. When they are older and have settled into their separate world views, they are kept apart by their mutual incomprehension and learned distrust. When in the final scenes, they come together, their totems—a magical tree, a powerful social network—merge, saving the world.

 April 14, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Apr 092018
 

The poster image for this season is awkward, unattractive, and confused.

I look at it and all I see is that ominous, grasping hand attached to a blank mask surrounded by fire. Call me a coward, but that pretty clearly reads as “RUN! Monster coming!”, no? But when I saw it in wide format versions, I realized this isn’t some faceless thing crawling toward me and reaching out to grab me. It is someone clinging to a ship in space, trying to save themselves. All images are ambiguous, but this one is divided against itself in the worst possible way.

That said, the image actually works pretty well as a representation of the second season of The Expanse because the episodes themselves are pretty confused about what they’re up to.

If I’m generous, the first season’s slow-crawl through less than half of the book it was adapting (and its many pointless changes to the plot) surely threw the second season off-balance. To keep going, the second season needed to pick up the pace and move through a book and a half of material. It also had to push the narrative back in line with its multi-volume source. That’s a big task, and it was rough going.

Actually, I struggled to get through it, quitting for several months after watching only the first half of the season. Eventually I started back and then quit again after a few boring wandering episodes mid-season. Only recently did I watch the last four.

Here’s the odd thing though: the fact that the story does get on track and that it seems to be settling into a steady pace in those last episodes has left me unexpectedly (but mildly) optimistic about what’s to come. (And I do like watching Steven Strait, Dominique Tipper and Shohreh Aghdashloo.)

Still I’m not jumping in right away on the third season. Despite my enthusiasm for Leviathan’s Wake, I found Caliban’s War dull and repetitive. I haven’t read the third book yet and I probably won’t watch the third season until I do, which might take me awhile. For now, it’s deep in the reading pile with a lot of better books sitting on top of it.

Feb 242018
 

I stumbled across the name of this book and its author in the opening anecdote of a magazine article a couple months ago. I’d never heard of either, but the odd context of the reference made me curious. So I stopped by Indigo the next time I was downtown and, after some confusion over which name was used to file the book—Cixin or Liu—found a copy.

The book was wildly disorienting because I know nothing about Chinese history that can’t be captured in the broadest of strokes. The footnotes saved me in this regard. By the same token, character interactions are clearly stylized here but they are done in a manner different from what I’m used to. The differences weren’t enormous and I adapted, but they were enough initially to make it quite hard to peg characters down. I don’t know enough to say what precisely these differences amount to. I am conscious of difference, but is it a product of a) my cultural distance, b) an unexpected generic variation, c) a purposeful narrative choice, d) the translation, or e) some combination of these? I don’t know.

What I do know is that the book is tightly constructed. Without generating much tension or suspense and without giving the impression of holding back secrets, the plot slowly, methodically unfolds piece-by-piece until in the end everything is backwards and inside out compared to what it was on page one, and this despite the fact that in fundamental ways, nothing has changed except the state of my understanding. I’ve learned what happened before page one—like in a mystery—and that knowledge makes all the difference. It’s an impressive feat of storytelling.

 February 24, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Jan 072017
 

Aliens arrive at twelve different sites on Earth. They are unavoidably menacing—their ships hover impossibly over land and sea, they manipulate gravity, and they look like slow–moving giant facehuggers—but nothing they do is hostile. Two scholars, one a linguist, one a physicist, have to figure out how to communicate with them while also keeping various militaries from blowing things up.

This isn’t an action film. Violence threatens, but when it happens, it happens off-screen, structuring the story as a deadline or countdown. Camera movements are slow, the shots composed. Both are independent and consistently meaningful channels of information, a feature of sophisticated communication explicitly celebrated in the dialogue. Bracing thoughtfulness is the dominant tone of the narrative. The dominant activities are listening, studying, and remembering.

Despite the aliens, their technology and the narrative’s mind–bending approach to time, the focus of the film is squarely on two educated people’s efforts to solve cooperatively an unabashedly intellectual problem. Their antagonists are the uneducated and thoughtless people around them who are driven by suspicion, anger, and fear and who are urged on by a hysterical and irresponsible media. These people cut off possibilities for cooperation, prefer violence to patience, and, whether committing suicide, looting, sabotaging, or inciting or threatening others, consistently act badly.

The fantasy of this science fiction is that humane intelligence wins out in the end, a triumph that manifests not as spoils but as a book about translation, a learned work offering help to those wishing to understand the thoughts and ideas of Others in their own words.

 January 7, 2017  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
Jan 052017
 

This novel was frustratingly close to a do-over of Leviathan Wakes. Yes there was variation—a different world in the Belt, an introduction to life on Earth, new characters—but it was still a fake war providing cover for a rogue experiment involving the protomolocule.

What saved it for me was Avasarala and the most unexpected last–page surprise I’ve read in a long time.

I have the third book and will get to it eventually, but I’m less enthusiastic than I was after finishing the first volume.

 January 5, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Dec 302016
 

I don’t know what I would have thought about this movie if I had seen it when it came out. I disliked Tom Hanks in it enough to find him distracting, and the first hour or so of the story’s jumping was incredibly frustrating to follow, not least because I couldn’t understand half of what was said in the 19th and 24th century sections.

And yet, as the first hour drew to a close, things began to fall into a rhythm, and I was hooked by the play between the stories and by Bae Doona’s and Ben Whishaw’s performances. I was also quite moved by the voiceover discussing the conventionality of our world. (I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know if the speech was lifted from it.)

In actual fact I’ve seen the movie not when if first came out but months after watching Sense8, and as a result, everything about my experience of the movie stands in relation to this more recent show. Viewed in this light, Cloud Atlas feels like a test to me. Everything it attempts is worked out with more space, more detail, and greater success in Sens8. More importantly though, I can’t shake the feeling that the television series pursues a more fundamental formal experiment than the film does.

In the film, the different stories are connected genealogically as part of a larger narrative but remain distinct one from the other, like beads lined up on a string. The film’s experiment is to present these stories simultaneously as a collage rather than as a sequence. At the most basic level, this allows the climactic events in each of the stories to be presented together as the climax of the film. More ambitiously, this narrative collage encourages us to read the events in one story as relating to or informing events in another. To the extent that something like a karmic notion of cause and effect is in play (it is), the resonances created across stories are clearly thematic.

Yet, if I’m ruthless in looking at the movie, all of its narrative fireworks boil down to the fragmentation, intermixing and then juggling of multiple stories. Everything is taken to an extreme, yes, and the technical challenges involved are enormous and perhaps unprecedented in their scale. But the basic project is recognizable, even if it is virtuoso work. (To be clear: I love virtuoso work.)

It seems to me that Sens8 does something much more radical than the film. As I explained in an earlier post, the series uses classical Hollywood techniques (cross-cutting, etc.) to imagine and then to represent an entirely new mental landscape and an entirely new conception of character. The fact that that landscape and that conception of character have a stoner-esque “We are all connected” quality to them is less significant than the fact that they manifest without digital tricks. They’re the product of montage, the most fundamental process of cinema. The austere simplicity of this return to so basic a device is beautiful in its own right, but when set against the power of the effect it produces, the brilliance of what the Wachoski’s are doing shines.

Cloud Atlas is impressive, but Sense8 feels powerful and large. Here’s hoping Netflix sees the show through to its full five seasons.

 December 30, 2016  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
Dec 232016
 

To the extent this movie is a TV episode blown up to two hours and with better effects, it’s a return to the pre-Abrams form. But in every other way, this movie is a repudiation of the values and sensibilities that in the earlier incarnations of Star Trek made me want to be a better person when I watched it.

What Abrams created and Justin Lin builds upon is a Bizzaro-Federation that I wouldn’t want to live in and leaves me nothing to aspire to. Call me a fuddy-duddy but I miss the calm good faith of Roddenberry’s utopia.

 December 23, 2016  Movie Logs Tagged with: , ,
Dec 222016
 

This adaptation of the first half of Leviathan Wakes is an odd combination of imagination and shyness. It leaps forward, building the world in detail but pulls back from the narrative, hitting the main events while fiddling with the character relationships that wove them into a story in the book.

Nothing here is great, but nothing’s a failure either. Instead, everything feels provisional, like a long test run made before the decision to commit. I like the choice of actors for Holden and Avasarala, and think Miller has the most unexpected and effective haircut I’ve seen in a while. Surprisingly, that’s enough to have my hopes up for season two.

 December 22, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: ,
Nov 262016
 

leviathan-wakes-coverThe Sci-fi Channel’s adaptation of The Expanse put these books on my radar. The show seemed like it might be fun, and I decided to read the books instead of watching.

Leviathan Wakes is the first and I tore through it over a few evenings this summer during our trip to Andalusia. The Beav and I had, as usual, brought a small library with us to read on the plane and before bed. I’d considered leaving this one at home because it was a thick volume loosely printed and took up a lot of space. But by the time the protomolecule was wrecking havoc on Eros and the first vomit zombies had made their appearance, any lingering regrets were gone. I was reading as fast as I could move my eyes.

The book reads like a mock-up of a movie or TV series: lots of action, clearly delineated characters, and a double point-of-view presented in alternating chapters that functions as cross-cutting. Plus its story is a nice mash-up of a space adventure and a noir mystery. Yet, as I think back to the book now, what stands out in sharp relief in my memory is not the plot. It’s the fresh but disorienting portrait of our solar system.

This story is set as humanity is moving out into space. They’ve reached the astroid belt, Mars, and have set up a few colonies on moons of Jupiter, but these far-flung outposts and some mining operations in the rings of Saturn are the very limit of their reach. The narration continually points out the extreme distances the characters must travel (and the time it takes) as they move from place to place. It also notes and lingers over the profoundly odd realities of motion and gravity and light constraining the characters’ lives. This attention to physical limits acts (perhaps?) as a nod to near-future, real-science stories like The Martian (okay, I’m exaggerating a bit here), but more practically, it generates a useful tension between people and their place. (It also reminds me of one of the admirable features of Sanderson’s The Final Empire.)

I really enjoyed the book and will be reading the rest of the series.

 November 26, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,