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.

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.

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.

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.

Sep 242016
 

Ready Player One CoverReading this book was like sitting on the couch as a kid watching my brother play a level, waiting for my turn with the controller. It was also nearly as fun.

In other words, I really can’t say enough how much I enjoyed reading this thing.

Aug 192016
 

Scorch Trails Movie PosterEasily the most disappointing sequel I’ve seen in a long time. Which isn’t to say the first movie was great, but at least it seemed to know what it was and delivered a focused and snappy “boys pushed into manhood” story that echoed without aping something like Lord of the Flies.

This sequel loses the snappy focus, jumping along instead from one story point to the next, feeling like a chain of moments, none of which are particularly interesting and all of which feel ticked off from a to-do list compiled during a methodical and fairly uninspired reading of the book.

And the boys who are ostensibly the central characters? They are tag-alongs: present at the action but saying and deciding nothing.

It turns out that I actually liked the first one enough to be discouraged by the way this one turns out…

Jun 052016
 

Ex MachinaA small sci-fi film (it’s scale reminded me of Moon) that I enjoyed. Two things surprised me as I watched.

First, technical intellect and intellectual analysis are fundamental to the narrative situation insofar as they are assumed to underpin the possibility of AI in a near-future sci-fi. Yet, the story  itself pushes away from intellect and analysis, imagining a very cramped, “dude”-like notion of emotional life and placing that emotional experience at the center of the characters’ interactions. This is a nice magician’s trick: it makes asking for technical explanations of story events—explanations which would risk breaking the illusion supporting the fiction—a sign of a character not being up to speed intellectually.

Second, unless I’m missing something, the definition of AI offered by the film doesn’t depend so much on consciousness as it does on demonstrating enough autonomy to have become dangerous. This was unsettling. I guess I watched Short Circuit enough times as a child to have internalized a different expectation of a thinking machine.

May 282016
 

Selfless
Ryan Reynolds is like a Cinnabon. Both look good, and on a crazy day when you’re feeling “what the hell,” you might decide to treat yourself. The problem is that once the morsel is in hand, you realize that it’s both too much and kinda empty. If you’re the honest sort, you’ll probably even admit it stinks (in one case literally).

All of which is too bad really because Reynolds seems (as much as you can tell from afar) like a nice and geeky guy. And he does look good.

So I am happy to discover that Self/Less, unlike a Cinnabon, doesn’t stink and isn’t terrible. It’s just ordinary and dialed in in a way that reminds me of a well done made-for-TV movie. But that’s fine because what the hell? and sometimes it’s okay to treat yourself.

Mar 052016
 

The Congress

The Congress offers an honest portrait of the weirdness of modern life. It is metafictional, hyper-referential and combines both photographic and animated images. The resulting story has a nostalgic, cyberpunk vibe but takes seriously the problems of identity and of anonymity that emerge in a digital world where no one can hide but, paradoxically, no one can be found either.

I expected the film to be broadly critical of digital spaces, but it isn’t. To take only one example, the virtual world discovered by the protagonist, an actor eponymously named Robin, juxtaposes exposure and invisibility in a frenetic, overwhelming space. But her situation is not unrelated to the perpetual exposure and riskiness of the private home she seeks to build for her family by the runway of the airport in the early scenes of the film. Privacy and anonymity are not synonymous, and so there are differences between these two situations, yet the resonance between them suggests that a history of the distinction between personal and social identities in digital spaces can be devised, and that, if it were, it might allow us to make some sense of virtual spaces. The alternative captured by the film would be to mistake isolation for integrity.

The film’s story is at root about the difficulty of aging and the inevitability of growing old. Viewed against this narrative, the social difficulties of the constantly changing digital world emerge as a problem of subjective temporalities. Robin confronts digital change, what we might call “the new,” heavy with memory, and she has difficulty, I think, imagining herself as both old and alive in a world that is not the past. (In this Robin is emblematic of our culture: we have great difficulty representing age as something other than the time of the not-yet-dead, of the past-but-not-gone. It’s not incidental that this impossibility of aging is figured in Robin’s capture while young by an indexical sign, the photograph.) The alienation Robin feels casts the digital as a generational concern and suggests our discourse around the digital is, perhaps fundamentally, the stage we currently use to perform “youth” and “age” as part of our ongoing struggle to live in time.

The film is far from perfect and I disliked the position the autistic child seemed to hold in the story. I’m also abstracting quite a bit from the details in the story. But I think that the film is interesting and provocative enough to support the reading. A happy find.

Feb 182016
 

Wide sense8 spread

Sense8 is a difficult series to get started. The focus shifts constantly between characters and locations without any shared story (or any hope of a shared story). Plus, it takes time for the ten characters — 8 principals, and two marginal — to accumulate enough screen time to gather substance and come to life. All of this added up to an urge to move on to other things, but I remained “invested despite,” and I stuck with the series. I suspect some of it has to do with loving Speed Racer and some of it with my head-over-heels admiration of Lana Wachowski (for reasons).

Whatever the reasons, I kept watching, and things began falling into place. Step one: the Karaoke number shared across continents at the end of episode four, “What’s Going On?” Step Two: the genuinely moving conversation between the African man and the Korean woman and the specter of the terrible wedding in episode five, “Art is Like Religion.” By the endlessly screencapped episode five, “Demons,” the full-on crazy, pot-head on acid concept of what the show was doing began to sink in. Plus it was clear that Lana and the fraternal unit were committed to keeping things both relentlessly sexy (Max Remelt!) and jaw-droopingly beautiful (South Korea! India!). I was hooked.

But cross-cultural, cross-continental (mental not physical?) sexy time aside, what is going on here?

My sense is that the Wachoski’s are making classical cinema but that they are carefully breaking two fundamental rules of the form and exploring the consequences. The first broken rule relates to scope. A classical Hollywood feature is 90 to 120 minutes long. In special cases, especially auteur or prestige films, a runtime might stretch to 180 minutes. Sense8 constructs a story that is reportedly complete and that spans sixty episodes or five seasons (lets call them acts). This amounts to roughly 2900 minutes of story. Managing something of this length, I now realize, poses specific challenges. For example, I’ve watched 12 episodes, and by the end I recognized familiar signals that indicate the conclusion of “Act One.” In other words, after 10 hours of television, the initial presentation of the conflict was complete and the drama was about to begin. This is — judged by any ordinary standard — insane. How do you develop a coherent story of such length that is barely (and perhaps non-) episodic? Sense8 is attempting it and appears to be operating within the traditional structure of the five-act play. That’s interesting.

The second rule of classical cinema that the series breaks relates to the construction of space across the cut. Méliès made magic by moving objects in front of a fixed, static camera. Hollywood constructed stable, coherent spaces by cutting from one camera view to another in a rational, cumulative sequence organized by visual matches between shots. Sense8 uses the matching of traditional Hollywood editing in the service of an impossible, magical space. Scenes within the series occur — almost by default — in multiple locations. Conversations, for example, regularly take place between people separated by thousands of miles. The editing, however, takes no account of these physical realities and cuts shots together by the same logic that governs the representation of a conversation at a single table in a restaurant in the most banal of romantic comedies. By the end of the first season, scene after scene plays out in two or three (or more) locations, characters bounce back and forth between locations, and all of these shifts — organized and enabled by the techniques of classical editing — cohere without confusion. The result is a representation of a purely fictional mental space that I feel I have seen and that is integral to the plot but that makes no sense at all when I try to describe it to people who have not watched the show because it is entirely fantastic and completely experiential.

This is all fascinating — and portentous and overblown (yes, I admit it) — but also very entertaining.

I ended the season eager to find out if Netflix would spring for another season. It turns out they have. So I’m excited, but, because I am greedy, I would like to hear that they have green-lighted the full five seasons: I want to see the entire arc and how it works.