Violent Delights

The end of Westworld‘s first season has felt like a series of reveals for the sake of having reveals. This post is packed full of unmarked spoilers.

Still from Westworld
It’s totally unfair to lump all of Jonathan Nolan’s and Christopher Nolan’s work together, but watching the season one finale of HBO’s Westworld had me flashing back to dozens of different last-act reveals over the years. The last couple of episodes have felt more like big reveals for the sake of having big reveals more than for the sake of being actually revelatory. I don’t think it completely undermines the season as a whole, but it does feel ultimately like a missed opportunity. It ends up feeling like a slick and entertaining ten episodes with a couple of brilliant moments, when it started out feeling like it had the potential to be more.

In my other post about the series, I was getting annoyed at the critics who demanded the show be more explicit in its sympathies. Considering that there seems to be an entire cottage industry of recaps, reviews, interpretations, and predictions all second-guessing what the series is saying, I suppose I can’t fault it that much for having a relatively by-the-numbers finale. If you’ve got people concerned that the show isn’t being explicitly critical enough of the world it depicts, maybe you do just have to show an hour of robots killing people, to make sure everybody’s on the same page.

Even if that means we’ve ended up with a new, modern, and more mature interpretation of the 1970s movie Westworld that ends up being about nothing more than a futuristic Old West theme park where the robots start killing guests.

My biggest issue with the finale is that it repeatedly undermines Dolores’s character while it tries to stitch the narrative together around her. It’s difficult for me to tell what agency she had in her own story. We’re told it was a torturous 35-year-long process for her to gain sentience, but Maeve seems to have done it a lot more efficiently. Ford’s plan was ostensibly for Dolores to repeat the massacre at Escalante but on her own volition instead of at Arnold’s programming, except in the end she does exactly what Ford wants her to do.

And in the final scenes, she seems to be slaughtering folks without hesitation. That works fine as a robot rebellion story — humans are the enemy! hosts are a new species! — but we already had a robot rebellion story in 1978. (And again in 2004, with Battlestar Galactica). This version of Westworld had been promising to be more about sentience, consciousness, and how our identities are defined by the choices we make; and less about violence and peen.

Still, there can be merit in a somewhat shallow story that’s told in an interesting way. A reveal, when done the right way, can be satisfying for its own sake, even if it doesn’t have any deeper resonance or insight into the human condition. Westworld has had a few of those moments where a brief moment shown on screen explodes into a huge network of implications and potential narratives, the way podcast ads describe opening a Casper mattress.

The best of the entire series was the moment in episode seven, in which Bernard and Theresa are exploring the old replica house that Ford had been keeping hidden from the rest of the park. “What door?” It was brilliant on multiple levels: wait, did we see that just a second ago? Can we trust anything that we’ve seen? Does that mean what I think it means? Has he always been a host, or was he replaced? What does that mean about Elsie’s disappearance? Who’s controlling him? Is Theresa walking into a trap? Is something really bad going to happen to her right now?

But I still say that the first episode’s “twist” reveal — that Teddy was a host and the Man in Black was the human guest — was a strong one. It’s just that in retrospect, it’s most like Lost‘s reveal of the inside of the hatch in episode 2: it implied so many story developments that it couldn’t possibly deliver on.

Worse than a missed opportunity, though, are the ideas raised in episode one that seem to be contradicted by the finale. The first episode twist challenged our assumptions about sympathies: we assumed that it was a story about a beautiful young man and a beautiful young (robot) woman, only to discover that the story’s “villain” was a human and our supposed protagonist was merely programmed to take the fall over and over for eternity. By the end of the season, though, I’m left wondering why Dolores was a protagonist and Teddy a major character in the story at all, other than the fact that they’re among the prettiest?

Again, it seems like all of the things it took Dolores 35 years to comprehend were fully understood by Maeve within a week or so. And while Dolores was essentially just pulled through her loop, Maeve was actually able to make decisions based on her newfound self-awareness. (For that matter, Hector and Armistice each went from sex robot to 80s action movie bad-ass within one cycle and a whole lot less psychological trauma). I can’t think of anything that Dolores has done that seems unique or remarkable. Her “I chose a story where I wasn’t a damsel in distress” moment is undermined by the revelation that she spent most of the following 35 years being exactly that.

And the idea that Dolores has finally advanced to the next stage of “host” by acquiring free will is also undermined by the climax of Maeve’s story, when she chooses to leave the train — and presumably, whatever pre-defined course she’d been set on by a shadow figure to be revealed in season two — for the sake of a daughter she knows isn’t “real.” Not just that, but Dolores’s supposed free will culminates not just in her killing Ford, but shooting plenty of other humans indiscriminately. Which is exactly what we’ve been shown throughout the season as the thing that makes the humans the bad guys: the guests indiscriminately inuring, raping, and murdering the hosts without hesitation. Maeve doesn’t hesitate to kill humans, but at least it’s tactical and she’ll save even the super-annoying ones.

On top of that, Ford not only deserves to die but wants to die. His speeches about spending 35 years correcting his mistake, or giving the hosts the last thing they need to achieve consciousness — they sound good because they’re delivered by Anthony Hopkins, but they’re ultimately shallow and self-serving. As gross as the guests are, the one thing that excuses all of them (except William) is that they believe the hosts are empty shells. Ford’s the only one who knew they were capable of sentience but still let them be raped and tortured for decades. Arnold is shown as being so consumed by grief he wanted to die, and so having Dolores murder him was self-serving but also served a purpose, in his imagination. The finale presents Ford’s “final narrative” as a cunning master plan that will bring about the final phase of the hosts’ “awakening,” but we’re shown little evidence that that’s actually the case.

I’m not sure if I would’ve guessed the truth about Arnold’s identity or the Man in Black’s identity and backstory and multiple timelines. There were plenty of clever clues in there — the photo fake-out and the changing Westworld logo in paricular — but that’s never been the kind of thing I get into since I’m usually too busy trying to piece together the explicit storyline and all the interpretations it implies. I am sure that I wouldn’t have had the chance to guess the truth, though, since I was inundated with theories and speculation the second I looked on the internet for any discussion about the series. As it turns out, the most common theories were all correct, and it looks like all the clues were spotted almost immediately.

I don’t think it’s possible to avoid that, though, and I’m skeptical it’d be worth the effort: to me, it’s not as important for a reveal or twist to be surprising as it is for it to be satisfying and/or meaningful. The reveal that Bernard was a host wasn’t a complete surprise, but what matters is that it was so well done in how it was allowed to play out. Every reveal after that, though, felt like the last few minutes of The Prestige or The Dark Knight Rises or, I guess, all of Memento: dead time where they’re just spooling back the plot like the end of a magic trick, eagerly asking “Did you notice that part? Did you see it? Did we just blow your ever-lovin’ mind?!

As far as I can tell, there’s not much significance to the fact that Bernard the host was based on Arnold. The show seemed to suggest that Arnold’s suffering was a perfect cornerstone for Bernard to attain sentience, since change comes from a desire for the world to be different from what it is — that all sounds like the kind of justification that a writer would come up with after the fact. You could infer that Ford was wracked with guilt after Arnold’s “assisted suicide” and wanted a version of him that could live forever, but there’s little on screen that would support that theory.

I can’t see much weight in the reveal that William is the Man in Black, either. He was originally presented as a guest who’d been coming to the park for 30 years, grew tired of it falling just short of actual consequence, and had decided he wanted to “level up.” That version of disillusionment over time makes a lot more sense than the idea of someone who was tricked into believing the hosts could be sentient during his first visit and then spent the next three decades not learning much of anything. You could infer that that first visit to the park really did reveal his true nature, which fits in with his story of his wife’s suicide after years of being frightened of the “real” him. But this is all stuff that Logan was talking about explicitly, within the first few hours of their adventure. It doesn’t feel that the character at the end of 35 years has progressed any farther than he did at the time of his introduction.

That’s essentially what Dolores accuses him of before their fistfight (which was itself so tone-deaf as to seem like a product of a much less intelligent show). As far as I can tell, that’s the only significance of the Man in Black’s identity at all: it shows Dolores how humans are susceptible to time while the hosts aren’t just immortal but un-aging. Which is implicit in the whole premise and hardly seems like an insight that takes ten episodes to unpack.

So ultimately I still say that the most common criticisms of Westworld — that it’s all about the male gaze, that it’s heteronormative, that it’s as culturally insensitive as the older material that it’s based on — are shallow and largely without merit. But I also think that my initial take may have been overly optimistic. It’s still an entertaining, smart, and intriguing series even if it doesn’t have the spark of genius that makes it profound.

No Insight To Be Had Out There

Shallow takes on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” are a perfect example of faux-progressive pop cultural simplification for the Twitter generation

It’s December, which means it’s time for one of the Internet’s most cherished traditions: writing insipid and uninspired analyses of how the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is creepy and “rapey” (to use Key & Peele’s assessment).

Key & Peele’s parody is four years old, and there are plenty that are even older. This year’s is possibly the most vapid and insufferable version to date, as a couple of indie musicians made an acoustic version that’s updated for our modern sensibilities.

I won’t make a comment on the quality of the music itself, except to say that it’s just really twee and awful and I hate it. But most offensive — yes, even more offensive than making a reference to “Pomegranate LaCroix” and thinking it was a witty punchline — is how it attempts to fix all the problematic aspects of the original instead of making an effort to actually understand the original.

The original song — at least the most common version of it — is a back-and-forth between a woman and a man trying to come up with excuses for why she should spend the night. To suggest otherwise robs the woman of any agency and turns her from a modern, self-aware adult into a gullible victim. It also suggests that adults in the 1940s fell into stereotypes and were all either lecherous or prudish, and nobody realized it until the 1970s came along and everybody got woke. In fact, though, the song is a play against those exact same stereotypes.

What makes me so sure that interpretation is the correct one? Well, if there’s one thing The Young People Today love more than overly simplistic gender swaps and song parodies, it’s a bunch of stuff presented in list format. So here’s Eight Reasons Why A More Sophisticated Comprehension of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is Everything In The World Right Now:

  1. The song was performed by a married couple at parties. For years I’d assumed it had been written for Neptune’s Daughter, but it was actually a duet that writer Frank Loesser performed with his wife. So it’s not the stereotype of the cigar-chomping MGM exec who directs a gullible ingenue to the casting couch; it’s the stereotype of The Thin Man-style sophisticates having dinner parties in which they make fun of less-sophisticated stereotypes like playboy and “good girl.”
  2. It’s a duet. In the MPR write-up linked above, the writer describes the song as “like the ‘Blurred Lines’ of the holiday songbook.” It’s not for dozens of reasons, the most obvious being that the woman in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has a voice, instead of just being “the hottest bitch in this room.”
  3. It’s a call-and-response. In addition to being a duet, it’s a back-and-forth between two adults. You have to listen to both sides to get it, and you have to listen to how both participants play off each other before singing in unison at the end of each verse. If Liza and Lemanski wanted to “improve” on the song, then in addition to actually making an effort to sing on key, they should’ve chosen to end the song abruptly after she says “I’ve got to go away.” If you’re making a point about consent, then actually make the point.
  4. The woman’s objections are all about keeping up appearances. She never talks about what she wants to do, but instead about what she should do. It’s about her mother worrying, her father being angry, what the neighbors will think, her sister and brother’s suspicions, the kind of gossip she’ll be subjected to. “There’s bound to be talk tomorrow, at least there will be plenty implied.”
  5. The woman is totally into it. “Maybe just a half a drink more.” “I wish I knew how to break this spell.” “I ought to say no no no, sir, At least I’m going to say that I tried.” “The welcome has been so nice and warm.” She’s looking for excuses to stay, and playfully looking for a way to spend the night while still preserving her reputation. She’s talking herself into it just as much as she’s arguing against the man. At the end of each verse, they come together because they’ve agreed on the story they can tell people the next day: she had to spend the night.
  6. Esther Williams is the star of Neptune’s Daughter. Her character isn’t being taken advantage of or fooled by anyone. She’s perfectly aware that Ricardo Montalban’s character is a “playboy.”
  7. The gender-swapped version makes fun of all the stereotypes in play. The version of the song with Betty Garrett as the “wolf” and Red Skelton as the “mouse” is played as a farcical take on the more wry and sophisticated one, and that fact alone shows which stereotypes they were making fun of. When Garrett is portrayed as being “man-crazy” and Skelton as flustered, it’s supposed to be funny because women aren’t “supposed” to be eager for sex and men aren’t supposed to shy away from it. When Skelton does the absurd Spanish accent, it pokes fun of the image of Montalban as a sexy Spanish lothario.
  8. Viva Las Vegas has the clumsy and obvious version. Don’t get me wrong: if I had to go back and live in a movie fantasy version of the past, I’d totally choose the universe of Elvis movies over 1940s romantic comedies. But the duet “The Lady Loves Me” between Elvis and Ann-Margaret is another perfect example of what would happen if you took the same basic setup as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and removed all the wit and subtlety from it. The two characters are simply arguing, and there’s nothing clever or coy about the woman’s rejections. She’s just parading around for the audience in a bathing suit while getting off on the attention. The “the gentleman’s all wet” bit at the end is presumably a 1964 take on “Grrl Power” that doesn’t actually say or do anything positive.

It’s pretty arrogant to insist that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is supposed to be read exactly as it appears on the surface. In the song, adults could make a wry comment on the idea that “good girls don’t” and that men were perpetually horny aggressors taking advantage of innocent women. Today’s simplistic and reductive hot takes on the song act as if that idea were actually the common belief at the time, and most Americans from 1930-1960 actually did live according to the Hayes Code and network TV standards and practices. Basically, you’ve grown to believe the false version and become skeptical of the real one. (For the record, people didn’t live in black and white before 1950, either).

Okay, so why make an issue of it?

Usually this would warrant about as much concern as worrying about whether Alanis Morissette understands the idiomatic use of “ironic.” It’s well intentioned and at worst harmless, right? Why not remind people about the importance of consent? And isn’t it good to remind guys that they have a responsibility to listen to and respect the people they’re with, and not try to wear them down?

Sure it is, but the problem is that over-simplifications are polarizing. When you find yourself spending years asserting something that’s trivially true — and being rewarded as if you’re making a bold statement — then you gradually chip away at the idea that it’s trivially true. You open the discussion to the idea that the things that are true are in fact somehow controversial, or at least topics about which reasonable people can disagree.

The fact that’s incontrovertibly true about all this is that consent is essential. Only an idiot or a monster would consider that controversial. Idiots and monsters don’t deserve to be part of the conversation, but asserting the shallow and superficial take on an important issue (even if it’s correct) is inviting bullshit to be presented as if it were a reasonable counter-argument.

Reducing everybody who’s performed or enjoyed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the past 70 years to a clueless, sexist stereotype isn’t progressive. It sets an unacceptably low bar for what constitutes progress.

Now They Set Their Clocks By Mine

Moana is a by-the-numbers Disney princess movie that keeps going off-script to transform into something inspired.

In the Animation pavilion at Disney’s California Adventure, they run a looping show where scenes from Disney movies are projected on screens all around the lobby along with concept art and music. Each movie gets about 30 seconds to a minute, so sitting in the lobby will run you through the entire gamut of Disney Movie Emotions in about 5-10 minutes.

I was reminded of it while I was watching Moana, since within the first 20 or so minutes of the movie I felt like I’d already gone through two Disney movies’ worth of emotions, and that was all before Maui’s entrance started the plot.

It’s kind of like shotgunning a Disney Princess movie, having someone stridently yelling Believe In Your Dreams! Find Your True Calling! You Have Five Seconds To Comply! right into your ear. It’s also just self-aware enough to sidestep the most trite aspects of Disney Princess movies, but not so self-aware as to be insufferable. It explicitly mentions its heritage when Moana denies that she’s a princess, and Maui insists that being the daughter of the chief and having an animal sidekick automatically makes her a princess. I also wonder if it intentionally did a bait-and-switch on the audience by setting up the adorable pig Pua to be her sidekick, but then leaving him behind in favor of Heihei, “the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation.”

But for every element of Moana that sticks close to the template, there’s something else novel, original, or simply inspired. I doubt I’m the only white American who’s getting his first exposure to Polynesian mythology from the movie; up to now, I only knew that Pele was a volcano goddess and that Maui gave his people time.

It’s reassuring that the filmmakers made a concerted effort to get it right, consulting with people knowledgeable about the various cultures in the Pacific Islands and casting people with that heritage for the main roles. (Okay, so they kind of lucked out that The Rock is of Samoan descent since he’s proven he can do just about everything, but they still get a point from me).

After Hercules — another movie largely about a demigod and made by several of the same people at Disney feature animation — took so many liberties with the mythology in order to make an acceptable family movie, I wondered why they’d even bothered in the first place. It’s still charming (albeit inescapably 1990s), but if you’re having to change that much of the source material, why make an adaptation? Moana feels more like a respectful amalgamation of the mythology of several different Polynesian cultures than an attempt to sanitize and whitewash interesting stories into trite reiterations of the same idea.

In fact, that scene with Maui’s introduction with the song “You’re Welcome” is a great example of how Moana gets it right. It’s multimedia and multicultural: a traditional broadway-style song about a Pacific Islander demigod, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, an Atlantic Islander demigod. (He shares songwriting credit with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, but it certainly seems the most like his work from Hamilton). Maui’s dance is a combination of traditional musical theater and Polynesian dances. The stories he mentions are each from different cultures’ versions of Maui and creation stories. His tattoos aren’t just an example of 2D animation combining with 3D, but of flat and graphic cartooning inspired by Polynesian art.

To me, it never feels like lazy pastiche or opportunistic cultural appropriation, but like an earnest collaboration: this is the kind of moving, often funny, often breathtaking work that we can create when we share what we all have to contribute. Every production has its share of difficulty and 5-year-long animated feature projects most of all, but Moana feels to me like a movie with no compromises. (I think the sequence with Tamatoa is by far the weakest in the movie, but the lighting effects are really cool and Jemaine Clement’s David Bowie impression is always welcome). Disney’s 900,000-lb gorilla status is often criticized and with good reason, but I think that here’s an example of how it pays off brilliantly: something beautiful gets made and stories and values from cultures that aren’t widely known get broadcast to literally of billions of people around the world.

Before the movie was released, there was an insipid and mean-spirited nontroversy around it, an attempt to generate outrage over Maui’s character design. The claim was that people in Polynesian communities were upset that Maui was depicted as “obese,” or according to one particularly nasty complaint: “a hippo.” It was bullshit even before the movie’s release; body shaming passed off as cultural sensitivity. After the movie’s release, it’s even more offensive: not only are the men and women of Moana depicted as being of various body types (most of them buff AF), but an aspect of Maui’s birth and his self-image are ingeniously incorporated into the Disney Princess-threads of the story, to cleverly tie together all the disparate accounts of Maui’s adventures into a single narrative about his relationship with humankind. Which makes the body-shaming even worse.

In Moana, Maui’s big, brash, and self-assured, and there’s little question he can do what he sets out to do. Or at least if there is, it’s not because of his body. The same goes for Moana herself: not only is there no trace of a romantic comedy in the movie, but her gender is never made an issue. In the beginning of the film, it’s established she’s going to be the next chief, and no one questions it or challenges it, and at no point in the movie is there even a hint that her strength is uncharacteristic or unusual for a young woman. (It’s not ignored, either; you could argue that the quality that makes Moana the hero in the climax of the film is not physical strength or stubbornness, but the empathy that’s usually considered a feminine trait).

And in neither case does it feel like anything is missing. Instead, it feels as if we’ve spent years making Important Progressive Issues out of things that aren’t genuine issues at all. In the case of complaining of Maui’s character design (or even more ridiculously, complaining about sexual dimorphism of the volcanoes in Lava), it was dressing up an at-best superficial, at worst genuinely offensive dismissal as if it were a progressive argument. And with all the Strong Female Characters, it was setting a weirdly low and unnecessary “as good as any man” bar for female characters to pass, and then cheering the characters that passed it instead of wondering why we needed such an artificial distinction in the first place.

So sure, Variety, I’ll agree that Moana shows that diversity can be good for business. But I also say it exposes some of the hypocrisies of the faux-Progressives who disguise self-importance as inclusivity, or attempt to use sensitivity as a bludgeon. It shows the kind of breathtaking and beautiful things that can be created when we respect another culture and give it a chance to speak, and then not “appropriate” it, but make it part of the celebration of our shared humanity.

Some-maj

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is at its best when it’s at its darkest and weirdest.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a weird movie, and I still can’t tell if I like it in spite of that, or because of it.

I don’t mean “weird” in the way you’d expect a movie called “Fantastic Beasts” to be weird, but weird in the ways you wouldn’t expect the first movie in a huge new blockbuster franchise to be. It’s oddly paced and weirdly edited. Dialogue-heavy scenes will have long exchanges where the camera’s focused on the people who are listening instead of speaking. Scenes end abruptly or linger a bit too long. Some have music that feels jarringly out of place. Many have swooping camera movements that focus on the wrong thing, or end at a weird angle as if the direction of rotation was broken and no one thought to fix it. There are sudden shifts in tone from rutting-monster-chasing slapstick to child abuse. The main male character is off-putting and unlikeable, and the main female character is inscrutable.

Weirdest of all is that it kinda works.

I also saw Doctor Strange this week, and it’s another movie that’s simultaneously trying to be a huge-budget franchise entry and a cavalcade of wondrous sights like you’ve never seen before. I liked Doctor Strange a lot; it was often visually interesting and surprisingly funny. But it was also 100% a superhero origin story that followed the Marvel template from start to finish. Fantastic Beasts kept doing stuff I didn’t expect — not always in a good way, but in a way that made it feel slightly less like Corporate Entertainment Product. (The reviewers on “What the Flick?” had exactly the opposite reaction, so as always, your mileage may vary).

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the best of the Harry Potter movies, and if I’m being honest, it’s the only one that I’d be interested in seeing again. I was a bigger fan of the books than the movies, and the general aesthetic of the movies than the movies themselves. When we went to the Warner Brothers studio tour outside London, I loved the look of everything and found myself repeatedly wishing that the movies had assembled all the parts into something better. But Prisoner of Azkaban is the one movie in the series that feels less like a franchise installment and more like Alfonso Cuarón making a movie set in the Harry Potter universe.

Fantastic Beasts isn’t as good as that, but to me it has much of the same feel. It often feels like the movie that someone wanted to make instead of the movie that someone was contractually obligated to work. And when the jokes do land — like Jacob’s reaction to giggle water in the clip above, or when the “Niffler” (the most charming of all the beasts, and they know it) catches a slow-motion forlorn look at all the jewelry in a shop window he’ll never get to steal — they feel like they’ve earned it.

I’m not sure how much I’m projecting, but I’m wondering how much of my reaction is due to the fact that it’s JK Rowling’s first screenplay. She’s accomplished enough to be able to do whatever the hell she wants, but also inexperienced enough with screenplays in particular that she doesn’t feel completely beholden to formula. So much of the Harry Potter series feels like Rowling was savvy enough to know exactly what the book’s audience would get excited about, from candy and trading cards and sports heroes to skipping class and getting the upper hand on your teachers. Fantastic Beasts felt to me like she was including the ideas she wanted to, even if people in Warner Brothers marketing were balking at the idea of a magical animal movie where the villains are religious fundamentalists and the angry manifestation of people suppressing their true natures from a society that persecutes them for being different.

And good for her. I’ve said before that I’m not a fan of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal theme parks, because it’s beautiful but I think it gets so much wrong about theme park design. Shows don’t have enough capacity, the shops are too small and cramped, and the main attraction is too intense for both ends of the bell curve of its audience. I’ve heard — I still don’t know if it’s apocryphal, though — that a lot of those decisions were mandates from Rowling, who insisted on “authentic” food and “realistic” spaces that would feel like real shops in the UK.

After going back to check out the Hollywood version recently, I’ve lightened up considerably. It’s still not my favorite, and I still don’t think it all works. But it definitely feels like its own thing. It’s memorable, and it feels unique not just in the Universal parks but among theme parks in general. There must be something to be said for breaking from the template and not being worried about screwing everything up.

Electric Sheep

HBO’s Westworld is as much of a post-millennial meta-textual exercise as the original was a 1970s fear-of-technology thriller. That doesn’t mean it has nothing to say, though. Spoilers for the first three episodes.

WestworldOpeningHorse
I was two when the original Westworld came out, so there’s no way I could’ve seen it until the early 80s. I don’t remember anything about the movie itself. But it had so much pop cultural weight that I vividly remember images from it, in particular Yul Brenner’s Gunslinger, and especially the image of his face coming off. It’s one of those iconic images of the 1970s, right up there with Steve Austin fighting a Sasquatch and Charlton Heston cursing at the Statue of Liberty.

Which is a big part of why I think the reversal in the first episode of HBO’s Westworld is so brilliant. It’s not just a silly attention-grabbing twist like having Captain Kirk’s most famous lines delivered by Spock and vice versa. When it’s revealed that The Man in Black played by Ed Harris is actually one of the guests and not the robotic hosts, it’s packed with a lot more significance than just a fake-out callback. It’s an overture for the entire series.

Where do your sympathies lie, and how quickly do they change? Why do they change once it’s revealed a character is “real” or not? If you can’t tell the difference between the hosts and the guests, then why is there a difference at all? Are the Man in Black’s actions still reprehensible when you consider that he’s just playing a game? And what happens when we realize we’re at least one level removed from everything, and the question of “real” or “fake” is moot because everyone’s a character in a TV series?

The Assassination of Teddy Flood by Some Griefer smh!

On the podcast Shall We Play a Game?, the hosts (human, I’m presuming) JJ Sutherland and Chris Sullentrop have spent a couple of episodes talking about Westworld, specifically how the central conceit of the theme park compares to open-world video games.

They were disappointed that the series focused so strongly on the implications of artificial intelligences becoming sentient, because that’s a concept that’s already been exhaustively explored in decades of science fiction. Here’s a TV series that has the opportunity to be fully informed by video game culture, and it seems like a waste to spend that just doing a retread of all the Star Trek episodes about Data.

In particular, Sullentrop felt that the show clearly wanted us to empathize with the hosts and find the Man in Black completely reprehensible. But he’s merely playing the game (or, as we later find out, the meta-game). If he’s been visiting Westworld for 30 years, then he’s seen the cycles repeat over and over. He’s seen all of these characters be murdered and come back the next day with no signs of trauma and no memory of what had happened. He’s seen the older models, which are just barely removed from current-day Audo-Animatronics and couldn’t possibly be mistaken for a human.

By that measure, the Man in Black was just killing an NPC in a video game, but the series was playing it up as grand tragedy. That’s the same kind of thing that’s been used as a gag, like Austin Powers asking why nobody thinks about how things affect the family of a henchman.

I don’t quite agree with their criticisms. The idea of AIs gaining sentience isn’t a new one, but I think Westworld is combining it with the notion of interactivity and intent to add more nuance to the entire question of ethics and culpability in arts and entertainment. It’s a discussion that came up a lot about games in the early-to-mid-2000s, as opportunists tried to create a panic about “murder simulators” like Grand Theft Auto. Everybody who played and/or made video games was forced to take a step back and consider the question: is it obscene, or at best unhealthy, to be enjoying a hobby that’s disproportionately focused on murdering ever-increasingly realistic computer-generated human beings?

At the time, I thought we generally came to a consensus, and the consensus was a resounding “…err, probably not?” Whenever a watchdog group tries to go on a crusade against an artistic medium, all the hand-wringing and pearl-clutching ultimately falls to the basic fact that most adults can distinguish fiction from reality. Players do things in games like GTA specifically because they know they’re not real. So much time was wasted criticizing the game for glorifying violence, when it would’ve been better spent criticizing the game for believing that its adolescent bullshit was howlingly clever and biting satire.

Stay a While, and Listen

Westworld responds to the whole discussion with the question: “okay, fine, but what if the NPCs were really convincingly realistic?”

Episode two introduces us to a new everyman protagonist William and his douchebro companion Logan, two for-real-this-time guests who give us a chance to experience the park as an outsider coming in. William’s a first-time visitor who’s guided through an orientation by a beautiful woman. He asks, indirectly, whether she’s one of the android hosts or an employee of the park. Her response is one of the core ideas of the entire series: “If you can’t tell, does it matter?”

The characters tend to use the term “theme park” to describe Westworld, but most of the terminology throughout the series treats it like an open-world video game. There are mentions of levels, zones, and easter eggs. We see the guests get invited on quests in much the same way they do in video game equivalents: a seemingly random encounter with a character who introduces a side story.

When William gets approached by one of these — a grizzled old prospector with a story about a missing treasure — Logan warns him not to waste his time on such a “low level” distraction. When the same prospector tries again to tell his story, later inside a restaurant, Logan responds by stabbing him. He pins the old man’s hand to the table, causing him to scream in pain and shock and bleed all over everything in the middle of dinner.

There’s no question that the character is an android, or that it’ll quickly be reset with no memory of the event, patched up to give his quest to someone else. There’s also no question that it’s a supremely dick move on the part of Logan, vulgar and needlessly cruel. Knowing that it’s not “real” doesn’t do much to mitigate the fact that he chose to violently attack someone that could scream and bleed. Westworld‘s not content to say “they know it’s not real” and leave it at that.

Whoroborous

Earlier in the series, there’s an important scene in which the park’s narrative designer pitches a new storyline to the board of directors. You can tell it’s an important scene because it’s got a ton of extras and an Anthony Hopkins monologue. The narrative designer is describing a dark and violent adventure that would tick off all the “adult content” boxes in a video game or, for that matter, an HBO series. There’s “self-cannibalism” and “something I like to call the whoroborous,” which I have to admit is genius in how economically it reinforces that this is an irredeemably loathsome character. He promises that the experience will give guests the “privilege of getting to know the character they’re most interested in: themselves.”

After his pitch, he’s completely shut down by Hopkins as the park’s co-creator and ineffable creative director. He dismisses it as nothing but cheap thrills and parlor tricks. The guests “already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.” And then the unbreakable combo burn to cap it off: “The only thing your story tells me, Mr. Sizemore, is who you are.”

It works as a statement about the “death of the artist” and an encapsulation of about a decade’s worth of online discussion about narrative games. With any game that’s not purely abstract, there’s going to be a tension between systems and narrative. I think it’s a nice touch that Westworld depicts them as two separate divisions within the company who each have no respect for the work of the other. It’s also interesting that the show so far has seemed a lot more sympathetic to the systems team than the narrative designers, considering that the show runners are both writers.

For a long stretch in the early 2000s, there was a backlash against narrative in video games, after AAA developers abused the whole notion of interactivity with over-long cut-scenes. The overriding sentiment seemed to be that narrative was a stopgap until we could realize a fully systems-driven interactive environment. Like Star Trek‘s holodecks, or of course, Westworld. Procedural generation, environmental storytelling, and emergent narratives were the future! So it was interesting to see a fictionalized account of that technology idealized and perfected, and the fiction still demands narrative designers.

The unique power of interactive entertainment is that it deals with potentials and possibility spaces. It’s well-described by that idea of players being able to discover who they could be, instead of who they are. A designer imposing a pre-determined story on players is narrowing all the thousands of possibilities down to one or two. For the player, it’s passive listening.

But a guest in the 1973 version of Westworld would be exposed to the opposite extreme: nothing but settings, characters, and systems. The only story driving the experience is the guest’s own, so there’s little chance for discovery.

The original movie and the new series have similar scenes: a newly-arrived guest comes into his own by shooting a bad guy. In the original, the new guest (Richard Benjamin) gets bullied by the Gunslinger, his pal (James Brolin) tells him to kill him, and so he does. He does it a second time, is put in jail, and his pal helps him escape by blowing up the side of the jail and murdering the sheriff.

In the new series, William leaves the orientation and chooses a white hat as his last decision: as we heard earlier, “the guests already know who they are.” Later, bandits start a shootout in town. William discovers that he’s not completely invincible in Westworld, as he gets shot and knocked back. He’s about to stay back out of the fight until he notices one of the prostitutes is in danger. He responds by aiming his gun at the threatening bandit, and he fires it for the first time, killing the bandit and saving the girl.

He’d already defined himself as a good guy, but it wasn’t until the story surprised him and pushed back against him that he took action. Without both the audience and the artist taking part, there’s little chance for discovery. It ends up like having a conversation with yourself, or having your head up your own ass.

(Incidentally: re-watching the original Westworld, I was pleasantly surprised to see the park had a NASA-style control room complete with rows of computers with spinning tape drives. They’d monitor the guests and respond with events like “initiate the queen’s infidelity” or “cue the bar fight.” It’s like a live action version of the “narrative engines” that people have spent over a decade pitching in video games, like a perpetual motion engine run on snake oil).

How The West Was 0x01

As much as I liked the series, I initially assumed that keeping the Western setting was a weird, clumsy anachronism. I’m not a huge fan of all of Michael Crichton’s work, but he was indisputibly a genius at recognizing trends and being able to exploit them. He came up with Westworld right as the western was fading and dystopian sci-fi was getting popular. But now, like Kris Straub says in his webcomic, we don’t even make movies about the Old West anymore. If it were made in 2016, it’d have to be Game of Thrones But With Robots. It’s weird to expect Westerns to have a resurgence at a time that’s far enough in the future to have androids indistinguishable from humans.

It may not be plausible, but for storytelling, it makes a ton of sense. The American frontier setting has just the right connotation of adventure, lawlessness, freedom, and familiarity for a theme park where rich people shoot and have sex with robots. Westerns in particular are all about symbols that got encoded into pop culture over decades: white hats, black hats, guns, “savages”, gallows, saloons with world-weary madames. You can instantly distinguish between the “theme park” and “real world” on sight, and you can pick up on characters’ identities, relationships, and back stories almost as easily.

One of the things that impressed me so much about the HBO series’s pilot is how economical it is at setting up the story. It focuses almost completely on Dolores and how everything relates to her. The show doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining the concept of the theme park or details about how everything works, trusting that audiences will be able to follow along through context and that amazing opening sequence. All the traditional introduction — William’s orientation and his arrival at the park — is saved for the second episode. It’s no longer strictly necessary by that point, so can mostly serve as character introduction for William and Logan.

Much of that economy of storytelling is possible because of the iconography of Westerns. The stories don’t have to be that complicated; they just have to be understandable. They’re all in service of the “real” story, which at least at the start, is all about headier stuff like what it means to be sentient and how our actions define us.

That’s also what’s so impressive about Evan Rachel Wood’s performance as Dolores. She often has to play multiple versions of the character within the same scene, constantly switching between them not just in attitude but in accent. It’s especially remarkable in her “sessions” with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), where she has to go from being completely in character, to being an android playing that character, to being an android, to being an android who’s starting to gain sentience. Each shift has to read instantly, because it often lasts for only a single line of dialogue.

There’s a scene in which Dolores is alone with Teddy (James Marsden), delivering a conversation that was written for them and that you can tell they’d both acted out countless times before, and you can tell immediately when she’s gone off script. She’s started asking questions a real woman would ask, and Teddy’s unable to answer without another cliche.

Lady Westworld for Her

Making a story that plays with well-worn stereotypes always seems to make some audiences suspicious. I’m not sure if it’s actually a new phenomenon, but over the past few years I’ve noticed that critics of popular art like games, comics, and TV series, are extremely reluctant to recognize intent on the part of the creators. Emily Nussbaum’s “The Meta-Politics of Westworld in The New Yorker is far from the most egregious example, but it’s the one I read most recently.

Presumably because she’s coming at the show not as a video game player but as a TV critic, Nussbaum believes that the metatext in Westworld is about television: it “introduces itself as a science-fiction thriller about cyborgs who become self-aware, then reveals its true identity as what happens when an HBO drama struggles to do the same.” She concludes that the first four episodes have their moments, but that the series never goes beyond its premise “into something profound.”

I think by making assumptions about the show’s ambitions and influences, the essay does the series a real disservice. Nussbaum ends her essay by contrasting the sexist Westerns of the 50s and 60s with the new series’s focus on characters like Dolores and Thandie Newton’s Maeve Millay, but concludes:

This is not to say that the show is feminist in any clear or uncontradictory way — like many series of this school, it often treats male fantasy as a default setting, something that everyone can enjoy. It’s baffling why certain demographics would ever pay to visit Westworld. Would straight women be titillated or depressed by cyborg hookers? Why would a lesbian guest — coded, obnoxiously, as less than hot — behave with a prostitute exactly as a straight man would? Where are all the gay male bachelor parties? […] So female customers get scattered like raisins into the oatmeal of male action; and, while the cast is visually polyglot, the dialogue is color-blind. The result is a layer of insoluble instability, a puzzle that the viewer has to work out for herself: Is Westworld the blinkered macho fantasy, or is that “Westworld”? It’s a meta-cliffhanger with its own allure, leaving us only one way to find out: stay tuned for next week’s episode.

Except it’s really not a difficult puzzle. The only things that make it tricky are the assumption that depicting something is the same as endorsing it, and holding onto an ostensibly open-minded but ultimately prescriptive notion of gender. That’s especially unfortunate when you consider that so much of the series is about how we’re defined as people by our actions and behavior instead of a predetermined identity.

Westworld doesn’t seem to be focused on gender, because its core tension isn’t men vs women but humans vs robots. The park is a movie-and-TV fantasy version of the Old West, so like its inspiration, it’s disproportionately male and women are confined to homesteads and whorehouses. But the series treats gender as arbitrary.

As far as pure representation goes: both women and men are represented at every level of the organization from management to tech staff to artistic staff to operations. Even “on stage,” the show makes an effort to show women — and robots designed to look like women — in prominent roles, like a bandit leader or a deputy.

But the criticism of Westworld as being a “male fantasy” is about more than just representation. And here, it makes assumptions about gender — the demographic split between stuff boys like and stuff girls like — that I’d hoped we were all maturing out of. It assumes that of course, straight women and “gay bachelor parties” wouldn’t want to ride horses and shoot guns and have lots of sex. In video games, players and publishers both have spent years trying to defend the shitty depiction (or lack of depiction) of women in shooters and open-world games by asserting the patently false statement that women just don’t play those games. It leads to a gross notion of demographics split down binary gender lines, where presumably, Westworld is for boys and Sex and the City is for girls (and gay men).

Even if you accept the traditional definitions of masculine vs feminine qualities, Westworld has indeed been feminist in an uncontradictory and unambiguous way. It’s in a sequence about Maeve, her appeal to the guests, and a systems tech named Elsie (Shannon Woodward). Over the course of the second episode, we see the staff reacting to Maeve’s declining popularity as a sexual object with the guests.

We see three versions of the scene where she delivers a short written monologue in which she arrived in America and discovered that she had the freedom to do “whatever the fuck I wanted” (because when Westworld has an idea, it likes to drive it home all the way). After the first fails because Maeve has a severe flashback to an earlier “life,” a pair of techs from the narrative division come in. The man does a quick exam and concludes “I’d fuck her,” and the woman orders him to double Maeve’s “aggression” characteristic; “She’s a hooker. No need to be coy.”

After that, we see Maeve deliver the same speech to an intimidated guest, who slinks away bashfully. With so many failures, she’ll have to be decommissioned! That’s when Elsie steps in, does an analysis, then undoes the clumsy changes from the “morons in narrative.” She restores aggression to normal but increases Maeve’s perception and “emotional acuity.” We see the scene play out a third time, Maeve nails delivery of the story, and she hooks up a guest with exactly who he wants, in the form of a different prostitute.

Choosing empathy over aggression: it really couldn’t be less ambiguous without delivering another explicit monologue.

The Man Who Made Out With Liberty Valance

I find the criticism annoying because one of my favorite aspects of Westworld is how it avoids explict moralizing. The show depicts sexuality and orientation as being almost as arbitrary as gender.

Either the park has a disproportionate number of gay or bisexual employees and guests, or the show is depicting a future in which nobody’s as hung up on sexual orientation as we are, and everyone’s a little bisexual. (I hope it’s the latter). Either way, neither the characters nor the show seem to care one way or the other. Logan pairs up with both a male and female host the second he arrives at the park. Later, he’s shown having sex with two different women and a man, and it’s not made explicit who’s a host and who’s a guest.

In the first episode, Elsie is shown making out with one of the female hosts when no one is looking. The show does pay attention to it and treat it as ominous, but not because it’s two women. It’s notable because it shows how even the employees are unable to stop thinking of the hosts as if they were people.

(Anthony Hopkins’s character reinforces this idea later on, when he notices that a worker has put a gown around one of the hosts. He chastises the worker, tears off the gown, and cuts the host’s face with a scalpel to prove that it’s just an object. “It has no modesty to be preserved,” he insists, even though I side with the poor worker. I wouldn’t want to spend every day at my job with a dong in my face, anthropomorphized or not).

We see two different women guests taking advantage of women prostitutes, so I’m not sure who’s the one Nussbaum describes as “coded, obnoxiously, as less than hot.” Regardless, it’s the most obnoxious part of her review. For one thing, I can’t imagine the actress would be thrilled to hear that she’s somehow not hot enough to be a positive representation of lesbian and bisexual women. For another, they’re guests. Almost all of the guests are “coded to be less than hot.”

In fact, we should’ve been able to tell that Teddy wasn’t one of the guests from scene one. Simply because he’s played my James Marsden, who has a face too handsome to look quite real. All of the hosts are cast to be striking — either traditionally attractive like Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, and Marsden; or character-actor memorable. The guests and the employees are supposed to read as real people. (Which is why someone who looks like Shannon Woodward is made to look movie-librarian average).

If You Can’t Tell, Does it Matter?

So if the puzzle is how Westworld feels about Westworld the place, there are a few clues. Like how the employees all seem miserable, paranoid, and lonely. How they comment how horribly the hosts are treated and the only redeeming factor is that they can’t remember any of it. How a guest is shown shooting a bandit leader in a clumsy anti-climax of a dramatic scene, and then he goofily gets his wife with him to pose with the corpse. How the man running the park’s “story” is vulgar, self-important, and thinks in terms of lurid, cheap thrills and stereotypes. How a drunk guest interrupts another scene by killing Teddy for no reason, right in the middle of a conversation, and then unloads his gun into the body and shouts “now that’s a vacation!”

There’s another scene from the original Westworld that has a parallel in the HBO series. It’s after Richard Benjamin’s character has murdered the Gunslinger just for spilling his drink, then had sex with a prostitute robot with the sound of gunfire from a bank robbery coming in from the street outside. He was also in a pointless bar fight that destroyed the entire saloon, shot and killed the town sheriff while escaping from jail, and murdered the Gunslinger a second time, but I honestly can’t remember what happened in what order. But at some point after his murder and sex spree, he leans back and tells his pal that he’s having a lot of fun, and they smile knowingly and the scene ends.

In the first episode of the new series, the scene cuts to a shack out in the wilderness in which HBO Series-style sex is happening all over. A generically handsome guest stands up from the bed and tells his pal that he’s having a lot of fun. His pal is “coded as less than hot” but it’s Kyle Bornheimer, who Hollywood casts as Average Everyman but we all know is really pretty hot. In any case, Kyle does more than just smile knowingly, he says how this is just the beginning and Teddy, their guide, will take them on an adventure. And if they get bored, “we’ll just use him for target practice.” The camera moves to Teddy, staring blankly with no reaction as a fly crawls across his face.

The original Westworld is an uncomplicated movie. It’s a sequence of events with no larger message apart from “don’t give guns to robots.” The new series shows sad and lonely people pouring their loneliness into robotic companions, companions who are gradually gaining sentience due to the memory of the horrible torture they’re subjected to. It expands the ethics of interactivity into a meditation on how our actions define us. I’d say that if you can’t tell the difference, it does matter.

1984 Upside Down, or, Use Your Allusions

Stranger Things would still be pretty great if it were just a shameless pastiche of 80s movies, but it ends up transcending that.

van-halen-1984
Stranger Things is so blatantly, aggressively an homage to the early 1980s that it’s amazing it works at all. There’s hardly a single shot or character or situation that doesn’t in some way reference something from pop culture during the age when Amblin Entertainment Ruled the Earth.

On Vulture, Scott Tobias made a list of film references in the series. (If you haven’t yet watched all eight episodes, be forewarned it’s full of spoilers even from the first entry). Vimeo user Ulysse Thevenon made a compilation video with even more references in a side-by-side comparison.

With all of that referencing going on, it could’ve ended up like nothing more than a dramatic adaptation of a VH-1 I Love the 80s special: a bunch of callbacks that amount to nothing more than vacuous nostalgia. But somehow Stranger Things doesn’t just strike the right balance between “inspiration” and “slavish recreation;” I genuinely think it synthesizes everything into a uniquely 21st century kind of storytelling.

It’s the pop culture equivalent of the Higgs boson: proof of something that had previously been purely theoretical. In this case, a piece of art that’s both aggressively meta-textual and completely earnest.

Since I started writing this, there’ve been dozens of hot takes, explanations, recaps, and analyses written of the series. Instead of rehashing all of that, I’ll try to keep it (relatively) simple and just focus on how I think the references worked, and how they made the series resonate so much with me.

Super 8 Upside Down

Still from Super 8 from Dan North's Spectacular Attractions site
I’ve seen several people compare it to Super 8, which I liked a lot, and which is another extended love letter to early 80s Steven Spielberg. It makes sense, since they have so much in common. But essentially, I think Super 8 and Stranger Things are conceptual opposites.

Super 8 is a modern filmmaker’s attempt to reproduce the feel of late 70s to early 80s Spielberg. It’s like JJ Abrams’s American Graffiti, except he grew up loving filmmaking more than cars. It’s 2011 in “cinematic language” — the images are too sharp, and just look at those lens flares! — but it’s trying to tell a story that’s around 1984 in spirit.

Stranger Things, on the other hand, uses the “cinematic language” of the late 70s and early 80s to tell a modern story. I don’t think the nostalgia is the end goal; it’s a stylistic flourish, or (less charitably) a really effective gimmick. The story, though, is not the kind of thing they were making in 1984.

Calling it just a pastiche of scenes from 1980s movies ignores the fact that those scenes wouldn’t survive in 2016 unaltered. Salem’s Lot scared the pants off me as a kid, but the scene that frightened me the most when I was eight years old seems pretty silly now. And it only took a few years for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to ripen from “spellbinding” and “uplifting” into “nauseatingly maudlin” and “difficult to watch.”

Super 8 seemed like it wanted me to appreciate 80s Spielberg from a respectful distance. As a result, it made me feel like a guy in his 40s reminiscing about the movies he loved as a kid. But Stranger Things made me feel like I was that kid again, completely wrapped up in the story and eager to find out what happened next, the same way I watched TV and movies in those innocent days before I took cinema studies classes and started a blog.

Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jaded Eye

I was completely on board for the whole thing, without that one-level-removed detachment I usually maintain when watching a movie or TV show. The last time I can remember being so engrossed in something was — not that long ago, actually, since it was while watching The Force Awakens. That movie was criticized for being too much of a retread of the originals, or being too much of an exercise in nostalgia to become a classic in its own right. I say that using so much of the “language” of the original movies is a crucial part of why Force Awakens was able to make a 45-year-old feel like a 6-year-old again. It stops being conscious reference and starts to work subliminally.

Stranger Things does something similar. It’s constantly making references but rarely drawing attention to them. Since the Amblin influence is almost never explicit, the series isn’t making any kind of commentary on it. It’s set in the early 80s, but it’s not making any explicit commentary on the time period, either. (Apart from Firestarter-style government conspiracy paranoia, but that’s been pretty much a constant since the 70s). Phones and huge walkie-talkies feature heavily in the plot, but there’s really not a whole lot that would have to change to accommodate cell phones and the internet.

I think that’s worth pointing out because the main influences — Stephen King and Steven Spielberg — were both so focused on being contemporary. King’s entire schtick with his blockbuster novels was taking classic monsters and horror stories and giving them a modern (for the late 70s) update. And Spielberg was so dedicated to putting fantastic stories into completely mundane settings that it almost seemed like he fetishized suburbia. I think in both cases, the goal was to make the subject less distant and more relatable: vampire attacks, telekinetic teen witches, and alien encounters may just as well be happening to you in your very neighborhood!

So Stranger Things is neither contemporary nor a traditional period piece. It isn’t really like Super 8, because it’s not really making any explicit commentary on the 1980s or the love of filmmaking or the naive enthusiasm of youth. And it’s not exactly like E.T. because it’s not trying to be contemporary. In terms of period references, the Steven Spielberg movie it most resembles is Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Raiders isn’t trying to depict the real 1936; it’s a fantasy version that exists only in the movies. It borrowed character archetypes and situations from old movies not in the hope that the audience would recognize them as references, but because the imagery immediately evokes “high adventure.” And Raiders has about as much to say about Nazism as Stranger Things does about post-Watergate paranoia over government-sponsored shadow programs: nothing, except that they make great villains.

Nothing’s specific enough to become parody or reference; it all just blends together into a pleasant melange of K-cars, mix tapes, big phones, bad clothes, and kids who still spent most of the day riding their bikes. As somebody who was around the same age as the kids in Stranger Things in 1984, it’s extremely unsettling seeing my childhood turned into gauzy days-gone-by Happy Days-style nostalgia. Especially since we were a generation so self-obsessed that we didn’t even wait until the end of the decade before we started deconstructing it and trying to define the zeitgeist. It feels like all the significant details getting sandblasted away in favor of a pair of Foster Grants and a Walkman, just like how I know nothing of the 1920s apart from flappers and prohibition.

It also means that your brain isn’t looking for specific flashes of recognition so much as taking it all in sub-verbally as the tone and mood of 1984-ish. It was a distant, simpler time, when pre-teens were always getting into fantastic adventures, and the little sister from E.T. grew up to develop pyrokinetic powers and went on adventures with The Goonies and the teens from Some Kind of Sixteen Pretty In Pink Candles to go look at a dead body that was left by the Alien.

The Epic of Lando

Although I think the “cinematic language” of Stranger Things is supposed to work silently and subconsciously, the show does make a lot of explicit references, too.

That in itself makes it weird: even today but especially in the 80s, movie and TV stories all existed in their own distinct parallel universes, each complete with fake brands, fake celebrities, and fake popular culture. Whether it was because of licensing issues, fear of being labeled a “sell out” with product placement, fear of being too topical or dated, or fear of being too unimaginative, productions almost never made mention of identifiable aspects of the real world.

Scott Tobias’s article mentions how Stranger Things explicitly mentions Poltergeist, and then creates a “hall of mirrors” as the characters go on to experience much of the same events as in Poltergeist. There’s an actual 1980s song in every episode, even if they weren’t 100% accurate to the year. (And they’re good songs, too! The Bangles’ version of “Hazy Shade of Winter” has always been severely underrated). Eleven watches a Coca-Cola commercial, and she’s nuts for Eggo waffles instead of Reese’s Pieces. There are movie posters for The Evil Dead and The Thing prominently visible hanging on walls in the background.

I don’t think they’re supposed to be just period details (apart from the Coke ad), but thematic. It’s significant that Joyce is the one who mentions Poltergeist, since the memory foreshadows the fact that the rest of the her story mirrors that of the lead character in Poltergeist. (If you don’t think Jobeth Williams was the star of that movie, you saw a very different movie from the one I did).

The other characters have references that reflect their character arcs, to a lesser degree. It’s Jonathan who has the (inappropriate) Evil Dead poster, and his “major” moment is setting up traps in a small house to try and kill a rampaging monster. Mike has the poster for The Thing in his basement, and he’ll go on to discover something alien that causes his whole group to be suspicious of each other and makes him wonder who he can trust.

It suggests that they’re using 80s references similarly to how ancient poems use allusions: they place the characters in a lineage of archetypal heroes. I don’t think that’s an entirely BS too-many-cinema-studies-classes read on it, either, since the show is even more explicit with it.

The three pop culture institutions that get the most direct references in Stranger Things are The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, X-Men, and Star Wars. One interesting aspect of that is that all of those properties were still fringe nerd-markers in the early 1980s, which had a big resurgence into the mainstream by 2016. (Even as ubiquitous as Star Wars was, there was always the idea that it was silly and you were supposed to be at least a little embarrassed for liking it).

The more interesting aspect — and possibly something that’s only possible because of their renewed popularity and status as “cultural institutions” — is that the references are used as shorthand. They mention “Mirkwood” as the scary place where the first attack took place. They describe the alternate dimension as “The Vale of Shadows” to immediately understand what it is. They understand Eleven’s powers by comparing her to Professor X or Jean Grey.

Most directly of all, they compare Eleven alternately to Yoda (as an unassuming figure who turns out to have great power) and Lando (as a traitor). To drive the idea home, they have Eleven levitating the Millennium Falcon with her mind when she’s trying to find out what she can do. For audiences in 2016 — and for nerdy kids in 1984 — the characters and story of Star Wars are so well-recognized that just the name of a character can tell you everything you need to know.

Digress Much?

Since I made the claim that Stranger Things is “uniquely 21st century storytelling,” I’ve got to compare it to how they did it in the 1990s. The best example I can think of is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the TV series.

It was also an attempt to take classic stories about monsters and update them to make them relatable to a contemporary audience. And like the Stephen King novels, it tried to turn its monsters into metaphors. But it took the idea and did something completely — even tragically — 1990s in spirit: it made the characters self-aware. King’s early novels and short stories still showed affection for the classic monsters; the psychological interpretations and metaphors expanded on traditional horror stories.

But starting with the premise (and obviously, the title) of the movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer wanted us to know that the monsters were old-fashioned and silly, and that it was in on the joke. The TV series was more earnest and much less gimmicky, but the inherently 1990s part of the tone remained: vampires and werewolves are fun, but it’s the metaphors for young adulthood that are really important.

So when the characters in Buffy call themselves “The Scooby Gang,” the show’s acknowledging that sure, the concept of a bunch of mystery-solving teens fighting monsters is corny and silly, but they’re aware of it, and they’re doing it for a reason. Stick around for the good stuff, and you might just learn a thing or two about growing up. When they call their enemy the “Big Bad,” they’re acknowledging that the format of their season-long story arcs is formulaic, but don’t worry about it because they’re in on the joke.

Stranger Things doesn’t feel the need to be that defensive. And it’s really no longer necessary: back in the 90s when I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I absolutely loved the self-aware references, since they felt like the makers of the show were talking directly to me. But when the kids in Stranger Things make reference to Lando or Yoda or Professor X, it’s a point of cultural reference that the writers, the audience, and the characters all have in common.

No “Spielberg Stares”

The “Spielberg Stare” is the one thing that makes me keep forgetting what a brilliant director Steven Spielberg is. It makes me forget that The Lost World had one of the best extended action sequences of any film ever with the van teetering over the edge of a cliff, and remember that movie only for the scene in which a teenaged gymnast uses a conveniently-placed set of parallel bars to drop-kick a velociraptor.

The stare is when he has the camera linger on a character looking wide-eyed and open-mouthed at something unbelievable just off-screen. It’s meant to drive home that we in the audience are about to see something absolutely wondrous AF and if we aren’t as blown away by it as the characters in the movie, then what the hell is wrong with us anyway? Around 25-30% of the time — double that if the movie is E.T. — the stare ends with a sudden, rehearsed-a-billion-times-to-try-and-make-it-not-look-so-rehearsed burst of laughter, to let us know that we just can’t contain our delight at what we’re seeing.

If it’s not clear, I hate it. I think it’s maudlin and manipulative, and it didn’t even survive until the mid-1980s before it became completely insufferable. (He kept it up through the 1990s, and it’s one of my least favorite aspects of Jurassic Park).

And there’s none of it in Stranger Things. The closest I can think of would be the scene where the kid is suspended in mid-air over a cliff, or the scene where the utility truck does a back flip over the kids on bikes. Apart from that, though, the characters aren’t allowed to be stunned by anything for too long.

It’s part of the idea that the story doesn’t take place in its own separate universe. The characters aren’t seeing something completely mind-blowing, because they have a frame of reference for most of it: this is like that D&D monster, that’s like that comic book character. So much of science fiction, horror, or action TV is spent establishing how the universe works, showing characters being exposed to the unbelievable for the first time, and repeating the key “rules” in long expository sequences.

And dealing with characters’ skepticism! It’s so common in these stories to have much of the plot revolve around the fact our characters have seen something fantastic and no one else will believe them. There’s certainly some of that in Stranger Things, but it’s usually relegated to the background instead of made the focus of the conflict. Instead, characters who are exposed to the weirdness are quick to get on board and start formulating a plan of what to do next. Even Steve jumps right in to help!

It gives the whole thing a kind of forward momentum that’s so unusual in episodic television that it’s almost jarring.

The cold open has a cold open

Finally, an example of how all of this stuff works together. The still below is from the first scene in the entire series. I don’t believe I’m spoiling anything when I tell you not to get too attached to this guy:
Stranger Things Still
Everyone in the target audience for this series has seen this scene, hundreds of times. Dozens of those times were in The X-Files alone.

It’s the monster’s first victim, the incident that brings our main characters into the story. It sets up a bit of intrigue, giving us some clues as to how the monster works — lights go out when it’s around — but leaving the details for us to figure out — how did it move around so quickly, is it invisible? It sets the tone for the series: how scary is it going to be? How gory? Do they show the attack or leave it to the imagination?

The scene’s always followed by one that introduces our heroes in their natural habitat. We get a few moments of character development, and then something happens that pulls into the story, tying them to the monster from the cold open. Maybe there’s a close call that our hero just barely survives. Maybe there’s a brief flash of the monster, showing us a bit more of what form it takes. Maybe the hero will see something that no one else believes.

I’ll tell you what’s not supposed to happen: the monster isn’t supposed to appear in full view in the second scene of the series. When a kid gets safely into his house and locks the door, that’s supposed to be the end of the scene. The monster shouldn’t still be outside, and the monster sure as hell shouldn’t be able to follow him inside. And on top of everything else, you’re not supposed to lose one of your main characters before the credits even start.

I think the main reason that Stranger Things so effectively scared me, without gore or violence, is that it kept that forward momentum and kept changing up the “rules.” (“We just saw the monster kill someone. Why are we seeing it again so soon after?”) I believe that they were using the same gimmick as in Psycho, but more subtly: using the audience’s expectations of how the story’s “supposed” to work against them. In retrospect, so much of the series’s story was easily explainable and full of standard, formulaic story structure.

But going into the show knowing almost nothing about it, I found myself surprised over and over again. Both by how quickly some parts of the story were moving, and by how scenes would escalate in intensity past what I’d expected them to. (I absolutely did not expect Joyce to see the monster trying to push itself through the wall of her house, for instance). Surprising for a series that’s essentially Frankensteined together from the pieces of movies and TV I’ve already seen: for the bulk of the series up until the final episode, I really had no idea what was going to happen next.

Meta-textual Earnestness

So when I say that Stranger Things is a uniquely 21st century form of storytelling, it has nothing to do with the Netflix distribution and binge-watching. It’s because it’s a synthesis of the kinds of stories we’ve been telling in popular media for the last four decades.

It’s got the fascination with the mundane and realism that I consider to be the hallmark of the 70s cinema, along with the Firestarter elements of paranoia about the government that have just gotten taken more for granted in the decades since.

It’s obviously an homage to the 80s, but I think the main thing it gets from there is sense of a return to fantasy and wonder, plus the kind of genuine earnestness you get when a writer or director isn’t afraid of being too maudlin.

From the 90s, it gets the fascination with references and being self-referential, plus the attempt to assert shared modern pop culture as a type of mythology.

From the 2000s, it gets the fascination with mash-ups and meta-text, along with the decade’s lesson learned by over-saturating cinema and TV with CGI, then scaling back to over-correct.

And the result is something that’s simultaneously meta-textual and earnest, referential without winking. It’s a story focused more on forward momentum and formulating a plan of action that showing an action scene followed by multiple scenes of actors dealing with the consequences. Its scares are earned and they’re old-fashioned, and it’s surprising just how well they work. It recreates a fantasy version of 1984 that somehow feels more “real” than Spielberg’s attempts to be contemporary.

I’ve got no idea whether it can work again as well as it did the first run, or whether you could achieve the same effect without the 1980s homage being an essential part of the whole project. As it stands, though, it does a fantastic job establishing and maintaining a tone of referential sincerity that doesn’t just pay honor to the originals, but in so many ways, surpasses them.

First They Came For The Valleywags, and I Said Nothing

Navigating the minefield of principled opinions that results when wealthy strangers sue each other.

Alien vs Predator poster
As an indication of how plugged into the zeitgeist of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship I am: I’d never heard of Peter Thiel before around 50% of my Twitter feed suddenly started making repeated references to him. That alone isn’t noteworthy, but it is unusual to find myself disagreeing with practically everyone about an issue.

The short version, as far as I’ve been able to tell: the financially devastating lawsuit that Hulk Hogan recently won against Gawker media was secretly financed by Thiel, an absurdly wealthy investor. His motivation for backing the suit, supposedly, was a long-standing vendetta against Gawker for an old piece in Valleywag that outed Thiel as gay. (Apparently, he’s now openly out of the closet, so I’m not hypocritically spreading rumors here).

We’re told by people that I generally agree with, and also John Gruber, that this is a case with chilling implications for every one of us who’s not super-wealthy. TPM warns us that it’s horrifying when a “bully plutocrat” can take advantage of the American judicial system to obliterate journalists he doesn’t like. The Wired piece I linked to at the top suggests a future in which sites can only publish what the wealthy want to hear about themselves. On The Atlantic, Ian Bogost compares Thiel simultaneously to a Bond villain and an internet troll.

(Bogost’s article acknowledges that there are no “good guys” in a story involving Gawker, Hulk Hogan, and a billionaire with a vendetta against a blogging empire, but it also highlights and hyper-links “Trump-supporting” twice when describing Thiel, so it’s kind of easy to see who’s the real villain here).

I’m a little torn. I’m a decidedly non-wealthy person with zero influence in Silicon Valley, and I tend to say “libertarian” and “Trump-supporter” with the same sneering disdain that Ann Coulter uses to talk about “liberals.” I’m also a gay man who spent a lot of years in the closet, and I’m particularly appalled by how Gawker created an environment of muckraking disingenuously disguised as progressivism: having it both ways by treating homosexuality as money-making scandal, and then trying to rationalize it by claiming that they’re doing it to expose hypocrisy or promote visibility or dismantle the heteronormative patriarchy or some such bullshit.

Of course I care about free speech and freedom of the press. Yes, I think the American justice system has been corrupted to be a travesty of “justice,” where the outcome rarely has as much to do with what’s fair as it does with who has the most money. I’m appalled at the idea of a racist, fascist clown taking power of the country, and the creation of an American class of people with such stratospheric wealth that their concerns are completely removed from the rest of the population.

But this story has made me realize one thing: More than any of that, the thing I care most about is a good dramatic arc. Gawker media getting wiped out by a no-longer relevant professional wrestler who starred in No Holds Barred and an adulterous sex tape — that’s just a weird, sleazy story. But Gawker media getting taken down for writing a sleazy non-journalistic gossip item outing a billionaire against his will? That is straight-up delightful cosmic justice.

Have you heard the good news?

Valve has turned me into one of Those People.

I’ve been hearing people evangelizing about VR for years. I always put it in roughly the same category as new parents: they say “it’s changed the way I think about everything!” and “you can’t really understand until you experience it yourself!” I figured okay, fine, that’s genuinely great for you but I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.

But I finally got a very gracious offer to try out the Oculus and Vive headsets. And now I’m going to have to be one of Those People.

From hearing the descriptions, I’d expected it to be the case where I put on the headset and am instantly transported to a fantastic, vividly-realized world. It wasn’t. I put on the headset (Oculus Rift first) and found myself in a nice, slightly stylized version of a modern living room where I could look around what was clearly a 3D space. I’d expected it to be like the people who saw the first movie footage of an oncoming train and (according to legend) dove for safety. Instead, it was more like the first time I saw a 3D movie. Clearly a neat effect, and genuinely more immersive, but nothing transcendent.

I played the first two levels of Lucky’s Tale, which is completely charming and a perfect packaged game for the Rift. I’d never thought a 3rd person VR game could possibly work, but it does: it feels like being inside the level along with the character you’re controlling. Essentially, you’re one of the Lakitu. I only wished that they did a bit more with the VR right off the bat; I got to a section that did depend on looking at targets, but apart from that it was just a more immersive presentation of a 3D platformer.

The other issue is that I was standing up, and the camera’s constant gentle drifting was starting to throw off my balance. It wasn’t outright nauseating for me, but it did feel like I was on a slowly rocking boat and felt unsteady on my feet. I tried a few minutes of Adrift — the game I’d most been looking forward to — but after being unsteady already, it was way too disorienting for me to tolerate for long.

Then I put on the HTC Vive, and started up Valve’s The Lab. And it was, without exaggeration, possibly the coolest thing I’ve ever seen on a computer.

I’d already seen the “Robot Repair” demo on YouTube in its entirety, so I was kind of spoiled for it. In a way, though, it’s the least spectacular part of The Lab, since it’s the least interactive even though it’s the most “produced.” It’s hilarious and a fantastic experience in its own right as well as being a perfect teaser as to the potential of a VR version of Portal. The tone of humor combined with menace that the Portal games get so perfect is made 1000 times better when you’re convinced that you’re trapped inside a space with GlaDOS, and that GlaDOS is enormous.

But the rest of the demos take that tone and let you interact with a space that feels less scripted. The “Slingshot” demo is my favorite, but they’re all fantastic. Bending down to pet a robot dog, flying a drone around a huge warehouse, launching an endless stream of balloons: it all cements the idea that I’m in a fantastic place better than anything else. I was sold within a minute.

The technology is astounding, but if The Lab proves anything, it’s that technology is only part of it.

It’s easy to see why so many people have become fascinated by it, and more importantly, why it doesn’t feel like just another gimmick. It’s also easier to understand why there’s such a “new frontier” aura around VR: it feels that there’s still a ton of experimentation and innovation to be done. How can you move people through an environment without its being nauseating? What are the different ways you can immerse the player in the experience without drawing attention to the fact that none of the objects can touch them or be touched? How do you keep the experience from feeling completely isolating?

Whatever the case, I’m a convert. And since I’m relatively late to the party, I have to catch up on all that lost time by being extra insufferable about it.

Unbreakable

Everything a cowardly adult needs to know about 10 Cloverfield Lane

10cloverfieldlane
I was a huge fan of Cloverfield, so I was super-excited to hear that Bad Robot had been quietly working on 10 Cloverfield Lane, and that it’d be released in just around a month from the first appearance of a leaked teaser trailer.

Of course, that trailer almost certainly wasn’t actually “leaked.” Half the fun of these things is the mystery and the showmanship. And even though this is just a couple of days into opening weekend, I’d already read two reports that a) stressed how the movie’s best not knowing anything going into it, and then b) immediately revealed something (no matter how oblique) that I’d rather have not known going into the movie. I had to go see a matinee today to avoid the bigger spoilers that almost certainly would’ve hit me over the course of the next week.

Still, this looked more “adult” than Cloverfield‘s millennial monster movie, so I was worried it’d be too heavy and disturbing to be fun. Here’s my attempt at answering the stuff I’d been wondering about 10 Cloverfield Lane while divulging as little as possible:

Is it good?
No, it’s excellent.

Do I have to have seen Cloverfield to full appreciate it?
No, you have to have seen Cloverfield in order to have a basic level of film literacy, since it’s one of the outstanding genre movies of the 21st Century.

Aren’t Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman the best?
Absolutely! And no matter how many times people talk about how good they are, I still think they’re underrated.

Is it scary?
I couldn’t tell you for certain, since I spent at least 50% of the movie twisted in my seat watching what was happening from underneath my hand over my eyes. It’s intense.

So it’s a brutal psychological horror film, then?
I wouldn’t say that. Like Cloverfield, it’s a contemporary attempt to make a movie with an “old-fashioned horror movie” spirit. It’s intended to be thrilling, surprising, and fun. (And it succeeds at all three).

Doesn’t the trailer already give away all the surprises?
Surprisingly not.

For real, though, what elements does this movie have in common with Cloverfield?
Both have internet movie fans and reviewers complaining about them, and those fans and reviewers are wrong.

Is there anything I should know that won’t spoil the movie but will give me something to look out for while I’m watching it?
Try reading about Slusho!

Does the movie inspire a perfect do-it-yourself Halloween costume for girls women?
As a matter of fact, yes!

Without giving anything away, what’s the most clever scene from the standpoint of masterfully-written character development?
The charades.

This doesn’t tell me anything other than that you really liked the movie. What if I want to read an actual review?
I like Alonso Duralde’s review on The Wrap, although I don’t at all agree that it felt over-long. I almost entirely agree with Peter Travers’s review in Rolling Stone, although I think he (along with most other reviewers) gives a little bit too much away in describing how this movie relates to Cloverfield.

Is this better or worse than Cloverfield?
I don’t really care, since I’m mostly excited to see the next one come along!

One of the Good Ones

Zootopia is surprisingly great, and a reminder of the value of family movies as parable

zootopia-selfie
Zootopia is “surprisingly articulate.” And that patronizing compliment is one of the best parts of the movie, and the clearest sign that the filmmakers had something more sophisticated to say than I’d expected. It seems weirdly appropriate that a movie I’d initially dismissed as unimaginative and uninteresting would turn out to be a mature and distressingly contemporary parable about prejudice.

In my defense, early marketing didn’t give us a lot to go on. It looked like the entire premise of the movie was: “Wouldn’t it be wacky if there were a whole city full of animals who walk and talk like humans do?!” It seemed as if the Walt Disney Company were releasing a movie with no prior knowledge of the work of the Walt Disney Company.

But after a charming and well-delivered version of the Standard Disney Believe-In-Your-Dreams® Formula, Zootopia immediately sets to work dismantling that formula and then putting it back together again as something with more heft and complexity to it than just an empty aphorism. This is a movie where the hero’s kind and loving parents advise her in the first scene that she should give up on her dreams. The hero’s begrudging partner explicitly says that the idea that you can be anything you want is unrealistic nonsense.

Most importantly, we see Hopps going through her whole journey of overcoming adversity — complete with training montage! — and showing everyone that they shouldn’t assume what she’s capable of, just because she’s a bunny. And almost immediately afterwards, she’s flinging out micro-aggressions at a fox as if she were no better than some ignorant elephant!

Zootopia isn’t a subtle movie, but these aren’t subtle times. Apparently a lot of people need to be explicitly reminded of the things we were taught in kindergarten. What’s most impressed me about the movie is that it explicitly states its message over and over, but it doesn’t come across as dogmatic or self-important, and it doesn’t get in the way of its being a pretty solid detective story. The more I think about it, the more I see how cleverly it’s constructed and how it’s actually pretty transgressive.

It’s fantastic to see Disney Feature Animation using their hugely successful blockbuster hits to take risks with the Disney formula. Frozen (which is the butt of a pretty clever gag in Zootopia) was a movie about princesses that rejected the idea of love at first sight as dangerously naive, instead emphasizing the family that most Disney princesses tend to abandon to get their happy endings.

Zootopia sets up its premise in the very first scene: animals have evolved past their predator and prey relationships. It then spends the rest of its story showing its characters and the audience how many stereotypes they still hold onto. Some of the gags are pretty corny or in danger of passing their expiration date — an extended parody of The Godfather, a cute Fennec Fox who’s actually a deep-voiced adult, an animal nudist colony — but almost every one is another play on that idea of holding onto stereotypes that don’t apply. Even the stoner yak who turns out to have a better memory than an elephant.

Richard Scarry’s Cars And Trucks And Things That Perpetuate Systematic Discrimination

I call that “transgressive” for a couple of reasons. First is that it’s not how anthropomorphized animal stories are supposed to work. People have been using animals as stand-ins for humans for as long as stories have existed, but every example that I’m familiar with handles it in one of two ways: either the fact that they’re animals is arbitrary and mostly ignored, used only to make the story universally appealing, as in Richard Scarry’s books and the early Mickey Mouse cartoons; or it takes advantage of our inherent perception of the animals to make a satirical point, like the pigs in Animal Farm or the cats and mice in Maus.

Zootopia cleverly splits the difference. The entire story is based on the premise that the characters’ “animalness” is arbitrary, but then it presents one example after another of how our perception of inherent traits is so deeply ingrained that it’s almost inescapable. In the world of the story, the predator/prey distinction has become meaningless, but it’s still the one that all the characters fall back on. All the adversity that Hopps overcomes at the start of the movie has nothing to do with being a prey animal (her gruff and unsympathetic boss is a water buffalo) and everything to do with size. But when she’s put on the spot to come up with an explanation for the “mystery,” she asserts that it must have something to do with predators and might even have some biological origin.

Which leads to the other aspect of the story that I’d call transgressive: none of the characters are allowed to be exempt. Hopps’s parents are kind and completely sympathetic, but they’re also undeniably bigots. Hopps repeatedly demonstrates how she “gets it” intellectually, but when she’s pushed into a conflict or presented with something she can’t explain, she falls back on her stereotypes. Nick’s character has internalized the discrimination and let it define him; it’s a solid example of how defeatist cynicism so often disguises itself as “being realistic.”

When I first heard the term “intersectionality”, I thought it was a fantastic way to move forward in how we think about discrimination and civil rights. Then I found out how it’s actually used in practice. I’ve never seen it used to promote empathy or shared humanity, but only in terms of oppression, victimization, and guilt. Instead or being something positive, I’ve only ever seen it presented as a way to make sure that everyone, no matter what struggle they’ve been through, can have something they should feel bad about.

I think Zootopia presents a more optimistic take on the concept, by repeatedly setting up an obvious one-to-one metaphor and then subverting it. The story of Hopps could clearly be taken as a parable about feminism, but then nobody puts any emphasis on gender (her demanding drill sergeant is a polar bear with a female voice). The central tension of predators vs prey seems to correspond exactly with racism against African Americans, but, unlike Maus for example, it flips our assumptions about oppressors vs. oppressed.

One of the most clever sequences has Hopps pursuing a crook into a neighborhood populated entirely by small rodents. It comes very soon after we’ve seen her fighting against the stereotype that she can’t be “a real cop” because she’s too small, and now she’s a giant, in danger of knocking over buildings and stomping on terrified citizens.

The story refuses to let any of the characters settle into a role as purely a victim of oppression or purely an oppressor. It stresses that kindness, empathy, and cooperation are the only way to fight prejudice, ignorance, and fear.

Not All Sloths

Of course, I’m projecting my own beliefs onto the movie. Middle-aged white guy Merlin Mann took to Twitter to make fun of middle-aged thinkpiece-writing white guys like myself:


To which I respond: suck it. Even if you don’t buy the premise that comics and animation have become the modern parable and myth-making, the dismissive idea that “cartoons” are only relevant to kids is weak, tired, and so very, very old. On top of that, the level of public discourse around the themes that Zootopia addresses has become a travesty of progressivism. We could probably use some cartoon animals to set us straight.

While the movie isn’t subtle, it does leave a bit of room for interpretation. Two interpretations I disagree with are reviews by Matt Zoeller Seitz on RogerEbert.com, and Scott Renshaw in Salt Lake City Weekly. (Who are, coincidentally, also middle-aged white guys). I only found Renshaw’s review because his is one of the very few negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and he’s getting a ton of undeserved flak from that, because people on the internet tend to be ridiculously and obnoxiously defensive and abusive. (As evidence, see my telling a stranger to “suck it” because he made fun of guys like me and posts like this one).

In any case, Seitz says that the movie is too open for interpretation:

“Zootopia” pretty much rubber-stamps whatever worldview parents want to pass on to their kids, however embracing or malignant that may be. I can imagine an anti-racist and a racist coming out of this film, each thinking it validated their sense of how the world works.

Which implies a sort of moral relativism that simply doesn’t exist in the movie. For one thing, the story rejects the idea of “a racist” or “an anti-racist.” It portrays discrimination as behavior, not an identifier. It suggests that we can all be simultaneously on the giving and receiving end of it. I feel that so much of what passes for progressivism these days treats oppression, prejudice, and discrimination as perpetual states of being instead of injustices that we can work together to correct.

And the movie absolutely doesn’t stop at saying “we’re all a bit culpable” and leave it at that. There are most definitely bad guys. It acknowledges that prejudice is motivated just as often by fear as it is by malice, and the bad guys are the ones who manipulate that fear to drive us apart. Which is why the movie’s message is so depressingly relevant for 2016.

Both reviewers conclude that the movie’s message gets muddled because it simultaneously says that stereotypes are bad, and then relies on stereotypes for its gags. Renshaw writes:

It’s even more confusing when it starts to feel that Zootopia is working against its own message to get easy laughs. One extended sequence is set at the animal equivalent of the DMV, which is staffed entirely by slow-moving sloths. It’s a decent-enough idea, until you realize that it’s based on a stereotype […] For a movie built entirely around “don’t judge an animal by its species,” there’s also plenty of “a leopard can’t change its spots.”

While Seitz describes it:

The film isn’t wrong to say that carnivores are biologically inclined to want to eat herbivores, that bunnies reproduce prolifically, the sloths are slow-moving (they work at the DMV here), that you can take the fox out of the forest but you can’t take forest out of the fox, and so on. […] This all seems clever and noble until you realize that all the stereotypes about various animals are to some extent true, in particular the most basic one: carnivores eat herbivores because it’s in their nature.

This complaint seems wrong to me on two levels: just on the surface, it seems like what would happen if Aesop took his stuff to the internet and had a thousand of us middle-aged white men pointing out that actually, foxes don’t enjoy grapes, so his entire premise is invalid.

The entire premise of the movie is that the carnivore/herbivore relationship doesn’t exist anymore, so it’s a completely artificial distinction that’s dangerously foolish for the characters to cling to. If you’re going to take issue with that, you might as well take issue with the idea of animals talking and wearing clothes.

You might even say that this lack of a predator/prey relationship is what makes this an ideal fictional city, as suggested by the movie’s diabolically subtle title.

And again, I think what makes the movie so remarkable is that it teaches a lesson about prejudice by showing us repeatedly how our own prejudices work against the story’s main premise. They start the story by saying (explicitly), “here’s the setup,” and then go on knowing that the audience won’t be able to fully buy into the setup.

If you look at the complaint deeper, though, it gets at why I think Zootopia is a more mature and sophisticated allegory than I’d given it credit for, even while I was watching it and enjoying it. Yes, there are indeed a lot of gags based on the animals behaving like animals. But I don’t see it as “leopards can’t change their spots.” In the context of a story about discrimination, it’s a symbol of cultural identity and a rejection of whitewashing.

The sloths are a shaky example, since it really is played more for laughs than anything else, and it isn’t subverted until the very end of the movie. But it gets a pass since it’s such a good scene, and kind of a masterpiece of comic timing.

For all the other examples, though, the movie acknowledges the differences but is careful not to place any value judgments on them. The bunnies do reproduce prolifically, the wolves can’t help but howl in unison, the polar bears enjoy the cold, hamsters like going through habitrails, and the movie doesn’t find anything wrong with any of that.

It makes a distinction between traits that are limiting and those that are a part of our identity. The gentlest character in the movie is a cheetah cop who loves doughnuts and idolizes a gazelle. It’s a valuable reminder that rejecting the preconceived notions of how we judge each other doesn’t mean rejecting everything that makes us unique.

That’s as good an opportunity as any to point out how great the character animation is throughout. I’m ambivalent towards the character design and environmental design in general — it’s well done and pleasant if not particularly spectacular. But the character animation hooked me from the first scene, with the wide-eyed kids nervously waiting for their cues as they presented the school play. It was just plain delightful to see Hopps insist that “cute” is derogatory for bunnies, and then spend the rest of the movie stamping her foot like Thumper when she got excited, or wrinkling her nose whenever she was curious.

I’m sure I’m being completely unfairly dismissive of the work that went into the character design; it had so many opportunities to go wrong, as is evidenced by the horrific background dancers for pop star Gazelle, which I’m against on the strongest possible terms.