One Thing I Like About Solo

Solo is the huge 2018 marketing-driven franchise installment that thinks it’s an old-fashioned action adventure from 1987


One thing I like about Solo is that the ending surprised me. I won’t spoil it, because I don’t need to say what happens to explain why that’s a big deal.

Considering that it’s a prequel, and it’s about one of my favorite characters in all of fiction, and that there’s honestly only so many ways the story could possibly have played out, I didn’t think it could surprise me at all. But it did! Maybe not on the scale of “Oh, the Titanic didn’t sink after all!”, but more like the relief you feel when you see a movie barreling right for a cliche at full speed and then gracefully pulling away from the crash at the last moment.

There’s a bit in the trailer for Solo that’s been baffling for as long as the campaign’s been running. It shows the crew pulling some kind of train heist in the mountains, and oh no Chewbacca is flying out the side and barely hanging on, and look there’s a rocky outcropping headed right for his face! Is Chewbacca going to make it out of this adventure alive?!

It seems like an odd decision when you’re marketing a prequel, to suggest deadly peril towards one of the series’s most beloved and visibly living characters. But in retrospect, it’s truth in advertising. Solo is a traditional, almost old-fashioned, action-adventure movie that’s more about moments than anything else. It’s got swashbuckling scenes for the same reason that, say, Star Wars had Luke and Leia swinging across a chasm. It’s not really supposed to mean anything, or even contain any suspense. It’s just supposed to be exciting and look cool in the moment.

The movie’s got its issues — Thandie Newton is criminally underused, and it’s easy to play armchair director and point out that the movie would be significantly improved if they’d just combined the multiple heists into one big one. Characters would’ve been given more time to develop, and the whole thing would feel less disjointed. As it is, it has all the trappings of a heist movie, but very few of the clever moments that make heist movies seem smart and surprising.

(Also, L3-37 is a great character, but naming her L3-37 is an inexcusably lame grandpa-trying-to-be-cool blunder. Come on, guys, it’s 2018. Get it together).

But it’s fun and exciting, and it definitely doesn’t deserve the dismal buzz that’s surrounded it for over a year. For whatever reason, people decided they wanted it to be a failure. Before Memorial Day weekend was even over, I saw no fewer than three different think pieces trying to explain why it was such a failure. It’s being called a “flop” for only making over a hundred million dollars in four days. The reviews all read like pre-written obituaries that had to be hastily edited to begrudgingly acknowledge that it wasn’t terrible.

A peculiar phrase kept coming up in reviews, which is that the movie “didn’t need to exist.” Apparently, to distinguish it from the movies about space wizards that are essential.

Overall, the preemptive backlash just reinforced the main lesson of the new Star Wars movies, which is that I don’t care about your opinion of the new Star Wars movies.

It’s nothing personal (in most cases). It’s just that Star Wars has gotten to be way too big and too long-running a cultural phenomenon. I’ve been steeped in this stuff for about 40 years, and it resonates with me at a cellular level, but I still might as well be a Fake Geek Girl™️ compared to the people who can go off in detail about the Clone Wars and Ventress and Mandalorians and all that.

There’s no sense of outsiderdom in being a Star Wars fan anymore, but there are dozens of groups each obsessed with their own little corners, and there’s increasingly little that they have in common. I don’t need any kind of consensus or camaraderie anymore, really. I kind of hated everything in Rogue One apart from the production design, but there are plenty of people who thought it was a near-masterpiece. The Last Jedi eventually grew on me, and I like what it was trying to say overall, but while I don’t have any desire to watch it again, I completely fail to see the point in the hyperbolic outrage over it.

And The Force Awakens bypassed any rational thinking part of my brain and connected directly to the part of my soul that loves Star Wars, so any criticism of it is literally irrelevant to me.

Which is all a circuitous build-up to acknowledging that while a lot of people were predisposed to hate Solo, I was hard-wired to love it. By the time I saw the first complete trailer, I’d already decided that I was on board, and it’d have to work really really hard to throw me off.

When I was a kid at the absolute height of my Star Wars obsession, I read Brian Daley’s Han Solo books and absolutely loved them. Possibly even more than the Chronicles of Narnia in terms of favorite childhood books. I haven’t read them since I was a pre-teen, and I won’t, because I’m fairly sure they wouldn’t hold up now. But for a nine- or ten-year-old desperate to spend more time with these characters and see more of this galaxy, they were perfect.

I’ve heard that in addition to referencing Masters of Teras Kasi, there’s a bit of the Brain Daley books in Solo. I wouldn’t be able to tell you what it was, but it doesn’t matter. Just by existing, the movie promised to be a live-action adaptation (even if unintentionally!) of those books. And it clearly kept the only aspect of Rogue One that I liked: the notion that the look of Star Wars wasn’t an artifact of 1977, but just the way everything in this galaxy looked back in the time of Empire. Cast the impossibly handsome guy who was hilarious in Hail, Caesar!, and the impossibly handsome guy who was hilarious on Community*, and you’ve got all the movie I need, right there.

So there I was, watching the heck out of Solo by treating it like an action adventure movie from 1987 and having fun with it, loving that there’s a Clint Howard cameo, a villain who’s a practical effect, and an assortment of fantastic vintage droids we haven’t seen since the Jawa sandcrawler, and a closet dedicated just to capes, and the long and tortured but delightful attempt to throw a bone to all of us nerds who’ve spent decades snickering that parsecs are a measure of distance instead of time. By that point, I knew exactly how it would end, who would live, who would die, and how those death scenes would play out and turn Han Solo into the cynical rogue he would later become.

But then that didn’t happen. It didn’t deviate enough to be shocking, exactly, but it was enough to knock my brain out of autopilot and appreciate how clever it was. And then later, the final shootout played out precisely how it needed to. But by that time, it felt deserved instead of predictable.

I don’t know if they’re going to try to turn it into a spin-off franchise, but I certainly hope they do. I like Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover a lot, I think there’s plenty of potential for more stories in Han Solo’s past, and I think it deserves a movie that pays off on the swashbuckling/heist movie premise instead of feeling like a bunch of cool set pieces fitted together. I think the characters and the setting have still got it where it counts.

  • And Khaleesi, of course. If I’m being 100% honest, the thing I love most about Solo is Emilia Clarke’s press tour, because she’s charming AF.

If You See Something, Say Something

Another thing I like about Firewatch


While I’m thinking of it, one more thing I like about Firewatch is the walkie-talkie. Specifically, how they took one of the most mundane elements of adventure games and turned it into the emotional core of a narrative game.

I’ve worked as a writer on around 13 adventure games, and while I do sometimes miss writing for games, I definitely don’t miss writing examine lines. They’re the lines of dialogue for when the player click on an object in the environment, like a rock, and the character walks over to it and says, “It’s a rock.” Maybe I’m revealing too much about my lack of imagination.

Ideally, you can use these lines as opportunities to make jokes, give clues to the solution of a puzzle, or both. But there are only so many jokes you can make about rocks and other mundane objects — at least, only so many that I could make — before you start to suspect that maybe games aren’t an effective medium for storytelling after all, and maybe they’re just meant for shooting bad guys.

Even worse is when you get some pretty good jokes in there, but there are so many that it all just turns into noise. Like having a guy following you around saying “Eh? Eh? Get it?!” repeatedly while you’re just trying to find your keys, or the combination to the safe you saw two screens ago.

One of the neat things about Sam & Max games was having the opportunity for these examine lines to be more conversational; Sam could observe something and Max could make a joke about it. It made it a little harder for them to fall into a rut, but the core problem still remains that the lines are purely mechanical. They exist to tell a joke, or to drive a puzzle forward. It’s extremely difficult to do story development or character development with them. (For several reasons, such as the fact that they’re usually optional).

So the method that Firewatch used — the player presses a button on their walkie-talkie to have Henry “report” something back to Delilah — lines up in tons of clever ways that made me happy to see:

  • Henry’s a newcomer to the job, so the stuff he doesn’t recognize is likely to be the same stuff that a player wouldn’t recognize.
  • Delilah’s role as your supervisor lines up with her role as semi-omniscient narrator, but she’s also a little bit unreliable, which is much more interesting.
  • Banter isn’t used just to describe an object or to solve a puzzle, but to establish character or advance the plot.
  • Henry starts to rely on Delilah as his one point of human contact, and the player relies on that connection as a guide through the game.
  • When the game starts to mess with your walkie-talkie, Henry’s panic resonates as your panic.
  • Because he’s having to describe stuff to someone remotely, it actually makes sense for the player character to be walking around describing what he sees out loud.

Of course, there are some aspects of Firewatch that make the walkie-talkie mechanic work better than it would in a traditional adventure game. It’s more linear, so most of the lines are critical path, and the player’s unlikely to miss a crucial character beat because she didn’t try to examine a specific picture on a desk somewhere. It’s not puzzle-driven, so there’s little need to be giving obtuse clues to puzzles; in fact, it’s more realistic to tell the player outright what she should be focused on. And it’s more evenly paced, which is to say there are fewer interactive objects in the environment, so there’s no attempt to create a constant firehose of jokes, red herrings, or insightful observations.

Instead, it uses one of the oldest tropes of adventure games to tell a mature, thoughtful, and character-driven story about connection and isolation. Kind of like an adult contemporary short story about Link and Navi.

One Thing I Like About Firewatch

Being an independent developer means you can take uneventful hikes through the woods.

Playing What Remains of Edith Finch? reminded me how much I love video games that do interesting things with interactive storytelling, and writing about it renewed my interest in writing about things I love on this blog. The idea behind this series is to counter-act my usual tendency to over-think, over-write, and reduce an entire work of art to the one thing I think it “means.” So this is the start of what I hope becomes a series in which I write about one aspect of a piece of art or entertainment that I really like, and I try to explain why I like it.

One thing I like about Firewatch is its opening walk from Henry’s truck to the watch tower.

The introduction to a game has to do a ton of stuff, introducing the game mechanics, setting up the narrative, setting the tone, and even just grabbing the player’s interest. There’s a lot going on in Firewatch’s opening, and it’s all pulled off with subtlety and confidence. Emotional and tough-to-write scenes are all front-loaded, distilled into vignettes with the most impact, and presented in a surprising choose-your-own-adventure format. (And they serve as a good example of why the argument “your choices don’t matter!” is a mostly vacuous one when it comes to narrative-driven games).

The mechanical controls are introduced along with the narrative premise: Want to run away from your troubles? Press the W key. The relationship that defines the core of the game is established purely through banter during the opening. As you walk, you’re gradually exposed to more and more of the stunning environments that would be the hallmark of the game. You can even tell that someone agonized over the editing down to the microsecond — the last line of dialogue welcoming you into the game slams you into a black title card almost too abruptly, a final bit of punctuation on the conversation. Even the selection of typography impressed me. The entire thing was so slick and mature that I was completely on board.

But my favorite aspect of it is that the whole sequence is the very first thing that would be cut in “normal” game development.

By my count, there are six distinct environments in that opening. If I remember correctly, only the very last one — the watch tower itself — is ever revisited in the game. Maybe that doesn’t seem that remarkable, but the thing about environments in Firewatch is:

  1. They’re beautiful,
  2. They’re meticulously planned out, and
  3. They’re reused a lot.

The reuse would be perfectly justifiable for a small, independent studio making its debut game, but I don’t even consider it a negative. The game compresses three months and a huge expanse of open space into an experience you can navigate over four or five hours, and the reuse helps turn a foreign landscape into a familiar home. It even created a weird sense of nostalgia as I was playing and realizing that the story was drawing to a conclusion. I’d gotten used to the place and was starting to regret having to leave.

But whether that was intentional or not, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a finite amount of work a small team of developers can do in a limited amount of time. It would’ve been a lot more efficient and practical to scope it down. Put all that time and money into the watch tower, which you know has to be the most developed and detailed, and start the game there. Sure, keep the flashbacks, but have them play out while you’re on day 1 of the story, exploring the space around the tower and learning the controls.

That’s how it would’ve gone in all the production-driven studios I’ve worked at. In fact, I’ve heard similar so many times that I wouldn’t have even proposed it. I’d have scoped it out from the start, convincing myself that the time and money would be better spent elsewhere, and asking for extra environments is pretentious indulgence. And instead, I’d have saved that energy for the inevitable argument that the beginning is too slow, and we gotta grab ’em from the start with a big action set-piece.

Which would be a huge loss, because the opening of Firewatch is absolutely crucial to the rest of the game. It’s establishing mood as much as plot and backstory. It has to make you feel as if you’ve withdrawn and escaped, isolated yourself miles away from any human contact. Your character mentions that he’s been hiking for two days, but without taking parts of that hike yourself, it’s just an abstract idea.

The changes in daylight show that passage of time, but what really drives it home is that you’re walking in a straight line through nondescript (but beautiful!) woods, in that period of time dilation at the beginning of a game when you have control of a story and are eager to drive it forward. There are interesting things to look at, but you’re not really exploring. You’re just traveling, and it’s taking a long time. In other words, you’re actually hiking.

For Firewatch to work, it’s got to nail that mood of isolation. It can’t just be a bunch of beautifully rendered environments, because without the context, it’d all be hollow. The game does a fantastic job of establishing a place — at first breathtaking, then familiar, then dangerous. But what makes it resonate as more than just world-building is that feeling of being isolated from the rest of the world except for two threadbare connections, one to a stranger in the present and one to a difficult past. And it would’ve lost something invaluable if they’d started with Henry in the middle of the woods without showing you how he got there.

No Place in Her Story

The Last Jedi is really just a rehash of many of the ideas from the first Star Wars movie.


This post has lots of spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Please don’t read it until you’ve seen the movie.

My brief review of The Last Jedi: I liked it much better the second time I saw it.

No doubt that was partly because the second time was with an audience filled with nine-year-olds and their parents, who cheered and applauded at the best moments (of which there are several). But it’s also because I think the movie’s kind of an overstuffed mess in terms of plot and pacing. Once I could stop trying to make sense of where the story was going and instead tried to figure out what the movie was trying to say, I thought it held together a lot better.

You can sense the conflict within this movie. It’s a story that’s about rejecting all-powerful heroes, but it still needs to sell action figures. Its main dramatic tension is about desperation and being low on fuel, in a movie series that previously cared so little for practical details that it had a spaceship traveling from solar system to solar system without a working hyperdrive. The main story of The Last Jedi is essentially — almost literally — a Battlestar Galactica premise instead of a Star Wars story.

More than that, it doesn’t quite get the scale right. Star Wars stories tend to work best when they’re very personal, melodramatic stories set against a grand, enormous backdrop. The Last Jedi doesn’t seem comfortable dealing with more than two characters at the same time. It’s a bit like a tribe with no concept of numbers greater than a dozen or so; any group of more than around four people just ceases to exist. These movies are stories about gigantic armies, but The Last Jedi has to whittle the Rebellion down to a group small enough to fit on board one ship.

There are characters who’ve been reduced to one-dimensional shadows of themselves and seem to be in the movie only for the sake of their toys. There’s an entire subplot that is poorly motivated, poorly paced, and doesn’t accomplish much of anything. There’s an ethnically diverse trio of adorable orphans right out of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. There’s a soldier who stops before a tense battle to taste the ground and declare “It’s salt,” clearly because an executive in a screening somewhere was briefly confused.

But there’s also plenty of terrific moments, both big and small. (Nothing as breathtaking as in The Force Awakens, but they still work on the “that was bad-ass!” level if not the “I feel like I’m nine years old again” level). And all the stuff that has no place in terms of advancing the plot does find a way to reiterate and re-emphasize the central themes of unity, humility, and self-determination.

One of my favorite of those smaller moments happens right before a cross-the-Galaxy conversation between Rey and Kylo Ren. She’s standing underneath the Millennium Falcon during a miserable rain storm, and she’s just delighted. In a movie series where characters always have to explicitly state how they’re feeling, it could seem out of place. Until you remember that she grew up on a desert planet, and it’s entirely possible she’s never seen rain before. Something that’s at best taken for granted by everyone else, and which is more likely a nuisance to everyone else, is to her something magical.

It’s a reminder of how inherently charismatic Daisy Ridley is. Rey’s already become my favorite character in the entire series, because of Ridley’s performance and a few perfectly-delivered lines of dialogue. (Like “I’ve seen your schedule; you’re not busy.”) She became a character who’s inherently good but neither sanctimonious or boring.

And not at all like Luke Skywalker, which is crucial. It’s unfortunate (but not surprising) that so many “fans” called out Rey as being an “unrealistic” wish-fulfillment character. I have to wonder if the movie was equating that with Supreme Leader Snoke, who scolds Kylo Ren for losing to a girl who’s “never held a light saber before.” And then calls him a beta cuck. In any case, though, Luke is the wish-fulfullingest George Lucas stand-in imaginable: the kid from a backwater town (by his own estimation) who loved working on cars and cruising around with his friends but turned out to be the lone savior of the Rebellion and the heir to the greatest power in the Galaxy.

But in the beginning at least, with that first Star Wars movie, we had a story of a whiny kid who looked off to the horizon and wanted adventure, and then found himself becoming a part of something much greater.

Which is something that Lucas gradually chipped away over the course of the next five movies. Star Wars was a story about a kid from nowhere becoming a hero; The Empire Strikes Back needed a twist that made him part of a lineage. Yoda said “wars do not make one great,” but was then given a moment to show his true power during the Clone Wars, which was to flip out and slice up bad guys. Obi-Wan defined the Force as a power that surrounded all living things and bound us together, and then Midochlorians happened.

Over time — or maybe just as I grew older, perhaps — the movies seemed more and more to say one thing but then show another. It’s entirely possible that I’m unfairly projecting, but they seemed less like a Hero’s Journey and more like a stream of consciousness from an anti-union billionaire with a special effects company.

Even if that is an unfair assessment on my part, I think it’s clear that they became less democratic and more elitist, more interested in queens and lords and senators than farmers and smugglers, and inexplicably making its central figure not only the most powerful person in the galaxy but the result of a virgin birth. It became less interested in the heroes of the republic or the rebellion, and instead obsessed with the redemption of its iconic villain.

That’s why I liked The Last Jedi’s callback to that first moment, when Luke was just a kid looking off to the horizon. At that point, Star Wars was still a series about self-determination, and The Last Jedi wanted desperately to bring that back to a series that had increasingly echoed the Emperor’s whispers of “your destiny.”

We already knew that there’d be no satisfying answer to Rey’s question of her parents’ identity, because abandoning a child to that life would’ve been unforgivable for any recognized character. But I hadn’t expected it to tie in so well to what this story has become: a return to fantastic, operatic, and melodramatic stories about heroes who choose adventure and choose to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Kylo Ren’s story becomes interesting again, because he’s presented as the opposite of Rey in every way: not just dark side vs. light side, but someone who’s always lived in the shadow of his parents and uncle and was never allowed to define his own path. Finn becomes the good guy whose first inclination is to give up, and Poe becomes the hot-shot who wants to solve everything himself instead of being part of something larger. But really, they both could’ve been worked in more effectively or even left out of the story entirely.

As part of the initial buzz in response to this movie, there were a lot of people focusing on how JJ Abrams had set up all kinds of things to be resolved later, which Rian Johnson just steamrolled away. It seems absurd since for one thing Abrams was an executive producer on this movie, and for another these are installments in one of the largest franchises in all of entertainment, not indie productions.

But more than that, it seems absurd because The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi work well as a matched set, with the shared theme of “People Who Grew Up With Star Wars share what Star Wars Means to Them.”

The Force Awakens was all about how Star Wars feels, setting up moments that feel more like sense memories than actual plot developments, to remind you of how it felt to see spaceships swooping around to an orchestral soundtrack, and underdogs coming through to save the day at the darkest moment. And if that’s the case, then The Last Jedi is a reiteration of what Star Wars means. Or at least, what it was supposed to mean. The Force than surrounds and connects every living thing, instead of the Force that was a power that Jedi had to make things float.

So ultimately I can’t say I love The Last Jedi, but I do love what it tried to do. And I love being set up for the conclusion of a story that started for me when I was six years old, and not having any idea what’s going to happen next.

The Right People

About the return of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the creepy complexities of nerd ownership


There’s a new season of a new version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 running on Netflix and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of it. Cry Wilderness is my favorite episode so far; I love the band playing “classic” MST3k songs like “Wild Rebels” and “Creepy Girl;” and even as much as I hate change, all the new cast quickly won me over.

My only complaints: I have a hard time telling the guys’ voices apart, and the pacing is rushed. It feels like they’re trying to cram too much into a show that was originally designed specifically to kill as much screen time as possible. The recurring gimmick that Jonah gets sucked out of the satellite to re-enact the opening credits seems weird and unnecessary. And the mad scientist segments are no longer shot with a Batman ’66-style dutch angle, which was one of my favorite subtle gags from the original.

Well, those are my only legitimate complaints. My main complaint is that all of a sudden out of nowhere, there are thousands of other MST3k fans who claim to enjoy the series as much as I do.

The series was formative for me. It didn’t just play into my sense of humor; it helped define it. I still find myself using phrases I picked up from the show without realizing it. I can distinctly remember the first time I watched it, and the joke that got me instantly hooked. (From Robot Holocaust, “Is that Wendy, or Lisa?”) My .plan file had an animated version of the “Turn Down Your Lights (Where Applicable)” opening. (Yeah, I just used USENET as evidence of nerd cred).

But that’s not particularly unique, as it turns out. I had to get my animated ASCII art from somewhere, after all. There were thousands of MSTies in the info club, and I’d see photos and video from conventions and such. I went to a screening of Zombie Nightmare at UGA during a college tour, and the theater was filled with hundreds of obsessive fans. Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax live shows in San Francisco would have lines around the block. Obviously, a lot of the cast of the new MST3k are there specifically because they were huge fans of the original.

It should create a kind of camaraderie, which is why it’s odd to see the long list of Kickstarter backers at the end of each episode and feel a bit deflated. In this review of the new series on “What the Flick?”, Alonso Duralde points out that nerds have taken over pop culture, for better or worse, and “I long for outsiderdom.” Of course, it’s completely irrational — even counter-productive — to begrudge something you love becoming successful. But it does inevitably change the dynamic to go from feeling like the creators of the show are talking directly to me, and then to find out it’s more like they’re talking to thousands of people, and I’m listening in.

“Missing Richard Simmons” didn’t do a lot for me overall, but one of the few “larger themes” of it was the asymmetric relationship between a creator or a celebrity and their fans. It’s not accusatory or anything; even artists who knock themselves out being accessible and personable will inevitably run into the fact that it’s a one-to-many relationship. And while the internet does bring fans of weird niche stuff together, it’s perversely isolating, because it reminds you that you’re not all that special.

It’s not entirely my weird nerd neuroses at play, either; I think Joel Hodgson is at least partly to blame. There’s an old quote from Joel that MST3k fans tend to love: “We never say, ‘Who’s gonna get this?’ We always say, ‘The right people will get this.'” In 2017, it can seem a tiny bit insufferable, but for those of us who were fans of a weird puppet show in the early 90s, it was like being inducted into a special private club. I’m one of the right people!

Even though it’s a bit disappointing to find out that my super-special private club wasn’t all that exclusive after all, the show’s still a heck of a lot of fun. Coming from a skeptical and overly-possessive fan, that’s high praise. Even though it feels “bigger,” more polished, and it forgoes the original’s awkward charm for more confident gags, it’s still resolutely its own thing. I found that I enjoyed it a lot more when I stopped trying to compare it to the original and just watched it on its own merits. After all, it’s just a show.

Harambe of Darkness

Kong: Skull Island is a focus-grouped action movie franchise launch, but it’s clever and artistic enough to avoid being disposable and forgettable.


There’s a lot that Kong: Skull Island gets right. Making it a post-Vietnam War period piece is the first, most obvious good idea. Peter Jackson’s King Kong was a period piece, too, but it felt like a tedious, overlong homage to the original. Skull Island doesn’t feel like it’s paying homage to the 1976 version so much as agreeing with that movie that the 1970s were a pretty rad time for giant ape cinema. (Not a great time for Jeff Bridges, though).

The setting is about 95% visual and only 5% thematic. The whole thing is infused with a sense of the futility of war, paranoia about conspiracies and shadow governments, pessimism about man’s ability to solve problems, and a burgeoning sense of respect for the environment. I honestly couldn’t tell you if all of that is actually in the movie, or if it’s just subliminal holdover from a childhood in the 70s.

Regardless of whether they wanted the post-war attitude, though, they absolutely wanted the post-war aesthetic. The Apocalypse Now homages are visible throughout all of the marketing, but the designers of Kong: Skull Island were clearly going for the Deep Cuts. Costumes, cameras, ordinance, and electronics are all chosen as if they were being used by the Dharma Initiative. In the beginning of the movie, there are several shots of rotary phones that seem to fetishize them as even more fascinating and exotic than giant spiders.

For me, the end result is that the entire movie feels like an animated Mondo poster. (Ironically, this is the one time I actually prefer the movie’s actual marketing to the Mondo versions). There’s an aggressive sense of aesthetics all throughout the movie: every shot is lit or framed or color graded to look like graphic design as much as cinematography. Most of the fight sequences feel like transitions from one storyboard to the next; Kong will smack a giant skullcrawler into the frame and the pose looks almost like something from the opening of Batman.

The reason I mention Mondo is because the design seems as conceptual as it is graphic. The aesthetics are chosen for their connotations; it cleverly plays on nostalgia, familiarity, and audience expectations. Skull Island isn’t as full of direct reference to Apocalypse Now (or Platoon, or Full Metal Jacket) as the trailers suggested, but it feels like it’s making constant references to it because the imagery is so potent.

Ultimately, though, it feels about as deep as an animated Mondo poster, too. The movie’s entertaining and never feels dull, but there’s almost nothing surprising about it, either. (“Almost” because I wasn’t expecting the moment that introduced the giant spiders). It’s clever, but it doesn’t say anything apart from the standard “respect the majesty of nature” you’d expect from any respectable King Kong story.

The characters exist only to have a dramatic entrance and, where possible, a dramatic death scene, with no arc or change in between. And really, that’s fine for an action movie. The downside is that it made it feel more like a slasher movie than a monster movie, where impactful death scenes had to be shoehorned in even when pacing hadn’t allowed for any genuine characterization or sense of attachment. Plus, I’d been hoping they’d be modern and clever enough to sidestep any romance, but the leads do end up falling in love for no reason.

I’m assuming that the lack of anything surprising or challenging is largely due to aggressive focus-group testing and franchise building. I didn’t follow any of the pre-release marketing or gossip around Kong: Skull Island, but I’ve heard that Kong grew dramatically between the first teasers and the finished movie. Even without knowing the backstory, it’s clear in some parts that any sharp edges had been thoroughly sanded down over the course of production, and it’s clear that other scenes were stitched together as best they could despite continuity-breaking changes.

(For instance: somehow Kong manages to reach inside a monster and pull out its guts while simultaneously holding a human unharmed wrapped up inside his fist. This bothers my suspension of disbelief even more than the notion of an ape that can hold a human unharmed inside its fist).

And I’m not sure why we’re supposed to be coy and secretive about the post-credits sequence; it couldn’t be more obvious what franchise they’re trying to build. They put “from the producers of Godzilla” all over the marketing, and I’m skeptical that they’re banking on the tremendous success of the most recent Godzilla movie.

Kong: Skull Island is much, much better than the 2014 Godzilla, and it’s actually much better than a monster movie needs to be. (I enjoyed it a lot more than Peter Jackson’s Kong, too). That’s almost entirely due to casting — John C Reilly is the only one given anything to work with, but every actor makes the absolute best of his or her part — and set direction, which is where all the creativity lies.

I still say that the secret to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success is that they were brave enough to allow for auteur-driven franchise installments. So Joe Johnston could remake The Rocketeer with a bigger budget, and Jon Favreau could turn Iron Man into an indie romantic comedy, and Joss Whedon could continue to kill off beloved side characters at the beginning of Act 3. Kong: Skull Island doesn’t have any sense of being an artist’s personal work; it feels like an artist came up with a high concept and an aesthetic but wasn’t allowed to follow through completely. It leaves me wondering what could’ve happened if they’d tried to be weirder and more original.

P.S. The “related links” at the end of this post took me to my earlier review of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which I hadn’t read in 12 years. Apparently I loved it at the time, which is not how I remember it at all. Maybe I was a lot easier to please at the time, because now I just remember its being three hours of Jack Black and Adrian Brody-filled tedium and maudlin scenes in Central Park. I guess I’m due for a re-watch, but to be honest I’d rather just ride the Universal Studios Hollywood tour again.

City of Infuriatingly Charismatic Stars

Reporting back from a movie-filled weekend. Some spoilers for the relentlessly charming La La Land, and a review of Rogue One inspired by Thumper the rabbit

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in 'La La Land'
This weekend I saw two movies. One has space battles in a universe that painstakingly recreates the look of 1977’s Star Wars. The other is a love letter to Los Angeles made by a bunch of people born in the 1980s. The fact that I ended up loving the latter one is proof I don’t understand how the world works anymore.

I loved La La Land, and I loved it for exactly what it was trying to do. Much like The Force Awakens transported me back to the feeling of watching Star Wars for the first time, watching La La Land often took me back to the first time I saw Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris. Obviously it’s not the first attempt to recapture the magic of classic musicals, but it’s the most successful I’ve seen.

The trick, I believe, is that its sense of self-confidence completely obliterates any sense of self-awareness. It feels not like someone wanted to make an homage to classic musicals, but that somebody wanted to make a movie about the magic of Los Angeles and decided that of course a classic musical would be the best format for that. Once that decision was made, everyone went all in and made a musical with all the earnest enthusiasm that seems to have skipped my generation. Any hint of a wink at the audience would’ve been grounds for immediate dismissal.

Or, I guess, its success could just be on account of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s preternaturally appealing chemistry. I will say that Gosling’s always seemed fine but unremarkable to me, but his performance here is outstanding. Partly because his character is really kind of annoying and insufferable, but he manages to make arrogant stubborn passion seem sympathetic if not exactly likable. He plays a guy who loves jazz and evangelizes it, and yet I wasn’t immediately turned off, which is a monumental achievement on its own. (And I’ve got to say if you’re in the portion of the audience that’s into dudes: much like Gene Kelly, Gosling is an actor that doesn’t really do a whole lot for me until I see him dancing in a well-fitted shirt).

Emma Stone can do pretty much whatever she wants and remain effortlessly likable, since that’s her thing.

The movie starts with a bunch of 20-year-olds all dressed in primary-colored T-shirts or sun dresses all dancing and skateboarding (!) on and around cars stuck in a traffic jam on a freeway off-ramp. It’s odd to see that not being used to sell me Coca-Cola or a Prius. Even though my cynicism threw up a shield, the enthusiasm of that opening number wore it down. It bugged me initially that the movie seems to favor “naturalistic” vocals, so they seem quiet, breathy, and out of balance against big orchestrated music, but it didn’t take me long for me to stop caring. (Unlike, for example, Les Miserables, which demands over-the-top vocals from almost every character, and which wasn’t as kind to actors-who-also-sing). By the time Stone and Gosling are dancing on a bench in Griffith Park, I’d been completely won over.

One of the only complaints I’ve heard about La La Land is that the pacing drags in the middle. I was on the lookout for that, and while the scenes with John Legend didn’t interest me, I inferred that that was kind of the point. His character represents success without passion. I don’t believe that the story dragged so much as I stopped thinking of the movie as a musical for an act or so. I don’t believe that’s a flaw; I think it’s structurally perfect: when it “turns back into” a musical again during an audition sequence, I was genuinely surprised, and it made that song more powerful.

I’ll try to be deliberately vague and not completely spoil anything, but: the end of La La Land pays homage to the extended ballet sequences at the end of An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, in which the movie’s narrative stopped in favor of a bunch of fantastic imagery and dancing. I say it’s here that La La Land shows its intentions and its double identity: it’s more indie film romantic drama/comedy using the structure of classic musicals than just an homage or recreation of those musicals.

It delivers two versions of its finale, which I first thought was an attempt to give everyone what they wanted. But after thinking on it some more, I realize it’s the crucial coda that has to be appended to any story about the magic of Los Angeles and the beauty of following your passion: it reminds us how much of our lives are controlled by fate and timing. You can (and should) follow your dream, but you’re not guaranteed stardom and fame like, say, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, since it’s often talent and hard work combined with meeting the right person in the right conditions at the right time. And it’s that mentality that lets the movie be earnest and joyful and optimistic without feeling too trite, treacly, and over-simplified.

I don’t think it’s perfect, and I still don’t like jazz, but any flaws that it has don’t just fade away but go into making it a unique and seemingly sincere creation. It’s just delightful.

This weekend I also saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I was genuinely surprised by the movie, since when I heard it was about getting the plans for the first Death Star, I never imagined that about half the movie would actually be about getting the actual physical plans for the first Death Star. But its production design was absolutely perfect, from the costumes to hairstyles to spaceships to “incidental” technology. It took everything from 1977’s Star Wars not as a necessary limitation of available technology, but as an assertion of style for a certain time in the Galaxy’s history, and that’s brilliant. I also really liked Alan Tudyk’s performance as K-2SO, and I thought the CG on his character was seamlessly integrated with the live actors.

Looking forward to Episode VIII!

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.