Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an Amazing movie that completely understands how origin stories work.
It’d be a lot easier for me to name One Thing I Hate about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — the pacing of the final act — because the movie’s a straight-up masterpiece. I knew next to nothing about it; until a couple months ago, I thought the ads were just for a new series on the Disney XD channel or something.
After Homecoming (which I really, really enjoyed but is still nowhere near as good as Into the Spider-Verse), I thought it was bizarre that Sony would be releasing another Spider-Man movie, much less a feature-length animated one. But the whole premise of the movie is how so many different versions of the character can coexist, and also it’s just such a fantastic piece of work that it’d have been criminal not to release it.
But the whole point of these “One Thing I Like” posts is to keep me focused, so I’ll choose one thing. And it’s not how the sound effects are written on-screen like in a comic, or how a guy hit in the head with a bagel has the SFX “BAGEL!” flash over his head way in the background, or how when Peter Parker starts hacking a computer the words “CLICKETY CLACKETY CLACKETY” appear over the keys as if to emphasize how unimportant the “hacking” is to the actual plot of a comic book story.
Even though those are all fantastic, just like how a 3D modeled character in front of an exquisitely painted background can be gorgeous in motion and just as gorgeous as a still shot and make you wonder whether there were a single frame of the entire two-hour-long frantic action movie that wasn’t absolutely beautiful.
And also it’s the best animated movie that I’ve seen in years, and it raises the bar for what an animated movie has to do to keep from feeling stale and irrelevant. And it’s the best super-hero movie I’ve seen in years, possibly the best since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies or maybe even Richard Donner’s Superman.
The One Thing I’ll Choose To Write About is how the movie is packed full of origin stories, but it uses them both as quick introductions and to mock the entire genre of super-hero movies (and video games) and their over-reliance on origin stories.
Into the Spider-verse is itself the origin story of Miles Morales, but it presents itself as Peter Parker’s. And then the other Peter Parker’s, and Gwen Stacy’s, and then three more. As a result, it strips away all the garbage of “origin story as a think that super-hero movies do,” and it gets back into what makes the origin an actual story.
In other words: it rushes over all the stuff that comic book stories act like we should care about (like being bitten by a radioactive spider) and returns the focus to the story we really should care about (like a universal story of a kid finding his own path vs. living up to the expectations other people place on him).
At this point, it feels like the only reasons that these movies keep telling (and retelling, and re-re-telling) origin stories is out of arrogance and fear. Filmmakers, comic book creators, and writers want their version to become the Definitive Take on the character’s story. And I think producers are afraid that audiences are going to be completely confused by such a “fantastic” and “weird” story unless they see it all play out in front of them.
With the art style obviously but with the storytelling as well, Into the Spider-Verse seems fearless. It’s not worried that super-heroes and super-villains and multiple dimensions are going to be too bizarre and confusing for audiences who’ve been living in a dimension where comics have been around for about a century and some of the most popular and successful movies of the last decade have been based on comic book characters.
I saw a review of the movie that criticized it for not devoting more character development to Kingpin, while I thought the movie did a fantastic job of establishing his character and his motivation with as little dialogue as possible — just his visual appearance and a quick flashback tell you everything you need to know about the character.
As somebody who was never a Marvel fan until the X-Men movies, I saw a ton of stuff in Into the Spider-Verse that was briefly shown or hinted at, but never explained. And I think that’s awesome. I don’t know why Norman Osborne was an actual goblin, or who Scorpion and Tombstone are. (We had to look up “Tombstone’s” name online!) I don’t know why alternate-universe Gwen Stacy was in a band, but I think it’s rad that they showed it as part of her introduction.
It feels as if origin stories are included in comic adaptations for the same reason that panel divisions or split screens, and occasionally narration boxes and written SFX are: they just seem like they’re supposed to be there because comics have them. But Into the Spider-Verse seems to have a better, almost Scott McCloud-ian, understanding of exactly how those elements work in comics, and most importantly, why they’re cool. So the narration boxes are always moving, and they appear when they’re actually necessary (like when Scorpion speaks in Spanish) instead of just being a stylistic flourish. And the pattern of halftone dots and seemingly mismatched color separation are holdovers from an era of comic book printing that few people in the “target” audience will have ever seen, but they’re included just because they look cool. And the “Kirby Dots” appear both as an homage to Marvel’s golden age and then again in multicolor simply because it’s a neat effect.
And in the end, it is such a conventional and universal comic book story about kids and their heroes and what it takes to find their own place, but it’s told in such a breathtaking way that it never seems conventional. It’s refreshing seeing a movie so heavily steeped in nostalgia that still assumes you want to see stuff that you’ve never seen before, and assumes that you’ll be able to keep up while it takes you through every place it wants to go.
The Wreck It Ralph sequel allows for weird character design and animation you might not see in a movie that’s hung up on being a timeless classic.
If I’m being honest, the one thing I like about Ralph Breaks the Internet is how angry it seems to make Cartoon Brew. You can just see the sneer of disdain as the writer dismisses the movie as nothing more than corporate fan service, and I admit that I always love seeing animation and film snobs’ discomfort when they see something that’s not directly targeted at them.
Now to be fair, I’m firmly in the camp of Corporate-Artist Compromise, and even I found some of Ralph Breaks the Internet on the verge of being completely insufferable. Yes, the movie does turn into an ad for a section of the Disney website, and it does include a sequence intended just to celebrate all the IP that Disney has bought, and it celebrates web properties that don’t really deserve it, and it’s brazen about its merchandising tie-ins including an entire suite of princess-themed casual clothing.
But every time it threatens to become unforgivably crass, it redeems itself by dong something weird and imaginative.
The best example of this is the character design and animation, which is the real One Thing I Like about Ralph Breaks the Internet. Wreck it Ralph gave the different game worlds their own character and animation styles, and that brilliant idea is taken even further in the sequel. There’s the two lead characters, then all the residents of the internet like Yesss and eBoy and the popup ads, then all the human avatars in the internet, then the main characters of Slaughter Race, then the player characters of Slaughter Race, then about a century’s worth of Disney princesses all redesigned with a homogenous art style, then a computer worm and virus, then all the humans (and cats) that are supposed to exist in the real world, and then the characters in Fix-It Felix and Tapper. Each group has not just its own character style but animation style, sometimes with varying frame rates.
And that’s not to mention all the 2D art scattered throughout the movie, like in the avatars on video comments. I love it when 3D animation is able to incorporate traditional, defiantly analog 2D art.
It all results in something like a “two-channel” movie, where broad, topical, and sometimes Corporate Entertainment Product-caliber jokes are being told in the foreground, while clever and imaginative details are playing out all over the background. I love how the Slaughter Race player characters awkwardly pop between walk cycles and idle animations. I love how you can tell that Fix-It Felix is a slightly newer game than Tapper because Tapper has a lower frame rate. I love that Yesss, the character whose entire reason for existence is to be on top of trends, has a different outfit and hairstyle in practically every scene.
And I especially love how Knowsmore’s eyes seem to be flat 2D animations playing within his 3D glasses. Actually, I love everything about Knowsmore, from bringing back Alan Tudyk to voice another classic animation-inspired character, to the way his design blends flat shapes with rounded and shaded ones. Like all of the internet residents, his design is heavily reminiscent of (if not directly influenced by) now-classic UPA character designs.
Which is entirely thematically appropriate, since the characters are all representatives of/manifestations of commercial sites, and so many of the UPA designs are inextricably associated with commercial animation. It’s become standard to think of art and commerce as mutually exclusive – at least partially because of the gross extremes companies went to in the 80s, creating cheap and sloppy cartoons that were shamelessly nothing more than toy commercials – but it’d be revisionist history to ignore the close (and healthy) relationship between animation and the corporate sponsors that led to some great art.
I think Ralph Breaks the Internet fits into that history. It’s undeniably a marketing- and corporate synergy-driven movie, and it has no illusions of being an earnest indie movie. But it also feels looser, freer, and able to take risks that a “classic” Disney animated feature couldn’t. A lot of it is surprising and just plain weird. Because it’s an essentially disposable mash-up, it allows for that wide range of styles that would seem too discordant or not polished enough for a more straightforward movie.
In that sense, it’s similar to The Emperor’s New Groove, which may have been less majestic and artistic than its originally-intended form, but still ended up being a hell of a lot of fun. I don’t know whether Ralph Breaks the Internet‘s overly-topical and self-referential material will hold up ten years from now, or whether it’ll seem obnoxiously dated and crass. But last night, it was hilarious and fun. And it seemed to be giving a lot of Disney character artists and animators the chance to do imaginative, experimental stuff that would never make its way into something like Frozen or even a feature-length Toy Story.
Annihilation breathes life into the book while simultaneously dumbing it down, but really it’s all about the bear.
Annihilation was a book that I wished I liked more than I did. It was a good modern take on Lovecraftian horror. It also struck a good balance between the cosmic and the personal. It did interesting things with an unreliable and often unlikeable narrator. It strove for realism — difficult when the subject is something so fantastic — and always respected the reader’s intelligence. But it also felt cold, meandering, and ultimately pointless. I didn’t bother reading the other books in the trilogy and just stopped after the first. It was a really smart and pretty well-crafted book that I just didn’t like very much.
Annihliation the movie adaptation is similarly tough to love. It fixes some of the issues I had with the book, but introduces a ton of other problems. Casting some of the most beautiful people working in movies helps breathe life into the characters, but there’s only so much life you can breathe into characters that are intentionally designed to be numb, cold, and inscrutable. The subtlety and intelligence of the book don’t really survive the translation to a screenplay, since ideas can’t be left ambiguous but instead need to be explicitly addressed and explained.
And it’s given an overlong Hollywood ending that is frankly just dumb. To be honest, I don’t remember how the book ends, since my memory is that it just kind of unravels. But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t as ludicrous as the movie’s bizarrely self-indulgent final act.
But the movie has a fantastic sequence that is just bonkers, featuring a genetically modified bear. The entire sequence is just masterfully done, starting as a tense and desperate stand-off that just gets worse and worse. It’s weird and gross and tense and genuinely horrifying, and it’s probably the best scene in any sci-fi/horror movie since John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Really, the entire movie reminded me of The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers; it very much looks like a movie from 2018 — the CG is ever-present if not overpowering — but has the soul of a sci-fi horror movie from the late 1970s. When movies weren’t afraid to be weird and gross and inscrutable. When they were allowed to do a slow burn building up to one or two big scenes, instead of having to fire off a burst of quick action shots for fear of losing the audience’s attention for one second.
And an addendum to the “One Thing I Like” is that it renewed my respect for the aforementioned beautiful people in Hollywood — Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, and Tessa Thompson — who seem to consistently pick the most interesting roles instead of the most glamorous ones.
If Annihilation had ended about twenty minutes earlier, I would’ve gone away loving it — the standout scenes are that well done. As it is, it’s remarkable that a movie this weird and often slow-paced could make it through Hollywood with its weirdness still intact.
I came home the other night to find my living room in disarray and the entire moral and intellectual core of Gone Girl had gone missing.
Gone Girl came out in 2014, and over the years since I’ve seen and heard it referenced enough to establish it as some kind of cultural touchstone. Any movie with a Big Secret Twist is going to develop an aura around it, and this had the bonus of being an additional two and a half hours of David Fincher-directed footage for devotees to make video essays out of. Plus there were all the reviews and thinkpieces that talked about how it’s an assault on feminism, but to reveal exactly how would ruin its various mysteries.
I’ll give the movie this much: it took me until the day after watching for me to really appreciate how much it’s garbage. Of all the reviews I’ve read, I think I most appreciate Christy Lemire’s description: “…this is the most elegant, exquisitely made trash.” She liked it better than I did.
But several days after I saw it, and several years after it was released, I’m still thinking about it. It’s filmed thoughtfully and often beautifully, and it has a few genuinely clever passages — like Amy’s “bleed and clean, bleed and clean” monologue — that tricked my cinema studies-corrupted mind into thinking it was an art film. Much like when I eat a doughnut in the morning and my body splurts out a wave of insulin in anticipation of protein that will never come, my brain is stuck mulling over this trashy movie to figure out what it means.
I have made a pledge to be less reductive with works of art, letting them speak for themselves instead of trying to clumsily reiterate the more nuanced points and wrapping the whole thing into a convenient “This Is What It All Means.” But I’m making an exception for Gone Girl, which seems almost Lassie-like in its eagerness for me to figure out what it’s trying to say.
I don’t think I can go into much more detail without spoiling everything, so consider this a spoiler for Gone Girl, and please don’t read it until you’ve either seen the movie or read the book.
My first guess was that this was over-the-top antihero-driven satire, like American Psycho. The plot wasn’t to be taken literally, but instead intended to be an absurd extrapolation of the grossest aspects of a period in time or a particular noxious mindset. But if that’s the case, then who’s the subject of the satire in Gone Girl? Beautiful couples? Type-A people? A particular type of woman? All women?
The movie doesn’t give the audience a chance to empathize with any character other than the two leads, one of whom is a murderous sociopath and the other of whom is a dim-witted, whiny adulterer. But it won’t commit to showing disdain for both its characters, making it a War of the Roses style dark comedy. (I’ve been told that the book does a better job of making them both awful). Instead, it just spends a couple of hours gradually shifting the audience’s sympathy from Amy to Nick. By the end of the movie, he’s all but redeemed, while she’s been revealed to be a ruthlessly manipulative villain.
I read a review that claimed the story was about a marriage disintegrating over years of lies and inattention, but third act plot developments make that interpretation impossible. Amy was framing her ex-boyfriends for rape long before she met Nick. Perhaps we’re supposed to extrapolate that she was driven to such behavior by a lifetime of perfectionist parents comparing her to “Amazing Amy,” or just shrug and conclude that she was just a regular old psychopath. So instead of having any sense of universality, it’s just like one of the suspense thrillers from the 80s, cautionary tales targeted at men, warning them to resist their natural impulse to cat around. Fatal Attraction 2: Bitches Still Be Crazy.
So what if we try to take its opening and closing shots at face value? (No pun intended). The movie starts with Rosamund Pike looking beguilingly into the camera, while a voice-over from Ben Affleck talks about wanting to crack her skull open to find out what’s inside her brain. That’s kind of a pulpy thriller take on the same key idea in the Steven Soderbergh version of Solaris: the tragedy that our individual identity guarantees our isolation; humans can never truly know and completely understand another person, even those with whom we’re the most intimate.
But this isn’t really a couple who are hiding their inner lives from each other. Nick is deceptive about his affair, but it’s not as if he’s some complex mystery waiting to be untangled. He’s just a horny buffoon who’s tired of people criticizing him all the time, and he just wants to play his video games. And Amy isn’t just inscrutable; she’s an actual sociopath. It’s not so much Soderbergh as Lifetime Television for Women: I Married a Stranger: The Nick And Amy Dunne Story.
So maybe that’s the overriding theme, the idea that all our relationships are inherently performative. That idea is made explicit at the end, as Nick and Amy make television appearances to present the illusion of a stable and loving family. But pretty much every scene in the second and third acts is somehow related to the idea of presenting a false self: Nick’s becoming less beholden to the truth and more concerned in how he’s perceived by the public; and Amy actually having to juggle false identities.
Amy’s monologue at the end of the first act says it outright. She’s driving, making her escape, and she looks at each woman in a passing car, naming the role she’s assumed in order to please a man. She calls it the “cool girl,” but it’s an idea that I think Inside Amy Schumer handled a lot better, calling it “a chick who can hang.” The way Amy (Dunne) describes it, she had to subsume any of her own desires to become an ideal man’s woman who never nags, never judges, never gains weight or gets out of shape, and is always super horny. And the various other identities she assumes are different roles that women are expected to play: mommy blogger, abuse victim, unattainable goddess, ravenous sexpot.
One of the genuinely clever things the screenplay does is make that theme carry retroactively through the first act. Nick and Amy’s first meeting — and I honestly have no idea whether their first meeting is intended to be read as charming or insufferable — is all about the kind of stereotypes New York City writers encounter, and how much each of them does or doesn’t conform to those stereotypes. Nick’s marriage proposal isn’t a personal moment, but is instead a show put on for the benefit of a group of judgmental bloggers. Nick’s resentment doesn’t seem to be rooted in his own self-worth, but in how other people perceive him and pick on him. And Amy’s descriptions of the arguments that she and Nick had leading up to her disappearance are rooted in how people are supposed to act; she tells Nick not to make her into the nagging wife that she’s not, or she complains that they’re starting to act like “the couples we hate.”
As far as I can make out, that’s the only theme that Gone Girl commits to: the idea that we lose ourselves when we try to appear to be something we’re not. I started to wonder if the movie adaptation were adding an extra layer of meta-text to that: it was a lurid suspense thriller that was just presenting itself as a thoughtful artistic character study.
And that’s when I finally gave up. I can appreciate a movie that’s open to interpretation, but there are only so many layers you can try to peel back before you realize there’s nothing left.
I tried to read as little as possible about the book and the movie before watching it or before even forming a solid opinion of it, because I didn’t want any of my own prejudices to ruin it for me. (I’m not a big fan of David Fincher, except for Fight Club, and if I’m honest, I’m probably still holding a grudge against him because of Alien 3). I did read an interview with Gillian Flynn in the New York Times, though, as well as some additional quotes from her talking about Gone Girl, and I wish I hadn’t. When asked about criticisms of the book and movie, Flynn came across as so glib that I found myself wanting to throw gummy bears at her head.
She says outright that she wanted to look at how couples put forward the best versions of themselves at the beginning of a relationship, going on to call marriage a “long con.” She says she doesn’t feel the story is anti-feminist or misogynist due to Amy’s being revealed as a murderous, manipulative villain, since writers create despicable male characters all the time, but they get called “antiheroes.”
I’m presuming that at least some of that is intended to be wry, or at least an affected cynicism. But it really just comes across as a kind of empty, pointless nastiness that would’ve been tiresome in 2014. Now in 2018, the era of the Bullshit Reality Show Administration, the moral vacuum at its core just echoes. I realize that it’s beyond cliche to interpret every single thing as a reflection of Our Idiot President, but this is a story whose “big twist” is literally the very first thing I imagined when I heard it had a big twist, so I can’t imagine that we’re all that concerned about originality.
GoneGirl‘s theme of putting forward false identities has nothing universal that I can identify with. And before anyone says that I’m not supposed to identify with it because it’s a message for women that a white male can’t understand, I’ll play my gay card and point out that living in the closet for decades means you’re always putting forward a false self. But even that isn’t as manipulative or self-destructive as Gone Girl makes it out to be. Sometimes hiding yourself is self-defense, sometimes it’s aspirational, sometimes it’s just as harmlessly experimental as trying on new clothes or a new hairstyle.
Plus, the “cool girl” monologue reads as a “You go, girl!” type speech while Amy has just won her freedom, but it’s an inherently male-centric viewpoint. She dismissively reduces the women in passing cars to stereotypes and concludes they’re playing out those stereotypes in order to win a man, without considering that maybe they’re just into different stuff. It’s like criticizing a woman for wearing a hijab because it’s a symbol of oppression, without considering that she might simply like wearing it.
And more obviously, it’s all quickly revealed to be a rationalization for Amy’s own psychosis. So is it supposed to be a Fight Club style fake-out; ha ha, the joke’s on you for identifying with this character? I sure as heck don’t know, because the movie’s so muddled in its allegiances, sympathies, and characterizations. I do know that Amy’s not an “antihero,” as much as Flynn might want her to be, since the story does nothing to signal it and in fact spends too much time making her out to be just a plain old villain.
Theoretically, the movie should be able to do whatever it wants with Amy, since there’s such diverse female representation that no one character has to represent all women. But really, the movie only gives actual agency to two women (Amy and the motel thief), and it makes everyone else a cipher or a shallow stereotype. It doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test, since as far as I can remember, Amy and the motel thief are the only two women who talk to each other, and all their conversations are about abusive exes or abusive currents. (I’m guessing that the thief’s assertion that she’s the one who coerced the man into robbing Amy, instead of the other way around, is supposed to be read as some kind of lowest-common-denominator empowerment?)
The whole story seems to take place in a world of Everybody Loves Raymond-style, late 1990s gender dynamics, where all the women are judgmental, manipulative ball-busters, and all the men are hapless fuckwits. (The only exception to this is Tyler Perry, who plays the dual role of High-Profile Defense Attorney, and The Only Black Person In the Entire World). Of the women who are presented as the most sympathetic, Margo has no actual agency or life of her own; she only exists to enable or support Nick. Her one unique characteristic is Owns A Woodshed. And the detective… feels like the detective in every detective story written by someone who’s watched a lot of detective stories on television. She makes no advances in the case, and in fact the only moment I liked in the last act of the movie was when Amy accused her of being incompetent. The rest are a condescending mother-in-law, an idiotic nosy neighbor, a seductive ingenue, a hard-edged Oprah Winfrey-type media personality, and a shrill Nancy Grace surrogate.
In fact, because the characters are so broad (no pun intended), and because they’re played by comedic actors like Casey Wilson and Missy Pyle, I wondered if maybe that were the whole point, and maybe it’s presenting this world in which women are so driven by society to conform to stereotypes that they only exist as stereotypes. But again, that feels like a reach. If it’s that difficult to tell the difference between making fun of stereotypes and simply being lazy stereotypes, then there is no difference.
The “Cool Girl” speech is the closest the movie has to a manifesto, but having it delivered by a psycho villain is the ultimate cop-out: maybe that’s the message, or maybe not. We’re not going to hold your hand and make it explicit for you. Meanwhile, whether it’s intentional or not, the movie as a whole takes on the voice of the ultimate “Cool Girl.” Margo’s the most “normal” and sympathetic character, but she exists only to support Nick (“I was with you before we were even born!”), and she’s one of the first characters to point out how much she hates Amy. The movie ends up asking, don’t we all hate stuck-up bitches like that, those judgmental ball-busters? Aren’t they so phony? Wouldn’t you rather hang with a chick who loves you unconditionally and will do shots with you at 10 in the morning?
None of it reads to me as dark comedy, or even as cynical. It’s just a lazy nihilism that says not only does none of it matters, but that anyone who suggests otherwise is either naive or lying.
There’s one scene in Gone Girl that pretty much sums up the entire movie for me. It’s the one in which Amy has tipped off the Detective to investigate the woodshed, so they show up and open the doors, and there on display is all the stuff that Amy has bought to incriminate Nick. And instead of laughing, or asking “what the hell is this supposed to be?”, the Detective nods and then says to Nick that this looks like all the stuff he’d need to make a “man cave.”
It sums up the movie because it’s the one moment where absolutely everybody involved — Nick, Detective Boney, Amy, David Fincher, the art director, some set dresser, Gillian Flynn, the editor, all of the actors, the book’s editor, the producers who saw the dailies and greenlit them — everybody just stopped caring.
It would be kind of like having a story whose plot hinges on the contents of a woman’s purse, so while preparing for the scene, you stop random guys on the street and ask them what kinds of things they think women keep in their purses. Then the scene finally plays out in the movie: A police officer dumps the contents of the purse onto the table, and there’s like 500 tampons; 25 pounds of lipsticks and mascaras and compacts; two Jane Austen novels; some loose bills; and a scented candle. And the detective looks at all of it, and nods as if to say “Yep, this all checks out.” And then he looks at our protagonist, rolls his eyes, and says “must’ve been her time of the month!”
I mean the boys they love their gadgets, am I right?
At this point in the story, Nick’s already found the contents of the woodshed, and he’s deduced that it was left by Amy in order to incriminate him. But he’s done nothing to move or hide any of it. The detective sees a mountain of all new evidence, provided by an anonymous tip, and it’s not hidden away in boxes, but opened and spread out like a Price Is Right Showcase Showdown, and she isn’t the least bit suspicious. The case against Nick, apparently, is that he really wanted a man cave to escape from his wife, so he killed his wife to pay for it, and he didn’t have enough self control to wait until he got the insurance money, but he did somehow have enough self control to open almost everything and then store it unused but carefully arranged in a shed on the other side of town. And keep in mind that the detective had found the first two clues in a treasure hunt that Amy had been conducting on the day of her disappearance, and which could help definitively establish her whereabouts, but she didn’t bother pursuing it, leaving it instead for Nick to figure out.
And while Amy was enacting her diabolical I’m-always-two-steps-ahead-of-you plan, she was presumably ordering stuff and storing it hidden in the house completely unbeknownst to Nick, and either making frequent trips to her sister-in-law’s woodshed to sneak in and stash stuff like a big-screen TV or a giant amp, or she delivered it in one big go, all without attracting any unwanted attention.
Plus there’s a “robot dog,” which presumably was supposed to be a Sony AIBO, which in 2012 was already a long-dated reference that symbolized “something ridiculously expensive and useless that only clueless rich guys would buy.” It’s a reference as specific as ordering a Fresca, but for some reason the one in the movie isn’t quite an AIBO, implying that there was just a huge market for robot dogs among bored upper-middle-class men, and it fits right in along with a guitar and a video game playing machine like the Xboxes or the Intendoes. (Also, she was trying to run up a huge credit card debt, Brewster’s Millions-style, but she bought a Parrot drone instead of DJI? Amy, Amy, Amy. Please see me after class).
But my favorite detail of any of this is right in the center. It’s a copy of Dominion, a popular but still extremely niche and nerdy deck-building card game. (I didn’t see it in the movie, but the screenshot reveals the other game was Race for the Galaxy, which hilariously is an even nerdier and more obscure game). It conjures up the delightful image of a dude who looks like Ben Affleck murdering his wife so that he can get his drinking buddies together to do bro stuff like play Dominion. And magically, it also conjures up an image of Amy being in the middle of a scheme so devious and complicated that it involves weeks befriending a neighbor for the purpose of stealing her urine, and as she’s purchasing all the signifiers of a Dude’s Mid-Life Crisis Fun Kit, she thinks to frame her adulterous husband using a nerdy card game about building castles.
It’s all completely bonkers absurd, but not like the harmless absurdity of when a TV show gets computer hacking wrong for the sake of advancing the plot quickly, or gets geography wrong for the sake of making more attractive shots. It feels like everyone involved on every level just shrugged and said, “Whatever.” Over the years I’ve read descriptions of the movie and the book that call it “dark” or “biting” or “nasty” or “sick,” but I think ultimately, the overriding description I’d use is just “lazy.”
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.
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.
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:
They’re meticulously planned out, and
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.
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.
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.
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.