Chernobyl

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Television * Craig Mazin * Nuclear Disaster, Political Fallout * 2019

Synopsis

Everyone needs to see this.

I’m convinced of this, and despite my worries about coming off as hyperbolic I’ll stand by it. This HBO miniseries is Proper Noun Important. Yes, the disaster that the show depicts is basically ancient history now, 1986 may as well have been five hundred years ago, but the aftermath of what happened and the political reaction to it are painfully relevant. Also, it’s real easy to forget that the explosion at Chernobyl caused damage that will not be remedied in our lifetime. Or, actually, many lifetimes. Radiation is bitch, y’all. Of course, what makes Chernobyl truly special is simply how well done it is. This is such a beautifully crafted piece of media I’m having difficultly really wrapping my mind around it. Of course, considering what it’s about, it’s also an extremely grim experience. It’s one well worth having though.

Considering my deep and persistent interest in apocalyptic visions, particularly that of nuclear annihilation – I’m not weird you’re weird! – I knew shockingly little about Chernobyl before watching this. To be fair, the incident occurred when I was seven, but still, you’d think I’d have read up on it before now. Alas no, my entire knowledge of the disaster was gained through cultural osmosis. Essentially there was an explosion at a big Soviet nuclear power plant and it irradiated a huge swath of the country. And yes, that’s what happened. But what makes this show so fascinating and upsetting and important is everything surrounding the accident. Not just figuring out the how and why of the thing, but the immediate response to it and the attending political aftermath. Chernobyl takes the time to lay out not only what physically happened on site, but the very human reactions to the disaster.

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Evil PF Tompkins here is a real piece of work.

What makes Chernobyl resonate is the fact that it is a dramatization rather than a documentary. Look, I love documentaries. But there is a power to dramatic storytelling that is missing from slideshow narrations. Over the course of five taut episodes, we follow the efforts of a Soviet scientist named Valery Legasov as he is tasked with “fixing” Chernobyl after the explosion. He’s our touchpoint, our anchor, this sad, frustrated, beleaguered man with an impossible job. Surrounding him are a sampling of other characters who do exceptional work in humanizing this disaster which is so vast in scope. There’s clueless bureaucrats, arrogant KGB idiots, lots of brave, doomed workers, brilliant scientists, and of course more clueless, cynical bureaucrats. All of these people work in tandem to illustrate what happened in concrete, human terms instead of cold-blooded abstraction. And sure, there’s a couple of story-telling liberties taken. But still. It’s one thing to describe the cost of this disaster with lots of numbers and statistics. It’s quite another to watch someone die of radiation sickness.

As I said, watching Chernobyl is a grim experience well worth having. It is the best disaster movie ever made. It is also a taut political drama, and a medical drama, and a courtroom drama. Episode two has one of the most affective horror scenes I’ve ever seen. Like, just thinking about it – at ten in the morning on a bright summer day – still fucks me up. Everything Chernobyl does, it does nearly perfectly. All of the science is extremely accurate, and explained simply but well. All of the details of Soviet life in the ‘80s appear to be correct. The only real issue is the fact that everyone speaks in pleasant British accents, but considering the alternatives were either subtitles (death for popular media, even now) or forced Eastern European accents, it’s fine. Also, that’s the most critical thing I have to say about it. Chernobyl is one of the best things I’ve ever seen, full stop.

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Smoke, but radioactive death-smoke. This show, man.

Discussion

If humanity cannot learn to humanize abstractions, it will undo itself. That is a very fancy way of saying that we, humans, need to get our shit together or we will die. Chernobyl is an illustration of what happens when things progress beyond a human scale and fail. It’s a paradox, because we are able to create things on a scale which is beyond any single individual’s ability to comprehend concretely. Nuclear power in and of itself is an abstract concept made reality. In order to make a nuclear power plant happen, the resources of millions of people are needed, whether or not they even understand what they are supporting. This kind of scale only makes sense in an abstract way. There’s a fundamental detachment that happens when we think about it. I can’t picture a hundred thousand individual faces and neither can you, we’re simply not programmed to do so. And when we lose that individuality, it becomes easy to dismiss basic humanity. This is what happens throughout Chernobyl.

First, the physical, acute, actual danger of radiation. Over and over again Chernobyl presents situations that simply make no sense to most people, and those people are killed because their inability to take abstractions seriously. From the beginning, in the control room filled with people who should know better, there is a refusal to accept reality. The core explodes, which isn’t supposed to be able to happen, so therefore it didn’t happen, even though it clearly and obviously did. Outside, people who should probably know how radiation works (considering they live and work around a giant nuclear plant) do not, because officially there’s no danger. Then, when literally the most dangerous substance on earth is just lying around on the ground, there is no frame of reference for it. Dozens of people rush to watch a fire while death gently snows on their heads. A firefighter’s wife clings desperately to her radioactive husband with no ability to understand that she’s risking death for herself. Worst of all, Soviet officials are still placing their political careers above the lives over millions of people.

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Science heroes!

After all is said and done, the political situation surrounding the events of Chernobyl is the most harrowing. Obviously radiation is terrifying. Invisible murder rays which can liquefy you if strong enough and zap cancer into you at lower doses? Yeah, no thanks. Still, it can be dealt with. The problem is, since all of this is beyond the individual scale and is happening on the social scale, you need individuals to think beyond their own immediate interests and connect the abstract to the concrete. Many people lack the ability to do this. One of my favorite scenes is when Legasov meets Boris Shcherbina (ugh, these names are impossible), a high-ranking Soviet official. Legasov is one of these incorrigible truth-tellers, which is not the Soviet way. Boris knows the game, and wants nothing to do with Legasov. As they’re flying to Chernobyl, he asks Legasov to explain how a nuclear power plant works. He does so in simple terms. To which Boris replies: “Now I know how a nuclear power plant works, and I don’t need you.” Now, Boris goes on to actually understand the situation and works to fix it, sacrificing a good deal of his health in doing so. But this is only after spending time on the ground, watching events unfold in front of him.

Boris is eventually able to see past the thing that very well might kill us all, which is individual self-interest over the interests of a vast, abstract society. After the immediate threat is dealt with, more or less, the ongoing threat is still there. Which is to say the design flaw in the RBMK reactor which led to the disaster in the first place and is common throughout the Soviet Union. When faced with that danger, the choice is pretty clear: lie and say there is no threat and that the Soviet Union is incapable of such an error, and therefore there is nothing to fix, or accept responsibility and fix the flaws. It’s obvious what the right answer is. Fix the reactors and avoid something like Chernobyl from ever happening again. It’s also obvious what answer the Soviet Union chose. Those in charge, be it the KGB or local party loyalists, have a vested interest in protecting themselves at the expense millions of people whose faces they can’t actually picture.

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The most ominous structure fire in history.

The reason why Chernobyl is Important isn’t just because the Soviet Union was so clearly flawed and corrupt. It was, of course, but such things are not unique to Russia. The show rings true because the Soviet Union was made up of people, just like any place else. And the people in power there weren’t any different than people in power pretty much anywhere else. Their first priority, now and forever, is the preservation of their own power. If one must ignore clear and obvious evidence in order to preserve that power, then so be it. It millions must be imperiled so that a handful of men may continue to thrive, then that’s what will happen. If the only truth that matters is what the powerful are saying at the moment they’re saying it, then we are done as a species. Because they will say and do whatever is required to preserve their own place in the world. After all, you don’t have to look very far to see people willing to burn everything to the ground so long their interests are protected. For the time being, at least.

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Posted in Nuclear, Television | Leave a comment

Zombieland

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Film * Ruben Fleischer * Self Aware Zombies * 2009

Synopsis

I’m on record saying that clichés and tropes are perfectly acceptable so long as the story being told is well done. That said… ugh, zombies. If you tell me your thing is a zombie thing, I’m already not that interested. Insofar as apocalypses are concerned, the zombie scenario is the least fun to really think about, because it’s the least likely thing to happen. I still haven’t bothered watching The Walking Dead, and considering that show’s reputation, I probably never will. The thing with zombie fiction is that it’s such a silly concept that any story trying to take it seriously has to put in some real work to make the story plausible. The options are either focus on the visceral, immediate threat of scary zombies, like 28 Days Later, or focus on the human drama within a post-apocalyptic world, like in The Last of Us. And personally, the latter only works because it’s a video game and the zombies show up to provide gameplay. There is, of course, another option. You can just make a very silly cartoon version of a zombie apocalypse, which brings us to Zombieland.

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The “rules” are the foundation for Zombieland‘s visual style, and for the most part still holds up.

Since I’m an old now, it’s hard for me to differentiate cultural eras in the last twenty years or so, but movies like this help. Zombieland is extremely 2009. If you were to ask me, independently of this movie, what the cultural aesthetic of a decade ago is, I wouldn’t have an answer. Mostly because I’d be thinking about how big a weirdo you are for asking strangers questions like this. But also because it doesn’t seem like there is one. However, here comes movies like Scott Pilgrim and Zombieland, and oh, I get it now. There’s a smooth flashiness to these kind of movies that is identifiable to this era. It’s in the use of flashy computerized text superimposed on the action, it’s in the manufactured snark of the script. The dialogue is that of people putting in a lot of effort in being clever and snappy, but only succeeds maybe a little over half the time. It’s very labored. Most importantly, though, is the willingness to embrace all things meta. 2009 was a time to be extremely self-aware.

 

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You say that, but it looks like someone’s ear is in danger of having hair brushed over it!

All of this sounds negative, but I assure you that’s not my intention. I like Zombieland. I like Scott Pilgrim. I like it when self-aware meta-comedy is done well. It’s a tricky thing to do right! There’s always the risk that the audience will be rolling their eyes too loudly to pay attention to your movie (that’s a gross noise, too, just hundreds of eyes making a wet snk! sound). And yo, there are some things in this movie that don’t age particularly great. Actually, I remember some of the lines and jokes not really landing for me at the time. I’m not even referring to tone-deaf jokes about traditionally maligned groups (like the trans jokes in early Arrested Development – woof) There are just some cumbersome attempts at cleverness that simply don’t work. This movie has voice-over narration, which is a weird throwback that I’m not entirely on board with. At least the resisted the record-scratch open. Yet despite that, more jokes land than don’t, it’s still visually interesting, the dynamic on-screen text is still fun, and most importantly, the cast is still very charming.

There’s not much in the way of story in Zombieland. The narrator and protagonist is an extremely cautious, socially awkward wiener-kid played by Jesse Eisenburg doing his best Michael-Cera-in-Arrested-Development impression. That might sound unfair, but that’s kind of what it is. Anyway, he has a set of survival rules for the zombie apocalypse, and that’s where most of the fun dynamic text comes in. It works more often than not. Eventually he runs into Woody Harrelson, who rules. His character is an amped-up zombie-killing ding-dong (who ironically loves Twinkies), and he counters the narrator’s fastidiousness. The odd couple end up travelling together in a sort of zombie-killing roadtrip when they run into two sisters, Emma Stone and Little Miss Sunshine, who are basically scam artists. Hilarity ensues.

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This movie has a lot of fun with zombie kills, which it should!

Discussion

I’m trying my best to not compare Zombieland to Shaun of the Dead for a couple of reasons. First of all, I haven’t written about Shaun of the Dead somehow, which is an unforgivable oversight and I’m very ashamed of that. Secondly, Zombieland is the lesser of the two films, and it’s not close. Lastly, they’re actually going for different things, so just because they’re both ostensibly comedies with zombies in it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s fair to compare them. Of course, “zombie comedy” isn’t exactly a rich genre, so I’m doing it anyway. Here’s the thing. Shaun of the Dead is vested in telling a straight zombie-survival story first and foremost. It does so with a contemporary (well, for 2004) London and a set of extremely average Londoners. It’s very funny but also leans heavily on character relationships. By contrast, Zombieland is essentially a very violent cartoon.

That cartoon is very kinetic and fun, but as a result the characterization is comparatively flat and the emotional moments don’t hit as hard. Over the course of Shaun of the Dead, Shaun pretty much fails repeatedly, but in doing so demonstrates an inner strength that was brought out by the emerging apocalypse, eventually earning the respect of The Girl. Zombieland rarely takes the time to take a breath, so when Columbus overcomes some of his over-cautiousness to win over The Girl it’s almost anti-climactic. Like how else was this going to end? But that’s not really the point of the movie. This is a movie about quips and one-liners and undermining its own emotional foundation. Which is totally fine! But there’s a reason Shaun of the Dead is on a short list of Matt’s Favorite Movies and Zombieland is on a list of things I saw once and enjoyed and immediately forgot about.

 

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It’s the Ghostbusters….

That said, there are some very good gags throughout this thing. Obviously Bill Murray showing up for no good reason is inspired, particularly his apparent enthusiasm for dressing up and reenacting scenes from his old movies like a skit from Mystery Science Theater 3000. I don’t know why, but Emma Stone’s performance as Janine from Ghostbusters is like my favorite thing. Also, “Oh, this is so exciting, you’re going to learn who to call” is great. I took a great visceral pleasure in the survivors destroying a trashy, touristy, fairly racist gift shop. And again, more of the writing hits than doesn’t, which frankly surprised me a little. Sure some of the language is a little labored, but for the most part Zombieland is still pretty funny. Of course, now I’m wondering if there’s a generation of people fifteen years younger than me who quotes this movie all the time. Somehow I don’t think so, even though it seems like it would be that kind of movie. Maybe it’s just me. I am old now, after all.

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I couldn’t find the Ghostbusters scene but this is almost as good.

Posted in Film, Zombies | Leave a comment

The Good Soldier

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Novel * Ford Madox Ford * Petty Drama at the End of the World * 1915

Synopsis

A couple of years ago I read through old Ford Ford’s masterwork, Parade’s End, and it rather reignited my love of Modernism. Those novels, of which there are four, tell the story of a stodgy conservative weirdo who has his world view burned to ashes by World War I. He eventually learns to let go the past and how things used to be and attempts to live his best life. For Modernism, it’s surprisingly heartening. Also, I’m still in love with Valentine Wannop. What makes Parade’s End special is the characters, as they are stronger and richer than most of the others you’ll find wandering sadly through the halls of Modernism. The other thing about Ford’s writing is its experimental structure. Parade’s End is four novels, even though it probably doesn’t need to be, which are fractured and scattered through time and various viewpoints. The story can be hard to string together sometimes, and while it never goes Full Joyce and embraces stream-of-consciousness, it does flirt with it. I would argue that with Parade’s End, Ford masters the balance between experimental form and readability. The book we’re talking about today, The Good Soldier, is an earlier attempt at this.

It’s not as good. The key difference is that The Good Soldier is far more interested in technique than it is in story. And to be fair, the technique is genius in concept and masterful in execution. The thing is, Parade’s End is a further refinement of the work done here, plus it also has a story worth caring about. The story in The Good Soldier is as Basic Modernism as you can get. You’ve got your clueless upper class dealing with the inevitable end of their lifestyle thanks to War and Progress. All the characters suck in their own special way, and there’s no delightful Miss Wannop to save it. Plus the principal conflict here is straight up a soap opera plot. Still, there are no shortage of critics out there who would assert that The Good Soldier is actually Ford’s defining work. Hell, the Norton Critical Edition I have here is more than half dedicated to deconstructions of the manuscript and various critical essays. And that’s fine. They just prioritize the importance of Ford’s style over the actual story.

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Look at the faces on these covers and remember that one of the novel’s subtitles is “A Tale of Passion.”

The Good Soldier is about two married couples, one American, one British, both rich. On the surface they are tranquil and aloof, exactly as you’d expect the idle rich to be. Dig a little deeper, and it turns out they’re extremely dysfunctional. Captain Edward Ashburnham and his wife, Leonora, have their troubles. Dowell and his wife, Florence, have theirs. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Captain Ashburnham has problems keeping it in his pants, as does Florence. The novel is entirely told from Dowell’s point of view, so from one aspect The Good Soldier is a novel about infidelity told from the perspective of a wronged husband. Of course, this is Modernism, so there’s layers here. Social layers, certainly, but also personal ones. And this is where Ford’s experimental genius kicks in. The only thing that makes this otherwise tawdry story about various extramarital affairs interesting is what Ford is doing with narration.

The novel works in layers, as page by page and chapter by chapter Dowell tells his story. It is told naturally, by someone who is trying to reconstruct a decade’s worth of memories through the lens of personal betrayal and loss. Make no mistake, that’s an incredibly delicate and subtle line to take when narrating a story. Ford succeeds in this attempt, which is why there are a hundred pages of critical essays in the back of my copy of the book. Most of those essays are concerned with Ford’s ability to present Dowell’s account of his life in a fashion that almost exactly mimics what his poor, sad, wobbly mind would realistically be like. To say that Dowell is an unreliable narrator cheapens the skill involved in bringing that unreliability to life, especially in 1915. That’s Moderns for you, though. Out there making it new.

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Oh, the stylish, updated cover. Nice and clean.

Discussion

I’m trying to think of a fun way to accurately describe just what it is that Ford doing that makes it special as opposed to a gimmick. Honestly, finding a fun way to describe boring lit stuff is a kind of my whole deal. I mostly image The Good Soldier unfolding as a series of “well, actually” statements, in which Dowell is constantly revising his own story as be slowly becomes more honest with himself. The first version of himself and his friends the Ashburnhams is almost completely benign. We’re just good people who stay out of trouble and uphold social standards and are absolutely and totally unremarkable in any way. Then I like to imagine someone standing outside of Dowell’s doorway leaning in and going “really, bro?” To which Dowell has to circle back and correct his own memories. Over and over again.

There’s a deterioration of decorum that happens over the course of the novel that I quite enjoy. That’s a big part of the process, in that Dowell begins his account by providing a description of the major players which would match what the typical outsider would see. That is to say, extremely dull rich people. Yet little by little, as Dowell suddenly remembers minor details like how his wife Florence had a painfully obvious affair with some grimy doofus for two years, the tone shifts. We’re basically watching Dowell’s defense mechanisms collapse in real time. He starts out thinking hey, maybe Florence isn’t so bad. Then he remembers things like, hey, is it weird she wouldn’t allow me in her room ever and that skeezy Jimmy dude is always in there also he lives with us I guess? Must be her heart issue that’s only ever an issue when it’s convenient to keep me docile… heeeeey, wait a minute. I think she might actually be kind of a liar! Well I never. By the end of the novel he’s at least finally come to terms with how awful a person Florence actually was.

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Of course, the other subtitle for the novel is “The Saddest Story,” so pick a lane, Ford.

Of course Dowell himself isn’t great, although given his own testimony he comes off mostly as a tepid pushover throughout the story. Again, it’s the defense mechanism of a shiftless rich man to simply detach from any kind of internal turmoil. Over and over he yearns for a simple existence. Like look, I don’t have to work, I don’t want to work, I just want to hang out and play polo. Women are too much trouble to really bother with, and if we could just do the same thing every day that would be great. Florence, obviously, has her idea of a good time. Meanwhile, the good solider himself, Edward Ashburnham, is the kind of hopeless romantic who allows his pure-hearted romanticism to run roughshod over his marriage and every relationship he’s ever had. In 2019 terms he’s the dude who claims to be a feminist ally while actually being a serial womanizer. He’s gross and everyone knows he’s gross except for the vulnerable young women he exploits and Dowell.

So far, so Modernism. Tragic, filled with unsympathetic characters, written in a new and exciting way. But what of the other thing? The ever-present shadow of apocalyptic global warfare? For a book entitled The Good Soldier, World War I is just that, a shadow. Ashburnham is a professional soldier, but doesn’t live to see the war. The novel, of course, was published just as the nightmare was really getting going. For the most part, The Good Soldier is a portrait of the sordid inner lives of high-society jerks who don’t realize their whole way of life is about to be terminally fractured. Of course, that’s where Parade’s End comes along. However, the brink is there even if this group of characters are so mired in their own tawdry soap opera of a life that they don’t see it coming.

Posted in Books, Modernity | Leave a comment

Captain Marvel

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Film * Anna Boden/Ryan Fleck * Hero Grrrl * 2019

Synopsis

Usually I preface these articles with the caveat that I have very little background in comics and whatnot, but now that I’ve seen like two-thirds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies I figure I’m pretty much an expert. Therefore, I’m not going to bother pointing out all the subtle details, since obviously you’re an expert too and it would be a waste of time. Instead, I’ll focus on the larger themes of the movie, which like most MCU entries, are not exactly subtle. Nor do they need to be! In fact, the reason most of the movies work so well is because they fundamentally understand the medium they’re adapting. The narrative itself can be as weird and esoteric and convoluted as you like, but the characters need to be broadly appealing and the themes need to be universal and ring through clearly. Captain Marvel, like other MCU successes, does all these things without trying too hard.

At this point, the formula is pretty well locked in. We’re now in the point of the process where each new film in the MCU is trying to find its own voice, layered on top of the formula. That’s how we get nice things, like Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther. The baseline is there, time-tested and audience-approved, but we’re finally getting directorial choices that seem to matter. Thor: Ragnarok was a beautiful, weird, fever dream because, well, have you seen What We Do in the Shadows? Black Panther remains the best MCU movie largely due to a cohesive aesthetic vision that works on nearly every level. These movies are starting to loosen up a little, and as a result they’re continuously revitalized instead of wearing themselves out. By all rights, we should all be sick and tired of these nonstop Marvel releases, but the public is clearly not fatigued in the least. Myself included, which is frankly just weird.

 

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*swoon*

All that said, I was a little skeptical going into Captain Marvel. And if you’re making a snap judgement as to why that might be, you are clearly new here. I’ll get into the whole sexism thing in a bit, but real quick my criticism on that front is that it took Disney/Marvel ten years to figure out how to get a woman her own superhero movie and that sucks. Anyway, my skepticism is born entirely out of the fact that this is yet another superhero origin story, and that is a thing I am pretty well sick of. (I will take this parenthetical moment to assert that Black Panther is not an origin story, since the role of a Black Panther is well established in the society of Wakanda.) Some of that skepticism was borne out within the film, I’m afraid. We get some deeply over-familiar moments where Our Hero is discovering her new powers and is like, whoa man. Luckily, those moments in no way overwhelm the film and are fairly easily glossed over in favor of the fun this movie is clearly having.

It probably helps that this is the first major movie I’ve seen that is furiously mining 90s nostalgia. On the one hand, the constant pop culture references to my ill-begotten youth makes me feel impossibly old. On the other hand, there are a couple of musical cues that, while extremely on the nose, still work in that nostalgic hind-brain and made me unreasonably happy. Plus it’s hard not to have a little crush on Brie Larson when she appears in a Nine Inch Nails shirt and a 90s-ass leather jacket. Also there are a few establishing shots that straight up look like an old Snoop Doggy Dogg video, so you’ve won my nostalgic affection on multiple fronts, movie. And if you don’t have that baked-in nostalgia, not unlike the 30 year old star of the movie? Good news. Captain Marvel is still an extremely good superhero movie.

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Cat.

Discussion

I think I’m in trouble here. My initial thought was to write about Captain Marvel in terms of representation and the importance of strong women in stories and all those cool things. But, like, I’m a dude, and I’m not convinced the world needs another article mansplaining feminism to people. Instead, I’ll talk about some other stuff, but I will take a moment to speak directly to other dudes. Specifically to dudes who are “concerned” about seeing women in places that they’re not accustomed to seeing them. Look, bro, just shhh. It’s okay. No, no, just shut the fuck up. Nobody cares. And it’s good nobody cares. The existence of a woman superhero for little girls to dress up as does not invalidate you personally. Your bad ideas and terrible logic do that. The existence of a woman flying around doing cool impossible shit does not invalidate the existence of a man flying around doing cool impossible shit. They can do cool impossible shit together! And if you’re bummed out by that, well, enjoy the rest of your sad, myopic, frustrated life. God forbid you relax, accept people, and change your mind once in a while.

Okay! What else do y’all want to talk about? Oh, if you’ve not seen the movie I might talk about a few things so if you’re sensitive about that probably dip out, I dunno. There are plenty of really cool moments in Captain Marvel that I think shore up some of the origin story-based weaknesses. Like how that rad canyon scene toward the end was basically a callback to Independence Day (I kept waiting for someone to welcome a baddie to Earth by punching them in the face). The Stan Lee cameo, obviously. There’s the bit with the cat, of course, but there’s also the moment I was waiting for pretty much the entire movie, which is to say when the No Doubt song kicks in.

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The end wasn’t the only part that gave me Independence Day vibes. All they need are the cigars.

Like I said above, that particular music cue was incredibly on the nose, but that does not stop it from being satisfying. I actually enjoyed the entire soundtrack, which incidentally was comprised of artists led by women with the exception of good boys Nirvana and R.E.M. Shout out to whoever lobbied to get Elastica featured in there, although I’m a little sad the likes of L7 or Bikini Kill did not appear. However, my only real quibbles are ending the movie with a song that was released in the late 90s as opposed to the mid-90s when the film takes place (although “Celebrity Skin” is still a dope song) and the lack of hip-hop. This thing needed a track by Queen Latifah or Lady of Rage in it.

So I have a bit of apprehension about Avengers: Endgame, which is obviously teased in the post-credits stinger. Essentially, I’m worried that Captain Marvel is going to be used as a deux ex machina to solve the seemingly-intractable problem brought up in Infinity War. Perhaps I’ve missed something in my aforementioned expertise, but we’re only just now being introduced to the very idea of this seemingly all-powerful galactic superhero, right? We’ve been building up to this for a decade and this is the first we’ve heard of this kind of power. Awfully convenient. Hopefully the “final” Avengers movie is deft enough to get around the last-minute appearance of an unstoppable force of nature saving the day, but I would have felt better about it if the Marvel braintrust would have hinted at such a character like ten movies ago. But I guess that would have required taking a woman superhero seriously before Wonder Woman proved to the idiots in in charge that girls can do cool shit too.

Posted in Film, Superheros | Leave a comment

Shadow and Bone

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Novel * Leigh Bardugo * Fantasy Russia Wizards * 2012

Synopsis

I’m not sure what it is about fantasy stories and the idea that the world is about to end. Fantasy really is the most apocalyptic genre. Science fiction is often concerned with what the world is going to look like in the future, and a lot of the time that imagining is pretty dire. Be it dystopias or post-cataclysms or whatever, sci-fi can be pretty dire. Yet fantasy is almost always worse. More often than not, there is some kind of global peril in play. Be it a novel or a movie or a video game, the endgame of the plot usually involves the end of the fantasy world itself. Even with works as different as that of Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire (or hell, at this point, Game of Thrones), the stakes are the world as we’ve come to know it. The idyllic, pastoral land of The Shire is threatened by Sauron’s all-powerful menace while the far more realistic, fucked up Westeros is under the oppressive, apocalyptic threat of the White Walkers. It doesn’t matter what kind of fantasy world it is, it’s probably going to turn to ashes.

Shadow and Bone, a really very good first-book-in-a-young-adult-fiction-trilogy, is no different than the above-mentioned heavyweights. In the beginning, the particular kind of apocalypse isn’t fully formed. We get a pretty good idea of the state of the world, which is what sets this novel apart. One, the story is extremely Russian in flavor. It’s not as omnipresent as, say, George R.R. Martin’s modelling of Westeros on War-of-the-Roses medieval England, but it’s definitely there. And it’s cool! Russia is a strange, fascinating place with an equally strange and fascinating history, so there’s lots to draw from. Beyond the Russian influence, the world is comprised of at least three warring nations. The nation our hero lives in is called Ravka, which is a place ruled by two powerful leaders. First is the king, who sucks, but is the nominal head of state. The other is the Darkling, who wields actual power. Oh, and the Darkling is a warlock or some shit so guess who is actually in charge?

The king, actually, because as we enter this world we quickly realize that political power is more potent than magical power, despite the magic system being fairly formidable. The magic users in this world are known as Grisha, and are generally despised and mistrusted by the bleating masses. The other two countries actively hunt them out of fear of their power or out of religious mania. I will say that for a novel based in political intrigue, so far the other countries are not given much in the way of depth. They’re akin to the evil masses to the south and east of Gondor in Tolkien’s work (with about 75% less implied racism). Regardless, we’re mainly concerned with Ravka and its internal conflicts. They’re constantly at war with their neighbors, and they use the Grisha as implements of that war. It’s a grim, dark world which has its share of stark beauty and wonder. Not unlike the Russia it takes its inspirations from, I guess.

Oh right, characters. Sorry, it’s just when it comes to fantasy I’m usually drawn in by the world first and then get to appreciate the people in it. Oddly enough, when I’m writing fantasy it’s the total opposite. Anyway, Our Hero is a scrawny, not-particularly-interesting-or-attractive orphan girl named Alina. We figure out relatively quickly that There Is More To Her Than There Might Seem, that she in fact might be The Chosen One. And if that seems trite, well, welcome to fantasy fiction. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t care if you’re working with well-worn tropes and clichés as long as you do it well. And Bardugo does it well. I’m also pretty a sure a fuckin’ teenage love triangle is in the works and I don’t care because the writing is solid and the characters are alive.

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I prefer this cover despite not liking anything about the term “Grishaverse.”

Discussion

Oh, it’s been a while since I’ve had discussion questions! These… aren’t great but they’ll do.

  1. Alina and Mal grow up in an orphanage in Kermazin. How does this affect Alina’s experiences at the Little Palace? Mal’s experience in the First Army?

That’s where we learn what their personalities are! Alina is taciturn and tough, self-sufficient and prefers her own company. Mal is bright and effervescent and is otherwise a golden boy despite having a deeply stupid name. Then the tables turn and suddenly Alina is in the spotlight and has no way of knowing how to deal with it. That turns out to be a struggle throughout what I’ve read of the series so far. Still, aside from natural talent as the Sun Summoner, she has a deep reserve of independent strength because of her formative years spent being self-reliant. Also I don’t really care about Mal all that much.

  1. How is the Fold connected to the Darkling? What does this connection say about him and his power?

Yo, I’m pretty sure the text explicitly says that the Darkling created the Fold. That’s a pretty direct connection, you know? And since he did that, with seemingly no regrets, I’d say he thinks pretty highly of his own power and self-worth, like every other megalomaniacal powerful villain who thinks they’re the only solution to the world’s problems. Again, tropes. But well done tropes!

  1. How does Alina feel about her power? How do her feelings change? Why?

These questions… jeez. To be fair, I understand that they’re created with the intention of getting the target audience – teenage girls – to think about what they’re reading. That’s fine. Admirable, even! Still, the text is pretty explicit. A big part of Alina’s arc is coming to terms with her own power. A more subtle read on this is Alina coming to terms with her own character’s power, unrelated to magic. She learns to control and channel her Sun Summoner power, but she’s also becoming a woman, and is learning how to control and channel her own experiences and inner strength to eventually become a leader. Again, this is the first book and is therefore the nascent stages of all this. Alina’s still a kid, and she’s going to make a kid’s mistakes.

  1. What is the connection between Alina and the Darkling? What does Alina think of this link at different points in the novel?

It’s pretty clear that the two are different sides of the same powerful coin. The title “Darkling” is a bit on the nose, considering his power is darkness while Alina channels the power of light. Actually, their whole dynamic is a bit on the nose. Which, again, whatever. It’s the whole Sauron v. Gandalf thing. Well, if those two had a bunch of sexual tension, I guess. Because Alina pretty well hates the Darkling, but that doesn’t stop her from wanting to jump his goddamn bones. Oh, and I will take this moment to point out that it always creeps me out in fantasy when the Ancient Powerful Man who looks like he’s only 22 falls in love with the literal teenage girl. Buffy did this, and I never liked it. Angel is a fuckin’ pedophile. The Darkling is over a hundred years old and still wants to be with a teenager? I didn’t want to hang out with teenagers when I was a teenager! They’re gross and awkward and bad at sex. That said, if I was Alina, I’d probably want to bang him too.

  1. How are Grisha talents like science? Why are other people afraid of what the Grisha can do?

They’re not? It made very clear that the Grisha are born, so they’re basically mutants. Yeah, they can study and hone their powers, but their powers are innate. Science is science because anyone with a mind to it can reproduce results. Grisha power is reliant on power only available to the very few. It’s that fundamental difference that people are afraid of, here and in the X-Men. If you’re just some random chud and you meet some dude who can literally kill you with a thought, you’re going to be afraid of that dude. That fear is totally natural, and fair or not makes it the responsibility of the powerful to be mindful of the powerless. Alina understands this, even as she laments the injustice of it. The Darkling just goes full Magneto and seeks as much power as he can.

Only five questions! I appreciate the brevity, even if I miss some of the more absurd questions I’ve seen in other YA fiction. Ah well, maybe in the next one.

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Y.A.T. | Leave a comment

Geostorm

geostorm1

Film * Dean Devlin * COUNTDOWN TO GEOSTORM * 2017

Synopsis

Here’s a quick window into my decision-making process when it comes to selecting movies to write about.

NORMAL BRAIN: I should watch a movie tonight. I’ve noticed quite a few streaming options that I’ve been meaning to watch.

TIRED, LAZY BRAIN: NO I HATE IT. Let’s just watch something we’ve seen ten thousand times so I can fall immediately asleep to it.

NORMAL BRAIN: No, it’s a day off, I should really catch up on this huge list of important films. Look, A Clockwork Orange is streaming.

ANXIOUS, SLEEPY BRAIN: Noooooooooooooo, I don’t want it. Stressful.

NORMAL BRAIN: Ugh, fine. But I insist we watch something new.

DEFENSE MECHANISM BRAIN: Okay but I don’t want to think or feel any kind of way about it.

NORMAL BRAIN: You are the worst. Fine, let’s see what there is.

Twenty minutes of scrolling through the menus of four different streaming services later:

NORMAL BRAIN: EVERYTHING IS EITHER TOO LONG OR TOO STRESSFUL!

TIRESOME ANXIETY BRAIN: Stop yelling I hate you and just want to hide – oh, let’s watch that!

NORMAL BRAIN: Geostorm? What even is that?

JERKASS DUMB DUMB BRAIN: Remember that amazing-looking awful disaster movie that came out… sometime? Whatever, it’s called Geostorm and we’re watching it.

NORMAL BRAIN: I can’t believe you’re in charge, how is this my life?

And that’s how I ended up watching Geostorm, this ridiculous-yet-forgettable disaster movie instead of an actual film. I’d apologize, but I obviously can’t deny that I have a deep and unabiding love of cornball disaster movies. It actually makes me pretty happy that nonsense like Geostorm is somehow still getting made. On paper, Geostorm has it all. A patently ludicrous premise. A cast of vaguely recognizable actors hamming it up real good. Poorly rendered CGI destruction scenes that are immediately dated. What else could you possibly want? Now, as an actual movie, Geostorm is obviously terrible. You don’t need me to tell you that, it’s called Geostorm. The real question is, how does it rate as a cornball disaster movie?

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Not a geostorm!

Unfortunately, I would say Geostorm is closer to The Core than Deep Impact on the scale of disaster movie radness. Now, it is a staple of these kinds of movies to exploit a kernel of scientific truth and spin it up into some kind of hyperbolic worst case scenario. That’s why we’re here. Some of these premises are more tortured than others, with something like The Core being way out on the bleeding edge of improbability. If anything, Geostorm is more a spiritual successor to classic of the genre, The Day After Tomorrow, which I’ve somehow not written about, in that it’s a movie about death-weather destroying the planet. Unfortunately, Geostorm isn’t quite in the same league.

Geostorm begins with a nice montage of stock footage of various weather-related disaster while a child gives us a synopsis of the state of the world. Apparently, in 2019 the climate breaks down and kills a bunch of people, to the point where the nations of the world decide to set aside their bitter differences to unite and save the day. They end up building a literal net of satellites that can regulate the weather, which they call “Dutchboy.” Before Geostorm even begins, the disaster has already been averted by the combined ingenuity of the human race. The crux of the plot is political, which makes Geostorm more of a human-versus-human thing instead of a human-versus-nature story. It’s a curious choice which doesn’t really end up working. There’s a formula to these things, and you alter them at your own risk. Still, a tidal wave hits Dubai, so whatever.

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Also not a geostorm!

Discussion

I appreciate the impulse to do something a little different with the genre. I’m not sure the idea to try and cram a taut political thriller in the middle of my schlocky disaster flick was a good one, but that’s what Geostorm does. As mentioned, Geostorm begins at a point where the natural disaster has already been averted. The first real scene is where we learn that Gerard Butler is the gruff, “tell it like it is” science man that’s too real for you no-account politicians, man. He’s also the genius who built and perfected Dutchboy and essentially saved the world. But that’s humans for you, already know-nothing Senators are calling for Gerard to get fired because he refuses to play the game. Coincidentally, the one who fires him is his own brother, a very sweaty Jim Sturgess, who is trying to advance his own career in the State Department under Ed Harris, who plays Ed Harris in this movie.

Right from the jump Geostorm is more about these political scenes than it is about various geostorms. Generally in these movies, the pig-headed politicians are there to stonewall our rebellious hero scientist from saving the day. Here, the day is already saved and the politicians are there to break down the social progress made due to the disaster. It’s a slight modification on the formula, which has the unfortunate effect of shifting focus from the common cause of surmounting a threat of death-weather to the more specific threat caused by one villain. Far more time is given to solving the mystery of who is behind the sabotage of Dutchboy than the threat posed by the titular geostorms, which honestly feels a bit like a bait and switch situation. I’m not exactly sure why, but the fact that all the weather-related disasters depicted in this movie are caused by sabotaged satellites is something of a bummer.

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Oh yeah, a bunch of this movie takes place in space where there are obviously no geostorms happening. 

All that said, Geostorm finally delivers on its promise of absurd geostorming. Well, kind of. Probably one of my favorite things about this movie is its insistence on using the world “geostorm” as many times as possible, which I clearly cannot blame them for. One of the best bits is the giant command center screen which just has a progress bar on it counting down to geostorm. Turns out, according to the movie, we never actually get a proper geostorm, which sucks. Sure, there’s the aforementioned (and not actually weather-related) tidal wave in Dubai, and Orlando gets lightening-ed to death and some dog is dramatically threatened by multiple kill-nadoes in India. But in the end, we never see the full force of a geostorm. That’s actually the fatal flaw, now that I think about it.

You see, in “good” disaster movies, the thing everyone is scared about happens. The asteroid hits in Deep Impact. The volcano erupts in Dante’s Peak. The earthquake happens in San Andreas. The drama is watching humans band together to survive incredible odds against the fury of nature. In Geostorm, the drama is watching people figure out that Ed Harris is evil and is weaponizing the ability to control the weather, like a proper goddamn supervillain. So when Geostorm hits the familiar “we’re all in it together” beats of a disaster movie, it feels weird. Most disaster movies have left-leaning, ecological messages. Geostorm is a little more blatant. The president is heroic and presidential, and specifically a Democrat, which is a weird move for a disaster movie. It’s not quite as on the nose as the ending of Volcano (which I’ve also not written about? What is wrong with me?), but it’s close. Anyway, the point is I didn’t sign up for a movie called Geostorm with the expectation of a bad political thriller. I’m here for a bad disaster movie. There’s a huge difference.

Geostorm.

Posted in Disaster, Film | Leave a comment

The Waste Land Project: The Bible (I)

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And here you can find the rest of the The Waste Land Project.

The Good News * Alpha and the Omega * Various Apocalypses * ∞

Synopsis

I’ve been delaying the writing of this post for quite a while. My copy of the King James has been sitting on my desk since I finished reading it, late last year. It took me the entirety of 2018 to force myself through the entire thing, one verse, one chapter, one book at a time. I did not have much fun doing that, but really it was more an exercise in discipline than anything. Also, despite the promises of many religious acquaintances throughout my life, I did not find myself moved by the Holy Spirit. It’s almost as if an ancient book about murder and treachery and infidelity and slaughter isn’t terribly inspiring. Plus there’s the fact that I chose the King James to try and bulldoze through. My reasoning was pretty straightforward, in that the King James is the traditional, literary text that most canonical English writers were familiar with. It’s a nightmare. A peculiar, bloated, repetitive nightmare. One of my main takeaways from finally getting through the Scriptures is just how many times I read the same thing, over and over and over again. You’d think the major players would have figured it out. Like yo, God hates it when you check out other gods. They never figure it out.

I’m going to do my best to avoid making the typical stale observations of a nonbeliever reading a religious text. Yes, it is a repetitive slog, but for various historical reasons that makes sense. You want the fledgling followers to really get it pounded into their heads that there is only one true god. Also, it helps to keep in mind that for the vast majority of history, The Bible was a one-way interaction. Most people were illiterate, so they were just hearing variations of these stories and parables and whatnot. The repetition is baked in to ensure not only memorization, but eventual obedience. This thing isn’t a book to be read straight through. If you keep the historical aspect of the text in mind, it makes a little more sense as to why the one true god is such a petty little whiner, pitching divine temper tantrums all the damn time. Yes, there are many guides to moral living throughout, but the primary motivator for The Bible is to ensure that you focus on this god as the only god.

The holy Bible

I really enjoy how busy this title plate is. Also how it’s like those old infomercials about various compilation CD’s for old people. “Remember the good old days when you’d spend the day cruising the beach and listening to golden oldies by Job and Ezekiel, but also the newer hits by Matthew and Luke!”

It should be pretty clear that these are deep waters and I am not really equipped to swim in them. That’s actually the conceit for The Waste Land Project in general, but it bears repeating. I am not particularly well-versed in Christianity, or religion in general. Yes, I read the entire Bible, but it was hard going and I will readily admit that not much of it stuck. That said, the purpose of this article isn’t to elucidate all 1800 pages of Biblical text. It’s to uncover the reason T.S. Eliot made certain references and hopefully bring about a slightly better understanding of his poem. I probably could have just read the particular books of the Bible that he references, but dammit, I’m not here to do things half-assed! Well, I am actually, but in a way that can point an interested reader in a deeper direction.

The strange thing is, at least early in the poem, the Biblical references don’t seem to be all that deep. There’s more going on with Tristan und Isolde. And that’s absolutely cool with me, because if I’m uncomfortable discussing medieval lit, I’m even more uncomfortable with this whole Bible thing. Of course my unfamiliarity didn’t stop me then and it’s not going to stop me now. I’m going to try and discuss the relevance of two Old Testament books that Eliot references, and we’ll see how it goes. The first is Ezekiel, the other is Ecclesiastes, and as I mentioned, the connections are slight. Unlike some of the other references in the poem, Eliot calls these out in his own notes, but really they’re just nods to the Scripture that Eliot goes on to mine for imagery. A heap of broken images, actually.

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That’s more like it. “The Vision of Ezekiel,” a 16th century engraving by Giorgio Ghisi, which pretty much sums up the mood.

Discussion

Okay, let’s not dick around here. The following passage is, line-for-line, some of the strongest poetry in English. It’s ridiculous. Furthermore, all three of our Biblical references are hidden in the first stanza of this passage, so that makes our lives a little easier. I’m going to quote the whole thing though, just because it’s great and I feel like it.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no

relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

That last line, holy shit. Still gets me. Also, I would like to see an action movie where our hero is like an erudite John Wick and that’s his big kill line when he finally murks the villain. After killing all the henchmen and blowing up half the bad guy’s lair, he just gestures to the smoldering ruins and tells the bleeding, defeated baddie that he knows only a handful of broken images, and then points his gun at him, and says “now I’ll show you fear in a handful of dust, motherfucker.” Nobody write that movie, it’s mine.

Okay, so Bible stuff. The first reference, credited to Ezekiel 2:1, is the phrase “son of man.” Honestly, I’m not entirely sure why Eliot specified that instance, because it’s a phrase that comes up all the time. The actual passage is short and fairly common in the old prophet books:

“And he said unto me, Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak unto thee.”

And then the Holy Spirt bops into the unsuspecting goat herder or whatever and starts giving the poor bastard all kinds of terrifying visions of the apocalypse. In fact, that’s kind of the point of the next reference, which is given as Ezekiel 6:4. At this point, god has been going on about the faithlessness of Jerusalem, another extremely common thing, before saying:

“And your alters shall be desolate, and your images shall be broken: and I will cast down your slain men before your idols.”

And that’s it. Well, the next passage is pretty fucked. Let’s read it!

“And I will lay the dead carcases of the children of Israel before their idols; and I will scatter your bones round about your altars.”

Let’s just say that YHWH has a lot of anger issues. Now, according to my critical edition of the King James, Ezekiel is one of the more difficult to parse and understand of the books of the Old Testament, so that’s great. Suffice to say, it’s pretty clear that Eliot is doing a drive-by reference here in order to ground his own (broken) imagery. Most of Ezekiel is concerned with foretelling the total destruction and desecration of Jerusalem because of the usual idolatry-related grievances. The thing about Ezekiel is just how graphic these visions are. The two passages above are pretty standard for the entire book. It’s just the kind of desolate wasteland that Eliot is evoking with his own verse.

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More Ezekiel, because the only imagery from Ecclesiastes I could find are comic sans inspirational quotes on rainbows and shit. This is “The Vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones” by Gustave Doré, and there’s your mood.

Okay, last reference, which is given as Ecclesiastes 13:5, but is 12:5 in my version:

“Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets.”

Everyone dies, maaaan. Now clearly, there is a bit of mood-setting going on with these references. This passage is early in poem, in a section entitled “The Burial of the Dead.” The imagery here is dry and purgatorial, meant to evoke a landscape devoid of life save for the son of man and the unnamed, mysterious and spooky narrator. Eliot references a scene in Ezekiel which is a scene of total desolation, the images of idolatry broken to pieces alongside the broken pieces of Jerusalem. Not only is the city dead and dusted, but it deserved its fate. Meanwhile, the sun is beating and there is no water and there is no life, not even the minor life of crickets. The nod to Ecclesiastes is a nod to death and the failure of desire. Out of these ancient references, Eliot creates his red rock wasteland, a place beyond life but totally of the world.

This passage is an anchor of sorts for the rest of the poem. While The Waste Land is in many ways a poem about the wasteland of the modern soul and the emptiness of modern civilization, it’s also a poem about cultural tradition. Eliot was all about the canon and preserving civilization through culture. By leveraging the Old Testament in a deeply evocative and image-heavy section right up front, Eliot is able to ground his poem in the past. After all, humanity has been grappling with death and meaninglessness for thousands of years. Later on in the poem, Eliot explores these death instincts in the context of contemporary London and finds parallels all throughout history. This passage, with its Biblical roots, is the foundation of the entire rest of the poem, and ensures that for the myriad of other references and images throughout, The Waste Land is rooted in the historical, universal fears of death and desolation.

Posted in Books, Desolation, Historical, Religion, Waste Land Project | Leave a comment

Logan’s Run

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Film * Michael Anderson * Utopia? More Like a Dys…Wait * 1976

Synopsis

Next up in the endless list of classic films that I have managed to have never seen until now, we have Logan’s Run. Like pretty much every important movie that I’ve never bothered to watch, many things I do like reference this film! The fact that a thing is influential does not guarantee that said thing withstands the test of time, however. Sometimes, like we saw with Dr. Strangelove, shit holds up. This one gets a pretty resounding ‘meh’ out of me. Logan’s Run clearly owes a few things to Aldous Huxley via Brave New World, so that’s cool, but there are some serious 1970’s pacing issues that turn a two hour movie into something that feels twice as long. I don’t know. I like the part with the cats.

I will admit to liking movies that begin with a short text synopsis of the state of the world. In this instance, we are informed that there was an unspecified cataclysmic event that wiped out most of the people on Earth. Well, the United States anyway but same difference right? Eh? Rest of the world are you with me? No? Anyway, humanity has survived, like it do, but civilization in particular has also survived, after a fashion. The world of Logan’s Run is a sealed society, located entirely within a giant dome. All needs are automatically catered to, although nobody really knows how or why or who set the system up to begin with. Nor do they care, because they’re too busy wandering aimlessly around in their flowing 70s robes and fucking. This is a pleasure-oriented society, although it’s pretty clear that most of the pleasure is derived from sex and the 70s equivalent of Crossfit and not decadent food because everyone is fit and hot.

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Cool.

So far, so good, at least for the citizens with a healthy sex drive. Like Brave New World, there is no concept of a family unit. Babies are born in a communal, artificial fashion and nobody has a mother or father, nor is there a concept of marriage or domestic partnering. The place seems gay-friendly, though, although I’m not sure if the film is presenting this as a good thing or an example of the amoral decadence exemplified by this society. Probably the latter. Anyway, since everyone is having such a good time, nobody seems to mind the lack of traditional family structures. Really, the only downside is that when people turn thirty, they are killed. You know, to make room for a new baby. One out, one in. Besides, who wants to make love to a gross over-thirty anyway? Barf.

As you might imagine, not everyone thinks getting aboard the croak-boat at thirty is a fun and cool thing to do. Now, the society has a mechanism to deal with this, a weird Cirque du Soleil-ass ritual called “carousal” in which olds dress up like druids, levitate, zip around, and explode. The idea is that they reincarnate, I guess. It’s a big spectacle, and is pretty much the only form of entertainment aside from going the “arcade” for some of that sweet sweet skeeball. Still, those that are definitely not cool with flying and exploding try and run. This is frowned upon. A group of cops called “Sandmen” are in charge of stopping runners from getting away. They are terminated on sight. Logan is one of these Sandmen, and while he’s mildly curious about the state of the world, he sure does seem to enjoy his job of hunting the most dangerous game of all: scared soft people in flowing robes and sandals with no survival skills.

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The look on her face is great. Like, what is this doofus I just hitched my wagon to?

Discussion

Logan is not an appealing protagonist. He’s not really supposed to be, at least not at first, but his entire personality is kind of shit. Cocky, arrogant, total lack of self-awareness, that kind of thing. To his credit, he does ask questions. Even while hunting dudes for sport, he eventually gets around to questioning the practice of carousel and running and whatnot. Then he meets the enigmatic Jessica, who we totally know is deep and different because she wears an ankh like that unapproachably hot goth chick (or dude!) that you spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about in high school. Jessica is not a goth, alas, but she also has self-worth and a fucking backbone. Her first interaction with Logan is to tell him to turn his horny down a notch. To Logan’s credit, he respects her right of consent. In fact, the whole society is based on this notion of mutual consent, so points for that. Anyway, Jessica is also a possible key to this society’s underground, which is called Sanctuary. This is the crux of the plot.

Shortly after all our principal characters are introduced, Logan is called to sit in the weird central computer hive-mind of this society. It is very analogue and 70s. He is instructed to infiltrate Sanctuary and eliminate it. Logan does not seem all that stoked to get this assignment. Still, he’s a creature of his environment so he despite his well-founded concerns for his own life, he exploits his acquaintance with Jessica in an attempt to get her to help him find Sanctuary. From this point, a good chunk of the movie is Logan and Jessica running through a shopping mall together to avoid being lasered by Sandmen. It’s hard to keep tabs on Logan’s frame of mind throughout. Is he sincere in his desire to undermine society? Or is he coldly using Jessica to carry out his mission and murder all her friends? He absolutely leads a bunch of Sandmen to where he thinks Sanctuary is, but he continues to run. That he eventually brings the system down is one thing, but it’s hard to pinpoint just where his allegiance to his old society ends.

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Ah yeah, that’s the stuff.

Just when you think the movie is over, because so far is has felt about four hours long, there’s a whole final act to get through. So far, the Brave New World feeling is hard to shake. Obviously there are stark differences. The world of Logan’s Run is entirely self-contained while Brave New World encompasses the entire planet. Still, the idea behind both works are similar, which is to say that human individuality will eventually topple even the most sophisticated social systems. That’s pretty much civil entropy, but presented in a good way. Or, if you prefer, the chaos theory as espoused by Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcom. Once Logan and Jessica escape to the abandoned edges of their sealed society, they meet a scary robot who is clearly turning people into food (no, I have not seen Soylent Green, it’s on the same list as this movie was). It’s also clear that Logan and Jessica are the first to escape its clutches and get outside.

Logan and Jessica escaping are the beginning of the end, they are life finding a way like a couple of beautiful 70s velociraptors. Once outside, we discover that the dome is adjacent to California/Washington D.C. (turns out most of the interior mall shots were done in Dallas, which checks out) and nature has reclaimed the capital. Honestly, I’m a sucker for vine-covered civilization so I’m into it. Anyway, our increasingly love-struck couple meets a real old man and his forty cats (my own cat was extremely into this scene, to the point where he jumped up in front of the TV and started meowing at it). Eventually Logan and Jessica, who have rediscovered traditional family values, return to their dome with their new old-man pet. They’re immediately captured. However, confusion reigns and Logan escapes and blows everything all the way the fuck up. The masses fawn over the old man. All is well. I mean, except for the fact that not a single one of these people have the ability to last more than a few hours in the wild. Oh well!

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Sterling, this one’s for you buddy.

Posted in Entropy, Utopia | Leave a comment

The Langoliers

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Novella * Stephen King * Every Day is an Apocalypse! * 1990

Synopsis

Sometimes I lose my drive to find and read fun new things. It takes effort, man. I’ve got to think about what kind of thing I want to read. Then I have to figure out what kind of books are going to offer what I’m looking for. Then I have to try and find which of those books are any good. Then I have to go and locate a copy. Then I have to actually read the thing and if I’m lucky it clicks with me and I can finally enjoy it. Ugh, such a burden. Alternatively, I can hunt through my own piles of books at home and dig up one of the old paperbacks from the early 90s I still have and read that for the six hundredth time. The last one was Jurassic Park, which I breezed through in a day. This one took a little longer, but sometimes my desire to read anything just ebbs. To be fair, though, Four Past Midnight is a collection of four novellas that clocks in at near 800 pages. Anyway, all four of the stories on offer here are decent Stephen King yarns, although it would be hard to argue that any of them are top-tier. The Langoliers is probably the best of the lot, mostly because the concept is so weird.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by weird shit. Shocking, I know. But I moved through all kinds of phases – Bigfoot and aliens and JFK conspiracies – if it was on Unsolved Mysteries, it was entirely my thing. So of course I was well versed on the Bermuda Triangle (Elvis needs boats!) and other mysterious disappearances, specifically the two referenced in this story, the Lost Colony of Roanoke and the abandoned ship the Mary Celeste. I couldn’t tell you what twelve-year-old me thought might have happened to cause those things, but it most assuredly involved aliens. Or maybe interdimensional beings of unimaginable power. Regardless, I found those things fascinating and a lot of fun. I never really believed any of the more far-fetched things, but like any preteen with a decent imagination, I sure did try. Anyway, since I was also obsessed with Stephen King, it was natural I would stumble onto Four Past Midnight and was particularly taken with The Langoliers.

Oh right, the actual story. There’s this plane, right? It’s a redeye flight from LAX to Logan, gross, but whatever it’s a pretty full flight. Our first character is an airline captain whose ex-wife has just died. He’s exhausted, so he falls asleep pretty much right away. Also on this flight is a little blind girl who is going to Boston to have surgery on her peepers. So she can watch, presumably. Anyway, she also falls asleep right way, but then awakens some time later to a completely empty plane. It soon transpires that she is not alone. There’s a handful of other passengers still intact, but somewhere, someway, the vast majority of people on the plane have simply vanished, leaving their personal effects behind. After everyone freaks out for a bit, the (extremely coincidental) airline captain lands the plane in Bangor, Maine, because Stephen King, and then things get strange. The story works mostly on the strength of the evolving mystery of the disappearance, but also because King characters are almost always compelling, even when they’re written in a broad and pulpy manner.

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Yet another on the long list of fucking rad-as-hell foreign book covers.

Discussion

So far, I’ve not actually talked all that much about the story, mostly because there’s not all that much story to talk about. And that’s fine! Really, though, my favorite bits of The Langoliers are when the characters slowly but surely figure out what’s going on and how to fix it. I’m not the type of person who derives enjoyment out of solving a mystery before the characters. Like, I will actively shut that part of my brain down so I can draw the process of a smartly revealed plot out as long as possible. I think this is in large part because I suck at writing plots myself. Characterization, dialogue, descriptions, okay sure. I can do those, I will even humbly suggest that I’m not terrible at it. Plotting and large-scale world-building, though? Straight awful. Which is not exactly helpful when one is attempting to write a dang fantasy novel. Anyway, I mostly bring this up because while King is better at characters than plots, he can still do it.

Everything about The Langoliers is highly unlikely, from the overall concept down to the random chance of this particular band of characters managing to survive the disappearance. Once you accept that, and you should because it’s a story, everything else is just letting King explain his weird idea, which is that the “past” does not exist. There is only the current moment, and on either side an un-lived in physical world that either waits for the present to arrive or the past, which waits to be destroyed. Our survivors find themselves transported a short time into the past, where the vibrancy of the world is quickly waning. Eventually, the Langoliers show up, and they’re basically mystical munch-balls that mindlessly devour the physical world. That’s weird, but intriguing! For this idea to work, the characters need to process through the idea slowly, which they do by a mixture of hypothesizing and experimentation. Those are the bits that I like. Sure, what are the odds that a mystery writer would be among the survivors, especially one who would give a sci-fi premise the time of day? But whatever, it’s still a fun process.

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If you’ve got a hankering for incredibly bad mid-90s CGI, look no further than Bronson Pinchot running away from these rough CG inserts.

Oh, and lest I forget, remember that 1995-ass miniseries they made based on this? Well you can totally watch it on Youtube. I don’t recommend it. I skimmed through it, mostly for nostalgia’s sake, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why anyone thought an adaptation of this needed to be any more than 90 minutes long. Although casting fuckin’ Balki from Perfect Strangers as the deranged Craig Toomy was an inspired choice. Also I like the King cameo as Toomy’s mean dad. I guess I don’t have a ton more to say about The Langoliers. It fits in nicely alongside The Mist as a weird idea that probably doesn’t merit an entire novel but is still pulpy and fun. I probably would have liked it just as much if the Toomy character didn’t exist at all, but it’s King, some people need to die. Plus, it’s a good example of a single characteristic doing a lot of work with a character. Tearing paper into little strips is real weird, but it conveys a lot with a little bit of space. And then imagine that, but with Balki. Man, they should have figured out how to cast Urkel and Uncle Joey in this thing, make a whole theme out of it.

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Jurassic Park

 

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Novel * Michael Crichton * Dinos Gonna Getcha * 1990

Synopsis

I suspect that Jurassic Park marks the first time I got to be an obnoxious book snob when it comes to pop culture, because I loved this book when I was thirteen. Of course I did. Pretty much all kids like dinosaurs. And while thirteen was definitely past my dino-loving prime of being eight or nine and obsessed, this was a grown up book and I was an edgy teen, so obviously I wasn’t just there for the dinos. I was also there for the gory dino maulings and I was not disappointed. Yet because I wore this book out before the movie was released, I also got to be insufferable for (probably not) the first time. “Yeah, the movie was pretty cool, but the book is so much better you don’t even know.” Sure, Jeff Goldblum is a fuckin’ sex machine and the Ian Malcom in the book is kind of an exposition machine, but whatever! There’s like, way more disemboweling in the novel. Therefore, much better.

I’m not thirteen any more. Jurassic Park remains one of those pop culture touchstones that will forever resonate with audiences because the movie’s vision was so well realized. As for the book, which I just reread for the first time in maybe twenty years, well, it’s fine. Jurassic Park is a science-forward action story whose characters are thin and obvious. Thankfully, it’s fast-paced and fun – I read it in an afternoon. Those dinos are gonna getcha! It’s a story where the bad guys get ate and the good guys don’t and best science-knower is the most noble. Unfortunately, it’s also a boy story for boys. There is one woman and one girl in this book, and while it seems like Crichton probably thinks he’s doing a good job with them, he totally isn’t. Ellie is a whipsmart woman of science, but she really has very little to do other than be a nurse and look hot in shorts. Lex, the girl, is there to be fucking obnoxious the entire time and just gets in the way of her wiser and more talented brother. But she likes sports, though, so it’s not a stereotype!

Still, the actual execution of the story in Jurassic Park is almost beside the point, because the idea itself is sheer genius. There’s several points in the novel where characters basically just explain how pleased with himself Crichton must have been with the whole thing. Everyone loves dinosaurs! Especially kids! And boy will they pay a lot of money to see them! Turns out, they sure did. And do. They’re still making movies, and despite being pretty bad, people still watch them. Because dinosaurs, and Chris Pratt, rule. Anyway, the concept is brilliant and the novel is definitely more concerned with the science behind the dinosaurs than it is with the people who are in danger of getting eaten. There’s a reason the most sympathetic characters are those who understand the “true” science. It’s like a fairy-tale for math nerds. And while I’m not a math nerd, I kinda wish I was, so books like this resonate with me sometimes. I remember my favorite parts being when people would stare at computer code or obscure screens and say smart-sounding things, only to be undone by their hubris.

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There actually aren’t very many alternate covers, I suppose because the original is so iconic. This is my actual, gross copy from when I was an actual, gross kid.

Discussion

It’s kind of amazing how well I remember what happens in this book, considering the ocean of time that has passed since the last time I read it. I remember one of my favorite bits happening relatively early on, when Ian Malcom is being all wise and shit and starts pointing out flaws in the system. Specifically, when they’re all looking at the computer inventory of how many dinos actually live on the island, and then Malcom is all like “what happens when you look for more dinosaurs than the computer expects” and there’s totally way more dinos! That moment, which I still enjoy, is basically all the vindication Malcom needs for his chaos theory ramblings. The dinosaurs breed, which they were specifically engineered not to do, and that fact alone undermines every other single aspect of the park. Everything else that happens, the power outages and maulings and whatnot, are simply downwind effects of that first mutation. The human-made systems are doomed to fail, to collapse, and the nature-made systems of universal chaos are bound to succeed. It’s like a life-affirming kind of entropy, which is not usually what we do around here.

There is quite a bit of discount-brand philosophizing going on in Jurassic Park, which I think I still enjoy but definitely thought was extremely smart when I was a kid. It’s all a little on the nose, but this is a mass market sci-fi book about rampaging dinosaurs so I guess it’s better than nothing. Ian Malcom’s character basically only exists to pontificate on this front, while Alan Grant is there to be the more grounded, real-world science man. Hammond, of course, is the weaselly business-slime who represents hubris. Everyone is colored with extremely broad strokes, but everyone has a job to do. Even if that job is to be a coward and get eaten by a T-Rex so that everyone knows that cowards don’t prosper. And whatever. I still enjoy Malcom patiently explaining why the park is doomed to failure and why Hammond’s ambitions are so contemptable. It breaks up all the running and hiding, you know?

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I found one alternate cover which might just be the best thing I’ve ever seen. Why is the T-Rex so tiny?!

One thing that surprised me is Crichton’s obvious stance against the encroaching privatization of science. Hammond is every bit the amoral capitalist, almost a pure libertarian. He moves his extremely dangerous park off shore, out of reach of any kind of government regulation. Hammond specifically says on multiple occasions that he is entirely there to make obscene amounts of money. He clearly cuts corners where safety and infrastructure are concerned, and then claims that he has spared no expense. And yet, for all of this, Crichton doesn’t necessarily lay all the blame for what happens at Hammond’s feet. Rather, there are multiple exchanges where characters lament the privatization of science. How universities are no longer at the forefront of discovery and corporations are, despite their recklessness and prioritization of profit. There comes a point where Malcom basically calls science itself the villain. That concept isn’t itself new or surprising, but coming from a science fiction novel like this, it kind of is. Even Grant comes under scrutiny, when Malcom straight up asks him what one of his digs looks like when they’re done. Oh, you know, just a little more environmental blight, nothing big.

Elements of these ideas come out in the film, if I recall correctly, mostly concerning the broader points of Malcom’s theories and of course life finding a way. Jurassic Park, the novel, comes off as quite a bit more pessimistic. It’s sad. The novel ends with a great swarming nest of velociraptors lining up to migrate, performing their ancient instincts, and it’s a magnificent scene. Of course they all must be destroyed because they’re so absurdly dangerous, but it’s not like they asked to be brought back from the mists of time. I guess the point might be a little trite – just because we can doesn’t mean we should – but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. No bigger picture lessons are learned at the end of this book. Hammond literally cannot comprehend anything Ian Malcom says, and ends up blaming everyone and everything not himself for the failure of his enterprise. The only reason he doesn’t just do it again is because he was eaten by scavenger lizard-chickens in the end. The baddies all get what they deserve, but structures they represent do not.

 

Posted in Books, Corporations, Entropy | Leave a comment