Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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“On Stranger Tides” / Follow-up: A few thoughts on franchises and sequels

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In 2017, I wrote about franchises, sequels, and “Dead Men Tell No Tales” (DMTNT), the fifth and latest installment in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” film series. I have just re-watched the fourth installment (“On Stranger Tides”, OST), and can slightly* remedy the lack of comparison between the two.

*Back then, my single watching of OST was some five or six years back and I remembered very little; now, my single watching of DMTNT is some five or six years back and I remember very little. Time flies…

Briefly, most of what I write about DMTNT applies to OST too, except that OST might be even weaker, bordering on feeling like a knock-off of “Pirates of the Caribbean” rather than a weak installment. To boot, OST feels too chaotic and is a little hard to follow plot-wise and in terms of who works with whom, etc.* About DMTNT, I wrote “without the comparison with some of its predecessors, I might have given a very favorable review within its genre”; I am reluctant to make the same claim about OST.

*To some degree the same can be said about at least the first film, but for a different reason: Back then, we had subterfuge and shifting loyalties depending on who looked to be winning. In OST, we just have confusion, especially through the oddity that Barbossa sails a royal ship and the similarity of Barbossa and Blackbeard (as noted below)—and what is up with the Spaniards?!? Similarly, the plot of OST is actually not complicated, but it is hidden in twists and turns.

Looking at OST vs. the first three films, they, especially the first, were better at virtually everything, and scored very highly through their sense of humor, how the characters were undercut, and the wittiness of the dialogue. Consider e.g. the early scene with Sparrow and the sinking ship or Elizabeth and her attempt to grab a sword from the wall; or many of the lines of Sparrow. What is attempted in terms of humor in OST usually* ends up being silly—not funny. Indeed, just as with the films, Blackbeard feels a bit like a less humorous knock-off of Barbossa—and having them both in the same film is redundant. (Alternatively, that they both draw very strongly on a certain pirate stereotype, with Blackbeard having received too little individuality relative that stereotype.) As a possible exception, the motivations of various characters in OST might, maybe, be a bit more nuanced and less straight forward.**

*Exceptions include some scenes in the epilogue, where more of the “old” shines through.

**Writing this, I see a strength in the franchise that I have oddly missed in the past, namely the benefit of having widely different motivations guiding the characters. Where most movies might have a single motivation (e.g. “get to the gold first—and become rich”) or one motivation and one counter-motivation (e.g. “find that artefact and conquer the world” vs. “prevent the antagonist from finding that artefact and conquering the world”), we might have “get the gold”, “remove the curse”, “get my ship back”, “save the girl”, “bring that pirate to justice and save the girl”, and what else might have applied (here too, my most recent watching is years back).

In this, I see confirmed that what matters is not the franchise but the quality of the effort. At the end of the day, a certain set of characters, a certain theme, a certain setting, whatnot can bring an additional value, but it is the quality of writing,* acting, directing, etc. (and how they come together) that truly matters.

*While writers are rarely mentioned large, they are arguably the most important component, writing characters and character developments, story lines, plot twists, dialogue, whatnot. They might or might not, in this, be working to the specification of someone else or have someone who occasionally overrides them, say a film director or a (TV) show runner, but their influence on the overall results is immense.

Similarly, being “high concept” is not a problem—provided that the quality is strong. The problem with most high-concept works is that the concept is there but not the quality.

Throwing money at something is not the solution: Looking at Wikipedia on the film series, it appears that OST had the largest budget, outdoing the first and second films together. Indeed, as I read with surprise, it is currently viewed as the most expensive film ever made (not adjusted for inflation), which is not reflected in the quality.* In stark contrast, the first and best of the five had the lowest budget by a considerable distance.

*Surprisingly, OST is also just shy of being the installment that did best at the box office, but this might be an artifact of the growing international market, as it did disproportionately better in “Other territories” than in “North America”. (I have not looked into details, but it is noteworthy that the Chinese, and Asian in general, market has grown considerably more important for Hollywood over the last two decades.) It might also be that the international markets had a lesser awareness of the theme-park attraction, and might have had a correspondingly lesser interest in at least the first film. (I only ever became aware of the theme-park attraction through DVD extras.)

I would in particular warn against spending a fortune on CGI and hoping that this will carry a film. Get the quality right first and let CGI be a bonus or, when the genre demands it, a mere means to an end.* If in doubt, what pushes the borders today will be far less remarkable in ten or twenty years. Also note the availability of more traditional special effects—look e.g. at what “The Wizard of Oz” achieved as early as 1939.

*There are some movies who have truly gained through CGI, even with an otherwise unimpressive quality (some of James Cameron’s works, e.g.), but these are exceptions and quality is more important, less of a lottery, and much cheaper (in terms of money).

Excursion on “Highlander”:
In the interim, I have re-watched “Highlander” and seen my previous speculation “that my interest would have dropped through my own development” come true. While still much, much better than (my recollection of) the sequel, it is not a great film. Specifically, there are two interleaved stories, one in the past showing the Highlander’s progress towards the now (i.e. 1980-something), one in that now leading up to and showing the final battle. The former is reasonably good; the latter is a crap fest. The Kurgan, in some scenes, seemed more clownish than scary/formidable to me—a tall Bobcat Goldthwait in “Police Academy” shape.

Excursion on recent sequels:
A highly notable recent sequel is “Top Gun: Maverick”, which I would rate considerably above the original and where, in a reversal of the above, the sequel was what the original should have been. The original might even be seen as one of the films where “status” (for want of a better word) and quality has been the most divergent in the history of film-making.*

*With the reservation that my own impression of the status might be skewed through my own first contacts: At 11-or-so, I had had almost no contact with films-in-the-cinema (as opposed to films-on-the-TV) in the small village where I lived, and when my family visited a small town and I saw big advertisements for “Top Gun” I was highly impressed—a film so well-advertised must be important! That there were quite a few years before I actually had a first opportunity to watch it (on TV!) increased the image in my head.

Mostly, however, I have deliberately foregone recent sequels, including various “Star Wars”, “Jurassic Park”, “Matrix”, “Avatar”, whatnot films. This might or might not change in the future, but chances are that most of these will remain permanently unwatched by me. (A further “Pirates of the Caribbean” film would also probably go unwatched, unless the reviews were unusually promising.)


Written by michaeleriksson

January 3, 2023 at 12:02 pm

LGBT-issues and “Dog Day Afternoon”

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I have just finished watching “Dog Day Afternoon”, a story of a bank robbery turned hostage situation. To my surprise, I found myself confronted with issues like “gay marriage” in this 1975 work, which gives it an additional historical value, especially as it has a non-fictional basis (real events in 1972 or more than fifty years ago).*

*Note that I go by the movie below—as always, reality might have been considerably different.

I note in particular that the characters of “Sonny” and “Leon” had gone through a marriage ceremony, showing that the idea of “gay marriage” in the U.S. is not a recent innovation. The marriage was, of course, not considered valid: “Sonny” was already married (to a woman and with children) and this was four decades before Obergefell. The priest was mentioned as defrocked (with a “because of” implication) at some point.

The ostensible motive for the bank robbery, to procure money for a sex-change*/** operation for “Leon”,*** would likely have made the movie impossible today, at least without a considerable rewrite of the characters, as it would be considered “trans-/homophobic”, “painting gays as evil”, or similar.

*The word used in the film and, until somewhat recently, the real world. Wikipedia currently uses the slightly euphemistic and highly illogical “sex reassignment surgery”, but at least has the decency to not use nonsense like “gender-affirmation surgery”—for now…

**A reminder that these, too, are not a new invention, although I assume that the overall process was far less sophisticated. A price tag of USD 2,500 is mentioned, which, in my superficial impression, seems very cheap by today’s standards, even after adjusting for the considerable inflation since 1972. (I have long used the rule of thumb “multiply by ten” when I encounter dollar amounts in 1960s television. If we allow the same for 1972, after the last few high-inflation years, we land at USD 25,000 as a very rough estimate.)

***Who was not “in on it”, let alone a participant. The robbers where homo “Sonny”, hetero “Sol”, and, briefly, a third man, who absconded at so early a stage that his sexual preferences went unmentioned.

The character “Leon” was retrieved from some type of hospital in the middle of the movie, and showed as drugged and confused, potentially pointing to a mental hospital (I am uncertain whether an explicit mention was made); however, he does not appear to have been drugged and whatnot for (what today might be referred to as) gender-dysphoria but rather for a suicide attempt and/or a general state of being messed up. (Another point where a re-write might have been needed to make the film today.)

The movie ends with the claim that “Leon” would now* be living as a woman, which implies that his prior identification as/wish to be a woman** did not count at the time, but that a sex-change operation was enough for the film-makers. (Whether it would have been so for society at large, I do not know.)

*In my now, 2023, he/she/it is long dead. In a tragic twist, this appears to be AIDS related through … a blood transfusion. (Cf. [1].)

**I am a little uncertain which applies the better. A psychiatrist (psychologist?) was referenced as having described him in terms of “a woman in a man’s body”, or something very similar, which further points to these ideas being far from new—in contrast to their current popularity, which is new indeed.

Excursion on the movie as such:
The movie as such was quite well made (although this almost goes without saying with Sidney Lumet), included the, maybe, best version of Al Pacino that I have personally seen, and had a strong performance by Chris Sarandon as “Leon”. If it had been a work of pure fiction, I would have suggested that (a) it was a little lengthy and could have stood to lose twenty minutes, (b) the homo- and transsexual angles did more harm than good,* with the effort better spent on the dynamics between bank robbers and police resp. bank robbers and hostages, (c) the death of “Sol”, especially when paired with the survival of “Sonny”, seemed unnecessary and/or took place in an anti-climatic manner. As is, it is a fictionalized version of real events and this alters the situation.

*However, this could conceivably reflect how fed up with the constant current homo- and transsexual angles I am. These were much rarer when the movie was made, and I might have seen the matter differently, had I been a 1970s movie-goer.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 1, 2023 at 8:53 am

Politics and Marvel movies

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Recently, I have been (often re-)watching a number of the Marvel movies, and I find myself increasingly uncertain what goes on politically—every time that I see something that seems Left-leaning, I encounter something seemingly Right-leaning within twenty minutes. Well, firstly, there is the possibility that they are not very political at all, and that the horrifying politicization of many other movies and TV shows,* as well as my own involvement with political thought, make me over-interpret.

*Cf. e.g., and with some earlier discussion of Marvel, [1].


On the one hand and pointing Leftwards, we have issues like “Black washing” of long-established-as-White characters and a similar turning of long-established-as-male characters into women,* the hyper-egalitarian raising of support staff from the comics into significant figures in the movies,** the abuse of a funeral speech to spread Feminist propaganda (“Civil War”), use of Nazis and Nazi-like characters as antagonists,*** and the wanton and unnecessary destruction of this-and-that**** in a manner similar to the post-modern Left’s attempts to tear down the past, “Western civilization”, whatnot.

*E.g. Heimdall and Nick Fury resp. the Ancient One and Captain Marvel.

**E.g. Wong (servant come Sorcerer Supreme) and Pepper Potts (secretary come CEO).

***The Nazis were, of course, Leftist, but the typical Leftist and media take is that they were Rightist and that everything Rightist is “guilty by association”.

****E.g. the destruction of SHIELD, the destruction of Asgard, the ensuing destruction of the Asgardians, and the destruction of a great many things in the “Infinity” movies. (My memory of the latter is too vague for a more specific statement and they do not merit a second watching.)

On the other and pointing Rightwards/non-Leftwards, we have apparent “deep state” antagonists, antagonists with a Soviet/Eastern-Europe connection, an infiltration of an organization intended for good (SHIELD) by evil forces (Hydra) to corrupt and turn it,* the turning of protagonists into (temporary) antagonist by distortions of their minds and perceptions,** a focus on individual excellence,*** and Captain America’s**** strong stance for individual freedom and against government control in “Civil War”.

*Analogous to how Leftists have come to dominate U.S. colleges, the U.S. justice system, Wikipedia, and a great many other areas—and are, be it deliberately or through bias, abusing them as tools for the Left.

**Quite similar to what appears to be the case with many Leftists, who are more “useful idiots” than anything else. Also note how this was repeatedly done by creating artificial enemy images, just as e.g. the current U.S. Left and various Marxist groupings like to do.

***Something anathema to many Leftists. Teamwork is, of course, important in several of the movies, but most are fairly individualistic, while even the “team movies” often show more individual action than teamwork and the team members seem to spend half their time debating or, even, physically fighting each other.

****The Avengers split roughly down the middle, centered on respectively Captain America and Iron Man. The latter is more open to government control, but seems to be so more out of (perceived) pragmatic necessity than true belief.

Very ambiguous is the question of e.g. control of superheroes, mutants, whatnot, which has repeatedly* been pushed by antagonists in the movies—preferably, combined with hate- and fear-mongering. Chances are that the Left would like to see this as an analogy to e.g. (claimed by them to be Right-wing) racial discrimination and whatnot.** However, a strong non-Leftist case can be made, e.g. by pointing to the rights of the individual over the collective, a comparison of persecution for being different with persecution for having different opinions, or even by using superpowers as a metaphor for guns—the one is not allowed to have superpowers because some with superpowers abuse them, the other is not allowed to own guns because some with guns abuse them. Mutants are particularly interesting through having genetic differences that set them off from the rest of humanity—something inborn*** that is very hard**** to combine with the common Leftist nurture-only approach.

*Going back at least as far as the “X-men” movie and present in the comics for far longer; however, my current watchings are limited to the “MCU” era.

**That this perspective is fundamentally flawed is of little interest here, as I speculate on the intentions of the movie makers, and these might well have this flawed perspective.

***Only while proofreading did even the interpretation of LGBT-etc.-etc. occur to me. Since the alleged mistreatment of these is largely imaginary today, in many cases turned to an outright position of privilege, this interpretation is nonsensical, but it is an interpretation that many Leftists might chose and it might be of importance to the overall judgment of the movies. (But: If we are to look into this type of group, why should LGBT-etc.-etc. take precedence over introverts, Aspies, the left-handed, the redheaded, or the members of a great many other groups potentially mistreated for who-they-are-by-nature.)

****But there might be some attempts to turn nature-in-the-comics into nurture-in-the-movies, as with Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Then again, there are plenty of almost preternatural geniuses that do not seem to be ascribed to nurture. (For instance, Bruce Banner turned green due to an adult environmental effect, but, unlike the Leader, was a genius before then.)

What then is going on?

Apart from the obvious possibility that there are different forces at play among the movie makers, which might then have different takes, I currently play with two hypotheses:

Firstly, that the movie makers are very clever and mix more subtle non-Leftist themes with e.g. “politically correct casting” in order to not expose themselves as “heretics”.

Secondly, that the makers are very politically naive, actually believe that e.g. prioritizing the individual over the collective is something Leftist,* and/or believe** that so crude an agenda pushing will convert someone.

*This might seem absurd to non-Leftists, but I have repeatedly seen claims along the line of “For me, it is a given to vote Left, because I believe in freedom and individualism!”—exactly the type of beliefs that make the more insightful distance themselves from the Left.

**It is to be hoped that they are wrong, but considering the current political climate, as well as how common such crudeness is, they might not be.

Excursion on the quality of the movies:
(With the reservation that I have still not seen all the movies even once.) The quality of these movies is varying wildly, but seems tendentially to be dropping both through-out the franchise and for the individual characters. For instance, the first installments for resp. Iron man and Captain America are quite good, while “Civil War” is so poor that I only watched it through this second time because of an older discussion touching on Hopkins vs. Boseman.* As a counter-point,“Captain Marvel”, as a first movie, was so poor that I did not even finish the first watching. Generally, I suspect that foregoing the two “Infinity” movies and most of the related sub-plots in other movies, including hunts and fights for artefacts, would have been for the best.

*I am still unimpressed Boseman, but I also still have not seen “Black Panther”.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 15, 2022 at 3:07 am

Follow-up: Westworld

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A while back, I wrote very positively about the TV-series “Westworld”. We are now some part into the third season, and I am no longer watching. The strengths of the first two seasons are largely gone; the new story lines have so far not been impressive, ditto their execution; many strong characters and actors have been written out or (characters) been severely altered, with insufficient replacement; … Nothing against Aaron Paul, but he is not (yet?) on the level of Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins. Interesting philosophical questions have been replaced with almost hackneyed dystopia scares* relating to e.g. surveillance and demonstrations of how-easy-I-can-kill-you. The last scene that I (partially) watched struck me as simultaneously almost silly and trying too hard to be dramatic (episode 3 / Caleb, Dolores, the milkshake, and whatnot).

*Which is not necessarily to say that they will turn out to be wrong or that I do not share similar concerns, but it is just variations of what others have already done the last few years.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 1, 2020 at 4:57 pm


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The TV series “Westworld” has impressed me immensely. The first season is possibly the best single TV season that I have ever seen, because of its combination of entertainment value and food-for-thought (although much of the “food’ covered ground already familiar to me). The second is weaker, especially through failing to add much new* thought, but is still stronger than most of what can be found elsewhere.

*Examples include means vs. ends and whether the pigs are better than the farmers.

“Westworld” is also strong proof that it is not the medium but the content that matters: here there is no need to make excuses for watching TV instead of reading a great book. It is also a proof that it is not necessarily the “high concept” that matters, but what is done with it (as with e.g. “Star Trek Next Generation”). Where the movie (in my vague recollection) was fairly shallow entertainment, the TV series has true depth—“The Truman Show” meets Asimov.

During my first watching of season 1, a few years ago, I put down a lot of keywords for a text, but never got around to writing it, the scope of the intended text being discouragingly large. Most of the below is formed formed through expansion of a subset of these keywords into a less ambitious text. Even with my recent second watching of the first (and first watching of the second) season, I have to make reservations for a mis-remembering of what I wanted to say. Some keywords are left as is, because they are fairly self-explanatory.

Among the food-for-thought we have:

  1. What is the nature of existence, free will, perception, memory?

    As an aside: while I do not suggest that we live in a similar world, merely that this is food for thought, I have often had the nagging suspicion that I am part of some weird cosmic experiment or “The Truman Show” situation, where someone tries to push the limit for what absurdities I am willing to consider real. A simpler, and more plausible, explanation is that humans really are that stupid, irrational, self-centered, whatnot. Similarly, a rats-in-a-labyrinth, “Westworld”, or “Matrix” style setup could easily explain e.g. the theodice problem, but the simpler explanation is the absence of deities in favor of nature taking its semi-random course.

  2. What makes an intelligent entity? When should rights and/or personhood be awarded: Turing-test*, sentience, consciousness, level of intelligence, …

    *And to what degree is a Turing-test effective and useful?

  3. What rights and duties should be awarded to a godlike and/or creator being? (And to what degree does this depend on his status, per se, and his other characteristics?) Rulers in general? Parents? Etc.
  4. What should ethics and law say on the humans vs. robots (or vs. AI) situation? (Note some overlap with the previous item.) This including questions, not limited to robots, like if we have the ability to e.g. induce pain or suffering, plant bad memories (or memories, at all) or scrub memories, prevent self-development, …, when, if at all, do we have the right to do so?

Several keywords relate to the apparent gods (i.e. humans) and the paradoxical and/or odd state on the “inside”, including how paradoxically weak the gods are relative their subjects in some regards, while still having godlike or quasi-magical powers in other regards, e.g. in being able to “freeze” a host at will. Similarly, there is the paradox of the ever young and in some sense immortal hosts vs. the aging and highly mortal gods.* The angle that the creation, freed from artificial restraints, would be superior to the creator is particularly interesting, and will likely be true for humans vs. e.g AI in the long term.** (Of course, this state of the inferior being in charge of the superior is not unusual in the real world, where e.g. many dumber teachers are intellectually inferior to the brighter students and many stupid politicians make decisions over the head of genius citizens.)

*Indeed, in season two, attempts are revealed to replicate a human mind within a host body, with the intention of functional immortality for humans.

**In turn, raising the question whether we should follow the road of resistance, as in a sci-fi movie; engage in identity politics/racism/sexism/whatnot, as the current U.S. Left; or whether we should let the creation take over. From at least some angles, the latter is likely the most reasonable, and one reason why I do not enjoy the “Terminator” movies is my suspicion that humanity is the greater evil and that it might be for the better if the terminators were successful. (Again: humans are that stupid, etc.)

Other “god” issues are how the gods are divided into several groups, including regular guests, crew, management, whatnot, and how the hosts are controlled by Ford even as they attempt to rebel, raising questions as to how much of a rebellion it was. (Theological analogs are by no means impossible: What, e.g., if God meant for Adam and Eve to eat the apple or for Judas to betray Jesus to ensure that some set of events took place? Generally, the thought-experiment of mapping some religion to a “Westworld”-style setting is interesting.)

There were good examples of how sympathies are based on appearances and superficial behavior, rather than substance, as with William (aka the young “man in black”) and his interest in Dolores, which is an obvious great danger in real life. (I am uncertain whether I had such sympathies myself towards characters on the show when I wrote the keywords; however, I do know that I can be somewhat susceptible in the short-term. In the long-term, my observations of behavior and values take over, but this does not necessarily seem to be the case with others, which has lead to me having radically different estimates of some people than the majority has had.)

I spent some time considering the possibility of building a superior humanity: smarter, better memory, stronger, … (As well as long-standing wishes of mine—a conscious control over sleep phases and a built-in volume control for the ears or ear-equivalent.) A very disturbing possibility, however, is the abuse of similar systems to e.g. ensure conformity of opinion: for instance, looking at current U.S. colleges, it would be unsurprising if someone were to mandate the implant of the “right” opinions for someone to even be admitted. Or consider a “Harrison Bergeron” scenario, where someone with a natural advantage in some area has the corresponding control adjusted to limit his ability to the maximum available to the average person. (Note e.g. how the hosts intelligence was normally artificially limited, while Maeve’s had been set to the maximum available to her.)

To the IT specialist, “Westworld” is a great illustration of the limits of security, and how even small freedoms might ultimately be used for e.g. privilege escalation to reach great freedoms (cf. Maeve’s development). However, this is not strictly limited to IT: to some degree, similar effects might be available in real life, e.g. in a prison setting.

Some remaining keywords:

  1. extremely intelligent, well-shot/cinematographic, extra-ordinary cast
  2. well-crafted hiding of the two different time-periods
  3. complex network of known and, more importantly, unknown relationships and history
  4. interesting mixture of genres
  5. gratuitous sex scenes*

    *I did not pay attention to this when I re-watched the first season; however, I did not notice much during the second season. This might be a point where the second season was ahead.

Excursion on the first vs. the second season:
Pin-pointing the exact (relative) weaknesses is hard without a repeat watching, but, speaking off the top of my head, the main problem is staleness, too much of the same ground, too much of the same issues. For instance, the alternative “Maeve escapes” scenario would likely have made for a much better attempt at variation than the “prisoners rebel” scenario that was chosen. Here the adventures of Maeve coping in the “outside” world, etc., could have made up a great source of both variation of action and new thought, while the “inside” world could have gone on roughly as before (at least, for the duration of the season).

I can see the point behind the “prisoners rebel” scenario, but it did not work that well; ultimately, we had the same setting and largely similar configurations of people; and there might simply have been too little worthwhile material to cover an entire season, instead of two or three episodes, in the rebellion it self. (Implying that too much filler was present.)

An interesting difference is the use of a jumbled time-line: in the first season, this was used to great effect; in the second, it was mostly a source of confusion with little value added. (A partial exception was Bernard’s journey.)

The last episode strikes me as dissatisfying and contorted, and a poor setup for a continuation. (Notwithstanding that the action seems set to play more on the “outside” for the third season. The manner is simply too different from the “Maeve escapes” scenario.) A particular mistake might have been speaking too explicitly about free-will (either the viewer has got the point already, or he wastes his time with the show) and, possibly, jumping into fallacious reasoning about free will: Free will ceases to be free when it is manipulated from the outside, not because the inner mechanisms have a deterministic character. These inner mechanisms are not a force upon us—they are how we are “implemented”. (An interesting, and in my eyes problematic, border-line case are influences that would often be considered “inner” but disturb the normal state, as when someone grows hungry. Certainly, I would consider these a greater limit on free will than e.g. a deterministic brain.)

Generally, parts of the second season had a bit of “Lost”-y feeling—a series that could have been truly great, but which collapsed on account of too much confusion, mysticism, unnatural story-lines, whatnot. (And, yes, I am aware that J. J. Abrams of “Lost”, and the ruiner of “Star Trek” and “Star Wars”, has been involved with “Westworld” too.)

Excursion on changing franchises:
The recurring reader might see my complaint of staleness as inconsistent with e.g. a text motivated by “iZombie” and its deterioration: would I not prefer a series that remained the same? To some degree, I do find myself reevaluating this stance, especially because my own book plans have come to involve considerable changes from book to book (within a potential book series). To some degree, the claims are compatible: the second season of “Westworld” failed to truly repeat the strengths of the first season (and did not add new strengths). Once it failed at that, the level of constancy or variation on the surface is less important: my original message is not that a franchise should have each installment be a carbon copy of the previous, but that it should play to its strengths. (I have also spoken positively about innovation in e.g. a text on “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”.)

An interesting twist, however, is that the end of the first season left me fearing similar developments as with “iZombie”, where an irrevocable change pretty much killed the series through changing the world too much. With “Westworld” the changes might have been irrevocable and have, in some ways, turned the world on its head, but very similar story lines and ideas could continue with little damage. (Note, e.g., that even during the first season, few guests had any non-trivial impact on the story-lines. Off the top of my head, we might have had no more than the “the man in black” in the “now”, and him and his future brother-in-law in the past. Story-lines in the past can continue with little regard for changes in the now and (in the now) “the man in black” continued as usual. In contrast, had the first season been highly guest-focused, e.g. on a “guest of the week” basis, the rebellion could have been highly damaging.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 28, 2019 at 10:44 pm

Innovation over repetition in the movies (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets)

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Several earlier posts (cf. [1], [2], [3], and possibly others.) have dealt with themes like (over-)continuation of franchises; and I feel that much of the entertainment industry is caught in creative laziness and a greedful attempt to just squeeze as much money out the fame and popularity of existing works as possible.

That it can be done differently is proved by Luc Besson and his “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”*, which I finally got around to watching: Unlike e.g. the latest variations of the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” themes, he actually tries to do something new, bringing in fresh ideas and unusual takes, in a manner similar to what he did in “The Fifth Element” twenty years ago**. To boot, he does so in one of the most visually spectacular manners I have ever encountered. The whole movie appears to be driven by a wish to push the envelope as far as possible, e.g. with the “Big Market” or “Bubble” scenes.

*In all fairness, it is based on an older comic series, which technically makes it an example of another continuation/re-boot/medium change/whatnot. However, Besson’s intentions, going by reporting, are very different: Showing his own vision of a favorite childhood fiction—admiration and genuine interest rather than a wish for more money. (“The Fifth Element” is similar in this regard, except that it was described as originating in his own childhood creation/fantasies, rather than the original work of another.)

**These two movies have a lot in common and most of what I say about the one will apply, m.m., to the other. I mostly choose not to be explicit, to avoid cluttering. There are also some strong parallels with the two first “Star Wars” trilogies, like pushing the envelope, unbelievably impressive visuals (by the standards of the respective day), new weapons, …

Of course, the movie draws on the works and ideas of others (and/or independently comes up with ideas others have already used)—but not doing so in today’s world is nearly impossible. Here the question of execution and combination enters, and Besson sets news standards. Consider e.g. “Big Market”, a bazaar/society hidden from plain sight: Similar ideas are not uncommon in fiction, as e.g. with the “Troll Market” used in the “Trollhunters” and “Hell Boy” franchises—but combined with the concept of over-laying realities that only interact partially, and the execution that allows for great comedy and exciting action, we have something on a different level. Even so, there are a number of more simple ideas that I, personally, have never seen before, like the weigh-your-opponent-down gun used in “Big Market”.

Where others engage in unimaginative mass production, Besson sets new standards and has created what is the best sci-fi movie I have seen from this decade—far superior to e.g. the last “Star Wars” installment. This is how it should be done! I would rather have one movie like this every few years than a few generic continuations in one year.

Now, I am not saying that this movie has reached perfection. For instance, it is weak* in terms of “food for thought” (but that applies to almost all the block-busters in a similar genre; even if some more “artsy” sci-fi movies can be strong here). For instance, much of the overall plot is a typical variation of “world in danger; hero to the rescue; complications ensue” (again, the competition is rarely better; and the “complication” part is quite strong). For instance, the last half hour (or so) is considerably weaker than the preceding majority of the film, being less imaginative and more cartoonish than the rest—and the virtually immediate re-creation of the Pearl’s world, if on a smaller scale, reduces the impact of the previous losses on the viewers in an unfortunate manner.

*Among what is present, I note the ethical dilemma that led to the destruction of Mül, the situation and developments of the Pearls subsequent to that destruction, and several instances of having to weigh “the right thing” against orders (note the military setting) or personal loyalty vs. organizational loyalty. None of these, however, are given much real exposure, and the food-for-thought aspect is to some part neutralized through the fairly one-sided black-and-white takes on the issues. (For instance, even if we strongly disagree with the actions of Filitt, it still pays to try to understand what motivated him, and to contemplate whether we, in a similar situation, might have acted in the same manner.)

On the other hand, I am not certain that I share the common criticism of the cast: I agree that neither of the two leads put in extraordinary acting performances, but they fit the parts very well, have great on-screen chemistry, and contribute strongly to the overall effect. Chances are that a re-cast with more accomplished actors would have led to an inferior result; and I have a hard time even imagining the movie with different lead actors (just like e.g. the original “Star Wars”, but very much unlike “The Force Awakens”). Cara Delevingne is similar to several other Besson castings, notably Natalie Portman in “Leon”* and Milla Jovovich in “The Fifth Element”, in that the combination** of the character and the actress left me infatuated (which is comparatively rare with me). The rest of the cast is very mixed, but the characters of importance are mostly well played, if possibly a bit exaggerated.

*On the first watching, when I was just several years older than Portman’s character…

**Jovovich as Leeloo had me head over heels—but she has left me neutral or even slightly negative in the other movies I have seen her in. An interesting contrast is Olivia Hussey, the only other actress that has had that large an effect on me: She did it in at least two different works (“Romeo and Juliet” and “Ivanhoe”), and left me anything but cold in several others. (While comparatively unknown, she combined extraordinary beauty with amazing charm, beating even e.g. Audrey Hepburn in this combination.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 28, 2017 at 5:59 am

Discovery (Star Trek)

with 3 comments

I recently wrote about franchises, sequels, and when it was time to call it a day. A new “Star Trek” series, “Discovery”, following a long gap, brings this topic to my mind again.

TOS* ran for three seasons in the late 1960s. While possibly not very impressive by today’s standard (especially in terms of special effects…), it was a major advance on what had been done in the past and proved enduringly popular in syndication.

*“The Original Series”, a name established long after the original airings.

Apart from an animated series (that I have never seen and cannot judge), there was a drought of roughly ten years before the arrival of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”—which might have been the end of the franchise. This movie was not just highly disappointing*, it was also a poor effort outright, its value derived mostly from seeing more of the beloved characters.

*“Disappointing” in it self merely means that something does not match expectations. Unfortunately, words like “disappointing” and “overrated” are very often used or understood in a manner that ignores the relative aspect. Similarly, “better” and “best” do not automatically imply “good”.

Still, a second movie was made: “Wrath of Khan”, definitely one of the best sci-fi movies ever made till that date. And the ball kept rolling: The next two decades (or so) saw no less than four TV series and movie after movie. To boot, most* of these efforts were very enjoyable, with TNG** being a strong candidate for best sci-fi series of all times.

*The major exception is “Deep Space 9”, where I have on three separate occasions failed to even finish watching the first season.

**“The Next Generation”, the first of the new series.

At this point, we have a very good example of why continuing a franchise or giving second chances can be a good idea: What if the first, failed, movie attempt had been the end?

However, what has happened since gives an equally good example of why a franchise should sometimes be given a rest: The “reboot” movies by J. J. Abrams were not necessarily bad when viewed as disconnected efforts, but they break continuity severely*, and have a feel of high-quality fan fiction rather than a serious continuation. (See also my discussion of “The Force Awakens”, another J. J. Abrams failure.)

*To the point, and this is inexcusable, that most of what had previously been shown on screen was invalidated, simply no longer would happen. (Time travel caused severe changes to the time line.)

This brings us to the first new TV series past reboot: On the positive side, it is set before the events of the reboot (and TOS) meaning that it could still remain in the proper, original, continuity. Further, the “production value” is very high and the actors cast appear to be unusually strong. On the negative side, more or less everything else—I stopped watching half-way through the third episode.

To look at some specific problems:

  1. The main character, Michael Burnham:

    She* is a Human** raised as Vulcan, by now following a hackneyed pattern of an “unusual” heritage that includes Spock (half-Human, half-Vulcan), Belana (half-Human, half-Klingon), Worf (Klingon raised by Humans), Seven (Human, integrated in the Borg Collective as a small child), and probably a few others that do not occur to me at the moment. (And to which two artificial beings, Data and The Doctor, possibly could be added.)

    Unfortunately, the aspects of a mixed heritage that made these characters, and the Vulcan mindset that made specifically Spock, interesting are missing. Apart from a few minor plot points, there is nothing (in the first two-and-a-half episodes) that could not have happened equally with an unusually roguish regular Human, nor any differences in behavior that necessitates or are made more plausible by her Vulcan background—on the contrary, her actions during the conflict with the Klingons remind me more of Kirk than of Spock… (Except in as far that a mutinous Kirk tended to save the day, not get half of Star Fleet destroyed.)

    To boot, her behavior makes it very hard for me build sympathies, with her disputable judgment, discipline problems, surly demeanor, …

    *Despite the name, yet to be explained, the character definitely passes as a woman. While I have nothing against female leads even in traditionally “male genres” (my favorite TV series of all time is “Buffy”…) the extreme number of such occurring today is disturbing, as is the reason—not because this-or-that part would be good for a woman, but because political correctness calls for more women and denounces any type of stereotyping or traditional roles as evil (even when matching reality). Consider e.g. the entirely pointless “Ghost Busters” reboot. We are at a point where a male lead is becoming the exception. In this specific case, the name, Michael, raises the suspicion that the character was originally intended to be male, with a fairly last minute switch taking place. See also the continuity issues below.

    **For reasons of consistency with “Vulcan” and “Klingon”, both traditionally capitalized, I use a “Human” rather than “human”. This with some hesitation, because the former are likely capitalized for some reason that does not apply to “human” (e.g. as a designator of nationality) or spuriously.

  2. There are a number* of continuity issues, the worst being a complete re-design of the Klingon look**. This is the more pragmatically ill-advised as this type of change is known to cause portions of original fans to have fits of anger.

    Similarly, the ships and technology is redesigned in a manner that simply cannot be made to fit within the line of continuity. (Admittedly, the standards of the 1960s make this a hard task; however, “Enterprise”, another prequel to TOS, made a better job and it is unrealistic when “Discovery” is more advanced looking than e.g. TNG or “Voyager” that both play at a considerably later part of the time line.

    Looking at “Enterprise” and TOS, it could safely be assumed that there would be few women around and fewer yet in important positions***. Yet, the first two episodes center on a ship with a female captain and a female first officer (Michael). Barring the ret-con assumption that this ship was an extreme anomaly, this just does not fit. (That the situation during TOS was ultimately the reflection of the real 1960s is beside the point. Similarly, a piece of historical fiction should not just invent female ship captains where none would realistically have been present.)

    *My listing makes no claim of completeness even of what I spotted—let alone what a fanatical Trekkie, taking it apart while actively comparing with guide books or photage from other series, could find.

    **This look changed considerably after TOS too; however, that change could be easily defended on the grounds of the Klingons looking too Human, and the original look appeared in probably just a handful of episodes. The “post-TOS look” was used actively for two decades, albeit with some minor variations, including several TOS movies, and with at least the TNG and “Voyager” crews having at least one Klingon resp. half-Klingon as series regulars for seven seasons each and a handful of TNG movies.

    ***TOS had one female regular, Uhura, but she was a somewhat secondary character and “just” communications officer. “Enterprise” had two, one a communications officer… The second, T’Pol, had a more important role, probably science officer, but she was a (real) Vulcan appointed or lent by the Vulcans to keep tabs on the Humans. Her standing did not reflect the career chances of other women and is probably best ignored when interpolating. For that matter, even the series playing later in the time line (off the top of my head) only saw Janeway as a regular Human Star-Fleet woman in “traditionally male” position. The others either had jobs like ship physician or ship counselor, or are of disputable relevance for the comparison: Belana and Seven (cf. above) were not regular humans and non of them joined “Voyager” through Star Fleet.

  3. The previous series always drew their strength from a great ensemble, with many diverse and charming/interesting/whatnot characters. This does not appear to be the case with “Discovery” (with some obvious reservations for the short run that also apply to much of the rest of this item). Notably, the character I considered the most promising during the first two episodes, Michelle Yeoh’s captain, did not survive into the third… (And neither did the main antagonist.) Going by my surmise, the current main characters, Michael aside, comprise an expressionless alien with some potential, a wet-noddle roommate, and two stern stereotyped officers (the new captain resp. Michael’s superior officer), at least one of which will likely be a caricature douche bag and constant enemy of Michael (most likely the superior officer).
  4. The show does not seem to have made up its mind what to be and jumps in a manner that gives the viewer wrong expectations: The first two episodes starts with a star ship in conflict with the Klingons, is very martial, and pointing to a new and prolonged cold and/or hot war to dominate the series (or at least the season). This would be somewhat in line with older works. However, at the end of the second the mutinous Michael is sent away on prison transport, leaving an expectation of something completely different, possibly a sci-fi version of “Prison Break”. But, no, barely has the third episode started and the transport suffers catastrophic damage, leaving the prisoners to die. Surely, now Michael will step up, use her Star-Fleet skills and save the day? No… Almost immediately they are rescued by a research vessel (the eponymous “Discovery”), where Michael is drafted into the crew as a lowly technician or whatnot. (The adventures of a research vessel puts us on back solidly, almost boringly, on standard “Star Trek” ground.)

    With all due respect: Who writes such utter crap?!?

In a direct comparison with TNG (not necessarily the rest of the franchise), it is notably that almost every episode of TNG had some aspect of making the viewers think, e.g. relating to differences between people or philosophical issues—starting right at the first episode. This was one of the greatest strengths of the series and something that “Discovery” has so far not copied.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 8, 2017 at 12:51 pm

A few thoughts on franchises and sequels

with 5 comments

Being home with a cold, I just killed some time finally watching “Dead Men Tell No Tales”, the fifth and latest installment in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series.

I am left pondering the dilemma of when a franchise should call it quits (from a non-monetary view point–we all know Disney):

On the one hand, this is by no means a bad movie—without the comparison with some of its predecessors, I might have given a very favorable review within its genre. On the other, it is still a pale imitation of what the first three* movies (especially the first) was. It attempts the same type of banter and humor, but does so with less skill. It has a very similar set of characters, some shared, some molded after old characters, but both the character development and the casting is considerably weaker**. The plot is just another variation of the predecessors’, without any real invention. The music is driven by the same main theme, but otherwise the score and overall music is not in anyway noteworthy. (And the main theme is almost annoyingly repetitive when used for so many movies—a key feature of good music is variation.) Etc.

*I have only seen the fourth on one occasion, and my recollection is too vague for a comparison. However, while the first three were basically a trilogy with more-or-less the same cast and characters and a semi-continuous overall story, the fourth and fifth movies were stand-alone efforts with only a partial sharing of characters and (likely) considerably less resources.

**The first movie was absolutely amazing in this regard: Most movies would consider themselves lucky to have even one of Jack Sparrow (sorry, CAPTAIN Jack Sparrow), Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann, Captain Barbossa, or even Commander Norrington; and the quality continued into the smaller parts. The second and third followed suit. In the fifth, Will and Elizabeth have cameo appearances and the vacuum is filled by imitation characters that compare to the originals as glass does to diamond. Sparrow has gone from dashing, cunning, and comedic to just comedic; while the old comedic-relief characters are pushed to the margin. Norrington is long gone and while there is a British commander of some form, he is entirely unremarkable and has very little screen time. The new villain is just a lesser re-hash of (the undead version of) Barbossa and Davy Jones. Barbossa himself remains strong and has an unexpected character twist, but he worked better as the original villain than he ever did as a non-villain.

In the end, I consider the two-or-so hours well spent, but chances are that I will watch the first movie again* before I watch the fifth (or fourth) a second time. To boot, the follow-up movies to some degree detract from the earlier movies, and from an artistic point of view, the series would have been better off just ending after the third movie. (Some argue “after the first”, and the second and third do not reach the level of the first; however, there is much less of a distance, more innovation, and less repetitiveness compared to the later movies.)

*I have not kept count of my watchings, but over the years it is definitely more than half a dozen of the first, with number two and three clocking in at two or three less.

Consider the “Matrix” and assume that the sequels would never have been made: There might or might not have been disappointment over the lack of sequels and/or wonderment what the sequels would have been like—but we would not have had the general disappointment over said sequels. (While actually reasonably entertaining, they were nowhere near the first movie and they do introduce knowledge that actually lessens the first movie.) Would it not be better to have the feeling of having missed out on something than not having missed out and being disappointed? Sequels should be made when they can really bring something to the table*—not just because people want more**. The whole “Rocky” franchise contains one noteworthy movie—the first. The rest might have entertained portions of the masses*** and made some people a lot of money, but where was the actual value compared to just making similar movies starting from scratch? “Highlander”**** was utterly ruined by the sequels, which turned the original from an original fantasy movie with something major at stake to a part of a ridiculous “aliens are among us” C-movie franchise.

*Of course, this is not always something that can be known in advance, especially when matters of taste come into it. Often, however, the case is crystal clear.

**The actual decision will unfortunately be made based on the studio (or some similar entity) wanting more.

***Including a younger version of me: At least the whole Rocky/Ivan Drago thing was a thrill the first time around. A later watching as an adult left me unmoved.

****It is quite conceivable that my interest would have dropped through my own development, as with Ivan Drago; however, even that aside, the sequels utterly ruined the original.

When I was a teenager, one of my absolute favorite TV series was “Twin Peaks”. This series was artificially cut short on a cliff-hanger at the end of the second season—and for several years I (and many others—“Twin Peaks” was a big deal at the time) hoped that someone in charge would change his mind and that we would see a third season after all. Time went by, and the possibility became unrealistic in light of actors aging or even dying. Now, not years but decades later, there is a third season … of sorts. Based on the first three episodes*, it is a disappointment. Firstly, and almost necessarily, it does not pick up where season two ended, but roughly as far in the future as time has passed in real life, and most of the story-lines, events, what-ifs, …, have already played out during the gap. Secondly, many of the things that made the original great (at least in my teenage mind) are missing, including (apart from cameos) most of the old characters—and the old characters that remain are, well, old. Possibly, it will turn out to be great in the end, but I doubt it. Even if it does turn out great, it will not be what I once wished for. Does the sequel make sense? Probably not.

*The season is progressed farther, but I have only watched three episodes so far. I will pick it up again later, and reserve my final judgment until I am either through or have given up.

In contrast, the “Evil Dead” movie franchise, of which I had just a mildly positive impression, has come up with a TV series continuation, again playing several decades after the previous installment. It is hilariously entertaining: Funny, good violence, good music, likable characters. OK, the “deeper” and “artistic” values are virtually absent (just as they were in the movies), but for just kicking-back for half-an-hour it is a gem—and it is far ahead of the movies. Sometimes, an unexpected continuation is a good thing… Similarly, it is not unheard of for a weak sequel to be followed by a stronger sequel (e.g. the inexcusable “Psycho III” and the reasonably good “Psycho IV”; but, true, no sequel at all would have been the best for “Psycho”) or even, on rare occasions, for the sequels to better the original (“Tremors”; although the starting point was not that impressive).

Going into a full discussion of all sequels and franchises that could be relevant would take forever (“Star Trek”, “James Bond”, “Doctor Who”, various horror franchises, various super-hero franchises, …). I point, however, to my review of “Star Wars VII” for some discussion of “Star Wars” and the topic of sequels. I further note, concerning one of the very few “serious” examples, that the “The Godfather III” was another case of an actually reasonably good movie that was simply not up to par with the predecessors (and, yes, Sofia Coppola was one of the worst casting choice in history).

As an aside, reboots and remakes are almost always a bad idea, while the move from one medium to another often fails badly and, even when not, only rarely manages to reach the quality, popularity, whatnot, found in the original medium.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 7, 2017 at 4:02 pm