Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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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.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 28, 2017 at 5:59 am

Discovery (Star Trek)

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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

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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