Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘movies

New vs. good and the difference between being new and being novel

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A note on an earlier discussion of new vs. good:

An aspect that I was not sufficiently explicit about is the difference between the newly made and the novel (the previously unknown/unseen/unheard of, whatnot). My text ultimately dealt with the difference between the newly made and the well made. (Where “made” might need a change depending on the exact items under discussion.) It does not oppose the novel, which is not only often a characteristic of quality products but can sometimes even legitimately trump quality.

A good example of the latter is my recent encounter with some works by Karl Kunz: Were his works among the greatest that I have ever seen? Did they make him worthy of being put on a level with the likes of Picasso, Monet, Rubens, …? No and no. They did, however, show me something that I had not seen before and they did open my eyes to some possibilities of imagery that were novel to me—thereby bringing me more value than spending the same amount of time on a few more Monets would have.

This also exemplifies that, from an individual perspective, the novelty of a work need not be global and that the novel is not necessarily newly made. (Kunz died in 1971, before my own birth.) Further, that novelty, by its nature, can be fleeting: later encounters with Kunz are unlikely to bring as strong a reaction—and even the works of the true greats loose in objective value over time, because their main impact on the development of art has already taken place and their global novelty is increasingly a thing of the past.

If we revisit my movie examples, there is rarely much novelty present. True, the special effects might be a little more spectacular and there might be some odd twist-and-turn not hitherto seen—but the rest is mostly the same thing over and over again. Indeed, looking at how the last one or two decades have been filled with re-makes, adaptions from other media, further installments of old franchises, whatnot, there might be more novelty to be found in older movies… Moreover, when it comes to just “seeing a movie that I have not seen before”, which is a valid wish, there are more older than newer movies to chose from. The reasonable conclusion is to go with quality over newness.

Looking at my own blogging (also discussed in the original text), I often do bring in something novel (compared to my own earlier writings). However, from the point of view of a random reader, any novelty in a text published today has no greater value than that of a text published ten years ago*—simply, because he is unlikely to be familiar with these earlier writings. Nevertheless, it is the new texts that get the most views—and often just for one or two days**. It is clear that newness is rewarded—not novelty.

*Indeed, with some topics recurring again and again, it is conceivable that I have grown less novel…

**The short interval of popularity (by my standards) also speaks against explanations like my potentially being a better writer today than ten years ago, or my writing about something more globally novel more often.

Remark on language: Due to the subject matter, I use “new”, “novel”, and their variations in strictly separated senses above. This is not necessarily the case in other texts.

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 3, 2019 at 1:32 pm

Thoughts after re-watching Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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Earlier today, I re- watched “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”, and found myself contemplating and meta-contemplating the Pearls’ change of life, the starting point being a scene where the originally extremely innocent Pearls break through a wall and attack everyone in the room—but do so using non-lethal weapons.

Going by the movie*, the Pearls started with an extremely low-tech, one-with-nature society, giving the impression of a Pearl being somewhere between an idealized Buddhist and a “noble savage”. An external event destroys their home planet and forces a small group of survivors to flight on a crashed foreign space ship (a very low-nature, one-with-technology setting). They spend a prolonged time learning how to handle technologies and develop new technologies with a Pearlish twist. They do not shy away from illegal black-market deals, or from bringing guns to such a deal.** They intrude on the normal functioning of the eponymous city, perpetrate the aforementioned attack, kidnap a military leader*** (Commander Filitt), cause a great deal of property damage, whatnot. This according to the principle “you have what we need”.

*Which need not have shown everything of interest and might e.g. have given a simplistic view of the pre-apocalypse life of the Pearls.

**Admittedly, a very important deal, central to their hopes of restoring their civilization.

***In their defense, Filitt was personally to blame for their apocalypse. On the other hand, I doubt that they knew this at the time, there being no obvious way for them to have such knowledge (I am uncertain whether the movie made some contrary statement, e.g. relating to psychic powers or extensive research); more likely, they were just looking for a bargaining chip, which caused an implausible coincidence.

Even so, they appear to have kept a pacifist core, tried to limit their activities to the necessary minimum, and (likely) saw their actions as a necessary evil.

Here a series of questions arise, the most notable to me being to what degree an individual, a group of people, or a civilization can ever go back to what it was before such a series of events, to what degree central parts of their being have been altered, and whether they are now better or worse than before. I will not attempt to answer these question, considering them more “food for thought” and an opportunity to see new perspectives of the world than something realistically answerable. (With the added complication that the Pearls are not human, implying that the answer for them need not hold for humans and vice versa.) I do point to some sub-aspects, however: (a) Strong parallels to the Garden of Eden and the banishment of Adam and Eve, where I have long tended not to see the banishment as a bad thing (cf. excursion); however, where the circumstances are sufficiently different that what is true for the one need be true for the other.* (b) The question of whether we are better of as children than as adults. (c) The degree to which we can, in a manner of speaking, switch context, personalities, whatnot.** (d) The effects of highly traumatic events and events where we might have to compromise our beliefs, reveal ourselves to be different than we want to be, and similar.***

*This includes the death of millions of Pearls, the actual destruction of the Pearls’ home-world, and the lack of culpability of the Pearls in their “banishment”. (Here other parts of Jewish history or pseudo-history might be more appropriate analogies, but they are less interesting on a metaphorical level. At the same time, it is interesting how this theme of loss, banishment, search for a home land, …, recurs. Following the hypothesis that much of the Tanakh was written during the Babylonian captivity, this might be explained by a focus on a then relevant theme—but the post-temple diaspora happened some six hundreds years after its end… As a clarification to any PC readers: With “pseudo-history”, I refer to parts of the Bible considered ahistorical.)

**Consider e.g. how the same man can be a war criminal and a loving husband and father, or, like Hitler, be a strong opponent of cruelty towards animals. Looking at less extreme examples, it is by no means rare that someone can not only have e.g. a work persona, a family persona, a out-with-the-gang persona, …, but a fully developed “identity” for each, moving well beyond the mask of a persona. Similarly, it is not unusual for someone to adopt different identities over time, with non-trivial effects on thoughts and behavior—another reason why identity politics is dangerous.

***For instance, when someone actively fights in a war.

Other questions include e.g. what might have happened, had events not resolved themselves, and whether the Pearls might have moved on to “harder” violence; to what degree a person/people can truly be pacifist* and whatnot, when later shown to be able to move even to actions like those of the Pearls; and how large the difference in principle between Filitt and the post-apocalyptic Pearls actually was (see excursion; but, to avoid misunderstandings, the Pearls are far more to my taste).

*I am not certain to what degree the original Pearl society should be seen as consciously pacifist (“we abhor violence”) and to what degree as innocent/naive (“what is violence?” or “what would be the point of violence?”). This can make a large difference when we look at this specific case, but does not affect the abstract question.

From a more “meta” perspective, I see an ever recurring observation repeated: It matters far less what one reads, watches, whatnot, than what is done with what was read, etc. Some material, undoubtedly, contains more “food for thought” than other, but this is of little import when someone does not think—and a good thinker can find interesting ideas even in apparently superficial material. Many of my own early (often superficial and undeveloped, yet valuable as stepping stones) insights into human nature came from watching “Friends”… This is also a major reason why the connection between being “well read” and being intellectually well developed is comparatively weak—having just read a large number of “great books” does fairly little for the intellect. Thinking about the books on the other hand… As corollaries, quality reading is better than quantity reading and quality reading than reading of quality books, and it is a bad idea to read a book just because it is considered “intellectual”. I read e.g. “Crime and Punishment” when I was around twelve—and it did nothing to enhance my intellect, because I did not have the tools and the understanding to do more than just read it.* I read “Nineteen Eighty-Four” at an even younger age—and based my then** strongly negative opinion on the lack of a happy ending… The sad truth is that some adults that pride themselves on intellectual reading have not progressed that much farther.

*Nor am I certain that I had any type of intellectual aspiration at the time: I just loved to read and one of the teachers at school handed me a copy.

**Today, I consider it a strong candidate for the most important book of the 20th century, and one of the few books that might actually deserve the label “mandatory reading”.

Of course, the reverse of this is that far from every insight found in a particular work was actually deliberately planted there. Consider the works of Shakespeare: Their great standing in terms of e.g. insight into human psychology is to a considerable degree rooted in the fact that so many minds have spent so much time searching for meaning. He might or might not have been superior to his contemporaries, but chances are that some of them would have an at least similar reputation, had they been exposed to the same scrutiny. Similar points apply to e.g. the Bible. (This is also a reason why I consider the naive search for symbolism in books dangerous—that the reader finds it does not mean that the author actually intended it to be there… Some books have it and an understanding the symbolism might be needed to truly understand the book; however, too many readers are under the misapprehension that symbolism is the A and O of reading and writing alike.)

Excursion on Eden etc.:
The traditional narrative is basically an ideal life, a crime/violation of trust/act of disobedience, and a resulting banishment into a worse life. I see several possible, partially overlapping, interpretations of the events as more reasonable/plausible, especially when we allow for an imperfect transcription of the actual* events, including e.g. the events being more of a young bird or young adult** (human) being kicked out to begin a separate life after having reached a certain degree of maturity; the eating from the tree inducing a change between two comparable states, one allowing a stay in Eden and the another requiring a move; and a less than exemplary God, who rejected Adam and Eve after they moved past the developmental stage that he had intended. To boot, there is always the interpretation of Eden as more of a state of mind than as a physical place.

*Under the arguendo assumption that the Bible is even approximately historically correct in this regard—I do not believe that Adam and Eve actually existed, and I suspect that the Pope does not believe it either, at this stage of Biblical criticism.

**I note the strong similarities with a child–parent relationship, the potential of a teenage rebellion, the obvious potential sexual interpretation of both snake and fruit, and the potential division into an innocent and non-innocent stage of development.

Excursion on Filitt and the Pearls in comparison:
Looking at actual damage done, the comparison is bordering on the ridiculous; and Filitt is far more ruthless than the Pearls. However, looking more at motives and principles, they shared a willingness to commit acts that others might consider wrongful in order to further the cause of their respective peoples, and both almost certainly considered themselves the Good Guys and fighting for a Greater Good*. We also do not know with certainty how they would have acted in transposed situations; especially when applying the psychological principle that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths a statistic, and when considering how different the respective stakes and means were.** By the same token, I cannot reliably predict how I would have acted if actually in the Pearls’ shoes, but from an “ivory tower” perspective I would have started with an entirely non-violent diplomatic approach with regard to the searched for artifacts, an attempt to get the legal authorities on Filitt’s trail,*** and/or an appeal to public opinion. If such approaches were tried by the Pearls, it is not clear from the film.

*A good example of why appeals to the Greater Good are dangerous and should be used only with great caution and great respect for the rights and interests of others.

**At least when we look at Filitt and the original apocalypse. The later events in the “city” are hard to see as more than self-preservation without a genuinely proposed Greater Good.

***Assuming that his culpability was known to them; otherwise, a more general target.

Excursion on reading material for precocious children:
The problems with reading “too adult” books too young are not limited to a mere lack of appreciation and benefit—it can also include exposure to material of a potentially harmful character: The too scary, too violent, too sexualized, … This only partly because of the risk of a direct negative influence*, but also because of the incomprehensibility of too many events that are easily understood by someone older. I can e.g. recall my first contact, at a very young age, with the word “condom” (resp. the Swedish “kondom”): A teenage couple was talking to each other, the boy pulled a carton (“kartong”)** of condoms out of his jacket, and the girl expressed a considerable reluctance—teenage stereotypes 101. I was so ignorant of related matters that I focused on “carton”, pictured the thing I associated most strongly with this word, a carton of corn flakes, and was highly confused—starting with the question how he had managed to carry it in his jacket… Such lack of comprehension can, in it self, cause a feeling similar to some night-mares when prolonged.

*Which I recognize, but where I do not want to call for a moral panic: Being too strict is just as bad as being too lax.

**Note that in an English text the words used or associations present might be different.

On the other hand, material that is “age appropriate” is also usually so much shorter, using so much simpler language, whatnot, that a precocious reader risks being severely understimulated. To boot, a parental ban on certain books will likely do more to increase interest than prevent reading…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 27, 2018 at 6:36 pm

A few points concerning the movie “Anon”

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I recently watched the movie “Anon”, which follows a police detective working in a police system (and society in general) highly dependent on implants that capture and modify the visual* impressions of the populace—like a mixture of “built-in” smart glasses and some of my own satiric suggestions ([1]).

*I am uncertain to what degree other senses were involved.

While the movie as a whole is not that great, it demonstrates several conceivable future dangers.

Of these the possibly most noteworthy are those present in [1]—or how a state like that could come into being*: Take “smart glasses”, make it an implant, connect it to the cloud, allow the police increasingly greater access to that cloud or even the implants themselves, and a nightmare scenario could very easily manifest it self.

*The movie it self gives no (in universe) historical background; however, the speculation is fairly obvious.

Another issue touched upon repeatedly in my own writings is the low value of digital evidence: Whatever is stored*, transmitted, replayed, …, digitally can be manipulated, usually very easily, in order to give an incorrect impression. This applies not just to obvious items, e.g. entries in the access log of a server or the presence of illegal contents on a private hard-drive, but increasingly extends even to e.g. video capture**. Even the (extraordinarily naive and absolutely intolerable) assumption that law-enforcement personnel would never manipulate evidence is not enough to remedy this problem, nor is the strictest tracking*** by “chain of evidence”, because there is no guarantee that manipulations have not taken place through a third party.

*There is an availability of write-only storage that to some degree could remedy this. However, this presumes that write-only storage actually is used (which can be impractical for e.g. cost reasons and the inability to re-use storage); does not help against manipulations during retrieval of the data; and can be circumvented by simply copying the one write-only storage unit to an identical unit, making only the wanted modifications, and then proclaiming the modified copy to be the original.

**To achieve sufficiently high-quality manipulations or forgeries today is rarely practical. However, at the rate CGI has advanced over the years, we will eventually (likely: soon) reach a point where anyone with even a semi-powerful enemy could be at risk. (Whether we ever reach a state where a single skilled individual can achieve this with at most a few hours work, as implied in the movie, I leave unstated. However, given enough time, that too might be the case.)

***Especially since such tracking would almost certainly be largely digital…

Anonymity and privacy, even outside police work, is another important theme (as might be surmised from the title): Walking along a street and being able to see the names, occupations, whatnot of the other pedestrians might be interesting and useful—but the same applies in reverse. I, myself, certainly would not be comfortable with that. Extrapolate it a bit further, and assume that (drawing on the current U.S.) someone who once was caught peeing in the park has a “sex offender” sign displayed over his head, or that (drawing on Nazi-Germany) Jews, homosexuals, whatnot come with their own warning signs. What if a direct connection with e.g. a Facebook account is made, and passers-by can extract almost arbitrary information, e.g relationship status, at will? Recall e.g. a recent assault over a mistaken identity; or note how easy it is for someone rooting for the wrong team or supporting the wrong party to be beaten up, if encountering the wrong crowd—or consider how information on income can affect the risk of being robbed or pick-pocketed.

From another perspective, consider the ability to replay the capture of previous sights—including e.g. love making. We could argue that that which we have once seen should be ours to see again—and I would mostly agree. However, it is easy to find special cases where this is highly disputable, e.g. when someone accidentally walks in on someone else who is having sex or otherwise being naked: It would not be unreasonable for the observed party to demand a deletion. Certainly, a kept recording might give far greater opportunity of observing details than the original (typically) brief flash. Similarly, there is a wide consensus that filming sex with a partner without consent is unacceptable—but what happens when everyone has a built-in camera? To boot, others can wish for even stricter criteria—I have, e.g., seen the opinion (but disagree) that even consensually filmed material must be destroyed after a break-up or that voluntarily given intimate images must be returned.

These problems are by no means limited to physical acts and nakedness: Consider e.g. the ban on cameras (including on cell-phones and notebooks) in many offices and factories. Or consider someone having a private conversation on which a third-party can now far more easily listen in*.

*An early scene showed even the near-inaudible dialogue of some passers-by being translated directly to text.

Alternatively, consider the invasion of privacy implied by a spouse’s or parent’s request to see a certain section of recording (“Where were you last night?!?”)*: Show it and lose privacy; do not show it and the worst will be suspected. (A similar situation is discussed in a text on lies under oath.) An interesting twist is provided by two (real life) parents who are repeatedly in the news for trying to get access to a deceased daughter’s Facebook account: What if this scenario is replaced by parents/spouses/children/whatnot who gain access to their deceased children’s/spouses’/parents’/whatnot implant data, including extensive recordings?

*It is my strong personal belief that even children relative their parents and spouses relative each other have a right to a considerably degree of privacy; however, even those who do not (e.g. an over-protective parent or a wife who fails to understand that the members of a couple are still different people) must realize that there can be areas where a legitimate need for such privacy can exist: Not everything that the one party wants to keep secret is necessarily harmful to the other, morally wrong, or susceptible to the (pseudo-)argument “the innocent have nothing to fear”. Consider e.g. a husband giving a female friend some help strictly for reasons of friendship, and a wife who has a history of jumping to (incorrect) conclusions about cheating.

Then again, we have anonymity (respectively lack thereof) in the frame of police work. I have earlier (notably in [2]) objected to e.g. computer searches for reasons like the presence of highly personal material and private information, as well as the risk that material that in theory would only be accessed by the police might leak out. What if the information collected includes basically everything seen or done by someone? (Including sex acts, intimate conversations, confidential business meetings, …)

Then there is the issue of hacking and security: Not only does this provide yet another channel through which private information can leak, but it also adds the risk of damaging interventions. For instance, the movie showed examples of visual input being sufficiently manipulated, in real time, that the victim could not rely on his eye sight. With this level of technology, it would be easy to e.g. have someone just walk into oncoming traffic. However, even with abilities more realistic by today’s standards, great harm can be caused, e.g. by having textual information altered to imply that another party is sleeping with the own spouse. Looking at self-driving cars, with similar vulnerabilities and a greater current realism, we could have a hostile entity manipulate a car into taking actions that lead to a car crash, a run-over pedestrian, or some other calamity. (See also e.g. [3].)

On the other hand, if external access is technically and legally sufficiently limited, there can be a great upside to some of the technologies. Consider e.g. re-running a business meeting or a lecture to refresh a failing memory; re-living an enjoyable moment; or (most enticing to me) re-visiting a portion of prior life to have another look at how things were back then or how one has developed or not developed, what lessons can be drawn and what could have been done differently, etc.

As an aside, it is depressing that while we live in a time when privacy and anonymity are more urgent than ever before (for the simple reason that they are so much easier to violate), legislation and other “government behavior” shows a broad trend towards weakening both. The fear of terrorism and organized crime makes this partially understandable; but not only do the “big bads” have far greater means to circumvent such legislation than the average citizen, the measures are often obviously intended against crimes of any kind. Both these factors point strongly towards the damage done being greater than the benefits gained. What we need is the reverse trend—and this not only with regard to the government, but also to strengthen protection against e.g. profile-building private enterprises, for instance by making it possible to order even physical to-be-delivered goods (close to) anonymously and by removing antiquated laws like the German requirement for a hotel guest to register with full and real name and address.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 30, 2018 at 12:17 am

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A few thoughts on The Last Jedi (Star Wars Episode VIII)

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Having written a very negative review of the previous installment, I did something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: I decided to not watch the latest “Star Wars” sequel: The Last Jedi.

Out of curiosity, I did read the Wikipedia page earlier today. A few notes:

  1. The plot does not appear to be an improvement over the previous movie or to add anything original. (I note that one of my criticisms of he Episode VII was too much imitation of the older movies.)
  2. Luke gets more screen time in this movie, but part of this screen time consists of his death…

    Already last time around, I wrote “this is a liberty that a non-Lucas movie should simply not have taken” with regard to Han’s death—and now they kill off Luke Skywalker!?!?! Watch your back, Santa Claus—you are next!

    Seeing that Carrie Fisher has died in real life, this movie is also likely the end of the line for Leia. With that, the remaining connection to the older movies is only Chewbacca and the droids. (Or do I overlook someone?)

    As to the screen-time issue, it is hard to judge the amount from Wikipedia, but I would speculate that Luke’s is still comparatively short. Leia “is incapacitated” early on and, while she reappears in the text towards the end, her part is likely quite small.

  3. A major plot-point appears to be a mental connection between Rey and Kyle, leading to them briefly becoming allies and Kyle killing Snoke instead of Rey*, extending mutual offers of “join me and …”, and then parting as enemies.

    *Paralleling Vader and his killing of the Emperor instead of Luke. Sigh…

    Not promising. I note that my review of Episode VII said

    For the future, I just hope that there will be no absurd surprises like Rey being Kylo’s long lost sister or the daughter of Luke (hackneyed beyond belief), Rey being the true “chosen one” (invalidating the previous movies entirely), Kylo’s master actually being Luke using some form of projection, or similar. If any of that happens, well, then the film makers should simply be lined up against a wall and shot for criminal incompetence.

    This goes some way towards an “absurd surprise” in its own right, and it actually makes the sibling connection somewhat likely.

  4. Rey again beats Kyle in a fight, to which I re-iterate my criticism that

    The film-makers fail to understand that a villain that is too easy to defeat (and, vice versa, a hero that is too strong) is a liability. A good story has the hero winning despite being weaker, outnumbered, or otherwise having the odds against him/her. when the hero suddenly proves to be the stronger and the villain turns into an easy target (never mind a snivelling loser like Kylo)—that is just pointless.

As for the planet Ahch-To, I can only say “Gesundheit”.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 15, 2017 at 11:27 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)

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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

with 4 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