19 December 2016

Rogue One and Arrival

This isn't a contest to see which is better. Arrival is clearly a superior film. People should not be confused or considering it another way. I could conceive of having non sci-fi fans watch Arrival and get something out of it anyway. It's that good, and that understated as to the science fiction elements.

Rogue One.

Good

Action sequences are generally well laid out and create a strong sense of running battles and impending destruction.

Vader finally plays a badass again (hasn't really happened since Empire and New Hope). Good villains help these stories. There weren't quite any in this. But at least Vader showed up as Vader. I was fine with that.

There are some very gorgeous cinematographic sequences. They did really well picking up fun locations to shoot (Maldives, Jordan, Iceland, etc). They took full advantage of what they had to work with to make it crisp and chewy as scenery goes. And to blow it up.

This was generally better than Force Awakens. It also seems to have a point or a story to tell of its own. That being "war sucks, people will die". This feels more like a WWII movie with blasters and space combat than a "Star Wars" movie at points. That's a good thing. There are little moments like listening to a turncoat spy or a stormtrooper chattering about something just before they are attacked and killed to drive home even the enemies of the rebellion are people of some sort. This works better than Finn as a defector in Force Awakens to humanize the enemy as probably a lot of people who haven't had much choice in occupation.

This is also a key point sorely lacking in the Star Wars prequels, which do try (and mostly failed) to explore the politics of a gigantic bureaucratic nightmare with a veneer of democracy. There isn't really a sense that wars are bad and have terrible costs. What costs are involved are paid for reasons totally divorced from the wars themselves, and mostly involved lightsaber mishaps and insane rants about the "high ground". So from the perspective of trying to set an action movie with a lot of desperate and bad things happening within the contextual structure of the Star Wars universe and its rebellions and galactic conflicts, I was happy with that attempt. This was the biggest problem with Force Awakens was it took no risk to tell a new and engaging story, or even to spin that story that much that it wasn't obviously a mishmash of the original trilogy with some of the same key players. It was further plagued that most of its universe based elements made little or no sense even in the context of that universe (why is there even a "resistance" if there's a Republic again?), or were annoying (Finn, Kylo Ren).

The droid is funny. Probably taking up all of the film's humor, but still. Probably funnier than C3-PO. Sarcastic droid wins over whiny droid.

Mixed
While I think they did a good CGI job on Tarkin (and one other at the end of the movie), it is a little strange seeing an actor who has been dead for 20 years in a movie. This is not a trend I would look forward to.

There are a lot of Star Wars Easter eggs. Some of them are annoying. Others are fun reminders of the original films. This was a mixed bag issue with Force Awakens also. Telling a different and new story in Star Wars can be done, and can be done to use these little touches to remind us what universe we are in (like the Stan Lee cameos in Marvel films). I feel like this did a little to push the envelope, much more than Force Awakens/Abrams, but not enough. It could have been a spy thriller for example but with Jedis and a space battle, or battles and devastation happening in the background. I had thought that was kind of what it was going to be from the trailers. There are nods like that's what they will be doing when they recruit a team of saboteurs and assassins to come help them, and they start sneaking around the base. Then a lot of the stuff from the trailers don't make any appearances in the film, and a lot of things start blowing up, and a fleet shows up to attack. People can make a war-spy movie drama/thriller, something that would resemble Dirty Dozen maybe. But the film has to commit to the spy or sneaky part to pull it off. This never really does.

There are no extraneous "cute" characters to be marketed to children. This is a harsher world than Ewoks and Jawas and whatever Jar Jar was supposed to be, and as a result, no cuddly creatures appear. I would consider this a good thing, if they had taken the added time not doing this form of marketing and expended it on making the actual people in the story a little more compelling.

Bad
Jyn isn't terribly well written. She spends a lot of time giving muddled speeches about hope, making bold decisions, and not doing much action herself (a little at the end). But because she keeps taking these bold choices, it feels like an interesting character was in there that other characters had decided to follow and listen to. That isn't always a compelling view of good leadership. But it works okay here because we know what she's doing. She is going to end up going off script, so to speak, and do something very dangerous or radical within the Star Wars universe. Other than Han, nobody else has that kind of pull to play by their own rules. Jyn doesn't quite rise to that level. We're sort of supposed to assume she can be in the "tell not show" problem endemic to many films these days. This is also one of the key downgrades from Force Awakens. Rey, despite being super-capable very fast in a sometimes annoying way, is at least acted and written as an interesting or mysterious character and as a leading character. There's a brief but engaging backstory and personal charisma, and her competence and rising confidence is an infectious element of the story (and there isn't anything else in the story that is). Jyn has basically none of those things going for her. She's not shown as a great resistance fighter (one scene maybe). Or spy. Or leader. Or pilot. Or warrior. Her backstory, what we know of it, is mainly why she is picked to be on the mission in the first place; because of her connections to other key characters. As a plot device. Later on she does some fun, bold, and determined things, and a few of her speeches lines are not terrible to rile up the troops as it were (they're mostly corny and lame). But that's really late in the film to care that much about what's going on anymore.

There's very little chemistry between the various cast members. They're pretty much interchangeable and expendable characters that we aren't that attached to as they are inevitably killed off. There's a little between the quasi-Jedi and the hired gun friend he has. And that's it. Oh. Spoiler: anybody who isn't in New Hope that we meet here should be assumed to be killed off during the course of this movie. Further more obvious spoiler, go read the crawl before New Hope and you know exactly what must happen in this film. This kind of death and sacrifice, meaningful or not, should have more emotional weight. We should care that these people are dying, because each death has some resonance on the other characters. Force Awakens got a lot of cheap but effective emotional mileage out of having Han die. Because people were attached to him as a strong and interesting character (and because Harrison Ford actually bothered to do some acting). Both Jyn's mentor and her father die and we shrug and move on, because they basically shrug and move on and because neither seems that compelling. They each die because they're no longer integral to the plot and are expediently removed from it.

The overall writing struggles. I'm not sure why Forest Whitaker's character was even in the film other than a plot point to get Jyn in the movie. We spend many tedious minutes early on wandering around several planets without much happening on them to remind us I guess that Star Wars has a lot of planets with cool volcano bases and evil installations in tropic locales (I'd think Scariff would be a plum assignment for an Imperial officer?). Introductions of characters, other than Donnie Yen's blind quasi Jedi with a staff beating people up, are often weak and forgettable. I can barely remember anyone's names other than Jyn (Cassio? Che Guevara? Droid? Chinese film market tie-in? General Director British Villain/Tarkin knock-off?). Compare this to Jabba in RotJ, as a giant gangster slug who has a pretty short character arc in film time but a rather large footprint on the film and series by being a memorable character (Lucas later would destroy this by having him appear in New Hope when it was re-released later). Even the Pit of Carkoon has more of a memorable feel than these poor saps.

Note the pilot, the actual defector in Rogue, is equally badly written as Finn was, if not quite as annoying or central to the movie. The method of humanizing some of these characters being chosen by directors and writers seems to be to pick the most social inane and awkward people alive and write them into the film.

Because these characters are expendable and uninteresting, the plot is very slowly paced early on.

I'd say RotJ is around a 7 out of 10, basically like a C+ movie. Force Awakens is maybe a 6, a solid C or maybe C-, though still much better than the prequels. This is maybe a 7 at best as well, possibly lower (a C+/C movie). It's fine. But not that interesting.

Arrival

Good

There's a lot of scene economy in how this is shot. It's minimalist in the way it uses disorienting elements to build the overall story of trying to communicate and interact with aliens, and to build around the function of circles as a shape in scenes. It's subtle sometimes about when or how they've made one. And the use of shapes to frame sequences is a fun little way to design a more interesting scene, and how to draw our attention toward or away from other things. The circles the aliens draw take our attention away from the creepy looking squid things in the background for instance.

The concept is intriguing. It doesn't limit to simply using language to alter a brain either. Most of us have a propensity to alter ourselves according to roles we seek and take on. Parent. Spouse. Lover. Single parent. Divorced. Grieving. Sick. Recovering. Addict. Activist. Child. Adult. Even the jobs we do (or the fact that we have them) can define us in a new way to others. And so on. These things change our decisions, our thinking, our identity, and our comfort with the past, present, and future in a number of ways. Language does this too. But it isn't even the only thing happening within the film on this form, just the most explicit. Her transformation as a person and the roles she has is implicit. There are even little moments about this where she is resisting other transformations (the non-zero sum game conversation).

I found that overall a fascinating concept. It works more easily within science fiction structures of "hey we are aliens and we'd like to talk to you". But it is an element of distinction between different languages here on Earth. Chinese seems to be advantaged for how math is thought about for instance (where there is no "eleven" but instead "ten and one", a more direct elaboration). German was the favored language for a long time of philosophy and engineering for its vibrant economy of complex terms. And so on. There are also broader discussions about the effects of mind altering substances on the sort of identity and interactions with others we have that can tie into this. The idea that "how we think about ourselves" as the main "gift" brought by benevolent but bizarre aliens is an implied effect that creates the Star Trek universe, and it is here as well.

Amy Adams is being wasted in the Superman films, even as she's probably the only good character in them (Batfleck being a possibility as well). She's very good in this.

Mixed
Renner's character is kind of meh. Other than as a counterfoil to Adams, it's hard to see what he does. Maybe making a computer do some work toward the end of the film to provide some kind of mathematical analysis to say "see, she is not crazy". He tends to provide "Hawkeye" levels of workable production in films in that he doesn't add or take away much. That's fine if he's a role player, with some occasional elevation as in the Avengers series. Less so if he is supposedly a main character.

There's a nod to people freaking out about possibly hostile aliens, as there was in Contact (a similar kind of Sci Fi film, but not as good). Perhaps more and less appreciative of how big a problem this would be. I think it plays off reasonably well within the plot, but it doesn't ramp up any tension very much so much as feel forced in by events.

Overall I'm nitpicking here to find things I did not like. So. That's a good sign.
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