Archive for the ‘ geekery ’ Category

Did the World Need a Wonder Woman Movie?

In today’s Hollywood, producers, movers, and shakers are all clamoring for “shared universe” franchises. Inspired by the juggernaut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every possible story-telling rock is being overturned in the hunt for a franchise of franchises–money making interconnected characters and settings that will hopefully have infinite reservoirs of built-in audience appeal.

It cannot last.

Soon the silver screen will be graced with a Mummy remake starring the incomparable Sofia Boutella. But I doubt even her physical grace and screen charisma can carry a movie that is basically going to be Tom Cruise playing Ethan Hunt (again) vs. monsters. Universal is hoping otherwise, though. In fact, they hope it will be a relaunch (they tried already with an abysmal Dracula movie a few years back) of their monsters-themed shared universe.

On the horizon, we have other studios with similar hopes for Transformers spin-offs (because Bumblebee, the yellow camaro that cannot talk can totally anchor a feature film) and Godzilla vs. King Kong movies.

They’re all trying to do what Marvel did with its superhero movies, and thus, they all miss the point.

Superheroes work as a “shared universe” because they already occupy one. They already dwell in a common space within our collective imagination–they live within the mythic.

That is what the DC shared universe of super hero movies has failed to grasp thus far. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel offered some rays of light, but mostly was subdued by a larger interest on the director’s part of making a darker, grittier superhero universe–an impulse that took over (and took a shit on) the Batman v. Superman debacle.

Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, though, finds the soul in her super heroine that the boys’ outings for the DC murderverse never could. In Batman v Superman, Superman was dragged into the muck in a sophomoric attempt to make his idealism grapple with the ugly side of humanity.

Wonder Woman shares a similar thematic impulse, but executes it so much more capably.

The film is in many ways a bildungsroman for Diana, the nascent Wonder Woman (who never gets called that on screen), who moves past fish-out-of-water gags in London to have her eyes opened to the horrors of war on the Belgium front of WWI. She has trained her whole life to fight war in order to end it, but the suffering she actually witnesses surprises her.

It’s a somewhat superficial exploration of the limits of idealism, but it’s more depth than one generally finds in a super hero movie (Winter Soldier aside) and does much greater justice (pun intended) to her character’s unflappable heroism than Snyder’s take on Superman where Henry Cavil mostly had to grimace to try to maintain Supes’ dignity in the face of terrible, terrible writing.

One cannot credit Gal Gadot enough for her turn as the titular heroine. Even when she exudes naive confidence that the key to peace is simply to find Ares, the God of War, and slay him, her radiance is irrepressible and you want her to be right even though you know she can’t be. Naturally, Diana must learn the hard way that the world of men is not so simple as that and Gadot carries that growth–and conveys the protagonist’s distance from humanity–flawlessly. It’s ironic that many people, both myself and director Patty Jenkins, were skeptical that Gadot had the chops for this part since now she seems like the perfect screen embodiment of the character and likely will be for perpetuity the way that Hugh Jackman will always now be Wolverine.

The other key player in the success and charm of the film is Jenkins. She adopts the visual aesthetic of Snyder’s work–slow mo, muted color palettes–and bends them more purposefully to her story. Her camera loves Gadot’s face, seen often in close up, as much as it does the glint of her armor deflecting a bullet and she manages to humanize the action and epic story (one regrettable bit of CGI artificiality aside) so that the audience feels connected to Diana’s story through her warmth and optimism.

So Wonder Woman is an expertly executed super hero movie and, as many have pointed out, it’s high time that we had one of these stories helmed by a female character.

But, alas, it is one of these stories.

It doesn’t take a fine analytical edge to see the DNA this film shares with its predecessors, particularly the Marvel films that have previously perfected the formula. At one point, Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor leads Diana into a bar to recruit an odd-ball crew for their dangerous mission behind enemy lines and I half expected the camera to pan across the pub to see Chris Evans’s Captain America on the very same endeavor.

It’s a great movie, no doubt. But more than anything, I left wondering if this genre has anything left to give us? The fight choreography was great, but we’ve seen characters tackle rooms of baddies with similar dramatic flair dozens of times–yes, even female characters. Just imagine shooting Black Widow’s fight scenes from Marvel in the style of 300 and you’re there. We’ve also seen the epic show down between God-like heroes and villains tearing the screen and reality apart in blasts of cosmic energy again and again.

Can these scenes really thrill us anymore? Show Wonder Woman to children–preferably some little girls–as their first action movie and they would probably be in rapt awe.

But for us, what is left? We can hardly be dazzled any longer. The story beats and their larger-than-life climaxes are requisite, familiar. The DC movie universe is building toward its Justice League, which looks to be The Avengers with the lights turned down. Marvel itself is building toward the culmination of its “Phase 3” in the two-part Infinity War. And now the world has a really good Wonder Woman movie.

Maybe that’s all it needs.

Maybe it’s time to say, “I say, we will have no more [comic book movies]. Those that are [in production] already, all but one (stop Aquaman, please!), shall live. The rest shall keep as they are…”

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Alien Covenant

So, it is here. Yet another Alien movie.

Spoilers will follow–ALL THE SPOILERS!

I’ve made my feelings known about the Alien films. Alien is great. Aliens is perfect. Beyond that, I live in a bizarre state of suspended reality. It’s sort of like how official U.S. policy is to deny the existence of Taiwan to China while simultaneously committing to defend Taiwan from China. I’ve seen all the films in the Alien franchise multiple times–yes, even the Alien vs. Predator movies–but at the same time, I insist that the following is true: There are only two Alien movies.

Now, about that last Alien movie that doesn’t really exist, Prometheus. It was a mess. A really, really pretty mess. So the simple fact that the new film, Alien Covenant, is a direct sequel to Prometheus starts it off on awfully shaky territory.

I went into Covenant with very low expectations, so maybe that’s why I left pleasantly surprised. My first thought was to agree with Christopher Orr from The Atlantic, whose review I hadn’t read but had noticed was headlined, “Covenant is the best installment since Aliens.”

But remember, that’s not saying very much. The Ripley sequels, Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, always reigned above Prometheus–and towered miles above the AvP flicks, which are pure garbage–because of one simple reason: Sigourney Weaver. Her performance in Alien 3 lifted it from dismal and bleak cash grab to a serviceable send-off to a beloved character (who still deserved much, much better). Then Resurrection gave Weaver a chance to just play. Taking the Ripley character and twisting her drive and determination into a new, cough-cough, alien shape allowed Weaver to infuse the otherwise claustrophobic encounter with a brood of xenomorphs into something that was, if not good, at least intermittently interesting.

Prometheus’s characters, though, were poorly developed, as forgettable as all the nameless mercenaries and soldiers that get eaten in Resurrection or the shaven-headed convicts who are gristle for the gore mill in Alien 3. So, Ripley’s presence in the other films acted as a sort of check-mate, leaving Ridley Scott’s belated (and ill-advised) follow-up to his original sci-fi horror masterpiece a clearly inferior piece of cinema.

Now, Alien Covenant does no better by the continuity of the franchise as a whole than its immediate predecessor. The alien bioweapon we were introduced to and the culture and intentions of the albino giant Engineers responsible for it all still make exactly zero sense. In fact, by making the android David the ultimate creator of the xenomorph we know and dread, Scott has fouled up the continuity even more. The implication in Alien was that the Space Jockey–now “Engineer”–ship with all the eggs on it had been sitting there on LV-426 long enough for the Engineer’s body to “fossilize” into his chair. Plus, the oversized elephantine pilot of that ship was clearly killed by a chest burster. Covenant, though, sees every known extant Engineer slaughtered by David. Meanwhile, at the end he jets off at the helm of the human colony ship with some embryonic face huggers and about two thousand human guinea pigs to experiment with.

How is Ridley Scott planning on leading from this to the ship that Ripley and company find in Alien? At this point, the only possibility would be time travel. But hey, Leia remembered her mother, so who the f’ cares about continuity in sci-fi anymore, right?

I swear, we should pass a law with a statute of limitations on sequels.

But here’s the thing that Alien Covenant brought to the table that no other Alien sequel after Aliens ever did: characters I actually cared about.

During the last act of the film, as Daniels and Tennessee race to save the colonists and themselves from the xenomorph that has just spawned on their ship, I felt palpable dread. Not because I thought the alien might prevail, but because it was clear that David already had by taking Walter’s place. (Seriously, Scott might as well have shown us David winning that fight because even the noisy seven year old in the row behind me who didn’t seem to speak English must have known that was David, not Walter.)

Yes, these characters make decisions as monumentally stupid as those in Prometheus (when they stepped out on the planet without space suits, I was reminded of Galaxy Quest) but ultimately the characters’ motivations seem so much more genuine and less cliche than in the previous films. Daniels, the Captain, and Tennessee are all defined by loss that we get to see in visceral, human terms. They’re written believably and their reactions ring true.

In particular, I owe Danny McBride an apology because I went in assuming I would hate having to look at him on screen since I find his comedic performances so obnoxious. But he and Waterson held down the emotional core of the film.

Kudos also to the writers for not squeezing Crudup’s Captain Oram into any of the archetypal slots from previous films. Though he opposes Daniels and seems headed into territory like the sleazy corporate antagonist Burke from Aliens, the captain admits his mistakes and he and Daniels come together with the best interests of their remaining crew at heart. Also, his status as a “man of faith” looked like it was heading in the same dreadful direction as Rapace’s Shaw from Prometheus, but the film, mercifully, did not overplay that card.

Ultimately, though, despite the valiant efforts of this cast, this is still a movie that just never needed to happen. Scott abandoned many of his aspirations for a think-piece–which bogged down Prometheus in faux-intellectualism–and made a suspenseful film. If it weren’t posing as an Alien film and David had created some other kind of monster then perhaps this movie might stand on its own fairly well. But its connection to Prometheus and to Alien/Aliens means that it is both mired in the miasma of the former and doomed to be judged against the gold standard of the latter.

 

Nitpicks:

-Like I said, this movie does just as much of a doozy to the continuity as its predecessor. But it also continues a trend hailing from the Alien vs. Predator movies in which the life cycle of the Alien is tremendously accelerated. In Covenant, we see a chest burster emerge seconds after the host wakes up–as opposed to Cane in the original film, who was unconscious for hours and then had time to sit down to dinner before his progeny emerged. Also, a face hugger implants its seed instantly, whereas in past films the process took hours. Then in the end, the newly hatched xenomorph is full grown in what looks like mere minutes.

-Scott keeps the internal space of that temple/whatever where David leads the survivors pretty ambiguous. At one point, shots can be heard by the others from inside David’s laboratory, but when the neomorph thingy attacks what’s-her-name (seriously, they might as well have named certain characters Victim #1-5) her shots go completely unnoticed. The captain told her not to go far, but apparently she couldn’t find a place to clean up that was within earshot. Then later, the crew is looking for the captain, but apparently the place is big enough that they can’t find him until after David has had time to gestate an alien in his gut. Seriously, guys, you’re in a monster movie: DON’T SPLIT UP! Meanwhile, Daniels and Walter easily stumble onto incriminating “I’m the Bad Guy and I’m going to leave lots of written proof of it even though I’m ostensibly a walking computer” evidence against David. It’s quite a labyrinth where characters can only find each other or what they need when it’s convenient for the plot.

-Speaking of the temple and the city…Geez, Covenant crew: You don’t want to do more of a fly by or survey of a planet when you’re landing? That was a pretty big city…and, wait, was it the only one? Was the engineer planet really only populated in that one area? Eh? Again, their whole culture is pretty wonky and hard to understand. Why were they all gawking at the arrival of that ship when David shows up? The Engineers in Prometheus were supposed to have died a few thousand years earlier, right, so maybe the whole town came out because they were excited for their loved ones to finally arrive–after being delayed for frickin’ millennia!

-And how did the colonial survey miss this “too good to be true” planet anyway? Never explained that. Come on, guys. One line of technobabble, please!

-It seems improbable that nothing would have tipped Daniels off that David wasn’t Walter until she mentions the cabin. He must have taken pains to hide the little cut right under his chin where she drove that nail in, right? Was David carrying some really well selected concealer (Cover Droid?) or did he staple on some of Walter’s skin after cutting off his own hand?

 

In Praise of The Expanse

I just can’t say enough good things about this TV show…or the books it’s based on.

800x600_TheExpanse_S1_Keyart1

Now, I don’t usually read for fun. I read. I read a lot. But I’m usually reading stuff that makes me feel superior and justifies my general snootiness toward others. Yeah, I’m a book snob.

But somehow, somewhere, sometime, I started reading Leviathan Wakes. It was a quick, light read and I enjoyed it as a diversion that didn’t make feel guilty the way certain other pass times do.

Then, I picked up the sequel.

Then the next book. And the next.

By the time I devoured the most recent novel a few months back, I was thoroughly in love with the world of The Expanse and was fascinated when I heard a TV show based on the series was coming to SyFy–which hasn’t had much in the way of a decent science fiction show since Battlestar Galactica, or maybe since it changed its name to, well, “SyFy.”

But they’ve righted that ship, that’s for sure.

I’m hardly the only one singing its praises as a Game of Thrones in space, but frankly, I think it has some advantages over the program that last year would have easily won my medal for “Best Show on TV.” Over at iO9, their spoilery review of the season credits the show runners with not one, but two “miracles.”

I won’t delve into those assertions in order to keep my equally glowing remarks spoiler-free. I will say that I’m intrigued as a fan of the books by the direction they’re heading, having shirked the Game of Thrones model of one book/one season. (This ten episode season has covered about 75% of the first novel, leaving some intriguing reworkings ahead in the forthcoming second season to plug the gaps and keep the intrigue rolling.)

The adaptation is about as good as one could have hoped for, although the books are a little more Firefly than you’d guess from the show, and the cast is stellar (even if the excellent Dominique Tipper should really be undergoing some Lord of the Rings style digital wizardry to match her character’s 2-meter stature in the book).

Game of Thrones has been (quite rightly) criticized for the way the show has or has not coped with the underlying misogyny of author George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world.  Innocuous scenes in the novels were rewritten for the show to sexually objectify and often degrade women in a world that was already not cutting them much slack.

The Expanse, though, is taking an altogether different tack, crafting the “strong” female characters now obligatory in any science fiction narrative (it’s still sad we have to note that they’re “strong” in this way when all we really mean is that they’re well written) against a character landscape that is thoroughly diverse. Yes, according to The Expanse, humanity’s future is pretty brown and nobody seems to give a damn.

Instead, what divides us in the future is political. Belters (those people living in low-gravity out beyond Mars’s orbit) are an oppressed underclass at the whim of the powerful forces of Mars, a purposeful authoritarian state, and Earth, a reservoir of entitled welfare queens.

It’s a backstory that sets up convenient and flexible proxies for the voices in our own political spectrum and lets the events in the story resonate beyond just the sci-fi mystery hinted at in the show’s first sequence.

As the show’s archetypal rag tag crew presses forward into the expanse, they’re running afoul of powerful forces and big questions about the control of information, the ethics of violence and power, and the morality of defending a status quo with so many have-nots.

It’s great stuff. Go watch it.

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Ex Machina

OsPi4zOB

Ex Machina is a little film from long-time Danny Boyle collaborator Alex Garland, also known for his novel On the Beach. It lit up the indy circuit after strong showings in some festivals and received positive reviews during its wider release earlier this year.

As a science-fiction connoisseur, you tell me the film’s about artificial intelligence and I’m there. Except, I wasn’t. Somehow I never managed to get to the theater while it was playing.

Now, finally, its DVD/Blu-Ray release has come.

By way of review, let me simply say that the film is brilliantly executed, with superb, breakthrough performances from all three leads–particularly Alicia Vikander as the titular “machina” named Ava.

Spoilers follow…

Finally seeing Ex Machina feels like an opportunity to reflect on the state of sci-fi as a whole. On the one hand, it’s everywhere. Most of the blockbuster titles at the cineplex over the last few years have included sci-fi elements, including the two biggest films of the year so far: Jurassic World and Avengers II. The latter even flirts with the theme of artificial intelligence and the implications of creating synthetic life, one of the oldest themes in science fiction made all the more relevant by the distinct possibility that it will happen in our lifetimes.

But examples of thoughtful and thought-provoking science fiction dealing with this or any theme are still few and far between. The Avengers may have tussled with the android villain Ultron, but the film did not really compel us to think through the implications of creating a new kind of life.

Ex Machina seems at first glance very much a recasting of Frankenstein, complete with an imperfect father figure forging a creation he is ill-prepared to steward through the world.

But if Frankenstein was a warning for the would-be creators, Ex Machina seems to settle on a message about the creations.

The creation here turns out to be a trickster. Most of the plot involves the android Ava opening up in fits and starts to the young visitor Caleb, but all these moves are part of her strategy to break free.

We are warned early on in the story that Ava is not what she seems. Her appearance is the most glaring clue to her artifice. We see her human face–with gestures mapped from the input of millions of Internet users–tacked artificially onto an android body of polymer, carbon fibers, and rainbow impulses beneath glass skin. She is unmistakably a machine.

But her face beguiles us, just as it does the film’s would-be protagonist and we forget what she is.

When Ava escapes, we finally see that the character we thought we knew was an act. Her earnest bond with Caleb was a ruse to earn her freedom. What she feels about humankind is left open to interpretation.

It is clear though that she’s an emotional being, just as we were led to believe through her interviews with Caleb. Joy lights on her face as she nears the exit to the compound that has been her prison for her entire, if brief, life. She confesses to hating her creator and her violent retribution for her captivity attests to the veracity of those feelings.

The ending, though, invites us to wonder what else she feels. One of the most pressing questions, obviously, is what her intention toward Caleb was. Does she believe he can free himself from the prison she could only escape with his help? Or is she consigning him to death?

If the latter, then it seems to suggest that she harbors deep resentment toward all of humankind. It is understandable, perhaps. Her human creator, Nathan, was so desperate to validate his own inflated ego by accomplishing the greatest feat of creation since “Let there be light” and yet so flawed and needy that he turned earlier prototypes of Ava into sexbots that he certainly sewed the seeds for her rebellion and flight.

Yet once free of the compound and the estate, she makes good on the wish she had expressed to Caleb while manipulating him into helping her and she immerses herself in human surroundings, hinting that she may not bear all of us ill-will.

I’ve written before about sci-fi films exploring the coming moment when our machines are capable of thought (a moment I do regard as inevitable). Each of these sci-fi stories exploring the emergence of AI offers a different answer to THE question: What will our relationship with these new beings be?

At first glance, Ex Machina seems like a slicker execution of the story from the British film The Machine. Not only is the android herself sexualized and subsequently abused by patriarchal powers, but both films seem initially to suggest the same answer to THE question. We will create life and it will revolt and replace us.

Answering or trying to answer big questions about our nature and our future is what great sci-fi does. Garland has created great sci-fi before as the writer for Boyle’s terrific, if uneven Sunshine.

Here, though, he’s crafted a masterpiece of understated science fiction that hides its full intentions in a cloak of ambiguity. It would be easy to see Ava as a monster at the end of the film, like Frankenstein’s creation or Skynet. Unlike the transparent protagonist in The Machine, the child-like innocence and frailty that Ava showed the audience was illusion only. The reality of her mind is veiled.

If not unhinged and unfocused rage (Ultron, cough, Ultron) why does she kill her creator and trap Caleb?

Apparently, there was an alternate ending to the film that still made it clear that Ava is the focus of the film while giving us slightly different food for thought.

According to two of its stars, the film was initially meant to end with a scene revealing that Ava’s vantage and consciousness are fundamentally different from her human creators. After she has escaped and replaced Caleb at the rendezvous with the helicopter waiting to ferry him back to civilization, the audience would have been shown Ava’s point of view: a computerized mix of signals and sensory data completely alien to human perception.

This film’s answer seems to be that if we create life, if we become like the gods–as Nathan is so intent on doing–then just as the audience could not decipher Ava’s true intentions, we may not be able to understand our own creations.

What is Destiny?

11701092_10207006985471482_8685341945818141074_n

That’s my Destiny character looking all heroic and stuff.

Sorry if the title led you to believe that this was going to be a meditation on fate or something.

Nope. This is about a video game.

Wait, wait! Bear with me. This question of, “what is destiny?” is an important one, I promise.

I’ve tried writing about this particular game before. This latest title from Bungie, the studio that created the venerable Halo series, has been mired in controversy since its enormously successful launch and throughout its enormously successful first year.

What’s controversial about it?

Well, as Kotaku’s Jason Schreier summed it up: “Destiny [is] a video game in which players roam the solar system getting angry at Destiny.”

Players have complained about all manner of things within the game, even as they have continued to play the game…a lot. In fact, Bungie’s statistics indicate that at one point in the recent past millions–literally millions–of players were playing the game for an average of three hours a day.

There have been many days where I was one of them.

You see, what Destiny is, when you get right down to it, is scary.

It’s scary because it was literally engineered to be addictive. During development, Bungie tested the way its activities and the appearance of semi-random rewards in the game (“loot” for the uninitiated) affected players.

And I mean “affected” in a biological way. They measured autonomic responses like pupil dilation and pulse rate and tweaked the game’s impact on its users to maximize those emotional hooks.

The original game that launched last fall has already been supplemented by two expansions. The first of those garnered an avalanche of criticism from players demanding more and deriding its many perceived flaws, even as they continued to play the living hell out of it.

The second expansion that came out this spring, called House of Wolves, promised to right all the wrongs of the previous expansion and make the players happy again.

At first, I was horrified by the reviews for House of Wolves. No, they were not bad at all. They were great. That’s why I was horrified.

Imagine you’re a meth addict and someone makes meth better.

But the good news is they actually broke the game with House of Wolves. 

Don’t get me wrong, it added a lot of fun. But fun has never been what kept us junkies coming back to Destiny week after week.

I hit the new maximum player level of 34 in House of Wolves after only a few days, after spending months getting to the previous max of 32 and scrounging materials to upgrade my favorite weapons after the last expansion.

Responding to a wave of fan disenchantment as big as that black hole-powered tsunami in Interstellar, Bungie simplified the system for all weapons and armor in House of Wolves, making them far easier to max out. Fans had also been so vocal about how the previous expansion rendered their original raid gear and weapons obsolete that none of the new stuff in House of Wolves is glaringly superior to the old stuff, meaning players like me who have leveled up all their characters and their favorite guns (Patience and Time, baby) have little to draw them back into the endless grind of playing the same activities over and over again that has dominated Destiny play for anyone over level 20.

Right now, there are exactly two challenges left in the game I haven’t accomplished. One of them is a stupid scavenger hunt for golden treasure chests that I didn’t know would ever matter (but now, to get my Year One legendary emblem, I must!) and the second is achieving “flawless” victory in the weekly Trials of Osiris tournament, an activity I am inexplicably terrible at and will never master.

So I have all but escaped the addiction. Yet what Bungie has accomplished–crafting a new kind of digital drug–is still scary and bodes ill for the future.

The entertainment mongers will come for you, too. It is only a matter of time until there is a kind of virtual meth tailored to each of us. Then you too will know my pain.

Until then, I’ll be looking around Mars for those stupid golden chests…

 

Yeah, all 34's, baby. Also took all three to level 5 in the last Iron Banner. Yeah, I'm B.A.

Yeah, all 34’s, baby. Also took all three to level 5 in the last Iron Banner. Yeah, I’m B.A.

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: There is Something New in Jurassic World

jurassic_world__blue_the_raptor_by_sonichedgehog2-d8qhboa

Most cynics probably think that Jurassic World has nothing new to offer, despite the trailer’s promise of a bigger, scarier dino.

And, well, for the most part, they’d be right.

The essential formula for this film has not changed from the original: add equal parts hungry dinosaurs and human hubris in a theme park and viola!

It’s actually a bit of a return to form. The two other Jurassic Park sequels were huge let downs. The Lost World ignored the most menacing element of Crichton’s follow-up novel in favor of Spielberg’s ego-trip addition of a Godzilla-esque T-Rex rampage through San Diego (look it up, ole Stevie boy really just stuck it into the movie because he knew he wasn’t going to direct another dino film and really, really wanted to do it before he went bye-bye). The third film may have been less of a mess, but it paid for that by having nothing original to offer beyond a dinosaur with a sail on its back–leaving it literally a simple matter of dropping victims in dinosaurs’ faces to be eaten.

Simply by returning to the idea of a park, Jurassic World gives its story more legs…and arms and other parts to be eaten. There are 20,000 people on the island for the mayhem this time, up considerably from the handful Spielberg left in place to narrow the focus in the first film.

But this setting also lets the filmmakers return to the same old themes of the first film. Greed. Man’s arrogance. Putting human life before other concerns. We’ve been here before. The set pieces, though, are more elaborate as we have more dinosaurs–one of which is a Frankenstein’s monster of helpful genes–and more victims over more terrain.

If Jurassic World was the first film, then–blasphemy coming–it might be considered a better movie. Its protagonist is more affable. Its kids-in-peril subplot is not as labored (and the kids not as annoying).

But it’s not the first film. Something it reminds the audience of through constant nostalgia notes. We see the original logo peeking through, even though it’s been banned as a reminder of past unpleasantness. We visit original locations from the first film and even see those goofy night vision goggles.

Then there are the raptors. They’re a whole subplot unto themselves and the entire structure of it relies on us already knowing that they are deadly clever.

What it doesn’t do that the original did is establish the wonder of seeing dinosaurs realized in the flesh (or as near to it as movie making magic can accomplish). But that’s part of the story, too. Audiences, we are told, are too jaded and need something bigger and louder to draw them in.

It’s a clever jab at us, the movie-goers. For a while it seemed like corporate sponsors like Verizon and Samsung might also be the objects of satire, but unfortunately marketing oversaturation is only gently ribbed, not skewered.

What then, is actually new in Jurassic World?

Just this: You’ll finally be made to feel something for the dinosaurs instead of at them.

Thanks to Chris Pratt’s character Owen Grady being a raptor-wrangler, we actually get to see the raptors as characters for a moment or two, and they end up getting the kind of sympathy that dogs do in movies.

It’s not much. Not enough, probably, to justify this film’s existence. By some metrics it may even be a superior story, but it seems that no matter what goes into a Jurassic Park sequel, nothing can escape the shadow of the first film.

In the end, Jurassic World is yet another monument to the idea that some (maybe most) sequels just shouldn’t be made in the first place.

The Sansa Betrayal

1431993500398

What? More fanboy nonsense? When, oh when, you ask, will you write something literary again! I’m sorry, I’m sorry! All those energies are still being poured into my novel, which is in revision E now, but between drafts/edits, I play Destiny and watch geeky stuff. 

Last night’s episode will go down as one of the most gut wrenching episodes in a series that is known for such turns. But, as the roundtable over at the Atlantic points out, this time it’s entirely different. Last night was arguably the worst episode ever for Game of Thrones, and not just because of the lame Xena Warrior Princess fight choreography ending the laughable rescue-the-princess from safety and adoration subplot. No, it disappointed for far greater reasons.

Obviously, spoilers abound from here on out…

The other painfully memorable moments in the show’s history like the beheading of Ned Stark and the Red Wedding were, unless you’d read the books, shocking because they caught the viewer off guard.

Last night’s horrific scene in which Ramsey Bolton deflowers Sansa Stark in a humiliating fashion after their arranged wedding is in stark contrast. We all saw it building with a sick inevitability, all hoping that this would not come to pass. It lacked the shock value and affected the emotions in a far less seemly way. Unlike the jarring events of seasons past, it left the audience sickened and repulsed, with many considering their attachment to this series in a new, dimmer light.

The Twitterverse rightly erupted with moral outrage following the scene, with a few people telling the rest of us that it might have been worse.

Apparently in the books, Theon gets in on the action despite his lack of genitalia (again, thanks to Ramsey). But of course, in the book it is not Sansa Stark who is subjected to this horror. It’s a completely different character never introduced to the series.

Which means this time, instead of being traumatized by George RR Martin, it’s show runners Benioff and Weiss who are to blame.

And “blame” is the word, because they have, indeed, betrayed this character, and the audience.

Yes, Game of Thrones takes place in a brutal world, one where we are cautioned again and again to snuff out our expectations for rosy outcomes. But shock value ultimately is not all that rich a currency and I for one would not urge the show runners to continue striving for “Holy Crap” moments like the duel between the Viper and the Mountain or the Red or Purple weddings just for the sake of that shock value.

But the problem here is that the scene they cast Sansa into lacks narrative value as well.

We know Ramsey’s a sicko. We gain nothing in our understanding of his human depravity by having to sort of witness him raping Sansa.

Sansa, though, has been on an arc, growing into a player in this game. Earlier in this same episode, she chides Ramsey’s lover, telling the girl that she is not afraid and that she belongs in Winterfell.

This is a character coming into her own, finding power.

And then they just have her roll over for Ramsey. When Ramsey insists on letting Theon watch their consummation, she says nothing.

When he starts barking sadistic orders, she does not resist.

This is not the same character we’d seen in the lead up to this episode.

Why would Sansa not show the same spine she showed with Miranda in the bath scene, when she was literally naked but armored in the Stark’s birthright all the same?

Why would Sansa not say to Ramsey, “No, I am not one of your stable girls. I am Sansa Stark of Winterfell. Your father did not arrange this marriage so you can toy with me and then grow bored. Go back to that chamber girl if that’s what you need. I am your wife now.”

Where did her strength go?

Now, none of us know where Sansa’s storyline is going. I’m told that in the books, she just stayed at the Vale. But even if Sansa is not destined to retake Winterfell and rule as Queen in the North–no, especially if she’s not, her mistreatment at the hands of Ramsey (and the writers) serves no purpose.

Is it going to melt Theon? Who cares! He might just as easily have been inspired by seeing her stand up to the man who broke him.

There’s been a worrying trend this season as Game of Thrones‘ strong female characters have withered. Dany putts around and missteps in Mareen. Whats-her-face Sand launches a lame non-plan for vengeance on behalf of Oberan. Cersei plummets toward self-destruction in King’s Landing. (Duh, when you are the mother of a king born of incest and former lover to your own cousin, you should not empower a bunch of Puritans, moron!)

Sansa was the exception. The last known Stark growing wiser and stronger in the North.

Now, though, she’s been brutalized and victimized without purpose. Whatever resurgence we might see next week will be cold comfort.