Archive for the ‘ geekery ’ Category

Regolith and Aquifers: Terraforming Mars with Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is a monumental sci-fi classic.

It’s also kind of a slog.

With no central narrative arc beyond the ongoing political, economic, and ecological evolution of human settlement on Mars and a rotating cast of narrators whose lives on the red planet range from the mundane–hydrologists, yay!–to the, well, also mundane–desert nomads driving around rovers, yay!–the colossal 700,00o+ word opus never quite aspires to page-turner status.

Reading it, you come away feeling qualified to join NASA as a geologist should we ever get our collective shit together and actually settle a second planet.

And that is what the book is ultimately about: getting our shit together as Homo sapiens…well, rather as Homo martial. Throughout the novels, Robinson evidences his exhaustive and expansive research by dwelling on the minutiae of Martian geology and climate. It’s an ultimately fascinating kind of Utopianism tied to the reworking of the surface of Mars as a kind of ur-metaphor for shaping society.

The Mars Trilogy’s politics are based on a what-works practicality set against the tabula rosa of a new world. His characters squabble over the direction of this new society, eventually settling into a new constitution that ingests the best from Earth’s history with a keen understanding of the forces that have threatened human freedom and dignity throughout, whether they be economic injustices or cultural anachronisms.

Robinson offers a way forward beyond the privatization and spiraling inequality that plague post-Liberal Western society and posits a fresh start on Mars as a way that humanity can, as a whole, reinvent itself. A kind of new city upon the hill to replace the worn-out idealizations of America.

The Earth Robinson describes, wracked by ecological catastrophe and ruled by vast, competing trans-national corporations seems oddly prescient of the world we actually face in the twenty-first century (the last book, Blue Mars, was published in 1996). So many of his characters are ultimately scientists that the entire enterprise could be characterized as a scientific remaking of society–society remade as science. Empirical. Pragmatic. Testable. Open.

Given the retreat into ignorance so on display in contemporary American society–where people dismiss science as “fake news” and apparently flat Earthers are an actual thing–it’s a particularly appealing utopia to gaze at longingly. Robinson’s ultimate theory is that as society progresses, the new paradigms always come into conflict with the old, and indeed whole eras of history are defined by such tensions.

In his hypothesized future, capitalism as a transitional mode between feudalism and democracy gives way to new, more just economic modalities. It seems reasonable to believe that we have reached or are nearly reaching the useful limits of capitalism. Yes, it has created great wealth, but after being co-opted by regimes like today’s China,  it can no longer claim to be the channel into a broader liberalism of Fukuyamian promises and globally it is more and more a driver of extreme inequality–enough to rival any past aristocratic systems.

What, then, beyond it? Robinson’s Mars safeguards the commons, denying private ownership of land or resources and allows competitive economics and markets to be driven by co-ops, banishing the massive trans-nat corporations to Earth where they slowly wither.

It’s a lot to hope for, but in the book, one of the powerful forces that helps the Martians establish their independence and protect their special society is a giant corporation called Praxis, led by an polarizing visionary CEO who believes the world order of and by corporations must give way to something better. He aids the Martians in their search for that better something. Robinson seemed to be anticipating the era of the tech paragons of the Internet age like Jobs, Bezos, Zuckerberg…

Did I mention that Elon Musk wants to go to Mars?

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Politics and the Superhero

So, Black Panther has arrived and everybody’s pretty excited about it (well, except racists). The film has delivered the biggest debut of any Marvel hero so far (though technically the character appeared first in Captain America: Civil War) and is second in its opening haul only to the original Avengers. Beyond its early box office might, the film has also garnered outstanding reviews, with io9 calling it Marvel’s first “Shakespearean Epic.”

It’s continuing proof that the Marvel is one slick entertainment factory. The film is sumptuous in its realization of the Afro-futurist world of Wakanda, the isolated and secret utopia protected by the titular hero and king. The cast is so undeniably stellar that it’s hard to even begin to talk about the performances without this whole piece becoming a tribute to the spot-on realizations of these characters (though I have to mention the star-making turn for Letitia Wright as the newest Disney princess, Shuri…and Lupita Nyong’o because she’s Lupita Nyong’o).

(Personally, the only disappointing thing about this film was the predictability of the plot. Even without being familiar with the comics, from which several key story points were apparently taken, if you’d sat me down before the movie and asked me to outline the story, I would’ve been able to hit every key plot point based on only seeing the first trailer.)

Of course, what’s keeping the conversation about this film going is fairly atypical for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Audiences aren’t coming out of the movie wondering about the infinity stones (okay, maybe a little) or how this will impact the next Avengers movie. Instead, Black Panther has us talking about representation (again, that cast) and–gasp!–politics.

Captain America: Winter Soldier surprised me by delving into the politics of the drone war and the post-9/11 surveillance state. But those themes were really quite secondary to a plot that was still, at its heart, a superhero’s story. Black Panther, though, inverts this ideological hierarchy, putting the action and whiz-bang antics in the back seat. Up front, it offers several layers of political discourse between its varied (and surprisingly earnest) story beats, from overt commentary on the African Diaspora through the righteous but perverse ideology of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger to implicit critique of American isolationism and exceptionalism expressed through the allegorical mirror of Wakanda.

For whatever reason, the discussion swirling around Black Panther has me thinking back to one of the biggest disappointments in the history of superhero filmdom: The Dark Knight Rises.

That film’s problematic, muddled political themes always bothered me. The way Bane tries to offer himself up as a savior of “the people” in a direct mockery of Occupy Wallstreet was a particularly noxious bent for a movie about a billionaire savior to take. Taken seriously–and Nolan’s movies plead to be taken seriously–Bruce Wayne is, indeed, a problematic figure. How many millions does he spend fighting crime through vigilantism and how much more impact could that money make actually improving communities?

The Dark Knight Rises might have explored those questions. At a few turns, if feels like it wanted to. When Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle warns Bruce Wayne that he and the other filthy rich should “batten down the hatches” because “a storm is coming” it felt as though Christopher Nolan might be game to question the inequality of Batman’s world. But when the storm comes, it is brought by the masked Bane and his master Talia Al Gul. These villains purport to be carrying on the work of the latter’s father from Batman Begins, but Ras al Gul wanted to destroy Gotham to stamp out its decadence and corruption as an example to the rest of humanity. Bane seems only interested in causing despair.

In the Dark Knight, Harvey Dent said, “You either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” What a much more interesting film The Dark Knight Rises could have been if it found Batman wondering–in the light of the League of Shadows’ continued assault on a seemingly at-peace Gotham–whether he had become the villain, the lynchpin holding together a corrupt economic system that kept the rich rich and the poor under control.

But alas, that opportunity was wasted.

So The Dark Knight Rises misses its chance to comment on its times. Perhaps Nolan wanted to repudiate the Occupy movement, but refused to make it an overt propaganda film where the rich, like Batman, should really just be trusted with the reigns of society. It certainly doesn’t seem interested in interrogating the inequality or corruption that was so important in Begins.

In a way, then, Black Panther is the film that The Dark Knight Rises could have been. It is unafraid to question its hero’s position within its fictional world. In the beginning of the film, T’Challa has complete faith in Wakanda’s long standing secrecy, even when urged to abandon it by his love interest Nakia. It is only through his struggle against Killmonger and the revelations his appearance in Wakanda brings that he changes his view of what Wakanda should be to the world. It will not be master as Killmonger would have it, but nor can he allow his country and its myriad gifts to remain aloof from the rest of humankind. The film may have landed during the Trump presidency, but its theme is unmistakably of the Obama era: unabashedly against isolation and militarism alike, advocating principled engagement.

In these troubled political times, a success story like Black Panther is a beacon–made more explicit by a mid-credits scene at the UN in which T’Challa warns the world that we must seek unity, arguing that “illusions of division threaten our very existence…But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”

Persepolis Rising (Book 7 of The Expanse)

The Expanse as a novel series has sought to serve many masters. Both fun space romp and broad political allegory, through the six previous novels the rag-tag crew of the gunship Rocinante has wandered in and out of the path of several dramatic events in future history–from a war between Earth and Mars to the opening of interstellar wormholes created by the mysterious alien protomolecule.

The seventh novel, though, opens after a dizzying time jump. At the end of the previous installment Babylon’s Ashes, the Rocinante crew bested the Free Navy, the foes who in the previous novel had used an asteroid attack to decimate Earth, and established a new interstellar transport guild to ferry survivors to the 1,300 new worlds opened up by the alien ring gates. Persepolis Rising begins thirty years later. This jarring opening is the novel’s weakest point as Abraham and Franck, the two authors behind the penname James S. A. Corey, take the reader on an inventory of where the characters from the previous books are after thirty years.

And the answer is: exactly where we left them. We are treated to descriptions of former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper complaining about her old joints and pilot Alex Kamal ferrying messages off to his son by his now-divorced second wife who we never met, but essentially, the crew of the Rocinante are still flying around, just with three decades of apparently uneventful experience under their belts.

Amazingly, thirty years hasn’t changed the core dynamic. Futuristic anti-aging drugs explain why these septuagenarians might still be up to the work of tooling around space as independent contractors in the vast galaxy opened up by the ring gates, but it seems a little hard to swallow that the crew roster would be exactly the same and that life’s eddies never wooed anyone away to greener pastures or brought new, permanent fixtures into their lives.

This distracting conceit falls into the background, though, as the novel settles into beats familiar for any fan of the series. Scheming, adapting, skating by. As always, there’s a big bad that must be faced. This time it is the Laconian Empire, a new political power that grew up from the renegade Martian fleet that disappeared amidst the chaos of Nemesis Games–a threat we knew was out there, but never could have imagined would emerge in quite this way.

The thirty year time jump seems largely a device to give the Laconians time to arm up. It turns out that their leader cum High Consul Duarte picked the Laconia system for his band of mutineers to settle in because it housed an orbital fabrication machine left by the builders of the ring gates. Using this arcane technology, Duarte has built himself and his new nation the most powerful fleet in the universe. Few in number, but unstoppable. With the odds against them, the Rocinante crew settles into those familiar beats to deal with the newest crisis.

What isn’t familiar is the dark territory the novel ends in. The series has grappled with warfare, genocide, and the darkest of human machinations before, but always before the heroes have prevailed over whatever strove to drive them apart, found one another, and faced forward for the next challenge that cabalistic conspiracies and alien protomolecules had in store. This time, though, the odds are so stacked against our heroes that victory has to be redefined. Early on, trapped on the space station inside the null space between the stargates, er, um ring gates, the crew’s goals are tempered by realism. Defeating the Laconians is, early on, dismissed as too lofty a goal. Instead, they must opt for escape.

In the Laconians, Abraham and Franck design an intriguing enemy. Bent on conquest to establish a unified human empire, the Laconians have echoes of fascist domination, but also overtones of American manifest destiny. Obviously, perpetual do-gooder James Holden sums up the problem with their assertion that humanity ultimately needs a single hand at the rudder, “Humanity has done amazing things by just muddling through, arguing and complaining and fighting and negotiating. It’s messy and undignified, but it’s when we’re at our best, because everyone gets to have a voice in it…Whenever there’s just one voice that matters, something terrible comes out of it.”

It’s the kind of thing Holden says a lot and though he is the hero of the series, the novels have never shied away from questioning his smash-into-it idealism. Here, as the Laconians politely demand surrender and show restraint, insisting that they want to preserve lives through their “transition,” there’s a certain allure to the order they offer.

In the face of this sorta-hostile galactic take-over, the crew focuses on throwing their new enemies off their game, hoping to retreat through the gates with the Rocinante and live to fight another day. It sets up what the authors describe as the concluding trilogy of the series which will take on not only the Laconian empire, but the lurking alien threat of whatever ancient force destroyed the aliens behind the protomolecule and the ring gates billions of years ago. It creates a daunting Empire Strikes Back atmosphere to the novel as the heroes face an enemy they know they can’t defeat.

I won’t go into detail about the emotional toll of this opening chapter of this three-novel conclusion, but suffice it to say that I was so wracked with uncertainty and–maybe “despair” is the right word–that I was unable to sleep after finishing the book…and now cannot wait for next year’s release.

The Last Jedi

 

In what our Disney overlords apparently intend to be a new yearly event, a new Star Wars film has arrived in theaters.

The Last Jedi is the continuation of the Skywalker saga, the Star Wars films proper as opposed to the forthcoming torrent of spin-offs that began with last year’s Rogue One: a Star Wars story and will continue with Solo: Because You Know This Character. (In Disney’s defense, they are also giving Last Jedi director Rian Johnson the reigns to a whole new trilogy set in the Star Wars universe but involving–get this–all new characters and stories!)

Before I go further, let me issue the obligatory spoiler warning.

SPOILERS!

There.

I’m glad to report that The Last Jedi dispenses with the sloppy plotting of its predecessor, The Force Awakens. Unfortunately, it replaces it with gratuitous plotting. There has never been a Star Wars film with this many subplots. While Rey trains with Luke, Po Dameron struggles to guide the Resistance in its slow-burn flight from the First Order, clashing with Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Hodor, or whatever. Meanwhile, Finn takes new character Rose on a side trip to a casino planet to pick up a code breaker to hack the First Order mothership. Oh, and on the mother ship, Kylo Ren struggles to please his master as they pursue–again, slowly–the fleeing Resistance ships.

(Star Wars has never been real sci-fi, but as with the last movie, the logic of the physics in this film are laughable. So the First Order fleet is getting outrun by the Resistance cruiser that is faster and lighter…and yet they never get outrun. They seem to just be stuck behind the Resistance at pretty much the exact same distance for eighteen hours. And yet, it’s only the Resistance ship that can’t go to light speed, so why don’t the First Order ships just split up so some of them can light speed AHEAD of the Resistance, surround and destroy them.)

Of these many plot threads, some are much stronger than others. The most conspicuous weak link is the Finn-Rose subplot. One has to feel for newcomer to the saga Kelly Marie Tran, whose Rose is really shoehorned into an already crowded cast. Her forced motivation is very reminiscent of some of the hackneyed character arcs in Rogue One and the attempt to work her in as one vertex in a love triangle with Finn and Rey (or quadrilateral if you give the Po-Finn shippers their due) just falls flat.

Oscar Isaacs mostly carries through his plot arc as Poe Dameron, wrestling with mutiny to buy Finn and Rose time to pull off their plan, but the real saving grace of the movie is Daisy Ridley’s Rey. As with the last movie, her earnest heroine is the heart of the movie and her interactions with Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren are great. Their showdown with Snoke is tremendous, made all the better because it only ends up revealing the gulf between the two.

The Force Awakens teased Rey’s origins, leading to two years of speculation about her parentage. Is she Luke’s secret daughter? Is she Ben Solo’s secret sister? Is she Obi Won Kenobi’s secret granddaughter?

Thank goodness the answer to all those questions was: No.

According to Kylo Ren, she’s nobody. So, the Skywalker saga will end in Episode IX with Kylo Ren’s defeat and Rey’s ascension as the new Jedi master. (Oh, sorry, did I spoil it? Did you think the whole sage would end with the universe being plunged into darkness?) As Ren breaks this news about Rey’s parentage which the Force revealed to him, he suggests that, deep down, Rey has always known. It’s as she was told in the last movie, “Whoever you were waiting for…is never coming back.”

And therein lies one of the many failures in the film. No, not the filmmakers’ failures, the characters’. In fact, The Last Jedi distinguishes itself from every other Star Wars movie by plumbing new thematic territory. Almost every major character grapples with failure in this film. Rey failed to reunite with her family, the aching need for which is her only lure toward the dark side of the Force. Finn’s mission fails and he is captured. Poe’s mutiny fails and actually undermines the Resistance’s chances of survival. Luke failed Kylo Ren. Leia faces the end of the Resistance, the failure of her life’s work.

And then Yoda shows up to hammer in the lesson. Luke tempts his old master by threatening to burn down a sacred Jedi tree and take all the religion’s most ancient texts with him, but Yoda beats him to the punch and summons some lightning. “Pageturners they were not,” he admits and says that Rey has more Jedi in her than any old books.

Star Wars was based on myth and sought to explore the timeless battle between good and evil, but The Force Awakens began to explore the limits of that dynamic, to really explore what might be meant by that “balance” that George Lucas wrote into the prequels. According to those regrettable chapters, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader was supposed to bring about balance in the Force and Maz Kanata said in The Force Awakens that the battle between good and evil is an endless, recurrent one. The Last Jedi steps beyond good and evil and frames the Force as the cosmic glue that negotiates the cycle of destruction and creation.

And so failure is part of that cycle. Luke warns Rey that assuming the Jedi are needed to bring light into the universe is pure hubris, that the cycle is unending. Rey, though, gets to remind him–with a little help from Yoda–that we must still always pick a side in the endless struggle, to build or to destroy.

 

Assorted Musings:

-Captain Phasma is still useless.

-Seriously, somebody buy more BB droids for the Resistance. Those things are indis-fucking-pensable!

-Chewy eating roasted porg.

-Seems like we should use that light-speed kamikaze trick more often. Why’d we struggle to hit that one little spot on the Death Star. Just empty out a freighter and light speed it through the heart of the damned thing.

-We finally know where the blue milk comes from. We sooooo did not want to know.

 

The Force Awakens: A Retrospective

You may have heard that there’s a new Star Wars movie out now.

Fear not for spoilers as I have not yet seen it (the wife is feeling under the weather).

Last night, though, while my beloved sniffled, we did watch the previous chapter in the post-George Lucas Star Wars saga: The Force Awakens.

Somehow I refrained from commenting on this film when it was released two years ago. In fact, I haven’t written much about Star Wars in general over the years. That’s a strange omission as Star Wars was–without hyperbole–my entire childhood. (Okay, maybe some hyperbole.)

I watched the original movie on Betamax (Yes, Beta!) dozens of times. My parents tell a story about how, while living in Panama, the delivery of my Christmas present–the Millennium Falcon!–was delayed and they had to concoct an elaborate story, complete with forged note from the big guy in the red suit himself, about how Rudolph had accidentally stepped on the package, forcing Santa to send me a replacement after the holidays.

Then, of course, there were the prequels. I remember dragging my wife to Phantom Menace and becoming very confused the moment Jar Jar Binks appeared on screen. “They’d better kill this guy off quick,” I told her. Those craptacular films are no small part of why I generally fear and distrust prequels today.

Yet, the Force Awakens marked something of a Renaissance for the saga that was so seminal to my imagination. Now safely in the not-at-all-sinister hands of the Disney Corp, Star Wars is prospering again. The praise was unanimous: Star Wars is back! It was fun. It was dynamic. It looked great and not at all a CGI shitshow. The fanboys proclaimed it a success and all rejoiced, “Yay, J.J. Abrams, we forgive you for Into Darkness” (which, for the record, I think is highly underrated).

Except that rewatching Force Awakens last night, I was much more aware of its myriad flaws.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking about prequel-level discussions about sand or about how love had blinded anybody, but there is some sloppy ass plotting going on there. Like, Star Destroyer sized plot holes.

Take the story’s reliance on awfully convenient coincidences which I suppose we are meant to assume is the will of the force acting on a grand scale. The map to Luke Skywalker (which…a map to a person?) ends up on Jakku within walking, er, rolling distance of Rey, our erstwhile protagonist with some sort of mysterious background that  will in some future movie hopefully explain her awesome force sensitivity (without making her a Skywalker–please don’t make her a Skywalker!). Then, Han Solo just happens to take her to a bar with Luke’s old lightsaber in the basement. It goes on and on. Han, Chewy, and Finn just happen to find Captain Phasma on a base the size of a planet and she just happens to be self-interested enough to screw over her supreme leader (there is a comic explaining this character’s background that makes sense of this, by the way). After Rey has won the big lightsaber duel against an injured Kylo Ren (How’d she beat him with no training? He was hurt and she was already good with a stick. Yay, not a plot hole!) a chasm just happens to open up between them, killing neither. Then R2 wakes up and just happens to have the rest of map to Luke all along. And, wait, where’d this map come from in the first place? You know, in the first movie, they stole Death Star plans from the Empire. The plans didn’t just fall out of the sky?!?

But by far the worst part of the movie is Starkiller Base. Look, I get how Abrams was intentionally echoing moments from the original film because the original film was constructed to be archetypal and the whole theme was about the cyclical struggle to find balance and fight the darkness. I get it. But the super-weapon trope wasn’t part of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and it wears really, really thin here. Somehow the First Order, which is only remnant of the empire builds a super weapon that is even more fearsome than what the empire produced at its height. Um…okay. (My son had a great idea here; they should have established that this was a project started under the empire that Snoke resurrected. See, most plot holes can be patched with one line of dialogue. One line! Call me, Hollywood. I will script doctor the hell out of all your sci-fi and I will work cheap.)

This giant planet cannon can fire a single burst…that then automatically breaks up and nukes every planet in a star system? How, exactly? And how can Han and company see the red bolt hitting the Republic’s planets from a completely different system? That should take years for them to see. And wait, where’d the energy for that first shot come from? Starkiller base consumes a star to power up (a whole star!?!) so were there two stars in that system to begin with? Wouldn’t the gravitational disruption of losing a star totally destroy that planet before the Resistance even got there? And if not…does that mean the weapon was only good for two shots since there weren’t any more stars in the system to gobble up? (I mean, it’s stretching credulity enough to believe they could move the Death Star at light speed, but surely we’re not meant to believe they could have warped that entire planet to another star system to keep using that thing, right?)

But dammit, the movie still works. And it works for two reasons:

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega.

They are so charming and engaging as Rey and Finn that you cannot help but love this movie. Seriously, all the fan service may have gotten folks in the door, but what saves this movie from being another Crystal Skull level debacle is these fresh, NEW characters. Enough of the old characters. BB-8 is cuter than R2! Long live porgs! Hell, I’m glad they killed Han Solo. I hope they kill Luke. (But I wish Princess Leia could live forever.)

 

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?