Movie Reviews Far Too Late: The Bye Bye Man and the Illusion of Horror

So, I watched the movie The Bye Bye Man on Netflix last week. For those who aren’t used to the Movie Reviews Far Too Late format, There Be Spoilers Here.

The Bye Bye Man is now the movie that finally helped me understand two features that really undermine a horror story for me. The movie starts out strong: there is a creepy supernatural entity called the Bye Bye Man. If you hear or see his name, you’re screwed. He will enter your thoughts and cause you to obsessively think, and finally say, his name. During this time, you will also experience hallucinations that may lead you to attack, or believe you are being attacked, by friends. Eventually, the Bye Bye Man will GET you. The only way to stop him is to give yourself up to death and take the secret of his name with you. Although the protagonists get the idea that disbelieving in the Bye Bye Man’s power may lessen his control over your mind, it’s too little too late, and they all die.

The attraction of the Bye Bye Man as a boogaboo is obvious. It is horrifying. Once you know about it, it’s too late to get away. You can’t recruit friends to help you, lest you damn them, too. You can’t fight it alone because its power of illusion may turn your own power against you. Or worse, your friends.

And that, really, is the problem: the power of illusion is so great that in a sense, it transforms the entire story from a horror story into the illusion of a horror story. To understand this, we have to understand two fundamentals of the horror genre:

The Puzzle Box: The solution to a puzzle is at the heart of the horror story. It has to be. For horror to be horror, the protagonists must be up against an opponent that is so overwhelming that normal means of combat are completely inadequate. Normal weapons, intelligence and limitations on action are completely inadequate to stop the boogaboo. So generally there is a vulnerability or a ritual or a sacrifice that must be completed to defeat the horror.
Now the nature of a puzzle is that a solution exists. If no solution exists, then there is not a puzzle, anymore than a bunch of confetti is a jigsaw puzzle. Before you object, please note that “a solution” does not necessarily entail “protagonists survive.” In horror, this is optional. Solution means, “the horror is defeated/deferred.” Sometimes the solution is obvious but horrifying, as in Saw, when Cary Elwes has to cut himself out of handcuffs. Sometimes its dangerous and difficult, as in Alien, when Ripley blasts the alien out of the airlock. And sometimes even solving the puzzle doesn’t really defeat the horror, as in The Ring.

The Horror Exists For A Reason: I think this is where a lot of horror movies fall down: because it’s not necessarily obvious this is true, but I believe it is true. In the best horror movies, the horror always has a reason to exist: in The Cabin in the Woods, the horror has a double reason for existing: the victims cal up their specific horror, but the overarching reason is that the ancient gods must be kept asleep. But after all, I can imagine someone saying, what about movies like The Ring and Alien? There’s no reason for these things to exist.
But there is. The horror can be its own reason for existing, so long as its drive is fundamental. The alien needs to reproduce and feed. The evil spirit from The Ring seems to have been born from an overwhelming desire on the part of its “mother” to have a child, and its evil “revenge” drive tied to the video springs from that.

When a horror movie fails atone or both of these fundamentals, it is at best weakened. The Bye Bye Man fails at both: there is really no solution to the problem. It hints that disbelieving in the Bye Bye Man can weaken his power. But it isn’t put into practice more than once, and halfheartedly at best. The only thing the protagonist can do is commit suicide. That’s a valid solution to horror, but that “solution” was already presented as part of the problem at the beginning of the film. So it doesn’t really count. Once you know the Bye Bye Man’s name, you’re dead at best.
In addition, no reason for the Bye Bye Man is ever shown to exist. What does he want? There seems to be some idea that he wants world apocalypse. But why? Is he an agent of Satan? We don’t know, and the movie doesn’t seem to care.

Another movie weakened by these problems is the critically-acclaimed It Follows, which is an incredible well-executed movie. But again, there seems to be no solution to the problem: even though the protagonists defeat It, the end of the movie hints that It is still out there following them. And even more than the Bye Bye Man, there is never a clue provided as to what this thing wants. Revenge? For what? Food? Then why is it limited to this bizarre venereal chain of feeding targets?

As I’m writing this, I notice that a common flaw here seems to be that when you think about it, it’s almost impossible to imagine how these bizarre chains ever got started. I mean, how did It ever start Following people? Remember, It can look like people the victim trusts. So, the first person to be the victim of It should have had no idea they were being followed, and been killed. End of chain. The only reason that The Bye Bye Man’s chain ever starts at the beginning of the movie is that one of the victims finds the name carved somewhere. So who learned it first? How? And how did it not get passed along infinitely then as the victim got more and more scared?

Now, for a movie that fails at only one of these aims, we can consider Oculus, in which a young brother and sister try to destroy the cursed mirror that claimed the lives of their parents and blamed it on the brother. Again, it’s a great set up: the mirror can project illusions into the minds of its victims in order to manipulate them into killing each other. The reason for the horror is clear: the mirror takes joy in murder. It’s effectively a serial killer. And it comes very close to providing a solution to the puzzle: the mirror cracked itself in the initial round of killings when a victim was propelled into it.

But in the end, the illusions of the mirror are just too powerful. It again kills the sister and leaves the brother blamed for her death. I think this movie would honestly have been perfect if the sister’s sacrifice of herself had worked: if the mirror had been tricked into destroying itself as the price of killing her. It was powerfully hinted that this would be the solution, and the fact that the protagonists lose anyway, leaving the mirror intct was a letdown.

In the end, such movies as The Bye Bye Man and Oculus provide not a horror story, but the illusion of a horror story by presenting us with an inevitable situation. And it may be terrifying: I’m pretty sure that falling out of a plane with no parachute is indeed terrifying. But it isn’t a story.

Late Reviews From Avalon: The Chaplain’s War

The Chaplain's War by [Torgersen, Brad R.]

I had the privilege of meeting Brad Torgersen for the first time at this year’s DragonCon. I had known him online for several years, and he was gracious enough to agree to blurb my book, All Things Huge and Hideous earlier this year. He was also very (needlessly) apologetic that the blurb had not worked out. (It was just a matter of bad timing; Brad had been deployed for a very long time, and my request came as he was finally getting to come home. A lesser man wouldn’t have even tried to help me out). But I appreciate Brad’s service even more than the blurb.

At the Baen Roadshow, Brad was also giving away copies of his debut novel, The Chaplain’s War, along with his soon-to-be-Dragon-Award-winning The Star-Wheeled Sky. Because I’m a rather obsessive person, I elected to take a copy of The Chaplain’s War, which Brad signed for me.

So on the flight home, The Chaplain’s War was my reading, and all I can say is, it wowed me. It reminded me of nothing so much as one of my early-adulthood favorites, Ender’s Game. Only it seemed to me to reach more deeply into a question that Orson Scott Card didn’t get to until the sequel Speaker For The Dead: How do you make peace?

The story itself is a bit reminiscent of Ender’s Game. It concerns humanity’s war with the mantis-cyborgs, a race much more technologically advanced, and controlling a much larger stellar empire. In fact, we learn early on that the mantes have already exterminated two other intelligent species, and there seems to be no reason that humanity would not become number three on their list. But that all changes when an alien Professor has a conversation with  Harrison Barlow, the Chaplain’s Assistant in a mantis POW camp. The mantes have no concept of God, and the Professor wishes to understand this strange idea that all three of the mantes’ victims have shared.

What follows is an intricate but action-packed story of humans and aliens working together and fighting against each other to survive. In fact, it occurs to me that this is Ender’s Game meets Enemy Mine. Interwoven through the story of Barlow’s capture by and eventually his diplomacy to the aliens is the story of how he became a soldier and a chaplain’s assistant in the first place.  It’s a story that masterfully blends questions of faith and honor together through a cast of beautifully real (and flawed) characters.

I can hardly wait to find time to get to The Star-Wheeled Sky and its eventual sequel. And I’m honored to count Brad Torgersen as a friend and supporter.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: Lifeforce

Kevin Murphy, who voiced MST3K’s Tom Servo, in his book A Year At The Movies, recalls deciding to go see the movie Pootie Tang, and encountering a pair of young men arguing about whether to go see it. When he asked the dissenter why he didn’t want to go see it, the reply was, “Because I think it’s gonna be as stupid as I think it’s gonna be.”

And now for my review of Lifeforce.

When that movie came out in 1985, I was twelve. I hated horror movies, so was uninterested. But I knew the movie was about space vampires, and that sounded pretty stupid to me.

Over the years, a number of people have referenced the movie, and it seems to have attained some sort of cult following as an underrated 80s classic. So when I saw it free to watch on Amazon Prime, I decided to see if maybe my twelve-year old self had been overly judgmental. And indeed, it was not so bad as I had thought.

It was much, MUCH worse than I ever could have imagined. I owe my twelve-year old self an apology. And any of you out there who recommended that movie? Yeah. So do you.

How can I summarize Lifeforce? It’s as if it was made by people who had seen the movies Alien, Poltergeist, and The Exorcist, but hadn’t really understood them. These same people had also, however, watched a whole lot of softcore S&M porn and understood it very well. Perhaps too well. The whole movie is about the leading men being unabashedly drawn to an alien who looks an awful lot like Liv Tyler (so, I mean, good taste, there, at least. Note to self: also, Liv Tyler was supposedly 8 years old in 1985. Is it possible that she’s actually a vampire? Research!!), and on the way they acquire telepathic powers that make them capable of telling when a woman wants it rough. Really, I’m not making these plot points up.

During the film it is deduced that the space vampires are truly the source of the vampires of legend, because they demonstrate a whole lot of the classical vampire vulnerabilities and powers, such as vulnerability to being staked, transforming into a giant bat, and becoming a huge glowing ball of light that flies around the city sucking the life out of people using the special effects from Raiders Of The Lost Ark. We all remember when Dracula did that, right?

In truth, the vampires develop their new and frightening powers at the twin speed of plot and arousal, but let’s be fair, so do the humans. Nothing in the whole film ever happens for any reason other than that the writers decided it was time for it to. No question raised by the film is ever answered, including whether Liv Tyler and Captain Sex Slave live or die at the end. But that’s okay because we aren’t interested. The only question that REALLY interests me is how they managed to persuade Henry Mancini not only to score this film, but to produce one that sounded like John Williams’ and James Horner’s Greatest Meh.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: House. Or, The Worst Horror Movie In The World.

Not the hit TV series starring Hugh Laurie. The 80s horror-schlock film starring George Wendt and some guy who was utterly forgettable as the protagonist.

So, every now and then, I get the urge to do something completely silly. Make random recipes off the internet, see how well I remember the lyrics to whole musicals, vote Libertarian, etc. And one of the things I do is watch old movies on Netflix or Amazon that I thought looked intriguing once upon a time. This is how I came to watch House.

I remember previews for House from the 1980s. It was billed as a comedy-horror or a horror-comedy. I also really like the haunted-house conceit. So I decided to give it a try and see if it was material for a cult classic.

What I found was, in fact, material that I shall use if I ever want to teach a class entitled, “Writing: How Not To Do It.” A brief catalogue of its sins will be listed below, because a comprehensive one would be longer than the film. For the hard-of-thinking, this will contain what would otherwise be called spoilers, but this film is so far gone it really can’t be spoiled.

The Junkpiled Protagonist: Our protagonist is a writer (gosh, wonder where that came from?) who is traumatized by, in no particular order, the fact that he is suffering from writers’ block, possibly brought on by his son who has disappeared from his front yard, his wife who has divorced him because of the missing son, and his Vietnam-induced PTSD. The effect is that this guy has so much shit to deal with that it’s impossible for us to care about any one issue.

The Incoherent Backstory: Apparently, the son disappeared while playing in the yard of the titular House, while I guess visiting there, because the House belongs to protagonist’s crazy aunt, but the whole family was to all appearances living there when the kid vanished. It’s implied that he either or both was kidnapped by people in a car streaking away or vanished from the House’s swimming pool before his father’s eyes.

The Endless Red Herrings: The car streaking away turns out to be only the first of myriad fake clues strewn all over the plot. Also included are Bosch/Daliesque paintings done by the aunt, endless scenes involving a medicine cabinet, a love interest that never materializes, strong hints that protagonist is completely delusional and hallucinating literally everything in the movie, and to top it all off, LITERALLY EVERY MONSTER IN THE FILM BUT ONE.

The Wandering Plot Monster: So we see the protagonist move into his aunt’s House (the same one his son vanished from and that he seemed to have been living in before) right after she has hanged herself, and despite getting fairly convincing evidence that the House is haunted — like, the ghost of his aunt appearing and saying, pretty much, “The House killed me.” — does nothing about it. Just sits and tries to plow on through his memoir of the Vietnam War despite the fact that his publisher has told him it won’t sell, and despite increasing but halfhearted attempts by the House to kill him. The fact that the protagonist looks very much like Ted from Airplane! with a perm does not add to the gravitas of these scenes. Closely related to this is…

The Idiot Plot: This is pretty much the whole film. Our protagonist kills humanoid monsters and buries them in broad daylight in six-inch shallow graves in his backyard. He completely ignores apparitions of his son begging for help. Despite the fact that the House’s clock loudly rings midnight right before monsters appear in the closets, it takes him two or three times to get it. Despite the fact that he’s a soldier, it takes him most of the movie to figure out that he might want to use guns. Despite the fact that his own son vanished in the House, he allows his sexy neighbor to use him as impromptu unpaid babysitting so she can go out clubbing and leaves the kid alone in a room of the House, from which he is promptly kidnapped by shapeshifting spirits, which he already knows the House contains. Through all of this, he continues to behave as though the most important thing is plowing on with his story of how he lost his pretty-much-an-asshole buddy in Vietnam.

The Horrible Climax: In the end, it is revealed that the cause of his son’s disappearance, the mastermind behind the House, is the ghost of his old war buddy, who has never forgiven protagonist for — get this — NOT killing him in Vietnam when he was wounded. Because protagonist went to get help instead, leaving his buddy to be carried away by the VC, who tortured him to death. So his spirit apparently decided to get revenge by invading protagonist’s aunt’s house, and kidnapping the kid to the jungles of Vietnam in another dimension, which can only be reached from inside the House.
So, EVERYTHING else in the House — the creepy distorted woman he killed, the baby kidnappers, the Lovecraftian closet-monster, the animated tools — all of this was just incidental. We never find out how long the kid was kidnapped for. Enough time for a divorce, for great-aunt to put him in a spooky painting, and for her to commit suicide. Of course, she blames the kid’s disappearance on the House from the beginning, so apparently it was haunted before Evil War Buddy Ghost got there? And I guess it was just a great place for him to take over? He’s actually a pretty knowledgeable and subtle strategist, this guy.

The only way this movie ever got made is that it was during the Great Eighties Horror Boom, when studios were desperate to mimic things like Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday the 13th Part Billion. And the production values are so low that I kept expecting to see Made In China stamped on the rubber suits. I’ve literally seen these mistakes made and avoided by high-schoolers. Take these lessons to heart: this film is not “so bad it’s good.” But it is bad enough to learn some lessons from.

A Late Review From Avalon: Ready Player One

So, obviously, what with the huge copyright issues involved and not being an idiot, I expected a whole lot of changes to Ready Player One when I sat down to watch the movie. It was, considered as a thing in itself, not terrible.

But it wasn’t the same story, either. And that was disappointing.

See, what made Ready Player One work for me was never the awesome geekery of the premise. That was always just the icing on the cake. Really cool icing, but icing. What made the story work was Wade’s journey of self-discovery. It was the old story of a loser taking on the system, but most importantly, the way he stopped being a loser and grew from a hurt little boy to a very dangerous man. A man who stepped into the dragon’s lair to steal the prize and walked out again.

All that went away. Instead, the characters pretty much just walked through a cheesy video game solving puzzles that the book’s Wade Watts would have figured out without a second thought.

The subtlety also went away. We don’t get to see Wade and Art3mis slowly falling for each other while trying to outdo each other at the same time. We don’t get to see Aech’s and Wade’s friendship develop. And don’t tell me that this isn’t possible in movies. The book’s source material: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ladyhawke, The Breakfast Club,  all excelled in weaving atmospheric slow builds of character development throughout their scripts. Hell, even The Goonies did. But Ready Player One is a sprint to the finish, with the outcome never really in doubt.

And as the protagonists were dumbed down, so did the villains have to be. Nolan Sorrento of the book was a dangerous, evil geek, who wrote his own video games and could almost match Wade’s knowledge.* He was a villain that you could respect. The Sorrento of the film is Dilbert’s PHB, dumb enough to leave a ridiculously easy-to-memorize password out where anyone can see it.

In short the movie isn’t a disappointment because it isn’t the book. It’s a disappointment because it’s so much less than the book.

And it didn’t have to be.

*I will admit this was one of the major flaws in the book: the idea that someone of Sorrento’s talents with his resources of literally hundreds of professional geeks would not have won the contest in a walk, but the Rule Of Cool nullifies that.

Video Game Rant: Faster Than Gossip

I really like 4X Games. My favorites, back in college, were Civilization (yes, I am literally older than Civilization. None of my students get it) and Master Of Orion. Lately, I have been overjoyed to discover Stars In Shadow, which feels like the sequel to Master Of Orion that I always wished had been made and never was. MOO 2 was trying too hard to be Civilization In SPAAAAACE! and MOO 3 is best set on fire and forgotten. But Stars In Shadow has done everything right: Their planetary improvements hit the right balance between monotonous and gimmicky, the ship combat is wonderfully differentiated, with several equally valid styles of play, and the tech tree is interconnected and awesome.

But there is one thing that the game just absolutely falls flat on… the diplomacy.

To be fair, most 4X games handle diplomacy with all the poise and finesse of a drunk Chihuahua. it’s HARD to get AI to simulate negotiation. But the two things that just make me want to punch a fist through the screen are:

  1. The AI Mean Girls Club: No matter what you do in SiS, the AI players know about it. Instantly. And react to it. Instantly. Also, they have an eidetic memory for all your slights. So that means that if I am, say, playing the Gremak, the interstellar slavers, and I enslave members of a race? Everyone knows about it. And everyone cares. I perform experiments on the slaves? That’s instantly known and remembered, too. In fact, races I don’t even know about will show up holding a grudge a hundred turns later. And that sucks because first, it’s a bait-and-switch: “Hey, PC, your race has this super-cool ability, sort of a balance to other races’ super cool abilities you don’t have! But don’t you dare use it, or you will be permanently at war forever, because everybody will hate you!” But it’s not just that: the races will have bad impressions of me because “We heard how you treated the innocent Ashdar!” Which leads to the more important point, that it’s not reciprocal. No one comes to me and says, “Hey just so you know, those evil Orthin have attacked two other races because they noticed that they had inferior navies and thought it would be fun!” No, I get to float in blissful ignorance.
  2. I Don’t Get To Speak The Language: The AI almost always, in these games, has options unavailable to the PC. So I’m constantly getting messages like: “You have a world that is rightfully ours. Return it, and we will stop hating you,” Or, “Sever the diplomatic relations you’ve spent  lot of time forging with our enemies, and remember if you don’t we will dislike you. A lot.” Or, “Give us money and we won’t attack.”
    Meanwhile, I don’t get any of these choices. I can pretty much say, “Let’s have formal relations, let’s have a trade/research treaty, let’s have an open ports treaty/alliance, or let’s have a war.” That’s it. I feel like I am constantly the foreign exchange student just arrived to a gaming party, and I know a third of the language and a quarter of the rules.

I mean, some of these are admittedly hard to code, but hell, the option to demand tribute from enemies was included in Civ I for crying out loud!

You know, it’s still an awesome game. But it really should be better.

Random Stupid Ideas: Rejectomancy Magazine!

Okay, I completely missed yesterday’s blog, because the muse still had not let go of my hair and I was trying to slam out the last 3000 words of an 8000 word story. I finished it this morning, and am now in recovery mode. So here’s Monday’s blog. On Tuesday.

So, have you ever eaten at Ed Debevics? Yeah, it’s that restaurant chain that looks and feels like a fifties diner, only the waitstaff is paid to abuse you by making commentary on your clothes, your face, and your non-participation in singing “YMCA” by the Village People?*

So, I was thinking of this amazing concept, that people would actually pay to be insulted, and how writers are used to being ignored and also see rejection letters — especially personal rejection letters — as good things, and suddenly, an idea was conceived. You ready?

REJECTOMANCY MAGAZINE! The only online magazine in the world where you will submit absolutely knowing that you will be rejected! Takes the guesswork out of it entirely! You send us a story and we GUARANTEE that you will not only GET a rejection, but that it will be a personal and entertaining rejection that WE WILL PUBLISH, telling EVERYONE why we rejected your story!

So not only do we guarantee you a personal response, but WE PUBLISH YOU AS WELL! NOW how does it sound?

All right, so now it’s time for us to answer some questions form our hypothetical audience:

Hypothetical Questioner #1: What, you’re going to reject us, AND publish our story?

A: Hah-hah. No. What are you, stupid? But we will publish the response, maybe with a sentence or two of excerpts designed to highlight your atrocious grammar and impenetrable “style” for the express purposes of a) telling you why we’re not the only people rejecting you and b) making fun of youTechnically, that means that you will have “been published. Sort of.

HQ#2: And you think people will pay for this?

A: Of course not. That would be even harder than getting people to pay money to enter writing contests, which is already stupid and unethical.

HQ#3: But you think people will participate?

A: I don’t know. Possibly. It amounts to offering an honest, albeit tongue-in-cheek and insulting, microcritique. And that’s something a lot of people really do need and want. And the ones who need it most are the least likely to get it. They get form letters.

HQ#4: Well, how do we know you won’t just read the first page and reject us based on that?

A: Um, we absolutely will do that. Do you think pro magazines do differently? The difference is that instead of publishing stories we like, we’ll shred the whole manuscript of those.

HQ#5: What if I send you a story that is so good you just HAVE to publish it?

A: You are EXACTLY the kind of person who needs to submit here, you poor sap.

HQ#6: This is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.

A: Maybe. Who wants in?

*Okay, maybe that one was just me.

 

Less Controversial Science-Fiction Rant: The Aliens Who Hate Everything Every Million Years or So.

Am I the only one who is tired of the plot that goes: “Well, you see, a long time ago there was a huge alien race that got pissed off that other people existed, so they decided to wipe everyone back to microbes every now and then.”

Sometimes, there’s a putative cause for it, as in Babylon 5, a series I love. But the whole Vorlon-Shadow war which was like, in the words of John Sheridan, “a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides” was my least favorite part of it. Because it was like watching a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides!! I mean, these were two demi-god-like races! I wanted the war to be over some transcendent disagreement or point of history Not Meant For Man To Know. Instead, it was basically American politics and personal pettiness (but I repeat myself).

David Weber did it a little better with his Achuultani in The Armageddon Inheritance, where the aliens at least have the excuse of being enslaved to an evil AI that can do self-maintenance for millennia.

At its worst, this trope takes the form it did in the game Mass Effect where the ultra-powerful Reapers sterilize the galaxy every million years or so because Reasons.

Folks, this trope is TIRED. And it’s an idiot plot. If the aliens are that powerful, why don’t they just create a fleet of robot ships to go burn the life off every planet that shows cholorophyll? Answer: because DRAMA! They always wait until humanity et al. develop the technology to play David to their Goliath and then get stopped. Also, how is it that the aliens always have this amazing social and political cohesion? They hang around, absolutely loyal to each other and content to do bugger all until the Evolutionary Alarm Clock sounds and reminds them it’s time to get back to slaughtering the Younger Races again.

Enough.

The Hopeless Defense Of Susan Pevensie

If there is one thing I have learned in my life about arguments — and would that I had learned it sooner — it’s that there are some where you’re just not going to win. The issue has long since been decided before you ever entered the room. In fact, you’re not even witnessing an argument so much as the self-congratulatory talk after the argument has been decided against you. And you are as welcome in such venues as a drunken Rams player would be trying to get the Patriots’ defense to line up for one more play while Tom Brady is holding the Vince Lombardi trophy.

The only possible reason to keep arguing in such a case is if enough undecided observers are present that they might be swayed: Internet arguing is a spectator sport. But if the vast majority of spectators are Patriots fans, then you might as well not bother.

It’s a cheat, of course, because unlike sports games, there’s no timer. And the people involved in such arguments always want to appear as if they are fair-minded and brilliant, annihilating their opponents with superior knowledge, while in fact they are simply guarding their preferred outcome. To do this, they will characterize their opponents’ arguments in emotional terms and then admit the proper half of the facts into evidence while denying the other half. They will then congratulate themselves on their subtlety and insight, while mocking you. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, I got into the edges of one of these earlier this week and quickly showed myself the door.

The issue in this case was a defense of Susan Pevensie as the true hero/victim of the Narnia chronicles, because she was the only one who grew up and told the tyrant-king Aslan where to stick it. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that one could read Narnia this way: people have been reading their pet philosophies into works of literature since Blake and Shelley declared Satan to be the true hero of Paradise Lost.

I could tell I was on the wrong team when I made an observation that Susan Pevensie had given up on Narnia and was immediately told that this read of Susan’s character had made the respondent furious. This was also the first indication I had that there was even going to be an argument. It was immediately supplemented by others’ contentions that a) Susan had not given up on Narnia, but had rather been kicked out of Narnia for growing up and becoming a contemporary young woman and that b) Aslan was a God who didn’t want anyone in heaven who had grown up, and that c) she had gotten kicked out for discovering lipstick and stockings and courtship and marriage and d) because of that had her entire family taken away from her.

Of course, the only way you can get to this reading is to believe that everyone else in Narnia is a complete and utter liar who hates Susan from the outset. Such a thing may be true, I suppose, but it very much involves reading that into the text rather than reading any part of the text itself.

Firstly, any reading of the text will show you immediately that “growing up” was no bar to a final re-entry to Narnia/Heaven. Professor Kirke and Aunt Polly were both there, and had, by any reasonable standards, “grown up.” So were the Pevensie parents, who as far as we know, never had heard of Narnia. So the simple process of aging is by no means a bar to entry into Narnia. In fact, when Jill says “She was always a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up,” Polly (the old lady) responds, “Grown-up indeed. I wish she would grow up… her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.” Susan’s fault is not in growing up, but in embracing a false notion of what ‘growing up’ means. The only way this equates to becoming a contemporary young woman is if we admit that such women are defined by their acceptance a false notion of adulthood. Hardly a flattering notion

Did Aslan, then, bar Susan from re-entry to Narnia/Heaven simply for being a young woman who liked the idea of looking pretty and getting married? Again, not at all. Susan’s real fault is that she has decided that Narnia was merely a game. According to Eustace, when Narnia is brought up, she says, “Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.” Susan simply no longer believed. And since she no longer believed, she could not be brought into Heaven, any more than could the dwarfs who would not be taken in. By contrast, the rest of the Friends of Narnia believed and took action on behalf of Narnia in the real world, by mounting an expedition to get the traveling rings.

Finally, did Aslan take away everyone from Susan? In a sense, I suppose He did. On the other hand, her absence from the rest was very much her choice, so I suppose that everyone was “taken away from her” in much the same sense that a high-school dropout by choice “loses all his friends” when they graduate and go off to college and the professional world and never contact him again. It’s more the result of his choices and the way life naturally works. Remember that Susan is the only one still “alive” at the end of the books. Everyone else is “dead.” The argument the defenders of Susan are making is that if Aslan really loved her He ought to have killed her along with everyone else, regardless of what she wanted! In a sense, all the characters got what they really wanted, and what they believed in. Just like Ebenezer Scrooge got all the money he wanted.

I really would like to believe that Susan, like Ebenezer Scrooge, got a second chance somewhere down the line. But to attempt a defense of her as she behaves in the seventh book is like defending Scrooge as he behaves in the beginning. It requires one to ignore all of the text explored above. It is replacing what is in the text with what is not in the text. It requires one to believe that Susan alone is honest, and her relatives, friends and God are judgmental liars. That there are people are eager to do this, of course, surprises me not at all. They are on Susan’s side, and not Aslan’s, and there is no changing their minds.

It’s probably a bad habit to tack a coda onto the end of the essay, but I will, lest a misunderstanding arise. Justifying the treatment of Susan Pevensie who made the decisions Lewis tells us she made, is completely different, of course, from saying “I don’t like that Lewis made her make those decisions.” That, of course, is completely a fair statement, and one I might even agree with. From an author/theologian’s point of view, I think Lewis was presenting the question of whether one can turn away from grace. His answer is that one can deliberately do so. Then who should have been his example of this? Peter the High King, Edmund the redeemed, and Lucy dearest to Aslan’s heart all would have been more heartbreaking and would have undercut the story more. Eustace and Jill were integral parts of the action in the novel Lewis had just finished. Polly, perhaps, would have been a less heart-breaking option, but also one of much lesser consequence to us. Susan, I sometimes feel, got elected by default.

Movie Review: Ralph Wrecks Himself

The following review contains spoilers for both Wreck-It Ralph movies.

So I thought that the original Wreck-It Ralph was one of the better children’s movies that came out that year. It was smart and funny, with a whole lot of game references that 80s and 90s kids could enjoy. The messages for the kids were on the whole, good (stand up for yourself and for others. Don’t be fooled by those who say they’re excluding and hurting you for your own good) but didn’t overwhelm a good story. And you know, central to that entire good story was that it was an uplifting story told by way of children’s comedy: the good guys do win in the end, and they win by laying it all on the line for one another: Ralph risks his life to save Vanellope, and Vanellope risks hers to save Ralph right back. It’s actually a pretty sophisticated story, too. Here are two people who actually hurt each other to save themselves: Vanellope steals Ralph’s medal, and Ralph wrecks Vanellope’s car to get it back. Their flaws are complementary, but similar. Vanellope steals the coin out of pure desperate selfishness, not caring whether it hurts Ralph or not. Ralph does care that wrecking the car hurts Vanellope, but he does it anyway, choosing to believe King Candy/Turbo in a way that conveniently gets him what he wants. They find out that relying on each other works. Using each other doesn’t.

In light of this, Ralph Wrecks The Internet was bland, message-heavy, and an incredible downer. Rather than a story centered around bringing people together, this story is about how to be a friend when life carries you apart. And while there is truth and value in such a story — even a story for kids — it’s just antithetical to the atmosphere of goofy fun rather than in support of it. We’ve seen Ralph and Vanellope become friends. We want to see them have an adventure together, not get almost ripped apart by it. Essentially, it’s a giant sermon about the dangers of codependence, and the object of that sermon is Ralph himself. Ralph, who doesn’t want to lose his first and oldest friend, is a bad person for this. And the way the story is written, yes, he has it coming for sabotaging Vanellope’s decisions. But we don’t want to see him be this way. It’s like he just backslides and becomes a lesser character rather than a greater one.

Moreover, the film very much makes Ralph the designated asshole of the plot. Its made clear in no uncertain terms that he has no claim on Vanellope’s life. Okay, granted. But despite the incredible work he puts into saving Vanellope’s game for her, it’s only barely hinted that just maybe Vanellope does owe Ralph the common courtesy of telling him that she’s not so sure she wants what he’s doing for her anymore. She lets him go through an enormous amount of pain and work on her behalf, and then, when all the hidden motives are revealed, only Ralph really gets censured for being a jerk. No doubt, he was a jerk. But Vanellope’s deception of omission was hardly less hurtful than Ralph’s.

In the end, the film was a letdown in which it felt like the audience was directed who to cheer for, instead of being given a real reason to cheer for them. And although the ending was happy in that Ralph and Vanellope still had a friendship, that friendship was inevitably diminished, and the characters were weakened, not strengthened by it. They both lost. And I felt like the audience lost, too.