How Not To Worldbuild: Ep. I, The Phantom Mess.

So, I realize it’s a little late to bash on Star Wars, Ep. I, The Phantom Menace, but I have a good excuse; I have three children. So upon discovering that the prequels existed, which they did by the subtle and clever ability of knowing how to count things in a sequence, they asked me if I would please, please PLEASE check out the prequels from the library so they could watch it despite my wife’s and my strong moral position of not having such filth in our house.

These are the struggles facing those of us who dare to parent responsibly and with discipline.

But yes, I caved.

And I am proud that one of the first questions my son asked was pretty much: “So what’s a blockade, and how come the Trade Federation can just do that?”

Which of course, was one of the questions that Lucas should have asked himself before penning this godsawful mess. See, in the opening crawl, we are told that the whole mess with Naboo stemmed from the taxation of “outlying trade routes” being “in dispute.” Which led to the Trade Federation imposing a supposedly “perfectly legal” blockade of Naboo because…

Because why? Because it was Freak-Out Friday? We know that Naboo and the Trade Federation are both member states of this Galactic Republic. I mean, ignoring the fact that a blockade is pretty much always an act of war, and ignoring the fact that I can’t even THINK of a historical precedent for a polity that would legally allow one member state to straight-up blockade another member state, what possible advantage does this confer to the Trade Federation? Senator Palpatine later says that the “taxation” of the trade routes issue began in the Galactic Senate, but never says who was taxing what, or why, or how the Trade Federation blockading Naboo makes sense as a retaliatory measure.

As a side note, I think the only thing that makes remote sense is that somehow, Naboo refused to pay the taxes, and the Trade Federation retaliated with a blockade. And when Chancellor Velorum sent the Jedi to negotiate, Sidious ordered their deaths and the subsequent invasion of Naboo to prolong the crisis. Of course, this is pretty funny when you realize that the whole thing relies on the Senate being just fine with ignoring the invasion of Naboo, AND YET ready to remove the Chancellor for IGNORING the invasion of Naboo, AND THEN replacing him with the Senator from Naboo, who will not ignore the invasion of Naboo.

Now, I suppose one can always say that that’s a hell of a lot of backstory that’s not very interesting, but that ignores the fact that the original Star Wars painted a completely logical picture of the Imperial Government with just a few sentences in passing:

“Holding her is dangerous. If word leaks out, it could generate sympathy for the Rebellion in the Senate.”

“Send a distress signal. Then inform the Senate that all aboard were killed.”

And later…

“The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away.”

“That’s impossible! How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?”

“The regional governors will now have direct control… fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.”

In five sentences, we have a complete and coherent picture: The Emperor is consolidating control over the relatively-new Galactic Empire, and using the equivalent of nuclear weapons to do it. He and Vader are keeping the inflammatory arrest of a Senator for treason quiet until the Emperor can dissolve the Senate, and the Death Star is ready to back the power play. All of this is reasonable, and it takes maybe three minutes of dialogue. That’s excellent worldbuilding.

Twenty years later, in its place, we have far more dialogue that gets us exactly nowhere. It’s like he just didn’t care.

The Girl With All The Gifts (Spoilers)

This is really my Friday post. It’s today because I had an old friend over for the past three days, whom I haven’t seen in years, and probably won’t see again for a few years. So I am releasing some content from my Patreon site in the hope that my readers will enjoy it.

This wasn’t the movie I planned to write on this month, but I watched it. First of all, I HIGHLY recommend it. It’s a wonderful film, much deeper than the average zombie movie, and in my opinion, is what I Am Legend should have been. Second of all, spoilers ahead, so go watch the movie. I’ll wait.

Are you finished? Good! Wasn’t it cool? Yes, it was.

BUT! Ooooooooooohh, but…

I’m sorry, I still don’t buy it. Two things I especially had trouble buying:

First, the zombie fungus. Here you have an organism that destroys all higher functions of the body in the name of eating. But, wait! They can’t eat each other, so the fungus has to spread almost instantly and render the bitten human unpalatable.  Most zombies, in fact, are almost unmarked by the initial attack. But the zombies do attack and eat (and apparently do not infect) animals.

But then the film shows us two (arguably three) amazing things: the first is that the plague has apparently been around for at least 12 (maybe 11) years. And second: the zombies don’t apparently NEED to eat. In London, we see them standing around in a dormant state when no food presents itself.

So, we have a fungal infection that stimulates hunger, but apparently does not need ANY food. It doesn’t need to consume its host, or the food of its host. And it keeps the host from decomposing.

Thirdly, it keeps the host’s CLOTHES from decomposing, which is arguably more impressive.

All this adds up to a question not easily answered: if the fungus does not NEED energy to live, then why does it infect at all?

But the real problem I see here is with the humans. They’ve been fighting this war for twelve years. Now, in six years of WWII, the last time the planet was faced with foes that would absorb the full might of its industrial powers (each other) humans invented the main battle tank, the jet fighter, and the atomic weapon. The humans have held out for twelve years against the zombie horde, which means they MUST have an agricultural and industrial base, and they have developed…

ZOM-B-GON zombie repellent. Stops the zombies smelling you.

And that’s it.

Now, the zombies are fast, but mindless. It’s not too hard for ME to figure out how to get rid of them. What you want is pits with stakes, minefields, and multiple fences with the gaps filled in with concertina wire. Hell, the zombies chase vehicles that are faster than them and don’t look where they were going. You could run dump trucks laying high-explosive mines in front of them until they were gone. And why is London even THERE any more? Why are we not getting rid of the dormant zombies with nuclear strikes? Humans have invented NOTHING to combat this menace. Not bite-proof body armor, not rifles that throw explosive shells (instead, they’re still relying on headshots with standard rifles), no. There are ZERO anti-zombie weapons, or tactics, in play.

So my conclusion at the end of the film was that the human race pretty much had it coming.

Retro Movie Rant: A Brief Defense of X-Men 3

I think I was one of the few people who actually had anything like good feelings for the last X-Men movie of the original trilogy, X3, The Last Stand.

And there were things that upset me about it, most notably Scott “Cyclops” Summers’ death offscreen.

But overall, I found that the complaining was without much merit. It seemed to me that mostly, the audience was upset that the screenwriters and director had chosen to make a tragedy, in which the old X-men fought, and half of them died, for their ideals.

I mean, I have some sympathy with those who get stuck with a story they didn’t want. But in many ways, I felt the movie did an excellent job of portraying the costs of war, both between humans and mutants, and between mutants and mutants. You don’t go into that and not suffer loss. You don’t go into it and not come out scarred. And the characters who survived took up roles they had never really wanted, and found that they could do what their mentors would have wanted.

It was, to turn a phrase, not the movie we wanted, but perhaps a movie that we deserved to see.

Just For the Joy: The LEGO Movie

Yesterday, I got to have a lot of fun. I pooled a little of my own private blow money together with the money my son has been faithfully saving, and went on e-Bay and found a copy of Benny’s Spaceship Spaceship SPACESHIP! from the LEGO Movie. It arrived yesterday, and we spent the afternoon putting it together. What I learned from this:

1) It’s incredibly refreshing sometimes to go back and do something you really enjoyed as a kid, with your kid.
2) That’s the biggest LEGO set I ever put together.
3) Damn, but I’d forgotten how sore putting together LEGOs for hours can make your fingers.
4) Like the movie itself, this kit was more fun than I thought it would be. The designers did far more than they had to, apparently for the sheer joy of it, and including features that were not obviously included in the movie. Variable-geometry wings, pop-out concealed missile-launchers, drone robot/fighters, detachable auxiliary attack sleds, and a detailed engine room complete with something that resembles a Star Trek antimatter warp core.

The LEGO Movie goes in my personal bank of Movies That Were Better Than They Deserved To Be. I mean, usually when people make movies based on games or toys, it’s because they are out of ideas and are desperate for cash and you get the load of crap you expect: Resident Evil. Transformers. Doom. Battleship.

But then, every once in awhile, you get Clue. A script written by someone who wasn’t told and didn’t care that it was supposed to be a potboiler, who just decided to have as much fun as possible by unleashing a wicked sense of humor while no one was looking.

I would argue that The LEGO Movie fits in the same category. The writers did an amazing job of synthesizing dialogue and jokes that would entertain both kids and adults, much as LEGOs themselves can, in the finest tradition of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, and folded it through a classic Hero’s Journey story that was all about rescuing the Legos from, essentially, an Empire Of No Fun. And no, it wasn’t about anticapitalism: it was about a little kid who isn’t old enough to see his father’s obsession with work as an adult necessity yet. Lord Business is evil (or evil is Lord Business) simply because Business (busyness) is what his Dad does. All he can see is that his dad has transformed even his hobbies into work. Which frankly is a reminder that adults need from time to time.  

It was fun. I had fun. Sometimes, that’s the accomplishment you need to strive for.

Movie Recommendation: The Court Jester

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The Court Jester is one of those old movies that’s unfortunately fallen into obscurity. I can’t recommend it enough, because as I said earlier this week, it’s like a slightly sillier version of The Princess Bride, but with a much higher grade of acting talent and — yes, I’m serious, here — better swordplay. Suck it, Mandy Patinkin. I love you as Inigo and everything, but Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone seriously kick your ass. And the thing is, that’s repeated throughout the entire movie. You watch The Princess Bride, and there’s no doubt that it’s a solid movie, with snappy dialogue and great acting, not to mention wonderful fight choreography and a solid plot. It’s a brilliant, swashbuckling romance, ornamented by ridiculous and clever comedy. Then you hit The Court Jester, and it’s a bit like going to Maine for a lobster dinner after you’ve only ever eaten at The Red Lobster. There’s just no comparison. Or drinking, say, Franziskaner beer after never having drunk anything but Coors and Budweiser. All of a sudden, you realize that this is how it ought to be. And over and above that, you get through the whole movie and realize that it never once descends into crudity, while still being very aware of sexual themes and playing them for laughs. The scene where Glynis Johns first seduces the evil King Roderick in order to steal his key (really!) and then repels him by implying that she’s the carrier of, essentially, the Black Death is one of the best pieces of dialogue ever written. I’m not sure why we don’t do this anymore. I feel like maybe the lack of special effects and the stringent restrictions on Hollywood’s dialogue choices back in the day may have actually made them stronger, because they really had to write better and do more work to overcome those restrictions. And it’s not like writers and filmmakers are incapable of such cleverness, now: one only has to look at The Incredibles to realize that. But again, that’s a movie that labors under restrictions: it’s audience is children and it can’t go for cheap, crude laughs. So it actually has to be good. It’s not inevitable that screenwriters go for the cheap laughs and the eye-blowing effects: it’s economics. When horribly-written, cliche-ridden films like Avatar make the money they do, why should you spend the extra time and money making sure that they actually have coherent plots and intelligent dialogues? I suspect that, conversely, when the only thing keeping people in movie houses (besides the acting) were the dialogue and the script, the creative “muscles,” as it were, of the artists strengthened, and what seems today like an impossible amount of work was more like effortless joy to them. You know, sort of like parkour would kill me if I tried it, but to a young athlete, it’s just a fun thing to do on the way to someplace. Perhaps we should remember that. Now I have some more thoughts on this movie, including some valuable writing lessons it’s taught me, but that’s going on my Patreon page, where I hope you’ll join me.

Trek Is A Dish Best Served Dark

For all its reputation as a forward-looking, optimistic series about the future of humanity, why is it that Star Trek is consistently best when it goes into truly dark places?

In all seriousness, this seems to be an issue: the best of the original Trek movies is generally agreed to have been Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, which was a bloody revenge story, a recapitulation of Moby Dick in space.

The consistently-chosen fan favorite episode of the Original Series is “The City On The Edge Of Forever,” which affirms that sometimes war is the only way to solve a problem, that addiction to peace at any price is dangerous, and that doing the right thing may involve accepting the death of what you love.

This doesn’t change in the Next Generation, either: “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is the fan favorite there, a trip into an alternate timeline in which the Klingon Empire is slowly destroying the Federation, and the Enterprise-D is destroyed saving the Enterprise-C and the original timeline.*
ETA: An Alert Reader pointed out that I had these backward. And no, I don’t, but I was very unclear. So, to explicate and thus restore my lost nerd-cred: The Enterprise-D, in the War Timeline, sacrifices itself to allow the Enterprise-C to return through the temporal discontinuity so that it (the Enterprise-C) can sacrifice ITSELF to save the original timeline.

Gosh, I wonder why Star Trek didn’t do more time-travel episodes.

None of these stories are without hope, of course, but they are consistently darker than Roddenberry’s vision, and certainly in opposition to his (much-derided) dream for first-season Next Generation of a future in which human interpersonal conflicts had pretty much been transcended.

My own feeling is that Roddenberry’s vision simply took too little account for what people demand in a good story, and far from inspiring people, ended up looking rather insipid, while what the fans wanted were stories in which our heroes laid it all on the line, sacrificing all that they were or wanted in order to save what really mattered. In the end, you cannot “transcend” these things. They are themselves transcendence.

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 9 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: An awesome ending to an awesome show. I’m really not sure what to say about it that wasn’t great. In some ways, it reminded me of The Lord Of The Rings, with El and Hopper going into the Gate to seal it while the rest of the gang takes on the role of Aragorn and company by distracting the evil forces with various forms of fire. And unlike the previous season, we are not left with much of a cliffhanger.

The Bad: If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a natural quibbler, so before reading this, understand that none of this makes the show less than good. It irritated me from the start that no one tried heat on Will before this. As Joyce says, why were they giving it what it wanted for so long? Also, I wish the tension between Max and El had been more resolved in a more concrete fashion. That just felt as though it was left hanging.
One thing I meant to say in a previous post and forgot to, about Max and her douchebag older brother:

The tension that had been building around their origin and appearance was both weirdly heightened and killed by the appearance of their parents. Brother’s father had the weird effect of making me want to cheer him on by smacking around his son who desperately needed a smacking around, but also to want to shoot him because the odds are that he’s the reason his son is such a douche in the first place. We still don’t know exactly why Brother blames Max for the move from California, and until seeing the parents arrive, I thought these two were actually on their own. I leave it to the writers to wind this up in Season 3, but for now it feels flat.

And oh, gods, please PLEASE don’t really drag us through the stomach-twisting awfulness of an affair between douchey Brother and Mike and Nancy’s mom. Just barf.

Further Questions: Is Brenner alive? How and what is he doing? Obviously, the Thing in the Upside Down s still very much alive and wanting to get back to our world. Can it without some sort of assistance? We’ve met Eleven and Eight, which means there are potentially at least nine other Gifted we could encounter. Will we ever?
And is Steve really okay with where things ended up, or is he plotting something in that mind of his…

Final Thoughts: I’d really love to have some more indication on what the real nature of the Upside Down is. So far, the whole thing really has read as if it were D&D come to life, which is cute, but ridiculous. I keep wanting  better explanation, such as that it is an alternate timeline where Something Bad Came To Earth. I just find it hard to believe in a universe where things are built by no one and are always decayed.
In the course of this blog, I have seen a bit of fan speculation that Mike may be (or should be) killed off. I hope not. I think that would be the absolute wrong move. It would feel like a very artificial way to torture El and make her less human. The love story between El and Mike, and its innocence, is the heart and soul of this story. To delay it is certainly legitimate: it has to be laid on the line to make it worth something. To destroy it is to destroy the work.

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 8 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: I really love what they did with Bob’s character in this episode. Here’s a man who has every reason to run from the strange situation he’s been thrust into, to refuse to believe what’s going on, and yet he sticks with it every step of the way. He steps forward to place himself in mortal danger not because he wants to prove himself, but because he knows he’s the only one who can do what needs to be done: resetting the computer system. One of my favorite lines in the series has to be: “Well, teach me BASIC.” “Oh, sure Sheriff. How about I teach you German to go with that. Or French; would you like to learn French?” Likewise, Paul Reiser’s character lays it on the line, becoming a true leader. These guys are men. Real men, who do what real men ought to do.
I love — more than I can say — the fact they did something with the creature’s mind control of Will that is so rarely well done: giving him agency down to the very last, figuring out how to send the coded message to his friends. That kicked ass, being very well-established and reasonable.
And finally, there was the return of El, which was everything it should have been.
The Bad: I really hate what they did with Bob’s character in this episode. First of all, the whole “Somehow, he forgot his gun in the control room” thing was just stupid. Especially given that how he died, that gun would have been 100% useless. It was incredibly predictable that Bob would die, which is the major reason I wish they had not killed him off. Frankly, it felt like they did that just to make Joyce more miserable, and I am really tired of seeing Joyce miserable. It is taking a character who is in many ways admirable, if understandably overbearing and needy (who wouldn’t be?) and hammering her flat by never allowing her a single moment of relief from loss.
Further Questions: How will El close the Gate? And how many more will we lose? And please, please, please, don’t kill El for reals this time.

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 7 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: At the risk of repeating myself, I just want to reaffirm how much I love the way this show is handling its characters. In this episode, we have El, encountering her long-lost sister, Kali (008). And while El is drawn to dreams of revenge, she does not alter her fundamental character to go on a journey through a dark side, which in some ways seems preordained in fiction these days, because nothing can stay pure. Honestly, I’d have preferred that El have articulated it, but it’s quite plain that she, unlike Kali, understands that she must spare, not her torturer’s life, but his daughters’ lives. Their father. Their childhoods. That the cycle of revenge must end.
More than that, Kali does not vow instant revenge on El. Whatever her other faults, Kali and El part on friendly terms, much as they may have chosen different paths. That’s complex and unusual. I admire deeply how this series avoids the easy tropes and answers in favor of the complex.

The Bad: I have little bad to say about this episode. And since writing this post I have discovered that there was enormous pushback against it. I thought it was really well done, and if it was hard to watch, it was because El, who we care about, was being pulled really hard toward making revenge the center of her life.
If I have a criticism, though, it’s in what others have said: the utter lack of backstory for the other members of Kali’s tribe. If they aren’t like Kali and El (Hmmm. Kali-El? Superman?) then what did they have to do with the Hawkins Lab and the people who ran it? Or are we to assume there are several groups of people being avenged upon, here?

Further Questions: Will we see Kali again? And when will El arrive back in Hawkins? Before, or after the Demodogs have had their feast?

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 6 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: Steve really comes into his own here as a leader, even when little is to be gained by it. If there’s something I love about this series, it is its unflagging insistence that no one is disposable. Every bit of struggle against the common enemy is necessary. Every bit of betrayal is wrong. I just about applauded when one of the scientists suggests — from a very sound strategic basis — that they have to burn the infection out, and if it kills Will Byers, then he has to die. And Paul Reiser’s character just fixes him with a stare and says “Say that again.” I was almost expecting the Dr. to show his true, evil colors here. That he did not made me love the series even more.
The only reason anyone in this series is disposable is because they choose to be: to take the side of the evil for their own selfish reasons. Dustin comes perilously close to that, far closer than I think he realizes, by placing Dart’s welfare and his wish to impress Max at a higher level than the welfare of his friends. And Max, I think, sees this, and is quite understandably more attracted to Lucas, who took the chance to tell her the truth, regardless of how stupid it sounded. That Dustin tried to make these two violations of “Law” equivalent, shows that he really doesn’t understand at all.
Also, we finally see Will’s fear realized. Yes, the Thing inside him can spy through him and can compel him, although I really like that it can’t just access his memories, and it doesn’t really seem to have a handle on human behavior.
The Bad: While on some level the Thing would be able to spy through Will, it was awfully predictable that this would happen, and the betrayal is incredibly reminiscent of the fight on C-level in Aliens when most of the Colonial Marines get their faces eaten. If this was intended as homage, it really came off as unimaginative. It’s maddeningly unclear how vulnerable the Demodogs are to gunfire, and it feels very much like they are killed only at the speed of Plot.
Further Questions: Are they all going to die? And where is El??