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Movie Review: “Brightburn”

What if Superman had “broken bad”? What if Uncle Ben never told Peter Parker that “with great power comes great responsibility”? That’s the brutally dark premise of “Brightburn,” David Yaroevsky’s foray into “superhero horror.” And man oh man, does Yaroevsky lean into it.

A childless couple (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) stumble on a crashed spacecraft—containing what appears to be an infant—near their Kansas farm. Like the compassionate folks they are, they name him Brandon and raise the boy (Jackson A. Dunn) as their own. Twelve years pass in peace and quiet. But all too soon, little Brandon begins to manifest Superman’s suite of powers—and starts hearing strange alien voices commanding him to take the world.

(Did you know “Brightburn” was actually a stealth sequel to James Gunn’s vicious little indie “Super”? Me neither.)

“Brightburn” is worth reviewing for one crucial reason: it’s a case study in how not to make a worthwhile horror movie. As far as I’m concerned, good horror movies tend to express something true—from the straightforward moralisms of 1980s slasher flicks like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th” to the ruthless social satire in early “Saw” films, the deep religious undercurrents at the heart of “The Conjuring” saga, and the critique of modernism in 2018’s “Suspiria.” Even a film as straightforward as “Alien” has value in this regard: it’s a study of Ripley’s courage in the face of a walking nightmare. Cinematic merits aside, you don’t walk out of a film like “It” or “The Curse of La Llorona” feeling dirty—like your insides need a bath. You leave feeling pleasantly rattled.

But “Brightburn” is grim to its core—a nasty, cynical piece of work that has nothing true or noble to say about the human spirit, or the human condition, or transcendent reality. (I’d like to pretend that “Brightburn” is actually a sophisticated indictment of Antiochan Christology—the pre-Chalcedonian view of Christ that rejected the hypostatic union of natures and cast Jesus as simply a man “indwelt” by God—but that’s too optimistic.)

In the past, I’ve written about the Nietzschean ethos at the heart of Zack Snyder’s superhero films; “Brightburn” adopts that paradigm, but darkens it further by denying the “good guys” any übermenschen of their own. Here, all we observe are helpless humans thrashed, bashed, and gutted by a malevolent cosmic force beyond their control. And that is less entertainment than it is sadism.

I’d like to say more, but there’s really nothing else “there.” So even if you’re a fan of the genre, feel free to pass on “Brightburn.” You are not missing much.

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Posted by on May 27, 2019 in Sci-Fi

 

Movie Review: “Mortal Engines”

Permit me a moment of chronological snobbery: I was a fan of this film’s source books long, long before they were even a gleam in Peter Jackson’s eye. Philip Reeve’s “Hungry City Chronicles” are original, well-written tales that capture the imagination—as is this movie. I’m happy to report that one should ignore the bad Rotten Tomatoes reviews: “Mortal Engines” is mostly a triumph, one that successfully couples strong characters with a genuinely original aesthetic vision.

It’s somewhere around the year 3118. Following a devastating nuclear war, humanity’s survivors have grouped themselves into gigantic “Traction Cities”—mobile settlements constructed on caterpillar treads, which pillage smaller hamlets for precious resources. And within the rolling monstrosity that is London, archaeologist Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) is putting the finishing touches on a weapon that will allow London to dominate the wastes of Europe. He’s opposed by Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a vengeful, badly scarred young woman with a mysterious past, and aspiring historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan).

From there, things escalate into glorious wackiness. We encounter Anna Fang, a tough-as-nails, gender-nonconforming Asian female aviator (Jihae). We meet the Terminator-like zombie cyborg Shrike (Stephen Lang), a virtually indestructible colossus hellbent on reuniting with Hester, his former protege. We visit the floating city of Airhaven and a makeshift slave market. On and on it goes, building towards a final chaotic carnival of steampunk energy. It’s quite a ride—in the best of ways.

While its narrative beats are familiar, its characters aren’t. Hester in particular is a fascinating figure—from the start she’s fierce and aloof, perfectly capable of fending for herself in a hostile world. There’s no hint here of the stereotypical flatness of so many action heroines: her story isn’t collapsed into a man’s arc, and she doesn’t achieve self-realization through romance. She’s independent, interesting, and seems like a real person. (One wishes Hester, and not Jyn Erso, had been the protagonist of “Rogue One.”)

On a more reflective note: although Reeve is professedly secular, crucial elements of his work belie that description. Consider by contrast the case of Philip Pullman (to whose books Reeve’s novels’ are often compared). Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy was a calculated secular deconstruction of Narnia and its ilk, undergirded by a full-fledged humanistic vision of the cosmos. Yet notwithstanding his clumsy critique of religious fervor in the prequel novel “A Web of Air,” Reeve largely rejects this kind of allegory. And in so doing, he embraces multiple plot points that are curiously inconsistent with his own secularism. Shrike’s character arc, for instance, assumes a fundamental difference between humans and machines. But as someone like Daniel Dennett would be sure to point out, that sort of thinking doesn’t fit well with Reeve’s self-professed worldview. Nor does Reeve’s critique of the “Municipal Darwinism” philosophy espoused by his villains—that large cities ought to ingest and assimilate smaller ones in the name of movement, progress, evolution. Apart from any notion of final causes or ends, isn’t this precisely how all history unfolds? Reeve’s themes, in short, are at odds with his beliefs.

All that said, my one major beef with “Mortal Engines” is its dialogue, which all too often has an unfortunate B-movie quality to it. More than once, evocative, well-shot scenes are overlaid with frustratingly expository commentary. Subtlety, though, has never been producer Jackson’s forte—and by the time the plot reaches the boiling point, one is willing to look past a few clunker phrases. So be it.

So is it worth seeing?

In short, “Mortal Engines” is the sort of sprawling, offbeat adventure I wish Hollywood would make more often. In an era of endless superhero sequels, “Star Wars” spinoffs, and reincarnated Disney classics, it’s nice to see something that defiantly asserts a different identity. It might not win any Oscars, but it’s real fun. And sometimes, that’s enough.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2018 in Sci-Fi

 
 
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