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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

 

Movie Review: “Venom”

Venom—a longtime foe of Spider-Man, a hulking antihero with enormous fangs and a lashing red tongue—has always been one of my favorite comics characters. Needless to say, I was delighted to see he was getting his own big-budget movie, one that promised a darker take on the character than the much-maligned “Spider-Man 3.”

But alas, this is not a film that does him justice.

Set in San Francisco (a welcome change of setting as superhero movies go), “Venom” opens with investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) finding himself on the wrong side of billionaire tech baron Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). He promptly loses everything—his girlfriend Annie (Michelle Williams), his job, and his home—but acquires something else after an aborted attempt to infiltrate Drake’s ultra-secure stronghold. Enter the Symbiote, a gooey black alien that must bond to a host in order to survive in Earth’s atmosphere. If the host match is the right one (think organ transplantation), symbiosis results: the Symbiote physically enhances its host and opens a line of communication straight to the host’s brain. This does come with some downsides, though. As Eddie promptly learns, he’s eating for two now.

Comics fans will immediately note that this isn’t the canonical take on Venom’s origin story (as it were, “Spider-Man 3” actually got this part right). And this reinterpretation is not, shall we say, a success. Before the magnificent monster makes his full costumed appearance, we’re forced to endure seemingly endless sequences of Eddie struggling to adjust to the Symbiote inside him. But it’s not as if there’s any mystery or terror in what’s happening: we know what’s going to happen (it’s why we bought tickets to the movie in the first place). And there’s not really much alienness to the Symbiote’s infestation: in lieu of the demonic-possession overtones of “Spider-Man 3,” we get scenes that feel like outtakes from “An American Werewolf in Paris.”

All of this eventually culminates in a battle between Venom and “Riot,” another Symbiote who happens to be in the area. Now I’m pretty steeped in comics lore, but I’d never even heard of this guy. (I’m calling him “Budget Carnage” because his powers—which include projecting spinning axe blades from himself—basically mirror those of the far superior scarlet supervillain.) Anyway, Venom and Budget Carnage have a goo-flinging CGI throwdown for plot reasons that are not entirely clear. It’s quite fun to watch if you’re into this stuff (like, uh, me) but virtually incomprehensible to anyone else.

There’s a bigger problem here, though. In our era of extreme polarization, I often think it’s a good thing when mainstream movies avoid overtly political angles. “Venom” is the rare film where the opposite is true: it fails because it’s not political enough.

This is a shame, because the film has a really solid storytelling foundation that could lead things in interesting directions: Drake is a Silicon Valley tycoon obsessed with his own myth, one who believes himself to be humanity’s savior. Brock is the opposite: a ProPublica-style investigative reporter who (at least at the film’s start) truly cares about speaking truth to power. He speaks for the “little guys” pressured to sign their rights away in Drake’s experiments. That’s an intriguing moral conflict from the get-go (sadly, though, we don’t really get a good look at this aspect of Brock’s character).

A more compelling film would depict Drake as a champion of transhumanism—of neo-Cartesian “evolution” beyond the limitations of human flesh and blood. This isn’t farfetched: plenty of tech billionaires have invested heavily in “cryopreservation,” in mind-uploading research, and much else besides. But—uncomfortably—transhumanism promises the ultimate inequality: a select few members of homo sapiens become what Yuval Noah Harari might call homo deus, functionally immortal and unshackled from physical reality.

Venom—the fusion of Brock and the Symbiote—is the antithesis of the transhumanist vision. He is a fundamentally embodied creature: the Symbiote cannot exist or act without its human host. Thus, to be Venom—and to celebrate that fact—is, paradoxically, to embrace a kind of existential humility. Despite his many powers, Venom can never hope to leap into absolute self-transcendence. So, contra Silicon Valley’s thoroughgoing transhumanists, Venom’s character offers a vision of superhumanity but not suprahumanity.

Even without the high-level metaphysics, these ideas could form the backbone of a genuinely engaging story. It stands to reason that Venom’s acts should reflect aspects of Brock’s character, including Brock’s concern for the exploited. So why not conceive of Venom as a bloodthirsty avatar of populist rage? If nothing else, it would add an interesting dimension to the inevitable Spider-Man crossover event. Peter Parker, after all, is a middle-class kid with money problems of his own. Could such a film explore issues of class in the same way that “Black Panther” probed racial dynamics? Maybe.

And one can push these ideas still further. “Venom 2” will almost certainly feature Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), the incarcerated serial killer who becomes the Symbiote-infused supervillain Carnage. Yet Brock—an investigative reporter in San Francisco—almost certainly harbors progressive ideas about justice reform and the rehabilitation of criminals. What happens when he encounters someone genuinely and incorrigibly evil, someone whose very existence seems to call for a retributive view of punishment? These are difficult questions, and yet the premise of “Venom” allows them to be explored in creative and challenging ways.

Will this happen, though? No. And that’s a real shame.

There are plenty of other things I could say about “Venom”—its odd tonal shifts between action and horror and comedy, its inexplicable PG-13 rating, its innumerable plot holes—but that might be overkill (no pun intended). Suffice it to say that this is simply not the movie the character, or audiences, deserved. Save your money and see “A Star Is Born” instead.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2018 in Sci-Fi

 
 
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