Idea vs Execution

I’m battling the flu, and that allows for some Netflix binges while I’m conscious.

I’ve watched Dracula (if you liked BBC’s Sherlock, you’ll like it), Locke & Key, and In the Shadow of the Moon.  The last two really made me think about the difference between a solid idea and solid execution.

Some MAJOR spoilers ahead.

Locke & Key

Based on a successful comic horror series, it’s taken years to get an adaptation.  The Netflix version is much more fantasy, which removes nearly all of the possible tension.  The second issue is that anything set in a realistic setting requires a higher fidelity to logic.  Otherwise you get into a deus-ex-machina situation where “magic” always saves the day.  The main antagonist wants the keys but can’t take them from the Lockes.  But somehow, they can physically attack the family… which seems like a giant loophole to collect the keys.

This means that another level of tension has to be applied, and here it’s the YA threat of high school drama.  It’s quite poorly executed, spending a solid chunk early in the setting, then ignoring it for a few episodes, only to jump back into it later.  Tyler in particular waffles all over the place, with inconsistent altruism and selfishness.

The final episode has the natural twist, that the teens clearly pick up on but ignore.  They do their thing, knowing it’s dangerous.  See, if I told you that by opening a door, the stuff behind the door would try to attack you, would you close the door by pushing (thereby protecting yourself from the other side) or pulling (exposing every part to the other side)?  That level of stupid is infuriating, given the general level headed seen in all other episodes.  Then you get flashbacks to explain the final twist… and somehow you have to assume that the bad guy is able to pretend to be a FULL TIME STUDENT for weeks, all while impersonating other characters at the same time.  That’s some impressive dedication.

The good thing about Locke & Key is that it’s entirely watchable by the family.  My 7 & 9 year old can grasp nearly all of it.  The characters are interesting, and they want to know what the next key does.  In that sense, the execution of the series is super solid.  It’s the idea itself that needs some work.  Maybe season 2 will do better.

In the Shadow of the Moon

A sci-fi time travelling whodunnit, more in line with Twelve Monkeys.  The main storyline follows a policeman chasing a killer who appears every 9 years, and becomes obsessed with it.  To the point of losing touch with everything else.

The general lack of attachment to anything but the killer puts the protagonist in an exposition mode.  You’re never rooting for him, since there’s no empathy as he’s not attached to anything.  He doesn’t make bonds over time, he loses them.

The sci-fi part however is very solid.  The limits around time travel, the impacts, the technology, the social impacts… it just works.  It’s that bleeding edge sci-fi, that’s you feel is just at the tip of our fingers, enough that you know it’s not real but that it’s possible.

The downside is that the sci-fi part is only about 30% of the film, with about 50% more of a procedural detective story.  And you need a rather solid actor to transition across 30 years for you to even remotely care about…there’s some solid mis-casting in this area.

So here we have a movie where the idea itself is amazing but the execution is lacking.  Which, I find after spending 30+ years engulfed in sci-fi, is the default setting and the reason short stories are so much better to explore an idea.

Getting Better

Hiccups and all, both are worth the watch.  No one bats 100%, and they both excel in their own areas.  Just hope you don’t have to get the flu to watch ’em.

Rise of Skywalker

I’m a fair bit conflicted about this movie.  The Last Jedi had some major plot holes and infuriating character developments, but it was generally consistent on its message – the past does not dictate your future.  Rise of Skywalker pulls a massive 180, and instead says that your past entirely defines your future.  Aside from Luke being a Force Ghost, you can pretty much ignore the entirety of The Last Jedi… every “major” development is ignored/retconned.

*Spoiler inbound*

Rose Tico

I’ll be the first to say that the Finn/Rose arc in TLJ was weak.  Rogue One did the whole “shades of grey” thing a lot better.  But to have her have a minute of screen time, and the Finn relationship entirely ignored, is plain absurd.

Finn’s Secret

There are 2 major plot beats that focus on Finn having a secret to tell.  Never gets a chance, never comes back into the conversation.  He’s also made general, by another general (Poe) who stays general himself.

Holdo Manoeuver

The big plot hole of TLJ, where a lightspeed ship can destroy another, is called a one-in-a-million chance.  Which either makes Holdo a force weilder (since Luke used the force to destroy death star 1), or the luckiest person alive.

If you’re watching the end of ROS, over the moon of Endor, you see another First Order ship destroyed by the Holdo manoeuver.  Least it sure looks like it.

Spaceships

A big plot point is that to destroy a nav beacon (exposed to the elements) you need to attack on the ground.  While a really neat set piece, it’s beyond dumb when you consider all the aerial acrobatics in episodes 1-8.  Two shots and this thing is down… next.  Also dumb that the enemy would leave this entirely out in the open.

Final Order Resources

A planet that no one can get to.  Hidden for at least 30 years.  Has the resources to build a modern fleet, with ships that each have a planet destroying weapon onboard.  Must have some amazing clone facilities on this planet to staff these ships…a plot point the First Order deals with by kidnapping people from planets.

The Magic Trick / Deux Ex Machina

Apparently Rey and Kylo can teleport things with their mind across planets.  Which looks frikkin’ cool, granted.  But the whole dyad in the force gimmick reeks of plot device to make things look cool.

What I mean here is that Star Wars succeeded because it was small people in a large world, trying to find their place in it all.  In these last 3, we have superhuman people that are able to conjure miracles, which dramatically lowers any sense of risk.

Ben’s Redemption

It had to happen, and the trigger for it is ok.  He apparently loses the ability to talk from that point forward.  From the start, the sequel trilogy had him set up as the ultimate bad guy who would redeem himself.  Which he does, but the really bad guy cheapens it.

Knights of Ren

Silent monks to walk slow, carry a big stick, have no force powers, no guns, no lightsabers.  With the buildup around these folks… major disappointment.

Palpatine

He makes for an intimidating bad guy, I’ll grant that.  But there’s no explanation of how he survived, this new dark magic where all the Sith live in one emperor, how he can summon lightning to disable an armada.  How he somehow let his kids (?!) become good (?!) people and take away his grandchild.  How pretty much everything about Rey is because she’s his grandkid.

Also, Snoke was apparently a hand puppet.  True story.

The Good Bits

The photography is well done, as are the set pieces.  The lightsaber battle over a raging sea is impressive.  The escape from the capital ship even more so.  Music is still top notch and gets you into the space.  Zori Bliss is a neat addition that adds some larger impact to the ongoing events.  Exegol is straight out of Knights of the Old Republic and it looks amazing.

TLDR;

The movie feels like pandering, and a general lack of understanding of the issues with TLJ.  Rogue One was an amazing movie, set in the same world, constrained by the plot and timeframe.  It still did an amazing job at character building and consistency.

I’d go into a tangent about how George Lucas’ success is almost entirely due to an amazing editor (his ex-wife), and how the lack of editing here is apparent… but this post is long enough.

ROS is an ok movie.    Could have used another 6 months to a year in the bacta tank.

 

 

Stranger Things 3

Better than season 2.  Spoilers I suppose.

Stranger Things is an odd one.  Clearly, it’s an homage to the perception of the 80s, with very little basis on the actual 80s people lived through – so it comes across as super meta (anyone under 30 won’t get most of the references).  It’s also a mix of sci-fi/horror, of which there’s very little in today’s market.  Finally, it’s Netflix’s flagship series now that OITNB is on a downward trend.  That puts a LOT of eyes on it, and I can only assume a fair amount of pressure to deliver.

Season 3 follows the familiar formula – a bad force captures a character, there are bad scientists, Eleven has super powers, threat averted in final episode, cliffhanger.  What Season 3 suffers from is character bloat, or rather character redundancy.  Set in ’85, the kids are now 14/15 and Back to the Future is all the rage.

Let’s talk about the additions first:

  • Alexi – Used entirely for exposition as the portal can’t be closed without the information he provides over multiple episodes.  When the info is transferred, he naturally dies.
  • Murray – Was in season 2, but more as a nutso.  Still eccentric but the only real purpose here is to translate Alexi’s Russian.  Irrelevant otherwise.
  • Karen Wheeler – Mike’s Mom and used to project defeatism and regret.  Her chat with Nancy was tragic.  She does a great job representing “normal”.
  • The Russians – The super stereotypical bad guys, following every trope possible, including the inability to aim their guns.
  • Robin – Steve’s partner in slinging ice cream.  An older, female version of Dustin.  Stand-out this season.
  • Erica – Lucas’ sister realized she’s a nerd.  Audience surrogate for most of the story.

And the regular crew.

  • Eleven – fluent in English, goes through some self-discovery, loses her powers by the end.  Given that 99% of the heavy lifting is done by her powers, there’s no way to continue this series if those aren’t returned.
  • Steve – Honestly, he’s more of the star here than Eleven.  He rolls with every punch and has come miles from his start in Season 1.
  • Dustin – Same ol’ Dustin, though a bit more confidence. Most of the story triggers off his actions.
  • Max – Plays a ton of roles here.  Catalyst for Eleven’s growth, comic relief, voice of reason, Billy’s sister… a really strong role.
  • Lucas – Feels like he’s less present, though also the one who’s matured the most by the end.  His actions in face of fear are impressive.
  • Joyce – The derangement is gone and instead replaced by pure focus.  Sure, the focus was there before, but now it seems more tempered by her experience.
  • Nancy & Jonathan – It’s really frustrating to see kids act smarter than these two, and some seriously poor writing when it comes to their relationship.  Only saved by the fact the 2 actors clearly have good chemistry (and are dating).  I will say that Nancy with a gun is impressive.
  • Hopper – Episode 1 and Episode 8 are good.  Everything in the middle makes him look like a rageaholic.  Hopper’s strength lies in the excess of calmness, with odd bursts of emotion.  This season is the opposite and you lose a lot from it.
  • Billy – Episode 1 is great.  Then he becomes a blank faced bad guy until the last 20 minutes of the season.  His arc makes no sense, and the redemption even less so.  All he needed was a hug?  Really?
  • Mike – Even more useless than Season 2.  He’s the catalyst for many of the other character changes, but does little himself.
  • Will – Bad-guy detector, and only when the bad guys are 20 feet away.

The season splits up most of the crew into 4 teams, and has them join up near the end.  Which for story purposes I get.  The downside is that some storylines are really weak compared to others.  Steve/Dustin/Robin/Erica absolutely shine.  Eleven’s feels like Degrassi High.  Joyce/Hopper is like a bad rom-com.  The less we talk about Nancy/Jonathan the better (which is less about sexism than it is about a child in an adult’s world… which really seems lost on the writers.)

I will point out some scenes that have some great weight.

  • Nancy & Karen’s kitchen chat about chasing dreams.  Karen gave up on hers, and the pathos here helps drive Nancy to commit even more crimes in search of the story (which should be hyper obvious given the past 2 seasons).  If Nancy was smarter, then this would have had a different impact.
  • Hopper’s funhouse battle, as well as the basement battles are more rip-offs than homage to classic 80s action films.  Gregori’s Arnold/Terminator vibe really helps sell it.
  • Steve & Robin’s bathroom chat.  There’s an undercurrent that Stranger Things is just a story concocted from the imagination of the Breakfast Club to fill up time.  This scene really drives that point home.  Every beat here is well earned and dramatically changes the group dynamic forward.
  • Hopper’s letter.  This season is all about the transition from one stage of life to the next.  Seeing the kids understand that they are no longer kids.  The letter shows that Hopper understood that fact, and offered some solid advice.  Sure, overly sentimental, but it’s the Hopper than should have been there across the season as he was in season 2.

Frankly, if Stranger Things ended here, I’d be content.  There’s very little growth left for any of the characters, unless Mike & Will decide to actually do something.  The stakes can only get higher if it threatens more than Hawkins, and it’s hard to imagine anything other than a group of Elevens being purposeful in that situation.  The series needs less characters, and more focus.  There are stakes – since every kid is invincible.

Clearly Netflix needs a Season 4 more than the actual series does.

 

 

I Am Mother

Good but not great.  **SPOILERS**

 

 

There’s a very old sci-fi trope of the twisty story on who’s the bad guy.  The Simpson’s had a super take on this with their Treehouse of Horrors bit on “How to Cook Humans”, taking it to the nth degree, which itself was a riff on the a Twilight Zone episode.

The beats are simple.  An innocuous setup, a set of new data that changes your perspective, another twist, and then so on… until it’s over.  You get this emotional swap of who is actually the bad person in the story, and as the elements are gradually uncovered you come to your own conclusions.  Usually the final step of the story is some sort of ethical commentary.  When these stories are well done, the characters move the plot forward.

I Am Mother hits all these notes and takes an insanely frustrating turn at the mid point because it’s the plot that moves the characters forward.  There’s a much-too-thick amount of foreshadowing, where nearly every scene from 25% to 75% feels like it was written over a box of donuts, and filmed for a class in high school on exposition.

The concept that a sheltered (but not smothered) individual would swatch allegiances with the drop of a hat makes little sense.  The backstory for the stranger makes little sense.  The idea that no one thought that a robot would record audio is baffling.  When they do decide to run away and fall into a massive cornfield, never pausing to wonder why this exists on a desolate planet…Why is there a dog a few hours away from this robot farming operation?

When it reaches the summit of tension, the explanation provided seems insanely obtuse.  Like one of those elaborate Rube Goldberg machines, but spread over what appears to be centuries.  Things have to happen perfectly as planned, or the thing just falls to pieces.  And that the Mother robot somehow thinks that now is the time for the child to lead the next advent of humanity… after what appears to be 2 days of pure chaos.  What?

This is one of those sci-fi short stories where it’s better to have many more questions than answers.  Cut an hour from the film, put some scars or soot or something on Hillary Swank so that she doesn’t look like a CLONE of the protagonist, and there’s a solid idea here.

Main Issue

All of those details are things a lot of people will look over, but the purpose of sci-fi is to explore an idea.  And the idea here is that meritocracy is a valid form of government.  Many utopias are built on this concept (Star Trek TNG took this argument to the extreme).

The main problem with a meritocracy is that the people within the system must absolutely believe in it, and anyone who doesn’t has to be removed.  In this story, Mother did just that by killing anyone who wasn’t in that mindset.  When Mother leaves, the Daughter apparently has to maintain that mindset as it’s pretty friggin’ clear that if she doesn’t, Mother will just wipe everyone out again.  This infers that the Daughter will need to either teach, convert, or kill every new human.  Alone.  Where a perfectly programmed robot could not achieve that over many, many years of effort.

Which I suppose could mean this is a never ending cycle.  Which ARQ did excellently.

Summary

Decent film to watch if you don’t get invested in the concepts.  Otherwise, the film simply reaches too far without the ability to deliver.

 

Love, Death & Robots

I think sci-fi is my favorite genre.  My favorite stories come from the golden age, when people were chasing stories rather than paychecks (the 80s… ugh).  There’s a child-like vision in those older stories, where the science projections were more magical and focused on the psychology, rather than the technology itself.  Or from another lens, great sci-fi is about people, not technology.

Netflix has an anthology series Love, Death & Robots that tells multiple story lines, with a sci-fi backdrop.  They are between 5-17 minutes, so really quick bites.  Anthologies are like a buffet, there’s something for everyone, but not everything is for someone.  I used to have bookshelves full of them as a kid (Reader’s Digest is exactly that).  And in most sci-fi, the best stories are the short ones, where there’s plenty of open ended questions (see The Martian Chronicles).

There were quite a few highlights here for me, in my order of preference

Beyond the Aquila Rift

This plays out like golden sci-fi, with an interesting punch at the end.  There are some open ended parts, and a nice twinge of horror within.

Sonnie’s Edge

The main line story is great, the setting a bit less.

Secret War

Aside from the monster design, every other bit of this story hits near-perfect notes.  It’s very tight, and is eerily relatable.

The Witness

There are many stories like this, but none that look like this.  Apparently there was no mo-cap, which frankly, bodes well for CG as a whole in the genre.

Shape-Shifters

Werewolves in modern day setting… much better than Underworld’s gothic take on it.  The blending of genres works here… a bit like the Forever War.

 

Not to say that the other shorts are bad, they just resonated less with me.  When the Yogurt Took Over I’ve read a dozen times now in other formats.  A half dozen others seem like they are pulled straight from Heavy Metal.

Considering how short each episode is, it’s very digestible.  Most of us can spare 17 minutes to watch an interesting story.  Kind of hoping we get more anthologies in this vein.

Rim of the World

When homage turns to collage.

culture_rimoftheworld

Netflix has a new movie out, Rim of the World.  It’s a re-take on every single classic 80’s adventure ever produced.  To a nearly absurd level.  Just look at the picture and tell me it doesn’t look like a mash between a half dozen ideas (Red Dawn, Goonies, ET, Stand by Me are pretty evident.)

Loner/nerd kid gets sent to camp, to grow.  Makes 3 friends (female, mouthy kid, tough kid).  Aliens invade.  They need to save the world because every adult around them dies.  CGI is a wonderful pastiche of high-school attempts and purposeful stop-motion looks.  Montage included.  It’s worth a re-watch just to count the number of themes it borrows from other movies.

If Stranger Things hadn’t hit a few years ago, this would be  much easier to digest. Stranger Things uses the 80s as a backdrop to tell the story.  Here, the 80s are the story.

It’s a no-apology romp, with the hammiest of delivery, and most straightforward plot.  There are literally no surprises at all here, everything happens as it should.  Which in nostalgic terms, is certainly a plus.  People like the comfort of the familiar.  And it Netflix is any smarter about this, then we’re going to spent the next 5+ years with films in this vein.  80s/early 90s people are the main target for Netflix, so why not get those eyeballs?

It’s a solid B movie, where it doesn’t try to ever take itself seriously.

Also new on Netflix – Bash Brothers.  Now that is worth a watch, just not with the kids around!

Plot vs Character

Writing is hard.  No other way to put it.  There are hundreds of thousands of writers…and they follow a bell curve of talent like any other group.  When one of them stands out, it’s fairly obvious because of the sheer amount of material with which to compare.  And writing is one of those things that people do for 2 reasons – cathartic and exposure.  I do it for the former, I have no illusions that I am some grand auteur.  But I’ve met (we all have) many a writer who thought they were the next Stephen King…

And even the best writers have off days.  Back to Mr. King.  His “best” writing period was when he was on more drugs than a rock band.   His magnum opus series of the Dark Tower took a rather significant nosedive in quality once he got clean.  I’m not saying he should not have gotten clean, but you can draw a pretty clear line in terms of quality output. Bradbury wrote 5x as much that was drivel compared to noticeable.  Asimov was all over the map, and in later years admitted he was writing more for the paycheck than the story (which is crazy if you look at all the things he did).

Then you have writers who just can’t complete their work.  Robert Jordan passed away.  GRR Martin has writers block.  TV shows / movies swap writers over the years.  Point being, initial quality is not reflective of future quality – simply higher odds.

Character vs Plot

Arguably the best writers are those that write characters first, and the plot second.  They avoid tropes, and require some forethought to resolving situations as they are restricted.  I mean if you’re talking about a woman in the 20th century, they are not all of a sudden going to find a jetpack and escape a pack of wild gorillas.  Sometimes, these writers get painted into a corner.  The plot says that they need to be in a certain spot, but the writer knows that it’s going to take some logical steps to get there.  And we end up with extra chapters/books rather than a shortcut.

Plot writers are all about story and need the people in it to make wildly differing decisions to make the story move forward in interesting ways.  Dan Brown is a perfect example.  He writes great adventures, edge of your seat.  His characters are super heroes, who suffer from continual mental lapses, and the text is full of contradictory information.  In many cases, the writing is so poor that solutions become present without the reader being able to make any logical connections.

Game of Thrones

Books first.  I’ve read them and they are primarily character driven.  They make consistent decisions based on circumstances, and the fact that main line characters die is evidence that sometimes the plot takes precedence.  It’s not perfect, but it’s damn good to read though.  The important part of the books is that while set in a fantasy setting, the story is fundamentally about the character interactions.  The Red Wedding is a much more important event as compared to the Red Witch’s powers.

The TV series followed the books, with some artistic liberties.  Those liberties were a bit over the top in some cases (the crypt scene in particular).  Still, it generally followed the book story line.  Then the books stopped and the show continued on its own path.  While there were high spots, there were quite a few low ones.  All of a sudden characters could travel at the speed of light.  They’d miraculously survive insurmountable odds multiple times.  They’d charge into certain death when a more advantageous option was present.

But people still with it, because of the potential of greatness.  These last few episodes though… they are pushed almost entirely by plot.  A “threat” since the opening act of the first episode is dealt with in a single episode.  A hugely strategic advantage (dragon) would not be used on a kamikaze run.  When an entire army is exhausted, you don’t walk them hundreds of miles against a waiting foe.   You don’t pair up an asexual character with their entirely platonic friend… over a drinking game no less.

Writing endings is notoriously difficult.  In life, there are not clear ends and even less so when you are tracking dozens of character threads.  Lost did an amazing job at proving that point.  Sopranos was the exact opposite, since it focused every bit on the family and there wasn’t final closure, simply life moving on.  Breaking Bad is another good example of a solid writing due to narrow characters.

So while GoT certainly has spectacle attached, the odds of it finding footing in 2 more episodes are pretty darn small.   Too many spinning plates, not enough time to address them.