With the underperformance of every Summer and Winter blockbuster this year (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Strange World, Avatar: The Way of Water), it’s clear the movie theater is dying. You will never see another blockbuster box-office banger like Avatar or Avengers: Endgame or Titanic or The Dark Knight, even though most of those are recent movies (which might just be because of inflation, giving you an idea of how big 1997’s Titanic was). And that’s because of two reasons.
1. People are crowd shy since the pandemic. It’s baked into us now — six feet, superspreader events, wash your hands. Any event with crowds comes with an implicit warning sticker like on packs of cigarettes. Warning: Gathering with people you don’t know personally (and can blame) may be hazardous to your health. I still remember the Rose Garden event after Amy Coney Barett was confirmed where those stupid Republicans still denying us pandemic countermeasures all caught it. Of course, they could afford expensive anti-virals.
True, we still go to school and work (I got Covid this November from my kids who got it from school) but we have little choice in that regard. You go to a theater, you’re volunteering for a risk. This also includes events like stand-up comedy, plays, sporting events, and other things I wish I could go to, but am now paranoid about. But then you get to my second point.
2. Why should I bother going to the theater when I can watch the movie streaming a month later? (especially if it does really bad). Strange World, Lightyear, Eternals, Encanto all came on Disney+ within a month of their release. And that’s if they don’t just premiere on Disney+ like Soul, Luca, and Turning Red. I saw The Batman in the theater, but I could have watched it on HBOMax the next month. Same with Barbarian, Knives Out: Glass Onion, Prey, Black Adam, and Dune.
The only movie I really wanted to see, but had trouble finding was Nope, but I got that on DVD Netflix. You just need to have patience. Plus there’s always some new series coming out: The Boys, The Rings of Power, Peacemaker, Squid Game, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Mandalorian. There’s no shortage of stuff to watch.
There’s an argument to be made that they are two different experiences–big screen, big sound system, etc. But we all practically have that in our homes anyway. Everything’s in HD so screen size isn’t as important anymore. And you can put any sound system up against a good pair of headphones (the volume of which I can control). They not only provide a superior experience but also block out extraneous noise.
Speaking of extraneous noise, by watching at home we avoid an even bigger risk than Covid–obnoxious audiences. Whispering couples, squirmy kids, grandmas constantly asking questions, the old man who gets up to pee in the middle of the action sequence. Not to mention expensive concessions and reserving tickets ahead of time.
So why should I bother going to the theater? I’ve got a more pleasant experience waiting for me at home. And all I need to do is wait for the studios to ship the film to the video rental store any streaming service. Thanks, AMC and Nicole Kidman. Thanks, but no thanks.
I love Predator movies, but the more I see them, the more I become convinced of my fan theory that Earth is their planet for “remedial hunters”. It’s where they take the Predators that are “a little slow”. The ones who need more training. Of course, the stupidest Predator is still more than a match for any human, but that’s also why they keep getting killed by us. Sure, it makes for good cinema, but it doesn’t make sense in-universe.
1. Humans are easy to kill. We have no defensive mechanisms–no armor, no plates on our backs, no spiked tails, no blood shooting from our eyes, no acid blasting out of our ass. No offensive capabilities either–no claws, no muscular necks or strong jaws or spiked teeth. We’ve got nothing. We’re sacks of pudgy meat. Our bodies even have a higher fat-to-muscle ratio than most other mammals. The strength of our ape ancestors has atrophied, lost to time.
You know why humans became apex predators? We could outlast. That’s why jogging and triathlons and dance marathons continue to be popular. Animals like cheetahs and antelopes have incredible energy and speed, but only for short bursts. We don’t have that. What we do have is patience. Like the hare and the tortoise, slow and steady wins the race. They can run away, but we can track and pursue and wait until they can’t run anymore. Then we strike.
That doesn’t work against a Predator. For one thing, the Predator is hunting you–all you can do is react. Only two things humans can do play to our advantage–running away or running toward. Running away from the Predator doesn’t work, because it can run faster. And it can track and pursue you. It won’t get bored and give up. Running toward doesn’t work because we can’t take on a predator toe-to-toe. Or at least we shouldn’t be able to. Which brings me to my next point.
2. These Predators keep getting killed in stupid ways. They’re clever to us, but for Predators, this is the kind of stuff that shows up on their FailArmy. Two of them have chopped off their own arms trying to kill us. Two have died because of their own weapons. They keep falling into obvious traps. For all their advanced technology they do not seem to know what an explosive is. They keep relying on tech that only detects heat. We know from Predator 2 that they can see in more than just the infrared spectrum.
They’re built like humanoid gorillas and have technology vastly superior to ours. Huge bodies, huge muscles, able to take massive amounts of punishment and still walk around, carrying nuclear weapons on their wrists. Yet one was killed by grizzled cop Danny Glover and another was killed by Adrien Brody, the guy from The Piano. How do we keep killing them?
The only way I could believe this is if either A) they’re “capping” their advantage (but this seems unlikely, as they still use shoulder-mounted laser cannons, homing spears, and camouflage) or B) the ones being sent to kill humans are just dumb. They’re not “thinkers”, they go on primal instinct, letting anger control them instead of good hunting skills. We keep seeing Predators failing to strike the killing blow, as if they’re not sure what to do. Or they’re conceited and reveling in their victory like those smarmy kids at the back of the class. We’ve seen others of their race act rationally–they don’t pick a fight with Danny Glover at the end of Predator 2. They form alliances with humans in Aliens vs. Predator.
3. Isn’t there anything better to hunt out there? The Predators live in a world with xenomorphs and predator hounds and prometheuses and giant rancor mammoths. A human skull looks pitiful compared to them.
Why do people collect hunting trophies? For pride. And the bigger the better. The best ones are always a rearing polar bear with teeth gnashed and claws bared. Or a deer with gigantic pointy antlers. No one is collecting wolf skulls or snake spines, like the Predator in Prey does. In a world where hunting is no longer necessary to eat, people hunt because they want to prove they can beat nature. That they’re stronger and stealthier than anything nature can throw at them. What about elephants or sharks or lions? When will we see a Predator go to Australia?
Dinosaurs would make so much more awesome prey. I hope they kidnapped and bred a few before they went extinct. A Predator versus a T-Rex? Or a Stegosaurus? Yes, please. I’m here for that.
The only reason I can think that they’re being sent to Earth, where the top of the food chain is a gangly meat bag with no natural armor or weapons, is that we are “practice”. That we’re supposed to be the easy worksheets for the Predators having trouble graduating from Hunting School. We don’t have the technology they have. We don’t even know/believe there are other sentient lifeforms out there. The Predators that we do kill keep dying in ways that a five-year-old could avoid. The first one essentially got crushed by a piano.
Let’s be clear. On Sunday night, two bad things happened. When I saw it, I knew A) it was all anyone was going to be talking about next morning (the memes must flow) and B) it was going to split the nation down the middle.
The question now is which was worse. The buzz seems to be that Will Smith was wrong and should have been escorted out. But I’m also seeing lots of women saying they liked his defense of his wife and thought he was justified. Here are the two big questions I had–Was Chris Rock’s joke worth it? Was Will Smith “White Knight“ing?
First, let’s look at Chris Rock. His exact words were “Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it. All right?” At first Will Smith and Jada smile, then Jada’s face drops. Will Smith sees it. The slap occurs. Chris Rock takes it in stride, saying he just got slapped the shit out of (is that grammatically correct) by Will Smith. To defend himself, he says, in a pleading voice, “It was a G.I. Jane joke.”
Then why’d you tell it?
If you knew it was a poor joke, why’d was it on your list of shots to fire? G.I. Jane is a twenty-five-year-old movie that people only remember because Demi Moore shaved her head (because she was playing a Navy SEAL). At the time, Demi Moore was a well-known babe–equivalent to Zendaya today, if I had to guess. The movie was not good (I saw it.) It has 50% on Rotten Tomatoes and didn’t make back its budget. I’m betting there was much googling of “G.I. Jane” after the initial shock wore off. Certainly poor material to make a joke out of.
I don’t know if Chris Rock came up with that or a team of writers, but Rock’s the one who opened his mouth. He had veto power. He could have kept his mouth shut. People are demanding quality now, not quantity. That’s part of the reason we’re having the Great Resignation–it’s not that people don’t want to work, it’s that they don’t want to work crap jobs. Better opportunities are opening up. Same applies to entertainment.
We have reached a time when comedians are not underdogs getting arrested for free speech anymore. George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Denis Leary are dead. More careful scrutiny is being given because there have been too many incidents of them “getting away with it” because it was “just a joke”. Too many Michael Richards, Roseanne Barr, Bill Burr, Bill Maher, Louis C.K., Dave Chapelle, and Bill Cosby.
Moreover, good comedy is not made from people’s appearances. Especially the parts you can’t control. “Four-eyes”, “lardass”, “cripple”, “pizza face”–these are schoolyard level jibes. They’re juvenile. And most times, it’s about something the targeted party can’t control. I can’t control being bald. My wife can control having freckles. You can’t tell what someone’s going through by looking at the surface. Jada could be fighting cancer in addition to alopecia and keeping it secret, you don’t know. Chris Rock certainly didn’t. It’s low-hanging fruit and it’s beneath Chris Rock’s standards.
Now onto Will Smith. Clearly this is a case of lost control. Some say that these people are in the public light — they must subject themselves to jokes at their expense. But did he do the wrong thing for the right reasons?
In “Woke Culture”, we call this “White Knighting“. It’s when a man thinks he’s defending a woman, but he’s really talking over her, when he should be standing to the side in support. I didn’t see Jada ask Will Smith to go up and serve Chris Rock some manners. So I think it’s safe to assume Smith did this without prompting. So he did wrong in that respect, pushing himself into something that was between Chris Rock and Jada.
But I also don’t think Jada would ask him to do that. In fact, I don’t see any world in which Jada goes to bat for herself against Rock. Because women have been trained to “accept it” and “take a joke”. Catcalls and sexual harassement–“oh, it was just a joke, honey, don’t get all bent out of shape.”
Which begs the question, should Will Smith have smacked Chris Rock? Will Smith kept making reference to “being a protector” in his acceptance speech for Best Oscar. Toxic masculinity can creep into that kind of mentality easily. If Chris Rock had hit back, how would the night have escalated? Thank God both of them had the wherewithal to understand they both went too far. But there also must be a line drawn somewhere. Like Chris Rock once said about O.J. Simpson, “I don’t agree with what he did. But I understand.”
So I’m on Will Smith’s side on this one. As a creative, we have to strive to be better.
The most interesting part is… Kanye West saved it. The guy who interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, who makes ridiculous stunts when releasing albums, who can’t stop calling himself a genius. The guy with the ego the size of a planet brought forth the olive branch.
Like Chris Rock once said: “There’s a reason to hit everybody, just don’t do it.”
I was surprised at how good the storytelling was for an ensemble cast. I knew everyone’s names and identities and personalities. I know it’s hard to tell a story with more than one main character. That’s why so few stories do it. X-Men was able to do it, but A) everyone already knows those characters B) they were only able to do it for so long before falling under the weight of its own cast (i.e. X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: Dark Phoenix).
Other superhero team movies fell under the same weight (Justice League, Suicide Squad). And there’ve been other duds like Crash and Magnolia. You need something the length of Lord of the Rings to really explore each character fully. The others are either comedies like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Tropic Thunder, The Royal Tenenbaums or heist/capers like Ocean’s Eleven and Pulp Fiction.
This movie did… okay. Not great, but I saw each character had an arc, goals, problems, and conflicts. They were fleshed out and that’s hard to do in two hours, so I give points for trying. The most memorable are of course Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Thena (Angelina Jolie), and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff).
While I’m on the subject, I think the casting was spot on. I don’t know how they do it but Marvel movies always nail the right actor in the right role. It’s an understated skill, but kudos to whoever’s in charge of that department. It’s almost expected for a Marvel movie to have great actors, but I think Eternals still deserves a shout-out. Case in point: I didn’t know that was Angelina Jolie.
She’s one of the most recognizable actresses in Hollywood with her lean face and thick lips and big eyes. But she fell into the role so well I didn’t realize that was her. I hate actors that just play themselves over and over–Brad Pitt, Matthew Broderick, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Costner, Nicholas Cage.
I like the diversity too. There’s a Hispanic, an Indian, an East Asian, a West Asian, a Black LGBTQ, a Peruvian, a deaf Iraqi, and so on. The idea that the legends of old–Robin Hood, Gilgamesh/Hercules, Buddha, Houdini, etc. And they’re not just all white people.
At first, I thought the idea of godlike beings ruling Earth from the shadows seemed like it was ripping off so many old science fiction tropes (not the least of which is Star Trek’s “Who Mourns for Adonais?“). And the conflict of values within this team is a solid premise.
I don’t like how they handwaved the Thanos thing, but I guess “just following orders” has been the excuse for many a disaster. But there are consequences to not everyone sharing the same viewpoint. They actually have a civil debate where they explain their sides. Like Greek gods bickering. Kingo actually chooses not to fight. Sprite chooses a side not because of her personal beliefs but because she likes the guy on that side. They split up in the beginning because their mission’s over, then they split up again because of their differing viewpoints. It’s like instead of a found family, they become a re-found family.
So the story’s good, but the presentation sucks. Everything is in the dark. All the colors are muted. The monsters are all black. Every fight takes place at night or on a cloudy day in the middle of the woods. I can’t see anything because there’s no contrast.
Iron Man fought in the daylight. Captain America fought in the daylight. Ant-Man fought in the daylight. Are you so afraid your special effects won’t hold up that you’ve got to resort to amateur film-making cheats? I know digital is terrible on colors but come on. Other Marvel movies have overcome this.
I mentioned this before about the trailer, that the colors looked so blah that the movie itself looked lackluster. Like a dull rock. It’s a comic book movie, guys. Be bright, be bold.
And like the colors, the action is dull as dishwater. It’s just punch-punch-throw-bite. Compare it to The Suicide Squad or John Wick or Watchmen. Those are good action sequences because they use fight choreography. They use the environments. The fights in this movie (and they’re all fights; no variety like a chase or escape) are uninspired. Like someone just wrote in the screenplay [FIGHT GOES HERE] and let the special effects team go to town.
So do I recommend Eternals? I think it’s completely skippable. I don’t know what Marvel’s future plans are, but I didn’t see much connection between current works like Spider-Man and Loki. The end credits scenes are about new upcomers. It seems like this storyline takes place in the “space realm” where Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor live. But there’s no connection to either of those franchises at this moment. So you only need to watch this if you’re a completionist.
With the new (and maybe conclusive?) season coming out at the end of this year, I thought I’d talk about why this series appeals to me.
Because it really shouldn’t. For one thing, I didn’t see The Karate Kid until I was like, thirty? So I didn’t grow up with it in my pop culture bubble. I liked talking animals, cartoons, and cool robots. I did not go for cough, cough realism. Same reason I never watched The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Dirty Dancing, Uncle Buck, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Top Gun, or Commando. Unless it had some fantasy element in it, I wasn’t buying.
But now I’m a grown-up and I can appreciate all the genres. When I finally saw The Karate Kid, I wished I had seen it as a child. I liked that Daniel wasn’t a perfect kid–he had a mouth that got him in trouble, that he tried learning martial arts from a book (something I also did). I liked the nurturing Luke-Yoda relationship with Mr. Miyagi. I liked that the bully, Johnny, wasn’t just a trope, but he had a reason for acting as he did (a poor sensei + obnoxious NY kid muscling on his girl + friends to keep a rep for). Best of all, Daniel-san conquers his demons, beats the bully with a super move (really just a glorified jumping front kick), and wins the day. Just like a good eighties movie should.
But they never tell you what happens afterward.
Sure there was The Karate Kid Part 2 and Part 3 (and we don’t talk about the Hilary Swank/Michael Ironside one). But number two shares little continuity with the first. And the third had a good concept poorly executed (turn Daniel into a Johnny). But what of Johnny?
But what happened to the bullies in The Neverending Story after they were chased by Falcor? Did they start treating him better, revere Bastion as a god, or declare themselves insane thinking they were chased by a puppy-dragon? What did Baby and Patrick Swayze do after their sexy dancing? Was Swayze fired? Did Baby write letters to her beau? Did Scut Farkus change after Ralphie handed him his ass in A Christmas Story? We don’t know. The fairy tales end when the dragon dies.
You always tell yourself that the jack-offs from your youth went on to get low-paying crappy jobs, lived crappy lives. That they peaked in high school and went downhill from here. Wil Wheaton said that a friend once told him “If you win at high school, you lose at life.” So that’s why Cobra Kai had immediate appeal to me from the first episode. Because it shows what the high school bully did after the little David slung stones at him.
Johnny is working in a crappy job, living in a crappy flat, eating crappy food, drinking crappy beer, having a crappy family, living a crappy life. I get a little bit of schadenfreude seeing him suffer from the fact that what worked in high school does not work in real life.
But you know what I also love? A redemption arc.
Johnny is a fallen king. A bad king to be sure, but you can’t say he didn’t have what we all wanted–friends, a girlfriend, parties, respect, and the ability to fight. He could have run away to the other of the country to escape his humiliation, exile himself. Maybe join the Bundy’s in Nevada. But he stayed in Southern California, probably because that’s all he knows. And he’s been haunted by the mistakes of his past for twenty years. I can’t imagine that — nothing in my life has lasted twenty years yet. Not a marriage, not my kids.
But I also relate because we all feel we got screwed over in high school. Both because of things we did on our own and what was influenced by the people we associated with. I look at the opportunities my kids get nowadays and I want to kick my high school in the nuts. Opportunities that might have steered me away from the bitter personality I have today.
And for Johnny, that bitter ire has a face–Daniel LaRusso. It’s like a ghost that never leaves him. Seeing him plastered on billboards, getting away with things because he has money. Meanwhile, the only thing that you love gets trashed by him. It’s gone beyond punishment for past sins and is now torture.
The question is does Johnny deserve redemption. Yes…ish? I believe he’s served his time and he has learned his lessons. What’s great about the Cobra Kai series is that even though he’s trying to not make the same mistakes, he’s also A) making all new ones B) still making some of the same mistakes he made as a youth. It’s hard to break away from those behaviors when that’s how you got positive reinforcement in your formative youth.
Cobra Kai is about the trappings of nostalgia while using a nostalgic medium (that’s why it’s so genius!). That we see the past through rose-colored glasses, even while its knife is still sticking in our sides. We forget the crap that came with it, like a Rennaissance Fair. Those things never mention the disease, the child death, the slavery, the forced marriages, and all the poop everywhere (see Horrible Histories).
We also see that Daniel LaRusso’s life isn’t 100% perfect either. He’s finding that what worked for him in high school also has trouble being applied today. The karate techniques he learned don’t work for everyone (kids don’t have the patience to wash cars anymore). He can’t relate to his daughter. The protege he took under his wing betrays him. And he vastly underestimates the evil that high school kids are capable of (especially when they have a karate fight in his own house).
But what’s additionally great about Cobra Kai is that the characters are always evolving and changing. It’s two sides of the same coin–LaRusso is also still trapped in his past, it’s just had a better influence on him. But he still keeps revisiting it because that’s where he spent the best times of his life.
You can only take Cobra Kai as seriously as one could take the original Karate Kid. Those cheesy fights go on way longer than is plausible. And you can’t get out of a medical halo in a week. But the characters, their search for relevance in today’s world weighs around their neck. That’s what makes the cheesy parts forgiven. Because if you can relate to those characters, that’s what makes great stories.
I recently watched Cruella on Disney+. It surprised me. Better than it had any right to be. It’s a superhero story combined with a few heists.
I thought it would be stupid and silly given the prologue. Her hair isn’t dyed? It’s naturally black on one side and white on the other? What is she, Two-Face? Her mother is killed by dalmatians and that’s why she hates them? Her trouble-making at school is marked by “spots” on her record? The name “Cruella” comes from a joke name her mom called her? I mean, come on.
But as it goes on, the movie justifies these story points, twists them, and turns Cruella into a people’s hero.
The hardest part is reconciling the cartoon version with this version. I mean, this is a prequel. If you know psychology and watch this, you’re going to have a bad time.
Someone like animated Cruella wouldn’t give gifts, wouldn’t have friends, and wouldn’t own her own dog. The movie explains how rose to power, but not her decline. Someone who has no compunction about skinning dogs for coats isn’t the same person who spent her formative years homeless and pickpocketing or tried to go legit working a minimum wage job.
In 101 Dalmatians, she goes to Anita and demands those puppies because she thinks she deserves them because she’s a fashion genius. She never thinks for a minute she’ll be told “no”. Because she’s one of those people who always got what she wanted. And then she blames everyone else when she doesn’t get what she wants.
That is not the behavior of someone who went to boarding school, whose mother died in a tragic accident, who lived on the streets for ten years, then scrubbed floors while getting stepped on by her boss. Animated Cruella is not a person who understands you don’t get everything you want in life.
So what you have to do is forget about that version. Put the 101 Dalmatians Cruella you know into a foggy misremembered drunken haze. You will not learn how Cruella got so narcissistic and entitled because this movie is about a different character. It’s a movie about a misunderstood prodigy struggling against conformity and totalitarianism in a creative industry. A Lady Gaga or Andy Warhol.
If you treat these as separate movies in separate universes, then you’ll have a better time. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are great. It’s like The Devil Wears Prada with a big paint can of black & white “STYLE” poured onto it.
That’s what makes the movie–its style. It’s dripping with it, as you’d expect a movie about a fashion designer to be. Its visual and audio design was made with intent. It seems to take place in the 60s and 70s England, so there’s a lot of “mod” sight and sound, like in Austin Powers. But vampy, not campy. I want to listen to this soundtrack. I still think of the set design, the dresses, the clever acting dichotomy of Estella vs. Cruella.
It’s fun to have a hero who’s not a boy scout, not an eccentric genius inventor, not a super spy… actually just someone female is a boost. There haven’t been a lot of good movies with female protagonists in the past few years. Not only that but she’s a hero who’s a crafter and an artist. Not just a beater-of-ups. She works hard, she puts in the hours.
I think this character might become a new icon, like Maleficent. But she also reminded me of Harley Quinn, especially when she’s whacking people with her cane while wearing an eye mask. (This is a Superhero story, after all.) If Emma Stone wasn’t available, Margot Robbie would have made a great pinch-hitter.
What I don’t understand is why Disney gets totally crazy with its “side-stories” like Maleficent and Cruella and they’re great. But their remakes are dull as dishwater because they either don’t deviate from the source or negate the joy of the original (like Lion King’s expressionless animals or Mulan getting super-chi-powers). It should be reversed. The supervillain origin stories should be by-the-numbers and the remakes need to give something fresh and new, like a cover of a song.
But yes, Cruella. Forget what you may have heard, give it a try. It’s something a little different.
I am forty years old and I still don’t remember a time I haven’t seen Short Circuit, my favorite movie. The big emotional climax is where Number 5 and his programmer are trying to prove that he’s “alive”. And after several psychological tests, Newton Crosby (Ph.D.) gets the idea to see if he laughs spontaneously at a joke. It’s a beautiful moment with swelling music and epic victory.
Except I don’t understand the joke. I never have.
It seems to be something to do with Jewish humor. It’s either anti-semitic or poking gentle fun at Judaism. Does it have something to do with the fact Jews believe God is more involved with humans than Christians think (as demonstrated in Fiddler on the Roof)?
Best I can figure, either “whatever God wants, He keeps” means Jews believe God is so real He can scoop coins out from the sky. Or that Jews are greedy so they count on the fact that God won’t intervene, so they get to keep all the money.
Mark Twain said that examining humor is like dissecting a frog. You may learn something, but the frog is dead.
I was talking with my wife last night about scary movies. Carrie came up. I said didn’t understand what scared her about it because I saw Carrie as a revenge/comeuppance story, not a horror movie. Then she stared at me, horrified. And I asked what I could say next that wouldn’t end with me sleeping on the couch.
Because Carrie is a powerful moment in story-telling. Maybe not the strongest, but definitely a pulse. It jumpstarts Stephen King’s influence in horror and he’s no stranger to the “revenge” plot. He also wrote Rage (which literally is about a disenfranchised student taking over a classroom with a gun) and Roadwork (a man massacres the construction team bulldozing his house because of the gub’mint) and The Running Man and Thinner.
The movie, some say, surpasses the book. It’s one of the top films of its decade, got Oscar noms, and is known for the best jump scare in cinema ever. Without it, there’s no Heathers or Better Off Dead.
Also, keep in mind, this is way before Columbine, when high school mass murder became a national pastime. Carrie came out forty-five years ago. The book two years before that. The original idea far before that, probably in the sixties. (And the musical in 1988, but we don’t talk about that.)
But here’s the question: did Carrie White do right or wrong? Was she justified in killing her entire high school class?
BULLYING – WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN NO ONE CARES
On the surface, it seems the answer is “no”. Carrie’s retribution goes too far for what they did to her. No matter the situation, no one has the right to take someone else’s life away (unless it’s immediate self-defense).
But what is Carrie supposed to do? What are her options? Is she supposed to talk to them? Sit each girl down and tell them how they hurt her feelings?
Or is she just supposed to endure it until she gets out of high school? Just “take it like a man”? As if this is some punishment she deserves.
Because there is no good solution to dealing with bullies. This article tells it better than I can, but it outlines what you already know. Tell an adult? What are they going to do? Walk with you 24/7? Get the law involved? There’re no laws regarding bullying. Kids are left to fend for their own.
Look at the catalyst event–the gym teacher punishes the bullies, which motivates them to seek revenge. Not on the teachers who took away their prom tickets, but on Carrie. You can’t drill empathy with push-ups. The principal can’t even get Carrie’s name right–keeps calling her “Cassie”.
Ignoring bullies doesn’t make them go away. Either they know they’re getting to you (because you’ve been told to “just ignore it”) or they don’t care about a reaction–they do it for their own self-gratification. You can’t run away. Certainly Carrie can’t, being A) a teenager B) having no money C) having an overbearing mom. In fact, Carrie’s worst fear is living the rest of her life with her mother, gaining weight, getting lonelier & lonelier.
You can’t fight back. Think about it–did any fight you have in high school resolve the situation? For one thing, that’s just not “how it’s done” in the girls’ world of 1974. For another, you might not win. For another another, there will be consequences. There’s the possibility of a permanent injury for one (one of my HS teachers told a story about a kid in a fight whose eye was hanging out of its socket, dangling by the optic nerve). For another, both of you get punished. Because no one cares to dig deeper into who started the fight or why it came about.
In Carrie, we are witness to two major incidents of bullying. One is where they throw the tampons at her in the shower. The other is the bucket of blood at the prom. But we can presume there were many many more incidents before this, given everyone’s behavior and the “carte blanche” the school gives them, given they fail to recognize any wrong-doing. “Girls will be girls.”
But bullying is insidious. It’s only been recognized as a problem recently, thanks to Columbine, various other school shootings, and documentaries like “Bully“.
Keep in mind bullying is not about power, it’s about pride. Pride is the domination of the self over others*. The bullies’ pride comes from believing that they are not lowlifes like Carrie. They reinforce that by abusing her and the lack of consequences of that abuse proves they were right. Until consequences come. But rather than accept them, the bullies double down so their beliefs don’t have to change.
*In fact, all sins are about power and abuse of it.
Gluttony – power over sustenance/nutrients/abundance (the consumption of food when you don’t need it is a demonstration of power over those who have no food)
Anger – power over the power of others (e.g. power over those you hate, either those above you on the totem pole, like politicians, or below you, like immigrants or other races)
Sloth – power over lack of action (a.k.a. the power of choosing to do nothing)
Pride- power over the self and others’ perception of yourself
Greed – power over material objects
Envy – giving power over external desires
Lust – giving power to internal desires
And you now know the acronym I use to remember the seven deadly sins — GASP GEL.
King was remarkably prescient about all this. But was that his intention?
THE KING”S INTENT
Carrie (the character) is partially based on a real-life girl Stephen King knew in elementary school. A “peculiar girl from a peculiar family”. A girl everyone wanted to stay in her station.
“[T]he girl had one change of clothes for the entire school year, and all the other kids made fun of her. I have a very clear memory of the day she came to school with a new outfit she’d bought herself. She was a plain-looking country girl, but she’d changed the black skirt and white blouse – which was all anybody had ever seen her in – for a bright-colored checkered blouse with puffed sleeves and a skirt that was fashionable at the time. And everybody made worse fun of her because nobody wanted to see her change the mold.”
From “On Writing”, I think
What do you do with that? What are you supposed to do when society itself won’t let you up? They make fun of your clothes, but when get better ones, they treat you worse.
That’s the character. What about the plot? Strangely, fear of student-led mass murder was not the original theme. In Danse Macabre, King says:
“Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power and what men fear about women and women’s sexuality… which is only to say that, writing the book in 1973, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. The book is, in its more adult implications, an uneasy masculine shrinking from a future of female equality.”
I take that to mean the fear factor is men’s anxiety of women getting power (remember — this is the seventies). What happens when girls realize they are women. What if they pull the whole rotten society down? It’s a worst-case scenario, but that’s what horror movies do. This means Carrie’s actions are justified if you think the world tree needs its misogynist branches severely pruned.
Often, King’s stories are about monsters all around. In Pet Sematary, it’s not the people coming back to life, it’s the people who bury them there in the first place because they can’t deal with their grief. In The Stand, it’s not the virus, it’s the psychos and selfish ones left (as in any apocalypse story). In It, it’s not Pennywise the Clown, it’s the adults of Derry that cause the fear that Pennywise exploits (okay maybe it’s a little bit Pennywise). My point is, there’s no one you can turn a blind eye to.
Which means we have to determine what kind of story this is to glean its meaning. In Save the Cat, there’s no category for vengeance stories. It’s not a Golden Fleece or Whydunit or an Institutionalized. Revenge, as a motivation, can fit into any category.
SAVE THE TELEKINETIC CAT
I can’t decide whether what Carrie is a Superherostory, an Out of the Bottle story, or Rites of Passage.
Superhero stories have three key elements: a special power, a nemesis, and a curse.
The special power is obviously telekinesis. She didn’t have to work for it, but she does have to learn how to use it. Some clues imply that her emotional trauma causes the power to manifest, but there’s no firm evidence.
This emotional trauma is the curseshe must suffer for having these powers. You could say it’s the curse of womanhood, since getting her period is what triggers her powers. But bullying is what she has to put up with, like Harry Potter being hunted by Voldemort or Superman having to balance his alien/human life. The difference is Carrie succumbs to this curse. With great power comes great responsibility not to kill your entire high school.
The king bully, the nemesis, is her mother. She’s supposed to be Carrie’s salvation, but instead, she directly hammers her back down whenever she shows an inkling of rebellion. She represents the “old way” of woman, that they must be disciplined and subservient and everything is sinful. But here’s her daughter going out with boys and wearing make-up and doing all these progressive things. She lacks faith in her daughter.
This lack of faith drives the nemesis to destroy the hero. (That’s why she’s so mean–if Carrie’s mother really believed she was right, she wouldn’t need to tyrannize Carrie to prove it.) And when Carrie fights back, that faith is shattered. The only recourse is to kill her.
But Out of the Bottle has similar elements: a hero deserving of magic, a spell, and a lesson to learn.
Carrie, our hero definitely deserves her magic–she’s been powerless all her life, at school and at home. Her telekinesis forms part of her “B story” as she learns about the new world where she has clout. How she came by these powers is irrelevant. (Someone somewhere mentions genes, but who cares. It’s what do you do with it that’s important.)
And finally is the lesson. Carrie learns two. First is at the prom: humans gonna human. Her mom was right–they were all gonna laugh at her after all. So there was no point in reaching for something she was never going to get.
But then her mom tries to kill her, so her way certainly isn’t it (the second lesson). Therefore the only solution is take herself out–she can’t live in a world that doesn’t allow her to, similar to Terminator 2: Judgement Day or the deleted ending of The Butterfly Effect.
(Fun fact: in the movie, she telekinetically collapses the house on herself. In the book and 2013 remake, she summons a meteor storm that crushes her house, like some Final Fantasy spell.)
Then I looked up Rites of Passage. That includes a life problem (a universal challenge that’s an unavoidable part of life — in this case, high school), attacking the problem in the wrong way (trusting others like Tommy and Sue, letting them build up her confidence, ignoring the warnings of her mother, which all lead to Carrie murdering four hundred people) and acceptance (a solution to dealing with this stage in life… which, in this case, is Carrie’s suicide. There is no place in the world for her to be happy, so she destroys herself).
It’s all about what key elements are most at the forefront. I don’t think it’s Superherobecause Carrie is not about sacrificing personal comfort to become the people’s champion. And if it’s Rites of Passage, the lesson is pretty bleak. That means it’s thematically about wish fulfillment.
There aren’t too many good movies where it’s all about the hero taking revenge. It’s too hard to make a hero sympathetic who’s committing murder left and right. That’s the villain’s rag. Thus they’re relegated to one of two types.
Right-leaning shoot-em-ups: Death Wish, John Wick, Road House, or Joker
Comic book levels of ridiculousness: Kill Bill, I Spit On Your Grave, or Oldboy
Maybe The Princess Bride‘s squeaks out, but Inigo Montoya is a supporting character. I did come across one recently that I loved: Promising Young Woman. It’s not a conservative fantasy or a cartoonish romp. What does this mean for cinema? I don’t know. And I’m getting sidetracked.
Carrie is a tragic hero, like Sweeney Todd or Hamlet. Their killing’s okay because they seek justice where no justice can come. Hamlet’s murdering uncle is king so there’s no way he’s going to trial. Same for Judge Turpin. There’s no fairness in this world, so we have to get it where we can. Because secretly, we want all bad guys dead. We just don’t want to bloody our hands to do it.
Don’t believe me? Heroes kill people all the time, you just turn a blind eye to it. Batman leg grabs a guy like Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat, cracks his head into a bell, then throws him down an 800-foot cathedral shaft. What are you going to say? Gravity killed him?
Then in the fourth movie (Batman & Robin) he throws a bunch of Two-Face’s coins up in the air while he’s precariously balanced on a girder. And of course, Two-Face stumbles and plummets to his death. Like, what did Batman think was going to happen when he did that?
That seems to be the go-to way that cinema gets rid of bad guys without making the hero tread those murky moral waters. Spider-man could have totally grabbed the guy who fell out the window.
The whole theme of Captain America: Civil War is the Sokovia Accords — heroes are making too much collateral damage and people are dying. It’s accidental, but it brings up the question of whether the Avengers have too much power.
Heroes like Deadpool, Wolverine, and The Punisher act realistic to their villains. Because not everyone deserves to live. These people aren’t going to have some kind of redemption day. But Superman twists Zod’s neck as he’s about to laser a lobby full of people and everyone loses their minds. The audience wants to have it both ways.
The whole crux of the “Under the Red Hood” comic arc in Batman is that Jason Todd (Robin), who was literally killed by the Joker, is pissed that Batman keeps letting Joker live. It’s just a perpetual cycle of he’s arrested, he escapes and kills people, he’s arrested, he escapes and kills people. One might argue the justice system is letting him out, but the whole point of Batman is that he can operate outside the broken system of justice. That’s the point of any superhero. (Related article: Why Can’t Superheroes Kill?)
I swear I’m trying to relate this back to Carrie.
My point is heroes get this “pass” because deep down, we know not all life is sacred. You know it and I know it. Do cops think life is sacred? Certainly not the black ones. Do you think the terrorists from 9/11 believed life was sacred?
Do you think the terrorists’ lives themselves were sacred? Let me ask you this: if you had the chance to save Mohamed Atta‘s life right before his hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, would you do it? I can guess your answer. (And no, you can’t save him so he stands trial–he’s teleported to an African savannah or somewhere he’s safe and out of jurisdiction).
So if heroes don’t think all life is sacred, why should Carrie? Why should you?
All these people are the worst kind of people (like I said–King writes about monsters upon monsters). Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan aren’t going to be missed. They’re not on their way to promising careers as doctors. Hell, not even good enough to be TikTok influencers (if that was a thing at the time).
All of them (except Sue, who becomes the final girl), take great delight in the misery of Carrie. At different degrees, sure, but they do it. And taking pleasure from someone else’s pain is the definition of evil. It’s not whether they deserve to die, it’s whether they deserve to live.
You simply can’t go through what Carrie went through and come out the other side a normal upstanding young woman.
Through the story, Carrie goes from the lowest point in her life to the happiest. She starts by cowering naked in a corner of the shower, at her most vulnerable, being abused and assaulted by people who are supposed to be her friends and peers
At the end, she’s on a date with the cutest boy in school, dancing, dressed and beautiful like the girls she wants to be like. There she is on stage, crowned as prom queen. Everyone loves and praises her. It’s like a dizzying dream.
Then it’s all taken out from her. She’s standing in front of everyone, covered in blood, like she was before. They’ve all gone from cherishing her to laughing at her. She’s right back where she started in the shower. You can’t go from the best moment in your life to the worst so quickly and not expect something to snap. The human mind simply isn’t fixed for that.
I read something in a book recently that sums this up perfectly.
“[H]uman beings have limits. And you can say all you want about the world being unfair and people rising above the atrocities done to them, but everyone is different. Some are hard as steel, but some are fragile, and you never know which one you’re going to get.”
-from Memory Man by David Baldacci
The thing about vengeance is you can’t stop. It gets bigger and bigger until it takes out everyone. Maybe that’s why Batman keeps dissuading Robin from killing Two-Face in Batman & Robin. Maybe that’s why he has his vow against killing. Because once he jumps into that abyss, there’s no jumping back out. It destroys your ability to differentiate the guilty from the innocent. As suddenly everyone looks like they were part of the crime.
“The person who pursues revenge should dig two graves.”
So Carrie is like a shockwave. First, she takes out those who were mean to her. The ones who wronged her. Then those who laughed at her. Then everyone.
It’s like a rolling boulder. And the only way to stop it is to run in front and get killed. That’s why so many vengeance plots end with the protagonist dying at the same time. (e.g. Ravenous, The War of the Roses, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, The Prestige, The Hateful Eight. Oh, spoilers.)
Add some temporary insanity to that, and you have a gym full of high school student soup. He who fights monsters must ensure they do not become one themself.
The sad thing is, if Carrie had done nothing and waited until she could get out of the crap town she was in, the crap high school, the crap house, the crap life, things might have gotten better for her. But when you’re pushed against the wall like that, with no ways to answer back, how do you act? You might say Carrie acted wrong. I say “what options did she have?”
What Carrie did wasn’t right. But if I was on the jury at her trial, I would vote “not guilty.”
So The Eternals trailer came out a day or two ago.
I’ve never seen anything about Eternals from the comics or Legendary or video games or anything else. I’m coming into this trailer fresh and without bias. And I’m telling you, this movie’s going to be a hard sell for me.
The trailer is pretty vague, but from what I gather, some aliens come to primitive Earth (proto-Sumeria, I’m thinking?) in a big-ass triangle ship. They settle down and integrate into society, controlling human development over the centuries (I guess they’re immortal… oh, that’s why they’re called Eternals, I get it now).
Overall, the concept sounds similar to Thor — a family drama starring a race for whom magic and science are interchangeable. But at least there A) no one wanted to rule Earth B) Thor was a character. It’s a King Arthur story about learning what it takes to be a leader. I don’t see any characters here.
I haveseen the idea before–in Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files, Men In Black, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Transformers, and Futurama. Most importantly, Marvel’s already tried this with the disastrous Inhumans. Note that most of those examples are comedic media, which means this trope is A) overused B) hard to make work in a dramatic setting. And I know why.
This movie is about people who are stronger, smarter, faster, better than us. Not regular people like Tony Stark or Steve Rogers who started from a bottom and learned some harsh lessons, but aliens in a position of privilege. Maybe because they need a planet to live on, they manipulate our civilization and evolution without our knowing… in the guise of it being for our benefit.
After last year (actually 2016 to 2020), the last thing I want to see is an exclusive society with wealth and power exerting influence on normal citizens. Haven’t we had enough of that? I don’t see how these Eternals are going to turn out to be the good guys. Power corrupts. Always. I find it hard to believe no one gets the urge to delete the ladder from the pool in their live version of The Sims.
Not to mention it’s a big violation of free will, which never plays well (part of the reason why I hated Tenet). Plus there’s always the “Where the hell were they when Thanos invaded?” questions. Or “You couldn’t have prevented 9/11? Or Chernobyl? Or Hitler” At least Steve Rogers had the excuse that he was starting from 1970.
The trailer takes us from their arrival up to current time, where they’re eating Macedonian Thanksgiving dinner and we get the only line of dialogue that’s not effervescent narration. One of the kids asks “Now that Iron Man and Steve Rogers are dead, who do you think is going to lead the Avengers?” and one of them says “well, I could.” Pause. Then everyone laughs big.
Dead. Joke. I don’t know who this guy is! Is he a douchebag? Is he an egomaniac? Did he just wet the bed? What a horrible way to button the trailer–a witty line that has no chance of landing because we don’t know these characters. All we know is their back story. I think the only reason they put it in is because, otherwise, I have no idea how this ties into the MCU.
Plus, I’m scared of the idea that one of them is going to sit up and say “I’m leading the Avengers now”. The whole thing about the Avengers, as demonstrated by Captain America: Civil War, is an autonomous group that nobly takes it upon themselves to rescue and defend Earth from threats beyond the capability of normal humans. They’re not under the directive of some politician or magnate. And certainly not some alien. It would be like an Italian clothing CEO saying “I’m head of the Minneapolis now.”
This is Marvel’s second post-Endgame movie, after Shang Chi, and that didn’t excite me either. Like this, it was a bunch of cool poses and moody action shots and no sense of what the movie’s about.
But Marvel Films have always delivered before. Maybe some had more impact than others (Captain Marvel, Thor: The Dark World). But if they haven’t been great, they’ve been entertaining. However, if the Shang Chi and Eternals trailers are any indications, they’ve got an uphill climb to gain my acclaim.
I don’t mean ugly as in problematic or controversial. There’s nothing jagged or worth “canceling” (so take that Hollywood — you don’t need to be provocative to catch attention).
I love most Christopher Nolan movies. I loved the Dark Knight trilogy and The Prestige and Memento and Inception. But I was tepid on Interstellar and Man of Steel and didn’t see Dunkirk. But after the word-of-mouth reaction, I was dreading when Netflix would deliver that DVD. But it was the biggest movie of the year, so I had to watch it. Find out what everyone was talking about.
I didn’t… I didn’t like it.
And here are my thoughts on why. (Flexing my criticism muscles helps me become a better writer, doesn’t it?) A lot of people complained about the booming score, the infodump scenes, and the gas mask-muffled dialogue. I don’t think those are as significant as two fundamentals–character and plot.
The ultimate goal of art is to make you feel something. And when I was done with Tenet, I felt nothing (except confused). No catharsis, no Satisfying Viewer Experience, no emotional core, no sense of who this was meant for. Tenet feels like an NFT – a dead, trendy expensive piece of art, lacking humanity, that appeals to a wealthy few, but no one understands.
I don’t like stories that are puzzles. I don’t like it when the narrator hides information other characters have but the reader/viewer doesn’t to make it “intriguing”. Just yesterday, I was trying to read the Hugo-nominated short story “A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad.
It’s not a hard story by any means, not cerebral or complex. Just a tech support chat log between two entities. But the problem is these entities are never named. The story appears in an anthology about robots, so are these robots? Humans? One of each? Cyborgs? And all the other stuff–why does Entity A not want to see dogs? What does Entity B having a “killstreak” mean? Is that a video game thing or a real-life thing? Why does Entity A need assistance in the first place–what is he/she struggling with?
So I spend more brainpower figuring out the story’s context–the world-building, the setup–than the actual story. Like a game where the rules are so complex (or absent) you have to constantly look them up instead of playing the game.
For example, the fight in the airport. The first time, it’s a normal fight, but you can tell the guy in black is moving a little weird. I figure he must be a timecop or something. (BTW, it’s obvious this is the Protagonist from some other time, because Neil rips off his mask then lets him go.) The second time you’re struggling to process what you’re looking at. How is he fighting a guy whose movements are reversed? Every shot should be a backhand and easily telegraphed. Punches accelerate, which makes them hard to gauge due to the doppler effect. But in reverse, they decelerate and stop farther away.
To put it bluntly, they’re a bunch of snobs. Everyone’s got fancy suits, fancy cars, fancy houses. They meet in fancy restaurants in fancy exotic locations all around the world like Denmark, India, Italy, Russia, Norway, and Swedish opera houses.
Part of the story is set in an art freeport. I know what these are from a Planet Money podcast, not the half-second of exposition. Did you ever wonder what rich people do with all that expensive art they buy? Are they displaying it in their home? Loaning it to a museum for others to enjoy? No, they keep it in storage. The owners wait for the art to appreciate in value, then sell it. Probably to another guy who stores it. And that storage is on the airport grounds so it can’t be taxed.
If you can’t tell, I don’t have a lot of empathy for the wealthy. And when they’re all the characters in your story, I don’t know how you’re going to hook me. Unless your rich person gets some kind of comeuppance, like in Citizen Kane or Pretty Woman, I’m not getting on board. In Inception, they were upper class, but they were thieves working underground. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a disgraced corporate spy in exile who needs this job so his slate can get wiped clean. High risk, high stakes.
But in Inception, everyone had a personality. Here, the characters are so blase and stoic and sensible. It all evokes James Bond, who I hate. They don’t even name the protagonist, like in Fight Club where Edward Norton is “The Narrator”. You don’t do that unless you’re rolling out some pretentious metafictional bullshit. You don’t do that unless you want people to focus on everything BUT the characters. And people come to stories for characters.
Every book on writing says characters are the most important part of books. Make your stories character-driven, not plot-driven. Characters should have the agency to make decisions that impact the plot. Characters first, everything else second. This is “big idea” first, characters second.
The Protagonist (whose name is literally “The Protagonist”) is essentially an android moving around a game board. He’s not making his own decisions, he’s guided by Neil, by General Imes, by Kat, by the Tenet team. He fishes out a little information from various contacts, and then an action sequence happens. Nothing about him is intriguing, convincing, or sympathizing. He’s a blank slate. (Kicking ass is not a character trait).
So my question is–why? The reason to make a protagonist identity-less is to either make him or her mysterious (as in The Road, Snow Crash, A Fistful of Dollars) or have the viewer/reader project themselves into the character (as in Fight Club or any video game).
Bad guys can make or break a story. So what’s this guy’s plan? It takes forever to find out. Apparently, he’s an arms dealer selling reversible bullets. This means you shoot the bullet, then go back and hold your gun out. The bullet whips back into the gun, kills the guy, and there’s no trace. Okay, so that’s pretty cool. But what’s he really want?
He wants the end of the world.
There is some sort of “algorithm” (more on that later) sent back from the future because it could collapse time. (Imagine if Robert J. Oppenheimer said “no” to the Atom Bomb, then sent the plans back through time so no one could get hold of it). Somehow our bad guy got hold of it and (this is the kicker) hooked it up to his body with a dead man’s switch. So that when he dies, the algorithm is triggered and we all die too. You can call it “undo humanity with mass-inversion via the algorithm”, but that’s just calling a rabbit a “smeerp“.
How comic booky. I know Nolan’s famous for turning comic books into legitimate cinema, but this is cinema turned comic booky. Even Marvel’s not that dumb. All Thanos was going to do was decrease the population to increase resources. Then, when he found the plan wasn’t going to work, switched to recreating the universe from scratch.
It also doesn’t make sense. Why would he want to do this? Oh, because he has terminal pancreatic cancer… except he looks completely healthy. He even keeps bragging about his pulse rate. And he’s a criminal mastermind with access to time travel. He’s got all the money in the world, a yacht, fine art, servants, a hot wife, enough thugs to form an army (with magic reversing bullets), mansions on various continents, and you’re going to kill yourself in your prime? World-enders don’t act like this guy does. They are loners who think they’re gods. The only people close to them are minions who work for him because either A) he pays them well (like the Joker) or B) are zealots for his philosophy (like Thanos). This guy’s behavior does not match his goals.
Villains only work if they have motivations the audience can understand. No viewer would understand this. Villains who act chaotically or nihilistically (like Loki or Lotso from Toy Story 3), it’s not so much about the chaos but about the power. About regaining the agency they didn’t have earlier in life. They want to matter. They’re motivated by hurt. Others want order, to shape the world into what they want it to be.
Ending the world is a very stupid end goal for a villain. It’s like saying your protagonist’s main goal is to “survive”. What does destroying the world get you? The only types of people this works for are nihilists and mentally damaged people. Sator doesn’t seem like either. He’s a control freak. What’s there to control when the world ends?
Sator made a deal with the devil–he started life as a plutonium scavenger in Russia, knowing the job would kill him eventually. That led to him being contacted by the future to find the “algorithm” and led to all his success. You’d think he’d want to destroy the oligarchs who ruined his home country and ruined him. But no, he just wants to end it all. He has a temper, he has control issues, but I never saw him as suicidal or existential. When the villain doesn’t care about anything, that’s a problem.
But the worst is the feminist angle. This movie fails the Bechdel Test hard. I hate this character. I hate every time she’s on screen. She’s the eldest niece of an aristocrat, an art appraiser, and wife of an arms dealer/Russian oligarch. But all she cares about is her son. “Where is my son?” “Is my son safe?” “Not unless you can guarantee the safety of my son”? She sounds like Daenerys in Game of Thrones–“Where are my dragons?”
Her relationship with her husband is dead. He’s emotionally and physically abusive but she has to stay because he has a single piece of blackmail on her, where she certified some fake piece of art as authentic. Is that the only thing stopping her? The problem with blackmail is that it doesn’t work if the victim doesn’t pay, and it seems she only cares about her son. Putting her career under a guillotine isn’t an issue.
But the biggest thing is at the end. Sator’s returned to his happiest moment before he swallows a cyanide pill, which would activate the dead man’s switch and end the world. Meanwhile, two armies on the other side of the world (one moving forward in time, one moving backward) are working together to find this maguffin before it’s buried under a thousand feet of earth and inaccessible. Her only job is to keep him distracted so the armies have time to deactivate it. But what does she do? She shoots him before they’re ready because she doesn’t want him to die thinking he’s won. She can’t control her emotions so she almost compromises the mission. I’m sure all the yahoos who think women can’t serve in congress must love that.
But more likely, I think Nolan just doesn’t like women. He kills Rachel in The Dark Knight. In Inception, one woman purely exists for Cobb to give exposition to and the other is the primary antagonist. The same actress is the antagonist in The Dark Knight Rises (who also kills herself to end the world). It’s not a great track record.
Neil is fine. I like Neil. I didn’t think I’d like Robert Pattinson in anything, but he seemed cool. Good actor, good character. Makes me a little more confident about him as Batman.
On paper, you can follow Tenet just fine. The Wikipedia plot is deceptively short for such a dense story. It may be why the cast members were so delighted when they first read it (in a secure vault so no secrets would leak). The problem is in the execution–you can’t process what your eyes and brain are telling you.
Nolan is a very visual storyteller. He doesn’t rely much on dialogue. There are so many “blink and you’ll miss it” moments where characters drop some tidbit that’s crucial to understanding a “why” or “what”. He futzes with sequential storytelling (especially in Inception and Interstellar). He doesn’t always follow a three-act structure or develop solid characters.
Right from the start, I was confused. Some kind of terrorist act is happening at an opera, and Protagonist is going in with other troops to stop them. At least, I think, because I see him put on a white patch of some kind. Is he part of the terrorists and disguising himself? If so, why is he doing it in the truck in front of everyone?
It takes a long time to understand what Protagonist’s goal is. Every time he tries to learn it, he gets some bullshit cliche like “that is the question, isn’t it?” or “something that could change the world as we know it”.
Now let’s talk about “The Algorithm”. Christopher Nolan must think “algorithm” is one of those technobabble words that mean anything, like “tachyon dispersal unit” or “vibranium”. It’s not. I work with algorithms. My third class in Computer Science was called “Algorithms”. They’re not special. They’re just sets of computer instructions. Formulas to do steps efficiently, like calculate the shortest route between two points on a map. It’s not a bunch of fucked up legos that make Picasso’s wizard staff.
And where is this dead man’s switch? For a story that’s so visually oriented, we never see it. How are they connected? There’s no wire, no remote frequency. If I didn’t read about it on the wiki, I wouldn’t have known about it.
This is supposed to be the big hook of the movie. The big idea. But like a lot of innovative science fiction concepts, one little poke lets out all the air. I’m sure Christopher Nolan understands his story, but either he doesn’t let us in on it or is terrible at getting it across. As Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
Okay, so at one point, Kat gets shot in the stomach. There’s not enough time to get her to a hospital before she could die. So they send her back through inversed time so her wound can heal. Many questions spring to mind. If her body is dealing with wounds backward, does this mean her heart is pumping in reverse? Are cells putting oxygen into the blood? Is she breathing CO2? Does this mean she’s thinking in reverse? If she died in normal time, could she come back to life if they put her in inverse time? If you eat an inverse apple, do you have to shove it up your ass? And then you cough out poop?
In that same vein, how is the conversation Sator has with Protagonist in the purple divided room supposed to work? One of them would have to know the other’s responses beforehand.
They say that if the same matter touches, it’s annihilated, just like in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s masterpiece Timecop. But Protagonist fights himself and nothing happens. Is it because they didn’t touch through the fabric? Also, this plot thread never comes up (except maybe as an excuse to never have two of the same people in the same room).
If fire/heat works in reverse, shouldn’t everyone be frozen, since your body generates heat? Or would the sun freeze you first?
In the opera house, an inverse bullet causes damage to a human. But then later, an inverse bullet “heals” a window when it’s fired. Which is it? Either the guy should have had a bullet wound beforehand that sews up when the gun fires or the glass has been shattered since the building was constructed.
Time travel is a sticky subject, but plenty of good stories use it. However, they don’t go complex or use 100% visual information to communicate it. They use the ears, the context, foreground, and background clues. Half-explanations don’t cut it.
Example: The Time Traveler’s Wife. Similar concept to Tenet–there’s a man who can’t control when he jumps back in time, but he usually ends up seeing his future wife at some point during her childhood. This is difficult to wrap the head around, because the first time she meets him is not the first time he meets her. That violates a pretty fundamental understanding about what happens when two people meet, that they’re each meeting each other for the first time.
Another example: Alice Through the Looking Glass. In Chapter 5: Wool and Water, Alice meets the White Queen, who lives backward. In her world, a man is being punished for a crime he won’t commit until after next Wednesday. Then the queen screams and her finger starts spontaneously bleeding. She hasn’t pricked it, but knows she will, when she fastens her shawl and the brooch pops off. Then it happens. She catches the brooch, gets poked, but stops screaming.
Then she turns into a sheep.
Anyway, my point is, Tenet is an idea better in short form. Can you imagine a seventy-minute symphony based on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star? The central motif would become unrecognizable. Getting a mass audience to follow non-linear stories is harder than hell. When the effect comes before the cause, it doesn’t feel satisfying. And that’s what the creator should be doing — creating a satisfying experience for the consumer.
Despite everything I’ve said, I do think that the movie scene is richer for having Tenet in it than not. I think I actually like it better than Interstellar, but that could be because I tend to like time travel stories more than space stories. I’ve seen other reviews that said Tenet’s legacy is to be a heady cult film–watched fifty times by as many people.
You might ask why have I dedicated 3,200 words to this movie most people have already forgotten about. Because I get sick of seeing Hollywood, a mega-giant god of storytellers, wasting so much of its time, money, and resources on movies that clearly have problems on the page. As a writer, I know that the core of any movie is the script. That’s where the creation process starts and anything you see on screen can be traced back to it in some way. That’s why it’s so important that the script is strong.
A good producer should be able to sniff a script and detect a solid story or not. A good producer should have noticed that this script doesn’t follow a three-act structure and lacks a solid main character (not having a name should have been a clue). But someone saw the words “Christopher Nolan” and said “give him a billion kajillion dollars”.
But hey, maybe I would have made the same mistake. Like I said, Tenet looks good on paper. And if someone didn’t take a risk on non-linear movies, we wouldn’t have Pulp Fiction or Memento. Such is life in the crazy world of Tinseltown. You may be the sweetest peach on the tree, but not everyone likes peaches.