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.
Every time I read a The Lord of the Rings FAQ, I’m more confused than when I started. The reason is Tolkien left a lot of notes and drafts and letters, all compiled into posthumous publications. And there’s no production company keeping tabs on what’s “canon” like Star Wars or Star Trek.
So I tried to make a comprehensive but “simple” FAQ compilation of the questions I still have or keep seeing. It’s for the everyman who’s not terribly interested in how many spines are on Morgoth’s crown.
But first, some term definition.
Eru Ilúvatar = Ultimate God of Middle-earth, creator of all the Valar (other gods) and Maiar (demi-gods) Valar = (Singular: “Vala”) Other gods, lower in rank to Eru Ilúvatar. Think of them as Greek gods. There’s a god of forests, god of water, etc. Maiar = (Singular: “Maia”) Spirits to help the Valar shape the world. Think satyrs and nymphs and cherubs. Ainur = The collective name for the Valar and Maiar. Melkor = a Maia who learned dark magic and rebelled against his creator. Think Lucifer. Morgoth = Another name for Melkor. Istari = A Maia spirit reincarnated as an old man to aid the free men against Sauron. A.K.A. a Middle-Earth wizard Valinor = The Undying Lands or The Grey Lands. This is where everyone sails off to at the end. Arda = The planet this all takes place on.
Why do the elves and dwarves hate each other?
If you saw The Hobbit, you might think it’s because, when Smaug invaded Mount Erebor, the dwarves asked the elves for help, and the elves turned their backs.
But it goes further. In the first age, elves and dwarves had mutual respect and collaborated on a few projects. Then an elf king named Thingol wanted some dwarves (from Nogrod) to combine the elves’ greatest treasure (the Simaril, which was a gem created by one of the first elves) and the Nauglamír (a fancy necklace Thingol had previously asked the dwarves to make).
When the work was done, it was considered the most beautiful thing on the planet. The dwarves of Nogrod got greedy and wouldn’t let it go. They claimed it was dwarf work and belonged to them.
Thingol went to Nogrod to get the Simiril/Nauglamír back but was killed. The elves slaughtered the dwarves in return, but two escaped. Those two told all the other dwarves what happened, which motivated them to war. The dwarves marched on one of the great Elven realms and sacked it, taking loads of good treasure.
But on the way back, the dwarves were ambushed by an army of elves and Ents. They took all their treasure and melted it, except for the Simiril/Nauglamír, which was given back to the elves.
It should also be noted that the elves and dwarves were created by different entities (elves by Eru Ilúvatar, dwarves by a Vala named Aulë) so there are some fundamental philosophical and value conflicts there as well.
So it’s not so much a racial thing as a deep-seated prejudice. Elves are immortal and dwarves like to hold grudges, so their memories are long. Elves believe dwarves can’t be trusted. Dwarves believe elves are arrogant and condescending.
Who is Aragorn, really? Why is he so special?
Long ago, in the Second Age, a half-elf named Elros founded a kingdom called Númenor on the West coast. This kingdom lasted for 3,000 years and went through many land shifts. Eventually, the original kingdom was destroyed, but its offshoot kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor remained.
One thousand years before The Lord of the Rings takes place, the royal bloodline died out. Gondor had stewards to hold the throne until the king returned (see below question). But Arnor did not and was destroyed. Its people became reduced to a wandering race of humans called “Númenóreans” or “Dúnedain”. Their leader is called the “chieftain”. This is who Aragorn is.
Aragorn’s father was killed helping Elrond’s sons fight some orcs. That means Aragorn is the last surviving heir of the royal bloodline.
He lived to be 210 years old, since he’s 9/16th elf.
Why is Denethor the steward after all this time? Why didn’t they start over or crown a new king?
In Gondor, the last true king (see the question above) died out a thousand years ago, leaving a series of stewards to “hold the throne” until one comes back.
Even though it sure seems like no king is coming back, the people of Gondor do not accept that. The last king of Arnor tried to take over when his kingdom was destroyed, but Gondor rejected him.
What’s with the eagles? Why didn’t they take the eagles to mordor?
Could the eagles have made things easier for our heroes? Yes. Did they want to? No.
Here are the reasons:
1) The eagles are not a taxi service. They can’t be summoned with a snap of the fingers. They serve the leader of the Valar. Gandalf is only a Maia–a demi-god incarnated into an old man–so it would be like the mayor of New York calling on the president’s secret service.
2) Giant eagles, especially ones carrying a humanoid, make a juicy target for orcs with bows and Ringwraiths riding “fellbeasts”. The affairs of men aren’t worth putting yourself at risk when you serve gods. Plus it’s not exactly secret if you’re flying the One Ring where everyone can see you. It would be a suicide mission. The eagles are already doing spying work on goblins and such for the elves and Valar.
3) Even if the Eagles could somehow get the One Ring to Mount Doom, they can’t physically get it into its fires to destroy it. It’s a mountain, not a volcano. You can’t just do an Operation Dumbo Drop. It has to be the exact spot where the One Ring was forged, and that’s only accessible through a fissure in the side of the mountain. Leaving it there for someone else to pick up is not a good answer. (And all that’s without factoring in being corrupted by the One Ring.)
4) The eagles don’t have a side in this war. Imagine North Dakota is fighting South Dakota. Do you think the U.N. cares what’s going on or is going to do anything about it? The eagle that rescued Gandalf from Saruman’s tower did so as a personal favor (Gandalf previously saved his life).
That said, the movies do make them appear to be a deus ex machina. They show up to save Gandalf from Saruman’s Tower (that makes some sense since he’s partially divine). Then they help in the Battle of Black Gate AND rescue Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom (but that’s only after Sauron is 100% defeated and no longer a threat). Plus they rescue the dwarves & Bilbo from Azog and the wargs (when they’re trapped in the trees) at the end of the first The Hobbit movie and carry them about halfway to the Lonely Mountain. Then their reinforcements arrive at The Battle of the Five Armies.
If Gandalf is a wizard, why doesn’t he ever use his magic? Like cast a fireball at the orcs?
All the wizards are Istari (see vocab) whose mission is to protect the free men and let them know their gods haven’t forgotten them. Problem is only five Maiar volunteered/were drafted for this.
Part of their mission means they can’t dominate the will of men or match Sauron power-for-power. If they do, their powers and the memory of Undying Lands would wane. But they can use magic on other magic beings (e.g. a balrog, Ringwraiths, etc.) Saruman breaks this rule and he pays for it.
Why do elves risk dying in battle when they’re immortal?
Elves don’t really fear death, because when they die, they go to a sort of “purgatory” in Valinor that cleanses their spirit. Once that’s done, most choose not to return.
Death is still painful, so they do try and avoid it. But elves are reincarnated, so no big.
Where are all the other dwarves? Gimli’s the only one they could send? We see whole cities of elves, but where are the dwarves?
The dwarves are fighting Sauron’s army in their own lands, we just don’t see it. Sauron’s army is fighting on more than one front. You can read more details here.
What is the Second Age? What is the First Age?
There are four “Ages of Arda”. The First Age starts when the Children of Ilúvatar awake, starting with the elves, then the humans and dwarves. It lasts about 587 years.
The Second Age starts when Morgoth is overthrown and cast into the void by the Valar. It lasts 3,441 years, then ends when Sauron’s army is defeated (this is what you see in the movie when Sauron’s finger gets cut off).
So now the Third Age starts and lasts for 3,021 years until the One Ring is destroyed (and so is Sauron). At that point, the Fourth Age has started, also known as the “Age of Men” (since the elves have mostly gone to the Valinor at this time).
Why don’t they hide the One Ring instead of destroying it? Why not brick it in cement and drop it at bottom of the ocean?
Destroying the One Ring is the only way to destroy Sauron. Even if the One Ring still exists, even if it’s inaccessible, there are still hordes and hordes of endless unstoppable orcs to fight. It’s a little like a Horcrux in that way.
Why can Sauron be a big guy and also an eye on a tower?
So in a deleted scene from The Return of the King (deleted from the Extended Edition even!), Peter Jackson intended Sauron to fight Aragorn, instead of that big orc, at the last battle. But how can he do that if he’s watching from the tower?
We are pretty sure Sauron has a physical form during The Lord of the Rings. Gollum says he has witnessed Sauron during his torture in Barad-Dur, noted that he has four fingers on one hand. Other writings from Tolkien say that he lost his form during the battle where he lost the One Ring and took a while to build back up.
The Eye is a “hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh”. So think of it as a spell. And we can deduce that the Mouth of Sauron, the Head of Sauron, etc. are all either nicknames or magic spells (or both).
Which towers are the “Two” towers?
The tower of Barad-dûr (Sauron’s tower) and the Tower of Isengard (Saruman’s tower). The movie/book is called that because it’s about the evil forces coming to full power and closing in on the good guys.
What’s the Flame of Anor? Why is it important?
This one we don’t know for sure. Gandalf refers to it in his rah-rah speech against the Balrog (“I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor.“), but it’s never mentioned in any books.
Anor is the elvish word for sun. Perhaps the “Flame of Anor” means the light of the sun, which might refer to his power or origins as a Maia.
How did Gandalf the Grey turn into Gandalf the White? What’s the deal with wizard colors?
Wizards are demi-gods incarnated as humans, knowns as Istari. There are five of them. Tolkien describes three: Gandalf the Grey, Saruman the White, and Radagast the Brown.
In an unfinished index for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien mentions two blue wizards. One writing calls them Alatar and Pallando, but another calls them Morinehtar and Rómestámo. They arrived in the Second Age with the mission to travel to the East and incite rebellion against Sauron. Contradicting writings say they either succeeded or failed.
Gandalf 100% dies after fighting the balrog. But he still had a task to finish, so Eru Ilúvatar sent him back to finish it, along with a boost of power. Eru Ilúvatar transforms Gandalf into “Gandalf the White” to show he is “Saruman as he should have been.” (In other words, a big thumbing of the nose to Saruman.) Colors aren’t ranks or identifiers (since there are two blue wizards).
What’s the difference between orcs, goblins, and uruk-hai? How can I tell the difference?
Goblins are the orcs that Thorin and company meet in The Hobbit, who live under the Misty Mountains.
“Orc” and “goblin” are synonyms. Tolkien said Orc “is not an English word. It occurs in one or two places but is usually translated as ‘goblin’ (or ‘hobgoblin’ for the larger kinds). Orc is the hobbits’ form of the word given at that time to these creatures.”
Part of the confusion is that Tolkien used “goblin” extensively in The Hobbit, a children’s book, but “orc” in The Lord of the Rings to convey a more fearsome tone. This division furthered as works based on Tolkien (like Dungeons & Dragons) separated the two into different species.
An “Uruk-hai” is an orc mated with a man, bred by Sauron to act as elite commanders of orcs. Saruman tried mating orcs and men but they turned out as “sallow-faced and squint-eyed”. The word, in Black Speech, means “orc-folk”.
In Moria, Pippin unwittingly alerts the goblins who chase them through the mines (though in the book, these are referred to as orcs). This is the last we see of “goblins”.
Therefore we can assume to distinguish “goblins” as “orcs that live underground” and can be discerned by their smaller size, large eyes (to see in the dark), and lighter greenish skin-tone.
Uruk-hai are created by burying breeding sacks, a kind of artificial womb, deep in the earth. This lets them grow to adult size quickly. They are larger than orcs, don’t have pointed ears, and have very dark skin.
There are two types–Isengarders (Saruman’s army) and Black Uruk-hai (Sauron’s army).
Are orcs a subspecies of elves or are they their own thing?
Tolkien’s never firmly said where orcs came from. At one time, he said Morgoth (Middle-earth’s Lucifer) created them from corrupted elves (since he can’t create life). But this meant orcs were inherently evil, and Tolkien didn’t like the idea of an unredeemable race. Through the years, he’s said things like they came from stone, from beasts, from Maiar, and/or from men. The Silmarillion says they come from elves, but it’s not a completed work.
Do the orcs breed? Where are the female orcs?
Yes, but only in theory. Gandalf refers to orcs “spawning” at one point. At the battle of the Hornburg, someone refers to “half-orcs” and “goblin-men”. Aragorn refers to “half-orcs” at Isengard. The Silmarillion says “the orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar”. This must mean orcs reproduce through sex.
Subsequent post-Tolkien texts go into more detail, saying more “cunning breeds” of orcs could be created by mating men with orcs. Saruman rediscovered this and did so, resulting in Men-orcs and Orc-men. The fact that there are two terms for the same thing with the words reversed might imply one term means “offspring of an orc father and human mother” and another for “human father and orc mother”.
Finally, there’s a letter where Tolkien wrote “there must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. Not much was known.”
So they exist, but that’s about all we know about them.
This means orcs breed through conventional means. So why are there so many male orcs and no females? I don’t know. Where are they all? Further to the east?
WTF is Tom Bombadil?
No one really knows. He could be the avatar of Eru Ilúvatar, a Vala, a wizard, a nature spirit, or just an eccentric guy living in the woods. But he doesn’t make a difference in the story–doesn’t hurt or help the protagonists–so it hardly matters.
We know his various names in elvish, Rohirric, etc. translate to “very old” or “eldest”. The One Ring doesn’t affect him (he doesn’t turn invisible), but he can see its wearer in the wraith-realm. Everything after that is conjecture.
Why do they keep saying “they were all of them deceived, for another ring was made”? Who did Sauron deceive? If he put his power into eighteen other rings, how did he put any into the One Ring?
In the second age, there was an elven king named Celebrimbor. Celebrimbor was a master smith.
Sauron disguised himself as an elf named Annatar and went to Celebrimbor, claiming he was taught the art of ring-making by the gods and wanted to teach it to Celebrimbor and his smiths. Together, they created the eighteen rings, but unknowingly (to all but Sauron) incorporated a binding magic into them.
Meanwhile, Sauron was actually learning how to make rings from them. Then he forged the One Ring on his own. This artifact would let him control all the lesser rings, which would go onto the fingers of the rulers of Middle-earth.
The One Ring is a focus tool. A medium to control the other medium (like you can’t connect to any other computer unless you have a computer yourself).
How does the One Ring fit everyone who wears it?
It’s magic. The One Ring wants to be worn, to be used. That brings it closer to its master.
Why does Frodo have to take the One Ring? He’s, like, the weakest of them all.
The council would like to destroy it, but they all believe there’s no chance any of them can get to Mount Doom. So they argue about whether to use it against Sauron, if they can hide it, etc. until Frodo raises his hand.
Why does he? A few reasons.
Frodo, being an innocent hobbit with no ambitions for power, is the least corruptible of them all.
Frodo has a sense of responsibility/ownership of the One Ring because he inherited it. Therefore, he feels he should be the one to destroy it. (Side note: He’s also the only one who didn’t get the One Ring through cheating or murder.)
He’d already proven capable of carrying the One Ring from the Shire to Rivendell, so he had previous job experience.
He was the only one who volunteered.
Why does Sauron send ALL his troops to fight Aragorn and the others at the Black Gate in their “last stand”?
Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli intend to distract Sauron to give Frodo more time to destroy the One Ring. (How they’re so certain Frodo’s not facedown in a river, I don’t know. Faith, I guess.) So Aragorn looks into the Palantir* and makes a personal challenge, showing him Anduril (the reforged sword that cut off Sauron’s finger before). This does three things:
Reminds him that the last time he fell, it was with the same sword. And it’s essentially coming for him again.
Convinces Sauron that Aragorn has the One Ring.
Regarding that third point, Sauron knows the One Ring is close to his vicinity. And the last time he saw the One Ring it was still in the hands of the fellowship (at the end of Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo uses it to hide from Boromir). Therefore, he deduces that Aragorn has it since they would give it to the most powerful one of them to hold.
So Sauron goes to meet Aragorn’s challenge, hoping he can either seize the One Ring or get Aragorn to put it on and influence him that way.
*A Palantir is a crystal ball that allows direct communication with Sauron. Only wizards can use it without having their minds taken over.
What good is the One Ring? All it does is turn one person invisible.
True, but it has more powers than that.
The One Ring’s main power is to dominate those who hold the other “Rings of Power”. Those are the three for the elves, seven for the dwarves, and nine for the men. It can also influence creatures who do not have rings of power (like Smeagol).
It can intensify/enhance the powers of one who wears it. A powerful leader with the One Ring has more command over others. A strong warrior with the One Ring will be nigh unbeatable in combat.
So when Frodo wears it, not much happens because he’s a normal humble halfling who doesn’t seek to dominate anyone. But if Gandalf or Galadriel wore it, watch out. That’s why they avoid touching it, because they know the extent of their magic and how much they can influence others.
If the One Ring can influence those who hold the other rings of power, why doesn’t it?
It does for the men who are the Ringwraiths (guys in black robes that chase Frodo, Sam, and others).
The dwarves are largely unaffected by the rings because they’re so stubborn. But Sauron was able to make them greedier (like hoarding the treasures under Erebor) and prone to bad decisions (like resettling Moria). Sauron obtained three of them through trickery and war. The other four were consumed by dragonfire.
The elves aren’t influenced by the rings because A) Sauron didn’t directly create the rings B) they stopped using the rings when they realized Sauron was evil.
Why doesn’t Sauron turn invisible when he wears the One Ring?
Sauron designed the One Ring that way. Since he’s partially a Maia, he exists in both the seen and unseen realms. This means he can see and be seen in both realms.
Since the One Ring draws the wearer partially into the unseen realm (a.k.a. “wraith realm”), it has no “invisibility” effect on Sauron.
Why did Sauron make all the rings?
He made these rings as gifts for the other races on Middle-earth–dwarves, elves, and men. (He already had an army of orcs and goblins.) The rings were all bound to the One Ring, which Sauron would use to exert influence on the wearers of the lesser rings.
What’s a balrog? What is doing down there in the mines of Moria? Does it work for Sauron?
A balrog is a Maia that was “turned to the dark side” by Morgoth. It’s on the same rank as Sauron, Saruman, and Gandalf. There are many of them, but the one we’re concerned about is the one in the Mines of Moria.
This balrog (like others of its kind) had sought refuge by digging deep into the earth after losing the war between Morgoth and everyone else (called the “War of Wrath”). About 1300 years later, some dwarves awoke it while mining too deep for mithril. The balrog woke up and killed most of them all, including Moria’s dwarf king Durin (an ancestor of Balin). This earned it the name “Durin’s Bane”.
About another thousand years later is when Gandalf and the Fellowship finally encounter it.
What is Gandalf saying to the balrog? What do those terms mean?
“I am the servant of the secret fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn! Go back to the Shadow! YOU… SHALL NOT… PASS!”
“Secret Fire” = the life-giving power imparted to the world by Eru Ilúvatar (identifying himself as a Maia) “Flame of Anor” = elvish word for “sun” “Flame of Udûn” = Udûn is the fortress of Morgoth
So a more understandable way of putting it could be “I am of a servant of God’s creation, wielder of the light of the sun. Evil’s power will not avail you, soldier of Morgoth!”
I watched John Carter for the first time (on Disney+) and had some thoughts.
Film buffs like to talk about John Carter. The movie was supposed to be a big new franchise for Disney, but it became a famous bomb.
I don’t think it was poor marketing. Good word of mouth can outdo mediocre advertising and reach. That’s what happened with War Horse and The Greatest Showman and The Blind Side and the new Jumanji and especially Iron Man — no one expected much out of superhero movies after the Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four duds.
I don’t think it was a lack of star power. I don’t go to see movies to see actors. In fact, I’m more likely to avoid a movie because it stars an actor I hate (e.g. Brad Pitt, Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Cera, Shia LaBoeuf). I prefer no-name actors because that makes it easier to lose myself in the story. Little harder when Tom Cruise is playing Tom Cruise and not the character he’s supposed to. Well-known crew names might pique my interest, but more often than not, it’s a stamp of unoriginality. A James Cameron film’s gonna James Cameron.
I don’t think it was that the budget got overblown with reshoots. Creative accounting makes it so no movie gains a profit anyway, so budget is a nebulous thing. And Andrew Stanton isn’t a first-time director, just a first-time director for live-action. He made Finding Nemo and WALL-E. Talent like that can’t be squelched by a slightly different medium.
I think it failed because it’s story that’s a hundred years old.
Since the John Carter books were written we’ve had Star Trek, Star Wars, The Black Hole, WALL-E, District 9, Dune, Guardians of the Galaxy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, E.T., The Martian. Even Plan 9 From Outer Space has had some influence on “off-Earth” science fiction stories.
Don’t Blame Mars
I know I said before that I didn’t believe it was marketing, but I think there is some truth that movies based around Mars do poorly (e.g. Mission to Mars, Mars Needs Moms). That’s why they left the “of Mars” off and we got just a guy’s name (more like a phonebook entry than a movie title).
But Mars is not necessarily a black spot. Total Recall, The Martian, and even Doom (the video game) take place on Mars.
The problem comes from treating Mars the same way H.G. Wells treated it in War of the Worlds a hundred and twenty-three years ago. Back then people weren’t 100% sure there wasn’t life on Mars. Astronomers thought the canals on the planet were water-filled (but this turned out to be false). The whole point of War of the Worlds is Great Britain going “what if someone tried to colonize us?” The queen had taken a dump on nearly every country’s coast at this point, so there was storytelling to mine with the fear of invasion by a bigger bully. And the best candidate for that invader was a species off-planet.
But now, Mars doesn’t hold the same sway. It’s like a neighbor house you thought was haunted, but then you sent in someone during the day and they said it’s just a boring house. Truth is like toothpaste–you can’t squeeze it back in the tube.
It’s easier to say that movies set in a desert do poorly. I know it’s an automatic turn-off for me that few movies pull me back from (Mad Max: Fury Road succeeded in that). Deserts have nothing. You wouldn’t want to be there, you wouldn’t want to explore them. Even applies to non-science fiction movies, like Hidalgo and Sahara.
Just Because Tarzan Worked…
Time is not kind to intellectual property, especially adventure and science fiction stories. This is because A) what thrills and excites one culture or era may not do the same for another. For example, compare our movies to India’s or China’s or France’s. Stories are reflections of the time and culture they live in.
According to Wikipedia, John Carter was in development hell since the 1930s, so Hollywood recognized the cinematic-ness of the Barsoom stories and/or the success of the Tarzan franchise. Too expensive, too unfilmmable, too fantastic. But they still wanted something epic to be the next Star Wars or Last of the Mohicans. Here’s the thing: if you’re in a relationship and you keep breaking up and getting back together and breaking up and getting back together and breaking up and getting back together, maybe it’s just not going to work out. Maybe you should turn your eyes to something that will work and focus on that.
Some stories seem to be timeless, like A Christmas Carol, Les Miserables, Romeo and Juliet, Alice in Wonderland. The earliest book I’ve read is Aesop’s Fables (590 BC). Simple children’s stories with clear themes and interesting characters (usually animals). Even Edgar Rice Burroughs’s other book series, Tarzan, remains an often-recreated movie and story. So why shouldn’t we try to movie-fy the other wildly popular book Burroughs wrote?
Well, a few reasons. One, Tarzan didn’t go right from one-hundred-year-old book to tentpole movie. Tarzan’s been reimagined and reinterpreted since its inception, like Batman or Robin Hood or King Arthur. From silent movies, stage productions, radio programs, to the “Weissmüller era” (where Tarzan became the pop culture character he is now), then television series, cheesy movies that starred Bo Derek or Christopher Lambert or Margot Robbie. And then there’s the Disney film. It’s never left the public consciousness. Meanwhile, no one’s thought about John Carter.
Two, remember I just said “reimagined and reinterpreted”? Tarzan’s source material has… some issues. It was written by a white American male. In 1912. Taking place in Africa. Starring a white male. Often set against indigenous African tribes. Who is secretly a British lord. Learns superpowers from apes. Then becomes their king. So to get from a guy who proudly declares he’s a “killer of cannibals & black men” to a Disney film, there has to be some steps in-between.
The same goes for John Carter, a story rooted in a world brimming with “white man’s burden” and colonialism and women who still couldn’t vote yet.
And Now… A Lesson From Indiana Jones
Indiana Jones succeeded because it was based on the movie serials of the 30s and 40s where intrepid heroes race around the world after some maguffin (e.g. Doc Savage, Gunga Din, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Secret of the Incas, Allan Quatermain). In 1981, the people who saw those serials as 10-year-olds were in their sixties now. And nostalgia bites hard. But this time, they boiled out everything that was stupid or boring–the long waits between episodes, the cheesy sets, the lack of a sense of real danger, the poor acting–and maximized entertainment and humor. It’s like the Mario sports games: they remove the boring stuff and leave the fun and craziness.
Then in 2008, they made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. No one told Hollywood that the world had moved on from Indiana Jones. Everyone who remembered the old serials was dead. All that was left were the ten-year-olds who had seen the original in the theaters, and on VHS, and video games, and played it in the backyard, over and over and over, were the adults. We never stopped being exposed to Indiana Jones. But what did Hollywood deliver?
The same ol’ same ol’. They weren’t piggybacking on old serials anymore. They were piggybacking on Indiana Jones. Trying to make us nostalgic for the cold war with Russians and the nuclear scare. Marion (who Jones had a questionable relationship with) comes back from the first movie, and now he Indiana Jones is a deadbeat dad. And his son’s an obnoxious thief who seems like he’s just out of the diner in Back to the Future. Also aliens.
Instead of compensating for the march of time, they gave us the same thing, forgetting twenty years had passed. That tastes had evolved. That stories had evolved. But they gave us the old junk repackaged with CGI.
What does any of that have to do with John Carter? I bring it up because there’s very little new here. Some cities at war, alien tribes, a coliseum, a few flying vehicles. Even while watching I said to myself “oh, another action scene”. I literally cannot tell you who John Carter is. Whereas the Avengers all have their own unique personalities and philosophies. Everyone is distinct.
John Carter is just a basic Superman. He’s doing right because he believes it’s right, which is another thing that rubs me the wrong way, in that colonialism “I’m coming into your yard and fix all your problems because I’m ‘more advanced’ than you.” That would be like me going to Detroit in a mech suit and yelling “We going to war, my bitches!”
Todays good adventure stories are The Fast and the Furious, King Kong, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Toy Story, Pirates of the Caribbean, and lots of superhero stories like Harry Potter and Batman and anything Marvel. Some take place in fantastic worlds, some are down-to-earth, but they’re never about wanting a crown or conquering a world. They’re about stopping bad people in power from doing bad things.
The best way to describe John Carter is Conan the Barbarian crossed with Avatar(in fact, Disney+ even recommended Avatar after I was finished). And I didn’t like either of those movies. Both of them have stories that have either static characters or a story that’s tedious, overused, and cliched, even in our time.
Conan led the way to a lot of cheesy clones like The Beastmaster and He-Man. Avatar was overhyped and over-marketed with the promise of being the next Star Wars with four more movies inbound. Where are those other movies, James?
The best these movies have now is a cult following. And that’s who John Carter is for–a cult audience. One with niche interests (like old stories, desert warriors saving princesses, old-style aliens, etc.). A movie seen fifty times by as many people.
The movie ended up getting a final grade of “mixed reviews”. Which seems about right to me. There is an audience for this movie, but it’s not a majority audience.
I hate the Scott Pilgrim movie. You’d think I wouldn’t because it’s all about video games and meet-cutes and boy heroes and martial arts. But it’s just so misogynist and every character’s an asshole. Even the good guys.
Stage 1: Bad Casting
I hate Michael Cera (as an actor, I’m sure he’s a fine person). Some actors just rub me the wrong way and seem wrong for any role they’re in. I feel the same about Matthew Broderick, Kristen Stewart, Tom Cruise, Shia LaBeouf, and Ashton Kutcher. They’ve never done anything wrong in my eyes. They’re just… bad to watch.
And Michael Cera’s top of the list for me. I hated him in Juno. I hated him in Superbad. And I hated him in this. His persona as a mealy-mouthed, soft-skinned, unthreatening teen who has trouble talking to girls holds no water for me. He’s an antithesis of masculinity, which is one of the reasons why he was cast in this movie–to contrast against the toxic masculine stereotypes he has to fight against.
But taking away toxic masculinity doesn’t make you a good guy. Instead, he’s a eunuch. I don’t believe he could fight a snail much less seven evil exes. He doesn’t have the stage presence to make you believe he’s falling in love or mourning a lost relationship or rising above himself to triumph at the end. Michael Cera is a Milhouse, not a Bart Simpson. He looks like a medieval pageboy with consumption or pneumonia. Something where he won’t see his seventeenth birthday.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead just sits there and doesn’t do anything. She’s not the other player in this game, she’s the ball. She sits around and looks pretty with her big-ass eyes and acts as a prize to be won. She and Cera have no chemistry–I’m not even convinced Cera knows he’s supposed to care about her. I think he’s doing it because that’s what it says in the script.
And the rest of the supporting cast underacts or overacts. There’s no in-between. Kieran Culkin, the gay best friend, looks like he’s dying of AIDS (maybe he wandered in off the Rent set). Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza are all right, but they’re playing to type. And all the exes act like clowns by way of DragonBall Z.
Stage 2: Bad Characters
Scott Pilgrim is a mopey, timid, feeble, self-obsessed loser who drags everybody down. The first thing we see him doing is dating a seventeen-year-old high school girl… as a twenty-two-year-old. Yuck. Plus, he’s an absolute shit to her from beginning to end. Nothing he does redeems the way he’s treated her. He’s a self-conscious, sex-obsessed, go-nowhere dweeb with no friends (the friends he does have just yell at him) because he’s manipulative and cowardly and blames everyone else for his problems. He’s me in high school.
His goal is bullshit. It’s not to get the girl, not to form a relationship with her. It’s to defeat her seven ex-boyfriends (and one ex-girlfriend) in combat, so he can date her. What kind of white knight bullshit is this? It’s like the Michigan lockdown protestors and BLM militias–they’re willing to do anything for love as long as it means they get to do violence. Actually talk to the girl? Fuck that. That’s weakness, that’s compromise. True men don’t woo women, they conquer.
I mean, the ending is literally the last ex-boyfriend on a throne with Ramona shackled next to him. I’m half-expecting her to cry out “Mario!” in a high-pitched voice. It’s the kind of thing you see in Mystery Science Theater 3000 movies. I would make a Jabba the Hutt/Slave Leia reference, but even Slave Leia had more agency chained up to a greasy slug.
And Scott Pilgrim’s big character-flip moment is… gaining self-respect. Except that wasn’t his problem. His problem was treating others like shit. It was being a self-absorbed jerkass. If he thought he could win against seven people in mortal combat, he never lacked confidence. He certainly had the ego to date Knives and Ramona at the same time. (“I forgot to tell you I dumped you”… tch, coward.)
We’re solving the wrong problem here. The movie even gives him a chance to fight his internal evil with “Nega Scott”. But then the movie throws that away, and he MAKES FRIENDS with it. They go out for brunch! Does that mean he’s embracing his evil? Does that mean he’s giving in to those negative tendencies? He’s going to keep being a dick? Even Scott says “he’s actually a nice guy”. What does that sound like? (Answer: it sounds like every murderer or rapist apologist out there).
All right, enough about him. Who else is there? Ramona? Blander than Canadian candy. She’s bitter and gloomy, and not in the fun way like Aubrey Plaza. I couldn’t tell you a thing about her personality except that she’s “haunted” by relationships past. She never smiles, she’s never happy, even when she’s rescued.
Then this should be her story, not Scott Pilgrim’s (but asshole that he is, he makes it his own). The movie’s central theme is about moving beyond the jealousy of one’s past relationships. Not judging a person by who they were but who they are.
It’s Ramona’s problem–if she wants to find love, she has to move past the stigma of her past mistakes. It shouldn’t be the job of the boy who wants to date her. Scott is solving her problem, not his own. She has to realize that the past is a part of who she is, but she doesn’t have to let it define her.
Maybe this is why I don’t understand the movie–as much as I judge others, I judge based on the now, not the backstory. I have no moment in my past of “wow, how can I compete with that guy”. I’ve dated women who had nine ex-boyfriends. I didn’t care. She was with me now. Maybe it meant I’d eventually become a notch in her history, but we’ve got to take that risk for love.
Then we get to the Knives Chau. Obnoxious little teenybopper who mimics every J-Pop otaku and obsesses over Scott. She’s like Shampoo from Ranma ½. Is she meant to be that way? I don’t know. But it doesn’t mean I want to see her on screen. It’s like she exists to drain sympathy from Scott, but doesn’t earn any herself. Especially when the movie parallels her to Yoko Ono.
Wallace Wells is a sex maniac and a hypocrite. He’s supposed to be a best friend. The voice of reason. Spock, Samwise Gamgee, Hermione Granger, Donkey. Except he tells Scott not to cheat on Knives when he himself is cheating on his boyfriend. And generally being promiscuous. And he’s constantly insulting Scott.
Stacey Pilgrim and Julie Powers are all right. They have a dark humor and react rationally to everything that’s going on. And they’re always telling Scott off–yelling at him when he keeps doing the stupid wrong thing. I like the women in this cast, but they’re all there to support the male lead. It technically passes the Bechdel Test, but only on insignificant throwaway lines. At no point does the movie care what Ramona or Knives or the drummer or the female exes feel. They’re all fodder for the battlefield.
And notice that I haven’t mentioned the primary antagonists in this movie–the evil exes. That’s because they’re nothing. They’re comic book villains. And not good ones. I’m talking like Stilt Man and Paste Pot Pete. They’re just brutes and comedy relief. The male equivalent of sexy lamps.
I’m not talking about the CGI effects that mimic video game tricks, like points being scored or coins spontaneously erupting. Those are fine. The fighting is good too. They did a good job of melding the martial arts/stuntwork with actors who are clearly NOT physical (e.g. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Michael Cera). The stylization is not the problem.
But everything else looks like it was designed by Hollywood committees. Like the make-up and costumer were white-haired old men with beer bellies and suspenders. They were constantly asking “Eh? Is this how the kids are dressing these days? Is this what they like? The video games and the clothings? Anime? That’s the Japanese cartoons where the women have big boobs, right?”
The costuming looks like someone saw Street Fighter II and Ranma ½, then threw up on the clothes. (Why do I keep bringing up Ranma ½? Maybe because my anime DVD case is right in front of me.) The make-up artists had been to Burning Man too many times (or possibly thought they were still there). Give the love interest some brightly colored hair–that’s an anime thing, right? Satya Bhabha (Matthew Patel) looks like a raccoon and there’s something wrong with Chris Evans’s eyebrows.
The fighting (and this is as much a problem with the movie’s story as it is the special effects) has all the tension of a WWE match. Scott takes kicks that should implode his chest cavity. But he gets up. And often defeats his enemies with fewer punches than he just took. You don’t know the rules so you don’t know when you should worry about the character. How much damage can Scott take? Does he have a regenerating shield like Halo? He never bleeds so does he have hit points? How many? Yu-Gi-Oh had firmer rules than this.
Final Stage: Bad Story
The story has the same veiled anti-moral of Ready Player One — it rewards the protagonist for a toxic obsession over a thing. Ramona is a maguffin. Scott’s obstacles are “on the way to” the prize rather than what it is. He doesn’t produce anything new, he regurgitates what has already been produced.
If you take out the hipsters and video games references, there really is nothing here. I’ve already talked about the unlikeable characters. Without them, you don’t have a plot. You’ve got a guy who already has a girlfriend who he’s too chickenshit to break up with. He sees someone better, someone he had a “dream-vision” about (which I hate and has no place in a movie like this). Is the universe trying to tell him he should be with Ramona? The universe is a dick.
Everyone at the party can’t stop gushing about what a cool chick she is, she’s got guys groveling at her feet. But all she’s doing is moping against a wall, alone. (Show, don’t tell, movie.) She doesn’t seem remotely interested in him, but she accepts his date because the movie demands it. She even resigns herself to making out with him.
But right before their relationship can move further (and maybe we can get into an interesting love triangle) her ex-boyfriends appear. Then the movie stops so they can fight over and over again. (Except for the Designated Girl Fight between Ramona and her own ex-girlfriend, because our “hero” wouldn’t hit a girl) And the time where it’s actually his band fighting. And there’s two of them (because we’ve got to get this story moving goddammit). BTW, is he murdering these people? Forget it, I don’t want to know. Everyone deserves to die anyway.
And through all this, we’re just accepting the conceit that, in this world, you have to defeat your girlfriend’s ex-boyfriends before you can date her. Like, is that a law? Is it just Ramona Flowers who gets this treatment? Why is she so special? There’s no explanation of why this is a thing.
In the end, Knives proves that she and Scott are better together (as it’s the two of them fighting in tandem, like in their favorite video game, that defeats the final boss). Ramona just stands there until she kicks him in the junk. A cheap shot for a cheap shot. It seems like the ending is moving towards Scott choosing someone who was actually dedicated to him and being wrong for his crush on Ramona. But nope.
By the way, there’s no consequences for his cheating. Everyone just kisses and makes up and goes home.
This movie is trendy and retro and quirky and became a cult hit. In the same way the Proud Boys are a cult. Who wouldn’t want to defend a lady’s honor with flaming laser swords? What kind of person dreams of fighting teen actors, skateboarders, slutty pop stars, vegans, lesbians, and Japanese DJs?
It’s full of flash and cute icons and distractions to keep you engaged while a poor act plays out with poor characters. Just because you slap Mario on a thing doesn’t mean every nostalgia gen-Xer is going to love it. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is insipid and misanthropic, glorifying toxic masculinity, and depriving women of their agency.
If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts, then repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, I should really just relax…”
These are the last lyrics of the theme song to Mystery Science Theater 3000. This caveat exists because the premise of the show isn’t about the setting or characters or universe. It’s about making fun of bad movies. You don’t need an aesthetic for that (and in fact, RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic have proven you don’t). It’s just some pleasant decoration around the content. A wrapper. It’s not meant to be thought about.
Remember when Star Wars premiered? (No, probably not.) It was popular, but it was still a movie. A combination of samurai cinema and war films dumped into science fiction and goofy shit like space apes and robots with anxiety and cinnamon bun heads.
I mean, think about Darth Vader without any context. Hard to do, I know, but look at him standing there. Black boots, bulbous helmet out of Mars Attacks, laser sword, and a cape. Kinda goofy, isn’t it? Then thirty years later happened and now the red & white droid that breaks down as Luke and Uncle Owen are walking away from the Jawas has a backstory. It has a backstory!
The coffee maker has an action figure. Jabba’s band has an album. More brain cells have been killed in the name of Star Wars than thinking of solutions for world peace.
The whole reason I’m thinking about this is because of the “Movies with Mikey” video essay about “Bill & Ted” in anticipation of the third movie. He’s a great analyzer but one of his repeated motifs through the piece is “don’t think about it”.
The reason is that the premise is silly. Two stoner rockers need to pass history class with an awesome presentation or the band will break up. This is a problem because, in the future, they write the song which unites the world in love and peace.
So a representative of that future gives them a time travel device so they can retrieve historical figures for their report. Straight from the horse’s mouth, if you will.
Immediately, discerning minds among you will have several questions. Is this really the best way to help Bill and Ted? Will abducting historical figures disrupt the past? Will giving them information about the future affect their work from thereon? Why are there no records of the figures talking about their adventures at the San Dimas mall? Do they need supervision operating a device that could wipe out space and time? Why is it a phone booth? (Besides ripping off Doctor Who.) How can a ten-digit number signify an exact place and time from at least 1 million BC to 2655 AD? Any point on Earth, any point in time, down to the…day? Because Rufus says to get to tomorrow, you have to dial one number higher. But then a clock for “present” San Dimas is still running? And I’m not even going to get into the fundamental questions which plague even the best stories about time travel. There’s very little about the story that makes sense (but that’s par for the course inanystoryinvolvingtimetravel).
What does Mikey say? Don’t think about it.
Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me lampshades this specifically. As Austin is trying to understand the causality of time travel before he goes back to 1969, his boss says “I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself.” Austin himself turns to the camera and, with a wink and a nod, agrees.
But I can’t enjoy myself! Because I do think about those things! My mind is trained to. It comes from all those games like Dungeons & Dragons and Chess and Magic: The Gathering where you have to remember a hundred different conditions and reactions and bonus effects and strategies that are all going on at the same time. It comes from my education as a programmer, where you’ve got to remember what fourteen million lines of code do because it’s all a Jenga tower made of spaghetti. I have to think about these things–it’s what I do!
I’m not a fan of the idea “don’t think about it” axiom when it comes to consuming media. That’s a bad path to go down.
For one thing, it lets bad media “get away with it”. Crap TV and movies only meant to exploit your attention and take your money (stuff like Reefer Madness, Mac and Me, Catwoman, Gigli, Glitter, Showgirls, Batman & Robin, and The Land Before Time 87).
For another, it’s used as a defense against people who say “How can you like this? X, Y, and Z are wrong with it. If Q is true, nothing in the plot works. How can character R be so stupid? All these plot holes and character mistakes make no sense.”
Knowing how the trick works doesn’t necessarily take away the magic. If you turn off your brain, you can’t appreciate it when they do get things right. It’s the little touches that show that people put EFFORT into the creation of the piece. That means they cared. And if they cared, you should be allowed to.
So there’s the question: Should you think about it? Should you not? Is it up to you? Does the combination of viewer and thing-being-viewed make the difference?
I think the key to remember is that no story is flawless. (“No movie is without sin.”) Citizen Kane, always considered the best of the best of the best in cinema, has a huge plot hole: the whole movie hinges on discovering the meaning of “Rosebud”, his last words. But Kane dies alone, so how does anyone know what his last words are? None of the movie should have happened.
Gone with the Wind has an electric lamp and It’s a Wonderful Life has a disappearing wreath between shots. How does Andy Dufresne reattach the Raquel Welch poster so securely after his escape in The Shawshank Redemption? In The Karate Kid, the referee explicitly states that hits to the face are not allowed. How does Daniel-san win? A glorified kick to the face. And we shall forever debate whether Jack could have fit on the door next to Rose.
Did any of these mistakes affect your enjoyment of the film? Did you even notice them? You probably will now, but how much will it change your enjoyment? Not much, I wager. Fiction helps us understand reality. Just like kittens play-fighting or your kids playing with action figures. It’s a safe space you can explore ideas or simulate new ones without hurting anyone. Everything from Casablanca to Bill and Ted.
It’s the movie’s duty to create more good parts than bad. That doesn’t mean expensive special effects or complex acting nuances. It means creating a playspace with emotional investment, rather than logical. Movies with nonsensical premises, like Mrs. Doubtfire or Edward Scissorhands or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs don’t get trashed because the story pulls you in. (And if I knew how they do it, I’d bottle it up and make a million dollars.) But I do know that without investment, your attention wanders away to the problems.
It’s like ants in your sugar. One ant can be picked out. But the more ants you have to pick out, the less appetizing the sugar gets. Or like a diamond ring–if you don’t like the husband, you start seeing the flaws in the rock.
Now, you can get TOO emotionally invested in a movie, like Star Wars or Harry Potter where it becomes your whole identity. (Also applies to things like music, sports, YouTubers, female pop artists, and podcasts–anything with a toxic fandom.) A good story brings characters to life. But when you confuse those characters with reality or choose to give up on reality and live in the illusion, that’s a problem. Especially when it starts hurting others. You choose the movie, don’t let the movie choose you.
But to say about any movie “don’t think about it” is to let others get away with poor quality and low effort. It gives carte blanche to bad actors, malevolent producers, maniacal writers, and anyone who uses story-telling to exploit people and gain money. If you don’t care about the obvious distracting flaws, why should they? That’s why people get away with The Human Centipede and Caligula and Old Fashioned (or any Pureflix movie) or The Oogieloves. They advertise nasty sex or gore-riffic violence or reaffirmation of your Christian values or 90-minute distractions for your kids.
I’m going to watch Bill and Ted 3. And I am going to think about it. And it’s up to the movie whether or not it’s earned the right to rise above the flaws & mistakes. To create give & return in the characters so that I’m no longer looking for the strings holding the flying saucers.
You can think about it too much, but you should always think about it.
Anyone justifying the existence of Cuties is missing a crucial aspect of the puzzle. The plot is the same thing as “Bend It Like Beckham”, but meaner. We all know the huge problem with it–it sexualizes twelve- and thirteen-year-olds in the context of modern dance.
Its defenders say the movie is actually a critique of the hypersexualization young women. That it’s presenting the content in a negative light. It’s about the “dangers” of such activity.
There are 2-3 minute montages of them dancing outside, on stairs, on a stage. Wearing revealing outfits. Twerking, thrusting their hips, gesturing to their vaginas. That’s not criticism, that’s a music video.
You know how I know? You could tell the same story using magic and nothing would have to change. Have the girls practice close-up illusions, card tricks, coin tricks, prestidigitation, escapology, levitation through a hula hoop, street/guerilla performances. Have them trick the security guard by doing the “pick a card” routine and he’s so impressed he leaves them alone. Montages of cards flying through the air, getting trapped in the box, as they learn their skills. You could even keep the same “rebelling against religious values” theme since magic is “witchcraft” or “grifting”. And the ending is a bunch of adorable little Zatannas on stage doing their final routine. Instead of debasing women, it’s empowering.
Another reason how I know? No one ever has experiences any negative consequences for their actions. In fact, the characters are rewarded. They twerk for a security guard to get out of trouble. One takes a cell phone pictures of her genitals and posts it to social media to get popular. The main character pushes someone in the river. They take a picture of a boy’s private parts.
No one ever gets in trouble for this. The movie never shows “Thirty Years Later” when they’re all strippers and strung out on heroin.
Another, less used defense is that the film is French, so there’s a cultural divide in how sexuality is perceived over there. I say, if this is acceptable content in your culture, maybe your culture sucks. Just because it won a Sundance award doesn’t mean quality. Suicide Squad won an Oscar too.
Don’t pretend this movie is trying to be Kids. The intended audience is the same as the child beauty pageant judges in South Park’s “Dead Celebrities” episode.
Boy I’m getting all my controversial opinions out, aren’t I?
Field of Dreams is on everybody’s “Best Movies” lists, but it’s a stupid movie and no one understands why. I guess because it makes them “feel good”. Which, I guess, is fine — art is supposed to make you feel something. I suppose it’s satisfying to see a jerkass yuppie blowhard get his comeuppance or an affirmation that the life choices you made weren’t mistakes or to see a grown man get a second chance to bond with his father.
And it all hinges around baseball. That god-given, American-as-apple-pie (suspiciously-similar-to-English-cricket) sport of kings and peasants. It’s Hollywood’s go-to pastime and cinema darling. Easy to pick up, hard to master. It has so many aspects ripe for stories–the economy (Moneyball), triumph over prejudice (A League of Their Own, 42), relationship woes (Fever Pitch, Trouble with the Curve, For the Love of the Game), thriller (The Fan), coming of age (The Sandlot), wish fulfillment (Rookie of the Year, Little Big League), and of course, the good old underdog story (Major League, The Natural… and pretty much all the rest). But then we got Field of Dreams, which is a… ghost story… where ghosts are nice?
And by the way, why is it that one guy can’t see the ghosts and then can suddenly see them all after one steps out. And why do the ghosts appear as the age they were at their baseball prime, but they seem to remember everything of their lives? This is my complaint about ghost stories in general — ghosts have no rules so nothing matters. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Here’s my first problem: the main character has no character arc. What’s his problem? Well, he’s bored. He’s a man of the land, beholden to his bills. He feels like he’s missing something, that he’s meant for something more. Well, isn’t that white privilege in a nutshell. You’re stuck in Iowa, that’s your damn problem. People in Iowa look at Des Moines like it’s Capital City. (“Man, if I could just get to Des Moines I’ll have ‘made it’.” “We gotta get to Des Moines this weekend.”)
That’s what he wants. What he needs is to reconcile with his father. All he wants is to have one last “catch” with his dad. Well, that’d be fine except that it never comes up. None of the problems or conflicts in the plot have anything to do with his father. In fact, you forget he’s even a factor until the end of the movie.
And what’s worse, the movie doesn’t show you any of these motivations, it TELLS you. It tells you in the opening narration. It tells you in an actionless dialogue between him and his wife. What does that make the plot? A bunch of gibberish.
The inciting incident for the plot is that Kevin Costner hears a voice. It tells him to build a baseball field. Why does he do it? Because there’s no movie if he doesn’t. It’s like the Gremlins rules. I mean, I love Gremlins, but no sunlight? No water? Those are the two most abundant things on this planet. How have gremlins not overrun the world by this point? How does Gizmo live without getting water to drink? They make the rules silly so that they’re impossible to follow. Because if they are followed, there’s no movie.
Anyway, back to Kevin Costner. Nothing he does is character-motivated. He doesn’t build the field because his family will starve if he doesn’t, or it’ll lead to seeing his father again. He just does it because someone told him to. This is what we call “railroading” in the D&D world. The Dungeon Master is putting out notes and clues so the players will go where HE wants them to go. He doesn’t let them act according to their motivations, their wants, their mistakes, desires to love and protect and sacrifice. So what does this voice want? To get America to appreciate baseball again?
For instance, there is no reason that, at the baseball game, Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) should suddenly jump in front of Kevin Costner’s car just as he’s about to leave, thinking he’s failed his mission, and confess that he saw the ghostly message on the jumbotron too. It’s so dramatic it’s comical.
What should have happened is that, after this white guy talks his ear off about voices in his head and old dead baseball players in his yard, he sees the Jumbotron get all screwy and display a message about Archibald “Moonlight” Graham and goes “Holy shit! Did you see that? The Jumbotron’s messing up and no one else can tell! Are you seeing this?” No, he just keeps it to himself so we can have this cinematic revelation later.
Since we mentioned him, let’s talk about “Moonlight” Graham and his strange subplot. Kevin Costner does some research and finds out he was a kid who played one inning, then became a pediatrician. What does Kevin Costner need to do for him? Nothing, I guess, since he’s quite dead. But then he time-travels to 1972 and has a conversation with old Dr. Graham (or his ghost–who knows), in which he affirms how he’s quite satisfied with how his life turned out. Everything seems resolved.
EXCEPT, on the way back home, they pick up (the ghost of) young “Archie” Graham. They take him to play baseball with all the other ghosts. Later, when Kevin Costner’s daughter starts choking, there’s a big dramatic moment where (the ghost of) young “Archie” Graham has to step off the baseball field and become (the ghost of) old Dr. Graham. (More ghost rules: how does he know he can save the girl if he’s not old enough to have gone through medical school yet?)
So what was the point of that? Didn’t we already establish that Dr. Graham accepted his life choices? Why did we need to show this again? And what does it matter — he’s a frickin’ ghost. He can’t change. He can’t influence lives anymore. But the story is treating him like a protagonist who needs to learn a lesson. What is this for? Who is supposed to see this?
Speaking of ghosts — fuck “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Even the movie doesn’t make him very likable, and it’s supposedly painting him as a good guy. He’s a cheater. He’s a stubborn asshole. He’s a moron. He changed his story throughout the trial. He took $5,000 but says he “did nothing on the field to throw the games in any way”. If you take money to commit a crime, but don’t commit the crime, that’s still wrong. Even if he didn’t do anything wrong, he didn’t speak up when others did. He could have done something but he let it happen. It’s like what Spider-Man said in Captain America: Civil War.
But the thing I most hate is James Earl Jones’s speech at the end, basically browbeating us with “why this movie is so great and you should like it and if you don’t like it, you’re a communist.” And it sucks because James Earl Jones is a highlight — it’s nice to see him playing someone who’s not a king or an emperor or the voice of one. But here’s what he says when the yuppie brother-in-law tries to convince Kevin Costner to sell the farmland and he can’t think of a reason not to (other than the ghosts in his corn):
“Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it. For it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers. Sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”
They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it? That sounds frickin’ scary to me. How? How did they know? Are they zombies? Brainwashed? And there’s life after death? Ghosts are real? Does this suddenly prove the existence of God?Holy shit, forget baseball — this changes everything.
But even if divine intelligence hasn’t been proven, the whole thing sounds pretty apocalyptic to me. The last shot is this huge line of cars jampacked on the road to his house. Everyone’s suddenly been called to this farm field in Iowa. They get there and it’s “Why am I here? I suddenly had the urge to take my family two hundred miles away, ignored my job, forgot to feed the pets, and didn’t bring my wallet.” Plus, Kevin Costner’s farm is going to be trashed. Remember Woodstock?
“They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines” — bullshit. Do you see those cheap bleachers? Maybe, like, ten people’ll fit into those seats. The voice told him to build a field, but it wasn’t specific on seating capacity, unfortunately.
“Sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon.” I just have no idea what this means. What does it mean to “sit in shirtsleeves”? Does one “sit in jeans”? Or “sit in a hat”?
“It’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.” You do realize that not everyone likes baseball, Terrence? Not everyone likes sports. Some of us like our cosplay or video games or tabletop games or puzzles or self-fitness or non-competitive sports like American Ninja Warrior or Wipeout or competitive non-sports like The Masked Singer or RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“Baseball has marked the time.” What, did time not start until 1871? Was there no American history before that? Was everything else unimportant? Incidentally, no one invited Satchel Paige or Smokey Joe Williams onto the “field of dreams”, did they?
And at the very end, Kevin Costner gets his catch with his dad. He gets to “resolve” things, although they do it in a very manly way where no one expresses any feelings or apologizes. Plus, it’s his dad before he had his kid. So while Kevin Costner might feel reconciled, it’s not reciprocated. The father (who is a ghost) doesn’t understand what’s going on and gets no catharsis from it.
I mean yeah, maybe I’m being nitpicky and pedantic here. But this is supposed to be a story about faith and redemption, and I don’t see where the events of the plot reflect that theme. And I don’t see the story of a man overcoming obstacles to get to his atonement (and what he needs to atone for doesn’t seem significant). I see a man being forced into action with no stakes, no regard for motive, and no idea what the end goal is. The puzzle purely exists so that pieces can be put together, not to make a beautiful picture.