Category Archives: Movies

Falling back into The Black Hole

cygnusI just watched The Black Hole with Michele. I haven’t watched it in probably twenty years, but it’s always held an extremely powerful nostalgic pull on my imagination. When I was a kid, I went through a period of obsession with this film—we’re talking a Black Hole lunchbox, a Maximillian model, a Black Hole storybook/record… the works.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to revisit this as an adult. It’s widely regarded as a mediocre film, and perhaps my subconscious has been trying to spare me the tragedy of seeing a piece of nostalgia exposed as just another overwrought B-movie.

But having re-watched it at last, I’m happy to say that, to my surprise and relief, I very much enjoyed it. For all its shortcomings, it works—the whole turns out to be much more than the sum of its parts.

While it’s fresh on my mind, here are a few of the elements that make The Black Hole shine, despite the failings that critics have, with just cause, pointed out.

1. The ships and effects. Put simply, the spaceships, set design, and overall visual atmosphere are superb. The Palomino nails the Millenium Falcon aesthetic: a bit ugly and looking like it’s been around the block a few times, yet rugged and appealing. But of course the Cygnus, palace of the mad space scientist Dr. Reinhardt, is the star of the show; it’s one of the most unique and impressive-looking spaceship designs I’ve ever seen. Its strange latticework structure; its cathedral-like spires; the cavernous inside spaces that make life seem so tiny and out of place inside it. Other films have used spaceship design to suggest a cathedral-in-space (Event Horizon‘s Core, the recent Battlestar Galactica‘s Resurrection Ship; the Auriga of Alien: Resurrection), but none match the Cygnus, a drifting temple to its captain’s hubris.

The Black Hole will also make you pine for the days before real, actual, physical models were replaced by the CGI apocalypse. There’s a visceral, tactile appeal to the models here that more than compensates for the now-dated special effects.

2. Dr. Reinhardt is a wonderful villain. He’s a great mad scientist in the classic vein. Those fools told him that what he was doing was impossible, even insane! But he’ll show them. It’s probably a serious misstep that The Black Hole makes Reinhardt’s Ahab-style madness apparent from his very first appearance; it dulls the impact of our eventual discovery that he’s a totally crazy murdering megalomaniac. But hey, we knew that anyway, and it gives Maximilian Schell lots of opportunities to ham it up.

maximillian3. It’s weird and dark, with lots of unnerving details. The “robot” unmasking scene scarred me for life as a child, and it retains some of its shock value today even though it’s obviously a guy in makeup. The “robot” funeral leaves you wondering uncomfortably how much humanity might still lie buried away, despite one character’s insistence that the mental damage is irreversible. At one point, after the deeply creepy Maximillian has murdered Kate’s crewmate, Reinhardt leans close to her and begs her to protect him from Maximillian. Is he mocking her? Is he living in constant terror of Maximillian, who might really be running this horror show? Wonderfully, the movie never tells us.

And then there’s this surreal closing scene, which is a perfect metaphor for Reinhardt’s ghoulish kingdom and an evocative, unsettling picture of a personal, self-created hell:

OK, so I’m in love with this film. But it’s certainly not perfect. What keeps it from greatness?

Professional critics have more than weighed in on it’s shortcomings already; I won’t dispute those critiques, but I can’t say that the commonly-cited problems (weak script, uneven acting, a continual contrast between the film’s exciting imagery and plodding dialogue) bothered me as much as they should’ve. I will point out a few things that kept me from wholly buying into The Black Hole despite my enjoyment of it:

1. The actions scenes are weak. It feels wrong to knock a movie for having insufficiently awesome action scenes, but the action scenes in this movie are universally unconvincing and unexciting. The evil sentry robots, described as an “elite” force at one point by Reinhardt, have worse aim than Stormtroopers—look, I know they’re not really supposed to hit anything or anybody important, but they have to look like they’re trying. There’s one large gun battle in particular that is so ineptly staged that it really damages the sense of immersion.

2. Reinhardt’s secret is too obvious and revealed too early. Look, we know Reinhardt’s an insane mad scientist, but the “big reveal”—what really happened to the crew—is telegraphed continually throughout the movie’s entire second act. When we finally get our confirmation, it’s lost most of its effectiveness.

3. The science is distractingly bad. For the first few minutes, it seems like The Black Hole is going to at least pay decent lip service to Real Science—enough to let us suspend our disbelief about all this black hole business. Nobody’s asking for Stephen Hawking levels of scientific integrity here. But the movie’s final act, which takes place while the Cygnus is being pulled inexorably into the black hole, throws all believability out the window. Characters breathe in open space. They outrun meteors. It’s really distracting.

Despite its flaws, this is a worthwhile film. I’m glad I finally mustered the courage to revisit this piece of childhood nostalgia, and I’m quite confident I’ll return to it again.

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All these worlds are yours except Europa

Wow, is mankind ever playing with fire. First there was the Skynet thing. Now we’re messing around with Europa despite explicit instructions from omnipotent aliens to the contrary. At this point the natural next step is to create a race of slave robots (that are stronger and smarter than us) to serve humanity; or possibly start designing really creepy-looking warp drives for the space shuttles.

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Always be careful when destroying the Enterprise

The Enterprise blows up.You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I yammer about a board game for a few minutes. It’s been a while since I’ve subjected you to such trivia.

As I have no doubt mentioned, I am a fan of the Star Fleet Battles board/wargame. Now, this is a game with a lot of rules. The “master rulebook” runs over 400 pages, and a second master rulebook covering a different quadrant of the galaxy recently came out at an additional 340 pages. While it’s a very fun game, those rules do not make for a riveting read-through (not that that’s stopped me, of course). But every now and then you hit something quirky in the midst of all the rules legalese that makes you grin.

For example, here’s one of my favorite little rules in the entire game. It’s something that will probably never happen in a typical game. It describes what happens when a starship captained by a “legendary captain” (think Kirk or Picard) is destroyed:

[G22.223] If his ship is destroyed, he has a 1% chance of doing something that results in his being aboard and in control of the nearest enemy ship of the same or smaller size class…. All legendary officers and remaining crew arrive with him. (Don’t ask how he did it; that’s what legends are made of!)

I assume that rule is inspired by Star Trek III, which features Kirk self-destructing the Enterprise yet shortly thereafter taking control of the Klingon Bird-of-prey through various bits of trickery. Who could forget this classic scene (thank you imdb):

Torg: [the Klingons have boarded the Enterprise only to find it is deserted] My Lord, the ship appears to be deserted.
Kruge: How can that be? They’re hiding.
Torg: Yes, sir. The ship appears to be run by computer. It is the only thing that is speaking.
Kruge: Speaking? Let me hear it.
Enterprise computer: [Torg walks over to a console, placing his communicator towards it] 9-8-7-6-5…
Kruge: [shouts] Get out! Get out of there! Get out!
Enterprise computer: 2-1…
[the Enterprise bridge explodes]

Other fun rules cover similarly rare but cool game events, like crew mutiny on Klingon ships whose security officers have been killed (in the game universe, Klingon ships are crewed largely by slaves) and what happens when you tractor an enemy ship and then drag it at high speed into a planet. They’re situations that rarely if ever come up in your average game—but you know that when they do, they fuel Gamer Stories for years to come.

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I know gratuitousness when I see it

What’s the first thing you notice about this image, from an upcoming game called Star Wars: The Force Unleashed?

The issue here is, of course, why sci-fi females seem to wear such impractical armor. And that’s a good question to ask. But I’d say that the most striking thing about this image is not the Star Wars equivalent of the chainmail bikini that our Jedi friend here is wearing. The real question was noted by this Metafilter commentor: are those some kind of nightstick lightsabers?

Allow me to quote liberally from his comment:

People, this needs to stop.

Back in Ye Olde Days, people did not sit around nailing swords to just about everything and calling them weapons. […]

Thus how it should be with lightsabers. Yeah, I know every saber is an expression of its user, but more and more these days that expression is “I am a dolt more impressed by flash than keeping to tried and true rules.” There are still a host of sword varieties out there that could be lightsaberified, from slightly curved katanas to monstrous zweihanders. Let’s see some more of those before we even hear the whirling whine of lightchucks, smell the ozone-laden tang of the lightmace, or shield our eyes from the horrible glare of the “I just duct-taped 40 lightsabers to my body” lightgrizzlybear encounter suit. A sword is fine. It’s all you really need. It’s a classic for a reason. Everything else is needless flash.

Well, except for the lightscythe that my alter-ego Darth Deathilicious has. That’s totally justified in her character history

How right you are, brother. (How do you use lightsaber nightsticks without chopping off your own arms?) In the original Star Wars trilogy, everybody seems quite content with the normal, longsword-style lightsaber. And that was really cool. But in the prequel trilogy, you can’t help but notice a weird sort of lightsaber arms race: first there’s Darth Maul’s dual-bladed lightsaber quarterstaff, then Anakin dual-wielding lightsabers, and Count Dooku dual-wielding stylish, curved-handled lightsabers. And then General Grievous wielding like forty million lightsabers at once. It’s all kinda cool… but there’s just something classier about those old-fashioned, ordinary lightsabers. This is where it’s at, my friends:

But I do like the mental image of Darth Deathilicious and her lightscythe. She sounds like a worthy companion to my own alter-ego, Darth Darkreaver Souldoom (fifty times more powerful than Mace Windu, and beloved by all the ladies; so awesome that he bucks the standard Darth naming scheme), who wields all of the lightsaber types mentioned above, but he also throws lightsaber shurikens.

I sure picked a bad day to stop writing Star Wars fanfiction.

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Darth Vader is Luke’s father (spoiler alert!)

I don’t go to many concerts, but oh, how many times I’ve wanted to write a variant of this brilliant letter upon leaving the movie theater. My particular curse is not the annoying music fan, but the Guy Who Narrates Everything That Happens in the Movie to his girlfriend/wife, a tragic woman who apparently is incapable of discerning for herself that yes, Batman is getting into the Batmobile, and yes, he is now driving through the streets of the city, which is of course Gotham City in case you’ve not paid any attention to anything Batman-related over the last few decades. And that guy wearing the scary scarecrow mask? That is in fact the Scarecrow, who you may recall was introduced to us several minutes ago in this very film.

Most recently I had the pleasure of sitting next to the Guy Who Loudly States Plot Spoilers Before They Happen, since it’s important that his wife/girlfriend (and the people sitting nearby) not be surprised by anything that happens in the movie. Fortunately the movie was Pirates of the Caribbean 3, the garbled narrative mess of which stripped spoilers of their usual movie-ruining power.

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You’re gonna love the Nam

This is quite amusing and well-done.

That scene in Platoon, by the way, is one of the Andy’s Favorite Film Moments. I suspect that if I were to watch the film again today, it would come across as heavy-handed and overly dramatic. But when I first saw it back in college… wow. The slow-motion shot of the US choppers’ shadows flitting past overhead as it happens–good stuff. And it helps that it’s set to one superb piece of music.

update: and here’s the original scene from Platoon.

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Why weren’t the Clone Wars cooler?

The portrayal of the Clone Wars in the Star Wars Episodes 1, 2, and 3 has long bothered me. Long, long ago, when I first watched Star Wars and heard crazy old Ben Kenobi’s offhand reference to the Clone Wars (in which he had served alongside Anakin Skywalker, the best starfighter pilot in the galaxy!), my young mind conjured up images of an epic conflict that ravaged the galaxy.

The Clone Wars of my imagining were all part of a civil war in which brother fought brother, master fought apprentice, and hero fought hero. The schism started small but grew to engulf every known star system. There were true heroes on both sides, all struggling to fix a failing Republic: the Loyalists (who believed the dying Republic could be reformed from within) stood on one side and the Separatists (who believed that the Republic had passed the point of redemption and needed to be torn down) on the other.

The heroes of the Clone Wars were to the people of the Rebellion-era Star Wars universe what the heroes of Greek myth are to us today–they were larger than life, with power and might far beyond anything that would come after. And like the heroes of Greek mythology, their flaws were just as great. In time, noble ideals were lost beneath beneath monstrous egos; the forbidden science of cloning was tapped to make good on never-ending battlefield losses; and in the end, Jedi on both sides even turned to the Dark Side in a desperate quest for something, anything that would give them an edge and bring the devastation to an end.

And somewhere in the midst of all this, the Emperor came with the promise of peace. I never thought too much about the details, which didn’t seem all that interesting anyway, but as a young Star Wars fan I saw the Empire that grew out of the Clone Wars as a sort of populist movement. The people of the Republic may have hated the corruption of their government, but they grew to hate the hell of galactic war even more. The idealistic Jedi struggle looked more and more to the average Republic citizen like the squabbling of children with too much power. The Emperor, who had earlier fanned the flames of civil war, now tapped into this frustration. The details are lost to the passage of time, but when the bloodshed ended, the Emperor was in charge, the Jedi were on the run, and both Loyalist and Separatist found that they had lost the war.

That was how I envisioned the Clone Wars, at least. But the Clone Wars as portrayed in Episodes 1, 2, and 3 seem… well, pretty lame in comparison. Lucas’ Clone Wars isn’t a tragic clash of mighty heroes, but a battle between the Good Guys and the Goofy Evil Robots. Despite the extreme amount of boring detail we’re given about the state of the Republic, we never get even a mildly satisfying reason why the Separatists are trying to leave the Republic in the first place, except that they’re Evil. The Jedi aren’t mighty but flawed heroes; they’re utterly worthless bureaucrats who can’t even stop the Trade Federation from invading the Happiest, Most Peaceful Planet in the Galaxy. Despite the fact that the Republic Senate and the Jedi Council are both portrayed as useless, corrupt, or both, the films expect us to side with the Loyalists simply because the Republic is a Democracy. The battles of the Clone Wars are not tense, tear-jerking dramas in which former friends are forced to fight and even kill each other over their ideals; instead, they’re dull CGI engagements between faceless clone soldiers and droids with silly accents. Even the most epic battle scenes of the prequels, like the space battle at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith, manage to evoke only the barest scrap of emotional investment.

It was probably foolish to imagine that Lucas’ vision of the Clone Wars would match mine perfectly. And as frustrating as the prequels can be at points, Lucas has packed them with quite a few cool ideas. But the Clone Wars themselves–what should be the epic backdrop against which the fall of Anakin Skywalker occurs–are far more dull than I had hoped they would be.

I wanted the American Civil War in space, and I got a confusing and poorly-explained war between clones and robots.

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It makes no sense

I can certainly identify with these journalists, faced with the challenge of making sense out of David Lynch’s latest movie:

Asked if the film was supposed to make sense, Lynch told a news conference following a press screening: “It’s supposed to make perfect sense.” […]

Lynch was in no mood to help journalists fathom the film’s meaning.

When asked to explain the appearance of three actors wearing rabbits’ heads, one of whom stands in the corner doing the ironing, the 60-year-old replied: “No, I can’t explain that.”

I can appreciate Lynch’s desire to not out and explain the symbolism behind his movie before mainstream viewers get a chance to try figuring it out for themselves. But I think I’m going to have to side with the bewildered journalists here. I can testify that Lynch’s films, while interesting in a what-the-heck-is-going-on sort of way, definitely do not “make perfect sense,” and if Lynch is under the impression that they do, then somebody’s confused, and it ain’t just the people watching his movies. Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are two of the least comprehensible films I’ve seen in my entire life. I’ve seen some truly noble and tortured attempts online to wring coherence out of both of those films, but to little avail.

I love a good perplexing book or movie that requries concentration, discussion, and even research to interpret. Some of my favorite such stories are those that, even after I’ve read and understood them, still leave me with the nagging sense that I haven’t really uncovered everything the creator intended me to find–those are books and films I can revisit years down the road, always finding new bits and pieces of meaning. But if you don’t provide the audience the contextual clues they need to even begin deciphering your work of art, then you might as well just be making the film for yourself, because nobody else has the slightest clue what you’re trying to say. Maybe Mulholland Drive makes perfect sense to David Lynch, but I’ll go ahead and bet that 99% of its viewers were left scratching their heads when the credits rolled. He’s certainly created something that’s vaguely impressive, but a work of art that speaks to people? Not so much.

So go ahead and keep making movies, Mr. Lynch. But try not to act quite so surprised when nobody seems to know what the heck you’re trying to say. The rest of us are busy entertaining ourselves with much less artsy fare–things like Arrested Development, with such populist and unsubtle scenes as this:

Rita: Is that a story?
Maeby: Not yet. It doesn’t have an ending. He’s in LA, she’s in Japan–how do I get these two characters together?
Rita: Maybe they could walk.
Maeby: Across the ocean?
Rita: If it’s not too deep.
Maeby: No… deep is
good. People are gonna say “What the hell just happened? I better say I like it,” ’cause nobody wants to seem stupid.
Rita: I like it!

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Reflections on Downfall

Downfall belongs to that elite cadre of films that manage to tell a truly disturbing story with such artistic skill that you simply can’t avert your gaze. A recounting of Hitler’s (and Nazi Berlin’s) final days, Downfall introduces us to a bizarre cast of villains and… well, I can’t really bring myself to think of them as heroes. The death throes of the Third Reich are seen through the eyes of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s personal secretary, who remained in the Fuhrer’s bunker almost to the bitter end.
The film works because it doesn’t pursue much of an agenda beyond simply introducing its rogue’s gallery and letting their own words and actions speak. It’s certainly not a vindication of Hitler or the Nazis; it doesn’t try to sell us any archetypal “noble Nazis” who secretly hated Hitler’s policies, nor does it try too hard to moralize or condemn.
The film begins with Junge accepting a much-sought-after position as Hitler’s secretary. During the first half-hour, we meet most of the famous Nazi personalities and see the hopelessness of Germany’s situation. Some of the early scenes feel a bit staged for effect, but they work. Hitler’s delusional state is clearly established, sometimes through bleakly comic moments. In one early scene, as explosions sound in the streets outside, Hitler demands to know who is shelling Berlin. It can’t be the Russians, his generals reply, because they can’t be that close! Unfortunately, wishful thinking can’t make the Russians disappear, nor can the grand, war-winning, and completely imaginary strategies Hitler continually orders to be undertaken by Germany’s virtually non-existent armies.
The bulk of the film simply depicts the comings and goings of Nazi Germany’s generals and leaders. As Russian bombs fall throughout the city, some people engage in virtual orgies of drinking and dancing; others casually discuss the manner in which they’ll kill themselves when the Russians finally arrive. Some plot their escapes from Hitler’s bunker (he himself refuses to leave, and expects the same from his loyal friends and staff), or try to arrange for the escape of loved ones. Still others follow Hitler around like dogs, hanging on his every word, clearly unable to imagine life without him.
Downfall is, as you might expect, a dark and unsettling film. Its characters occupy places on the moral scale ranging from “flawed” to “monstrous,” and while the film depicts them as real human beings–it’s hard not to pity even Hitler as his friends and advisors abandon him one by one–a pall of godlessness and depravity hangs over every single person, sympathetic or not. We see Hitler both as murdering tyrant and gentle father-figure. The film’s spiritual nadir comes not with Hitler’s suicide, but with Magda Goebbels’ murder of her prepubescent children to prevent their contamination by an unworthy post-Nazi world: the mind simply reels as she walks quietly from bed to bed, placing cyanide capsules in each child’s mouth like communion wafers, clutching their heads in her hands as they convulse and die.
It’s not the visceral horror of Schindler’s List, but the effect is much the same. The film allows us a few glimmers of hope towards the end, as Junge and a handful of other survivors flee the bunker in hopes of escaping. (We know at least that Junge survives the war, since she is interviewed briefly at the beginning of the film.)
Throughout much of the film’s final hour, I fought a constant urge to weep. But what for? It is a strange thing to be profoundly moved, but unable to pinpoint exactly what is moving you. Do we weep for Hitler and his cronies, however pathetic they may be? Certainly not. For the death of a dream and the end of an ambitious vision, however depraved? I think not. For the “ordinary” people who found themselves in Hitler’s bunker at the end not because they were depraved monsters, but because they were morally flawed creatures? Perhaps. For the millions dead and ruined throughout the years of war? Certainly.
As they say: never again.

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Serene contemplation

Saw the movie Serenity late last night, partly to wind down from a very busy week. I’ve not seen the Firefly TV show upon which the movie is based, and so was a bit uncertain what to expect. But it’s sci-fi, and seemed to feature lots of spaceships and explosions–always good things to have in a movie. So we decided to give it a try.
It was extremely good. It’s essentially a space opera with a very entertaining Western motif, complete with cowboy holsters and bank robbers… in spaaaace!
Watching it, I was struck by a question: why aren’t these people making Star Wars movies instead of George Lucas? Serenity captures the feel of the original Star Wars far better than any of the three prequels did. Likeable, everyday heroes who exchange witty banter and struggle to keep their clunky spaceship from falling apart? Check. Tough-talking mercenary characters who act mean and gruff but who, we’re confident, will Do The Right Thing in the end, even if it means they won’t get paid for it? Check. A motley gang of quirky protagonists who bicker amongst themselves and can’t pay their bills, but who will nevertheless find a way to cleverly stick it to The Man in the end and save the galaxy in the process? You guessed it–check.
In short, it’s what made Star Wars so cool. The debt that Serenity owes to Star Wars is substantial… but would that George Lucas had been able to watch and be inspired by this movie before he launched into The Phantom Menace. It’s exactly the sort of pulpy space-action flick that Lucas hasn’t been making recently.
Serenity isn’t perfect, but it’s a fun one. Go see it!

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