Retro Nostalgia: Aliens (1986) and Ripley’s Maternities (Some Rambly Thoughts)

(What follows are some random thoughts I had while re-watching James Cameron's Aliens.  I'd love to open up a nice discussion about the film, so feel free to leave a comment agreeing/disagreeing with or adding to my argument(s).)

I've always loved the relationship between Ripley and Hicks.  Obviously, it's implied that there's a significant romantic link between them, but the film makes light of it through jokes, in part so the very real problem -- survival in the face of certain death -- never falls prey to the romantic narrative underneath.  And there's also a sense -- for me, anyway -- that Ripley and Hicks don't
actually have to develop a romantic relationship for there to be something between them.
A lot of people also read Aliens as a narrative about maternity.  I've started to think about the narrative as a metaphor for unexpected parenthood (and child mortality), too.  If you think about it, the first chunk of the film focuses on Ripley's return to the world; one of the reveals is the death of her child, whose death she cannot prevent.  While an inaccurate metaphor for infant mortality or some equally naturalistic death of one's child, these sections of the film seem remarkably like a story about a parent dealing with the death of a child.  In this interpretation, Burke takes the form of a father (I can't think of a single mention of the biological father of Ripley's daughter, so I assume one of the two is out of the picture -- probably Ripley, which is unusual in the real world).  Since Burke represents Ripley for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, who seem to be the ones in control of everything, he also acts as a kind of father figure in the remotest sense.  Her relationship with him, as such, is strained by his link to the Company and to her past (i.e., the death of her child, etc.).  I also think there's something profoundly disturbing to read into Burke's actions near the end of the film, in which he tries to infect/impregnate Newt and Ripley with xenomorphs (a rape and child abuse metaphor?).

The other maternity narrative is one we've all probably heard before:  Ripley's "adoption" of Newt.  I think of Newt not necessarily as the adopted child in a traditional sense, but more as a discovery of a child you didn't know you had.  Ripley jumps into the role of mother figure quite naturally (she is technically a mother, after all), but she also seems to acknowledge the distance between them.  These two elements suggest to me that Newt is supposed to take the place of an unexpected child.  But I'll admit that this idea is not as thought out as I would like.
I won't suggest that Aliens is a perfect film from a feminist perspective, but it's hard to imagine it as anything else.  Every aspect of the narrative involves questions about the place of women in worlds that for so long have been the domain of men.  After all, in 1986, women didn't serve in combat positions in the U.S.  In Aliens, they do (even Ripley, though she sort of gets roped into it).  Women are shown doing a lot of things our culture likes to tell them they can't do.  They can have children and work jobs "meant for men."  They can serve in the military, use weapons or heavy machinery, fly complicated aircraft, fight for themselves, and on and on and on.  True, most of the women die in this movie, but so do most of the men.  This is one of the reasons why I love this movie.  It doesn't pander to a masculine audience in the same way as other SF action movies.  Ripley isn't eye candy here.  She doesn't run around bending over so you can see her toned abs or the curves of her breasts or her toosh or whatever (not that she's not physically attractive, mind, but most of the characters in this movie end up covered in filth and wounds; the whole Megan-Fox-bends-over-a-car-so-we-can-stare-and-her-tumtum wouldn't make any sense in that context).  If anything, what makes Ripley such an attractive character is the fact that she is a character.  And, honestly, I think she's probably the greatest female protagonist in all of science fiction.

But maybe I'm stretching with that last statement...

--------------------------------------------------------

Note:  I may return to this film for the Retro Nostalgia feature.  Keep an eye out for that.


Month of Joy: “The Joy of City Stomping” by David Annandale

Though their heyday was undoubtedly the 1950s and 60s, giant monsters have rampaged through the movies long before and long after the era that saw the arrival of the Big Bugs, Godzilla and friends, and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion marvels. Obviously, King Kong casts his long shadow from 1933, but before him were the dinosaurs of The Lost World in 1925 (whose climax features the first city rampage), and even earlier, Georges Méliès gave us the likes of the Frost Giant from The Conquest of the Pole in 1912, and the titular Gigantic Devil in 1902. So, when all is said and done, we have had well over a century of giant monsters stomping (or, in Méliès’ case, cavorting) across our screens.

Why?

I’m trying to tackle the question from a particular angle, given the theme of Shaun’s site this week.
What, exactly, is the joy that these creatures give us? And oh, why be coy: what is the joy they give me. They have for as far back as my conscious memories reach. I could go on about the symbolic riches they provide, such as the multiple, simultaneous readings embodied in Kong, the entangling patriarchy of It Came from Beneath the Sea’s octopus (defeated by the ingenuity of Faith Domergue), or Godzilla incarnating nuclear war in one film, enraged nature in another, or the vengeful spirits of the victims of Japanese war crimes in a third. And while it is true that these represent many of the joys I find in monster films now, they are only partial explanations. These reasons are encrustations, new pleasures that have grown on top of the old ones, but the old ones are still there.
To put it another way: while I am fascinated by Cloverfield’s allusions to the first Godzilla film as a way of underscoring the big thematic concern shared by both films (the re-enactment, in fantastic terms, of very recent national traumas), there is no getting away from the fact that my biggest thrill in watching that film is the giddy excitement of seeing that monster wreck stuff.

Let me put it more nakedly yet: when, in the VHS era, my brother and I were finally able to binge on all the Godzilla films, one of our primary criteria for deciding which ones were better than others was how much real estate was trashed. Monster fights in urban centres were way cooler than slugfests in the countryside (and this is a treat that Pacific Rim delivers in full during the Hong Kong sequence).
So there is joy in destruction, as we have known since childhood. Isn’t this the main reason we play with building blocks? So we can spectacularly knock down what we laboriously construct? In this respect, the monster movie and the disaster film offer overlapping pleasures, but not identical ones. To focus only on the falling skyscrapers would be to miss the importance of the monster itself.

It has been said (and I apologize for not recalling where I read this first), that one of the reasons children love dinosaurs so much is that they are non-threatening embodiments of power, embodiments that we first encounter when we are at our most powerless. If the power fantasies in super-heroes are ones where we suddenly have the ability to right the wrongs of an imperfect world, the monster gives us the ability to show an unfriendly world exactly what we think of it. Sometimes, we don’t want to save it. Sometimes, we just want to trample it underfoot. And that trampling is justified: with the exception of creatures such as King Ghidorah or Iris, who are the antagonists fought by the protagonist monsters (Godzilla and Gamera, respectively), the truly evil giant creature is rare indeed.* Kong, Godzilla, Gorgo, Gamera, Rodan, Mothra, Gwangi, and so on and on and on, even at their most vicious and destructive, have a core of innocence. They are more sinned against than sinning.

It is telling, too, that though the 1954 Godzilla is still arguably the grimmest, most despairing giant monster movie going, and emphatically not aimed at children, it would not be too many years before the reverse would be the case, and the character had become a super-hero. The joyless film somehow leads to the infamous-yet-infectious expression of joy that is Godzilla’s dance in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965).
So the joys of the giant monster films are very much paradoxical. Even in the case of the darkest films (and let there be no mistake: Godzilla is about as bleak as they come), when the fears and traumatic memories of the audience are receiving their fullest, most graphic expression, there is still that anarchic joy to be had. There is still the excitement inherent to the rampage itself. Let me close by suggesting one further possibility. The rampage almost never truly comes out of the blue.** As baffling as the monsters are for the terrified, fleeing masses, there is always a context for them. I propose that we see the creatures as examples of the Event as defined by Alain Badiou: something that a particular system cannot account for, or even imagine, but that is nevertheless a result of that system, and shatters it.

Perhaps, then, at some level, our joy is the result of recognizing the monsters as necessary.

They’re certainly necessary for my inner child.

---------------------------------------------------

* Pacific Rim is no different: the evil kaiju are the antagonists, and while the jaegers are robots, it is significant that the opening narration refers to them as “monsters.”

** Cloverfield is an obvious exception here, in that the monster appears to have literally fallen from the sky. Its anomalous position is, I believe, a pointed one: one of the many aspects of 9/11 that the film is evoking is the confusion and terror of those on the ground in the middle of the event, people for whom, at that moment and in that place, the broader picture of why these things are happening is irrelevant.

---------------------------------------------------
David Annandale brings doom to untold billions as a writer of Warhammer 40,000 fiction for the Black Library, most recently in the novel The Death of Antagonis. As the author of the horror novel Gethsemane Hall, he hopes to end sleep for you forever. During the day, he poisons minds as he teaches film, video games and English literature at the University of Manitoba. If you have any fragments of hope still left, you can have them crushed at his website or by following his Twitter account.

P.S.:  If you want to hear David's take on Pacific Rim, check out this episode of Shoot the WISB!

A Justice League Movie? (or, Hopefully This Won’t Be a Missed Opportunity)

Since Man of Steel hit theaters, there's been a lot of talk about a potential Justice League movie.  We even mentioned this topic in the latest Shoot the WISB episode on the new Superman film.  Much of the discussion is based on rumors, no doubt supported by this oddly blank IMDB page, which suggests that some sort of Justice League film will hit a screen of some description in 2015.  Now, Henry Cavill, who plays Supes in Man of Steel, has suggested that a Justice League adaptation likely won't happen any time soon.

What does that mean?  I don't know.  In Hollywood time, that could mean 3 minutes or 3 decades, or it could mean a black hole has popped into existence and swallowed DC.  A lot of folks want to see Flash and Wonder Woman in film form before Justice League reaches the big screen.  I,
however, think that would be a bad idea.
I am awesome.  That is all.
First, I don't know how Hollywood will manage to avoid ruining both the Flash and Wonder Woman without completely revamping the characters, and, thus, retconning most of what has defined the character in the last 50 years.  The problem?  Both characters are prone to ridiculousness in the Hollywood world.  After all, the only serious portrayals of either characters in the last two decades have been in cartoons, which I don't think necessarily translate well into live action (in part because the things you can do in a cartoon are difficult to do well with real people -- see every CG hellhole Hollywood has tried to make, hence my concern).  There is also the very real problem embodied in the universe the current film DC adaptations have presented:  a dark, serious universe.  There isn't a lot of room for camp in in a world where Nolan's Batman and Superman exist, and that means any interpretation of the Flash or Wonder Woman has to reject its predecessors quite soundly to make any coherent sense.  That doesn't mean we need a Nolan-style treatment of either character (let alone of the various other members of the JL -- Green Arrow (on TV right now, in fact)*, Aquaman, Hawkman, Green Lantern, and so on and so forth), but it does mean DC and Hollywood have to seriously reconsider how to place these characters within a cinematic universe.

That said, it's important to realize that a lot of DC's characters have baggage from previous film histories.  Batman and Superman have mostly escaped their own baggage.  Not easily, of course.  Batman made a minor shift in the Tim Burton films, fell into the abyss with Forever and Robin, and then took a huge turn (for the best, I believe) with the Nolan trilogy.  Superman had a similar journey.  My hatred of Returns notwithstanding, the film did at least offer a lead-up to the Nolan-influenced Man of Steel.
The same cannot be said for Wonder Woman or the Flash -- at least, not within the live action franchises.  Wonder Woman, for example, has never seen a big screen adaptation, though many are still quite fond of the 1970s adaptation starring Lynda Carter (not to mention all the love for the various cartoon versions).  She's quite likely to return to the small screen soon, which I think would be a great idea; DC (or one of the studios -- not sure which) has actively been trying to bring her back to TV for several years (a 2011 pilot flopped at NBC, but the CW has expressed interest in pushing their own adaptation called Amazon).  The same is true for the Flash.  He had a TV movie in 1990 and plenty of appearances in cartoons.  But he has yet to make the jump to the big screen, and probably won't (though this IMDB page suggests otherwise).  All of these facts are good reasons for both characters to have their own films...eventually.  I, however, think DC would be better off going another route.
If DC is hell bent on bringing these characters to the big screen, I think the best direction would be to release Man of Steel 2 (whatever it might be called), followed by the first Justice League movie.  In the interim, Wonder Woman and the Flash should have origin narratives put up on the small screen; after Justice League (assuming success), new film narratives can take the limelight (or they can stick with TV).  Doing so will have a few important impacts:

  1. TV adaptations will allow the characters to develop in the sort of depth they deserve.
  2. We'll avoid the uncomfortable mess of 2.5 hour camp-fests (Wonder Woman especially; she's a cool character, but her origin story will not inspire audiences).  I don't think film origins of these characters will do them justice, in part because most of us haven't seen the characters outside of the comic "universes."  If you're not a Flash fan already, you don't know anything about him (and vice versa for Wonder Woman).  And, well, I don't think characters with super-speed work all that well on the big screen (that's my personal hangup, though).
  3. I think starting with the trifecta of TV series (Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, and the Flash) will also give DC's franchise a huge boost in the right direction.  If you create three TV shows that cross over one another, each leading towards a Justice League film, you cross-pollinate your audience quite brilliantly.  A good deal of people will watch all three, some will watch one or two, and some will come from entirely different avenues:  following on the heels of Batman and Superman.  Basically, hitting almost every direction at once seems like a perfect method for making a Justice League movie a success.

Granted, none of this is likely to happen.  If DC is hell bent on releasing a Justice League movie in 2015, then it doesn't really matter what I think.  Two years is hardly enough time to get two new TV series off the ground.  My hope is that a film version of Wonder Woman provides roughly the same tone as Marvel's Thor.  Two parts serious, one part camp.  If you allow the camp to override everything else, the film will be a disaster.

I can dream, of course, but dreaming isn't the same as reality.  Whatever happens, I sincerely hope they get it right.  Marvel's cinematic universe is killing in the box office right now.  Even with Nolan's exceptional Batman films, DC's cinematic universe is one step away from self-destruction.  Batman and Superman movies are wonderful, but we need more.  We need Marvel's level of cinematic pollination in DC's cinematic universe.  It'll be great for DC, great for comic book movies, and great for film overall.

I guess we'll see what happens.**
This is the bad idea I'm talking about...
-------------------------------------------------

*Including Green Arrow in a Justice League film might actually make for an interesting crossover.  Assuming the show remains on the air for the next few years, there's ample opportunity to suck in audiences from two different directions and lead up to a Justice League movie in a slow and deliberate manner.  Imagine having an entire season of a TV show leading us up to a film.  You could do so much with this!  The entire season could involve conflicts and events, the climax or conclusion to which could appear in the film version.

**If they cast Megan Fox as Wonder Woman, I will lose my friggin mind.  However, if they bring in Nathan Fillion as the Green Lantern, I will rejoice, for the Lord will have spoken...

Why I Hated Superman Returns

Honestly, I hated Superman Returns because it established Superman as virtually (though not actually) limitless, at which point he becomes uninteresting to me as a hero. Clearly Kryptonite doesn't really matter. He can lift entire islands of the stuff into the sky, so all this talk about it being his bad news bears is really just nonsense. At best, it's a nuisance.  And since he can basically do anything, there's no reason to ever worry that he will fail. That's what makes a good hero for me. We know, deep down, he won't fail, but on the outside, we see his weaknesses and know that it's always possible that he will (or she, for that matter).

What also makes Superman a fantastic hero isn't his strength and other abilities; it's his constant need to do the right thing, even in the face of terrible adversity. This is why I think the trailer for the new film is so effective (even if the film falls short -- haven't seen it, so I can't say). The idea that Superman is someone we're supposed to look up to and an image to strive towards makes him such
a compelling figure, not because he's got all those powers, but because he is the guy who will brave the storm for his fellow "man", even if that storm is likely to kill him. (You can see why the military is using Superman to sell volunteering in some of their recent ads, since the idea behind the trailer for the new Superman film clearly jives with the mythic formation of the soldier -- the one who sacrifices for others).

And while a lot of that is in Superman Returns, it is trampled by the complete retconning of Superman's abilities (in my mind, anyway). Yeah, he does go and do the big, dangerous thing, but in doing so, he ceases to be something for which we can reasonably strive. He becomes god or close enough to it that the distinction isn't relevant. What might have made Superman Returns a better film is if the great hero had to rely on the help of regular humans for once. Maybe the military storms in as Luther is about to deal the final blow to Superman. Maybe, like in Spiderman (the first Raimi film), a bunch of regular folks start chucking rocks and telling Luther to frak off, because if you mess with Superman, you mess with humanity. This would humble Superman, and it would remind us that his abilities are not what makes him who he is. They're just icing on the cake, as it were. No, what makes Superman admirable is his personal strength and his ability to inspire. Superman has principles, and he sticks to them no matter what.  He fights while the rest of us cower, and in doing so, he gives us courage.  But in Superman Returns, I don't need to create my own courage.  The god will save me.  I can cower away and let greater beings do everything for me.  I am weak.  I am nothing.

That's why I hated Superman Returns.

---------------------------------------------------------

This originally appeared on my Facebook page as a response to Alex Bledsoe.

Retro Nostalgia: Contact (1997) and Conflating Faith and Science and Its Hopeful Ethos

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Carl Sagan's popularization of science will recall his profound optimism, both with humanity's scientific endeavors and its almost desperate need to strive for "more."  I think it's fair to say that he imagined science as humanity's great thrust to greatness -- to controlling itself and its environment.  After all, he famously said that "[imagination] will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere."  And while he was not a religious man, he didn't fear suggesting that science could provide a spiritual vision of the world:

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.
Sagan's optimism, understandably, bleeds through the narrative of the film adaptation of Contact (1997) (how could it not?).  Ellie's father, Ted (David Morse), for example, answers his young daughter's (Jena Malone) question about life in the universe by cleverly playing the "it's too damned big of a universe" card -- he suggests that if there isn't anyone else out there, then all that space is wasted.  Adult Ellie (Jodie Foster) eventually relays these lines to preacher/religious popularist Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), who also repeats them to the world after Ellie's return from her mission and the media firestorm of the perceived failure of the project (not to mention Ellie's implication that faith in her story is necessary).
What's fascinating about the film (and, I suspect, the book, which I have not read) is its refusal to shy away from implying that this optimism will ultimately form the basis for a faith argument for science.  In the end, it is that unison of religion and science which offers one of Sagan's most optimistic visions:  namely, that science and religion could ever unify in an increasingly hostile political environment. Palmer and Ellie are themselves stand-ins for these respective fields, suggesting that the romantic conclusion of their narrative must be deferred too, lest faith be rested from the audience on all counts.  Sagan must have been quite hopeful for the future of science to have imagined a world where the greatest religious "threat" to science is an attractive religious guru who can see the writing on the wall.  Hence why the last line in the above quote is so crucial:  "The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."  Contact is essentially Sagan's spiritual mind at work, imagining all the possibilities of the science and spiritual realms coming together for the same united purpose:  seeking some deeper truth about the universe -- science on the natural questions; spirituality on the questions about understanding our place in a suddenly crowded universe.  Sadly, if Contact had been written in the late 2000s, Sagan might have seemed naive.
Perhaps that's actually a good thing.  When people called for more optimistic SF in 2009-2010 (resulting in Vries' Shine Anthology), they must have had Contact on the mind, if not in actuality, then in spirit.  Contact is a film that strives to find the positive in a world bloated with bureaucracy, religious terrorists, and fear (it is also a largely male world we are presented, with some exceptions).  The government wants to control everything, the vain scientists want to use Ellie's discovery to further their own careers, even at the expense of others, the people at large cower or clamber in supplication before things they do not yet understand, and, finally, the religious extremists, seeing this great moment as a threat to their authority, want to destroy the entire project, even if that means preventing humanity's next great leap forward.

Ellie's almost desperate need to remain involved, to discover whatever is "on the other side," to leap into the darkness and bring back answers, holds her up in this storm.  She won't participate in the politics or the glory of discovery; she only wants to discover, to know, to understand.  Unlike the people around her, with the exception, perhaps, of Palmer and a handful of minor characters, Ellie has only one desire:  to use this momentous occasion to understand humanity's place in the universe.  It's her optimistic view of the world that I find so pleasant.  She truly believes in the mission, not because it will bring her material wealth in the future, but because taking the leap of faith by building and using the machine will actually advance human knowledge.  She is the idealized scientist (the film actually offers a foil to this idealized image; he dies -- not insignificantly).
But whereas Ellie's journey to discover "the answers" proves successful, the world at large is left in the dark. The aliens, descended from a collective who occasionally reach out to new species as those species reach the next stage in their technological evolution, prevent anything but 17 minutes of static from being recorded during Ellie's trip.  In a final nerve wracking scene, Ellie must defend herself against a verbal onslaught by the government, almost as if in a mirror of McCarthyism.  The irony?  For a government so encumbered with religious thought, they cannot accept her meek request that everyone has to take what she says on faith (she doesn't put things in those exact words, but that has to do with her apprehension over faith).  It's not made clear whether the government does take her seriously, or if they see this as an opportunity to attack her and the billionaire financial backer who made the project possible.
Regardless, the fusion of science and faith in those final moments reminds us that the divide between the spiritual and scientific realms is anything but absolute.  Rather, conflating the two can provide the necessary impetus for growth that humanity needs.  In this case, that growth is the desire to continue reaching out, stretching our little fingers just a little further to join our brethren in the sky.  In a way, this film is as much about science and faith as it is about the American space program.  Neil Degrasse Tyson is noted for discussing something related to this:  the dreams of a nation.  He reminds us that the Soviet Union's space program became the driving force for America's stretch to the heavens, and that once we realized that our "enemies" weren't going to make it to the moon, we stopped stretching.  In the variations of his quotes about dreams, I prefer this one (taken from the video at the bottom of the page):  "Nobody's dreaming about tomorrow anymore. The most powerful agency on the dreams of a nation is currently underfunded to do what it needs to do, and that's making dreams come true."

Unlike the shock factor of Sputnik, which, as Tyson suggests (and many other NASA historians), galvanized the U.S. space program, Contact suggests that the next driving force for human exploration into space could be the knowledge and faith that we're not alone.  Rather than falling into the trap of violence (as Stephen Hawking would many years later), Sagan presents that next stage as familial.  By taking that next leap, we will join the brotherhood/sisterhood of species and become part of something greater than ourselves.  We no longer have to fear loneliness, pointlessness, or the terror of the void.  That, I think, is the most optimistic message of the entire film.  And I think we should embrace it.

Shoot the WISB #02: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) Reviewed w/ Paul Weimer and Jay Garmon

Spoiler Alert:  the following podcast contains spoilers for the film being reviewed; if you wish to see the film without having it ruined for you, download this podcast and save it for later.

Paul Weimer (website / twitter) and Jay Garmon (website / twitter) join me to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of J.J. Abrams' second installment in the Star Trek film reboot.  Feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments below.

You can download or stream the mp3 from this link.



The Black Guy is Ruining the Fantastic Four Reboot!

Oh, what?  He isn't?  Are you sure?  I mean.  He's black.  That means, like, Sue has to be black, right?  She doesn't?  Johnny or Sue could be adopted?  Or they could be children of different mothers or fathers or maybe they're interracial or something?  But I thought if you're half black and half white you just look almost white?  That's not true?  Really?  Well, the original Johnny was a white guy, so he has to stay white.  What about Idris Elba?  Oh, yeah, he was cool in Thor?  The original character wasn't a black guy?  Oh, well, then that's OK because he's not a major character.  Besides, this doesn't have anything to do about race.  I know I keep talking about it.  But just because I talk about race doesn't mean what we're talking about is actually about race, even if the only reason we're talking about it is because a black guy might be the Human Torch.  It's just not about race, OK?
That pretty much sums up the stupidity you'll find online about the rumor of Michael B. Jordan's (of Chronicle fame) possible casting as the Human Torch in the reboot of The Fantastic Four.
Cracked.com has a brilliant take-down here.  Read the comments on the first link at your own risk (I'll post some gems below).
Let's call this for what it is:  soft racism.  For example, here is this amazing quote from The Wrap (linked in the previous paragraph):
This is a horrible idea. Johnny Storm is an iconic Marvel character, a blonde, blue-eyed, party boy daredevil. He's not a second string character, he's a principal team member of one of Marvel's flagship series. As a long-time comic book collector, it would completely distract from any story to change Johnny's ethnicity. (It was bad enough that Jessica Alba was such an awful, awful blonde). Johnny once dated a Skrull - an African American could play her, or She-Hulk is an ancillary FF character - her ethnicity could be changed with little distraction, even Ben Grimm would be less distracting as another commenter suggested, although that would raise the question of whether Ben would stay Jewish (there are far less Jews in Marvel Comics than African Americans). But Johnny Storm? Comic book fans take "canon" very seriously, and this idea just smells like disaster.
Translation:  Johnny Storm was white in the comics, and if you made him black, we'd all get distracted because he's black; if you're going to have black people in this, let them play aliens or green rage monsters who are secondary to the plot, but don't you dare put a black guy as a main character, because I'll just be so distracted by...black guys.

Clearly, none of this has anything to do with race, am I right?  If you're distracted by black people, you're not distracted because they're black; you're distracted because they...are...look at the beautiful sunset!  There are a lot of people arguing variations of this type.  The irony is that in throwing a hissy fit over this topic, these commenters have inadvertently punched themselves in the face.  It's not possible to wiggle out of a soft racism charge when your main argument is "black people are distracting when they are in my movies about white people."

Some, however, have taken a different strategy, such as this fellow over at IGN:
The whole "defined by whiteness" arguement is stupid (by that same standard many black heroes should easily be recast as white as they're not "defined by blackness"), the guy is wrong for the role plain and simple, it's about race because that's where he's wrong for the role...if he was a 300 pound white guy that could nail Torch's personality exactly, he'd still be wrong for the role. Rather than taking the time to proper cast the movie the guy is trying to go with an associate wrong for the role, it doesn't matter how good he can act, Johnny Storm is white, and people are looking for proper adaptations for things of this sort...try creating or utilizing the existing black super heroes if it's that important rather than lazily shoehorning bad choices for the sake of it.
i.e., even though the Human Torch is not defined by his whiteness, he can't be played by a black guy because he's not black.  If you can see the circles going around and around here, you deserve a pat on the back.

The irony with statements like these is that they often not only refute themselves, but they also fall for the typical anti-racist-is-code-for-anti-white rhetoric that assumes that because you can't do the same thing to other races, it is just as racist to do it to white people.  Let's set aside the fact that changing the Human Torch's race isn't really an insult to white people (after all, it's not like we don't have a shitload of white superheroes in film already *coughWolverineCaptainAmericaCyclopsProfXBatmanGreenLanternOnAndOnAndOncough*).  What is alarming about arguments like this is the bizarre amnesia to which their proponents have succumbed.  Not to beat a dead horse, but racism is alive and well in this country.  This is why I find historical amnesia on this subject disturbing, since it allows people of any race to make arguments that are counterproductive and, in some cases, damaging.  The two positions are not equal:  casting a white guy as Luke Cage is not the same as casting a black guy as the Human Torch.  There is no history of white people being denied entry based on their race (especially in American comics).  Isolated cases may exist, but one cannot rationally argue that whites are discriminated against at the same level as blacks (today and in the past -- see here) -- it's an absurd claim.
None of this is new to the world of film adaptations, though.  We saw something similar when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall.  Not surprisingly, when the film came and went, it didn't seem to have that much of an impact on, well, anything.  Are people still throwing a hissy fit about it?  Not really.  It turned out that casting a black guy for a role previously written as white really didn't matter (and let's admit:  Elba was pretty awesome as Heimdall).  If Michael B. Jordan is officially cast as the Human Torch, I doubt anyone but the fervently racist will really care.  The only difference, of course, is that the Human Torch is a larger role than Heimdall, which has some people in a tizzy -- hence the "just cast some black folks as secondary characters" argument.

There are also comments like this:
honestly I am not racist..but I am a die hard fan of the fantatisc four..and I dont want them to just cast a black guy because...of whatever reason.its like they are not even trying at this point. He was white for petes sake ..if this is real i am not watching it
The infamous "I'm not a racist, but..." phrase.  I suppose the historical absence of black superheroes in the classic Marvel canon has remained unknown to this author.  There are a lot of them in terms of gross numbers, but most of them have remained relatively obscure (or firmly as secondary characters).  Few can name many black superheroes who have been around since the Silver Age who have the same staying power as the Fantastic Four.  Luke Cage and the Black Panther are about it (and you'll never get a movie about the latter because of the name)(please correct me if I'm wrong about this).  I don't actually know why there are so few black superheroes who have the same "fame" as the Fantastic Four or the Avengers or X-Men.  Maybe we need something along those lines one of these days...
Of course, I'm sure this person also doesn't know that another always-has-been-white character was fairly recently replaced by a black guy.  Also, a latino.  Both in alternate Marvel universes (Ultimates and 2099 respectively).  Somehow, those changes didn't destroy Marvel forever!

However, I think the more humorous comments fall in the "you can't change things" category, such as:
Make a movie for actual black characters from the comic books. The background is already there why change it up. A Luke Cage and a Black Panther movie and a Storm movie I would watch. Changing Nick Furry (sic) black actually made him better but making Johnny Storm Black well then you have to make Sue Storm black as well and honestly I wouldn't watch it if you paid me.
Of course, this individual is oblivious to the myriad of ways that Sue and Johnny could be different races (adoption, different mothers/fathers, or, you know, maybe Sue ends up mixed race and the entire universe collapses).  The commenter even makes the amusing argument that it was OK for Nick Fury to end up black, but you can't blackify Johnny because...err...Mr. Angry Comment just won't pay to see it.  In other words, he'll pay to see black characters if they are secondary to the narrative OR if we are talking about imaginary film adaptations, but if you screw with a major character, well, no money for you.

But what is truly amusing about this is this individual's profound ignorance about the Marvel universe.  Marvel has already changed characters.  Most famously, and not without controversy, they completely rebooted a sea of characters when they created the Ultimates imprint -- they changed background stories, updated the settings, and so on (and, yes, switched some characters' races).  There are numerous instances in the Marvel universe where alternate worlds have come into existence, characters have been completely rewritten, and so on and so forth.  The Marvel universe is called a multiverse for a reason:  it's full of pocket universes, external realities, and so on.  Ultimates literally occurs in a different continuity -- a different "universe," if you will.  And since the film universe is already completely different from the comics, it is no less ridiculous to change Nick Fury's character than it is to change the Human Torch's (or Heimdall's, for that matter).  These film incarnations of the classic heroes are not the same heroes from your comics.  They aren't even the same heroes from the updated Ultimates line.  They're not the same heroes from any of the other side universes either (except, perhaps, the Marvel Now universe, though I haven't read my Iron Man comics yet, so I can't say whether this is true or not).  They are completely different versions of our favorite heroes, and even more so now that Columbia has rebooted Spider-man and, now, The Fantastic Four.
Lastly, I think the only thing that really matters is whether Michael B. Jordan can perform the role well.  Having seen his work in Chronicles, I think there's potential.  Whether he will have the same cocky attitude as Chris Evans in the first two Fantastic Four movies, I cannot say (assuming that's what we're looking for, here).  But I can say that all of this hubbub about how wrong it is to have a black guy as the Human Torch has made me realize that I really shouldn't care if Idris Elba becomes the next 007.  Anyone who has heard me argue against Elba's casting in that franchise can officially toss out everything I said as nonsense.  If Idris Elba brings something to the table as a possible future Bond, then let him have a stab at it.  And that means we should all support him for no other reason than whether you think he, as an actor, can play the role.  Who cares if James Bond has always been a white guy?  Not me.  Not anymore.

(Idealistic Shaun for the win.)

How Not to Write a Review (or, “Oblivion isn’t about Tom Cruise, dumbass…”)

In a recent New York Times review of the SF action adventure film, Oblivion, Manohla Dargis opens with the following:
If only it were less easy to laugh at “Oblivion,” a lackluster science-fiction adventure with Tom Cruise that, even before its opening, was groaning under the weight of its hard-working, slowly fading star and a title that invites mockery of him and it both. The agony of being a longtime Tom Cruise fan has always been a burden, but now it’s just, well, dispiriting. You not only have to ignore the din of the tabloids and swat away the buzzing generated by his multiple headline-ready dramas, you also have to come to grips with the harsh truth that it no longer actually matters why and how Tom Terrific became less so. No one else much cares.
This opening paragraph is followed by another much like it, in which Dargis argues pretty much the same thing:  Tom Cruise is on the way out because he's nuts.  This train of thought makes up most of the review.  There's little time spent actually defending why Oblivion is lackluster or why,
as Dargis suggests, there is something wrong with the film mashing together a number of different SF ideas (this is a charge that applies to basically all SF films these days, so it seems like a pointless argument if you can't add something, well, original to it -- ha!).
This is not how one writes a review.  When you come into a film with a pre-loaded bias -- in particular, a bias against an actor/director as a person rather than as an actor/director -- your ability to assess the quality of that film will be greatly diminished.  Dargis suffers from this problem.  Because she cannot see beyond Cruise as a person, she cannot honestly assess Oblivion on its own terms; she's assessing the film as a reflection of an individual.  In other words, Dargis' review is about why she doesn't like Tom Cruise, not Oblivion itself -- not "Tom Cruise" the actor, but "Tom Cruise" the person.  That Dargis cannot set aside the tabloids and Cruise's various eccentricities is telling.  Anything she can say about a movie involving Cruise will be tainted by her personal biases, something made apparent by her desire to front-load the personal barbs over an honest assessment of the man's work.

Many of the other reviews I've read have not done this.  David Edelstein made a Scientology joke in his review on Vulture, but it was not the central "thesis" of his argument about Oblivion.  Others might drop a hint at Cruise's personal life or nothing whatsoever.  But most of them justified their critiques of Oblivion by addressing the film itself.  They wrote actual reviews, not character assassinations.

That is exactly what Dargis did -- she went for the jugular and forgot to actually write a review.

The Sequel We Deserve: Galaxy Quest…2 or the Show?

In a recent Flavorwire interview, Mark Johnson, the producer of Breaking Bad (a show I'm told is really good), offered this little gem:
I wish... It’s complicated. I can’t get into it because it only gets me angry, because I’m so proud of that movie… For a while there, and someday we may actually get there, we actually talked about doing a television show which would be sort of fun because it would be a TV show looking at a movie that’s looking at a TV show, something like that. So I wish I could answer you and I wish we did have a sequel or certainly a half hour comedy based on it. So we’ll see. It’s not over.
Needless to say, some of us are excited.  I've previously said that Galaxy Quest would make a terrific TV show.  I still believe that, though I certainly wouldn't complain about a sequel film if the
studios put up the dough to make one.
The primary benefit to a film is its length.  With two hours, you can effectively create a parody and adventure story all in one, without disrupting the viewing process with the disconnected sitcom form -- every moment leads to somewhere else. But films also limit the comedic frame, as overloading those two hours with references, jokes, and so on can pull apart the plot.  This is what has happened with the various incarnations of Scary Movie -- each became less and less about the characters existing within a parody and more about the parody itself.  The result?  Crappy films.  Granted, a lot of folks would disagree with me, but I'll stick by the claim.  Under the proper writing and direction, Galaxy Quest 2 could easily surpass its predecessor -- the folks who were behind the original should return if a sequel film ever happens.

Having said that, though, I have to admit that a TV series might offer a different set of useful conditions for a parody.  First, Galaxy Quest is an obvious parody of the most popular science fiction TV show of all time:  Star Trek.  While the film never tries to follow the exact format, that doesn't mean it wouldn't benefit from taking things to the episodic level.  Personally, I would prefer to see 45-minute episodes rather than the traditional 23-26-minute sitcom form.  Doing so would let the writers play with the interconnected storylines, parody the narrative form of Star Trek and other TV franchises, and develop characters and comedy in a more efficient, laugh-track-free zone.  Galaxy Quest doesn't deserve a laugh track, but it does deserve sufficient space to explore the parodic form.  A film might let the franchise expand and develop certain aspects of its universe, but a direct narrative parody would do so much more.
Of course, this is what I think, and I'm nobody.  I've never written for television.  All I've got to work on are my personal desires and the shows I've already seen.  Besides, Doctor Who has done well for itself, has it not?  Galaxy Quest could be the American response, if you will...

What do you all think?

Retro Nostalgia: Gattaca (1997) and Framing the Multivalent Ethical Dilemma

Before Andrew Niccol's Gattaca (1997) begins in earnest, we are compelled to think about its underlying ethical dilemma:  is a meritocratic system based on (mostly pre-selected) genetic variables justified, even if that means denying some people equal access simply because their genes say there is something wrong with them?  If you have seen the film, then you know how the story ends -- the genetic "weakling" succeeds at doing the impossible, throwing into question the very notion that one's genetics are an absolute determination of one's potential.  Thus, one possible side question is:  without the aforementioned meritocratic system, would Vincent/Jerome have fought so hard to succeed?  Questions like this are why films like Gattaca, The Truman Show, The Minority Report and, to a lesser extent, District 9, Logan's Run, and
Soylent Green (just to name a few) are such profound models of ethical problems put in action.
Gattaca is one of the few films that does so directly, offering the following William Gaylin quote in first the few moments: "I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to."  It is difficult to tell whether the film is a direct response to Gaylin's belief, a partial acceptance of the principle, or a violent refutation.  I am, however, partial to violence.  Gaylin's quote is put in place without context, almost as if to tell us that this is a future we very well might see -- and soon -- not because it is "happening now," but because we will give in to Mother Nature's demand.  The natural progression for an intelligent, technology-oriented species such as ourselves is to tamper with what makes us "us."  In one sense, you might think of Gattaca as Andrew Niccol's answer to that notion:  yes, we might do it, but the ramifications will create an underclass marked (just like with race or gender) by factors beyond their control. The moral quagmire, however, makes race and gender look relatively tame.*
Unlike most (if not all) arguments about race or gender, there is a logic behind Gattaca's worldview.  There are no real, scientific differences between Caucasian, African, Asian, and so on -- at least, not differences that matter in a meritocratic sense.  But the opposite is true for Vincent/Jerome; he is, in fact, a genetic "weakling," containing within him flaws that limit his lifespan and his cognitive/physical abilities.  A world where such information is freely available, as it is in Gattaca, has two main options:  it can discard all other subjective factors for selection, or it can shift to the only seemingly objective standard by which to judge people's capabilities -- genetics.  It's a purely logical system, when you get right down to it, and that, in a sense, is what makes Gattaca a more disturbing dystopia than more violent, direct incarnations.
But underneath this is another important factor:  choice.  William Gaylin's quote suggests that we'll tamper because that's what nature wants, implying that genetic augmentation and genetic meritocracies are natural progressions for human civilization.  Yet doing so will mean punishing people for their parents' behavior.  Vincent/Jerome, as a "god child" (someone born with natural "chance"), is not a participant in his creation; thus, all the disadvantages his genetics offer are ones he could not change even if he wanted to.  The dilemma, as such, is yet another question:  if ability is mostly determined by one's genetics, and many jobs require a great deal of natural ability, do we relegate entire segments of the population to menial labor in order to increase "productivity" despite the fact that many of those people had no hand in their own creation?  And is doing so the best course of action for this society?
Yes, it is (says Gattaca in my mind).  And we're not supposed to feel particularly good about that prospect, in part because most of us recognize the terrifyingly logical discrimination at the heart of the film.  In the end, Gattaca wants us to reject this entire idea, to throw our chips in with Vincent/Jerome -- after all, he does exceed his genetically-determined potential.  But Vincent/Jerome is the exception that proves the rule.  There is no way to know if his success will shatter the perceptions of his world, though it is possible to read the various events in the final moments of the film as leading to that conclusion.  However, I tend to see the end as confirmation:  Vincent's/Jerome's success isn't public, and, therefore, whatever change he might represent for this genetic meritocracy can never be fulfilled.  We will tamper with Mother Nature, yes, but we will also have to accept and adapt to its vulgar consequences.

(Can you tell I'm a not terribly optimistic about genetic testing?)

-------------------------------------------------------------------

*When I say "tame," I am referring to the concept's logic, not to the historical treatment of groups based on race or gender.  From a conceptual point of view, race and gender, for the most part, are illogical.  We know this only because we live in a world where the vast majority of us agree that having different skin or gender does not mean that you are, by default, inferior to another group.  The only way to maintain that belief in any pure sense is to intentionally maintain paradoxes in one's mind -- I think these paradoxes are what compels some to violence, since the psyche cannot keep contradictory ideas afloat if such ideas are connected to identity construction.