A place for new ideas to settle.

08 June 2017

REVIEW: "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" and "Alien: Covenant" -- Forbearance in filmmaking

May saw the release of two films that I had very mixed feelings about when I saw the trailers. After watching both of them, my feelings became polarized, in exactly the opposite way I expected. Even then, though, one feeling remains strong: neither of these movies needed to have been produced. In fact, they maybe should never have been produced.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the latest in a long line of "gritty reboot" stories, this time about the Once and Future King, Arthur Pendragon. In Guy Ritchie's retelling, Arthur is orphaned when his evil uncle Vortigern murders his parents, and the baby Arthur is found and raised by hookers in Londinium. He grows up to become the brothel's enforcer, leading a gang of street toughs to extort merchants passing through the neighborhood and beat up anyone who gets too handsy with the girls. He also learns how to fight from "Chinese George" (not to be confused with any British Georges) and his inexplicable dojo of full-on kung-fu warriors.

If that made you scratch your head in puzzlement, there's plenty more weirdness to see here. Once Arthur draws the sword Excalibur from its stone (Vortigern has ordered a kind of census where every man of a certain age in the kingdom must attempt to pull the sword) he gets kidnapped and carted off by the resistance led by Sir Percival and the witch Guinevere (or "mage," in a bizarre turn... why not Druid?) to do his prophesied duty. Vortigern, you see, has wizard powers and is building a tower to increase those powers... somehow. A review that joked it's a "wi-fi booster" might be on to something.

The funny thing is, Arthur, being a street rat in this version, doesn't give a shit about legends and magic swords―that's no basis for a system of government, after all―and hilariously, neither does the movie, really. Except for the final showdown between Arthur and Vortigern (and boy does it suck) most of the explicit fantasy stuff is relegated to montages (of Arthur getting attacked by giant animals in the faerie world, including Rodents of Unusual Size, in what I'm pretty sure is an intentional troll move) or the prologue. And the non-fantasy stuff, like when Arthur masterminds an assassination attempt against Vortigern, is pretty great.

All the actors acquit themselves well. The music is good. There are legitimately cool or funny parts. It's processed cheese and great fun to watch while drinking beers with friends. The biggest flaw is the needlessly complicated worldbuilding, and the brick-stupid video-game-style final showdown.

So I had a fun time with King Arthur. And yet it probably should never have been made.



Alien: Covenant is the sequel to Ridley Scott's crime against science fiction, Prometheus, and the prequel to one of the great cosmic-horror slasher films, Alien. Ridley Scott has moments of genius (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, The Martian) and moments of badness (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Prometheus, Robin Hood) but is generally a good filmmaker. And Alien: Covenant is certainly a well-made film. The actors are good. The music is good. There are some cool scenes and some definitely great images. The biggest flaw is the needlessly complicated worldbuilding, and the brick-stupid video-game-style series of final showdowns. (See where I'm going with this?)

For all its technical virtues, Alien: Covenant is a bad film. It's bad in the worst way possible for a film to be bad: it's gratuitous and worthless.

We don't need to know how the alien in Alien came to be: as a horror film, that's part of the point. A good horror monster, especially in the Lovecraftian style, is explained in vague terms, half-guesses and speculations by the ignorant and terrified protagonists (read: meatbags/victims). And in Alien we get exactly that: a mysterious spaceship, a monstrous humanoid Engineer with a burst chest, weird eggs, facehugger, chestburster, alien. And the android Ash's ominous admiration of its "purity: survival unclouded by conscience, or delusions of morality."

James Cameron's Aliens does just enough to expand the universe into the military-sf action genre without ruining the first film's horror: aliens have Queens, big and nasty final-boss versions. And even if you have kickass military tech, a whole horde of aliens will ruin your day.

Hell, even bullshit like Alien v. Predator didn't screw with the backstory, it just included the Predators in the same universe and said that they would seed planets with aliens so they would have something to hunt when they got bored.

Then Prometheus gave us brick-stupid scientist characters stumbling on the living Engineers who turn out to be blue skinned giant human-like people who seeded life on Earth (evolution doesn't work like that) and were represented in ancient human art (fuck off with ancient astronauts it's not good sf anymore) and the aliens were actually the end result of a biowarfare program... okay, to the extent that this resembles the assumed backstory of the Shoggoths from Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, I'm basically fine with it.

Oh, but now Alien: Covenant doesn't let it go, and shows us how the Engineers weren't wiped out until rogue android David drops the bioweapon on their capital city (and somehow their only population center even though they have spaceships and so many goddamn plot holes) and continues to experiment and "perfect" the alien form until he achieves the life cycle we know and love from Alien.

Dumb.

The colonist characters are sort of dumb, which on the one hand makes sense because we're not told they're the world's best scientists like in Prometheus, but on the other hand wouldn't you select competent people for your colony mission? Ridley Scott made The Martian, wouldn't hypercompetent people getting wrecked by supernaturally-competent aliens be even cooler...?!

There are abysmal lapses in storytelling, like how nobody bats an eye at a lush planet full of earthlike plants (including fucking wheat, evolution does not work that way) when we're explicitly told that the original target planet isn't all that hospitable (and canonically no exoplanet in the Alien franchise has been hospitable). Or how there are massive ion storms in the upper atmosphere but they repeatedly fly ships through it instead of waiting for the storms to play out (it's not like they really expect to find Dr. Shaw alive in the first place).

Or why for some reason we see multiple fully-lit shots of the aliens scuttling about, spoiling the horror aspect and needlessly padding the run time (I don't care that it climbed the walls, I can guess that).

And then the final conflicts, alien vs. knockoff-Ripley using a giant crane on a spaceship fleeing the Engineer city, then alien vs. knockoff-Ripley and Danny McBride on the colony ship using a giant truck and the airlock... these scenes are overlong, overwrought, and introduce the ludicrous suggestion that the only weapons that can hurt a Xenomorph are sufficiently large pieces of construction equipment.

Alien: Covenant should never have been made. In some sick way it redeems Prometheus by making it only the second-worst crime against sf that Ridley Scott has produced. It explains what never needed explaining, introduces plot holes where before there were none, demystifies the monster, and outrageously centers humanity in what was once a setting utterly hostile and indifferent to humanity. The story of the Alien movies becomes about humans somehow getting shafted for our collective hubris, an utterly exhausted trope, instead of being about humans getting shafted just because the universe was never meant for our benefit.

07 June 2017

REVIEW: "Heir to the Empire" and "Thrawn" -- Legends and Canons

Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of the iconic Star Wars characters who never appeared in the movies. He looks cool (blue skin, glowing red eyes, white uniform), does cool things (pull victory from the jaws of defeat, makes Our Heroes look bad), and just is cool (admires his enemies' art, so he can infer their strategies and weaknesses).

Recently, with the re-canonization of Thrawn in the new-canon cartoon Rebels, I decided to actually read Timothy Zahn's introduction of the character in Heir to the Empire. Specifically, I listened to the 20th Anniversary edition of the audiobook, narrated by Marc Thompson.

Production-wise, the audiobook is pretty great. You get all the ship engines, blaster fire, lightsaber hums, and weird alien noises that make it sound extra Star Wars-y. On the downside, sometimes the background noise (when the characters are aboard ship, for example) gets annoying when you're trying to listen to the narration.

On the topic of narration, Thompson does quite an good job with all the voices (including a simultaneously impressive and hilarious Wookiee-in-translation voice), including passable impressions of the movie characters. His actual narration suffers a bit from over-emotion, though: he tends to speed up and read more vehemently during action scenes, or actually put a strain in his voice when he narrates a character straining with effort or whatever. This is sort of juvenile; listeners don't need to be told that an action scene is exciting, it should just be exciting. And it's not like Zahn's competent sf writing chops aren't sufficient.

Now, in light of the fact that Heir was the first book in the Expanded Universe after the release of Return of the Jedi, it's absolutely amazing how much EU content derives specifically from this book. I own a copy of the "Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels," a fun coffee-table book that's an in-universe encyclopedia of all the notable vehicles in the movies and novels, and a ridiculous amount of that book is just from Zahn's trilogy, with descriptions lifted almost verbatim from the books. Even something as throwaway as "most of the Empire's promising young officers were killed when the Executor crashed into the Death Star II" are part of a character's inner thoughts from Heir to the Empire.

At the same time, some of the stupider elements of the Expanded Universe are also straight from Zahn, like the unjustified (and in my opinion unjustifiable) nonsense that clones can't spell their names right―so we know that Joruus C'Baoth is a clone because the original was Jorus C'Baoth... what?!

Anyway, the actual story is pretty good: Grand Admiral Thrawn, a genius tactician with a penchant for psychoanalyzing an enemy's battle tactics by studying their culture's art, wants to crush the New Republic. To do this he acquires some Force-negating lizards and an insane cloned Dark Jedi (the aforementioned C'Baoth) to trap and kill Luke Skywalker and his friends. Fair enough, there are worse plans.

But Thrawn is also a genius tactician, and that's the real fun of the book. Other than maybe Darth Vader, Star Wars hadn't actually had a smart villain, and Zahn's strategy of "Sherlock Holmes, but an evil alien space admiral" works quite well. Thrawn anticipates his enemies and thwarts them; and given that he's leading the Imperial Remnant, Zahn manages to make him a scrappy underdog that we root for, and a credible threat to the heroes we also root for. I imagine this effect was more pronounced when the book first came out and readers didn't know that Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Lando, and the droids would survive for hundreds more books...

Other new characters are pretty fun, too: though it's very obvious that Talon Karrde and Mara Jade are next-level Mary-Sue versions of Han/Lando and Leia, even in this book. I mean Mara is the sexy redhead (!) former Imperial assassin (!!) who also ends up being a Jedi (!!!) that Luke can marry because she's not his sister (!!!!), and Karrde is a smuggler who actually smuggles and is good at it, so yeah. Meanwhile, Thrawn has a Watson character to match to his Sherlock, Gilad Pellaeon. There's also a scary bodyguard from a species that mysteriously reveres Darth Vader as their savior. Cool stuff, all.

Overall, Heir to the Empire is a good-but-not-great, fun Star Wars book. I'd rate it at 3.5 out of 5, rounded down to 3 because of its non-canonicity.



Even more recently, Zahn re-introduced Thrawn to the new canon in Thrawn, which is explicitly an origin story of how the blue-skinned alien from the Unknown Regions actually becomes a Grand Admiral in an Empire that's corrupt as hell and biased against all non-human species.

I listened to the audiobook, which is also narrated by Marc Thompson. Though Thompson has improved as a narrator, basically all my comments about the production and narration hold. I think the production job was actually slightly worse than Heir. There were a few scene transitions involving spaceship noises that nearly overwhelmed the narration; also, Thompson was unaccountably bad at doing the voice of Emperor Palpatine, while he was otherwise quite good at doing female voices and a wide range of English accents. Notably, Thrawn's voice is completely different now, as Thompson had made him rather menacing with a deep voice in Heir, whereas here he matches Lars Mikkelsen's softer and more thoughtful (though not really any less menacing) tones here. It still works for Thrawn, and Zahn does even more (at least compared to <i>Heir</i>) to emphasize how Thrawn is a ruthless warrior but intensely honorable, compared to someone like Grand Moff Tarkin or the Emperor himself.

Intertwined with Thrawn's story is the story of Eli Vanto, a young ensign from the Wild Space region (with a suitable Texan accent) who takes over Gilad Pellaeon's duties as the "Watson" figure to Thrawn's "Sherlock." There's actually more of a "Robin" element here, as Vanto has certain knowledge and affinities that Thrawn lacks himself, and grows to become a useful ally.

Thrawn also gets a "Moriarty" style adversary, the proto-Rebel ringleader code-named "Nightswan," and the two play a cat-and-mouse game all throughout Thrawn's ascension to Admiral before the final confrontation that will (inevitably) gain him the Grand Admiral title―complete with a face-to-face, "we're not so different, join me" conversation that actually worked much better than the usual cliche.

The book also chronicles the rise to power of Arihnda Pryce, the Imperial Governor of Lothal in the Rebels cartoon. Zahn does a good job sketching out a plausible path that takes her from being an otherwise decent person to a power-hungry and desperate authoritarian (who will eventually lose her shit in Rebels when the Rebels threaten to destroy all that she has tried to build for herself).

Thrawn is a more interesting character in his own right, rather than interesting as an uber-competent villain. His tactical genius is there right from the outset, but Zahn gives him the major weakness of being completely naive when it comes to the dirty-tricks corruption and variously racist and classist prejudices of the Empire. He comes to rely on Imperial Security Bureau agent Wulf Yularen (who appears in the Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons) to apprise him of these thorny matters. It's not a particularly original idea, but it does give Thrawn actual setbacks and blind spots that might be his final undoing.

Overall Thrawn is a very good origin story (in fact, several origins in one) with all the same good and bad qualities as an audiobook. It doesn't have the unbridled insanity that Heir does (seriously, double-vowel clones?!) but there's also a clear corporate imprint to the worldbuilding even as Zahn is a good enough writer to make it work anyway. I'd rate it 3.5 out 5, except this time rounded up to 4 because it nicely informs the other works in the new canon.