Posts Tagged movies

In Skyfall, James Bond fights for Queen, Country, and Aesthetics

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Skyfall, or you did see it, but only in an alternate quantum universe, this post may ruin your day.

Skyfall posterSkyfall was a great way to mark 50 years of 007, and not just because it was a great movie. In this author’s opinion, Skyfall ranks among the best Bond films ever made, but it also shows why this franchise has persisted for 50 years, and why it deserves to keep going. The world of espionage is becoming more efficient, but also less interesting, and that’s why we need Bond.

In Skyfall, all 007 wants to do is shoot his enemy in the face, but said enemy, a rogue former MI6 agent named Raoul Silva, prefers hacking over high explosives. The new hipster Q is also convinced that digital espionage is the wave of the future.

Silva points to a room full of servers and says they are all he needs to commit acts of terror, while Q brags that he can do more at home in his pajamas than Bond can do in the field.

This new attitude isn’t just a writer’s way of triggering sentimentality, either. Cyber warfare is a developing tactic in the espionage world. The Stuxnet worm, for example, has done a better job of slowing down Iran’s nuclear weapons program than any human spy.

That all may be true, but that doesn’t make it interesting to watch. Anyone who has seen previous Bond films will sigh along with 007 when Q hands him nothing but a gun and a radio. An Aston Martin with machine guns might be less realistic, but it’s also much cooler.

No one wants to spend two hours watching someone furiously type on a keyboard, either. Q could probably do 007‘s job remotely using a drone, but he would lose the interest of movie audiences along the way. Bond remarks that, eventually, someone has to pull the trigger. He’s right, if for no other reason than that it creates more drama.

Since Skyfall is, after all, a movie about James Bond, Q and Silva are forced to relent. Q lets Bond take M to Bond’s ancestral home in Scotland for protection, and Silva surrounds and destroys it in spectacular fashion.

That ending has little in common with the real world of espionage. In fact, almost nothing in Bond’s 50-year career of boozing, womanizing, and killing has. Nonetheless, Bond’s defense of good old fashioned bullets highlights an important  issue in the way the world is depicted in the arts.

The digitalization of life is making it harder to depict the real world in an interesting way in fiction. While its true that many aspects of life are mundane, depicting life lived through the filter of digital technology compounds that mundanity with artificiality.

The science-fiction subgenre Cyberpunk has grappled with this problem, and the response is often to dial up the fiction. The business of hacking is jazzed up with augmented reality interfaces, like the dream world of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, or the uber-Internet “Metaverse” of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. The protagonist of Snow Crash, appropriately named Hiro Protagonist, is also a swordsman. That helps.

Like the Bond films, no one ever accused Cyberpunk of being a totally realistic depiction of hacking and computer programming. Both use a real-life activity as the basis for good fiction, but the more time people spend sitting in front of computers, the less likely it will resemble the reader’s world in any way.

It’s important for fictional stories to give their readers something to relate to, but we may be pushing the boundaries of what we can do with the reality we have. Pulling a trigger will always be more interesting than clicking a mouse.

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How the midnight premiere of Avengers restored my faith in humanity

Avengers movie posterThe local multiplex was full of sweat and anticipation. It was one hour before midnight on May 3, 2012, and scores of nerds were packed in a theater waiting for the first showing of Avengers to start. Many were dressed up as their favorite characters, and a beach ball was being volleyed back and forth.

Avengers, a movie about a team of superheroes based on the Marvel comic books, isn’t for everyone, and this opening act of nerdom seems to confirm that. But everyone should try to be as enthusiastic about a movie as these people were.

Every year, at least one great movie comes out, but going to see a film in theaters usually involves a lot of tedium and annoyance. There are the endless commercials and previews, and the audience. Some are abhorred by what they see on screen, others are ecstatic. Either way, they feel the need to vocalize their opinions. It’s no wonder that Netflix is so popular.

Things don’t have to be that way. There was plenty of noise at the midnight showing of Avengers, but none of it was annoying. When each hero came on screen, the crowd cheered. There was a collective gasp at every moment of suspense or tragedy. It was like watching a play: the audience engaged with the characters (and each other) as if everyone was in the same room. Imagine that.

Normal movie audiences have little in common, but everyone at Avengers could at least share their love/fanatical obsession with Captain America, Iron Man, and company. Once in awhile, it’s nice to enjoy a movie, and the companionship of fellow fans.

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How to kill a superhero

They say you should never meet your heroes, but maybe you shouldn’t see them on the big screen either. The modern crop of superhero movies has included a few masterpieces, such as Batman Begins and Spider-Man, that manage to appease comic fans and be legitimately good films. On the other hand, Green Lantern shows just how wrong things can go.

The small budget (only $150 million) Green Lantern film, starring Ryan Reynolds, has nothing in common with the comic book that inspired it. Reynolds’ goofy, incompetent Hal Jordan is nothing like the self-confident hero fans admire. Instead of seeking to overcome his limitations, as the comic version did, this Hal Jordan brings everyone down to his level of childishness.

Green Lantern as drawn by Ethan van Sciver. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The aesthetics of Green Lantern are also completely skewed. Every character sports overly-textured skin, with either scales or exposed muscle fiber, that makes them look completely different (and much uglier) than their pencil and ink counterparts. The Lanterns’ headquarters on Oa, a modern city bathed in the light of a giant lantern-shaped “Central Power Battery” in the comics, looks like a cave. They even got Hal Jordan’s mask wrong.

Some might argue that none of the above matters: pleasing comic fans and pleasing the general public are not the same thing (for example, Watchmen was a faithful tribute to the graphic novel it’s based on, but was a little too strange for non-nerds). But that would mean the resulting movie should still be good, and it was not. Green Lantern was full of lame jokes, awkward dialogue, and Reynolds was so two-dimensional that I had more sympathy for the villains.

In the pantheon of superheroes, Green Lantern has never had the fame of Superman or Batman. Superheroes in general have little inherent appeal outside specific audiences; most people expect a man in tights and some explosions, which seems a bit silly. The superhero films that succeed do so because they show audiences why they should care about these characters; the filmmakers take them seriously.

Comic fans already take superheroes seriously, and rightfully so. Superheroes were created in and for that medium, and trying to turn them into anything besides comic book characters will always end badly. Just ask Hal Jordan.

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