Interstellar Review

interstellarI recently saw Interstellar, the highly-anticipated film from director Christopher Nolan. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s a very ambitious film that deserves a place in the canon of ‘hard sci-fi’ cinema. Its indebtedness to predecessors such as 2001 and Contact is evident throughout, but it manages to make a unique contribution to the genre through its ideas and impressive visual imagery. If I have one criticism of the film, I would say that the third act is too metaphysical (an odd criticism for a student of philosophy to make!). To say more about that, however, would be to spoil the ending of the film and this is a movie that should really be entered spoiler-free. Read on at your own risk if you haven’t yet seen it, although I will try to avoid major spoilers in this review.

The film begins by establishing that earth is running out of food. Humanity has reverted to an agrarian society; everybody has become a farmer, including former test pilot and engineer, Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey. He and his family, including his precocious 10 year old daughter Murph, live on a farm that’s reminiscent of something from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl. Murph begins to experience strange phenomena in her bedroom, such as books flying off the shelves. She concludes that a ghost is responsible. This sets up the first of the film’s ‘big ideas’: the tension between science and skepticism on the one hand and spirituality and sentimentality on the other. Without delving too deeply into spoilers, part of what the film attempts to do is overcome this dichotomy.

Murph’s attempt to interpret these messages from beyond leads her and her father to discover a secret NASA installation overseen by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway). They are planning a risky voyage to find a new home for humanity among the stars. The NASA team has discovered a wormhole that leads to another galaxy. Three astronauts have already gone through the wormhole in search of habitable worlds and have sent back some promising data. Professor Brand recruits Cooper to lead the mission to reach these potentially habitable planets. Cooper makes the decision to leave his family and embark on what’s likely to be a one-way mission into deep space. Because of the time dilation effects of deep space travel, he will experience time at a slower rate than those on earth. He faces the possibility that his family, including his children, will age and die before he ever gets back — if he ever gets back. However, as Professor Brand reminds him, in order to survive, humanity must think as a species, not as individuals.

I won’t say anymore about the plot, because to do so would get into spoiler territory. Instead, I’m going to talk more generally about the themes involved in the film. There are almost too many ideas going on in this film (although that’s preferable to there being too few) and there’s definitely a balancing act going on between the rigor of the science — which by sci-fi standards is quite high — and metaphysical speculation. Throughout the film, the characters speculate that gravity holds the key to understanding the mysteries of the universe. From my layman’s understanding, this speculation is rooted in recent theoretical physics. Stephen Hawking has attributed the creation of the universe itself to gravity and other theoretical physicists have speculated that gravity might be evidence of the existence of extra dimensions and even other universes. In the film, however, this scientific account is juxtaposed with the notion that love — something not easily quantifiable — is in some sense the most fundamental force in the universe. Again, I can’t say too much about the way this theme plays out without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that in a movie ostensibly about the technical aspects of deep space travel, wormholes, black holes, and relativity, the film devotes about a third of its running time to a very metaphysical exploration of the power of love to literally transcend space and time.

Interstellar’s turn into metaphysical, quasi-spiritual territory towards the end of the film has divided audiences. I think you’ll either like it or you won’t. I’m actually quite conflicted about what side of that divide I fall on. I rather liked the dilemma with which the crew is faced at a certain point in the movie — whether to return home or press on and find a home for the human embryos they carry with them. The film’s resolution to this dilemma is to try and have it both ways. It’s a creative solution, I suppose, but it feels a little too much like an M. Night Shyamalan film (albeit one of his better ones). The twist ending, which Nolan has employed in The Prestige, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises, doesn’t really work for me here. To be fair, the film sets up the dichotomy between science and spirituality from the beginning and its eventual resolution — a New Age-y interpretation that sees the counter-intuitive world of arcane physics as making room for spirituality — is not completely out of left field.

That said, the film should be seen for its visuals alone. I found it to be the most visually compelling film I’ve seen this year and the best example to date of Nolan’s ability as a visual director. Unlike Inception, which I felt was marred by clunky exposition, Interstellar places much more confidence in the power of the image to convey the story. There is, of course, some expository dialogue, but nothing like the excesses of some of his earlier work. In Interstellar, Nolan trusts the visuals to carry the narrative to a much greater extent than he has in the past and, in my judgment, this is a promising development.

If you’re a fan of 2001 and Contact, I think you will enjoy Interstellar.

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The Amazing Spoiler-Man 2

As the title indicates, this review will be chock-full of SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen The Amazing Spider-Man 2 yet and don’t want to know what happens, don’t read any further. If you’ve seen the movie, or just don’t care about spoilers, read on. If you just want to know whether or not I recommend the movie, skip to the very last paragraph.

First, however, some general comments. I have to admit I was underwhelmed by The Amazing Spider-Man when I first saw it. I felt it was an unnecessary retelling of the origin. I’ve always been puzzled by why studios don’t treat superhero franchises like the Bond movies. Recast them, change directors, but don’t hit the reset button every single time. We all know who Spider-Man is and we could have just hit the ground running with The Lizard, who was already set up in the Raimi series.

Speaking of Raimi’s movies, the new Spider-Man franchise invites the inevitable comparisons. One way to justify a hard reboot, would be to do something completely different with Spider-Man’s origin. To be fair, the Amazing series does draw much more explicitly on the origin from the Ultimate Spider-Man comic, which is outside the main Marvel continuity. The first one established the mysterious death of Peter’s parents and his dad’s connection to Norman Osborn. This thread is carried forward in the sequel and provides sufficient motivation for Peter to become Spider-Man. Uncle Ben’s murder in the first outing felt too perfunctory; it’s there because we expect it. (There’s another one of these deaths in the sequel too.) I got the feeling that the filmmakers were playing it safe here, rather than taking a risk. I thought it would have been interesting if Uncle Ben had survived the first movie.

I should also add that I enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man much more on Blu-ray than I did in the theater. It looked dark and washed out when I saw it; maybe it was the fault of the projectionist. The Blu-ray looks great and the movie has its moments. I prefer Andrew Garfield to Toby Maguire. Again, the interweaving of Spider-Man’s origin with his father’s scientific work for Oscorp is interesting, if not fully developed until the sequel. I also prefer mechanical web-shooters to organic ones. And it was cool to see Spidey use his webs like trip-lines to detect movement, the way real spiders do. (After all, he’s supposed to do whatever a spider can, right?)

To return to the Raimi series, however, the high watermark for any of the Spider-Man movies is still Spider-Man 2. Although I’m sure we’ll see Doc Ock again (we see his mechanical arms in The Amazing Spider-Man 2) because this film franchise is building up to the Sinister Six, I doubt we’ll get as good a performance as Alfred Molina’s. I give The Amazing Spider-Man 2 some credit for not simply remaking Raimi’s sequel, but it didn’t achieve the same success for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it as a fan. If I were to take off my fanboy hat, however, and put on my critic hat, I admit that the movie has its faults. So this is really a two part review: first the fanboy review, then the critical review. By the way, we are now well and truly entering SPOILER territory. You’ve been warned.

The film starts off with Peter’s parents fleeing the country by private jet. Richard Parker is attempting to upload his research to something called ‘Roosevelt’ to prevent it from falling into Oscorp’s hands. However, there is an assassin on the plane who kills the pilot causing the plane to go into a nosedive. Before the assassin bails out, he kills Richard’s wife and attempts to kill him. The two men struggle, and Richard manages to eject his attacker from the plane. He then uploads his research before the plane crashes. This will be an important plot point later.

We then cut to Spider-Man swinging around New York in an effort to stop the hijacking of a truck containing radioactive isotopes. The main hijacker is a Russian gangster played by Paul Giamatti, who will later become the Rhino. By the way, the majority of Rhino’s scenes are in the trailer. He doesn’t play a major role here; I take it they’re just laying the groundwork for the next movie. Anyways, Peter keeps seeing the ‘ghost’ of Captain Stacey, played by Dennis Leary (maybe he’s stealing material from the ghost of Bill Hicks 😉 ), and he’s reminded of his promise — which he hasn’t kept — to stay away from Gwen. After summarily defeating the bad guys, Spidey rushes off to his high school graduation where valedictorian Gwen is giving a speech. Unfortunately, this speech — about how brief and precious life is — telegraphs what will happen to Gwen by the end of the movie. Anybody familiar with the original Spider-Man comics knows that her story does not end happily, but it should be obvious to any moviegoer familiar with the usual cliches, that she’s foreshadowing her death in this speech. This somewhat diminishes the drama of Peter breaking up with her because we know they’ll get together again, which will lead to her demise.

The main villain of the film is Electro, played by Jaimie Foxx. A friendless electrical engineer who works for Oscorp, Max Dillon is rescued by Spider-Man during the truck hijacking and becomes obsessed with Spidey and wishes he could enjoy the same adulation. Although they only met once, Max considers Spider-Man his best friend. Later, after he falls into a vat of electric eels, gaining the ability to absorb electrical energy, Max is drawn to the lights of Times Square. Spider-Man inevitably shows up, and Max is upset when Spider-Man doesn’t remember him. They fight. Max is further angered when Spider-Man steals his newly-found limelight. Eventually, Spidey prevails and sends Max to prison. As far as villainous motivations go, this one is pretty weak. Unfortunately, this weakness is shared by most of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery. They’re either mad scientists — with some connection to Peter Parker’s life — or they’re schmucks who stumble into some superpower or advanced technology and decide to rob banks and fight Spider-Man, so maybe I should give Electro a pass.

In the meantime, Norman Osborn has apparently died and Harry Osborn has inherited Oscorp. Naturally, Peter and Harry are old friends. Harry discovers that he has also inherited Norman’s genetic disease. He also discovers that his father and Peter’s father, Richard Parker, were working on a spider-human DNA hybrid that could cure Norman’s ailment. The testing never officially made it to human trials, but Harry figures out that Spider-Man must be the result of some such experiment. Since Peter takes pictures of Spider-Man, Harry enlists his aid to find the wall-crawler, so Harry can extract some of Spidey’s blood which Harry believes will heal him. Spider-Man visits Harry and tells him he won’t donate his blood because the effects could be dangerous and unpredictable. Of course, this causes Harry to hate Spider-Man. Harry proceeds to break Electro out of prison and the two vow vengeance on the web-slinger. Again, as far as motivations go, these are thin.

Peter discovers that ‘Roosevelt’ is a reference to an abandoned subway tunnel used to transport President Roosevelt during WWII. Peter’s father, Richard, has stashed all of his research in a subway car to keep it out of Norman’s hands. Norman was going to use the research to create biological weapons and sell them to the highest bidder, but Richard coded the spider venom to his DNA so only a blood relative could use it. This supposedly explains why it bestowed spider powers on Peter. However, this makes Spider-Man’s origin spectacularly improbable. By pure chance, the spider bit the one guy in the world who could possibly become Spider-Man! What are the odds? With great power comes great improbability.

The rest of the movie is pretty perfunctory. Harry gets his hands on the spider venom, which turns him into the Green Goblin. The suit and glider conveniently rise out of the floor ready for him to take flight. Spider-Man, with Gwen’s help, manage to defeat Electro by overloading his circuits or some such nonsense, before he drains all of New York’s power. The Green Goblin shows up, immediately figures out Peter’s identity through his relationship with Gwen, and Spider-Man and Goblin fight. As Gwen falls down a clock tower, Spidey shoots his web to save her, but the recoil snaps her neck and she dies. This is all comic book canon, but it felt really rushed here. There was a lot of compression in the movie. It felt like the Green Goblin showed up for the express purpose of killing Gwen because that’s what we expect him to do. This could have been deferred to the next movie and it would have had more impact. The film then rushes through a year of Peter moping and not being Spider-Man. Then, after a few minutes, he triumphantly returns to defeat Rhino. Again, this should have been saved for the next installment. It would’ve had much more impact. After all, these stories play out in the comics over years, not two hours, and there’s too much content here for one film.

The movie ends with a set-up for the Sinister Six. I can’t help but cynically conclude that the studio is rushing to this point. They also seem to be in a big hurry to reestablish the status quo. Now that Gwen Stacey is out of the way, I expect it won’t be too long before we see Mary Jane. I heard rumors that she was introduced in an earlier cut of this movie, but dropped due to running time.

And that’s another thing. This movie is a bit too long. It could’ve used a more streamlined story and a stronger edit. There were a few long stretches without any Spider-Man action where I wasn’t engaged. Again, the scenes between Peter and Gwen — the will they, won’t they stuff — didn’t play well after her demise was so clearly telegraphed a few minutes into the movie. I know that the teenage romance elements are a staple of the Spider-Man story — the genius of the original comic is that it’s a soap opera — but it’s wasted here. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are a charismatic couple, but the cliched writing didn’t allow these scenes to have the impact they should have.

So would I recommend The Amazing Spider-Man 2? Yes, I would give it a mild recommendation. It’s visually interesting and probably the most faithful Spider-Man ever put on screen. Everything from the costume to Garfield’s performance is right out of the comic book pages. If you’re a hardcore fan, it’s a double edged sword. You’ll probably appreciate more of what’s going on, but you’ll also probably notice a lot more flaws. If you’re a casual moviegoer who isn’t burned out by the superhero genre yet, and just want some escapist fun, then check it out. If you go into it with moderate expectations, you probably won’t be disappointed.

Libertarianism in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I finally got around to seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier on Friday night. I enjoyed it immensely. Although there are the requisite comic book elements, it felt more like an action movie/political thriller. Without giving away too much of the plot, Steve Rogers finds himself caught in a web of lies and political conspiracies. He doesn’t know who to trust and several of his former allies have turned against him. He begins to question what he has been fighting for and whether or not he can, in good conscience, carry out the missions he’s assigned. In addition, The Winter Soldier is one of the most libertarian films I’ve seen. It doesn’t bludgeon you over the head with its message — it isn’t Atlas Shrugged with superheroes — but it does present a relatively sophisticated articulation of libertarian philosophy. That’s quite an achievement for an entertaining comic book movie. More on this below.

As for the film itself, it’s difficult to discuss without getting into spoiler territory. So from here on, all bets are off. In general terms, however, it really succeeds as an action movie. The action beats are well-shot and are, more or less, realistic. The filmmakers are clearly taking the material seriously. There’s no trace of camp or self-awareness, even when handling material that could easily have looked silly. This is a very earnest treatment. The actors involved, especially Robert Redford, lend a real gravitas to the project. Chris Evans is thoroughly believable as Steve Rogers/Captain America. Scarlett Johansson does her best work of the Marvel franchise in this film. It’s definitely an ensemble effort with Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, and, of course, Samuel L. Jackson rounding out the cast. Everybody performs to a very high caliber.

Although it clocks in at 136 minutes, it’s well-paced and none of the scenes feel like filler. The conspiracy plot is effective and there are plenty of red herrings to keep you guessing. Arguably, there may be a few too many twists that audiences — especially those familiar with the source material — will see coming, but that didn’t diminish the impact for me. After all, the characters don’t see it coming, and the actors sell that, so the reveals work. I’m also saying this as someone who read the Winter Soldier storyline in the comics a few years ago, so I was already privy to the spoilers. Nevertheless, I was fully engaged in the story.

It’s not a perfect movie, of course. The Helicarriers are easily reprogrammed by inserting a piece of hardware into the ‘mainframe.’ In addition, there’s a lot of the usual ‘computer hacking’ silliness we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. But that’s a minor quibble that’s easily forgiven. It’s even justifiable insofar as it reinforces the juxtaposition between Cap’s analogue world and our digital one. Despite its flaws — which are intrinsic to the genre — Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, in my opinion, the best film of the Marvel franchise, just edging out Iron Man. It’s easily the best sequel of the series.

But the movie doesn’t just succeed as an entertaining action flick. It works as an indictment of the reigning political paradigm. In short, it’s a pro-libertarian film. If you’ve seen it, I don’t think that statement will be controversial. You may, of course, disagree with its libertarian message, but it’s hard to deny that it’s there. In my judgment, this is the right direction for the series. In fact, one of my criticisms of Agents of SHIELD when it first aired, was that it was too sanguine about the potential evil of such a powerful, covert agency. I’m not current with the series, so that might have changed, but the episodes I watched were alarmingly out of touch with the times, and especially with younger audiences. The show basically portrayed government agencies as good and freedom of information activists as bad. Thankfully, The Winter Soldier goes a long way towards correcting that perception. However, it does so in a surprisingly subtle way; not everyone involved in SHIELD is bad, but such an organization has the capacity to do great evil.

The way this message plays out in the plot, is that SHIELD is attempting to launch weaponized Helicarriers that can assess and eliminate threats before they develop. They are willing to trade liberty and civil rights for security. Ironically, in attempting to make the world safe for democracy, SHIELD is prepared to undermine democracy’s very foundation. As Cap remarks to Fury: “This isn’t freedom. It’s fear.” Or, as Benjamin Franklin said: “Those who sacrifice liberty for security will find they have neither.” Unbeknownst to Fury, however, Hydra has secretly infiltrated SHIELD and is steering its operations. The lack of transparency — ‘compartmentalization’ as Fury calls it — has enabled Hydra to seize control.

There’s a great scene in which Cap and Natasha encounter Dr. Zola — whose mind has been uploaded into an old-school computer bank — who explains that Hydra realized after WWII that people naturally resist having their freedom taken away. They must be convinced that freedom is dangerous. They must give it up willingly; they must be convinced that doing so is the only way to remain safe. This message resonates in a post-911, post-Patriot Act, post-Wikileaks world. Captain America, however, recognizes that the ‘price of freedom is high’ and is unwilling to trade liberty for security, especially when such security is an illusion.

Captain America is a libertarian with respect to the limits of government power. He realizes that too much state power can be pernicious. He realizes that the real enemies of freedom are not ‘terrorists’, but those who claim to be fighting on behalf of freedom while simultaneously undermining it. In the end, he realizes that he has to fight against that system in order to preserve his ideals. Ironically, this makes Captain America, a symbol of the state, a fugitive from the state. This symbolic reversal gives the lie to the notion that patriotism requires simply going along with the program. Rather, as Henry David Thoreau once said, “The highest form of patriotism is dissent.”

The film’s message also gives the lie to the oft repeated mantra that democratic governments can’t be oppressive, because the government is us. There are several problems with this slogan. Of course, the government does not simply reflect the will of the people, but even if it did, and the majority of people were willing to give up their civil liberties in the interest of security, that wouldn’t make it less oppressive. The democratic tradition has long recognized ‘the tyranny of the majority’ and that even democratic governments can be oppressive. Simply because democratic governments have a better track record in this regard, doesn’t mean that they can’t oppress. Indeed, the reason they have a better track record is that they operate on the assumption that power corrupts and that checks and balances should be in place to prevent any government from becoming too powerful.

Another problem with ‘the government is us’ argument is that it assumes that all levels of government exemplify the transparency we associate with democratic systems. Of course, this simply isn’t true. In the case of Captain America, a covert agency which trades in secrets and lies, has been given carte blanche to steer the administration in ways that aren’t democratic. By contrast, it is trying to stamp out dissent. Granted, this is an overstatement for dramatic effect in the film. Personally, I’m skeptical of the many conspiracy theories that are popularly associated with the libertarian movement. I don’t see government conspiracies and cover-ups everywhere. Nevertheless, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, one would have to be hopelessly naive to think that ‘the government is us’ or that such surveillance is good for democratic values. In fact, quite the opposite. As Snowden has said, the NSA even keeps track of who is having an affair or looking at pornography in case they need to damage their target’s reputation. This makes character assassination — if not actual assassination as in the film — a trivially easy matter. How is such meticulous control over the democratic process by unelected and unaccountable agencies healthy for any democracy? The Winter Soldier makes this point quite eloquently, albeit in the exaggerated way we’d expect of a comic book action movie. Still, we shouldn’t reject its core message due to its heightened dramatic sense.

In summary, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of those rare movies that works both as popcorn entertainment and deeper social and political commentary. Just as it urges us not to sacrifice freedom for security, it doesn’t sacrifice entertainment value for heavy-handed ideological messages. The underlying political philosophy is there if you want to see it, but is never distracting if you don’t. It’s definitely worth a watch.

RoboCop, 2014

robocop_2014_movie-wideIt’s no secret that Hollywood has a love affair with remakes and reboots. By now, the law of diminishing returns has kicked in, but don’t expect the trend to die any time soon. There are many examples to choose from, but I’ll focus on the recent RoboCop remake. There are a few minor spoilers, so read at your discretion.

Like many children of the 80’s, I’m a big fan of the original RoboCop. Unlike many of my contemporaries, however, I don’t view the film as so sacred that the mere mention of a remake is blasphemous. Although I shared many of my fellow fans’ skepticism about the remake, I was willing to give it a fair shot. I actually thought that Jose Padilha was a good choice of director and that in an era of automation, surveillance, and drone warfare, the filmmakers had ample opportunity to introduce the cutting social satire that characterized Verhoeven’s original.  To be fair, there’s an attempt to engage with the drone debate. In the film, robots are illegal in the United States for the purposes of civilian law enforcement, although they are employed by the military overseas. RoboCop is introduced as a legal loophole and an attempt to shape public opinion and change legislation. This provides the main motivation for Michael Keaton’s character, Raymond Sellars, the CEO of Omnicorp.

However, the remake never achieves the visceral violence (it’s rated PG-13), satirical edge, or thematic sophistication of its 1987 predecessor. The original works in large part due to its world-building. The news segments and commercials really give viewers a sense of life in this dystopian world. By contrast, Detroit doesn’t look like such a bad place to live in the remake. This is just one example of a more general problem: the remake doesn’t succeed in building a compelling world. Instead of the Media Breaks, Samuel Jackson hosts a Bill O’Reilly style cable news show called the Novak Element. (The filmmakers work in Basil Poledouris’ score as the show’s theme song.) Although I see what they were trying to accomplish, these segments just seemed clunky and out of place compared to the seamless integration of the TV segments in the original. Instead of delivering clever social commentary on the fictional world, Novak simply delivers unimaginative, albeit entertainingly bombastic, exposition. The remake does such a poor job at world-building that it often relies on the original to do the job for it. For example, Jack Earl Haley’s character Mattox, disappointed with RoboCop’s performance in a simulation, says “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar.” The problem is that the movie doesn’t establish ‘I’d buy that for a dollar’ as a common phrase in that world, so there’s no context for it within the film itself. It’s simply an attempt to trade on the world-building and the goodwill fans feel toward the first RoboCop. But a remake can only live on borrowed capital for so long; it eventually has to earn our interest on its own merits.

Another problem with the remake is that it lacks a charismatic and compelling villain. Clarence Boddicker and Dick Jones were diabolically evil. There’s nothing equivalent to Kurtwood Smith’s and Ronny Cox’s performances in the new film. There’s a Boddicker analogue of sorts in the movie, but the story doesn’t do much with him. Then we’ve got Raymond Sellars, Rick Mattox, corrupt cops, and a corrupt police chief. There are too many villains with too many conflicting motivations and none of them really stand out. The lack of a coherent villain is a weakness of this film. One could argue that the filmmakers were going for more subtle, morally ambiguous villains than the corporate sharks and cocaine dealers of the 80’s. But the audience needs a character to hate for the revenge arc to be satisfying. I was left feeling unsatisfied by the end of the movie.

As in the original, RoboCop is trying to solve his own, i.e. Alex Murphy’s, attempted murder. Unlike the original, however, Murphy is Murphy pretty much throughout the movie; he’s only the robot we remember for about ten minutes. He never really has to reclaim his humanity, an important theme in the original. To its credit, the remake tries to do more with his wife and son, but can’t escape the typical Hollywood portrayal of women in crisis. She spends much of the film crying and being manipulated by male characters. I doubt that many women, much less those of a feminist persuasion, are lining up to see this movie, but if they did, I imagine they’d be disappointed. Despite that knock, there are some good scenes between Joel Kinnaman as Alex and Abbie Cornish as Clara Murphy. Thanks to advances in digital effects, the remake is able to show in greater detail than the original how much of Murphy’s physical form has been lost and how dependent he is on his robotic interface with reality.  The film also spends quite a lot of time on the emotional and psychological transition Murphy has to make, which, for an action sci-fi movie of this kind, is surprising and commendable. However, the story is more about how a human would cope with a full body prosthesis, than someone having his humanity erased. I think this is the most important distinction between the remake and original from a character perspective.

Another issue I had with the movie is that it felt small screen despite its big budget, IMAX format, and A-list talent. I experienced this phenomenon before with the Green Lantern adaptation. I’m in a minority of fans who didn’t passionately hate that movie, but I confess that it had problems, the chief one being that it felt more like a TV pilot than a blockbuster. Of course, if it had been a TV pilot on the CW, fans would have embraced it. Despite some very cinematic television in recent years, I think audiences still have lower standards for TV than big screen ‘event’ movies. The RoboCop remake also feels like a TV pilot. Again, if it had been a TV pilot in the Almost Human vein, it would have been a great one. I’d watch that show. Instead, it’s a mediocre movie. That basically sums up my opinion of it.

So, at the end of the screening, I really didn’t have strong feelings about the film one way or another. And that’s the problem. I prefer movies that illicit a reaction, even if it’s hatred (I’m looking at you, Man of Steel). RoboCop 2014 could’ve been better. It definitely could have been worse. It’s a mostly well-acted, competently made movie. But it commits the cardinal sin of any movie, particularly one in this genre: it fails to entertain. Unfortunately, it’s just another unnecessary Hollywood remake that is likely to be forgotten. By contrast, the original remains a classic and deserves to be revisited. I recommend skipping the 2014 edition and picking up the original RoboCop on Blu-ray. It costs more than a dollar, but buy it anyways.

Part Man. Part Machine. All Cop.

I hope to get back to my Star Trek series soon, but in the meantime, check out the new Robocop trailer.

The original 1987 Robocop is one of my favorite 80’s movies and I’ve also written on some of its more philosophical themes. It endures as a satire of corporatism and also explores themes that are relevant to libertarian political philosophy, such as the limits of commodification and the privatization of law enforcement. Judging from the trailer, the new iteration will take up themes of free will and mechanized warfare. At Comic Con, the director, José Padilha, said that Robocop is even more relevant in light of the debate over drones. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in the movie. By the way, another 80’s movie that features a cop named Murphy is also relevant to the issue: Blue Thunder.

Breaking News: Ben Affleck is Batman

ben affleckWell, not literally, of course. Batman is a fictional character, but Affleck will play The Dark Knight in the upcoming Man of Steel sequel. Opinion ranges from ‘worst casting ever’ to ‘inspired choice.’ I probably can’t add much to what others on the internet have already said, but I’m cautiously optimistic about it. I recently watched Argo and The Town and thought they were brilliant. The latter especially was a dark film in which Affleck demonstrated an impressive emotional and psychological range. He also did a great job as Superman actor George Reeves in Hollywoodland. I suspect he can do Batman justice, provided the material around him is strong. In my view, the writing and direction are the potentially weak links in the project. I didn’t like Man of Steel nearly as much as I wanted to, and both Goyer and Snyder are hit or miss for me.

Quite apart from casting, there’s the question of whether including Batman in a Superman sequel is the way to go. Clearly, the studio sees Batman as the more bankable character after the success of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. I’m sure a movie featuring both characters would make a lot of money. The studio is also hoping to compete with Marvel by building their own universe that will culminate in a Justice League movie down the road. But one might question the wisdom of recasting Batman relatively soon after the success of Bale’s interpretation. The Nolan trilogy was so well-received, any actor or director taking on the character will have his work cut out for him. However, the Batman universe that Nolan and Bale created, which I enjoyed for the most part, never seemed like a world that could be inhabited by super-powered beings. If the goal is to build a Justice League universe on the back of Man of Steel, the way Marvel built the Avengers universe on the back of Iron Man, a new direction is required.

I also question the wisdom of a Superman VS Batman story reminiscent of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Sure, some fans want to see the characters fight, but that doesn’t work for me for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a Superman fan, so I don’t want to see him get shown up in his own movie. Because Batman has no super-powers, writers often make up for that by giving him some strategic edge in combat with super-powered opponents. Since we didn’t see kryptonite in Man of Steel, some have suggested that it will be introduced by Batman. But that brings me to my second reason for not liking the ‘versus’ idea: it turns Batman into Lex Luthor. Superman already has an archenemy who is a billionaire, uses kryptonite and, in some cases, battle armor to fight Superman. Putting Batman in that role, as Miller does, has never worked for me. I would rather see the two characters come into conflict in more subtle, ideological ways, before setting aside their differences and teaming up to fight a common foe.

My point is simply that the success or failure of the movie doesn’t rise or fall on casting alone. There is also writing and direction. My problems with Man of Steel, for example, had nothing to do with casting (which I thought was quite good) and everything to do with writing. So while I think Affleck has proven himself a competent actor and director, he doesn’t have creative control of this project like he did with Argo and The Town. However, if the Superman VS Batman movie is a success, and he establishes himself as Batman, perhaps he could take the reins directing future stand-alone Batman films, or a Justice League movie. That might be an interesting outcome.

Star Trekkin’ Across the Universe

This summer, I’m going to blog my way through all of the Star Trek movies, from The Motion Picture through Into Darkness. I watched them all recently, so I thought it might be fun to review them. I’m not sure I have anything new to add to what’s no doubt already been said about these movies. I’m a Star Trek fan, but I’ve always felt it worked better on TV than it did on the big screen. The movies that work well, for example The Wrath of Khan, are the ones that most closely follow the TV incarnation. Nevertheless, the ones that depart from the TV formula are also interesting for that very reason.

I suppose it’s standard practice for blog projects like this to rank the movies from best to worst. So before I start my reviews proper, I’ll offer my own ranking.

The Wrath of Khan

The Search for Spock

First Contact

The Undiscovered Country

The Final Frontier

Generations

Star Trek (2009)

Nemesis

Into Darkness

The Voyage Home

The Motion Picture

Insurrection

I think I’m solidly with the consensus on The Wrath of Khan being the best of the Star Trek films. More controversial, perhaps, is my relatively high ranking of V and VI and relatively low ranking of the rebooted franchise. In my reviews, I’ll say more about why I’ve ordered the list this way. In the meantime, I’ll reiterate my rule of thumb: the films that most closely capture the spirit of the TV shows  (e.g. Wrath of Khan and First Contact) are better than those that depart from the source material (e.g. Voyage Home and Insurrection) or lean in the direction of self-referential parody (e.g. Into Darkness).

In my next post, I’ll examine Star Trek: The Motion Picture and attempt to justify my second to last ranking. Until then, enjoy this video: