Watched: Doctor Strange (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

So. I don’t normally do film reviews, and especially not when I’ve watched the film just once. Films are such fickle beings, greatly using sound and visuals to stun the wits out of the watcher. Beautiful films cleverly disguise their vacuity behind stunning imagery, and many are the films that look rather flat when stripped of off their sound-track.

Doctor Strange is, in some ways, one of those. With the volume cranked up to ear-wrenching, and with effects bending the laws of physics even more than what you’ve come to expect from a super hero movie, I went in expecting something quite… flat. Something that would not last beyond the glitzy veneer. A Bulgari jewel. Boisterous but empty of value to anyone who want something more elaborate, delicate, multi-layered.

And yes, it is a rather derivative hero origin story, starting off by telling us who the incumbent hero began as (brilliant but self-centred neurosurgeon), the downfall (nearly fatal accident, total loss of everything that defined him, in his own eyes), the search for healing, coming into new meaning (reluctant spiritual journey), complete with seemingly out-of-this-world powerful adversary/villain (Master Kaecilius, follower of the Lord of the Dark Dimension) challenging the hero before he’s.

But. Part of the success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is that the studio for some – not all – of their heroes have found an actor with the ability to imbue their given cartoon character with credibility.

I balk a bit at saying that about Cumberbatch’s version of Strange. The risk of being put aside as a swooning fangirl, not to be taken seriously, is almost too big. But – he manages to take this cartoon hero, (dis)placed in a psychedelic new age parallel version of our universe, and make him into a believable human being. Cloak of Levitation, astral bodies and rearranging of atoms aside. Or – despite all of that, if you’re like me and more than a little bit scientifically minded.

That is no mean feat.

Because let’s face it. This is , like all MCU films, a comic book fantasy. A cartoon. Of this world, and not. But, and this is another reason for the success: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, in many ways, filling the role of the Greek pantheon of gods; inhabited by half-human, half-gods, with their faults and virtues – their greed and vanity; their loyalties, empathy and morals. It opens up an arena for telling stories about us humans – our society, our short-comings, the consequences of our actions. A mirror. But it has also the ability to simply entertain us.

And now Doctor Strange, the arrogant bastard, by way of a visually stunning magical system and some tight acting and choreography, is inaugurated into that pantheon, onto that arena, adding another dimension. I find I rather like that dimension, what with its swash-buckling wielding of flaming magic and mind-bending quantum physics.

It gives hope to us misfits that there’s a place for us, too, somewhere. Even if it’s just a fantasy.

Just the kind of boost that I needed, right now.

(Added afterwards: It feels unjust to only mention the main character when Chiwetel Ejiofor also was worth watching, as was Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams and, despite the extreme stereotyping – Mads Mikkelsen. Felt a bit let down by Tilda Swinton, but that might be my high expectations.)

Advertisements

Seen: Only Lovers Left Alive, by Jim Jarmusch

This film could had been either a tacky camp over-sweet pastry stuffed with purple prose… or it could be what it really is – a dark beautiful tapestry with pieces of wry humour hidden between the threads.

Eve and Adam has known each other for a long, long, time. One white, celebrating life and its expressions. One black, deeply romantic but also despairing of life and of where humanity has gotten itself. One in a melting pot city, a city of the in-between and of both. One in the ruins of crashed expectations. And both, intertwined.

Sounds pretty pretentious, doesn’t it? And still – it isn’t.

Tilda Swinton‘s character, Eve, lives in the old parts of Tangier, in an old house filled with books. She’s best friends and neighbour with Christopher Marlowe, portrayed by John Hurt.

Eve’s husband, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), lives a reclusive life on the outskirts of Detroit, collecting vintage guitars and making music using as analogue equipment as possible. He’s a romantic but also an engineer and scientist at heart, and he’s also bitter and dissatisfied with humankind.

During a Skype call Eve realises that Adam is depressed and she instantly gets on a (night) flight for the States, carrying the essentials only – two suitcases of books…

There’s absolutely not an ounce of action: only the quiet angst and passions of the aged and eternal youth – they are vampires, after all – and a silent discussion of what makes life worth living; yet the film keeps the audience focused on the screen.

And I loved it.

I loved it for its play with archetypes; for its use of, references to, and off-handed comments in areas such as music, literature and science; for the photography, for the way the camera makes love with the spaces these creatures are passing through; for the dual feeling of being very grounded yet transient; for the debauchery and the despair; for the raw animalism and the intellectual flippancy; for the hope and love and beauty; for the way it managed to capture the duality and challenge of being, and of being honest with oneself and one’s ideals. And of course I loved it for its humour.

Jim Jarmusch has pulled of one mean feat – a vampire film that brings back the vampire were it belongs: to the outsiders, the poets, the rebels.

Go see it.

Now, if you excuse me, I’m off watching the fire flicker in the grate while swaying solemnly to the slow beat of Pink Floyd‘s Wish you were here.

Considering: Star Trek

During the past year I, as already mentioned, didn’t manage much reading. I did, however, manage to watch the latest addition to the Star Trek universe – Star Trek: Into Darkness – at its theatrical première here in Stockholm back in May.

The film as such is what it is – a modern remake and retake, shifted into the new alternative universe of J.J. Abrams‘ Trek. Some people doesn’t care about Star Trek at all but of those who do a significant part is irked by the new version, variously for it being untrue to canon, the fake physics of the new basic premise, or for just being… you know – not the Original.

My personal take on the changes Star Trek has gone through over time is that I accept them.

I am a bit too young to have experienced the Original Series in real time. Born in 1966 I was too young, had it aired on Swedish television back then… which it didn’t. When (some) of my classmates started talking about Spock et company during the mid-70’s I was hooked on Space 1999, and besides – reading, not watching, was my thing, and my torch was my best friend (for under cover reading at night).

No, my real love for Trek started with The Next Generation, at which point I started to seek out both TOS and the films. This was back in 1994, when Swedish television started to air TNG, and by that time TOS had started to look much like at least early TNG look today – a bit… cheap. The special effects development, the art of prop making, and, later on, HD TV and big screens at home, has conspired to make made-for-TV stuff look exactly as mass-produced as it was. The effect was as detectable in the 28 years that had passed between 1966 and 1994 as it is in the 26 that now has passed since 1987.

Of course, the real appeal of Trek is not in the special effects but in the message: the possibility of a brand new future, a future of hope, of a humankind who have managed to grab itself by its lapels and drag the collective out of the slums and poverty, out of war and hate. Saying no to fear and bigotry and yes to rational thought, to science and curiosity and respect. Saying yes to dialogue as the only valid way to solve a conflict. And proposing an area were there still was things to discover.

It is my belief that those were the core values that made Star Trek what it was.

Later versions of Trek, such as Deep Space 9 and Voyager, stepped down from those ideas and values. Dilemmas was more often solved by general ingenuity than by speaking to people, and plots centred on making an issue of what might happen when idealism meets greed for money and power.

Hollywood seldom invents or goes into the breach – what it produces reflects the sentiments, norms and dilemmas of the time. It so follows that the subsequent versions of Trek reflect the way society changes. Star Trek has survived over 47 years. That in itself is an amazing feat, testament to the appeal of the original vision. But the spirit of the mid-60’s, or even the late 80’s to mid-90’s, is not the spirit of the present century. And much as I’d love a slow-moving dialogue-driven show championing values such as equal rights, respect for the other, and rational thinking, in the post-9/11 world that has been almost impossible. Post-9/11 Trek stumbled, just as human rights such as freedom of speech, thought and expression took a serious tumble. Discussing moral dilemmas wasn’t on. The world became black and white, no grey zones, no zones for intermingling and exploration.

The last instalment set in the original universe – Enterprise – descended into territory already claimed by so many others, territory brilliantly owned by, for example Babylon 5 (another show that I followed religiously when it aired), and thus was lost.

Was the Trek enterprise failing? Yes, I’d definitely say so. At least it didn’t attract new followers. Enter Abrams and the New Trek.

A lot has been made about the improbability of the time travel plot device that shifted this incarnation into an Alternate Universe. But really. Warp speed, anyone? All kinds of faster than light travel are highly improbable, which sets almost all science fiction well into the realm of the impossible. Which to me makes the objection in itself laughable if not bigoted. Either you accept the basic concept or you don’t. Either reject FTL or embrace it, with all its plot-side consequences. Or – what about the growth-spurt the Genesis device incited in both Wrath of Kahn and Search for Spock? What about the time travel of Voyage Home?

But beyond the fake physics New Trek also depends on lots of special effects, lots of action, and slap stick-like drama. What about that? Wasn’t that anathema to Trek?

No. It wasn’t. Core to Trek was the moral dilemmas and how to approach them. Teaching methods for managing conflicts of interest, and to accept them as conflicts of interest and not as good versus bad, right(eousness) versus wrong. But it’s also about adventure and hopefulness.

I do like both Star Trek The Movie and Star Trek Into Darkness. Is it Trek? Well, if DS9 and Voyager was, then I think these should count, too. The Movie conspicuously lack in the moral dilemma department (the “message” in that one would perhaps be to bring hope to juvenile delinquents, lol) but Darkness has some – violation of the Prime Directive is a classic, the needs of the many versus the need of a friend, and even a “bad” guy can have valid motives behind his choices. Then, of course, the bad guy turns out to be singularly self-interested, and quite vicious about it, too. This is nothing new, this happens in quite a few episodes in at least TNG  and the movies prior to Darkness. So even if I personally would like to see the bad guy turn out to be someone you can talk to this didn’t happen often historically and likewise will not happen often now or in the future.

Darkness also sets the famous Five Year Mission going, much thanks to Spock’s insistence on Federation law and principle – had Kirk gone in and nuked Kahn they would had had a war on their hands; instead now they have conflict and death but ultimately reason prevails, and peace.

Maybe the story is told in a way uncommon to Trek. But ultimately Trek has to exist in this world; the expense of making it must be justified or it won’t get made. For many perhaps form is more important than the survival of Enterprise. But if this new incarnation can continue to provoke insights in its followers I have no problems with the form.

Because let’s face it – it’s a series of TV shows and movies. In a world of vicious egocentricity anything that shows success through collaboration and through utilisation of each other’s differences is a good counter-balance.

Even if it’s made by a black-and-white Star Wars fan-boy. And even if I am reviled by the aggressive commercialism surrounding present-day Trek.

Unalien aliens

Picking on aliens not alien enough is a common pastime among people with a bone to chew when it comes to science fiction. Certainly not the last, but the most recent (that I know of) is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who just like all the others think aliens have to lack faces, an even set of limbs, etc, to be alien enough to qualify as aliens.

My problem with this is most of the film or book alien aren’t there as true aliens. Anyone thinking that doesn’t understand the basic premise of science fiction. At all.

True, some aliens are there to be 1000% ALIEN. Alien (the film) itself is a point in case. The Crystalline Entity, of Star Trek fame, is another. But they are fairly few, and in most cases they are symbols of Evil, or at the very least the truly undecipherable. But the wast majority are humanoid, seductively similar to us. And the ‘seductively’ part is the important one. Because it is in the way the ALMOST like us actually differ, and how we handle this, that forms the backbone of many a science fiction story. And in this it isn’t a story about foreign planets and peoples, but about us – humanity – and how we handle change, and how we interact /or not/ with people different from ourselves. Science fiction in this sense is a looking glass or a mirror, reflecting our own behaviours and customs, forming an arena for inspection and criticism, for questioning certain behaviours and world-views.

In these stories the aliens has to be reasonably humanoid or the point of it all is lost, or at least buried deep enough for it not to get through to the majority of the readers/viewers.

In this light it is totally reasonable for the atevi (Foreigner/Cherryh) to be humanoid in general appearance, just like the mri (Faded Sun/Cherryh), or the ferengi or the klingon or the andorians (Star Trek) or the Na’vi (Avatar). Just to name a few.

Picking on unalien aliens is thus so far besides the point a gas giant can pass through the resulting void. If doing it makes you happy – please continue, but don’t expect to be taken seriously by anyone.

Knowing more – a reflection

My son loves Star Wars.

I have to admit I loved Star Wars back in the days when there was just one film, then two and three, but I’ve always been more of a Trekkie (even if I enjoy Babylon 5 and a handful others as well, including the stuffy Space 1999). It follows that I never felt any enthusiasm over the ‘prequel’ films – even the names have evaded me – so I’m virtually clueless when it comes to how Darth Vader came to be. What I know of it mostly comes from playing Lego Star Wars with my son.

This past spring I caved in and let my son watch the very first Star Wars film. I thought him too young but he and his friend loved playing Lego Star Wars and he begged and begged and begged to see at least the first film. I gave in.
Maybe not a surprise, given my love for science fiction, even if I truthfully think of Star Wars as more in the high fantasy genre.

As he can’t read yet it means I have to read all the lines for him, reading off the subtitles (but sometimes I improvise, because the subtitles are too far from the original intent and tone).

Anyway, he was a bit scared, that first time, because he felt it too real. A couple of months later he encountered the animated Clone Wars series, watching with his older second cousin. He explained to me it wasn’t as scary as the figures clearly wasn’t real. Then last week he started to nag me about watching the two other films, and a couple of days ago we started with Empire Strikes Back. Yesterday evening we watched the last part of Return of the Jedi.

Afterwards it was one thing that stayed with him – why Luke had to fight his father. In his world no son should have to do this, and I agree with him. BUT. I never thought of it that way. To me Darth Vader was truly evil, some one to be scared of.

The difference is my son knows a) Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker, so no surprise effect in the films, and b) he likes Anakin, he’s a good guy, and the Evil Emperor (as my son labels him) has perverted him, by force.
It follows that my son never ever thinks Darth Vader scary, taking away a lot of the tension from the films. But it also means that to him the very last scene – when the the ghost of Anakin joins the ghosts of Yoda and Obi-Wan – is crucial, because it means Anakin gets redress, is exonerated, which is a relief to anyone used to thinking of him as ‘good’.
While to me that last scene is just a general feel-good moment and not terribly important.

What a difference a couple of decades and more knowledge of the back story can do.

Amazing. And perhaps a lesson in itself.

Review: Star Trek, The Movie

I can understand not everyone will like this film. For the purists it’s not true enough to material canon to fit. For the non-trek person it’s too stuffed with references to be enjoyable. Added to this my dear husband thought the humour too predictable. Me, on the other hand, had a real REAL GOOD TIME :-)

While maybe what happened not matches what has happened before this gets an explanation in the film, and as it has to do with, you know, quantum physics ;-) it’s not believable. But what does that matter?!?!?! It’s a STAR TREK film, for heavens sake! It’s not supposed to be 1000% believable!!! And anyhow the protagonists stay in character, which is what I think important, in this case.

Spoiler warning
The basic story tells how a renegade from the future threatens the Federation with extinction, and ties in somewhere between the first TOS pilot episode and the first episode featuring the original crew as we know it. It tells how Kirk became captain of the Enterprise, and by the way his daredevil mentality saves humanity. Uhura, Spook, Bones, Sulu and Chekov are with him from the start, albeit not with him anywhere close to the captain’s chair, and he collects Scotty on his way.

Most of the sfx was good, and not overdone, but the red spidery guy trying to kill Kirk on the snowy planet made me think of the Rancorn, of Star Wars/Return of the Jedi fame. Not very good, that is to say. But then not even the LoTR films managed to pull every fx off with grace. So this may be forgiven.
End spoiler

As we know everyone will survive I spent most of the time smiling, even when Kirk or Spook or whoever was about to get killed because killing them would had been… highly illogical ;P

The ending… was fitting. Me like. I will not see at a theatre again (I cannot remember when I ever saw a film more than once), but I will get the DVD, faster than a cheetah can run. And then I will watch it again. And again. A perfect flick for when you’re home sick.

If I have any critique it is that while characters stayed true the message lacked. Nowhere to be seen were the original idea of talking oneself out of a bad spot; of showing grace to one’s adversaries; or to show the possibility of a better future world. But such a message may be to non-PC, presently, for Hollywood to support…

I am a bit wary that this alternate storyline quantum physics have given to us will spawn a new set of daftly made series’. But I’m holding my thumbs for it to end well…