Tag Archives: Movie

Mila Kunis Falls A Lot (Jupiter Ascending Movie Review, Part 2 Spoilers)

Jupiter Ascending
Jupiter Ascending

With part 1 of this review, I kept it as spoiler free as I could.  However, I think the movie warrants a bit deeper look, both from the perspective of what they did right and also from all the stuff they got very, very wrong.

Starting off… the plot was about as easy to follow as a bucket of marbles thrown into the air.  The basic premise was easy enough: Jupiter is the heir to vast wealth to include the Earth and all its inhabitants.  The people who want that wealth want to either kill her or control her.  Simple, right?  But Jupiter isn’t just the heir, she is the person who wrote up that will.  According to the (twisted) logic that genetics make someone royal, since she has the same genetics as the royal who wrote the will, she is that person.  Which bogs down in any number of ways, to include the basic premise that they seeded Earth to produce genetic variance (IE, to prevent the same genetics from coming up and causing the problems they had with clones).  On top of that, several characters comment how her actions, behaviors, even word choices, are so similar to the person that they knew some endless centuries ago.  It seems like they wanted some  pseudoscience way to say reincarnate or reborn without, well, you know, actually saying something like that.  Saying that someone’s behavior, attitude, word choice (conveniently these super-advanced humans all speak english and have had no lingual drift over millennium), and all the rest are all entirely dependent upon genetics is not only doing a disservice to the concept of free will, but is patiently false.

Going on from there, the original heirs, Jupiter’s children, but not this Jupiter, it’s the other one who died long ago, all have their own plots going.  We see early on with Balem (best villain in the movie, probably some of the best acting in general), wants to kill his mother (again!), to prevent her from ascending and claiming Earth.  Titus pretends to want to stop the trade in the anti-aging drugs, but actually wants to marry Jupiter (his mother, ew), and then kill her to take her claim to Earth.  Kalique the lone daughter, has some rather more bizarre plot wherein she subverts Balem’s bounty hunters, imprisons Jupiter, tells her how she wants to be friends, and then promptly disappears from the story.  You’re left not knowing if Caine (Jupiter’s protector/love interest) really blindsided her and caused her to bow out or if she really wanted to help her.  Basically no resolution there.

In the process we have Jupiter who starts out with a miserable life of scrubbing toilets and dreaming of something better, who finds out she can have something better.  This kind of cinderella story can definitely work, so long as the protagonist seizes this opportunity and moves on from there.  As characters go, however, Jupiter seems to spend a lot of time being confused and then standing around waiting to be rescued.  The one point in the movie where she actually stands up for herself and takes action should have been a triumph… but instead it was just a brief pause in her falling from high places.

And as far as that goes… good lord.  I know they have a neat technology/doohickey, but seriously, this felt like a situation where the only tool they had was a hammer so they had the main character fighting a lot of nails.  The fall sequences were all gorgeous, (the whole movie was, for that matter), but once or twice is more than enough to showcase that Caine could swoop along on his gravity boots and save her.  I’ve seen analysis of the movie where someone clocked in a total of 25 minutes of footage of her falling.  That is almost a quarter of the movie spent with her in free-fall.

Characterization was done sort of well with some of the characters.  We had this nice little bit about Caine (Channing Tatum) being a lone-wolf outcast, a genetically engineered soldier, who has every reason to hate the royals but still protects Jupiter.  We also had a nice little subplot where it mentions he ripped ones throat out and so was court-martialed.  A wide opening they had here and that I think they were going to use was with the villain Balem, who all movie talked hoarsely and had his throat covered by his costumes.  Whatever the reason they didn’t use it, it was there and would have made for a nice connection or at least some initial link to why Caine would oppose him.

Balem and Titus both seemed to have their weird love (sick, sick love) and hate relationships with their mother, personified by her reincarnation as Jupiter.  Titus wanted to marry and then kill her, and then Balem admitted to having killed her before.  The general attitude here being he didn’t really want to and has been tormented by the fact that he did, because his mother apparently abhorred her life and begged him to end it.  Balem, who seems to be the main antagonist, at one point says he would harvest the entire planet of Earth before he lets her take it from him, yet we have no sign as to why he feels so strongly… and then at the end of the movie, he’s apparently let her ascend and has yet to make his move, instead trying to manipulate her into signing Earth over in return for her family (and not even bothering to suggest that he’ll let any of them live, only that he’ll kill her family in front of her if she doesn’t sign right now).

This brings us to what was presumably supposed to be one of the main themes with the movie: the harvests.  We are given to believe that human life is of such little value that entire worlds are seeded with populations who then, thousands of years later, are harvested and rendered down into rejuvenating drugs.  Okay, sure, I’ll bite.  This allows the elite in this universe to live essentially forever and they justify this survival basically in that the people on these harvested planets didn’t live very nice lives anyway.  Excuse me, but what?  We get introductions to a number of law enforcing people in the movie both in the form or the Aegis and at a step removed in the Legion through Stinger and Caine.  These people seem to uphold morality codes that suggest that they value individual lives, they go out of their way to protect one another, and they live for duty and to uphold the law.  If their rulers survive from the consumption of billions of people on hundreds of planets, that basically turns them into some of the worst villains in the universe.  If they’re upholding a system that murders countless people for the survival of a few then they can be chalked up in the ranks of genocidal types like Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot.

This precious commodity that is required to extend/improve lives has been done so much better in such a less heavy-handed fashion.  Just off hand I can mention Frank Herbert’s Spice, which requires an entire planet’s resources to harvest and costs the lives of many of those who harvest it, is incredibly addictive, and has severe long term effects.  On the other hand, Frank Herbert’s Spice allows for travel throughout the galaxy, extends the lives of those who consume it, and in large enough quantities provides for telepathy and such.   That’s complex, it allows for some conflicts of morality about it’s benefits and costs.

In requiring that this elixir of the Abraxis family murder a hundred people and render them down for one liter is a little absurd.  Basically it’s a plot point that this process needs to be horrible enough that Jupiter will reject it off hand and that even the most cynical movie-goer will have no choice but to agree.  More than that, it becomes a side note in the rest of the movie.  It doesn’t matter what Balem wants with the Earth if he is willing to brutally murder people to get it, that in itself is a sign that he’s the bad guy.  Making him a genocidal nut with a god complex doesn’t make him any more impactful as a character… it actually makes him painfully one dimensional as all he cares about is his own wealth and profit.  It robs us of the why of how he could so hate his mother and the Earth is so important to him and turns it into a sort of “because mine.”  That level of petulance reduces him from terrifying to a mere childish bully with too much power.

On top of that was the conspiracy fodder that was thrown around.  It ranged from the midly irritating such as when Caine says that the powers that be would wipe everyone’s memories, “They won’t get everyone, but no one believes the few they miss.” To the downright immersion-breaking, such as when the ship takes off from the corn-field and leaves crop circles.  Seriously?  Was it meant as a gag or what?  The former implies that people will forget not just the missing day but the hundreds, perhaps thousands of people killed, all with a quick memory wipe.  Let’s not even go into the dinosaur extinction and the rest that they spend precious minutes explaining to no real purpose.

These flaws are all to the worse for the few moments of genuine enjoyment.  I could gush about the visuals and about how the sets and costumes felt interesting… but that would be pointless.  You can watch a trailer and see how good it all looked.  The characters that stuck well were often the side characters, the Aegis (police) who went out of their way to protect Jupiter.  The entire scene with the bureaucracy with Jupiter trying to do her whole ascension thing was not only hilarious but utterly fitting in an empire several million years old.  Jupiter’s manipulative family members provided some of the best comedy “Your cousin is not a chicken, you do not sell her eggs!” Some of the one-liners thrown out by Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, and others were excellent.  The red herring of having Sean Bean not die was excellent although slightly immersion breaking as the audience kept waiting for it to happen anyway.  There were some brilliant scenes throughout the movie… which just didn’t connect to make anything.  Was it worth watching?  Absolutely.  But it was incredibly frustrating as we would get moments of brief humor and originality which were then buried by rehashed themes from previous movies, painfully heavy-handed exposition, and a mix of heavy editing and a bad script that meant the whole couldn’t fit together into anything remotely coherent.  I really wanted to enjoy this movie, but at the end of the day, it came across as a popcorn flick rather than anything deeper.

Mila Kunis Falls A Lot (Jupiter Ascending Movie Review, Part 1 Spoiler Free)

Jupiter Ascending
Jupiter Ascending

I went into Jupiter Ascending with somewhat mixed expectations.  On the one hand, I already knew that the movie had been delayed for reshoots, re-edits, and stuck in post production for the past six months to a year (thus the delay in release).  I already knew that the protagonist looked a little silly (I think I counted three different occasions of her plummeting to her doom in just the standard trailer).  At the same time, the visual effects, artwork, and some of the concepts just looked stunning.  The action from the trailers also looked pretty solid, with less of the shaky-cam that means you can’t take any time to enjoy the pretty stuff.

After watching the movie I came away with many of my expectations met.  The story is disjointed, the protagonist often seems more like a passenger along for the ride than any kind of influence upon the story, many of the themes were recycled from previous Wachowski movies, and some of the background stuff is pure conspiracy theory fodder that breaks immersion.  On the other hand, the scenery was gorgeous, the technology was suitably advanced and impressive, and there were a lot of great individual scenes (even if they didn’t necessarily connect into some greater whole).  Oh, and yes, Jupiter (Mila Kunis) fell a lot.  I counted at least seven times, though sometimes it’s hard to tell where one falling scene overlaps up with another.

I was absolutely floored by some of the designs.  Some of the side characters felt strong and solid, with back stories and fully fleshed motiviations… while some of the main characters motivations and even actions seemed to have little to do with the overall movie.  I could tell that we were missing scenes and even parts of the plot arc, with characters who appeared and disappeared with no seeming purpose.  There were several sub-plots, too where you could see connections that they almost made… but either they ended up on the cutting room floor or just never fully materialized and I’m not sure which.

Gravity boots, personal shield generators, complex and varied species, and a gruesome (but heavily foreshadowed and easily predictable) secret all made the movie both fascinating and at the same time somewhat frustrating.  There were scenes that were absolutely brilliant and others that just felt like they put them there to explain things to the idiot in the room.  Most frustrating of all, I think, was the parts that were actually very interesting received either a generic explanation (The Aegis, the Legion, what it means to be Entitled and Royal) or no explanation at all (Who the Aegis and the Legion normally fight, what exactly certain powerful people’s motivations are, why certain illegal/criminal actions aren’t punished or investigated, etc).

All in all, it was a fun movie, but I still walked away not quite satisfied.  There was a lot of potential… but also a lot of scenes where they went for flash without substance: something impressive to draw the attention away from the fact that they really hadn’t figured out how they wanted it to really work.  I enjoyed it, but I’m frustrated because there was just enough there to tell me that I could have enjoyed it much more.  The obvious comparison is the movie it was supposed to be released near in 2014: Guardians of the Galaxy.  Both movies feature an Earthling drawn into a space opera where the stakes are billions of lives… and Guardians succeeded with brilliant characterization, a solid plot, and the confidence to poke fun at itself.  Jupiter Ascending’s characters just weren’t on that level, the writing didn’t quite have the chops, and it felt like the Wachoskis were trying to tell the same stories they told before… albeit on a much larger canvas.

Check back for Part II for a more in depth (and spoiler-laden) plot.

Second Star to the Right: Interstellar Movie Review (Spoilers)

From Interstellar: A black hole eating a star
From Interstellar: A black hole eating a star

I’ll preface this by saying that Interstellar is the best movie of 2014 that I nearly didn’t see.  Why did I nearly decide to discount it?  Well, the trailers did a terrible job of telling me what the movie was about.  The trailers made it out (with me reading between the lines) that the movie was about how terrible mankind was that we had destroyed our only home and had to go to space to survive.  Heavy on a message of doom and gloom and without any real ounce of hope, with the thought being we were destined to repeat the process as celestial locusts.  This was not the type of movie I wanted to watch.  Luckily, it wasn’t the movie I got to see.

You see, Interstellar is nothing less than a movie about discovery, adventure, and exploration.  The crew that goes to the stars in this movie are people chosen to do that most dangerous exercise: go someplace new and come back to tell everyone all about it.  They are also the last, best hope for humanity’s survival, so no pressure.  The movie has a slow, building pace where weight is added to every decision and the protagonists are struggling against that most certain enemy: time.

The science of the movie is excellent as well.  Yes, there are liberties taken, but there are also elements and plot twists taken from science and enough ‘what if’ that any science nerds will probably be on the edge of their seats.  Visit a planet in close orbit around a black hole and have time dilation wipe out twenty three years in an hour.  Also, get to see the tidal effects upon that lovely ocean planet, and that the woman sent ahead ten years ago died only minutes before your arrival, and just right after her own arrival.  Playing with time is something this movie does incredibly well, along with hints and peeks not only at the movie’s plot, but also at the great potential to be found in humanity.

Some of the best lines in the movie are about human nature and nature itself.  At one point, the characters in space argue about what they might find being more or less dangerous than what they bring with them.  Later on, they are both proven correct when one man is killed by the waves on the first planet they find and another is killed by a human scout sent ahead, who was willing to do anything necessary to ensure his own survival, even if it meant dooming billions of people back on Earth.  The movie manages to capture the stark beauty of space, with apparently scientifically accurate depictions of both black holes and wormholes (see this interesting article).

And too, this movie does very well in capturing the spirit of exploration.  The characters pause in wonder at the sights, caught up in the wonder and excitement of doing and seeing new things, and while they’ll take the time to mention the why or the how, that doesn’t rob the moment of it’s beauty.  The characters are very much explorers, having little idea of what they’re going to discover, building upon what they learn and finding ways to use that knowledge to survive.  They are forced to make decisions based off of their supplies and equipment as well as their limited amount of time.  The weight of those decisions is upon them all and each choice they make is one that comes with a cost.

The movie does have its faults, I’ll admit, and several of them are in the plot-driven variety.  The voyage to the wormhole takes a meager two months, which is incredibly impressive given chemical-powered rockets.  My assumption was that they used a nuclear powered drive and just didn’t want to discuss it in the movie.  The ‘blight’ that seems to be affecting the crops is more of a mysterious force than anything else, though depictions of it as breathing nitrogen suggests either a very odd metabolism or just hand-wavium.  Why this terrible stuff doesn’t follow the evacuees from Earth is another question I asked myself.  Contamination is sort of a given for colonization and transportation.  I mean, we can’t even stop rats from getting to remote islands, how can we stop an apparent super-microorganism that has adapted to attack all manner of food crops?  Also, what did people eat if it killed everything else while they were waiting for their star ships over fifty-plus years?

What the movie does very well is to get it’s point and message across with painful brutality.  The ‘teacher’ at the beginning criticizing the pilot about believing in the moon landings.  The quotes: “Man was born on Earth.  It was never meant to die here.” and “We used to look up and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”  These are statements that paint a bleak (and unfortunately accurate) picture.  We don’t look up at the stars with hope.  Too many people are far more concerned with ‘fixing’ problems here rather than expanding out there.  There will come a day that we are forced to choose between staying here and dying and going out to the stars and surviving.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I highly recommend it.  It’s a great movie, with gorgeous effects, a powerful theme, and a spirit of wonder that still gets me excited thinking about it.

Big Hero 6: A Review in Oooh Shiny

d8ed22ee860790f58ad96cf0266b861457b9c7ed

Big Hero 6 caught my attention with its first trailer. I don’t normally find myself laughing hysterically at a movie trailer. This movie managed that and the combination of dry humor and silliness seemed like the perfect choice on an otherwise dreary weekend. They did a great job with the trailer, which spread its appeal to both kids and adults. Unfortunately, the trailer probably wasn’t targeted very well.

Let me say this: Big Hero 6 is a great kid’s movie. It has excellent characterization, wonderful visuals, and good moral lessons and choices for kids to enjoy. That said, for an adult, there’s just not much depth. The humor is good, except that they showed the best jokes/gags in the trailer. The story as a whole is a bit too predictable, with the big plot reveals being easily foreseen and the character development being aimed more at young adults than anyone who has already gone through puberty. The whole movie, also, feels vaguely reminiscent of How to Tame Your Dragon.

That said, the characterization and story are well done, the visuals are fantastic. For a kid this movie has everything. The story is engaging, a revenge story where the hero must come to grips with his own emotions and chose justice or revenge. It teaches the importance of responsibility and the potential for redemption. I very much recommend it, especially if you have kids.

 

Rental Movie Review: John Carter of Mars

I just watched John Carter of Mars on BluRay. This is the second time I’ve seen it, the first being when I was deployed to Afghanistan. It was something of a shock to me, because I heard it did terribly, yet when I watched it I thought it was pretty epic. The casting was great, the relutant hero and conniving villain were entertaining, and the characters were well defined. Yes, the main character jumps around like a grasshopper on PCP. The movie isn’t spot on science… but it’s fun, exciting, and epic, something you don’t see a lot of anymore… so why did it flop?

I did a bit of research, after watching it again. There were a number of problems, I think. Bad marketing, for one. I watched a few trailers, and it looked like they just didn’t know how to market it… was it action? Was it comedy? Or was it science fiction? The next issue was that they made some changes to the original books. It looks like a lot of the Edgar Rice Burroughs fans are die-hard fanatical types… which isn’t bad, but Disney didn’t try to win them over, they just made the movie and assumed people would love it. It looks like there’s a lot of backlash in the reviews from long-time fans of the John Carter series. It also received some rather harsh reviews from critics, mostly, it seems, because it was too whimsical and fantastical. Then again, who really listens to the critics any more about a fun movie?

Anyway, back to the movie. John Carter, disillusioned from the war (Civil War) goes searching for gold and finds more than he bargained for… and ends up on Mars, smack in the middle of a war. It has combat, adventure, some hand-waves at science, and an underlying message and theme about fighting for your beliefs. What’s not to like? John Carter is some of the original space opera, the inspiration for later franchises like Buck Rogers, Star Wars, and a host of others.  For a good popcorn flick and an introduction to the John Carter universe (I highly recommend the books), pick it up and give it a shot.

All your galaxies are belong to us… Guardians of the Galaxy Movie Review

Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy

 

I have to admit, the movie I was most excited about this summer was Guardians of the Galaxy.  Why?  Well, I had never heard of the comics, I don’t even read comic books.  I didn’t know much about the characters or setting, just what I saw in the trailers… and what did I see there?  Humor, action, space opera, heroes, villains, and people stuck in between.

Guardians of the Galaxy delivered all of that, in spades.  It managed to turn a sarcastic, vicious character into an object of pity with a couple seconds out of a scene, without the use of words.  Characterization of the group was excellent, with each figure being a mix of both comedy, tragedy, scum, and reluctant hero, all rolled up into individual pieces that stood strong and alone.  Rocket is phenomenal, with some of the best lines in the movie, yet far from being just a comedic element.  Drax the Destroyer is at once both a juggernaut but also Shakespearean.  Vin Diesel may only ever say three words as Groot, but he manages to put subtle emphasis into it… and Groot comes across as both very alien and a character we can empathize with at the same time.  Peter Quill is brilliant: a humorous rogue with dreams of success at odds with his own larcenous heart and his past he can’t quite escape.  What’s not to like?

It’s serious space opera, with epic landscapes, space ships, travel between worlds, alien races galore, and conflict with nothing less than the fate of billions at stake.  The movie makes excellent use of dramatic tension and comedic elements, blending both to the point that you almost feel whip-lashed… yet they work so seamlessly together that you can laugh even at the tightest moments of drama and still be on the edge of your seat.  I’d love to go into more detail, but in consideration of those who haven’t seen it yet, I’ll leave off.

All that said, the movie does have a few faults, minor though they are.  Gamorra is probably the weakest characterized of the heroes, not due to any fault of Zoe Saldana, but more because her character gets sidelined a bit.  The villains, while dark, don’t get enough screen time to really establish themselves, in particular, Ronin the Accuser is a nasty, scary sort, but we just get told he’s a fanatic and have to just roll with that.  Nebula is awesome, with some of the best lines in the movie, particularly between her and Gamorra.  I would argue that Nebula has more of a developed character than Gamorra.

Still, these are minor things.  This is the first movie I’ve seen in years that I want to go back in theaters not just for a second screening, but also a third.  Guardians managed to take first place for my movies this year… and I would be very surprised if anything can knock it off that pedestal.

Edge of Tomorrow Review (Or Killing Tom Cruise A Lot)

Edge of Tomorrow

There once was a movie called Groundhog’s Day. Edge of Tomorrow is sort of like if you took that movie, combined it with Starship Troopers (the book, not the movie) and put Tom Cruise in there to get murdered. (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, it’s revealed in the trailers and posters). It makes for an interesting movie, to say the least. The basic premise is established, the characters are real enough to be entertaining, and, by the end, we’re left with enough tension that victory does not seem assured.

The movie had some good special effects and some fantastic conceptual items. I would probably complain that the powered suits don’t have better armor (or even armor that stops anything) and that most of them seem to be armed with light caliber weapons that don’t really do much (if anything) to the enemy. Then again, being armed with a pathetic weapon against an almost unstoppable enemy makes for an underdog you can root for.

As for characterization, much as in Groundhog Day, there is a transition for the main character over each iteration of the terrible day. I particularly liked this transition, but I’ll avoid giving spoilers as far as the movie at this point. I will say that the most entertaining part of this movie, at the start, was watching Tom Cruise die. In fact, some of the best parts of the movie were him dying, not the action scenes, but the humorous (and often painful) demises he received.

The story wasn’t terribly original, but it was at least coherent, with a specific goal and actual stakes for the hero to struggle for. I will say there were a couple times in the movie where they did good in reversing what the audience expected. On the bad, there were a couple sequences where things were a bit repetitive.

As far as actors, Bill Paxton had a great role and was highly entertaining. Tom Cruise made for a fun transition and character arc. The other actors did well, but most of their characters had rather shallow character development. Some of the characters refusing to adapt/change as the movie went on was somewhat irritating. Then again, it’s an action movie, the hero is supposed to do the heavy lifting.

The comedic elements were some of the most memorable sequences, for me. I highly recommend watching it. Also, keep an eye out for the duct tape, they made excellent use of it.

emily_blunt_in_edge_of_tomorrow-wide

Captain America Winter Soldier Movie Review

Disclaimer ahead: I’m reviewing a comic book movie and I’m not a fan of comic books.  That aside, let’s get to the movie!

Short answer: I loved it.  Lots of action, interesting plot, and the good guy heroics that you would expect from Captain America.

Let’s dive a little deeper though.  The movie had excellent pacing and plot, at no point was there a point where the audience was left to get bored.  Action was often built with tension, we are meant to care what happens to the people in this movie.  Chris Evans brought the patriotism, freedom-loving, and honest Captain America to life, in a fashion that was both inspiring and heart-rending at times.  Yes, I say heart-rending because of the burdens he shoulders.  There was at least one tear-jerker of a scene in the movie.  You are able to guess the direction of the plot, but the full extent has enough twists and turns to satisfy, but not overly complex like a bad Bond movie.

The movie brought with it the trappings of a political thriller, but don’t be mistaken, it’s not a movie about murky politics and finding the lesser of two evils.  It’s a movie about Captain America doing the right thing… no matter the cost to himself along the way.  It was a movie about a good man setting the example and causing all of us mere mortals to step up and stand with him.  I think it’s a movie that reminds us of the importance of freedom… and that there are always those who are willing to use fear to take power.

I particularly liked the development of Scarlet Johanson’s character, Black Widow.  The interplay between her, a character who is fundamentally a creature of shadow and lies, and Captain America who is a beacon of truth… it was fascinating.  The tension between the two was well played and believable and at the same time, we saw that his inherent goodness acted as a draw to her own character, who fights for good, but doesn’t believe she has any within herself.  In addition, Falcon was an excellent character, something of an every-day-man who fights in the realm of gods and superheroes… and who fights because it is the right thing to do, rather than from some calling or granted power.  There are others, some of whom get only a few words to say, but they’re all called forward, forced to choose between what is easy and what is right.

I’m interested to see the effects of the movie upon the Agents of Shield TV show, as well as to find out more about Avengers: Age of Ultron.  The movie has some very serious repercussions in the Marvel Movie Universe and I want to see that transformation play out.  There were two post movie scenes, one mid-credit that hinted at a lot of activity for Avengers Age of Ultron, and the other which makes me interested to see where the character of the Winter Soldier is headed.

All in all, it was an awesome movie.  Frankly, the only disappointment I’m feeling about it is that I’ve got a long wait until we see these characters again.

 

 

Robocop Movie Review

I am not, as a general rule, a huge fan of movie remakes.  Now and again, however, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.  When I went to see it, I expected it to be a simple action flick.  Lots of shooting, some explosions, and robots and bad guys getting mowed down left and right.  What I didn’t expect was a surprisingly deep (for Hollywood) action movie with political and ethical questions.

Without giving too much away, let me say this: the movie has a rather murky and mixed message.  In some aspects, actors come across as almost caricatures and in others, you might feel almost like you’re being preached to… but you aren’t really sure what the message is supposed to be.  At the same time, there are moments in the movie where I was nodding my head at a reveal… or chuckling at a bit of satire.  The politics of security versus freedom was touched upon.  There was a good bit of character growth for a doctor, which I found interesting, while he fought between his ambition and his medical ethics.  There was also some decent discussion of the ethics of using automated weapons on American citizens…  Messages were there, but they were sometimes open ended, almost as if the director or actors didn’t want to agree with the conclusion.

As far as the action itself… by and large it was impressive.  There were some excellent firefights… if you could get past the ‘shaky cam.’  I don’t know about most viewers, but I don’t like leaving the theater feeling dizzy.  There were a couple of scenes where it was literally too much, where my brain just kind of went into shut-down because there was strobing lights, dark backgrounds, and a shaking, spinning camera.  To top it off, even the the moments where the main character was literally getting pounded, it was hard to have any dramatic tension… I mean, the moment of drama was solved before we really had any anticipation of danger.  There wasn’t enough build-up, I suppose.

The movie looked good, though.  And despite the nausea inducing shaky-cam, it was mostly fun.  In my opinion, it was a better movie than the original, which is a good thing.

Characterization Case Study: Gravity

originalThe best way to study characterization and plot is to look at examples, both good and bad, and to note what worked and what didn’t.  I’m going to do a quick case study of the recent movie Gravity.  It’s an interesting movie that (due to a very small cast and a rather linear plot) can be analyzed with relative ease.  As a quick disclaimer: this is not a movie review and it will hold some spoilers.  As a secondary disclaimer: I enjoyed the movie, the music, special effects, science and plot were all relatively well grounded and a lot of fun… but I’m going to dissect the characters in the movie as examples of good and bad characterization. 

First things first, a look at characterization.  There are really only two characters in the movie: Stone and Kowalski.  The movie does an excellent job right away to establish Kowalski as a cowboy, right down to his music selection as he bounces around the hubble telescope on his EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit).  He’s excited to be where he is, cocky, and clearly knows what he’s doing.  Throughout the rest of his (brief) stint in opening part of the movie, this is all we really see of Kowalski.  Stone on the other hand, is more difficult to characterize.  At first, she is totally focused on her work.  Later when things begin to go wrong, she panics.  We learn that she doesn’t want to die, that she is afraid, and that she really doesn’t seem to like space.

This last was the part that broke characterization for me.  The way things are now, if someone isn’t totally dedicated and driven to become an astronaut, they won’t even stand a chance.  It doesn’t matter what your background is or how important your mission, you can always train someone else.  There are millions of applicants and countless intelligent people willing to learn whatever skills it takes to go to space, they won’t want someone who doesn’t want to be there.

But then Kowalski shows up to save Stone.  The two learn that they are the only survivors from the shuttle and both deal with it in their own ways.  Kowalski becomes professional and reverts to an almost military mode.  From the perspective of characterization, this is excellent.  We see the other side of a character, and we see that his cowboy persona is just one facet of a more complex person.  Stone just sort of shuts down.  She says that she’s low on oxygen, she doesn’t volunteer any information, and at several points, tells Kowalski that he should leave her, that she’s slowing him down.  This, frankly, makes her character seem rather dull.  In the initial panic and worry of the disaster, we are immediately sympathetic to her character.  She is adrift and struggles to survive, we want to root for her.  Her giving up after being found and rescued by Kowalski gives away a lot of that initial viewer sympathy.  No one likes a quitter, and the apathy that she begins to show about her own death makes her character seem very bland and hard to identify with.

Then, in typical survival mode, Kowalski asks Stone about where she is from, if she has anyone who waits for her back home, if she likes her job and what she does after work.  This is the perfect moment in a book for the viewer to identify with a character.  You learn about the details of their life, the things that guided them and shaped them.  The scene could not have been framed better, with only the two characters, tethered by a single cable and with the entire Earth as a backdrop.  Literally, they’re the only two people who exist, with no other distractions… and Stone takes a right turn to depression.  Stone doesn’t have a family, she had a daughter who died in an accident.  She apparently doesn’t have parents, siblings, or any romantic interest at all either.  In fact she seems to have no reason to go on living.  She concludes her brief explanation with a statement that she ‘just drives.’  She seems to be a woman with no reason left to live… so why exactly is she in space?  Please, tell me that her device would prevent future falling accidents such as the one that killed her daughter or cure cancer or at least give her some goal or drive to base her life upon.  Give me something, I want to root for these characters.  They’re in a disaster with miniscule odds of survival, I want to think that their lives mean something.

The two characters reach their destination, but in true movie fashion, the EMU (rather like a jetpack) runs out of fuel in the last seconds.  The two tumble and scramble for a hold, and in the end, Stone is tangled in some line attached to the station and Kowalski is attached to Stone by the tether.  Of course, the cables are slipping and there is too much mass for the friction of the cables to overcome.  Kowalski says that he’s going to cut himself loose, and explains to Stone what she’ll have to do to survive.  This is a pivotal moment in both character’s story arcs.  The cowboy/professional mission commander sacrifices himself (showing yet another side of himself) while the frightened and confused Doctor Stone has to come out and shine, to find her internal strength and succeed despite the odds.  Frankly, I think it was a bit heavy-handed.  The scene could have played out more true to Kowalski’s character if done in a split-second decision, rather than as it played out… a long and agonizing moment for Stone.  They did it more for plot reasons than characterization, I think.  They set up Stone without the tools to survive so they wanted Kowalski to give her those.  Given the amount of time they had, and the way they established Kowalski’s character, I think it more likely he would have attempted something dramatic to save them both.  However, clearly the story they wanted to explore was Stone’s growth, even if Kowalski was the more interesting character.

Stone then follows Kowalski’s guidance.  As an added threat, besides the debris that moves faster than any Earth-bound bullet, the station catches fire.  Because, really, Stone needed something to get her to get moving again.  Stone begins step two of three towards her return to earth and then discovers that her ride to the next stop is out of fuel.  This would be a perfect time for her to show her internal strength and that drive to survive.  Instead, she tries to reach someone, anyone, for help.  In the end, after a tearful conversation with some chinese guy with a dog and a baby, she decides that she doesn’t want to wait another ninety minutes for the debris to hit her yet again, she’ll just turn down the air and go to sleep.

Okay, I’m sorry, but while the plot of the movie had me hooked, at this point I just stopped caring about the character of Doctor Stone.  She has no family, no goals, no dreams, no ambition… she’s survived to this point because she doesn’t want to die and because someone we did care about sacrificed himself so that she would have a chance.  Honestly, I come back to the whole question: why is Doctor Ryan Stone here in space and who chose the hardest person in the world to identify with to be the survivor?

Cue the return of Mission Commander Kowalski.  His snarky comments and upbeat words breathe some life into Stone just before the obvious reveal that he was a figment of her subconscious as her brain shut down from lack of oxygen.  Luckily, she realizes she does have a way to survive after all, and goes about it.  She seems to have decided to live because Kowalski wanted her to, which in itself is something, at least.  Do it for the dead guy, it works in sports movies for a reason, and it at least gives us a reason why the lone survivor doesn’t just die.

As far as characterization, that concludes the entire movie.  We get a brief moment at the end where Stone stands up on the beach, somewhere on Earth and walks away.  This seems more a statement of survival than anything more profound.  In fact, the character of Doctor Stone doesn’t really seem to draw any closure.  She survives, which closes out the plot, but we don’t have any way to see what she has become, or even if she has changed at all.  What will drive her, after her survival, what will she do and who will she become afterwards?  These question remain unanswered, which, as a viewer I would find supremely irritating… except I really didn’t care at that point.  Stone was just the point of view for the ride, and I could walk away without any of those questions being answered.

Hopefully my fellow writers can take away some lessons from this.  I know I did, the biggest being that if you create a character that doesn’t care about themselves… your audience wont either.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a disaster, but the rest of your product, book, movie or game, will have to make up for that in other areas.