Elsewhere in the Galaxy Far Far Away: Rogue One Review

Warning: there will be spoilers for Rogue One below.  Read at your own risk.

As the first true standalone movie in the Star Wars franchise, Rogue One has a lot to live up to.  It has to stand on its own two feet with its own self-contained story but also tie itself in to the greater story of Star Wars as a whole.  There is a lot to be excited for in this movie, but there is also cause for concern.  So, is Rogue One worthy of the Star Wars name?  Did it succeed in crafting its own memorable story?

Well…yes and no.  The answer is a bit complicated with this one.

Rogue One is in some ways a prequel to A New Hope, the first Star Wars movie ever made.  It tells the story of a group of ragtag soldiers who steal the plans for the Death Star (which, if you remember, was what Darth Vader is looking for at the beginning of A New Hope).  On its face, this seems like the perfect setup for a Star Wars story.  It fills in a gap that hasn’t really been explored (at least in the movies) and tells a story fans have been wanting to see.  Unfortunately, as I’ll get into in a little bit, the movie seems to cater to the fans a little too much, leaving more casual viewers in the dust.

The crux of the thing is that Rogue One feels like a battle between its two halves.  The second half of the movie is great and has an amazing climactic battle, but the whole thing is weighed down by a jumbled and sloppy first half.  When the movie begins, we see Jyn Erso (the movie’s protagonist) as a child.  We are clued in to her father’s ties to the empire, and without spoiling too much, Jyn is forced to go on the run.  But then the movie jumps ahead to Jyn as an adult, and we see that she’s in an Imperial prison.

Wait…what?  How did this happen?  It’s hard not to feel like something was missing in between.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the case for much of Rogue One‘s first half.  We’re spirited away to a handful of different planets at light speed with very little detail provided on any of what occurs.  It actually took me some time to get my bearings after the opening sequence was over, and that’s not a very good sign.

The rapid fire pacing continues as we see Jyn being taken to an Imperial labor camp.  It seems like this would be a good time to show off the movie’s grittier side and show what life is like under Imperial rule right?  Well too bad, because this sequence lasts all of thirty seconds before Jyn is rescued by the Rebels.  Even once she’s brought to the Rebel base we don’t get much in the way of exposition on her criminal background.  We just get a list of the crimes she’s committed.  It still doesn’t tell us what exactly she did that got her thrown into prison.  And her muddled backstory continues to confuse throughout the first act.  At one part there’s a dream sequence of Jyn living with an Imperial family or something, and it’s not properly explained at all aside from one or two lines of dialogue later on.  It’s all a mess that could have been handled so much better.

Ironically, despite Jyn’s backstory problems, she’s actually the most developed character in the movie.  Despite the large amount of characters in the movie, all of their character traits are handled in broad strokes.  There’s the nervous Imperial pilot who defected from the Empire, the handsome and charismatic leader, the hardened fighter who wields a fully automatic laser rifle, the mystical force-attuned samurai guy, and so on.  Even Saw Gerrera, a character who is hyped up quite a bit during the first act, barely has any impact on the movie as a whole.

Honestly the only true standout character aside from Jyn is K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial robot who, as another character puts it, “says anything that comes into his circuits”.  He’s a dry, sarcastic character who serves as the comic relief in the movie.  And it works.  Early on in the movie there’s a scene where he nonchalantly tosses a grenade behind him to blow up a few Stormtroopers before he quips “yeah, I should’ve stayed on the ship”.

It’s not just the character exposition that’s handled poorly either.  Throughout the movie, there are these little references and nods that have nothing to do with anything besides being a nod to the fans.  And not just the regular fans either, but the super fans.  The ones who digest everything Star Wars they can get their hands on.  There’s a lot of details and information dropped in the first half of the movie (particularly when they get to Jedda) that doesn’t have any significance to the casual viewer.  They do that kind of stuff in superhero movies as well, add little easter eggs that will slip past normal views but will leave the super fans saying “oh yeah that’s obviously a reference to issue number 523″ and so on.  It always struck me as heavy-handed because for a casual view, those moments are jarring and interrupt the flow of the movie.  I mean sure, Star Wars is so big that it probably doesn’t make much of a difference, but it still mucks up the pacing.

Even Darth Vader’s presence in this movie seems to serve no purpose other than fan service (although he does have one really cool scene near the end of the movie).  The first scene we see him in takes place in some random castle thing on the planet Mustafar (the lava planet from Episode III where Anakin and Obi-Wan have their duel), and it serves basically no purpose.  There’s no new information given to the audience.  It just gives us what we already know.  It seems to exist solely to appeal to the fans by showing off more of Darth Vader (and his voice is pretty bad sounding…85-year-old James Earl Jones does not sound nearly as intimidating as he once did).  The scene could have been cut from the movie and would have had barely any impact on it.

Despite all of these misgivings about the first half of the movie, the second half more than makes up for it.  It has a razor-sharp focus on its action, we get payoff for Jyn’s personal story, and it culminates in a prolonged, epic battle that features action on the ground and in space.  It’s an epic moment for the movie that is expertly handled.  There’s honestly not a whole lot to say about the second half except that it recognizes that action is what it does best.  It’s just a shame that the first half of the movie wasn’t as magnificently crafted as the second half is, otherwise I would be inclined to put it way higher on the list of Star Wars movies.

Overall, I would say that Rogue One is good.  The first half is a bit of a dud and drags the movie down, but the second half excels with its focus on action.  The movie certainly has a lot of grit and grime to it, although I found it a little strange that for being labeled as a darker movie, it’s not until near the end that it truly embraces its darker side (pun not intended).  It’s certainly an inconsistent movie, but still worth seeing.

Let me put it this way: if you’re looking for a movie to watch this holiday season, you could do a lot worse than Rogue One.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post and as always, have a wonderful week.

I was saddened to hear that Carrie Fisher (who played Princess Leia in the original trilogy as well as The Force Awakens) died yesterday.  She was a truly inspirational person and honestly nothing I say can do her justice.  Today the world mourns one of its heroes.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

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Echoes of Orlando: Victim’s Families Target Social Media in New Lawsuit

June 12, 2016 is not a day people are going to soon forget.  On that day, a shooter who claimed allegiance to ISIS stepped into the nightclub and killed forty-nine people.  It was the worst mass shooting in United States history, the fallout of which is still being felt today.  Just this past Monday, families of three of the victims filed a lawsuit against Facebook, Twitter, and Google, arguing that they provided material support to ISIS by allowing them to use social media as a recruiting platform.  According to an article by the Christian Science Monitor, the allegation is going to be tough to prove.

A professor in the article states that “their biggest success is going to be in the national media and causing embarrassment to these providers, because it is true that you have jihadi propaganda that flies across Twitter and flies across the internet.”  The professor goes on to state that the situation boils down to a First Amendment debate.  “It’s a battle between increased security and civil liberties,” he says.

Now this isn’t the first case against a social media company in regards to terrorism.  Many private parties have pursued lawsuits in recent years, although the Department of Justice has never accused a social media platform of providing material support to terrorists.  According to the Christian Science Monitor article, only one of these cases (Fields vs. Twitter) ever resulted in a ruling, and it was dismissed by a federal judge.  The reason for this lies in something called the Communications Decency Act.  Section 230 of the act says “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  In short, companies or people who host or republish speech cannot be held accountable for what others say and do.  It’s the largest hurdle for lawsuits like these, and it hasn’t been jumped yet.

However, the lawsuit aims to tackle the issue in a new direction.  They’re arguing that by matching the content of users with targeted advertisements, social media sites are in effect creating their own content and profiting off of terrorist users’ content as they do off of all posts.  They acknowledge that Facebook and other sites have taken steps to remove such content when it is reported to them by users, but they argue that the sites should be taking bigger steps to combat such posts.

Now that we’ve gotten the background out of the way, it’s opinion time.

It seems that this case boils down to a situation of free speech vs. increased security (as the professor from the article said).  And the problem becomes one of “how far do you go?”  Normally I consider the slippery slope argument a logical fallacy, but in the case of civil liberties it’s an apt one to make.  When you start trying to stifle free speech, no matter how reprehensible, where does it end?  Sure, we say that we’re fighting terrorism, but our definition of what can be considered terrorism could change.  Today we say we’re fighting against ISIS because of their violent agenda, but tomorrow we could be policing groups who spout anti-government rhetoric because we’re concerned they might “incite violence”.  Pretty soon anyone who burns a flag or questions the government could be scrutinized, analyzed, and denied the right to speak for fear of “public safety” if we choose to go down that path.

What it comes down to is that freedom of speech means that sometimes we have to allow people to say reprehensible things.  The Westboro Baptist Church is one of the scummiest groups in our country, but they’re allowed to picket military funerals because it’s their right, just as it’s our right to counter-protest them.  We can’t just tell them they’re not allowed to say these things because we don’t like it.

But it is a sticky situation.  Westboro isn’t encouraging violence against people, just hateful views.  ISIS on the other hand is telling people to go attack crowded areas in the name of their cause.  They’ll even post videos telling their followers how to stab “non-believers” with a knife.  What it all comes down to is the fact that we can’t possibly police everything.  The anonymous nature of the internet means that hateful things are posted every day because people know they can do so without any repercussions.  Are we really going to try to arrest anyone who posts a death threat in the comments of some article or video?  Even if we wanted to, I doubt it would be possible.  The sheer amount of resources that would be required to police all of that would be insane.

Because in the end, how do you stop the bad ideas without stopping a few of the good ones?

 

That’s all I have for you this time.  Check back next Wednesday for another post.  Have a wonderful week and a great Christmas holiday.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Unsustainable Connectivity: The Looming Problem of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

If you haven’t heard of Marvel or what they’ve been doing for the last eight or so years, you might think you’ve been living under a rock.  A large rock…blocking the entrance to a cave…on the surface of Mars.

Nearly a decade ago, Marvel kicked off a new age of superhero movies, making them cool and relevant again.  But more so than that, Marvel did something unprecedented.  While most of their movies have a self-contained storyline featuring a particular hero, they are all part of a larger narrative arc that takes shape over many movies, not just one.  And this isn’t just something that takes place over a small trilogy of movies.  No, dozens of movies take place within the same universe and almost all of them tie in together in some way.  You would think that asking audiences to follow this massive narrative would be an impossible task, but despite the overwhelming nature of it Marvel has found tremendous success.  And their success has influenced other studios as well.  The new Mummy movie with Tom Cruise is meant to be a reboot movie and an introduction to a larger universe of monsters from Universal movies.  Along with that, there is an upcoming King Kong movie (Kong: Skull Island) that will tie into a larger universe featuring the new Godzilla from the 2014 movie.

So Marvel’s success has definitely been influential and has changed the landscape of movie making.  And I must commend them for their success.  They have proven that it is indeed possible to build a larger narrative that extends beyond just one movie or one franchise, that is possible to bind several franchises together into one mega-franchise.  It’s an impressive feat.  However, it is not one without problems.

Let’s not beat around the bush here.  You’ve seen the title, so you have an idea of where I’m going with this.  While the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short) is an incredible accomplishment, it is starting to become unwieldy.  Nowadays to watch the latest Marvel movie it feels like you have to sit down and watch the five movie previous just to understand what is happening within the larger framework.  You might be able to follow the self-contained story, but there are often references to things that you might not understand because you’re not up to date.  I felt that way when I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron.  There were elements of the movie that I simply didn’t grasp because the movie didn’t bother explaining them.  It was assumed that I had watched the movies before it.  That’s why I initially thought the strange romantic relationship between Black Widow and Hulk was just something they established in another movie, although I later found out that it first appeared in Age of Ultron.

And there will always be that one person.  You know the one, the person that says “well if you read the comic books…”.  Yeah, that person.  Maybe you even are that person.  Whatever the case may be, assuming that a viewer has this backlog of lore from other movies can be dangerous and alienating if not handled properly.  Of course, with the internet this isn’t as big of a deal as it could have been, since interested fans can just go look up information that they’re missing online.

But the real problem seems to be the disconnect between the television shows and the movies, particularly the Netflix originals.  Before we get to that however, we need to take a look at a show that came out before the Netflix ones.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a show centered around a group of special agents that investigate strange occurrences around the world.  It ties into the MCU in the sense that some of the episodes (as far as I know…I haven’t exactly watched the show) deal with the aftermath of events in the movies, such as Thor: Dark World.  The problem with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is that it features one of the more notable “cracks” in the continuity of the MCU.  Agent Phil Coulson was introduced in the original Iron Man and was killed off in the first Avengers movie.  But he was then brought back to life for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a move that creates a strange sense of dissonance between the films and the shows, especially considering that Coulson’s death was instrumental in making sure the Avengers finally got their act together and worked as a team.  Coulson is never referenced again in the films, making it seem as though he’s dead in the films but alive in the television shows.  Which makes no sense, considering the shows and the movies are supposed to all be connected and part of the same universe.

But my biggest caveat about the MCU comes from the Netflix original shows such as Daredevil.

If you’ve seen any of the Marvel movies, you’ll know that they are goofy, light-hearted, heavy on explosions and over the top action.  But if you then go and watch one of the Netflix shows like Daredevil or Jessica Jones, the tone difference is so sharp that it might as well be part of a different universe entirely.  For example, Daredevil is gritty, dark, and full of deep character drama.  It features a storyline heavy on personal demons, character flaws, and a villain who isn’t just a shell full of evil intentions.  It’s about Matthew Murdock, a lawyer who moonlights as a vigilante fighting what often feels like a losing battle against a massive criminal underworld.  It’s one of the best things to come out of Marvel in a long time and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes a dark tone to their stories.

The problem is, like I said, that the show’s tone feels so counter-intuitive to the rest of Marvel’s lineup.  This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if you could just ignore its connection to the larger universe, but the show prods you every now and then, forcibly reminding you that it is indeed part of the MCU.

In the very first episode of Daredevil, an event only referred to as “the incident” is referenced multiple times.  If you’re a Marvel fan, you’ll likely connect the dots and understand that they’re referring to the first Avengers movies, where an alien portal was opened and an extra-terrestrial army wreaked havoc on New York.  But the event is described in such vague terms that, as one article I read a while ago put it, it’s not unfair to assume that some people might think they’re talking about 9/11.  Not only that, but early on in the show Daredevil is rescued by a nurse after a failed attempt to save a kidnapped boy.  She becomes the first person in the show to know his true identity as Matthew Murdock.  Later on, Matt takes her to his apartment in an effort to keep her safe.  While there, she cracks a joke about how she was hoping he was a billionaire playboy, which is an obvious reference to Tony Stark/Iron Man.

And that’s where my problem is.  If I take Daredevil to be a larger part of the Marvel universe, which they so clearly want me to, how can I take Murdock’s struggles seriously?  He lives in a world with green rage monsters and super-powered super soldiers.  All of his fights could be resolved simply by Iron Man flying over and dropping a few bombs.  And what makes this even more ridiculous is that Daredevil takes place in the same city that Iron Man lives in!  So where is he during all this time?  For that matter, where is the rest of the Avengers team?  Does no one give a crap about Daredevil’s part of the city?  I find that hard to believe, especially after the massive series of explosions that rock the city around episodes five and six.  You’d think at least one of them would show up and be like “hey guys, what’s going on here?”

If you could just ignore this and watch the show as a self-contained piece of work, that would be one thing and it would be fine.  But Marvel seems intent on insisting that everything connects and it wants you to be aware of it.  I mean, how are the Netflix Marvel heroes supposed to stand up to the ones from the films?  Daredevil has super-human senses and an awesome fighting ability for sure, but Thor is a freaking god.

A GOD for crying out loud.

The comparison just doesn’t add up, and I have no idea how Marvel is going to handle that.  Who knows?  Maybe they’ll prove me wrong.  Maybe they’ll find some ingenious way of tying it all together.  But at the moment, I can’t help but feel their obsession with this inter-connectivity may end up proving to be their downfall.  Only time will tell I suppose.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

They Are Here: Arrival Review

When it comes to science-fiction, I’ve always preferred Star Trek over Star Wars.  Now before you start burning me at the stake, let me explain.  They’re both great franchises, but Star Wars has always felt more like a fantasy movie to me, or at least more mystical than a normal science-fiction story would be.  As it stands, Star Trek sticks closer to the conventions of science-fiction than Star Wars does.  One of Star Trek‘s major aspects is the sense of wonder it elicits, the idea of exploring and pushing the boundaries of what we consider to be possible.

I was reminded of this as Jeremy Renner’s character ran his hand along the bottom of an alien spacecraft in Arrival, his face an expression of disbelief and awe.  This is something that, to me, science-fiction movies have been lacking recently.  Part of the reason I was drawn to science-fiction in the first place was because of this wonder, this awe.  It has the ability to make you question the way you perceive things, question your place in the world and the universe at large.  But modern science-fiction largely tries to be grounded, to adhere to strict, realistic rules in an attempt to create a story that could actually happen.  There’s nothing wrong with this, but in a way it is limiting to the genre.  Science-fiction should be free to explore the possibilities and even dream up new ones.

Let me put it this way: the man who invented the cell phone would never have done so if he hadn’t watched Star Trek.

But now, on to the main event.  Arrival is a science-fiction movie that centers around the appearance of twelve extra-terrestrial spacecraft at different points around the Earth.  No one knows why they’ve come or what their intentions are, so the world governments scramble to assemble teams and figure it out.  In the United States, the team includes linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who are our main characters for this movie.  Together with others, Ian and Louise enter into the alien spacecraft in an attempt to talk to the aliens and find out why they’ve come.

And this is what the entire movie is about: the implications of first contact.  What does it mean, how would humanity respond to it, and how would it affect the world at large.  For a while now, aliens in science-fiction movies have been relegated to the role of the invader, storming our planet in an attempt to plunder its resources and people.  In a post 9/11 world this made a certain kind of sense.  We here in the United States were shaken to our core.  We were afraid of the possibility of another attack coming from outside our borders, and it’s only natural that our movies would reflect that.  So in that sense it’s nice to see a movie about aliens where they don’t just want to kill us or harvest us or what have you.  It’s nice to see a science-fiction film that doesn’t just end up being a brain-dead action movie.

The movie stays on point throughout, keeping us centered on the aliens and humanity’s attempts to communicate with them.  Ultimately the central message at the core of the film is one about human unity.  Throughout the movie we see talks between the different landing sites around the world begin to break down.  Interspersed throughout the movie are snippets of the news showing people looting and causing havoc in various cities as the arrival of the alien visitors sends the world into a panic.  A recurring theme I saw throughout the movie was one of interpretation.  Every message they managed to decipher from the aliens was seen as either benign or threatening.  Louise followed the benign interpretation and the military/political leaders of course leaned toward the threatening one.  It creates an interesting back and forth that permeates the movie.  And while you are clearly intended to identify with Lousie, the other interpretation is at least understandable in some sense.

Now yes, there is a major twist that comes up near the end of the movie.  There were some out there who were saying that the twist comes out of left-field and was utterly unexpected.  I don’t necessarily agree with that.  The movie definitely engages in some subtle foreshadowing through the story, giving you small clues about what’s to come.  This isn’t to say that the twist should be obvious or something (I certainly didn’t see it coming), but at the very least once you know what it is you can see the seeds being sown earlier in the movie.

All in all, I felt that Arrival was a great movie.  One of the major criticisms I expect people to have about it relates to the characters.  I can see some people out there being upset that there isn’t a whole lot of character depth to the movie.  But I don’t think it was necessary.  The movie is about humanity as a whole, and spending too much time delving into one or two characters would have taken away from that I think.  That being said, I do wish Jeremy Renner’s character would have been fleshed out a bit more, as he is the co-star of the movie.

The only major critique I have of the movie is that I felt like certain things could have been handled better.  There’s a bit later on involving rogue soldiers that, while it impacts the way the rest of the movie plays out, isn’t addressed very well.  It just happens and then no one really talks much about it.  Along with that there are cutaway scenes involving Lousie’s daughter that don’t seem to have much purpose during the beginning half or so of the movie.  The movie starts with one of these, and it’s a very powerful opening, but after that it just crops up every now and then without much rhyme or reason to it until later on.

In the end, Arrival is a great treat for fans of science-fiction.  It tackles some big, looming questions in the wake of humanity’s first contact with an alien race and it forces us to confront the troubling aspect of the division among humans.  The message of unity certainly comes at an appropriate time considering the volatile nature of this past election cycle.  And the movie is smart.  It doesn’t treat you like an idiot or bash you over the head with its themes (even though they are clear-cut).  It might be a little slow-paced for some people, but true science-fiction isn’t just about guns and explosions.  It’s about human beings.  It’s about the possibilities of the future.

In a way, science-fiction is the story of us.

“It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.” – Ursula K. Guin

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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