I’m indebted to Tim Bray for the pointer to jwz’s They Live and the secret history of the Mozilla logo, which I must have read at the time but which I don’t think I posted about here:
I’m going to draw a line through 1930s agitprop, Ronald Reagan, methane-breathing zombie space aliens, the Mozilla logo, Barack Obama and the International Communist Conspiracy. It’s a long walk, so please stick with me. […]
It’s a longish read, but it’s about ancient history about important software and one of John Carpenter’s best films: how could I resist?1
- Also, a commenter pointed to a collection of essays on They Live by Jonathan Lethem that I bought sight unseen. ↩
Take a plot that amounts to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom minus the dinosaurs. Throw in a couple of known Western names – director Simon West and actor Jason Isaacs – to help it get some profile in Western media, then shoot a film with lots of dodgy CGI and a plot that eschews any hint of irony or complexity in favour of a thrill ride showing people caught in a disaster working together for the most part, and the Chinese production company give us just over 90 minutes of undemanding silliness that is just what I was in the mood for yesterday evening.
Isaacs plays a debt-burdened Australian tycoon who has put together a project that built a resort on an island right next to an active volcano and hopes that the deal he’s about to close as the film starts will clear his debts. It may not come as a complete surprise to you to learn that by the time the plot plays out, his company is destined to be tied up in court for a decade or two, if it’s even got enough money worth pursuing in court.
Nobody is winning any awards for their acting here. Basically, we get a bunch of pretty but bland actors who are utterly unknown to Western audiences. After fifteen to twenty minutes of setting up relationships – the primary thread is that we have a heroine whose geologist mother was killed on this same island twenty-odd years ago during an earlier eruption, and who is now herself a geologist running a project to monitor the volcano using an array of sensors, but who can’t persuade Jason Isaacs’ tycoon to delay the next phase to let her continue studying what’s going on to make sure it’s safe – the volcano erupts and everyone gets to run/drive around dodging CGI fireballs and toxic clouds of hot gas and contending with some very dodgy physics. It’s laughable stuff, but no more laughable than it was when they added CGI dinosaurs and had various directors give us Jurassic Park sequels at umpteen times the budget, or when a different Chinese production company gave us Jason Statham (plus a few other names better-known in the West) versus a really big, ancient shark-ancestor in The Meg.
Basically, this branch of the Chinese film industry seems to have mastered delivering undemanding blockbuster-lite fare.1 The nicest surprise was that in the podcast they referred to this being something we could get from Amazon for US$10 and said there are plenty of other things we all drop that sum on in these desperate-for-entertainment times, yet when I went to Amazon Prime Video it cost me just £1.99 to add it to my Video Library. The exchange rate hasn’t plunged that far in a couple of days, so I have no idea whether this is different pricing strategies in different markets or just a mistake.
So, Chinese producers are starting to push out basic, palatable-yet-unhealthy junk at the Western market. It’s a strategy that served McDonalds well in a very different field, so we’ll see how it does in the world of film.
- I suspect that until the Asian stars and starlets turn out to have a following in Western media, Hollywood and British studios won’t get too worried about this. I didn’t spot this until afterwards when I visited the IMBD, but our Taiwanese-Australian female lead here was also in Skyscraper alongside The Rock the year before this was released. I didn’t notice her in that, and unless she ends up playing English-language roles I very much doubt I’ll ever notice her when next I see her. The language barrier doesn’t render CGI-heavy work like this unintelligible in other languages, but it’s still liable to be a barrier to further progress outside of the cheap-but-cheerful fast food market this film operates in. To some extent, stretching a film’s reach by adding CGI is mostly a sign of how cheap basic CGI has got, if you’re not too picky about breaking new ground. That’s not what anyone is trying to do here, so everyone’s moderately happy. ↩
Given the way film release schedules have been disrupted over the last year, it feels strange to read an article about Upcoming Must-See Movies in 2021 and contemplate just when and where these might show up.
For what it’s worth, out of that selection I’m looking forward to…
- Malcolm and Marie General rule of thumb: putting two ridiculously sexy actors together on screen is a decent starting point. It may not be enough, but the trailer suggests that it might. (Also, John David Washington deserves a break after being in Tenet.)
- Godzilla vs. Kong Look, Godzilla: King of the Monsters was surprisingly good and Kong: Skull Island was tolerable, so it’s not impossible this will be both very silly and yet worth a look. In any fair match-up Godzilla wipes the floor with Kong, but if we could somehow arrange for this to be a crossover with the Pacific Rim franchise this could be one for the ages.
- Last Night in Soho Edgar Wright hasn’t let me down yet.
- Candyman I remember the first take on this story being excellent and I’m an optimist, what can I say?
- Dune Villeneuve has the chops to make this work, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be memorable even if it turns out not to be so good.
- The Matrix 4 I know it’s not going to have the impact the first film did, but I just have a feeling about this one. Also, I loved Sense8 and Jupiter Ascending and Cloud Atlas, so you now know that I’m a Wachowski fanboy and can calibrate your assessment of my standards accordingly.
- The French Dispatch The pleasures of watching that cast in a Wes Anderson film just can’t be underestimated.
Granted that’s a very nostalgic (and, some might add, very optimistic) list, but worst case scenario is that for every one of the above films that disappoints there’ll be something else that unexpectedly that turns out to be better than them.
It remains to be seen whether we’ll get to see them all on a big screen or a small screen, or whether by the end of 2021 the inevitable Disney-Apple-Amazon-Sony-Facebook-Tesla-BBC-Netflix-Microsoft merger will have brought all audiovisual digital entertainment under a single streaming service to which we’ll each pay a tithe for the rest of our days, but apart from that What could go wrong?
David Squires shares with the world his take on The Queen’s Gambit: Hungry Hungry Hippos edition:
A popular tabletop game that requires considerable guile and skill
Has to be said, there’s a small part of me that would have really liked to see this.1 And a large part of me that thinks that take on the project might have had a little more difficulty in getting funded by Netflix.
- Not least because I suspect Anya Taylor-Joy wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at having to adapt her performance a bit. ↩
Nice snark from Molly Templeton at Tor.com, reacting to the latest trailer for comet-impact disaster movie Greenland :
Greenland takes the general premise of Deep Impact and kicks it up a notch: Why simply have one comet on a trajectory to strike the earth when you could also have many smaller pieces of the comet wreak utter havoc first? They’re like the worst opening band humanity has ever had to sit through.
Yes, of course Gerard Butler is in this.
It’s as if he’s adopted the Michael Caine career strategy 1 without ever managing to do a single decent film along the way. Which is probably best viewed as a reflection of the extent to which even actors who end up in leading-man roles are at the mercy of forces beyond their control when it comes to the quality of the end product. 2
I never got round to reading Ready Player One because judging by the reviews I read at the time it sounded as if the book was unutterably proud of itself for stringing together lists of pop cultural trivia for geeks to recognise. Judging by Laura Hudson’s review for Slate , I don’t think I’ll be in any rush to devour Ready Player Two:
A cackling villain appears to menace our heroes and shout mean things that sound remarkably similar to negative reviews of Cline’s previous work: “Don’t you kids ever get tired of picking through the wreckage of a past generation’s nostalgia?” Wade responds by telling the bad man to go away and leave them alone, and subsequently drives off to fight Prince in a little red Corvette while wearing a raspberry beret. (This is not a joke.)
I have a feeling Spielberg isn’t going to be in a rush to put together another big screen adaptation of Cline’s work. Not that the first one was all that wonderful.1 I get that Spielberg was probably the one pop cultural figure with the clout 2 to get the rights to use so many pieces of other peoples’ intellectual property in his film, but exercising that clout in such an unworthy cause3 was not worth doing for this story.
- Sure, it was a challenge to pull together a replica of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining when the plot led our heroes down that path, but I like to think that Spielberg directed those scenes fully aware that Stanley Kubrick was looking down from above and shaking his head at how small an achievement that truly was. ↩
- Which is to say, the cash. I’m rather glad that according to Wikipedia he failed to get to use material from Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in this project. I’m still deeply unhappy that the film made such use of the rather distinctive profile of a replica of the Iron Giant. Dammit, he deserved better than to have such a throwaway part. ↩
- As I understand it the scenes on the sets from The Shining weren’t part of the Ernest Cline novel. I suppose it could have been worse: we could have enjoyed a scene based on a clue to be found via a careful reading of a set of zero-G toilet use instructions that Heywood Floyd ponders briefly during his travels in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not sure why the gang would need to find themselves visiting the virtual set rather than just googling for the text like they were savages, but I’m sure the screenwriters could have come up with a good reason. Maybe that prankster Kubrick had embedded a vital clue. ↩
Catching up with my podcast queue the other day, I was slightly taken aback at the moment in episode 153 of Imaginary Worlds where Doug Jones mentioned that he’s recently turned sixty years old and finds himself having to think a bit harder nowadays about whether a younger performer might be a better fit for a role’s demands. I suppose the fact that he delivers most of his performances from under layers of latex and makeup has hidden hasn’t helped.
His current role as Saru on Star Trek: Discovery, excellent as his performance is, probably isn’t destined to turn him into a superstar1 given what a niche of a niche that show is followed by. I have a horrible feeling that a decade from now he’ll be at least semi-retired and for a certain generation of Trekkies2 he’ll be remembered alongside Mark Lenard and Jeffrey Coombs and as one of the fan-favourites of the franchise.
That’s not a small thing, even if it’s not the level of fame he deserves after a long career bringing other peoples’ dreams – or nightmares – to life on-screen.
- To be fair, within his very particular niche he is something of a superstar. It’s just that his niche is one of those where – almost by design? – thirty years after his death people will be amazed to find out that the same guy was under all that make-up in Pan’s Labyrinth (in two different roles!) and in the Buffy episode Hush and in The Shape of Water and as Abe Sapien in the two good Hellboy films and in oh so many others. ↩
- Not sure whether that’s still a term that they approve. (Probably not.) Pretty certain I’m past caring. It’s not meant as an insult. ↩
David Thomson, reviewing two recent Cary Grant biographies for the London Review of Books:
Dead at 82, Cary Grant had made 77 films. [But…] let’s say there are twenty or so pictures that are keepers. Then let’s add that in any one of those films he had 15 minutes of ambiguous splendour. That’s five hours in 82 years. A weird equation for showing us what suckers we are for brilliant moments and piercing glances.
I’m stricken by an urge to watch His Girl Friday again. So good.
M.G. Siegler ponders Netflix’s ability to get us watching, even when the content isn’t all that special (sparked by his watch of The Old Guard, but prompted by the wider pattern of so-so content on the platform:
The real risk here is that the audience starts to associate Netflix with mediocre films. It may not matter now — and certainly not right now, in the time of COVID. But down the line, if the audience can’t trust that what Netflix is putting in front of them is good, they’ll lose faith.
But then, Netflix might well decide that they’d much rather end up replacing the multiplex cinema business and showing stuff that doesn’t get the critical plaudits, rather than replacing the arthouse cinemas where critical praise doesn’t necessarily translate into dollars and cents. This might be a problem for Netflix, but only if one of the other major streaming platforms finds itself with an HBO-like reputation for excellent content.1
It’s less about Netflix customers losing faith, more about their having somewhere else to put their faith in.
- Apple TV+ would like that to be them, but even if you’re an Apple optimist they’ve clearly got a long, long way to go yet. Disney would like to step into the HBO role but they own such a large chunk of the US studios that they might have to hive off a chunk of their more refined content and put it out under a different brand to make that stick. Amazon’s algorithms probably don’t care either way what Prime Video subscribers are watching so long as the Amazon Prime subscription income keeps rolling in. ↩
Jason Kottke saw a school of juvenile striped eel catfish (Plotosus Lineatus) and thought it evoked a creature from a Miyazaki film:
It was only on following the link to the source that I found that those creatures, for all that they’re enchanting to watch, are also venomous. Makes me think that they’d be a better fit for the Alien franchise, really.1
- But then again, thinking back to some of the boathouse customers in Spirited Away, maybe Miyazaki really does work. Some of those folks required careful handling by the staff, and I can easily imagine Yubaba telling Chihiro and her colleagues something to the effect of “The young ones can only produce a mild version of the venom, tingling the fingers of the people putting their hands in the school (which we don’t recommend you do!)” ↩