Like Wall-E with more explosions

Science fiction is a problematic genre.

I’m not saying I don’t like sci-fi, mind you. I like just about any movie that’s full of spaceships and laser guns and whatnot. I’m really looking forward to Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, due out later this year.

But here’s the problem with sci-fi: it’s really, really broad.

Science fiction is a genre that encompasses pretty much anything. Alien invasions, futuristic dystopias, time travel, superheroes, space colonization, alternate dimensions, and so much more can all be said to fall under the category of science fiction. It is a genre in which anything goes and the farthest reaches of the universe are never out of bounds. The possibilities sci-fi presents are essentially infinite.

But, like so many things in life, the limits of science fiction are entirely human. The possibilities of the genre may be huge, but human thinking is oh-so-limited. There are only so many different types of stories we can come up with. Therefore, sci-fi stories often feel derivative, in spite of the enormous potential for variety the genre offers.

Such is the case with Oblivion, the Tom Cruise-starring sci-fi actioner that opened last Friday. I saw it because I like sci-fi movies, I had a theater gift card, and say what you will about Tom Cruise and some of his strange public behavior, he’s a pretty damn good actor and I’ve enjoyed quite a few of his movies in the past. I liked Minority Report, War of the Worlds, the Mission Impossible movies, and I especially liked Michael Mann’s brilliant Collateral, which is easily on the list of my top 10-15 favorite movies. Heck, throw Tropic Thunder in there too. It’s easy to forget he’s even in that movie because he’s so unrecognizable.

But I digress. In Oblivion, Cruise plays Jack Harper, a sort of post-apocalyptic repairman (“The Postapocalyptic Repairmen” would be a good name for a rock band). He wanders the ruined earth in a snazzy little flying craft with an Elvis bobblehead on the dashboard (do futuristic flying machines even have dashboards?) repairing these nasty little defense drones that…wait, wait, I’m not explaining this very well. Let’s start over.

As Cruise explains in his opening narration, at some point in the near future Earth is attacked by aliens called Scavengers, or Scavs for short, that I think came out of the moon? I forget exactly, but the moon was destroyed, which really screwed up the ecosystem here on Earth. Mankind fought off the alien invasion but much of the planet was destroyed and rendered uninhabitable in the process. Most of the remains of humanity now live on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Our hero Jack Harper and his communications officer/lover Victoria (played by Andrea Riseborough in probably the movie’s best performance) live in a snazzy little floating apartment-thingie suspended above the Earth’s surface Jetsons-style.

There are these massive generator-things that extract Earth’s remaining resources, mostly water, and are protected by these security drones, which fly around and kill things. It is Jack and Victoria’s job to keep these drones running. There is a massive space station called the Tet (short for tetrahedron apparently) that houses the rest of humanity that isn’t on the Titan colony. Jack and Victoria keep in touch with their commander Sally stationed on the Tet, and have two weeks left on their tour of duty before they are allowed to leave and go hang out with the rest of humanity. It’s been five years since a mandatory security wipe that erased Jack’s and Victoria’s memories for security purposes. Jack, however, is still haunted by memories of himself with an unknown woman (played by Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) on the observation deck of the Empire State Building prior to the damn killjoy aliens invading and ruining everything.

Everything is going along fine until one day when one of the security drones goes missing. Jack’s efforts to find it lead to some revelations about his world, and the inevitable discovery that Everything Is Not As It Seems. Also Morgan Freeman shows up. That’s all I’m going to say about the plot since Oblivion just came out a couple days ago and I don’t want to ruin the plot twists for those who still want to see it. As usual, if you really want those sweet, sweet spoilers you can go to Wikipedia.

Savvy sci-fi fans will probably pick up on a lot of elements of other sci-fi movies from Oblivion. Jack and Victoria’s lonely existence and the (almost) empty, ruined world they inhabit is very reminiscent of Pixar’s Wall-E. Jack even has a hidden little cabin where he keeps souvenirs of civilization he has collected, just like that lovable little robot Wall-E had in his trailer. Jack and Victoria’s floating space-pad is extremely reminiscent of the Jetsons and their floating space-cities, or whatever those were supposed to be (it’s been a really long time since I watched The Jetsons, cut me some slack). The memory-wipe thing is very Total Recall-esque, and there’s even a shot of the torch from the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the ground (think Planet of the Apes). I’m sure there are plenty more that I’m missing but those are the ones I remember off the top of my head.

Some would call these things an homage to previous sci-fi films, some would call them a rip-off. I fall somewhere in between. It is hard to be original these days, and it is hard not to be reminded of other films while watching Oblivion. But I don’t really mind being reminded of other films, as long as the films I’m being reminded of are good ones.

This is what I was talking about earlier with regards to the problem of science fiction as a genre. Most things have been done before and it is hard to come up with something truly and completely original, but what people do not seem to realize is that that does not necessarily mean that everything is a rip-off of something else (For my money, three of the most original sci-fi movies of recent years are Inception, Looper, and District 9). When two movies come out around the same time that seem even remotely similar, people will inevitably call one a rip-off of the other. Just because people have similar ideas around the same time doesn’t mean they’re ripping each other off. Grow up, people.

If it wasn’t already apparent, it really annoys me when people jump all over something and call it derivative or a rip-off without giving it a chance, as many people seem to have done with Oblivion. Sure, it is reminiscent of other classic sci-fi movies, and yes, some of the plot twists aren’t too surprising, but I still really liked Oblivion. It was well-made, well-acted, and gorgeous to look at. It also had a hell of a lot more brains and heart than plenty of other big-budget blockbusters. The Transformers movies have made billions despite having no heart at all (aside from the first one perhaps). If you like sci-fi movies you will probably be able to find something to like in Oblivion. I did. It is kind of like Wall-E with more explosions, but if that sounds good to you then you’ll probably enjoy it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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The Return of WTF: G.I. Joe: Retaliation

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a film that left me baffled. Bewildered. Bemused. Flummoxed, even. You could go so far as to say that I was flabbergasted.

Here is a film in which not one single thing makes even the slightest amount of sense. The plot makes no sense. The character motivations make no sense. The connection to the first G.I. Joe movie is tenuous at best. Bruce Willis is in the movie for maybe ten minutes, and serves no purpose other than to provide obscene amounts of firepower. The protagonist from the first movie is unceremoniously offed about twenty minutes into this one. Most of the characters from the first film are nowhere to be seen, except for maybe three or four, one of whom died in the first movie. More nukes are launched in this movie than have likely ever been launched in the history of motion pictures. The movie was directed by one Jon M. Chu, best known for directing the 3D Justin Bieber concert movie. And to top it all off, if you count the entire population of London, this film based on a series of children’s toys has a death count in the millions.

Okay, confession time. I am one of the few people who will readily admit to having enjoyed the first movie. Sure it’s cheesy as hell and is certainly no masterpiece, but it’s good, goofy fun and I find it impossible to hate any movie in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Cobra Commander. I’ve also enjoyed Stephen Sommers’ previous movies. When I was maybe 11-14 I watched The Mummy and The Mummy Returns dozens of times, and watching Van Helsing is a Halloween tradition.

So I was also one of the few people actually looking forward to Retaliation, which was scheduled to come out in June 2012 but got pushed back NINE FREAKING MONTHS to March 2013 because movie studios are stupid. Not that I am bitter.

Anyway, I finally saw the damn thing this past weekend and as, has been previously described, it made zero sense. It made about as much sense as the dreadful second Transformers movie, although it admittedly was more fun.

Alright, so at the end of the first movie, the evil forces of Cobra had been defeated but the President had been replaced by the evil Zartan impersonating the President (Anyone named “Zartan” is evil, no exceptions. There will also be spoilers from here on out).

So the evil President promptly orders a strike on our heroes the Joes, killing ALL of them except for three: Roadblock (yes, Roadblock), played by Dwayne “Please-don’t-call-me-The-Rock-that’s-not-my-name-anymore-I’m-trying-to-be-taken-seriously-as-an-actor-but-I-keep-making-movies-like-G.I. Joe: Retaliation” Johnson, a Random Hot Girl named Lady Jaye, and some jackass named Flint, none of whom were in the first movie.

From there, everything pretty much descends into madness. It turns out that Snake Eyes, the badass black ninja dude who never says anything because he is literally too cool for words, is for some reason hanging out in the Himalayas with some blind ninja master dude. Who the hell this guy is and how Snake Eyes came to be hanging out with him is left completely unexplained, and I was left scratching my head every time the blind ninja master dude (played by rapper RZA) showed up. Maybe this guy is actually an important character in the G.I. Joe universe, but you sure as heck wouldn’t know it from this movie.

Also left unexplained is how in the hell the evil white ninja Storm Shadow survived, when he was clearly killed in the first movie. Seriously. He gets stabbed and left in the crumbling underwater base at the end of the first movie, but appears alive and well not far into the second movie, with absolutely no explanation whatsoever. There’s not even any half-assed mysticism or some kind of scientific reconstruction or cloning or something to explain his presence in Retaliation. He just shows up.

And to further muddy the waters, his character gets completely changed, since one of his major events in the first movie gets retconned to be something different, which completely annihilates his entire character motivation from the first movie. Also, after a while he becomes a good guy and fights with the Joes. So Storm Shadow’s presence in this film makes zero sense, both in terms of his actual character and the very simple fact of his physical presence. When the very existence of one your movie’s main characters makes absolutely no sense, you know you’re in some serious trouble.

It turns out that the evil President’s evil plan is to get the rest of the world’s nuclear powers to disarm their nukes, which would leave them vulnerable to the Bond villain-esque, massive orbiting death machines he has created. He blows up poor old London just to show he’s serious. This chain of events involves an absolutely hilarious scene where all the other world leaders get their little nuclear suitcases and launch all their nukes at each other, and there is this hysterical little holographic projection of the earth with literally dozens of nukes flying through the atmosphere, all of the world leaders are screaming at each other, and the evil President is sitting in his chair playing Angry Birds.

Seriously. This actually happens. In a major studio release that, according to Wikipedia, cost $130 million to make. This almost puts Michael Bay to shame in terms of sheer ludicrousness.

Needless to say that the Joes put a stop to all of this nonsense and the world is saved, except of course for poor old London which has been reduced to a smoldering crater.

God, writing this just reminded me of how little sense any of this made. Among the film’s many other ridiculousnesses are the fact that it takes the Joes a remarkably long time to figure out that the President is evil, which you would think would have been pretty obvious, and did I mention that poor old Bruce Willis gets to do virtually nothing except show off the literally dozens of very large weapons he has stashed in every conceivable weapon-stashing place in his house?

It’s also a disappointment because the movie was written by a pair of screenwriters named Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who wrote Zombieland, which is smart, funny, and one of my top 3 all-time favorite zombie movies (the other two are Shaun of the Dead and Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead, just for the record). I was expecting more from them, but G.I. Joe: Retaliation feels like the result of a particularly potent acid trip.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a mess of a movie. The plot is overcomplicated, nonsensical, and utterly ridiculous, there are too many characters, most of whom either have little personality or are new and hard to care about (or both), and the events of the previous movie are mostly changed, overlooked, or ignored entirely. It rivals Michael Bay in terms of over-the-top, style-over-substance filmmaking, and it flat-out beats the entire Resident Evil franchise in terms of the complete lack of series continuity. What happened to the big black dude, the sexy redhead, Dennis Quaid and those other guys from the first movie? I have no idea, and the makers of Retaliation clearly did not care.

Ah well. At least the special effects were good, and there were a few fun action scenes, like the mountainside ninja battle that was admittedly pretty cool. That nine-figure budget had to go somewhere, I suppose. It’s not like I expected Shakespeare or anything from a movie based on children’s toys, but I think I’m not alone in wishing we had gotten something more that this random pile of junk running around in search of a movie to attach itself to.

That analogy didn’t even make sense, yet it made about a thousand times more sense than G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

Maybe the 3rd G.I. Joe movie will fix all that…?

WTF rating: 9/10.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

RIP Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert died yesterday at the age of 70, after a decade-long battle with thyroid cancer.

He was unquestionably the most well-known film critic in the world, but his legacy and his influence go much deeper. I’ve referenced Ebert a few times in other posts I’ve written on this blog (at least I’m pretty sure I have), and I know I’m far from being the only person who was influenced by him.

I feel like it’s somewhat self-aggrandizing of me to say that Ebert was an influence on me. I’m just some Podunk blogger who likes zombies, Batman, and Bruce Willis movies, yet here I am saying that the most influential and widely respected film critic to probably ever exist was an influence on me.

But it’s true, and I feel like Ebert was the sort of person who would have appreciated that.

In a truly extraordinary essay, Ebert wrote about how he did not fear death. I won’t summarize the essay, because you really should read it yourself. (here’s the link: http://www.salon.com/2011/09/15/roger_ebert/) There is one paragraph in particular that really stood out to me, and I hope I won’t get in trouble for copyright infringement or anything for reprinting it here:

“’Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

That’s just…amazing. That is the effect Ebert had on people. He contributed joy to the world. He helped make people happy. That is the effect he had on me, and so I’m pretty sure he would have been pleased with me citing him as an influence, as he would have with the many, many other people whose lives he touched. And that’s really what I’m trying to do with this blog, to make people happy, and maybe make them think a little bit, too. If I have succeeded with that with even one person, then I am happy.

But it wasn’t just his outlook that I liked about Ebert. It was his style. He wrote about movies in a way that made them accessible and appealing to all sorts of people. He embraced everybody’s opinions, and embraced all kinds of movies. His reviews were always written in a welcoming, conversational style, one that I like to think I have attempted to emulate here.

He made movies fun, while also acknowledging when they moved him on a personal level. He wasn’t afraid to talk about how a movie made him feel, which I think is really something of a lost art. He didn’t let popular opinion really faze him either, if he liked a movie no one else did or disliked a movie everyone else seemed to like he would stick to his guns and not back down from his opinions, while still being aware that not everyone would feel the same way he did.

And on top of all that, the man was simply a great writer. He always found a way to hook you with every review, which isn’t easy to do once, let alone thousands of times. His reviews were funny, thoughtful, intelligent, and often moving, sometimes all at once.

He didn’t even let the loss of his voice slow him down. If anything, it had the opposite effect, since he became very active with his blog and on Twitter and still cranked out those wonderful, oh-so-readable reviews. He punched cancer in the face for ten years without letting it get him down. His work ethic and his integrity were truly remarkable.

He was also a man who just loved movies. He devoted his life to the art of film, and in so doing he made it fun and accessible for generations of fellow film-lovers. I didn’t always agree with his reviews, but I always, always enjoyed reading them. He was a man of great integrity, strength, intelligence, and wit, and he is already sorely missed.