Maze Runner: Death Cure

As someone who hates bad acting and love stories, I generally hate young adult (YA) books, tv shows and films. The Maze Runner (2014) still piqued my interest despite the horde of teen girls in the YouTube comments and I eventually checked it out. The performances were a welcome surprise, with Dylan O’Brien being a pleasant surprise. Aside from O’Brien, Aml Ameen, Thomas Brodie- Sangster, Will Poulter and others also helped to carry the film’s concept and story.

The Maze Runner‘s ending revealed that a solar flare has devastated most of the world, and has also lead to a virus known as the flare virus. The maze was one of a series of experiments being used to test the bodies of people immune to the flare virus, in hopes of finding a cure.

The Scorch Trails continued with the character’s escape from the maze, introducing us to a desolate world filled with “cranks”, those infected by the flare virus. WCKD continues their pursuit of the group, after the group escapes from their facility in search of a resistance group called The Right Arm. The setting of the second film wasn’t as unique as the first, since we have seen post-apocalyptic worlds and zombies before. However, maybe I am a sucker for those elements. I didn’t hate The Scorch Trials as much as most people did. I still found it to be an enjoyable movie, although it was somewhat forgettable.

The Death Cure mainly follows the group’s attempts to find Minho and the rest of those taken captive by WCKD, hatching a plan to break into WCKD’s home base, nestled in the Last City. The performances continue to shine here, especially O’Brien and Sangster. I found Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) somewhat forgettable in The Maze Runner but feel like she had a much better role in this film. The action sequences were a highlight of the second and that continues here, although the scenes do have those small moments of nonsensical actions that tend to ruin suspension of disbelief. For example, there is a scene where soldiers are approaching the heroes and instead of shooting from afar (but still within range) they wait until they are less than fifty feet away before pulling their triggers. Once the soldiers start shooting it is clear they are not planning to take the heroes alive, but that goes back to the issue, why not shoot when they were a little further away and had clear shots?

The action and the writing only allows a few characters to truly shine, with Thomas, Teresa and Newt getting the brunt of that. Honourable mention also goes to a short but powerful performance from Walton Goggins (as always) and a character who returned from the first film. Others, such as Brenda and Jorge get their action scenes, but get much less character development. They exist mainly to provide firepower for the main group.

In terms of the villains, Aiden Gillen is competent as Janson but is not that memorable (same as the second film). Patricia Clarkson’s “Ava Paige” is more of a standout as WCKD’s leader, but her character also fails to be a standout. She is a villain facing the utilitarian struggle of sacrificing some for many, but we don’t get too much time to explore her moral conflict.

Like The Scorch Trials the cranks were surprisingly creepy in the Death Cure, and the film actually has two jump scares that are better than some of the attempted ones in horror movies. I will say that some of the scenes, action or otherwise, feature cliches that detracted from my enjoyment of the film e.g. we hear a gunshot and think a main character got shot, but someone else did OR we think everyone’s doomed, but a last minute rescue comes into play. At one point, it seemed like there was a loop of these cliches but thankfully they faded somewhat as the movie went on. The most effective villain in this film is simply the idea of WCKD, the entity that wants to imprison the heroes.

The Death Cure also adds a resistance group that resides just outside the walls of the Last City, eager for their chance to break through and seek revenge on the company that has kept them out. I thought this subplot was interesting but we don’t actually get to explore the community much, although they make their presence felt in the third act.

The performances and the action are the best parts of this film, and arguably the series. The characters birthed in the first film are the ones who remain the strongest throughout, giving us the film’s heart and most of our reason for caring about the fate of the heroes. I will commend the series for being one that makes you root for all of the heroes, even if they are not well developed. Unlike some of the terrible slasher flicks or terrible sci-fi films I have seen (looking at you AVP: Requiem) I never crossed the line of truly not caring about certain characters. In contrast, caring about the character is what makes you want to know them better. The characters aren’t stereotypes, or simplified archetypes e.g. the jock, the smart one. There is more to them but we don’t really get to see that. We root for Thomas, Newt etc. and then root for everyone else by extension.

Although the film had its faults I still loved seeing it on the big screen and would be happy to see it again. I believe The Death Cure was a strong end to the series. The film was long but I honestly didn’t feel like it dragged. Maybe I’m just a YA fanboy but that’s my honest opinion. Do yourself a favour if you’ve seen the other two and don’t let critics sway you too much. See the film if you want to, and let yourself be the judge.

Race Swap

I previously shared a blog post titled, The Only Cure for Racism, where I describe my dream of a world where we can transplant the mind of someone into a different host body. This has been done before in science-fiction, but I examined how this could be used specifically to demonstrate how people can receive different and harmful treatment based on their skin colour.

There is so much information out there to demonstrate that racism is alive and well, but denial, straw man arguments etc. allow many people to ignore this information. These willfully ignorant people include groups like the alt-right and more enlightened individuals whose worldview is still shaped by ignorance. This is the age where terms like “libtard” and “social justice warrior” are used to describe people who have some knowledge of the issues affecting minorities. Don’t get me wrong, some people do legitimately see discrimination where there is none. However, the “right wing buzzwords” paint a wide swath of people with the same brush and ultimately help to derail conversations that can help society truly move forward. No form of discrimination or injustice was ever overcome by avoiding its discussion. If that is the lesson people have learned from history, then that is just more proof of the power of denial.

With that in mind, I began to write a story about race-swapping. In this story, a disgruntled white man volunteers to have his thoughts and personality implanted into a black host for six months. If he goes through the six months without feeling like he received any harmful treatment due to his skin colour, then he will receive a cash prize of $200,000. I wanted my protagonist to be representative of many of the racists present today. I am still fleshing out the story, but I know he will be young and educated (looking at you Ben Shapiro).

This story is still in its infancy, but I wanted to share this first piece since sharing this also motivates me to continue working on it. I am still working on my fourth book, Alive: Part II, as well (deadline of September). I am not sure how long “Race Swap” will end up being. It could be a short story of a few thousand words, or perhaps a novel. Either way, I will keep chipping away at it. Enjoy.

****************************************************************************************************

The libtards challenged him, and now he was going to prove them wrong. Their latest machination was something born out of desperation, because they couldn’t find facts to support any of the garbage they spouted.

My parents were poor, and they struggled most of their lives. Just like I did. I never got a handout but the Democrats and social justice warriors have the audacity to tell me I have white privilege, as if every white person has it easy. The blacks complain about racism and yet they get affirmative action, instead of just working hard like the rest of us. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve lost a job I deserved because some black C student got a free ride. They complain about racist police, but maybe they’d have an easier time if they just obeyed the law.

I thought off how much easier my life could have been if I was one of them, and I endured my commute with anger flowing through me. I saw the black school kids with their white girlfriends, knowing that people would call me “racist” just because I think people should stick to their own. One thing after another showed me how unfair the world is, why people like me need people like Trump to look out for us. We created this civilization, and now it was leaving us behind.

By the time I reached my destination, I had to take a few deep breaths before ringing the intercom.

“Good morning, how can I help you?” A female voice said from the speaker.

“I’m here for a 10am race swap.”

 

Black Mirror: USS Callister-Bullied Becomes The Bully

Note: Happy New Year everyone.

The past week has been a dead zone with the holidays, but I am happy to return to this blog in 2018. As always, there are New Year’s Resolutions, but I intend to stick to these ones. I refuse to be like the horde of people who swarm the gym in January and February, before disappearing in March. Two of my biggest writing goals are to have something published in 2018, whether it’s an article or a poetry piece. The second is to complete my fourth book, Alive: Part II. I have already tried to get all of my previous works published but I realize now that it will likely be easier to get smaller pieces published, and use those to gain some traction for attempting to publish my novels.

Without further ado, I present some thoughts on Episode 4.1 of Black Mirror.

*******

I would be lying if I said that Black Mirror won me over instantly. While I was still enthralled by most of the first episode, the ending could have been a breaking point. I understood the purpose of the ending and the rationale but I could not help but be repulsed by it. Then again, that was the show’s intention. Black Mirror is this generation’s Twilight Zone and it would be a disservice to stop watching because it makes you squirm. At the most basic level, the show analyzes how technology affects the way we interact with each other. From my least favourite, The Waldo Moment (that stupid voice really got on my nerves) to Shut Up and Dance or White Christmas, technology is central to the stories.

Season 4 continues the trend with an episode that is dark but also lighter than many of the others. “USS Callister” is a story about wish fulfilment and escapism gone wrong, and those are the elements that I wanted to focus on in this piece. I wasn’t interested in doing a review, although I will say that the performances were great and that I loved the homage to Star Trek. The ending is meant to be happy but I can’t help but wonder if an infinity surrounded by online trolls is truly happiness.

I think anyone who has ever been bullied or ostracized could initially empathize with Daly. Of course, forcing the female members of Space Fleet to kiss him at the end of every game was undeniably creepy and I’m not going to defend that. What I could relate to more was a fantasy where you are a hero to your bullies. That is why I found it interesting that Daly is unquestionably a villain by the end.

In a sense, Daly’s escapism prevents him from asserting himself in real life. He hides behind technology to avoid confrontation. Many people do this, with the mentality that it is easier or more polite. Ghosting is just one of the many anti-social and spineless methods people now use in an attempt to avoid uncomfortable situations. However, uncomfortable situations are a part of life and it is impossible to mature without them. Instead of being more assertive in real-life, Daly goes to the other extreme in his modified version of Infinity. He goes from a pushover to a tyrant, when what he needed to become in the real-world was something in between.

His rejection by his peers guides him further away from them, and further into Infinity. As part of the vicious cycle, this only makes him more off-putting. The staring that causes Shania Lowry to avoid Daly, is implied to be part of his vetting process. He analyzes his potential subjects to see what objects he can steal in order to add them to his game. Of course, his staring is also a part of his fantasizing and the literal possessiveness that we see play out in Infinity. 

What I have always liked about Black Mirror and science-fiction as a whole is that it can use outlandish concepts to mask or examine relevant truths. “Hated in the Nation” attacks online mobs, “Men Against Fire” attacks prejudice and propaganda, “San Junipero” and “USS Callister” examine virtual realities.  Daly is no different than the online trolls who abuse others in order to feel a sense of power they likely don’t have in the real world, the supposed “Kings of Space”. As technology evolves, these trolls will evolve too. People will retreat further from the real, avoiding confrontation and the truth to hide deeper in their fantasies.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

Warning: This should be obvious but this review will have spoilers for previous Star Wars films

After seeing The Last Jedi yesterday, I am now ready to share my thoughts on one of my most anticipated films of 2017. While I believed The Force Awakens was a rehash of A New Hope, I still enjoyed the film and Rogue One also cemented my continuing interest in Star Wars lore.

I try to avoid reading or watching any reviews of a film before I see it, since I want to avoid going in with preconceptions. I also try to avoid social media as a whole since Han Solo’s death was spoiled for me by one of the attention-seeking denizens of YouTube. I wasn’t able to abstain completely prior to seeing The Last Jedi but I can only hope that I successfully subdue any preconceptions or at least acknowledge the impact they had on my viewing of this movie.

Episode VIII begins right where VII left off, cutting between the stories of Poe, Finn, Rey and Kylo Ren. I am happy to say that this film doesn’t come across as a complete rehash of Empire Strikes Back, although there are a few moments of similarity. The film’s strongest arc is definitely Kylo Ren’s, who is still dealing with the conflict of truly embracing the dark side. Rey and Ben shippers have a lot to moments to look forward to. Aside from the will they/won’t they moments, Episode VIII delves further into Ben’s past and his relationship with Luke Skywalker.

While the plot revolves around getting Luke to rejoin the Resistance, Luke is a reluctant mentor for Rey. He is a tragic figure whose past failures hinder his ability to move forward. There is plenty to love in the original Star Wars trilogy, but my enjoyment of them was always hampered by Mark Hamill’s subpar acting. Hamill has developed a lot as an actor since then, with a plethora of voice acting and live action roles separating his speaking roles as Luke in Return of the Jedi and The Last Jedi. Hamill is able to bring true vulnerability to the role, along with the wisdom expected from the last Jedi Master.

Aside from criticisms that may be reasonable, there is also a slate of alt-right vitriol since this movie has too many women and minorities for their liking. I always found it amusing that people who use the word “triggered” to insult others, are actually the most triggered. They will not be bothered by any of the issues present in “liberal propaganda” but it’s all hands on deck if a film set in another galaxy isn’t dominated by white males. I will ignore these people’s opinions, since they are no more valid than the thoughts of a flat-earther.

Andy Serkis puts in another great motion capture performance as Snoke, surrounded by a cast that delivers for the most part. Finn’s marketing bait and switch, from possible Jedi to bumbling comic relief, was one of my biggest criticisms for the previous film and I happy to see that remedied here. Finn has a meatier role this time around. Domhall Gleeson’s General Hux straddled the line between campy and intense in The Force Awakens, but he crosses that line here quite a few times. There are some weak performances from some minor characters; ones who only have a few lines. While this shouldn’t hamper a film too much it didn’t help that two such characters had the film’s first spoken lines, seemingly setting the tone for what was to come.

Rey’s character was met with a flurry of Mary Sue complaints and some fans will be happy to see some of their thoughts addressed here. One reviewer I follow said The Last Jedi is the Cabin in the Woods of Star Wars films, and I have to admit that this thought influenced my outlook on certain scenes. For example, in one scene Snoke criticizes Ben Solo for his lack of commitment to the dark side, noting that killing Han Solo must have broken his spirt since he lost a fight to a girl who had never wielded a lightsaber. With the Cabin in the Woods comparison in mind, I had to think that writer/director Rian Johnson was trying to address some of the previous film’s biggest criticisms. The film also takes this approach when it delves into Rey’s history, giving us a reveal that may be anti-climactic for some, but also helps to set it apart from other Star Wars films.

I think that some of these scenes help to account for the polarizing reception that The Last Jedi has among fans. While The Rotten Tomatoes critic score is 92%, the audience score is 54%. I am sure that this low rating is partly due to people bothered by too much colour and ovaries, but I won’t say that the alt-right is mostly to blame.

The Last Jedi is nearly three hours long, and its length was the main criticism from the friend I saw it with. While I didn’t feel like the film dragged, I will understand if people say it could have been shorter.  New characters are introduced, such as Rose Tico, Star War’s first Asian character and an easy target for the alt-right. She is paired with Finn for the majority of the film and I have to agree that this is a subplot that could have been condensed at the very least. This subplot leads to the infamous confrontation with Phasma that we saw in the first trailer, but one can’t help but wonder if we could have arrived at that moment differently. The subplot would not have been improved if Rose was white. I will say that like Rogue One, this subplot helps to bring in more moral ambiguity to the Star Wars characters. Instead of characters who are affiliated with light or dark, The Last Jedi shows us more who are simply looking out for themselves.

There are some moments of humour, or attempted humour, that do not work. However, I will say that the majority of jokes didn’t feel out of place. Aside from some flat jokes, there are also several scenes or moments that could have been cut to allow screen time to be used more efficiently. Yes, porgs are cute. After the film cut to them for the tenth time, I started to get annoyed. As a result of some unnecessary or dragged out scenes, we miss out on other moments that could have been expanded, such as the reunions of key characters. It would have been great to see more of Princess Leia, especially since this was Carrie Fisher’s last performance. Obviously she may have been written somewhat sparsely with more in mind for Episode IX, but a weak subplot just brings more attention to what else could have been presented. There are now more questions that will have to be answered by Episode IX. 

To end on a more positive note, The Last Jedi, has moments, whether dramatic or action-oriented, that I believe will become iconic parts of Star Wars lore. The action, at the very least, is sure to please fans, but I believe the film has more to offer as well. I honestly believe I may need to watch The Last Jedi again before I can give it a true rating. For the moment, I will say that I am looking forward to seeing it again.

Star Wars Film Rankings

Rogue One

A New Hope

The Empire Strikes Back

Return of the Jedi

The Last Jedi

The Force Awakens

Revenge of the Sith

“” Attack of the Clones

“” The Phantom Menace

Memory Slave

I have been working on my fourth book, Alive: Part II, on and off the for the past six months. The past few months have seen more progress and I am not about 40,000 words in. However, I have now reached a part in the story where I am trying to decide where I will take the story next. More brainstorming and a clearer idea of my goal for my characters will give me a better sense of the path I want them to take. With that in mind, I took a break from writing that book but I didn’t want to avoid writing altogether. Along with the grandma piece I posted last, I wanted to delve deeper into a concept that has been on my mind for the past few weeks.

****

Memory Slave

She couldn’t remember how she got here, but she wasn’t supposed to. Her name, her place of birth, her family, were all lost to her. Sometimes she came close to remembering, seeing slivers of her past life cut through the memories forced on her. Those slivers, whether good or bad, were hers and she cherished them for seconds at a time. There were other memories drowning her real ones, parasites controlling their host.

The parasites were injected by people whose faces remained hidden: Doctors experimenting on a lab rat. There were no windows, no night and day. The lights in her room always shut off at some point during the day, announcing her bedtime. Yet days still lost their meaning without dates or the seasons. She measured time with her memories, counting the moments between a new one being added.

She knew the memories weren’t really hers, but they were the only complete ones she had. She was still attached to hundreds, feeling all of the pain that was forced on her. Her mind was a bounty of misery and insecurities. Some people wanted to be rid of the memories that crippled their lives in some way: the unrequited love, the betrayal by a friend. Others were hiding from something truly traumatic, trying to erase violence they did to others or violence inflicted on them.

These memories were a gateway to pain, but they were also a gateway into the mind of the hosts. She knew their friends, their neighbourhoods and sometimes she even saw their faces. She knew their class, their race, their sexual orientation. These central parts of their identity were an anchor for most of the memories in her mind. Most of the memories were tied to something private that became public.

There was another class of memories, usually reserved for the wealthier hosts. They had the luxury of purging the most trivial things from their mind. One rude encounter was reason enough to remove a memory. Funny enough, they were usually the bully in these encounters.

She couldn’t remember truly meeting anyone. The masked doctors were her only gateway to the outside world. She tried to speak to them, but they never responded. She started with threats, hundreds of memories ago. Her will became weaker with each memory and soon enough she longed to simply hear one of them greet her, or answer if she asked them how they were doing.

She now had to accept that she was only a tool. No different than a hammer that a worker used and unceremoniously disregarded. There was a time when she thought she must have done something to deserve such a fate. Perhaps this was some sort of prison sentence? Time erased that thought from her mind. What was the point of punishment if you didn’t know what it was for? Was there some sort of lottery to pick the lucky winners? Was she just one of many selected from a certain area?

The white walls seemed to mock her. Promising answers beyond, but unwilling to yield. Some unseen force pinned her to the floor before the doctors came in. A distinctive hum always accompanied the increased gravity, as if some giant machine came to life beneath her. The doctors arrived, ignored her words and injected the latest memory. When they left they made sure to open the door just wide enough to squeeze through, preventing her from seeing anything beyond. When the door opened, no other sounds crept through. Wherever she was, it was soundproof and isolated.

There was another world out there, where she could find friends, family and happiness. She wanted to see that world again, to see herself. Her room had a small shower and sink, but no mirror and no reflective surfaces of any kind. She knew her skin was dark brown and that her hair was black, a contrast to everything around her. Her nose was broad, her lips full, and her knowledge of herself died there.

The remnants of her past life didn’t reveal anything more. She saw an older woman’s face, with dark skin like her own, perhaps her mother. She saw a small red bricked house, surrounded by cracked sidewalk and weeds. Perhaps her home. There was no way to truly tell that these memories were hers, she only assumed they were because they weren’t tied to something negative.

She heard the humming this time before she was pinned. Her pacing came to a halt as her feet stayed rooted to the ground. The pressure on her knees forced her to kneel, planting her hands on the ground as well. Her cot was to her right, looking like it was on the verge of imploding. The springs were squealing in protest, almost constricting one another by the time the doctors entered.

The gravity didn’t affect them, allowing them to move swiftly to either side of her. White pants, white shirts, white surgical masks. Their clothes almost seemed to glow under the light. She had to keep her head facing the floor, trying to turn it was too painful. The syringe came from the doctor to her left, piercing a spot just above her right ear. The memory wouldn’t come to her immediately, it would take some time. She guessed it usually took a few hours, but there was no way for her to be sure.

The doctor’s footsteps were almost drowned out by the hum as they left the room. Her face was nearly pinned to the floor by the time the gravity subsided, causing her to nearly jump off the ground with the force of her exertion. There were usually at least three light outs before another memory was injected, and she knew that she guessed that she carried hundreds now, some fresh and others lurking beneath the surface. It seemed like almost a year may have passed, but she never got used to the enhanced gravity. It was as if they increased its strength a little more with each visit.

Stranger Things Season 2 Review

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Following up on my YouTube review, it’s time to share a more in depth review of Stranger Things‘s second season.

Season 2 picks up almost a year after the first. The lab and the upside down are still active. The gang (almost called them the Losers Club) are moving on in the absence of Eleven, although Mike is still struggling with the concept. Will is still haunted by visions of the Upside Down and it soon becomes clear that his visions aren’t all in his head. Meanwhile, Eleven has returned but is confined to one of Hopper’s cabins, for her own safety.

As with season one, the performances are one of the show’s most consistent and powerful redeeming qualities. Winona Ryder and our new Hellboy, David Harbour, return stronger than ever but the kids (or teenagers) continue to shine here. Millie Bobby Brown deservedly gets a lot of attention for her role as Eleven in season 1. Although her lines were limited she was still able to convey great emotion.

In season 2, Hopper has been teaching Eleven more english so the character gets to be more verbally expressive. We still have the facial expressions and other cues from season 1 combined with a character arc that sees Eleven acting on her desire to be free. She has gone from a system with no freedom (the lab), to more freedom with friends, and now she must try to adjust to Hopper as a parental figure who is trying to protect her from men who still want to find her. The relationship between Hopper and Eleven is actually one of my favourite parts of this season and their fight in episode four is one of my favourite moments. It is a conflict where you can empathize with both characters. Eleven understands why she must be kept hidden but after almost a year she is wondering when she will finally be free, and vague declarations of “soon” start to wear thin. Meanwhile, Hopper realizes the danger she places them in by leaving the cabin. His attempts to discipline her are met with pushback that makes you realize how dangerous Eleven could be without a conscience.

 

Despite my love for Eleven, Noah Schapp steals the show here as Will. Although the first season revolved around Will’s disappearance, Will had few lines and relatively little screen time. Here, Will is truly part of the group. For lack of a better term, Will is possessed and his conflict with the monster inside him is a lynchpin of the plot but also allows him to shine. I don’t think people are exaggerating when they say he deserves an Emmy nomination.

Let’s move on to some of the show’s weaker points.

Episode seven, which focuses on Eight and her gang, gets a lot of hate and I can understand why. The episode comes after a cliffhanger in the previous episode, serving as a full 40 minute cutaway that takes us away from Hawkins and the approaching demo-dogs. Due to its timing, the episode can almost come across as filler. Filler is exactly what made me stop watching The Walking Dead. 

I don’t consider episode seven filler, but I must say that it would likely have been better received if Eight was mentioned or referenced a few more times before episodes six and seven. We see Eight in episode one and then she is pretty much MIA until episode seven. I liked the episode itself since it offered a great view of what Eleven could have become. Eight never found the same type of friends and family Eleven did. Eight found other outcasts who stay on the fringes of society, sticking to a limited circle either out of choice or necessity. Eight is guided purely by vengeance, while Eleven’s search was about finding family and getting closure.

Aside from the lesson of the episode I found the episode itself entertaining. I will say that Eight’s gang wasn’t as interesting as Eleven’s. Of course I could be biased since we don’t get as much time with them, but even for an episode the characterization seemed paper thin e.g. the big one, the crazy one etc.

I remember watching season 1’s sensory deprivation scene and thinking that Barb’s death was somewhat glossed over, “gone”. It was great to see the impact her death continues to have on Nancy and Barb’s parents. Barb’s death also provides the plot lynchpin for the group to attack the lab publicly, without having to mention the upside down or anything else that might make them look insane.

For the people who hated that Nancy and Steve stayed together at the end of season one, your prayers were answered this season. I was actually happy that Nancy and Steve were still together at the start of this season. It would have been far too cliched for Nancy to switch that quickly from the jock to the quiet, nerdy guy the jock picked on. Steve was a tool at times in season 1 but he proved himself to be a good person by the end of it. Season 2 gives Steve more heartbreak but also lets his character develop more. Like Will, he is one of the biggest benefactors of this season.

An even weaker point of this season?

Now, the Duffer Bros. said they wanted to introduce a new human villain who wasn’t connected to the lab. Okay, but I think this kind of conflict works best if it also drives the plot forward. For example, perhaps Eleven could have come across someone who begins to threaten her anonymity. Max and Billy’s actors are competent enough, but their impact on the plot is miniscule. The love triangle that started early on in the season between Max, Dustin and Lucas fizzled out pretty early. Billy’s conflict with Steve culminates in the fight at the house, and the ultimate outcome of that fight is that Steve is forced to escort the kids into the tunnels. Steve could have been forced into this some other way. Originally I thought that Max and Billy may be Soviet spies, since Cold War conflict was hinted at throughout the season. If season 3 offers no further revelations about their characters then it seems like their characters were truly random editions.

Their screen time also detracts from more screen time for other characters. Lucas was defined by his relationship with Max this season and it would have been nice to see more of the group together helping Will.

The climax wasn’t boring but I would actually argue that it wasn’t the season’s most exciting point. No main characters died throughout the show’s run so it was clear that Sean Astin’s Bob would likely be a red shirt. Sorry superhero.

Thankfully, Barb’s death was enough to get the lab shut down.

Although Joyce Byers has her boys back, looks like she still needs some luck with men.

Watching Hopper mow down demo-dogs was pretty awesome and Eleven’s brief moment of “flying” made me wonder if she’ll go full Neo in season 3.

We’ll see I guess.

While Max and Billy are proof that more is not always better, season 2 delivers for the most part. It builds on threads from the previous season, develops characters more, answers more questions, raises more questions, and offers more thrills.

Black Mirror: Men Against Fire

Note: I was out of the country for the past week, with limited wi-fi. I am back in Canada now but my schedule will still be busier than normal, likely until the end of August. With that said, I will still do my best to post three times a week.

Also, this piece has spoilers for “Men Against Fire”.

When I started watching “Men Against Fire” I thought it would end up on the bottom half of Black Mirror. The acting was some of the weakest the show’s given us in a while and I initially didn’t find the characters or the world as enthralling as the ones in preceding episodes. Initially, the story was about marines with hi-tech equipment killing zombies. Don’t get me wrong, I love sci-fi and zombie stories but the plot was a sharp contrast to the previous episodes. However, I figured that if I can watch an episode about a man being blackmailed to have sex with a pig, I can give this episode a chance.

The end of some episodes were disappointing, such as “Playtest”, which was dulled by numerous fake-outs throughout the episode. Other preceding episodes also have great ending, especially “White Christmas” and “Shut Up and Dance”. However, those endings were paired with episodes that I found enthralling and entertaining from start to finish. The endings were brilliant, but they only helped to immortalize amazing episodes. “Men Against Fire” might rank as my favourite ending (last 20 minutes) simply due to its ability to elevate what came before it.

“Roaches”, the pale, humanoid monsters that the soldiers eliminate turn out to be humans. Their MASS implants limit their sense of smell and hearing, drowning out the smells and sounds of war. Michael Kelly is a stand out on House of Cards as Doug Stamper, and is also a stand out here as Arquette, the psychologist who shares the twisted truth with “Stripe”. As always with Black Mirror the technology itself isn’t the most interesting part of the story; the most interesting part is the human behaviour it highlights.

Arquette uses the statistic that only 15-20% of men fired their rifles at the enemy in World War II, even when under the threat of immediate danger. Although this statistic is hotly debated, a comment on this page did add that most deaths in the world wars came from artillery fire: long-range, impersonal attacks that avoided the Rambo-esque hacking and shooting of close quarters combat.  Scholarly books such as Denis Winter’s Death Men also assert that most military deaths came from artillery fire, especially during advances.

“Men Against Fire” gets more interesting after a roach shines a laser into Stripe’s eyes. It was obvious that the laser must have some impact on the plot, when Stripe’s senses were affected after being exposed to it. When Hunter and Stripe raid an apartment building there is also a blueprint of the laser in the roach nest. Some online discussion shows that plenty of people say they saw the twist coming, and then also argue that the episode is poor because of that. I have to say that a predictable twist doesn’t have to bring down an episode if it is executed well. I thought I saw a twist coming, but I actually misinterpreted what it was.

Although the roaches appearance is terrifying, you realize that they didn’t initiate an attack in the first raid. Their first instinct is to run, and the sniper who kills squad leader Medina is an exception, probably because the soldiers are closing in on their refuge. The roaches weren’t depicted as the mindless predators we’re familiar with from zombie films. They seemed like mutants trying to live peacefully. The characters frequently mention a global war that passed, and I thought the roaches were the offspring of radiation from that war. For that reason, I thought the laser was a device that was meant to make them only appear normal to others, before they were mutated.  I had an inverse understanding of the twist until it was revealed. The roaches weren’t trying to make Stripe see them as they used to be, they wanted Stripe to see him as they are.

“You see me.”: The words of a refugee on the run from a genocidal society, relieved someone finally sees her as human. The military might be the ones killing the roaches, but the general public are brainwashed to see the roaches as literal monsters. Civilians don’t have MASS implants, the roaches are just other humans to them. However, they are humans that threaten the strength and purity of humanity’s bloodline. Arquette lists a range of defects present in the roaches, from higher susceptibility to diseases, to sexual deviancy and criminal tendencies. Arquette’s speech has all the cornerstones of eugenics and racism, and Trump’s comments on hispanics sadly mirror some of the ideas that criminality is ingrained in certain people.

In the aftermath of the war, one side went through great trouble to dehumanize the other. Cockroaches or “roaches” is what the Hutus called the Tutsis leading up to the Rwandan genocide, and even more recently used by a British politician to refer to refugees. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the same term is used here. Dehumanization is a key part of genocide, birthed from propaganda that makes it easier for law-abiding civilians to engage in or support violence against the other. Civilians won’t even touch the food the roaches touched simply because they don’t want to get contaminated by a lesser breed.

“Men Against Fire” transitions from a war movie, to a piece that delves into the dark corner of the human psyche where prejudice reins supreme. As Stripe stands alone outside a dilapidated, graffiti-stained house, he sees a beautiful woman waiting to welcome him to their home. I couldn’t help but wonder, how many other soldiers in this army had their memories wiped after they found out the truth.

Black Mirror: White Christmas

Picking a favourite episode of Black Mirror is a challenge. “The Waldo Moment” and “The National Anthem” aren’t contenders but there are plenty others, ranging from “Shut Up and Dance”, “Be Right Back”, to “The Entire History of You”. Among this list is “White Christmas”, which after careful consideration, I will have to say edges out the competition.

Like my post on “The Entire History of You“, I don’t want to focus on the plot itself. Black Mirror‘s central thesis is that technology can have corrosive effects on how humans interact with one another and I want to focus on how that is displayed here.

Matt Trent (Jon Hamm) is undoubtedly a highlight of the episode, a character who is both charming and repulsive at the same time. The more vile aspects of his character emerge as his story unfolds. His past-life as a wannabe dating guru seems somewhat harmless at first. As a lanky film geek, I’d probably be an easy target for his services. However, it only takes a few seconds to realize that his real-time coaching is a grave invasion of privacy. Aside from the simple act of watching, Trent’s technology (referred to as the Z-Eye) also provides him with face recognition software he can use to research anyone his clients come in contact with, allowing him to feed any pertinent information to a party crasher. It gets only worse when we realize all of the members of his class share in their peers’ experiences, including any luck they get with unsuspecting women. The date that lands Trent in legal trouble also reminds me of the few I’ve had: promising starts with catastrophic endings.

It was great to see Oona Chaplin in another role, after seeing her for the first time in Taboo. She was undoubtedly a weak link on Taboo but does a better job here, portraying Greta, a wealthy woman about to undergo surgery. Prior to her surgery, a digital copy or “cookie” of Greta is created.

This cookie is intended to control Greta’s smart house, serving the rest of its “life” performing functions such as regulating heat and displaying Greta’s schedule. As expected the cookie is reluctant to spend its life this way, but Matt’s job is to make it compliant. By manipulating the time settings in the cookie’s digital world, he is able to make the cookie “live” for months at a time, stuck in a white room with nothing but a control panel. The room itself is only a projection within the cookie, but it is Greta’s prison now.

One of the characters, “Joe” remarks that this is slavery, but Trent believes it isn’t since the cookie isn’t a real being. I have to agree with Joe on this. Any sci-fi story that deals with the issue of consciousness, with Ex-Machina being a recent example, raises the question of what makes a being conscious and the morality of keeping a conscious being captive.

Is Greta’s cookie a conscious being? Matt doesn’t think so, because she’s just a string of code. However, if we analyze consciousness the way it is analyzed in Ex-Machina, then we understand that the components of a being don’t define its eligibility for consciousness. In Ex-Machina, Caleb argues that one of the central tests for consciousness is the “chess” question. A chess computer knows the game of chess and can make good plays, but can it describe what chess is? Does it even know what chess is? Simulation vs consciousness.

This cookie, from what we understand, is mentally no different than the person it was spawned from. We see it panicking as it is extracted from Greta and Matt has to explain the nature of its creation and its assigned purpose. Essentially, a copy of Greta’s mind was grafted and planted into a different environment. Until Matt explained what she was, she thought she was a conscious human being. She may be just code, but consciousness isn’t about matter, it’s about thought.

Although the cookie is the most advanced technology we see in the episode, it is actually not what interests me most. We are probably all familiar with ghosting, the act of ending a relationship with someone by cutting off all communication without explanation. Ghosting is usually discussed in the context of romantic relationships, but can apply to anyone. Someone decides to end the relationship, but decides that they want to avoid the difficult decision, call or text required for that. Instead, they simply cut off the other person. Ghosting preceded technology such as phones and computers, and some may see it is just a new name for something old. However, I believe technology makes it easier to become disconnected from other people. We don’t have to move or  shred letters, we can unfollow, delete or block with a click. Ghosting is convenient for people who have become accustomed to hiding behind screens when they interact. It is spineless and immature, and technology only makes it easier.

When “Joe” confronts his wife about her pregnancy, she is quick to block him. She doesn’t do this on her phone or some app, she blocks his entire body using the technology her world has to offer. She sees nothing but a grey silhouette where he stands and can only hear muffled static when he speaks. When Matt’s wife is confronted with the truth of his actions, she elects to do the same thing. The people who would have previously gone for a walk or tried to avoid their spouse, instead of contronting an issue, can now feel free to block someone’s entire body. The current level of cowardice that we see doesn’t prove effective if you’re likely to see someone again at work, school etc. With the capability to block someone as we see in “White Christmas”, the ghosted may be able to see you but they can’t interact with you. When Joe confronts his wife, after she blocks him, she only walks away and then proceeds to file a restraining order. Blocking becomes legally binding and the argument that you simply wanted to be able to confront someone directly doesn’t protect you. The authorities take the side of someone who decided to block her husband because he insisted on discussing their baby with her.

I have no doubt that authorities would defend this behaviour. Ghosting is already on the rise. Find any article online that discusses it, and allows comments. You will find plenty of people criticizing the practice, but you will also find many supporting it for one reason or another. All of the positive reasons boil down to “It’s easier for me (or both of us)”. Article after article will tell you that people who get ghosted may be able to deal with a relationship ending, but hate the way that their partner decided to do it. Blocking takes ghosting to an almost sadistic level.

Speaking of sadism, “White Christmas” gives us another twisted ending. Once Joe confesses that he murdered his ex-wife’s father, the authorities decide to tamper with the time settings. Each minute becomes 1000 years to Joe’s cookie, leaving him trapped in a projection of the cabin where he committed murder. We’re already living in a society where policemen have killed civilians for a thrill, I can definitely believe law enforcement officials would take a little glee in messing with someone they view as a lowly criminal. Even better, I can believe they would punish a sex offender with not being able to interact with anyone for the rest of his life.

Geostorm Trailer- The Sombre Song Trend?

I saw the trailer for Geostorm in front of Wonder Woman last week and although the film seemed generic, with the apocalyptic scenario and the subpar CGI, the cover of “What A Wonderful World” stuck with me. The new rendition added a great deal of irony and the song itself was hauntingly beautiful. In true nerd fashion I went online to see if anyone else shared my opinion, and came across this article. This well written (no sarcasm) rants details the “trend” of trailers using sombre covers of famous and well-regarded songs, which apparently started with The Social Network using a cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’.

This first article mainly lists examples, mainly from movies that I haven’t seen, such as The Great Gatsby and  Fifty Shades of Grey (which I will only see if someone gives me The Clockwork Orange treatment).

I have to point out that this list still only includes a small minority of the trailers released over the past few years, trying to make it seem like every other film trailer follows the trend nowadays. There are enough examples for us to say a trend is at work, but why are we acting like these examples warrant a call for a moratorium?

I digress. This blog post comes as a reaction to a linked article. This article also breaks down the history of the trend and uses Suicide Squad as a case study, comparing the teaser that used a cover of Bee Gee’s “I Started a Joke” to the second trailer that used Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. The reason I feel the need to discuss this: The thesis of the article is that the second trailer is better because it is more “fun”. I have previously discussed my disdain for the belief that fun always equals good, while serious or “dark” equals bad. However, I have mostly discussed this in relation to comic book films, with my article on Kingsman being an exception.

There has been a drastic shift in the reception of dark comic book films since The Dark Knight era. That is not to say that there isn’t a single dark comic book film that gets good reception these days e.g. Logan, but as a whole people value their “fun” now more than ever. People love the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) for its insistent levity and humour, and despise the DCEU (partly) due to its “dark” tone. Note that a lot of the positive reviews for Wonder Woman attribute its rating to its “hope” and “fun”.  I am not a miserable person, I don’t mind levity and “fun”. I just don’t mind darkness or anything that is serious either. It seems like people desire simple escapism now more than ever, where everything should be “fun”, regardless of the subject matter.

I must agree with the author on one of his points. In some cases, especially Avengers: Age of Ultron, the song choice adds gravitas that the film does not deserve. The Age of Ultron teaser built Ultron up as a frightening threat, who was ultimately neutered and played for laughs. However, I have to say that this issue of misdirection is not isolated specifically to sombre covers of well-known songs. Any dramatic score or serious song can have the same effect on a movie’s marketing. Many people hated the Matrix sequels and the music used for that marketing would likely be deemed just as “self-serious” to this author. It honestly seems like the covers of the well-known songs aren’t the author’s real issue. He just hates the serious or “grim” tone that it bestows on the trailers.

In this case the author calls the Geostorm trailer and its accompanying music, “self-serious”  and “grim”. As I’ve noted before, the focus on tone ends up overriding any other issues of artistic merit, since “fun” becomes synonymous with good and serious of “dark” becomes synonymous with bad. Let’s look at the author’s comments on Suicide Squad as an example. He argues that the second trailer, with Bohemian Rhapsody is more fun and markets the film better. Obviously the second trailer will market the film better. The second trailer isn’t a teaser, therefore it is meant to show us more of the characters backgrounds and their interactions. Yet as expected, this author thinks the trailer is better ONLY because it’s tone is improved.

Many people, who do not know comic book characters as well as they think they do, insist that these films should all remain colourful and fun, no matter the storyline or characters being portrayed. Although I disagree, I can understand how a simplistic notion of a certain character or fictional world can lead people to think that one size fits all in terms of tone. However, Geostorm is not an adapation, yet alone an adaptation of “lighter” source material. Why does it have an obligation to be “fun”? It is a film about a global catastrophe, a dark tone suits it. Of course, some apocalyptic films can also have a lighter tone e.g. Independence Day, but that doesn’t mean that they all have to follow Independence Day’s example.

Pictured above: A perfect opportunity to use some “fun” music

Why can’t any film be allowed to look serious for a few minutes at a time without people labelling it pretentious or depressing? Even if a film is depressing, it doesn’t mean it is bad. Unless the film is explicitly meant to be a comedy, a film’s rating should not suffer because it didn’t make you laugh or smile enough. Since when did we become so sensitive that we need films to cushion us from the ugly realities of life? Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. People argue that is why films should offer us fun, but I argue that is the best reason that they should offer us whatever the director or editor feels. Films often reflect reality, why have we forgotten that? There is nothing wrong with films having different tones. We can choose to watch different films based on our moods. There is variety. I would hate to scroll through Netflix or Kodi and come across a library of films that are all the same tone. Likewise, I would hate to go to the theater and have one preview after another with the same tone, whether it is dark or light.

Alien: Covenant Review

2012’s Prometheus attempted to tell the story of the origin of the xenomorph that Alien fans have come to know and love. The film was met with mixed reviews to say the least, but I am among the people that didn’t love it, but also didn’t hate it with the same passion that is all too common online.

The film’s performances were its best asset. The visual effects were amazing, and there were some memorable creepy scenes. Prometheus asked a lot of interesting questions, but since it was setting itself up for a sequel, many of those questions remained unanswered.

The sequel has now arrived, taking place 10 years after the events of Prometheus. Colony ship Covenant is bound for Origae-6, with 15 crew members, 2000 colonists  and 1000 embryos in tow. After receiving a signal from a nearby planet, which scans show to be hospitable to human life, the crew decides to investigate the planet as a potential site for colonization. Of course, mayhem ensues as some crew members become infected and give birth to xenomorphs, or early prototypes of the xenomorph.

One Prometheus criticism that was rife on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) message boards (RIP), is that the scientists all made a lot of stupid decisions. I didn’t jump on that bandwagon as vehemently as some people did, but I could not deny that Covenant is definitely worthy of such criticism. In Prometheus, the scientists remove their helmets on an alien ship after realizing they can breathe the air. People thought that this was perhaps stupid since there could be other dangers. If you’ve seen the trailer for Covenant you already know one crew member gets infected when spores travel into his ear canal. Even before this scene comes along, I couldn’t help but wonder why there would be no precautions to wear helmets on a foreign planet at least until a variety of tests are conducted.

Maybe I could have excused the lack of helmets since the scientists already know the atmosphere is liveable. What I could not excuse was a scene where a scientist sniffs alien mushrooms and then touches them. He has gloves on, but doesn’t feel the need to back away when the mushrooms visibly release spores. He inhales them, and still doesn’t think to back away. In another scene, an alien bursts forth from a crew member, in full view of multiple armed crew members. While the alien takes some time to get its bearings, no one thinks to shoot it until it starts attacking. This kind of writing isn’t a “plot hole” as people love to say. It appears that “plot hole”, like “irony”, is a word that is often used incorrectly nowadays. Maybe there isn’t a specific term for what we see in Covenant, you could just call it sloppy writing that ruins enjoyment of the movie since a part of you feels like some of the characters bring it on themselves. At times, watching Covenant was like watching a slasher flick where the copulating co-eds decide to go investigate a strange noise. These moments are less prominent in the second half of the film, but they remain fresh in my mind.

I will also add that Covenant doesn’t answer all of the questions it asked in Prometheus, which was disappointing since it leaves some of the most interesting points of Prometheus moot for the moment. Perhaps another sequel will try to shed more light but suspense fizzles if it isn’t used just right. Additionally, Covenant also adds more backstory to the alien lore, which the more die-hard fans will either love or hate. I can cope with the new info, but it also adds more questions that remain unanswered.

On a more positive note, the performances give me something I am happy to remember.  Fassbender’s performance in Prometheus helped to cement him as one of my favourite actors, after his performance in X:Men First Class. Fassbender has since followed up Prometheus with 12 Years A Slave and Shame, further showcasing his versatility and talent. Here, Fassbender plays a marooned David, as well as Walter, a newer generation synthetic assigned to the Covenant. Walter is played with a southern accent, which slips at times and hampers the performance somewhat, although not nearly enough to ruin it. Fassbender is truly memorizing when playing David, and is undoubtedly the highlight of the film. Fassbender is also supported ably by Katherine Waterston, who plays second in command Daniels Branson. Billy Crudup plays his role well as the newly appointed Covenant captain, Christopher Oram, but his character’s story arc is also a victim of the aforementioned sloppy writing. Aside from Branson and Oram, many of the crewmembers have little to no development or real charisma on screen. Danny McBride is decent in a more serious role, but is still pretty forgettable.The other crew members have few lines and the actors don’t manage to do much with their lines either. While the main cast are strong, the supporting crew offer some stifled dialogue that makes you lose interest when the action cuts to them.

I have never been one to criticize CGI as a whole. However, I do criticize CGI if poorly rendered CGI is used in place of models, animatronics, motion capture etc. Alien (1979) had more convincing looking creatures. Even more recent films that used CGI aliens, such as Alien vs Predator (terrible film, I know) had more realistic looking creatures than the ones we see here. Other effects, such as some of the sequences involving the ship also look surprisingly cartoonish. Fortunately, the action sequences are actually entertaining, with Fassbender offering another highlight in this arena. Covenant may not be a real horror film for Alien fans, but the franchise has always had its fair share of violence and disturbing imagery. There are few jump scares throughout Covenant, and we do get some genuinely creepy ones that linger once the film is done. Yet again, I feel like these moments could have been improved if the characters were getting attacked by something that looked like it was made of flesh and blood.

Overall, Covenant was an entertaining film that surpassed its predecessor. Fassbender alone is worth the price of admission and although I wouldn’t say the film is a return to form for the Alien franchise, it is close to being there.