Friday, December 30, 2016

In defense of PASSENGERS

Every now and then I see a film get a reaction that makes me wonder if I saw the same movie as the rest of the audience. When OBLIVION came out, it was so aggressively panned that I waited until DVD to view it, upon which I discovered a very entertaining, well-made sci-fi film. Slightly more recently, I felt that the aggressive hate for TOMORROWLAND felt quite out of proportion to the mildly disappointing but still interesting film.

And then there's PASSENGERS. Last weekend, it felt like you couldn't swing a dead cat on the internet without hitting someone ready to tell you that the premise was creepy, or that the film was sexist, or that the ethics of the film were appalling.

In a nutshell, here's the premise of the script by Jon Spaihts: Jim is one of 5000 passengers in cryo-sleep for a 120-year voyage to a new colony planet. Due to a completely unprecedented malfunction, his chamber wakes him after 30 years, making him the only person set to be awake for 90 years. He can't go back to sleep and though the ship is programmed to tend to his needs, his only companion is a robot bartender. In other words, he's facing the prospect of never having human contact for the rest of his life.

This is tantamount to solitary confinement, a practice that many psychologists consider inhumane. This article from Gizmodo calls it "the worst kind of psychological torture" and in fact, "solitary confinement beyond 15 days leads directly to severe and irreversible psychological harm. But for some, it can manifest in even less time." We need to take this into consideration and then note that Jim spends an entire YEAR alone on the ship before he comes very close to attempting suicide.

Human beings are social creatures and without that interaction, Jim is trapped in hell. However, he's tech-savvy enough that he knows how to wake up someone else. Company would go a long way to relieving his pain, but there are other ethical concerns. Jim discusses this with his bartender, likening it to being trapped forever on an island, but having the power to transport one person there, knowing that you were ruining their life.

This one interaction alone shows that the film is aware of the ethics behind Jim's predicament. By questioning it in such a way, I don't understand how anyone could come away from the film thinking the movie sees what Jim does as pure. It's largely about the question of if you could make your personal Hell more bearable by condemning someone else to join you. He ultimately awakens the beautiful Aurora, leading her to believe another malfunction is to blame for her state.

Where many of the critics seem to miss the mark is where they equate Jim's actions with a violation of sexual consent. I think it's offensive to actual rape victims to equate anything in this film with sexual assault. To me, what Jim does is not about sex so much as it's about human contact. He needs a companion ship that isn't necessarily sexual. Sure, the water is muddied because the two DO fall for each other and there's no lack of sex appeal on the part of Aurora's portrayer, Jennifer Lawrence.

If Jim had woken up a man, someone who he felt would be his Number One Bro, would we still be having this debate? PASSENGERS seems most interested in the morality behind alleviating your pain by sharing it with someone else. I don't even know if I'd necessarily argue that the film comes down on the side of it being right, but it DOES depict how a desperate person might come to believe this is the only course of action available to them.

Seriously, could YOU face the prospect of 90 years alone on a ship? How far would you have to be pushed before you convinced yourself you HAD to have human contact? And once you arranged that, would you really be forthright with the fact that you caused the malfunction? Jim certainly makes selfish choices, but they're selfish choices in the midst of an incredibly painful experience. I also don't believe you have to choose between being sympathetic to Jim and sympathetic to Aurora.

Aurora rightly is furious when she learns Jim engineered her awakening. "You MURDERED me!" she screams, more than once. The blossoming romance is immediately dead, and she begins a period of shutting him out. At this point, I thought the film might explore her isolation as a way of depicting what her loneliness might drive her to. This path could lead her to understanding Jim's horrible decision, even as it isn't necessary for her to condone it.

Instead, the third act brings Jim and Aurora together to resolve the increasing malfunctions of ship's systems. It turns out that an asteroid impact is to blame for the damage that shut down Jim's pod and that the other damage it caused has built up into a reactor malfunction that will destroy the ship. To save everyone, Jim has to go outside the ship and open a door manually so Aurora can vent the reactor while he's stuck in the path of the radiation. It means certain death, and indeed, he takes the direct blast with only a small shield to deflect it. Though Jim told her not to come for him, Aurora dons a spacesuit of her own and risks her life to bring him back, where he is resuscitated.

There's some criticism that the third-act crisis is a convenient way to let Jim off the hook. If he hadn't woken her, then there would have been no one else to help him save the ship and the entire crew. Aurora is presented with a situation where she can say, "If he hadn't woken me, I'd be dead."

This would be a more fair criticism if the film embraced it. I believe it does not. A couple points to recall:

- As the crisis reaches its peak, Aurora suggests waking some of the crew. There's no hesitation on her part, even though this means they would share her fate on the 90-year voyage. In the context of this moment, doing so would directly save 5000 people as well as herself, so yes, there is a "needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few" scenario. But she's not without self-interest here either. Remember too, that Jim would have died had he not acted to preserve his own sanity.

- Aurora goes against Jim's wishes when she risks herself to save him. Jim is content to die saving everyone else. Is her motivation romantic? I don't think it necessarily has to be, and the film allows for the interpretation that it's not. Aurora surely knows all the details of Jim's horrible year alone and what being that alone did to him. If Jim dies, this is the fate she's facing - the total abyss of loneliness for the rest of her life. Is risking herself for him a purely selfless act? Or is it one she willingly takes because it would be better to die quickly than in the lingering slow torture Jim endured?

Taking those together, I don't think we can discount that Aurora comes to understand what pushed Jim to awaken her. She's stared that same fate in the eye and it gives her what she needs to accept his choice. The ending is not about letting Jim off the hook so much as it's about pushing Aurora to her limits. In the end, she needs companionship just as much as Jim did. This is why I feel that even if there had not been an immediate crisis, Aurora would have eventually thawed things with Jim. Whether that came as a result of madness, Stockholm Syndrome or genuine empathy is a matter of debate.

Moreover, this is easier to see if you're not determined to equate Jim with being a "stalker." He's not a calculating and manipulative predator. The film more accurately diagnoses him as a drowning man grabbing for any life preserver. You can decry his actions, but the point of the film is to make you ask, "What if you were the one who was drowning?"

It disturbs me that we see art being attacked for merely exploring complex scenarios like this. Back when Indecent Proposal was made, did people think that just by making the film, the creators were advocating that a married woman sleep with a billionaire for one million dollars? If we discourage art that asks uncomfortable questions or explores moral grey areas, what will be left with? You can be uncomfortable with Jim does and still acknowledge that the film doesn't endorse it by building drama around it.

Passengers is the story of a man pushed to his moral limits. The more I examine it, the more I suspect the film is rejected out of hand by viewers uncomfortable contemplating what they would truly do in Jim's shoes.

Bonus: I wrote an article for Film School Rejects in which I worked out how Jim and Aurora could have used the functioning medical pod at the end of the film to take turns sleeping long enough for both of them to make it to the colony within their lifespans. You can find it here.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A tribute to Carrie Fisher: actor, author, and Princess Leia

"If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable." - Carrie Fisher.

It's ten years ago, almost to the day, and thanks to one of my closest friends, I'm sitting in the Geffen Playhouse for the first public performance of WISHFUL DRINKING, Carrie Fisher's one woman show. With the above quote, our evening begins, taking us on a hysterical and candid tour of the life of the woman best known as Princess Leia. Before the evening is out, she has become much more than that for many audience members, she's become Hollywood royalty, a bipolar sufferer, an addict, a mother, a writer with a keen sense of self-deprecation, and (perhaps most remarkably for anyone who came just because of her connection to a galactic freedom fighter) a human being.

For someone who achieved iconic status at 19, that is no easy task. The show touches on this, in some semblance, as she quips that "I'm not famous. Princess Leia is famous and I look like her."

Carrie, with all due respect, your mother was Debbie Reynolds and her union with your father was so famous that announcement of your impending arrival made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. I'm gonna call bullshit on that "I'm not famous" line.

Today we mourn, for Carrie Fisher has left us at the too-young age of sixty.

Like many of my generation, Princess Leia was my introduction to Carrie Fisher. Also in line with most men of my generation, Carrie Fisher was my first crush. I think. There's a chance it was Vanna White and right now I'm not writing Vanna's obituary. (Though with the kind of year 2016 has been, who knows what the next week will bring.) Leia was bold, brassy and she didn't take shit from anyone. Think of how many young men grew up seeing this "damsel in distress" snark back to her captors and then take charge of her own rescue. That had to have an impact. Over the last several days, I've seen women of all ages pay tribute to how much of a feminist icon Leia was to them. I have to believe that many a young boy grew up more enlightened because of seeing kickass women like Leia.

And there's no doubt that Leia is one of the most iconic, perhaps MOST iconic badass women in popular culture. She's on that particular feminist Mount Rushmore, probably with Ripley and Sarah Connor as companions. (I'd love to recognize a non-genre female as the fourth one, but let's face it, it's Lois Lane.)

I've gone to San Diego Comic Con every year for over a decade and soon after I started attending, there was an explosion of cosplayers wearing the iconic golden bikini Leia wore in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Now, like most men of my generation I had a certain affection for that outfit, but it surprised me to see such passion from the opposite gender. As I observed a gathering of some 40 such fans for a photoshoot, overheard snatches of conversation left little doubt they were TRUE fans. (They invoked the Star Wars Expanded Universe, mentioning things like "Thrawn," "Mara Jade," and "Jania.) I had a few instances to make conversation with these ladies (and BELIEVE me in that situation you are trying hard to make eye contact, so engaging them in substantive topics is suggested) so I asked, "Why this outfit?" The answer usually was some version of "Because she's a badass in it!"

I think of that whenever I see a thinkpiece attacking the "sexism" of Slave Leia. And then I think of Carrie's perfect reply to a father wanting to know what to tell his daughter about the merchandising of Slave Leia: "Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage."

(And I think most of the male appeal for the outfit is a mix of this and how attractive the performer appeared in it. For most of them I don't think it promotes slavery any more than a Dark Side Anakin cosplay advocates child murder.)

I saw some tweets today chiding people for honoring her "only" as Princess Leia. There was a weird sort of shaming going on, an implication that not genuflecting on her writing career was some kind of disrespect. Poppycock, I say! Mourn how you choose to mourn. That doesn't take away from the fact she was an accomplished and witty writer of several books and an accomplished script doctor. During the 90s, she worked on HOOK, SISTER ACT, and THE WEDDING SINGER.

You might not realize that because she never sought credit for her rewrites. Today on Twitter, Robert Hewitt Wolfe relayed the following anecdote:

"I had one professional interaction w/ Carrie Fisher. We were on an arbitration panel together, got on a conference call to determine credit. These calls are anonymous, but I recognized her voice immediately. Carrie Fisher was a top notch script doctor... but spent the call passionately defending the credit of the original writer over the parade of rewriters and script doctors. Fisher saved Writer A's [WGA-speak for "the original writer"] credit. It would have been understandable if Carrie Fisher had sided with rewriters like herself, but instead she protected the little guy. It's noteworthy... praiseworthy, in fact, that Carrie Fisher never sought or accepted credit on the scripts she rewrote. She was all class."

For those not in the business, screen credit means royalties, and that's a huge loss of income for a writer who get's arbitrated off the credits. Some rewriters try to secure their place by changing as many details as possible just in a bid to grab credit. A rewriter who fights on behalf of the writer who originated the project is a true class act.

I'm traveling this week, so I'm tabbing this obituary out on my iPhone from my hotel room. As it happens, the same hotel room where I rewatched THE FORCE AWAKENS the night before. I think it was a great gift to us that Carrie was around to resurrect Princess Leia one more time to see her continuing to persevere in the fight against evil. It may have been a great gift for Carrie herself too. There are too few roles for strong women of a certain age in Hollywood and it makes me happy she got to experience that once more.

There is still one more outing for General Leia, as Carrie had completed next year's EPISODE VIII. Inevitably, talk will turn to how her loss will impact the conclusion of the trilogy. I like to think that some of this is about people hoping that an icon like Leia is allowed to retire with dignity, to honor Carrie. There are bigger concerns than a film, but I get that Leia meant a lot to many men and women and it's hard to picture her fading away, suddenly gone from the narrative mid-story. So I will strive to take the "What this means for EPISODES VIII and IX" talk in that spirit. No one can bear seeing Leia die after losing Carrie Fisher. Hopefully the character is retired with grace.

I only met Carrie Fisher once, during a time when I worked on a small film in which she appeared. We were on location when I glanced down the street and saw a diminutive woman approaching from about a half-block away. She had a trenchcoat and dark glasses on, so I didn't yet recognize her but even at that distance, she walked with such authority that I found myself involuntary standing straighter, almost at attention.

Some people in power carry themselves with such authority that you can feel it before they speak. And here was five feet and one inch of pure "Don't mess with me" headed my way. My gut reaction was that this was either a studio exec or a producer headed to set. It wasn't until she was almost upon me that my brain went, "Wait, isn't that.."

I tell this so that you can understand the strength and charisma she carried herself with, and how in those moments I first saw her, none of that was mortgaged from identification with Princess Leia. That was pure Carrie.

My only regret is I never had a conversation of significance with her, though I do hope whoever is showing her around Heaven is stocked with a great deal of the vice she indulged in on set and that it was mandatory we had plenty of on that production: Diet Coke. Farewell Carrie Fisher.

Friday, December 23, 2016

My ROGUE ONE reflections over at Film School Rejects

I haven't written a full review of ROGUE ONE, and at this point I'm not likely to. For the most part, I enjoyed it, but my immediate reaction was that it didn't work for me the way THE FORCE AWAKENS did. Since last year, I've watched THE FORCE AWAKENS at least seven times and the film still works just as well for me as it did after my first viewing. In some ways I might find it more re-watchable than parts of the original trilogy, but beyond that, I can't think of too many films in the recent past that have made me WANT to rewatch it that many times without getting weary of it.

(And I can only blame one of those rewatches on the writing process of THE MAKING OF STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII. By the way, if you still haven't checked out that script that I wrote with Brian Michael Scully, you can find it here.)

I bring that up by way of mentioning that "not as good as THE FORCE AWAKENS" is far from a condemnation from me. I thought ROGUE ONE was solid entertainment, particularly once it got going. The early segments of the film drag as all the pieces come into place. What matters is that it finishes strong. From the point where the team assembles against orders to get the Death Star plans, everything seems to click into place, and we get another JEDI-esque finale with several battles advancing on different fronts.

Outside of Jyn, I felt disconnected from most of the characters, and that's where THE FORCE AWAKENS gains a lot of its edge over this film. Donnie Yen's Chirrut has some clever moments, and the novelty of a blind devotee of the Force taking down superior forces never gets old. Okay, and K-2SO was pretty awesome. The movie managed enough base hits and triples that I came away satisfied.

Of course, the Darth Vader scenes were the sort of moments fans have been hungering for for 30 years, particularly the hallway scene. But that also speaks to one of my bigger issues with the film in general. This is the first Star Wars feature film to venture outside the Saga Episodes, and the first place we go ends up being a very direct prequel to the original film. I have some concerns about these "Star Wars Stories" only going to the most obvious places in Star Wars history, and for further discussion of that, check out my piece "The Known Unknowns of Star Wars" at Film School Rejects.

While you're over there, click on over to my second ROGUE ONE story, "7 Films That Could Be Headlined by Creepy Dead CGI Actors." As you might infer, I felt that the use of VFX to resurrect Peter Cushing as Tarkin yielded somewhat mixed results. But if we get past the ethical issues, think of all the new performances we could enjoy!

Have a good holiday everyone, and if you get a chance, please buy my book, "MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films." It's a great last-minute stocking stuffer for the film geek in your life!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

I'm a guest on the Law & Order podcast "These Are Their Stories!"

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am a MASSIVE fan of Law & Order. My essay declaring Jack McCoy one of TV's greatest characters will attest to that, and I've been known to berate you to track down some of the best episodes of the series.

Thus, when I recently learned that there was a new podcast devoted to Law & Order called "These are Their Stories," my first thought was "How can I become a guest on this?" Fortunately, the creators of the podcast, true crime writers Rebecca Lavoie and Kevin Flynn were kind enough to oblige and booked me an episode from Season 18, the period of the show where Jack McCoy was the District Attorney of New York, and had to deal with an Executive Assistant DA named Michael Cutter who was even more of a maverick than Jack used to be. It's an under-appreciated era of the show, and while this episode in particular, "Tango" is not representative of that era at its best, I think we got a great conversation out of it.

If nothing else,  you can learn my favorite detective team in all the franchise, as well as my favorite legal team. I got the sense that at least one of those answers surprised the hosts.

Go here to listen to the episode. You can also download the episode here.

You can find the homepage for These Are Their Stories here.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Film School Rejects: The Flash and Supergirl as my wife's gateway drug to geekdom. Plus MORE articles!

I know my posting has been sporadic the last few months. There are reasons for that and I'm hoping to redress that as we head into 2017. If time permits I'll do a couple belated reviews for some recent films, and with luck, I'll have seen enough of the major 2016 releases to do a Top 10 or Top 20 post. One factor in my absence here is that I've been writing a bit more for Film School Rejects. This has been going on for a few months, and I've neglected to cross-post those over here.

Yesterday, FSR published my most recent essay: How The Flash and Supergirl became my wife's gateway drug to superhero fandom. It's a reflection on how the Greg Berlanti shows are making an incredibly complex mythology accessible to people who never would have considered reading a comic book. You can also learn how the most intense fight of my marriage was over the time travel logic of The Flash.

My other recent articles are:

Gilmore Girls "Final Four Words" Leave the Most Important Conversation Unsaid - An exploration of the abrupt conclusion of the recent series revival by contrasting it with one of the best-received series finales: Angel.

Reclaiming the Fun Side of Batman - I take a look at the recent animated film Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, to push back against the idea that Batman always has to be serious and gritty.

An Appreciation of That Thing You Do on its 20th Anniversary - A loving tribute to one of my favorite films, and a deep-dive into how the Extended Cut of the movie can show how critical the right edits can be in taking an okay film to the next level. The longer cut of the film has so many unnecessary moments that were (rightly) removed for pace and repetition. It's a wonderful opportunity to extrapolate how Tom Hanks learned from and corrected his mistakes.

6 Films That Are Still Waiting for Their Legacy Sequels - In a film culture that's brought us the re-quels like Creed and The Force Awakens, what other library titles might be ripe for a reboot with new protagonists treading familiar paths while being mentored by their predecessors?

A Look Ahead to What the Next 15 Years Holds for the Lights Out Franchise - Using other horror franchises as a template, how much the other slots in the inevitable Lights Out box set be filled?

As FSR publishes through Medium, you can follow me on Medium here.  I'm going to try to be better about flagging these over here, but that's a good way to see articles as soon as they post.

Also, with the holiday season approaching, I'd like to again remind everyone that my book Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films is a great stocking stuffer for the film geek in your life. It's only $5 on Kindle!

I always feel like a self-promoting whore when I do this, but any time I plug the book on Twitter, I get replies from people who say they had no idea it existed. The extra cash would definitely come in handy this holiday season, so if you've enjoyed my posts and would like to leave me a tip for the holidays, please consider buying the book.

You can find all my Michael F-ing Bay posts here. This one in particular is a good all-purpose primer on it.