Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The James Bond Films and the R-Rating

In the 1960s the Bond films virtually invented the action movie as we know it. In the decade that followed, however, they lost their earlier, cutting-edge place.

This was in part a matter of new trends, 1970s audiences going for crime-themed, urban action at one end, and science fiction spectaculars at the other, but this was by no means all of it. There was, too, a sense of the Bond films as softer stuff, a function of their getting more parodic and gimmicky, but also of action movies in general getting harder-edged at the same time. Apart from the spectaculars of Lucas and Spielberg, big action was nearly synonymous with the R-rating through the '70s and '80s--the years of Dirty Harry and Death Wish, of Rambo and Schwarzenegger, of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard--while the Bond movies kept the violence, the sex and the language PG.

The Bond films adapted to some extent, in Licence to Kill in fact producing an R-rated film, which was trimmed just enough to get the PG-13 under which it was released (you can check out a comparison of the two versions here), and generally stuck with that rating as the series continued through the '90s--while the genre as a whole went PG-13, the R-rated films largely exiting the market. (Indeed, the last real R-rated action megahit was none other than The Matrix, way back in 1999.1)

In hindsight it seems that this may have had its impact on the reboot. The disappearance of R-rated competition made Bond's moving in a less flamboyant, more brutal direction seem more plausible because in the current market, PG-13 was as "dark and gritty" as a movie needed to get to merit the label.

1. The Expendables franchise, by contrast, has been a success on a much smaller scale, and anyway, sold on nostalgia.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Rethinking Jupiter Ascending

That the Wachowski siblings' Jupiter Ascending would get anything but a brutal reception was a longshot.

After all, it has long been fashionable to bash these particular filmmakers. Disappointment with the Matrix sequels (some of it reasonable, some of it not), the predictable reaction to a Hollywood version of Speed Racer, the reception of Cloud Atlas did anything but assure a warm welcome for the movie.

That Jupiter Ascending is a space opera did anything but help--the genre being notoriously high-risk. Star Wars may have become a Marvel-style movie machine, with Episode VII a $2 billion grosser and the prospects for Rogue One looking bright--but audiences are much less likely to go for them than films with a milder science fiction touch (like superheroes), and the negative response to the great majority that don't win them over is often wildly exaggerated. Perhaps the only non-Star Wars, non-Trek film to score an undisputed success of this type has been 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy--the beneficiary of a summer of weak competition, the Marvel brand name, and even its own slightness and overfamiliarity. Anything "weirder" or more ambitious--and this was indeed the case with Jupiter--is that much more likely to suffer for being so (as Jupiter did).

All the same, this is far from the full explanation for the hostility. The film too obviously repeated much that was in the Matrix trilogy. Once again, an ordinary person of our time--perhaps even less than ordinary--experiences unusual goings-on culminating in a meeting with a mystery man who makes very clear to them that, unbeknownst to all of us we are really being farmed by an exploitative, monstrous power for its own sustenance; and that they may be the key to humanity's salvation from this fate. Chases and fights ensue, culminating in the hero's choosing to undertake a mission of rescue in which they confront and defeat an enemy, achieve a partial victory, and then after contemplating its meaning, soar into the sky above a modern metropolis in what seems a sure prelude to further adventures.

All this is not to deny that there were differences. The handling of the material is bolder in respects--particularly the political themes. It is easy to mistake The Matrix for just another Frankenstein complex story about out-of-control AI (especially if one just focuses on the first film). However, that this is a case of humans exploiting other humans through a brutal, hierarchical system of high-technology and elaborate deception, with a tiny, hyper-privileged, colossally cynical and arrogant and utterly repugnant elite at the top literally stealing the lives of those at the bottom is unmistakable in Jupiter. The movie also manages to not look like a pale imitation of The Matrix, satisfactorily trading cyberpunk imagery for the space operatic kind. And of course, there is much difference in the plot structure--as our heroine Jupiter successively confronts each of the Abrasax siblings in turn.

However, the sharper political edge likely did not endear it to many a critic and viewer (likely biasing many the other way, many of whom responded in predictably disingenuous, passive aggressive fashion by getting overcritical); the science fiction imagery, while suitably lavish, and more original than that of so many more successful films (Man of Steel, for example, the opening scenes of which looked as overfamiliar as they did ornate), comes across as less distinctive, sharp or fresh than the first Matrix film's visuals; and the comparative novelty of the plot structure (where a wedding is disrupted by the guy who yells "I object!" long before the closing scene), which I found appealing, may have been off-putting to those more strictly insistent on action-movie formula. The result was, once again, that a genre film that was rather more competently assembled and with a good deal more on its mind than most (and not without its charm) was subjected to an exaggerated and unfortunate hostility.

On Rewatching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I and II (1990, 1992)

What I said about G.I. Joe recently applies to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well, even though I recall watching more of the series (the time slot was more convenient, among things), and having become more fond of it: my memories were faint and few, little more than what we know from the theme song of the original cartoon (perhaps the only piece of writing by Chuck Lorre for which I can claim any real fondness), and the fact that Shredder (voiced by Will Smith's Uncle Phil!) added the word "cretin" to my budding vocabulary.

I didn't finish the original TMNT series. (Frankly, I doubt I saw anything after season three.) My interest more generally had lapsed enough that I only caught the third of the live-action films on a commercial channel years after its 1994 release. And I haven't given much thought to the franchise since--entirely missing the 2003 revival (an interesting article about which you can find here, by the way), and running across only a little of the current small-screen incarnation on Nickelodeon. I haven't bothered to see the 2007 animated film, or the Michael Bay cinematic revival.

Still, when Syfy Channel recently ran the first two films in the old trilogy, I left them on.

Two things about the films jumped right out at me.

One is that the turtle suits had a charm that the new CGI turtles (well, what I've seen of them in the commercials for the newer movies) simply don't have. I certainly don't regard myself as a CGI-basher (I've been more favorably disposed toward the technology's use from the Star Wars prequels forward than most), but Dial H for Houston's description of them as looking "like The Hulk’s hobo bastard children" strikes me as essentially on the mark.

More significantly I was struck by how little bombast there was in the films--either at the level of plot or spectacle. There was no question of the world or even the city really being at stake. (In the first film Shredder's manipulating disaffected youths into committing petty street crime; in the second, he doesn't even have that much of a plan to advance himself on the road to power.) And what can be said of the plot can be said of the action--the fight choreography clean and simple (clearly predating the Jackie Chan-style frenzies of punches, kicks and blocks that became standard for Hollywood in the mid-'90s), and the scale of the battles limited, no city blocks (or cities!) getting wrecked.

I suppose that watching it back at the time of release TMNT was less flashy than my ideal Turtles movie would have been--but seeing it more recently, after the more spectacular, over-the-top approach has become so commonplace and so shopworn, the difference was actually refreshing.

It helped, too, that the moviemakers didn't take any of it too seriously, especially when making the lighter, funnier second film. (Everyone who has seen the climactic fight scene at the waterfront nightclub where a certain rapper was performing a certain song knows exactly what I mean.)

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie

Wally Pfister's Transcendence (2014) is a Frankenstein story--one that hews so closely to the plotline of Mary Shelley's book that there would have been some grounds for passing it off as a remake. The movie actually uses as a framing device the scientist who created the monster recounting the central course of events from after the disaster--a course which began with horror at the untimely death of someone close to him, and a desperate attempt to reverse it that initially seemed benign, but produced an intelligence that proved violent, and produced fear for the fate of the world.

If Transcendence treaded the familiar "Frankenstein complex" path--and did so in fairly solemn fashion--Neil Blomkamp's Chappie (2015) went in the direction of that great critic of the Frankenstein complex, Isaac Asimov. The story also revolves around the creation of an artificial intelligence--but one unconnected with the taboo about the line between life and death--and the result is no monster. Instead Chappie is a child--albeit a misunderstood child--just beginning to learn about the world, who inspires maternal feelings in the woman in whose care he winds up (just as in Asimov's "Lenny"). While saying very much more would mean more spoilers than I care to present in this post, consciousness uploading is not something monstrous here, but the happy ending to the tale.

I, for one, much preferred Chappie--in part because Asimov's outlook appeals to me much more than Shelley's, but also because the film itself is simply more intelligent and more entertaining. Those who follow AI research to any degree, or simply read a lot of science fiction about the subject, would be hard-pressed to point to a live-action Hollywood movie that is as open-minded about the subject, or as idea-packed in its treatment of it. And the truth is that the titular robot is a very engaging creation, whose misadventures manage to be thought-provoking, funny, and at times touching.

In fact, while less well received by the critics, I frankly preferred it to Blomkamp's prior films. Watching the Academy Award for Best Picture nominee District 9 and Elysium I got the impression that I was in each case watching two different films welded together. The first seemed to be the film Blomkamp really wanted to make--a film with big ideas and some human drama--which he attached to the second, an action movie that he made simply to give the project a chance in today's market, but which just didn't have the same inventiveness or vitality, as if Blomkap was only going through obligatory motions. In Chappie the science fiction drama and the action movie flowed together much more smoothly.

Still, different as their approaches were I couldn't help being struck by what Transcendence and Chappie also had in common in their being major, commercial Hollywood films dealing not just with the theme of artificial intelligence (counting these, and Her, and others, I think we haven't seen so much film about this since the '80s), but specifically the transhumanist and posthumanist possibilities the technology opens up (e.g. mind uploading), and that in the terms of contemporary discussion. Transcendence derives its title from Dr. Will Caster's preferred alternative term to "Singularity" (explicitly referenced in the movie), and while it ends up walking a very familiar path, the details reflect an attentiveness to the concept of an "intelligence explosion." And Chappie breaks with popular sf's usual horror story attitude in taking a more benign view of the possibility.

Does this suggestion that ideas about AI, intelligence explosion, Singularity, posthumanism and the rest are enjoying a greater popular currency say anything about the actual likelihood of these developments? The history of previous cinematic fascinations with technology would suggest this is unlikely. Certainly the '80s-era rush of AI-themed movies that gave us The Terminator (1984), Weird Science (1985) and Short Circuit (1986) was no proof that a breakthrough in strong AI (as was expected by some at the time) was imminent--and indeed it was not. (The history of efforts to produce a fifth generation computer at the time is today an obscure footnote.) But at the same time watching these films I was struck by their far greater sophistication in their treatment of their subject than the films of the '80s--perhaps hinting at our generally having a better handle on the issue. And that might be indicative of our moving in such a direction.

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