_rogue one

—well, where “others will surely succeed,” Rogue One (Edwards; 2016) splits an infinitesimally tangled hair; the same style of which Enterprise, later Star Trek: Enterprise, (Berman & Braga; 2001-2005), split, and Star Trek’s about to Discovery (2017-) all over again. As much as I would like to put canon, established, disregarded, aside, for both universes, that’s essentially what we’re dealing with here; a backstage war over fictional history, how it was, how it should be, and how we’re gonna fuck it up now. The much maligned Prequel Trilogy (Lucas; 1999-2005) had a similar affair with The Clone Wars (Lucas; 2008-2015), beloved by fans, backfilling backstory everything between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith was missing in their standalone selves. How I regard, I approach, films, in situations like these is, admittedly, peculiar: Anything that started out a film, I consider canon. Conversely: Anything that started out as something else, that became a film, or a series of films, I consider that, instead, canon. It’s a seeming paradox of precedence I have; whichever comes first, in whatever format, Trumps. I have yet to reconcile a book adapted into a film, in which a standalone film inspired said book.

There are other, niggling things. Plot. Characters. Dialogue. CGI. Re/appropriation. Fatigue. Michael Giacchino’s film score feeling like a B-side. And that’s just the tip of an iceberg of problems I have with A Star Wars Story. I went in, premiere, whitewashed, men-mostly, night, seriously wanting to like this film; had staved off several trailers, knew as little about it as I could. And I still couldn’t. I knew from the first title-card I wasn’t going to like it, and ambivalently, I tried to not not to. I tried for weeks afterward. Months, now. Why? Because I love Star Wars. Even though it breaks some fundamental rules about filmmaking, and not just, now, Star Wars making. Title-cards hint at the fact an audience won’t know where it is unless it’s told; that we’re jumping from planet to planet, so contextually blasé in and of themselves, reproduced, alienless familiarity, they’re not visually distinct enough to warrant a difference without them; in space or time. It’s not that I don’t know where I am, either, it’s that I just don’t care.

Empathy’s important. Especially with ensemble cast scenarios; time factors into it, usually subliminally. How something like The Avengers (Whedon; 2012) gets away with it, is by establishing each character in their own standalone film; building up their strengths and weaknesses, their personality, individually. That way, when they come together, time’s spent on The Avengers plot, and not Iron Man (Favreau; 2008), or Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston; 2011). In splitting the hair the way they have, Rogue One pre/supposes a dangerous, un/conscious question: Where are, ostensibly now, where were, their characters in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (Lucas; 1977)? A problem, I feel, everyone throughout the film is aware of: Everyone is innately expendable, and embraced that way.

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_arrival

—not to be confused with that Charlie Sheen conspiratorial trainwreck, The Arrival (Twohy; 1996), sans The (Villeneuve; 2016) is a surprisingly humble take on an otherwise auspicious First Contact (Zemeckis; 1997) scenario. At least thematically, the film contends itself between Independence Day (Emmerich; 1996) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg; 1977), with vibes perhaps un/intentionally Prometheus (Scott; 2012) in style, The Fifth Element (Besson; 1997) in passing, and that one Masters of Science Fiction adaptation of Howard Fast’s 1970 short story The General Zapped an Angel, retitled as The Awakening (Petroni; 2007); but without giving anything else away, and very little at that, Arrival remains refreshingly distinctive despite its many cousins.

The only other film it bears resemblance to, and characteristically, is Gravity (Cuarón; 2013)—my chief gripe. As progressive as both female protagonists are, empowered through intelligence, authority, they are constantly engendered through (a familiar, Alien {Scott; 2979}) isolation, generating empathy through pity, offset with a peripherally, frustratingly, and seemingly pointless, heterogenous romance. There is no mateship, no camaraderie, no neutrality, between opposites; woman cannot be imperfect, or imperfect enough not to warrant solicitation, or else embody mother/hood. What is needed is an antiheroine of sorts, that isn’t recognised or typecast as an ‘it’, or a ‘she’, or a ‘her’, to such an extent that the anti/hero ‘he’, ‘him’, has enjoyed, dissociative of gender(-politics).

Amy Adams is an impressive presence, nonetheless, and certainly carries the role of a linguistics expert to wit. The but, here, has less to do with her performance, and more to do with the expectation that she is well overdue an Academy Award that something like Arrival probably won’t provide. The last time anything remotely science-fiction did, was Don Ameche for Best Supporting Actor in Cocoon (Howard; 1985). See, character tends to give way to plot in science-fiction: the more fictitious the world or situation is, the more focus it has, the more time it gets, more often than not, to be explained to the audience. Even something as well-regarded as Blade Runner (Scott; 1982) simply, but effectively, transposes a hard-boiled detective into the 21st Century*, that’s easier to convey in lieu of 2019 Los Angeles, but undeniably lacks a lot of the nuance Philip K. Dick poured into Deckard’s personification.

Instead, a lot of time and emphasis has gone into shaping the heptapodian language, being the centrepiece of Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story Story of Your Life from which Arrival is adapted, and the mainstay of the film. It’s quite beautiful, from a calligraphic standpoint, and linguistically fascinating, albeit a tad clumsy in its design to appear at once unique and utilitarian. Rather unfortunately, the film rushes through the progress of its decipherment in favour, and in fear, of its plot; the heavy breathing of its Hollywood executives can still be heard.

This is a smart film. What science-fiction does best is smart, laterally. It can pander, and it all too often dazzles, but what it does best is make you think.

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_hard to be a god

—return is mired in a medley of mainstream films, the laughable Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder; 2016), the lacklustre Suicide Squad (Ayer; 2016), the disappointing Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo; 2016); meanwhile trawling through John Carpenter classics, The Fog (1980), Escape From New York (1981); the early body horror films of David Cronenberg, Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981); the Breaking Bad (Gilligan; 2008-2013) spin-off series Better Call Saul (Gilligan & Gould; 2015–), and lately, (My Giddy Aunt) Rick and Morty (Harmon & Rolland; 2013–); in amidst my own aspirations. The more I watch, simultaneously, the more and less I want to watch at the same time. I delve further and farther into the past, quietly, and realise: Soon there will be nothing left to watch. Those films have already happened. And then I find stuff like this, and I hope a little.

The three hours I put aside for the late Aleksey German’s last film, Hard to Be a God (2013), resonate with me so much, that for the first time in a long time, I feel like writing about it. Sometimes I forget there’s more to a film than just telling a story—even a bad story. A vital aspect is how you show it, and that showing can be a story unto itself. The rich, visual tapestries of Tarkovsky’s Solyaris (1972), Zerkalo (1975), Stalker (1979), the frames within frames within frames within light of Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), L’Eclisse, that took me years to appreciate, all of them come to mind. Yet they are deliberately underwhelmingly minimalist by comparison.

Loosely based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel of the same name, Hard to Be a God premises itself around an alien, but humanoid, Mediaeval civilisation in the middle of exterminating its intelligentsia; and thus staving off its own Renaissance. Future-human visitors from Earth observe the course of these events, perceived by some locals as Gods. The rest is senseless. Scraps of philosophical Russian, a lot of it seemingly lost in translation, hinged around sporadic exposition, character, plot, the kind you need to watch again and again to really start to understand. One of those films that changes how you watch a film, that you might appreciate it as well as others.

That’s beside the point: People as characters come and go; script and ad lib; within shots; within other shots; walk in and walk out; look the camera in the eye; pat their arses; play with props; dress and undress; eat and drink; tantalise and titillate; and often, and importantly, wallow in the filth of the lack of their accomplishments in overwhelmingly realistic lean-tos; shanties; castles; keeps; gallows; dungeons; and cesspools; and all of it fittingly stunningly in black-and-white. Unlike Tarkovsky, or Antonioni, there is always something going on. Combined with a distinct lack of music—smartly restricted to the rarely-fluted ramblings of Earthling cum demideity Don Rumata (played by Leonid Yarmolnik)—everything, everywhere, everyone, smells rightly of shit.

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