The Light and the Dark Sides of “The Force Awakens”

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

A long time ago, in a movie theater far, far away… a Star Wars fan was born.  In 1977, I was (like many) awestruck by the brilliance of “Star Wars“.  Granted, I was 7 at the time, but it’s a true statement regardless.  Since then, I have seen everything Star Wars (except for Star Wars: Rebels and the CGI Animated Series of The Clone Wars).  To say I have been a fan the majority of my life is true but also HIGHLY understated.  I became deeply enchanted with cinema and storytelling through the medium of movies in a large part because of Star Wars.  So all of that being said, and having seen “Star Wars, Episode VII: the Force Awakens” now twice, I feel it’s finally time to say what needs to be said.

Disney has gotten somethings right, but somethings VERY wrong.

Point #1:

Here’s the gist of it: Star Wars: Episodes 1 through 6 (that’s The Phantom Menace through Return of the Jedi) tell a complete saga, and Episode 7: the Force Awakens is something new…and yet, it is not.  As some other fans and bloggers have pointed out, George Lucas really tied the visual references between Jedi & Phantom Menace.  That was purposeful, meaningful, and really very clever – not to mention, it’s a storytelling element used in mythology.  The same could be said about what J.J. Abrams has done with Force Awakens and connecting it to A New Hope … except you can’t and maybe you are already seeing why.

Lucas connects Episode 1 to Episode 6, the beginning to the end.  This is the story of Anakin Skywalker, and with Episodes 1, 2, and 3 added to the existing Trilogy, it made 1 complete saga.  Now, Episode 7 comes along and it begins something anew, and yet it ties into A New Hope.  So…is this new trilogy of Episodes 7,8, and 9 going to be the story of Luke Skywalker?  If so, I can say I think that’s a bad idea.  If that were the case, you should have shown us his life’s journey from Jedi to Force Awakens.  My point is, it isn’t very cohesive, connecting a beginning to the middle, whereas Lucas connected the beginning to the end.

Point #2:

A great tale, especially an epic saga and certainly anything that echoes mythology, must have villain.  Episodes 1 through 6 owns arguably the greatest villain of all time:  Darth Vader.  When the talk first began about Episode 7, I said to a friend of mine “it is all going to hinge on the villain”.  I was right.  So, we are looking at a Darth Vader wannabe in Kylo Ren – but one that is not wearing a mask for any health reasons.  He’s not burned up.  His body isn’t 50% machine.  He has no great backstory to explain why he’s an evil cuss.  He’s been corrupted by the Dark Side….from a crack head (literally, the guy has a crack in his head).

He is an old man (?) that seems to be rotting or something, and he sits on a throne, and commands his henchmen via his holographic communication.  This is no Emperor, aka. Darth Sidious!  THAT villain, was a shadowy puppeteer, a masterful manipulator, and a power-hungry conqueror.  His motives are obvious and his story was brilliantly executed over Episodes 1 through 6.  This new Supreme Commander Snoke is an obvious rip-off of Emperor Palpatine and not even cleverly veiled.

Am I saying that I need to know all about this villain in the 1st movie of a trilogy?  No.  But what I ma saying is that J.J. Abrams and Disney have given us a non-intimidating lackluster stand-in for Vader and then you give us Snoke – an even more lame-duck villain stand-in for the Emperor.  This Episode 7 seems more like an excuse to turn the anger-management-challenged Kylo Ren INTO Vader, because he was seduced into being an evil little cuss at the hands of an obvious rip-off of the Emperor.  I am not impressed.

Point #3:

The Jedi are no more.  Luke tried to recreate the Jedi Order only to have Anakin’s story line repeat itself via Luke’s very own nephew.  Stop!  You heard that correctly: Kylo Ren’s story is the same story as that of his grandfather.  Honestly!  We couldn’t come up with a better story arc than this?

So, there was a prophecy during the last days of the Jedi that a Chosen One would be born that would bring balance to the Force.  In other words, the Force was never intended to be wielded by an army – of either Jedi nor Sith.  Lucas tells us this story is really all about that balance being restored by Anakin.  The all-powerful Force which is balanced by the end of Anakin’s life and the return of Luke as the solitary Jedi that remains. But that doesn’t sound balanced at all, does it?   No more Sith Lords exist (always 2 there are, a master and an apprentice) because Vader kills the Emperor.  And Luke remains?

And what is his 1st act?  Let me recreate the Jedi Order and train others to wield the Force.  That would immediately unbalance the Force!  So there has to be 1 Dark Side Force-user out there if Luke exists, right?  So Luke tries to recreate the Jedi order, and Snoke is obviously in with the Dark Side.  So Snoke seduces one of these new Jedi and turns him to the Dark Side, and then he wipes out all the rest of the Jedi.  What balance is there here?  Now, there’s Kylo Ren, and his master Snoke, and Luke (whom quits the world and goes off to live as a hermit  in search of the 1st Jedi Temple).  This creates yet another unbalanced Force scenario.  It seems that the writers are going around in circles, without a sense of an ending.  What is this, “Lost”?

But there are some very good things to be found in the Force Awakens, too.

Point #1:

What or whom is the Force Awakening in?  Is it the Storm Trooper Finn that defies his training inexplicably and stands toe to toe with this new villain Kylo Ren?  Is it is Rey the desert scavenger left on the wasteland planet of Raaku to grown up alone and yet can fly the Millenium Falcon?  I sense a lot of people go immediately to Rey and see no reason to consider Finn.  Rey is too obvious.  Finn 1) rebels against his indoctrination, 2) and that’s significant enough to make Kylo Ren stop and look at him, 3) remember him later on & immediately identify him as the inside help that breaks out his prisoner, and 4) he inexorably does good because “it’s the right thing to do”.  Who is this guy?  He’s awesome!  Luke Skywalker never even did that stuff.  It’s like he is the moral compass that is poised to right the universe.

Seriously.  Look at Finn.  He wants to be more than he is, because of the way Rey looks at him the first time they meet.  He rescues Po Dameron because it’s the right thing to do.  He says he’s a coward, but everything he does in the movie is far more heroic than what most others are doing.  He wants to rescue his friend so much, he lies about his abilities and puts the entire rebellion effort against the First Order in jeopardy.  When the Force-wielding Rey gets knocked out by Kylo Ren, Finn doesn’t hesitate to pick up that lightsaber and face off against this (supposed) badass.  Oh, and he wounds the badass.  Yes, Ren cuts him down….and yet, he lives.  He took a lightsaber slash across his spine!  And he’s ALIVE.  Think about that.

Point #2:

Rey is effortlessly cool.  She is a pure soul, a real “good guy” and obviously having that built-in moral center that allows her to know right from wrong.  She is easy to root for.  She doesn’t seem complicated.  She is easy to understand.  She is scared of the Force calling out to her.  And what (very) little “training” she receives in the Force (via Mazz) is enough to make her wield that lightsaber well enough to defeat Kylo Ren.  And yet, she isn’t interested in killing him.  She’s in it for her friend.  That’s who needs her at that moment.  Daisy Ridley is a star in the making, and we look forward to seeing her Rey develop into something even more awesome in the upcoming films.

Point #3:

You have an exceptional pilot and hero in Po Dameron.  He’s easy to root for, but what’s more, you buy into this sort of immediate friendship between he and Finn.  It’s a tangible element of the story and its very believable.  And it’s equally believable that there’s a friendship between Finn and Rey.  And Rey and BB-8.  The amazing part of this new story is that there’s a feel-good, wholesome sense of the good guys versus the bad guys.  And THAT is what I admire most in the Star Wars films.  This is modern mythology, and you need that sense to carry out those thematic elements.  This is a vital point to make about the Force Awakens: you can believe in the chemistry and friendships of the good guys.

So, in summary, there’s a lot wrong with the Force Awakens but there’s also a lot that the creators got right.  I will continue to watch these new Star Wars films, but  it needs to come a long a ways before I am sold on ALL of it.

…and that’s all for this edition of The Reel Voice.

V for Vendetta

V for VendettaVforvendettamov

It’s that time of year when people head to the polls to cast their ballot.  What a wonderful feature to our government, you know?  We collectively determine who is running our nation.  I might be over-simplifying that and I am not going to even get into lobbyists and special interests groups.  But – in the end – we vote our leaders into office.  In that vein of thought, I figured I might rattle your brains with a political action-drama film that is based on a graphic novel.  “V for Vendetta” is a BRILLIANT work of art!  That’s right folks; this isn’t just a film.  When it comes to a film being defined as a work of art, it has to meet some very EXCEPTIONAL criteria (because I just wouldn’t call it so otherwise).

V for Vendetta” is a story about freedom and of course, revenge.  It really is focused upon political power and it makes a few really fine statements about the influence the “common man” has.  Power, real or perceived, can be taken away at any moment by a disgruntled population.   When you stop to think about it, all governments are subject to public approval.  If the public doesn’t like their government, they will and ALWAYS have revolted.  Some people in this world seem to think that because they are in a seat of political power that they are “untouchable”.  Nothing could be further removed from the truth.  If a government pushes the limits of what its public will tolerate, you can bet your ballots will be turned into bullets.  When that happens, historians will call it “rebellion” or “revolution”.  I call it “the righting of society”.  Society needs a change and when that need is strong enough, action MUST follow.  In my opinion, governments are nothing without the support of its people.

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with this film, you may be wondering what I am talking about?  “V for Vendetta” is the tale of a near-future in England wherein a dictatorship has risen to power through the use of censorship and terrorism against its own people.  Of course, this latter point is the crux of the story – hence, the reason for a vendetta.  It is the story of one man, a victim of the evil of this plot of a dictatorship to overthrow the established government and take control for itself.  That one man mounts a series of attacks aimed at the specific people responsible for the atrocities committed by the dictatorship.  In a brilliant move of storytelling, the man is a bit theatrical and seeks to express the human condition to the masses without the interference of censorship.  In other words, he plays banned music in forbidden areas, he stays up past curfew, he steals works of art before they can be destroyed, and he watches movies that the government doesn’t want you to see.  He’s a rebel and an artist, but he is also the moral conscious of the film. Through him, we are exposed to the villainy of censorship and what happens to a society when they agree to let others do their thinking for them.

The main character is the faceless V.  He is called a madman, a crazy person, a genius, and a terrorist of sorts.  V is out for revenge, not so much for himself (although he has plenty of cause) as it is for someone else and what was done to that person.  That person is a complete stranger to V.  However, her death symbolizes all that is wrong with the world in which V lives.  It lights a fire within V to not simply seek out those responsible and punish them, but rather to alert the public to the need for change.  He wants to complete a mission by another rebel that was never completed hundreds of years ago.  That mission was the plan of Guy Fawkes and other conspirators which would become known as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  V’s plan to resurrect the Gunpowder Plot is meant to inspire the people of the nation to rebuild their government.  V wants them to identify want is wrong with their nation and change it.  Will blowing up a building really accomplish that feat?  As V would explain it, “the building is a symbol, just as the act of blowing it up is a symbol.”

Far too few movies can provoke such profound thoughts.  “V for Vendetta” is a success on so many levels that it is hard to imagine that more critics don’t put this film on a pedestal.  The film tells a political tale, but also a story of revenge.  It reminds me in a way of the line from “The Dark Knight” about how a hero lasting long enough to become hated by the people he protects.  V is not a hero in a classic sense.  He is out to overthrow the totalitarian government that has inflicted grave injustices upon himself and others.  Within the film, V references another classic tale of revenge: “the Count of Monte Cristo”.  I know that movie (and its 2 remakes) and the original novel well.  Here is where the film achieves true greatness!

V becomes allies with a hapless woman caught up in his rebellious plot.  Her name is Evey – another fine performance by the greatly underrated Natalie Portman.  Evey becomes the real story of “V for Vendetta” for she is both victim and hero.  She is taught through her alliance with V to become utterly free of fear.  She begins as a weak person and ends the film as its strongest character.  She provides that truly grounded-in-reality, human experience that we experience the story of the film through.  V may be the main character but Evey is our guide.  She rises above fear of the powers that be with the aid of V, and in the end she helps V to remember he is after all human.  Evey and V’s relationship is a love story within this political tale of revenge, and with it, the film transcends just being an entertaining action film/thriller.  It becomes a work of art.

I think I make that claim because I don’t ever recall a more poignant tale about politics and freedom.  “V for Vendetta” could have easily become some action flick with a political backdrop.  It could have been a romance story with a revenge backdrop.  It could have been a revenge story that is clouded by politics and a love story.  It was none of those things.  It rose above what it could have been because it shows what one man is willing to do for the cause of freedom, and what one woman can teach a man bent on revenge about love.  This is a positively brilliant movie because it gets me thinking about the value of expression…and freedom…and love…and revenge…every time I watch it!

So, in the immortal words of the Gunpowder Plot, I ask you to watch this film and “Remember, remember the 5th of November, the Gunpowder, treason, and plot.  I can think of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE.

Tron: Legacy

Tron: LegacyTron_Legacy_poster

As hyped as I was to see a new “Tron” film – especially with updated special effects in a film where that WORKS – I have to say I wasn’t overly thrilled by “Tron: Legacy”.  The film’s plot is pretty straight-forward, no real guessing involved.  I can say that it seemed predictable to a point.  The real problem with this “sequel” is that it loses you with its religious overtones.  I remember “Tron” as being fascinating because of the A.I. running the show and how it was growing smarter.  That was just cool!  (and very edgy for the early ‘80s too!)

“Tron: Legacy” features Flynn now as some quasi-divine Yoda-like dude that is trapped in his perfect world, held captive by CLU (the program he created & that he “betrayed”).  I was fairly lost the moment they started talking about this.  Try to follow along: Flynn wanted to create a perfect utopian society, but CLU saw what they were creating as flawed – and when these new life forms (called ISOs, short for Isomorphic algorithms) suddenly appear CLU decides to kill them all and stage his own coup.  Apparently, Flynn believes these ISOs will unlock the mysteries of everything: science, religion, and everything in between.

Okay, at this point I stop the film and say WHAT?

Some science fiction really gets you to think.  I mean, it can really challenge you, get you to ponder some pretty deep stuff.  (Writers like Harlan Ellison fit this type of Sci-Fi.)  Other science fiction is just very, very cool.  (Writers like Philip K. Dick make up this type.)  But this is either missing something huge that was lost on the editing room floor or it just plain sucks!  This is the definition of today’s so-called good science fiction: “I don’t know how this makes sense, but we’ll gloss over that point.”  (I’m still miffed about the ending of the TV show “ Lost ” because of this.)

Why am I upset by this?  Well, did you follow it?  A new life form spontaneously creates itself inside the video game world and a computer program that was designed to help build Utopia suddenly decides to take over and kills off these new life forms?  I didn’t get it at all.  It was like somebody thought up the ISOs as a justification of having the hero save the day.

Oh, yeah…there this side story of like Flynn’s son, Sam, who like gets sucked into the “grid” and like he falls for this girl who is like super cool and WHOA! She turns out to be the last ISO.  Isn’t that cool?  …yawn.  That’s what I think.  What was supposedly the main story is lost completely amid the rubbish of the rest of “Tron: Legacy”.  Do yourself a favor and shelve this one under the genre known as “TRASH”.

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE.

 

Tron

“Tron” Tron_poster

In light of some of these 80s films being revisited, I thought it might be nice to go back and review one of the most ground-breaking special-effects-driven films ever made: “Tron”.  I’m a big geek of the 80s: that was a fine time for movies and a lot of those movies hold great influence over me.  I remember seeing this movie for the 1st time and I was just blown away by the clever storyline.  But first, allow me to explain the atmosphere of that time period.

Back in the 80s we all played our video games in the arcade.  Yep, that’s right.  There were these places where you went with a handful of quarters and you sampled a visual buffet of the latest video games.  A lot of kids today have no clue what that was like.  For me, it was like a haven.  It was a place to test your skills against a machine.  There were rows upon rows of multi-colored boxes with big splashy names like “Joust”, “Rampage”, “Altered Beast”, “Gauntlet”, “Galaga”, “Pac Man”, “Asteroids”, “Mercs” and “Smash TV”.  Occasionally, there were strange rare new ones that popped up and demanded to be played.  There was always a line for these, 5 or 6 deep at prime hours.  The sounds filled the place, with all manners of space noises, bells, whistles, explosions, and strange voice-overs.  The change machines were strategically placed throughout the place.  There would be your banks of the “old” games, mostly skee ball and pinball games.  Often there was a basketball shooting game tucked away in a corner, and typically an air hockey table situated in a large open space.  There would be 1 dude working behind a counter to make change for larger bills, and he would either be some old curmudgeon or some hippy with a tie-dyed shirt on.

Ah…those were the days.

Heck, I can remember people hosting birthday parties in arcades.  Parents used to drop their teenagers off at the arcade with some money and they would be occupied for hours.  That’s why they used to ALWAYS be in shopping malls.  The one I remember most was called the Fun Factory at the FSK Mall.  It even had a cool circular doorway that you walked into the place through!  Of course, the Fun Factory had “tokens” as opposed to simple quarters.  Those tokens were a pain in the neck, but kids were developing ways to “beat the system” – usually involving foil-covered washers.

I was actually at the Boardwalk in Ocean City, MD one year and I ran across a new game that nobody was playing.  I couldn’t believe my luck! I grabbed a handful of quarters as fast as I could and I grabbed my spot at the machine.  It was strange box, very unusual in its design.  It had 4 letters on the side and a bunch of lines.  It said: Tron.  I knew nothing about it and I had to jump right in to investigate!  Before I knew it, I was immersed in the world of Tron.  The game was actually several games in one.  There was a tank game, a motorcycle game (called “light cycles”), and some weird Frisbee game where you tried to knock your opponent off these rings.  I was baffled.  Why would anyone create a game that had so many games within it?  Don’t they want their money?

Not long after that encounter, I started seeing movie posters with those same 4 letters.  I couldn’t believe that Disney of all people was making a movie about video games.  I had no idea how that story would work.  I was curious, and my curiosity drove me into the theatre one night with a friend.  “Tron” is not about the video game at all.  The video game was meant to introduce you to the world of the MCP (that’s Master Control Program)!  What a stroke of genius!  I had played the game and knew how the games operated, and I recognized the look of the “game world”.  Now, I don’t know if the movie was out already and then the video games in the arcades came, but I discovered them in reverse order.

Tron” is a 2-part story.  The 1st part is the real world, where a computer game designer has his ideas stolen by some corporate suit who then fires said designer from the company.  The designer is Flynn.  The suit is Dillinger.  Get it?  It’s a joke.  Dillinger is referencing John Dillinger, an infamous bank robber.  Flynn is referencing Erol Flynn, the famous swashbuckling actor of such great films as “Captain Blood”, “the Sea Hawk”, and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”.  The ex-designer Flynn has become a hacker, trying to break into the company computer system to find evidence that his work was stolen by Dillinger.

The 2nd part of the story is what is going on inside the computer system.  In that world, the MCP (the Master Control Program) is stealing other computer programs and using them to grow smarter.  As it grows smarter, it begins to blackmail Dillinger in the real world to do its bidding.  It constantly tries to block Flynn from hacking into the system, and when he gets too close, the MCP uses a laser to zap Flynn into the computer system!  Here, Flynn makes contact with Tron, a security program created by another designer at the company.  Together, they must try to stop the evil MCP!

The film was a revolutionary movie because it was the 1st to use computer imaging and design elements.  The result is staggering, because the effects have held up so well after all these years!  Keep in mind that “Tron” debuted in 1982.  The storyline seems to puzzle some folks and I think this is because you have actors playing 2 roles each: the real people and the programs they have created within the computer.  You have Bruce Boxleitner playing Alec as well as Tron himself.  It really doesn’t confuse me, but I can see how that could trip people up.  I personally find the dual roles to be an exquisite element of the film.

The story of “Tron” is really about the threat of AI and how susceptible our technological world has become.  The surprising part about the movie is that the story was written really to open up the world of computers and video games to a larger audience, and what I got from it is the danger of computers and their susceptibility to being “hacked”.  Now, here is a film released in 1982 and people were already aware of such a danger.  Thank goodness computers like the MCP haven’t evolved yet!  This film opened the door for other films like “War Games” (another 80s classic!) and “the Matrix”.  Before “Tron” though, I don’t think anyone had really looked at computers and artificial intelligence as “dangerous.  I really admire this film and I recommend it to all of my fellow movie geeks and 80s arcade-goers!

I leave you with Flynn’s most important question: “How are you going to run the universe if you can’t answer a few unsolvable problems?”

END OF LINE…

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE

The Postman

The PostmanPostman_ver3

Few stories have that ability to make you feel like there are very important aspects about our culture that are vital to living the way we do.  Being classically educated, I find that in literature, such stories are much more readily available.  It is no surprise then that this movie, “The Postman”, is in fact based on a book by author David Brin.  However, there are things in film that come across much more clearly than in a novel.  This movie is a testament to both exposing the vital aspects of our culture and conveying the aspects of the novel it is based off of much more clearly.

 

This is an older film, but I often find it necessary to search through older films to find something truly worth watching.  Folks, this movie is definitely worth watching.  It stars Kevin Costner in a brilliant role as the unnamed hero of this film.  He is simply “the Postman”.  Set against the backdrop of a war-torn America of the not-so-distant future, the film chronicles the importance of communication.

We often forget in this day and age of cell phones, email, and text messaging that humans desire contact with other humans.  We’ve all heard the statement “stay in touch”.  How important can that be to our culture?  As Americans – since I cannot comment on being anything else – we talk to the same folks day after day, for the most part.  The list is usually pretty short: family, friends, and loved ones.  Imagine, just for a moment, what it would be like to have no phones of any kind and no computers.  Now, imagine trying to live your life in small villages being threatening by an imposing armed militia of warmongers.

I ask again: how important can communication be to our culture?

This film takes that concept and focuses in on the reality of the situation.  People are scared to travel.  They live in walled in communities and have almost no weaponry to defend themselves.  Meanwhile, there is an army patrolling the countryside, with loads of guns, whom are taking “tribute” from the communities in exchange for their “protection”.  Their feudal-minded leader is General Bethlehem, played wonderfully by William Patton.  This General is a warlord willing to take want he covets.

 

The scary part about this movie is that such a reality could really happen.  Cut off from the rest of the world, people are seemingly at the whim of this medieval warlord roaming the countryside.  Into this scenario comes an unlikely hero: a harmless loner with a talent for Shakespeare just trying to make his way in the wilderness.  By impersonating a postman, he starts a revolution of sorts.  People, longing for contact from their “short list” I mentioned earlier, eagerly embrace the postman and his charade.  The irony is, the Postman actually resurrects the old Pony Express.  Many of these walled-in citizens eagerly join up to become postmen themselves.  In carrying word from one community to another, these postal carriers become part of something greater than themselves.

Eventually, General Bethlehem attempts to end this unification of the communities through the postal carriers.  A war is inevitable, even though our unlikely hero attempts to end it peacefully.  This film has a lot of “deeper issues” being presented than most films these days.  It’s so rewarding to watch this film because it shows us all something we take for granted: communication.  We are able to talk to whomever we like whenever we want.  You’ll look at postal carriers in a new light after seeing this movie, I guarantee.

Although classified as Science Fiction (since it is set in the future), this film feels more like an old Western of sorts.  I can only say that you really can sink your teeth into this film.  Celebrate it by enjoying the movie with a friend.  It will give you both something to discuss after the credits roll.  Just remember my question: how important is communication to our way of life, our culture?

…that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE.

The Matrix

“The Matrix”  The_Matrix_Poster

“You take the Red Pill and the dream continues.  I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

There hasn’t been a truly great science fiction tale filled with legendary quotes since the days of Star Wars.  The one exception to this rule: the Matrix trilogy.  I have long been a fan of this series of films.  Wait – that’s probably a massive understatement.  I knew about the movie called “the Matrix” long before anyone else was talking about it.  I remember reading about it in a movie periodical about special effects.  That was almost 9 months before the 1st trailer appeared.  Then, when trailers were scarcely seen for it, everyone I knew was asking me “do you know about this new Keanu Reeves movie?”  Indeed, I did.  (I actually learned a great deal about the film through a back-channel: martial arts.  Yuen Wo Ping was the fight choreographer, and a legendary talent.)  When I 1st saw “the Matrix” in the theaters, there was hardly anyone in the theater.  It was as if someone didn’t want you to see the movie.

2 weeks later, it was a whole different story.  EVERYBODY was talking about this film!  At the coffee shops, the restaurants and bars, and even at the Post Office, people were talking about “the Matrix”.  At the Oscars that year, I knew it would beat the newest Star Wars film for Visual Effects.  I was right.  Before ever I even knew that there were 2 more movies to this trilogy, the Wachowski brothers released a special documentary called “the Matrix Revisited”.  That documentary clocked in at just over 2 hours and I loved every minute of it!  It was brilliant!  I began to see the size & scope of what the Wachowski brothers created.

So, as I begin to share my mild obsession with the Matrix trilogy with my family, I realized that I have never written a review of one of my most beloved films!  And now, I give you my thoughts on one of the most visually-stunning, intellectually-challenging, filled-with-cool-quotes films ever made…

The Matrix” is a science fiction action-packed movie that will intrigue the mind of any viewer.  It asks us to question our own reality.  It asks us to look deep inside ourselves and see the inner “rebel”.  Ultimately, the film is about a rag-tag bunch of computer hackers that are driven to find a mythical figure who will aid them in freeing the human race from their enemy.  The enemy in this case: an entire race of intelligent machines.  Along the journey of Captain Morpheus and his rugged crew of intrepid heroes, you will be shown a level of control that is so complete that almost no one even guesses that it exists.  If you have never seen this film, they you won’t understand this line (but I’m going to use it anyway).  The film asks us “what is the Matrix?”  The answer is horrifying and stunning.  It also is only the beginning of the tale.  But you cannot be told what the Matrix is…you must see it for yourself.  Here is where (to quote Cypher) you “buckle up your seatbelts because Dorothy is going bye-bye”.

Okay, so let’s begin to break this film down.

You have a simple and ordinary guy who is apparently a computer hacker that makes some extra bread on the side as a “personal savior”.  This hacker is named Neo.  Neo is also searching the computer world for a terrorist named Morpheus.  We are not told why, just that he is.  Neo becomes a threat to the authorities because Morpheus is looking for him too.  Again, no reason is given, but that is a temporary situation.  Neo is put in contact with Morpheus by another hacker named Trinity.  This mysterious meeting with Trinity turns into a nightmare day when Neo returns to work and is captured by the authorities.  When being questioned by Agents, Neo has his world turned upside-down when he loses his mouth and has a mechanical bug inserted into his belly-button!

Now, that doesn’t sound too confusing does it?  It doesn’t seem like a science-fiction film yet, does it?  Well, that last part is, but do you understand?  The set-up is brilliant.  It’s a normal bit of reality for a while, and then suddenly – BAM!  You find yourself being plunged head-first into an entirely different kind of reality.  That is what this film does and does it extremely well.  A little bit confusing at first, but that is quite purposeful.  It gets you to buy into one reality and then suddenly it presents a radically different one.

Once Neo meets Morpheus it is a different ball game.  The plot is boldly stated, and that leaves you kind of in shock.  Nobody does that!  Nobody tells you the entire movie’s plot right IN the movie!  This one does.  Morpheus then asks Neo the all-important question: “you know the reason [I sought you out], don’t you”?  Neo replies “What is the Matrix?”  Morpheus then gives a direct answer (another shocker) “unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is; you have to see it for yourself.”

This is where things can get confusing to many people.  The truth of the Matrix is that the reality Neo is living is in fact a prison for his mind.  Thousands of humans are kept prisoner in a future world where humans are essentially reduced to batteries to provide the enslaving race of intelligent machines with power.  I suppose you could say that the machines are using humans as a food source.  In order to make this prison effective, the machines had to create a reality that the human race would accept.  It creates a reality of America circa the end of the 20th century.

Now, this future world where people are trying to free other people from the Matrix seems to blow away most people and utterly confuse other people.  I unfortunately cannot make anyone reading this review understand the genius at work here – you’ll just have to see it for yourself (the movie, that is).  This is high-brow writing, intellectual stuff.  It is mired in books such as Simulacra & Simulation and esoteric philosophy books.  If none of that interests you, just trust in this: the machines have enslaved the human race in a CGI “video game” that is so believable that almost nobody suspects it is NOT real.  Of course, as the villainous Agent Smith explains the machines had to create a flawed reality, one in which humans believe there is a chance for something greater than the world around them.

Enter Neo.  When we meet Neo, he is looking for Morpheus but we don’t know why.  When Morpheus meets Neo in person he explains that Neo knows something is wrong with the world and it is driving him mad because he can’t figure out what it is.  The answer to that little riddle is of course that the Matrix has him.  However, Neo is one of those rare humans born in the Matrix that senses something wrong with the world.  (Ironically, he becomes a hacker – which is even more bizarre because he is hacking his way OUT of the Matrix.)  Okay, so now we know why Neo is involved – and we come to learn that this reason is the same for Trinity, Mouse, Cypher, Switch, and others.  But why is Morpheus involved as such?  What is his motivation?

As it happens, Morpheus tells Neo that there was a mythical figure born inside the Matrix that could change the Matrix to conform to his will.  They called this man “the One”.  He freed the 1st humans from the Matrix, and began to build the last great human city called Zion.  Morpheus says that it was prophesized that the One would return and lead the human race to victory against the machines in this war.  The One is meant to end the Matrix…and Morpheus believes he found the One in Neo.

Okay, so Neo is the One?  He has super powers?  Say whaaaaaaaaaaat????

Stop right there.  Don’t get too excited.  Neo goes to see the Oracle and learns he is NOT the One.  He also learns that Morpheus will sacrifice himself to save Neo’s life because he believes in this “truth” so blindly.  Now, here we have mythical names, a prophecy, an Oracle, a savior returning to end the war and free us all – am I missing anything?  Since when does science fiction get sprinkled with mythology?  (Go back to the beginning of this review, and you will see I already mentioned it: Star Wars.)

Okay, so we have reality that looks familiar – which turns out to be a fake reality and is in truth a prison for your mind.  We have a hacker born inside this fake reality that somehow knows that there is something wrong with the world, and he isn’t the only one to think so.  We learn that the hacker is supposedly a mythical hero destined to save the human race from this enslavement.  Now, we throw in betrayal, salvation, a love story, and of course a truly epic and glorious action-packed ending that will leave you gasping at just how unbelievable it all is.  People learn how to fly helicopters at the push of a button.  People learn to bend the rules of the Matrix like bending the rules of a computer system, and seem to have super powers inside the Matrix as a result.  Of course, nothing beats an Agent.  According to Morpheus many have tried and all have died.

Until you meet Neo.

I could spend hours upon hours talking about how cleverly written this film is.  The references to “The Wizard of Oz” and “Alice in Wonderland” are everywhere, and this adds to my enjoyment of this film in a way that I simply cannot explain.  There are subtle things too, like the names.  Neo means “new”.  Morpheus is a Greek name and from Greek mythology we learn he was the God of Dreams.  Trinity?  You know, like as in “the Holy Trinity”?  Sound bizarre?  Follow this possible theory: Trinity represents the 3 sides of each of the heroes of this movie – past, present, and future.  That’s just a possibility but her name was chosen rather specifically.  Oh, and the Oracle?  You have to wait until the sequel to “the Matrix” to learn the mind-blowing truth about her, but man is it cool!  The writing of this movie includes references to mythology but also philosophy, particularly Eastern philosophy.  When a small child asks Neo to examine his thoughts concerning the bending of spoon, he explains “…only then will you realize the truth: there is no spoon.”  This is BRILLIANT!  (I think I sat pondering that quote for days and it drove me to re-read a lot of philosophical writings.)

When you add the brilliant fight choreography and the over-the-top action sequences, you get one the greatest combinations in cinematic history: the thinking man’s action movie.  When I 1st saw Trinity move in what would be called “bullet-time”, I was stunned.  Nobody had done anything like this before.  This was literally film history playing out before my eyes.  The lobby scene towards the end of the film is one of the most exquisite action sequences ever to be constructed in film.  “The Matrix” has iconic still shots in it, but the editing for its action sequences ranks at the very top of my list.  In short, the cinematography was well done, but the editing took it to a whole new level.  The special effects were subtle at 1st, and grew a little bolder as the film went on.  Have you ever seen a mirror turn liquid before? Or have you ever seen glass bend and ripple before shattering into a ba-zillion pieces?  Once you see this movie, you can say “yes, I have!”

I honestly cannot recommend “the Matrix” any higher. This is one of those pinnacle films where you have to step back and say “can it get any better?”  Seriously, this film is THAT good.  I think I got this movie on every level on which it was constructed, from writing to action and everything in between.  This is not an easy film to digest (nor review fully) on the 1st go-around.  You may need to watch it again – or 3 or 4 more times.  Trust me when I say, this movie has so much to it, that it warrants at least a 2nd look.

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

“The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)” The_Day_the_Earth_Stood_Still

This film is a re-make of the 1951 film of the same name.  The storyline is almost identical, so you don’t lose a lot there.  The message of the plot can be summarized as this: humans need to change their ways.  Basically, both the original film and this re-make are stating that humans are self-destructive and are very nearly unworthy of any “higher being” taking note of us – except to destroy us.  Truthfully, I liked this message.  It’s very true of us as a race, but nobody seems to be willing to change that.  So, if you are looking for a “feel good” movie, this is most certainly not it.  If you were looking for a quality re-make of a classic sci-fi drama piece with updated special effects and some fine acting courtesy of Keanu Reeves, then this is the movie for you.

As a boy, I grew up enjoying some of these then-outdated classics from the ‘50s about UFOs and aliens coming to Earth to wreak havoc.  One of my favorites was always “The Thing From Another World”.  “Day” was another one of those.  However, I always longed for more action and aliens in “Day”.  Silly thought, I know, but 8 year old boys really just want to see cool stuff!  The heavy-handed, anti-war message of “Day” was lost on me until I was much older.  Still, I find the film lacking that “punch” of “oomph” that other sci-fi films offer.

The re-make of this movie has really only one highlight: Keanu Reeves.  I know a lot of folks don’t think much of him as an actor, but I have always and will continue to disagree with that assessment.  I think I have seen nearly every piece of work he has done in his career, so I have a lot to compare it to.  He plays an alien being to a far greater degree than the 1951 version, then played by Michael Rennie.  Reeves has a way of delivering his lines with a cold and very detached manner, which is exactly what I would expect an alien being to sound like.

The big disappointment for me was the failure to include one of the greatest sci-fi quotes of all time into this re-make.  The line is “Klaatu barada nikto”.  As any good sci-fi and horror film nut can tell you, this quote turns up in another cult classic “Army of Darkness” with Bruce Campbell.  That’s not the only place though: George Lucas also named 3 distinct races in his “Star Wars” universe after those words.

All in all, the film isn’t a bad movie, nor a disrespectful re-make of a classic.  It just lacks something.  That something I still can’t quite identify, but it whatever it is, it wasn’t in the movie.

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE

Terminator Salvation

“Terminator Salvation” Terminator-salvation-poster

In 1984, there was a little film with a modest budget, a spirited director, some lesser-known actors and actresses, an amazing story, and a special effects wizard (God bless you Stan!) that caused a MAJOR commotion.  That film was “The Terminator”.  It was a major hit, but it created a pulse in Hollywood for both the story (which would become a franchise) and its director.  I was 14 that year, and I was positively blown away by “the Terminator”.  I hung that movie poster up in my bedroom and it stayed up from that day until just a year ago or so.  I even bought a pair of Gargoyle sunglasses back in the ‘80s to look cool like Arnold (it didn’t work, but I had to try).  “The Terminator” gave us some of Arnold’s most memorable lines, like “I’ll be back” and “nice night for a walk”.  1984 was a GREAT year for movies – but that’s another story in and of itself.

So, I have followed the Terminator franchise in film since the start.  I loved the 2nd one when it came out, but I didn’t much care for a “liquid” Terminator.  It looked great but that’s the weakest part of the 2nd film, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”.  The 3rd film came along out of nowhere it seemed.  “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”.  I have to say, I really like this one more than the 2nd one!  I just hated Eddie Furlong as the snotty little brat in “T2”, and much preferred Nick Stahl as John Connor.  Heck, I even liked the T-X (or as she was later nicknamed “the Terminatrix”) better than the T-1000 played by Robert Patrick.  But most of all, I liked the way the 3rd film ended.  The machines rose to power and mankind was almost destroyed.

It is extremely difficult to write GREAT science fiction, but it is even more difficult to write great sci-fi when you deal with time travel.  Folks, some of the very best writers in the world don’t ever want to have to write time travel stories, and even they only rarely succeed.  So, when I heard that somebody was re-booting the Terminator franchise with a multi-film (a trilogy in fact) movie deal, my first thought was “uh oh, somebody is now going to ruin the whole thing”.  What I would later find out was that this trilogy would take place in the future, and would chronicle John Connor’s rise to become this savior of the human race.  Add Christian Bale to the film, and suddenly I think it might just be worth a damn.

Then, I find out, it is in the hands of this guy named McG.  I’m thinking “who?” and so I have to look him up.  What I would discover impressed me.  He’s been touching projects that have become successes his whole life – the guy has the Midas touch it seems.  So, I get excited again.  Yet somehow, I miss this in the theatres?  What’s wrong with me?  Am I losing my sci-fi geek-ness?  Not at all, I am happy to report.  I simply got caught up with life.  So, I finally got a copy of the DVD for Christmas – thank God!  Suffice to say, Suzanne had to practically restrain me from running home and rapidly ripping open my prize.

As for this installment to the franchise, this is what I have to say: I am impressed.  Somehow, the writers managed to pull these 3 very different films together to form a background that the whole audience should know – as does the main character of the film, John Connor.  It’s an action movie to be sure.  There’s a lot of great action – as is the case with ALL the Terminator movies.  The machines are impressive and they do a great job with presenting the T-100 series.  I was just blown away by the story of this film though.  What a tough job that must have been!  As far as I am concerned, McG hit one out of the park with this one!

Christian Bale is a believable John Connor.  He’s a great action star that can also really act.  I was more impressed though by Sam Worthington who plays a very interesting role.  I have never seen Sam in any movie before this, so I don’t know if he’s a “newcomer” or not.  He’s got a lot of talent though and it shows in this movie!   Bryce Dallas Howard plays Connor’s wife Kate, which is a continuation of the 3rd movie’s storyline.  However, she’s pregnant.  Excuse me?  I don’t like this because I can tell you right now that this aspect of the storyline will play a significant role later on.  The machines will be after Connor’s baby.  Yay.  Woo. I am NOT thrilled by this storyline development.  Granted, I could be wrong – and I sincerely hope I am – but I doubt that I am.

Terminator: Salvation” is a fine way to give this beloved franchise of mine a new life.  I was pleased to see the movie and I am even happier that it now resides among the other great science fiction films on my shelves.  So, for any other geeks out there that loved the very 1st film  and were wondering if this latest one was a dud or not, I am here to assure you that it is well worth a watch or two!

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE

Super 8

Super 8Super_8_Poster

This film is brought to you by Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment – and it shows.  It is directed by the hot “it” boy of Hollywood right now by creator of the TV Show “ Lost ”, J.J. Abrams.  “Super 8” is a good summer flick, featuring adolescent teens and set in the early 1980s.  The film works on a lot of levels, but the buddy alien that wants to go home has been done before…by Spielberg…in a little film called “E.T.”.  It too was set in the early ‘80s.  Oh wait, that’s when it was made.  Riiiiight.  You can see where I am going with this, of course, but the similarities end there – thank goodness!

Super 8” is really the story of Joe Lamb and Alice as they fall in love with each other.  To heck with the rest of the alien storyline, because this is what the movie is really about.  It is touching and utterly believable.  I credit neither J.J. Abrams nor Steven Spielberg with this either.  I credit two very young, but exquisitely talented actors: Joel Courtney & Elle Fanning.  Basically, if you don’t want to see a movie about 2 young teens falling in love in the early ‘80s, then skip this film entirely.  On the other hand, if that kind of story you might find touching, then I HIGHLY recommend “Super 8”.

The film will keep you guessing as to what will happen next, and there are several suspenseful moments in the film, including some make-you-jump moments.  There is some humor of course, but it is suited to the younger kids and things they will readily grasp.  I think many of us “children of the ‘80s” can identify with this movie, in a kind of “Goonies” way.  The kids are misfits, to an extent, but I found myself thinking “I knew a kid I grew up with that was a lot like that”.  I think many other viewers with have a similar reaction to the film.

The supporting cast is filled with great actors, like Kyle Chandler as Deputy Lamb and Ron Eldard as Alice’s dad and Noah Emmerich as Col. Nelec.  Right now, you are probably wondering who these people are, right?  Ron Eldard you might remember as Shep from the ’95 & ’96 seasons of the TV Show “ E.R.”.   Noah Emmerich will ring a bell if you have ever seen “the Truman Show” with Jim Carrey.  Kyle Chandler I had to look up.  I knew he was familiar but I couldn’t place him.  Think Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” and the cheesy actor named Bruce Greenwood is how you will know Chandler.  It really is a fantastic ensemble supporting cast.  Kudos to the casting director!  The kids that play all of Joe’s film buddies are of course unknown, but mark their names because you will hear of them again – and soon.  They are: Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, and Zach Mills.

I have to recommend “Super 8” for a lot of the acting talent and the writing.  However, the alien story serves as a backdrop and is not the feature of the film and it makes no difference at all whether you understand any of it.  Not a great deal of explanation is given, not even to the level of an old episode of the “X Files”.  So in this regard, I have to say the trailer is very misleading.  It’s still a great movie though!  Just be prepared for a bit of ‘80s teen nostalgia – minus the teen music of the ‘80s.  No John Hughes influences here, but more Stephen King a la’ “Stand by Me” and definitely the influence of “the Goonies”.

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE.

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek (2009)” Startrekposter

Another of the big Summer hit movies to be released thus far was “Star Trek”.  This film is not a re-make, but instead it is a revision of the classic TV show.  It is designed to give a big facelift to the franchise and introduce new blood to film-goers.  I am a fan of the original TV show because of its groundbreaking casting and some rather brilliant story-telling.  While I am a MUCH bigger fan of “Star Wars”, I cannot deny the genius of such classic episodes of the original TV show like “The Cage” and “The City on the Edge of Forever”.  The original movie was entitled “Star Trek: the Motion Picture” which I also believe had a great story.  Of course, nobody forgets “Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan”!  This film is NOT connected to any of the above mentioned stories or plots.

Basically, imagine an unknown actor as a TV character you remember pretty well (if you are over the age of 30).  Imagine a few recognizable faces in roles that they actually really fit, like Spock played by Zachary Quinto and McCoy played by Karl Urban.  Imagine someone writing a tale using the Star Trek characters with a pretty good story that captures the essence of what was and make it more …modern.  That sounds strange to say, but it is accurate.  Todays hit TV shows, like “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” demand a lot of attention to detail from the audience.  Isn’t that the point of good writing?  Well that is precisely what this film brings to the table: good writing.

Contrary to popular belief, Summer movies can be well-written.  In fact, they had better be in today’s market.  You have to write a decent story if you are going to capture the modern-day movie audiences.  We have all seen the “duds of Summer”.  These are films you go to see that have been hyped for the last 3 months, and when you walk out of the theatre you wish you hadn’t wasted your time.  I say again, in case any Hollywood insiders are listening, Summer movies CAN be well-written.  “Star Trek” proves it.

So, let’s review.  Good storyline?  Check.  Good actors? Check.  Classic dialogue that add a bit of nostalgia?  Check.  Now, throw in a high priced special effect budget and some well-choreographed fight sequences and a lot of action in general.  What do you get?  An incredibly worthwhile Summer movie that plays to fans of the old, the new, and the regrettable Star Trek franchise.  Seriously folks, if you enjoyed any of the Star Trek TV shows, you’ll be getting your money’s worth out of this film!

The casting is great, and there are many wonderful spot cameos that are surprisingly good, including Ben Cross and Winona Ryder.  The guy who plays Chekov is Anton Yelchin.  I don’t recognize him but he was absolutely wonderful!  I could bore you with who played what part and what I liked about them, but honestly, I don’t want to spoil anything.  Just do yourself a favor, and catch this one before it leaves the theatre.

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE.