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Movie Review: “The Dark Knight Rises”

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2012 by KarenElizabeth

Before I start:  be warned, this will contain spoilers!!!  Lots of them.  So if you don’t like knowing parts of a movie before you see it, save this to read after you’ve already been to the cinema.

Overall, I found this movie to be a disappointing end to a trilogy that had so many high points.  There were some good — even some great — moments within the film, but when you stack it all up at the end?  There were some major things lacking from what had all the makings of a great, gritty action flick.  Following on the heels of “The Dark Knight”, the third installment seems particularly bland, as we go in knowing that Nolan can do better than this.

I’ll begin with the obvious criticisms:  the factual errors.  Obviously nobody bothered to look up how fusion reactors theoretically would function, since the reactor in the film was completely unrealistic.  Removing the “control rods” (used as a safety feature in fission reactors, not fusion ones) supposedly made the reactor unstable.  It wouldn’t.  Control rods are there to scram (shut down) the reactor in an emergency; most of the time, they’re just sitting there, doing nothing.  They’re like an emergency braking system: once dropped into the reactor core, they absorb free neutrons without fissioning and thus stop the reaction, but if they’re not employed, the reaction just keeps on occurring.  As long as the cooling systems are functioning, the reaction won’t cause the core to heat up and enter “melt down”.

And, of course, that’s only in a fission reactor.

The other problem, of course, is in their explanation of the “time bomb” that the reactor becomes.  Supposing that removing the control rods did make the reactor unstable, it would be impossible to predict exactly when critical mass would be achieved and an explosion would occur.  In the film, there’s a timer with a countdown (to the second, even).  But for all that it would be unpredictable?  It certainly wouldn’t take months and months for it to happen.  A reactor going critical is a fast-paced thing.  It would likely only take minutes, not months, for things to go completely beyond control.

Then we have to look at the size of the thing.  I realize that this is imaginary technology, but seriously, a fusion reactor the size of an exercise ball?  This is beyond unrealistic.  Modern nuclear reactors (the fission kind) fill giant warehouses.  A fusion reactor containing enough fuel to begin a sustainable reaction?  That thing would have to be HUGE.  Think CERN LHC huge, guys.  There’s no way they’re fitting this thing on the back of a truck and driving around the city with it.

I could go on, but I think that you get the idea.  This film could really have used a proper science consultant.  And probably a medical consultant as well — I’m sorry, but Batman’s back is broken, and they swing him from the ceiling and kick him in the back to fix it?  Doctor, I’m questioning your methods.  And then Bruce is back on his feet again, climbing walls and jumping chasms, within what, a couple of weeks?  Whatever happened to the crippling knee injury he’s lived with for the last eight years?  Did that just miraculously go away?  Are you telling me that a prison medical butcher who swung you from a rope to fix your back was also able to do better knee surgery than all the most expensive doctors in Gotham?  At least give the audience a little bit of credit.  The railroad plot requires that Batman get better and make it back — we get it.  But could you maybe give a teensy bit of effort, while you ask us to suspend our disbelief?

Anyways.  On to the next thing.

Bane.  Bane was going to be a tough villain to sell effectively, no matter how you look at it.  The combination of genius intellect and violent thuggery that the character represents provides numerous challenges to writer, director and actor, who must find ways of reconciling the seeming inconsistencies of Bane’s character.  Many incarnations of Bane have failed at this — the most obvious being the “Batman & Robin” version of the 90s, which reduced the character to a voiceless, brainless minion.  Tom Hardy’s imagining of the character does better than this, but he’s unimaginably hampered by the directorial/writing choices that have been set against him, with the result being a lackluster performance that just doesn’t resonate on any level.

For starters, they’ve stripped away a large portion of Bane’s backstory in this version.  Whatever happened to “venom”, the experimental drug which is both the source of Bane’s strength and his greatest weakness (due to his body’s dependence upon and addiction to the drug)?  The mask Bane wears in this version delivers anaesthetic drugs to dull the effects of the crippling pain left by a prison beating … not quite as much punch in that, really, and it makes it very hard to believe Talia’s claims that there was nothing to be done to reverse the process.  She’s a frickin’ billionaire, and she can’t pay for some better pain management strategies for her favored boytoy?

Then, of course, there’s the very fact that Bane even is anybody’s boytoy.  Bane is not a minion, he’s a criminal mastermind in his own right.  The character was effectively neutered by shackling him to another (and, frankly, much weaker) villain.  His passive acceptance of his role as a cog in Talia’s ill-conceived scheme (a scheme which unnecessarily includes both of their deaths) grates against his presentation as a ruthless-but-farsighted gang leader.  And his reasons for following Talia are never fully explained … yes, he protected her in prison when she was a child, but why?  What made him different from the other inmates, the ones who murdered (and presumably raped, although it’s never explicitly said) Talia’s mother?  An opportunity to give this character some depth was squandered, here.

Of course, even if Bane had explained his motives at any point, it’s unlikely that the audience would have caught it.  The digital processing on his voice was so poorly conceived, so overpowering and out of place, that most of what Bane tried to say came out garbled and only half-intelligible.  Placed against the Joker’s brilliantly delivered one-liners, Ra’s al Ghul’s quiet, philosophical insanity, and Catwoman’s brilliant way of saying very simple things (I’ll come to that later in my review), Bane seems barely capable of stringing a sentence together.  Most of his lines are short, shouted, and monosyllabic, just so that he can be heard — and when he does try to say more, it’s only half-understood anyways.  The heavily digitized, high-toned voice seems disconnected from the physical presence of Bane on-screen — it’s as though his lines are happening in voice-over, being spoken by someone who doesn’t quite understand them.  Hardy and others have defended Bane’s unintelligible dialogue in interviews, but having watched the movie myself?  I can’t get behind their viewpoint that you don’t need to hear one of the movie’s major characters.

The overall sound design of the movie was actually something with which I had some difficulty.  The background score was often distracting at moments when it should have been heightening the dramatic tension, and many of the sound effects and vocals seemed much too processed and clean — for example, in the scene where Bane and several of his gangsters are escaping the police on motorcycles, with hostages clinging to the backs of the vehicles, one hostage can be very clearly heard to exclaim “please, let me go, please”.  Three times in succession.  In exactly the same tone.  It might actually be the exact same vocal clip, looped (I’d have to watch the movie again, to be sure).  But even if it’s not … they’re on motorcycles, in the middle of a high-speed chase, with  gunshots and squealing tires and screaming people.  Why is this clip so clear, so defined?  It doesn’t blend with the rest of the soundscape, and it’s distracting.  There were numerous times through the film that I was pulled out of the action by sound clips like this, and it was annoying.

On the topic of things that pulled me out of the action, there is the thing that I found perhaps most unlikable about the film: the Hollywood cliches.  Now, comic book movies are expected to be somewhat melodramatic. A bit of foreshadowing, pathetic fallacy, unreasonable coincidences, deus ex machina … it’s all par for the course when we’re talking about this subject matter.  But there’s a fine line to be walked between “hint of foreshadowing” and “bashing you over the head with the obvious”, and with this film?  Nolan danced a flamboyant jig on that line before striking out straight into the wastelands of “too damned overdone”.  When Bruce was climbing out of the pit for the second time, I turned to my moviegoing companion and said “he won’t make it; he has to try 3 times” (and was, disappointingly, proven right); when Blake said “I know you’re him”, I immediately thought “aaaand here’s the next one to take up the cowl” (although admittedly, I wasn’t sure if he’d be Robin or some Batman Beyond thing).  Every obstacle that was faced (the pit, the reactor chamber being flooded, the police getting trapped in the tunnels, Catwoman’s various betrayals and moral dilemmas) was introduced in such a way that an audience just knows, “well, this is going to come up again”.  They even got Talia monologuing at one point!  Have they not seen “The Incredibles”?

We all know that when you start detailing your evil plan to the hero while you gloat about your victory, you’re just setting up your own defeat.  C’mon, now.  This isn’t a Bond flick.

And seriously (really big spoiler alert here), he’s not dead at the end????  What the fuck, Christopher Nolan.  What.  The.  Fuck.  You couldn’t just let him die a hero’s death?  You had to have him ride off into the sunset and get the girl and live out Alfred’s fantasy?  Life doesn’t work that way.  You can’t create a gritty reboot of a series without killing off a few people.

Ugh.

With all of that said, I should point out again:  I didn’t hate the film.

A large part of why I didn’t hate the film was, of course, Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Selina Kyle (Catwoman).  Going in, I wasn’t sure if she was the right casting for the role (I mean really, the girl from “The Princess Diaries” as a femme fatale?  Would it work?) — and I was very much pleased to be proven wrong in my doubts.  Hathaway brings a sweetness (I won’t say “innocence”, since Selina Kyle is certainly no innocent) to the character that hasn’t really been there since Julie Newmar played her in the 60s.  That sexy little “oops” she delivers when caught by Bruce in the manor’s safe?  The matter-of-fact way in which she states things (standing in sharp contrast to the melodramatic deliveries given by many of the male leads)?  The relationship with Holly (beautifully vague — love it!) … all of it lends her a great depth.  Even the way that she moves and breathes seems properly Catwoman-esque.  And while I’m usually not a fan of women’s costumes in action movies (for all the usual feminist reasons), I do like the costume — it’s suitably sexy, without being gratuitous (it shows very little skin, and is really quite a functional garment, despite the heavy Dominatrix look), and I like the fact that traditional female comic book costume is poked fun at when another character asks about her high heels, and she promptly kicks him with them (the heels are serrated steel, by the way, and deal some pretty nasty puncture wounds).  These are not “fuck me” heels, they are “fuck you” heels, and I (as a wearer of ridiculously high heels myself) love that.  The character was, of course, undermined by the film’s tired Hollywood tropes — coming back to save the hero, just like she said she wouldn’t, and then that awful little scene at the end with her and Bruce in the cafe — but overall she manages to stand as a realistic, sympathetic, and strong female role, which was certainly quite a challenge.  I’d expected them to go the tired old “prostitute with a heart of gold” route, and seeing her as a flawed and realistic human being was lovely.

So, yeah.  Certainly not a movie to add to my list of all-time favourites, and definitely a bit of a disappointment, but “The Dark Knight Rises” was still a fun watch.  Worth seeing with friends, though, so that you can laugh at the melodrama and cliches together.  Maybe make a drinking game out of it — any time Bane is unintelligible, take a sip.  Any time they use too-obvious foreshadowing, take a shot.  Unrealistic medical stuff?  Finish your drink.  And I’m totally not taking responsibility for whatever alcohol poisoning this is likely to induce.

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Guest Bloggery

Posted in Ramblings, Reviews with tags , , , , on July 15, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

I’m guest-blogging today over at AllegroArts‘ blog.  He reviews different (and many very interesting) beers, and it turns out that my favourite, Innis & Gunn, isn’t available where he comes from.  So I whipped up a quick review of it, which you can check out here.

Restaurant Review: “Le Petit Dejeuner”

Posted in Reviews with tags , , on June 14, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

I’m not going to make a habit of doing restaurant reviews, as it’s rare that I eat out anywhere (rarer still that I do so and stay sober the entire evening, so my judgment in those cases would not be ideal for well-considered critiquing).  But on Saturday I had the opportunity to not only go out for dinner, but to do so all by myself, during a break between showings of the InspiraTO festival.  Since the Alumnae Theatre is located just off King St. East, not far at all from the George Brown culinary arts school, I figured that there must be some nice, eclectic little places in the neighborhood where I could go to get a good sit-down meal.

Walking along King St. East, a sign caught my eye.  A sandwich board for a restaurant — the place you’d usually see dinner specials or upcoming events advertised.  But this sandwich board had only one thing written on it:  “It’s Delicious!”  in slightly messy handwriting.  Intrigued, I ducked in to check the place out.

Despite the French name, Le Petit Dejeuner is a bit of a mish-mash of many different things.  The carved wood bar and high stools would be right at home in an English pub, but right beside that are booth seats upholstered (if one can call it that) in bright green, sparkly vinyl.  The walls have an odd assortment of mirrors, posters, and an antique cigarette machine on display.  The food is similarly mixed in cultural origins (much of it seems to be French and Belgian, but there are a few curve balls thrown in there), making an overall theme hard to come by.

Breakfast is obviously the specialty at LPD, and they serve some of the favourites all day.  Many of the options looked very tempting, but as I was there at 6:30pm and kind of wanted a pint of beer, I figured I’d leave that for another visit (breakfast and beer only go together, in my books, if you slept in a tent the night before).  I decided on the seared salmon with balsamic salad, figuring that since I was eating alone it was best to be somewhat classy about it.

The food arrived quickly, and beautifully plated with an herb-filled flatbread of some sort, and the salmon arranged neatly on top of the salad.  The piece of salmon was a little small considering that I’d paid $15 for the plate, and I know for a fact that the salad cost almost nothing to put together — I’d consider $12 a more fair price for the amount of food.  But what it was lacking in size, it made up for in flavour:  the salmon was perfectly cooked, and the spicing was subtle and pleasant.  The chefs at this place obviously know what they’re doing.

I’ll update this post if I ever end up going back to this restaurant for breakfast, because I feel as though I should try what they’re best at before giving final judgment.  My impression after this first visit, though, is that it’s a nice little place.  A tad bit overpriced, but not so much so that I wouldn’t consider returning:  just enough that I’d probably never make it a favourite haunt.  The eclectic mish-mash of decor and the smallness of the space (it really is just a hole-in-the-wall, crammed in between two other businesses) might not appeal to everyone, but I found it homey and cozy — even the green vinyl seats.  Somehow they just seemed to work, even though I know that if I put a set like that on stage it would get nothing but criticism.

I think next time I’m going to try the waffles.

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

Posted in Reviews with tags , , on March 28, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

Two friends and I took an evening this week to go see Alice in Wonderland at the cinema.  We saw it in 2D — the 3D glasses hurt my nose and the movement usually makes me feel nauseous, so I generally prefer 2D versions of things — and as a result we had the place almost entirely to ourselves, which was quite pleasant.  There were definitely places where the 2D animation seemed choppy and not-quite-right, so if you’re a person who enjoys the “3D experience” you may prefer seeing it that way, but it was still visually stunning without anything popping out of the screen (let’s face it: it’s Burton, ergo it’s visually stunning).

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, story-wise, as I’d heard some very mixed reviews.  Many people were very disappointed that the story didn’t tackle Carroll’s original subject matter, and instead chose to go with a pseudo-sequel that reads a little bit like fan-fiction.  Having seen it myself, though, I’m actually quite glad that they decided to re-interpret the material:  capturing all of the many elements involved in the books would have been impossible, and I suspect that any attempt to do so would have left me feeling as betrayed as I did after seeing The Fellowship of the Ring (don’t even get me started on my Tolkien-spinning-in-his-grave rant).  This movie instead makes no bones about the fact that it’s a new interpretation, and I’m glad to see that kind of admission of the difference between the written word and the silver screen.

That’s not to say that I’m totally pleased with what they decided to do with the story.  Despite the all-star cast, I was disappointed with the interpretations of many of the characters — especially Anne Hathaway’s White Queen, Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, and Alan Rickman’s Caterpillar.  I also felt that the movie was missing Carroll’s wonderful and fanciful wordplay:  with the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar and the Dormouse playing such important roles, there really should have been more of it.  The plot was overly simplistic, and the ending extremely contrived.

Let’s begin with Alice herself.  Her costumes were wonderful (I especially loved the dress she wore while visiting the Red Queen’s court), and I can see what Mia Wasikowska was trying to accomplish by playing Alice as a very subdued, quiet individual.  I don’t think that she achieved what she could have, though — whether it be bad directing or merely her own inexperience as a lead actress in film, I’m not sure (although I suspect a combination of the two).  She was clearly trying to go for a portrayal of Alice as an inexperienced, naive, day-dreamy girl brought up in a repressive Victorian society; a girl who knows that there is something wrong with the world she lives in, but she’s just not quite sure how to express that.  It works all right through the beginning of the film, when she’s still within the “real world”, but once she’s down in Wonderland/Underland it takes her far too long to even begin breaking out of that shell.  The shock of finding herself in a place that she thought was only a dream should come sooner and harder, enabling her to go through the more extreme emotions required for proper character growth.

Next issue: the Mad Hatter.  Johnny Depp misses the boat completely with this one, taking a character that is supposed to be witty, wacky and generally off-the-wall, and instead making him into an object of general pathos (even the other characters seem to feel extremely sorry for him).  The Hatter is far too aware of his own insanity — isn’t it said that the truly insane don’t know they’re insane? — and it turns him into a sad, serious victim.  This is a character that needs to be played with joy, and somewhere along the way Depp missed that note.  I won’t even get into the fact that his Hatter was really just a combination of Willy Wonka, Edward Scissorhands and Jack Sparrow, with the occasional touch of Sweeney Todd thrown in there for good measure; it’s an obvious point that has been made by many other reviewers before me.  It just added to the general feeling that Depp didn’t really quite “get” the Hatter.

The White Queen is probably my least favourite character of them all.  The deposed monarch, beloved by her subjects and yet powerless to stop her maniacal sister, needed to be gracious, benevolent and kind:  the sort of ruler who would be adored and idolized.  Instead she’s a ditzy blonde Wicked Witch of the West, plotting against her elder sibling and mixing up disgusting potions, obsessed so much with death that she can’t reach out to help the living.  She’s obviously the beautiful, spoiled, favourite baby sister, and I honestly felt a lot of sympathy for the Red Queen (someone who shouldn’t be sympathetic at all), largely because the White Queen is such a total bitch.  It was very jarring, and I was kind of secretly hoping that Christopher Lee’s Jabberwocky would come back to life just long enough to bite the White Queen’s head off at the very end of the battle.

As I mentioned above, the Red Queen is not a character who should be drawing sympathy … and yet like Depp’s Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen manages to be more pathetic than anything else.  The Red Queen is still one of my favourite characters in the movie, but there were many times when I stopped enjoying her nuttiness and instead felt sorry for her (perhaps as a less-pretty-and-popular older sister I was well-primed for such feelings, but all the same they shouldn’t have been there).  The Red Queen of the book is capricious, cruel, and pretty much terrifying.  Bonham Carter’s Red Queen manages it through most of the movie, but it falls apart towards the end when the audience starts to realize that Stayne, the Knave of Hearts, does not love her, and that the White Queen, her sister, is mocking and mean towards her (and it is suggested that the White Queen was their parents’ favourite, which really does in many ways justify the Red Queen’s hatred for her younger sibling).

The Caterpillar, too, was in many ways a disappointment.  Alan Rickman was a wonderful choice as the vocal actor, but the character was made far too serious.  Instead of being a wise-but-unintelligible mystic, he’s a prophet and leader of the people (they all run to him for advice upon Alice’s arrival, which seems very strange indeed).  He hardly frustrates Alice at all, and by the end is actually answering direct questions with direct answers!  He doesn’t speak in riddles and poetry, and it’s very disappointing.

Moving away from characters, now, and on to the plot.  I enjoyed the addition of elements from Jabberwocky (a poem that I absolutely adore).  However, I felt that it was very heavy-handed.  The audience is force-fed this idea of a “prophecy” from almost the moment Alice arrives in Wonderland/Underland, and it’s incredibly obvious that despite the objections of several characters (including Alice herself), this “prophecy” of the Jabberwocky is indeed going to come to pass.  I would have liked to see a lot more subtlety, here, as that would have made the climactic scene all the more exciting (as it was, it was a beautiful scene, and Christopher Lee made a lovely Jabberwocky, but you knew all along how it was going to end).  The story is lacking the many strange cul-de-sacs and turnarounds that defined Carroll’s work; it’s a very straightforward, point-A-to-point-B sort of tale, childish in its simplicity.  It really could have used a few more tea parties and strange encounters, and a lot less moody moping by many of the characters.

To end this review on a good note, however:  Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky was absolutely brilliant, and Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat was another wonderful choice (I wish he’d had more scenes).  The Bandersnatch is adorable, and I very much want one as a pet.  Tweedles Dee and Dum were also very enjoyable, and the March Hare is one of the only characters who achieved the proper level of absurdity and insanity.  Overall I actually had a very good time at this movie, and considered it well worth the price of admission.  And as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, visually stunning.  Somebody needs to introduce Burton to the world of being a designer, instead of a director, because his focus on the visual elements is just so wonderful … but unfortunately, things like acting and plot tend to suffer when your brain is so consumed with making it look amazing.

Oh, and to answer the riddle?  A raven is like a writing desk because they both have inky quills.  There are a few other answers out there, but I find that this one is the best.

Movie Review: “The Descent”

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , on February 26, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

So it was horror-movie night with some friends of mine tonight, and the movie of choice was The Descent (2005).  I wasn’t expecting much of it — I remembered the commercials from a few years ago, which seemed pretty cheesy — and actually was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a half-decent movie.  Not Oscar-material or anything, but a fun movie to watch, and not as horribly cheesy as most horror/suspense being produced these days.  If you enjoy horror movies, you’ll probably get some good enjoyment out of this one.  I do caution you against watching it, though, if you’re a terribly claustrophobic person.  Most of the action takes place underground, and the filmmakers do a good job of reminding the audience of that by creating very closed-in shots that sometimes left me feeling as though there wasn’t quite enough air in the room.

I’m going to warn you right now that the next couple of paragraphs are going to contain some spoilers, so if you’d like to see the movie without knowing beforehand what’s going on, I suggest you stop reading now.

First reason why I found this movie enjoyable: it’s actually got a really good setup.  The women are established right from the start as being an adventurous and thrill-seeking bunch, rather than just being a random group of people doing something foolish.  While the situation they get themselves into is a reckless one, they have a well thought-out reason for it: the death of Sarah’s husband and daughter has changed the dynamic of the whole group, and they’re trying to get back into the swing of something that they loved to do before.  Juno, especially, has something to prove: her affair with Sarah’s now-dead husband has left her wracked with guilt and feeling like a bad friend, so she’s more willing to take stupid risks to get the old feelings back.

Second reason why I found the movie enjoyable: while the women did make a lot of foolish moves (running around in the dark, calling out loudly to each other even after they’d figured out that the crawler-monsters hunted by sound, letting themselves get separated, etc), they weren’t your usual horror-movie heroines.  In a male-free environment, they weren’t just dumb blondes screaming for help; all of them managed to have brave and heroic moments through the film.  Sarah even managed to hit a sort of “Sigourney Weaver in Alien” kind of note on a few occasions.  But on the flip-side, none of them were unrealistically brave, strong or intelligent.  They all made mistakes, and most of them died for it.

Third reason the movie was enjoyable: the gory factor.  While some of the effects were pretty fake-looking (whoever did the blood effects clearly hasn’t bled enough in their life, because the “blood” looked really fake on many occasions — clearly a lot of corn syrup and guar gum being employed, and not necessarily in the right concentrations), most of them were actually pretty good.  The sounds, especially, were nice and squelchy.  In the limited lighting conditions, the choice to go with makeup effects rather than CGI was a good one, in my opinion.  In bright light many of the effects would have looked silly, but when things were being illuminated only by the light of a torch, it came out pretty darn cool.

Speaking of lighting effects, I mostly enjoyed the way that the lack of light was used to great effect throughout the film.  The various light-sources used (flare, helmet lamp, video camera, glow sticks, flaming torch) provided lots of variety to what would otherwise have just been a monotonous maze of cramped passages and stalactite-filled caverns.  I often noticed shadows going in the wrong directions (especially in the scenes with the glow-stick illumination), but that’s just the lighting designer in me coming out.  In most cases it was easily overlooked.

There were, of course, some things that I didn’t enjoy so much about the movie.  The crawler-monsters were the source of many of these eye-rolling moments:  while they were certainly creepy-looking enough, I found their actions to be really inconsistent.  In one scene they’d be cautiously stalking the girls, waiting for the right moment to strike, but in the next they’d be running forwards mindlessly.  In one scene their sense of hearing might be so acute that they can zone in on a girl by the sound of her breathing, but in the next scene the girls can actually be whispering to each other, only a few feet away from a crawler, and it doesn’t seem to notice them.  Nor did their behaviour seem like the sort of thing that any known predator might do; the way that they would keep attacking even after being injured was especially annoying.  In the wild, predatory creatures are cautious and avoid situations where they might get hurt, because an injury in the wild means almost certain death.  Finally, it made absolutely no sense to me how the crawlers seemed to have very sharp hearing (most of the time, at least), and yet none of their other senses were particularly sharp.  Creatures that live underground often lose the use of their eyes, yes, but such sensory loss is generally accompanied by all other senses growing stronger.  At the very least, the crawlers should have had more acute senses of smell and touch — but instead it seemed as though they couldn’t smell the girls even when standing right in front of them, and in one particular scene a crawler has its hand only inches away from Sarah’s burning torch, and it doesn’t react at all to the heat.

I had mixed feelings about the ending.  While I usually dislike anything that says “whoops, that was all just a dream sequence/hallucination/coma fantasy/drug-induced weirdness” …. I actually kind of liked the uncertainty at the end here.  Among other things, it was a welcome change from the usual “lone heroine survives the terrible ordeal” sort of ending that we’ve all seen far too much of in movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer and the Halloween saga.  And I’m very happy that they didn’t try to tack on some cheesy “all our friends are dead, but we’re alive and we’re going to celebrate that and be okay!” kind of happy/uplifting ending:  I get very tired of happy endings, especially in movies where they just don’t belong.

So in conclusion, The Descent was definitely worth the time spent in watching it.  Not something I think I’d want to own, but worth a watch.

“Avatar”, the Noble Savage, and Why White Boys Piss Me Off

Posted in Rants, Reviews with tags , , , , , on January 25, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

So people keep asking me what I thought about the movie Avatar.  And I  try to be tactful about it, and not start spouting off a bunch of jargon about semiotics and systems of signs and how much I wish that Sam Worthington’s character had just died very early on in the film.  So my usual answer has become simply, “it’s pretty.”  Because despite everything that’s horribly wrong with the story, the film does have a lot of pretty pictures.

But this is a blog, and I don’t have to be tactful.

Let’s start with one of the more obvious problems with the film: the idea that an uncouth, uneducated, colonialist American military-grunt white boy could learn enough about a culture in just a few short weeks to not only become sympathetic to their cause, but to actually become a full-fledged tribe member, and even a leader of the people.  Sorry, but no.  Especially when it becomes clear that the Na’vi have refused to accept Grace as one of their own, when she’s a trained anthropologist and astrobiologist who’s been among them for years.  This quick induction into the native culture goes completely against the portrait of the Na’vi as a cautious, secretive people which is otherwise maintained throughout the film.

Realistically, Jake should have died a dozen times over before ever becoming a full-fledged warrior of the Na’vi.  He should have been killed for blundering stupidly into their forests; he should have fallen from a tree and broken his neck; he should have been trampled to death by any number of forest creatures.  And he definitely should have been tossed off the floating mountain by the Banshees.  Taking and copulating with a betrothed woman (especially when that woman is the chief’s daughter) should have gotten him slaughtered by Tsu’tey, and let’s not even get into the whole Toruk thing (can I just say, predictable as all hell?).  Jake Sully should be thanking his lucky stars for all the hero-friendly Deus Ex that seems to have fallen in his way (Cameron uses that trick a lot, it seems).

I guess the movie just wouldn’t have been as interesting if Jake had gotten himself killed by his own stupidity within the first half hour, but it sure would have been more realistic.

But it’s not just Jake’s inexplicable survival that makes his character so problematic.  Like FernGully: The Last Rainforest and Disney’s Pocahontas, this movie is yet another example of “idiot white boy charges in and saves the poor little native peoples”.  Because of course, they couldn’t possibly save themselves.  It takes a strong, white male presence to pull them all together and lead them into victory.  Ah, racism.

Now, defenders of the film will undoubtedly argue at this point that we needed a human character to be the hero, because we couldn’t have empathized in the same way with a Na’vi character like Tus’tey, or even the beautiful Neytiri.  But this seems to me to be a pretty weak excuse.  Despite the cat ears and the tails and the blue skin, the Na’vi are very human-like.  They’re meant to be that way, so it doesn’t seem disgusting when Jake and Neytiri have sex.  The Na’vi have basically human features, and are built like slim and athletic human beings — right down to the belly buttons and breasts (despite the fact that they’re not placental mammals, nor do they nurse their young).  They even speak English through most of the film, for goodness sakes!  I’m pretty sure we could have made the small cognitive leap (more like a “step” than a “leap”, really) and felt some pathos for them.  Would audiences have felt less joy when the bulldozer was shut down if it had been Neytiri who’d done it?  Would it have been less impressive had Tsu’tey tamed the vicious Toruk (a feat only accomplished five times in the past) and led the battle in the sky?  Would a Na’vi have been capable of giving rousing speeches and bringing the people together to fight the oppressors?  Would Eywa have responded to help her people without the intervention of an outsider?

Yeah, the film could definitely have been done without Jake.  And it probably would have been better for it.  But just eliminating his character wouldn’t have fixed all of the problems, as I will illustrate below.

Problem number two: the Na’vi.  I hope I don’t need to explain to anyone that the Na’vi have some very obvious similarities to certain “primitive” human cultures, such as Native Americans and the Aboriginal Australians.  While the Native connection to Mother Earth is somewhat more of an abstract concept, the Na’vi have a very literal connection to their Mother Goddess, Eywa, and to the world around them, as expressed by their ability to “plug in” to each other with their ponytails.  They live in perfect harmony with nature and all of Pandora’s creatures, and feel deep sorrow at any sort of death or destruction.  Of course, this doesn’t stop them from killing and dominating the creatures around them, but we’re talking about concepts and ideals here.

All this brings up a rather nasty concept tied closely to European colonialism: the ideal of the “noble savage”.  This is a term that is mostly associated with the 18th and early 19th centuries, when white Europeans were storming all across the globe, wiping out cultures and people left and right.  While some people worked to disempower, destroy, and convert the “savages” that they encountered, others saw native peoples as somehow more “pure” than civilized Europeans, and sought to find that purity in their own lives.  “Romantic primitivism” during this period often involved white people traveling to colonized countries and “living among the savages” — a misleading phrase, as they didn’t live “among” them so much as “on top of” them, building large vacation houses with all the European comforts, where they could sit and observe the activities of their native slaves.  And it wasn’t just limited to observation — many of those native women wound up in the beds of their white oppressors, who found them exotic and exciting (not too much unlike Jake and Neytiri, really).  The white men would then write long journals or accounts of their travels, which would be published back home to much acclaim, and when the romantic traveler returned home he would inevitably have many examples of native art and artifacts to display in his living room, or to sell for a profit.  Less adventurous Europeans would try to capture this experience by spending time at country houses, copying native art (and creating their own versions of it), without ever understanding the history or meaning behind the original creations.

Obviously, the “noble savage” was a lovely ideal, but his way of life was still completely incompatible with civilized society.  He still needed to be taught English (and have his old language beaten out of him), to learn European history, and of course they had to be converted to Christianity and stop this silly earth-worshipping of theirs.  They were wonderful, but still infinitely inferior to white Europeans.

The Na’vi are pretty much the personification of the “noble savage”.  They’re just different enough from us to be exotic, yet enough the same that we can see they are beautiful and desirable.  They live in harmony with nature (an ideal that many of us find sympathy with in our modern quest for “green living”), and they do not have wars or strife.  Yet they lack any force in their personalities — they mindlessly obey orders (only Jake will disobey), can’t be innovative to solve problems (Jake has to come up with all the grand plans), and when trouble threatens they just throw up their hands in defeat (instead of planning their defense, they just decide to stay in their tree and die … until Jake convinces them otherwise, of course).  Their connection to Eywa is admirable, and yet their Goddess won’t step in to save them in a direct way (well, at least not until a white man asks her to).  And even though in the end they do win the fight, their home has been destroyed and they have lost much of what they had before (not unlike many post-colonial societies, which now have sovereignty, but have already lost everything they had before the white man came).

And now for the third problem I had with Avatar: Eywa.  Eywa is basically the Pandoran version of Mother Earth, a Goddess who is really just a personification of nature.  But unlike our Mother Earth, Eywa is active and able to fight back against what is done to her.  A nice idea for modern people (especially modern Americans) who don’t want to make the effort to save our planet: look, Eywa can just save herself; maybe Earth can do it, too.  It’s comforting, it’s idealistic, it’s infantile.  Let’s face it: if Earth ever does make a move to protect itself, humans probably aren’t going to survive the shift — nor will much else that’s alive on the planet today.  Mass extinctions have happened before, and will happen again, and they’re not pretty and controlled like what we saw in Avatar.  Eywa is really just an excuse for the modern urban human to feel better about what we’ve done (and are doing) to the planet — because if we were fighting against an armed opponent, it would make the whole thing much more morally acceptable.

I find it funny that people have accused Cameron of being “anti-American” after seeing this film.  If anything, Avatar is just a huge justification for the American way of life.  Idiot military grunt white boys can save the world and get some hot, blue poon while they’re at it, and the earth will save itself so why stop drilling for oil?  Sure sounds like an endorsement of American stupidity to me.