Monday, May 29, 2017

Summer Movie Round Up, Part 1: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Alien: Covenant, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

After a mostly terrible summer movie season in 2016, I've been hoping for a better one in 2017.  Early results are showing that we may be in for something a bit better than last year.  That is, at least if the first three summer movies I've seen are any indication: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Alien: Covenant, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

While I'm not a huge fan of superheroes or the current domination of Marvel over the science fiction/fantasy movie landscape, I have to admit I was looking forward to this one.  I'm somewhat put off by the hyper-individualism of most superhero stories, but I often like superhero teams (like the X-Men).  Also, Guardians of the Galaxy is really more in the space opera than superhero genre, although it obviously retains a lot of its comic book lineage.

But really my reason is more simple than that: Guardians is just a lot of fun.  And the sequel is just as fun, or - dare I say it?- perhaps even more fun.  Sure, Star Lord/Peter and Gamora are cool, but of course the show continues to be stolen by Drax, Rocket, and Baby Groot.  Unfortunately one of the funniest scenes (where Peter has his innermost feelings read by Mantis to be mocked by Drax) was also one of the heavily played previews; luckily it was just as hilarious the fifth time I saw it.

While the movie is mostly just a lot of fun and you could thoroughly enjoy this one by turning off your brain and enjoying the explosions (preferably in IMAX), there's a surprisingly deep philosophical message as well.  It turns out that Peter's daddy issues (because of course a $200 million sci-fi movie would be about a white American dude's daddy issues) involve a god-like figure who wants to remake the entire universe into, well, himself.  The dude's name is Ego.  Really, they should have seen that one coming.  (Ego is played awesomely by Kurt Russell, who should do more movies these days).

As Buddhist philosophers would point out, ego (or Ego) is the source of a lot of misery.  The desire to remake the world in the image of what we take ourselves to be is doubly harmful: first, because there is ultimately no single thing that makes you you - no ego, self, or essence; second, because trying to force the diversity and richness of the world into your pre-made categories of how things should be is a deeply tragic mistake.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, the mistake is that you rob your friends (not to mention all things in the universe) of their own particularity.  But for those of us who aren't god-like celestial beings named Ego, another problem is that we simply can't re-make the universe as we see fit.  The universe has an obnoxious tendency to be other than we want it to be, no matter how hard we try or wish otherwise.  The key to happiness is re-making your expectations rather than expecting the universe to fundamentally re-make itself to suit your whims.  This has the added benefit of opening you up to the delightful otherness beyond your own ego, which is especially important when this otherness can include movies as fun as Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2!

Alien: Covenant

Whether you will like or hate Alien: Covenant can probably be predicted by whether you liked or hated Prometheus (2012).  Not only is this a sequel that takes place between Prometheus and the original Alien, it retains a lot of the look and feel (and problems) of Prometheus.

I liked Prometheus despite its problems.  I feel the same way about Alien: Covenant.  Both films are far from perfect.  Both have some major flaws of the "how can they be so stupid?" variety.  But both manage to capture the horror that the Alien franchise does so well with considerable help from H. R. Giger's designs.  Alien: Covenant is a bit more of a conventional horror film than Prometheus, showing that 38 years after the original Alien those xenomorphs are still reminders that space is a seriously terrifying place.

Does Covenant have its problems?  Sure, lots.  Apparently none of the crew have ever watched a sci-fi movie or read a science fiction book about alien pathogens, so they land on an alien planet and walk around without so much as a dust mask.  That's just the beginning of their oddly unintelligent decisions.  Maybe it can be chalked up to their stress levels.  I probably wouldn't be thinking rationally if I were hanging around an H. R. Giger necropolis with a crazy android after my colony ship was damaged in space, either.

Philosophically there's an interesting bit about the need for self-aware beings to create, one that almost (but not quite) makes the crazy android sympathetic.  How to reconcile this need for self-expression with the warnings about egoism to be learned from Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2?  That is essentially the question of Alien: Covenant.  

Of course, the answer takes a much more horrific turn in Alien: Covenant, which is just what you'd expect.  While I completely understand why some people didn't like Alien: Covenant and I admit it has a lot of problems, I'm a sucker for the Alien brand of sci-fi horror.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

My level of knowledge of Arthurian legend could best be described as "Monty Python," so I'm not going to have any complaints of the "this is not true to the source material" variety.  But really, anyone looking to this film as a guide to Arthurian legend would probably be better off watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail if they insist on getting all their information about King Arthur from a film.

Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is not at all intended to be a scholarly source, so what is it?  It's a lot of fun!  But what kind of fun?  Well, it's like Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones fan fiction presented in Ritchie's signature frenetic, music video style.  With giant war elephants!  And Arthur's upbringing in a brothel as a catchy, pop-music-laden montage!  Sounds weird, huh?  But kind of fun?  Like a guilty pleasure?  Exactly.

While this is the kind of film that seems to deliberately evade anything resembling philosophical thought, I suppose you could extrapolate from the hero-not-initially-willing-to-accept-his-destiny motif (did I mention that superhero films are also in the mix?).  We all probably have aspects of our identities that we feel ambivalent about, even if these aspects don't involve magic, fate, or archaic notions of the divine right of kings.  Can Arthur teach us that, one way or another, we can't escape our identity?  Or should we - oh, look, a giant elephant!  Cool!

So will the 2017 summer movie season be okay?  Will the new Planet of the Apes movie meet its gorilla-sized expectations?  Will that crazy-looking Valerian movie be any good?  Or The Dark Tower?  I'll probably even see Wonder Woman just to piss off MRAs and a certain kind of white dude of the internet.

In the meantime if you're dying to know what I think about other visual media, I hope to soon have a lot to say about TV, especially new seasons of Sense8, which we've been waiting for for almost two years, and Twin Peaks, which we've been waiting for for 26 years.  That is, as soon as I figure out what's going on in either show!

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