|Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and Finn (John Boyega) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi|
It's time to continue my tradition of a "Best Of" movie list in the form of "the Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre." (See my lists from 2016 and 2015). I saw a lot of pretty good science fiction and fantasy movies in 2017, but I haven't been able to rank them as exactly I have ranked movies in past years. So instead I'm separating the good, bad, and mediocre into separate unranked categories.
Also, I'm only reporting on movies that are at least in a broad sense science fiction or fantasy, although I was tempted to include The Disaster Artist because I'm pretty sure writer/director/producer/actor Tommy Wiseau is an extraterrestrial.
If I could find a uniting theme of most of the movies discussed in this post, it would be about change and how we should react to it. Maybe this is a sign of our changing times? Maybe I'm making stuff up? You decide!
Without further ado...
I'm not sure if Get Out is my favorite movie of 2017, but I have to give it a lot of points for bringing something genuinely new and fresh to a genre than can often be shallow, tired, and weirdly conservative. From my review...
In most horror films, a family like the Armitages (wealthy, white, superficially good people) would be the victims of some terrifying Other. The brilliance of Get Out as a horror film is that it turns the tables to use the genre to explore the ways in which real life can be horrific for many African Americans. ... There's also a strong science fictional element to the movie I don't want to ruin. Suffice to say that it's an eerily amusing philosophical point that many of the black characters literally have double consciousness, and not just in the way W. E. B. Du Bois theorized.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I love The Last Jedi. I continue to be puzzled by how divisive it has been among fans. I haven't gotten around to writing a proper review, but I did write a post called "Non-Spoilery Advice for Watching the Last Jedi."
From that post...
... don't be scared off by the vitriolic nerd hate The Last Jedi has sparked. I can’t guarantee you’ll love the movie. I do love it myself, but there are some aspects of it I didn't love and areas where I can understand reasonable disagreement. But for the life of me I don’t understand the sheer level of hate that would lead people to sign a petition to remove The Last Jedi from the Star Wars canon or to organize a campaign to deliberately ruin its audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes (apparently the person who started the petition now regrets it). ... I understand that it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s no reason to throw all the tea in the harbor and break all the china. What’s the point? Besides, were they not paying attention when Yoda said that hate leads to suffering? My advice: see it and decide for yourself.I suspect what I love about it (my sheer delight in having my expectations thwarted and seeing the franchise move in a different direction) is exactly what some fans hate about it. For my part, I think The Last Jedi is exactly what Star Wars and its fans need right now. Case in point: I think the Rose-Finn subplot is far from the pointless distraction the haters say it is; in fact, I think it's absolutely essential to what the movie is trying to do (I may write a whole post on that later). As with Get Out, a big part of what I love about The Last Jedi is seeing something new that challenges our old, worn preconceptions about what a movie of a certain type has to be.
Blade Runner 2049
Blade Runner 2049 is definitely my vote for most beautiful film of 2017. It's also, like its 1982 predecessor, a deeply philosophical film with some flaws, again like its predecessor.
From my post "Non-Spoilery Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049"...
As with the original, Blade Runner 2049 prompts philosophical questions such as: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a mind or soul? Where do we draw the line between real and artificial, organic and technological? What does it mean for mortal creatures to contemplate their mortality? Is a society necessarily stratified into haves and have-nots, and what does a society owe its least powerful members? Might our non-human others, be they robots, aliens, or apes, be better people than we are?In addition to these questions, Blade Runner 2049 touches on the topic of reproduction, particularly its relevance for mortal creatures longing for some form of immortality (not unlike the wise woman Diotima in Plato's Symposium). But it also raises the idea that the value of reproduction may be not merely the re-production of ourselves, but the production of something new. Maybe this idea of the value of newness is something of a theme of my favorite movies of 2017?
War for the Planet of the Apes
Don't be fooled by all the business about "war." This is mostly a quiet, brooding movie. And that's a good thing. I'm a huge fan of the Apes films all the way back to the Charleton Heston days. Andy Serkis has had a great year as both Caesar here and Snoke in The Last Jedi. Also, War seems to continue with the theme of change and healthy or unhealthy reactions to it (a sign of the times, perhaps?).
From my review...
The strength of the Apes films has always been the ways in which they encourage us to view things from a different perspective by turning our expectations on their heads. While I'm disappointed about the lack of imagination on gender issues in War for the Planet of the Apes, I think it gives us some material for thinking about what it means to be human. Or ape.
If humans were to go extinct, but there were new people on the scene as remarkable as Caesar and his ape friends, that wouldn't be such a bad thing. And that's why I always root for the apes.
I have a tepid relationship with most superhero movies (see here), but I do have a soft spot for the X-Men, who at least show the value of diversity and team work. Logan is a most unusual X-Men movie, both for its emotional depth and its R-rating (for extra-ultra-bone-crunching violence, swearing, and even brief nudity).
From my review...
What would happen if the mutants lost their leaders and were scattered in the near future? What if Professor Xavier dealt with dementia and other indignities of advanced age? Would Wolverine help him or other mutants? These questions are the set up for Logan, which is a film that I daresay anyone could enjoy at a visceral emotional level whether you're an X-Men fan or not. The film also has a certain stark beauty to it. As a former New Mexico resident and Breaking Bad fan, I especially loved the scenes shot in the Land of Enchantment.
I read the novel a few years ago as part of a recent rekindling of my relationship with Stephen King, and I have fond(?) memories of the 1990 miniseries. I think this new adaptation worked pretty well. Between IT and Get Out, 2017 was a good year for horror.
From my review...
If I can be permitted a flight of metaphor, it occurs to me that the issue of adaptations of the book-miniseries-movie variety is merely one level of adaptation. To go a bit deeper, this is a story about adapting to new life stages as well as horrors as old as humanity. ... the true horror is not some malevolent clown, but the horrors within ourselves and others -- hatred, bigotry, and the sheer cruelty of our inhumanity to one another.
We can adapt to these horrific aspects of our natures by letting go and allowing them to dissolve the better parts of our characters, or we can fight against them to the best of our ability, forcing them to adapt to our decency, knowing all along that the horror may be too much and we may be devoured by it (or IT) in the end. The enduring popularity of IT is explained, I think, by its message about one of our deepest struggles as human beings: if we have any hope at all of fighting the horrors writhing within the human heart, it is only if we losers stick together.
A Dark Song
I saw this Irish/Welsh indie horror movie at the Chattanooga Film Festival, which added another great horror film to my list.
From my review...
The ending of A Dark Song is something to behold, but I don't want to spoil it. This movie has lots of delightfully weird WTF? moments, but the real core of it is emotional: What does it take to grieve? Is grieving as arduous and painful a process as this spell? Can we learn to forgive ourselves and others? Will the emotional trauma of being human kill us all in the end?
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
While Guardians is technically a Marvel super hero movie, it's really more of a space opera filled with tons of science fiction coolness. And it's just a lot of fun. But there's also a surprising philosophical dimension... From my review...
... 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.
I liked Wonder Woman. I really did. I almost put it in the "good" category. There are great things about it, but I admit I found the plot a bit unengaging and barely coherent.
From my review...
... even a super hero curmudgeon like me could see that Wonder Woman was going to be special, seeing as Hollywood has managed to reboot Spider-Man three times in the last 15 years but had yet to make a big budget movie about the most iconic woman super hero. And they even had a woman at the helm with director Patty Jenkins. The best part for me: seeing this will annoy MRAs and other loathsome types.
I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. It's not particularly deep or innovative, but it's highly entertaining.
From my review...
Will Spider-Man join up with the Avengers, the elitist 1% of the super hero world? Or will he stick closer to his roots as a working class friendly neighborhood Spider-Man? How do our backgrounds shape us? Can you be true to yourself in new circumstances, or does your self change over time? Do we owe it to our neighbors to be friendly? Spider-Man: Homecoming does raise these issues if you want to think about them. But whether you want to think or just chill out for two hours, it's a fun summer popcorn flick.
I never got around to reviewing Thor: Ragnarok on the blog, but it was a lot of fun. Not as much fun as Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, but you know, it has some cool space stuff and exciting fight scenes and stuff. I suppose in its own way, it was dealing with the big theme of change: sometimes you have to give up the familiar to preserve what matters.
I totally understand why most people didn't like Alien: Covenant and I admit it has a lot of problems, but I'm a sucker for the Alien brand of science fiction horror.
From my review...
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.
The Dark Tower
As with Alien: Covenant, I may be the only person who liked The Dark Tower. I'm okay with that. I've only read two of Stephen King's Dark Tower books (see my reviews here), which is probably enough to give me an idea of what's going on without having too many preexisting ideas about what should be going on. But a movie that only works for this demographic of people somewhat familiar with but not invested in the world isn't going to do well. I have a lot of sympathy for the filmmakers given the serious challenges of making a Dark Tower movie. Unfortunately, the final product didn't work extremely well, but I applaud the effort, especially the look of it and the world building. I even liked the score.
From my review...
Philosophically, the film can encourage a lot of interesting questions. Could there really be other worlds parallel to our own, as the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics or the Modal Realism of David Lewis here in our world suggest? Is Roland's life more meaningful because he has a single-minded goal, or is it less meaningful? What would happen if he achieved his goal? Was Jake right to believe that his visions were real before his journey to Mid-World, or should he have passed it off as a hallucination from eating leftovers that went bad? ... Why is it so bad to forget the face of your father? What do we owe fathers (or mothers, for that matter: why is this such a male-centered story, anyway)? What can we learn from Roland's reaction to our world? Is our world really an enchanted, magical, mysterious, and humorous place if you learn to look at it right?
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Valierian is a bad movie, but at least it's fun and has cool imagery. The opening scene and the idea of the multidimensional marketplace are pretty neat. The plot, "noble savage" aliens, and (ugh..) love story, not so much. See my review.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Another bad, but fun movie that raises the eternal question: "What the hell did I just watch?" I'm not sure what it was trying to do and you'd have to work pretty hard to find anything resembling a philosophical idea in it, but it seems to be some kind of crazy mash-up of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, MTV videos, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I recommend watching it for bad movie night. See my review.
Kong: Skull Island
Kong: Skull Island continues the theme of "bad but kinda fun." It has giant fighting monsters and John C. Reilly, but also a weirdly antiquated colonialist veneer. See my review.
Ghost in the Shell (2017)
I'm a huge fan of Mamoru Oshii's 1995 anime film, which I consider to be a science fiction classic. This live action remake just seemed ill-advised from the beginning, as if someone said, "Hey, let's remake 2001: A Space Odyssey!" I'm probably incapable of judging the 2017 remake without reference to the original, but I tried to do my best. I do have to admit that the remake is beautiful. The hundreds of artists who made it deserve a lot of credit. The major problem (aside from the whitewashing controversy) is that the remake jettisoned almost all of the philosophical core of the original. It ham-handedly tells us the answers rather than inviting us to ponder the questions as the original does. See my review.
I would have forgotten about Life if I hadn't checked my blog history to remember what movies I watched in 2017. It's supposed to an Alien-style science fiction horror movie about an alien life form causing havoc on a spaceship. At least that's what I think it was about. My favorite movies of 2017 (see above!) added something new and interesting to the cinematic world, so it's safe to say that Life was one of my least favorites precisely because it was unoriginal and largely forgettable. See my review.