Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Non-Superhero Summer Movie Roundup: Warcraft, Independence Day, Ghostbusters, Star Trek, The Secret Life of Pets, Kubo and the Two Strings

This year's summer movies largely seemed to follow the pattern of this terrible year: they ranged from mildly mediocre to grotesquely terrible.  I'm not sure about why that is, although this article from The Guardian's Benjamin Lee takes a good stab at it.  The awfulness of 2016 summer movies is especially odd compared to 2015, which gave us the masterpiece of Mad Max: Fury Road.  I even liked Terminator Genisys.

I'm not a big superhero fan, which probably saved me from some disappointment this summer.  I did have the misfortune of seeing Suicide Squad, but the silver lining for me is that as much of an offense to cinema as Suicide Squad was, it may signal that we are finally nearing the end of the mind-numbing domination of superhero movies.  Another benefit of Suicide Squad is that it inspired this hilarious video from Jenny Nicholson: "Suicide Squad Sales Pitch."

So without further ado ... my non-superhero summer science fiction and fantasy movie round up!


The quickest way to review this movie is to follow the old adage, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.  So here it goes: It looked pretty.

Okay, I can say a little more than that.  From the previews, it looked like it would be a visually beautiful film (and it was), but I didn't expect a whole lot in terms of an innovative plot.

Unfortunately the plot (such as it was) was either trite or incoherent.  Other than Travis Fimmel, the acting was mostly wooden (and even Fimmel was phoning it in compared to his performance on the TV show Vikings).  I guess it was fun to see Stormwind and some of the other locales I recognized from my WoW days several years ago.  But everything else about the movie was ... well, something it wouldn't be nice to say.

Independence Day: Resurgence

The 1996 Independence Day is not by any conceivable artistic criteria a good film.  But it is a lot of fun as a guilty pleasure.  And you've gotta love Will Smith.

And that's exactly the problem with Resurgence: it has neither any fun nor any Will Smith (just his image on the wall mocking the audience).  It's a paint-by-numbers, joyless Hollywood blockbuster.

It does have Jeff Goldblum and some of the rest of the original cast.  If someone made a cut of the movie with just the scenes with Brent Spiner, I'd watch that.  But aside from Spiner and a few cool looking scenes inside the alien ship, I honestly hardly remember anything about this movie other than how soulless and uninteresting it was.  Were they even trying to make this fun?

I think there was a Hemsworth in it.  And a guy who was Will Smith's step son or something, who is, improbably not the main character so whichever Hemsworth or pretty white guy it was can take charge.  And, as much as I love to see a more international cast, Resurgence haphazardly throws in a few Chinese characters at the total expense of people of any other nationalities.  This time America still saves the world, but with a little help from China.  I'm sure this was in no way a calculated marketing decision on the part of cash hungry studio executives given the appetite for Hollywood movies in China in recent years.

Philosophically, I suppose Resurgence continues the idea that can be found the first one that Mark Rowlands discussed in his book Sci Phi: Philosophy from Socrates to Schwarzenegger: How do we really know the aliens are bad?  What if we're the bad guys here?  Of course, the first movie doesn't explicitly explore this issue.  I didn't really expect the sequel to do so, either, but it would have been nice for it to do something interesting.


Ghostbusters was one of the few movies I saw this summer that I actually enjoyed.  I think if more people gave it a chance, they might like it, too.

From my full review:
Like many of the nerdy persuasion born in the 70's and 80's, Ghostbusters (1984) was practically on a constant loop on cable and VHS during much of my childhood.  So, along with a general disdain for remakes and reboots, I understand the fear that the 2016 reboot might ruin one's childhood.  What I don't understand is the blatant misogyny of some of the preemptive backlash (pre-lash?), nor the racist Twitter campaign against Leslie Jones.  More on that later. 
But first: Fear not, fellow nerds of a certain age!  Ghostbusters (2016) is actually pretty good!  A lot of the jokes are hilarious, and it's a fitting homage to the original.  The whole thing is a lot of fun, far more fun than anything else I've seen this summer...
For the rest of my review, which includes a reading of the plot of the film as a clever response to misogyny, see here.

Star Trek Beyond

I had mixed feelings about this one that are becoming more negative the longer I've had to think about it.  Why?  I'll explain in a bit.  But first, from my full review:

Beyond has a lot of problems ... but for the most part it's a fun movie that continues to capture the essence of the old characters while it introduces new ones.  It's bittersweet to watch Anton Yelchin's Chekhov after the actor's untimely death in a car accident in June.  Karl Urban's McCoy once again steals the show as my favorite part of the new Trek films.  Sofia Boutella's Jeylah, the white-and-black alien, portrays ass-kicking innocence (think: grown-up Arya Stark in space).   ...
The bad news: The plot is kind of a mess and, once you figure out what's going on, it's ... kinda boring.  This is one of those Trek movies that feels like a long TV episode (at one point Kirk even says his life feels "episodic").  I've never cared for the new Trek relationship between Uhura (Zoë Saldana) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), since it turns Uhura into a supporting character, almost an appendage of Spock, that spends a fair amount of her screen time looking like a worried puppy dog.
But the biggest problem with Beyond has to do with the villain. ...
Still, there were some nice philosophical reflections on death:
Early on in the film, Spock learns that Ambassador Spock has died (that is, the older Spock from the alternate universe played by Leonard Nimoy in the previous installments of new Trek).  I found young Spock's reaction to be a both a poignant tribute to Leonard Nimoy (see my tribute here) and a unique way to dramatize existential angst -- talk about confronting your own mortality!
Later on Spock tells McCoy that given how many lives Ambassador Spock lived, "fear of death is illogical."  McCoy counters, "Fear of death is what keeps us alive."  
You can read more, including some discussion of Stoicism and Epicureanism on death and the meaning of life, in my full review.

The review I wrote in July is a bit mixed, but the more I think about Beyond the less I like it.  While it's not as bad as Into Darkness, Beyond shares the main problem of the other new Trek movies: In trying to make Star Trek appealing to a mass audience, the film makers seem to have forgotten that Star Trek is actually about something.

Although Star Trek can be a lot of fun, Gene Roddenberry didn't intend for Star Trek to be merely fluffy popcorn entertainment.  It's supposed to be about the idea that human beings might someday overcome the worst aspects of our present predicaments: hunger, greed, scarcity, hatred, bigotry, and war (at least among our fellow humans).  Beyond is a fun, if problematic, action movie, but you don't have to understand anything about Star Trek or its message to enjoy this movie.  And the more I think about it, the more I see that that's a problem.  It's empty calories as a substitute for a nutritious meal.

The Secret Life of Pets

As a pet owner (I have two cats), I've always wondered what those little critters get up to when I'm not home.   This movie provides the answer!  Okay, not really, but it's a lot of fun and one of the rare gems of the summer.

It's funny to imagine the emotional and intellectual lives of pets and what they do when we humans aren't around.  The story, somewhat predictably, touches on themes of the value of friendship and teamwork.  There are a few rather macabre moments where it turns out some of the feral animals want to kill all humans. Maybe Futurama's Bender got to them.  But then that concept is quickly ignored.  I guess someone remembered that this is supposed to be for kids.

I suppose a deeper theme would be to reflect on the value of the relationships between humans and domesticated animals.  What do we owe them?  What do they owe us (if they can owe anything)?  How interesting is it that we can form real relationships with non-human animals?  What about humans who prefer the company of pets?

Kubo and the Two Strings

Although there was some controversy about the fact that most of the main parts of this story set in Japan were voiced by white actors (more on that at the end), I was really hoping that Kubo and the Two Strings would be a high point at the end of the summer movie season.  It was.

I loved this movie.  It's by far my favorite movie of the summer.  The animation is beautiful.  The characters are intriguing.  The story is poignant and thought-provoking.

The story focuses on Kubo, a boy who lives with his mother, who has some kind of Alzheimer's-like issue with her memory.  Kubo can use magic to animate little origami puppets while he plays the shamisen that used to be his mother's.  Eventually he sets out on an epic quest aided by a talking monkey and a man-beetle-samurai, all while being pursued by his ultra-creepy ghost-aunts.

The fantasy elements of the story are, well, fantastic and evoke the child-like wonder that is a key ingredient of all good fantasy.  One of my favorite scenes involved giant eye things at the bottom of the sea.

The philosophical depth of the story revolves around memory and identity.  How essential to your own identity is your memory?  Can you really be you without your memories?  If loved ones keep your memory alive after you're gone, are you really gone?  Is this a kind of immortality for morals of the kind described by Diotima in Plato's Symposium?  How can these reflections help us deal with the death of our own loved ones?

I'm thrilled to see these important issues discussed so eloquently in such a beautiful film, especially one that might appeal to kids, who are often shielded from these issues despite the fact that they affect children as much as adults.

As much as I love this movie, I do think they missed a good chance to highlight the talent of Asian and Asian American actors.  I appreciate Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey as much as the next person, but I can't believe that there are no Asian or Asian American actors in Hollywood who would have been just as great for one or both of those roles.  It's great that George Takei is in it (he even gets to say, "Oh, myyyy"), but he plays a surprisingly minor character for how much he's played up in the trailers and promotional material.  I should add that, to the movie's credit, a lot of the villagers in the movie are voiced by Asian and Asian American actors.

I'm not saying that animated characters should only ever be voiced by actors of the same race as the character.  But as Phil Yu at Nerds of Color argues, people generally don't care about big name actors as much in animated movies, so this would have been a great chance to give more exposure to Asian or Asian American actors who are woefully underutilized in Hollywood.  It's not so much that the mythical "PC Police" are mandating anything as it is that an animated movie set in Japan seems like a great opportunity to give chances to actors who normally don't get enough chances.

At a deeper level, I agree that representation matters.  Part of a more just society involves media representation that more accurately reflects the diversity that already exists in the world.  As I've discussed before, white guys like me are used to seeing ourselves represented in media, so we take this for granted.  As a result, we white guys have an easier time seeing ourselves in a wide variety of roles.

This situation is of course more complicated in Kubo, since it's an animated movie where all the characters are Japanese while most of the main characters are voiced by white actors.  Does this mar the representation in some way?  Or does it matter?  There's something a bit weird about it, but what, exactly?

I'm not sure what to think about these deeper issues, although I am convinced by the more practical argument that the film makers missed a chance to showcase the talents of Asian and Asian American actors, which might in turn help with representation in the long run since there would be a more diverse pool of well-known actors who get cast for major parts.

Despite my misgivings, like The Mary Sue's Allyson Johnson, I can't help but love Kubo and the Two Strings.  For me, anyway, it saved my summer movie season.  It was a vision of beauty in a wasteland of cinematic despair.

In the meantime, I'm hopeful: if the trailers for Arrival and Rogue One are any indication, the fall and winter movie season will be a much happier time for movie-going nerds.


  1. All right, you sold me on Kubo - I've been putting off seeing it even though the previews looked gorgeous. I think I'll sneak the kids out to it one of these days before school starts. Did you see Finding Dory? That had some very interesting memory-related themes as well.

    I'm still planning to catch IDR and Warcraft on digital when they come along, but I'm glad I didn't blow the cash to see them in theaters. Very good points about Beyond, too, particularly the "empty calorie" analogy - I think that about sums it up.

    1. Kubo is well worth it. It could be a little scary for some kids, but it probably depends on the kids. I didn't see Finding Dory, but a lot of my students said they took their younger siblings to see it and it was great. I've actually never seen Finding Nemo, either (one of the hazards of being a childless adult, I guess).

      The good thing about watching Independence Day Resurgence on video is that you could fast forward past the parts the don't have Brent Spiner in them. And my advice for Warcraft would be to keep your expectations very, very low. Maybe even just put it on mute and pretend it's an extended WoW intro instead of a movie.