Currently viewing the category: "Movies"

vivianVivian Versus the Apocalypse (2012) by Katie Coyle:

In my apocalypse fiction travels, I haven’t done a lot of slow crumbles. This YA novel written by a MFA-gettin’ author whom my one friend knew is about a declining America thanks to environmental  shenanigans, violence, and an aggressive new cult called the Church of America. Our heroine is Vivian Apple, whose parents have converted to the Church and vanished on what was supposed to be Rapture Day.

There are YA novel and coming of age tale tropes: Apple is a goody-goody with a wilder friend and a dreamy boy with dreamy eyes who also has a — dun dun dun — secret. There’s a whisper of over liberalism, based mostly on the fact that the Church of America is hardcore mocking American Christian conservatism (not that that’s not frequently deserved). Even the existence of decent religious people doesn’t fully wash away the suggestion that this is all a metaphor for fleeing flyover country. But hell, that’s okay. Vivian the character herself seems to be a 16-year-old liberal. Sometimes you have to get to the promised land of California. Everything is okay except for the Walking Dead-esque “no, I won’t use a gun!” moment of stupid. (Nothing in the world is as stupid as a woman objecting to her sheriff husband teaching their 11-year-old son to use a gun in the middle of zombie apocalypse, because it’s not safe. Nothing. I haven’t watched that show in a while.)

Fundamentally, all of these pieces work together much better than they should because Coyle is a solid, serious writer. And Vivian Apple is a sophisticated, but not overly adult character who has to deal with learning that her parents were real, perhaps not good people and that the world is not chock full of answers. That world which may also end in a few months. See, this new Church of Frick (Pittsburgh Homestead Strike shoutout? Probably! The books begins in Pittsburgh!) has a holy book. That book mentions two raptures. This is a great detail, because it sends those Believers left behind into a pious frenzy. They don’t want to be left behind again. That makes some of them very mean, and very against fornicating and homosexuality and such.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the revelations with the would-be villain at the end of the book. Plus, every YA novel and comic book movie now has to end not in an awesome open-ended way, but in a “YEP, A SEQUEL’S A-COMIN'” way.  This bugs me, but I’ll be reading the sequel without question.

This is the kind of book that gives YA fiction a good name. There’s nothing unserious about it, even if it’s not perfect.

Long_Loud_Silence_The_-_Tucker_Wilson_-_1952-_Dell_-SF_-_G_-10_1024x1024The Long, Loud Silence (1952) by Wilson A. Tucker:

My copy of this early nuclear doom novel has the most gorgeous pulp cover. It’s a cheap paperback from the mid ’50s, but it looks amazing. I had meant to read it months before, but I would have bought it just for the cover (as I did a few other books I may or may not read).

Unfortunately, the cover is the best thing about this book. It’s not all bad. It has a stoic vibe that works well enough to hold interest for the 180-some pages. Basically, the US was attacked by nukes, regular bombs, and disease bombs. Unfortunately this happened right as our hero Russell Gary is on a major bender. He wakes up to a bad hangover of a dead hotel, a dead city, and oops, soldiers are preventing him from going back across the Mississippi river. This we have our class system. (I guess the West IS better. No, it is.)

Gary is a mildly interesting sort. He is a practical, unpleasant, manly man who smacks a girl, and keeps denying that she’s 19, because she looks young (spoiler alert: seducing him convinces him of her age). Wilson manages to write the first female character we meet as a ditz who clings to Gary, and who is wasting post-apocalyptic time collecting jewels.

There’s other awkwardness: Some years after the event, Gary implies at one point that he’s going to go back to a farmhouse of people in order to groom their child to be into him later. Unless I read that way wrong, and I rather hope I did.

For all the dramatic setting, this is kind of a character study of a man who was never very pleasant or kind, who becomes colder and crueler over the years, but never actually becomes a full monster. There’s some nuance in this picture. He saves a child from cannibals, then uses that fact to get a farmhouse and a place to stay and work for the winter. He never murders or steals without cause. But he’s a bit of an asshole (maybe he always was. There’s interesting hints about what war did to him that aren’t really mentioned after the beginning). And the part where he finally succeeds at his years-long goal of getting across the river is…odd. It’s the only part that doesn’t feel quite real in the book. I suppose it had to happen.

The ending is supposed to be cute, I think. I suppose it is a fair capper to all that has happened. Maybe ditzes have good survival skills after all.

mad maxMad Max: Fury Road (2015), directed by George Miller, starring myriad hotties and/or people in awkward masks

Somehow — somehow I accidentally saw the Fast and the Furious Seven (I forget its actual title, therefore I don’t know what to italicize!) in theaters, not having seen a single one of the previous six movies. (It’s because I was supposed to see American Sniper, and then I didn’t get to see that either, and everything was stupid.) I regret that all the more when I realize I saw “sure, cars can fly, and let’s film this action sequel in the dark because Paul Walker is unfortunately dead” in theaters instead of Fury Road. I watched this on the biggest available TV, but I curse myself for not seeing it theaters, the way I curse the six-year-old me who saw Free Willy while my brother and cousin trembled in exhilaration and fear at the T-Rex in Jurassic Park.

This is an action movie with strong characterization and world building, that doesn’t spoonfeed context to you. This is a manly action movie that is chock full of bad-ass women. This is a post-apocalyptic movie whose world defies logic and has way too much pageantry and nobody cares, because it’s awesome. This is a movie in which gorgeous women at one point spray each other with a hose, and the camera never leers. (Seriously, seriously picture that scene as shot by Michael Bay or a thousand other assholes).

It’s an ugly, bizarre world in Fury Road, but once you accept that this is is a freaky, car-based cult in control of almost all the resources around — yes, even resources for flaming guitar trucks —  it’s difficult not to be hooked. And for me, that’s saying something. The aesthetic in this film is is exactly the type I dislike because it feels bullshit and embarrassingly cheesy. It feels like people playing dress-up in fake gladiator garb. It feels awkward and inherently low budget. Somehow this movie completely kills that awkwardness through the power of serious, quality acting, and strange amounts of heart.

And with really scary, unexplained shit like those hunched over stilt people. I never want to know what that was about. I never want to know exactly “who killed the world” or how and why Immortan Joe’s cult came to be so quickly and effectively. I know this is mostly action movie that is about a million serious things, the way Attack the Block! is about a lot more than neon aliens. Yet it’s also just a good action movie.

I know a libertarian who hated this film. But once you see “we are not property” (libertarian tears) written on the walls of the wives’ cell, you should be getting hopeful. And once Max and Furiosa fight for the first time, you should be fully absorbed into George Miller’s brain. Do not resist. This movie is so gorgeous that occasional action movie cliches like Furiosa dropping to her knees in the sand in anguish, or the slightly intrusive non-diegetic music feel more frustrating than they would be in an inferior movie.

signsSigns (2002), directed by M. Night Shyamalan, starring Mel Gibson’s sanity, Joaquin Phoenix, a Culkin, wee Abigail Breslin

Honestly, this film, plus Fury Road, plus Miracle Mile are on my short list of “I do not give a shit if it doesn’t make sense.” And they all involve at least the threat of world ending. Fury Road works becomes of pure audacity and seriousness in the face of absurdity. Miracle Mile is a nightmare, in logic and in pacing, and in ever-growing surrealism. But to me, Signs has always been too scary to mock. It may not be your nightmare, but it is one of mine.

I was 15 when I saw it in the theater with a group of friends. It was quite simply one of those great theater-going moments, where the place buzzes with energy but without distraction or loud noises getting in the way of the enjoyment of the movie (or enhancing the enjoyment, like when the most Canadian man in the world yelled “GET ‘ER PHOONE NUMBER!” at the screen when Mark Wahlberg kissed Helena Bonham Apewoman in Planet of the Apes). Well, quiet except for that moment when Joaquin Phoenix’s character is watching the footage from the children’s birthday party in which something very scary happens. Phoenix’s character shrieks, I shrieked out loud in the crowded theater. Now, I couldn’t sleep for three days after seeing this movie (shut up, my parents live near a cornfield in Pennsylvania), but it was worth it in the end.

It’s a claustrophobic alien movie that’s funny, terrifying, and slow-building. The acting is fantastic from every single person (remember when Mel Gibson was awesome? I do). Maybe there was fluoride in the water, or some weird mineral. Maybe it’s the pipes! Maybe it’s all a metaphor. Maybe the aliens are demons. It doesn’t matter. The movie justifies its own logical evasions by being awesome and scary. If two or three things came together to save the day, it would be Hollywood bullshit. But in the narrative, the obviousness of the puzzle piece is on purpose. This is a world in which everything came together so that Mel Gibson’s character could save his son. Maybe that’s not our world. That’s okay.

(Honestly, the least credible thing to me is the happy ending. Those children would need MASSIVE therapy. Massive. The adults, too.)

Dawn_of_the_dead1) Shaun of the Dead

2) Dawn of the Dead

3) 28 Days Later

4) Night of the Living Dead

5) Day of the Dead

6) Warm Bodies

7) Dance of the Dead

8) Zombie 2

9) Fido

10) Dawn of the Dead (2004)

MV5BMTQ5MTE0MTk3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjczMzk2NTE@._V1_SX214_AL_I don’t remember the first time I watched Jurassic Park. I remember going to see Free Willy (yeah) while my cousin and brother saw it in theaters, and them discussing the t-rex spitting the bloody goat leg on the car on the ride home. I remember the first time I saw part of the film. I was in a department store with Joe, and on the TV screens was the scene where Timmy, Lex, and Dr. Grant are walking up the hill and Timmy is whining “I’m tired, I’m hot.” I asked Joe if that was the first time the t-rex appeared, and he said no. I even remember joyously opening a Christmas present of the VHS copy of the film. I just somehow don’t remember the first time I saw the movie I went on to watch 30 or 50 times over the next 12 years.

I could quote the movie in my sleep.  I could watch it in my head. Jesse Walker’s greatest flaw is his dislike of the movie. (Or you had to have been six in 1993.)

I watched The Lost World and defended it when I was 10, and then didn’t when I realized it sucked some time later. I reluctantly watched Jurassic Park III, and knew it was terrible but enjoyed the drive-in movie setting. I rolled my eyes at talk of still more sequels and had no interest in Jurassic World until — as with the new Star Wars preview — the familiar score in a slightly subtle trailer made me drool like Pavlov’s dog.

Must…watch…dinosaurs…

The derivative nature came through even in trailers. Chris Pratt is Dr. Grant, except he knows the dinosaurs’ nature in real life. Bryce Dallas Howard appears to be the new Hammond until you actually watch. Two generic kids are in peril — and their parents are even divorcing!

Still, the meta nature of this third sequel makes it more interesting suddenly. I knew we weren’t going to get the backstory of how dinosaurs became banal to the public, and how the disaster of the first park was PR-ed away. (The lawsuits alone….) But that doesn’t mean I didn’t want it. I laughed when the guy from New Girl who works as one of the tech guys is wearing a Jurassic Park shirt he got on ebay. Bryce Dallas Howard’s character — who basically is vaguely in charge of the park, without being in charge of the company of Ingen, we have a new Hammond for that — scolds the guy for wearing it because people died.

And that is before we even discuss some of the visual aping of the original film that got a little tiresome for someone who knows that film backwards and forwards. The final shot is like this. And a “sick dinosaurs are just animals” scene with Howard and Pratt does not work like Grant and the triceratops does in the first one. Possibly because the brontosaurus in this film is practically given cartoon eyelashes and a lolling puppy tongue.

But the worst of it comes in the second third of the movie, when the totally not credible 21st century version of the automated cars of the first one turns into “yeah, t-rexes sure love prying open vehicles to get at the delicious child innards.” The part where the brothers find the remains of the old Jurassic Park is kind of fun and pure fan service, except that it invites so many awkward questions. Did they really just leave all that shit there? Junked cars, the banner from that final shot, the merchandise? Why?

Much was made of the fact that Jurassic World has made a fake dinosaur. But within the movie, this works. And it works in a very Michael Crichton way. The man’s books — not just Jurassic Park — are full of descriptions of cold, calculating companies and their biotech plans which should alarm us all. Fish with advertisements in their skin, nanobots running amok, an ape-child, he was worried about this, and he was clearly quite willing to believe (at least in fiction) that these companies would top each other and go farther and farther. So, when Henry Wu (he’s back! and evil this time!) says “But you didn’t ask for reality, you asked for more teeth,  it’s not the only nod to the unreality of all the dinosaurs — not just the new spliced I-Rex.

This works in the Crichton-y world, even if it’s also cloyingly meta. It’s a good step to admit that this is a monster movie, not a dinosaur movie, both in the world and while watching in the audience. The absurd scene where the sea dino jumps and eats an entire Great White shark cements this. (It’s a monster movie, where the monsters are in pens, so forget the awkwardness of the first movie ruining people’s impressions of real dinosaurs perhaps forever. GRANT TOLD YOU THEY TURNED INTO BIRDS, DAMMIT.) And that is an appealing plot point that cries out for better worldbuilding — what does the world in which Jurassic World exists resemble? When these dinosaurs are normal, instead of a hushed up tragedy on a nearly empty island?

The movie won’t tell us. It’s a small world after all. Now, I like the banality of the dinosaurs in some ways. However, Boyfriend and I debated whether people would be sick of regular dinosaurs this quickly. This is still a park that requires a trip to Costa Rica and farther to visit. Meaning, this park “isn’t only for the super rich” but it is still going to cost a lot more than Disneyland does.  It would help with the believability if the audience knew exactly how long the park has been open, and how long dinosaurs as a fact have been around. Still, this strange marriage of a reboot and a sequel might be cynical and self-aware, but it works when we admit the characters want to keep audiences interested. The commies at Jabobin might think this condemns us all, but if they had committed to this, if there were more world-building and more scenes of conversation, it might really work. Instead, we have villains eaten hastily by raptors before too much plot can come out.

What of our characters? Irrfan Khan is the new eccentric, decent, but childish billionaire who owns the place. He’s…sufficiently different. Pratt and Howard are both Dr. Grant in parts. Howard manages the place, and is therefore also rigid John Hammond. But she is also the Dr. Grant because her character — buttoned up woman in heels clashing with wild man, we have seen this before, yes — has no idea how to interact with kids. This time it’s her sister’s sons. And the movie is judging her hard at the start, just because she isn’t maternal. It’s not terribly sexist, though. Her arch is the same as any male character’s who needs to be a hero and step up to save the kids — again, this is just Dr. Grant (arguably, she should care more since they’re relatives, and they’re just Hammond’s nephews in the first one. But also, Grant’s conflict over kids is with his significant other and the kids themselves. Howard’s character basically is told by her sister that she’s going to have kids someday so she will stop being such a bitch. Whatever, Judy Greer.)

And as someone on Twitter noted last week, the movie puts Howard in impossible heels, then mocks her for it. But she’s actually the most likable character in the end, and the one who doesn’t just stand still. Nobody said she’s about to get knocked up because she saves her nephews — much like Grant being heroic doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a goofy suburban dad because he didn’t let two random kids die. Plus, she’s competent and doesn’t really need a lot of rescuing. She’s arguably more competent than Ellie Sattler in the first film, and I have always been fond of her. (“Look, we can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back” is something I should say more often.)

My favorite plot and visual theft from the original film is when Howard plays Grant/Ian Malcolm and lures the t-rex with a flair — while Chris Pratt’s character is hiding with the kids! It is satisfying that Hollywood has given the ladies a chance to play dinosaur tag. It’s probably the high point of the movie.

(On the other hand, Bustle needs to accept that yes, Howard’s character was dressed for a business meeting, not dinosaur fleeing but it’s not a fucking feminist victory to wear hideous, bad for you shoes while in jungle setting just because it’s harder than wearing hiking boots. Please do not try to brand heels in the worst settings as some kind of victory, because I will laugh in all your faces and at third wave feminism in general. Feminine women can be bad-ass as well is not the same as you can do something epic while wearing ankle-breaking shoes! You’re a real woman of 2015! I punch everything.)

Weirdly, buff Chris Pratt has not won my heart as he has the rest of America’s. He’s not Andy Dwyer anymore, and he hasn’t pulled off the roguish action star thing as much as he thinks. There’s a lingering charmlessness there now. Or a lack of charisma with his onscreen romances. Sorry, America. He’s no Harrison Ford. He’s not even Sam Neill. The romance between Pratt and Howard is tepid to decent. Their first scene together is bad, and the banter completely falls flat, however it improves a bit as things go along. A bit.

What else? The military industrial complex evil plot doesn’t work (weaponized raptors, people).  They should have stuck with Ingen is scary, period. Stuck with Crichton’s strengths with his fears of biotech run wild.

Now, Chris Pratt on a motorcycle leading a pack of raptors is something we need in the internet age. It’s a meme come to life. And it’s not as dumb as it should be, like much of this movie. If these things are supposed to be as smart as an ape and as fast as a cheetah, some tentative training being possible is believable enough. You can train a bear or a lion, but it might eat you at a moment’s notice. Also, Chris Pratt on a motorcycle riding with raptors. That, America, cannot be denied.

The movie looks good. The effects are good, though I swear a brief shot of gallimimus who are “flocking this way” looks less real than in the first one. The final fight between all our favorite predators is excessive, but it doesn’t resemble one big cut scene, or one big Michael Bay wet-dream or any of the worst things action scenes in 2015 are like.

But at the end of the day, the movies is thin.  The characterization is so much weaker than in the first film. Pratt has less heart than minor characters like Robert “clever girl” Muldoon and less prickle that turns around than Grant. He is static, except for his affection for Howard. The kids are devices, not characters, even if they’re borderline ’90s annoying in the original. The billionaire is likable, but he’s sure as hell not Richard Attenborough just killing it through the whole movie. The flea circus scene with the ice cream? Come on, people. It’s fantastic.

And a thousand lawyer jokes notwithstanding — or the, shall we say, toilet humor of his death. Even though it’s still gruesome in a PG-13 way — the man who plays Gennaro in the first movie gives it his all. He is a person, even if he’s a sleazy lawyer person. Jurassic World has a surprisingly low death count, but the cartoon-gratuitous death of Howard’s British assistant who has almost no lines, but loses the kids, is surprisingly mean-feeling. It’s as if it came from another, even worse film.

The trailer’s hints that thousands of people will under dino attack is a bit of a red herring. We have our stock group, and a few faceless soldier types. Strangely, this is almost a small movie. I don’t know why it feels that way, but it does. Perhaps because, though it has some fun moments, and I did flinch during tense dinosaur times, it is just another seasick mixture of a reboot and a sequel. The movie is about as long as Jurassic Park, the cast is much bigger, but Jurassic World doesn’t feel like we evolved into anything at the end. We’ve stalled. We’re just having a little more fun as the wheels spin than we might have.

I'm the worst professor in history!The most infuriating thing about the 2012 Christian film God is Not Dead is not that it’s an email forward of a film. Nor is it that I am not a Christian, and therefore this movie isn’t for me. No, it’s simply that this doesn’t have to be so appalling, no matter the yay-Jesus sentiment.

There are numerous dodgy side plots including a Muslim girl who wants to find Jesus (and who wears short sleeves and a sloppy hijab, which I suppose is possible, but sure didn’t look like anything I’ve seen), a woman with cancer (and an I <3 Evolution bumper sticker, which sure seems like a Real Thing a Secular Human Would Have) and various other tedious cardboard cutouts in vaguely human shape. The main event, however, is the battle between painfully clean cut college student Josh and his villainous, atheist, philosophy professor played by Kevin Sorbo, who is both the best actor and the least believable person in the movie.

Professor Hercules isn’t content to simply teach philosophy, no, he demands that each member of his class write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and then sign it in order to pass the class. Josh objects to this because he loves Jesus. The thing is, this is a horrible, bullshit assignment particularly in a philosophy class. Atheist boyfriend who was watching the film for camp value said he wouldn’t do such an assignment. I agreed. There’s an obvious principle at stake (and I will grant that some public schools might complete it because they’re wusses, but enough of them wouldn’t.)

This kind of activity would make you a bad teacher, especially in a setting where it’s not about factually right or wrong answers. This is a cheap, plastic way of making the prof the villain. Instead of making the debate truly rhetorical and religious, the menacing secularism has to be browbeaten into everyone. And maybe it’s some kind of metaphor for the world at large, but within a classroom setting, it’s terrible and false.

In short, this makes even the staunchest atheist want to root for Josh for contrarianism’s sake. (I also want him to call Fox News, Breitbart, and Rush Limbaugh and become a national news story, because that would totally work). So, the young, earnest lad decides to fight his professor and debate in front of the class. He’s much too good at it, yet it’s also completely muddled and nonsensical. His metaphor-for-Christians-who-don’t-want-to-make-waves-in-the-secular-world girlfriend is pissed off and dumps him. But Josh soldiers on.

Oh, and professor has a beautiful, Christian girlfriend. She frowns a lot because he’s such an atheist.

The end — spoilers — is the worst. First of all, Josh appears to have converted almost his entire class to Christianity at the end of his final debate. This is, ironically for such an anti-secular movie, pure Hollywood claptrap. Wouldn’t it be more fitting if after class, one shy student came up to him and asked him for more info about Jesus? Then Christians would know that this wasn’t some fairytale confirming all that they believe, but that bringing people over to the Lord takes some work. The film appears to be telling Christians that if they just stand up for God in class, they’ll convert heathens by the dozens. A little humbleness about the state of this here fallen world seems more appropriate and better then this wish-fulfillment.

(I could, and may, write another rant on the difficulties of message movies and making them not Godawful. This relates to libertarian feelings and the several other terrible Christian movies I have watched out of curiosity.)

Prof Hercules had his own reasons to disbelieve in God. However, at the end, to the sounds of the Newsboys’ Christian rock jamz, he gets run over by a car conveniently next to these pastor and his friend who had had car trouble in the earlier film. It was meant to be, see. Hercules comes home to Jesus as he dies in the street. Yep. He converts, thanks to the pastor, but he still dies. And presumably directly in front of his bloodied corpses, the pastor stands in the rainy streets smiling because at least Prof is home now, and someone has even texted him “God’s not dead.” (“God’s not dead — but you are” more accurately.) The pastors or pastor and friend (I forget/who cares) then exchange a line about how “what happened tonight is a cause for celebration. Pain yes, but only for a few minutes. Then, think of the joy of heaven.” Okay, but can you not smile so wide directly in front of the dead man smeared across the street? Can we not immediately be quite so delighted?

The final scenes involve Josh, every other minor character, and someone from Duck Dynasty rocking out to the Newsboys while celebrating his victory over the professor — which, considering that he’s dead, seems a little like adding insult to injury. (Plus, the final scene encourages texting during a concert, which is definitely the work of Satan.)

Horrible, robotic inhuman attitudes permeate this movie, and this ending is the capper. There is no sadness that a man who was just coming around to the Lord, and you know, was a human being in addition to that, is dead. They’re all happy about it. This is one reason why the non-religious find religion — and religious films such as this — cold. How about a little respect for this life, not just pleasure in leveling up to Jesus?

When we’re talking about Jesus, songs are so much different than movies. Suburban Christian rock songs may not be. But painful country music can be beautiful, human, and accessible to the non-Christian just because of the depth of feeling (or even the wrath, if you have the Johnny Cash voice to match God cutting us all down sentiments).

Perhaps because Professor Hercules losing his mother is what made him lose his faith, and this tune is about the very same tragedy, I found myself thinking about “Can The Circle Be Unbroken” after watching God is Not Dead.

First recorded by The Carter Family in 1927, the song has been played many times by many people, but that trio’s version is it for me, because it’s just so brutal. Often in later covers the song is played more as a cheerful, hopeful gospel number. The circle will be unbroken by and by. Everything will be alright.

The Carter Family were not so sure.

AP Carter rewrote a hymn that seems to be a lot more chipper, like the later covers have been. But the Carters’ “Can the Circle be Unbroken” is not joyful or certain, but pleading. The strange, flat Virginia harmonies of Maybelle and Sara Carter make the tale of a mother dying eerie and heartfelt. And in a line that has made me tear up more than once, they sing “Lord I told the undertaker/Undertaker please drive slow/for that body you are hauling/Lord I hate to see her go.”

Maybe — maybe “by and by” they’ll all be together again in heaven. They do believe that. But that doesn’t stop their pain now. It doesn’t even stop the dreadful grief of wanting to keep the body of the loved one. The body is just a vessel, right? The soul is gone to heaven. And they still hate to see what’s left of her go.

That sort of religious feeling — that sort of spreading of a message that says, yes, we’ll probably be in heaven later, but it sure is awful now — is worlds away from the self-satisfaction of God is Not Dead. Religion is supposed to fill those holes in your heart that appear when, oh, say your dear mother dies. I fail to see the good in it if it morbidly cheers the death of someone — even someone who has finally found Jesus.

Ansel_Elgort_43600Once, unsure what sort of movie I was in the mood for, I asked twitter if I should go for nuclear war or ’80s teen movie. My then-colleague Tim Cavanaugh answered the only logical way — why choose, when there’s WarGames?

Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, earnest ’80s pleas for peace, and menacing Cold War terrors, and the impossibility of computers that can actually communicate with computers; this movie fulfilled those two genre urges like no other one can. It is dated in all the right ways. (Why is dated a pejorative again? I love dated.)

I don’t presume to know anything about hacking, except for what I learned from Cracked lists about what it doesn’t look like. But WarGames, the story of Matthew Broderick’s David Lightman almost starting global thermonuclear war when he thinks he’s playing a game with a computer named WOPR (War Operation Plan Response)/”Joshua” is reportedly a pretty solid portrayal of it. The exception is the cinema-ready self-awareness of the computer itself, but certainly the scene where David calls different computers to find one with a modem — thereby finding his way to Joshua — is the opposite of the Hackers-style flash and dash bullshit. The movie explains backdoor passwords, and shows much more than frantic typing in order to explain how computers function or react. This seriousness is why the Vegas hacker conference is named in the movie’s honor. Or rather, confusingly, it is called DEFCON — for the NORAD levels of defense readiness which we all learned from various alien/nuke movies. (DEFCON is important to the movie, and puns are great, but that’s still a silly name. Why not JoshuaCon? WOPRCon? MatthewBroderickCon?)

This is a fairly slow-paced movie. The acting is good enough to go unnoticed.  The hackerness is all respected, meaning the computer intrigue before the accidental near-nuclear war is given its due. Later there’s David being taken by the FBI into NORAD. He escapes, and he and lady friend Ally Sheedy make their way to Joshua’s creator to plead with him to save the day. In true Cold War (movies, if nothing else) nihilism style, Joshua’s creator is initially too depressed about the inevitably of nuclear doom to do anything to stop the events. But just in time, he is convinced, and the three heroes make their way back to NORAD just in time to play the great, metaphorical tic-tac-toe that ends Joshua’s attempts to kill us all with the terrifying fiction of a Soviet ICBM assault.

The computer’s famous ending lines are cheesy, and they somehow work within the earnestness of the moment. Tic-tac-toe/Mutually Assured Destruction is a: “Strange game, the only winning move is not to play.” (So “How about a nice game of chess?”) Notably, before Joshua is tricked, then taught — an AI that learns, also an alarming concept! — with the game of tic-tac-toe, the military men at NORAD must be convinced to hold off on a counter-strike against the (non-existent) Soviet assault on their own.  Now, there’s an endlessly topical lesson, applicable to the US and Israel and other muscly nations — maybe you don’t automatically fire back, melting a few civilians in the process. Maybe you take a minute to consider your options, even when you are being attacked. Maybe you just don’t play.

In spite of the evergreen lesson of don’t kill everybody — and don’t let it happen by automation, which pops up in all manner of cold war fiction, for good reason — WaGames is solidly of its time. This makes talk of remaking it particularly baffling. What is a WarGames from 2014 or ’15 even about? Preventing a fake 9/11? There could be espionage and government secrets, but any variation would logically make this a different movie altogether. Personal computers are not the aliens that they were in 1983 — we now check them like we used to smoke cigarettes, with the same thoughtless tic. And we may be looking nervously at Russia more often than we were a few months ago, but fear of The Bomb is more passe than even space travel. Whether that is unwise remains to be seen — hopefully forever.

ILM-War-of-the-Worlds-After-092310-PSSeminal sci-fi invasion fiction, legendarily terrifying — and really quite wonderful – radio play that launched Orson Welles’ career, War of the Worlds has crossed mediums, but never has it had a solid movie adaption. Steven Spielberg’s incredibly 9/11-y, starring Tom Cruise at the height of his weirdness version is a very frustrating example. Not because it’s a total wash, mind you, but because it’s incredible in spots, and then goes off a big cliff.

In April, Lindsay Ellis, your Nostalgia Chick (who is always a fun reviewer), correctly describes the movie’s gorgeous design, its kick-ass tripods (which Roger Ebert hated! But he’s wrong, damn it!) as well as its myriad flaws, as well as by contrast the mysteriously wonderful quality of the thousand-fold cheesier Independence Day. The latter movie has more character arc and more things actually change, it’s rather odd.

and part two:

Now some film-dorks are too cool for Spielberg, but I never understood that. (J.J. Abrams, on the other hand, is cold, derivative Spielberg and I hate him!). I also am incredibly susceptible to alien paranoia. I was scared of both The Blob and Mars Attacks! as a child, I watched and then cowered at The X-Files (still do in fact!), and I am only slightly ashamed of being 15 and scared to death of Signs when I saw it in the theater. (I shrieked out loud in one spot. I don’t believe I have done that before or since, and certainly not in a crowded theater.) So for all that, plus my fondness for the book and radio play, plus my undying love for Jurassic Park to this day, it seems like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds should be perfect. It is not.

This 2005 War of the Worlds, like the also watchable 1953 one, is incomplete as an adaptation of the book, first and foremost because it has been modernized and turned American. But the book is a rambling narrative itself. Our nameless describer of the horrors even swaps places with his brother for a time for no clear reason beyond faux-journalistic reasons that to describe, one must be there. Those scenes are only memorable because one of the two women with whom the brother flees is bracingly competent for 1898 fiction.

The famous ending is anti-climactic, because, well, the common cold does the invaders in. The whole thing is both early sci-fi, and invasion literature (a fascinating subgenre that seems really, really of the time and that time was like 50 years up to WWI and that’s all) and extremely anti-imperialist. Which is awesome. But big budget Hollywood alien pictures don’t want to end with germs saving the day. Spielberg, to his credit, gives us the classic ending without any final, tacked-on, grand battle.

I do wildly disagree with Spielberg about whether a movie set when the book was written would be boring. (Hell, such a version is on my secret list of movies I would make if money, skill, time, and nationality, were no object.) Nevertheless, though Spielberg’s WotW goes off a cliff I would say exactly when the annoying teenage son says “you’ve got to let me go, Dad” and then hits the ground and smashes into a fiery wreck when Tim Robbins appears to gnaw on the scenery, it’s worth watching and including in my Tuesday Apocalypse list. It is extremely flawed, but has just enough to it that I have rewatched it more than once, and am likely to be entranced (at least for a time) if it is on TV. And when I watch, I rant about how it could have been so good.

Why? Well, Ellis covers it aptly in her reviews above, but some of the scenes in Spielberg’s WotW are just so fucking good you want to pause the movie and just revel in their awfulness. I’ve previously mentioned in Tuesday Apocalypse, that the j nes se quoi dread is what makes a good apocalypse piece, be it cinema or book. Call it dread-porn, or something else, it needs to actually frighten me and it needs to be just so. I know it when I see or hear it.

The radio WoTW’s highest caliber moments of that are its use of dead air interrupting frantic, Herb Morrison-esque “reporting.” Spielberg’s opening shot when the tripods arise is as fantastic as Ellis says and has an element of this searched for quality. So do the scenes of grim panic when Cruise and the kids are carjacked (which is rare, since the humans are your enemy aspect is always least interesting in this kind of fiction, at least to optimist me). Hell, the pulling back camera shot of bodies floating downstream, and particularly the shot of an out of control train entirely ablaze are worth the price of admission (this is an expression we used to use in the pre-piracy days, children).

On the opposite side of that, the completely dull aliens themselves are not scary, even in the claustrophobic, derivative of the raptors chasing the kids in the kitchen in Jurassic Park scenes. How much less frightening they are in design, and in auditory exclamation than the tripods themselves, which look menacing and sound worse!

In spite of his couch-jumping, glib-accusing ways, the acting from Cruise circa 2004 is the most solid of the three characters that matter. Maybe I have a soft spot for jerk-dads, but Cruise is such a believable one here. My father is nicer than Cruise is portrayed as being, but he’s also not some softy, or some Alpha Hero. Desperate, flailing, terrified Cruise has no idea how to help his kids at the start of all this madness. But he never abandons them or freezes, he simply reacts in a human manner to completely insane happenings the best way he can. Later, post movie-cliff, he becomes a hair too action hero, but never completely. I believe him, is the main point. And that is rare in any end of the world fiction, particularly the alien invasion movie types. Most people are much too calm, and much too heroic, unless the are of the screaming, teaming masses.

Some downsides, or at least some oddly dated moments: the 9/11 nods are not subtle. There are missing flyers covering walls. There are (fair) questions from screeching Dakota Fanning asking whether the invaders are terrorists. There’s an alarming downed plane in our heroes’ yard (I can’t do plane crashes in movies, cannot do it). And most effectively disturbing of all is how Cruise is covered in dust as he staggers back into the house after the aliens first appear. His clueless children are clueless, and grab his arm and he flips out, then does so again when he stares shellshocked in the mirror and realizes that the gray matter that covers him must be made from people.

Now, as Ellis points out in her review, the worst, most hamfisted 9/11isms in the film are the teenage son’s desire to “get back at” the alien invaders. Which is a fair impulse, except, well, why would he have that need so desperately compared to any other character? Is he just a teenage moron? Why doesn’t he have the self-preservation to run the other way instead? He doesn’t because 2005 war in Afghanistan and Iraq parallels demand he doesn’t. His motivation is not clear, neither is his loathing of his father. Cruise is the only one with strong characterization, but even he doesn’t change much over the course of the movie. He starts off jerk-dad, and gets a little nicer and a little braver. But even jerk-dad never faltered in trying to rescue his kids.

Spielberg’s WoTW is worth a watch for some stunning scenes — the look and sound of the tripods, the tipping boat scene, the burning train, the morose darkness in shots that works, instead of making you wonder what happened to the color correction! – but it does remain oddly unsatisfying for how fabulously it begins.

And I still want my serious period piece with aliens, dammit.