Currently viewing the tag: "Movies"
  • Serling-Mad-Men-600x447I just enjoyed this oddly convincing, unsold Mad Men script in which Don Draper meets Rod Serling. Some of the details don’t quite work, but the idea of the two men meeting is a pleasing one. (Well, except for the fact that nobody is Rod Serling but Rod Serling.) Maybe Serling’s family wouldn’t be into it, though, since they can’t even let Rod be licensed into a sweet action figure (note: I have a vested interest here).
  • Rod Serling interviews Asimov and and other sci-fi dudes during the moon landing coverage. (Maybe this isn’t the best age of television after all.)
  • Kelly Vlahos on the disturbing pertinence of The Twilight Zone. 
  • The Root has an intriguing piece on black people who dig the confederate flag.
  • Jesse Walker noted other recent attempts to take back the confederate flag. 
  • I’m suddenly terribly excited, while slightly creeped out by the prospect of the movie Everest, which is based on Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and the 1996 disaster in general. I’ve read Into Thin Air no less than five times, the first when I was about 10. It is a beautifully written, horribly tense book which was very influential for me. I already had begun reading about World War II and such, but Krakauer’s book — and in particular, what happened to Beck Weathers — really got the point across that nonfiction can be as bizarre, dramatic, and epic as a made-up story. The movie might be quite good, and the trailer — before it devolves into mindless DUN DUN short cuts — confirms that. But it’s still sort of creepy to stare at the IMDB cast list and to know exactly who dies and who makes it. We actually already did the fictionalized thing with a TV movie from the ’90s which is both strangely accurate and cheesy in the way only a TV movie can be (see the one about the Weavers and Ruby Ridge for a similar problem). This could be a good film, I’m dying to watch it, and to be a total pain in the ass who knows exactly what happened. But I’ve already see the IMAX film where base camp overhears stranded Rob Hall saying goodbye to his wife. Seeing that repeated with Keira Knightly and Jason Clarke feels like a cheap, tacky ghost of that gut-wrenching thing. Because it is. No matter how good this film might be it, that’s what it is.

See what you think of the trailer. As I say, it looks good, and it makes me hate the people who cut trailers.

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.

330px-This_Is_Not_a_Test_VideoCoverThis Is Not a Test (1962), directed by Frederic Gadette: This is a strange, low-budget, grim little movie. A cop who progressively becomes more and more creepy stops a few cars full of people in the hills above Los Angeles. The missiles (The Missiles) are coming, and they’ve got to prepare. Most of the characters are unlikable, as they include a murderous hitchhiker, one of those tediously self-sacrificial elderly characters, and the scary policeman. Oh, there’s also a woman who randomly cheats on her husband before the end. Basically, after yelling and flailing, the plan becomes let’s all secure this supply truck as much as possible, and hide in the back. The police officer gets more and more nuts, and the rest of the folks kick him out. The young and in love couple head for the hills, leaving behind grandpa. It’s supposed to be real people in peril, and perhaps it’s so realistic as to be unpleasant. Or it’s just not very good. The scary highlight is snatches of radio reports from the cop and other motorists’ radios. As is so often the case.

twd-season-1-main-590“Days Gone By” — The Walking Dead pilot: I long ago lost track of this show, having left it behind during the end of the God-awful second season of sniping. I may or may not ever pick it up again, though I’ve been meaning to read the comic for ages. Regardless of everything that came after, however, this is a hell of a pilot. Pilots are naturally awkward, much of the time — characterization and usually everything else is off. Even half-decent ones are still inferior to what came ever: The X-Files putting a much more timid Scully in her underwear for borderline-gratuitous reasons comes to mind. But, ah, The Walking Dead knew how to start things off, even if it didn’t know much of what else to do. Sheriff Rick Grimes gets shot, ends up in a coma (poor showrunner had to defend the coma thing, thanks to 28 Days Later), and wakes up three months later in zombie land. (Meanwhile his annoying best friend, wife, and child are busy being alive. Whatever.)

The scenes of Rick waking up in the hell of the abandoned hospital; the barricaded door with hand reaching; the camera pulling back and showing more and more body bags in the parking lot — they are morbid perfection. Hell, I’d almost argue that the show went downhill the moment Rick meets the half-destroyed, crawling “Bike Girl” zombie. Except, no it didn’t, because there we get to see Rick’s complete horror, bordering on a conviction that he is still asleep, because he has to be. I love when heroes, especially male heroes who have been strong in their earlier lives, need a moment to gather their sanity while dealing with the new world around them. The rest of the pilot has great detail, and good characters. Rick hides with the dude from Jericho who isn’t Skeet Ulrich, and zombies claw at the windows, and things become more horror movie familiar. You get that amazing shot where Rick is riding his horse towards the dead city, with cars that were fleeing all piled up his left (where is that show? I want to watch the show on the poster). It’s all so good, and then it ends on a cliffhanger where Rick is about to met all the annoying people who made the show the worst.

scaled.reddawn1984Red Dawn (1984), directed by John Milius: I first watched the ’80s epic when I was 14, and though I saw the potential camp value, it was a little too violent and its ending a little too bleak for me to really feel the joy of it. Plus, C. Thomas Howell, man, I thought you were Ponyboy, sensitive greaser cleaning up the broken potential-shiv from the parking lot so nobody punctures a tire. This C. Thomas Howell whose hate for the Ruskies keeps him warm is a little too much for me.

Successive watching has made me appreciate this movie for the historical document it undoubtedly is. Every then-relevant ’80s teen together in the Rockies clutching firearms. Also, Powers Boothe is there. A vital lesson in guerilla tactics. Oh, right, it’s totally about the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Awkward in the most fascinating way. Is it a conservative wetdream, or a secret bit of satire? It is all things.  It is idiotic, and it still a little disturbing.

It’s so stupid, and so unlikely, and on 9/11 — before I saw this movie, I think — I had a brief moment of imaging some imminent invasion, and all of rounded up into camps. Here you can almost get into the spirit of the horror of an invasion — the opening scene of the parachuters coming to the school, and then our heroes fleeing the town is cheesy, but not enough to escape its unsettling quality. Some of the violence is both campy and vaguey disturbing for what it suggests. I have never been able to fully laugh at most disaster movie violence, even when I know it’s funny as hell.  The group of patriots being gunned down while they sing the National Anthem comes is absurd, but reminds me of actually horrific scenes in other, real movies. Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen’s father yelling “avenge me!” like an angry ham is hilarious, but then Swayze gives his all, bless him. Nobody told him what movies this was. Nobody told any of these people how funny, dated, and awkward this movie was. (“Wooooooolverines!”) Everything about Red Dawn both mocks and endorses the most terrified of Cold War feelings. This movie is so weird, and it gets weirder all the time.

“London Calling” by the Clash: Stop pairing this in cheesy, cheery teen movies and sitcoms with your 7-10 shots of London that you purchased to prove that the characters are totally going to England. This song is about the apocalypse.

London is not calling you because you are going to have a super cute time “across the pond.” It is calling because it is drowning, and did Joe Strummer’s weird shrieks not hint to you that something has gone seriously awry? Even Paul Simonon’s bassline is menacing. It is wonderful.

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.