In Defense of Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters

I really shouldn’t have to do this. At this point, the best course of action for everyone is to dismiss the artistic and moral failure that is Ghostbusters 2016, let the remake die a quick, unmourned, and forgotten death, and rest secure in the excellence of the one true Ghostbusters film.

But now inveterate contrarians and shills are vainly trying to make the reboot look better than the Cannon Films fire sale material it is by taking passive-aggressive shots at the original classic.

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: your claims that the original Ghostbusters is dumb, sexist, or overrated don’t make you sound cool. They make you sound like a smug, revisionist poser. It’s just as irritating as a hipster saying he liked a band before they were popular. And in this case, calling the first Ghostbusters a bad movie is empirically wrong.

The short version

Ghostbusters (1984–how detestable it is having to clarify that) is an SNL satire–from back when SNL was good–of a Lovecraftian horror story.

The reimagining, on the other hand, is a cynical parody of the original.

That is what fans are upset about; not the sex of the lead players or the perceived effrontery of making a new entry in a “sacred” franchise. By all reasonable accounts the new film is a shallow cash grab smothered in sanctimonious propaganda, and fans have been wise to the con since the trailer dropped.

The film makers should have heeded the fans’ warning. But as I’ve said before, Hollywood hates its own audience.

Defense in depth

If you still doubt the original Ghostbusters’ greatness, consider the following reasons why it is rightly hailed as a classic.

The talent

Ghostbusters talent

Comedy is the hardest genre to write well. Just ask any pro screenwriter to find out why good comedy writers are held in such high esteem. Nothing else requires such precise timing, tone, and dialogue.

Well-crafted, genuinely funny jokes aren’t written by accident. If a writer is consistently turning in solid comedic scripts, you can be sure he knows what he’s doing.

It’s no coincidence that the creative team behind Ghostbusters includes Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman, and Bill Murray–talents responsible for the golden age of Saturday Night Live, Animal House, Meatballs, and Stripes.

When a pro writer goes to work, he operates at a certain level of ability. Ghostbusters didn’t just rise to its creators’ high standard of excellence, it took their game to a whole new level.
The world building

Ghost Smashers

Okay, Ghostbusters might not be your thing. That’s understandable. But with the shortage of movies based on original IPs these days, you’ve got to at least give the first movie credit for originality.

I already explained that comedy is the toughest genre to write. Ghostbusters ups the difficulty even more by genre bashing comedy with horror and sci-fi: two of only three genres that require the added element of world building.

Take it from someone who’s built an expansive SFF/horror setting: world building ain’t easy.

 

The unique lore of Ghostbusters wasn’t thrown together in a weekend, either. Aykroyd first developed the film’s core concepts based on a real-life fascination with the paranormal stemming from his childhood. He spent years refining these ideas into an expansive mythos that’s only hinted at on screen.

Come to think of it, the fact that Aykroyd’s original, somewhat rambling, vision was pared down to a manageable yet still satisfying feature length experience stands as further testimony to the film’s brilliance.
The performances

Filmed in one shot.

Not only were the talents behind Ghostbusters ingenious writers, they were also gifted comedic performers. Stellar acting chops are also on full display among the rest of the cast–especially Bill Murray, whose celebrated deadpan delivery made Dr. Peter Venkman a font of legendary quotes.

Seriously, this film alone accounts for at least four percent of the 100 funniest movie quotes. All four belong to Murray, who improvised most of his lines. It’s been argued, and I think rightly so, that Murray deserves a co-writer credit on this film.

Also worthy of high acclaim is Rick Moranis, who improvised the notorious party scene during a single, long shot.

Sigourney Weaver, better known for more serious roles, ad-libbed the famous “You’re more like a game show host” line.
The visuals

Ghostbusters Wrightson

“Effects Movies” tend to get a bad rap, but let’s face it: if your film deals extensively with SF and/or horror elements, you need sharp visuals to sell the story.

Few films can boast the art design pedigree of Ghostbusters. With an art team that included venerable Swamp Thing and Frankenstein artist Bernie Wrightson, this movie’s startling yet endearing visuals and largely practical effects continue to endure as CG effects from movies made five years ago grow old before their time.

Ghostbusters Librarian

The original Ghostbusters was indisputably smart, funny, visionary, and visually gorgeous. What more proof do you need? I rest my case.

@BrianNiemeier

The Conjuring 2

The Conjuring 2

With The Conjuring 2 dominating the weekend box office, now seems like a good time to expand on my short review from the most recent episode of Geek Gab.

The sequel to 2013’s The Conjuring, also helmed by director James Wan, this installment features the dramatization of another case from the files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Though a couple of the Warrens’ other famous investigations are referenced, the plot mostly revolves around the 1977 Enfield Poltergeist case.

Like all films “based on a true story”, The Conjuring 2 takes copious amounts of dramatic license with the original source material. But James Wan’s stated aim was to restore the reputation of studio horror films; not make a documentary.

Did he succeed? Let’s examine the movie in light of the director’s goal.

In case you’re totally unfamiliar with The Conjuring 2

…here’s the theatrical trailer.

Seeing as how the film’s premise is based on a highly publicized haunting that’s been in the media since 1977, I’m dispensing with spoiler warnings. I’ll also restrain myself from discussing major fictionalized plot details.

The facts in the real life case, as in the film, are that a young girl and her family experience strange phenomena in their North London home after she plays with a Ouija board.

Obligatory pneumatology PSA: legends, folklore, and old wives’ tales often contain a kernel of truth. The universally negative portrayal of Ouija boards and other methods of communicating with spirits is one nut that Hollywood’s blind squirrels reliably manage to find. DO NOT play around with this stuff.

And to head off the skeptic’s favorite sophomoric objection: it’s not that a mass-produced toy is magic. It’s that the chosen end of seeking undue power over preternatural beings and phenomena is inherently evil; not the specific means used.

The more you know

Back to the film review. When ongoing disturbances, including but not limited to strange noises, poltergeist activity, teleportation of people and objects, apparitions, spiritual oppression and possession drive the family from their home, paranormal investigators–including the Warrens–intervene. The ensuing case becomes one of the most well documented hauntings in history.

Analysis

The Conjuring 2 is an atmospheric, often smart, supernatural horror film with welcome thriller and mystery flourishes. James Wan set out to make a studio horror movie in the tradition of genre classics like Poltergeist and The Exorcist.

Although this movie doesn’t quite rise to the level of those iconic films, Wan does prove that “studio horror” doesn’t have to be synonymous with “lowest common denominator schlock” while producing a rare sequel that rivals the quality of the original.

This film’s greatest successes lie in three areas”

  • Background and foreshadowing: The Conjuring 2 cleverly sets up its main plot through a properly terrifying introduction that scores bonus points by delivering on a promise made at the end of the first movie.
  • Mood, atmosphere, and tone: director James Wan strikes a superb balance between visceral scares, psychological horror, existential dread, and, refreshingly, scattered rays of hope. The main theme that God remains ever present even in the midst of seemingly unrelenting terror shines through strongly.
  • Character: the writers, director, and actors deserve high praise for avoiding the cliched cardboard cutouts seen in too many horror movies and instead populating this film with believable characters whose problems we easily and immediately care about.
As for the film’s few drawbacks, the most egregious are a couple of scenes featuring obvious CG animation that’s visually and tonally dissonant with the setting. If you’ve seen Wan’s other, similarly themed series Insidious, you’ll instantly recognize the scenes I’ve described, as well as the director’s self-indulgence.
My other beef with the movie might be specific to those who are familiar with Catholic theology and ecclesiology, but in a movie that claims to be based on true events, this one sticks out.
The plot point in question–don’t worry about spoilers; it’s dumb, anyway–is the reason given for Ed and Lorraine’s involvement in the Enfield case. In the movie, the Church gets ahold of taped conversations with a self-identified 72 year-old dead guy spoken by an 11 year-old girl.
The Conjuring 2 trailer
“Priests like me are sworn to serve others’ spiritual needs hand and foot…but we don’t want to look bad, so we’ll just send a lay couple in case this one’s a hoax.”
The English hierarchy supposedly ask the American hierarchy to approach the Warrens about evaluating the goings-on  in Enfield, with the justification that the Church can’t be seen to be directly involved if the story turns out to be a hoax, because besmirching their reputation would hinder their ability to help people.
Such as the people they’re not helping already.

By sending proxies not empowered with the seal of Holy Orders into potential contact with demonic forces.

Proxies who publicly trade on their close affiliation with the Church anyway.

In real life, this isn’t happening. The local diocese is responsible for investigating claims of possession. Enfield is under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Westminster, home of English Catholicism’s mother church. The archbishop is unlikely to need assistance from a couple of Yanks.

Supporting this assessment, original Enfield Poltergeist investigator Guy Lyon Playfair said that in real life, the Warrens turned up uninvited.

Also contra the film version, it was a priest; not the Warrens, who helped the Hodgsons get their paranormal problems under control.

But in the finest movie tradition, The Conjuring 2 doesn’t let real life get in the way of a brilliant, climactic ending.

@BrianNiemeier

Which Iron Man Film Is the Best in the Series?

Iron Man

It’s the series that turned a comic book character nobody had cared about since the Cold War into the hottest IP on the planet and redeemed its star’s career in the process. Initially considered a huge gamble, the Iron Man franchise kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe–a coup that the competition has been scrambling to replicate; so far without success.

Marvel Cinematic Universe

There’s no question that the MCU–and the Iron Man films in particular–have left an indelible mark on the pages of cinematic history. But do these movies live up to the astronomical hype they’ve generated? That loaded question aside, which epoch-making installment is the best of the bunch?

The quick and dirty answers: not really, and Captain America; Civil War.

Team Iron Man
Everything the Russos touch turns to gold–or in this case, gold-titanium alloy.

Alright, invoking the Russo brothers in this context is like entering Carl Lewis in a high school girls’ track meet.

To find the answer without cheating, I shall conduct a thorough analysis of the three standalone Iron Man films. Join me as I compare the relative merits of each movie according to objective standards of the cinematic and general storytelling arts.

WARNING: It’s impossible to run this kind of analysis without venturing into spoiler territory. If you haven’t seen Iron Man parts 1, 2, and 3 yet, a) welcome back from the desert island and b) correct your omission immediately.

OK. I’ll grant a dispensation from watching Iron Man 3. In fact, if it saves somebody the 90 minutes and five bucks I wasted on that flick, this post will qualify as a PSA.

Main Antagonist
A hero is defined by his enemies. It’s no exaggeration to say that the main villain can make or break a film.
Iron Man
Obadiah Stane Newsweek
Possibly the most badass picture of Jeff Bridges
A little-known fact about the first Iron Man: the original antagonist in early drafts of the script was none other than Howard Stark himself, who would have donned the War Machine armor to do battle with his own son.
Marvel almost certainly made the right call by scrapping that idea. They did carry over the father-son rivalry dynamic to the finished film, in which Howard’s lifelong friend Obadiah Stane violently turns on his late business partner’s heir.
I’m torn by Jeff Bridges’ turn as Stane. On the one hand, he tackles the role with maximum effort, as is his wont. On the other hand, Bridges himself admitted to having some discomfort with the production’s improv style.
 

Obadiah Stane’s real weakness has nothing to do with Bridges’ performance, but with the writing. He’s never given a compelling motivation to order the hit on Tony. He even highlights the foolishness of his decision by confessing that Tony is a “golden goose” whose lucrative ingenuity Stand can’t hope to match. Such petty, short-term thinking undermines his portrayal as a corporate tech genius.

Then, because clunky final battles were mandatory in MCU Phase One, the Dude goes crazy or something and suits up in an ambulatory Soyuz for frenetically shot yet plodding showdown with Shellhead.
Iron Man 2

Whiplash and Justin Hammer
Not pictured: Iron Man 2’s main antagonist

Let’s cut to the chase. Most critics of Iron Man 2 call out Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell for giving lackluster performances as the movie’s dual antagonists. These critics fail to understand a number of mitigating factors.

First, a lengthy amount of footage establishing Ivan Vanko’s motives and background were cut from the final version. So hate on Whiplash if you must, but blame the editing; not Rourke’s acting.

Second, Rourke went to absurd lengths to infuse his character with authenticity, even going so far as to spend some quality time in a Russian prison. Say what you will about his effectiveness as a villain. You can’t say that Rourke isn’t utterly convincing as a Russian lowlife.

Third, if you think that Justin Hammer is passive-aggressive and grating for no good reason, you’re not paying attention. From what I can tell, most critics assumed that Hammer is a pale imitation of Obadiah Stane. Viewing the character through that lens will produce a distorted image.

Stane was out for revenge. Or money. Or…honestly, it’s hard to say why he tried to have Tony killed. By contrast, Hammer’s motivation is much clearer. He’s not after Tony Stark’s head. He wants Tony’s approval.

Like Stane, Hammer knows he’s not in Tony’s league. Instead of murderous rage, Hammer’s envy turns into a deluded obsession with proving himself Tony’s equal. Stark repeatedly makes it clear that he views Hammer as an annoying tag along at best, but Hammer’s self-worth relies so heavily on Tony’s acceptance that he can’t let himself acknowledge his rival’s contempt.

Think I’m grasping at straws? Revisit Hammer’s dialog. The man makes a positive reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses for crying out loud! 90% of people who say they enjoyed that book haven’t read it, and 100% are lying about liking it just so highbrow literary types will think they’re smart.

All of the preceding is moot, however, because neither Vanko nor Hammer is Iron Man 2’s main antagonist.

Remember: the main antagonist is the character who poses the biggest obstacle between the main protagonist and his goal.

There’s no question that Tony Stark is the main protagonist. What does Tony want in Iron Man 2? He has two complimentary goals.

  1. Continue operating as Iron Man free of outside interference.
  2. Continue running Stark Enterprises as he sees fit.
Hammer and Vanko certainly obstruct the attainment of Tony’s goals. However, they merely complicate the major source of conflict imposed by this guy:
Garry Shandling - Senator Stern
A big prick hurts even more.
If Senator Stern, brilliantly portrayed by the late Garry Shandling, weren’t orchestrating a government shakedown against Tony for control of the Iron Man armor, Hammer wouldn’t be a threat at all and Vanko would’ve been neutralized in Monaco.
Not that Hammer and Whiplash are superfluous. Unlike most superheroes, Iron Man’s civilian persona is a force to be reckoned with in his own sphere. The best Iron Man stories give the Armored Avenger a super-powered foe to tangle with on the battlefield and a viable threat in the boardroom. While Stane ably filled the latter role in the first film, only Iron Man 2 presents our hero with equally formidable challenges in both arenas.
Dramatically upping the stakes, Iron Man 2 pits Tony against the most implacable foe of all: the United States Government.
Iron Man 3
Fake Mandarins
“I am the Mandarin!””No, I am!”Somehow, they’re both wrong.
Fake Mandarins.
Next.
OK. You want more exposition on the bait and switch that Iron Man 3 pulled with its main villain? How about Fake Mandarins Prompted by Cynical Pandering to the Chinese Market Passed off as Creative Integrity?

The minute you start to govern your creative impulses based on anticipation of someone else’s response or their expectations, then you’re going to fail. You’re going to fail them, too. Because you’re not going to surprise anybody – you’re going to be busy second-guessing what other people want and indulging that people-pleasing side of yourself.

Iron Man 3 co-writer/director Shane Black

Have I mentioned lately how Hollywood hates its own audience?
Hey Shane, “they” are the people who pay your extravagant salary. It’s all well and good to surprise them. Just make sure you give them pleasant surprises; not pandering, PC, dirty tricks that betray the audience’s trust.
Best Main Antagonist: Iron Man 2
Stakes
While the main antagonist places obstacles in the hero’s path, the consequences of failing to surmount those obstacles largely determine the level of dramatic tension and audience engagement.
Iron Man
Obadiah Stane attempts to assassinate Tony Stark with Wile E. Coyote-level tenacity. If Tony doesn’t foil these schemes, he will die. Which would be a huge bummer.
Iron Man 2
The US government, represented by Senator Stern, will stop at nothing to acquire Iron Man’s technology for themselves. Unless Tony can stave off Congress while countering Justin Hammer’s industrial espionage and surviving Ivan Vanko’s vendetta, Stark weapons tech will be proliferated worldwide, reigniting the arms race and certainly heightening US foreign and domestic military intervention.
Iron Man 3
If Tony can’t stop Fake British Mandarin, Trevor Slattery will continue interrupting contrived, duplicitous television with equally contrived, marginally less duplicitous television.
Iron Man must stop Fake Hollywood Nerd Mandarin to escape an unwanted job offer at a corporation that makes super soldiers. The super soldiers explode, but only when it’s convenient to the plot.
Iron Man 3 Creepy Fire Monster Lady
Hey Shane, my creepy fire monster lady can beat up your creepy fire monster lady.
Highest Stakes: Iron Man 2
Plot
A protagonist vying for stakes against resistance supplied by the antagonist is what forms a plot. Let’s face it, all three Iron Man movies have pretty convoluted, sometimes nonsensical, plots.
But we need to pick a winner, so here goes!
Iron Man
An arrogant billionaire arms dealer gets a sharp lesson in humility from his own handiwork. With deadly shrapnel in his heart and a price on his head, he must use his natural genius and discover untapped reserves of courage to save his own life and atone for his mistakes.
In other words, the same superhero origin story that Hollywood–especially Marvel Studios–keeps churning out ad nauseum. Robert Downey Jr’s career-resurrecting performance elevates the material, though, and energizes the proceedings with a refreshing dose of fun.
Iron Man 2
Having embraced his pledge to make up for a lifetime of war profiteering, Tony Stark finds his successful privatization of world peace threatened by US government intervention. Heightening the tension, the only known treatment for Tony’s heart condition is proving as fatal as the malady itself.
The pressure sets off a midlife crisis which places Tony’s business, relationships, and life in even greater jeopardy while interference from an unscrupulous competitor and a vengeful nemesis further compounds his peril.
Will Tony find a reason beyond his own interests to be a hero before his time runs out and his powerful technology is set loose on the world?
Iron Man and War Machine
The most awesome fight in a cherry orchard since Bleach
Iron Man 3
Traumatized by events that happened in another series but are only vaguely alluded to here, Tony Stark throws himself into his work. No, not ensuring world peace. Puttering around in his basement. Meanwhile, his love life–and life on earth in general–circles the drain.
A character with a Chinese code name who’s played by a British actor of Indian extraction to avoid racism and certainly not to appease an audience that Hollywood desperately hopes to milk now that they’ve alienated most of the West, claims responsibility for a series of bombings.
When the director of the first two Iron Man movies is blasted into a coma, Tony argues with Pepper about their relationship, fails to prevent three helicopters form destroying a house packed with enough firepower to turn North America to glass, and visits Chattanooga, Tennessee. His panic attacks sporadically grind the story to a halt.
Pepper is abducted and infected with the same nanotech virus that makes some people explode, but turns most of them into super soldiers capable of shredding multiple Iron Man suits apiece. The dramatic tension needle remains fixed at zero.
Tony and Rhody team up. A sub-par episode of Riptide ensues.
Riptide
How Bill Gates really made his money
Culminating in…
Fake Mandarins
Fake Mandarins
Least irritating plot: Iron Man 1 and 2 tie.
The Best Iron Man Film
Iron Man 2
It’s not even that close. The first Iron Man set up an intriguing character and laid the groundwork for an enduring superhero mythos, but the sequel did what a good sequel should: deliver on the promises made in the original while raising the stakes and expanding the secondary world.
Yes, the first movie is good. But being an origin story, it only hints at the hero’s full potential. Only in Iron Man 2 do we get to see Tony Stark at the top of his superhero game squaring off against equally formidable superpowered opposition.
This movie keeps every promise made by its predecessor and does it in style. Rhody finally suiting up as War Machine and kicking drone ass after ogling the Mark II and vowing “Next time, baby” is one of the sweetest payoffs in the MCU to date.
I could go on, but the point has been made with mathematical precision. Iron Man 2 is the best film in the franchise. Case closed!
Special recognition for entry in the series that bends over the farthest to indulge the stars’ egos, the director’s condescending PC bullshit, and the studio’s servile greed goes to Iron Man 3.

Is Galaxy Quest Superversive?

Galaxy Quest
The crew of the Protector, about to give the Enterprise crew a run for their money–and have more fun while they’re at it.

Yesterday I revisited the late 90s cult classic Galaxy Quest. Not only is it one of my favorite comedies, it easily stands among my favorite SF films and is just plain one of my all-time favorite movies.

OK, I’m laying my cards on the table. In addition to the accolades I already heaped on it, Galaxy Quest is the best Star Trek movie. Sure, it’s an homage that parodies Trek in much the same way that Spaceballs riffed on Star Wars (of which it is the fourth best film, but that’s another post), but Galaxy Quest succeeds where even Mel Brooks failed. It beat its source material at its own game.

Don’t take my word for it. Fans at a major Star Trek convention ranked Galaxy Quest the seventh best film in the series, and that was only because of backroom politicking that bumped Quest down from its starting position in second place. Key members of the creative team who’ve worked on Star Trek movies since The Voyage Home declared that it deserved to be #1.
A twist on a familiar story

For those who are unfamiliar with Galaxy Quest, shame on you! Go watch it right now.

NOW!

For those who are at work or school or prison or somewhere like North Korea that won’t let you stream videos, Galaxy Quest follows a simple yet ingenious premise.

NOTE: this movie is almost twenty years old, so my spoiler filter is off.

The washed-up stars of a 70s SF TV show, forced to subsist on convention signings and ribbon cuttings since the program’s cancellation, get much more than they bargained for when what they mistake for another promo gig turns out to be the real thing.

Facing genocide, an alien race has turned to “Historical Documents” from earth, i.e. television transmissions, for guidance–especially old episodes of Galaxy Quest. They lovingly reproduce the series’ iconic ship down to the last bolt and dab of paint; then enlist the original crew to lead them in battle.

Galaxy Quest NSEA Protector
The most accurate fan prop ever! Seriously, the visuals alone tell you how well the filmmakers understand the subject matter.

Unfortunately, the “crew” don’t have their act together–figuratively or literally.

Galaxy Quest Crew
The pictorial definition of “fish out of water”.

Besides the shock of finding themselves embroiled in a real interstellar war, the actors must confront the interpersonal grudges and rivalries that have alienated them from each other as they’re thrust back into their old roles. It’s the command performance of a lifetime, with stakes far higher than bad ratings.
A worthy homage

In design and execution, Galaxy Quest not only meets the standard set by Star Trek, but sometimes surpasses it. Quest is like the rare cover version of a song that draws out the original’s latent potential and takes it to the next level.

Now imagine that the cover song is by “Weird Al” Yankovic, and the metaphor is complete. Don’t let the comedy distract you from the fact that the artist is a bona fide genius.

Why does Galaxy Quest deserve such praise? The simplest reason is that it’s a sci-fi, parody, ensemble cast, character-driven, comedy/adventure film that works on each and every one of those levels.

First of all, comedy is widely and correctly understood as the hardest genre to pull off properly. Galaxy Quest is indeed a sterling comedy. Rare among contemporary films in this genre, it doesn’t stoop to lazy one-liners or crude slapstick for cheap laughs. Instead, it takes the high road of crafting situational humor based on solidly established characters and how they react to their strange circumstances.

NB: critics lament how modern comedies have largely replaced actual jokes with glib pop culture references. Ironically, Galaxy Quest is one of the few movies that could’ve gotten away with that gimmick. Yet its makers exercised admirable restraint in weaving SF tropes into the story subtly and organically through the actors’ performances.

Alexander Dane: Typecast Thespian archetype. Alan Rickman’s delivery says it all. 

The near-subliminal references even extend to the movie’s visual design.

Galaxy Quest Protector
Yes. The NSEA Protector is a comm badge from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

After soaring over the highest hurdle, Galaxy Quest goes for the gold in the sci-fi, space opera, and characterization categories. Though the science is extra squishy (just how I like it), the movie more than compensates by adding new speculative elements that are just as satisfying as their Trek analogs.

The digital conveyor, FTL flight via black holes (later explored seriously by Interstellar), and the Omega 13 device are just some of the masterful conceits that establish Quests’s own consistent mythos.

One added benefit of rewatching the film was realizing just how gorgeous it is. The conceptual and technical design; even the costumes, are on par with the finer Trek movies while having a pleasing aesthetic all their own.

I was also surprised by how the movie’s visuals influenced the descriptions in my own writing. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the bridge of the Protector clearly inspired the wheelhouse of the Serapis from Nethereal.

Not the Lovecraftian ship in front; the one way off in the background.

The special effects only lose a few points because some of the CG looks a little outdated now, but it still beats any Syfy Channel original movie.

In the action department, Galaxy Quest largely departs from the submarine warfare style of most Trek installments and depicts pulpier, though honestly more exciting, space battles. The character-level gun play and fisticuffs retain comedic elements while portraying deadly consequences, sometimes in direct contrast to the TV show’s camp.

Alexander at the crux of his character arc. Same line; vastly different context and significance.

But is it superversive?

Galaxy Quest is a criminally underrated comedy and sci-fi masterpiece. But solid craftsmanship alone doesn’t qualify a work of art as superversive.

As I’ve noted before, superversive fiction entails a particular commitment to storytelling in the service of beauty, goodness, and truth. Tom Simon gives the definitive explanation.

“…[C]ourage is the essential quality of a superversive story: not the dumb, dull fortitude that passively endures in the face of suffering, but the courage that allows the character to take action – to risk becoming a hero.”

That right there is the standard of a superversive tale. Does Galaxy Quest rise to it?
Damn straight it does

At the movie’s low point, Jason Nesmith (aptly portrayed by Tim Allen) must confess to the alien leader Mathesar that he and his “crew” are not what the aliens believed. They are simple actors pretending to be space explorers on sets made of plywood, tinfoil, and Christmas lights.

Galaxy Quest Jason and Mathesar
Yes, Mathesar, there IS a Santa Claus.

Mathesar’s race–the Thermians–are perfect examples of the purely material beings described by master SF author John C. Wright. Mathesar states that his people lacked transcendent beliefs, and that they interpreted all earth television broadcasts as historical documentaries.

This is strong evidence that the Thermians are purely material–or at least materialistic–beings with no spiritual dimension to their existence, who as such have no longing for a reality above and beyond the mundane world.

Wright convincingly reasons that sapient beings who are fully “at home” in the material world would have no need for or concept of fiction. Their libraries would have only textbooks and newspapers; not pulp magazines and novels. The Thermians therefore see no difference between fiction and lies.

The interactions between guileless Thermians and duplicitous humans brings about one of the movie’s core moral themes: what value, if any, does fiction have? When asked why humans would go to the considerable effort and expense of creating such elaborate charades, Nesmith admits to Mathesar that he doesn’t know. He makes halfhearted mention of entertainment, but it’s clear that he’s never thought through the basis of his craft.

It is here, in the last act, that Galaxy Quest goes from being a workmanlike and thoroughly enjoyable parody to a work of\superversive genius.

The cast of the Galaxy Quest TV show start the movie as petty, frustrated characters, depressed by their inability to be who their talents and dispositions call them to be. They’re suddenly given a final, all-or-nothing chance to redeem themselves.

Galaxy Quest Jason Nesmith
Pictorial definition of “unlikely hero”

The crew of actors are given multiple chances throughout the film to escape the conflict and return home to their old lives. Each time, they decide to stay, even after learning that they’re in mortal danger. Jason and his crew don’t just suffer adversity with patience. They willingly accept terrible risks for the sake of practical strangers from a distant world.

Even more impressive, Galaxy Quest answers its thematic question about the value of art; not through dialog, but through the characters’ actions. Traditionally, protagonists in mistaken identity plots prevail by either tapping into hidden strengths, or by leveraging their native abilities.

The cast of Galaxy Quest do both–employing their acting chops to overcome challenges while growing into their fictional roles for real. By the end of the movie, Tony Shalhoub’s character really is the Protector’s chief engineer. Reluctant pilot Tommy flies her with confidence and skill. Jason is established as the ship’s master and a leader of men.

Yet it’s the final touch that cements this film as a superversive triumph. The human crew of the Protector have defeated their adversary and saved the Thermian race. At this point, a lesser story would have ended with the aliens gaining knowledge of fiction and losing some of their innocence, possibly with a trite speech about faking it until you make it or the inspirational value of noble lies.

Instead, the Thermians are convinced that Nesmith’s confession was itself a ruse, and their faith in the “Historical Documents” is fully restored.

Now, I anticipate criticism on the grounds that our heroes leave the Thermians in ignorance. Isn’t the bitterest truth preferable to the sweetest lie?

To which I reply that anyone making such an objection is equivocating. Equating fiction with deceit is the Thermians’ mistake, made because they’re fundamentally blind to the difference. Trying to distinguish between a lie told with malice and a story told in service of the truth is a Sisyphean task where Thermians are concerned, and no futile task is morally obligatory.

And because we, the audience, are not Thermians, we can see how Galaxy Quest upholds the wonder and beauty of space exploration, the good of heroic virtue, and the truth that the value of good fiction transcends the world of base matter.

Update: in a glorious instance of life imitating art imitating life, Amazon has had a new Galaxy Quest series in the works. Production has been put on hold following the incomparable Alan Rickman’s tragic death. Here’s hoping a satisfactory yet respectful way can be found to complete the project.

Fandom Is Dead. Long Live Fandom!

the medium is the message

If you change the medium, you change the message.

Philosopher of communication Marshall McLuhan argued persuasively that advances in media, regardless of content, can incite dramatic, culture-wide effects.

A best selling print book can reach millions of people, but turn that book into a hit movie, and you increase its sphere of influence by orders of magnitude. Consider The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter.

Or, for a meta-example, In the Mouth of Madness.

Now throw in digital technologies–the power to instantly connect with anyone or everyone, everywhere. The effect is compounded exponentially.
A media paradigm shift is playing out in SF fandom.


Dragon Con

Getting back to McLuhan, saying that he was ahead of his time would be an understatement. In fact, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to call his work prophetic. Let’s put it this way: the dude predicted the internet in 1962.

McLuhan noted that print technology caused a massive societal shift away from the more tribal, logic-focused outlook of the Middle Ages to a more individualistic, rhetorical worldview. He expected the web to swing the pendulum back toward tribalism.

Let’s take a look at SF fandom through the lens of McLuhan’s “medium as message” theory.

In the early days, science fiction enthusiasts:

A. Got their fix almost exclusively through the printed word in the form of novels and short stories circulated in magazines.

B. Were a pretty nonconformist, iconoclastic bunch. As Andy Duncan recently said on the passing of the great David Hartwell:

Even in the mid-20th century, David continued, science fiction was a haven for gay and bi and trans people, for people in open marriages or triads or even more complex domestic scenarios, for people with physical and mental disabilities, for shameless exhibitionists and unapologetic recluses, for anarchists and socialists and Birchers and libertarians and Weathermen and CIA operatives, for cosplayers and gamers and creative anachronists and people who crafted wholly spurious biographies for themselves that were accepted and therefore became sort of true, for channelers and Scientologists and orthodox Jews and pre-Vatican II Catholics and Mormons and New Agers and heretics and atheists and freethinkers, for Ph.D.’s and autodidacts, for writers of COBOL and speakers of Esperanto, for Forteans and CSICOPs, for astronomers and astrologers, for psychics and physicists, for basically anyone who was smart and passionate and willing to pitch in somewhere— though talent certainly helped, and curiosity, and a zeal for argument, and a sense of humor.

C. Subsisted as a relatively small subculture within larger Western society.

It’s often been remarked how sci-fi fandom burst out of the basements, niche bookstores, and cramped con suites of its birth to win new legions of adherents with the 1977 release of Star Wars.

For some fans, the gaming world is where it’s at. They are gamers to the core, not precisely readers per se, nor perhaps even watchers of television and movies. But even among gamers, there are traditionalists (tabletop, pencil-and-paper players, writers, and developers) and there are video gamers. Their two circles can and often do overlap. But among younger players especially, the circle for video games is going to be very large, in comparison to the circle for tabletop.

–Brad R. Torgersen

Most commenters usually emphasize this event’s unprecedented effect on C, take A largely for granted, and so gloss over–or misattribute–the causal relationship between the change in the primary medium of SF consumption and B.

Brad is an outlier in his astute recognition that newer media (movies, TV, video games, etc.) contributed to the disruption of old fandom. But he focuses more on what kinds of SF contemporary fans prefer than how they prefer to experience it.

The point I want to make (with the diagram) is that, in 21st century fandom, there aren’t any touchstone movies, books, or other properties which every fan, writer, or editor can rely on being known to every other fan, writer, or editor. There is no longer a central nexus for fandom.

My explanation for the conflicts that have shaken fandom of late differs slightly from Brad’s. I agree that relative innovations like movies and TV, and recent developments like video games (which are all reasons why there is no universal canon of SF touchstones), lie at the root of the turmoil.

But I don’t think that fandom is tearing itself apart. Instead, what we’re seeing is various sub-tribes of SF fans vying against each other to establish the identity of an emerging, consolidated fandom.

Brad gives a good description of this phenomenon: “It’s at the super-cons that one can again get a vague sense of wholeness: all fans of all things merging together for a weekend of intersectionality across innumerable interests.”

That, my friends, is the shape of the future. But what will be the content of its character? What sort of men will these post-fans be? Or will the Amazon servers and mega-convention halls of tomorrow be populated entirely by omnisexual, non-binary otherkin?
Fandom will become more communal, but what sort of community will it be?

Star Trek: The Apple

Watching a movie requires less personal effort than reading print. Even eBooks engage readers’ senses and though processes differently than print books do.

Audiences watching the same movie share a much more uniform experience than readers of the same book. Everyone who’s seen Star Wars knows what Luke Skywalker looks like, but no two Neuromancer readers have exactly the same mental image of Case.

The film industry dwarfs print publishing. As more people come to SF through movies, their shared experience will restore fandom’s sense of community. What the values and customs of this community will be remains undetermined.

The outcome is being decided right now, by self-appointed makers and high priests of culture. If we would have a say in the destiny of fandom, we must wield the new technological tools at our disposal. And we must establish a presence in film.

Currently, I am at best a lowly squire in the battle royale for fandom’s soul. Who are the warring tribes, and who are the chieftains that champion their visions?

We’ll meet them next time.

If there Were an Oscar for Best Hollywood Revenge Fantasy

I recently saw–no, make that had the misfortune of being sucker punched by–an initially promising film that squandered its competent storytelling with a superfluous, jarring and gratuitous jab at a thinly veiled parody of a hate group painted with such broad strokes as to crudely slander millions within is own audience.

The perpetrator of this hamfisted bait and switch is Kingsman: The Secret Service. Directed by Matthew Vaughn and written by Jane Goldman, Kingsman is loosely based on the comic by Mark Millar. The trailer promised a tongue in cheek spy romp intent on parodying and updating classics of the genre like Bond, Flint, and the Avengers. Its provenance under the proven craftsmanship of Vaughn and Goldman, who previously teamed up on brilliant projects like Stardust and X-Men First Class, gave every reason to expect that Kingsman would at least be competent.

For the most part, the film is competent–a serviceable take on the Hero’s Journey, workmanlike performances all around, thrilling if cartoonish action–which makes its ultimate betrayal of the audience’s trust all the more tragic. It’s like being served one of the lobsters that Tyler Durden peed on while the urine is billed as clarified butter.

Perhaps you haven’t seen the film and the director/writers’ resumes make you skeptical of my objections. Or you may have even seen Kingsman and honestly found nothing objectionable about it. If so, I have three words for you: church massacre scene.

What follows may spoil certain plot points, but I’d have been grateful if someone had spoiled them for me prior to shelling out money for a ticket.

Main antagonist Richmond Valentine (whimsically played by Samuel L. Jackson), has decided that his efforts to combat global warming by funneling huge amounts of his tech fortune into green charities have been wasted. Numbers don’t lie, and the numbers say that no amount of activism or carbon regulation will reverse the deadly warming trend.

Insert odious cliche identifying mankind as a virus infecting the earth and global warming as a fever triggered to rid the host of the infection. But that’s another rant.

However dubious his reasoning, Valentine is consistently portrayed as a man confronting the terrible choice between standing by while knowing that humanity marches toward its inevitable end, or sacrificing most of the world’s populace to save a tiny remnant. He chooses the latter, but maintains a clear aversion to violence (while rationalizing his mass slaughter via a Naked Gun style hypno-device that compels people to murder each other).

So the main conflict is a race to stop a radical environmentalist from killing most of the world in his quest to save it. This detail is significant.

We watch as Valentine’s dastardly plot takes shape, while a young street punk trains to become the archetypal gentleman spy. We know that these two characters will be tested against each other before the end.

But near the middle of the film there’s a scene where a church’s entire congregation is brutally massacred during a Sunday service.

But it’s OK. The church is a hate group–because a couple of characters tell us so. Sure, the congregation is never shown protesting a veteran’s funeral, throwing eggs at a gay wedding, or even kicking a puppy, but the pastor uses the n-word in his sermon. That alone makes him fair game for impalement on a flagpole, right?

And besides, the sermon condemns acts like abortion and sodomy, which orthodox Christians (whom the straw hate group is in no way meant to represent) accept as fundamental human rights, or at least haven’t always regarded as inherently disordered–haven’t they?

Since the pastor’s guilt is self-evident, the audience is excused from feeling vicious glee at his barbaric execution. But what about the score or more of congregants? Fear not! We can safely assume that they shared all of the pastor’s bigoted sentiments since they happened to occupy the same room as him, and voiced hearty Amens to his awkwardly written, prefabricated claptrap. Therefore, it’s perfectly acceptable to cheer on these Modernity blasphemers’ consignment to the lions’ den.

So Valentine gets a successful field test of his mind-control device, a bunch of bigots who won’t be missed anyway are culled in the bargain, and we get the vicarious thrill of seeing them slaughtered. Everybody wins.

Especially the writers and the director, who have shared an unambiguous vision of the revenge fantasies that they nurse against their ideological enemies–or rather the crude stereotypes they imagine their enemies to be.

Think I’m exaggerating? Possibly. If I were, the film’s narrative would justify depicting a church massacre. Let’s see if the scene passes the internal plot consistency test.

Film is primarily a visual storytelling form, so in a competently made film everything you see on the screen was put there deliberately. Consequently, every scene in a movie needs a reason to exist, and that reason must serve the story in order to maintain the narrative.

So let’s see…we have a megalomaniac using a sonic hypno-ray to make a church full of bigots murder each other. Superficially, this scene serves the purpose of establishing the villain as a threat and hinting at the stakes if he succeeds. Seems reasonable.

Except the villain is clearly and repeatedly established as a radical environmentalist. Shouldn’t he be conducting his field test on a boardroom full of oil company executives (or Chinese bureaucrats)?

But the preacher is a racist, and Valentine is black. Those could be factors in the choice of test site, but to avoid feeling forced, that kind of superficial connection needs a scene establishing why Valentine chose these particular racists instead of, say, the KKK or a neo-Nazi group. Instead, it’s left unexplained. Sure, the congregation is depicted as execrable, but they’ll die with the rest of the unwashed masses anyway. Why single them out for special punishment?

Lacking a reason established in the story and integral to the plot, the unavoidable answer is that the film’s creators shoehorned in a detestable bunch of cardboard cutouts that typify Hollywood’s view of what Christians are really like–solely for the pleasure of butchering them on screen. The clumsy dialogue casting these straw Christians as bigots is just a fig leaf added to justify the bloodshed. What the authors of this ignorant, tone-deaf revenge fantasy failed to account for is that Christians are among the most persecuted groups on earth.

Under even glancing scrutiny, the environmental and racial justifications for slaughtering a church full of straw men ring false. The film’s creators meant to jab their fingers in the eyes of a broad segment of their audience, and they weren’t above sacrificing artistic integrity to do it. Consider that Colin Firth’s hiring was contingent upon him performing the church scene. So vital is the scene in Vaughn’s estimation that the whole film is practically a vehicle for it.

To Christian moviegoers and everyone of good will, take warning that Kingsman is an insult hurled at a persecuted demographic by bigots who project their own hatred onto their targets. This is what your self-styled betters in the entertainment industry think of you. Remember to thank Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman for teaching us this lesson. It’s one we shouldn’t soon forget.