Posts Tagged ‘Movie’

Warning: total spoilers.

There’s a lot I want to say about Brave – plot, execution, structure, controversy, characterisation – but before I start all that, there’s something else to be dealt with first: the fact that, with literally one exception, no Disney princess has actual female friends. Instead, they have animals or talking objects, all of whom are either male or androgynous. Snow White and Aurora have forest creatures; Cinderella has singing mice; Ariel has Flounder and Sebastian; Belle has Chip, Lumiere and Cogsworth; Jasmine has Rajah; Pocahontas has Flit and Meeko; Mulan has Khan, Mushu and a cricket; Rapunzel has a chameleon; and now Merida has Angus, her horse. The exception is Tiana, who has a devoted female friend, Charlotte: however, there are still two animal sidekicks (Ray and Louis – again, both male), Tiana herself spends most of the film as a frog, and given the risk Disney perceived themselves to be taking when it came to the inclusion of their first black princess, my inner cynic cannot help but wonder if the reason for Charlotte’s prominent inclusion had less to do with promoting sisterhood than a ploy, however subconscious, to offset possible negative reaction’ to Tiana’s race by putting her alongside a traditionally likeable, non-threatening, blonde girl, who – thanks to the titular frog transformation – actually gets more human, princessy screentime than Tiana does herself.  Even so, the two girls have a loving, important friendship; the only other princess who gets anything even close to that is Pocahontas, who’s shown to be best friends with a girl called Nakoma; but her animals still play a much bigger role in the movie, and after Nakoma effectively betrays Pocahontas – thus fulfilling her narrative purpose – we never see them reconcile, presumably because the relationship isn’t deemed important enough to bother. Even if you stretch really far into the Disney archive and rummage around for other prominent female characters who aren’t official princesses – Megara, Kida, Thumbelina, Eilonwy – the same pattern still holds: all of them have leading men, but even in the absence of animals or other such companions, none has female friends.

Why am I bringing this up now? Because until today – until I saw Brave – I’d never even noticed; but part of the reason I did notice is because, unlike every other Disney princess and Pixar film, Brave is actually meant to be about female relationships: specifically, the mother-daughter bond. And in that context, I suddenly found myself wondering – where are Merida’s friends and playmates? Where are Elinor’s peers? Merida is the first princess without a romantic storyline, and even with all the focus on her relationship with her mother, it still felt telling that both characters existed in a seemingly lady-free vacuum. By contrast, every male character had visible friendships with other men: Fergus with the clan leaders and the clan leaders with each other. It wouldn’t have been hard to have the clan leaders bring their wives, thus enabling Elinor to have a scene among equals and actually act like a person; and by the same token, Merida could quite easily have had a female friend among the servants. At just 100 minutes, Brave is a short film which, unlike Pixar’s other offerings, manages to feel short, in the sense of having skimped on the characterisation. And to me, that missing ten to twenty minutes – the longer Pixar films tend to come in at somewhere between 110-120 – was all the more noticeable for being exactly the length of time you’d need to give either woman some friends and have them talk without competing.

Which isn’t to say I hated Brave: the animation was breathtakingly beautiful, the pacing worked, the comedy had me laughing at all the right junctures, and as far as positive rolemodels go, Merida is lightyears ahead of every other Disney princess simply by virtue of being the first teenager not to end up married or in an official relationship*. It was a good, even solid movie. But here’s the thing: Pixar isn’t known for doing good and solid. They do breathtaking, original, moving, powerful, classic, brilliant, delightful stuff. The only blemish on their otherwise stellar record, Cars 2, can be directly attributed to the meddling, marketeering hand of Disney, to whom they now owe their allegiance and, presumably, their souls. But when it comes to original stories, Pixar is – was – unparalleled. And it angers me that Brave is the film to further break that pattern: not just because it should’ve been so much better, but because the mid-production firing of Brenda Chapman, the original writer/director, will forever leave open the question of whether the problems in Brave were there from the beginning; or whether the decision to give what should’ve been Pixar’s first female-scripted, female-directed, female-inspired movie over to a man who, apart from anything else, had never previously directed a full-length feature, caused the film to reach somewhat less than its full potential; or whether it was a mix of both, and if so, to what extent.

So here’s the plot in brief: Princess Merida, a headstrong young lassie and peerless archer, chafes under the expectations of her mother, Queen Elinor. When Elinor announces the time has come for Merida’s betrothal, her daughter reacts with disbelief and anger, despite the fact that, as a princess, she would presumably have known this was on the cards. However, on learning that her suitors, the eldest sons of the three clan leaders,  must compete for her in a contest of her choosing – a contest whose wording specifies the entrants must be the firstborn child of a clan, not the firstborn son – Merida chooses archery and, in open defiance of Elinor, enters and wins the right to her own hand. An argument ensues; Merida slashes a tapestry of her family, literally cutting her mother out of the picture; Elinor retaliates by throwing Merida’s bow on the fire; and Merida flees into the night, leaving Elinor to pull the (still intact) bow from the flames and clap her hands to her mouth. Lead through the forest by magic will’o the wisps, Merida stumbles on a witch’s cottage and ends up with a magic cake, the purpose of which, rather nebulously, is to ‘change her fate’ if she feeds it to her mother. What actually happens, once she returns to the castle, is that Elinor turns into a bear. Mayhem ensues as Merida first sneaks Elinor out of the castle, then goes in search of a cure, eventually finding out that unless she can ‘mend the bond torn by pride’ before the second sunrise, the spell’s effects will be permanent. Interpreting this to mean that the slashed tapestry needs to be stitched up, Merida and Elinor the Bear reenter the castle, only to find themselves stymied by the presence of the clansmen. Merida distracts them with an apology and, following Elinor’s pantomimed instructions, a solution that the old tradition of forced marriage be abandoned. This is greeted well; the men head to the cellars; and both Elinor and Merida get back to the tapestry. But, of course, things go wrong again: Elinor is spotted, a bearhunt ensues, and Merida is locked up. From here, you can probably guess the ending: Merida escapes, stitches up the tapestry and, after a climactic fight scene, manages to place the tapestry around Elinor’s shoulders before the sun comes up – but in the end, it’s not the stitches that break the curse, but Merida’s apology for her behaviour. Cue the human restoration of a less strict, more sympathetic Elinor, and that’s a wrap.

Well, almost: those who’ve actually seen the film will notice I’ve left out any reference to the monster bear, Mordu, whose origins and defeat ostensibly serve as a combination of backstory, motive and framing device. You’ll also notice, however, that the above synopsis makes sense without it – which is actually part of the problem with Brave, albeit a comparatively minor one: that it actually has two separate plots, which, while technically interrelated – Mordu turns out to be an ancient prince transformed by the same spell Merida uses on her mother – are nonetheless so distinct both thematically and in terms of execution that it’s possible to describe the film entirely through reference to one without mentioning the other. It’s slipshod scripting, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Mordu plot tacked on, it’s also extremely predictable, devoid of all Pixar’s usual unexpected yet sweetly cathartic gracenotes. There’s nothing at the end you couldn’t have picked at the beginning, and if you haven’t guessed the Big Reveal by about the halfway mark, either you’re not really paying attention or you’re probably not old enough to see the film unaccompanied. Again, this isn’t a cardinal sin – it’s just way below Pixar’s usual standard of excellence.

Part of the problem is their use of a traditional three-act structure, something their films have otherwise either actively subverted or avoided altogether – it’s an old-school Disney structure, in fact, and one that’s much less endearing than it is clunky when deployed sans the usual bridging musical numbers. Which isn’t  to say that Brave suffered on that count, but rather to point out that, as it’s the only non-musical Disney princess film, it’s conceivable that the imposition of a narrative structure that’s more usually fitted to Disney musicals – and I am going to say imposition, because I honestly can’t think of any other reason why Pixar would choose Brave, a film that already represented a departure from their norm, as the vehicle for a structure they’d previously eschewed, except that someone from Disney put their foot down – undermined a premise, to judge by what happened to Brenda Chapman, in which the studio already had less faith than usual.

More egregious in terms of error, however, is the fact that the main event – Elinor being turned into a bear – effectively hinges on an idiot plot. When Merida meets the witch, not only does she fail to explain the specific manner in which she wants her mother ‘changed’, she doesn’t stop to ask what the spell she’s been given will actually do. For a heroine who’s otherwise painted as intelligent, clever and resourceful, this is really a facepalm moment, and a massive oversight in terms of characterisation. It would be one thing if the witch were actively deceitful, lying either out of either malice or mischief; but instead, and seemingly for no better reason than to shoehorn in a few extra gags, she’s simply doddery, betraying zero awareness of the notion that her customers might not want to turn into bears. Never mind that her workshop is full of bear-themed carvings, which would seem to be something of a giveaway: it literally makes no sense that Merida would simply accept the magic cake on trust, without any attempt to properly uncover what its effects will be. The fact that, having established what the magic cake does, she not only leaves it in the kitchen but encourages her baby brothers to go inside and eat whatever they want only compounds the idiocy, cementing the fact that, in this instance at least, the desired plot outcome – more bears! – apparently trumped the need for consistent characterisation.

Which brings me to my single biggest problem with Brave: Elinor herself. Both early on and in flashbacks, we see her playing with the infant Merida – a loving, creative, supportive, attentive parent. Yet when we meet her during Merida’s adolescence, she presents as strict, staid, traditional; even nagging. We’re never given any insight into why she’s changed, nor given the impression that her stern facade is a mask she wears for Merida’s benefit. Like the bear spell, it’s seemingly more a function of necessity than of characterisation: Elinor needs to be antagonistic to Merida, and therefore she is, no matter how much dissonance that creates between her past and present selves. Crucially, we’re never encouraged to sympathise with Elinor in this state, and it’s noteworthy that even Merida, when thinking of Elinor’s good points, returns to memories of childhood rather than anything more recent. There are, however, plenty of gags at Elinor’s expense once she’s in her bear-form, and while I’ll admit to laughing at some of these, the bulk didn’t sit easily with me, particularly as so many seemed to be based on the absurdity of Elinor’s attempts to retain her human – but specifically dainty and feminine – mannerisms, despite Merida urging her to be more bear-like. In that context, it felt significant that Elinor’s real transformation – her sympathy for Merida – only happened once she started behaving like an animal and, as a consequence, having fun. Literally, that’s the comparison: the posh queen learns to empathise with her tomboy daughter, not by seeing things through her eyes, but by learning to disregard her own femininity in favour of behaving like a beast.

And that grated on me, not just because I resent the implication, however unintentional, that tomboyishness in girls can be reasonably compared to animalism, but because it made the reparation of Elinor and Merida’s relationship wholly one-sided. Elinor learns to respect Merida for who she is, but we never see the opposite happen: no sooner does Merida try and accept the betrothal than Elinor concedes her point and prompts her to speak against it, and while that’s certainly the right decision, we don’t see Merida adopting any of her mother’s positive beliefs and behaviours, either. The closing scenes are all of Elinor doing Merida-stuff – riding, adventuring, wearing her hair loose – but not of Merida studying to be more like Elinor, and the implication becomes, not just that femininity is inferior, but that Elinor was wholly in the wrong to begin with: the bear spell is Merida’s fault, yes, albeit by accident, but  everything up to that point is essentially put on Elinor. And for a film that’s meant to be about the mother-daughter bond, it bugged me that the ultimate conclusion was that feminine mothers ought to be more like their tomboyish daughters, with the latter being preferable to the former. Similarly, the fact that Elinor’s transformation from antagonist to ally happens at a point when she can’t talk means that we never hear her side of things, or understand what’s prompted her change of heart as she sees it: Merida gets to give a speech about everything she’s done wrong and how she’s misunderstood her mother (despite the general feeling that she’s been in the right all along), but we never hear Elinor give the rejoinder, either to make her own apology or to explain her new beliefs.

Brave, then, is not an aptly-named film in any sense of the word. The theme isn’t bravery – either martial or emotional – but empathy and love. Merida is definitely a compelling heroine, and as I’ve said, I enjoyed the film; but despite the animation, it’s ultimately more Disney than Pixar, with all the pitfalls that assessment entails.

 

*Technically, this is also true of Pocahontas and Mulan; however, both of them get properly paired up in sequel movies.

Warning: all the spoilers.

Trigger warning: some rape and pregnancy squick.

Earlier today, the husband and I went to see Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, after which we watched Alien, which I’d actually never seen before. I’m extremely glad I did, because if nothing else, it offers a whole new perspective on Prometheus, viz: that the latter is actually a reboot of the former. The visual, narrative, structural and thematic similarities between the two are such that, when coupled with Prometheus’s ending, it’s an extremely difficult thesis to ignore; at the very least, Scott is borrowing heavily from his original, and while I’ve not yet seen anyone else make the comparison, if you watch the two films back to back, the relationship between them is undeniable.

But first: Prometheus itself. Considered in isolation, it’s surprisingly hard to categorise with any degree of accuracy. Though ostensibly SF/horror, the tone and pacing are much more philosophical, concerned primarily with abstract questions of identity, genesis, belief and kinship. At the same time, though, the bulk of the characterisation is thin, if not actively dependent on stereotype, which causes a weird, occasionally mesmerising disconnect between the actions of the protagonists and the narrative arc. Having discovered archaeological evidence that the same images of giants, together with the accurate depiction of a distant star system, have appeared in geographically and temporally different cultures throughout history, scientific couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) set out aboard the Prometheus in search of an alien race they call the Engineers, who Shaw in particular believes created humanity. However, the ship itself has been financed by dying industrialist Peter Wayland (a heavily made-up Guy Pearce) at the expense of his company, Wayland Enterprises, and is nominally under the command of captain Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), an icy professional who doesn’t believe in Shaw and Holloway’s theories. Also on board, apart from sympathetic pilot Janek (Idris Elba) and a handful of interchangeable engineers and scientists, is David (Michael Fassbender), an enigmatic robot in the employ of Wayland. Fassbender’s performance is perfect: we’re never quite sure about the extent to which David’s personal motives (which he claims to lack) overlap and intersect with his programmed directives. He’s quiet, polite and inhuman, but with an implied depth of insight and evident sense of wonder that balance eerily with his detached courtesy. It’s David and Shaw whose experiences and interactions form the real basis for the film, and one that makes for an interesting mix of themes.

If you’ve seen any other films set in the Alien universe, then I don’t really need to tell you how the plot progresses: mysterious ruins are discovered, the party splits up, infection/infestation occurs, people die, fire is employed in defense of humanity, corporate greed forces the crew to stay when any sane person would flee, the female lead gets forcibly impregnated by an alien monstrosity with an accelerated growth rate, a big alien boss with a grudge against humanity is revealed, everyone bar the female lead and the robot dies, and the alien threat is averted (for now) in a climactic final battle; the film ends with Shaw flying away in an alien craft piloted by David’s dismembered (but still functional) head. None of which was new or surprising, but all of which was entertaining to watch: the 3D used in Prometheus is superb, the soundtrack is gorgeous, the visuals compelling, and the overall story something I’m glad to have watched. As an action movie, it isn’t half bad (though it does lag briefly in the middle).

The real heart of the film, however, is in the contrast between Shaw’s quest for the creators of humanity and David’s strange relationship with his human creators. My favourite moment comes when Holloway, drunk and dispirited after having discovered that all the Engineers are dead (or so he thinks), laments his inability to ask them the big question: why did they make humanity? To which David, deadpan and quiet, asks why Holloway thinks humanity decided to build robots. “Because we can,” says Holloway, as though this is the most obvious thing in the world – but when David asks if Holloway would be content to receive such an answer from humanity’s creators, Holloway just snorts and rolls his eyes, as if to say, But that would never happen to us . We’re different, and you’re just a robot. The arrogance of Holloway’s disconnect is staggering, such that we feel real sympathy for David; but when, moments later, the robot deliberately contaminates Holloway’s drink with an alien biological sample – not maliciously, but as part of a calculated plot to try and find a cure for his dying master – our sense of his humanity is instantly eroded. Shaw, meanwhile, is caught in a constant balancing act between her faith in God and her scientific belief that the Engineers created humankind. When questioned about the contradiction – shouldn’t she take off her cross, Holloway asks, now that she has proof the Engineers seeded Earth? – Shaw smiles and answers, “But who made them?” Confronted later by the growing evidence that the Engineers weren’t as benign a force as she’d imagined, Shaw retreats into her faith, only to have it tested in other, more horrible ways. And yet she survives with both her faith and her hunger for answers in tact, flying off into the unknown with only the remnants of a created being to keep her company on her quest to understand why humanity’s creators turned against them.

Despite this solid and compelling philosophical core, however, the rest of the characterisation is disappointingly lackluster. Vickers is little more than a cold, blonde ice maiden; Wayland is the archetypal dying industrialist looking to prolong his life; Janek is the loyal captain; the other crew members – Fifield, Millburn, Ford, Chance and Ravel – are by turns anonymous and textbook; even Holloway, for all his greater significance, is strangely generic – supportive and loving to Shaw and a believer in their work, but completely undeveloped in terms of his own history and motives. The Engineers, too, are unfathomable, due in large part to the fact that we never learn anything tangible about them: not why they made humanity, not why they abandoned it, nor even why they subsequently turned to the creation of biological weapons – the aliens whose predations are the film’s main source of threat – with the intention of unleashing them on Earth. There’s a sense in which this enforced ignorance is deliberate: a way of leaving the story open-ended, so that we, like Shaw, are still left with unanswered questions, the better to preserve the sense of mystery. But there’s also a sense in which the lack of answers undermines the integrity of the narrative – because in the absence of any concrete explanation, certain elements of the plot and worldbuilding start to look less like deliberate omissions and more like accidental discontinuities, some of which occurred to me while watching the film, and the rest of which are classic fridge logic.

In the very first scene of the film, for instance, we witness an Engineer – a giant, white-skinned man who bears more than a passing resemblance to Darth Malak in his underwear – standing alone as an alien spaceship flies away in the distance. The Engineer drinks the biological compound that’s later used to kill Holloway and which, by all accounts, appears to be the doom of his species. And yet he does this voluntarily, even though it instantly causes his body to disintegrate, right down to the level of his DNA. The reason for this scene is never explained. Why is the Engineer alone? Why does he drink the compound? Does he realise it will kill him? If not, why not? And if so, why drink it when there’s no-one else around? What planet is he on? None of these questions are answered during the course of the movie – and in fact, what little information we do glean only serves to make the first scene look self-contradictory. Similarly, the ultimate implication of both Shaw’s final voyage and Janek’s never-refuted supposition that the planet they’ve found is a military outpost both point to the fact that the Engingeers came from a different star system all together. But if that’s true, then why didn’t the archaeological evidence Shaw and Holloway found on Earth lead them there instead? More pertinently, it’s stated outright that the dead Engineers the crew finds were killed roughly two thousand years ago, while their earliest appearance in human culture is five thousand years old. So if the Engineers only decided to destroy humanity *after* leaving Earth, why leave behind directions to an outpost planet that they hadn’t yet colonised? In fact, why leave directions at all? We’re shown explicitly that the Engineers intended to send their biological weapons back to Earth, in which case, leaving messages in human culture to one day come to the source is redundant: the only reason humanity survived that long is because the aliens the Engineers bred to destroy us destroyed them first. Under those circumstances, the archaeological messages can’t be a warning, but nor are they viably an invitation. Instead, they appear only as a plot device: something Scott has orchestrated in order to justify his characters being where they are, but which, on the basis of the evidence presented, makes no narrative sense at all.

Other niggling issues also drew my attention: little glitches that made me question the overall story. Why does David think that infecting Holloway will help Wayland? Why does nobody chase after Shaw when she physically attacks two of her crewmates and runs away? Who is Janek working for, and how much does he know? Why, when we’re explicitly told that there are seventeen crewmembers on board, do we only ever see ten of them? This last might seem like a strange niggle, but it becomes relevant near the end, when Vickers is told to run for the escape pods while Janek and two of his companions stay behind to make a Heroic Sacrifice and crash their ship into the alien craft that’s headed for Earth, thereby saving humanity – because if there were still seven other people on board, people we never met and whose deaths we never saw, then it feels extremely odd that Janek and the others would tell Vickers how to save herself, but leave the rest of their crewmates to die. (It’s also worth mentioning that the three men who make the Heroic Sacrifice are all POC – the only three in the movie. I’m not quite sure what to think of this, but it does feel like something of a trope subversion that all three died nobly rather than running for their lives as plucky comic relief, or as the archetypal black dude who dies first.)

And then there’s the gender issues. Round about the midway point, Vickers initiates a conversation with Janek and actually seems to be thawing a little, prompting him to flirt with her. Vickers reacts in kind, but ultimately rejects him, at which point she turns to leave. Janek, however, stops her by asking an incredibly invasive question: is she a robot? Now, on the one hand, this is a narratively reasonable question: Scott’s Alien-universe movies do tend to contain secret robots, and as far as the audience is concerned, Vickers is definitely a viable candidate. On the other hand, though, Janek has asked this in direct response to Vickers choosing not to sleep with him, and even worse, her response, rather than saying yes or no, is to tell him to come to her cabin in ten minutes – they can have sex after all! And this is problematic for me, because even though Janek might plausibly be curious, his timing is gross, and Vickers’s response is grosser still, because the way she proves her womanly nature is to change her mind about sex. The whole scene did not sit well with me, and even though we don’t actually see the deed take place – the whole incident is, I suspect, narratively engineered solely to get Janek off the bridge, so that when the crewmates stuck outside call with an SOS, he isn’t there to hear it – and even though it effectively answers the question of Vickers’s humanity, it still comes across as sexist and offensive.

And then we have the Underwear Problem – or, more specifically, the fact that women in the future apparently don’t wear bras or singlets, but have instead reverted to wearing weird wrap-around boob tubes that look uncannily like bandages, and which come complete with matching bandage underwear. To wit, this:

and this:

Setting aside the infuriating ubiquity of Hot Terrified Women In Their Underpants as an SF/horror trope, what would have been so terrible about letting them wear bras or crop tops? Even Ripley in the original Alien gets a goddam singlet, despite the fact that her undies are literally and gratuitously about five sizes too small.  I just, I actually cannot get over this lack of bras. I mean, the first time we see Vickers, she’s doing pushups in what amounts to a boob tube, and I’m sorry, but it’s hard enough to get a strapless bra to stay put when you’re hugging your armpits at a party, let alone engaging in strenuous physical exertion like running for your life. I don’t even care that, from one perspective (although certainly not the one employed for the gratuitous cleavage shot pictured above), the boob tube bandages arguably cover more frontal cleavage than a real bra would, because once you’ve decided to have your female heroine running around in her underwear, you’ve pretty much abandoned the notion of modest costuming. As far as I can tell, the only possible logic behind the boob-wraps is because someone, somewhere decided they were more aesthetically pleasing than bras – but speaking as a person of somewhat busty dimensions, the absence of good, supportive bras is the exact fucking opposite of futuristic, and is in fact about as big a visual anachronism as having an axe on a spaceship.

Oh wait.

*facepalm*

But all of this is small beer compared to the big, endlessly problematic notion of forced alien impregnation. Insofar as the alien attacks go, I’ll give Scott some credit for trope subversion: twice in the course of the film, male characters are violently orally penetrated – and, in the process, killed – by phallic alien tentacles. This is visually disturbing on a number of levels, but given the near universal establishment of tentacle rape as a thing that happens to women, I’m going to give him a big thumbs up for bucking the trend. That being said, what happens to Shaw is awful on just about every level imaginable. If you have difficulty with the womb-biting vampire birth scene in Breaking Dawn, I’m going to issue a big, fat warning about Prometheus, because everything that happens to Shaw from about the three-quarter mark onwards is the ladypain equivalent of that scene in Casino Royale where Le Chiffre tortures James Bond by tying him naked to a wicker chair with the arse cut out and then repeatedly belting him in the genitals with a length of knotted rope, with bonus! psychological angst thrown in.

So: Shaw is infertile; she can’t have children. This is a source of evident sadness to her, something that Holloway has to reassure her about after he accidentally makes an offhand comment about how easy it is to create life. At the point at which we see them make love, Holloway has already been infected with the alien biological compound: he dies horribly not long after, forcing Vickers to literally set him on fire while Shaw watches rather than continue in his painful, bodily disintegration. Making this even worse, Shaw’s own father, an explorer or anthropologist of some sort, also died of an incurable, graphic virus – ebola, in fact. Understandably, Shaw is so distressed by watching her lover die that David has to sedate her – but of course, David is the one who infected Holloway to begin with. When Shaw comes to, David asks her (politely, of course) if she and Holloway have made love recently; when Shaw says yes, he does an ultrasound, and reveals both that Shaw is three months pregnant – impossible, as they only slept together ten hours ago, never mind her infertility – and that the foetus is abnormal. Unhesitatingly, Shaw tells him to get it out of her, to which David replies that he can’t: they don’t have the technicians on board to perform a cesarean. His solution is to suggest she go into cryo. Shaw refuses, so David forcibly sedates her. When she wakes up again, two fellow crewmates in quarantine suits have come to see her frozen. Shaw feigns unconsciousness, attacks them, and runs – in some considerable pain, as the alien-baby is trying to squirm free – to the special, super-expensive automated surgery pod in Vickers’s quarters. Desperate, she tries to program it for a cesarean, only to be told that the chamber has been locked for male use only (we later find out, through inference, that this is because it’s meant for exclusive use by the aged Peter Wayland, who’s secretly been on board the whole time).  Thinking fast, she tells it to perform abdominal surgery to remove an obstruction, jabs herself with a couple of painkillers, and hops in.

While Shaw is still conscious – and clearly able to feel pain, despite her medical injections – the pod cuts into her with a laser, opens up her uterus, and uses a metal grappling tool that looks frighteningly like the lovechild of an arcade grabber machine claw and an eggbeater to pull the writhing alien-baby in its placental sack out of her stomach and hold it overhead. Shaw is now trapped in the pod with a gaping abdominal wound and a predatory tentacled alien that wants to kill her – plus and also, the umbilical cord is somehow still linking it to her insides, so she has to physically pull the cord out of her goddam womb, at which point the pod wraps things up by closing a gash the entire length of her abdomen with giant metal staples. She then has to slide downwards and out of the pod by passing underneath the alien, slam the pod-lid closed, and then stagger, weeping and bloodied, into the hallway.

To summarise: an infertile woman who wanted children and whose partner died ten hours ago is forced to give herself an emergency c-section to rid herself of the ravenous alien baby he impregnated her with, alone, while on the run from her crewmates, without help or anesthetic. Also, despite the fact that her stomach is literally being held together with staples, she then spends the rest of the film running for her life while in obvious, crippling pain, alternately sobbing and injecting herself with painkillers. Fun times! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So how, then, does Prometheus resemble a reboot of Alien?

Barring the Engineer prologue and a brief scene on Earth, Prometheus contains exactly the same establishing shot and data that Alien does: the image of a spaceship with the written details of its name, function, crew, cargo and course superimposed over the top; both films also end with the lone survivor, a brunette Final Girl, dictating a last entry into the ship’s log, stating that the rest of the crew are dead, the ship was destroyed, they’re the only one left, and that now they’re about to travel elsewhere. Both are also accompanied in their escape by a small, inhuman companion – Ripley has a cat, Jones, while Shaw has the disembodied robot head of David. In Alien, the ring-ship the crew discovers is identical to the one piloted by the surviving Engineer in Prometheus; in both films, it’s a pair of white men who stumble on the larval face-sucking aliens and subsequently die. In both films, it’s the female protagonist who calls for the implementation of quarantine (Ripley is ignored where Shaw isn’t) and who subsequently suggests that the message which lead them there to begin with wasn’t an invitation or an SOS, but a warning to stay away. In both films, a robot secretly furthering the agenda of a corporate power turns on the crew, ignoring quarantine and disobeying direct orders in order to bring an alien sample on board, actively harming and endangering others in order to protect it. Both films also follow a very similar plot progression, kill off secondary characters in a similar order, and make graphic use of flamethrowers; even the title fonts are the same (both also pass the Bechdel test). Perhaps most importantly of all, however, the final scene of Prometheus shows an alien – that is, an Alien alien – emerging from the wreckage, created in its larval form by gestating in Shaw (the Holloway-monster she cut out of herself) then growing again in the body of the Engineer, which makes the whole of Prometheus look like nothing so much as a retcon of the entire Alien universe.

Given that fact, my suspicion is that there’ll probably be a sequel at some point down the line, restarting the Alien mythos in a suitably altered context (though whether Rapace’s Shaw will go on to be as canonically significant as Weaver’s Ripley remains to be seen). Over all, I found Prometheus to be an interesting movie: flawed in some ways, problematic in others, and peppered with enough apparent discontinuities and WTF moments that I couldn’t wholly settle into the story, but still entertaining and definitely one of the better SFnal flicks I’ve seen of late. (Though if you’d rather pass on the open-womb surgery scene, I can’t say I’ll blame you.)

Warning: significant spoilers.

Trigger warning: some talk of rape.

This evening, at my husband’s suggestion, we rented The Immortals. Given that its trailer is not only terrible, but crafted to give a lingering impression of All Action And No Plot, I only agreed to watch on the condition that it received a score of 5.0 or higher on IMDB. As it currently boasts a 6.2, I acquiesced and settled in for what I anticipated would be a hilarious and offensively trashy action flick with pretensions of mythic grandeur.

Only, as it turns out, no.

To start with – and I’m aware that this is a low bar, despite the staggeringly high number of films that fail it – The Immortals passes the Bechdel test in the first scene. Much more impressively, it does so by means of a conversation between – brace yourselves – four women of colour. All of whom speak and appear in multiple scenes during the course of the movie. All of whom demonstrate agency. All of whom have each other’s backs.

Let that sink in for a moment.

True, only one of them merits a character name: Phaedra (Freida Pinto), the true Sybelline oracle whose identity as such is masked by the presence of the other three. And true, we never see them again after a particularly awful scene around the halfway mark, which ends so ambiguously that we don’t know if they actually live or die. This is a problem, and my single biggest issue with the movie: I want to know what happened to them! But even so, they were there, and they mattered, and with the exception of the last two Matrix films – which were made nearly a decade ago – I can’t think of any other action, SF or fantasy flick that’s come anywhere close to featuring multiple women of colour in meaningful roles since, well, ever. Add to this the two white female characters who also appear, and you have an action movie whose ratio of leading ladies to leading men almost approaches parity.

Next, we have the script, which contrary to every expectation produced by the trailer is actually worthy of the name. Characterisation! Pacing! Originality! Non-cliched dialogue! Or at least, dialogue wherein the cliches are kept to a minimum, spoken by good actors, and frequently interleavened with good lines! Granted, I went in with low expectations and was therefore in the right frame of mind to be surprised and impressed by any sort of quality, but for action movie dialogue? This is definitely at the high end of things – a fact which is helped by the cast. Apart from Freida Pinto, there’s Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke and John Hurt all more than pulling their weight, plus a secondary cast who do the same. This is important in a genre so often afflicted by cliched language: good delivery is frequently the only thing that can redeem it, and in The Immortals, when it crops up, it does.

Then there’s the plot, which is an original take on Greek mythology. Some elements, such as the trapped Titans and the gods sworn to a policy of non-direct interference, are familiar; others, such as the transmutation of the Labyrinth into a temple and the Minotaur into a mask-wearing soldier, are not. What’s important is that the story has internal consistency, solid characterisation, and a refreshing absence of idiot plots. Even the inclusion of the Erebus Bow, a fictional MacGuffin, doesn’t detract from this: the weapon serves a specific purpose – releasing the Titans from Tartarus – but though the villain, Hyperion, wants and searches for it, the heroes, lead by Theseus, never actively quest for it, which spares both plot and pacing a lot of unnecessary baggage.

As for the costumes and setting – both of which look undeniably tacky in the trailer – they’re part of a consistent and deliberately stylised visual aesthetic that actually works in the context of the film. Also: it’s worth noting that the costumes highlight male physicality and beauty at least as much, if not more than, that of their female counterparts. Zeus, Poseidon and the other gods, for instance, show far more skin than Athena; and both men and women alike are decorated with elaborate headdresses. For a film aimed (one assumes) primarily at a male audience, this is both awesome and unusual, and stands in clear contrast to the staunch, robed gods of the recent Titansfilms. The action scenes, too, are gorgeously choreographed, and thanks to good pacing, the film never lags or feels overlong.

What really grabbed me, though, was the visible sexism. I don’t mean the film was sexist – I mean it showed sexism. Given how cross I’ve been recently about stories that posit sexism without sexists, it felt huge to watch an action film actually tackle the issue. As a villain, Hyperion is genuinely menacing, not only because of the barbarity of his actions, but because of his open, evident misogyny. When the traitor Lysander goes over to his side, Hyperion boasts about how his seed is one of his greatest weapons, as it means the children of his enemies will bear his stamp for future generations. He even punishes Lysander’s cowardice at changing sides by effectively castrating him, thereby denying him the legacy of children. When Athena reports on Hyperion’s conquest, she mentions (though we never see it happen) the care he takes in personally killing pregnant women, the better to wipe out his enemies as a race. And when he has the captive priestesses before him, he threatens them with ‘unpleasantness specific to [their] gender’ – effectively using rape, or the prospect of it, as a weapon.

Crucially, though, sexism isn’t only a weapon of the enemy. The first time we see her at prayer, Theseus’s mother is being called a whore by her own people, an insult levied at her multiple times. We know from these exchanges that Theseus is a bastard, and his lightning-quick defense of his mother at these times perfectly justifies his contextually unique respect for women. It’s not until late in the film that we learn his mother was raped by some of the villagers, after which no one would marry her. The impact of this inclusion hit me powerfully: so, so often in stories about bastard male heroes, their fathers are either gods or men who, whether through early death or familial intervention, were forbidden to marry the woman in question. To make Theseus a child of rape – and more, to reveal this fact only later in the piece – made all the insults his mother endured more poignant, and perfectly highlighted how victim-blaming works in sexist cultures. Even Stavros, Theseus’s ally, makes crude remarks about Phaedra, propositions her, and then remarks on the lack of difference between a whore and high priestess – and when that happens, Theseus is once again quick to react.

Phaedra’s sexual agency is also important. As per tradition, her oracular powers are tied to her virginity, which is usually code for the woman to be romantically reluctant while the male hero seduces her. In this story, however, it’s Phaedra who seduces Theseus: he holds back, unspeaking, while she states aloud that she doesn’t want or need her visions – she wants to be free to experience the pleasures of her own flesh. And crucially, the narrative never rebukes her for this: she is never called useless or chastised for having lost the gift of prophecy, and just as importantly, the final scenes show her young son to have inherited her gift, breaking the stereotype of prophecy as a purely female magic.

That being said, The Immortals isn’t without feminist problems. As per the perennially unfortunate logic of women in refrigerators, Theseus is initially motivated by Hyperion’s murder of his mother, and though Phaedra and her priestesses all demonstrate agency – her three offsiders kill seven of Hyperion’s best men to help her escape, then staunchly refuse to betray her whereabouts despite their captor’s rape threats – the fact that we never find out what happens to them is a lingering sore point. Or, more specifically: Hyperion tortures them, and they still seem to be alive when Theseus and Phaedra arrive, but the last we see or hear is Phaedra weeping over them. As this could realistically be at either the extent of their injuries or their sudden, awful deaths, we’re left hanging as to their end fate – which, as stated at the outset, is my single biggest complaint about the movie.

At the same time, though, it’s noteworthy that the script allows for the visible, unsexualised, unglamourised suffering of its female characters on an equal level with its men. Very often in narrative (as I’ve previously mentioned), there’s a tendency to bestow gender-specific plot armor on women, so that tacitly, the audience is meant to take comfort from the clearly nonsensical and falsely chivalrous idea that a certain type of terrible thing just can’t happen to girls. But The Immortals doesn’t pull punches when it comes to Hyperion’s actions, regardless of who they affect; which is why he succeeds so thoroughly – and believably – as a villain.

In short, then, The Immortals surprised me in just about every respect. It passes the Bechdel test. It has multiple women of colour, one of whom is the film’s leading lady. It openly deals with sexism. It has a decent script, solid characterisation, good acting, fluid pacing, original costuming and very pretty action scenes, and for a bonus is directed by an MOC, Tarsem Singh. It’s by no means a perfect movie, but it’s making an intelligent effort in areas that I care about, and managed to do so in a way that made of an engaging, watchable film. So don’t be deterred by the terrible trailer, like I first was – give it a try!

Warning: complete spoilers, much rant.

Up until about a week ago, I hadn’t planned on seeing Sucker Punch at the movies, primarily because I didn’t know it existed. That all changed when rumblings in the blogsphere alerted me both to the film itself and to the suggestion that it was a sexist, misogynistic piece of rape-obsessed trash, as opined (among others) by The Atlantic reviewer Sady Doyle and blogger Cassie Alexander. This did not provoke in me a desire to spend money at the box office so much as a profound feeling of disgust – and yet, I remained a little bit intrigued, too, if only because of the amount of controversy racking up. First, lead actresses Emma Browning and Abbie Cornish both defended the film, and then I saw a favourable review that had been published, of all places, on the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center blog, wherein the author praised it as “the best movie about dissociation [he’d] ever seen.” 

Despite my initial reaction, Sucker Punch was starting to look like something I ought to see, if only for curiosity’s sake. Going in, I was prepared for the worst, but also open to the possibility of redemptive surprise, particularly as I’ve found Zack Snyder’s previous three efforts to be something of a mixed bag: I loathed 300, was on the fence about Watchmen, and liked Legend of the Guardians. Given that these were all adaptations, what then might I make of a story that Snyder had written himself? Accompanied by my long-suffering husband, I bought some popcorn and prepared to find out.

Visually and narratively, Sucker Punch operates in three different realms: the real world, where heroine Baby Doll has been committed to an asylum after her abusive step-father frames her for the murder of her little sister; the first dissociative layer, portrayed as a bordello, where Baby Doll and four of the other inmates plot their escape while enduring sexual abuse at the hands of the male orderlies; and the second, deeper dissociative layer, where the girls’ efforts to overcome their situation are expressed as  fantastic battles against giant warriors, dragons, androids and – wait for it – steampunk zombie Nazis. (And I’ll bet you thought only Hellboy had those, right?) In honour of this approach, I’ve elected to critique the film on three different levels – construction, continuity and context – in order to cover all bases.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

1. Construction 

Besides Baby Doll and her fellow inmates – Sweet Pea, Rocket, Amber and Blondie – Sucker Punch has three other noteworthy characters: villain Blue Jones, a crazed orderly (real world) and sadistic pimp (bordello); ally Vera Gorski, their psychiatrist (real world) and madame (bordello); and a character listed only as the Wise Man, who commands the girls during their fantasy battles.  (He also appears in the real world, but we’ll get to that later.) From the moment she enters the asylum, Baby Doll is on a tight schedule: unless she can escape within five days, a doctor will come and lobotomise her. To this end, the Wise Man lists the items she needs to achieve a “perfect victory”:  a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a fifth thing he refuses to name, which Baby Doll doesn’t mention to her friends. One by one, these items are acquired during the fantasy scenes, returning afterwards to the bordello realm, in which we spend the greatest amount of time. Our only visits to the real world, in fact, are spaced far apart: the very beginning and very end of the film. While this lends a certain sort of symmetry to the narrative, it’s a conceit which swiftly becomes problematic (more of which during the continuity section).

Despite their disparate themes, Zack Snyder’s previous films are united by a common visual aesthetic to which Sucker Punch is no exception: stylistic slow motion interspersed with lighting-fast flashes of violence and a sepia-tinted colour scheme give the film an eerie feel, while his trademark close-ups and swooping vistas provide a strong contrast between personal scenes and battles. The soundtrack is, I’ll admit, catchy, but at a price: the song-to-dialogue ratio is so heavily skewed that vital character development is done away with in favour of what are, effectively, music videos. Snyder’s distinctive visuals only compound this problem: the action scenes are long, almost totally unscripted except for the Wise Man’s briefings, and delivered with such a predictable rhythm that they soon become self-defeating, like endless cut-scenes in a video game.

As per the traditional laziness of the trashy action genre, our five man – or in this case, five girl – army is desperately under-characterised. Although we witness the chain of events leading to Baby Doll’s imprisonment, these opening scenes have no dialogue, leaning heavily on the straw-man Evil Step-Father image to justify her wrongful incarceration. Of the other girls, only sisters Sweet Pea and Rocket are ever given the slightest bit of history, and even this is flimsily done: Rocket ran away from home after clashing with her parents, and Sweet Pea, despite not being part of the argument, followed. How they ended up in the asylum is anyone’s guess – but then, there’s not much real world logic to Sucker Punch, even when we’re actually in the real world.

2. Continuity

As was demonstrated by the recent success of Inception, it is entirely possible for a Hollywood blockbuster to switch back and forth between multiple interlocking realities in a way that actually makes sense. Sucker Punch, however, does not do this. Partly, this is down to laziness, but there’s also an ample helping of fridge logic, too. For starters, it’s inferred that the real world is not the present day, but rather sometime in the 1950s, an assumption supported not just by the cars, technology, clothing and general mood of these scenes, but by the type of asylum Baby Doll is sent to. The fact that her step-father openly bribes an orderly to admit her might still work in the present day, if one were willing to explain the visuals as an affectation; but the threat of a lobotomy conducted via a chisel through the skull-front is undeniably past tense. To borrow from another recent film, think Shutter Island with women. That’s our base level of reality, and even with the dearth of early dialogue, it’s still as plain as day.

And that, alas, is a problem. Even allowing for the creation of an internally dissociative fantasy, I cannot buy the presence in that world of anachronisms – one or two, maybe, but the number here is enormous. Baby Doll’s outfit, for instance, is pure weaponised Japanese schoolgirl, down to the fact that her gun is accessorised with cute little dangling charms. The same is true of all the fantasy costumes, never mind the presence of touch-screen technology, battle suits and silver-gleaming androids. This is further compounded by glitches in the bordello realm: near the end, one male orderly plays with a touchscreen device, his ears adorned with the trademark white earbuds of an iPod, while earlier, a major plot point revolves around Sweet Pea’s ability to photocopy a map of the asylum. Or at least, that’s what we assume she’s done: a machine that looks like a very old, very simple photocopier is shown in Blue’s office, and if Sweet Pea was only going to draw a copy – a lengthy and improbable option – she wouldn’t need to take the original off the wall.

But these are all nitpicks when placed against the bigger problem: understanding how anything in either fantasy world possibly corresponds to the real. In the bordello level, for instance, Baby Doll dances to distract the men while the other girls steal each item – but what does the dancing represent? Sex? Are we witnessing a calculated seduction of all the male orderlies as expressed through Baby Doll’s decision to dance for them, or is she taking advantage of their ongoing coercion? When Amber takes a lighter from one of the men, giggling in his lap while Baby Doll dances nearby, what is actually happening in the real world? Either way, Baby Doll is meant to be so distracting that the men don’t notice the other girls sneaking around – and that’s before you factor in that Baby Doll’s dance is always the cue to segue into the higher fantasy world.

During the botched theft that results in Rocket’s death, for instance, we switch back to the bordello from the fantasy to witness two interpretations of the same event. In the fantasy battle, Rocket is blown up by a bomb on a speeding train, unable to escape because her jetpack is broken. In the bordello, we see her stabbed by the cook, dying in Sweet Pea’s arms while finishing the conversation they’d  started on the train. At no point do we drop down into the real world – because, of course, doing so would reveal the entire action to make no sense at all. If the bordello-dance is already a layer of metaphor, then how do we explain a reality in which Baby Doll distracts the cook in his tiny, cramped kitchen so effectively that he doesn’t notice that four other girls are occupying the same space? The final break with reality comes when Blue kills both Amber and Blondie in the bordello world, with Gorski and several other orderlies as witnesses. Clearly, the girls must die by Blue’s hand in the real world, too: and yet, despite this overwhelming evidence of his savagery, Blue remains in charge. In fact, his next act is to try and rape Baby Doll, who defends herself by stabbing him in the shoulder. So total is the dissonance between the bordello world and reality that when, much later, real-world Gorski is explaining Baby Doll’s history to the lobotomist, she mentions that yes, the patient did stab Blue, but omits to mention that Blue is a murdering rapist. And lest we think she’s simply glossing over a tragic, traumatic event, in the very next scene, we see that Blue is still working at the asylum. As, for that matter, is the equally murdering cook.

Let me repeat that, in case you missed it: three girls have been killed by two staff members in the space of a week. Two of the murders took place in front of multiple staff witnesses. And yet neither man is disciplined, or queried, or imprisoned or suspected or anything until – cue the Narrative Convenience fairy, and also the fairy of Unbelievably Stupid And Offensive Plots – just after Baby Doll’s lobotomy.

Oh, yeah. She gets lobotomised at the end. Apparently, the fifth thing Baby Doll needed was to sacrifice herself so Sweet Pea could escape instead. And by “sacrifice herself”, I mean “get lobotomised”. By a doctor who didn’t really want to do it. In a way that makes no sense. Or, sorry: in a way that makes even less sense than you might already think, because in order to get Baby Doll lobotomised, Blue had to forge Gorski’s signature on the paperwork. Except that Gorski, who is standing right there throughout the procedure while holding the paperwork, objects to the lobotomy taking place. And presumably, if Blue had to forge her signature to get it done – this is, after all, what Baby Doll’s father bribed him to do – then only Gorski has the authority to authorise lobotomies. So you could be forgiven for wondering why, at some point prior to Baby Doll getting lobotomised, she didn’t stop to look at the fucking paperwork and question why the lobotomy was taking place. Oh, no – that particular revelation is saved for three seconds after an irreversible procedure has already happened. Which is also when, all of a sudden, the other orderlies suddenly declare that they don’t want to help Blue hurt the girls any more. Oh, but they’re still willing to leave him all alone with a newly lobotomised girl they’ve just helped strap to a chair – it’s just that they’ll feel bad about it now.

And then the cops come – literally, they reach the place in about two seconds – and arrest Blue, just in time to stop him molesting Baby Doll (well, molesting her more, anyway – he still gets a kiss in). And not because he killed Amber and Blondie, though. Heavens forbid! No: Gorski has dobbed him in for falsifying her paperwork. 

Capping off this carnival of narrative errors and continuity gaffes, we come to the final scene: the newly escaped Sweet Pea at a bus station, trying to find her way home. As the bus doors open, the police appear and try to question her on the suspicion that she is, indeed, an asylum escapee. It looks like she’s doomed, but wait! Who should the bus driver turn out to be but the Wise Man himself?That’s right: the figment of the girls’ collective dissociative imaginations who commanded them through their battles is actually a bus driver, that is to say, a person previously unknown to them who actually exists in the real world. And of course he lies to the police, telling them that Sweet Pea has been on his bus for miles now, when of course he’s never seen her before (But has he? Wait, no, because that makes no fucking sense) and so they let her go, and on she gets, right behind a young male passenger whose face, as it happens, we’ve also seen in the fantasy world, fighting in the trenches of the zombified World War I. Which also makes no sense.

Yeah. About that.

3. Context

Speaking in a recent and undeniably sympathetic interview, Zack Snyder said that Sucker Punch was “absolutely” a “critique on geek culture’s sexism.” Regarding two early moments of metatextual dialogue, he has the following to say:

“She [Sweet Pea] says, “The dance should be more than titillation, and mine’s personal,” and that’s exactly a comment on the movie itself. I think 90% are missing it, or they just don’t care… As soon as the fantasy starts, there’s that whole sequence where Sweet Pea breaks it down and says, “This is a joke, right? I get the sexy school girl and nurse thing, but what’s this? A lobotomized vegetable? How about something more commercial?” That is basically my comment on the film as well. She’s saying, “Why are you making this movie? You need to make a movie more commercial. It shouldn’t be so dark and weird.””

In some ways, this is a perfect explanation of the film’s failure. Snyder has tried to be ironic in his handling of sexiness and objectification, taking schoolgirl fetishism, harem fantasies and sexy nurses and putting them in a situation which is decidedly unsexy -that is to say, a deeply misogynistic environment rife with violence, rape and abuse of power – in order to make his male audience members feel guilty about finding the girls attractive, and thereby forcing them to realise that their lusts align with those of the villainous male characters. To quote the same interview:

“Someone asked me about why I dressed the girls like that, and I said, “Do you not get the metaphor there? The girls are in a brothel performing for men in the dark. In the fantasy sequences, the men in the dark are us. The men in the dark are basically me; dorky sci-fi kids.””

It’s a self-aware sentiment – and yet, the film itself is anything but self-aware. Despite his intentions, Snyder has created a film which systematically disenfranchises its women in order to teach men a lesson about not disenfranchising women. Which, you know, would seem to defeat the purpose. Certainly, it’s possible to empathise with the characters, despite how thinly they’re drawn – but that’s because the entire film is engineered to paint women as victims and men as abusive bastards. What Snyder sees as a dark, edgy ending, perhaps even a cautionary tale about the dangers of male lust – that is, Baby Doll’s lobotomy and the deaths of all her friends bar Sweet Pea – actually reads as a story of victimisation: the girls couldn’t save themselves. Even in the very depths of their fantasies, they still needed a male general to formulate their plans and give them orders. I understand the sexy costumes of the bordello realm, to an extent – it’s a logical leap of dissociation, given the culture of sexual abuse – but why, then, would the girls still imagine themselves in titillating outfits during the second realm’s fantasy battles? The answer is, they wouldn’t: those scenes are there as fanservice, not to make a disquieting point about fetishism and rape, and however much Snyder might have wanted the film to rebuke exactly the sort of objectification its merchandising provokes, the Hollywood factor means that in the end, it can’t help but reinforce the very cultures it attempted to satirise.

In the end, Sucker Punch is a sexist wasteland: a ham-fisted attempt to make chauvinist geeks care about rape by luring them in with action scenes. The idea of creating strong, competent, interesting female characters whose looks play no part in their marketability is apparently too radical for Snyder, who might have saved himself a lot of bother by watching Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and seeing what real girl action heroes can do, if only you don’t embrace the “rocks fall, everyone dies” approach to storytelling. Because, look: when your five main female characters are all being raped, wrongfully imprisoned and generally abused; when the only names they have are diminutive, sexy-sounding nicknames bestowed on them by rapists, which they then use even among themselves; when you dress them in sexy outfits, call it ironic and then merchandise statuettes of the characters wearing those outfits to your male fanbase; when your female resistors, even in their deepest dissociative fantasies, must still take all their orders from a Wise Man; when all your girls bar one are either murdered or lobotomised at the end, and that selfsame Wise Man calls it a “perfect victory”; then you have not created a film which is empowering for women. Instead, you have taken the old, sexist trope of hurting female characters to motivate goodness, chivalry and protectiveness in their male counterparts to a new and disturbing level: that is, you are hurting female characters to motivate goodness, chivalry and protectiveness in the male audience. And I’m sorry, but I just can’t bring myself to see that as an improvement. Because of how, you know. It’s not.

Great soundtrack, but.

A lot has been happening recently, what with the upcoming move to Scotland, our recent trip to Sydney and the general madness of the season, but I’m not going to blog about that, partly because it was exhausting the first time around, but mostly because writing about packing boxes is only slightly less interesting than reading about packing boxes. So! Instead, you get a long, spoilery review of Tron: Legacy, which we saw this evening, because unpacking the weirdness of Hollywood cinema is like candy unto my soul, with the added bonus of not involving boxes of any kind.

It is worth noting from the outset that I am yet to see the original Tron. Saying so out loud, where “out loud” can be read as “on the internet”, makes me feel something of a traitor to my own geekhood. More importantly, this means that, while there were clearly a multitude of references to the first film in Legacy, I was in no position to gauge how faithful they were, or how meaningful: instead, I can simply vouch that they were there, and didn’t appear to add much.

The main gambit of Legacy – wherein a technological/scientific maverick father either dies, vanishes mysteriously, becomes a crazy recluse or is killed along with his equally brilliant wife (assuming she hadn’t already died of unspecified causes some years previous), leaving their genius offspring to grow up in isolation from the grand and noble calling that is their birthright until such time as Our Story Starts – is a stalwart backbone of the SF/F genre. This is where Batman, Tony Stark, Astro Boy and Luke Skywalker all got their motivation, and as such, I’m not about to knock it as a premise. However! It is also, as such, a plotline that comes with baggage. Either the Absentee Maverick Dad serves as a key-but-background motivator for the protagonist, or Uncovering What Really Happened That Fateful Night is the driving force behind the story. That’s a black and white way of doing disservice to a complex and potentially powerful plot device: what I mean to say is, movies have time limits. Unlike in TV shows, serial comics or novels, films have a very limited space in which to disseminate key information, particularly as regards backstory, and unless an extremely cunning and original scriptwriter/director team is at the wheel – or possibly unless they have the well-defined space of a trilogy in which to operate – it behoves moviemakers to pick one version or the other and then stick with it.

Legacy does not do this, which is why a comparatively simple three-act narrative has ended up with a runtime of just over two hours. We begin with the traditional Bedtime Story scene, wherein the Maverick Parent – here computing legend Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) – imparts the Secret Of What Is To Come in the form of a fairytale to his wide-eyed, cherubic spawn. Then, of course, he ups and vanishes, leaving us to watch as the Company That Was His Brainchild Is Taken Over By Unscrupulous Businessmen Who Do Not Share His Dream. In fairness, these early scenes were some of the best in the film: they did a good job of introducing us to protagonist Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) and created a strong build-up to the main event. Unfortunately, once Sam enters the world of Tron – emphasis on world, for reasons that will hopefully become apparent – this tension is soon lost.

Even to moviegoers completely lacking in narrative presience, it should be obvious that any danger faced by the protagonist before the halfway point will not – cannot – prove fatal, and instead must only serve to move the plot forward. Under those circumstances, only secondary characters are at risk, and at this point in Legacy, there were none. So when Sam is instantly thrust into the gladiatorial games portion of the Tronverse, it is very, very hard to feel anything even vaguely like apprehension. Yes, those scenes looked lovely in 3D, but twenty minutes later, the only thing to have been achieved was, finally, the introduction of Clu, aka Evil Jeff Bridges, whose next move as the villain – having first decided not to execute Sam in order to talk at him for a bit – was to send him back into the games so that the two of them could fight, on bikes, with matched teams of Nameless Dudes. At which point, I started to hear Scott Evil yelling in my head about how stupid Doctor Evil is for repeatedly trying to kill Austin Powers using a ridiculously slow-moving torture device instead of just shooting him on the spot. But, whatever. It’s not like Legacy is alone in having this fault, and it’s certainly never stopped me from enjoying James Bond. I dealt with it and moved on.

Not unsurprisingly, the following action scene involves the glittery, exploding-into-pixels deaths of all Sam’s fellow bike-riding Namless Dudes, about which I did not care because they were henchmen written into the plot for the sole purpose of being rent asunder. And then – lo! – we have the introduction of Hot Chick, aka Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who performs the ever-so-textbook Heroine Rescuing A Hero Only He Doesn’t Know She’s A Girl Yet Because She Is Mysterious And Wearing A Helmet shtick by driving her all-terrain quad-jeep-bike-thing into the grid and yanking him out of harm’s way. Once they’ve put some distance between them and the bad guys, she takes off her voice-distorting helmet (which we never see again) and reveals herself, to the requisite jaw-dropped approval of our hero.

It is at this point, gentle reader, that we start to run into difficulties.

You see, when Sam looks back over his shoulder and remarks on the fact that Evil Jeff Bridges and his Orange Evil Henchmen are not following, Quorra replies that this because they can’t – unlike their own vehicle, which has special grippy tyres for traversing rocky terrain, the bikes used by their enemies won’t work off grid. Which would be fine and dandy, if they were not actually inside a digital environment where tyres do not matter, and even if there was a good reason for this to be so, Evil Jeff Bridges totally has like a million badass flying devices, surely he can chase them somehow, etc. But again, whatevs, let us move forward to the bit where Sam has a Touching Reunion With The Real Jeff Bridges, his dad who has been trapped in the Tronverse for quite a while now, and who is all zen and hippyish and continually refers to his own son by saying things like, ‘listen, man’ and using the word ‘jazzed’ unironically. At this point, my inner movie-referencing monologue switched from Austin Powers to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, because there is something decidedly chessboard about the Tronverse. It’s not just the Colours As Alignments thing or the fact that, ultimately, we are meant to be in a gamespace: it’s that Maverick Dad, dressed in yogic white and living in a totally white house, likes to stand on his balcony and stare wistfully at the Dark And Brooding Lair of the Evil Jeff Bridges while espousing a theory of passive non-violence a la Anne Hathaway’s White Queen. Which is, if you dwell on it for too long, a deeply weird comparison to make.

And then they all have dinner.

There are so many problems with this.

Now, I get the point of this scene. I do! It is cute and unexpected and sort of sweetly awkward while also providing a striking contrast between the stark, futuristic decor and the homeliness of three people sitting down to a medieval meal of roast suckling pig. (Seriously.) But again, as with the tyres: we are in a computer world. Admittedly, it is a sketchily defined computer world into which the physical bodies (rather than just the minds) of Maverick Dad and Sam have been magically transported, but given that the only other occupants of said world are computer programs, and given also that the world itself appears to be restricted to a nebulously defined cityspace surrounded by blank rock and deep water, and given again that Maverick Dad’s powers in this world are limited to the ability to manipulate what he himself has created, and given finally that any food made in this world must be made of code, which is presumably ill-suited as a form of human nourishment, then where did the goddam pig come from and why the hell can they eat it?

Yeah.

And then, then we have the explanation of what Maverick Dad was so excited about all those years ago: within this digital realm, a race of sentient computer-beings called isos had spontaneously came into being, creatures whose very existence would have changed the face of absolutely everything ever if not for the fact that Evil Jeff Bridges, who was originally designed as a program-copy of Maverick Dad to run the world of Tron, viewed them as a chaotic threat to his perfect order and wiped them all out in a hideous genocide known as the Purge. (Anyone who does not instantly recognise that Quorra must be the sole surviving iso gets a smack on the wrist, for that is how this story goes, forever and ever, amen.) Timewise, we are now at about the halfway point – that is to say, about an hour or so in – when we finally learn what is meant to be happening. Evil Jeff Bridges paged someone in the real world so that Sam would come to Tron, which was the only way of opening the portal to the outside world. There is, of course, an ever-narrowing window before the portal closes again, prior to which Sam wants to take Dad and Quorra and get the hell out of Dodge. But! If they use the roads that lead to the portal, Evil Jeff Bridges will catch them and steal Maverick Dad’s disc, which contains all his knowledge on how to operate the Tronverse, thus allowing him to escape into the real world and wreak havoc (think the end of The Lawnmower Man, but in reverse). Dad is also unwilling to try and reprogram his evil twin, because this will result in both their deaths. For some reason. So instead, he wants to sit tight until – wait for it! – the native programs revolt and overthrow the government.

It is one thing to rely on traditional plots and narrative devices to bump your story along and bulk out your characterisation. Indeed, in action movies, it’s sort of the point, because of that whole lack-of-time thing we talked about earlier. But a complete abandonment of causal, emotional and narrative logic? Is not even in the same ballpark.

How about this for a suggestion: Maverick Dad destroys his disc, on account of how he doesn’t need it to live or utilise his awesome powers or remember anything about the Tronverse, whips up a goddamed super-speed plane seeing as how he is sort of the god of this universe and also a kickass engineer, flies all three of them to the portal, and then deletes Evil Jeff Bridges from the outside as Sam keeps suggesting they do? This is not so hard. Instead, he refuses to do anything, which is the cue for Quorra to sneakily help Sam by giving him the coordinates needed to find a rabble-rousing program named Zeus who can help him get to the portal. Maybe. If anyone can. (Dramatic chord.) So Sam steals his dad’s Awesome Grid Bike and rides it straight down the road that connects their hideout to the centre of the city, seriously you would think the bad guys might have noticed that before getting scared away by their lack of grippy tyres. And then? Then he trades the bike for a cloak so he can escape detection by going into a fashionable club where the first thing Zeus does is identify him loudly in front of everyone.

A moment of pause, dear readers! Because my constant use of italics might be leading you to suspect that I was sitting in my cinema seat, teeth clenched and frothing at the mouth with every successive outrage. In fact, this was not so. Yes, I spotted these things, and yes, they irked me. But despite its complete and utter lack of sense, there was something sort of charming about the plot, and after so much drifty, father-and-son-reuniony chat, it finally felt like we were getting somewhere. I have a very high threshold for bullshit in my cinema. Specifically, I do not care how ridiculous a plot might be, provided it is not endeavouring to take itself too seriously. This tends to make me a very charitable watcher of trash, and a very scatching watcher of anything intellectual, because if you are going to make a film whose sole purpose is to try and wring me out emotionally so as to Connect With The Big Issues Of Our Times, you had damned well better not go and break the logic which sustains your heartfelt premise by, say, setting a snake on fire. All of which is a long way of saying that, up until this point, I had been relatively on board with the whole (as my husband dubbed it afterwards) electro-opera thing.

Then the bad guys found the Awesome Grid Bike, and announced that now, finally, at long last, they could trace it back to its point of origin – the hidden lair of Maverick Dad.

Um.

Early on in Legacy, there was a scene where Evil Jeff Bridges steepled his fingers and expressed a desire for Maverick Dad to make the next move, as though the two of them were perennially locked in a game of wits over dominion of the Tronverse – not an unreasonable supposition, given that Maverick was trapped there for twenty years with only Quorra for company. What with the grid-bike road leading right to his house, the Evil Citadel being visible from the Maverick’s balcony and the fact that the whole point of bringing Sam to the Tronverse was to simultaneously open the portal while luring Maverick into the open, I’d sort of assumed that the bad guys knew where he was, but couldn’t penetrate his defences, given that creators tend to be fairly good at defending their home turf in a hostile universe which also they made themselves.

BUT NO.

He was hidden! All this time! Just a short ride – or, presumably, walk – away! In a straight line! Down a road! With no defences whatsoever! Holding the one thing that Evil Jeff Bridges really wants! With nobody looking for him! Ever!

UNTIL THEY TOTALLY FOUND HIS BIKE AND SOMEHOW COULD TELL WHERE IT CAME FROM, EVEN THOUGH THAT MAKES NO SENSE AT ALL.

A lot happens after this. By which I mean, not a lot happens at all, only it takes another hour. The bad guys go to the hidden lair and poke around only to find that (duh) Maverick Dad and Quorra have already gone to go help Sam, which results in Quorra getting part of her arm cut off, Maverick’s disc being stolen and the supposedly good rabble-rouser guy being revealed as TOTALLY A VILLAIN SURPRISE! (Hint: this was not a surprise.) And then they all hitch a lift on a magic goods train, which goes through the sky looking pretty and glowy for about a bajillion years while Sam catches his dad up on the war in Iraq and wifi and is in turn told that yes, Quorra is an iso who has never seen a sunrise ever and it is at this point, dear reader, that I realised exactly what was causing Legacy’s problems, viz: it is an epic fantasy movie in every important respect and not, in fact, sci-fi, because while even soft SF and space opera dignify their worldbuilding by saying, ‘Alien technology!’ or ‘Telekenesis!’ or ‘Unobtanium!’ or ‘Lightsabres!’, Legacy was basically just shouting, ‘Magic!’, but without anything that backs it up.

Take a moment to consider the plot thus far in terms of fantasy tropes. You have a Maverick Dad who, in the Time of Backstory, discovered a portal to another world, one where a rigidly enforced class divide between the rulers and ruled had resulted in a tradition of violent gladiatorial games for the amusement of the masses. Befriending a sympathetic fighter, the two of them overthrew the regime and installed a democracy, with the Maverick’s trusted lieutenant left in charge while he commuted between worlds. But then, a coup! The lieutenant went insane and ordered the genocide of hundreds of thousands of innocent newcomers to their territory, crowning himself king. Appalled and with no means of escape, the Maverick turned to mystical contemplation and confinement in an ivory tower, until the imminent fruition of the Evil King’s plans caused his now-grown son to reopen the portal. Stranded in a world whose rules he knew from the fairytales and bedtime stories of his childhood, the son did battle in the gladiatorial games of old, fell in love with the last survivor of the genocide and, together with his father, plotted the downfall of the Evil King, who – we are about to find out – has built an army of drones with which to invade Earth. Having finally captured the magic secrets of the Maverick in the previous battle, the enemy is now on the brink of success. Only by exploiting his mystical bond with the Evil King – the destruction of which results in both their deaths – is the Maverick finally able to save both his son and female protege, who return to our world as guardians of the secrets of this second, magic realm, and who will totally have makeouts in the not-too-distant future after she sees her first Earth sunrise.

Also, yes: that is bascially how the film ends.

There’s still some other random silliness packed into that scenario, the chief insult being that Quorra inexplicably decides to throw herself at the enemy to … do something. We’re not quite sure what, because the enemy hasn’t spotted their group, nobody else knows she’s an iso yet and she’s not trying to heroically distract the guards so the menfolk can sneak by (or at least, if she is, it’s not explained as such). So far as I can tell, the only point of this scene is to stretch the film out by another fifteen minutes with damsel-rescuing, ensuring that Quorra’s introduction as a Kickass SF Chick is completely undermined by the end of the film. Because after that first rescue scene, where she’s all awesome and mysterious? No skills whatsoever. Even the scene where her arm gets snapped off contrives to make her a damsel rather than a fallen warrior, and only seems to happen so that Maverick Dad could regrow it while she slept and thereby demonstrate her magical iso-ness to Sam. Plus and also: the genocide timeline is screwy. Only a day passes on Earth after Maverick Dad first discovers the isos before Evil Jeff Bridges kills them all, but when Quorra tells the story, she’d been living in a city for some time when it happened, and had to flee her home as everyone she knew was killed around her, at which point Maverick effected a Miraculous And Poorly-Explained Rescue That Makes No Sense.

So, yes. Tron: Legacy is a fantasy film in denial, which, given the SF context, becomes very problematic very quickly. Take that as you will. There’s a few nice moments packed in there amidst all the senseless plotting, and a weird consistency in the background details that belies the total lack of logic elsewhere. These include: fireworks that explode in geometric pixel designs rather than soft circles; the Maverick Dad’s use of 80s slang, which, while naff, makes sense when you consider that he’s been in a computer for twenty years reading zen texts and therefore hasn’t had cause to update his argot; and an enemy program picking up one of the Maverick’s books by the corner and then flipping through it sideways, because he’s obviously never seen one before. The 3D is nice, but only really gets a workout during the action scenes, which are surprisingly few and far between. The bulk of the film is dialogue, with not a lot going on and not a lot of sense to string it together. But, as has been mentioned previously, I have low standards. It was fun. The music was truly awesome. And at least it gave me a lot to think about.

Also, as a bonus for those who are curious, I started thinking about stories where the genius child of the absentee Maverick Parent is a daughter rather than a son, and was able to come up with three examples: Ritsuko from Neon Genesis Evangelion; Kimiko Sarai Kusanagi, aka Kim Ross from the webcomic Dresden Codak, and Deunan Knute from Appleseed. The two other uses of the bedtime story technique which sprang to mind are Inkheart and National Treasure. If you can think of any others in either case, I’d be interested in hearing about them!