Posts Tagged ‘Zack Snyder’

Warning: All The Spoilers, much rant.

Far back in the mists of time – which is to say, in April 2011 – I reviewed Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, a deeply problematic film which, despite its apparently noble intentions, succeeded only in replicating and reinforcing the selfsame sexist, exploitative tropes it ostensibly meant to subvert. Similarly, in August last year, I weighed in on the controversy surrounding Victoria Foyt’s Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden, a self-published YA novel whose deeply problematic use of racist language and imagery overwhelmingly outweighed its stated goal of “turn[ing] racism on its head”, a dissonance which was further compounded by Foyt’s equally problematic responses to her critics. And now, by way of kicking off 2013, I’m going to review Lev Grossman’s The Magicians,  a novel which, while certainly not as egregious in its awfulness as either Foyt or Snyder’s work, fails in a conspicuously similar manner, viz: by unconsciously perpetuating exactly the sort of objectionable bullshit it was (one assumes) intended to critique.

In a nutshell, then: The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, a privileged, clever yet disaffected youth with a deep-seated sense of entitlement and a private longing for the magical, fictional world of Fillory, a wholly unsubtle Narnia substitute. Aged seventeen, Quentin is diverted away from Princeton and selected instead to learn real magic at the exclusive Brakebills College, aka Hogwarts For Assholes, where he spends five years being oblivious and dissolute while becoming progressively more awful, and very occasionally encountering things that are relevant at the finale. After graduating, he and his equally unlikable friends live a pointless, overindulgent life in Manhattan  until a former classmate shows up with the news that Fillory is real; on travelling there, the young magicians  encounter a terrible enemy whose defeat is only achieved at the expense of one of their lives. Horribly wounded, Quentin is left to recuperate in Fillory while his remaining friends bugger off home; eventually, he returns to Earth, abandons magic and gets a desk job – right up until his friends return and convince him to come back to Fillory as a co-regent king, at which point he flies out a window to join them. The End.

Despite being well-written, from a purely technical standpoint, The Magicians is a structural mess, being simultaneously too rushed and too flabby: there’s simply too much happening that doesn’t actually matter, like welters games and the South Pole trip, and while Grossman does his best to skip us swiftly through Quentin’s five years at Brakebills, the fact is that, in a novel which boasts no meaningful secondary plots, it’s not until page 348 of 488 that the characters actually enter Fillory – meaning, by implication if not intent, that the first three quarters of the novel function as little more than an increasingly tedious prologue. As a narrative gambit, this could still have worked if Grossman had used those early sections to focus on solid characterisation, or if anything Quentin learned at school proved relevant in the final, climactic battle. Instead, the secondary characters – yearmate and eventual girlfriend Alice, punk rival Penny, and senior libertines Eliot, Janet and Josh – are barely fleshed out beyond a bare minimum of backstory and a few offhand eccentricities, while in the end, it’s Penny who finds the way into Fillory and Alice who dies to defeat the villain. Quentin, by contrast, winds up a passenger in his own story, contributing nothing meaningful (or at least, nothing useful) despite his apparent specialness and remaining, from go to woe, a thoroughly passive character. Which begs the question: why did Grossman feel the need to show Quentin’s entire tertiary education before letting him go to Fillory? Why, when so little time is spent on characterisation or building a sensible magic system – the latter’s fundamentals are purposefully vague and glossed-over, so that despite the amount of time Quentin spends in classrooms, it’s never really apparent what he’s actually learning, while two new characters, Anais and Richard, are introduced well after the halfway mark for no readily apparent reason – was it necessary to prolong the trip between worlds?

The answer, I suspect, has to do with the story’s moral; or at least, with what one might reasonably construe to be the moral, or the point, or whatever you’d like to call it. As a character, Quentin’s developmental trajectory is that of a disaffected, selfish, horny teenager transitioning into a disaffected, selfish, sexist adult, and while the ending eventually reveals these characteristics to have been deliberate authorial choices, early on, it’s harder to tell whether Grossman realises just how unsympathetic his protagonist really is. Once Quentin graduates from Brakebills, in fact, it’s like a switch has been flipped: whereas before it was possible to attribute most of his failings to youthful, privileged obliviousness, once freed from the confines of college, his bad behaviour escalates dramatically, leaving little doubt that we, the audience, are meant to identify it as such. For all his dissatisfaction with various aspects of his life,  it never occurs to Quentin that he might be the cause of it; always, he assumes his own unhappiness to be either the result of some fundamental flaw in how the world works, or else the fault of some specific person. This lack of self-awareness is key to his passivity: instead of trying to change things, he waits for the problem, whatever it is, to fix itself, and then feels misunderstood and thwarted when his misery remains. Only his affection for Fillory remains constant – Fillory, the perfect other world into which, despite all the magic of his everyday existence, he still secretly yearns to escape. But even once he arrives there, Quentin is still unhappy, prompting a furious Alice to utter what is arguably the novel’s Big Reveal:

“‘I will stop being a mouse, Quentin. I will take some chances. If you will, for just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.’

‘You can’t just decide to be happy.’

‘No, you can’t. But you can sure as hell decide to be miserable. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there? Even in Fillory? Because that’s who you are right now.'”

Quentin struggles to understand this point, but later, once he’s returned to Earth after Alice’s death, the lesson hits home:

“In different ways they had both discovered the same truth: that to live out childhood fantasies as a grown-up was to court and wed and bed disaster.”

And thus, the moral: that wherever you go, you take yourself with you, such that trying to cure your unhappiness by forever yearning after idealised childhood fantasies is doomed to terrible failure. Having vanished into Fillory, the novel’s villain, Martin Chatwin – formerly thought by Quentin to be a fictional character – became the only one of his siblings to stay there forever, an escape which Quentin had always privately envied. But Martin has become a monster, making terrible pacts for power and peace, and all for want of the necessary strength to live in the real world. For an SFF novel, then, this seems to be a particularly cutting message: by first making Quentin an identifiable character for exactly the sort of passive loner stereotypically associated with fandom, and then morphing him into a bitter, unhappy, sexist whose problems stem almost entirely from his lack of self-awareness and his uncritical love of Fillory/Narnia, Grossman is arguably passing negative judgement on a large portion of his own readership, rebuking their drive for escapism as little more than a sign of selfish immaturity. Or at least, if that’s not the intended moral – which is still possible, given that the story ends with Quentin’s return to Fillory – then it certainly ups the ante for the rest of the novel’s problems.

Because however actively or subtly Grossman is trying to critique the sense of entitlement felt by a particular subset of sexist male fans, The Magicians is still saturated with such a high level of background offensiveness that, more often than not, it serves to reinforce exactly the sort of problematic behaviour that it ostensibly means to debunk. Most obviously – and most prominently, as a female reader – is the overwhelmingly negative treatment of women. As I had early cause to observe, most every female character Quentin encounters is unnecessarily sexualised, and often in such a way as to diminish their competence. This isn’t just a consequence of being in Quentin’s point of view; as an attitude, it seeps into the background narration, such that his observations become indistinguishable from Grossman’s. At the most basic level, this resolves itself into a fixation with breasts in particular; we hear about them with just enough regularity to become complacently problematic, so that by the end of the novel, we’ve dealt with the following descriptions:

“…the radiant upper slopes of her achingly full and gropable breasts…” – page 77.

“… he was suddenly aware of her full breasts inside her thin, high-necked blouse.” – page 117.

“At one point one of her slight breasts wandered out of her misbuttoned cardigan that she wore with nothing under it; she tucked it back in without the slightest trace of embarrassment.” – page 252.

“She was whole, thank God, and naked – her body was slim, her breasts slight and girlish. Her nails and nipples were pale purple.” – page 355.

“As he watched she bent over the map, deliberately smooshing her tit into Dint’s shoulder as she did so.” – 405

“The back of her blouse gaped palely open… he could see her black bra strap, which had somehow survived the operation.” – page 409.

“She wore a tight black leather bustier that she was in imminent danger of falling out of.” – page 486.

And that, of course, is just the breasts; there’s plenty of sexualised but largely unnecessary references to other female body parts, too. Add it all together – and compare the prevalence of same to the absence of comparable male descriptions, with the possible exception of a giant’s penis – and you have a story that’s irrevocably written in the male gaze, not just as a consequence of having a straight male protagonist, but because this is what Grossman has chosen to highlight. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the male gaze as a literary device, but in a book which is attempting, at least in part, to critique sexism, deploying a variant of the male gaze that focuses wholly on female bodies in a context utterly disconnected from their value as people – and which is never actively acknowledged, let alone flagged as negative – cannot help but be problematic. And then there’s the use of pejorative, sexualised language and gendered insults to contend with, as per the following examples:

“Merits are for pussies,’ he said.” – page 52.

“…Janet got shriller and pushier about the game, and her shrill pushiness became less endearing. She couldn’t help it, it was just her neurotic need to control everything…” – page 152.

“‘Emma wasn’t a cow,’ Josh said. ‘Or if she was, she was a hot cow. She’s like one of those wagyu cows.'” – page 228.

“‘That’s what she wants everybody to think! So you won’t realise what a howling cunt she is!'” – page 237.

“‘If that bothers you, Georgia,’ Fogg said curtly, ‘then you should have gone to beauty school.'” – page 269.

“‘Quentin,’ she said, ‘you have always been the most unbelievable pussy.'” – page 306.

“‘Don’t you fucking speak to me!’ She slapped wildly at his head and shoulders with both hands so that he ducked and put up his arms. ‘Don’t you even dare talk to me, you whore! You fucking whore!'” – page 309.

“She was right, a thousand times right, but if he could just make her see what he saw – if she could only put things in proper perspective. Fucking women.”  – page 311.

“‘Oh, come on Quentina. We’re not looking for trouble.'” – page 333.

“Asshole. That slutty nymph was right. This is not your war.” – page 409.

“‘That bloody cunt of a Watcherwoman is still at it, with her damned clock-trees.'” – page 434.

Subtler and more pervasive than all of this, though, is the extent to which Quentin passes negative judgement on the sexuality of the women around him – which is to say, more or less constantly. That might be written off as part of his obnoxious personality, but as with so much else, Grossman seems unable to keep from speculating beyond those bounds. Janet’s sexual choices are frequently scrutinised; within moments of meeting a female Fillory resident, Quentin judges her to be a lesbian on no greater basis than her hair and clothes; it’s even suggested that Anais has somehow managed to sleep with a male stranger while the group is busy exploring a tomb. And then there’s Quentin’s habit of blaming the women around him for his own choices. Unhappy with Alice, he blames her for his bad decisions; having cheated on Alice with Janet, he blames Janet for tempting him; for all the choices he makes in Fillory, he blames Jane for letting him go there. Surely, this just another consequence of his flawed personality; and yet he never seems to blame any men for the things that go wrong in his life. For Quentin, women are always the ones at fault, and it’s this fact, rather than his penchant for blaming others, which reads as unconscious bias.

The sex, too, is deeply problematic, not least because Quentin’s first time with Alice takes place when both of them have, along with all their classmates, been transformed into arctic foxes – something their (male) instructor has cooked up as a way for the group of horny teenagers to let off steam while studying at the bleak South Pole. But what’s never discussed is the issue of consent this raises; or rather, the lack thereof. “He caught a glimpse of Alice’s dark fox eyes rolling with terror and then half shutting with pleasure,” we’re told of their union on page 191 – and somehow, miraculously, despite having betrayed no obvious interest in Quentin before – nor he in her, apart from the single requisite instance of noticing her breasts – they end up in a relationship not long afterwards. There’s never any talk about whether this encounter constitutes rape, or whether it did for any of the other students while turned into foxes; instead, and somewhat disturbingly, the incident leads Quentin to nickname Alice ‘Vix’, as in Vixen, though the sobriquet is only ever used once. Similarly, when we’re told on pages 193-194 that this same isolated class has started to indulge in orgies – “… they would gather in apparently arbitrary combinations, in an empty classroom or in somebody’s bedroom, in semi-anonymous chains, their white uniforms half or all the way off, their eyes glassy and bored as they pulled and stroked and pumped…”  – it feels like nothing so much as an unnecessary male fantasy, not least because, under the circumstances, nobody can possibly have any access to birth control. Doubtless, Grossman intended it as a throwaway line, but all it does it contribute to the subconscious sexism of the story: without wanting to divide his readership too sharply along gender lines, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine that more female readers than male were perturbed by the potential for unwanted pregnancies in this section.

Against this worrying backdrop, Quentin’s abysmal treatment of Alice is almost par for the course: clearly, his decision to sleep with Janet is a bad one preceded by plenty of warning signs, not least of all his own admission engaging in “manic flirting and pawing” (page 279) while out at parties. That he then blames Janet for his bad choices – “She’d sabotaged him and Alice, and she was loving it” (page 327) – is one thing, as is his earlier complaint that “if Alice had any blood in her veins she would have joined them” (page 291). This is clearly vile behaviour, and not even Quentin’s obliviousness to that fact is sufficient to conceal it from the reader. But once again, their relationship issues are grounded in a more subtle form of sexism, such as the fact that, even though Alice’s plans to study in Glasgow are effectively vetoed for Quentin’s sake – “the idea of being separated didn’t particularly appeal to either of them, nor did the idea of Quentin’s aimlessly tagging along with her to Scotland” (page 359) – there’s no awareness of the fact that she, in turn, has “put off the kind of civil-service appointment or research apprenticeship that usually ensnared  serious-minded Brakebills students so she could stay in New York with Quentin” (page 77): her sacrifice is simply taken for granted and never mentioned again, even when Quentin’s behaviour worsens.

Alice’s whole character, in fact, is a major strike against The Magicians: not just because she ends up stuffed in the fridge, which is a gross offence in and of itself, but because her relationship with Quentin is utterly unfathomable. In a series of implausible leaps, he goes from noticing her breasts, to thinking she smells “unbe-fucking-lievable” as a fox (and then mounting her), to wondering if he might love her, to their suddenly being together, after which he proceeds to treat her, on balance, very poorly indeed. Alice, though, is the stronger magician by far; what she sees in Quentin is a mystery, and even after he’s cheated on her, she ends up apologising to him for daring to sleep with Penny by way of revenge, saying, “I don’t think I understood how much it would hurt you” (page 404). And Quentin’s response? “‘Maybe you’ll do something one of these days instead of being such a pathetic little mouse all the time'” (page 405). Never mind that, of the two of them, Alice is the proactive one; she agrees with him about her mousiness, because that’s her role in the story: Grossman has written her in as Quentin’s love interest, and so she puts up with his crap above and beyond what her personality indicates she otherwise would or should. Quentin might not be a hero, but he’s still the protagonist, and in such a profoundly male gaze narrative, that means he gets the girl he wants for no better reason than that he wants her; that she dies saving his life from an enemy he summoned through sheer idiocy is hardly fair compensation.

There’s more I’d planned to say about the problems in The Magicians – about Grossman’s uncritical use of the words gimp, cripple and retarded; about the offhand and inappropriate treatment of Eliot’s sexual preferences;  about the weird, peculiar arrogance of alluding to Narnia and Hogwarts so crassly and overtly, as though the best way to deconstruct the complex issues surrounding either world is simply to populate them with scheming, selfish assholes; about every other instance of objectionable sexism that leapt out at me while reading, and which I dully noted down; about the incredibly lazy worldbuilding, handwaved early on in the piece as ultimately unimportant, yet still full of holes and fridge logic – but then I’d be here forever.  Clearly, I didn’t enjoy the book: though pacey and intriguing at the outset, the further I progressed with the narrative, the more I became fractious, bored and angry at the whole thing, as though I were being forced along on a lengthy, pointless car trip with unpleasant company on a hot day. I finished largely out of stubbornness, and to an extent, I’m glad I did, if only for the catharsis: various plot points left open in the early stages were closed out at the end, and at least now I can say I’ve read it. But even though Grossman’s actual writing style is clear and concise, his storytelling is not. The Magicians could easily have been a good 200 pages shorter without losing anything important, while the core conceit – that of sending a grown, troubled Fillory/Narnia fan into their beloved childhood world in order to force a confrontation with their own inadequacies – might well have made better fodder for a short story or novella than a novel.

And underpinning every other objection was the sexism; the pervasive sense that not only was Quentin mistreating, demeaning or otherwise objectifying every woman he encountered, but that Grossman’s own subconscious bias and investment in the male gaze was helping to normalise this bad behaviour rather than, as was hopefully his intention, critique it. Even once the full extent of Quentin’s flaws were revealed, I couldn’t help feeling that story was more concerned with perpetuating sexism at a background level than deconstructing it on a conscious one, and when combined with the other structural and narrative issues pervading the text, the overall reading experience was one of exasperation. As much praise as it’s received, therefore, and as much as I embarked on reading it in a spirit of hopeful optimism, The Magicians was a profound disappointment; I won’t be reading the sequel, and whatever else Grossman writes afterwards, I’ll be predisposed to view it with trepidation.

 

 

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Warning: total spoilers.

It’s no overstatement to say that The Cabin in the Woods should really be subtitled Joss Whedon Brings The Meta. As a movie, I… don’t quite know what to make of it. I went in with few expectations beyond horror, Whedonosity and probable twistyness,  and came out feeling like I’d just watched a TV Tropes-inspired 101 instructional film on how not to make horror movies.  By that, I don’t mean that Cabin itself was so bad as to constitute a cautionary tale: I mean that it quite literally sets out to educate  cinemagoers – and, presumably, other filmmakers – on how not to make horror movies. The whole piece functions as a deliberate deconstruction of the archetypal horror-style five man band composed (as Cabin has it) of the Whore, Athlete, Fool, Scholar and Virgin. This isn’t subtextual, wink-at-the-audience deconstruction like you’ll find in the Scream franchise or the out-and-out mockery of the comedic Scary Movie and its ilk, either, but a balls-out synthesis of both approaches that walks – and sometimes, teeters wildly over – the line between heavy-handed satire and straight entertainment.

Buckle up, readers. We’re here for the long haul.

Premise

Right from the outset, Cabin takes the gutsy step of committing openly to two parallel storylines, one of which acts as a meta critique of the other. In one, college friends Dana (the Virgin), Jules (the Whore), Curt (the Athlete), Holden (the Scholar) and Marty (the Fool) embark upon the titular and archetypal exercise of driving out to spend a weekend at a remote woodland cabin owned by Curt’s cousin. In the other, a team of mysterious scientists working in a high-tech lab setting monitor the friends as they progress towards their destination, which is, as we soon find out, an environment both designed and controlled by this second cast of characters. As the story unfolds, we cut between the two narratives with an increasing sense of unease: clearly, the techs – headed by Sitterson, Hadley and Lin – have somehow orchestrated the entire getaway for the sole purpose of putting the five protagonists in horrific danger.

On discovering a creepy cellar stacked with every MacGuffin and Checkhov’s Gun known to horror – eerie dolls, weird masks, haunted clothes, demonic jewelry, devil-summoning puzzles, creepy music boxes and freakish diaries, to name but a few – the sadism of the scientists is made suddenly clear: not only have the five protagonists been brought to the cabin to die, but they’re also forced to choose their own mode of death, their path set by which of the many damned objects they unwittingly activate. When Dana reads from a diary containing the last words of Patience Buckner, a girl killed in 1903 as part of a torture-ritual by her sadistic, pain-worshipping hillbilly family, the zombie-Buckners burst from the ground nearby and the game is on.

But Marty, the Fool of a stoner, thinks something’s up. Having noticed the behavioural changes his friends have started to undergo (courtesy of the various chemicals pumped into the cabin by the controlling tech-team) and seemingly inoculated against same by his constant weed-smoking, it’s not long before he accidentally uncovers a camera and realises the extent of their manipulation. While the friends are fighting and dying, he manages to convince Dana that ‘puppet-masters’ are ultimately responsible for what’s happening to them –  a revelation that primes the two separate narrates for an ultimate collision.

Execution

The thing about running two parallel narratives is that, of necessity, it’s going to cut into the characterisation. Thanks to the talented writer/director team of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard – the latter of whom was also a staff writer for Buffy – good dialogue goes a long way towards ameliorating this fact. The opening banter between Sitterson, Hadley and Lin is a fantastic balance of witty humdrum and slow reveal, effortlessly creating a sense of wrongness and unease when placed in the context of their actions. However, it’s only really the scientists who benefit from this: the other five characters are, purposefully, stereotypes, and though some effort is made to transcend that fact – Curt’s initial kindness and cleverness, Holden’s rare status as a black intellectual character – it’s only Marty, with his quirky Whedonesque dialogue, who appears as a whole, unique person.  What this means in terms of the film is that, while we care enough about the other protagonists to mourn their deaths, they never stop being stereotypes – and even though that’s a deliberate choice, it’s not ultimately a successful one. (We’ll come to why later.)

In terms of pacing, the film moves smoothly through the first half and transitions to the final third with a skillful switch-flipping act break, but that’s where things start to get sticky. As lone survivors Dana and Marty infiltrate the scientists’ lair, the two narratives are brought into collision, and while the action arguably increases – or at least, gets knocked up a notch – the narrative theme shifts gear in a way that makes the story feel slow. If you’ve ever seen Into the Woods, it’s a bit like the moment near the middle of Act Two when the fairy tale characters suddenly notice the ever-present narrator, freak out and kill him, an action which forces them to depart from the story as known to the audience and strike out on their own. In fact, it’s exactly like that moment, with the key difference being that while Into the Woods employs the broken fourth wall device to explore character relationships and overturn archetypes, Cabin uses it as an excuse to create a gory-hilarious, Edgar Wright style bloodbath starring every single horror monster imaginable, with special emphasis on the giant snake. And while these final scenes certainly succeed at being blackly comic, they don’t really serve to unite the two thematically different stories that have preceded them.

Plotting

Narratively, Cabin is schizophrenic. On the one hand, it’s an overt deconstruction of the most overdone slasher-horror stereotypes, while on the other, it’s a self-aware film that nonetheless uses those stereotypes as the backbone of the plot. For anyone even vaguely trope-literate, there’s nothing new in recycling the same old characters,  even – and perhaps especially – if the whole point of doing so is to name and shame them as such. The ultimate explanation for this – that the terrible Dark Gods the scientists are serving need to see the archetypes fulfilled as a form of ritual sacrifice – is both riddled with fridge logic (which we’ll come to) and deeply unsatisfying in terms of the actual deconstruction itself. Holden’s death is a case in point: even though Cabin avoids the ultimate cliche of having the black dude die first, the fact that Holden still doesn’t make it to the end – or, rather, the fact that the issue of race is the one universally acknowledged horror-trope that the meta-narrative fails to so much as wink at, let alone address openly – is indicative of the film’s ambivalent commitment to self-deconstruction.

Or, to put it another way: it would have been much more interesting and far less heavy-handed to blur the archetype categories and cast multiple actors of colour. Marty, who was essentially presented as asexual, could have doubled with Dana as the Virgin – a narratively viable move which could have altered the ending in any number of ways. Curt and Holden were potentially interchangeable as both Scholar and Athlete – from the opening scenes, each of them qualified easily for either role – while making a male character the Whore would have been genuinely fascinating. And this ought really to have been possible: because while the archetype categories were openly named in the final scenes, it was also stated that when it came to Dana’s not being an actual virgin, the scientists were willing and able to ‘work with what [they’ve] got.’

Fridge Logic

Which is where, for me, the whole of Cabin fell down. I can deal with two thematically opposing narratives – one straight, one meta – that end up colliding in a blood-stained, crazycakes battle that plays out like the lovechild of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead on hallucinogenic meth. I can deal with witty, realistic dialogue that only works to elevate half the cast above the level of stereotype while   making the rest merely exemplary forms of the same; and I can even deal with a tropetastic film whose ultimate reliance on the very archetypes it exists to critique leaves it vulnerable to self-sabotage.

What I cannot deal with is the existence of giant, gaping logic-holes in an overarching narrative whose sole purpose is to make all the other contradictions viable.

So: every year for the whole of history, human beings all over the world have brought their horror-archetype stories to life in order to feed the blood of the victims to the Ancient Ones below – demonic, evil gods who, if denied at least one annual sacrifice from somewhere on Earth, will rise up and destroy humanity. OK. I can roll with that, except for the part that it makes no fucking sense. The entire point of the film is that the scientists have to enact horror stories as rituals, so that any deviation from the script – such as, for instance, the Virgin dying anything other than last – will invalidate the sacrifice. And yet, at the same time, it apparently doesn’t matter that the Virgin isn’t really a virgin – and if this seemingly crucial element is malleable, then why not everything else? If it were just a normal horror story, perhaps I wouldn’t care so much; but in the context of Cabin being almost solely about deconstruction, it matters that the given excuse for the stereotyped character format – We Had To, Because Ritual – doesn’t actually apply. It’s a continuity goof that screws not only the plausibility of the straight narrative, but the thematic goal of the meta. Unless it’s a double bluff and Whedon and Goddard were deliberately being lazy to somehow highlight out the laziness of others (which, if so, no), there’s no way to make it work – and that disappoints me, because if there’s one thing I don’t expect from Joss Whedon, it’s half-assed deconstruction.

Genre

This isn’t the only instance of fridge logic, but it is the most pointed, and the one which, for me, takes the most shine off the film. Stepping back from my own neurotic preferences, I can acknowledge that, quite possibly, I’m reading too much into things, and that maybe I should just be content to let Sleeping Gods lie. But even then, this doesn’t work, because Cabin is still a thematic mess. As a horror film, it’s jumpy, neither wholly the black comedy a la Edgar Right implied by the level of self-reference or the pure, straight-up shockfest implied by the advertising. It might have worked as a hybrid of the two, if not for the utter lack of synthesis or cathersis achieved by the ending – but instead, it’s a chimaera.

As a piece of deconstruction, it never rises above the level of a basic introduction to tropes. Remove the fansquee factor of Joss Whedon bringing the meta, and you’re left with a film which, while good fun in many places, informative in others and certainly original in terms of its execution (if not, as discussed, its archetypes), is neither as clever nor revelatory as its smugness seems to suggest its creators think it is. I won’t deny that it was fun to see Buffyverse alums Amy Acker and Tom Lenk working together, but Joss Whedon’s Favourite Actors isn’t a genre, and it doesn’t compensate for the presence of so many missteps.

Impact

Ultimately, despite my reservations, I suspect that The Cabin in the Woods is a necessary film – not because it does what no story has done before, but because it so unequivocally comments on what shouldn’t be done again. Given my druthers, it will forever stand as a 95 minute argument against the lazy application of horror tropes – and when it comes to the actual blood and gore, Cabin manages what is, perhaps ironically, its single best feat of deconstruction. The violence is short, sharp and brutal: minus the usual emphasis on drawn-out screams, running through darkened hallways, struggling with monstrous aggressors and retch-inducing torture porn, the fact that we genuinely do care for the characters, stereotypes and all, makes their deaths unusually horrific. As the audience watches the scientists watching the suffering, we’re invited to critique our own enjoyment of horror films – to ask why, when confronted with such brutal deaths, we persist in finding them entertaining at all.

Given that Cabin is still a horror film, this is arguably not the most effective course of action – rather like Sucker Punch’s failed attempt to critique the same vouyerism it was ultimately peddling. Nonetheless, I’ll give Whedon and Goddard more credit than to put them on the same level as Zack Snyder: Cabin’s violence is neither constantly sexualised, unduly graphic nor unnecessarily protracted, and instead relies on the audience’s emotional connection with the victims to convey its horror. And then there’s the ending – rocks fall, everyone dies, and eldritch gods rise, Cthulhu-like, from their ancient slumber, ready to destroy the world as we know it. This happens because Dana first fails to kill Marty and then refuses to, so that the film ends with our two bloodied survivors smoking a joint as the whole world cracks beneath them. It’s completely out of keeping with their characters – Dana’s will to survive, Marty’s intelligent self-analysis – and seemingly exists for no better reason than that it makes a good punchline. Maybe you’ll find it otherwise, but for me, it rankled: a final thumbing of the nose at everything in the film that should have worked, but didn’t.

Conclusion

The Cabin in the Woods is a tropetastic, self-analytic and deconstrutive horror romp starring torture zombies, college students, creepy scientists and a Bonus! giant snake. Whedon fans will enjoy his trademark dialogue and sense of the meta, though horror fans might be baffled as to what the hell he and Goddard are doing in their genre. Personally, it’s a question I’m still trying to answer – and maybe I never will.

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.

Warning: Spoilers ahoy!

As is always the case when someone takes a cult story and makes it into a film, there’s going to be problems. All creative endeavours are open to dislike, but beloved masterpieces are trickier still. It’s not just about fidelity: it’s about emphasis, interpretation. One Watchmen review described this phenomenon thusly: that every adaptation must be some kind of betrayal.” It’s a poignant observation, and one which applies equally to the act of criticism. More than at any other time, reviewing such a film declares our own biases, our own view of the original narrative, and lays the issue open to yet more disagreement, emotive or otherwise. I’ve come quite late to the Watchmen party – just in time to ensure that my husband, too, had read it before today’s screening – but even so, my attachment to the story is considerable. I went in feeling sceptical, but lightly optimistic. I hated 300director Zack Snyder’s other big comics-originating blockbuster, with a fiery vengeance, but for reasons of plot as much as for the ludicrous stylisation. Then again, Sin City (by 300‘s Frank Miller) and V for Vendetta (by Watchmen’s Alan Moore) are two of my favourite narratives ever. In other words, I was ready to be persuaded.

The opening scene of Watchmen – the murder of Edward Blake, the Comedian – made me angry. Being a long-time connoisseur of trashy action flicks, I’m hardly averse to either gore or gratuitously choreographed fightscenes, but this one left a sour taste. Apart from Dr Manhattan and, to a vastly lesser extent, Ozymandias, none of the watchmen are anywhere near approaching superhuman. Rather, they’re a squad of Batman-men: fit, fast, experienced and well-trained, but physically human. More importantly, Watchmen itself is a dark and gritty tale which, despite several violent protagonists, never makes violence seem cool. Combine these two facts, and Snyder’s lengthy, stylised combat betrays a profound misunderstanding of the source material, not just in the opening scene, but throughout the film.

It’s worth mentioning that Watchmen closely follows the arc of the graphic novel: precious few scenes are displaced from their original order, while a vast majority of the dialouge comes straight from Moore. The casting, effects and costuming, too, are brilliant: Billy Cruddup is excellent as the otherworldly Dr Manhattan,while Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach is chillingly superb. Nonetheless, for every moment of narrative satisfaction – Archimedes, Mars, the journal – there is another of jarring dislocation. The bizarre, overlong sex-scene between Dan and Sally is one such offence; the introduction of the energy crisis plotline is another. The most awful moment, however, comes as a giant Dr Manhattan stalks the fields of Vietnam, exploding VietCong to the thunderous chords of Ride of the Valkyries, at which point the desire to strangle Zack Snyder and demand to know why anyone, even the man who made 300, would think that Good Morning, Vietnam! was an appropriate point of reference. If a single scene could be said to epitomise the failings of Watchmen, then this is it.

Even so, it still came as a shock to reach the end and realise that, despite their by-and-large adherence to Moore’s work, the writers had taken it upon themselves to change the ending. I don’t mean millions of people didn’t die: I mean there was no psychic blast from a giant, dead, genetically-modified abomination of science. Rather, Ozymandias simply harnessed the power of Dr Manhattan and disintegrated citizens in cities around the world. From a distance, perhaps, this might seem neater, more personal, but up close, it robs us of the dead. It mutes the horror of cataclysm into something clinical, devoid of corpses, and instead of the world realistically banding together against the threat of creatures from another dimension, they unrealistically band together against a single American who, up until that point, had been publicly vaunted as both patriot and weapon. The psychology simply doesn’t hold: crazy and mad-science though the monster was, its purported origins ensued that no world power could be blamed for spawning it, while the choice of America-as-target humbled not only that government, but all who’d previously fought against them. Following the logic of Snyder’s version, given that multiple nations were attacked by (they believed) an essentially rogue American weapon, it seems decidedly counter-intuitive that they sue for peace rather than place blame. After all, Moore’s Watchmen is nothing if not a study in human nature. Take away his understanding of people, and you rob the story of its soul. 

Which, ultimately, is the film’s real problem. It looks, speaks and sometimes moves like Watchmen, but with every misstep, the realisation grows that some other, vastly less subtle intelligence is steering: even Rorschach’s name, phoenetically spelled in the book as raw shark, is mispronounced as raw shack. Great adaptors understand the betrayal of their actions, such that, rather than merely echoing form, they build on substance. Their changes respect the heart of the story, acknowledging that appearances, no matter how important, are still secondary. Snyder, by contrast, effects his changes clumsily, keeping the veneer at the expense of structural integrity. In this sense, his dedication to replicating Moore feels less like tribute and more like an acknowledgement that his own interpretation isn’t strong enough to stand alone. Scenes run long, slow and awkward in the transition between mediums, introducing cameo characters whose roles, though apparent to those of us who’ve read the comic, would doubtless confuse and frustrate a novice audience. As in recent adaptations of other books, notably the Harry Potter series, a not inconsiderable number of scenes in Watchmen count on the pre-existing knowledge of the viewer, rather than striving to be self-contained.

In a way, the absence of the Black Freighter Tales is symbolic of the film’s failure. Although this subplot – a comic within a comic – was always going to be extraordinarily difficult to reference cinematically, it perfectly mirrors the twisted actions of Adrian Veidt, showing us the rotten underbelly of Moore’s 1985 and epitomising the dark, uncertain morality of the minutemen. There’s moments of real enjoyment in Snyder’s work, and the length, despite the peg-legged gait of certain scenes, does not seem unduly, even though it nears the three hour mark. As a superhero film – an action film – it works, and many people will doubtless enjoy it on that level.  Certainly, there is no crime in doing so. But as a replication of Moore’s ethos, it fails. Like Dr Manhattan, the body is there, but the spirit is missing, evident only in occasional, haunting echoes. And for me, that says it all.