Croc-skin collar on a Diamond Dog… Catching up on my movie reviews

I have been tardy.  Forgive me.  There’s also a script that I’ve read — Zizek’s Antigone — that I will write up separately because that review’s about the challenges of reviewing scripts.

So here we go.  Rogue OneMoana, and Zootopia…

Rogue One

A running theme through this set of reviews is the nature of antagonists: why do movies have antagonists and how do they function in stories?

Rogue One is referred to as the first ‘stand alone’ movie in the Star Wars universe, but people who say this are clearly unaware of Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor.  Idiots.  I mean, if you don’t have a theory explaining the discrepancies between the appearance of Charal in Ewoks: The Battle for Endor and the appearance of the Nightsisters in The Clone Wars, what are you doing going to a film about Star Wars?  Isn’t nerd culture for nerds who spend all their time pedantically analysing minor details of their favourite things?

Rogue One is the latest film in the very refreshing trend of films that return the objects of nerd culture back to the general population where they belong.

Set fifteen minutes prior to the first Star Wars film (the one from 1977, A New Hope), Rogue One explores the story behind obtaining the plans for the Death Star.  The real triumph of the film is the way it shakes up the Rebellion.  No longer are they the morally perfect squadron of angels and saints.  Now, they are a loosely affiliated collective of organisations scattered across the moral spectrum.  On the one hand, this film does what I had hoped would happen in the prequels with the Jedi.  I want a prequel to make me question the assumptions I made in the original material.  On the other hand, this does confuse the plot and leave a few too many open ended questions.

Our protagonist is the daughter of the key (male) scientific mind behind the Death Star.  But it is a reluctant mind.  The scientist has been secretly sabotaging the Death Star, leaving it open to the attack that would eventually be exploited by Luke Skywalker.  But can it be trusted that he is sabotaging the Death Star?  Isn’t it just easier to kill him and prevent the Death Star from being built as quickly?

Thus the daughter becomes the bridge to the scientist.  She is on a quest to be reunited with him, to rescue him from his captivity in the Empire.  But there’s a secret Rebel plot to have him assassinated instead.

Thus begins the major problem of the film: who, exactly, is the protagonist?  Is it the Empire (represented by any of its key leaders — Vader, Tarkin, or Orson Krennic)?  Is it the rotten aspects of the Rebellion, the elements who appear to have no difficulty executing people simply because they can’t run away from Stormtroopers fast enough?

Although I don’t mind ambiguity and moral greys in a film, it’s the lack of a clear antagonist in this film which makes it difficult to know what the film is trying to convey.  That we should just be pragmatists?  That we shouldn’t hold the ‘good’ side up to perfect standards?  That good people do bad things to win wars?

One of the functions of the protagonist is to state the antithesis.  Here is the position which is being rejected by this film.  Rogue One, by and large, imports its antithetical element from the other Star Wars films.  The audience knows that we are watching the good guys because it knows who the Empire is and what is at stake.

That said, this is a wonderfully enjoyable film.  It does exactly what’s advertised on the tin, and the new characters find the right mix of seriousness and comedy for what are, fundamentally, movies for children.

Moana

There’s a girl who wants to venture out beyond the limits of her watery home but her father — a leader — wants her to understand that she belongs in her community.  But she wants to be part of a bigger world, to transcend and find her voice.  And there’s a song about a crab meal.

If this sounds a lot like The Little Mermaid, you’d not be wrong.  There’s even a version of the Chef’s Song.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=93lrosBEW-Q]

Moana is told a story about how a demigod, Maui, stole a stone that had the power to bring life.  It turns out that it is her destiny to find the stone, confront Maui, and force him to return the stone to where he stole it.  Classic set up: there’s stasis which is disrupted, and now our hero must confront the antagonist in order to restore the balance to the world.

Except all of this goes out the window when Maui isn’t the villain he’s been made out to be.  And the audience knew that this would be the case because they’d have seen the trailers presenting him as a lovable mighty man.  This leaves the film without a clear villain, and it’s not clear what our hero must overcome in order to restore balance.

It’s also not clear why this balance must be restored.  Moana, out on the wide ocean, is given freedom and power.  She is free of the constraints of her community who are holding her back and wanting to bind her to social conventions.  Why would she want to return to that?  And why do we know that Moana will return to it while Maui will maintain his distance from social order?  We are presented with the classic Wizard of Oz problem: why would Dorothy return to Kansas when Kansas is a craphole; why would Moana return to her island where she is subordinated?

For all these quibbles, the film is technically brilliant in the same way that Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is perfect, and in the same way that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is perfect: is it horrifically boring.  Holy hell.

I loved watching this film, but I was bored the whole way through.  I marvelled at how well they had crafted the characters, and how much the film really loved exploring its hero.  And I wanted to doze off at the plodding, plod plod of the film.  If the thing you loved most about The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was the sense of how much digital water could be generated between two locations, then you will love Moana.

Zootopia

This is a bullshit film and I hated every moment of it.  Anthropomorphic animals exist in some kind of dungeon dimension, and their form leaks through to us in the imaginations of the unstable and the diseased.  Early Disney films were created by perverts and antisemites, thus we got Robin Hood and The Jungle Book.  For a while, we all agreed that films shouldn’t have animals aping humans, transcending their place on Earth as determined by God in Genesis.  Is it that humans have deteriorated into bestial forms, or that animals have risen up to fill the spaces left by humans?  Why are they occupying human society?  Where are the primates?

Zootopia tries to tackle the issue of discrimination and racism, but it does it in such a clunky, clunky way that I’m not entirely sure what the message was.

One possible interpretation is that there is a disconnect between our flesh and blood bodies and the mental content that generates society and language.  We are ghosts haunting our rebel flesh.  We aspire to reason and higher nature but, really, at our core, we are just primates with primate urges and primate needs.  Zootopia connects animals of all different species in the common rationality of shared society, even though the primal urges and primal needs of each individual species differ.  Their society espouses the rhetoric of cohesion and equality, but the physical reality is that rabbits cannot be police officers.  Or something.  The movie bounces through strange stories of how the oppressors are sometimes oppressed themselves or something and it all ends up a stodgy mess with an eerily sexualised Shakira-antelope dancing in a miniskirt.

Nothing good lives here.

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