Category Archives: war

Damnation Alley (1977)

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Jack Smight’s adaptation of the Roger Zelazny novel, Damnation Alley, is an unsung classic of post-apocalyptic SF. Following the precedent set by the similarly themed television show, Ark II, Damnation Alley is the story of a group of WWIII nuclear holocaust survivors traversing the radioactive wastelands of a blasted out America in search of the remnants of humanity. Yes, its cheeseball B-movie reputation is not without some validity, but I maintain that its virtues outweigh its demerits. Post-apocalyptic SF is roughly analogous to the Western. In other words, a post-flood Biblical allegory. How do you rebuild civilization after all has been destroyed? 

Laying out the prototype for his role as Colonel Hannibal Smith in The A-Team, George Peppard is pitch perfect as grizzled hard ass, Major Eugene Denton. Jan-Michael Vincent plays his subordinate, Tanner, who’s just a little too uppity for Denton. Rounding out the cast of heroes are Paul Winfield as Keegan, a young Jackie Earle Haley as Billy and token female, Dominique Sanda as Jackie. The film opens at a nuclear missile facility at which our two main heroes are stationed as missile combat officers. What begins as a training exercise ends up as a Defcon 1 scramble to fire defensive strikes at an incoming volley of warheads from the other side of the globe. The spectre of nuclear war was a theme found throughout lots of film and television made throughout the Cold War era, but there’s something genuinely harrowing about the nuclear cataclysm in Damnation Alley.  In a scene that surely provided the inspiration for the arcade game, Missile Command, the commanding officers listen in stunned silence as the technical officer reads off the names of American cities while we watch blips of the electronic map signal each warhead strike. A montage of actual mushroom cloud atomic explosions follows as most life on earth is extinguished. 

After the conflict, the globe is an irradiated hellscape and natural weather patterns have been disrupted as a consequence of the bombing.  Using techniques that made SF films from the 70’s so great, color filters and effects transform the skies into a roiling cauldron of psychedelic radiation and are accompanied by ominous analog synth howls. A short text frame sets up the appropriate vibe.

The Third World War left the planet shrouded in a pall of radioactive dust, under skies lurid and angry, in a climate gone insane. Tilted on its axis as a result of the nuclear holocaust the Earth lived through a reign of terror, with storms and floods of unprecedented severity. When this epoch began to wind down, the remnants of life once more ventured forth to commence the struggle for survival and dominance. This is the story of some of them.

After surviving yet another catastrophe resulting from a porno mag that caught fire next to some explosive materials, our heroes set out to find what remains of civilization in the other star of the film, the Landmaster. Designed as a fully functional all-terrain military vehicle, the Landmaster is a glorious 12-wheel feat of vehicular badassery.  Most people probably consider the Mad Max films ground zero for futuristic car porn, but Damnation Alley clearly set the precedent. The various location shots of the Landmaster barreling through the canyons and desert plains of American southwest are indeed pretty righteous. 

In contrast to just about anything made today, this vision of post-apocalyptic earth retains a remarkable amount of civility, respect for military order, and concern for the welfare of the one woman and teenage boy. There is some heartwarming paternalism exhibited by both Peppard and Vincent towards the young Haley. Even the run-in with hillbilly mutants is remarkably civil. For all the pedants bemoaning the lack of realism, it’s important to bear in mind that this was made during a time when traditional heroic archetypes and acts of patriarchal chivalry were still considered worthy of canonization in cinema. It’s not the story that Zelazny told, but it’s worthwhile on its own terms.

There are, of course, some rather delightful post-apocalyptic thrills, too. Overgrown scorpions, flesh eating cockroaches, and radioactive dust storms are among the travails that our band of heroes must overcome.  And no SF action movie would be complete without a few lines of pure hardboiled tough guy grit. Naturally, that honor belongs to Peppard’s Denton.

Maj. Eugene Denton: There are areas of radiation we couldn’t get through. It’s not a matter of wrong turns though – “Damnation Alley” is a hundred miles wide a lot of the way. 

Tanner: “Damnation Alley?” Who named it that? 

Maj. Eugene Denton: I did.

The ending is a bit of a surprise, but the signal that indicates that they’ve reached civilization is the sweet sound of jazz-rock pumping through the radio transmitter. Hallelujah!

Damnation Alley is a piece of post-apocalyptic SF that you just don’t see anymore; an optimistic view of humanity and its ability to reclaim civilization. As the genre progressed over the years since the release of the film, one sees an increasingly despairing and cynical view of humanity. One could say these were more realistic visions of human nature, but people sometimes forget that an occasional uplifting ending gives people a sense of hope and an ideal to which to aspire. Cynicism is the norm.  Affirming positive values is a lot harder than it is to sit back and sneer at pollyanna idealism.

Despite being paired with another personal favorite from that year, Wizards, Damnation Alley tanked. Not only was the film a commercial flop, but Zelazny apparently hated it. Not even the tidal wave of Star Wars’ popularity was sufficient to boost its prospects.  It won’t do anything for you if you have no taste for this kind of film in the first place, but if post-apocalyptic SF is in your wheelhouse at all, the trip down Damnation Alley is worth taking. 

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

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Before Rogue One, I had resigned myself to the reality that a new Star Wars film isn’t going to rock my world quite like it did in 1977.  How could any new entry possibly match that experience? Star Wars certainly wouldn’t have become the global phenomenon it is without having some thematic heft and adult appeal, but it has always aimed to pluck the heartstrings of youth.  To say that Star Wars transformed my youthful dreams and angst into a two hour symphony of pure cinematic magic which moved me to the core of my being at that time in my life is an understatement. Though my story is hardly unique in the vast universe of SW fandom, my love affair with the original series was indeed profound and deep.  When Luke stares into Tatooine’s twin sunset and the music swells to a crescendo, the yearning for something greater was palpable. When Luke tells Obi-Wan that he wants to go to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force, I felt that shit. Anyone who doesn’t understand that these scenes all by themselves formed the core of Star Wars’ primal and transcendent appeal doesn’t really get Star Wars in the first place. Sure, the lightsaber duels, battles and starships were awesome, but at a very basic level, Luke’s quest was my quest. This seemingly effortless fusion of the universal and the personal was the truly great feat of cinematic sorcery that George Lucas conjured.

I’m never going to be that kid again, but that kid in me simply hoped that the new gatekeepers of the SW legacy are going to remember that for all of the cinematic and visual effect innovations that have been the hallmarks of the series, what really made these films tick is that they gave you characters in which you wanted to believe. Star Wars gave you friendships and bonds in which you were deeply invested.  It gave you characters whose motivations and foibles were sufficiently fleshed out that when the chips were down, you knew that each character was putting himself to the test and that made the ultimate triumphs all the more satisfying.

While the prequels failed miserably in this task, The Force Awakens also suffered from similar deficiencies in character development. It was enjoyable enough, but every character was paper thin. There was no real backstory to the characters and subsequently, no dramatic arc. These problems were only compounded by the stink of SJW agenda fulfillment permeating every frameFrom the could-be-gay bromance of Finn and Poe to the cartoonish emotional instability (translation: toxic masculinity/male fragility) of Kylo Ren to the impossible Mary Sue-like competence of Rey, The Force Awakens had the unmistakable aura of a PC feminist/SJW checklist.

Despite this string of disappointments, I still came to Rogue One with genuine optimism.  I didn’t care that Jyn Erso was very likely going to be another outrageous female power fantasy designed to flatter the egos of feminists and bolster a now deeply clichéd Girl Power/inverted stereotype hero narrative. I didn’t care that writers Chris Weitz and Gary Whitta were pandering to the SJW, multi-culti, Fight The Power progressive mindset when they tweeted out some moronic nonsense about the Empire being a “white supremacist organization.” I didn’t care that Disney demanded reshoots after Gareth Edwards presented his first cut of the film. Just give me some characters in which to believe and cheer.  Give me a little bit of human drama to complement Gareth Edwards’ epic vision.  I wasn’t worried about the eye candy or the mayhem. I just wanted to care about the people involved.  I just wanted to have a small taste of that yearning to go to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force all over again, or in this case, root for the Rebel Alliance to dismantle the evil dominion of the Empire.  Surely, a new Star Wars film could deliver this modest goal to my adult self and I believed that Gareth Edwards was up to that task.

If this is also your new hope for Rogue One, I can firmly attest that this film is absolutely the droid you’re looking for. Rogue One is hands down the most successful Star Wars film since the Original Trilogy and the most genuinely satisfying Star Wars film I’ve seen since 1977. I still can’t believe how genuinely good this motherfucker is. It’s the Star Wars film you didn’t know you wanted, but now that it’s here, you can’t live without it. It also succeeds in achieving a goal that eluded The Force Awakens by referencing the original series and mythology while presenting something completely contemporary and fresh.

Rogue One is the story of a team of rebels who manage to abscond with the plans of the Death Star which find their way back into the hands of the Rebel Alliance and Princess Leia. What’s remarkable is how effectively the film builds a compelling story around what amounts to a couple sentences of opening crawl in Episode IV.  Since there’s no real Jedi quest, the film is able to be a full on war/espionage story set in the SW universe at the height of tensions between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. It comes across like a lighter version of The Dirty Dozen with a post-Battlestar Galactica grit to it and to my great astonishment, it’s a mix that works brilliantly.  I believe it marks a distinct tonal shift away from the pop space opera vibe of the other canonical films, but this choice has given the series the new lease on life that has eluded every other post-OT installment.  It is indeed a war film and it packs a visceral punch that is unmatched in the series.

I was concerned about the character development in this film since this has been the great Achilles Heel of every new installment in the series up to this point. While you don’t necessarily know a whole lot about any one of them, you learn enough to be invested.  As Jyn Erso, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I believed in Felicity Jones’ transformation into a rebel leader and her bond with both her father Galen and the militant Rebel who raised her, Saw Gerrera. The scenes between her and Mads Mikkelsen’s Galen Erso are genuinely sweet and give the film the emotional core that made the original films sing. Once again, we’re presented with a SW protagonist who had been snatched away from her birth parents and raised by a surrogate who happened to be a radical extremist within the Rebel Alliance.  Subsequently, it’s not impossible to believe that she would be proficient with firearms and have the mental and physical fortitude necessary for combat.  The Strong Womyn archetype who’s smarter and stronger than her male counterparts has become very commonplace in action and SF films for many years, and I was concerned that we were going to be given another variation on Rey. Thankfully, everything about Jyn’s development and the proficiency she exhibits was consistent with what we were presented.  Although when it came to Jyn’s tepid attempt at channeling Henry V, I have to agree with CNET’s Ashlee Clark Thompson that it invoked “Girl, I guess so” more than it summoned the spine of steel one would need to face certain death at the hands of the Empire.

The remaining characters were surprisingly compelling despite how little we actually knew about them.  Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor draws you in through his confessions of the losses he faced at the hands of the Empire as well as the moral compromises he’s made in service of the Alliance. Nothing is really known about the origin of the friendship between Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe, but their affection for one another is never in doubt and when they meet their tragic end, it has more emotional weight than expected. Bodhi Rook’s defection from the Empire roughly mirrors Finn’s from TFA, but is remarkably more interesting and believable because unlike Finn, he was merely a pilot for the Empire and one could imagine him being persuaded to the cause of the Alliance by Galen Erso.  The big standout of the film is actually Alan Tudyk’s voice characterization of Imperial droid, K-2SO. He brings some welcome comic counterpoint to the film’s grim tone and his lines are genuinely laugh out loud funny.

On the Imperial side, Ben Mendelsohn brings a sufficiently nasty sneering menace to his role as Director Orson Krennic.  And yes, Rogue One marks the welcome return of the greatest Sith of them all and one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time, Lord Vader. Vader’s appearance in the film is limited to two excellent scenes, and only serve to remind you that neither Kylo Ren or young, tortured Anakin has managed to scale the heights of sheer Dark Side terror that Vader can summon in one line of dialogue or just by entering a room.

Perhaps being unshackled by the weight of the Skywalker mythology really freed up some creative energies, but Gareth Edwards deserves a vigorous round of applause for the feat of world building he has pulled off here.  The film is filled with both new and old worlds that have that grimy, used future vibe of the OT as well as numerous classic vehicles and images.  Mostly, Gareth Edwards managed to convey a sense of scale that even surpasses Lucas’ original vision at certain times.  The Empire has never seemed more massive and imposing on screen as it does in Rogue One. The data storage facility at Scarif is what you’d imagine Qatar to be like had it been developed by the Empire.  Jedha and Jedha City are equally impressive with obvious connections to Arabic citadels and architecture. Edwards even gives us Vader’s palace at Mustafar as a dark monument to the disfigurement he suffered at the hands of his former Jedi mentor.

My biggest gripe with Rogue One is the facile message and the refusal to confront the inherently political content at its center in an honest and meaningful way. The entire message of the film can be summed up as Be Hopeful, Listen and Believe (especially if it’s a womyn), and Down with the Space Nazis. Sure, it’s a Disney property now, it’s unrealistic of me to expect them to make anyone think too hard and Lucas’ message was arguably just as superficial, but when Disney’s Bob Iger says there are “no political statements” in Rogue One, I’m calling bullshit.  Of course Star Wars is political!  It’s about fucking WAR fer chrissakes, people!  It’s about the struggle of liberty versus tyranny. There is nothing more inherently political than war or armed revolution. War is the business of the nation state. Revolutions organize themselves around a political philosophy. The Rebel Alliance were the just remnants of the Old Republic who want to preserve peace and justice by restoring “democracy”.  The films never spell out exactly what the Alliance’s political ideals or principles are beyond “democracy” or “hope”, but the Rebels do aspire to reclaim the seat of power in their own right.  Presumably, they’re just going to be better at it than the Empire.
The politics of Star Wars have long been a subject of debate throughout the geekosphere, but I suggest that’s because people want to be able to connect it more immediately into the world of the present and their own political worldview. Disney and Lucas undoubtedly tried to keep the political content as neutral as possible so that one could view the films though one’s own ideological lens, but it still leaves me wanting a bit more. The film presents a very easily digestible Manichean dichotomy: Rebels are Good and Imperials are Bad.  This simplistic dualism doesn’t allow you to wrap your mind around which mechanisms of political policy the Empire exploited or the propaganda they deployed in order to accumulate such massive centralized political power in the first place. Edwards’ world contained mountains of untapped thematic potential.  If there was an Imperial Labor Camp on Wobani, it stands to reason that this is where dissidents and thought criminals were sent, and subsequently, it was a missed opportunity to introduce the propagandists for the Alliance.  Furthermore, there had to be segments of the galaxy that were pro-Empire and totally pro-Death Star. It was fundamentally a government program and by extension, a boon for lots of industrial interests throughout the galaxy.

Unfortunately, the political content doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense when you inspect it closely, and more often than not, reaffirms a lot of dopey leftist clichés.  How did the Confederacy of Indepent Systems, essentially the UKIP of the Republic, get to be the bad guys simply for embracing secession and opposing the excessive taxation and bureaucratic palsy of the Republic? That sounds pretty American and like the real rebels to me. And why is the Galactic Empire called a fascist regime?  They weren’t promoting a racially pure ethno-state nor could they promote a unitary galactic identity.  If anything, they were Space Communists, not Nazis.

As good as it is, I can’t help but wonder what Gareth Edwards presented to Disney executives initially.  It’s a little ironic that a film franchise that cashes in on a sentiment of rebellion is ultimately subordinate to the aesthetic mandates of its corporate, Imperial overlords.

But don’t let any of this hyper-analysis deter you if you have even the slightest misgivings.  Rogue One is the best thing to happen to the franchise since Luke Skywalker first brandished a lightsaber.  Who knows if it is a harbinger of Episode VIII or if it remains a solitary bright light in a dying franchise?  Regardless, Gareth Edwards has given us something that all of us OT OG’s have long awaited: a Star Wars film that’s actually fucking good. Enjoy it while it’s here. 

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

If you garnered any enjoyment from the first Independence Day or if you’re in the mood for a state of the art alien invasion film with some really enjoyable performances, you could do a lot worse than Resurgence.  The film succeeds because it gives you exactly what it promises: a band of heroes who join together to save human civilization from another extraterrestrial threat of extermination. Of course, the threat is twice as bad as before.  

The story picks up 20 years after the events of the first film and rejoins us with most of the original characters. Several young characters are added to the mix in order to fill the void left by the absence of Will Smith. All of the countries have banded together to rebuild civilization after being nearly vaporized by aliens the first time around. Thanks to harvested alien technology, the United States have built a global super state with a futuristic, alien-grade military defense apparatus that extends from the earth to the moon.  

This film has been described in various reviews as an appeal to nationalism and patriotism, but it’s more than that. It’s really War of the Worlds repurposed as a multicultural, globalist fantasy and a Keynesian wet dream. This film is yet another variation on the fantasy of a gleaming, futuristic, techno-utopia that can be achieved through abject servitude to the State and cradle to grave militarism. The previous alien invasion may have nearly wiped out civilization, but it provided the ultimate opportunity to enact the biggest economic stimulus ever! It’s quite literally Paul Krugman’s prescription for economic prosperity writ large.  

Familial bonds are largely non-existent for the younger characters, but when they are introduced, they exist mostly within the hierarchy of the State. Vivica Fox returns as Jasmine Hiller who is both mother of Jessie Usher’s Dylan Hiller and some kind of high ranking government official.  She lasts long enough to convey maternal pride in her top gun military progeny and die a tragic death amidst the alien devastation.
The technology is so advanced, that one can only imagine that the Platonist social engineers were finally given free reign to build a society of super soldiers whose only devotion is to the State. Naturally, it’s a multicultural paradise with total gender equality.  Every race and culture gets along harmoniously, the women are every bit as capable as the men in every pursuit, and when the chips are down, humanity joins hands to fend off extinction one more time. Even the African communist militants seem like really cool guys. 

But enough of all this analysis.  What about the UFOs and worldwide demolition? Independence Day made its mark by giving us massive alien ships with devastating weapons, and just as one would hope, Resurgence doubles down on the massiveness.  The film wants to overwhelm you with its scale, and it more than delivers. The alien mothership is so big, it plants itself on the surface of the earth like a giant hubcap.  

When it comes to defeating the aliens, the film settles for yet another variation on what has become a completely shopworn cliché: destroy the leader and the minions lose their agency.  Sadly, the human alliance doesn’t differ from the aliens in this respect.  All of the forces rally and are emboldened to fight upon hearing President Whitmore’s grizzled but rousing call to arms.  

Though I doubt it was the filmmakers’ intention, I propose that this film was also a stealth commentary on modern feminism. Everyone will undoubtedly find it so empowering and progressive that Sela Ward plays the current president and gives the command to initiate the attack on the alien vessel, but that’s a side show. The alien civilization is essentially a matriarchy that resembles a highly advanced insect colony with a queen who controls and directs the worker soldiers. Once the queen is killed, all the subordinate aliens lose their will to fight. If an advanced civilization capable of enormous and highly coordinated feats of starship construction, weapons systems development, and intergalactic invasion and occupation is ruled by a woman and all of the subordinate workers are so emasculated that they’re forced to dedicate the entirety of their existence to a never-ending pursuit of intergalactic conquest, that doesn’t speak too highly of life under matriarchy.  

Ultimately, the film is supremely entertaining. It knows that its first job is to be a rousing blockbuster alien invasion movie and it succeeds wildly at this task. But every major Hollywood film exists to transmit progressive editorial of one form or another, and Independence Day: Resurgence is certainly no exception. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

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After a riding a tsunami of hype that rivals its predecessors and geysers of gushing praise from media and fans alike, how does the Star Wars franchise fare in the hands of its new heir for this particular Star Wars OG?

It’s good, but JJ Abrams is no Jedi.

Yes, yes, yes. It erases the stink of the prequels, but the film misses the same opportunities and makes many of the same mistakes.

The film succeeds mostly by restoring the overall tone and spirit of the original series. It provides just enough visual invention and drama to keep the ball rolling, but just barely.

Yes, it’s great to see Han, Chewie, Leia, C-3P0, R2-D2, and Luke when he finally appears. Yes, the dialogue is snappy and humorous at times. Yes, there are some great battle sequences. Yes, BB-8 is adorable. Yes, it’s got a little of that old Star Wars feeling.

Not only does it feel like too much of a rehash, it falls short on character and story development. Most disappointingly, it fails to add anything truly new to the franchise. Star Wars may go down in history as a popcorn special effects spectacle, but it doesn’t get enough credit for being a successful human drama. Just as Lucas dropped this ball in the prequels, Abrams is also guilty of under writing his new heroes and half-assing the political drama in which he inserts us.

Even for a Star Wars film, The Force Awakens is asking us to make too many leaps of imagination.  There are way too many gaping holes in the stories of each of the new characters for me to feel truly invested in them.

This error is most egregiously evident in the new heroine, Rey. Rey is the new Luke and her story mirrors his almost exactly, but is infinitely more implausible.  With Luke, Lucas took time to introduce us to him. He’s an orphan, but he has a stable home life and parental guidance thanks to his aunt and uncle. He has responsibilities and his mechanical expertise can be explained by his upbringing and the skills he had to acquire by working on the farm. He has aspirations to be a pilot and the piloting skills he exhibits later in the film can be explained by the social life he had with his friends on Tatooine.

Rey, on the other hand, has none of these things. She lives completely alone. She has no guidance, no support and was presumably abandoned early in life and forced to survive in a hostile desert environment with limited access to food and water. Not only does she have fully developed language and social skills, she is in stunningly good health. She also has advanced fighting, piloting, and mechanical skills. And we’re to believe she acquired these simply by being a scavenger.  Right.

Luke spends an entire goddamn film training on a shithole planet with Yoda just to learn enough discipline to even use a lightsaber.  When he finally faces Vader, it’s dramatic because you knew what Luke had to overcome within himself. Even then, he almost gets himself killed. Rey goes through no comparable journey of emotional or skill development. She’s good at everything and acquired these skills without work, guidance or emotional growth. 

Give me a break, Abrams. Not only is this an implausible character, it runs roughshod over the pillars of the mythology.  This is the #STRONG Female Character taken to a cartoonish extreme. Rey is definitely a Mary Sue, and even if feminists are pleased the film suffers because of it. Suck it in and cope, feminists.

On a related note, it’s weird that feminists consider Rey feminist in any way. There’s nothing even remotely feminist about Rey. Rey uses firearms. Feminists oppose gun ownership. Rey is accomplished at combat. Feminists demand protection from the State. Rey has skills even if they’re implausibly acquired. Feminists demand preferential treatment simply for being female.  Feminists lecture people about gender pronouns, police what people say and are general killjoys and scolds. Rey is blessedly free of these annoying tendencies.

Finn suffers from a similar deficit of dramatic development.  Finn was presumably conscripted by the First Order as a youth and trained to kill without remorse, but we’re asked to accept his moment of awakened conscience immediately.  He suffers no PTSD or adverse effects on his social skills.  Star Wars is popcorn entertainment, but it’s still a war movie. The film could have raised the dramatic stakes by injecting just a little of this reality into it.

The same goes for Poe Dameron. I don’t know anything about him other than he’s the best pilot in the Resistance. I simply don’t know enough about him to feel truly invested in him.  Adam Driver has an enormous task filling the spiritual and psychological void of Vader as new Sith on the block, Kylo Ren. I’m not sure if the character or his acting skills are up to the task.

Abrams also stumbles by shortchanging the political drama.  For all of the flaws of the prequels (and they are numerous), Lucas gave us a pretty clear political backdrop. He intended the series as a Fall of the Roman Empire style allegory.  It was clumsily handled, but Lucas definitely wanted to show how a democratic republic devolves into a totalitarian dictatorship.  Nick Gillespie of Reason persuasively argued that the prequels mirrored the demise of the political ideals of the Boomers.

The Force Awakens inserts us into a divided galaxy 30 years after Jedi and a pretty resounding defeat of the Empire.  The second Death Star was destroyed. The Emperor and Vader are dead.  There was certainly ample opportunity for the believers of democracy to reclaim the seat of government power and restore “peace and justice”.

And yet…

The First Order have reasserted iron fisted dominion and are somehow able to amass significant military might in a remarkably short span of time. The Starkiller Base is several times the size and power of the previous Death Stars. The First Order manage to get it built in 30 years despite getting their asses kicked twice by the Rebellion.  They haven’t learned too much from their past mistakes, apparently.

Listen, guys. Military power of the kind to which you’re accustomed can only be amassed through taxation and budget deficits made possible by central bank monetary inflation. You’re not going to get too far by nuking every goddamn planet in the system. Chill out a little.

We accept that the Resistance are Good and the First Order are Bad. However, Abrams missed another opportunity by failing to spell out in greater detail where the moral fault lines lay and the political principles for which the Resistance fought.

Other missed opportunities included Carrie Fisher’s meager reprisal of Leia as well as Gwendoline Christie’s throwaway role as Phasma.  Both of these women were supposedly high ranking military officials, and yet, we see very little military style leadership from either.

Overall, it’s about as good as I could have hoped.  Not a complete catastrophe, but still short of the mythic human drama and invention that made the original soar. 

Abrams certainly hasn’t tarnished the legacy, but he hasn’t advanced it in a meaningful way either. It made me smile and I appreciated the love and reverence he brought to the enterprise. He was given the difficult task of reviving a beloved franchise while giving it a new lease on life. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect too much innovation from either Abrams or Disney. The Force might be awake, but I’m not yet convinced that the Force is strong in Disney’s hands.

Robert A. Heinlein: Starship Troopers

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This legendary 1959 novel holds up reasonably well as work of military SF, but falls short as an example libertarian philosophy. Heinlein enjoys a vaunted reputation as a liberty oriented philosopher, but this book’s message of maximizing liberty and moral virtue through voluntary military service is flawed and rife with mixed messages. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that there’s very little about this book that’s truly libertarian.

The book tells the story of Johnnie Rico, an upper middle-class kid who chooses military service over an opportunity to work the family business. Despite his father’s protests, he opts to enlist in the military to fulfill the sense of duty that was imparted to him by his professor of History and Moral Philosophy, Mr. Dubois.  Through a first person point of view, we follow Johnnie’s evolution from his lessons in Moral Philosophy to the punishing ordeal of basic training to his subsequent service on the front lines of The Great Bug War.

As many others have written, it’s difficult to view a society which places military service as a prerequisite for voting as one which would ultimately maximize individual liberty and moral virtue. Between the twin sanction of corporal punishment and servitude to law celebrated as the cornerstones of an allegedly civilized society, the world of Starship Troopers can only be viewed as a deeply sadistic and fascistic society. Paul Verhoeven may have been criticized for omitting many of Heinlein’s philosophical musings in his 1997 cinematic adaptation, but if anything, he just took the book to its logical conclusion.

Philosophically, there are many places where the book goes off the rails.

The book’s most chilling theme is the full throated endorsement of corporal punishment. Given Heinlein’s apparent earnestness in crafting a liberty oriented editorial, this aspect alone is completely contrary to any serious argument for liberty.  It’s undoubtedly a product of Heinlein’s proximity to his own military service and perhaps his own childhood, but when one considers Heinlein’s keen intellect and obvious affinity for human freedom, it’s strange that he would promote this line of thinking. It suggests an absence of faith in humanity to generate morality through non-violent, rational thought.

This theme is undoubtedly tied to his astonishing rejection of any concept of natural rights.  In a key exchange between Johnnie and Mr. Dubois, Heinlein openly denigrates the idea of natural rights.

He even extends this idea so far as to basically reject the idea of freedom of speech. Not only does he casually mention censorship of soldier’s mail during spaceflight, one particularly chilling scene describes a group of infantry getting tazed for having a debate which gets a little too heated.

At its core, the book is essentially attempting to endorse some form of militaristic minarchism, but it’s ultimately deeply nationalistic and collectivist.  Since he very clearly acknowledges state power as a monopoly on the usage of force, he sees those who serve in the military as best suited to use the power judiciously. Subsequently, they are the only people permitted to vote. While I’m willing to chalk this up to his residual feelings of goodwill towards his own service, it’s another odd artistic choice given the fact that he touches on the concept of economic freedom. He extols the virtues of limited government and low taxation and does a nice little demolition job on the Marxist Labor Theory of Value. However, he ignores the extraordinary cost of maintaining an interstellar fighting force through compulsory taxation. It also strains the imagination that such a sophisticated military could be kept strictly voluntary without a very heavy handed propaganda campaign or without violent crackdowns when a majority of the population isn’t even voting. If anything, the inclusion of propaganda is one great improvements Paul Verhoeven made on this story when translating to cinema.

Heinlein’s outlook on gender is very egalitarian and, in this book at least, is the kind of treatment that one assumes that even feminists would cheer. He pushes the limits of imagination once again by presenting a military population that’s 40% female and mysteriously free of assault or harassment. He balances it out with a surprising bit of insight about female pilots. He posits the idea of females as the best pilots of spacecraft; a speculation that was perhaps ahead of its time. Despite this potential bit of prescience, the number of women who presently serve as military pilots is nowhere what he portrays in the book.

When evaluated from the point of view of pure storytelling and SF militarism, it mostly succeeds at the former but falls short in the latter.  Sure, there were aliens, different planets and spacecraft which could traverse interstellar distances.  But the SF actually felt subordinate to the philosophical exposition and some rather turgid rhapsodizing over the dignity of military life and the intricacies of military hierarchy. The descriptions of Mobile Infantry battle armor were cool and helped ground the story in the future, but I was hoping for just a little bit more actual warfare. If you’re going to exalt the extraordinary bravery of the soldier, give me a little bit more action.

Shortcomings aside, this book is a worthwhile read and its controversial reputation is fully earned. The amount of satisfaction you get from it will depend largely through which lens you view it.

Joe Haldeman: The Forever War

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A first rate war SF and dystopian tale.

This book’s reputation as a classic is well deserved.  It succeeds at being an engrossing and very convincing tale of a futuristic war while simultaneously etching out the contours of the grotesque and horrifying political world that would send soldiers to the farthest flung corners of the universe to fight a seemingly unconquerable enemy.

It is a well documented fact that Mr. Haldeman intended this book as a commentary on Vietnam, but I believe that he achieved something far greater. By placing events in a far future, his extrapolations succeed in leveling a critique of the absurdity and inhumanity of the state war machine that seem chillingly plausible.

Over half the Earth’s domestic population are unemployed and all taxpayer funds have been diverted to fund the war.  The best and brightest citizens have been conscripted and all of the technological innovation is being deployed in service of the conflict. Heterosexuality has been bred out of the population as way of maintaining control of the herd. Private citizens have to hire bodyguards because crime is so rampant.  Gun control laws prohibit the acquisition of lasers except for law enforcement. The government has completely overtaken the management of the economy.  And so on.

Haldeman’s physics are also quite convincing. He is attentive to details but never at the expense of momentum. The training maneuvers which take place on Charon (!!!) at the beginning of the novel are harrowing because they are remarkably detailed but rendered with the voice of unforced, casual detachment one hears from a soldier enduring any earthbound military shithole.

Haldeman is also wisely attentive to economics as well as physics.  SF has given us so many fantastic visions of scientific advancement, but often at the exclusion of the economic portion of the equation. This aspect lends this book yet another layer of resonance.

As someone who has been fortunate enough not to have seen the horror of war, this book more than succeeds as a reminder that the warmomgers of the state deserve our fullest contempt and our most fervent opposition.

Stalingrad (2013)

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Communists versus Nazis!
   
The bloodiest battle in human history!

I was interested in seeing this from the moment I heard about it.  Besides it being the story of an historic Russian victory and the first film from Russia in IMAX, it is by default, a story of life under Stalin told from the Russian perspective.
 
How were they going to handle all of that?
 
By keeping the film centered around a fictitious set of Russian soldiers who heroically defend a random building in the center of town where a lone civilian woman lives, that’s how.
   
Needless to say, the carnage portrayed is nowhere near the historical record, but that’s not really what the filmmakers were after.  The character drama allows the film to put the dubious record of the revolutionary peasant workers in more human and small scale dimensions. The film is basically saying, “Yeah, we put up with that dickhead Stalin, but we had dignity and we defeated the Nazis because we were able to find more humanity in ourselves than those dirtbags.”
   
They let the nationalism surface, but they don’t overplay it.  This is film is about feeling proud of being Russian, but it wants you to remember the huge price that was paid.  So I don’t begrudge the film for reaching for the brass ring of the Heroic Struggle of the Revolutionary Soldiers.  Hell, in comparison to most American WWII films, the emotions of this film feel pretty muted and grim.  

The visuals are stunning and there is one scene in particular which portrays the feeling of Armageddon that this battle most certainly embodied.
   
If this sounds like your thing, do it.  

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

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Yes, I saw it and yes, I enjoyed it.

Yes, it was dumb, but I suspect my reasons for calling it dumb differ from yours. And just because it’s dumb doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining on its own terms. More importantly, it doesn’t mean that the film is devoid of ideas worth discussing. Yeah, you read that correctly.  I said IDEAS.

Many seem content to simply dismiss it on the grounds of it being another Big, Dumb and Loud Hollywood Movie, but are either ignoring or missing out on the ramifications of what is being said and the more subversive moments presented. Don’t get me wrong. This film ultimately defaults to standard tropes of American collectivism, (i.e. nationalism, loyalty over individual agency, deference toward paternalistic leaders and the state, freedom as a non-natural right, fighting for a “greater good”, vengeance as a rationale for violence, etc), but despite its cop outs, there are some pretty potent portrayals of rogue government agents seeking power for its own sake, the perils of contemporary intellectual property law, and the poisonous nature of the relationship between state power and corporate power and the latter’s ultimate subservience to the former.

For those of you who don’t like apocalyptic sci-fi destructothons involving giant robots in the first place, I’m doubtful this film will make you a convert. However, for those of you who can dig that concept, this film represents another high water mark for sheer visual excess and a pretty cool story to boot. The last hour of the film is such a relentless orgy of demolition, combat, and CGI driven epicness, it is nothing short of awe inspiring.

I saw the first film and its blatant glorification of American militarism left me uninspired. I skipped the two sequels which followed, so I entered this one with very low expectations. Those who believe these films offer no narrative simply aren’t giving them enough credit.

Apparently, in the third installment the Autobots teamed up with the US military to kick ass on the Decepticons. Chicago was levelled, but we won!  This time around a CIA black ops guy (Kelsey Grammer) decides that all Autobots are enemies of the state. As it turns out, he’s working with a Cybertronic bounty hunter who is out to return Optimus Prime to his creators.  Meanwhile, the government has harvested the remains of the Decepticons and a corporate entity called KSI is using the technology to create a man-made army of Transformers, thus rendering actual Transformers obsolete. A Texan inventor and his daughter and boyfriend team up with Optimus and the Autobots to recover “The Seed” which produces Transformium, the metal from which Autobots are made and the substance sought by the government for military purposes. Much mayhem ensues and the fate of civilization hangs in the balance once again.

On the plus side:

1. Portrayal of unchecked government power.

Ultimately, the US government is the real villain in the film.

When we are introduced to Cade (Mark Wahlberg), he is a struggling mechanic/inventor trying to make ends meet with his teenage daughter, Tessa. The Feds have targeted him for giving refuge to an Autobot enemy of the state. The federal goons arrive in black SUV’s armed to the teeth and proceed immediately to put a gun to Tessa’s head. Cade asks for a warrant, but the head goon spits back “My face is my warrant”. Because this was a “Transformers” film, the impact of this scene was probably completely lost on many. Besides being a perfect visual metaphor for the nature of state power all by itself, this was also a pitch perfect portrayal of the obscene overreach currently carried out by the federal, state and local government on a daily basis.

When we are introduced to Attinger (Grammer), he basically tells the White House to fuck off.  He says that he is answerable to no one, he’s protecting God and country and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.  Furthermore, his alliance with the Cybertronic bounty hunter, Lockdown is a perfect metaphor for the various proxy wars being waged throughout world by the US government.

In one particularly funny scene, he is able to forestall a full scale military assault on an alien spacecraft, because alas, he has an “asset” on board.

Attinger displays the narcissistic, entitled, venal and power hungry mentality that is intrinsic to agents of the state. At one point he says, “Innocent people will die.  This has been happening for thousands of years”.

Remarkable honesty for a giant robot film if you ask me.

2. The problem of intellectual property

There are numerous references to intellectual property in the film and this is arguably one of its central themes.

In a heated moment, Cade tells his partner that “he owns him”.

Upon acquiring an alien weapon, Cade declares that he’s “totally going to patent this thing”.

Stanley Tucci’s corporate mogul, Joshua Joyce, tells Optimus that “What we do here is science. Because if we don’t do it, somebody else will. Because you cannot stop technology.”

To which Optimus replies, “We are NOT your technology!”

This scene reveals one of the film’s subtly clever conceits. By humanizing robots, the film humanizes technology itself and asks us to reconsider the motivations and the very right of an individual to create whatever they please, let alone call it “their technology”.

Undoubtedly, the filmmakers were simply plying the simplistic dichotomy of technology wielded by “good people versus bad people” and the dehumanizing quandaries presented by contemporary IP law. Whether or not the filmmakers intended it, what it actually reveals is the poisonous attitudes of statism itself which intellectual property confers to individuals and to society in general.

The very idea of a monopoly power so great that it would allow you to own others or to call upon the power of state to exert control over others is only possible because the state makes it possible. Unfortunately, the film tries to have it both ways. It trades in on the popular cliché of corporate power and intellectual property as its own form of totalitarianism instead of making a sharper distinction between the pursuit of economic freedom and the power of the state. Through Cade’s character they make an attempt at the former though the collectivist themes ultimately prevail.

The mass proliferation of so many films based off games, toys, and comic books which reinforce similar themes of nationalism, militarism and other forms of state sanctioned violence is by itself a byproduct of the confluence of corporate military state power.

Speaking of corporate military state power…

3. The unholy alliance of corporate power and state power and the former’s subservience to the latter

This is, for me at least, one of the film’s biggest wins.

When the shit really hits the fan, Attinger completely overrides Joyce’s authority by pulling the state card.

In yet another scene, Attinger goes one further and makes his intention even more explicit by pulling a gun on Joyce and telling him point blank that he regards him as a meal ticket and a golden parachute.

I couldn’t really ask for a more honest portrayal of state power.

Admittedly, the film trades in on numerous dumb clichés.

Worst of all, it flogs the insipid and poisonous notion of freedom that is bestowed by leaders as opposed to a natural right.

In order to win the allegiance of the Dinobots, Optimus reminds them that “We’re giving you freedom!”

Oh, that’s great.  You can be free by swearing allegiance to some clown who is commanding you to enter into a military conflict.

It is at least offset somewhat by a flash of honesty uttered by one of the subordinate Autobots as they mobilize for war.

“Ugh, you just want to die for the guy. That’s leadership. Or brainwashing, or something. ”

The characters are paper thin and are doing the best with what they’re given.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the sexualized portrayal of the Tessa character.  I’ll leave those discussions to the Puritans. What I found infinitely more troubling was the suffocating and domineering paternalism of Cade.  If you can’t trust your 17 year old daughter to make good choices and handle herself then you’ve blown it as a parent, pal.

Again, for spectacle value alone, this film is hard to beat.  They spent $210 million and it looks like they spent twice that amount.  If you can’t enjoy slick, Hollywood excess like this, then by all means, watch something else.

Sure, it’s ultimately little more than glorified militarism and nationalism. But scratch the surface a little, and there are rewards to be found.

Transformers. More than meets the eye, indeed.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014)

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Yes, the final trip to Middle Earth is turgid and predictable, but it’s impossible for me to hate on this movie and series too much.

Blockbuster war films are great because they attempt to extract moral lessons when humanity is at its worst. While I commend the considerable effort, the film falls short in more ways than it succeeds.

Unfortunately, TBOFA indulges in some of the dumbest fallacies and clichés which contribute to the perpetuation of war (deference to authority and appeals to nationalism first and foremost), but there are redeeming moments as well as some elements which can be viewed through a libertarian lens even if it wasn’t Jackson’s intent.

On the downside, there is an all too common veneration of authority and leaders paired with an absence of individual agency. Though individual acts of defiance occur, it happens very selectively and the reasons behind these acts of sedition are made for flimsy reasons.

Whether it’s dwarves, elves, orcs, or wizards, all action hinges on the commands of the leaders.  The dwarves pay a cultish obeisance to Thorin, and the elves exhibit a frightening militaristic discipline and paternalistic authoritarianism. Even Gandalf’s has some pretty bossy tendencies. The various races of Middle Earth certainly insist on obedience to leaders. It undoubtedly made them successful cultures, but one has to draw the line somewhere. 

The most refreshingly libertarian moment comes from Bilbo in the film’s climactic battle. Bilbo insists on warning Thorin of an imminent attack and Gandalf demonstrates an uncharacteristic lack of faith in Bilbo.

Gandalf: It’s out of the question! I won’t allow it!

Bilbo Baggins: I’m not asking you to allow it, Gandalf.

Jeez.  Fuck off, Gandalf.

The most alarming elements are exhibited by the dwarves. Besides the troubling appeals to nationalism, the film attributes Thorin’s alleged moral lapse to a kind of “greed”. Erebor’s existing treasure as well as his weird obsession over the Arkenstone drove him over the edge. The film uses the “Dragon’s curse” as a proxy in order to administer a form of quasi-Marxist, crypto-religious preaching over this transgression.

Thorin’s tightassery with Erebor’s wealth is indeed weird and irrational. Granted, he’s a stubborn fuck who is pissed about the indignities he and his homeboys suffered in their period of exile. The film is unfortunately trying to chalk it up to an obsession with wealth itself. It’s shoveling the old “money is the root of all evil” fallacy rather than looking at unprovoked violence as the ultimate evil.

The most poisonous stuff comes when it’s time to go to war. Fantasy gets off easy when it comes to rationalizing violence because the bad guys are so obviously bad. The underlying motivations deserve scrutiny because they map to current events. When the chips are down, what does Thorin do to stoke the bloodlust? He invokes the blood connection to Durin and loyalty to the homeland! Erebor über alles, my dudes!

The titular battle is actually waged over a contract dispute. Why Thorin didn’t just help the survivors from Laketown after Smaug had decimated the place boggles the imagination. Conversely, Thranduil’s quest for some ancient necklace seems wildly arbitrary yet strangely characteristic for a head of State.

Ironically, the destruction of Laketown makes a very powerful case for anarchy. Though the argument for liberty certainly does not rest on disaster, the citizens of Laketown were helping one another in the absence of government authority and coordination. The moral reprobate was the Master of Laketown!  He was the greedy fuck who absconded with the town treasury and was solely concerned with saving his own sorry ass.

The interracial love story between Tauriel and Kili felt forced and overwrought. It was ultimately an unnecessary tragedy. Instead of trusting their own individual instincts, they chose nationalism and deference to authority and each suffered.

It’s flawed, but entertaining enough. It suffers by not really having much more to say above and beyond what the LOTR series already said really well. So Jackson feels like he’s just coasting.

That said, Jackson clearly loves this material and it’s hard to gripe too much about such a towering achievement. It’s hard to imagine that anyone else could have brought this to life with as much vigor and passion.

The Imitation Game (2014)

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Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

The story of Alan Turing simultaneously touches on the history of modern computing and cryptography, the contribution military intelligence made to the Allied victory in WW2 as well as the repression of gays and women by the State.

The story also perfectly captures the tortured contradiction at the core of democratic capitalism; to pursue true individualism is to pit yourself against the will of the State.  

The film deals primarily with Turing’s groundbreaking work at Bletchley Park as he leads a team of cryptographers in the development of a machine which eventually cracked the Nazi codes and hastened the victory of the Allied forces.
 
The performances are fantastic across the board, but Benedict Cumberbatch deserves praise for his excellent portrayal of Turing. His performance gives us a portrait of a man grounded in the conviction of his ideas who advocated for logic and reason over sentimentality while also revealing how these virtues came across as callousness to his associates and acquaintances.  

Though it’s a hardly a serious flaw, I have a minor quibble with Keira Knightley’s portrayal of Joan Clarke. Her performance smacks of a new kind of cinematic cliché; the Virtuous, Intelligent, Tolerant, Independent Woman who is without flaw and beyond reproach.  Naturally, she’s brilliant, compassionate, and suffers the sexist indignities she experiences with class and aplomb.  It feels less like an actual person and more like a caricature and a sop to feminists and sanctimonious culture cops. It seems like a performance geared towards those who go to films looking for female characters who meet some idealized fantasy of leftist feminist virtue and are monitoring films for their fidelity to the Bechdel Test.  It’s hilarious and unsurprising that both Turing’s biographer and niece castigated the filmmakers for romanticizing their relationship and for choosing to cast a glamorous actress to play her.
   
The ending is heartbreaking and the emotions it wrenches are solidly earned. Turing’s death is a scathing indictment of state power. Though I hope that many will leave the film with this impression, the cynic in me dreads the desire this film will undoubtedly stoke to seek state power for “good”.

Turing was a giant and this film is a moving tribute to his immense legacy.

Highly recommended.