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Dan Persons

The Orville’s “From Unknown Graves” Asks Us to Consider the Flawed Logic of Prejudice

These are the woes of Slaves;
They glare from the abyss;
They cry, from unknown graves,
“We are the Witnesses!”
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Witnesses”

Villains don’t form in a vacuum. The bad guys have their reasons and, of course, they consider themselves the heroes of their own stories. The Klingons and Romulans were cool adversaries in original Trek; they became even more compelling when Next Gen fleshed out their worlds and gave personalities to their characters. You came to understand why they did what they did, even if you saw the kinks in their thinking; even if their acts were unconscionable. And, as a corollary, you began to realize that not every creature who pounded fist to chest and spoke in an aggressive, staccato tongue adhered to the same reasoning.

[How did the philosophy of Next Gen carry forward to some New Horizons?]

The Dark Knight Invited Us to Embrace the Chaos

I had a minor epiphany during my most recent viewing of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008): Despite the posters prominently featuring Heath Ledger’s Joker, despite even the film’s own name, The Dark Knight is really about Two-Face.

“No duh,” you say. “You got Two-Face’s origin story in it, of course it’s about him.” But that isn’t what I mean.

What I mean is that, while a good chunk of The Dark Knight does focus on the crusading, politically ambitious D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and how having half his face gruesomely disfigured in an explosion twists him into a homicidal maniac, the super-villain’s influence suffuses the film beyond just his own story. As has been established in the comics, animated series, and his previous, campier incarnation in Batman Forever (and the less we dwell on that, the better), Two-Face is all about that twoness. In previous versions, he’s hired twins as lackeys, picked his victims based on some connection with the number two, and—in the most prominent trope that gets ported over to this film—leaves the fate of said victims up to binary chance, flipping a two-headed coin to decide whether they live or die.

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Brazil Weaponized Audience Identification for All the Right Reasons

At the risk of being branded a heretic, let me say that I am not completely unsympathetic to Sid Sheinberg.

(And at the risk of being pilloried by those who still haven’t seen Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece, Brazil, in the thirty-plus years since its release, let me alert you that there will be copious spoilers about the film from here on out.)

Gilliam’s battles with Sheinberg over the U.S. release of Brazil are nearly as well-known as the film itself. Sheinberg, then the president of MCA—the parent company of Brazil’s American backer Universal—was not shy about expressing his displeasure with the movie’s running time and, especially, with its dire, mind-fake ending. It took the Los Angeles Film Critics Association declaring the film the best of 1985, plus Gilliam’s ballsy move of taking out a shaming ad in Variety, to get the exec to throw in the towel, scuttle a made-for-television re-edit that has since been sarcastically dubbed the “Love Conquers All” cut, and give Gilliam’s vision its much-deserved—and justly celebrated—theatrical release.

[What exactly made Sid so nervous?]

Arrival Wonders What We’d Do If Life Came with Spoilers

At the risk of sounding self-indulgent, let me point out that film criticism is not born in a vacuum. Much as I try to keep myself “pure”—not reading reviews, not consulting PR synopses (at least before my first viewing), going all the way to tackling people who say they’ve already seen the film to keep them from revealing what they thought of it—I still go into a screening with expectations and prejudices. I carry my personal baggage wherever I go, and there’s a lifetime in every word I write—including, to radically paraphrase Mary McCarthy, “if,” “and,” and “but.”

Cognizance of where I’ve been steers where I’m going. If I feel that A Monster Calls (2016) is a grievously undervalued film, I can’t discount that that opinion may well have roots in a particularly devastating event in my own life. The question I’m obligated to confront is: Do I factor my personal biases into my reviews and temper my evaluation accordingly, or do I accept them as a part of the things that form me, and stand by my judgement? How much do I let cognizance of the past alter my present…and future?

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Star Trek: The Motion Picture Wonders If the Human Adventure Is at Heart a Solitary One

Here’s why I think there’s yet hope for humanity: Paramount+ just debuted the 4K remaster of Star Trek: The Motion Picture—The Director’s Edition (1979), and it was greeted with joy, excitement and acclaim. And that’s great, that’s deserved. Admittedly, it hasn’t always been so—the film’s torturous genesis is well-known and, speaking personally, it took years for me to come around to its strengths. (In my case, the problem may in part have been that my first exposure to the film came at an afternoon screening where a class trip of grade schoolers thought every appearance of the quasi-foetal EVA suits was absolutely high-larious). While the film still has its flaws, the Director’s Edition—initially released in 2001 and overseen by director Robert Wise himself—overcame most of the serious shortcomings, to the point that ST:TMP has been able to take its place as one of the franchise’s best cinematic efforts.

So it was with no shortage of eagerness that I was on my couch bright-and-early the morning of April 5th, ready to watch Admiral James T. Kirk get the band back together for what was at the time their newest adventure. And I wasn’t disappointed.

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Shin Godzilla Turned a Monstrous Eye on Bureaucracy in the Wake of Fukushima

I am unabashed in proclaiming that Shin Godzilla (2016) is downright majestic. The production values are great, and the film is a thrill from first second to last. The special effects are some of the best of the franchise, and that includes the recent mega-budgeted, CG-besotted American versions.

That’s not what I’m here to talk to you about.

When you look at it from its high-concept synopsis, Shin Godzilla is nothing radical: Mysterious disturbance in Tokyo Bay; followed by initial rampage through the city; followed by an abrupt exit and brief respite; followed by a return, bigger, badder, and now armed with nuclear breath. Conventional weapons are useless; a nuclear strike is ominously threatened; only the harnessed efforts of Japan’s greatest minds can defeat the blah blah blah.

It turns out that’s not a bug—it’s a feature. [When is the same not really the same? Read on.]

Special Effects Artist Doug Trumbull Made Humanity’s Adventure Luminous

On March 27th, the lights will dim in the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. A screen will roll down, and as somber music plays, a parade of film clips and still photos will commemorate those in the movie-making industry who have passed in the preceding twelve months. Somewhere in there, probably not at the beginning nor near the end, will be the name of special effects artist Douglas Trumbull.

Maybe the people who assemble the compilation will go the extra step of honoring Trumbull with the title “Special Effects Master,” though that’s doubtful. Hopefully they’ll append some footage of his work, most likely his most famous creation: the infinite corridor of lights from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) that came to be known as the stargate. Possibly, if the special effects technical category gets any airtime at all, it’ll be preceded by an extended tribute for the man.

Whatever homage Trumbull gets, it will not be enough. Not just for those who worked with and loved him, but for anyone who’s followed his career across five-plus decades. For Doug Trumbull was more than just a proficient technician, he was an artist in his own right, one whose unique vision altered the world of science fiction filmmaking forever.

[One of film’s greatest wizards has passed.]

Rick and Morty’s “Total Rickall” Understood an Uncomfortable Truth About Human Relationships

So what was your decision this past holiday? Did you say, “Omicron be damned,” and make your way back home? Was the trip uneventful, the family reunion joyous? And finally, were the medical repercussions non-existent? I sincerely hope so. As for the rest of you—the ones who got up to the wire, saw the infection rate spike, and said, “Naw, not this year”—I have a few more questions…

How did you feel, making that decision? Was there disappointment, frustration, anger even? Was there a voice in the back of your head saying, “Shit, not again?” Did you feel trapped in a continuum where the traditions you’ve known since childhood were once more ripped away from you, thwarted by threats that were at best ambiguous but that you could not ignore?

And then, think about this: Was there a part of you, a teeny-tiny fraction of your soul, that was just a little bit relieved? Maybe even happy?

[Not all gatherings can be as pleasant as we’d like, and maybe that’s a good thing.]

Ten Zombie Comedies That Won’t Rot Your Brain

And this is the way it could all end: With humanity confronting an implacable force, virulent beyond any imagination. We cower and cling to the tenuous security of our homes, helplessly watching as friends and loved-ones succumb. The government, ill-equipped to cope with the challenge, eventually flounders and fails, and social norms collapse, surrendering civilization into the hands of the brutish and ignorant.

But enough about 2020. Let’s talk zombies!

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker Understands the Capricious Nature of Human Desire

In William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, there’s a passage where the Eastern European immigrant owner of a grocery store is hectored by his young son for a variety of treats. The kid asks for an apple, an orange, a banana, a candy bar—quite a bounty considering this is taking place in the thick of WWII. Then, finding them all wanting, the child abandons the goodies, half-eaten. Exasperated by his son’s capriciousness—and the kid’s assumption of a random customer’s demand for not-in-stock, raisin-filled cookies (W.C. Fields, had he been more yiddishe, could’ve inserted this whole bit into It’s a Gift)—the grocer breaks down, begging the child to find satisfaction in the good things life has given him. Saroyan leaves ambiguous whether the entreaties have any effect on the child, and we can only hope that the desperate customer—on a mission for his own, sick kid—eventually finds another resource for those hallowed raisin cookies.

We’re all looking for the secret key to happiness, the one, true thing that will end our wanting. I suspect that few of us know exactly what that one thing would be—we have inklings, vague notions, but no clear vision. Part of that may be self-preservation—if we ever attained that goal, what need would there be to carry on? Part of it might be pure common sense, an understanding that the One True Thing doesn’t really exist, that it’s best that the goal be kept ill-defined and ever out-of-reach, so we have a reason to get out of bed every day.

[But some people don’t know what’s good for ’em.]

Let the Right One In Understands the Dark Maelstrom That Is Love

For the longest time, I subscribed to the widely-held belief that household pets—your dogs, your cats, your pot-bellied pigs—were incapable of love. They were good simulators—millennia of domestication had permitted them to evolve behaviors that would bind us compassionate humans to them—but it was all surface, just physical traits and instinctual responses to make sure their dinner bowls were filled and their litter boxes were emptied.

[Love has the capacity to both inspire and terrify…]

The Incredible Shrinking Man Saw Beyond the Material Façade of Post-War Prosperity

And so, through massive sacrifice and tremendous acts of courage (plus a buttload of military might and the nightmarish transition of theoretical physics into devastating reality), the Great Evil of the Axis had been vanquished. The United States, the scrappy little experiment in self-governance not two centuries old, now stood astride the globe as a legitimate world power. But down on the ground, the citizens who had given up so much, and the soldiers who had given up even more, were tired of worldwide adventuring: They wanted comfort, they wanted safety, they wanted security.

[An understandable aspiration, but not without its perils…]

2001: A Space Odyssey Tried to Break Us Out of Our Comfort Zone

There’s a moment I find especially haunting in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s not the death of HAL (although who wasn’t moved while watching the soft-voiced computer betray a humanity that Dave Bowman, the astronaut disconnecting him, barely got close to exhibiting). No, what I’m thinking of comes before. WAY before.

It comes, in fact, in the “Dawn of Man” sequence, even before the SF stuff officially kicks in. It comes as the man-ape tribe—if you can even call it a tribe—cower at night, under a protective outcropping of rock. At this point, their rolls of the evolutionary dice have repeatedly come up snake eyes: They survive on whatever eats their barren environs provide; one of their members succumbs to a leopard attack; and they’ve been driven away from their water hole by more aggressive rivals. Now, in the dark, they huddle together, listening to the muffled roars of nocturnal predators, barely daring to issue their own, ineffectual challenges. And this is the moment that catches me: Kubrick cutting to a close-up of Moonwatcher (Daniel Richter), the de facto leader of these proto-humans, as he stares into the dark, the brilliant costume design of Stuart Freeborn allowing us to take full measure of the man-ape’s nascent humanity as he gazes out into the unknown.

[We owe a lot to our primitive ancestors, but there are things we should grow beyond….]

A.I. Artificial Intelligence Wanted Us to Cherish Our Humanity Before It Becomes Too Late

I have a fantasy about June 26, 2001. I have a fantasy about a certain person, a die-hard, unapologetic Kubrick acolyte, who has come to witness the debut of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. There she/he sits, in the very first row of the very first screening…but not to watch Spielberg pay homage to friend and mentor Stanley Kubrick, who developed and largely fleshed out the original idea for A.I. (with a significant contribution from Ian Watson) before passing it on to Spielberg in the belief that the director of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial could better navigate the film’s emotional beats. No, this person has come with an expectation, born of a certain over-simplified preconception of Kubrick, of Spielberg.

This person has come to witness his/her worst nightmare come true.

[Does the student betray the master?]

The Last Jedi Tried to Free Star Wars From Its Fixation on Legends

With all respect to Rodgers and Hammerstein, sometimes the ending can also be a very good place to start. So let’s start there, let’s start with the ending: Let’s start with a young stable boy being chastised by his master for regaling his friends with the exploits of Luke Skywalker, complete with hand-made action figures. He emerges from his quarters, uses the Force to grab his broom, and then takes a defiant stance beneath a canopy of stars.

Mind you, this scene comes after Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi has, for all intents and purposes, ended, after the tattered remnants of the resistance have once more escaped the clutches of the First Order and are licking their wounds, and counting what few heads remain. As a curtain call, it’s odd—not so much saying, “Thank you for enjoying our little show” (the kid’s facing away from us, after all), as, “It’s been four decades with the Skywalkers, folks. Can’t you take a hint?”

[Should we be looking to the stars, or within ourselves?]

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