Upcoming Blockbuster Movies: Or, Hollywood Milks Sci-Fi

  The MADNESS is taking root!

The MADNESS is taking root!

The culture industry is in full swing with the upcoming summer movie season, the time of blockbusters and, nowadays, big adaptations of sf properties. As I type, the Star Wars Anaheim event is ongoing, complete with a teaser trailer reveal that predictably threatened to burn the internet down with traffic. On top of that, a leak of Batman v. Superman’s trailer compelled Warner Brothers to go ahead and release it, and it has contributed to the current trailer craze. But there is more than just Hollywood, Japan’s infamous Toho—of Godzilla and other tokusatsu fame—is set to release the first of a two part live action Attack on Titan film directed by the infamous Shinji Highuchi.

Furthermore, other announcements have been made about upcoming projects. Consider this post a one stop shop of my impressions on upcoming big budget sf properties, complete with disclaimers about my perspective and my sense of whether or not these films have something for the broad geek audience, or even the (gasp) non-geek audience as well.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens my Heart

 And so am I, Han...and so am I.

And so am I, Han...and so am I.

In my view, there is much that is promising about the production of this next installment of the Star Wars universe. Like many fans, I was put off by the announcement that the Expanded Universe (EU) was being sidelined in favor of a new continuity, but I understand the reasons for this. One needs only to peruse a few of the titles to realize just how cluttered the material has become and recognize that, as a project of continuity, it is in fact a failure. In order to make films faithful to the EU, one would have to accept enormous creative restraints that could choke off anything meaningful. Slavish fan service is not a winning recipe for success—either critically or at the box office.

But neither is eschewing the common threads of fan critique. Fans, after all, tend to think about these worlds in much more detail and fixate on various promising elements within them. The reflexive and creative power of fandom is something I am always quick to defend—albeit not without my own critical lens—and in the case of Star Wars there is a tentative consensus among the fandom about certain things: the superiority of practical effects work in concert with digital effects; the space opera meets western style of story-telling; and the promise of following the events of Return of the Jedi with questions like, “How does Luke Skywalker rebuild the Jedi Order, if at all? Does Leia become a Jedi? What is the future of Han and Leia’s relationship, and how does that pan out for Chewie’s life debt to Han? What becomes of the Empire after the destruction of the fleet, the second Death Star, Vader, and the Emperor at the Battle of Endor?”

The teaser trailer released yesterday, coupled with statements from director J.J. Abrams seem to suggest that all of this is in play. The practical effects angle is particularly important to the production, on display most poignantly with the BB-8 droid, a kind of R2 unit head on a rolling ball. After seeing it in the first trailer, everyone assumed it was a digital effect…not so. And this is but one example of this fidelity to practical special effects work.

 The aesthetic discards the disastrous prequel trilogy’s animated feel in favor of the concrete without losing its improvements on other effects work, such as lightsaber fighting and military technology. Nonetheless, the narrative has been kept secret up until this point (and this is a good thing), so my nostalgia-fueled support might be misplaced. We will see this December. If I might add one more point: the new leads are a young woman and a young black man (who at least begins the film as a Stormtrooper…and wow, have they ever looked better than this?)…way to go Abrams. Disney’s ownership of this property will hopefully lead it to the quality levels of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Terror at Toho: Attack on Titan and the Godzilla Reboot

 That's a puppet. No...really. It's a puppet augmented with CGI. 

That's a puppet. No...really. It's a puppet augmented with CGI. 

Not being a Japanese language reader, my access to information on this front is rather limited to what Japanese-speaking associates fill me in on, but I can say this: Toho is back in the business of giant creatures. Like other production companies, Toho is no longer involving itself in the practical aspects of filmmaking: they are a hollowed out institution which contracts their work out to numerous other entities, a business model pioneered by the neo-liberal culture industry of Hollywood and now on display around the world (of course this goes beyond entertainment companies, but this post isn’t about the developments of capitalism in the past few decades…).

Consequently, there is no continuity in terms of craftsmanship from the old tokusatsu (practical effects usually involving giant monsters, space operas, and the like) film productions. The 1990s and early 2000s films included stages, equipment, workers, and sfx directors—including the recently passed Koichi Kawakita, who I had the pleasure of encountering in Chicago last year—from the old days of Eiji Tsubaraya, whose work was a major inspiration for the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

But that does not mean the effects work on display is positioning itself in opposition to that legacy. Shinji Higuchi is the director of Attack on Titan and in charge of the special effects aspects of the upcoming 2016 Godzilla reboot. Higuchi was responsible for arguably the best tokusatsu style kaiju productions of the past, the 1990s Gamera trilogy inaugurated by Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, which made a clean break from the campy atmosphere of the 1960s and 70s Gamera series. Higuchi also worked on the special effects heavy remake of The Sinking of Japan, and is a longtime collaborator and friend of Hideaki Anno, the creator of the critically-acclaimed Neon Genesis Evangelion series, films, manga, and so on. Together they teamed up for a short film blending tokusatsu practical effects with CGI titled “Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo” (direct translations of Japanese titles are inevitably awkward).

Higuchi’s work on Attack on Titan is superior to many Hollywood sfx productions, at least in terms of technique. The Colossal Titan is a giant puppet with CGI augmentation, and the Titans themselves are all people in makeup (with more CGI augmentation). What finished effects work we have glimpsed is simply breathtaking. The first season of the anime is on Netflix, and has served as a gateway drug into the genre for more than one person—me included. It is incredibly dark, cynical, pessimistic, gritty, and at the same time poignant, intriguing, and full of characters who strive against enormous and horrifying odds to carve out lives that move beyond mere reproduction and survival. The philosophical themes explored in the series, alongside its unique narrative structure (it frustrates our expectations over and over again, brutalizing characters in a manner that would make George R.R. Martin blush) exemplify the best sf has to offer in the current mainstream climate.

Higuchi’s work on the new Godzilla signifies that Toho is learning from the mistakes of its recent past with the series. He has promised on Twitter to bring audiences, “…the greatest and worst nightmare,” which hopefully means the film will hearken back to its 1954 roots in a more serious way than the 2014 Legendary film, which I have defended elsewhere, but nonetheless wished for more terror and less action/adventure heroism. Toho is serious about these productions, and in the case of Godzilla has anointed him a tourism ambassador, constructing a Godzilla hotel complete with a life sized head peaking over it all in concert with ultra-reactionary Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s current push to export Japanese culture as a means of “soft power.”

A final note: Hideaki Anno is a master of developing the truly weird while simultaneously exploring the hidden depths of his characters. The Evangelion universe is one of the greatest sf productions ever to come out, period, not just in the world of anime. Coupled with the sfx genius of Higuchi, I do believe this Godzilla film could surpass the excellence of the Hollywood production, and will undoubtedly compel director Gareth Edwards to step up the quality of his own work. That a Japanese studio is even capable of competing with Hollywood—at least in terms of quality if not production value—is promising in and of itself, but let’s not get carried away: Japanese film studios have in the past competed with Hollywood; this is a return of days past, not something extraordinarily new.

Jurassic World: Re-Sequel-Boot

 Starlord the raptor trainer.

Starlord the raptor trainer.

In terms of the nostalgia factor, all of the cylinders are firing off at once for me these days. As a seven-year old kid seeing Jurassic Park, I was legitimately terrified of the T-rex when it emerged from its paddock on the big screen. The narrative, characters, and special effects work of Stan Winston Studios revolutionized my young mind in ways that set the stage for years of internal conflict between the scientific humanism explored in the film and the ideology I inherited from my immediate social environment.

Thus, it is hard for me to see the trailers for this movie with its gorgeous effects work, intriguing sf conceptual scheme, high production budget, and fabulous cast and think clearly. It is very, very possible that this will be a terrible film, even though I think it is doubtful that it will be anything like the hilariously troubled Jurassic Park III, which never intended to be a film of the original’s caliber. Disclaimers aside, this is why I think this will turn out to be a powerful sf film:

Repeating the story of the original, or even The Lost World is simply impossible. A next step has to be made. The premise of a fully functional park is, at the outset, incredible. This I think is the most important science fictional element for setting the film apart from the others and potentially giving it a chance for critical success on top of box office success. There is so much to reflect on in this case, and the challenge of how it was done in light of the disaster of the first film is important. One of the film makers said there was inspiration from the idea of someone taking a selfie next to a dinosaur: here there is potential for some real reflection on the state of our civilization in the context of a postmodern hypercapitalist culture in which context has been ripped to shreds and our power over nature has become banal.

Then enter the genetically-modified dinosaur who is clearly the story’s central antagonist. The creature is rumored to have the DNA of several creatures—including humans—and we learn from this new trailer that it is killing for “sport.” Animals—with the exception of domesticated animals—kill for purpose. Humans and those animals domesticated by them are the only creatures which kill for “sport.” In this sense, Dr. Grant’s old observation that Hammond had not overseen the creation of dinosaurs but genetically-modified “theme park monsters” is shown to be truer than ever.

Indeed, like all good science fiction, the science fictional novum here—in this case the capacity to create organisms which simulate the existence of long-extinct animals—reflects back on our own conditions and the human condition generally. We of course cannot recreate the past, the old dinosaurs have long since died off, as has their generational knowledge (which is always coupled with instinct). These creatures are made in labs (at least initially) and then thrown into a world that is not their own, anachronisms juxtaposed in a chaotic mix. In the midst of this, their creators have gone the extra step and made a full-on designer dinosaur, with stunning consequences.

On a minor note, the biggest objection stems from the character that Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation and Guardians of the Galaxy fame) plays who seems to have trained the all-terrifying raptors (I don’t call them Velociraptors because they are clearly modeled on the Deinonychus and to me are simply creatures of the Jurassic Park universe). In this universe, the raptors are highly intelligent pack animals and the animals at the park have been modified to be more docile (or so the lead up marketing has suggested, who knows if that will appear in the final film). Ergo, it follows that the highly trained pack animals can and probably should be trained to some degree. This is the only next step for these creatures, who simply had nowhere to go in the second film—and took a bizarre, regrettable, and forgettable turn in the third.

And one more minor note: how exciting that the T-rex in the film is set to be the same creature from the original movie! That touches my heart in a way that even the soft piano rendition of the original John Williams theme cannot.

Avengers: Age of UltronWhedon Strikes Again

 Strings? What strings? 

Strings? What strings? 

I’m going to keep this to a brutal minimum: I’m excited to see the new film, excited to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) move forward with its main property, and excited to see Mark Ruffalo back on screen as Bruce Banner. The MCU’s Daredevil series on Netflix proves that they can in fact accomplish the “dark and gritty” Nolan-esque style while retaining that quintessential MCU charm, so the darkness and grittiness of the trailers—a marked divergence from the original Avengers film—does not portend a disastrous departure from their winning formula.

Aside from excitement over James Spader playing Ultron and Joss Whedon doing anything at all, I’ve got nothing more to say until this comes out. I’m avoiding trailers with rare form on this one, and hope to keep it up.

Fantastic Four: Or, maybe not so fantastic?

 Still the best...

Still the best...

I don’t know. Fox has done some good with Marvel material. There was X-Men: First Class, after all, and portions of Days of Future Past (all those involve the cast of First Class) which went well. But the particular choice of Fantastic Four property they are fixating on coupled with their track record…

We shall see. I’m skeptical but not prejudging. The trailer was…intriguing and kind of pretty. The Fantastic Four represent some of the best work of the classic days of the Jack Kirby and Stan Lee collaboration. A team of people using scientific reasoning rather than sheer brute force and individual heroism for the common good? That is what makes them so fantastic. Many have suggested that Disney is pushing Marvel to destroy the franchises whose properties are owned by other companies, and anecdotally one might find this to be rather plausible. Spidey’s upcoming return to Marvel in Captain America: Civil War is incredibly promising. That said…I want this to be done well. I love what the Fantastic Four stand for in the world of superheroes: the value of a scientific worldview and the ways in which it can lead to problem solving for those who work collectively towards a common end. Let’s hope it is not a disaster.

(Update: Since I made this post, the new trailer has come out. I still think it looks intriguing, but my hopes are not as high as they should be for something as magnificent...or fantastic?...as the Fantastic Four. If this was Marvel instead of Fox, I'd be fare more confident.)

Terminator: Genisys: Why are you spelling it like that? Do you think it’s cool?

 Literally the only thing I'm looking forward to is some more Sarah Connor screen time. Remember  The Sarah Connor Chronicles ? Damn. Why don't they just do that again?

Literally the only thing I'm looking forward to is some more Sarah Connor screen time. Remember The Sarah Connor Chronicles? Damn. Why don't they just do that again?

Nostalgia factor and so on is actually making me loathe this. T2: Judgment Day was an incredible film that had a lot to say, both in terms of the relations between characters and the way in which it portrayed dominant institutions as the progenitors of the apocalypse. Along with the original, it was the product of James Cameron’s masterful cinematic run spanning the 1980s through the 1990s. It had powerful writing, incredible acting, state of the art effects work, and an implicit commentary on the techno-scientific mode of military development and what it was leading towards.

What does Genisys (seriously, why are you spelling it like that? Does a “y” make it edgier?) have to offer? Cheap CGI, overuse of action sequences, Arnold’s T-800 unit used repeatedly as a missile, and John Connor-Terminator-but-not-really-but-really-you-are-a-Terminator-John-this-is-an-intervention. At least that is all we have seen so far from information on the production itself. The casting for Sarah Connor is fantastic, and one can only hope that her performance will carry the film. Many others are excited by this, but I’ve found everything after T2 to be unwatchable. The third film was…let’s let it go. Salvation was the biggest cinematic disappointment I’ve experienced. A younger, naïve me, saw some trailers and thought they were making an intelligent movie straight out of my dreams…I was so very, very wrong.

But…I could be wrong again. The nostalgia factor is working against me liking this one. Hopefully I’m wrong and it is enjoyable if not quite James Cameron of the 1980s and 1990s material.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of…Injustice, Gods Among Us?

 HISHE's Super Cafe shorts on YouTube are really the best thing to come out of the superhero craze.

HISHE's Super Cafe shorts on YouTube are really the best thing to come out of the superhero craze.

OK I’m being facetious here, they are not literally following the plot of the Injustice video game. But the shot of the gentlemen in riot gear wearing what appears to be Supes’ Kryptonian symbol on their shoulders is straight up out of the game. Pure speculation leads us nowhere so I’m going to avoid too much detail.

To stay on point: it is safe to say that Superman is not going to be a dictator, clearly there is controversy and so on, but they aren’t going that far for many reasons. We can assume that he is busy saving the world, enjoying the accolades, and maybe is fairly blind to the impact he is having on the population. Something is up with Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck haters have been proven so very wrong)—is that Alfred lecturing him on how people can turn into fascist types when they feel powerless?—and he feels like he has to intervene, blah blah. We saw the trailer.

As someone who is incredibly excited about the film I have to say the trailer disappointed. The terrible CGI statue implies some sloppiness in production, and the red paint font straight out of 300 (what a terrible, right wing movie) immediately put me in a bad place. Of course those are more personal reactions than quasi-objective analysis, so feel free to discard that as you will. In spite of all of this, the basic premise is quite sound: the film is a reflection on the social impact of Superman’s arrival on Earth, from adoration to literal xenophobia, and the story of how Batman adopts a committed subjective standpoint in opposition to the savior complex. How that is resolved…we shall see. This film has a lot of promise, and as much as I like the MCU style superhero film, the Nolan/Snyder grayscale gritty showdown is more to my personal liking. The question is only: can it be executed well, and can they include some moments of levity amidst the Hans Zimmer “BWAHs” that dominate all of these films?

Mad MaxBringer of Pretty Trailers

Alright, I’ve got nothing on this. I never was into the old Max Max material, it’s not my thing, it’s not my aesthetic. But…that trailer is gorgeous. And the word that the director is attempting to shoot the film as one long action sequence is intriguing. I hope to look into the old films and see the movie in theaters…but I’ve only got so much to spend.


Some Honorable Mentions

Let’s be brief.

Ant-Man: I know nothing of this character, but the full length trailer is fun and the cast is extraordinary. Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll? Perfect. The MCU seems to be on a permanent winning streak of awesome.

The Blob: In the works, but the great news is that they are upgrading the Blob above “B” movie status and into something more directly science fictional. Since it was always science fictional, I think they mean more realist science fictional. Slime molds and the like make for wonderful creatures to explore, so I assume they are going to go that route.

Pixels: Could have been amusing, but the cast basically ruins it for me. Peter Dinklage can perhaps pull off something enjoyable from this, but Adam Sandler often poisons anything with his presence. That said, it is a comedy, so perhaps it won’t be as terrible as it looks to me.

Tomorrowland: From the trailers it looks original, imaginative, and intriguing. So we shall see.

Ex Machina: It's a shame that I know virtually nothing about it, as it might be the best movie on this list, but it's worth taking a look at and rest assured I will see it and report on it in a future post.

It Follows: A post is forthcoming...already saw it, loved it, think it is the best horror movie to come out in some time.

Jase Short is a writer and activist from middle Tennessee. He studies philosophy, science fiction, and politics and maintains a blog on those topics for Red Wedge called "The Ansible.

"The Ansible" is a blog featuring reflections on science fiction, politics, and philosophy by Red Wedge writer Jase Short.