I’ve been looking forward to the movie adaptation of Annihilation for a long time, largely because I really enjoyed the book and also because of one specific reason: the cast of the book is, with one exception, entirely female. This is a big deal, since the story revolves around a bunch of highly-educated, idiosyncratic scientists going into what is essentially the Everglades if the Everglades were a haunted house. I was disappointed to see such a big name as Oscar Isaac cast in the movie, though I enjoy him in most things, because I knew that would mean that his role as the husband was intended to be expanded. I rationalized that this was probably a good thing. After all, his death in the book is the entire emotional impetus for the Biologist’s entry into the psychotropic-murder-swamp that is Area X. It made sense that he would have a bigger role.
That impetus, at least, did not change.
(SPOILERS, if you haven’t figured that out yet.)
The movie kept a lot of things to love about the book, including the general creep-fest that is Area X. It jettisoned a lot of other things. Some of this was good. All of the characters got names, for example. There was no magical hypnosis to control their minds, and Area X was a bit closer than I expected, but overall they made some good decisions with that. I was also gratified that, when the husband – called Kane in the movie – did show up, the awkward sex scene didn’t happen. I was not particularly into that sex scene, for obvious reasons to do with consent, though it worked in the book in ways it would never have been able to work in the movie.
That’s about the end of the good changes, I think.
As a whole, the narrative the movie went with was not terrible, but it was not exceptional either. While there was no way that the movie could have stayed entirely true to the book – different mediums being what they are – my dominant feeling coming out of this movie was a sense of disquiet. That disquiet had nothing to do with the giant monster-animals eating people’s throats out to steal their voices, though that was creepy. It had a lot more to do with the fact that Oscar Isaac had such a central role in this film, as I had suspected. In the book, the Biologist goes into Area X to find her husband, or at least find out what happened to him. It is clear from early on that the doppleganger that returns is not him, but a copy, and a malformed one. The Biologist is an ecologist, and she relishes the diversity and fecundity of the newly reclaimed landscape, free of human contamination. Her connection with Area X is almost as personal as her relationship with her husband by the end, who, by the way, she does not find in the first book. Instead, we are left to guess at their story. Did she drown? Did she meet him on the island? Are they living together, still, or dead together, their ghosts haunting this new world?
In contrast, the doppleganger of Kane survives. Lena, the biologist, sets out to eradicate the thing that has threatened her love with her hard-earned military skills. She finds video of her husband at several places, including video of his death. Because of the loss she has experienced, she treats Area X like a cancer, not a cleansing. She burns it. And when she comes home she gets a happy-ever-after with Kane’s echo, miraculously alive.
Kane’s fate remains central to Lena’s story, but not in the way that the husband’s fate is central to the story of the Biologist. There are relatively few points of dialogue in the movie that do not center around Kane or Kane’s all-male team. (I cannot think of an instance of dialogue that does not at some point mention Kane or Kane’s team once they have entered Area X, excepting perhaps the scene with the alligator.) There are also three named male characters in this adaptation, one of whom was invented from whole-cloth to cast Lena as an adulterer, a confusing decision at best. I believe this was supposed to be a way to rationalize Kane’s decision to enter Area X, but it felt like an excuse to show Natalie Portman naked. Keep in mind that this is an adaptation of a book told entirely from a female scientist’s perspective, one whose central themes include a profoundly ecological bent (entirely removed in this on-screen iteration), and where the only male character dies within the first two chapters and lives primarily as a ghost in the narrator’s head.
It is disappointing to watch a movie that might have, in a better world, taken a diverse female cast and given them a gripping, cerebral storyline that didn’t revolve around men – and which fails to do so. Annihilation was not a terrible movie, taken out of the context of the source text. I do not hate it. But there was so much potential for what it could have been. And despite numerous things done right, the movie fell short of that potential.
I loved this movie. And if you read this, it might spoil it for you. But hopefully you have made it to the movie already. Hopefully you have gotten to experience it, too.
I’ve read a lot of Last Jedi reviews since the movie came out. A lot. And if you’re recall, the day of the release I posted a blogpost about my hopes for the film. I want to start from that point, and talk about my feelings, and talk about some of the reviews that have stuck with me. I want people to understand why this movie left me glowing, why when I woke up the next morning I was still glowing. This movie gave me hope.
2017 has been a hard year. It’s been a joyful one for me, too, but I’m not blind to what is happening in our world. When Rogue One came out in December of last year, it felt like the movie we needed. That desperate fight in the rising darkness. The resolution of faith, when hope was gone. I don’t think that I was wrong, in that feeling. I wasn’t entirely right, either. Faith and hope and love must all hold hands. I can have Jyn Erso’s faith, bitter and solid and true. I can have Leia’s hope, the bright vision. And I can have Rey’s love. Rey’s arc has always been about love, and this movie shows us that unshakably.
In my blogpost last week, I talked about how closely paralleled and yet how divergent Luke and Rey’s characters are. In the wake of watching The Last Jedi, I can confirm that Rey is the hero we need. Her character arc continues – as she has come to the force, she comes to it with more skills than her mentor managed in his time. These skills, however, are not just the physical skills that I had previously cataloged. They are emotional skills, too. Rey has learned to forgive others, over and over, sometimes to her own detriment. In fact, Rey’s only character flaw may be that she does not always value herself. She looks up to others, first her lost parents, later Han and Luke, and even, a little, to Kylo Ren. Even though none of these people gives her everything that she wants, though, Rey does not blame them for it. She grows. She becomes what she needs.
In this way, her arc parallels Luke’s in the original trilogy. This, I would argue, is intentional. The thing that Rian Johnson and the new writers of Star Wars want to keep, the inescapable thing that makes a Jedi a Jedi, the thing that Anakin never could hold onto, is emotional maturity. And that maturity requires vulnerability. Without being vulnerable, a Jedi cannot care for and protect what she loves.
Nothing else plays out quite like what we expect, however. I agree with Chuck Wendig that this is a lot of what has made this movie divisive. The Force Awakens trades on the familiar. The Last Jedi steps beyond it. But it keeps the heart.
“They want the familiarity. They need nostalgia.
And this movie burns it all down.
A lightning strike setting fire to a sacred tree.”
– Chuck Wendig
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the burning of the sacred tree, the original Jedi temple. Luke intends to burn the past, to let it die as Kylo has tried to do. Their journeys, here, parallel. Luke is tired, he is angry and afraid. His anger and fear are for himself. He has failed. The Jedi will always fail, because they are human, and so there is no point in any of it, not anymore. Luke is lost. He goes to burn the tree as an act of destruction.
Yoda, on the other hand, burns the tree as an act of emancipation. The past cannot die. The path of the Jedi will always exist, because the Force will always exist. Whatever petty symbols of it may remain are crutches. A Master does not need them. This movie keeps the Force at its heart, and burns down the trappings of it.
And yet, at the end, the books, the knowledge of the Force that the temple guarded? They are carried in the Millenium Falcon, safe. Finn finds them, not during battle. He finds them when he is caring for Rose. Rose, who gave herself up to save him, when he had given up on hope and love and let it all go to rage.
Rey’s power to defy the First Order comes from love. Love for her friends, love for the world. When she goes into the cave to face her test, she doesn’t see an enemy. She sees herself. She sees herself, alone, forever. This is her greatest fear, this aloneness. Luke’s fear was to become his father, to fall to the dark side. His fear of the dark side is also what destroys his relationship with his nephew, starting Kylo Ren along his path.
Rey’s fear is to lose her new family, but she has been alone before. It is a fear she has faced before, a horror she has lived through. It is no wonder that the dark side does not tempt her as easily. She knows that she has survived her fear. It cannot, therefore, consume her. Luke is horrified when she is pulled into the dark side so easily, because he does not believe that she can withstand temptation. He, after all, could not, not entirely. The dark side has marked his life, forever, it has lost him too much.
Luke’s fear moves the plot of this film just as much as Kylo’s anger and Poe’s pride. Each of them must work through those feelings, because “building that emotional intelligence is the difference between the dark and the light.” Luke succeeds, and finds oneness with the Force. Poe begins his journey by valuing his comrades over the cause. Only Kylo does not embrace that emotional maturity, and in his anger and hatred he writes his own downfall. He is so afraid of Luke, so focused on his hatred, still, of his father and the Millennium Falcon, that he fails to accomplish his goal, effectively losing the final battle to crush the Resistance. He cannot grow without bringing himself into balance, and he shows no signs of doing so, even when Rey offers him a clean slate despite everything.
In the end, The Last Jedi is the truest bit of Star Wars cinema that we have seen since The Return of the Jedi so many years ago. No, it does not look the same. Many things have changed, but hell, there’s a whole galaxy out there. Who would want to stay in the same old orbit? The heart of this story, however, remains. It is the new hope of a new generation.
I went and saw Blade Runner last weekend and it was really, really good. Very loud, very bleak, but good. I definitely recommend watching the bridging shortfilms, though, for greater appreciation of some of the plot points.
This movie gave me a lot of thoughts. I debated on what to focus on in my analysis of it – the fancy way they sloughed off the old setting, for example, was impressive to me as a writer and moviegoer, and there’s a lot to unpack here about what is “real” and constructed memories. There’s also something to be said about the pacing, which was slow, ethereal, and felt like a horror movie at points (in a good way). There’s also some bad bits, like POC representation in the film, which I felt was not as solid as it could have been, and LGBTQ representation as well (alternate sexualities apparently don’t exist in Blade Runner). But, since mostly I write about women, I thought I’d go with that for this post, though I may come back to those things later.
I’ve seen some discussion of the problematic aspects of this film, and we’ll get to those because I want to unpack them. But I want to start by focusing on the positives. I had been waiting to see this movie for two weeks when I finally made it into the theater high on chocolate cake and the newest influx of birthday books. From the opening scenes, it did not disappoint. I was able to completely lose myself in this film, and that hasn’t happened to me in a long time.
For the most part, spoilers are going to come in the critique section. I’ll put a warning, so read away for the spoiler-free bits of glory.
From the opening scene of Atomic Blonde, I was hooked. No, I’m not talking about the part where the guy gets chased down and shot in the head, though the framing of that shot was unfairly beautiful. Actually, all of the movie was unfairly beautiful, a contrast to the gritty, high stakes plot and grungy setting. Shots alternate between glittering 1980s excess and austere Soviet spaces which reek of industrialism – bare concrete, geometric designs, poor lighting. There is so much neon in this movie – and spraypaint, and boom boxes, and cassette tapes. Do you also have nostalgic memories of growing up in the late 80s and early 90s? Do you want those memories to be turned into a spy novel where no one is ever good – basically replicating the 80s aesthetic? This movie is for you.*
One of the things that was the most inspiring for me about this movie was not the dedicated femme fatale performance of Charlize Theron, though that was amazing. Nor was it the bitingly lovely and hardcore choreography of the fight scenes, though I was totally down with that. Nor was it, even, the way that the characters actually got hurt and had to live with those hurts and compensate for them. That was all awesome, but that was not the best thing. No, the best thing was how this movie brought the dramas of the Cold War into my timeline.
“What do you mean?” I hear you asking. Well, friends, I’m going to date myself here and admit that I was born the year before the Wall came down. Yet, as a child, I was always taught that the Cold War was something so far away. I think we have a habits of amnesia in this country, of distancing ourselves from very real upsets that we probably, even if unknowingly, lived through. It’s something I’ve seen a lot of people my age struggle with. We think of the Cold War as an artifact of the 50s, maybe the 60s. It certainly doesn’t affect us.
The events of Atomic Blonde may be fictional (I hope they are fictional) but nonetheless the story sheds light in a very immediate way on a relationship and time period that often feels like ancient history. I am totally here for more near-historical dramas, action movies, and political thrillers constructed with such attention to detail.
And now, on to the spoilers.
There were two major issues with Atomic Blonde that bear discussing. Three, really. First, the movie was pretty white. I’m not savvy on a lot of the migration patterns of the late 80s in Berlin, so I can’t say that I can critique it fairly, but it’s worth noting. I hope that we can see something as original, fast-paced, and interesting as Atomic Blonde that also manages to incorporate POC in the future.
Second, this movie was pretty back and forth on the male gaze issue. There were scenes that were framed well in this regard – I particularly like how Lorraine beat that one guy up with her shoe, this amused me incredibly. Obviously she also spent a lot of the movie bruised, bleeding, and generally doing gross stuff with little regard for what others thought of that except as to how it affected her ability to get what she wanted. But there were numerous scenes of lingerie, and of sex, which were beautifully shot and often relevant to the plot, but which were maybe not so relevant as to be required. With the exception of two, these did not bother me. Which leads me to the biggest issue with the movie, and the one with the spoilers. Really, bail out now if you want to form your own opinions.
Remember how it was the S.O.’s birthday at some point recently, and he is a huge fan of The Fifth Element? Well, he saw the trailer for Valerian and decided he wanted to see it, so off we went to the theater.
I didn’t go into this movie with a lot of expectations, honestly. Thank goodness, because I was a disappointed even with the low expectations I had. This movie actually reminded me the most of M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar: The Last Airbender adaptation. It was sprawling, tried to fit too much into one film, had terrible pacing, and generally made no sense. Also, it was sexist, but I expected that.
Spoilers, if you care. For the record, if I hadn’t made it clear, you should not watch this movie for the plot, but for the world (which was interesting), the visuals (which were awesome), and the ideas (which were undeveloped but had potential). If you’re looking for a good story, look elsewhere. It is my opinion that you could know the whole plot of the movie and possibly enjoy it more, since you could watch it for the technical bits of the filming and CGI and never hope for emotional impact.
We are so close to Wedding Day! And given that, my general ability to think thoughts is pretty depleted. Please instead enjoy this pulpy post.
But first, some housekeeping for all you lovely readers. I’m featuring a few guest bloggers over the next few weeks while I’m away getting married and traveling and such. I’m super excited to introduce you to these lovely ladies, who are going to be talking about a wide range of fantasy/science fiction topics. Please check in over the next three weeks and check them out!
Now, on to the matter at hand. What movies am I looking forward to in 2017?
Annihilation – Released ???
For those who haven’t read Jeff VanderMeer’s book by the same name, you probably should. An eerie, atmospheric tale where the horror is mostly in the mind, but not entirely, this story tells the tale of a scientist (unnamed) who goes into Area X, equal parts Area 51 and alternate dimension, to search for answers regarding her husband’s disappearance and death. They’ve kept the release date and any set pictures mostly under wraps, though there have been some very restricted showings of a teaser trailer or other footage.
The director is the same guy who did Ex Machina. That actually gives me some pause. His aesthetics are solid, but VanderMeer’s book has zero men in it for the vast majority of the text, and I’ve seen the casting list. It is not lacking in men. I’m assuming they are expanding on the timeline prior to the scientist entering Area X, which could be good or bad, depending on whether it swamps her character. I’m a little worried about the adaptation for that reason. Check out the IMDB link for more information about the project.
Wonder Woman – Released June 2nd
So who hasn’t been waiting for Wonder Woman? This movie has been running trailers and promotional material for a while now, and you can tell that DC pulled out a lot of stops for it. They should. Wonder Woman is arguably their most iconic character after Superman and Batman, and before for many. In contrast to Marvel’s line-up, she is also a singularly iconic woman. This will be the first superhero movie to focus entirely on a female character, and DC beat Marvel to the punch (no surprise, since Marvel seems set on making mistake after mistake in this regard). Check out the IMDB link for more information.
I’ve been planning to rush the theater for this one, and I doubt I will be alone.
Really, what is there not to love about this? It’s all of the action packed, grungy goodness of a hardcore spy movie, with the kickass feminine lead from Fury Road. You have my money, sirs and madames.
The Dark Tower – Released August 4th
So I honestly didn’t realize that this was coming so soon until this lovely trailer came out. Holy mess, it looks good. The Dark Tower series is a sort of hit-or-miss thing for me, actually – I thought it ended up getting wrapped around itself somehow, if that makes sense, and ending was not my favorite. But The Gunslinger was an amazing book, and I’m excited to see what they will do with the story, as it looks…very different from the one I remember.
Hitman’s Bodyguard – Released August 18th
I have to admit that this movie is not my usual cup of tea. I wasn’t a huge fan of Deadpool, actually. I thought it was fun, and the graphics were obviously spot on, but it just didn’t quite click with me. That said, Ryan Reynolds is a fun actor, and he definitely brought life to Deadpool’s character with some trademark witticism that seems evident in this move. Plus there are lots of guns. If the trailer doesn’t make you laugh, well, we have different senses of humor, probably. IMDB link on the click-through.
Blade Runner 2049 – Released October 6th
Holy shit, guys, there is a new Blade Runner movie and the trailer is out! Harrison Ford is always a good bet for these kinds of movies, but Ryan Gosling joins him, which I am way into. The director is also the guy who did Arrival which is one of my favorite movies cinematically of the past year.
Basically if you are a fan of cerebral science fiction, this is the movie you are looking forward to this year (well, in addition to Annihilation, but it’s hard to look forward to something we don’t even have a trailer for, yet). Check out the IMDB page here for more info.
Thor: Ragnarok – Released November 3rd
So Thor. Thor is the hottest Avenger, probably. And his hair is part of that for me. Now they have chopped all of his hair off. I find myself…not dismayed? He is still really sexy? Alright, then.
Other positives to this movie: Hulk cameo, gladiator fights, and CATE BLANCHETT. She is my favorite. IMDB link and video link for those who live in a hole and haven’t seen the trailer.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Released December 15th
You had to know this movie would be on the list. I am solidly in the Star Wars fandom, and I am so, absolutely ready for this movie. Rogue One was a great appetizer, of course. I had some problems with the Leia cameo, which was goofy and too on the nose. But overall, it was lovely. I hope that they will bring some of that creative energy into this new film.
I also have to pause here and note that The Last Jediwas Carrie Fisher’s last movie. I desperately want it to be good and tie up her character well. There are a lot of hopes riding on this film for me, and it almost feels scary leading up to it, but the teaser trailer looks pretty good so far.
That’s all for me! Let me know what movies you’re looking forward to. Next time I post, I’ll be married and talking all about marriage things!
Hey, friends. This weekend is Roanoke Author Invasion! I’m bringing a bunch of books and oddments, so I hope to see you there! I promise to take more pictures this time and post them for you next week, but until then please enjoy this discussion of robots and artificial intelligence.
A few weeks ago I finished Lightlessby C.A. Higgins. It was a masterful book that depended uniquely on interpersonal conflict. Yes, there were explosive moments, but most of the tension was constructed through dialogue and interactions between characters. I definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in reading a good example of solid character-driven plot. I don’t want to spoil anything for you if you haven’t read this book, so my recommendation would be to go read it and come back at this point. We also might see spoilers for a few other books and movies going forward, specifically Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, but I will warn you ahead of time.
Still here? Good.
One of the characters in Lightless was actually a computer. Ananke was originally not sentient, but gains sentience over the course of the book due to some unfortunate or fortunate events. The depiction of Ananke and her decision-making processes was probably my favorite part of this story. Althea, whom she views as something like her mother, grows to simultaneously love, fear, and hate Ananke – understandable when you essentially have a five year-old-who is devoted to you but has the power to asphyxiate you if you piss her off. I always find meditations on the psychology of an artificial intelligence interesting and I wanted to compare and contrast some other, very differing examples of AI from some recent stories I’ve come across.
One of the oldest versions of an AI story that I’ve found is that of the German silent film Metropolis. You may remember me mentioning this movie in my post on Feminine horror and Ex Machina. In that post I focused more on feminist critique, but we’re going to sidestep the gender issue for a minute (I know, shocking) and just look at the construction of an artificial intelligence in the context of the plot for this movie. The AI in Metropolis is clearly a servant of the devil, possibly being the embodiment of that spirit. Its goal is, simply, to destroy mankind and the works that he has built (“he” being used here because, in the world of Metropolis, there don’t seem to be a lot of women building things – product of its time I suppose). Thus, we see an early depiction of AI as something unnatural and to be feared.
In a more recent iteration of AI, we can look at Ex Machina. Again, see my feminist critique of this movie above. In this iteration of an AI, we see something that is still alien and inhuman. It is not necessarily an ethical creation either. Yet there is some attempt to give this AI reasonable motives for harming others – specifically self-preservation. That said, AI are still not presented as equal to human beings per se, or rather, both humans and AI are evil and twisted in different ways. It remains a pretty dark view of AI, if more nuanced.
Yet a third example of AI can be found in River of Gods by Ian McDonald. (SPOILERS)
In this story, there are various types of artificial intelligence that have evolved from computer programs. They do not need bodies, since they can download and replicate their programming infinitely in the world of data. The one AI that does seek to grasp at humanity or something like it does so in order to better understand humankind. I’ll leave her unnamed in order to hopefully shield you from being too keyed to what happens in the book. (Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, look away now.) This AI is brutally murdered, at last understanding the desperation of humanity all too well. She is represented as nearly saintly, sacrificing herself for the good of her kind and humanity. I have to be honest, this book made me enraged – not so much at our decisions as human beings, but at the rules that entrap our corporal selves. In this case, AI is imagined as an evolution towards something more inherently free and everlasting than humanity. It’s a stark contrast against the demonic robot of Metropolis and the very impermanent Ava.
I would argue that Ananke from Lightless most closely resembles Ava as something that is alien and makes decisions with a logic that is not human. Ananke, however, has managed to include emotions that are not logical in her personality – anger comes to mind. Love, or something like it, is another emotion that she consistently expresses. She is a somewhat unique take on AI in that the implication is that those emotions, such as they are, are real in her. Her development is presented almost as that of a child. In that respect, she may more closely resemble the AI in River of Gods who goes among humans. I particularly like this representation, as it seems very believable to me. It makes sense that an AI would take time to come into itself, and that it might want to model itself off of the other beings around it – specifically, people.
There are numerous other depictions of AI in all different stripes out there, and it is always fascinating to see a new take. Do you have a favorite?
There are whole essays written on Federico Garcia Lorca, whose work has appeared on this blog before and who continues to be an important part of my literary education, mostly because all of my literary education of note has occurred in Spanish and El Ogro, soul of my soul, professor of the highest order, may he rest in peace, taught me most of it. I doubt this will be the last time I talk about Lorca. He influenced Neruda, and was influenced in turn by Whitman, two of my favorite poets. He was a powerhouse, and he died far too young, victim of a fascist regime that targeted him for his words and his sexuality.
One of his most studied collections is Poeta en Nueva York, or Poet in New York, which chronicles the poetry that he wrote in and about New York City in 1929 and 1930. New York is an old city, and profoundly important historically. Yet I rarely feel the depth and vivacity of it in film. This was no less true on Thanksgiving when I watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which I have critiqued thoroughly here, and critique of which brought me to reread some of Lorca to find his depictions of New York.
Lorca visited New York in 1929, as the United States was falling into the Great Depression. It was the end of the Jazz Age, which is relevant to the aforementioned Fantastic Beasts in that this movie was based in the Jazz Age. Other writers will better speak of the history and context of the body of work that he produced there, including the loss of the original manuscript in which it was compiled. I’m not your girl for that, and that’s probably not what you’re here for. I’m a science fiction and fantasy buff who also really happens to like Spanish, seeing as I got a degree in it, and reads a deal of poetry from time to time. And I’m also a person that, as mentioned, was really unsettled to see the total lack of believable, historically accurate setting in a movie meant to appeal to a wide audience of predominately young people and young adults who might not know better than to take at face value that New York was a bastion of whiteness.
There is a poem in Poeta en Nueva York called “El rey de Harlem,” “The King of Harlem.” It is not about whiteness. It is about los negros, the black people to whom Lorca writes one of the longest and most vivid odes within this work. There is, indeed, a whole section of this collection entitled “Los negros,” dedicated to the black people who lived in New York City. It is telling that a Spanish poet who visited during this time found that black life and existence within New York was so impressing, so large a portion of the fabric of American life, that he dedicated three poems specifically to them. The refrain of “The King of Harlem,”or my rough translation of it, is particularly poignant in this context, as black Americans were ubiquitous as service members in many parts of the city.
“Oh Harlem, Oh Harlem, Oh Harlem!
There is no anguish which compares to your oppressed eyes
To your blood strewn within this dark eclipse
To your pomegranate violence, deaf and dumb in the shadows,
To your great king, prisoner, within the jacket of a doorman.”
Lorca’s depictions of black residents of New York were certainly not without their problems. But he did depict them, he did not shy away from the diversity of the city – perhaps because he himself often ventured into Harlem for the more selfish reason of trysting with lovers and other such activities. This was the time of Prohibition, after all, when much happened behind closed doors. It was a messy, chaotic time that birthed “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot, The Great Gatsby, and other such classics. It was also the time of the Harlem Renaissance, a fact conveniently glossed over in many depictions of 1920s New York, including that of Fantastic Beasts.
I am not a scholar of this time. There is no way in this brief blogpost that I can effectively encompass and illustrate all of the complexity of New York in the 1920s, and I know that I have missed things a more thorough student of such things would know. But I can leave you with the words of Langston Hughes, whose New York should have shaped the setting and plot of this movie, and hope that Hollywood might remember them the next time it seeks to whitewash the seat of black urban culture. And if you’re fed up with this lazy storytelling, I recommend “The Ballad of Black Tom” or watching some Luke Cage to get the taste out of your mouth. Let’s all hope for more depictions of our history that seek to include instead of erase.
So I felt really, really upset after watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this past week. Some people seem to have really liked it, which is baffling to me. I grew up on Harry Potter, like many in my generation, generally loved the books, and for me this movie was an uncomfortable, disconcerting experience – like hearing an old friend you hadn’t seen in years say something incredibly racist in casual conversation. It’s that moment where the world is slightly out of kilter because you’re in shock. Eventually that shock devolves into rage, at least for me. So if you continue to read this blog post, you will be on the rage side of the spectrum, because that is the head space that I wrote it in. A warning if this was a movie you enjoyed – you’re probably going to feel uncomfortable if you stick around. Honestly, that might be a good thing, but its your call. If you want a quick summary, since this is a long post, skip to the last few paragraphs.
First of all, full disclosure, I wasn’t planning on seeing this movie in theaters. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but I had a mixed response to the movies (I’m generally more of a book girl) and was pretty unimpressed with the Fantastic Beasts trailers as well as the early promotional stuff that went on at Pottermore. I went with my parents, who had zero problems with the movie, which is honestly unsurprising. And I have seen some lovely, positive reviews of this movie and some of the male characterization, so if you’re interested in hearing about the things the movie got right (few though they are) I welcome you to check out this article over on The Bustle.
There will, as always, be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, bail out here. Also, my language is not nice, so buckle up.
If you’re still with me, I’ve broken this down into subheadings for easier digestion, and also because it is super long. Here, then, were my issues with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
1) The beasts felt like an afterthought.
I liked Newt. I liked his Beasts. I would have been there for a story just about him and his Beasts and running from the law. I was not there for the evil wizard thing tacked onto the anti-magic fundamentalist child abusers. We have two competing plots in this movie, or maybe three, and I got whiplash. This may not hold true for other viewers (I’ve heard different things) but for me it felt forced. Basically I really enjoyed the first half of the movie, minus some awkward moments, and abjectly disliked the second half. That’s all I’m going to say on this point for now, but if you want some expansion I’ll get back to it in Item 4. So let’s move along to the more important bits.
2) I didn’t buy the characters.
There were four main characters in this movie that you were meant to care about, not including the poor kid who gets obliterated at the end after a lifetime of child abuse, and his really twisted younger sister. They were, in no particular order: Newt, a head-in-the-clouds sort with a strong sense of justice and a potentially unhealthy attachment to animals which could possibly eat him; Jacob, the “No-Maj,” overweight, nice guy character who really likes pastries (by the way, my favorite character despite the fact that he was consistently used for comic relief, mostly because he was the only halfway decent person Newt encountered for the first half hour of the film); Queenie, the quintessential ditzy blonde who really turns out to be smart and loyal (second favorite character, and honestly I shipped her and Jacob so hard); and Tina. Tina, why did you ruin everything? Between you and Seraphina I lost all faith in this movie from the opening scenes.
I know that this is not the actress who played either character’s fault. They did the best with the script they were given, it is obvious. But let me just say that the kind of person who can continually talk over and dismiss her subordinates but then gets angry when that subordinate comes to her with vital information after the fact and punishes her for it, the type of gross incompetence that Seraphina as president of MCUSA displays – that was not believable for me for a woman, much less a woman of color, in such a powerful position in the 1920s – at least barring some very real world-building that would account for it, which I just didn’t see. And Tina. Goddess bless, Tina.
Let’s talk about Tina.
We are meant to believe that Newt is sort of incompetent with people and that he has been harmed by that before but that he generally gets out of things by being a somewhat shifty and yet strangely earnest person. Okay, I have some issues with that, but I will buy it. Socially awkward people abound and when you get to know them they are generally pretty cool. That’s what we’re going with and I get it.
Tina was also supposed to be that socially awkward character I think, in sharp contrast to the glowing Queenie, her sister who was also a Legimens. We can imagine that this social awkwardness is what makes people dislike her so much (enough for her coworkers to murder her viciously without question???? WHAT WAS THAT SCENE?) but I don’t buy that someone who had been a successful Auror and screws up once is such a damn idiot. Like, I get that she is socially awkward and has bad timing. Okay. But there is socially-awkward-and-has-bad-timing and then there is “holy shit what is wrong with you.” You march a guy into a convention of your Magical Congress (I assume that was what that was, it was not explicitly stated) inside a courtroom which is obviously only used for such grandiose meetings and other similar high-faluting activities, and just start running off at the mouth without even having the situational awareness to realize a meeting is in session? Running off at the mouth when you know there is an open investigation regarding murders in the city committed by some kind of creature? And then you have the nerve to be surprised when you get your friend arrested, his animals probably exterminated? You don’t survive as an Auror without being aware of your surroundings, no matter how good you are with spells and how strong your sense of justice. Socially awkward only takes me so far, and it did not take me to the realm of Tina. I didn’t believe in her at all until about the last half of the movie, and at that point I was just along for the ride (see above). Which brings me to…
3) Everyone in the government was a dick. (#Sorrynotsorry)
Why would you even want to live in America? This is apparently the question J.K. Rowling asked herself throughout writing this movie.
The staff of MCUSA is a bunch of sociopaths apparently, with possibly more money/power than sense. We’ve seen that theme in other Harry Potter movies, so its not surprising. What is surprising is that I can see absolutely no reason for the government officials to act the way they do if they have even a shred of self-preservation, especially (as mentioned above) Seraphina. So given all that it is very confusing to me that Tina has any loyalty to them at all. (You thought we were going to stop bashing Tina, didn’t you?)
I get the draconian laws about obliviating everyone everywhere because of the apparently heightened tension between discovery by the non-magical community and the witching community. One presumes that this is exacerbated by the emerging technologies of cameras and shit. Though apparently an obliviate charm can work on the paper (talk about a deus ex machina at the end of this movie, I can’t…ick. That was Into Darkness level.)
The government of non-magical USA is also full of dicks apparently, as evidenced by senator what’s-his-bottom, son of the newspaper tycoon who looked like he was going to have a bigger part and then….didn’t. I was actually okay with him dying because who is that much of a shit to a kid? I get he was supposed to be a spoiled rich boy or something but is no one nice in this damn city?? Can’t anyone catch a break? Especially the poor orphans?
4) Can we stop with the Salem witch trials?
Speaking of orphans, I have some REAL problems with this whole story arc. First of all, did anyone else feel like they were watching two movies, neither of which was really developed into anything? Because I really liked the “gather all the escaped animals and fall in love” plot, and I get that we had to have Grindelwald in there doing his fascist racial superiority gag as Voldemort 2.0, but we did NOT need those poor kids in this movie.
I had some strong emotional reactions to this plot arc because:
a) I was raised as a Wiccan/Neo-Pagan which is probably why I bonded to Harry Potter so thoroughly in the first place and watching that little girl chanting about all the ways to hang me or kill me for my religious beliefs was a little much. I get that it is just a movie, you can tell me I was too serious or that it was supposed to be unsettling, but as far as I can tell it didn’t advance the plot or really build the world and I would have preferred to spend that time elsewhere for my psychological health and enjoyment of the damn film.
b) I also happen to be a woman who thinks and generally likes my unmarried lifestyle as a working lady on birth control already living with her S.O. despite the lack of marriage thing, so depictions of religious extremism make me uncomfortable especially when handled poorly. This was handled poorly, since I never got a real reason for why any of these people would even connect the idea of witches/wizards with modern day, licentious, 1920s New York, where I imagine there were much bigger fish to fry historically (more on that later).
c) Graphic depictions of child abuse are not cool to me, especially on a movie that definitely will catch some kids in the audience. No one needs to see that or normalize it. Harry Potter as a franchise is of course built on the abused child being brought into a world of magic and emancipated. I’m good with that. This movie did not do that. This movie took a bunch of abused kids and punished those who helped them, and then murdered one of those children in cold blood. That’s pretty messed up.
d) I am so tired of this damn trope – like do you think this didn’t happen in the U.K./Europe? Is America supposed to be the only place where women were killed for looking at you wrong, because I can guarantee that that is not the case. We didn’t come by those ideas in vacuum – you only have to look to such episodes as the Inquisition to see that people in Europe have been killing each other for being or believing differently forever, and one particularly salacious episode in Salem is still somehow the defining moment in early American history. The Salem Witch Trials were not even slightly contemporary with 1920s New York City, and it just felt sad and tired to have that moment be the center of this story when there were so many more interesting things that Rowling could have tapped into given the setting she chose. Too much was obviously trying to be done with this movie, and it definitely suffered for it, especially since…
5) Where was this movie even?
Despite 1920s New York City being a hotbed of culture and inspiration, the setting of this movie was Not Great, and that was a fucking shame. I was left with about a thousand questions, including: Where do witches live? What do they do? How do they stay hidden? Are there different factions of witches (ethnically, religiously, racially)? Why were the black people singing in the speakeasy made into CGI goblins, whose fucking idea was that? And, most importantly, where were all of the OTHER black people who were definitely living in New York in the 1920s? Better minds than mine have asked these questions, and I’m going to delve into a bit of why the last was such a problem next week. But yeah, total face-plant on this part.
It is a reminder that even if we get some things right as creators, we will often get many things wrong, and that we must be careful in whom we trust to advise us in patching up our blind spots.
Okay, so, in closing, this movie was a clusterfuck. It was a visually appealing clusterfuck with lots of great graphics and CGI. I thought the beasts were cool for sure. Jacob’s character was best. Newt’s character was solid, and I really wish we had seen more of his reasons for being in New York. It seems unlikely that will happen, given the ending.
Despite those good things, this movie erases or ignores marginalized communities and the diverse setting of 1920s New York. It lacks grounding, relying on action and flashy graphics to distract from that. And it plays off of tired tropes. One of the reason that we all feared Voldemort so much was because he had taken something away from Harry, who we loved; and because he was so feared, because the setting of the wizarding world in the original books was so well developed as to make him fearful. All of that was missing here, and the magic of the wizarding world that made the first series so attractive for viewers was largely overshadowed by a grim reality that every character in this movie with the exception of Newt, Jacob, Queenie, and eventually Tina, was a terrible person who seemed to lack basic compassion. When wizards at large are rendered faceless murderers in wide-brimmed hats, you have to question if you are improving your world or not.
I hate that I had this reaction to this movie, because I am immensely grateful to J.K. Rowling for her previous works. It is not very reassuring to me that she had so much creative license with this movie and still managed to drive what could have been a wonderful film into the ground. It would have taken very little in terms of reaching out to marginalized communities to fix a lot of the problems listed above, though not all of them, and it would have made for a stronger movie. It is a reminder that even if we get some things right as creators, we will often get many things wrong, and that we must be careful in whom we trust to advise us in patching up our blind spots.
There will doubtless be plenty of people like my parents who were able to sail along on nostalgia and shiny explosions and bypass all of the stuff that I have talked about above. More power to you, I suppose. For the rest of us, I guess it’s time to go make a whiskey on the rocks and try to avoid contaminating our childhood memories with this unfortunate episode. Tune in next week for a meditation on 1920s New York inspired by a Spanish poet, just because.