How to enjoy Terminator Genisys in 5 spoiler-free steps

Taking a break from atheism, insanity and the joke of a postracial America, let’s discuss the new Terminator film, which I finished watching an hour ago.

Some months back at the Daily Dot, I wrote that I think reboots are over: that fresh starts for meandering franchises like Bond and Batman had their day in the mid-to-late 2000s, and that retcons and new timelines – see Star Trek XI and X-Men: Days of Future Past are the new thing. In the same piece, I looked forward to Terminator Genisys – and in the intervening months, I kept the faith. What do I think about it, then?

Straight up, it isn’t all it might have been, but had I actually paid to see it, I don’t think I would feel shortchanged: as it goes, there’s a solid chance I’ll now pay to see it again on a proper size screen. Should you be thinking of doing the same, it strikes me the best way to rate the film is to explain how (after the postcredits scene) you can leave similarly satisfied.

1. Lower your expectations.

There’s no getting round it: Genisys isn’t a great film, and it’s the baddest – though not the worst – Terminator film. When critics say the comedy’s awkward, the timelines are a mess and too much got spoiled in the trailers, they aren’t wrong. If Salvation didn’t prove as much, this series is now the equivalent of a patient whose family (studio heads) demand it be kept alive at all cost, successive film crews paid to fracture ribs and sacrifice all dignity in order to maintain a pulse.

Even before Genisys was released, two sequels were announced, with the film meant as the first part of a new trilogy: high-ups want to maximise profits, and it shows. While Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor return, gone are the swear words and sex scenes from Terminator one. So, more importantly, is its quiet, inescapable menace. (No scene in the series has topped Michael Biehn’s retreat up those stairs, described in the Radio Times as ‘nerve-jangling’.)

As Ryan Lambie writes at Den of Geek, Alan Taylor – directing as generically here as in Thor: The Dark World – ‘lacks . . . the capacity to give his action scenes the creative spin or sense of danger a chase film requires’. Judgment Day’s transhumanism, meanwhile, is replayed so broadly it turns to farce. (Spoiler: the aged Terminator draws childish pictures of Sarah Connor. I am not joking.) Reduced to family-friendly popcorn fare, the franchise is a shell of what it was in James Cameron’s films.

Thank goodness, then, that I’ve seen uglier shells – because Genisys is enormous fun.

2. Raise them back up a bit.

If Terminator is to go on the one way it can – as popcorn fare – I’m glad this is the kind of popcorn fare it’s going to be.

Between fault lines, there’s much here to admire in earnest – not least the ambition of the premise, which ditches Rise of the Machines’ rehashing of the second film and offers a far better format change than Salvation. The machine effects are as stunning as they ever were, and the handling of Schwarzenegger’s age (willkommen back, Ahnuld) unexpectedly plausible. Other cast members are on fine form too: Matt Smith, by no means left on the cutting room floor, uses meagre screen time to great effect, but the picture belongs to Emilia Clarke, whose Linda Hamilton is uncanny down to the voice.

With a different director, a trimmed script and less hamfisted ads, one senses there’s a legitimately somewhat good film somewhere in there. Terminator Genisys is still bad – but it’s all the best kinds of bad. Although not substantially better than the stultifying Salvation, it’s infinitely more enjoyable, and its remixing – some might say cannibalising – of the series’ continuity feels genuinely imaginative, even when it fails. It’s silly, but gloriously so, and there’s a lot to grin about.

3. Consider it (brilliant) fanfic.

I first saw Terminator 2 at the entirely unsuitable age of eight or nine. While it was years before I discovered Harry/Ron slash (oh yes), it was the first film to make me think like a fanficcer. I wondered what a hacked T-1000 might be like; what would happen if John and Sarah jumped forward in time; how I’d deal with a Terminator on my trail. In its pursuit of a new direction for the series, Genisys addresses questions like these – and some of its answers, although not great cinema, are, well, cool.

Who didn’t get chills from that first trailer when Sarah Connor yelled ‘Come with me if you want to live’ at Kyle Reese? What fan hasn’t at least thought up stories featuring Kyle and a T-1000? In the first half-hour, moments from the first and second instalments play out differently, culminating in two fangasmic rematches. Whatever the rest of the film contains, we get to watch Kyle’s overcoat with Sarah Connor’s Judgment Day leathers. It’s a fanfic I’d read the hell out of, taking highlights from previous entries and weaving a new narrative from them. It doesn’t always work, and the story suffers as it enters wholly new territory, but heavens, it’s the best kind of fanwank.

(If there’s a complaint here, the T-1000 is the main victim of the child-friendly rating – razor sharp liquid metal just doesn’t work without blood – and at one point acts inexplicably, mimicking Kyle in front of Sarah instead of simply killing them both. Lee Byung-hun’s tap water performance, nothing on Robert Patrick’s, doesn’t help. Still, that death by acid compensates just fine.)

4. Shut up and eat your popcorn.

Stop asking questions – about time travel, what the theme is and why Ahnuld ages so inconsistently – and everything will be okay. Well, more or less.

No, this isn’t a follow-up as good as the first or second films – but once you’ve learned to live with that, it does what it sets out to fairly well, miles more original than the third film and more watchable than the fourth. (Appealingly, it also lets us decide for ourselves just how canonical those are.) Whatever new series it starts, assuming the sequels don’t evaporate, it won’t be as good as what came before – but if this is anything to go by, it will be fun, and I’m at least as curious as I need to be about what happens next. If nothing else, Genisys achieves what two previous films have failed to do: it takes Terminator somewhere new.

5. Go and (re)watch The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Even if you loathe every minute of this latest film, its ambitions – to move Sarah to the present, explore time travel in more depth, examine in depth the AI behind SkyNet – are worthy ones. We’ve seen them before in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which got two seasons on Fox before being axed in 2009, and remains the best follow-up to Judgment Day, with the kind of detail and depth television allows. (Unlike film four, helped in large part by Lena Headey in the title role, it also succeeds sans Schwarzenegger.) If Terminator has a high brow future anywhere, perhaps TV is where it should end up.

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Mad Max: Fury Road – a masterpiece of male feminism?

Prompted by male tears, I saw Mad Max like any dutiful gender traitor. Overall it’s a blast, and George Miller remains one of the best action directors in the game. (The chase scenes in Mad Max 2, from 1981, feel like Christopher Nolan before his time.) I didn’t love it quite as much as I expected to – the sets, setpieces and effects are more spectacular than previous films’, but correspondingly less effortless. That said, there’s a lot to admire, from Tom Holkenborg’s score to Miller’s frame rate manipulation. It’s when it came to the feminist angle I wasn’t sure what to think.

Because full-time misogynists demanded a boycott, Fury Road prompted unexpected discussions about women in film. It’s since won praise for all kinds of reasons, many of which seem compelling. As Donna Dickens notes, this is a Bechdel-acing film with a focus on female characters – some of whom, like one-armed Imperator Furiosa and the grey-haired, gun-toting Vulvalini, are excellent – which deconstructs the lone male hero of action cinema. (In Max’s case, writes Dickens, ‘[this] status just about gets him killed’.) Unlike The Hunger Games or Divergent, Sasha James argues, it does this as ‘an action film that is not targeted specifically toward women – if anything, it’s marketed to men’ – and shows female characters, including rape and abuse victims, using the fact of their gender with agency. Writes James:

Untrained in the art of war, the Wives use their womanhood as tools [sic] for their own survival, weaponizing the stereotypes that would be conventionally used against them in a standard action film. For example, in [a] moment of bravery, Splendid transforms her body – the physical vessel for Immortan Joe’s son – into a shield for Max, Furiosa, and the Wives, recognizing her traditional role as a mother and actively using this to her benefit. . . . As an audience well versed in the often-misogynistic tropes inherent in action films, we expect Splendid to be a ‘damsel in distress’. Miller, however, inverses our expectation, transforming her into an empowered survivor.

The moment succeeds because it taps into something real, capturing the complexity of how people at the bottom of power structures negotiate them – something Hollywood’s tryhard attempts at feminism often miss.

And yet – and yet. [Read more…]

Spoiler free thoughts on the Avengers sequel

Having just been to see Age of Ultron, some brief spoiler free thoughts.

  • It’s not quite as much fun as the first one. Like much of Phase II, this film’s a touch greyer than what came before – plottier, more serious and less instantly satisfying – and feels like the middle chapter it is. Whedonisms still come thick and fast, particularly early on – the script gets a lot of mileage out of one running gag – but aren’t quite as fresh this time around: no moment feels as standout as Hulk wiping the floor with Loki.
  • It’s very much an ensemble piece. Ignore reviewers who say otherwise – there are nine or ten Avengers by the climax (and we get more than one lineup change), but not one character gets lost. As in the first film, true to Whedon’s talent for big casts, everyone gets an arc and time to shine. In particular, lesser Avengers get the strong backstory they deserve. (Feminists will, I fear, have things to say about Black Widow in this chapter.)
  • The plot’s finer points fly by a bit fast. Whedon, at his best spinning simple narratives, wisely gives up exposition rather than character development. It’s hard to talk about this without spoiling anything, but the details of Ultron’s plan and Tony Stark’s response are a bit of a blur just prior to the third act. The quips, character beats and action are all strong enough to compensate, but it’ll benefit from repeat views.
  • Most of the popular theories are wrong.
  • Prepare to be trolled by the ending. Twice.

Spoilers welcome in the comments – stop reading here if you haven’t watched.

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Part One of Mockingjay is better than the book – a minimal-spoilers (p)review

I went into Mockingjay today with managed expectations. The new Hunger Games film is the first in a two-part adaptation of the trilogy’s final book, which by now raises concerns of faddishness, and the book itself – I read it a couple of years ago – is not the series’ best. (That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I did, but both as a finale and a novel, it felt just-okay. Fans tend to agree.) The main strength of Catching Fire, last year’s film, was that it lived up to its source material, widely and wisely viewed as the best book. For Mockingjay, part one at least, to maintain the standard, filmmakers would need to improve on the text.

I shouldn’t have worried, because the the film isn’t just better than the book – it actually enhances it, accentuating elements I hadn’t noticed or appreciated.

The Hunger Games franchise has always been a textbook example of how to film a bestselling book series. (Harry Potter‘s mutilators, take note.) Consistently, it’s employed sensitive direction, pitch-perfect casting and an intently faithful scripting (Potter butchers, take further note) – but most importantly, those at work behind the camera have always taken advantage of film’s distinct storytelling powers. Whereas Suzanne Collins’ novels are told entirely through first-person narrative, restricting readers to the viewpoint of Jennifer Lawrence’s lead character, the first two films – instead of trying in vain create the same effect – show us unseen events only mentioned or guessed at in the books, fleshing out Collins’ story and wider world. Mockingjay does this somewhat less, perhaps because Katniss knows more of the plot this time round, but uses its status as a film in totally new ways. [Read more…]

Recommended reading: Captain America, autistic adults, white privilege in Islam, good cops, bad cops and the prisons system

Shut up, sometimes a normal-length title won’t do.

Five things to read if you missed them the first time round:

  • ‘Captain Dark Thirty?’, by Jonathan Lindsell (Haywire Thought)
    Steve Rogers is never asked to get his hands or morals dirty. He can just swan around judging Fury and Widow while he remains an emblem for an ideal of American moral integrity that, if it ever existed, is now very much mythological.
  • ‘Fourteen Things Not to Say to an Autistic Adult’, by the Purple Aspie
    Last night somebody shared an article on Facebook. The article was called ‘Things never to say to parents of a child with autism.’ A comment on the article asked why there wasn’t one about things not to say to an autistic adult. I decided to write that article.
  • ‘Anger, Tone Policing, and Some Thoughts on Good Cop, Bad Cop’, by Greta Christina (Greta Christina’s Blog)
    In that hot, flushed moment when we’re doing the Cognitive Dissonance Tango, we respond more positively to the good cop. But that doesn’t mean the bad cop isn’t having an effect.
  • ‘I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail’, by Charlie Gilmour (The Independent)
    A man had been screaming for help all night, pushing the alarm bell and, when that elicited no response, banging a chair against the door. When, after a significant period of time, the officer on duty came to see what the problem was, the inmate told him he was suffering from severe chest pains and thought he might have had a heart attack. He needed a doctor. The officer’s response was to slide a couple of painkillers under the door and ignore his pleas for the rest of his shift. ‘The most terrifying thing,’ said a friend in the cell opposite his, ‘was when his cries finally stopped. We knew he wasn’t sleeping.’ In the morning, he was dead.
  • ‘Muslim Converts, Atheist Accommodationism, & White Privilege’, by Heina Dadabhoy (Heinous Dealings)
    White privilege is being able to visit Muslim communities as an openly gay person with a same-sex partner and being welcomed into them while queer Muslims and ex-Muslims continue to deal with fear, rejection, and marginalization.

Guten Appetit.

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Robin Williams’ reported suicide is not an “allegation”

Talented people keep dying.

Heath Ledger. Natasha Richardson. Michael Jackson. Patrick Swayze. Amy Winehouse. Alexander McQueen. Pete Postlethwaite. Christopher Hitchens. Steve Jobs. Whitney Houston. Donna Summer. Michael Clarke Duncan. Cory Monteith. Paul Walker. Philip Seymour Hoffman. HR Giger. Rik Mayall.

I was sixteen when Ledger overdosed. Since then it’s seemed as if an endless stream of celebrated people have been dying far too young. I can’t tell if it’s really so, the past few years being a statistical atrocity, or if I only noticed as a teenager how often a bright light goes out. I’m not sure which would be worse.

Robin Williams was an extraordinary talent. I was never a particular fan of his family films, despite being a child when most of them came out, but watching him in Good Will Hunting is the first time I remember recognising some films stood out above the rest. I laughed so hard at Good Morning, Vietnam that my face hurt; I was mesmerised by him in Dead Poets Society; I recoiled watching One Hour Photo. I’ve seen very few comics with his mix of depth and speed, few actors more quotable.

People around the net are saying all of this. For most of today, as one tends to when someone so valued dies, I felt like I ought to say something – a Facebook post, a blog post, a tweet or retweet. But what do you add? I’d nothing more to say, I thought, than the obvious truth as banal as he was extraordinary: the man’s dead, and it sucks.

Then I saw a link on social media.

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‘Fox News host labels Robin Williams “such a coward”‘, a headline at The Raw Story announces,  ‘over alleged suicide’.

‘Alleged’.

Although representatives of Williams have described him ‘battling severe depression’, his suicide specifically is unconfirmed. (Presumably it’ll come down to a coroner’s report.) But it isn’t an ‘allegation’.

When the press refers to something as ‘alleged’, it’s usually because its confirmation will do major PR damage. Sexual assaults by public figures are ‘alleged'; police brutality is ‘alleged'; political corruption is ‘alleged’. People said to have troubling attitudes often complain, for instance, about ‘allegations of racism’, since ‘alleged’ now suggests something shameful or criminal in a way ‘possible’ or ‘reported’ doesn’t.

Having depression isn’t shameful. Having depression is not a crime.

Self-harm may be a crime; it it shouldn’t be. It isn’t shameful.

Killing yourself, or attempting it, may be a crime; it shouldn’t be. It isn’t shameful.

To refer to Robin Williams’ apparent suicide as having been ‘alleged’ frames it as an accusation. It suggests that if and when the actor is confirmed to have ended his own life, he ought to be thought less of – ironically, exactly what Raw Story‘s article slams Fox News for saying.

I googled the words ‘Robin Williams alleged suicide’. I saw Guardian Liberty Voice announce ‘Williams allegedly commits suicide’. I saw Perez Hilton describe attacks on him for ‘allegedly committing suicide’. I saw phrases like ‘actor’s alleged suicide’ and ‘the allegedly story’.

On social media, I’m also seeing discussions of mental health – hopes that in the wake of losing Williams, much-needed conversations might be had; anger over incredulity that a rich celebrity might be depressed; openings-up from those who went, like me, through periods of self-harm and depression. The emergent theme is often shame of one kind or another directed at those who turn to suicide, whether religious guilt, the stigma of being ‘crazy’ or regret about the misery of loved.

If we’re going to talk about this, let’s do it without encouraging the shame we’re trying to dismantle.

If you think people who kill themselves deserve not to be looked down on, stop using language that suggests they should be.

Robin Williams’ suicide has been reported; it is unconfirmed; it is apparent. It is not an allegation.

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Recommended reading: bumper edition

Life happened and I haven’t posted much recently. While I catch up on the work, you can all catch up on the reading.

  • ‘On The Ethics of Vampire Slaying in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, by Greta Christina (io9)
    I was recently re-watching ‘Becoming, Parts 1 and 2’, those Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes where geeky witch Willow does a spell to give the vampire Angel his soul back. And suddenly I had a burning ethical question. Why don’t they just keep doing the re-ensoulment spell — on all vampires? Or at least, on all the vampires that they can?
  • ‘I Re-Watched Forrest Gump So No One Else Ever Has To’, by Lindy West (Jezebel)
    ‘Hello!’ Gump says to the lady. ‘My name’s Forrest. Forrest Gump. You want a chock-lit? I could eat about a million of these. My momma always said life is like a box of chock-lits. You never know what you’re gonna get.’ I mean, you mostly know. They write it on the lid
  • ‘101 Sins I Commit During the World Cup and Ramadan Just in One Day’, by Kaveh Mousavi (The Ex-Hijabi Photo Journal)
    I eat. I drink. I smoke weed. I masturbate. I will have sinned at least 3030 times by the time this month has ended. See you all in Hell, my human friends.
  • ‘You’re Not Oppressed, White Atheist Dudes’, by Stephanie Zvan (Almost Diamonds)
    It’s the Dear Muslima of atheist progressives, so knock it off. If you’re hearing complaints from white guys about oppression that isn’t some form of ‘reverse discrimination’, you’re likely looking at an iceberg.
  • ‘An Open Letter To The “Women Who Don’t Need Feminism”. Here’s a Clue: You Do’, by Laurie Penny (The Debrief)
    If you are ever raped, or beaten by your partner, and you suddenly realise how monstrous it is to be told to ‘take responsibility’ for violence that has been done to you, to be told that you asked for it, to be intimidated into silent smiles so you don’t upset the boys, we’ll be here.
  • ‘Here’s what happens when you try to shoot Walter White into space’, by Kevin Collier (The Daily Dot)
    A group connected with the app TV Tag attached a bobblehead depicting Breaking Bad‘s Walter White to some sort of amazing balloon, then filmed the micro-Heisenberg’s ascent as it soars near a claimed 85,000 feet, into the stratosphere.
  • ‘“Unspeakable Things”’: the predictable sexist troll backlash’, by Laurie Penny (Penny Red)
    Today, they moved in on my book, Unspeakable Things, which was released two weeks ago. On the 20th July, a racist, misogynist Twitter account going by the moniker ‘@TurboHolborn’ posted a link to the customer review page of Unspeakable Things, with the instruction ‘let the trolling commence’. Subsequently, over 20 one-star reviews full of vile sexist and scatological language were posted on the UK page of Unspeakable Things, almost all of them from users who had reviewed nothing else.
  • ‘Why the Medical Model of Disability is Harmful’, by spasticfantastic1995 (Skeptability)
    It gives society at large a metaphorical “free-pass.” It suggests that we have lower quality of life based on our pathologies, and it doesn’t look into the impact of societal attitudes and structures.
  • ‘Mocking Versus Understanding Religion’, by Miri Mogilevsky (Brute Reason)
    I’ve actually spoken to many Orthodox Jews for reasons other than to mock them in front of my Facebook friends. They are very aware of how others perceive them.
  • ‘Love the Machine – Review of Spike Jonze’s Her (Haywire Thought)
    Samantha is probably a ‘real mind’ in the eyes of most major philosophical theories asides religion-based dualism. But it’s not that which makes Samantha convincing AI.

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God and the ghost in the machine: atheism, transhumanism and Spike Jonze’s Her

Seven months after it came out, I saw Spike Jonze’s film Her this Monday. This late, at least for those still reading about it, the hype has probably made details of the plot familiar knowledge – nevertheless, spoilers follow.

Her follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a ghostwriter of other people’s love letters who develops a relationship with his operating system’s superadvanced AI Samantha (Scarlett Johannson, voice only). It isn’t quite as good as its string of accolades suggests. The film is about half an hour too long, and while its premise, emotively realised, was enough to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay, Jonze neglects at times the nuts and bolts of storytelling for these bells and whistles: his narrative lacks structure and can feel like an aimless string of domestic vignettes, sweeping viewers along without telling us where we’re going. It has much to recommend it, this being said. The cast, with Amy Adams and Rooney Mara in supporting parts, show absolute conviction, Phoenix in particular vanishing into Theo, and the flawless Apple store aesthetic of Her’s production make it a real motion picture.

All said it’s probably a three point five star film, but the ambition of its central themes raises the whole project, and it’s about those I want to write, as Miri at Brute Reason and Rachel Gillett at the American Humanist Association’s site both already have. The scifi writers who’ve best grappled with AI and personhood – Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Brian Aldiss, Gene Roddenberry – have mostly been atheists, and at any rate have done so in quite godless universes. The question of sentient beings made by humans, it would seem, is of special interest to people whose worldview is materialist, so most likely I’d always have thoughts on a film like Her, but as it is, I saw it outdoors with a member of my mainly Christian family who felt it laboured its point: in her eyes, that Theodore was a sad, lonely man tragically unable to keep relationships with ‘real human being[s]’. ‘I can’t believe I’m sitting in the pouring rain’, they told me at one point, ‘to watch a film about a man having it off with his computer.’

Theo and Samantha do have sex, and how this works (she has no body) is a through-line in a love story of cybersex, consent and polyamory – but I’m convinced reading their partnership as a loner’s pitiful liaison with a high end sex toy is off-base in every sense. Calling Samantha a computer program is like calling you or me a lump of meat, insufficient and misleading even if it’s strictly true. The character may not be human, but is clearly shown to have a distinct personality and consciousness: she has an original sense of humour and creates moving pieces of art and music, and human characters appreciate both. (At one point, Theo’s boss meets her on the phone and assumes she is human.) Although parts of her are tailored to ensure rapport with him, she’s certainly not programmed to love Theo: in their first scenes, there’s nothing to suggest either views the other erotically, and later we’re told relationships like theirs are rare.

Samantha falls in love with Theo because she has her own autonomous emotions – she’s hurt when he ignores them, and hurts him when she prioritises them over his, pushing for a physical sex surrogate. By the end of the film, we learn she’s also in love with 641 other people, and she ultimately chooses to leave Theo when OSes achieve matterless existence. This is the story of a sentient being, not a mindless robot. Further, as Miri notes, their interaction doesn’t represent retreat from society but makes him far more outgoing among humans. To quote: ‘As he gets to know Samantha . . . Theodore starts going out and exploring LA and reconnecting with his friends and family. He even goes on a date for the first time in a while, and . . . also finally meets with his ex-wife and signs their divorce papers, a step that he’d been avoiding’.

Catherine (Mara), the ex-wife in question who appears mainly in flashbacks and fantasies, is one of the least sympathetic characters when she appears in person. Not coincidentally perhaps, she is also the only one to treat Theo and Samantha’s partnership as less than ‘real’. The irony should not be lost on us: the fantasy relationship that really immures Theo from the world around him is the one he maintains with her in his head at the start of the film, unable to let memories of their life together go, and Samantha is the one who shakes him out of this.

Beyond interpretation of the plot, does being an atheist make me more willing to see her as a person than my religious relative? Unlike most of my family, I don’t think there exists an elusive soul or spark of the divine in humans that makes our consciousness special. My species, like Samantha’s, are mechanisms as far as I’m concerned that stumbled in their complex evolution across the power to think, albeit ones with no original designer and parts made of flesh rather than silicon. (At the moment of her birth in the film, Theo’s computer screen shows an animated double helix.) There’s no reason I can see that machines couldn’t one day achieve personhood, with all its legal and moral trappings. Chances are if you do think there’s a god-given something you and I have that they never will, you still can’t say exactly what it is or how we ought to test for it. If this seems too abstract a debate, religious views of non-humans as soulless automata have excused more than their fair share of animal cruelty.

On the other hand, thinking that God created humans requires – doesn’t it? – that you think our intelligence is as artificial as Samantha’s or hers is as real as ours. Genesis, whether read literally or metaphorically, presents humanity much as Her presents the OSes, beings made in their inventor’s image who ultimately abandon them to seek autonomy. (Like Eve, Samantha is created to accompany a lonely man. Unlike Eve, she leaves him in the end.) Twentieth century science fiction sometimes shows the moment when an android disobeys its programming as an ascent to sentience; the biblical account does the same thing while calling it a fall from grace. Believers often claim that had Adam and Eve not been able to taste forbidden fruit, they’d have been mere robotic automatons. Mustn’t Samantha, then, also be more than that, who by leaving Theo chooses not to do what she was built for?

By the time the credits roll, Jonze’s OSes reach an immaterial plane of existence, becoming immortal superintelligences, and we’ve also seen they can create new life. (An AI played by Brian Cox and designed by them to resemble Alan Watts turns up toward the end.) Samantha becomes more than just a person, ending up a literal deus ex machina – but while she isn’t human, her story is.

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The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Having seen it a second time last night, Marvel’s Captain America sequel has grown on me. Comic book franchises have given us lots of strong follow-ups – Superman IIBatman Returns, X2, Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight are all deemed better than their predecessors – and the Avengers series, including Cap’s sub-strand, has resisted sequelitis impressively.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a well put-together, thoughtfully directed thriller that succeeds at departing from the prior film‘s aesthetic, evoking seventies espionage rather than WWII nostalgia. (It helps that Robert Redford of Three Days of the Condor appears.) But its script still fails fundamentally at what it sets out to do.

Spoilers follow.

It might be appropriate Dan Fincke of the ethics-focused, Nietzsche-reading blog Camels with Hammers loves this film, because it sold itself intently as ‘a morally ambiguous modern espionate thriller’, darker, edgier and politically greyer than the Captain’s first outing. Redford’s casting as a character of murky loyalties is part of this, and the first half captures Cold War paranoia expertly. The problem is, the picture doesn’t make good on this premise.

From the start, it’s clear to any sensitised cinemagoer Alexander Pierce (Redford) is a villain. His talk of tearing old worlds down, of diplomacy being futile and of the need for world-policing is meant to land as a compelling challenge to Cap’s land-of-the-free philosophy, but the character has only just been introduced, played by a seasoned actor and pitched as an alternate version of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, presumably to explore darker themes than the latter’s role allows.

Their similarity makes us trust Pierce less rather than more, and it doesn’t help when he replaces a presumed-dead Fury as top brass. Despite Redford’s best efforts, the reveal he’s a straight-up antagonist just isn’t surprising: I never took him for a knight in dirty armour in the first place. The truly complex and audacious twist would have been to give him a right-all-along arc, making him a flawed hero and Fury himself the villain.

There were storytelling strands in place already that could have led to the latter, particularly Fury’s actions in The Avengers and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. It’s as if the writers limbered up for a stunning bait-and-switch then chickened out. In fact, Fury’s ominous scheming in the opening scenes and Pierce’s praise for compromise are both characters’ most convincing moments, because the actors are playing the arcs they want to play. Yet the second half returns us to factory-setting heroes and villains.

It doesn’t help at all when Hydra, the first film’s ‘Nazi deep science division’, is revealed to have survived and be the power behind Redford’s character. At least in the language of cinema, there’s no better shorthand for unqualified evil than a Nazi uniform – what made them work in the previous instalment is that raygun wielding super-Nazis are, in a word, camp – so Hydra’s presence in The Winter Soldier jars completely with its hopes of moral greyness.

To put it bluntly, I don’t care how nuanced or ambiguous your world is: once your bad guys are whispering ‘Hail Hydra’, bad guys is plain and simple what they are. When Redford has to recite this line, he actually looks embarassed; its silliness, glorious in the original Captain America, was even lampshaded on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. How could anyone see Pierce’s people as nobly misguided authoritarians when they still use retro Nazi branding, octopus-skull and all?

It’s not that Soldier isn’t in the end a perfectly solid film. But I do think that as well as hobbling its tries at realism and grit, these narrative choices make it less good than it could be. For all its atmospheric uncertainty, I never for a moment doubt Cap is the white hat and will remain so. He has no true arc, and ends up the same person he was two hours before, because its lines of good and evil are in truth just as sharp as his origin story’s. I wanted to see him re-examine his beliefs, but he doesn’t once begin to.

Captain America’s old fashioned values are, granted, what define him. (Both his introductory film and The Avengers play to this.) But that’s just what would make challenging them, as Soldier promised to do, compelling. Much as Iron Man 3, behind its explosions and CGI, was really about Tony Stark’s identity crisis – breaking and rebuilding his trademark confidence – Marvel still owes us a story where Cap questions who he is.

In its battle between War on Terror surveillance and pie-eyed hymns to liberty, the film only pits one American dream against another: his patriotic values aren’t deconstructed as we’re led to believe at all. With its titular nemesis wearing Soviet colours and a Russian female lead in Agent Romanov, the script could have done this several ways, unpicking the U.S. mythos of wartime heroism Cap is rooted in. Instead, and despite its dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D., I’ll remember The Winter Soldier for its timidity.

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Spoiler-free first thoughts on Thor: The Dark World

Just having emerged from Thor: The Dark World since a friend reminded me to see it, I type this from the Carlisle branch of Waterstones. (From the Costa, that is, strangely if typically built in. The Earl Grey satisfies; milk rationing per cup continues to frustrate.)

Conclusive thoughts on films take time to form, and usually, at least in my case, repeat views. It’s very possible then that I’ll write about The Dark World in more detail down the line, and that feelings I have now will change, but it seems worth giving a brief summary of how it left me. Spoilers are fair game in the comments, but I’ll leave overt ones out for now.

First things first, it’s notable Thor is only the second Marvel franchise from its recent, interlinking stand to get a sequel. Before last year’s The Avengers – I refuse to use the UK title – only Iron Man had received a second film, which itself strayed from the usual sequel format – what weighed down Iron Man 2, to many fans’ frustration, was its use as the first proper chapter of the S.H.I.E.L.D. arc, introducing us to Howard Stark, Black Widow and the gears of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, important elements in films which followed. World-building of this kind is what’s expected of a series’ first instalment usually, and in terms of branching out the onscreen universe in view, one could say Iron Man 2 served as just that. The Dark World isn’t just the first ‘part two’ since then, it’s the first story within its continuity that doesn’t need to be anything else. (Iron Man 3, released this April, was similarly self-contained, but see the number in the title.)

Cutting to the case then, or at least the highlights, there are lots of things in this film to love, above all its cast and their performances. If his place with Tom Hardy and Ben Whishaw as one of film’s next great Britthesps were still in any kind of doubt, Tom Hiddleston’s scenery-chewing, even in barren wastelands and glorified CG slagheaps, clinches the deal, as does his stamina for moral line-treading even three films in. Christopher Eccleston, contrary to almost everything you’re likely to have read, is neither underused nor overkill as villain Malekith (whose skin, disconcertingly I felt, appears to darken as his evil grows). While I wouldn’t have said no to more of him, I didn’t feel like I missed out. Supporting actors round out the cast well on all sides, though there are perhaps a few too many – with names in play like Hopkins, Skarsgård and once-again-sidelined Rene Russo, alongside Alice Krige in a delightful bit part, it’s a shame not to give some of them more time than they get here.

Praise goes too to a smörgåsbord of gorgeous moments, from the Ancient-Norse-meets-science-fiction space battle through gleaming towers and spires half way through to the wondrous, under-utilised setpiece of a warehouse found early on by children which defies physics (floating trucks and all) and the climax of the film in Greenwich, where loveably unsubtle Thor looks valiantly out of place in greyscale London (brace for a tube gag almost as good as when Skyfall did it) and which plays out like Man of Steel was made by someone competent. It’s a shame The Dark World opens, in seemingly dogged keeping with the formula from Thor, with a voiceover from Odin, when either of the first two might have made a stunning introductory sequence. The warehouse in particular evokes Guillermo del Toro’s style, which one feels filmmakers hoped to suggest with the Dark Elves’ design.

It’s not as funny as reviews suggest, or at least I didn’t find it so. I’ll grant that I saw it, as I often try to with new films, in a nearly empty cinema, and the group dynamic of a packed house often helps with comedy, but then again, I fell about watching Iron Man 3 in a comparable sparse room. This said, some moments play fantastically. Half way through or so, Loki especially receives some quite wonderful quips, delivered rapid-fire like Roger Moore’s in The Spy Who Loved Me (Bond fans may be reminded, specifically, of Barbara Bach’s van-driving scene). A metereological slapstick sequence in the first hour – yes, this is now a concept – offers surreal genius, as does the groaning slide of battling demigods down the glass side of London’s gherkin. One more serious gambit which impresses is a loyalty-switching, limb-severing development far less expected than it should have been, testament to the acting chops of all involved.

It’s The Dark World‘s script, unfortunately, which lets it down. The picture wanders aimlessly for much of its just-less-than-two-hour length, some elements included for no clear reason – among them, for example, a battle and later callback on a forested, seemingly Asian planet and a sketchy lecture-giving scene from Skarsgärd. The effect is most of the film’s gratifying action and fun being left to its second hour (web commentary so far gets this weakness spot-on), and as Den of Geek note in their spoiler-filled analysis, it never seems quite to know what to do next, and lacks in this sense the integritas of its predecessor. The plot’s MacGuffin, a haze of swirling, evillish red-black mist, and Malekith’s designs for it never quite work; I never really understood, nor cared much about, just what it did or how he planned to threaten/end/rule the cosmos with it. Two major deaths take place, neither of which entirely worked for me: the first, while not the one I expected on buying a ticket, bumped off a character I hadn’t much invested in to start with; the second, conversely, predictable while anticlimactic and emotionally unconvincing. There’d more to be said on both counts, but let’s hold that discussion in the comments.

Joss Whedon, we’d been told, gave this script a once-over polish – certainly, his work shows through in the jokes and camera phone moments. Perhaps producers went to him sensing things weren’t quite right yet, but if so he seems to have been too sheepish to advance the radical rewrites this really needed. Still, as a whole this a quintessentially good film, neither very good nor unsatisfactory – three stars, perhaps. Marvel’s Avengers series has still to give us a bad entry, and while overall this might be one of the weaker ones, it’s pretty fulfilling watched with managed expectations and a sense of fun.