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Movie Reviews: January 2017

Moana
directed by John Musker & Ron Clements
Disney, November 2016
1 hr. 53 min.

This is one of the more gorgeous films I’ve seen in a long time. The depiction of voyaging Pacific Islander culture—particularly the sequence showing the ocean-going outrigger exploration fleets during the song “We Know the Way”—is spectacular and inspiring. (Does anyone know of any good epic fantasies inspired by this culture? Because if not, there should be.) Moana is a great, funny, self-rescuing princess. (“You wear a skirt and have an animal sidekick. You’re a princess.”) This is a true depiction of how having a chicken sidekick would really work. (Spoiler: Not well.) I liked a lot of things about this, but one of the things I really liked is that there isn’t a villain, per se. Moana and demi-god Maui must confront a Big Bad, the hideous lava creature Te Kā who is destroying life on island after island. And then it turns out Te Kā is a symptom, not the cause. It’s a physical manifestation of the imbalance in the world caused by trickster Maui’s theft of the heart of Te Fiti, an earth goddess’s mystical amulet that brings life to the islands. Restoring this balance transforms the monster. It’s a story of mending and reconciliation, not of dominance and destruction, and that’s just lovely to see.

The film raised much conversation and concern about the accuracy of the depiction of Pacific Islander cultures and the importance of making good-faith efforts to represent cultures one may not be familiar with when telling stories about them. Smithsonian Magazine has a good short article on how well the film did, which in some parts were really good, and in some parts were really not: bit.ly/smithsonian_moana.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
directed by Gareth Edwards
Disney, December 2016
2 hr. 13 min.

Much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars is at a point where we need to get used to the idea of having new, slick movies on a regular basis that will be a little like fast food. This isn’t fine art that’s going to revolutionize anything, and if you’re not already a fan of the franchise in question you may not want to bother. But if you are a fan, and you need to satisfy a craving, there’s nothing better than getting a new installment of your favorite thing. Rogue One is the movie I’ve wanted for twenty-five years, ever since that year-long West End Games RPG campaign in college, when our rag-tag band of Rebel spies caused havoc wherever we went and somehow, with a liberal application of Force points, managed to sock it to the Empire, at least a little bit.

This is a secret history, a story that we knew was there but that we haven’t seen. It’s not the main saga, no matter how seamlessly it folds into A New Hope. That seamlessness was a shock and a delight. I didn’t expect them to take it so far, literally to the opening moments of the original film. This is a really good example of how knowing exactly what’s going to happen—as you do in the last five minutes of Rogue One—actually increases tension to an almost painful degree. If you didn’t know what happened next, you might think the Rebel fleet has a chance to escape. And when they don’t, that would almost be anticlimactic. But because you know the only ones that escape are that blockade runner and the all-important data disk, you know you’re going to be watching one tragedy after another unfold, and it’s almost too much to bear. The rest of the film is pretty good. Those five minutes are inspired.

Rogue One is also its own thing. It doesn’t have an opening scroll. No John Williams score. This was sort of jarring, but I also loved it. This really opens up the possibilities for future Star Wars storytelling in film. There’s more than one way to make these movies, and if we can have Star Wars without the opening scroll, without some of the other familiar trappings—well then, what else can we do? Here, we can have a PG-13 war story that maybe has as much in common with The Dirty Dozen as it does with other movies in the Star Wars franchise. It’s interesting. It’s the same, and different, which is part of the difficulty and delight of maintaining a franchise like this.

Passengers
directed by Morten Tyldum
Columbia Pictures, December 2016
1 hr. 56 min.

If you never realized how fine a line there is between romantic comedy and horror, this movie will demonstrate it to you.

The trailers tell you the premise: two passengers on an interstellar flight wake from hibernation ninety years too soon and are stuck depending on each other for survival. Naturally, they fall in love.

What the trailers don’t tell you is Jim wakes first, and then purposefully sabotages Aurora’s hibernation chamber because he fell in love with her sleeping form and passenger manifest (Aurora = Sleeping Beauty. Get it? Get it?!). He lies and tells her the chamber accidentally failed like his did. He wines and dines her, she falls in love with him. At this point I was thinking the only way the film can redeem itself is if she learns the truth and then shanks him in his sleep. So, she learns the truth and gets really furious, as well she should, and I almost get my wish. But then the ship starts to break down and they have to work together to save it and the rest of the passengers.

What I found most infuriatingly frustrating: the story of them saving the ship could have been awesome. Aurora gets some really badass action scenes and even rescues Jim from Certain Doom. But what Jim did to Aurora—essentially kidnapping her to face a long, lonely, monotonous life trapped on the ship—is so awful, so irredeemable, that I never have sympathy for him. He doesn’t deserve saving. The film could have handled the entire premise a dozen other ways. After all, this—waking up too soon, alone, on an interstellar journey—is one of the oldest tropes in modern SF. (In fact, a friend of mine just sent me a story from the comic book Weird Science #20, from July-August 1950, called “50 Girls” in which a man wakes up early from suspended animation. Only he did it on purpose so he can systematically work his way through all fifty women on the ship in the eighty years before the ship reaches its colony. But he gets his when the second woman shoots him. Love it! Let’s make that movie!) Both Jim’s and Aurora’s pods could have failed at the same time. Have her be a crewperson woken up automatically when the ship starts to fail. Have them be partners instead of making Jim a kidnapper and basing their entire relationship on false pretenses.

But the story didn’t make any of these better choices. Worse, the film seems to understand that this situation is deeply, horrifically problematic—and doesn’t care. Aurora herself calls it murder—he stole her life, the life she should have had. But the movie chose to go this route anyway because somehow, for some unfathomable reason, the story it’s most interested in telling is Jim’s redemption. Aurora’s agency? Justice for what happened to her? Nope. Instead, we’re forced to consider: Can Jim be heroic enough to earn her forgiveness? I mean, he was so lonely, and she’s so pretty—she understands, doesn’t she? The movie thinks Jim can be redeemed, and that the two of them should get a happy ending.

No, no, no. Any energy or interest in the action-packed third act is DOA because I mostly keep wanting Aurora to shank him. Let him fly off into the black of space, his broken tether hitting his ass on the way out.

And then there’s the part when Laurence Fishburne’s crewman character shows up, and I think, oh good, he’ll save us from this super-problematic romcom and finally get us to some classic SF action-adventure. But he dies ten minutes later, and I think, My God, this movie brought on a black guy from out of nowhere just so they would have a black guy to kill off first.

You’ll notice I haven’t said a word about the science-fictional elements of the starship and hibernation pod scenarios. That’s because, for the most part, they don’t make a lick of sense and are kind of boring. Why does this ship have no redundant systems? Why isn’t some senior crewperson automatically woken up the minute things go wrong? Is colonizing other worlds really that profitable? Why is there only one autodoc for 5000 passengers? Why does the bar look like the one from The Shining? And on, and on.

But mostly, I’m furious that the filmmakers really thought we’d want to see a movie about how this stalker and kidnapper really isn’t such a bad guy.

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Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn is the bestselling author of the Kitty Norville series, about a werewolf who hosts a talk radio advice show. Her newest novel is a planetary adventure, Martians Abroad. Bannerless, a post-apocalyptic murder mystery, will be released by John Joseph Adams Books in July 2017. Her short fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, from Lightspeed to Tor.com and George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series. She lives in Colorado with a fluffy attack dog. Learn more at carrievaughn.com.