Monthly Archives: August 2011
This is a recap of the premiere episode of a split season of the sixth series of Doctor Who, with a first half-season that had no shortage of numerous teases, twists, and turns throughout its loaded seven episodes, including what appeared to be, for all intents and purposes, the permanent death of the Doctor (Matt Smith)! I’ll be doing this for practice purposes, so my style and everything else should be strictly seen as a work in process.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Doctor Who Universe (or Whoniverse), the series relates the adventures of the Doctor, the last of a race of time traveling immortals called the Time Lords, and his adventures traveling time and space in his signature ship, the TARDIS (permanently disguised to look like an old fashioned British Police call box that is exponentially larger on the inside than the outside). Armed with a “sonic screwdriver,” which is basically a high tech magic wand, an unsurpassed intellect, the ability to regenerate when mortally injured (thus taking on a new form and personality), and trusted human companions, the Doctor battles and routinely saves the human race from no end of bizarre and malevolent alien monsters, almost always outthinking them instead of resorting to outright acts of violence. Matt Smith plays the Eleventh incarnation of the Doctor, the third since the series was relaunched in 2005 after a prolonged hiatus.
Background (The Season So Far):
Beginning in the two-part season premiere “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon,” the Doctor’s time-traveling companions, and recent newlyweds, Amelia “Amy” Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), along with the mysterious time traveling adventuress (and possible future wife of the Doctor) River Song (Alex Kingston), are called to the United States at the invitation of the Time Lord himself, who tacitly revealed that he had (supposedly) aged about two hundred years since we last we saw him at the end of season 6. Shortly after enjoying a largely uneventful picnic with his friends, the Eleventh Doctor approached a mysterious Astronaut who suddenly appeared in Lake Silencio in Utah, not far from their picnic ground. Resignedly accepting his fate, the Doctor allowed the Astronaut to blast him with something that resembles TARDIS energy; the Astronaut then even did it again as he tries to regenerate, permanently killing him.
Shortly thereafter, though, the much younger Doctor we know and love appears, having also been invited by his older self to the United States. From there, during the period of the 1969 moon landing they confront a race of alien monsters called “the Silence” (a clever amalgam of the grey-skinned aliens of abduction lore and prototypical “men in black,” who are forgotten the moment as soon as you look away from them) who had been secretly influencing the human race for generations. During this time, Amy Pond, who initially thinks she’s pregnant but then decides she’s not, begins having strange visions of a One-Eyed Woman spying on her. It is also soon revealed through subsequent episodes that the mysterious “Impossible Astronaut” appears to be a young girl with red hair (not unlike Amy’s) and who displays the regenerative potential of a Time Lord!
During another two-parter, “The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People,” the Doctor manages to make a nearly perfect clone of himself as a way of verifying that, unbeknownst to even herself, Amy has been a clone for the last few episodes, controlling herself remotely through the One-Eyed Woman. Before destroying the clone, the Doctor promises to find the real Amelia, just as said real (and very pregnant) Amelia gives birth to her daughter, Melody Pond.
This set the stage for the memorable midseason finale “A Good Man Goes to War,” where the Doctor, Rory, and a small army of allies staged a masterful attack on the asteroid base Demon’s Run to rescue Amy and Melody from the nefarious Anglican Marines (the Anglican Church having apparently turned into a paramilitary state sometime before the 40th century). While initially striking what seemed to be a decisive victory over his enemy, the Doctor is again foiled by the One-Eyed Woman, who has replaced Melody with her own clone replacement. Melody Pond, as it turns out, having been conceived on the TARDIS and thus exposed to the Time Vortex, and therefore has many of the properties of a Time Lord. As the episode comes to a close, River Song reappears to reveal the season’s worst kept secret: that she is, in fact, an adult Melody Pond (get it?) But equally important is the revelation that the Doctor, who over the past few seasons and especially since the outset of the Matt Smith era, had grown exceptionally more arrogant and prone to using his reputation as the implacable foe for the most dangerous monsters in time and space to bully and intimidate others, was actually considered a “villain” by the human race, and had made the term “doctor” synonymous with “warrior” instead of “healer.” Therefore Melody Pond was kidnapped to become the ultimate weapon against the Doctor. As the episode ends, the Doctor traveled off to find the infant Melody while River assured her parents that “everything will be all right.”
So as the second half of the season begins there are a number of important questions that need to be answered: Is the Doctor still facing his own inevitable death at the hands of the mysterious Astronaut? What happens to Melody after her kidnapping, and how does she eventually become River Song? Will the Doctor begin to change his ways and become a healer once more? Will he be able to stop the Marines/Silence in the process? And…will Hitler survive?
The Episode: “Let’s Kill Hitler”
The episode begins with Amy and Rory driving through a cornfield, frantically turning to and fro, before coming to a stop before the Doctor and the TARDIS, who has since assumed a wardrobe change: his professorial suit-jacket, white shirt, and red bowtie having been replaced with a brown leather topcoat, yellow shirt, and navy blue bowtie. Well…at least he’s still rocking the “cool” bowtie. As it turns out, Amy and Rory have spelt out “The Doctor” in the middle of a cornfield in order to contact him, which then appeared on the cover of the local paper. After some somber conversation reveals that Doctor has not yet found Melody, Rory notices that the crop circle pictured in the paper suddenly has a new element added to it. It is immediately revealed that the line across the Doctor’s name is created by “Mels,” a n’er-do-well (and Afro-British) friend of Amelia and Rory, never before introduced, who has stolen a Corvette while escaping from the police. After some lugubrious banter where Mels flirts with the Doctor and reveals that she knows everything about him, she pulls a gun and insists that he help her escape. After asking where she would like to go, she responds, “You have a time machine, I have a gun. What the hell? Let’s go kill Hitler!”
After the credits, a cute, humorous montage shows Mels growing up with Amelia and Rory and eventually maturing into a young criminal malcontent as their relationship blossoms into romance. At the montage’s end, we join our travelers already aboard the TARDIS with Mels having inexplicably shot up the big centrifuge in the middle of the control panel, sending the ship spinning out of control through the space time continuum. Meanwhile, in Berlin 1938, a random Nazi officer is tracked back to his room by a robotic shapeshifter, the Teselecta, piloted by hundreds of tiny futuristic people and protected internally by robotic antibodies (wasn’t this an Eddie Murphy movie that me, you, and no self- respecting warm-blooded creature ever saw?). The “antibodies” recognize a person as a crew member by a bracelet they wear on that wrist that glows green for safe (a red bracelet or no bracelet means the antibodies try to kill you). Following the Nazi back to his office, the Robot takes on his form, bit by bit, before shrinking him down, sucking him inside, and feeding him to the antibodies.
The Robot makes his way to Hitler’s office, and there the command crew identifies Hitler and finds him guilty, zapping him with a white light that causes him tremendous pain. Realizing that they have arrived too early in the timestream for Hitler’s death, they begin to abort their assassination attempt when the TARDIS bursts through the window and knocks the Robot to the ground. After getting off the TARDIS, the crew gets their bearing, and the Doctor is suddenly rather horrified to learn that he just saved Hitler. The Doctor: “Believe me…it was an accident.”
After the Doctor warns Adolph that “the British are coming,” the Teselecta revives and is immediately shot up by Hitler (that’s a sentence I’d never thought I’d type). After locking Hitler up in a cupboard, the Doctor examines the disguised Robot, who faints on cue a little too conveniently. Before the Doctor can try to investigate, however, it turns out that Mels was hit with one of Hitler’s stray bullets, and is about to die. The Robot’s crew identifies the TARDIS and links it with a criminal of history that apparently dwarfs Hitler in reputation, which turns out to be Melody – the Doctor’s killer!
As the Doctor, Amelia, and Rory comfort the “dying” Mels, she reveals that her parents are in the room with her. Mels then begins going through the Time Lord regeneration process; as should have been no surprise, “Mels” is short for “Melody.” Amelia: “I named my daughter after her…” The Doctor: “You named your daughter after your daughter.” So, as Melody points out, Amy and Rory actually “got to raise her after all.” And before you can say “Geronimo,” Mels regenerates…into the woman we know as River Song!
After a fun little sequence where Melody “gets to know” her new self (including weighing herself…too funny), the Teselecta crew identifies Melody. A extremely fun little segment then plays out where Melody, who is programmed to kill the Doctor, keeps trying to pull it off, only for it to be revealed that the Doctor has disarmed her ahead of time. After giving the Doctor a brief kiss on the lips, Melody states her attention to head into downtown Berlin to raise some hell. As the Doctor moves to stop her, it is revealed that Melody dosed her lipstick with a special poison, and he collapses. As he struggles to regain composure, he sends Amy and Rory to follow her, being sure to arm Amelia with his sonic screwdriver.
After taking out a group of Nazi guards, Melody arms herself with a few machine guns and hops aboard a motorcycle. Rory then knocks out a Nazi and steals his bike to follow her, but as it turns out, the Nazi is the Teselecta, and sure enough, he joins the chase on a spontaneously generated motorcycle.
Having pulled himself onto the TARDIS, the Doctor cycles through various images in the “Voice Interface” system, including past companions Rose Tyler, Donna Noble, and Martha Jones until he finds one he “hasn’t screwed up yet.” Finally selecting the eight year old version of Amelia Pond, the TARDIS cheerlessly tells him that he has only 32 minutes to live, and that the poison has deactivated his regeneration properties, to which the Doctor replies, “You are SO Scottish…”
Meanwhile, Melody barges into a nearby five star restaurant, where the Nazi elite are dining peacefully, firing her machine guns into the ceiling and claiming that “she has nothing to wear.” Outside, Amy and Rory pull up, wondering how they are going to find their daughter. On cue, the patrons of the restaurant come running out of the front door in their undergarments and screaming in terror. Before the two of them can respond, however, the Teselecta shows up, having already transformed into Amelia. Inside the restaurant, Melody is trying on the latest in Nazi fashions, when the Teselecta/Amelia walks inside the Restaurant.
Amy and Rory then wake up inside the mouth of the Robot, having been shrunken and ingested. Rory: “I sure hope this isn’t a metaphor.” The antibodies try to destroy them, politely informing them that they may feel some discomfort during the incineration process, before a crew member provides them with the green-lit bracelets to protect them. Melody, confronted by the Teselecta for killing the Doctor and otherwise showing no remorse, is then zapped by the white light. But the Doctor and the Tardis again appear in the nick of time, with Time Lord dressed to the nines in a top hat and tails and assisted by an awesome sonic cane. Melody: “You’re dying…and you stopped to change?” The Doctor then identifies the nature of the Teselecta with the sonic cane, but his sickness gets the better of him. Melody tries to run, but the Teselecta stops her and traps her in force field. The Doctor tells the Teselecta not to kill Melody, but the Teselecta Captain is incredulous as to why. The Doctor states simply, “I’m not dead,” and since he is the one being killed, “what does it have to do with you?” The Teselecta Captain reveals that he and his crew are time travelers looking to exact justice on criminals throughout history who have escaped punishment by catching them at the end of their lifeline and “give them hell.”
The Doctor demands to have the details of his death revealed, and with Amelia’s help, the Teselecta reveals that the Silence are the ones behind Melody’s brainwashing. After asking who the Silence is, the Robot reveals that the Silence are not actually a race, but a religious order who believe that “silence will fall when the question is asked.” “The Question,” apparently, is the oldest question in universe and “hidden in plain sight.” Of course, the Teselecta has no idea what the Question is, leaving the Doctor to complain, as only he can.
As the Doctor is about to die, the Teselecta crew “gives her hell,” and Melody begins to be burned alive. The Doctor insists that Amelia save Melody, so she uses the sonic screwdriver to deactivate all of the Teselecta crew’s green bracelets, leading to the crew having to shut down their entire system to prevent the antibodies from killing them. The Teselecta crew teleport away, but Rory and Amelia are about to be killed by the antibodies. While the Doctor struggles to save them, he accidentally calls Melody River for the third time, leading her to wonder who River is. Moved by his willingness to help her parents despite his own imminent death, she insists on knowing who River is. ..
Just before Rory and Amelia are killed, the TARDIS materializes around them and saves them, but it’s Melody who is piloting it, not the Doctor. She is shocked by the fact it knows her, and that the Doctor told her that “she is a child of the Tardis.” Returning to the dying Doctor, he asks Rory and Amy to let her speak to Melody, where he asks her to deliver a message to River Song. He whispers the message to her, to which she replies, “I’m sure she knows.” The Doctor then…dies.
Melody asks Amy who River Song is, and Amy approaches the Teselecta and asks it to transform into River Song, which it does, revealing to Melody who she really is. Lamenting her crime, River’s hands begin to glow. Melody: “Tell me…is he worth it?” Amelia: “Yes!” She then touches the Doctor and regenerates him, giving him her trademark greeting “Hello Sweetie” for what is, for her, the first time. She then kisses him, as time vortex energy swirls all about them.
A little while later, River awakens in a futuristic hospital bed surrounded by Rory, Amy, and the Doctor, and it is revealed that she sacrificed all her future regenerations to resurrect the Doctor. The attending nurse tells them “She’ll be absolutely fine.” The Doctor replies, “No, she won’t…she’ll be absolutely amazing.” He then gives her the TARDIS journal that had also previously been her trademark.
After leaving her at the hospital, Rory and Amy lament leaving their daughter behind and ask the Doctor why the future River who they’ve met is in prison for murder. The Doctor smiles, and does not answer them. Moments earlier, it is revealed that the Doctor has downloaded the contents of the Teselecta’s memory, and now knows the date of his confrontation with the Astronaut…and his of his own death.
In a final tag, River Song is asked by a professor in the 5zst century “Why do you want to study archaeology?” Clutching her TARDIS journal, she replies that “she’s looking for a good man.”
How will the Doctor react to knowledge of his death going forward? Is River Song the Astronaut? Will he really die? What is the Ultimate Question that the Silence believes will destroy the Universe (and will it)? And what’s the link between the Silence and the One-Eyed Woman? What’s with the Doctor’s new, slightly more rugged look? Is it a sign he is accepting his reputation as a warrior instead of a healer?
Also, where can I get a sonic cane? I really want one.
What we do know now are the basic origins of River Song…though, as stated, her final role in the Doctor’s death remains unknown.
One final intriguing development is that the series finally answered the question of whether or not a Time Lord can actually change race during the regeneration process, which Melody’s changing from Mels to River clearly establishes it as possible. Likely, this means that we might have a non-Caucasian incarnation of the Doctor in our future. May I personally suggest Chiwetel Eliofor?
A really good episode, and as usual for the series, it featured some of Stephen Moffat’s amazingly clever and creative science fiction plotting in clearing up River Song’s origin story, as well as a slew of very funny lines. It’s also incredibly crucial to the overall mythology of the series. Personally, though, the episode has been the latest to take the series into very serious territory, and that has taken a bit of the fun out of it for me. Also after seeing the Doctor being killed, defeated, and outsmarted throughout the first half of the season, seeing him slowly dying for almost half an hour was a bit of a downer, as well as the fact Melody clearly underwent some serious trauma to turn her into a psychopathic killing machine. I also haven’t really been a fan of the chemistry between Matt Smith and Alex Kingston, though they are both undeniably fun in their roles.
Next Week: “Night Terrors”
(Wanted to start my first book piece with something of a little greater literary value, but I happened to read this the other day and felt passionately enough about it to write this up, so here it is.)
Though I have been a fan of superhero comics since youth, I’ve never been one to defend them, as others have been overeager to, as being anything high brow or of great redeeming cultural value. There’s a really good reason for that; though I’ve certainly read comic books and graphic novels which have shown amazing narrative form, surprising intelligence, exceptional creativity, and brilliant illustrations, there’s something that the vast majority share in common that often precludes them from making that further step toward becoming high art and/or high literature. It isn’t one of the common flaws you would think typical of comic book media, such as the ridiculous costumes, implausible names, and exaggerated physiques (all worthy points of criticism and exclusion, to be sure). For me, simply put, it’s the violence. Comic book worlds are wrought with overly trivialized acts of sometimes random, indiscriminate, and even appalling violence. Few, if any, problems in these universes are ever solved through nonviolent means, and those same problems are almost always initially caused by violent transgressions. With that said, violence is an unavoidable and consistent part of our mass entertainment, and when done with proper tone and restraint it can be cathartic and fun in spite of its relative moral dubiousness. However, far too often in modern comic media over the last twenty or so years, and especially so in the last decade, the violence depicted in American mainstream superhero comics has crossed a real fine line, often becoming morbid, unrelenting, unpleasant, and ultimately unredeeming. For me, Marvel Comics’ Ultimatum represents the textbook example of how violence in mainstream comics may have finally gone so far beyond its tipping point that there may be no return.
A limited series published over five issues between late 2008 and summer 2009, Ultimatum was presented as the major climactic culmination of Marvel’s “Ultimate” line of comics. For those unfamiliar with the particularities of comic book publishing, the Ultimate imprint, which once included the continuous series Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Fantastic Four and additional limited series such as the three Ultimates series (the Ultimates being the imprint’s version of the popular Avengers), was launched in 2000 and its continuity exists independently of the mainstream Marvel Universe. Faced with a reading audience whose average age was skewing far older than ever before, and with both initial X-Men and Spider-man films being released within a few years of each other, Marvel crafted the Ultimate imprint as a way of drawing a new, younger generation into becoming comic book fans. Unencumbered by the mainstream universe’s very dense (and in some cases, borderline impregnable) continuities, the Ultimate imprint reintroduced many of the famous superheroes and supervillains of the Marvel universe and recast their origins in a more contemporary and relevant setting. Beginning with Spider-Man, and then continuing with the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and so on, the Ultimate line was, in essence, an isolated rebooting of the Marvel universe and its iconic characters presented for a new, younger, hipper generation.
Though many older “purists” never embraced the concept and certain aspects of the presentation faced criticism, the idea was initially very successful, both commercially and creatively. The art and writing were mostly consistent, and sometimes, surprisingly sophisticated. After a few years, though, the concept began to sputter a bit, as some attempts to modernize characters were far more successful than others and the line began to grow relatively stagnant. Before long, the Ultimate imprint appeared to lose interest in trying to present their characters to a new generation of readers and instead fell into the same isoteric traps that had plagued the mainstream continuity. The writing itself felt more concerned with appealing to the stalwart fans than attracting new eyes. New approaches to old characters, instead of being fresh interpretations for a new generation, seemed to be more concerned with intriguing (or annoying) longtime fans with their new variations of old characters and storylines than standing on their own. A possible reason for this was that many many writers and artists who worked on the Ultimate line also worked on the mainstream continuity, and as a result the two separate universes began to feel too similar in tone.
Existing independently of the canonical burden placed on the main continuity, the Ultimate line in recent years became more focused on marketing itself as a continuity where “anything can happen;” major characters could, and would, die, and the seemingly biblical rules that held the mainstream in check could be changed at a moment’s notice. In the very beginning of the run, this was actually a good thing, as one of the core strengths of the Ultimate universe was its relative verisimilitude. While characters in the mainstream universe aged gradually, if at all, in the Ultimate universe they aged with more consistency and in better correlation with reality (the Ultimate Iron Man/Tony Stark, for instance, has cancer and thus only has a set amount of time left to live). And then there was the violence: the Ultimate universe, like the mainstream one, was incredibly violent, but the violence was again treated more realistically than in its mainstream counterpart. In addition to being substantially more graphic, catastrophic damage did not repair itself overnight, and many of the series were very frank about the collateral damage in human lives that battles between superhuman demigods could cost. For a case in point, when the Ultimate incarnation of Bruce Banner changed in the middle of downtown Manhattan into his incalculably strong and perpetually enraged counterpart the Hulk, civilians died by the hundreds. Nothing here was sugar-coated, which in the beginning was a refreshing approach and gave the various series an increased gravitas and a more somber poignancy.
However, the Ultimate line inevitably became symptomatic of the “crisis/event” trend that has emerged as a constant in mainstream comics over the last decade, and really since September 11. The conflicts of good and evil in both the Marvel and DC comics universes have, more and more, been played out on an epic scale, with battles involving hundreds of characters and the threat of complete extinction being a constant, overused danger to each of the many universes. Near-apocalypses are nothing new to comic books (superheroes “save the world” as a natural course), but since September 11, manifestations of the death-obsession and teases of the end times have become too numerous to mention. As someone who was tangentially involved in September 11 and has studied post-millenial anxiety, I have personally found comics’ continued representations of the end times to be quite fatiguing, and it has often made catching up on mainstream comic books feel more like a chore than a diversion. It was inevitable that the overarching doomsday fetish in mainstream comics would eventually coincide with the escalating violence particular to the Ultimate universe. And the result of this was Ultimatum.
The story of Ultimatum is not especially complex; after the death of his two children, the superheroes Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, the mutant supervillain Magneto goes insane and, abandoning his ideological desire for mutant supremacy, attempts to annihilate all human life on Earth. Using his magnetic powers to flip the Earth’s magnetic poles and push the planet off its axis, Magneto spawns countless number natural disasters around the globe and within moments murders millions of people, including a fair number of superheroes and supervillains. Faced with the horrific loss of life, Professor X, leader of the X-Men, uses his telepathy to alert the few remaining superheroes of Magneto’s guilt, before himself being murdered in cold blood by his old nemesis. The remaining story focuses on the heroes essentially regrouping, counting their losses, and quelling some various disastrous conflicts before going directly to Magneto’s home base for a final showdown with the Master of Magnetism.
In many respects, Ultimatum reads very much like the comic book equivalent of a snuff film. Dozens of heroes and villains are killed during the course of the story, and in ways that appear horrifically brutal. Dismemberment, incineration, decapitation, drowning, and worse are continuously depicted as happening to characters that have, for years, engendered an emotional attachment to the reader, and some of the most famous characters in Marvel’s history are not excluded from the death toll (including those with their own movie franchises). Even New York City becomes struck down by a tsunami, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and that’s only in the first few pages! Nothing seems beyond the pale here, including suicide bombers and cannibalism.
What’s worse is that the many of the heroes become the perpetrators of some of these violent actions, especially at the climax of the story. And that really gets to the heart of all of the carnage on display in Ultimatum: there’s nothing ultimately (no pun intended) redemptive about any of it. This is just a depiction of nihilistic pain and destruction, seemingly with the only real purpose to show that it could be done. Though written by the acclaimed Jeph Loeb (who had not written for the Ultimate universe prior to this), this feels more like a tawdry, vulgarized fan fiction written by an extremely embittered and sadistic fan then a work of a top grade publishing house. But instead, this was a major comics publisher’s attempt to appeal to its fanbase by advertising the kind of violence that it could not normally get away with. But this is not entertainment, even by post-millenial standards; it’s a fetish for catastrophe, designed to appeal to a limited amount of fans of horrific violence and gore. For an imprint that was designed to broaden comic book readership, one wonders who this was really supposed to appeal to.
To be fair to comic book fans and critics, Ultimatum was near universally panned and rejected upon its completion. According to IVc2, while the first issue was the best-selling comic released that month (at about 115,000 copies sold), the second issue sold about 20,000 less than the debut (which contained the depicted destruction of New York City), and the final issue was about 10,000 less than that one, meaning that it ultimately lost about a quarter of its audience over its duration. In the aftermath of Ultimatum, the Ultimate imprint was rechristened and streamlined as Ultimate Comics, and this month will be relaunched (yet) again.
Reading something like Ultimatum personally made me feel somewhat sad about what superhero comics have turned into. Once upon a time, they were compelling, action-themed soap operas with moralistic cores and engaging characters both good and evil. After the late 1980s and the work of Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and others, they grew more sophisticated and introspective (and violent), but they still understood their basic core appeal. Now, however, they seem more concerned with appropriating the pain and anxiety of our times and using it as fodder for violent spectacles that have abandoned almost all allegorical purpose. Nothing really embodies this more for me than Ultimatum: with its entire appeal designed toward literally tearing down its own heroic world in a violent spectacle of blood and apocalyptic disaster. While as I said, I’ve never considered them high brow or high art, I’ve always considered superhero comics to be quality escapism. But in the end, something like Ultimatum isn’t escapism; it’s something to escape from.
The release of Disney/Pixar’s Cars 2 last month came accompanied by a certain modicum of notoriety. The film, a sequel to the 2006 film Cars, is the 12th feature film produced by Pixar Animation Studios; the latest output from a studio whose name has been near synonymous with “quality.” Over the last sixteen years, Pixar has established the most unenviable dynasty in motion pictures: beginning really with their first feature, 1995’s Toy Story, each Pixar film has succeeded as both a commercial juggernaut and a critical darling, yielding box office earnings often well into the hundreds of millions of dollars (last year’s Toy Story 3 – technically the most successful animated film of all time – topped $1 billion) and such acclaim that the studio has completely dominated the Animated Film category at the Academy Awards for its entire, albeit brief, existence. Of the ten years the Award has existed, Pixar has been nominated eight times – once for every year it was elligible, and was victorious six of those years (and, in my opinion, the loss of Monsters, Inc to Shrek in 2001 was a travesty). Also, though due admmittedly in part to the expanded pool of Best Picture nominees chosen each year, both Up and Toy Story 3 each received the top nomination the last two years; and despite the brouhaha that built between Avatar and Hurt Locker for Best Picture of 2009, that honor, in my opinion, rightfully belonged to Up. The films are additionally remarkable in that their appeal extends far beyond the traditional family audience of animated/Disney fare, having cultivated an “event film” reputation that has extended itself to a decent-sized legion of adult filmgoers. Even to many cineastes and cinema scholars (and especially anti-auteurists), the studio stands as the paragon for collaborative filmmaking; Pixar has always been purported to function as almost a collective, where many voices are allowed to share their opinions and criticisms, with all films being creatively vetted by personnel at all levels of creation and development. Now with the coming of Cars 2, arguments have developed about the current position of Pixar’s once unassailable dynasty. Some, in the face of such elevated expectations, have attempted to write the eulogy for that dynasty; to others, it’s simply one misstep on an ever-developing and growing legacy of films. What (almost) everyone can certainly agree on, though, is this: Cars 2 just wasn’t any good.
As someone who has always enthusiastically enjoyed Pixar’s output, I’m personally more inclined to the latter of these two stated positions. It’s exceedingly rare when anything so great can last more than a little while; it’s just a simple fact that amazing accomplishments often do not, and cannot, maintain. It was inevitable that Pixar would stumble eventually, at least aesthetically, if not commercially (though commercially speaking, Cars 2 has proven largely underwhelming, if still profitable).
Where the issue of Cars 2 becomes disconcerting for fans and observers of Pixar’s success is in the nature of its failure. This film was not a victim of an elevated horizon of expectation; a good effort that simply missed the chance to be great; it was simply a very weak and flawed concept. It is certainly one thing for a film to aim high and misfire, but Cars 2 stands as inauspiciously unambitious for part of the Pixar canon; a canon that, thus far, has been marked by a sense of creative daring, intelligence, and boundless imagination. In comparison to such recent exemplary recent fare such as Ratatouille, Up, and Wall-E, Cars 2 feels instead like a straight up “cash grab.”
The original Cars itself represented perhaps the previous lowpoint of the Pixar dynasty, which in and of itself is hardly a criticism. Directed by Pixar Animation co-founder John Lasseter and set in a world where all forms of life are living, talking, anthropomorphic commercial vehicles (and mainly automobiles), Cars told the story of hotshot race car Lightning McQueen, who learns about the value of community, selflessness, friendship, and simply living while he spends a few days stuck in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Like all Pixar films, Cars was extremely well made, exceptionally creative in its detail work, with an impeccable voice cast (including Paul Newman in one of his final roles), and a genuinely sweet story that conveyed its message fairly well.
It was good, maybe even very good, but it wasn’t great; besides Monsters, Inc, it was the only other Pixar film to lose the Animated Film Oscar in the year it was nominated. It also wasn’t Pixar’s greatest commercial success at the box office, but nor was it the worst. Where it proved extremely successful, however, was in merchandise. With the notable exception of the Toy Story brand, Cars merch remained viable and the brand durable during the five years since the film left theaters. According to the Los Angeles Times just prior to Cars 2‘s theatrical release, revunue from Cars merchandise over the last five years has totalled about $10 billion in revenue, or over twenty times the first film’s overall worldwide box office. The other, very remarkable films I’ve mentioned, such as Up, Wall-E, Ratatouille, or even the far more commercial Incredibles are all superior films by far, but in many cases their profitability did not extend to far past the box office and home media. Two months prior to the release of Up, many alarmist Wall Street analysts actually downgraded Disney’s stock because of their fears about the film’s commercial viability and merchandising potential. They were certainly wrong about the former – the film was a massive success – but merchandise was initially limited to Disney stores and specialty retail outfits. With eyes toward the bottom line, one can see why making a sequel to Cars would seem incredibly practical from the perspective of brand strengthening alone.
In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that; Pixar’s track record with sequels, as displayed with the excellent Toy Story films, are hardly anything to sneeze at. For all that the panegyrical praise I (and certainly others) have placed upon Pixar Animation here, they are, and have always been, a commercial enterprise. That they have always managed to maintain creative and qualitative standards while doing so is exemplary, but that doesn’t change the fact that Pixar is about producing blockbuster film properties, first and foremost, and now as the property of the Disney Media conglomerate (their former corporate partners who bought them outright in 2006), it answers that master, or monster, above all.
Whether it was simply a hollow attempt to add longevity to a successful brand or not, it’s actually shocking how antithetical Cars 2 presents itself to Pixar’s traditional standard of filmmaking. Though showing the level of computer-generated, animated artistry typical of the Pixar brand, the movie remains a remarkably ill-conceived endeavor. While the first film was something of a smalltown fish-out-of-water comedy combined with touches of a sports/racing movie, Cars 2 presents itself as something from an entirely different genre – a spy movie, of all things. It’s a jarringly schizophrenic about-face, that’s for sure. According to Lasseter, who returns here as a co-director (and is now the head of all Disney animation), the idea was to create a spy movie without making a parody of one. A large part of the problem, besides the stark shift in tone, is that really doesn’t lend itself to being entertaining. There are moments here that are intended to be funny, and certainly, being set in a world of talking cars is inherently a silly premise, but there is really no farce at play here; it’s pretty much a straight arrow spy movie in a world that is inherently comedic. The film also makes the very strange, and pretty much fatal decision, to give the starrring role to the tow truck Mater (voiced by the comedian Larry the Cable Guy), who in the previous film played a supporting role to Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and who otherwise defines the phrase “a little bit goes a long way.”
In the film, the incompetent Mater’s borderline uncomfortable boundary issues with Lightning lead to him being confused for an American spy by a pair of British secret agents (Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer), and subsequently drawn into an espionage plot involving alternative fuel sources in a manner that, even by the standards of a film populated by talking cars, feels contrived and threadbare. Overall, the plotline and narrative development felt like a half-hour Saturday morning cartoon (or is it Friday evening nowadays?) stretched to nearly two hours. The characters, who were fairly nuanced in the previous film, are now too simplistic, and their journeys feel especially tiresome and nowhere near compelling enough for the film’s length.
Certainly, one of the film’s greatest problems is the focus on Mater. A.O. Scott, in his review of the film, made the exaggerated but astute comparison that the character feels like Pixar’s equivalent of Jar Jar Binks – a crude, pandering, simplistic, and even offensive stereotype, who wears on our patience instead of earning out interest. Unfortunately, though, unlike Jar Jar, Mater is not a supporting role, but the lead, and it doesn’t help that the character’s social faux pas are often squirm-inducingly awkward instead of endearing and empathetic. The appeal of Larry the Cable Guy (real name: Daniel Lawrence Whitney), whose Southern hick caricature embodies Mater (Whitney is actually a Midwesterner from Nebraska), can be called limited. Whitney’s act is basically designed to be an outrageously unfair caricature designed to appeal to a demographic that is often unfairly caricatured; a backwards hayseed designed to be laughed at by “backwards hayseeds.” Other films featuring the character have been box office failures, and one can only wonder what Lasseter and Pixar were thinking spending $200 million on what amounts to a Larry the Cable Guy vehicle. It’s not my intention to sound elitist here; I’m sure there is plenty about the character that, in the right situation, may possibly be amusing, even funny, and Whitney certainly does have his following. But Cars was smart, in retrospect, to surround Mater with other sources of humor so those not really impressed by Whitney’s act could find other things to be amused by. Here however, it’s all-Mater, all the time.
What feels almost mind-bogglingly stupid about this choice is that Cars 2 has no shortage of amazing comedic voice talent. Besides Wilson, voice actors include Eddie Izzard, Bruce Campbell, John Turturro, and Caine, almost all of whom could be hilarious given the right material but here are provided with few, if any, opportunities to be anything better than occassionally amusing. Caine especially feels wasted; as a movie star, Michael Caine is a creature of two faces – Caine the Actor and Caine the Persona. Caine the Actor is a great, classically trained thespian and one of the most consummate professionals remaining from his generation. Caine the Persona is a self-aware, constantly winking comedy figure with a inimitable cockney dialect, endless charm, and a constant twinkle in his eye. What this movie should have utilized was Caine the Persona. Instead, Caine the Actor has little to do but play things fairly straight and even. The idea, certainly, of Michael Caine giving voice to a spy character lends itself to farcical and satirical potential, but he was consistantly funnier playing superspy Harry Palmer over forty years ago than he is here.
Though generally antithetical to the Pixar approach, Cars 2 still illustrates the studio’s strong point – it’s unmatched standard in computer animation. That element here remains peerless and unbelievably detailed; the plot traverses three countries as part of a Worldwide “grand prix” series of races, and Pixar holds back nothing in recreating Tokyo, Rome, and London as reminagined in the Cars universe. Some sequences are even quite breathtaking, including an opening action set piece involving the Caine character on an oil platform. Clearly, the flaws in Cars 2 are not of craftmanship; the work of Lasseter and many different visionary minds with hundreds of clever ideas are on display here, retaining the collective approach that has made Pixar an amazing brand. But in the end, it all serves a mediocre central concept, one that seemed ultimately more designed to be an ungodly expensive toy commercial than a suitably entertaining and engaging motion picture.
Right now, it’s too early to tell if Cars 2 will be able to maintain the strength of the Cars brand or if it will be a brand killer; I personally suspect that the end result will lie somewhere in the middle. Certainly, children may even enjoy Mater’s low brow antics enough to want to keep buying Cars themed products for years to come. Hopefully, though, this may mean the end of Cars films; while Cars 2 is on track to do nearly as well as its predecessor, its box office success has been dramatically inflated by increased ticket prices and the premium price placed on 3D screenings.
So what does this say about Pixar and its dynasty going forward? It’s hard to say. As flawed as Cars 2 is, one misfire does not make a trend. Given however, that the fiduciary imperitive seems to have superceded all questions of quality here is so atypical of Pixar that one must wonder whether it remains a key concern for the studio. And with the Cars franchise being so much “the baby” of John Lasseter, in many respects, makes one wonder if one voice has come to dominate the direction of the collaborative Pixar Studios too much.
The hope remains, however, that in the overall scheme of Pixar’s approach, that Cars 2 stands as an anomaly: an obvious merchandise builder that will allow the studio the leeway to continue making films such as Up and Wall-E without concerning its corporate master with worries about stock downgrades. If Pixar’s track record has shown anything, it’s that they are not stupid, and I’m sure the failings of Cars 2 will be something the studio ultimately learns from. One can even make the argument that taking such a misstep can actually be a good thing, as failure can be the mortal enemy of complacency. It’s possible that Cars 2 may force the studio to up its game over the next few years to ensure that such a misfire does not repeat itself.
While hardly a perfect comparison, I can’t help but view the Pixar dynasty as similar to that of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock may rightly be called the greatest and perhaps the most important commercial filmmaker of all time, who rarely let his passion for the artistic side of his craft get in the way of its commercial viability. Though while he has an endless list of legendary films, such as Psycho, Notorious, North by Northwest, Vertigo,and Rear Window, he also had his misfires (Torn Curtain, Jamaica Inn, Topaz, and The Trouble with Harry, to name a few). In the end, however, those films did not undermine his amazing canon; if anything, they may have given it more character.
So, in the end, Cars 2 should not be seen as the end of the Pixar Dynasty, but the nature of its failure, I feel, should be seen as a crack in the foundation the studio has built upon for the last sixteen years. What matters most is how Pixar Animation responds to it: will they ignore it, sit on their laurels, count their merchandise money, and let the foundation crumble further (which, in many respects, is what happened to Walt Disney Studio’s feature animation division back in the 1960’s all the way through the late 80’s)? Or will they learn from it, reinforce their foundation, and make their dynasty stronger as they carry on into this new millenium? I personally hope the answer to the latter is yes. Because truly, in the end, sometimes true greatness isn’t found within the measure of success, but in the ability to recover from failure.
So much has been written eulogizing the American western that to continue heaping laments on it can only be seen as repetitive and utterly redundant. Needless to say, the Western has been more or less dead for a long time now, with a few fleeting reprises every now and then reminding us how great they used to be. Sometimes very rarely, like the excellent 2007 film 3:10 To Yuma or the Coen brothers’ recent True Grit (both, it should be noted, are remakes), they remind us of how great they could still be. Cowboys & Aliens is not one of those Westerns, nor even that fond reminder of how great they used to be. Instead, it just reminds us of the very stubborn mentality that has kept the Western a dead commodity; the belief that Westerns can no longer be just Westerns…that they somehow have to be hybrids instead.
As anyone who has seen a commercial for Cowboys & Aliens already knows, the film mixes Western and science fiction genres (the latest in a largely unremarkable line), telling the story of a group of Western types and archetypes colliding with alien invaders who want nothing more than destroy the human race. Chief among the Westerners is Jake Lonnergan (Daniel Craig), an amnesiac stage coach robber, and Colonel Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford), a rough hewn rancher and veteran of many of the major American wars of the 19th century, who must lead a rag tag posse of average townsfolk to rescue their assorted loved ones after they’ve been captured by mysterious “demons” who plunge out of the sky and lasso people like stray cattle.
An initially large problem with Cowboys & Aliens exists in its choice in tone. The film plays its subject matter almost entirely straight, which I normally find appropriate, but here I would have preferred it if they went either far more tongue-in-cheek or, alternatively, more allegorical and earnest in tone. When I first heard about the film, and that director Jon Favreau would be the one helming it, I personally hoped, and even expected, something along the lines of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., one of my personal favorite one season wonders and among the best, and first, of the Western-Sci-fi hybrids. Brisco County was a rousing, clever, funny series of romps filled with old fashioned derring-do that never took itself too seriously. After enjoying the comedic flourish that were key to both Iron Man movies, I somewhat expected Favreau to add that same touch to a film with a title as silly as Cowboys & Aliens, but that was not to be, and the film is far less entertaining, and certainly more blase, for it.
On the other hand, Cowboys & Aliens could have also worked better by going the opposite direction; there were many deeper themes that the film could have incorporated that were ultimately left untouched. The obvious one to me was the notion inherent in most Westerns, Manifest Destiny. I mean, there really is an obvious irony when the predominantly white Europeans attempting to conquer the untamed West and its assorted indigenous cultures themselves face extinction from an another eradicating race. The role of technology and the Industrial Revolution (a theme featured prominently in the 3:10 To Yuma remake) in the taming of the West would have been another. Or even, if they just wanted to go the sentimentalized route, they could have made something out of the idea that the strength and toughness of American character of those who lived in the West was enough to conquer invaders from space. Instead, in a reoccuring action that almost becomes an unintended running gag, the Cowboys and Indians fighting the aliens are best able to hold their own because they have horses that can be killed before they are. The film, however, doesn’t touch upon any of these themes, and generally does its level best to stay subtext-free. The only exception on hand involves the Indians (as in, Native Americans) with whom the Cowboys eventually form an alliance. The film treads upon the tired theme in contemporary Hollywood cinema of revising the horrors of colonial genocide by making the white characters ultimately benevolent to the colonized. But really, it’s hardly special in that regard.
Cowboys & Aliens is not without its qualities. I found some of the little touches of UFO and abductee culture referenced by the film to be pretty clever, and many of the action scenes were perfectly solid. The supporting cast is superb, including Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, and Walton Goggins. But they represent a double edged sword as well, given that some of the material simply falls short of the quality of the actors. Harrison Ford was also something of a disappointment; one would think he would be in his element in a Western, but there were many times his performance felt overly anachronistic. The lovely Olivia Wilde, too, as a mysterious woman trying to help Lonnergan regain his memory, also demonstrated that she hasn’t yet found her breakthrough “superstar” role.
The script itself felt like it could have used additional rewrite or two (of course, given the credited four writers, the opposite might be more accurate). The film has a good first act, and introduces some potentially interesting characters, but then they are subsequently abducted by the aliens and remain offscreen for the rest of the story. The Dollarhyde character, too, seems in his introduction to be a villain, but before long he’s very clearly one of the film’s heroes. It’s actually a really jarring situation, and it may be why Ford’s performance suffers as much as it does.
It would be highly unfair to call the movie overtly bad, but it would be equally so to call it good; it’s ultimately just kind of there. For me, Cowboys & Aliens falls firmly into the category of what I call a “cable movie”: if you come across it on a cable channel some afternoon or late at night, it may suck you in. You may watch it, moderately enjoy it, but then barely remember it twenty minutes after it’s over.
In the greater scheme of the post-Western era, Cowboys & Aliens will probably be little more than a footnote, if that. But while watching it, as I watched so many of the modes and methods, types and tropes of the Western genre getting subsumed by elements of science fiction, they almost felt atrophied. And it made me think about where the Western stands now, and where it may stand going forward. Thirty and forty years ago, many of the emerging visionaries that redefined the culture of American filmmaking learned to be filmmakers by watching the great and classic Westerns of Ford and Hawks. Nowadays, when Westerns are referenced, those references seem to go back no further than Sergio Leone and the spaghetti Westerns. It made me wonder if the time may someday come where filmmakers may no longer ween themselves on Westerns at all, and if all that will be left representing it to future generations will be movies like Cowboys & Aliens. If that does happen, then they won’t make them like they used to…only like what we’re used to.