On Being the Prodigal

Our Lord doesn’t specify how long the prodigal son was away in His parable, but one must imagine it to be a fairly long time, given that he had the chance to spend all his money, enjoy the company of harlots, live lavishly, and so on. I bring it up because I think that parable applies aptly, not just to us as individual sinners, but to the civilization formerly known as Christendom in general.

Like the prodigal son, the last few generations have taken our inheritance (the wealth, grandeur, and security that our fathers labored to produce), told our ‘Father’ to go to Hell, and set about spending every cent we have on lavish living, fondly imagining the security and wealth piled up before we were born will last forever without our having to do anything about it. Thus, we declare anything inconvenient to our chosen lifestyle to be ‘outdated,’ imagining that the results will continue even after the cause is removed. We toss off the family, free enterprise, hard work, letters, tradition, and the most basic ideas of culture in favor of a ‘do what you want, welcome everyone’ attitude. We think nothing of tearing up the basic foundations of society, like marriage, the church, and the community, because we fondly imagine the stability they created will continue without them. We preach multiculturalism because we assume that the results of our cultural norms are permanent and will endure if the culture changes.

In short, we squander our inheritance.

The sin of the prodigal came in dishonoring his father by taking his inheritance for granted as a right rather than a responsibility. Whatever he had from his father, he threw away because he assumed he didn’t have to do anything to maintain it and it was simply his to do with as he liked. We moderns do the same with the rich inheritance of the west, assuming that the relative peace, security, and wealth that we enjoy is ours by right, rather than the hard-earned product of labor which is our responsibility to maintain.

I can picture the prodigal son at his lavish parties telling his new friends all about his father and brother; how his father was a senile old fool and his brother a stuck-up hypocrite, much as we treat our forefathers with contempt and ridicule even as we enjoy the fruits of their labor and despise our ‘brothers’ who actually try to live up to their responsibilities.

Now, as you know, this isn’t to say the ‘elder brother’ is model to follow: he has his own failures and temptations. Perhaps, in the end, it is better to be the prodigal, but only after the prodigal returns. At the moment, we’re still living it up, though there are signs that the great famine is coming, where we’ll long to eat the husks that are given to the pigs. Perhaps after that we’ll come to our senses and seek forgiveness, and maybe then we’ll be in a position to criticize the behavior of the elder brother.

At the moment, though, we’re not in much of a position to criticize anyone.

Why I Love ‘Independence Day’

x538            When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.

The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).

So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.

As for me, I’m glad we have it.

This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s cheesy pulp sci-fi done as epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works; we very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.

At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and irritating characters.

The leads here, meanwhile, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they’re pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father.

More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.

The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to defend the American way of life from the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.

The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, unmarried, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have in that way of life, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the values they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.

On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of those values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there can be no peace between them.

In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.

The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to have been using the Earth’s satellites in their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to go on hoping) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.

Friends and Monsters Part Three

I finally published the last part of my My Little Pony-Godzilla crossover story! 

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Sample:

Godzilla’s arrival in Manehatten was accompanied by a massive tidal wave as his bulk displaced enough water to swamp the docks and flood the whole waterfront. He strode ashore, streaming seawater off his flanks as his feet crushed the wharves and warehouses. He was as tall as most of the skyscrapers.

“Remember,” said Twilight as she and Fluttershy flew close beside his head. “We need you to subdue, Mogu; not kill him. If you kill him, King Ghidorah’s spirit will be set free and still be able to menace Equestria.”

Godzilla snorted, then roared a challenge across the city.

“He understands,” said Fluttershy. The two ponies retreated to the Ponyville balloon, with which they had led Godzilla to Manehatten and his showdown with Mogu.

“Well, now we see if this works,” said Applejack as Twilight and Fluttershy rejoined the others.

“It will,” said Rainbow Dash, who had been receiving magical medical treatment from Starlight and Twilight along the way. “I’m definitely betting on the Big G there to win. I mean, I’ve fought him.”

“We all fought him,” Applejack reminded her.

“I really don’t think you can call what you did ‘fighting,’ AJ,” said Rainbow smugly.

“Girls, that’s not really the point here,” said Twilight a little testily. She was nervous, and Rainbow and Applejack’s usual bickering was not helping.

Godzilla roared again. From the top of the Equestrian State Building, Mogu gave an answering cry and sprang into the air.

The dragon flew straight at the monster, lifted his head, and unleashed his heat beam. It lanced across Godzilla’s chest, and the monster roared in pain and stepped back, but stayed standing. His dorsal plates blazed blue as Mogu flew past him, banked, and turned to make another run. The Atomic Ray burst from Godzilla’s jaws, slicing across the skies after Mogu. The dragon yelped and put on a burst of speed, trying to escape the destructive beam. The ray cut through a skyscraper, blowing off the top floors. As Godzilla cut his ray, Mogu banked and flew straight for him. The monster roared in rage and charged up Harness Boulevard to meet the oncoming dragon. Mogu struck him head on, sinking his claws into Godzilla’s gills and pivoting around to dig his back claws into the monster’s side.

With a howl of fury, Godzilla twisted his head around and bit hard into Mogu’s arm, at the same time pummeling the dragon’s body to dislodge him.

Mogu shrieked under the terrible blows and tried to fly away, but Godzilla maintained a bulldog grip on his arm, twisting and pulling him around and slamming him into a hi-rise apartment. The impact shook Mogu free of the monster’s grip as the building collapsed about him. Godzilla closed in, seeking to finish him off, but Mogu’s tail swept out and slashed across his face, giving the dragon the chance to take to the sky once more. The dragon banked and flew at him from behind. Godzilla twisted his head to follow his progress, but seemed to make no move to avoid the attack.

Idiot, Mogu thought. Looks like he’s too slow to keep up.

Don’t underestimate him, fool! Ghidorah snapped.

Come on; he’s not even turning…

Then, just before he reached him, Godzilla suddenly ducked and twisted, swiping the air with his huge tail. It slammed into Mogu and sent him careening through the skies and into the side of an office building. Before he could recover, Godzilla’s massive fist slammed into the side of his face, smashing it back into structure. Steel beams bent and concrete shattered as Godzilla pummeled Mogu, pushing him further and further into the building until, at last, it collapsed into rubble on top of him.

RIP Adam West

More sad news: Adam West, forever immortalized in the infamously cheesy 1960s Batman show, has passed away at the age of 88 after a brief battle with Leukemia.

Mr. West was one of those actors (like Bela Lugosi) whose career was made and destroyed by a single role. He never recovered from being the Caped Crusader, especially after changing tastes caused the show itself to become infamous. At first, West descended into self-destructive depression over this fact, but later came to embrace his unique claim to fame and relished his position in the Batman legend.

Whatever you think of the show, Mr. West deserves credit for being the Batman for a whole generation. This, after all, is part of the Batman mythos as well, and even if it’s one that many fans might prefer to forget, it introduced one of the seminal characters of American comics to a whole new audience, including some of the writers and artists who did some of the best work with the character.

Happily, this very point was made in possibly Mr. West’s best post-Batman role: on Batman: The Animated Series. In the episode “The Gray Ghost Strikes,” West plays an actor made famous for playing a superhero on an old TV show, but whose career was subsequently destroyed by typecasting, and who now questions whether his life had any impact.

Adam West does some very impressive voice work as a man dealing with many of the same problems that he faced in his own life, and whose receives a truly touching vindication in discovering that he has had a positive impact, all the more so because the episode is so clearly sending that same message to Adam West himself. It’s Paul Dini and the other makers of what many regard as the very best iteration of Batman thanking the man who headed what is widely considered one of the worst for introducing them to the character they love.

By this point, I think it’s safe to say that Mr. West transcended his typecasting to become, if not a respected actor, a respected figure in the Batman fandom. Whatever you think of the 1960s show, Adam West undoubtedly inspired a generation of both fans and artists, which is something I think any actor can be proud of. May he rest in peace.

Great Humor, Great Morals, and Why Having Your Heroine Be a Music Box for an Episode Makes for Good Writing

So, this week’s episode of My Little Pony was pretty fantastic (full disclosure: I actually saw it a week or so ago. You see, since FiM is produced in Vancouver, Canadian audiences get to see episodes up to two or even three weeks before the rest of us. The magic of the internet, however, allows some leeway to this). It was pretty much everything the show does best; strong writing, great characterization, solid moral lessons, and some fantastic humor. Season Seven has been mostly strong so far, about on par with the previous season, but I think A Royal Problem is the best one since the season premier.

Among the many, many reasons to love My Little Pony is the fact that it remains remarkably creative, even in its seventh season. Just as an example, this episode had Twilight magically project herself into a music box so as to keep in touch with Starlight on her first mission. So, we have our protagonist as a tiny, mechanical ballerina for most of the episode: who would even think of something like that? This leads to a lot of great gags (“I’m here if you want to talk. Or listen to music!”), culminating in a frustrated Starlight chucking the music box – Twilight and all – into a drawer.

Even better, it’s a gag that fits within the established universe (Twilight’s already projected herself into a book and talked to someone as an illustration a few seasons back) and serves only to enhance what made the character funny in the first place (Twilight’s freak outs are always hilarious, but when she’s a three-inch golden ballerina figure, the fun is doubled). The humor builds on the character and doesn’t feel forced, even in such a ridiculous situation.

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“The one and only thing that I am here to bring is music!”

Finally, from a story perspective, this device also serves the purpose of 1). Giving Starlight someone to talk to, 2). Keeping Twilight involved in the story, and 3). Emphasizing why Starlight, of all ponies, was the best choice for this particular mission even as it seems to be spiraling out of control, and 4). Providing a means to showcase Starlight’s second-guessing and self-doubts, furthering her character development.

All that from what is, at best, a tertiary element in the episode.

Oh, and speaking of great morals, the episode’s climax involves Princess Celestia coming face-to-face with the manifestation of her own darkest desires and temptations. This creature (called ‘Daybreaker’) declares herself to be “everything you want to be” and taunts Celestia with the fact that she could quite literally do anything, if only she stopped caring about other people so much, especially her sister.

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The Mare Mystique

So, a strong female character is rebuked for not making the most of her abilities and is told she can “have it all” (the phrase is actually used) if she would only forget about her obligations to her family, nation, and morality. Said character’s triumph comes in forcibly rejecting this temptation. All in an episode about appreciating the different roles we all play in the world and not assuming you have it worse than anyone else.

Man, this show is awesome.

Shared Universe Thoughts

Expanding on what I said below on The Mummy, I would be all in favor of a new Universal Horror shared universe, but only if it were actually horror. You know, creeping dread, unsettling suggestions, icy fingers down your spine…any of this sound at all familiar? Then you could build up to having big set-pieces where the monsters run amok with each other, but always grounded in more immediate horror. Dracula isn’t scary when he’s wiping out armies single-handedly; he’s scary when he’s lurking about outside someone’s house, calling them to come embrace their own destruction.

Interestingly enough, I think Freddy vs. Jason (odd how often I return to that film) did this pretty well; the film is fast-paced and basically a comic book, but to their credit the filmmakers actually took their time and at least tried to scare us in the film’s early stages. Like when you see Jason is hanging about outside 1428 Elm…then one of the characters discovers the back door open. We know perfectly well what he’s capable of, but we’re not sure what he’s going to do here. Or the scene at the police station, where the heroine suddenly finds herself all alone, with a lot of ‘Missing Child’ posters. In other words, though the point of the film is the big, action-packed set piece, the filmmakers never forgot that this is first and foremost supposed to be a horror film and did their best to scare people as well and entertain them.

That’s really the big problem with most of the shared universe films that are trying to ape Marvel: they’re in such a rush to cash in that they throw everything they have in at once. Marvel took its time: it had five films under its belt laying the foundation before The Avengers, any one of which could more or less stand on its own (except Iron Man 2, which was of course a sequel). The DC films jumped immediately into bringing Batman and Wonder Woman into things (not to mention Doomsday and the Death of Superman a mere two films in), while Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman all had cameos, then they backfilled some of the villains in Suicide Squad with Joker, Harley, Deadshot, Killer Croc, and so on. The fact that almost all these characters fell flat only adds to the sense of desperation. Meanwhile, the horror films seem so desperate to be a tentpole franchise that they’re throwing in all this stupid CG action that neither works as horror (half the movies that come out have some major landmark destroyed in almost the same fashion: it’s not scary) nor, from the looks of it, as pulpy adventure (as in the Stephan Summer Mummy movies).

Actually, the only such shared universe that seems to be working is the kaiju-verse, and surprise! They took their time, with standalone Godzilla and Kong films before the two are scheduled to meet in the big crossover event. Moreover, the standalone films don’t seem like they’re just there to set up a big crossover; they actually feel like real films that someone wanted to make for their own sake.

Anyway, no one’s touching Marvel’s achievement for a long time to come, and DC’s failures only make Marvel’s triumph that much more impressive. Now if they could only do something about fixing their comics department, and by ‘fixing’ I mean ‘cleaning house with a flamethrower.’