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The Sound of Not-Quite Silence: The Era of Dialogue-Lite Blockbusters

There are several remarkable things about the blockbuster slate for 2017. The most obvious is that the blockbuster slate for 2017 is remarkably strong.

It is definitely the strongest slate of summer releases since at least 2012, if not 2008. Sure, there have been misfires like CHiPs or Baywatch or Transformers: The Last Knight, but there has also been a lot of great stuff. Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk, The Big Sick. Going back to earlier in the year, there is a fine selection of genre material. Get Out, Logan, John Wick: Chapter II. Even the second-tier blockbusters like Kong: Skull Island, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 are relatively solid.

However, there is also an interesting trend in how these stories are being told. In particular, the summer blockbusters of 2017 are quite interesting on a formal level. In particular, these blockbusters are very invested in non-verbal storytelling. While the superhero movies of the summer – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming – still conform to a familiar structure of dialogue-driven exposition, a lot of the other films tend to be quite light on conventional dialogue, relying on other ways of communicating character, story and theme.

This is most obvious with War for the Planet of the Apes and Dunkirk, impressive blockbusters that feature a number of extended dialogue-light scenes. When the characters do communicate, it is often in unconventional ways; the technical dialogue plays beneath the soundtrack in Dunkirk, while the apes communicate through sign language in War for the Planet of the Apes. In some ways, Baby Driver is also part of this trend. It is a movie that features dialogue, but is largely driven by its soundtrack. It characters often seem to speak in pulp clichés, with movie’s individuality shining on Baby’s iPod.

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Non-Review Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk is compelling in its contradictions.

Dunkirk concerns a pyrrhic victory, a defeat which became a source of national pride. Dunkirk is at once a story rooted in a very particular event and a mythic narrative populated by archetypal characters. Dunkirk follows three parallel stories as they move towards a singular inevitable climax, although those narratives are allowed to move at their own pace towards those epic events and even overshoot one another. Dunkirk is at once chaotic and disjointed, and yet moving with a very clear sense of purpose and direction.

Directed by Christopher Nolan, it is too much to describe Dunkirk as a “puzzle box” narrative. It always very clear to the audience exactly what is going on, and the movie’s mysteries and revelations tend to be smaller and intimate rather than broad and sweeping. Nevertheless, it is a movie consciously unstuck in time, recalling Nolan’s long-standing fascination with shifting his narrative backwards and forwards along a timeline. (Insomnia, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises stand out as Nolan’s most linear films.)

Dunkirk is a war epic in the broadest possible sense, its narrative bouncing between three separate timelines covering the retreat from the eponymous port. However, there is also a faint sense that Dunkirk itself is unstuck in time. As much as the film is rooted in the reality of the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, it speaks to something much bigger and more sweeping. There is a vagueness to Dunkirk which suggests that the film might well speak to realities beyond its specific setting.

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Non-Review Review: Star Trek – Insurrection

“I think I’m having a mid-life crisis,” Riker tells Troi at one point in Star Trek: Insurrection, and it might be the most telling line in the film.

Insurrection is many things, perhaps too many things. However, it primarily feels like a meditation on what it means to grow old, focusing on the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That first live-action Star Trek spin-off had revived the franchise as an on-going cultural concern, even launching a feature film franchise including Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact, and spawning its own spin-offs including Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

A fist full of Data.

However, by the time that Insurrection arrived, The Next Generation was looking quite old. The Next Generation had launched more than a decade earlier, and had been off the air for almost five years. Although it had been a pop cultural behemoth, even its children (or its younger siblings) were starting to look a little long in the tooth. Deep Space Nine was in its final season, and Voyager was closer to its end than to its beginning. There was a creeping sense of fatigue and exhaustion.

In theory, this positions Insurrection quite well. After all, the original feature film franchise really came into its own when the characters found themselves forced to confront their own mortality. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan breathed new life into the franchise as it forced Kirk to come to terms with his old age, while Star Trek III: The Search for Spock indulged the sense of grown-ups behaving badly in a story that forced Kirk to throw aside his ship and his career in service of an old friend.

Picard’s hairpiece was fooling nobody.

Stories about age and mortality resonate, and so Insurrection has a fairly solid foundation from which to build. There is just one sizable problem. The cast and crew of The Next Generation have no intention of growing old, of wrestling with mortality, of confronting their age. Insurrection is fundamentally a story about rejecting this maturity and this sense of age, of refusing to accept that time takes its toll and denying that old age is best faced with solemn dignity and reflection.

Insurrection is a story about mamboing against the dying of the light.

A familiar dance.

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Non-Review Review: The Big Sick

What is most striking about The Big Sick is the sense of authenticity, and not in the most obvious way.

The Big Sick was written by the husband and wife team of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, loosely inspired by their own romance. Nanjiani plays a fictionalised version of himself, a stand-up comedian working in Chicago dealing with the weight of his parents’ expectations. Zoe Kazan plays a slightly more fictionalised version of Gordon, swapping out the surname Gordon for Gardner. The broad strokes of the story conform to how Nanjiani and Gordon came to meet and fall in love, and some of the barriers that arose between them. So The Big Sick is authentic in a very literal way.

However, The Big Sick is most striking in its small moments. While the movie is obviously built around the narrative arc of this true-to-life relationship, it perfectly captures all the weird little moments that define people. Nanjiani is a comedian by profession and Gordon is a psychologist, and there is a sense that both are keen observers of human nature. There are a lot of little touches in the film that resonate, that add a sense of convincing realism and gravity to a story that is dealing some very weighty material. (After all, the title of the film kind of hints at the stakes.)

The Big Sick is an astoundingly beautiful piece of work.

Full disclosure: Kumail Nanjiani is a very nice person. I don’t know him personally, but he very kindly agreed to write the intro to my upcoming book Opening the X-Files: A Critical History of the Original Series. Which I believe was in the middle of the production of this film, so I greatly appreciate that.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Thirty Days (Review)

Thirty Days is a fascinating misfire.

Thirty Days is build around a number of interesting ideas. In terms of character, there is the framing device that finds Tom Paris sentenced to spend one month in the brig after an act of crass insubordination, suggesting a relapse into the “bad boy” persona that was largely forgotten after Ex Post Facto, barring the occasional revival for episodes like Vis á Vis. It also hints at questions of discipline on the ship, something around which Star Trek: Voyager has skirted in the past in episodes like Prime Factors and Manoeuvres. There is a compelling story here, somewhere.

Watching Thirty Days can feel like…

In terms of science-fiction plot elements, Thirty Days features the first ocean planet in the history of the Star Trek franchise. That is interesting of itself. What wonders lurk within an ocean world? What would life look like had it never left the sea and set foot on land? There is something decidedly pulpy and magical about a planet that has no surface of which to speak, instead comprised of waves and tides. Even with the flimsiest of plots, this element alone should provide fodder for an exciting installment.

Unfortunately, Thirty Days fumbles both of these interesting elements, falling victim to a recurring issue with the plotting on Voyager. The pacing is awkward, the plot points are under-developed, the framing device is hackneyed. The script for Thirty Days seems far more concerned about hitting the forty-five minute mark than it does with using these elements to tell a compelling story. The result is a bit of a wash.

Water conservation.

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The 250, This Just In, Episode #13 – Spider-Man: Homecoming (#–)

Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney host This Just In, a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Nothing Human (Review)

Nothing Human is very much an example of Star Trek: Voyager doing archetypal Star Trek, those abstract morality plays with elaborate prosthetics that offer commentary on contemporary conundrums.

Nothing Human is essentially a story about scientific ethics, about the question of what to do with information that was gathered through amoral means. Is knowledge tainted by the mechanisms through which it was acquired? Is the use of that research an endorsement of the means through which it was conducted? At the very least, does employing such information erode the user’s moral high ground? Does the use of such data make them a hypocrite, demonstrating a willingness to reap the benefits of such monstrous work, but without getting their hands dirty?

Something inhuman.

These are tough questions, with obvious applications in the modern world. These are the sorts of abstract ethical queries that are well-suited to a Star Trek episode, and there is something very endearing in the way that Nothing Human often comes down to two characters debating scientific ethics in a room together. To be fair, Nothing Human is a little too cluttered and clumsy to be as effective as it might otherwise be, its conclusions a little too neat, its developments just a little bit too tidy.

However, Nothing Human is a great example of the way in which Voyager tried to offer a version of Star Trek reflecting the popular perception of it. Nothing Human is a little clumsy in places, but it is an episode that is very much in line with what casual viewers expect from Star Trek in the abstract.

A Cardie-carrying monster.

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