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Non-Review Review: The Girl in the Spider’s Web

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is essentially a high concept shorn of any sense of authorship.

Lisbeth Salander is one of the very few breakout fictional characters of the twenty-first century, a concept that immediately latched on to the public imagination following the publication of Stieg Larsson’s Män som hatar kvinnor in 2005. Salander was a character who seemed to speak to the turbulent new century, a digitally native avenging angel who unleashed her wrath against a violent and misogynist establishment. Salander seemed to speak immediately and viscerally to her moment.

Phoning it in.

A Swedish language film was released four years later, featuring a career-defining performance from Noomi Rapace, which seemed to be enough to singlehandedly assure the young actor an English-language career. Hollywood quickly noticed and immediately commissioned a remake that would be directed by David Fincher, and which would go on to be nominated for five awards. Rooney Mara would effectively launch her career with a Best Actress nomination for her performance of Salander.

All of these are incredible accomplishments for a character and concept that in someways seemed clichéd and nineties. Män som hatar kvinnor was the kind of serial killer narrative that has been ubiquitous in the nineties, but largely supplanted by terrorist stories in the new millennium. As an archetype, Salander was very much of a piece with cyberpunk hackers with which Hollywood had clumsily flirted in movies like Hackers or The Matrix or Johnny Mnemonic.

Snow escape.

Salander was elevated by two things. The first was a prescient understanding of the appeal of a feminine avenging angel dismantling systems of misogynist oppression. If anything, Salander seemed ahead of her time, and should be perfectly pitched for the #metoo moment. However, the other important aspect of Salander was a strong sense of authorship and craft. Noomi Rapace embodied the character in the Swedish-language original, and David Fincher helped to elevate pulpy material to top-tier filmmaking in the American reimagining.

All of this makes The Girl in the Spider’s Web an interesting , if deeply unsatisfying case study of what happens when anything resembling a distinct creative voice is ripped away from Salander and she is stuck in a much more bland and conventional film. The results are deeply frustrating, but affirm the level of talent involved in the character’s earlier adventures on page and screen.

Everything burns.

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To Catch a Predator: Why Is It So Hard to Franchise the Predator?

The Predator is one of the most iconic creations of the past thirty-odd years.

The creature created by Stan Winston for John McTiernan’s 1987 action blockbuster is instantly recognisable. It is striking and distinctive. Even people who have never sat down and watched a movie featuring the creature are familiar with the design. This is especially notable given that it could have been a disaster. The original design for the creature is something of an internet urban legend, part of the pop cultural folklore. Predator narrowly averted disaster when Stan Winston redesigned the monster from scratch, so it is all the more impressive that it became such a classic.

It is no surprise that the Predator was quickly franchised. After all, that is how the film industry works. Although modern prognosticators decry the modern era as one defined by sequels and remakes and reboots, but they have always been a feature of the landscape. So the Predator became the cornerstone of an impressive multimedia franchise; even outside of games and comic books, the creature anchored Predator 2, Alien vs. Predator, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, Predators and The Predator. That’s an impressive list, in terms of quantity and variety.

However, it is decidedly less impressive in terms of quality. Of those five sequels, Predators is the only one with a positive score on Rotten Tomatoes. Similarly, Predators is the only sequel with a vaguely positive rating on MetaCritic, scraping just over fifty percent. This is the kind of showing that audiences and critics expect from low-rent horror sequels like those starring Freddie Kreuger or Jason Voorhees. (Indeed, the latest sequel starring Michael Myers is critically outpacing The Predator.) It is not exactly an impressive track record for a reasonably big budget mainstream high-profile science-fiction franchise.

Indeed, the stock comparison for the Predator is the Alien franchise, and for good reason. The xenomorph from Alien is another iconic late twentieth-century alien design housed within an R-rated science-fiction action-horror franchise. Both properties are owned by Twentieth Century Fox, allowing them to intersect and crossover within a shared universe. Both have spawned a variety of sequels, and are loosely linked in the popular mind in the way that the Universal Studios films linked Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster with the Mummy or the Invisible Man.

However, this stock comparison does not flatter the Predator. After all, the xenomorph has been at the centre of a franchise that is consistently interesting and at best innovative. There are sequels to Alien that are rightly regarded as classics such as Aliens, while other have launched great careers such as Alien³, and some still cause fierce debates. For all the criticism of films like Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, they at least engender passion in their audiences, in a way that the sequels to Predator do not. Why is it so hard to make a good Predator sequel?

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Non-Review Review: The Predator

The Predator adopts the as-ambitious-as-it-is-counter-productive of smirkingly mocking big budget franchise films while also actually being a big budget franchise film.

Shane Black’s sequel to the beloved eighties actioner is jarring, caught between two masters. On the one hand, Black writes the characters in his patented self-ware style, with banter and wry liners to beat the band. However, these characters are then dropped right into the middle of a fairly brain-dead paint-by-numbers action film that is clearly structured to feel like a contemporary franchise foundation stone. There is a constant push-and-pull between these two extremes, which is disorienting and distracting.

The Predator took the reviews rather well.

The Predator never seems sure whether it is a good old-fashioned fun-dumb blockbuster mocking the pretensions of modern franchise films or alternatively a smart self-aware action comedy picking at the tropes of fun dumb action films. It’s never entirely clear whether the issues with The Predator are playful self-parody or just terrible plotting; whether Shane Black is not taking any of this seriously or whether he is taking all of it much too seriously.

Whenever The Predator seems to be working, it veers too sharply one way or the other and the audience gets whiplash.

Pred-locks.

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Non-Review Review: The Fast and the Furious

I’m rewatching The Fast and the Furious for a separate project, as solidarity with fellow film critic Jay Coyle for his “Cinema of Experience” project to look at the changing face of cinema in the twenty-first century. He’ll be writing up his account of how the experience of watching movies has changed in the past twenty-or-so years, but I found my rewatch of The Fast and the Furious interesting enough to write a longer-form review of it.

The Fast and the Furious is a curious piece of work, especially in the light of everything that followed.

From the opening scene through to the climactic setpiece, The Fast and the Furious is very much framed as an urban western, a tale of conflicted masculinity within an urban wasteland that might as well be lawless. Street racers serve as traffic cops at one point, blocking civilian cars from the predetermined race track without any interference from actual law enforcement. Towards the end, Dom Torreto seeks to evade the law by outrunning a train to a train crossing, one of the classic high-stakes western set pieces.

More than that, the introduction of Dom Torreto in The Fast and the Furious is very much meant to evoke the introduction of a western protagonist. He is first seen from obscured angles, glimpsed from behind and through a wire mesh. His presence is felt at a distance, an island of calm in a chaotic world. Torreto is introduced as an outlaw who seeks peace in a world that is constantly at war. This is perhaps a canny approach from a scripting and directorial perspective, acknowledging Vin Deisel’s strengths as a screen presence. Torreto’s first act is to break up a street fight outside the little restaurant stall operated by his sister.

Released in June 2001, The Fast and the Furious is one of the last action films of the nineties. It is a snapshot of a nation still paranoid about street gangs and boy racers, of urban decay and social collapse, of the apocalyptic notion that Los Angeles is the final frontier of the nation’s westward expansion. Explored in hindsight, these were perhaps more innocent times.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Zero Hour (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

There was a very real chance that Zero Hour might have been the last episode of Star Trek: Enterprise to air.

In fact, it was entirely possible that Zero Hour‘s distinctive (and downright provocative) closing shot of an evil!alien!space!Nazi might have been the last shot of Star Trek to air on television for quite some time.

Time is running out...

Time is running out…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Stratagem (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

With Stratagem, the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise gets its head back in the game.

The recent stretch of third season episodes seemed to lose sight of what made this such an intriguing premise. Although Rick Berman had conceded that there was an escape hatch in place in case the Xindi arc could not sustain a full season of television, it was increasingly clear that the third season of Enterprise would be a single extended arc exploring Archer’s attempts to find the source of a deadly threat against mankind. It was a bold experiment for a show that had been quite rigidly episodic to this point. At least in theory.

Archer's on candid camera...

Archer’s on candid camera…

In practice, the third season of Enterprise seemed to flounder a little bit once it got past the initial burst of speed powering it into the third season. All of a sudden, the crew found themselves involved in a number of increasingly stand-alone adventures with superficial ties to the larger arc. Episodes like Extinction and Chosen Realm could easily have been produced and broadcast during the show’s first two seasons, with minor alterations. Exile and North Star were only loosely connected to the season’s plot. Carpenter Street was a time travel episode.

Proving Ground had suggested that the show was ready to re-focus its attention on the matter at hand and get back to the imminent threat posed by the Xindi. At the same time, the episode was also keen to stress its episodic nature – most notably in its role as the show’s annual check-in with the Andorians. Stratagem is very much its own self-contained story, but it is a lot more confident about how it fits in the larger scheme of things, and where it fits in the broader arc of the season.

Engineering a convincing set-up...

Engineering a convincing set-up…

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Non-Review Review: Terminator Genisys

“I am inevitable,” the villain boasts towards the climax of Terminator Genisys, just as things look their darkest for our heroes. He is a fully 3D digital image sourced from wall-mounted projectors, reflecting the way that the film itself has been marketed.

He might as well be talking on behalf of the film itself. The Terminator franchise has evolved into an unlikely juggernaut, spanning over three decades and evolving from a low-budget science-fiction film into a blockbuster series. Critical (and popular) reception to Terminator III: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation has been somewhat muted, but the film franchise just keeps coming. In a way, it feels like Skynet making itself manifest. Or, more appropriately, the eponymous robot killing machine.

Fresh off the factory line...

Fresh off the factory line…

There are points where Terminator Genisys seems incredibly self-aware, posing the sort of existential and philosophical questions that are confronting the audience. In The Terminator and Terminator II: Judgement Day, James Cameron positioned time travel as a metaphor for the strings of fate and destiny that seemed to bind free will. In Terminator Genisys, time travel becomes a powerful metaphor for the process of film- (or franchise-) making itself.

Both a sequel and a prequel, a reboot and a remake, the time travel plot element of Terminator Genisys turns the franchise into a gigantic mix tape. Screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier collaborate to turn Terminator Genisys into a live-action version of a Jive Bunny and the Mix Masters track, a sample filled with familiar beats played at the wrong tempo. There are moments when the wrongness seems the point, when Terminator Genisys wanders into the uncanny valley. There are points where it almost achieves consciousness.

Prick me, do I not leak?

Prick me, do I not leak?

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