Thor might be seen as the stuffy older brother of the Marvel film franchise family, but Thor: The Dark World proves that there’s plenty of adventure and jolliness to be found in stories about a Norse space god. I enjoyed the first film in the franchise well enough, but like many others I found it to be a bit too origin-heavy and melodramatic. I suppose The Dark World has more than its share of melodrama, but the many lighter asides help balance that out.
You have to give Marvel credit for going whole hog with their goofy cosmology that they’re lifting almost verbatim from the comics. The idea that the Norse cosmology of Nine Realms connected by the World Tree Yggdrasil is in any way comprehensible in conjunction with modern astronomical systems is absurd, but I have a wry admiration for the producers who insist on keeping this conceit going. In The Dark World the Nine Realms are under threat of annihilation by the Dark Elves, a race from the Realm of Svartalfheim, who existed before the current universe, and yearn to plunge all the Realms back into the primordial darkness. The Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) was the leader of the last attempt at darkening the universe by using the artifact known as the Aether, and he was driven to the stars by Odin’s father Bor in a military campaign. Every five thousand years or so the Nine Realms align, giving Malekith the opportunity to try destroying the universe again. It just so happens that this alignment is beginning right now…
Thor has been busy keeping the Nine Realms orderly after the events of the first film. When the rainbow bridge-slash-wormhole device Bifröst was destroyed in Thor, the Realms ceased to benefit from the Asgardians’ beneficent ruling power, and began a quick descent into civil unrest. Thor and his armies are run ragged putting down rebellions of monster armies, and he hasn’t had time–or permission–to visit his human lover Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). That changes when Foster happens upon a hole in reality, one that transports her to another world, where the Aether is waiting to be released. This is the first of a few overly convenient plot devices that get things moving in the film, but when you compare this to the thin gruel of characterization and plot in The Avengers, this movie almost feels like Shakespeare. Which is ironic, considering that Kenneth Branagh is no longer involved with the franchise.
Actually, the comparison to Shakespeare is not without its merits. The Dark World is a melodrama operating on multiple levels: the grand and courtly paradise of Asgard, and the ridiculous comedic realm of Earth, with some dark fantasy realms in between. It’s not unlike many Elizabethan tragedies in the way it transitions between the “high” and “low” players on the stage. On Asgard and the other space worlds, we see betrayal, family conflict, jealousy, battles, and political intrigue. On Earth we have light comedy, romance, humiliations, and screwball humor. It’s surprising how well it all works together. Not that The Dark World is actually anywhere close to the level of Shakespearean drama in terms of artistry, but it’s good that the filmmakers have ambitions.
Chris Hemsworth is solid as Thor, with plenty of opportunity to flex his dramatic and comedic muscles, in addition to his, well, actual muscles. Natalie Portman is decent as Jane Foster, who was sort of a bland character from the beginning, and basically becomes a plot device in The Dark World. Tom Hiddleston has little to do as Loki in the first half of the film, but his interactions with Rene Russo as his mother Frigga and with Anthony Hopkins as Odin are a strong highlight. Christopher Eccleston is surprisingly bland as the movie’s villain, considering some of the more flamboyant roles he has played in the past. Kat Dennings as Foster’s assistant Darcy Lewis gets more than a sidelined role this time, and provides the bulk of the movie’s laughs.
Thor: The Dark World is fun, ambitious, ridiculous, spectacle-ridden, full of plot holes, and a pleasure to experience. Your mileage may vary depending on how serious and logically consistent you want your superhero movies to be, but for what it is, The Dark World is not a bad movie. I would love to see more attempts at creating superhero films that don’t rely so much on silliness and melodrama, and with Hollywood recognizing the financial potential of the genre, maybe some day we will. There are plenty of good superhero comics just waiting to be adapted, after all.
Almost not bad. Almost not bad at all.
There’s a lot to love and little to hate in Gavin Hood’s adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. I’ll keep this short because there’s not much to say except that this is an entertaining and worthwhile movie. Most people on WWEnd have read the novel, if our new list is any indication, so a rehash of the plot is probably unnecessary. It’s a classic for a reason, and far more memorable than its many sequels.
Hood’s most recent directorial work was 2009′s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This may not inspire much hope, but even apart from his recent disclaimers about the X-Men film, Hood proves himself many times over with Ender’s Game, for which he also wrote the screenplay. The film retains most of the novel’s central plot while dropping most of the earthbound intrigue of international politics exacerbated by Ender’s siblings. In fact, his brother Peter only appears once, and briefly, enough to ensure that the audience understands that he represents Ender’s dark side and capacity for cruelty.
Asa Butterfield (Hugo) is great as Ender, managing a strong screen presence despite sharing it with Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley. His sister Valentine is played by Abigail Breslin (Zombieland, Little Miss Sunshine), and she gets plenty of screen time as the ideal person Ender wishes he could be. Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) makes a great Petra, and one wishes she could have had more time on screen. The other child actors are also surprisingly good, considering how many of them there are.
The special effects often went beyond serviceable to hauntingly beautiful. What we saw in the trailer wasn’t much beyond the final simulations, which necessarily have an artificial feel to them. The battle room was especially well-conceived, in a way that makes far more sense than I was ever able to imagine while reading the novel. It’s a great thrill to see the battle room games realized so well on screen. The mind game sequences necessarily feel like a video game, but they are inventively stylized and would probably actually make for a great game.
The only part of the film that didn’t quite work for me was the ending, which was slightly rushed and which collapsed a few plot elements. I’m unsure if this is a real problem with the pacing of the film, or if I’m just insisting on having things the way the novel told them, but it didn’t feel entirely right to me. In any case, all of the major themes remain intact throughout.
Ender’s Game is still a timely story about the cruelties of war that often flow from our insistence on war’s necessity–the cruelties towards our enemies as well as the cruelties visited upon our own.
Ann Leckie has worked as a waitress, a receptionist, a rodman on a land-surveying crew, a lunch lady, and a recording engineer. The author of many published short stories, and secretary of the Science Fiction Writers of America, she lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband, children, and cats.
What does it mean to be human? It’s a really difficult question to answer, and one that science fiction and fantasy are particularly well-suited to tackling. Not that there’s ever been any sort of simple answer even (especially?) through fiction, but SF&F can present us with a range of characters that test the boundaries of what it means to be a person, and what that might imply about what it means to be human.
Androids and artificial intelligences are a favorite vehicle for this sort of exploration. If you build a machine that looks or acts just like a person, what’s the difference? Is there one? Is that difference important? Why? It was a question I was going to have to consider, a question that was, in some ways, going to be crucial to my novel, Ancillary Justice.
The narrator of Ancillary Justice is the troop carrier Justice of Toren. And also a unit of twenty bodies slaved to Justice of Toren, the ancillary unit Justice of Toren One Esk. My narrator is an artificial intelligence that’s also made up of human bodies. What sort of being is this?
Straddling a tense line between entertainment and bland moralizing, District 9 director Neill Blomkamp has taken a huge step backwards with his newest film Elysium. I had high hopes for this one, believe me. The trailers looked visually original with an interesting if unambitious setup. Blomkamp’s first film about alien visitors failing to find a home on Earth was surprisingly original, fun, and even rather intelligent. Blomkamp’s second film about the so-called 99%’s ressentiment against the very rich is an even more cartoonish take on the subject than The Dark Knight Rises.
The setup for this story is sort of a hodge-podge of earlier futuristic dystopias. Our planet in 2154 is overpopulated (never mind the very real impending population implosion), and the very rich have absconded to a paradisaical satellite named Elysium (complete with artificial gravity, never mind that the damn circular thing doesn’t spin), which apparently acts as its own sovereign nation (whose ruling cabinet can be deposed with a simple computer reboot, to hell with democracy), and which also jealously defends its territory against aggressive immigrants (never mind that an on-board missile defense system would make more sense than hiring one “rouge” agent with a really good gun to shoot them down from Earth), who slip in by simply flying into the open atmosphere of the satellite (apparently the rich are too cheap to build a roof, and who’s worried about cosmic rays?), and who only want to use Elysium’s magical healing machines for their ailments (all machines conveniently placed in the living or dining room of every Elysian home!). The sci-fi trappings of the film are so utterly absurd and poorly considered that I couldn’t stop laughing at the screen.
Not only that, but Blomkamp apparently has no sense of time and space. At one point a group of hunters is flying a hovercraft around L.A. airspace on the hunt for Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), and have sent out half a dozen video-equipped drones throughout the city to help locate him. His face shows up on one of their drone monitors, and the leader tells them to turn the craft around to get him. No less than five seconds later they fly up to Max, him still holding the drone in his hands. Unless the hovercraft had a teleportation device we didn’t know about, it should have taken them much longer to arrive at their destination. Little problems like this, and worse, show up repeatedly in the film. One that really bugged me was that Elysium always seems to be easily visible from the Earth’s surface at all times, regardless of a person’s location, the local pollution level, or the distance between Elysium and Earth.
The dialogue spitting out of the characters’ mouths is just as inane as the rest of the film’s problems would suggest. There’s a lot of unearned sentimentalism surrounding Max and his childhood love Frey (Alice Braga). Jodie Foster plays Jessica Delacourt, a government minister in charge of the sort of military operations which make Elysium’s president queasy, but she speaks only cliched dialogue which tells us nothing of her inner life, and she plays it with an odd accent that seems entirely unlike the accents of her fellow aristocrats. Even America’s favorite bad guy actor William Fichtner has lines that could have been written by a teenager (“I need to be busy not talking to you now”). Matt Damon is playing his usual Bland Action Man role, so there’s not much going on there. The only actor who’s even not boring is Sharlto Copley, who played the “racist with a heart of gold” Wikus in District 9, and who here plays a South American mercenary named Kruger. I never thought I’d watch a big-budget science fiction film that had worse writing than Avatar.
[IMPENDING SPOILERS, if you still care.] Unsurprisingly, the film rumbles full speed into the train wreck of its inevitable ending where the magical healthcare machines on Elysium are distributed to all the poor and ailing people of Earth. Sure, I realize that Elysium has more of these machines than it knows what to do with (remember the part about a machine sitting in every living room), but I don’t think that very many of the sick people of Earth will be able to be healed before the machines start breaking down, and then who can still afford to fix them? I get that Blomkamp was going for a sort of anti-Atlas Shrugged story here, but his ideas are even sillier and less realistic than Ayn Rand’s.
The director recently stated in an interview that “I just want to be an artist that’s just left alone.” Well, if he doesn’t clean up his act quickly, Hollywood might leave him alone indefinitely. Elysium had almost four times the budget of District 9, and only a small fraction of the imagination. This is less a sophomore slump than a sophomore suicide attempt. His third film Chappie is set to release next year, so I guess we’ll see if he can recuperate. I’m not holding my breath.
But will it be better than Iron Man 4?
Sorry to keep video-bombing you all. There’s some fun stuff coming out of Comic-Con.
How can you judge a film like Man of Steel without comparing it to all the various media adaptations of the Superman character that have come before? The character has been around for 75 years, and he’s appeared on radio, television, and film almost non-stop ever since. As such, any reboot made with the intention of doing something brand new with the franchise is more than a little naive. That being said, Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer have fashioned a Superman story that is fresh, interesting, exciting, and quite a bit more mature than most adaptations that have come before.
WWEnd monitors Amazon’s Daily Deals, and if we see a good deal on SF/F/H books, we usually tweet it. Sometimes, we see one that is so good, it’s blog worthy. Today’s UK deal is one of those. If you live in the United Kingdom, you can get any of five Ben Bova novels for £0.99 each.
Four of these books are part of the Grand Tour series. They’re pretty much random volumes, so it’s a good thing they were meant to be read in no particular order. Here they are:
The fifth book, Voyagers III, is part of the Voyagers series, which probably will require reading the first two books.
Originally, I had intended to post the above video to further the ongoing conversation about what constitutes science fiction, as there can be few better authorities on the matter than a panel including Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, and Gene Wolfe. But then, I discovered what had transpired shortly before this interview.
As it happens, Ellison’s view of science fiction was quite passionate. Carolyn Kellog, at the L. A. Times, reports that he had just come from assaulting his publisher for misclassifying “Spider Kiss” as a sci fi:
“I put him in a hold that I had learned from Bruce Lee. I took him to his knees. Then I duck-walked him back to his door,” on his knees all the way, Ellison recounts. The typing pool, all women then, stopped work and watched the show, he says, “with enormous pleasure.”
When they got back to the man’s office, the publisher on his knees, Ellison says he banged the man’s head into the door until he opened it. They went inside — the publisher, Ellison and Ellison’s editor, a woman he remembers fondly, who soon was huddling on a couch.
“I picked up a chair and threw it,” Ellison says. Rather than shattering the windows, “it bounced around the room.” The publisher had scrambled behind his desk and was dialing the phone.
“I jumped onto the desk and ripped the phone out of the wall,” Ellison says. Back in 1982, that’s how phones worked — they had cords, attached to walls. “He tried to crawl through the desk’s kneehole. I grabbed him by the collar and threw him across the room.”
From his comments in the interview, Mr. Ellison seems to share Margaret Atwood‘s view of the genre. Compare his comment to Mr. Turkel that sci fi is “women in brass braziers being molested by green-eyed monsters,” to Ms. Atwoods famous talking squids in outer space characterization.
We all know what was going on, back then. Certain authors didn’t want their books to be shoved in the back of the bookstore in the SF/F section. Writing is their bread and butter, and they wanted to get paid. Perhaps that is what made Harlan react with violence to the horrid insult of being called a science fiction writer.
Well, Harlan Ellison currently has 28 novels listed by WWEnd that we call “science fiction.” Perhaps I should get a bodyguard.