The Superversive in Film: The Last Starfighter

We return once more to that period between the late ’70s and mid ’80s when that last flourish of old-school pulp sensibility arose in the form of feature films out of Hollywood done by then-rising names in the business. This time, it’s The Last Starfighter, another Space Opera made possible due to the success of Star Wars.

This film, like Tron, falls into that “Boy’s Own Adventure” style of adventure where our hero–although an adult–still speaks and acts like the boys this film is intended to entertain. That means the film’s style of presentation is in harmony with that audience also: earnest, sincere, and uncomplicated- but not simple.

The reason this is superversive is that this film’s story, as with many stories aimed at boys, is about the necessity of accepting responsibility- not just for yourself, but on behalf of those depending upon you. For an emerging generation of boys, soon to become men, this learning how to face difficult and dangerous realities even when you would rather run because if you don’t no one else will.

A careful review of the story’s narrative shows this to be the case. The critical events that make our hero into the titular character comes about due to succumbing to that very fear and running from the responsibility that his previous actions–qualifying as a Starfighter gunner–put upon him. Today some would cry about this being unfair,
or unjust. That doesn’t matter; it’s a job that men need to do, like it or not, because not doing it means far, far worse for everyone- man, woman, and child. Stories like this are necessary for boys, because this reality is their future as men in one form or another.

Which brings up another, understated but no less critical point: at no point does our hero get dumped on for taking up his burden and doing his duty. The others that benefit by his actions appreciate what he risked for their sake, and it is this acknowledgement that completes the superversive elements of this story. No one wants to risk life and limb for ingrates, and no society so ungrateful benefits from such deeds for long as it subverts that fundamental institution of any healthy society and culture. The audience of the day rewarded this handsomely, making it one of the latter day classics with lasting influence. It still holds up today. Recommended.

The Superversive in Film: The Black Hole

In 1979, Disney release The Black Hole. This science fiction film got released during the time between the original Star Wars of 1977 and the first sequel (The Empire Strikes Back) in 1980. It was a blatant, and honest, attempt to cash in on the renewed interest in science fiction as an adventure film genre and as such held true to certain old-school sensibilities that George Lucas’s Space Opera revitalized two years prior.

It’s sometimes derided as a Haunted House movie in space, but that’s not fair. The actual speculative element–the titular black hole–literally makes it presence felt in the first reel, drives the plans (and motivations) of the antagonist, and plays the singular role in the climax of the film. For those science fiction fans looking for something scientific to talk about, you’re not disappointed; there is no story without the black hole, so don’t worry about the trappings of gothic horror used throughout.

What makes this a Superversive film is also laid out straight away: the defiance of logic, reason, and good order in favor of reckless and obsessive pursuit of a passion to the point of madness and degeneracy of character. This is symbolized by the antagonist’s reliance on robots and automation over human crewman and proper navel procedure, a symbol made literal at a critical turning point in the plot when a revelation good enough to come out of a Cyberman episode of Doctor Who hits, after which things go increasingly bad for our heroes.

At no point is the antagonist–a precursor to the ethics-lacking “science” Establishment of today–portrayed as anything but a softer Colonel Kurtz-as-a-Mad-Scientist. Each of the cast who succumb to the antagonist’s scheme do so due to critical character defects overwhelming them and compelling the doomed to their demise, while those who endure to the end do so because their fundamental decency shields them from the antagonist’s attempt to seduce them into following his scheme.

The real achievement, for you younger folks out there, is that the horror of the antagonist’s evil gets shown to the viewer without any gore whatsoever. This film, being one of the last of the old-guard Disney films, never lies to or insults its audience (or their parents) by talking down to them or relying on cheap tricks. The heroes win (as much as any hero in a tragedy does win) by being both right enough to withstand temptation and skilled enough to withstand retaliation. The antagonist is utterly undone by his own hand, learning well the price of hubris, and our heroes escape that same fate- if barely. (This is where the tropes of gothic horror get most applied, after their aesthetics.)

This is not some “villains win because Good is suck” story. This is not some excuse to parade degeneracy and moral abomination as the New Normal. This is a well-told story, where heroes are heroes, men are men, women are women, and robots are interesting (for fair and foul reasons), that (if not for the special effects) you might expect from a film 10 years prior.

Much like the Mohicans, The Black Hole was part of the last generation of a Disney (and a generation of film professionals) that faded away in the 1980s (with Tron being the last gasp). The Disney of today may, at times, echo that lost era but it is not Walt’s house anymore. Recommended, especially if you want to know why Disney rarely even tries to do this sort of thing anymore.

The Superversive in Film: Tron & Tron Legacy

In 1982, Disney released a second science fiction film during that six-year period where the original Star Wars trilogy made its mark on world culture. That film was Tron. (The first being 1978’s The Black Hole, which I’ll get to another time.) As with many science fiction and fantasy films of this era, it became a cult classic and made a big impression on a generation who’d come of age with personal computers and (later) the emergence of the Internet.

I didn’t have “superversive” to describe the original film when I came back to it as an adult. At the time, I called it a “Boy’s Own Adventure” film because–despite the protagonist being an adult, and the subject matter being quite serious–how the film went about telling this story clearly aimed at an audience of boys either early in or coming up on adolescence. It has a fairy tail quality to it, a sincere and earnest quality, that those who’d seen earlier films (such as The Computer That Wore Tennis Shoes) would find familiar and comfortable.

Yet this film most certainly was Superversive, and even now that’s clear as day. The villain (Edward Dillinger) is a thief, albeit a cunning one, and a rival to the hero (Kevin Flynn) as a creator; the villain’s creation (the Master Control Program, “MCP” for short)has surpassed him and now threatens to go out of control, trapping the villain by his own hubris. The hero succeeds thanks to his friends’ aid (as well as that of their creations)- most notably being the title character, the program Tron. The virtues of courage, fortitude, and loyalty win out over the treachery and despair that the villains wield as much as the discs this film is famous for. Kevin’s fortune is restored, and the promise of a better tomorrow for all is put before us at the end. Its story is simple, but well-done, and still holds up today.

The sequel, Tron: Legacy, seems a subversion- a deliberate pozzing. Yet it is not; it is as Superversive as its predecessor. People mistake the darker tone and mood for subversion, when it is a clear extrapolation of the exact mood evident at the end of the original film. Again, the flaw at play here is hubris; Kevin exhibits a clear overconfidence in the original film, which is what got him in trouble initially and stymied his efforts to get back at Dillinger then. As the sequel shows, this flaw was not tamed; the overconfidence consumed Kevin and drove him to madness that he did not realize until it was too late and–like Dillinger–the creation (Clu2, Kevin’s System Administrator) got out of control and threatened even worse.

That seems like a shallow excuse to remake the original with a new case and fresh effects, but to its credit Legacy went beyond that. The narrative clearly shows the consequence of Kevin’s hubris on every single character in the film, trapping Kevin into despair and non-resistance- a trap that takes the heroine (Quora) with him.

Unlike the first film, the new hero (Sam Flynn, Kevin’s son) doesn’t blindly repeat his father’s adventures. He challenges his father’s assumptions, telling him how his utopian visions resulted in dystopian dysfunction out in the real world. This gets amplified by Kevin realizing the root of Clu2’s hatred for him: parental abandonment, as Clu2 (without ever saying so) resents Kevin for favoring Sam over him (using his argument about his purpose and mission as the proxy). For Kevin, this film is a tragedy of his own making and he owns up to it in the climax.

For Sam, the film is not just saving his father, but superseding him as he succeeds him- taking Quora with him into the (again) promised better tomorrow. To get that ending, he had to face–and fess-up–to his own despair-based behaviors and change his ways accordingly. In other words, Sam had to man up, and in so doing got his father to man up also. By the end of the film, she looked forward to a new world full of light and life at Sam’s side.

Hollywood in general, and Disney in particular, have had a serious problem with undermining the culture with their films and television for years now. These two films are exception; they don’t lie to the audience in the course of telling their stories, which is likely why we won’t see another like it for many years to come- not without popular support backed by related sales. Watch these films; you’ll be glad that you did.

The Superversive in Film: Ozamu Tezuka’s “Metropolis”

In 2001, the anime adaptation of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis released in Japan. It came to the West some time later, and–having watched both–I find the adaptation to a more powerful story because it relies even more on the bedrock of Western culture (Christianity) than the original.

The difference is the establishment of a reason for the erection of these skyscrapers and the industrial complex that drives that powerbase: the explicit attempt to create a second Tower of Babel. If you are at all familiar with that story, then you already know how this is going to end.

What matters here is the execution. Instead of our protagonist being the villain’s son, he’s an outsider who visits the titular city alongside his uncle (who’s there on a case) that gets wrapped up in a mess of a plot over a child-like gynoid that’s central to the villain’s plans. The brewing revolution, with ready revolutionaries, from the original is carried over and developed further into a vital subplot whose conclusion ignites the climax.

All of which serves to underpin a consistent thread that, as with the original, the industrialization that the city presents (and represents) is dehumanizing to everyone captured by it. Only our protagonist, being an outsider, retains the human humility necessary to see the folly in all of the plotting going on and implores with the one other character immediately able to stop it to do so- and, at the last moment, succeeds.

The story goes to the effort to show how the apparent peace and prosperity of the city and its inhabitants comes at the cost of subverting the population’s dignity, which they return in kind to the elites preying upon them as well as to the robots who often are the means of this dehumanization, which has exactly the effects that are known to happen to a culture over time: a downward spiral of degeneracy into savagery and despair as the real needs of one and all are unmet as they should, symbolized by the story’s setting degenerating into ever-meaner locations and ever-more-desperate maskings thereof before the pressure is too much as everything (literally and otherwise) blows apart. Fortunately, our hero’s essential innocence allows him the means to see through this tragedy and plant the seed of a better tomorrow.

While there’s no confounding of language, the result is the ruin of the attempt and its abandonment by the survivors in favor of reconciliation and reformation into something that this renewed humility in the (surviving) people can accomplish without dehumanizing themselves, their creations, or each other. As both an homage to the original that equals, if not surpasses, Lang’s film as well as on its own merits this is a story that ends in a bittersweet, but, hopeful mood after seeing great amounts of hubris result in self-destruction as pride goes before a fall. Recommended.

If you would like to see for yourself, you can buy a copy of Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis at Amazon. The soundtrack is also worth getting a physical copy of, as this playlist shows.

The Superversive in Film: Krull

If there is a movie I saw in my childhood, not already part of a major franchise, that I love whole-heartedly and would not hesitate to anyone looking for something Superversive in a feature film, that movie is Krull.

This was one of the last Hollywood films to mix fantasy and science fiction before the genre split cemented in film and television out of the West for over a generation, and as such you can see the influence of E.R. Burroughs and other classic writers of the Pulps in every frame, every line, every prop, every character, and every costume. It also featured a soundtrack by the late James Horner, with “Ride of the Firemares” becoming an iconic theme that still calls up the blood to this day.

It was one of those early ’80s classics, along with Excaliber and Conan the Barbarian,
thought it was only a cult classic for many years before being recognized as the great work that it is. Those other films, along with the original Star Wars trilogy and Raiders of the Lost Ark stole its thunder at the time.

I can go on about it, but I think I’ll let the original trailer do the talking.

Like Legend, Krull has its roots in fairy tales and mythology. You have a tale of true love between the prince of one kingdom and the princess of another, whose marriage is interrupted at the final step and incites the adventure. This matters! The desperate men who become the prince’s companions find a way to regenerate their character or succumb to the degeneracy already afflicting them, with the later usually being why they die. The tale-within-the-tale told by the elderly mentor and his female counterpart shows what fate lies for the prince and princess if they don’t hold fast to their love, letting external forces overwhelm them instead. But what makes this story truly Superversive is at the climax.

Remember that marriage ceremony? The ritual is all about the fire of love, and how that fire–when shared between a man and his spouse whose love is true–can incinerate all challenges before it with its white-hot passion. Being a fairy tale at heart, this symbol is made literal and only together, remaining true all this time, is our hero able to destroy the Beast. The magic weapon is the fake-out; the real magic weapon is the firey passion of a lawfully-wed couple bound in marriage, facing down Evil together as one united front. Heart and sword in accord.

I have not seen a more pro-marriage movie in my lifetime than this, and that’s just the most obvious of the eucivic virtues prominently displayed in this film. This film ends with beauty, truth, and love trimuphant- though at great cost. Recommended. (You can get yourself a copy here.)

And I recommend adding the soundtrack to your collection. Have a listen for yourself to see why.

Black Panther Trailer Breakdown

Welcome back to the Marvel Cinematic universe. The next trailer for the movie after next is here.
And now: Black Panther.

Let’s go through this one frame by friend…. well, close enough.

0:04: Yes! Watson is back! Sorry, I mean Martin Freeman. Wow. It’s been so long since I last saw Captain America: Civil War that I forgot that Freeman was in this franchise. He’s playing a kind of state department bureaucrat, who’s been a thorn in the side of the Avengers a few times in the comics. We see him here interviewing Andy Serkis, Mister Klaue (Claw) from Age of Ultron. Serkis is playing is a Black Panther villain, but in this case, he’s no where near the final villain form that we see in the comics. I doubt they’ll use that form in the films, but we’ll see.

0:14: Some nice CGI as Freeman begins to explain that Wakanda is a “3rd world country.” Which, to everyone’s knowledge, is BS. The audience knows this from the Comics, as well as the post-credits Civil War scene, that Wakanda is a highly advanced country. I guess they’ve decided that it’s a secret only known to the super hero community. Or Freeman is playing dumb to see what Serkis tells him — which is entirely possible, as we’ll see T’Challa outside the interrogation world.

0:23: And here’s where we explain in the trailer that the 3rd world country bit is a front, and we see some of the high tech stuff kicking around. Please don’t say aliens. Please don’t say aliens….

0:27: Ooh, shiny.

0:30: And here’s the high tech shuttle.

0:35: Gee. Hunters in a dark jungle. I’m getting a Jurassic Park feeling. Anyone else?

0:47: That costume looks snazzy.  From here, we see what comic readers should expect from Black Panther: he’s an awesome martial artist, and his costume is bullet proof.

1:02: I think Serkis has lost his mind. Again. Are we sure he’s not playing Gollum again?

1:05: Remember when I said Wakanda were advanced? Now I really am starting to wonder about aliens. They could make this another infinity gem storyline, if only to power Wakanda.

1:07: Interesting facial markings. I understand these are usually tribal.

1:10: Andy Serkis may have a staring role in this one! There’s a break out.

1:12: I wonder if this is Black Panther’s sister.

1:17: One, NO. NO HIP HOP. T’Challa is as far from Black America as you can get without going to another planet. Hell, I’d sooner look up Afro-Celt and play some of that! Yes, Afro Celt, it’s a thing.  Two? Andy Serkis might be the villain here. He was a weapons dealer in Age of Ultron, it looks like he’s keeping up his business. So it could be T’Challa versus techno thieves.

1:18: The UN? really?

1:18-1:32.  Micellanous images. I’m getting the impression we might have some political gaming here along the way. Game of Thrones, Wakanda edition? Serkis may just be a subplot.

1:32 T’Challa stopping an SUV with his body. Okay, that’s cool. Nice imagery. Nice slow motion.

Okay, I’ll confess, this generally looks good. Marvel, this is your movie to screw up. Make it about their native culture, and their city, and a lot of action, and we’ll be good. This is your chance to world build. Build it. If you make it about racial politics, you’ll have problems.

Also, more Martin Freeman. Because he’s awesome.

The Dragon Awards are open and ready for nominations, and I have a list of suggestions you might want to take a look at. If you already  have a good idea of what you want, just click here to go and vote for them. The instructions are right there.

The Love at First Bite series. 
    

Miyazaki Retrospective: The Final Analysis

I have sometimes heard a term used when talking about Shakespeare called “Bardolatry”. Essentially it refers to the assumption that because he is Shakespeare, every single thing he wrote is a perfect masterpiece that we should be falling over ourselves to praise. A good example is “Titus Andronicus” a play universally considered absolutely terrible right up until the second half of the twentieth century, when people mysteriously “discovered” how brilliant it was. But it’s not. It’s terrible, Shakespeare or no Shakespeare.

Does this take away from Shakespeare? No, of course not. The five great tragedies (“Hamlet”, “Macbeth”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “King Lear”, and “Othello”) are even today unmatched masterpieces, and his best comedies and romances are brilliant as well. It’s just a good reminder that just because a certain name is attached to something doesn’t make it good by default.

This is all a preface for me to say that while I am trying to avoid engaging in “Miyazaki-dolatry”…it is REALLY hard. The truth is, the hype surrounding this guy was so huge that really, who could possible live up to it? I wasn’t *expecting* him to live up to it. It would be unfair to, really.

…And then, dammit, he did. He really, really did. He was as good as promised, and in some cases *better* (“Howl’s Moving Castle” particularly). After viewing his filmography in full, there are four main things I took away:

  1. The man is good at EVERYTHING. Slow moving and idyllic slice of life films? Brilliant. Biopics? Brilliant. Epics? Brilliant. Comedies? Brilliant. Action movies? Brilliant. He has movies that are powered mainly on the strength of his dialogue (“Porco Rosso”), movies powered by the strength of their action scenes (“The Castle of Cagliostro”), movies most notable for their scope and complex plots (“Princess Mononoke”, “Nausicaa”), movies carried by the sheer beauty of the animation (“Ponyo”), wonderful romances (“Howl’s Moving Castle”), and then movies that are so original, so purely Miyazaki, that you’re simply in awe at the uniqueness of his vision (“Spirited Away”). Never have I seen a director who isn’t just good at *something*, but who has mastered every aspect of his craft.
  2. The consistency of his brilliance is remarkable. There is not one single “bad” movie in Miyazaki’s filmography. His worst film, “Ponyo”, is absolutely gorgeous, has lovable characters, and bursts with atmosphere. “The Castle of Cagliostro”, probably his second worst movie by default, has action scenes that are still revered by directors today. In my “Spirited Away” review, I pointed out that I’ve seen at least six different films all ranked as Miyzaki’s best on one list or another – and every decision is completely defensible.
  3. He knows how to do female characters better than anyone else I’ve ever seen. Miyazaki creates female characters that are brave, tough, kind, beautiful, admirable, and very, very feminine. And all with distinct personalities as well; you can palette swap the average female Strong Wymyn Character in western media today and come up with basically the same character with a different name, but Miyazaki’s female characters are all *different*, yet all *admirable*. It is a little sad that this is so remarkable (a writer can create interesting and competent characters, stop the presses), but that is the situation we’re in right now.
  4. He is the most superversive director ever. I’m not really sure how you can dispute this. Every single one of his movies contains at least one moment of love or beauty that points the viewer towards away from themselves, and towards the divine. Miyazaki’s characters literally and figuratively look upward – towards the rising wind, towards something bigger than themselves, towards things worth risking their lives and making sacrifices for. He has heroes who are truly heroic, villains who are truly villainous, and characters with understandable goals and motivations that nevertheless are not excused for their actions, because they live in a world where morality is real and there is such a thing as making the *wrong* decision, both practically and morally. If C.S. Lewis is the patron Saint of superversive fiction than Miyazaki is the current king of the castle.

Ultimately I feel a little like I did when I discovered the excellent show “Justified” for the first time and learned there was still one season left: Very, very lucky. Miyazaki is not done: He is is still drawing, still writing, still creating. And I am absolutely thrilled to be lucky enough to watch him do it one more time, right in front of me, and experience his movie when it’s released as it’s meant to be.

And you can be sure when that happens, the retrospective will be updated again!

So what’s next? I am done?

Nah. I’ll move on to more Ghibli (but NEVER “The Grave of the Fireflies”). “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” should be in the mail right now, so that will probably be the next in the retrospective. Stay tuned!

Ah, and one last thing. My personal ranking (Note: Every movie is recommended, and all should be watched at least once)…

  1. Princess Mononoke
  2. Spirited Away
  3. Howl’s Moving Castle
  4. Castle in the Sky
  5. The Wind Rises
  6. Porco Rosso (Note: I rewatched it recently and liked it a lot more, but am still surprised to find myself putting it higher than a couple of these movies!)
  7. My Neighbor Totoro
  8. Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind
  9. Kiki’s Delivery Service
  10. The Castle of Cagliostro
  11. Ponyo