SeaWorld: Animal Prison or Nature Conservatory?

blackfishposterThere’s been a bit of hoopla lately about the amusement park SeaWorld, particularly since Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film, Blackfish, arrived on Netflix.  Blackfish is a documentary that assembles decades of captive killer whale attacks along with tearful testimonies from former trainers about the money and bureaucracy behind the park.

Without a doubt, SeaWorld pours millions of dollars into their state-of-the-art fish tanks, with skilled trainers who genuinely love the animals, and choreographed shows.   In various statements intended to defend its reputation, SeaWorld cites the positives of their aquatic endeavors – they claim that the existence of their park benefits the research and conservation of killer whales, and that they have rescued “ill, orphaned, and injured” animals in the wild.

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This is probably all true.  And there are doubtless hundreds of trainers and employees of SeaWorld who earnestly love what they do, believing that they are increasing awareness of the animal kingdom and the need to protect species like killer whales.  Moreover, there are scores of people who visit the park, come away enchanted, warmed, perhaps even educated.

But this is not SeaWorld’s main objective.  This may be the objective of certain individuals who work within the company and subscribe to an ideology about man’s place to help the animals of the planet, to provide enlightening entertainment to the masses, and so on, but for the company itself, the goal is to make money.

SeaWorld is a business.  It is not a non-profit research foundation or grant-funded group of marine biologists.  SeaWorld is incorporated, has shareholders, and is required by law to make money for those shareholders.  Formerly Busch Entertainment, a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch (they make beer, among other things), SeaWorld Entertainment is now owned by the Blackstone Group, one of the world’s largest multinational, investment banking and private equity firms.  In December of 2012, SeaWorld filed for an initial public offering of stock, with a lion’s share of the proceeds going to the Blackstone, which retains a controlling interest.   (Trading on the New York Stock Exchange began in April, 2013.)

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Still, spotlighting the corporate interest behind the scenes doesn’t hold much water as an indictment of  SeaWorld; there are surely people who will say that capitalism is how things work – without it there would be no incentive.

So, calling attention to the money aspect of the controversy may seem immaterial, but perhaps it raises some important questions:  If there was no money being made, would SeaWorld exist?  Are animals like the killer whales truly better off in captivity?  Do the purported benefits of research and conservation outweigh any negative impacts?  Or, is it sort of six of one, half a dozen of the other?

Blackfish provides some statistical information, including the drastically shortened life span of captive whales.  However, SeaWorld maintains that the whales live a lifespan comparable to that in the wild.  Blackfish demonstrates some deplorable living conditions for many of the whales, but SeaWorld asserts that the animals are treated like royalty.  Like the animals in the pool, the argument goes around and around.

Fortunately, I can answer for myself, without needing an abundance of trivial data:  My thought is that in no way, shape, or form are animals better off in captivity.  Period.  Even if the water in the tank is filled with Goldschlager and sprinkled with cocaine purer than the driven snow, even if getting masturbated by a trainer feels twice as good as natural in-the-sea hootenanny, even if a captured whale is sick, or injured, or orphaned, it is never the case that an animal is better off in captivity – it is never better for the ecosystem; that is, the animals, their natural habitat, their relationship to one another and to all the other species they interact with.   This is just my unprofessional, armchair-scientist’s opinion.

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But let me better explain.  I may or may not be a “conservationist,” but I think the term that suits my thinking better might be “naturalist.”  Man has no dominion over the animals of the world.  I don’t feel it is our place to manage them or manipulate them for profit (animal husbandry) or for science (testing on animals for pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, etc.) or for entertainment (zoos, amusement parks).  I’m even skeptical of efforts to re-stabilize populations thwarted by industry and man’s overpopulation; I feel like we need to retract our meddling, busy-body hands and stop molesting the animal kingdom all together.

Woah, right?

Look, many well-meaning people with big hearts seem to get caught up in this idea that we can “make a difference” by removing an animal out of the bliss of its natural environment and putting it in a tank with other animals in order to study it, or provide some sort of educational entertainment for the masses.

But the argument that animals in captivity benefit marine biology research is tenuous.  On a purely biological level, scientists can poke around in the guts of the fish and learn better what goes where and how it all fits together.  But examining captive animals provides zero insight into the ways they exist in the wild.

Still of killer whales from the documentary Blackfish

The most compelling aspect about the documentary Blackfish, for me, was not about the trainer attacks, but when a marine biologist spoke about the complex language of killer whales in the wild, and the developing neuroscience that killer whales have a highly developed region of the brain thought to administer emotion – deep, profound emotion, beyond even human capacity.

These animals live in families.  They are matriarchal, with the mothers and their children remaining together throughout the duration of the mother’s life – which may be as much as eighty or a hundred years.  Each family is thought to have its own specific language, like a tribe.  They move through the ocean like nomads, or hunter-gathers.  They are sacred.  Not just because they are big animals, or whether they are endangered or not, but because they are of a design and realm of being far beyond our ability to fully grasp.

Let’s say that killer whales in the wild remain in what David Abram’s called “The Spell of the Sensuous.”  This realm is a place of instinct, emotion, bountiful sensory input; an unconscious romp through a perpetual present, a life in balance with nature.  Our own spell of the sensuous is probably beyond our reach now, shrunken in the rear view mirror to a homo heidelbergenis waving in the distance.  Perhaps this is something the eager, earnest, whale-loving trainers, the droves of amusement park visitors, are trying to recover, whether they know it or not.  Perhaps SeaWorld is an attempt to once again be a part of something, to be close to something that we lost along the way.

We all recognize the way in which a child is compelled to touch something, and how that touch can inadvertently lead to breakage.  There is a tendency within us to destroy what we love.  We are hardly different from children when we allow our compulsions to override a conscientious understanding – that we change what we observe.

Surely, the way to communion with nature is not to put it behind bars, or in a tank, to ogle at it when it is stripped of its natural context and institutionalized by its surrounding.  Even if it is “healthy” and appears to be functioning normally under the conditions of captivity, to witness such creatures in this environment is to experience a mere fraction of their complexity and grandeur, because we are missing the bigger picture.

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I may sound like a curmudgeon, telling my fellow humans to stop tapping on the glass like children.  I recognize and can understand the desire in other people to explore the world around them, to see something they would never get to see.  But there are less invasive ways to do this.  And, perhaps more importantly, there is a major missing component to the experience of animals when they are in captivity – or, if the component is there, it doesn’t mix well with the experience.  Empathy.

Empathy is not just a condition, or an emotion.  Empathy and compassion are tools with which we can explore the world around us.  Compassion, and perhaps a sense of romance, can extend us beyond our trappings to consider the depth of sensual experience in the wild life of a killer whale, and all other species.  We can observe, in a minimally invasive way, by bringing ourselves into the experience of animals.  Rather than shape the animals to our bidding, we can reach out, we can glimpse the glacial waters, we can hear the intricate language of a killer whale family, we can see them coursing through all of that darkness.

Recently I was invited to join “Boycott SeaWorld” on Facebook.  I didn’t join, because I don’t need to; I’ve never been to SeaWorld, and I never will.  And this is not because I have an agenda, as some detractors claim is behind the Blackfish film.  The reason I don’t go to SeaWorld because I feel I have no right to – I don’t feel the slightest bit entitled to watch an animal taken from the wild or born in captivity perform tricks for me.

I’d rather watch the movie Blackfish and then be an old stinkpot and write a blog like this.

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American Hustle: Con-Artists at Work

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American Hustle stars Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Amy Adams’s boobs.

In the film, the actors act for a little over two hours.  The director directs, sometimes even telling the camera guys and editors to “push in real close on that,” probably like he saw in Boogie Nights, or because, as they say, he is a pushy director.

Hustle is directed and co-written by David O. Russell.  Davey O. has recently garnered critical and box office acclaim with his films The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook.  Here he takes the cast from both these successful ventures and mashes them together in American Hustle.

christian-baleChristian Bale plays Irving, a guy with a middle-aged pot belly and a horrendous comb-over, a character Bale has been wanting to play for a long time, to show fans how not-narcissistic he is.  Adams and her breasts play Sydney, a woman who gets her pants pulled down in a bathroom stall, a salacious role very different from the girl in Enchanted who just wants everything to be beautiful.

In the film, the screenwriters write.  Thus, the characters talk and talk, but not in a Quentin Tarantino sort of way – they’re supposed to be saying something meaningful.  The premise in Hustle is about a man named Irving (Bale), who is a small time con-artist, someone who has crafted a business out of predatory lending, but who never actually lends the money he’s supposed to deliver for the $5,000 deposits.  And the writers never tell us what happens to the hundreds of people he’s ripped off, how he’s able to keep the same office, and a family, even if he uses a fake name.  Maybe it’s because a woman named Sydney, who becomes his partner and his lover (Adams), uses a phony British accent when they rip people off.  That always works.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Irving’s wife, Rosalyn, a snarky little dynamo, and provides about the only entertainment in this otherwise long, boring film.  Cooper plays the agent, Richie, who catches Irving and Sydney in the act, and gets them working for the FBI.

The soundtrack plays like vinyl in the background at one of Davey O.’s favorite parties from when he was twenty.  Sometimes it works – there’s a fun dance scene in a night club with some killer disco music – but, speaking of Tarantino, something Quentin would call bullshit on – this feels like putting in period music as an artifice, a way to cheat your audience into their suspension of disbelief.  Sometimes the music is so happy and fun it plays right over scenes that it shouldn’t, drowning out the already thin storyline.

Perhaps that’s what the random, unmotivated voice-overs are for; each of the three principals – Irving, Sydney, and Richie the Fed – have a voice-over in the film, but none of what any of the disembodied voices say with their over-the-top Jersey accents provide any additional information about the story or insight into their characters.

LawrenceMostly, these characters work on scamming one another, confusing the audience about who loves whom and what’s real and what’s a con.  So, you never get to see any cops coming in to take someone down, not until the very end, and then it’s a couple of congressman who were honestly trying to do the right thing.  Robert Deniro’s cameo is misspent – his gravitas and menace takes us to a brink that almost scares us in an anti-climactic scene.  Finally, while Jeremy Renner plays a good Carmine, the Mayor, at least forty-five minutes of screen time are sucked up as Irving befriends him, and they take the wives out for Chicken Piccata, and Irving wrestles with his conscience about putting the whammy on this guy he generally likes, and still, nothing quite happens.

Maybe the real Hustle is what O. Russell pulled on the studios after his last two zinger films, flying this one without any supervision or oversight.  It’s a good con, and I bought the ticket, after all.

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Movies Are Cannibals: An Epic List of Sci-Fi Goodies, Some Original, Some Not

Movies are cannibals.  Let me give you an example.  One of the best sci-fi films of all time is arguably Alien (1979).  One of the Alien writer-creators is Dan O’Bannon.  Dan O’Bannon worked on Dark Star with John Carpenter, and in Dark Star there was the monster-in-the-ventilation-system sequence which would germinate into O’Bannon and Ronald Shusset’s Alien script.  And Dark Star itself was a loose parody of the classic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

All sci-fi movie back-roads lead to 2001.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) GARY LOCKWOOD TTO 016FOH

Okay not really.  But the majority of movies we know and love were derived from some other movie, or book, either directly adapted from, overtly inspired by, or unconsciously motivated from.  Or, straight up cannibalized.

I’m going to take my top 30 sci-fi movies and put this to the test.  First, a disclaimer: I’m excluding anything prior to 1968, which was the year of A Space Odyssey.  Second, I’m not going to include any Star Wars or Star Trek films.  Whether they may have ranked on my list or not is probably irrelevant here; it is because they too have spawned so much, as 2001 has, and almost belong in their own category.  Third, I won’t pretend to know what “unconsciously motivated” a writer or not, and we can assume that while the collective consciousness informs us all, but doesn’t count as source material.

In this list, I’ll wager that I can concretely show something borrowed or sourced in at least 2/3 of these films – or 20 of them.

Let’s see.

30. Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus was a breath of fresh air.  A group of scientists and explorers on a distant planet investigating an alien intelligence we hadn’t seen since…well, Aliens.  Which is the lore this film comes from, ostensibly a prequel or “origin story” for the quartet of “Alien” films which have left the sci-fi genre with their indelible stamp.

29.  The Fly (1986)

I love this movie.  I’m normally put off by the grotesque, and David Cronenberg likes to lay on the goo.  But this film moves like a play, and has a pitch-perfect tempo and such a heart-rending denouement that it haunts me to this day.  The film, though, is a reboot of a 1958 horror/sci-fi flick of the same name.  So that’s two sourced films so far.  (I promise I won’t keep counting though.)

28. Dark City (1998)

Popular Mechanics said that this movie was “Plato’s cave allegory meets Detective Comics.”  It was a comic book before it was a movie and the comic story, like so many stories, is a version of a man coming to greater understanding of the realities which emerge as he does, from his limited perspective.  Some academic types observe that all stories spring from one well: A character journeys into the unknown.  I like this movie for its tone, costuming, and sinister nature – and yes, I took the journey.

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27.  The Thing (1982)

The Thing is another goo-fest.  It oozes with waxy monster bits and things growing and popping out of people.  It is a reboot of the 1951 film, The Thing From Another World.  (And it was rebooted again in 2011).  The Thing satisfies in a suspenseful way, and has one of the best endings – and I mean the very last minute – of any sci-fi film I’ve seen.

26.  Inception (2010)

Inception was tedious, but ambitious.  In its attempt to be mind-blowing, it had an analgesic effect.  I spent 45 minutes wondering when the movie was going to get started, since all any of the characters seemed to be doing was talking about what was going to happen when it would eventually happen.  Yet Inception contains the kind of movie moments that can’t be denied – that sense of God Moving over the Face of the Waters – streets and buildings peeling away from the earth, zero-gravity fights, and a tremendous orchestral score that vibrates the rib cage.  And even though I felt like I had seen it before, through the lenses of The Matrix, Minority Report, and Momento, I will mark Inception as Original.  Maybe because the characters talked so damned much they convinced me of something unique.

25. Vanilla Sky (2001)

This film took all kinds of guff from critics and viewers.  For some reason, I found it utterly spellbinding.  The journey through the many layers of reality was mesmerizing – another cave allegory, perhaps, but this felt more like a free fall.  I fell for it all.  And I had no idea, until later, that this movie I thought to be one-of-a-kind was a remake of Abre Los Ojos, a Spanish film.

24.  Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall has been remade, as we all know.  The 1990 version starring Arnie was a fantastic ride, and thanks to a story by Philip K. Dick.  This is only the first film we’ll see on this list inspired by Mister Dick’s incredible imaginings.

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23. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Not totally my taste, but an undeniable masterpiece in its own right.  This controversial film comes from a book by Anthony Burgess.  A book, no less, Burgess once said he considered to be one of his “lesser works.”  Not bad for phoning one in.

22. The Truman Show (1998)

Kind of weird to see this in a sci-fi list? I thought so too, when I first saw it in a top 100.  Yet it is listed in most databases as a sci-fi flick (though also a comedy and a drama).  This genre-bending film utterly engrosses under crystalline direction from Peter Weir.  It is an original screenplay, written by Gattaca writer-director Andrew Niccol, and, as far as I can tell, truly the first of a kind.  Yes, we’ve seen other films about reality TV, like The Running Man (arguably prophetic at its time) but this unknowing subject at the center of it all really gives The Truman Show its distinctive mojo.  Most game show or reality show movies feature fully-apprised protagonists, but here our hero tumbles down the hole toward enlightenment.  I’ll score it original, universal themes notwithstanding.  So remarkable is this film that its title has been co-opted by the world of psychiatry – The Truman Show Disorder refers to people who have a persistent delusion that they are on a 24/7 reality show.

21.  Mad Max (1979)

“A western seen through the lens of post-apocalyptic Australia.” – Popular Mechanics

A western?  Really? Yeah, totally.  I can see that.  Mad Max is a Pale Rider.  The reluctant Stranger who helps out the vulnerable village folk.   A great movie, a trendsetter, a legend, but, no, not totally original.  Cribbed from Clint Eastwood films and sci-fi predecessors like Outland.

20. 12 Monkeys (1995)

What could be more original than Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in an insane asylum together? And one of them is a time traveler and the other is the red herring we will come to believe started the end of the world in motion?  Nothing, it would seem, could be more fresh and new.  Yet, 12 Moneys was based on the eccentric artist and documentarian Chris Marker’s short film of still photographs, La Jetee.  Marker wrote the 12 Monkeys script based on his 1962 experimental film.

19. Contact (1997)

Contact does what sci-fi movies do best – transport you into a new world.  Yes, as we’re observing, it’s all about journeying into the unknown.  But there’s a difference in being in on a truth the protagonist is not (The Truman Show) or unraveling a mystery through clues and flashbacks (12 Monkeys) and rocketing through space and time to another world.

When we get there, Contact may feel like it cheats us a little.  (Spoilers ahead!) The aliens use Ellie’s own mind to construct the world she encounters, but the personal journey this takes her on proves to carry us in to an even more special place – a dramatic irony in which the brilliant atheist we have come to know and love faces the challenge of convincing others of something they just couldn’t possibly accept without proof.  For which she has none.

The film is based on Carl Sagan’s book, so cannot get the “original” stamp (though the book sure does…painstaking though I may have found it to read).

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18. The Terminator (1984)

So archetypal.  So simple, and yet so smart.  Total grindhouse, and yet somehow sparing.  The Terminator is the first of a kind.  Our fear of the wave of technology capsizing our fragile organic civilization, manifested as a relentless, man-eating cyborg.  Original.

17.  The Terminator 2 (1992)

One of those rare instances where a sequel has actually improved on its prequel.  T2 is great action sci-fi, from bones to liquid metal, but it doesn’t get the originality vote, since, you know…  He came back.

16. Blade Runner (1982)

I know. You’re shaking your head. How the hell could I have placed this film in anywhere but the top 10?  Don’t get me wrong.  Blade Runner is awesome.  There’s a muddled area for me in the Blade Runner legacy though – that of the discrepancies between all the different versions of the film.  There are some with explanatory voice-overs, some with unicorns, and some with happy endings.  All that aside, one of those – the approved director’s cut, I think – is totally bad ass.  So much so that it never has to explain why replicant-terminating future cops are called “Blade Runners.” It is sufficient, I guess, that such a moniker sounds unassailably cool.  Anyway, the film is based on a story by Philip K. Dick.

15.  2001: A Space Odyssey  (1968)

Wow.  Another whack upside the head.  What self-respecting list wouldn’t have this film at the tippy top?  This film is a work of art, a masterpiece, a golden goose – the basis for this whole particular list in the first place – it is one of the great films of all time, sci-fi or not…but it is also old.  Whereas Gattaca, for instance, doesn’t date itself, letting it stand outside the march of time, I hate to break it to everyone, but we’ve passed 2001 in real life.  If I lived in 1968, this would be number one, the best movie I have ever seen.  But this crown jewel of a flick – nay, the crown itself – just reeks of the 1960s, at least for the first half.  The Jetsons furniture, the civilian clothing, and the understandable inability to actually see too far into what the future will actually look like, while this film still represents absolute craftsmanship, we have to move on.  From the book by Arthur C. Clarke.

14.  Minority Report (2002)

Such a ride.  From start to finish, a smart, engrossing, totally thrilling ride.  One of those few Cruise movies where Tom himself isn’t somewhat of an annoyance.  Spielberg is at his best too – those clicking spiders are just Gremlins in the age of cyborgs.  The beauty is, those clicking spiders aren’t the only gimmick – this film is so packed with ideas and nods at technology and society that it borders on encyclopedic.  Only possible from the mind of Philip K. Dick, who wrote the story the film is based on.  That’s three for Dick.

13. Sunshine (2007)

I swear nobody saw this movie.  Nobody talked about it, nobody told me to go see it, nothing.  I think I found it by accident.  What a sweet surprise.  There is nothing director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland can’t do as a team.   (The Beach, 28 Days Later.)  This film stands alone, executed with a style and story which I have not seen before nor since.  Original.

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12.  District 9 (2009)

I remember being disappointed when first watching this film and realizing its documentary-style aesthetic.  I’d had high hopes, and felt let down – how can anything be epic, how can it have true, transcendent movie moments when it is this hand-held, fake documentary thing?  I’m so glad I was proven to be a complete idiot (which happens a lot).  The film turned out to be a gem, and did, in fact, have moments which had me leaving my body and lost in its greatness.  Like that fight with the guy in the robot suit which he can use because he is turning into an alien.  Oh man.  Original.

11. Moon (2010)

Only better than District 9 because of how infinitely watchable Sam Rockwell is.  Duncan Jones “little” film does what many of its big-budget counterparts have aspired to do, and failed – it brings you into a world you are convinced of.  The moonscape and the “cosmic” bits of the story, then, become like another character in themselves, and not something we’re constantly told to marvel at.  Duncan wrote this for Sam Rockwell.  Original.

10. Aliens (1986)

Classic.  Wonderful.  Everything about this movie is entertaining.  The scenes are tight, everyone and everything on edge, plunging inexorably toward the lair of the beast, quipping smartass lines and shooting everything in sight along the way.  Double-back-for-a-friend suspense, incredibly convincing effects and sets; just a pure juggernaut of an epic film. No wonder Cameron has an ego.  He made this shit.

*Ahem* However, sourced by another film (which will appear shortly here).  Thus, not original.

9. Robocop (1987)

I saw this film as a twelve year-old boy in the theatre.  I pretended I was Robocop afterwards, as my father and I walked through aisles of clothing in a retail store near the theatre.  I had to be Robocop. I couldn’t let it go.

I watched the film several times over the ensuing years.  The power of it never faded. My peptides gushed in all the same spots – the brutal gunning down of Peter Weller, the first time Robocop walks into the precinct, the shot of him driving the cop car into downtown Detroit, and the nasty guy whose face gets all melty because he fell into toxic waste, and so on.  Fantastic movie.  One of a kind.  Original.  (Too bad about the horrible sequels – let’s see what the remake has in store.)

Robocop

8. Predator (1987)

Totally in league with Robocop.  Great, simple, archetypal story.  Same release year.  Same age, me – totally blown away.  There are fewer things to say about the truly good films.  They just work.  It’s not hard for me to separate out the teen love affair with these flicks, either.  I have watched them again as a grown man and see the glory in them, still.  Predator is just a mean film, man.  Totally, gut-wrenchingly good. Who gives a shit about the implausible ending?  By then you are just carved out of wood, a quivering mass of muscle ready to take on the alien invasion yourself.  Totally awesome story.  Original.

7. The Fountain (2006)

Okay, now for the softer side.  The Fountain is one of the more underrated films of the genre, and yet totally spectacular.  It can’t get marked original because it draws on historical events, and other depictions of said historical events.  However, in every way this is a landmark film, with great nuance and depth.  It harkens Terrence Malick’s work in the way the sphere surrounding the tree of life drifts up into the heavens.  This sphere is our watchdog – our time constraint.  Where it is headed recalls that great film, 2001, in that what the film does is totally judicious and mature – it leads us into this experience, and then lets us have it.  It does not overly define it, or dumb it down, but gives us an approximation of form.  It is the mystic in a foreign land bestowing the visitor a talisman to behold, and granting him the intelligence to parse its deep meaning.

6.  Jurassic Park (1992)

I saw this film as a freshman in college at the campus theatre.  I don’t remember what I expected, but I remember what I experienced – I truly lost sense of myself when the T-Rex came over the damn fence, man.  No music, nothing cluttering up the moment, just the squish of that thing’s massive toes in the mud, the guttural trumpet of its growl, the rain pounding down.  This is Spielberg at his best, reaching in and seizing the child in all of us and saying “look.”  Any of the film’s campiness or fairy-tale goofery is made up for, and then some, in the light of this benevolent act: Spielberg made the dinosaurs real at last, so the rest of us didn’t have to.  From the book of the same name, by Michael Crichton.

5.  Children of Men (2006)

Everything you could want in a movie that shows you the future of society is here in Children of Men.  Yet it is completely unfettered; astonishingly “clean” despite the dirty world it dwells in.  The scenes are individual works of art – some of them long as the day, pulling you out of yourself with this tractive force.  In the maelstrom of societal collapse, one plight rings out above all others – the sudden inability for man to procreate.  Makes everything else pale in comparison.   Based on the book by P.D. James, it took five screenwriters to haul this out of the literary mire and paint pictures with it.

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4.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This film came out the same year as Star Wars?  Totally.  What a year for movies.

Spielberg does something Lucas doesn’t – he creates characters that look and sound and act like people.  Amazing.  One of the ways he achieves this is often by having more than one person speaking at the same time in a scene.  Astonishing.  More than one person speaking at a time, you say??  Yes, people do it, apparently.  Check out the scene where the UFOs are first spotted by a radar control tower.  The reactions by the guys with their headsets on is just some of the best filmmaking you’ll ever see in your life.  There is so much to say about this movie, books have been written on it.  I’ll just sum it up with “original.”

3.  Donnie Darko (2001)

Another film that doesn’t seem to like the sci-fi jacket, and tries to squirm out.  Donnie Darko is in its own class.  There is nothing else quite like it.  And nothing ever has seized me in the same way that seeing the metal bunny standing in the front yard.  Sometimes the absurd dredges up the things in our own unconscious – which scare us, or at least make us pay attention – more than any contrivance.  This film is genius.  It was best left alone before the director’s cut came out and tried to foolishly explain everything.  I extoll its virtues here as the original theatrical version, a movie I didn’t actually see in the theatre but grabbed off the video store shelf one night with a shrug.  I had no idea my world would change forever.  Original.

2.  Alien (1979)

As referenced during the introduction of this list, Ridley Scott’s Alien borrowed some ideas from another film.  But does that really make it “unoriginal?”  As I get to the end of this list, I realize just how vast the grey area is.  At the time of the film’s release, certainly no one had really seen anything like the crew of the Nostromo.  Sci-fi films were either swashbuckling or spare, kitschy or clinical.  Alien was gritty.  Archetypal.  A slasher film of a sort, but really the dawn of realism as we know it today in many modern movies.  The first of a kind, certainly, but heavily influenced by other works, and so it cannot bear the clean stamp of “original.”

1. The Matrix (1999)

What else would be my first choice?  This is the best sci-fi film of the last forty years.  It is breathtaking in its pace.  It is highly visual, yet completely intellectual and cerebral.  It is unassailably cool.  The cinematography broke new ground, the special effects totally pushed the limits, and the story couldn’t have come at a more perfect time in human history – right at the turn of the millennium, as thoughts of the Singularity were seeding, and we were just starting to really ride this wave of unrelenting technology.  Amazing that The Matrix could almost be dated now – but this is a testament to the exponential growth of technology the film features.  It is all these things, but is it Original?  No.  Aside from being a retelling of, well, Christ coming back to save humanity, the filmmakers got most of their ideas from a 1995 animated feature film called Ghost in the Shell.

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Well, did I do it?  Let me go back and count.

I’ve got ten, by my count.  Ten films which can be considered original, and twenty that took from a book, a comic, another film, or referenced history.

(I swear I didn’t do this in reverse and pre-calculate the results.  I actually thought I could find more evidence of source material for the rest of the films.)

What does all this prove?  That I am a complete nincompoop who just wasted half a day researching and writing this?  Yes.  But hopefully, in some small way, is also lends to quieting the need we seem to have lately for this elusive “original” film.  They’re out there, and they can be great, but we ought not discredit the film – or any work of art – which draws from others.

As the man once said, every artist can copy.

A great artist steals.

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Gravity: An Overly-Critical Analysis of a Really Good Film

So.  Gravity.  It’s all over the Facebooks and the Twitters.  People are gushing.  The film has garnered a strong rating on IMDb – currently at 8.8 at the time of this posting.  (The Shawshank Redemption, the highest rated film on that website, is holding at a 9.4.)  The box office expectations have been surpassed.  The film is an inarguable winner.

Gravity marks the third film I have seen in 3D, after Avatar and Life of Pi.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to skip this review.  Or, stop reading after this sentence: Yes, you should probably go see it, and catch it in 3D, too.

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Now, on to business.

Some excited viewers have called the film “a masterpiece.”  Adjectives like “outstanding” and “magnificent” pepper the user reviews on fan sites.  Some are eagerly slapping the “Best Film of the Year” sticker on it.

It’s been a long time since 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Almost as long since Alien.  And, after those, truly memorable, groundbreaking films are hard to come by.

Luckily, one thing Gravity Director Alfonso Cuaron does extremely well is break new ground.  In his film Children of Men, Cuaron crafts a masterful scene with the main characters driving along through the woods when a gang of revolutionaries attacks the car.  The POV for most of the entire scene is from within the car – a camera on a swivel in the center of the automobile makes use of an unobstructed 360 view of the action – putting you right in the center of it.

This same kind of intense immediacy is the staple of Gravity.  Every conceivable method is employed seamlessly to place the audience right in the heart of the unfolding events.  In short, the effects in Gravity are just astonishing.  Not astonishing like big, huge, wow – but so well-handled and woven into the drama that they never announce themselves, but only enhance the story.

This is what effects should do.

The other thing Cuaron likes to do – and, WARNING; once again, if you haven’t seen it, you should stop reading now – is to have a main character die suddenly, and without fanfare.  When we lose Clooney to the indifferent tug of eternity, there is nothing gratuitous about it.  He simply drifts off, and then he is gone.

(The only thing about Clooney’s death that could strain credibility is with how calmly and nobly he meets his death.  However, if you figure that being incredibly calm and noble is probably a prerequisite for anyone who is going to go up into space and float around in the name of humanity, then it makes sense.)

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Back to the film being a masterpiece.

We may be a bit starved for truly good sci-fi.  The brand new toys of computer-generated effects have given rise to a rash of sci-fi films that are big on flash and grandeur.  Merits of its legacy notwithstanding, the latest Star Trek: Into Darkness, for instance, is a film with wonderful effects… that nearly put you to sleep.  Elysium is just as dazzling (in a dirtier, grittier way), but the story succumbs quickly to formulaic trappings.  Few sci-fi films from recent memory really reach in and do what good sci-fi ought to do: Take us to new heights emotionally, psychologically, and even spiritually.

People are, after all, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on these films.  Their budgets soar beyond the gross national product of some small countries.  We could be investing this money into schools, alternative technologies, or any number of things.  Instead, we pile on the money for our entertainment.   So maybe there is some social responsibility there to at least advance the culture in some way.

With Clooney gone, Sandra Bullock is now marooned on a space station.  She has made her way to an escape pod that she realizes has no power.  Exhausted, scared, she is calling out on the radio for help when she begins to communicate with someone from Earth.  This person can’t help her (he’s just some Asian guy with a HAM radio) but she hears a baby in the background and is reminded of her own daughter, which she tragically lost some years before.

There in Outer Space, so unfathomably vast stretching out beyond her, Bullock is thinking about her child.  It’s an amazing thing, and rings true, that even in such extreme conditions, the bonds we have with our children, our loved ones, are still bigger than anything the Universe can serve up.

Bullock also comes to the realization that she is going to die.  She mourns herself, and that no one ever taught her how to pray for her soul.  It is touching, and profound.  It is enough.

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Here, then, is where Gravity falls short of that lofty status of masterpiece.

Clooney reappears, and enters the pod with her, and drinks some vodka he finds, and encourages her to think her way out of the situation – to not give up.  There are some landing thrusters, he says, which could propel her to the next space station, which is going to fall to Earth, and that’s where she wants to be.

But then Clooney disappears.  He wasn’t really there (shocker), but was an apparition, or a figment of her imagination.

Once reinvigorated, Bullocks desultory attitude does a complete 180.  She starts talking to Clooney in her mind as she rallies, introducing him to her departed daughter in the afterlife.  As she presses buttons and flips toggles in a space station escape pod she thought had no power, the writers pour on the schmaltz.  She continues talking to her daughter, mentioning something about how “Mommy found the red shoe, baby.”

So far in the film, everything has felt authentic.  Likely a team of NASA experts were consulted in the movie making process.  (Kudos for there being no sound in the film when the perspective is from Space.  Bravo for the accuracy of all things related to zero-gravity.  There is no cheating in Gravity.)

Yet the writing has suddenly started to spread on the cheese.

It would be enough to have Bullock rally – we don’t need to see Clooney come back and take a sip of vodka he finds beneath the cockpit seats.  It would be perfectly adequate to have set-up her epiphany of what to do in order to get the escape pod powered with some bit of conversation earlier in the film.  And it would have been enough for Bullock to cry for her daughter a little, and murmur to the HAM radio operator about her immortal soul.  She doesn’t need to go through a second bout of tearful monologuing about how Mommy Loves You So Much.  It diminishes the impact of the moments which preceded her rally.  It turns the otherwise seminal film into business-as-usual.

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The novelist and playwright Joyce Carol Oates said, “My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.”

Gravity, then, is a mass entertainment film.

It offers comfort.  After all of the floating around in Space, just when Sandra Bullock has decided to give up, she has her magical moment with The Ghost of Clooney.  The film has a different tone from this point on.  It feels like the walls have closed in.  What was riveting and authentic is now spoiled by the hand of the writers, in a give-em-what-they-want turn.  Bullock, whose performance has been spot-on so far, now feels more like she’s playing the character in that movie about the homeless football player.

Morbid as it sounds, I found myself hoping that Bullock had actually died, and that her moment with Clooney was where she transitioned to the afterlife herself.  And maybe something like Keir Dullea flying into eternity at the end of 2001 would happen now – we would be taken in an exciting, unexpected direction.  Instead, we’ve turned the ship around and are headed for home, towards happy endings.

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One last thing.

There is a strong birth metaphor in the film.  When Bullock has first reached the space station, gasping for air, she pulls of her suit once the pressure has stabilized in the air lock, and she just floats for a minute.  Tubes around her resemble an umbilical cord as she slowly rotates in an almost-fetal position.  When she eventually crash-lands, she is immersed in water.  She has to struggle through a small opening in the pod and then break the surface of the water where she takes her first Earthen breaths.  Then, climbing onto the shore, she takes a few unsteady steps.  The gravity is new to her, as it would be a newborn baby.

This too, is enough.  This would have been plenty of an emotional core to the film without her talking to her daughter about the red shoe.

One red shoe can take the whole thing down.  That’s how delicate things are out there in Space.

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Fame Before Foundation

I have sort of a morbid fascination with actors and performers who, after starting out very young, either died before their time or just seemed to get screwed up one way or the other.

I don’t feel I’m alone in this mild obsession – the internet abounds with information on this gang of lost souls.  I don’t want to just add to the fug of negativity, but our fame-crazed culture seems wrought with potential hazards, particularly for the young.

While it happens to adults, too, young people are susceptible to the pressures of fame, as they don’t really have their “foundation” yet –  emotionally, spiritually, or whatever you want to call it.  (Obviously, drugs and crime are problems for many people who have never set foot in front of a camera, but considering the tiny percentage of people who make up the household-name celebrity demographic, it is evident that a disproportionate number of famous youths succumb to vices.)

I’ve linked a handful of names to various sites below.

120809BrianBonsall01Brian Bonsall (drinking, crime)

Brad Renfro (drug addiction, crime, death)

Macauley Culkin (drugs, severe weight loss, alienation)

Dana Plato (drugs, suicide)

Britney Spears (drugs, loss of children)

Bobby Driscoll (drugs, death)

Tatum O’Neal (drugs, illicit behavior, loss of children)

Heath Ledger (drugs, death)

River Phoenix (drugs, death)

Corey Haim (drug addiction, alienation, death)

Danny Bonaduce (drug addiction)

Lindsay Lohan (drug addiction, lasciviousness)

Edward Furlong (assault, drug addiction, weight gain)

Justine Bateman (anorexia, bulimia, drugs) [in recovery]

Todd Bridges (drugs, crime) [in recovery]

Scotty Beckett (crime, drugs, guns, death)

Jonathan Brandis (depression, suicide)

Michael Jackson (total, unbelievable weirdness, prescription drugs, death)

Robert Blake (alleged murder)

Jodie Sweetin (crystal meth) [in recovery]

Adam Rich (prescription drugs, crime)

Drew Barrymore (drinking, drugs) [in recovery]

Taran Noah Smith (crime, bankruptcy)

Amanda Byne (drinking-related problems)

Miley Cyrus (twerking)

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