Escape (I Get Out When I Can)

So here we are again.

After a period of semi-activity, you may have noticed we went dark last week. There are reasons for this. Folks don’t seem all that interested in my nannydiddering about TV, the only posts that generate traffic are the Crapfest posts – and sadly, reality dictates that we cannot have one of those every week – and I just didn’t have anything to say. Add to that our current antic-driven government is determined to actively break reality by declaring every day to be Opposite Day, allies are enemies, enemies are allies. People who used to wonder about Germany not taking to the streets during the rise of the Third Reich need only look out the window at our own empty streets to get their answer. As a race, I don’t think we are capable of redemption, let alone deserve it.

Also, as you may have noticed, it’s been a while since I could afford my anti-depressants.

So let’s use some movies to get as far the hell away from our current situation as possible, eh?

Can’t be any worse than what’s happening outside my window

One definition of “as far the hell away as possible” is Sherlock Gnomes. I’ve been a Holmes fan since my early days, so why not test my mettle with this? By way of establishing a baseline, I’m okay with the Robert Downey Jr. movies (though that is largely because of Jude Law’s Watson) and am rather ambivalent toward the Benedict Cumberbatch version (increasingly dependent on wackiness). There. Now to this movie.

This is a sequel to 2011’s Gnomeo and Juliet, and if, like me, you did not see that, you’re going to be okay (my wife informs me it was “charming”). The setup, if nothing else, is going to be familiar if you’ve ever been in the same room as a Toy Story movie. We’re dealing with the realm of ornaments, which, like toys, must freeze if a human looks in their direction. Okay?

The movie’s versions of Holmes and Watson are, no surprise, garden gnomes themselves; Moriarty is a renegade mascot doll of a pie company, who delights in smashing gnomes, hence the conflict. At the film’s opening, Moriarty is preparing to drop a dinosaur skeleton on some gnomes trapped in pie filling, only to himself fall victim to the plummeting bones. The gnomes are saved, thanks largely to the super-competent Dr. Watson (though it’s Sherlock who gets all the praise). Our garden gnomes from Gnomeo (including those title characters) move into a council house in London just in time for the apparent resurrection of Moriarty and a mass kidnapping of all the gnomes in London. So Gnomeo and Juliet must join forces with Sherlock Gnomes and Dr. Watson to riddle out Moriarty’s scheme and save the gnomes.

Directed by John Stevenson, who helmed the rather boss Kung Fu Panda, this is a solid kid movie that, when it is allowed to be, gets quite creative and delightful. To get one clue, the team must infiltrate Curly Fu’s Emporium in Chinatown, where the ruler is an enormous golden Lucky Cat (and whose salt shaker spokesperson is a wonderful vocal cameo by James Hong); then a trip to a toy underworld run by Irene Adler, who is voiced by Mary J. Blige. Irene gets a song that, unique among musical numbers in kid movies, did not have me yearning for the fast forward button. The movie also has some non-CGI animation representations of Sherlock’s memory palaces, which are good ways to break up what could have been some visual monotony.

While we’re talking about the voices, I should mention that Johnny Depp is Sherlock Gnomes and Chiwetel Ejiofor is a cracking good Watson. If there is one criticism I would lower upon Sherlock Gnomes, it’s that the major plot driving forward the story is a straight lift from the late Charles Marowitz’s play, Sherlock’s Last Case, which might not be obvious unless, like me, you played Watson in a production, but is nonetheless there. If you cast back your memories a bit, you might recall I’m also the guy who criticized Brotherhood of the Wolf for plagiarizing Richard L. Boyer’s Holmes pastiche The Giant Rat of Sumatra.

I am an astounding repository of information that does me absolutely no good.

Hard science fiction has been in short supply of late. Don’t come banging on my door with what-abouts and but-there-was-es. Most of what is being called “science-fiction” these days is stories from other genres dressed up with zap guns and rocket ships (and, needless to say, laser swords, or “light sabers” if you prefer). You’d think that a successful hard science fiction movie like The Martian would have given us more of the same at the local cinema, but no. It’s expensive and requires some effort.

There’s a reason when I discovered The Expanse midway through its second season I embraced it wholeheartedly. But that only shows that you have to go seeking it on smaller screens. That, also, requires some effort.

I tripped over a trailer for The Beyond mostly by accident. Most genre aficionados know that title belongs to one of Lucio Fulci’s more famous horror movies, so finding it applied to a science fiction flick is… odd.

In the near future, an anomaly opens up in Earth orbit, sucking a spacewalking astronaut right off the International Space Station. Several spheres of an inky, cloud-like substance shoot from the anomaly and take up residence in the upper atmosphere. Typically, some trigger-happy nations fire on the spheres, to no effect. Observation of the anomaly, called “The Void” (another trouble-making possible title right there, there have been at least 14 movies called The Void released in the last couple of years) reveals what seems to be another planet – The Void is a wormhole. Obviously, the only way to find out what’s up with those black spheres is to journey to that planet and ask some questions. The major obstacle to that would be surviving the trip through the wormhole.

Wouldn’t you know, the deepest reaches of the deep state military has been working on an Enhanced Human project, dubbed Soldier 2.0; a tough cybernetic body housing a human brain. Now the trick is to find a willing subject with the skills and knowledge necessary for the mission, who is also willing to become a robot for the rest of his or her now probably very-elongated lifespan.

I enjoyed The Beyond enough to not engage in any real spoilers, except to say that as we enter the third act, the science becomes a little too fantastic and elastic and cosmic and boy do I have questions but all the same it’s pretty cool. This is the first feature film from Hasraf Dulull, formerly known only as a visual effects supervisor, and man, does that show. The budget is pretty low, but the movie has the visual punch of something that cost multi-millions more.

Dulull poking his head out of his assigned cubbyhole also opens him up to the usual offhand cruelties of the online world, probably the most blatant being stuff like “as a writer, Dulull is a good visual effects supervisor”. That’s a bit of unnecessary snark – there’s nothing wrong with this script. The format is unorthodox, as it starts as a in-house puff piece on the head of the space organization and morphs into a documentary about the events that unfold around the Void. That’s a tough format for storytelling, and I’ve only seen it used well a couple of times – but in this instance, that comment really seems a case of “I need to find something bad to say about this or I’m not doing my job as an online critic”.

Eh, I’m probably guilty of the same thing. I’m tired and under-medicated. I’m sure someone will be more than happy to dig up my hypocrisy and wave it around, if that’s the case.

Anyway. I liked it.

So let’s go on to Dulull’s follow-up, 2036: Origin Unknown.

Despite the title, we start in 2030, and a manned flight to Mars. Despite the aid of an advanced AI named ARTi (voice of Steven Cree), the ship encounters a massive magnetic and electrical phenomenon, and crashes.

Okay, now it’s 2036, and ARTi is so advanced it’s devised a means of Hyper-Light radio transmission, which means it is now possible to remotely control a roving device all the way from Earth. Katee Sackhoff (in the midst of that peculiar curse where, if you are in a popular role on a successful sci-fi series, you will thereafter only get work in indifferently-budgeted sci-fi movies) plays Mackenzie Wilson, the human supervisor on the mission. Julie Cox plays Lena, the head of the Space Corporation running the mission. Oh, and they’re sisters. And their father was on that doomed mission.

In the course of the mission, it is discovered what caused the crash, six years earlier: an enormous cube, which, when activated by an outside source – in this case, a Chinese satellite on a collision course being shot down over the cube – the dang thing causes another ruinous electric storm and vanishes – only to show back up again in Antarctica.

This time around, Dulull has another writer to help, Gary Hall, and the result is a more normal storytelling format, though one that is not interested in explaining itself overmuch. I have a lot of questions – a lot – after that third act, and any unraveling I might do over the massive wad of threads presented would be way more work than the movie deserves, frankly. After an hour and twenty minutes of interesting sci-fi thriller the movie turns a sharp corner into extreme cosmic hoo-ha that doesn’t serve anybody very well, but it sure is pretty.

I’m interested to see what Dulull does next, I really am. But 2036 Origin Unknown feels like a step down from The Beyond. Like somebody holding a money bag just out of reach said, “Well, that was nice and brainy, but people want something with a hero they can cheer for, a human villain they can boo and shit blowing up. Do you have anything with shit blowing up?”

To keep this from ending on a completely dour note, let me add that I’ve journeyed to the realm of theaters twice this past week (as in “Hey, didn’t you say you were going to use that MoviePass card until it imploded?”), and I felt good about it both times. Solo: A Star Wars Story was just as much fun as everyone said it was, except for those grumbling fan boys who wanted The Last Jedi to be directed by Zack Snyder on a males-only set. It mainly brought home to me how much I want see more movies in that universe that have absolutely nothing to do with space wizardry, Jedis and Sith. I was so into the story as presented that when a certain bit of fan service cropped up in the end, I actively resented it. My theater had this in one of their small auditoriums, only 39 seats. It was a showing for me and three other people.

Then, today I went to see Hotel Artemis, in a larger auditorium, but still only three other patrons. I had seen the trailers and thought, “Hm, quirky crime drama” and noted that I would likely see anything with that cast (Jodie Foster, Dave Bautista, Sterking K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Jeff Goldblum, and a surprise appearance by Zachary Quinto). What I was not expecting was near-future science-fiction, a sort of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Cyberpunk! It takes place in 2028, and none of the tech is outlandish. Sadly also not outlandish is the background being a city-wide riot in Los Angeles because the privatized water utility has shut off everyone’s water. I liked it but I didn’t love it. Would recommend it, but you’re likely safe waiting for disc or cable.

Oopsie, got dour again. It happens.

3 Comments

  1. Great post. Feel better. Keep writing.

  2. Re; SOLO– just saw it last night, and while I didn’t quite reach a point of active resentment, I did find myself muttering “That’s effing ludicrous.” I mentioned the same to my brother today, and he informs me that it is canon from one of the animated series, so it’s at least not original to the movie. It is no less ludicrous and unnecessary.

    I hope it improves your mood to know that, from my perspective, each of your postings brightens a day on which it appears. Even if it contains dour grumbles, and irrespective of TV nannydiddering.

    • I am ridiculously relieved that it was a callback, even if it’s from a section of the canon with which I am not familiar.


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