This is the December 2015 edition of the
gwern.net newsletter; previous, November 2015. This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with Changelog & /r/gwern/; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.
Enjoyable while you’re watching it, but dissatisfaction starts as the credits end. I largely agree with Harrison Searles’s review. Problems: remake of A New Hope which refuses to admit it’s a remake but pretends to be a sequel undercuts previous trilogy, is nonsensical, and lacks any suspense—who didn’t see Han Solo being killed off like 20 minutes before he died, because his parallel with Obi-wan Kenobi was so unsubtle?; J.J. Abrams’s style of movie-making is unbearably light and facile, to the point where blowing up multiple planets doesn’t even register emotionally—and how did that particular scene even make sense? does this whole movie take place in a single solar system or something?—on top of the absurdly fast cutting which means you’ve forgotten half the movie before you’ve finished walking out of the theater; protagonist is a Mary Sue; the antagonist is risible—apparently the true power of the Dark Side is not anger & aggression but pomade & petulance, and I certainly cannot imagine being intimidated by Adam Driver intoning “if only you knew the pouter of the Dark Side” since he looks like he should be more concerned about acne & dates than agents & droids (remarkably, Driver is actually 32 years old); special effects are overly dominant except where they exhibit a bizarre lack of imagination/ambition, as no space battle in it is remotely as awe-inspiring as Return’s Endor fleet battle or Revenge’s opening Coruscant fleet battle, and even the lightsaber battles are a major letdown; no dialogue is particularly memorable, and the mish-mash of scenes borrowed from the earlier films winds up destroying any kind of mythic effect or drama. Was BB-8 the only original and genuinely good part of the movie? Entirely possible.
In the end, it is just another Abrams movie: slick, SFX-heavy, and as substantial & satisfying as movie theater popcorn (which is to say, briefly, until one feels a little sick eating it, and not at all after leaving the theater). In a way, it makes me long for the prequel trilogy; as barmy as opening a movie with tax disputes was or including J.J. Binks, Lucas at least tried for more than mediocrity & repetition. Let us hope that this is analogous to Rebuild of Evangelion 1.0: a movie made dull & unoriginal because the new financial backer is worried about losing the investment, but as it made so much money, they could afford to be more interesting in 2.0. Perhaps the rest of the trilogy will redeem it?
Sadly, revisiting it in 2020 and looking at reviews of the sequels Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) & Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), it is clear that the rest of the trilogy was, if anything, worse. The sheer inconsistency and thoughtlessness of the trilogy comes through clearly in reviews—directors appear to have been at war with each other and with Disney, and nothing makes sense. (No wonder it bombed in places like China where nostalgia is not enough to drive ticket sales and audiences have come to expect better.) What baffles me most is that Disney paid >$4 billion for Star Wars, and the movies themselves are, of course, among the most expensive movies ever made; Disney is one of the largest film producers in the world, practically a century old. If anyone had the means, motive, and opportunity to think through some sort of plan, it is Disney. You do not throw billions of dollars away without a plan—do you? Looking at the results and the leaks and director comments, the simple fact of the matter appears to be—Disney did. They had ample leisure to plan a trilogy and hire the best writers in the world, who would have competed for the privilege! But they didn’t.
It’s all the more mindboggling that at the outset, they threw away the entire Expanded Universe, consisting of hundreds of novels, not to mention everything else, by many excellent writers. For example, Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy alone could have been adopted almost chapter by chapter, and would have been an enormous success, and Thrawn could’ve been the best Hollywood villain since Hannibal Lecter, with a satisfying trilogy-long character arc (“The Tragedy of Grand Admiral Thrawn”). And who would ever prefer the Wedge & Rogue Squadron of the official movies to Michael Stackpole’s Rogue Squadron novels?
What makes this especially infuriating is that they wind up stealing (lacking any good ideas of their own, presumably) from the Expanded Universe anyway, except everything they take winds up being colossally dumb. I didn’t know it was possible to steal Byss & Palpatine clones from Dark Empire and make it dumb, but Abrams manages it. I didn’t know it was possible to render the Emperor burying a Super Star Destroyer on Coruscant as an escape route, brainwashing millions of people and using it as a secret prison (Wedge’s Gamble), anything less than awesome, but The Rise of Skywalker manages to steal it and by turning it into thousands of buried Star Destroyers (with Death Star lasers! and sharks!), render it fatuous. And so on. Incredible.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas (one of the great classics which remains a joy to watch. The narrative by Boris Karloff is always amusing, and both Dr Seuss’s story and language and animation/images are endlessly inventive and playful (consider “roast beast” or the visual gag of the Grinch’s heart swelling to burst the metaphorical magnifying glass), demonstrating, despite the apparent simplicity, the versatility of the animated medium. The Grinch himself is a clever, skillful, and inventive villain who can lie at the drop of a hat, yet his conversion to goodness comes off as genuine and comprehensible rather than cheap or forced.)
Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works (well, it’s a FSN anime, you know what you’re getting: a great action anime with a lunatic setting, cast, and plot. The Nasuverse and plot haven’t changed. What stood out for me about watching UBW was: 1. continued awe at how high-budget animated series these days can show almost anything in extraordinary fluidness or detail, to the point where any episode of UBW—a TV series—exceeds probably any animated movie produced before 1995 or so, including blockbuster pinnacles of the medium such as Akira or Wings of Honneamise; 2. continued influence from Fate/Zero, including not just callbacks or allusions, but a noticeably colder and less moe-infused directorial approach, of which the most striking example is probably the brutal & clinical sequence in which Ilyasviel is killed; 3. its considerable length allowing for, finally, a decent explanation of the Archer/Shirou/heroism dynamic explaining what their relationship is supposed to be, a theme which got such short shrift in earlier anime adaptations that it was incomprehensible and extremely frustrating to me; I am still not that impressed by the ideas or resolution, but at least I understand it now rather than all the dialogue coming off as Markov chain output with random insertions of phrases about “being a hero of justice” or “people die if you kill them”; 4. more of an emphasis on Rin Tohsaka, and less forcing her into a tsundere mold by focusing solely on Shirou as protagonist. Much better than the previous movie adaptation.)
Brave (A Pixar failure. I’ve always had difficulty explaining why I didn’t think it was that great, but a rewatch helps me clarify the issues with the movie. The animation is fantastic, and the hair leaves me stunned; the soundtrack is as good as any Pixar’s film; the Scottish-kitsch setting is fun and colorful, and the slapstick good; and the premise is the instantly-recognizable and classic explore/exploit conflict of a non-adult trying to follow their own dreams to the neglect of their responsibilities/societal role which causes conflict with their parents, which thesis-antithesis one expects to ultimately resolve in a synthesis in which the child learns important lessons while succeeding in striking out on their own.
It’s great, bordering on flawless, right up until the queen turns into a bear. The whole thing falls apart after that. Leaving aside the idiot-ball part where the witch makes an incomprehensible mistake and the protagonist abets it by not explaining anything or asking any questions, the problem is that the mom is 100% right and the daughter 100% wrong. Typically, with this kind of bildungsroman/children’s-movie, the junior protagonist has some sort of genuine talent or dream they want to follow, and the senior antagonists are not wrong about it being a risk compared to conventional paths but are wrong about the opportunity cost or probability of success; both have valid points. But the protagonist has no particular dream or talent and as the father so cruelly but accurately parodies her, wants nothing more than to be a wastrel who spends her time running around with her hair down and “firing arrows into the sunset”. It’s hard to see what she could possibly mean by “changing her fate” when apparently this means nothing more than “ensure my life of hedonism continues unchanged by any kind of work or responsibility”, and when her mother talks about her responsibilities and the need to be a princess and the importance of the princess/queen’s role as a peace-weaver (to borrow the excellent Anglo-Saxon term), the mother is talking sense. This failure to establish any kind of validity to the protagonist’s views or desires undercuts all the events; how are we supposed to sympathize with her or see any merit to her thesis when the plot and world-building so one-sidedly establishes her as a thoughtless little chit whose selfishness directly leads to civil war? The only time the movie really gestures towards trying to create any case for her is when she exhibits her mad warrior-princess skills by… shooting some salmon. Which can be caught bare-handed because they’re jumping out of the water. Wow, so impressive. Much thesis, such conflict. So, having entirely failed at constructing a meaningful narrative and undercutting any thoughtful viewer’s suspension of disbelief & absorption, Brave continues to the synthesis where the protagonist learns her lesson from observing the imminent civil war and the parallel legend of the ancient kingdom falling to internal strife & selfishness and in the film’s climax, femininely weaves peace by not shooting people with her bow but by successfully delivering a speech of unity as her mother watches. Some aspects are unsatisfying (the declarations of free love come out of nowhere, but I suppose we couldn’t actually expect any endorsement of arranged marriages in a Hollywood movie, no matter how historically justifiable or necessary or demanded by the plot) but nevertheless, the climax is fairly satisfying in delivering synthesis. The End?
Psych! Did you think the movie ended there simply because that is the only sane place to end the movie? No, the movie actually goes on another half hour. So once the civil war has ended, we are treated to a truly bizarre continuation of the movie where the mother (still a bear despite the breach having been mended!) is chased around the castle and hunted down to the ancient mystical ruins and a throwaway symbol from earlier, a torn tapestry, suddenly assumes central position because of a lame pun, and the movie drags it out with some more action scenes until mother and daughter are tearfully reunited (although it’s unclear what exactly they still have to bond over, since the daughter has realized her mistake & made amends already, and the mother was never estranged in the first place). Then thankfully, the movie finally ends. This extension of the story is thoroughly baffling; it is as if Return of the Jedi didn’t end with the Darth Vader’s death but instead Luke escapes the Death Star and spends the next 20 minutes engaging in speeder bike chases on the moon of Endor again. If it was done deliberately as a subversion or parody, like a shaggy dog joke where the joke is the comedian deliberately stretching out a joke far too long and making everyone uncomfortable, then it would make sense albeit is hard to pull off well. But here it seems like the director just didn’t get it, just didn’t understand the basic narrative arc or rhythm of the movie. The movie would be so much better if it effectively ended after the hall speech and they had left the rest on the cutting-room floor—but alas, they kept it all.
If Brave’s flaw had just been the first one, one could try to gloss over or ignore it, similar to Frozen’s problems; perhaps it was just too hard to write a good set of grievances for the protagonist or fit it in the running time they had. But the second problem is entirely unforced and has no such excuse as it represents a not inconsiderable chunk of the movie & resources. It reminded me not a little of (the much better) Spirited Away, where there is such a large shift towards the end that it leaves viewers a little confused, and which is likely due to major cuts being made during development; unsurprisingly, it turns out that the original director, Brenda Chapman, was replaced, which may explain the half-baked nature of the characters and the dramatic directorial failure of the end.)
Charlie Brown Christmas special I had never sat down and watched the famous Peanuts Christmas special in its entirety, and I was surprised to discover how wretched it is, especially watching it back to back with How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The animation is kindergarten-level, which unmistakably loops, and the special is watchable only because the Peanuts style is so minimal (verging on ugly) that it can pretend its extraordinarily low quality is just the Peanuts style at work; the musical theme would be excellent, were it not repeated ad nauseam despite the shortness of the special; characters do not speak in anything but a monotone, and are so poorly characterized it’s hard to imagine non-Peanuts fans understanding much of anything about it. And finally, the beloved story itself…
It struck me, while watching it, that I am not sure I have ever seen a simpler or clearer demonstration of why Nietzsche calls Christianity a slave morality and a transvaluation of earlier master moralities: the message of the special is that Christianity everything which is good, is bad, and all that is bad is good. Charlie Brown is a loser who fails at everything he does in the special: he is unable to enjoy the season, he passive-aggressively is hostile towards Violet (a tactic that in its ill grace & resentment only emphasizes the depth of his loserdom), he fails to either recognize the opportunity of the contest or decorate his house better than his dog can, he is a failure at directing the play and kicked out (rather than made an actor or musician, since of course he would fail at that too), only to fail further at finding a tree. Charlie Brown is a natural-born slave and his inadequacy is manifest to everyone who knows him even slightly; he is not fast, he is not strong, he is not good, he is not smart, he has no special talents—indeed, he cannot even be nice. He is the sort of nebbish who, when he goes bankrupt and shoots some people at his office, his few friends and acquaintances tell the reporters that they’re not surprised so much that he did something bad but that he had the guts to do anything at all. This part of the story is where the slave morality enters in: a reading from the Christian gospel inspires him—he may be a failure at everything, he may be a loser, but he has faith in Jesus and his understanding of the true spirit of Christmas as a celebration of Jesus’s birth will doubtless be rewarded in the next world, and this faith shores up his psyche and fortifies his denial, to the point where the rest of the children, impressed by his obstinacy and of course their dormant Christian faith, cluster around him to engage in a choral singing of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” with Charlie Brown as their leader. “Hark!” is an appropriate choice of Christmas carol, as unlike many of the popular Christmas songs these days like “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” or “The 12 Days of Christmas”, “Hark!” is focused single-mindedly on the birth of Jesus: it’s “peace on earth and mercy mild” because Jesus (the Christ/“new-born king”/“everlasting lord”/“the Godhead”/“incarnate deity”/“Prince of Peace” etc) is born and now ruling the world, and little to do with that being intrinsically good. With individual identity submerged in a group identity subservient to their god, the revaluation of moral values from a modern secular ethos to the Christian slave morality is complete: the last is now first, the low is now high. The End.