July 2019 news

July 2019 gwern.net newsletter with links on science and history; 1 book review; and 7 movie/TV series reviews.
newsletter, NGE
2019-06-202020-09-05 finished certainty: log importance: 0

This is the July 2019 edition of the gwern.net newsletter; previous, (). This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with my & ; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.







  • (2018)

    Free Solo is a documentary on , a rock climber who specializes in the most fatal kind of climbing, without any safety gear whatsoever—if you fall, you die. (And free soloers do.) A film crew follows him over 2 years as he travels in his van, living a monastic life (he is even vegetarian) as he seeks to set a record by climbing the most dangerous cliff face of . The footage, much shot by drone and able to follow Honnold from what feels like mere meters away, is literally gut-churning & breath-taking, and I felt slightly ill at points (despite not being particularly afraid of heights and enjoying the occasional gym climb).

    Free Solo is essentially much the same as the also excellent documentary : an examination of monomania, excellence, and happiness. Free soloing, like or is extremely dangerous, and one of Honnold’s acquaintances dies during the filming—merely the latest in a long line of free solo fatalities. Inevitably, the ethics of free soloing come up. The crew and Honnold’s attractive & normal girlfriend are more concerned than he is. They, after all, will have to live with it for decades to come.

    Honnold blows the topic off; for him, it is merely a few seconds of unpleasantness and then it’s over, and if they are worried about it, then they should shove off. They can’t, of course, as they are too drawn to Honnold. His girlfriend outragedly echoes another climber’s girlfriend who was asked, “well, what did you expect?” Neither of them answers the question: well, what did you expect? You knew everything necessary to know about free soloing and the fatality rate before you decided to date them. What did you expect? Their response is inauthentic. In the case of Honnold’s girlfriend, she dated him solely because he was a famous free solo climber and she went to his talk & left her phone number after hardly talking to him. She is happy to enjoy the perks like the big new house in Las Vegas or the groupies or the invited talks or the documentary crew and, in short, the overall social prestige & high status of Honnold—even while constantly pressuring Honnold to stop doing the very thing that attracted her in the first place! The interviewer, it seems, never presses her on this contradiction.

    What of Honnold himself? Honnold justifies it once:

    “For Sanni the point of life is like happiness. To be with people that make you feel fulfilled and to have a good time. For me it’s all about performance. Anybody can be happy and cozy. Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cozy. Nobody achieves anything great because they’re happy and cozy.”

    Climbing El Cap is a difficult, dangerous, and unprecedented thing to do; I hesitate to say that it is a great thing, however. Why would someone devote their life to accomplish something as utterly useless as climbing mountains without ropes again and again until they die? (It is not even a spectator sport.) Honnold comes off as clearly on the autism spectrum as ever I have seen someone, intelligent & well-intentioned but vaguely unhappy and with a remarkably flat affect. After an isolated childhood with a distant father & driving mother, nothing in his daily life seems to give him much in the way of pleasure, or indeed affect him at all (?). Heartstopping moments like making a jump at a critical spot on El Capitan and falling off during practice, which would be fatal in the final ascent, are treated the same as frying up some kale in his van.

    puts Honnold into an fMRI machine to look at fear. Climbers are already different—one of the most interviewed climbers in the documentary, , went hiking in Kazakhstan with his girlfriend, was captured by jihadis, and escaped by pushing one off a cliff, but this is too boring to mention—yet Honnold is even more extreme, with essentially zero amygdala activation: “The photographs, even the ‘gruesome burning children and stuff’ struck him as dated and jaded.” Further, Honnold’s brain also shows near-zero activation during a gambling task offering rewards. It is striking that in the entirety of Free Solo, the only time that Honnold seems genuinely moved, genuinely smiling and happy, is when he reaches the top of El Capitan. One is left with the impression that the real reason for Honnold’s monomania is that only hours spent in the closest possible proximity to death successfully solving an intricate puzzle with a world-record as payoff can break through his gray everyday world and finally make him feel alive and feel joy. But like many drugs, tolerance builds up, and it requires more and more extreme stimuli to provide the same payoff.

    One would not want to watch a group of heroin addicts compete to see who can ‘free mainline’ the largest doses of heroin without a naloxone kit handy, as difficult & dangerous as that may indeed be; but what, in the end, is the difference between that and Honnold?
  • (2019; entertaining cyberpunk action, Alita is one of the rare adaptations that is better than its source.)

    I am shocked to be reviewing this movie, much less that it was good. Movies or video games which spend decades in development hell are known for coming out much the worse for the wear, budgets & artistic coherency ravaged by time. Battle Angel Alita was one of those jokes, like , doomed to never come out—yet, here they are.

    In Alita, a flying city of elites hovers over a sprawling lawless favela of poverty and cyborgs. In the dump, a local doctor discovers a still-living cyborg head, and rescues it. The revived amnesiac Alita explores her new world, falling in love, conflicting with local criminals, and, while participating in the local bloodsport (which resemble Rollerball), hones her talent for combat, the legacy of her past as an invader from a democratic Mars centuries ago, aiming to bring down the tyranny of the flying cities (a war which the Martians lost). The flying city learns of her revival and begins conspiring to kill her, succeeding only in killing her boyfriend. After overcoming her immediate enemies, Alita vows vengeance on it.

    Because of the mixed reviews I was inclined to give it a pass, but a trans acquaintance mentioned that the original cyberpunk manga was one of their favorites, and indeed, they thought it a favorite in general among trans along with, of course, The Matrix. The Matrix’s connection is easy enough to understand, as the Wachowski Brothers famously transitioned a number of years ago and are now just the Wachowskis, and the Red Pill looks exactly like a particular ’90s brand of estrogen pills, and of course the overall gnostic theme is appropriate in a trans context, so I was curious as to what would make Alita more relevant than, say, other much-better-known cyberpunk manga/anime like Ghost in the Shell. After watching it… I can sort of see it. Alita wakes up in an unfamiliar body, not of her choosing; unlike Ghost in the Shell which infamously exploits fanservice nudity and hypersexualized robots, Alita’s body is almost boy-like, and her face looks not unlike that of an effeminate boy who has grown his hair long. She chafes at the limits of her body, worries about her boyfriend–and society—discovering what she really is, and eventually obtains a far superior one of her own choosing which better matches her self-image as a warrior & looks better too. I doubt such an interpretation was intended like The Matrix’s, but it’s understandable. In any case, the movie must stand on its own.

    As an action movie, it is entertaining. The much-debated CGI effects, particularly Alita’s face which heavily modified with CGI into a stretched anime or doll-like appearance, eventually normalize as you watch. I think it ultimately doesn’t add anything and was a bad idea, but not as bad as one would think. In any case, there is always so much to look at on the screen, with the assorted scum & villainy of the Scrapyard passing by, that one doesn’t have to watch Alita all the time. If there’s one thing you can count on a Hollywood production to do right, it’s excellent production values and loving attention to visual detail like costumes & backgrounds. Which brings us to what Hollywood usually doesn’t do right, which is the plotting. The pacing is awkward, as stuff just sorta keeps happening, and one lacks any clear sense of a plot arc or understanding of where everything is going. The plot is actually fairly well thought out, borrowing heavily from and considerably increasing the importance of the bloodsport, but it’s confusing anyway.

    After watching it, I began reading the original manga, and I gained a new appreciation for the movie, which draws on the first 4 volumes or so. The original manga is… not that great? In many details it fails to live up to the movie. (Alita is named after a dead cat, not the doctor’s dead daughter; the new body is simply hanging around the basement, not found in a crashed spaceship; the backgrounds are nonexistent or repetitive, only so many brains-in-jars you can draw before it gets boring etc.) Many of the incidents in the movie are also in the manga, but unconnected and merely short action vignettes, and the rollerball bloodsport is merely a local sport rather than the key to revolution, and in the manga, serves largely as a extended boxing/martial-arts-style interlude, right before Alita leaves the slums and becomes a special agent of the flying city. There is a distinct lack of depth, with some pro forma ‘society made me evil’ backstories. On the other hand, the movie adaptation does a skillful job weaving it all together into a single overarching plot. Changes like Alita being named after a dead daughter or the Chiren character are just plain better.
  • (1978; I downloaded the wrong one—who knew there were two?—but I think this one is probably better. A noir psychological thriller set in SF—of course! As the director asks, “Could it happen in the city I love the most? The city with the most advanced, progressive therapies, politics and so forth? What would happen in a place like that if the pods landed there and that element of ‘poddiness’ was spread?” Well… The pod people justify their genocide as environmentalism, incidentally. In a slow burn, the protagonists undergo one of the most effective dramatizations of a slowly-building paranoid schizophrenia & ; when everything explodes and it becomes more of a zombie chase movie, it’s still rescued by an appropriately downer ending.)
  • (2010; a worthy followup to the original Tron: a colorful Daft Punk musical video meets Star Wars.)
  • (1963; wrote an interesting article on how The Haunting used cinematographic techniques to build up creepiness and a feeling of foreboding while avoiding any resort to special effects: the house—supposedly genuinely thought to be haunted—is always carefully framed to be ‘staring’ at the viewer, the director obtained a unique wide-angle lenses which subtly distorts the image (sometimes shot on infrared film!), the rooms were deliberately built to be slightly off-kilter in various ways which was exploited in the unusually long slow tracking shots whose cuts then scramble any sense of the internal layout of the house, and the actors themselves began to succumb to depression & conflict during the filming. It is all elegantly effective and a good watch at night.)
  • (2012)


  • (2011; your opinion of Gosick will depend heavily on your tolerance for tsundere lolita characters and for a mystery-of-the-week format featuring mysteries which are lame & primarily for gradual worldbuilding. The payoff is a series which gradually increases in quality over its 24 episodes, showing the growth of the two star-crossed lovers against the backdrop of an alternate-history France in which they struggle to avoid becoming pawns of an occult conspiracy to launch WWII. Stylistic quirks like the resolutely French setting & art nouveau designs, somewhat unusual in anime, and repeated use of folk tale/urban legends to structure mysteries, lend it flair, and as the pieces started to come together, I warmed up to Gosick. It is still rather melodramatic, but overall, I’d say: it’s better than it sounds.)
  • (1988; a retread of the , attempting a generational replay/“the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons”, but it is so aggressively in media res that even fans will be confused, and the overall structure comes off as confused and ill-written—for example, the new female Newtype Quess, who replaces the one who dies at the peak of MSG, comes off as a Mary Sue who ruins every scene she is in and yet everyone indulges her; apparently, consulting for an explanation of why the plot is so messed up, this was supposed to reflect her Newtype powers. TVTropes further explains why the movie as a whole is so unsatisfactory, as its production is a comedy of errors: “Originally, director Yoshiyuki Tomino was going to wrap up Amuro and Char’s storyline in , but mid-way through production he was given the go-ahead to make a movie, forcing the plot of ZZ to be rewritten…In the meantime Tomino wrote the novel Hi-Streamer, but when Sunrise gave him the green light, he went back and wrote a second novel, Beltorchika’s Children, which he specifically wrote to be adapted into a movie. However, Sunrise instead chose to use Hi-Streamer, with the final film being a pretty straightforward adaptation of its second half.” Oy vey. What an ignominious end for Char & Amuro.)

Evangelion 3.0

  • (2012)

    has earned the dubious distinction of become one of the most troubled and long-delayed anime movie series ever. At current projections of release in June 2020, a child conceived when in 2007 would be just about old enough to pilot an Evangelion by the time the series finishes. announced it with grand plans to revitalize anime and again revolutionize the industry, but 1.0 and 2.0 then turned out to be almost beat for beat remakes of the original TV series. (A NYT reviewer understandably initially thought, until corrected, that they actually reused the original cel artwork.)

    More troublingly, the behind-the-scenes material, particularly the interviews & drafts, suggested a production which was creatively lost at sea, with no sense of what it meant to ‘rebuild’ Evangelion, struggles to integrate a character foisted on the series for merchandising purposes (Mari Makinami), wildly divergent proposals for changes (even by the standards of drafts & screenwriting in general or previous Evangelion work specifically), many mysteries set up with few answered and the buck passed to later films, and a Hideaki Anno who appears thoroughly bored and completely uninterested in his own project and barely present much less coming up with wild new ideas nourished over 2 decades.

    This impression was only hammered in by the extraordinary delays (3.0 came out fully 3 years after 2.0, and 4.0 will, optimistically, arrive 8 years after that—for a remake, by a fully-funded special-purpose studio, working on what was planned to be a tetralogy from the start!), and by Anno’s own numerous projects outside of Rebuild, ranging from producing a movie about a porn director or to creating a kaiju monster museum to launching an animation festival to directing the (which was enormously successful & doubtless fulfilled a life dream for Anno, but did not help 4.0 get done) or even voice-acting the leading character in (‽) as documented in .

    Halfway through Rebuild, it is an artistic failure (however much money it may have made). Characterization, as the staff frequently notes in the 2.0 CRC, has been sacrificed on the altar of running time, forcing a ruthless sacrifice of all scenes focusing on anyone other than Shinji Ikari, in order to fit in the necessary action. After 2.0, despite a dramatic twist and finally a major divergence from the original TV series, Rebuild is left in a precarious position: half the series had now been used up, and every second is precious. The remaining 2 films must accomplish the near-impossible: deliver the missing characterization, pay off all the IOUs the first 2 movies incurred, have a meaningful ending, and incidentally, comment on and surpass the meaning of NGE TV/EoE to show artistic & personal growth on the part of Hideaki Anno & the anime industry.

    So 3.0 was a do-or-die movie for Rebuild. There is simply no time left if 3.0 screws up. One movie alone cannot possibly deliver on even 2 of those goals while still working as an Evangelion movie. If 3.0 can’t deliver characterization and introspection but devolves into just more action, then it’s over for Rebuild. Anno will have turned his back on what made him interesting and ceased caring about being more than entertainment & fanservice. Some of his interviews have been more than a little disturbing in this respect, but 3.0 will be the proof. If there is anything great to Rebuild, 3.0 is where it will show up by jumping off from 2.0’s twist ending, and even if it is merely good, there will still be hope for Rebuild pulling it off in the end. 2.0 raised our hopes that our patience would be rewarded & Rebuild would work out: what now, Anno, we have been wondering?

    But… 3.0 is a terrible movie. It fails as a movie and it fails as the third film in Rebuild. It is filled with irrelevant meaningless changes, visuals for the sake of visuals, and casually tosses on even more mysteries, with the attitude that fans are morons for caring and they should be screwed over like the fans of Lost, and if you pay attention to anything or cared, that just makes you a sucker. 3.0 is a movie which disrespects its viewers at every turn, and I have rarely been more glad to have pirated a movie because it would be a crime to pay the creators of this. I can’t even praise the visuals or animation because they are often so poorly executed (seriously, what is with the chins?), with painfully cliche (the montages) or outright ugly CGI—astonishing for a well-funded blockbuster film which was in production for so many years. One can only conclude that the 2.0 CRC was right: no one at Khara, much less Anno, has any vision for Rebuild, and are just slapping together random scraps of ideas heedless of any artistic unity or the fact that they are issuing IOUs they cannot pay off; I have to imagine an intern at Khara being assigned to complete the screenplay and desperately filling out all the blank pages with their yaoi circle’s last fanfic, because nothing else can explain the way the movie lolls through the endless Kaworu segments. (It’s amazing to think that the original NGE TV Kaworu does more in ~10 minutes of screentime than 3.0 Kaworu does in several times that.)

    It doesn’t just fail to provide characterization or depth, it actively destroys with gimmicks what depth characters had left over from the original series & first two Rebuilds. A whole new pack of characters is introduced for no reason. The 2.0 trailer scenes are dropped without a word. New Reis show up. Old characters like Misato or Ritsuko are warped and left flat as hairdos & hats replace heroines & hope. Everyone except the Kaworu fans are unhappy with 3.0, even though the Kaworu fans should be the most incandescent with rage because 3.0 makes his death completely meaningless, futile, irrelevant, and pointless since there was no need to put on the DSS explosive collar whatsoever and no reason he would expect to die—compared to his death in NGE TV where his death was both necessary and voluntary. But I guess the fujoshi were thrown enough fanservice and piano-playing to make them overlook oh-so-minor issues like “s—ing all over the thematic value of Kaworu’s death” (so maybe 3.0’s contempt for fans is justified after all). Or consider Mari Makinami: 2 movies now, and her character remains completely worthless. So much for her character being the key to “destroying Eva”.

    Rebuild started with a promise to abandon the secrets & mysteries as exhausted & “12 years old”, yet piled them on with nary a care, from Mari to the Key of Nebuchadnezzar to the flash shots of the ‘Adams’ to the coffins on the moon to SEELE’s activities and so on and so forth. It started as a promise to revolutionize the stagnant anime industry again, yet Anno proceeded to bankroll Studio Khara/1.0 entirely by himself (“100%” he says in 2011) and by taking on this incredible financial risk, produced a completely conservative money maker that was shot-by-shot in some cases. We thought it was going to move beyond otaku and fanservice as part of its general appeal, and it gave us the ‘slutsuit’ in 2.0, and then 3.0 provided even more fujoshi fanservice than they had ever hoped for. We were promised something that couldn’t “be understood just by spacing out and watching it”, something that will “will be better than the last series”. We thought it would revitalize the old character drama, and show us new depth as just desserts for our patience, when it is determined to drain all the water, leaving only barren sandy desert. And so on and so forth. All these promises have been broken. Rebuild has not accomplished a single thing it planned to do, and no one at Khara seems to care. Evangelion fans are trapped on a ghost ship headed straight for the rocks.

    Watching 3.0 was a terrible shock to me. So disappointing was it that I have put off writing this review for 6 years. It was not just realizing that Rebuild was doomed, and all these years waiting were wasted. (Rebuild is one of several reasons why I now insist on watching only complete series.) It was the shock of seeing that Hideaki Anno hasn’t grown at all. He has nothing to say in Rebuild. He has grown older, but not better, nor wiser. Rebuild is nothing but a betrayal of NGE TV & EoE, one which contaminates their accomplishments. It seems he doesn’t even understand what he did, as he can (not) redo it anymore, and worse, he doesn’t give a damn about any of it. Rebuild is just a lucrative cash cow to build up Studio Khara and fund his pet projects, much the same way that George Lucas cared little about Star Wars when he made Return of the Jedi and was more concerned about how to save / post-divorce (see Secret History of Star Wars) and unsurprisingly Lucas ultimately sold off the Star Wars franchise entirely to owners who have been even poorer custodians than he was.

    It would not be going too far to say that watching 3.0 killed my interest in Evangelion. Literally overnight I stopped . How could I bring myself to care about the development of Evangelion when Rebuild is such shameless garbage and Anno treats Evangelion with such contempt? It is one thing to document how the mysteries & allusions are superficial at best, since Evangelion fans know that stuff like Kabbalah is merely stage-setting trimmings for the psychological drama, but another thing to see the creators trash precisely that in favor of more worthless trimmings. I still follow Evangelion news a little bit, and I’ll probably watch 4.0 to see how the trainwreck ends, but I can’t call myself an Evangelion fan anymore. The spell has been broken.

    The sole bright spot is Shiro Sagisu’s soundtrack, which while not working all that well with the movie (probably because 3.0 stinks), does work nicely on its own. So far Sagisu’s Rebuild OSTs have shown an inverse correlation with the movies: the worse they are, the better he gets. I look forward to the 4.0 OST, if not 4.0 itself.