Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hadrian a Confucian Aficionado in Kuwait? Check Out "On Eastern Shores"

Self-banned from the alternate-history forum until October so I can focus on work and my personal writing projects, but here's a relatively new Roman-era timeline that looks pretty cool.

It's entitled "On Eastern Shores: A Roman Timeline." The divergence from our timeline is that the dying Emperor Trajan, instead of selecting Hadrian as his successor, instead chooses the Roman general and governor of Judea Lusius Quietus. Lusius had defeated a series of Jewish uprisings known as the Kitos War, which is part of reason the timeline's author gave for Trajan deciding Quietus would be his successor instead. The other reason is that Trajan doesn't think Hadrian will retain his conquests, something that our history bore out with the abandonment of Mesopotamia.

(Quietus was relieved of command and killed, possibly on Hadrian's orders, soon after Hadrian became emperor, so it's possible he was a serious contender for power.)

As emperor, Quietus finishes the war with the Parthians with a treaty that leaves Mesopotamia in Roman hands and the kingdom of Characene (modern southern Iraq and Kuwait) a Roman client. Hadrian, seeking to avoid offending Quietus, moves to Characene and becomes a patron of scholarship, including Indian and Chinese scholars whose ideas become popular.

And that's the kicker there. With a Roman port on the Persian Gulf, Rome is in a much better position to participate in the Indian Ocean trade. The Romans also receive a Chinese ambassador, something that I don't believe happened in real history. As a result, Buddhism spreads more readily in the Roman sphere than it did historically, while Confucian ideas about government arrive. These encourage the Roman Empire to develop a more merit-oriented bureaucratic system rather than staffing the government with members of the senatorial and equestrian classes.

I don't agree with everything the author plans for this timeline--he seems to think Buddhism would syncretize with and replace Christianity because Buddhism, unlike Christianity, does not require people to abandon their earlier religious beliefs. I'd prefer he go with a more religiously-divided Roman sphere (one of the commenters suggested one half be Christian, one half be Buddhist, and Christians enjoy more success outside of the Empire), but I'm not going to be a major contributor to the timeline. So we'll just have to see how it goes.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell (2016)

I first became interested in the Hellraiser horror franchise when I was in middle or high school, although I lost interest for a long time. Over the last few months my interest has been rekindled--I watched the original Hellraiser for the first time and read the novel that inspired it, The Hellbound Heart. At some point along the way I saw that Rebellion Publishing had a Hellraiser/Sherlock Holmes crossover entitled Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell coming out.

So how was it? Let's see...



The Plot

Sherlock Holmes, the world's greatest detective, and his physician partner John Watson are called into action when a libertine disappears from a locked room. Their investigation draws them deeper into London's underworld, where the powerful and influential cast aside their Victorian uprightness indulge in a plethora of perversions. They discover the machinations of the mysterious "Order of the Gash" and a mysterious puzzle box.

Soon Holmes and Watson find themselves faced with a foe not of this world that deals in fates worse than death...

The Good

*As I mentioned earlier I've been interested in the Hellraiser universe for a long time. Crossing it over with the realm of Sherlock Holmes is pretty creative. Someone who solves the box and is taken by the Cenobites sets up a classical "locked room mystery," especially since a philosophical materialist like Holmes is not likely to consider a supernatural cause like, well, a gang of extra-dimensional BDSM enthusiasts who drag people through portals opened by a supernatural Rubix cube.

(Wow, I just made the whole franchise seem really ridiculous, didn't I?)

*I was able to read the novel in a few hours on the elliptical and it made my exercise time go by pretty quickly. It's an absorbing read and a fairly quick one. Definitely very entertaining, which is why we all read books in the first place.

*Author Paul Kane has clearly done his research into the Hellraiser franchise. This is not really a surprise considering he'd written The Hellraiser films and Their Legacy and had the assistance of Barbie Wilde, who played the Female Cenobite in the first two films and wrote the introduction to the book. In particular he's clearly studied The Hellbound Heart, since he knows the smell of vanilla accompanies the Cenobites and those who seek their attentions sometimes offer their dove's heads and their own urine. A character is very strongly implied to be the ancestor of Clive Barker's occult detective Harry D'Amour, who appears in some of Barker's other works before facing off against the nefarious Pinhead in the recent Scarlet Gospels. The acknowledgements section at the end of the book reveals influences from anthologies of stories set in Barker's universe written by other authors as well. The climactic battle even draws on both Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 and Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth.

*Per the above, Kane knows not to bring in Pinhead. Pinhead would have been "born" in the 20th Century and this far too early for him. However, Hell had servants well before Pinhead, so he's not really needed.

*Sherlock Holmes' deductive talents are on full display in this one. He deduces several interesting facts about one Laurence Cotton and his second wife Juliet (more on them later) upon meeting them and he's able to discern the presence of the Puzzle Guardian vagrant and just how those who've gone missing after the solving the box died. Kane has written in the Holmes universe as well, including stories in The Mammoth Book of Sherlock Holmes Abroad and Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes.

*I was initially displeased to see characters from earlier Holmes works popping up, but Kane makes the whole situation work out and paves the way for a very entertaining climax.

The Bad

*The author's knowledge of the Hellraiser universe proves to be a bit of a creative crutch when Holmes and Watson first begin investigating. The first missing person is a mischievous "Francis Cotton" and the people who seek out their help are his brother Laurence and his new wife Juliet, who live on Lodovico Street in London. Laurence has a daughter named Kirsten, with whom Juliet doesn't get along. Does this sound a bit familiar? It's the triangle of Larry, Frank, and Julia from the first Hellraiser, transplanted into the late 19th Century.

However, another missing person is one Lt. Howard Spencer and he has a son nicknamed Ellie, whom Watson thinks will go into the military for all the wrong reasons. The implication is that this is the young Elliott Spencer, who will someday solve the puzzle box in India and be transformed into Pinhead.

If the story had been a pure prequel to The Hellbound Heart, this would not have been a problem at all, and if Kane had just transplanted the tale of the Cotton family for a 19th Century reboot, I might not have liked it but I wouldn't have been that upset. However, the prequel and the reboot aspects sit uneasily side by side. And since Hellraiser is not public domain like Sherlock Holmes is, Barker and friends have to have approved this.

It would have been better if Holmes and Watson merely met the ancestors of the Cottons--perhaps they had a boarder in the upper room of their Lodovico Street house who disappeared? It might be a nice hat-tip to the mythology.

Per my point about the Cotton family reprise, some characters' fates in hell are more akin to the torments depicted in in Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 than The Hellbound Heart. For example, Barker's original novella implied those taken by the Cenobites experienced "pleasures" more physical than psychological that reduced Frank Cotton to a mutilated mess and bore at least a passing relationship to sex. The punishments of Francis Cotton, the elder Spencer, etc. are more psychological and spiritual in nature. Furthermore, they stem from the idea of the Cenobites dispensing justice upon the wicked, as opposed to Barker's original vision of them as a band of amoral experimenters in pleasure and pain. That's something that appears in the later Hellraiser films (especially the awful direct to video ones), but not in The Hellbound Heart or the original Hellraiser. The idea present in The Hellbound Heart that the damned, when not "enduring pleasure," are able to see into the worlds they've left behind is abandoned entirely.

So is this a prequel to The Hellbound Heart and some of Barker's other works, the Hellraiser film series, or both?

*Some of Watson's actions after the climax of the novel don't fit in with his character, don't fit in with the existing Hellraiser mythology and might not work with the Holmes canon overall. I'm not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers.

The Verdict

An interesting book and a fast read besides. 8.5 out of 10.

Movie Review: The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

The other day I saw with my girlfriend, mom, and little cousins Illumination Entertainment's new animated film The Secret Life of Pets. Although this type of movie usually isn't my thing, the metal-head poodle from the trailer is what sold me on the film.

So here's the review...



The Plot

Max (Louis C.K.) is a terrier who's loving his life with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) in her New York City apartment. Then one day she brings home a much larger new dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max does not like this intruder one bit, but the two end up lost in the city without their licenses after a dog-park mishap. Neighboring dog Gidget (Jenny Slate) recruits other local pets--who have a human-like society that operates when their humans aren't home--to rescue Max, on whom she has a crush. Unfortunately she's not the only one looking for Max--the angry rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart), who leads a band of abused and abandoned pets, are on the hunt for him as well.

The Good

*Where do I begin? This movie is absolutely hilarious. I could not stop laughing for most of the film. Of particular amusement is Snowball, whom Hart plays as a Black Panther militant-revolutionary type. He has so many funny lines it's hard to pick out specific ones, but I did like the sequences from the trailer in which he poops himself during a speech and another where he floats on some driftwood while commenting on his appearance, as well as a funeral speech he gives. Snowball's gang also has some amusing characters, including a pig Snowball uses as muscle.

There's plenty of humor coming from characters other than Snowball. The scene in the trailer where Gidget interrogates criminal feral cat Ozone (Steve Coogan) was amusing, as is a sequence where Duke and Snowball sneak into a sausage factory. The apartment that the elderly disabled basset hound Pops (Dana Carvey) turns into a chronic party-place for pets has a whole bunch of funny scenes in it. There's also a hilarious bit involving YouTube cat videos that kids and parents will love. And let's not forget Leonard the metal-head poodle. :)

Heck, I can't name them all or even a double-digit percentage of them. Just see the movie. It's absolutely hilarious.

*The voice-acting is really good. I liked all of them, especially Snowball. I seriously didn't have any problems with any of the voice-acting at all.

*The characterization is complex. Max is hostile toward Duke, but it's because his life revolves around his beloved owner and he feels betrayed. Duke initially tries to bully Max, but it's provoked and we later find out he has very good reasons to fear losing his new home. Snowball is a violent loon, but he's, as TVTropes put it, a Father To His Men (well, animals, but that's not the point) and also has good reasons to hate humans.

*The 90 minute running time is pretty brief, which fits for a movie aimed at children. There were only a couple times I looked at my watch.

*The animation quality was really good. I'm a fan of old-fashioned 2D animation that's really out of favor now (I think the last major film using that technique was The Princess and the Frog), but I had no problems with this one. No character looked like a mobile Barbie doll; no cityscape looked like a bunch of toy blocks stacked up. Perhaps you could call me a convert. :)

The Bad

*I honestly can't think of anything major. The closest thing I can come up with is that some parts of the storyline that are supposed to be poignant really aren't. And that might be just me.

*Some critics have accused the movie of being too much like Toy Story. I concede they've got a point--the Toy Story films had a "secret society that hides from humans" thing going, while Woody and Buzz were initially rivals the way Max and Duke are. However, I didn't think that was a problem. It'd be a ripoff if these were toys, not pets, and these aren't toys.

*Acknowledging that having a dog of Duke's size in a New York City apartment is not fair to Duke or Max and not safe for Katie's property either would have been good. If it's made clear that Katie is fostering Duke temporarily, it would make her look like a more responsible pet owner and make Max look like more of a jerk (he's getting territorial about somebody who's not going to be there long).

The Verdict

A great movie, and I don't just say that because I enjoy promoting non-Disney animation. 9.5/10.

Hopefully there'll be more of these movies and Illumination will provide an alternative to Disney (not faulting Disney, but I doubt they'd go for something edgy like making Snowball the animal version of a Black Panther) for a long time to come. And I'm pretty sure I'll be buying the DVD.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

I've historically not been interested in the Tarzan mythology, even though I remember getting a kid version of Tarzan of the Apes at the elementary-school book fair long ago. However, I saw the trailers for the jungle-history-adventure film The Legend of Tarzan and they looked really cool, so I decided to go see it.

How was it?



The Plot

John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård), an English aristocrat raised by apes in the African jungle but ultimately returned to civilization after rescuing missionary's daughter Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) from a violent ape, is asked to visit Belgian King Leopold's Congolese colony on behalf of the British government. He declines, but is asked by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to accept the invitation in order to help him investigate rumored mass enslavement of Congolese by Leopold's regime, which as far as the outside world knows is a humanitarian venture whose purpose is to educate the natives, spread Christianity, and protect them from Arab slavers.

Taking up Williams' offer, he returns to the village on the edge of the Congolese jungle where Jane's father taught the locals English and where he was a local legend "Tarzan," an evil spirit who could control the animals of the jungle. The village is attacked by Force Publique soldiers under the command of Belgian official Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who intend to trade Clayton to African chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), whose son Tarzan had killed years before, in exchange for a hoard of diamonds. Williams and Clayton escape but Jane and many of the villagers are captured by Rom's men, who take them upriver into Mbonga's domain. Clayton, Williams, and a posse of African villagers pursue...

The Good

*One generally doesn't associate "jungle action-adventure movies" with really good acting, but I was impressed with the actors in this one, especially the supporting cast. Robbie impresses as Jane, who's quite spunky and not the sort of damsel who easily ends up in distress (or has problems getting out of it). Jackson's Williams is pretty cool, especially when he opens up about his past and the reasons why he's trying to expose Leopold's misdeeds. Waltz plays Rom in an oily and cunning way that reminds me very much of Aidan Gillen's Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. And Hounsou, even though he's not onscreen very much, does a great job conveying a grieving and very, very angry father.

*I like the tie-ins with real history. Both Rom and Williams are real people, while the enslavement and exploitation of the peoples of the Congo by the Congo Free State (the king's personal project, not affiliated with the Belgian government until the revelation of his crimes made it radioactive) was a very real and evil thing. If anything, the film downplays the regime's cruelty--we see generic colonial crimes like Africans being killed or taken as slaves, but none of the especial horrors that led to the death of ten million people, half of Congo's population. Read King Leopold's Ghost if you want to know more. The movie doesn't need to be pushed into R territory with excessive additional violence, but perhaps a scene of villagers with missing hands or dying en masse of starvation because the men are all collecting rubber and the women and children are all being kept hostage (so nobody is actually growing food) could be included.

*Per the above, the tale of a colonial-era white guy as king of the African jungle could run into all sorts of problems in an age where the wider culture (or at the very least cultural arbiters and gatekeepers like movie critics, studio VIPs, academics, etc) are much more sensitive to charges of racism. I remember someone online openly wondering if the Tarzan story should even be retired completely as a relic of a less-enlightened time. However, the film retains unaltered the characters of Tarzan (the white "king of the jungle") and Jane (his white American wife) while at the same time depicting black people as something other than violent spear-chucking villains and/or helpless people who need Tarzan to save them from the peril of the week. Heck, instead of being a "White Savior," Tarzan would much rather stay home in Britain and it takes Williams to get him to go back to Africa in the first place. Williams, although not as ludicrously fit as Tarzan, is essentially his equal, while Mbonga, instead of being another howling savage from central casting, is developed as a character. And when Tarzan goes to war, he has a posse of African allies backing him up.

*There's some really good foreshadowing. Tarzan's skills and physical power are shown in little doses before he goes into full Tarzan mode--he can hear Williams cracking nuts in a meeting when nobody else can and he climbs a tree on his English estate by pulling himself several feet up onto a branch with only one arm. The fact that hippos, not crocodiles or lions, are the most dangerous animals in Africa is revealed well before we even get to Africa, let alone before the hippos become a problem. And Tarzan's ability to mimic animal mating calls is revealed pretty early in the film too. There's a whole arsenal of Chekhov's guns put on display before they're fired, instead of New Powers As The Plot Demands.

*Rom is clearly a villain, but during a conversation with the captive Jane he reveals a lot of the issues driving him and they're all quite understandable. Everybody is the hero of their own story and although Rom's deeds clearly make him a bad guy, he has intelligent and even sympathetic motivations.

*Although I had some problems with the script (I'll get to those later), one thing I definitely appreciated is just how funny it is. Jane's first meeting with the young Tarzan many years before the story begins is downright hilarious, as is Williams' character in general. There are a lot of funny bits in the movie and I rather appreciate them.

*The older Tarzan works depicted gorillas as murderously homicidal and violent (probably due to limited scientific knowledge at the time), but in reality gorillas are much less violent than the smaller chimpanzees. The movie gets around this by specifically differentiating the "Mangani" apes that raised Tarzan from gorillas, who are explicitly described as "gentle."

The Bad

*There are some really draggy bits in the first third or so of the movie, before the Claytons return to Africa. Things get better later on, fortunately.

*Skarsgård is not nearly as interesting or impressive as Clayton/Tarzan as Jackson, Robbie, Honsou, and Waltz are as the other characters. The movie could have depicted him as someone having problems fitting in with civilization and only being really "free" once he's returned to the jungle (I think that was a major aspect of one of the 1980s Tarzan movies), but that vein isn't really mined very much. I've heard Skarsgård is a great actor, so that might be on the script.

*Many African cultures are polygamous and even if the (fictional) culture of Opar does not allow the practice, larger families would have been the norm. I doubt Tarzan would have killed Mbonga's only son. Make it his eldest son and that would be fine. Heck, it could have been any son, not just the eldest.

*The historical Force Publique would have been recruited from the local population and thus would have been mostly black, with white officers. In the film we see an occasional black guy in the Force Publique, but they mostly seem to be white European mercenaries. Obviously one can't be too picky about historical accuracy, especially if one wants a happy ending given the history of the Congo, but if one is concerned depicting Africans complicit in the European conquest of other Africans will annoy people, it could be made clear why they're fighting. Give them agency, if you will, like the movie is clearly doing with Mbonga. Rom could explicitly be depicted recruiting poor and outcast Africans with the promises of money or power, recruiting soldiers from one tribe with the promise of them getting to kill their rivals, etc.

*We could see more of the reasons Rom has for doing what he does in other scenes beyond his conversation with Jane. The climactic battle would be a very good place for it--when things go poorly it's him who keeps the villains going. His issues simply will not let him give up. This would also make him more impressive.

*The climactic battle--not going to go into a lot of detail for reasons of spoilers--is over way too quickly. I would have prolonged it, which would also allow for Tarzan's African allies to do more.

*The villainous Rom is depicted as fiddling on his rosary a lot and claims to have been very close to his local priest as a child. However, the real-life strong Christian faith that drove Williams (he was a Baptist minister as well as a soldier and diplomat) to challenge Leopold's cruelty is absent from his character completely. Other reviewers have referred to Jane as the daughter of a missionary and although that's not explicit, it seems to me that's the only plausible reason her father is teaching English to remote African villagers. There are purely secular NGOs like Doctors Without Borders today, but it is my understanding that back then the kind of people who did the stuff the elder Porter did (i.e. traveling to remote places and educating the people) would have been Christian missionaries like Dr. Livingston.

Given the times, the overwhelming majority of Westerners would have been at least nominally Christian, but only the evil Rom is depicted as being such and that left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

*We're told that Tarzan and Jane had lost a child and that's why Tarzan is reluctant to have Jane accompany him back to Africa, but the impact on them could have been explored more deeply. Even a miscarriage, let alone the death of a newborn or older child, will leave its wounds, but that only seems important in one scene. Jane could be clearly depressed in England and Tarzan could agree to have her accompany him, despite his concerns for her safety, in the hopes that a trip will lift her spirits.

*The British Prime Minister trying to get Tarzan to support Leopold's venture on the grounds it would give the natives jobs is anachronistic. The idea that a government's duties including keeping people employed was not common back then, especially in more laissez-faire Britain. I would have had him play the "white man's burden" card--he could believe the claims that Leopold's government is educating and protecting the natives who Tarzan knew as a young man. Only Williams is skeptical, since as as a black man he would have reasons to distrust white paternalism.

The Verdict

Surprisingly well-done, but with a few flaws. Definitely worth the $4 I paid to see it at North DeKalb Mall's AMC (which has first-run movies for matinee prices I haven't seen in many years) and worth a matinee price at a more expensive place. 8.0 out of 10.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Movie Review: FREE STATE OF JONES (2016)

This afternoon I rode up to the old homestead in East Cobb to see the Matthew McConaughey historical movie The Free State of Jones, based on the book Free State of Jones, with my friend Nick. It hadn't been long since I'd learned the Confederate secession was lacking in democratic legitimacy (if you combined the white Unionists with the blacks, one could make a very strong case the majority of the population opposed secession), but I'm not aware of Hollywood actually acknowledging internal opposition to the Confederacy. The only exception I can think of is Cold Mountain, and I hadn't seen the movie or read the book.

So how was it? Let's see...



The Plot

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Confederate medic from Mississippi, deserts from the army to take home the body of his son (or a relative of some kind, it's not 100% clear), who had been drafted by Confederate soldiers who had also taken most of the family's crops and farming equipment. Already upset by the "20 slave law" that exempts the sons of large slave-owners from the draft, he protects a widow and her daughters from the thieving Confederates, who then chase him into the swamp using bloodhounds. He falls in with some runaway slaves and organizes a rebellion against the Confederacy. Along the way, he romances the slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) after his wife Serena (Keri Russell) leaves him. After the war, he and his fellow guerrillas become staunch Republicans (the white South was strongly Democratic at the time) but soon face the coming of lynching, disenfranchisement, and Jim Crow.

The Good

*Great, great history that has rarely if ever been told on film before. The period where film emerged as an art form and Hollywood emerged as a cultural machine coincided with a period called "the nadir of American race relations," the age of widespread disenfranchisement, Jim Crow segregation, and lynchings. The dominant historiography of Reconstruction at the time, the Dunning School, taught that Reconstruction governments had been run by corrupt Northern migrants and inept, foolish blacks. It's no surprise that the first film with an actual plot is the Klan-glorifying The Birth of a Nation, while mega-film Gone With The Wind romanticizes the antebellum South. There's even the 1940 film Santa Fe Trail that depicts abolitionist John Brown as a maniac who burns the Kansas countryside and so frightens the slaves that they don't want freedom if it's him bringing it.

Furthermore, when movies began depicting the Confederacy and slavery in a negative light, the story was told very simplistically. Union good and anti-racist (the film Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter depicts abolitionists holding signs declaring blacks and whites equals, a notion most opponents of slavery would have viewed with disgust), Confederacy evil and racist (Glory emphasizes the atrocities inflicted on black Union troops and their white officers by Confederates). The nuances of the conflict, such as Northerners hating blacks and refusing to fight in an "emancipation war" or poor Southern whites opposing the Confederacy as a rich man's project they're expected to die for, are generally ignored.

(And even though poor whites were generally racist themselves--the rich whites used racism or the possibility they too could become big slave-owners to manipulate them--poor whites and blacks could work together. A populist biracial movement in North Carolina functioned--and even governed--for several years before being toppled by voter fraud and outright violence by Southern Democrats. I mean, seriously, they organized an outright coup d'etat against the municipal government of Wilmington. Thanks The Dollop podcast for reminding me just in time.)

*Some people were concerned that the movie would be a "white man saves poor blacks" movie, but that's not the case. At first it's a group of runaway slaves who save Newton, providing him shelter from Confederate soldiers hunting him and medical attention for his injured leg. The runaway slave Moses (Mahershala Ali) is portrayed as a leader of the runaways and later as a Reconstruction political activist registering blacks to vote. Knight is the one who first organizes them to fight, but he's a trained soldier and blacks both during and after slavery were purposefully kept ignorant of guns. Historically Knight did lead the insurgency against the Confederacy and later as a strong supporter of blacks' rights (he served as the commander of an all-black unit tasked with fighting racist paramilitaries), so downgrading him to avoid treading on certain people's toes does him a disservice.

*There are some good character moments, like Rachel crying when Newton leads her to a feather bed. Given what we learn about how she'd been treated as a slave, feather beds might bring back some very bad memories. The racial tensions that exist within the guerrilla band do get revealed when the blacks are pointedly not participating in a cookout and a white guerrilla tries to keep one of the blacks from eating some of the leftovers.

*Knight's Christian faith is strongly emphasized. Much is often made about how the Confederates quoted the Bible to defend slavery, but his defense of the lone woman and her daughters against the thieving Confederates reminds me very much of James 1:27. Some of his economic ideas echo the Catholic notion of distributism.

The Bad

*For a war movie this was extremely, extremely non-exciting. Even the battle sequences were boring, and that's really saying something. There are gigantic time skips linked together by onscreen text and images. There have been movies covering spans of years before that handled transitions of time in a more subtle or more interesting fashion. Instead we get a disjointed mess of a movie. It's the single worst aspect of the film. Nick is wondering if there's a three-hour director's cut out there somewhere and hopefully he's right. Hopefully that cut includes some battle scenes earlier in the movie--it's not until at least an hour in that we get serious combat between the guerrillas and Confederate authorities. And the climactic battle sequence is too abbreviated.

Would it be too hard to have a montage of Confederate soldiers deserting, Home Guard stealing crops and hanging deserters, Knight organizing runaway slaves and Confederate deserters into an army, etc? Come on, this is basic film class stuff here.

*Peppered throughout the Civil War story of Newton Knight is the tale of his 20th Century descendant Davis (via Rachel) getting persecuted by the state of Mississippi. Though he is to all appearances white himself, since he has a black great-grandmother by the laws of the state he's considered black and his marriage to a white woman is illegal. If The Free State of Jones were a television miniseries--an exploration in the vein of Roots about how many white Southerners have black ancestors perhaps--using the younger Knight's story to bookend the tale of how his black foremother and his white forefather got together would make sense. Here it just adds to the film's running time. Davis Knight's story would be better as some kind of epilogue or even an on-screen graphic explaining the ultimate fate of Netwton and Rachel's descendants.

*There's not a clear antagonist. It would have been better if they combined the local Confederate colonel and cavalry lieutenant Barbour (Bill Tangradi), who extorts taxes "in kind" from the poor farmers, into one chronic enemy of Knight's. Think how Jason Isaacs' character in The Patriot was Mel Gibson's singular nemesis. The colonel at one point orders something that clearly troubles Barbour, but we don't see any disagreement (unlike the scene in The Patriot when Jason Isaacs orders the burning of a church with Patriot civilians inside, horrifying one of his subordinates) or any real character development on his part.

*Reconstruction lasted for around a decade in Mississippi, but we never see the period of large-scale black participation in the government (including two black U.S. Senators) that so riled white racists. Seeing Moses facing off against local planter James Eakins (Joe Chrest), who manages to reclaim his estate and even some of his slaves as "apprentices" after swearing an oath to the Union, as rival political leaders would have been interesting.

*The potential political power of Mississippi blacks--they were more than half the population--is never discussed, even though blacks voting plays a big part in the last section of the film. There's a reason disenfranchisement was particularly zealous and stringent in Mississippi. I remember a map from a US history book (that I can't find at the moment) depicting Virginia and Georgia as having double-digit percentage of blacks voting before the Voting Rights Act (40% and 25% if I remember right), but Mississippi and Alabama having only around 5%.

*There's a scene where some of Knight's band are hanged by Confederates and we never see them beg for mercy, claim they weren't supposed to be hanged, etc. That's a weakness, especially given the circumstances that lead to the hanging.

The Verdict

Newton, Rachel, and the others who stood against the Confederacy deserve a better movie than this. It's good history, but it's not a good movie. I was originally planning on giving it a 5.0 out of 10 (worse than what I gave Hook), but out of consideration for how little-known the history of anti-Confederate whites is, I'll give it a 6.0.

Do better next time. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III was more entertaining than this, and that movie was so mediocre I didn't have much to say during the podcast we had on the movie and didn't bother writing a review. Jeez.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

How I Would Have Done INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (2016)

I went to see the science fiction movie Independence Day: Resurgence with my buddies from the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood the other night. You can see my review here. You can see my review of the prequel novel Independence Day: Crucible here. Sufficient to say, there was a lot of wasted potential, so much so that I decided to write a "how I would have done it" post in the vein of the one I wrote about Star Wars The Force Awakens awhile back.

Here goes. After this be lots of spoilers, so be ye warned...

*The first twenty to third minutes of the movie--until the arrival of the alien mothership--are generally fine. However, I'd build up Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), Dylan Dubrow-Hiller (Jessie Usher), and Patricia Whitmore (Maika Monroe) more. Dylan could be struggling to live up to his heroic stepfather's image, the orphaned Jake could resent Dylan for having a father figure, let alone a famous one, and Patricia could obviously chafe at abandoning her pilot dreams to care for her ailing father, the former President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman). Crucible touches on a lot of this, but the movie hints at it at most.

Also, even though this risks being a "young adult dystopia cliche," some kind of love triangle would be interesting. Each man would have traits Patricia finds interesting (or unattractive) and just how and why she's drawn to particular personality would develop her character more. Crucible established that she and Dylan were close friends for years after the events of the first movie. Patricia might find comfort in the familiar as her father deteriorates, but also (as the novel points out), she view him as more a brother than a potential partner. Meanwhile, the wrong-side-of-the-tracks Jake might have a bit of a bad-boy thing going, plus she could be attracted to the scruffy look as opposed to the smoother Hiller.

(Also, interracial sparks between the African-American Hiller and the Caucasian Patricia not raising eyebrows would show how the post-invasion society has evolved beyond intra-human racism.)

On the matter of Jake being a "bad boy," the stuff he mentions having done (i.e. stealing a spaceship to visit Patricia) would get him kicked out of the military, or at least demoted to somewhere he couldn't cause significant damage (i.e. not flying a huge spaceship, even an unarmed and slow one). I'd nix the spaceship-stealing completely and depict him as simply having been kicked out of the fighter-pilot program due to nearly killing Hiller by mistake during an exercise and reduced to piloting a space tug just like Crucible depicts. To make it clearer, he's regularly warned by his hard-ass commanding officer that one more screw-up and he's gone completely.

I'd also nix the "Dr. Okun awakens after 20 years in a coma" subplot and just depict him working in a lab with a tentacle-scar across his neck and perhaps more eccentric than usual.

*I've never seen any of the actors outside of this movie so I don't know if their underwhelming performance was the result of a poor script or their own lack of ability. The actors who played Dylan and Patricia in the original film could have been brought back, if they were interested and could handle more demanding adult roles.

*When the alien mothership arrives, I'd depict the battle in space as much less one-sided. The humans should have been spinning up the plasma-cannon satellites from the moment the mothership appeared (or at the very least when it engaged the lunar bastion), so the Asia-Pacific defense grid shouldn't have been wiped out before a single one could fire. The human victory in the first film only occurs because the City Destroyer attacking Area 51 took so long to fire its main gun Russell Casse could kamikaze it. The human military planners would know that these weapons need time to "charge" and plan accordingly.

*Once the mothership blasts through the nearest orbital defenses and lands on the surface, I would depict all the other satellites reorienting on the mothership and firing, huge numbers of nuclear and conventional cruise missiles fired from naval ships, etc. Submarines in particular would be good attackers since they're harder to spot and hit than surface ships. The mothership can then launch fighters to defend itself, fire its own weapons at attackers, etc.

(Smarter aliens would stay in orbit and either bombard ground targets directly or deploy smaller ships to attack, but having it land allows for the "space-tug death ride" sequence to stay. However, this one would have flying missiles, conventional and nuclear explosions, alien fighters, etc. replacing the landmarks from Singapore pulled into the air and dropped on London. Seriously, the mothership isn't big enough to affect gravity like that.)

*Hiller is ordered to retreat to Area 51 when the aliens triumph in orbit, but he detours to what looks like New York City to see to the welfare of his mother. That's playing fast and loose with both his own life and a very valuable piece of equipment, something that should get him into trouble. I would have him follow orders to return to Area 51, then call his mother, and have her die while on the phone with him. Maybe she makes it to the helicopter but it gets shot down by alien fighters clearing the airspace around their ship?

*Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch) should have died. This would hurt David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), especially if their last conversation had been hostile. Furthermore, given how the elder Levinson begins the movie by claiming credit for saving the human race (because he suggested they give the aliens "a cold") and Whitmore's nightmare implies the Harvesters have been listening to human radio and television transmissions, the aliens might take a personal interest in hunting him down. If we don't see him die in his boat when the alien uber-ship lands on the Atlantic coast, perhaps some aliens hunt him through the ruins of Florida and corner him, then hold up a waterlogged copy of his book before blowing him away? It could be a bit of dark comedy.

*General Joshua Adams (William Fichtner) orders the attack on the mothership by manned hybrid fighters be preceded by a wave of drones to bring down the mothership's shields, but we never see how this is done. Given how energy weapons can bring down a fighter's shields in one or two shots I figured the drones would be carrying nuclear weapons (the bomb that failed in the first movie was a smaller tactical nuke, and just one at that). Or, to be more creative, something resembling Project Excalibur, in which a detonating nuke's energy is focused into a laser blast. Given how the alien shields in the first movie worked by spreading out explosive force, a concentrated hit might punch through. I'd depict the initial attack smashing through the shields and wrecking a small number of fighters, to give a Hope Spot just before the aliens spring their trap.

(If the mothership remained in orbit, a wave of Excalibur missiles could clear the way for nukes or more powerful weapons--see below for ideas. A laser-missile could strike from farther out, avoiding fighters, defensive lasers, etc. that could shoot down a nuclear-tipped missile.)

*Give the hybrid fighters missiles so they can hit the alien fighters from beyond visual range. Crucible references the fighters carrying missiles as well as the energy cannon, so depicting them firing off a wave of missiles before they close to knife-fighting range like the first movie would make more sense. Crucible describes missiles able to exploit the alien shields' "phasing" to slip through, so they could do more than bounce off the big ships' force fields or knock fighters around like the Sidewinders did in 1996. Failing that, Excalibur-type missiles that could punch through shields like a knife going through a force-dispersing Kevlar vest.

*Ix-nay on the "cold fusion bombs." As far as I know, cold fusion isn't anything different in terms of energy production from conventional fusion. I'd have made the post-nuclear superweapon antimatter. If the Harvester ships run on antimatter, it would explain why Casse's suicide run was so effective--it ruptured the antimatter fueling the City Destroyer's main weapon and the resulting explosion ruptured the antimatter fueling the engines and other important ship systems. We're capable of making small amounts of antimatter now--imagine how much better we'd be with captured antimatter-production technology.

*The bit about the aliens drilling for the Earth's core is absurd. If it's minerals they're after, the Harvesters could get them from dead worlds, asteroids, etc. much more easily. President Whitmore's mind-meld with the aliens in the first movie made it sound like they intended to colonize the Earth, use it up, and move on. If the mothership lands and immediately disgorges armies of soldiers and colonists, the aliens' strategy could be that the humans wouldn't immediately nuke the hell out of the landing zones for fear of hitting civilians intermixed with the aliens.

*I didn't mind the friendly alien coming to rescue humans from the Harvester colonization fleet. But instead of offering to take humans to a hidden planet to join the interstellar resistance against the Harvesters, perhaps it supplies schematics of the mothership and advice on how to destroy it? Given how the mothership is 3,000 miles wide, I imagine it would require a hell of a power source and destroying that could be the key to victory. That could have been its purpose in the first place--the alien could have known the humans were advanced enough to, with some help, defeat the even larger Harvester fleet. If given the choice to definitely save a few people (the possible reason the Rhea base went offline) or possibly save a whole species, I'd go with the second choice.

*I would have made the destruction of Cheyenne Mountain and the death of the current president a lot more impressive than some alien commandos blowing down a door and shooting everybody. The command center is way down inside the mountain--the aliens would need to drill down to get to them. Remember, the mountain is designed to survive nuclear hits. Either have a more impressive alien ground attack, have them blast through it with their giant energy weapon like they apparently did in the first movie, or crack the mountain open and then send in the commandos for an epic two-fer of slaughter.

Furthermore, the entire line of succession wouldn't be present to be conveniently killed off. Think how the designated survivor is always away from Washington DC in case a terrorist takes out everybody. I'd have made it so General Adams is in de facto command because owing to the loss of satellites they can't find any Cabinet-level officials, the Speaker of the House, etc. after the president is killed in Cheyenne Mountain, but he wouldn't be formally sworn in as president. As far as I know, the chairman of the joint chiefs is not part of the line of succession. When the movie ends they find the designated survivor and Adams cedes power back to him, thus reaffirming civilian control and constitutional governance.

(One-third Americans think a military dictatorship is preferable to the current crop of civilian politicians, so this would push back against that abominable notion.)

*The climactic battle is a renewed assault on the mothership with the goal of getting through to its core (with the help of human pilots whose planes had been shot down in the initial assault who are doing a Die Hard inside the ship like in the film) and blowing it up. Triggering an antimatter explosion to "hollow out" the ship within its shell would hopefully do less damage to the world than a nuclear or antimatter strike intended to blast through the aliens' armor (or shields if they're back up) and smash the ship to bits from the outside. To build suspense, alien fighters and ground forces are spilling out of the mothership, so if it isn't destroyed by conventional means before a certain point, the humans will nuke it, killing millions of nearby civilians and possibly causing enough destruction that, along with the damage it did when it landed, the Earth's climate would be wrecked. That's a better "doomsday clock" scenario than the "the aliens will get to the Earth's core in an hour" business.

Plus, between the burning cities and the possibility of large-scale debris from the mothership raining down, it's possible that many if not most of the three billion deaths from the first invasion were the result of famine (and consequent disease) from an impact winter like the one that killed the dinosaurs. This is something the survivors would desperately want to avoid--hence the risky plan of trying a second "get inside and blow it up there" the aliens will likely expect rather than just unleashing every ballistic missile and bomber on Earth on the thing.

*Instead of the aliens being a Keystone Army where the death of the queen causes all of the fighters to crash, make the Harvester Queen a sort of big-boss creature instead. All the other aliens dying after the fall of the Harvester Queen at Area 51 contradicts the first movie in which we see a human fighter pursuing an alien fighter after the mothership is destroyed. Independence Day Crucible also features Captain Hiller helping Russians fight a bunch of alien survivors barricaded in an old Soviet military base and a decade-long battle between African warlords and the aliens from one surviving City Destroyer. If there was a queen whose death would cause the death of all the other aliens, she would have died on the mothership and there wouldn't have been any fighting afterward. We could give Whitmore his death ride against the Harvester Queen like in the film--he rams her with a space-tug carrying troops for the commando mission, her personal shields protect her from immediate death, so he turns on the fusion drive and slams her into an interior wall (or into the antimatter core itself for good measure), wiping out both of them.

With the death of the queen and the destruction of the mothership, the aliens on the surface have to retreat from Earth using smaller ships (like the vehicle the queen took to Area 51 in the actual movie). Alternatively, there's something similar to the montage of fallen City Destroyers from the first movie where the remaining alien forces are destroyed on the ground. That would much more sense than "with the queen dead the fighters fall from the sky and the other ships retreat to serve a new queen" bit the friendly alien supplied.

*The ending, in which the humans are recruited to fight for the friendly alien and some others who'd been at war with the harvesters for thousands of years, should be a bit less hopeful. The eccentric Okun can claim that with interstellar travel humans could "kick some alien ass," but if the war's been going on for thousands of years, humans are the equivalent of the Indian war chief Red Cloud and the Harvesters are the United States. We bloodied their noses a couple times and avoided colonization/extermination thus far (just like how Red Cloud won his war against the United States), but we're at a ludicrous disadvantage. Somebody should mention that, or at least act so grimly that Okun's enthusiasm obviously dims.

*All this is a very tall order for a single film and would no doubt be incredibly, incredibly expensive. However, if the story were broken up into two films, this would be more doable. The first film could climax with the epic battle in orbit, the death of Dylan's mother and Dr. Levinson's father, and the alien landing and end with Dylan, Jake, etc. rallying the survivors under General Adams for a counterattack. The second film could begin with the counterattack, have the dark spot in the middle where it fails (with most of the pilots killed or trapped in the mothership) and the aliens strike back by wiping out the president and most of the cabinet, and then have the second assault on the mothership be the climax. A gamble, but the last Hunger Games and Harry Potter movie adaptations were split in two, after all. It would also allow for more room for character interaction and development.

Independence Day: Resurgence could have been a three-hour special effects extravaganza or even broken up into multiple films. Instead we got something mediocre.

Book Review: Independence Day: Crucible (2016)

Last week I saw the big-budget science fiction epic Independence Day: Resurgence, a film that left much to be desired. Here's my review. The podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood will be doing a special podcast to discuss the film, much like we did for Jurassic World last summer. I'll also do a "how I would have done it" post like what I did for the original Mortal Kombat and Star Wars The Force Awakens, but until then, content yourself with my review of Greg Keyes' new novel Independence Day: Crucible that covers the twenty years after the original Independence Day...

The Plot

Twenty years have passed between the War of 1996 in which the genocidal Harvester aliens were narrowly defeated on the Fourth of July. Independence Day: Resurgence opens up with a world at peace, transformed by the widespread adoption of alien technology and where petty human feuds have been put away to face a dangerous universe. Only the dregs of the Harvester threat remain, locked in battle with warlords in central Africa, and they're obviously on the way out.

How did we get from Captain Steve Hiller (Will Smith) and Dr. David Levinson (Jeff Goldlum) walking away from the fallen fighter with cigars alight to this brave new world? Well, read Independence Day: Crucible and find out...


The Good

*Keyes captures the character voices really well. He does a particularly good job capturing Hiller and Dr. Levinson, in particular Hiller's swagger and penchant for one-liners and Dr. Levinson's Goldblum-esque verbal tics.

*Keyes comes up with a creative use for the aliens' tentacle-driven telepathy--controlling captured humans so the aliens can use human weapons. Hiller, flying a mission in support of Russian troops attacking aliens dug into an old Soviet base after the fall of the City Destroyers, finds out the hard way.

*We see how the friendship between Dylan Dubrow-Hiller (Will Smith's stepson) and the young Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth's character) begins. We also see that Dylan had longstanding romantic feelings for Patricia Whitmore, which I said in my review would have improved the characterization in the film no matter how cliched love triangles are in an age of young-adult dystopias like The Hunger Games. We also see the "territory issues" he develops with Jake over Patricia, which should have made it into the movie. We also see the chip on his shoulder the orphaned Jake has due to his familial situation and childhood poverty, his resentment of Dylan, and how Dylan desperately wants to get out from under his stepfather's shadow, all of which are only vaguely touched on in the movies.

*There's a whole back-story for Dikembe Umbutu, the Congolese warlord who controlled the only intact City Destroyer. In the movie we see his lingering anger at his father who, fearing the return of colonialism, refused to allow outsiders to support his people in their war with the remaining aliens and his zeal for defending both his people and all of mankind when the Harvesters return. In the book we follow him for twenty years, from when he's an art student in Britain to his return to his homeland in the aftermath of the first invasion to how he turns against his increasingly-insane father. There's also a whole back-story for the territory he controls--it was originally a province of the Republic of Congo, which broke up after the aliens destroyed the capital Kinshasa.

*The book is clearly built on 1990s geopolitics. Pre-Putin Russia is largely irrelevant and the major international relationship is between the United States and China. When President Whitmore meets with the leader of China (a junior member of the Politburo who took over after most of it died with Beijing), the major issues are Taiwan and Tibet. The one-child policy so hated by human-rights activists comes up several times. This makes a lot of sense--Russia in the 1990s was in a bad place and getting hammered by the aliens would make it worse. China was on the rise and the hammering from the aliens was compensated with all the goodies captured alien technology could provide.

*There's plenty of foreshadowing for Captain Hiller's fate, especially once we start getting into the middle of the book.

*We meet Jiang, future commander of Earth's lunar defense system, and he's just as much of a hardass as he is in the movie even though he's much younger.

*There's friction between Dr. Levinson and his father about children (namely how he and his ex-wife, whom he later remarried, didn't have any) and religion as well. I don't remember the first movie very well but I think the elder Levinson didn't like his son's choice of career, calling him a TV repairman. Here they've just found new issues to fight about.

*Keyes' is very detail-oriented and builds on small stuff from the original movie. Boomer (the dog belonging to Capt. Hiller and his family) appears early in the book, while Hiller's "I COULD HAVE BEEN AT A BARBECUE!" is expanded into a strong love for grilling out.

*The book depicts how much life sucks for ordinary people, even in a wealthy country like the United States, after the invasion. Jake is part of a group of summer campers in the California countryside whose families either die with Los Angeles or are scattered and cannot find them. The "lost boys of Sudan" come to mind. The head of the camp tries to keep them safe in the mountains, but his son's leg injury forces him to bring them down into a refugee camp where his son ends up dying for lack of antibiotics. The group takes control of an abandoned motel, fills the pool with dirt to grow their own food, and becomes the nucleus of a de facto orphanage that ends up including the young Charlie, who arrives on his own after the death of a relative who was raising him after his immediate family was killed.

*The book also explores the problem of poverty and education. Jake and Charlie are two of the few from their orphanage who get an education worth a damn owing to their native intelligence and extreme drive to succeed. Most of their peers end up uneducated due to their poverty and lack of opportunity. The gulf between poor schools and wealthy schools is already an issue in our world--the losses both materially and in lives inflicted by the aliens exacerbate an an already-existing problem. The only other time I can remember the effects of an apocalypse on the educational system is the novel Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in which a group of survivors defend a nuclear plant from an anti-technology cult so their grandchildren don't become illiterate peasants fearing thunder gods.

*The book also explores how many cities simply were not rebuilt after the invasion. I would think many of them would simply because the reasons they existed in the first place would still be there and most survivors would want to return home, but there would only be limited funds and many higher priorities. New York, Los Angeles, Mumbai, etc. would likely be rebuilt at least to a degree after such an event, but I could imagine many smaller or less important cities declining or returning to nature entirely.

The Bad

*The aftermath of the alien invasion could have taken books to cover. The early chapters told from the perspective of the young Dikembe describe a battle with alien survivors in the north of England, while the long battle with the aliens back in his homeland is condensed into a few chapters. Hiller helps Russians fight an army of alien survivors, but that's only one chapter. I doubt Keyes would be given a whole series to cover what happened and he's doing the best he can with what he has, but I would have loved some more detail.

*I don't really find the back-story for Jake and Charlie (played by Travis Tope in the movie) particularly interesting, even if it is a serviceable way to explain what the aftermath of the alien invasion is like for orphans and people not named Levinson, Dubrow-Hiller, or Whitmore. Props for Keyes for trying to show how much life for those who aren't part of the pre-war upper class or war heroes and their families sucks, but it just isn't that interesting.

*We don't see any of the youth and back-story for the Chinese pilot Rain (Angelababy) until nearly halfway through the book, although we do meet her father during the last battle with the first invaders. It would have been interesting to see her grow up amid the rebuilding of China, just like we see the US through the eyes of Dylan, Patricia, Jake, and Charlie. Instead we first meet her when she's 13 and her younger childhood, which we see with the other characters, is summarized.

*I still think New York, Los Angeles, and Mumbai--cities explicitly described in the book as being abandoned--would be rebuilt. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, after all, and they were probably proportionately more damaged. I could easily imagine the metro areas being largely intact even if the aliens wiped out the high-density urban cores. Rebuilding could proceed from there.

*Racism probably declined rapidly owing to the alien threat and the probability large-scale population movements would have led to interracial/intercultural relationships forming that in other circumstances would not. However, it would be more realistic if the idea Patricia chose Jake instead of him due to his being black at least occurred to Dylan. Even if he immediately becomes angry at himself for thinking such a thought about a girl he'd known since he was a child and had been close friends for years, even though Dylan doesn't have the massive chip on his shoulder Jake does, the thought might pop up whether he likes it or not.

Assuming he was eight years old (the same age as his actor Ross Bagley) in the first film, he would have spent his elementary school years in pre-war Los Angeles not long after the 1992 riots. Even if the world became immediately color-blind after 1996 (doubtful), racism and class prejudice (his mother is unmarried and works as a stripper) would have left its mark on him. This article here includes an account from an African-American man who was given "the talk" about the dangers of getting into trouble with police when he was seven years old.

The Verdict

If the characterization for Jake, Dylan, and Patricia present in the novel actually made it into the movie, it would be much, much better. Keyes also makes a manful effort to world-build, something I always appreciate. However, the book is a mile wide and an inch deep owing to the need to cover so much history in a relatively short space. 7.5 out of 10.

If it were cheaper I'd have fewer problems recommending it, but it's not worth the $7.99 I paid for the Kindle version. I considered ordering a used print version, but with shipping, handling, and tax it would have been equal to or more expensive than the electronic version and taken me longer to get it. I would strongly recommend you either wait for the price to drop or see if your local library has it.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Movie Review: Independence Day Resurgence (2016)

The other night I gathered with the Myopia: Defend YourChildhood crew to go see Independence Day: Resurgence, sequel to the 1996 science fiction blockbuster Independence Day. I went in with high hopes, since I really liked how they made “The War of 1996” full-blown alternate history and depicted a world where humanity has used captured technology to give us a science-fiction future with easy space travel and other goodies.

Did it meet my expectations? Let’s see…



The Plot

Twenty years have passed since “The War of 1996” in which a genocidal alien invasion was barely thwarted at the cost of billions of lives. The world has been rebuilt with captured alien technology—human fighters are equipped with alien plasma weapons, alien anti-gravity technology has replaced propellers and jet engines in all aircraft, and fusion-drives have given us the solar system. The surviving aliens have been defeated and imprisoned and humanity stands united against the possibility the aliens might return.

On the 20th anniversary of the defeat of the first invasion, July 4 no less, the aliens return in an even bigger ship. It’s up to a new generation of heroes like fighter-pilot former President Thomas Whitmore's (Bill Pullman's) daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe), Will Smith's character's stepson Dylon Dubrow-Hiller (Jessie Usher), Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), and Rain Lao (Angelababy) to fight alongside old heroes like David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and President Whitmore himself to save the Earth from annihilation.

The Good

*As I said before, I really enjoyed the sci-fi future the combination of human and captured alien technology created. Fusion drives for deep-space travel, anti-gravity allowing for easy flight from place to place on Earth and into orbit, etc. It’s visually really nice and shows how, despite the horrors of the first film, a better world is possible.

*Although one could cynically write off the prominence of China in the movie as a Hollywood attempt to appeal to the world’s largest box-office market, it makes a lot of sense from a world-building perspective. China’s growth over the last few decades has been meteoric; even though they would have suffered massive damage from the first invasion, the integration of captured alien technology would likely not only compensate for the human and material losses but exceed them. Furthermore, the lack of intra-human conflict on Earth means that military spending would be freed up for planetary defense or civilian projects. China would be a major, major power in this world.

*The human military commanders, notably General Joshua Adams (William Fichtner) display some tactical sense in the movie, like preceding an attack on aliens by manned fighters with expendable drones.

*The movie is never boring. The various flaws I list below detracted from its entertainment factor, but I don’t remember ever looking at my watch.

*Some very good visuals. The special effects don't disappoint.

*The trap laid for the aliens’ hive queen is pretty clever.

*I enjoyed the sequence where a group of human pilots who’ve been shot down inside the mothership have to evade alien patrols was fun and even amusing at one point.

*The fighters from the new mothership look rather different from the fighters of the first film, which given what we learn about the aliens in this film makes a great deal of sense.

The Bad

Oh boy, where to start…

*During the first attack sequence, the purpose of the drone attack is to bring down the aliens’ shields before the manned fighters go in. We never see those drones go in or how they managed to do it, although the fact the new mothership’s shields don’t seem particularly active indicates the attack succeeded. The movie Skyline has a really cool scene where wave of drones (including a couple armed with nukes) temporarily bring down one of the aliens’ warships and if a low-budget entrée like Skyline could do that, why couldn’t this movie?

*The aliens' plan to rip out the Earth's core and mine it, killing the Earth in the process, is stupid. The aliens in the first movie wanted to colonize Earth and live there until they consumed the entire planet, and then they'd move on. If the aliens wanted minerals, there're plenty of dead planets, asteroids, etc. in space they could exploit without fighting.

*None of the characters were particularly memorable beyond the returning Dr. Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner), whose story is kind of silly. There's no charismatic Captain Hiller (Will Smith) here and Whitmore being a shadow of his former self is kind of the point of his character. Giving Hiller a much more blatant drive to prove himself the equal of his deceased stepfather would be more interesting. Perhaps a romantic rivalry between him and Morrison over Patricia would have been interesting? It could even be a bit of political-cultural commentary—in a world with aliens, where billions were killed or dislocated by the first invasion, an interracial relationship would be nothing noteworthy.

(Yes, I know love triangles are clichéd and evocative of all those young-adult dystopias, but it would provide opportunities for character development—Hiller and Morrison would have to have distinctive traits for her to like and dislike, and what traits appeal to her would develop her character too.)

*The love story, such as it was, between Hemsworth’s buddy Charlie Miller (Travis Tope) and Rain was really lame. At one point he's practicing Chinese to impress her, but it never comes in handy. It's like a Chekhov's Gun that's never fired.

*President Whitmore making another rousing speech at Area 51 doesn't hold a candle to his "today we celebrate our independence day!" speech from the first film. Lightning doesn't usually strike twice.

*Where are the missiles? The humans in the first film could engage the aliens from farther distances than the aliens could engage them (not that it really mattered much, given the aliens’ shields), but missiles carrying with tactical nukes or some kind of shield-shattering Project Excalibur-type weapon where a missile carries a warhead that turns into an energy burst upon detonation. Also, the mothership should have been a cruise and even ballistic missile magnet from the moment it entered the atmosphere.

(Which is why a space-faring species would be stupid to engage a low-tech opponent in a gravity well in the first place. The first attackers might’ve been overconfident, but one would think this batch would have learned from the earlier invasion’s failure.)

*Speaking of Dr. Okun, he’s in a coma for 20 years as a result of the forced alien mind-meld from the first film. President Whitmore gets the same treatment and he’s only out for a few hours. Plot hole!

*The United Space Defense’s military discipline needs work. Although Morrison seems to have been assigned to low-status space-tug duty due to risking another trainee’s life during a mission, he’s rude to his commanding officer and references engaging in behavior that should have gotten him drummed out completely or at the very least kept away from duty as important as manning the lunar bastion that’s the last line of defense before an attacker would get to Earth itself. Later on Hiller plays fast and loose with orders to retreat to Area 51 to check on the welfare of another character, which could have gotten him killed if the aliens had bothered pursuing the survivors of the lunar base.

*Earth’s orbital and lunar defenses fall way too quickly, with the new mothership destroying the satellites using reverse-engineered City Destroyer cannon before any of them can fire. The fact the City Destroyers’ weapons had an extended “spin-up” time was a weakness evident in the first movie (it allowed Russell Casse to kamikaze the Area 51 ship before it could destroy the base), but one would think the designers of Earth’s orbital defenses would remember that.

*Per my last point, the mothership only destroys the defenses above Asia and the Pacific, but then sails across Asia and implants itself on the Earth’s surface covering the entire Atlantic basin. It would have been a lot more intelligent if, rather than depicting buildings from Singapore getting picked up by the ship’s gravity and dumped on London, the human commanders redirect the remaining satellites to bombard the mothership, the mothership launches fighters to attack the satellites, the human nations scrambling their own assets (non-ESD hybrid or conventional aircraft, cruise missiles, etc) to mount at least mount some defense, etc, with our heroes returning from the Moon caught in the middle. 

That whole sequence could have been so much better. It could also explain the lack of missile support for the first manned attack on the mothership—all the missiles have been used up or their launch platforms destroyed by alien defenders.

*Owing to losses in the chain of command, a character who as far as I know isn’t part of the presidential line of succession at all is sworn in as president. Just how the line of succession gets that thin doesn’t make a lot of sense—after 9/11 the “designated survivor” is always somewhere else so the whole government can’t get wiped out at once. If some people were referenced as being out of contact rather than confirmed dead and the character was only temporarily in charge, that would make a lot more sense.

*Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch) finding the kids who survived the alien landing on the East Coast (I'm thinking Florida) and then somehow making it to Area 51 in Nevada in what seems to be a single day is ridiculous. It would have been better if they just killed him off during the alien landing, to cull more of the previous generation’s heroes and give his son some angst.

*The post-nuke superweapon is a “cold fusion bomb.” Given what “cold fusion” actually is, I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a clean pure-fusion bomb or something that’s not really much different from a standard thermonuclear device. It would make more sense if it was an antimatter bomb, since a breach of the antimatter fuel supply for the City Destroyers’ cannon would explain why Russell Casse’s suicide attack on the about-to-fire cannon blew up the whole ship. A total annihilation reaction involving the amount of antimatter needed to fuel that powerful a weapon would not be a pretty sight. J

*Some of the implied back-story like African warlords fighting for a decade against a group of alien survivors would have been a lot more interesting than this movie. I actually really want to read the book Independence Day: Crucible that bridges the gap between the first film and this one. That one depicts the one City Destroyer that survived the end of the first movie and how the war goes on after July 4, 1996.

The Verdict

Good world-building and fun visuals, but weak characterization and derivative. Definitely not worth the $20 I paid to see it in 3D. Wait for the dollar theater. 6.0 out of 10.


Watch out for a “how I would have done this” blog post, as all the potential this movie wasted just begs for one.