Categories
movies

Convenient coincidences in ‘The Force Awakens’

J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot leaned too heavily on unlikely coincidences. Kirk just happens to get marooned on the same moon as elder Spock. Monsters just happen to chase him straight into Spock’s cave hideout. Scotty just happens to be stationed a few miles away.[4]

Abrams’ latest sci-fi epic, The Force Awakens, features several similar plot holes:

WARNING: spoilers below!

  • BB–8 somehow rolls its way to Rey. What are the chances that the droid who knows Luke Skywalker’s location runs into the Force-sensitive girl with apparent ties to the Skywalker clan?[1]
  • Finn stumbles onto Rey and BB–8. Improbably, the fugitive stormtrooper happens upon the fugitive droid and its new master. Jakku must be a very small planet.
  • The Millennium Falcon is rusting away on Jakku—of all the planets in the galaxy. I actually liked the Falcon’s reveal, but doesn’t it seem improbable that the same ship that ferried Luke from Tatooine has been waiting around to carry Rey away from Jakku?
  • Maz Kanata, this film’s Force-sensitive guru character, possesses Luke Skywalker’s old lightsaber. That’s very convenient, since it triggers Rey’s Force awakening. Kanata brushes aside Han Solo’s question about how she acquired it. But… seriously, Maz, why’s this thing in your basement?
  • Finn knows too much about Starkiller Base—more than his low-level First Order position would explain. A stormtrooper peon knows the superweapon’s key weakness?[2]
  • R2-D2 reactivates at just the right time. Why did the trash-can droid pick that opportune moment to wake up? Talk about Deus ex Machina.[3]
  • In general, what are the chances that the events depicted in The Force Awakens would mirror the original trilogy so slavishly? A twenty-year-old orphan on a desert planet finds a droid sought by both the evil imperials and a noble resistance. The droid carries information that could sway the balance of power in the galaxy. Our hero teams up with a roguish outlaw and an older mentor aboard the Millenium Falcon. The mentor character tells stories about the Force and legendary Jedi. A short alien guru guides our hero toward the Light side of the Force. The insurgency destroys a gigantic space weapon just before it blasts them out of existence. Welcome to Deja Vu: the Movie.

    “It’s like poetry. It rhymes.”


Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed The Force Awakens. But these plot seams show where the filmmakers valued nostalgia over storytelling. The writers wanted Han Solo to find our young heroes, so they placed the Falcon (which Solo could track) on Jakku. They needed Luke Skywalker for the cliffhanger, so R2-D2 waits until the denouement to power up.

These twists may cater to aging fans’ sentimentality, but they make little sense in context.


  1. The movie doesn’t actually make Rey’s identify clear. It’s still theoretically possible that she’s just a random orphan, who’s not connected with the Skywalkers at all. But then why even mention the “family” she’s waiting for on Jakku? And why does Anakin’s old lightsaber trigger her Force vision?  ↩
  2. Or was Finn bluffing so that he could rescue Rey?  ↩
  3. One potential explanation: R2-D2 can use the Force. That’s an intriguing theory, but it’s never actually been confirmed by the movies.  ↩
  4. I’ve heard these happy accidents explained away as “fate”—i.e. the universe “course-corrects” and finds a way to bind these characters’ destinies together. Bullshit; that’s screenwriter-speak for “We couldn’t think of a good story reason.”
Categories
movies music

Priming your ears

John Williams’ Force Awakens soundtrack dropped on Spotify last night. I’m listening to it as I type—even though I haven’t yet seen the movie.

Does hearing the soundtrack count as a spoiler? It depends who you ask. For me, the music, disconnected from imagery and dialogue, gives away little about a movie’s plot. Yes, track titles can be dangerous, but composers have grown more cautious since the “Qui-Gon’s Funeral” debacle of Episode I.

So, no, soundtracks typically won’t spoil movies.[1] In fact, pre-hearing the score enhances the initial viewing experience. After all, it’s hard to appreciate instrumental music the first time through. Unfamiliarity holds you at arm’s length from the drama. Your subconscious brain whirs away, dissecting the new music instead of enjoying it.

With “primed ears”, you more easily link leitmotifs to character beats. Melodies hook your heart in a way they can’t the first time around. You hear the tension rising; you can feel the plot revelations as they land.


So… what’s my verdict on the Force Awakens soundtrack? It was fun to hear Williams rearrange the classic trilogy’s themes. But, if I’m honest, none of the new music really captured my imagination.

I blame my virgin ears. The next time I hear these melodies—in a darkened theater, popcorn at hand—I’ll be ready to really listen.


  1. A caveat here: you can be too familiar with a soundtrack. I know many John Williams scores (e.g. Raiders of the Lost Ark) by heart—measure by measure, modulation by modulation. I could tell you the exact moment when the hero’s theme gives way to the villain’s sinister melody. That knowledge would spoil a movie (if you hadn’t already seen it).  ↩
Categories
movies tech

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mid-Production Tragedy, and Virtual Actors

Hollywood was rocked on Sunday by the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of its finest actors.

Hoffman had not yet finished his work on the final Hunger Games sequel, in which he plays mentor to Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. The actor had one week of shooting left on the marquee project.

It feels crass to ask how filmmakers will handle Hoffman’s absence. But one supporting actor’s death can’t derail a project whose budget surpasses a hundred million dollars. That difficult question must be asked and answered.

So how will they work around the actor’s death? A studio spokesperson indicated that the unfilmed “key scene” will be reconfigured to accommodate the missing Hoffman.

Regardless of how things play out for Mockingjay, this situation seems like a Hollywood executive’s worst nightmare. It proves just how risky it can be to rely on actors. The Hollywood Reporter chatted with Rob Legato, a visual effects guru, about how that risk might be mitigated in the future:

Insurance companies may require actors in big films to be scanned and have a range of facial expressions recorded in advance “in case something like this does happen – and it seems to have happened quite a bit lately.”

Actors might also record vocal demo reels, from which their speaking voices could be recreated.

An obvious next question: if you can recreate convincing performances digitally, why hire actors at all? You’re already hand-crafting the set, the props, the stunts, and the visual effects via CGI. Why not the actors, too?

A CGI cast offers obvious practical advantages. After all, digital actors don’t get paid scale, won’t demand a luxury trailer, and never collapse in narcissistic tantrums. Digital actors can interact more convincingly with digital environments than can their flesh-and-blood counterparts. And, again, digital actors don’t unexpectedly die.

As technology stands, this suggestion sounds preposterous. Too many CGI characters have fallen short of believability.

But it’s just another in a long string of technical challenges, and technical challenges eventually get overcome. Graphic artists can already create convincing performances by referencing a motion-captured actor. Soon, they’ll learn to create similarly convincing characters—entirely from scratch.

Later, this process will be automated and packaged as “actor software.” Algorithms will replicate even the subtlest of emotions. Directors will give computers the same instructions they currently give actors: “Less on-the-nose… More theatrical… Give me a pause there.”[1] Filmmaking will be something that happens in a computer lab, not a sound stage.

Of course, the Screen Actors Guild may have a thing or two to say about it.

UPDATE: Has the age of the “digital actor” already arrived? On February 6, the NY Post reported that filmmakers will use CGI to recreate Hoffman for a key scene in the final Hunger Games sequel.


  1. Can you tell I have no idea what a director does?  ↩
Categories
TV

Seinfeld’s Superbowl Sketch

Last week, rumors of a pending Seinfeld reunion sent fans of the hit 1990s sitcom into a frenzy. What, exactly, were Jerry and Jason Alexander (who played George Costanza) filming on the streets of New York—in costume? When asked about it, Seinfeld played coy.

The results were revealed last night during the (otherwise less-than-riveting) Superbowl. The Seinfeld alums had worked their 90s characters into a mini-episode of Seinfeld’s brilliant web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”:

The spot has its moments. For one, you’ve got to love the car choice; Jerry ferries George around New York in a 1976 AMC Pacer. As Seinfeld snarks, “It doesn’t work; it looks ridiculous; and [it] falls apart—which makes it the perfect vehicle for my guest today: Mr. George Costanza.” Another pleasant surprise? Wayne Knight cameos as Jerry’s arch-nemesis, Newman. His wheezy cackle still makes me giggle.

But this mini-reunion has its problems, too. First, it’s too short. As a series, Seinfeld specialized in comedic payoffs. It took its time, establishing the plot threads, then entangling them hilariously at each episode’s climax. The Superbowl segment doesn’t have space to work this way. The closest we get to a “payoff” is the lame recurrence of a mumble gag established just two minutes earlier.

Another problem with the bit? George Costanza. Oh, he’s still the same neurotic kvetch. Actually, that’s the problem: George hasn’t changed at all. He sports the same wire-rimmed glasses, the same frumpy red jacket—even the same-colored hair (likely dyed). But the self-obsession that made George funny back then makes him unpleasant now. He’s less “charmingly crabby” and more “crotchety crank.” If anything, George seems more cynical and selfish than his younger self. Only now, it’s harder to overlook.

Listen: I’m not ungrateful; I’m glad Seinfeld & Friends shot this piece. We got a whimsical, nostalgic reminder of TV’s best-ever sitcom.

But the brief reunion shows why Seinfeld should never be renewed. Sure, society has generated plenty of script material in the intervening years. No doubt Jerry and the gang would have plenty to say about today’s “excruciating minutiae”: smartphone etiquette, Skype faux-paus, Netflix binges, and “reality” TV.

But would audiences want to hear them complain? The quirks that made these characters funny as thirty-somethings would make them unbearable as fifty-year-olds. Kramer’s wacky antics as a young man were lovably eccentric; they’d seem borderline creepy for a senior citizen. Elaine’s sarcastic narcissism was cute back then; from a middle-aged woman, it would likely grate.

As it turns out, the show’s original finale got it right: it’s probably for the best that these characters were “removed from society.”

Categories
movies TV

Sell-out

If American pop culture has a High Holy Day, it must be Superbowl Sunday. Not only does the big game venerate our favorite sport’s glorious brutality, but it also showcases our highest art form: the television advertisement.

This year’s commercial cavalcade features this Kia spot:

Here, Laurence Fishburne reprises his most familiar role: Morpheus from The Matrix. The ad parodies the film’s most iconic imagery: the ‘red pill / blue pill’ choice, black-tied Agents, and Morpheus’ improbably reflective sunglasses. The ad concludes oddly; Fishburne bombastically belts out Nessun Dorma, completely subverting the original character’s too-serious aura.

Fishburne joins a long list of actors who have leveraged cult-classic roles into a cheap commercial payday. One example: William Shatner donned the Starfleet uniform to hawk DirecTV? Christopher Lloyd reprised Back to the Future‘s Doc Brown to shill for the same company. Pitching Honda SUVs in 2012, Matthew Broderick reenacted the most famous scenes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—-only this time, Ferris was middle-aged, all alone, and kind of sad.

And “kind of sad” pretty well sums up this trend—-this undead resurrection of beloved characters. The audience chuckles, but they also notice Kirk’s peculiar paunch, Doc’s now-gaunt frame, and Ferris’ pot belly. Actors line their pockets, but they can’t feel good about cheapening their legacy or about banking on fans’ goodwill.


  1. Both Shatner and Lloyd are perennial offenders here. There was the British power company commercial that combined Star Trek, a Shatner/woman body swap, and German hip-hop group Snap. And it doesn’t take much to get Christopher Lloyd to don the Einstein wig and hop into a Delorean. Check out the shameless intro video for Microsoft’s 2007 Tech-Ed meeting.  
Categories
movies TV

Trek envy

J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot focused on the franchise’s original characters: Kirk. Spock. McCoy. Scotty.

It must feel unfair to the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. After all, in terms of sheer screen time, they’ve got the original cast beat. We have many more hours of Trek with Picard at the helm than with Kirk. Yet no one’s seriously considering a TNG reboot. And even hard-core fans would squirm if Abrams tried to shoehorn Troi or Geordi into the alternative timeline established by the new movies.

That hasn’t stopped the actors from trying. Every so often, Brent Spiner or Jonathan Frakes shameless pitch themselves for the next Abrams flick. “Of course they could bring me back!” they protest, “It’s Star Trek, for God’s sake! A malfunctioning transporter! A clone experiment gone wrong! Time travel! You fans should write letters demanding my character’s return!”

This sort of self-promotion irks me, for several reasons. First, it reeks of desperation. Open groveling breaks my heart. Second, it proves how little these actors understand storytelling. Fan service does not a good plot make. Finally, such role-grubbing seems ungrateful. Where’s the respect for the fictional universe that brought them international fame and commercial success?

Then again, maybe they shouldn’t be grateful. Trek has a way of hijacking actors’ careers. Once you’re typecast as the childlike android or the chair-challenged commander, it’s tough to earn a non-Trek gig.[1] You’re doomed to attend an endless series of nerdy conventions, answering the same questions again and again. There’s only so many times you can wax eloquent about Wesley’s sweaters or Riker’s beard before you go mad.

It’s no wonder that the TNGers hunger for a more mainstream spotlight.


  1. The only notable exception is Patrick Stewart, whose British theater connections (and sheer awesomeness) kept his career from going Picard-centric.  ↩
Categories
internet movies TV

Netflix, our hero!

The telcos are doubly damned.

On the one hand, American telecommunications companies continue to hold back TV’s natural evolution. Television service hasn’t improved for decades. To watch your favorite programs, you still have to buy overpriced packages of channels you hate. Even now, when pervasive broadband invites infinite distribution alternatives, the telcos ruthlessly stymie innovation and strong-arm content providers into antiquated deals.[1]

On the other hand, the telcos seem intent on breaking the Internet. Verizon recently won a court case against the FCC, invalidating rules that prevented ISPs from discriminating against traffic. Net neutrality—so key to free speech and healthy competition—is now on death watch. And because telcos own local monopolies in so many markets, Americans may have no choice but to accept it. We’ll pay whatever the ISP demands, accept whatever speeds are available, and put up with whatever crippled version of the Internet they deign to offer.

One company is uniquely impacted by both telco sins. Netflix, the one-time DVD-by-mail startup and current king of streaming video, has a stake in both TV’s evolution and net neutrality.

On the one hand, Netflix represents the future of television. Watch what you want, when you want it, at one low price. Give your customer a simple, intuitive interface, available on any device, anywhere in the world. Just compare Netflix’s clean design to your cable box’s tangled, unresponsive, janky mess of a menu.

Of course, Netflix depends on content providers who sit under the telcos’ thumb. At any time, the streaming service could lose its content deals, leaving behind a wasteland of straight-to-DVD movies and outdated TV shows.

That’s why it’s so important that Netflix develop its own content. House of CardsOrange is the New Black, and Arrested Development aren’t just fun side-projects. They represent Netflix’s future and the future of TV. Let the telcos lock down traditional programming. It won’t matter, if you produce original shows that the viewers adore.

Netflix also stands to be victimized by the second ISP sin: hobbling the Internet. Netflix currently accounts for a huge chunk of U.S. Internet traffic. If the telcos target anyone for “traffic shaping,” they’ll target Netflix. Imagine a world where Verizon slows Netflix to a crawl (“Buffering… buffering…”), but lets its own streaming service scream through the pipes.

That’s why Netflix has already taken a preemptive, offensive stance against traffic shaping. Soon after the FCC lost its net neutrality case against Verizon, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings posted a strongly-worded letter to investors. He vowed to fight any attempt by the ISPs to slow down Internet video. In response, Hastings warned, Netflix would “vigorously protest and encourage our members to demand the open Internet.” Want to see someone get angry? Interrupt their Breaking Badbinge.


American telcos own the infrastructure that links us to the wider Internet. But they don’t own the Internet itself. They can’t hold back new TV business models forever. They can’t escape the fact that their customers just want a big, fat, wide-open connection to the wider network. Hopefully, the telcos accept their “dumb pipe” destiny quietly. But if they can’t (or won’t), let’s hope that Netflix flexes its muscles.


  1. And even when the content companies do stream online, they often require a cable or satellite subscription. In other words, they’re scared of losing their lucrative telco contracts.  ↩
Categories
movies

Movie piracy arms race

A man who went to the movies with his wife in Columbus, Ohio, was subjected to a terrifying hour-long interrogation by the FBI because employees at the AMC theater saw him wearing Google Glass.

They apparently thought he might be illegally taping the film and didn’t believe him when he tried to explain that the glasses were prescription, and weren’t even switched on.

—Jim Edwards, Business Insider.

Set aside the theater’s brute-force tactics for a moment here. Yes, they overreacted. Yes, they needlessly shamed and terrified a paying customer. Yes, they called in the feds, who have bigger things to worry about than fashion choices at a Columbus shopping center.

Instead, think about this from the MPAA’s perspective. Up ’til now, the Motion Picture Association of America has tried to stymie piracy with lawsuits against film buffs and clandestine infrared scans of their audiences.

These heavy-handed efforts have certainly frightened the public. But they’ve done little to thwart piracy. You can still stream just about any movie you like—for free—over the Internet. Even brand-new films (including all of this year’s “Best Picture” nominees) are easy to find; a two-minute Internet search will produce the goods.

Now, mass-market technology will make it even easier to surreptiously record films. Google Glass has the MPAA spooked. Sure, this particular product might not pose a threat. The current version of Glass is not hard to spot, with its android aesthetic. Plus, the wearable computer can record just a few minutes of video—hardly enough time to capture an entire film.

But the MPAA knows that sleeker, more powerful versions of Glass will come. What happens when you can’t tell the difference between regular eyeglasses and wearable computers? Or when these devices pack enough battery life to record full-length features? Or what if augmented contact lenses become viable? How will theater owners prevent an activity they can’t detect?

Given the MPAA’s strong-arm tactics to this point, an escalation seems likely. Think how fun future visits to the theater will be! You’ll pay $16.99 for your ticket, then surrender your bags for a full search, empty your coat pockets, walk through a naked-making X-ray scanner, submit to a retinal scan, sign a non-disclosure agreement, keep your hands in your pockets at all times, completely power down your cell phone, keep your eyes forward during the endless pre-roll commercials, and get detained for a post-screening survey (read: interrogation).

And the MPAA wonders why we don’t go to the movies anymore.

Categories
games tech

Living fiction

After decades of dreaming, virtual reality lies within reach. Valve, bastion of traditional PC gaming, now openly discusses a timetable ’til we have legit VR. Oculus, a VR headset start-up, has garnered accolades from the tech press. It’s no longer a question of “If we ever get VR,” but “When?”

What’s holding VR back? It’s not the visuals; we’re already close enough to photo-realism, even on the gaming console. The audio’s not a problem, either; games gamed CD-quality audio twenty years ago. Even the headset technology is catching up, packaging sight and sound into a light-weight, inexpensive package. No, the real problem is touch; how can you believe a virtual world that you can’t walk around or touch or climb?

Even without touch technology, I worry about VR addiction. Once compelling virtual worlds exist, will gamers escape dissatisfying real-world lives by slipping on their headsets? Too many young men already float through life in a gaming-centric haze, stumbling from bed straight into MMOs and FPSs, then back into bed again. Will affordable, convincing VR accelerate our decline into a Ready Player One dystopia?

Despite the risks to our humanity, and despite the remaining technological challenges, I find VR intriguing. My fascination has more to do with Star Trek than with the flashy neon worlds of Tron or Lawnmower Man. I don’t want a first-person version of traditional video games; I want the Holodeck. Picard, Data and the gang escaped into Sherlock Holmes mysteries, private eye capers, and high-seas adventure.[1]

I want to experience my favorite fiction, first-hand. Imagine having the ability to live into your favorite movies and TV shows—to try on your favorite roles. You might play Bilbo in The Hobbit, or Mikey from The Goonies. A tiny heads-up display would show you the script (if you needed it). Or maybe the AI would be more sophisticated, and non-player characters would understand your words and actions, then respond accordingly. You could rewrite the script. Go ahead; find out what happens if Bilbo refuses to pass along the Ring. Go ahead; let Chunk get killed. It’d be the ultimate Choose Your Own Adventure story.


  1. Holodeck episodes were reliably terrible. But the technology sparks my imagination.  ↩
Categories
Culture

CAPITAL LETTERS: the unforgivable Internet sin

Curse out someone’s grandmother. Threaten to burn down their house. Spew slurs that would get you arrested anywhere else. On the Internet, just about anything goes. But there’s one thing you cannot do. One thing that will earn you sworn enemies and get you banned from the crudest of forums. YOU CANNOT TYPE IN ALL CAPS.

By all means, use bold weight. Use italic styling. Use asterisks or /slashes/. But don’t use ALL CAPS, or you’re clearly a frothing, misanthropic maniac. “Stop screaming!” others snap, hands pressed to virtual ears. “My eyes!” they weep, hiding their faces.

Can’t we redeem the CAPS LOCK key? Bold, italic, and asterisks all require multiple, laborious keystrokes (“I have to hit ‘b’ AND ‘Control’?! Ugh!”). But good ol’ CAPS LOCK requires just one quick tap. Can’t we celebrate its gloriously convenient ability to EMPHASIZE and DECLARE?