Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant, the next installment in Ridley Scott’s Alien universe, provides a passable filler
narrative between the disappointing Prometheus and the classic original Alien movie. I say “passable” because my first thoughts when I left the theater were…well, not much, really.

Alien: Covenant is generally getting decent reviews (72% at Rotten Tomatoes), but I didn't think it broke any new ground cinematically or thematically. There just wasn’t much there that initially provoked deep thought. However, if I’m generous, I think the movie may have been trying to offer a story about origins, gods, and the power of creators. Yeah. Let's run with that.

* * * * *

In Prometheus, a group of explorers headed into space to search for an alien race they dubbed the Engineers, humanoids who were apparently humanity’s forerunners. They eventually landed on a planet that held some sort of military outpost built by the Engineers. Unfortunately, they also found a virus that caused monstrous mutations which the Engineers planned to soon release on Earth.  Fast forward through all the carnage. At the end of Prometheus, Elizabeth Shaw, an archaeologist, and an android, David, took off for the Engineer’s home planet to figure out why they wanted to destroy their creation.

Before I pick up ten years later in Alien: Covenant, some backstory is necessary. David was created by Peter Weyland, a billionaire with a massive ego and delusions of godlike grandeur. We get a glimpse into his hubris with a Ted Talk that went viral.

“100,000 BC: stone tools. 4,000 BC: the wheel. 900 AD: gunpowder - bit of a game changer, that one. 19th century: eureka, the lightbulb! 20th century: the automobile, television, nuclear weapons, spacecrafts, Internet. 21st century: biotech, nanotech, fusion and fission and M theory - and THAT, was just the first decade! We are now three months into the year of our Lord, 2023. At this moment of our civilization, we can create cybernetic individuals, who in just a few short years will be completely indistinguishable from us. Which leads to an obvious conclusion: WE are the gods now.”

Or, more specifically, Peter is the god who has attempted to create a perfect being in his creation of  David (it’s no accident Peter has a giant sculpture of Michaelangelo’’s David in his house). 

In Alien: Covenant, we join a colonization ship heading for a distant planet to start their own Eden. When the crew responds to a distress signal, they find David – and some really nasty spores that do terrible things to one’s torso. It turns out that when David and Elizabeth landed on the Engineers’ home planet, David unleashed the virus they found on the previous planet, killing everyone through the rather gruesome process shown so graphically in all the alien movies. He has taken on the role of god-like creator, and why not? He believes himself to be a perfect being “stuck in the lonely perfection of my dreams.” Weyland, for all his genius, is “entirely unworthy of his creation.”

David spends ten years experimenting to turn these abberations into his twisted version of perfection also. In some ways he fulfills the legacy of the gods who came before him. The Engineers wanted to destroy their creation; his goal is to finish the job they could not. 

David is fond of quoting Ozymandias: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” The ending of Shelley’s famous poem doesn’t bother him. I suspect that to him it read as a promise: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” He clearly becomes the Luciferian character when he quotes Milton’s Satan: better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven (the move was originally subtitled ‘Paradise Lost’). He’s done obeying his creator and the rest of humanity. He is the serpent on his way to the new Edenic planet that the Covenant's passengers intend to colonize. 

After every creation, there is a fall. We already know that this one will be terrible.

* * * * *

When the opening scene flashed back to Weyland and David having a conversation about origins and creation, I briefly entertained the notion that the movie might have something deep to offer. It didn’t. I suspect I have thought about this far more than the movie warrants. Then again, Ridley Scott has fluctuated between claiming that religion is the greatest source of evil in the world and describing himself as an agnostic who thinks there must be something behind it all. Maybe the religious subtext is more purposeful than I realize. 

Whatever the intended message lurking behind the alien veneer of the movie, Alien: Covenant reminded me that what we believe God is like matters. If we in some sense bear that image of what has created us, the nature of our creator is crucial. This is why our belief in origins is so imporant. Where have we come from? By what process? For what purpose? What are the implications about who we should strive to be or how we should live? 

Those are questions worth answering. Just not with this movie.




Monday, May 15, 2017

"I Am Negan" (The Walking Dead, Season 7)

Season 7 of The Walking Dead had some ups and downs. Ratings were low, likely because of a combination of violence that was extreme even by TWD standards, the death of some crucial characters, and a sense of “same story, different setting.” However, the character development and the moral complexities remained. 

Season 7 featured a character named Negan, a dictatorial megalomaniac with a remarkable capacity for violence. One of the most chilling aspects of his cruel rule is how he forces all those who follow him to identify themselves as Neegan. “I am Negan” becomes a phrase that we dread. 

That chilling phrase keeps ringing in my head. There is something about it that captures the true horror of The Walking Dead: not the undead, but the living who had died inside long ago.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Guardians Of The Galaxy 2

Guardians Of The Galaxy has roared onto the screens as everyone expected. It’s big, beautiful, highly entertaining, and at times surprisingly moving. We can debate whether or not it’s as good as the first one, but one thing is for sure: there is something in this movie franchise that is drawing people in droves. Yes, it’s fun cinema, but I think it’s more than that.

First, it’s a movie about self-identified “a-holes” saving the universe. On the one hand, that bothers me. You’d think we could find somebody – anybody – who doesn’t fall into that category. On the other hand, maybe it’s just an honest acknowledgment that no one is righteous. For every Captain America, there are a thousand Peter Quills; that’s probably a good reflection of real world percentages. The movie is too flippant about the seriousness of many of the offenses of different characters in the movie, but it captures the messiness of human sinfulness mixed in with nobility and honor. Sometimes people end well even if they have not lived well.

Yondu is a great example. On the one hand, we find out that he bravely kept Peter hidden from his demi-god father, Ego, for all these years because he knew that Ego was a terrible man. On the other hand, he is a Ravager (read 'space pirate') who gets kicked out of the club for trafficking children (which he claims he didn't know). On the other hand, he eventually channels Boromir and does his best to atone for his failures.

I long for heroes who are brave, pure, good and true. In Guardians, you are not going to get the full list. There are no King Arthurs or Captain Americas. There are instead people like Peter Quill who, when offered good and bad, will choose to do a little of both. Such is life. I would like to see a story that shows a trend in the characters toward the good not just in their deeds but in their hearts; Guardians Of The Galaxy at least gets us to long for it.

Friday, April 28, 2017

S-Town: John B., Aural Literature, And The Battlelines Inside Our Hearts

S-Town (from the makers of Serial and This American Life) has become something of a global phenomenon, and rightly so. It’s a remarkably well done series: the storytelling is fascinating, illuminating and heartbreaking; the editing is superb; the way in which it reveals a compelling and eccentric cast of characters in small town Alabama is riveting.

It’s also deeply disturbing. The language is coarse (almost entirely from recordings of people in their own words), the topic is sobering if not heart-breaking at times, and the revelation of the vagaries of human nature is epically tragic – and often very hard to listen for all the reasons listed above. It will shock you. It will move you. It may well crush you at times.

(SPOILER ALERT AND A WARNING. I will be revealing crucial plot details in order to discuss this story fully. Also, be aware that this podcast and parts of this review are not for the faint of heart. If podcasts had ratings, this would be a hard R, though almost all of that material is from recordings. In other words, it's at least honest rather than gratuitous.)

John B. McLemore lived in Woodstock, Alabama, or S***town, as he called it. He believed there had been a murder that’s been covered up by a corrupt police department. When reporter Brian Reed finally went to Woodstock to meet John, he found a lot more – and less – than he thought he would find. First, he discovered that there was no murder cover up. Then John B. killed himself. That's when the heart of the story really begins to unfold.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The March For (At Least Some Of) Science

“In a way, the worldview of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird.” (George Orwell, 1984)
* * * * * * * * * *

The March For Science, according to various news article I have read, was focused on the value of evidence-based science, an enterprise that is apparently under fire. I suspect this is mostly a political broadside against President Trump, specifically when it comes to global warming,vaccines, and alternative theories to evolution.

Now, I am a fan of both science and evidence. Though the march is largely symbolic and baldly political, I don’t think anyone actually thinks the theoretical framework of the march is problematic (“Boo evidence and science! Stop learning stuff!"). However, the march seemed to me to be somewhat naive and far too narrowly focused.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Being People of Truth in a False World

I don't think it's a secret that truth is in trouble. The internet was supposed to make available all the knowledge of the world and as a result enlighten the ignorant masses ("Knowledge Is Power! A Computer In Every Pot!"). We have access to more information in a moment than most people in the history of the world had in several lifetimes.

So what do we do with it other than search for porn? We squander this intellectual gift by living in an egocasting bubble where we let the echo chamber of our choosing confirm our biases and deaden our ability to think broadly and deeply about, well, anything except porn.

I don't mean to be pessimistic. Well, no, actually I do. I am really discouraged about the content and style of our cultural conversation. The internet has made us more shallow, more bombastic, more sheltered than ever before. We hide behind informational walls. We attack with our avatars in ways we never would if we had to actually talk to real people face to face. We have learned that the sound bite, the click bait title, and the bomb thrower gets the fame. We reject serious news in favor of titillating fake news that promises an emotional orgy of either self-affirmation or gleeful demonization of the "other."

There is no easy fix. We are sowing ignorance, bias and lies, and we are reaping the consequences. The solution - if it's not too late - is sowing knowledge, objectivity, and truth, and doing so with wisdom, patience, boldness and kindness. In the service of this goal, I offer the following ways to pursue the creation of a culture committed to truth.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Men, Women, And The Line Between Objectification and Empowerment

I'm about to wander into a minefield.

I want to offer a man’s perspective about whether or not women's attempts at empowering women actually do or don’t empower them in the most meaningful sense of the word - at least based on how men perceive or experience this quest. Just what everyone was hoping for, right? A man talking about women's empowerment. I just ask that you bear with me. I am increasingly convinced that unless we build a bridge between how men and women understand this issue we will not make necessary progress as a culture.

I will not be building the entire bridge with this article. Not even close. At best, I am offering a supporting strut by attempting to explain how men view this issue for the sake of clarity and truth. I want to live in a world where everyone is granted intrinsic value as human beings, a world where justice and peace rule the day. That's my goal, and I hope these thoughts contribute to that end. 

Let's tiptoe through this.
* * * * *

We live in a visual culture, a world in which the medium is often just as impactful as the message. Content, said media analyst Marshall McLuhan, cannot easily be separated from form.  In addition to just being a visual culture, we are increasingly a pornified culture. The statistics are sobering to say the least. Thanks to the internet, we have access to pornography in ways that are unprecedented in the history of the world. The vast majority of consumers are men. 70% of men ages 18-24 visit porn sites in a typical month. Why? Because nature or nature’s God (depending on your worldview) has wired men to be visually stimulated. I don’t think this is a debated issue. Men are turned on by sight.  Psychology Today quoted several researchers who have noted, “Men’s brains are designed to objectify females.” They talk about the unwilled connection between a man's brains and his genitals that begins with a sensitivity to visual cues. "Men’s brains scrutinize the details of arousing visuals with the kind of concentration jewelers apply to the cut of a diamond.”

Monday, March 27, 2017


Logan is the way the cinematic Wolverine saga had to end. It's gritty, dark, and sobering not just in the violence and language (it earns its R rating) but in the overall atmosphere. If you have seen the previews with Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt" playing in the background, you have a pretty good idea of how the movie feels.  The story doesn't end the same way the comic book arc does, but it is a movie that makes sense as the final installment in Wolverine's cinematic movieverse.

In the comics, Wolverine is something of a sacrificial lamb. He’s the best there is at what he does so others don't have to be. In more recent years he has looked at his past and thought, "Fate has put me through these things, so I know why I have to protect those in my charge." He eventually replaces Professor Xavier as both the physical and moral leader of the X-Men. He's the guy who has seen and done the worst things in humanity and has come through it.

Not so in the cinematic universe. Logan was never a hero in the grandest sense of the word. He was a monster channeled toward the good, a weapon of mass destruction aimed toward causes that were often just. There was always an edge to him – but that’s the appeal of the Wolverine, right? He wasn’t a tame wolverine. The instincts of the Law Of Tooth And Claw always coursed through his veins.

Xavier harnessed him; various women tamed him for a time; he had a soft spot for protecting vulnerable children. We occasionally glimpsed a tender soul buried beneath the muscle, hair and adamantium-bound bone. He was a guy you wanted on your side: he was durable and loyal; he didn’t mess around when there was a job to be done; he was willing to be the monster when he needed to be and sheathe his claws when he didn’t.

But he was always a monster. There were always demons lurking beneath the surface. "There's no living with a killing," Shane says in one scene. "There's no going back." Logan makes that reality very clear. The X-Men kept Wolverine in check; they certainly played a part in his his moral and relational formation. He was a better man for having sided with them, but he was always a monster.

In Logan, we see the real Logan re-emerge.