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Journal Journal: Equilibrium: The Rejected Review

Touted both here and in CHUD as a good film, The Matrix with less wire-work and a more believable plot, an entertaining riff on classics like 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, I went into the theater expecting to like it. Alas, I came out disappointed. Visually, it is stunning and well-done, showing that you don't need Bullet Time(TM) to do an entertaining action sequence. But the "story," such as it is, is marred by a disquieting naivete.

For those that haven't read the CHUD review, I'll provide a brief summary here (and nothing more than you'd get from seeing the trailer). In the future, humanity has suffered through a third World War and elected to prevent a fourth by removing the supposed root cause: emotion. Every citizen of the thoroughly totalitarian Libria doses themselves with mood-damping drugs on a regular basis, the same times every day (like some demented version of Muslim prayers to Mecca, the whole city stops to shoot up at the same time). Feeling and emotion, along with expressions of the same (i.e., art) are strictly forbidden and punishable by death. Christian Bale plays a member of Libria's elite police force, a "Cleric." Through some predictable plot twists (Oh my, isn't Beethoven's Ninth beautiful?), Bale's character rebels against the system and proceeds to kick ass all the way to the top.

In a world of Dick Cheney governing from an "undisclosed location," of government transparently marketing to the people (like the quote from a White House official on why they didn't announce their intentions towards Iraq in August: "From a marketing stand-point, you don't introduce a new product in August"), of a president who's "working vacations" and rhetorical ineptitude are a nervous joke, the government of Libria just isn't that unsettling. Maybe I'm becoming too cynically immured to this kind of thing but I found myself tripping over the apparent incompetence of Libria's supposedly all-powerful Council. The best dystopian science-fiction is inherently satiric - it takes an existing trend and magnifies it, reductio ad absurdam. But Equilibrium merely gloms together the dystopic conceits of earlier work and doesn't go any farther.

For instance, consider the mood-damping drug, Prozium. With a name like that, you're clearly meant to compare it to modern mood-altering drugs like Prozac and others of that ilk, such as Zoloft, and Wellbutrin. Aside from the dubious gun-shaped dispenser and bullet-shaped doses, nothing about Prozium is especially sinister. First off, an actual government-sponsored drug program wouldn't come in a package that makes the user look like he or she is shooting him or herself with a gun - that kind of gross symbolism would be arguably necessary in a film, except that the film goes to such great pains to explain what the drug is and what it does. Prozium doesn't even appear to be addictive in any way - if you don't take it, you might get riddled with bullets by an ass-kicking Cleric in a sharp-looking black uniform, but you won't get the shakes. Actual mood-altering drugs like Prozac and its brethren are addictive, though the doctor describing the effects is more likely to refer to "side effects" than "withdrawal-induced nausea and headaches."

Similarly, aside from references to children as snitches on their parents (one of many straight cribs from 1984), there's nothing that really brings out the all-knowing power of a modern surveillance system in the hands of a government willing to use it. An occasional shot of a camera doesn't show that the government is doing anything with the information in hand. In fact, the underground resistance seems to have more surveillance intel going on than Libria itself.

Even the semi-central conceit of the resistance being organized at least partially around art appreciation is only inconsistently followed. The Clerics unpredictably burn contraband art on the spot with big honking flame-throwers and seize it as evidence. Which will happen to any given piece of illegal art seems to have more to do with plot device constructs (Oh, the emotionless Cleric decided to Keep Art) than with any explicable policy.

It all leads up to a rather predictable and Hollywood ending. It's fundamentally an action picture, and so you know the Good Guys have to win, especially with a charismatic leading man like Christian Bale. Such a One Hero Against the World works tolerably well in Star Wars, which is just mythology with lasers. And it works tolerably well in The Matrix, where there's so much religious imagery and symbolism running around that it might as well be myth, too. In Equilibrium, which is at least making a pretense at realism (down to a specious expository segment on "gun-kata", a weak attempt at explaining how Clerics kick such horrendous ass without resorting to super-human powers), it just doesn't fly. One lone rebel doesn't take down a huge totalitarian bureaucracy - assassinating the chief executive (even assuming he isn't a mindless chimp) doesn't destroy a modern business, much less a modern government.

It isn't completely without merit. The action scenes, if nothing else, are worthy of the best John Woo. It ups the bar for what you can do in a given budget and has some stuff that deserves to be as influential as the over-done Bullet Time(TM) effect (which very nearly became an instant cliché). And there's the occasional gem of a performance - unsurprisingly, Sean Bean turns in a surprisingly good turn, and Christian Bale is similarly good as an only marginally mentally stable individual (something he does well). They're not all good, though, with many of the theoretically Prozium-damped actors turning in inexplicably histrionic performances (Taye Diggs has a lot of promise in this kind of movie, but you just don't believe that he's doping himself every day with emotion-killing drugs).

In short, if you're looking for the next Brazil, this isn't it. If you're looking for The Matrix on the budget of The Blair Witch Project, you're closer.

United States

Journal Journal: War: What Is It Good For?

This is so disgusting (from the British Observer:

The leader of the London-based Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi, has met executives of three US oil multinationals to negotiate the carve-up of Iraq's massive oil reserves post-Saddam.

Apparently, the INC (which is supported by Bush et al.) plans to "reward" the US for ousting Saddam "He Uses Weapons of Mass Destruction on His Own People" Hussein. To me, this makes it look like the U.S. is being paid to oust Mr. HUWOMDOHOP Hussein. We're not the world's police force - we're the world's hired thugs.

But what's almost worse is why this made the papers in the first place:

Disclosure of the meetings in October in Washington - confirmed by an INC spokesman - comes as Lord Browne, the head of BP, has warned that British oil companies have been squeezed out of post-war Iraq even before the first shot has been fired in any US-led land invasion.

British oil is whining that they aren't being invited to play. I'm not sure which I find more disturbing: the indication that no one would be complaining if the INC was offering the oil more broadly? Or that it takes whining by a big money special interest to get legitimate objections aired by the legitimate press (and even then, it's only to say the U.S. is willing to share its future toy oil fields)?


Journal Journal: Marvel Comics and the Movies

So my parents are making some suggestions on new career opportunities for me:

One job thought that came to me was a 60 Minutes piece on Marvel Comics. They are based in New York with their creative studios making all these super heroes.

Marvel is, I believe, still under Chapter 11 protection.

And Marvel, at least, is making money through movies based on characters they developed thirty or forty years ago. Spider-Man's (this past year's biggest movie) first appearance in print dates from well before my birth. I was reading the X-Men (two years ago, and a sequel due this summer) and Daredevil (hitting theaters any day now) in grade school.

The point of the piece was that Hollywood is making a killing on the movies. The real money is in the movies at the expense of the print.

I wouldn't analyze the situation quite like that. The margins are much better on a successful movie than a successful book (comic or prose). But the studios aren't simply in a better business. Part of the reason the movies are successful is that they come with a built-in audience. The major studios are making good on a tremendous investment of capital made by comic book publishers over the course of decades. Hollywood has always sought to mitigate the risk of making movies by banking on recognized stories, whether it was Disney ripping off the Brothers Grimm or United Artists licensing James Bond.

Comic books are sufficiently disreputable in America that Hollywood generally doesn't touch them until they've been around for more than thirty years (the exceptions, such as Spawn, are made for wildly popular comics titles which are picked up by edgy, young, desperate studios like, at the time, New Line). Superman came out twenty years ago, but dates to before World War II. Batman is slightly newer, and the first Batman movie came out slightly more recently. The time is right for Marvel titles.

The one real exception in all of this is Alan Moore. But Alan Moore is, arguably, the most widely read and recognized author in comics (Neil Gaiman is possibly more widely read, but in fiction, as he's made a Hugo-winning transition to fiction). And the properties of his that have been successfully picked up by Hollywood are in fact based on extremely old characters. "Swamp Thing" was made into a B-movie a while ago, but "Swamp Thing" is himself an old character. Last year's "From Hell" is an adaptation of Moore's telling of one variant of the Jack the Ripper story, and the forthcoming "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" is a palimpsest of characters from the late nineteenth century (including (but not limited to) Mina Murray (from Dracula), Dr. Jeckyll (and Mr. Hyde, of course), the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, and Alan Quatermain (being played in the movie by Sean Connery)). Moore's best work is based on newer characters and has yet to be successfully adapted (Terry Gilliam was working on "Watchmen" but, AFAIK, it never got out of development, and I've heard nothing on what I consider Moore's best and most thoughtful work to date, "Promethea").

Maybe your love of comics along with your Sony background could make a fit here.

In an ideal world, it would. But the interesting action (i.e., the real deal-making) is happening with the top executives of Marvel (Avi Arad and to a lesser extent Stan Lee) and the top executives of a subset of the major studios (and Sony is the leader in these, with Spider-Man, Daredevil, and, I believe, rights on a couple of other key properties). This is a personal political game between a small number of individuals.

It is not something that someone walks into the middle of.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Blogger Small World

So just yesterday, I finally put together an odd little "Six Degrees of Separation" between the Ambiguous blog and me. I found this gently amusing - perhaps you will too.

Now, as it happens, I'm working on a book for uber-geek publisher O'Reilly. And it's a Mac OS X book, so I went out to the west coast for their OSXCon at the beginning of October. While there, Chuck Toporek invited me to the O'Reilly party for editors and authors. Late in the evening, this exuberant Canuck in pants three sizes too large comes in, declining beer on account of his much-vaunted no-carbs diet and declining beer for one of his two friends on account of her expectant status.

Well, you may recognize the Canuck in Question as Cory Doctorow, scion of the EFF, Freedom Fighter for Steamboat Willie, and sometime-panelist at O'Reilly conferences. The other two were Quinn Norton and Danny O'Brien, recent guest bloggers at BoingBoing. I didn't actually get any of their names that night - though we did joke about how "Open Source Needs Women!" (Quinn was perhaps the second female in the room the entire night - might have been the third, depending on what she's presently incubating).

Cory was of course exuberant and hard to miss during most of the rest of the conference. That exuberance and Mark Frauenfelder's quiet cluelessness caused me to check out this "boing-boing" thing. Right as I do this, I notice a couple of suspiciously familiar quest bloggers.

"Oh, cool - I know them," I think to myself. Eventually (i.e., last night), I notice that the suspiciously familiar guest bloggers are guest bloggers no more, so I head over to the home blog of the now-being-stalked Quinn. Routine investigation shows that there's another prime blogger there by the name of Robin.

Robin Skyler.

Bells start ringing. "Oh, how funny - I know someone in the poly community here in New York with that same name." Can't be the same person, can it? "What - this 'Robin Skyler' is poly too??"

Well, once I saw Robin talking about Miriam and Rebecca, whom I've known from before Robin and Miriam and Rebecca became "Robin and Miriam and Rebecca", I had figured out that, no, there weren't two tall poly guys named "Robin Skyler" running around New York City.

And so, that's my quiet little story of two degrees of separation. FTF coincidental meetings across the continent.

Hope you enjoyed it, and keep those stalkers at bay.

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