Westworld (Cont.)

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Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s take on Westworld has wrapped its first season, and it was glorious. Possibly the headiest and heated first season for any television show, it took great pains to create a meticulously detailed world, only to have it set for utter destruction by the end of its run. Mind you, I may be spoilering a bit here (but no more than I need to), so if you have yet to see the show you may not want to read any further (but you just might).

The biggest mind-blower was the fact that the show, from the first episode, was running in three different concurrent timelines. This was not revealed immediately but was slyly hinted at in details presented onscreen. The casual viewer will be dissuaded by clever editing and writing, but even this was done for a sincere reason — to invest ourselves in the characters, and their motivations. Had we known for certain what we were watching in a more linear manner would have simply made things terse and wanting, the given method truly involved the viewer as an active participant, should the many reddit threads and youtube videos prove to be self-evident.

Secondly, the character arcs were genuinely satisfying. There were relatively few of them who didn’t go through a considerable metamorphosis, albeit some had begun a passage that will probably continue into the next season. This includes humans as well as the aforementioned android “hosts”, with the overall effect being a balancing of the board, so to speak — and an open wake for things to come.

Lastly, I want to point out the magnificent performances of the cast. Jeffrey Wright is simply amazing. I cannot go on enough about what an incredible actor he is, able to take the most subtle and transient emotions his character(s — SPOILERS) surmount and ingest throughout this telling season. I’ve been a fan of his for a while, but he really has been given a role worthy of his finesse with Westworld. Evan Rachel Wood is a revelation. The entire show impinges on her character, and she carries the weight with an even stride. Her performance is effortless and evocative, and I can’t wait to see what she’ll do next. Thandie Newton is an absolute delight, and Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris do their usual brilliant takes on their given characters. I’ll have to admit that my favorite character is Ingrid Bolsø Berdal’s Armistice — she is so goddamn foxy, missing an arm or not (SPOILERS) — and I hope to see more of her in the upcoming season.

Arrival.

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Before Star Wars leaped into our media consciousness in 1977, science fiction films were considerably different. After being a schlock stock of trade in the 1950’s and early 1960’s with a tirade of films featuring someone or something either becoming significantly larger, mutated or both (Zappa’s Ship Arriving Too Late to Save A Drowning Witch pops into mind: “All of them HORRIBLY LARGE from RADIATION”), the genre was brought into more slower-paced, thought-provoking territory. With Godard’s Alphaville in 1965, and continuing three years later with Kubrick’s 2001, the science fiction film became a format for more mature concepts. While the giant whatever sub-genre continued into the 1970’s (due mainly to the efforts of schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon — don’t get me wrong, I love his films), they were countered with the likes of The Andromeda StrainSolaris, not to mention Steven Spielberg’s entry the same year Star Wars premiered — Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Over the past few decades, a scant few other fruits have dropped from the “serious sci-fi” tree, which include Ridley Scott’s ground-breaking Blade Runner in 1982, Terry Gilliam’s visionary 12 Monkeys in 1995, Ron Howard’s moving take on the Carl Sagan novel Contact in 1997 and most recently 2004’s Primer and Moon in 2009. Most recently, in the vein of all of the above and more, comes Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.

Arrival is the tale of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is thrust from a life of bland academia into the forefront of an alien invasion. Paired with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician, they are tasked with trying to communicate with the inhabitants of an alien craft, one of twelve that have appeared above different countries on Earth. Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker), makes them aware of the global situation, albeit from a military point of view. The rest of the film is about how they not only manage to communicate with the visitors but also with each other.

While avoiding spoilers (believe me, I hate them much more than you do), that last sentence bears more review. As I have stressed throughout this writing, this is no Independence Day. It is slower paced, logical and heady, but not without a wealth of surprising ideas and intimate emotion. A bit of patience is required for those used to more action-oriented fare, but for fans of the movies mentioned above, it is a revelation. Communication is the main theme of the film, and, like my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok”, it is about the struggle to surmount the differences to find the greater good of what we all share. Cue the music:

Adams is incredible (as always), and Renner, who basically plays to the audience’s emotional state throughout the film, more than fills the role. Whitaker makes a credibly crusty Colonel, although I’m much more looking forward to him in the upcoming Rogue One. While the effects are seamless and awe-inspiring, the cinematography spot-on and the music successfully reflecting both alien and human themes, the real stars of the show are Eric Heisserer’s screenplay and Villeneuve’s direction. Going into detail about how they are would truly spoil the fun for anyone who hasn’t seen Arrival, but needless to say, if you’re a fan of “old school” science fiction with genuinely thought-provoking and emotionally moving themes, this film is definitely for you.

Westworld.

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Way back in 1973, science fiction author Michael Crichton (who had already had cinematic success with Robert Wise’s adaptation of his novel The Andromeda Strain) apparently finagled enough leeway in Hollywood to create a film that he would both write and direct — Westworld.

While not the greatest of films, Westworld had a number of fascinating concepts — many of which Crichton would carry over some twenty years later to his novel (and screenplay) Jurassic Park. Both were based on visions of far-flung amusement parks, places filled with a number of random elements which would end up subjugating their visitors. As Jurassic Park had dinosaurs that “found a way” to mate, mutate and rise against their surroundings, Westworld had android “hosts” that interacted with guests, with some of them becoming independent of their programmed scripts, much to the regret of their human victims.

Again, the film (while a huge fave of mine, ever since I saw it on TV on the CBS Late Night Movie as a kid) was only enough of a success to warrant a dismal sequel, Futureworld (which Crichton had nothing to do with), in 1976, it died a quiet death in the shadow of the Jurassic franchise (which is still ongoing, with the upcoming Jurassic World II). Leave it to Jonathan Nolan, best known for co-writing such amazing films as the Dark Knight series, The Prestige and the source of the film Memento with his brother, director Christopher Nolan, to find a new path in Crichton’s pre-Jurassic footsteps.

Along with co-author Lisa Joy, and fellow producer J. J. Abrams, Nolan has brought a much darker take on Crichton’s concepts. Given our greater understanding of such things as computer programs and Massively Multiplayer Online games (which Westworld is the ultimate iteration of — *SPOILER* in particular Ed Harris’ “Man in Black” could be seen as the ultimate “griefer”), Nolan runs with the given status of Crichton’s original and proceeds to warp and wend it to many new and fascinating ways. The echoes of Blade Runner and Moore and Eick’s brilliant take on Battlestar Galactica are informed here as well, with many new potential insights hinted at from the first episode. This new Westworld is gonna be a barnstormer (and I’m not only referring to what Harris does with Evan Rachel Wood), hopefully for seasons to come.

Gene Wilder (1933 -2016).

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To some, he’s Willy Wonka (not that chirpy, bubble-headed nebbish Johnny Depp played in Charlie & The Chocolate Factory), the wary misanthrope who wielded sly surrealism and biting humor to his advantage in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. It’s entirely possible you’ve seen him in this role on the interwebs:

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To others, he’s the Waco Kid, that gunfighter with impossibly fast hands and an equally impressive constitution for alcohol in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. But to me, he’ll always be Victor von Frankenstein (that’s FRAHN-ken-STEEN) in one of my all-time favorite movies, Young Frankenstein. From “Walk this way” (which actually inspired the classic Aerosmith hit), to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (not to mention the dreaded name of Frau Blücher!), the movie never fails to entertain — a good part due to Wilder’s writing and performance in the lead role. He went on and starred in several films with his consummate co-star, the brilliant Richard Pryor. He was also accepted the Old Vic, studied acting under Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg, and was a champion fencer. Later in life, he took up writing and released several novels, as well as promoting awareness to ovarian cancer, which took both his mother and wife Gilda Radner. Not bad for a kid from Milwaukee named Jerome Silberman.

20 YEARS OF QUAKE.

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A little late, yes, but I wanted to be sure and add my own drop in the quad bucket in tribute for probably the most influential (both inspirational and technical) first person shooter ever. And here’s looking to twenty more years (with id’s Quake Legends multiplayer game on the way, and a possible single player title from MachineGames — who on the day of Quake’s birthday this year offered up a custom episode for the original game) of gibs and glory to come.