I woke up early after watching Spectre last night and wrote for a solid hour about what I felt went wrong with this movie. I won't inflict that on you but I found it cathartic.
The long and the short of it is: Don't watch this movie. Go see Casino Royale again if you want to see a good Daniel Craig Bond movie. Or watch Goldeneye or Goldfinger (but not Goldmember) or even Captain America: Winter Soldier. They're all better written and better performed. But just in case you want to read a brief bullet point list, look below and brace for spoilers.
Full of lies!
Things that worked well in Spectre:
- Some great visuals. The Day of the Dead pre-credit sequence is spooky and some of the locations are shot with love. The writing may not be there but the Cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema, sure as heck showed up to play.
- There are good action sequences. Not all of them, but some of the fights and chases are well done. The car chase through oddly empty Rome looked good. The fight in the train was entertaining too.
- David Bautista works. The guy got one line of dialog and it made me laugh. He works as a heavy and he has good comic timing.
- Christoph Waltz is doing the thing he does in every movie. The guy really loves the sound of his own voice. Or we do. Either way, if you like him, you'll like his dialog.
- Ralph Finnes. Ralph also had a good movie, he comes dangerously close to being the Bond we'd rather see and if the script had gone a different way, he might have stolen the show
Things that didn't work in Spectre (Limiting myself to 10):
- The script. FOUR screenwriters. Never a good sign. This was poorly plotted and cartoonish, especially in the closing act.
- The women and Bond. Lea Sydoux had zero chemistry with Daniel Craig and her love scene and the love scene with Monica Bellucci were neither sexy nor romantic. And casting Monica Bellucci and not using her? Dumb and careless.
- The women in general. The women don't work as objects of desire (Sam Mendez or the writers chose not to make it too sexy) and they don't work as competent partners. Moneypenny, Swann, Lucia, none add anything to the plot and none are as well written or as well acted as Vesper Lynd.
- Daniel Craig. The guy didn't want to be here and it shows. He worked as a new kind of Bond, a former SAS throatslitter who was moving up to the big leagues. But he never the gains charm, charisma, wit or intellect Bond has had in the past.
- Bond doesn't do spy stuff. He doesn't investigate anything, discover anything, chase leads. He has his support staff Google stuff and goes from person to person BEGGING them to tell him stuff. Not forcing them, not uncovering information, basically he begs. No disguises, no cleverness, no thinking on his feet.
- Spectre reveal is wasted. The reveal of Spectre being behind everything should have been the pendultimate reveal. Instead, Bond almost literally wanders in off the street and overhears criminal stuff. And that happens way too early in the plot. It's not earned, it's not built up, it makes no impression.
- Bond turns into a cartoon. You know when Legolas in The Hobbit basically became a video game character? That pretty much happens here. In a huge departure from past movies that showed us a hurt, decayed Bond who used his body too hard, here he has some kind of auto-aim cheat code running that climaxes in him shooting down a helicopter with a .380 PPK from hundreds of yards away. Stupid and insulting and removes any tension or thrill watching a skilled man operate.
- Nothing is explained. There is no set up, no explanations for anything, no backstory or flashbacks. The ring featured in the advertising? Bond just grabs it at random in the middle of a fight. Who is Bond trying to kill and why? Vaguely explained an hour after the movie's start. Who is Bond supposed to meet at the dead man's funeral? No idea. He just shows up, begs or shoots someone...usually begs and off he goes to the next location. The worst part is, this could have been fixed with literally mere seconds of screen time showing us or telling us what is at stake or what Bond is expected to do.
- Bond isn't about anything anymore. Craig's Bond and Fiennes' M are adrift. They don't know why they're spying. They are unable to articulate why they spy or kill. They've lost their moral clarity, something that was present up to and through the Brosnan era. It's not about sex anymore. It's not about action, even. The movie serves no purpose except to fool people into buying tickets. Even the image above is a lie. Bond barely wears the 'tactical turtleneck' and he certainly doesn't go commando against Spectre. At this point, the cartoon Archer is more like Bond that Bond is.
- The ending. The absolute worst part of the movie is saved for last as the assassin decides not the kill the most dangerous man alive. In fact, he decides to quit and drives off into the sunset with his...love of his life? This is wrong on so many levels. It's foolish. It lacks payoff. It's unrealistic. Comparing this movie to On Her Majesty's Secret Service is like comparing a McDouble to a Prime New York steak.
I said I'd stop at 10, so I will. But...oh my friends...I could go on. And on. And on about the flaws in this film.
TL;DR version, both Mad Max: Fury Road and The Road Warrior are worth watching for action fans.
I'll be honest, I was worried about Fury Road. I saw the trailers and thought it looked silly. And it is a silly movie in some ways and a deeply feminist movie but it's not a bad movie. Likewise, Road Warrior is such an archetypal movie, inspiring so much post-apocalypse themes and imagery that it's hard to overstate its importance. Both movies have their strengths and weaknesses and I want to yammer on about them.
Good action movies are hard to find. Too, too many of them fall into one cliche trap or another. The biggest and worst is not treating the characters like real people. Another is over-reliance on CGI Both Mad Max movies avoid these flaws for the most part. Actions have consequences, characters are human, hurt-able, the stakes are always very high. Though the first Mad Max is a pretty stripped down revenge movie in the classic 70's mode and Beyond Thunderdome is rather meandering and plotless, Road Warrior and Fury Road are both well worth your time and money.
Both movies take advantage of the desert setting to show isolation, desperation of the brutal post-apocalyptic world but also director George Miller shows the stark beauty of these landscapes. Fury Road in particular is a beautiful film to look at. Both movies feature Max, a haunted and driven man who is an outsider and experiences very little change as a result of the movie. Not none, just...slight. Both movies feature amazing stunts, wildly modified cars, dizzy car chases and violence.
There are also dramatic differences, which I'd like to dig more into. Personally, I prefer the opening of the Road Warrior to that of Fury Road. I think the production values (the cars, props and I'll group the stunts in here too) of Fury Road is superior. I think Mel Gibson is a better actor than Tom Hardy but Hardy does a very, very good Mel Gibson impression. Fury Road has a better plot as well...until it doesn't. So let's look more in depth at both movies.
The Road Warrior opens the narrated exposition. Basically, there was a limited nuclear war that destroyed the world's oil supplies. With the end of oil, civilization tore itself apart. I don't mind narration in movies, personally, but the Road Warrior overdoes it a little. But it also makes some sense since the events of the Road Warrior are related partly as the experiences of one of the characters in the movie. Which heightens the story and Max into legend. Fury Road has some opening narration, but provided by Max himself. This is odd since the movie is NOT Max's story. In many ways, he's a bystander to the action rather than driving it.
The Road Warrior opens with a car chase, which shows us how well Max can drive. He outdrives and outwits three groups of barbarians, with one surviving to becoming a recurring villain in the movie. We see Max being competent, we seem him scavenging and surviving. Fury Road opens with a car chase as well but one where Max is quickly blown off the road and captured. Then tattooed. Then he tries to escape and fails at that. And ends up being used as a blood bank for weird albino warboys.
I don't like Fury Road's opening, I think it weakens Max's character. I like competent characters and we do see Max being competent later, mostly, so it's not a movie-long problem and it does serve the plot to put Max near the warboys. But it's also silly. The whole blood transfusion plotline, it's silly, i just doesn't work with the stark reality of the rest of the world, struggling to scrape by.
Next, the Road Warrior has a side encounter with a gonzo helicopter pilot which leads directly to the main plot: a source of gasoline. We've already seen just how precious fuel is in this world, as well being told during the narration. We see Max witness the besieged refinery, see the barbarians surrounding it. Like Max, we witness the attempts of the civilians to flee....or...something. (Their motivations are never very clear) but we see Max take action to rescue some of the survivors. He has a mercenary reason for doing so, he wants gas, but he does act morally, which is no small thing when you're main character's going to be killing people.
Fury Road has Max imprisoned, serving as a blood bag for a young warboy named Nux*. The focus shifts to Imperator Furiosa, who's is supposed to be making a regular fuel run** but has secretly planned an escape into the desert, stealing away the barbarian leader's sex slaves. Fury Road makes a point to showing that mutation and birth defects are a problem in the world now. The women Furiosa is helping escape are flawless, almost literally (several are supermodels). The barbarians pursue to try to capture Furiosa, kill her and recapture the pregnant sex slaves.
For the first quarter of Fury Road, Max does nothing but be a victim. For the first quarter of Road Warrior, we see Max as a competent survivor. Furiosa in Fury Road is a very active character who drives the plot, it's entertaining, I wasn't bored watching her struggle to flee. And after Max frees himself, he does assert himself and then come to work with Furiosa to aid her, just as he aids the refinery folks in Road Warrior. In the Road Warrior, we clearly know what Max wants: he wants to get his gas and go. He does not want to help people out of the kindness of his heart but he's not completely zombied out. The music box piece he finds and the bond he shares with his dog and the feral boy at the refinery shows that he does have a humanity, a beaten and bruised humanity but it's there.
In Fury Road, we see an almost autistic Max, a truly mad man who hallucinates and is tormented by his past failures (including a nod at Thunderdome which indicates a very unhappy ending for those kids he tried to save). We don't know what he wants, the voiceover narration says 'to survive' but that isn't a strong motivation. He's not motivated by sex or even tempted by the nearly naked models or the tough and competent and unbelievably beautiful Furiosa. He isn't promised anything. He has no reason to help them, yet he does. Maybe it's as simple as fleeing the barbarians who captured him. If so, it's a weak motivation. The plot of Road Warrior is stronger.
In the Road Warrior, Max is begged for help, to drive the fuel truck to a mythical south coastal paradise. He refuses, caring only for himself. But when his car is destroyed, his dog killed, when he has nothing left for HIMSELF, he finds he wants and needs to help these people. Not for the promise of reward, not for revenge even but because he's had to find something more than survival to live for. Now, Max is himself lied to and betrayed by the refinery folks, the fuel truck was just a diversion for them to go north, not south and Max is NOT told this. And that may play into his almost pathological distrust of people in Fury Road.
Fury Road is almost just a chase scene followed by a chase scene followed by a chase scene. There is no goal except to get to X location before the barbarians catch/kill them. There is a nice piece where Furiosa returns 'home' to the Many Mothers and to what she remembers as a green, living land...only to find a handful old, withered crones and no greenery or water. Her loss, her despair, her need for meaning is real and strong. But Max has less and little to do with that apart from to convince Furiosa to...return back to the barbarian Citadel.
There is a lot, a lot wrong with that plot decision in Fury Road. Like how is she supposed to take over? She doesn't kill all the warboys, they are at most, hours behind her. They do kill the barbarian leader and display his body but he's been the charismatic leader holding their society together. He's also, possibly, the source of such science and learning that's kept water pumps working, hydroponics growing and knowledge of medicine and genetics. (I'll agree that is inferred rather than said, though) The ending of Fury Road just doesn't work or make sense. It's a chase without enough thought to what the destination may be. But that might be emblematic of the Mad Max universe: Enjoy the chase, that's all there is anymore.
Bonus section about feminist film theory:
Mad Max: Fury road is a deeply feminist movie, as I said. A woman drives the action, women are the destination (the Many Mothers), women are the victim and the prize (the wives), women open the water floodgates at the end and apparently decide to bring Furiosa into the Citadel. But it's a Sigourney Weaver feminism, circa 1979, not the toxic or ludicrous feminism of Andrea Dworkin or Amanda Marcotte.
There are no female warboys, which makes sense in a survival setting. Women of breeding age are too precious to risk in battle. We aren't given much backstory on Furiosa, she seems to be a child soldier abducted by the barbarians long, long ago. Women don't exhibit laughable hand to hand combat skill, Furiosa and Max do mix it up in melee but it isn't handled in a Kirsten Stewart fantasy fashion. It's gritty and real and it works.
Men aren't idiots or tools or the butt of jokes. In this, Fury Road is far better than just about any romantic comedy made since 1980. It is not an anti-male movie. It is as close to the feminist ideal of men and women working together as equals as any movie I've seen since Alien. And it works.
*I didn't buy Nux's loyalty change though I loved the interactions between the warboys.
**I like how there is a functioning, feudal society working here between the town that supplies t
Because despite the subtitle, it never really became the Age of Ultron. Though it could have.
The TL;DR review is: it's a good, solid movie. Entertaining. Treats superheros like real people.
That's the real trick and it's one that Marvel has pulled off more than it hasn't. It has stumbled, badly, depicting gods (Thor and Thor 2), possibly because religion makes people in New York and Hollywood break out in hives. But Marvel has done well depicting the more human characters.
Each of the characters feels like they have lives, have history, with each other and with the world. They aren't archetypes, with the possible exception of The Hulk, they're people with power. Sometimes pretty flawed people and that's where the good drama comes from.
The bad drama comes from the bad guy since we haven't really had a well-done Marvel villain yet.
The villain this time comes from Tony Stark*, it comes from his arrogance and his fear. That's a great combination. His fear causes him to want to create a superweapon, which is ironic since he spends a good chunk of time denying that he's a weapons manufacturer. And then he does it again, late in the movie. His arrogance causes him to act without discussion with anyone besides easily-manipulated Bruce Banner.**
I was really impressed with Chris Evan's Captain America. Showing someone who's good, decent, moral and a born leader is really, really hard. Most shows can't even get leadership right, confusing it with bullying, shouting and wearing a suit.
The Hulk is once again shown as being a serious threat to his friends, to civilians, to buildings. Kind of retreading familiar ground there, though his fight with Iron Man is probably the movie's highlight.
Hawkeye and Black Widow get some hasty retcon to get rid of that sexual tension from the first movie. Now they're just friends. It's a bit clumsy but it's not worth getting worked up over. It is nice seeing them like and respect each other, Black Widow is also in on the big secret about Hawkeye's wife and family. Those scenes at the farmhouse are very humanizing.
But Black Widow has decided she has 'green fever'*** and has set her cap on Bruce Banner. She's the only one who can talk the Hulk down when the fight is done. She has some good moments when she opens up and stops flirting. Good vulnerability there. Which is met with rejection for reasons that are either wise or stupid. Depending on if we keep the continuity from the Hulk movies, if so, yeah....no sex for Banner. And none for the Hulk unless Captain Marvel shows up as Carol Danvers in full-on nigh invulnerability mode.
It's interesting how Captain America and Hawkeye end up being the moral and emotional center of the Avengers. They aren't the most powerful, though Cap does keep Ultron distracted far longer than I would have though. We don't see much vulnerability from Cap but Hawkeye gets shot, beat down and befuddled. And still they chose to charge towards danger, to protect the innocent. In that context, Hulk and Thor aren't really heroes. Heroism requires sacrifice and risk. Hulk just breaks things. Thor is immortal and is just...doing stuff. Chasing scepters, hanging out, fighting. Black Widow treats this as a job, though she also clearly views it as some thread of redemption (touched on better in Avengers 1). Iron Man seems to be Avenging out of narcissism and peer pressure. And fear, can't forget fear. Iron Man sees the invasion of earth over and over again, just as in Iron Man 3 and it haunts him.
Anyway, we're into too many words territory and then some but let me touch on two more characters and bash the plot a bit, then I'll let you go.
Two new 'people with power' are introduced here as well as one...different: Scarlet Witch and Quicksilvers are twin siblings from Eastern Europe, that much continuity has been preserved. But the comic backstory with Magneto and the X-men belongs to Sony. Odd how Quicksilver can be in both but, eh, I think I prefer this character more. Though the Xmen had more fun with Quicksilver's powers, I think.
Both Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are survivors of war, blaming the death of their parents on Tony Stark, who's company made the shells that collapsed their house. Now this is a bit like blaming Samuel Colt for everyone ever killed by a revolver, it's childish logic. Guilt belongs to those who use weapons, not with those who create, make or, yes, even sell them. Guns and shells don't DO anything on their own.**** But it motivates them to volunteer for human enhancement experiments that don't kill them, unlike the other volunteers. As the movie says, Quicksilver moves fast and he's immune to the friction moving fast should cause. He sometimes seems to experience time flow differently but this is apparently not on all the time. Somehow moving fast also allows him to destroy metal robots with a punch without shattering his own bones. Shrug. Stupid but not too annoying.
Scarlett Witch is given more explainable powers, at least to me. She's a telekinetic who moves things with her mind. She can also read minds, memories and cause people to see things. Or not see things, like her and her brother. She may also be able to control emotions, we don't see exactly what she does to the Hulk but it sure horks him off. All understandable psionic abilities unlike 'hex bolts' and 'probability manipulation' and 'magic', which even Marvel can't figure out in the comics.
Finally we have The Vision, though he doesn't explicitly name himself. He's created by a combination of Ultron and Tony Stark with a dash of Thor's godly power. An artificial life form, but like Ex Machina, one that does not lock people in a bedroom and abandon them after toying with her emotions. Ahem.
Let me touch on the plot lightly, because it might be the weakest part of the movie.
So, as I understand it, the movie opens with the Avengers beating heads of a bunch of high tech solider, probably Hydra agents or Hydra dupes. All fallout from Cap. America 2's plot. The Avengers show up, looking for the scepter Loki used in Avengers 1, which contains an Infinity Stone*****, relevant for the UR-arc of the Marvel movies so far.
The twins, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, join in the defense. Hawkeye gets shot. Scarlet Witch puts the whammy on Tony Stark and she lets him take the scepter since she wants him to destroy himself with it. Not sure why she didn't just kill him, she was inches from his head and she's a telekinetic but...eh.
The Avengers go home, victorious. Stark is already fraying from the vision Scarlet Witch shows him. He analyzes the scepter and thinks he can use it to bring an AI to life to control his drone suits. Ultron wakes up, kills Tony's Jarvis program and interrupts a pretty nice party. He steals the scepter and escapes into the internet. And then into a robotic-making factory inexplicably left intact back in the old Hydra base. Not sure why all those weapons and robots weren't secured but...eh.
Ultron meets the twins ****** and agrees to be evil together and kill the Avengers. The Avengers go looking for Ultron and find an arms dealer in Africa. This is one of the plot's thinnest places. In theory, they go looking for known associates of a bad guy the Avengers just captured and whom Ultron killed in his cell. But Ultron wants to confront the Avengers with the twins, to mess them up and let her get into their head. So he must have wanted the Avengers to show up there. But he also wants the Vibranium to make his new, 'pefect' body (later The Vision). So it doesn't make sense to lure the Avengers there instead of elsewhere after he's secured the vibranium. But...run time would be too long so, eh.
They all fight, the Avengers get mind hoodoo'd, all but Iron Man and Hawkeye, surprisingly. Hluk goes berserk, Iron Man fights/stops him and together they destroy a big chunk of what I assume is South Africa. Awesome fight. The Avengers fly home but they have to hide out, because Ultron knows all their old hideouts that were in the computer and because people are about to call for the arrest of Bruce Banner.. So they fly to a safe house Hawkeye knows about. He should, it's his house. His and his pregnant wife's and their two kids. Character development ensues. Thor bows out, because he has very little character to develop and he has a brief side quest to link us to the Infinity Stones. Nick Fury shows up and gives them a pep talk.
Tony Stark goes to Sweden, because the internet is no longer under American control. Instead, the Swedes have it. Shudder world, shudder. He's looking for some secret ally that is try to prevent Ultron from getting nuclear does. But Ultron is never shown trying to get the codes. So that comes out of nowhere. But..eh. It separates the team so the fight to come is tougher.
And of course there is a fight. This time in Seoul, which looks awesome by the way. Ultron is going to a scientist he met at the party (yes, really) to get her to make him a new flesh/vibranium body. He starts downloading into it but Cap, Black Widow and Hawkeye show up...all three normal humans with nary a chance of defeating Ultron. Thor or Iron Man would paste him, as-is, though Hulk is hiding or rather Banner is after South Africa. Once Ultron starts downloading himself into a body with the help of the Mind stone, Scarlet Witch can read his mind and is horrified by what she sees.
Which is another thin spot in the plot. See Ultron was programmed as a peacekeeper, a global protector. He decides that to protect the world, the Avengers are in the way. Odd decision to come upon and it's not really explained except that the Avengers apparently don't want the world to change. But...eh. But what's not 'eh' is that Ultron now decides he wants to create an extinction-level event, which we all know from the movie Deep Impact, right? So he wants to destroy the world, let humans 'evolve' out of the ruin...or not. Or maybe he wants robots to take over the world but since he's the only robot it would be a world full of him and...frankly, it's a mess. He just....wants to destroy the world. So the heroes need to stop him.
Well they half do. They capture the vibranium body and take it back home but Black Widow gets captured but Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch turn on Ultron. So kind of a net win, power-wise.
Back at the base, Tony Stark is trying to do Ultron part 2, this time with Jarvis driving. Once again, without anyone else being consulted. A fight breaks out, foreshadowing the stupid, stupid, stupid Civil War plotline in Captain America 3. Thor shows up, breaks up the fight, wakes up the body, creating The Vision. Because they need more firepower to defeat Ultron, according to him. Though being a god of war and lightning and them being robots, this shouldn't be that hard for him. But...eh.
So the big final fight happens, and it's a good, long climatic fight with lots of action and hard decisions and, yes, death. Not only civilians buy the farm but Quicksilver dies protecting Hawkeye and a little boy. Pretty good stuff, though Hawkeye seemed to be set up to die, with he happy home life and pregnant wife and impending retirement to come. The death is not taken lightly and, assuming they don't fuck up the character's sacrifice like they did Agent Coulson's, it has weight.
Ultron's attempt to levitate a city and drop it on the earth is foiled, all of his robots are killed and he's flushed out of the internet. Heroes go home, the end.
The movie goes from action set piece to action set piece with 'down' moments of character interaction to manage the rollercoaster of emotions. It's not perfect and not as good as the Avengers 1 but it's solid and should entertain. It's got a fine mix of humor, pathos and power. Perfect for anyone who read comic books and dreamed.
*Not Hank Pym, who created Ultron in the comic. Which is odd since there's an Ant Man movie coming out, though Pym isn't Ant Man in the movie, either. Headache.
** There's a scene where he accuses Banner of just being a puppy who rolls over and shows his belly whenever he's confronted. But it's that weak-willed character trait that he relies on to get his help in making Ultron and the Vision. I don't know if the writing is supposed to be that deep but it's there if you look for it.
*** Which sadly means internet porn predicted this plot line well before the script leaked.
****Unlike Ultron, which does get up, move around and kill things. I'm not sure how much blame Tony Stark gets there, some, but not all. Ultron is a living being who chose his actions...though that starts off based on Stark's programming. Again, not sure if this is intended depth or discovered.
*****The Mind stone for those playing at home.
******Not a porn title...yet I'm hoping for Katie Morgan again but who knows these days.
When I first started writing seriously, I’d have called myself a ‘pantser’*or an exploration writer. I felt that outlining and especially conscious attention to structure (ala Larry Brooks) would kill my enjoyment of writing. I still feel structure= death to me** but I no longer fear outlining. In fact, if you’re writing a novel, I really strongly suggest writing an outline before you start. You don’t have to be a slave to it but it helps. A case in point: my new novel.
I had outlined the core romantic story, which is really just the middle third of the book, prior to going to the Rainforest Writer’s Retreat***. As a result, I had enough of a framework to just write. The words flew. Most of them won’t stick, being a first draft but it was pretty effortless. Then I moved on to the rest of the novel, after the Retreat. I did not outline those sections and I am inching along. Oh I’m getting words written every day, forward momentum and all that, but I’m feeling my way in the dark. And realizing the sections I’m writing are not accomplishing my goals for the novel.
Now my outline was just a page. It was simply a description of the series of events that lead the two characters to meet, fall in love and some thoughts on what kind of internal conflicts they were going to encounter. That worked well. I expanded it out to a chapter by chapter outline of what was to happen, just a paragraph for each. And I quickly diverged from that but the one-pager helped keep me on track. It made it clear to me what scenes need to happen. It didn’t restrict me. Once I got into those scenes, the old magic took me. Words flowed, the scene came to life in my mind for me to watch. All the things I was afraid I was going to kill by outlining was there waiting for me in the scene.
I’m not going to tell you how to write your novel. The sad/wonderful fact is that every single writer needs to experiment and find out what method or combination of methods works for them. There is no right way and no wrong way if it get the novel written. If you need to wander out into the dark and explore and find the novel writing blind, do it. If you need to write 30,000 words of an outline before you commit to writing the first draft, do it. So long as you finish the novel, do it.
Myself, I realized how freeing a few pages and a few hours of dream thought can be. Now I just need to lock myself in the library and get the outline done.
*Mostly because I love pants.
** except for the story needing to kick into gear at the 10% mark. I’ve tested a number of novels and that actually seems to work, so it might be closer to a rule than others.
***This is an awesome writing retreat, especially for genre writers who are looking to get away from life and just write for a few days.
Well another Rainforest Retreat has come and gone for me. This is going to be a good year, I think.
I wrote a little over 42,000 words, rough and ready style…they’re going to need a lot of TLC and sculpting in future drafts, but I got the emotional core of the novel down, I think. Now I just need to write the antagonist POVs and some kick ass space battles. Should be fun. I’m even writing in the morning again/finally. Stealing time has been hard for me but I’m hopeful that this year I’ll be more focused.
If any of you out there cherish writing ambitions and want a place with very bad cell phone reception and internet access to help you focus, I highly suggest the Rainforest Writer’s Retreat.
One theme that I’m exploring in this new novel is love. That might seem odd in a military space opera where I’ve already killed 53 characters (including one POV character) and nuked a planetary capital with a ripple of multi-megaton missiles, further adding to the body count. But the reasons why people fight and why they keep fighting isn’t always due to anger or hate. There is a strong element of revenge, thanks to some dastardly acts, including that nuclear attack. But most of my POV characters in here are motivated by other things. By pride in themselves or their unit or their race. Or by love. Familial love, love of country and even romantic love. Like I said, that may sound strange but we’ll see how it works as the drafting process goes on.
I also wanted to put lots of cool mechs and powered armor and blasters and lazers in a book. Basically I want my inner 13 year old to go and play. Blame Guardians of the Galaxy, if I have to chose to live in one cinematic universe, it’s not going to be the hard sci-fi world of Gravity or Interstellar. I want to be with the cool guy who carries a double-barrelled blaster, has his own space ship and bangs hot alien chicks. Plus I am enjoying writing again and that hasn’t happened for a long year or more.
Terms of Enlistment review and Lines of Depature
So here’s the short version of the review for you TL;DR folks: If you like Military Space Opera, you’ll like this book. It is immersive and a page turner. I’d consider it a good heir to Starship Troopers but it lacks the humanism.
Now for the slightly longer review. First the good stuff.
Terms of Enlistment does a good job of dropping you into the future and getting you to care about the main character, Andrew Grayson. The author’s military background shows so it has that nice ring of verisimilitude I look for in Miltary Sci Fi. It’s written in first person, present tense (ala Hunger Games) which is a good decision for creating sympathy. The worldbuilding is slight, which also works well, we knew just enough to build the story around. There’s no discussion of ‘how things ended up this way’, technology isn’t too terribly advanced so it’s not a post-singularity novel, which makes it easier to understand the world. People remain people, with real and understandable motivations. It’s fairly PG (or PG-13) as for sex, violence and language. It’s about soldiers, not plaster saints but it’s not a Joe Abercombie or Mark Lawrence novel. It also has enough tips of the hat to the PC police to please those who want to see female soldiers as well. On the whole, I enjoyed it, I burned through the first book and bought the second immediately (Thank you, Amazon One Click) and devoured it. Only then did I start to digest the story and that’s made me pause in buying any more books in the series, but I do want to read more of what Marko Kloos has written. So, now onto the bad stuff, don’t worry it’s not really a damning list, at least for the first book.
What was strange is the trajectory of the first novel. Andrew Grayson is set up as a pretty straightforward infantryman, he shows aptitude for small unit tactics and doesn’t pitch too much of a fit when he’s assigned to the Territorial Army rather than the more glamourous (and space-based) Marines. So far, we’re following the Starship Troopers playbook, even down to the romance with the pretty pilot girl…though unlike Rico, Grayson actually gets the girl. But then things go awry. Grayson ends up causing some serious civilian casualties, collateral damage from a rocket round. The character looks to be set up for a fall but ends up transferring to a different MOS and a different branch of the service, the Navy. This is a bizarre plot twist and though I followed it, in retrospect, it really bumps me. We’re set up for one story but then it goes off in a different direction for reasons I’m not clear on. So we basically have two ‘fish out of water’ stories here, one going into the Army and one going into the Navy. And then the aliens show up. Which tosses us in yet another plot trajectory.
So we have two stories going on here, maybe three. One, the ‘US’ vs the Chinese and Russians, then we have the humans vs the aliens. (We also have a civilian vs military plot but that emerges more in the second book) There’s no sign anywhere early in the book that we’re going to be dealing with aliens. Remember, with Starship Troopers, we start off in combat with aliens, so we know what to expect even if we backtrack to follow Rico’s boyhood and enlistment/training. Now, the whiplash almost works, the main character of course doesn’t know anything about the aliens until they show up. But that’s one of the weaknesses of first person present tense, we the reader don’t know anything that the main character doesn’t know. But we the readers should know what kind of story we’re getting into. The author makes promises in their first chapters (and pages, really) that they need to keep. Surprise aliens sorta breaks that. Not enough to ruin the novel but…it bumped me.
The main character doesn’t really drive this plot in the first book. He just sort of…watches things happen. That almost makes sense for a military novel, there’s always someone up higher in the chain of command telling you what to do, but the main character doesn’t solve any problems…unless we count the problem of a sniper in one fight and the problem of some heavy machine guns in the second. Now that almost works, as this first novel is almost more of a travelogue to the future, but it’s imperfect storytelling, I think. It’s realistic but not satisfying but that’s just me, I prefer heroic stories with active characters.
The next is a bit of a nit pick but it’s worth talking about for the longer review here. There’s a lot of ‘telling’ here, Grayson tells us a lot of what he feels…but we don’t actually feel it. We don’t actually see it. We don’t see fear, we don’t see remorse. That latter is a big problem with the theme of the second book. We don’t see love, lust, affection or camaraderie. Grayson is an empty man, a gray man. The closest we get to real emotion is early in the first book when we see how he feels about his father and mother and where’s he’s grown up. It’s not quite a fatal flaw and I probably will pick up later books to see if he ‘fixes’ that in his later novels but it’s a bit of a problem. But not as much as the last one is for me.
But the big one is the lack of humanity. This is much more of an issue in the second book, which is why I paused before buying book three. But Grayson repeatedly says that he doesn’t think humanity deserves to live. The plot, at least for the first two books, shows the inability of humans to co-operate or solve problems (until the main character is there…which is a bump I’ll get to in the second book). It’s an almost George Romero level of nihilism. It’s like the author or the main character is saying you can’t trust anyone above your squad. And the novel plot seems to reflect this, even in the face of unstoppable aliens, humanity can’t put its differences aside to co-operate to save their own lives. Scientists can’t work with military types to save humanity. Society can’t feed itself, can’t police itself, can’t be trusted with nice things. We’re basically confronted with a Welfarepocalypse where the state rations everything but can’t manage to feed everyone or provide sufficient basic services (which I think works as a cautionary tale about the welfare state and state control in general but I’m not sure that’s intended) We also have an over-population problem, which is almost optimistic in a sense, in the light of declining birth rates in China, Russia, Europe and most of the world outside of Africa and the Islamic nations.
So since we’re basically talking about the second novel’s themes, let’s go right into Lines of Departure.
First the TL;DR summary. We continue to follow the adventures of Andrew Grayson as he struggles to survive against unstoppable aliens. Grayson struggles not just with his military duties but ultimately his own conscience.
So we start out after a 5 year time skip. Once again, Grayson has changed specialty. Now he’s an air-weapon command and control specialist inserting with Spec Ops squads to call in air/space support. Now what he was doing in the first book, which is a bit jarring. But he’s still sweet on his girlfriend and that emotional connection is one of the best parts of the character’s inner life. He also cares about his mother, and the scenes with her are well worth reading as well. More good stuff, the main character makes real decisions and manages to affect the plot in a real way. Unkillable aliens get killed.
But we also start seeing the breakdown of society back on earth. Food rations keep being cut, riots are constant, the welfare class is in open revolt and the news censored to cover it up. The military/civilian break is almost total. The aliens are gassing and destroying millions of people and then….Grayson says to himself that he doesn’t care if the aliens kill everyone on earth. And that’s where the book lost me.
Because if your main character doesn’t care about something, it makes it hard to care about him. All Grayson cares about in this book is his family, his girlfriend and his squad. It’s an almost tribal existence. And that’s a rich vein to mine for a writer but I don’t think that’s what the author was going for. I’m a humanist. I think humans are awesome. We are the top of the food chain and we fought our way there. Humans might be half devil as well as half angel, we are also capable of terrible things. But to write off the entire species like Grayson does, it really made me dislike him. To me, he became a traitor. Which is ironic because he becomes that again later in the book.
So let’s talk about the rebellion and the treason and lawful and unlawful orders. Since the Nazi’s made it clear that we can’t have nice things, there has been in the Western world, the idea of unlawful orders. Orders that an officer gives you that can be disobeyed. In this case, Grayson and a bunch of other people are given orders to seize the food supplies of the colony that they’ve arrived at. Note, all we and the character knows is that the order was given to take them. There was no joking and laughing about starving civilians (and if you ARE starving and have a gun and there are folks who have food and don’t have guns….um…they guys with guns will not starve), the main character and his buddy assume that, but they don’t know it. All they’re given is an order to secure the food supplies. This is not an unlawful order. Shooting unarmed civilians is an unlawful order, something Grayson did in the first novel. But securing the food supplies is not. But based on that and their assumptions about their officers, Grayson and his buddies rebel. They mutiny. They shoot and kill their fellow soldiers.
To me, there was insufficient justification for this act. If the main character had taken the commanding officer into custody, which is also mutiny, I’d have gone along with it. But they just hunker down, declare the local civilians to be their new chain of command and begin a shooting war with their former comrades. This is heavy stuff. And to be honest, I don’t think its handled well. “Luckily” the invincible aliens arrive and the other officers flee so that rebellion is never really satisfactorily resolved (in this book) but it just doesn’t work for me. Let me explain why.
A big deal is made about how the military is deploying more and more against the civilians, who are fighting back and basically turning the welfare zones into ‘No go’ zones. Grayson SAYS he is haunted by killing civilians in the first book. He says he’s troubled by the decision to fight his fellow soldiers. But I don’t believe any of it. Now, I read these two books back to back over two days, so the first book was very fresh in my mind. At no time in the first book do we see Grayson feeling regret over killing the civilians in his previous life in the Territorial Army. At the time, all he cares about is getting in trouble for it. Now the circumstances were very clearly life or death, he killed to protect himself and his squad. And he ended up killing some non-combatants. It sucks but war sucks. It was not a war crime in my opinion and in the opinion of his squad leader. But at no time did he say what he did was wrong. And we never see him bothered by it. And yet this event is the justification for him that his military commanders no longer adhered to their vows to protect the lives and rights of the citizens.
It’s too thin. And that’s part of the problem I touched on earlier, there’s too much going on too quickly. If the novel was just about the dystopia back on Earth and if the author had spent a bit more time showing Grayson’s feelings, then yeah, I could buy that plotline a little more. But the story is divided into Grayson vs Aliens, Grayson vs China/Russia, Grayson vs civilians is just a tertiary plot line at best.
In the end, they find a way to kill the unkillable alien ships, which is a solution that seems so simple that I’m confused why any spacefaring culture didn’t come up with it in five years previously.
So…what do I do here? Do I keep reading? Is the third novel back on track? Or will we verge more into this Romero-esque anti-humanism? I did enjoy the first two books, at least until Grayson said humans don’t deserve to live. The books are pretty fast-paced, they have great verisimilitude, it’s good military sci-fi, I like his relationship with his girlfriend. The people and dialog felt real, mostly.
If you can ignore the things that bumped me, then you’ll love this book. If you need a bit more…I’m a bit hesitant. The first book is highly recommended but maybe not the second.
Ok, now as a bonus, for myself mostly, some more nit pick questions that came up as I was reading.
Nit picks: Why no advanced infantry training? Grayson goes from basic into combat with almost no additional training. I’ll buy that to a point, weirder things have happened in history even as recently as Vietnam and I don’t mind Grayson doing well in his deployments. I like heroic characters. But it seems odd and unnecessary and dangerous. I can’t think of a bigger recipe for disaster as tossing new people into gunfights with only a few months training.
Why are the military units so small? The US has pretty much gone to a small unit/heavy support model. You have companies and platoons doing jobs today that would have a Battalion or a Brigade doing thirty years ago. And air support and body armor are great force multipliers (Go Air Force, go CAS! A-10’s forever, baby.) but they aren’t the only models and for a population-chocked world, it makes even less sense. Modern Chinese military units are much larger than any we are fielding. They use their manpower advantage. I’d love to have seen a simulation of how the US model works vs the Chinese, I think about that a lot, actually. But everyone fights ‘light’, seems odd, especially when total war breaks out.
Why so few kinetic weapon usages? We have one usage of a kinetic weapon used late in the second book and they even mention how it does nuclear damage without radiation or fallout. This is one of the big reasons you need space supremacy, if you have the high ground you can throw rocks (literal or figurative) on the enemy’s heads. But they’re using nukes against the alien structures. Why not more kinetic weapons if we’re so concerned about ecological damage to our former colonies?
Why no new weapon development? Seriously, in 5 years of fighting against the aliens we have one new gun (a double barreled shotgun basically) and that’s it. No nuke-pumped X-ray lasers, no mass drivers (which exist as cargo orbiters so we know they have the tech), no particle beams, no petawatt lasers, no robotic soldiers. Nothing. We fill a ship full of water, accelerate it to 10% light speed and that kills the enemy ship. Our sensor tech doesn’t improve either. In wartime, human ingenuity hits its peak. Which is why some people (prior to WW I mostly) though war was both good and useful to society. But we don’t see that here, look at what the wars in Iraq and AfPak have done for armor development, drone usage, communication, etc.
Why no full-scale militarization of society? We’re facing an existential threat to our race, yet despite having an all-powerful state that’s been rationing food for decades, we don’t see any attempt to organize society. Look at the US, Japan, German and Russia in WWII, they were hitting peak production after 5 years, cranking out tanks faster than crews could be trained.
Why no communication with the Sino-Rus? There’s no attempt made at the end of the book to communicate with the SinoRussian ships. We never hear of any peace talks or negations with them, even the failure of them. There’s no attempt to communicate with the aliens either.
Where are the welfare rats getting military weapons and training? In the big dust up in Detroit and later, we see welfare rats (who are poor indeed) showing up with military hardware. And I don’t mean AR-15 or civilian clones of military arms, in the US at least, that’s easy to believe. But they have heavy machine guns. Those beasts are hungry and maintenance intensive. Where did they come from? And where did all the advanced tactics they showed come from? Maybe this is discussed in later books but so far, feels like a plot hole.
Where is Europe? South America? Africa? No mention is made of any of them, apart from some country in the Balkans declaring independence and attacking the ‘US’ embassy. Seems like a miss.
The relations between the sexes was also pretty PG in the first book. Only the main character and his girl are getting it on in his squad? Don’t believe it. No other girls hitting on other girls (or guy on guy, now that DADT has been pulled) either. Teenagers have sex. As much as they can, ingeniously. Hell most of my ROTC detachment paired up, as far as we could with the relatively few female cadets. And there was some…trouble around that, too. Maybe they’re putting saltpeter back in the rations again :)
I’ve been trying to amp up my reading, both as a way of weaning myself off my video game addiction and as a way of slowly chipping away at my to-read bookcase. Yes, not a to-read pile, I have a full bookcase full of books I need to read. That was a wakeup call. Along the way, I’m seeing good writers make bad mistakes. I won’t call anyone out by name but I do want talk about what we can do as writers to make it easy for readers to pick up our work and immerse themselves in our world.
To start with, minimize slang and world-specific words. I committed to reviewing a novel for another writer (it’s coming, it’s coming, I swear) but when I picked up the book from Amazon, I immediately bounced off the text. The prose was fine, the descriptions were good and even the characters were interesting enough. However it was a fantasy novel set in a secondary world and nearly everything in the book had it’s own slang name or a world-specific name. I had to decode every other sentence. It was and is painful. For example (not a quote from the book):
“Chop kept his face sunsetside, letting his wide-brimmed talen shade his features. Tinder played in the streets, distracting the merchants along the dongalle canal so their trained chermink could steal cool and sweet podoods in their hook-like claws. Chop’s hand rested on his xiphos hilt, with a little luck no one would tumble and he could keep it resting-like.”
Translated into more normal English, that should read:
“Chop kept his face towards the west, letting his wide-brimmed hat shade his features. Street kids played in the streets, distracting the merchants along the canals so their tamed and trained chermink* coold steal the cool and sweet melons in their hook-like claws. Chop’s hand rested on his sword’s hilt. With a little luck, no one would recognize him and he could keep it in its sheath.”
Now the good thing about the first passage is that it shows that the author has really crafted their world, that they know it well enough to actually create its own slang. But look how many strange words and and strange usages of words we have. Most readers will bounce right off. A few, a good core, will get into the story and let that level of world detail absorb into themselves. They will love your book. And good for them, we need more readers like that. But a larger majority of readers will be turned off. There can be very good writers and very good stories that are nearly impenetrable. Trainspotting, A Clockwork Orange, Finnegan’s Wake all create a huge language barrier that rewards the patient reader willing to work at it.
Most readers don’t want to work. That’s just the way it is, for better or for worse. When you’re writing, strive for clarity. You don’t have to write ‘down’ and if you’re a language stylist, go for it. Write what is true to yourself. But if you have any mental flexibility in your work, make it easy for your reader. Don’t call a melon a ‘podood’, call it a melon. Now part of the appeal of fantasy is to write about settings and cultures and creatures that don’t exist. So how do you handle those?
Clarity first. Describe what you’re showing the reader. Don’t just toss out an archaic or created word and hope your readers will understand it**. Describe it. There might be good reasons you’re having the main character use a xiphos instead of a more conventional fantasy broadsword. So show the reader the short two foot length, the narrow waisted, leaf-shaped double edged blade. If it’s a fictional food or race, all the more reason to describe it. You don’t have to go on for pages, a couple of sentences of description will usually suffice.
But you don’t want to drown the reader in description after description either. So space out your created words. Use slang sparingly and make it clear in dialog context what the words mean. One sentence from a character that’s full of made up words can be a delightful puzzle for the reader. A page that’s full of them is a minotaur’s maze that many readers won’t make it through. A good rule of thumb for me is no more than three or four world-specific words per page. Even that might be a bit much but I think that’s reasonable. Same with slang and make sure you’re using your words consistently. Repetition will help recognition in readers, just again, try not to overdo it.
Next time, I’ll look at sequels and how to build on what you’ve written while making it accessible to more casual readers.
*this actually is a world-specific animal, sort of a monkey cat so it really doesn’t have a good translatable name
**I got dinged on this recently so it’s fresh in my mind.
So, video games. My nemesis or my writing career’s nemesis, at least. I am a gamer. I grew up Atari, went Nintendo and Genesis, lived the Playstation lifestyle and then settled down as PC (though I am buying more Mac's these days, I don't game on them).
Video games, at the best, are more than just time sinks. They are a way to stimulate my imagination. Would my time have been better spent reading or writing rather than playing these games? Yes, undoubtedly. But I can’t say they haven’t been a significant part of my life. That’s what this list is for, not the list of the best games but games that represented something to me, that occupied a lot of time or taught me something. Yes, you can learn things from video games. Let’s begin.
Most significant games, in less-significant order:
10. Ogre Battle – This is an odd one. I played it on NES and then bought it on Playstation but it wasn’t the same or I wasn’t. At the time, the mix of real-time strategy (you’d send your units off on the main map to explore or capture points, then go into a turn-based brawl if and when you ran into an enemy unit) and turn-based party fight was unique. It added in pseudo tarot cards that could give your team a buff or damage opponents and the cards you earned were randomized and permanently expended when used. But what really hooked me was the leveling system. Your base characters were pretty weak but they could level up and specialize. An Amazon archer could become an angel eventually or a Valkerie, raining down lightning. I’m a sucker for character development. Special mention also for the world map in the game. I always thought it would be a great setting for a fantasy novel and the map really helped sell that.
9. Age of Empires – I could have chosen a number of real-time strategy games, I played a lot of the: Command and Conquer, Dune, Warcraft 2. But Age of Empires was not only one of the best games Microsoft ever made, mechanically, it was also at least somewhat historically accurate. The Egyptians, the Hitties, the Babylonians were all fielding units that their historical culture favored. Be it Egyptian archers and charioteers or what have you. The architecture also had nods towards archaeologically accurate structure. As a history buff, it was like finding little Easter eggs when the game referenced dead cultures correctly. It really added something and made me want to read more, outside of the game.
8. Call of Duty 2 – I like shooters. This was one of the best. Unlike many of the later incarnations, you weren’t as restricted in what routes you could take and enemies didn’t spawn infinitely. There was a finite number of bad guys and if you killed them all, you won. The game also made if feel like you were fighting alongside other soldiers, they’d fight with you, and actually help without getting in the way. There was a sense of accomplishment in keeping as much of your friends alive as possible. And cleaning out the tank factory by finding a good sniping spot inside an oil pipeline was awesome. Real guns and some real tactics. I still like shooters today, Borderlands 2 has devoured a lot of my time, but I have fondest memories for fighting fictionally alongside the Greatest Generation.
7. Streetfighter 2 – This was the game me and my friends played in college. After classes, two or more of us would be in front of the TV, playing. With varying degrees of success. Chun Li was a favorite for ease and deadliness of her kicks while Guile won with style points. It’s not the only fighter on the list but it was the one I was most in sync with. I was accused of witchcraft powers over this game. Which I deny. I was just….in tune with it. In fact, I once beat one of my fellow friends one-handed. I played Guile, moved with one thumb and used my pinkie to heavy kick. Won three games in a row. I don’t know about witchcraft but it was sure magic.
6. Dawn of War – The Warhammer 40,000 series is ridiculous. Let’s get that out of the way. No matter how much Dan Abnett humanized the world and characters in his Gaunt’s Ghosts series, the dark and grim world of orcs, elves and surgically-modified Space Marines in powered armor is pretty silly. But this game, oh this game is solid. It not only captures the flavor of the world, it mechanically is different from the other real-time strategy games of the time. You seized control points to gain resources to call in reinforcements rather than just cranking out workers and mining or harvesting. The focus was on the squads taking and holding terrain. And there was something very cool about two squads of Space Marines, both with Sergeants and with Apothecaries attached, buffed up with two Heavy Bolters and Two Rocket Launchers. I’d take that up against any force in the game.
5. Rome: Total War – Another one for the history nut inside me. This had history and strategy on and off the battlefield. The supremacy of the Roman Legion was breathtaking….and the limitations were there as well. The Roman faction had great infantry but relied on mercenaries for archers and cavalry. That would bite them in the ass in future centuries, though this game is set in the range of 100 BC to 50 AD. The wide variety of factions to play is a great selling point, you didn’t have to play the Romans. If you want, you could try conquering Europe with Celtic chariot archers from Britannia. Though the Romans tended to be the richest, if internally faction-ridden. The computer AI was not perfect but it was good enough for real tactics (speed, morale, flanking) to be useful. Another great piece of history come to life in game form.
4. Master of Orion – The game I still play to this day. The graphics are dated as all get out but the AI is as good as it gets. The game mostly plays fair, unlike the Total War game at higher difficulties. The computer players have the same economy you do and they are all motivated by self-interest and not just ‘gang up on the human’, which is sadly rare in most games. The ship design is amazing, the randomized tech tree and galaxy layout will keep you playing and playing. Still available on GOG.com and worth ten times what they charge for a modern pc-compatible version. The second game is good, too but the first one is a model of simplicity and replayability.
3. Dead or Alive – The ‘last’ fighting game me and my friends played (so far). This is on the list for two, jiggling reasons. I like the characters. They are fun to look at. I don’t mind losing over and over to Kasumi, I really don’t. It is a good, deep fighter as well, a solid game. But some part of every man stays 14 forever and this game is for him. Hotness without quite crossing the line, Playboy-with-clothes-on as opposed to Hustler. (Mortal Kombat, for me, crosses over that line)
2. Panzer General – Re-fighting World War 2 may be a hobby for the rest of western civilization, much the way past generations re-fought Waterloo. (In fact, one friend still plays Napoleonic battles). This game does it better than most. Persistent units you keep and upgrade from scenario to scenario gives weight to every fight. Because new recruits cost money and they never are QUITE as good as the unit you had since Poland 1939. Yes, you play the Germans in this, which can be a sticking point for some. I don’t disagree. But there is something very, very satisfying in crushing the Soviets and taking Moscow early in 1941. This game will keep you fighting for Major Victories in each scenario. And it does illustrate just how close some turning points in history can be. Luck as well as audacity can be and has been the difference between defeat and victory.
1. City of Heroes – In a way, World of Warcraft should be on this list. It, after all, is still around and collecting money month after month from millions of subscribers. But it was City of Heroes, launched at the same time, that meant the most to me. I miss this game more than any other on the list. There are other superhero games out there, some still with players, even. But this game just worked. It made you feel like a hero. You could take on five or six goons at once and not have your hat handed to you. And the character creator! No other game has done it better, given you more choices and options. You could easily duplicate real people….and fake ones. Trademarked by Marvel, say. Which is why the game is no more, thanks to a lawsuit with undisclosed settlement terms, City of Heroes never found a new owner when the publisher, may they burn in hell, decided to kill off a game with people still willing to pay them money for it. Perfect? No, it had flaws, a lack of late-game content for one. But you could fly, shoot radioactive beams from your eyes and act like a hero. Or a villain, both were options in the game, eventually. I liked putting on the spandex and getting my super-leap on.
The Guardians of the Galaxy was not only my favorite movie of 2014, it is one of my favorite movies ever. And I say that advisedly. I watched it six times in theaters. Butt in seat, watching. I never do that anymore. So there is some fanboy gushing to come here but I hope to also look at the movie critically in this review.
So, here’s the TL;DR version. The movie is fun. It’s funny, colorful, action-packed and fast-paced with characters you care about. If you like fun science fiction, you’ll love this. I recommend it.
Now for those of you who really want to dig in, let’s grab a shovel.
Plot summary first, you can skip down to the commentary if you've already seen the film:
Peter Quill is a boy who runs from his mother’s death (cancer is implied), figuratively and literally. He is abducted by aliens and grows up a pistol-packing outlaw who romances hot alien women and flies around in his own private spaceship, stealing stuff and getting in fights*.
Actually I want to stop right there for a second. That is a story every red-blooded man in the word wants to see. Hell, wants to live. The box office receipts bear that out.
Moving on: the movie opens with Quill going to an alien world to salvage an ancient artifact also sought by a genocidal maniac named Ronan. Ronan hates the Xandarian empire and wants to wipe it out. Ronan sends Gamora, a supposed assassin and adopted daughter of a very, very bad demigod named Thantos. Ronan wants the artifact to give to Thantos. Thantos has promised to destroy the planet Xandar for him in return.
Another quick break there…that’s pretty high stakes. Destroying an entire planet full of mostly-innocent people. Dude.
Quill has, however, backstabbed his former (?) kidnapper by stealing the artifact and selling it himself. That kidnapper, a pirate named Yondu, places a bounty on Quill’s head. That brings us to Rocket Racoon and Groot, a surgically modified raccoon and an intelligent, mobile tree. These two are working as bounty hunters on Xandar, spot Quill and attack him. However Gamora is also on hand trying to recover the artifact and a three-sided fight breaks out which gets everyone thrown into prison.
In prison, they meet a Ronan-hating killing machine called Drax. Drax’s family was murdered by Roana and he recognizes Gamora as Ronan’s minion. However, Gamora no longer wishes to serve Ronan and was planning to sell the artifact to a very odd, very rich person called The Collector. She offers to split the huge reward for the artifact among them if they help her escape. The group escapes in an epic, violent jailbreak and heads to a giant floating skull up in space that’s being mined from the inside out to sell the artifact.
I want to break here again. The movie shows us a skull big enough to have its own atmosphere inside of it. Not only does that show us that the universe is strange, it reinforces how small the heroes are in comparison. Also, the visuals of the mining colony inside of the skull are breathtaking. It’s just…cool.
Inside the head, the group squabbles. Drax gets drunk and calls Ronan, desiring nothing more than revenge and…not thinking things through very well. Meanwhile the artifact is taken to the Collector where it is revealed as one of the Infinity Stones, this one is powerful enough to destroy a planet in one blow but it so powerful that attempting to wield it basically is a death sentence unless you are inhumanly powerful.
Which…Ronan happens to be. Ronan shows up with part of his army, takes the stone from the heroes and beats Drax within an inch of his life. At the same time. Yondu shows up to capture Peter Quill. After some fast talking, Peter convinces Yondu they have a plan to steal the stone back. Yondu spares his life in promise of the Infinity Stone after defeating Ronan.
The heroes pursue Ronan with Yondu’s fleet to Xandar where he is preparing to destroy the planet with the Infinity Stone himself, abandoning his deal with Thantos. The heroes break into Ronan’s ship and attempt to assassinate him.
The Xandarians attempt and fail to hold Ronan’s ship back.
Ronan crash-lands onto Xandar but the heroes destroy the war hammer that Ronan has embedded the Infinity Stone into. Quill grabs it and, with the aid of his friends, manages to hold the stone long enough to destroy Ronan and save Xandar and the galaxy.
In the end, Peter and his fellow Guardians are pardoned of their crimes, thanked for saving the world and fly off to new adventrues.
Friends…this is how it’s done.
If you know the movie, you’ll know I skimmed over some characters and complications but that’s the basic plot. VERY misfit heroes do the right thing despite overwhelming odds. Evil is confronted and defeated. It’s a simple story and, unlike the Hobbit trilogy, it doesn’t mess up the plot or the theme.
Casting to start with. Chris Pratt is charming, roguish and masculine as Peter Quill. He’s not quite as smooth, skillful or charming as he thinks he is…but he’s not a man-child. Rocket and Groot steal the show with some of the best dialog in the film. Mad props to Vin Diesel as Groot and Bradley Cooper (and the on-set actors) as Rocket. Even David Bautista as Drax is given some good lines and comedy as someone who takes everything literally. Characters. IF you have good characters, your audience will want to follow them. This movie pulled of character better than any I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Tone also needs a hat tip. The movie has a lot of comedy in it, thanks to James Gunn, the director and Nicole Perlman who worked with him on the screenplay. This movie played serious would have been deadly dull. The squabbling among the heroes made for good drama and tension and kept us laughing. The light tone was spiked with some pain. Peter’s mother dies before his eyes, unable to take her hand** Drax had his wife and daughter murdered before his eyes. Rocket was ripped apart and experimented on. Likewise Gamora, tonally weakest of the characters, had her entire race destroyed by Thantos. Only Groot seems to lack a dark side, but his childlike attitude doesn’t make him any less powerful and intimidating in a fight.
Visuals were top notch. We live in a world where, with sufficient money, anything you imagine can be shown. So the question is increasingly, what do you choose to show? Guardians of the Galaxy chooses to show a bright, colorful, optimistic world. There are a lot of tangents we could follow about design language, how Ronan’s ships and allies seemed to use stone or how the lights in Knowhere show a technicolor Christmas tree of beauty. I do want to give a special nod of the head in how the CGI was used to make things, impossible things, feel real. Rocket looks like a real raccoon. With a gun. Wearing a jumpsuit. And it all looks legit!
Theme and story are what make this movie go past simple Buck Rogers popcorn entertainment. The bad guys here are at least unambiguously bad. The heroes chose risk even against the odds of success because opposing evil is the right thing to do. For once, the heroes, or one at least, actually sacrifices themselves for their friends. Which is the meaning of true love and of true heroism if you ask me. The heroes choose not to be selfish in the end, even if some come into it kicking and screaming. And though they change, they aren’t utterly transformed. Drax is still violent and dangerous. Rocket is still amoral and scheming. Peter is still roguish enough to want to do good and bad mixed together. Good wins, evil loses. This is primal stuff and weather the fans realize it or not, they absorb that theme and it resonates with the best part of us.
No movie is perfect and the Guardians does have flaws. I want to touch on them each out of fairness and in the hope that I and other writers might avoid similar mistakes in our own work.
Ronan is at best a serviceable villain. He does have a very early ‘kick the dog’ moment in his introduction where he murders a captured Xandarian Nova Centurion and monologues about his refusal to accept the peace treaty between his people and Xandar. But he has little complexity. He wants to destroy Xandar. He did lose is father and grandfather to war with Xandar but that’s a thin sheet to wrap around him. He’s arrogant, petulant and ambitious. However, he is easy to hate and he comes off as powerful enough to be a credible threat. But the bad guys in this movie are easily the weakest point of the film. And that’s not to be taken lightly. Your protagonist is only as powerful as the threats they face. Ronan is physically a threat but doesn’t feel real enough to be really imposing.
Gamora and Zoe Saldana didn’t work either. I don’t know what’s awry here, if it’s casting or writing…or both. Gamora in the comics is sex and death incarnate. The kind of woman who could unashamedly wear a black bikini with a hood and pull it off. In the comic you get the feeling she revels in slaughter and would rock the world of any man she took to bed (and there was never any doubt that it would be her idea). Zoe is very, very pretty but she did not pull this character off. Even in the movie, she’s supposed to be an assassin, you know, someone who murders someone for pay or by command. But we see none of that. She isn’t established as a character before she’s turning her coat against Ronan. Also, for someone who murders people (remember, she’s an assassin, not a soldier) she seems obsessed with ‘honor’ and honorable behavior. That is more than a little discordant. Either another actress should have been cast or her backstory should have been tinkered with more so she’s shown to have a strong moral code. As it is, she is just as flat as Ronan and Zoe’s performance comes off stilted and wooden.
The dance-off at the end really, really walks the line, and it may even cross it going into silly territory. The idea of Peter Quill interrupting Ronan’s murderous soliloquy with karaoke and dancing…doesn’t quite work. It is a distraction and it is sold as that if you watch the movie closely you can see the heroes exchanging glances prior to Quill getting up and dancing. And, I have to admit, choosing to get up and confront Ronan after he crashed to earth in a starship and survived does show some courage. But it is just…silly. And I say that as a man who has been pressed into performing the ‘naked troll maneuver’ as a way of distracting a security guard.
Ultimately, this movie made me happy. When I was depressed or down, I could go to the theater, pay my $11 and sit with a smile on my face for two solid hours. That is so, so rare. Recommended without reservations .
*He also wants people to call him Star Lord, with mixed success.
**Which I bought. When my grandmother was dying, I didn’t want to touch her, I was about the same age. Death and dying scared me.
If you want to move a reader (or just as important, an editor or agent), you need to think about what emotions you want a story to invoke.
I see this a lot in my own work, the stuff that ‘works’ is often stories where I was trying to get the reader to feel something. Stories without an emotional trigger of some sort seem to come off as bland or unmemorable, at least mine do. Stories where I wanted the reader to laugh or cry tend to hit home the hardest.
Which emotion you want to evoke is up to you, the writer. Laughter or pride (for the reader or for the protagonist) is something I want to aim for. Wonder is also good, and also harder. But there are times for sadness or horror, catharsis can be healthy to get those feelings out of our system. Though it can be tough. A well-written story will have those emotions linger in the reader, so I’d honestly try to avoid wistfulness or melancholy in stories you’re writing for someone else.
How do we do that? Well, keeping in mind this is all my bright idea and not of anyone really, really skilled at this, I think you the writer have to feel it first. Readers, I think, can spot it when we’re going through the motions*. So what you right needs to make you happy or laugh or nostalgic or even aroused. If you’re writing a love scene and you don’t need a trip to the shower afterwards, scrap it and try again. If the fight scene doesn’t get your heart pumping, put it down, summon up the blood and disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage.
Once you’re feeling it, write it. Stay in that emotional state as long as you can. Write fast, let it flow. You can go back and correct mistakes in verb tense and spelling later. You want to get the emotion of the scene down first because that spirit comes from the inside where we don’t think about usage who vs whom. If you can get the emotions down, the rest can be fiddled with by your logical side.
Next, vary your scenes. Don’t put action scene after action scene. Let your reader recover, channel their emotions into something different, take them on a ride. Rollercoasters are never all downhill. Anticipation is part of the fun and it’s a great way to hook a reader to signal a change in mood just as you end a chapter. Break up horror with comedy, if you can, laughter is louder after a scare…thought that’s a tough rope to follow. End action with a melancholy coda, dealing with the aftermath of adrenaline and bloodshed…though I advise against ending a story that way, just my two cents.
End the story in a way that is satisfying emotionally. Make them want to read about that character again or at the very least, to read more of your work. That’s why I suggest ending ‘up’. One of the feedback I got most often in the past year on my problem stories seem to have that at its core, the ending didn’t satisfy. People like happy endings, if they’re earned. They WANT to root for your protagonists, let them. People are afraid of cliché or tropes but they exist for a reason. They meet a need in us. We want to believe there is justice in the end, that journeys end in lovers meeting, that sacrifice buys something, that evil can be vanquished by courage, that the good guys win. Remember, we’re telling stories, dreaming dreams. Don’t write real life, write better than life.
So before you start writing, take a moment while the stew is simmering in your head and think about what emotional seasoning you want to add. Because that’s what’s going to linger on after your reader consumes your story. Now if you’ll excuse me, I seem to be hungry for some reason.
*Though they can’t seem to spot which sections came easily and which ones you sweated blood over. Which is odd.