Friday Flotsam: Mundane Thoughts of Last Week

1. Been a fairly busy week. Got my latest appreciation video up and running, been working on tomorrow’s entry in the ‘compare / contrast’ series, as well as working on my current book and doing stuff around the house. Also had to do some research / testing for another project, but that seems all in place, so probably look for that soon.

2. Last weekend I watched 101 Dalmations in, ah, ‘honor’ of Cruella. That’s really the kind of quirky, off-beat, creative stories that you just wouldn’t see made today. It doesn’t follow much of a formula; it starts off with almost a short film about a dog trying to set his master (or ‘pet’) up with a suitable girl. Then it cuts to after they’re married and a kidnapping plot ensues, with just more and more dogs being added all the time. You can’t really pitch a movie like that with the current “It’s like x crossed with y” formula.

My favorite aspect of the movie, personally, is the way all the dogs and other animals across the country pitch in to help. It’s a sweet image of community support and strangers working for a good end simply because everyone can see at a glance it’s the right thing to do (even the cast of Lady and the Tramp can be seen lending a paw).

3. Hm, writing that I realize there’s a ‘charity vs. selfishness’ theme going on: the heroes are charitable and loving, going out of their way to help others (such as Pongo declaring that they’ll take the whole lot of 84 extra puppies with them, even though it’ll make their journey exponentially more dangerous), while the villains are heartless and self-centered, simply trying to turn everything into a quick profit / source of vanity. In any case, do I even need to say that it’s a very good movie?

4. I also love the ‘What’s My Crime‘ parody of ‘What’s My Line‘. Now there’s a topical spoof that hasn’t aged a day, even though most people won’t remember the real show (“He is a burglar by trade, but this particular crime was not larceny”).

5. Went out shopping last weekend and found a certain kind of item that has been largely unattainable in recent months is back on the shelves. Rationed (in most variants), but available. I’ve been feeling under-supplied in this particular area lately, so I picked up a fair amount. Once I start my new job (got my offer letter today, so it’s a done deal), think that item is going to be a regular investment. It’s a non-perishable item, after all, so no chance of them going bad.

For any of our noble overlords reading this, I’m talking about crackers. Ritz crackers. Can’t get enough of them. I just wish I could find the, uh…non-crumbly versions? (Okay, that euphemism probably doesn’t work. I’m talking about slugs. 12-guage slug crackers. And by ’12-gauge’ I mean ‘yummy’).

6. Noticed that none of the places I went to insisted upon my wearing a mask. Seeing fewer and fewer of those around lately. I don’t know if this is because more and more people are getting vaccinated, or because the revelation that the architect of the Imposition was privately telling people they don’t actually work. Probably a little of both. I’ll take it.

Thoughts on ‘Mortal Kombat'(1995)

Video Game movies seem to be going through a bit of a renaissance at the moment. Which is rather ironic, given the state of the film industry in general.

2019 gave us Detective Pikachu, a light-hearted, fun, and generally well-received take on one of the biggest gaming franchises out there, being essentially a family adventure-comedy that happens to be set in the Pokemon world. 2020 saw Sonic the Hedgehog, another light-hearted, easy-going family film buoyed along by massive amounts of good-will and a hamtastically delightful turn by Jim Carrey. And just recently we had the new Mortal Kombat, which I haven’t seen (and don’t really have much interest in from what I’ve heard), but which I think is probably not a light-hearted family film. In any case, it seems to have done pretty well at the box-office last I heard.

As such, it seems a good time to revisit a couple of the major early efforts at adapting video games to the screen, back when the medium itself was, it not in its infancy, at the very least in its childhood. We’re going to look at one that I think works and one that doesn’t and then compare and contrast.

And we’re going to start with the one that works: what was, for a very long time (as in, probably up until 2019), considered the best of the bunch.

MORTAL KOMBAT!

For the proper effect, listen to the theme song.

We open in spectacular fashion with the rousing cry of “MORTAL KOMBAT!” accompanied by the driving techno theme song as the credits play over flames shooting out of a giant version of the dragon logo. This pretty much lets you know right away what kind of film you’re in for.

From there we swiftly (as in, over the course of less than five minutes) meet our three protagonists and learn their motivations. First there is Liu Kang, a Shaolin monk who ran away to America to escape his supposed destiny, but who is summoned home when his brother is killed by the kung-fu sorcerer Shang Tsung (who has the power to steal the souls of the people he kills). Then there’s Sonya Blade, a badass, self-reliant cop on the trail of the slimy underworld boss Kano, who murdered her partner (and who is in league with Shang). Finally there’s Johnny Cage, an egotistical Hollywood action star whose martial arts skills are derided as fake by the press and who secretly fears this might be true.

All three eventually meet up on a boat bound for Shang Tsung’s island, where they will partake in the mystical tournament of Mortal Kombat. They get a taste of the kind of opposition they can expect when they come face-to-face with two of Shang’s enslaved champions: Scorpion and Sub-Zero, both of whom wield supernatural powers (Sub-Zero demonstrates his cryomancy by destroying Sonya’s pistol, swiftly removing any firearms from the film).

The rules are then laid out for them by Raiden, the god of thunder and lightning and protector of Earth. Mortal Kombat isn’t just any martial arts tournament: it is part of a mystical ritual that, if completed, would give Shang’s master, the Emperor of Outworld, the right to invade and conquer earth. For one realm to win the right to attack another, their champions must win ten Mortal Kombat tournaments in a row. And Shang’s champions have won nine so far.

Upon arriving on the island, our three heroes uncover more of the plot, including the fact that Shang is seeking to manipulate them for his own purposes, and that they may have another ally in the form of Princess Kitana, rightful heir to the throne of Outworld. Also that Shang’s ace-in-the-hole is an eight-foot, four-armed monster named Goro.

From there the tournament begins in earnest, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance and Shang and Raiden each trying to guide our heroes into their preferred outcome.

I think if I were to sum up the movie, I would call it “if Bruce Lee and Ray Harryhausen did a film together.” It’s Enter the Dragon with a fantasy twist.

Upon re-watching this film for the first time in years for this review, I was rather surprised to find just how good it really is. Don’t get me wrong: it isn’t a great film by any means, and there are many elements that could be picked apart. But it is a good film, given what it is, with many very real strengths, some remarkably solid, even excellent storytelling touches, and, most importantly, it’s fun.

In the first place, as noted above, the film wastes no time at all. We meet our three protagonists, two of the antagonists, and get an idea of their motives and personalities within the first five minutes. Liu wakes up from a nightmare of his brother being killed at the Shaolin temple to find himself amid the trappings of a normal American life and reads a telegram summoning him home. That right there, in almost no dialogue, establishes a fundamentally conflicted nature as well as setting his motives. Sonya is found snapping orders at her subordinates, dismissing the idea of trust, and butting dancers in the head with her shotgun as she makes her way through a crowded nightclub in pursuit of Kano, establishing a single-minded, self-reliant character who doesn’t play well with others. Johnny’s introduction has him taking on a bunch of thugs…only for one of them to miss his cue and expose the flashy martial arts we just witnessed as nothing but a show, which prompts Johnny to storm off the set in anger. We thus have a perfect illustration of both his self-absorbed personality and his doubts regarding the reality of his talent.

(Linden Ashby as Johnny Cage is really the stand-out among the three leads, acting wise, by the way. He gets most of the best lines – partly ad-libbed – while also employing some strong, simple emoting to convey his character. I especially like the immediate affection and respect that comes into his face when he meets his old instructor, or the drop of his eyes as he comments on the press deriding him as a fake).

All this requires a good deal of writing short-hand. Most of the plot points and characterization are things we’ve seen in other films, so the movies takes advantage of this to get things moving quickly. For instance, a modern film would likely have a whole scene of Johnny trying to defend his skills to the press and being challenged on it. Here the point is established in a throwaway line, followed by seeing the amusingly on-the-nose “Johnny Cage a Fake!” headline, leading directly to a discussion of the tournament with his old instructor (all while giving Johnny a chance to both crack-wise and show his sincere side). No time is lost and vital plot and character points are established swiftly and smoothly, often two or three at a time. Johnny’s a superficially flashy actor who secretly wonders if he has any legitimate talent: we’ve seen this sort of thing dozens of times before, so the movie can trust us to ‘get it’ right away and move on.

The plotting is remarkably solid as well. Of the three, Liu knows more or less the truth about the tournament, though he’s become a skeptic and only gets involved for personal reasons (amusingly shown when he announces his intention to avenge his brother and then adds with a touch of sarcasm, “Oh, yes, I forgot. We’re fighting for the fate of the world!”). Johnny is only told that it’s a great martial arts tournament and a chance to test his skills against the best of the best, and Sonya is tricked into going without intending to compete at all. Thus each one is there for a reason that fits with their characters and motivations without having to clutter up the narrative (e.g. Sonya clearly wouldn’t be interested in going to a martial arts tournament for its own sake and Johnny isn’t the type to volunteer to defend the world). Not to mention that it gives an excuse for any necessary expository dialogue as the characters in the know – Liu and Raiden – have to explain things to the characters who aren’t.

This also helps prevent matters from seeming contrived or repetitive and to give each character their own motive and plot-line. Then, when the characters do things, even seemingly foolish things, there’s always a reason for it. They never just do something stupid to move the plot along; all their actions follow their characters and motivations.

For instance, after Shang welcomes the fighters to the island, Sonya follows him into inner recesses of the palace (as she knows he has information on Kano). Liu goes with her, since he wants to fight and kill Shang to avenge his brother. And Johnny goes with them because he’s interested in Sonya (“You know, you have to admire her. When she sets her mind on something…” “It’s not her mind you’re admiring.” “…It’s true.”).

Basically, the characters aren’t stupid, and that includes the villain. Shang Tsung is legitimately cunning and avoids many of the standard ‘evil overlord’ tropes. Much of his plot involves trying to subtly rig the tournament so that he won’t have to fight Liu Kang – the one supposedly chosen by destiny to save the world – in the final battle, but instead be able to take on one of the other two, who would be far easier targets. He is confident in his own ability to win regardless, but he’s not fighting for his own ego. His goal is simply to win the tournament for his master, so he’s going to do anything he can to make that easier and safer for himself without actually cheating (he also has a slimy interest in Sonya, but again, he works that in to his greater goal). Really, how many bad guys show this kind of focus and pragmatism?

His manipulations are themselves pretty clever, with multiple contingencies to ensure his preferred outcome. In the ordinary course of the tournament, he’ll let his fighters try to win. If they start to lose, he’ll send out the four-armed giant Goro to dominate the mortals. When Johnny requests a duel with Goro, Shang turns it to an opportunity to select his own challenger for the final match (this despite the fact that everyone fully expects Johnny to lose). He also knows that Kitana is a dangerous potential ally to the heroes and so assigns Reptile to be her chaperone (forcing her to make contact with Liu by challenging him to a fight and delivering cryptic advice, which has to be cryptic since Shang is watching them).

In short, the film shows Shang covering his bases and not just assuming that his plan will succeed or barreling forward out of sheer pride. He’s convincingly portrayed as an intelligent villain whose evil scheme fails primarily because the heroes were brave and skilled enough to triumph over it in spite of his planning rather than because of his own stupidity or arrogance.

Speaking of which, the film does a good job of laying out the rules by simply having the characters ask Raiden about them: obvious questions from characters trying to get a grasp on the situation like “so why doesn’t Outworld just invade Earth?” “What about the other fighters on the boat?” and so on. The stakes are established early on and then reinforced near the end when we see Outworld and learn its history, illustrating the fate that awaits Earth if the heroes fail.

(At the same time, the movie wisely doesn’t over explain things and leaves a lot of what we see a mystery. Why can Sub-Zero freeze people? Just what the heck is Scorpion? What’s the deal with those weird cruciform statues in Outworld and why does Reptile become a human ninja when he’s pulled into one? Briefly, because this isn’t the world we know. Enough is explained to know the gist of what’s happening, but both we and the characters are in uncharted territory where everything is strange and it isn’t clear what is and is not possible anymore. At one point Liu faces off with a seemingly ordinary opponent, and then the man suddenly growls like a lion at him. It’s never explained or even comes up in dialogue, it’s just a reminder that – as indicated by Sonya’s spinning compass – we’re off the edge of the map here.)

Another clever bit of exposition comes after Shang Tsungs’s champions threaten the heroes before the start of the tournament. Raiden steps in with a rare showing of anger, hurling the bad guys about with his lightning and chewing Shang out for violating the rules. Shang apologizes and then ‘helpfully’ reminds Raiden that things will be different once they reach Shang’s island. This lets us know that Raiden won’t be able to just zap the bad guys for us and smoothly justifies providing the information by the sorcerer clearly meaning it as a subtle dig against the deity (“My domains are well known to me, sorcerer!”).

On that note, Christopher Lambert’s Raiden is one of the most delightful aspects of the movie. The biggest name actor in the cast, he’s very clearly having a blast playing the larger-than-life thunder god, disappearing into his role as a smooth, supremely self-assured, yet somewhat playful character. But it isn’t just his charisma and enthusiasm that makes the role, but also the fact that he manages to convey a distinctly non-human perspective (something honestly rare amid movie deities).

One the best moments of the film comes when he solemnly informs the heroes: “The fate of billions will depend upon you,” and then bursts into a delighted laugh before catching himself and apologizing with a shrug. That tells us pretty clearly what we’re dealing with here: Raiden is legitimately on the side of the angels, but he’s chiefly hoping the mortals will at least put on a good show (besides which, whatever happens it’s not his neck on the line). Throughout the film he approaches them with a gently patronizing, somewhat sarcastic attitude, as if they were precocious children, yet always while doing what he can to help them along without either violating the rules or making things too dull.

There’s another good moment when he chastises Johnny for challenging Goro and Johnny pushes back by reminding him that it’s Mortal Kombat and therefore up for them to decide how to fight it. Rather than getting angry or standing on his dignity, Raiden is delighted that, “at last one of them has understood.”

I also love the faux-politeness Shang shows to Raiden whenever they share a scene, bowing when he enters and maintaining an even, almost reverent tone when he addresses him, though one dripping with barely-veiled sarcasm (“You grace us with your…presence”). It’s a great touch: acknowledging that, though they are in opposing camps, Raiden is nevertheless of a much higher status than Shang and the sorcerer knows it. Again, it’s not a huge deal, but it’s something they bothered to think about and to get right.

It’s these little details that I think really show the passion and care on the part of the filmmakers. Another is the way Shang bows. The traditional Kung Fu salute is a palm-over-fist pose that (I am told) symbolizes ‘peace over power’. Shang bows fist-over-palm, indicating ‘power over peace.’ No one ever draws attention to this in the movie, and most viewers won’t even notice it, but it’s something that the filmmakers or possibly the actor came up with and included as a bit of visual characterization.

Again, much credit to veteran actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Shang Tsung, who like Lambert (and really everyone for that matter) is obviously having a great time in the role and who invests the character with a tremendous amount of life and personality. He does a marvelous trick where, for most of the movie, he keeps a fairly stoical expression, but with enough small variations to convey the actual emotion behind it as effectively as if he’d been broadly mugging to the camera. Then when he does cut loose, he hams it up gloriously (“Your soul is mine!”). He is also, like most of the cast, an accomplished martial artist, allowing him to convey a convincingly intimidating air and to go into the climactic battle with gusto.

“IT HAS BEGUN!”

What about the rest of the cast?

Well, I’ll say first off that this isn’t an ‘acting’ movie. The filmmakers (wisely in my opinion) largely chose to prioritize fighting ability over histrionic power, so most of them are just adequate. Hong Kong veteran Robin Shou as Liu Kang gets the most attention and the biggest story arc, and while he doesn’t stand out acting wise, he gets plenty of good moments showing a good-natured, but defiant personality (again, I like the touch of sarcasm when he parrots the ‘official’ reason for fighting in Mortal Kombat). His interactions with Johnny are pretty fun, where Liu enjoys poking the filmstar’s ego. When he has to do heavy emoting, he’s what you might call ‘b-movie adequate:’ not great, but he gets the job done enough that you’re not pulled out of the film.

As said, , Linden Ashby is the stand out among the three protagonists as Johnny Cage. He provides most of the film’s comic relief with his ‘everyman’ perspective, frequent jokes, and occasional slapstick (such as his enormous, but ever-dwindling supply of suitcases in the early scenes). At the same time, as noted above, he gets some really quite good moments that call for actual emoting, and, refreshingly, he’s allowed to be an honest-to-goodness hero underneath his ostensibly shallow, self-absorbed exterior. I especially like the matter-of-fact chivalry he shows towards Sonya by repeatedly stepping in to defend her almost from the moment they meet (when she gives him the “I don’t need your help” line he replies “We can’t help it, it’s a guy thing”). Though he also gently mocks this trait in himself by suggesting Sonya should take point after they catch their first glimpse of Goro, preventing the touch from being too mawkish. Honestly, Johnny’s just a flat-out likable character, with a decent story arc of his own that comes to a satisfying conclusion when he takes on Goro and has to forego any ego-saving flashiness to come out on top. He also gets one of the best fights in the film in his duel with Scorpion, allowing Ashby to show his martial arts skills to the fullest.

“WELCOME!”

The main weak point in the cast is Bridgette Wilson as Sonya. Her acting is again adequate: not great, but not distracting, and the character comes across perfectly well as a self-reliant, somewhat abrasive tough girl single-mindedly focused on her goal (which makes for an amusing contrast with Johnny). No, the problem is that she’s the one non-martial artist in the main cast and it shows. This was apparently due to her being a last-minute replacement when the original actress, Cameron Diaz (!!) injured herself during training, leaving no time to bring her up to snuff.

To their credit, the filmmakers work around this as well as they can. Sonya has the fewest fights of any of the leads and they use careful staging and quick edits to make her look more skilled than she is. It works pretty well during a big group fight where the three heroes take on a gang of baddies, but her solo fight against Kano is pretty awkward (though her lack of training is most apparent when she’s tossing slow, clumsy air punches right before the match). Let no one say she wasn’t game, though: that’s really her doing all the fighting and stunts without a double (most of the actors did the majority of their own stunts and fighting, which helps immensely to sell the film).

Of course, the idea that Bridgette Wilson could defeat ex-professional-boxer Trevor Goddard is probably the least believable thing in the entire movie. Though again to their credit, they at least make a point of showing that she feels his blows a lot more than he feels hers and she finishes him with a wrestling move that could at least conceivably work in that situation (rather than pummeling him into submission or something equally ridiculous).

Looks like a fair and even fight

Kano himself is mostly just a slimy pig, but he really doesn’t need to be anything else, and Goddard’s gleefully horrible performance is a lot of fun to watch. I especially like the scene where he’s chomping down on the provided feast while chatting with an unimpressed Goro. It’s just such a ridiculous situation, and yet one that naturally might occur under those circumstances. I also like the contrast Kano, the slovenly crime boss, presents to the more dignified Outworld villains, allowing the audience to sense at once that they are on a different level of dangerous compared to a mere criminal.

By this time there had been two games in the franchise, with a third one coming out the same year as the film. The filmmakers wisely chose to focus primarily on the first game, drawing the cast almost entirely from its roster, which consisted of seven fighters, one hidden fighter (Reptile), and two boss characters. They also include Kitana and Jax from the second game (and Jax is pretty much just a cameo).

(Jax’s presence, by the way, is itself a nice touch: they needed someone for Sonya to talk to in her early scenes, so they took a character already connected with her from the games and just declared ‘this is that guy’; a nice nod to the fans and a way of saying that they were paying attention.

I was going to say that I wish they had done something similar with Art Lean, a friend of Johnny’s who gets killed by Goro…until I reviewed the line-up for the first two games and realized that there really wasn’t a suitable character to fill that role. Which also shows that they didn’t just shove a familiar name into an unsuitable position – e.g. calling him ‘Smoke’ or something – simply to be able to say they had the character).

With such a large cast to account for, however (and with a limited budget and run time), someone was going to get the short shrift, and in this case it’s Scorpion and Sub-Zero (ironically enough, given that they’ve become the faces of the franchise). Their rivalry is only obliquely alluded to, neither gets anything that could be considered characterization, and they’re pretty much just one step-up from the interchangeable faceless thugs. This could understandably annoy fans of the franchise.

Me, I more appreciate the fact that the filmmakers knew they couldn’t fit everything in and so picked their battles. Rather than overstuffing the movie with irrelevant side-plots, they focus on the three protagonists and their conflict with the villain and structured everything else around that. Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s storyline didn’t fit, so they ended up sidelined in order to streamline the film. It isn’t ideal, obviously, and I’m not sure they couldn’t have fit them in better if they had wanted to, but it seems to me an acceptable sacrifice to have a leaner, more focused story.

Their role here is to provide antagonists for the characters to face and defeat, but this is a role that these two characters (plus Reptile, whom we’ll get to in a minute) are well suited to perform due to their supernatural powers. The three heroes are all normal, well-trained humans (well, Liu shows some pseudo-supernatural moves toward the end, but nothing too crazy or out-of-the-way for a martial arts hero), so pitting them against super-human opponents ups the stakes considerably and lets us know just how far they’re out-classed.

This meant that the filmmakers sensibly didn’t bother casting actors in the roles of Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Reptile, as only Scorpion has any dialogue at all (and that just a few disparate words, including his “GET OVER HERE!” catchphrase, all of which were dubbed by Ed Boon, the game’s co-creator) and none are ever seen outside their ninja outfits. Instead, they cast professional martial artists and stuntmen – some of whom also served as trainers the other actors – thereby shoring up the all-important fight scenes and probably saving more than a few pennies of their modest budget.

That said, I think Chris Casamassa does get some good eye takes as Scorpion, especially his creepily ambiguous twitch after Johnny destroys his harpoon.

On that subject, as an adaptation I think Mortal Kombat is really one of the best examples of how to translate something like a video game into a movie. They take the central story idea – a mystical martial arts tournament – and the core structure – fight through a series of opponents until you take on first the villain’s chief henchman and then the villain himself – and applied it to a tried and true film template – Enter the Dragon and its successors. Then when that superstructure is functional they focus on how to make the distinctive elements of the game work in the new medium, with smaller details – aesthetics, dialogue, specific moves – thrown in as a treat for the fans.

Having played the game on an emulator (well, most of it: it’s a tough game and harder on a keyboard), I found that the film managed to fit in a surprising amount from the source material. Not everything, obviously, and not perfectly, but enough to convince me that the filmmakers were invested in what they were doing.

Though there is one major element of the game that didn’t make it in: the gore. The film is rated PG-13, despite the famously over-the-top fatalities of the games. Its absence is particularly conspicuous given that this was one of the most distinctive elements of the series. This was done because most of the fans of the game were teenagers or kids at the time and so the studio wanted to make sure they would be able to come out to see it. Again, many fans might find this annoying.

That said, they do push the rating a fair bit. There’s a good deal of bone-cracks during the fights and several over-the-top deaths: Sub-Zero freezing an opponent so that he shatters into a thousand pieces, Scorpion’s fiery demise, etc. It’s toned down from the games, even at the time (they’ve gotten a lot more extreme since then to keep their reputation up), but I think the filmmakers found a good balance between following the games and working within the rating requirement. Obviously an R-rating would have been preferable (as far at matching the games is concerned), but you can understand why they went they way they did and they clearly tried to do their best in spite of it.

Of course, the most important thing in the film are the fights, and they’re pretty impressive. The film takes its time building up to them, then when the tournament begins we get three or four in a row. Most of the cast are trained martial artists and their moves are consequently crisp, fast, and well-choreographed, with plenty of flashy show moves to spice things up and judicious use of wirework (as well as some over-the-top silliness in places – especially the Reptile fight – but not as much as you might think). Credit too to director Paul W. S. Anderson for shooting the fights in a way that you can clearly see what’s happening (if only he’d remembered this when he made Alien vs. Predator), and for giving each fight its own pace and structure so that no two feel like a repeat of each other. My own favorites are Johnny’s fight with Scorpion (a lot of people consider that the best fight in the film), Liu’s climactic fight with Shang Tsung, and the early group fight. I also like Liu’s fight with Sub-Zero for the clever way he was dispatched, and Johnny’s duel with Goro, though that’s more of a character scene than a fight scene.

Round One: Fight!

Speaking of Goro, let’s talk about the special effects. They’re…a mixed bag. In fact, you have here a pretty direct compare / contrast between practical effects and CGI. On the one hand you have Reptile, realized for most of the film’s run time as a truly awful computer-generated creature, one that looks like it came out of a demo reel for the Nintendo 64. On the other you have Goro, realized in an elaborate costume and puppet. Goro doesn’t look ‘real’ as you might say – he’s clearly a puppet – but the interesting thing is that he goes down a lot easier than Reptile, and you eventually kind of just accept him as a character. This is because Goro is actually there, actually on camera and interacting with the other characters, which lends him much more life and presence than the animated creature. People have a much easier time ascribing personality to an actual physical object, however un-lifelike, than they do to something they know isn’t there at all.

This isn’t to say that practical effects are always and objectively ‘better’ than CGI, but that there is a difference between them, and it means that bad practical effects can still be charming and even functional, while bad CGI is just bad.

That said, Goro’s puppet is pretty impressive. It reminds me in some ways of the turtle costumes from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, with a similar sense of “it doesn’t look ‘real,’ but it works nonetheless.”

“I am Goro! General of the armies of Outworld and Prince of the subterranean real of Shokan!”

There are some other effects, such as Scorpion’s living ‘harpoon’ (which looks just as bad as Reptile, and frankly was an odd stylistic choice to begin with), some composite shots, and a number of electricity and freezing effects, most of which are just fine and acceptable in a cheesy kind of way. Thankfully, Reptile has the power to camouflage himself, and when he fights Liu he first turns into a human ninja through some weird fantasy magic, so he has very little screen time as a wee cg beastie.

On the other side of the equation, the sets are gorgeous. These are really a high point of the film: towering, ornate banquet halls and palace corridors lined with statues, mountain-top temples, a fire-lit cavern filled with rickety platforms lined with skeletons, an eerie, smoke-filled chamber, lush beaches, and maze-like forests. Clearly a good chunk of the film’s modest budget went to constructing or traveling to interesting environments for the fights to take place in, which I would say is money well spent. At times the movie looks like it’s set in a Weird Tales cover.

And, of course, I have to mention that famous techno-beat theme song, which opens and ends the film, as well as playing during several of the fights. It’s the absolute perfect theme for the film: driving, energetic, and with just the right amount of cheesiness.

In terms of flaws, well, there are plenty, though for my money they don’t detract much from the overall effect of the film. The sometimes wooden acting and questionable special effects have been mentioned. There are debatable issues like Raiden flat out telling the characters what their arcs are supposed to be at one point (though as he’s their mentor and they’re up against the wall, you could argue that’s what he ought to do). In the climactic battle, Shang Tsung’s “army of souls” is rather laughably shown as five or six bad guys who go down with one or two hits each, and Liu’s progression through the ‘battles of enemy, self, and deepest fear’ is rather lackluster. Also, Shang tries to trick at one point by turning into his dead brother, but he does so right in front of him, so why wouldn’t he immediately see through it (I mean, his back is turned, but still they could have staged that better)? Likewise, Johnny inexplicably just disappears from the film during the Reptile fight, despite the fact that he had been right there a second ago. You could be generous and say he was distracted by something, but they should have had a scene to at least show what he was doing all that time.

There’s a bit where Goro goes on a rampage, devastating the mortal fighters in a montage, then gets a set-piece fight where he kills Art Lean. For some reason, everyone’s shocked by Goro’s appearance, but shouldn’t they have already seen him while he was killing all those other people? It would have been better to put the fight first and the montage after.

Then there’s the fact that the theme of ‘Mortal men and women deciding their own destiny’ seems kind of at odds with Liu Kang’s status as ‘the chosen one’ or that he specifically wasn’t able to escape his destiny to fight in Mortal Kombat.

Finally, I don’t like the cliffhanger ending (I’m generally against these, and not just because it led to the infamous sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation). I always prefer to go out on a high note, and the ending doesn’t really make any sense given what’s been established.

By the way, in the aforementioned ‘Raiden tells everyone the lesson they need to learn’ scene, I rather love how Sonya’s lesson amounts to the gloriously un-PC “recognize when you’re a damsel in distress and just need to be rescued.”

As I say, Mortal Kombat was long regarded as the best video-game adaptation yet made. It was a bona-fide hit when it came out, spending three weeks at the top of the US box office. What is more, it was so well-received by fans of the games that many of its changes, story elements, and characterizations were integrated into the games themselves. For instance, Kano was originally envisioned as a Japanese or Japanese-American character. But following Trevor Goddard’s deliciously slimy depiction, he was forever after portrayed as Australian. Likewise the notion of having to win ten Mortal Kombats in a row and Johnny Cage’s romance with Sonya, among other story beats, were integrated into the mythos of the games.

Now, let’s be clear: Mortal Kombat is no one’s idea of a classic. It’s a B-Movie through and through, with everything that implies: it’s silly, cheesy, the acting is mostly only fair, the effects are often down-right bad, and there are several goofy moments or gaps in logic. But it’s a B-Movie done very well, by filmmakers who clearly cared about what they were doing and strove to make the best product they could with the limited resources at their command. Most importantly, it’s just a very enjoyable, simple little film. It knows exactly what it is and what it’s trying to do and puts in the effort to make it happen, and it’s done with a degree of competence and creative energy that many more prestigious films would envy.

“MORTAL KOMBAT!”

Friday Flotsam: Rights, Duties, and Cruella de Vil

1. Regarding gun control, my judgment is this: a man has a duty to defend his home, family, and community. He cannot do this unless he is able to bear arms. Since ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, he therefore has the right to bear arms.

No amount of statistics, no amount of misuse of this right abrogates it. If anything, if society is in such a state that a large chunk of it is too unstable or immoral to be trusted with firearms, that only makes it more necessary for the common man to own them, because then the duty to defend his home etc. becomes more acute.

2. This is a fundamental principle: that rights are the corollary of responsibilities / duties, which are consequences of relationships. Again, ‘ought’ implies ‘can’: if a man ‘ought’ to defend his family, then he necessary has the right to acquire, keep, and bear the means to do so.

Likewise a parent ‘ought’ to care for his child’s health. Which means he has the right to decide what medical procedures the child will and will not receive based on his own judgment. In other words, whether the horror stories of vaccine side effects are true or whether they are the wildest National Enquirer style nonsense is completely irrelevant to the question of whether anyone should be legally required to have their child vaccinated or be vaccinated himself. The important point is that it is the parents’ responsibility to care for their children’s health. If the state compels them to do something that, in their judgment, would be unhealthy, then the state is compelling them to act contrary to their responsibility to their children, which is unacceptable.

If the state is wrong in such a case, the state is not going to bear the consequences. The state is not going to be held responsible for the child’s health. The parents are. There is a disconnect between who makes the decisions and who bears the responsibility, which is to say a false-to-reality situation.

3. The same is true when it comes to non-discrimination laws. Again, the business owner is the one responsible for the management of his own property, and he is the one who will bear any consequences of mismanagement. But now the state tells him which judgments he makes in that capacity are and are not acceptable and which factors he can and cannot take into account.

Basically, they require him to act against his own judgment if his judgment fails to meet what they deem to be acceptable conclusions. Again, the point is not whether his judgment is correct, it’s that he can be forced to act against it in the case of his own responsibilities, despite the fact that he will be the one to suffer any consequences.

4. Fundamentally, this is a matter of thinking in terms of relations and the consequent duties first and drawing rights as a conclusion of those terms. If a man has children, he has a duty to raise and care for those children because they are his. As a simple matter of fact, he brought them into the world and he stands in this particular relation to them, which imposes certain responsibilities. Now, if a man has a responsibility to instruct his children (which he certainly does), then he must have the right to do so; to educate them himself if he so chooses or to select what he judges to be the best school to send them to. ‘Ought’ implies ‘can’.

By contrast, our normal way of thinking seems to me to start with certain presumed rights and then to penalize any impositions upon them. I could be wrong (I need to re-visit the Federalist Papers and other related documents), but I have never once heard a clear or objective means of determining what is and is not a ‘right’ under this system.

5. It occurs to me that this dichotomy is similar to what I understand of the pre and post-Enlightenment approach to philosophy / science. The pre-Enlightenment understanding was that we acquire knowledge so as to conform ourselves to the truth. The post-Enlightenment techno-scientific mindset is more that we acquire knowledge so as to conform the world to our desires.

The idea of rights as corollaries of duties versus fundamental rights seems to me to follow the same dichotomy; the difference of finding and conforming one’s proper place in the world and of conforming the world to oneself.

As I say, my knowledge of all this is pretty superficial right now, so I may be misreading it entirely, but so far as I can tell it seems to fit.

6. On a different note, I had to laugh out loud when I learned that Cruella literally posits that Cruella de Vil’s tragic backstory is that dalmatians killed her mother. I mean, that’s the sort of thing you joke about, not something that any sane writer would offer as a genuine story. Heck, giving a tragic backstory to Cruella de Vil, of all characters, is itself the sort of thing that no one should ever have taken seriously in the first place. Yet here we are. Someone wrote that, someone filmed that, someone put that into a multimilllion-dollar movie.

Seriously, this is not a deep or tragic character: she’s just a grouchy rich lady who wants a fur coat. That’s all she ever needs or ought to be. We all know or know of people like Cruella: she’s an absolutely perfect caricature of the bad-tempered, self-absorbed, spoiled rich woman who is too used to getting her own way to endure any kind of challenge or check. She comes onto the screen as complete as she could possibly be and nothing more needs to be said.

That right there is a more substantial, interesting, and striking figure than your stupid paint-by-numbers ‘conflicted and driven to evil’ supposedly-nuanced character going through the motions of a tragic backstory. This is shown by the fact that people still remember the original character, talk about her, and make stupid, bloated movies about her sixty years after her debut, while probably no one will remember your ‘strong and layered female protagonist version’ by this time next year.

Characterization complete

Though really, it’s almost silly to criticize modern Disney at this point, as they enthusiastically devour their own flesh to stave off the inevitable moment of starvation.

Saturday Surfeit: Collective Natures

1. Obviously missed yesterday. Not anything serious, just sort of got distracted.

2. One of the great mistakes of modern thought, it seems to me, is in the dichotomy of collectivism vs. individualism. See, the trouble is that thinking in either term misses key facts about human nature and the nature of things in general. The problem with the Libertarian / Classical Liberal notion of the ‘Sovereign Individual’ (or one of the problems) is that part of being an individual human being is being in relationship to other human beings. If nothing else, every man must have a mother and a father to whom he necessarily stands in a subordinate relationship. An individual man implies family and society, just as an arm implies a body. To conceive of each individual as sovereign and independent of every other individual outside of personal choice is, therefore, false to what it means to be an individual.

At the same time, of course, the notion that the collective subsumes the individual to the point where any one may be sacrificed for the whole is equally false. The collective – the society, community, state, etc. is a collective of individuals. So if the individual is nothing, then the collective is nothing. A million zeroes is zero.

The actual reality is that the two aren’t in competition: a man is most a man when he is part of a family and a community, and a community is healthiest when it is composed of fully-realized individuals.

Basically, you can’t have radical individualism because an individual necessarily implies a community.

3. On a related note: when I hear feminists and the like saying things such as “Men are not used to being instructed by women,” I think “That is literally the very first experience that every man has in life.”

As noted last week, the liberal tradition is weirdly blind to generational and familial factors.

4. See, this is an important point to get clear about reality in general. Everything we encounter this world is both itself a collection of lower natures and an individual nature itself and part of a higher collection. Part of a thing’s nature, part of it’s being what it is, is its relation to other things. But any given nature is not simply reducible to its composite natures, nor are the composite natures consumed in the higher nature.

Take a car for instance. It is a collection of metal, rubber, glass, etc. in a certain relationship, though it is not simply metal, rubber, etc., but only those things arranged in a certain way to a certain end. Forming a car does not eliminate or consume the component parts: the metal is as much metal as ever, as is the glass, rubber, and so on. They all still fully operate according to their own nature. But when they operate in a certain relation, you have the higher and more complex nature of a car. If that relation ever breaks down, then you simply have a pile of metal etc. that functions as such.

5. As alluded to in my Godzilla vs. Kong thoughts, when a given order is disrupted, what results is not so much chaos as a reversion to a more fundamental order. If the nature of a car is disrupted, the more fundamental nature of metal, glass, rubber, and so on comes to the fore. If human society is disrupted, the more fundamental order of individual human beings and families trying to survive comes to the fore. So on it goes down into ever more fundamental nature, until we lose sight of it.

6. Bit of heavy and possibly ill-connected philosophizing up there. Here’s a Poirot episode for the Saturday Entertainment (the best part of which is Poirot getting stung):

Thought of the Day: Interesting Contradictions

There is a stereotype of the old aristocrat that he was utterly helpless without his servants and thoroughly disconnected from reality.

Perhaps, but I notice that many, if not most of those old aristocrats went and served in the trenches in the Great War and then again in its sequel.

To take a more specific case: Winston Churchill never cooked his own meals, never drew his own bath, never would have dreamt of setting his own table or making his own bed. He also survived a stint in a prisoner of war camp and staged a daring escape during which he spent three days hiding out in a mineshaft.

Make of this fact what you will.

Friday Flotsam: The Importance of the Things of This World

1. I think the thing that people hate and fear most about Christianity, especially Catholicism, is how important it makes the things of this world.

Nobody objects to deism – belief in a creator God who is largely indifferent to humanity. Nobody seriously objects to ‘spirituality’ or a general belief in the afterlife or something more than the material world. What they object to, what frightens them, is the connection of this material world to those things.

We do not want the things we do to mean anything beyond what we can see. We want this world to be self-contained, so that we can decide what our actions mean and what things are worth doing or having or not. Despite its application as an inspirational quote, the very last thing most people want is for “what we do in life to echo in eternity.” Because if it does, that imposes real consequences and real obligations outside of what we can see and feel in day-to-day life. It’s the difference between playing a video game and acting in real life. Most people would rather it be a game.

But the trouble is that if God became Incarnate as a man, and if what He did as a man held consequences that echo into eternity, then there is no such dividing line. The actions of flesh and blood men mean more than what they appear to mean, like the shadows in Plato’s cave or like someone in the throes of a fever dream, where everything only approximately appears to be what it truly is.

2. When we say that someone is ‘fixed upon the things of this world’, what we mean is that he values these things – money, pleasure, power, etc. – in isolation, as being no more than what they appear to be. But the very last thing such a man would want is for these things to be given a significance beyond what he can see. If a self-aggrandizing, power-hungry courtier were to understand power to be a stewardship of God’s authority for which he will be answerable for, he would divest himself of all political rank as fast as he possibly could. It would be far more importance than he bargained for!

The fact that these things are themselves all much less important than the higher, eternal matters only makes it worse: the scale of values becomes overall much larger than he would have liked, and his own obligations grow proportionally.

3. On a possibly related note, I notice that Progressives / Liberals tend to have a massive blind-spot, in that they never seem to consider the power of tradition or what might be called ‘generational consequences.’

A person is shaped far less by any education or instruction than in the basic, fundamental, unquestioned assumptions and habits of mind that he picks up, mostly from watching his parents and teachers. Children imitate what the adults in their lives do much more than they obey what they teach.

This is why Tradition is so vital: the unspoken, acted structure of society passed down through generations. Because this, more than anything else, is what shapes the minds and characters of the great mass of mankind. As Progressives are so fond of reminding us, what we perceive and how we understand it is in large part determined by our traditions and culture. Therefore, it’s really quite important to not mess with that tradition if you can possibly avoid it, given the serious and unpredictable consequences involved in altering how the next generation will fundamentally perceive the world.

(This would also seem to imply the necessity of an infallible Tradition as a corollary to an unerring Scripture, since how we read and understand something is largely determined by our tradition-based context, so that a sacred text requires a sacred tradition to maintain the ability for anyone to understand it properly. But that’s another topic).

So, the important questions here are things like what are the children of men who rebelled against their forefathers to pick up? What kind of environment for the raising of children will be created by the new actions and values being advocated? And what kind of person will this produce?

See, the problem with changing the world to suit your tastes and ideals is that the world thus produced will naturally produce children with different ideals (since they are raised in a different context from that which produced their fathers), while simultaneously teaching them that it is right and just to overthrow the existing order for the sake of their ideals. And thus the cycle repeats as every change creates a new understanding of the world in every succeeding generation and thus a new desire to change the world to suit the understanding (this could also be why Progressives tend toward being sexual libertines: they don’t consider generational consequences).

It’s the pattern of the gods: Saturn overthrows Uranus, and in so doing divests himself of any right to not be overthrown by his own children, leading him to try to maintain his power through sheer force. His own son, Jupiter, overthrows him in the end, but likewise forfeits his paternal right and can only maintain his power in turn by sheer force and doesn’t dare lie with a woman prophesied to produce a son greater than his father.

4. See, this is the sort of thing that worldly reformers do not want to be true. They don’t want to think that their reforms will be that important or that serious. They expect it to go so far and no further. Heck, one of their stock phrases is “what does it matter? What does a title / sex / tradition really matter in the end?”. The whole tend of their arguments is to downplay the importance of whatever they are focusing on so that there will be no reason why they can’t do with it as they like.

The great nightmare of reformers is that the things they are reforming really matter.

Friday Flotsam: Some Aphorisms

1. Loving your enemy does not mean forgetting that he is your enemy.

2. That we cannot judge what we don’t know doesn’t mean that we can’t judge what we do know. E.g. I don’t know the state of X’s soul, nor the internal motions that lead him to act as he does, but I do know that he steals and that stealing is wrong. To say as much is not to be ‘judgmental’.

3. Art direction is always more important than graphical fidelity.

4. Democracy is not intended to give people power, but to take power away from specific people.

5. Most successful revolutions, political or otherwise, amount to different people doing the same thing under different names, only with less restraint.

6. And as a final entry: my latest post is up at The Everyman, applying the lessons of Chesterton’s surreal classic The Man Who Was Thursday to the modern situation:

As may be found from this brief synopsis, the book is very strange and often surreal. It’s sometimes called a ‘metaphysical thriller’. At the same time there is a sharp and at times disturbing exactness of its vision of the world and the philosophies at work in the modern day. Consider, for instance, Gregory’s assertion of what the anarchists really want:

“To abolish God! We do not want to upset a few despotism and police regulations…We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves.”

Indeed, though they lack the capacity to put it in such terms, the modern woke anarchist would likely agree with such sentiments in his heart. What is the common thread in their insane rhetoric but the destruction of the hard lines of reality: not just right and wrong, but male and female, family and stranger, citizen and foreigner, living and dead, man and beast? All subsumed into a morass of self-will. Yet a will founded in a self that, removing these solid foundations, is as insubstantial and pliable as a cloud.

And as is said later in the novel, “When duty and religion are really destroyed, it will be by the rich.” The poor, Chesterton suggests, will never truly be anarchists or anything of the kind. It is the rich, the educated, the sophisticates who play with such fire. “The scientific and artistic worlds are silently bound in a crusade against the Family and the State,” says the man who recruits Syme to the police, before going on to lay out how much more wholesome mere criminals are than the kind of modern philosophers who hate marriage as marriage, property as property, and life as life.

Meanwhile, there is a deluded ‘outer-ring’ of anarchists who believe that “all the evil results of human crime are the results of the system that has called it crime.” That is to say, the kind of people who condemn ‘slut-shaming,’ who call ‘mis-gendering’ violence, or who rail about the demographics of prison populations without once mentioning the words ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent.’

Yet even these are only the dupes, the willing tools of their leaders, who though they mouth the same platitudes understand as the rank and file do not the true meaning behind them and “have but two objects, to destroy humanity and then themselves.”

It is sometimes hard to believe, looking at the current crop of politicians and other social elites, that this is not precisely what they have in mind.

Syme, standing against the anarchists, stands explicitly for sanity, respectability, and the “common and kindly people in the street.” His backstory tells of his being “surrounded by every conceivable kind of revolt since infancy,” leaving him with only one thing to rebel into: sanity. In this he is an early prototype of the strange fact that to defend the values that once defined our civilization is now itself an act of rebellion.

And the only motive for such a hopeless and Quixotic rebellion is “that unanswerable and terrible truism of the song of Roland”: Pagans are wrong and Christians are right.

Liberal broadmindedness has nothing to say in answer to such reckless hate as the anarchists bring. Only the great counter assertion of right and wrong, of true and false, and of the real, solid distinctions of real natures will do. “Perhaps we are both doing what we think right,” Syme tells Gregory early in the novel. “But what we think right is so damned different that there can be nothing between us in the way of concession. There is nothing possible between us but honour and death.”

Read the rest here.

(Late) Early Thoughts on ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’

As I mentioned a couple Friday Flotsams ago, I got out to see Godzilla vs. Kong: first time back in a theater for a long time. I have to delve into full spoilers in order to discuss my thoughts, so fair warning now. If you haven’t seen it an have any interest in doing so, I’ll just say that I liked it a lot, despite it being utterly ridiculous and abounding in stupidity. I am also very glad I got to see it without any (or many) spoilers, for reasons that will become apparent.

That out of the way:

The plot is that some years after the events of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Godzilla suddenly begins making raids on coastal cities, targeting facilities of the ‘Apex’ corporation: a cybernetics company. With Godzilla seemingly turning hostile, public opinion swerves against him.

Meanwhile, Skull Island has become completely consumed by the surrounding storm, rendering it uninhabitable and wiping out most of the native life, including the people except for one little girl (I have to say: having been irritated by the utopian colonial-penance figures in Kong: Skull Island I was rather darkly amused to learn they had all been killed off by natural forces). Kong himself is kept alive inside an enormous containment dome that preserves part of the jungle, though he’s growing restless and has become too large for the environment to sustain him.

(This film takes its predecessor’s trend of creating absurdly enormous and expensive devices and cranks it up beyond infinity, by the way. Who the heck approve funding for the miles-wide biodome with holographic technology to preserve the giant ape on an isolated, extremely hostile island? “Well, we can either give every American a complete income tax refund for the next few years or keep the giant gorilla alive.” “Let’s do that one”).

Kong’s chief researcher recognizes that Kong can’t survive here, but fears that if they try to move him it will provoke Godzilla, who won’t tolerate another Alpha kaiju in his territory.

Through some manipulation by the Apex corporation (which has its own agenda), an apparent old flame of hers convinces her to bring Kong to Antarctica, where there’s an entrance to the hollow earth (there’s some ridiculous nonsense about ‘bio-memories’ where creatures naturally want to return to where their species originated. I mean, even by the goofy standards of the science in the Monsterverse, that’s another level. Though, in the film’s defense, it doesn’t work in the event).

In any case, Kong is sedated, loaded onto a barge, and shipped to Antarctica, putting him on a collision course with an already-angered Godzilla.

Meanwhile, Maddy Russell from King of the Monsters, accompanied by her loser friend and a goofy conspiracy-theorist has taken up the investigation of Apex, convinced that Godzilla must have a reason for what he does and determined to prove it.

So, the film is utterly ridiculous, even for a kaiju flick (and to be honest, I prefer them to be more restrained than this: the Heisei films of the 90s are about the sweet spot for me when it comes to tone).

Now, to me the most important thing about this film was that the monsters would be played with respect and, well, frankly, how they ended the fight. And I’m please to say that in both cases I thought the film passed with flying colors (Godzilla is still a little too heroic for my tastes, but he’s otherwise pretty perfectly in character).

The battles give full scope to both monsters’ power and capabilities (well, Godzilla has a harder time tagging Kong with his ray than he probably should, but you can see why that was necessary). Kong is agile and clever, using tools and tricks to his advantage, while Godzilla is overwhelmingly powerful and durable, with a potential trump card in his atomic ray. When they fight on the ocean, Godzilla thoroughly dominates due to being a semi-aquatic creature. When they fight in the city, Kong has more of an advantage due to the abundant cover and high-ground (Kong’s talent for climbing buildings is used to a frankly ridiculous extent here, as I’m highly skeptical these buildings could support his new weight. But again, it fits the tone of the film and it’s what we want to see). He also picks up an axe from the center of the earth that allows him to even the playing field a bit against Godzilla’s ray.

In short, the film allows its title bout to play out more or less according to the nature of the characters. Which is to say: Godzilla not only wins, but wins decisively, taking both rounds with Kong, while the best Kong can do is knock him down for a bit. To top everything off, Godzilla finishes the second bout in a manner that suggests he had actually been holding back for most of the film. Once he goes all-out, Godzilla utterly dominates Kong. Oh, Kong puts up a good fight, but at the end of the day Godzilla is simply a much more powerful being than he is and much credit to the filmmakers for being honest enough to see that a fight between them can really only end one way.

I also really like how the fight ends: Godzilla savagely mauls Kong, puts his foot on his chest, and roars in his face. He makes it clear in no uncertain terms that he could kill Kong easily in that moment. But then…he doesn’t. Whether out of respect or simply because he perceives that Kong is no longer a threat, Godzilla spares him and leaves him to live or die on his own. That’s a great touch, re-asserting the fundamental nobility and dignity of the Godzilla character and ending their battle on a satisfying note. Not to mention that it makes their subsequent alliance that much more believable.

(I can’t resist noting that this means that Godzilla shows more mercy and humanity than Batman. But that’s another story).

So, I found the film’s take on the titular match up to be, by and large, extremely satisfying. It actually reminded me of something like a full-length Death Battle episode, where the goal seems to be just to show off all that the respective combatants can do and how they stack up against each other. Again, things like Kong climbing on buildings (there’s a bit where he waits on top of a skyscraper to ambush Godzilla: posed just as he was in the original film), Godzilla using his nature as a sea monster to full advantage, Kong using crude weapons, trying to pull Godzilla’s jaws apart, and so on. There was really no effort whatever to make any of this realistic. The goal seems to have been to make it ‘what you would imagine’ the fight to be, the kind of cartoonish, comic-book style action suggested by the question “Who would win: King Kong or Godzilla?” (Freddy vs. Jason did something similar, though to a less extreme degree). It’s probably not to everyone’s tastes, but I enjoyed the heck out of it.

As for the rest of the film…ah, mixed bag.

In the first place, I rather liked ‘Team Kong’: the researcher, her maybe-ex-boyfriend, and the little girl. The fact that the latter only speaks in sign language was a nice touch (the fact that Kong now speaks it is…well, interesting. Certainly not out of the question for the character). I especially appreciate that the boyfriend, though he gets sneered at for being nervous around Kong (and why? How is that in any way an unreasonable reaction?), he subsequently gets many opportunities to show his courage and be heroic, protecting the woman and child, and actually gets acknowledged and appreciated for it. Thank you movie for that!

‘Team Godzilla’, on the other hand, is mostly just annoying. We have the smart, on-the-ball teenage girl, her overweight nerdy male friend, and the goofy conspiracy theorist. Pretty standard contemporary dynamic. Why couldn’t we have the male friend be on a level with her? Why couldn’t the adult be actually mature and level-headed? Why couldn’t you have had some kind of balance of the three, or baring that, just drop one or more to make everyone heroic and useful (Team Kong had that courtesy), or at bare minimum, not annoying? To be fair, nerdy friend does get to save the day in the end with a moment of inspiration, but gets no appreciation or growth from it. Kyle Chandler’s character is likewise completely wasted in the ‘not now, kiddo’ role. Why not have father and daughter both working on the problem and dump conspiracy theorist and loser friend? That way we’d have an actual, you know, relationship on our hands.

Also, the Apex facilities have ridiculously incompetent security, but I suppose that’s to be expected.

The human villains aren’t much to write home about either. Evil corporate guy has a plan to eliminate and replace Godzilla, his haughty ‘corporate chick’ daughter serves as the heavy on Team Kong while being ridiculously stupid at several points, and then there’s the henchman / pilot. The latter is inexplicably named ‘Ren Serizawa’, suggesting a connection with Ken Watanabe’s character of the past films. This never effects anything or even comes up, making me wonder why they bothered.

It’s not much of a spoiler at this point to say that Apex is making Mechagodzilla. But there is a bit of a twist: they’re using one of King Ghidorah’s heads as the control basis so that they can piggy-back off of his telepathy.

Now I love this idea: blending two of Godzilla’s biggest and most important opponents and giving his archnemesis another shot at him to close out the trilogy. In fact, I like the idea so much that I wish they had given Mechagodzilla his own film to fully explore the implications. I mean, a man is mentally linked up with King Ghidorah: there is a tremendous amount of stuff you can do with that idea (as a matter of fact, this idea seems to have been drawn from one of Marc Ceresini’s novels, which did explore the implications. In the book the pilot of Mecha-Ghidorah was a teenage girl, who becomes increasingly twisted by her contact with the King of Terror. At one point her guardian recounts coming home to find her eating a bird she’d killed. As I say, this is an idea that you really need time to explore).

This also reminds me of how much I wish they had dropped the stupid ‘Orca’ device from the previous film and just brought back the telepathy angle of the Heisei films. They could have made the Millie-Bobby Brown character this series’ version of Miki Saegusa. That would have covered about five or six plot holes right there. But I digress.

Anyway, though I wish the Mechagodzilla stuff had been given more time, what they have is pretty good, giving full-scope to his overwhelming power even with his limited screentime. We get the traditional beam-lock with Godzilla, as well as several new weapons, like a drill-tipped tail. I can’t say I care for the new design that much, however: it’s too busy and lacks the cold, smooth, metallic look of previous incarnations that stood out so well against its living counterpart. I also wish that Godzilla had been allowed to participate more in finishing him off, but I suppose they wanted to throw Kong a bone after losing the title fight. It also works given that it was Kong’s persistence that left Godzilla too worn-out to properly challenge Mechagodzilla in the first place, making it something of a penitential act on Kong’s part to finish the job.

The ‘energy source’ plot was great in concept: of course for something like Mechagodzilla the biggest problem would be finding a way to power him (in the 1992 film they specified that they were using a nuclear reactor). Employing Kong to find a secret source of power is also directly taken from the plot of King Kong Escapes, which is all kinds of awesome (I should say that the filmmakers include many homages and nods to classic Toho; they clearly did their research). However, when they actually find it, they sort of…email the energy? Huh? I get they wanted to move things along, but they should have bitten the bullet and just had someone ferry it back to the surface (it would have meant differing corporate chick’s comeuppance, but then they could have gotten it without her being suicidally stupid).

Speaking of which, the additions to Kong’s character were…interesting. At the very least, they show a willingness on the part of the filmmakers to get creative and to try to add something to such a venerable figure. The trip to the hollow earth was a glorious piece of pulp sci-fi nonsense, a chance to go creatively crazy with landscapes above and below and a shifting gravity field, as well as, of course, your standard horrible monsters for Kong to fight (flying snake things: certainly an appropriate denizen for the center of the earth).

On that note, the movie takes a kind of ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach to creativity, drawing from classic Toho films, pulp adventures, previous Kong films, and others for a hodgepodge of sci-fi ideas. We have giant monsters, giant robots, telepathic aliens, a globe-spanning underground fast-delivery system, a prehistoric world at the center of the earth, conspiracies, gravitational anomalies, and on and on. I love the freedom and exuberance that the filmmakers show in just throwing all this stuff at the screen.

That said, I’m not sure about the suggestion of a Kong culture that once existed in the center of the Earth, or of an actual war between Kongs and Godzillas (frankly, I don’t particularly like the idea of Godzilla being a species in the first place: he ought to be a unique or almost unique being, mutated out of whatever genus he had once occupied into what he is now. Again, the Heisei films gave what I thought was the best origin story for him). It seems a little too much. Though the bit where Kong takes his seat on a giant throne, an actual king at last, was pretty cool.

Godzilla being able to blast down in the center of the Earth with his ray was frankly the most ridiculously stupid thing in the film. Actually, my main complaint about his portrayal here is that he uses his ray way too much and for too long at a stretch: a one point he keeps it going for minutes on end while trying to tag Kong. That kind of undermines it as a weapon, and I think he should have a pretty clear limit on how long he can fire it for, so that when he does use it for an extended period, it’s more impactful for the fact that he’s clearly making a special effort (e.g. when he shoots the meteor at the end of Godzilla: Final Wars). They over do his plates lighting up as well: I don’t really like him using it as a threat display. I prefer to know that once they start to glow, it means the ray is coming. But that’s more a problem from the previous film.

Again, though, I was overall very satisfied. The most important thing wasn’t necessarily that the plot was well-thought out or that the monster’s abilities were perfectly portrayed. It was that the characters were treated with respect and allowed to be themselves. And they pretty much nailed that: Godzilla and Kong are both the dangerous, noble, ferocious kings they ought to be. Their dynamic, with Godzilla being the unstoppable, world-defying juggernaut tasked with battling existential threats and Kong the scrappy, defiant, but ultimately out-classed independent party just seeking a place to survive, was perfect.

That is really the chief difference between them, thematically: Kong is about nature being conquered by man. For all his power, he ultimately can’t compete with human civilization and so falls. Here, in a more modern twist, man is alternately trying to preserve and protect Kong and exploit him for their own ends. In any case, Kong is ultimately vulnerable to man. Godzilla, on the other hand, is nature that cannot be conquered: he is the consequence of that supposed conquest. As Boethius put it, anything that escapes from the order assigned to it only falls back into a different order. If man disrupts the order of nature, a more fundamental order, one that he cannot disrupt, is called into play. Godzilla is the embodiment of this deeper nature: the unexpected, disastrous, and uncontrollable consequences of disruption.

So, thematically, you could put it that when man kills Kong, he creates Godzilla (which is sort of what happened with the original films, as Godzilla was partly inspired by King Kong).

Of course, this is another reason the fight can only end one way. For all his power, Kong is fundamentally vulnerable to man. Godzilla isn’t. The question facing the humans in one case is ‘what do we do with Kong?’ whereas in the other it’s ‘can we do anything against Godzilla?’ This is what makes each one interesting, and also what dictates the outcome of their encounter.

In any case, I really enjoyed Godzilla vs. Kong. It was a completely insane, ridiculous, and delightful romp with some of my all-time favorite characters, and for once the filmmakers actually paid what felt like genuine respect to the classics that came before them rather than adopting a faux-superior stance. It could have been a lot better (e.g. fixing the ‘team Godzilla’ storyline), but its high points are so immensely satisfying that I don’t really mind too much. I think that, for all their flaws, I will be glad to have the entire Legendary trilogy on my DVD shelf as a tribute to my most beloved film franchise of them all.

Friday (Saturday) Flotsam: Agatha Christie

1. Missed yesterday, obviously. I’m currently on a kind of personal mini-retreat at my sister’s, which meant being on the road or otherwise occupied for the past few days.

2. On the way up I listened to the Miss Marple novel They Do it With Mirrors. It isn’t one of Dame Agatha Christie’s best (I successfully guessed the solution the first time I read it), but like most of her work is hugely entertaining anyway.

Agatha Christie’s storytelling really does not get enough appreciation, I think; her intricate detective plots are brilliant, of course, but she also excels at mixing up a lot of different subplots in her work to try to keep you guessing. Usually, I find, there’s the actual plot (the murder), at least one major subplot (typically a romance: Dame Christie almost always worked romantic subplots into her books) that serves as a key smokescreen, plus two or three minor ones.

So, an Agatha Christie novel is set up as more or less a series of different, semi-connected plot lines all laid one on top of the other. Most have nothing to do with the murder, but they seem like they might. This also (I suspect) gave her the chance to explore other kinds of stories that she wanted to write anyway, but which were outside of the detective form.

(Upon reflection, I suppose all stories could be thought of like that, though in the case of a mystery novel, the subplots don’t have to contribute to the main plot at all. Their simply being there to muddy the waters is an adequate reason for their existence).

3. Another thing about Dame Christie’s work: she mastered the trick of making the most logical person guilty without making the solution obvious.

In most good murder mysteries, there are at least three suspects: the one everyone in the book thinks is obviously guilty, the one the audience is supposed to think is guilty, and the one who is actually guilty.

Say you have a man shot in his study. Is the killer A). his unscrupulous butler who was embezzling from him and about to get caught? B). the secretary in love with the man’s much-younger wife and whose story doesn’t quite hold together? or C). his very respectable lawyer who has a cast iron alibi and no obvious motive?

Of course it’s C (the lawyer actually had been embezzling from him for years and was about to be ruined). Dame Christie’s particular genius, however, was to make it turn out to be A after all, but in such a way that you would think he had already been cleared of suspicion. She didn’t do this all the time, but often enough. It keeps you on your toes.

4. The thing is, Dame Christie’s characterization and so forth isn’t usually brilliant: the characters are generally fairly clear ‘types’ with a few tweaks added on, but they’re well-realized and appealing types, which is really the important thing. The point of the story is to entertain, and as far as that’s concerned familiarity, or at least being able to get a picture of the character quickly is more important than depth. Not that you shouldn’t have both if you can, but in a detective story you usually don’t have the time for a whole lot of depth.

Besides which, the driving question of a detective story is ‘who did it’? And what gives the question its sting is the fear that someone you like is going to turn out to be the killer. So we need to set the characters quickly and clearly, in fairly broad strokes (the gruff military man, the pretty young woman, the middle-aged widow, etc.) so that the reader knows what’s at stake and can begin to try to figure out which one he thinks did the deed.

But then again, I’m generally of the opinion that vividness – that the characters stand out or stick in the reader’s mind – is more important than depth – that the characters show many different sides or layers and have a complex psychology. But that’s a topic for another time.