The Rise of Skywalker, the Implosion of the Star Wars Universe

I took the fam out to see the new Star Wars flick, The Rise of Skywalker, on New Year’s Eve. I’d been intending to sit down since and write up my own thoughts on this final cinematic chapter of the Skywalker saga, but just never seemed to have the time or motivation. It would basically have been a long rant on what a jumbled, incoherent, pointless mess of a movie it is. And who really wants to spend time writing or reading about that?

I had given this new trilogy the benefit of the doubt for the first two installments, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, for all of their flaws. But Skywalker wraps it all up with just a bunch of laughable MacGuffins that lead to other MacGuffins, unresolved relationships, and nostalgia-cheese that shamelessly exploits, for cheap feelies, the original characters and ideas of the franchise’s creator, whom Disney ironically shut out of their process. Skywalker even inexplicably resurrects the villain that George Lucas definitively killed off in Return of the Jedi.

This video from The Critical Drinker sums up the Skywalker train wreck much better than anyone else could, in his inimitably wry and uniquely entertaining fashion.

(Nod to author John C. Wright.)

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Rian Johnson Gets His ‘Knives Out’

Spoilers galore are ahead from the recently released ‘Knives Out.’

I recently took the family out to the movies to see Knives Out, the new film directed by Rian Johnson that’s being marketed to audiences as a “whodunnit” mystery-suspense caper. The trailers definitely give you the impression that the story is in the style of Agatha Christie or Clue, sort of cutting it down the middle between the two stylistically in that the comedy is much less broad than it is in Clue.

Come to find out, a whodunnit is not exactly what it is. It starts out that way, to be sure, but even before the story is half way through, the audience is supplied with a major piece of the puzzle, and at that point it becomes much more of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller than a mystery–though there’s still some mystery remaining to be solved, to be sure, as anti-climactic as it is.

Johnson’s first two indy features, the high school noir Brick and the time-travel potboiler Looper, while not flawless, are highly enjoyable and entertaining films worth watching. Disney took notice and tapped him to direct Star Wars: The Last Jedi. A lot of critics have referred to Johnson “subverting expectations” with Knives Out, and putting a new twist on a genre that’s been a bit of a chestnut over the years should be welcomed. And if there’s anyone who should succeed in doing that, it should be the director of Brick and Looper.

However, and call me old fashioned if you like, I’m of the opinion that the plot should make some sense. It should at least be somewhat believable in order for what the director intends to be the “twist”–the intended subversion of the expected, if you will–to be truly satisfying for an audience, rather than, say, an act of cinematic masturbation for the director’s own personal pleasure. The latter is much more the case with Knives Out than the former. And the reason is simply politics.

That’s right: Politics.

Politics is the reason that Knives Out‘s plot stretches credulity to the point where you feel as though Rian Johnson is literally urinating all over your brain. I had a similar sensation when I saw Carrie Fischer flying through space in Last Jedi. Only with Knives Out, it felt as though the urine stream hit my brain even harder, and it never stopped for the entire two hours.

This is where the spoilers come in, so if you’re thinking that you still might want to head over to your nearest cineplex and make up your own mind, now would be the time for you to check out of my little critique. I don’t think I’d be spoiling much for you, however, if you stuck around. Most of what I’m about to divulge you’d probably see coming from a mile away anyways.

Knives Out

But if you leave now determined to go pay full ticket price at your local cineplex, you should know that it’s the film’s star-studded cast that makes it as enjoyable as it is. In my opinion, it’s definitely a streaming-on-a-rainy-Sunday-afternoon kind of flick. Your life wouldn’t exactly suffer for the lack of enrichment in the meantime.

The catalyzing incident of our story is the sudden death of the very successful, very rich, and very old best-selling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer. It appears to be a suicide, and by a very grisly method at that. The morning after a lavish party at his house celebrating his 85th birthday, he’s found in an out-of-the-way room in his massive, labyrinthine gothic mansion, with his throat cut, the bloodied dagger he allegedly used on himself lying nearby.

The local police detectives have made up their minds that it’s an open-and-shut suicide, end of story. But a mysterious private investigator, Benoit Blanc–played by Daniel Craig with a southern drawl that’s not quite as jarring as you’d think it would be–shows up to question the suspects. He eventually reveals that someone has anonymously hired him to look into the case, having left him an envelope stuffed with a thick wad of cash. Thus, it seems, someone suspects foul play.

The suspects consist of Harlan Thrombey’s thoroughly cruddy family: his widowed daughter-in-law (Toni Collette), who Harlan has discovered pilfering money from him under the guise of paying for his granddaughter’s college tuition; his son-in-law (Don Johnson), whose extramarital affair is found out by Harlan, and which Harlan threatens to expose to his daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis); Harlan’s son, Walt (Michael Shannon), who, much to Walt’s dismay, Harlan cuts out of his independent publishing house due to Walt’s incessant badgering that Harlan allow film and TV adaptations of Harlan’s work; and Harlan’s wayward grandson, Ransom (yes, he’s actually named Ransom, played by Chris Evans), who storms out of Harlan’s study in a huff during the party, following a loud and heated verbal altercation.

So–whodunnit? If it really was a homicide, that is, rather than the suicide it appears to be.

As I’ve mentioned above, Johnson tips off the audience fairly early as to what actually happened to Thrombey–or at least most of it: by way of a flashback, we are informed that his nurse, Marta (a dull, thankless role expertly brought to life by Ana de Armas), accidentally overdosed Harlan with morphine when she mistook a vial of the stuff for the regular medication that she usually follows up with a low-dose morphine chaser. She realizes her deadly error when she examines the labels on the vials after administering both medications. And the antidote for the morphine is missing from her nurse’s kit.

And what’s Harlan’s initial reaction? Is it, “What the f**k did you just do to me?” Why no. The film has established that Harlan and Marta have a close, grandfatherly/granddaughterly kind of relationship, so naturally, even Marta’s fatal error doesn’t stir up any anger towards her. Once he realizes that he’ll be dead from the OD by the time paramedics reach his secluded big house out in the country, Harlan decides to spend his last several minutes on this Earth–as his life is supposedly ebbing from his body with each passing moment–concocting an alibi for Marta so that nobody discovers that she accidentally caused his death. Because if anyone discovers that Marta was responsible for Harlan Thrombey’s death, her mother, an undocumented immigrant, would most certainly end up deported, as would Marta and the rest of her family, most likely.

Once Harlan concocts a scheme for Marta to secretly flee the scene of the crime undetected and he sends her on her way with his careful instructions, the old man then proceeds to slice his own throat with the dagger.

“Subverting expectations?” Sure. The immigration politics of the film, integrated into the script in such a clumsy and hamfisted fashion, completely subvert the audience’s expectation of a plot that fits into some sort of logic recognized by other human beings who are not so politically obsessed as Rian Johnson.

But wait, it gets better.

It turns out that Marta didn’t actually kill Harlan after all! Not even on accident. The real culprit, the grandson–the improbably named Ransom (Evans)–in an effort to kill his grandfather and frame Marta for it, swapped the vials of morphine and the other medication with the hope that Marta would end up overdosing Harlan with the morphine. Harlan, you see, has stipulated in his will that his entire estate be left to Marta, leaving nothing at all for his cruddy family. But Marta is such an expert nurse that she reflexively gave Harlan the correct medication after all, and the usual low, safe dosage of morphine, just based on the look of the medicine that was stored in each vial.

I wonder if the following scene will be included in the extended director’s cut:

HARLAN (after having just explained his plan to Marta that will help her sneak out of the house and evade detection, looking a little puzzled): By the way, are you sure you just accidentally gave me a 100mg overdose of morphine?

MARTA (teary and upset): I just happened to look at the labels after I injected you…so yes, I’m quite sure. Again, I’m so sorry!

HARLAN: And you said I have only 8-10 minutes to live?

MARTA: That’s right.

HARLAN: You told me that about, what, 3 or 4 minutes ago, would you say?

MARTA: Yes, I think that’s about right.

HARLAN: So I only have about, what, 5-6 minutes left to live…?

MARTA: Yes! Oh, I’m so sorry!

HARLAN: You know, it’s funny, but…I don’t feel anything yet. No dopiness or wooziness. Nothing at all. Shouldn’t I be feeling some symptoms of the overdose by now…?

(But Marta, overcome with emotion and desperation, has already fled. Harlan shrugs his shoulders, picks up a dagger, lies down on the divan, and slices his own throat.)

The actual murder that occurs in our story, as it turns out, is that of Fran, Harlan’s housekeeper (Edi Patterson). Fran knew of Ransom’s deception with the medication–or rather, attempted deception–and she was trying to give Marta a toxicology report from the medical examiner that showed there was no morphine overdose after all. By this point in the film, Ransom has been befriending Marta and misleading her into thinking that he’s an ally ever since the reading of Harlan’s will. Ransom, it turned out, killed Fran by overdosing her with morphine (or some other such drug).

And it’s Marta who coaxes a confession from Ransom by telling him, following a phone call she takes in Ransom’s presence, from a doctor where Fran is hospitalized, that Fran has actually survived. As soon as Ransom admits to having attacked Fran, Marta lets rip a stream of vomit. I forgot to mention–it’s established early in the film that Marta literally cannot tell a lie without becoming physically ill to the point of throwing up. The lie in this instance was that the phone call she took from the hospital was to inform her that Fran had actually died rather than survived.

It turns out that it was Ransom who secretly hired Blanc to look into the case, apparently with the hope that Blanc would conclude that Marta was responsible for Harlan’s death. There’s no indication that any of the other characters in the film ever suspect Marta, much less Blanc. And it’s clear throughout that the audience isn’t ever expected to, either.

If a director wants to present a political angle in his film, there’s nothing wrong with that. But at least strive for some artistic finesse, please. A second generation daughter of illegal immigrants who cannot tell a lie without becoming violently ill does not make for very believable storytelling, not because we’re supposed to assume that such a person must be dishonest, but because the character approaches a saintliness that matches no real live human being.

And Marta is a dull and boring character. The camera loves Ana de Armas, and her eyes convey multitudes. She is interesting to watch, with absolutely no thanks from Rian Johnson’s lifeless writing, and she rescues her role from terminal lameness.

There are some clever nods to the current political zeitgeist throughout the film. Walt’s teenaged son, who gives the impression of being constantly on Twitter harassing liberals and minorities from his smartphone, is referred to by another character as an “alt-right troll.” “What are you doing on Twitter today, swatting Syrian refugees?” Toni Colette asks him in one scene. And a scene during Harlan’s birthday party in which members of the family square off against each other over Trump and immigration is probably the most believable scene in the entire film.

But the sledgehammer dialogue at the end–good grief. Ransom’s “how-dare-you?” speech in which he rails at Marta for invading his family’s “ancestral home”–did Johnson lift that right off of an alt-right web site?

Don’t piss on my brain and tell me I’m being enlightened.

A Disappointing ‘Vice’

I finally got around to watching writer-director Adam McKay’s Vice on Amazon Prime. I’d been eagerly anticipating a viewing ever since the first trailer came out but just never had the chance to catch it at the theater. I was overjoyed when my wife and I had a couple of hours to spare for a movie at home and she suggested watching it. And so we watched it.

And what a massive disappointment.

Vice is a rambling, chaotic mess. It can’t seem to decide what kind of story it wants to tell about Dick Cheney. There isn’t anything revealed about him that is particularly surprising or insightful, other than perhaps his wayward youth. (Something he has in common with George W. Bush.) Cheney was apparently something of a ne’er-do-well who lived under constant threat of abandonment by his wife, Lynne. It all changed, at least according to the film, when he went to work as an intern in Washington, D.C., and he happened to hear a welcome speech by a U.S. congressman from Illinois named Donald Rumsfeld. That was when Cheney decided that he was a Republican and wanted to spend the rest of his life in politics.

Some of the episodes of Cheney’s life that the film chooses to delve into seem a bit odd to me. Yes, it goes into the 9/11 attacks and his immediate push to at least partially blame it on Iraq, but it barely touches at all on his time as secretary of Defense under Bush Sr. Cheney was instrumental in pushing the U.S. into war against Iraq the first time as well, and under just as patently false pretenses as those that were offered for the second Iraq war. One of the most egregious humdingers was the claim that classified U.S. intelligence surveillance photos revealed that hundreds of thousands of Saddam’s forces were amassed along the Saudi border. That’s what convinced the Saudis to allow their country to serve as a base for the U.S. and its allies, from which they would launch their “Operation: Desert Storm.” (Osama bin Laden later cited the continued U.S. military presence on Saudi soil after the war’s end as one of his main beefs against America.) No such surveillance imagery has been confirmed to this day. It was simply a lie.

It goes completely unmentioned in McKay’s film, however. Instead, he spends time on Cheney’s efforts, in collaboration with anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, to roll back the estate tax. I don’t know, if I were making a movie about Dick Cheney, I would find Cheney’s manipulating the country into a war far more dramatically compelling than a subplot about tax policy, but maybe that’s just me.

McKay deserves some credit for at least making some attempt to humanize his subject, such as Cheney and his family grappling with his daughter Mary coming out as a lesbian at a time when social acceptance of homosexuals was not nearly as common as it is today, not to mention the political implications for Cheney in light of his conservative constituency. The film depicts him as being rather forward-thinking and unconditionally accepting of Mary as she is, and McKay understandably sees this as one of his subject’s redeeming qualities. But it seems almost tacked onto the film as an afterthought, as though somebody forced McKay to mention at least one thing about Dick Cheney that he found positive.

As far as Christian Bale’s performance is concerned, it looks like he got an Oscar nomination for doing an excellent Dick Cheney impression. 

Any good biographical film should seek to understand its subject, to try to find out what makes him tick, how he sees the world and his place in it. I can’t say that I gleaned anything of the sort from Vice.

James Gunn Sacked for Sick Tweets

The newest tweet-based outrage involves the sick and twisted tweets of movie director James Gunn–best known for the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise–posted way back in 2008-09 or so.

Mr. Gunn’s defense:

1. Many people who have followed my career know when I started, I viewed myself as a provocateur, making movies and telling jokes that were outrageous and taboo. As I have discussed publicly many times, as I’ve developed as a person, so has my work and my humor. — James Gunn (@JamesGunn) July 20, 2018

2. It’s not to say I’m better, but I am very, very different than I was a few years ago; today I try to root my work in love and connection and less in anger. My days saying something just because it’s shocking and trying to get a reaction are over. — James Gunn (@JamesGunn) July 20, 2018

4. For the record, when I made these shocking jokes, I wasn’t living them out. I know this is a weird statement to make, and seems obvious, but, still, here I am, saying it. — James Gunn (@JamesGunn) July 20, 2018

5. Anyway, that’s the completely honest truth: I used to make a lot of offensive jokes. I don’t anymore. I don’t blame my past self for this, but I like myself more and feel like a more full human being and creator today. Love you to you all. — James Gunn (@JamesGunn) July 20, 2018

Here’s a sampling of some of Mr. Gunn’s harmless, erm, “jokes”:

Gunn Tweets

“RT @peteralton I like it when little boys touch me in my silly place–shhh!”

“The Expendables was so manly I fucked the shit out of the little pussy boy next to me! The boys ARE back in town!”

“‘Eagle Snatches Kid'” is what I call it when I get lucky.”

“Three Men and a Baby They had Sex With. #unromanticmovies”

“I’m doing a big Hollywood film adaptation of The Giving Tree with a happy ending – the tree grows back and gives the kid a blowjob.”

“RT @blackehart ‘I remember my first NAMBLA meeting. It was the first time I felt OK being who I am. Some of those guys are still my BFFs.”

Good Lord.

Gunn posted these incredibly sick, vile, and disgusting tweets about a decade ago, when he was just starting out as a filmmaker. He says that he was deliberately acting out as a provocateur, going for the obviously outrageous. In other words, he did what most people insecure in their own talents and abilities do when they feel so strongly that the rest of the world isn’t giving them their due: they scream out for attention like a spoiled little child.

People can certainly give him the benefit of the doubt that that’s all he was doing–vying for attention to jump start a career. It’s ironic that Gunn appeared to have torn a page right out of Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal. If you really want the attention of the media, Trump recommends in his seminal work that you very publicly state something as shocking and outrageous as possible, and then you will certainly get what you wish for. For all of his heated criticism of Trump, Gunn appears to share his outlook in at least this one respect.

I see no reason to believe that Gunn is an actual, practicing pedophile–one should take his denial at his word in the absence of evidence–but the material which Gunn chose for shock value certainly demonstrates some pretty severe callousness. And the fact that he left those tweets up for years, even after striking success in Hollywood, reveals not only something about Gunn’s own casual attitudes toward the abuse of children, it likely says something about much of the film industry’s culture as well: Gunn probably never felt compelled to delete the offensive tweets because his own experience informed him that his colleagues and co-workers wouldn’t much care. Millions of other people, however, who do not inhabit the Hollywood universe, see it differently. They would most likely stop associating with anyone who saw nothing wrong with posting child-rape jokes on social media.

So there’s an obvious question to be asked here: Did anyone at Disney/Marvel find out about Gunn’s sick joke-tweets at anytime during the preceding decade that they were out there, but simply dismiss them out of hand?

What did Disney and Marvel know, and when did they know it?

UPDATE: I had not caught this before, but one of the people most outspoken against Disney severing all ties with Gunn has been none other than conservative pundit Ben Shapiro. Interesting and ironic, considering that Shapiro had just recently been tangling with Gunn on Twitter.

Says Shapiro,

Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 4.36.21 PMInteresting.

Let’s recap what Gunn found so funny in an “outrageous” and “provocative” way: Sexually assaulting children.

“There is no limiting principle to the outrage mob”????

He made jokes about raping children. 

What an odd thing for a conservative pundit to say when a major corporation–who’s bread and butter has long been children’s entertainment–sacks someone for posting jokes about raping children on social media, and then leaves them up for an entire decade.

Maybe there’s no limiting principle to Shapiro’s tolerance, or perhaps it’s more accurate to observe that there’s no consistently defining principle to what Shapiro finds tolerable or intolerable.

What a confused little man.

UPDATE #2: Good Lord, a veritable mine of Hollywood pedo-joke tweets appears to have been discovered following the James Gunn childrapejokegate. What is the deal with these people? This is getting disturbing.

Just as a side note before I proceed, no, it doesn’t really matter that it’s mainly right-wing outlets like Breitbart who are highlighting all of these disgusting tweets from left-wing celebrities joking about molesting children. The tweets speak for themselves, no matter who is shining a spotlight on them. And it’s just mind-boggling that these people left this stuff up for years, apparently without a single thought ever entering their heads at any point in time that, gee, somebody might be a little disturbed by child-rape humor, such as, say, the millions of people who take their kids to their movies. As I stated in my initial post, that’s likely because the people they work with in their industry, including those responsible for the hiring and firing, have absolutely no problem with it, either. The sensibilities of all the bourgeois rubes who pack the movie theaters for the latest blockbuster are to be acknowledged only for mockery and ridicule.

Speaking of Breitbart, they’ve recently published a couple of columns by John Nolte that get to the root of why this is something to give at least a half a damn about:

First,

“As I have expressed countless times, nothing would make me happier than to live in a world where dumb jokes, stupid comments, tasteless humor, moments of weakness, and legitimate mistakes, both big and small, could be forgiven for those expressing true remorse. I believe in second chances, most especially for myself, and despise our current culture that allows social media mobs to dismantle lives and careers over bad words.

“But guess who disagrees with me?

“That would be James Gunn himself, who called for Roseanne Barr to be fired over a single terrible tweet.

“He has since deleted the tweet (Gee, I wonder why?), but on May 29, Gunn wrote, ‘I wish some of these so-called defenders of liberty would start to understand what freedom of speech is AND isn’t. Roseanne is allowed to say whatever she wants. It doesn’t mean @ABCNetwork needs to continue funding her TV show if her words are considered abhorrent.’”

“And…

“On March 29, and only because she called someone a ‘whiner,’ Gunn publicly called for the destruction of Laura Ingraham’s career via a boycott.

“’I hope @hulu stops advertising …  on the Laura Ingraham show, so I can watch [‘The Handmaid’s Tale’]. Online bullying & shaming of teenagers should not be supported by Hulu. Let them know,’ he tweeted to his half-million followers.”

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 10.38.05 AM.png“Gunn might have stopped joking about raping children, stopped joking about ass-raping his friends, about Mexicans, the Holocaust, AIDS, and how kiddie porn gives him an orgasm, but he only set aside those words in order to use the new words that built the petard he just hoisted himself with.” [Emphasis mine.]

Exactly.

Next,

What the hell is up with this fetish for joking about sexually assaulting children???

“Hollywood might be all kinds of ‘woke’ and hyper-sensitive and crippled by a censorious political correctness that declares countless topics and left-wing sacred cows verboten, but ‘joking’ about raping children is totally cool.”

……….

“[W]hat we have on our hands is an entertainment industry that will ex-communicate you for being ‘insensitive’ (toward anyone other than a conservative), that will blacklist you for voting in an ‘unapproved’ way, that will publicly humiliate and ‘re-educate’ you for telling ‘inappropriate’ jokes, but has absolutely no problem with you telling countless jokes about raping a child, even a baby.”

A smattering of the sick jokes highlighted by Nolte:

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 10.56.34 AM

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 11.00.45 AM

These…”comedians”…seem so desperate for material that they have to dig into the gutter for jokes about molesting kids. And when they’re called out for their tastelessness, all they can do is sputter, “oh, I said that years ago,” or whatever ad hoc rationalization that enters their heads.

That’s the thing about self-appointed arbiters of public morals and taste, especially those who dwell atop the loftiest of castle towers. They’re entitled to form a social media mob and ruin other people’s careers for merely uttering or typing words, but when they’re called out on their own violations of public morality and taste, they simply brush it off with a wave of the hand. In their minds, they alone fashion the rules, and those rules always convict those with whom they differ in politics and worldviews, while at the same time everyone’s to just assume that they’re to be automatically exonerated.

If there are people who can’t see the obvious self-serving, double-standard hypocrisy at work here, then this country just may be at a point where it’s best for the conflicting factions to simply each go their own way. I suspect that we’ll be seeing such a development in the years to come.

The Universe According to Thanos

If you’re a fan of the superhero comic book genre of cinema, then you should run as fast as you can, not merely walk, to the latest installment of the Marvel Comics franchise, The Avengers: Infinity War. If these loud, action-packed movies are not your cup of tea, then you should probably take a pass. But if you don’t care what the film snobs think and you enjoy them immensely, then go for it. You’ll be glad you did. The directing brothers Anthony and Joseph Russo have pulled off no small feat here. While the movie is not without its flaws, they successfully juggled a long parade of characters and intertwining plot lines to pull off one highly entertaining thrill ride of a flick.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

At the center of this movie–it is in fact, his story, told mostly from his perspective–is its formidable villain, Thanos. Thanos is a “titan,” or he’s from Titan–I forget which. He is a mighty big badass, but he fancies himself a thinking badass. He has reached the conclusion that the universe is out of balance, which is to say it’s becoming much too populous. He’s certain that he sees the future, and that future consists of many worlds becoming so crowded that their inhabitants are on the verge of overconsuming precious scarce resources, causing much famine, suffering, and misery. He seeks out the complete set of magical “infinity stones” that, once collected in full by his big fisted metal gauntlet, will grant him immense power to do whatever the hell he wants–so he wants to  wipe out half the population of the universe in order to avoid all that suffering and death and misery. It’s kind of funny, though–in the peculiar sense, anyways–that he doesn’t think to use those magic rocks to create a superabundance of resources on all the worlds whose populations he seeks to halve, so that the halving wouldn’t be so necessary. Thanos seems a bit too eager to employ genocide as a solution.

Thanos’ zero-sum theory of humanity isn’t just a comic book trope, however. It is widely shared by people who actually have some influence on public policy, as frightening as that sounds.

Thanos’ rather stark and brutal perspective is somewhat reminiscent of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, the 18th century English economist. While the majority of middle-class Europeans rejoiced at the terrific gains being made at the time by the proliferation of new technology that brought on the Industrial Revolution, Malthus preferred to rain all over their prosperity parade with a lot of gloom-and-doom predictions. He claimed that all that newly created wealth was merely subsidizing the increased reproduction of the poor, who would eventually become so numerous that they would be confronted with famine and disease, what has since become known in the popular usage as a “Malthusian trap.” Such crises would inevitably kill off a great many people, thus regressing society back to the preceding economic state.

“It is an evident truth that, whatever may be the rate of increase in the means of subsistence, the increase of population must be limited by it, at least after the food has once been divided into the smallest shares that will support life,” wrote the rather grim and pessimistic Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population. “All the children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to this level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons.”

Malthus supplied absolutely no evidence for his stark thesis; he simply stated it as a given fact. But his theory was spectacularly wrong. Contrary to what it implied, the food supply at any given time isn’t fixed. The more people come into existence, the more people do continue, thank goodness, to develop methods for increasing the available sustenance as the population grows. The entire population of Europe was approximately 127 million in 1700. It steadily increased to 224 million by 1820 when Malthus was in his mid-fifties, and then eventually reached 498 million by 1913. And yet the massive crises of starvation and want that Malthus predicted never came to pass. Europe’s biggest disasters occurred during the first half of the 20th century, and they were caused not by overpopulation, but by blundering statesmen who condemned the continent to two horrific wars that slaughtered millions.

Indeed, paleoanthropologists estimate that there was all of 10,000-30,000 homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago, and everything we know about human life in that period indicates that it was pretty nasty, brutish, and short. The “Toba catastrophe,” a massive volcanic eruption that occurred in Indonesia about 70,000 years ago, is believed to have caused a “population bottleneck,” that is, a sudden and sharp reduction in the human population to as few as 1,000 -10,000 people. Today, there are billions of people walking the planet. By Malthus’ logic, we should never have become so numerous and prosperous at the same time. Living standards and quality of life today are not worse than they were during the paleolithic era, but far, far better. Malthus had it exactly backwards.

His skewed theory that a growing population inevitably meant greater scarcity of food and resources led him and those who believed in his expertise on the matter to some deeply flawed preferences in public policy. He was intensely supportive of England’s Corn Laws, for example, which imposed steep tariffs on imported grain. His reasoning was that this would incentivize greater self-sufficiency for food in England at a time when other countries taxed their own grain exports whenever they experienced economic hardship. But the increased food prices caused by the Corn Laws simply ended up increasing the wealth of England’s landowners at the expense of everyone else. The higher food prices imposed on the general population reduced their ability to purchase manufactured goods, thus hampering the country’s industry. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in economics to understand how much the increased prices of food and other goods, along with the reduction in employment opportunities, arrested the living standards of anyone who wasn’t an aristocrat.

But the Malthusian delusion persists–among highly learned scholars, no less–no matter how many times it’s discredited by both logic and experience.

The American biologist Paul Ehrlich provides one example of the stubborn persistence of this thesis. In his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, Ehrlich predicted that due to the growing population, the 1970s would be a decade of mass starvation, misery, and death…hundreds of millions would perish as the result of food shortages, stated Ehrlich.

Obviously, this had not come to pass. (At one point in 1980, Ehrlich even predicted that England would cease to exist by the year 2000.) Some famines had occurred subsequent to Ehrlich’s predictions, such as Ethiopia’s catastrophic famine of the early 1980s, but they were the result of deeply misguided government policies that prevented the populations of those countries from accessing food supplies when they needed them most, not global overpopulation.

Of course, that’s not to say that there’s an eternally guaranteed progression of advancing technology and growing prosperity. If one were to chart the evolution of man’s quality of life throughout the ages on a graph, the line would look like more like a zig-zag, sometimes inclining upwards, at other times declining downwards, and then back up again, down yet again, and so forth.

It’s knowledge and what man does with it that is the real determining factor of progress or regression, not population growth. It’s certainly true that it’s not necessarily a given that human knowledge will always advance to the overall improvement of living conditions indefinitely, but it’s been pretty much on a roll for quite awhile now.

Incredibly, Ehrlich’s erroneous prophecies of mass starvation hasn’t kept academia and policy makers from falling into the Malthusian trap any more than Malthus’ own errors have. The British journalist Brendan O’Neill has been tracking this trend among the world’s intelligentsia for some years now. In this 2012 piece he reports that at that year’s UN Rio+20 Earth summit, over a hundred venerable institutions, including England’s own Royal Society, chillingly urged those in power throughout the world to look past “ethical sensitivities” and “confront rising global population.”

I’m not quite sure what they meant by that, but something tells me that the rest of us should make sure they don’t get their hands on any infinity stones.

Ready Player Done

I grew into my adolescence during the 1980s, and Steven Spielberg’s movies were a large staple of my juvenile pop culture diet. I had become a Spielberg fan even well before the ’80s. I was only seven years old when my parents took me to see Jaws upon its original theatrical release in 1975. Many parents today, as they are in a constant state of neurosis keeping watch over their little children’s supposedly fragile psyches in order to shield them from all sorts of horrid influences and nasty thoughts, would shudder at the thought of a small child being exposed to a film like that…and by their own parents, no less. Why, a young girl goes skinny-dipping and gets devoured by the titular great white shark right in the opening scene! How depraved to allow a child to see such a thing!

But that was the great thing about being raised in the 1970s–parents didn’t give a damn. Me and my friends were already doing stupid things like pretending we were Evel Knievel and jumping our bicycles off of very poorly constructed plywood ramps. What was the big deal if we saw some movie about a shark that greedily feasted upon human flesh–men, women, and children alike? Most people didn’t think too much of anything about a seven-year-old boy seeing a movie like that, not back then.

And I loved that movie, of course. Still do. My wife and I took our son to see an outdoor screening of it last summer. He was long overdue, as he was already the ripe old age of eleven. We matured earlier back in the ’70s.

Spielberg’s next major hit was Close Encounters of the Third Kind later that decade. Supernatural phenomena featured prominently in the popular culture of the 1970s, an obsession of many in the hippy-dippy sect of the baby boom generation. By the ’70s, they had ditched their peace signs and tie-dyed shirts for “power crystals” and other such accoutrements of what became known as the “New Age” movement. (Which appears, thank goodness, after having lived well into the 1990s, to have been tossed into the dustbin of history.) Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock himself, the late Leonard Nimoy, hosted a fairly popular syndicated “documentary” series that explored such mysteries of existence as Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, the “Bermuda Triangle,” and other assorted and sundry manifestations of the otherworldly, including UFOs. They had already been reported for decades before, but it was in the ’70s that sightings of flying saucers and claims of alien abductions really came into fashion with widespread media attention. Even President Carter had claimed to have seen a UFO.

I need not cite every work of Spielberg’s canon to illustrate how adept he’s always been at exploiting whatever zeitgeist was capturing American society at any given time. Close Encounters and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, released just a few years later, both catered not only to the popular fascination with UFOs and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, but to ordinary Americans’ growing distrust with those in power as well. Following Vietnam, Watergate, the economic “stagflation” of the late ’70s, and other assorted debacles, there was a prevailing sense that those who held the reigns of the institutions of American society weren’t to be trusted; they were hopelessly corrupt, deliberately withholding the truth from the public, or they were simply incompetent, and everyone seemed to feel helpless as to what to do about it. The secretive, shadowy government officials and scientists in those two films were reflections of our own perceptions of faceless technocrats who seemed drunk with power.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, with which Spielberg kicked off the 1980s in collaboration with George Lucas, was particularly effective at playing to those sentiments, but this time redirected them in such a way as though to remind moviegoers that, no matter what our political leaders may be up to, Americans are usually the good guys. Yes, Spielberg and Lucas were already highly successful moviemakers reliving, perhaps indulgently, the Saturday matinee cinema of their youth, but it’s easy to see why their own subjective nostalgia played so well to a mass audience. A handsome, smart, masculine hero battling Nazis obsessed with tapping sinister occult powers was just the antidote Americans craved to cure them of their moral and ethical angst in the wake of the Vietnam war, the Nixon-era scandals of corruption, the revelations of the CIA’s abuses of power.

Like Spielberg’s prior movies, Raiders took that apprehension and loathing and repackaged it into glorious, enthralling Hollywood entertainment–everything worked out for our heroes in the end. The man-eating shark got blown up, Richard Dreyfuss got to take a life-changing journey beyond the stars, Indiana Jones beat the Nazis, and E.T. got to go home.

Don’t worry, Spielberg seemed to be saying. Everything will work out just fine–and in a really, really super cool way that’s fun to watch. 

But a lot has happened since the early 1980s. The scandal-plagued Clinton years of the 1990s, the 9/11 attacks, the eternal War on Terror, the exposure of the fraud and deceit at the root of the Iraq War, and the financial crisis of 2008 have shaken up the country in ways that make the ’60s look like an almost mildly entertaining high school musical. So much so that a billionaire real estate tycoon and reality TV star got himself elected president of the United States in stubborn defiance of the media’s persistent predictions otherwise. Millions of Americans have had their perceptions of their country and its role in the world radically transformed in recent decades. Spielberg, however, is still working with the same old formula that he’s been working with since he and his fellow baby boomers first came into their own in shaping so much of American pop culture. The incongruity has recently become painfully awkward to watch, like seeing a typical millennial’s grandfather trying to impress the kids with the Lorde records in his collection, but he keeps getting the titles of her songs confused with those of Joan Baez.

Following the clumsy and historically inaccurate The Post–grossly inaccurate even by Hollywood’s sloppy standards, in which the paper that declared in the wake of Donald Trump’s election that “democracy dies in darkness” is conveniently recast as the crusading defender of press freedoms against the predations of Richard Nixon (simply not true)–Spielberg now treats us to the dystopian spectacle of Ready Player One.

Now, this movie often looks fantastic. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski–a long time partner of Spielberg’s going back to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan–has an eye for arresting detail reminiscent of a Life magazine photographer. And though the vast virtual world at the movie’s core takes some getting used to, it offers many visual pleasures that at times are spectacular to behold. And Spielberg is, as always, a keen master of keeping the action of a story moving along at a brisk clip, so the movie’s nearly two-and-a-quarter hours breeze by easily enough.

But something isn’t quite right here.

The movie is based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel of the same title. Our story follows a young man named Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan) who apparently lives atop a pile of trailer homes. It’s the mid-2040s or so and the future looks pretty crappy. So crappy, in fact, that most people escape into a massive virtual reality network called “the Oasis” with the use of special visors. Seeing as how the setting is America only a quarter of a century from now, this bit of speculation is depressingly plausible. It isn’t so hard to believe that Americans would rather play an online video game all day than actually deal with their stagnating society, which would require having an uncomfortable argument or two.

The most envied prize hiding in the Oasis is an “Easter egg” planted by its eccentric creator, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance). The people obsessed with hunting for this Easter egg, the discovery of which transfers ownership of the Oasis into the hands of whoever finds it, are, of course, known as “gunters,” because sci-fi writers don’t like to be bothered with what they consider to be superfluous vowels. Watts, using the pseudonym/avatar “Parzival,” meets and falls in love with a young lady (Olivia Cooke) after saving her virtual life and preventing her from being “zeroed out.” She has named her avatar “Artemis” (which is actually spelled as “Art3mis”–again, sci-fi authors just don’t like so many vowels, even if it means awkwardly replacing one with a numeral).

While doing some research in the Oasis virtual library, Watts watches a playback of a pivotal scene in Halliday’s life–the resignation of his partner Ogden Morrow (played by Simon Pegg, cinema’s ever present nerd/sci-fi fanboy), which is later revealed to be over their conflicting romantic affections for the same woman. In his disappointment, Halliday muses the following out loud:

“Why can’t we go backwards for once? Backwards really fast, as fast as we can – really put the pedal to the metal.”

Upon hearing this, Watts manages to reason that it is a clue–as does the audience, upon whom it lands with an awkward thud–as to what to do at the next virtual car race to find the first of the three keys that point the way to the much ballyhooed Easter egg. Sure enough, instead of bursting forward into high gear, Watts kicks his virtual race car into reverse–really “putting the pedal to the medal,” of course–and is whisked along a hidden path that takes him to the finish line ahead of all the other “gunters” in the race. He therefore obtains the first key, gets his name and those of his crew on the big scoreboard, and receives a clue to the quest for the next key.

There’s no reason to rehash the entire plot here, nor do I wish to spoil it for anyone, but by this point readers who have yet to see the movie should have the gist of it. Longtime moviegoers will recognize many of the familiar Spielbergian tropes, the most prominent being young people of humble backgrounds battling against entrenched power. Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of Innovative Online Industries (played by cinema’s ever present bad guy Ben Mendelsohn), which makes the VR gear by which people access the Oasis, is willing to stop at nothing to take it over–such as exploiting a legion of debt-slaves to find the coveted Easter egg for him–giving the film its central conflict. And to be sure, this is a worthwhile theme to explore, but unfortunately the whole thing is handled in such a stunted fashion that it’s difficult to take seriously.

Then there’s the persistent flight into nostalgia throughout. James Halliday, who, like this writer, came of age in the 1980s, was hopelessly obsessed with the popular culture of that decade, and so he planted popular ’80s references throughout the Oasis, most of them visual, alternately glaring and subtle. At one point, Doc Brown’s legendary time-traveling DeLorean from Back to the Future can be seen traversing the screen. Spielberg was himself a co-producer of the 1985 film, but he avoids any further references to his own work of the period. No E.T. or Indiana Jones can be spotted anywhere on screen, perhaps out of Spielberg’s desire to avoid any appearance of egotistical self-tribute.

This element of the film, this wistful looking back at the ’80s that suffuses it throughout, simply undermines much of the story overall, and at one point offers some unintended commentary on Spielberg’s efforts here. (And one can’t help but be reminded that Hollywood used to produce much more entertaining fare in decades past.) Spielberg, of course, had no say in the matter as the decision was made for him by the author of the original novel (who also co-wrote the screenplay), but much of the nostalgia comes off as a clumsy parade of too-obvious pop references intended to flatter nerdy fanboys, who in their own smug, nerdy elitism probably won’t be all that impressed by them anyway.

Some of the specific choices in this regard are curious. At one point in their quest, Wade Watts and his youthful band of fellow “gunters” have to survive an impeccable virtual simulation of the foreboding Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 psychological thriller The Shining, which, like Ready Player One, was also an adaptation of a popular novel.

I have been reliably informed that the book, which this writer hasn’t read himself, subjects our heroes to the world of Blade Runner, not The Shining. (I’ve also been told that the novel also takes a foray into the world of Rush’s classic 1976 prog rock album 2112, but, alas, that was excluded from the film version as well.) One suspects that the fairly recent release of Blade Runner 2049 precluded the producers of Ready Player One from obtaining rights for its inclusion in their film, and so they went for The Shining instead. It’s too bad, as using Blade Runner would have been so unbelievably “meta”–a dystopian future film making an extended reference to a dystopian future film made decades before–that audience’s heads may very well have exploded simultaneously all over the world, or perhaps they would have been sucked into some kind of “vortex” created by a “rift” in the “time-space continuum,” or some such thing.

The most curious thing about the choice of The Shining is that author Stephen King infamously despises Kubrick’s film adaptation of his work. He never liked the particular liberties the director took with his plot, nor did he ever care for Jack Nicholson’s nutty-from-the-get-go performance, or for Shelly Duvall’s acting like a “screaming dishrag” throughout. Ready Player One suffers from some acting problems of its own, with its often flat, shallow performances. The only times when Sheridan’s and Cooke’s characters display any chemistry between them at all are when the actors are voicing their animated avatars in the Oasis; in “real life” it feels as if they’re being forced into going on a blind date that neither of them wants to be on. And though Mendelsohn isn’t quite twirling his mustache, his evil CEO is too flat and predictable to be very interesting to watch. He doesn’t get to display much depth or complexity at all until the film has nearly ended. Rylance appears to be playing at someone’s stereotypical assumption of what an eccentric billionaire tech genius must be like, but he just comes off like a special needs adult in constant need of being shown to the bathroom.

That Ready Player One‘s screenwriters–one of whom was Cline himself–chose The Shining is either ironic or all too fitting.