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Movies, Reviews


Well, it’s that time again, where I have an apparently boundless appetite for talking about STAR WARS.  Last time I was musing about the failures of Rogue One and talking about why Star Wars is more than the sum of its parts.  This time, obviously, I’ve just seen The Last Jedi, and I figured I would wrap my opinions up in a blog post rather than on Twitter because it’s easier to warn for spoilers.

SO!  Spoiler warning for The Last Jedi.  And another kind of warning, too.  I’ve seen a few arguments play out along the theme of “don’t crap all over people’s joy for liking something”, which is a sentiment I 100% agree with.  Unfortunately, the line between “engaging something critically” and “crapping on it” can be somewhat difficult to walk, and where precisely it is varies from person to person.  So, while I basically liked this move (spoiler alert!) I’m going to also talk about the parts of it I didn’t like.  Please don’t take that to mean you shouldn’t like those parts!  (And/or, just don’t read on.)

Right!  So.  Last Jedi.  Where were we?

I think, basically, I liked the movie, because I like (most of) the characters and their relationships.  That said, there were some issues that really distracted me and probably kept me from loving it.  I have to try really hard to keep myself from going all Comic Book Guy and Worst.  Empire.  Ever. because I’m kind of a worldbuilding nerd first and foremost, and that’s where the failings are.  So I’m going to try real hard to restrict my critique to things that actually matter, and not stupid stuff like “why do they use gravity bombs in space?”

So what were the good bits?  Rey is great in this movie, visibly more confident in the role and with some really good stuff to do.  Her stuff with Luke is great, her stuff with Kylo Ren is wonderful.  The scene with the two of them and Snoke in the throne room was by far my favorite part of the movie; the fight that follows against the Praetorian Guard is probably the best fight scene in all of Star Wars to date, threading the line between the awkward non-choreography of the original trilogy and the hyper-choreographed “endlessly hitting each other with glowsticks” of the prequels.  (While also avoiding the “heroes effortlessly disposing of CGI mooks” from both the prequels and the Marvel universe.)

Finn and Rose both work for me as characters, but I was honestly left a little cold by their role in the plot.  Some of that is logistical (see below) but some of it just that retrieving the codebreaker from one very particular planet felt like a video-game-y arbitrary obstacle.  A fetch quest, essentially.  It doesn’t help that a) BB8 essentially completes every mission for them (seriously they should literally just send BB8 out alone) and b) it turns out to be not only pointless but counterproductive.  (Since they don’t disable the tracker, but do provide the information the First Order uses to blow away dozens of rebels transports full of people.  This could arguably be blamed on Poe.  Pro tip, Poe: compartmentalize information.  If you have a secret plan to get away, maybe don’t talk about it over an open mic to Finn?)  Finn’s arc, the progress from self-sacrifice to needing to look beyond that, mostly works, but it has some logistical problems.  (Again, more later!)

Poe — dunno, I think I’m in the minority on Poe, but I’ve never been fond of him.  His snarkiness has always felt kind of off to me, something that would be more at home in the Marvel universe with Tony Stark.  I like his arc in this movie, though, his natural assumption that he should be the hero and at the center of all events thwarted over and over until he finally gets that not everyone is about his personal story.  Dan Olson mentioned something I thought was a good point — the introduction of Holdo is basically a gag, and I think it does her kind of a disservice.  Like they’re announcing the new commander, and Poe is getting ready to stand up, and then ha it’s Admiral Rando!  Except it turns out she’s not just some rando nothing character, she’s important, but we’re already primed against her.

Kylo Ren — again, I might be in the minority, but I liked him a lot in the first movie and I loved him in this one.  His arrogant insecurity makes him totally believable as both a villain who does awful things in an effort to be a badass and someone who’s genuinely conflicted about it.  He, more than anyone else, is directly tied to the themes of the movie, and it’s great.

There’s more (Luke and Leia are both great, loved the moment with Yoda, etc) but you get the idea.  Good characters, good relationships, strong themes!

So, why do I feel the urge to nitpick?

Well, I’ve thought about it a bit.  There’s two basic issues that stand out to me.  First, the movie sacrifices plot mechanics and logistics in favor of hitting its themes in ways that strain my suspension of disbelief, and second, the First Order completely sucks and fail as villains.  The first one is probably more important, but the second one is more straightforward, so let’s take that first.

Kylo Ren is a fine villain.  Whatever you think of his character, he’s at least initially intimidating — in The Force Awakens, his ability to stop a blaster bolt in mid-air is cool and new, his saber is weird and janky, he gets the information he needs from Poe.  But the rest of the First Order, while they have the same blocky, brutalist design and color scheme as the old Empire, are completely undermined by being utter failures at everything they try to do.  By the end of The Last Jedi they’ve become utterly toothless and comical, and it constantly undermines the tension of what are supposed to be exciting scenes.

So, I’m not saying we need to have the bad guys win in the end, and I’m not begrudging our heroes defeating stormtroopers with ease, not getting killed, etc, etc.  That’s just normal dramatic logic, I’m fine with that.  But what’s missing from these two movies so far is the scene where the bad guys get to do their thing, and establish that they are in fact a force to be reckoned with and not a clown patrol.

Think back to the originals.  The opening scene of A New Hope is flat-out brilliant symbology, with the tiny rebel ship literally swallowed by the huge Star Destroyer.  Then you have the hallway shootout, with the stormtroopers mowing down the rebels, and then in comes Vader, lifting and choking people.  It’s enough to give you the general sense that the Empire basically knows what they’re doing; in turn, this means when our heroes triumph, it feels like a heroic victory against incredible odds instead of showboating against losers.  Empire Strikes Back starts with Hoth, and once again we get the awesome might of Empire in action — Luke goes out, and does some damage with luck and the Force, but the rebels still get trashed and barely escape, the AT-ATs effortlessly brushing aside their defenses in spite of all their efforts.  Same deal — if we want the heroes to be heroic, the bad guys have to be at least basically competent.

These are the scenes that are absent from the new movies.  We start The Force Awakens with the First Order massacring a random village, which feels more like a war crime than a battle.  After that there’s never a scene where they successfully accomplish their goals, aside from the unopposed initial firing of Starkiller base.  They fail to catch the Falcon, fail to catch it again at Maz’s, fail to protect the base, and so on.  (In A New Hope, remember, the Falcon gets captured by the Death Star, then their escape is deliberate!)  

Now, in The Last Jedi, it felt like we were going to see a little bit of that, since we start out with the First Order chasing the rebels away from their base.  But no — the first sequence is a ship bigger than even the Star Destroyers warping in, and Poe destroying it with a handful of fighters and bombers.  By the time Snoke’s even bigger ship appears later on, it’s not intimidating at all, since apparently the damn things are useless.  The best they accomplish is blowing up a few abandoned support ships.

Now, you can (maybe) come up with in-universe justifications for everything.  The First Order is new and relatively incompetent, not the military machine of the old Empire, whatever.  My point is that in the story we’re clearly supposed to think of them as intimidating, and they’re just not.  Their leader is a joke, their ships are useless, and they can’t win even against mooks.  It’s disappointing.

Okay, second nitpick.  The strength of this movie is in characters and theme.  I talked about the former, but the latter is great too, and it’s very clear.  Whereas The Force Awakens was about a new generation trying to deal with having to live up to their legendary predecessors (much as the movie itself had to live up, this is not accidental) The Last Jedi is about the idea of whether being linked to the past is being bound to it.  Rey finds Luke, in an effort to tie herself in to past glories — to become the apprentice of the great Skywalker, heir to the Jedi, etc, in the same way that Kylo thinks of himself as the heir to Vader and is descended from the Skywalker bloodline.  But things don’t work out the way Rey wants — Luke won’t teach her, and the big reveal about her parents is that there is no reveal.  She’s not the heir to anything.  But that means she’s free; whereas the past wraps around Kylo like a chain.  It’s why they can’t join up, in the throne room — they kill Snoke, and Rey is ready to leave the past behind, and Kylo can’t.  It sets up their next confrontation, with Rey being the new, the unencumbered, and Kylo representing the old hatred and Skywalker family drama that has laid waste to the galaxy.

Whew!  It’s great, I love it.  (It’s partially why I think Finn’s arc didn’t work as well for me — it’s only tenuously tied to this theme.)  The movie nails this part so perfectly, but it feels like they sacrificed something in the writing for it, because the rest of the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense.

(You can read the rest of this in Comic Book Guy voice if you want.)

Obviously it’s stupid to quibble about how fictional technology works.  So when they tell us that the rebel cruiser can outrun the Star Destroyers in realspace, fine, I’ll go with it.  But what’s less easy to suspend disbelief is why the First Order doesn’t, you know, try anything else to do something about it.  They have TIE fighters, for example.  Literally hundreds of them!  Kylo Ren and a whopping two seemed to be able to do some serious damage, and Kylo already blew up the rebel hanger, so … maybe send ’em out?  Isn’t that what they’re for?  

Finn and Rose sneaking away from the cruiser with no real difficulty, and knowing that it will be there when they return, once again drains all the tension from the situation.  The First Order has a huge fleet of super-scary ships, but it’s fine, nothing will happen until we run out of fuel.  (Can they not like call in some other ships to get ahead of the rebels?  Something!)

Similarly, the ease with which a single bomber manages to destroy the First Order dreadnaught raises serious questions about why you bother to have capital ships in the first place.  The things are supposed to be tough — the fact that Death Star II was able to take them out in a single shot was a big deal!  Now they explode like firecrackers.  (The First Order vs. rebel casualty ratio is literally tens of thousands to one, not even counting however many people were on Starkiller Base!)

Similarly, Holdo’s lightspeed kamikaze run — a great visual and climactic moment — raises some kind of terrifying worldbuilding questions.  If ships can decimate entire fleets that way, why don’t they do that more often?  Why not ram the Death Star with a frigate?  For that matter, why doesn’t the ruthless First Order use that move to take out the rebels?

Again, while these are nitpicks … they bug me.  I don’t need like detailed technical-manual specifications for things, no one cares.  But basic consistency with the rest of the movies — so that TIE fighters do the same things, and Star Destroyers are always Star Destroyers — make it easier to suspend my disbelief in a fantastical world.

I have less issues with the Force stuff, because the Force should be mysterious and weird.  So Luke uses a new power — he’s had twenty years to figure that out.  Doesn’t bother me.  There is, though, a seriously philosophical question that bears examining, concerning the nature of training people to use the Force.

So, Luke blames himself for screwing up Kylo Ren’s training — he’s super powerful with the Force, and ends up falling to the Dark Side.  Luke says he never should have trained Kylo, and refuses to train Rey.  But … does this make any sense?  The key question is what happens if a Force-sensitive person gets no training?  Do they figure it out on their own?  Or do they just not ever get any powers?  Probably it matters how strong they are, which implies that people like Ben Solo and Rey are going to get something Force-related.

Crucially, this affects the question of what the galaxy looks like without the Jedi, which is what Luke is initially advocating.  Does it mean just no more Force-users?  Or does it mean that no one is training ascetic warrior-monks, but anyone strong enough in the Force and super-angry still falls to the Dark Side, so there’s tons of unstoppable evil guys around and no one to fight them?  We don’t know this but I feel like Luke probably should.

One last point on the down-side.  There has always been this question of whether Snoke “was someone”, was a character coming back in disguise or something like that.  The answer seems to be, no, probably not, since he gets summarily dispatched in this movie.  While I like that answer (it fits the theme) it leaves him kind of underdeveloped.  We really get no answers about what his deal is, how he got to Ren, whether he’s a Sith or just powerful with the Dark Side or what.  Kind of disappointing.  Maybe they’ll get to it later?  Who knows.

Whew.  Okay.  Those are my thoughts, for those who wanted to read them.  Like I said — basically a good movie, basically liked it, with some world-design stuff that rose above the level of nitpicks and actually impacted my enjoyment.  But that’s just me!  As always, these things are personal.

When does the next one come out?  Like, next week?  Right?

Movies, Reviews

Why ROGUE ONE Isn’t My Favorite Star Wars

So, it’s the new year, and I think it’s finally been long enough that I can talk about Rogue One. I like to wait a while, first to give spoilers a chance to clear, but also because my thoughts tend to evolve over time, particularly for movies where I have an emotional attachment to the franchise. The short version goes like this: while Rogue One was by no means a bad movie (one of the strengths of the Disney/Marvel/Lucasfilm monster is that its movies, while not always good, are usually competent rather than confusing disasters in the vein of Attack of the Clones or Suicide Squad) it’s also not a great one, and definitely not the movie I hoped it would be.

SPOILERS, obviously, from here on out!

So I have to say I was always excited about this movie. I was generally pleased with The Force Awakens, but left slightly cold by the way that it reused so much of the story of A New Hope. There was the chance that a new, non-sequential Star Wars movie could take chances and be different, give us something new and cool! And the trailers looked promising. I’m trying, therefore, to engage with the movie Rogue One actually is, rather than the movie I would like it to be.

So why didn’t I like it? It’s complicated, but I think it boils down to characters. Rogue One‘s characters are … sketches, I guess, is the way I’d describe them? They suggest character development and things that might be cool, but we don’t actually see any of it on screen, largely because there simply isn’t time. And that’s the first, most basic problem: there are too many main characters, and their complicated introduction and action set-pieces eat up so much running time that we get hardly any understanding of any of them.

Aside: As we go through them, I’m going to say things like “this character isn’t necessary”. It’s important to understand this to mean “not necessary to the story” rather than “not necessary to the plot“. Because this movie is basically competent, characters generally are given something to do, but throwing in an invented obstacle for them to overcome doesn’t actually justify their inclusion in the story.

This is important, so let’s take A New Hope as an example. All of our main characters are needed, not just for the mechanics of the plot (Obi-Wan and Luke have to get to Alderaan somehow) but for the story. They tend not to overlap one another — Luke is the naive farmboy-turned-hero, Obi-Wan the wise mentor, Han the scoundrel who learns friendship, and Leia the object of rescue who refreshingly turns out to be pretty competent. Two droids for comic relief, and on the imperial side we have Vader as the vicious, mysterious side of the Empire and Tarkin as the cold, bureaucratic side. We need these people — you could come up with an alternate route to Alderaan, but the story doesn’t work with Han Solo or someone like him. (He’s the foil for Luke, his arc provides the final closure to the Death Star battle, and so on.) The point is just because Bodhi Rook has to plug a thing into another thing to save the day doesn’t mean he’s necessary in a narrative sense.

So let’s talk about —

The Characters

K-2SO: I’m actually fine with him, although I know some people objected. Star Wars has a long tradition of comic-relief droids, and K-2 hits the right balance for me — he’s similar to C3PO in that he’s a pessimist, but he’s morbid and his dark humor is different enough to be interesting. He also doesn’t require a ton of backstory or introduction. No problems here.

Bodhi Rook: As you may have gathered from above, the inclusion of this character in the final crew is kind of baffling to me. He starts off as a MacGuffin (the defecting pilot who brings the message) but then kind of tags along, for no obvious reason. He also has a really strange scene with some kind of mind-invading tentacle monster that serves no purpose. (Things that serve no purpose are kind of a theme.) I was pretty sure they were going to kill him off in the escape from Jedda, which would have made sense, but no. Anyway, he consumes some screentime and has to have a heroic moment at the end, with no character arc or payoff. (We never find out why he was willing to make the borderline-suicidal move of betraying the Empire, other then a general good feeling toward Galen and not being in favor of blowing up planets. Why this guy instead of literally millions of other guys?)

Saw Gerrera: In contrast, I thought for sure Saw would join the team. It would make sense — he’s the old, grizzled veteran, to contrast with young Jyn and Cassian, plus he and Jyn have history together, plus he’s in conflict with the rest of the Rebels. (Jyn’s speech scene makes waaaay more sense if the attack plan is suggested by Saw and then the rest of the rebels balk.) Instead he stands around for a while and then chooses death for no reason. (Seriously, you say “I’m done running” when you’re going to make a heroic last stand, not just get blown to bits by a shockwave.) That’s another slightly baffling choice — if he was going to die, the obvious move would be to have him sacrifice himself for Jyn, shove her out of the way of a falling rock and be trapped himself, “Fly you fools!”, etc.

A cynic might say the problem here is stunt casting: Forest Whitaker is in his fifties, a big-name actor, maybe not too enthused about Star Wars. So he comes in, gets into a fancy suit, shoots all his scenes in one location in a couple of days, with no action or anything particularly difficult. I have no idea if this is true or not, to be clear, but that’s what we ended up with.

Chirrut Îmwe & Baze Malbus: This is a tough one for which I am likely to get some pushback. But here’s the thing — I like these characters, they’re fun and potentially interesting (probably moreso than Cassian) but as written, they don’t really have a place in the story. To go back to the idea of narrative necessity, you could remove both of them completely and the movie would work just fine. Chirrut kinda-sorta acts as the mentor/Obi-Wan type, at least he seems like he should, but the movie doesn’t actually give him any of that to do — Jyn doesn’t have a conflict about whether she believes in the Force and doesn’t go to him for advice. He’s a mentor without a mentee. All they really do is shoot/fight stormtroopers, participate in the heroic ending, and die tragically.

In sum, someone please make the Chirrut & Baze movie, comic book, whatever, the story about them adventuring around and bickering about the Force, and I’d happily read/watch/buy it. But as far as Rogue One goes they don’t really add anything, and they take up a lot of running time between their introduction, their show-off fights, and later dialogue.

The need for all these characters to be introduced in random ways make the plot of the first half of the movie kind of a convoluted mess. We’ve got Jyn breaking out of jail, being dragooned to help the rebels, going to Jedda, picking up more characters, going to meet Saw and picking up more characters, so it’s a good 30-45 minutes before we even have our main crew together. Crucially, very little of this time is spent getting to know them, and a lot more on fights and running away from things. The first character beats really come on Edu, when Cassian has to decide whether or not to kill Galen, but we’ve had nothing to that point to let us know why he would go either way.

That brings us to our heroes, Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor. Jyn is, theoretically, the protagonist, which means that her actions should drive the plot, and her character arc should define the overall story. But it’s just not there — I don’t even know what her character arc is supposed to be! To … become a rebel? Except she was already a rebel before Saw ditched her. To learn something about her father, or alter their relationship, or something? But they never meet. To struggle with Cassian about idealism vs. realpolitik in the Rebellion? She’s already pretty cynical, and in any event that never actually happens. She doesn’t even have much personal hatred for Krennic, since she doesn’t seem to recognize him and vice versa.

As set up, Cassian is in the real protagonist’s spot in the story. He’s the one who gets the mission to get the Death Star plans, and he gets set up with the moral conflict of rescuing vs. killing Galen. We see him casually murder an informant early on, setting up that he’s grown jaded and cynical in the Rebellion. All the ingredients are there for a character arc, but it never actually happens, and the focus stays relentlessly on Jyn.

Jyn, meanwhile, has nothing about her character that doesn’t relate to her being Galen’s daughter. Does she have any particular skills? Hobbies? Relationships? We get almost literally nothing. It’s kind of a shock when Saw reveals that he raised Jyn and trained her as a rebel until she was sixteen — why isn’t that scene in the movie? It might give their reunion and his death a little weight! Instead, she’s Galen’s daughter so Saw will like her, then she’s got to rescue Dad, then she’s got to do what Dad wanted, then she dies.

This is, ultimately, where the movie falls down. You can debate whether it’s okay to end the movie with everyone dying or not, but for me what it comes down to is that a tragic ending, in order to actually have tragedy, needs well-developed characters. I might have cared more about Jyn and Cassian being blown up if we’d gotten to know them a little better; instead I cared more about Chirrut and Baze, possibly because their actors have more charisma. (It’s also a weird choice to give everyone tragic death scenes and then have the superlaser take out half the planet, since it makes all the earlier tragedy meaningless.)

It’s hard for me not to imagine what might have been. One approach would be to just drop everyone except for Jyn, Cassian, and K-2SO. Figure out an arc for Jyn and for their relationship — an obvious candidate would be idealistic Jyn vs. cynical Cassian, with him secretly ordered to kill Galen, and eventually coming to remember his idealistic roots due to her steadfast heroism. But give it some time to breathe, to have some witty dialogue between the two of them, to find out who they are.

Another approach would be to keep the ensemble cast but cut out all the backstory and introductions, leaving more time for character development. Keep the plot very straightforward — a team of Rebels is assigned to get the Death Star plans. Jyn, Galen’s daughter, is put on the team, who are at first distrustful of her as a novice, but she eventually wins them over. They have to sneak around Imperial bunkers, fight guys, etc, and the team members each have some kind of purpose and unique character. I’m thinking of this modeled on Aliens, for example — most of the marines have personalities and character, but we don’t get complex backstory, we just see their camaraderie and how they react to the newcomer. (It’s really strange when Cassian on Yavin says, “Hey I’m going to help and I brought my friends!” And we get a shot of a bunch of rebels we’ve never seen before, who are clearly cannon fodder. Are we supposed to feel something? But if we’d actually seen a crew of guys earlier in the movie, and then they all show up to help, it works!)

There’s other things you can quibble about here — gender issues, for starters. (Main female character is accessory to her father, near-total lack of women extras. There’s a TV Trope called Men Are The Expendable Gender that’s always been a pet peeve for me, where we can have main characters be women and kick ass, because they only get hurt if its plot-appropriate, but the horde of expendable extras have to be men because they die in droves.) But for me personally, it’s these character issues that are at the center of it left me feeling “meh” when I left the theater. As Star Wars movies go, I have to put this one below the originals and Force Awakens. (It’s sure as hell better than Revenge of the Sith, but that’s a low bar.) And it’s a shame, because I really wanted to like it.

(I really wish Disney/Lucasfilm would get away from having everything be tied super-tightly to the original trilogy. Just give us like … the adventures of an imperial pilot escaping after being shot down in a random battle, and the rebels he befriends. Or anything that’s not literally tied to the original trilogy plot. Sadly, since the next stand-alone is Han Solo, this seems unlikely…)

Things that are wrong with the movie Elysium

Today I saw Elysium. It was not a very good movie, for many reasons. The question that was put to me was which reason, in particular, makes it so awful, so I thought I would make a list. This contains spoilers for the movie, but you shouldn’t watch it anyway.

Science Fiction/General Worldbuilding

  • The first shots of this movie bugged me. Elysium hangs motionless in the sky, roughly the size of the moon as seen from the surface. That either means that the torus is absolutely enormous (far, far bigger than it later is shown to be) or else it is in very low orbit, which means it ought to be moving very quickly. (Pedant says, it could be in a low, powered orbit and still be geostationary. But … why? How?) The trip from LA to Elysium takes 20 minutes in a shuttle you can fly around the city in. Even a generous estimate of the shuttle’s speed (Mach 2? Mach 3?) put the habitat only a few hundred miles up.
  • They forgot the roof on the space station. I can’t emphasize this enough. Elysium is a big 3/4 torus, with the top part of the torus just entirely missing — ships just fly in and land there. There is absolutely nothing to keep the air in, not even a bit of hand-waving about force fields. For obvious reasons this doesn’t work.
  • The usual weird schizo-tech. They have robots advanced enough to walk around on their own and talk to/shoot people, but Matt Damon’s job appears to consist of riveting a plate onto something and then putting it in a chamber, then pushing a button. The safety standards are also baffling; a sensor flashes “ORGANIC MATERIAL DETECTED” when he gets stuck in the radiation chamber and sets off an alarm, but doesn’t actually do anything to stop it.
  • Elysium detects unauthorized ships heading towards its airspace. Their defense minister’s response is to order someone on the ground to take a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher out of a van and fire missiles, not even vaguely aiming. The missiles automatically pursue the ships and destroy them, except when one of them makes a last-minute turn, which the missile can’t follow.

    So … what? If you’re going to fire missiles at oncoming ships, why not have the missiles on Elysium? If the missiles are totally self-guiding, why do you need a guy with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher? What would have happened if he was asleep, the habitat would be defenseless? (Arguably, since the habitat doesn’t have a roof, you could just launch them from the station!)

    Furthermore, this system — which fails roughly 1/3 of the time — seems totally inadequate. In the event, the ships are full of unwashed refugees, so they just get rounded up by security robots, but what if they had been, I don’t know, some kind of terrorist attack? The defense minister appears concerned that the poor are going to come in and take over, but not at all worried that people on the ground are going to start firing missiles at the giant, fragile space station full of rich people hovering overhead.

  • The cartoon villain CEO stores some data in his brain, then “protects” it with some kind of security protocol that makes no sense whatsoever. The way it apparently works is that when the data is extracted, it kills the person who it is extracted from. In what possible circumstance would this be a good thing? They talk a little bit about the data being “scrambled”, but apparently it isn’t, because both crazy-hacker-dude and crazy-mercenary-guy identify it instantly, on sight, just by looking at scrolling columns of what seems to be assembly code. Later they use it with no problem whatsoever, except that Matt Damon, who was carrying it, dies.
  • They appear to have no government or laws anymore? Down on Earth, there are still parole officers and public hospitals, but you can also run around shooting people and fly gunships wherever you want and nothing bad happens. Up on Elysium, they have a “President”, but apparently control of the station is vested in some kind of computer system, so whoever has the top authority there runs everything. Citizens of Elysium apparently can’t be arrested, even by its own security forces? (I have an essay to write called “Dictatorship of the Programmers”, about why robot police are a bad idea, but I’ll save it for another time.)

Economics & Politics

Okay. I get that this movie is supposed to be allegorical, because you would have to be brain-dead to miss it. The people of Earth are stuck in hellish poverty; all of the ones we see, except for Matt Damon and his asshole supervisor at work, are Latino or black. (Or SE Asian? Not clear.) Meanwhile, on the space station full of rich people, everyone is white, except for the cowardly politician (Indian) and the lab geeks (East Asian). So, we get it. Elysium is the rich developed world, run by and for the white people, and Earth is everyone else on the planet who wants in. Which is fine, I’m all for that kind of message, but the set-up is so stupid it undermines its effectiveness.

The problem is that the movie’s message seems to be that if only the selfish rich people would let everyone in, everything would be fine. This is both stupid in-universe (the space station isn’t that big, how many people can it fit?) and problematic in terms of the metaphor, because it implies that the problem isn’t distribution of wealth but some kind of physical separation, as though we could solve all the world’s problems by … immigration? I’m not sure. I get the analogy in the sense of “rich white people are assholes” but I honestly don’t know what the message is supposed to be beyond that.

The heroic conclusion to the movie is that everyone on Earth is declared citizens of Elysium, at which point the giant spaceships full of medical equipment (that they have for some reason) get sent down by the computers to help everyone on Earth. This brings us around to the economics problems.

The plot revolves around something called a med-bay, a magical device that instantly cures anything wrong with the person put inside it. (Literally anything from cancer to “having your face blown off”.) Leaving aside the astronomical level of technology this implies, the issue is that these devices are apparently super-common. Every house on Elysium has one, and they have giant EMT ships filled with dozens of them. Here, again, the stupidity of the premise undermines the message. The rich people apparently don’t share this magic technology with the world below not because they only have enough for themselves, or because resources are limited, but just out of sheer unmitigated spite. If this had been a smarter movie, there would have been one med-bay, embedded in a giant hospital on Elysium, available only to the rich and super-expensive to run. Then the question of “Is it better to cure these rich people or use the same resources to help millions?” would have some meaning. As written, you can just do both, because magic!

The people on Elysium are living in a post-scarcity society. They don’t go into this in depth, but they essentially have to be, because they have no poor people, only robots to do all the work! Once you’ve gotten to that point, the decision of whether to share the wealth is ridiculously obvious; if you’re trivially capable of providing huge benefits to everyone, but don’t, that makes you some kind of super-villain. But it means the situation has little or no bearing on the actual world problems the movie is trying to talk about, where we’re in the much stickier situation of facing trade-offs. The actual politics of the issue of global inequality are beyond the scope of this document, but they are a lot more complex than “Dr. Doom is just hogging it all.”

(An aside: In the movie District 9, by the same director/writer, the metaphor was similarly obvious but much more effective. By using the aliens as the despised underclass, he shows discrimination as an almost unifying force among the humans. It’s uncomfortable, which is good, because the people doing the discriminating are similar to the audience of the movie. In Elysium, it falls apart because the role of the global rich is played by these cartoons, who the audience doesn’t at all identify with. Again, in a smarter movie, it would not be the rich but ordinary middle-class Americans up there on the space station — they’re the ones who the message is aimed it! It should be more like the ship from Wall-E, where we can see that helping people down below means giving up their comfortable suburban life.)

Anyway. I … uh … don’t recommend it?

Guest Blogging, Interview, News, Reviews

The Thousand Names, Week Two

For all the fun stuff from week one, including my prequel short story, excerpts, The Big Idea, blogs and reviews, see my first wrap-up post.

This week, the fun continues!

If you’re in the Seattle area, I’m doing a reading and signing at the University Book Store on Thursday at 7 PM. Come and say hi!


Blog tour continues! Reconnaissance: Point of View as a Precious Resource

A great review at A Bitter Draft.


March!: Maintaining Forward Momentum, Or, Things Should Happen In Books

An excellent, thoughtful review, also from Booksmugglers.


Excellent review, including my short story The Penitent Damned, from Fantasy Book Critic.

The Day of Battle: Writing Battle Scenes


The Pursuit: Planning a Series

Excellent, on-target review by another reviewer at SF Signal.


The Butcher’s Bill: Kill Your Darlings, featuring an exclusive excerpt!

An interview with me at Wilder’s Book Review.

The Thousand Names Blog Tour
Launching The Shadow Campaigns

  • Recruitment: Introducing the cast of The Thousand Names, featuring excerpts! (at I Smell Sheep, 7/3/13)
  • Training: Using History to Build a Fantasy Society (at SF Signal, 7/4/13)
  • Deployment: We’ve Come a Long Way (at The Qwillery, 7/5/13)
  • Reconnaissance: Point of View as a Precious Resource (at Anne Lyle, 7/8/13)
  • March!: Maintaining Forward Momentum, Or, Things Should Happen In Books (at The Book Smugglers, 7/9/13)
  • The Day of Battle: Writing Battle Scenes (at Suvudu, 7/10/13)
  • The Pursuit: Planning a Series (at Fantasy Book Critic, 7/11/13)
  • The Butcher’s Bill: Kill Your Darlings, featuring an exclusive excerpt! (at, 7/12/13)

More to come! (Updated 8:29 AM PST, 7/12/13)

Guest Blogging, Interview, News, Reviews

Thousand Names Release Week Post

Rather than try to put up a separate post for everything that’s going on this week, I’m just going to collect it all here. I’ll update as things go up, so you can always check back for the latest. (Or you can follow me on Twitter or on Facebook to get the updates as they come out.)

The book is released! You can track it down at your local indie bookstore or order it from Amazon. More buying options on the book info page.

Stuff that’s already up

My prequel short story, The Penitent Damned, is free at io9.

An excerpt (the first chapter and a half) is available at You can also read an excerpt (slightly different, including the prologue) here on my site.

There’s an interview with me at SF Signal, and you can also check out their review.

The Thousand Names is one of Amazon’s Best of SFF for July!

There’s an interview with me at Fantasy-Faction.

A nice review at Bookworm Blues.

The giveaway for five hardcovers is still ongoing at

A new giveaway for two signed ARCs, open worldwide, at Fantasy Book Critic.

Another review at Speculative Book Review.


The book is released!

I explain The Big Idea behind The Thousand Names at John Scalzi’s Whatever.

A great review at The Book Plank.


Recruitment: Introducing the cast of The Thousand Names, featuring excerpts and a giveaway!

A short Q&A with me over at Penguin.

A nicely detailed review at


Happy Fourth of July! Today the book is released in the UK.

I’ve taken over the Del Rey UK website to talk about worldbuilding.

Training: “How important is it that fantasy be ‘historically accurate?’”


Deployment: We’ve Come a Long Way, on the many versions of The Thousand Names that came before the final one.

A nice review from

Coming Soon

The Thousand Names blog tour, starting Wednesday!
Launching The Shadow Campaigns

  • Recruitment: Introducing the cast of The Thousand Names, featuring excerpts! (at I Smell Sheep, 7/3/13)
  • Training: Using History to Build a Fantasy Society (at SF Signal, 7/4/13)
  • Deployment: We’ve Come a Long Way (at The Qwillery, 7/5/13)
  • Reconnaissance: Point of View as a Precious Resource (at Anne Lyle, 7/8/13)
  • March!: Maintaining Forward Momentum, Or, Things Should Happen In Books (at The Book Smugglers, 7/9/13)
  • The Day of Battle: Writing Battle Scenes (at Suvudu, 7/10/13)
  • The Pursuit: Planning a Series (at Fantasy Book Critic, 7/11/13)
  • The Butcher’s Bill: Kill Your Darlings, featuring an exclusive excerpt! (at, 7/12/13)

More to come! (Updated 10:08 AM PST. 7/5/13)