Obi-Wan: I have a bad feeling about this.
Qui-Gon: I don’t sense anything.
Obi-Wan: It’s not about the mission, Master. It’s something… elsewhere. Elusive.

You are not going to believe my Phantom Menace take. I need to prepare you for it gradually. It is simply too incredible. And Star Wars is something people feel very passionate about, so I don’t want to just up and say it without some preamble. You might want to pour a glass of your favorite drink to brace yourself in the meantime.

Back in ’99, the hype for this movie was off the charts. And why not? It was a movie people had been waiting 15 years to see. It was the cinematic event of 1999. Maybe of the whole decade.

And of course it became synonymous with disappointment. This was one of the earliest examples of the now-common phenomenon of internet fan backlash. Star Wars fans felt betrayed; violated by the movie’s failure to fulfill their expectations.

Instead of being a new chapter in the beloved saga, it became fodder for endless jokes. See, for example, this Simpsons parody, which really summarizes the whole thing neatly. What was the deal with this Jar Jar character? What was all this about trade negotiations? What the hell were midichlorians? This wasn’t Star Wars at all; it was some twisted perversion of the space opera so many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers had come to love.

I think I’m describing the film’s reception pretty accurately. I suspect most of you are nodding your heads in agreement.

Now for my opinion of the film. If you’re ready. If indeed anyone can be ready for this.

My opinion is that The Phantom Menace is the best film in the Star Wars saga.

I chose my words in that sentence very carefully. Note that I did not say it is the best Star Wars film. The best Star Wars film would be the one that most accurately captures the fun, pulp-throwback, spacefaring spirit of Star Wars, which in my opinion is, oddly enough… Star Wars. You know, the first one, A New Hope.

Nor did I say it was my favorite Star Wars film. That is, and always will be, Revenge of the Sith, for reasons explained here. So, if you like some other installment in the saga better, well, more power to you.

But my contention is that The Phantom Menace, when considered as a standalone film and not part of the same series, is the best single movie made under the Star Wars brand.

Now, I don’t deny that TPM has its off moments. I don’t hate Jar Jar Binks like most people do, but there’s no doubt he was overused. And the decision to make the film centered around the performance of young actor Jake Lloyd, despite the fact that Lucas struggles to get good performances even from experienced actors, was a major misstep.

But what it gets right, it gets very right. And of all the films, it’s the one with the best atmosphere, and the most interesting plot.

You want evidence? I’ve got evidence. Let us consider some of the film’s plot elements:

  • As part of a trade dispute, an unscrupulous organization has seized a planet and forced a young ruler into exile.
  • The young ruler flees into the desert along with members of a strange and mystical religious order.
  • Realizing that appeals to the conventional authorities are useless, the young ruler organizes a surprise attack against the occupiers using primitive native forces that hardly anyone knows about.

Huh… that’s funny. I appear to have inadvertently also described the plot of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel Dune. For added fun, you can insert the young ruler’s initials into that summary and it will still fit both, whether you’re talking about Paul Atreides or Padmé Amidala.

Essentially, Phantom Menace takes Paul’s character and splits it into two people, Padmé and Anakin Skywalker. Which is really interesting if you’ve read the Dune sequels. (Note this should not be interpreted as me actually telling you to read the Dune sequels. Ruined Chapel cannot be held liable for damages incurred while reading Dune books.)

Everyone focuses on Anakin’s character arc. Even Lucas focused on Anakin’s character arc, because the whole concept of the prequels was exploring how Darth Vader came to be Darth Vader. Which was a bad idea. You never explain that which is better left to the audience’s imagination.

What was a good idea was exploring the collapse of the Republic. This is the background to Padmé’s story arc, and it’s obviously the more interesting one.

There is no civility, only politics. The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. […] The Chancellor has little real power. He is mired by baseless accusations of corruption. The bureaucrats are in charge now.

So Senator Palpatine tells the Queen when she reaches Coruscant to seek the aid of the government. Civic virtue, the lifeblood of any republic, is gone, replaced only by in-fighting among bureaucratic factions trying to hold on to power.

It’s a great scene, not least because of the aesthetics. Queen Amidala in one of her innumerable ornate gowns, Palpatine in a shimmering robe, and all surrounded by elegant, if baroque, art that characterizes the upper-crust of Coruscant and Naboo. It all screams “late stage Republic.” Reclining into splendid decadence, the Old Republic is now incapable of defending its people.

These were the sorts of political messages the audiences of the ’90s laughed at. Such themes sounded like something out of a history textbook, and have we not said that the ’90s were The End of History? Who needed an Edward Gibbon-esque lecture on the collapse of a republic into barbarism, as the sun rose on a new millennium and Western liberal capitalism bestrode the whole world, triumphant and prepared to give us material solutions to all our problems?

Well, it’s not the ’90s anymore. Are the audiences still laughing? And are we so sure, after all, that the sun really was rising?

The ending of The Phantom Menace is simply perfect. Quibble if you want about Anakin’s line delivery or Jar Jar Binks’ comical triumph over the battle droids, but they do nothing to detract from the overall atmosphere. You have four perfectly intercut battles going at once, each matching the other tonally, emotionally, and logically. From the appearance of the Gungan army out of the fog to the death of Qui-Gon Jinn is the best sustained sequence in any Star Wars film. John Williams’ soaring score helps a good deal.

And yet, despite the triumph of the good Queen and her warriors, there is a dark shadow pervading everything. Williams’ soundtrack for the celebratory song in the final scene is a reworking of the Emperor’s Theme from Return of the Jedi in a major key. What better way to underscore that beneath the effusive and joyous ceremony hide the seeds of corruption, decay, and death?

So ends The Phantom Menace, and so ends our retrospective of ’90s action films. Dear reader, I hope you enjoyed this stroll down memory lane. The ’90s didn’t have streaming services, or smart phones, or cinematic universes, but I hope you’ll agree they did have a certain spirit that makes them worth remembering even decades later.

There’s one in every family, every group. That one that just doesn’t quite fit in. The one that gets the awkward looks and everyone whispers about uncomfortably. And that’s what The Matrix is on this list.

It’s an action film, yes. And it’s from the ’90s. But it’s also the one that signals the beginning of the end of the era we have all gathered here to appreciate. In many ways, it heralds the dawn of the millennium and a new, darker epoch of cinema.

Remember Y2K? More specifically, the infamous Y2K bug? The 21st century kicked off with a panic over a computer code glitch, and looking back, that set the tone for the decades that followed. And The Matrix, with its hackers and simulations and false consciousness, and its grungy cyberpunk aesthetic, captured the techno fin de siècle 2.0 angst perfectly. Already, we are in stranger spiritual waters than the rest of the films covered here.

The Matrix‘s impact on culture is undeniable. To me, it’s also insufferable. The expression “redpill”, for example, which during the 2000s emerged as internet slang for the promulgation of unorthodox political ideas, has become so overused it is now essentially just another way of saying, “Here is some information which I did not previously have.”

For all its sophomoric philosophy, though, The Matrix still a ’90s action film. It’s got cool special effects. It’s got gunfights and explosions. And, most of all, despite its “The Man is Keeping Us Down” attitude, it’s still fundamentally a Love Conquers All story. Neo literally gets revived by True Love’s Kiss, like Snow White.

It’s a pretty decent movie, all told. Though I do think the special effects haven’t aged well. I thought “bullet time” was amazing when I was 12, but now it looks like a gimmick. The fistfight scenes are also oddly comical. I half expect Yakety Sax to break out.

The Matrix has one foot in the optimistic, upbeat world of the ’90s and one in the gloomy, cynical irony of the ’00s. That’s why I had to include it in here; it’s the mutation that would eventually evolve the modern action film. Hell, Keanu Reeves is still starring in neo-noir action movies (and video games) all these years later. Say what you want about The Matrix, but you can’t ignore its impact.

Another funny thing about this film is how one of the major plot points involves… pay phones. Do  those still exist? Does anyone born after the year 2000 know what they are? I’m not sure. That, of course, is the problem with techno-thrillers. Tech changes in ways you can’t predict, and what was once super-futuristic can suddenly appear laughably quaint faster than you expect.

This definitely isn’t my favorite movie on this list, but it’s still a perfectly serviceable action flick with some interesting underlying ideas. Indeed, many of its themes are more relevant now than they were when it was made. If I seem down on this film, it’s not so much a reaction to The Matrix itself, but rather the cultural change of which it was an early harbinger. But no library of ’90s action films would be complete without it, that’s for sure.

We’re coming to the end of this series now, but we still have one last exhibit to consider before making some concluding remarks. Perhaps at last, we will tie together all the divergent strands of cultural evolution discussed heretofore, and in so doing, weave together a complete picture of the zeitgeist as it must have seemed to the cinematic aesthete of the the 20th century’s last decade.

Or maybe we’ll just see a bunch of junk get blown up. You never can tell.

This right here is the movie that inspired me to write this series. Of all the movies I have discussed, or will discuss, this is the ’90s-est, action-est, movie-est.

While I obviously like every movie listed here, I could point to flaws in most of them. Terminator 2 is too cartoonishly violent, Last Action Hero has too many crude jokes, GoldenEye has Xenia Onatopp, and so on. But when it comes to The Mummy, I’m at a loss to find much fault with it. It’s a classic pulp adventure.

You’ve got wonderful characters, from the gunslinging American Rick O’Connell and the bumbling twit Jonathan Carnahan, to the mysterious Ardeth Bay and the jovial pilot Winston Havelock. Not forgetting the conniving coward Beni or the sinister High Priest himself, Imhotep.

And then, of course, there’s Evie Carnahan. I can do no better than to quote her description of herself, after she’s had a little too much to drink around the campfire one night:

“I may not be an explorer or an adventurer or a treasure-seeker or a… a gunfighter, Mr. O’Connell! But, I am proud of what I am! I… am a librarian!”

All right, maybe that’s not Evie at her finest, although definitely she is pretty awesome even when she’s been hitting the bottle. But what I love is how she and O’Connell make such a good team. His adventuring skills and her thorough knowledge of Egypt help rescue them time and again from the wrath of the revivified mummy.

Everything about the movie is just fun. You can tell the actors are enjoying themselves, and why shouldn’t they? It’s a cracking good yarn of romance and derring-do. It’s one of those movies that, when you see it come on TV, you just sit and watch it before you even realize where the time has gone.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the better I like a movie, the harder it is to review it. How many ways are there to say, “this movie is awesome and I love it”? Not bloody many. This is probably why academic critical analyses of movies tend to focus on what’s wrong with them; that’s much more fruitful ground. But the result is that many words are generated on the topic of bad movies, and not so much on the good ones.

Well, I’m no academic, but I’ll give this a try: The Mummy is great because it offers us an immediately recognizable, yet still sufficiently different world we can escape into. People watch movies because they want fun. Critics, as a rule, don’t want fun. Ergo, critics aren’t people. Oops, wait; I’m a critic, aren’t I? Hmm.

My point is, if you want to write a 20 page paper on themes and symbolism and whatnot, this movie probably won’t furnish you with enough raw material for same. But who cares? Only weirdos like me sit down and write at length of their thoughts on movies; normal people just enjoy them. And joy is an underrated emotion when it comes to providing fodder for writing. Probably because it’s so far beyond words. There’s a reason that the most famous instance of a composition expressing joy was written in music.

In a way, writing critiques is just dodging the real issue. Could any review I write, no matter how clever, witty, or insightful, ever equal the sheer glee I had as an 11 year old kid watching Rick O’Connell mow down legions of zombie warriors? Of course not! Writing about it is just a way to relive the experience over again, and hopefully share the joy with others.

The real greatness of movies is never found in reviews; it’s found when you are sitting there in that theater, with your popcorn and your drinks, ideally with people you really like, sharing the pleasure of diving together into some fantastic, imaginary world full of excitement and suspense and adventure that you can talk about afterward not in the technical, fussy language of a critic, but with the burbling excitement of a kid playing in the backyard. Take that, Bembridge scholars!

It occurs to me, gentle reader, that perhaps this series has a curious structure to it. The posts are getting longer and, hopefully, building upon each other. However, this structure might make it confusing to read. Maybe it’s better to read it in reverse order, with the posts hopefully cascading to tell a larger story. Like the verses in “I Have  A Song to Sing, O!”

Or maybe not. Anyway, our journey has now brought us to the 1995 007 flick, GoldenEye.

GoldenEye is, in my opinion, the best James Bond movie. Now, my opinion could be biased by the fact that it is the first James Bond movie I ever saw. But I don’t think so. Part of the reason is that Brosnan is not my favorite Bond; not even close, and yet I still enjoy this film the most.

The key thing with all James Bond films is that they are walking a fine line. You can’t take James Bond too seriously, because, well, the whole premise is basically ridiculous. The early Connery films established a somewhat over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek tone.

Unfortunately, the 1970s happened, and this tone got carried to a new extreme during the Roger Moore era, which saw Bond films that ranged from pseudo-blaxploitation to rip-offs of Star Wars.  And that was before we even got to Octopussy and A View to a Kill. <shudder>

The Timothy Dalton era wasn’t really even an era, consisting as it did of only two films: The Living Daylights, which still has some residual silliness inherited from the Roger Moore tradition, and the serious and gritty Licence to Kill, a clear forerunner of the darker tone of the Craig era.

It’s a shame Dalton didn’t sign up for one more turn as 007 in GoldenEye, because it’s the one that finally hit that proper medium. It isn’t outright camp like the Moore films, but it has enough awareness of its genre not to try and be some sort of grim, realistic thriller.

And we should expect nothing less! Because it was made in the ’90s, and the whole point of this exercise is that the ’90s were the halcyon days of action movies. GoldenEye isn’t a great film, and I would grade it as distinctly inferior to the preceding three films I’ve reviewed in this series, but there’s no doubt in my mind it is the best Bond film, and the best that’s likely to be made for some while.

There are even some moments of social commentary, incredible as it may seem. Like when Bond goes wandering amid a wasteland of Soviet relics to meet the leader of the Janus crime syndicate, with the implication being that Bond himself is another holdover from the Cold War. The film asks: with the U.S.S.R. gone, what is even the point of an operative like 007?

The whole movie is kind of a farewell to Cold War thrillers. Large portions of it are set in Russia, with Russian villains, and Russian super-weapons, and a brief discussion of the repatriation of the Cossacks in the aftermath of World War II. It’s a meditation, to the extent that any action movie can be called a “meditation,” on what all the tropes of the spy genre would look like in the unipolar moment.

Because what was a spy to do, at The End of History? For that matter, what were these huge, military-industrial complexes with vast arsenals of experimental weapons built up over decades to do? (The answer to both, GoldenEye suggests, is “fall into the hands of terrorists and madmen.”)

But that’s another story, for another decade. In the ’90s, it was still all just fun and games, and James Bond could be counted on to save the world with his sexy sidekicks and his cool gadgets, and even the blundering, bumbling American CIA could show up for a cameo at the end.

I can’t end this review without mentioning GoldenEye‘s most enduring legacy: the spin-off video game that proved to be one of the most influential of its era, and which remains legendary in gaming circles to this day.  Do they still do video game spin-offs of movies these days? I haven’t heard about any. Games based on movies have a reputation for being awful; and yet we see that it was done successfully at least once, in that strange, gauzily-remembered decade between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Y2K. It seems the knowledge once existed, though it has subsequently been lost. Like Greek Fire.

[Update: check out my friend Pat Prescott’s response to this post. His take on the movie is very different than mine, and while I stand by my opinion, I admit he makes some good points. But then, he’s a real Bond expert, having seen all the films many times. One thing I hope to encourage with this series is for people to post their own opinions on the films I discuss.]

If this movie had been made a decade or two later, it would have inspired a fan backlash.

Do you doubt me? This is the film that transforms Sarah Connor from the ordinary young waitress of the original movie into a hardboiled commando, athletic and capable of handling firearms with ease. You can’t tell me that people wouldn’t complain about the change. As if that weren’t enough, now the T-800 is a good guy, fighting to protect the young John Connor. “But how did that even work?” the Comic Book Guys of the world may ask. “How does it fit with the established lore?”

But T2‘s biggest crime against the franchise is the subversion of The Terminator‘s original theme. The first film is fatalistic, with the coming nuclear war caused by Skynet understood as an inevitable outcome.

T2 says otherwise; that “there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” It totally undercuts the original’s theme. Not to mention opening a whole new can of worms about multiple timelines, in addition to the paradoxes that are implicit in every time travel story.

All these are valid criticisms. But it doesn’t change the fact that Terminator 2 is still a really great action movie. Yes, it replaces The Terminator‘s grittiness with some pretty over-the-top and cartoonish action sequences, most notably the use of an M134 minigun as a precision non-lethal weapon to avoid casualties. Just… no. Or rather, only in the movies. Though I am come to sing T2‘s praises, I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s believable.

But look: this was the ’90s, and the ’90s were pretty optimistic. The Cold War was over! It had been won not with guns and bombs, but with blue jeans! It was The End of History!

This might sound silly nowadays, and yet, I think, it was the attitude that made ’90s pop culture so damn infectious. Terminator 2 is lighter than both The Terminator and Terminator 3. And that, I submit, is because it was made after the renewed US-Soviet tensions of the ’80s and before the post-9/11 2000s. It captures the mood of the era, by willing to be a fun Arnold Schwarzenegger movie where the killer robot says things like “Hasta la vista, baby.”

Is The Terminator a “better” movie? I dunno, depends what you mean by “better.” In some ways, sure. But in terms of being a fun action movie that you can just enjoy and walk out of feeling like the good guys won and the bad guys lost, Terminator 2 is better.

This is why I contend that Terminator 2 is the perfect movie to encapsulate what I mean when I speak of ’90s action movies. It kicked off a style of film that would rule the decade. And moreover, it was the last decade that films like Terminator 2 could rule, exactly because fandoms had not yet organized to talk about them.

All the films I’m going to talk about in this series could not be made now, for one reason or another. And that’s partially why I want to write about them, because (you may laugh) I think these films say something about their time, and, perhaps, by way of reflection, our time as well.

But that’s only secondary. The main reason is that ’90s action movies are freaking fun, and that’s why I like watching them. James Cameron, for all his faults, sure knows how to make a good action picture. Even when he goes and makes something that’s nothing but a rip-off of Ferngully meets Dances With Wolves, the action sequences are still good. And here was Cameron at his peak, making a film with one high-speed action scene after another. I think the canal chase is my favorite part. You’ve got to love the way Arnold flips that shotgun around.

That said, let’s not forget the prelude to that sequence, when the T-1000 and the T-800 hunt John Connor through the mall. Watching it now, of course, I’m highly nostalgic. Malls are a feature of the ’90s that has since been devoured by the internet. In reality, it turned out that “Skynet” needed no nuclear missiles to take over the world; it just needed a ton of server space.

Sorry; I’m getting philosophical again. I do that sometimes when I write about movies. You’re still here, so maybe you like it, or at least are willing to tolerate it. Philosophy is a wonderful thing, and it’s delightful to find it sprinkled around the edges of our favorite movies.

But it can never be the main thing. Ultimately, movies are at their best when they show us a world we can get lost in, give us characters we can love and hate, and above all else, tell us a good story. The films I’m going to discuss all do that, and that’s why I’m revisiting them now. Come join me, won’t you? Or should I say, “Come with me if you want to live… the ’90s over again.”

Every now and then, I get the idea to write something and it won’t go away until I do it. I feel like I can’t do anything else until I’ve gotten it out of my system.

Last August, I got the idea that it would be fun to write about some of my favorite action movies from the 1990s. And I worked on it off and on until, finally, I’ve got a decent series of posts together. I’ve selected nine films. I thought about listing them here, but then I thought maybe it would be more fun if I surprise you with each one, although longtime readers can probably guess at least some of them.

My plan is to post each Monday, beginning next week, February 7. And no, this won’t interfere with the weekly Friday book review, so fear not if you’re only here for those. Hopefully, this will be fun, and a pleasant way of making winter Mondays less dreary.

Note the title of this post does not include the word “review.” This isn’t a review in the typical sense. It’s long and rambling, even by my standards. But I promised Trent Lewin that I would share my thoughts on it when I finally saw it. (You can read Trent’s take here.) So, here goes.

The Book

I reviewed the book Dune here, on what was originally going to be the release date for the movie. I won’t bother rehashing everything I said there. Instead, I’ll just say that Frank Herbert went to write an article about sand dunes in Oregon, got fascinated with ecology and messianic leaders, and did a bunch of magic mushrooms. The resulting book is about what you would expect. It is interesting, multifaceted, and more than a bit bizarre. In some superficial ways, it’s just a good ol’ fashioned Sword and Planet adventure, with a hero who defeats his enemies, claims his birthright, and marries a princess… but if you’re expecting an Edgar Rice Burroughs yarn, your reaction is likely to be “WTF did I just read?”

Actually, that will probably be your reaction no matter what. It was mine, and I even (mostly) liked the book. It’s different, and I respect that. My biggest problem with the book is also a problem with the movie, so I’ll hold off on discussing that until later.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

In the early 1970s, Alejandro Jodorowsky planned to adapt the book into an epic film. The project never got off the ground, but did result in a sprawling collection of interesting storyboards and concept art, which you can see here. The artists appear to have taken the magic mushroom elements and run with them. The project spawned a documentary, which I have not seen, but which Josh Sawyer describes the ending of as follows:

“Alejandro says that in the end the actual making of the film would have ruined it, because it was absolutely perfect in his mind.”

Remember this.

Lynch’s Dune

After Jodorowsky’s attempt failed, Dino de Laurentiis bought the rights, and hired David Lynch to direct an adaptation, released in 1984. This film is a cult classic, but in my opinion, it’s a mess. The worst part is the constant voice-overs used to convey characters’ thoughts. This is in keeping with Herbert’s writing style, but it just goes to show you what worked on the page won’t work in a movie.

All that said, the film does have a unique and unsettling aesthetic, which is probably the most essential quality for any Dune adaptation. There’s no doubt Lynch had a vision, though it was a weird and probably not mass-marketable one. Not to mention that the special FX of the ’80s were just not up to creating the stuff he was trying to portray.

Villeneuve‘s Dune 

Psych! First, I have to talk about some other Villeneuve movies. This is the third one of his I’ve seen, the others being Arrival, which was pretty good, and Blade Runner 2049, which was turgid. It’s hard to make something cyberpunk that I don’t like, and yet 2049 managed to do it. So, I can’t say I was super-optimistic going into Dune.

But I watched it. I even got the “limited edition pain box” version, because, well, how could I not, with a name like that?

So what is the deal with this movie? Is it good? Is it bad? Does it do what it’s supposed to do? Come to that, what is it supposed to do?

Uh oh. It looks like we’ve run into a problem before we’ve even started. We can’t analyze Dune without understanding what a movie adaptation should be doing. So I guess more work is needed. Hold the phone, everybody!

Lean’s Dune?

Before Lynch, even before Jodorowsky, Sir David Lean was offered a chance at directing Dune, but he turned it down.

I sort of understand this, because Lean wasn’t a science fiction guy. But nevertheless, this is a tragedy of epic proportions. Because Lean was the director most qualified to direct Dune. Of course, I should stipulate that he would need his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robert Bolt.

Lean and Bolt created one of the greatest desert epics ever made, Lawrence of Arabia. If you read my review of the Dune novel above, you know my thoughts on Lawrence‘s influence on the entire Dune universe as Herbert conceived it. It’s profound. Lawrence of Arabia is an incredible adaptation of an extremely complex book, T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In fact, it’s pretty much the gold standard by which I judge all other cinematic adaptations.

It’s a completely faithful adaptation, but not in the sense that Bolt took every single thing in the book and included it in his script. That would be impossible. Rather, it’s faithful in the sense that it captures everything Lawrence records in his memoir: his initial hopes for a grand future for the Arab revolt, his own conflicted psychological turmoil, and his ultimate disillusionment at the cynical manipulation of himself and the men he led by the generals and politicians of the Great Powers. You feel all of it in the final scene as the broken Lawrence rides off to return to England, a motorcycle engine growling ominously nearby as the screen fades to black.

Ultimately, Lawrence of Arabia is about how an introverted, troubled, brilliant officer tried to accomplish something great by playing the role of a leader that deep down, he knew he never could be. And Dune, as a series, is about much the same thing. Frank Herbert said:

“The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.”

“Lawrence of Arabia” was a hero. “Paul Muad’dib,” the “Kwisatz Haderach,” is a hero. But at some level, T.E. Lawrence and Paul Atreides know, more than anyone else, that it’s just a role; a story created to fit a preconceived pattern in the minds of the masses.

In a sense, Dune itself is an adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia, just in space, with psychic witches and sandworms.

On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Okay, I’m cheating now. That’s a book by Thomas Carlyle, which I have not read, although my understanding is it’s a series of essays about historical figures like Cromwell, Napoleon, etc. who rose to power. I suppose I should have picked a more creative title for this section, but what I actually want to talk about is hero-worship.

It so happens I’m reading Garibaldi’s Defence of the Roman Republic by George MacCaulay Trevelyan at the moment. It’s pretty much the definition of a hagiography, as Trevelyan makes no effort whatsoever to hide his blind adoration of Garibaldi.

Garibaldi is an interesting figure, with his own parallels to Paul Atreides. He too led a guerrilla war that battled great dynasties and inspired an impressive cult following in England with tales of his heroics. Indeed, he is one of those romantic figures of Mediterranean politics that should, I think, inform any interpretation of Dune, because Dune is heavily influenced by a powerful strain of Machiavellian political theory in its depiction of warring aristocratic houses and shifting family alliances.

Really, almost everything in Dune has some analogue in actual, if mostly forgotten history; which I suspect is why its world is one that so many people get absorbed in. It has echoes of things dimly remembered, or not even remembered, but somehow with a feeling of eminent plausibility, like having a dream that you think you’ve had before.

Villeneuve‘s Dune (For Real This Time)

Having established all that, we are now finally prepared to attack the question of whether the new Dune movie is any good or not. The answer will ride on whether or not it conveys the theme and mood of its source material.

The answer is… well, sorta.

Dune gets most of the little things right. The art direction is excellent. The acting is good. The atmosphere generally feels alien. Almost everything shown is a scene depicted in the book. Not only does it copy the things I liked about the book, but it even conveys the things I didn’t like. One of these is that I find Paul unlikable in the book, and I find him unlikable in the movies. Now, given the Herbert quote above, I think that may be deliberate. Because Paul isn’t a hero, but everybody worships him as such, you come away with the feeling that he’s a fraud. In every depiction, Leto is so much better and more interesting, and in both book and film, I feel like the story starts running out of steam at the point where he dies.

That makes the story weaker in my opinion, but I’m willing to give the movie a pass on this since I have the same problem with the book.

More significantly, though, there are places where Dune still feels like a product of the cinematic fads of the 2020s. One example is the damned washed-out lens filter. The scene that highlights this most is when Duke Leto and Gurney Halleck are looking over their newly-acquired holdings on Arrakis. Halleck tells Leto the sun is getting too high, and they can’t stay out. And sure, you can see there’s some sun, and imagine it’s probably hot.

But you don’t feel the heat. You don’t viscerally sense the sun beating down on you. In Lawrence of Arabia, you do.

This is the feeling I had throughout the movie. It’s good, it’s solid, but it’s also just not quite willing to take that extra step that propels it into timelessness. And timelessness is a very important quality for Dune.

If there’s one place where Lynch’s Dune has an advantage, it’s that the aesthetic is so weird it creates a uniquely alien vibe that really does convey the feeling that you’re in another world. I’m not saying that it’s a better film. It’s seriously not; it’s kind of a 1980s cheesefest if I’m being honest. But I am saying, Dune, more than most films, is one where a sense of aesthetics is incredibly important.

This is probably a little bit harsh on my part, I’ll admit. Every movie is of course a product of its time. Even Lawrence of Arabia, for as well as it holds up overall, has a few elements that date it as a 1960s Epic Motion Picture, like Maurice Jarre’s occasionally over-the-top soundtrack. If the problem could be reduced to a matter of lens filters, I wouldn’t complain about it. (Much.)

No, the problem here goes even deeper. And it goes right to the heart of what the core appeal of Dune is.

“Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere.”

The universe of Dune is effectively a post-Enlightenment society. It’s not a coincidence that much of the book draws inspiration from pre-Enlightenment societies. In fact, the central idea of Dune is the rejection of rationality, from the Butlerian Jihad that destroyed Artificial Intelligences to the heavy emphasis on mind-altering drugs and visions. There is no evidence of Enlightenment concepts like “constitutional government” or “individual liberty.”

In my opinion, this is why the whole thing feels so weird and foreign. We are a society based on Reason, and on encountering a society that is not based on Reason, but on instinct, superstition, heredity and above all else, power, we feel like we have stepped into another universe altogether. (Although, if you think about it, considering the Enlightenment began in the 16th century, such societies are actually the norm, and we are the exception.)

This comes through very clearly in the book, which is one reason there are things in the book that, to be blunt, make absolutely no sense whatsoever.  They’re not supposed to. Remember: magic mushrooms.

This movie, although it has no shortage of visions, hallucinations and other weirdness, doesn’t convey that. I’m not sure exactly why. Arrival did a good job of messing with the viewer’s mind to the point that if you want to understand the plot, you have to perceive time as a Möbius strip, which is also basically the state Paul is in by the time he meets the Fremen. Yet, I never got that feeling of otherworldly eeriness that’s so integral to the Dune experience.

Actually, no. There was one scene where I did get it. The creepy chant that plays while the Sardaukar soldiers are gearing up to attack Arrakis gave me the uncanny feeling of witnessing something completely alien to my own perception of reality. I liked that scene a lot.

Otherwise, though… it was an unremarkable movie. Not bad by any means, and with some enjoyable visuals and interesting shots. It just felt hollow and meaningless, which is in a way tragic because it tried so hard to be faithful to its source material that it lacked the boldness to do something truly unusual… which, paradoxically, is exactly what made its source material good to begin with.

But recall the words of Jodorowsky paraphrased above. Perhaps there can never be a perfect Dune adaptation because the universe of Dune can only be formed in the mind of the reader. And for every reader, it compiles slightly differently, as a unique and fragile structure, and to try and preserve or share this creation is a fool’s errand.

“But Berthold, this is one of those made-for-TV Christmas movies!”

“I know, but what can I say? I enjoy them. Some are better than others, and this is one of the best.”

“But last year you said the same thing about Christmas Crush, and one of your friends saw it on your recommendation and thought it was terrible!”

“Well, Christmas Crush does have a very millennial sense of humor to it, which I think may not be for everyone. The jokes in it come from the awkward conversations and ironic coincidences. Not everyone’s cup of tea. I should have mentioned that.”

“Okay, fine. So, why do you think this movie is so good?”

“It really comes down to the relationship between the protagonists. Jessie Temple is a tough, no-nonsense cop assigned to protect witness Dean Cupo until he can testify. She’s not just waiting around for a prince to sweep her off her feet like many of the female characters in these kinds of movies. She and Dean do a lot of verbal sparring at first, which makes sense, but then gradually they bond over little things, like a shared love of old horror movies.”

“It’s still sounds cheesy to me.”

“Well, yeah; and I’d be lying if I said it’s not. But, it’s a holiday movie. You don’t go watching a Christmas movie in the hopes that you’ll discover some sort of edgy, avant-garde experimental film. You watch it because you want to see a cozily familiar drama performed by likable characters. See my comments about pantomime in the Christmas Crush review.”

“No, I don’t think I will. Can’t you stay on topic?”

“Sure. Most Christmas movies are just too saccharine for my taste. Nothing whatsoever happens. It’s like, ‘Oh, I fell in love with the Prince of Monte Carlo! Oh, but there was some trivial misunderstanding and now we broke up! Oh, but now it turns out we cleared it up and we’ll get married!’ It’s all so vapid.”

“Uh huh.”

“Whereas a movie like A Christmas Witness has some real plot to it. How many Hallmark Christmas movies end with armed standoffs? I mean, yes, you know how the journey’s going to end, but at least you feel like you went somewhere.”

“Hmmmm.”

“I get that you’re skeptical, and I respect that. And I’m not saying, ‘Oh, man this movie is great! It should win all the Academy Awards! Go home, Lawrence of Arabia, we have a new cinematic classic!’ I’m not saying that.”

“That’s good.”

“It’s just that it’s pleasant holiday entertainment. When I sit down to watch a Christmas movie, I really don’t want my expectations subverted, or to get a dark, hardboiled mystery, full of mistrust and morally ambiguous characters. But nor do I want something so sugary-sweet that it makes my teeth hurt. This movie gets the balance just right for me.”

“I see. Well, I can’t say you’ve convinced me, but maybe some of those people out there will feel differently about what you’ve said. Thank you for your time.”

This is a sequel to the original Universal Dracula film from 1931. It stars Lon Chaney Jr. as the titular vampire, although he is going by the name Alucard to avoid arousing suspicion. (There is a reason for this in vampire lore, but as a disguise it’s barely better than “Mr. Hilter.”) He is invited to New Orleans by a Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. Soon after his arrival, her father mysteriously dies, leaving his estate to Katherine and her sister Claire. (Evelyn Ankers)

Katherine’s boyfriend Frank (Robert Paige) is alarmed at her strange behavior, and enraged when he learns she has married Alucard in secret. He tries to shoot Alucard, but hits Katherine instead when the bullets go through his target. He flees in terror and grief, but after he confesses to the crime, returns to the estate with the police to find Katherine still apparently alive.

I say “apparently,” and I think you probably know why I said “apparently.” I’ll spare you the description of the part where they consult vampire experts to work it all out, and skip right to the bit where Katherine confesses to Frank that she truly loves him, and only wanted to obtain immortality. She asks Frank to join her as a vampire, and tells him how to destroy “Alucard” by burning his coffin.

However, Frank is not the type to be tempted by the dark powers. He is much more of a Frodo than a Boromir, and so he does the only thing his conscience will allow: burns both Alucard and Katherine’s coffins. The film ends with him staring solemnly at the flames.

How much darker is this than your typical old monster movie? Usually the good guys kill the monster and save the damsel at the end. Not here, though. I remember the first time I saw it (on television, late one Halloween) I was stunned at the bleak ending.

Also, the New Orleans setting works really well. The scene where Katherine meets Alucard one night on a swampy river is a particularly eerie one.

Speaking of Katherine, I really liked her character. She’s clearly an intelligent woman, seduced not so much by Dracula’s charms, which are minimal, but by the prospect of eternal life. It’s a classic trope, but it’s a classic because it works.

And here we get to the implicit “moral” built into the vampire legend. The vampire is a human which has obtained immortality, but at the price of their soul. The implication is that mortality is the burden we must bear, and seeking to subvert it, particularly at the cost of others’ lives, is an unnatural perversion. The vampire is fundamentally parasitic, since it can only live by consuming the blood of mortals.

So, bottom line: don’t trade your soul for immortality! It may sound like a good idea, but trust us; it isn’t. This is the fundamental theme of a huge amount of fiction. And so, this is obviously what makes the vampire myth so effective.

Thanks for your time, fellow horror fans, but I think we’ve pretty much cleared this one up easily. I’ll just show myself out.

<Columbo voice> Oh, uh, there is one more thing. How do you know if you’re trading your soul? Come to that, how did this Count, uh, Alucard did you say? How did he get the idea to trade his soul in the first place? Was he the first vampire? If so, how did he do it? If not, who was the first vampire? </End>

I’m asking these questions as a study of the literature, of course. But also as a student of history–what inspired this myth to begin with? Do we know? The story of Dracula is obviously iconic. But where did it come from? And why?

More questions than answers, I’m afraid. Our work is not done, but take heart; I feel sure that we are hot on the trail.

As usual, there will be spoilers. Don’t read if you don’t want to know what happens. But that’s probably not what’s going to turn off most of my readers. No, the hard part is going to be persuading those who have no interest in yet another superhero movie that it’s worthwhile to spend more than two seconds thinking about one.

Well, who can say what is a worthy subject for discussion in the world of fiction? Or any world for that matter? But I’ll do my best to make the case for why it might be.

The film begins with an intro sequence showing a young Diana competing in a race on Paradise Island. Yeah, yeah; I know it’s called “Themyscira” now, but if “Paradise Island” was good enough for Lynda Carter in the 1970s, it’s good enough for me.

After this, there is another intro sequence that shows the grown-up Diana as Wonder Woman in (duh) 1984, foiling an attempted theft at a shopping mall. Yes, that’s right–there are two intro sequences, one after the other! One of the rules of writing that people throw around is to eschew prologues. I disagree with this, but I think avoiding two successive prologues is probably fair advice for filmmaking.

Anyway, then the story gets going: Diana Prince works at the Smithsonian, studying ancient artifacts. Another scientist, Dr. Barbara Minerva arrives, and the two begin studying a mysterious stone that the thieves from the second intro sequence had been attempting to steal.

Dr. Minerva is nervous, shy and awkward, and she admires Diana’s cool confidence. Diana, it seems to her, is the woman who has everything. But Diana does not, in fact, have everything. We see she is desperately lonely; still mourning her lover, Steve Trevor, who perished nobly in the first Wonder Woman movie.

Anyway, that stone that Diana and Dr. Minerva are studying is also sought by businessman Maxwell Lord, a charismatic TV personality whose gaudy lifestyle and brash persona masks the fact that his company is on the brink of financial collapse.

He wants the stone because, as legend has it, touching the stone and making a wish will grant the holder’s request. We quickly see several demonstrations of this–Minerva held the stone and wished to be like Diana, and immediately became more confident and charismatic. And Diana has touched the stone and unconsciously wished to have Steve back. And suddenly, he is somehow restored to life, inhabiting the body of some random guest at a party that Diana is attending. To Diana, he appears as her old flame from 1917, and the two waste no time picking up where they left off.

Meanwhile, Lord meets Dr. Minerva, plays upon her craving for attention, and wheedles his way into making her give him the stone. He then makes a wish to make himself the stone, taking on its power and allowing him to grant people’s wishes, in exchange for taking something from them.

Chaos ensues, as Lord amasses greater wealth and power for himself. People wish to fulfill their selfish desires, sacrificing in the process something of theirs that Lord wants.

Diana and Steve eventually realize, given the stone’s malevolent nature and origins, that it will lead to an apocalyptic collapse of civilization. Dr. Minerva also realizes this, but sees that attempting to thwart Lord and end the spell will mean she loses all the physical powers she gained since making her wish, and she is not going to let that happen. So she joins forces with Lord, who by this point has managed to secure the powers of the Presidency itself, and in the process pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Steve finally convinces Diana that she must renounce her wish, and allow him to return to being nothing but a bittersweet memory. Once she accepts this, Diana is strong enough to pursue Lord and Minerva to a remote military installation, where the former has taken over an experimental global broadcast network, allowing him to tempt the entire planet with his dark powers of wish-granting.

After a fight with Dr. Minerva, who has transformed into a half-human, half-cheetah hybrid, Diana is able to stop Lord. I apologize for being vague on this point, but I actually did not understand how she did it, except by somehow appealing to the whole world to renounce their wishes. Then, moved by concern for his son Alistair, Lord renounces his own wish, and the total annihilation of the Earth is narrowly averted.

If you played “Deus Ex” this will surely remind you of Bob Page.

I omitted some details here and there–this movie has a lot of filler. Not that it’s bad material exactly, but many scenes go on for longer than they need to. The opening 15 minutes, with its two cool-but-superfluous opening sequences, sets the tone. Wonder Woman 1984 is many things, but “spare” is not one of them.

The cinematography started off really nice. The second opening sequence, in particular, features a full range of vibrant colors, but by the end it was back to the now-standard Hollywood palette of orange and blue.

On the other hand, I liked all the performances. Gal Gadot is a great Wonder Woman, and as in the first film, her chemistry with Chris Pine make their scenes together the best ones in the movie. Pedro Pascal is excellent as the smarmy con man who nonetheless has a really sympathetic side to him. And Kristen Wiig does a fantastic job portraying the rather tragic arc of Dr. Minerva’s transformation from an awkward, introverted woman driven by her desire for acceptance and respect to become a vindictive sadist.

So, what did I think of the movie? Well, for one thing, more than once while watching it, I said to myself “Patty Jenkins is the female George Lucas.” Interpret that as you will.

But my dominant impression on seeing the film, which coalesced in my mind while the faux-1980s static-filled credits were still rolling, was “That was the perfect film for 2020.”

I don’t mean that it was a perfect film. I’m not sure if there is any such thing as a perfect film, but if there is, Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t it. It’s frankly kind of a mess. How is Steve possessing the body of some random guy? Why did Diana and Steve steal a jet to fly to Egypt? How could Steve fly it? How did they get back? How did Dr. Minerva know Diana would be at the White House? Where was Alistair’s mother while her ex was becoming a famous megalomaniacal cult leader?

In the words of Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove, “By all accounts, it doesn’t make sense.”

Of course, things don’t always make sense even in real life, but people will accept inexplicable things in real life more readily than they will in fiction. When something totally bizarre happens in real life, we say, “well, c’est la vie!” Whereas when it happens in fiction, we can’t help but feel that some writer somewhere is trying to cheat us.

Well, what we writers do is make up elaborate falsehoods. Speaking of falsehoods, this is a good place to begin with studying the themes in this movie. There are lot of lines in it about truth, such as Diana’s:

Nothing good is born from lies. And greatness is not what you think.

And during the final showdown with Lord, she says:

This world was a beautiful place just as it was, and you cannot have it all. You can only have the truth. And the truth is enough. The truth is beautiful. So look at this world, and look at what your wish is costing it. You must be the hero. Only you can save the day. Renounce your wish if you want to save this world.

Ah, yes–the wish. It’s the magic wish-granting stone that’s causing all this trouble, after all. And, we are informed, it was a creation of the god Dolos, later known as the Duke of Deception, a character who first appeared in Wonder Woman Issue #2 in 1942.

Yeah, that’s cool. But my thinking runs more towards the mythopoetic. When I hear about some notorious liar purporting to grant wishes, there’s only one thing I think of: The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.

All right, admittedly that’s Marlowe’s title, and when we think of Faust, we usually think of Goethe’s Faust. But it’s an old legend that predates them both and has survived them both. As Wikipedia says, “‘Faust’ and the adjective ‘Faustian’ imply a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success for a limited term.”

Basically, the magic stone is the Devil. It grants wishes, but the wishes are based on lies, and in the end they have a cost. Everyone is seduced by the tempting lies of the stone, even the wise and powerful Wonder Woman.

And everyone makes their wishes for the most noble-sounding reasons. Diana wants to have her lover back. Lord wants to build a better life for his son. Dr. Minerva wants to be treated with respect. Even minor characters, like the Emir who wants to secure his nation’s sovereignty or the President who wants to force the Russians to the negotiating table, have good reasons for wishing what they wish.

There’s some old saying about good intentions and roads… I can’t quite remember it, though…

I have a scale for evaluating superhero movies. At the top is Thor, which in my opinion is everything a superhero movie can aspire to be. It was directed by Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh, who imbued it with all the dramatic power we might expect from a student of the Bard. It’s about an arrogant young nobleman, forced to prove himself worthy of his family’s throne.

At the other end of the scale is… Thor: The Dark World. It is some nonsense related to Dark Elves or some such folderol. Aside from a few funny lines, it’s pretty weak stuff. (Coincidentally, Patty Jenkins was originally supposed to direct it.)

Wonder Woman 1984 is closer to Thor than to The Dark World. It’s not just a lot of special effects and mindless banter. It has a strong thematic core to it, even if it sometimes makes no logical sense at all. You know, at the risk of offending Goethe’s rabid fanboys, Faust doesn’t make total sense either. But we’re still talking about it, aren’t we?

“Yes, Berthold, that’s all very well,” you say. “But you still haven’t explained why you think this was ‘the perfect movie for 2020.’ Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

I promise, we’re getting there. Like Wonder Woman 1984 itself, I like to take my time about these things. Feel free to go to the lobby for more popcorn while I’m padding out this exposition.

Ever since I heard of the title, I wondered why this movie was set in 1984. Was it some sort of Orwell reference? Or maybe it’s because we are approximately the same number of years removed from 1984 as the original 1970s Wonder Woman TV show was from its 1940s setting? Or just a blatant appeal to nostalgia?

Well, I’m sure the studio loved the nostalgia angle. There’s always a market for nostalgia. There’s only one thing that sells better than it. The fact that the time gap is the same as with World War II in the original series is probably just a coincidence–although I really like the film’s nods to that show. Don’t miss this fantastic trailer, done in the retro comic-book style of the TV show’s credits. Honestly, they should have incorporated that aesthetic into the movie.

That leaves Orwell. Is there any way in which this silly superhero movie ties together with the bleak vision of a totalitarian surveillance state imagined by a disillusioned 20th-century socialist?

Hmm… well, the villains don’t work for the Ministry of Love. There’s no mention of the Thought Police. In fact, the government is generally portrayed as hapless bystanders, from the police at the mall all the way up to the feeble and bewildered President. I’m not seeing any Orwell parallels. (Orwellels?)

But there is one thing… remember that Lord takes over a top-secret satellite communications network that allows him to reach the entire world at once with his seductive message. This does remind me a bit of the tele-screens in Orwell’s novel, and the constantly looming presence of Big Brother.

It’s also a complete anachronism. The idea of a worldwide network conveying a message to everyone across the globe at once was pretty far-fetched in 1984. At best, you could reach every TV and radio. It’s not like everyone had some portable device, all connected to the same network.

In 2020, of course, this is everyday reality. Moreover, there is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that it has in fact driven the world completely mad. And it has done this how? By tempting us with things that we want. Like, frankly, the ability to propound our eccentric theories about movies to people everywhere, for one thing.

The magic stone’s spell is only broken when Wonder Woman, having renounced her own wish, is able to convince others to give up theirs, and ultimately Lord recants to save his son. Diana’s and Steve’s love for one another, and Lord’s love for his son, are what ultimately overpower the stone.

Thematically, Wonder Woman 1984 exemplifies one of the most fundamental themes in all of literature: love conquers all. Yes, even a diabolical wish-fulfillment network that spans the globe and tempts people with fantasies of conquering death and defeating age. Accepting death and rejecting power are some of the oldest ideas in mythology.  Probably because these are some of the hardest things to do.

When I think about it in these terms, I want to say it’s a great movie. But it’s not. It is, as I said, kind of a mess. There are so many things that are bizarre and inexplicable. And above all, it’s way too long. All the same points applied to 2020 also.