Today I walked from Union Station to Friendship Heights, about seven miles cutting across a wide swath of DC’s different neighborhoods. Along the way I found that Groove Armada’s album Vertigo is pretty excellent cross-city walking music. Here’s the first single off the album, “If Everybody Looked the Same”.
Nuclear power is scary. Just the words call to mind disasters like Three Mile Island, or Chernobyl, and even just a few years ago the failure of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor. I mean, do you have any idea how many people have died as a result of Fukushima? I do: not a one. But still, it’s scary.
We, as humans, are terrible at intuitively assessing risk. We focus on big, singular events like nuclear meltdowns and terrorist strikes while we ignore low-grade, widespread risks like car accidents and air pollution. Or, indeed, like climate change. More and more environmentalists are coming around to take a serious look at nuclear power, and they’re finding that not only is it not the evil that they’ve always said it is, it’s the only serious alternative to fossil fuels. Pandora’s Promise lays out the case.
The first application of a nuclear fission chain reaction was, of course, the atomic bomb; its devastating effects on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki horrified a generation, and rightly so. But to turn and say that this technology can then not be used to generate power is like looking at Dresden and saying we should no longer cook our food. The peace and environmental movements are found so often in each other’s company that the wartime uses of nuclear fission have blinded many to more beneficial applications.
But what about radiation? Well, pretty much nobody involved in the discussion seems to really know much about it. The word is used as a discussion-ender — an insidious, deadly poison, unsafe at any level. Scientists describe it with obscure units like “rads”, “Becquerels”, and “Sieverts”, and the general public has no idea of the scale. Filmmaker Robert Stone cuts right to the heart of the matter by whipping out a handheld radiation detector, set to measure the rate of exposure. Standing in the middle of various cities — London, Paris, New York — the meter pings at about 0.1 microsieverts per hour. Altitude affects the measurement; in a plane over the pacific the meter reads around 2 or 3. On a certain beach in Brazil: 30.
Through the rest of the film, Stone regularly shows the meter. Standing outside a nuclear reactor? about 0.1 or 0.2, the same as living in the mountains of New Hampshire or Colorado. The reading is the same when standing among the dry-storage casks of nuclear waste out back. Chernobyl reactor number 4 is still very hot, but half a kilometer outside the concrete sarcophagus? only about thirty times the background in London.
Chernobyl, though, raises the specter of nuclear disasters. How many millions have died both directly in the meltdown and as a result of long-term health effects? If you believe the World Health Organization, about fifty. Sorry, that’s not “fifty million”, just fifty. And if you believe the WHO is engaged in a massive conspiracy you’re in the same camp as the climate change deniers.
The area around Chernobyl is still not a place I’d want to live, but that doesn’t mean nobody does. Locals started moving back into the “exclusion zone” within a few years. Stone interviews an Orthodox priest who has been back since 1987. And when we’re talking about nuclear waste and the contamination from the worst possible nuclear accidents, why don’t we ever bring up things like fly ash from coal power plants?
True: nuclear waste is directly dangerous for longer than coal waste, but it causes no greenhouse effect, and we don’t intentionally allow it into the groundwater. What’s more, fourth-generation reactor designs like the Integral Fast Reactor that was shut down in 1994 can actually use their own waste as fuel, cutting down the actual amount to be stored and the time it has to be stored a hundredfold. They can even burn waste from third-generation reactors, and even decommissioned nuclear warheads. Swords into plowshares, indeed.
All told, commercial nuclear power, over its entire life cycle, causes fewer deaths than any other source but wind. Even solar power is more dangerous, given the toxicity of the current production of solar cells. And a cube of uranium the size of a fingertip could yield as much energy as burning thousands of barrels of oil.
Pandora’s Promise will hardly convince everyone, and it’s not perfect in making its case. I, for one, would have loved to see more of a technical explanation of what goes on in a chain reaction, and how a modern reactor is designed to prevent — yes, not avoid but prevent — catastrophic failures. On the other hand I can see how that would be difficult to put into a ninety-minute documentary. But it’s a compelling point of view that I hope can at least get a reasonable conversation started.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.
Between Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel one thing seems abundantly clear: we are much, much better at writing movie supervillains than we were thirty years ago. Like Ricardo Montalbán, there will always be a place in my heart for Terence Stamp, but Dark Knight creator Christopher Nolan and Dark City co-writer David S. Goyer have written a far superior General Zod than the original from Superman II. But where Into Darkness took the relatively subtle and complex Wrath of Khan and turned it into a flimsy — though fun — romp, Man of Steel is a far harder, darker, and deeper story than the Reeve-era films. As great some of them were, they were as light as they were bright.
That’s to be expected. Without resorting to cheap tricks it’s hard to imagine what a “dark” Superman story would be. There is none of Marvel’s adolescent angst to work with, nor Batman’s tormented antiheroism, and to inject either one into Superman would just feel wrong. Superman simply is good; he does not struggle to become good. So if the arcs must be, as usual, about how other characters relate to Superman, Nolan and Goyer’s solution is to step back and take a long, hard, pessimistic look at how people really would react to him. The story is not how a flawed or bad man becomes good; it’s how a good man learns to be good in a flawed world.
But first, we start with the downfall of a flawed world that lost sight of its own good. As advanced as Kryptonian civilization was, it went too far when it destabilized the core of its own planet. Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the pre-eminent scientist, sent his infant son, Kal-El off into the void as his last hope for the preservation of the Kryptonian people. General Zod (Michael Shannon), born and bred to be a warrior-protector, attempts to stage a military coup and is sentenced to exile in stasis just before the planet breathes its last.
Thirty years later we find Kal-El on Earth as a grown man by the name of Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), wandering from town to town, working odd jobs. Sooner or later, something happens — a waitress needs defending from a rowdy customer, or six men are trapped inside a burning oil rig — that risks exposing his mysterious abilities, and he must move on, drifting aimlessly. He is the savior in the wilderness, homeless and friendless, and yet unable to turn away when he is needed, even though it always means another departure.
As we see in numerous flashbacks, he learned this lesson as a boy, growing up in Kansas where he was found by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane): people fear what they do not understand. Even if you save someone’s life, those around you will start eyeing their pitchforks. And yet, even when hard-nosed reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) catches the scent he cannot help but save her life.
This could go on forever, but eventually comes a danger too great to fix and move on. Zod and his fellow rebels have escaped and found Earth, demanding that Kal-El surrender himself. This time he must sacrifice himself for the sake of all of humanity. And Zod, in Shannon’s hands, is far more interesting than a mere power-mad despot.
Superman has always been resonant in the American psyche in part because of a certain Christianity, albeit a relatively progressive one. But never has the symbolism been so overt as it is here. Superman is goodness incarnate, and serves to point the way for humanity towards their own better natures, even at the cost of risking his own life. He is literally sent, by his father, to “save them all”. If you’re allergic to heavy religious allegories, this is not the summer blockbuster for you. But, in a way, this just points to honestly and seriously Man of Steel takes its source material, especially as compared to earlier adaptations. These themes are written into the character’s DNA, and to ignore or skim over them lessens him.
So, all that said about the storytelling, how does it fare as a movie? Director Zack Snyder chooses to double down on the dark tone with gritty style. I can’t say I’m a fan of shakycam, but it does lend a rougher, dirtier feel to the more personal scenes. In wider, effects-driven shots we get an analogous technique borrowed from Battlestar Galactica, with jerky zooms and saccadic pans intended to pretend there’s a real, live cameraman trying to follow the distant, flying thing. Even then the actual object sometimes gets lost, and we can only figure out where it is by following the explosions.
Hans Zimmer echoes the tonal shift by completely abandoning John Williams’ soaring anthems, replacing them with his own, more ominously blasting horns. Production designer Alex McDowell gives us Kryptonian artifacts not of light and crystal, but formed along the same unsettlingly biological contours we remember from The Matrix and Alien, and with a few touches from Starcraft and Warhammer 40K. Pretty much everything that’s made geeks say “that looks awesome” over the last twenty years has its influence.
Through and through, this is a darker, bleaker film than any other adaptation, and it manages a richer, more complex darkness than those superhero movies that don’t have to work so hard at it. Nolan and Goyer eschew cheap pathos and narrow in on a point that’s surprisingly powerful for how well-worn it is: if a savior came to us today, we’d probably try to arrest him.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
There’s an old joke about Irish food: you take all your ingredients, put them together in a pot, and then boil until all the flavor is gone. Evidently the makers of Shadow Dancer believe that the same goes for thriller set during the violent endgame of the Troubles. It’s dull, formulaic, and there’s absolutely nothing to distinguish it from any other civil unrest anywhere else in the world.
It’s 1993, and negotiations are underway for the first ceasefire between the various factions in Northern Ireland. At least one cell of the Irish Republican Army is not happy with the terms, so they send Collette (Andrea Riseborough) to plant a bomb on the Underground. But MI5 has been watching Collette for a long time, and they know that despite her family history she’s not really up for all this violence. When she’s captured, the prospect of twenty-five years of prison away form her mother (Brid Brennan) and her young son is enough to convince her to reluctantly agree to become an informant.
Collette returns to her family. Her brothers Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) are glad to see her come home safely, but they seem split on sending her in the first place. I say “seem” because there’s very little clearly laid out about what they think. Gerry seems closely aligned with the local IRA leader, Kevin (David Wilmot), but Connor is less sanguine about paramilitary action. Why either brother acts the way he does is largely unexplored.
Meanwhile, there’s tension inside MI5. Collette’s handler, “Mac” (Clive Owen), recruited her at the suggestion of his boss, Kate (Gillian Anderson), but right away he’s cut out of important discussions that directly impact his agent’s safety. It seems that there’s something else going on, but information about this mystery comes in unsatisfying fits and starts.
Director James Marsh is mostly famous for winning an Academy Award for directing the documentary Man On Wire. But where that film centered around an outsize, engaging personality, almost nobody here has a personality at all. Motivations are sketchy at best, and only introduced when absolutely required. We get one scene at the beginning that digs into Collette’s background, but we could use a lot more, explaining how she — and by the extension the IRA in general — came to this point.
And that goes to the heart of the problem with Tom Bradby’s screenplay. A political news editor, he brags that he has no coherent political viewpoint. But if he sees things like the Troubles as a flat collection of facts, there’s no feature on which to build understanding. Someone with no political viewpoint is uniquely unqualified to talk about, understand, and explain people with extreme political viewpoints.
We know nothing about Collette’s motivations because, like the Troubles themselves, they extend back over decades of history, even long before she was born. Reducing her actions to mere facts makes the tension in Northern Ireland indistinguishable from the same story told in Palestine, or in an American militia, or in any other homegrown unrest. They’re all just facts, with no history to differentiate them, and no context that might allow us to understand the players.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.
Rarely have I been so excited about declaring a movie to be an unmitigated disaster, but in the case of This Is the End it’s the only fitting description. The crew of Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, and the rest have made stoner comedies out of everything from crime capers to fantasy epics, and now they turn to the apocalypse. But there’s a twist: everyone in the cast is playing a lightly fictionalized version of themselves, mostly as the character you’d expect from all their other movie roles.
And for the most part this high-concept thing kinda works. Jay Baruchel shows up in Los Angeles to hang out with his old friend Seth Rogen, who drags him over to a housewarming party at James Franco’s house. Baruchel doesn’t really get along with Rogen’s new Hollywood friends, but Rogen insists, so he ends up playing awkward wallflower for a while until he’s conveniently saved by the end of the world.
Most of the recognizable faces are swallowed up pretty quickly into the yawning, fiery sinkhole that opens up on Franco’s lawn, which is probably for the best. As fun as it is to watch Michael Cera play against type — think Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold and Kumar movies — it would be hard to take over the length of a feature. As the initial cataclysm settles we’re down to a small band of survivors — Baruchel, Rogen, Franco, Jonah Lehrer, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride — holed up in the house to await their rescue. After all, they rescue movie stars and celebrities from disasters first, right?
From here on out it’s mostly an excuse for the guys to do various schtick with a few apocalypse-themed prompts thrown in. The fact that the cast are all playing their own stock characters might take the edge off for Rogen and his childhood friend and writing partner Evan Goldberg, both taking their first time in the director’s chair. McBride is the crude lowbrow guy; Lehrer is sweet — almost too sweet — to everyone; Franco is pretentious and oily; Baruchel is a nebbish; Rogen is an everyman, as is Robinson. They’re all selfish and narcissistic.
Only about half the jokes are going to really land on any given viewer. The dick-and-fart humor — of which there’s a lot — leaves me cold, and I’m a little uncomfortable at the way they deal with the sudden and temporary presence of Emma Watson. But there’s also a bunch of higher-brow material, like the handheld camera Franco saved from the set of 127 Hours becoming a “video confessional”, with awkward results.
But what really makes This Is the End work is the way all the parts are pretty easily disconnected from each other. There’s not much of a story arc to speak of, so if you don’t like one bit, wait a few minutes and they’ll be on to another. Freed from the demands of long-term coherence, they can go off on all sorts of whimsical tangents, and a lot of these pay off big time. And that’s probably what makes it a great stoner comedy: you don’t have to be sober enough to follow it for more than a few minutes at a time.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
Why can’t we get movies like Wish You Were Here at mainstream multiplexes? It’s not like Joel Edgerton is unknown to American audiences. There’s sex, drugs, and violence, which audiences usually love in their thrillers. They’re even speaking English. All I can come up with is that the major theater chains have been so effectively captured by American movie studios that unless you live near an independent cinema you’re simply not allowed to see good, solid moviemaking like this.
Have you ever felt like you needed a vacation to recover from your vacation? Dave and Alice Flannery (Edgerton and co-writer Felicity Price) do. They’re coming back to Sydney from a week’s holiday in Cambodia, and neither of them seems quite ready to deal with their old, familiar surroundings yet. They went along with Alice’s sister, Steph (Teresa Palmer) and her new boyfriend, Jeremy (Antony Starr), who imports all sorts of stuff into Australia from East and Southeast Asia. It was supposed to be a last fling for them before Alice delivers their third child, but something has gone wrong. Jeremy has gone missing, and Steph is still in Cambodia trying to get the authorities to find him.
As we move forward, we also start to look back. There was a beachfront dance party, where some of them took ecstasy and Dave tried unloading the rest of his stash; might that have had something to do with it? There were indiscretions between Dave and Steph; did Jeremy see and go off to sulk? What can they, or should they, admit to the AFP — Australia’s equivalent of the FBI?
And then there are more ominous hints. Dave’s license is gone, too. He starts seeing a certain red car over and over around the streets of Sydney. Things get more and more tense between Dave and Alice, who starts drinking more, pregnancy or no. Dave starts having panic attacks.
Slowly, but surely, writer/director Kieran Darcy-Smith unwinds the tale, cutting between the descent of the Flannerys’ marriage and the memories of that fateful night that Dave can’t leave behind in Cambodia, and the morning that sees him wake in fright. It’s a taut, engaging thriller, and it’s a shame that most Americans won’t get a chance to see it.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.