Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Ok, folks, here’s my verdict: There is nothing wrong with he new Star Wars movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). But that being said the war/action film nearly lost me a couple of times with its rebel war council meetings and ensemble cast of characters with futuristic sounding names that sounded like someone got funky with a dart and board full of consonants and vowels.

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The bit of the writing I loved best though is the consistency with which they handled the themes of faith and fate.

In the film, the words “dream,” “faith,” and “hope” are used interchangeably to build a link between this film and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977). At the start of the film characters talk about how rebels are, if nothing, a band of people who hold on to the dream of a different, better future. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) mentions this to Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones); and Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) dies telling them to keep the dream alive.

The rebels are then immediately confronted with a problem that could devastate their faith in their vision for a better tomorrow – the Death Star’s complete planetary destruction of Jedha. But also the fact that the one concrete article of proof that Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) is a fellow rebel – his holographic communication to his daughter Jyn explaining how to destroy the Death Star – is left on Jedah and destroyed together with Saw Gerrera’s rebel extremist base of operations. It is now Jyn who has to remind Andor to have faith in her, a faithless cynic, who has said before that she has no qualms about living under the Imperial flag because she won’t see it anyway as long as she keeps her head down.

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Her plea for patience is successful when we see that Andor, a saboteur and an assassin for the rebel alliance, chooses to defy his orders and let go of an opportunity to assassinate Galen wherein his act of defiance siginfies a sense of renewed faith in the dream of a successful rebellion against the Empire.

His personal act of faith becomes a precursor for the band of rebels who choose to rebel against the rebel alliances’ decision to disband by following him, Jyn, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), Bhodi Rook (Riz Ahmed), and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) into Scarif, an imperial base, to get the plans for the Death Star.

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Embarrassing side note, but I kind of teared up at this point because these initial 10 or so rebels who choose to follow them into battle are the very people that for all intents and purposes should have been the group most likely to have had their faith in the cause broken because as Andor explains, they are the saboteurs and the assassins, the people whose humanity have been put on the line and shaken by all the dirty work they have had to do for the rebel alliance. It is the moment where I felt most acutely the fragility of the faith, because to take on these roles they must have been among some of the most faithful to the cause and simultaneously some of the most disillusioned. This was clearly demonstrated in the first part of the film when Cassian Andor has to kill his informant in order to preserve the covert nature of his reconnaissance mission.

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(Diego Luna)

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This idea of the dream of a successful rebellion that graduates into a faith is further underscored by the setting – the numerous long shots and establishing shots of the rebel alliance base which looks like an old Mayan temple and is actually described as an ancient Massassi temple on the jungle moon of Yavin 4.

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This theme of faith and fate, or fatalism, culminates in the climactic set piece at the end of the film. A lot of people complained about why there were so many moving parts to the final sequence and how that got a little confusing. But while you’re absorbed in the details of the scene don’t forget to zoom out to appreciate the pattern the filmmakers are weaving. They all die. They all die just as they complete exactly what they had to in order for the rebels to get the Death Star plans.

The deliberate repetitions and the exactitude with which each death occurs lends the whole sequence a fatalistic quality that can render the whole film really dark and gritty or really hopeful in the sense that their faith pays off. So that last sequence is where “dream” and “faith” finally transition into “hope“. And more than just the airy fairy notion of hoping against hope that something will change for the better, this is a literal concrete piece of hope in the form of the data disk with the Death Star plans that is finally relayed to Princess Leia at the end.

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I feel like because of the consistency of the thematic development in this film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the superior film when compared to The Force Awakens (2015) that came out around the same time last year. TFA was an exercise in repeating old story beats – orphan child in the dessert with a surprising amount of midichlorians, another Darth Vader-esque dude kills his father, another Death Star (a bigger one), and another Star Wars canteena scene.

Whereas this film is a tightly plotted piece of writing with very little excess that tries to do things differently – it has no Jedis, the Death Star now has a proper explanation for why it is simultaneously the most dangerous piece of machinery owned by the Imperial army and the stupidest, and the actual ultimate Darth guy returns but only as a side character.

I like this film about as much as I can like any Star Wars film I guess. Never having really been a Star Wars fan, I don’t understand the fanatical following behind the original trilogy in the series that I only watched once when I was like 7 or 8 years old, … but I understand the definition of hope that the film tries so hard to put forward. And I appreciate it’s efforts.

As a side-note, I thoroughly enjoyed Donnie Yen’s character and his adorable chant (“I’m one with the force and the force is with me”) that is played really well for poignancy and melodrama throughout the film and especially at the end.

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And I totally agree with my fiance who pointed out that Alan Tudyk’s [Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (2010) FTW!!!] K-2SO is like Marvin (voiced by the late Alan Rickman) from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005).

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Parasyte: The Maxim (2014-2015)

Parasyte: The Maxim is an anime the came out Fall 2014 and ended its run some time in March 2015. A total of 24 episodes, this anime was made by the anime studio Madhouse that is also responsible for other great anime series like Trigun (1998, 26 episodes), Death Note (2006-2007, 37 episodes), and most recently One-Punch Man (2015, 12 episodes). It also made the visually stunning Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000).

One of the best things about this series is that although it was only recently adapted into an anime series, the source material, Hitoshi Iwaaki’s manga, also known as Kiseiju, was actually written between 1988 and 1995.

Anime fans who grew up watching anime in the 1990s will tell you that this already sets the series a cut above two-thirds of the anime they watch that are laced with filler episodes and end with completely unsatisfying cliff-hanger or rushed endings. This long-time problem that beset various anime productions stems from how the weekly or daily release of serialised anime episodes based on the manga would invariably outstrip the mangaka’s ability to produce new manga chapters in time for them to be adapted into anime episodes. Thus, anime fans just had to deal with never being graced with any actual closure to their favourite childhood anime series.

However, because Parasyte: The Maxim is based on a complete work, the series comes replete with a well-rounded ending that ties up all the loose ends. The main plot lines are condensed into 24 intense, well-paced sometimes action-packed and gory, sometimes  deeply meaningful episodes. The main themes are delved into and explored all the way to their logical conclusions.

If you want a sense of how well this series did, just go to YouTube and look for reviews on it. You’ll find endless pages of people raving about Parasyte: The Maxim. The success of the manga and the anime has also resulted in two live-action films that unfortunately received mixed (mostly bad) reviews.

Still, binge-watching this thing was really one of my best ideas since coming back to Singapore after my MA.

There are a few things about the series that stood out to me and I’m just gonna discuss them in a very scattered, ad hoc manner. I don’t really intend to build this up into any kind of thesis about the series, only to point out some stuff about the mix of genres (Body Horror & Slice of Life), make some comparisons (The Body Snatchers, The Thing), and draw some connections between the series and socio-historical events in Japan (Zainichi & Zaitokukai)  that I haven’t seen anyone else do yet.

Aight. First up. To be perfectly honest, I only knew of this entire franchise when the first movie came out. It was the poster and the unusual colour scheme that caught my eye. This is in part because I had just watched a YouTube video analysing movie poster designs.

The pastel blue and the amount of light filling the poster that even casts a halo about Izumi Shinichi gave it a kind of pleasant, light-weight feel that one might associate more with Slice of Life/Romantic Comedy/High School Drama film and anime genres. But this choice of colouration is thrown into sharp contrast with the mutated hand in the foreground. And if anyone watches the trailer, the contrast between the tone set up by the poster and the amount of body horror contained in the actual movies/series becomes even more obvious.

So my first thought was that Body Horror and Slice of Life/RomCom/High School Drama are not genres that normally go together. But the more I thought about it the more I saw what a great fit these genres really are for each other because of the way the contrast brings out some of the main themes in the series.

One of the main questions that runs through the series is this question of who has a right to live – is it a matter of survival of the fittest as the alien parasyte, Migi, argues, or a matter of ensuring the community/society survives through the ability to embrace self-sacrifice, an instinct that seems to be predicated on the ability to feel emotions like love. Or is this “emotion” just our biology tricking us into sacrifice ourselves for the survival of the species? hmm…

Either way, a lot of the series comes down to question of being able to access the softer parts of ourselves – our emotions. We are also made to question the authenticity of the characters’ emotions and how they are ennobled by them. Oftentimes, emotions especially those like despair and love are held as benchmarks of a character’s humanness.

This reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and The Thing (1982).

In Don Siegel’s 1956 classic, a lot of the differences between the pod people and actual people are hinted at through the dialogue rather than through visual representation. For instance, when Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine) talked about how her Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) is not himself, the best description she can give about what is wrong is only that something is “amiss.” Furthermore, in the scene where they find Jack Belicec’s (King Donovan) pod person, there is not close-up of the pod person. It is only after Becky Driscoll’s (Dana Wynter) conversion that we finally get a close-up of a pod person. What is truly horrific is that she is not some visibly monstrous prosthetic. Becky Driscoll, the actress Dana Wynter, IS the alien being. There is no way of separating alien from human, they are one and the same. The sheer absence of any other visual representation of how these pod people, who are perfect simulacra of their human counterparts, are different points towards how it is only the invisible, unverifiable inner world of emotions that marks the difference between human and alien. The rising hysteria in the musical score in the scene, which is itself something that can only be heard and felt but not seen, serves to drive this point home.

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As a side note, for those of you who are familiar with Invasion of the Body Snatchers  and its various incarnations (eg. the 1978 remake of the same title and the 1993 remake titled just Body Snatchers), you’ll know that this issue of emotions features very heavily in all the films. For instance, in the 1978 version, Leonard Nimoy, an actor who creates an intertextual link between the 1978 remake and the StarTrek franchise, in which he plays the emotion eschewing Vulcan, Spock, is the character who delineates the pod people’s worldview of an “untroubled world… free of anxiety, fear, and hate” but also faith, beauty and love.

On top of this, Kevin McCarthy who plays the lead, Dr. Bennell, in the 1956 original, has a cameo in the remake where he runs down the highway banging on cars and shouting, “They’re here already! You’re Next!” His hysterics are shrugged off by an apathetic public and comes to serve as an indictment not of the aliens but the human race for losing touch with the one thing that makes us human, our ability to care for one another. The 1993 remake set on a military base further highlighted our estrangement from ourselves and our interchangeability with pod people through the use of a setting that actually encourages the compartmentalisation of emotions

Ironically, it is in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) that takes this moment of existential horror even further. The delightfully gruesome moments of body horror scattered throughout the entire film belies a deeper layer of existential horror – the suggestion that the simulation is beyond skin deep. This is seen time and time again throughout the film where until the characters reveal themselves to be infected in a moment of body horror, they are able to react and emote like any other human being so much so that right at the end of the film, audiences are left genuinely wondering if it is Childs (Keith David) or MacReady (Kurt Russell) who is infected.

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Parasyte: The Maxim revisits these questions about what it means to be human and whether it is our physical form, genetic make-up, emotions and/or actions that define us. Parasyte‘s own angle to the question is fleshed out in Shinichi’s moments of existential crisis over his own identity. After a pivotal moment in the series, Migi and Shinichi have their respective genetic codes so intermingled that Shinichi becomes more level-headed and pragmatic (and totally more badass), but somewhat less emotional.

What I really appreciated about the way the narrative and characters developed is that Shinichi’s angst over his inability to feel sadness, loneliness, despair becomes a credible plot point and not just an excuse for melodrama. The various relationships he tries to maintain in the moments of the plot that conform to the RomCom/High School Drama generic conventions actually feed into these larger questions the series tries to deal with.

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Other than the main character and his parasyte, the other character that best embodies (hur hur… geddit geddit? body horror… embody… nevermind) this thematic line of questioning is Tamiya Ryoko, a woman whose biology has been fundamentally transformed by the alien parasyte. As an experiment, Ryoko decides to have sex with a male human-parasyte hybrid to get herself pregnant. For the longest time the viewer is left wondering what her intentions towards the baby are (born completely human, by the way). Eventually though in a scene that aptly captures the two sides of her character – alien and human – she walks through a hail of bullets, shielding the child with her body so she can deliver it safely into Shinichi’s arms before dying.

To tie off this first part of the my observations of Parasyte: The Maxim, I wanna say that the series’ emphasis on crafting moments of perfect human emotion whether it be the various incarnations of romantic love, platonic love between friends/nakama (Migi & Shinichi), or the bond between mother and child serve as the perfect counterpoint to the violence and the body horror seen in other parts of the series in order to give real weight to the kinds of questions it raises about what it means to be human.

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