This page is for my thoughts & feelings about things I've watched or played since the start of 2024, unless I forget to write about them here. Spoilers can be hovered over to reveal (like this). If you're on a touchscreen device they are revealed by default, so watch out. Jump to a specific review with these links:

Dune: Part One & Part Two (2021, 2024)

Dir. Denis Villeneuve

Watched 2.26.24 and then 3.7.24

I caught the first DUNE movie in the theater a couple of years ago. While I'm more or less satisfied with which parts they filmed and which they skipped—because there is a huge amount of movie-poison in there about, like, imperial tax policy—I found it a little bland. DUNE, as a fictional work, is a unique peak on the plot of "widely known" and "extremely weird" that I think it's a whiff creatively not to take advantage of. DUNE is obviously a psychedelic text (in that it asks whether someone can get so monumentally high that they become Christ), but it's deeply and indelibly "of its time" in other ways, too—the pretty unsubtle Catholic stuff, the whole "slow blade" thing, et cetera. So for the last couple of years my take was "Denis did a good job with the structure but seems afraid to make it look as joyously bizarre as I think it should." It feels like a missed opportunity to adapt a work so steeped in medieval feudalism, far-future speculation, and the occult—a work that honestly straddles the fence between science fiction and fantasy—and streamline it to this extent. When Zendaya showed up to the Part 2 premiere wearing that Hajime Sorayama-ass chrome armor? That's how I think the movie should look.

When I rewatched Part One at home with my partner in preparation for Part Two this was still basically my impression. Some parts shine through the constraint of the 2020s gunmetal-and-fog sci-fi aesthetic (which, to be fair, Villeneuve is largely responsible for revving up) but there's as many bunts as there are hits. The fields of bluey-pale Harkonnen troops doing their weird blood ritual? Sick. The nasty spider guy we get to see for like two seconds? Sick. I got the impression that there was a desire on the creative side for more stuff like this and a boundary on the financial side keeping it to this limit.

Fortunately, Part One was a broad enough success to sway the bean-counters, because Part Two is roughly a hundred times more interesting to look at. With the heavy lifting of explaining what the hell is going on out of the way, there's plenty of screen space to devote to saluting H.R. Giger and rotating a CGI fetus and riding a giant worm (a scene which apparently took months to shoot practically and I'd say is worth it). Dune: Part Two in IMAX might be the most buckwild moviewatching experience of my life. The middle act of the movie being shot in infrared because even the sun on Geidi Prime is fucked-up and evil is a tremendous choice, and I have to give special mention to the weird ink-blot fireworks constantly going off as well.

The casting is great. Picking up Austin Butler fresh off playing Elvis and giving him the role of Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, The Universe's Wormiest Pervert, is extremely funny, and yet somehow he completely crushes it. Christopher Walken as the Emperor has like eight lines in the whole flick but is a joy just to see show up. Javier Bardem is acting his fucking ass off (I mean this in a good way. I can never tell if people mean that in a good way) the entire time.

Does Part Two have some flaws? Yeah, I guess. I think Chalamet is a totally serviceable Paul Atreides—his uncertainty might even make him more interesting than Paul is on the page—but I wish the characters around him (Jessica, Gurney, Thufir) who clearly care about and like Paul in the novel were filmed that way a little more. For the most part it's a relief to gloss over a lot of the higher political Great Houses stuff, but I did find it weird that the anti-nuclear-arms pact wasn't mentioned at all and didn't play into Paul's hesitance to deploy the family atomics, a moment which in the book is a nice rubicon leading into the final act that proves his commitment to going through with the plan.

Overall I think both parts are entirely worth watching, but I would put the second one well above the first. I also very much hope that the continued fiscal success of these films loosens the reins on portraying the borderline-unfilmable stuff in Messiah and onward, and maybe serves to kindle a new wave of interesting scifi all around.

★★★☆☆ (Part One)

★★★★★ (Part Two)

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

Dir. James Cameron

Watched 1.27.24

The Avatar movies have been really fascinating as a cultural phenomenon. In 2009 when the first one came out I remember headlines about how people got addicted to watching it because they were so sad their real lives outside the theater didn't look and feel like Pandora (Pandora is the fictional moon where the Avatar movies take place). The tone of these shock pieces was two-pronged: they probably illustrate better than most reporting of the period just how beaten-down Americans were and would stay following the 2008 financial crisis, and also they seemed to suggest that James Cameron had created a movie so detailed and captivating in its production that it improved on reality and made reality look like a big pile of shit by comparison.

I did not watch Avatar 2 in IMAX the way many people recommended. This is partly because I heard that some indigenous groups took issue with having their culture sloppily coopted by imaginary blue aliens and were asking people not to pay money to see it—a completely valid argument that I both support, and, having seen the film, fully understand—and partially because my friend told me it gave them the worst headache of their life. Instead of paying through the nose for the premium theater experience, I simulated IMAX at home by watching a 38-gigabyte 4K copy of this film on my big desk monitor while leaning in really close. Also I was pretty stoned.

As an expression of James Cameron's creative vision, The Way of Water is even more focused on the world of the Na'vi and their crazy-ass ecosystem than the first Avatar. It's very funny that Miles Quaritch and his henchmen are now also blue aliens, such that normal human people (excluding Spider, I guess) are fully absent from the important scenes and are pretty scarce overall. I'd bet Avatar 2 spends a smaller portion of its runtime with human people on screen than any "live-action" movie ever relased. And to be clear I think that's sick. Avatar 2 is a stunningly detailed and immersive computer-animated film where sometimes a normal guy is greenscreened in for a minute before getting impaled by a spear. I spent a lot of my watch thinking about how sick it would be to use some of this alien-ecosystem-rendering technology remaking Solaris (I know they did this in 2002 but that one looks bad).

My main takeaway in terms of characters and plot is that Quaritch is one of the most unfiltered, undiluted Evil Guys ever written. He's the Everclear of being evil. The scene leading up to the big confrontation where he says completely deadpan to the protagonist, but might as well be saying into the camera, "I Will Not Hesitate To Combo-Kill Your Three Children. I Hate This Planet And Its Blue Inhabitants So Much" is comically over the top. Compare him with one of the secondary villains—the Australian whale-hunter guy, or Jemaine Clement doing an American accent even though he works for an Australian guy: Evil, for sure, but in a more schlubby doing-my-job way that I found more interesting. Is Quaritch being such a cartoon evidence of a creative drought on the movie's part, or just the necessary level of exaggeration required to make sure people don't side with The Troops here? I don't know.

The plot of Avatar 2 feels like sort of an afterthought, but by this movie's curve it's not a bad script or a weak idea. It's just so overshadowed by the visual craft that I simply can't care about Sully's alien kids and their relationship with a traumatized whale nearly as much as I care about seeing said whale absolutely wreck a bunch of space-boats and cut the Australian guy's arm off by whipping him with a cable. It's not a dumb action movie: it's a fairly smart and well-planned movie where the action just happens to be so sick that it drowns out the emotional and character stuff. Nearly the last hour of this film is nonstop flipping around shooting arrows and bullets and fighting. It rocks. Again, I took half a weed gummy worm so by this point I was pretty high.

It's not without problems, mainly the appropriation of indigenous culture (the reef-dwelling Na'vi who practice the titular Way of Water have Maori-style tattoos and wrap food in banana leaves, or I guess what we are to believe is a banana-like leaf native to Pandora). This is both uncool and also weirdly immersion-breaking to see in this Roger Dean-esque imaginary world which otherwise feels very original. I would have thought up a different way to show that these people live on islands, personally. There's a plot point about Jake's daughter (sorry man I can not remember the name of a single Na'vi) thinking that she has some Alia Atreides-style spiritual power related to the big tree but which might be epilepsy that I suppose is a setup for a big reveal in 2035's Avatar 3 but feels like sort of a loose end here.

Finally, this movie is long as hell. Minus credits it's like three hours flat. I was never bored but I think that's just a lot of movie. Overall I'd say Avatar: The Way of Water is worth viewing for the effects and also has a story under the effects that is totally serviceable.


The Creator (2023)

Dir. Gareth Edwards

Watched 1.14.24

I liked this movie a lot. It's cool to see an original science fiction concept get a decent budget and some good talent together and turn into a well-made and cool-looking movie. The main sell for me was the visual direction. I think that in 20 to 30 years this movie will be considered the key example of the circa-2020 brutal-futurist aesthetic that spent the late 2010s taking over ArtStation: massive structures in weird shapes, realistically-weathered bright paint, cop robots with weird heads. Even if this look is starting to get slightly played-out I think it's a cool vibe that was worth doing a movie with. The robots look great, the environments look great, the prop direction is excellent, and even the title cards are sick.

When the trailer came out for this I remember saying "Worst-case scenario it'll be like Oblivion," which is to say a weakly-written but cool-to-look-at movie, which is still pretty enjoyable to me. But! I am pleased to report that this movie also has a totally solid script and a lot of good performances. The little kid is great, which you rarely see in a movie. John David Washington is really good at playing a run-down tough guy in a way that's more relatable than goofy.

Now I'm gonna spoil the plot a little bit, so skip the rest of this if you want to watch this movie fresh (which I think you should):

It's kind of wild (good) how overtly anti-American and anti-military this movie is—not even in a Starship Troopers way where an extremely dumb guy might take it at face value. It's ostensibly about a war America is fighting against A.I., but the obvious villains are the protagonist's superiors and former comrades. The subtlety comes off insanely fast—there is literally a scene like 25 minutes in where one of the American troops the plot is following threatens to shoot a child's dog. The main character's arc is finding out that his commanders lied about his wife being killed to keep him in line and eventually sympathizing with the robots. A major confrontation in the second act involves the US Army leveling a village with a 300-foot-wide tank and multiple extremely expensive-looking robot bombs whose entire job is to run in a straight line and then explode. The triumphant climax of the film is a montage of crowds of people across southeast and central Asia cheering as the exploded wreckage of the NOMAD orbital missile platform—the literal manifestation of America's military global hegemony—crashes to Earth.

My single complaint is that I should have watched this as soon as it came out when the term "A.I." was slightly less devoid of all meaning, because the line "Launch on all A.I. bases" made me laugh. Otherwise this movie rocks.