Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Love, Tantrums and the Critical Reviewer

Scorpion Laughs

In the last few months there have been spikes of the age-old arguments about the interactions of authors, reviewers and fans. When the three overlap, as is increasingly the case in several genres, it’s no wonder that the injunctions are for discussions to be as uncritically gushing as they’re in fanfic.

It should be no secret by now that I don’t care if people dislike my re/views. Furthermore, my attributes and experiences make it unlikely that I’ll hold a majority view very often even within communities like SFF, futurists, space aficionados, etc. Not that I’m prone to hermetic hermeneutics: after fifty-plus years of avid reading, film watching and gaming, I remain firmly in favor of art being accessible. I like plenty of scifi and fantasy films, even Hollywood ones, even ones that are glaringly imperfect – as long as they’re not in-your-face insulting; as long as they show a scintilla of originality and love of craft.

Recently, people used terms like “curmudgeonly” and “jaundiced” to characterize my dislike of Interstellar of which I briefly said the following, as I deemed it too crappy (in all “five dimensions”) for a full-length review: “Having now seen Interstellar — a loss of three hours I bitterly regret — I’ve concluded that the praise I’ve seen must refer to a film located at the end of a distant wormhole. The clichés, clunkiness, regressive triumphalism and sanctimony are sickening. So is the misuse of Hathaway and Chastain. Interstellar wants to be Contact if/when it grows up. Even McConaughey was more bearable in the latter.” [Though I think Contact would be vastly improved if he was excised from it altogether.]

There have been similar tantrums whenever I’ve disliked a fave-du-jour, although nobody (yet) has called me “a harlot” as someone called Stephanie Zacharek for daring not to have orgasms over Guardians of the Galaxy. But you know what? Even something as smarmy as love standardized for US audience palatability can be done right in SFF films. Love is not McConaughey chewing the scenery, his neck veins throbbing like harp strings. This is love — across several dimensions yet, but without self-satisfied trumpeting:

Mal: It ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is? Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I’m about to say.

River: I do. But I like to hear you say it.

Mal: Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.

This makes my eyes sting, even while I know it’s meant to tug at my heartstrings. And if you cannot tell why this is light years ahead of Interstellar‘s “love transcends space and time” pretentious blather, don’t bother reading my (unabashedly unibrow) reviews.

Image: The Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson) who knew how to deal with tantrums.

Curmudgeonly Reviews of Other SFF Films by Yours Truly

The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade (Samurai Champloo, Mononoke Hime)

Set Transporter Coordinates to… (the Star Trek reboot)

I Prefer My Prawns Well-Seasoned (District 9)

Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art (Avatar versus The Secret of Kells)

The Multi-Chambered Nautilus (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)

“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?” (the Planet of the Apes reboot)

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings? (The Piano, Whale Rider)

Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters (The Dark Knight Rises, The Bourne Legacy)

Hagiography in the SFX Age: Jackson’s Hobbit

“We Must Love One Another or Die”: A Critique of Star Wars

Mystique: The True Leader of the X-Men

Authentic Ethnics (all films about Greek mythology)

18 Responses to “Love, Tantrums and the Critical Reviewer”

  1. delagar says:

    Wonderful essay, Athena. Spot on.

    I need to watch Serenity again now.

  2. Athena says:

    Serenity/Firefly is far from perfect. But it showed both originality and love of craft, and did so without drama-llama conniptions about it.

  3. CWJ says:

    Good criticism neither simply cheerleads nor simply blows raspberries. It sheds light on the subject. Unsurprisingly, your critiques do that in spades.

  4. CWJ says:

    Shed light on the subject, I mean, not cheerlead/blow raspberries. I think it’s obvious I meant that but just in case..

  5. Athena says:

    No worries, your meaning is clear! Speaking of good critiques, here are two more of Interstellar, at Jacobin and Booksmugglers. Incidentally, it’s interesting that most who don’t think Interstellar is perfect are women.

  6. Walden2 says:

    Athena, you said, and I quote:

    “Even Mcconaughey was more bearable in the latter.” [Though I think Contact would be vastly improved if he was excised from it altogether.]”

    I could not agree more. In the 1985 Sagan novel, Palmer Joss was a decent, thoughtful, and pretty darn reasonable (for a fundie) character. You could understand why Ellie Arroway was falling for him by the end of the story.

    The Palmer Joss of the 1997 film version seemed like an ego on the prowl whose veneer of thoughfulness underlay a calculating manipulator of both people and ideas. I did not care for the actor’s portrayal of the character at all.

    As for Interstellar itself, you know my thoughts on it, but for those who do not, here you go:

  7. Athena says:

    I have the vaguest sense of Joss in the book version of Contact, though I recall he didn’t poke me in the eye as his cinematic counterpart did. The bigger question is why Arroway would really be attracted to someone like that (beyond spectacular lust) — I suspect Sagan was at his usual pains to show how open-minded he was.

  8. Walden2 says:

    Joss and Arroway were Sagan’s attempt at fostering (get it? :^)) some kind of common ground/mutual respect between science and religion in Contact. Sagan seems like the paragon of reason and calm rationality compared to some of the rabid take-no-prisoners atheists we have today.

    Regarding the reactions to that review of Guardians, it was a fun if incomplete summer popcorn flick designed to make Marvel/Disney lots of money, nothing more. Personally I have to wonder how many more superhero films Hollywood can keep cranking out before even the most rabid fans are overwhelmed and cry enough!

  9. Athena says:

    Stop him before he puns again!! As for the reaction to Zacharek’s review: that’s why dubebros don’t get laid.

  10. stevenjohnson says:

    I’ve never quite figured out why Mcconaughey’s character, who desperately regrets abandoning his daughter, had nonetheless given them the coordinates for the secret NASA base…unless that was some sort of time paradox djinn?
    It’s not just a plot hole, but it undercuts the supposed theme. Also, the desperately retro Dust Bowl aesthetic was more confirmation of how reactionary “scifi” that disdains pseudorealism is. Or so I think. At any rate, I’m with you in not feeling the Interstellar love. Spot on. (By the way, I caught Bourne Legacy on your say so, and liked it.)

    But Serenity doesn’t work for me as an example of something good at all. The notion that trying to make people good will prompt the revenge of outraged nature and turn them into fast zombis strikes me as wish fulfilment of a particularly noxious sort. The extended tribute the Operative makes to Mal’s was also creepy to an extreme. The line “I am to misbehave” is an astonishingly tinny thematic statement in my ears. And speaking as someone raised south of the Mason Dixon line, the retro cowboy veteran of the losing side of the Civil War had racist overtones from the very beginning. Happily, Serenity isn’t the fave du jour, or I might provoke a tantrum.

  11. Athena says:

    You cannot “make people good” — they are no “goodness” genes or “goodness” hormones, as I discussed in Miranda Wrongs. At best (that is, at worst) you can make them docile. If there’s racism in Senerity, it’s in having essentially no Asian characters despite the implied characteristics of the culture.

    In many respects, and like most SFF, Serenity has a US viewpoint and that automatically makes it far from perfect as a vision of a truly different future. But it’s still way, way better than Interstellar.

    Finally, if your last sentence is meant to be witty or provocative… you have to practice. A lot.

  12. stevenjohnson says:

    The Miranda Wrongs link was excellent.

    I did notice that Alexei Romanov was listed as a consequence of inbreeding, presumably for his hemophilia. I was curious about that, since I was under the impression the consensus was that the trait appeared as a mutation in Victoria herself?

  13. Athena says:

    If you look up “inbreeding” even in Wikipedia, you will find the relevant reference & discussion.

  14. Esebian says:

    I knew Interstellar was going to be a stinker the minute they released that promo clip in which the teachers complain to McConaughey’s character his daughter rocks the boat by reciting his old textbooks in which the references to the Apollo program hadn’t been changed to the new party line, that it was a big hoax to financially ruin the Soviet Union. Of course, Big Daddie McC had to educate them a bit with his manly gravelly voice.

    If we disregard the transparent Teabagger-grade anti-enviromentalist politics here (treehuggers will brainwash our kids so we don’t waste precious resources on silly stuff like moon rockets), how is that even remotely possible in terms of logistics? Did they purge every digital, web-connected archive on the planet? Threaten every other state with war if they spilled the beans?

    They succeeded in insulting my common sense.

    And in an interview Nolan’s little brother said the crops were failing because “Earth’s too old”… Yeah, mentioning climate change? We can’t have that in our movie. This is a Nolan film, so it has to be a tract against someone, in this case greens, like Dark Knight Rises had been one against Occupy and activism.

  15. Athena says:

    “Insulting” pretty much summarizes Interstellar.

  16. Christopher Phoenix says:

    When I first heard of Interstellar, the first thing I thought of was a quote from The Starflight Handbook. It was along the lines that we could not reach the stars by hoping for a quick hop to the stars (á la warp drive) or wishing for a convenient wormhole leading to Alpha Centauri to appear close to Earth.

    I thought it was pretty funny that after Hollywood used the first variant of How Not To Do Starflight to death, Christopher Nolan opted for the second variant exactly!

    Once reviews of the film came along, even reviewers who want to like anything with space in it agreed that the plot was a turgid 3-hour mess. I decided to skip this one. So it was no surprise finding that you deemed this film too bad to even review…

    Also, what exactly is going on in the skulls of these rabid fans/reviewers? If someone does not like a movie that you enjoyed- good or bad- that is no reason to call someone a harlot. it doesn’t even make sense. However “advanced” we humans like to fancy ourselves, our discussions on the internet degrade to the level of monkey feces-throwing with depressing regularity.

    Speaking of gaming, though, I have found something far more engaging for space aficionados than any number of Hollywood movies- Kerbal Space program! Figuring out orbital mechanics is EXTREMELY fun. I must get the full version sometime. (-:

  17. intrigued_scribe says:

    Great essay, start to finish. (And the scene fittingly included brings to mind one of the reasons why I still like Firefly/Serenity as much as I do, even with its flaws.)

  18. Athena says:

    Among other things, when people died in Serenity, it mattered. Interstellar has no people you care for.