Movie Review: The Cube

March 16, 2009

Several years ago, my parents and I watched a movie called Cube. It’s a “psychological thriller/horror/science fiction movie” from 1997 about seven people trapped in a giant grid of cubes, 14ft in each direction, with hatches on each face (including top and bottom) that lead to identical cubes (though each cube is colored, some red, some green, some blue, some white). They’re trying to find their way to the edge of the grid so they can escape, but some of the cubes have traps that kill you.

For some reason when I first saw the movie it made a huge impression on me. I actually made a model cube out of K’NEX, with hatches and everything, that could connect to identical cubes (though I think I only made one… maybe I made two, I don’t remember).

Anyway, I saw it again recently, so I think I can now give a good account of what struck me about it when I first saw it. It was the basic premise. It’s a perfect example of the microcosms I find so fascinating. The world is made up of hundreds of connected cubes, some of which are trapped; there are people trapped inside the cube, who have to escape before they die of dehydration; this is the world. Sure, the characters were originally from the “real world”, they did have backstories, but those aren’t important; in fact, the characters’ discussions with each other are mostly about whether or not the characters’ backstories are meaningful, and the movie ends up arguing that they’re not.

Also interesting is the mathematical aspect of it. Without ruining the plot, numbers play a big role in the cube – each cube has an ID number, and they keep trying to find some sort of system based on them to know where they are in the cube and avoid the traps – but, if you know much math and pay attention to the numbers given, the math doesn’t make sense. I suspect this was intentional on the writer’s part, just trying to mess with our heads. I found this really interesting, though perhaps in the end inexplicable and without explanation.

The final reason I liked the movie was that one of the seven characters, named Kazan, was an autistic man – not just Asperger’s or something, but severely autistic. He was also the only sympathetic character in the movie, in my opinion. And his reaction to being in the Cube is fascinating. My favorite quotation from the movie is: “This room is… green. I want to go back to the blue room.”

Now, given what I’ve just said about why I like it… is it really worth seeing? Well, yes, as long as you’re not expecting anything beyond what I’ve explained above. The acting and writing aren’t that good, the characters except for Kazan are rather dislikeable, and the special effects suck; but the movie’s only an hour and a half long, it has an interesting premise, and I would say, yes, it’s worth seeing. It’s certainly enjoyable. So watch it. If you don’t mind illegally downloading things you can probably find a torrent of it fairly easily. Otherwise, I dunno, find it on Amazon or something… though I’m not sure it’s worth paying $14 to buy a copy.


Book/Movie Review: Watchmen

March 13, 2009

(I don’t mean to turn this into just a bunch of reviews of everything I see and read, but I’ve done a lot of seeing and reading over Spring Break so far and so that’s what’s on my mind. Bear with me.)

So, I knew very little about Watchmen before last Saturday. I’d picked up the graphic novel about a year ago and read the first chapter, but gotten no further (I have a bad habit of starting books that I don’t own and can’t borrow). Thus I saw the movie before I read the book. I really liked the movie, though, and so decided to read the book. I started it yesterday around 2PM and finished it yesterday around… well, more like today, around 2AM.

Strangely, I actually preferred the movie in a lot of ways. I think part of this is related to the effect I described in my Earthsea book review about order-of-reading/order-of-viewing: if you read the derivative before the original, the original will seem derivative when you do read it. But there are actually several things I think the movie did better:

(SPOILER WARNING – SKIP TO THE END OF THE BLOCK QUOTE TO AVOID)

Firstly, the change of Ozymandias’ scheme from exploding a giant squid-creature to just blowing up NY with a Dr. Manhattan-imitation bomb was a good move, aesthetically. It simplified things where previously they were unnecessarily complicated. Also, I somehow doubt Ozy’s original plot would work – if it’s just a single alien accidentally teleporting into NY and dying on arrival, would that really unite mankind and stop the Cold War? But if it’s Dr. Manhattan doing it and he clearly did it on purpose, it would, because it poses an ongoing threat.

Secondly, a lot of the most memorable lines from the movie don’t actually appear in the graphic novel. Dr. Manhattan’s response to the question about the doomsday clock, for example – “It’s as nourishing to the intellect as a picture of oxygen is to a drowning man”.

Finally and in a sense least importantly, I wasn’t a huge fan of the art of the graphic novel. I got used to it after a while, but I didn’t like how everything was so ugly… all the women, especially, were really unattractive. Maybe that was part of the point (though I can’t see what “point” that could have – if the Silk Spectre is supposedly a model by day and a superhero by night, shouldn’t she be attractive rather than weird-looking?), but I didn’t really like it. And it wasn’t just them, it was a lot of the stuff – the blood and tears, for example. They looked stupid. I think I just don’t like a lot of the conventions of the comic book art style.

This isn’t to say the book was in all ways worse than the movie… firstly, I agree that a lot of the greatness of the graphic novel couldn’t be re-enacted on-screen, and I can recognize that greatness. There’s a lot you can do with the graphic novel form you just can’t do with a movie. There were also many things better about the book:

Firstly, things like the chapter “Fearful Symmetry” you just can’t do in a movie. That was really cool. Or the way you can have the dialogue or narration about one event but have the panel itself be a picture of something else, drawing a contrast between the two; it’s hard to do that in a movie. Or all the different storylines, and having more detailed backstories for the characters… there’s just more you can do in a graphic novel, in a lot of ways.

Secondly, though I prefer the movie ending in a lot of ways, I think the final scene between Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan in the book was interesting and should have been kept. It makes you realize that Ozy’s plot to “save humanity” was, well… idealistic, and didn’t work, in the end. It might have good results in the short term, or even the long term, but it was not mankind’s salvation. And it did not justify what Ozymandias did.

Finally, the sex scenes were much more bearable in the book. They were just pointless, gratuitous sex in the movie, and way too long. This is something the director could have avoided easily but didn’t.

(END SPOILERS)

Now, all these complaints about book and movie aside – both were fascinating, and well worth reading/watching. The most interesting part, I think, is the fascinating dichotomy they present between Rorschach’s moral absolutism and the “bad guy”‘s (name withheld because we’re out of the spoiler zone) pragmatism. And they don’t really side with either one.

Personally, I have to side with Rorschach. What does Rorschach’s view entail? Well, it means a certain way of interpreting the message of the movie and graphic novel, and so I’ll just present that interpretation.

Are they nihilistic? Yes, somewhat, but it is a kind of nihilism I can accept, because (when tempered with Christianity – not that they’re pro-God – interestingly, the movie is actually less atheistic than the graphic novel) it is basically what I believe. Do they conclude the world itself is meaningless? Only, I think, insofar as we have to come to the conclusion that (without God) the world is meaningless.

And do they say the world is hopeless? I think they come to the conclusion a lot of fiction comes to, and which I partially agree with – generally speaking, this world is hopeless (until God comes again and brings the New Heaven and New Earth), but that doesn’t mean we give up hope.

Nor does it mean we give up our principles, even if those principles do not bring us anywhere (in this world); as Rorschach says when told “We have to compromise” -

No. Not even in the face of Armageddon.

Never compromise.


Last.fm vs. Pandora

December 23, 2008

I’ve been using two different internet music streaming websites on and off for a while now – Last.fm and Pandora. They’re different, and complementary in a way – one of them relies on statistical analysis, the other on analysis of the music itself.

Last.fm, in essence, looks at what music you’ve listened to so far, finds other people who listen to the same sort of music, and suggests for you music that they listen to. It does a decent job of finding bands close to the ones you listen to – it’s how I found several of my favorite bands. But it does a rather bad job, I think, of diversifying – it won’t really suggest bands you might like that aren’t in almost the exact same genre as what you’re currently listening to. It doesn’t help that you can’t divide your music into different profiles – all of them are lumped together for suggestion purposes, even if, while you’re interested in genre A and genre C, but have no interest in genre B, which is between them.

The people at Pandora, on the other hand, actually sit down, listen to each song, and record information about it, and give you songs that are musically similar to the ones you have listened to already. This does a decent job of suggesting music you’d like, and I think manages to be more diverse in its suggestions (I’ve found several bands I find interesting and not exactly the same as the other stuff I listen to through it, though most of those I’ve never pursued). It helps that you can have different, unrelated “stations”, and in each of those explore a different sort of music. But, since the people at Pandora are working quickly, some of the songs are rather badly described, and since they’re doing the descriptions by hand they can’t get that many done. Last.fm has more music available, I think.

This dichotomy seems to apply to a few different things… just using statistics versus actually looking at what is being sorted. Movies, for example; a lot of movie services will do “suggestions” based on what other people listen to (a la Last.fm), but I read recently about a service that plans to be more like Pandora – actually watching the movie and describing it.

Or take automatic translation. My understanding is that currently, it’s done mostly with the Pandora method – it translates individual words using a dictionary and applies different preprogrammed grammatical rules. But they’re thinking that a way to get more accurate translations might be to use the Last.fm method – create a database of a bunch of documents that are considered well-translated (by humans, I guess), and then when automatically translating a document, take each phrase and find where it is used in one of the documents in the database and use that translation. The translating device doesn’t have to actually know what the words mean to do this.

After describing these things, I can’t help but think, not about how these two stack up against each other, but how they are both somewhat deficient. Neither of them is as good as just getting a person to do it. Actual music recommendations from an actual person are probably better than either Last.fm or Pandora; movie recommendations from someone you can trust (be it a friend, a professional critic, or a blog you read regularly) are better than the suggestions of a machine; getting a human to translate a document is surely more accurate than either automatic method. Both automated contextual and textual analysis are poor substitutes for an actual person doing it – their only advantages are in speed and
convenience.

Not that those aren’t great advantages. I’d definitely recommend using Pandora and Last.fm, for as long as they’re both free. But neither can substitute for a person who is knowledgeable about music, if you know one. The same for music; the same for translations.


Minority Report

September 22, 2008

So, I recently saw the movie Minority Report (which, I know, is several years old). It was vaguely interesting – the world it is set in, which is futuristic but still very similar to ours and quite disturbing, was well portrayed. But the movie had a fundamental problem. Its premise was nonsensical.

Now, the movie revolves around a form of crime prevention known as “pre-crime” – they have these three psychics who can predict when a murder will occur before it does, and then they dispatch police officers to prevent the murder from taking place. There hasn’t been a murder for 6 years in Washington, DC (which is where this program is being tried out before it goes nationwide).

Then, one day, one of the pre-crime cops, while monitoring the machine that reports on the psychics’ visions, sees that HE is now predicted to commit a murder! And so he must run away and lead the other police on a wild goose chase all across the city, all the while trying to avoid committing the murder he was predicted to commit, but being apparently drawn inexorably to commit it anyway. (He ends up committing it, though unintentionally [the guy wants to die and grabs his gun-hand and forces him to shoot].) How suspenseful! How like the Greek tragedies in which the protagonist knows his fate and yet cannot avoid it! (And then there’s a half-hour left of the movie in which little of actual interest happens.)

Except… does anyone else see what is terribly wrong with this situation? Let’s think for a second. How pre-crime works is, the psychics see the murder happening in the future, they tell someone about it, and then the murder is prevented. There’s nothing fundamentally different about the situation the protagonist is in – the psychics see the murder happening in the future, and they told someone – the perpetrator – about it. But somehow, instead of him just saying “ok, I’ll just avoid that situation and so not commit murder” (which is philosophically no different from the cops jumping in and preventing the murder at the last second, which they do all the time), it is treated as if he is somehow fated to do it. In fact, he wouldn’t have even wound up in the situation where he could commit murder if the prediction hadn’t been made!

So, basically, the movie is not consistent. Either seeing the future allows you to change it – in which case there’s no reason the protagonist would have been worried at all – or seeing the future does not allow you to change it – in which case pre-crime makes absolutely no sense to begin with, and would only have been good for ensuring that the murderer was always caught after the fact.

Thus Minority Report is, I think, while a somewhat interesting and amusing movie, fundamentally flawed, and so not really worth watching. There are much better philosophically-minded sci-fi movies out there for those so inclined.


The Form of the Bad

June 13, 2008

The three worst movies I have ever seen (and I could not have managed to sit through them without the help of the folks who did Mystery Science Theatre 3000) are Manos: The Hands of Fate, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and The Star Wars Holiday Special. What is amazing is that I can’t decide which is the worst. They are all bad in their own ways.

Manos’s main problem is the total lack of technical ability on the part of the film-makers. Put simply, they didn’t know how to make a movie. The camera-work and lighting are horrible, the dialogue had to be dubbed in afterwards, no scene is longer than 32 seconds beause of a horrible camera… I think that if the makers had actually known what they were doing, they could have managed to make a generic, fairly bad, but not terrible horror movie, but as it is the movie is nearly unwatchable.

The makers of Plan 9 clearly had much more technical skill, though there are still some odd parts where it suddenly switches from day to night even though its all supposed to be at one time, or you see a cardboard piece of scenery get knocked over. They make up for it, though, by having an even worse script – the plot simply makes no sense. Aliens… are coming to earth… to force humans to acknowledge their existence… and they’re going to do it by raising zombies? What the hell?

The Star Wars Holiday Special’s problem is that it has no plot to speak of. It’s just a variety-show-style series of songs, dances, cartoons, etc, none of which are any good, with a really stupid premise trying to hold it all together. This was by far the most boring of the three, because the other two at least had a plot that you could try to make sense out of (even if most of the time it was a futile endeavor).

Anyway, when reflecting on these movies, I am reminded of the first like of Anna Karenina; “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I wouldn’t say that every good movie is alike, but these bad movies certainly do find many different ways of being bad.

It seems to me also that if there was such thing as simply “badness”, these bad movies would all be alike. That they are so diverse suggests that they are not somehow actively bad, they simply all lack qualities that would make a movie good. They lack different qualities, thus they are “bad” in different ways.

I know this is not an actual argument against the existence of bad, but it does suggest to me that bad is just a lack of good.


Se7en

April 26, 2008

I recently watched the movie Se7en. It was… well, a decent movie, but I have a serious problem with it.

The basic premise of the movie is that there is a serial killer trying to send a message of repentance. He killed one man for gluttony, another for greed, another for sloth, another for lust, etc. The seven deadly sins. And so in an attempt to learn more about his psychology, the cops themselves read Dante’s Divine Comedy, some Aquinas, some medieval morality plays, and so on. They even eventually catch him by scanning the public library records and seeing who had checked out all those books and books on serial killers. Makes sense, right?

Well… no. The thing is, the concept of the seven deadly sins is damned simple – there’s seven of them, namely lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, pride, in ascending order of seriousness. You don’t need any research to learn that. What the killer would have found from those books was what exactly those sins mean. But there seems to be no evidence that he did – the person he punishes for pride isn’t guilty of pride at all, but rather vanity – a sin most people see as the same as pride, but which according to the seven-deadly-sins system is not at all the same.

The one thing he did seem to get from them was the concept of contrapasso – punishing them with their own sins. But even this he didn’t really follow very well. The punishments of the gluttonous, lustful, and wrathful made sense, kind of – the glutton is forced to eat until his stomach burst, the prostitute was raped until dead, the wrathful main character was made angry enough to kill someone and then get punished for it. I didn’t really understand the punishment of the greedy lawyer, so I won’t comment on that. The supposedly slothful drug dealer was tied in his bed and allowed to atrophy – I don’t see how it punishes sloth to force someone to be slothful. There’s no evidence he was slothful before that was done to him. The envious had no contrapasso whatsoever – he just got himself shot. And the vain model who supposedly was prideful was forced to choose between disfigurement and death, and chose death – a sin, sure, but that’s not what pride is, I don’t think. She didn’t die in an act of pride, she died in an act of envy, I would say…

Anyway, the point is, there’s no reason the killer would have had to read all those books to get the idea of killing one person for each of the seven deadly sins. He didn’t seem particularly erudite to me.

So why was that element inserted into the plot? My suspicion is that it is because many people don’t even know that much about the seven deadly sins in the first place. To them, what he was doing did seem to require a great deal of education. At UD, we read Dante, we read Milton, we read Aquinas, and we were kind of laughing at the movie and how the murderer didn’t really seem to be using the source material at all. (We also tried to draw connections between the actual punishments of sinners in the movie and Dante, but alas, there were none to be found. If there were, it would have made the movie much more interesting, in my opinion.) But most people don’t, and so it probably would have seemed mysterious and intellectual.

I suppose this is more of a problem with our culture in general than the movie itself – we no longer can write a book or movie and expect the audience coming in to have already read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and many others. That’s probably an unfortunate side-effect of books and movies no longer being written for the upper classes, for people who could afford to get an actual education and had the time to read those things, but rather geared towards a general audience…


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