joreth: (Kitty Eyes)
I watched a movie the other night that I was surprised to find that I actually liked. It's a Netflix movie called Spectral that, I'll be honest, I was expecting to suck.

The description reads "We can't see them. Bullets don't stop them. The Army is no match for them. Time to try something totally different."  The title screen graphics looked ... well, it made me assume that the movie would be a typical anti-science, heavy on the action, light on the plot, sci-fi flick.  But [livejournal.com profile] tacit seemed interested in the description and saw it had 4 stars, so we watched it.

I was pleasantly surprised.  I ended up liking all the characters.  I thought even the minor side characters had complex back stories and depth to their character that, even if we didn't get a lot of exposition about them, was clearly demonstrated in the dialog and in their portrayal of the characters.  There really wasn't anyone who was a standard trope caricature.

In these sorts of movies, one can usually expect to find the following characters: The gruff old military leader who is either a total dickhead or a lovable but cranky career soldier; the token demolitions expert who is also "crazy"; the scientist who is either the evil guy because science or the wuss who complains all the time and gets in the way of the real business of kicking ass; the chick who is either a badass tomboy "chill girl" with no real personality or the girlie girl outside girl who is thrown in by circumstance and constantly needs rescuing usually involving strategically destroyed flimsy clothing but will likely be somebody's love interest; and the lead character who is physically fit, intelligent, has exactly all the right skills in every circumstance to lead his team to victory, gets the girl, and saves the day with either the smarts to outwit the dumb jarheads who are making things worse with their shoot-em-up mentality or the fists to beat up the wacky super-genius whose intellect is destroying the world.

None of those characters were in this movie.

The lead was a conventionally attractive, physically fit, and yet super smart white male, it's true. This wasn't a flawless movie. He was a scientist who invented a new type of goggles for DAARPA that gave our soldiers some kind of benefit in urban combat because it could see more on the light spectrum than the human eye can. Because of that, they were also picking up something unknown that the soldiers couldn't see naturally. So they send for him to explain what his invention is seeing (justifying his presence in a combat situation by declaring the data from the goggles to be too sensitive to just send back to him to analyze).

There was a lone woman in the movie, but she wasn't the token badass chick and she also wasn't the completely ineffectual girlie girl in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was one of the lead's obstacles, but her opposition to him was reasonable given her background and position (which is so often left out of movies - we're given opposing characters who seem to oppose for no reason other than to be obstinate and give our hero someone to argue with). She was also not a love interest.

Our military guys were angry at the non-military guy coming into their sacred space, but they were given reasonable motive for feeling that way. It wasn't just "grunt, grunt, we big army boys, you pansy ass, leave now!"

Our combat team leader was gruff and tough but also smart with tactical knowledge and good team-building, mediating, and interpersonal conflict resolution skills, as a successful team leader ought to be. Our team was made up of just a bunch of guys, not the Token Bomb Guy, the Token POC, the Token Sharpshooter, the Token I Made A Mistake Joining Guy, the Token Joined Too Young Guy, the Token Irish/German Jolly Drinker/Fighter Guy, and the Token Small But Wiry Communications Officer.

What really sold me on the movie was the commitment to science, critical thinking, and reason. Our hero consistently maintained a pro-science attitude, not a pseudo-science attitude. Everyone wanted an immediate answer to the problem and everyone had an agenda to get confirmation of a specific answer that they wanted from him, but he kept insisting that science (and solutions) required data and it was foolish to go off half-cocked on speculation and bias.

The movie had 2 major flaws. When they finally did the big reveal, everything they said was actually scientifically accurate as far as we understand the concept right now. Except for one thing, which I won't spoil. But it was the very premise from which all the other things happened. The Big Bad Thing is made of This and exists like This and does These Things - that's all true. But it only happens in a particular circumstance that was not present here.

The author of The Martian has been lauded for his adherence to scientific accuracy in his book, and again with the movie based on it. He crowdsourced the book to make sure it was as close to realistic as possible. But he had one major plot hole - because of Martian gravity, storms wouldn't happen like they did in his book, but without that storm, we wouldn't have a story. In an interview, he explained that he knew of this flaw, but that all sci-fi stories had one Gimme - one major plot device that was excused for the sake of the story because the story can't happen without it. As long as the story was internally consistent, that one thing, if handled well, could be forgiven and even overlooked with the suspension of disbelief. He made storms that don't exist on Mars because he needed a way to isolate his character on the planet. But everything he did afterwards conformed to physics as we know it.

So, this plot point - that The Thing only happens in This Circumstance in real life but doesn't have that limitation in the movie - I'm willing to write that off as a Gimme because they otherwise described it correctly and the movie remained internally consistent.

The other plot point is that the writers seemed to have spent all their time researching their major conflict and didn't spend any time understanding the difference between a machine that "reads" light (i.e. a spectrograph) and a machine that *produces* light. These are VERY different things and, generally speaking, you are not very likely to be able to convert one machine into the other.

This movie did have one typical thing that often annoys me - the manufacturing montage. Building things takes time. It's not very common to be able to outfit a squadron with all new weapons from within a combat zone using found items overnight. Not impossible because it depends on the weapons and the found items. Just ... unlikely. I mean, making a bunch of Molotov Cocktails can be done in a single night, for example. But Tony Stark inventing and building Iron Man by himself in a cave in the Middle East in a couple of days? Yeah, yeah, I know that they explained that away by having him be captured by a well-funded terrorist who magically provided all the materials necessary. Still. Welding and soldering complex mechanics takes time and skill, even assuming you're lucky enough to have the right kind of welder in your found items (which, to be fair, the movie did account for by giving an explanation for why they had the gear that they ended up with).

I'm not saying it's not possible. I'm saying that I've built shit. I've even built shit that I personally designed that never existed before because it came out of my head and I had to use unusual materials because the thing never existed before so the parts for it didn't either. I'm saying that prototyping takes time and untested mechanics rarely work right on the first try. As [livejournal.com profile] tacit put it, movies make manufacturing look easier than it is. Not impossible, but it's harder than the movies make it look.

There was also one moment in the movie that broke me out of it; one phrase that made me roll my eyes and groan ... "there are some things that science can't answer." While this is *technically* true, this is almost always applied in movies to things that we can, in fact, answer. Often, it's applied to things that we *have the answer for right now*, but sometimes it's for things that are currently unknown but that doesn't mean that they're unknowable.

So, my conclusion is that, in spite of these criticisms, I felt that the movie was engaging and internally consistent (which is my version of "plausible" for movies - maybe it couldn't really happen, but given the pretend movie conditions it likely could), and I found the characters to have depth and understandable motivations and most of them to be likable. I would recommend this movie if you like sci-fi action.

However, as we learned with the next movie we watched, you shouldn't necessarily trust Netflix's star rating system. The next 4-star movie we watched was COMPLETE AND UTTER SHITE ON EVERY CONCEIVABLE LEVEL.
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