TV: The Walking Dead, Season 10

If there’s one thing a virus-driven lockdown is good at, it’s creating opportunities to catch up on lots of unwatched TV.

You know: all that time you thought you’d spend writing, which in fact gets lost while binge-watching someone else’s output.

It’s hard to get mad though, because there’s a lot of very good stuff to watch out there, and the Walking Dead franchise is, in this sense, the gift that keeps on giving.

Like any ten-season series, it’s had better and worse seasons, but whatever supernatural process the druids of screenwriting employ to regularly turn out excellent episodes has been perfected by the team behind The Walking Dead.

After so long on the road and on the threshold of disaster, we now have our survivors in communities that, while they have their differences, more or less manage to work together. This is in no small part because they face a common enemy, and I’m not talking about the Walkers, because since season 9 we now also have the Whisperers.

The Walking Dead has always had other living, breathing humans as the main cause of suffering in their post-apocalyptic world. If it weren’t for other survivors, our survivors would be getting on just fine. These other groups have either slipped happily into Mad Max-style lawlessness in the absence of a socially-imposed code of conduct, or they’ve put their own survival ahead of their sense of morality, and justify any number of horrors as a consequence.

The Whisperers are different. While their leader’s motivations are complex, conflicted and emotional, as a group they’ve become what they are to survive, and as a consequence of their leader’s cult-inspired approach to people management. They’re not faking it, they’re a full-on proper cult, and they worship the walkers. That makes them a different kind of threat; one that can’t really be negotiated with.

It’s nice, in these last couple of seasons, to have seen some glimmer of light through the sometimes all-pervasive darkness that is the post-zombie-virus world. The communities thrive and the people find plenty of time for happiness amidst the struggle for survival. Of course the story only provides this to have something to tear down, and it’s not just the whisperers who challenge the survivors, it’s also the sheer difficulty of living in a post-technological age with the constant threat of annihilation outside the town walls.

Some communities just don’t make it.

Against this setting, The Walking Dead manages to successfully deploy themes of vengeance, justice, injustice, redemption, sacrifice and above all community. Perhaps the dark backdrop of the series provides fertile canvas for these kinds of stories, perhaps the writers are just, after all this time, truly great at what they do, but season 10 is undoubtedly excellent, despite some unexpected cast adjustments.

It’s hard to tell if the actors had had enough, or if there are spin-offs being prepared in the wings, but there is an external force that rips characters unexpectedly off the chessboard, without killing them, never to return (or at least not in this season). If I had to think of one thing to criticise from season 10, it would be this. In the manner of their disappearance is a strong sense of real-world factors imposing constraints on the cast and script. Maybe there was no better way of dealing with it. It doesn’t do much to diminish the viewing pleasure, but it does make you wonder where the series is going.

Strongly recommended for quarantine viewing, watching the survivors in the Walking Dead will certainly make you re-evealuate the difficulty of being stuck at home because of our, comparatively less threatening virus.

The Walking Dead Season 10 is available on Netflix and via Amazon Prime.

Film Review: Ready Player One

When I first picked up the book by Ernest Cline, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. It looked like a slightly nostalgic young adult yarn spun around an overwrought nostalgia for the 80s.

Once I got into it, I was very happily surprised. It wasn’t nostalgia, it was obsession tempered by affection. It used its subject matter as a metaphor for a time when things were perhaps less overwrought, and a little more genuine. All this in the least genuine setting of all – virtual reality. Read More

Film Review: Anon

Anon has all the elements necessary to tell a good story about the abuse of extraordinary surveillance powers. Unfortunately, it fails to deliver an engaging experience, resulting in a cold and emotionless film that leaves an aftertaste of disappointment.

Read More

Jupiter Ascending

I’m honestly not sure what science fiction as a genre has done to deserve the awful movies that are released like a biblical plague upon the loyal fans. With source material in the form of hundreds of novels from masters of the genre, and concepts such as ringworlds, Dyson’s spheres, generation ships, advanced AI, the Culture, etc to choose from, the relative paucity of anything remotely watchable is a great tragedy as far as I’m concerned.

Of course we have the original Star Wars, we have Pitch Black, Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator, the Matrix – these were good movies, in the speculative fiction genre. But they’re old, and they’re still pretty thin on the ground. You’d think that as we’re continuously approaching the future we might get better at representing it on screen in the context of a reasonably well-structured narrative.

But for each good movie we get, we seem to earn a terrible sequel (Ok – Terminator and Alien count as exceptions), and for each movie-plus-dreadful-sequel combo we get a bonus side order of a couple of truly abysmal stand-alone science fiction turds that somehow manage to obtain theatrical releases.

Jupiter Ascending is one such piece of utter drivel.

A basic technique that ensures a science fiction book works is that it be character and story driven first, and that the technology actually serve a useful purpose and create a universe with rules and limitations that bound the story in interesting ways. Here, the script is very weak on characterization, and the plot devices are wildly implausible. The characters fill out the blank spaces in the script with ever more improbable lines to read, in the service of a plot so weak it barely pretends to hang together.

Jupiter Ascending’s storyline begins to fray before the overdressed and dramatically over-eared aliens even show up. With ridiculous story artefacts, odd notions of planets “belonging” to alien cultures, an omnipresent and thinly-veiled capitalists-are-evil meme, and an advanced race so utterly backward in their personal interactions that they could all use a session with a shrink. You get the picture: The film quickly becomes annoying.  In addition, the fight scenes are indecipherable, no matter how hard you stare – even if they are quite pretty.

Add to this two other elements: On the one hand some really pointless technology and concepts (flying boots, deployable wings, a really big, really heavy gun that doesn’t actually kill anyone, bees that identify royalty and fly around them in patterns…), and on the other, the use of storytelling laziness and short cuts such as, for example, the mass editing of people’s memories so they don’t remember there are little grey men flying around shooting holes in skyscrapers, or a totally random alignment of genetic code that means our protagonist is the reborn queen of a 91-thousand-year-old galactic empire, or the fact that the entire story is motivated by sibling rivalry, and you have the perfect ingredients for the mother of all cinematic turds.

Of course it’s when I watch bad science fiction that my television goes on the blink and for the entire last quarter of the movie I couldn’t fast-forward because of a software glitch, which means I had to sit through some of the most improbable fight scenes, useless dialogue and a wedding scene that was so overdone I almost threw the remote through the screen.

Not the Wachowski’s finest moment. I think they’re great directors, but they should really leave the screenwriting to someone else.