Tag Archives: Guillermo del Toro

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Robots — “Pacific Rim: The Black”

The second article I ever wrote on this site was called “Giant Monsters Gently Pluck My Heartstrings”. It was about Guillermo Del Toro’s most misunderstood film: “Pacific Rim”. It’s just giant robots and monsters beating each other up, right? Pretty colors, fun explosions, Idris Elba monologues. It’s like a “Transformers” movie where you can actually see what’s happening and leave without a headache. That doesn’t mean it has any real depth, yeah?

“Pacific Rim” as a franchise isn’t about the robots or the monsters, though. They’re incidental – a very fun incidental – but they’re a means to an end. Every Guillermo Del Toro monster is a metaphor for something far more consequential, and every means to fight it or understand it speaks to us about human nature. Yet every time, without fail – the one film we forget this about is “Pacific Rim”.

At its very best moments, “Pacific Rim” is about the Drift: the process where two people share memories in order to pilot the giant robots known as jaegers. “Pacific Rim” is about one thing before all others: two people coping with trauma and loss who find themselves in a sudden relationship to each other where neither can hide. To function, to do all that battling, to rise up and help others, they need to find a way to understand and communicate their trauma to each other. And let me tell you, these days this franchise and that idea feel fresher than they did when the film came out in 2013.

In the original movie, this loss is even explored across cultures – how people from different cultures and with different expectations respond to that loss. An approach to coping might be seen as brave in one culture, but is viewed as unhealthy in another. When someone crosses a boundary to help someone who doesn’t want that help, it can be seen as standing up for someone in one culture, and as a gross violation of trust in another. That is the entire push-and-pull dynamic shaped between Rinko Kikuchi’s, Idris Elba’s, and Charlie Hunnam’s characters in that film.

When you get it down to Kikucho and Hunnam, this is what I wrote “Pacific Rim” was about in August 2013: “two people abandoned suddenly and violently, for reasons they can’t understand, who – because they chance to meet – finally surpass the paralyzing effect that loss has on their lives.”

I am awed by how wildly “Pacific Rim” is overlooked. The 2018 sequel “Pacific Rim: Uprising” didn’t help matters. It killed off a fan favorite for no reason, its plot was wild, and it made the mistake of thinking the franchise is about robots fighting monsters – not about the traumatized people fixing and breaking themselves all over again just to get to that fight in the first place. I still enjoy it for what it is, but “Pacific Rim” needed its heart back again.

Enter “Pacific Rim: The Black”. And good god, it understands. The Japanese-American animation has a seven-episode first season on Netflix, with a second already ordered. Using an anime style means it can make those jaeger vs. kaiju battles look beautiful, but understanding “Pacific Rim” means they know that not many of them are needed. This show is about character.

The war against the invading giant monsters known as kaiju is now lost. Australia has been abandoned. Hayley and Taylor are saved by their parents – pilots of a jaeger. They’re left to hide with survivors in a desert oasis near a now-buried jaeger base. Their parents promise they’ll come back with rescuers in a few weeks time. Five years pass.

The oasis community is doing well for themselves, until one day Hayley finds a way into that old base and discovers a dilapidated, weaponless jaeger. I won’t ruin what happens, but one of the throughlines of “Pacific Rim: The Black” is that joy is often paired with loss. The show does not give anyone an easy time. Don’t make assumptions about the sci-fi anime wrapping – it is easily the most mature entry in the franchise, and it doesn’t shy away from violence.

I ache for shows that put their characters into impossible corners, with no easy outs, where they have to make decisions where there’s no right answer. I yearn for shows that engage trauma to tackle that it can’t be waved away, that it doesn’t only crop up when doing so keys an interesting plot – that trauma is interruptive, that it is what takes your plot and shatters it so now your characters have to find their way around or through it. That is dealing with trauma as a responsible storyteller, and if there’s a franchise that needs that same approach, it is “Pacific Rim”. They get it beyond right.

The show incorporates some familiar anime tropes. To give a fairly spoiler-free example…a character they meet mid-series, Mei, is the prototypical hard-boiled survivor trained to be a killer since she was a girl. I wouldn’t call my knowledge of anime exceptionally deep, but I’ve seen the broad character type before. I’ve rarely seen it done this well, though. Her characterization is efficient, and her moral struggle in relation to Hayley and Taylor feels complex and earned.

It’s like this across the board – you’ll note plot elements you’ve seen before, but rarely done this well. Furthermore, if you’re a fan of the franchise as a whole, they use these elements to tie in the lore of the previous installments. “Pacific Rim: The Black” does the nearly impossible – it makes “Uprising” better. It takes elements from the sequel that felt unneeded or misguided, and it gives them reason, attaches emotion, illustrates consequence.

This isn’t some cash-in on a franchise that wasn’t being used. This is an absolutely felt and studied continuation on the themes and details of “Pacific Rim”. The Drift – that process where two pilots have to share memories in order to make a jaeger work? It’s explored far more heavily as a sci-fi and moral concept than before. It still offers characters perspectives on each others’ trauma, but we also see how it can be abused when the wrong person gets hold of it.

There are exceptional details shown in these memories, too. For instance, Hayley finding the body of a friend is shown three times. The first is reality. The second two are memories in the drift. Each time it takes place, her movements are staged differently, the body is revealed in a slightly different way. As she views herself worse and worse, certain details of her memory change to paint her actions in that moment as less human, the encounter more horrific, her connection more distant. It’s a detailed example of survivor’s guilt, and the show doesn’t spotlight it to show off what it’s doing. It’s just there, an emotional reality that becomes a fact of the character.

Taylor reads as maybe around 18 or 20, and Hayley’s still a kid, maybe around 14 or 15. They’ve both been thrown into leadership positions over the last few years without guidance. Over the course of the series, they encounter horrible situations. They don’t act like resolute heroes; they act like inexperienced kids in over their heads – they screw up, they need time to process emotions, they forgive quickly, they linger in a dangerous situation because it’s the only one that’s solidly defined for them. It’s a minor note only seen a few times, but as a former jaeger cadet who trained in his youth, Taylor has anxiety over making quick decisions. There are small moments where he projects this on someone who’s no longer around to defend themselves. He makes a quick judgment on someone else’s decision-making, assigning them fault because he’s so apprehensive about his own.

“Pacific Rim: The Black” speeds along and its writing is efficient, but it’s filled with these little nuances and details that breathe immense life into its characters.

The voice actors are phenomenal. I watched in English and you get the sense that everyone was reading their lines within context, with superb direction and a defined sense of how these characters are perceiving each other. The music is good, and it brings back those strong orchestral cues for jaegers, kaiju, and hero moments.

One great decision they’ve made is that the human characters are animated with fewer frames per second. It’s a similar effect (though vastly different style) to “Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse”, which animated at 12 frames per second instead of 24. This conveys motions as being a little faster or unexpected. It’s a more conscious style, but your eyes adapt quickly and it can often make movement feel more natural because it’s just that much less predictable.

By contrast, the jaeger vs. kaiju battles are always shown in much smoother animation, with higher frame rates. After your eyes have adjusted to 12 frames per second, where you’re filling in information between movements, this shift to a smoother, 24 fps rate can make things feel more deliberate. They aren’t happening more slowly, but your brain is translating the movement differently. It’s a brilliant choice that conveys the sheer scale and weight of the jaeger and kaiju. It mirrors that slower, deliberate fight choreography from the films and it takes advantage of how we perceive quality of movement in animation. It’s a mind-blowingly good decision.

If there’s a major issue, the character designs on Hayley and Mei should have been less sexualized. In a medium that’s seen Faye Valentine and Revy, you can often just be glad someone’s finally discovered the technology of buttoning their pants, but that becomes a low bar. The two characters are fully clothed the whole time, but some of their clothes are very form-fitting. (So are Taylor’s, but not in a way that sexualizes him.) This becomes more of an issue when we recognize that any read on Hayley still presents her as a child. Thankfully, they start throwing a loose jacket on her a few episodes in.

I don’t always know how far to criticize a series on decisions like this. We have countless shows that do far more to sexualize underage characters – the orgies in “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, Darren Barnet’s character in “Never Have I Ever”, George Sear’s character in “Love, Victor”. The actors are adults, but the characters aren’t. That’s not a defense for “Pacific Rim: The Black” or an attempt at whataboutism. It points out a double-standard that we need to stop exercising when we excuse our own culture’s media for it.

Right now, as a critic, it would be normal for me to lay into this series for a form-fitting costume design, while nobody would blink twice if I said the orgies from “Sabrina” were sexy. “Pacific Rim: The Black” should be criticized for that costume design decision. How much should it be criticized for it? My point is that I don’t fully know, because I live in a culture where it’s normalized to give our own media a pass on worse. It bothers me, I know it’s a problematic element, I know to call it out and notify readers it’s there. Beyond that, I’m not sure how much that does or doesn’t set the series back. How much do we isolate it as a problematic element on its own, or weigh it against the show as a whole?

Aside from that major issue, I have very momentary complaints, but that’s ultimately what they are – a detail in a fight that could’ve been done differently or a musical cue that could’ve been a notch more subdued. The plot gets wild at later points, but…well, welcome to “Pacific Rim”.

It’s rare for a show to have an intense, complex, winding plot that isn’t taken over by a writer’s ego – where it really feels like the characters themselves are the ones making decisions and feeling their way through it all.

“Pacific Rim: The Black” is lovely, wrenching, shocking, endearing, ridiculous, tense. It is everything I wanted. It takes that initial metaphor about people learning to communicate about loss and trauma, and it runs with it to talk about how we learn our way through it, how we sit with those demons, the terror of someone knowing how to manipulate them when we haven’t figured them out. The plot points are sometimes out there, but the storytelling around them is brilliant.

You can watch “Pacific Rim: The Black” on Netflix.

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Fight Scene Friday — “Blade 2”

by Gabriel Valdez

Keep your sparkling vampires. I’ll take my Eastern European goth ninjas any day of the week. It’s hard to rank this fight – it looks great and many of the short combination sequences are beautifully laid out, but it’s bookended by lovably atrocious 2002 CGI and interspersed with some of the most useless choreography put to film.

As in many of director Guillermo Del Toro’s action movies, there’s about four parts meaningless flourish, one part effective move, but you know what? These movies usually concern immortal supernatural beings hacking away at each other. Who am I to question their flourishy martial arts? Most of written mythology is more concerned with boasting, too.

It’s fun to watch, and that’s what matters. Just don’t try to count the number of openings missed, and never try catching a sword blade between your shins like Blade does.

Del Toro initially wanted nothing to do with the sequel to Stephen Norrington’s first Blade, but – as Del Toro details in his collection of behind-the-scenes material Cabinet of Curiosities:

“I mean, literally, my agent at the time called me and said, ‘Do you want to make Blade II?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do Blade II.’ And he said, ‘Do you ever want to do Hellboy?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, if you want to do Hellboy, you gotta do Blade II, because no one’s going to hire you to do Hellboy based on Mimic or Cronos.’ And he was absolutely right.”

This was also fresh off a spectacularly failed pitch for I Am Legend. The long-in-gestation remake had Arnold Schwarzenegger attached at the time. Del Toro was a long-shot to direct and he was fairly certain he lost any consideration when he told producers that Schwarzenegger was completely wrong for the project. That movie wouldn’t end up getting off the ground until 2007, and was eventually directed by current Hunger Games helmer Francis Lawrence and starred Will Smith.

Del Toro would eventually direct Blade II – the high point for the franchise – with a unique attitude. Anything having to do with the character Blade, he left to Snipes. Del Toro wouldn’t mess with anything Snipes wanted to try; he would just stay out of the actor’s way. Everything else was Del Toro’s domain, which explains the lightproof, leather-and-lycra steampunk costumes with adjustable goggles and an inventive, demonesque take on a new supervampire. Now, go enjoy yourself some 2002 CGI.

The Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2015: Terrorist Meryl Streep, Lightsabers & Time Travel

Mad Max Fury Road Tom Hardy

by Gabriel Valdez

The top ten is a mix of big-budget movies and independent-minded films, but two of my top three films feature women directing. This is the kind of thing I think most lists miss when they just stick to Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Marvel everything. Now, I’ll spoil something – I list Star Wars here – big surprise, but Most Anticipated lists can’t just be the big stuff. They have to mix it up.

You’re not showing anyone anything when you only talk about what they already know.

I don’t want to launch into a diatribe about criticism, but the industry really is threatened by a mass consensus attitude that demands championing anything popular beforehand for the clicks, and then tearing it down afterward for the clicks. And then the industry has the gall to turn around and criticize Hollywood for its lack of imagination.

Moving on:

Hateful Eight

10. THE HATEFUL EIGHT

When I stepped into the theater for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, I thought to myself, this is the final straw. This is where Tarantino steps up and proves he’s about something more than celebrating style, or the place I can finally bury having to be concerned about him. Coming off the night-and-day halves of Kill Bill and the well-filmed but utterly needless Deathproof, I was really hoping for an excuse to bury him. By the time I walked out, I felt like I’d been sucker punched.

Tarantino’s always been capable of making you laugh even while sending chills up your spine and making you feel guilty about it, but those skills could often find themselves drowned under the weight of his pulp. There wasn’t a balance. His films could really be about something one minute and then waste that opportunity the next. But with Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino has hit his stride, creating dramas within satires where the message shapes the film around it more than the style. Rarely have audiences packed theaters to see films that make them this uncomfortable. There’s no reason to believe Tarantino will falter at this point, especially in a Western packed with villains. I just hope he’s able to maintain the balance he’s found, and doesn’t fall into old habits. His old habits made good films, sure, but his new habits make great ones. November 13.

9. STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS

I know, this should be #1, right? Cause Star Wars.

Count me disillusioned by the prequels. Count me wary of how they’re splitting up the Star Wars universe into the Marvel film-a-year approach. I actually like the choice of JJ Abrams to direct, as I’ve written before, and the first trailer looked fantastic.

I’m just a bit worn out. For a franchise that hasn’t had a new movie in 10 years, it’s omnipresent. There’s something to be said for: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Star Wars hasn’t been absent. It’s like the guest you invited to your holiday party is still camping out on your couch. And the holiday party was in 2005.

It’s #9 on my list, so I’m excited to see it, but…I think we could use some space before all that, Star Wars. It’s not you, it’s me. Wait, that’s not right, it’s totally you. December 18.

8. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Finally, the return of Mel Gibson to the franchise that made him what he was (minus, you know, the racist stuff). In Mad Max, Gibson reprises his- wait, what? He’s been replaced? God, who could they get to replace Mel Gibson in one of the most iconic roles ever created?

It couldn’t be. No, it’s not possible…. They wouldn’t.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve just been told that Mel Gibson has been replaced by, er, Tom Hardy. It may come as a shock to you, but I’ve also been informed that I am being replaced by Tom Hardy. As it turns out, we will all be replaced with Tom Hardy by the end of the day. In fact, everyone in the world is now being played by Tom Hardy, with the exception of Werner Herzog, who managed to stave off the transformation with a vial of Klaus Kinski’s bone marrow he tag locked in the jungles of Peru in 1979. On the state of things, Herzog commented that he was “unperturbed but sleepy, with the energy of dreams.”

OK, with five roles in four films on this top 40, you wouldn’t think Hardy has the time, but Tom Hardy and space-time are apparently one and the same. (We’re going to have to re-dub a lot of Star Trek episodes now.)

Actually, Tom Hardy looks like a perfect fit in Mad Max: Fury Road. Watch the incredibly colorful trailer (how do so many post-apocalypse films forget that the natural world is so colorful?) and you’ll even notice how well Hardy picks up the subtle gestures, glances, and weary looks of Gibson.

In summation, Tom Hardy is the best, I’m looking forward to this just a smidgen more than Star Wars, which for whatever reason committed the unending shame of not casting Tom Hardy, and long live our glorious leader Tom Hardy. May 15.

7. TOMORROWLAND

You’ll notice I’m getting the 3 most important big-budget films of the year (to me, at least) out of the way right here, and Tomorrowland is the one that really makes me hope. The director of Pixar animated classics “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” Brad Bird tells the story of a young girl (Britt Robertson) who joins an inventor played by George Clooney to travel to a place outside of space and time (I’m sorry, outside of Tom Hardy) in order to to try to set the world right. It feels like a cross between The Wizard of Oz and Amazing Stories. If the trailer’s any indication, it will have a great deal to say about the troubled times in which we live. May 22.

6. KNIGHT OF CUPS

Terrance Malick makes amazing films that force you to consider your lonely place in a vast universe. And then he holds onto them for years and years until everyone’s forgotten he made them. Knight of Cups looks like it’s Malick’s take on the genre of excess, starring one of the most ridiculous casts of the year (Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Imogen Poots, Antonio Banderas, Wes Bentley). Nobody quite knows what to expect. The trailer is pure insanity, and only makes you less sure of what to expect. Such is the way of Malick. December 11.

5. PREDESTINATION

Robert Heinlein is perhaps the greatest science-fiction writer to have ever put pen to page. His most controversial and challenging short story is called “-All You Zombies-”. It’s a story about time travel and influencing the path your former self takes in life. It’s simple to understand, but narratively audacious. It is a masterpiece of storytelling about identity.

It is impossible to film. I mean, there are things that are hard to film, and then there are things that are impossible to film, and then there’s “-All You Zombies-”.

The Spierig brothers aren’t the first directors you’d choose to film something like this. They previously directed moody vampire story Daybreakers, a solid genre piece that unfortunately goes overboard in its last 10 minutes. Still, they have rare style and a relationship with just about the only actor I’d ever trust to play this role – Ethan Hawke. The sheer audacity of adapting this tale is what shoots this to the top of my list. If you’ve read the story, you damn well know why. But if they can pull this off, if they can make it what it ought to be or even come close, it will be the kind of film that makes you unable to move when the credits finally roll. January 9/Out now/Probably going to have to wait until DVD.

4. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

One of the best and most overlooked films of the past few years is Mud, a coming-of-age tale that recalls Steven Spielberg’s early work, only featuring rural Arkansas and Matthew McConaughey instead of aliens. Writer-director Jeff Nichols follows it up with the story of a father and son on the run after the son develops powers. He’s cited John Carpenter classic Starman as his inspiration. Looking at Nichols’s filmography, including Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, he has yet to take a wrong step.

Most new American stories feel too generic, too in-service to a brand-name Americana that doesn’t feel real. Nichols’ stories emerge from a classic Americana closer to Jack London, Flannery O’Connor, and Mark Twain. The stakes are simple and personal, the stories organic and unexpected, the world around you wide open, thick with character and atmosphere, and yet always seen through a personal bubble you can never quite escape. He is one of the most important filmmakers just now breaking into the industry.

Midnight Special stars Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, and Sam Shepard. November 25.

(Since there are no trailers or promotional images, I’ve posted the trailer for Nichols’s Mud up above. It’s some of the best two hours you can spend watching a movie.)

Suffragette

3. SUFFRAGETTE

Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter as terrorists? Tell me more. They play Emmeline Pankhurst and Edith New, respectively. They were the leaders of Britain’s suffrage movement, which fought for the right of women to vote during the turn of the 20th century. The state condemned them and reacted brutally to their battle for real democracy. The movement turned underground and spent years organizing, enduring and provoking extreme violence in turn.

This is written by BBC mainstay and The Iron Lady scribe Abi Morgan, and directed by a hugely promising up-and-comer: Sarah Gavron. It also stars Carey Mulligan, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson.

It’s eery to think that, in many democratic countries (including the U.S.), women have had the right to vote for less than 100 years. September 11.

Crimson Peak Wasikowska

2. CRIMSON PEAK

Guillermo Del Toro is the best horror director working today. With Crimson Peak, he’s stepping into new territory. Telling what he calls a “ghost story and gothic romance,” the film stars genre wunderkid Mia Wasikowska as a young woman who marries a man who isn’t quite what he appears to be. That man is played by everyone’s favorite Loki, Tom Hiddleston.

The prospect of seeing these two play off actors like Jessica Chastain and Doug Jones (who has played more Del Toro creatures than any other actor – think of him as Del Toro’s Andy Serkis)…it’s all too enticing to put anywhere else but right near the top of this list. October 16.

1. GIRLHOOD

To quote Alessia Palanti on her review of Boyhood, “After so many years the final result is dotted with formulaic plot points, cliches, a number of feel-good heteronormative Americana stereotypes, and an uninteresting family…I can see why it would capture an audience’s attention, and how its middle class familiar life scenarios could forge mutual understanding between film and viewer. But is this what boyhood really is? And if so, should we really be so celebratory?”

Palanti concluded her review by asking for a Girlhood version of Boyhood.

I’ll answer her with a quote from Daily Beast critic Molly Hannon in her review for Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood: “Sciamma’s film effectively captures the painful realities of young African-French girls living in the French projects who are marginalized by society, mistreated by their families, and preyed upon by unscrupulous characters. The girls only have each other, and it is their banded friendship that empowers them, gives them the security they crave while also giving them a safe place to remain young.”

Before we go on, the film Girlhood has nothing to do with the film Boyhood. It’s more accurately translated as Gang of Girls, but this would carry unfortunate connotations in English. Girlhood is not #1 on this list to riff on Boyhood or be snarky. Yet the comparison is there because of the Americanized title, so let me tell you why it’s number one by telling you why Boyhood doesn’t make my year-end lists: because I can’t see any of the characters in Boyhood really caring that much about the characters in Girlhood. That doesn’t mean they’re bad people, it just means they enjoy a certain privilege not to have to face responsibility for what’s outside the ken of their own lives.

They’re able to participate in rites of passage that don’t necessarily engender healthy people, and yet those rites of passage are celebrated as part of being an average, normal American. There are moments of Boyhood that don’t ring true for people who faced those moments from a different perspective, or simply declined to participate in them.

So why is Girlhood first on my list when it will also present a perspective I have not inhabited? These are the most popular comments to the trailers for Girlhood on YouTube. I apologize for the language, but these are direct quotes:

“Niggers being niggers….. that’s all.”

“I wonder how many wigs are in this movie.”

“Might I dare to suggest a slight change in title to Hood Girls.”

“So they made a movie out of black female flash mobs. So what. Who cares. I don’t.”

“That weave tho…smh.”

“fucking racist negroes taking over France”

Boyhood is a fine film but, to me, it carries with it the luxury of not caring. There’s an Americana to it that is lovely and sentimental, but also narcissistic and illusory. Give me instead the film that takes that luxury away, that offers me a perspective that feels real and unique instead of averaged and branded as “normal.”

Girlhood arrives at a time when civil rights are at issue once more both in the United States and in France, when police violence is untenable in both, when here the voting rights that formed the very core that marchers died for (as was recounted in 2014’s Selma) have been undermined on the state level and by the Supreme Court, and after years of France similarly legislating lesser lives with lesser rights for minority groups including French-Africans.

What film do I want to see the most? I want to see the most technically accomplished, yes. I want to see something emotional, no doubt. But more than anything else, I want to see something that takes on the world unafraid, that can tell a story and make a point, that makes me face the worst of the world and still find beauty. What movies do just a hair better than any other storytelling medium is put you in somebody else’s shoes, give you access to seeing the world and thinking of it from another person’s perspective, so that you might come out a little differently than you went in. Of all the movies on this list, Girlhood is the one that makes me feel like it could be all of those things. January 30.

That’s the list! I’ll put up a recap in coming days, so you can see everything #40 through #1 lined up together.

In the meantime, if you missed #40-31, didn’t see #30-21, or want to know what #20-11 are, I just linked them all in this sentence. Behold, the magic of the internet.

That “Star Wars” Trailer — In Defense of J.J. Abrams

by Gabriel Valdez

It’s a safe announcement trailer, built not to sell a story but rather to shore up a fan base. J.J. Abrams was not a popular choice among fans to direct Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The new Star Wars trailer had to show some visual muscle, and it did. If it had relied solely on a mysterious tease, fans would have blown up about what mistakes Abrams had made that Disney was hiding. Millions of voices would have cried out in terror, but they would have never shut the hell up. We needed a safe trailer that nonetheless got our pulses racing and, well, that’s exactly what we got.

Why does so much negativity swirl around Abrams anyway? His Star Trek reboot was viewed as being clever and respectful of the original material among many fans. As someone raised on a steady diet of Next Gen, DS9, and Voyager, it felt playful and loving, featuring some visual moments that I hadn’t realized I’d always wished for from the franchise until I saw them.

Sure, the sequel Into Darkness was a misstep that succeeded in the impossible task of miscasting Benedict Cumberbatch. Abrams first went after Benicio del Toro, however, so his initial instinct was on the nose. Mainly, the whole affair just made me yearn for Dr. McCoy to ditch the bunch of them and adventure through space on his own, healing bodies and sniping egos as he went. Sort of like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, but with Karl Urban, sharp one-liners instead of heavy breathing, and more phaser fire. “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a Kay Jewelers spokesmodel.”

Into Darkness made mistakes, but looking at the rest of Abrams’s catalogue…how is this guy so viciously hated? As a TV producer, he’s brought us Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe, each one a show that stands near the top of its genre. The short-lived Almost Human was briefly among the best programs on television and gave us a Karl Urban-Michael Ealy odd couple more rewarding than most relationships on TV. Revolution and Person of Interest aren’t too shabby either.

There’s a reason subsequent espionage programs like Blacklist, Chuck, and even NCIS stole vast swathes of plot from Alias, which deftly translated the Greek tragic form while giving us some of the best fight choreography ever put to television.

Lost was the best show on TV for a few years, inspiring rabid loyalty among fans. Ten years ago, it was THE cultural touchstone. Even though it lost its way a few times, it maintained its mystery without compromising its hard sci-fi values. It lasted seven seasons this way. No show that copied its Twilight Zone-gone-large storytelling lasted more than a handful. Most didn’t make it a season, which makes Abrams the only producer who’s successfully pulled it off.

As for Fringe? Name for me another show that came as close to living up to The X-Files‘ combination of science-fiction and supernatural horror. In terms of Golden Age science-fiction, Fringe even equaled its predecessor in heartbreaking standalone episodes like “Johari Window” and “White Tulip.”

As a director, Abrams changed the direction of the quickly sinking Mission: Impossible franchise, successfully remixed Star Trek before his too-clever-for-its-own-good sequel, and gave us the phenomenal Super 8. The last of these is sometimes criticized as being too much of a riff on Steven Spielberg’s early career, which focused on the intimate story of a broken family juxtaposed against world-changing events. I’ll tell you what: Super 8. Mud. The Devil’s Backbone. Those are the three films since 2000 that have most successfully melded coming-of-age stories into an epic framework. J.J. Abrams, Jeff Nichols, Guillermo Del Toro. That’s pretty good company.

As a film producer, he gave us Cloverfield, among the best found footage films, the severely underrated Rachel McAdams-Harrison Ford comedy Morning Glory, and Brad Bird’s follow-up to Abrams’s own Mission: Impossible entry, Ghost Protocol.

Abrams also changed TV in another important way. It often gets overlooked as a simple inevitability of history, but Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe all shared one thing – women as protagonists, asskickers, and leaders. Keri Russell, Jennifer Garner, Evangeline Lilly, Yunjin Kim, and Anna Torv all led their shows as equals or superiors. TV history was meandering this way already with shows like Ally McBeal and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Abrams gave the medium a hard shove in the right direction that sped the process up. Without Russell and Garner in particular, television wouldn’t be so brave about running shows led solely by female protagonists.

Abrams has a high floor for quality. His missteps are rare. He can find the personal and quiet moment inside the larger, chaotic scheme of plot. He can back up and find the epic moment that frames us in another world. He can translate classic and mythic forms of storytelling while infusing his work with the style of other directors. Most importantly, he shows inventiveness within the storytelling restrictions of a variety of forms. While not all of his films have put women and minorities front and center, all of his TV shows have. I can’t help but notice his Force Awakens trailer primarily features an African-American man (John Boyega) and a woman (Daisy Ridley).

Is Abrams the best choice? No, but I don’t think David Fincher’s going to do a Star Wars, Ridley Scott turned the offer down in the 90s (and may’ve jumped the shark since), and Guillermo Del Toro turned the offer down a few years back.

I don’t know that Brad Bird would have been better, and I’d rather have him working on Tomorrowland. If you saw the up-and-down Elysium then you know that Neill Blomkamp simply isn’t there as a director yet. Davids Cronenberg and Lynch turned Return of the Jedi down in the 80s and, by the way, have you seen Dune? I mean, I like it better than most, but is this really what you want Star Wars to be?

George Lucas? Empire‘s Irvin Kershner? Jedi‘s Richard Marquand? I might love some of their films, but let’s face it: J.J. Abrams is the best director who’s ever taken the helm on a Star Wars movie. Period.

At least Lucas isn’t doing it again, or we might have this:

“The Strain” — The Full Autopsy

Strain hi would you like to buy some encyclopedias

Congratulations, Eph Goodweather, you’ve just beaten to death the creature that will prove to the CDC all your claims about outbreak and contagious, little wormy things. What will you do now?

“Well, you see, I’d like to perform a secret autopsy in the basement before destroying all the evidence that will prove what I staked my career on in the first three episodes. Furthermore, as these little wormy things have proven highly contagious, I’d like to use no real protective gear while – instead of cutting the body apart – I just kind of tear at it with my bare hands. My hope is that possibly contagious bodily fluids fly EVERYWHERE. I’m kind of into that. Then I’ll burn the evidence that supports my theory of outbreak afterward, and we can toss a little bleach around. Above all, don’t tell anyone we just coated the storage basement (of this hospital full of sick people) in outbreak fluids. Trust me, I’m a doctor.”

Look, I don’t want to keep on kicking a dead horse’s bridges while they’re down, but…who wrote this crap? As I continue to watch and review The Strain, FX’s expensive new vampire series created by horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro and Lost showrunner Carlton Cuse, I find myself repeatedly asking a single question:

What the hell went wrong?

The blame lies in a few different places:

1. AIMLESSNESS
Too Many B-Plots

The show’s not wanting for good characters, it’s just that the good characters don’t get much screen time when they have to share with so many bad ones. Even when they do get screen time, they find themselves in a sort of Sisyphean acting hell, in which they have to repeat the same scenes opposite the same foils over and over again.

Let’s take these one-by-one. The badass vampire hunter Abraham (David Bradley) has only had a handful of scenes thus far. Across four episodes, all but two of these scenes have involved our protagonists from the CDC telling him to shove off. Sometimes they even go out of their way to seek him out, ostensibly to hear his advice, but really because it’s just a more creative way of telling him to shove off.

How does this happen, by the way? Do CDC doctors really hop on the Red Line to Jamaica Station to catch the Orange Line that gets them the C-train on the Blue Line at Penn in order to have a 2-minute conversation, the only purpose of which is to inform the person they just traveled two hours to see how much they don’t want to talk to him? Did they lose a bet with another doctor?

We need one scene in which our protagonists inform Abraham they don’t believe him. We don’t need one per episode.

Or take Puerto Rican ex-con Felix (Pedro Miguel Arce), who transports the ubervampire across the city in the first episode. It pays so much, it’s the last job he’ll ever do, which is why he’s inexplicably so hard up for cash by episode 4 that he’s stealing SUVs. I get recidivism, but he’s two days off beating up his brother for stealing a clock. There’s no consistency or sense of motivation offered to us. Furthermore, the SUV theft takes up a big chunk of episode 4, along with such critical scenes as insisting the building’s super be nicer to his mom, and arguing over who’ll take out the recyclables. That’s a total of three scenes in one episode. They’re not relevant to anything else. You know how many the main plot gets? Two.

I have news for you: I don’t care who takes out the recyclables. Jesus, I’ll take out the recyclables, just cut to the next scene.

Strain Vasiliy

There’s even a city health inspector/exterminator named Vasiliy (Kevin Durand). He’s passed through the same restaurant as another character, and he’s noticed rats are being chased out of the sewers by something sinister. Aside from these fairly circumstantial connections, however, there’s no reason yet given why we’re watching anything he does. Don’t get me wrong – Durand’s portrayal is the definition of charming and I’d gladly (rather) watch a show about him catching rats for a living, but while Vasiliy is completely unconnected to the larger story, he gets more scenes in episodes 2 and 3 than anyone but the main character. Then he doesn’t appear at all in episode 4. Good job, whoever made that call.

The biggest problem with The Strain is that there are so many B-plots, and we’re so focused on them, that the main plot is often only addressed in the opening and closing scenes. Furthermore, the B-plots have to be put on hold for episodes at a time so other B-plots can be introduced or continued.

HOW TO FIX IT?

Lost made a lot of mistakes as a TV show, but it handled the biggest ensemble on TV with a deft hand. Sometimes that meant being forgiving – Matthew Fox’s Jack was meant to die at the end of the first episode, a victim to the mysterious smoke monster, but producers liked him too much to kill him off. He became the beating heart and moral compass of the show for 7 seasons.

And sometimes that meant Lost had to be unforgiving – killing off characters whose actors broke the law outside the show, for instance; diminishing the screentime of actors whose characters proved unpopular; and even cutting ties with Dominic Monaghan, whose name helped launch the show but who wanted to be more of a central figure in it (and who runs his own awesome, globetrotting, nature show on BBC now).

With a cast this big, you’ve got to choose your champions early. Forgive them, be heartless with anyone and everything else. The choices of how to spend screen time in The Strain are the worst I have ever seen made in narrative TV. There have been worse shows, sure – The Strain‘s budget, cast, and production polish are enough to let it get away with a handful of mistakes – but there have been few shows so aimless and easily distracted.

Strain Abraham

2. DISTRACTIONS
10-Minute Castrations

Yes, you have unfortunately read that right. The third episode focuses half its time on the survivors of the airplane outbreak as they turn vampire. We get slow, languorous shots of one drinking blood from a steak. We spent several minutes with the rock star survivor washing his face, taking out his contacts and wig, even peeing (yes, peeing) just before his genitalia fall off.

These are scenes that have been covered in countless vampire, werewolf, and zombie movies. They’re staple, we know them by heart, and unless you’re really introducing something new into the mix, it makes no sense to spend half of each episode on these rote mutations, certainly not at the expense of your two dozen other main cast.

It’s not difficult to realize that watching a man flushing his blackened, detachable genitalia down the toilet doesn’t justify 10 minutes of watching him scrub his face beforehand. In fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t justify much of anything.

That rocker with the detachable…you know…we follow so closely in episode 3? Not to be seen in episode 4. In fact, three of the four survivors of the initial outbreak are heavily featured in the third episode. We have no clue what the fourth survivor, presented as the most consequential one starting out, has been up to since credits rolled in episode 2.

Unless the mutations are that special, or the make-up is that revolutionary, handle them in 30 seconds. This is a place where genre shorthand is immensely valuable. The craziest details of the mutation are already handled in the autopsy. This may shock the show’s producers, but watching a man’s hair fall out for 30 minutes? Not nearly as compelling as the giant, bloodsucking leech that grows in his chest cavity and shoots out his throat. Prioritize, people!

But don’t worry, a new character’s just been introduced – a hacker who can singlehandedly shut down New York’s internet without touching anyone else’s. Never mind that this isn’t even how the internet works, or that you’d need a coordinated effort from multiple sources attacking multiple providers to accomplish anything resembling this (this is 80th on the list of things this show didn’t bother to research), but the hacker serves no storytelling purpose. If that’s all she does, don’t waste the scene where we meet her and learn her life details and the vampire goes, “Oh, I’m such an a-hole, I didn’t even expect you to be a woman.”

I already know the vampires are a-holes. You know how? They’re vampires. Just have one vampire turn to the next and say, “Hey, shutting down New York’s internet? Totally nailed it, bro.” Then move on.

HOW TO FIX IT?

Ask yourself a few questions:

Is this necessary to the main plot?

Is this notably different from what other TV shows have done?

If the answer to both is “No,” then either cut it entirely, or edit it down so that it’s handled quickly. When you can’t get to the main plot because you’re drowning in B-plots, and you can’t even get to the B-plots because you’re distracted by moments that don’t even belong to a plot, you’re in grave trouble. It’s like watching characters twiddle their thumbs for an hour. It’s a disaster. Cut, cut, cut – be heartless. Which brings us to our next problem:

Strain Have I Told You About My Divorce Today

3. SELF-POSSESSION
Adapting Your Own Work

I suspect the weaknesses of The Strain are in large part due to Guillermo Del Toro’s involvement in adapting his own series of novels. Yes, Del Toro is one of the most important filmmakers working today; he has reshaped the face of modern horror. Yet while he’s successfully written original and adapted material for the big screen before, he’s never before been asked to either adapt his own work or write for TV.

When you’re adapting your own work from one medium into another, you have to treat it with a certain dispassion – scenes you loved writing might not work on TV. They might need to be stripped down and rewritten, combined with other scenes, or even excised entirely. You need to recognize where 30 pages can be condensed into a single shot and where a lone paragraph can evolve into the basis for an entire episode.

I haven’t read the novels, but The Strain shows a great many of the hallmarks of too forgiving an adaptation – too many scenes double and triple each other or play too long, communicating information we already have or can readily infer. Still other scenes occur too late, bending the logic of the real world in order to justify their placement. Characters make decisions based not on any logical, internal consistency, but rather on where they need to be for the next scene.

HOW TO FIX IT?

Again, be heartless. You need someone to be able to supersede Del Toro and tell him what will or won’t work. That should be Cuse’s job – he’s got far more experience in TV storytelling than Del Toro. You need a showrunner with enough creative control to reinterpret and rewrite the story, to eliminate entire characters and plot lines, and who can do so free from the worry that it will upset Del Toro.

When you lack that oversight…well, the extreme example is George Lucas, pod races, and Jar Jar Binks. I wouldn’t say The Strain is that far afield, but it’s certainly doing its best to get there.

4: GENRE
Do Your Research

I’m not talking about horror. The Strain sits in that groove comfortably enough. Although I haven’t found a moment that’s really scared me, it has a morose tone that certainly makes those moments possible…one day.

Most commonly used in cop shows, which are all about following a series of steps through to expose the solution to a mystery, The Strain follows what’s called a procedural format.

The issue is that procedurals require at least a passing knowledge of the procedures being followed. Look to the naval codifying and informational hierarchy in The Last Ship or the elimination-based investigations and bureaucratic politics of The Closer and Major Crimes to see what I mean. As a writer, you need to do your research.

Even if what you’re researching doesn’t exist in reality, as in the newer Battlestar Galactica, then you need to make it up and then research the hell out of what you just made up to make sure it’s leak-proof. Even CSI, which completely invents how police actually investigate a crime, at least does its research when it comes to the forensics at the core of the show.

Strain 2 goop

The Strain‘s CDC methodology is a joke. Doctors argue patients should be quarantined while standing unprotected, shoulder-to-shoulder with them. They put research on hold for most of a day while skipping in and out of a hot zone to take care of personal matters. Sean Astin’s Jim is a CDC videographer who has no medical or security expertise, yet he’s left in charge of deciding what passes in and out of an airport-wide quarantine. New York City’s ME’s office goes dark for a day before anybody notices. A patient infested with vampire worms is being treated as if for a disease and is “going in for surgery” that’s never specified, when all research would in reality center around what the worms themselves are sensitive to so they could be poisoned without harming the host. Surgery wouldn’t do crap.

If this is how the CDC operates in the real world, then please go have a nice conversation with your loved ones, because we’re all going to drop dead of Ebola tomorrow.

More damning than not researching the procedures on which it hangs its hat, The Strain doesn’t seem to have researched the elements it’s invented. Everything feels off the cuff, like a campfire story being made up on the spot. That’s fine for 15 minutes at a campfire, but not through four-plus hours of television. I brought up Battlestar Galactica earlier. Yes, everything’s invented in that show – none of it exists in the real world – but the religions, political structures, and technology that were invented were clearly vetted extensively by the creators. They had their own logic.

Even the villains’ logic in The Strain makes little sense: The four surviving passengers are at the core of the second and third episodes – will they be released into an unsuspecting populace or should they be quarantined? It’s posed as the core element to the vampire plan, and yet there seems to be no difference between these four survivors and the 206 dead people the vampires already have hold of. They all feed on blood, and kill, and pass on their little, wormy brethren to make more vamps. In fact, the dead ones seem far more efficient – they’ve already infested others while the survivors are still going all emo about their mutations.

Media snap in and out of existence to harrass CDC officials, veritably stalking one meaningless survivor while paying no attention to the surviving pilot on whom the entire disaster is blamed.

As a viewer, that lack of reliability makes you distrust the story. If the narrator can just change whatever he wants whenever he feels like it and break his own narrative rules when they’re too inconvenient, then where’s the tension? Moreover, if the narrator doesn’t even seem like he’s paying attention, why should you?

HOW TO FIX IT?

The Strain can’t function as a procedural if there are no procedures to follow. Period. It may’ve worked better in any number of other narrative formats. Lost‘s philosophy of focusing on one character’s emotional state per episode while folding them into the group’s overall narrative could’ve worked well, but you have to start combining the characters into larger groups to make this function. Doing so boils down the number of plots you have to follow at once.

If you’re going to maintain such a large ensemble without grouping any of them together early, the smartest way around that is to hold off on introducing the new characters of the second, third, and fourth episodes until later, when they can link with the core ensemble and tell their story at a pace of more than one appearance every other episode.

Above all, don’t make episode 2 about the ratcatcher and episode 3 about the videographer and episode 4 about the ex-con to the exclusion of scenes that actually have something to do with your main plot – you know, the one about that whole vampire outbreak you’re supposed to be having.

Strain 2 where is the coroner

We were swamped with protagonist Eph Goodweather’s divorce and custody battle in the first two episodes. Not that I’d like to see anything else having to do with that subplot, but its complete disappearance is scarier than any vampire that lurks in the shadows. Like so many other pointless B-plots in The Strain, it’s just waiting out there somewhere, and when you least suspect it, that’s when it’ll pounce on episode 6, or episode 10, sinking its nasty teeth into the fleshy bits of the main plot. All that will be left of that episode will be the skeletal remains, a fleeting reference to the vampire outbreak in the opening and closing scenes, while the monstrous, bloated B-plot itself takes over the 40 minutes in between and hypnotizes you with its twin powers of utter meaninglessness and pure boredom.

That, my friends…that is evil in its purest form.

Look, if you’re making a series about the experiences of the average person who brushes past this complex, secret plot but knows nothing of it, then make that show, lend us their perspectives, and make that secret plot an actual mystery to us. Give us the viewpoint of the hapless citizens on the ground, coping as best they can with the hellish unknown. If characters must argue about the recyclables, make the argument about trying to keep their grasp on a semblance of normalcy, not about – you know – the actual, damn recyclables.

If you’re making a series about a disease, the procedural investigation of it, and the strategies vampires use to foster an outbreak, then do some medical research and make that show. Give us doctors, and those CDC suits we haven’t seen since the first 10 minutes of the first episode, and people panicking, and arguments about who screwed up which procedure, and long gazes as doctors grimly utter, “You just cost this patient his only chance,” and bureaucratic blame games, and vampires going all President Bartlett on some familiar when he insists he didn’t think the CDC could possibly identify the isomorphic biopolymer streptomashugana so quickly.

And if you’re making a series about the vampire hunter who can’t hunt vampires because all of his scenes are being wasted contemplating restraining orders against CDC employees who track him halfway across the city so they can tell him why he’s stupid and they don’t believe him, then make that show, but please go watch some Night Court and Boston Legal first.

The Strain may have worked best in an epistolary format – in literature, this means stories told entirely through letters, diaries, and newspaper articles (as in Stephen King’s novel Carrie). On TV, I think this could be extended into the visual equivalent – personal narratives, survivor recountings, recollections, found footage, and in-person reports by CDC personnel.

But the procedural? As much as it gets knocked, perhaps no other TV format requires a greater degree of initial research to get a story off the ground. Combine it with sci-fi horror, which requires its own invented consistent logic, and if you’re not willing to do the work in research, in adapting, and in managing your narrative delivery properly, you’ve annihilated your story from the word go.

Strain Airplane

It may be too late to fix, but figure out quickly what the hell this show is about. It can still include elements and characters from the other strands of plot, but they’ve got to be supporting aspects to something core.

Make it about the vampire hunter assembling some of this crew to hunt down vamps while the CDC races to solve the issue medically, or make it about the political contest to control how the outbreak occurs. Make it about the people on the ground stuck in the middle, or make it about those who are tooth-and-nail against the vamps. Make it about how families are coping with those who are mutating into vampires, or make it about the regret of those who’ve made the outbreak possible in the first place.

But don’t make it about all those things at once. That’s what later seasons are for. Don’t tackle 10 things when you can only realistically address one or two per episode. Make it about one central concept. There’s nothing stopping the other concepts from dropping by and sharing a beer now and then, but the house they’re visiting – the show itself – needs to belong to a single, driving force. You can’t have 10 things living under one roof – that’s how you end up with drama about who takes out the recyclables.

“The Strain” Keeps on Straining

Strain 2 goop

#2: “The Box”

When last we left our intrepid CDC experts, they had the gears of New York City working in support of a quarantine. Now, a millionaire vampire who wants the plague free has just convinced the government the 200 dead bodies found in a passenger jet just yesterday are due to an airplane malfunction. This means the four highly contagious survivors are now roaming New York City. Time to get your game on, New York CDC chief Eph Goodweather (you don’t ever use your middle name, do you?)

Any other problems? An Air Transport Control officer’s head brutally bashed in? Cordon it off! Only Eph (Corey Stoll) is allowed! NTSB is taking over the investigation unless Eph can prove this is a plague? What about that box of little wormy things you shoved in everyone’s face last episode? That could freak a couple NTSB folks out. Where did they go? Of course, you could show the National Transportation Safety Board those 200 dead bodies, too, couldn’t you? They’re all the evidence you need to show there’s a pathogen, and the city ME’s office has had eight or so hours to work with them by now. Maybe let’s put the Medical Examiner on with the NTSB, clear this whole mess up.

Or none of those things. None of those things is good too, Eph. We could go track down the surviving pilot, who’s alone at a bar instead of…say, if this were really an NTSB issue…surrounded by 80 lawyers for the airline parsing his every word.

We could also run fun behavioral tests on the wormy things that don’t prove anything, and – despite how absolutely sure you are that the city’s in imminent danger – you could take a break to drive out to your ex-wife’s in Queens to have a heart-to-heart with your son about tomorrow’s custody hearing. I mean, it’s not like your son’s in mortal danger if a disease breaks out, or like the judge would move the hearing if you worked for the CDC and were in an active hot zone. By the way, the distance you’re standing from your son right now…would you say that’s about the same distance you were standing from the four infected passengers this morning when nobody was wearing any protection whatsoever?

But right after that, it’s back to preventing a pandemic with a seeming 98.1% mortality rate from breaking out in one of the world’s most populous cities, right? Well, no. You see, Eph has an AA meeting, and as he explains, keeping your commitments is a big part of AA. Doing his job preventing virulent plagues in New York for the CDC is, apparently, not on that same A-list of commitments. It’s all about prioritizing, I guess. At least I can see why this man’s nickname is Eph now, because he’s an Ephing Moron. I hope his wife gets the kid.

Strain 2 where is the coroner

As for the coroner, who should’ve been the first visit anybody made to settle this whole NTSB/CDC/”is it a plague or isn’t it” thing, he died at the end of last episode. By the end of THIS episode, he’s been dead for 17 hours, about the same time the 200 dead bodies – some of them naked and cut open – got up and walked out of the city coroner’s office, which happens to be on a busy New York Street. Nobody’s noticed. Bystanders probably just assumed it was a flashmob: “Look, honey! That guy’s trailing his intestines. Improv Everywhere’s getting so edgy these days.”

When Eph and Martinez (Mia Maestro) finally remember, “Oh yeah, we have 200 dead bodies that can prove anything we say,” and go to the coroner’s office that evening, they seem to be the very first people who’ve touched the place or noticed everyone’s missing or dead. It just must be one of those special New York City days when no one at all had to call the coroner’s office for anything whatsoever.

“But wait!” you say. Yeah, you’re a thing in this now. Don’t you feel lucky?

“Yes?” I turn my head quizzically, with the hint of a smile on the corners of my lips. My eyes twinkle playfully in the low light as I swirl my snifter of brandy and inhale its oaky aroma.

You look away shyly, taken off guard, but still you must ask: “Surely, the coroner’s office is neck-deep in all that media from the last episode, demanding to know what happened and why the 200 bodies aren’t being released, right? RIGHT?!?”

You would think. That nobody has noticed the coroner or 200 bodies missing for 17 hours is odd, even for our fickle news media. I’m willing to let it slide, though – perhaps this all takes place that day Justin Bieber got arrested.

“What about that old vampire hunter?” you ask. “He seemed interesting.”

He did, didn’t he? He has a single, early scene – he talks to a vampire from behind glass at the city lockup. You see, he’s been arrested for having a cane with a sword in it. Which I guess is a crime worthy of getting you locked up for three days without any kind of phone call or bail hearing. (Come on. It’s the NYPD. He’s white and wasn’t arrested at a protest. They can’t stay mad at each other for a whole 3 days.) Anyway, it’s by far the best scene in the thing – a clever give-and-take between two mortal (or immortal) enemies. If this show were just that scene and nothing else, I’d be endorsing it whole-heartedly.

Instead, you’ll be glad to know that the most interesting character in the whole show – you know, the one who’s ACTUALLY a VAMPIRE HUNTER and keeps his lover’s beating heart alive in a jar in his basement and who monologues about cutting up bloodsuckers and dumping them in the North Sea – is only in one scene. A city health inspector we’ve never met before gets three scenes. He must be really important, right? Yep, he shuts down a restaurant that has nothing to do with anything except that one of the airplane survivors eats at it. Compelling TV, that. However will they get their Michelin star back? Not to mention the Yelp reviews.

Does the rat he finds at the eatery have the little wormy things? Have the customers eaten the worms? Because that would be interesting and relevant and scary. So no, none of those things happen. If it’s interesting and relevant and scary you’re looking for, you came to the wrong show. Let me reiterate – these scenes have zero to do with anything else. (And come on. It’s New York City. The rats are your drinking buddies at the bar, and that’s not even a metaphor. If they shut down every restaurant with a rat in it, forget the vampire pandemic – the city would starve to death in a week.)

You’ll also be glad to know that some rich dude who looks like an elderly-Henry Winkler stand-in makes a deal with the vampire overlord. Has something to do with his liver going and having days to live. The vampire gets some dialogue. It’s in English. What’s he say? Damned if I know, cause it makes Bane and Batman’s wheeze-vs.-grunt conversations from the last Dark Knight seem crystal clear.

In the end, we know nothing more about The Strain than we did starting out. Unless you wanted to know about Eph’s divorce. Then we know a lot more, and that’s what The Strain advertised on, after all: learn more about Eph Goodweather’s painfully uninteresting divorce. Who will he tell about it next week, and how will they get out of it?

The Strain‘s mystery does have some hooks into me, though, because I can’t help but give voice to the one crucial question this episode’s begging me to ask: When is someone going to get back to that dead Air Transport Control officer in the basement? He’s starting to smell by now, Eph.

Miss Part One of my Strain recaps? Read it here.

Should You Watch? ‘The Strain’

Strain Airplane

The Strain
“Night Zero”

“Screw the inevitable vampire outbreak, let me explain my divorce proceeding to you one more time.” This isn’t a direct quote, but it covers close to half the run time of The Strain‘s two hour premier. There’s a certain thinking in TV drama that vampire outbreaks and murder and planes full of people dying and zombie thralls and worms that eat their way through your eyeballs just aren’t interesting enough unless the main character explains his broken family life to everyone he encounters.

Yes, it’s important to establish your protagonist has a life before his first episode, but just maybe we could hear a bit about the supervampire’s family life, or the ancient vampire hunter’s family life, or – I don’t know, crazy thought here – the plane full of 200 dead people you’re supposed to be investigating instead of telling random passersby about your divorce proceeding.

The Strain is based on a series of novels horror maestro Guillermo del Toro co-wrote with Chuck Hogan. Now, FX’s original programming has been consistently inventive and off-kilter. Nip/Tuck, The Shield, and Sons of Anarchy were long the network’s flagships, now replaced by American Horror Story, Justified, and the Peabody-winning The Bridge. FX has also made a habit of dissecting and lampooning the male gaze in comedies like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Louie, and Archer. This year’s Fargo has made the network’s biggest mark on the Emmys in years and, while I haven’t seen it, The Americans has been critically lauded and keeps Keri Russell employed, so I’m all in favor.

Yet FX wants a bigger piece of the cable pie, to go toe-to-toe with AMC (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead), and this summer season’s shows have left us wanting. You can’t help but feel Tyrant is filmed on a series of L.A. backlots, which is all the more strange since it’s filmed in Israel, but strange filmmaking choices and subpar editing make it feel too precious to be taken realistically.

Strain Abraham

Which brings us back to The Strain, which FX has pushed hard. The show begins much like the pilot for Fringe, with a plane that stops responding mid-taxi on the runway: it’s gone dark, the pilots don’t respond, and all 200 passengers on board suddenly appear dead. Yet there’s none of Fringe‘s colorful, pop-art sensibility or whip-smart casting (let alone its quantum theosophy), and there’s none of the investigative, tone-poem build-up we once loved about The X-Files.

The Strain wants to be a procedural, or at least its pilot episode does, yet no procedures are followed. Characters do as they want, and not in a tongue-and-cheek, I’m-the-hero kind of way, but in a where’s-my-mark, what’s-my-line style that makes it seem like so many monkeys with typewriters submitted drafts and nobody bothered to check that it all fit together. The Strain‘s one-note mood of incredible self-seriousness means that it’d better have some logic or a damn good lead actor to fall back on. Instead: “let me explain my divorce proceeding to you one more time.”

The Strain is far more concerned with characters’ intersecting broken romances than with the 200 dead people on a plane, and its moments of gore – while splattery enough for a midnight feature – are so out-of-place that you wonder if the cat sat on the remote and accidentally switched you to Starz.

The main character, a CDC epidemiologist played by Corey Stoll, is named Ephram, or Eph for short. Every time someone addresses Eph, it sounds like they started to swear but suddenly remembered they’re on cable TV, where you can graphically smash a man’s head into cement pudding for a minute straight, but you’d better not cuss.

Few shows in history have so desperately needed a script supervisor. Before knowing how the disease spreads, Eph and his CDC crew inspect the plane’s unloaded cargo in plain clothes, using no precautions. Two scenes later, CDC personnel are sealing up that same cargo Eph and friends just ran their hands up and down, except now they’re using protective gear and contained breathers.

Strain Have I Told You About My Divorce Today

Even after the CDC establishes that the virus is passed on by disgusting, little, wormy things that crawl through your skin, they fail to warn the coroner, who’s autopsying all 200 infested dead bodies alone (because that seems like an efficient use of resources) and whose protective gear amounts to a pair of latex gloves. Instead of calling and saying, “Hey, there are these crazy wormy things that burrow through skin,” Eph wanders the airport, bringing his little box of highly contagious wormy things that just killed 200 people on a field trip to the security office, to the main concourse, to the parking lot, and waving them around as he talks to everyone in sight.

For its first few seasons, The X-Files could barely afford cameras or sets, but it made the world around us terrifying by giving its horrors consistent logic of their own, logic which gave every shadow down every hallway the possibility of hiding something vicious just waiting to be misunderstood. Consistency. Logic. It’s what good horror is built on. It’s why we don’t mind every X-Files takes place in an office building or a dark cave, and every Supernatural takes place in the same hotel room. Yet it’s what’s wholly missing from The Strain. Guillermo del Toro’s other work (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone) prides itself on these qualities, but he both co-wrote the teleplay and directed the pilot for The Strain, so the blame for this mess has to lie with him.

Furthermore, I don’t expect every TV show to get the procedure of federal agencies right, but if you’re going to house yourself in the structure of a bone dry procedural, then you shouldn’t be embarrassingly ill-researched. At the very least, if you’re just going to make it up, at least be consistent about those details you yourself create. Making it worse, The Strain‘s complete disregard for credibility is combined with a relentless humorlessness and misplaced character struggles – at one point, the 200 unexplained deaths, a missing vampire coffin, and wormy things run amuck are all sidelined so we can spend time on what’s really important: Eph’s very mild discomfort with public speaking. Lord knows why. He opens up to everyone else with, “Let me explain my divorce proceeding to you one more time.”

This gives way to the pilot episode’s worst scene, when Eph addresses the media and victims’ families. A grieving father charges him, slaps him across the face, and – despite security and police essentially hanging out of Eph’s pockets – the father turns around and monologues at length to the world media about how cheesily he misses his daughter. This dad explains he couldn’t care less if his daughter’s dead or not, but it’s unfair the CDC hasn’t released her body for a whole two hours. Talk about confused priorities. If he were evil, we could see a motive, but he’s not, so it doesn’t make any sense, let alone an emotional connection. It only makes one wonder how the hell such a scene got past…well, anyone involved.

Future episodes look like The Strain‘s dull faux-CDC shell might be cracked for some shiny vampire-bashing. This would require the show shifting more time to elderly vampire hunter Abraham (David Bradley), who gives the show a little cogent mystery, but is otherwise thoroughly wasted. I’ll give The Strain a second episode out of loyalty to del Toro, but this is by far the worst thing he’s directed. Any goodwill I had stocked to forgive the show any potential flaws has been completely tapped out. The Strain has some good set design at points, but that’s it. Everything else insults the viewer at the most fundamental levels of storytelling.

E3 Reactions — Eden O’Nuallain’s Top 3

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by Eden O’Nuallain

What does the word “gamer” even mean anymore? It used to mean a teenage boy with acne ousted by social isolation into a windowless basement, like a cross between Steve Urkel and Buffalo Bill. Now, I ride the bus every day with a dozen people who are glued to their phones. In a strange reversal, experienced gamers are now the elitists who wouldn’t waste a minute, let alone days of their lives, on Candy Crush and Flappy Bird.

I don’t have the time I used to have to play Tomb Raider and Team Fortress. I like games that are like a cake now. Every little slice is a complete experience. Not being able to complete a level in one sitting isn’t a task in frustration. These are the games I can jump into and out of at a moment’s notice, but unlike Candy Crush and Flappy Bird, I can still enjoy a real story and experience progress beyond a level number. This means 2-D games. Art is at a premium in 2-D games, so they have to tell their stories very efficiently. I don’t believe they can get away with adding as much filler as first person games like Call of Duty do. Players would lose their patience too quickly. Stories are told via environments instead of narrators.

Inside is from PlayDead Games, the makers of Limbo, a deep, dark, depressing game that nonetheless incorporated the hilarious macabre of Edward Gorey. Their next game looks stern and powerful, but wacky and irreverent, too. Part Terry Gilliam and part Guillermo Del Toro perhaps?

Ori and the Blind Forest came out of nowhere, but after two minutes I know it’s an experience I must have. Sometimes these games can be like a chance to live inside moving artwork. I can just feel the breeze on my face, and I’ll dream of those flowers lighting up in the night.

My game of the show is Valiant Hearts: The Great War. 2-D platformers were pretty dead until the indie game boom revived the style a few years ago. 2-D engines were the only kind that were affordable. Smart developers like Epic Games and CryTek have followed suit: their latest 3-D engines are incredibly affordable. Both companies are taking their profits off a release’s back-end; they know it will result in a similarly much-needed injection of originality and increased appeal in first-person gaming.

2-D has become so mainstream again that Ubisoft, one of the biggest, baddest developers out there, has started designing indie-feeling platformers focused on individual visions and unique art styles. Valiant Hearts: The Great War has a retro-cutout, handcrafted style that gives it the innocent energy and excitement of a child’s diorama. Combine that with a story about war and lost friends and I wonder if games are going the route of superhero movies: previously childish things banished to the Buffalo Urkels of the world, but that artists are suddenly figuring out how to fold complex social commentary into on a massive, irresistible scale.

Eden O’Nuallain is a financial ghostwriter and freelance editor. Her script notes are as vicious as she is right about them. She encourages everyone to commemorate our new LGBT History Month by learning about your local organizations, sharing them online (you never know who’s reading), and volunteering some time with them.

Second Time’s the Charm for “The Hobbit”

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

Five films in, Peter Jackson’s version of Middle-earth is still a vibrant realization of what fantasy is meant to invoke. Take Lake-town, a dilapidated trading hub our hero Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his 13 dwarven companions are smuggled into midway through The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Lake-town may be mired in squalor, filth, and fish-guts, but you’d have a hard time not wanting to take an extended vacation amid its icy docks and fishing boats caught perpetually in the magic hour of sunset.

Make no mistake, this second film in The Hobbit trilogy, prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, suffers from Jackson’s trademark pacing issues caused by taking on too much material. The novel on which it’s based was a fairly straight-forward fantasy in which Bilbo and his companions journeyed to retake a dwarven kingdom under a mountain from the clutches of a dragon named Smaug. It was written for children and could be finished in a day or two by an avid reader, and certainly didn’t have enough material for an epic movie trilogy. Go in expecting the film to closely follow the book and you’ll be sorely disappointed.

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What you can expect is a much tighter storytelling experience than in last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. At two hours, 41 minutes, Smaug clocks in nearly an hour shorter than the average Middle-earth entry, yet still manages to pack in as many exotic locales and as much action as the others.

In the biggest departure from the novel, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), elf prince from Lord of the Rings, makes an extended appearance in a love triangle with his captain of the guard, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). It’s folded neatly into the plot, in that it’s mainly developed through action sequences, and gives Legolas some missing depth. It works because Lilly, who you may recognize from the TV series Lost, was born to star in this kind of film. Between Bloom and Lilly, Smaug is rife with smart, elegantly choreographed fight scenes, including a three-way battle between elf, dwarf, and evil orc that moves quickly along (and in) raging, whitewater rapids.

Other action sequences are similarly superb, in large part because of the creature design. Guillermo del Toro, the director of Pacific Rim and Pan’s Labyrinth, was originally signed to direct the Hobbit trilogy. His involvement fell through, but his unique design touches survive into the films: an assault by terrifying, giant, tree spiders stands out. If you suffer from arachnophobia, welcome to your new least favorite movie. The titular dragon, Smaug (voiced and motion-captured by Benedict Cumberbatch), and the mountains of gold he guards underneath the Lonely Mountain are similarly awe-inspiring sights to behold.

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If you watch any Australian and New Zealand programming (where Jackson grew up filmmaking), you’ll realize that audiences Down Under really enjoy their melodrama. In fact, the United States is one of the few cultures that doesn’t value melodrama very highly. We prefer gritty, dramatic realism. Middle-earth is still a world in which falling in love means the object of your desire is highlighted by an angelic, white aura as she smiles shyly at you in slow-motion. Making the film’s most dramatic speech means that snow must begin to fall as the music swells. It’s a decidedly operatic affair, but let’s not pretend Jackson’s brand of costume melodrama isn’t wholly addictive.

The film’s greatest strength lies in Middle-earth itself. From sweeping mountain vistas to fields of flowers buzzing with bees, from the ripple of wind along Mirkwood’s Autumnal treetops to the warm glow of torches peeking out from Lake-town’s cold, misty grime, this is fantasy tourism at its best. Smaug captures the essence of places that don’t exist, but you’ll dearly wish did.

Fantasy as a genre may be the purest form of escape. Action movies happen in skyscrapers and in New York and on foreign soil. Science-fiction is most often speculation on what one day might be. Fantasy creates what never was and makes it vital. As an escape, as a pure flight of fancy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a resounding success and a tremendous experience on the big-screen, 3D or otherwise. It’s rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and frightening images. Or R for arachnophobics.

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