Books: Redshirts [audiobook]
Movies: Ghostbusters (2016)
Redshirts by John Scalzi [audiobook]
This is Scalzi's sci-fi comedy about a group of ensigns on a Starship-Enterprise-esque ship who try to unravel the strange, credulity-straining nature of their existence -- while simultanenously trying to avoid becoming away-mission cannon fodder.
Every story you read competes against a sort of 'shadow story'. Specifically, it competes against the story that you write in your head the moment you hear the concept of the story. This is especially true in comedy. If you watch a Saturday Night Live sketch, and it does the exact things you expect from its premise -- unless it's got a magnetic performance or some out-of-left-field one-liner to elevate it, then that's a sketch that's wasted your time. And so we cautiously approach Redshirts, a comic sci-fi novel about the tragically-expendable ensigns on an Enterprise-y-type starship.
Many, many people have had ideas in the neighborhood of Redshirts (myself included). Lots of people have noticed the various Enterprises' endless supply of (again) tragically-expendable ensigns. Many middle-school cut-ups in decades past have pointed out how weird it is that the top brass of a massive spaceship risk life and limb on away missions with alarmingly high mortality rates. And so on and so on.
So we walk into this book with a certain story in mind.
The best thing about this book is the way it embraces and then shoots right past those expectations. One comes to this novel expecting the basic level of observational humor: "huh, isn't it funny that the redshirts always get shot?" We can all quickly spitball the weary sketch comedy that you could make around concepts like that. And if we're a little more ambitious, we can explore a few rounds of "if that is true, what else is true", and write slightly better sketch comedy that talks about, I dunno, redshirt recruitment, and orientation materials with spectacularly bad advice on how to stay alive. ("Always walk *into* the laser beams," etc.)
But Scalzi is a seasoned sci-fi novelist, so he elevates this into proper world-building. This is an entire, self-consistent sci-fi universe that sprouts from the inconsistencies of a poorly-written knockoff of Star Trek. And Scalzi not only does a fine job nailing down the 'rules of magic' for this universe, he also wisely hangs back from *explaining* the magic. Sort of like how, in Groundhog Day, absolutely nobody wants to know *why* the day is repeating, we just want to clearly understand the manner in *which* it repeats.
And then it spins past that into what I can only describe as "whimsical Pirandello-esque meta-narrative". Then it even edges into full-on, Philip-K.-Dick-style 'reality slippage'. At its best, it's the first book I've read in some time that hits the sustained craziness of a bizarre improv show. Redshirts reaches a point where you're shaking your head, laughing, and muttering 'what am I even reading?' and then it kind of lives there for half the book.
Structurally, I can't imagine anyone doing better work with this concept.
That said, the book is not without its weaknesses.
And I find its weaknesses interesting, because I feel like they reflect in an interesting way on nerd culture. For example, I would argue that the standard nerd-culture character is a white hetero dude in his twenties who bickers with his (almost all male) friends, and bickers in a fairly predictable way, alternating between cute similes and nerd-tribe references. The similes never rise up to the airy intricacy of Blackadder, and the references never achieve the byzantine, caffeinated density of Gilmore Girls, but it's all serviceable enough. At times it can be hilarious -- Church in Red vs. Blue strikes me as precisely this standard character, and he has some memorable lines, powered by his exasperated rage.
But as I've seen this spiel again and again and again, I've gotten kind of tired of it. I've gotten tired of hearing from this one specific demographic over and over again. I've gotten tired of the lack of vulnerability and the narrow range of emotion that the voice allows for. I get sick of having sitcom badinage take the place of real character conflict. And most of all, I get weary when *every* character in a scene has this voice, and you quickly lose track of who's saying what and to whom. Or even "in what story" -- Penny Arcade sounds like Zero Punctuation sounds like Ready Player One sounds like "Day Five"...
... sounds like, to some extent, Redshirts. I have to give props to Wil Wheaton for acting the hell out of his performance of the novel. He handles 'angry nerd' perfectly, and works to give unique voices to each character without getting gimmicky about it. But the novel just isn't giving him much to work with there.
And again, it's a style that's heavy on 'giving your bros shit' and light on vulnerability, so when the book tries to hit heavy emotional moments in the late chapters, Mr. Wheaton pours his heart into it, but the usual nerd-culture narrative voice just doesn't have that gear available. Making the book have deeply emotional moments is like trying to play a sad song on the banjo -- the instrument just doesn't quite allow for it.
And man I hate to say this, because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Scalzi's heart is in the right place, but it feels like the book gives women short shrift. The one female in the central group of protagonists seems to exist, plot-wise, for 'magical vagina' purposes -- i.e., she must use her womanly wiles on an important and powerful man at a critical juncture in the story. The book devotes one of its 'codas' to a female secondary character, but that all comes down to whether she gets to fall in love, apparently. And yet another woman in the story gets 'fridged' -- i.e., killed off pointlessly so as to give her (brilliant, powerful) man an incentive to doggedly Get to the Truth.
I am cherry-picking somewhat. There are a couple of women on a hostile team of xenobiologist coworkers that the protagonist encounters. And to some extent the gender politics kind of reflect what you'd expect from a subpar 2011 Star Trek knockoff. But after the last few years of nerd culture acting like a retrograde dumpster fire when it comes to equality, I feel twitchy about this sort of thing.
Apparently the novel got optioned for being adapted into a TV series, which surprised me. And apparently it died in development hell, which doesn't surprise me. It feels like there's a good *movie* in this book -- one about redshirts getting to the bottom of the nature of their universe over the course of a tight, 90-minute narrative -- but I don't see a TV show in there. It's not really 'a strong ensemble that I'd follow through one adventure after another', it's just one funny high concept that succinctly plays itself out, with a few amusing 'codas' that spin out some of the consequences of the story.
But all that said, it's a good story in there, despite the pitfalls, and well worth reading.
This is Paul Feig's reboot of the 1984 horror-comedy about paranormal scientists who start a business that why am I even explaining this to you let's move on.
I liked it. Is it as good as the original? No. But the original was one of the best comedies of the 1980s, up there with Groundhog Day and This is Spinal Tap, and almost every comedy suffers by comparison to it. This new take is a fun comedy with some strong characters.
That said, there's a whole other level to this film: it has the audacity to treat women like people. Not eye candy. Not plot vectors for love stories. Not helpmeets for the important men, nor fridge victims to motivate the important men. Just people. The simple act of having four women in drab jumpsuits showing up to take down a malevolent spirit is the most rebellious thing I've seen in a tentpole picture for years.
I can appreciate this intellectually. For example, it made me think back to the film's trailer for Suicide Squad, which featured a total of one female protagonist who was (a) conventionally beautiful, (b) spends the whole film in her underwear (ohai, there's also a quick "stripping down in a crowd of boys" vignette), and (c) wears a "property of the Joker" jacket, fercrissake. If you want to see the future of the film industry, imagine a white, cis, hetero, 13-year-old boy, masturbating furiously, forever. So I could certainly feel relief while, thank *god*, they just have women being funny, and cool, and going on an adventure. But that's nothing compared to how women have viewed this movie, many of whom have waited their whole *lives* for a picture like this. I'm told there have been tears of joy, and I believe it.
The movie *is* a great hangout comedy. To the extent that it's just strong, heightened characters bouncing off of each other, it's awesome. And on top of that, they bring in really sharp guest stars for them to interact with.
And this is the perfect place to single out Kate McKinnon's Holtzmann for particular praise. See? This is what you can do when your female characters don't have to be a pouty Emily Ratajkowski or some facsimile thereof. You can make somebody that's charismatic and interesting and unique. And the best part, for me, was this: I know a lot of scientists. Holtzmann is a perfect, heightened version of what those scientists are like. Lip-syncing to DeBarge while casually lighting a paper-towel roll on fire with lab equipment? THEY UNDERSTAND MY PEOPLE.
That said, I think Ghostbusters works less well as a horror movie or a thriller. Imagine if the people making Shaun of the Dead never really *cared* for zombie movies. You'd get a strong comedy with good performances, and that comedy would alternate with kind of a perfunctory genre picture that didn't feel like it was put together quite right. And that's the vibe I get off of Ghostbusters -- that Feig et al really want to make a comedy like Bridesmaids or (switching over to his colleague Mr. Apatow) like Anchorman, but they feel kind of at loose ends making a horror thriller. I saw only one action scene (Holtzmann with the double laser-guns) where I felt that perfect vibe of "yes, this climactic ghost battle is the film I want to be making now."
This seems to be an improv-heavy film comedy, and that comes with its own batch of strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, you get a lot of jokes with easy, unforced-delivery and (thanks to brilliant editing) a natural, conversational rhythm. You don't feel like you're stuck in a sitcom with the laugh track mysteriously removed. And you get jokes that are very funny, very quotable, and willing to go off on weird tangent that would never fly in a carefully-vetted script. I may not have loved all the "Kevin interview" jokes, but I have to salute any dialog that gleefully spirals off into discussing the name of Kevin's dog.
But the 'quotable' thing takes us back around to one of the weaknesses, to my mind, of these improv-leaning comedies from the 2010s. I'll get back to that in a few paragraphs.
First, I want to spoil Robert Altman's The Player. The last line of that movie is "Traffic was a bitch." That's not a quotable joke. But in context, that's a perfect joke, establishing how every potshot the film has taken at the movie industry also applies to The Player itself. That's often the way with scripted jokes -- you can't rattle them off later at the water cooler, but inside the film, they function beyond just being jokes. They establish exposition, or (as above) they nail down some thematic element of the story, or they really help you home in on a character. (From Alex Epstein: "Good dialog is when the character only says stuff that character would say; great dialog is when the character says stuff only that character would say.") And a lot of the humor comes from that -- from how it works in context.
Improvised jokes -- or more precisely, the jokes I see in improv-heavy film comedies -- tend *not* to do that. They sit as a funny one-liner placeholder, one of a zillion different 'alts' that could occupy space in the script. Put another way, it makes us laugh, but it doesn't *tell* us anything. The Kevin interview is full of jokes, but they don't tell me much besides "Kevin is dumb". The running gag about the won ton soup is cute, and even has an arc, but it tells me nothing about Melissa McCarthy's character. (And, sidebar, I *never* felt like I learned much about her character -- which is bizarre, given how talented the actress is.)
This is not to say scripted comedies always nail this. And it's not to say that improvised lines in comedies can't be great -- from the original Ghostbusters, "And the flowers are still standing!" is perfect for telling us exactly what kind of a jackass Venkman is. But just as often, I'll see an improv-leavened film scene that feels less like a scene and more like a pile of weird jokes. It's funny, but it doesn't quite add up. And circling back to the start, these jokes are *quotable*, yes -- but they're quotable because they work just as well out of context. They're just funny in and of themselves without really being informed by, or informing, anything in the story.
Now, what I'm describing here is the far end of a spectrum -- how the most shambolic and meandering improv-y comedies come across. Ghostbusters is not nearly at that extreme, but you feel it kind of tugged in that direction, for better or worse.
I felt like the movie's emotional through-line -- or at least the arc about Erin and Abby renewing their friendship, which felt like it was supposed to be the emotional through-line -- never quite landed the way the writers wanted it to. In the last big action scene, when Erin goes back to rescue Abby, that's supposed to be an emotional climax, where Erin has gone from abandoning Abby to risking everything to save her. Right? But it landed so weakly, I actually had to have that pointed out to me (thanks eilanora!) I think they blew that partly by having Erin agree so readily to go along with Abby first thing in the story ("oh, I guess they're reconciled now"), but also because this style of comic banter doesn't allow for a lot of vulnerability (c.f. Redshirts). So if Abby felt hurt or Erin felt guilty, the relentless badinage didn't let that come through strongly enough.
It's telling that the choked-up speech from Holtzmann soon after that landed much, much harder than the entire central emotional arc. Hell, I got teary, and my heart is a cinder made of charred, icy film criticism. But then, Holtzmann is awesome throughout, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised -- and McKinnon perfectly nails that tone of "I have something emotional to say to my friends and I have to say it even though this is very much not how I roll." (Not unheard of for scientists; or for me, for that matter.)
Finally, I went back and forth a little on the nods to the original film. On the one hand, all of the hat tips were respectful, and none of them overstayed their welcome. (I especially appreciated the bust of Harold Ramis at Columbia University.) I really dug Aykroyd's unfazed cab driver, and if you don't like "Safety lights are for dudes," there's really nothing I can do for you. That said, nearly every one of those nods -- everything except for possibly Annie Potts' concierge and the setup and payoff of the FDNY station -- could have been excised from the story with nothing lost. It's okay -- and it's heartwarming to see those actors again, and they're very talented -- but I did occasionally have thoughts like, "do we *really* need to spend this much time on how their business picks a logo?"
Whew. That's a lot of criticisms against a movie that I liked. It's a good movie. It's a funny movie. I had fun watching it. And I do hope every dollar this film makes causes an MRA tear to fall somewhere in the world, because the way this movie treats women should be the default way that movies treat women. Really, I've been teasing apart the details because it gets a lot of things right, and I'm intrigued to figure out what it would take to get it that last 15% or so of the way there. I'll be back for the sequel to see what they do with the franchise next.
For next week: I'm watching season 8 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight while exercising, and also checking out J-dramas with Great Teacher Ozukaza. I'm reading Norwegian Wood and listening to an audiocourse about science fiction. Also, it occurs to me that I read Middlemarch a couple months ago and forgot to write about it, so I should catch up on that.
 See also: midichlorians.
 Compare this to the 40s-ish white male scientist who spouts competent, somewhat-pedantic exposition in a lot of golden-age sci-fi.
 ... and let's not even start on how Harley Quinn was intended as an object lesson about the tragedy of domestic abuse.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none