Equals

With a wealth of sci-fi movies about the future, the trope of a society which suppresses the emotions of its citizens has become so frequent that watching them is like playing a game of spot-the-differences. In this sea of similarities, there are a few that stand out for their excellence (and some for their failures). Not many make their way into the grey zone of uncertainty, but the sci-fi dystopian romance Equals fits in there quite comfortably. Contrary to what reviewers will tell you, it’s a movie that will leave an impression—just not for the reasons one might expect.

The movie tells the story of a post-apocalyptic society in which all illnesses have been cured except one: Switched-On Syndrome, called S.O.S for short, which causes infected people to experience hypersensitivity and emotions. The infected go through four stages, after which they are taken to a special care facility and isolated from the rest of society. There they undergo electrical shock treatment to be “cured”.

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Image from popsugar.com

The protagonist of the movie is an illustrator named Silas, who discovers that he has this very illness. The movie follows the story of how he copes with the illness, and how it transforms him into the kind of person we would encounter in today’s society: laughing, crying, and feeling sad, but above all: falling in love. The subject of his affections is his co-worker Nia, a writer, and the two struggle to find a way to maintain their relationship in a society where emotions are frowned upon and any intimate physical contact is a sign the illness has reached its peak.

Unlike most dystopian movies, Equals doesn’t begin with the familiar prologue of how humans were on the verge of destroying each other before some organization stepped in and stopped them. In fact, the movie does very little to provide even a vague framework of why things are the way they are. There is a brief mention of a war and how only two populations managed to survive, but beyond that nothing else is revealed; no details of the vaguely-described bombings or why it was decided that emotions are a hindrance.

The positive result of this decision is that viewers can focus on the relationship between Silas and Nia without worrying about extraneous details. In this sense, Equals has a rather minimalistic approach to its storyline. The plot only contains the details that are deemed most necessary. This will prove challenging for an attentive viewer who hates loopholes and loose ends, as there are quite a few of both that pop up over the course of the movie. For instance, a whole scene is devoted to citizens sitting in an outdoor amphitheatre to watch the landing of a spacecraft. The broadcast states that space exploration has always been important, but why this is the case is never specified, and the topic is never touched on again.

Similarly, the documentaries that Silas illustrates for the company are given no context, while the articles Nia writes are given no more than a few brief mentions. All of these are missed opportunities in the end, for if there’s one thing the reviews are accurate about, it’s the fact that Equals brings barely any innovation to the sci-fi genre.

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Image from tv.belta.by

What makes the movie memorable and worth seeing? If there is something that director Drake Doremus was able to do beautifully, it was the minimalist aesthetics. The movie is a true wonder from an artistic and architectural perspective, all straight lines and pale lighting that accentuates the paleness of the actors. The entire movie is shot in a cool colour scheme with white and grey as the dominant colours. Some shots integrate Instagram-like filters and effects similar to a ray of sunshine across the screen. This is where Kristen Stewart’s typically expressionless face lights up, like a subject stepping out of a painting.

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Image from beautifulballad.org

The movie lays out all its cards from the beginning, and it is up to the viewer to decide what to make of the story of Silas and Nia’s romance. The Shakespearean twist near the end will come across as cliché for some, though I admit I sat and yelled at the screen for the two of them not to repeat the same mistake.

It’s a movie that won’t leave an immediate impression. It’s not one that can be readily talked about—much is left to the eyes and ears to experience, though some thought provoking moments do swim up at times. Equals is what you make of it, leaving a lot of unexplained ambiance, a cliffhanger ending, and a mostly unexplained title. The rest is left up to the imagination, and to how much one is invested in Silas and Nia’s journey.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

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The Wrath of Khan

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Image from imdb.com

How do you feel, Jim?”

 

Did you ever read a book or watch a movie as a kid and think, “Hot diggity, that was great!”, only to leave it for a long time, get some grey in your hair (seven hairs exactly), and then come back to that movie you loved as a kid only to finally realise how brilliant it was?

Okay, maybe that was a bit specific. But that is my experience with what is undeniably the best of the Star Trek movies: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

When I was little, I could only appreciate how fun the movie was. I wasn’t equipped to appreciate how Nicholas Meyer paints his space opera of revenge with themes from classic literature. I can now.

After Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) failed to gain the box office numbers that Paramount wanted, The Wrath of Khan was given a much slimmer budget (11 million US dollars to the first movie’s 35 million). Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer was brought in to create a sequel to the plot of the 1967 Star Trek episode Space Seed. The result saw Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise fighting against the wit of Khan Noonien Singh (played by the brilliant Ricardo Montalbán, who insisted that his chest be visible at all times). The reduced budget meant that this movie was shot in a series of tight angles and close ups. The acting, and the script, had to rise above the special effects.

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Image from trekcore.com

The movie opens with Star Trek’s Catch-22, The Kobayashi Maru. The young Vulcan trainee Saavik is sitting in the captain’s chair, trying to rescue a ship. Klingons attack. The ship is destroyed. We see Spock, Uhura, Solo, and Bones. Everybody dies. End simulation. Enter Admiral James T. Kirk. Thus the movie starts with the idea that at some point, we must all face a no win scenario.

I have no problem saying that this movie is William Shatner’s best run as Kirk. Never before or again is this character so nuanced or layered. “How do you feel?” Bones asks near the beginning of the film.

Old,” Kirk says. Shatner’s delivery of the line and the tired, grim look on his face say more than I ever could.

And so begins the literary themes of Wrath of Khan, with Kirk’s journey through the conflict of Peter Pan. He is no longer the young flying adventurer he once was. Kirk is afraid to grow up. This is contrasted beautifully with Khan, the superhuman who does not age. Themes of aging, sacrifice, and death are the blood of this movie, running throughout every scene as Kirk and his companions have to face that old inevitability of the no-win scenario. And if aging and sacrifice are the blood of the movie, then revenge and obsession are the bones (no pun intended, Dr. McCoy). Nicholas Meyer, the literature expert and author that he is, makes it easy for us. Let’s look at the books on Khan’s shelf:

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Image from thegeektwins.blogspot.com

Shakespeare’s King Lear, Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Holy Bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Melville’s Moby Dick.

Yeah, okay, it doesn’t take a genius to spot the tribute this movie pays to Moby Dick. Khan literally hunts Kirk to the point of self-destruction while quoting Melville’s classic. Similarly, the reference to the bible is pretty easy to spot. Everybody is fighting over the invention of Dr. Carol Marcus, called Genesis, a device that can literally make new life by creating an entirely new planet, though interestingly it first has to destroy whatever is already there.

But for Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, you might have to look a little deeper. Because of course, this is the second appearance of Khan Noonien Singh. In his original TV appearance in Space Seed, Khan is cast out of the enterprise for attempting to take over the ship and kill the crew. He and his followers are abandoned on an empty planet. When Kirk asks if this will be preferable to imprisonment, Khan answers, “Tis better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven.”

So if Space Seed is Satan being cast out of heaven, then Wrath of Khan is definitely the devil rising from the pit to war with God. Is Kirk God for the purposes of this story? Um… I’m not sure how to answer that on the off-chance either William Shatner or George Takei ever read this and explode (each for completely different reasons).

As for King Lear: Kirk is the king, and has been the king for far too long, and Khan has come to bring down the kingdom, only to ultimately fail.

What runs through all of these great works are the themes of revenge, sacrifice, and loss. The most famous line of the movie is not a reference to what has come before, but of course Spock’s iconic “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

This is repeated twice throughout the film, once far closer to the beginning, and then at the end, in Spock’s death scene (AKA the most well done death scene in modern cinema). That is what links all of these stories. Khan forced his crew to hunt for Kirk, putting his needs above theirs, and they all die for it. Spock chose to die, putting the needs of his crew above his own. In this, Spock takes a step forward and manages what none of these classics of literature ever managed to do: he beats The Kobayashi Maru test. Self-sacrifice was the thing that never occurred to the characters in Moby Dick, or Lear or Paradise Lost.

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Image from swiftfilm.com

All of this is bookmarked by themes of aging. Yes, the crew of the enterprise are getting older. Yes, Jim Kirk is not the young man he was in 1966. Instead of ignoring the aging of its actors, this movie actually makes it integral to the plot. Kirk’s fear of aging, of becoming irrelevant and outdated, is even juxtaposed by the superhuman that is Khan, who refuses to ever age or die, and whose chest is still shiny and visible at all times.

Kirk admits at the end of the movie that he has never faced death. “Not like this,” he says. At this point Kirk has beaten the adversary who rose up from hell. He has watched the creation of new life with Genesis. He has found a new reality as a parent, and Spock is dead. This is all what makes Star Trek II the best movie of the franchise. It is a fascinating character study layered with a reverence for literature and the themes of loss and revenge.

How do you feel, Jim?” asks Bones McCoy at the beginning and the end of the film. In the beginning, Kirk is beginning to feel his age, being left behind by a newer, younger generation. At the end, Kirk has lost his best friend, and watched as a new planet roared to life. This is the most complicated and nuanced the character has ever been, or ever will be again.

Young,” he says in the end.

I feel young.”

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Image from scifanatic.com

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Mulan Takes The Bechdel Test

Did I love Disney princesses? Of course I did. We all did. Don’t even try to lie. Everyone is an 8-year-old at some point in their lives.

It probably would have been a healthy obsession in my case—stopping after a few cute Halloween costumes, some fairly awkward conversations with animals, and an assortment of charming husbands—had it not been for Mulan.

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Image from http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/

Fa Mulan.

Sigh…

I knew there was no going back from the moment I first watched it. I went from wearing plastic tiaras to whacking my brothers with sticks faster than you can say, “The Huns have invaded China.” Maybe it was the lucky cricket. Maybe it was the silly grandmother. It was probably Mushu. But I like to think that it was watching Mulan discover herself with a sword in hand, rather than in ballroom slippers.

Let’s fast-forward (a shamefully small amount of time) to the present.

Now that I am much older and think about things (before hitting them with sticks), I have long since come to the conclusion that I was merely drawn to a strong, empowered female character. Done. That was easy.

Events transpired, however.

I recently stumbled upon something called the Bechdel Test, which is an unofficial measure of female portrayal in films.

Here is a 20-second history to get you up to speed:

The Bechdel Test was invented by Alison Bechdel and came from a comic titled “The Rule” in her series Dykes to Watch Out For (pictured here).

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Image from http://dykestowatchoutfor.com

A movie must meet three very simple criteria in order to pass:

  1. It must have two female characters (with names)
  2. They must have a conversation with each other
  3. That conversation must be about something other than a man

It sounds laughably easy to pass, but it turns out that 69% of IMDB’s top films fail that simple little test.

I’ll admit I was doubtful. I read through page after page about it.

I bet you have a favourite movie, they said. Look it up, they said. YOU WILL BE SUPPRISED BY WHAT DOESN’T PASS, they said.

So I looked it up. I saw a little green check mark next to Mulan. Hah, thought I, and gave my laptop a smug little smile. I was confident in my superior judgement. I was about to move on when the words “although dubious” caught my eye.

Dubious? DUBIOUS?!

How could Mulan be dubious? She was the pinnacle of female kickassery, the definition of feisty and unafraid, a raw, unadulterated shock of battle tactics and brute force with some kooky chicken feeding methods to boot. What could possibly be lacking?

Well, it seems that the female conversation was very scant in Mulan. Yes, there was some chit-chat between female ancestors, but they were unnamed. Yes, there was some mother/daughter/grandmother musical numbers, but those all circled around getting ready for the matchmaker to find a good husband. And yes, the protagonist was FEMALE but get this: Mushu had more lines in the film than Mulan did.

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Image from https://metrouk2.files.wordpress.com

Here’s how the movie scraped by:

Fa Li: I should have prayed to the ancestors for luck.
Grandmother Fa: How lucky can they be? They’re dead. Besides, I’ve got all the luck we’ll need.
Fa Li: Grandma, no!
Grandmother Fa: Yep! This cricket’s a lucky one! 

How progressive for the dark ages of 1998.

So I re-watched Mulan and came to the conclusion that in terms of women’s representation, it’s far from perfect. But then again, so is the Bechdel Test.

Although there was an utter lack of meaningful, non-male-related conversations between women in the movie, it’s not a stretch to attribute some of that to the largely (and in this case logically) male cast. Not to mention that this test doesn’t take into account the historical context, in which Mulan shows considerable independence and strength of character compared to the rest of the female cast as well as her fellow warriors. So perhaps this test is superficial, but it’s not entirely wrong.

Re-watching Mulan, I realized it wasn’t the perfect embodiment of female power I once believed it to be. Mulan says very few noteworthy things over the course of the movie, and the speaking parts are all largely male. Mulan is fighting for the greater glory of China, but the victory of the movie is more about winning the Emperor’s and her father’s approval, and Li Shang’s admiration.

I’m sad to say that I could summarize Mulan by saying, “Girl pretends to be a man, girl successfully blends in and is a very good man, girl wins huge victory for China and is offered a place as a woman in a man’s world but rejects it to return to domesticity. Then girl gets boy.”

That being said, for me, this movie will always be full of important victories: the cross-dressing imperial army, a Disney princess in armour, the most flattering of compliments (“Um… you… fight good.”), and an unlikely girl showing up all the boys.

But maybe I’ll make room for new heroes.

-Contributed by Katie Schmidt

Anna Biller’s The Love Witch: A Feminist Approach to the Alternative Horror Genre

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Anna Biller’s faux-1960s alternative horror film, The Love Witch (2016), follows the narcissistic and eyeshadow obsessed Elaine in her search for the perfect fairy-tale romance. The self-proclaimed “Love Witch”, Elaine (played by Samantha Robinson) is a woman who uses home-made love potions, sex spells, and her own mysterious allure to seduce men until, of course, it takes an unexpected turn for the worse.

Aesthetics and visuals are central to the film. The costumes, scenery, cinematography, and soundtrack are all carefully directed and consulted on by Biller herself, a Cal Arts graduate. The sequences seem spontaneous, taking on a life of their own beyond the linear plot of the picture. These vivacious, colourful, and intrusive statements guide the film from the tropes of a mainstream horror flick to the unconventional features of an independent art film.

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In the director’s statement for The Love Witch, Biller mentions, “While I am quoting genres, I am using them not as a pastiche, but to create a sense of aesthetic arrest and to insert a female point of view.” Although Biller takes influence from aspects of the alternative horror/thriller genre, she uses a perspective that twists the typical male gaze of that genre, and brings about a sense of female empowerment. By using her knowledge of what men want, Elaine controls her own sexual agency.

This feminist concept is intermingled with the rules of witchery and the occult within the film. This is evident when the members of Elaine’s cult discuss how the strength of a woman’s sexuality both excites and challenges men’s patriarchal position in society, and how this makes men feel inclined to “put women in their place.” It is the figures of magic who bring attention to this, and the concept is juxtaposed with Elaine’s controversial behaviour regarding her lovers. Elaine uses her attractive persona to seduce men, but with her potions and her high expectations of romance, she “loves them to death.”

In a twist, Biller presents the dichotomy of Elaine’s lack of concern regarding her lovers with their increasing emotional attachment and eventual toxic separation from her affection. Elaine lacks any moral conflict in her actions, believing that the tragedies that result are simply a shame.

Biller borrows from the trope of the 1960s femme fatale, utilizing their hatred of betrayal by former lovers and twisting it so the woman gives the man what he wants physically but uses magic to separate herself from the emotional response he desires. Here, Biller references the social ideology in which men are thought to lack an emotional response in relationships. The moment Elaine denies her lover an emotional response is the moment that he starts to long for her love and support.

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Another vital aspect of the plot is Elaine’s obsession with fairy-tale romance. Despite the contrary ways she exhibits this, she greatly desires a relationship in which her love is fully requited and without complications. While Elaine presents herself as imposingly stern and careless, she fantasizes about a pseudo-medieval scene in which she rides off with her prince charming, away from the difficulties of a mundane life.

When Elaine’s curious landlord Trish (played by Laura Waddell) snoops around in her apartment, we are exposed to the hyper-erotic drawings and paintings that cover the room. These depict explicit scenes in an artistic style that is unexpectedly harmless and bubbly. This seems contrary to the darker erotic aspect of the film’s visuals, but its absurdity and spontaneity are central to the alternative rhythm of the plot, and play on the extreme paradoxes in Elaine’s character.

Overall, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch explores the rhetoric of the ill-fated search for a perfect love affair. In unison with the occult genre, this results in over-the-top dramatic sequences, stunning visuals, and a soap-operatic flair. Although the film is identified as a horror/thriller, it most definitely isn’t the type of film that has you at the edge of your seat in anticipation. Rather, the overly dramatic acting, quick-cut sequences, and flashy and comical costumes leave you with a smile plastered across your face.

-Contributed by Mia Carnevale

When the Living Are Dead

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Illustration by Margarita Gladkikh

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers.

The Others is a skillfully crafted horror movie that’s worth watching because of its ending. The film seems like it’s going to be your typical dose of contemporary horror: isolation, a large estate drowned in fog, religious themes, and children. Director and screenwriter Alejandro Amenábar keeps his piece expertly free of the cheap scares that we’ve come to expect from contemporary horror. He keeps his audience waiting in the dread of not knowing what’s going to happen. Why are the children kept away from light? Why are the servants so strange? Why does the gardener cover gravestones with leaves?

The movie swiftly develops an air of mystery through unnerving the audience with the dusty mansion, Grace’s nightmare, the disappearance of the old servants, and their peculiar replacements. The Stewarts believe that there are ghosts in their house because the piano plays itself and footsteps without attached bodies thunder around upstairs. However, the genius of the movie arises when the audience realizes the Stewarts are the ghosts, haunting the mansion that the new family occupies.

The Others is one of those movies that seemingly reveals the plot to the audience in the beginning. But the audience only realizes upon viewing the movie for a second time that the servants were in on the secret that the Stewarts are dead from the beginning of the movie. However, the audience is not aware of this and neither are the Stewarts. Clearly something is off throughout the film, but the audience struggles in putting together the subtle clues left behind by Amenábar: the servants disappearing after the deaths of the Stewarts, the absence of the postman, and the new family viewing the house.

It is rather tough for an audience to pinpoint a specific antagonist in this film. Could it be Grace, her devious daughter Anne, or the strange housekeeper Bertha Mills? For some time I wondered whether Grace was mentally stable because of her increasing frenzied behaviour, devoutness, and need for control.

The audience knows something happened “that day”, which was when Grace gave in to her mental instabilities, smothered her children, and shot herself. In the end, the audience is finally able to piece the clues together and we understand that Grace went insane from the grief of her husband’s death at war, which was exacerbated by the fog that kept them isolated from the rest of the world. Amenábar points out through Bertha that “grief over the death of a loved one can lead people to do the strangest things”. This is clearly aimed at Grace, who did what she did to escape from the bottomless pit of pain she was imprisoned in. But it also presents the effect that war has on families that were torn up by loved ones who went to fight and never returned.

Religion is a prominent aspect of the film, especially since the only thing the children do is read the Bible. However, in the end, the devout Grace is devastated by her broken faith because, to her, it is impossible for the dead and the living to exist in the same realm. The Stewarts are stuck in some sort of limbo or purgatory. Perhaps because they didn’t die naturally, their souls weren’t ready to ascend to heaven, thus leaving them trapped in the house.

Amenábar doesn’t overuse background music, but when it’s present, it’s the classic, bloodthirsty sound of violins in pain. The absence of background music emphasizes the isolation from the lack of sight to the lack of sound. Weather is used to reflect the mood of the film through the heavy fog that is prominent throughout the movie except for two scenes. One scene depicts Grace’s husband Charles return from war and the other scene at the end of the movie, when the family accepts their deaths.

The Others is an intelligent piece of cinematography that raises the bar for future supernatural/psychological horror movies. Amenábar twists everything we’ve come to expect from horror and delivers this masterpiece. This is the rare horror movie that genuinely shocks and impresses the skeptical, jaded viewer who has lost their faith in good scares. When the audience realizes that the Stewarts and the servants are ghosts, we’re horrified. The job is done. Granted, Amenábar fell short when it came to characterization, though he had great control when it came to building up to the twist. Overall, the pacing of the movie was well thought-out to maintain constant suspense. What really stands out about this movie is Amenábar’s talent for directing and storytelling, and the brilliance of the movie can only be appreciated when watching it for the second time.

-Contributed by Chindu Palakal

David Bowie and Alan Rickman in the Speculative World

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January 2016 saw the loss of two great figures in the speculative world when David Bowie and Alan Rickman passed away within days of each other. Throughout their careers, both influenced and contributed to science fiction and fantasy in their own ways.

David Bowie’s albums were generally highly conceptual, working with not only music but also stories and characters that he ‘became’ as part of the immersive art experience. Throughout his discography, space travel, extraterrestrials, and the grand, sometimes dystopian, themes common in science fiction have majorly influenced his work.

Space Oddity, a 1969 mega-hit, is about the death of Major Tom, an astronaut persona whose spaceship crashes. Bowie would revisit the Major Tom character in subsequent pieces. Recently the song gained even more fame when in 2013 astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded a cover of it aboard the International Space Station.

Blackstar, the album released just days before Bowie’s death on January 10, is also the name of a type of spacecraft, and the music video for the titular track continues with the themes of astronauts and stranded aliens that have been recurring motifs throughout his career. Bowie is also the only musician to be inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame at the Experience Music Project (EMP) Museum, a museum dedicated to popular culture.

Bowie’s career took off at a point when space exploration was a new and exciting reality, making science fiction more relevant than ever. Unlike the grand and feel-good space operas of the time, like the original Star Trek and, a few years later, Star Wars, Bowie’s work was often weird, anxious, and uncomfortable. His The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars follows Ziggy, Bowie’s self-insert persona, a rock star alien attempting to bring a message of peace to an ailing Earth who is eventually consumed in the final number, Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. He captured the anxiety that space travel brought to humanity alongside the wonder, in terms less black and white than the good versus evil morality science fiction often offers.

As well as bringing science fiction into his music, Bowie is well-known for his portrayal of Jareth, the goblin king, in Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth. A cult classic, the plot follows a girl named Sarah, played by Jennifer Connelly, who has to make her way through a labyrinth full of fantastical creatures to save her baby brother after he’s kidnapped by the goblins. Labyrinth is a wonderful work of fantasy, brought to life by Jim Henson’s puppets. Bowie’s character is a powerful monarch with powers of illusion and transformation. Labyrinth is remembered to this day as a creepy, beautiful cautionary tale of what happens in fantasy when you get what you wish for.

Alan Rickman, who passed away on January 14, is also remembered for his roles in speculative movies, though he was also a very accomplished stage actor and starred in films ranging in genre from Die Hard to Love Actually.

Rickman provided the voice of Marvin, the paranoid android, in the 2005 film adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Rickman gave a great voice to one of the most famous robot characters, the bored and very depressed Marvin. While it was hardly the best or most notable book-to-film adaptation of a science fiction novel, as a media series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of the most influential, funny, and classic pieces of science fiction. As seen with this series, Adams’ love and use of technology—he was apparently the first European to own a Mac—fed in and out of his science fiction stories.

Rickman also ventured into space in 1999’s Galaxy Quest, a loving parody of Star Trek and other similar popular shows. He played a cast member of Galaxy Quest, a fictional television series about space travel. When aliens mistake the show for reality, they reach out to the cast for help.

Of course, Rickman’s most prominent speculative role, if not role in general, was as Severus Snape, the great villain-hero of Harry Potter. He played the character to great acclaim among both critics and fans, shaping Snape from the cold, unlikable bully he starts off as to the complex, tormented double-agent who sacrifices everything in the final installment. Bringing the character from harsh and cruel to a sympathetic hero over Snape’s whole character arc, Rickman brought real life and depth to one of the series’ most beloved characters.

Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling described him as “a magnificent actor and a wonderful man,” and Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger in the films, said, “I feel so lucky to have worked and spent time with such a special man and actor.”

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

Star Wars: the Force Awakens—We’re Home

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It’s been nearly ten years since the release of the almost universally loathed Star Wars prequels, and over thirty since we first witnessed the Star Wars that generations know and love. When Disney revealed that they are making a new trilogy, with new filmmakers, of course we were nervous. But the release of The Force Awakens proved those nerves to be unfounded. J. J. Abrams and company have not only given us a return to form for the galaxy far, far away, but they have delivered a movie that in the Star Wars series might only be outshined by The Empire Strikes Back.

From the opening shot of the movie, Abrams reveals what kind of ride we are in for: one that reverently loves the original trilogy and is going to deliver a new twist on a familiar world.

Just to get it out of the way, yes the original cast are back. Carrie Fisher slips in as General Leia in what is more of an extended cameo, along with C-3P0 and R2-D2. Yes, Luke Skywalker is in the movie. That’s all I can say about that.

Harrison Ford is also back as Han Solo, alongside Chewbacca. Watching them feels like coming home. Ford is fantastic as a grizzled, older Han. At no point while watching do you think “look, it’s Harrison Ford in a costume” the way you did when watching the fourth Indiana Jones movie. He is Han Solo. He slips back into that role, and he owns it. That really is Han Solo strutting around the Millennium Falcon.

But this isn’t just two hours with the cast of A New Hope in their old age. The new characters of The Force Awakens are incredible, and I’m happy to admit that within the first half an hour I was sold on following the adventures of this new generation.

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is the first new character we meet. He’s described as the best pilot in the Resistance, and he knows it. Isaac brings a swagger and charm to the role so easily that if I look him up in the dictionary I’d expect the word “likeable” to be written next to his name. His is a character we don’t get enough of, and I hope that he makes a bigger return in episode VIII.

The real stars (pun intended) of the show, are John Boyega as Finn and Daisy Ridley as Rey. A Stormtrooper with a conscience, Finn is a dorky, lovable guy just trying to get along in the universe and escape the villainous First Order. Finn is all-around just a good guy. His chemistry with Rey, Poe, Han Solo, and even Chewbacca will make you smile, and it’s worth mentioning that Finn is funny. Many of the films best laughs come from him, and it’s hard not to love how much John Boyega clearly enjoys being in Star Wars. But Finn is not alone; a lot of his best material comes from the chemistry and clear friendship between him and Rey.

Simply put, Rey is amazing. Between her, Jessica Jones, and Mad Max’s Furiosa, it is a refreshing year to be a fan of great female leads in science fiction movies. A scavenger on the planet Jakku, Rey is both fierce and kind. She charges through the movie with an emotional and physical fervor that the Luke Skywalker of yesteryear never quite managed. A silent introduction of her sliding down a desert sand dune, buzzing around on a speeder, and watching the sun set through a dusty rebel pilot’s helmet sets the tone for the character without a word. Her reaction to seeing a forest after spending her whole life in the desert pulls at heartstrings, her friendships with Finn and Han Solo make you cheer, and when Rey gets down to battle, you’re on the edge of your seat. Without the friendship and capability of Finn and Rey this movie would have been great, but with them it’s damn near perfect.

Also, the new droid of the film BB-8 is surprisingly lovable. I was ready to find him just as annoying as the infamous Jar Jar, but no. BB-8 is great. He bleeps and bloops lovably and capably along. I’d happily accept a BB-8 of my own. I’d call him buddy.

Of course, you can’t talk about Star Wars without talking about villains. The shiny Captain Phasma does far less to deserve her spotlight than Boba Fett ever did, First Order General Hux is appropriately Naziesque, and Supreme Leader Snoke isn’t really enough of a presence to justify a real opinion.

This leaves the weight of villainy on the shoulders of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. There was always a threat of delivering a villain who was just not as good as Darth Vader (something Lucas’s prequels fell prey to each time), but The Force Awakens cleverly circumvents the issue. In fact, the long shadow cast by Vader’s image is one of Kylo’s principle motivations. Kylo Ren is different kind of villain, and it works. When he meets our heroes for the climactic lightsaber duel (I don’t consider saying there is a lightsaber fight a spoiler), he delivers the dynamic exciting clash between the dark side and the light that Star Wars must always have.

It’s hard to say much about the plot without spoiling the movie, but I can talk about the structure. The plot of this movie is simple, coherent, and easy to follow. Yes, there are elements and beats we have seen before. This is a movie that needed to convince us that Star Wars is back, so there are certain things it needed to do. This is not a criticism, because while The Force Awakens is nostalgic for the original 1977 film, A New Hope was in turn nostalgic for Flash Gordon and the Westerns of the 1950/60s. Star Wars was always nostalgic for something, so the reverence shown in this film was rightly placed. I went into a movie theater to see Star Wars, and that is what I saw. I couldn’t be happier.

Yes, there are small problems, but hey, nothing is perfect! The fact that I only really find issues when I go in to nitpick (one interaction between Leia and Chewbacca didn’t ring true for me) means it was a pretty good ride.

One word of warning: if you walk into The Force Awakens expecting a completely original plot with nothing you’ve ever seen before, you’re going to be disappointed. J. J. Abrams has come on record to say that A New Hope is his favorite Star Wars movie, and it shows here. But for me, I went in to watch Star Wars, and by gods, Star Wars is what I got.

In fact, after two hours, if I’d walked out and been told the next one was playing right away, I would have happily walked right back in and taken my seat. Ladies and gentlemen and variations thereupon, here are my thoughts on The Force Awakens summed up: Star Wars is back. It’s the best it’s been since Empire.

May the Force be with us all!

-Contributed by Benjamin Ghan