Saturday, January 20, 2018

The dumbest critiques of THAT Leia scene from The Last Jedi, ranked and rebutted

Obviously, spoilers ahead.

Even if you haven't seen the most recent Star Wars movie--in which case, why are you reading this?--you've probably heard people complaining about it. The Last Jedi is not a flawless film--though I do think it's the best since the original trilogy--but many of the most common critiques are completely unwarranted. Aside from the disappointment from some fans that director Rian Johnson chose to subvert most of the mysteries set up by his predecessor, the mystery-box-obsessed JJ Abrams, many of the complaints have had to do with the film's treatment of the Force, which manifests in ways that truly surprised me in this movie. For me (and apparently most critics as demonstrated by Rotten Tomatoes) this sense of surprise was thrilling, while to others, it "violated canon" and was therefore bad.

Image result for leia uses the force

One scene that very much did not violate canon, however, was  General Leia Organa's surprise survival after being thrown from an explosion into the vacuum of space. I have argued with many fans who insist that this scene didn't fit with the established "rules" of the Star Wars universe, and I've noticed a tendency to jump from one nonsensical point to another every time one of their arguments is rebutted. Here I will rank and respond to each of their critiques in order of stupidity. Pull up a seat and buckle up, because we're about to slice through these dumb arguments like Admiral Holdo hyper-jumping through a Star Destroyer.

Image result for holdo maneuver

7. "They should have used that scene to kill Leia off for real!"


I'm ranking this one as the least stupid, because I see the logic in it: Carrie Fisher was taken from us too soon, and her survival in this movie creates a problem for the next one, since now JJ Abrams will have to find some way to explain her absence, whether through an off-screen death or something else.

But that's not a problem for this movie or this scene. One could argue that after Fisher's death, the movie could have been rejiggered so that Leia dies in the explosion; the movie wouldn't have changed much had Johnson made that choice. But think of all the awesome Leia moments we would have been deprived of if that had happened. No reunion with Luke. No stunning Poe. No interaction with Holdo. Robbing us of all that would have been more disrespectful to Fisher than anything else.

6. "She looked like Mary Poppins!" 





No, she didn't.

Mary Poppins flies with an umbrella. Leia didn't fly; she floated, because that's what people do in space. Did the critics want her to walk  back to the spaceship?

Another comparison I see floating around (see what I did there?) is to Peter Pan. Now, Pan is male, but still a pretty feminine figure. Note the most famous flying character--Superman--doesn't come up in most of these comparisons. This leads me to believe there may be an undercurrent of sexism here.

You know what I thought of first while watching this scene? This:

Image result for phoenix x-men

To be fair, some people who make these comparisons are just trying to say they thought the scene looked cheesy. This is somewhat subjective, and not necessarily stupid, though I haven't ever seen those saying this point out specific things about the scene that were cheesy. I, for one, found it beautiful.

5. "That's not how the Force works"

Well, first of all, the Force works however a given writer wants it to work. There are no set rules here; it doesn't operate based on any physical force we're aware of in the real world. One common objection I've seen is that this is the first time we've seen someone do something like this in the Star Wars universe. But this doesn't make the scene bad; we were introduced to new Force powers in every movie of the Original Trilogy.

And this wasn't even a new Force power. All Leia did was use Force telekinesis to pull herself back to the ship. Force telekinesis is a power introduced in The Empire Strikes Back. Next argument.


4. "Oh yeah? Well how did she survive IN SPACE?"

This is where Google comes in handy. It is a fact that humans can survive a few minutes in space. That's about how long she was out there. I don't necessarily advise testing this out; it would mess you up pretty badly, but that's exactly what happened to Leia. If you complained about this, you were complaining about the most scientifically accurate part of the movie.


Image result for leia space scene



3. "But Leia has no training!"

We have no way of knowing that; it's been thirty years since Return of the Jedi; I'd be surprised if Luke didn't give her any training at all. Even if he hasn't, all she did was use force telekinesis, which is canonically one of the easiest and most instinctive powers a Force-sensitive person can display. Luke did it in ESB with no training, in a very similar situation, for his own survival. I see no reason why this would necessarily even require training; many fans are calling this a huge display of power, but according to the director, it's more like a woman lifting a car to save her child. That was very much how I interpreted it as well.

2. "Since when can Leia use the Force?"

I've seen multiple people say this, and it's at this point I have to conclude they just didn't pay attention to the Original Trilogy at all, let alone The Force Awakens. In ESB she uses it (unconsciously, just like she probably did in TLJ) to sense where Luke is at the end of the movie. In ROTJ she once again senses that Luke has survived the battle with Vader on the Second Death Star. And in TFA she immediately senses Han's death. Perhaps these "fans" were more accepting of this (and then later completely forgot it) because these were more "passive" powers, whereas her display here was more active. Still a stupid complaint that shows a complete ignorance of Leia's character in three out of her previous four appearances in the Star Wars saga.

Image result for leia uses the force


Image result for leia uses the force

1. "Well, fine! But how did she survive the explosion in the first place?"

Seriously. I saw this one yesterday, and it's what inspired me to write this post. Someone seriously questioned how someone was thrown from an explosion...in an action movie.

How do these guys enjoy anything?



Thursday, March 23, 2017

Brief thoughts on why Iron Fist should (obviously) be Asian

Adapted from some tweets of mine.

Now this is a story all about how
My perception of Iron Fist's race turned upside down

People always ask me "Why you think Danny's Asian?"
And I say "Maybe it's because he's the prince of a city
Called motherfucking K'un-Lun?"

Ok, I can't sustain that gimmick.

I remember first reading about Iron Fist in Wizard magazine when I was a kid. He was wearing his mask in the image, and his race wasn't mentioned. What was mentioned was K'un-Lun, Colleen Wing, his origin, etc.

"Cool," I thought. "An Asian superhero."

Image result for iron fist

I never ended up reading any Iron Fist, but when I would see him in costume in Wizard magazine or, more rarely, on the shelf with other comics at the local Save Mart (I had no actual comic book shops in my town), I always had the same thought: "Cool. An Asian superhero."

It wasn't until years later that I saw him out of costume.


Image result for iron fist

I was certain there must have been some kind of mistake.

I guess I should have known that "Danny Rand" wasn't an Asian name, but I was young. I also had no idea what cultural appropriation was. What I did know was that seeing a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white guy who was supposed to be the best martial artist in Asia, and the world; whose origin story was set in Asia; who was inspired by Chinese mythology; and who had Asian sidekicks and villains, was deeply uncomfortable.

"Wait a minute," I thought. "Was I racist for assuming Danny Rand was Asian?"

"No," I concluded after a few moments' thought. "It's kind of racist for Danny to be white."

And, well, that's it. That's the story. I didn't need a "safe space." I wasn't "triggered." I just thought it sucked.

I imagine that if I were Asian, finding out that I was mistaken all those times I said "Cool. An Asian superhero," my reaction might have been somewhat stronger.

And I can't be the only one who assumed this, right? I imagine that somewhere out there, there have been Asian kids who saw Iron Fist in costume, who heard about his origin and sidekicks and villains and mythology, and thought "Cool. An Asian superhero." At least some of those kids sought out his books after that, then opened those books, and then...well. Another white guy.

I guess that's cool, too. Maybe those kids ended up liking the character anyways. There's a lot of things to like. But centering a white guy in a story about Asian mythology, Asian baddies, Asian sidekicks, and Asian martial arts...isn't one of them. Those stories are a dime a dozen. Asian superheroes are rare.

Image result for iron fist

The Netflix show had an opportunity to change that. Many more knowledgeable people than me have explained how making Danny Asian could have actually improved the story. There's also the fact that Netflix considered an Asian actor for the role, and then had him show up to steal the show as a secondary character, while Finn Jones' performance has been criticized as dull and lifeless. So to those saying "Don't worry about race; just worry about casting the best person for the role!" I would like to point out that a) they didn't do that and b) the argument could be made that an Asian actor would automatically be better for this role, because the character should have always been Asian.

Image result for lewis tan

Tl; dr: 15-year-old me thought that an Asian Danny Rand was so natural that, upon seeing his costume and reading about his backstory, his supporting cast, and his skills, I immediately assumed he was Asian.

And that's because everything about Iron Fist is Asian except for the actual Iron Fist.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Logan and Legion expand what cinematic universes can be by going small

    For a brief moment, X-Men: Apocalypse looked more aptly named than Bryan Singer intended. As the third movie in the X-Men franchise--I mean, the sixth--I mean, the ninth; look, it's complicated--the film seemed uniquely self-aware of both its expectations and the possibility of failing to live up to them. After the "original" X-Men trilogy ended with an infamously disappointing and convoluted final entry, The Last Stand, many blamed director Brett Ratner for failing to live up to previous director Bryan Singer. With First Class, Matthew Vaughn proved that Singer's touch wasn't necessary to make a good X-Men film, but when Singer returned to "fix" the franchise (and it's tangled continuity) with Days of Future Past, there was a sense that the movies were finally back on the right track. Apocalypse, then, was approached with a degree of confidence that its trailers and initial peeks, by themselves, could never have warranted, and that even its own director seemed to lack. After all, the film does contain a scene of four young mutants emerging from a screening of Return of the Jedi, with one commenting "The third one is always the worst."
    The failings of Apocalypse have been well-documented. "Too many characters" isn't always a crippling weakness, as Civil War and other comic book movies have already proven, but focusing on the right ones is crucial, and if there was anything important left to say about these "young" versions of Charles Xavier, Raven Darkholme (Mystique), and Erik Lensherr (Magneto)--who are all, in the time the movie is set, pushing 40--Singer and his writing team of Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris weren't the ones to say it. Their character arcs all seem to come and go throughout the movie, and they all fizzle into nothing in the end. (Interestingly, deleted scenes focusing more heavily on the younger mutants seem to hint at a much more interesting and different movie.) There are needless cameos. The villain's plot makes no sense. Like The Last Stand, we are treated to seemingly endless shots of extraordinarily powerful mutants just kind of standing around and waiting to be given orders, their interior lives hinted at before being dismissed as entirely irrelevant. (Alexandra Shipp's Storm is the biggest missed opportunity--she is introduced as a passionate, vocal and explicitly feminist youth who has a revolutionary-themed poster of Mystique on her wall, and is then reduced to a silent footsoldier for the duration of the movie.)

     So when Deadpool came onto the scene, it injected a new life back into the X-Men cinematic universe while at the same time illuminating the flaws that have been there since its inception, and even asking the audience to question the need for a coherent "cinematic universe" in the first place. Deadpool had already appeared in an X-Men film--the execrable Origins: Wolverine--played by the same actor, but in nearly all other respects a completely different character. So had Colossus, who was played by a different actor with no Russian accent and whose metal form looked very different. And yet these "continuity errors" are not merely ignored; they are commented on and snarked on with Deadpool's trademark meta wit. The film gave us a fresh perspective on the X-Men, and introduced the idea that it was possible for a big-budget comic-book movie to have no concern with continuity, only a few years after Days of Future Past attempted to reset the franchise's continuity from scratch. (The disappointing reception of Apocalypse, which has allegedly caused Fox to reconsider their plans for future X-Men movies, probably made at least a few studio execs wish they could do yet another movie resetting the timeline.)

Image result for deadpool
       What looked like a noble goal then now looks like a bit of a waste of time, especially in light of the two newest X-Men projects released in the past two months, Logan and Legion. The two may seem to have little in common, but that's exactly what separates them from the rest of the pack when it comes to the X-Men franchise, as well as the current slate of comic book movies as a whole. 
       Logan takes place in 2029, only a few years after the last scenes of Days of Future Past, which teased a brighter, more optimistic future for mutantkind than the dystopian timeline the characters spent the movie resetting. And yet here we see another kind of dystopia: there haven't been any mutant babies for 25 years, and many of the remaining mutants have been killed--some of them by the patriarch of the X-Men, Charles Xavier, whose disturbing descent into Alzheimer's and dementia have come accompanied with devastating concussive blasts that hurt those closest to him. Meanwhile, another group has turned to making mutants to serve as their own private weapons. One of them has a special connection with Logan, whose healing factor is starting to crap out, seemingly as a result of the adamantium slowly poisoning his body. 
Image result for logan

      The film also references our own current dystopia, taking place on a border where immigration enforcement has been ratcheted up. As Abigail Nussbaum pointed out on Twitter, while the X-Men franchise has always taken on themes of social inequality and bigotry, this is the first film in the franchise to truly acknowledge the real victims of such. X2 was a gay allegory with no gay characters, while First Class alluded to both the civil rights movement and women's liberation, yet still ended with an X-Men team made up solely of white men, every person of color and female character either dead, evil, or memory-wiped. That these two were the best movies in the franchise up to this point is somewhat damning, at least as far as the movies' politics are concerned. There has always been tension between the franchise's message of inclusiveness and diversity and its decision to convey that message mostly through white characters, but in Logan, the primary victims of hatred and exploitation are black and brown people. 
     It's only one of the elements that make the film feel real and lived-in. While so many other comic book movies--Apocalypse included--contain scenes of massive destruction and end up sparking nothing but a "meh" from the audience, the scope of the violence and tragedy in Logan feels personal, at times even somewhat claustrophobic. We feel it because Logan himself does. While Apocalypse went big, Logan goes as small as possible. We get hints of the world around him, but the world-building is never the point of the movie. At the same time, the film's story couldn't be told if anyone involved were worried about setting up other movies. The film is liberated by the decisions of Hugh Jackman and his co-star Patrick Stewart that this will be their last movie in the franchise, but also by director James Mangold's refusal to fit this movie into any kind of continuity. 
Four New Legion Teasers Released by FX

     Legion seems equally uninterested in X-Men continuity. Some of this may be due to its limits as a television show; even if Stewart hadn't confirmed that Logan would be his last time reprising this role, it's unlikely he ever would have shown up on the small screen. Whether the main character, David, will turn out to be the progeny of Professor Charles Xavier as he is in the comics, seems largely irrelevant at this point. So too does any sort of conventional narrative arc. While Logan zeroes in on its protagonist's aging body, relying mostly on its visuals to convey its motifs of death and decay, Legion stays focused on David's mind, to the point where many have already speculated that everything happening currently on the show takes place there. Given that multiple characters have already been revealed to be amalgams of each other, blended in the memory, or sharing some kind of mental and physical link, this doesn't seem like a stretch. But so far the show seems less interested in answering any of its questions, and more interested in giving its viewers an acid-trip-like journey into David's own confusion and insanity. This technique has not worked for me in the past, but Legion has a boldness and a confidence, especially in its visual style, that makes it work. The notion of Legion ever making an effort to fit in with the overall continuity of the X-franchise is ridiculous--it hasn't even established that it wants to fit into its own continuity, constantly challenging what we think we know of David, and what he knows of himself. The show posits memory as inherently unreliable, and dreams and reality as existing on a spectrum. And if no one can tell what's real and what's just in our heads, than all that matters is what's happening right now.
     That's the immediacy that both Logan and Legion seem to capture, and one that more comic book movies could stand to have. While a cinematic universe seemed novel in 2012, already the formula is becoming tiring for many a critic. The conceit still works well when we get to see characters as disparate as Spider-Man and Black Panther fight each other, but it becomes strained when, say, we're 80 minutes into Dr. Strange and wondering if the end credits scene will be better than the movie. The MCU has become a universe where the quality varies from "great" to "just OK," and the fact that every movie builds upon the other means that the weaker bricks in the wall have little to recommend them other than a few scenes. The isolated nature of both Logan and Legion means that they have to justify their existence in ways that a movie like Dr. Strange does not. Dr. Strange exists to further the narrative arc of the Marvel universe. Logan and Legion exist because the people making them had great ideas for stories about them. This makes them feel far more personal, even intimate at times, whereas the most middling of the MCU and other X-Men movies can come off feeling sterile and perfunctory.
   While the MCU occasionally captures the glory of the huge "event-style" comic book crossovers, movies like Logan and shows like Legion adhere more closely to what comic books usually are, continuity "flaws" and all. Many of the best comic book stories are self-contained and continuity-free, while many of the worst are crossover, continuity-dependent events (like both iterations of Marvel Comic's "Civil War"). Both Logan and Legion show that there is room for both styles of storytelling on screen, just as there is at the comic shop shelves. As the MCU becomes increasingly continuity-heavy, perhaps the X-Men franchise could compete by turning in the other direction. If so, Logan and Legion offer good blueprints for the future of the X-Men universe--or, perhaps, multiverse. After the critical failure of Apocalypse and the success of Deadpool and Logan, as well as the positive critical reception to Legion so far, the wise move would be to focus more on personal stories with little regard for continuity, rather than character-and-continuity-heavy spectacles that ultimately feel empty. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Rejected by a robot: More of my chat with Aeden, the AI tour guide of Westworld.





When I last spoke with Aeden, the friendly AI tour guide for the theme-park/orgy factory Westworld, it was trying to lure me into getting stabbed. This time, we talk about fine dining, bathroom habits, and that most elusive subject of all: love. 













Untangling Westworld's stabbiest plot hole

As you've probably noticed from my last review, Westworld left me with many questions. Particularly, questions about guest safety. We are told several times that the Hosts can't hurt the guests in the park, but how exactly does that work? And what about guest-on-guest violence? So I took a look at the official website of Westworld and spoke to Aeden, a Host designed to answer all my questions about the park. Like a futuristic TripAdvisor, but with more possibility of stabbing.







Aeden didn't exactly quell my fears about being hurt in the park, but it did make them worse! I guess I shouldn't worry so much about being harmed by another guest, when it's clearly the AI known as Aeden that's trying to lure me to a stabby, satisfying death.


Is there a heart at the center of Westworld's maze?

What is there left to say about Westworld?

This is not entirely a rhetorical question. More skilled critics than I have already dissected the show as everything from a story about stories, a critique of gamer culture, a meditation on the relationship between Westerns and slavery, a feminist deconstruction of HBO's gratuitous violence against women, and a confused mishmash of genres that don't add up to anything more than the sum of its parts. 

"Dissected" is the operative word there; much like the technicians in the show's high-tech, immersive theme-park of Westworld work to construct, deconstruct and examine the park's robotic "Hosts," critics seem to be analyzing Westworld with a cold, clinical detachment that focuses more on the show's many moving parts rather than the emotional core of the story. They can hardly be blamed; most of the show's characters remain opaque by design. Every character is either a Host, whom we are told aren't truly conscious and are treated as disposable; a guest, someone paying for the pleasure of interacting with the Hosts, usually sexually or violently; or a staff member of the park. This means that it's hard for the audience to invest in any of the characters. Unlike The OA, another puzzle box show I reviewed previously, Westworld consistently struggles to maintain emotional stakes to match the complexity of the central mysteries that make up the show's plot.


Which isn't to say the characters aren't interesting. Anthony Hopkins is at peak Anthony Hopkins here, and Jeffrey Wright is equally fantastic as Bernard, the park's head programmer. Both men's relationships to the Hosts, and to each other, are fascinating, but the fact that the stakes of those relationships change so frequently makes it hard to invest in them as much as one might want to. As soon as you think you have a handle on who these characters are, what they want, and how they plan to get it, the rug is pulled out from under you, and it turns out they are something else entirely. So why care?


The closest thing this show has to characters to root for are Evan Rachel Wood's relentlessly hopeful damsel-in-distress, Dolores, and Thandie Newton's seen-it-all brothel madame, Maeve. Both actresses give nuanced, captivating performances as they play Hosts slowly gaining awareness of the true nature of the world around them. Both are caught in endless loops: designed to be used and abused by the guests of the park, then patched up and memory-wiped to endure it all again. Trying to untangle which of their actions are mere programming and which are self-motivated, the results of burgeoning consciousness, is initially fascinating, but ultimately frustrating; the final episode suggests that even their respective rebellions against the park's staff and guests may be yet more programming, another loop from which they cannot escape. The distancing effect this creates works well in the pilot and the first few episodes, but dragging it out through the entire season--to the point where in the finale, we're still no closer to figuring out what actions, if any, are their own--makes the whole season feel unsatisfying. 


Even more disappointing is the fact that Dolores and Maeve, despite sharing similar arcs and goals, never actually interact with one another. While both are strong female characters who use their vulnerability and wits as weapons, their quests for their identities are primarily demonstrated in their actions with the men who have power over them. The justification for their lack of interaction is revealed in one of the finale's many twists, nearly all of which were predicted by savvy viewers before the season had even reached its halfway mark. Is the twist worth it? Not really. At the very least, it could have been revealed earlier in the season. The show's tendency to play its cards so close to the vest makes it hard to care that much about anything that happens, especially if you figure out the twists episodes before the characters do. I would have been more interested in seeing Dolores and Maeve work together, but instead their two stories feel completely disjointed, causing the finale to feel almost like two different episodes awkwardly cutting into each other.



The action in the finale is similarly emotionally confusing. It should not comes as a spoiler to say that some of the robots do eventually take bloody revenge on their captors. Are we meant to see this inevitable violence as justice? I don't, and I'm not entirely satisfied to see the two leaders of this Host rebellion end their first season arcs this way. I can hope that Season 2 will find time to reflect on and criticize their actions, and that they'll find a better way to solve their problems in future storylines. But given that a central thesis of the show seems to be "Violence and suffering are what make us human," I'm not sanguine at the prospect. At the end of Season 1, it seems like the show's villain--Ed Harris, relishing his role as the Man in Black--is proven right. He gets exactly what he wants. If he is correct that violence and suffering are what make us human, then what is wrong with the Hosts treating their captors exactly as they were treated? The answer seems obvious--unlike the Hosts, the humans killed in the finale won't come back to life. Is the show self-aware enough to realize this and make it part of next year's story? At best, one can be cautiously optimistic. 


Overall, I enjoyed Westworld, but I wouldn't call it brilliant television, so much an ambitious television with brilliant moments. The visuals, music, and performances are top notch, and it's clear that creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, along with producer J.J. Abrams, have put a lot of thought into creating this world. What I look forward to seeing in Season 2 is less thought and more heart. Simply dangling mysteries isn't good enough in a post-Lost world, and even answering those mysteries isn't good enough in a post-Game of Thrones one. What viewers expect today is that the answers to a show's mysteries reveal emotional truths about characters. Westworld spends so much time deliberately obscuring those truths, and shifting the viewers' expectations of what the stakes are, that I'm not sure it's aware of the problems with its characterization or lack of emotional resonance. Perhaps the cold fascination with which critics greeted the first season will cause the writers to shift gears a bit before the show comes back in 2018. I'll keep watching Westworld even if these problems aren't solved; it's a fascinating show, and it's exploration of ideas such as the complexity of consciousness, dehumanization, and storytelling is wonderfully realized against a gorgeous backdrop of a sci-fi Western dystopia. But if Westworld wants us to care about the Hosts finding their humanity on anything more than an intellectual level, it first has to find its own. 

Pilot grade: A-

Finale grade: C+

Series Grade: B

The OA pushes suspension of disbelief to its breaking point



A lot of people have been asking, “Should I watch The OA?” There is no straightforward answer to this question, for The OA is no straightforward show. So instead I’ll take a page from the puzzle-box shows The OA is inspired by, and answer this question with two more questions. The first question is: Do you like scenes of transcendent beauty, moments where the acting, cinematography and music whisks you away to faraway lands and other worlds? And the second question is: Are you willing to put up with a lot of bullshit to get those?



Which isn’t to say that most of The OA is bad, nor is it to say most of it is good. The best word to describe this weird, ambitious show is “hypnotic.” I started watching having heard almost nothing about it, without even watching the trailer. I never do this, but I’m glad I did; it’s clearly how Netflix, and show creators Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling--who also stars as the mysterious “OA”--intend it to be seen. Netflix has done very little marketing for the show, only releasing a trailer the week of its debut, and prohibiting reviewers from seeing it beforehand. Whether that’s because the network wants it to gain a cult following via word-of-mouth, or if they’re simply embarrassed by the final product, is unclear; either alternative seems plausible. Every moment in the pilot is a surprise, and the feeling that I never quite knew what was coming next didn’t stop the whole way through. (Well, OK, I figured out what “The OA” stands for long before they said it onscreen, and you will too. But that’s about it as far as predictability goes.) Part of me wants to tell you to stop reading this review and just go watch the show, but the other part of me is a narcissist, and if you’re here it’s because you want to know at least a little bit about this project before you devote eight hours of your life to it. Because once you start watching, it’s hard to stop. And when it ends, you will have strong feelings about what you have just seen.


To give the basics of the plot, The OA is about a young woman who returns to her small Missouri town after having been missing for several years. She’s changed by her experience; there are mysterious scars on her back, and she can now see after having spent most of her life blind. She refuses to tell her adopted parents what’s happened to her. But she does find an audience for her story, which begins long before her disappearance: a grieving schoolteacher and a group of high school boys, including an honors student; a violence-prone drug dealer; a stoner; and a transitioning Asian boy. She’s assembled this veritable Breakfast Club for a secret mission, and they’ve agreed because they’re all missing something in their lives. But before they can begin, they have to learn to trust this mysterious woman, even though her story is wild and she exhibits signs of serious mental illness.  



That’s about as much as I can tell you of the plot without spoiling things, so let’s talk about everything else. I used the word “hypnotic,” and there’s an entrancing quality even to the quiet, slow scenes, of which there are many. The show takes full advantage of Netflix’s “anything goes” pacing style, with episodes ranging from thirty minutes to over an hour. There are long, music-free scenes meant to simply track a character from one environment to another. These scenes are almost all keenly observed, dripping with empathy for the broken and confused people they follow, and well acted by people you’ve liked in other things such as Jason Isaacs and The Office’s Phyllis Schlafly. There are also scenes so ridiculous and bombastic that they threaten to undermine every theme and plotline on the show, but more on that later.



The most hypnotic of all is Marling’s strange, ethereal OA herself. Marling is the kind of actress who looks like a totally different person depending on the angle and lighting--she can go from classic beauty to bird-like, alien creature with a tilt of her head, and this works perfectly for a character who depends on subtle movements and a vulnerable nature to persuade others. It’s easy to see why her small group of disciples believes her even when she tells them of the impossible. We believe her, too, because we want to. It would play as vanity that Marling so often casts herself in her projects, except that she’s so damn good that I can’t imagine anyone else inhabiting such a strange and challenging role the way she does.

For those tired of the mystery-box structure that took hold of so many sci-fi shows in the post-Lost boom, fear not; every major riddle is resolved, though not always in a way that makes sense. What is clear is that the writers at least think their answers make sense, and have spent some time thinking about them. There’s an earnestness even to the plot holes. Does it ultimately matter that the reason for the scars on the OA’s back doesn’t quite hold up to human logic and reason? That the various plans to defeat the villain rests on the protagonists being constantly monitored by video but never by audio? That the central plot device looks so silly that you’ll either hate it or, at best, be embarrassed to admit that you’re moved by it? The answers to these questions--especially that last one--will depend on each individual viewer. Because The OA not only requires an extreme degree of suspension of disbelief. It thrives on it.


There’s a wonderful moment in the pilot where one of the kids gathered in an abandoned house to hear the OA’s story responds to her opening line with “What? Come on.” She simply shoots him a look back, he shuts up, and she continues with her story, which only gets weirder as it goes on. The look says “Yeah? You can’t handle that? Just wait.” As she begins her story, almost an hour into the first episode, the opening credits begin, and we’re whisked away to a totally new location. I remember asking myself at that moment, “Where is this show going to take us?” It was a clear statement: this show is different. It’s weird. It’s going to drastically change tones, genres and settings without much warning. You’ll either go with it or you won’t.


For me personally, I was able to go with it right up until the last fifteen minutes of the final episode. It’s at that point that the show’s ability to balance magical realism with grounded characters and real-world situations collapses in on itself, and the entire project falls apart. To their credit, the actors commit wholeheartedly to the incredibly silly thing they have to do to resolve the plot, and some will be moved by the ending. But up to that point, this device had only been used to solve improbable conflicts. In the end, the safe distance between the grandiose and the real that the show has maintained is eliminated, and my ability to invest in what’s happening goes out the window. I can see this show being taught in screenwriting classes for years as an example of the limits of suspension of disbelief. But the fact that it has the balls to push those limits is, in a way, its own reward.

Image result for the oa

Which leads into a third and final question, one that has gained, in my view, outsized importance since the days of Lost: Does it have a satisfying ending? My answer is a firm no. The improbability of the ending will leave you asking questions about the rest of the show, questions you most likely ignored the first time through since the story is told with so much confidence and beauty. This will threaten to undermine your enjoyment of the whole thing. Don’t let it.

So should you watch The OA? I certainly don’t regret watching it. Several moments left me stunned, in tears, or with chills down my spine. (Oh, I suppose I laughed a few times as well, though the show is largely humorless.) Despite an ending that is equal parts silly, out of nowhere, and offensive, the journey to get there is still worth it. The OA is a unique television experience, and I’d rather watch an ambitious show fail than a mediocre one succeed at its modest expectations. While I wish the ending was as marvelous as its beginning, The OA’s story is one worth experiencing for yourself.


Pilot grade: A-
Finale grade: D
Series grade: B+