Category: Movies


From a military perspective, Hoth should have been a total debacle for the Rebel Alliance. Overconfident that they can evade Imperial surveillance, they hole up on unforgiving frigid terrain at the far end of the cosmos. Huddled into the lone Echo Base are all their major players: politically crucial Princess Leia; ace pilot Han Solo; and their game-changer, Luke Skywalker, who isn’t even a Jedi yet.

The defenses the Alliance constructed on Hoth could not be more favorable to Vader if the villain constructed them himself. The single Rebel base (!) is defended by a few artillery pieces on its north slope, protecting its main power generator. An ion cannon is its main anti-aircraft/spacecraft defense. Its outermost perimeter defense is an energy shield that can deflect Imperial laser bombardment. But the shield has two huge flaws: It can’t stop an Imperial landing force from entering the atmosphere, and it can only open in a discrete place for a limited time so the Rebels’ Ion Cannon can protect an evacuation. In essence, the Rebels built a shield that can’t keep an invader out and complicates their own escape.

When Vader enters the Hoth System with the Imperial Fleet, he’s holding a winning hand. What follows next is a reminder of two military truths that apply in our own time and in our own galaxy: Don’t place unaccountable religious fanatics in wartime command, and never underestimate a hegemonic power’s ability to miscalculate against an insurgency.

Spencer Ackerman, “Inside the Battle of Hoth“, Wired (February 2013)

As a form of disposable entertainment, the apocalypse market is booming. The question is why. The obvious answer is that these narratives tap into anxieties, conscious and otherwise, about the damage we’re doing to our species and to the planet. They allow us to safely fantasize about what might be required of us to survive.

Of course, people have been running around screaming about the end of the world for as long as we’ve been around to take notes. But in the past, the purpose of these stories was essentially prophetic. They were intended to bring man into accord with the will of God, or at least his own conscience.

The newest wave of apocalyptic visions, whether they’re intended to make us laugh or shriek, are nearly all driven by acts of sadistic violence. Rather than inspiring audiences to reckon with the sources of our potential planetary ruin, they proceed from the notion that the apocalypse will usher in an era of sanctified Darwinism: survival of the most weaponized.

There’s a deep cynicism at work here, one that stands in stark contrast to the voices of even a generation ago. And this cynicism has, I fear, become the default setting of a culture that lurches about within the shadow of its own extinction yet lacks the moral imagination to change its destiny.

Steve Almond, “‘A Culture That Lurches About Within the Shadow of Its Own Extinction'” The New York Times Magazine (29 September 2013), 48.

The instinct to retrench and overemphasize strategies that have worked in the past is a common problem in companies as they get bigger and have more to lose, particularly as technologies change. Polaroid and BlackBerry doubled down on their time-tested formulas despite market changes, suggesting that this behavior can undermine even the most successful companies. “The more successful and larger they become, the more antibodies they develop to doing anything new,” said Alan MacCormack, a Harvard Business School professor. And this may explain why summer 2015 will see sequels in the franchises for “Batman,” “Superman,” “Avengers,” “Terminator,” “Independence Day,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Smurfs.”

Catherine Rampell, “Revenge of the Nerds”, The New York Times Magazine (8 September 2013), 16.

When I used to hear parents complain that they didn’t have even a few minutes to scan the newspaper, let alone finish a novel or catch all that year’s Oscar nominees, I inwardly scoffed (sometimes outwardly). Clearly, they just didn’t care that much about Syria or Hilary Mantel or Quentin Tarantino. I mean, really, an average newborn sleeps like 16 hours a day; you can’t squeeze in a Lydia Davis short story or a half-hour of “Girls”? Trying to talk to new moms and dads about culture felt to me like trying to talk to prison inmates about their favorite brunch spots.

Forgive me, fellow parents. I am now in that prison.

I now understand that, yes, a baby seems to sleep a lot, but that you’re watching them for many of those hours to make sure they’re still alive. (Newborn breathing, in my experience, can sound uncomfortably like a death rattle.) I’ve learned that, especially in those early months, time means nothing. Days dwindle to fleeting dots, but individual moments — like getting a sobbing kid into a car seat — can feel endless. And I’ve learned that, in the foggy, confusing, often frightening slipstream of a baby’s arrival, the things that vanish, no matter how much you love and think you need them, are the things that are not all that useful or necessary — even if they once seemed essential to your sense of self. Inessential things like antiquing or golf or, yes, going to the movies. I instantly became one of those fathers I mocked.

Jason McBride, “Two (Sucked) Thumbs Up”, The New York Times Magazine (1 September 2013), 44.

Suspense is a concept with which current blockbuster directors seem unfamiliar. Directors today build suspense by incinerating the top two floors of the White House or by making a dino-alien lay waste to the Golden Gate Bridge. But seeing the Eiffel Tower blown to smithereens or watching the Statue of Liberty topple sideways doesn’t make people afraid of visiting national landmarks — it just trains them to yearn for even splashier C.G.I. effects next year. The career of Roland Emmerich aside, you can’t blow up the White House twice. Next year you’ve got to blow up a city, a country, a planet. A few swimmers on a beach in Amity? Who cares? Every story now has to involve a threat to the entire globe. This is meant to raise the stakes, but it actually lowers them, both by removing the specificity of local places and individual characters and by making it impossible to go see an action movie today without also expecting to witness the demolition of some unfortunate metropolis.

Heather Havrilesky, “‘You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Skyline…'”, New York Times Magazine (4 August 2013), 45.

‘Tis a rule of health I learned while sailing under the immortal Hawke, arrr!” Spoken by actor Robert Newton in the 1950 Disney film Treasure Island, that line is the ur-arr, the first occurrence of the infamous pirate catchphrase. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s original book, characters used the interjection ah 35 times. As in, “Ah, they was a sweet crew, they was!” The hammy actor Newton delivered his lines for Long John Silver in his Cornwall accent, adding a rolling r sound and thus creating a classic meme.

“Arrrrr,” Wired (March 2012), 58.

I managed to avoid the recent rerelease of “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” in 3-D, but only barely. Every father who loves the original “Star Wars” trilogy eventually runs into the fiasco that is Jar Jar Binks — a character capable of destroying a generation’s worth of affection with a single rustle of his oversize ears. While many have noted Jar Jar as a racist stereotype, it’s unclear exactly which stereotype he is. Is Jar Jar a Rastafarian stoner or a Stepin Fetchit or a Zuluesque savage? Or is he just a Gungan? And what about Watto, also from “The Phantom Menace”? A dark-skinned, hooknosed, greedy slaveholder, he’s an all-purpose anti-Semitic caricature. Or possibly he’s just a hovering bad guy in a fantasy world. The conundrum is how to explain to your kids that Jar Jar and Watto are stereotypes without first introducing the stereotypes that you are hoping to negate.

Stephen Marche, “Loompaland is a Complicated Place”, New York Times Magazine (17 June 2012), 61.