Saturday, June 15, 2013

Man of Steel [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Man of Steel [2013] (directed by Zach Snyder, screenplay by David S. Goyer, story by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan, based on the Superman [IMDb] [DCComics] character and story of Jerry Siegel [IMDb] and Joe Shuster [IMDb] of DC Comics [Wikip]) is presumably the first installment in a cinematic reboot of the Superhero story. 

Stylistically, the film borrows much from both Zach Snyder's (300 [2006], The Watchmen [2009], Sucker Punch [2011]) and Christopher Nolan's (Bat Man/ "Dark Knight" [2005] [2008] [2012] trilogy as well as Inception [2010]) previous work.  Other stylistic influences would include Riddley Scott's works (Alien [1979+] Series / Prometheus [2012] and Blade Runner [1982]). 

This all makes for a much darker/less colorful, "grittier" conception of the story than the cheerier/campier Superman [1978] [1980] [1983] films starring Christopher Reeve that most viewers of my generation would remember.  However, the darker and even when light is present palider visuals of the film perhaps reflect the darker, less vibrant, still post-9/11 zeitgeist in which we live in.  This allows for an exploration of a variety of angst producing themes (I'm choosing to use the German terms here on purpose) that go beyond the playback of 9/11 and its horrific attendant violent wholesale slaughter of innocents, but also destruction of an entire planet (Krypton from where "Superman" comes) because of mismanagement and greed as well as a society's (again Krypton's) embrace of Science / eugenics /  "social engineering" to a level that resulted in a society where almost no one was even capable of thinking "outside the box" making, once unanticipated problems arose, the society's doom a practically programmed inevitability.  This all makes Man of Steel [2013] not a cheery film but certainly a thought-provoking one.

How does the story here play out?   In the midst of societal collapse on their home planet of Krypton, two scientists, Jor-El [IMDb] (played by Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van [IMDb] (played by Ayelet Zurer) do the "unthinkable" in their society: they conceive and bring to term a child "the old fashioned way" through sexual intercourse and gestation of the child in the mother's womb.  (The film begins by showing Lara Lor-Van [IMDb] giving birth to their son in presumably a lab, with husband, Jor-El [IMDb] helping her through it).

Now why would this be such a "radical act?"  Some background:  According to the story presented, for hundreds of years, Krypton's society was engineering the creation of children in a giant "Genesis Factory." The "Factory" calls to mind conceptually Aldrous Huxley's 1922 novel Brave New World [Wikip] [Amzn] and visually the more recent Matrix [1999] films (as the engineered infants-to-be are shown gestating in sacks in a gigantic tank of presumably amniotic fluid-like ooze connected to a giant kelp/seaweed umbilical cord).  Through this gigantic "hive like" Genesis Factory, infants were produced matching the precise temperaments and capabilities that the society anticipated would be needed when these children grew up.

This all worked well so long as the society functioned within its envisioned parameters.  However, over the course of the previous 100 years (several generations) the society's fuel began to run out.  With an entire society composed of people programmed to think and act only in specific pre-programmed ways, the number of options available to the society to respond to this problem proved limited indeed.  Basically, the society continued to do "more of the same" (extracting its power from its planet's core) to the point that at the beginning of the story here, Krypton's society had literally "hollowed out" its planet's core and the planet was on a course of "implosion," that is, self-Destruction.

Seeing this, Jor-El [IMDb] and Lara Lor-Van [IMDb], the chief scientific consultants to Krypton's government, apparently determined that the whole structure of Krypton's society was programmed to collapse.  Yes, engineering the society's offspring had some theoretical advantages (presumably the needs of the society could be "precisely met.")  However, such engineering had proved incapable of dealing with this existential crisis that the society was now facing.  So the two scientists apparently determined that reintroducing "chance" to reproduction could produce (or could have produced) the offspring necessary to ensure the society's/planet's survival.

Their idea proved too late to save Krypton's society or even its planet.  However, Jor-El [IMDb] and Lara Lor-Van [IMDb] place their infant child (the first Kryptonian child in hundreds of years who was not conceived by any specific programming but instead by love and chance) into a rocket ship and send it hurling into space toward a distant (and by the data that they had on Krypton) compatible planet ... our Earth. 

And so it is that little Kal-El [IMDb] and his craft crash into a field outside of Smallville, Kansas to be found by Jonathan [IMDb] and Martha Kent [IMDb] (played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and the child is raised as their adopted son Clark [IMDb] (played in the film as a child by Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry and later as an adult by Henry Cavill).

Now growing-up as someone with an exceptional story (at some point in his childhood, his parents do tell him that he arrived from outer space) and exceptional powers is not easy (Krypton apparently had a higher gravity, so Clark Kent [IMDb] finds himself much stronger than people of earth.  He also has x-ray vision as well as apparently an ability to absorb all kinds of other sensory information "all at once" and has to learn, with help of his parents, to "block out" information that he does not need at a given moment to focus on the task at hand).  So Clark [IMDb] grows-up as something of a "special needs" kid and though he is not home-schooled, he's presented as someone who probably would have been a good candidate for such home schooling as though he was (obviously) stronger than anybody else in school, he was so strong that he was afraid to use his strength ... and paradoxically ended up being picked-on and even beaten-up often in school.

Why was Clark [IMDb] being told by his parents to "not strike back" but instead to "take it"?  They were afraid that if it became known that he was exceptional (indeed "super" though that word was studiously avoided throughout much of the film) then it could cause _him_ trouble and even perhaps bring down the whole society (shades of Krypton again?? ;-).  Why?  Well society would not necessarily be able to accept (yet) that we were "not alone" in the universe.  Clark Kent [IMDb] with his special abilities (and the space capsule in which he arrived, when Jonathan Kent [IMDb] kept hidden in the barn) would be a quite literally a "Poster Child" pointing to this reality.

As such, the Clark Kent [IMDb] of this movie, like many heroes in the Comic Book / Super Hero genre spent much of his early life "keeping a low profile," arguably hiding even as he does use his "super powers" especially his strength "for good" as the occasion arose.  (Both sets of his parents would be proud ...)

He comes to be less able "to hide" when intrepid "national security" reporter Lois Lane [IMDb] (played by Amy Adams) from her newspaper, "The Daily Planet," fresh from "reporting on the troops in Afghanistan" comes snooping around a super-secret U.S. Navy dig-site off the coast of Alaska where a gigantic underwater craft had been found frozen in ice.  "So what?  It's probably an old Russian Cold War sub," she asks one of the lieutenants involved in the excavation.  "The only problem, mam, is that the ice in which it was found is 20,000 years old," the lieutenant responds.  Hmmm...

Well, while she's knocking around the dig site, she runs into ... Clark Kent [IMDb].  He had stumbled onto rumors of the dig as well, and had found his way there, taking a job of being a "lowly hand" (and somewhat incompetent one also, if, as the rest of the crew finds out, a really, really strong one ;-) on a commercial fishing vessel (shades of the reality TV series Dangerous Catch [IMDb] ;-). 

Anyway, both Lois [IMDb] and Clark [IMDb] knock about (secretly) the site and he ends up saving her life and in a way that simply does not make sense to her.  Who was that guy who showed-up there, seemed to be investigating the same strange craft as she was, saved her life ... and then disappeared?  She starts to try to investigate him ... The rest of the story follows ...

Twists in the story include that craft frozen in the Arctic ice for 20,000 years was from ... Krypton.  And as soon as it's unfrozen it sends off a beacon signal into space.  Who hears it?  Well other surviving Kryptonians, notably General Zod [IMDb] (played by Michael Shannon) and a party of henchmen/women who had been banished from Krypton in the days just before Krypton imploded for trying to stage a last ditch military coup to try to force Kryptonian government to do something "before all was lost."  Instead, they were captured by still loyal Kryptonian forces and exiled for "treason."  Ironically, on account of their exile, they survived Krypton's destruction. 

When General Zod [IMDb], et al receive the message from the ancient Kryptonian craft that had been frozen on earth for 20,000 years, they head ... to Earth.  This sets off a battle between General Zod [IMDb] and his party on one side and the militaries of Earth on the other as General Zod [IMDb] et al are stll genetically programmed Kryptonian military men/women and patriots who see Earth (in their pre-programmed way) as a place to "rebuild Krypton." 

Much ensues ... and, of course, "mild mannered" Clark Kent [IMDb], who was actually of Kryptonian parents but (1) was conceived freely (without any specific/limiting genetic programming) and (2) was raised by loving Earthling parents ... inevitably gets sucked into the conflict.  Who is he?  What does he want?  Can anyone (both Kryptonian and Earthling "trust him")?  Good ole Kal El / Clark Kent [IMDb], "super hero" that he is, turns out to be the ultimate "free agent."  And yet in the midst of a sudden cataclysmic conflict, he must choose sides.  Guess who he chooses?  And perhaps more importantly, why?

It all makes for a remarkably thought-provoking take on the Superman story.  Really small kids probably won't really understand it, but pre-teens age and above (including said pre-teens' parents) would probably find the film quite interesting and at times fun.

A final word on the visuals:  As is generally my preference, I saw the film in 2D.  However, I get the sense that this film probably would work better in 3D (if the viewer/family in question had the money to see it that way).  I say this because the film seemed rather "pale" throughout and arguably "somewhat out of focus."  The paleness of the imagery may be a stylistic choice on the part of Zach Snyder as his films tend to be "rather Spartan" (those who saw "300" would get the pun ;-) in terms of color.  However, it could also be an artifact of seeing a movie, which was filmed and intended to be seen in 3D, in 2D instead.  Still, I really hate paying the extra $4/ticket to see a film in 3D and I'd understand parents/families reluctant to do so as well...

As such, while conceptually interesting I found the film visually quite a burden to watch, and for me, that's a problem as I do believe that films are supposed to visual stories.  So I can't give it as high a rating as I otherwise would have liked.  I continue to believe that 3D is artistically unnecessary and, above all, a price-gauging technique.

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