THE LAST OF US, A No-Spoiler Review of the First 3 Episodes

THE LAST OF US, an HBO Max series is streaming now, but the release of episodes is drip…drip…The third installment arrived on Sunday (1/29/23) and now, like old fashioned tv watching, the audience waits a week, and so on. It’s an interesting choice that some streaming services have made, to hook viewers over a long period and keep them paying the monthly streaming charge. Does it work? I’ll comment more on that in the longer review. 

If you’re a gamer, you probably know that the heart of this story is based on the video game, The Last of Us, an action-adventure survival horror game franchise created by Naughty Dog and Sony Interactive Entertainment. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic United States ravaged by cannibalistic creatures infected by a mutated fungus in the genus Cordyceps. The game is rated R for violence and some sexually explicit scenes. At this point, 3 episodes in, the series is probably between a PG-13 and R rating, for violence. 

For Educators: In biology class, give the gamers among you a treat by validating their hobby and teaching a lesson at the same time. Show the first 2 episodes (that’s all you’ll need) to discuss the nature of a fungus.

Is THE LAST OF US worth watching and perhaps more importantly, would you pay for an HBO subscription for this series alone? I recommend this series, with reservations. Short and long no-spoiler reviews will explain why. 

The Short Review…Yes, watch

  1. If you love end-of-the-world zombie stories, this one has a couple of new twists to love
  2. Cool monsters and fast unlike the mostly ambling creatures in The Walking Dead 
  3. Well casted (also, actors with talent that aren’t in every other show you’ve seen)
  4. If you play this game/love this game…it’s a new and perhaps fun way to interact with the world

The Short Review…Meh…don’t watch, or perhaps it’s too early to tell

  1. Overall and so far, this story feels less compelling than The Walking Dead or even Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, which I just finished reading. You’re better off spending your time reading or watching something else.
  2. Beware of attaching to key characters because the chances of them dying are really high (for many viewers, I realize this is a plus)
  3. In episode 3, spent a lot of time with a couple of characters who seemed peripheral to the heart of the story. If more episodes are like this one, not sure if I’ll want to keep watching
  4. Lastly, this series alone would not warrant paying for an HBO Max subscription. However, overall HBO content for science fiction, fantasy and dystopian viewing is decent. For example, you can stream DUNE Pt 1 and I loved Station Eleven, a mini-series based on the novel. Click to read my review of Station Eleven. Those are just a couple of examples of HBO’s excellent content. 

The Longer Review

The Last of Us game in numerous iterations, has received critical acclaim and has won awards, including several Game of the Year recognitions. As of January 2023, the franchise has sold over 37 million games worldwide. Strong sales and support of the series led to the franchise’s expansion into other media, including a comic book in 2013 and this television adaptation. So…there is a built-in audience for the series, THE LAST OF US.

That’s a good thing for HBO, but from game to screen…has it ever been done well? I’m not an expert on this one, but I can’t think of a really great film or series that emerged from a game. Pretty good or fun shows…like Tomb Raider…those I could cite, but great? I don’t think so. Does anyone want to counter me here? This series has potential to say something new about the post-virus world, or in this case, post-fungus world (not a spoiler by the way…scene 1 of the series shows a scientist surmising about what would happen if a certain type of fungus evolved and could take over the human brain/body.) 

In three episodes, the viewer gets a sense of one post-apocalyptic region in the US, an area around Boston. There is an allusion in episode 1 and 2 to world-wide catastrophe. There is a huge time jump between 1 and 2. The outbreak takes place in 2003 in episode 1. The rest of the series looks like it will take place 20 years later in 2023, with flashbacks to fill in the gaps here and there. The fungus shows up first in Jakarta, Indonesia…but we learn in episode 3 that the fungus probably went global simultaneously because it was in the food supply, in something like flour or sugar. That idea is unique, moveover, the zombies are weird and fast and hard to kill (bullet to the brain seems to do the job, similar to other zombie narratives). The fungus infested monsters are portrayed in a fuller way in episode 2. 

In the era of binge watching, it’s possible a series such as THE LAST OF US will draw in fresh consumers to HBO streaming, but my guess is it won’t. The buzz that drives everyone to want to watch Stranger Things, because of the “event” of binging the entire season and sharing that experience with millions of fans, that is absent from the HBO and other streaming services’ business model. FoMO associated with binge watching fuels the marketing machine for Netflix. Millions are driven to want a subscription. Some buy, maybe thinking they’ll pay for a short time, and wind up staying longer or forever. Others do pay for one month and then quit…which is better for Netflix than those who use or steal a password to get their fix. 

I am feeling a little frustrated by the drip…drip model. I don’t binge all in one day, but I like to watch the same show night after night. I hate waiting a week. It’s probable I will lose interest or get fixated on another show. I can’t be alone on that. So, if you’re a binge watcher and you think you might like this series, you might wanna wait for another couple of months so you’ll have more content. Subscribe to HBOMax in May, an you’ll have a whole lot of Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon and perhaps the first season of THE LAST OF US

THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, A Review with Minor Spoilers

The third and final science fiction novel written by CS Lewis, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, is touted by some as a fantasy novel. I hesitate to go deeper to explain why that might be, for fear of spoiling, but let’s just say that the story takes place on Earth, not in space, and one of the key characters who acts in a miraculous and decisive way to defeat the enemy, is a wonderfully fantastical character.

As I have talked with friends who have read all three, I get different answers about which is the “favorite” in the trilogy. There are individuals who love Out of the Silent Planet. I personally like it for its length…it is as short as a novella and a tight little narrative. Others love Perelandra. I appreciate Perelandra, but there are portions where reading was a chore. For me, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH is the true novel. It is my favorite of the three.

The Short Review: 5 Reasons I Recommend THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH

  1. Compelling main character(s) both grappling with interior life, particularly with identity and faith
  2. A rich setting, a modern academic world and progressive (Lewis’ words) university leadership that feels creepy, yet familiar
  3. An amorphous and terrifying villain, well written and historically relevant
  4. In the midst of the horror, a comedic twist that feels like a Shakespeare switch-a-roo
  5. A companion novel to 1984. Many minds in this era of the 20th century understood the tyranny of government control. Lewis and Orwell were cut from that same cloth. Warnings that are relevant today and always.

For me, the young married couple, Mark and Jane, makes this story compelling in a way that is unique among the three novels in the trilogy. Jane is a crucial player and well developed. In the previous novels Lewis did not present the reader with a compelling female lead who was relatable. The Perelandra Queen is wonderful, but otherworldly. Jane, in this book, is utterly relatable. Her discomfiture with domestic life, her struggle with a husband who is caught up in his own professional world, felt deeply real. Mark is also real. Lewis highlights his hubris and insecurity, showing the reader how one might choose to align oneself with a horrific community. Mark’s longing for belonging, his hope for recognition are powerful human motivators and have the capacity to diminish the moral spine, especially if that spine is wobbly (as Mark’s is). Despite Mark’s poor choices, I got the feeling that Lewis, like the deity he knows and loves, has not given up on this lost soul. When Mark sinks low enough and faces the worst of himself, there is a promise of redemption.

THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH is a story with complex layers. The deeper conversation about nations and their “haunting” is a topic I will not cover in this review, but in case you’re wanting to understand more, an article in The Imaginative Conservative called America’s “Logres”: The Mythology of a Nation helped me muse on what might be the American Haunting. That conversation is a crossover of the spiritual and the literary and takes the reader deeper into the mind of CS Lewis and those who were writing in like spirit, JRR Tolkien being one of those writers.

PERELANDRA, A Review

PERELANDRA is the second installment in CS Lewis’ space trilogy. Below is my no-spoiler short review, but the longer review that follows the image of PERELANDRA’s cover, will contain spoilers…beware. This is not a children’s book, but I recommend this novel to all ages who like the story. For all readers, taking the time to discuss after or along the way will deepen philosophical and theological understanding. 

Link to OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET for a review of the first book in the trilogy.

5 Reasons to Read PERELANDRA, A Classic Science Fiction Story

  1. One of the more unique portrayals in literature of paradise and/or a pre-fallen world
  2. Beautiful CS Lewis prose
  3. The ideas are put forward clearly and by someone well acquainted with 20th century ideas
  4. Finally…a strong female character (there were none in the first novel)
  5. Read all three to make sense of what Lewis was trying to accomplish in the longer narrative arc

3 Reasons PERELANDRA is My Least Favorite of the Trilogy

  1. There are so few characters and the villain does not arrive until about 1/3 of the way into the book
  2. Not a lot of drama…there is a slow build and eventually, high drama, but it takes the novel a while to arrive (see #1)
  3. A lot of speech-making in the final pages. Interesting ideas, but coming at me in my least favorite non-dramatic package
Cover illustration by Kinuko Y. Grant

The Longer Review (With Spoilers)

While PERELANDRA is my least favorite of the three books Lewis wrote in the scifi genre, it does have its merits. 

For one, anyone who has read his Narnia books, knows how well CS Lewis puts his imagination on the page. He has the ability to create a world both strange and fabulous and took on a bold task to put before the reader a paradise, a pre-civilization and pre-fallen planet with only two human-like people. Basically, he created an Eden. And how would one write this in a convincing way?

This excerpt, one of many examples…just gorgeous.

Now he had come to a part of the wood where great globes of yellow fruit hung from the trees–clustered as toy-balloons are clustered on the back of a balloon-man and about the same size. He picked one of them and turned it over and over. The rind was smooth and firm and seemed impossible to tear open. Then by accident, one of his fingers punctured it and went through into coldness. After a moment’s hesitation, he put the little aperture to his lips. He had meant to extract the smallest experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger. But then it was so different than any other taste that it seemed a mere pedantry to call it taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasure, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draught of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed.

Elwin Ransom, a professor of philology, is the narrator here. He was also the protagonist in Out of the Silent Planet. In this excerpt, he is telling his tale to a fictionalized version of CS Lewis after returning from his mission to the planet Perelandra. Ransom was sent to Perelandra by the angelic ruler of Mars (Malacandra). The reader is acquainted with this ruler from the previous book. In Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is kidnapped and brought to Malacandra. That is where he meets Oyarsa, the ruler of Mars. Oyarsa does make an appearance in this novel, as does Weston, one of the academics who kidnapped Ransom in the first story. Weston, the primary rival to Ransom, acts as the tempter in this narrative. He does this not by his own cleverness and strength, but by something more frightening. Weston has given himself over to the bent angelic ruler of Earth, Satan. After Weston arrives on Perelandra in his space vessel, Ransom comes to understand his mission, that he has been sent to thwart the bent Oyarsa by thwarting Weston. 

In the story, Weston is an academic with the worst intellectual vices; hubris combined with a flamboyant humanism that borders on narcissism. Tragically, he falls under a true evil in his search of spiritual answers to the mysteries he experienced on Malacandra. Weston’s journey into evil reads like something out of a horror novel (or the Bible).

“Idiot,” said Weston. His voice was almost a howl and he had risen to his feet. “Idiot,” he repeated. “Can you understand nothing?…This is the old accursed dualism in another form. There is no possible distinction in concrete thought between me and the universe. In so far as I am the conductor of the central forward pressure of the universe, I am it. Do you see, you timid, scruple-mongering fool? I am the Universe. I, Weston, am your God and your Devil. I call the Force into me completely…”

Then horrible things began happening. A spasm like that preceding a deadly vomit twisted Weston’s face out of recognition. As it passed, for one second something like the old Weston reappeared–the Old Weston, staring with eyes of horror and howling, “Ransom, Ransom! For Christ’s sake don’t let them—” and instantly his whole body spun round as if he had been hit by a revolver-bullet and he fell to the earth, and was there rolling at Ransom’s feet, slavering and chattering and tearing up the moss by the handfuls…

I was in my thirties the last time I read PERELANDRA and I did not remember how clearly this Weston character gives himself over to evil. Nor did I remember that Ransom comes to the realization that he will have to destroy Weston in hand to hand combat if he is to defeat him. 

That Ransom believes he must assassinate his rival provoked my horror. Moreover, the scenes of his battle with Weston are brutal. Lewis does not hold back on that reality, but the idea of this existential battle brought to mind Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Lewis might never have known Bonhoeffer personally, but the ideas Bonhoeffer was writing about and preaching about (in Hitler’s Germany) were likely familiar to him…as they were to every thinking Christian of the time.

Bonhoeffer, while struggling to be a faithful clergy member under Nazi rule in Germany, came to terms with the idea that it was in fact a righteous or just act to kill a man who had fully given himself over to evil. That is why Bonhoeffer was executed in the end, as he played a role in an assassination attempt against Hitler. Below is an excerpt of a sermon on Colossians 3:1-4, a sermon he gave most likely after he had made the decision to collaborate with a part of the resistance determined to assassinate the Fürher.

“Instead, and precisely because our minds are set on things above, we are that much more stubborn and purposeful in protesting here on earth… Does it have to be so that Christianity, which began as immensely revolutionary, now has to remain conservative for all time? That every new movement has to blaze its path without the church, and that the church always takes twenty years to see what has actually happened? If it really must be so, then we must not be surprised when, for our church as well, times come when the blood of martyrs will be demanded. But this blood, if we truly have the courage and honour and loyalty to shed it, will not be so innocent and shining as that of the first witnesses. Our blood will be overlaid with our own great guilt.” (DBW 11, 446) (Schlingensiepen, Kindle Location 2427)

Bonhoeffer’s words evoke the idea that a conservative church is potentially an anemic one. His mention of our great guilt in the sermon I took two ways. One, the church is guilty when it does not act (or waits too long) to stand up to evil. Two, if it does join the revolutionaries, it potentially falls under the guilt of questionable acts. When evil can only be defeated by an act that lays outside of the norm of Christian ethics, there is plenty of guilt to go around. However, Bonhoeffer did not shrink back from taking on that guilt for what he (and history) thought to be the greater good. Moreover, his writings on this remain strong pillars in just-war theory and the Christian struggle with realism versus pacifism.

Lewis travels a similar line of reasoning in this novel and it should not surprise the reader that when the character Ransom leaves the planet Perelandra, he leaves having accomplished his task, but with a wound on his foot that refuses to heal this side of heaven. 

OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, A No Spoiler Review

OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, by CS Lewis came about as a result of a coin toss between JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis in the 1930s. The understanding between the two men; one side of the coin would mean writing a science fiction novel, the other side would mean writing a time travel novel. The coin was tossed, Lewis was assigned the scifi novel. Tolkien was assigned the time travel novel. Tolkien never wrote his. Lewis did, published in 1938, twelve years before Narnia. In fact, he wound up writing three books of science fiction. OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, which I will review here, was the first. This story is sophisticated, but there is no reason a YA reader or a very learned middle grade reader cannot take on this story. For educators thinking about assigning this book to a young person, a solid discussion on the story would make the experience a profound one.

The Short Review: 4 Reasons to Read OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET

  1. Superb writing and because this is CS Lewis, when you’re finished reading, your brain will have expanded
  2. Scintillating ideas that awaken the conscience…Plunge yourself into the mindset of a WWI veteran and a brilliant observer of history and soak in Lewis’ crucial critique of pre-WWII Europe
  3. Absorb Lewis’ Christian concept of God/Creator…the beauty and the moral implications
  4. Gain a vision for the power of fiction (imaginative science fiction in particular) as a way to change hearts and minds.

A Few More Details:

When Lewis and his friend and colleague, JRR Tolkien, both veterans of WWI, decided to toss that coin, they had been musing together about the sad state of fiction. They believed that the godless universe theory unleashed to some degree by Darwinists and proponents of the Hegelian superstate/superman, was giving rise to real beliefs (like eugenics which both understood as dangerous and evil) inside academia and government. More troublesome, these theories were making their way into fiction and infecting the broader population through story.

Americans fought in WWII and helped to defeat Hitler, so my nation (I am a US citizen) often forgets how the eugenics movement in the US was accepted and backed by some of our highest state actors, like President Woodrow Wilson. We in the US forget, maybe conveniently so, that we too were traveling on a similar road as the Nazis. This is how pervasive these ideas were and back in that day, they were considered progressive. It turns out, anything can be labeled progressive. A cautionary and hopefully humbling reminder to us in the 21st century.

Marxist ideology was also suspect in Lewis’ eyes. Both Marxism and Fascism preached an exercising of power where the end justifies the means. That idea was an abomination to Lewis and Tolkien, the rejection of which made its ways into the Lord of Rings trilogy, as it did into all of Lewis’ writings. As Christians (Lewis, an Anglican, Tolkien, a Catholic), they challenged the idea that the state has permission to sacrifice an individual for some greater good, not without that individual willingly giving up her/his life, soldiers willing to fight to defeat the existential enemy of a free state being one example of this proper sacrifice, something both of these men witnessed first hand.

In regard to reading OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, knowing a little 20th century history and philosophy definitely helps the reader enter into the world of Elwin Ransom, the hero of the story, but even without that knowledge, this is a fascinating and well written tale. Ransom, a philologist, is on a walking tour of rural England. He is kidnapped and taken to Malacandra (the planet Mars). What unfolds is a story about relationship and curiosity (Ransom’s journey) versus dominance exercised by violence (the journey of his kidnappers). The narrative provides a resolution that exemplifies the idea that there is a standard of justice that is literally universal.

This is my third time reading OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET (notice my beat-up copy in the image above…not sure it will survive another read-through) and after finishing the book this round, I found myself dreaming about grace and kindness and goodness while I slept…something that doesn’t often happen for me after reading science fiction before bed.

FOR ALL MANKIND, A No Spoiler Review

Apple Plus released its third season of FOR ALL MANKIND this month. I have not viewed any of the 3rd season but I did watch all of 1 and 2 and loved them. What follows will be the short review and a longer review of season 1 and 2. If you’re convinced by the short review…start watching now. If you need a little more data, the longer review will give you a better idea of why this many hours of consumption might be worth your time. The show is rated R for a few racy sex scenes, but if your young person can handle that, the education piece is interesting. A bit of history can be etched out or explained as some of the “alternative” version comes across the screen. It’s portrayal of communist USSR rings true. It also captures something of the spirit of the age for each decade, especially the urgency around the space race of the 1960s.

The Short Review: 6 Reasons I Recommend FOR ALL MANKIND

  1. If you love alternative history narratives like The Man in the High Castle, you will appreciate this story
  2. If you love nostalgia settings and music, think Stranger Things, you will love being immersed in this story-world, which starts in the 1960s, but spans decades.
  3. Most of us appreciate great casting. FOR ALL MANKIND will not disappoint
  4. Top-notch production value, this includes the writing, the special effects and the acting
  5. Good pacing. A lot of action, drama and tension throughout
  6. A thoughtful story. A sprinkling of social commentary for our current time…some of that commentary I liked, some I felt was contrived, but the ideas are worthy of our attention

The Longer Review: (this review contains a couple of small spoilers)

The USSR and the US are in a space race in this alternative history, set during the cold war. The USSR has landed on the moon first, claimed it as territory, and has aims to build a military compound. This traumatizes the US as a nation. The first episode captures the feeling well as it feels like a gut-punch watching the Soviet flag raised on the moon and hearing the first words of the Russian Cosmonaut as he takes the first steps…The Walter Cronkite figure on the television news reports as follows:

The first man to set foot on the moon spoke just moments ago. “I take this step for my country, for my people, and for the Marxist-Leninist way of life. Knowing that today is but one small step on a journey that someday will take us all to the stars.”

FOR ALL MANKIND was created by Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek and Outlander), Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi. They take the “what if Russia had landed on the moon before we did” scenario and create a similar history to our own, but with differences that intrigue. The writers, I surmise, are progressive in their leanings because progressive values make their way into the script and into a historically white male dominated NASA long before reality. Sometimes, it feels heavy-handed, like the writers are checking the boxes of gender and racial diversity. However, the results do make for a delightfully diverse cast.

In episode 1, the audience meets Margo Madison (pictured above, played by Wrenn Schmidt) at the beginning point of her NASA career where she is the only woman in the male dominated control center. By season 2, she emerges as NASA’s head.

By the finale of season 2, women, a couple of non-binary individuals (though they keep their gender preferences a secret), African Americans and even a Mexican female immigrant who came over the border illegally as a child, are recruited by the NASA of FOR ALL MANKIND. And who can say it might not have been this way had the US felt the pressure of its failure to land first on the moon? Also, the Soviets promote the first female astronaut, shaming the US for its lack of representation.

Joel Kinnaman as Ed Baldwin

All the characters are well-drawn and most are courageous and longsuffering in various ways. Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, Hanna and Altered Carbon) plays Ed Baldwin, an astronaut with a big mouth who in a drunken state reveals to a reporter how NASA lost the space race because of an aversion to risk. He is punished for the reveal (taken off astronaut duty and given a desk job), but his words capture NASA’s very real dilemma. In order to stay equal to, or to get ahead of the USSR, risks will have to be taken. Many characters of significance will lose their lives to achieve the elusive prize of space dominance.

This is where the series gives commentary on current society as it poses the questions that plague our century…Who will dominate the future? US and free societies (in general) have dominated the global order since WWII, but that prize came at a great cost to many of our ancestors. We have inherited something hard fought, but that inheritance is being challenged and chipped away by those who see themselves as more deserving of dominance…and perhaps they are, but some moments in history, even national failures, have the capacity to motivate a new generation of warriors. That message shines through in FOR ALL MANKIND.

 

SEVERANCE, A No Spoiler Review

6 Reasons You Want to Watch Severance

Adam Scott as Mark

  1. Two unique settings within a contained, small-story universe. (I will write more about this in the longer review)
  2. Amazing cast. Adam Scott as the stoic lead, Mark, with a supporting cast that includes Patricia Arquette, John Turturro and Christopher Walken
  3. Superb characterization and story-telling. The main character and all of the secondaries are complex, layered and quirky, adding to the slow-building tension
  4. The underlying moral and symbolic truths within the story are not yet fully baked but seem promising.
  5. This show has a slow ramp-up to gripping tension at the climax of this first season
  6. More to watch in the future because this past month, Apple approved a second season.

The Longer Review

SEVERANCE is an Apple+ production, the first season is complete, streamable now and free for subscribers.

Created by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller, SEVERANCE is not a comedy. It falls into dystopian mystery with a scifi vibe. A futuristic technology at the center of the story, allows those who work at a company called Lumon Industries, to surgically divide their memories between their work and personal lives. Those individuals are called The Severed. Most of the other tech is familiar and not so modern, for example, people still drive cars around the town.

I give this series a PG rating…it’s possible it will warrant a different rating later on, but so far the mystery is more Hitchcock than Ridley Scott. My ratings usually reflect the graphic nature of the show and not the themes which in this case are harrowing for my adult brain. Would kids enjoy the show? Probably not. You won’t see explicit gore, but you will feel tortured for these characters at the center of the story, in part because of their vulnerability, which is childlike. The value in watching it with your teen would be to discuss the ethics that emerge around the tech that is at the heart of the story.

Britt Lower as Helly B

Regarding the setting. There are two primary “worlds” in SEVERANCE that exemplify the two worlds inhabited by the employees of Lumon.

One setting is work, the Lumon Industries office building. It feels familiar upon entering, but creepily weird the deeper in you go. The interior design is sterile, with strangely vacant work spaces and long labyrinth-like hallways. The four employees the audience follows most closely work in a large white room with no windows or access to the outside world. They are forbidden to interact with employees from other areas of the building and spend their days huddled around computers doing a job that the audience sees, but doesn’t really understand. In fact, even these employees don’t fully understand what they do, how they do it and why. It’s described as something they feel. Their work is just one of many aspects of this situation that give rise to a suspicion about Lumon. Most of the workers, including Mark (Adam Scott) submit to the rules of the company. There are a few exceptions and those exceptions give rise to Mark’s suspicion about Lumon.

The second world is Mark’s town. This is a cold, dreary place. It feels like it could be Alaska or Canada and is probably unfamiliar to most of the audience. The cold and the dark and size of the town adds to the feeling of claustrophobia, something that permeates this story. Darkness also dovetails with the theme of grief. In episode 1, the audience learns that Mark’s reason for severing came about because of the death of his wife. Mark lives in a housing complex owned by Lumon where it becomes clear, he is monitored unbeknownst to him.

Mark tries to reassure Helly B. who ain’t havn’t none of it

My recommendation to watch SEVERANCE comes with the caveat that I’m still not sure where the story is going. I have viewed the first season and loved every episode. Not everyone enjoys a slow build to a gripping climax, but I do when it’s done well and SEVERANCE does it well. So, if you’re tempted to stop after episode 1 or 2, don’t. The tension ratchets up and up and mysteries become creepier as the conspiracy is partially unveiled.

In my next post, I hope to discuss summer reading which will include:

Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD

 

 

 

 

 

THE BATMAN, God and Justice. Warning: So Many Spoilers

Last night I had the privilege of watching Matt Reeve’s THE BATMAN. I enjoyed the film, though it was tough to watch, a tense experience. Graphic violence is implied more than shown, but evil and darkness are palpable in every scene. Not that the film isn’t a beautifully crafted story…it is, but the narrative, the special effects and dingy, but stylized setting of Gotham give evidence of evil in every frame. It’s pouring rain and night during most of THE BATMAN and of those scenes shot in the day, skies are gray.

Of course, this is a familiar setting for our comic book hero, the Dark Knight, but what is less familiar is the tone of utter hopelessness associated with that darkness. Violence plagues the city of Bruce Wayne. In the opening sequence, it is Halloween night and masked hoodlums run wild across Gotham causing mayhem, and at one point a gang of them threaten an Asian American man in a subway station, hitting too close to home for many of us. Halloween is also the night the Riddler commits his first murder.

 

The brutality of humanity is on display in THE BATMAN, begging the question: When is a society so corrupt, so evil, so far gone, there is no hope of renewal and it must be destroyed? This film earned a PG-13 rating. It’s possible a mature teen could watch this and grapple with the question posed above (and elaborated on at the end of this review). It’s a hard question, but one that pops up in stories across our society because it is true.

Batman versus the Riddler draws out themes of righteousness and justice. In certain respects, both men are the same. Both are trying to root out corruption, Both are straining toward a just society. Batman roots out injustice by defending the good guys and working within the system. Though outside the formal police force, his link to Lt. Gordon cannot be denied, nor can anyone doubt his insider status as Bruce Wayne, the orphaned son of a beloved city father. The Riddler however, also an orphan, stands on the outside. He roots out evil by exposing it, by punishing via execution and making a public example of those who have betrayed justice. The Riddler’s first murder is the mayor of the city and subsequently other politicians and law enforcement, those caretakers of Gotham who have made their beds with the mob. Because of these assassinations and the attention he draws to corruption, Batman along with the audience are forced to focus on what is a massively broken system at the highest levels of the city.

The audience wonders whether ANY politicians or police are clean in Gotham, and can such evil be undone when the gatekeepers of justice have become those who perpetrate injustice? The Riddler sees no way out but total destruction.

On the narrative journey, Batman faces truths about his own father. The idealism with which he has viewed his parentage is shattered, evoking for me the psalmist’s words from Psalm 14, text lifted by the Apostle Paul and placed in his letter to the Romans.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
    there is none who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
    to see if there are any who understand,
    who seek after God.

They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
    there is none who does good,
    not even one.

Why do I include this? In the film, I think Reeves is trying to make a theological point. I bend toward theological rather than philosophical because the powerful reality (loaded imagery) at the end of the film is a flood…as in Noah and the Biblical account of the destruction of evil.

In THE BATMAN, the Riddler has set up bombs that line the seawall on Gotham’s perimeter. The Riddler has determined that Gotham is irredeemable. Gotham must die, drown or be cleansed of its evil if the water imagery is to be understood. Only then will it be reborn. A flood to destroy evil? This is as old a tale as humanity, understood within Judaism, Islam and Christianity as that time in the past when society was so broken, nearly every living thing had to be destroyed in order for evil to be rooted out. The Riddler sets himself up as God and judge. He determines that Gotham is a total loss. Total destruction is the ONLY remedy.

Batman represents another side of this argument. Don’t miss the fact that Selina (the Catwoman character wonderfully portrayed by Zöe Kravitz), tries to coax Batman to remove himself permanently from Gotham. I can’t recall her final words to Batman precisely, but they were something like…staying here and trying to save Gotham will kill you.

That comment is an homage to a redemptive sacrifice and Batman as Christ figure…sort of…The audience already knows how much life has been sapped out of the young Bruce Wayne because of his mission to avenge his father but also to help Gotham. Batman’s motives are often mixed here. Interestingly, this Batman, the Reeves’ Batman grows. He realizes that vengeance is not the full story of how he must respond to evil. To truly honor his dead father and mother, he must do more. He must minister good to the people of Gotham. Two images of Batman in the final scenes make my point. One is him diving into the abyss, lighting his flare and leading innocent people by hand, out of the flood, out of judgment. The other is him helping a wounded girl on a stretcher and holding her hand as she seeks his assurance and is flown away to safety, to healing. Why the hand? There is something about connection to humanity with the touch, a touch that is gentle, not violent.

The Russia Ukrainian War is raging as I write. Yesterday, Russian planes targeted a bomb shelter in Mariupol, a place holding hundreds of children and women. On the ground on either side of this structure, the Ukrainians had written in Russian the words “children” in very large script, large enough to see from the air. How do we as a society grapple with such evil and the destruction of so many innocents? (The number of dead is still undetermined…I will correct this when the fog of war has dissipated.)

Update: on March 25, it was believe that 300 had died in the bombing. In early May, after a thorough AP investigation, it was revealed that 600 likely died in Mariupol theater airstrike. 

 

 

So, I end with this image, Jesus of Sinai, Pantocrator, an icon from the the 6th century. For Christians of the 6th century, most of whom were illiterate, icons like this were essential to their faith because embedded within each icon are theological truths. For them, looking at an icon was like reading a holy text. With Jesus of Sinai, notice the weird lighting on his face, one darker side and one side lighter. That is intentional. Why? The post-modern viewer might not discern what his face represents but to early Christians, they represent two sides of the creator as God looks out over humanity. If you put up your hand and cover one side of the Messiah’s face, you see a bright and compassionate mouth and eye. When you cover the other side, you see a darker eye, an angry glare. The iconographer and the theologians of that time understood that both are sides of God and both are legitimate responses to a broken humanity. The story of God as laid out in the Bible is of God grappling daily with a society gone wrong. On one hand, he is merciful and forgiving, on the other, he is vengeful and ready to punish. Current people of faith struggle with that darker view of God but might do well to ponder it. Noah and the flood tell its story as do Jesus and the cross. And here we see the author of the new Batman series exploring both reactions to evil, but favoring mercy in the end.

We live in a complicated world, but some truths/questions find their way into our art, even if that art is embodied by a comic book character.

Kudos to Reeves for attempting something really big in his portrayal of THE BATMAN.

STATION ELEVEN, A No-Spoiler Review

Himesh Patel as Jeeven

Last week, a few members of my family watched all ten episodes of STATION ELEVEN. This HBO Max miniseries is based on a novel by Canadian author, Emily St. John Mandel. 

As a dystopian story, this series pleased all of us, different generations and genders. I rate it PG or PG13. The topic is challenging, but the people in STATION ELEVEN are not vile or overly violent…not much gore or explicit sexual content to worry parents…however, the subject matter is sophisticated, a web of relationships. It’s family-friendly with mature teens and if your kid is a drama-geek, they will LOVE this show. 

First, My Short Review: 6 Reasons I recommend STATION ELEVEN

  1. The storyteller uses a familiar trope, a world destroyed by a deadly and contagious flu, but delivers an unexpected cast of characters, as well as a post apocalyptic vision of hope
  2. The angle on “life-after-the-fall-of-civilization” captures something both historic and literary in how human beings find meaning in the broken world they inhabit
  3. The characters shine and fail, change and surprise
  4. A fun cast as ethnically diverse as it comes, and without stereotyping
  5. The city of Chicago or the wilds around Lake Michigan are featured in just about every episode…and that felt refreshing. Granted, I now live in the Upper Midwest, but new settings other than NY and LA are a welcome television treat
  6. STATION ELEVEN is self contained as a miniseries. Watch all 10 episodes and you have a complete experience…I like that.

Mackenzie Davis as Adult Kirsten

The Longer Review

STATION ELEVEN, the miniseries, is based on a novel I have not read. One scifi-reader friend told me he found that novel difficult to “get into” as a book. He felt impatient with it, complaining how it took too long to get to the dystopian world scenario. He was bored by all of the setup and character development that took place before the prime action. That feedback makes me curious to read the novel and then analyze how Peter Sommerville’s screenplay adaptation made adjustments because I did not feel this while watching STATION ELEVEN. The first episode features the unraveling of the world and the tensions inherent in societal breakdown. It focuses on two main characters: Kirsten and Jeeven, a young actress and the man who winds up becoming her caretaker. The subsequent episodes put forward backstory that help build the world and the complex web of relationships. But…I cannot say that the initial story in episode 1 bored me in any way. 

Following a traumatic event at a Chicago theater performance of King Lear, Jeeven (an audience member at the theater) is warned by his sister, a doctor on the front lines of the flu pandemic, to get to a market, buy food and make his way to their brother’s high rise apartment. Kirsten, who is a young actress in the play, tags along with him. Jeeven tries to take her home but is unable to locate her parents, so he takes her with him to a market and buys six grocery carts full of food. Together, they push those carts to Frank’s apartment complex, load them on the utility elevator and end up safe with Frank (for a while) as the rest of society crumbles around them. Technology fails, little by little, including their electricity. There is little contact with the outside world. Kirsten entertains herself by disappearing into the world of a graphic novel called Station Eleven. She begins to write a play based on the novel…a book written by Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler) the ex-wife of Kirsten’s acting mentor, Arthur Leander (played by Gael García Bernal). Leander is a key character in the threads of this story, despite the fact that he is one who collapses and dies on stage while playing Lear in the first minutes of the series.

Jeeven, Frank and Kirsten do not fall to the flu. They stay safe and relatively well-fed in the apartment despite freezing temperatures. However, their haven doesn’t last forever and eventually, the author exploits this trope; the survivors must leave their haven and brave the outside world.

Matilda Lawler plays the Young Kirsten

In this next section of the story, Kirsten finds her way to a shakespearean acting troupe. They become her new family. The drama troupe travels around Lake Michigan in the warmer months, performing among other plays, Hamlet. This is one of the surprising twists in the post-pandemic dystopia, to put forward the idea that the arts will continue and be celebrated by many despite how raw life has become for survivors. You will have to watch to find out what happens to Jeeven and Frank. The two brothers are wonderful characters…memorable and complicated.

There is another storyline that enters the series at this point, still somewhat connected relationally and geographically. It’s a surprise, but not an unwelcome one and adds to much of the backstory. Still, the audience does not know how this new storyline will connect to Kirsten’s. It does and it did not disappoint me.

What is woven through STATION ELEVEN is how the connective tissue of our friendships and relationships emerge even in a time of trauma and loss. The storyteller takes us to a place that might seem contrived, yet captures a potential truth, reminding the audience that connections matter and that the truths underlying relationships, like those put on the stage by William Shakespeare, are universal and relevant (especially relevant) to the human experience post pandemic. 

 

 

ALL SYSTEMS RED, by Martha Wells, A No-Spoiler Review of the first novella in the Murderbot Diaries Series

A novella. Hey, what’s that? Well…it’s shorter than a novel. And…as with all printed matter, it’s a pleasure to read when it’s entertaining and well written.

ALL SYSTEMS RED is a story, entertaining and well-written, that one can read in about 4 hours. Rated PG-13 for adult themes. I read this novella on a flight from Minneapolis to Seattle. I flew on Delta and none of the airline’s tv/film options seemed very thrilling to me. I often try to see HBO or Showtime options when on a flight because I don’t subscribe to either of those services in real life. Thank goodness I had taken this book with me, hardback, but thin, lightweight and easy to pack because it’s only 127 pages.

And now, for my Short, No-Spoiler Review

I highly recommend ALL SYSTEMS RED for these 5 reasons.

  1. Original voice…the narrator has the appeal of an innocent, he/she is like a child, yet holds the capacity to narrate a futuristic society inhabited by humans and AI living and working together
  2. Genre bending…science fiction merged with mystery…in other words, a page-turner
  3. Thought-provoking ideas about AI and how future humans might understand morality/humanity in regards to AI
  4. Interesting world-building and a great set-up for subsequent stories
  5. ALL SYSTEMS RED would make a great audiobook. See the longer review for more

Longer Review:

Martha Wells has created a fascinating universe of humanity working and living off Earth, in space, in places that can only be reached via light-speed travel. She doesn’t fixate on the physics of the issue (regarding traveling across vast distances) but focuses on the gritty work life of humans and their bots. In the author’s futuristic world, full AI exist as sex workers and security units (SecUnits) and other helps in life. Also, some humans adopt robotic parts (augmented humans). So, there is a mix of how humans have integrated with tech and within the story world, there is little “judgment” about these realities.

While this is all true, the AI mind that narrates this story has a judgment about itself and humans. The view is not completely skewed toward disgust for humans, though there is some leaning in this direction. Granted, I’ve only read the first 1.5 novellas. But what works in the narrative is that Wells has put forward a more dispassionate, yet charming view of the world the way it is. I highly recommend these novellas as entertainment and am slowly discovering how they speak into deeper moral questions around humanity’s race toward the future, a future in which robots and artificial intelligence will be embedded. These books might appeal to the YA reader because the narrator is endearing and “young” feeling. The value in their education would be the discussion around tech and humanity’s future.

Regarding the narrator. The voice is absolutely charming. I did not listen to the book, but can imagine the voice. This book would be a pleasure to listen to.

To buy the first book, click on All Systems Red

Four of the series in hardback can be bought together. Click on Murderbot Diaries

For the least expensive version to try out novella #1, click on Kindle version: All Systems Red

For the audio version of novella #1, click on Audio of All Systems Red

DUNE Part 1, The film. A No-Spoiler Review

DUNE, the 2021 film is a true hit and a must-see large screen theater event. It drew millions across the globe to the theater. I was among those who saw it and loved it. I saw it a second time within a week and the film was still breathtaking, and I’ll see it again though probably via my television. Rated PG-13, mature teens will appreciate (and have for decades appreciated) the central character and the woman who will become his lover/mate. The are young and they are heroes in their own right. I recommend watching as a family and taking on the discussions that are unearthed by the narrative. Better yet, read the novel together. To read my review of the novel DUNE, click here. For my review of the film, please continue.

In a similar way that Peter Jackson pleased both the non-reading audience and the hyper fan of the LOTR books, it looks like Villeneuve will do the same for the his audience and fans of the novel, DUNE.

DUNE, the film, is the first of two. It’s only about half of the novel (yet another reason to entice your teen to read the novel), and there could be more films if Villeneuve decides to continue with the novel’s sequels. We’ll see how that goes. The later books are brilliant but probably more challenging for the average audience member to consume. Herbert’s world is a complex and mostly unhappy place on almost all counts.

First, The Short Review of DUNE

5 Reasons to See this Film, Especially if you are a Scifi Fan…

  1. Mostly pitch perfect and accurate (close to the novel) storytelling
  2. Herbert’s DUNE is a foundational work in the scifi genre and has a huge international following. AKA, without DUNE, Star Wars might never have been made.
  3. A vision within the story that transcends culture and era
  4. Great casting
  5. An epic visual feast

Now, for the Longer Review…

If you want to go deep, super deep on DUNE, there are papers written, blog posts and articles that speak to why the story DUNE is one that has reverberated in many cultures, especially subjugated cultures, since it was released in 1965. This article is a  good one, in case you want more breadth about the history. Click on the link for the Guardian’s penetrating reflection. DUNE article, Guardian.

As a viewer of the film, what I wanted was something of the depth of the novel, a compelling vision of the world of Arrakis, Caladan and the politics surrounding the story. I also wanted characters who made sense within that world. They had to feel real. DUNE delivered on all counts.

True, the viewer is only getting a third of the character depth in the film version and for that reason, I encourage all to read (or re-read) the novel. It ages well. But, even if you don’t read the novel, Paul, Leto, Jessica, Duncan, Kynes and the Fremen come across very close to the novelist’s vision. I had two observations of change that caught my attention: Villeneuve did not portray the Atreides’ mostly male in-house staff accurately in terms of their suspicion of Jessica as the betrayer. Their suspicion of the one woman in the mix comes through in the novel, not in the film. Also, the gay Baron Harkonnen is a known child predator in the novel. I can guess there are many reasons Villeneuve decided to forgo this portrayal of the only gay character in the story world. Let him be obese and disgusting in the visuals, but diminish his child predator persona. That seems like a wise decision on many fronts.

The portrayals I loved:

Arakkis, the worms, the Fremen, the sitch, the general feeling of the Bene Gesserit, the Harkonnens, the Sardaukar, the ornithopters, Arrakeen, the costumes (including the stillsuit)…these are all perfect, as are the actors’ portrayals of their characters.

Overall, DUNE was worth the money. I highly recommend this film.