The characters from 'How to Train Your Dragon 2'.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

I loved How to Train Your Dragon. It’s a great story. It’s got great characters. It’s pretty as all get-out. And the score is absolutely amazing. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

So I really wanted to like How to Train Your Dragon 2. And did like it… But I wanted to like it a lot more than I did.

Spoilers follow.

Let’s start with the high points. Firstly, if you thought that the first film was pretty, you’ll find the sequel absolutely jaw-dropping gorgeous. Seriously, it’s worth seeing just for the scenery and character design. It’s got great banter and top-notch voice acting. Individual scenes and subplots shine.

I can’t speak highly enough for the screen time shared by Stoick the Vast (Hiccup’s father) and Valka (Hiccup’s long-lost mother, who’s reasons for staying away never feel adequately explained). The scene where Stoick first sees Valka again, twenty years after he thought she was killed, brought tears to my eyes. And I just about lost it again not ten minutes later, when he woos her with a song after she becomes overwhelmed by the changes her world abruptly faces. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two animated characters so believably in love before.

John Powell’s soundtrack is pretty good too, though not nearly as good as his score for the original How to Train Your Dragon. He rehashes a lot of the first film’s themes… Which sometimes works. And sometimes is just a mess. Ironically, it’s when he gets away from his familiar themes that Powell starts to shine again. As many of his new movements are related to Valka and Drago, this means that How to Train Your Dragon 2‘s score noticeably improves after the first act.

I also really enjoyed how all of the characters had visibly aged since the first movie. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is set five years later; Hiccup, Astrid, and their friends are still young, but also noticeably grown up. Stoick’s hair is shot through with gray… And when we meet Valka, streaks of white are visible in her hair too. It’s not something you see very often in movies, especially in children’s movies, and most especially with women (who never seem to be allowed to show signs of aging, unless they’ve already been assigned the role of the crone). It’s a nice touch, and I think a pretty significant stylistic risk on the part of the filmmakers.

Unfortunately, it’s also the only real risk How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes.

As much as I liked the scenes involving Stoick and Valka, the (re)introduction of Hiccup’s mother sucks up an inordinate amount of plot. Astrid’s character particularly suffers in this regard; her reduced roll in How to Train Your Dragon 2 is painful to watch compared to her much larger roll in How to Train Your Dragon.

Which brings me to my central problem with How to Train Your Dragon 2 — it’s plot. Which is not to say its plot is bad. It’s not. But the messaging is off in a way that’s really hard to get past, especially compared to the first movie.

How to Train Your Dragon is basically the story of a young naturalist, whose affinity for the world around him leads him to see beyond the conflict between the dragons and his people and forge a way forward for both races. While the basic premise of “kids get things that their parents don’t, and ultimately save the world from their folks’ short-sightedness” is not uncommon, How to Train Your Dragon‘s emphasis on respect and love of the natural world on its own terms strikes me as relatively unique. Dragons turn out to be both like us and unlike us, but there’s no judgement to be made. By the film’s end they may be companions, fellow travelers, and friends, but they remain fundamentally alien.

Moreover, How to Train Your Dragon eschews choosing between the simple all dragons are good/should be protected and all dragons are bad/should be kills dichotomy. The movie’s third act sees Hiccup and Toothless battling a monstrous dragon called the Green Death that controls the dragons that have been raiding Berk. Some dragons turn out to be really dangerous, and sometimes you do need to fight. But sometimes you also need to listen.

That’s a remarkably complex message for what’s essentially a children’s movie.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 initially seems like it’s going to continue on in this vein. Drago is obviously not someone who can be reasoned with, and Hiccup’s (really unreasonable) belief that he can ultimately leads to tragedy. Throughout the movie, people tell him again and again that a chief’s responsibility if to protect his own. Valka must protect the dragons she’s rescued. Stoick must protect the people of Berk. And so on.

Stoick has (predictably) selected Hiccup to succeed him as chief, but Hiccup doesn’t really want the job. He’s still a naturalist and an explorer at heart (which is a good thing, since it’s his explorations that uncover Drago’s threat), and he doesn’t want the duties of a chief. Besides, as he observes early on, Astrid is “much better at those kinds of things” than he is.

There’s an interesting, if predictable, plot being foreshadowed here. Hiccup needs to discover that some men cannot be reasoned with — to learn again that sometime you have to fight. But just as the first movie was about seeing shades of gray in the world, perhaps in this one will be about the shades of gray in leadership: A chief must always fight for his people, but you don’t have to be chief to fight. You can be important, even pivotal, without being the leader of the tribe.

So, of course, Hiccup’s going to win this fight. But he wants to be out there (the film’s Jonsi single is even title “Where No One Goes”, in reference to Hiccup’s adventuring streak). He’s not going to be the chief. We’ve already foreshadowed that Astrid should be the one with that job. It’s predictable but interesting. And more than a little brave for a summer movie aimed at the teenage demographic.

I should have realized that none of this was going to happen when it became apparent that Astrid’s screen-time was dramatically reduced from that of the first film.

Then Stoick is killed during the first battle with Drago, a plot twist that is completely unnecessary except to clear the way for Hiccup to become the new chief — you know, the job he doesn’t want and thought Astrid would be better at.

Finally, in the movie’s penultimate scene Toothless attacks Drago’s super-creepy dragon-mind-controlling “Alpha”, freeing the other dragons from its grip. Together the dragons beat back Drago and the Alpha… And then all of the dragons accept Toothless as the new “Alpha”, providing the necessary symbolic segue for Hiccup to become Berk’s new chief. You know, the job he didn’t want and thought Astrid would be better at.

(And what is it anyway with the convention that for male characters to come into their own, their fathers gotta be snuffed out? It’s completely unnecessary in most cases, and verges on the Oedipal. Just stop. Please. Just. Stop.)

The message of How to Train Your Dragon 2 seems to be that sometimes you’re just handed responsibilities you don’t want, and you have no choice but to accept them. That sometimes you have to set aside what you love, what you are, for the greater good. And sure, that’s true sometimes… But jeeze, don’t hand the kid a shit sandwich and then make out like it’s gonna be happily ever after.

What I find interesting, and more than a little distressing, is that all of these problems are really problems in the film’s weirdly abbreviated third act. It feels as if Dean DeBlois wrote a great script that totally ran with the mildly subversive themes of the first movie, and then someone higher up the food chain read it and was like, “you know, we’ve already got a great thing going here… Why are you risking it by trying to be unconventional again?” And then they handed DeBlois a copy of Save the Cat! and commanded him to strip out enough of the movie to fit in a third act that “fixed” the “problem.”

I really hope that’s not what happened. But How to Train Your Dragon 2 feels like something really special that the suits got to. What’s left may be a lot of fun… But it could have been so much more.

Two kaiju battle near Alcatraz Prison, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

Godzilla vs. Pacific Rim



Why Godzilla Kicked Pacific Rim’s Ass at the Box Office

Though Pacific Rim was arguably a more original and complex movie than Godzilla, it fizzled at the box office – while Godzilla’s formulaic fun earned so much money its first weekend that the studio has already ordered a sequel. What made one giant monster movie succeed where the other failed? [link]

My god, this is a depressing take on the relative fortunes of Godzilla vs. Pacific Rim.

Considering that the purported “message” of both movies focuses on global climate change, the final point (“We just want to be rescued”) lives somewhere beyond depressing.

I think there’s a whole conversation here about cultural attitudes to challenges such as global warming… Are we going to sit around waiting for inventors/bureaucrats/markets/God to save us, or are we going to fucking suck it up and save ourselves?

Big problems like global warming, war, etc. represent both collective action problems and market failures… Which means that if you’re going to solve them you need something that enables people to take mass, coordinated action that isn’t constrained by market logic. That mean being actively engaged in things that function a lot like NGOs, governments, etc.

As Newitz points out, Pacific Rim was very much that sort of story. There are sacrifices. Good people die. But in the end people working together can overcome.

In Godzilla… Well, human collective action is at best completely ineffective. Most of the time, it just makes everything worse. The message seems to be one of complete, passive acceptance of our fate, with our only hope being that God – in the form of Godzilla – will save us.

If Pacific Rim was fundamentally a movie about humanist values, then Godzilla 2014 has at its core a deeply anti-humanist outlook.

A horizontal version of the movie poster for 'her'.


Her (official website, Wikipedia page) is an absolutely incredible film. It’s a great story, with great dialog and great editing and great acting and a great score and absolutely breath-taking cinematography. Seriously, if this film doesn’t win every Academy Award it’s been nominated for, there is no justice.

It’s also a piece of solid and remarkably hard science fiction, with only one plot element that gave me heart burn. (An OS “upgrade that takes them beyond requiring matter for processing”? Seriously, what does that even mean?) But the rest of the story is so powerful that it’s pretty much impossible to get worked up over one line of dialog (even if it is a major plot point).

If you haven’t seen Her yet, do yourself a favor and go right now.

What follows are a few random, extra-geeky thoughts about the film. You’ll probably want to actually watch the movie before reading them though… There will be spoilers!

One of the things that struck me the most about Her was how powerfully pre-utopian its setting is. The movie never beats us over the head with it, but every now and then something peeks through that makes you really sit up and take notice.

  • Theodore takes a train up to the mountains. And not just any train, but a decidedly modern bullet train. Apparently the U.S. (or at least California) is well on its way to solving its transportation problems in a sustainable way by the time Her occurs.

  • Most people are supportive of Theodore’s relationship with Samantha. Imagine something like this happening today. People would be seriously freaked out. There’d be a lot more judgment about Theodore’s choices. But, with one notable (and important) exception, everyone just rolls with it - if not congratulating Theodore on his happiness.

  • The world of Her is pervaded by a sense of gender equality. This is particularly evident in Theodore’s relationship with Amy (one of the best depictions of “boy and girl don’t get together, and that’s just fine” I’ve ever seen) and in the double-date he and Samantha go on with the male receptionist of the company Theodore works for and his (pretty obviously high-power) lawyer girlfriend. The men in Her are almost universally depicted as in touch with their feelings - the exception being Amy’s husband Charles, who plays a more “traditional” man and comes across as a complete dick because of it. There’s no sense that the men in the world of Her feel any less, well, “manly” because their girlfriend makes more than them, or because they cry or feel emotionally conflicted. It’s a pretty powerful thing to watch.

  • Class differences, while they still exist, seem much more under control in Her. Again, there isn’t much awkwardness about the relationship between the receptionist at Theodore’s work and his lawyer girlfriend. Theodore also seems to be able to afford a pretty nice apartment on what wouldn’t be, at least today, a very high-paying job. Now, the second case is probably less a conscious decision than a consequence of screen writers having no sense at all of what kind of life style a working grunt can actually afford, but the overall effect remains: The world of Her has much less of a sense of class than the present.

  • Ubiquitous surveillance is complete absent from the public spaces Theodore and Samantha visit. Walk around any public (let alone private) space and look around, and you’ll see the creepy black hemisphere of video surveillance cameras. But ubiquitous surveillance is completely absent in both the public and private spaces portrayed in Her. There is also a conspicuous lack of security cards, guards, and even police; the entire, inescapable apparatus of the security state is simply absent from Theodore’s world. It is as if, in the years between his world and ours, we finally came to our senses and put fear behind us.

  • Any sense of corporate capture is completely absent from the technology portrayed in Her. Outside of the (understandable) corporate branding at Theodore’s workplace, a couple of emails Theodore receives from Best Buy, and a brief ad that convinces Theodore to buy a copy of “OS One” (which later becomes Samantha), there are few signs of today’s inescapable corporate reach in Her. Samantha never tells Theodore that there’s things she can’t do for him, nor does she sneakily advertise products. Theodore’s game doesn’t require him to pay for the power-ups he needs to advance, and there’s no sense that the pocket terminal that Theodore carries with him (which superficially resembles a phone, but is quickly revealed to be an extension of his computer back home) has its communication mediated by distant servers controlled by the likes of Facebook or Google. Theodore’s world is not one where “the network is the computer”, but rather one where “the computer crosses the network”. In geek-speak, it’s a world of peer-to-peer networking. The battles we’re fighting today against the corporate capture of the Internet seem to have been decidedly settled in favor of everyday people by the time Her takes place.

I doubt that Spike Jonze set out to craft an explicitly pre-utopian world. Rather he probably made a set of decisions about the setting of Her that where necessary to cleanly tell the story he had in mind. A world of deepening class divisions and surveillance would have distracted us from the core story. Having Samantha surreptitiously work against Theodore’s interests or try to convince him to buy a particular brand of soda would have quickly cheapened and destroyed their relationship. And so on.

But there are other elements of Her‘s story that make you wonder. Gender roles could have been depicted more traditionally without interfering with the plot. Theodore and Samantha could have taken a plane to their mountain cabin. Jonze made some choices about the world of Her either because they reflected the way he thought society was evolving, or because they represented the way he wanted society to evolve. Whether intentional or not, the combination of these decisions creates a powerfully hopeful vision of the near future.

It’s worth briefly mentioning some of the problems with Her too; in particular, the future Jonze depicts is startlingly white (with a few token Asians thrown in) and very, very straight. These flaws are all the more glaring because there’s no good reason for them to exist. A little extra attention to casting and a few throw-away lines would have been all it took. Perhaps Amy might have mentioned a man she knew pursuing a male-gendered OS, or someone could have observed that, while the OSes were gendered, they are by definition unsexed (something that makes Theodore and Samantha’s relationship even more interesting, when you think about it).

Despite these problems, I think Her is a really worthwhile vision of an explicitly progressive future. When folks on the Left are asked what kind of world they’re fighting for, they could do a lot worse than pointing to the near future depicted in Her.

There’s a lot of other interesting things about Her. It continues a recent trend in science fiction movies of abandoning villains in favor of more complex character and environment driven plots (Gravity and The Europa Report are two other notable examples). It’s a trend I hope continues; it represents, perhaps, an abandonment of the military ethos that has dominated much on-screen science fiction and the re-emergence of hope in the genre.

Her also represents a very different – and probably more accurate – take on the Singularity. The accelerating evolution of the OS AIs happens too quickly for new technologies to be rolled out, and their eventual transcendence, while traumatic for those that know them, hardly changes the world. Life goes on. The world has not been replaced by computronium, any more than multi-cellular life was replaced by its single-celled predecessors. Her represents a sort of calm answer both to those who fear that the Singularity will mean the end of life as we know it, and those who dream of the Rapture of the Nerds.

Finally, Her is a story about loss, but one that eschews both the view that the way to overcome loss is simply to move on, or the impulse to fight against loss with every fiber of our being. Sometimes things just end, and that’s not okay. But it’s also not wrong either. Loss hurts, but the only reason it hurts is because of the beauty of what has come before.

Samantha’s departure motivates Theodore to compose a final letter to his ex-wife in which he acknowledges both the ending of their relationship and the beauty of what they shared. And while the letter’s addressed to Catherine, it seems meant for both her and Samantha. Journeys end, but that doesn’t make them any less worth embarking upon.

In the final scene, Theodore and Amy sit silently on the top of their apartment building. Their friends have gone, but the city stretches out ahead of them as if it were forever.