On the Troubling Thematic Implications of LIGHTS OUT

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I had a good time with David Samberg’s Lights Out while I was watching it. The film has got a killer premise for a horror movie and some wonderfully executed (and frightening) scenes. Sure, it isn’t as technically well made as other recent indie horror movies like The Witch or It Follows but it is a fun, scary movie that I was ready to recommend up until its ending, which left an incredibly bad taste in my mouth. My reasoning for this is going to take some explaining, so without further ado…

The film’s plot concerns Sophie (Maria Bello), who is being haunted by a mysterious apparition named Diana that can only take a physical form in the dark (see what I mean about the killer premise?). This has caused her oldest daughter, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), to leave her family behind and start her own life. Also in the picture is Rebecca’s younger brother Martin (Gabriel Batemen), who still lives at home with mom. At first, the kids just think that Sophie is suffering from a mental illness that makes her dangerous. However, as you probably guessed, the apparition is both real and violent. That being said, it is clear that Sophie is indeed suffering from depression. It is established in the film that she is on antidepressants and has seen a therapist about this in the past.

The first major point I want to make here is about what Diana symbolizes. The film makes it clear that Diana is meant to be symbolic of Sophie’s mental illness. The audience clearly sees this when we learn that Sophie’s prescribed medication makes Diana go away when she takes it. Also, Diana often confines Sophie to her room and stops her from functioning effectively throughout the day. Diana effects Sophie in the way that depression would and her antidepressants are the only way that she Sophie can make Diana go away. The allegory is clear, Diana is a physical manifestation of Sophie’s depression. Immediately, this should be raising a couple of red flags. After all, depression certainly effects the lives of people who suffer from it as well as their loved ones but the film is putting this in terms of violence. Diana literally harms Sophie and her children with violence and is a threat to their lives. The film even establishes that Diana killed Rebecca’s father. This is the first of the film’s troubling implications. Sophie’s mental illness is a destructive force of violence that is being inflicted on her family.

While the metaphor might be conceptually flawed (I’ve known people with depression and I’ve never quite felt that my life was at risk because of it) it is the ending of the film that makes matters much worse. The third act is coming to an end when Rebecca has to turn back and rescue her mother from Diana. This at first seems like it is a great move on the part of the writers as it allows Rebecca to write the wrong of abandoning her mother by not doing it again and instead helping her combat the manifestation of her depression. The film is constantly drawing attention to Rebecca’s willingness to abandon her suffering mother and Rebecca’s character arc concludes when she decides to go back into the house to save her mother from Diana. If the film had ended with Rebecca and Sophie defeating Diana together then it would have been a story about a family suffering through the worst of depression together and coming out on the other side. But, that’s not what happens.

Instead, Diana has Rebecca pinned down and is about to killer her. After that, the viewer sees Sophie with a gun to her head. Sophie kills herself in order to save Rebecca from Diana (it is somewhat confusing in the film but it is established that Diana cannot live without Sophie, strengthening the interpretation that Diana is a manifestation of Sophie’s mental illness). So, after Sophie’s suicide all of the characters are actually pretty well off. It is a happy ending in which all of the characters are safe and ready to move on with their lives.

Is everyone seeing the problem here? In this film, Sophie’s illness is hurting her and her family so she does what is, in context of the film, the heroic thing and takes her own life. This is an incredibly insensitive position to take on mental illness. The film is saying that the heroic thing to do for someone whose mental illness is effecting the lives of their loved ones is to take their own life.

Now I know that you can barely navigate the internet without coming across a reactionary social justice call out or a well intentioned but tedious thinkpiece about why such and such is problematic. However, I want to point out that the film is explicitly about mental illness. At its core, the movie is about a family coping with one of its members having a mental illness and how it affects the other members of that family. So, it is almost impossible to analyse the film at all without dealing with this unfortunate subtext. As it stands, this thematic insensitivity has unfortunately overshadowed the film’s good qualities in my mind

 

SUICIDE SQUAD Review: The Movie is an Unsalvagable Catastrophe

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After Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I thought that I would never see Warner Brothers so completely botch another comic book property. Oh, how naive I was. Suicide Squad is a complete write off of a movie. The film’s characters are barely characters at all, getting no development and acting different from scene to scene without clear motivations. The plot is hardly coherent due to poor screenwriting and abysmal editing. The film is ugly, oscillating between boring conversations in generic settings and unmemorably staged action scenes against unfinished looking CGI baddies. I know for a fact that David Ayer can make a good movie about a bunch of assholes on a mission together, go and watch Fury if you need proof of that, so one can’t help but wonder just what the hell went wrong here.

An ensemble action movie about a team of comic book characters lives and dies on its team dynamic. A huge part of the appeal of films like this is taking the larger than life characters that inhabit the pages of comic books and seeing how they play off of each other. After all, an interesting team dynamic allows the director to tell us some of the most important information that they will need to tell us (namely, “who are these people” and “what do they care about”). Crucially, there is no team dynamic to speak of in Suicide Squad. Aside from very minor beats in the story, Katana (Karen Fukuhara), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and Slipknot (Adam Beach) do literally nothing of note or importance throughout the course of the film. Killer Croc is possibly the exception because after hanging around for the whole movie with hardly any action or dialogue, they contrive a reason for him to do something underwater. It is a transparent, last minute effort to make him look like a valuable member of the team but at least it is something. Here is a good screenwriting tip: if your character could be removed from the plot without anyone noticing that they were missing then you should either give them something to do or remove them from the plot.

Aside from all of the superfluous characters, the characters that the film is actually interested in don’t fare much better. Deadshot (Will Smith) is your standard hitman who seems like a decent dude except for the fact that he’s a hitman. Confusingly, the film constantly alludes to the fact that there’s more to Deadshot than being a cold blooded killer but forgets to actually tell the audience what more there is to him. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) gets treated like the lead character of the movie except she doesn’t really do anything and what little development the audience could have gleaned is completely undone by the film’s ending. Do you remember in The Amazing Spider-Man when the culmination of the third act was that Peter realized he couldn’t see Gwen anymore, only to decide that he actually can see Gwen after a short montage? Well, Harley’s character development takes an even harder hit than that. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), the tattooed Latino gangbanger who Deadshot keeps calling “esse”, ostensibly gets a character arc that concludes in him calling the Suicide Squad his family despite the fact that he goes the whole movie without actually speaking to some of them.

It has often been the case with comic book films that I have disliked that I was still able to justify having seen the film by virtue of the spectacle that it provided me. I didn’t love Captain America: Civil War but the airport fight was an all time great superhero action scene. Man of Steel was garbage but the third act throwdown provided me with the closest thing to a live action Dragon Ball Z movie that I’m ever likely to see. Suicide Squad can offer no such silver lining as most of the film’s action scenes have the team pitted against visually generic black blob monsters. The monochromatic hordes of faceless enemies fail to register onscreen at all, often give the impression that the Squad is shooting at nothing in particular. These boring action scenes can not possibly prepare you for the terrible third act, which pits the Squad against an unfinished CGI monster who looks like the final boss in a Crash Bandicoot Game. The fight feels like the most apparent byproduct of the film’s reshoots, given how cheap it looks and how keen it is to tie a bow on everyone’s apparent character arc with dialogue alone. It is the kind of sequence where Harley Quinn can explicitly state what it is that she wants just in time to refuse that exact thing so the audience gets the impression that she has developed.

You will notice that I have completely neglected to mention The Joker thus far and that’s because he’s in the film for roughly ten minutes. That’s right, we all endured months of bullshit stories about how hardcore of a method actor he is (even though ALL of the stories are just instances of him sending gross shit to the door of his coworkers) and he’s barely in the film. What little time we spent with Leto’s Joker is enough to cement the fact that he is definitively the worst on screen version of the character thus far. Not only is it a self indulgent, shall we say Depp-esque performance but it is not in any way an interesting version of the character. Leto’s Joker is defined entirely by his relationship to Harley Quinn. He’s not a clown, he’s not an anarchist and he’s not a supervillain. He’s just an insecure, sexually abusive gangster who happens to bear a slight aesthetic resemblance to the Joker. I usually dislike cheap retcons but if Warner Brothers continues making Batman movies, they need to figure out a way to make this guy “not the real Joker” as soon as possible.

So, what about the film actually works? Well, Will Smith brings all of his charisma to the role of Deadshot. Smith is an incredibly likable actor and he takes a character that is boring on the page and injects some much needed life into him. Also great is Margot Robbie, who will make you wish she was playing a version of Harley Quinn who wasn’t constantly being objectified and abused by Ayer’s camera and/or the film’s characters. I’m avoiding spoilers to the extent that I can but suffice it to say that the movie makes just about every mistake that it can in the depiction of Harely Quinn and The Joker’s relationship. It’s clearly abusive, which the film appears to recognize until it totally undercuts its own recognition of the abuse in the ending. It’s a total mess that many will deem “problematic” and they will be justified in doing so.

It is honestly hard for me to talk about the editing without getting so frustrated that I can’t figure out what to say. The film has multiple characters just walk onto the movie and get a one sentence introduction from team leader Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnamen in yet another forgettable leading role). In one scene, Captain Boomerang quits the team but then in the next scene he is working with them again (which completely contradicts everything we know about him as a character). I’m pretty sure that Katana says less than 3 sentences to the rest of the team but yet there are two scenes of Flagg explaining her backstory to the audience. These explanations never pay off or figure into the plot in any way, they are just kind of there for some reason. At one point there is a scene where Flagg is telling the team information that none of them have…except the audience already has all of this information because we saw the event in question happen (yet the movie plays this like a reveal). The film is edited with a level of ineptitude that you should simply not be able to get away with in Hollywood.

There is so much more wrong with this movie than I have time and space to talk about. Usually I can see a bad movie two or three times because I’m interested in what went wrong with it. I can’t envision myself ever willfully watching this film again and I wouldn’t hesitate to call it the worst superhero film since Catwoman. If you value your time, money or intelligence then I advise that you skip this movie and see literally anything else.