I regret to confirm to those who follow this blog that, yes, I did miss or decided not to review nearly as much of this year’s pop culture I consumed as I would’ve liked. Call it my work schedule getting in the way of my free time or unprofessional procrastination. On a similar vein, chalk it up to me not being in the mood at the moment or being distracted by so much sources of contemporary anxiety. That’s why I always thank myself for going along with the obligatory Year in Review entry. It lets me quickly cover stuff that I didn’t earlier while also telling you, the discerning reader, what of this year you should finally catch up on or maybe re-watch as we enter into 2023.
I’m not gonna lie: it was an exhausting year when it came to what I caught and the sheer number of things that I had on my itinerary contributed to the above excuses as to why a lot was not covered this year, a similar excuse from 2021. When you factor in my ongoing 1980s movie retrospective and my Halloween Horrorthon where I’m time-locked to a certain theme, that might better explain my output. It’s to the point where I am grateful for any dry spell of content to arrive next year and the years to come, so I can enjoy something older, let alone for my endless retrospective saga.
Before I get to the many, many honorable mentions, there are two big ones that you might find curiously absent. Those would be the latest and best regarded of the modern Star Trek shows, Strange New Worlds, and the most acclaimed video game of the year, one that will likely be a pick for among the best games of the decade by many voices: Elden Ring. allow me to explain….
I keep getting distracted by other things I want to check out on any given evening via TV or iPad and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is victim of this. Despite boldly returning to the kind of optimistic and curious outlook that made the original Star Trek shows so beloved, Strange New Worlds just hasn’t gotten the love from me that almost everyone, including the venomously angry ST fans who despise Discovery and Picard, have given. I do want to finish its initial season, hopefully before the first of many subsequent seasons arrive on Paramount +.
I have also been remiss on finishing Young Justice’s fourth season, Phantoms, though admittedly that is due in part to it being the most polarizing season in execution of its themes and narratives though it most certainly has its strong points, points that remind you of its glory from the first three. As for Elden Ring…
Elden Ring, at it’s heart, is still the same kind of brutally difficult challenge as earlier From Software titles, arguably starting in 2009’s Demon’s Souls and then becoming an memetic legend through its spiritual successor Dark Souls in 2011. For over a decade, the Japanese developer has utterly changed the conversation on how we approach challenge in modern video games, even how it’s possible for the player to derive satisfaction from a seemingly unpleasurable experience.
As evidenced from one of my favorite video essayists on YouTube, Noah Caldwell Gervais, the trick to From Software’s success is that most of their games in the “Soulsborne” genre they helped create is that those games are rarely as restrictive and stringent as they appear in how you approach their challenges. How you build your avatar for exploring these dark yet beautiful worlds full of terrors and danger and how you take advantage of hinted at tricks and shortcuts pass imposing challenges has helped make their style of games into borderline sacred cows for the most part.
Even when they do create a game that demands you do basically exactly what they want you to do, like 2019’s Sekiro: Shadows die Twice, you might’ve already built up a passion and endurance for their earlier challenges in Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls trilogy and Bloodborne so you now welcome something more rigid yet purposeful in design.
This year’s Elden Ring is the most open-ended in design of anything From has given, all through taking the Soulsborne formula and plopping it in an open world setting similar to either Grand Theft Auto or The Elder Scrolls. Confronting a steep fight against a boss who you know will wreck you? Fear not, as you can go in many other directions and face something less demanding, defeating it and netting rewards that can make that earlier enemy less cruel. It is this, among many other factors, like the further refining of a decade plus formula that has made Elden Ring nearly uncontested for the best and most significant game of 2022. I haven’t played it, but I have certainly read up enough on it, how it ticks similarly or differently from earlier From entries to understand the consistent acclaim it’s received.
So, with all that being said, why haven’t I played it? Because I still am fearful of paying $60 or around that price tag for an experience that could still leave me feeling cold. In a time where I had a surplus of things to see and do, getting Elden Ring and then putting it off because I reached this frustrating point still hinders me. I did say that Elden Ring’s design was all but tailor made to address that long-standing concern from new players, but still I remain reserved just in case. Of all the From games, Elden Ring does appear destined to be the one I will most likely check out going forward. It could well be the gateway entry it was lauded as to get me to experiencing the rest of the From Software catalogue and even crazier, completing them.
It could be, doesn’t mean it will.
But now, on to all of the honorable mentions I did experience and finish, summed up like last year in image caption.
Image from PCGamesN (This poor kitty and his dystopian cyberpunk adventure just couldn’t claw it’s way high enough for the Ten spots.)
-Horizon II: Forbidden West
Image from Wired (Like another Sony exclusive franchise entry this year, heroine Aloy’s second adventure is more of the same but better and in some areas, much better. Just not enough to make the cut. Still, if you want an open-world check-lister at this point, Horizon II is one of the better ones. Shame that it released alongside Elden Ring…)
-Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II
Image from MobileSyrup (Say whatever you want about the ethics of a game promoting intentionally or not, the geopolitics of modern conflict, but it’s yet better to do it just here than in the real world.)
Image from Den of Geek (Disconcerting and unneeded political takeaways, let alone in this day and age, hinder what is one of the caped crusaders most visually and atmospherically distinct outings. A must-see experience at conflict with itself. Kindof like Batman actually.)
Image from New York Times (At least Pixar can rest well knowing Lightyear wasn’t all they had to offer. Like its subject matter and a to be discussed Rian Johnson film, Turning Red is a multi-layered tale that addresses subject matter that should be discussed or at least not ignored, no matter what “moral” grand-standings are made nowadays.)
Image from SyFy (Fine, you get more than one good Predator movie. I mean, it only took 35 years….)
-Weird: the Al Yankovic Story
Image from the New York Times (He saved the Wizarding World. Now, he here’s to save the parody genre.)
Image from NPR (From the man who (might) save DC movies from themselves comes a much viewed spin-off of a movie you (sadly) didn’t watch in 2021.)
Star Wars: Andor
Image from NPR (The unlikely savior of Disney Star Wars, all while being a surprisingly effective love letter to another George Lucas production and 70s sci-fi in general.)
10: Avatar: The Way of Water
Image from Brick Fanatics (But everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked…)
Based on the discourse, you might get the impression that the 13 year wait for James Cameron’s next movie and follow-up to mostly forgotten mega-blockbuster Avatar is one of two things: it’s better than the first or it’s worse. It’s one of those movies.
Has it moved past the still uncomfortable white-savior aesthetic or can it ever be escaped? Does it herald the return of 3D films and are they actually here to stay? Can it actually make enough money in time to give James Cameron his dream to finish up his legendary film career just making more of these, up to five or six? Can a film’s visuals and aesthetic really be the end all-be all for what matters in a “good” movie? For me, one of the takeaways that should be talked about more is if Cameron hasn’t essentially made a new type of movie: so advanced that the lines between live-action and animation disappear altogether? I don’t know about you, but that last one should be exciting no matter how you feel about the jerkass Canadian director’s vision.
More so than the 2009 original, I felt utterly taken in by what Avatar 2 had to offer. It could’ve been my mindset was much more open now, seeing as how I’ve come to really appreciate the technical craft of Cameron and his work, whether practical or CG. James Cameron has succeeded where George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and especially Robert Zemeckis have failed: making CGI worlds with such loving, considerate care that they really can convince you they’re a progression of a visual art-form rather than a lazy excuse to cut corners.
It almost certainly stems from Cameron beginning his career at Roger Corman’s school of filmmaking, where he was an art and technical director first before being the overall director. The films under Corman’s wing might’ve been cheap throwaway trash, but man even then did he commit to making the most out of everything he had. His “use the whole animal” approach to the film’s direction not only acts as amusing foreshadowing to the Avatar films like this one, it also shows that when he has a project, he will not stop until he has it just the way he wants it.
Despite the limitations faced with the original Terminator and Aliens, he yet bore out special effects masterpieces that helped shake up Hollywood time and again. Terminator 2 and Titanic would further affirm that if there is a technological push being attempted in filmmaking, it will almost certainly have James Cameron’s involvement.
Even in an essentially completely CGI world, Cameron has both the talent and the technology hand in hand where his ever present attention to detail wins out. No longer am I noticing annoyingly what is and is not CG in a movie with him, I now wonder how he got it to look even half as convincing as it is.
With a runtime of 3 hours, which yeah probably is too long, he still gives us no shortage of examples of how his world, fantastical as it is, oddly clicks with the mind’s ability to suspend disbelief. Set-pieces which are totally impossible with the practical Cameron takes to realizing as if on some level they are possible and practical even. With the use of 3D technology that is leagues beyond everyone else, Cameron gives us every opportunity to see and almost feel the difference and for the better.
Just the sheer believability of the alien Na’vi, more real than ever, belies how much I was willing to enjoy what is still in most regards a simple story, to some frustratingly simple. I wasn’t so caught up in the effects that I didn’t ignore the comparative simplicity in plot and characters, but I was still able to notice that it was yet a deeper, more potentially three-dimensional narrative than the first movie. That at least three follow-ups are on the horizon means that James Cameron has the chance though not certainty to follow up on seeds he does plant here for something, dare I say it, thought-provoking.
So thought-provoking that I utterly ignored considerable retcons performed like on the villainous character of Col. Quaritch, establishing well after the fact the excuse for an unlikely resurrection and having a son this whole time. But what they do with Stephen Lang’s returning antagonist is so full of potential, let alone in relation to his Na’vi loving son that I welcome what they do next. Yes, some of that bias may lie in that Lang’s character, one dimensional as he was, was the only evil human character that I had fun with and it had to do with Lang’s gleeful performance. Here, he’s not necessarily the same as he was before, and that alone could make him into an unlikely hero or an even more diabolical foe.
Cameron’s environmental and cultural expression through a production that is among the most expensive in history, if not the most expensive, might reek of a hypocrisy over his political stances. So much money on a sci-fi fantasy movie when that money could’ve gone to an actionable cause. I can’t necessarily disagree with that sentiment though the conversation now about The Way of Water is Cameron’s lack of narrative imagination, which many say was last seen with Terminator 2 or True Lies. Some would dare argue even Titanic was deeper than at first glance.
It is the lack of deepness for Avatar that is often given for why a film that made over 2 billion in its original run was largely forgotten save for the knowledge that it happened and was seen at all. Will Avatar 2 suffer the same fate? Is Cameron making numerous movies as part of one big story so it’s much harder overall to forget the story of human turned Na’vi Jake Sully and his big blue family?
Sure, he’s doing it first and foremost due to his, in my experience, infectious enthusiasm for the technology. But that can’t be the only reason or at least I hope so. Getting back to the potential hypocrisy of his ecological message being at odds with the means and finances required, it reminds of the story of Jiro from Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. His love for human flight and the machines that allow it blinds him to the purposes of the creation he designs, that of war and imperial conquest. Only too late does Jiro recognize that his benevolent dream for the Zero plane became a nightmare for countless people in the Second World War.
Is Cameron blinded by the beauty of his Avatar films? More than likely, but if you came away like I did with the sights of his latest masterwork, then you and I may be complicit with him in that near-nearsightedness. Nevertheless, Avatar: The Way of Water is a work of passion from a visual maestro and a work of art is ever that in the end. Here, it’s more literal than usual.
Image from Deadline
9: Cyberpunk: Edgerunners
Image from Polygon
Replaying The Witcher 3 again, now on a PS5 console version that makes it bearable for long stretches at long last got me thinking about the story that came out of developer CD Projekt Red and their work on 2020’s Cyberpunk 2077, for which this entry is a spin-off of.
It went from being the most anticipated game of its time to being one of it’s most crushing disappointments. That it wasn’t a totally bad game actually made it worse, more frustrating a result for most, eventually myself. It wasn’t just that the PS4 and Xbox One ports were essentially unplayable garbage, it was that the best version of the game, on the PC, was itself not without annoying bugs and other such imperfections which reeked of a title being unfinished and unpolished despite its announcement 8 years prior.
Comparing Witcher 3, the game that really made the Polish company into an international darling to Cyberpunk 2077 is in truth unfair as the former game was a culmination of adapting a Polish book series’ lore into a three game narrative, each game building on the earlier. The third game took all the elements that had gelled well with critics and players, its dark, medieval fantasy world with a refreshing Polish/Slavic flavor with a host of stories and characters to explore and placed it into a well-designed, massive open world.
Despite its M-rated darkness and mature themes, the world of Witcher 3 was and continues to be acclaimed as one of the best visually and mechanically crafted open worlds ever made, particularly for its specific role of placing you as a world-weary monster hunter in Geralt of Rivia. Of a genetically altered person who tries his best to fence-ride on the grim politics he finds himself embroiled in, all while searching for his adoptive daughter and maybe maybe not finding a real, lasting love in one of two gorgeous looking sorceresses. It’s many optional quests that take you off the beaten path, whether it’s accepting a contract to find, prepare and slay a fearsome creature to a dispute between flawed human and nonhuman characters where the right answer perhaps isn’t apparent or even present has made the depth inside its large world possibly unparalleled so far in terms of consistency.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt alone was responsible for Cyberpunk 2077 receiving high expectations, and even then it became unreasonably steep. Even when tempered, Cyberpunk 2077 still felt like a game that was a quarter of the consistent quality in writing for narrative and characters from earlier titles of CD Projekt Red. It’s inconsistency in quality, even when working as intended became its legacy, a legacy that the company is striving to overcome with future titles set in both Cyberpunk and the Witcher’s worlds.
In the meantime, they collaborated with Japanese animation company Studio Trigger to create a standalone Netflix series set before the events of 2077. This series itself left two legacies of note: it gave gamers an excuse to check out Cyberpunk 2077 again, especially since numerous patches have now made it finally if nothing else a technically consistent title and to see if it was really as much a letdown as it felt two years ago. The other legacy is that in spite of the many unfortunate implications a cyberpunk story might inherently have, there is narrative gold in the genre to be mined and that is yet true of a cyberpunk world that felt more imitation than iteration of the genre.
As a series, Edgerunners manages to be both a zany, hyper-violent, hyper-Japanese anime experience while having surprising fealty to the vision of both Mike Pondsmith’s role-playing board-game and CD Projekt Red’s interpretation. It’s a series that takes the level design of 2077’s locale of Night City and makes it a convincing series of sets for the characters. The sights, the sounds, the feel of the game are reinterpreted well, as if seeing a virtual world in a different person’s eyes.
Teenager David is put in for a world of hurt when he and his mother find themselves in the midst of a high-speed shootout between mercenaries and a corporate convoy on the highway, all while on a commute to his high school. He loses his mother in the chaos that ensues but comes across high-tech gear that upon being installed into his body gives him a key to rising up the city’s underworld ladder. While his mother had hoped to help him get up in life in a way that was safe and legal, David knows that a place like Night City preys on those with such assumptions.
His accidental gift of the exoskeleton tech becomes as much a curse, as befits the genre. He gets in with a mercenary crew led by the Duke Nukem-looking leader Maine and finds overtime love with one of its members, Lucy, who not only dreams of leaving Night City, but making it as far as the moon. As the game also surmises, one of the best outcomes to a life in Night City is to escape it, so long as you’re not drawn in by its siren-like promises of power, wealth and prestige.
The team are called the titular “edge-runners” as most if not all of them engage in installation of cyber-hardware that pushes the limits of the human body beyond what is possible and maintaining that type of post-human lifestyle will in time lead to a breaking point. Once a person goes off the deep-end from all the tech in their body and head, they become cyber psychotic and there is no going back one way or another.
The style of animation which relies often on the exaggerated and extreme which has become over the decades a specialty practically unique to Japan both helps further create novelty to a story yet set in a world that is in terms of visual, personal expression, realistic. It manages to come across as an ersatz interpretation of a yet canonical story that precedes the story of 2077’s controllable protagonist V. It shouldn’t work for me and yet won me over.
What also wins me over is that it takes funnily enough a page from Hunter S Thompson and that it is a coherent story that is propelled by the excess of an insane drug trip. The philosophy that if you have a penchant for drug use, you should take it as far as you can. It stays cogent yet it is visual madness. It’s a paradox tailor made for both a certain type of anime and for more than a few types of cyberpunk faire. Maybe it’s not so paradoxical here since genuine mental collapse becomes a threat as great as the corporate monsters that run the city and threaten David and Lucy from any kind of happy resolution.
In terms of animated spin-off off a video game property, it is of course dwarfed by 2021’s Arcane but that too is unfair as Arcane was not only my number one thing I experienced that year, it might be ahead of the pack in most experiences for me in recent memory. Being on this list makes it clearly a recommendation, but one that might be predicated on your taste for anime, uberviolence and other such taboo subject matter for which the cyberpunk genre broadly embraces.
Number 8: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Image from Youtube (Now comes the days of the Queen?)
Black Panther’s sophomore solo outing is like Marvel’s Phase 4, conflicted by matters both it and yet not it’s fault, though it does shape up on a note that can have you leaning more optimistic than pessimistic about the course it’s going down. Of the MCU films for 2022, it’s easily the best and threads the needle of its intentions well.
It is a movie that is very conscious of its real world circumstances and almost appears to apologize to its audience for the situation it finds itself in, not that it needed to. It also wisely doesn’t steal the thunder of it’s memoriam honoring Chadwick Boseman’s passing and the legacy he left both in universe and out of it. There was a chance of a mid or post credits scene doing just that, all to set up for something on the horizon or to confirm a suspicion going in, but this time the MCU says no.
It’s also unafraid to explore even deeper, this time literally, into a universe that just can’t stop revealing ever more of itself from what was once hidden. The introduction of Marvel’s cinematic Atlantis in the form of another mythological lost civilization in Tulocan allows it to introduce an old yet important member of Marvel’s comic roster while also exploring for the first time an often underexplored side to Central American culture, writ large via Hollywood blockbuster budget.
It’s great to see Marvel’s experimental side clicking well here more than other places in Phase 4, let alone as a further exploration of the titular African superpower we know. Seeing how the players that keep Wakanda safe deal with the loss of their key player and how to move forward is strangely engaging in spite of how it seemed doomed to fall into being a rudderless narrative.
Some would say of critique for the second Black Panther that it is almost the polar opposite of rudderless. Too much is happening, let alone to establish for the MCU’s push onto Phase 5. Riri Williams’ introduction as the girl who will be Ironheart feels a little too forced even when directly implemented in the main conflict between Wakanda and Namor’s Tulocan. Dominique Thorne is not bad at the job though she feels overshadowed by the other prominent characters, let alone female in Letitia Wright’s Shuri and Danai Guirra’s Okoye. She doesn’t quite hit the feel of “I want to see more of her/him/them” that I felt with Xochitl Gomez’s America Chavez in this year’s second Doctor Strange.
In spite of quality of life improvements, ranging from better CGI to superior action choreography, that the second Black Panther didn’t receive the glowing opinions of the first somewhat puzzles me. Is it because of how Riri Williams was utilized, let alone in her introduction? Was it the longer runtime? Was it just the mass of content the second movie needed to get through, all while carefully parsing through a fallen actor/ character’s impact on the whole scheme? I don’t know, but what I can say is that for all of it’s potential faults, Wakanda Forever was yet a bolder, more beautiful, more endearing piece of Marvel entertainment than before. Just it’s novel approach to an underwater city and its people, let alone in addressing the visibility of an underwater place should give it much to commend.
I liked Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness more than most. I tend to agree with what people have to say negatively over Thor: Love and Thunder though that film is not without its highlights. I placed Black Panther: Wakanda Forever here for its confidence in moving forward, not just from a tragedy but in terms of actually building ever further a world that many of us have come to view with contempt and not just due to familiarity.
The second Black Panther is both familiar and yet it is not at the same time. That’s a better note to end an overstuffed era of filmmaking on than you might think.
Number 7: Harley Quinn: Season 3
Image from Entertainment Weekly (This love is not as mad as you think.)
Persistence of vision, or a lack thereof, is one of several symptoms given as to why Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe failed and is now controversially having its plug pulled, all by a guy who positively contributed to it and appears humorously in this show. One can say that the vision that was there was bad. Fair enough but messing around with what you did have did not help.
This animated self-satire and deconstruction of not really so much the titular character but the logic and tenets of an entire comic universe never loses focus and that is why for all of its adult humor and seemingly sacrilegious talking points is one of the highest regarded DC properties, well, ever.
For those with the temperament, Harley Quinn’s three season strong cartoon show is ridiculous, adorable, crude, heart-warming, violent, thought-provoking and self-critical. Disparate elements that when being viewed from a character who may well be a little off her rocker than most, seem cogent. This Harley Quinn has entered into a relationship with the most affable interpretation of Poison Ivy yet, where if it weren’t for her eco-terrorist ambitions, would come across as either a neutral or even heroic super-powered individual. Lake Bell’s laid back take on her, which completely drops the sultry seductress aesthetic, really helps make her the needed straight man to Harley’s antics, which grow increasingly less villainous and more anti-hero every episode, to the point where she has all but abandoned being a villain. Forget Lobo, DC’s ironclad Deadpool is and should be Harleen Quinzel.
Hell, even the Joker voiced by Alan Tudyk is abandoning the anarchic destruction and general dickassery of his own past, going from being an abusive boyfriend to Harley to being a surprisingly loving boyfriend to a Hispanic-American nurse and her family. Of course, you can’t totally tame a person like the crown prince of crime and amusingly, he becomes a (mostly) non-lethal agent of chaos this go around, where he wishes to disrupt an even more wretched evil than he was: the status quo that led to the rise of superheroes fighting supervillains.
One such superhero ,Batman, while still heroic, becomes victim not so much of being a knowing or unknowing keeper of the status quo that perpetuates his never-ending battle against crime, but of the own psychological baggage that made him take the lifepath he has. While Harley, Ivy and the rest of their criminal best friends have, to varying degrees, deep-dives into their psyches, it’s Bruce Wayne, voiced perfectly by Diedrich Bader, who gets the biggest psychoanalysis.
You’re meant to both laugh at and yet feel sorry for this take on Batman, a figure that over the course of this season, has his relationship with the bat-family, including his son, deteriorate and a relationship with Selina Kyle fall apart. It’s all very funny and oh so very sad. For all of Batman’s skill, bravado and determination, he is yet a rich kid who lost his parents much too early. More than other takes on the Dark Knight, Harley Quinn ferociously examines what happens when a rich and smart person can’t fully deal with extreme loss at a vulnerable age. For all it’s delightful goofiness, Harley Quinn’s takeaways are straight-faced.
If there was a theme connecting Bruce’s woes with Harley and Ivy’s, which still appropriately take center stage, it’s the nature of maintaining meaningful relationships despite internal struggles with who you are in the midst of an ever crazier world. You know, timely.
Harley Quinn’s third season is its best so far, not the only adult superhero send-up with an exemplary “3” to it’s name and more on that later. It’s one of the funniest experiences of 2022 and justifies more so than Young Justice’s fourth season to not be axed in the name of James Gunn wiping the slate clean. Who knows, maybe the comical yet favorable depiction of Gunn in this season was an attempt to butter up the Troma turned Marvel veteran.
Number Six: All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)
Image from The New York Times
The timing of this third cinematic adaptation of what is for many the WW1 retelling of the Western Theater is curious, and it may or may not b by accident. As Netflix released the film into their service last Fall, the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia has trudged on, with no real end in sight then as it is now, save for the fact that for one side it has largely been a disaster.
Some casualty estimates for both sides number over 100,000, which is numbers a European conflict hasn’t seen since the last World War. More to the point, one of the greatest ongoing fears of the Russo-Ukrainian war is that it risks going nuclear, finally bringing on WW3 in the form we most expect it to take. No matter your stance on the fight occurring in Eastern Europe, no matter your thoughts on the nature of aid being given by other Western powers and for what reason, at least it should be acknowledged that there is a certain level of brutality and coldness wars cause in the human spirit, no matter which side is justified whether in the moment or after.
We have known for over a century at this point what takeaways or recognitions of the nature of what the First World War was like. There are some voices out there who have given defense for the conflict occurring, at least from the Allies’ side. Most would say that the consistently galling execution of the war from both sides where countless lives were wasted for nothing in return makes such defense poor excuse.
One of the major things going against WW1 being excusable to say nothing of justification is that it created the conditions for an even bloodier world war roughly 20 years later. All Quiet on the Western Front once more shows off the misery of being on either side, whether it came during battle or before it.
The score of AQOTWF 22′ from Volker Bertelsmann emphasizes an old but still evergreen association with WW1: that of mechanical slaughter. The opening sequence shows what we are led to at first be is an in-media-res moment of our lead youthful German soldiers going over the line and into an almost certain massacre. Instead, the lead group of German boys fronted by Paul are at their university being congratulated by the Dean for forgoing their academic ventures in favor of taking up arms for the Fatherland.
Keep in mind that unlike earlier versions of the story, based on the novel by Erich Remarque this take doesn’t begin in 1914 at the start of the war, but in 1917, when those same boys probably should’ve seen the signs that among other things, maybe it’s not the best time or place to answer the call of duty. That is, of course, if they even had a choice in the matter ultimately. These boys like in all other takes including the book are bright eyed and enthusiastic to go off to the front to fight for Germany. Being in a college town and with a faculty that is fully willing to indoctrinate their students in spite of the increasingly grim status of the war, perhaps that is why they don’t see the signs and run.
It’s all very familiar and yet somehow all very engaging. Getting back to the fakeout in media res, through a German soldier we follow up until it cuts to black, we then witness the process of how German military uniforms are made at this point. After the cadavers of the dead Germans we were following are disposed of, the uniforms they carried are cleaned, reknitted and repurposed for the new meat of which Paul and friends are part of. All while the sinister mechanical music plays. Here is where blatantness is used well. But then again, does a WW1 story necessitate something other than that?
The sequence of Paul and his fellow soldiers entering the war and their number slowly yet surely being picked off one by one plays with a straightforward matter of factness, which only makes it worse. Rarely is there melodramatic musical cues, the scenes themselves and the vulgarity of the fight being the cue. At around the end of the second act approaching the third, as the war enters its final months in Fall 1918, does the stark horror of WW1 come into full focus. None of the soldiers on either side know the war is close to over, many assume it will be without end. And yet, we see from the perspective of the Germans, a wave of British-French tanks approaching. From the side of the war my country took part in comes pitiless destruction, in the form of shrapnel, flame and the crushing tank-treads.
Despite it being a German adaptation of a German novel, this movie in no way demonizes the Allied powers in favor of the Central Powers that Germany is part of. No side’s leadership is excluded from spite. The callousness of military leadership is present in generals British, French and German. The German general that Paul’s regiment is commanded by is a cruel, emotionally void man who begins to believe and pronounce conspiracies over Germany’s failure to win that will one day be used by the Nazis. The French general during a peace talks meeting is completely disinterested in any concessions from the Germans no matter how fair and even beneficial they could be for both sides long-term, echoing the short-sidedness that would help ensure tens of millions more would die in the future.
Daniel Bruhl, who was the only recognizable face in the movie, plays a German ambassador who is desperate for any way to end a war that Germany simply can’t win. He’s lost his son and even if the war was somehow salvageable would still sue for peace. By extension, he is the only person of authority not on the direct lines of combat that is given any sympathy for he is the only named character who wants an end to the nightmare we get to experience vicariously with Paul. That he has to accept terms that are not good enough in the end represents the endless frustration of the people who seek an end to pain in the face of those who can’t understand suffering.
In a grim year like 2022, it might seem like it’s the absolute worst idea to watch a movie about a time, however far back, that’s about among other things man’s inhumanity to man. We get that sentiment plenty from watching the news or checking Twitter. And yet, this new beautifully yet terribly produced depiction of a well-known conflict feels appropriate. Not only can it make one think about the inherent perniciousness of warfare but about the nature of wars occurring now and in the future.
Some of you have a defense for the war in Ukraine. Some of you have a retort towards it being an ongoing affair. Some of you may have not made up your minds or have no thoughts about it. While the nature of WW1 and the War in Ukraine is not the same in action, it can be the same in the potential if not reality of those in power and wealth to send many to an early end. To recognize that even in the best circumstances, these conflicts have everyday people forced and/or persuaded into unspeakable acts of violence and destruction. That even an act of defense can lead to in the heat of the moment the chance for something indefensible.
As we navigate the very uncertain nature of the 21st century, made ever quietly frightening by the actions and inactions of our species, tell yourself how long we have left to finally keep the lessons of a story based on history like All Quiet on the Western Front. The deadline, for all we know, could be in weeks or days.
Next time, parts 5-1.