Hello everyone, and welcome back to another goddamn Wednesday. I watched a fairly balanced array of features this past week, including an unexpected horror gem, another American classic, and a whole lot of Steven Universe. I enjoyed Steven Universe the first time I watched it, but it turns out my momentum ran out that first time just as the show itself was starting to ramp up. The show only seems to improve as it continues through its third, fourth, and fifth seasons, capping off with a movie that had me bawling again and again. Steven Universe now stands securely besides Avatar: The Last Airbender at the highest echelon of American cartoons, and though I’m sad to leave it behind, I’m glad it’s ending strong, and not repeating Adventure Time’s slow fade of an ending. Anyway, I’m still in the introduction here, so I should probably save some Steven Universe love for the article proper. Let’s break down another Week in Review!
Having watched a good thirty or so horror movies this year, I’ve basically run through at least the first entries in all the major American franchises, along with all the standout features of our recent horror renaissance (the films of Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, Robert Eggers, etc). That had led me to suspect that expanding into horror would require dipping into entirely new subgenres, like the Italian splatter and surrealist works, but this week I found a movie that still fit snugly in my normal wheelhouse, and also scared the shit out of me: The Tunnel.
The Tunnel is set in the disused, uh, tunnels beneath Sydney, Australia, following an investigative team who are hoping to discover why homeless people have been disappearing down there. The tunnels themselves are the film’s most immediate and undeniable strength; a mixture of narrow cement cutbacks, cavernous train graveyards, and industrial detritus, they are an incredible source of anxiety all throughout the film, as the team consistently lose their direction and fret about their dying batteries.
But The Tunnel isn’t one of those found footage movies that’s just a bunch of people running and screaming while the camera shakes around – this film uses the classic combo of one high-quality production camera and one handheld, night vision-ready camera to masterful effect, revealing just enough of its monstrous presence to inspire fantasies of what lurks beyond. Shadows creep in greenish, crackling static, until the light shifts, and the suggestion of a creature emerges purely through its disruption of that fickle green sea. It’s been a long time since I felt this genuinely vulnerable during a movie, like cover-your-eyes-with-your-hands vulnerable, and I’d recommend it to anyone with an appreciation for found footage spooks.
We also screened another crime drama classic this week, The Taking of Pelham 123, centered on a group of four men who take the titular subway train hostage in the middle of New York City. I’d mostly expected this film to be a finely crafted pressure cooker, and it certainly is that – the opening sequence as the men prepare for their work is masterful, the film is shot with a loose, energetic style that really elevates its ensemble appeal, and the final act is a perfect stack of escalation upon escalation.
What I wasn’t expecting, and what has stuck with me more than anything else from the film, is how funny it all was. For one thing, the hostage takers here aren’t your usual stoic-faced mercenaries; their leader is clever, self-assured, and prone to fits of bleak philosophy, while his train conductor associate grumbles the whole movie about how he expects to die, while sneezing uncontrollably into his handkerchief. Meanwhile, their hostages constitute a diverse menagerie of ‘70s New York characters, who spend the whole film bickering among themselves, tentatively negotiating with their captors, and generally embodying the brash, confrontational ethos of classic New Yorkers. The cops are even more of a collection of crotchety New Yorkers; I could imagine all of them stomping into each other on the street, furiously shouting “I’m walkin’ here!” “No, I’M walkin’ here!” to each other for hours on end. Great performances across the board make the most of this incredibly character-rich script, making for a film that feels light-footed yet rich in substance, with a terrific roller coaster of a crime tying it all together.
And of course, there was Steven Universe. Going into Steven’s fifth season, I couldn’t imagine how the show was going to resolve all its moving pieces, as well as all its major thematic arguments, within one season. And yet, it all fit together perfectly, standing as an almost flawless (hah) capstone on an altogether incredible show.
Though Steven Universe takes place in the shadow of a war, it is ultimately not a story about war, or a story about the intractable cruelty of the universe. It’s a story about growth, both in how we must encourage positive growth in others, and how we must learn to see ourselves as creatures in a constant process of building stronger, happier, more self-loving versions of ourselves. That theme of learning to love ourselves is crucial to this show, and essentially serves as the driving force for all its socially minded subthemes.
Ruby and Sapphire must learn to love being Garnet on their own terms, outside of the shadow of Rose’s legacy. Characters like Sadie and Lars need to find their own truths, and accept the parts of themselves they’ve seen as embarrassing, or just not worth celebrating. And Steven must learn to love himself, truly love being who he is, in spite of all the doubts his mother’s legacy and past selves have inspired within him. It’s undeniably a trans narrative, and an excellent one, yet it’s told in terms of simple, fundamental understanding and kindness – an expression not of an arbitrary moral rule, but of how a loving, accepting heart will naturally lead to both the attitudes Steven expresses, and the love he enjoys. That gorgeous cut of Steven fully, literally embracing himself had me in tears, and served both as a thematic capstone to Steven’s journey, and also a final twist of Rose’s legacy. Rose did many terrible things, but at least one thing she told Steven was true: she loves him, and loves being him.
Anyway, speaking of Rose doing terrible things, Steven Universe: The Movie. Though the introduction of an entirely new, film-original antagonist is always a structurally dicey proposition, The Movie is able to segue into it fairly naturally, by virtue of our firm understanding of what a selfish, cruel person Rose Quartz could be. Our shifting impression of Rose is one of Steven Universe’s heaviest and most compelling threads; Steven moves from not really knowing anything about her, to just knowing she was “pretty great,” to realizing he’s expected to be her, to understanding that she might have done some terrible things, to finally, fully accepting that his mom was a capricious and deeply selfish person. Though her inconstant nature did lead her to defend the earth from Homeworld, that ultimately feels as substantial as any of her other whims; she lived surrounded by people who adored her, did whatever she wanted, abandoned people when they bored her, and frequently shifted her interests entirely, discarding her old selves without a thought. Rose was a magnificent presence, but a cruel and selfish person; the virtues Steven embodies, he had to come to through the support of his actual family, not the influence of his absent mother.
In the movie, Rose’s cruelty once again comes back to haunt Steven, as we’re introduced to Spinel, another gem who was left behind by Rose’s whims. Spinel’s status as an “abandoned toy” is emphasized through her very design – rather than the modern, angular, superhero-esque designs of most gems, she’s a perpetually dancing rubber hose-limbed jester, bringing to mind classic cartoons of the 1930s. In practice, that design combines with her current trauma to create a vision of fractured levity, with permanent mascara runs and a tendency to jump between eager laughter and utter fury.
She’s absolutely great, is what I’m saying, and her arc is elevated by a film that features the best in Steven Universe animation, as well as a generous number of excellent songs (it’s a musical, of course). All that, and Spinel doesn’t even really hog the spotlight; this film still feels like a victory lap for the series at large, celebrating all of Steven’s growth, all of the distinct relationships he’s formed, and how much all of his friends have learned to love themselves, as well.
Steven Universe doesn’t shy away from the heavy shit, but it loves its cast and its world so damn much, and it’s all so thoughtfully, beautifully done that that love is absolutely infectious. I am incredibly happy a show like this exists for young people to watch – a show that doesn’t talk down to them with simplified or arbitrary lessons, which acknowledges the difficulty of growing as a person at every turn, and which through its poignancy of characterization and clear moral insight, demonstrates a myriad number of ways to become both a better and happier, more self-assured person. This show is a treasure.