theferrett: (Meazel)

American Elsewhere, by Robert J. BennettIt’s hard to be impressed by the unknowable when you live right next door to the fuckers.

Which is to say that there’s a reason most of Lovecraft’s protagonists went insane at the end of the story.  If they’d continued to explain the Elder Gods in a refined, white-dude tone of voice for another fifty pages, it doesn’t matter how horrific Yog-Sothoth was, we’d get used to him.  Humanity’s survival skill is adaptation.  No matter whether we’re living in a ditch with flies laying eggs in our eyes or so rich that it’s cause for a bitch-slap if someone brings you a drink without ice, we come to think of what we know as normal.

So most books that open up a portal to brain-blowing other-dimension worlds and stay there long enough for us to get a good look?  Suck, and suck hard.  The Elder Gods are built on shock value, the idea that we literally cannot adapt to them… but the truth is, we probably could.  Stare hard enough into the void, and you’ll learn to ignore enough of it to get by.  And the more time we spend with Cthulhu, the more he seems kind of rubbery and sad.

American Elsewhere, however, takes a different approach.

Because there is a town in New Mexico, one that is on no map, one next to a mysteriously abandoned physics lab on a mesa.  This town, despite being miles from nowhere, is a 1950s-style wet dream of a town with a perfect pie-making diner and freshly-mowed lawns and kids playing baseball under the American flag.  Except when Mona, a hard-bitten cop with a suicidal mother haunting her past, discovers that she owns a piece of property here, she seeks it out – and finds exactly what is wrong underneath the surface….

Part of what keeps American Elsewhere bubbling along is that Robert J. Bennett knows just what detail is going to throw you.  He’s very good at setting up a realistic world, one that feels exactly like this one, made of studded 2x4s set deep into concrete foundations.  And then, in the middle of that painstaking realism, he places that one odd detail that uncorks potential worlds of weirdness seething underneath, a flurry of implications that keeps your brain frothing nicely.

(And, more importantly, he plays fair with the details.  They all make sense later on, in context.  It’s a lot like if LOST had actually thought that cause and effect was a priority instead of an annoyance.)

I don’t think it’ll be a surprise to any horror fan that the town of Wink, New Mexico is living right next to the unthinkable.  But the trick here is that Robert is smart enough to understand that if these wild other dimensions exist, we would be just as alien to them as they are to us.  As such, the book contains an astonishing amount of weirdness, but that weirdness expresses itself as a struggle for cross-pollination – of two wildly differing spaces trying to fathom each other, and the insanity that evolves from that imperfect adaptation.

Yet for all of this chaos, American Elsewhere remains firmly character-driven.  It’s not about the weirdness – it’s always resolutely set on exploring the people facing this weirdness, and the actions they take to defend what they think is right.  As such, what you wind up with is a lot like Half-Life might have looked if the protagonist wasn’t a mute man who could only interact with the world through violence; there’s a lot of exploring the past in an attempt to view the prism of the future, with many mixed results.

The end result is a very satisfying lap-buster of a tome, with that happy tension of a Stephen King or a Ray Bradbury echoing throughout it – that nostalgic pull we all feel for a stable town and home clashing inevitably with change – that feels remixed and refreshed.  It’s one of those books that should be a hot mess, but instead assembles itself into something more than the sum of its parts to become a statement on what America is, and might be.

As such, what you get is not a reflection of the unknown, but a distorted lens reflecting upon us.  And that is worth the price of admission, my friends.  Recommended.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

I was terribly excited when my friend George told me about Room 237, because George had turned me into a The Shining addict.

See, The Shining was a source of deep disappointment to me for years – it’s one of my favorite Stephen King books, but the movie version was cold, antiseptic, and not at all surprising.  The whole point of the book was that you sympathized with Jack Torrance at first, and then he became a monster – with Jack Nicholson playing him, he was a lunatic from that first slimy, leery-eyed smile.  All of the family love that I adored about the Shining, where dysfunctional people who really cared about each other were teased into murder by the machinations of the hotel, had completely disappeared.

And then George started sending me videos.

The video that first got me was this analysis of the Shining’s literally impossible architecture, where there’s an office with an outside window where there logically could be none – and watch how carefully Kubrick has the camera follow Jack into that office, as if he wanted to show you just how crazy this all was.  There’s enough of those impossibilities that it becomes far more than your standard set-building shortcuts, and more like a subliminal effect Kubrick purposely built in:

And the more you know about Kubrick, the more you suspect he did it on purpose.  The man was a genius with a 200 IQ, an obsessive Freudian, prone to thinking in abstract terms.  He was meticulous about his sets, spending literally millions on 2001: A Space Odyssey to make sure that everything in the movie was space-ready and compliant with what NASA knew about space, even though no one else would care.  He placed cans on sets by himself, arranging them for his own purposes.  He gave Shelly Duvall a nervous breakdown during the filming of the Shining, forcing her to do a scene 200+ times until he was satisfied for reasons that nobody else on the set understood, setting a Guinness World Record for the number of takes.  (He might have broken that record with Scatman Crothers, were it not for people yelling at him with concerns that the elderly Scatman couldn’t take it any more.)

So if there’s one filmmaker ever who would have scattered his film with obscure references to tell an alternate story, it is Kubrick – revered, popular, given big-budget movies and no Hollywood control.

And if you look closely at the Shining, there are some very weird things happening that don’t make sense.  The architecture shifting is one thing; there’s clearly a body coming out of the elevator of blood in another.  There’s something going on beneath the surface, and given that Kubrick liked his films to be rewatched, some of those details are meant to be seen.

But then you have the guy who claims that the movie is actually about the genocide of the Indians, based purely on the fact that in two scenes, there are Calumet cans of baking soda, and they’re turned different ways.

What I wanted from Room 237, which documents these various Shining conspiracy theories, was to take us on the emotional journey – set it up that reclusive, cryptic Kubrick was the kind of guy who did crazy shit like this.  Show us the most obvious bits of mindfuckery so we’d go, “Oh, man, look!  He really fucked us on that one, I never noticed – what else is there?”  Then, bit by bit, show us increasingly dubious or arguable tricks of The Shining, stepping us further into conspiracy nutjob things, so by the time we get to the theory that The Shining is Kubrick’s encoded apology for faking the moon landing footage, we’re sitting there questioning everything we know.  Was any of this planned?  Was all of it?  Where do you draw the line on Kubrick’s intention?

But no.  The film is incompetent – just six faceless nutjobs rambling on their various theories.  The film starts with the Calumet can theory, one of the most ludicrous, shooting its wad in one go.  It barely touches on the legitimate reasons people think there might be a hidden message in the movie, ignores Kubrick mostly, giving no history, throwing out various weird bits of the Shining as if they’re all equal.

Now, some of my friends have liked Room 237 because it’s a look at conspiracy thinking, which I can see – the way these people obsess over crazy details, spending more time on an extra with no lines than all of Scatman Crothers’ scenes.  But the movie starts by trashing the very idea that there might be any legitimacy in these theories to begin with, then letting these guys drone on for ninety minutes with no unifying theme.  And they’re boring.  I maintain you could have made a way more interesting film out of this even if you just wanted to use The Shining as a meditation on how crazy conspiracy theorists get.

The film’s so incompetent that at one point, a crying child interrupts one of the narrators.  Do we cut this out of the film?  No.  We wait for fifteen seconds in silence, the film paused, while he tends to his kid.  It’s like they weren’t even trying, man.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

If you had asked me two days ago what a perfect sequel was, I would have told you “The Empire Strikes Back.”  Every time I see Empire, I’m utterly astounded at how sure-footed it is; how it literally reintroduces each of the main characters in a mini-sequence that’s just as exciting and interesting as the original Star Wars, then proceeds to turn each of those characters’ strengths into weaknesses.  Is Luke a starry-eyed dreamer?  Well, now that he’s a real Jedi, that’s a very bad thing.  Is Han a smartmouthed rogue?  Well, now his history is coming home to roost.  In every way, including the ending, Empire Strikes Back really was the best sequel there ever was.

Now, however, I’ll add “Bioshock Infinite” to that list.  Because it taught me how to do a different kind of sequel perfectly.

I still remember how stunning it was six years ago to say “Bioshock is a deconstruction of Ayn Rand’s philosophies”… but after descending into the capitalism-crazed, creator-worshipping undersea world of Rapture, you couldn’t deny it was the most popular bash of Objectivist thinking as you saw how Jack Ryan’s dream of creating his artistic refuge had fallen apart.  The gameplay was unique thanks to the miniboss Big Daddies, but what really sold Bioshock was following this tarnished 1920s dream of a philosophy through its inevitable unwinding.  I was far more thrilled at finding another audio log than I was at killing an enemy.

So when it came time to do the sequel, folks thought in Empire Strikes Back-style rehashes: how can we do more of the same, while making those elements seem new?  And so we went back to Rapture with a twist, to battle the Big Daddies with a twist, and had another semi-twist at pretty much the same place in the plot, and… it felt warmed-over.  Which is the failure mode of ESB sequels – you don’t manage to add enough new stuff, and it’s okay but it’s a faint echo.

Bioshock Infinite goes the more adventurous sequel route.  “Let’s throw out literally everything,” it says.  “No Big Daddies, no underwater city of Rapture, no Ayn Rand – what’s thematically like those, though?”   And so Bioshock Infinite took another, bolder route – exploring the concept of American exceptionalism.

Which is, frankly, tough to do.  The problem with a thematic sequel is that themes are nebulous, and often unsatisfying, and most “Let’s start again” sequels felt like different, less interesting films.  And so I’d never had a real success in this department to compare to.  But if Bioshock Infinite is a warm, sunny baseball park with happy white kids playing a pleasant afternoon game on a Sunday afternoon, then the game itself is one of Babe Ruth’s called shots.

For once again, you investigate a mysterious city – but this one is Columbia, floating above the clouds!  And whereas Rapture was dark, Art Deco, and in decay, Columbia is at the height of its powers, large, grassy, idyllic, populated by barbershop quartets and well-behaved ladies in hoop skirts, eating cotton candy.  The inhabitants literally worship the Founding Fathers, kneeling before large statues of Washington and his Sword, Franklin and his Key, and Jefferson and his Scrolls.  And, of course, they worship the Founder, the religious zealot who created this bold vision of America.

You’re here to erase some debts and find a girl.  And unlike the silent protagonist of Bioshock, you have a voice – you’re a hard-bitten ex-soldier who says things you may or may not agree with.  And eventually, you find the girl and have adventures.

I won’t get into the plot overmuch, but I will say that it’s incredibly ambitious, the kind of weirdness explained that outdoes Inception and makes Lost look like a tangle of strings.  By the time you’re done, you’ll be amazed at the audacity of the plot, which winds its way through time in a way that involves no less than four parallel plots coming together to mesh into something approaching an honest answer.  Not every bit of oddness is explained, but so much of it does make sense once you know the key that Bioshock Infinite outdoes any sci-fi television show I can think of to date in terms of neatly tying things together… and I’m a Babylon 5 fan.

Yet it feels coherent.  This is Bioshock.  It’s not the Bioshock you knew, but all the elements are in place.  It’s the same, but different.

As for the gameplay, it’s probably about 90% tuned.  The controls are slightly twitchy for what they’re trying to do. The end goal is to ride the overhead rails of Columbia, attaching yourself to a rollercoaster that winds its way through the complex levels and having a firefight along the way… But the controls aren’t tuned enough.  You speed along so fast that there’s literally not enough time to aim at the targets you want, and they’re annoyingly late in that you’re trying to dismount onto a villain for a power attack, and instead lamely land three feet in front of him, facing the wrong way.

Add that to the fact that this game loves its smoke effects – your gun actually fogs your vision, on top of fog – so it’s hard to tell where shots are coming from.  And then your companion throws you power-ups in mid-battle, which is helpful but the camera stops to turn at her so you know just who gave you that bottle of salts, and so it means that combat is often a struggle to stay facing the right direction.

That said, fighting is still good when you’re on the ground.  But the aerial sequences seemed closer to luck than to skill, and the tremendously frustrating last level (sadly) relies on so much aerial fighting I dropped the level to “Easy” and felt thoroughly justified.

But Bioshock Infinite doesn’t need the 100% tuned gameplay of, say, a Diablo III, where the enjoyment is all centered in the gameplay.  There’s one long sequence in Bioshock Infinite where all you do is walk up a long hill, press a button and wait for a minute, then do that two more times.  Then you go back down that exact same slope, except faster and without the button pressing.  And yet that sequence is one of the most thrilling moments in Bioshock Infinite, for the tale you’re walking through is so engrossing that you don’t even care that there is literally zero gameplay challenge in it.  It’s a testament to the power of story, which takes the mundane and makes it riveting.

So from now on, when asked what the best sequel ever is, I’ll ask, “Which kind of sequel are we talking here?”  Because Empire Strikes Back did the “more of the same” perfectly. Bioshock Infinite does the “raze the old stuff to the ground and build anew” perfectly.  And both, I think, will be landmarks of their media.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Magic Mike:
Critics were astounded when it turned out that men wanted to watch a movie about male strippers.  This is because critics are dumb.  Magic Mike appeals to men because male strippers are shown as a low-level form of gangsters – having threesomes by the dozens, earning mad cash, part of a clan that only a few six-packed beauties can aspire to.  The bodies on display are for women, sure, but the storyline is pure masculine wish-fulfillment.

Unfortunately, Magic Mike is precisely half a good movie.  The tale of Magic Mike bringing his bro-heim into the fold is compelling, interesting, and clever.  But then the movie gets weighted down by society, where everyone knows that Those People Who Take Off Their Clothes Can Be Up To No Good, and so we are treated to a really tortured, character-wrenching series of plot twists where we see the emotional toll that all of this happiness and freedom brings you, complete with a botched drug deal and backstabbing and OH THESE STRIPPERS, THEY CAN NEVER BE HAPPY.  And so, as payment (spoilers!), Magic Mike has to abandon his club, and all his money, but as his reward he gets the cute, innocent girl he’s wanted to fuck all along.

Yes, society.  Good women are the prize that all men should get for acting wonderfully, and no person can be a sex worker without being secretly miserable and dysfunctional.  Way to go, fellas.

As a side note: the dance sequences in the film are elaborate, creative, and amazing.  One suspects there are a lot of disappointed women turning up at Chippendale’s afterwards.

Flight:
I know what they’re trying to do with this movie, but they fucked it up.

The intent is to ask, “How do you get back to your normal life after a major, life-changing event?”  And the first half hour of Flight, where the plane crashes and only Denzel Washington can save from total wreckage, are riveting.  Denzel earns his Oscar nomination here, because while the plane is plummeting straight down at 10,000 feet a minute and the crew is panicking, Denzel is barking our orders, calmly telling everyone what to do in the attempts to fix this.  Except, because Denzel’s acting is pitch-perfect, you realize that Denzel realizes just how bad things are, and is pretty sure he’s about to die, but is refusing to let it get to him.  (Perhaps, in part, because he’s drunk.  But he’s also a damn good pilot.)

The problem is that the most intense part of the film comes at the beginning; hell, you could have ended Flight at 34:00 and I would have been entirely satisfied.  But no, we then have to follow an alcoholic through his increasing assholery… so we not only have the aftershock of a lot of talking heads, which feels like a come-down after GOD DAMN THAT PLANE CRASHED, but the lead is entirely unsympathetic.  So we’re feeling drained, and though we don’t care.

The ending is also a large portion of bullshit.  We also probably did not need the ridiculously stereotyped porn star/junkie, fucking desperately for cash.

Django Unchained:
Like Flight and Magic Mike, this was a beautiful first half of the film.  The segments where Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz meet and become friends, with Christoph training Django how to be a bounty hunter… it was beautiful.  There were moments of true friendship, laughs as race was played with overtly, and some great action sequences.

Then there’s an hour and a half at Leonardo DiCaprio’s mansion when there should have been forty-five minutes.  And to drag the movie out further, one of the characters does a truly stupid thing that’s totally at odds with everything he’s been shown to be beforehand, at a time when he had effectively won.  (I mean, seriously, a little humiliation aside, he’d gotten everything he set out to do.)  It just felt tedious at the mansion (though I loved DiCaprio’s performance), with too many mundane plot twists and not enough forward motion.  I mean, if you’re gonna have people speaking, sure!  Have DiCaprio whip out the skull of his old slave servant and whap it on the table.  But we needed more skull-whapping moments, and less long dinner conversations.

Also, though I enjoyed it, I kept thinking, What would be the reaction if this had been made by Spike Lee?  And if we hadn’t had the ha ha, the guy directing this is on our side, this movie would have freaked the fuck out of America, and so it’s basically a multi-million dollar exercise in white privilege.  That doesn’t dismiss the goodness of the film, of course, but realistically it proves that this is all about the messenger.   And Tarantino’s in-film assertion (who knows whether he believes it) that the reason the slaves didn’t revolt is because they were meek and not as good as Django was, just maaaaaybe, a little facile given that at at least three points, Django only escapes out of purest fucking luck.  Hey, great to think that the point of the entire slavery thing is that blacks need to be more badass, but if Samuel Jackson had limped into that shed literally a minute later, we’d be talking about a very dead and humiliated Django.

So lots of problems.  Still entertaining.  But hoo boy.

Beasts of the Southern Wild:
Like the Battlestar Galactica remake, I did not enjoy this so much as I appreciated it.  It was beautifully done, a window to a level of poverty and culture that we don’t see much, but the whole thing was catastrophically painful and depressing.  Some seemed to think it was an uplifting fairy tale, to which I ask them exactly what brand of crack they are smoking.

This is the perfect Oscar movie.  Brilliant performances, saddening, you leave the theater feeling wrung of all happiness.  Good work, Oscars.

Hope Springs
This is a perfect little movie.  It doesn’t shoot high, restraining itself to the sex life of a very frigid old couple, but it hits every note it sets out to.  In a weaker Oscar year, I think Tommy Lee Jones could (and should) have been nominated for his performance.

A lot of people don’t like this film because, well, it’s about old people learning to fuck again, and OMG EYEW.  To which I say, fuck you, old people have every right to fuck and even more, and your disgust shouldn’t enter into it.  But Hope Springs is also a small movie; there’s no outside interference.  Steve Carell plays their therapist, in a truly amazing role because he’s actually a perfectly helpful therapist. He’s not trying to break them apart, he’s not incompetent, he is just in fact there to help, and he bats probably 85% in terms of giving good advice.

So what you have is a paintcan movie, where two people are effectively locked in a room until they work out their problems.  It’s good, subtle work, and enjoyable.

Plus, if there’s another film where Meryl Streep is sucking off somebody in a movie theater, I can’t think of it.

 

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

The entire time I was watching the Hobbit, I thought, “If the Star Wars Prequels had been done like this, there would have been a lot less complaining.”

This is not to say that The Hobbit is as good as Lord of the Rings – it isn’t, merely because despite Peter Jackson’s attempts to infuse The Hobbit with LotR’s gravitas, it’s a smaller and fluffier tale.  But it knows how to get fanservice right.  There’s so many delightful moments in this for those who loved the movies that it feels like going back home again.  And maybe it’s a little long, and a little silly at times, but there’s pleasure in revisiting that comfy, comfy hobbit-hole.

Beyond that, I’m too tired to string together bits into an essay, so let’s just bullet-point.

Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo, mainly because he refuses to be shackled by Ian Holm’s performance.  Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is the quintessence of befuddled, polite Brit – trying to be nice, yearning for something greater, but not quite honest enough to tell people how he’s really feeling unless he’s backed against the wall.  It’s a delightful performance, filled with great body language and perfect comedic timing….

…but that would all be for naught if Martin’s Bilbo didn’t have a heroic side to him, too.  We know, because the movies tell us he will, that Bilbo stayed his hand for Gollum out of pity.  We know, because of narrative need to show Bilbo’s character development, that this must be A Moment in the movie.  And when the time comes for Bilbo to put on his Big Damn Hero pants, it’s all the more effective because no, he isn’t a hero, he’s a small man determined to do right.

The Dwarves were largely a mass of indeterminate beards, but I plucked a few personalities out of the bunch: Thorin, this movie’s Aragorn, the old smart infodump dwarf, the stupid young one, the two fighting ones.  This isn’t really a detraction, though, as the dwarves are supposed to be a chaos, and so they are.  Much is made in the film of people counting them to ensure they haven’t missed one, and that’s a nice subtle cue to the reader that no, we don’t really know them all either.

The movie zipped along quite nicely.  I was expecting ass-creep, got very little.  People who complain about the pacing may have a point, but I suspect for them there’s no joy in seeing all the tiny parallels and fleshing-outs of LotR’s world.  I kept going, “Oh!  Now I know where that came from!” As I said: fan-service.

Peter Jackson has a sense of spectacle.  This film is gorgeous eye-candy, and that also speeds things along.

Hey, remember when Legolas stabbed an orc with one arrow, then shot another orc with the same arrow, and that was badass?  And then Legolas did the flippy-thing on the horse in Two Towers, and that was badass?  And then Peter Jackson went batshit crazy and had Legolas take down an Oliphaunt in a movie that should have been badass, but instead defied physics to the point where instead of shouting in triumph, you instead suppressed a Flintstone-like urge to yell “YABBA DABBA DOO!”?  Well, sadly, a large portion of the last third of the film consists of a CGI spectacle where physics fail to matter, like the elephany battle squared, and you have a bunch of dwarves jumping and fighting in ways that would clearly not work in the real world, and as such it feels more like a videogame than anything you actually care about.  It’s exciting, but there’s zero tension because, like Indiana Jones, you’re excruciatingly aware that these are guys fighting imaginary constructs on videogame platforms.  And that’s a very sad loss, because this should be a great battle sequence and instead it’s just more eye candy.

The Gollum scene is delightful, as is Gollum.  My love for Andy Serkis swellss.  Unfortunately, the other CGI creations that get full-sequence aren’t nearly as compelling; in particular, a legendary Orc badass looks very plasticine in closeups, with waxy scars, and I kept going, “Uh, yeah, that’s fake.”

The soundtrack is wonderfully interlaced; the Dwarf mourning song feels very organically placed into the film, and the way the movie interlaces threads of old LotR themes with new ones is quite delightful; little tidbits of hobbitness whenever Bilbo’s feeling homesick, snippets of The Ring theme showing up here and there until, like the Aston Martin in Skyfall, the arrival of the One Ring lets it blaze forth…. It’s delightfully done.

Given how quickly X show up when Y requests their presence, do not tell me how the X couldn’t have dispatched the ring right quick in LotR if they’d wanted to.  These guys are delivery service.

The additions to the film are, as I feared, more Jackson than Tolkien.  There’s a lot of sequences where we get to see Big Spectacle and maybe don’t need to, but Jackson wanted an exciting chase sequence here, and so he sifted through the Silmarillion until he found a sentence somewhere that justified it.  And there’s a big ol’ meeting where people stand around and go, “SAURON’S DEFEATED, WE TOTALLY DON’T NEED TO WORRY ABOUT HIM,” and Gandalf is like, “No, hey, Sauron is totes coming three films from now,” and they’re all like, “Well, let’s discuss this some more.”  Which is not entirely successful at grafting the events of The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings, mainly because it’s a very long and talky scene, but on the other hand it’s kind of like watching the remaining members of Nirvana reunite in that yeah, maybe it’s not that great but you’re just happy to see ‘em all standing around again.

Is that Doctor Who as Radagast the Brown?  Holy fuck, I’m glad the man still has a career!  Go you.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

So I’ve been playing a fair amount of Borderlands 2, and last night I finally thumped my head against the glass ceiling; level 50, babies.  As high as one can go.

It’s been fun, because Borderlands 2 is not, shall we say, a challenging game.  There’s some mild elements of dexterity involved, but basically it’s an auto-gunner; the game actually has an option to aim your gun for you, homing in on the closest enemy if you get within range.  (Which I use, because the X-Box controller sucks for fine reticule targeting.  I miss my mouse.)  There’s no penalty for dying except they scrape a bit of cash off your account.  It’s nothing like, say, the moderate complexity of Half-Life.

Mostly, Borderlands 2 is about optimizing your build.

It’s a spreadsheet game.  How good a gun can you get?  (As some wag noted, in Borderlands 2, you aren’t a character, you are your gun.)  What skill tree can you max out to support this fabulous gun?  Can you team up with a friend to get better weapon drops?  And from there, it’s all about maximizing damage per second and taking advantages of cooldown times. Occasionally you have to find cover, but if you feel like it you can just walk in guns a-blazing until someone drops you, then respawn and go back.

And that’s oddly relaxing, because I don’t have to work really hard to get ahead in this game, I just have to go here and shoot something and go there and fetch something, and it’s enough activity to keep the game-brain ticking without actually frustrating me.  I can just get into the groove for a few hours.

It wasn’t until the expansions came out, bringing with them special multiplayer-only “raid bosses,” that I realized what Borderlands 2 had done to me:

This was a MMORPG.

A single-player MMORPG.

Once I realized that, it all became clear: the obsession with equipment, the hunt for better drops, even the dudes hanging around with exclamation points over their head.  I’d never played a MMORPG because, well, a game with no end point is a one-way ticket to unemployment for addicted old me.  But here I was, several months of my life into this game, and they’d snuck a MMORPG in under the radar.

And just as predicted, it sucked out several months of my life.  These things are predicated on the Diablo model of advancement; I know Yahtzee hates the “drop and stop” method of playing, but it’s a way of constantly littering your path with just enough rewards to keep you hungry.  It may be another two hours until you level up, but is that gun better?  What about that shield?  Hey, it’s orange, it must be great!  And so you keep yanking that slot machine trigger, firing at things in the hopes of getting the massively great gun.

As it is, I’ll probably quit until they raise the level cap.  The Pirate expansion was quite good, but the Torgue expansion is drier, and as it is the Siren build I have stops dead one level before I get Blight Phoenix, the one skill I was working towards.  So unless they make it level 60, and let me have my gouts of acid, flame, and slag, then I’m not interested.

But I find it fascinating, the way that they basically ripped off much of what made World of Warcraft work and just quietly turned it into a first-person shooter.  Well done, Borderlands.  Well done.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

You cannot understand how good Cloud Atlas is until you understand all the fine qualities of my ass.  My ass is a fine-tuned, boredom-detecting machine.  Placed in the uncomfortable seat of a movie theater, my ass will creep at the slightest hint of movie padding, and it’s rare that my ass emerges from a film without proclaiming, loudly, that this movie was ten minutes too long.

Cloud Atlas is three hours long, and my ass barely quivered.

That is how good Cloud Atlas is. For me.  As I’ll explain shortly, there are some very good reasons why Cloud Atlas might not be for you.

Cloud Atlas is actually six stories woven together, and individually, each of the stories aren’t worth much… and they’re violently at odds with each other in terms of tone.  How does the comedic flailings of Jim Broadbent as a hapless publisher trying to avoid being beaten up by his thuggish clients interlace with the cold Asian future of clones, where Doona Bae is born into slavery at the futuristic equivalent of an Applebees, meant to be used and discarded?  How does Tom Hanks mutter-and-patois rendition of a post-apocalyptic future beset by Braveheart-painted horse-riding savages intertwine with Halle Berry’s 1970s nuclear power plant investigations?  Judged on their own merits, most of these tales don’t even have a definitive ending, let alone a satisfying one.

But that’s the trick; the Wachowski siblings move from plotline to plotline with the rapidity of a man spinning plates, sometimes, switching between three plots in the course of a minute.  And they layer on the emotional resonances, so that the storylines are not knotted together by coincidence of plot, but by mood; it’s not just one character falling into mortal danger, it’s three people at once.  Four people discover the meaning of friendship within two minutes, each emotional revelation pouring into the next.

Alone, each of these notes would be simple.  Yet in this, the Wachowskis create the cinematic equivalence of a chord, repeatedly and skillfully playing the same notes with variances so they harmonize, swell, take on greater meaning than any single instance of a tale.

The flicker-and-flash keeps the story moving, as you don’t have the time to ponder where it’s all going; just as you’re starting to see down the pathway of the amanuensis storyline, when it would become predictable, you’re wheeled off to the 1850s tale on a bobbing Transatlantic ship-journey, and are distracted all over again.  This is one tale where there is a narrative necessity of having multiple jump-cuts, and it works.

…or it doesn’t.  The problem with Cloud Atlas is that, like old-school Kirk Star Trek and Titanic, it’s so bold and big that you kind of need to buy into it.  Does anyone ever talk like they did in Titanic?  Well, no.  And stylistically, either you buy into it – in which case it’s magnificent – or it plummets straight into the Land Du Frommage.  The Wachowskis were trying to make A Statement by slurring racial lines, having white people as black people and men as women and asians as whites and yes, whites as asians – but that statement is, usually, “We needed a bigger makeup budget.”  Because the Negri- and Caucasizations are usually pretty decent, but the attempts to turn whites into asians makes people look like low-budget Klingons.  They don’t look asian, they look off-puttingly foreign, like some sort of warped branch of humanity, and oh God is that Doona Bae as a ginger don’t look directly at her she will twist your eyeballs like Twizzlers.

I didn’t find the yellowfacing to be racial, as I’d feared.  I did, however, find it to be a constant distraction.  Likewise, I was charmed by the garbled patois of Tom Hanks’ post-apocalyptic future, but I could easily see it being laughable – and frankly, Tom Hanks’ attempts to do non-American accents were hysterical.  (Let us not start on poor Hugh Grant attempting to do what I’m pretty sure is an American accent.)  While Cloud Atlas is unflaggingly beautiful to look at, there are a lot of substandard executions you just have to take as a part of it, and I suspect most moviegoers haven’t.

Plus, Cloud Atlas is being oversold.  Roger Ebert refers to it as though it’s some sort of deep and crazy mystery, man, fuckin’ Cloud Atlas, how does it work?  But no.  It’s six simple stories, weaved together, and the only mystery is whether Roger Ebert is getting too old to follow films any more.  Nor is Cloud Atlas really deep, man – yes, it has attempts at Buddhist overtones with reincarnation and such, but the main message is “friendship is good, oppression is bad.”  It’s a sweet, simple idea, wrapped in a very crunchy shell, but don’t mistake this for a movie that will blow your mind.  Fight Club raised a lot of philosophical questions and then infamously refused to answer them, making it as genuinely complex as a Hollywood film gets – Cloud Atlas raises few questions and then never wavers on where the moral center is, planting its finger and saying, “Here.  Here is goodness.”

But that’s part of the charm, for me.  Cloud Atlas isn’t trying to be cynical, not trying to hide a simple moral message with needless complexity that way, say, The Fountain tried to.   The Fountain was afraid of speaking simplicity because for them, “simple” meant “unworthy of consideration,” and so it gussied it up with a lot of pretention and obscurity.  There’s nothing obscure about Cloud Atlas.  It wears its heart proudly on six sleeves.  There’s not a lot to debate, just a story told well, and even if you hate it you’ll probably hate it in an interesting way.

My advice: go see it.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

My daughter Erin has mostly stopped playing Borderlands 2 with me, and it may be time for me to take a break.  This is because the mission design of Borderlands 2 is pretty damned dreadful, and the skill tree is a disappointment.

Now, the core run-n-gun gameplay is fun, which partially saves it.  But each mission you can take is long – I’d estimate at least an hour to two hours for each one, assuming you’re mildly incompetent, as we are.  And it’s long in the same way, in that most missions involve you fighting your way through a bunch of enemies to find the foozle.

There’s gotta be some study for “ideal mission length” that Diablo uses to entrap people’s souls, but Borderlands misses the mark.  See, when the missions get to be that long, you forget what the point of them is.  Sure, there’s a lot of clever writing about how you’re trying to hunt down a broadcast radio or rescue an innocent or deliver a fire cultist to the immolation pit… but when you’ve spent the last forty-five minutes repeatedly shooting and running and taking cover and hiding, you forget all that.  The flavor drains away, and you’re enmeshed in the same stupid gameplay mechanics, fighting your way to the blue rectangle on the map.  I can’t count the number of times I finally reached the goal and forgot why I was supposed to be there.

So what’s left is the mechanics.  “Oh, here I am, shooting again.  Just like I was an hour ago.”

Plus, the goals are often these absurdly padded multi-part extravaganzas: hey, don’t just kill one mutated vorkid in an annoying acid-melting fight, fight four of them!  Don’t just have one part to this tea party mission, have five of them!  And of course, you get no XP until you’ve eaten every last one of your vegetables.

It might help a little if the levelling up was more rewarding, but too many of the skills are passive (and thus easily forgotten), like “reloading faster after you kill an enemy.”  It doesn’t really seem like you’re reloading faster.  There’s no graphical doodad to remind you that this +15% speed boost is, in fact, a reward, so it just feels like you’re the same old guy.  And then half the skill tree things have multiple levels, so levelling up has zero excitement – what am I doing for the next five levels?  Well, I guess I’m maxing out this skill.

It’s a good game at the core, but it’s the little things that are fucking killing it.  If they’d had twenty-minute missions, then it would feel flavorful, like I’m making constant progress.  I’d be addicted.  As it is, I’m thinking of taking a break, and Erin already has.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

All my science-fiction writin’ friends are in love with Looper, and it’s easy to see why: Looper isn’t a movie.  It’s a science fiction book that’s been filmed.

See, the plots of movies are like a snake eating itself: the first half sets up all the elements in the movie – all the characters, mysteries, and plot points – and then you hit the tipping point and the movie spends the last half tidily wrapping up each element that it’s introduced.  They usually shift the third act to a new location just so this pattern isn’t quite as evident… but once all the elements have been touched upon, the movie is over.  Roll credits.  It’s satisfying, but it’s also predictable – nothing wrong with a good formula, but you can use it a little often.

Whereas Looper is a lot like an Alfred Bester novel.   It’s still introducing new concepts and mysteries when you’re halfway through the movie, and they turn out to be central to the plot.  There are a lot of side journeys and toss-off concepts that aren’t wrapped up in a tidy way.  Things are very messy, which makes Looper as unpredictable as a spitball.

That doesn’t mean it’s the best sci-fi movie ever, or even the best time-travel movie starring Bruce Willis meeting his younger self, but the novelty makes it something far fresher than the usual slew of pre-fabbed films.

The trick of Looper is that time travel has been invented, but it’s instantly outlawed.  The mafia sends people back in time to be killed – it’s explained that technology has advanced to the point where they can’t hide a body in the future – and quite often, the Looper-hitmen are assigned to “close the loop” and kill their future selves.  As Loopers are chosen from a bunch of hedonistic junkies, this is approached with a cynical fatalism – hey, I’ve got thirty years to party!  And those who are weak and let themselves go encounter horrible, horrible fates as the Mob chases both of them to ensure that the future isn’t changed.

That’s the first sign of how unpredictable Looper gets.  In any other film, the shocking twist that Joseph Gordon-Levitt has to kill his older Bruce Willis self would be the unique factor – he’s the only one who’s ever had to murder himself!  Why?  But making the self-destruction mundane is just one of Looper’s many hidden tricks.  This subtle bit of worldbuilding actually makes things far better.  If this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, then Young Joe would immediately sympathize with Old Joe and they’d team up to get revenge.

But no.  Young Joe is infuriated by the way that Old Joe is fucking with his life now, sees Old Joe as greedy and selfish (which, yes, they both are) for not succumbing to the fate that he signed up for, and so the two of them are at odds throughout the film. They don’t like each other.  They shouldn’t.  Even though they’re the same person, they have entirely different agendas.

The acting is also top-notch.  The makeup to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like Bruce Willis is a little intrusive at times, making him look a tab Kabuki, but both actors meld – you’d expect Bruce Willis, being the big star here, to be just Bruce Willis, but no, Bruce takes on just enough of JGL that it’s not quite the Die Hard of the Future.

Now, Looper has some serious flaws.  People have called it an internally consistent time travel movie, which it most certainly is not – it’s the usual messiness of multiple futures, not quite explained.  And while the characters are wonderfully defined and acted, their ends are not often well thought-out – Jeff Daniels plays a mob boss with such a beautiful affability I wanted to watch him all day, but in the end his character is almost literally discarded. If it was a book, it’d probably be a B-grade book – lots of great ideas, a weakish plot.

But as a movie, Looper is something interesting and new and worth watching just for a fresh take on cinema.  I liked it an awful lot.  I’d encourage you to go see it, if you like time-travel films.

 

 

 

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

I went into The Dark Knight Rises as spoiler-free as it is possible to be these days. I saw the trailers, so I knew the main antagonists were Bane and Catwoman… But that was about it.  I had zero idea what was to actually happen in the film.

And I think it was far better watched that way, so my review will be vague and oblique: Go see it.

I’d say it’s the best superhero film of 2012, except this is the year of The Avengers, which is neither better nor worse. The Avengers was a perfect execution of old, fun-style Marvel comics that didn’t worry too much about reality as long as you had some exciting fights and good quips.  The Dark Knight rises is about people who happen to do superheroic things, a big-ass action movie wrapped in costumes, and there’s a lot of time spent on character growth.

I never felt like any of the Avengers were in serious danger.  I felt like any one person in The Dark Knight Rises could be taken out by a lucky gunshot.  Which puts the accent severely on “hero.” When Bruce Wayne puts on the armor, he’s putting himself in harm’s way.

As for the movie itself, Christopher Nolan understands the cinema.  He does exciting things in film that haven’t been done on screen before, ever – big, splashy setpieces you have to see on the big screen to appreciate.  The Avengers will fit well on a home-screen TV, as it’s comfort watching, but The Dark Knight Rises will feel a little constrained by not being forty feet high.  He takes huge risks, putting the stakes incredibly high in a way that’s breathtaking to see, and breaks the mold of what we expect from a superhero film.  Bane’s plot is audacious and breathtaking, and he’s a worthy villain.

And lastly, Nolan pulls off the hat trick of unifying his series.  I know, because unlike Lucas he is man enough to admit that he made the Batman series up on the fly, that the ending wasn’t planned well in advance.  But all three movies do have an arc, and the ending neatly answers some plot threads and hanging questions that were started back in Batman Begins – hanging questions that, even having watched Batman Begins the day before the movie, I missed.

Christopher Nolan said the first Batman film’s theme was “Fear,” the second was “Chaos,” and this one is “Pain.”  It was two and a half hours, but it flew by so quickly that despite me drinking a huge-ass iced tea before entering the theater, my bladder never tickled.  I finished feeling wrung-out and satisfied, because this is a tense film and a worthy achievement.

Neil Gaiman thinks it’s Oscar-worthy.  I disagree. This is the kind of action film so good that the Oscars will snub it, and I say good.  Some films are too good for the Oscars.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

So they rebooted Spider-Man.  Some people think this is stupid, having a new Spider-Man this soon after the last movie.  To which I say, “Did you see the last movie?”  No offense, man, but better to leave that in the wreckage and start over than trying to venture into IV territory.

There has never been a really good fourth movie in a series.  Ever.  Burn it to the ground.

Anyway, so this new Spider-Man is pretty much the same as the old Spider-Man – young boy learns about responsibility through a gunshot wound, fights crime, does not get the girl.  And it’s satisfying.  It’s not quite as good as Spider-Man 2 – what could be? – but it’s better than the first first Spider-Man.  Should you go see it?  Do you like people swinging from rooftops, beating up muggers?

Well then.  Your answer’s clear.

The difference is really all about nuances, and the nuance here is that Toby Macguire was a nerdy-looking kid who became smooth when the time came.  His upside-down kiss with Mary Jane?  Smokin’.  When he put on the suit, he became someone who was actually kinda cool.

Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man is never cool.  He moves like a spastic bug – no, seriously, he’s trying to move like a spider, all gawky.  When he kisses Gwen Stacey, it’s almost wince-inducing, because he’s not quite sure where his mouth goes, and neither is she, and though he later proclaims her a good kisser, one senses a bit of rightful hesitation before she returns the favor.  He has the haircut of a modern emo star, but if there’s an opposite to “Moves like Jagger,” well, Andrew nails it.

However, Garfield’s Spider-Man makes up for it by being clever.  Toby’s Spidey lucked into things, evincing no particular brightness, whereas this new Spider-Man knows science!  He reads books!  He uses tricks in combat, bouncing all sorts of things with his webbing to dazzle his enemy!  Which, in a way, makes him more of a hero.  You had problems buying Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man as being someone hated by the crowd, but Garfield’s Spider-Man?  He moves like an untrained kid with super-speed flailing about.  You believe he could hurt someone by accident.  He looks a little out-of-control.

Which is kind of nice.  Both Gwen Stacey (Spidey’s TRUE love, he says sneeringly) and Peter are incoherent, trailing off in Seinfeld-ish riffs as they’re both a little too flustered to finish their thoughts.  Neither of them are cool.  You wind up rooting for them because, hell, who else would they date?

Obvious plot is obvious, but this is a comic book movie and we know that President Josiah Bartlett must die.  Unfortunately, the stunt casting of Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May is distracting, because I kept going, “Why is Forrest Gump’s Mom raising Peter Parker?”  And Martin Sheen is trying a little too hard to give big speeches, and not quite hard enough to connect with Peter on a human level.  Ben’s death, however, is exceptionally painful because it’s not the usual comics death where he gets to gasp out the classic speech about “With great power comes great responsibility” before he dies – no, he just gets shot.  And his legacy is a voicemail Peter can’t quite bear to listen to.

The weakest part of this Spider-Man is, sadly, the villain.  The Green Goblin was possessed of all of Willem Dafoe’s inherent looniness, and Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock was the warm, supportive uncle you’d always wanted to have.  Curt Connors, however, is pretty much a vacant space on screen.  He stares longingly at his missing arm, as though it’s where his screen presence used to be.  When he becomes the Lizard, the initial scene is very compelling as he’s trying to be the hero, but then he degenerates into monologuing as he starts wanting to CHANGE TEH WORLD in a way that’s not really driven by his character all that much.

And Denis Leary does a fine job playing Denis Leary.  If you’ve always wanted to see Denis Leary in a Spider-Man film, well, here he is.  If you expect to see him act as Captain Stacey, well, let us just say that his last major scene in the film is perhaps the most laid-back approach to tragedy one will ever witness.  In a moment of what must be personal anguish, he looks as though he’s about to eat a sandwich.

Still, hey, it’s Spider-Man.  It’s a good riff on an old favorite.  Well worth seeing, if not nearly as exciting as the first time you saw Spidey bouncing around.  They do a good job with the 3-D, but there’s only so many ways you can make a web-slinger crawl.  Still, it made my birthday celebrations grand.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Brave is an irony: its singular message is “we make our own fate,” but the plot largely consists of the characters following will-o’-the-wisps to the next action scene.  They don’t get to be particularly clever by creating their own solutions… but they are very, very brave.

Which is not to say that Brave is a bad film.  It’s just that the lead characters are hampered by a certain lack of agency.  The opening is great; the Princess boldly decides to make her own way, making a decision that’s just a little selfish to follow her own dreams.  Emotional complexity results.  And then…

…magic.

Not the good kind of Pixar magic, but the kind of magic that says, “Well, we want to hand solutions to our characters – so being magic plot devices, we’ll force the characters into the configurations they need in order to solve their personal problems.”  And that is, admittedly, classic fairy tale logic.  But at the same time, the best of those fairy tales had characters making vital choices; when they were lost, they were sometimes lost for years.  When they defeated a monster, it was often because of their own cleverness.  And I don’t really feel that the lead characters of Brave are all that resourceful; mostly, they wander in the woods until they pick up the will-o’-the-wisps, who in this case act as a kind of videogame help system to guide them.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for Brave in that it’s got a lot of emotional and moral complexity for a kids’ film.  Princess Merida’s family feels agreeably real – or perhaps disagreeably real, because they’re a family constantly beset by arguments, and arguments of emotional heft that literally can’t be resolved without serious compromises that no one is willing to make.  But they obviously still love each other, that sort of love that comes from fondness.  And Princess Merida’s choices have political consequences that are usually absent from a film about love.

And Brave is kind of a feminist movie.  Princess Merida doesn’t really need to be rescued from anything but her own bad decisions, so on one level she’s a strong female character.  Yet on the other hand, the storyline is the same hackneyed “Men don’t believe that women can make choices, woman shows them but good,” that sort of reinforces gender stereotypes at the same time it breaks them.  I mean, it’s great showing a Princess fighting the power, but can we have a strong female hero who’s not defined by fighting against frilly dresses and societal expectations?

And the animation is wondrous.  There’s a character who is transformed, and the transformation is heartbreaking simply because they don’t do a cartoonized version of that character.  That character becomes what they’ve been transformed into, a clumsy thing shambling around in a body that’s unfamiliar, and that turns what could be comedy into pathos.

The end is very powerful, when the daughter makes some bold choices, and the family comes together.  But I spent a lot of Brave wishing those powerful, meaningful choices had been made every step along the way to this climax.  I wanted to watch a film where the characters discovered things on their own initiative, instead of following glowing blue dots like Pac-Man gobbling his way through a maze to find the next power-up.  As a result, what you have is a Pixar film that will resonate strongly with some – the feminist messages and the beautiful Scottish landscapes are going to call to people – but for me, ultimately lands somewhere between A Bug’s Life and Cars, which is to say a lesser Pixar offering without being as actively bad as Cars 2.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Whenever someone bitches about how stupid the creators are for producing a terrible movie, I think of Star Wars.  Not Star Wars, the global sensation that’s been around for thirty years – but Star Wars, the over-budget mess in mid-production, staffed by no-name actors, directed by the guy who’d had only one decent movie in the can.

If you read the interviews with the actors, they all went out after filming every day and got hammered.  And why not?  By day, you’re reading terrible, stilted dialog while the director screams at you: “Faster!  And more intense!”  You don’t see the special effects; you’re on a wooden screen, knowing the studio wants to shut this production down.  You don’t hear the John Williams music doing half the emotional work for you.  All you know is that this crazy maniac is telling you that all your attempts to emote lines like “How could I be so stupid? He’s nowhere in sight. Blast it!” aren’t sufficient while idiots in white plated armor are firing imaginary guns at you.

Why wouldn’t you drink?

Why wouldn’t you think this movie was the end of your career?

And even then, you’re wrong.  I know you’re thinking, “Well, it was all a success after that,” but… The movie that George Lucas directed did bomb.  The unsung hero of Star Wars is the film editor, who realized the initial cut was about twenty minutes too long, and went back and sped up the film to helter-skelter speeds – because the minute you had a second to pause and think about things, the whole thing fell apart.  The initial few cuts were legendary failures, and everyone in Hollywood was kissing George Lucas’ career goodbye.

The reason I say this is because I work in a couple of creative fields – I write stories, and I handle Magic: the Gathering cards as my day job.  And whenever something isn’t particularly, there’s this entitled, sneering reaction from the fans.  They leave comments over and over again with the same basic premise: “God, you’re so fucking stupid.  Fixing it’s so easy.  Why didn’t you just do X?”

Because it’s not that simple when you’re in the middle of the damn thing, that’s why.

Look, if we could all write glorious stories of magnificent heartbreak every time, we would.  But the creative process is really very complicated.  You’re complaining with the fresh sight of retrospect.  Scott Kurtz, author of webcomic PVP, once said that you couldn’t really critique a webcomic until you’d done one.  At the time, I disagreed strongly.  Once I had a year of producing a webcomic under my belt, well, I wasn’t so certain.

It’s not that you can’t critique – hell, you absolutely should.  I spent this week slamming Prometheus for failing absolutely on all but an allegorical level.  But when you critique, you shouldn’t take the attitude that the creative process is simple… And particularly not if you’ve never made anything and thrown your darling out to a crowd of angry, ungrateful people to be savaged.

When the project is done, it’s easy to look back and see what could have done better.  But in the middle of things, when you’re looking at a half-blank slate and the world is full of ten thousand choices, it’s hard to fathom that this one choice is the critical one.  Or perhaps – and this is the thing that the people who think “it’s simple” never get – that you made a hundred very good choices, more than most people ever do, enough to catapult your film/book/card game/music past the realms of “stuff that no one pays attention to” and into the realm of “good enough to for many people to like” – and in the process of making those hundred choices absolutely correctly, the one that stopped it from being pure genius got by you.

And maybe – just maybe – it’s possible that as a creator, you make a film/book/card game/music that absolutely satisfies you, but doesn’t hit anyone else’s good points.  That happens.  A lot.  And if you’re sitting there squalling because the creator should have “known better,” then maybe you should try creating stuff that’s perfect for you, and see the horrifying variance in reactions when your “perfect” product hits the shelves.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t criticize.  If Promethus sucks, well, it failed.  If something I write doesn’t win every award, well, it’s worthwhile to point out why my stories didn’t pan out.  But what you should not do is to treat the whole thing as a big ball of rage, as if we purposely set out to annoy you when making it.

We didn’t.  We wanted to make beauty.  Something got in the way, and we’re sorry… But if this was as easy as you think, then everyone would do it.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Before we can discuss Prometheus, I must first give a brief history lesson on Frustrating Science-Fiction Movies That Panned Out.

Now, when Blade Runner came out, it was widely viewed as an incomprehensible failure – critically panned.  The motivations for the lead characters baffled people – fortunately, the film had a clear line for villanous Replicant Roy Batty, who wanted “more life, father,” but people were wondering why the fuck Deckard was so mean towards poor Rachel.  I’d like to say the clues were all there, but they weren’t.  They were subliminal, beneath the surface.  Few people really knew what the fuck was happening until the Director’s Cut of 1991 gave us a dream sequence and an origami unicorn that told us, “Hey!  Deckard’s a Replicant!”

It was all there from the start…. except who the fuck could interpret it?  But, you know, some people like lots of ambiguousness in their sci-fi.

Likewise, the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey was often viewed as senseless eye candy for stoners… And it was.  But if you watched the movie a lot, or read the Arthur C. Clarke book that explained it all, then repeated viewing did reward you with a series of events that turned out to have a rather wondrous coherency.

Yet those are the exceptions.  For every 2001, there’s a hundred lesser films that looked to have a shit ending that didn’t hang together, and lo!  It seriously did not.  On the other hand, we have a genius director in the form of Ridley Scott, who’s kind of famed for being smarter than his audience.  On the gripping hand, we have Damon Lindelof, who’s famed for flinging up his hands and going, “It was about the experience, man, not the explanation!  Don’t get so hung up on, you know, a logical cause and effect!”

So.  Prometheus is getting a lot of flack because it didn’t make any sense.  So is it a hot mess, or a cunningly-plotted movie that will reward the viewer for digging deeper?

The good news: It’s both!

If you’re confused by Prometheus, Adrian Bott explains the aliens’ motivations to you - including the driving force of their culture, the reason why they created us, and the reason why they then turned it around and wanted to kill us.  (WARNING: Link involves both spoilers and Space Jesus. No, seriously, Space Jesus.)  And viewed from this lens, Prometheus’ overarching story (the creation of both us and the Aliens) makes perfect sense, the kind of subtle storytelling that really functions in a long-term sense.

So yes!  It all comes together.  In the long run.

In the short run, the run that’s underneath a gigantic spaceship tumbling out of mid-air, Prometheus makes no sense at all.

Prometheus is that rare movie where the aliens’ motivations ultimately make more sense than the humans.  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate what Prometheus is trying to do: by keeping the characters’ motivations oblique to us, it’s trying to saturate us with a sense of mystery and concern, because every moment on the screen could reveal something new about the crew.  It’s trying so hard to pull off that trick of making every bit of character in media res, which keeps us on our toes.

Unfortunately, this fails if the characters don’t have consistent motivations, or use.  And that’s exactly what happens in Prometheus… In particular to Charlize Theron, where the entire film would have functioned exactly the same if she were off the ship.  (As my smartie wife points out, she does two things that someone else would have had to do anyway, and one inexplicable thing with the Captain that distracts him from something he couldn’t have done anything about anyway.)

I mean, seriously (mild spoilers ahoy!), you have the guy who plotted the map, who yells how he’s out of his depth and wants to go back to the spaceship, and then wanders off with his buddy to get conveniently lost?  You have a biologist who apparently trained at the Steve Irwin Institute Of Fuckology, whose reaction to the first living alien being he’s ever encountered is to poke at it?  You have an entire crew of people who’ve been hauled out for a four-year mission in cryosleep, and they not only do not know why they’re going, but they have never met each other, even incidentally, on the way to their cryosleep chambers?  You have a lead character who inspired this whole goddamned mission into space, who desperately believes the aliens can [ACTION REDACTED], and it’s never explained WHY exactly he’s so confident the aliens will [ACTION REDACTED] that he spends a trillion dollars on an expedition to nowhere?  And whoa, look how happy the Captain is at the end!

The problem with Prometheus is that we have characters acting in completely random ways.  I think that Tobias Buckell nailed it when he said that the reason the first two Alien films worked so well was that everyone in them worked so hard to stay alive in a character-driven context.  Yes, often their actions were suicidal in retrospect, but given a) what the characters knew and b) what their ultimate goals were, it made perfect sense that such a mass of fuckery would erupt.  Since we don’t understand what the half-drawn characters in Prometheus want to do right up until the moment that they do it, we as the audience are frustrated because it’s a big shaky ladder of “Why did they do that?” and then we have to extrapolate the reasons why.  Which isn’t satisfying, and doesn’t hold itself up to poking nearly as well as Scott and Lindelof think it does.

On the other hand – and this is a big hand – Prometheus is fucking pretty.  The shots are gorgeous.  The visual effects are new and stunning and certainly worth your popcorn money.  I could watch it again just to have my eyes fed pretty pretty candy.  But on the gripping hand, it’s also not a particularly scary movie – there’s one terrifying sequence in the middle involving staples, but mostly the terror isn’t there because hey, these guys are getting killed by SFX, look at that.  Hey, look at it.  Dopes getting meat-ground.

The good news is that Prometheus does inspire debate.  It’s a challenging movie, which is rare these days.  Unfortunately, it’s challenging like the pissy bouncer at a bad club, where you get this feeling of initial triumph of getting past him, and then discovering that the club itself is shabby with overpriced drinks.

Prometheus is worth seeing.  It’s a very, very hot mess, the kind where you’re nearly glad you bedded hir.  But then you walk away feeling your self-esteem’s been a little corroded.

Your spoiler discussions may now commence. I’m certainly going to list some complaints in my first comment.  (And if the title confuses you, watch this old SNL skit.)

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Joss Whedon understands what we want out of the Avengers, which is not to see Thor and Iron Man teaming up.

No, what we want is to see Thor kicking Iron Man’s ass.

Thankfully, this is what the Avengers delivers: lots of hot hero-on-hero action. Who cares about the villains? We’re not nearly as invested. What we need to see is our favorite hero battling our other favorite hero to a standstill.

And ho, there is lots of that. Delivered for competent reasons – the Avengers have very good reason to be hostile to each other. And the fight scenes are pants-wettingly cool, in that sort of musky good-fluid kind of way.

The Avengers is stuffed with so many characters that character development practically has to happen via pithy quotes, which is why it’s a good thing that the King of One-Liners, Joss Whedon, wrote it. The plot generally keeps moving, and the Big Bad is helpfully played by Loki, who is played so wonderfully that you barely notice he has practically no character development or motivation at all.

Frankly, the least interesting character on the team is The Hulk, and Whedon seems to have made up for that by giving the Hulk all the best… well, you can’t really say “lines,” but let’s go “moments.”

There are a couple of minor issues I have: Captain America becomes a tactical genius at the end not by dint of anything he did in either of the two movies, but because he’s a military guy. And the final battle consists of just a shade too many generic mooks getting pounded, leading to a hair of tedium.

But overall? What you’re looking for, it delivers. Big, splashy superhero battles done with coolness. Jaw-dropping fight scenes. Laughs. As far as a tentpole movie to kick off the summer season (sort of…) it works, and as such I can tell you that if you had the urge to see this movie you’re almost guaranteed to be correct in your assessment.

Not that this was going to stop you from seeing it this weekend anyway. But let me reassure you that the money you spent on the ticket already is certainly worth it.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

For research into my new book, I had to read Twilight.  People had told me that Twilight was an abomination unto the Lord, a scabrous pile of poop that a talentless hack had shat out to plague the world.

I didn’t believe it.

I always believe there’s some appeal to a bestselling book, even if that appeal does not necessarily lie in “prose.”  Take the Da Vinci Code, for example.  Are the characters wooden?  Yes.  But the thing people don’t get about Dan Brown is that his characters are not the central characters.  He spends far more time describing the parquet floors of the Louvre than he does on his protagonist’s motivations.  Once you realize that Dan Brown’s priorities are inverted and his locations are actually his lead characters while his lead characters are background, the novel moves quite swiftly.

And Twilight, well, I didn’t want to read it because Bella’s character sounded like she’d annoy me… But I assumed it had some appeal.  Why would millions of teenage girls read it otherwise?

And lo, Twilight did one thing better than I’d ever seen it done, something so perfect that before I read Twilight, I didn’t realize nobody had ever captured the moment before:

Stupid, silly New Relationship Energy.

The triumph of Twilight is that there is a hundred-and-thirty-page stretch where all Bella and Edward do is talk.  Oh, they talk in different locations – they’re talking in the school!  In the car!  In the woods!  In her bedroom!

And they’re talking only about how much they love each other!

Thing is, Stephenie has that silly first-blush of love completely down, where you’re so amazed that this person’s fallen for you that you keep regurgitating your origin story back at each other, endlessly creating your own mythology of How This Happened.  You learn a new fact about someone, then slip back into “I can’t believe this is happening” and “You smell so good” and “I knew I loved you from the moment I saw you.”

She abso-fucking-loutely nails it.  Which is going to irritate a lot of people who don’t like that kind of NRE.  I mean, if you’re not a silly teenaged girl at heart (and really, I am a cuddler), then this sort of flighty repetition is custom-made to drive you batty.

Yet that does not mean it does not ring true.  Having two characters do nothing but talk for a quarter of your novel, with no other people to interrupt or interject, and still maintaining my interest?  It’s a feat few can manage.

Bella’s also far spunkier than the world gives her credit for, though – she keeps running off, disobeying and contradicting Edward, coming up with plans.  I expected a total doormat… And Bella’s not an active lead, God knows, but she’s not quite an inert object either.  (Though I dunno if her character suffers from Motivation Decay in later books.)

The troublesome anti-feminist overtones of Edward have been rehashed in depth elsewhere, as Edward Knows What Is Best For Bella And Bella Agrees… But what I find more troubling is the way all the other characters fade into the woodwork.  This is a teenaged girl’s power fantasy where the world is bent to satisfy her, no different than a boy kicking ass as Batman…

And the supporting cast just vanishes.  Bella is strangely cruel to those she doesn’t care about, and it’s disturbing me more and more that this is a classic teenaged fantasy.  Anyone who isn’t attractive to Bella is flat-out invisible and interchangeable, to the point where they exist only to be dropped from the plot.  In other words, I’m so special that I have all of these friends begging for my attention and I don’t even NEED them.  I can just discard all human interaction to be with Edward.  She seems to find the concept of “regular friends” actively irritating, which is disturbing.

jenphalian thinks that this is merely a weakness in Stephenie Meyer’s writing, that she’s not that good at keeping track of many people – but no, Stephenie handles the vampires just fine.  It’s the everyday folks who become literally invisible, the ordinary kids who want to hang with the cool new girl, and the subliminal message is “If they’re not useful to you, they’re to be discarded.”  That’s fucking concerning.

But overall, despite the Godawful prose, I can see the potent vampire heart distinctly NOT beating at the core of Twilight.  I dunno if I can get through New Moon, not with so many actually good books out there (Holly Black is calling me, and I have two novels to crit)…. But there’s an appeal.

I just wonder how much NRE I can take.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

So here’s the thing about the Hunger Games movie: there’s not a lot to say.  They did such a good job converting an already movie-friendly book that it’s hard to find much to complain about.  It’s got incredibly tense action scenes, it pretty much has the same plot, it’s well-acted.  If you liked the books, you’ll probably at least like the movie and there’s a better-than-even chance you’ll love it.  The end.

Okay, if you’re a big fan of the books, you may be asking about Woody Harrelson as Haymitch and Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, two casting choices that raised some fannish eyebrows.  And rightly so.  In my mind’s eye, Haymitch was fatter and more out of sorts, perfect for a Walter Matthau sort, less obviously effective.  And Cinna was a more flamboyant designer type, much crazier.

For me, watching these two roles are like hearing a really good cover of a song you liked.  Were they what I imagined?  No.  But can I buy them?  Sure.  Kravitz’ interpretation of Cinna has a gravitas that really shines in the scene just before a terrified Katniss heads up to fight to her death, and while this Haymitch is far more obviously a good and effective fighter, Woody Harrelson sells the drunken asshole with such charm that sure.  I’ll go with this.

It hasn’t replaced the casting in my head the way Harry Potter movies did, but I’ll go with this.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, on the other hand, absolutely owns this movie.  Her terror and need to survive comes across in every scene, and it’s a fine acting.  As Gini noted, most people tend to approach this sort of role with either an overstated bravado or a fainting collapse, but Jennifer walks that middle line perfectly.  She’s scared, so we’re scared.  But she’s not going to let that stop her.  (And Rue.  Oh, Rue.)

Stanley Tucci as Caesar, however, is spot-on perfect.  His talk-show host schtick is a pleasure to watch.

Visually, well, the movie’s irritating in the way that it mistakes shakycam for grit.  The entire opening in District 12 is shot by a trembling drunk, the camera jittering like it’s trying to tapdance.  This style settles down, but kicks up again in a couple of the fight scenes to the point where I wanted to say, “Hey, it’s cool to let us know what’s happening.  You don’t have to hide your fight-scene blocking behind a wall of blur.”

That said, the visuals of District 12 were exactly as I envisioned them.  Some wags said that for a movie called the Hunger Games, everyone seemed remarkably well-fed… but aside from the stars, District 12 looks properly miserable and downtrodden. Bart Calendar complained that the audiences back home weren’t being held at obvious gunpoint, but those opening sequences show us that they’re watching to find out what happens to their friends, and not out of genuine enthusiasm.

And I loved the outfits at the capital, because the severe over-the-top nature of everyone’s outfits has looped back around to the sort of garish garb that people in 1970s sci-fi movies thought of as The Future.  The folks in the Capitol could easily walk into Logan’s Run and start partying, which I very much enjoy.

But overall, there’s a couple of carps – I wanted more flame in the flaming coal outfits, Peeta’s camouflage is too movie-perfect, and I missed the note of ambiguity at the end as to Peeta’s true motives – but the Hunger Games’ power is evident more than ever here.  There are scenes we watch as Peeta and Katniss fall in love, and we think this is great fun to watch.  Then we realize that the TV viewers back home are also thinking it’s great fun to watch, and we feel a little voyeuristic and slimy for watching.  Yet we don’t stop, either.

As it should be.  It’s a good film.  If you liked the books, it’s a no-brainer to go see.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

As it turns out, I only play videogame RPGs to have sex with people.  But it’s not shallow, I swear.  I just like to talk.

See, in Bioware’s videogames like Mass Effect 3, there are invariably romances to be had – which can only be unlocked by talking repeatedly to your “friends” at every turn, unlocking new conversation trees, finding out new things about your pals (who invariably have interesting histories).  And if you’re open for a romance, you can keep talking to various people, having them fall more in love with you, until eventually you unlock the side-boob sex scene in Act III.

This is the juice of the game.  Without this lure of finding out more about your friends, all the BioWare games are reduced to “Let’s enter another dungeon and kill baddies!”  The romance is what turns a bunch of wandering monster encounters into a story.

Unfortunately, Mass Effect 3 cockblocked me.

See, I spent all of Mass Effect 2 romancing [NAME REDACTED], a long and arduous romance that was actually the most fulfilling videogame romance I’ve ever had.  I actually felt protective of her, such was the magnificent writing of Mass Effect – yes, it’s silly to fall for a fictional character, but damn if they didn’t get me to do it.

So when Mass Effect 3 told me that [NAME REDACTED] was a romance possibility, and we could continue dating if we’d dated in ME2, I was thrilled!  I’d have more conversations with my sweetie!  We’d spend more time together!  I’d find more about her history, what she was up to now!  It was like a whole new world, a dazzling place I never knew….

So imagine my disappointment when the “romance” consisted of “I meet her in a club, say ‘I miss you,’ we dance together once, and she goes off to a place where I never see her again.”

Worse, this “romance” barred me from romancing anyone else.  I didn’t realize this dance was an iron-clad commitment, but suddenly all the other romantic possibilities had nothing to say to me.  I’d go into their room and click on them, and they’d say nothing.

This is terrible design.  But it actually made me cry.

Because in Mass Effect 3, the whole story is about terrible choices and how your character, Shepherd, is the only one who can make them.  It’s implied heavily that this is a suicide mission.  And here I am, with all of my friends refusing to talk to me, alone and horrendously isolated as I’m reduced to a mindless fighting machine with no friends….

…It wasn’t what they intended.  But somehow, this lack of conversational options made me feel like the world was ending.  Which is sort of a genius misfire, actually.

The thing about Mass Effect 3 is that the game is top-notch, but the story is lacking. I won’t give (major) spoilers (though if you’re spoiler-allergic on all fronts, then walk away now), but the ending is craptastic for three reasons:

1)  The ending is utterly not dependent on anything you’ve done before.  It comes out of nowhere, and you’re given some choices, but if you’ve played Paragon the whole time and decide to fuck the world with a Renegade ending, sure!  Go ahead!  The hundred or so hours of history you’ve poured into all three games don’t enter into it.

2)  You don’t find out what happens to your companions afterwards.  Dragon Age did this right – you got to hear the history of all your pals and know whether your choices helped or hindered them.  The last you see of your best friends, they’re entangled in the Huge-Ass War that ends the series.  Are they alive or dead?  Well, I guess you don’t need to know.  (I am vaguely lying about one part of this to preserve mystique.)

3)  To get the “good” ending, you must either a) play a shit-ton of multiplayer, or b) pay Bioware $7.99 for the iPhone application.  This is bullshit EA practice, because winning at multiplayer gets easier – surprise! – if you pay EA money for the upgrades.

It does not help that BioWare is lying their fucking ass off on this one.  When I posted about this on Twitter, several people pointed me towards BioWare’s PR person saying, “No, you can get the good ending if you just play all the quests.”  This is untrue.  You can get the good ending if you come in with a 100% Paragon/Renegade save from ME1 and ME2 and do every quest in ME3.  Stutter a little at any point in this segment, and you will come up short.  I did every quest I could find, and still wound up 400 points short of the “good” ending.  (It doesn’t help that to get the “perfect” game, you have to be Manual, Dangit perfect.)

In other words, the only way to get the good ending is to have been obsessive for all three games.  Otherwise, shell out money, or play a game that you really didn’t want to play.  (And the non-good endings are sufficiently downers that there are online petitions with 10,000 signatures asking for BioWare to put out a DLC to get a better ending.  People are willing to pay to have a satisfying ending, which should show you how dismal it is.)

This is unfortunate, because whenever Dragon Age 3 comes out, you bet your ass that I’m going to see whether EA fucks me over by forcing me to jump through their hoops.  If they do, I’m not buying.  I dig they need alternative revenue sources, and I appreciate the add of multiplayer, but if I wanted fucking multiplayer I’d play Call of Duty.  There are better ways to encourage me.

So.  Mass Effect 3 is like Return of the Jedi – a little disappointing, certainly lacking the momentum of the previous films, but pretty good.  I liked a lot of it.  Sadly, the ending is the major disappointment, and the thing I’m most likely to remember.  So it goes.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

So thanks to my wonderful Dad, I got Stephen King’s 11/22/63 for Christmas, and devoured about 550 pages of it on last night’s plane ride.  And it’s interesting thus far.

11/22/63′s pitch is “Man goes back in time to stop Lee Harvey Oswald,” but realistically it’s not about that at all.  The gateway to the past is in 1958, which means that Our Bold Hero has to live through five years of late 1950s/early 1960s life, and the first 500 pages are about him trying to get by in early America.  He tries to prevent a couple of past murders he knows will happen, visits wonderful Derry, gets a job as a schoolteacher and settles down.  It’s mostly about the feel of America on the cusp of a great change, as viewed through small towns and cities.

The problem is that we’re now at the point where Our Bold Hero is intersecting Lee Harvey Oswald’s path, and it’s boring.  Why?

Because Lee Harvey Oswald’s not that interesting a character!

Oh, King’s doing what he can, but Lee Harvey Oswald’s personality is pretty well documented – I struggled to get through all of Bugliosi’s lapbreaker of a book on JFK, and King presents Oswald accurately, in all of his overblown, wife-beating, insecure ways.

But I keep thinking, “Out of all the characters here, I don’t really give a crap about Lee Harvey and his pal George de Mohrenschildt and all the Oswaldian friends.”  King’s trying, but the weird thing is that this book is absolute proof of how life just isn’t as interesting as what a good fiction writer can provide.  The least-developed character is the one who Unca Steven couldn’t generate wholesale from his mind.  The real stunners, the ones who you want to be around, are the ones he made up whole-cloth – even his villains are more villainous.

That’s the sign of a great writer, man.  When you outdo real life.

(Also, this book is a fascinating parallel to The Dead Zone, another tale of a guy who has to assassinate someone to ward off a terrible future history, and I’m probably going to reread Dead Zone when it’s done to see how they match up.)

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

I have now devoted one hundred and twenty-nine hours of my life to watching the entirety of Deep Space Nine.  Assuming I’d never slept, that’d be five and a half straight days of television, but as it was, finishing DS9 was a commitment.  We gave up Mythbusters, we gave up sitcoms, we gave up Boardwalk Empire because we knew if we strayed we’d wander off and never know how all of this ended.

And how did it end?

Well.

I told you when I started watching DS9 that I hadn’t seen it before now because I “knew” it was a pale rip-off of Babylon 5 – a complaint that has some traction.  But DS9 and B5 had similar evolutions because of the nature of the show.

Which is to say that Next Generation was a spaceship swooping from exotic locale to exotic locale, every week a new distraction, so you didn’t have to worry about the characters all that much.  Hey, it’s Picard – on a pleasure planet!  Hey, it’s Picard – fighting the Borg!  Hey, it’s Picard – arguing with Q!  So your main plotline isn’t so much the evolution of the characters, it’s the latest show-and-dance.

….Though I note that the fan favorite episodes tend to be the ones where Picard is forced through character evolution, such as “Picard has to live a whole life as someone else” or “Picard goes home and breaks down over the Borg.”

What DS9 did, simply because it was a static locale and didn’t have the luxury of a different enemy every week, was to change the characters.  Because you literally couldn’t go elsewhere, the characters had to evolve, and as such what you had was a situation very unlike Star Trek where the characters’ choices in Season 1 would not be the choices they made come Season 7.  (As evidenced by Sisko’s chilling, yet correct, choice in “In The Pale Moonlight” – a choice Picard never could have made, yet a choice that needed to be made.)

Deep Space Nine is both far better and far worse than Babylon 5.  B5 had the problem of wooden characters and bad actors, while DS9 had rich characters and some very bad actors mixed in with some very good ones.  (It took me a long time before I could accept Sisko’s stilted delivery as a riff on Shatnerian earnestness.  And ever since Bec made me watch Shatner’s documentary “The Captains,” where he interviews all of the other Star Trek captains only to find Avery Brooks is a singing, piano-playing loon, I found it hard to separate Avery from the role.)

Basically, every flaw Deep Space Nine has when compared to Babylon 5 comes down to “Babylon 5 knew where it was going.”  B5 had an end point, so it had a clear character arc for every character – Londo’s redemption and corruption, Garibaldi’s fencing with the Psi Corps, even Sinclair/Sheridan’s attitude towards Earth.  As such, the characters had very bold decisions where they moved from friends to enemies, or vice versa, with the grace of a dancer.

DS9 gets the evolution, but falters a bit because they don’t know where they’re headed – they were just running for a few seasons and hoped to tie it up.  The only one where they absolutely nail the arc is Odo and Kira, and even that wavers for a bit as the “Will she or won’t she” turns into cruelty for a bit as you can sense the producers not quite sure what to do.  So you have a lot of relationships like Odo and Quark that are quite nice as they are, but are entirely about moving by inches and never reach a breaking point.

On the other hand, DS9 has a much better grasp on emotional issues, unlike B5 which treats emotions as something that happens to further the plot.  DS9, like all Star Treks, loves devoting individual episodes to giving each of their leads a challenge that shows us who they are.  So we get these character spotlights where we wind up getting very much inside the heads of Kira and Dax and co, which matter more because that’s what Star Trek does well – that human factor.

On the other hand, DS9 has the Ferengi episodes, which vary wildly in quality, and a lot of Klingon episodes – and since I can’t stand Klingons, it feels like there’s a lot of filler.

Thing is, though, the end game of DS9 is ultimately pretty satisfying.  It suffers because, like all “We’re making it up as we go along” shows, there are dead-ends and shoehorned in aspects – hey, what’s that book that suddenly turns out to mean anything, and why’s it only show up three episodes before the end?  Why did the prophets make such a big deal about Sisko making a choice where his punishment was that he could never return to Bajor if this was their end game all along?  Who are these Breen guys, anyway, and why’d they steal Leia’s armor from Jabba’s palace?

None of that matters, though, because they got some of the emotional arcs right.  DS9 is different from Roddenberry in that it believes that war has a cost, and that cost takes its toll.  The end of Next Generation is Picard saying “Engage,” and that there are tons of new adventures to be had – which is inspiring, but not necessarily honest.

DS9 shows that characters must make sacrifices in the course of this war, and what happens in the end isn’t always happy.  Some real losses are had – not death, which is kind of easy in fiction, but the kind of thing where ultimately to do the right thing you have to step away from what you want personally to accomplish the larger goal.  And in that, DS9 shows how friendships are born and shift as yes, you have friendships, but you have marriages and careers and, yes, the fate of the fucking galaxy, and sometimes you’re going to pay for that currency in unhappiness to get the paltry satisfaction of having done the right thing.

That’s where DS9 nails it.  Yes, it’s a little uneven in the last season as the non-arc shows sputter out.  Yes, maybe some of the end game is too much “Because The Prophets say so.”  Yes, maybe all our questions are not answered.  But the emotional resonance of knowing that no, in fact being a tool of the Prophets does not lead to happiness, war does not lead to happiness, combat costs.

And that, I like.  So much that I can forgive the unevenness.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

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