Game Review: Darkest Dungeon

When it comes to dungeon crawlers, a genre of game involving exactly what it sounds like, most veteran gamers will think of things like Diablo or the aptly named Dungeons & Dragons. The concept of lashing together a party of people and delving into dangerous, subterranean locales is not a new concept, particularly as far as fantasy adventure is concerned.

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Whether the hero’s purpose is to seek riches, to defeat the evil found below, to gain glory for one’s self or one’s organization, to discover occult knowledge, or some other unlisted factor, the end-result in terms of this kind of game is generally the same: Descend into a cave/dungeon and survive traps, kill monsters, and bust open treasure chests. It’s a great narrative for a story and an adequate excuse for why people of different paths (like clerics and thieves) might be inclined to work together.

It’s also a valid living if ever there was one, if you ask me.

Darkest Dungeon takes this concept and blends ingredients both familiar and new, delving into an equally familiar mythos in the form of Lovecraftian homage. In terms of gameplay, there is the RogueLike element, however, that makes this stand out from other Dungeon Crawlers. That and the aforementioned homage to a Lovecraftian Horror takes the form of a very real game mechanic, which I’ll detail shortly.

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The story is pretty straight forward. An unfathomably opulant estate has long since fallen into ruin, and under it stretches labyrinthine tunnels and passages and caves. Heeding the call of your ancient relative (uncle?), you employ adventurers of varying dispositions and goals as they arrive by stagecoach every week to plumb the depths and do what adventurers do best.

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Great so we’ve got RogueLike dungeons and motley parties of adventurers bent on combating the influence of an Eldritch Abomination that has made no secret of taking residence nearby. What makes this game stand out?

In a word: Stress. This is literal in two senses.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a veteran gamer, but I’m not a novice either. There is a disclaimer at the opening of Darkest Dungeon warning the player that they *will* lose, and that their characters *will* die. The game is about making the best out of a bad situation; when I saw character flaws manifest themselves in your characters, I mean that shit can get hard, fast.

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I didn’t quite grasp the weight of this until afterward.

What makes Darkest Dungeon unique to many dungeon crawlers, but not necessarily unique to Lovecraftian-themed games, is the Stress Meter mechanic. I think it’s safe to assume that even someone who’s never played a game before in their life can grasp the following concept the same minute they first pick up a controller.

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“This is your life bar. When it reaches zero, you die. Eat food or find medkits or drink red potions to restore your health.”

Therefore, maintaining your party’s health — particularly when they’re suffering from DoTs (Damage Over Time effects) like bleeding or blight (poison) — so that they can keep on swinging is pretty much the opposite of new. Managing the stress of your party is significant for the longevity of your party, and what makes this fascinating is that this is rarely ever addressed in games like Diablo, World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, Baldur’s Gate … the list goes on.

Rarely in these games does the magnitude of the task at hand really affect the characters. Sure you’ve got life-infused characters in Dragon Age, who might express their discomfort in the form of form of emotive voice acting, or even Edward from FF4 who actually has a command option “hide,” something with about as much use as passing on your turn.

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Edward was memorable for a multitude of things in FF4, but being a useful fighter was not one of them.

But these things don’t usually affect both the character and the story except in the form of scripted sequences; of COURSE Edward has the Hide option; the story dictates that his character is a coward. Darkest Dungeon takes this in a different direction — people don’t become fearful because the writers dictated it as such, but because of the unforseeable things that happen *to* them in your randomized dungeon runs. Quirks such as nervousness or anxiety about certain environments or monsters happens as a result of the adventures.

Look, going into a dungeon is a stressful situation for anyone. You’ve got things like horrific monsters, the impenetrable darkness around you, food (or lack thereof), even your own team mates to worry about, as well as any other factors you can imagine that could be remotely connected to these. If your heroes reach too high of a level of stress, they break down — and generally the situation spirals downward from there. If one person breaks, it has an effect on the other party members, and after that it doesn’t take much for the undead horrors, blood cultists, rotting pig-men and other lovely beasties down there to tear you apart.

And when they die, they stay dead.

One misstep and this game will punish you. In fact even when there are no missteps, this game will punish you. It’s a very heavy RNG (Random Number Generator) game, which is gamer-language for “luck.” Therefore you can have great RNG or bad RNG — despite any preparation or how solidly put together you think your party is.

If you’ve played this game before, you’ll understand when I say: “I’ve had luckier runs in this game with a motley group of level zeroes with NO HEALER than with a carefully constructed group of Level 3’s.” As my older brother and I used to say back in the day, when we’d play a game and for all practical purposes we should have succeeded/survived a situation, “The Game just decides [that it wins and we lose].”

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More than once I’ve envisioned tossing my computer out the window thanks to what can be chalked up as “bad RNG,” but I’ve come to understand that that is a major factor in the fun — without difficult times, we cannot compare successful or otherwise “Eh, could’ve been worse” situations. When you experience success in this game, when shit actually goes as planned (or you just downright get good RNG), it’s one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve had from a game since beating Dragon Age: Origins and making decisions that gave me the ending I wanted.

I haven’t even touched on the presentation. Perhaps what wraps Darkest Dungeon together so solidly is the dark, grimy art style, with heavy black lines and a slightly unfinished illustrative look. The minimalist, two-frame action animation works to such an effect that I had never previously imagined possible, and on top of it all we have an excellent soundtrack that succeeds, thoroughly, in cultivating a gloomy and often hopeless atmosphere.

This game gives you a sense of true Lovecraftian Horror; that humanity, despite all its best efforts and accomplishments, is utterly powerless in the face of cosmic evils. It’s not that the universe hates us, no, it exhibits something much, much worse:

Indifference.

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And if you spend enough time thinking about it, insignificance.

Overall, I sense that I’ll one day get fed up with bad RNG, but otherwise this game is a tremendous experience and has helped me grow in terms of storytelling. Whenever I write about adventurers (in a dungeon setting or otherwise), I’ll be paying as much attention to the Stress Meter as their hunger, bathroom and health gauges.

Two Opposing Crime Comedies

It is interesting to have a specified niche genre of dark crime comedy. These are the sorts of stories that take us into the underworld of criminal affairs, where the threat of death (or worse) seems to be a rather prevalent theme, yet things are light-hearted enough where we laugh most of the time.

Easily enough, morbid topics are flipped into funny ones.

fc64a43b176b81970da1d47ddc2b56c1I recently watched Snatch for the first time, as well as my second viewing of Pulp Fiction. Let us discuss and compare the successes and failures of these films as stories.

In terms of gritty scenes too-insane to actually be considered plausibly real, both these movies have both in abundance. As viewers, we’re not only put in at position to see things from the perspectives of criminals, but actually relate to them. After all, criminals are also human beings, however coked up or cold blooded or greed-driven they may be, with motivations and (sometimes) personalities. The more interesting characters are the ones whom you come to “know,” and end up rooting for — despite them being one of a slew of bad guys.

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If you watch this movie for the first time, place bets on which of these is the good guy.

As something of a novice Tarantino viewer, I actually know next-to-nothing about Guy Ritchie (Snatch), though some light research showed he directed the more recent Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

The movies were OKAY.

Setting aside their other works, though, comparing Pulp Fiction and Snatch as standalone films shows more than a few things in common, yet they manage to stand apart.

Both films are, of course, crime thrillers. Both feature the perspectives of a rather extensive cast, each interwoven in the overall story arc. There’re quite a few moments of morbid comedy (also known as black or dark comedy), leaving us smiling and laughing at the utter misfortune of more than a few characters. Perhaps most of all, both flicks have a rigged boxing match as one of its central plot elements.

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Certainly there are significant differences between the two movies as well — the narrative style contrasts quite a bit, with Pulp Fiction doing the whole “show don’t tell” thing, while Snatch does a helluva lotta telling. Turkish, one of the two “good guys” (the best among the criminals to which we can relate and root for, I suppose) of Snatch, also plays the part the occasional narrator. Hearing Jason Stathom spoonfeed us plot and character details is a stylistic choice, I’m thoroughly aware, and as I endeavor to consume more and more varied media, I’ve been slowly coming to the conclusion that British films really enjoy their protagonist-narration.

Pulp Fiction, conversely, has no narration at all, but there is no lack of talking. I know I referred to Pulp Fiction as doing a lot of showing, not telling, and this can be done despite the preponderance of dialog. Tarantino movies tend to have profound or, at the very least, above-average ambitions when it comes to what characters say to each other. People in his films – Pulp Fiction being no exception – talk like complex, intelligent adults, bringing up concepts, debates, and philosophies that I wish I could have on a casual basis.

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This makes for interesting characters in between action scenes, and let me tell you, the action and tension in both these movies is great, but action can only take a story so far. If nobody cares about the characters it doesn’t matter what happens to them — and we care about characters who stand out, whether it’s through profound dialog or otherwise.

Certainly in some cases, the utter lack of dialog can make a character. Take Clive Owen’s performance in The Bourne Identity. He barely says a goddamn word but gets a lot of screen time, and we really get the impression of what kind of person he’s like.

clive assassinBack to Snatch, it’s a fun movie, and it was one of those movies I’d heard of more than ten years ago and finally got around to seeing. An old high-school friend went so far as to say it was the best movie ever, but then we know how teenagers are prone to hyperbole. Regardless, an aura of mystery always surrounded the title; what could such a movie with such a peculiar name have that could make it someone’s “all time favorite”?

To put it simply, after ten years of not seeing it, I finally did, and I’m not really sure what the big deal is. The overall story arc feels incomplete, almost as though the budget ran out before filming (even editing) was completed. Like I said, though, it’s fun — the characters are fun, and yes there’re great bits of dialog to be found as well, but by the time the credits abruptly rolled, I found myself throwing my arms in the air.

What, precisely, was the point of this?

Pulp Fiction, with its nonlinear storytelling (something of a Tarantinoism, so I’ve heard), memorable characters and extremely quotable moments, stands quite apart. A character is seen shot dead, and it’s much to my disappointment (and, presumably, that of the audience), as we’ve come to enjoy him, or at minimum get to know him, thoroughly. Then the story jumps back in time, and we get one final scene with him — it’s almost as though the writers of Pulp Fiction enjoyed John Travolta’s character too much to let him just be killed off.

I’ve yet to watch a Tarantino film that I didn’t enjoy, though their roughness sometimes leaves me a little worn. I end up saying things to myself such as “I won’t be seeing that again any time soon.” But then again, I’ve been feeling a bit in the mood for some Kill Bill. post-19458-Quentin-Tarantino-Game-of-Thro-mRur

Two Desceptively Good Horror Movies

I’m going to talk about movies that came out years ago.

A spoiler warning would be superfluous.

I first saw The Descent in theaters sometime around it’s American release, which would mark my first viewing around 2006. I remember liking it then.

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It’s a horror movie, and to that end you instantly know there are going to be some familiar tropes. Aesthetically pleasing characters (a group of them, in fact, imagine that), a secret held amongst the members of this seemingly tightly-nit group of friends, and of course the “hey lets get ourselves in a dangerous scenario” cliche.

Not long ago, I found myself treated to The Cabin in the Woods, an utterly trope-ridden film that seems to have set out to do that purposefully. Cabin in the Woods is a critique and deconstruction of horror films — forcing us to address what we like and what we don’t like about the genre.

Lately I’ve been increasingly respectful of Joss Whedon’s work.

To that end, the movie itself is cleverly written in that there’s almost nothing original about what you see in it. However the manner in which it is tied together is rather revolutionary; personally I like to think that it offers an explanation for why horror movies exist. The cliches, the tropes, the familiar themes – it’s all part of a cyclic ritual to please bloodthirsty gods.

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Whose hand is this? I’d venture a vote that it’s yours.

One might go so far as to suggest that the “old gods” (a clear homage to H.P. Lovecraft) in the film are metaphors for the audience. We as viewers have arrived to witness a show, whether at a cinema or taking the effort to play the movie at home. We demand retribution for the crimes committed by the various characters, we demand mercy for the innocent, and most of all, we demand blood.

As the viewers, we decide whether a film exists (is playing) or not (turning it off, and the stories of the characters never play out and remain suspended in paused limbo forever). We also ensure the continued real-world Hollywood industry by repeatedly paying money to see these recycled movies at the box office.

I’ll tell you one thing I look for when watching a movie, particularly those in the horror genre.

Something different.

Something that’s more than the same elements of a story rearranged with slightly different faces and a slightly different biome. Cabin in the Woods manages to not only bring forth everything that is familiar, because that’s mostly what horror flicks — particularly those from Hollywood — seem to have become.

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I share their expression whenever see a poster or commercial for the next scary flick.

I’m not sure how many times I could re-watch this movie (I’ve read other reviewers say they can and have quite a bit), but I can easily say I count it as extremely memorable for its clever subversion of tropes and critique of not only the producers of these kinds of movies, but the consumers as well. It is, as people in Dungeons & Dragons circles call it, meta and thoroughly self-aware, however it never once breaks the fourth wall.

Go see it.

Back to The Descent (2005). Now here’s a deceptively good movie, if Rotten Tomatoes has anything to say about it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s got familiar horror movie elements, but I would like to emphasize that it’s not a Hollywood production. The people behind this one came from across the Pond, and while filming was done in the U.K., the setting for the story takes place in South Carolina, USA.

Much like how The Cabin in the Woods utilizes familiar tropes, we see a group of close-knit friends (though all-female, which is an interesting production choice, as there’s an absence of the typical alpha male character) delving into a dangerous situation of their own volition.

Guess how many live.

Guess how many live.

They’re adventurers, in possession of what is suggested to be extensive caving experience. They’re a group of physically capable people, and for once they look the part. Unlike the rail-thin plastic dolls we see so oft-depicted on the silver screen like in Charlie’s Angels. Or most every movie containing an Action Girl.

Naturally, the characters discover more than they could have expected down there. Between claustrophobia, the way out being sealed by a cave-in (resulting of course in a “no way to go but forward” scenario), and injuries from plain old-fashioned accident, they encounter what really attracted me to this movie at first: the creatures.

Troglodytes, subterranean hominids that look and act like flightless bat-human hybrids. With a sickly pallor and blindness to boot, they rely on acute hearing and pointy teeth to get around down there, and the creatures themselves were conceptualized a little more thoroughly than your average monster. There’re hints of tribal organization, with females and motherly vindication being witnessed. These aren’t mole people, either.

But the creatures are not what have me thinking highly of this movie. In fact, they aren’t a hugely scary element, although you do find yourself fearing for the characters.

The jump-scare reveal was pretty awesome, though.

The jump-scare reveal was pretty awesome, though.

What makes this movie interesting is the change that occurs in the protagonist, and ties nicely with the double entendre of the title. Sure, the ladies go and descend into a deep dark cave, but the main character – Sarah – also undergoes something of a descent of her own.

You see, in the opening scenes, we witness the tragic loss of Sarah’s husband and daughter in a car accident. The movie takes place a year later, after she’s been subject to psychotherapeutic treatment (evident in medications she’s seen taking during the one-year-later reunion with her adventurer friends). We also see that she’s prone to nightmares and, possibly, hallucinations, and as one of her friends points out, among the host of obstacles one might encounter in the Underdark are …well, hallucinations.

Naturally, the first time she sees one of the creatures her account is immediately dismissed by her peers and the expected “I told you so,” moment occurs later. But Sarah’s descent into madness is intriguing because it allows her to survive the coming obstacles.

A normal person might scream their head off after tumbling into a pool of flesh slurry. A normal person might be too overcome with guilt to mercy-kill her wounded, immobile friend before getting eaten alive by man bats. A normal person might freeze in panic at the sight of her friends being picked off one at a time.

But Sarah isn’t normal; to put it in less gentle terms, her mind snapped like a dry and brittle twig sometime between the trauma of her husband’s family and the bloody deaths of her friends. She thus underwent a sort of metamorphosis, into a human animal, arguably as savage as the troglodytes around her, and it is this metamorphosis that allows her to survive.

If you're cool then you know what this is. If you don't, you can get an idea form the title of the card.

If you’re cool then you know what this is. If you don’t, you can get an idea form the title of the card.

Add in the drama of a certain betrayal that I’d rather not spell out here (because if you still haven’t seen the movie, what I’ve talked about in this review actually doesn’t spoil all that much), and you’ve got a story that really stands out in the horror genre.

One of the better, modern horror flicks I’ve seen in awhile, and I’ve always felt it deserved more love.

Oh and there’s a sequel. You needn’t concern yourself with it.

Impressions: Citizen Kane

The last time I saw Citizen Kane might have been about sixty-five years after its release. With a fuzzy memory I recall seeing it in a dark room at the far corner of the miniscule college campus I attended at the time. The Art of Film, probably one of the best classes I had ever taken.

There, us pupils were subjected to such cinematic pieces as Blue Velvet, Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Citizen Kane.

It’s also no secret that any self-styled movie critic could hardly call themselves such without watching this, so I’m fully aware that there are a thousand and one reviews, impressions, and otherwise “why this movie is good/bad” articles to be found out there. I’m not going to waste your time telling you what the movie is about, because if you haven’t seen it it means you need to; not simply as a consumer, but as an aspiring writer, film-maker, story-teller; whatever you choose to call yourself.

I was prompted to rewatch this movie when a friend showed me clips of a movie known as The Room, by Tommy Wiseau. Entertainment Weekly has called it “The Citizen Kane of bad movies.”

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With a $6 million budget. Somehow.

These days, The Room is something of a cult classic, a title the likes of which I had heard whispers and – despite the pleading of a trusted associate whose opinion I trust – have no intention of seeing. CinemaSins, one of my favorite YouTube channels, does a good job at tearing it part – in eight minutes or less.

Watching Citizen Kane again, I couldn’t help but recall only fragments of the plot; sure there’s significance to name “Rosebud,” and before firing up the movie I remembered a few bits Spinning Newspaper-styled montage. But I found myself re-enjoying what I suspected to possibly be an overrated movie.

It’s not secret that Citizen Kane is considered a great piece of film in most circles, but as I found myself describing to a friend with whom I shared it, it’s not just about consuming the media. For me, it’s about learning the language to describe why it’s good, to appreciate the more subtle aspects of filming, such as the cinematography. The story of Citizen Kane is masterfully told in part because it transitions between a multitude of perspectives – not one of them being Kane himself – instead from those of various important people in his life.

And the cinematic transitions between the scenes shows a higher degree of planning and artfulness than I tend to see in movies these days, whose primary concern is – without argument or shame – focused on special effects over substance and story.

I’ve been toying with this very concept; to write a novel (series) following a character whose perspective is almost never written. What s/he does and says is conveyed entirely through the eyes of close friends, family, co-workers, whatever. If pulled off well, this is tremendous storytelling because it leaves the true feelings and thoughts of the central character-in-question up to interpretation – leaving more than a few things up for debate and discussion.

A successful story is not one that simply entertains, but leaves you thinking after the book is closed, after the screen fades to black, after the game credits begin to roll. Double plus good if you can share these experiences with other people.

Watching this also prompted me to refresh my memory on the central actor, Mr. Orson Welles himself. He is perhaps most remembered from rolls such as The Godfather, and the radio drama of War of the Worlds.

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This is priceless. The little Nihilist in me is pleased.

But what I feel like not enough people know is that is final role in film was the voice of Unicron, a planet-eating robot from Transformers: The Movie (1986).

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A movie composed of animated robots set to a backdrop of 80s hair metal. Count me the fuck in.

Long live the legacy of an actor that has left more than a huge impression on the film industry, that I fear not nearly enough people know about. Do yourself a favor and learn more about Orson Welles.

Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

God dammit, don’t end your sentences in prepositions, and more to the point, this “undreamed of age” was dreamed up 80 years ago.

So let’s get something straight.

I tried my hardest to watch this without actually comparing it to the 1982 film of the same name.

I tried to watch this without thinking about Robert E. Howard’s published writings.

Up until the credits rolled, I tried even to imagine whether the movie would be any good if all the Hyborian names and references were taken out, leaving it as it’s own standalone fantasy adventure.

None of these attempted self-imposed mind tricks yielded a positive result, however, on account of all the other shortcomings. Even if the name of our “hero” were not Conan, you would be asking yourself why they put movie this together.

So what this movie isn’t:

It’s not a continuation of the 1982 + ’84 Schwarzenegger films. It’s not an adaptation of any of Howard’s original source material. It doesn’t really follow any of the plotlines, in fact (not that the ’82 movie did, but that one at least was sort of an amalgamation of scattered stories put together to form something new and unique), though there was reference to having “killed the elephant man” or some nonsense, which I can only assume is an allusion to The Tower of the Elephant, but in that story, killing the “elephant guy” wasn’t some barbaric, swashbuckling conquest. It was a mercy killing.

This is essentially pissing on the source material.

What this movie is:

An action-packed adventure full of easily-forgotten one-liners, exposition via villainous verbosity, and a plot that comes to a screeching halt the instant you start asking questions. There’re some neat special effects, gratuitous gore, and less-than-memorable characters.

“Quick,” said one producer, “cast Conan’s best friend to a black guy.”

“What? Why?”

“Because Conan kills some black warriors in the next scene. Recast the loyal sidekick as a black dude so people think we aren’t as racist as the original writer.”

Because, if you know anything about the original source material concerning not only Conan, but others of Robert E. Howard’s creation, it may come as no surprise that Howard (along with his long-time writer friend, H.P. Lovecraft) were, in Stephen King’s eloquent words:

“… Lovecraft was, by all accounts, both snobbish and painfully shy (a galloping racist as well, his stories full of sinister Africans and the sort of scheming Jews my Uncle Oren would get worried about after four or five beers), the kind of writer who maintains a voluminous correspondence but gets along poorly with others in person—were he alive today, he’d likely exist most vibrantly in various internet chatrooms….”

I’m actually a huge fan of Howard’s writing. The wordcraft turned out to be hugely influential in my own prose, however the subject matter, at times, got about as ignorant as Lovecraft.

The story of Conan (2011) is so utterly try-hard that if one didn’t know better, one might suspect it written by multiple people who couldn’t agree on what would make a good plot…

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So even if I set aside my annoyance for barely acknowledging the writings of Howard, I have to at least try to enjoy the movie for what it is instead: a fantasy film with swordplay, monsters, heroes/villains and magic. Those are usually the components of a fantasy I’d be interested in.

The fight choreography was passable. There’s a lot of flashy swordplay that is supposed to make Conan look like master fighter, but in truth I got the impression I got was just some dude with pecs being handed a sword. Not to say this athleticism is easy (or surprising, as we all know what’s seen on TV/movies is by it’s very nature, flashier).

But very few movies measure up to the most interesting swordplay in a movie like this, in the opinion of yours truly, like in Troy.

Don’t get me started on all the problems and inaccuracies of that movie. In spite of them, though, I was able to enjoy the film for its other redeeming factors. Conan the Barbarian doesn’t really have any.

Well, except for Ron Perlman, maybe. But they sorta get rid of him early so it’s no fun anyway.

Monsters? We have a tentacle beast whose name, the Dweller (a veritable eldritch abomination which, considering the Hyborian connections with Lovecraft works, is at least not out of place) we can only know from grunted, contrived dialog.

Conan falls into the pit with his plot device sidekick and looks upon the pink orc guy he saw as a child.

“Great, a feast for my sword,” says C-man.

“No, a feast for the Dweller!” bellows the pink orc. Enter monster in elaborate, poorly designed room.

What other monsters are there? Orcs, I guess. Pink orcs. Oh wait no, maybe those’re just big angry sub-humans.

How about the heroes, then? Well like in Roger Ebert’s review, it’s kinda hard to like or relate to Conan in this depiction. I suppose that makes him an anti-hero, which is fine. Anti-heroes make great characters, like Batman, Guts (from Berserk), pretty much any character played by Clint Eastwood, and even James Bond. What do they all have in common? A general disregard for the usual things that most “heroes” care for, such as a desire for peace (in fact most anti-heroes are rather violent), but they’re not evil. Not really. In fact what makes them anti-heroes (and not just villains) is the fact that they kinda do a lot of good.

Conan doesn’t really give that impression at all. He’s a swashbuckler, pirate, thief, all-around tough guy who talks down to women and eschews the use of words when a sword would do (though he still talks too much in this movie as far as I’m concerned, and Conan as seen in Howard’s writings is actually quite long-winded). Schwarzenegger’s Conan was also a swashbuckler and thief and all-around free man that otherwise can’t quite fit into “civilized society,” but he wasn’t a dick.

There’s a difference between coming off as a badass and coming off as a douchebag.

Jason Momoa certainly looks the part of a savage warrior, that’s for sure. Indeed his character is, despite other things mentioned, closer to the original Conan. I think I preferred Momoa as Khal Drogo, though.

The villains were cookie-cutter characters you’ve seen a hundred times already, which wouldn’t be quite so bad if it weren’t a bastardized re-hashing of Thulsa Doom’s rise to evil-kinghood. The Evil King seeks to put together an ancient mask of power in order to bring back his dead wife, who was some years ago burned at the stake for witchery. Their daughter, who follows in her mothers footsteps, continues said witchcraft but only really employs it once throughout the entire movie. And what’s the result?

Sand people.

Oh right and she can taste the “purity” of someone’s blood, too, because plot.

This movie left a bad taste in my mouth, and it’s not that I was expecting something great or different, I was just expecting something less… average. The effects are neat at times, I suppose, but overall what I saw when watching this film was a bland, boring world that barely passes for fantasy with a couple of names of people and places inserted into it. Barely any time is spent just … observing things, so there’s no sense of culture in this world. Just movie sets and rendered landscapes between fights.

By far, though, the biggest issue is that there is no character arc.

To illustrate my point, let’s now do a direct comparison between the characters of 1982 Conan and the 2011 Conan, ignoring special effects, acting ability, budget, or number of horses killed during production.

  • 1982 Conan
    • Started off as a speechless child who, by all accounts, was “normal.” No noticeable attitude problems, except perhaps a hatred for ice fish.
    • Lost both parents in the raid that destroyed “his people,” where a lot of emphasis is placed on his desire for revenge. Like, the dialog-less scenes with little more than music to extrapolate the emotions in play tells volumes.
    • Went on to push the Wheel of Pain in a circle for ten years, no doubt instilling a sense of stubbornness
    • Fell in love, but set it aside to pursue revenge
    • Got killed as a result (spoiler)
    • Got resurrected (spoiler), and afterward began the long trend of contemplation as well as action
    • Lost his love (like, forever, none of that Marvel Comics shit where people don’t stay dead)
    • Achieved vengeance, but at great cost
    • Doing so, however, seems to have also averted a world-wide upheaval
    • Went on to a life of debauchery before finally becoming king ‘by his own hand.’
  • 2011 Conan
    • Child-Conan has an attitude from the get-go. He’s supposedly above average and quite the teen-aged savage. Very good at not crushing quail eggs
    • Lost parent, but once his father is ‘out of the way’ the plot can continue
    • Makes the beast with two backs with the damsel in distress who passes for a love interest
    • Kills the antagonist evil king guy as well as the evil witch daughter
    • Says goodbye to the damsel
    • Goes on to kill, thieve, and otherwise inconvenience people

The 1982 Conan has a complex and interesting character arc. He faces off against Thulsa Doom and his elites multiple times, and the one failure he suffers really hits hard. But the friends responsible for bringing him back are believably doing so because they care. He grows, rises, falls, rises again.

2011 Conan never changes. He doesn’t grow. In a fight against the evil king, Khalar Zym (really?), Conan lost. Sure the witch threw magic and poison-tipped-weapons-of-zero-consequence at him, but he lost, and he’s bummed out for about five minutes. The damsel sets herself up to be captured by stupidly running away from him when he’s asleep. He pursues – with absolutely no obstacles between himself and the obvious skull mountain – kills the people, saves the girl, and rides off with the mountain collapsing (for no reason) behind him.

He’s the exact same character from the beginning of the movie to the end, which is fundamentally boring, and the real reason books like Ready Player One ended up being terrible.

If your character doesn’t grow, or learn something, or change his mind or attitude about something, what the hell is the point of the story?

Anyway, for a movie I didn’t actually like, this is a long review. If you’re even half the fantasy enthusiast I am, save yourself the trouble and skip this film. That’s why I spend so much time writing about it – this is a film on par with those awful Dungeons & Dragons flicks that nobody is glad exists. Movies like this are an insult to my field.

If you’re going to use the name, you may as well attempt a retelling of any of the myriad adventures already written that aren’t half bad.

Jesse out.

Review: Tomorrowland

There’re spoilers in this post, because it’s as much an impression as it is a review.

This’s a movie for kids, which means a few familiar children’s movie tropes are there that bug me: the super-strong robot that looks like a child, the boy-genius, the 20-something actress who is supposed to pass as a teenager.

They didn’t have teenagers like this when I was growing up.

I don’t even necessarily mean her physical appearance; growing up, my school was full of dullards, and as a living definition of “late bloomer” myself, I only ever met one or two prodigal-type kids.

They were mostly pompous dickheads.

Whenever I see movies, particularly those by mega-companies like Disney, I find myself always looking for the agenda. It’s not to say having one is bad, but I’m always curious what it might be. Usually the basic agenda is to entertain you; to tell you a fun and exciting story long enough to keep you from walking out of the theater. Possibly so you can tell your friends it was worth paying the money go and see. But sometimes there’re are deeper things, particularly in children’s movies, which is one reason I’m rather fond of the messages that are found in all of Pixar’s animations.

Monsters, Inc. was about the importance of alternative energy sources.

WALL-E talks about our increasingly corporate-master-dependent society as well as neglect for the environment. However you might recall a group of “malfunctioning” robots who, I have no doubt, represent the artists and creatives of a society.

Bug’s Life retells the Seven Samurai like a boss.

If you haven’t, you must see this movie.

But Tomorrowland isn’t a Pixar production, it’s just plain-old Disney, a movie-rendition of one if it’s theme park rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion.

Gods, they are really scrounging for ideas. The cynic would argue that there’s the agenda right there: endorsement of theme park rides, packaged into an entertaining adventure complete with tropes and warm fuzzy familiar family fun.

And yet I’m not saying I disliked the movie.

There was an interesting premise that I found to be an interesting choice of ideas to explore: the whole “the world is what you make it,” thing, which smacks a little bit of the The Secret. Optimism really does make a difference in your life, even if that difference is as subtle as noticing the good things instead of focusing on the bad, but this goes a step further.

Latching onto a cool-sounding science term (tachyons, hypothetical particles that travel faster than light) and playing with a question of “What if?” This is actually the foundation of true science fiction – taking a scientific concept and running with it to explore what might happen within the context of a fictional story. In Tomorrowland, a device is invented that can see the future and the future is bleak. We see imagery of the end of the world, gleaned from the future, by monitoring tachyon particles and apparently glimpsing what will happen, is revealed to the audience.

As one might come to expect, at the end of the film the inevitable apocalypse is averted by shutting down the Doomsday (predicting) Device, which has been apparently broadcasting this negative imagery of a dystopian future into the brains of the modern populace. As a result, since everyone feels like the world is ending, on account of having the future-imagery beamed into everyone’s heads, a loop is formed and the world is destined to end (via environmental collapse, unstable governments, nuclear war, etc., all at once).

In other words, the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Destroying the device ends the broadcast, and the movie concludes with an air of extreme optimism. The the world is going to end if you believe it will, but not if you give up. The people who do not give up on their dreams – the artists, the inventors, the curious — the dreamers — will eventually be discovered and shown to Tomorrowland, a pocket dimension existing for the sole purpose of allowing one’s ideas to flourish without the restrictions of politics, regulations, laws…

Sounds great.

So remember kids, if you never give up on your dreams, one day you’ll come across a magical pin that serves as a gateway that’ll whisk you off to a fantasy realm where, essentially, the only limit is your imagination.

Again, sounds great.

Where the hell is my pin?

Anyway, I linger on that concept of focusing on the negative, of humanity’s fascination with the end of the world. Turns out it’s psychological tendency that we have bred into us as mammals. There’s some talk of it in this article, how so-called advanced knowledge both absolves us of responsibility and gives us a sense of comfort in a chaotic, entropic universe (“If there’s an end, then that means there’s an order to things, a plan!”). They touch on this in the film, how the populace embraces this negativity, because it asks nothing of you, as an individual. “If everything’s going to end, then why bother trying?”

One needn’t look far to see all the failed doomsday predictions from religions the world over. Our brains are wired to think, to feel, like the world will end tomorrow. It is a survival mechanism that serves us well, at least those peoples who evolved in cyclical climates like the northern hemisphere.

I couldn’t say whether this idea applies to all cultures and peoples closer to the equator, but the populations of tropical countries – such as Viet Nam, where I have increasingly direct experience with the minds and tendencies of the people – tend to live in a manner that baffles me.

They seem to operate in a manner of near-total disregard for distant future plans; those who actually plan ahead, or think beyond tomorrow, are the ones who get ahead.

So I see this movie as playing on the fears of viewers in the 1st World today, because let me tell you, the other 85% percent of the world’s population is seriously unconcerned with climate change or plastic bottles and bags littering their forests and beaches.

So was this movie made to inspire kids? Or was it made to assure a panicking populace, through the power of fiction, to not worry about real shit?

Perhaps there is some clandestine group of people out there working to make big change. So does that give us, as viewers, the right to dismiss the film as a “movie for children”? To become or remain cynical about real-world problems happening around us?

Or do we change our minds, even just the slightest bit, to think that the world isn’t on the edge of collapse?

Review: Interstellar

I finally got around to seeing Interstellar, almost five months after it’s release.

As such, this review unabashedly contains spoilers.

I don’t expect movies without plot holes or unexplained things that happen — you know, because plot. But Interstellar gets damn close. It’s cerebral, action-packed, and as I watched it, in retrospect, I realize I could not predict where the story was going.

But hey, at least the black scientist didn’t die first.

First of all, when talking about Interstellar, one must understand one thing – this is a Christopher Nolan film, the man behind such so-called mind-blowing movies as Memento and Inception. That being said, I don’t know why I didn’t go into this expecting some form of brain-bending imagery or concept at work.

And apparently they had a theoretical astrophysicist named Kip Thorne on the film crew – a guy who gave up his professorship (I didn’t know one could do that) to pursue writing and movie making.

Does that mean Interstellar is bullet proof from scientific criticism?

Certainly not. No more than story elements would be safe from smug critics like me.

One thing I could not help but notice is that the premise of Interstellar is very much based on a story-telling trend we are experiencing now: concern for the environment. Dystopian future. We’ve seen these trends, lived through them, and new ones arise.

In the 1950s, Hollywood movies produced a plethora of films focused on the fear of nuclear fallout. Later, experimental films got more popular, possibly reflecting the nation’s increasingly un-ignorable drug culture. The 90s showcased a variety of movies stating that…

“…genetic power’s the most awesome force the world has ever seen, but you wield it like a kid who found his dad’s gun.” ~Ian Malcom

Then the terrorist films got more popular following 9/11, followed shortly by dystopian stories — usually featuring zombies, battle royale-esque gladiatorial games, or impending, inevitable global disasters. As of this post (April, 2014) I believe we are undergoing a story-telling trend still in that mindset focused on a nearly-hopeless future, concerned predominantly with an environment that we ourselves fucked up with continuing abuse and negligence.

In other words, as far as tropes go, Twenty Minutes Into The Future.

I find it interesting that films tend to prey on the current fears of the audience. It is something of an insight into how the pubic viewed the world. There are, however, some interesting resources, such as this one and this one that help put these trends into perspective.

Which is a little ironic considering one of the major story reveals at the end. And by no means am I complaining, rather, just observing. In fact the presence of a drone as a prominent element of the setting early on (though, frankly, the scene didn’t add much to the plot) turned out to be a moment that left an impression on me. I remember when drones first starting hitting the headlines – the fear mongering and distrust and the anger. Then, after some time, it became just another part of the media that sorta kinda got lost in the blur of distraction we call “news coverage.”

I actually rather liked that the drone’s presence in the story wasn’t some sort of heavy-handed statement, except, perhaps, the statement being that “they’re already here and they’re going to continue being used. Get used to it.”

The mention of “corrected” history books got a rise out of me as well. I tend to get emotional when I hear about education systems (even fictional ones) messing with history for whatever agenda they have. I’ve heard of textbooks in California wording that the Conquistadores came to Latin America “with peace in their hearts.” When the Japanese Empire took over Korea, they committed a multitude of unbelievable atrocities which they – to this day – have taken no responsibility. History textbooks in Japanese schools describe their “occupation of Korea” as though they were performing a favor for Korea.

You could fill volumes of books with the information that’s been twisted, or purposefully omitted, from the descriptions of our various American presidents and events in our so-called education. This kind of stuff should not come as a surprise to the literate, but by all means do your own research should it interest you.

What else in our textbooks now has been “corrected,” one wonders.

It was satisfying to see John Lithgow, who I first came to recognize around the time of 3rd Rock From The Sun, in another movie about space. It was awesome to see the concept of a modern farmer as not a laborer, but as more of an overseer for semi-automated robotic harvesting equipment.

I once read a quote about how the true purpose of machines and mechanics and, eventually, what we would call robotics – was to the performance of physical labor so as to unchain our collective mental performance. In other words, robots freeing humanity from all forms of menial labor. The speaker of that was pretty dated, if I recall, as it was in reference to the American Industrial Revolution, but is still as relevant today as ever.

Anyway, back to Interstellar, I have to admit that I was waiting for those cubist robot helpers to betray the humans at a crucial moment. I found myself pleasantly surprised that they didn’t, and I also found them to be thoroughly enjoyable to watch and listen to.

The movie elicited quite the range of emotional responses from me, as well. I felt goosebumps wash over me at various key moments – particularly the reveal of the wormhole, when someone in the meeting room stated that “someone is looking out for them,” especially since, supposedly, wormholes are not a natural phenomenon.

I experienced Adult Fear right alongside Cooper as he watched the video-messages of his aging children, though I also found myself (pleasantly) surprised when, at the “present” time, we as the audience traveled back and forth between Cooper’s perspective and that of his now-33-year-old daughter Murphy.

Which at last brings us to the finale.

The representation of the so-called Fifth Dimension within a three-dimensional space was rather interesting. The tesseract was quite the mind-trip, though I had some troubles with understanding a few base concepts. And I’m not talking about quantum physics (which are of course beyond me), as well as Relativity (which I get on a fundamental level, but largely goes over my head).

Things like that are explained in great articles like this one. There’s a video at the end with Neil Degrasse Tyson talking about the dimensions — always a treat to hear this guy talk.

Rather, things that don’t make sense to me are how Cooper was able to interact with the “past,” using the tesseract, to communicate with his daughter across space time. We saw him manipulating the watch in her old bedroom by plucking strings of space/time that connected to the second-hand of that little time piece — I remember sitting there and having my suspension of disbelief shaken as I watched his 3rd-dimensional finger pull the “string” in, as best as I could tell, was the 5th dimension.

And are we seriously expected to believe that he transcribed quantum data, collected by TARS, to her in morse code?

I guess he had nothing better to do. But you think he might have slipped in a “hey, this is dad” message along the way.

And besides, if the tesseract and wormhole were placed there by “them,” who are strongly implied to be future humans rather than aliens (though I guess technically they would be extraterrestrial) during that specific time. One wonders why they wouldn’t have done it earlier? Or closer?

Perhaps humanity would not have developed the technical skill to know what to do with it, if the wormhole had formed around the time the Blight had started. But then, everything changed anyway when the wormhole was erected in the first place — so the same question remains: Why then?

Or perhaps the future-humans of 5th Dimensional superiority had in fact been trying, throughout history, to warn us past-people about things, but we’ve simply been unable to comprehend what we saw. Possibly relegating eyewitness accounts to the realms of paranormal superstition, or religious events, or plain old mental illness.

Perhaps the time that the wormhole appeared was carefully calculated because the ascended future-humans would know the precise time when humanity was capable of doing something about a wormhole, since to them it’s in their history books.

Such is the nature of these paradoxes. Honestly I’m more concerned about how Cooper pushed books from the shelf and manipulated settling dust when, with that kind of ability, he could have potentially just written in the dust anyway.

The whole thing felt like more of an illusion than it felt like a scientific representation of a theory.

And regardless of those little nit-pickings, I loved this. I loved it all.

Much like Jevon Knights puts it, Interstellar Could Be The Greatest Science Fiction Movie Ever. I have found that I am in agreement with him, because true science fiction is about taking a scientific principle, or concept, or theory, and exploring a dramatization of that theory expanded through narrative. In other words, you take an idea, and you create a story around that idea, asking the question “What if?”

Science fiction isn’t about asking questions like “What if a group college kids got marooned on an island with some science experiment roaming the jungle?”

That is a slasher/monster flick.

Science fiction isn’t about asking questions like “What if there was a race of sentient mechanoids capable of disguising themselves as vehicles and household appliance?”

That’s a series of movies supported by people with no respect for the art.

Science fiction is about asking scientifically or philosophically based questions, and providing a scenario where that question is extrapolated and explored.

But quite frankly I lost all suspension of disbelief when I was expected to believe that Cooper was 33 years old.

And when Matthew Mcconaughey didn’t take off his shirt once, had I been eating popcorn, I would have thrown it at the screen.

This movie gets 9 black holes out of 10.