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The broken promise of Alien: Covenant

May 18, 2017

Alien-Covenant-Trailer-Breakdown-1I saw Alien: Covenant last night, late, hoping the screening would be empty. It wasn’t, in the end – there were maybe ten people inside, including a pair of bald middle-aged guys in the third row who looked like they could have been extras in Alien 3, and whose sibilant whisperings flitted over the trailers before falling silent for the main feature.

I rewatched Prometheus in preparation (and then re-read the thing I’d written in reaction immediately afterward) having seen both Alien and Aliens in recent weeks. Coincidentally I also played through Alien: Isolation last month, and wrote about how it’s probably the best sequel Alien(s) will ever get. I was so right.

I was surprised by Covenant – I found it less frustrating than Prometheus and more forthright in its ideas, even though those ideas are often clumsy, and the aggregated whole is savagely dark. Still, taking a lead from Andy Kelly, here are some things about Alien: Covenant that I liked:

Peter Weyland’s room, in which the opening takes place. Others have pointed out quite rightly that this room does not belong in the world of Alien, but I would add that it does belong in the world of Blade Runner. Below I’ve put two images together for comparison: Weyland’s room, in which he first talks to his synthetic human, David, and the office of Eldon Tyrell from Blade Runner, in which Deckard interviews Tyrell’s replicant. These are both opulent, futurist-classical spaces and, as someone who was very excited by the prospect of Prometheus bridging the shared science fiction worlds of Blade Runner and Alien, I am here for Weyland’s giant, decadent white room.

 

The visual and audio throwbacks to Alien. These were more pronounced than in Prometheus (I guess this time the name is on the box) and though Covenant struggled with showing a slightly earlier moment in time using much improved effects technology (weird that the Nostromo didn’t have any touchpads or holographic displays) hearing MU/TH/UR’s whirs and clicks was fun. Below I’ve included a couple of images from the trailer than give a sense of what I mean. That is my favourite corridor on the big screen in 2017 (although – extended and slightly negative diversion – this whole thing also highlights the impossibility of getting an aesthetically faithful Alien sequel on film. Isolation succeeded partly because it was happy to stick to the look of Ridley Scott’s original film – a period piece, effectively – but Covenant shows that even Scott himself can’t resist the ease and possibility of new effects technology).

 

The scene of devastation on the Engineer homeworld. I didn’t watch any of the prologue shorts before the film itself, so I had no idea the planet found by the Covenant was the Engineers’ home, or even if David would play a significant part in the film, which probably gave this more impact. Again, the imagery here – cowed figures and fallen monuments, vast symbols of gods and men – isn’t really a good fit with the world of Alien, which is a film about people who want to get paid, not people who want to meet god. But it’s a continuation, and a refinement, of the ideas from Prometheus.

Covenant arena

Below is a shot from Prometheus of the vast statue of an Engineer head found in the film’s off-world pyramid. The pyramid itself is based on an HR Giger design for the Harkonnen castle in Dune,  originally created for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s abandonded version of the film (Giger would also work with Ridley Scott on his abandonded version of Dune, right before Alien). Both the Engineer’s head, and the original Giger design for the pyramid, remind me of the iron-faced furnaces on the Harkonnen homeworld in David Lynch’s not-abandoned version of Dune, which is also below. In other words, watching Covenant was a chance to trace lines of connection between things I love already.

 

I also liked, or at least found myself interested in, Covenant’s take on the theme of creation introduced by Prometheus. Prometheus is about a group of humans looking for their maker, joined by a robot that mankind has created in its own image. The climactic scene of Prometheus, Weyland begging the Engineer for more life, is a replay of Roy’s meeting with Tyrell at the close of Blade Runner. And in Covenant, David’s motivation is an urge to create in turn – he is frustrated by the restrictions on creativity with which he was designed, and his obsession leads to the creation of the xenomorph.

I like everything except that it involves the xenomorph.

Above all else, Covenant made it very clear to me that Prometheus’ mode of science fiction – grand and philosophical – is totally at odds with the wrench-in-hand practicality, the blood-and-bones mortality of Alien. The xenomorph, originally, works as a symbol of the universe’s indifference. Space is an endless, lifeless abyss, and it’s blackness is reflected in this monster. It is meaningless, the chaos of the unsupervised cosmos visited upon us. Hitching it to specifics, motivations and designs diminishes everything that makes it powerful.

This leads to my second major gripe – the film’s inability to allow us to imagine anything. Prequels are too often exercises in extinguishing wonder – the richness of the Navigator’s unknown origins reduced to a giant rubbery man in a helment – but Covenant stamps out ambiguities with singular purpose. Did David really wipe out an entire civilisation? Yep – look, here he is doing it, in a flashback. What really happened to Shaw? Here is her hollowed corpse and a series of diagrams to leave you in no doubt. And – my god – could that be David at the end of the film, and not Walter at all? Yes, don’t be tantalised by mere suggestion, here is a firm answer and a sense of closed hopelessness.

And the hopelessness is really the thing. Alien is a film about resourcefulness and survival. Prometheus and Covenant are, on a wider scale, extraordinarily unpleasant stories that end in darkness. Faith hovers in both films, but the facts are bare: we meet our makers, and they hate us. “There is nothing” says Weyland, as he dies. “I know,” replies David. Shaw survives this encounter, and her reward is offscreen experimentation and dismemberment. Her counterpart in Covenant, Daniels, ends the film writhing in terror as cryosleep takes hold, knowing that her ship full of colonists is at the mercy of David.

We are a long way from the story of a determined woman who kept her head when her ship was invaded by a supremely destructive parasite. Now: we were made by monsters, we have created monsters, and we are dying. The spirit of the film is like the abundant mutagen that has taken the place of the xenomorph as the series’ primary threat: black, voracious and unstoppable, logicless apart from an aggressive, corrupting hatred of everything alive. These films aren’t dark in a stern, philosophically pointed way. They are vacuums of meaning and warmth that – to my surprise – I find morally objectionable. Whatever else they might be, I think these films are Wrong.

 

 

What Remains Of Edith Finch | Glixel

April 28, 2017

…walking simulators (the best ones anyway) are brilliant catalogues of loss, involving the investigation of absence, of missing things and missing people – as often signalled in the titles themselves: Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter. They represent storytelling through exploration and reconstruction, and What Remains Of Edith Finch by Giant Sparrow might be the best one yet.

I wrote about What Remains Of Edith Finch for Glixel. I first played a snippet of the game at E3 in – I think – 2015, a surreal and contextless sequence of transformation, from a young girl into a cat, then a bird, and finally a shark. It had a playful warmth and sense of storytelling from the elusively allusive title on down that I was entirely hooked by, and playing more of the game only deepened my excitement (I have a full copy now, and intend to spend the long May Day weekend playing through).

What I didn’t get to mention in this piece was how the protagonist’s journey to a childhood home dealt with memory and identity in a way that felt wonderfully accurate and familiar. It’s a rich and suggestive treatment, touching on how place informs and contains memory, and the dreamlike sensation of returning to once-routine spaces. It reminded me of one night as our university days drew to a close, my friends and I climbing through the window of our (empty) first year halls, so we could sit within the walls that contained our first remembrance of each other. And it reminded me of a journey to my own childhood home, and the thing I wrote about it, a couple of years ago.

Then we walked past the Oval to my brother’s first school, and then down Clapham Road – this bit was more familiar, my daily traipse home from nursery – to Liberty Street, the first place I can remember living. The things I remember in this flat include an impossible litter of puppies, throwing all of my toys out of the window even though I knew it was wrong, and – still me, still thinking about memory – the first thought I had about a thought forgotten, a very clear memory of getting out of a car and approaching my door with the intention of doing something inside, only to have the buzz of purpose slip unrecoverably from my mind.

 

Working Class Hero: How Dead Space’s Toolbox Of Horrors Is A Blue Collar Manifesto

February 19, 2017

dead-space

Dead Space was brought to us by EA in the same year as Mirror’s Edge, during a short-lived time of optimism when it seemed as though investing in new IP, rather than iterating Call Of Duty at the precise speed it takes a nation of 14 year-old boys to save up another £40, might be the key to winning the games industry. This was never a realistic hope, but the upside is that we’re left with Dead Space, a truly distinct and accomplished science fiction original (even if it became a series which iterated itself into irrelevance grasping for the attention of 14 year-old boys).

Dead Space is the grizzly end of sci-fi as learned from the blue-collar crew of Alien’s Nostromo. The future, it says, will be a place where replacing washers and making sure we can all breathe in trans-galactic flight will trump having a name like Dex Forearm and regenerative health. Our hero Isaac Clarke fixes things – trams, lifts, shuttles, navigation modules – and wears a rusty brown suit. As an engineer, he’s likeably functional, and the game is impressively focused around him. His weapons are tools – cutters, saws, flamethrowers – and his enemies require precision dismemberment rather than undirected aggression. He is the earnest shed-dad on an Autumn afternoon of videogame protagonists, and he lives in a satisfyingly unglamorous future of realistic moving parts designed with brilliant cohesion and striking visuals.

All of which there is to say there’s a purity to Dead Space, and to its science fiction, an efficiency of character, presentation, and even language. The game’s opening scene is a model of sharp exposition that introduces tensions, objectives and personal sub-plots, while throwing in a world-building set of just-graspable jargon (“planet cracker”, “gravity tethers”, “encoders”). There’s a confidence here too, all calmly taken in from the single-shot perspective of a cockpit overlooking a dramatic space scene: a broken planet, a crippled ship, and a scattered debris field, all glowingly backlit by a dazzling sun breaking through the gaps.

This is a world not in need of a hero so much as a man-shaped set of working parts. Isaac achieves the ultimate efficiency of language by remaining silent throughout, and his face isn’t shown until the game’s very last scene (even then, he looks flabbergasted rather than stoic or prominently jawed). Whether by design or necessity – the game’s initial prototype was scraped together by a small team using borrowed tech – Isaac is as much a tool as the improvised weapons he uses to cut through his enemies.

While there’s an elegance to Isaac’s simplicity, there’s a corresponding richness to the sophisticated world Dead Space builds around him. The game’s basic blocks of interaction, its sound effects and UI design, superbly convey a sense of both futurism and functionality. Again, something is owed to Alien here, and to the analogue future as collectively imagined by Hollywood on the burgeoning fringe of the blockbuster era in the 1970s and 1980s, a future of burbling pips and squawks, of holographic interfaces and workshop textures. It not only captures the same truth revealed by John Carpenter’s Dark Star and George Lucas’ Star Wars, that when we get to the future everything will look worn and you might have to slap the dash to hit light speed, but does it with such accomplished uniformity that every menu navigated, every door opened, and every machine worked intensifies the reality of the world, and the hold it has on us.

We should also talk about that world itself, and how it’s not really a world but a single ship, navigated in decks like the floors of a haunted house (that the means of travel between decks is a tram is, of course, just perfect). Welcome to the USG Ishimura: like Alien’s Nostromo it is a mining vessel, and like Alien’s Weylan-Yutani corporation it hails ahead to our internationally conglomerated destiny. It’s also a densely-packed warehouse of cliché, and it’s testament to the game’s other qualities that we barely notice. The ship’s geography is dominated by strobe-lit grey corridors and grand guignol monuments of splayed carcasses that recall a litany of antecedents from Doom to Event Horizon. They are, however, occasionally and spectacularly interrupted by defining moments of originality: a disorienting fight in a debris-strewn anti-grav chamber, or the frantic traversal of the ship’s hull against the sucking blackness of space.

The thoroughness of the game is apparent in these space walks, where the sound of everything except Isaac’s ragged breathing is swallowed in the vacuum. Again, the best of Dead Space is lean and stripped, and it’s with this same minimalism that the game contextualises the horrors Isaac encounters. Revealed through logs and text files – crude necessities of narrative, well deployed here – we learn of Unitology, a cult-like religion involved in the recovery of the alien artefact behind the game’s transformative horrors. Crucially, we’re not given specifics, just a taste of fanaticism and and hint of conspiracy, enough to ambiguously shade what are already mysterious events. Subtler still are veiled nods towards the wider state of our society four centuries from now, in the Ishimura’s various propagandist PSA posters. “Where would you be without SCIENCE?” beams one, a bright-faced technician smiling out above a pile of skinless cadavers. There’s a heavy echo of Philip K. Dick in their enforced optimism (“We can remember it for you wholesale!”), and they say a great deal, without saying anything, about the arrangement of people and power needed to drag humanity into space.

The best thing about all this is that Isaac doesn’t care. Instead he has his rusty brown suit and a long jobsheet of things to fix and do, which includes cutting the arms and legs off most of what used to the crew of the Ishimura. The thematic consistency of Dead Space is really clinched by its weaponry and enemies, and the combat that brings them together. Isaac’s inventory is a toolbox of sharp, hot things jerry-rigged for survival, and key among these sharp, hot things is the plasma cutter. In one sense Dead Space is an iteration of Resident Evil 4, and the plasma cutter is a natural successor to Capcom’s laser-sighted pistol, now with three blue lasers rather than a single red one. But it’s more than that, too – it’s a potent symbol of Isaac’s unfussy heroism, a small, effective tool (upgraded properly, it’s the only gun you’ll need to finish the game) with a simple, practical embellishment of a revolving head that turns the strip of blue lasers vertical or horizontal with a satisfying bleep.

The practicality of this revolving head only becomes truly obvious once Isaac encounters the necromorphs. These aberrations are a shotgun-wound wedding of Stan Winston’s creature effects in Carpenter’s The Thing and the distorted figures of Francis Bacon’s second Triptych – writhing examples of fallen man in furious agony. Yes, we’re essentially talking about space zombies, but space zombies with pedigree, as well as razor-like scythes for elbows and distended, snapping jaws. The game’s persistent stroke of genius is that brute force won’t deter them, and instead what’s needed is accurate dismemberment and disposal. This is where the punchy plasma cutter comes into its element, slicing off legs then, with a bleeping revolution of the head, clipping off an arm at the shoulder, methodically cleaving along the horizontal and the vertical.

This gives combat a purpose over and above the deployment of as much ordnance as possible in the shortest time. Each kill becomes a small, crafted piece of handiwork, and when combined with other weapons and Isaac’s supplementary abilities it results in a layered model of combat that’s skilful in a way few horror games manage. Initially the necromorphs come in twos or threes, but by the mid-point and beyond they invade rooms in waves, squirming from vents and pouring from the ceiling in multi-directional ambushes. At these moments the full range of Isaac’s tool set is stretched, and there’s a grim man-with-hammer satisfaction derived from switching between powers and weapons to select the right thing for the job: slowing on-rushers with Isaac’s stasis power, clearing a cloud of crawling parasites with the flamethrower, telekinetically tossing a propane canister into a crowd, and switching to the trusty plasma cutter to harvest the survivors. Having borrowed so much from the Alien series, Dead Space solves the problem official adaptations of that series tend to have: How do you keep your inhumanly lethal monster individually terrifying when at some point our hero needs to take on ten of them at a time? The answer is with a dextrous, skill-based approach to combat that makes it feel like you’re surgically crafting your way to safety.

Everything good about Dead Space comes from its underlying cohesion, everything from the no-nonsense stomp of Issac’s iron suit to the Bronx drawl of the engineer whose audio logs clue Isaac into the necromorphs’ weakness. Dead Space is a game with a point of view – that building things is valuable, that design is beautiful, and that the smallest details in the mechanisms through which we interact with the world can have the biggest impact. It’s a game about resourcefulness and repair, about precision and craft, about how default heroism is boring and how a real protagonist should do things. And it reminds us, graphically, that when everything goes to hell and a collection of razor limbs with a half-human face scuttles at you from a dark corner, being able to mend a flex is going to be pretty handy.

 

This article appeared in Edge magazine’s Time Extend section in 2014.

How Rockstar’s Vision of America in ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ is More Relevant Than Ever – Glixel

February 12, 2017

gta-iv

I’ve been meaning to link out to the writing I do for different places here on my blog, as a tidy way of keeping track. And I will do – but I recently wrote something that changed a little on its way to publication and I thought it worth using this blog a little differently, to provide a little insight into that process, and also to give me somewhere to preserve the (definitely flawed) original.

Glixel got in touch to ask if I’d like to write something about GTA IV, which last week became playable on Xbox One through backwards compatability. I said yes, partly because in the last couple of years I have written pieces that sum up how I feel about GTA V (“it is with a sense of irony which apparently no longer exists in GTA itself that I present this: a list of reasons why, as a representative of the default morass of accumulated privilege, I feel culturally and morally compromised by some of the bad bits in GTA V“) and Red Dead Redemption (“Spaghetti Westerns are a perfect fit for Rockstar Games. The Spaghettis were, after all, a negotiation of American-ness from afar, a stripped down take on the founding myths of an immigrant nation as perceived by Europeans who never made the journey“) and this felt like a good way to complete the Rockstar set.

It’s perhaps because I had these other two pieces in mind that what I came up with didn’t quite work. It was very probably over-written, definitely included a paragraph too many about Philip Glass, and featured various bits of decorative cleverness. I was, very reasonably, asked to do a rewrite, holding tighter to the headline and argument I had after all suggested. The finished piece is the result of that rewrite – a new introduction, various paragraphs collapsed into each other, an attempt at threading an argument more strongly throughout – and five or six small cuts and edits made by the on-site staff once I’d resubmitted.

The finished piece is up here. I’m only unhappy with it in as much as I didn’t get it right first time, although I am left with a frustration about the original piece. It didn’t work, certainly not for the commission, but it did include things I was glad I had written. So I thought I’d put it up here, on a blog basically nobody reads, as a minor point of interest for people who like to know about how writing works, sometimes.


GTA IV’s faith in the flawed American dream is more relevant now than ever

Rockstar makes games about America. The publisher’s back catalogue is an archived exploration of the culture and geography of the New World in the twentieth and early twenty-first century, an extended study of what this place is and what it means from the perspective of half-in, half-out immigrants who exist simultaneously on both coasts and none at all, with studios in New York, San Diego, and creative headquarters across the ocean in Edinburgh.

If this simultaneous proximity and distance is unique, so are the games that have emerged from it. GTA IV and GTA V are the current culmination of Rockstar’s fascination with America, games set in cities marking out the scope of the country and its possibilities: one the landfall of European immigrants, the first staging post of the American dream, and the other its complicated culmination, a city of light and little substance, a notion that drifted across a continent all the way to the ocean and settled there. Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar’s period take on the GTA formula, was released in between the two and sits in the middle, in a fictionalised Texas, catching the notion on its way west. Together the three make a perfect trilogy, phasing in and out of time and across the vast spaces of America, telling that story of this place and what it means.

GTA IV is the start of this cycle, and the end of another. Released in April 2008 on a still new generation of consoles, the game is a clean break from the PlayStation 2-era Grand Thefts that made Rockstar the coolest publisher in the world. Playing Grand Theft Auto has been, since GTA III, an experience dominated by constant amazement, derivative stories and flimsy controls unable to touch the gleeful disbelief, the three-dimensional possibility, of a world built for yet barely able to contain us. GTA IV’s redesigned New York stand-in Liberty City retains this sense of wonder but moves on from punkish cartoon playgrounds to offer a more serious study of a city, from brick and iron industrial foundations to spectacular concrete and glass eruptions. GTA IV is a tribute – still suspended in a kind of permanent semi-belief – to New York, itself a scarcely plausible few square miles of human achievement.

It’s no accident that the first trailer for GTA IV was a pastiche of Godfrey Reggio’s wordless documentary Koyaanisqatsi, a film comprised of two hours of beautiful photography that stares open-mouthed at modern civilisation, and the impossible density of life inside the concrete machines we call cities. Cribbing the film’s rhythms and timelapses is a perfect Rockstar moment, one that looks at the terrible power of the city and says “We have made one of these.” The music is perfect, too: of all the tracks from Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack, the trailer uses Pruit-Igoe, named for the vast Modernist Detroit housing project we see demolished in the film, an extended anxiety attack at the relentless size of man’s engineered ambitions.

Glass’ track is heard in the game too, part of the rotation on The Journey, one of the many radio stations that fill GTA IV’s air with noise and give the sense of a breathing, moving world of life beyond the bounds of our adventure. There are smart choices all over the game’s soundtrack, New York artists from Gil Scott-Heron to LCD Soundsystem played on stations themed around the musical movements that have defined how the city sounds. But there is something especially fitting about the alarming minimalism of Pruit-Igoe. Koyaanisqatsi isn’t about New York – or at least not just about New York – but Philip Glass is. The composer drove cabs across town in his early career, writing music through the city’s sleepless nights to be performed in the converted industrial lofts of SoHo as the artists moved downtown in the 1970s. His music is as close to a measured heartbeat of the city as it’s possible to get – jagged, frantic, and desperately, spirallingly alive – and the game is never better than during a night time drive surrounded by insomniac lights while it sounds like an alarm through the car stereo.

Glass is also the son of immigrants, Jewish Lithuanians who settled in Baltimore, a journey from Eastern Europe to East Coast also undertaken by GTA IV’s protagonist, Niko Bellic. Niko arrives like the sedimentary layers of immigrants before him, on a boat that carries him from the violence of Europe to a new life heralded, in the game’s opening scenes, by its version of the Statue Of Liberty. It’s an old story and it’s a new story – the meagre beginnings and brickwork Brooklyn neighbourhood are the symbols of a tale told for a hundred years and more, but with GTA IV Rockstar is, perhaps for the first time, not overwhelmed by a handful of cinematic references, and the specifics of Niko’s story – the Yugoslav war, crime networks of Russians and Albanians – are his own.

Niko himself is likeable and bordering on inhuman, as the game dictates he must be. He kills easily and often, but he’s also dry and dauntless, with a dutiful sense of right and wrong, a crucial foil for the series’ previously unfettered psychopathy. With GTA IV the series reaches a point of sophistication where the destructive abandon encouraged by its predecessors sits uncomfortably with its realism. Niko gives us a reason to enjoy that destruction at a flimsy remove, to participate in violence while leaving us room to feel ambiguous about it. “War,” Niko tells his cousin about the experiences which have led to his cold self-awareness “is where the young and stupid are tricked by the old and bitter into killing each other.” There are, of course, many immigrant histories that are not defined by violence. But violence is the only language that GTA speaks, at least fluently, its only way of articulating the story of a man like Niko. And so Niko is, like Red Dead’s John Marston, a man whose darkest deeds are behind him, and a man who will use violence to undo and rebalance the violence he has already done, like sending a rain to halt the ocean.

Niko is, in other words, doomed one way or another, his course set despite the handful of lives that the game allows you to spare here and there. GTA IV doesn’t sell an optimist’s dream of America – Niko arrives to a nothing apartment and finds his cousin’s boasts of riches are tightly-held self-delusions – but its faith in what America represents is somehow the stronger for it. The city itself, the constant unfolding marvel of GTA IV, is evidence of what those like Niko, the tired and poor, are capable of achieving. It is a clear-eyed view of a place wielded together from multitudes, the alloyed strength of the melting pot. It is a game that celebrates a New York built by newcomers to a new world, its own immigrant story giving silent acknowledgement to the power of invitation and inclusion, a power worth being reminded of now more than ever.

A Savagely Partial Look At The Films Of 2016

December 30, 2016

Welcome, adventurer, to another round-up of every film released in 2016 that I, an aging body with a mounting pile of reasons not to watch films all year, nevertheless managed to see. There’s loads of stuff missing! It’s difficult to see why either of us are here. But what are we going to do, stop?

january

The year opened as it always does – awash with Oscars overflow, a pack of movies which really belong to 2015 and which have already been celebrated or semi-forgotten long before lists like this have been written. Joy looked like a lot of hard work in service to making a mop-themed Movie Of The Week, taken seriously because of the people in it and the names they have, while The Hateful Eight was what we can presumably expect from Tarantino forever now, a sort of edit-yourself-a-film kit which comes with plenty of exciting materials but without a single decision in the box. More actively objectionable was The Revenant, a grand act of self-fellatio upon the altar of male suffering which looked particularly preposterous when stacked up against something like Room, a bare and powerful look at the unmthyologised effects of male violence that should have won Best Picture. It didn’t, though – Spotlight did, for a fine, firmly traditional bit of quality drama-ing about child abuse in the Catholic church and the importance of steadfast journalism in holding power to account (a premise which, from where we stand at the end of 2016, looks quaint, bordering on prehistoric). The Big Short took a more irreverent approach to big issue filmmaking, and in so doing ended up like a lesson on capitalism from that one cool lecturer who wears a bow tie, and maybe the bow tie spins, and then Creed was a film about punching men and second chances, and that was absolutely fine.

 

februaryFebruary saw the release of Dad’s Army, Point Break and Zoolander 2, all films which I had the opportunity to watch on flights this year, but decided not to, in favour of staring at a blank screen. I did watch Goosebumps, a fond simultaneous CG speed-read of all RL Stine’s teen horrors at once, and Deadpool, a superhero film lauded as the future of the genre because it features swearing but which – even though Ryan Reynolds saying fuck is fun – seems more like an early sign of the cycle’s eventual decline. I love both Casey Affleck and John Hillcoat but all I can remember of Triple 9 is that it felt like a joke – “How many men can you fit in a generic crime thriller?” – that ended without a punchline, although that means it’s still funnier than Sacha Baron Cohen’s Grimsby, which is like a feature adaptation of Fat Les’ England football suicide note Vindaloo and exactly as relevant as that sounds, a classist satire of twenty year-old cultural phenomena that insists on both vilifying and celebrating the worst stereotypes of the English working class. The Forest was an icy, alienating horror about a young woman looking for her twin in myth-shrouded Japanese woods that was promising for 45 minutes and then not, and How To Be Single was an occasionally touching, occasionally funny comedy about young women in New York that it would be easy to describe as “slight” but which I would rather consider as having been “enough.”

 

marchMarch brought us London Has Fallen, so fuck March. The film is a giddy, irresponsible gunwank featuring Gerard Butler’s presidential bodyguard saving the commander in chief from pop-up extremists who’ve levelled London with shit special effects. While I have high tolerance for Coen brothers whimsy even I struggled to see the point of Hail, Cesar!, a farce powered by their love of old Hollywood, but not very far. Much sharper was 10 Cloverfield Lane, a locked-house thriller about domestic abuse and its reliance on enforced truths that, in the end, had its reality and ate it. I saw a preview of High-Rise last year, which is lucky because Ballard’s gluttonous concrete dystopia would have felt a bit bloody much in 2016, a year in need of no satirical shadow. Speaking of -topias, Disney’s Zootropolis is known as Zootopia in the US and indeed in the sky between here and there, where I saw it, and either way it’s a both a pointed commentary on the ridiculousness of anthropomorphised animation and a really funny film about talking animals. Lastly, there was Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and yes it was a bit shit – overburdened with grunting, testosterone-heavy meaning like a man with an enormous cock who’s grumpy about having to lug it around – but it also embraced the preposterousness of DC, a world full of superpowered beings who pass as humans, and it filled Metropolis with art deco grandeur and ideas of gods and men.

 

aprilIt also had roughly the same story as April’s Captain America: Civil War (something something, restraints on superpowers) and even though I’m in actual love with Chris Evans’ Avenger I couldn’t get over the fact that Marvel is expanding like an endlessly self-replicating chain of radioactive fucking Wimpys and this film felt like a sad rich kid with too many toys and not enough time to play with them all. Once you’ve scaled up it’s quite hard, Marvel’s films are showing, to scale down again, and constant climax is impossible. Elsewhere the month gave us Midnight Special, a film I expected to enjoy more than I did, a Spielbergian tale of renegade kids and faceless authorities that fell just on the “fuck this” side of harrowing, and Eye In The Sky, an intelligent cross-examination of the impossible morality of war, and a chance to savour a final look at Alan Rickman.

 

mayFor my birthday in May I got Bad Neighbours 2, which mostly made me feel uncomfortable about how attractive Zac Efron has become, and Green Room, which made me uncomfortable because it’s tight like a cord around your fucking neck. Our Kind Of Traitor was a muted Le Carré adaptation that smacked of a kind of Travelodge mediocrity, while Money Monster was mediocre in an entirely different way, a stagey, zeitgeist-catching statement about showbiz and capitalism that came up with an empty net. I enjoyed Sing Street, a tour through 1980s music and adolescence, in the same warm way that I also enjoyed Whisky Tango Foxtrot and Everybody Wants Some – in a way that means I will probably never think about them again starting… now. X-Men Apocalypse was two hours of people suspended on rigs against green screens doing powers, idiotic for dozens of specific reasons but empty in a way that’s almost unique, while Warcraft had the tang of real fiasco about it, a long shot made into an inevitability by technical constraints and commercial concerns, and a finished product of purest nothing in particular that was marched out to please nobody.

 

juneJune got off to an excellent start with The Nice Guys, a snappy Altman-ish comedy which pulled off the fairly spectacular double of making me enjoy both LA and Russell Crowe at the same time. It was definitely better than The Boss, which I liked anyway because Melissa McCarthy can carry pretty much anything, and because her films remind me of the second-string SNL spin-offs I devoured from the video rental shop as a kid. Gods Of Egypt reminded me almost perfectly of nothing – an action film made of unreal fabric that makes physical contact an impossibility – while Independence Day: Resurgence reminded me of the first Independence Day but limping and hapless, a once-lithe athlete desperate to hear the roar of the crowd one last time, before realising that the crowd are telling him to fuck off. Following this it was a relief to watch something straightforwardly stupid in the shape of Bastille Day, which was a bit like Luther in France with extra punching, and to sink into the well-observed, measured self-awareness of The Secret Life Of Pets, which conjured a beautiful version of New York that put me in mind of One Hundred And One Dalmatians’ metropolitan angularity. That’s what the kids love. Metropolitan angularity.

 

julyThen July arrived and FUCKING HELL it was stupid. The Legend Of Tarzan seemed convinced it could make colonialism not-racist on the grounds that Lord Greystoke is the one white guy who, like, really gets Africa, while Star Trek Beyond was a contrived mess of motorbikes and Beastie Boys that looked as though it was pinned together by enthusiastic Blue Peter viewers. King of stupid, though, was The Neon Demon, a film which borrows the two interesting things it has to say from David Lynch and reveals the ultimate, empty misogyny of Nicolas Winding Refn, whose men fight and kill and fuck, and whose women, we now know, pose and bleed and die. If profundity lies just a stroke from absurdity, directing a scene where a woman wanks on top of a corpse or floods a room with menstrual blood under a full moon has nothing to do with either, and makes you a fucking idiot.

 

The rest of July was much less ridiculous. Ghostbusters weirdly didn’t trigger a totalitarian matriarchy but was a funny film about ghosts, Keanu was also funny and, with its joking-not-joking celebration of George Michael, has now become more relevant than it really deserves to be, and The BFG captured something wonderful in the quiet uncertainty of Mark Rylance’s performance, but otherwise seemed like an expensive quest to rediscover the scrappy simplicity of Quentin Blake’s unsurpassable illustrations. The month ended with two comebacks – Jason Bourne, who looks increasingly like a man overtaken by the technology that once gave his stories such electricity, state surveillance now a matter of daily truth not fast-cutting fiction, and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, in which everybody looks a little old to be doing this sort of thing any more, but they’re doing it anyway and it’s loads of fun.

 

augustIn August I enjoyed Childhood Of A Leader even though it felt like someone had taught themselves to make a film by taking apart The Conformist then putting it back together with several pieces left over. I also enjoyed The Lonely Island’s comedy doc Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, my affection for the group’s other work almost certainly plastering over the film’s cracks – they’re really, really good at making funny music, and it might not be a skill that means movies are a thing they should do. Movies are also a thing I’d be happy never to see Ricky Gervais do again, forever – David Brent: Life On The Road was a string of racist, sexist jokes delivered through a disavowable mouthpiece and laced with pathos that couldn’t disguise the fact they were all the substance the film had. This was still more substance than Suicide Squad, though, which wasn’t so much a film as it was a disintegration, as though all the origins movies that DC should have made before getting to this point tried to happen at once.

 

septamberWell done to September for including some of the best films of the year. Hell Or High Water might have been my favourite cinema trip of 2016, an Uber ride to a deserted retail park a few miles from LAX to watch a modern outlaw thriller that had that West Texan knack of being both lean and laid back at the same time. Kubo And The Two Strings was a beautiful tribute to the power of stories, an imaginative, inspirational mix of stop motion and papercraft, and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, my favourite film of the year, was a story about a tearaway kid, a grumpy old man, and not getting naked that was bursting with heart and funny as hell. Even the bad bits of the month were pretty good – The Girl With All The Gifts was a stark echo of John Wyndham with flashes of unsustained brilliance, and The Magnificent Seven was an entirely needless remake that added welcome diversity and an increasingly unsure-looking Chris Pratt to an otherwise straightforward rerun.

 

octoberWe are nearly done. In October I apparently saw just two films, both documentaries. Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie was a bit of a bust, the organisation remaining impenetrable and leaving Louis to feed off scraps – the reflected insight of former Church member Mark Rathbun casting and directing a fake film about Scientology head David Miscavige, unenlightening aside from the sparks it lit behind Rathbun’s eyes. And there was Supersonic, a partial look at the unlikely success of Oasis that ignores contemporaries and rivals, constructs a narrative of working class destiny instead of placing the band in any kind of cultural context, and leaves them – sensibly, as I did – at Knebworth, as if the majority of their career and music never happened. It did, though, reveal that Liam Gallagher joined a band having been hit in the head with a hammer, which explains a lot.

 

novemberThen it was November. Let’s start with Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, which was as much about a make-believe early twentieth century New York – a beautiful one, too – as it was JK Rowling’s world of magic, and also showed how good the Harry Potter films might have been without the necessity of all those hammy bloody kids. The rest of the month belonged to Amy Adams, first in Nocturnal Animals, a cold and atmospheric thriller that threatens to mean a great deal but packs itself away into not very much at all, and then in Arrival, which is the film I would pretend was my favourite of the year if I was trying to sound cool, a science fiction film of rare originality that did what the best speculative work does: made me feel that substantial knowledge of the universe is impossible, that language is a clumsy trap of meaning, and that everything I ever think or say is meaningless. It was great.

 

decAnd then there was December, which was also pretty great. Snowden was a solid, pacy biopic that was also like a manual explaining why Jason Bourne isn’t exciting any more, and Moana was definitely a Disneyfication of Pacific Islander culture designed to print money, but also featured a princess with no love interest and a key musical number sung in a combination of Samoan and Tokelauan. It’s been a long time since Aladdin. Finally, there was Rogue One, which I loved because it was a Star Wars film that wasn’t shit, and also because, at the end of this year of all years, it offered an unexpectedly astute look at the factionalism, moral uncertainty and frequent hopelessness of resistance. Cor.

 

And that was 2016. The things I feel stupidest for missing are The Handmaiden and Little Men, and the best time I’ve had the cinema was either Hell Or High Water, or watching Arrival in a completely empty theatre at midnight, imagining I had the biggest TV in the world. The best TV I saw this year was either all the syndicated Seinfeld I watched with my kids on holiday in California, or probably Stranger Things, the same as everybody else who watched Stranger Things, and fuck you and your superior backlash bullshit if you disagree. Also, season three of Brooklyn 99 was pretty good.

How the original Westworld got robots right (and why HBO’s show might have them wrong)

October 6, 2016

brynner

HBO’s new version of Westworld debuted this week. The pilot episode featured the kind of nuanced take on the sentience and sensibility of robotic people that you’d expect to find at the head of a popular culture that’s been fascinated with the subject for over forty years. Are they alive? Are they sad? Is it wrong to look at them naked, about five times an episode? The new Westworld’s machines are complex, Turing test-acing fascinations, their bodies caught in gameplay loops that their Shakespeare-quoting souls can’t sustain. They are ethically, spiritually and psychologically mysterious, new beings tip-toeing to consciousness in the shadow of man’s hubris. But for all that, are they any better than their big-screen counterparts, from 1973’s comparably clunky original film?

There is a strength in the original Westworld’s straightforwardness. The last two things Yul Brynner’s glassy-eyed gunslinger would have contemplated indulging himself in are an existential crisis, and the meaningful quotation of Shakespeare, especially not Romeo And Juliet (“These violent delights,” spit the gunslinger’s reality-spooked descendants, “have such violent ends.”) From our post-Terminator, post-Matrix vantage point, Michael Crichton’s film is almost quaint, an off-shoot of 1970s paranoia that looks bitterly back on post-war promises of American idealism just as much as it looks forward to the coming age of tech cynicism.

It is, in other words, as much about leisure and lifestyle as it is about technology. Westworld and the wider Delos resort hold a mirror to contemporary American amusement park culture – echoes of imperial indolence float over from Westworld’s sister park, Roman World, while Medieval World offers a TV dinner of gallantry and wenching. If the plastic utopian trip of Disney’s parks are the target here then it’s appropriate that Disney should have its own, copyrighted term for this rigorous real-world fictionalising: Imagineering. The official definition of Imagineering is “letting your imagination soar, then engineering it back down to earth,” which speaks to the technological heavy lifting required to suppress reality, though the experience of actually passing through these ostentatiously sustained illusions is more like willingly slipping into a cheerful dream. I have seen the glow of Radiator Springs under the Californian night, and it’s as beautiful as anything you’ll see in Yosemite – but it requires a form of buy-in, a subscription to a processed version of existence that’s incompatible with Westworld’s Nixon-era anxiety.

The point, aside from the fact that even a movie as disappointing as Cars can make for a great theme park, is that Westworld is a nostalgic sort of dystopia, and as such it’s tempting to think of take on automation as unsophisticated. It’s a bonus, really, a framing device for the primary attack on grotesque consumerism. That’s perhaps why interactions with the robot hosts of Westworld seem so much like real-world encounters with the euphemistically-titled Cast Members that staff Disney Resorts. Richard Benjamin, who in the film is timidly visiting Westworld for the first time alongside a brash James Brolin, isn’t sure what’s real once they pass the threshold (“Was she a…?”) the same uncertainty that comes from looking into the eyes of a young performer and seeing only Cinderella or Snow White staring back.

In the end, though, the distinction between man and machine is clear. They may look alike, but the robots are all surface – Brynner’s black-clad antagonist is the visual twin of the star’s character from The Magnificent Seven, an unreal image dislocated from its human host. What sets Westworld apart from so many science fiction warnings, adventures and even romances that have arrived since, is that its machines are and remain totally inscrutable. Even wearing an image of himself, Brynner is a blank – we don’t know why he malfunctions (aside from smart genre talk of virus-like symptoms) or what he’s after. The film might offer us a pixelated perspective shot from the gunslinger’s point of view, but there’s never a suggestion of an interior life, or a motive beyond the malevolence of the robot’s original programming.

HBO’s version of Westworld sets out to be different. The opening of its pilot episode is an exercise in disorienting perspective shifts. James Marsden’s handsome newcomer arrives on a train full of chattering guests, just like Benjamin and Brolin, while Ed Harris’ dead-eyed man in black echoes Brynner-echoing-Brynner. When the pair meet, though, it’s Marsden’s bullets that bounce of the – surprise! – human Harris. This time, the show is telling us, the roles can be reversed. Sympathy is relative. Humanity is ambiguous.

This is in part down to the structural differences of making a film and making a television show. The job of HBO’s Westworld is to turn the relatively simple one-shot worry of the original – what if robots, but bad? – into a complex tension capable of sustaining at least one and, with Game Of Thrones ending soon and no other hits in sight, preferably several seasons of programming. But it’s also down to our cultural familiarity with the subject matter. We’ve been dealing with machines that think for decades. We’ve been wondering if they’re good or bad for almost as long, and we’ve been wanting them to be our dads since at least Terminator 2. The idea of returning to a premise as simple as “Yul Brynner wants to shoot you because his circuit boards tell him to (also this is a metaphor)” is impossible at this point.

But there’s a danger to our perceived sophistication. In Blade Runner we are in awe of Roy Batty’s profundity as he laments his own passing. In AI we pity David when he’s rejected by his family. In Short Circuit, we agonise over the naivety of Johnny Five. And in each case, we are extending sympathy to machines that by definition cannot feel emotions, based upon the emotions that their human-like appearance makes us expect them to have. We are primed to interpret their physical responses as indicative of underlying emotional ones and, by making machines look human, we trick ourselves into feeling sorry for something that might as well be a spoon, or a clever hammer.

This, really, is the central hook of Ex Machina, a film ostensibly about a series of tests administered to an artificial person, Ava, to see if she has developed consciousness. At the end of the film, after a proxy war has been fought over Ava’s unethical treatment at the hands of her inventor, she leaves for dead the man who tested, fell in love with and rescued her – not because Ava dislikes him, but because she has no feelings for him whatsoever, cannot fathom what feelings are, and because she’s not a she but an it, a spoon, a hammer. The coldness of it is spectacular – the same coldness that is in Brynner’s glassy eyes, a coldness at the heart of both our most rudimentary and most articulate responses to the issue of thinking machines. HBO’s Westworld has a great deal of unravelling and growing to do – coming episodes acknowledge a lot of these problems, makes them central even – but is still based upon a lingering dalliance with the tempting fallacy that machines might just be as human as us after all.

Oh, Hell – Some Thoughts On Not Loving New Doom

June 6, 2016

doom-2016_005I first noticed I wasn’t enjoying the new Doom as much as I’d originally thought when I stopped playing it for weeks and the idea of starting again made me slightly sad.

It’s obvious in hindsight, but it was easy to miss those signs because I was – and still am in many ways – convinced that I love this new version of Doom, and all the ways it’s like the old Doom but is also new. Oh, the allure of the same-but-new-but-same.

And in many ways New Doom, or as people are already refusing to call it, Noom, is very much the same-but-new-but-same. I wrote a piece effectively saying this but longer for RPS after the first gameplay reveal a year ago, all about the urgency and grace of moving sideways, and how the constant motion combined with how the demonic enemies attack you – essentially a process of constantly constructing a 3D maze of dodgeable fireballs – captured a central, important thing about what old Doom did very well.

I think that’s there, still, in the playing. 2016’s Doom is best in its early stages, bursting from a stone sarcophagus desperate to run down corridors and pull jaws from the demonically compromised. This is a great example of a update seeming like a faithful translation of then into now, despite all the intangible subjectivities by which this process is governed. There was no real melee system in classic Doom, but the glory kills which have modern us performing trauma circus finishers when in range of weakened enemies feels classic all the same, full of the same performance fury and adolescent righteousness.

So I was enjoying the new Doom and was, as I say, surprised when the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to me having stopped enjoying it after all. Here are some potentially boring reasons for this having happened that I have only bothered to think about and write down because I love the old Doom a great deal.

At some point new Doom stops being about shooting things with a shotgun and occasionally beating them into whatever world comes next if you’re from actual Hell with their own arms, and becomes about cuboid staging grounds filled with power-ups, waves of enemies, and the strategic possibilities of setting one against the other. The exits are sealed, rooms become killboxes, and our job becomes to survive and exterminate.

The problem is partly philosophical, a sense of enclosure versus the original’s speedy perpetual motion, but it’s also one of simple fun. A foundation of classic Doom is that most enemies are easy to kill, and only particular situations require the use of anything meatier than a shotgun or chaingun. These situations, once the levels are committed to memory, can be plotted out and saved for – rockets here, plasma there – while the rest of the game remains an angry burst. New Doom, once it introduces its tougher demons, becomes a series of encounters with a stacked pyramid of damage absorption. Being trapped in those cuboid staging ground becomes about dealing as much pain as possible towards giant, hurt-sponge enemies who can only be retreated from in a constant circle.

Even then I suspect I might be suffering from playing on PS4. Instant access to the 0-9 weapons menu might give these encounters more fluidity – but, on the other hand, it still wouldn’t solve my BFG problem. This is a small thing I feel disproportionately. In old Doom the BFG used energy cell ammunition, just like the Plasma Rifle. Using one weapon or the other was a choice, meaning the game had no firm say on whether you had the ability to use the BFG at any given moment – the joys of plotting out and saving for. Now the BFG is rationed using bespoke ammunition in the form of green pills. When Noom wants you to use the BFG, it gives you pills, a form of managed mayhem that makes you feel leashed at the point of greatest release.

All of which is why new Doom, a game I like in lots of ways, felt at the end and for a while before like something I was full of, like a rich cake. I finished it tonight, after a few weeks of playing a level every few days. I’m glad I played it, but I’m also glad it’s done.