Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why Video Games Don't Make Good Movies

With Prince of Persia: Sands of Time already in production, it seems that Hollywood has decided to go forward with even more video game adaptations. Here's why they won't work:

1. The Hollow Avatar
: the protagonist of your average game is deliberately devoid of personality (e.g., Master Chief of Halo). In some cases, the protagonist doesn't even speak their own lines of dialogue. This hollow avatar design draws the player into the game by encouraging the projection of their own personality and voice onto the the main character. But when shifted to the medium of film, the hollow avatar comes across as nothing more than what it is; an empty character devoid of motivation or personality. This goes to the heart of how film, a passive form of entertainment, differs from games, an interactive form of entertainment.

2. Repetitive Risk-Taking: all games are essentially built around some type of risk-taking, whether it's jumping from one moving platform to another or shooting Nazis. Generally, this risk-taking is quite repetitive. Sure, game designers can shake things up a little with customizable characters, boss battles, diverse level design, and any number of other tricks, but at the end of the day most games are built around a risk-taking scenario that is repeated many times over. If a game is designed correctly, the player doesn't get bored because an element of danger is always present, in other words the player accepts the repetitiveness because the risk always feels genuine. Film, however, has a much more difficult time pulling off repetitive risk-taking scenarios, because the viewer is removed from the danger. A passive moviegoer will get bored very quickly watching a character face the same danger again and again and again. Repetitiveness lies at the core of games, but it is the death of film.

2. The Dying Factor: in games, you generally die a lot until you figure out what to do. In film, it's pretty unusual for a character to die and then get back up because they had an extra life. The dying factor helps to explain why the adaptation of the survival horror game Silent Hill, which was a beautifully shot horror film, was not in any way scary. In the game, the main character is solitary for most of the story. This isolation, combined with the fact that the character could get killed at any moment, adds tension to the gameplay. The film attempted to replicate this feature, and kept the main character isolated for much of its runtime. However, if you kill the main character, then the movie's basically over. Most viewers understand this, even if only on a subconscious level, which is why none of the dangers the character faced felt remotely scary. There was no believable way for her to die and the movie to go on. That's why most horror films have big casts, which translates into a high body count and uncertainty as to who will live.

Perhaps Prince of Persia will find a way to break the trend of crappy video game adaptations. But I'm not holding out much hope. There's only so many times you can watch a guy run along a wall.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

We're all gonna die because the Japanese love robots

Battlestar Galactica: Daybreak Part 2
Not perfect by any means, but I enjoyed it. In fact, it may be the best series finale I've ever seen, even if it didn't give a giant, Sorpranos-style "fuck you" to the viewers.

Spoilers ahead...

The Good:
Space battles! Robot-on-robot violence! Might as well blow the entire budget on the last episode.

Adama's plan to rescue Hera was as ridiculous and suicidal as all his other plans. Not surprisingly, it worked.

After 4 seasons, Baltar finally grew a backbone and even came to terms with his self-loathing and secret shame over his roots. His story arc with Caprica Six was resolved in a way that gave both characters as much closure as they'll ever get. As usual, James Callis and Tricia Helfer were outstanding in their roles.

Boomer's long running, oft-forgotten subplot ended in the only way it ever could, and yet the character still managed to go out with dignity.

Cavil, on the other hand, died in a completely meaningless fashion, which suits a character who ultimately believed in nothing.

Real Earth! Ron Moore and company are a bunch of lying liars, and I admit I did not see this twist coming. Linking the colonial survivors to the origins of modern humanity and (I'm assuming) our ancient pagan traditions is a much cooler idea than simply having them land in Times Square.

Furby is the seed of our own destruction!

Hoshi got to be admiral for 5 minutes. Come on, that shit is funny.

Flashback Adama threw up on himself! That's how I'll always remember him.

The Bad:
So all that shit with the opera house and the angels was just some overly-elaborate plot by God to arrange a Mexican standoff on Galactica's bridge? It's almost as if God is a hack writer on a TV series.

Apollo gives one of his big, dumb speeches and they all turn into tree-hugging hippies. The fuck? And did the survivors really have to send the ENTIRE fleet into the sun? I'm typing this blog post on a computer while sitting in an air-conditioned house. Technology rocks, and Lee Adama is full of fail.

The flashbacks became as pointless as I feared they would. I liked the flashbacks in the first part, but the longer they went on the less useful they were in examining the characters. Did we really need another story about how Lee loves Kara but their relationship will never work? 4 seasons of stating the obvious was enough.

Tyrol avenging Cally should have been dramatic, but that plot hadn't been addressed in months, and Tory was given so little character development I didn't feel much of anything when Tyrol killed her.

Rosslyn was mostly a waste of space for 2 hours, and then she died. Not exactly making good use of your most talented actress.

Angel Kara was an idiotic idea. While the show had pretty much revealed God's hand a long time ago, at least everything God did was ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations (like Head-Six being either an angel or one of Baltar's hallucinations). But turning Kara into the deus ex machina was just lazy writing and pretty much misses the whole point of faith. And her schmaltzy last scene with Apollo only made it worse.

If I never hear "All Along the Watchtower" again, I'll be a happy man.

So what did you think? Leave a comment.

What If..."Twilight" was re-made for scrawny Swedish boys?

Let the Right One In (2008)
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Written by John Lindqvist
made in Sweden

Kare Hedebrant (Oskar)
Lina Leandersson (Eli)

Let the Right One In is the film adaptation of a novel also written by Lindqvist. Set in the early 1980s, the story focuses on a wimpy, 12-year-old boy named Oskar who lives with his mother in the working class town of Blackeberg. Bookish and isolated from his classmates, Oskar is regularly picked on by a group of bullies and spends his evenings fantasizing about revenge. This seemingly mundane story takes on a supernatural dimension when a mysterious, androgynous girl named Eli moves in next door. Her older male companion begins to kill people and drain them of blood, and it quickly becomes apparent that Eli is a vampire. But even a little bloodsucking can't get in the way of a blossoming romance between two adolescents. The title is a reference to a bit of vampire lore that says that vampires cannot enter a home unless they're invited.

On a superficial level, this movie is cut from the same cloth as Twilight. It's a dark, moody romance starring a social outcast who falls in love with a vampire. The similarities end there, as Let the Right One In is both a more daring story and a far more impressive film. The script touches upon a number of sexual taboos that would likely have made it unfilmable in the U.S. The relationship between Eli and her male companion, Hakan, is never explained but there are strong suggestions of paedophilia, or some type of quid pro quo for his aid in obtaining blood. The movie also toys with definitions of sexuality and orientation. There is a brief, but rather shocking, scene late in the film that explains why Eli is rather androgynous-looking. Another aspect of the story that would likely have scared away American producers is the violence. While the movie is not particular gorey, quite a bit of the violence involves children, especially during the blood-soaked climax.

Alfredson's direction is, for the most part, superb. I've never been to Sweden, but this film is the enemy of Swedish tourism. Alfredson portrays the Swedish winter as this oppressive veil of snow and gloom that is present throughout the movie. Gorgeous wide-shots capture the natural beauty of the Swedish countryside, but it is always covered in a layer of ice. Most of these outdoor scenes are filmed using deep focus, giving the viewer an expansive view. However, many of the indoor scenes use shallow focus, creating a sense of claustrophobia, particularly inside the cramped, Soviet-style apartments. Many of the nighttime scenes are especially well-done, and Alfredson makes excellent use of contrast and dark space. Admittedly, much of my appreciation for the film's beauty may be due to seeing it on Blu-Ray. This is a far better advertisement for a getting a PS3 than any game Sony has put out.

The only real problems with the film are the sometimes overly-awkward acting by the Kare Hedebrant (Oskar) and some poorly done CGI involving cats. But neither of these issues detract from the film's strengths.

I highly recommend this film, but suggest watching it with subtitles, as the English dub is rotten.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Upcoming Content!

New contributions on the way from Justin, who I assume will be posting about his double life as a tax attorney by day and a brutal vigilante by night.

There may also be some discussion of the criminally under-appreciated Dead Space, and the recent release, Resident Evil 5 (spoiler: it's just like Resident Evil 4, except you get to shoot black people!).

And I'll probably do a big post on the series finale of Battlestar Galactica, a.k.a., the only thing with artistic merit that SyFy (formerly SciFi) has ever produced. And maybe next week I'll do a review of the cult classic(?) Tales from the Hood, at the request of one Mr. Tron.

No new comic reviews this week: grad school (and the lack of any good comics) got in the way.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Superheroes as Vigilantes

I know everyone is sick of talking about Watchmen, but one of the more interesting plot points from both the comic and the movie was the fictional Keene Act, which outlawed unlicensed crime-fighting. The act didn't affect either the Comedian or Dr. Manhattan, who were already working for the government, but it did push Nite Owl II into retirement and turned Rorschach into an unlawful vigilante. Alan Moore was obviously commenting on the long history of superheroes as vigilante crime-fighters, but that begs the question, why were so many superheroes, particularly prominent ones such as Superman and Batman, operating outside the law to begin with?

The fact that most superheroes work outside the legal system is so normal to readers that few even notice it today, but there's no reason why superheroes can't be government agents (a few of them are), or lawful adjuncts of normal law enforcement (Batman was a deputized officer of the Gotham police for a few years in the 60s) , or otherwise answerable to some political authority. In real life, few people would tolerate private citizens dressing up like circus strongmen and fighting crime whenever they felt like it. And yet, such behavior is the standard in the superhero genre.

The popularity of the vigilante superhero is most likely rooted in the creation of the first superhero, Superman. Most people are probably familiar with the story of how two Jewish immigrants, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, introduced the character in the pages of Action Comics #1 (1938). The politics of their early stories were unquestionably left-wing, with Superman basically behaving like FDR on steroids, helping the little guy while beating up crooked businessmen. However, one notable difference between Superman and FDR (besides the polio) was that the former pursued his objectives without any legal sanction. Siegel and Shuster may have admired FDR, but they wanted their hero to be unconstrained by bureaucratic red-tape or self-serving politicians.

Siegel and Shuster's creation was thus less a socialist ideal than a populist one. Superman embodied two related themes in American culture: individualism and a distrust of government. The central figure of American myth is the frontiersman, a rugged individualist and alpha male who deals with problems in a direct and uncompromising fashion. This guy doesn't care for sissy stuff like talking out problems and reaching a compromise. God gave him only one mouth but two fists, and he's gonna use 'em! But while Americans respect the frontiersman's aura of authority, they distrust any authority that comes in the form of government. After all, government is everything the frontiersman is not; complicated, corrupt, indecisive, and ineffectual. And there's the fact that nobody likes being told what to do.

Superman offered the perfect empowerment fantasy for American boys who were eager to escape a reality in which they were powerless. Here was a character who fixed problems, whether it be crime or run-down tenements, and he did so in a way that was immediate and concrete. More importantly, he took orders from no one, letting only his personal sense of justice dictate his actions.

The commercial success of Superman quickly inspired imitators, and the vigilante-as-hero became a genre convention. Batman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and later heroes such as Spider-man, Thor, and the X-Men all fought crime (and caused plenty of property damage) without permission from any governmental authority. Even after the birth of the Comics Code, when superheroes were supposed to be upstanding citizens who supported lawful authority, they never completely went legit. And in the post-Watergate era, even Captain America gave up on the government and became a nomadic biker (the heyday of his book, honestly). Then came the 80s, and the more the hero violated from the law, the better.

But we live in a post 9/11 world. The heroes who saved lives at the Twin Towers were not vigilantes, they were cops and firemen. Iraq wasn't liberated by Superman, it was liberated by U.S. soldiers. Surely there are people out there interested in reading about heroes who maim the bad guys with government approval.

Yet the two largest superhero publishers, DC and Marvel, still churn out the same superhero-as-vigilante stuff. This isn't because they're all anarchists who hate the government, rather both companies cater to nostalgic fanboys. Nostalgia is, for better or worse (actually, just worse), a major force in superhero comics. New heroes have trouble gaining fans in a market that's already saturated with decades-old characters with established fanbases. And older fans prefer reading comics that remind them of the comics they read as a child, in other words, comics about vigilante superheroes.

In 2006-2007, Marvel published a miniseries titled "Civil War," which affected numerous titles set in the Marvel superhero universe. Civil War ended with most of the heroes agreeing to work for the government-sponsored Initiative, headed by Iron Man. A handful of heroes, including Captain America, refused to submit. Civil War could have been the beginning of a shift away from vigilantism, but instead it was little more than a brief interruption in the usual status quo. As of 2009, the Initiative is now run by Norman Osborn, formerly the Green Goblin, Spider-man's archenemy. All the true heroes are now outlaws, and those who still work for the government are not simply sell-outs, they're villains!

So is the continued vitality of the vigilante superhero a bad thing? Probably not. It is just escapism, after all, and we haven't seen spandex-clad lunatics fighting crime in real life just yet. On the other hand, there is this guy.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wrapping Things Up: Battlestar Galactica

Daybreak: Part 1

Oh flashback, how I dread thee. Every time a show has one, its invariably used to reveal the SECRET INNER SOUL of a character. As if a person can be reduced to one event that completely explains the entirety of their life. Thankfully, the BSG writers don't try to capture the eternal essence of their characters, but rather explore tiny moments of their lives that set them on the course to where they are now. Its not that the death of Rosslyn's family made her into the steely president, but now that we know that she had dealt with tragedy even prior to the destruction of the colonies, her eerie unflappability makes a lot more sense. Similarly, Baltar's emotional attachment to Caprica Six, in stark contrast to his usually self-absorbed nature, is given a decent enough explanation.

Despite all the flashbacks, a lot of stuff actually happens in the present. This episode bares the burden of setting up the series finale, so its packed full of information and character bits. But it all comes down to this: if Galactica is going to die, then it might as well die in a suicidal rescue mission to bring back Hera and kick Cavil's ass. About frackin' time.

Monday, March 16, 2009

SciFi Channel to Become SyFy

Here's the news story on TV Week.

So the network that airs Stargate: Atlantis, Battlestar Galactica, and Dr. Who is embarrassed by its geek cred?

If they were so concerned about being labeled as nerds, they probably should have thought twice about bankrolling such cinematic gems as Mansquito.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Game Review

Mirror's Edge (Electronic Arts/Dice)

Mirror's Edge is one of those games that you want to like more than you actually do. In some ways, it's one of the most innovative and attractive games of 2008. But in other ways, it's a frustrating experience due to some significant flaws in gameplay.

The story is set in the not-too-distant future, where The City has evolved from a vibrant, if dangerous, metropolis into a police state where all forms of electronic communication are monitored by the government. Enter the runners, a group of free-running couriers who deliver your greeting cards and love letters by jumping around rooftops. The playable character, Faith, is one such runner who returns to the job just in time to see her sister, a cop, framed for murder. What follows is a fairly simple murder mystery that's interspersed between levels where Faith is running and jumping for her life.

One of the great strengths of the game is its level design. At first glance, the levels seem rather bland, but closer inspection reveals an enormous amount of detail, especially during the rooftop segments. Moreover, unlike the linear nature of most jumping-puzzle games, Mirror's Edge usually provides multiple avenues of advance, which allows players to recover quickly if they get lost or mess up a jump. And some of the jumps are truly spectacular, giving the game a cinematic feel at points.

Character design is also excellent, and overall the game takes great advantage of the Unreal 3 engine. Cutscenes, however, are rendered in 2D artwork that is reminiscent of a graphic novel. These scenes, for the most part, move the story forward but they're not terribly memorable. The voice acting is uniformly good, and while the synth-pop soundtrack may not be to the liking of some players, it fits well with the game's aesthetic.

But frustration sets in early, usually around the time Faith fails to grab onto a ledge or pipe after 10 tries. The game demands an almost absurd level of precision for some jumps, but the first-person perspective narrows the player's field of vision and makes such precision all the more difficult. An obvious game of comparison is the recent Prince of Persia. Also a jumping-puzzle game, PoP's gameplay design made certain movements like wall-running mostly automatic, which in turn made it easy for even casual gamers to quickly become adept at controlling the Prince. Also, by shifting the camera out to a third-person perspective, PoP gave the player a greater sense of where they stood relative to their surroundings. Of course, shifting to a third-person point-of-view might take away some the cinematic feel of Mirror's Edge, but it would make the game much easier to play.

Another problematic aspect of the game is the hand-to-hand fighting. A critical move in the game's combat is the frontal disarm, which incapacitates the opponent and allows the player to steal their weapon. The timing for the disarm is tricky, especially against tougher opponents such as SWAT team members. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, and the game provides a bullet time option that should, in theory, make it easier to pull off the move. Unfortunately, the slow-mo feature does little to make combat easier, and I gave up on using it about halfway into the game. The guns in the game are fairly straightforward and work as you expect them to, but they don't really add much to the experience.

In the end, Mirror's Edge is a game that I'd recommend despite its failings. Hopefully, the game will be successful enough for Dice to make a sequel. And even more hopefully, that sequel will be the game that Mirror's Edge should have been.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Who Watches the Watchmen? I Do!

Directed by Zack "300" Snyder
Screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse
Based on Graphic Novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Malin Ackerman (Silk Specter II)
Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan)
Matthew Goode (Ozymandias)
Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach)
Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian)
Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl II)

Watchmen (the book) is, on the surface, a murder mystery. But the real story of the graphic novel is not who killed The Comedian, but rather an intricate deconstruction of the conventions that define superhero comics. For years prior to Watchmen, comic writers had been trying to make their spandexed characters more realistic and relatable. Alan Moore took the idea to its logical extreme, and criticized both the fascistic bent of the genre and its obsession with physical, masculine power (one look at Dr. Manhattan and you'll get what I'm taking about). It presents a dark vision of the 1980s, where Richard Nixon has used the power of the unstoppable Dr. Manhattan to extend his presidency indefinitely, and where the "heroes" of the story are a mix of incompetent has-beens and violent sociopaths. Mixed into all this is one man's plot to fix the world through the greatest act of supervillainy in history.

(the movie) is not a bad flick. It competently adapts the graphic novel to the big screen, gives it a top-notch special effects budget, and doesn't hold back on either the violence or the nudity. There are also a few standout performances, especially Haley as Rorschach, who perfectly captures the character's antisocial personality and his unrelenting sense of justice.

There are some problems in the film. Akerman's performance is wooden, and her scenes with Crudup and Wilson lack any emotional depth. Goode, as Ozymandias, is supposed to be the embodiment of human perfection, but he's far too foppish to be taken seriously as either a genius or a physical powerhouse. The numerous flashbacks, which work so well in the comics medium, become a bit ponderous in a movie. All this being said, the strengths of the film outweigh its failings.

But strangely, while I didn't dislike the movie, I can't really say I enjoyed it either. Much of my response to the film was inevitably shaped by having read the book first. My reaction to most scenes was not "wow, that's cool," or "wow, that sucked," but "hey, I remember that." As other reviewers have pointed out, the movie is a faithful adaptation, but all that means is that the script ably transfers the plot (and in a few cases, whole scenes) from the novel to film. As someone already familiar with the story, the movie comes across as superfluous. The filmmakers don't really have anything to say about these characters or their world, nor anything useful to add to what Moore already wrote.

I'd be interested in the reaction of someone who'd never read the graphic novel.

UPDATE: After finally getting a chance to re-read the graphic novel, my opinion of the film has diminished considerably. I can't provide an exhaustive list of all the things the filmmakers fouled up, but here's the abbreviated version. Originally, I thought very little about the change to the ending, but after re-reading the book, the film version seems incredibly timid, lacking both the shocking violence as well as the unabashed absurdity of a giant fucking octopus in the middle of New York City. Plus, many of Ozymandias's scenes are no longer present, so the impact of his face-heel turn is lost completely. But no other character gets as screwed over as Silk Spectre, who loses most of her history, her real name, her conflict with her mother, her just shy-of-over-the-hill desperation, and her smoking habit. To sum up; forget the movie, read the book.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Comics Reading List

Just one this week...

Jonah Hex #41
Writers: Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
Artist: David Michael Beck

In the last issue, Hex had been captured by a serial killer who cut off a couple of his toes, then managed a painful-looking escape before being rescued by an old flame. This issue wraps up the story, and it's no surprise that Hex and his gal pal meet out some gruesome vengeance. Not much actually happens in this book, but everything that does happen is just so damn cool and violent. Now I need to go watch some Sergio Leone films.

Beck's realistic style of art is attractive despite the gritty subject matter, and his gunfight panels are quite stylish. Unfortunately, the coloring on this title remains a little too dark.