Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Gravity (the film)

I don’t do a lot of movie reviews here, partially because I don’t see too many movies at the moment and partly because there’s lots of other people who do movie reviews better than I do.  That said, Gravity was an amazing movie, and I loved it, and there’s no purpose of even keeping this blog if I don’t talk about the things that move me.

The curse of much of our modern media is the illusion of substance.  I don’t know exactly why that is, and I’m not really much for psychoanalysis.  Perhaps it’s fear of being thought uncool by actually committing to an emotional response.  But instead of doing the hard work of building character and having arcs, we get pre-formed characters that we’re told have emotional relationships with each other and we’re supposed to care about these relationships . . . just because.  In many cases movies will take the emotional responses that the viewer has from previous seminal works and repurpose it rather than try to actually be great, all the while having a self-referential smirk.

Add to that the curse of the overcomplicated, omniscient villain and effects that allow everyone to punch people forty feet through walls, plots that confuse complexity and length with depth, and the ubiquitous shaky cam.  There are some recent blockbusters that I’ve enjoyed, but there aren’t that many classics among them.

Enter Alfonso Cuarón to gently shoulder everyone aside and show how it’s done.  That a movie like this could be made right now is amazing to me, since it does almost everything right.  It’s a major studio effect-driven film, but channels the effects in service of its story, and in 90 minutes leaves you feeling a new thing.  It’s not perfect, especially being a little thematically heavy-handed, but it’s certainly an amazing experience.

The movie begins in orbit, with scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) spacewalking near the Hubble Space Telescope, installing some doohickey that she helped develop onto it.  If they ever explained exactly what it did, I didn’t notice.  But mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) seems impressed that NASA funded it, since it’s apparently a prototype.  It’s so cool, in fact, that it was worth training Bullock as an astronaut so she could put the thing in personally.

Clooney is screwing around in an experimental jetpack, clearly having a ball.  But waiting for Bullock to do whatever it is she’s doing isn’t really that exciting, so he’s telling interminable war stories and joking around with Houston (the ground controller is played by the voice of Ed Harris, a nice casting gag).  This opening shot lasts for over ten minutes without a cut, and is frankly perfect.  They don’t tell you that Bullock is a genius, they just have the engineering department apologize to her for not listening to her about a possible failure mode for the device.  They don’t tell you Clooney is a badass, they just show it.  And in an offhand manner, Houston reports that NORAD informed them that the Russians have fired a missile at a satellite of theirs to demobilize it, but that shouldn’t be a problem, before going back to listening to Clooney’s story about some girl he was with at Mardi Gras one time.

Then in about five minutes, Houston interrupts them and tells them to forget about what they’re doing and come back right now.

Gravity doesn’t really have a villain as such, although the Russian attempt to bring down their satellite ends up causing an ablation cascade.  We never see those guys and they clearly didn’t mean to do what they did, but their debris jacks up the shuttle and kills all the shuttle crew besides Clooney and Bullock, as well as knocking out their communications with the ground.

The rest of the movie is spent in orbit, as these characters are trying to figure out how to get back and not die.  That’s it.  No cuts to the frantic ground operators, no frenzied communications, just an orbiting cloud of space crap and Newton’s laws of motion (occasionally manipulated for dramatic effect).

I wouldn’t consider myself a Sandra Bullock fan, having been subjected to a few of her romantic comedy films in the past, but she nails it here.  There’s a part where she’s sitting in a burning Chinese knockoff of a Russian escape pod, looking at the characters one the panel that she can’t read, and every single molecule of her being expresses “I am truly questioning the life decisions that have led me to this situation”.  She also manages to really sell her emotional dialogue, which is impressive since in many instances she’s having to talk to herself, since there’s no one around, since, you know, space.  If I did have a complaint about the movie it would be the dialogue, since in a movie that’s otherwise very subtle it acts like a jackhammer to the back of the head in terms of getting the point across.  But that’s not her fault.

And it does tend to get a bit Hollywood-y at times; it’s pretty clear that this wouldn’t be a survivable situation, but they soldier on regardless.  And there’s a portion of the movie where it basically kicks into high gear and Bullock starts to have everything go right for her for a change.  So that’s not perfect.  Nonetheless, this is one of the best-looking movies that I’ve ever seen, and although occasionally a little maudlin it at least means those feelings.  Do yourself a favor and see this one on the big screen.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Tomb Raider (2013)

There’s a lot of discussion in some circles about whether video games can really count as art.  Personally, I think it’s a no brainer that any media form which involves the contributions of so many artists (e.g., writers, musicians, graphic designers, etc.) pretty much has to be capable of itself being art.  And I also know that some video games have triggered complicated emotional responses in me, such as the usual suspects Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Shadow of the Colossus, and so on.  Just based on personal experience, I definitely think that video games can not only be art, but selected special games can be fine art.

Tomb Raider ain’t one of those.  It is a pretty fun mess though.

I haven’t played a triple-A title within a year of release since God of War 2, I think, unless Portal 2 counts.  I’ve got a job and I’ve got a family, which means that I don’t have a lot of uninterrupted time, and I’m also not really that into most of the major game genres.  I get a fair number of indie titles and retro games, and play Starcraft 2 on Tuesday nights, and that pretty much scratches my itch.  But I’ve got this awesome video card that I’ve kind of been meaning to exercise a little bit, and Steam had this on sale for 75% off, and so that’s how I ended up with the newest adventures of Lara Croft.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a huge Tomb Raider fan.  I did play the first three titles in the series, but I wasn’t into them enough to actually buy them, meaning that I rented them from Blockbuster Video back when that was a thing.  I think I beat the second one.  I specifically remember that the third one was so relentlessly, murderously difficult that I only rented it once and probably didn’t even get more than 10 minutes into it.  These games featured famous globe-trotting archeologist and murderess Lara Croft, who would make witty quips while jumping 10 feet in the air from a dead stop while dual-wielding submachine guns and personally wiping out all sorts of endangered wildlife and people, all while looking like a parody of a 14-year old nerd’s ideal woman.  I guess the series ended up in something of a rut, or at least they wanted to shake it up a bit, so they hired Rhianna Pratchett to do the writing, knocked Lara down a couple of cup sizes so she looks kind of like a plausible human (or at least a heavily made-up fashion model), and re-used the original title in this prequel/reboot.

There’s a huge and fundamental disconnect between the gameplay and the writing which makes it impossible to take this game seriously in any respect.  This is what I mean by “fun mess”.  The actual gameplay itself is top notch – Lara responds fluidly to user input, combat is varied and flowing, exploring the environment is fun, and this is one of the best-looking games I’ve ever seen, from the character designs down to the environment.  Clearly a labor of love, or at least enough money to simulate love, and once you can fake sincerity you can fake anything.  It’s also surprisingly violent – Lara can die in a variety of horrible ways, like being dismembered by wild animals, crushed by rocks, upside-down neck impalement in a fast-flowing river, carved up by machete wielding fanatics.   And you can reciprocate in kind by setting people on fire, pulling them off cliffs with grappling hooks, disabling them by shooting them in the kneecaps.  This one’s rated M for a reason, folks.  But it’s strangely satisfying to maneuver this little waif around, staving in grown mens’ heads with your climbing axe.

Guess I should back up one step and say what’s going on.  This game imagines Lara on her first adventure as she’s looking for the lost kingdom of Yamatai as a young girl before she’s done any of the stuff that she will be famous for someday, assuming all that wasn’t written out of continuity.  She’s part of what seems like a very bad and soon to be cancelled reality television show ostensibly starring her archeology professor, who’s a total venal jerk who is obviously wrong about everything and will clearly be horribly killed at some point.  But their ship goes to an island inside the “Devil’s Triangle” and is promptly wrecked, and then everything goes from bad to worse as they find out they can’t leave.  Oh, and there’s an evil cult there too.  And maybe . . . DARKER THINGS!  That seemed worthy of all caps there.  But yeah, mystical undead samurai.  All of whom will wreck your day.

There was another bit of media that came to my mind during the second time that my character was suspended upside down by the ankle in a snare trap while a half-dozen bearded castaways fired away at her with machine guns and she calmly dispatched them all with pistol shots to the head, and that was the Clive Owen movie Shoot ‘em Up.  In that film, Owen engages in lengthy gun battles with armies of goons for pretty much ninety straight minutes, stopping only to do stuff like punch a carrot through the back of a man’s head.  This is a film where the main character engages in a gunfight while having sex.  I bring it up because I’m pretty sure that Lara Croft kills far more people over the course of this game than Owen did during that movie, and otherwise her fights tend to play out about the same way.  I tried to keep a rough count when it started getting insane, but I lost track; it’s probably somewhere on the order of five hundred people.  Shoot ‘em Up, however, is a comedy film.  Tomb Raider means to be taken seriously, which it can’t, because it’s fundamentally absurd.

For an example of what I mean, besides being one of history’s greatest killers, Lara is also basically indestructible.  In the first five minutes of the game she manages to get burned and then fall twenty feet onto some rebar which punctures her abdomen.  Now I realize it would kind of suck if she just rolled around in agony for a while and then succumbed to peritonitis after a couple of days, but then why give her this grievous wound?  She gets pistol whipped, repeatedly falls off high ledges, walks through snow in a sleeveless shirt and hot pants, and is disturbingly near several large explosions.  And that’s just in the cutscenes.  They’ve eliminated the health bar, so if an injury doesn’t outright kill you Lara can walk it off in ten or twenty seconds – so you can also sustain literally dozens of gunshot wounds, arrow hits, Molotov cocktails and machete blows to the face without losing a bit of acrobatic ability.

But that’s all fun stuff to do.  I don’t know why the writing team didn’t roll with all the insanity and come up with a goofy excuse plot that was equally fun, but instead they seem to have written the plot around an entirely different game, one where you aren’t a mass-murdering parkour  fast-healing psychotic, and are in fact a scared young girl who’s plagued by self doubt and fear.  Don’t get me wrong, all the plot stuff is also funny, but I don’t think it’s meant to be.  And it’s also composed nearly entirely of tired clichés, while recognizing that, but not having enough courage to actually buck the clichés.  For an example, Lara confronts her adviser by pointing out that powerful women throughout history have always been accused of witchcraft . . . but it turns out she actually was a witch.  Hmm, no points for feminism there.  And then the cultists are actually regular guys when they’re talking amongst themselves as you sneak up behind them to slit them up . . . but they all attack you on sight and fight to the last man.  Not to mention the fact that the inescapable nature of this island could not possibly have gone overlooked by the world in general considering that thousands of people have been marooned there, along with enough weapons for an Army battalion and enough equipment that the mad cultists have managed to build windmills and complicated infrastructure.

The gap between the game that you’re playing and the description of the game you’re allegedly playing is so wide that I can’t believe that no one from the development team sat down and wondered whether it was really a good idea to have the gameplay contradict the alleged plot at every opportunity.  So I really can’t say it was that great.  On the other hand, it made me laugh (albeit probably unintentionally) and the actual gameplay was pretty good, so I can’t complain too much.  It won’t go on any all-time great lists, but out of the Steam sale bucket I’m counting it as a win.