Friday, 28 September 2018

Retrospective: God's Not Dead - A Light in Darkness (2018)

Welcome back to the God's Not Dead retrospective! In today's entry we're covering the latest, and possibly last, entry in the franchise, God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness. After the garbage fire that was the previous film, could it be possible for this series to get even more insulting? Read on to find out...


The poster carries on the same design aesthetic as the previous films in the franchise. I like it a lot more than the previous one - visually, it's a far more interesting design.

God's Not Dead 2 released on April 1st, 2016 and was (unfortunately) only an April Fool's joke if you paid to see it. That said, it landed in the year that evangelicals would help to put Donald Trump into office as the 45th President of the United States, a result which has been... contentious to put it lightly and which has shed a light on how brutishly tribal, steadfastly political and stunningly hypocritical the evangelical church is in America. I do not think it an exaggeration to suggest that the God's Not Dead franchise helped to bring about these turn of events in their own small way. These films were just reflections of things that evangelicals already believed, but (as per Sean Paul Murphy) Pure Flix was drawn to creating inflammatory content to generate more ticket sales, which fanned the flames and drove evangelicals to act.


Even before November 2016 rolled around, a third God's Not Dead film had been confirmed, although the premise was not set. David A. R. White stated that "We’ve just been in a lot of prayer and trying to figure out exactly what God wants number 3 to be. Because you know we don't just want to just do what we want to do, we really want to follow where God is leading on these movies." Now, details on what exactly happened are hard to come by, but Harold Cronk (who directed the previous 2 films), Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon (the writers of the previous 2 films) were not brought back to work on the new film. Instead, an unknown writer/director by the name of "Michael Mason" was brought on to spearhead the third entry in the franchise, signalling a new direction for the franchise.


David A. R. White returns as Pastor Dave, this time taking on the film's leading role. Benjamin Onyango would return as Pastor Jude and Shane Harper would also return as Josh Wheaton, but they both appear in relatively small roles and none of the other major characters from the series (such as Amy, Martin or Ayisha... sigh, so much for my Josh/Ayisha shipping) make any appearance. The new major roles are filled out by John Corbett as Dave's estranged brother, Ted McGinley as the university chancellor and Jennifer Taylor as Dave's love interest. The filmmakers also made a big deal about securing Academy Award winning actress Tatum O'Neal in a role, but it ends up being a very minor as one of the board members at the university.

Owing to how hard it is to find information about this film's production, I actually found some intriguing little tidbits. On the minor end of things, I found confirmation that this film was at one point given the subtitle of "A Light in the Darkness", but that the "the" was subsequently dropped, presumably because they would have thought it was too long a title. This just gives me a bit more insight into Pure Flix's marketing ideas and why I was probably on the right track when I was thinking about why they didn't just call this series God is Not Dead, as they clearly should have. Perhaps more intriguing is the identity of "Michael Mason", as I found some conflicting stories which suggest that this is a pseudonym for an unidentified director. The candidate which had been suggested was Jon Gunn, director of My Date with Drew, Do You Believe? and The Case for Christ and it was postulated that he used the "Michael Mason" pseudonym because it would have been his 3rd Christian film in a row and might have pigeonholed him as a "Christian director". Whether this is true or not is debatable, but it's also worth pointing out that a November 2017 interview with Shane Harper had the film's director listed as "Jonathan Michael". Perhaps this an early, half-masked psuedonym before Michael Mason was settled on? Regardless, it's really interesting to speculate on.

Also, one last thing to note before we move onto the story of the film: this movie bombed at the box office. While the first film had made around $60 million domestically and the second had made around $20 million, A Light in Darkness brought in just over $7 million - less than both of the previous films had made in their opening weekends. Ouch. I feel like by this entry the series' reputation was already tanked, so there was less interest, not to mention that it was yet another unnecessary sequel. Perhaps most importantly though, the Christian film industry had really kicked into full gear since the release of God's Not Dead, and as a result A Light in Darkness was beaten out at the box office by fellow faith-based films I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ, all of which released in a 3 week span around the Easter season (which I commented on at the time). It's also probably worth mentioning that Black Panther was still tearing up the box office at the time as well.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Retrospective: God's Not Dead 2 (2016)

Welcome back to the God's Not Dead retrospective! In today's entry, we're going to be looking at the second film in the franchise, the succinctly-titled God's Not Dead 2 (although I think we all know that it should have been called God's Still Not Dead, c'mon guys!). After the commercial success of the first film, a sequel was basically guaranteed. However, would the filmmakers be able to overcome their insulting depictions of Christians and non-Christians this time? Read on to find out...

...eh, I don't really like this poster much. I mean, it's fine, it gets across the point of the film, but I preferred the more minimalist design of the original.

Considering that God's Not Dead put Pure Flix on the map and raked in more than thirty times its budget in theaters alone, a sequel was a virtual certainty and was quickly announced by the studio. After the success of the first film, the studio was able to tap some higher-profile actors to fill the main parts, most-notably Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina the Teenage Witch) as the film's leading lady. Also filling out the main cast were Jesse Metcalfe, Ernie Hudson, Pat Boone and Ray Wise as the mustache-twirling antagonist, in addition to a few returning cast members from the first film (most notably, producer David A. R. White as Pastor Dave). The first film's success also meant that Pure Flix was able to get some Christian public figures to appear as well, including Lee Strobel (who had been name-dropped in the first film), J. Warner Wallace and Mike Huckabee.

As for the making of God's Not Dead 2, I've been having trouble finding really interesting information about the making of the film and I don't want to speculate too much, so take the next part with a bit of salt. Unlike the first film, there isn't as much information about what actually inspired God's Not Dead 2. However, considering the content of this movie, I would not be surprised if Pure Flix's association with the Alliance Defending Freedom played a major role in the creation of this film, which is further evidenced by ads for the ADF in the end credits and on the movie's website. As Sean Paul Murphy had said previously, Pure Flix's audience were growing more interested in films with political agendas rather than simply "Christian" films.

It's also worth noting that the filmmakers were clearly very aware of the backlash that the first film had inspired from atheists. Responding to claims that the God's Not Dead films misrepresent Christian persecution, David A. R. White told The Blaze "It’s an interesting thing, because, if it wasn’t real, why do they get so offended by it? [...] I don’t think it would annoy people if it wasn’t true." I... what?


David... you know that people get annoyed by lies too... right? Are you so deep into the evangelical bubble that you can't see anything else? Sigh... I think I'm starting to understand why the "logical" arguments in these films are so unconvincing.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Retrospective: God's Not Dead (2014)

It has been quite a while since my last Retrospectives series. Don't get me wrong, I've had plenty of ideas for write-ups during the past several months (some more conventional than others), but I kept getting drawn back to the same series: the God's Not Dead franchise. Hoo boy... Considering that this is a series rooted inextricably in ideological arguments, hopefully you can understand why it took me so long to get around to this one. To be upfront, I've heard a lot of commentary on this film, but I tried to not let it colour my opinions on the film too much going in - I wanted to see if there was any merit to all the vitriol this film has inspired. So strap in, we're going to start this at the beginning, with 2014's God's Not Dead.

The film's poster is decent, I have to admit. I could do without the crowd at the bottom, but there's a certain evocative element to this design which I can't deny (even symbolically, down to the black/white contrast), plus it makes sense for the film's story... Good job, I guess.

God's Not Dead was produced by Pure Flix, an evangelical movie studio and distribution company which had been creating Christian films for about 10 years before God's Not Dead. According to Russell Wolfe, co-founder of Pure Flix, the concept for film came about when the studio was looking for ideas and were suggested to make a film about apologetics. Around the same time, the Alliance Defending Freedom (a conservative, evangelical lobbying group which has been labelled as a hate organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center) were telling the producers stories about apparent Christian persecution, which inspired the campus setting of the film.

That's the official story at least. I can't be the only one who has heard of the urban legend of the "atheist professor" while growing up in the church. God's Not Dead cribs liberally from this myth, even down to some of its arguments which, as one writer puts it, makes this the first film based on a chain email. Kelly Kullberg has also argued that the producers of God's Not Dead stole her own life story, which caused her to sue them for $100 million. This lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, with the judge claiming that the film and her own script weren't similar enough to constitute copyright infringement. Whether this is because Kelly Kullberg was also ripping off the atheist professor story or not is unclear.

God's Not Dead ended up being a surprise hit at the box office in its limited theatrical release, bringing in around $65 million on a $2 million budget, despite having no real mainstream star power or marketing associated with it. As I have written about in the past, this success came about from the free viral marketing that churches offer these kinds of projects - the pastor tells their congregation to go see this movie because it will affirm their faith, and so the film has a built-in audience that it doesn't even need to dedicate a marketing budget towards to reach.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

The "Other" Cinematic Universes

When it comes to cinematic universes, we all know the story: Marvel's only getting better as they go, DC has struggled to get any sort of consistent quality going, etc. However, with as much attention as these franchises get, it's easy to forget that they're not the only ones making their mark on the cinematic universe trend. There are actually quite a few current cinematic universes out there now, some several films deep, that have continued to grow without the attention and scrutiny that Marvel and DC seem to inspire. There are also many more on the way (keep an eye out for Hasbro, they seem to be pushing the hardest), but even after 10 years of Marvel dominance, most have failed to actually get underway. With that in mind, let's look at the less-appreciated landscape of cinematic universes.

Note: I'm only going to be looking at franchises which are still ongoing. To determine if it constitutes a cinematic universe, I'm only looking at major releases (for all I know, The Asylum has a Mega Shark cinematic universe, but I'm sure as hell not going to go digging for turds like that). I'm also looking for franchises which aren't just following a normal, linear progression from film to film. Spin-offs don't necessarily constitute a cinematic universe either, although if there are multiple spin-off films in a franchise then it could apply. Oh, and goofy cameos and tongue-in-cheek jokes don't count either (so no, Transformers and Friday the 13th aren't in the same universe). Ultimately, it's all down to my discretion. Got it? Great, let's buckle in.

Honourable Mentions:
Star Wars (image source): Again, this is down to my discretion, but I don't feel like Star Wars is quite at "cinematic universe" level yet, at least in the way that that label gets applied anyway. For the most part, Star Wars in the cinematic landscape consists of films which follow on from one another (whether as prequels or sequels). Even the spin-offs we've had in Rogue One and Solo were just prequels to the events of the main stories and given less prominence, so I'm struggling to really count these on the same level as, say, your average Marvel or DC solo film in their respective universes. Now, with the groundwork laid by The Last Jedi and Disney's desire to milk this franchise forever (...those are mutually exclusive ideas, I swear), we might actually be getting to a point in the next couple of years when Star Wars is an interconnected universe of various divergent characters and storylines, but until then I have a hard time viewing it as more than a very epic saga.

Alien vs Predator (...vs Blade Runner???) - I'm only not counting this one because there has been basically no official word on whether these franchises still are, or ever were, truly linked in the first place. Basically every Alien and Predator film since has ignored the continuity established by the AVP movies, although they have never completely separated. To make matters even more confusing, the Alien prequels went and made it official that Blade Runner takes place in this universe as well. Considering that all of these separate franchises take place nearly 100 years apart from one another, it makes the continuity pliable, but it would be awesome if we could give AVP another shot at greatness.

The Tarantinoverse(s) - Yes, these films all technically take place in the same universe (click the image on the side to see the entire, complicated breakdown as to how), whether as actual events (Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, etc) or as films within that universe (Kill Bill, From Dusk Till Dawn, Death Proof, etc). There are also a number of characters who are related (most notably, Vic Vega aka Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs and Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction). Here's the thing though: none of these connections really matter. I mean, is Vincent affected in Pulp Fiction by Vic's death? No, it's just an easter egg for fans, and that's what everything in the Tarantinoverse is - there's no actual crossover or overarching plot (especially when you can just say "eh, it's a movie in that universe!"), so I'm not counting it. Like I said, my discretion.

And so, let's move onto the actual cinematic universes, shall we?

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Conservatives and Pedophile Virtue Signalling

A few months ago I touched lightly upon the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, a historical mass hysteria which I find absolutely fascinating. The panic started from a single claim by a mother who insisted that her child was molested at a daycare facility, but quickly snowballed into hundreds of accusations across the world. As it turns out parents were so disturbed by the initial accusation that they worked themselves into a frenzy and coerced their children into saying that their daycare facilities were being run by pedophile satanists who had been secretly committing ritual murders and sexual assault for years. Of course, there wasn't a shred of physical evidence to corroborate any of this, but lives, reputations and careers were destroyed without cause as a result of the twisted beliefs of the parents spreading the hysteria.

Now, let's bring this back to the present. In the last month we've not only seen the unfolding of the James Gunn smear campaign by alt-right activists, but also the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy (followers of which believe that a high-ranking government official is leaking information about mass pedophile rings run by evil globalists) has reached the mainstream media. Indeed, if the last few weeks in news have brought anything to light, it's that conservatives are obsessed with pedophilia. It's not like this is a new thing either - everyone has those conservative friends and relatives who use their Facebook profiles to gleefully declare their desire to kill, castrate or prison-rape pedophiles. Furthermore, in the last few years we've had quite a few high profile examples of conservative activism which used the prevention of pedophilia as their primary justification:
  • Pizzagate was a loony conspiracy theory which claimed that Hillary Clinton was behind a (obviously non-existent) pedophile ring run out of a pizzeria. That theory would have been just a total joke to most of the world, until it began a harassment campaign against the pizzaria and its employees which climaxed when some utter moron burst into the pizzeria with an assault rifle, fired shots and demanded that the staff release all of the captive children. Bloody hell.
  • When the Ontario government updated the province's sex education program, one of the main opposition points for social conservatives was that a man convicted for child pornography had been involved in drafting the curriculum. This, of course, led to some people claiming that he had designed the curriculum to enable easier grooming of future victims or that the references to masturbation or learning about proper terms for genitals were part of his sick jollies. Of course, social conservatives didn't want those parts in the curriculum at all, but it made for a convenient scapegoat considering that they're well aware that their own beliefs can't be forced on society without some sort of flimsy excuse.
  • When trans rights were gaining more recognition within society just prior to the 2016 election, the big battleground for social conservatives involved which bathrooms that trans people would be allowed into. After all, they claimed, a pedophile can just claim that he identifies as a woman and then follow my daughter into the bathroom and stare at/or molest her! This is, of course, the sort of claim which has been levied at all groups gaining civil liberty, from blacks to homosexuals. It should hardly be surprising that it's been dragged out again, along with violent transphobia.
  • And, on the funnier and smaller-scale side of things, concerned parents accused Pokemon Go of being a means for child predators to lure in victims, because at the time the news cycle was linking in everything with the game, so why not trot out their old favourite hysteria to go along with it?
Sigh... is anyone surprised that this was posted on a Facebook group called "Liberal Logic 101 aka Libtard Insanity V 2.0"?

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Oh Look, Another Manufactured Dead or Alive Controversy

When last we checked in with the Dead or Alive franchise, anti-SJW types were stirring up a controversy about how Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 wasn't being released outside of Japan and this was all feminists' faults (despite no one actually giving a shit about Dead or Alive Xtreme 3, the fact that this was 100% Tecmo-Koei's decision, and that PlayAsia was clearly co-opting their outrage in order to make money). Fast-forward almost 3 years and now there's a new controversy brewing about Dead or Alive 6. Sigh, what now? Are those special snowflake, easily #triggered SJWs complaining about the series' trademark objectification of women and gratuitous jiggle physics?

Oh wait. No, it's the anti-SJWs who are complaining again. And this time, it might be even more stupid situation than the last non-troversy was.


So, what could get people so riled up about Dead or Alive 6? Well, it all boils down to one simple statement that game director Yohei Shimbori made when the game was announced: female sexualization was going to be toned down and breast physics would be more realistic. Predictably, fanboys are threatening to boycott the game now just based on this statement alone. For example, One Angry Gamer is livid about the sheer mention of toning down and that the game is using a different engine than DOA5 and Xtreme 3Meanwhile over on Sankaku Complex, a Japanese hentai and porn news site (link is NSFW, obviously), there has been plenty of butthurt whining that SJWs have "ruined" the game before we've even gotten a chance to really see it in full. Perhaps even more predictably, some players are claiming that they're going to buy Soulcalibur VI instead because it is leaning harder than ever into the fan service (for what it's worth, I was planning on buying SC6 because I really enjoy the the gameplay of that series, until I saw how embarrassing the fan service was this time around). The reaction to this one little change really shows you how much value these "fans" put into the actual mechanics of their favourite fighting games.

Some of the funnier/stupid comments on Sankaku Complex.

Beyond that though, there's more to why this is such a clear non-troversy. For example, read the following statement made by Yosuke Hayashi:
"We've always had the sex factor in the game; in the past, the female characters had to have big breasts, they had to have scanty dress. [...] We're trying to focus on the real women that surround us; the voice of a female, the mannerisms. We are being realistic about it. We want to show something that's more high class, that adult males of our generation could look at a woman [character] and be impressed with her as a woman, not just as a pin-up. That's what we wanted to tell our fans." 
That sounds like the sort of thing which would really rile up the anti-SJW types... except that this was said 6 years ago about Dead or Alive 5, and in terms of the sheer volume of swimsuits and new fetish-bait characters, that game ended up being the most sexualized game in the franchise (outside of the Xtreme spin-offs). Compared to this, everything said about Dead or Alive 6 has been pretty tame thus far.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Love/Hate: Pokemon Gen 7


Generation 7 (Sun, Moon, Ultra Sun, Ultra Moon)
Love
  • Much-Needed Gameplay Refinements and Improved Accessibility - I'm going to break this down into two parts:
    • On the refinement end of things, HMs are finally dead!!! Thank freaking God, now whenever you would need to use an HM move, a Pokemon will appear which does it for you. This system is just so much better in every possible way. Gen 7 also brought in an improved battle screen which now gives you more information: the number of boosts or debuffs on a Pokemon, turns remaining for some special conditions and even whether your moves will be super effective or not. Some veterans might feel like that last refinement especially is "casualizing" the game, but I personally like it and feel like it doesn't really hurt the game in any way - veterans already know the type matchups, so it's good for teaching them to newer players. You can also remove status conditions after battle without having to use an item, which can be handy. On the other end of things, gyms have been replaced with island challenges and totem Pokemon, which I'm not so keen on, but the HM refinement was so good that it makes up for anything else.
    • On the accessibility end of things, getting into the competitive side of Pokemon has been made even easier than ever, to the point where Nintendo actively encourages it on the Pokemon website. Gen 7 sees the introduction of hyper training (which lets you max out your Pokemon's IVs!), the ability to see your Pokemon's IVs and EVs, passive EV training on Pokepelago, etc. The barrier to entry to get into the competitive scene has dropped significantly in the past 2 generations.
  • Z-Moves - Some people will complain that Z-Moves aren't as "flashy" or "game-changing" as mega evolution was and I was initially unconvinced that they weren't going to be more than another power creep gimmick. However, I feel like Z-Moves are a fantastic addition which has really improved battling. For one thing, they increase the viability and versatility of every Pokemon, not just a handful of special Pokemon like mega evolution did. Plus, every move gets some sort of special Z-Move effect, from increased attack power to special effects for some status moves which make them significantly more viable (eg, formerly useless moves such as Splash and Celebrate now give a +3 Attack boost and +1 to all stats, respectively, making many of outclassed moves actually worth using if you're creative enough. You also have to strategize a lot more about who to give the Z-crystal to, which move to use it one, when to use it, etc.
  • Really Strong Story - Except for maybe Gen 5, Gen 7 has one of the best stories in the whole series, which is mainly down to some very memorable characters. I feel like Sun and Moon's story is a definitely more satisfying and coherent compared to the changes which were introduced in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, but they're both definitely in a completely different league than nearly every other Pokemon game.
  • Alola Formes - These were such a fantastic idea which needs to be revisited in future releases. Basically, the Alola region has some Gen 1 Pokemon who have major type and design differences, similar to real-life animals which change in different habitats. These aren't just small changes either, some have wildly different typings which fundamentally change how they are played. Plus the redesigns were (for the most part) great, especially the exquisite Alolan Ninetails. This feature has to be maintained going forward!
  • Alola Region Is Incredibly Distinct - There have been a number of interesting Pokemon regions throughout the years, but Alola has to take the cake for having the most personality to it. Clearly based heavily on Hawaii and its culture, the entire region, characters and its Pokemon revolve around this theme. Compared to, say, the Kalos region a generation prior, this really makes this generation stand out.
  • New Pokemon Are Design for Battling - Every single one of the new Pokemon have really unique gameplay design, which makes them all very interesting and worth trying out. Like, I'm not kidding when I say every single one, even this generation's early-game Rattata, Caterpie and Pidgey equivalents, Yungoos, Grubbin and Pikipek respectively, have unique abilities, stats and evolutions which help them to stand out amongst an increasingly crowded roster of Pokemon.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Love/Hate: Pokemon Gen 6


Generation 6 (X, Y, Omega Ruby, Alpha Sapphire)
Love
  • New Graphics Engine Shines - The pseudo-3D sprites in Gen 5 were impressive, but Gen 6's fully 3D models were definitely the direction that the series needed to head into going forward. It looks much cleaner and refined, and is so good that they've basically just gone and reused all of the models in Gen 7 and (I think) Pokemon Go as well. Oh and the new 3D models meant that shines could be made significantly more creative, with Gen 6 and 7's shiny Pokemon being universally regarded as the best in the series. The engine itself is also much faster than the DS games were, with saves being basically instantaneous, and Kalos itself is quite beautifully and distinctly designed.
  • Player Search System - The PSS is probably the smoothest and cleanest online integration in any Pokemon game, making trading and battling with friends and strangers an absolute snap. This also introduced the Wonder Trade feature, which is always a fun little roulette wheel to spin.
  • Fairy Type - Similarly to the introduction of Dark and Steel Types in Gen 2, Gen 6 introduced the Fairy Type in order to make up for some of the typing imbalances that Gen 5 had created, while also giving an offensive boost to the Steel type and giving the underpowered Poison type a huge boost. This has gotten the balance of the typings back into a good place, although some might feel that the Fairy type itself is maybe a little too good.
  • Player Customization - This was a feature I never really expected to get, but when we got the ability to customize our avatar's look, this was basically the only thing I started spending my money on in these games.
  • Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire's Gimmicks - The Gen 3 remakes brought in a few new features to the Gen 6 engine which are basically just small gimmicks, but they are so cool that they're worth mentioning. The first is the 2 different bikes, which allow you to perform tricks and reach otherwise inaccessible areas (or just straight-up go faster). The second is the Eon Flute, which lets you freaking fly a Latios/Latias in real-time around Hoenn!!! This feature is just plain amazing and has the secondary benefit of making Fly no longer a basically-mandatory HM to navigate with.
  • Friend Safari - I personally really liked this addition, which looks at your friend list and assigns them 3 Pokemon which can be caught in the friend safari (although they need to be online for you to get all 3 of them). It's nowhere near as fleshed out as the old safari zones, but it was really cool adding friends to try to get ahold of these exclusive and Hidden Ability Pokemon.
  • Mini-Games Are Actually Fun and Useful - The mini-games introduced in Gen 6 are actually quite fun. Pokemon Amie is like Nintendogs for Pokemon, and it's adorable and amazing, while giving some boosts in battle if you want them. Meanwhile, Super Training makes EV training easier and more accessible than ever. Oh, but the returning Contests from the Gen 3 remakes still suck of course.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Love/Hate: Pokemon Gen 5


Generation 5 (Black, White, Black 2, White 2)
Love
  • Insane Refinement and Ambition - Gen 5 was the first generation of Pokemon since Gen 2 to have a second game release on the same system, meaning that the team at Game Freak could build on their existing engine and spend more time on the finer details which would otherwise get overlooked for time reasons. Such things include:
    • On the smaller end of things, there are the quality of life improvements such as no longer taking damage from poison outside of battle and that Pokemon Centers and Pokemarts are now combined into one handy location! HMs have also been reduced in both number and importance, and TMs can now be used infinitely.
    • On the bigger end of things, the ambition of Game Freak in this generation was insane - 156 new Pokemon, tons of new moves and abilities (including new Hidden Abilities for nearly every existing Pokemon), dynamic camera angles in the overworld and in battle, and the music is also context-based. I mean, just read this description of the music from the Gen 5 article on Bulbapedia to get an idea of how insane the design was on this game: "The overworld music also changes in certain circumstances. Almost all the routes now have instruments that differ between the seasons, and layers that activate and deactivate when the player walks or stops, respectively; while music that plays in some towns and cities have layers that can be added by talking to citizens. These people can be seen playing different musical instruments like piano, guitar, etc."
  • Animated Sprites - All battle sprites are now animated, change based on battle conditions (eg, low health or status conditions) and the camera can pan and zoom around them. This is just an insane amount of ambition because, by this time, there are now 649 Pokemon that have to be individually animated. You can certainly understand why it wasn't done earlier (and why they dropped sprites after this game), because the amount of work that this must have required is mind-boggling.
  • Best Story in the Franchise - If there's one thing that Pokemon Black and White are known for, it's their really strong emphasis on story. At times, the emphasis on story makes the Gen 5 games feel closer to a traditional RPG than any other Pokemon game. Previous entries in the franchise had made some attempts at a story, but Gen 5 makes their attempts look completely half-hearted. Team Plasma are probably my favourite villainous team in the franchise, with a plan which is actually somewhat morally grey, as they want to free Pokemon from being caught and trained (there's more to it of course, and their ultimate leader Ghetsis is a truly sinister bastard). The biggest highlight of the game's story though is your character's foil, N. He's your antagonist, but he is not an evil person by any means. He is legitimately fascinating in his conviction and in how willing he is to change if you can prove that your convictions are stronger. Also worth noting is that all the gym leaders and major characters you meet are given personalities and, by the end of the story, they will have come back (including one epic showdown with all of the gym leaders coming to your side).
  • Major Version Differences - Each of the games in this generation have some pretty big thematic and aesthetic differences which go beyond the character and palette swaps that Gen 3 experimented with. Gen 5 goes so far as to include wildly-different version exclusive areas and Pokemon, with White's region appearing more rural and "traditional", while Black's region is more urban and even futuristic. It can feel like you're missing out if you don't have both versions, but at least it makes it feel like you're not just playing the exact same game if you do get both.
  • Alternate Formes - Pokemon that can change their "forme" have been around since at least Gen 3 with Castform and Deoxys (or even Gen 2 if you count Unown), but Gen 5 really cranked this feature up a notch. Nearly every legendary and mythical Pokemon gets some sort of alternate forme that they can activate, which change up their designs, stats and options in interesting ways. It's a creative way to fill out the roster without having to rely on new Pokemon or evolutions.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Love/Hate: Pokemon Gen 4


Generation 4 (DiamondPearlPlatinumHeartGoldSoulSilver)
Love
  • Physical/Special Split Totally Changed the Game - As I've said before, in the first 3 generations, moves were classed as special or physical, depending on their typing (eg, all Water attacks were special, all Normal attacks were physical, etc). Gen 4 brought the long-overdue physical/special split, which made it so that attacks physical or special classing was based on the move rather than the type. This revolutionized battling, build variety and build viability in so many ways. For example, Pokemon whose attacking stats didn't line up with their typing (eg, Flareon and Sneasel had high attack, but Fire and Dark-type moves were all special) could now take advantage of moves which matched their stats. This also made the multiple Water-type HMs a bit less of an issue, since Surf was now special and Waterfall was physical. In my opinion, this is straight-up the biggest and most important change to the core gameplay that the series has ever seen.
  • Challenging Difficulty - Having played nearly every generation of Pokemon games, I can say without a doubt that Gen 4 is by far the hardest in the franchise. The difficulty in these games can be truly savage at times, but it makes battling much more satisfying as a result. Some people might get frustrated by the difficulty, but as a series veteran, I can still remember some of the most intense, down-to-the-wire battles I had where I was 20 levels lower than my opponent and managed to eke out a win through superior strategy and just a bit of luck. This generation also brought in powerful battle items such as the Life Orb and Choice items, which are key items in competitive battling and which are very helpful to overcoming the challenge in these games. The intensity of this generation's battling is unparalleled, making it straight-up the best generation for those who love Pokemon battles, in my opinion.
  • Touch Screen is Well-Utilized - As the first Pokemon game on the DS, the new hardware afforded the series a touch screen to work with, which is used in this game to house a number of handy apps which can be selected by the player. Some of these are basically useless (Coin Toss, Calendar, Roulette), but most are incredibly handy and save you having to constantly menu-dive for information.
  • First Truly Evil Antagonists - Previous criminal organizations in these games tended to be underwhelming. Team Rocket, while classic, are just incompetent thugs who cause mischief because it's fun. Meanwhile, Team Aqua and Team Magma may have some pretty sinister plans (either flooding the world, or increasing the landmass), but they suffer because their goal made absolutely no sense and there's no real motivation for it. Team Galactic, while somewhat bland, are at least straight-up evil, which makes facing off against them much more satisfying. I mean, these guys set off bombs, kill Pokemon and want to reshape the entire universe to suit their needs. Giovanni is always going to have a place in our hearts, but Cyrus of Team Galactic makes him look like a punk.
  • Gen 2 Remakes - While FireRed and LeafGreen are considered good remakes of Gen 1, HeartGold and SoulSilver are popularly considered the best Pokemon games ever released, full-stop. Combo the already-great core of the Gen 2 games with Gen 4's battling improvements, add some new story beats and cool features (most notably, the first Pokemon in your party will follow you around like in Pokemon Yellow!) and you have an absolute beast of a Pokemon game.
  • Online Connectivity - Gen 3 had actually had some online functionality, but it wasn't until Gen 4 that this was a widely-used and well-integrated feature. While being able to trade with strangers across the globe did make "catching them all" significantly easier than it was in previous generations, it was definitely a great new feature and necessary way to take advantage of new technology.
  • Item Storage - Finally, finally, item storage in the bag is now unlimited!

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Love/Hate: Pokemon Gen 3

(Just a disclaimer on this entry, Generation 3 is the only gen that I haven't experienced first-hand. As a result, thoughts on this generation are based on the changes that it made to the series, research on the games' receptions and my experiences having played the Gen 6 remakes of the games.)


Generation 3 (RubySapphireEmeraldFireRedLeafGreen)
Love
  • Hoenn Feels Very Distinct - Perhaps appropriately since Gen 3 was basically a soft reboot, the new Hoenn region feels quite distinctly different than the Kanto and Johto regions, which were based on Japanese geography. In contrast, Hoenn features much more island-hopping, giving it a coastal feel that gives it its own identity to set it apart from other generations.
  • Introduction of Abilities - The addition of abilities for every Pokemon was a fantastic new feature which fundamentally shook up how all Pokemon are used, made battling more unpredictable (since Pokemon might have 2 different abilities to choose from) and even opened up new design and balance opportunities (most notably seen with the ultra powerful, but lazy, Slaking).
  • Introduction of Natures - While this feature could easily be missed entirely by a more casual fan, natures have huge implications for competitive battling and breeding, as they can add 10% power to one stat, while hindering another 10%. This addition just further individualizes each Pokemon, as they now don't necessarily have the exact same stats, and opens up new options for building up a moveset.
  • Art Design - The art style in the Gen 3 games is fantastic and, I would argue, the best in the whole franchise. The overworld design in particular is very reminiscent of A Link to the Past's gorgeous artwork and the game moves very smoothly at 60fps, a feature which no other Pokemon game can boast (outside of Gen 5's battle system, which exclusively runs at 60fps).
  • A Couple Big Quality of Life Improvements - While it doesn't refine the formula nearly as much as Gen 2 did, Gen 3 introduced a couple major refinements which Gen 2 sorely needed and which would become franchise staples going forward. Probably most importantly, the PC system was finally streamlined, automatically switching when a box is filled up, and now featuring a full graphical user interface, making box management less of a hassle. In addition, Gen 3 introduced the running shoes, which allow you to move through the overworld faster, even without having to hop on the bike - thank freaking God.
  • New Pokemon Are Very Solid - The new Pokemon in this generation are very solid all-round, with some becoming all-time classics on-par with the best of Gen 1 (Gardevoir, Mudkip, Blaziken, etc). There are only a couple Pokemon that I actively dislike (Spinada, Swallot), while there are others which are just questionable (by design, Volbeat and Illumise are basically the same Pokemon, as are Plustle and Minun), but all-in-all this was another classic generation.
  • Double Battles - I can remember seeing kids playing the Gen 3 games back when I was in elementary school, and I always thought that the new double battles were the coolest feature. They definitely are a flashy addition with some real gameplay impacts (eg, some moves have additional properties in double battles, being able to hit multiple Pokemon at once), although I would argue that this feature is under-utilized in-game.
  • Battle Frontier - While I haven't experienced it myself, everyone sings the praises of the Battle Frontier in Emerald for being arguably the strongest post-game in the entire franchise (yes, rivaling the return to Kanto in Gen 2). From what I understand, it's similar to the battle towers in other Pokemon games, but far more fleshed out, with much more interesting and rewarding battles. If you're into the battling side of these games, then I can definitely see how you would fall in love with the Battle Frontier and how it can add dozens of hours of additional play.

Monday, 30 July 2018

Love/Hate: Pokemon Gen 2


Generation 2 (GoldSilverCrystal)
Love
  • Quality of Life Improvements - It cannot be overstated just how much better to play the Gen 2 games are, mainly due to some major quality of life refinements. For example, players now get significantly more item slots, which are automatically arranged by item type (items, Poke Balls, TM/HMs, key items), and you can set a key item to a shortcut with the select button rather than having to open the pack every time you want to equip it. PC management is also much less of a hassle, as Bill will phone you when your PC box is full and boxes can be arranged and re-arranged much more conveniently than in the past. In addition, so many elements of the game are much more refined compared to the previous generation, such as the battle sprites and the map design (compare the flat, boring and tedious to navigate Mt. Moon and Rock Tunnel with Dark Cave or Ice Path, and the fact that this is only a couple years removed from Red and Blue is very remarkable).
  • Significant and Game-Changing New Features - More-so than any subsequent entry in the franchise, Gen 2 introduced many new features which have not only gone on to be series staples, but have also deepened the battling system and have provided entire new ways to play the game. The result is that, while Gen 1 now feels archaic to play, Gen 2 is just as much of a joy to play today as it was on release. There are just so many new and important features that I have to break them down further below:
    • The most obvious new feature is the morning/day/night cycle, which makes the game constantly replayable throughout the day. It can be a little annoying to have to wait for that perfect Pokemon you want that's only available at night time, but it is a cool enough addition that it shouldn't be a hassle.
    • The Special stat of the previous generation was also split into Special Attack and Special Defence, making Special-based Pokemon much more balanced.
    • Held Items are a huge new addition to the series, to the point where an otherwise-competitive team would probably be considered nearly worthless without held items.
    • Shinies were introduced here and were incredibly rare to acquire, especially compared to subsequent generations. This twist made the simple act of catching significantly deeper and more challenging, if you wanted it to be. To this day, there isn't really a feeling I get that's quite matched by a shiny encounter.
    • Breeding was introduced in this generation, and provided a bedrock for hardcore players to let their inner-eugenicist shine and breed a perfect team. It was certainly in its rough stages at this point in the series, but it is really cool and handy and can help you get ahold of strong and/or shiny Pokemon at higher odds.
  • New Typings Perfect the Balance - The new Dark and Steel typings were great additions, being introduced in order to balance out the type imbalances of the previous generation. In fact, you could definitely argue that their introduction in Gen 2 finally perfected the series' typing balance.
  • Endgame Content - Generation 2 is lauded for also including the Kanto region from Gen 1 in the game, providing a whole additional mini-campaign once you have beaten the main game. It provides hours of meaningful additional content and even gives you a battle against the main character from the previous game at the end.
  • Best Rival - The game's rival character, canonically known as "Silver", is easily the best rival in the entire franchise. While he starts out as an abrasive and abusive asshole (which alone is enough to make you want to beat him), he eventually grows and matures as he learns what it means to be a good trainer. No other rival before or since has been nearly as compelling as Silver and it's always a joy to take him on.
  • New Pokemon - The new Pokemon added in this generation are all rock solid, design-wise I would consider it the best single generation of them all.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Love/Hate: Pokemon Gen 1

It isn't really something that I have mentioned here on IC2S, but I absolutely love the Pokemon franchise, particularly the flagship handheld games. I have many fond memories of getting ahold of a classic Gameboy, playing the first two generations of games and managing to catch the first 150 Pokemon in my copy of Pokemon Blue*. Like most people who were there from the beginning, I missed quite a few of the later generations as I grew up and took interest in other things. However, like some of the finest things in life, maturity only rekindled my love for these creatures and in the past few years I have become a bigger fan of this series than I ever was as a kid, playing just about every main game in the franchise at least once at this point and proudly rocking a living Pokedex.

Of course, I'm the Retrospectives guy, I love collating my thoughts on a franchise in a digestible fashion. While I'm not going to go and do a full-on Retrospective for every game in the Pokemon franchise, I will go into some of my thoughts on each of the 7 generations, specifically the things that I love and hate about each. So, without further ado, let's move on to my thoughts on the first generation.


Saturday, 23 June 2018

Animals in Bands

I was listening to a podcast the other day and someone mentioned off-hand that there was a metal band fronted by dogs. Naturally, this revelation caused me to instantly shoot up in my seat and try to find this band, because it sounded so intriguing. It turns out that there are actually a few bands fronted by animals and the results are certainly... interesting.

Honourable Mention: No Grave But the Sea For Dogs, Alestorm
This one definitely doesn't count, but it was my original touch-point for animal-fronted music. Basically, it's Alestorm's No Grave But the Sea, but with all the vocals replaced by a barking dog sound effect. It's pretty funny if you're familiar with the songs and the dog barking is done in the same rhythm as the actual vocal tracks, but it's not like they had a dog in the studio just barking constantly over each track. Check out the track "Alestorm" here.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Christian Mingle - The Almighty Cockblocker

Recently my girlfriend was looking for a movie that we could watch on Netflix and, surprisingly, asked if I wanted to watch Christian Mingle. She isn't a Christian herself, so this was particularly unexpected, but as someone who's interested in crappy movies, this movie had been on my radar for quite some time and of course I said yes to the offer to watch it. It was basically just a reasonably well-done version of one of those low-budget W-network romantic films, with a religious spin on things to differentiate itself. I'm not really interested in a full review of the film (I'd give it a 4/10), but the film's religious elements did get me thinking because they were implemented in some strange ways which I feel run counter to the intended message.


First off, Christian Mingle is very much an archetypal low budget romance movie. If you've seen one of these before, you know the drill - you've got your generic white couple who get drawn together, a manipulative mother, an unbearable romantic rival, a stupid conflict that draws the characters apart and which would have been easily solvable with a little communication and common sense, etc. Perhaps the weirdest thing about all of this though is how Christianity has been shoehorned into this archetype. Usually the central conflict comes because of some nefarious falsehood or because of some sort of scheme on the part of the villain, but in this story that means that the villain is... God, or at least this form of Christianity. It might have actually been interesting if this was intentional, but it definitely does not seem like that is the case here.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Let the Past Die

Solo: A Star Wars Story is out this week and for the first time since 2008's Clone Wars animated movie, it seems like Star Wars fans could just not give a shit. Some of this can come down to the divisive reaction to The Last Jedi - for my part, I really liked it and feel like it will be looked upon very fondly in the future, but the fury with which many people have derided it makes any sort of dialogue on it very tiring. Some of the antipathy can also come down to the perception that, at least anecdotally, no one really seems to want a Han Solo origin film, nor do they really want Star Wars spin-off films. I also feel like Disney's annualizing of the Star Wars franchise is dangerous to the franchise's long-term health. Star Wars used to be a big event every 3 years (or more!), but we now are getting a new one every year. It's hard to say that that doesn't dampen the hype somewhat and if this is going to continue indefinitely, then who knows whether the franchise's popularity will burn out in time.

Now, to be fair, this is probably all down to perception - Solo is still expected to break records (EDIT: well so much for that) (ANOTHER EDIT: OH SHIT**), which suggests that your average Star Wars fan is part of that silent majority who don't participate in public dialogue. Similarly, I unfortunately can't find the link anymore but I saw a poll on starwars.com recently where The Last Jedi was actually voted 2nd best in the series after Empire, followed thereafter by Revenge of the Sith (!!!), suggesting that the popular opinion is actually way more favourable to The Last Jedi that the Internet would have you believe (on a similar note, I'm not surprised that Revenge of the Sith is so well-regarded either, since it would be seen as the big, epic culmination of the series for many people when they were growing up).


I've been wanting to write about Star Wars and The Last Jedi for quite a while now, but what finally prompted me to write up a post was this rallying cry I'm seeing in the, shall we say, dark side of the fandom which calls for Disney to fire executive producer Kathleen Kennedy. This, to me, is just such a strange situation. I mean, how many executive producers get blamed for franchise woes? Hell, how many could your average movie fan be even expected to name? I mean, Steven Spielberg doesn't get shit for Transformers, nor does Christopher Nolan get shit for the DCEU. So what is the difference here?

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Quick Fix: Beta Uprising

In the time period between #GamerGate (ugh) and the rise of Trump (BLEH), I started reading We Hunted the Mammoth to get an idea of the sorts of extreme sexism present in our society which people are largely unaware of. However, as the American election began to ramp up, these stories began to evolve. Small communities in the "manosphere" of men's rights activists, incels and "red pillers" were becoming more extreme and latching onto other groups. More than a year before neo-nazis came back into the public conscious at Charlottesville, I was seeing how the manosphere was drawing people into the alt-right and neo-nazi beliefs through their insulated communities centered on little more than hatred. That's why men's rights activism is a total joke - men face real issues which could be fixed with a concerted effort. However, trying to organize an effort to combat these issues is like trying to throw a white pride parade - the people who latch onto that cause will steer the ship towards the people they hate and blame for their problems.


This brings me to the recent van attack in Toronto, in which 10 people have been killed (so far) and 16 injured. Initially, it appeared that this might be an organized terrorist attack of some sort, as it was clearly premeditated. However, it is now coming out that the perpetrator, Alek Minassian, was likely a member of the manosphere and alt-right, specifically an "incel", who was radicalized by the group's hateful rhetoric. To put it simply, this rhetoric has grown from, and appeals to, groups of insecure and sexually frustrated young men who are "involuntary celibates" (hence "incel"). In their version of reality, "Chads" are the successful men who horde all the sex with the "Staceys" (aka, "sluts", because even in this version of reality, a woman is worthy of scorn if she has sex with somebody). They also have a very social-Darwinist view of the world, where the Chads are alpha males and the incels are all betas (if you ever hear an alt-right dumbass calling you a "beta cuck", now you know exactly why to laugh at them). Even the name "involuntary celibate" belies a belief that they feel that men are entitled to sex and that it is women who are in the wrong for denying them this right, with some even going so far as to fantasize for a world in which men can force women to have sex with them.

If it seems odd that this might cause someone to go on a killing spree, you'd be right, but the hatred that brews within the alt-right is literally radicalizing people in a manner not unlike that of a more organized terrorist organization such as ISIS. Incels' fantasies about a world where the betas get their revenge has led to further fantasies of a "beta uprising", to the point where it has basically become a legend among incels (seriously, that is not hyperbole on my part, just Google beta uprising). To this end, we have had mass killers inspired by this rhetoric, most notably Elliot Rodger of the Isla Vista killings in 2014. Perhaps most disgustingly, some incels have latched onto Elliot Rodger as a hero who started the beta uprising.


Predictably, Alek Minassian is being hailed as a hero once again by some within the incel community. It's actually kind of a funny situation, I wonder how many of these people would paint all of Islam with the same brush in this situation, but say "hey, not all incels celebrate mass murder" when the finger gets pointed at them. But I digress - as one of my friends put it yesterday, this isn't a mental health issue, but it's going to be painted as such because that's easier than dealing with the serious issues that are funneling young men towards radicalization in our society. People will rail against political correctness and feminism, but sexism is still alive in our society and this attack in Toronto is, as it seems with the evidence we have right now, the sort of result that it leads to at its most extreme. We should remember that it isn't religion that causes people to kill, as the common scape-goat goes, but deep-seated hatred, dehumanization and radicalization.

I'm going to end this Quick Fix with the words of David Futrelle in his comments on this latest tragedy:

"[...] It would be dishonest and dangerous to dismiss this as a 'mental health' issue. Incel is a poisonous and hateful ideology, not a form of mental illness, and killings carried out in its name should be considered deliberate terrorism just as ISIS bombings or KKK lynchings are. Misogyny is hate, just as racism and religious intolerance are. As I’ve been saying for some time, the incel movement is a real danger; it appeals to young men consumed by bitterness who don’t think they have much to lose. And instead of helping them solve their problems it radicalizes them and ratchets up both their bitterness and their 'nothing to live for' nihilism. It’s a movement that idolizes mass killers and that has only slightly ironically heralded Elliot Rodger as its patron 'saint.'"

Friday, 6 April 2018

Waiting for Superman

I have been thinking about Superman a lot in the past few months. He's such a ubiquitous character, it wasn't until I sat down to write this article that I realized just how present he has been throughout my whole life. In spite of this, I've never really considered myself a huge fan, or even read his comic adventures (outside of Superman: Red Son). For the longest time, I agreed with the old adage in Batman versus Superman debates - Batman is a more compelling character, because he can actually be related to. However, a decade removed from The Dark Knight, I'm starting to come to the conclusion that Superman has the capacity to be an infinitely more interesting character than Batman - the key word here being "capacity". There are numerous instances of awful writing throughout Superman's long history, but within that long history there are also some fantastic stories worth checking out.

Take a guess which category this issue falls into.

Superman's ubiquity has also helped inspire a number of other stories in all sorts of mediums, which I feel help paint a far more interesting portrait of the character. For example, I have heard people claim that The Iron Giant is one of the best Superman stories ever written, and I'm certainly inclined to agree. The Giant's arrival on Earth isn't dissimilar to Superman, and the character is often invoked by Hogarth as the sort of moral pillar which everyone should aspire to be. The moment when (SPOILER ALERT) the giant chooses to sacrifice himself at the end of the film reflects back perfectly on the sort of character who Superman is, a fact which is explicitly noted within the film itself when the Giant thinks of the words Hogarth said to him: "You are who you choose to be," to which he simply says "Superman".


Saturday, 31 March 2018

Quick Fix: Be Inspired, You Sheep!

I saw Ready Player One at the movies last night (it was a fun time), but there was one poster in the lobby which really captured my attention:


If you have read my previous posts about the Christian media industry, then you'll probably guess what caught my eye on this. That big, red declaration at the top lays bare the entire reason this, and any other big Christian movie for that matter, gets made: you, as a Christian, are part of an easy-to-manipulate market demographic who will bring in a strong return on a small investment. It's no coincidence that the new God is Not Dead film* came out this weekend as well - Christians often make a big stink about how evil Hollywood is, but studios will still throw them a bone because they are a built-in audience that will run on word-of-mouth marketing and, most importantly, they have money at their disposal. It just sickens me how blatantly they're commodifying faith and how we as a community have turned this into a whole commercial enterprise.

Like, look at those statements. First, gather your church - even a modest church could net you 50+ people, but with mega churches you could have hundreds of people roped into seeing Paul: Apostle of Christ. Again, word-of-mouth marketing. You, as a Christian, are amazing to a studio because they spend way less to make these films and they're pretty much guaranteed to return a modest profit because of how we pressure each other into seeing these sorts of movies that suck up to Christians living in a bubble.

Second, gather your friends and family - this part sickens me the most. To me, this essentially is saying "Hey, you want to evangelize to your family but don't know how? Boy, do I have the perfect product for you..." I mean, hell, it's one thing if you let that sort of thing happen organically, but the fact that you're trying to sell your film on that notion rubs me the wrong way. Of course, this can also be interpreted as "gather your Christian friends and family and go see this", but either way this is just another word-of-mouth attempt to get butts in seats.

Finally, come be inspired together... bloody hell, that is so condescending, and yet, probably accurate for the sort of person who would see this film. It's like the template requires that every Christian movie has to be "inspiring" in one way or another. The Kendrick brothers, for example, have built a career on this concept. Even silly comedies, like Road to Redemption, have to renew your faith and try to proselytize to your unsaved friends who definitely aren't cringing the entire way through this film you forced them to sit through. It is what it is, I guess, but some variety would certainly go a long way, especially considering that most Christian media isn't really made for the people outside that bubble anyway. Perhaps that's why God is Not Dead is not telling you to bring your unsaved friends and family, while Paul: Apostle of Christ is... which actually is making me start to re-evaluate exactly which notion is more disgusting. Ugh. Here's "S.M.C." (aka Sunday Mass Consumption) by Project 86 to play us out...


*...I seriously considered putting quotation marks around the word "film" here.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Some Thoughts on the New Tomb Raider Film

It's no secret that I quite enjoy the two most recent Tomb Raider games and the upcoming third game is probably one of the few video games I'm actually looking forward to this year. Despite this goodwill, I had very low hopes for the new Tomb Raider movie, especially after the first trailer was released. However, my girlfriend and I wanted to catch a movie last weekend and ended up seeing Tomb Raider on a whim. I came away more impressed than I was expecting to (at the very least, it is far better than the Angelina Jolie-led Tomb Raider films), but it makes one huge, fundamental blunder near the mid-point which really screws over the rest of the film. Hell, just thinking about it, Tomb Raider could have been great - day I say, easily the best video game movie of all time*. This isn't a review (off-the-cuff, I'd probably give it a 6/10), but more of a lament of what Tomb Raider could have been.


First off, I feel like I should acknowledge that, as expected, Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander does a superb job as Lara Croft. Angelina Jolie was the perfect casting decision for that era of Tomb Raider, but I definitely appreciate this more grounded take on the heroine, and Vikander nails it. She has the physicality and confidence to sell the role, while also knowing when she should be vulnerable as Lara gets swept in over her head (for example, throughout the entire scene involving the plane hanging over a waterfall, the look of terror on Vikander's face just sells the danger and makes it feel far more real than you would expect). The film also does a good job of making us care for Lara, giving us around 40 very solid minutes of set-up to establish her character, motivations and resourcefulness, while also giving us a pretty badass bicycle chase too.

Honestly, the first hour of Tomb Raider is very solid. In this time, we also get introduced to another compelling character, Lu Ren, whose past seems to be entwined with Lara's own. There's a tangible chemistry between the two - not necessarily romantic, but they really light up the screen together, sort of like Lara and Jonah's partnership in the video games. The villain, Mathias Vogel, could have been very bland, but since he's played by the underrated Walton Goggins, he is imbued with a sense of desperation and sympathy where you can identify with him. He is definitely a bad guy, but he just wants to see his family again and will do whatever it takes do accomplish that. He makes for a decent foil for Lara and is certainly a serviceable enough villain.

After the first hour, it's pretty clear that Tomb Raider has all the pieces in place to succeed. Lara's on the island being chased by bad guys, Lu Ren has been shot and captured, that awesome waterfall-to-plane-to-parachute sequence happens, and then Lara is forced to kill her first human being. She feels awful about it and breaks down... and then sees a hooded figure in the woods watching, she chases them down and the movie never gets its footing back. (Let me reiterate here once again: SPOILER ALERT!!!) In a massive deviation from Lara's backstory and history in all other portrayals of the character, it turns out that Lord Richard Croft is alive on the island and has been trying to prevent the villains from succeeding since he disappeared.


This is such a blunder for a number of reasons. First and most importantly, it diminishes Lara's own role in the story in favour of a character who should be, for all practical purposes, a plot point. In most portrayals of Lord Croft, he exists only to provide Lara with a motivation (inspiring her to seek adventure, an emotional investment in her current treasure hunt, an existential emptiness from losing her father in a foundational period of her life, etc). The Tomb Raider film initially follows this pattern, establishing Richard Croft's strong bond with Lara and he proves to be the crux of her desire to set out on a quest to discover what happened to him. His journal notes drive much of the early plot, but Richard himself is more of a plot point than an actual character - hell, the only reason we care about him at all is because Lara (who we already like quite a bit) cares so much about him. However, when he shows up in earnest, he begins to dominate the plot despite still being just a boring side-character. He doesn't change at all, doesn't do much to drive the plot other than an obligatory heroic sacrifice at the end, and basically just takes up screen time from the actual heroine. Michael Phillips' review hits the nail on the head in this regard: "The Lara Croft reboot Tomb Raider isn’t half bad for an hour. Then there’s another hour. That hour is quite bad. It's no fun watching your action heroine get shoved, punched and kicked to the sidelines of her own movie, while the menfolk take over and take turns overacting before expiring".

To make things worse, the twist also ruins other elements of the film which had been working well up until that point. As I said before, the twist comes immediately after Lara's first kill, which is supposed to be a major emotional trauma for her character. However, by having her encounter Richard within seconds of that this, the gravity of the situation is undercut. As far as the film's concerned, she gets over it immediately. In fact, it's bad enough that I wonder if perhaps Richard's role was expanded in rewrites, its inclusion is that jarring. It also doesn't help that as soon as Richard shows up, Lu Ren is sidelined for the rest of the movie, doing little more than helping some of the captives on the island to escape. Furthermore, the film has hammered home that Richard should be a dead a number of times before this twist. Richard states that he is likely dead in his recording to Lara, and even Mathias says that he straight-up killed Richard. When it turns out that Richard is still alive, we're given absolutely no explanation as to how Mathias could have possibly mistaken this. They don't even have hints of his survival beforehand either, he just shows up out of nowhere, so it's not like they even attempted any clever foreshadowing to ease us into the idea. Again, it feels like something shoehorned in awkwardly during rewrites.


Furthermore, we can just look at the video game to see how Tomb Raider could have been better. The film actually makes quite a few deviations from the source material which are net positives (particularly the first act set-up in London), and others which are unfortunate but I can understand (condensing the colourful cast of side-characters down into just Lu Ren and Richard). However, I feel like the film made a pretty big mistake by changing the central crux of Lara's first big adventure: in the film, this is driven by finding Richard Croft, but in the games this revolves around rescuing Lara's best friend Samantha Nishimura. These are both pretty archetypal adventure movie motivations, but I feel like giving Richard Croft so much prominence was the weaker route to take. For one thing, making your female-led action heroine's motivation boil down to "daddy issues" is very cliche and boring. Elena Nicolaou puts it well: "with another Tomb Raider movie about Lara Croft and her father, the gulf between the starkly independent video game Lara, and the daddy-pleasing movie Lara, widens again." Think about how this story places Lara Croft - she is picking up after her father's work and any agency she has within the plot are just directed at that and at her obsession with her father. The film certainly isn't misogynist or anti-feminist (hell, it even passes the Bechdel test, if you're the sort of person who cares about that), but it does undercut itself by making Richard such a prominent figure in a film which is supposed to be all about Lara.

Contrast this with the plot of the game, which (in broad strokes) revolves around rescuing Sam. Lara sets out on this adventure of her own desire and fights to rescue Sam because she cares so much about her. This story puts Lara at the center of everything, where she should be. Furthermore, having a female action hero rescuing her female friend is far less-trodden ground than daddy issues is, and presents far more fertile ground for interesting characterization (if the film followed the game's plot, Sam actually would get a chance to be more than just a living McGuffin, she gets scenes where she works to escape alongside Lara). You could argue that the removal of supernatural elements from the plot makes the inclusion of Sam unfeasible, but c'mon, you could rewrite it pretty easily - Trinity clearly believes in supernatural powers, so it's not a stretch to believe that they could mistakenly believe Sam could be the key to unlocking Himiko's power.

Tomb Raider could have been great. As it is, it's just decent, and most of its issues can be linked back to Richard Croft's survival. Here's hoping that a sequel can correct the issues on display here, but if nothing else, at least the recently announced Shadow of the Tomb Raider should continue to carry on the series' legacy into the future.

*Instead, that honour continues to be filled by DOA: Dead or Alive. That sounds like a joke, especially considering my love-hate relationship with the games, but seriously, the DOA movie is a legitimately fun film that does pretty much everything with a wink and grin. I've been planning on doing a review of it for a long time and one of these days I will need to actually do so, because it's really that good.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Quick Fix: Cold War Two and Fake News

The recent poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a deadly nerve agent is only the most recent of a long series of events that should remind us that the Cold War has never truly ended. In fact, it makes the plot of Skyfall, where the British Parliament claims that the use of field agents by MI6 is unnecessary, seem positively outdated. The story is still unfolding, but just this morning the UK, France, US and Germany have all condemned Russian and are promising retributive action, while Russia promises that they will retaliate in kind. I imagine that this will all end with some strong words and chest thumping before fading into the background, but I'm more interested about the dialogue surrounding this event and what that may mean.

The following image is a snapshot of the first comments on the CBC article I linked above at the time of writing. I've been checking CBC news throughout this story's development and it is pretty indicative of the sort of comments which dominate these articles:


Articles about the poisoning tend to be filled with pro-Russian voices, mostly with the intention of sewing doubt (you can see one here about not believing that "Russian bots" are real, while another references CIA media manipulation; I have also seen comments elsewhere regarding the lack of proof for Russian involvement). It seems like the sort of thing which is well below the business of a government, but there is certainly evidence that Russia is actively involved in spreading low-level misinformation as part of their propaganda machine. It also isn't even the first time that Russia has assassinated former agents on British soil since the end of the Cold War, which provides further evidence that they deserve the scrutiny being leveled at them now. Some Russian officials are claiming that this is a false-flag operation, which just sews even more doubt in particularly paranoid sorts of individuals. For those sorts, this is equivalent to 9/11 and the American invasion of Iraq, believing that (for some inexplicable reason) liberals want to go to war with Russia and will use this false flag operation to get the sheeple public on their side (this is a narrative which was being put forth during the American election, that warhawk Hillary was going to cause a war with Russia).

This whole situation is making the assertion that we live in a post-truth world more demonstrable to me. The funny thing about all of this is that I have to be very careful to crouch all of my words because there really is no actual proof that Russia is responsible for this attack, despite the likely evidence that they did. Didn't it seem like Iraq had some part to play in the War on Terror, didn't we have evidence of WMDs, back when they were invaded? With all the misinformation and, dare I say it, fake news that is getting sewn out there, it makes it incredibly difficult to determine what is true and what is not.