Is there anything scarier than having sex for the first time? The world is filled with fear-mongering messaging of what might happen when you have sex. The devout claim sex before marriage will forever taint your purity, damning you to hell. Social advice says introducing sex too soon into a relationship can irreversibly change the dynamic, altering how your partner thinks of you. Even after you escape the peer-pressure trials of virginity, there persists a worry throughout adult life of the consequences of sex. In the post-AIDs world we’re aware of the possibility of transmittable STDs and things that can hang over you for the rest of your life. If you’re one of the unlucky ones to contract a disease it might feel like a force of nature is following you, bringing imminent doom along with it.
It Follows is about a force of imminent doom literally following a girl named Jay, after she has sex with a guy named Hugh. After their sexual encounter, Hugh knocks Jay out with chloroform, ties her to a wheelchair, and explains the rules of the curse: It will always follow her, it only moves at a walking pace, but it’s “not dumb.” It can take any form, but only people who have the curse can see it. If she has sex with someone else it will follow them instead of her, but if they die it will follow her again, and if Jay dies the curse will start to follow Hugh again. Hugh drops Jay off at her house and vanishes from town. Jay’s left to deal with the consequence of this curse with the help of her sister and their friends Paul and Dara.
It Follows has been summarized as being about “a walking STD,” which even director David Robert Mitchell has said “when you say it out loud, it sounds like the worst thing ever,” and I would agree that any synopsis of It Follows makes it sound dubious at best. In reality, It Follows has to be one of the cleverer horror films in recent memory. Slasher films, which are characterized as some menacing creature or person going around killing teenagers, have been criticized for tropes such as slow walking villains, useless companions, and sex-eager teenagers. It Follows embraces these tropes and wraps them around a concept that justifies them.
For example, law enforcement is typically useless in horror films and It Follows embodies this trope through Jay’s friends, helpless to assist her, despite their willingness to. This is because only people who have the curse can see the curse, which is an extension of the “supernatural STD” concept where no one really understands what it’s like unless you have it. On that note, a common joke for slasher films is teenagers’ insistence to take their clothes off, but for It Follows it’s actually a plot point, since the only way for the curse to be passed on is through sex. They’ve actually managed to write-in gratuitous nudity (although there isn’t any among the teen protagonists). Most impressive of all is their handling of the “slow walking villain trope.” I’ve always thought it was silly when a villain like Jason Voorhees casually strolls his way over to his victims who are sprinting away at breakneck speeds. However, the curse of It Follows is more terrifying specifically because it is so slow. The decreased tempo contributes to the impression that it will never stop, and indeed it never does. It’s a curse that haunts Jay ceaselessly, and a horror concept that’s just as effective in the daytime as it is at night.
In fact, It Follows doesn’t rely on cheap horror tricks that would only work in a dark theater with booming audio. The film doesn’t have jump scares, or horrifying gore imagery (outside of one death at the beginning). It’s just a concept that eats at you. A persistent being that follows you, forever. You get to see the supernatural force multiple times in the film, and it’s always just a regular person. An old woman, a tall man, a naked woman, or a naked man. It’s never anything unusual, outside of knowing what will happen if it actually touches you. This made the movie easy to watch, but I noticed immediately after finishing the film that it royally messed with my head. I began to associate people walking in my direction with life-ending doom. Walking to work in the middle of the day, I’d be wary of people making direct eye contact, walking toward me. I’d remind myself it was just a movie, but the fact that the movie stuck with me during the daylight was impressive. It takes a fair bit of cinematic craft to accomplish that.
Of which there is an abundance of in It Follows. From the opening sequence alone, when the destruction of the curse’s force is established, you can tell there is some real talent both behind the camera and in the audio booth. Director David Robert Mitchell reportedly used a lot of wide angle shots to give the film an “expansive look,” but that doubles as making the audience peer to the edge of the frame, constantly looking for the next slow-moving pedestrian that could be the next bringer of doom. Frequently the terror of the scene is introduced with no real grandeur. It unceremoniously shows up far in the background and slowly creeps in as the scene plays out. These moments are gut-wrenching, to say the least. This is all assisted by the memorable soundtrack done by Disasterpiece, who mixed up a unique combination of 80s chiptunes with screeching horror synths. The blend of 1980s style with new horror made it feel like the film was constantly paying homage to the horror films the filmmakers watched when they were younger.
And that’s where I really marvel at It Follows’ execution. The Slasher film genre became hugely popular for a lot of reasons, but one thing that stayed consistent was young teenagers who had sex always died. There’s a theory that the reason for this was because the conservative filmmakers who made those films were trying to convince young teens not to be so promiscuous and that was their way of sending messages to the youth they couldn’t connect with. It sounds insane, but there’s actually a lot of film theory articles written about that topic, and an even more insane amount of evidence supporting the theory. Which makes It Follows’ sex-focused plot even more ingenious. It’s another layer of folding all of the genre’s past into one film. Across the board It Follows encompasses everything the genre is about, takes every flaw, and turns it into a positive, even the bizarre ulterior motive of encouraging abstinence (or at the very least, being prude).
There are certainly things scarier than having sex for the first time. A murderer chasing you in the woods, or an alien hunting you on a spaceship, or being lost in the jungle while a predator stalks you, or having a mischievous Englishman haunt your dreams. Hollywood has spent decades thinking of scary concepts, and some are more terrifying than others. What all of those concepts have in common is that none of them are very likely to ever happen to you. It Follows is unique because it preys upon a fear that many people actually have: trusting people enough to have sex with them, and worrying about what will happen afterwards. I’m sure the filmmakers weren’t intending to send ulterior messaging like their forefathers before them, but It Follows’ creativity ascends over its predecessors, and the filmmakers’ ability to reanimate a decades-decaying genre riddled with criticisms is astounding. With that in mind, It Follows is arguably the quintessential horror film.
It’s 2016, I’m listening to 52 albums in 52 weeks. For more info on what this is about, read this.
Why did I pick this album?
Give Up was recommended by one of my Facebook friends when I asked people to suggest albums that “changed their life.” I knew when I asked this question people wouldn’t take the “changed their life” part seriously, and sure enough I got a lot of people recommending a dozen or so different albums which I’m highly skeptical all of them had such an influence on them. However, this particular album I took note of because the person who suggested it had mentioned in the past that they were a big fan of American Football’s American Football, one of my favorites, and after listening to the first track of Give Up it seemed like a deeply personal album. Since it actually fit the description of what I was looking for I decided to jump to it.
Who Are The Postal Service? What is Give Up?
The Postal Service is a duo between vocalist Ben Gibbard and “producer” Jimmy Tamborello. Their name derives from how the music of the band was created. Tamborello, typically known as an electronic musician under the name “Dntel,” would make instrumental tracks in their entirety and send it to Gibbard through the United States Postal Service, who would then add vocals and edit the track as he’d see fit. It’s worth noting that Give Up came out in 2003, and Gibbard is mostly known as the lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie but Give Up came out just before Death Cab became immensely popular. Technically there are additional members of The Postal Service, but they only provide backing vocals on some tracks. The minds behind this project are solely Gibbard and Tamborello.
Give Up proved to be widely successful in the indie world. It was released under Sub Pop, and Give Up became their second most successful album in their history, just barely behind Nirvana’s Bleach. Despite the success, The Postal Service would never release another album. They would reunite in 2013 for a reunion tour and the two members are constantly asked about a possible second album, which is sometimes referred to an “indie Chinese Democracy,” but they’ve definitively said there isn’t one and never will be, citing commitments to their current projects. Their other projects may prove more financially successful but neither Death Cab for Cutie nor Dntel have ever received as much critical acclaim. Give Up was listed on Pitchfork Media’s and Rolling Stone’s lists for Top Albums of the Decade for the 2000s.
What Did I Think?
As I mentioned before, Give Up is a personal album, but I said that mostly because I immediately clicked with the tone that Gibbard sets up. The first song, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” is about a break-up. Gibbard has a slow realization of how out-of-place he was in his ex’s life compared to where they are now (“A stranger with your door key explaining that I’m just visiting”). After discovering this, it dawns on him that he was worth dumping (“And I am finally seeing, Why I was the one worth leaving”). This type of honest self-loathing is present throughout the rest of the album. As someone who dabbles in self-deprecation and being hard on themselves, I was immediately receptive to this tone, which continues throughout the rest of the album.
From what little I’ve heard of Death Cab for Cutie, it seems Gibbard has made a career out of being an honest insecure introvert, and I know just mentioning his main band’s name can induce moans for a lot of people, but for me, and for Give Up, it’s new. Gibbard doesn’t take the easy way out either. Whereas many people with the “poor me” complex are prone to depicting themselves as saviors of the world, he seems keenly aware of his own bullshit. In “Nothing Better,” another break-up song, Gibbard sings about how there could “nothing better than making you my bridge and slowly growing old together.” Just as that lyric is said, guest vocalist Jen Wood is introduced as the girlfriend character for the song: “I feel I must interject here, you’re getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself,” and it goes on. The best analogy I can draw is to action films and the concept of a “power fantasy.” Some introverts, such as myself, love a good downer-fest. Sometimes you get in a rut and you just want to stay there for a bit, ya know? Give Up seems to be going in the direction of feeding into all of the vices of someone who pities themselves and songs like “Nothing Better,” or “Clark Gable,” don’t let them get away with it. Which is fine, because we know we shouldn’t be so down on ourselves anyway.
There are other tangential topics covered on the album. “Recycled Air” seems to be about an anxiety surrounding traveling by plane, “We Will Become Silhouettes” covers a story about loneliness with a backdrop of nuclear fallout, and “Brand New Colony” dabbles in the idea of starting a new colony without cynics, although arguably Gibbard is one of those cynics for the rest of the album. Loneliness, anxiety, relationships, and failure are the connective thread of the album called Give Up and that shouldn’t surprise you.
What was surprising was how well the music of Give Up matches the themes of the album, even though they were made completely separate from the lyrics. Every melody has a frantic insecurity to it, constantly changing every measure or two. I could say it’s “as if they had no confidence in what they made so they just kept changing to keep it interesting,” but the truth is probably due to Tamborello’s background as an electronic musician which typically has more frequent melody changes as opposed to repeating the same bar over and over. Still, before I went on Wikipedia and read about the band I thought it was an interesting parallel between the music and the lyrics.
The busy nature of the songs stuck with me though on each repeat listening. My initial impression of The Postal Service was they were a “somber” sounding band, which would make sense, given their lyrical content. But even their most low-key track, “This Place is a Prison,” has a constant drum track, and it isn’t long before chimes and an accordion is introduced, because why not? In fact some of the songs are deceptively fast-paced because they begin with slower paced introductions, such as “Such Great Heights,” and “Natural Anthem,” before introducing breakneck drumbeats that carry the whole song. I ended up having mixed feelings toward some of the songs I initially liked and pleasantly found myself appreciating songs I didn’t intend to find on an album that started with something as low-key as “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” (“Natural Anthem” ended up being one of my favorites).
I can see how Give Up could influence someone’s life, especially in a “right time, right place” kind of way. It’s certainly turned me onto Gibbard’s work, even if that means I’m officially a dweeb for having “Death Cab for Cutie” in my search history. Whatever man, be your own person. Also that guy was married to Zooey Deschanel for at least a day, so he’s appealing to something.
Next week I decided to check out David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. In case you’re wondering, I’ve never heard a David Bowie song. Check it out on Spotify or YouTube.
It’s 2016, I’m listening to 52 albums in 52 weeks. For more info on why I picked this album read this.
Abel Tesfaye, also known as the The Weeknd (yes it’s spelled Weeknd) is an R&B artist who’s quickly rising to prominence and all of his efforts have culminated around the release of his latest album, Beauty Behind the Madness, which came out in August of 2015. The first song I ever heard from The Weeknd was “Often,” and although I thought it was a catchy, the content of the song didn’t inspire thoughts that I was listening to one of the “best artists of the year,” but when December came that’s the exact type of praise that The Weeknd received. Beauty Behind the Madness found its way on various year-end lists including NME, Rolling Stone, and it’s even in the running for Album of the Year at the Grammys. Clearly The Weeknd had struck something that people had been yearning for and I wanted to hear it for myself.
Beauty Behind the Madness is an album that’s interesting because of how it sounds as opposed to the content and image of the person who made it. I just want to get this part out of the way because as I read more and more about The Weeknd, there seems to be a big deal about “what an image” he’s crafted for himself, but when you put it down on paper he’s doesn’t strike me as remarkable. When Tesfaye was 17, he dropped out of High School to pursue his musical career. He didn’t have a father figure in his life and was raised by his mother who worked various jobs, and his grandmother. When he dropped out of school he also moved out, along with his friends, and they rented an apartment, however they were quickly evicted when they couldn’t afford rent. This forced Tesfaye to find other ways of finding warm beds to sleep at night, and his way of doing that was one night stands. A lot of them. Even his name comes from “leaving one weekend and never coming back.” As a result, all of The Weeknd’s material deals with the following topics: sex, drugs, love is dumb, self-destruction. If this was Jeopardy and I asked you which artist I was talking about based on those frequented topics, you could give me a thousand answers.
The Weeknd’s identity doesn’t come from his lyrical content or hairdo, but from his sound. When I first started breaking in Beauty Behind the Madness I jumped to the singles, specifically Can’t Feel My Face, and maybe a minute into my first listen I noticed “this guy sounds a lot like Michael Jackson.” Unsurprisingly, The Weeknd lists Michael Jackson as one of his biggest influences, and actually famously did a cover of Dirty Diana during a premiere show in London when Katy Perry and Florence Welch were in attendance. Dirty Diana specifically is a good reference point for a lot of The Weeknd’s songs. They occasionally have an arena rock influence and guitar solos but a clear R&B base (Real Life, Shameless). Not all of his tracks do this, and that’s probably where the Michael Jackson 1980s influence is most prevalent, in songs like In The Night and As You Are.
Personally I liked best the tracks that departed from that style, but I’ve had a hard time characterizing what they are outside of “R&B,” and I don’t even know what R&B even means anymore. Tell Your Friends has smooth production values and sampling accompanied with a muted guitar solo in the middle. It’s probably no surprise that this track was produced by Kanye West and I love almost anything West touches. Moving down the track list I have to give obvious shout outs to all the singles: Often, The Hills, Can’t Feel My Face, but at a certain point I remember thinking “Ok, you have uncommitted sex a lot… I get it.” Maybe that’s just me, but even for someone in the Hip Hop and R&B world this guy won’t shut up about it.
My personal favorites off the album were the two guest tracks toward the end:Dark Times with Ed Sheeran, and Prisoner featuring Lana Del Rey. Dark Times has a bluesy guitar sustaining the gloomy mood, a welcome change from the egocentricity found on the rest of the album. This continues with Prisoner, which has the added benefit of Lana Del Rey’s vocals and her character/personal story seems to fit well with what The Weeknd is preaching (Hollywood vices, promiscuous sex, etc.). Overall there are particular songs I like better than others, but there are few times I find myself wanting to skip over anything. In fact I more frequently find myself bracing myself for the best part of a particular song, such as the endings of Acquainted or Losers which contain instrumental outros which are really great.
I also want to point out The Weeknd’s affinity for double meanings which are littered all over his lyrics. It’s easiest to see in Can’t Feel My Face which is easy to interrupt as either a song about a toxic relationship with an actual woman or a song about a drug addiction, specifically to cocaine. With lyrics like “and I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb; and she’ll always get the best of me the worst is yet to come,” referencing either the deepening of a relationship taking its toll on him, or his impending addiction to a drug he can’t function without. Some fan theories suggest this song is actually about The Weeknd becoming “too mainstream” and not liking it, but this seems big-headed in my opinion. However, most of The Weeknd’s song contain a lot of double meanings, enough that I’d recommend checking out the rapgenius analysis for the explanation of what else they refer to. It’s interesting stuff.
I found listening to Beauty Behind the Madness really easy. All of the tracks are approachable, and there’s enough going on in each song that it doesn’t sound simple. I also appreciate that even though The Weeknd can be added to the battalion of other artists today talking about sex and drugs and how they might be doing too much of both, his love for lyrical duality add a bonus for attentive listening. If there was a time to listen to The Weeknd, it’s probably now, because judging by the lifestyle he claims to be living, he’s either going to burn out or die in the next three years. I wouldn’t count on him releasing another album of note. It’s also too bad he had to make this album in 2015, because Kendrick Lamar is totally getting that Grammy.
Next week I’m listening to The Postal Service’s Give Up. Check it out on Spotify or listen to it on YouTube.
In 2016 I made three New Year’s Resolutions. Why three? So I could fail two of them of course. One of those resolutions was to listen to 52 albums in 52 weeks. In case you didn’t know there’s 52 weeks in a year. I posted this on Facebook and asked for recommendations of albums that changed people’s lives. I got some responses and one or two people wanted to follow the list for inspiration of what to listen to as well. So I made a Spotify list. Well, part of my resolution was to write something about the album I listened to so I could fully comprehend what I had heard. You’ll occasionally see those posts here on this blog. Before you read any of those blogs you might have some questions, so here are some answers:
A: I know nothing about music. If you’re looking for technical analysis, or really any kind of informed opinion then prepared to be disappointed just like my parents and any EX I’ve ever had. But let me make a point: I think music is the most subjective thing there is. You can watch a one minute short on YouTube and have a negative reaction, but then someone can say “yeah but look, it’s in focus, the set design is good, they acted well.” Maybe in spite of all that you still disliked it, but you can modify your opinion to say “I recognize this is made well, but I personally dislike it.” In music, it’s just raw reaction. I can play something that is renowned in the music world to someone who has nothing against it, and if they don’t like it, no amount of explaining things to them will change their mind. They will never appreciate any aspect of it.
So whether or not I know anything about music doesn’t seem to make a difference. In addition to that, there’s already a thousand other websites that know way more about music than I do. I don’t intend to give you critical analysis. I’m a normal guy, giving you normal dude opinions. Think of this like a book club and I’m just that one person who just talks every time we meet. I encourage you to participate as well!
Q: Why should I care what you think?
A: I don’t think you should care what I think, other than if the words I say convince you based on the merit of what is said. On the topic of subjectivity, you’ve probably made up your mind after hearing something the first few times. So if you read what I write you’ll either agree or disagree and that’s fine. Music is super subjective after all. However, I’ve found that people have difficulty expressing how they feel. It sort of bottles up and they make a lot of hand gestures and they go “you know… it’s just kind of…” and then hopefully the other person fills in the blanks. So hopefully we hit some albums during this conquest that were a blank spot for you and fill it out for you, like Taylor Swift.
Q: Why did you pick a particular album for a particular week?
A: Believe it or not I actually have a method to the madness of the entire list. Right now, as I write this (January 8th 2015), the playlist is a dump of nonsense but it’s intended to be sorted. Just to give you an idea of how I intend to sort it: I wanted to mix the genres so I don’t get sick of hearing the same thing. I also wanted to hit a lot of albums that have been called classics of the genre they’re from. So for example, I’ve been recommended Madvillain’s Madvillainy a lot, I’ve also been recommended Nas’ first album a lot. However, I don’t really want to listen to two Rap albums back to back, so I’ll probably want to split them up. I also don’t really want to split them up with really polarizing genres like The Beatles’ Abbey Road, so I’m trying to gracefully rise and fall between genres. Of course this gets difficult because I do want to listen to a lot of Hip Hop/Rap albums, not necessarily back to back, but it’s going to be hard to ease in and out of them constantly. The point is, I’ll explain at the beginning of each post why I picked an album for each week.
Q: What will you cover in a blog post?
A: I usually post a little background on why I picked that album, why the artist is well-known. Then I just go into general thoughts about the album. There’s no real format.
Q: Will you post every week?
A: Not necessarily. I’ve been reviewing video games and movies my whole life and I can tell you the hardest things to write are the ones where you have no opinion at all, and that’s honestly the most common feeling I’ve had for music albums I’ve come across. The thought of having to write something about Incubus’ If Not Now, When? Absolutely terrifies me. The album manifestation of a mild breeze is how I would describe it. Now imagine writing 52 of those. Christ almighty.
Q: What if I want to contribute or have a suggestion or have a question?
A: Post a comment! On any of the articles! I’ll see it. Post on the one about the album in question if it’s reference to that album. You can always reach me on Twitter if for some reason you don’t want to post here. @ArthurAugustyn.
It appears 2016 might be the biggest year for superhero movies yet. However, with the less than stellar reception of Age of Ultron and the possibility that those Justice League movies are going to be terrible, if Man of Steel is anything to go off of, it’s potentially the year the superhero stardom might finally collapse in on itself. Of course quality of content won’t actually mean anything until people stop going to the theaters in record numbers and making these movies earn billions of dollars. Either way, since we’re entering what might be the peak year of superhero films, now’s the perfect time to revisit one of the best movies that nobody likes: Mystery Men. This movie came out a little bit before its time, since 1999 wasn’t exactly the best time to release a parody film about superhero films. Then again, the movie has transcended whatever purpose was originally intended for it and reached cult status for a few different reasons that I think are worth revisiting this year.
What Is Mystery Men
Mystery Men was released in 1999 and stars several actors you actually know quite well. Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, and Hank Azaria are the three main characters. They play three normal guys who are trying to be superheroes because they want to be somebody important. The thing is, they’re really not that great and their pseudo-powers are obvious shams. It also doesn’t help that in their universe there’s already an acclaimed superhero named Captain Amazing, played by Greg Kinnear. Captain Amazing doesn’t seem to have any powers outside of being a capable fighter and having some useful gadgets, but the opening scene of the film is the trio getting their asses kicked in a brawl and Captain Amazing saving the day. This leads the trio to question whether or not they should even be doing this hero stuff.
A turn of events occurs when nefarious villain Casanova Frankenstein, played by Geoffrey Rush, is released from prison and captures Captain Amazing. The trio realizes that there’s no one to save Captain Amazing but them. So they reunite, resolve to recruit more members, save the Captain, and the day, and become heroes once and for all. Well, sort of.
What Makes Mystery Men Any Good?
1) Somehow it’s the only superhero parody film that you’d actually want to watch. Outside of Superhero Movie (a film as inspired as its title), Mystery Men seems to be the only film that’s ever poked fun at the absurdity of the story of superheroes. The analogies between Superman and Captain Amazing are obvious and the film really runs wild with how much of a megalomaniac a crime fighter would become when they have a 100% success rate. Captain Amazing’s outfit is adorned with logos from companies that he endorses. At a few points in the movie you can see him appearing in commercials advertising for products like Mighty Whitey Toothpaste “because I want my teeth to look… amazing.”
Even my plot summary above doesn’t do justice to the sheer audacity of Captain Amazing’s ego. The “turn of events” that leads to the villain Casanova Frankenstein being released is after Captain Amazing has a meeting with his publicist, who informs him that people don’t think they need him because he’s already defeated all the bad guys. In an effort to rebuild his brand, Captain Amazing puts on his lawyer alter-ego “Lance Hunt” to argue an early release for Casanova, just so he can beat him again. Just in case you’re wondering: “Lance Hunt” looks exactly like Captain Amazing, except he wears glasses. A clever ruse that fools most people. There’s plenty of other quality jokes in each scene but at a certain point I’m just re-telling you the jokes.
2) It has one of the best casts in movie history. I don’t just mean that in the “go to IMDB page and be wowed by all the names you recognize” kind of way. I mean the casting of this movie has taken a life of its own. Let me frame it this way: In the movie Moneyball, a baseball movie about the general manager of the Oakland A’s changing how he managed his team, there’s a small scene where Brad Pitt’s character talks to the owner of the team. The owner is very business orientated, talks about meeting expectations with the resources you have, and other businessy stuff. The person they got to play the owner in that scene was CEO of Activision-Blizzard and multi-billionaire Bobby Kotick. Pretty good casting right?
Almost as good as getting William H. Macy, the most accomplished actor of the cast, to also be the fatherly mentor of the group. Or for Paul Reubens, mostly known for being Pee-Wee Herman and later for his weird public masturbation arrests, to be cast as the weirdo whose superpower is deadly farts. Or having Kel Mitchell cast as “Invisible Boy” in conjunction with his career absolutely evaporating (while his co-star from Kenan and Kel took off). You’ve also got Tom Waits showing up toward the second half of the movie practically playing himself as a guy who messes with weird instruments and gadgets. Eddie Izzard also plays some demented version of himself as one of the leader of a disco boys, not to suggest that Eddie Izzard likes disco, but he’d probably be down to dress up and be weird for a day. Finally every time I see this movie I find Geoffrey Rush’s involvement more and more hilarious, since his career as a “serious” actor is such a strong contrast to this absolute moronic movie.
A lot of people rag on Mystery Men for being a “bad” movie. Some of my friends have called it “one of the worst movies they’ve ever seen.” I chalk this up to hyperbole every time simply based off of the actors alone. These are quality actors and most of them are essentially playing themselves. They’re not playing roles that they had to study or “get into.” It’s also a comedy film and half of the cast is comedians, it’s not like they’re missing punchlines. The other half seems to know what’s expected from them. After all, this is the movie that casted Michael Bay as a frat boy.
3) It is unbelievably stupid. Everything about this movie, the events, the characters, is really dumb, and I’m saying this in the most positive way possible.
Take this scene from early on in the film when Captain Amazing gets the idea to release Casanova Frankenstein from prison to revive his brand image. At first glance it seems like a throwaway scene to set-up essential plot, but it encapsulates Mystery Men. The visual image of a superhero throwing a fit because he lost his sponsor, a character who says “I’m a publicist not a magician,” being played by a well-known magician, and finally the simplicity of a silly joke like “get Death Man!” “Death man is dead.” Because what else would death man be?
That last joke might seem corny but I think it points to how Mystery Men may have been before it’s time because of the type of humor it was going for. It helps to know that Mystery Men is based on a comic series called The Flaming Carrot where the “heroes” of the story are not known for their cunning but for their mortality rate. The titular character’s main ability was entering a state of “Zen Stupidity.” Although the actual carrot was replaced with Captain Amazing, and all the heroes in Mystery Men were created for the film, the adherence to “so stupid it’s funny” remained. In 1999, comedy films were still focused primarily on jokes and punchlines in the most traditional sense. The highest grossing comedy that year was Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, a very different type of comedy. Mystery Men’s comedy isn’t best when there’s a joke set-up by the script and delivered well by the actors, it’s when your mind is overcome with bewilderment at the absurdity that you just have to laugh. I’d even argue there are moments made funnier when you think “did they really write that joke?” That type of humor has become more popular since 1999, especially on the internet to the extent that there are entire channels dedicated to it. Which seems to indicate that Mystery Men may have only gotten better with time as our collective tastes have adapted to it.
So this might sound too good to be true, but the fact remains that many people don’t like Mystery Men, so let’s air that out.
Why Might You Hate Mystery Men?
1) They didn’t trust the stupid. There’s a scene where the crew decides to hold formal recruitment of more heroes, which is the movie’s excuse to show off their ideas of other crappy heroes. There’s a little montage that includes cameos from Dane Cook, and other actors, and they introduce themselves as heroes like “The Waffler,” a guy who carries around a waffle iron and burns his enemies. Or PMS girl who’s very irritable and gets disinterested in the audition halfway through. Then a man approaches the audition in all black, with a dark hood, and after dramatically unveiling his cape he introduces himself as the ballerina man. I hate this part of the movie. It plays out like the typical comedies of the 90s and it’s not consistent with the adherence to idiocy like the rest of the movie. A lot of the movie tries to fight its way back to normal and these are almost always the weakest part of the film. It’s as if the early days of shooting they had a vision and at some point everyone realized they were making something weird and wanted to pump the breaks and make something marketable.
If you don’t already know, a lot of movie-making is the technical aspect, or the physical “showing up to work” aspect, but there is also a degree of politics and convincing people to do things that they said they were going to do. Believe it or not a lot of members of the cast have been asked about Mystery Men long after it’s been released, and Stiller, Azaria, and Janeane Garofalo (also in the film) have all said there was various fights on the set about the tonal direction. You can tell just by looking at it because the type of humor present in the film is all over the place. There are fart jokes, stupid humor, traditional punchline orientated, bickering chemistry focused, it’s very strange. It seems whichever humor is present in a scene is whoever won the argument that day. The director of Mystery Men, Kinka Usher, would never direct a film again, saying he rather work on “cool one-minute shorts than all this nonsense.” Usher would go on to direct commercials for the rest of his career, which are known to be experimental. As much as I love the cast for the film, it seems they were actively fighting against the soul of the project while on-set. These problems get worse in the second half.
2) The movie gets worse as it goes on. Closely tied to the previous point, Mystery Men becomes more traditional the longer it goes on. This means it becomes more ordinary, more bland, and not worth your time. A lot of the climax of the film is the crew dispatching lesser villains than Casanova Frankenstein, and they’re all one-bit jokes using gimmick gadgets that have cutesy jokes tied to them. Each gag is the equivalent of having a wink and a nod attached to them. Not that things get much better when the crew finally confront the main villains themselves.
Action sequences in a movie like Spider-Man can be exhilarating with the assistance of CGI, but do you really want to see Geoffrey Rush use a coke nail to combat Ben Stiller’s fists as “Mr. Furious?” What about seeing scene after scene of Paul Reuben as “The Spleen” farting to taking down enemies? These scenes feel like a writer’s room finding an answer to a script’s problem but not an audience’s These sequences are boring, and the entire last act is nothing but these moments. Eventually the film ends on a conclusion that brings the story to an end but it’s not the finale of lunacy that you may have hoped for.
3) The set design and music is really strange. There’s a (overwhelmingly disproved) rumor that this movie was actually directed by Tim Burton and he hated the final product so much that he made up a pseudonym. This isn’t true because there’s footage of Kinka Usher directing Mystery Men on set. However, many people believed the rumor because a lot about this movie feels like Tim Burton. The music is bizarre, the city is gloomy and filled with smoke and lights, and the few CGI effects in the film are nightmare inducing, although that was mostly brought about by rushed deadlines rather than design.
Usually for me, and I think most people, set design and music wouldn’t be enough to hold it against a movie but the mixture of elements in Mystery Men is so diverse and so at odds with one another that it really stands out in the worst way possible. This is literally a film that uses the same sets as Batman Forever and throws in guys with disco outfits. Later in the film they’re in a suburban backyard with a swimming pool, there’s also a junkyard, the middle of the jungle, an apocalyptic looking abandoned theme park, and Casanova’s mansion itself which is completely different style by itself. Contrasted with the outfits of the all the characters, the design captures how production on Mystery Men must’ve been like: “I got no idea what’s going on.” But if you’re not keen on these elements of movies then you might not notice it at all, but I have heard this complaint a few times.
Honestly the most frequent complaint I hear about Mystery Men is “it’s just bad.” So maybe you’ll hate Mystery Men because “it’s just bad,” but I disagree pretty strongly with that. There was clearly a vision in mind with what the film wanted to be, but there seems to have been some forces working against that. There was also a time and place when the movie was released, and that may not have been the best time to release the movie which is why it did so poorly. I’ll put on my crazy hat and say: THE WORLD JUST WASN’T READY!
Really though, our tastes as an audience have changed a lot since 1999. Our spectrum of comedy has been expanded, there have been a lot more superhero movies, our fatigue for them has increased, and even our appreciation for niche/cult films has arguably been expanded thanks to communities on the internet. I think the time is prime for a new found appreciation for Mystery Men. I saw this film in the theater when I was eight years old. My family bought it on DVD. I’ve seen it well over twenty times. I don’t know a single person who legitimately loves this movie as much as I do, and that’s a real shame. I believe if it’s a film that still holds up today, in fact it’s probably better today than it was in 1999. With the exception of that Smash Mouth song at the end, which I think I could go the rest of my life without ever hearing again.
Many people believed 2015 would be the next landmark year of gaming. They hoped it could be mentioned within the same breath as 1998, 2004, and 2007. One of those years where the developer and console cycles align and a boatload of quality comes out in the same year. 1998 saw the release of games like Half Life, Ocarina of Time, Stacraft, and others. 2004 had San Andreas, Metal Gear Solid 3, Halo 2, etc. 2007 brought us Mass Effect, BioShock, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, among others. Looking at my list, and the other games of 2015… I don’t think it holds up to those years. I think 2015 was the year of surprise. Like: SURPRISE! Games are actually good for some reason. After the absolute bum year that was 2014, the industry has rebounded with gusto. My list itself has a lot of surprises, mostly because it features games and genres that I typically don’t enjoy. Overall I believe 2015 is setting up and even greater year: 2016, but we’ll see how that works out. Before we move onto the future, let’s take one last glance at the past. Here’s my top ten favorite games of 2015:
10. Massive Chalice
This year was the year of the XCOM clones and my first run in with one was Massive Chalice. Originally slated to be released in 2014, Massive Chalice got pushed back into summer of 2015 and sort of got farted out in a way that made everyone forgot about it. The game is a mix of family name building akin to Game of Thrones, along with “defending of the realm” storytelling, combined with XCOM combat if it focused on melee units. I felt this game could’ve done achieved more if it had taken it self seriously instead of the established goofy tone of Double Fine (which may be why lead designer of Massive Chalice, Brad Muir, has since left the company to work for Valve) but I still enjoyed well over thirty hours with this game.
9. Invisible Inc.
Hey another XCOM inspired game! This time from Klei, the talented developers behind Mark of the Ninja and Shank, also known as the best games I’ve never finished. A problem I didn’t have with Invisible Inc, but that’s probably because one playthrough only takes 2-3 hours. The game relies on randomized environments and campaign conditions and it’s highly encouraged you play it multiple times as each playthrough unlocks another character or item to alter your play style on the next run. I liked the style and tightness of the world in Invisible Inc and gave it a good 4-5 runs in the middle of the year. Some people have called it the best designed game of the year. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s certainly one of the stand outs from what I played in 2015.
8. Prison Architect
Prison Architect was the game I eyed almost daily for months. It would announce a new update, or go on sale every few weeks. Each time it seemed more enticing. What might as well be called “Prison Maker Tycoon,” had everything I could want from a builder game, and the developers seemed dedicated to updating their game and not only improving it but adding more content for free on a regular basis. The game finally saw an official release this year after multiple years of Early Access on steam so I didn’t delay to start playing it (if it isn’t clear, I refuse to purchase Early Access games and wait for official release). It turned out to be everything I imagined. The campaign mode gently introduces you to all the mechanics and eases you into your own prison, and there’s even different play styles and “types” of prisons to construct, such as one that values punishment versus one that values rehabilitation. These play styles give you a reason to keep playing after you’ve reached max capacity with your first prison. I’ve had a lot of reason to get cynical about Early Access in 2015, but Prison Architect was a shining example to stay optimistic.
7. Until Dawn
If there was a “surprise of the year” award, I would undoubtedly give it to Until Dawn. I never would have thought that a horror game, that’s closer to an “interactive drama” than a game, would turn out to be one of my favorites of the year. Until Dawn proved itself a lot smarter than its premise as “a dumb B-movie horror game.” I was genuinely impressed with how the design led me to make decisions that progressed the story down interesting paths. The contributions they made to the Quantic Dream formula such as the personality meters, and relationship statuses gave insight on how I should act in certain scenario. It also helped that the cast they picked for their motion captured characters had the charisma needed to stay memorable long after I had finished the game. Until Dawn could’ve easily ended up as something forgettable, or a cluster of good ideas that never land right, but a series of good decisions led to a really marvelous outcome… just like the game itself.
6. Ori and the Blind Forest
I’m not that huge of a fan of “Metroidvanias,” so it takes a lot for me to put one on my Top 10 list. The fact that Ori is on this list at all, should be a sign of its quality. Ori’s not just a game that looks pretty and dazzles audiences from thinking rationally, confusing them into giving it praise. Its design is genuinely impressive, on top of being one of the most beautiful experiences of video games. Take this small change for example: In most games there are checkpoints artificially placed in the world, typically before difficult parts of the game. Sometimes players run into frustrating sections when there is no checkpoint at a section they’re stuck at. In Ori, there are very few pre-made checkpoints, because the player can make their own at any time by holding B. This is balanced because making a checkpoint expends “energy” that the player has to collect in the world. Which means instead of artificially choosing which parts of the game the player will need more help with, you can choose where you think you’ll need a few more retries, or you can save all day if you think you’ll need it. It’s just one example, but I think it’s a good example of the developer’s forward thinking led to making Ori one of the most intuitive games I’ve played in years. It might be called “hardcore difficult,” but it never felt that way because it taught the player how to master difficult strategies so well. The rest of Ori’s strengths speak for themselves. The impressive animation, beautiful music, Disney-esque story, and memorable set pieces. If you like this genre at all, Ori and the Blind Forest is perfection.
5. Fallout 4
Man, can the world decide what it thinks about Fallout 4? I feel there are two camps and people keep jumping between them. Either Fallout 4 is a good game or Fallout 4 is too similar to Bethesda’s previous work and therefore a disappointment. I have not played the maximum amount of hours (I’m hovering around 27-30 hours right now) but my opinion right now is that Fallout 4 is pretty good. I think it’s leagues better than Skyrim, and any comparison before that is hard to quantify because Fallout 3 was a long time ago (seven years!). One thing remains true: the great thing about Bethesda’s game design is that they put a focus on the writing of the games.
One of the reasons I didn’t like Skyrim is because the quests were uninspired. I remember finishing the Thieves Guild quest line and being told that was “the best part of the game.” I was unimpressed, so I turned it off. I was already disappointed with what I had seen and if I had just passed the “best part,” why bother? In Oblivion, I was always surprised, every quest added something to the world or filled in some personality to the town or faction I was working within or for. Even if I had passed the best part of that game (The Dark Brotherhood) the other quests had something to offer. I feel that way with Fallout 4. I’ve had some five star quests, some four star quests, some three star quests, but they’ve all been really enjoyable and have helped fill out the world. That’s what Bethesda games are supposed to be about. I can see the criticisms that Bethesda didn’t evolve the mechanics enough, or that the base building doesn’t actually do anything, but for my money, and for what I wanted Fallout 4 to be, I got what I wanted. No one makes a game like Bethesda can, and until that changes, I can never call one of their games “disappointing.”
4. Cities Skylines
Praise the publisher Paradox for sheparding the developer Colossal Order to release Cities: Skylines and saving the genre of city builders. After the disaster of Sim City I think everyone was ready to call it quits on ever seeing that franchise revived. Out of nowhere came this little game and in no time I found myself lost in thirty hours and down several metropolises. The best praise I can give Cities: Skylines is it’s so easily streamlined, you wonder how anyone could’ve gotten it wrong. Just a few weeks ago I loaded Cities: Skylines up again, after not playing it for months, and all the concepts and tools came back to me within minutes, it was simple. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Cities, and who knows, maybe it’ll inspire other developers to make a competitor that’s worth a damn.
3. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Talk about a surprise. For anyone who knows me, I have a begrudging relationship with Metal Gear. I’ve played every game in the series and I don’t think I’ve liked a single one of them. That changed this year with The Phantom Pain. Phantom Pain practically dropped the “Metal Gearness” of the series, which is to say there’s far less hour long cut scenes and way more emergent gameplay. Granted, there’s still plenty of insane characters and bizarre cut scenes, but it all takes a back seat to the action. For once I can say that Metal Gear is the game I turn on when I just want to screw around in a world and see what happens. My appreciation for the depth of Phantom Pain’s mechanics really expanded in the second half of the game, when specific missions strip away your loadout preferences and you have to rely on strict stealth, or start with no weapons at all. These missions made me play the game in different ways I had never tried before. These latter parts of the game really opened my eyes to the depth of the systems at play in The Phantom Pain. I still don’t like the story, and I’m pretty sure I skipped past a lot of the cut scenes, but for once they made a game I actually really enjoyed.
Up until now Frictional has only made games that I’ve aspired to play but never actually do. Penumbra and Amnesia have really high praise in my circle of friends but the controls and the early moments of those games do a good job of convincing me to “nope” out of there real quick. SOMA was different. SOMA had a far different set up than the previous games, and the sci-fi backdrop intrigued me more than their dungeon horrors of the past. There were still times in SOMA where I wanted to hit escape, quit out of the game and never play it again, but I stuck with it. The groundwork laid in the first hour hinted at questions that I had to have answered. What was going on? What happened to my character? How am I going to get back? The rest of the game does not disappoint. Since finishing SOMA I’ve been relentlessly pleading others to finish the game so I can discuss the ending. I’ve even started asking non-gamers about tangential topics just so I can have some form of conversation. It’s a game that’s plagued my mind in more ways than one, the way a true horror should. I may have some reservations on “getting lost” every now and then, but I can’t deny how completely SOMA has taken hold of my life since completing it. For that reason I have to acknowledge it as one of the best experiences I’ve had this year.
1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
When Witcher 3 came out, there was a lot of praise. I heard my trusted sources talk about it and they said they liked it. At one point someone said “some people are calling this one of the best games of all time,” to which someone responded, “I feel like those are the same people who said that about Witcher 2.” I remembered that I played Witcher 2. Twice. Both playthroughs are sitting at the 12 hour mark, just after the first encounter with the main villain. After that fight I lost all interest in ever playing it again. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I remember when Witcher 2 came out there was high praise when it was released, then it dimmed, then as the year went on people forgot about it. By the end of the year Witcher 2 was not remembered as “one of the best of all time.” I decided after hearing this conversation that Witcher 3 would go the same way. But, it hasn’t.
After hearing continuous praise for the game throughout the year, and seeing mainstream praise from outlets like The Game Awards and GameSpot, I decided I needed to play Witcher 3. I bought the game sometime last week and I’m now thirty hours into Witcher 3. Every moment away from the game I’m constantly thinking about it. This is my acknowledgement that I haven’t finished the game, but it didn’t feel right awarding my #2 or #3 pick with the top spot. Witcher 3 feels like it earns it placement for a variety of reasons.
One of the stand out differences of Witcher 3 is a fundamental approach of how the game chooses to spend the player’s time. In games like Fallout, or even Metal Gear’s side ops, the quests amount to errands. “Go pick up some stuff for me.” Maybe there’s a dialog wrapped around it, but there’s not a lot to it. All of Witcher 3’s quests are exactly that, involving, story intertwined, quests. Every interaction Geralt has with someone in the world feels like it matters. I feel like I’m in the world of the Witcher, instead of just logging more hours into my playtime of a game. I feel like I am becoming Geralt, and the actions I want to perform are generally allowed in the game world.
I’m also far more impressed with the combat system this time around. The mix of swordplay and spells continues to be cool. You’re practically a Jedi with things like a pseudo “force push” or a fire spell, but even just the randomness of the fights themselves lead to humorous results. A common arrangement of foes is a sword enemy, a shield enemy, and a bowman in the back. In one encounter I force-pushed the shield opponent to the ground. The sword opponent approached me, then suddenly his health dropped to near-zero, because his bowman buddy had shot him in the back of the head. This emergent randomness can happen all the time. Every fight becomes a question of “what’s going to happen this time?” I love finding out the answer every time. There isn’t a single fight that becomes a slog or “alright let’s do this now.” It’s always fun, it’s always uncovering what the game’s engine will allow next. Even the tougher enemies are always a fight for survival without being brutally difficult.
And the world building is better now than any previous game in the series. I can attest to the fact that the first few hours of any Witcher game had always felt like an encyclopedia of foreign terms being dumped out of characters’ mouths as they referred to characters and conflicts from lands I’ve never heard of before. This game has a personal scope. It expands into grander conflict the further you dig into your own personal story. As you meet each new character that’s completely different from the one you met before, you suddenly realize you’ve met nothing but characters you’ve never seen before, and realize how unique this world of the Witcher really is.
When every quest feels like it’s important, every fight feels like a fight to the death, when digging into the world is rewarded with deep character backstories and a unique world, it’s hard not to be in awe at the game. I understand this game has been patched several times since launch and maybe at release it was in a completely (more embarrassing state) than it is now, but the game as it is now, is a bewildering force of quality. Any moment before now I could’ve told you that the previous Witcher games were overrated, but this time around they really did it. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is my game of the year.
Earlier today I saw a lot of “Top Lists” for the year of 2015 and this led me to throw up something on Twitter. Then I quickly realized I should dedicate more time to my favorite films from the years. There’s not many times I get to be wholly positive, so instead of posting a clumsily thrown together list I made in Notepad, here’s a detailed explanation of five of my favorite films from 2015. I would have gone for a full top ten, but I really didn’t see that many movies I liked enough to put on a list. By the way, Sicario (with Emily Blunt in FBI gear up top) is not on this list, although it makes for a great feature image.
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I’ve written a little bit about how one aspect of this movie bothered me, but that doesn’t do justice to how pleased I was with the overall result. J.J. Abrams and company managed to bridge the gap between the old fans and new fans and gave us the “Episode 1” that everyone wanted. It’s almost like we can pretend the prequels never happened. Unfortunately, there’s already a movement among big-time Star Wars fans that say the film had “too much fan service,” but I think these complaints can only be had after leaving the theater and realizing you liked the movie. The Force Awakens is the first time that audiences cared more about new characters than old ones, but the creators didn’t know that we’d like Rey, Finn, or Poe, so we got a little glimpse of who they are instead of focusing on them completely. As someone who has never been a huge Star Wars fan, this film has gotten me onto the hype train, to the point that I’ve reinstalled Knights of the Old Republic and I’m considering a replay. It’s easy to feel good about Star Wars right now, as long as I push back the thought that the “marvelification” of the franchise will happen any minute now.
4. The Gift
I wrote on social media immediately after seeing this movie: “The Gift is a great movie because it advocates all my world views. Don’t get married. Don’t have relationships. Don’t have friends. Don’t invite people over. Don’t meet people. Never trust anyone.” Four months later, I think this still accurately represents why I liked The Gift. If not for that reason, I think it’s one of the best “It’s good, just watch it,” experiences you can have. I went to see The Gift on the premise that it was about a “creepy neighbor,” and that’s it. It’s a film that plays with your expectations more than once. The less you know about the movie the better. In other words, it’s good, just watch it.
As far as I’m concerned there were three James Bond movies released this year: Spectre, Kingsman, and Missions Impossible: Rogue Nation. I could go into the details of why they latter two are totally James Bond movies but you’re better off skipping Rogue Nation and just watching Kingsman. A kid gets drafted into British secret service and has to infiltrate an evil lair and save the world using gadgets. All he needs is a double 0 in front of his name. Kingsman had the benefit of being released earlier in the year, several months before Spectre brought “being fun” back to Bond, so at the time it was a breath of fresh air to the formula that had been bogged down by the self-seriousness of Skyfall and Quantum of Solace. Kingsman is funny, charming, but also smart. All of this is made clear by the inclusion of Colin Firth in the main cast. When you read about a movie like Kingsman, and see someone like Firth being in the cast, you’d usually think “I wouldn’t think Firth would do something so brain-dead,” well that’s because it’s not. Like with many British films, there are layers of classism stitched into the fabric and Kingsman is no different. You walk away wondering if there was something more going on. Even if there wasn’t, it was the most fun I had at the theater all year. P.S. Love Samuel L. Jackson’s costume design.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie that’s story is told almost entirely through pictures. That’s a statement that can’t be said for most movies, and that’s okay. We have writers, actors’ performances, witty dialog, and ways of conveying information that’s pleasing to audiences outside of just pictures. In reality how many stories could you tell with just pictures? Still the novelty of watching Fury Road and realizing how much I knew about the world just by watching it had a big effect on me. Take for example this fight scene between Max and (the real main character) Furiosa. We learn key things about both characters: Furiosa is willing to kill Max, Max is not willing to kill Furiosa or the Wives, Max will work with Nux, but only to the extent that he has to, Nux has a deluded sense of friendship, and it appears that both Max and Furiosa want to use the truck to get away from the incoming horde. There’s no “we’re on the same side here Max!” scene between Furiosa and Max, because the audience already knows. The entire movie assumes a level of intelligence from the viewer. The low bar that they have seen the visuals on screen and were paying attention. But this isn’t some pretentious nonsense from film class. It’s an action movie made by an old guy who’s been making action movies since the 70s, and it is fucking rad.
1. Ex Machina
Ex Machina automatically had to be in my Top 5 after I realized it had started not one, but two, heated debates between friends and family over the implications of the ending of the film. It’s nothing incomprehensible like 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a fundamental understanding of what you believe “life” to be and if you think that definition translates when it’s being applied to biology versus synthetics (or to use simpler words: humans versus robots). Ex Machina is a film that sparks conversation and I envy any work of art that can accomplish that. That alone would force me to give it a recommendation but the rest of the film is also a marvel. It’s small in scope, with only four characters and “one” location, but it covers huge ideas like artificial intelligence, human connection, and the definition of “life.” It’s short in runtime, barely making it past an hour and a half, but you learn so much about the characters, their motivations, and quickly learn about complicated concepts. It’s a tightly written film, every second has a purpose and various moments have the potential to stay with you long after it’s over (I know which one has stuck with me the longest). On top of all that it’s undeniably charming thanks to the best performance from Oscar Isaac I’ve seen from him yet, as the super-genius super-self-centered Nathan. His character is a joy to watch and he jives well with co-stars Domnhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander who do their part to service the film.
There isn’t a weak point to Ex Machina and every aspect of it I try to think about just inspires another sentence or two of praise, and I haven’t even mentioned the set design or soundtrack. Top 10 lists (or Top 5 lists) are always subjective and graded on nothing, but Ex Machina is the film that affected my life the most and made me love the medium more than I already do. I think that’s justification enough to praise it as my favorite for 2015.
This post is not about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, except for the fact that it was brought about by something that happens in The Force Awakens and it bothered me (if you’re ultra sensitive to spoilers this is your warning to stop reading). The thing is, what happened actually happens in stories all the time, and it bothers me all the time, but despite my best efforts to articulate the reason why it bothers me everyone I talk to usually just shrugs it off and says something akin to “but it’s just an action movie!” So this is my final attempt to articulate the point.
So what are we even talking about? Without spoiling too much, at the end of The Force Awakens there is a fight between good and evil and good wins. That’s fine. The problem is that the “good guy” in this fight has no reason to win other than it being the end of the movie. There may have been an arc, and some crazy things may have happened along the way, but there’s no reason for this particular good guy to be the person who wins. In fact, this particular fight is two good guys versus one bad guy, and the first good guy proves unsuccessful. Is there something different about the two of them? Why does the second good guy get to win? Why do either of them deserve to win? The Force Awakens makes no clear point, but there should be a reason past “because they are the good guys,” and I have some ideas. Stories have proven that the reasons the good guy should win is because of a transformation in their character or because specifically their character was the only character who could’ve accomplished what was needed.
Let me be clear, when I say “deserves to win,” I don’t mean the endless fan theories of who is technically stronger according to lore. This is not the comments section of a YouTube video for a Game of Thrones fight sequence where they argue that “yes, technically character X was hungry from traveling for two days, that’s why he lost to this character who was described as a less proficient swordsman.” I’m talking about something quantifiable that isn’t left to endless debates. The first example is when a character makes a fundamental change to themselves. When they reach a new understanding, or finally overcome a hardship that has plagued them in the past. There must be a deeper reason our character was unable to defeat their foe, otherwise they would’ve proved victorious in the first battle.
I think the example that best describes this concept is Neo from The Matrix. If for some reason you haven’t seen The Matrix. Throughout the entire film the antagonists known as “Agents” are so omniscient they can’t even be hurt. They dodge fists and bullets alike and any resistance against them is a fool’s errand. Neo’s only protection against the Agents is to run away. That’s not all Neo is running away from. The moment he’s awaken from the Matrix he’s told by Morpheus he is “the one” that can defeat the agents and save mankind, but Neo doesn’t believe this. The entire film is Neo expressing disbelief in Morpheus’ vision, while also testing the extent of his strength just in case he is the savior of them all. This of course means that all of Neo’s encounters with agents ends in devastation, since he never truly trusts he is “the one.” The turning point is when he “begins to believe.” Neo starts with small victories, such as the famous subway station fight, and after getting the support of Trinity he becomes “The One.” The film ends with Neo destroying the agents.
Neo deserved to win because he was not the same at the end of the film as he was at the beginning of the film. He went from doubting the Matrix and Morpheus, to truly believing he was The One. The barriers that blocked his success were not physical strength or wits, but a personal journey that he had to complete. There’s no alternative version of The Matrix that you could write that would’ve satisfied viewers that removes Neo realizing he had to be The One and instead has Morpheus and gang using wits and big guns to defeat the machines. I think The Force Awakens has the same problem. There’s no reason why our hero deserved to defeat the villain. There’s hints at a transformation, a problem that plagues them from the past, but it’s dropped in favor of overpowered force sensitivity and suddenly being really good with a lightsaber. Even Luke Skywalker from A New Hope fits into the “deserves” criteria. Luke gained a connection with Obi-Wan and “used the force” to blow up the Death Star! Our Hero in The Force Awakens was force sensitive but had no mentor, and didn’t utilize it to become victorious. Luke had to meet Obi-Wan, learn about the Jedi, believe in the force, and combine it with his skills as a pilot to achieve victory, which brings me to my next point.
There’s another way The Force Awakens could’ve satisfied audiences which is by making the characters the only heroes who were fit to complete the task needed. Characters exist outside of the script and come to the story with their own abilities and experiences which can prove useful for the story at hand, in fact it might be why they are in the story at all. Take for example Mal from the lesser-seen Sci-Fi film Serenity. Mal is a reckless smuggler who gets blown up and patched up a lot so he’s prone to surgeries and getting things replaced and biologically moved around. The villain of Serenity has a lot of interesting things going on but most importantly he has a very specific Shakespearian kill move. The kill move consists of the villain paralyzing his opponent by jamming his hand into a bundle of nerves in his opponent’s torso, then laying his sword down in front of them which causes them to “fall on their sword.” Well, Mal has gotten so many injures that when the villain tries to paralyze him at the climax of the film, it doesn’t work, because all those nerves were already blown away ages ago thanks to the numerous injuries Mal has had over the years. This allows Mal to sucker punch the villain and easily defeat him. If anyone else had been facing the villain they would’ve met a Shakespearian demise.
This might sound like a cop-out execution but it’s a more common tactic than you think and I assure you it’s satisfying in almost every story it appears in. It’s kind of like Indy shooting the swordsman but applied to a finale, it’s a scene that captures the character’s existence. No one else would’ve handled it that way but them, which is why it had to be them. Our character has a unique trait, or a unique way of thinking, that gets them out of the situation that would otherwise stump other people in the creative universe if they were placed in the same situation. This is what makes their story special and why we are following their tale, among other things.
The Force Awakens had two chances at this because it takes two good guys from very different backgrounds. It’s possible they could’ve used their textured past to their advantage in this situation. They even could’ve combined the two and accentuated what blends them together against a common foe but again that was not the case. Their experiences during the film, and before the film, are never hinted at in contribution to this finale. It’s a plain fight where the good guy wins because that’s what they’re supposed to do, right?
I’ve found that more and more stories have forgotten about the “deserves to win” philosophy, whereas at one point it was assumed. Even movies that are bemoaned by audiences as devoid of any creative thought like Avatar still follow this principal. Whereas John Wick, a film beloved by a cult following, completely ignores this concept. It’s really bizarre because writing it into your film inherently improves the film by giving your character dimension and purpose. The only criticism I’ve heard against this type of thinking is that it’s unnecessary for some films, but I disagree. Even something as brainless as a summer blockbuster film could be minimally improved by a few throwaway lines that adhere to this principal. It doesn’t take much effort to make our stories a little bit better, don’t we deserve that?
Horror games are fundamentally different than any other type of horror. A horror novel might keep your attention as you read it then disturb you later in your day-to-day. A horror film might give you wild thrills for an evening, but when it’s daylight you might forget about it. Horror games differ because they intend to be horrifying, but if they’re too successful then the player simply stops playing them. After all, we can only handle so much (alternatively, our sadism only goes so far).
For me, Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent, was a horror game that was too successful at horror. As much as I love Lovecraftian themes, which Amnesia is strongly reminiscent of, the mood was so incredibly depressing I found the sense of dread inescapable. Despite the countless stories I’ve read such as The Dunwich Horror or At the Mountains of Madness, something was missing from Amnesia that pressed me to continue on. I’ve always chalked this up to a character flaw in myself. I’m pretty green when it comes to horror games, so maybe it just “wasn’t for me.” But I’ve found since Amnesia’s release, and even more so since Frictional’s new game SOMA’s release, that there was a little more going on than just my cowardly tendencies.
There are a lot of logical reasons why you would stop playing a game if it wasn’t mechanically sound, but an overbearing sense of loneliness is an abstract reason why some player stop playing games, and it’s not unique to the horror genre. A Reddit thread in /r/truegaming about loneliness in games mentions a few different games: Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls, Metroid Prime, Half Life, etc. What these games all have in common, and what they have in common with Amnesia, is that they lack world interaction. Whether it’s NPCs, or any meaningful cut scenes, these games hinge on plopping players into a world and leaving them there. Games like Dark Souls and Half Life have some NPCs but very rarely are they actually helpful, and they usually only have one line of dialog which contributes to a sense of lifelessness in the world. Still, those few NPCs might be considered salvation compared to Shadow of the Colossus and Metroid Prime which are devoid of any interactable characters at all.
These games also happen to be relatively difficult. While a game like Dark Souls might be infamous for its difficulty, anyone who’s played Shadow of the Colossus or Half Life will remember failing quite a few times. Games are meant to be challenging, but in some of these worlds there’s literally nowhere safe. Knowing that once you start the game you’re constantly in danger can be grating on your psyche, even if it is “just a game.”
Speaking from personal experience, I tend to finish almost every game I play, but Metroid Prime and Half Life are on the short list of games I’ve never finished. Unlike other games where I might have gotten stuck and couldn’t continue, these games I put down at some point and couldn’t bring myself to continue. Something about going back to that world was unappealing. It was like I had an allergy to them and didn’t know it, it just didn’t feel good. Again, at the young age that I played these games I told myself they just “weren’t for me,” but as I’ve read other people’s experiences, it seems this sense of hopelessness is not uncommon. I had the same experience with Amnesia. I liked the game. I thought it was well made. I admired the developer. I wanted to play their game, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I barely made it two hours.
So what’s different about SOMA? Well, a lot.
Amnesia’s opening scene is the player walking down dark stone corridors and immediately being introduced to the insanity mechanic, which explains if your sanity drops too low it’s game over. It’s dark, tense, and you expect something to pop out at you the entire time. If that’s not bad enough, you’re informed by the narrator that something is “following you,” and it isn’t made clear if that something is literally following you in a mechanical sense and you should keep moving, or if that’s just something in the story that will come up from time to time. Amnesia’s introduction is stress, death, and darkness.
SOMA’s introduction by comparison is leisurely paced and full of intrigue. The player starts in the main character’s apartment where they are free to do whatever they like and get familiar with the world and the controls at their own pace. After that the player rides the subway where they’re surrounded by other NPCs. This subway ride shows that the game has the capability of showing other humans to them and they won’t be totally alone, unlike Amnesia. The player also takes a phonecall while on the subway which has a few jokes. From there, the big events of SOMA take place, but it only takes another thirty minutes of play for the player to meet an important main character to give them the objective of meeting up in person and giving them a purpose.
All while this is happening, the player is never in any significant danger. The first enemy of the game is introduced directly after the first contact with another main character. From there the game ramps up its horror, but at that point, the player has made a connection to someone in the world, and is already engaged. They have a purpose, they have someone to latch onto, and things don’t feel so hopeless, for the time being…
SOMA’s design choice to show players why they’ll want to persevere on instead on introducing them to the unique horror concepts convinces them to tough it out when things start getting freaky. This design choice is echoed in other horror related games. Although they’re not strictly classified as “horror,” games like Resident Evil 4 and BioShock introduce the player to a radio buddy before they show them a horde of Las Plagas or a Big Daddy. This choice might seem counterintuitive since most games want to show you what’s unique about their mechanics as quickly as possible, but since horror deals in causing misery to the player, the analogy to use might be like a torturer giddy to show you all their new tools. There’s probably a BDSM joke in here somewhere but I can’t think of it.
I haven’t finished SOMA, but I’m pretty confident I’ll see it through to the end because it’s got my hooks in me. I’m invested in the story and that investment has gotten me through a few different times I’ve wanted to “NOPE” out of the game, hit exit, uninstall, and never play it again. That’s my cowardly tendencies talking, but what’s there is so compelling, I want to see it through. But I would’ve never known what was there if I didn’t have the motivation of a friendly face reminding me I wasn’t alone.
This article contains Spoilers for Until Dawn, however Until Dawn is largely dictated by Player Choice and all of the spoilers mentioned are only the type of spoilers that specifically happened to me.
There’s a concept in character writing that when you create a solid character you should be able to know what they would do in any situation without thinking about it. Think of a character. They’re in a rush to meet someone very important. They knock on a door where this person is supposed to be and there’s no answer. What next? Do they knock again? Do they crack a joke to themselves? Do they break in? Do they pick the lock? Depending on who you picked there’s probably an obvious answer that’s true to that character. Following what that character would do will continue their story, which might not lead them to the best outcome, but it will at least lead them to a conclusion that’s satisfying for their tale.
For example, maybe a reckless character will bang the door down and find himself arrested for breaking and entering. Their reckless habits have caught up to them. Or a sly thinker will peak through the window and see armed guards on the other side and decide to run away. Their cunning has saved them yet again. Either of these outcomes offer meaningful insight on the character, but you wouldn’t have a brittle-boned character try to break the door down and then die at the doormat. I don’t think anyone would want to tell the story of a brittle-boned character who died to a door.
Unless you were a video game developer, the creators of Until Dawn. While there are no brittle-boned characters in the cast of their survival horror that they’ve dubbed an “interactive drama,” (which I prefer to “it’s like Heavy Rain”) there’s the potential of an unsatisfying end to the various characters who can die within the tale being told. Unlike other interactive dramas, Until Dawn gives the cast defined characteristics, literally. At any moment during the game you can pull up a menu that shows each characters scaling on traits like “Funny,” “Brave,” “Charitable,” and etc. Player actions can affect where the trait scaling will go, but the game has an indicator marking where each character started in case you forget over the course of the game that the character you turned into a brave hero started as a cowardly jokester. This personality matrix being thrown into the mix of player choice adds a method to the madness of decision making.
Unlike other games that present a choice, Until Dawn doesn’t offer many situations where the player has to think “what would I do?” Because the choices are varying degrees of bad ideas. After all, this is a game that’s meant to mimic teenagers from slasher films who routinely make bad decisions. There’s also the fact that certain choices do not necessarily reflect the outcome. For example, running to safety over trying to save someone may result in a character making a noise and antagonizing a monster which causes their death. Choosing safety in this instance has caused their death, but how would the player know that? With the personalities in mind, the player can at least make decisions that are true to the character they are playing at the time. For example, a brave character would typically make brave decisions. They would choose to investigate a sound rather than stay safe, or run after their love interest instead of running to safety.
For the majority of the Until Dawn, Supermassive Games guided players by the Dungeons & Dragons motto “play your character.” If you were a brave character, doing brave things was routinely the best thing to do. If you were a self-centered coward, being self-centered and cowardly was the best thing to do. Straying from your character’s true self ended in bad results. For example, one couple in the game consists of the charitable Matt and the self-centered Emily. I played as Emily and found a flare gun. I was prompted with the decision to give it to Matt, or to keep it to myself. I really hated Emily, so I wanted to deprive her of all resources and I really liked Matt so I wanted to give them all to him. So I gave the gun to Matt. This resulted in a string of events that ended with Matt using the gun too soon, and when he needed it later he didn’t have it, so he died. So the character I liked ended up dead, yet Emily persevered on. Maybe if she had acted more true to her character, and kept the gun to herself, both of them would’ve lived?
This twist on player choices made Until Dawn immensely satisfying where other interactive dramas were frustrating. Nothing is more frustrating than being presented with a choice with no viewable pros and cons, and then getting the bad option by luck. It appeared that Supermassive had found a way to give the player a bread crumb trail, or at least gave them a satisfying conclusion to all the character arcs, even if they don’t make it. For example, another one of my characters ended up dying due to a failed quick time event, but he was the plucky kid trying to impress the girl, so it made some tragic sense.
However, in the second half of the game Until Dawn loses its consistency. Another character, Ashley, is known for her curiosity. There are various times in the game where Ashley has the decision to investigate or to stay safe and feeding into her curiosity is rewarded every time. She’ll find a clue, or catch the sight of something important, but the last time she’s offered to investigate something it ends it her death. In fact the details of her death open up the possibility that other people can die as well, so in a way her curiosity has effectively screwed the entire group. I felt this was an unfair end to Ashley’s story since there’s no real way to investigate further if what she’s looking into is deadly. Once you press on her curiosity, she’s already dead. It reminds me of those frustrating choices in other interactive dramas where the only way it could’ve been prevented is from already knowing the choice before you make it. Unlike other character deaths, Ashley’s doesn’t come across as a significant character flaw, like a plucky hero failing to save the day, it felt like when you wish you had held your finger on the previous page of a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
After Ashley’s death, which was toward the end of the game, I found myself running into a variety of unsatisfying conclusions. One character, who was devoid of personality, failed to find a clue, which caused the death of another character. Another character turned out alive who I hadn’t seen for well over five or six chapters, but made no contribution to the actual story. Then there was a showdown at the lodge itself but seemed like I had missed a lot. Obviously I didn’t get the best ending, and I had clearly missed a lot of the clues, but it seemed like Supermassive was close to providing satisfying conclusions for every character even if you fail, but that quickly fell apart once the second half of the game rolled around. The clumsy conclusion made me wonder if the intelligence of the first and second act were just by accident. Maybe the story was written to have a “right way,” and the other choices were just novelties, like all other choices in games, and I had just gotten lucky with following my characters’ personalities as guidance.
With that in mind, I still immensely enjoyed Until Dawn. The fact that I played it all in two sittings should be proof of its quality. I wrote this as a critique and it should be read like one, not a negative review of the game. Even with this critique in mind, it’s easily one of the more interesting games from 2015. Unfortunately, I wonder if the real genius of the personality + choice design was on purpose or just a happy accident that happens to work but wasn’t intended. I look forward to finding out in Supermassive’s future work.