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Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Cinematically Induced Coma

Directed by Robert Wise, Written by Harold Livingstoni

I can’t imagine how much it must’ve sucked to be a nerd back in the day. In 2019 and moving into 2020, nerd culture is the dominant culture in American media. Multiple subscription services are built entirely around attracting the nerd demographic, from DC Universe to Disney+, though obviously one of those is a bit more successful than the other. I caught the early days of this in high school, vividly remembering that fateful day when I went from not daring to admitting to liking Star Trek, having been mercilessly mocked for it in middle school, to suddenly overhearing ostensibly “normal” kids talking about how much they liked the 2009 reboot. But this golden age, where Avengers is the biggest film ever made and even a movie just about the Joker can make a billion dollars, it was built on the foundations of those that came before us, those who had to survive when comic books had not yet matured as an art form, and where the chances of you catching quality sci fi on TV were next to nothing. If you missed that rerun of Battlestar Galactica, tough luck, because you were just going to have to hope it came back around again at a later date. These are the people who had to wander through the wilderness after the original Star Trek went off the air, who had to suffer for a decade before Paramount finally brought the franchise back. And as a movie no less! Finally, Trek fans would get their big budget, big screen moment. After years of watching Star Wars completely conquering the nerd and science fiction landscape, Gene Roddenberry’s vision would finally return to remind everyone of who was really in charge. 

And oh my god it is just so, so terrible. 

Yeah it’s bad guys

The film that can be blamed for all of this, ironically, isn’t Star Wars. You’d think it was, given the absolute craze it caused, forever altering the media landscape, a release so monumental that it still shakes our collective popular culture today. So much trash was pushed out to try and capitalize on that success, from the hilariously bad cult films like Starchaser or Yor: The Hunter From The Future to long lasting properties like Battlestar Galactica, suddenly every executive in Hollywood wanted their chance at science fiction. But not here. Obviously Star Wars being a massive success didn’t hurt TMP’s chances of getting made, but in terms of what actually ended up getting made, the movie we can really blame for what a disastrous bore Star Trek: The Motion Picture turned out to be 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

2200 Odyssey > 2001 Odyssey, that’s just math

Stanley Kubrick was a genius, and in 1968 he released arguably the most important science fiction film ever made. In terms of special effects, visual style, heady ideas presented, it was something that had never been achieved before. But here’s the thing, that sort of thing is difficult to replicate, and its influence over TMP is so difficult to ignore that it drags the whole film down, and it’s flawed execution shows how close to danger Kubrick really was on 2001. There are a lot of surface elements to 2001 that I think could lead to someone coming away from that movie thinking that they were its sum total. Fantastic visual effects and models, slow long shots of ships traveling through space with a beautiful score, and surreal imagery balanced with questions of origin. The problem is that with 2001, Kubrick was an utter perfectionist. He assembled all of these bits so meticulously that he created a masterpiece that is essentially required viewing for fans of the genre. But what Kubrick really managed to do was to make a film that has a slow pace, and yet not uninteresting. With TMP, all those same elements are there, but they’re cripplingly, impossibly boring. 

A reminder that this utter bore was directed by a four time Oscar winner who also worked on Citizen Kane

That’s really the main piece of it. TMP is sometimes called “The Slow Motion Picture” and holy shit it is impossible to argue that nickname isn’t warranted. I’ve seen some people try to argue that this is actually one of the better Star Trek movies because of its slow pace, because it “feels like Star Trek” rather than a big dumb action movie like the later movies with The Next Generation cast turned into but nah, fuck that. First Contact has massive, gaping holes in its script but you know what? Shit happens in that movie! People actually do things! That movie has thrilling special effects, a cool villain, great action, fun bits of comedy. The Motion Picture has nothing. Much of the first half of the film consists of the Enterprise breaking several times, and the rest of it consists of long slow shots of the Enterprise as it slowly, painful inches its way forward. Then we get contact with the alien, and our villain is essentially just a faceless cloud with no real personality surrounding a piece of machinery that also has no personality. How could it! When if it did, that would spoil the twist!

I like the scene where Spock gets in a space suit to go search for the plot

But I suppose it would be lazy of me to just write “it’s boring” for six paragraphs and call it a day. Let’s get to our plot then, at least. Years after the end of the Original Series, James Kirk is now riding a desk at Starfleet, until a mysterious cloud appears and destroys multiple ships, and is on a direct course of Earth with only the Enterprise to stop it. Newly refit, the Enterprise heads out with faces new and familiar to go make contact and find out what the mysterious alien cloud wants. With that explained, I suppose I’ll at least give this movie credit for having a Star Trek like plot, rather than the alternative already laid out, a big dumb action movie with lasers and explosions. I’m sure at least one suit at Paramount wanted a script where Klingons build a Death Star and the Enterprise has to destroy it by firing a torpedo down its thermal exhaust port, but cooler heads prevailed. This really is more authentic to Roddenberry’s vision of the future than anything coming out of George Lucas’ mind, at the very least. 

But at least if it came out of Lucas’ mind circa 1977 it would have been, you know, good. I get that this isn’t that same sort of sci-fi movie that Star Wars is, I get that it’s trying to do something different. It wants to ask deep questions, it wants to say something about bigger topics rather than just shoot lasers at TIE Fighters. But it just gives me nothing to work with. Boring, slow, dull, I’m running out of room in the thesaurus here but you have to see my point. While it does tackle questions of meaning, of what life is, of our place in the universe, but it doesn’t tackle these questions in interesting ways, it doesn’t bring anything new to the table, and it certainly isn’t anywhere near as progressive or as innovative as the Original Series often was. It’s just dull, in every possible regard, even when it‘s trying to examine topics more heady than anything over in Star Wars. 

It doesn’t help that the movie’s “villain” is so uninteresting to the point that it is barely a character. It isn’t a character! It’s a piece of set, an oversized prop whose motivations have to be told to us by other characters rather than revealed in the story naturally. And in a way, this is very true to the nature of Star Trek. It’s easy to see why the villains in Star Trek ‘09 or Nemesis are often dismissed as basically being superhero movie villains, angry bald guys who have doomsday weapons and want revenge. So at least TMP doesn’t have that. No, it has a space probe that has become self aware and is only a cataclysmic threat to Earth by accident and happenstance. Awesome, just awesome, really compelling stuff. Darth Vader was fresh in the public mind at this point, and Star Trek responded with a confused satellite. Movies can often get away with having weak villain characters but when a movie has so little else going on, a deficiency here becomes all the more glaring.

Spoilers: the villain is a computer from 1977

So the story sucks and the villain is a series of circuit boards with delusions of grandeur, but what about our characters? After all, what is a piece of Star Trek without its cast of lovable characters? The gang’s all here at least, Kirk and Spock and Scotty and all the rest, plus some new faces! And hey, the performances are whatever. I’m not going to sit here and dump on any of them, they’re fine enough. The one interesting thing here is the new additions, namely Commander Decker and the alien navigator Ilia. But it’s not that I find the characters themselves interesting, oh no, that’s not it. Decker and Ilia are interesting to me only because they serve as a pretty clear blueprint for Commander Riker and Counselor Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. These characters were created for the failed Star Trek: Phase II show that never materialized despite being in development for years, and many concepts and characters from that series were subsequently cannibalized for The Motion Picture and The Next Generation, these two characters probably being the most significant examples. So it’s kind of neat to see the pre-beta versions of what would become iconic characters, it’s like seeing an unrevised first draft of an idea that still needs to be tweaked, like those old Star Wars concept art pieces where Han didn’t exist and every Stormtrooper had a lightsaber. So from that aspect I find them kind of fascinating, but as characters in their own right they don’t hold a candle to the rest of the gang, despite Ilia being on the movie’s poster. They’re adequate in the film itself, but in the larger context of the franchise they’re only worth remembering for archeological reasons. 

Three out of five of these characters are culturally relevant

I’ve seen Star Trek fans desperately trying to justify this movie’s place in the franchise, trying to jam it into the wider continuity in a way that it was never meant to. I’ve seen more than one of these theories try and explain how it’s connected to Q or the Borg but all of that is just fan theory nonsense. Really, the simple fact of the matter is that The Motion Picture is a boring film that is completely nonessential. None of these events are referenced again, and the subsequent film, The Wrath of Khan, is superior in every measurable capacity. A stronger script, better character work, more exciting action, higher emotional stakes, a better story, better connections to the Original Series, I could go on and on but you get the point, it doesn’t even hold up well when compared to other Star Trek movies, let alone anything else in the genre. It’s completely skippable, unless you’re looking for something to put you to sleep, because this shit is basically NyQuil in movie form. 

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Control

An Altered World Event

Developed by Remedy Entertainment, Played on PC

You might call me something of a skeptic.

When I was a kid, you better believe I bought into almost any sort of vaguely supernatural or paranormal phenomena that I crossed paths with. Loch Ness Monster? Man I was there. Bigfoot? Oh you better believe it! Mongolian Death Worm? UFOs? El Chupacabra? Yes yes and obviously yes. But now as an adult, now that I have to do things like pay taxes and register to vote, all the light of belief has gone out of my life and what you see remaining is a cynical, jaded husk of a man who barely lets himself entertain the notion that there’s anything truly fantastical in this world. You bring up anything even vaguely based in spirituality or non-mundane reality and all you’ll get out of me is groaning and whining. I’m not a fun person to sit and watch Ghost Adventures with, let me tell you.

I used to believe this was incontrovertibly real, now I just think it’s extremely funny

So perhaps that’s a big part of why one of my favorite tropes in media relates to the mundane fighting back against the paranormal. You’ve seen media like this. The X-Files, Men In Black, the idea that if there is fantastical or otherworldly things out there that there a normal people who tangle with and come up against it. There’s something about this, about this sort of seemingly impossible struggle of normalcy pushing back against fantastical, that struggle is always so absorbing to me. Further, it lends itself to so many different kinds of stories. The X-Files, during its best years, was absolutely masterful at somehow managing to make it seem completely plausible that witches, demons, telepaths, aliens, and all manner of scientific accidents could all inhabit the same world, while also having nothing but a couple of FBI spooks tangle with them week after week. 

Just a couple of GOATs

Probably the best example of this trope in the Internet age would The the SCP Foundation. A wiki of literally thousands of short stories written like classified documents, with a massive history and lore all its own, there is simply untold creativity and terror that lurks in its heavily redacted pages. A nightmare bureaucracy is the only thing that stands between the world and utter darkness at the hands of the most horrific monsters, cults, and alien entities, and the absolutely clinical like attitude the Foundation takes in these stories is one of its most fascinating aspects. This isn’t a fight with the impossible, it’s just another day at the office. The mundane fighting against the impossible, the normal against the abnormal. 

While the SCP might be the most horrifying version of this trope, Control might be the best example of it in video games in an extremely long time. It’s certainly better than either of the X-Files games, at least.

Control is a third person shooter/action game/Metroidvania game developed by Remedy Entertainment, the makers of the absolute classic Max Payne and the cult classic Alan Wake (Don’t worry, that write up is coming). Set in a mysterious building in New York City, you play as a woman named Jesse who has been looking for her brother following a paranormal event that wreaked havoc on her hometown. She finds herself wandering into the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, a secret government agency that seeks to contain the paranormal. It just so happens that she was drawn to this building, an extra dimensional facility called The Oldest House, on the very day that an entity called The Hiss has enticed our plain of existence and began to infect the Bureau and shape it to its own ends. As the newly conscripted director of the Bureau, you must fight back against the Hiss and return order to the world. 

They had me at “extra dimensional facility”

I live for this. This is the best example of this sort of setting, the most interesting use of these tropes in games in a long, long time. I’m honestly struggling to think of anything else that comes close. The XCOM games do to some extent, but XCOM was just aliens, and it was aliens being an existential threat that had just arrived to take over the world. Control builds a world where the FBC is an active agency, doing the day to day work of keeping a lid on the fantastical and the insane, and the world just goes along spinning while it does its work. The conflict here doesn’t feel like the first, nor will it be the last time the FBC is faced with a crisis, and that ‘business as usual’ vibe is one of the setting’s great strengths.

The world of Control is so fascinating to explore. The many levels of the facility contain tons of different environments, as The Oldest House is a place that isn’t quite within our dimension. As a result, impossible layouts or dimensions intruding into our own are extremely common. You’ll find sections of the facility driven out of sync with our reality, while other realities intrude and change ours leading to disastrous environmental effects. It’s strange to wander through and office complex only to take a couple elevators down and find an extra dimensional rock quarry. Laboratories hum with outdated looking computers, bathrooms becomes overgrown and infested with extra dimensional mold, a simple light switch becomes a gateway to another place. The unique design and ideas present in the Oldest House make it one of the most interesting settings for a video game I think I’ve ever encountered. 

It’s been a long time since a game’s setting had been used so effectively

What adds so much to that setting is developer Remedy’s trademark weirdness. Control may be a new franchise or IP from the developer, but it shares so much of its charm and tone with Remedy’s previous cult hit Alan Wake. What made that game so special was, much like Control, it created a strange and surreal atmosphere that was fascinating as it was unnerving. Both games force characters in over their heads into a world that, even when things aren’t going wrong, don’t feel quite right, and when it hits the fan the weirdness is dialed way up that makes the player want to desperately search for answers.

Not even among the top five weirdest things the janitor says

One of the odder ways that Control does this is its repeated use of Full Motion Video. Back in the 90’s, before we had consoles or PCs that are capable of rendering graphics that looked plausibly real, game studios came up with the brilliant idea of ether supplementing or completely replacing the in game graphics with renderings of recorded video. This could be pre-rendered CGI imagery, but often it was live action footage with real actors, whether on sets or in front of a green screen. The 90’s is littered with games that did this, whether it’s your better examples like Command and Conquer or Wing Commander, or its worst examples such as Sewer Shark or Make My Video.

Legitimately miss Command and Conquer and it’s cheesy nonsense FMV

As graphics technology got better and a lot of FMV titles were critically panned, the technology was kind of dumped in favor of simply building cutscenes out of in game graphics or with pre rendered CGI. Occasionally it would pop up again but always as a novelty, like with the Command and Conquer series, that series only continuing to include them because of fan expectations. Command and Conqueer is essentially a dead series, despite its FMV including such names as Academy Award Winner JK Simmons, James Earl Jones, and Billie Dee Williams, and with a couple of indie exceptions here and there (Her Story being probably my favorite FMV game of recent years) FMV seems to be pretty much dead.Remedy, however, has seen fit to take up that torch as the guys who still use FMV, because Control is just packed with it. And, crazily enough, it works. FMV games have usually aged about as well as cheese left out on a city sidewalk in summer, but shockingly Control’s use of FMV cutscenes is absolutely masterful. None of them feel out of place, whether it’s multiple disturbing episodes of a puppet based FBC children’s show or explanatory videos done by the FBC’s head of research explaining various supernatural concepts to the player. Dr. Darling, the aforementioned head of research, is honestly one of the game’s strongest characters and yet he is only present through live action footage. It’s honestly amazing how seamless the FMV sequences can feel.

Love this weird, weird dude

While you’ll be exploring the weirdness of the FBC’s headquarters for much of the game, the real meat of Control is its combat, and this is where it really manages to shine. When Jesse first arrives at the Oldest House, she discovers a supernatural object called the Service Weapon, a transforming pistol than can change into different types of weapons while also regrowing its ammunition. This allows for a very different dynamic than is present in a lot of third person action games, you’re never scouring for ammunition or taking weapons off downed enemies. You have to balance movement and cover efficiently as you can’t just quickly reload and keep fighting. The game’s man combat attraction however are the various powers and abilities Jesse gains. Telekinesis is essential to surviving the game’s myriad of combat encounters, it’s often far easier to fling a desk or a container at an enemy rather than trying to take him down with the Service Weapon. Other abilities like shields or levitation add even more options, and combined with the Service Weapon’s various modes, combat becomes an absolute blast of managing abilities and switching tactics quickly. 

A gun the turns into other guns, aren’t video games grand?

That’s not to say it’s perfect, however. There’s a tacked on leveling system with the enemies that feels needless. Throughout the game, you will collect various upgrades both for the Service Weapon and Jesse herself. However, none of these feel significant enough to justify having level 2 or level 6 enemies. Is a 17% more efficient telekinesis power help? Yes, but not nearly enough to justify having enemies rapidly increase in durability. Beyond that, by far the most frustrating aspect of this game are its boss battles. The fights themselves aren’t bad or anything, but they’re made incredibly annoying by the game’s lack of a real checkpoint system. The only time I was able to pick up a combat encounter right after I died was during literally the final fight of the game, otherwise upon death I was sent back to the nearest world hub, forced to fight my way through a dozen enemies just to get back to the boss who was going to kick my ass. Having to clear the same room for a seventh time while also eating damage before you even get a chance to be utterly crushed just leads to frustration. I get why they didn’t include any sort of constant checkpoint system, but the boss fights should’ve have been an exception. It’s like if in Super Meat Boy you were struggling to figure out one of the game’s more difficult levels, but instead of being able to instantly restart after death, you had to replay the previous level before trying again.

Once the effects start up, objects start flying, and enemies and you are flying around, Control’s combat becomes something special

These frustrations are fleeting, as Control manages to build an absolutely masterful world of intrigue and paranoia. It wears its influences on its sleeve but really that just makes me appreciate it even more. It’s the X-Files or SCP game I’ve always wanted, perfectly executing on concepts I’ve seldom seen done justice in this medium. Recently it was announced that two major expansions are coming next year and I will be purchasing both as soon as I am able, I’m itching to dive back into the Oldest House and see what other secrets lurk. This is easily my game of the year so far. If you’re able to play this I cannot recommend it enough. 

Pull up a chair and stay a while

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Gotti

The Only Living Boy In New York

Directed by Kevin Connolly, Written By Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi

Every actor makes bad films, it happens. Sometimes a project just doesn’t work out. Harrison Ford was in Paranoia, Liam Neeson was in The Phantom Menace, Russell Crowe was in The Mummy reboot, it’s part of the job. Not every script is a complete banger. But what makes Travolta unique to me is that not only is he in multiple films that are legendarily bad, but they’re all bad in different ways. Moment By Moment is one of the most inept romance films ever convinced, a film so bad that Mystery Science Theater 3000 was going to do an episode on it until the rights to the film fell through. Staying Alive is magical in both how worthless a film it is while also being a hilariously misguided sequel to Saturday Night Fever, one of the greatest films of its decade. And then you come to Battlefield Earth and, well, just look at it:

With Travolta’s back catalog of unintelligibly bad films already established, it is with a heavy heart that I must inform you that Travolta’s MoviePass distributed biopic Gotti is, in fact, just as bad as those three other films, forming an unholy quadrilogy of garbage tier film making. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A kid works his way up from nothing inside the mob, slowly gaining a reputation for himself while in turn building a family. He gets deeper and deeper until he rises to a position of power, amassing more wealth and becoming increasingly paranoid until it all comes crashing down once the law closes in. Riveting, groundbreaking stuff I know.

“John there’s still time to back out of the movie, no one would blame you.”

Gotti is… man, where do I start. The film opens with John Travolta turning to address the camera like the writers are just pretending the audience isn’t aware of Goodfellas existing and might think this novel, and then after Travolta’s Gotti mumbles something about how totally rad New York is, we move into a montage of stock footage of the actual mob boss John Gotti, with a song by Latin rapper Pitbull playing over them. Because when I think 80’s mob drama, I think Mr. Worldwide. There are three Pitbull songs in this movie, by the way, one of which is based on how the sound is mixed appears to be playing at an outdoor 4th of July party in 1985? 

It’s cute how this movie likes to pretend it’s a period piece, subtitles on the screen will do their best to try to tell you that this movie takes place in the 80’s but there’s also zero effort put into anything. The costumes, the clothing, the hair, it’s all weirdly modern. Everyone seems to wear suits or polo shirts, combined with the minimal set dressing and anachronistic soundtrack and the film feels completely dislodged from time and space. Travolta’s character is the only one who seems to visibly age during the film, with this culminating in some questionable makeup that honestly makes him look more like John McCain than John Gotti.

SNL really needs to let the Alec Baldwin as Trump thing die

This is not a film you ‘watch’ in the traditional sense, it’s one you kind of look at with a confused look while trying to piece together where and when we are. Who is John Gotti? Why should I care about his rise to power? Why do the people love him? I haven’t the faintest. 

Casino and Goodfellas, the movies with whom this movie obviously shares much of its DNA, make you care about its homicidal maniac protagonists though brilliant performances and quality writing and direction, you are intrigued by the characters before you and thus their journeys deeper and deeper into the mob life feel like they have weight, that they matter. Here we watch Travolta grumble and mumble his way back and forth from prison to suddenly being a made man to “the boss of bosses” then to prison to to his death bed. The lack of a linear flow to the film as it listlessly moves from the 80’s to the early millennium and back means we never get a clear picture of where Gotti is at any point in the film. Years will pass from one scene to the next and we in the audience are left to constantly try to play catch up and remember which mobster is which and who Gotti does or doesn’t trust.

So sure, the film’s structure is nonsensical, its performances boring as all hell, its dialogue cliche and tired, and the pacing slow as can be yet also completely schizophrenic, but what I find the strangest might be it’s bizarre choice to attempt to lionize Gotti’s son, John A Gotti, as some sort of victim of an over zealous criminal justice system. The film ends with the younger Gotti (is he the youngest or the oldest of Gotti’s kids? Hell if I know, hell if I care) being finally acquitted, with a title card admonishing the US Attorney’s office for giving plea deals in an attempt to bring Gotti’s son down and this treading violent offenders into the public in exchange for their testimony. I’m sorry, but what is the issue here? That the DOJ offered deals to low level thugs to try and take down s higher up? And this… this is bad? I am supposed to feel upset on behalf of the son of someone like John Gotti? Gee, all these insane mob bosses, getting railroaded by the system, my heart weeps for them movie, it’s just all torn up. There’s a lot to critique the Justice Department for in its handling of organized crime and the War On Drugs but maybe pick a better victim to hold up than the sion of John Gotti.

Gotti isn’t the worst film I’ve seen in the past few years, but it’s damn close. Completely inept and ineffective across the board, it’s a hundred minutes of nothing, a biopic that makes its subject seem far less interesting than he probably was in real life.

Oh and also that same Pittbull song starts playing again as the credits roll after Travolta mugs at the camera one last time. Always end on a good joke, I guess.

Pictured: The real star of Gotti

The Decline of Western Civilization

Parts I, II, and III

Directed by Penelope Spheeris

Don’t worry, if you’re reading that title and growing concerned, it does not mean that I’ve gone and lost my damn mind and have started writing insane conspiracy theory nonsense about how truly decadent and beyond saving the West is so you can rest easy on that count. This is a terrible, terrible joke, but the real reason I’m writing something with that title is because I really need to write about something that I truly enjoy. The overall tone of the last series of articles I’ve written have all and all been kind of a bummer. Even the positive stuff I’ve written about like The Outer Worlds has come with a lot of criticism and caveats, so I thought it might do me and my mental health some gold to write about something that I think is unabashedly great, and I can’t think of a better place to start than a series of documentaries about dudes playing guitars very poorly.

To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t have expected that we live in a world where Penelope Spheeris, the director of Wayne’s World, also directed a series of fantastic documentaries about the LA music scene at different points in time, but here we are. The Decline Of Western Civilization gives a series of amazing snap shots of very specific subcultures at very specific times and places, and for that I completely love it. Decline shows musicians and fans with a rawness combined with a genuine interest that I think few other documentaries can capture. At no point across these three films does it feel like these films are really looking down or totally mocking its subjects, it feels like the films let people speak for themselves in a way that is mesmerizing. Now that doesn’t mean that it makes all of its subjects look especially great, but it leaves plenty of room for the audience to come to its own conclusions.

Let me start by concluding that Colt 45 is terrible

Part I of Decline follows the late 70’s, early 80’s punk scene in LA, and probably feels like the most complete music documentary out of the bunch. The film is shot in dingy, gross clubs, showing bands that seem completely low-fi, running primarily on aggression rather than actual technical skill. There’s a lot of things here that feel like every stereotype of punk music, where it’s just everyone yelling and speed playing their instruments while the audience is drunk out of their minds and basically getting into fistfights in the crowd. It’s kind of amazing to watch, to see a little frozen snapshot of this American subculture that just doesn’t really exist. It’s positively surreal to see footage of a club where a band playing a song called ‘Beef Bologna’, while dudes openly wearing swastika t shirts try to start trouble in the crowd.  This snapshot is made all the more vivid by segments interviewing random punk fans to get their perspective, all of these people just seem so fascinating even when we just get tiny bits and pieces out of them. Part I also takes a larger look at the general culture surrounding Punk, one segment follows a writer with the pen name of Kickboy Face of all damn things and the Punk fanzine he edited at called Slash. This segment gives a glimpse into the wider culture surrounding the genre, it feels like it was once a real underground music culture, percolating underneath while popular music in general took a very different direction. It’s made even better by quick interview segments with dumbfounded club owners, clearly not understanding what was going on with this music or why. There’s something extremely heartwarming about guys in their late forties talking about punk rock and just shrugging that they’ll never get it. 

Too drunk to drive, not drunk enough to perform

I know a lot has been written about punk over the years and how a pretty large contingent of insufferable fans will claim that they’re the only real or authentic music left, but I’ll be perfect honest watching this movie those pretentious people feel kind of right? I mean it’s obviously not true, genuine heartfelt music is made in every genre all the time, but if there’s anything that can be said of the bands in Part I like Germs or Fear is that they felt like actual punk bands. These people clearly could not have cared less about getting big or famous or whatever, and really I can’t help but respect that. Don’t get me wrong, I think almost all of the music in the movie is completely terrible. Germs is some of the most unlistenable garbage I’ve heard in my life, the answer to the unasked question of “What if a band’s lead singer was always completely shit faced?” As much as I liked Kickboy Face’s attitude and thought his fanzine was cool, his band Catholic Discipline sounded close to white noise to me, it was basically nothing. But damn it, I still can’t help but salute these guys for doing what they did, and maybe I needed Decline to remind me of what punk had to offer, namely an attitude and an outlook on a specific time.

The man, the myth, the Kickboy Face

Part II is subtitled ‘The Metal Years’, and was filmed several years later during the Hair Metal boom of the mid 80’s, and immediately it feels both familiar and different. Different in that the production value of the production seems greatly increased and more artificial while the overall format is about the same. Interviews with bands, footage of performances, snippets with fans. But hair Metal is inherently a different beast than punk, and as a result Part II just feels off. Whereas Part I felt real and genuine, Part II feels artificial and forced. But to be clear, that’s not me saying Part II is bad! I actually really enjoy this movie! It’s more that the film seems to thematically reflect the shift in genres. I have no idea if Spheeris intended that but if she did than she’s a damn genius, that Beverly Hillbillies movie she worked on notwithstanding. 

“The Cringe Years” would’ve also worked as a subtitle

Remember how I said the bands in Part I, even if their music was bad, felt genuine and earnest? They were genuinely frustrated at everyone and at society at large, they had something to say even if at times it felt either incoherent or pretentious. In Part II? Everyone is just the absolute worst. Everyone here is the stereotype of the clueless, braindead wannabe rock star who is only in it for women, money, and fame, and we know this because they will look dead center into the camera and tell you that. These guys just exude sleaze, they’re borderline impoverished yet act like they’re just on the cusp of turning into the next Led Zeppelin but sheer force of will. The issue with that is of course that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were geniuses, and these guys are utterly braindead.

Is there any bigger microcosm of this than the extremely gross and uncomfortable “dance competition” that gets put on? Part II has a scene where at one club women get up on stage in front of a club crowd with members of several bands sitting as judges, stripping down and dancing while they’re catcalled and heckled. In Part I, one band’s lead singer passes out drunk on stage in the middle of a show, and yet that’s nowhere near as uncomfortable and embarrassing as this whole affair. Everyone involved with it exudes sleaze and excess, and for being able to capture that this film deserves to be commended. It takes a special type of awful to be a sixty year old club owner and brag about how much you love eighteen year old girls but hey, if that doesn’t sum up how gross this entire subculture was than I don’t know what could.

Just when you thought this couldn’t get any more gross

The film follows a similar format as Part I, with interviews of band members and fans, though here they managed to get some actual big names in, such as Stephen Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, or a couple of guys from Kiss. Ozzy Osbourne, famously of Black Sabbath, and the ever dry humored Lemmy (RIP, pal) are the real stars here, if only because their interview segments are the funniest and come off also weirdly sagely. Lemmy has this appearance of being a “down to earth” hard rocker yet is entirely accepting of all the crazy antics and make up of Hair Metal, essentially just telling them good luck and more power to them for trying. Ozzy meanwhile seems to just be rambling off the cuff and it’s honesty kind of amazing to hear him go off about how awful being a rockstar is, whether that’s due to getting swindled by his manager or the crippling alcoholism it led him to.

Bless you you weird insane man

Then on the other end of the spectrum, we have the band Poison. Good lord, if there was ever a band that served as an easier proxy for Hair Metal as a genre for metal fans to sling abuse at then I don’t know what it could’ve been. Poison sounds like trash, their music is terrible, and their look is a stupid gimmick. It doesn’t help that all of them, particularly lead singer and former reality show contestant Bret Michaels, are so insanely unlikable. They’re complete tools, and feel utterly artificial. It’s made worse by the completely gross way they talk about women. One of them laughs as he recounts a story in which he was awoken by the sound of a woman screaming and banging on the door of Michaels’ room trying to get out. He thinks this is hilarious, but what the fuck am I supposed to infer from this story? This woman felt threatened by Michaels? She woke up there after having been drunk out of her mind and didn’t want to be there? What’s the joke, guy?

Maybe I was predisposed to like Part II because I went in already having a large amount of disdain for this genre. I mean, I’m not what you’d call a huge Nirvana fan but I for one will be forever grateful to Kurt Cobain for really accelerating the death of this genre. Every one of these guys acts like they’re these incredible talents on the cusp of super stardom, motivated by wanting to be wealthy and famous, meanwhile their music sounds like shit and they look like absolute morons. I mean, Germs sucked, the guys in Fear were insufferable dickbags who yelled homophobic abuse at their audience, but they never made me groan or roll my eyeballs the same way Faster Pussycat did. There was never a point as cringy and embarrassing as the scene where the members of Odin lounge around in a hot tub with several women while they profess how they’re going to be as big as The Rolling Stones despite sounding like a dying cats.

These guys actually thought they were going to make it big

This film already had a sort of subtle genius to it bis it’s tone, feeling bigger and more artificial than Part I much like Hair Metal felt compared to Punk, but it’s other genius comes from how the film ends thanks to Megadeth. Knowing what I do about the trajectory of Metal post-Hair, the way Spheeris ends Part II is a stroke of brilliance. After spending about eighty minutes chronicling the stupidly and excess of LA’s hair metal bands, Spheeris ends the film with interviews and a performance by classic thrash metal band Megadeth. In interviews shot with ominous lighting Dave Mustaine, founder of the band and lead vocalist, lays out many of the same complaints about hair metal that I have, how the music is braindead and how the culture is obsessed with partying and banging as many women as possible. The music sounds heavier, darker, more technical, the band’s attitude feels different, they don’t have a gimmicky look with makeup and assless chaps like some of the other bands in the film. It’s like Spheeris predicted the coming backlash to hair metal that bands like Megadeth would be a part of, its as if she saw the freight train that was thrash and grunge coming to wipe the hair metal scene completely off the map. Knowing what was going to happen to this music scene and watching this segment felt absolutely surreal, honestly it was just amazing to see this perfect microcosm of hair metal’s worst aspects as well as the backlash that was beginning to form. It’s like watching a documentary shot in 1978 about disco that ends showing the planning of Disco Demolition Night in Chicago.

Predicting the past’s future

Finally, Part III is even more different while feeling very similar, and that seems to have been almost by accident. It’s theoretically just an update of Part I, being about LA’s punk subculture in the late 90’s rather than the late 70’s, but the music isn’t really the focus here. Instead, Spheeris took a much more interesting route and focused on the kids who were fans of these bands, who for the most part are impoverished and homeless, living on the streets of Los Angeles and scraping together whatever money they can but recycling bottles or panhandling. Part III is, at times, gut wrenching as we see and hear how these kids are living. There’s violence with skin heads, living in condemned buildings, rampant alcoholism. This isn’t a fun film, but it is just as mesmerizing as Part I and Part II, as it is a perfect snapshot of a subculture and its zenith. 

It’s amazing how much these guys can laugh given what they say they’ve been through

There’s still a fair bit of music even if it clearly isn’t the focus anymore, though watching Part II and Part III back to back like I did will give you a feeling close to whiplash when it comes to the music. Again, I’m not going to say that I particularly like the music here. A lot of it is borderline unlistenable to me. But still, when you compare a band like Naked Aggression to Odin it’s enough to make your head spin. In Part II you have bands singing about how good they are at seducing women, in Part III you have bands making music about how the Religious Right is going to lead to women dying from back alley abortions, or about how people will be your friend but if you come out to them they’ll reveal themselves to be homophobes. It’s wild that despite gutter punk’s vulgarity and loudness, it’s incredibly progressive and has plenty of things to say that are way more specific than “I’m mad at society.” Then you’ve got the overall goal that’s different between the two genres. Hair metal was about getting famous, rich, and laid. This clearly wasn’t about that, given how openly and unapologetically abrasive it was, and just as I did with the music in Part I, I can’t help but respect it. 

But to be clear, the music and bands take a back seat to the real focus of the film, and that’s all the kids involved in the gutter punk lifestyle. It’s honestly heartbreaking, to hear the stories these kids tell. Abuse at home, alcoholism, violence. You see them panhandling on the street so they can afford beer and cigarettes and it feels crazy, made all the crazier by why it’s happening. These people were kicked out of homes and families, they were abused, and they had nowhere else to turn to but a subculture that outwardly seems destructive or violent or loud, but to them was the only accepting place they could find. It’s amazing to see and hear what they went through, and it was a fantastic tactical decision by Spheeris to shift her focus for Part III to them. I’m sure she would’ve made a fine film if she’d stuck with the same format as the previous two films, but a much more interesting and human story was with these kids, and she pursued that instead. 

Maybe punks aren’t so bad after all!

Because of its shift in focus, I’d argue Part III actually ends up being the strongest film in the trilogy. It feels much more necessary, though it doesn’t infantilize any of its subjects. At no point does it beg for you, the viewer, to come to the rescue of the gutter punks. It’s just just presenting this as a subculture that existed in a way that reminds you that these are still people who deserve a basic level of respect, and for that I applaud Part III. It never forgets that it’s subjects are human, flaws and all.

There’s a lot more to these people than just how they look and the music they like

I know that putting nearly four and a half hours into documentaries is a big ask, but if you have a chance, I highly recommend checking out all three parts of The Decline of Western Civilization. Each of them feels unique and yet they all share common DNA, they each do the thing that many of the best documentaries do, letting you as a layman take a brief dip into a world that exists that you haven’t experienced, whether that be a punk show in a dingy club or the utter stupidity of hair metal, it feels like peaking into worlds that don’t really exist anymore, at least not in the same way. All three parts are funny, cringe inducing, fascinating. They were some of the most enjoyable documentaries I’ve seen in years, as well as some of the easiest to recommend. 

The Outer Worlds

Halcyon Days

Developed By Obsidian, Played on PC

I suppose context is in order before I dive into this one.

Fallout: New Vegas is easily my favorite game of all time. I’m well aware that it’s a pretty common “gamer” take on the Fallout series to call out New Vegas as being the under appreciated gem of the series, but for me in terms of pure enjoyment, no other game comes close. It was really the first time that an open world game or a modern RPG really clicked with me, the first time that it hit me that these sorts of games exist. I’d never really experienced anything quite like it. Prior to that I’d dabbled with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion a fair bit, but there were certain design issues that held me back from seeing that as just another pretty alright game. With New Vegas however, everything clicked into place. Here was a vast world to explore, with interesting characters and stories off the beaten path. This was a game I could get lost in for hours and hours as I tried to explore every nook and cranny of the Nevada wasteland, hunting for whatever loot or bits of story I could find. It utterly blew my mind back then, and to this day it’ll always have a special place for me in terms of my own gaming experiences.

I could write ten thousand words about how much I love New Vegas

New Vegas was developed by Obsidian, a studio that has a rather odd track record of making games. They made New Vegas, a well written if technically unstable game that feels special even to this day, but still isn’t an actual sequel to the previous game series Fallout3. They also took up the task of making the sequel to the acclaimed and beloved Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and made a Knights of the Old Republic II that was well written and that I love, despite it being released in an utterly unfinished state. They’ve had their financial ups and downs over the years while making a lot of fascinating games that people care very deeply about, though often times the highest profile examples of their work were in series they didn’t control, specifically with KOTOR II and New Vegas. So when they announced a brand new RPG, an original IP they would control, I was honestly ecstatic. That game was The Outer Worlds, and it looked like a spiritual successor to my favorite game ever. While I knew it wouldn’t be quite the same as Fallout it looked to share enough of its DNA that it would scratch all the same itches. And it does, to an extent. The Outer Worlds is a game of deceptively limited scope that is extremely aware of its limitations and does its best to papery over them, often times it is very successful in tricking the player into thinking they’re playing a game as wide in scope as a modern Fallout game, when it reality it’s far far smaller. Thanks to clever writing and strong visual design, The Outer Worlds shows itself as an experience worth having, even if its flaws are glaring enough that I won’t for a second raise it up to the level of New Vegas despite the lineage of its developer.

It’s a good attempt, though. 

The game is rad, usually

The Outer Worlds begins with your character being unfrozen from inside a massive colony ship by an insane scientist and freedom fighter who wants your help against the tyrannical Board, a corporate conglomerate that dominates the colonies in a far-off solar system with a corporatist iron fist. But that’s just the backdrop of this whole affair, fairly quickly the game basically send you out into the space wilderness, it’s up to you to shoot, talk, steal, hack, and cheat your way across the solar system, amassing a crew of companions as you see weird places and meet interesting people. This is pretty standard, space RPG stuff. If you’ve played Mass Effect or KOTOR this will all seem rather familiar to you. But just because the structure of this game isn’t totally original doesn’t mean that there’s nothing of value here. There’s a lot of really cool stuff to discover and stumble upon in The Outer Worlds, and it’s those discoveries and the people surrounding them that really show the game at its best.

The Outer Worlds is full of interesting stories and well defined characters. Across numerous planets you’ll get involved in any number of capers as you inject yourself in political disputes and squabbles, and your choices have a direct impact on your surroundings. Do you transfer power to the rebel settlement and doom the corporate one to potential starvation, or do you side with the Corp and keep everyone alive but in bondage? Do you try to be altruistic and help others or are you in it for yourself? Do you take on the contract to kill a scientist, or do you spare their lives after hearing their side of the story? As you explore these stories and make these decisions, you’ll see more and more of the worlds in the colony, and you’ll learn about the insane corporate dystopia that all of these humans are forced to be a part of. The strong satirical elements that exist here are where the game most feels like a spiritual successor to Fallout than anything else. 50’s retro futuristic, golden age Americana that never truly existed  was to that series what 50’s retro futuristic, corporate nightmare is to The Outer Worlds. 

There’s a lot of visually interesting places to see

The characters are really where the writing shines through however, primarily with the various companion characters. Honestly, these were the stories and dialogue that most captivated me across my play through. Characters like the completely adorable Parvati, a socially awkward genius mechanic, or Ellie, a hard drinking and violent former surgeon with a chip on her shoulder, those were the ones I had the most interest in with this game and made me want to keep going forward. Some of the companions were more interesting with deeper stories than others, I mean one of them is literally a robot janitor who speaks only ad copy so that kind of goes without saying, but beyond them the game had interesting people lurking behind almost every corner. The Outer Worlds feels stuffed with interesting people, and meeting with and interacting with them is easily this game’s strongest aspect.

This is Parvati, and she’s adorable, you’ll love her

Writing is only one part of a video game, however. Out of the gate, it should be clear that this game is an RPG first and a shooter second, as a result the game’s combat is easily it’s worst aspect. The game that it feels closest to is, appropriately, Fallout 4, though the Fallout series’ time freezing VATS mechanic is gone, instead replaced by a general time slowing mechanic that operates on a similar meter. I’ve seen writers praise this as being an improvement over VATS but I have to strongly disagree. Fallout’s VATS, due to how it paused the combat and allowed you to target individual body parts, felt like a mechanic from an RPG rather than just another shooter, it felt tactical. The lineage to the old turn based Fallout games was obvious. The time dilation mechanic in The Outer Worlds just feels like yet another game with a slow mo meter, and it’s a poor implementation of it at that. F.E.A.R. was a game that was completely built around this sort of slow mo mechanic and as a shooter felt far superior, using the slow motion ability to add to the spectacle and strategy of combat, whereas the gunplay in The Outer Worlds feels clunky and slow mo just feels like a way to aim at a target a little easier, it doesn’t feel essential in the same way VATS does in Fallout or bullet time in F.E.A.R., and as a result I often went long periods of time without ever using it. 

There’s basically no reason to include straight up slow mo in another game while F.E.A.R. and Max Payne still exist

The clunky combat plays into what turned into an issue that by the end of the game felt ludicrous, namely how hilariously easy this game is. By the end of my playthrough I was Death incarnate, walking around late game areas like the Terminator, no one able to even slow me down as I just ground up an entire corporate army without breaking a sweat. In the very early game, every encounter felt tense, I was barely surviving and had to crank down the difficulty to get through a couple encounters, but once I hit about level fourteen combat became trivial. I didn’t die once in my last ten hours, everyone basically crumpled to dust around me. And it’s not as if I was actively trying to break the game ether. My highest combat skill was in the mid 60’s, and yet no one could stop me. I had a melee combat skill under thirty and yet I was killing late game enemies in two hits with a plasma blade I took off a dead marauder. Not even like a special unique weapon, just one I found on a dead guy. I finished the game with literally hundreds of healing items and nearly six thousand rounds of ammunition, at no point did I even feel tense or worried that I might not be able to just shoot my way out of a situation or through some group of enemies. Near the end of the game, that realization that I was a walking death machine hit me, and suddenly I questioned why I should even bother sneaking or talking my way around the game’s final areas. So I didn’t, I went on an absolute rampage and wiped out dozens of security personnel like it was nothing. If you do decide to play The Outer Worlds, you must play it in a harder difficulty setting unless you want the game to become pitifully simple. Point gun, press fire, watch enemies drop like flies. That’s it.

Nothing has a chance against you rather quickly

There’s a precedent for this in the genre, to be sure. When it comes to the power ramp in most RPGs, generally it follows a similar path. You start out a game a weakling who struggles to deal with things like rats while doing simple errands, and then thirty hours later you’ve become an unkillable demigod out to save the universe by killing the equivalent of Satan. And yet in most RPGs, you still feel challenged. You still have to think in combat, managing your abilities and resources. When I played KOTOR or Skyrim, in the later game I felt like I still needed to think and plan out in order to handle the more difficult fights. The Outer Worlds has none of this, you just point and shoot and eventually you’ll be done with the encounter, rinse and repeat, you’re character is just that broken. And hey, having a broken character can be fun! I’ve modded Fallout: New Vegas on my most recent playthrough in order to make my character as broken as possible. But I had to actively seek out mods to do that. Here? Just by playing the game I’ve ruined its combat, which if I’m honest is what you spend most of this game engaging with. The writing is so fantastic in so many places, but that’s not what you spend most of your time with.

Perks are one aspect that The Outer Worlds shares with its Fallout progenitors. As with most RPGs, you level up when you gain enough experience points from killing enemies or completing quests, and can then spend skill points to upgrade your various skills such as handguns, hacking, persuasion, and others. Every other level, you also unlock a perk point which you can spend to gain a bonus skill or modifier. I like this system in theory, as this was well done in Fallout, however here the perk system just isn’t very interesting. None of the perks you get are particularly unique, mostly they’re just basic percentage bonuses. Do more damage when low on health, carry more stuff, increase movement speed. That’s not to say these can’t be useful, but compare them to some of the wild stuff perks let you do in Fallout. Become a cannibal! Have a random chance that a mysterious stranger appears and one hit kills your opponent! Get bonus flirty dialogue with folks of the opposite sex, or perhaps of your own! Sure, there were perks that amounted to nothing more than stat increases, but some of them got extremely creative. In The Outer Worlds, things feel a lot less crazy and more boilerplate. It’s just plus 15% on this stat, plus 10 on another. Several of them are also bonuses for playing without anyone in your party, but why on Earth would you want to play that way? Why would you want to play a game that is at its best when its about its characters without its characters around most of the time? 

Really, do you want the game to have a perk that gives you an extra 15% damage, or one that gives you an extra 15% damage AND randomly makes enemies explode? Sadly The Outer Worlds is the former

The perk system has an extra wrinkle to it that Fallout lacked. Over the course of the game, certain situations can crop up where the game will present you with flaws, which you can choose to accept or decline. These are essentially negative perks, take too much plasma damage and the game will give you the option of taking extra plasma damage from then on. Fall off too many ledges and you’ll be given the option to be permanently crippled. In exchange for taking on these flaws you’ll be presented with an extra perk point to make up for it. I like this idea a lot in theory, but as I’ve already argued the perk system was really weak to begin with. Over the course of the game I only took on flaws twice, in both cases it was to take extra elemental damage, which in the end didn’t matter because nothing was doing any real damage to me at all. The trade off just isn’t worth it when the perks are so boring, and in one instance where the flaw I was presented with was a permanent stat decrease to all of my character attributes, I was dumbfounded that the game even presented me the option. There is not one perk that would’ve made up for this given the numerous speech options that are dependent on your attributes. Hell, that flaw could’ve given me three perk points and it wouldn’t have been worth taking on. It’s a cool spin on the perk system that could have made the game more unique, but I largely ignored it because of how boring the perks are, and that’s a shame. I like the idea of my character being extremely weird, with glaring flaws while also having weird abilities, but The Outer Worlds’ character progression just isn’t built for that. You are meant to steadily become an unkillable monster, at no point can you introduce any real twists or turns to that ramp.

It really is a shame how uninteresting the combat is, because the story and world of this game are so cool. It’s a real treat to explore the solar system, playing as a wise talking, Han Solo type smuggler with a badass crew of misfits, bumbling into fights and situations we had no part of. Multiple times I pulled a “Han shot first” in ways that honestly felt natural, it felt like roleplaying a character rather than just trying to force myself through to the next section. If you like playing RPGs like that then The Outer Worlds will lend itself to that style very easily, and as someone who likes to roleplay New Vegas as a charismatic alcoholic gunslinger who needs glasses, it’s always nice to play games that have that capacity. Just be aware that towards the end of the game when you’re turned into Gozer The Destructor and are just raining death on anything that even looks at you funny, the temptation to just shoot your way through to the end will get rather strong. 

It’s easy to like a game about being cowboys in space

I’ve got to say, even if my interest really started to wane over the final few hours, this game does give a really strong impression. The opening hours are just masterfully designed, as you’re quickly on boarded into this universe, presented with unique NPCs, interesting locations, and a couple of the better companion characters within the first few hours. The game hooked me quickly, and it felt immediately fresh even if it was familiar in a lot of ways. If those first few hours can click with you, you should be in for a treat the rest of the way.

I can’t emphasize enough how many cool areas to explore there are in this game

The visual design is one aspect where I have no complaints. While this game isn’t going to be the most graphically impressive game from a technical level, visually it still looks great. The game absolutely pops with color, and the creature designs manage to balance out looking both like some monster out of old sci fi movies while actually looking like a plausibly real space monster. Further, the art design relating to the artificial elements of the universe is also fantastic, with this retro futuristic style that also balances out 50’s sci-fi aesthetics with realism, while many areas are also infused with a heavy western flavor to them. The game brings together so many disparate influences and still builds a cohesive visually style that adds to what a delight the world is to explore, as I was always curious to see what place rfwas around the corner.

I know I’ve spent a lot of time here complaining about various aspects of the game, but I really want to be clear that I think The Outer Worlds is a cool game, and that more people should play it! Really it’s because the game is on the cusp of being great that I’ve harped on its negatives. But really, I wasn’t expecting this to be a masterpiece, a landmark RPG that would usurp New Vegas as my favorite game. The Outer Worlds was made on a limited budget by a studio going through a transitional period, as it was in the process of being purchased by Microsoft. So frankly, even if I am a little disappointed, this is about as good as this game could have turned out. And really, the best parts of this game are truly excellent. This game has some of the best writing in any game I’ve played this year, save for Control. It managed to tell an interesting if at times familiar story that also provided a fantastic framework for the player to explore these worlds and build up their own character. You’ll make choices, meet interesting people, affect their environment, and explore cool places, all the hallmarks of a solid RPG. 

Ah, well, thanks for letting me know

Obsidian is probably going to have much bigger spotlight on it going into the future as it goes from being a mid tier developer that made some cult classics and well liked sequels to a first party Microsoft studio making much larger and higher budget games. If that is the case, I for one am extremely excited for The Outer Worlds 2, assuming its does go forward, which given the critical and commercial praise this game has received I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest. The Outer Worlds is a good first step, there’s a lot of greatness here that unfortunately is bogged down by several undercooked systems, a limited scope due to a limited budget, and poor combat. But if these issues could be ironed out, I think this franchise has the potential to become truly special. 

Mothra vs Godzilla

Listen To The Fairy People

Directed by Ishirō Honda, Written by Shinichi Sekizawa

Ah, it’s been too long. Here I am, after a month of watching such garbage as the new Terminator movie no one saw as well as several CW DC Comics TV shows that are probably driving me to an early grave, I am back in Godzilla’s warm, scaly and radioactive embrace. It’s been a minute, hasn’t it my old friend? I’m sorry I took so long to find my way back to you.

Missed ya, bud

This was a big one, or at least it felt like it should be. For a while now I’ve known how apparently Mothra is one of “the good monsters” of this universe. She’s one of the ones that fights for humanity against the even worse monsters out there alongside Godzilla in future films, we most recently saw this in this year’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the less said about that trash heap the better. Mothra is one of the ones people know about, it’s pretty reasonable for you to have never seen one of these movies and yet still have heard of Mothra, that was where I was at before I started this whole project. So I had high expectations, there must be a reason why Mothra had bled over into the culture at large.

Tell me your secrets, Mothra

Mothra vs Godzilla is a weird movie. It’s about a pair of fairies arriving in Japan to try and rescue a giant egg that a corporation is building a theme park around, and then a giant atomic lizard shows up and fights a moth the size of a C-130. That’s a real plot line to an actual film in a beloved franchise that you can easily watch. Is it a very good film? No, I wouldn’t say so, but it held my attention the whole way through, and given some of the trash monster movies I’ve seen over the years that’s kind of an achievement unto itself. And hey, the Pacific Islanders in this movie isn’t as horribly racist as the last one, so you know what I’m calling this thing on the whole a win! 

I might as well start with the cast of human characters, because you aren’t even going to be sniffing a real monster in this until like forty five minutes into this movie. Whereas last time it was a bunch of employees of a marketing agency sent to capture King Kong to be an ad spokesman (movies are weird!), this time it’s primarily focused on a group of journalists in the aftermath of a huge tidal wave hitting a seaside industrial area, who then stumble upon a giant radioactive lizard scale and as a result get swept up into the entire conflict. These folks are passable, in that none of them stick out as being actively annoying, but the film makes it blatantly clear that they aren’t the focus of the film. There’s also a pair of investors, who when a massive egg washes up on shore, decide to build a theme park around it. Which, I’m going to be honest, seems like a poor plan! “Honey, let’s take the kids to see the Giant Egg!” doesn’t sound like much of a market, this is not the start of a solid business plan. These characters transparently only exist so that the audience can cheer when they get stomped by a monster at some point, and as much I love seeing the filthy capitalist class get what’s coming to them at the hands of a radioactive lizard monster, this is pretty dull and predictable. As soon as they start talking about how much yen they’re going to make, you know they’re living on borrowed time.

More actors in the long Godzilla acting tradition of “basically fine”

You won’t remember any of these people though, because I promise that the only characters with spoken dialogue you will remember until the day you die are the two tiny fairy people from a far off island who speak and sing in unison who have come to rescue Mothra’s egg. Again, this is a strange film! The two of them run around begging some of the normal sized people to help save the egg, and we have scenes of hijinks involving people trying to capture them and them sneaking away. A couple of the composite shots that insert them into scenes with larger sized people actually look pretty good all things considered, though others don’t fair so well. But again, did I mention that there are tiny twin fairies in this movie? Because I’ll be honest, really not what I expected!

excuse me what

But you’re not here to talk about weird mini fairies. The title of the movie isn’t Mothra vs Fairies after all. Eventually, the main man himself rises out of the very Earth, apparently having been buried alive under the beach since the end of King Kong vs Godzilla, and begins to go on a rampage. As he does. Four movies in and I’m honestly still waiting for the turn to happen with Godzilla where he becomes a sort of heroic character, because four movies in this guy is still knocking over model buildings left and right like he just doesn’t give a shit. Here, Mothra is definitively the good guy, who gets brought in in a desperate attempt to slow down Godzilla because once again the Japanese Defense Force just can’t tangle with the King of the Monsters, remote control model tanks notwithstanding. The fight here is kind of odd and over really quick, but then again that’s understandable, I imagine it’s probably pretty hard to figure out a fight scene between a giant lizard and a giant moth given the technical limitations of the era.

They did their best

But then after a couple blasts of Zilla’s atomic breath, Mothra just kind of dies? I guess that’s a spoiler but the movie is fifty five years old, what do you want? I don’t think you can get upset about spoilers for a movie released before the Civil Rights Act was passed, but I digress. Mothra however does have a big huge egg waiting, and that sucker has got to hatch eventually, theme park plans be damned. And so we get to see two cute and cuddly worms slither out to go do battle with Godzilla. Did I say cuddly? Because these things are just awful to look at, good lord I want nothing to do with this.

Uhhhhh no thank you

They then spend the final ten minutes of the movie shooting white webs all over Godzilla, in the grand tradition of overlong climaxes in this series this is certainly one of them, but hey, eventually things get wrapped up, and our heroic worms sail off into the seas to return home, whole we the audience know that some web aren’t going to keep Godzilla down for long, one day we know he’ll return.

I’m pretty sure that I made a mistake here. Recently, I’ve been going off of the list of Godzilla films on the main Wikipedia article, completely unaware that Mothra had actually already been introduced in a solo flick. Take that, Marvel Cinematic Universe, someone was doing these overly complicated cinematic universes fifty years before you! In all seriousness, in hindsight I clearly approached this the wrong way, had I actually watched the movie that introduced Mothra into this series rather than the vs film that this was I could have gotten a fair bit better context then being thrown into it like this. I’ll certainly be making an effort to do so in the future, lest I have to spend another one of these movies spending most of the runtime just really confused. Maybe that Mothra solo pic better explains the origin of those tiny fairy people, I need to look into this more. 

Didn’t realize how deep the lore was in this universe

But hey, at least the nuclear weapons commentary is actually back this time around. We’ve got a guy waving a Geiger counter around and everything! There’s a sequence where our intrepid reporter heroes go to the island where Mothra originated to try and enlist her help against Godzilla, and as they arrive on the island they find it completely burned out. Everything is ash, bones of animals liter the shore. I mean, obviously it’s very clearly a set with fake bones everywhere, but I still liked the imagery and what the film was going for. It made far more of an effort to actually have something to say than ether Raids Again or King Kong vs Godzilla did. 

In summation, Mothra vs Godzilla is just fine. I don’t hate it by any means, but it’s really not all that much to get excited about. It’s passable, nothing more nothing less. There are some cool moments, and some absolutely bizarre bits in here. It’s a movie that feels like just another entry in the Godzilla canon, and I can already tell that it’s going to be one that I struggle to remember. There are far worse ways to spend eighty minutes, but I’m not about to go around raving about this one. It’s utterly skippable, but you may find a bit more to it if you do decide to stick around. In essence, depending on who you are, results may vary. 

Jurassic World Evolution

Well, there it is

Developed by Frontier Developments, played on PC

With the advent of mobile gaming, the movie licensed tie in game has become a rare breed indeed. Why put the budget and resources into producing a $60 boxed game that’s going to get absolutely shredded by reviewers when you can instead outsource something to a small indie developer who will make a cheap knockoff of some other free to play phone games? You’re likely going to have the same advertising effect without the sunk costs associated. So when these games to squeak out, they do seem more like an oddity, a relic of a previous era in gaming. Sometimes as of late, they can actually turn out quite well! Mad Max, Ghostbusters: The Video Game, actually pretty solid titles! We’re well beyond the Battleship: The Movie: The Games of the world. Lately, developers have gotten much better and infusing some of the charm and character of films into the games based on them, but unfortunately it’s not always without hiccups.

I want to like Jurassic World: Evolution, and for the first twenty or so hours I really did! The game at times managed to capture the exact sense of wonder that the early, pre-chaos moments of these films, where you can sit back and marvel at Dinosaurs roaming around. But unfortunately, that feeling is soon replaced with frustration, as teedum at bad design choices squander any potential the game had.

Majestic

JWE is a theme park building game from Frontier, a developer who has established itself as the undisputed king of theme park simulators, especially with Planet Coaster, as well as the newly released and so far well received Planet Zoo. So they’re really the obvious choice to give the property to and ask them to make a game where you build your own Jurassic Park. JW:E has you building facilities, amenities, attractions, and most importantly dinosaur enclosures across the various islands around the original Jurassic Park Island. You have to balance various resources such as money, power, and most frustratingly physical space, in order to create a Park that is both safe and profitable with a wide array of dinosaurs. The issues with the early game as you work with a limited number of dinosaurs and resources don’t feel especially restrictive, but eventually it turns into a death by a thousand cuts, as small issues pile on top of each other, one after the other. 

If you approach this game expecting a big, open sandbox to get creative and build the wildest Jurassic Park of your dreams, then you should know upfront that this is not that sort of game. JWE’s creation tools are extremely limited, there’s almost zero room for customization. Further, actually building your park is one of the biggest hassles in the game. It’s often difficult to even tell how level the terrain is, making the task of place buildings and walls. Inexplicably this game also launched without any terrain modification tools, so even if it’s awkward and frustrating to work around, know that it’s far better than it used to be. But terrain issues aren’t what is really constrictive right creativity, it’s the map design. Almost every island feels incredibly cramped, with irregularly shaped areas that make placing buildings and fences incredibly difficult once you have a few exhibits going. The only real resource that you have to desperately horde is land, you’re always running out of space and need to be as efficient as hell to place buildings and exhibits without quickly running out of space.

There’s never enough space to do what you want

But say you do manage to get some fences up and some generators going and start hatching dinosaurs, and it’s here that the game really feels great. I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve been fascinated by dinosaurs ever since I was a kid, and even still is for me as an adult, it’s one of my favorite subjects to read about still. Ask me about “shrink wrapping” in dinosaur reconstruction and I’ll be able to go on for a good twenty minutes on my thoughts about it. So perhaps not everyone will be able to get the same mileage out of hatching and unlocking species of dinosaurs, but for me it was absolutely addicting. Imagine that scene from the first Jurassic Park movie where Saddler and Grant see a Brachiosaurus for the first time. The John Williams score swells, Grant basically keels over from the excitement, there’s a sense of wonder there that is seldom matched elsewhere in film. That’s the same feeling I had when I started hatching herds of triceratops and diplodocuses, whenever I’d hatch some new species I’d unlocked I was grinning ear to ear. Different species have different requirements, some might be solitary while others require larger herds. Some might need more trees while others need wide open spaces. You need to learn what your dinosaurs do and don’t need, and this is where the park management aspect seems most well developed, balancing the needs of various dinos while being aware of space and visibility.

The best moments feel exactly like this scene

The sound and visual design perfectly augments that feeling. Zooming the camera in close to see someone of the best looking dinosaurs I’ve seen in video games, and watching as they interact with each other, is probably one of the best parts of the game. They’ll fight, move around together in packs, there’s a great spectator aspect to making a wide variety of dinosaurs across your parks. It’s a shame unlocking new dinosaurs is such a hassle. New species can sometimes be unlocked via research, and then in turn must have their fossils excavated via expeditions to dig sites. It feels like a mechanic ripped from a mobile game and servers to only drag our unlocking the cooler and more exotic dinosaurs. 

There’s a challenge to this game that can feel both rewarding and frustrating. Some species, as you might expect if you’ve seen the films are some of the most dastardly, and unless you keep them completely docile they will jump at any chance to ruin your park guest’s day by staging a breakout. Managing enclosures in a way that keeps them happy, and quickly responding to a fence breach feels good, like you’re the guy who could’ve made the first park work in the first film. But often times it feels like you don’t have enough time or warning for when one of these might happen. You might misremember how many dinosaurs a species can handle being around or make an enclosure a little too small. The only warning you’ll get is the sound of the dinosaur literally banging its head against the wall, and at that point you might as well just build a second layer of fencing because there’s usually zero chance you’ll be able to solve the issue and calm the animal down before it busts a hole in the fence. 

The game can also throw momentary spikes of difficulty at you in various ways. Chief among them is the poor weather, with tropical storms forcing you to send all your guests to shelters and causing many species of dinosaurs to lose their damn minds. These don’t pop up without warning, but it’s incredibly annoying to be trying to place an exhibit or manage dinosaurs only to get a notification that Tropical Storm Sally is on its way to ruin your day. One of the most baffling versions of these spikes however comes from the game’s reputation system, but in order to discuss that I need to delve into the game’s story. 

Now that might be shocking to you, most management sims don’t really bother with story elements, but this is a movie tie in game after all. Then again, a Jurassic World game seems like a weird place to have that at all, given that the franchise’s story and writing has been a very low priority with the focus being on big dinosaur spectacle.For the most part, the game’s story consists of dialogue among the heads of three different departments, as well as Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum returns as Ian Malcom, and his role mostly consists of scratching his head at the player, wondering aloud how anyone could be dumb enough to try and make Jurassic Park a thing again given what’s already happened. Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt’s characters also appear, but their comments are much broader and more generic tips and advice. I’ll at least give Goldblum and Howard credit for returning to voice their characters, I imagine Pratt was busy doing Guardians of the Galaxy nonsense and couldn’t come in that day, but hey, they got Goldblum so I’m not really bothered by that.

Thanks for stopping by, Jeff!

The other characters are heads of your various departments, and they’ll be the ones giving you objectives over the course of the game. Research, security, and publicity are all represented by lovely stock photos of people and are here to help you rebuild the park, but all of them have different priorities and different ideas of how to rebuild. For the most part these objectives feel pretty tedious and frustrating. Have one of this dinosaur fight another, have no power failures for ten minutes, make this much money, etc. None of it is fun to accomplish, and much of it feels like it actively gets in the way of building your parks how you might want. On one map in particular I had to set aside an entire exhibit just to ferry different dinosaurs to because the publicity guy wanted me to stage dino fights. I’m sure, are you insane? In game these dinosaurs costs millions! Why would anyone risk assets like that just to get images of them fighting? 

Imagine setting millions of dollars on fire for five imagines taken by a zookeeper

But you have to do this nonsense because that’s how you unlock some of the dinosaur species, in other words you have to put up with one of the worst aspects of the game to continue doing the fun stuff. But it’s not just that the objectives themselves have a catch, namely that everyone is a whiny little punk who can’t handle people other than them getting attention. You see, all three divisions have a reputation system. Do a mission for one and your rep will go up with them, while it goes down for others. The higher the rep, the more you unlock. The issue with this is that if your rep tanks with one division, they’ll start actively sabotaging your park. This occurs most commonly by the angry division *opening all the fencing in the park.* Like holy shit, the security guys will get so mad at me for paying too much attention to the marketing department that they’re willing to kill potentially hundreds of guests! Everyone has bosses they disagree with, I certainly have on occasion, but my god never would I resort of active sabotage! Like I can’t imagine getting so mad at my boss that I would let a child be ripped to shreds by violent, hungry carnivores. It’s like a zookeeper throwing a tourist into the alligator enclosure during feeding time because they’re mad that the security team’s priorities were emphasized that month. It’s just a stupid way to make the game more frustrating, but I just brute forced my way past it to try and unlock more dinosaurs.

This man died because someone’s marketing proposal was denied

Managing your dinosaurs is a pain in the ass too, thanks to an absolutely baffling user interface. For example, you can’t just click on a ranger team and then click on a dino to feed them. No, you have to go to an ‘add task’ button in the UI, this making literally every task slightly more cumbersome and annoying, which can be a real pain in the ass when your carnivore sector is having a mass break out and you’re trying to mop it up. This isn’t a huge deal, but it’s a great example of how half baked the park management side of things is. Guest feedback is nonexistent, it’s difficult to gauge interest in different food and entertainment buildings. Getting parks up to a perfect five star rating sometimes feels impossible, it’s hard to gauge where a park is deficient or could be improved, and the absolute premium on space makes this all the harder. If you’re taking up space with gift shops, that’s less space for power generators and exhibits. 

And that really sums up Jurassic World Evolution. There are moments that feel absolutely wonderful, that really capture some of what makes people love dinosaurs so much. Hatching that first T-Rex, seeing huge long necked dinosaurs pop out of forests and look over fences, watching two Carnotaurs snip at each other. But for every great moment like that, there’s ten or eleven you spend fighting the user interface, doing some awful tedious “mission”, dealing with hurricanes, or chasing down dinos that have escaped because some nerd in research is having a temper tantrum. I spend a good thirty hours with JWE but I was only driven forward by wanting to see some of the dinosaur species I could eventually unlock, the last few hours mainly consisted of waiting for timers to finish and driving one of the ranger jeeps around to get some achievements. I had zero desire to keep going, and given that most simulation games like this have long life spans and are meant to be creative, that’s all the evidence I need to call this a misfire. If you really like dinosaurs or want to hear Jeff Golbum tell you to not clone another Velociraptor then this is the game for you, but if you actually want a deep park simulator with good building tools there are far better options out there.

At least you can try to clone the same dinosaurs that ruined the parks in the movies?

Midway (2019)

Do Better

Directed by Roland Emmerich, Written by Wes Tooke

This Veteran’s Day, I’m going to ask you to do yourself a favor and not head down to your local cinema to watch Roland Emmerich’s latest overlong, dull, poorly acted CGI driven schlockfest, one that enters the canon of World War II films pretty close to the bottom of the pile. Frankly, given the films that have been made about this conflict in the past, the bar has just been set so high that if you don’t clear it, you’re wasting everyone’s time. Midway is one of the dullest war movies I’ve ever seen, and deserves to be forgotten as soon as it comes to an end.

Think of the great WW2 films out there. Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Longest Day, The Great Escape. Some of the greatest films ever made, but Midway doesn’t even breath the same air as any of those. It does feel just like Emmerich’s previous films. Stargate, Godzilla, Independence Day. These are not films that inspire confidence! And it’s wild at times how much Midway can feel like them in the “incredibly loud and dumb” department. By the nature of the conflict at hand we never reach the level of abject stupidly that Independence Day did, but the shared DNA is obvious, if only because of the endless array of cliches they all manages to share. You’ve got your cocky hotshot pilot (The Captain is the aircraft carrier might as well have shook his fist and yelled “Maverick!” during one bit at the opening, the cliche was so overwhelming), you’ve got your gruff straight laced superior officer he doesn’t get along with. You’ve got heroic melodramatic sacrifices as men make valiant last heroic stands. You’ve got shots of upset wives intercut with fighters and bombers crashing. You’ve got superfluous subplots that only exists to get audience cheers, and you’ve got terrible and uninteresting performances almost across the board.

But it’s got a Jonas Brother at least?

Which, hey, that’s not a huge deal. Dumb movies get made all the time, but the fact that this movie is getting released on Veteran’s Day weekend and is playing up the “support our Vets, remember the fallen” angle means that I just am going to expect a hell of a lot more from it. I don’t mean to beat this drum over and over, but Saving Private Ryan exists. This genre of war film has hit such heights that to see a movie this dull and boring feels like an insult, and the fact it depicts real people and real events doesn’t make it immune, especially when movies made about fictional people caught in this conflict often feel so much more poignant. 

This one scene in Saving Private Ryan has more to say about war and about heroism than the entirety of Midway

So, the movie. It chronicles the events from Pearl Harbor leading up to the titular battle of Midway through the eyes of badly acted paper thin cutouts who are supposed to represent real people involved in the events of the day, primarily centered around the men stationed aboard the USS Enterprise. We get a lot of middling to bad CGI, a lot of explosions, a lot of scenes to show off the stereotypical warrior aesthetic the Japanese military had during the war, and we get a lot of bad actors failing to overcome crippling accents. Ed Skrein plays Dick Best, and I bet you can see this coming from a mile away, but good god he’s the worst thing in this damn movie. I have no idea what Best was like in real life, but here he’s every hot shot pilot with a chip on his shoulder that you’ve seen in any war movie ever. I swear, if I see one more movie where a snarky guy yells at an authority figure about how the military thing he knows is wrong I’m going to have a panic attack in the theater. Please let this cliche die, or at least not be so transparently obvious. This badly written character is made all the worse thanks to one particular choice. Skrein is British, so of course the movie saddles him with an absolutely wretched eastern US accent that he can clearly never master. He sounds like a character from an SNL sketch, impossible to take seriously, a parody of a war movie character. And he’s the lead! The movie is mostly from his perspective! To make matters worse, he’s not the only one saddled with bad accents, most of the cast is in on that party. Dennis Quaid plays Captain Gruff McGruffman, whose role in the film is to choke out his lines like he’s Clint Eastwood seconds before death, and meanwhile the Nazi double agent from Man In The High Castle has one of the worst southern accents I’ve ever heard put to film, it’s “Manos”: The Hands of Fate levels of bad fake southern accent.

This guy is terrible

At least Patrick Wilson and Woody Harrleson come out unscthathed, without having been saddled with hilarious bad accents. Their subplot consists of them being unsure if they’re right about Japanese intel until they are, and as a result this is largely just boring. You can make the intelligence aspect of World War II stories interesting, The Imitation Game did that, but here it’s just guys shuffling or running around rooms until they figure things out. But that film was built on far better performances and was crafted by a far superior filmmaker, allowing the tension of those moments to shine through. It was a film that had things to say beyond “Ain’t America grand?”

Pictured: Wilson looking amazed to learn that the WW2 movie he’s in is far dumber than Aquaman was

But hey, at least you’ve got cool WW2 sea battles right? Well, not particularly. The action in this movie is so weightless and lifeless, it never feels like there’s any real stakes. The characters are so paper thin so that there’s no real tension to the battles, most of which seem to be summed up as “oh the Americans *just barely missed*! Whatever will happen next!” They pull that gag of a torpedo or bomb just barely missing a target at the very last second at least a half dozen times, and each time it’s so obviously telegraphed as to feel insulting, the tension these moments try to build just never materializes. Compare Midway to something like Fury, a film that is tense, dark, well acted. The battles in Midway wish they had any of tension and thrill of the one on one tank duel in Fury.

The most baffling aspect of this film comes with one subplot in particular. The film’s story isn’t really much, it just is a sequence of events between Pearl Harbor and Midway, that’s it. But at one point, the movie brings in Aaron Eckhart as Col Doolittle of Doolittle’s Raiders to go off and bomb Japan. How does this affect the rest of the plot? Not in the slightest! But it’s a ten minute diversion that seems to only exist to to have scenes set in China and show the Japanese indiscriminately strafing Chinese civilians. It’s bizarre, like the theater just flipped over to another movie. Doolittle’s Raiders and the American air war in China is one of those lesser known stories of World War II, one that would be well suited to its own movie that tells the whole story, but here it seems utterly out of place. Eckhart doesn’t even share a single scene with any of the other principal cast, so why is this even here? Could it be that the Chinese production company that put up some of the money for this film wanted a scene that showed the great courage and dedication of the Chinese people during the war despite Midway not being a story about China? Feels pretty plausible to me. People have complained about single characters in movies like Kong: Skull Island obviously only being included just to please Chinese audiences, but this is just egregious. It stands out as even more odd, considering that the dedication at the end of the film is to both the American and Japanese sailors and airmen at Midway. Wait, the film is dedicated to the side that it depicted as stacking bodies of civilians six feet high and killing 250,000 of them? What?

Nice of Aaron to drop by and tease the rest of the Midway Cinematic Universe

The fact of the matter is that war movies have matured so much over the years beyond basic spectacle and shallow patriotism. In real life did the men who died at Midway do something good? Yes, I’d easily say so. As a result they deserved a far better film from a far better filmmaker. Roland Emmerich was the absolute worst choice to do a movie about these events, it’s absolutely incredible how he has not grown as a filmmaker in the slightest over the years. The same stupid nonsense he was doing in the early 90’s is still here. He’s really just never grown beyond Independence Day, a film that has nearly identical dumb loud nonsense and sugar coated faux patriotism. Midway is just another in a long string of dumb, empty films made by a bad director, to call it anything else because it depicts real people who served is frankly gross and disrespectful. I’m not going to grade this on a curve because if that, nor should anyone. The memories of those who were actually involved with these events deserve better than a film this stupid and this loud.

Terminator: Dark Fate

Chill Out, Dickwad

Directed by Tim Miller, Written by literally six different people

This one hurts.

Sometimes when a movie in a long running franchise bombs or gets shredded by critics, I love to go sit and gawk at its collapse. I have this morbid fascination with seeing franchises fail to justify their continued existence. I saw Pacific Rim 2 in the theaters, that’s how bad this fascination is sometimes. It’s a bizarre and morbid habit of mine, to tangle with so many terrible films that have bombed. It’s like poking at a jellyfish that washed up on shore with a stick, me the curious child wondering how something came to be, except instead of a dead Man O’ War, it’s a failed Hellboy reboot, and I’m gleefully picking at its scabs and poking the scars as another long running film franchise crashes and burns. I don’t often hope for film reboots to fail, but when they do I can’t help but give them a look, if only for the laughs.

But this time? With Terminator: Dark Fate? This isn’t fun. This isn’t me pointing and laughing because a studio failed to bring back the Power Rangers franchise into cinemas. So the ironic component is out. Then again, this isn’t me coming on here and pretending to really love the beloved Terminator franchise, because that’s just not true. I like a couple of these movies and dislike a couple, but I’m not insanely into them, even if I think the first two are very good movies. But I have seen them all, and I figured that I might as well come along for the ride and see this for myself, given that it’s utter failure at the box office means it may very well be the last Terminator movie for some time.

He’s back, for the third and probably last time

And this isn’t the sort of bad franchise movie that’s easy to mock or make fun of. No, I’m mad because this movie could have been pretty fun. What starts out as a strong new direction for the series instead gets bogged down in inane nonsense, once again unable to escape the series’ past. The exact same pitfalls that turned Terminator: Genisys into a mess of muddled continuity and bad ideas claim another victim, as I’m left wondering what this movie could’ve been. I’m more upset about the movie we didn’t get then the one we did. 

Terminator: Dark Fate is now the third direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, as the franchise once again tries to soft-reboot away from a failed attempt at expanding out the franchise based off of the second film’s ending being undone. In Mexico City, a woman named Dani is attacked at her job by a robotic assassin called a REV-9 sent from the future, only to be saved by a cybernetic super soldier also sent from the future. On the run, they cross paths with original franchise target Sarah Connor, and have to work together to figure out a way to defeat the robot and save the future.

Meet the newbies

What makes this film so damn frustrating is that the first twenty five or so minutes are honestly kind of great? Delete the “epilogue” to T2 that opens the film and you have the foundation for what could have been a solid start to a hard reboot to the franchise. The new characters introduced in this section, Grace, Dani, and the REV-9 where honesty the best parts of the film. Grace herself specifically is the single best thing in the entire movie. The idea of cybernetically altered humans in the Terminator franchise is a smart evolution, allowing the villainous Terminator and the human resistance character to be on a more equal footing with the robot menace without just having the Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator be a good guy again. Grace has a snarkiness to her that’s a great contrast with Good Arnold from T2 or Kyle Reese in the original film. Mackenzie Davis was a casting I was extremely skeptical about with this film but her character is far and away the easiest thing to like or praise about this film, and her performance the best of the whole crew.

Actually the best part of the movie, surprisingly

That initial twenty or so minutes ends with a thrilling chase scene on the freeway around Mexico City in broad daylight, and it’s the best action sequence in the film, but it’s gotta end eventually, and with it does any of the movie’s promise. Eventually, Sarah Connor has to show up, and that’s where this whole affair drops off a cliff. 

She’s here to kick ass and ruin a franchise soft-reboot

I get what series originator and Dark Fate writer/producer James Cameron was doing here. Over the years, he’s seemed to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder regarding his place in the world of blockbuster action movies. Back when the Wonder Woman movie came out, in the press Cameron dismissed it, arguing that he’d accomplished far more with Sarah Connor in T2. So he must’ve thought he should bring her back here as a way to show that he still understood the ‘badass female protagonist’ better than anyone. The problem with that is that Linda Hamilton, who played Connor in the original films and here, is in her sixties. I was totally willing to buy here as a raging psychopath who could tangle with Terminators in T2, but that movie came out twenty years ago. Not for a second do I buy her as a roaming badass who hunts death robots from the future like it’s a sport. She couldn’t tangle with one in T2 at pique physically shape, and now? It’s impossible to take seriously.

Ah, those were the days…

And it’s here that every bit of goodwill the opening minutes had managed to build in me was sucked out, as the film just dumps all its potential as a new era for the series on trying to tie itself back into T2. Sarah Connor didn’t need to be here, and Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly didn’t. Wasn’t this the gimmick with the last movie? That we’re going to have a badass Sarah Connor fighting new Terminator stuff with the return of Arnie? It didn’t work well there and it certainly didn’t this time, but at least then Sarah Connor didn’t look like she was a few days away from being eligible for Social Security checks.

I’m just worried the evil Terminator is going to break their hips

As the movie threw itself down the drain, squandering Grace, Dani, and the film’s new Terminator, played by Gabriel Luna, so that it could try and play Greatest Hits from the previous movies, I grew more and more frustrated. I sat in the theater, imaging better Terminator movies in my head that could’ve actually taken the franchise in a new direction. Say what you will about Terminator Salvation, but at least that tried to go in a different direction, rather than just another time travel plot that tried to redo moments from T2. We’ve been spinning our wheels on this series since Bush II’s first term, and we’ve gone nowhere but in circles. The potential of a hard reboot of this series seems to be just sitting right there. Dump all the continuity, keep the feel and aesthetic of the previous films, and start fresh. I can’t help but wonder if they opening section is a remnant of a previous draft of the script, where there was going to be a clean break and a new beginning. But then, some galaxy brained genius had to chime in and ask “But aren’t you going to include Arnold?”

Oh wow, Arnie Terminator fighting a new, more advanced Terminator, how novel

Arnold does return, and it is so unnecessarily and clearly just bait for the audience that it makes me feel like I’m losing my mind, holy shit I can’t believe they were this devoid of new ideas. Arnold plays yet another T-800 sent back by Skynet apparently at the same time as the T-1000 in T2. So why didn’t Skynet send them back together? Wouldn’t two Terminators teaming up be more effective? Why not send back a half dozen? Why even bother sending back T-800’s at all when the liquid metal T-1000 is so clearly superior in so many ways? Would you be shocked if I told you that one of the writers on this absolute disaster of a screenplay was David Goyer, one of the writers on Batman v Superman? I swear that movie just follows me like a bad penny, I can’t out run it no matter where it goes.

This is like four Terminator movies in a row where you can make the “if only they could’ve gone back in time to kill this movie” joke

Arnold basically only returns, even if the justification for why he’s even in this movie is incredibly stupid, at the end of the second act so that he can be there for the final big battle, and good lord is it miserable.The film’s climax is this overly produced, too dark, incoherent mess of explosions and set pieces that just get dumber and dumber. Tim Miller showed that he’s more than capable as an action director with Deadpool, and as I’ve said the opening action sequence is fantastic, so what happened here? How did he turn in a final climax that just goes on and on, incredibly loud and incredibly stupid? It just drags on and on until mercifully it comes to an end, and our heroes ride off into the sunset, off to a sequel that if there is any justice in this world will never come.

There are so many more interesting, new directions you could’ve gone with the Terminator franchise. A hard reboot, perhaps another crack at the war between humans and Skynet, maybe there was an instance of a Terminator being sent back to kill someone other than John Connor, new ideas that don’t require we just rehash T2 or bring back Arnold yet again. Hell, the film also hints at a much cooler, almost Logan like premise for a Terminator film starring an aged T-800, but that’s all hinted backstory, teased and dropped so we can slam two CGI planes together. Honestly I’m just baffled how everyone managed to learn literally no lessons from the failure of Terminator Genisys, every mistake is repeated again. An overstuffed, confused mess that squanders the potential of its opening before imploding under the weight of trying to be a completely new thing while desperate to remind you of other, far superior films. The franchise is dead at this point, and honestly if all they can think to do in new movies is say “Remember Terminator 2???” over and over then I’m perfectly fine with that.

Watchmen (2009)

Nothing Ever Ends 

Directed by Zack Snyder, Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse

Note: I’m going to be talking about a ten year old film and a thirty three year old comic here, so all bets are off on spoilers.

It pretty much had to happen, right? No one can manage to write about superhero media forever and not have to eventually have to talk about Zack freaking Snyder. Thankfully I don’t have to take you on a tour of my misery as I try and grapple with Batman v Superman all these years later, instead we get to talk about a Zack Snyder film I actually like! Well, to say that I liked it might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it held my attention the entire time and I don’t actively dislike it, which given some of the nonsense in his filmography is saying something.

Pictured: people when they find out I don’t hate this movie

Oh, I know for some people just that admission, that I don’t think his Watchmen movie is total garbage, that alone will get their blood boiling. See, Snyder as a filmmaker is just about the least interesting person in media to talk about in my opinion, if because it feels like nerd circles have been doing it nonstop since 2013 and frankly I’m just sick of it. Oh, you don’t think he quite ‘gets’ Superman? Please share, lord knows people haven’t been doing that constantly for a half decade or anything. The insane hyperbole and rage that surrounds Snyder is so off putting that I basically just shut down whenever his name comes up, wanting to cover my ears like an upset toddler and just wait for people to talk about literally anything else. Is he a misunderstood genius? Eh, probably not. Is he a monster who slaughtered DC’s greatest icons? Well of course not. Batman survived Joel Schumacher and Superman survived Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, so I think they’ll be just fine. People just have to calm down.

This is, in fact, a worse movie than Batman v Superman or Justice League.

What was this even about again? Ah, right, the Watchmen movie. Thanks to HBO, Watchmen is back in the public consciousness due to the new TV show, so I’m going to break my one rule here, and we’re going to talk about the Snyder and his first foray into comic books published by DC, and I’d argue his most successful. As I’ve already said, a lot of people really, really hate this flick. Seriously a lot despise it, and that makes sense. The original Watchmen miniseries is held up as a masterpiece, beloved in its time and now. It has a legitimate case as being the Citizen Kane of comics, it’s a story so good that it caused the entire industry to turn on a dime and ushered in a new era of comics. So no matter what happened with this film, people were going to have very strong opinions about it, ether loving or hating it, so of course I’m going to be the contrarian on that and say that I think Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is just okay.

TL;DR: Basically fine!

Watchmen opens with a famous superhero, the Comedian, having the door to his apartment kicked open, his face beaten in, and then being thrown out the window. From there, a group of other superheroes are wrapped up in a conspiracy that involves nuclear Armageddon, more murders, cancer scares, and mad science. Really, if you haven’t read the original Watchmen and don’t know this story already, I highly highly recommend reading it as soon as possible. It deserves every bit of praise it gets, it’s completely fantastic.

Honestly you should probably just read the comic instead of watching the movie

Watchmen is, essentially, a murder mystery with superheroes, but the thing is even as I’m about to praise any aspect of the story, I realize that it doesn’t actually come from this film. I’d need to go back to the comic, and that’s where some of the movie’s issues start. Watchmen is an odd case of being both a slavishly faithful adaption of the comic while also taking bizarre liberties, almost like the writers and Snyder made changes for the sake of making changes. A couple of changes here make sense. The costume design, with one specific exception and with no offense intended to original series artist David Gibbons, in a lot of instances look better to me, as blasphemous as that might sound. Nite Owl being a prime example, the costume in the comics always looked awkward and unwieldy to me, whereas I always thought his pseudo-Batman look here looked great. Silk Spectre II also looks like she’s actually wearing a superhero outfit rather than just a yellow shirt so that’s something. The exception would be Ozymandias, who is, uh, fine I guess? But the main issue is that it doesn’t do much to evoke the character’s look in the comics due to its muted colors. Beyond just costumes, they also fiddled with the ages of some of the characters. No longer was Doctor Manhattan forty something and putting the moves on a girl who was sixteen. Maybe writer Alan Moore was trying to say something by having that age gap in the original run but I’m not entirely sure what that might be. I don’t blame them for making that change.

No longer someone who is about to get busted by Chris Hansen

But then there are other cases where it feels like the film is being pulled into two divergent directions with certain moments. It’s a movie that desperately wants to exactly repeat imagery from the comic, dialogue is lifted line for line from the comic. Shots are lifted wholesale from the page to the screen. It’s clear Snyder and Company poured over the original comic for images to bring over to the film. And yet, there are points of divergence that can’t be ignored. For one, Snyder seems to just revel in the story’s violence in a way that the comic was much more sparing. Snyder shows every single hit so lovingly presented, bones snapping in the center of the frame or characters being slammed into walls or counter tops. This seems completely opposed to what Moore tried to accomplish in his work. The Watchmen movie tries to show these violent vigilantes as awesome spectacle, Moore seemed to want to show them as either being realistic in a morbid way or as complete psychopaths. Further, one of the most egregious changes from page to screen is the film’s color palette, which alters the look and feel of the material significantly. The original Watchmen book as some of my favorite coloring in any comic that I’ve ever read, it’s use of orange and purple as primary colors really gives it a unique, different feel. But that aesthetic is entirely lost, instead the film goes with Snyder’s standard visual style of muted colors and dark lighting. That can work really well with bleak films like his Dawn of the Dead remake, or when paired with more stylized visuals like in 300. But here it means a lot of the original work’s visuals are either totally lost or heavily muddled under shadows and dark browns. Visually Watchmen is just a severely mixed bag. There are moments that still can look cool, there are neat ideas here. Doctor Manhattan’s radioactive glow looks great, and there’s a strange surreal nightmarish feel to some of the flashbacks, particularly the ones set in Vietnam. But then there are visual moments that lose a lot of what they have going, such as the juxtaposition in the opening scene of the cops investigating the crime scene intercut with The Comedian fighting his attacker. Moore apparently wrote scripts that ran over a hundred pages for every issue, every single panel was planned out meticulously, and the end result feels smart and thematically satisfying. Snyder dumps all of this for a totally rad cool fight with dumb slow mow and then a scene with cop characters we never see again. Awesome, thanks guy.

Lot of the comic’s visuals are lost among bland colors and dark lighting

I’ve certainly seen worse superhero movies, and I’ll give this one credit for trying to tell a singular story. Superhero movies always lent themselves to franchise movie making, the format of comic books makes for obvious sequel possibilities with different supervillains and so on. It’s part of why Christopher Nolan making The Dark Knight Rises a definitive end point for his Batman series felt really novel at the time. But Watchmen did that years prior, and there’s something weirdly satisfying about that, given the state of things now. We have a second Ant-Man sequel on the way, almost assuredly designed to set up some future team up movie. The ‘Ant-Man’ story is never going to have a real conclusive, definitive end, but at least we had one here, and that’s novel for the genre. 

I’ll further give credit to most of the cast. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach was the big standout to me, he about perfect embodied the character, with the same sorts of intensity he’d need. Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl I also like a lot in this film, there’s a very natural quality in this film to whenever he seems to be feeling useless, which is a major part of the character in the comic, and he captures that well. Jeffery Dean Morgan also manages to do some pretty heavy lifting, making The Comedian sort of likable, despite all of the absolutely despicable things we see him do, so hats off to him for accomplishing that much. Doc Manhattan and both Silk Spectres also get the job done pretty well. Matthew Goode, however, is the weakest link. It’s not that he’s bad, just horribly miscast. Ozymandias, to me based on my reading of the original comic, should be the superhero meant to be the most public facing, the most goodie goodie, the one everyone in the public admires and adored. Think a Superman as a Boy Scout type persona, that’s why the reveal of him as being behind everything should have real impact. It should be like finding out Tom Hanks is a criminal mastermind. Goode however just comes off as being kind of aloof and strange, he seems slightly off putting in a way that makes it obvious that he’s up to nefarious shit. At one point apparently Tom Cruise lobbied for the role, and though I’m not a big Cruise fan I feel like that would’ve been a far stronger choice. Cruise in real life has been involved with shady stuff but even to this day comes across incredibly likable in a lot of his films, bring the exact sort of natural charm that this role needed, rather than being an odd weirdo from the start.

Not good

The pacing of Snyder’s films has, to me, always been the core issue. You can dissect the political views he presents in his films until the cows come home but in terms of actual filmmaking that’s where his greatest weakness has always been. Man of Steel was absolutely crippled by Snyder’s failed attempt to emulate the nonlinear origin story elements of Batman Begins, and let’s not even try to tackle how utterly mangled Batman v Superman was in that area. Watchmen is not immune from that, but for different reasons. Primarily, Watchmen seems to try to replicate the structure of the comic, to its own determinant. The original run is expertly paced across each of its issues, but the film emulating that structure means that it constantly feels like it’s going through self contained story arcs. Scenes in the film feel like the end of an episode of television rather than part of a clear three act structure, and it makes it feel like it will stutter and stop and start up again numerous times. Perhaps I’m only noticing this because I’m just coming off a reread of the comic but I think it’s pretty noticeable, it feels like you’re watching a series of TV episodes back to back at several points rather than a really cohesive film. Maybe this doesn’t feel as jarring or rough in the three and a half hour “Ultimate cut”, but that’s far too long to invest in one superhero movie as far as I’m concerned.

This sequence felt more like a late season episode of a TV show rather than the end of Act II

Snyder does a good job of capturing the weirdness of this alternate history world, but he made a change to the story that is kind of impossible not to discuss and spoil. In the original comic, it’s revealed that it was Ozymandias who murdered the Comedian and framed Rorschach in order to keep his larger scheme a secret, namely faking an alien attack on Earth that would kill hundreds of millions of people in order to prevent a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union. In the film, however, this turns out a little differently, with Ozymandias framing fellow superhero Doctor Manhattan for the attack. Snyder apparently made this choice to simplify the narrative and thus free up more time to develop the characters more, and I’m not sure he’s successful or not. Part of me dislikes it because it feels less ambitious, I like the idea of Ozymandias being inventive enough to come up with this sort of scheme, overcoming insane technology hurdles to achieve it, rather than just duping Doctor Manhattan to frame himself. But I don’t think it’s really that much of a detrimental change, I can take it or leave it really.

Even if I’ve been complaining a lot about this or that aspect, I still like Watchmen. I’m not in love with it, but there is still a part of me that thinks this movie was sort of ahead of its time, almost wish this had come out post the success of the Avengers. Now, to be clear, I’m not going to pretend this was some sort of masterpiece, but it’s clear there’s a healthy appetite for superhero media that is in some way subversive or critiques the genre at large. Deadpool proved that, and more recently I’d argue Joker has shown that. Had been Watchmen been made as a direct response to the rise of movies like Avengers it could’ve caught on much more than it did. That would likely require a superior director to tackle this than Zack Snyder, but even still a lot of the elements are there, the same way they were back in the original run. Even if Watchmen has flaws, and believe me it does, it can still have great atmosphere and moodiness to it, and plays with ideas that set it apart from a lot of the genre. Avengers was about how fun and cool superheroes could be, and Watchmen feels like the response that came too early. Yeah, superheroes are neat on the surface, but are they really who you’d trust with anything? Decades after Moore wrote the original run, the graffiti of “Who watches the Watchmen?” still rings true, and in the modern superhero film golden age it would’ve been interesting to see that question tackled now, rather than before it really broke out like it has. 

The commentary of the genre could’ve hit harder with a subtler director and being released more recently

At the end of the day, takes on Snyder superhero movies are a dime a dozen. You don’t need to look far at all to find people ether calling him a misunderstood genius (Look at you, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut weirdos), or literally the worst filmmaker working on big blockbusters. But with Watchmen, he neither failed nor succeeded. Terry Gilliam once called Watchmen unfilmable, and frankly I don’t think he was that wrong. This was about as good an adaption as we could hope for, which is to say it’s just okay. Frankly, given the nature of this material, it’s kind of a miracle it got made at all. It’s not a movie I’d call favorite, and not one I’d ever get actively upset about it. It’s fine, nothing more nothing less. 

Then again, even if it’s alright, it’s not that fake Watchmen cartoon intro, and can’t we all agree that’s the best Watchmen material out there?

Desperately wish this was a real thing

The Lighthouse

Why’d ya spill yer beans?

Directed by Robert Eggers, Written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers

Man, Robert Pattinson is having himself a year. Firstly, probably the biggest piece of casting news this year was that the former sparkly vampire has managed to get himself cast as the caped crusader himself, prepping now to star in Matt Reeves’ The Batman. Beyond that he’s currently filming Christopher Nolan’s new film, but before we can get to any of that we’ve got to take a look at his latest project, the dark and completely oppressive The Lighthouse. In terms of atmosphere, dread, and imagery, it’s easily one of the strongest films I’ve seen this year, and is one of the most inventive and cerebral horror films I’ve seen in a very, very long time.

Willem Dafoe and Pattinson star as a pair of lighthouse keepers. Dafoe‘s character, Tom, is an old seaman who has been doing this job for years, while Pattinson’s Winslow is his new subordinate. The two men are sent to a remote island where they will spend four weeks alone, with Tom guarding the light and Winslow forced to spend his days doing menial labor like sweeping the floor and carrying coal about. But as time goes on, things seem to not be quite right, and Winslow has to grapple with horrifying sights, whether real or imagined, as him and Tom become more and more at odds.

Starring Batman and Aquaman’s pal Vulko

I started this write up with a crack at R-Pat’s expense but really, both he and Dafoe are fantastic here. Dafoe’s Tom is this frustrating, needlessly combative taskmaster, every word is dripping with a coarse New England accent, and he gives his trademark wildeyed look. Meanwhile Pattinson’s performance starts out quiet and subdued, but as the film goes on he slowly descends into madness the whole way, every bit of his arc feels believable. It really feels like we’re watching frustration, loneliness, and isolation grind a person down and slowly dehumanize them. The two actors play off each other extremely well, managing to mix moments of anger, rage, and humor together masterfully. Again, it’s a dismissive joke to even bring this up all these years later, but Pattinson is so much better here than he was in the original Twilight, a film I’m embarrassed to even admit I’ve seen at this point. It’s shocking enough to make me want to go back and hunt down more of Pattinson’s recent filmography, and any personal doubt I’ve had about him playing Batman is pretty much gone now, he’s fully capable of carrying the mantle. And that’s to say nothing of Dafoe! His accent work here is incredible, I could listen to Dafoe talk in that weird 1890’s accent for hours, and he manages to walk all these crazy tight ropes that the role requires, whether he’s angry and upset, being a harsh boss, or just drunk off his ass. He really manages to make ridiculous dialogue consisting of old timey sea superstitions seem authentic, he’s completely capstivating.

Give Dafoe a podcast where he just talks about 19th century sailing superstitions

Visually, The Lighthouse could be the best movie I’ve seen this year.  The film was shot on 35 MM at a 1.1:9 aspect ratio rather than the traditional 1.33:9, and as a result the film feels incredibly cramped and claustrophobic, like the characters are trapped inside of it, held in more tightly than the average film. Images feel dark, grainy, like we’re missing parts of what’s happening or we are, and all of this leads to a sense of constant dread. Beyond that, choice to shoot the film in black and white color pallette was genius, it truly feels like a film from ninety years ago, like silent films of the twenties. Just like the choice with the aspect ratio this enhances the oppressive atmosphere, everything about the look of The Lighthouse feels intentional and planned, and I can’t think of a choice I disagree with. 

One of the most visually interesting movies I’ve seen in years

This isn’t a relaxing watch, you will feel tense as you wait for something to happen, and when it does you only see bits and pieces of it, all of it presented in a way that will make your questioned whether you’re actually seeing events unfolding or if we’re seeing things from the point of view of a character who is clearly losing his mind. As the surreal imagery starts to creep in more and more the film starts to feel frantic, with surreal nightmares creeping in on one another. It’s a more challenging film than a lot of recent horror movies I’ve watched but it also feels more rewarding. This is the sort of movie I want out of indie cinema, yeah we might not have crazy vistas or special effects or epic stakes like some of the stuff larger studios are putting out, but this is still a film that visually feels special, is creative, tense, well written and acted. 

This might sounds hyperbolic but The Lighthouse really is a prime example of what the medium of film can achieve. Its use of imagery, sound, all of it comes together perfectly in a way that only film can. The aspect ratio is a prime example, I’m sure that this movie would’ve been perfectly fine if it had used a more traditional aspect ratio, but it’s that extra little detail, that extra little thing that can only be achieved within film to add to the sense of foreboding. It’s not something you can easily replicate in written form, and I doubt you’d be able to make a TV show or video game with a 4:3 aspect ratio in the modern era. It’s a movie where nothing is superfluous, nothing is presented that isn’t needed. Every visual piece of this movie contributes to one thing: Something with these characters and this is wrong, and we as the audience don’t have all the answers, and we aren’t going to be given them. We have to dig about and find them ourselves. 

Dude’s seen some shit

This movie has been some of the most fun I’ve had with the discussion surrounding a movie in awhile, even if I can’t say that the experience of actually watching it was very pleasant. Seeing people trying to piece together what did or didn’t happen has been a blast, I’ve never been more excited to jump into a Reddit discussion thread. I’ve seen vastly different interpretations of the film from my own, some people’s thoughts on the imagery have been completely at odds with what I thought they may have represented. This is a film that will force you to think, it doesn’t hold your hand at all, it never flat out tells you how to take this or that scene or what any specific image represents. I’ve seen people write multiple paragraph explanations of what they thought the film’s imagery meant, only for people to respond that they left out X, Y, or Z thing, and suddenly what looked like a spot on interpretation has massive holes in it. And that’s exciting! I mean, the last film Dafoe was in that I saw was Aquaman, and while I think that movie is pretty alright, but it’s also extremely straightforward. This movie is it’s polar opposite, and just goes to show the massive diversity of film, of how different filmmakers can bring entirely different types of experiences. 

The Lighthouse isn’t my favorite film this year, but it’s up there. I know I’ve been a little vague as to what exactly is going on in this film or what the imagery is but that’s because I want people to go in as blind as possible. It really feels unique in the horror and indie landscapes as of late, and manages to use the medium of film to thematically enhance its story and performances in an absolutely expert way. Hats off to everyone involved for what is one of the most well made films I’ve seen this year. I can’t promise everyone will love this movie like I do, but I will at least say that is challenging and rewarding and I highly recommend people give it a chance. It presents a surreal and difficult experience that’s at times hard to describe, and I know it’ll stick with me for a long, long while.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order 

In The Endgame

Developed by Team Ninja

I have a strong sense of nostalgia for the original Marvel Ultimate Alliance game. I remember one weekend when my folks were out of town, I biked down to my local Hollywood Video and rented a few Wii games, and spent essentially the entire weekend on them. This was way back in middle school, before even the first Iron Man movie was out. As a kid my familiarity with Marvel basically started and stopped with the old Spider-Man animated series and X-Men: Evolution, but Ultimate Alliance was chocked full of tons of characters I’d barely heard of beyond seeing a few commercials terrible Fantastic Four movies. I had no idea who Luke Cage or Moon Knight was, but now there were all these characters to play around with, and as a result of the fun I had with that that weekend is burned into my memory. Ultimate Alliance 1 isn’t a classic or anything but it is directly responsible for a lot of my earliest development towards the hopeless nerd I am today. This is all its fault in the end.  

With the lackluster reception of Ultimate Alliance 2, a game I never played, I kind of expected the series to just fade away into everyone’s collective memory, and as a result I was completely shocked when out of nowhere Nintendo announced a brand new UA game, that would be exclusive to the Nintendo Switch. Subtitled The Black Order’, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is an adequate game that never manages to do anything unique or special, and while it is shallow fun to make the numbers on your large cast of Marvel characters go up, it’s nowhere near a must play, and compared to other Nintendo published exclusives on the platform it doesn’t even come close to matching the level of quality those games have consistently managed on the Switch. 

The gang’s mostly here!

UA3 is a sort of pseudo-RPG action game where you take a crew of four Marvel characters from a large roster out and beat the snot out of various henchmen and the occasional super villain. Each character has light and heavy attacks along with four different special abilities based around their character’s superpowers. Spider-Man can shoot webs, Iron Man shoots lasers and rockets, Doctor Strange does magic, etc. These moves are not individually unique, multiple characters have moves that are functionally the same even if visually they’re different. Gamora and Deadpool both have attacks where they spin in circles with their sword. All of the Spider-Man characters can shoot webs at people with minor variations. Thor may spin around his magic hammer and Ghost Rider spin his flaming demonic chain, but even if visually they’re a little different the gameplay usage is the same. Wolverine may be doing a leaping uppercut with his claws, and Captain Marvel one with cosmic super strength, but the result and usage is the same. This holds true of synergy attacks, which combine super power moves of two characters, as well. Iron Man might shoot his beams at Captain America’s shield, causing them to radiate out and hit surrounding enemies. Or Cyclops might shoot Colossus with his eye beam while he does an invulnerability move with the same result. Rinse and repeat until you find the one that makes the bad guys fall over. There are also ultimate attacks, which are super moves that you can trigger when you fill a meter, and while these look visually cool, they’re often difficult to target if you’re trying to trigger them more than one at a time. 

No one asked for a team of Falcon, Star Lord, Thor, and Luke Cage, but it can be done

There’s very little strategy to fights, they primarily consist of spamming synergy attacks until everyone falls down and you move on to the next area. Larger enemies and bosses have stamina gauges that you have to try to manage in order to stun them and get a damage bonus, but beyond that you’re spending most of the game running through a gauntlet of cannon fodder goons. It’s the epitome of a game where you turn your brain off and just go, hitting buttons until you’re done, moving forward so that the numbers will go up.

At least the roster of playable characters is pretty good. There’s all the big names here, if they’re a character in an MCU movie or had their own Netflix show they’re most likely on offer, plus a smattering of X-Men characters on top of that. Honestly, I have no real complaints here beyond the complete omission of the Fantastic Four, however they’re being added at a later date so that issue will at least be rectified. There are a couple of more obscure picks here as well, such as Elsa Bloodstone, a character I literally had not heard of until I played this game despite having read Marvel comics for years. I admire then going out into left field a bit here, at least.

Just wanted to say Ms. Marvel is adorable, and is also borderline broken in this game

Where they really should’ve gone out into left field, the story, is where the game really falls flat. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3’s story is so basic and dull, it’s basically an excuse to trample through different Marvel locations like Xavier’s School or Avengers Tower, and never approached anything remotely interesting. Because, frankly, I’ve seen this before. UA3 is a story about Thanos and the Infinity Stones, an utterly baffling choice when Avengers: Endgame came out earlier this year and is a better, more interesting story dealing with Thanos and the Infinity Stones in literally every convincible way. I genuinely don’t understand why they did this, it’s so dull and safe it’s painful. You can gain far more for your time by just doing a double feature of Infinity War and Endgame, and at least that’ll only cost you like six hours compared to UA3’s twenty five hours, or even longer.

The writing is made to look even worse by how pisspoor the characters are in this game. The secret sauce that makes superhero media work is the character interactions. The Avengers movies are partially the success they are because what it was because of how their characters interact and relate to one another. Batman v Superman partly failed because it completely botched the Batman/Superman dynamic. And so UA3 tackles this challenge by just not having meaningful character interactions. Most characters have few lines of actual dialogue, some essentially only have one liners during combat or voice over as you navigate levels. But there are never moments where anyone is developed, where they interact beyond striking action poses together. A perfect example of this failure would have to be Spider-Man and Spider-Gwen. They’re the alternate reality counterparts of each other, both of them are versions of the first real loves of each other’s lives, tragically lost because of their failure as superheroes. So of course in this game Gwen and Peter share exactly *zero lines of dialogue.* Oh, Miles and Gwen talk a couple times, because they were set up as a romance in Into The Spider-Verse, but neither she nor Peter say one word to the person who is identical to the one they loved and held in their arms as they died!

Like my god, it’s like smashing action figures together. Everyone is about as about as emotive and deeply written as a can of peaches. I get that it would be hard to develop and characterize an entire roster of thirty odd Marvel characters, but come on, you can do better than this. The Injustice games have large rosters of heroes and those games have story modes that utilize almost everyone and give them meaningful character interactions. Hell, the single fight introductions in Injustice 2 are most substantial than anything in UA3’s story mode. This is made worse by the voice acting, which isn’t bad by any means but is largely just passable. There are no standout performances here, everyone going by the numbers, but then again it’s not as if this game gives these performances any real opportunities to shine. This game was in desperate need of some sort of main hub world between levels where characters could talk and interact and actually have some impact beyond just being there. 

This image is my pitch for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3

This also applies to the game’s villains, the titular Black Order, as well as Thanos himself. They’re barely villains. You spend most of the game on a tour of the Marvel rogues gallery, fighting the likes of Kingpin, Nebula, Sentinels, and others, and as a result the game’s villains are barely present. Thanos I think appears all of twice before the final level, while the Black Order just shows up a few times to chase you at the end of a level after you’ve beaten that level’s actual final encounter or boss. It’s not exactly riveting stuff, they’re a device to justify moving the heroes to a new location, not actual antagonists. Their motives start and stop with “Thanos rules!” and that it, we don’t hear anything substantive beyond that or any smaller moments to make them more interesting.

Why did they name this game after these people?

The story and utter lack of characterization is made all the more egregious when you compare this to last year’s excellent Spider-Man game on PS4. That game was nearly flawless in how it adapted the larger Spider-Man mythos, and felt like a faithful and reverent Marvel adaptation that had its own identity. UA3 meanwhile feels like a shallow CG cartoon, developed to piggyback off the success of the MCU, taking all creative queues from that rather than even attempting to forge its own path. Everyone is a hollow copy of their MCU counterpart, I hesitate to call the overall artistic direction lazy but I’ll gladly call it mediocre.

It’s just a flat out bad story, but what makes it really egregious is that it’s in service of just bad level design. It’s a story that seems to partly exist to get you to several places in the Marvel universe, but then the level design is so linear and constricting that you never actually get to explore any of these places. They’re all glorified hallways, some might have quirky things that make it a little more annoying to go down that hallway, but they’re hallways just the same. Occasionally you may see the hallway fork and you might think that finally you’ll be able to go off the beaten path, but whenever you do it’s quickly back to the hallway after ether just one chest or a new Infinity Rift.

Infinity is the other main gameplay mode beyond the story mode. A series of levels arranged in a grid system give you combat challenges to best in order to get rewards for leveling your character and their abilities. This is where I’ve actually spent a pretty significant portion of my twenty five hours that I played with UA3, because this game requires insane amounts of grinding. If you want to have a decent number of viable characters be prepared to spend hours playing through the same repeatable Infinity levels over and over as you grind out experience cubes to use on the heroes outside your core group. Beyond the grinding aspect the levels are not fun, placing unpleasant and annoying conditions and gimmicks on reused combat encounters from the main game and can become seriously frustrating. You can unlock new costumes for some characters though this mode, and I use the term ‘costumes’ pretty loosely here because really they’re just color palette swaps. Black Widow’s suit goes from black to white, Captain Marvel’s suit changes to that completely gross green and black color scheme, Captain America’s suit muted colors, and so on. It’s nothing as substantial as some of the cool alternate costumes in the original Ultimate Alliance, and when you compare it the insane variety of cosmetic parts in Injustice 2 or the wide variety of alternate suits in Spider-Man or the Batman: Arkham series it becomes all the more glaring.

You can have Iron Man or… Iron Man with black trim

And really, that’s what we’re left with. A passable game that is competently made but just isn’t very interesting, getting by with just the bare minimum. I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t like some of my time with UA3. It’s fun to have different teams of various heroes beating the snot out of Hydra goons, but the fun here is fairly shallow. The main draw of UA3 is having so many Marvel heroes to play with, but at the end of the day, that’s not a whole lot to go off of, especially when you compare it to the current landscape of superhero games. The Batman: Arkham series are much larger, well written, better playing games that are also much more substantial love letters to Batman than UA3 is to the Marvel universe. Same with Spider-Man, which despite focusing on only one Marvel hero is an all around superior experience. But the most egregious comparison would be to Injustice 2, a game that has a story mode presented far better, with better writing that manages to characterize and meaningfully include its large roster of characters while also visually looking significantly better on both technical and artistic levels. The simple fact of the matter is Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is a middling game that offers only shallow fun for huge Marvel fans and almost nothing for everyone else. It’s among the weakest of the Switch’s exclusive titles, and pales in comparison to some of the amazing things being done on that platform.

There’s a much better game that could’ve been made with these characters
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