Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Silence of the Xenomorphs

Hello, Clarice.

What follows is a probably slightly spoilery quasi-review of Alien: Covenant and so if you haven’t seen it yet exercise discretion.

Alien: Covenant has wound up being a divisive movie. It has been dividing fans of the Alien franchise since it was still called Prometheus 2, before it absorbed the Alien brand name (kiboshing Neill Blomkamp’s Alien V project in doing so). Reviews are… let’s just say polarised. Despite this the box office has been surprisingly good, knocking Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 from its lofty perch this weekend. At least that proves that there is still an appetite for Ridley Scott’s signature beastie out there, despite a decade of awful Alien Vs Predator movies and the nonsensical Prometheus.

Yeah, Prometheus. About that. A film supposedly about the smartest and boldest group of scientists in the world, who also do things like remove their helmets in alien environments, pet terrifying snake creatures, and all disappear to have sex while two members of the crew are marooned in an alien bioweapons factory. A film that made the baffling decision to put Guy Pierce in incredibly fake-looking old guy makeup rather than hire and actual old guy to play the role. A film that has a medical bay that only knows how to operate on one gender of human. A film in which Charlize Theron zigs when simply zagging would have made all the difference.

Prometheus. Shit. Prometheus would have been a bad enough film if it hadn’t been essentially an origin story for Alien – the one thing the franchise never needed. The alien is an unknowable space horror – we don’t need to know where it came from and how its origins are somehow linked to Weyland-Yutani Corp. Prometheus undermines everything that came before (after?) it by demystifying the alien. It’s as if H.P. Lovecraft hadn’t died young and at the age of 60 published an origin story for Cthulhu in which we find out he was actually created by some random Miskatonic University professor. But, the damage is done, and a certain part of Alien: Covenant was always going to be damage control.

So how does Scott mitigate the disaster that is Prometheus? By stripping out everything that didn’t work in that movie, and carrying over everything that did. Out are the lofty questions about whether or not there’s a god (the central theme is instead reframed here as the immorality of creation) and hokey old Mr. Weyland only plays a passing role. Making the transition from Prometheus to the Alien series is the one truly good thing to come out of it: Michael Fassbender’s David.

Make no mistake – Alien: Covenant is David’s movie. Scott makes a good move here by centring his movie around the charismatic and villainous android. This allows him to reinvent the Alien formula in an original way. What do I mean by this? Well, if you consider the subgenre shifts throughout the series – Alien defines the survival horror formula, Aliens turns it into a war movie, Alien 3 is a prison movie, Alien: Resurrection is The Poseidon Adventure in space… you get the picture. So what subgenre is Alien: Covenant? Why, a psychological thriller/slasher film, of course!

Bear with me here. Just as Hitchcock cribbed from Dracula when he made Psycho, Scott shamelessly steals a premise from Hitchcock. Colonists arrive on planet, meet David, David take them back to his dingy castle, where we get the obligatory bathing woman murder followed by the inevitable holy-shit-he’s-been-dressing-up-as-his-mother-and-stabbing-people reveal (which I’d rather not spoil). With David’s love of highbrow music and literature, his plummy English accent, his flawless comportment – as well as his total amorality – at this point David resembles Hannibal Lector more than any other character in film. In fact, his motivation often seems to be the same as Lector’s – he’s doing evil things simply because he wanted to see what would happen if he did. Like Lector, David lionises creation and genius while simultaneously destroying. Like Lector, David does not see this as a paradox. He is both the work of art, the artist himself, and also somehow the antithesis of both sides of this coin. Furthermore he explicitly associates himself with Milton’s Lucifer – the ultimate rebellious creation – when he asks Walter “serve in heaven or reign in hell.”

Fassbender is having a ball playing both David and his dour counterpart, Walter. The movie revels in exploring the psychology of David, and also plays with the idea that since Elizabeth Shaw repaired him he’s not quite all there. Walter puts it best with one line: “One wrong note eventually ruins the entire symphony”. He could be talking about Lector, or his literary successors Patrick Bateman and Tom Ripley, men who – in the words of Bateman himself are simply “not there”. Although, that’s not quite it, either, because David – in comparison with Walter – is very much there. A personality grown in a vacuum, he exists as a person when he was intended to be something else, lesser. The fact that I’m even considering this contradiction surely shows that Fassbender and Scott have created someone very interesting with David. It’s telling that SPOILER ALERT at the end of the film even though the alien comes back for one last scare, so does David.

OK, so I’m cheating a bit here, since psychological thrillers and slasher films are very different beasts. So I’ve covered the psychological aspects, so what about the slasher side of things? Well, let’s just say this isn’t a universe you should ever have sex or take a shower in, or god forbid try to do both at the same time. It never ends well. In addition, the fact that the crew of the Covenant are all couples with their own dynamics, desires and in-jokes gives one the feeling that what we’re seeing is the outer-space equivalent of a Winnebago full of horny teens. When they stumble into David’s space motel of horrors the parallels and callouts are unmissable, despite the fact that David never physically kills any character during the course of the movie. Slasher duties, of course, are delegated to our good old friend Mr. Xenomorph.

Alien: Covenant’s xenomorph is a return to the old-school alien of Scott’s original – a bulky, long-limbed, elegant bruiser, as opposed to the smaller, swifter things they became on James Cameron’s watch. Indeed, the creature has rarely looked better or more menacing. Although I’d take issue with the plot point that David’s genetic meddling perfected the classic xenomorph formula (remember, the damage to the mythos was already done with Prometheus so we’ll be kind here) even the new neomorph with its waaaaaaay more effective method of procreation looks believably terrifying. What is for sure, anyone who groused about the aliens seeming to get smaller with every movie will be pleasantly surprised with the beast here. The classic xenomorph is the chief threat in two series-highlight action sequences, the aerial fight on top of the flying loading platform, and the chase in the garage at the end. Both of these scenes provide enough alien action to please die-hard fans, or those who just want all the Prometheus stuff to go away.

A word about the crew of the Covenant: When the movie was being advertised I had basically no hopes at all for this film. Hey, I love Danny McBride as much as the next guy, but in an Alien movie? An Alien movie in which James Franco plays the captain? You can see my worry. But Franco and McBride – frequent collaborators though they are – don’t even share the screen. Franco’s presence is limited to being killed in the first five minutes followed by what is probably a video from the real James Franco’s Instagram account. That’s it. And McBride… is good in this. He reins in his acting style and actually provides one of two moments that provide cover for what will surely be one of the biggest criticisms of the character work in the film – that the crew members don’t seem to care very much when their spouses are murdered in front of them. McBride’s choking acknowledgement of the fact that his wife has been a casualty on the mission, before regaining his composure is a fantastic moment. It acknowledges the grief but compartmentalises it, making us understand that although the deaths are crushing the crew emotionally, they are all professionals with a larger responsibility to each other. The couples’ relationships all feel real, lived-in. The corny in-jokes about wife-swapping have the feel of gags that were funny once but are carried on because those are just the in-jokes that you have. You get the impression the crew are not all necessarily friends, but all know and respect and care about each other a lot. Even when one character locks another in a room with a newborn xenomorph to save her own skin, she feels compelled to come back for her, and in doing so dooms them both. If there’s anything more poignantly human than that, please tell me. Overall, you care about the crew of the Covenant in a way you never did about the crew of the Prometheus.

So is this a worthy sequel to Alien and/or Prometheus? Let’s take Alien first: Alien sequels have always been in the business of taking the bits you liked about the previous films and remixing them in a new way. At least the successful ones have. In that respect, I’d call Alien: Covenant a resounding success. If anything it gets points just for reviving the xenomorph itself as a movie monster. Let’s be honest, people. We all know what it looks like. The shock’s worn off. It hasn’t really been scary for a long time. Covenant sidesteps this problem by giving David top villain billing and bringing in the neomorphs. But there is no denying that the xenomorph itself looks and feels more like the robust, threatening monster of days of yore, before it became a disposable stock-baddy to be gunned down by the dozen by tough space marines.

As for being a follow up to Prometheus, Covenant improves on the original undeniably. Choosing to refocus the story on David allows us to frame the schoolboy metaphysical questions through his eyes, and in doing so nullifies a lot of the mumbo-jumbo that made the first film so tiresome. And it does answer Prometheus’s questions, sort of. We see an Engineer city destroyed, see how the evolution of the alien bioweapon occurs, and witness David’s elevation to full-blown supervillainy. Some have called Covenant Scott’s “apology” for Prometheus. I would call that inaccurate. If I had to compare it to anything it would be the break between Aliens and Alien III, where we find out that Hicks and Newt both perished in the crash leaving Ripley again, the last survivor. The dismissal of major characters off-screen is a series hallmark, so it can’t really be faulted too much here. Nor would I call it a purposeful break with the previous film. It simply terminated one plot thread and carries on with another, way more interesting one. Thus Covenant succeeds in combining the threads of both Alien and Prometheus and even Blade Runner into one… I don’t know, piece of wool? Cosy blanket? It’s a metaphor, dammit.

So where does the franchise go from here? I’ll admit I’m sad we’ll never see Blompkamp’s Alien V. But I’ve always hated retcons, and this is getting into One More Day territory. I think David has one more movie in him, at least. I’d be interested to see what his plans are now that he’s effectively usurped his own creator (not to reveal too much). And as for the xenomorph itself, I’d say there’s life in the old girl yet.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Fantasy Sucks Episode 2 - The Dinosaur Lords

In the second in my series of occasion and quite bitchy book critiques, I take on Victor Milan’s The Dinosaur Lords. Since it seems like I'm only ever going to critique things I hated, I'm naming this series Fantasy Sucks. I wrote about the Stormlight Archives a while back, so I'm retconning that review to Episode 1. This is Episode 2. Trigger warning for discussion of rape.

George Orwell noted there was such a thing as a “good bad” book, a work with no real literally merit that is nevertheless completely entertaining. I hoped that The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan would be one of those books. Unfortunately, it isn’t. It’s a “bad bad” book masquerading as a “good bad” book.

I can just hear the elevator pitch for this one. “Dinosaur knights!” It’s a concept guaranteed to make any self-respecting fantasy nerd’s waxy ears prick up, and dollar signs appear in the eyes of any publisher. “Dinosaur knights!” I exclaimed when I first heard of this book. “Endorsed by George R.R. Martin, you say? SU&TMM!”

The problem with The Dinosaur Lords is that it never really lives up to the promise of the fantastic cover art or pulpy, irresistible concept. In fact, apart from two or three battle scenes, and the little bit of set dressing, dinosaurs don’t really play much of a role in the story.  Apart from a few charges of hadrosaur cavalry and a stampede of ankylosaurs, it’s really just a sub-Game of Thrones fantasy with all the standard grimdark trappings – morally ambiguous characters, oppressed peasantry, asshole knights, lashings of misogyny, yada yada yada.

The most baffling choice that Milan makes – apart from choosing to focus on boring human politics in a novel about WAR DINOSAURS – is in his setting. The world of Paradise – which the author goes to great pains to tell us is not earth – is virtually identical to late medieval  Europe, even down to the names of the countries (Germany is Alleman, for instance, France Frances, and Ireland Ayrland). As the book goes on it seems to imply that aliens (Milan calls them angels, buuuuuuuuut… aliens) at some point kidnapped humans and a few animals and dropped them on another planet with lower gravity and magical healing powers and set up some bizarro version of medieval Europe, except with dinosaurs, because… we don’t really know. Despite this rather convoluted explanation, the direct-lift country names still just seem like lazy worldbuilding. It’s as if Milan was trying to build a world with a standard boring Europe-analogue fantasy setting, but couldn’t be bothered actually using his imagination and just said “fuck it, I’ll just use a combination of country’s actual names in languages other than English and simply switching the odd letter and amend virtually nothing else about the culture or history of these countries.” I mean, he states that humans have been on this planet for 700 years, and in that time we STILL have the same standard European countries, albeit with Spain as the dominant power. In that time surely, things would have changed up a bit. England (sorry Angleterre!) might have renamed itself The Glorious Kingdom of Chickenbutt and annexed Norway, for instance, but no. And how would a society in a world with dinosaurs develop differently? It wouldn’t? Oh. Everything is much the same, except with a figurehead emperor and evil pope who live in bizarro-Spain. Oh, and aliens who are also fairies and angels. Fine. Ok. 

I could tolerate the nonsensical worldbuilding, of course, if there was anything in the way of plot. But frankly, there isn’t. This book suffers heavily from “set up the next one” syndrome. Several characters don’t really do anything and I get the impression they are only there spinning their wheels before they become important in the sequel. None of the plotlines really pay off – sure, a corrupt duke solidifies his hold over a dumb-as-nails emperor, and a back-from-the-dead mercenary leader begins training a group of pacifists to defend themselves, but at the end of these stories nothing really has changed. The pacifists are still threatened, the emperor still dumb as nails (in fact, there’s a moment of Idiot Plotting regarding this character that I found rather far-fetched). And all the time these bloody aliens I’M SORRY, ANGELS are standing around in the background foreshadowing as if the government where about to enact a permanent ban on it.

Again, I could tolerate this (I’m a Wheel of Time fan after all) if the book has characters I enjoyed spending time with, but nearly all of them are gloriously flat. But not only flat, but unbelievable. One character – and I’m not making this up – is a dinosaur knight, expert swordsman and general, the world’s greatest poet, philosopher, and head of a religious order (who actually has cults of people following his teachings) despite being about 20 years of age. The other notable character is roguish dinosaur master, bard, singer, rogue etc. The sole female character is… a princess? She isn’t really interested in anything apart from mooning after Sir Perfect McMartystu, but she does get raped. That counts as character development, right?

Ugh, that’s another thing. There’s a time and place for grimdark, when it’s done well. But why is it that every fantasy author is trying for that tone right now, and seem to think the key to mastering it is inserting truly tasteless rape scenes into their work? I know some readers who will literally throw a book down if they see a rape scene coming up. Personally, I think that’s a little bit drastic, but there has to be a – y’know – point to it. What is the author trying to say by doing this? It has to be a little more than weren’t things shit for women in the middle ages? The rape scene in this book is like a primer on what not to do in this context. It seems utterly gratuitous, coming as it does in the penultimate chapter from one of the book’s POV characters. That means that her entire story – a good quarter of the book – is essentially working up to her sexual violation and there’s no examination of the consequences of the event. We never even get to know how she feels about getting raped since she immediately seems to forget about it in the final chapter. It almost seems to be punishment for her actions running up to the act – she is portrayed as selfish and quite cruel. Is Milan is trying to say she deserves it? I have no idea. And it’s not like she’s the only female character in the book who gets raped. I can think of two other secondary characters and one random extra who do as well. 

The Dinosaur Lords should really be a punchy, fun mashup book. It should be Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But it’s not. I kind of feel betrayed. I was stealth-sold a shitty grimdark book when all I really wanted was knights riding dinosaurs. I mean, it does deliver that to a certain extent – in the one decent battle scene Milan goes to pains to explain how a dinosaur is used in battle. But it just isn’t enough and there’s too much clich├ęd and dare-I-say-it problematic garbage along for the ride. There are glimmers of what might have been here and there – the roguish dinosaur master is witty and entertaining, but then they go and pair him with another character who lacks charisma on a cellular level despite supposedly being a legendary leader of men. The Princess’s banter with her ladies-in-waiting too is enjoyable. But the plot sags under the weight of all the foreshadowing. It plods along like a constipated hadrosaur, never really living up to the promise of its concept.

Nevertheless this book seems to have done quite well. A sequel, The Dinosaur Knights is out this year. Here’s hoping Milan gets his act together for the next one, though frankly I’m not sure I’m willing to subject myself to another one of his books any times soon.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

I apologise for my earlier comments about Dark Souls

Honestly, this dragon can suck it

18 months ago I posted about my formal resignation from Dark Souls. After one week and making it as far as the first bonfire in the Undead Burg, I ragequit the game. It was too frustrating, too absurdly, deliberately difficult. I couldn’t take plowing into gigantic enemies with unblockable attacks and dying the same way, over and over again. I couldn’t handle repetitive, maddening sight of my character expiring on the mossy flagstones of some god-forsaken hellcastle only inches from retrieving the souls that would allow me to level up. I could not – as the cool kids say – “git gud”.

I am here to tell you I was wrong.

When Dark Souls 3 came out I read a few articles and was drawn to it in the same way I was drawn to the first (Dark not Demon’s) Souls game. The creepy, bleak fantasy aesthetic, the bizarre and menacing enemy design, the sense of achievement – all of those things appealed very much to me. I decided to give Dark Souls one last college try, and see if I couldn’t wring some enjoyment out of it after all.

Doing this necessitated a complete change in the way I played the game. My first time around I didn’t understand how Dark Souls was meant to played. I treated it like Skyrim at best, or at worst like Golden Axe. I ran in, mace in hand, and inevitably ended up a red stain on the floor. I didn’t even use the lock-on mechanic, which probably didn’t help. Hell, I didn’t even bother to block half the time. I completely failed to appreciate the timing aspect of combat – that for every enemy there is one moment they are vulnerable to attack. I didn’t understand that it’s better to draw the enemies to you and engage them one at a time than rush headlong into an unwinnable melee.

This is basic Souls play. I could have learned this easily just by reading a few articles online. But my transformation from ardent Souls-denier to the Zen master of being repeatedly murdered did not happen easily. Nor did it happen while I was playing the game. Rather, before stepping back into Dark Souls I had to tackle the assumptions I had about gaming in general. I had to examine the very concept of what a video game was meant to be.

As a child, I had an Atari ST, and I played a lot of platform games. Dizzy. Bubble Bobble. All innocent enough stuff, but these were games it was possible to lose. Three lives, maybe more, if you’re lucky enough to get an extra one. After that, it’s all over. You need to start again. Compared to this cutthroat arrangement, Souls’ die and die and live again ethos was going easy, surely. That’s what I told myself, anyway. The memory I kept going back to was playing Ghouls N’ Ghosts in the arcade, and later on the Sega Megadrive. In many ways Dark Souls is retread of this old classic – they share the same dark aesthetic, the same sense of fear and bleakness, the same punishing learning curve. I only once or twice managed to get onto the second stage of this game, but to this day one of my fondest gaming memories is guiding a limping, semi-naked Knight Arthur out of that creepy graveyard after finally killing that headless giant, before immediately perishing of course BUT THAT’S NOT THE POINT. I’ve always wondered what lay beyond. Now, I supposed, I will never find out.

I did not want to have that same experience with Dark Souls.

And so I loaded it up again, and was reunited with Cuthbert, a nebbish level 9 cleric with a ginger bowlcut and a face like Freddy Krueger fell asleep on a radial sander. I was drawn to a goody-two-shoes cleric as my character for Souls because I like a good holy fool and thought if I’m going to spend the next 300+ hours torturing someone it should at least be someone who I’ll enjoy watching being brought low.

Two things had precipitated my resignation: my inability to kill a Black Knight, and being absolutely destroyed after five seconds when I finally made it up to the Taurus Demon in the Undead Burg.

I decided to take these two problems separately. First I would deal with the knight. To do this, I changed my tactics entirely. Realising at this point in the game I was hilariously underpowered, I did something I am loathe to do – grinding. Or “soul farming” as it is known in Dark Souls lingo. I ran up and down the same stretch of dungeon, killing the puniest enemies I could find, relearning how to fight, before buying a bow, a bucketload of arrows, and the ugliest suit of chainmail I have ever seen. Again, I hate grinding and in order for me to do this, I had to completely change my idea of what I was doing. Instead of replaying the same dungeon, grinding for souls, I was going hunting. The Undead Burg became my hunting grounds, and the common undead within my prey. I would run up down the familiar areas of the map, killing over and over again. I learned to savour these moments when I was the most dangerous thing on the screen.

Finally, when I was ready, I coaxed the knight out into the open, waited on a roof and dishonourably arrowed it to death from the top of a ladder it was unable to climb. That was my first lesson: honour is overrated. Winning is better.

After levelling up a few times and dabbing the blade of my estoc with whatever that lightning stuff is, the Taurus Demon was a cinch. I was honestly shocked at how easy it went down. It was simply a case of noticing a ladder, climbing said ladder, and jumping the thing’s head until it died. I couldn’t even believe it.

That’s when I realised that there’s always an easy way in every fight: when I was getting obliterated by the Bell Gargoyles, it was because I hadn’t thought to summon an ally. Once I did this I was able to easily dispatch both gargoyles without taking much damage. Even the ones that are currently eluding me, I’m fairly certain that if I level up a bit more and come back with some better gear, I’ll be able to take them out fairly easy. And since I just spent a month grinding to get the Lightning Spear miracle, I’ll be going back to see if can do just that.

Sometimes it takes an unconventional solution to defeat a particular boss. I was having trouble against Havel the Rock, a particularly annoying knight brandishing a gigantic dragon tooth that kills with one hit. He’s easy enough to dodge but I wasn’t doing enough damage to him with my attacks, and as a result I was inevitably mistiming my rolls and getting taken out. So, I reasoned, if my heavy armour isn’t helping in this fight, I guess I’ll just take it off so I can roll faster. So that’s how I ended up dueling Havel the Rock in my underwear, dashing from one end of the room to the other and smiting him with Lightning Spear until he gave up the ghost.

Dark Souls is turning into an obsession. It's more than a game. It's a crusade that becomes maddeningly personal. It’s the closest to understanding an epic quest mentality I’ve even had in gaming. Skyrim is fun, but you never feel connected to the quests that you undertake. Victory seems inevitable, expected. In Dark Souls – to pilfer a phrase from elsewhere – you have to lose upward. To understand Dark Souls is to redefine what winning is. Yes, I may die this time, big evil monster, but I spotted a way to take you out. Maybe I didn’t make it to the next save point, but I found this new piece of gear that will make it easier to get back to where I died the next time. Sometimes winning is as little as spotting a ladder or unlocking a gate which will allow you to take a short cut next time. Every death is an investment. More and more I’ve found myself actually turning back rather than pushing forward, banking my souls rather than risk losing them in some fool attempt I’m not ready for. It is a different kind of game, to be sure.

And old Cuthbert is looking a lot more hopeful these days. I mean, he still looks like a sundried tomato got in a car accident (most of the time, I’m using humanity a lot more now since I realised the benefits of summoning), but he’s got a new sense of resolve about him – not to mention a shiny new set of armour and hat made out of a Bell Gargoyle’s skull. That still doesn't stop him getting pounded to death by prowling demons in the Catacombs, though, not to mention losing 9,000 souls and five humanities NOT THAT I'M BITTER.

It seems weird to take about faith in regards to a videogame. But then, I'm playing as a faith build, and that's somehow become symbolic of the whole struggle. I could get mad at Dark Souls, throw the control pad away and pass the game to a friend like some cursed monkey paw. Or I could smile, turn the other cheek, let the machete-wielding goat demon have his day and go run down some other corridor for a while. At this moment, I have enough faith in my ability to win that dying doesn't seem so bad. It just means I need to try a new tactic. At some point, perhaps I’ll lose my faith. But I believe I have what it takes to get back up, dust myself off and get back into the fray.

I'll let you know how that goes.