Monday, December 21, 2015

Dave's spoilerific Star Wars post

OK they're probably gone now. If not, it's their own damn fault.


I'm struggling to get over the fact that I, a 32-year-old man living in the year 2015 was able to sit in a movie theatre today and watch a Star Wars movie that didn't feel like tossing my inner child into a sarlacc pit to be slowly digested over a thousand years. It happened. Today. To me. I never thought it would. My abiding memory of the prequels - like everybody else's - was a feeling of utter disappointment. The abysmal dialogue and characterisation. The awful pacing. The fact that none of the characters were even slightly likeable. The fact it seemed to sully all that went before it. It felt like nothing going forward in life would ever be as colourful and carefree and pure as it was before. The Star Wars prequels were more or less childhood's end for a generation of 70s and 80s kids.

But I am here to tell you that is no longer the case. It all makes sense now. Those irredeemable prequels had to happen to get all of the storytelling crap out of the system. An origin story (ugh) for Vader is the logical place to go to start off with, even though it killed any sense of suspense the story might have had, and saddled the story with so much shit that needed to happen but just wasn't that interesting. However, J.J. Abrams obviously did his damnedest to avoid the same pitfalls in his film, and he seems to have learned a number of crucial lessons from the prequels.

The first lesson Abrams learned was to keep it simple. The prequels were rightly criticised for focusing too much on trade and politics. If anything Abrams plays it too simple with his portrayal of the galactic political situation. Little attempt is made to explain how the Resistance and the Republic relate to one another, or how the First Order rose from the ashes of the Empire. The yellow text at the beginning might as well read SEE STAR WARS: AFTERMATH (CHUCK WENDIG, OUT NOW). And yet, this is the only niggling bad point I can come up with in regards to this film. Straight off the bat I realised I didn't care, for the moment at least. I'd delve into the new expanded universe later.

Another reason the prequels needed to happen was to clue Abrams into a fact that expanded universe readers have known forever. It's not just about tossing out the same characters and hitting the same story beats. What people wanted to see all along was more of the incredible world Lucas created, and see more diverse and interesting characters moving around in it. Rather than the plastic, indistinguishable Jedi of the prequels, we're introduced to a genuinely interesting team of characters, all of whom have agency and don't simply exist to drive the plot from A to B. Poe Dameron is the cocky fighter pilot type, Finn is on the path to redemption, and Rey is on the hero's journey to unlock her force powers. Together they have so much chemistry, especially Daisy Ridley's Rey and John Boyega's Finn, whose friendship-maybe more relationship is particularly well done. Also, I think that if anyone says they wouldn't like to buddy up with Poe, they're probably lying.

With that triumvirate complete, they add the crowning glory: Harrison Ford is back as Han Solo, playing the aging smuggler with a great deal more conviction than he did Indiana Jones in his most recent outing. Han snarks at Chewie, blasts stormtroopers and cracks wise like it's 1983 again (or its galaxy far far away equivalent). At the same time, Abrams pulls a beautiful act of inversion and positions Han - the scoundrel, the skeptic - in the role of wise old mentor a la Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope. Harrison Ford's hangdog face really conveys the weight of Han's years and all of the terrible things that went down after the Battle of Endor. It's when Carrie Fisher shows up as Leia, we get to see hints of the old, smooth Han. Really, based on Ford's solid performance in this film I would be happy with him leading the team into the second movie of the new trilogy. But the wise old master role is not without its pitfalls.

So they kill Han Solo. You bastard, Abrams!

In the context of the movie, it makes perfect sense. Han had reached the end of his arc. He embraced the ideal of family, of belonging, which is what the first trilogy was really about for him. He'd been running from his responsibilities pretty much since Ben Solo's heelturn. Walking out on that gantry to confront Kylo Ren AND ENCOURAGE HIM TO EMBRACE THE LIGHT SIDE OF THE FORCE EVEN THOUGH HE KNEW HE WOULD KILL HIM is the most Obi-Wan thing that Obi-Wan never did. I saw it coming, but somehow I was still shocked. Abrams killed Han Solo, but to be perfectly honest, if it were me reviving Star Wars, I'd very likely have gone down the same route, for the same reasons. RIP Han Solo, you'd better return as a force ghost in the next one.

Adam Driver deserves a lot of credit for this scene. When he was cast as Kylo Ren I was nonplussed. But he embodies the conflict of someone struggling against parts of their own nature. Driver is 100 times better at this than Hayden Christensen ever was. I also particularly enjoyed his rage-out when he demolished a console with his lightsaber. He's volatile, emotionally unstable, damaged and unpredictable. Unlike Vader, he actually needs that mask. During the scene with Rey where he removes it, and you see for the first time that he is in fact human - that somehow makes him scarier.

My favourite scene, though, was the final one. Since Luke was always my favourite when I was growing up, and I was waiting for him to show up for the entire thing, very aware by the end he hadn't appeared. When Rey takes the Falcon to Planet Skellig Michael to find him, I thought there was going to be a Return of the King one-too-many-endings thing going on. But instead she climbs the hill, sees Luke, and wordlessly offers him his lightsaber. Bam. Perfect ending. A wonderful emotional note to end on, because Luke looks so broken up by the fact he knows his exile is over. Also, because now he looks just like Alec Guinness did in A New Hope. The whole thing has come full circle. And if Abrams can avoid trying to duplicate frame for frame the original trilogy and just have fun playing in that same, magnificent sandbox, then I think we'll be OK.

1) Chewbacca goes freaking mental when Han is killed. It's adorable.
2) Chewie flirts with a nurse.
3) I didn't see a single lens flare in this one.
4) I love how Abrams got the character of the droids, something that was completely missing from the prequels.
5) Check out 3P0 completely cockblocking Han.
6) Has anyone thought about what a Marty Stu Luke is? He's a Space Samurai Wizard Fighter Pilot. That's like a five-year-old's dream resume.
7) If Han was the Obi-Wan in this movie, I guess that means Luke is Yoda in the next.
8) Space Lupita's bar is a worthy successor to the Mos Eisley Cantina.
9) It was fun watching Domhnall Gleason getting his own back on Oscar Isaac for his treatment in Ex Machina.
10) Seeing George Osborne's name pop up in the Special Thanks part of the credits was nauseating. That reptile scumbag pops up everywhere.
11) I want an X-Wing.
12) The re-introduction of the Falcon is lovely, but an awful big coincidence.

In short:

EDIT: Here are a number of other thoughts that popped into my head last night while being kept awake by a screaming infant:
12) Poe and Finn's bromance is so instantaneous it momentarily seems possible the pair might move to the Outer Rim together and herd nerfs.
13) Star Wars was very different from any big tent pole movie these days. At the end of it, one of my first thoughts was "I can't wait to see what happens next!" something I don't ever remember thinking coming out of, say, an Avengers movie.
14) If I can have one more quibble with poorly explained plot - Why is it so important to find Luke? Kylo Ren is obsessed with killing him, so I can buy the First Order looking for him, but why is it so important for the Resistance? Sure, he's a badass war hero, but this is a world where the majority of people still don't believe in the Force.
15) Did anyone else notice Poe and Rey shared no screen time together?
16)  General Hux is about one Demi-Hitler away from Full Hitler during his speech. Spittle everywhere.
17) Did anyone count the number of whoohoos, yeeehoos, or variants thereof?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

We Are Not (Exploding) Things

I want one of these so much.
*Here be spoilers*

I finally managed to see Mad Max: Fury Road at the weekend, and man, does it live up to the hype - both as a feminist manifesto and a balls-to-wall action thrill-ride. I don't think I can overstate how beautiful I think this film is. It's fantastically shot, the stunts and vehicle design are outrageous, and it is the most - hell, only - emotionally powerful action movie I've seen since Inception.

Lots of people are complaining about this movie. Mostly because they're the sort of people who like to complain about things they don't get. Usually it's Men's Rights Activists moaning that Mad Max is forced to play second fiddle to bunch of slimy girls, and whinging that the film tries to force them to - shock and horror - see said women as equal to men. Or it's traditionalists who are infuriated by the shifting of focus away from Max himself and onto other characters. To be perfectly honest - to my mind - these two arguments are more or less inseparable, but let's address them separately for the sake of fairness.

1) Ugh! Female characters with agency who aren't just there to be damseled or raped!
- Go fuck yourself.

2) This isn't a Mad Max movie. Mad Max isn't even the main character.
- Well, maybe he isn't, and that's a good thing. It's worth remembering that Beyond Thunderdome almost didn't have Max in it at all. It was a completely different story about the kids, and Max was merely inserted in on the suggestion of a producer. So we've established George Miller wants to tell different stories. Does that make him the bad guy here? Max's character arc is already well established. It would be boring as hell if Miller didn't introduce some new, memorable characters.

Speaking as a fan of the first three movies (In order of preference: Road Warrior, Thunderdome, Mad Max) everything about this movie makes perfect sense in the context of the series. Mad Max shows society crumbling, The Road Warrior shows the survivors picking over the scraps, Thunderdome highlights the challenge and pitfalls of rebuilding civilisation, and Fury Road shows us that the greed and messianic entitlement that doomed the world in the first place is alive and well, even in the wasteland.

The film illustrates this point through the juxtaposition of two generations of characters. Immortan Joe, the weakened dictator, obsessed with his own legacy and greedily hogging all of the resources in the wasteland, represents the blind leaders and 1%ers who doomed the world in the first place. Then there's Max, the cynic, for whom "hope is a mistake" and Imperator Furiosa, who says she wants redemption - but revenge might be more accurate. If you contrast those three with Joe's "wives" - who've been through hell but still haven't lost that hope that Max denies - and Nux, the indoctrinated boy soldier, who gets a crash course (no pun intended) in self-determination, you see a beautiful contrast.

That's why the complaints about the feminist ideology of the movie annoy me so much - what holds true for the female characters also holds true for the male ones. "We are not things" says Splendid. The girls, with Furiosa's help, are taking the first steps towards establishing their personhood. Nux, coming face to face with the falsehoods he's believed his entire life does the same thing. And then you have Max, who's been essentially reduced to a thing - as much an animal as the two-headed lizard he snacks on at the beginning of the film. He can't tell Furiosa his name until the dying moments of the film because it's not until then that he truly regains his identity.

This is a theme that we've seen time and time again in the Mad Max movies. In The Road Warrior the grown-up Feral Kid tells us that the wasteland was where Max "learned to live again." All through the movie we see the person he once was fighting to come back to life, from the half-smile that flickers across his face when he finds the music box, to his burgeoning friendship with the Feral Kid and the Gyro Captain. In Thunderdome, we've got an embittered Max, but again, one who risks his life to protect a group of innocents. Mad Max is the story of a survivor. But it isn't water or gasoline that helps Max to survive. It's the kindling of these small flames of hope for a better future that keep bringing him back from the edge.

The Feral Kid approves this message.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Fantasy Sucks Episode 1 - The Way of Kings

I've decided I'm going to start doing book reviews on this blog. I figure it's a good way for me to mentally organise myself while I'm doing the first draft of the new novel - if I can figure out here what I like and what I dislike in other people's work, perhaps I can keep on track without descending into to my habitual 7-year timeline of endless plot revisions. I'm not George R.R. Martin. This isn't a new Guns N' Roses album. If I'm going to make this work for me as a job (obviously not my only job) I'm going to need to be finishing a 100,000 book every 12-18 months. Of course, I should really concentrate on selling the one I've got, but that's another story. In the meantime, my new strategy is to have a clear idea of what I'm doing before I start, and then just write it.

Which brings us to The Way of Kings, which is a phenomenally successfully fantasy novel by Brandon Sanderson. Since I'm trying to write a phenomenally successful fantasy novel, this seems like a good place to start, right?

I have to admit being a bit slow in picking up this first volume in the Stormlight Archives series. I also have to disclose this belated review is perhaps coloured by the considerable sprain in my hand from carrying this BRICK of a novel around with me everywhere for the last couple of weeks. And it is an immense book, clocking in at around 1,000 pages, acceptable for a fantasy author but damn right unforgivable for anyone else.

The length is one of the main problems I have with this book. There are three main perspective characters: Kaladin, a surgeon's son forced into slavery; Dalinar, brother to the murdered king, who is plagued by strange visions; and Shallan, an apprentice scholar trying to steal a valuable artifact. The problem is that these three stories are spread out over 1,000 pages and don't really go anywhere. Sure, Kaladin wins his freedom at the end of the book after gallantly rescuing Dalinar, but Dalinar's visions are left unresolved, and Shallan's theft - when it does come off - doesn't really lead to anything.

Any good editor would have cut half of this book. Half. 500 pages.

It's not like there's a tremendous amount of world building that goes into Sanderson's world, either. Sure, we get a sense of the different nations, different cultures - that stuff is actually very well done - but really there are only two locations we see in any depth, the warzone of the Shattered Plains and the city of Kharbranth (the former much more than the latter, since that's where two of the three protagonists are located).

My beef is that the character's arcs are unnecessarily convoluted. Kaladin - who it seems is being set up for a tropey sort of 'chosen one' arc - begins as a defiant slave, fails to escape a bunch of times, then experiences a loss of hope. Then he has a change of heart, and decides to help save his team of expendable "bridgemen". Unfortunately, then he has another change of heart and spends about a quarter of the novel moping about how it's all pointless. Somehow, the men who now follow him still look up to him, and when he finally decides to care again he throws away their escape plan to help Dalinar, who rewards them by making them his personal honour guard. Suspending disbelief for a moment that bunch of malnourished slaves who had never held a spear before could fight better than regular soldiers, there's a long wait in this story for very little in the way of payoff. Kaladin's attitude to his plight is up and down like he's riding an emotional pogo stick.

Likewise Dalinar's story. In the beginning, he's suffering from apocalyptic visions, which he doubts. Over time, he comes to believe there might be something to them. Then he abruptly changes his mind and decides to abdicate in favour of his son. Then he changes his mind again, and decides not to abdicate. Then his visions are proven to be true, but misleading. So he ends up in the same place he started, wracked with doubt. The visions aren't explained, except that they come "from the Almighty" (I didn't know that Sanderson was mega religious until I read his wikipedia page today, but it makes sense given the world he's created, and the vaguely messianic implications of Kaladin's storyline).

In addition, the plot twists (with the exception of one, which came out of nowhere) are too predictable. Although we don't see the reason for Kaladin's enslavement until the final chapters, by the time we get there the reader has likely already figured it out. The same with Shallan's "crime" that she continually alludes to. By the time she says it out loud, you've already known for quite some time.

There are bright spots though - the fight scenes, of which there are many, are an utter joy. The concept of Shardblades and Shardplate - essentially semi-corporeal mythic weapons so powerful that they can allow one warrior to literally turn the tide of a battle - is intriguing and Sanderson has a lot of fun with it. There's certainly a lot of poignancy to Dalinar's disgust at his own actions in battle, using his super-powered armour and sword - which basically turn him into a human tank - to slaughter hundreds of enemies at a time. The best though, is the gravity-flipping magic used by the assassin, Szeth. Epic fights are even more epic when they are performed on the ceiling, or when they involve flipping large boulders into your adversaries by simply persuading the rock that down is that way.

Will I come back for the second volume in the series? I have to say, I might not, and my OCD rarely allows me to neglect reading an entire series. I guess I'll have to read some reviews and see if the characterisation problems have been ironed out. What I'm really concerned is that Sanderson might have ruined the Wheel of Time, a series I genuinely do enjoy, for all its faults. Time will tell, since there are like 800 books and I'm only one book four.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

I formally resign from Dark Souls

Alas, poor Cuthbert. I knew him well.

I quit Dark Souls. I quit. I quit. I quit.

I missed it when it came out, and to be honest, I wish I'd left it missed. I heard it described as "the most rewarding gaming experience ever" and that piqued my interest. I wish that statement had been qualified with "it's the most rewarding gaming experience ever if you are the sort of person who watched that bit in the Shawshank Redemption when Tim Robbins pulls himself through several miles of sewer pipe and comes out in the rain on the other side and thought to yourself 'wow, that looks rewarding.'" I get it. I get that beating a hugely difficult game will make you feel like a champ. But is that feeling worth all the suffering and horror to get there? Like, I imagine prosecuting the guy who murdered your wife feels pretty good, but at the end of the day you probably would trade that feeling for just not having your wife murdered in the first place.

I did not play Dark Souls for very long. Maybe a week. Less, probably. I got as far as the second bonfire in the Undead Burg, before I flipped my lid and turned it off, probably forever. I enjoyed my character, Cuthbert, a snooty cleric with a ginger bowlcut. I didn't even mind the fact he took hit after hit, because in my mind it was all part of the character. I was looking forward to turning him into a sort of paladin-type with cool miracles and perhaps a sword. Maybe a halberd (I dig polearms and you don't get to use them in many games).

But after two days of being killed mercilessly and going back to that same fricking bonfire, I could take no more. It wasn't that gigantic Black Knight that kept killing me that did it, or those awful guys with spears. It was those assholes with the firebombs. Something seemed to snap in the game after a while and I was no longer able to sneak up on them. No matter where I moved they were always facing me and I couldn't get close to them without being incinerated. And these are the easiest bad guys in the game?

No. Fuck that.

It's not that it's the hardest game I have ever played. Hard is fine. I like hard. I'm the kind of guy who plays RPGs with the weapons their character is worst with just because I get bored of kicking too much ass. It's not that the game is unfair, because it isn't. If you knew the tricks for defeating every enemy, it would be possible to make it through every level unscathed without dying once. But you would have to be fucking Taskmaster with perfect muscle memory to do it. I don't mind dying. In fact so many of the deaths in Dark Souls are actually hilarious - I got filleted by ghosts, mashed by a completely unexpected boulder, hammered into a paste by a giant demon - I enjoyed them. But constant trivial death at the hands of the most banal enemies? I just can't handle that.

I think it will just get worse as the game goes on, and just be harder to quit. So, here it is, Dark Souls. We're just not good for one another. My life doesn't fit you. In another time, perhaps, when I was determined and obsessed with my Csports ranking and I had no wife and toddler and jobhunting and novel writing, perhaps I would have persevered and beat you. Perhaps I would brayed and whooped at your defeat. But that's not who I am now.

I reckon I probably get two hours a week of videogames. Gaming is almost a Taoist experience for me. It's the only time in my life when I am not thinking, planning or plotting. I even do it in my dreams. But gaming is when I am truly able to switch off. I'd rather those times were spent with enjoyable experiences rather than confounding and irritating ones.

I don't usually quit games. The only one I can think of offhand that I did quit was GTA IV, because it bored me. I will play any game through to the end, so long as I'm enjoying it. But if I don't enjoy it, then why play? What is this, sports?

So, yeah, that's me. I'm downloading Kingdoms of Amalur now because it was $3.99 on Xbox Live, and it was on my list anyway.

I don't even feel like a massive failure. It's Dark Souls fault for being the videogaming equivalent of some Japanese game show where you have to eat a tarantula while being shot in the gonads with a paintball gun.