Stranger Things: A Reflection 


Screenshot 2016-07-31 00.30.24


Netflix Original Stranger Things came as a pleasant surprise last month. A bold, heartfelt throwback to eighties pop-culture that crafted something inventive and memorable in the process. From its music to characters, it sparked feverous discussion online and proved to be an instant hit. It is, in essence, a love-letter to numerous films, books and cultural artefacts from that decade. But it’s also something much deeper. Stranger Things is a salute all those who watched such pictures; who read those comics and had their lunch money stolen as a result. It is, put simply, one for the nerds.

The series itself spans eight episodes and gravitates around the disappearance of Will Byers; a child living in eighties Indiana. Backdropped by an Area 51-style conspiracy, we see a relatively lacklustre village face an inter-dimensional monster — a Demogorgon to coin the Dungeons & Dragons phrase — terrorising its local community. This is compounded by a Cold War cover-up, namely MK Ultra to ‘Stay one step ahead of the Russians’, drawing a small-town cop into something well beyond his pay-grade. Yet beneath this, lies something far more relatable. Three young friends and a bereaved Mother trying to make sense of it all.

This mix of fantastical, if not ridiculous adventure, with tangible humanity feels familiar. It’s textbook Spielbergian adventure. It has whiffs of horror, action and sci-fi, but it’s largely a tribute to those great Hollywood adventure flicks. Indeed, Stranger Things is a cocktail of famous texts: from throwaway nods to outright pastiche. But it does so explicitly enough to remain charming in the process. Although such references deserve attention — I discuss them in due course — it’s rather the camaraderie between the boys and the escapee ‘Eleven’ that drives the show forward. It binds it with a youthful optimism that celebrates its more nuanced moments. Making Stranger Things a rather complex, but deeply satisfying blend of nostalgia and creative thought.


Screenshot 2016-08-04 01.44.14(2).png Continue reading

Advertisements

In Defence of Event Horizon

event-horizon-520288a1317f7.jpg


Paul W. S. Anderson’s sci-fi horror remains, to this day, a divisive picture. Almost unanimously condemned as a crass, clumsy and predictable contribution to the genre; Event Horizon receives little time from serious critics. It is, however, my biggest and guiltiest cinematic pleasure.

In short, the film takes after the Alien (1979), Solaris (1972) and later Sunshine (2008) format of spaceship horror. A crew are sent to investigate a distress beacon from the Event Horizon –– a ship capable of interstellar flight –– that has long since been missing. It has retuned from the edge of our known universe and appears unmanned; tasking the rescue team with damage assessment on an intergalactic scale.


The frights are fairly obviously choreographed. An invisible parasite, not dissimilar to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) now haunts the ship, whilst a paper trail alludes to the fate of those originally aboard. Anderson purposely sidesteps from explaining too much here, leaving the fragmented and jarring fate of this crew relatively unexplored –– only to receive ham-fist conclusions towards the end. For this reason, I believe the general criticism regarding the film’s writing to be rather fair. It is inconsistent and at times feels as if it was written on-set.

But as the crew explore the ship, there is a tangible sense of horror. Laurence Fishburne establishes himself well as the stubborn Captain Miller, at odds with the irrational designer of the Horizon, Dr. William Weir (Sam Neil). They’re joined by a sortie of apathetic space servicemen who all, in turn, lose their minds aboard the ship. Although none of the characters feel particular inventive: the stern military man and obsessional scientist are hardly new arcs, they drive the narrative adequately enough. The downfall, it seems, is that the focal point is about them: their inner turmoil and subsequent breakdowns.


‘This ship […] knows my fears, it knows my secrets!

It gets inside your head and… it shows you!’


The crew are possessed with little nuance; the mix of cabin fever, repressed trauma and imploding personal chemistry feels too abrasive to be particularly meaningful. The themes it touches upon, however, prove powerful. Where the Horizon has been, what it has brought back and how it is presented. Indeed, my affection towards this film is not for its overarching tale. But rather the fleeting moments that occur inbetween. The artistic direction, the editing and the overall tone that can be extracted –– and celebrated –– despite the murky shell that embezzles it.


299_3_screenshot


To call this film a ‘diamond-in-the-rough’ is an understatement. It scatters a number of great ideas throughout its ninety minute running time. The film’s aesthetics represent a good example. The use of colour and baroque set design is surprisingly inspired. With an emphasis on drab greys and greens, its colour palette reinforces the gritty, industrial feel that Kubrick and Scott established. The interiors throughout the ship(s) compound this further: with an enclosure that accommodates the mental episodes that soon escalate. But there is something more creative within this backdrop. It exhibits a strange gothic quality. The Event Horizon is part haunted house, part heavy-metal show. The winding corridors are perhaps a given, but the fabled ‘gravity drive’ is truly a design of its own. This spiralling, spike-laden velodrome leads to the unsightly death of one of the crew members. It also becomes the set-piece for Dr. Weir’s final all-work-no-play breakdown. Its presence is deeply menacing: an unconventional device with a fitting appearance. It extenuates the Oppenheimer quality as well, being a transgressive work of science. It all goes to serve what faults this picture: an important but hardly vital piece of set design seems to have incurred more thought than the screenplay surrounding it.

event-horizon-engine-of-spaceship-core


Another point of contention regards the Horizon’s disappearance. Whilst the film proposes a realistic science fiction aesthetic –– it’s more Silent Running than Star Wars –– the Horizon’s absence beyond the known universe descends into something more spiritual. In the simplest, spoiler-inducing sentence: such a place is hell. Or, indeed, some scientific derivative of it.


‘She’s been to a place you couldn’t possibly imagine. And now it is time to go back. […] Hell is only a word. The reality is much, much worse’


This inversion of perceived realism may be a cop-out. I’m not entirely sure how well it fits with the film that its first half attempts to set up. I do think, however, that it works remarkably well in isolation. In fact, it’s precisely why I feel to defend it. In essence, the rescue team learn of this through recorded material in the Captain’s Log; a grotesque and harrowing sequence where the original crew are tortured by whatever inter-dimensional zeitgeist took hold of it. Albeit the eye-ripping captain to the violently sexual images around him: this sequence does not hold back. He then pans to the camera and recites verses of Latin –– an ancient language in 2016 –– least not for the film’s in-date of 2047. It’s a memorable and damning scene. We are given hints to a haunted presence in anticipation to this, but nothing with such severity.

captain log.png


‘I thought it said liberate me, save me. But it’s not me. It’s liberate cute me: save yourself. And it gets worse. […] I think that says ex inferis. Save yourself… from hell.’


This use of ritualistic, satanic discourse works well with its unabashed gore. The ship had been to hell and the dissonance between the cold reality of the Horizon with this perverse, graphic force it brought back is jarring. It also offers enough to shock without exposition. For the lack of a better phrase: this sequence is entirely fucked up. The  textbook ’cause and effect’ horror structure allows it to throw the audience without asking too many, plot-hole inducing, questions.

This is further refined by the editing. Flashbacks from the possessed Dr. Weir throw half-frame snippets of the tortured crew: with maggots, blades and sadomasochism to boot. It’s almost a useful exercise to watch this picture with your finger on the remote. Recently, internet forums have capitalised upon its darker imagery, deeming it ‘uncut’ and ‘unseen’ footage from the potentially better film it could have been. These images, however, are not new. They are merely passed over in a blink of the eye. They’re buried within the same picture that Robrt Ebert considered all ‘style’ and no substance. The same film that garners a 24% Rotten Tomatoes score and that one Washington Post critic remakerd:

‘If you want to have that “Event Horizon” experience without spending the seven bucks, try this instead: Put a bucket on your head. Have a loved one beat on it vigorously with a wrench for 100 minutes.’

Yet it is the very ‘style’ that shines brghtest. These flickering moments of shock –– the quick edits and flashbacks –– coupled with its interesting and eerie artistic design brings a gravitas to any narrative misgivings. It may rely on knuckle-dragging spectacle during its action sequences, but it attains a darkness that few of this genre have reached. It is for this reason I consider moments of satanic imagery, especially in flashback, as rationale to defend this film altogether. It cements the Horizon in a unique and troubling universe.



This approach has deeper cuts. Science fiction antagonists can, rather easily, become caricatures of their former selves. The minute Ellen Ripley jettisoned the Alien from that airlock, its caracas launched into space along with any tension we once felt for it. But a ship that has returned from the bowels of hell, that tip-toes around what it has attained –– which proves to be a Biblical iteration of evil –– is undeniably scary. The presentation of such bolsters it. It gets under your very skin, as this haunted-house comes into its own.

Put simply, Event Horizon merges the fantastical horror and modern science fiction to great avail. The vessel takes on fleshy overtones as it becomes increasingly more alive. Again, the contrast between industrialism and mangled human tissue is both striking visually and thematically. It also succeeds in avoiding the reality of the situation to ignite more fear. Whilst, all the same, incorporating supernaturalism better than the average sci-fi flick. In fact, Event Horizon is in the minority of genuinely throwing me after multiple watches. Not because I care about the characters –– that wears thin rather quickly –– but for precisely this graphic content. It presents the unpresentable, the oldest of all evils, with enough vibrance and aurora to maintain dramatic effect.

EventHorizon


Event Horizon is, quite frankly, a curious picture. And note I’m not ranking it alongside the Blade Runners and Space Odysseys of the world in writing this. But when it descend into its darkest moments, it does so with a ferocity that deserves high merit. The themes it flirts within the process of Dr. Weir’s questionably-written breakdown are little short of tremendous. It’s also a damn entertaining film. I feel critics overlook that as a mind-numbing escapism –– perhaps Anderson’s forte given his later work –– it’s a bloody good movie.

Yet it remains something unique in my eyes. A rough mix of sci-fi and horror that reaches some truly gut-wrenching moments. A lacklustre screenplay, sure, but coupled with fantastic artistic direction.  And as rumours circulate regarding the now lost Director’s Cut –– a darker,  X-rated redux –– I can’t help but wonder what this film could have been. Nevertheless, for what it is, Event Horizon is worthy of your time. The product of a director clearly in an experimental phase. One, perhaps, trying to put his name on the in-traversable sci-fi/horror map. And whilst it is far from perfect, there is some eloquence in the flaws that bestow it.

Indeed, Event Horizon is more than a ‘good-bad movie’. I also wonder if I’m being harsh calling it a guilty pleasure: the very parameters of guilt are set by a cork-sniffing critical reception. I won’t deny it’s shortcomings, but I will celebrate it’s triumphs all the same. Event Horizon has a truly contagious quality to it. One that I happily re-watch from time to time. It’s a enigmatic experience above all else, with a design and tone that sits with you long after the credits roll. Which perhaps leads to the most pertinent conclusion of all about Event Horizon: ‘it gets inside your head’.


event-horizon


An Ode to ODST: A Retrospective


image

Halo is perhaps the first gaming franchise I ever truly clicked with. I picked up Combat Evolved in around 2003 and I regularly cite its sequel as my favourite video game ever made. Whilst I never profess to being a ‘gamer’ — I care little for the ‘master race’ and competitive playing — even Halo 2’s turbulent production and ending does not deter my affection for it. Nothing rivals the jubilation of a nine year old getting his copy a day early, nor the genuine awe its narrative, gameplay and soundtrack brought to the table.

Nostalgia aside, I have replayed the Bungie titles a number of times. A welcoming familiarity surrounds them, like returning to a favourite book. Indeed, my affinity has always been towards the lore and expanded fiction: the novels and stories that enriched its more knuckle dragging, Nukem-inspired segments. This year I purchased an Xbox One, largely for its exclusive titles, and to revisit the games of my childhood. Whilst my interest in the franchise has certainly declined in recent years — I followed the first decade or so of the canon — it’s been a cathartic experience. The prospect of the remastered Master Chief Collection resonated with the nostalgia junky in me; not only to beat challenging moments of old favourites but also to see how well these games hold up. The most revealing title, however, proved to be the most overlooked of all. The 2009 expansion, Halo 3: ODST.


Released on the Xbox 360 seven years ago, this ‘spin-off’ of sorts garnered the robust —frankly excellent — gameplay and engine of Halo 3 and poised it towards new territory. Replacing the iconic, Master Chief with a silent Orbital Drop Shock Trooper; ODST flipped the given tempo tremendously. And it did so remarkably well.

The gameplay offers a departure from the one-man-army that has come to define the series. As an ODST, one is inherently more vulnerable and susceptible to damage. You’re no longer a shielded Spartan, nor are you seven-foot-tall, either. Brutes appear naturally more formidable, with even the once-laughable Grunts and Jackals posing a more serious threat. This changes the given dynamic, forcing the player to rethink any habitual  trigger-happiness. This is, to some extent, all the more skilful. Whilst the sandbox elements see smaller Brute packs that those seen in Halo 3; the overall campaign hardly reduces the quantity of enemies. Ergo, the player, known only as ‘The Rookie’, are left to their own devices. AI characters, whilst scarce, help direct fire in that classic Halo sense — they’re useless in a firefight — meaning ‘The Rookie’ faces no less adversaries than his green counterpart. As a result, the single player gameplay becomes rather challenging. It’s slower and more systematic but deeply, if not more, satisfying. It has also aged remarkably well. The dichotomy between stealthy silenced weapons with bombastic vehicle segments manages to appease the principle elements of the game — whilst injecting a rare overture to the franchise.


6175.H3ODST_Campaign_Dutch01


The structure of ODST is equally refreshing. Halo is loosely recognised by its linearity. Levels flourish like chapters of a book, with only combat choices offering moments of structural diversion. ODST changes this: an open sandbox on the streets of New Mombassa links its levels together. ‘The Rookie’ finds clues to where his displaced squad have landed and flashback missions explain how that came to be. The player investigates the streets at their own pace, avoiding Covenant forces in due course, and piecing together the almost epistolary narrative. It works exceedingly well: with overtones of Film Noir and detective novellas coming into play. So much so, the level design effectively doubles back on itself: ‘The Rookie’ explores the very same landmarks his comrades fought alongside, in both the day-time flashback and this shadow laden sandbox.


This also leads onto a more pertinent feature of the game: its artistic direction. With whiffs of Blade Runner and Out of the Past, this futuristic noir feels incredibly matured. It is a world that, whilst inherently small, breaths with a natural livelyness.  Halo, as franchise, is famously colourful. Albeit the beaches of the Cartographer, the grass of its eponymous second level or purples of covenant ships and weaponry. ODST sidesteps from all of this. Although those elements are still there — notably in flashback levels — the overarching design is much darker, burned out and resolute. The shadows and deserted towns are isolated and eerie. Even its metropolis backdrop with metallic metro stations and abandoned ATM machines ground it in a mundane reliability. It all serves to compliment its down-tempo gameplay wonderfully.

ODST‘s soundtrack takes this sentiment further. In a similar departure from awe and spectacle, Marty O’Donnells epic suites are replaced with a moodier, jazzier score. It flirts with the electronic moments — electric bass, distorted guitar and so forth — that seem reminiscent of  Halo 2, but it really crafts something of its own. These more avant-garde moments abandon any ‘Hollywood’ tendency to perpetuate this dectective theme that runs throughout the whole game. It’s also a testament to Bungie’s excellent world building. In the same vein that the scale of design, music and gameplay that defined the Master Chief’s exploits; ODST carves its own empire within that very same world. From the largest set piece to the tiniest orchestral motif: it has an identity and heart.


 Halo3-ODST_EnvConcept-06.jpg


As for its developing story, ODST is simple but effective. It follows a drop team as they are separated by a slip-space rupture in their opening launch. It slots in nicely with the middle section of Halo 2’s timeline; with the opening cut scene literally cross-cutting between a canonised event in the 2004 title. This sort of interconnectivity works well; the game needn’t establish a whole world or conflict but rather elaborate on the untold stories that surround it. The game incorporates recognisable vehicles, enemies and other semantic elements to great avail.  We even see a familiar face in the closing Epilogue. But it purposely steps away from the mean, green protagonist and his more conventional traits, to form its own identity. It is this capacity to remain familiar whilst grossly different that makes ODST so mesmerising. It also introduces the Engineers, a long standing characters within the wider lore, with great charm. By revealing this lovable and complex species, it grants the relatively short campaign a much larger pay-off .

Whilst the main characters aren’t fully fleshed out: Buck gets a little bit too much attention in lieu of a downplayed protagonist, it works with the material it has. I would argue that Micky, Romeo and Dutch appear more interesting, if not funnier figures to explore, but its eight hour campaign can only do so much. (n.b for this reason it is recommended to play Legendary Solo; not only got the ‘full experience’ but also a healthier  timespan). Their dialogue and quips reveal a humanity that is often amiss between the Master Chief and his counterparts; furthering the title’s ability to enrich an already standing universe.


newhero.jpg


The story’s continuity with its aforementioned design, gameplay and score is also worthy of note. The narrative has a certain piecemeal quality to it; but the missions themselves reiterate those darker, exhausted undertones within the genealogy of its pacing. The majority of levels are about survival, escape, evading capture or glassing. Where the Master Chief is very much an agent of change: he would kill a Prophet, steal the Index, rescue Cortana and save the world. In ODST, we are very much on the back-foot, struggling to regroup and survive. The majority of the game alludes to team members being killed; making this less about triumph and more about sacrifice. The flashbacks lend itself to this weighted feeling and bolster its noir-ish quality without feeling clumsy or tact on. The execution — the delivery of all these components of design and composition — is remarkably strong. Even the easter-egg hunt audio logs, that for many represent merely an Gamerscore Achievement, reveals the civilian tale as to why the Mombassa streets have been evacuated. There is a coherency in the very arteries of the game. It wants to tell a story and breathes with a spirit  that is, at times, not even expected. It something all the more rare in titles today, least not those considered mere add-ons to much larger titles.


Above else, replaying Halo 3: ODST reminded me what I love about this franchise. Whilst I enjoyed 343’s foray into the series as a sleek, sci-fi shooter: it desperately lacks the creative fibre of the Bungie titles. It’s not my place nor desire to debate the merits of either studio, but ODST certainly serves to remind us how rich the Bungie-Halo universe had become by 2009. The expanded fiction complimented the games and the games did so vice versa. It had not become bloated nor confused about its direction. Given the turbulent production cycle for Halo 2 and 3; this is a testament to the studio’s innovation to prolong the franchise with such finesse. It is as if the fighting spirit of ‘The Rookie’ and his comrades extends well beyond the fictitious New Mombassa and into the development team themselves.

In its simplest form, Halo 3: ODST is an inditement of the world building prowess of Bungie in their prime. It also proves there are better stories aside from the standard, now exhausted, formula. Where Reach capitalised upon alternative characters in a feature-length title; it feels more crucial than ever to explore other avenues beyond Master Chief and his tiring tirade. I feel a Contact Harvest adaptation or ODST sequel would revitalise the series greater than the — frankly tedious — Promethean nonsense of recent titles. But perhaps the mature, experimental nature of ODST is a product of its time. Of a franchise both big and brave enough to take a risk. From a studio still hungry to prove themselves with a title that remains, to this day, a highpoint of the series.


Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 23.08.48.png


Paris in Pixels: A Retrospective

10692313196_e173998a2b_o.jpg


‘Paris in the fall. The last months of the year, and the end of the millennium. The city holds many memories for me –– of cafes, of music, of love… and death.’


The opening scrawl of Broken Sword: The Shadow Of The Templars (1996) sets a rather curious precedence. A delicate depiction of France that whilst forbidding, lack the theatrics expected of a video game. But it is precisely its non-conformity –– the middle ground between a written text –– that characterises the charming and unique adventure that follows. A rich blend of intricate narrative, memorable figures, gorgeous visuals and quite literally genre-defining gameplay: Shadow of the Templars birthed a franchise that earns a special place in my heart.


Of course, the multiplicity of said franchise is rather expansive. Broken Sword emanates from British developer Revolution Games –– and co-founder Charles Cecil –– who enjoyed some acclaim with Beneath a Steel Sky in 1994. The games, typically, focused on historical conspiracies within a 2D ‘Point-and-Click’ format and remain, to this day, Europe’s biggest selling adventure series. Spawning four sequels, Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror (1997), The Sleeping Dragon (2003), The Angel of Death (2005) and The Serpent’s Curse (2014) –– with its third and fourth instalments briefly embracing a 3D engine –– the franchise is typically lauded alongside the popular LucasArts SCUMM titles.

But coinciding with the release of Duke Nukem 3D and Core Design‘s original Tomb Raider, Broken Sword began life amidst very different approaches to this medium. Its emphasis on hand drawn set-pieces, slow gameplay and dry humour make it not only incongruous within the video game trajectory at the time but even more so today. The relative subsidence of  Point-and-Click adventures seems to cement this. Posing the question: what is its appeal and longevity?


Broken Sword, as a series, is something incredibly special. It’s much more than one or three award-winning titles and more than a product of its time. It’s also more than a mere robust point-and-click game. (Thought it is commendable) There is a far richer quality that surrounds its role as visual, jovial entertainment. This article is not a love letter to its first game nor the nostalgia it inspires today; but rather a look at the various threads the franchise has spun over the last twenty or so years. In short, Broken Sword has a certain approach: a humour, an intellect; an idiosyncratic choice of location, design and pacing that deserves attention, if not praise, that it often fails to attract.

2406718-img_0143


Paris in Fall: Inventory screenshot from opening scene in Shadow of the Templars (1996)


In this grossest of generalisations, Broken Sword follows the escapades of American lawyer George Stobbart and French journalist, love interest and all round purveyor of sass, Nico Collard. The two cross paths in a number of fated incidents that bind them forever. In the Shadow of the Templars, a near-death experience finds them on the trail of the Knights Templar; a fundamentalist cult that sees the pair travel from Parisian catacombs to Syrian markets. The sequel bares a similar scale: with the pair caught in a Peruvian conspiracy for Aztec treasure and traverse the world as a result. Later iterations rekindle these undertones, exploring everything from dragons to Gnostic spiritualism.  Without descending into plot details, the emphasis on exotic, hollywood locations with hidden doorways and temples-of-doom are a cornerstone of this franchise. Protecting the world from well-hidden weapons and cults features heavily, too. But all the same, these moments are always juxtaposed with everyday locations: cafes, hotels and construction sites. There is a humility that surrounds its more spectacular segments. It is, in essence, the series’ charm: how its protagonists become ‘accidental heroes’.


Unlocking the extraordinary within the ordinary is the crux here. It ties together both its narrative and visual components. Its gameplay follows the traditional ‘Point-and-Click’ format of using inventory items to solve problems; with a leaning towards an every day sensibility. Whether it be the pencil through a keyhole or similar pocket-lint trickery, there is something very honest, if not Macgyver-esque about it all. Dialogue shapes this further, with NPCs often alluding to solutions and ways to move the  game forward. At time this can be more omniscient: how can I distract a police officer? Before descending into something far sillier. The officer clearly needs the toilet; perhaps the nearby fountains will get him to move? Such humour is always appropriately placed and never at the expense of story. Where the Monkey Island titles obviously strived for a more fantastical, outlandish tone, the Broken Sword games remain more reserved. They balance humour like any great text, to mediate the darker moments, without becoming farcical. It is, above else, an undeniably British approach.

BS3-6


Broken Sword III: The Sleeping Dragon (2003) –– George and Nico become intwined with Arthurian legend in the franchises’ flawed but generally excellent foray into 3D gameplay.


In fact, the stories deserves greater attention. The mix of historical fiction, conspiracy and aforementioned normality is distilled rather well. The Neo-Knights Templar are reminiscent of an illuminati, freemason type group, but never feel too ridiculous for the subtext. As a historian, I find much of it rather digestible. That’s not to say fault-lines around the globe are harnessing the power of dragons; a power that will be exacerbated by a cult for world domination, but the build up is rather solid. The first title gives a wonderful, timeless insight into the execution of the Knight Templar by order of the Crown in 1314. The secrecy of their organisation is fitting and allows the player to journey across beautiful European and Asian locations as a result. By the third title, this pseudo-history is all the more acceptable. Revolution consistently embed their stories in a history that explores what is factually unproven but entirely possible all the same. In The Sleeping Dragon, which follows an Arthurian legend to Glastonbury, Revolution boast their British charm even further. It’s hard to imagine many developers venturing beyond Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in their internationally touted image of Britain. But here we see conversations about the BBC, the ‘rowdy’ music festival and the folklore that swaps the Somerset town. It all goes to serve the character of this franchise. Something that is exotic and exhilarating whilst retaining a personal, familiar feeling.

BS1_ancient_Templar_manuscript.png


Manuscript in Shadow of the Templars offers exposition through ‘Point-and-Click’ format


Its approach to the past is important on a cultural scale, too. Broken Sword is not an Indiana Jones nor Tomb Raider adventure. The mysteries of old are not used as playground for idle action. The game entails signifiant dialogue –– excellently written dialogue at that –– which makes the overall experience somewhere between an interactive story and a narrative heavy adventure. The flagrant lack of guns and violence is most pertinent. This is not part of a child-friendly age rating, although I do not doubt that factors, but rather a gun-ho adventure simply wouldn’t work with the tone and direction. Henchman and antagonists often wield handguns, offering immediate death for George and Nico in gameplay. But there is little impetus for either party to stoop to their level. In situations where Lara Croft would simply shoot her way out; George and Nico use stealth, common sense and whatever objects surround them to avoid capture. Firearms represent an end-game for the pair, making such encounters deeply refreshing.


Arguably, this could be a reflection of its regional heritage. Without wanting to over intellectualise the point, note that British culture is less facilitating towards firearms and therefore less fitting with the ‘everyday life’ that frames these games. For George to take a shotgun to a cafe would simply not make sense. As a result, Broken Sword has a more tangible violence. We knock out henchmen and avoid gunshots, but we do not reciprocate their means. Primarily, because it wouldn’t be logical: these characters are not violent people. But more notably, it would lower the tension and momentum that the titles build. We need to fear for these haphazard heroes and align with their cause. Otherwise, the mountains of dialogue would become laborious.

george-smoking-mirror.png


Opening cinematic from Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror (1997)


In other words, the dialogue that builds the character effectively compliments the gameplay. Indeed the strength of these titles can be credited to its well rounded cast and execution of such. George and Nico are defined figures who drive the qualities of the game. Stobbart is a stubborn, cocky protagonist but one deeply relatable. He is flawed, funny and his wise-cracks are not as sharp as he hopes. With Collard, we see a maturer flare, whose constant put downs make for a wonderful dynamic between the two. In later titles, the player bounces between these two characters, but what is important is that they remain recognisable throughout. They may not be immortalised in popular culture as previously noted tomb-raiders, but their depth outshines them all. It is also curious to note the criticism that the rather forgettable fourth instalment received for focusing on a new female counterpart. But all that said, the continuity between titles is well conceived. Gangster ‘Flap’, Museum curator André Lobineau and Police Sergeant Moue all make regular appearances in different titles. The games also have a penchant for easter eggs and internal jokes; poking fun at throwaway moments in early titles. More forgettable NPCs, from neighbours to the tourists George meets in Syria –– appropriately enjoying another vacation in its tropical sequel –– are scattered throughout the subsequent releases. Even the ghastly Goat puzzle in the first game makes for self-referential point about George’s irrational fear of the animal, nearly twenty years later. New characters are typically warm and interesting, but this continuity makes for a better experience. It threads the titles together whilst building a canonical universe of its own. Fan service or otherwise; this all contributes to the rich and unique Broken Sword world.

GOAT


‘The Goat Puzzle’


As for the relevance of this world today? A number of points seem pertinent. Primarily, the first two games saw resurgence a few years ago thanks to an App Store remaster. Smartphones make ‘Point-and-Click’ games rather more ‘touch and click’, but such a launch gave a new generation an opportunity to play these titles. It did so to great avail, although I personally did not care for the ‘Director’s Cut’ additions. (Revolution decided to pull a George Lucas and add new chapters to their remaster) Regardless, the sentiment was well received. More recently, and all the more excitingly, the fifth title to the franchise has seen a unanimous return to form. Released from a crowd-funded campaign, Revolution were free to make both the title they and the fans wanted. The overall result was a two-part title –– a pragmatic result of its unique production –– but a ‘sword’ game that saw the beautiful hand-drawn aesthetics, effortless humour and familiar faces embark on a new era. Boasting 1080p renders and more meticulous animation, this return to 2D ‘Point-and-Click’ proves an unyielding quality to these games. The Serpent’s Curse is the most enjoyable instalment for many years. It’s also available across all next-gen consoles and formats, making a remarkable revival for a supposedly dying genre.


There is also some underlying poignance to this newer release. The title of this article nods to the curious artistic design of Broken Sword. The games were always torn between gorgeous hand drawings and the choppy, pixelated technology of the mid-late nineties. But it’s seemingly come full circle. It once commanded the middle-ground between text and gaming; now does so with unashamed confidence. It is no longer held back by trying to fit in with its rivals. Broken Sword has both a style and substance of its own: the product of two decades of engineering.

scene_24_castell_exterior_car


Deja vu: A familiar scene in Broken Sword V: The Serpent’s Curse (2013-14)


Above all else, the Broken Sword games are defined on their own terms. They have heart, wit and a truly personal approach to story telling. It has memorable character and remains the most British series I’ve played whilst forgoing a British protagonist. It also represents an effort to keep strong, to strive further for the perfect adventure game even in a world which fell for its pistol-wielding adversaries. When citing influential titles of 1996, few would look upon Broken Sword in the Call of Duty world. But is precisely that legacy that inspired this piece. For those who invested into this franchise, who stood by its curious middle-period and wanted more than mere remasters have found themselves rewarded beyond all doubt.

The Broken Sword games represent an integral part of my childhood; a growing desire to pursue history academically and an affection towards narrative-heavy gaming. But they also offer something far more profound. They are empirical proof that the flashiest, most expensive or trendy titles do not always attain longevity. That the more adventurous stories, the riskiest and more curious can be the most inspiring. That titles can hold intrigue well beyond exploring what passed as digital entertainment twenty years ago. It has been a precarious journey for this franchise, but its resolve and triumph is unquestionable. And I cannot wait to see where it goes next.


11090


 

Band of Skulls – By Default (Album Review)

by-default

Southampton-trio Band of Skulls remain almost permanently on the cusp of success. Widely established amongst certain circles; yet under-appreciated and overlooked all the same. Their latest offering — and fourth full-length effort — seeks to rectify this. By Default hopes to cement the band as heavyweights by championing their most accessible songwriting to date. It sees their textbook formula of bombastic, arena-worthy percussion with Loveless-inspired riffs move into something much groovier: a darker, disco-inspired realm. At best, it prides their most confident, contagious material yet. But at worse, it represents a band still torn between moving forward and cherishing the past. A fitting predicament, perhaps, for a band flirting on the outskirts of recognition.

Opening with the throbbing ‘Black Magic’, By Default reminds us precisely why Band of Skulls have quietly crept up the ranks. A tout rhythm section with a dazzling hook: it makes for a ferocious opener. It’s not far removed from lead single ‘Killer’, which echoes the recognisable blend of grunge guitar and pop melodies that have come to define the band. These tracks feel more of a hangover from 2014’s Himalayan than anything particular fresh, but such songs feel welcome; a return to proverbial ‘form’ rather than ‘playing it safe’.

Nevertheless, By Default shines when it affords to take risks. Where it applies new groovier elements to that traditional ‘Skulls’ format. The disco-infused ‘So Good’ and ‘Bodies’ are clear highlights and offer a more seductive, percussive quality. This becomes all the more finessed with ‘This Is My Fix’, which sees such groove breath as the lead guitar favours intricacy over its typical (yet wonderful) abrasiveness. This all amalgamates rather tastefully in ‘Embers’, which may may well be the perfect distillation of old and new.

By Default’s unavoidable shortcoming, however, is the extent these songs fit together. Skulls have produced an eclectic collection of songs that are far from thematically linked. One half wants to smash up a room whilst the other wants to make sweet love to everything inside of it. Its mix of angst and groove lends itself to a compelling listen and arguably shapes their core sound — but it sometimes comes across a little overcooked. The continuity (or lack thereof) is more pertinent in its second-half; where it seems torn between embracing this new sound.  So much so, that ‘Little Momma’ feels like a nod to their rawer debut record; breaking the continuity of an album taking shape and momentum.

Above else, By Default is rather a collection of great songs than a concept or well crafted record. A collection, all the same, that represents some of their finest, most daring material to date. Whilst I wanted it to be the record that bolstered Band of Skulls into the the giants they deserve to be, it lacks the focus a they still desperately require. But as a concoction of their darker, sexier sensibilities — with the bite one comes to expect — when it shines, it does so blindingly. And I can’t wait to see where it takes them next.

Key Tracks: Embers, So Good, Bodies

Attack of the Clones: A Retrospective

Attack-of-the-Clones


Edited article published for The Boar in January 2016. Available here: https://theboar.org/2016/01/revisiting-star-wars-episode-ii-attack-of-the-clones/


Attack of the Clones (2002) was the first Star Wars picture I saw at the cinema. Despite being largely considered ‘Worse than The Phantom Menace’, there is no doubt it had a profound effect on my love for film, the franchise and in shaping the person I am today. I recall, at seven years of age, lightsaber in hand; queuing up for the next chapter of something I was already deeply emotionally invested in.

But re-watching it in lieu of The Force Awakens (2015) is like realising your childhood heroes are flawed individuals. Attack of the Clones misses every opportunity to be interesting. Plagued with poor writing, unimaginative direction and truly disappointing acting; it is unsurprisingly relegated to bottom of the pile. Albeit heavy-handed character arcs or tedious political sequences, it sacrifices all humanity and heart — traits that I feel define the best of the Star Wars universe. Its overindulgence in CGI is equally problematic and dates the film greater than its spritely thirteen years would have you believe.

star-wars-episode-ii-bail-organa-jar-jar-binks-padme-amidala-dorme-and-captain-typho

In fact, reflecting on what the film does well proves exceedingly difficult. It has a remarkable ability to feel like a lot transpires — new characters and set-pieces that have nothing to do with a desire to flog merchandise — yet it offers no real movement in terms of plot or character.  The film loosely accounts for the start of the Clone Wars, building upon Palpatine’s transition to Emperor; Anakin’s love interest and his flaky relationship with the Jedi Order. But for the most part, Attack of the Clones drags. If looking at the archetypal trilogy, the second part is typically the darkest chapter. It puts the established characters into new circumstances and allows for the final film to ascertain the resolution. But Clones sits far removed from the eloquence of Empire Strikes Back. (1980) In fact, it’s a far messier film than I remembered.

Admittedly, the politics of Clones didn’t resonate with me as a child. Yet they are the most immediately odd thing about this film upon re-watching it. They dictate an overwhelming amount time for little to no reason. Did we really need three films of Galactic Senate meetings to convey the rise of Evil? Obviously the Sith play both sides — Dooku coercing the Separatists and Palatine pushing the Senate into Civil War. But the anxiety and impact of such a move is non-existent. It’s lost on children and it’s not enough for adults. It’s hard to feel any concern for the likes of Bail Organa or Viceroy Gunray when they feel like expendable characters. Nor is one compelled by the political repercussions, either, when they’re drawn out by such tiresome parliamentary episodes. Where they offer the guise of rationale and relief in-between action sequences, they feel vague and tedious. It’s hard not to switch off. Even the film’s final line even embodies this: ‘Begun the Clone War has’ sounds more foreboding than it really is; as one finds themselves head-scratching as to what has really occurred for the last two hours and how it holds any credence towards the original films.

Worse still, the moments of genuine intrigue are wasted. The conspiracy regarding a Clone Army, commissioned by a deceased Jedi Master, has great potential. The burnt paper-trail in the Jedi Archives has a whiff of Film Noir, yet it is completely extinguished within the context of the film. There is no investigation into why a Jedi commissioned such an army, nor the implication of a Sith plot in its place. Remarkably, no-one in the Council finds it odd to use an Army that no-one [explicitly] asked for. For all their self-proclaimed wisdom, the Jedi Council are remarkably thoughtless in this film. Windu remarks in an opening sequence: ‘We’re keepers of the peace… not soldiers’. Yet the film literally ends with the Jedi roped into a war that need not even happen, with themselves happily fronting legions of troops. No doubt this is part of Palatine’s great scheme –– but it comes across as frustrating in practice. Amalgamating a film later, to our beloved Obi-Wan parading around with soldiers and a military title: ‘General Kenobi, you are a bold one!’

sw_lgi_gallery_06

This inherent lack of continuity or defined characterisation overshadows Clones. Lucas makes it hard to sympathise with anyone, Jedi or otherwise. Hell, it’s hard to care about anything in this film. Jar Jar Binks declares Emergency Powers to the Chancellor, instigating a Galactic Civil War [!] — whilst the most powerful Jedi in history, the so-called ‘Chosen One’, enjoys a picnic on Naboo. With fire-place passion to boot; Lucas simultaneously achieves one of the most laborious romances in filmic history alongside the most tedious of plots. The original trilogy triumphed because of relatable characters in a distantly un-relatable universe. Laurence Kasdan crafted perfect on-screen chemistry with Han and Leia in Empire: a human romance that blossomed in the darkest of times. In Clones, we see parallels, a vague attempt to find love in a hopeless place — but the jump from the pre-pubescent: ‘Are you an angel?’ in The Phantom Menace to ‘I’m haunted by that kiss you should never have given to me’ is almost vomit-inducing. It’s simply not believable. It’s uncomfortable to watch. Albeit it the age gap or the fact that people, even in a Galaxy Far Away, do not speak like this; the script does little to convince audiences about this newfound love.

Anakin’s seduction to the Dark Side is equally fallible to this half-baked writing style. The sequence where he massacres Tusken Raiders represents another missed opportunity. It reveals his aggressive and possessive instincts — a penchant for the Dark Side in lieu of his late mother — but the character developed up until this point is so unbearable, that the scene caries no weight. It is for this reason that Anakin’s ‘dark’ moments, just as his romance with Padmé, feel like an after-thought. It is as if the pressure of turning him into Vader hangs awkwardly over Clones; forcing abrasive dialogue and clunky character development.

All that said, there are some commendable efforts within the film. Credit should be bestowed upon Ewan McGregor; there is little doubt that his role within the prequels stands above the rest, something that became increasingly apparent upon re-watching these films. He bought his all, it’s just a shame no-one else did. Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett) also shines amidst a sea of mediocrity, which is commendable given the material handed to him, although he never feels fully fleshed-out. Christopher Lee provides a curious role as master-swordsman Count Dooku — a character whose potential seems incredibly missed. It seems whilst actors can rise above the weakest script; Lucas et al fail to develop them beyond their action-figure value. In fact, this continues an idiosyncratic trend within the Star Wars saga — one of squandered, potentially brilliant, on-screen villains. (See also: Darth Maul, Jango Fett, General Grievous)

3782408-star-wars-episode-ii-attack-of-the-clones.mp4_snapshot_01.50.10_2014.04.25_15.40.28

Above all else, re-watching Attack of the Clones, is a conflicted experience. For all its whimsical action, it has not aged well. The combat is excessive and CGI in place of thoughtful spectacle feels shallow in retrospect. Nothing comes close to that opening shot of A New Hope (1977) and the whole film is tinged in a strange digital processing, with every shot leaning upon once state-of-the-art technology to construe meaning.  Its visual style is jarring; jumping between mind-numbingly fast edits and poorly constructed backdrops. (See: Kamino and Arena Sequences) Equally, if viewing it as sophisticated political drama, it feels ill-conceived.  The plot is malnourished, dragging its feet for the two hour running time. It’s hard to care for characters and their meandering problems, nor process a clumsy Gungan quite literally changing the fate of the Galaxy forever.  As for its performative value? Bar a few commendable efforts, it’s not an easy watch. Hayden Christensen’s insufferable moaning is both coarse and irritating — and now remains in Star Wars canon as the precursor to one of Cinema’s greatest villains.

Ultimately, if one takes nostalgia out of the equation, Attack of the Clones deserves a thousand years in the digestive transit of the Great Sarlacc. It is a misguided and heavily confused picture. But by the same token, I do find it hard to scoff at a movie that for better of for worse, shaped my relationship with science fiction. My cynical, adult self will never forget that unobtainable sense of escapism I enjoyed as a child. It is for that reason, and that reason alone, I might just dig out my lightsaber for an IMAX Anniversary Cut. Just don’t expect me to enjoy any Special Edition-style adjustments.

After all, George, we already hate sand.

Spectre Review — [TL;DR, Minor Spoilers]

daniel-craig-in-spectre-1940x1293

Sam Mendes’ second-helping to the Bond franchise has been long awaited. His last effort, Skyfall (2012) bolstered the franchise back onto the path that Casino Royale (2006) so brilliantly laid out. It balanced homage to the ‘classics’ whilst remaining fresh and relevant — a perfect tribute to a fifty year old franchise.

But its successor is little short of a disappointment. Daniel Craig — whom is appearing increasingly jaded with his role — performs in one of the most lacklustre Bond films in years. Spectre intensifies the action, the scale and the tempo; at the cost of meaningful story. To some extent, it undoes all of the interesting development his films have made — relegating Bond back to an era of exhausting stereotype.

Of course, many will ask — what do you expect from a Bond film? As a whimsical action film, Spectre is marvellous. The production value is high and Bond has never looked this good. But for those hoping for something sharper will find that beneath the spectacle lies a clunky script and a regurgitated plot. It’s not an inherently bad film, but the faults are so easily avoided, it makes for a frustrating watch. What follows is a long-form piece breaking down my thoughts regarding Spectre — with a minor spoiler alert for those pedantic about such things. (Not that anything in this film will surprise you…)


Continue reading