I love how as the sun starts to set the skies above my neighbourhood come alive with bats. It’s probably thanks to a couple of seemingly abandoned buildings in the vicinity, in which bats can roost during the daytime hours. If this is the case I hope these buildings remain untouched by development, ruined as they are, so that one continues to be reminded of how amazing bats are.
Wait, am I supposed to be writing a pop culture column?
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks playing Game Boy Advance games on my phone. Because, hey, you tell me a better use for a €300 smartphone than playing games from not one, but two generations ago? Also I couldn’t find my GBA, my DS suffers from a broken hinge and in any case I don’t own copies ofGuru Logic Champ or Rhythm Heaven, two Japan-only games I admittedly should have hunted down when visiting Tokyo’s famous Super Potato. Because, damn, Guru Logic Champ is a great little puzzler, and Rhythm Heaven is one of the best things Nintendo has made, meaning it is near as perfect as music-based games can get. As for emulators I’ve been using My Boy! as it can emulate the gyroscope functionality required for Warioware: Twisted!, another game I’d missed on during the glorious days of the GBA.
Speaking of Nintendo and handheld gaming, I’ve also been playing a lot of Super Smash Bros for the 3DS. Don’t know if I’ll review it or not but I quite like it, if in good part due to the copious Nintendo fanservice it contains. There’s even references to the aforementioned Rhythm Heaven, for goodness’ sake! Pictured there is a fighter bearing my own face. He is, predictably, the best of the lot.
This advert to the New 3DS (the actual name to a recently announced successor to the 3DS with an in no way confusing title) starring Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is unbearably awesome.
Another thing currently consumed: Gotham, the new cop show that serves as a Batman prequel of sorts. It starts off wobbly, with little reason to exist beyond winks at comic fans, but by the 4th episode I’m… quite liking it? And not only in “it’s better than Cryptofacist Technocrats of S.H.I.E.L.D. at least” fashion?
Actual DC Comics related news! Warner Bros. announced it plans to release two DC Comics-based movies yearly, starting from 2016 up til 2020. To which I can only say GOOD LORD PLEASE MAKE IT STOP.
Another thing I’m watching: Gundam Reconguista in G. No, I’ve no idea what that title is supposed to mean, and it’s the first Gundam show I’ve actively watched since 1995’s Gundam Wing. but I’m also quite enjoying this. The animation’s colourful and surprising old shool in style, the character design is really likeable, and hey, there’s giant robots. Those are a thing I quite like.
Have a song by Japan’s FAR EAST MENTION MANNEQUINS (aka FEMM), who released a first album earlier this month.
EDGE OF TOMORROW (dir. Doug Liman, 2014) and SNOWPIERCER (dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2013)
HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE VIDEOGAME CINEMA
The influence of videogames on cinema has always been seen as somewhat negative. And rightly so – after all, it tends to amount to either ill-thought out adaptations (Pop Quiz! Name a videogame movie that’s worth watching. Trick question, such a thing doesn’t exist!) or simply mindless, uninspired action sequences of the kind not even befitting the most journeyman of journeyman film directors. But a couple of recent releases brought about thoughts on how electronic entertainment can actually exert a positive, or at least interesting, influence on cinema. These are inevitably genre pieces and, perhaps, ultimately unremarkable slices of film. I am referring to, of course, Edge of Tomorrow and Snowpiercer.
Of the two Edge of Tomorrow is the most obviously game-inspired. An adaptation of a Japanese novel, the wonderfully titled “All You Need is Kill” 1 (Hiroshi Sakurazawa, 2004), Edge of Tomorrow has been described as Groundhog Day (1993) as set within a war against aliens, but really it is Shoot ‘Em Up: The Film of the Game Genre. Think about it – protagonist William Cage (Tom Cruise) is stuck in a time loop where he is essentially forced to take part in the war against the aliens. If he dies – and he does, often and violently – the day resets, and he has to repeat the fight all over again. However Cage is very much aware of the loop right from the start, meaning his multiple deaths are actually the road through which he improves his chances of survival. After all, he has essentially unlimited time to train and improve himself and his alien-killing skills, which he does through the help Rita Vratsky (Emily Blunt), a war hero revealed to have previously been in a time loop situation similar to Cage’s. Circumstances caused her to lose the time looping ability, but she remains aware of what Cage is going through, even if she is unable to ultimately affect her “destiny” without his direct influence. In videogame parlance this basically makes her a Non Playable Character (NPC), who joins Player Character (PC) Cage in his quest to die. Repeatedly.
Seen as such Edge of Tomorrow would make one hell of a shooter, one equal parts Dark Souls and Metal Slug 2, and comes dressed in a heavy duty military aesthetic worthy of any modern shooter. And while one would think having an unkillable protagonist would kill the film of any tension the opposite is actually true – the viewer is actually left engaged as they see how Cage solves his predicaments through his ability, and the editing is clever enough to exploit its storytelling potential. If anything the film’s tension is lost once Cage loses his ability to loop time. Theoretically this should have lent the third act’s action with more dramatic weight – after all the game is over once Cage loses his final life – but instead the film degenerates into a generic action piece, particularly as it moves to a dark war-torn Paris for the finale. Also, this is a Tom Cruise vehicle, meaning no one would ever even consider his being at risk of actually dying (spoiler warning – he doesn’t! 3).
A final note, one regarding the aliens involved in Edge of Tomorrow. Dubbed “Mimics”, the bads look a bit like semi-abstract mechanical octopi, and feature a glowy bit in the middle indicating where one should shoot them for massive damage. Pure game monster design, basically. Meanwhile the climax involves fighting a supposedly spectacular final boss, only like the action immediately preceding its appearance it’s all a bit underwhelming. Bit of a shame, that.
Our second film, Snowpiercer, is perhaps less obviously game-influenced. It adapts a French comic, Le Transperceneige (Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette, 1982), and tells the story of the last remnants of humanity aboard the titular Snowpiercer, a massive train making an infinite journey around a frozen world. The train represents a microcosm of human society – the rich live it up in luxury in the first class carriages, while the poor are crammed in miserable conditions within the train’s tail section. From the tail section comes Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), a heroic type who leads a rebellion among the lower classes, with the aim to march all the way to the first class carriages and occupy the Snowpiercer. No, it’s not as if anyone said this was going to be a very subtle social metaphor…4
But what about the videogame influences? First off is its very setting – true, the source material is over 30 years old, but the most recent and arguably more memorable texts set in similar pocket reflections of our world come from games, namely Bioshock (2007) and Bioshock Infinite (2013). Both titles, like Snowpiercer, use their respective settings (the underwater metropolis of Rapture and floating citystate of Columbia) to propel politically-minded genre fiction, tales of idealistic societies gone rapidly wrong. Snowpiercer’s richly detailed production design also reminds of these games, while Chris Evans’ Curtis might as well have been designed as their PC, what with his stubble, crew cut, generally bland demeanour and specially gifted female companion, the clairvoyant Yuna (Goh Ah-Sung).
However what really makes Snowpiercer game-y is its structure, which is dictated by its setting. The Snowpiercer, like all trains, is composed of carriages, each of which makes a discrete block of space – a bit like a game level. Curtis and companions make their way through the carriages which, like game levels, can bear challenges, general scene building or a spot of storytelling. Each carriage is also fairly visually distinct, marking progress as the characters traverse from the tail-end slums to an on-board farm, a school, a drug den and, eventually, the luxurious first class cabins. At one point they even find themselves in an aquarium car – one housing an admittedly ridiculous scene, if while serving as an effective visual set piece. This aquarium car also points out another similarity with Rapture or Columbia, as well as other game worlds – the Snowpiercer is an impossible space. One cannot think too hard about such a space, otherwise any application of real world logic tear it apart. Since it does not exist, the director can, and does, liberally compress and expand it as required by the current visual moment, adherence to architecture be damned. 5
Ultimately, despite good intentions and ambition both Edge of Tomorrow and Snowpiercer edge closer to the failure side of the genre film quality equation. But both also offer interesting takes on familiar material, as well as proof that the cribbing of ideas and concept from other, contemporary mediums can work well within the context of cinema. And that despite both being about white men forced to take Important Decisions and such rot.
1 Why this masterpiece of titling wasn’t retained is a depressing mystery.
2 In relation to Edge of Tomorrow, I have played the first level of Metal Slug 3 so many times I basically can play the damn thing with my eyes closed.
3 For the curious, the ending to All You Need is Kill is a far darker affair than that of the Hollywood adaptation, if one where its protagonist still survives the fight.
4 The original comic tells a different, more layered, story, but remains a fairly basic rich vs poor narrative.
5 This idea of a train as a series of game levels has also been explored by Adventure Time in “Dungeon Train”, an episode about, well, a train that happens to be an infinite dungeon. It’s all very clever and at only 15 minutes length well worth watching.
THE MIRROR EMPIRE (Kameron Hurley, 2014)
The truism of not judging a book by its cover should be extended to the blurb. Because, as blurbs go, the one to The Mirror Empire (book one of The Worldbreaker Saga) is as uninspiring as they come, suggesting fantasy tosh involving dark stars, troubled orphans, precocious youngsters and illegitimate rulers. It all reminds of why I don’t really bother with the genre in the first place. But then again writing The Mirror Empire is Kameron Hurley, author of the fine Bel Dame Apocrypha (read my review of the first in that series, God’s War, here), so I had to pay it at least some attention.
What makes The Mirror Empire stand out from similar works involving a multitude of point-of-view characters, naming conventions based on alphabet soup (one character is named “Ahkio”, another “Zezili”) and worlds on the brink of destruction is the world building, which informs both characterisation and plotting. For instance, take the aforementioned Ahkio. He’s the religious and political leader of the Dhai, a nation formed by former slaves. Split into numerous tribes, the Dhai form large, polygamous families, are apparently bisexual by nature (in fact they recognise five genders) and tend to favour female leaders – meaning the male Ahkio is seen as an anomaly, if not an illegitimate usurper to the throne, even more so during the violent, uncertain times the action takes place in. Meanwhile Zezili comes from Dorinah, the Dhai’s former slavers. The Dorinah recognise the gender binary we know and love (ie boy and girl) but also happen to be a violent matriarchy where free women fight, kill and fuck, men are there to look pretty and be fucked, and slaves get to do the rest. Thus it makes sense for Zezili to be an army official, a kickass, if flaweed, female character who’d probably be right at home in the similarly female-led world of Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha. And that’s just a couple of examples from a large – perhaps too much so – cast, where it feels a few of its characters end up forgotten as the plot rushes past with its tale of civil war, extradimensional invaders, satellite-based magic systems and carnivorous mutant flora. Yes, you read that right. Plants are one of the hazards this novel’s protagonists have to deal with, as stalking the land are semi-sentient people-eating trees, as well as generally dangerous or toxic (or both) vegetation.
Written in sharp, noir-y prose, The Mirror Empire is ultimately proof genre fiction does not need to lose its teeth in order to be progressive. If anything, it’s even spikier and nastier through its unconventional character groupings and skewed gender dynamics. Being the first in a trilogy means it leaves a multitude of untied plot strands and cliffhangers, but this remains a strong, promising start.
Marco Attard, Malta, 2014.