Friday, 28 August 2009

Some Thoughts on Video Games...

What follows is a rambling tangent that was originally part of the next review proper. But in the interests of length and relevance, it got cut. So instead I’m presenting it here as a separate piece – think of it as a DVD extra to the coming review!

Now I grew up with video games, being born only slightly before them. I remember vividly the excitement of the Space Invaders craze, with breathless reports trickling in from class mates returning from visits to the seaside, that traditional cornucopia of slot machines and arcades, of this new type of game where you could shoot alien spaceships. Then there were the first home consoles, which offered twenty plus different games and a distinct lack of pocket straining amounts of ten pence coins. Admittedly the games were just Pong tricked out with slightly different graphics to create other sports like football and hockey but these ‘television games’ as they were first called, were still incredibly exciting.

And even better was to come. With the Atari and various hand-held one game gizmos, at last you could play the likes of Space Invaders, Pac Man and Asteroids in the comfort of your own home. But perhaps the most magnificent and influential era came with the birth of the microcomputer. For a start, have a computer in your own house was a sci-fi dream come true – surely the age of hover cars, domestic robots and jet packs was surely not far away now…

Of course, we vastly over estimated the potential of those early machines, but you have to remember that we’d all grown up with the idea that that a computer was a super machine brain that could do anything thanks to decades of science fiction. Computers were unusual and exotic devices back then, and the general attitude to computers is perhaps best encapsulated by a piece of graffiti inscribed into a desk at my school that read “God’s only clever because he’s got a ZX81” – a claim that gets more hilarious with every passing year.

But despite the disappointment that your Spectrum or Commodore 64 wasn’t going to give Hal 9000 or Orac a run for their money any time soon, it did deliver something far better. With a humble micro, not only could you copy games easily from your mates (thus beginning modern piracy) but you could actually create a video game yourself. And naturally many of us had a crack at it, and also many of us found that programming involved a lot of tedious typing out lines of gibberish and included more mathematics than we were comfortable with. But others succeeded and several school boys not only made small fortunes but began a long and noble tradition of independent game development.

With the decline of the microcomputer and the rise of the next generation of consoles, the Sega Megadrive and Nintendo’s SNES for a while video game creation drifted back into the hands of the professionals. However with the advent of Windows and the birth of the modern home computer in the nineties, once again programmers in bedrooms and garages started creating again on a large scale.

Often in the field of computing, breakthroughs come out of the left field and gaming is no exception with some of the most innovative games been created by small teams rather than vast corporations. Little companies like id, Westwood and Cyan Worlds not only gave us such landmark titles as Doom, Command & Conquer and Myst but also spawned whole genres of video games. Roughly speaking, it would seem that every time the home computer becomes the favourite platform for video gaming, there is a blossoming of creativity within the industry and the parameters of the games themselves change.

The magic of the home computer as a gaming platform is that it allows gamers to enter the world of game creation. For example, Doom was a defining moment for the first person shooter but where it was truly ground breaking was that it allowed ordinary gamers to create skins, write levels and modify the engine to create new games. The influence of this ‘mod-ability’ of PC titles is not to be underestimated. Many people currently working in the gaming industry got started by designing such add-0ns for their favourite titles. And more broadly, this type of bedroom tinkering has got many people into coding and graphics work.

Indeed I myself, was inspired to get to grips with the Photoshop from a desire to create a skin of my much loathed driving instructor for Quake 2. And my first steps in the world of coding came from creating skins for Quake 3 Arena which required the creation of text files to instruct the game engine on which part of the models to apply my custom graphics.

However, currently the focus of the industry is on the hardware rather than the game content. The main evolution in recent years has been the Wii, which is changing the way we play games. With the Xbox and the Playstation hurriedly developing similar motion controls, at the moment it would seem that game content is taking a backseat. And with sports sims flourishing again thanks to these new controllers, it looks like console gaming has come full circle.

Of course all of this has happened before; indeed video gaming as a medium has advanced through periodic cycles in which either the gameplay or the technology dominates industry trends. It’s a pattern in which either the hardware or the software becomes the arena for innovation. Advances in the capabilities of the components open new vistas of possibility for game designers and the dreams of said designers push forward the creation of new platforms.

However with ever up grading consoles as the dominant platforms, I do worry a little for the future. Partly this is down the fact that console titles lack ‘mod-ability’ and thus a generation of gamers aren’t getting to dip their toes in the sea of game creation. But more generally, with game production so dependent on the hardware arms race and becoming so technically complex, it would be a shame if the days of independent amateurs knocking out storming titles from the comfort of their bedrooms are over.

But thankfully that sad day has not yet dawned. There are still small dedicated teams out there coding, unencumbered by the ‘horse-designed-by committee” shenanigans of the big corporations. And in the next review, I’ll be looking at a title that was produced by a single set of hands; a title produced in an often overlooked genre of video gaming but fully deserving of the epithet ‘undiscovered classic’…

Sunday, 16 August 2009

MOON (2009)

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I only want what’s best for you. There are no spoilers here.

There is an old adage which states that painting, as an art form, is always several decades ahead of literature on the creative curve. Similarly in The Primal Screen: A History of Science Fiction Film (1991), long time genre critic John Brosnan posits that there is a similar lag between science fiction movies and books. Furthermore his tome develops the thesis that despite the massive boost Star Wars gave to the genre, in the long run it’s effect as been somewhat detrimental; ushering in a return to the zap and blast school of ‘50s pulp and stifling the growth of the more cerebral and mature strain of SF films emerging in the 1970s.

And certainly from the 1908s onward much of SF in the cinema has either followed the child friendly adventurism of Lucas’ space saga and Spielberg’s ET or opted for the dark and violent thrills of James Cameron’s Terminator films and Aliens. The 70s trend which produced the likes of Silent Running, 2001 and Rollerball, where stood for ‘speculative fiction’ and embraced the inner space approach of the 1960s ‘new wave’ school largely disappeared. And the advent of the summer blockbuster school of movie making that grew out of the box office successes of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, coupled with leaps forward in special effects technology has ensured that the pulp adventure brand of SF has continued to rule the day.

However some brave souls have continued to keep the spirit of smart SF alive, making films which are about exploring concepts and ideas rather than starship dogfights and robots knocking seven bells out of each other. And this summer we have the release of Duncan Jones’ Moon, a film that not only furthers this neglected strain of SF but positively drips with affection for its predecessors.

Moon is the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the single crew man operating an automated mining operation on the far side of the moon. He is nearing the end of his long and lonely three year shift, during which his only companionship is the robotic artificial intelligent GERTY (Kevin Spacey) and the occasional recorded transmission from Earth. However Sam is not quite as alone as it first appears…

For me, a good rule of thumb for how great a film is how well your opinion of it holds up a few days after seeing it. Many films entertain or even impress on the initial viewing, but after some time has elapsed that first impression fades. However a really brilliant piece of cinema will linger in the mind; you may be haunted by its atmosphere, find yourself pondering its plot further, itching recommending it to friends, hitting the net to rabidly consume anything written about it, and most crucial be itching to see it again. And Moon has provoked all of these reactions in me.

Despite a tiny cast and a very low budget (around $4 million), Moon delivers an absorbing and intense story and I think it can safely be said that all concerned with this project have truly exceeded themselves. To begin with Moon does not look in anyway cheap. There are none of the typicall shortcomings of low budget filming making here.

Usually the bane of a cheap SF movie are the limited special effects. However in Moon, we have some of the best effects work I’ve seen in a while. This film does not feature the usual eye-watering mountains of CGI work; it doesn’t attempt to wow the audience with hollow spectacle and littering the screen with impressively realistic but somehow still utterly unconvincing set pieces. There are no worlds exploding under the weight of robots, or raptors playing the banjo in cosmic firestorms here thankfully.

Instead, the special effects, in conjunction with highly detailed sets and beautiful cinematography actually build a wholly convincing world. So convincing in fact, that halfway through the movie, I had a sudden jolt when I remembered that they didn’t actually film this on the lunar surface. It’s quite fitting considering the SF style of this film that Jones managed to procure effects veteran Bill Pearson to work on Moon, the man who built the model of the Nostromo for the original Alien. In an age where so many directors instantly reach for the computer, Moon showcases what can be achieved with old school model work and some well executed CGI touches.

Just as narratively, much of recent movie SF has been either interstellar romps or dystopian action, so too the aesthetics of SF are polarized. Either we have bright and shiny futures, all pristine white walls and twinkling technology, or grimy industrial nightmares, full of dripping water, rust and low lighting, garnished with an inexplicable amount of pipes spewing steam for no good reason.

Moon however brings back a third approach, using a look I’d describe as ‘tomorrow, today’. Much like the hardware featured in the classic Dan Dare comics of the ‘50s or Derek Medding’s model work for various Gerry Anderson series in the ‘60s, the design of the Sarang lunar base looks like something which would be produced if NASA started building tomorrow. It’s the technology of the future realized in a contemporary way. Hence the rovers and harvesters looks like something vehicle designers would build today and GERTY, the base’s AI, has a body that is little different from the robots that assemble cars now. Also in an inspired touch, GERTY has a ‘face’ which displays different emoticons to match his mood. Not only does this mirror several real life artificial intelligence projects but creates a character which I predict will become as iconic as Hal 9000 or R2D2.

More importantly though, Moon’s world looks not only futuristic but invokes our own working spaces. Things are worn and show the familiar signs of something that was once new and shiny tarnishing under fair wear and tear. The space age elements such as the computer banks are offset with familiar touches such as coffee rings, creeping grime and post-it notes.

As the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge noted a work of fiction should evoke “a willing suspension of disbelief” and in particular, a tale of the fantastic could achieve this with “a human interest and a semblance of truth”. And this latter phrase sums up Moon perfectly as it not only shows us a convincing future but backs it up with an engaging emotional storyline.

Like its forebears Silent Running and 2001, Moon is concerned with inner rather than outer space. It’s not a story about the latest zap guns or the mechanics of warp drives, it’s about a man who finds himself in an extraordinary situation, and tells a tale that questions what it is to be human.

Sam Rockwell is frankly outstanding. For much of the film he is the only actor on screen and his performance not only carries the entire movie but he does so with considerable charm and heart. The role of Sam Bell especially was written for him by Jones and Nathan Parker, and it shows. In it Rockwell gets to display a wide range of emotions in what would be a very challenging part for any actor. And Rockwell is more than up to the job; it’s a real tour de force performance and he deserves at the very least a nomination for every major acting award going. If he doesn’t win anything next spring, there ain’t no justice and I’ll be leading a Tony Harrison-style chorus of “this is an outrage!”.

Equally impressive is Kevin Spacey as the voice of GERTY. And though on the face of it, the role of a computer is an undemanding one; basically just saying lines in a robotic voice; Spacey manages to imbue GERTY with real character. It’s a brilliantly subtle performance with some masterfully judged emotional infections. There is not only a great interplay between Sam and GERTY, there is chemistry and you see that there is an actual friendship between them as the film develops.

Also special mention must also be made of Clint Mansell’s score. Not only is it hauntingly beautiful but it meshes with the film perfectly, evoking and intensifying the emotions and atmosphere being created on screen. All too often these days, film soundtracks are either by-the-numbers knockoff Williams/Elfman orchestral wallpaper, or a selection of pre-existing pop and rock tunes selected to sell an LP to teens. So it’s a great pleasure to see a film which has a proper individual score, but furthermore it’s something of a real rarity to see a movie where the music is so beautifully woven into the fabric of the film. Like Carpenter’s soundtrack for Halloween, Mansell’s music for Moon is not just background flourishes but part of the story itself.

Moon is one of those rare movies were all the elements mesh beautifully and become greater than the sum of their parts. It’s a highly polished piece of work, and whose achievements are even more impressive considering it is Duncan Jones’ debut feature. On a technical level the direction is quite stunning but his really inspiring accomplishment is bringing together narrative, design, performances, effects and music into one seamless whole, and creating a unique and powerful piece of cinema. Duncan Jones is definitely a name to watch, and I was delighted to discover that he plans a further two films in the Moon series.

Not only is Moon a welcome return to intelligent SF, it is, without doubt, a hands down classic. It’s not just a brilliant slice of science fiction but a great piece of drama. It's a superb film which is worhty of every superlative you can throw at it, and which deserves to be appreciated by lovers of great cinema as well as genre fans.

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If you go outside Sam, I cannot guarantee your safety from spoilers

I know I’ve already praised his performance but I really feel the need to laud Sam Rockwell further in this section as he gives not one but two outstanding performances. It is quite a test for an actor to be the sole performer on screen, and also quite a feat to perform two roles in the same film. And all of this is required from Rockwell, who rises to the challenge admirably.

But furthermore Moon requires him to play the twin roles against himself. Now we’ve all seen this kind of thing before in a variety of forms – for example, a twin turning up is a much beloved plot device for countless television shows . However while the visual wizardry that brings this illusion to life in Moon is second to none, what really stands out is the quality of Rockwell’s acting.

There is a clear distinction between the two Sams and the twin motif here is far more than just a plot gimmick. As the story unfolds we can see how the original Sam has changed and grown as a person during is three year tour of duty. And these changes are contrasted sharply with the new Sam’s character.

It’s a testament to the powers of his dual performances that it becomes very easy to forget that both Sam’s are being played by Rockwell. And when you consider how these scenes will have been filmed – out of sequence, against a green screens and with only imagination to flesh out the other role, Rockwell’s performance is all the more awe-inspiring. Again, if he doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar, there ain’t no justice!

Now I did guess correctly some plot twists in Moon, but in fairness that is more down to me having read countless twist-in-the-tale short stories over the years rather than any weakness in the film’s storyline. And, more importantly, Moon isn’t a film that lives or dies by the unexpected nature of its twists – it’s not a M Night Shyamalan type of tale and its weight lies within the emotional power of the narrative.

That said though, Moon did spectacularly catch me out in a few places. As we saw in the first section, Moon is very much the child of the 1970’s literate SF cinema, and anyone familiar with the movies from this period will spot many references to them. There are little call backs to the likes of Dark Star and Silent Running dotted throughout the film.

However, in a perfect example of Duncan Jones’ finesse as a director, one of these little visual allusions becomes a rather neat plot twist. As the sharper eyed of you may have noticed, GERTY’s robotic interface features a camera lens eye that harks back to 2001’s Hal. And as the film’s story unfolds it becomes apparent that all is not quite as it should be on the Sarang base, and that Lunar Industries is up to something rather shady.

Now anyone who has seen 2001, will soon form the impression that GERTY isn’t quite the harmless “plastic pal who’s fun to be with” (© the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation)he first appears to be. Indeed that Hal eye will lead you to believe that GERTY is either mad and/or evil. But as the film enters the final third, there is the very pleasing reveal that GERTY is not the embodiment of the immoral corporation but is actually on Sam’s side after all. Well played Mr Jones!

More generally though, I really liked the fact the GERTY character had a story and a journey of his own. There is a very strong sense of a real relationship between GERTY and Sam and again Kevin Spacey deserves to be praised for his vocal performance. However the role GERTY has in the film is excellently plotted and scripted.

This subplot, pleasingly for SF fans everywhere, has a subtle echo of Isaac Asimov’s famous I, Robot stories, where contradictions in a machine’s programming lead to unexpected results. On numerous occasions in the first part of the film GERTY states that his primary role is to look after Sam. However when Sam begins to discover the truth about himself and the cloning operation, there is a powerful sense of GERTY becoming conflicted with his programming which lead to the AI eventually deciding to reveal not only reveal the truth but help Sam.

Finally I’d like to address a point raise by Ian Loring of Cinerama in the 35mm Heroes podcast. In a piece of what he confessed was a bit of extreme nitpicking in an excellent film, he questioned what was the point of two visions the original Sam has of what we later will discover is his grown up daughter; a daughter who he who he believes still to be three years old.

Rather than some inserted Solaris style weirdness, my theory would be that these hallucinations are in fact Sam’s subconscious trying to tell him that things are not what they seem. And supporting this idea, there is the matter of the model. The original Sam notes that some one else started it, and new Sam questions why as it is a diorama depicting a location they have a personal attachment too. Being the literally cut from the same cloth, this question no doubt had occurred to the original Sam too.

But also, there is another vision. At one point Sam briefly sees what appears to be his past self on a monitor screen, a Sam still sporting long hair and a bushy beard. On one hand this would fit nicely into the warning from the subconscious thesis. But as this hallucination appears on a computer another possibility presents itself – that GERTY is trying to enlighten Sam to his predicament…

It’s exactly this kind of subtly that makes Moon such a joy. And coupled with the excellent performances and stand out cinematography, this depth and intelligence makes Moon a film with a high rewatch value.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Friday 13th Retrospective Part 5 - The Beginning of the End?

There will be spoilers and there will be blood

The year is 1984 and Jason is dead once more. However after The Final Chapter raked it in at the box office, in a textbook example of money talking, Paramount decided that the franchise should continue. Hence a year later Friday 13th Part 5 – A New Beginning hit the theatres. And lo, the fans were delighted…

…Until they saw the movie, that is. And then the howls of protest and outrage were loud and long. Louder even than the censorious moral guardians who wanted such films banned. So loud in fact, that my sources in NASA inform me that they can be now heard on Saturn, and officials at CETI are concerned that the first thing an alien civilisation will detect from us is the cryptic message “Fuck Roy!!!”.

Yes, this is hands down the most unpopular film in the series and is routinely nominated as the worst film in the franchise. The director, one Danny Steinman, never helmed another feature and, I’m guessing is this glancing over his shoulder for irate machete toting Jasonites. And what is the reason for all this ire? Well, this episode of the saga doesn’t feature Jason as the killer. He appears but the film has a twist ending in which it is revealed that the slayings have been committed by a copycat killer, the afore mentioned Roy, whose significance is puzzling the scholars on Yuggoth even as we speak.

In hindsight, you can understand the intentions behind the decision not to feature everyone’s favourite slaphead as the author of the carnage. The first movie after all famously didn’t feature Jason as the killer and in this instalment they were attempting to recreate the same murder mystery vibe of the original. They figured as long as there were plenty of killings and some nudity ‘da kids’ would be happy. And though these elements are undoubtedly a part of the appeal, however what the studio failed to appreciate was the popularity of Jason himself.

And there was a precedent for this, which considering its source is harder to understand why the makers of The New Beginning overlooked. In 1982, Halloween 3 – The Season of the Witch was released which bombed appallingly when movie goers found out it didn’t feature another round of stalk and slash with Michael Myers. Screen Nigel Kneale (who asked for his name to removed from the film after they bastardised his script) has a rather telling story about its production –

I said ‘Don’t you want some kind of suspense at the beginning? A zero point from which to build?’ ‘Oh’ no,’ they said. ‘You must start tearing off heads off. We’ve got to keep faith with the kids’.

However as Universal bosses discovered the kids actually do care about story and character, and all the head ripping in the world would not compensate for seeing a sequel that had no connection to the previous two films and didn’t feature the villain they’d paid to see.

While The New Beginning does clearly establish that it is a continuation of the Friday 13th saga by making the Tommy Jarvis character from The Final Chapter its focus, really the audience reaction to a Halloween movie sans The Shape should have really flagged up the fact that not having Jason as the killer would not go down well.

But in all fairness, the movie does deliver more Jason action than it is usually credited with. To begin with, it opening with an excellent scene depicting a returning Corey Feldman witnessing two chuckleheads fresh out of Lobotomy High (where all slasher teens go to school) digging up Jason’s grave and prompting receiving a machete thank you from the worm riddled revenant. Later on we get equally creepy scenes where the grown up Tommy (now played by John Shepherd) is haunted by visions of Jason.

Most of the killings however are shot in such as a way as to keep us guessing as to who the killer really is. It is not until the last 20 minutes we see that the murders are being carried out by what appears to be a returned Jason.

And this is the problem - it’s not that there’s no Jason in this flick – it’s that fans just weren’t happy to discover that the Jason on screen was not the real McCoy, but the Real McRoy, your friendly neighbour psychopathic ambulance driver.

Now considering the very negative reputation this movie has garnered over the years, I was somewhat apprehensive when cracking open the jewel case for this one. I’d only half seen once before it, many moons ago and what I remembered didn’t inspire with confidence: indeed the only thing I remembered with anything approaching clarity was the infamous outhouse scene. The outlook was bleak but what the hell, I’d survived Part 3

And I was actually very surprised by The New Beginning. Admittedly it’s not the greatest entry in the series – the script is patchy, the characterisation thin and the logic behind the mystery of who’s doing the killings owes more to Scooby Doo than Agatha Christie. But I was rather entertained from start to finish. Sure it’s as dumb as a bag of hammers but it was nowhere near as awful as I expected.

Steinman, while not having much in the way of directorial flair, keeps the film zipping along at a tremendous pace. With a high body (twenty by my count) you’re never much more than five minutes away from the next piece mayhem with some inventive kills (road flare in mouth, leather strap around the head) thrown for good measure. Any characterisation is quickly sketched in between the action scenes and considering the swift production of these films that’s probably a good thing – characters simply don’t have the screen time or enough lines to highlight the deficiencies of either the actors or the script.

And actually there are some good performances in this movie. Though often slammed by fans, John Shepherd puts in a great turn as the disturbed and mentally scarred Tommy and achieves a lot considering his character only has twenty four words in the entire flick. And Shavar Ross (better known to the world as Diff’rent Strokes’ Dudley) keeps plays Reggie the right side of brat, and plays well off the rest of the cast.

While Steinman may be best categorised as capable and competent, he does have some good tricks up his sleeve. There are plenty of call backs to the previous films, such as impalement from below, a body in a bunk bed, corpses both nailed and thrown through windows, a battle in a barn and rain soaked finale. It seems like the script is really trying to prove its Friday credentials.

Another touch I particularly liked was the fact that Roy’s hockey mask is actually different from Jason’s – sporting two blue triangles rather on large red one. And interestingly it’s in this movie that the slow walking, slow stalking Jason first appears. Up until now he’s galloped about the place like a homicidal Duracell bunny, and it’s in The New Beginning he gains his iconic form of locomotion. It’s somewhat ironic as it’s not Jason at all…

Which brings me to the whole matter of the twist ending. Now I can’t really judge how effective the murder mystery element is as I was well aware that the killer was Roy before the film’s original theatre opening in the UK. On the plus side though, the film doesn’t actually cheat like the original did by revealing a character we previously hadn’t been introduced to. On the down side though, the exposition from the Sheriff detailing Roy’s rationale doesn’t really add up – from the sound of it we are meant to believe that Roy went on this murder spree to avenge the death of his estranged son Vic. But if this is the case his choice of victims makes little sense, as he seemingly targets several people not connected with the youth care centre. A better interpretation would be that his son’s murder has unhinged him and inspired him to take a leaf out of Jason’s book, and kill every damn thing he meets.

However I suspect the sloppy rationale isn’t the real problem for those who loathe this entry in the series, and furthermore I’d guess that if the movie had had Tommy revealed as the killer, it would still play badly with the fans. The real trouble simply is the feeling of being let down and ripped off when you discover that it isn’t the real Jason after all. And arguably Steinman made a rod for his own back here; the atmospheric dream resurrection that opens the film and the ghostly Jason plaguing Tommy are so effective, fans were set up for the real Jason to rise from the grave.

And the close of the movie is somewhat botched. It’s put together effectively enough but the final scene of Tommy donning the hockey mask is just echoing the close of The Final Chapter with its shot of a positively psychopathic looking Corey Feldman, and leaves you with a sense of being back to square one plot-wise. Did they really think we’d accept Tommy Jarvis as a new Jason? It’s hard to see where they were going to go with this and thankfully the film’s poor reception ensured that this direction was never followed.

I don’t know whether it’s because I went into this already knowing the twist or simply because I had my expectations set to ‘gutter’ that I enjoyed this episode in the saga. I even enjoyed the outhouse scene, which like the grungy rednecks Ethel and Junior, is there purely for a spot of comedy. It’s not a perfect film by any means and it’s not even a stand out entry in the series. But at the same time it’s nowhere near as bad as Part 3, and if you can put aside quibbles of the real Jason being missing in action, it’s a fun way to pass eighty minutes if you are in the mood for some standard slasher fare.

Finally though, there is a certain irony in that The New Beginning was so poorly received that it nearly finished the franchise. As we will see next time, the next instalment Jason Lives would have to fight its way out of Part 5’s long shadow…