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Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Posted in movies by commorancy on December 23, 2016

I’m so glad J.K. Rowling decided to bring us to the U.S. with the next installment of the Harry Potter universe (I say with some sarcasm). Unfortunately, Fantastic Beasts is also kind of a mess. Let’s explore.

NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD. Stop reading now if you want to watch the film.

Timid Characters

One thing I’m never a fan of in storytelling is setting up your main character as both timid and intimidated by nearly everyone around them. However, if there had been just one timid character in Fantastic Beasts, I might have given this trope a pass. Unfortunately, the timid characters extend to practically every role in the film. The timid characters include Newt Scamander (the timid oddball hero from Britain who randomly shows up in New York), Porpetina Goldstein (the demoted Auror who’s as timid as the day is long), Credence (a timid teen with a surprise), Queenie Goldstein (outgoing yes, but timid) and Credence’s witch-hating adopted sister (didn’t even catch her character’s name, but still timid).

I’m fine with a story using a timid trope if the character eventually emerges from their timid cocoon to take on the world. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in Fantastic Beasts.

Unlike Hogwart’s, where you plainly expect the students to be timid and intimidated by the teachers (who are clearly years ahead in magical learning), this trope fails to work in Fantastic Beasts where these magical folk should all be pretty much on even footing. Because these are adults and not children (with the exception of Credence and his adoptive sister), this trope fails so badly as to drag down the entire first half of the film.

No. When I see a movie, I expect the leading characters to eventually emerge as take charge individuals. Not only do they need to express conviction in what they are doing, they need to stand up for it and take charge of their actions and of those around them. This is especially true of the hero. In Fantastic Beasts, that never really happens. Which leads to…

Character Development

Because this story is so light on character development, we are lost with character names, what most of them do and why they are even there. While the place has been established pretty much up front (i.e., New York City), the film can’t help but break one of the cardinal wizarding rules, made so abundantly clear in the Harry Potter films, within the first 10 minutes of Fantastic Beasts… exposing the wizarding world to muggles and letting them go without ‘fixing’ it.

Worse, they start off by discussing nomenclature (“muggle” versus “non-mag”) as though we should run into all sorts of these Americanisms. Yet, later in the film, Percival Graves (the on-again, off-again villain) clearly uses the word ‘squib’ without thought. One could argue it wasn’t Percival Graves during any part of the film. However, if the US folk are calling muggles “non-mag”, then clearly they should be calling “squibs” some other word.

Story

Let’s just say that the first half of the film was a mess. It was all over the place. First, it was about Grindelwald terrorizing London. Then it transitions to be about finding and catching Fantastic Beasts that Newt accidentally lets loose in New York… after he bumps into a non-mag named Jacob who he exposes to magic, first by wand, then by disapparating. And, that’s not even the half of it. Because one of his beasts bites Jacob, he befriends Jacob and takes him ‘home’ (to heal him) and then into his suitcase (which is one of those spaces that’s larger inside than out).

Again later, it transitions to be about an Obscurial (a witch or wizard who doesn’t know it, usually a child). The repressed magic becomes a dark force that can damage or kill.

We’re exposed to many different concepts all at once, but that keep being thrown at us without any full understanding of why any of it’s happening. On top of that, we have all of the timid characters who refuse to take charge of their own situation. They just sit back and watch from the sidelines only occasionally becoming a participant in the action around them when it’s absolutely necessary. Otherwise, they stand there with head hung low like they’re waiting for a scolding.

Halfway Point

At about the halfway point, the pace starts to pick up as some of the pieces finally start falling into place, not just for the characters, but also for the audience. Yet, even though we have a rousing pace that’s pretty much relentless until the end, you still feel more like you’re watching something from the Marvel universe than something in the Harry Potter universe. It just felt too disconnected and too distant from what we came to know of Hogwarts. Is the American wizarding world that much different?

Overall

I liked the second half of the film, but the neat and tidy ending combined with the timid characters left me flat on the characters, the character development and ultimately the hodge-podge story. If it was all just a setup to expose Grindelwald, then that could have been accomplished in so many better ways. For this franchise, I’ll reserve my judgement and hope that a second film might turn out better. For a franchise opener, I guess it’s alright. I was just hoping for a lot more. I certainly got a lot more out of the first Harry Potter film than I got out of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Your mileage may vary.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Movie Analysis — Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Posted in movies by commorancy on December 30, 2015

Star_Wars_The_Force_AwakensSo while I have already written the movie review for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this article intends to go in depth into some of the problems that plague the story of this film. Again, if you want to see this film and have not yet seen it, you should stop reading now.

Kylo Ren

So a lot of people are ragging on this character and the actor who portrays him. Yes, I was also personally unimpressed by the depth of this character. Granted, we don’t have much backstory for any of the new characters in this film yet. Not Finn, not Poe, not Rey and definitely not Kylo (other than his lineage). The lack of depth of all of the newly introduced characters is a problem. The most glaring problem of note is Kylo Ren. Not only because of the lack of backstory here, but the conflicted and almost childish brat nature of this character. Kylo apparently idolizes Darth Vader, but Kylo himself is but a sad pale imitation of Vader. The mask that Kylo wears looks cheap and serves no purpose. I realize that this is supposed to be a gritty world and not much is kept tidy, but still. This mask looks cheaply made even for a film of this caliber. Meaning, it looks cheap from a costume perspective, not from a character perspective. We don’t know enough about Kylo to justify the cheap look of that mask.

On top of the cheap mask, his temper tantrums are just over the top. Not only does he continually smash random consoles in fits of tantrum anger, he’s conflicted about his parents and in particular, his dad. Overall, this character is more or less a spoiled brat who seems to have gotten his way. I can’t even imagine Han and Leia bringing up such a spoiled brat. But hey, that’s what the storywriters propose here. When Kylo joined up with Snokes (The Supreme Leader), it seemed to be some desperate attempt to get away from his parents and his unhappy (?) home life. Though, that’s just a guess as we have no backstory here to back this up. Still, putting a spoiled brat who continually throws temper tantrums into the lead villain part just doesn’t work well in this movie. Kylo ends up neither menacing nor important. He just ends up playing a spoiled brat trying to ‘play’ the role of someone menacing.

On top of a character that doesn’t really work in the context of a play about good and evil, the actor who portrays Kylo is also a questionable casting choice. If you’re planning on putting a 19 or 20 year old in a part like this, either make them so dashing we can forget that they have no acting chops or find a prodigy who can really take this part to the next level. Unfortunately, the casting choice in this particular part was questionable at best. When Kylo takes his mask off, you can hear snickering all around the theater… which says everything about how the audience feels for this Snape-like character.

Personally, I’d prefer to see the part recast for the next film. Since he was wounded in the lightsaber battle, there’s now a reason to put the mask on and leave it on and never take it off again. Now that this character has finally seen real combat and has also faced injury at the hand of Rey, maybe his rantings might feel a little more sincere.

Kylo’s Force Abilities

As equally weak as his character is in terms of depth, this character is also insanely weak in the force. Yes, he seems to have been trained to some degree, but if Rey (strong in the force, but untrained) can best Kylo (who has been trained), his force powers must be especially weak. For someone like the Supreme Leader, why would you ever put someone who could be so easily bested with the force in charge of anything?

With Kylo, there’s just too much inconsistency here to make this character believable. If he had been killed off on this first installment, that at least would have been something to make the Supreme Leader find a worthy right hand man.

Rey and her force powers

Rey seems to manifest the force like a pro, like she has already been trained. So, either she has been trained and is just playing it dumb or she’s some kind of force prodigy. Even Anakin wasn’t that much of a prodigy. Neither was Luke. Problem.

The Death Planet

As big as the new Death Star (Starkiller Base) was, it would have caused so much disruption to gravity in the systems it entered, the planets would likely have been torn apart. In addition to the gravity disruption it would have caused just by being there, sucking away an entire sun would have caused all of the planets in that solar system to completely freeze and, at the same time, hurtle off into space because there is no more gravity to hold them place (other than the new Death Star, but its gravity is likely far weaker). The sun vanishing would cause planetary and solar system destruction without the need to fire a single shot. So, making these Death Stars ever bigger and bigger has consequences for wherever they end up in the universe, the least of which is gravity. So, this is a huge story weak point.

Story

Since we’re talking about story weak parts, let me just say that entire story was rather weak. Not only did it somewhat plagiarize from both A New Hope and, again, Return of the Jediit isn’t even plagiarized very well. As I said in my review, I liked what I saw, but it could have been far far better. I’m not saying George Lucas himself could have done better, but it seems that Disney does better when it comes to things like Star Wars Rebels than it does when it comes to full length movies. In fact, I find that TV story arcs in general are better done than most movies today.

Let’s explore the Rey character. She’s a scavenger who’s been living on Jakku since a very young child. She scavenges and sells what she scavenges for food rations, which seem to be getting less and less with each sale. Note that this information at all doesn’t spoil the film. Because, after the very long boring opening of her performing this activity several times, we never see her do it again. So, while I do understand that it is intended as character development, it could have been done in a much more offscreen way (like, through dialog, through a series of montages or even flashbacks). Instead, JJ feels compelled to bring us every boring moment of her scavenging on screen. If the only reason for this is to see the crashed Star Destroyer, that could have been done in a much more compelling way than seeing her scavenger her way through that site. In fact, they do it in a more compelling way later in the Millennium Falcon. Hey, no need for the scavenging which dragged down the opening.

As with most JJ stories (though I realize it was also in combination with Lawrence Kasdan who also brought us The Empire Strikes Back), it’s just enough to get the job done, but not enough to be anywhere near as good as The Empire Strikes Back. Note that Empire worked because it was a middle film. This first film needed a rousing opening, an even more thrilling middle and an intense end… and ultimately it didn’t deliver on all three aspects. Instead, it had a slow boring opening, a somewhat rollercoaster and exciting middle and a contrived ending. It also didn’t really need the Starkiller Death Star at all to establish the evilness of the First Order. There are many ways to show how how evil can manifest on screen and the Starkiller was contrived, unnecessary and reeked too much of previous films.

I want to see stories that haven’t been done. Sure, we all want to see space battles between X-Wing fighters and Tie Fighters. But, give us a space battle that involves something other than trade blockades and death stars. Can we think of no other plot elements that require ships in space fighting? Seriously?

Let me count the ways

I want to love this film as much as Rotten Tomatoes does.  I want this film to be as endearing as A New Hope. Unfortunately, it isn’t and I don’t. I do like it, but only to the degree that I would like any blockbuster released in the last 10 years and only on that level. Basically, it’s as good as Transformers or the Avengers or even Ironman. It’s a good watch, but it is in no way fresh and new. To some degree the universe has been established by George. But, there are still ways of taking that universe and making it into something entirely new and fresh and endearing. Unfortunately, the story was just a too weak to carry it off in this way.

The only controversial thing about this movie is Kylo Ren (and the title of this film). Even then, it’s only from the perspective of Kylo being a spoiled brat in the Star Wars universe (and somewhat miscast). If you’re going to cast a character with a helmet on, make damned sure that when the helmet is removed, that person is menacing to anyone he/she faces. There is no room in the Star Wars universe for spoiled children. That’s not the reason we go see Star Wars films. Characters should always act larger than life, but never as spoiled brats.

As for the title of the film, The Force Awakens, to whom did this reference? It isn’t clear. Does it refer to Kylo’s force power temper tantrums? Does it refer to Rey’s manifestation of her force powers? Does it refer to Finn’s use of the light saber. After all, I’m pretty sure that Finn wasn’t taught light saber training as part of The First Order. We still don’t know to whom the title of this film refers.  Partly the reason is that the one thing that was entirely forgotten was Yoda, Ben and Anakin as force beings. None of these people chimed in at all during any part of this film to attempt to explain anything. These small snippets of Ben and various other Force manifestations helped carry the story along in episodes 4, 5 and 6. Where are they in 7? Were they just conveniently hiding among the midichlorians?

Note: this article is still under revision and may continue to be updated as I further analyze this picture.

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Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Posted in movies, reviews by commorancy on December 19, 2015

[Alert: Note, this review may contain spoilers. Though, I have done my best not to reveal critical plot points and only discuss the technical merits of the film as a whole. If you are interested in seeing this movie, you should stop reading now. I have also written a deeper dive critical plot analysis article separately from this review.]

starwarsposterLet’s just start by saying that I’m usually very critical towards films, just as I am towards any other technology, device or game. I also don’t review every film I see. I only review those films that I feel deserve a review and Star Wars: The Force Awakens does deserve a review. Let’s explore.

Disney and Lucasfilm and Star Wars

This is the first in a series of films to be produced by Disney in their newly purchased Star Wars franchise. How many total films that will be in this series is as yet unknown. However, I’d expect the current storyline to run at least 3 total films with The Force Awakens being the first in this trilogy. Why is this important? It’s important to understand the place of this film not only in relation to the past 6 films, but to future films that have yet been created. In other words, this film is only a small part in a larger story. So, even after seeing the film, there are still many questions unanswered… and this is as it should be for a first part in a larger set of films.

Star Wars Redefined

Star Wars is a much beloved series. Episodes 4, 5 and 6 set the tone for this series with iconic likable characters that have become a huge part of pop culture. Though, cracks did begin to appear as early as Return of the Jedi with George introducing the saccharine cuteness of the Ewoks in Episode 6. However, we could forgive George this one blemish in an otherwise amazing universe. Unfortunately, by episodes 1, 2 and 3, those beloved icons were no where to be found and the films ended up disappointing on so many levels. With unnecessary characters like Jar Jar Binks, wooden acting, badly cast child actors, horrible screen chemistry and the inclusion of a storyline about political satire that could bore your dog, we were less than enchanted with the prequel series by the end of episode 3. Though, I will admit that episode 3 was much better than episode 1 by a long stretch. In other words, the prequels set the bar pretty low for Star Wars films. That’s all in the past, thankfully.

With this newest episode, JJ Abrams has brought a film to the screen that is at once both fresh, new and exciting and looks and feels like that old pair of amazing fitting gloves that just never seem to wear out. In other words, Disney, Lucasfilm and J.J. should be commended on the restraint used in producing The Force Awakens and in keeping the universe look and feel fully intact. Also, it seems that someone kept JJ’s wild fantasies in-check and out of the film such as lens flare city and odd story changes that really wouldn’t have enhanced this franchise. Disney also managed to keep their disneyfication to a minimum. Keeping JJ’s fanciful, but unnecessary additions at bay and limiting disneyfication to a bare minimum has helped to solidify this film as easily one of the best for 2015. Though, BB-8 might have been a disneyfication.

This newest Star Wars installment has firmly set the tone for the things to come. Yet, the film is far from perfect.

The Opening

The film opens identically to all other Star Wars films with the exception of the missing THX deep note (which was getting tired anyway) and the missing 20th Century Fox fanfare (this is Disney now, remember?). Though, it was also oddly missing the familiar Disney castle logo. There is little fanfare in the opening. More or less, it was just the same as all other Star Wars films. The film segues nicely into its first scene, but this is where the pacing is off. Instead of opening to a rousing battle scene or some other rush of action, blaster fire and lots of people or ships shooting one another, we are treated to a much slower paced opening. In fact, it’s so slow of a pace, for a short time I was beginning to wonder if it would ever pick up. No need to worry, it does.

The Characters

Other than saying that Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are all in the film along with Chewbacca, this film is about the new guard taking over the reigns from the old guard.. and that’s exactly what this film does. This is a transitional film. The cast is unknowns who do a decent job with their parts, but nothing spectacular. Though, I will say the on-screen chemistry between the new characters has yet to congeal. Not so much because there is no chemistry, but because there are few scenes were they are all actively together for more than a few minutes at a stretch. So, it’s difficult for me to judge the full chemistry between these actors as yet. They always seem to get separated within moments of coming together.

Stormtrooper Gone Bad

This is an interesting concept introduced into this film that has not been in previous installments. In previous Star Wars, whatever process the Empire had used to indoctrinate Stormtroopers seemed entirely solid and without question of loyalty after the process was complete. In The Force Awakens, the whole thread of indoctrination (and failure of said indoctrination) is explored and discussed explicitly and somewhat in-depth. I hope this concept makes a resurgence in later installments as a wider story arc. In fact, I would love to see it used as a linchpin in the entire destruction of the First Order and the Supreme Leader.

Questions and Answers

The Force Awakens both asks and answers old and new questions. One of them is the Stormtrooper Gone Bad motif. This is a new question that has yet to have a full answer. I’m anxious to see where that thread goes or if it’s just dropped. However, just as we have new questions, we have many old questions answered. Questions like “Did Leia and Han have a kid?”, “Where is Luke Skywalker?” and “What happened to Han Solo?”. There are many other questions answered in this film as well. Just as many questions were answered, there were just as many questions asked that have no clear answer. With The Force Awakens, JJ has perfectly straddled the line of balance between the answers to old questions with asking new questions. Questions we won’t get answers to until future installments. Because this is the first of many installments, it was inevitable that there would be cliffhangers and unanswered questions.

Death Star on Steroids

Yes, there is a Death Star story in The Force Awakens. In fact, like A New Hope and like Return of the Jedi, the Death Star makes a reappearance and on a much more grand scale. You’ll have to watch to find out what happens. Suffice it to say that this Death Star is far more destructive than anything ever built by the Empire. But, this isn’t the Empire. This is the New Order.. and likely if the New Order built one of these massive death machines, they likely built two or more of them. So, I’d expect to see another one or possibly a fleet of them in the next installments.

WYSIWYG story

While I realize this applies to computers, it also applies here. JJ didn’t put anything behind a veil. It is what you see. Yes, there might be subterfuge at work that we won’t realize until later installments, but in this film people take off their masks so we get to see them. There is little to be hidden behind masks for a 3 film story arc to reveal. It’s all revealed right here, right now, which is immensely satisfying. Who really wants to wait 3 films to finally see someone peel off their mask or find out who is really behind it all? In this film, it’s all put right out there immediately. No hiding. Limited use of masks. No hidden identities. No cloak and veils. What you see is truly what you get.

Though, we’ll have to wait and see in the next installments exactly what ‘points of view’ changes have yet to reveal themselves… and yes, there are questions that have yet to be answered.

Pacing

If there is anything here to fault of this film is its pacing. It starts out almost unbearably slow. Lots of scavenging scenes. Lots of random shots of conflicted moments of this failed Stormtrooper. An opening scene with the stormtroopers that while intended to garner some sympathy from the audience is mostly extraneous to the plot. We get that the New Order is to be feared. There is no need to beat us over the head with it. There were some scenes that even failed to advance the plot of the story and also failed to offer much in character development. In short, the opening is slow. After we finally leave Jakku, the pacing picks up and boy does it ever pick up. Once Han Solo is here, it’s a rollercoaster ride that lasts almost until the very end.

And then later… in the middle of the Death Star starship battle, we get interrupted by a longish lightsaber battle that leaves the Death Star scene hanging. Meaning, The Resistance (Rebels) trying to deal with how to bring down the death star and for the next 10-15 minutes, the pacing is killed with an awkward lightsaber battle that ends weirdly and doesn’t really conclude much. So, what were those X-wings up to the whole time the lightsaber battle was going on? Were they like on pause or something?

I would have expected to have more intercutting between the X-Wing battle and the lightsaber battle (like the lightsaber scene between Luke and Darth in Return of the Jedi and the space battle). The pacing between the space battle and the light saber battle in Return of the Jedi was amazing to behold. George didn’t always do everything right, but his editing skills were amazing. Unfortunately, JJ didn’t really seem to get the pacing or the tension here correct. So, the tension is almost completely killed while we watch this lightsaber battle unfold. I was hoping that these scenes would have been intercut better to keep the tension between both events high.

Overall

I enjoyed the The Force Awakens and want to see it again in 3D. I wouldn’t necessarily rate it a 93% that Rotten Tomato viewers have given or the 95% the critics have given it. I’d rate it more like 85%. It’s a good film and worth seeing. It especially ties up loose ends from what happened after Return of the Jedi nicely, but the pacing problems left me feeling less than impressed. Because TFA had nothing to do with the prequels, we can forget all about those films entirely and focus on what happened in episodes 4, 5, 6 and now 7. Well done Disney, JJ, Lucasfilm and George. Now, let’s see if we can keep this up and improve it for 8, 9 and beyond.

 

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Bioshock Infinite: Or, why circular time paradoxes suck!

Posted in movies, storytelling, video game, video game design by commorancy on June 3, 2013

Note: If you haven’t yet played Bioshock Infinite yet, this article contains spoilers.  You should stop reading now! You have been warned.

Many people are awed and dumbfounded by the story within Bioshock Infinite. For some odd reason, people think this is a good thing and somehow even like and see it as some sort of thought provoking experience. Well, perhaps it is in some small way thought provoking, but not thought provoking in the right way. Let’s explore why Bioshock Infinite’s type of thought provoking experience is not a good thing and not something to be wanted or liked in storytelling.

Breaking the Rules

There’s something to be said for people who break the rules. Sometimes breaking the rules can lead to good consequences. Most times, it ends up in failure. Story and narrative creation rules have been in existence since the earliest fiction book was written. Yet, these rules have minimally changed throughout the years to keep stories satisfying and fresh. The rules for well written storytelling are already firmly established. Granted, the storyteller can take liberties if the diversion leads you back to something profound within the story. Basically, the idea behind storytelling is to keep the pace and momentum going and to flesh out characters who the reader can feel good about. Plot devices are used to keep the story on track, to know where that story is heading and what the end goal is for the characters. With the ultimate goal being to produce characters whose situations seem real and profound.  The characters are the crux that ground the story even if the rest of the world is fanciful.  Without this grounding, the story falls apart. With that said, every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. All three of these should be clearly defined so that what transpires along the way leads to a satisfying conclusion of the characters lives where the readers have invested their time.

Video Game Storytelling

With video games, the way to tell a story hasn’t substantially changed and not every video game company ‘gets’ it. Every entertainment experience today should become a cohesive character driven story to be successful. Within video games, there are two pieces to the story puzzle. The gameplay and the storytelling. Both are symbiotic relationships. One feeds off of the other. Neither should really become dominant in this mix. If the game falls too much into a storytelling role, it loses the interactivity needed to be a great video game. If the gameplay is all there is and the story only happens at the beginning and end, the story becomes an afterthought. Both have to work together to create the whole and to keep the player engaged in the game and the story. However, should one become more dominant than the other, the gameplay should win. It is a game after all.

Time Travel and Storytelling

Unfortunately, too many novice storytellers decide to use the extremely overused, trite and cliche device known as time travel and time anomalies to create and tell their story. Worse, without clearly reasoned ideas, time travel can easily make a story become an  Ex Deus Machina blunder. As it’s far too easily done wrong, time travel should be avoided in most stories as it really has no place in any quality storytelling experience. And, it’s usually not needed. For example, J.J. Abrams uses this device within the newest Star Trek film reboot. He, unfortunately, uses it to create an alternative universe where the original Star Trek crew don’t actually live. Instead, he creates a rebooted universe of his own choosing and design. His storytelling approach is to toss out the baby with the bathwater and start over on his own terms. Not only does this completely dismiss and insult Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek, it completely smacks of pretentiousness. J.J. Abrams apparently thinks he’s better than Gene Roddenberry and can somehow improve upon what Roddenberry has created. In fact, there is no need for this in the Star Trek universe. The original Star Trek universe works perfectly fine as it is for setting J.J. Abrams’ story.

In J.J. Abrams’ Trek, the only true Star Trek original crew was the aging Spock who somehow accidentally stumbled through a time hole into J.J. Abrams’ fabricated new time paradoxical Star Trek universe. After you realize this, you’ll understand just how horrible the new Star Trek film really is. The events that took place in J.J. Abrams’ Trek movie don’t exist in the universe that Gene Roddenberry created. This also means that you’ve wasted 2 hours of your life watching a contrived useless film.

Bioshock Infinite is a video game who’s designers decided to use time travel and alternative dimensions (string theory) to explain the story. The only thing the writers successfully accomplish is to produce an incomprehensible mess of a story with characters we ultimately don’t really care about. Some players saw the story as thought provoking. The only thing that Infinite accomplishes, if you begin to think on the story, is unravel its own story and you’re left with questions like, “Did it really even happen?” or “Is he alive or dead?” or “Is the story really over?”. Questions that, if you really want satisfying closure to a story as a writer, you don’t want people asking. These are not the kinds of questions that should be left over at the end of your story. These are the kinds of questions that lead people to critique the story as being trite, cliche and poorly written. You want people to value the story and cherish and like the story. You want them liking and asking questions about the characters, what happened to them after, where the story might go from here. You don’t want to leave your story open to ‘Infinite’ possibilities where the story leads effectively nowhere and there are so many of the same characters that you can’t even wrap your head around it. In storytelling, infinite choice is the same as no choice. Meaning, if there is no way to tell what happened, that’s the same as saying that it didn’t happen. Which then means that playing the game is pointless.

Time Travel and Time Paradoxes

Time travel is a concept that we do not know if it’s possible. It’s all theory and conjecture at this point. It could become a reality in the future, but we’re not there yet. Telling fanciful stories about time travel and multiple universes may seem like something good, but most times isn’t. The single biggest problem with using time travel and string theory in storytelling is the circular time paradox. That is, a situation that would lead the viewer to logically conclude just how the story came to exist if changing a small piece caused the creation (or unraveling) of the situation in the first place. As a concrete example, in the film Terminator 2, Skynet effectively creates itself. That is, a Skynet robot from the future is sent back in time to kill the then kid, John Connor. Yet, it fails and is destroyed. Its robotic brain technology chip is recovered by Cyberdyne Systems. Cyberdyne Systems employees then reverse engineers the chip which, through technology breakthroughs as a result of that chip then causes the creation of the technology that leads to the birth of those exact robots and the Skynet computer. Effectively, the technology creates itself. Because of this circular time paradox, this makes stories like Terminator 2 unwieldy, unsatisfying and poorly written. Technology simply cannot create itself and stories should never be written that even hint at that. Humans should always have a hand in that creation of something or the logic of the whole story falls apart.

Likewise, Bioshock Infinite creates a time paradox where the death of Booker unravels the game’s entire reason to exist. Why would you, as a writer, intentionally negate the reason for your story’s existence? Basically, you’ve just told your readers, this story sucked and it didn’t really happen. Or in the case of a video game, the designers are saying, “Yes, we understand you’ve invested hours and hours playing this video game, but really, the story and game just didn’t happen.”

Bioshock Infinite

Oh, this game seems like it tries to keep itself on track in the beginning, but fails because its writers and the story simply get more and more lost with every new time hole (tear) that Elizabeth creates. The writers eventually can’t keep up with the time paradoxes and begin ignoring them entirely in hopes that the player will too. Unfortunately, I can’t overlook this issue. It’s one of my pet peeves within stories. While I don’t plan on keeping score of exactly how many time paradoxes take place over the course of the game, the one that matters is at the very end of the game.

If Booker and Comstock are one and the same person, and Booker kills himself as a child, Columbia can’t come to exist and neither can Elizabeth. Of course, what happens is that multiple Elizabeths drown Booker in a mock baptism which also negates the entire Comstock Columbia story. Which means, Booker would never come to visit Columbia and Elizabeth would never have been stuck in the tower. Who’s to say Anna/Elizabeth would have even been born? Yet, self-preservation and survival is the strongest human instinct that humans have. Why would Elizabeth knowingly do away with her own existence by killing her own father or even allow that to happen? That’s just not logical or rational from a character self-preservation perspective. Worse, because Irrational’s designers postulate the possibility of ‘Infinite’ realities with infinite Elizabeths, Comstocks, and Bookers, there never could be complete destruction of any one of those characters or of every infinite possible version of that story. Worse, thinking thorough the possibility of infinite stories, how do we even know that the story we played is even the one that matters in the Grand Scheme? Likely there is a universe where Booker doesn’t become Comstock and Elizabeth and Booker have a normal happy family relationship and live happily ever after along with her mother.

Worse, what does any of the Infinite story have to do with Rapture? Yes, we got to see Rapture through one of Elizabeth’s doors, but the only relationship between Bioshock Infinite and the other Bioshock games is strictly in that short visit to Rapture. Nothing in this multiverse story has anything whatever to do with explaining Rapture (other than being just another alternative reality). It doesn’t explain splicers, big daddys, little sisters, big sisters or anything else to do with what transpires on Rapture. In other words, the writers of Infinite fail in two ways:

  • They fail to give us a story from Infinite that ultimately makes any sense in the end
  • They fail to explain the creation of Rapture or of those people who end up on Rapture

They even fail at explaining how Columbia comes to exist. If the multiple Elizabeths are successful at drowning Booker, Comstock can’t come to exist and neither can Columbia. That means that the entire story in Bioshock Infinite doesn’t even happen. Which, unfortunately, leads to a circular time paradox. Such circular time paradoxes should always be avoided when writing time travel and string theory stories. Why? Because they leave the viewer with the question, “What was the point in that?” and provide a less than satisfying ending. It’s also not the question you want your viewers left asking after it’s all over. You want them to be thinking about the story and how they like the characters along the way. If the characters are all completely toss-worthy, as in Infinite, then it’s all pointless. You don’t want the viewer fixated on how the story even came to exist because that then turns the viewers to realize just how bad the story is and how worthless the characters are. Further, as an author, why would you ever intentionally write your entire story and characters out of existence via a time paradox? Is your story really that unimportant to you and your readers?

It’s the same reason you never write a story that ends up with the main character waking up from a dream at the end. Stories that end up as one big dream sequence are completely unsatisfying.  Viewers think, “Why did I waste my time watching that?” It’s definitely the wrong thing to pull from a story. Time travel stories with circular time paradoxes are just as equally unsatisfying for the same reason as waking up from a dream sequence. In fact, these two plot devices are born from the same mold and should never be used unless there is a very good reason to break that rule. This is especially true if primary storyline’s time paradox negates the whole reason to even tell the story because the characters never existed. So far, I’ve not read one recent book, seen a recent movie or played a recent game that had a story that could successfully navigate time travel or multiverses as plot device.

The closest any recent filmmakers have ever come to making time travel actually work without producing circular time paradoxes is Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future series and Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with its Time Turner sequences. Both stories are carefully crafted to avoid circular time paradoxes. In Prisoner of Azkaban, the Time Turner sequence isn’t used as the main story driving device. Instead, it is used in a noble way to save Buckbeak from death, which allowes the film to have a very satisfying closure. Zemeckis’ Back to the Future films do use time travel as the main plot device. However, these films’ stories are also very carefully crafted to avoid time paradoxes and leave each film with very satisfying conclusions. So, you ultimately care about the characters and ignore the silly time travel plot device. I would also include that the original H.G. Wells’ Time Machine movie is probably the most successful at navigating time travel as a device within a story without creating a circular time paradox while still providing engaging likeable characters along the way.

Overused plot devices

Time travel use as a plot device, while extremely popular, is mostly carelessly used. It has been used in such popular franchises as Lost, Stargate, Star Trek (series and movies), Terminator and is now being used in video games like Bioshock Infinite. Writers need to be extremely judicious with their use of this plot device. Time travel should only be used in a way that advances the story forward, but never in a way that becomes the story itself (as in Bioshock Infinite). Unfortunately, Irrational’s writers just don’t understand how to properly use this plot device within the story context and they use it incorrectly. It should never be used in the way it is used in Infinite. Instead, Columbia could have been shown to exist for other reasons than because of infinite realities.

At the end of Bioshock Infinite, it’s quite clear that the time travel piece is poorly conceived. It ends up making the main character appear as if he is having a psychotic episode rather than actively part of multiple dimensions and realities. I full well expected to see Booker wake up in a mental facility (on Rapture) with nurse Elizabeth administering sedatives to him. At least that storyline would have dismissed the time paradoxes as unreal events and showed us that Booker is just a mental patient among many. This is what is needed to ground the story and tie in the Bioshock Rapture story experience to the Bioshock Infinite story experience full-circle. Yes, that ending would have invalidated Columbia as a non-event, but the writers already did a good job of that in Infinite. Yes, I realize I’m advocating explaining off Infinite as a dream sequence (which is generally to be avoided). Because the Infinite writers already negated their own story, that mental hospital ending would at least start to explain how Rapture came to exist in the state it is in when we played the original Bioshock which is still a far better ending than negating your entire story. At this point, the Infinite story is just a jumbled disarray of ideas that didn’t congeal and that basically made the entire Columbia story a complete time wasting experience.  We don’t care about Comstock and now we don’t know what to think about Booker. Anna/Elizabeth ends up simply being a facilitating plot device, but we really don’t feel for her plight at all during or after the story.  At the end, she ends up a pawn (as is everyone else including Booker and Comstock). In fact, because of the time paradox story negation, we really don’t care about any of the characters.

As an FYI to future writers, ending your story with infinite universe possibilities and infinite versions of your story’s main characters is the worst possible ending for a story if you want your characters to be remembered. Because you as an author should value your story’s existence above all else, negating your characters and story with a time paradox simply sucks. If you don’t value your story, why should we?

3D TV: Flat cutouts no more!

Posted in computers, entertainment, movies, video gaming by commorancy on February 18, 2012

So, I’ve recently gotten interested in 3D technology. Well, not recently exactly, 3D technologies have always fascinated me even back in the blue-red glasses days. However, since there are new technologies that better take advantage of 3D imagery, I’ve recently taken an interest again. My interest was additionally sparked by the purchase of a Nintendo 3DS. With the 3DS, you don’t need glasses as the technology uses small louvers to block out the image to each eye.  This is similar to lenticular technologies, but it doesn’t use prisms for this.  Instead, small louvers block light to each eye.  Not to get into too many technical details, the technology works reasonably well, but requires viewing the screen at a very specific angle or the effect breaks down.  For portable gaming, it works ok, but because of the very specific viewing angle, it breaks down further when the action in the game gets heated and you start moving the unit around.  So, I find that I’m constantly shifting the unit to get it back into the proper position which is, of course, very distracting when you’re trying to concentrate on the game itself.

3D Gaming

On the other hand, I’ve found that with the Nintendo 3DS, the games appear truly 3D.  That is, the objects in the 3D space appear geometrically correct.  Boxes appear square.  Spheres appear round.  Characters appear to have the proper volumes and shapes and move around in the space properly (depth perception wise).  All appears to work well with 3D games.  In fact, the marriage of 3D technology works very well with 3D games. Although, because of the specific viewing angle, the jury is still out whether it actually enhances the game play enough to justify it.  However, since you can turn it off or adjust 3D effect to be stronger or weaker, you can do some things to reduce the specific viewing angle problem.

3D Live Action and Films

On the other hand, I’ve tried viewing 3D shorts filmed with actual cameras.  For whatever reason, the whole filmed 3D technology part doesn’t work at all.  I’ve come to realize that while the 3D gaming calculates the vectors exactly in space, with a camera you’re capturing two 2D images only slightly apart.  So, you’re not really sampling enough points in space, but just marrying two flat images taken a specified distance.  As a result, this 3D doesn’t truly appear to be 3D.  In fact, what I find is that this type of filmed 3D ends up looking like flat parallax planes moving in space.  That is, people and objects end up looking like flat cardboard cutouts.  These cutouts appear to be placed in space at a specified distance from the camera.  It kind of reminds me of a moving shadowbox.  I don’t know why this is, but it makes filmed 3D quite less than impressive and appears fake and unnatural.

At first, I thought this to be a problem with the size of the 3DS screen.  In fact, I visited Best Buy and viewed a 3D film on both a large Samsung and Sony monitor.  To my surprise, the filmed action still appeared as flat cutouts in space.  I believe this is the reason why 3D film is failing (and will continue to fail) with the general public.  Flat cutouts that move in parallax through perceived space just doesn’t cut it. We don’t perceive 3D in this way.  We perceive 3D in full 3D, not as flat cutouts.  For this reason, this triggers an Uncanny Valley response from many people.  Basically, it appears just fake enough that we dismiss it as being slightly off and are, in many cases, repulsed or, in some cases, physically sickened (headaches, nausea, etc).

Filmed 3D translated to 3D vector

To resolve this flat cutout problem, film producers will need to add an extra step in their film process to make 3D films actually appear 3D when using 3D glasses.  Instead of just filming two flat images and combining them, the entire filming and post processing step needs to be reworked.  The 2D images will need to be mapped onto a 3D surface in a computer.  Then, these 3D environments are then ‘re-filmed’ into left and right information from the computer’s vector information.  Basically, the film will be turned into 3D models and filmed as a 3D animation within the computer. This will effectively turn the film into a 3D vector video game cinematic. Once mapped into a computer 3D space, this should immediately resolve the flat cutout problem as now the scene is described by points in space and can then be captured properly, much the way the video game works.  So, the characters and objects now appear to have volume along with depth in space.  There will need to be some care taken for the conversion from 2D to 3D as it could look bad if done wrong.  But, done correctly, this will completely enhance the film’s 3D experience and reduce the Uncanny Valley problem.  It might even resolve some of the issues causing people to get sick.

In fact, it might even be better to store the film into a format that can be replayed by the computer using live 3D vector information rather than baking the computer’s 3D information down to 2D flat frames to be reassembled later. Using film today is a bit obsolete anyway.  Since we now have powerful computers, we can do much of this in real-time today. So, replaying 3D vector information overlaid with live motion filmed information should be possible.  Again, it has the possibility of looking really bad if done incorrectly.  So, care must be taken to do this properly.

Rethinking Film

Clearly, to create a 3D film properly, as a filmmaker you’ll need to film the entire scene with not just 2 cameras, but at least 6-8 either in a full 360 degree rotation or at least 180 degrees.  You’ll need this much information to have the computer translate to a believable model on the computer.  A model that can be rotated around using cameras placed in this 3D space so it can be ‘re-filmed’ properly.  Once the original filmed information is placed onto the extruded 3D surface and the film is then animated onto these surfaces, the 3D will come alive and will really appear to occupy space.  So, when translated to a 3D version of the film, it no longer appears like flat cutouts and now appears to have true 3D volumes.

In fact, it would be best to have a computer translate the scene you’re filming into 3D information as you are filming.  This way, you have the vector information from the actual live scene rather than trying to extrapolate this 3D information from 6-8 cameras of information later.  Extrapolation introduces errors that can be substantially reduced by getting the vector information from the scene directly.

Of course, this isn’t without cost because now you need more cameras and a filming computer to get the images to translate the filmed scene into a 3D scene in the computer.  Additionally, this adds the processing work to convert the film into a 3D surface in the computer and then basically recreate the film a second time with the extruded 3D surfaces and cameras within the 3D environment.  But, a properly created end result will speak for itself and end the flat cutout problem.

When thinking about 3D, we really must think truly in 3D, not just as flat images combined to create stereo.  Clearly, the eyes aren’t tricked that easily and more information is necessary to avoid the flat cutout problem.

Movie Dissection: Tron Legacy

Posted in entertainment, film, movies, reviews by commorancy on December 18, 2010

Updated: 1/7/2012 – Disney greenlights Tron Legacy sequel

To start off, I am a reasonably big fan of the original Tron film. Yes, the first Tron story was a bit of a letdown, but it worked for what it was. After all, it was the first film to use computer graphics to that level within a film.  Definitely a ground breaker.

Achievements

Tron Legacy is also a ground breaker once again, but much less so.  Its technological advancements in film are much more subtle.  A lot of people may not have thought about this, but Tron Legacy is the first film to use an actual actor’s likeness in a film to play the actor at a younger age using a CG head and real body. I had predicted that this would happen eventually, and here we are.  Tron Legacy now opens doors up to creation of new films by Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.  Granted, the animation on the face is a bit stilted and unnatural, but it works for the CLU character.  It doesn’t work so much for Kevin Flynn’s younger self. Nevertheless, the character works in most instances.  If they had spent just a bit more time on the face, they could have made it look and act even better.  Avatar is proof of that.

Story

While I really wanted this story to work well, it doesn’t come together as I had hoped.  Basically, the CG is so strong that the story has to be twice as strong to overcome the incredible visuals.  The trouble is, it doesn’t.  But then, the same can be said of the first Tron film.

However, the two main problems with this film are 1) lack of formidable villain and, by association, lack of a real payoff at the end and 2) Tron is not the main character and is visibly absent most of the film.  After all, this film is named ‘Tron’.  Tron is the character we expect to see.  We do see him in flashbacks and, without spoiling the film, in other places as well.  However, for 95% of the film, Tron is absent.  In the small parts he’s in, Tron really contributes little to the overall story.

I realize that this one is about the ‘Legacy’ aspect of Kevin Flynn (i.e., Sam Flynn).  So, Sam takes the front stage in this production. That’s okay were Sam Flynn a super likable character.  Unfortunately, he’s not.  I liked him well enough, but not nearly as much as I liked Kevin Flynn in Tron.  In the first Tron film, we the viewers felt just like Kevin who was plopped into this fantasy world unexpectedly.  So, we’re experiencing it all for the first time just like he is.  With Tron Legacy, the audience already understands much about the world having seen the first film. So, wasting time on the introductions of the world isn’t really necessary.  To their credit, the producers/writers did try to skip much of it.  But, the whole clothes cutting and redressing scene was a bit overkill and kind of showed us just how cheesy the costumes were.  Like the first film, it would have worked better and saved lots of time if Sam had awoken in the world fully costumed. That whole costuming scene could have been skipped (which was awkward anyway).  I understand the setup between him and one of the female dressers, but that meet-and-greet could have happened in a different way.

Tron original film rules ignored

I also keep thinking more and more about Tron Legacy vs Tron and I keep coming up with more and more holes. Holes that are big enough to drive a truck through.  It’s really very obvious that the writers (former writers from Lost, I might add) just didn’t consult the original film before writing this story.  Without consulting the original film, they just arrived at an idea that didn’t really take into account all of the previous rules that had been established in Tron. Worse, it seems like the writers and producers thumbed their noses at the fans by not following these rules.  Following the rules, however, would have made Tron Legacy much more complete and true to the original film.  It would have also made Tron Legacy far better than it is now.  And, it would have shown that the writers were committed to providing a full experience to not only the casual viewer, but also to the die-hard fans of Tron.  Instead, this film only appeals to the casual viewer and completely ignores and, worse, insults the die-hard fan.

First example, the whole reason the game grid exists in Tron is as a result of the arcade video games in real life. The game grid is a virtualized, but identical active game as what the gamer sees on the arcade CRT.  Just as the gamer plays the game in real life in an arcade, so the game progresses identically in the virtual world with 3D people.  As a result, the game grid exists because of real life gamers.  As the gamers play games, so too do the game grid games.  In 2010, with games like World of Warcraft, Halo 3 and Assassin’s Creed, the writers could have had a field day with such an updated game grid.  Yes, it might have ruined the aesthetic of the game world to see people dressed as Master Chief or Ezio, but it would have made Tron Legacy far more true to what’s going on today in gaming and, at the same time, make Tron Legacy a lot more fun to watch.

In Tron Legacy, this entire arcade to game grid aspect was either forgotten or intentionally dropped.  The trouble is, this rule has already been established.  So, the movie should have at least popped out to the real world to see gamers playing on mobile phones, computers and Xbox 360s to show that the virtual game grid is still tied to a real world game.

Second issue… although, I have to admit I didn’t initially think of this one and don’t necessarily agree with the thinking behind it. Some people have surmised that the Encom mainframe had been shut off the whole time between Tron and Tron Legacy and thus the virtual world wouldn’t have existed. The reality is, there was a computer in Flynn’s Arcade that appeared to contain the virtual world.  So, while Encom’s computers may have been shut off, it appears Flynn had moved the entire world into his own personal server.  So, while some people seem to find this part of the film a problem, I don’t. Flynn was the CEO of Encom and easily had enough money and power to build a hugely powerful computer system in the basement of Flynn’s arcade to manage this world.  Sure, it might have been shut down for a time, but it certainly appears that Flynn had successfully transferred both the world and the computer into the arcade’s basement.  He certainly had enough money to do this. It also appears that this computer is fully functional when Sam arrives at the arcade.  So, I don’t see an issue with this part of the movie.

Third issue (see Encom below for more of this).  When Flynn took control over Encom after Tron defeated the MCP and released the files incriminating Ed Dillinger, I full well expected Flynn to drive Encom to become a game development company.  In fact, had this premise been realized, this would strengthen the idea behind the game grid and the existence of the virtual world.  Instead, for whatever reasons, the writers decided to turn Encom into an operating system company like Microsoft.  Now, that doesn’t mean that Encom doesn’t make video games, but it does mean that it is not Encom’s core business.  If that whole board room meeting had been related to a new video game title, the whole Tron Legacy story would have been dramatically strengthened.  Also, in Tron, Encom was an R&D group think tank.  That is, they designed extremely cutting edge prototyping products, like the digitizing laser.  The very same laser technology that digitizes and transports both Sam and Kevin into the virtual world.  Again, the writers ignored this part of Encom’s business completely to the detriment of Tron Legacy.  Considering that that digitizing laser was designed in 1982, I would have expected to see that digitizing system being sold on the market and people entering into their own virtual worlds (separate from Flynn’s world) by 2010.  Yet another lost opportunity for the writers to create an interesting spin on what happened with Encom.

Fourth issue,  after Sam ends up back in the real world at the end of Tron Legacy, he’s fully dressed in street clothes. As far as I know, he didn’t pack an extra set of clothes.  So, the whole costuming process inside the virtual world (where his clothes were cut off and discarded) doesn’t make sense.  Worse, Quorra, who isn’t even human, also pops out into the real world fully clothed in street clothes.  Again, where did these clothes come from?  I’m quite sure that Sam didn’t expect to be leaving Flynn’s with a female companion.  So, I’m quite sure that an old dusty arcade wouldn’t have such clothes stashed away.  So, again, this is a problem.  Although, some people surmise that Quorra didn’t actually make it out.  Instead, Sam is somehow having a delusion or an hallucination of Quorra and she’s not actually there. I don’t know that I agree with this.  I have my suspicions as to what’s going on, but I’ll leave that for Tron 3 to fully explain.

[Updated 1/16/2011]

Fifth issue is that the original digitizing laser consumed the space of at least 2-3 building stories and at least one football field.  This is a huge laser equipment laboratory.  In Tron Legacy, this digitizing laser is now located in the basement of Flynn’s Arcade?  Unfortunately, I just don’t think that this sized laser equipment fit within Flynn’s arcade basement space.  So, the question is, where is the rest of the huge laser infrastructure?  Just not thought out well enough.  However, if one of Encom’s newest products had been a self-contained USB digitizing laser (for home use) and that had been what was being discussed in the board room, then having this laser in Flynn’s basement would have made a lot more sense.  And, it would have made sense from a time perspective (all technology gets smaller).  But no, this issue was not addressed at all.

Sixth issue.. this is not so much an issue, but an observation about how the laser works.  According to the first film, the molecules are digitized and then suspended in the laser beam.  When the molecule model is played back, the object reintegrates.  With Quorra, it actually does make sense that she could end up in the real world.  How?  Well, there were two users in that world: Kevin and Sam.  Two real world users with real world molecules.  Kevin’s molecules would still have been suspended in the laser beam.  When Kevin explodes after reintegrating with CLU, those molecules are still trapped in the laser beam.  There’s nothing that says that those molecules have to play back out as Kevin.  In fact, Quorra could use Kevin’s suspended molecules to play back into her form and become human.  Of course, that would leave no more suspended molecules for anyone else to exit the grid.  That also means that for someone to leave the grid with a real form, that a real person would have to enter the virtual world.  I’m assuming that as long as that person lives, those molecules are tied to that individual.  If the user dies in the grid, then an ISO or another program could exit into the real world using that dead user’s molecules.  Another issue is that Kevin’s molecules would be suspended in Kevin’s form when he went in.  It would take at least Yori to reconfigure the laser beam protocol to play out Kevin’s molecules into Quorra’s form.  Yori was the program designed by Lora to manage parts of the digitizing system.  Unfortunately, Yori isn’t in Tron Legacy.  So, Quorra should have exited the virtual world in Kevin’s form and clothing.

Encom 2010

Other than the bored room meetings (pun intended), we really get very little of what Encom does in the present.  With technologies like the digitizing system that are displayed in Tron, I would have expected Encom to be a lot farther along in technological breakthroughs than selling ‘the latest greatest operating system’ (ala Microsoft). Clearly, this part of the film is an afterthought.  It wastes screen time without really telling us much about Encom.  It is really used as a vehicle to set up Sam Flynn’s character.  However, even that vehicle falls flat.  Honestly, the film would have been served better by not knowing or seeing that specific Sam Flynn escapade.

Villainy

Unfortunately, CLU isn’t the appropriate ‘Program’ to be a villain.  First, CLU is supposed to be Kevin Flynn’s helper program.  So, it seems odd that he has gone rogue anyway.  Secondarily, he isn’t really designed to be a villain.  So, turning him into one just seems somehow wrong.  Worse, he really isn’t a worthy adversary in the games.  If he is as good as he is supposed to be (along with his black guard henchman), they both should be able to best Sam Flynn easily.  So, this whole part of the film just doesn’t really work.  But then, Quorra interrupts the games early.  Kind of convenient, but at the same time gives us no payoff.

Adversary

Unlike Tron, which has the MCP, we have no such villain in Tron Legacy.  CLU is it, but CLU just doesn’t come across as a proper villain.  He seems more like a henchman for something bigger.  Yet, that something bigger just never materializes.  I actually expected to see Kevin Flynn emerge as the villain in this film. That would have been something.  It would have really justified the ending of this film, showed us a completely different side to Kevin and, at the same time, have given us a huge payoff at the end.  Alas, that doesn’t happen.

Action

The movie definitely starts the pacing off on the right foot and continues at a pretty solid pace until just after Sam Flynn exits the game grid.  After that, the story comes to a crawl, as does the action.  So, unfortunately too, this leads to a lack of payoff.  It also doesn’t give Sam Flynn any screen time to kick butt and take names which this film so desperately needs.  The wins we see with Sam are more out of luck and accidents than out of skill.  Sam never does get enough screen time to show that he has any skills that are translated from the real world.  Even his lightcycle skills don’t show through no matter how much Ducati footage is included in the opening. We need to see Sam win at something where the stakes are substantial.  Something that at the end of it, we cheer for him and his win.

Visuals and Audio

What’s to say about the visuals other than, “stunning”.  The music by Daft Punk and the audio effects are superb at doing what movies do best: set the mood and tone.

Payoff

In the end, there really is no payoff.  In the first film, Tron’s first goal is to get a message to his user.  So, Tron fights his way through to a communication tower.  In Tron Legacy, Sam’s and Kevin’s only objective is to get to the exit portal (not unlike the communication tower in Tron).  So, when they finally get to the portal, it seems trivially easy.  There is really no opposition along the way.  Just a quick trip with a Solar Sailer and they’re basically there.  No grid bugs, no hidden Mickey Mouse heads, no Recognizer chases, etc.  Just a trip without any incidents.  In Tron, getting to the communication tower is only half the way through the story.  Tron still must battle the MCP.  At the end of Tron Legacy, there was no battle.  In fact, there was nothing to battle at all, other than Kevin’s own guilt.

Unfortunately, the ending was really explained by Quorra about 20 minutes before the end.  So, I won’t give it away, even though Quorra does.  But at the portal, there is no real payoff with CLU or Tron.  In fact, there is no real positive payoff at all.  The ending leaves more questions than answers.  So, unless Disney plans on Tron 3, we may never know what happens.  This really feels like half of a film.  It feels like we’re missing the other half of this film.

Overall

The story could have been far better.  However, the producers rely on the visuals and the music (which, granted, both were very impressive) to carry this film.  Again I say, the plot could have been far far better. We need at least one payoff and we don’t get it.  I was even hoping for a little payoff with Sam on the game grid, but even that doesn’t happen.  Sam, like Kevin in Tron, also needed to befriend someone in the virtual world besides Quorra.  He needed another companion to travel around the virtal world and show him the ropes.  And, for a split second, I thought it might actually happen when one of his lightcycle mates almost gets his bike wand back.  That is until CLU runs him over and Quorra steps in.

Also, there are lots of subtle things that just don’t work or are missing.  For example, as a user in Tron (first film), Kevin is able to absorb energy and use it in unusual ways.  Clearly, he is still able to do that to create CLU in Tron Legacy.  He also uses this power to steal a non-working Recognizer in Tron. However, the writers don’t explore this aspect with Sam at all.  It could have helped out in several instances and would have made for a more cohesive film. There was also no comic relief element like the ‘bit’ in the Recognizer in Tron.  Not that we need ‘bit’ in this film, but I think that humor could have helped in places.

Even though the story is a bit weak in the film, the story for Tron Evolution (video game) is much stronger than this film.  In fact, it has many of the elements and payoffs that the movie lacks, including a proper villain with Abraxas.  However, that doesn’t mean that it’s the best game of 2010. Far from it. However, the story is definitely better than the Tron Legacy story. If you’re really into Tron lore, you should check out Tron Evolution to fill in the story gaps that the movie doesn’t fully explain (i.e., the ISOs).  I am disappointed that the film glosses over the ISO storyline and, instead, leaves it to the video game to fully explain these concepts.

I like the film, but the story really needed to be far stronger to match the visuals.  Overall, I rate this film 7.5 out of 10 stars.

Thoughts: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Posted in movies by commorancy on July 16, 2009

After getting back from seeing this film (twice), I felt it needed some discussion.  So, let’s go.  Note, this may contain Harry Potter spoilers.. so do not continue if you haven’t seen or read.  You have been warned.

Conversion

The book to movie conversion was done reasonably well.  This movie, like most that have preceded it, have missed the mark on certain aspects.  What makes a Harry Potter book good is all of the nuances that J.K. Rowling includes.  Most of these nuances and subtleties just can’t be placed into the films and Half-Blood Prince (HBP) is no exception.  You would think that by 6 films into this series that the die-hard critics would understand and be used to all of the missing things.  Unfortunately, they aren’t and they are still complaining about this same aspect.  Critics, get over it.  If you want an exact conversion, do it yourself or wait for a TV series version.

Yes, there were a lot of small subtleties that were left out of the movie.  Some of them can’t easily be filmed and others just don’t work for the story.  However, there were some things that were left out of the films that I felt were important to understand.  Like, for example, the apparation classes in Order of the Phoenix (OOTP) that were completely left out of that film.  By leaving it out of OOTP, it means that this can’t be easily taken advantage of in HBP.  So, when Harry apparates with Dumbledore, it’s a surprise to everyone.  Yet, we would have already seen this in OOTP if it had been in the film.

The one thing that is noticeably absent from HBP is the Dursley family.  Gone is Little Whinging.  Other than cursory mention of it and a background street scene, there is nothing in the film.  Granted, I haven’t read the HBP novel since it came out, so I don’t even really recall how much of the Dursley’s were in the novel.  Note that I haven’t re-read the novel because I wanted to go into the film without having recently read the book.  I find that I enjoy the films more this way.  I will now re-read the novel having seen the film.

Thoughts

While I generally liked HBP, I felt that the movie wasn’t as thrilling or as much a rollercoaster as OOTP.  The Order of the Phoenix was one of my least favorite books in the series, yet it turned out to be one of my top favorites in HP films.  Why?  Because they were able to turn the lackluster pacing of the book into a spectacularly paced film. Half-Blood Prince’s pacing is a bit too even and, frankly, slow.  There was not enough going on in most of the scenes, even when there was something going on. Instead, HBP relies more on cinematography to pull off the slow paced scenes.  In most cases, it does so quite well.  This film was beautifully filmed for the most part. For the same reason that many critics filmatically liked Prisoner of Azkaban, I’d say those cinematography critiques also fit with Half-Blood Prince.

Unfortunately, the pacing was far too lackluster throughout most of the film to give the necessary emotional power needed after Snape does his deed in the Astronomy tower.  So, you really don’t feel emotional at a time when you need to.  The whole thing feels very detached.  I think part of the problem is that Dumbledore wasn’t given enough character build-up throughout the films to provide the necessary emotional attachment in this film.  In other words, we really needed to see just how dear Dumbledore was to everyone to really get the sense of loss.  Even still, this film should have been able to set it up enough to give that emotional punch at the end even when the previous films failed in character building. I also believe that this is part of the reason so many people weren’t completely convinced of the death at the end of the HBP novel.

Because of the lack of the emotional ending and the lack of the necessary rollercoaster ride needed for this film, it leaves the experience a bit on the flat side. There was plenty of teen angst moments throughout much of the film and that is probably the thing that carries this film.  We definitely needed to see that part of the story to fully understand what is about to happen in films 7 and 8 (assuming book 7 is still planned as a two-part film), but we also needed the emotional impact to feel for the character we’ve just lost (and that didn’t happen).

Overall

I liked Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince, but not as much as the Order of the Phoenix.  OOTP is better primarily because the intensity level was much higher than HBP.  There were a few tense moments in HBP, but nowhere close to OOTP or even Goblet of Fire.  I also felt that for what’s about to happen in Deathly Hallows that this film needed to ratchet up the intensity and failed to do so. Whomever is directing Deathly Hallows will have to ratchet up the intensity in that film rather than relying on HBP to do it.

J.J. Abrams Star Trek: Pure Fantasy

Posted in movies by commorancy on May 10, 2009

While I could start this blog off by discussing how the acting was excellent, how the characters worked well, or even how the origins of the characters worked, I won’t.  I could also discuss the amazing special effects, the tense moments that keep you on the edge of your seat or the thrill ride pacing of this J.J. Abrams romp.  Again, I won’t. Clearly, Abrams has made all of that (and more) work in this film. But, there is still one major flaw that nags at me. What is that, you ask?  I’m so glad you asked.

Starting a new Trek era

Crafting stories around temporal anomalies that change future events and unfold the entire Star Trek universe differently from the way all of the other franchises have unfolded the Star Trek universe is just not proper. Is rewriting the entire franchise in Star Trek’s best interest? Does putting forth alternate timelines as ‘the’ new Star Trek timeline make sense for this franchise? Clearly, it needs invigoration, yes. Using temporal anomalies? No. For me, this type of story is a complete cop-out. It is not creative, it is only a way to make it appear creative when its sole goal is just a way for Abram’s to take creative liberties with the characters, universe, series and, yes, even the franchise itself.  So, now Abrams can rewrite the Star Trek universe in any way he sees fit.  This one anomaly lets Abrams write whatever he wants.  For this reason alone, this goes against the grain of everything Gene Roddenberry had inspired in Star Trek.

By rewriting the timeline (and, arguably, the very franchise itself), J.J. Abrams could put an end to the ‘Prime Directive’, rewrite rules, change events, kill characters off at will, etc.  He could take the series in a more militaristic direction and entirely do away with what originally insipired Gene Roddenberry.  This storyline opens the door to making a lot of changes to the Star Trek universe by giving Abrans complete liberty over the entire series and, indeed, the entire franchise.

At a fundamental level, this movie works as a standalone.  As a basis for the beginning of a new Star Trek series and, in fact, franchise is just wrong on so many levels.  Temporal anomalies have no place in the creation, let alone re-creation, of the series.  As of now, the entire timeline is left hanging at the end of this movie with no resolution.  So, it is up to Abrams and Paramount at this point.  Clearly, the success of this film will guide Star Trek’s future.  If the success of this film is high, then Paramount may actually let Abrams continue down this pretentious road creating more Fantasy Trek.

Gene Roddenberry created this series in a certain way.  Unfortnately, Abrams’ vision does not hold true to that ideal.  There are plenty of ways to craft creative, thoughtful, evocotive story lines to make a film work.  

Unfortunately, there are two story writing techniques that are always considered trite and even  ‘ex deus machina’  and should be avoided at all costs (one was used in this film):

  • The main character wakes up at the end revealing the entire film as a dream sequence 
  • Temporal anomalies that allow the writer to take liberties by altering a character’s timeline or by rewriting the underlying story itself

End of Roddenbery Trek Era

As of the recent passing of Majel Barret Roddenberry, this signals the end of Trek as we knew it.  Rod Roddenberry (Gene’s Son) is still around, yes.  However, it certainly appears that he either has no creative control over Trek or he is letting Abrams take these liberties with Star Trek.  Either way, this film signals the end to the Roddenberry created Trek universe and a new non-Roddenberry beginning that has no basis in Roddenberry’s original vision.

All films, video games, events, series or any other creative derivatives from Abram’s Trek has nothing to do with Gene’s Trek.  It is a ‘Fantasy Trek’, if you will.  A ‘what if’ approach to Trek.  This Abrams Trek is a derivative work and is not and should not be considered part of the Gene Star Trek Canon.  In fact, this new Trek never existed.  Abram’s Trek didn’t (and doesn’t) exist because this film’s anomaly created an entirely new timeline for Kirk, Spock, Uhura and the rest.   A timeline that never existed before Abrams took the helm.  Yes, Abrams has clearly created a timeline that isn’t Trek.

On the one hand, it’s a brilliant idea for Canon.  Meaning, it marks the perfect delineation between Roddenberry’s works and Abrams’ works.  So, Abrams has made it extremely easy to mark anything based on Abrams ‘rethink’ as fantasy (never existed).

Fantasy Trek

So, Abrams Star Trek universe never existed.   It existed only because of the temporal anomaly.  And now, Ambassador Spock (Roddenberry’s Spock) is trapped in that timeline….in a timeline that never existed or that never should have existed.  So, technically, the only person who really makes a difference in Abrams’ universe is Ambassador Spock.  And the only goal in Abrams’ Fantasy Trek should be at getting Ambassador Spock back to the ‘real’ Trek universe’s present and correct the timeline.

The series can take one of two approaches at this point.  1) To continue on with this Fantasy Trek universe exploring Abrams’ fake Trek universe.  Granted, this might be fun to explore for a while. but ultimately… 2) To focus on getting Ambassador Spock back to the Roddenberry created universe and get the timelines corrected.

So, I would be fine with an approach where Abrams’ actually acknowledges his newly created Trek timeline as false and then later unfolds events such that the sole goal is to get Ambassador Spock back to Roddenberry’s universe.  That, for me, should be the only goal in this new fantasy romp.  There is really no other direction that this can take.  If Abrams and, indeed, Paramount actually try to foist this Fantasy Trek off on the Star Trek fans as the ‘new’ canon would be insulting on so many levels.  It would also be insulting to the original Trek series, to Gene and Majel Roddenberry and to everything of previous Trek lore.

To actually consider foisting Abrams’ Fantasy Trek on the fans as the ‘new’ canon invalidates Gene’s Star Trek entirely.  It nullifies previous Trek series and canon by saying that it never existed in that way.  It says that the Abrams’ Trek is the way things are and it says that Roddenberry’s Trek was fantasy.  How can anyone possibly be that pretentious with storytelling?  No.  The only direction is to acknowledge this Trek as pure fantasy and move forward from there.  Otherwise, this alternate time line could completely change events that lead up to the creation of Star Trek: TOS, TNG, DS9 and Voyager… let alone the previous films.  No, Abrams must acknowledge this timeline is incorrect and set out to correct it and get Ambassador Spock back to his present.

Both Abrams and Paramount need to be extremely careful at the handling of this series from this point so as to not insult Trek (or the fans’ intelligence or knowledge of Trek).

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