Let’s Talk About Star Wars (the new trilogy)

With “The Rise of Skywalker” having been out in theaters for nearly a month now, I felt it was time to write down my thoughts on this new trilogy of Star Wars movies.  Initially, when a new Star Wars movie was announced, everyone was absolutely hyped.  And with good reason: it had been the first movie made in the series in a decade.  So when “The Force Awakens” hit theaters in 2015, it was an event.  There was so much press coverage and so much excitement that it was actually a struggle to avoid any spoilers for the movie.  Someone at work actually went to the lengths of covering his ears any time Star Wars came up during our news broadcast.

So yeah, it was a thing.

But fast forward to now, and “The Rise of Skywalker” sort of hit theaters with barely more than a whimper.  I saw almost no posts on social media about it, and the news coverage was scant, aside from the traditional package about Hollywood and movies that we run every morning.  It came and went without making much of a splash.

So what happened?  Where did all the excitement go?

Part of the issue started with “The Last Jedi”, the second movie in the trilogy.  It took things in a different direction than what people were used to, which polarized the fans as a result.  Some people liked the movie.  Some people didn’t.  I initially liked the movie, although nowadays my opinion is more of a “meh, it was okay” than anything.  There were good and bad parts of it.  Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) had the strongest part in the movie, with her obsession over knowing who her parents were driving her to make a bad decision later on.  But then there’s the awkward third of the movie with John Boyega’s character and Rose Tico (played by Kelly Marie Tran).  It feels lopsided, with some bizarre preachy moments about rich people not caring who wins the war but profiting off of it.

 

Because that’s what you wanted right? A Star Wars movie about the one percent?

 

I have no issue with movies tackling real life issues, but Star Wars just doesn’t feel like the place to do it.  Especially when you consider that the villains are literally space Nazis.  It just feels out of place here.  In fact, Finn’s whole third of the movie just feels out of place and inconsistent.

But I digress.  “Rise of Skywalker” was viewed by many critics and viewers alike as almost a sort of apology for “The Last Jedi”.  And therein lies the problem.

“Force Awakens” was an apology for the prequels.

“Last Jedi” was an apology for “Force Awakens”.

And “Rise of Skywalker” was an apology for “Last Jedi”.

Every movie in this trilogy was a response to another movie.  They don’t stand on their own, because they’re trying too hard to make up for the mistakes of the previous movies.  So in the end, we get characters that don’t have a proper story arc, a finale that doesn’t feel justified at all, and the random resurgence of an old villain who, by all rights, should be dead.

Yeah, Emperor Palpatine being back was dumb and a move that seemed like it was only made to appeal to the nostalgia in the fan base.

Now, when I walked out of the movie theater after seeing “Rise of Skywalker”, I thought it was okay.  It wasn’t great, it didn’t really feel like a proper ending to the trilogy, but I still had some fun with it.  But the more and more I think about it, the more I start to dislike it.  There’s so many stupid things in the movie that just feel lazy and rushed.

And honestly, if you asked me after the first half of that movie, I would’ve said I downright hated it.  Because the first half of “Rise of Skywalker” can be summed up in one word: McGuffin.

For those who don’t know. a McGuffin is a trope in fiction where an item serves to drive the character’s motivations but has no real significance on its own.  And my god, that first half was chock full of them.

“We got to go to the planet to get the thing so we can find the planet and use the thing to find the other thing so we can find another planet”.  I wish I was joking.

When the movie finally slows down and has some character moments, it definitely gets better.  But it doesn’t feel deserved.  In fact, it feels like they crammed three movies worth of story development into one.  The other two movies feel basically inconsequential as a result.

There’s a lot more specific things that bother me with “Rise of Skywalker”, but for the sake of spoilers I’m not going to get into that here.  Bottom line is, the trilogy as a whole does not stand up on its own.  At times, the movies barely feel connected with each other.  It feels as though there was no proper plan, no story sketched out beforehand.  It’s like Disney just didn’t care, and let the directors make things up as they went along.  It’s astonishing how lazy the trilogy feels in the end.  “Force Awakens” is probably the best of the three, even though it’s basically just a re-skin of “A New Hope”.

I’ve never been much of a Star Wars fan myself.  I enjoy the movies, and have played some of the games, but I never got so into it that I read the novels or anything.  I’ve maybe read one or two in my life, and that would be it.  But even a casual movie-goer can see just how poorly planned out this whole trilogy was.  There never feels like there was a buildup to anything, there’s far too many convenient things that happen simply in service of the plot, and thematically they feel all over the place, particularly “Rise of Skywalker”.

I could go on forever about this, but let’s just end with this: remember when Finn was a character back in “Force Awakens”?  That was great right?  Poor John Boyega…his character basically accomplished nothing in the latter two movies.  Wasted potential…but then again, that feels like the trilogy as a whole.  It could have been great, and washed the bad taste of the prequels out of our mouths.  But instead, we got a mediocre, lopsided mess that is never really sure what it wants to be.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next month for another post.  And as always, have a great month.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About Disjointed Chronology

Last month I talked about “In Medias Res”, a Latin term meaning roughly “in the middle of” and referring to when a story begins with some action that usually occurs later on in the story.  I mentioned how I, personally, enjoy stories with disjointed chronologies.  So I wanted to expand upon that idea.

A beginning, middle, and end.  That’s how it goes right?  Every story has them.  But what if the end is at the beginning?  That’s what “Memento”, a movie by Christopher Nolan, did.  It starts at the end of the movie, and basically plays things out in reverse order.  Although I’ve never seen the movie, I love the idea of a plot that is told out of order, that is pieced together bit by bit.

One of the most common disjointed chronologies occurs in stories where the main character has amnesia.  For example, the video game “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” begins with the main character stumbling through the halls of a castle, struggling to maintain his memories of who he is and where he lives.  By the end of the intro, he can barely manage to utter his name.  He then wakes up on the floor of a hallway and the game begins.

As you wander through the castle, you eventually come across a note written by yourself, revealing that the amnesia was self-inflicted, caused by a drink your character consumed.  The note tells you to descend into the depths of the castle and kill a man named Alexander.  It doesn’t explain why, but insists that this is the only course of action left to you.  And as you work your way through the castle, scattered notes help you piece together your past and what, exactly, led you to this place.

The idea of finding notes is a common one in video games, sometimes replaced by audio or video recordings, telling a narrative in pieces.  Often, these pieces are out of order chronologically, and it’s up to you to put together what happened and when.

Last time I talked about how the game “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” used a set piece that occurred later in the story as a means to hook the player at the outset and keep them engaged and interested in what was happening.  But disjointed chronologies have more power than just getting the audience interested.  They can also highlight the mental state of a character.

This is an idea expressed in “Memento” where the main character suffers from “anterograde amnesia”, a form of memory loss that occurs after an accident, leaving the sufferer able to recall details before the event but unable to form new long-term memories after.  This is reflected in the main character of the movie, Leonard, who uses a sophisticated series of photos and tattoos to remind himself of where he is going and why.

In this way, the out-of-order events help us identify with the main character and his plight, creating a unique story experience that would be missed if everything were told in simple, linear order.  Not that there is anything wrong with a linearly ordered plot.  But there is something to be said for a story that jumps around in time, keeping you guessing as to what happens next.  Disjointed chronologies can be very powerful, acting to engage the brains of the audience and make them work for a cohesive narrative.  Unfortunately, sometimes a storyteller goes too far with that idea.

“Primer” is an indie movie about two engineer friends who, in the course of inventing things, accidentally create a means of time travel.  While it sounds like an intriguing premise, I could not for the life of me tell you what the hell happened by the end of that movie.  I have nothing against a good, mind-bending plot, but “Primer” took things too far, deliberately making the plot obtuse and hard to follow.  In the end, I was barely paying attention because I was mentally exhausted trying to follow what was happening.  This wasn’t helped by the fact that the writing was also obtuse.  You would often enter a scene where the main characters were already in the middle of a conversation, making it difficult to follow what they were talking about.

In the end, “Primer” seemed like it tried to be too intellectual, and ended up missing the point altogether.

When it comes down to it, some people love disjointed chronologies, and some people hate them.  It all really depends on the context.  They can create a unique narrative experience that lets the audience really connect with the main character and craft a story that engages the imagination.  Or they can purposefully obfuscate details to the point of confusion, creating a plot that might only make sense to the one who wrote it.  Like any tool for a writer, a chronology told out of order can be very powerful, but destructive if wielded improperly.  Telling a story out of order simply for the sake of it is usually not a good idea.  There has to be some reason behind it, a method to the madness.

Otherwise, all you will have is madness.

Let’s Talk About In Medias Res

“In Medias Res” is a Latin phrase that roughly translated means “in the middle of”.  It’s a common technique in fiction of all types to begin a story in the middle of some kind of action that occurs later on in the narrative, before cutting back to the story’s true beginning.  It’s a very effective tool for a writer to use, because it catches their attention with some kind of spectacle or tense moment that makes them want to know how the character or characters got into said situation and why.

A really good example of this comes from the Uncharted series of video games, specially Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.  The game opens with the main character, Nathan Drake, waking up alone on a train with a gunshot wound in his chest.  As if that isn’t bad enough, Drake soon realizes after looking out the window that the carriage is dangling over the edge of a cliff.  Seconds later, falling debris knocks him out of his seat and nearly plunges him straight off the cliff.  Fortunately he manages to grab hold of the rear railing just in time.

The reason this opening sequence is effective is because it isn’t a trick or some kind of cheat.  This is actually happening to the character at a later point in the story, a point that players then slowly catch up to as the play.  But what makes it even better is that, for the opening hour or so, the game cuts back and forth between the beginning exposition and the train wreck, keeping players engaged with the story without making it drag on.  The only thing I think that could have made this introduction better is if the train wreck scene was used a few more times throughout the game before players caught up to it in terms of the timeline.  But that’s less a complaint and more of a personal wish on my end, as I’ve always enjoyed disjointed chronologies when it comes to storytelling.  Telling a tale out of order is so much more interesting to me.

In Medias Res is a very popular tactic in storytelling, one that you’ve likely seen used many times without really realizing it.  But it’s not always elegant.  Sometimes, it ends up feeling tacky or even downright deceitful.  It can feel contrived, meant only as a cheap trick to hook the audience with a scene that has little to no impact on the rest of the story.

Which brings me to the first John Wick movie.

At the beginning of John Wick, we see the titular character clambering out of a car, battered and severely wounded.  Sitting down on a sidewalk, he pulls out his phone and watches a video clip of his wife before collapsing unto the pavement.  The movie then jumps back in time to the beginning, exploring Wick as a character and his motivations.

While I appreciate that this opening scene sets up Wick’s attachment to his wife, the whole “is he dead or not” ploy fell flat for me.  It’s too common a trope in movies and television shows.  Usually, it just ends up being there solely to trick the audience into being interested.  Eventually, you discover that the main character doesn’t actually die or was even all that injured in the first place.  Part of my dislike of John Wick‘s use of the trope is likely due to the fact that they made two sequels, which would be impressive if they made an entire trilogy about a character who died in chapter one.  But even despite that, it still feels a little cheap, especially when later you find out that he basically just stands up and walks away without much of a problem.

By the way, John Wick is a fantastic action movie.  I feel like I should mention that before I give the impression that I thought the movie sucked.  My gripe with the opening scene is one of the only minor complaints I had with the movie.

But I digress.  There are even cheaper forms of In Medias Res.  And one of my biggest pet peeves with the trope goes a little something like this:

“Oh no big action scene!  SPLOSIONS!  BANG BANG shooty shooty!  Oh no, main character got hit!  He’s gonna die!  Nope, just kidding.  It was all a simulation or a practice drill of some kind.”

I absolutely hate this version of In Media Res, primarily because it has barely any impact on the rest of the plot, if at all.  It usually functions to reveal a character flaw or failing that they will overcome sometime later in the episode, in the midst of a situation that somehow happens to mirror the opening simulation or drill.  Far too often, it just feels lazy and tacked on, especially when the character only has the failing for that one episode and it is never brought up again.

Television shows are guilty far too often of lazily using this trope.  There are so many episodes of television shows that either begin with “oh this character might die” or “big action scene is revealed to merely be a training exercise” that I could probably fill a small book with them all.  And while tropes can be used effectively (such as with Gothic architecture in horror movies), oftentimes it becomes little more than a cheap fallback for writers who can’t think of something better.

And especially nowadays that television has gotten more serialized and complex, this type of bland writing really stands out.  It’s one of the reasons I don’t really care for procedural-type shows anymore, because you could almost make them a case study in tropes just based on how often they use them.  In fact, the show Robot Chicken made a skit making fun of Law and Order for how formulaic it is by replacing all of the characters with chickens.

The fact that you can actually suss out some of the details of the “story” in that skit makes it even funnier.

But much like other writing tropes, In Medias Res has great power, but it has to be used responsibly and correctly to truly have an impact.  It works best when used to highlight a poignant or climactic moment for a character, which emphasizes the contrast of how said character was in the beginning of the story compared to how they have changed during the event and its aftermath.  But it’s also far too easy to use as a crutch, as a gimmick to entice the audience into paying attention, only to realize that they’ve been played when it’s revealed that said event barely even mattered at all.

Because after all, even in the lightest of stories, we like events to have meaning or importance for the characters.  Otherwise, the journey is pointless.  And the audience is left unsatisfied.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of December for my next post.  Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and stay warm out there!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Spotlight: Blair Witch (video game)

 

When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, it was a big middle finger to everything Hollywood was about: no loud jumpscares, no fancy special effects, no larger than life characters, none of that.  It was just a faux documentary about a group of students who get lost in the woods and are never seen again.  Sure, nowadays the movie is routinely the target of mockery and parody, but back in the day it was something completely different.  And people believed it was real too.  The creators of the movie went as far as to create fake missing persons posters for the cast.  Regardless of your feelings on it, The Blair Witch Project gave birth to a new genre of movies: found footage.

Fast-forward two decades, and after a couple lackluster movie sequels (one that came out a few years after the first and another that came out just three years ago) the Blair Witch name isn’t one people flock to anymore.  Now, in what seems like something that should have happened ages ago, we have a video game based on the Blair Witch franchise.  But the question is, is it good?  Does it live up to the Blair Witch name?  Well, like most things in life, the answer is not a simple one.

 

Off into the woods again.

 

Let’s start with what Blair Witch gets right: the atmosphere.  From the outset, you can feel the isolation and the tension as you and your dog enter the woods in search of a missing kid.  The game manages to tie in with the franchise right at the start with a couple of references to the missing students from the original film.  But this game takes place in the 1990’s still, and at the time it takes place the footage of the students has yet to be found (remember that in the first movie the students disappear and the footage isn’t found until years later).

Things start going wrong quickly (in a good way).  You find yourself lost in the woods, end up at a mysterious campsite, and find a video camera whose tapes allow you to literally manipulate objects in time.  This is a very cool idea, but I found it really odd and kinda funny how the game addresses this.  Instead of letting you discover that power on your own, the game literally throws up a screen that just says deadpan “the red tapes allow you to manipulate reality”.

 

Oh you know, just time and space altering video tapes…no big deal.

 

All silliness aside, I liked this mechanic.  I wish it had been used a little bit more (it pops up a decent amount of times in the first half of the game, but takes a backseat by the end), but I thought it was an inventive angle on the mysterious nature of the Black Hills Forest.

(Note: I did have a strange glitch with the video tapes where they wouldn’t play properly until I rewound them and then they would play normally.  I’m not sure why this is, it may have had something to do with my graphics settings but I cannot be sure.  Something I thought was worth noting.)

As for the story, the premise is simple: you play as Ellis, a former police officer who joins the search for a missing boy named Peter.  Right from the get go, there are hints about Ellis having mental problems, which factors heavily into the game.  It’s never stated outright, but it’s pretty obvious Ellis suffers from some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and his memories of combat and one event in particular keep surfacing as the woods seem to taunt and torment him.  It’s a great evolution of the Blair Witch style of psychological horror, and it’s a damn sight better than the 2016 movie.

I swear, the people behind that movie were probably saying to themselves “so this movie is known for being the anti-Hollywood movie…what can we do to evolve this idea?  Hmmm…oh I know!  Loud noises and obnoxious jumpscares!  Everyone loves those!  Right?”

There’s nothing more immersion shattering than a movie that tries to artificially scare you with a sudden cut to a loud nightclub scene.  I wish I was joking.

In any case, Blair Witch the game seems to understand the more psychological nature of the franchise.  But I almost feel like it goes too far with this.  At some points, it stops feeling like a Blair Witch game and more like the developer’s previous games, namely Layers of Fear and Observer to name a couple.  By the end of its four to five hour playtime, you’ve spent so much time exploring the repressed memories of Ellis’ psyche that you almost forget that there is a Blair Witch or any outside force acting on the character.  To give credit, it’s very well done, but it sometimes fails to feel very Blair Witch-esque.

This is especially true during the game’s last act, as you enter the infamous abandoned house that serves as the climax to both the original film and the 2016 sequel.  You spend a rather long amount of time wandering through shifting corridors, having ghostly voices and flashbacks to Ellis’ past.  Again, this is not a bad thing at all, but I feel like they should have pulled back on it a little bit and focused some more on the “being lost in the woods” aspect.  That’s what Blair Witch is to me: being lost in the woods and then spooky noises.  Not wandering through a shifting house facing your inner demons for nearly an hour.

Which brings me to my next caveat with the game: its pacing.  Now, for the most part the pacing is good.  It keeps you moving from place to place, and is generally adept at keeping you on edge.  However, there are a couple of spots where the pacing falls a little flat.  The aforementioned wandering around the house is one such spot.  There’s just so much time spent wandering through that shifting house, and it all feels like it’s building up to some huge, intense climax.  But no, it just kinda ends as you get to the basement, and then shortly after you get one of the endings to the game (there are multiple endings by the way).

 

 

 

But there’s another area where the pacing leaves something to be desired.  In this section you find yourself traversing an abandoned lumber camp.  And it’s here that the game commits one of gaming’s most annoying sins: padding.

The lumber camp sections serves no other purpose other than to make you run around, collect a few objects, then power up a machine to lift a log that’s blocking your path.  I’m serious.  That’s all that happens in this section.  It’s literally just a pointless obstacle gating off the next section of story.  And the tape mechanic is only used at the END of the section.  The rest of it is literally just riding a rail cart around to different spots, collecting important items, and placing them on the machine.  There is a short enemy encounter in the middle, but that’s about it.

Speaking of which, the enemies are actually pretty well done.  The game doesn’t let you get a good look at them at any point, and later sections have you relying on your camera to see where they are, which only gives you a red silhouette of the creature.  That, and their twitchy nature and movement just adds to the creep factor.  I do wish there was more than just one enemy type, but for what is there, it’s well done.

I feel like that’s the name of the game when it comes to Blair Witch: it’s well-done, but flawed at times.  It does a great job with atmosphere, but occasionally falls flat in pacing.  It initially does a great job feeling like a Blair Witch game, but sometimes becomes too engrossed in its own brand of horror.  If you’re a fan of horror, I’d say it’s worth a look.  There are far less competent games out there that rely on little more than cheap tricks.  Blair Witch at least has substance to it, even if it stumbles from time to time.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Thursday for a special post, and have a great Halloween!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Horror Analysis: The Strengths and Weaknesses of Different Story Mediums

The horror genre is one that has been around for a very long time.  Pretty much since we’ve been aware that things go bump in the night, we’ve been telling stories about them.  Some served a precautionary purpose, to keep kids from wandering around alone late at night.  But some were just for fun, to frighten others or even to frighten ourselves.  There is a morbid curiosity that draws people to the genre, one that continues to this day.

So for this week’s post, I wanted to dive into the strengths and weaknesses of different storytelling mediums, specifically three: books, movies, and video games.

 

Books

Strengths: Books have a unique ability to tap into the human mind, making it spin an image of what it is describing on the page.  Since books don’t have the same visual strength as movies or games, they rely on this ability to engage our imaginations, forcing us to come up with our own visual interpretations of events and places.  And in that sense, books are very powerful.  The mind can weave a web of macabre images much better than any movie camera or video game engine.  Rather than being hamstrung by the limitations of visual production, books leave it up to the person reading to generate the movie in their heads while reading.  This means that a person’s own fears or anxieties can feed into the power of the narrative, making something spookier than perhaps even the author intended.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, this reliance on the imagination is a bit of a double-edged sword at times.  The mind is a powerful thing yes, but if it isn’t given enough stimulation then it won’t generate as spectacular an image as it could.  This makes it necessary for the author to be exceedingly good at descriptive writing, particularly in horror.  If you can’t evoke emotions of fear or dread in the reader, they won’t buy into your story.  You can’t just say “the house was creepy”.  You have to show them the house was creepy, like saying “the old, dilapidated swingset creaked forlornly in the backyard, caked under years of orange rust.”  That evokes some feelings in the reader.  But it’s a tricky balance.  Show them too much, and it gets boring to read.  Show them too little, and they won’t be invested.

 

Movies

Strengths: The art of the visual medium is indeed a very powerful one.  Cinematographers can use various tricks and techniques to draw our attention to something or make us feel uneasy.  Strange, tilted camera angles tend to make a viewer feel slightly disoriented or anxious, and darkened lighting only aids in that effect.  In older days, movies relied a lot on lighting and setting to craft its feelings of horror.  As the technology only grew more and more sophisticated, so did the methods of scaring people visually.  Music can also play a key role in this, as it tends to heighten certain emotions in people depending on the type of music playing (i.e. classical music makes people feel relaxed).  Movies can also be sneaky.  They can place something spooky just off the side of the screen, and whether or not a viewer sees it depends on them.  Compare this to a book, which would have to literally describe said thing otherwise no one would know it’s there.

Weaknesses: I’ve bemoaned this a number of times before, but as movies became more and more sophisticated it also become more and more of an industry.  And industries like trends.  So when movies like Paranormal Activity hit the scene and were huge hits, cue the onslaught of movies involving cheap jumpscares and demons.  As I’ve said before, I actually enjoyed the Paranormal Activity movies (the first three anyways).  But the constant influx of similar themed movies gets pretty old.  There can only be so many chapters of Insidious and so many movies set in the Conjuring movie universe before people start wondering “okay, but what’s next?”  You can only do so many movies with characters being stalked in the shadows by some supernatural being before it falls flat.  And then Hollywood is on to finding the next big trend.

Rinse and repeat.

 

Video Games

Strengths: The interactive nature of video games are their greatest asset when it comes to horror.  Things feel a bit different when you are controlling the character being chased rather than watching it happen or reading about it.  There’s a whole new sense of dread that comes from being forced to enter an area you don’t want to go in.  You know you need whatever is in there, but at the same time you know that something could be stalking around in the darkness, waiting to eviscerate you.  Games have a dynamic factor to them that also makes them very enticing.  Take for example, the game Prey from 2017.  The game takes place on a space station that’s been overrun by alien entities.  But some of them have the ability to disguise themselves as ordinary objects.  One second you’re looking at a coffee mug, and the next some shrieking black mass of tentacles is attacking your face.  It’s not scripted either.  If given enough time, they will run away and disguise themselves again as a nearby object, lying in wait for you to come around again.

Weaknesses: Video games’ weaknesses are two-fold.  First, there is repetition.  Take Alien Isolation as an example.  It’s a fantastic game that nails the atmosphere of the Alien franchise.  However, your first time through the game will likely take close to twenty hours to complete.  On top of that, since the alien itself is pretty much invincible, the only thing you can do is distract it or scare it off.  This can lead to a lot of trial and error sections of the game where you are continually killed by the creature and forced to repeat that same section multiple times.  Nothing sucks the life out of horror faster than frustration.

Secondly, it’s difficult to predict what a player is going to do.  A lot of times, a player will miss a scare because they weren’t looking in the right place at the right time.  Developers can use certain tricks such as lighting to draw a player’s eye to a specific spot, but even then it’s not guaranteed will look there when the scare happens.  Even good horror games occasionally wrench control away from the player in order to keep them focused on a particular scary moment.  This can backfire and annoy the player more than actually evoking any sort of fear response.

 

Conclusion

No medium is explicitly better than the other at crafting horror stories and scary moments.  Instead, I prefer to see them as providing different lenses to view the genre through.  I will definitely say that I consider horror movies to be the weakest of the three, but that’s more because of the multi-million dollar industry influencing what movies do and don’t get made.  In terms of potential I think all three mediums have great power.  It just takes the right mind to tap into it.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next week for another spooky post, and have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About the Power of Isolation

We’ve all had one of those moments: you’re alone at night.  Everything’s quiet.  Everything’s still.  Maybe you’re reading a good book or watching television or something when an unexpected noise causes you to jump, alarm bells ringing in your head.  There’s usually a reasonable explanation for it, such as the cat knocking something over (or, in my case, deciding to run a marathon through the house in the middle of the night), or just the creaks and groans of an old house.  You’ll look back on it a few minutes later and laugh at how foolish you looked.  You’ll be glad no one was around to see it.  But that moment of panic, that moment when you weren’t sure what you heard and your adrenaline started kicking in?

That, my friends, is the power of isolation.

 

Isolation is one of the most powerful tools in a storyteller’s arsenal.  It’s an effective way to immerse your audience in a setting.  Isolating a character means that, in the absence of another person to talk to, their surroundings come to the forefront.  In this way, the setting itself can become a character.

One of the most apparent examples of this comes from Stephen King’s “The Shining”.  The Overlook Hotel is shrouded in menace and mystery all throughout the book, especially room 217 which is implied to be one of the most haunted in the hotel.  Throughout the majority of the book very little actually happens until the last two hundred pages or so, but the raw tension and the sense that something is wrong with the hotel permeates the entirety of the story.

This “wrongness” pervades the film adaptation as well.  The layout of the hotel is purposefully surreal and the impossibility of it factors into the tense atmosphere throughout the film.  That, combined with the quick cuts and jarring camera angles, makes for a very unsettling watch, even if nothing truly makes you jump out of your skin.

Isolation as a tool to enhance horror doesn’t just extend itself to movies and books.  Video games have put that idea to great effect as well, and I would even argue in greater ways than either.  For the longest time, horror video game fans wanted a game set in the “Alien” franchise that mimicked the first movie more than the second one.  And they finally got it back in 2014 when “Alien: Isolation” (hey, isolation is even in the name!) released.  Unlike previous game adaptations (which focused more on the sequel “Aliens” with its more action-heavy tone), “Isolation” puts you on a broken down space station with a singular alien lurking throughout the game.

The sense that you’re being hunted is present throughout the game.  And that’s because…well…you are.

“Isolation” also takes after the first movie in the sense that all the technology is retro ’70s style, right down to the CRT computer monitors.  It creates a strangely believable science-fiction setting.

I remember back when I took a class on science-fiction and fantasy back in college, we talked about isolation as one of the cornerstones of science-fiction.  But isolation isn’t just locked into the sci-fi and horror genres.  You can find it at play in many things, including “Myst”, a game I have talked about many times.  From the moment you start playing, you’re hit with the sensation of being alone.  Nothing pushes you forward aside from your own curiosity.

 

That feeling of solitude is one of the reasons people so fondly remember “Myst”. Very few games at the time really nailed that sense of being alone, of being on your own personal journey.

 

The idea of being left to your own devices is why “Myst” and other point and click adventure games appealed to me so much.  I liked being forced to wander and figure things out at my own pace, rather than have the game point me in a direction and say “go”.  This open-ended style is something that has only just recently crept back into gaming consciousness, particularly with the advent of survival crafting games such as “Minecraft”.  But regardless, isolation is a very powerful that can pull people into your fictional world.

And hey, sometimes a little solitude isn’t a bad thing.  Everyone needs to be left to their own whims every once in a while.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of next month for another post.  Have a wonderful January folks!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About What Makes Effective Horror

‘Tis the season of ghosts and ghouls, spooks and scares.  The air carries a chill and the leaves are falling.  Halloween is just around the bend and it’s the time to celebrate all things scary.

I’ve talked a lot about my affinity for everything horror in the past on this blog, but it’s been very scattershot and all over the place.  So this time I’d like to just sit down and focus entirely on it and explain what, in my opinion, makes for effective horror.

If you’ve followed my blog long enough, you know that I’ve made it no secret my disappointment with the state of horror when it comes to Hollywood movies.  So many of them are just loud and annoying, filled to the brim with cheap scares.  When I reviewed “Blair Witch” back in 2016, I mentioned how it seemed to be everything the original movie wasn’t: obnoxious and full of quick, cheap jumpscares.  Instead of the slow-paced, tension focused build up of the original, we got a movie that was so lazy it even has one of the characters mutter “stop doing that” after it pulls a double jumpscare.  There were some genuinely creepy moments, but they weren’t allowed to leave a lasting mark as the next loud, obnoxious thing popping up in front of the camera wasn’t far away.

And when I see trailers for The Conjuring 15 or Insidious Chapter 257, all I see is a lot more of the same: jumpscares and demons.  Ooh you’re really breaking new ground there guys.

To me, for horror to be effective, it needs to be allowed to sit for a while.  There needs to be a kind of atmosphere to it, something that slowly unsettles and winds you up so that when the metaphorical shoe inevitably drops, it has more of an impact.  Most big budget horror movies these days rely on loud, quick scares as a crutch.  And sure, some of them might be scary in the moment, but they’re not memorable.  There’s a reason people still talk about movies like “The Exorcist” and “Halloween” but nobody is going to remember the 2016 “Blair Witch” or any of the “Insidious” movies once enough time passes.

Why do you think they keep producing sequel after sequel?  Because they know that a horror movie’s time is short-lived.  If they can keep pumping out more movies, they can keep it in the public consciousness for longer and make more money.

It’s the same thing with video games.  “Five Nights at Freddy’s” may have been a huge hit, but part of its lasting popularity has to do with the quick turnaround in games.  The first game hit in August of 2014.  The second game hit in November…of 2014.  The third game dropped in March of 2015 and…you get the idea.  Part of the quick turnaround had to do with how the games were designed, but whether intentional or not, this quick turnaround is what led to its staying power.

But while the fans go ape over the deliberately obscure story or make weird fan porn of the characters (don’t go looking for it…seriously…there isn’t enough bleach in the world to wipe your eyes clean after that), no one really talks about the actual gameplay itself anymore, which boils down to a trial and error waiting game.  And if you fail?  BLARG!  Jumpscare.

Compare that then to a game like “Amnesia: The Dark Descent”, which still ranks as one of my top scariest games of all time.  In that game you don’t even see a monster for the first hour or so.  Instead, much of the time is spent wandering around a castle gleaming clues as to why you’re there in the first place.  By the time the game draws back the curtain and sends something shrieking after you, the atmosphere has settled in and you’ve been drawn in enough to make the appearance more startling than it would be if there was a monster right behind the first door you encounter.  Even that developer’s earlier “Penumbra” series of games utilized the power of tension and atmosphere, choosing to build up suspense before throwing something at the player.

 

 

Despite all that I’ve said, jumpscares aren’t a bad thing.  It’s just that, by themselves, jumpscares aren’t necessarily creepy or scary.

I get it, it’s far easier to Google search “scary faces”, grab a stock scream sound effect and crank the decibels up until you’re not certain if that ringing in your ears was always there or not.  But if your intent is to create something that is truly lasting, something that will make someone afraid of the dark for a few days or a week after they’ve finished with it, you need more than just loud noises.  You need ambiance.  You need suspense.  You need lighting.  But most importantly, you need to ground it in some way.  You can have all the jumpscares and mood lighting in the world, but if your audience/player base can’t buy into the scenario you’ve crafted, you’ll have lost them long before you reveal what goes bump in the night.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of next month, and have a great Halloween!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Spotlight: Southern Reach Trilogy

 

These books are weird.  Like…really weird.

But it’s their weirdness that makes them so fascinating.

The Southern Reach trilogy is a series of books that revolve around a place known as Area X, a patch of now uninhabited wilderness that’s being slowly changed by an unseen force.  The official story to the outside world is that of an ecological disaster, but the reality is far more sinister and unknown.  “Southern Reach” refers to the organization tasked with investigating the mysterious phenomenon.

The first book is called “Annihilation”.  You might recognize the title, as the book was made into a movie that released back in March.  However, the movie diverges from the book quite a bit, so even if you’ve seen the movie you won’t know exactly what to expect.

“Annihilation” opens with four characters standing in front of a strange tower leading underground in Area X.  They are known only by their specialties.  There is the Biologist, the Surveyor, the Psychologist, and the Anthropologist.  Their task is to investigate Area X and see what they can find out about it.  Early on, it is revealed that the Biologist (played by Natalie Portman in the movie) had a husband who was on the expedition prior to hers and died from cancer after returning under mysterious circumstances.  “Annihilation” plays out like you would expect from a science-fiction story about people undertaking an expedition into an unknown area: bad stuff happens, people die, paranoia sets in, and so on.  Unlike the movie, “Annihilation” ends on an uncertain note, leaving things up in the air.

The second book, “Authority”, takes a deeper look at the Southern Reach organization itself.  Our main character is John Rodriguez, who takes to calling himself “Control”.  He is sent into the Southern Reach to become its new director, and he investigates the aftermath of the expedition from the first book as well as the organization itself.  This one reads more akin to a thriller or a spy novel, with subterfuge and secrets abound.  This book is actually a lot more about the character of Control/John rather than Area X itself, although Area X is never far from the forefront for too long.

“Acceptance” is the final book of the trilogy, and is rightfully the most complex one.  Unlike the previous two books, which had a fairly linear chronology (“Authority” does have some flashbacks, but through Control reflecting on past events), “Acceptance” has three major viewpoints taking place over a wide span of time, one of which actually takes place before Area X happens and details events leading up to its creation.  Long-lingering questions are answered and we get a deeper look into some characters that were only referenced from afar in the previous books.  I hesitate to say much more about it for fear of spoilers.

My favorite of the series definitely has to be “Acceptance”.  I’ve always enjoyed disjointed chronologies in stories, and “Acceptance” weaved a non-linear, complex narrative that was a joy to follow.  “Acceptance” also has the tightest pacing of the three books.  The series definitely is a slow burn (especially in “Authority”), which isn’t a bad thing.  But “Acceptance” definitely makes the best use of that burn, with scenes that can go from being perfectly normal to slightly unnerving to downright disturbing in an elegantly smooth fashion.  There’s a particular scene at a bar very late in the book that really sticks out in my mind as just getting progressively more unnerving before everything just goes to hell.

And that’s my favorite thing about this series: the unrelenting weirdness and tension that’s present throughout the books.  There’s a moment in the second book, “Authority”, where things just suddenly hit the fan in such a jarring, unexpected way that it’s actually brilliant.  It makes you question if it’s actually happening or not at first.  And I’ve always been a fan of horror and horror-tinged stories (something readers of this blog undoubtedly know at this point), so this trilogy was right up my alley.

If you like weird sci-fi, then I can’t recommend this series enough.  It’s just so bizarre and unique that I can’t say I’ve ever read anything quite like it.  Some stuff is left open to interpretation in the end, which might bother some people, but to me the ambiguity is what stays with us after the story is done.  It’s what keeps our minds churning over and over, trying to gleam the last elusive details that will give us the answers we want.

So yeah, give the books a shot.  Get weirded out.  It’s a fun time.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of next month for another post, and as always, have a wonderful month.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Spotlight: Incredibles 2

 

In what seems to be becoming more of a trend, movies are getting sequels long after the original’s release, sometimes over a decade after.  The sequel to “Finding Nemo”, “Finding Dory” came out about thirteen years later.  “Independence Day” got a sequel twenty years later.  Hell, “Blade Runner 2049” came out over thirty years after the original (and still somehow managed to be amazing).  And the result of this trend has been fairly hit or miss.  Some sequels managed to succeed despite the distance in time from their predecessors, while others flop for multiple reasons, be it little interest in a sequel this many years later or just a sense of re-treading the same ground without adding anything new.

So with that in mind, “Incredibles 2” is the latest in this trend, coming out fourteen years later.  How does it stack up?

I have only vague memories of seeing the original “Incredibles” in theaters with my dad way back in the day.   And while I don’t remember much about the plot (it was fourteen years ago after all and I only saw it once), I remember liking it.  I remember it being a fun movie.  So when I went to see the sequel all these years later, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect.  Sure, the movie had been receiving pretty much universal acclaim, but I’d been let down by that before.

In the end, I would say that “Incredibles 2” is a decent to good movie.  Nothing amazing or spectacular, but very solid.

I don’t think my reaction to it has all that much to do with the movie itself.  Sure, the plot is very predictable, to the point where I would have figured out the movie’s main plot twist long before I did if I hadn’t turned my brain off.  Sure, it doesn’t really do anything that we haven’t seen before.  But it has a lot of charm, and it’s a movie that can appeal to kids and adults alike without feeling patronizing.

Rather, I think it has more to do with the time it came out in.

One of the movie’s central conceits is this almost meta examination of the role that superheroes play.  After the introductory action sequence, we see them being yelled at by police for causing so much collateral damage, to the point where they argue that it would have been better if the heroes had simply done nothing.  And throughout the movie it’s making an argument about how the world needs superheroes, something which feels strangely dated especially after a decade of Marvel dominating the box office with its superhero movies.  It makes me wonder if the script for the movie was written way back when, shortly after the first film’s release.

And for me personally, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m burned out on superhero movies.  There’s just so many of them and most of them feel identical to each other (this is particularly true for Marvel movies).  Part of the original “Incredibles” charm was that it came out at a time when superhero movies weren’t that big.  Sure there might be one every once in a while, but it’s still a far cry from today when it feels like there’s a superhero movie in theaters every other month.  I think if the sequel had come out just a couple of years or so after the first one, I might have been more receptive to it.

Again, it’s not a bad movie.  I just don’t think it’s that remarkable of one either.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of next month for another post, and as always, have a wonderful month.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About Video Game Movies

With the release of “Tomb Raider” this past Friday, we find ourselves with another movie based on a video game.  Only, this time it seems like the movie has fared decently well.  It was still outperformed by “Black Panther” at the box office (or “buried”, as news outlets like to put it…you know, because puns), but people who liked the video game also seem to have liked the movie as well.  Now, I haven’t seen the movie myself, but from what I’ve heard it seems like there might be one big reason for that:

It mirrors the video game almost exactly.

 

 

Now, I can’t speak for everybody, but I think what most people want to see is an adaptation.  They want to watch a video game they love made into movie form.  They don’t want to see Hollywood get all cute and switch things around to try to make their own version of the story.

Which is exactly what happened with the 2016 “Assassin’s Creed” movie.

If you’ve never played any of the “Assassin’s Creed” games before, here’s the rundown: they center around a device known as the Animus, which allows a user to relive the memories of their genetic ancestors.  The first game has you playing as Desmond Miles as he wakes up in a mysterious location, kidnapped by an unknown organization with sinister motives.  The sections in the present day are very brief and low-key, building up an overarching mystery as to who these people are and what they want.  But the majority of the game takes place in the Animus.

Apparently the movie didn’t get the memo, because from what I understand the majority of the film takes place in the modern-day.

Seriously, how do you take a game that features super cool stuff like jumping off tall buildings and landing in a pile of hay, and make a movie where the main character only does that twice and the majority of the movie is people sitting around talking about shadowy conspiracies?  In the games, the modern-day segments are largely kept in the background, an overarching element to the franchise’s story.  But the main focus has always been the Animus segments, with whatever assassin character it happens to be for that game.

Now while I can’t speak for the quality of “Tomb Raider”, having not seen it myself, the simple fact that it has fared better than most other video game movies would seem to indicate that it at least did something right.  I honestly think people just want to see something that compliments what came before instead of trying too hard to be its own thing.

Another failed case study of that can be found in the 2008 “Max Payne” movie.

 

 

 

In what seems like another incident of Hollywood trying to play cute, “Max Payne” only shares surface level elements with the game.  The movie keeps the names of most of the characters and the drug known as Valkyr, which plays a crucial role in the story.  Other than that, the progression of things seems  entirely different.  In fact, the main villain of the game doesn’t even die in the film.  No…instead they keep her alive so they can force in a post-credits scene to hint at a sequel.  Of course, that never came to be because of how poorly the movie did.

Hey guys, I don’t know if anyone told you, but the game already has a sequel.  And it’s certainly far better than whatever you had planned.

The sad thing is the movie should have been good.  All of the elements were there for them to turn the game into a stylish, gritty revenge movie.  But instead, they tried to twist things around to give their own personal interpretation on it.  Maybe they thought they could do better than the game’s writers did?  I don’t know.  You’d think with the history of video game movies being so terrible they’d stop and think “maybe this is a bad idea”.

I think a large part of the problem is that the people who make these movies either have never played the games themselves or just don’t have respect for the source material.  Or possibly both.  It’s almost as if they just read a synopsis of the plot somewhere and wrote a script based on that.  You’d think that if you really wanted to adapt something and do it justice, you’d actually bother immersing yourself in it.

But I guess that’s just me.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of next month for another post and have a wonderful month.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.