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.

Advertisements

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.

Let’s Talk About Creative Risks

 

So it’s finally out…Episode 8.  “The Last Jedi”.  And fan reaction to it has been…well…all across the board.

There’s no denying that the movie is different.  It does not progress in the way you would expect a traditional Star Wars film to progress.  It does not do the things you would expect a normal Star Wars movie to do.  And some people loved it.  Other people hated it.  I found myself in the former category.  I liked it because it was different.  But some people didn’t, and that’s perfectly okay.

However, I do think it highlights the importance of taking creative risks every once in a while.

In North America, “The Last Jedi” opened with a box office of roughly 220 million dollars.  By contrast, “The Force Awakens” opened with 248 million.  I bring this up because I know some people are going to point to it and use it as proof that “The Last Jedi” is a weaker movie than “The Force Awakens”.  But that’s not really accurate.  The amount of hype surrounding this movie was unreal.  People were going to see it regardless.  It’s highly doubtful that the film’s quality or perceived lack thereof would have much of an impact.  They could have made a movie that mirrored “Empire Strikes Back” in the same way that “The Force Awakens” mirrored “A New Hope”, and it probably would have had a similar box office result.

On the contrary, I think that “The Last Jedi” being different is what will make it stand the test of time better than “The Force Awakens”.  That’s not to say the movie is perfect by any means.  “Last Jedi” certainly has its flaws.  But when compared to “Force Awakens”, “Last Jedi” feels like an actual progression of Star Wars rather than a nostalgic rehashing.

First off, the obvious: “Force Awakens” cribs from “A New Hope”…and it shows.  Many of the story beats are nearly identical, down to the “orphan on a desert planet” routine and the massive planet-destroying battle station.  I mean they even have a character call it the “Death Star 3”, to which another character essentially says “but this time it’s different because it’s a planet…see?”  There’s nothing like fake self-awareness as an attempt to cover up lazy writing.  And that’s to say nothing about Rey being almost impossibly good at everything, almost to the point of being a Mary Sue (an idealized or perfect fictional character that is often seen as a form of wish fulfillment).

In that sense, “Last Jedi” feels like the stronger movie because it isn’t bound by the relics of the past, but instead informed by them.  In some ways, it takes the tropes of Star Wars and turns them on their heads.  I hesitate to say any more for fear of spoilers, but it definitely does not follow the standard Star Wars format.  I don’t think “Force Awakens” is a bad movie, and I see why they had to make it the way they did, what with “A New Hope” being nearly forty years old.  But there’s a difference between using nostalgia to bolster a film and using it as a crutch.  “Force Awakens” tended toward the latter in my book.

If “Last Jedi” does end up performing better than “Force Awakens” (which it very well could), then it’ll stand as a testament to the value of taking risks, especially within an already established franchise.  Think of it this way: if Marvel had never taken the risk to try creating a massively interconnected cinematic universe, the way we see storytelling in movies wouldn’t have evolved the way it had.  Sure, nowadays Marvel movies often feel like factory regurgitations of the same old tropes, but at the time creating such an interconnected series of stories was unheard of.  And if anything, the stylized “Thor: Ragnarok” proved that taking risks can pay off, as the movie was one of the most well-liked comic book movies of this year.

Let me put it another way: remember the craze with alien invasion movies back in the early 2000’s?  Why do you think they eventually died out?  Because people got sick of seeing the same old characters, the same old stories.  It got too predictable and mundane.  We can only see so many movies about the undaunted human spirit triumphing in the face of superior alien technology before it becomes rote and dull.  In that sense, the main Star Wars series was due for something different.

Whether it pays off in the long run remains to be seen…

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, 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 Plot Twists

The Sixth Sense

 

Warning: spoilers for multiple stories lie ahead.  Read at your own risk.

Love ’em or hate ’em, plot twists are an integral part of modern storytelling.  You know what I’m talking about…those moments in stories that make you go “HOLY CRAP” or “WHAT THAT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE!”  But the question is: when is a plot twist good and when is it bad?

For my personal taste, a good plot twist is one that makes you reevaluate what came before.  To start with, I’m going to use an example from something I’m betting not all that many people know about: the television show “Fringe”.

For those who’ve maybe never watched the show, it’s similar to “X-Files”, only instead of investigating weird, far-fetched supernatural stuff they investigate weird, far-fetched science stuff.  The basic premise is this: FBI agent Olivia Dunham investigates after everyone aboard a commercial airline flight is killed by a strange contagion that caused their skin to fall off (in spectacular, gooey fashion).  The case leads her to Dr. Walter Bishop, a man known for extreme experiments in science…who is also now in a mental health facility.  Because of the facility’s rule allowing only family members to visit, Olivia must track down Walter Bishop’s estranged son Peter.

 

Over the course of the first season, the three deal with bizarre and terrifying cases, ranging from killer computer viruses to a bio-engineered monstrous animal.  As the season progresses, an overarching plot involving parallel universes starts to unfold.  In the season finale, the trio stop a bad guy from crossing over into another universe to do bad things.  As things come to a close, we realize that the three have grown close together.  Peter finally starts to accept his father despite his failures.  And Walter has a poignant moment standing in front of-

 

 

…hi-his son’s grave.

……

Wait what?!

And this is where, if the twist is good, your mind goes into overdrive.  You start seeing the clues, putting the pieces together, realizing that certain little things you initially thought were innocuous actually hinted at a bigger truth.  In this case, the truth is that the Peter we know in the show actually belongs to a parallel universe.  And, in this case, your mind is likely to go back to a scene earlier in the season where Walter is talking to Peter and mentions a time when Peter was deathly ill.  Walter says he became consumed with saving him, but that Peter eventually just got better.  Obviously, with the twist at the end of season one, we know that’s not what happened and Walter’s version of Peter died.

There are also other, smaller hints throughout the season that you’d probably never catch on your first viewing.  For example, during one very early episode, Walter is rambling about eye color when he says Peter’s eyes are green.  But when we cut to Peter, we can clearly see that his eyes are blue.  Initially, you likely brushed it off as just Walter being not altogether there.  However, with the added information we get at the season’s close, it takes on a newer significance.  Same with another scene where Peter is holding a G.I. Joe toy and says something like “weird…I always remembered the scar being on the other side”.  Again, innocuous on its face, but hinting at a greater truth.

Another great instance of this kind of plot twist comes from “The Sixth Sense”.  I’m sure most, if not all of you, know the story by now: Bruce Willis plays a psychiatrist who helps a young boy that claims he can see ghosts.  Spoiler alert: Bruce Willis is actually dead the entire time.  He’s just another ghost that the kid can see.  But what’s genius about this twist is that unlike “Fringe”, where most of the clues are only really recognizable upon re-watching the first season, “Sixth Sense” actually replays snippets of scenes from earlier in the movie during the climactic reveal, giving them new meaning and context.  That scene with his wife in the restaurant?  It shifts from being the portrayal of a couple falling out of love to that of a widow grieving for her lost husband.

And it doesn’t even show all the clues the movie had in it.  There’s actually a scene where Bruce Willis is standing behind the kid as the kid reaches for a doorknob.  There’s a quick close-up shot of the knob that shows that Willis has no reflection.  It’s truly crazy how much foreshadowing the movie does right under your nose.

Now let’s move on to the other side of things.  When is a twist bad?  For my money, it’s simple: when the twist is done for pure shock value and offers very little payoff.  For example, one of the seasons of “24” reveals that the president of the United States (or former president at that point…I can’t remember for sure) is in league with the bad guys to do…something I guess.  I don’t remember if there was a good explanation for it.  What little I remember tells me it was more done for shock value than anything else.

Another example comes from the video game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”.  In the game, a character named General Shepherd sends one of the playable characters to an estate in the middle of a forest somewhere to retrieve data on the enemies operations and help stop World War III.  Only, at the end of the mission, Shepherd shoots and burns the playable character alive upon receiving the data, revealing that he was the mastermind behind it all and was just covering his tracks.  It’s a moment that screams “epic” at first, but once Shepherd reveals his motivation later on things fall apart quickly.

It’s as if the writers had to hamstring together an explanation last-minute.  Basically, there was a nuke that went off in the previous game, killing a whole bunch of soldiers.  This made General Shepherd mad or something, so he came up with a convoluted plan to start World War III in an effort to drive up recruitment and get more soldiers…

…who will then more than likely die in the ensuing global conflict, leaving General Shepherd with a far larger body count than he would have had otherwise.

It’s best not to think about it too much.

(If you’re curious, I did write an entire story analysis of Modern Warfare 2 over two years ago.)

Another example of a twist that underperforms is in “The Village”, another movie by M. Night Shyamalan.  For my part, I actually liked the twist itself.  But at the same time, I admit that it does have a lack of payoff for the story.

The plot of “The Village” is as follows: a colonial era village lives in fear of monsters that lurk in the woods around the town.  But later on, it’s revealed that the monsters are nothing more than the village elders wearing outfits in an effort to keep people from moving away from the village.  And the noises they keep hearing in the woods are made by things like wind chimes.  Then, at the very end, it is revealed that the movie actually takes place in modern times, with the village elders starting the village in the 1970’s as a way to escape the traumas they experienced in modern society.  They’re basically an Amish-like cult.

While the twist is cool, there’s very little payoff for it.  We already know that the spooky noises are fake and that the monsters are just old people in costume.  It does give us an explanation for why the elders did all those things, but it doesn’t feel very satisfying.  It feels…anti-climactic in a way.  Not only that, but the twist has some serious explanations with plausibility, the most notable of which being how did no one ever see a plane flying over the area?  The movie tries to explain this away by saying they set up a no-fly zone over the area the village is set in, but it still seems far-fetched.

I could talk about more plot twists, but that would make this post go on longer than it needs to.  And it’s already long as it is.  So to recap, for a plot twist to be good, it needs to redefine or alter the arc of the story in a way that makes sense.  Twists that are thrown in there for shock value (which is something broadcast television shows seem obsessed with these days) tend to collapse under the weight of their own implausibility.  The quality of twists can be highly subjective, but in the end I think most people would agree that it needs to be logical.  It needs to follow some sort of common sense.  Otherwise, its artificial nature is plainly obvious for everyone to see.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, 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 Nostalgia

With the release of season two of “Stranger Things” right around the corner (October 27th), it got me thinking about nostalgia.  You know, that warm and fuzzy feeling you get while thinking about pleasant past experiences.  Those who have watched any of “Stranger Things” know that it is a show steeped in nostalgia.  It’s heavily influenced by classic ’80s movies, and takes inspiration from Spielberg, Carpenter, and the like.

You don’t even have to go past the show’s title sequence to see that ’80s influence.

This has become a common theme recently.  Many forms of media…be it books, movies, or video games…have steeped themselves in this wave of nostalgia for the 1980’s.  In fact, the game “Stories Untold” which I wrote about earlier this year has an ’80s veneer over it in the form of old text-based adventure games.  Now, I don’t hate this nostalgia…although I do feel that sometimes it becomes overbearing.  That’s something “Stranger Things” did really well with during its first season.  Despite the obvious ’80s influences, the show never went out of its way to point them out, relegating them to things like movie posters hanging on the wall in the background of a scene or taking story cues from said movies (like the van chase scene near the end of the season which is clearly inspired by “E.T.”).  The most obvious it gets is a scene where the school’s science teacher is explaining to his wife how they did some of the special effects in the movie “The Thing”.

However, there are times where I feel like the ’80s nostalgia is used like a crutch.  The book “Ready Player One” almost falls into this trap.  The premise of the story is that, in a dystopian future setting, kids like Wade Watts spend most of their time in a humongous virtual reality world.  As the book begins, we learn that the creator of this massive virtual reality passed away recently, and with his death left behind an “Easter egg” inside the game.  Whoever finds it first will inherit the creator’s massive wealth and legacy.  Because of the fact that the creator grew up in the 1980’s, this leads to a massive resurgence of ’80s pop culture as players pour over anything they can get their hands on to figure out the clues and find the Easter egg.

 

 

None of this is necessarily a bad thing.  And the book explains the origin of a lot of the ’80s references, especially the ones that are critical to the main plot.  But it teeters dangerously close to the edge of the nostalgia hole, and risks alienating younger readers who have no real connection to ’80s pop culture.  Having grown up in the ’90s, a lot of the references in the book didn’t really do it for me.  The text-adventure game “Zork” is referenced at one point, which I do have a passing familiarity with.  But most of the things I either have only a vague recollection of or I know it in passing.  Having never been steeped in that ’80s culture, part of the appeal was lost on me.

If the book wasn’t well-paced with likable characters and a fun story, the ’80s charm would have been completely wasted on me.  That being said, “Ready Player One” is definitely worth a read.  It’s a dystopian science-fiction story that manages to avoid falling into that cliché trap of lamenting the dangers of technology.

However, there is one modern instance where I really noticed the nostalgia crutch.  And that instance is…”Rogue One”.

 

Hey look, it’s Jyn Erso and Captain…umm…Captain What’s-His-Face.

 

I talked about “Rogue One” before and how I feel like the movie is a mixed bag.  The storytelling is jumbled at times.  Most of the characters aside from Jyn have very little development and aren’t memorable.  It’s part war movie, part Star Wars movie but doesn’t really nail either of those…at least until the second half of the movie.  But one thing that grated on me more than it probably should have was the fan service.  The biggest example of this was early on in the movie.  Our heroes are making their way through the holy city of Jedha when they run into those two guys from the Cantina in “A New Hope”.

You know the guys.  “I don’t like you.  My friend doesn’t like you either.”  Those guys.  They have a random ten-second cameo that adds nothing to the movie aside from making people go “hey I remember that!”

But then like twenty minutes later the entire city is destroyed by a test-firing of the Death Star’s laser.  So how did those two guys escape exactly?  Did they just happen to have a ship they flew away in just before everything was vaporized?

The movie doesn’t stop there either.  There’s a random cameo by C-3PO and R2-D2 later on.  There’s a not-so-subtle reference to Obi-Wan.  And there’s a scene with Darth Vader on Mustafar (the lava planet from “Revenge of the Sith”) that adds nothing to the plot and just regurgitates stuff we already.

And also Vader makes a pun.  So that’s cool…I guess.

My biggest gripe with all of this is that “Rogue One” was often subtitled “A Star Wars Story”, implying that the movie was meant to be standalone.  Except it isn’t, because it very clearly binds itself hand and foot to “A New Hope”.  It kind of makes sense, considering the movie is about stealing the Death Star plans, which helps the Rebel Alliance destroy it in “A New Hope”.  But at the same time, there’s so much stuff in “Rogue One” that feels like it was put there merely to appease the super fans.

Why did Obi-Wan come back to help even though he was in hiding from the Sith?  Because his friend Bail Organa asked him to of course!

Why did the Death Star have a super critical weakness that caused it to blow up from one proton torpedo?  Because Galen Erso purposefully designed that flaw of course!

(To be fair, I actually did enjoy the explanation of the Death Star’s weakness.  It was a nice little detail that filled a plot hole from the older Star Wars movies.)

Honestly I’m surprised there wasn’t a scene with C-3PO and R2-D2 getting on the blockade runner with Princess Leia, just to explain why they’re on the ship at the beginning of “A New Hope”.

At times the movie feels less like its own thing and more like a forced justification for everything that follows.  I could go on and on about “Rogue One”, and I would still say it’s a good movie.  It just isn’t the great movie it should have been.  It relies a bit too much on nostalgia and not enough on its own original content.  And in the end, that makes the movie feel lopsided.

Nostalgia isn’t inherently a bad thing.  It can help us cope with bad periods in our lives by remembering good times and reminding ourselves that things can and will get better.  But nostalgia can also be blinding.  It can blind us to the flaws in our past.  It’s like whenever people reminisce about the 1950’s as the “good ol’ days”, but fail to remember that they were only the “good ol’ days” if you were a straight, white, Christian male.  If you were anything else, your memories of the 1950’s were probably a bit different.

Perspective is a funny thing.  It can grow distorted, showing us things that have been exaggerated or blown out of proportion.  And sometimes it can show us things that weren’t even true.  Perspective is fickle.  And that’s why nostalgia can be dangerous.  Viewing the world through rose-colored glasses is pleasant and fun, but ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away.

If anything, it just lets them sneak up on you and cause more harm than they rightfully should.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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