Contrived Destiny: Prophecies in Storytelling

So lately, I’ve been thinking about prophecies.  And I’m not talking about prophecies as in biblical prophecies or any of that Nostradamus stuff.  That’s a story for another time.  What I’m talking about are prophecies in fiction.  You know what I mean: in a story a prophecy will say this or that, and then the characters end up stressing about the prophecy instead of doing anything about it even though they have adequate time to take care of things and then their laziness actually makes the prophecy come true and MY GOD WHY AREN’T YOU PEOPLE DOING ANYTHING?!

No?  Just me?

When I was younger, I didn’t really have an issue with prophecies when it came to fiction.  To me, it was just a thing, especially in fantasy.  You know, some great evil would return to the world and only the chosen hero or heroes could defeat it, that sort of thing.  But more and more, I’ve come to the realization that prophecies can be really lazy.  And indeed it seems like some stories rely on them heavily, like a sort of crutch.

This is kind of an oblique example, but here goes:

You’ve probably heard of the reboot Star Trek movies directed by J.J. Abrams.  Now, I don’t really have an issue with them.  They’re mindless, action movies that kind of miss the point of what Star Trek was about, but they’re still fun to watch.  However, once I had this particular thing pointed out to me, I couldn’t un-see it.

In the first reboot movie, time is re-written when the villain is sucked through a black hole type thing and ends up in the past.  He attacks a Federation ship and destroys it, which kills Kirk’s father.  Fast-forward into the future, and Kirk is an edgy, dark young man who gets into bar fights and has a problem with authority.  Later on in the movie, he ends up marooned on an ice planet after he pisses off Spock.  Being chased by what might as well be a Yeti, Kirk finds himself in an ice cave.  And there he meets…Old Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy (rest in peace).  Old Spock tells him that in the timeline he comes from, Spock and Kirk are best friends.  Therefore, because of that, they are sort of destined to work together.  With that knowledge, Kirk and Spock inevitably put aside their differences and work together.

But that’s kind of lazy storytelling when you think about it, isn’t it?

Instead of Kirk and Spock naturally becoming friends, they end up as friends because they’re supposed to to be friends.  History has been changed.  Events occurred differently, shaping Kirk and Spock into different people than they would have been originally.  But instead of figuring out a clever way to use Kirk’s brashness and Spock’s logical thinking to save the day, they just force the two together because Old Spock said it was meant to be.

Their characters don’t really develop.  They’re just fated to be together…apparently.

 

Old Spock (Leonard Nimoy)

 

And this is something you can see in a lot of stories with prophecies in them.  Why does the hero become the hero?  Does he work hard?  Is he of admirable character?  Does he train and get stronger over time?  Or does he become the hero because some obscure, ancient writing said he was going to be the hero?

Now, prophecies can be used in interesting ways.  Take the video game “Final Fantasy X” for example.  In the game, there is this giant monster that returns to devastate the world and only a summoner can defeat it.  But to do so, they must sacrifice themselves to summon a being powerful enough to defeat it.  Later on, the main characters come to the realization that this is all a bunch of nonsense, because the monster will just keep coming back over and over again.  It’s at that point where the heroes basically say “screw prophecies” and forge their own path.  In that way, it uses prophecy to expose the flawed nature of the religion that the game’s world is based on.

So you see, you could do that.  Or you could do what “Snow White and the Huntsman” did: kill off Kristen Stewart, only to have her magically come back to life and suddenly be a badass warrior.

Why?  Because prophecy baby!

By insisting that a character be a hero according to prophecy, a writer can get past all sorts of pesky things like character growth, development, training, and so on.  The hero can just have god damn magical powers if they want.  And why not?  It’s a prophecy!  Anything goes!  Even “The Matrix” pulled something like that, although in that case it actually worked because it served to highlight the movie’s theme of rebirth.

 

Wait…Neo is an anagram for “one”? My god it’s ALL COMING TOGETHER!

 

Like I said, prophecy isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It’s just too easy to use as a lazy crutch.  Why bother coming up with experiences for the character to justify their growth into a hero when you can just predestine that from the very beginning?  No one’s going to question it, because it has to be so if the prophecy said it.

The problem with prophecies is that they often become too binding.  They force things to play out in a certain way, whether it fits in line with the prophecy or not.  There are two basic outcomes to a prophecy in fiction:

  1. The prophecy comes true.  Heroes deal with the fallout and try to fix things.
  2. The prophecy doesn’t come true.  Cue preachy message about the future not being written in stone.

As you can see, there’s not a lot of wiggle room between these two outcomes.  At best, prophecies are usually a convenient way to foreshadow a major, future event.

At worst, they’re just lazy writing.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for my next short story, and as always, have a wonderful week!

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

Spotlight: “Jessica Jones” Season One

Warning: some spoilers for season one of “Jessica Jones” follow.

The Marvel Netflix shows are some of the most interesting takes on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short).  They represent more grounded takes on a world that includes Norse gods and hulking green steroid monsters.  They represent a moral ambiguity that underscores a franchise typically full of characters whose main struggle is “I’m not powerful enough” before they discover “oh wait, yeah I am” and then promptly throw the bad guy through a building or two.

I’ve already talked about “Daredevil” season one and two.  “Daredevil” was the start of the Netflix shows, representing a darker, more nuanced superhero story.  And while season two started to collapse under the weight of its multiple plots, season one still represents some of the best Netflix has to offer.

So, going into it, I had no idea that “Jessica Jones” would feel so different.

Like “Daredevil”, “Jessica Jones” is dark, but even from the show’s title sequence you can tell its tone is different.  The opening sequence for “Daredevil” showed the world being filled in bit by bit, which was a representation of the main character’s unique perspective.  By contrast, the title sequence for “Jessica Jones” plays with shadows and silhouettes.  It features many shots of windows and perspectives that imply being watched or observed, which ties into Jones’ career as a private investigator.

 

A shot from the title sequence.

 

 

It was about midway through the first episode when it hit me: “Jessica Jones” is essentially a modern noir story.

The aspects of the show line up: a private investigator with a tragic past, a piano-heavy soundtrack underscored with hints of jazz, and voice-over narration done by Jessica herself.  I’m not familiar enough with the character or the comics she comes from to say for sure, but it feels to me like the show is steeped in that tradition.  At its core, “Jessica Jones” is still a superhero story, making the noir elements mere icing on the cake.  But it’s enough to give the show a unique style all its own amidst the other Marvel Netflix shows.

“Daredevil” season one was all about Matthew Murdock coming to terms with who he wanted to be as a hero and the lines he was willing to cross.  We followed him as he grew into the hero he needed to be.  By contrast, “Jessica Jones” keeps things from us and much of the season is about uncovering those parts of her past to better understand her as a person.  It becomes clear by the end of the first episode that Jessica tried the hero thing before and something went terribly wrong.  The bad times in her past are centered around a mysterious figure named “Kilgrave” who has the ability to control people’s minds.

Jessica is guarded and masks her feelings with sarcasm.  At the outset it seems that she’s done trying to play the hero, but she’s quickly drawn back in when a new client sets her on a collision course with her old nemesis, Kilgrave.

 

Jessica, brooding as always.

 

They could have easily pulled Jessica too far down the sarcastic, gloomy route and made her an unlikable protagonist.  But her sarcastic quips and grim worldview are punctuated by glimpses of a person who wants to believe better, who wants to do good.  During one of the episodes, we get flashbacks of Jessica before Kilgrave that show how she gradually comes to the realization that she wants to help people.  Even her job as a private investigator after the fact clues us in to her inclination for helping people, despite her outward attitude.  The show succeeds at bringing us into Jessica’s world and letting us learn who she is bit by bit.

One aspect of the show that worked better than I would have expected was the introduction of Luke Cage, another Netflix Marvel hero who was later given his own show.  I’ve talked before about the inter-connection of Marvel’s universe and how that could become a problem, but that isn’t the case here.  Rather, the inclusion of Luke Cage feels natural.  His past and Jessica’s intertwine, which is evident from the start when we see Jessica spying on him in the very first episode.  The progression of their relationship and how it ties in to the greater plot of the season is done very well here.  It never feels forced or added for the sake of tying it in to the larger Marvel universe.

Another aspect of the show I was surprised by was the villain, Kilgrave.

 

Kilgrave.

 

Played by David Tennant, Kilgrave is a very different beast from Wilson Fisk in “Daredevil”.  Fisk was a character who believed he was changing the city for the better, albeit through extreme and violent methods.  By contrast, Kilgrave has no such noble goals.  He’s selfish.  He’s vain.  He’s unhinged and positively psychotic.  And he has an unhealthy fixation on Jessica, especially considering she’s the only one who’s ever escaped from his control.  Tennant was a great choice for the character too, providing that charming yet unpredictable nature to the character and making him a memorable villain.

That being said, I found it strange that they decided to not reveal his face until near the end of the third episode.  Anyone who knows David Tennant or has seen him in other shows will be able to tell that it’s him from the moment he says anything, so waiting on that reveal just seems a little pointless.  Even the pre-release stories for “Jessica Jones” had already confirmed David Tennant would be playing him.

All that being said, Kilgrave is a great villain and provides a very personal adversary for Jessica to face.  But not everything is perfect with the first season.

I’ve mentioned before how “Daredevil” season one decides to refer to the day when literal aliens invaded and blew up half the city in the first “Avengers” movie simply as “The Incident”.  It’s a weird, out-of-place choice that almost feels like they’re trying to distance the Netflix shows from the movies because of their wildly different tones.  “The Incident” shows up again in Jessica Jones, this time in the form of a minor character (read: very minor…as in they only appear in one episode) who has grievances with super powered people because of losing someone during the siege of New York.  It ends up feeling forced and has no purpose other than being a red herring.

There’s also a subplot featuring a police officer Jessica saves early on in the show.  It’s revealed later on that he is part of a mysterious research group with a doctor that developed some kind of combat enhancement drug.  It comes out of nowhere with no real buildup and doesn’t resolve itself by the end of the season.  Rather, its whole purpose seems to be to tease a future plot, as very late in the season it’s revealed that this mysterious group may have ties to Jessica and how she got her powers.

And that’s another thing that bothered me with the season.  Early on, after Jessica learns that Luke has powers as well, they have a brief conversation about where they got them.  Luke tells her his came from an experiment and Jessica says hers were an “accident”.  For much of the season, I assumed Jessica knew exactly how she got her powers and it would be revealed later on.  But as it turns out, Jessica has no idea.  During the final episode, she has a line where she mentions that she looked into her past before but kept hitting dead ends.  But it isn’t until near the end of the season that there’s any hint of that.  So when she says “accident”, we’re not really clear what she means by that.

Despite these issues, “Jessica Jones” is well worth a watch.  The pacing takes a dip during the last few episodes and the final confrontation doesn’t feel as climactic it should be, but overall it’s another great entry into the Marvel Netflix shows.  Its style and tone are quite different from “Daredevil”, so if you go into it expecting a similar outing, you might find yourself surprised and put off at first.  But if you give it a chance, “Jessica Jones” provides you with a wonderfully deranged villain and a gripping personal story.

 

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.

Generational Idols: Youtube vs. Hollywood

Everyone has at least one role model when they’re growing up, someone they look up to.  Role models teach by example, with younger people observing how they think and act in certain situations and then trying to emulate that.  Role models can be good or bad, depending on the person.  They don’t even have to be real people.  Some role models are the fictional characters actors portray on television or in movies, and some might even be characters in cartoons.

Traditionally, of course, role models have often been celebrities in Hollywood.  But that’s starting to change…

Recently I stumbled across a Variety article from 2014 that revealed that the most influential people among teenagers ages 13-18 are actually Youtubers (a term for people who make videos on Youtube).  This isn’t just a fluke either.  All five of the top spots in the survey were populated by Youtube stars.  The first Hollywood celebrity to appear on the list is Paul Walker at number six.  And honestly (not to be insensitive or anything), that might have something to do with the fact that he died.

Now, the tone of the article bothers me a little bit.  Here’s the beginning:

“U.S. teenagers are more enamored with YouTube stars than they are the biggest celebrities in film, TV and music.  That’s the surprising result of a survey Variety commissioned in July that found the five most influential figures among Americans ages 13-18 are all YouTube faves, eclipsing mainstream celebs including Jennifer Lawrence and Seth Rogen.”

I might be reading too much into it, but it’s almost like the writer was aghast at the fact that the folk in Tinseltown aren’t on teenagers’ radars as much as Youtube content creators.  Later the article comments that “despite having minimal exposure in the mainstream media, another comedy duo, known as the Fine Bros., Benny and Rafi, finished a close second…”.  In the end, I only have one question.  One, simple question…

Have none of you been paying any damn attention?

This shouldn’t be that big of a surprise.  Maybe Hollywood celebrities were important for older generations, but for newer generations their popularity is slipping.  It’s not some big secret either.  Plenty of people within my age group (including myself) have made it obvious how we feel about celebrities and their lives.  When we see the stories about how Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie breaking up their marriage, we roll our eyes and ask “who cares”?  The news business as a whole seems to have this obsession with celebrities.  They dominate the headlines and fill up our browsers with click-bait articles.

So yes, the Fine Bros. may be highly influential “despite having minimal exposure in the mainstream media”, but that’s because we simply don’t care what the mainstream media thinks anymore.  It’s become increasingly obvious that the media regularly fails to do its job.  News stations are often owned by bigger corporate people or entities that have slanted opinions which trickles down into the news broadcasts, depriving us of a objective view on the story.  And sometimes the media even tries too hard to be objective, refusing to delve deeper into a story for fear of sparking controversy.

Do you know why Edward R. Murrow has an award named after him?  Because he stood up to Senator Joseph McCarthy and exposed him for the demagogue that he was.  He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind or tell the truth.  He showed us that what McCarthy was doing was wrong, and played a large role in his downfall.

But now?  We see stuff like this and wonder if our newscasters are even human anymore:

 

 

Youtubers, on the other hand, seem like polar opposites to the stiffness of newscasters and celebrities.  They seem natural and excitable.  They seem passionate about their work, passionate about the things they love.  As the Variety article points out, teenagers feel that they have a far more authentic relationship with a Youtuber.  They enjoy that Youtube stars don’t have a strict filter and that they have a more straightforward sense of humor.  Youtubers aren’t defined by PR marketing strategies created by professional spin doctors.  They’re still putting forth an “image”, so to speak, but one that appears far more believable and relatable than most of the people in Hollywood.

Sure, the liberal-minded among us can stand up and cheer when Meryl Streep calls Donald Trump a bully.  And we can applaud when Leonardo DiCaprio preaches about the necessity of fighting global warming.  But when we are confronted with a tough problem in our lives, we don’t find ourselves asking “what would Leo do”?  Because, in the end, they are still distant from us.  Most of them were born into families that had more money than they knew what to do with.  They grew up in lavish homes and never wanted for anything.  Now compare that to someone like Pewdiepie, who has the most subscribers of all on Youtube (as of this writing he has over 54 million people subscribed to him).  Pewdiepie (real name: Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg) was completely unknown until he was already in his twenties and going to college.  Even when he started Youtube he didn’t immediately have a massive amount of subscribers.  It took a combination of tenacity, luck, and other factors before his channel exploded and he went from two million subscribers to over twenty million in the span of a single year.

Instantly, Pewdiepie as a person is more relatable to us.  He wasn’t born into millions of dollars.  He had to work for it.  And when he gets on camera and records a video, it doesn’t feel like he’s reading things off of a teleprompter.  His image isn’t one crated by professionals.  His image is one he created by simply being an extension of himself.

 

And seriously, who could hate that face?

 

And that’s the key thing here: being relatable.  Youtube stars will always seem more relatable to teenagers than celebrities because of how they carry themselves.  Youtubers, at their core, usually started out by setting up a camera and recording themselves doing what they loved.  By contrast, Hollywood celebrities always seem to have a facade between them and us, whether they’re acting out a character or giving an award acceptance speech.  We can’t relate to them because most of us have never and will never have the same experiences.  But so many of us can relate to the more common experiences of playing video games or reacting to movies, experiences which Youtube has in spades.

Not everyone will enjoy their content or their personalities.  But like it or not, Youtubers are the celebrities for a new generation.

And if that still surprises you, maybe it’s time to stop judging and start paying attention.

The Power of Nostalgia

We all know nostalgia.  It’s that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when thinking of a time or place from the past.  It’s that pleasant tingling you feel when you remember an old book you read, a movie you watched, or a video game you played.  But how much power does nostalgia actually have?

Let’s get political for a second.  This past election cycle, Donald Trump’s campaign phrase was “make america great again.”  This motto clearly resonated with a decent amount of people, because it won him his party’s nomination and eventually he won the presidency.  Clearly, nostalgia played a factor here, but nostalgia for what?  If I had to hazard a guess, I would say the 1950’s.  That’s the obvious answer, because the ’50s were that blissful age of good ol’ fashioned family values and being American.  Well…if you were straight, Christian, male and white that is.  If you were anything else, your experience in the ’50s was a lot less fun.  Because that’s the thing with nostalgia…it can blind you to the problems of the past.  The older generations tend to look at the ’50s as a Utopian era and long for those times again, but that’s largely due to the fact that advertisers have been drilling that image into their heads for decades.

But nostalgia affects us in smaller ways too.  Like say, when it comes to our entertainment habits.

 

realMyst Masterpiece Edition

 

I’ve gone on record before about my fondness the game Myst.  I really love Myst.  Like…really, REALLY love Myst.  I could go on and on about the game.  And apparently I have, if my blog is any indication.

Part of my love for the game, of course, stems from nostalgia.  Myst was one of my first-ever video games, and it was vastly different from other games I played around that time.  Instead of going on an epic quest to save a princess, I was just wandering around an island all by myself trying to uncover its secrets.  It’s a profoundly atmospheric game, an experience all its own.  That uniqueness, combined with my age when I played it, likely led to my nostalgic memories of it.  In fact, I would consider Myst to be one of my favorite video games of all time, largely due to that nostalgia.  But, even so, I acknowledge that the game was not perfect.

Some of the puzzles could be frustratingly obtuse.  And some of them were more tedious to solve than they needed to be.  For example, on the island there were these pedestals with symbols etched onto them: a snake, a leaf, an anchor, and so on.  Once you activate a certain combination of them, the sunken ship by the dock rises out of the water.  But the problem was that, in the original edition of the game, you couldn’t tell which of these pedestals were on or off unless you got close to them and hovered your mouse over the symbol (red for off, green for on).  It doesn’t sound like much, but if you were the type to just click random things to see what they did, it made solving the puzzle a little more tedious once you knew the answer because then you would have to go around and figure out which ones you accidentally turned on.

And then there was the puzzle with the ship you had to drive through the underground maze.  A clue to understanding that puzzle was actually hidden in a different location, something which the game hadn’t done up to that point.  So basically, if you went to that age, to get the clue for that puzzle you would actually have to solve the puzzle to get back to the island so you could get back to the other area to get the clue.

Yeah…it was a thing…

Despite all that, I would say that Myst stands up fairly well for its age.  I mean, at least it doesn’t require you to grab a toothbrush at the beginning of the game or else you can’t beat it at the end (no joke, there was actually a game like that).  Its puzzles had logic behind them.  The difficulty came from figuring out how the mechanics of each puzzle worked.

But like with the 1050’s, nostalgia in video games can blind us as well.  A lot of older gamers tend to lament how “easy” games are now and how they hold your hand too much.  But the thing a lot of them (including myself) often forget is that older games weren’t always the best designed.  Often, there were tricks you would have to learn in order to even complete the game.  And these were often never truly explained to you, because standards in game design weren’t really finalized yet.  The older Zelda games are guilty of this.  I’m not sure how you were supposed to figure out that certain blocks could be moved to unlock doors in the dungeons, but you had to do it.  And that’s an issue with a lot of old-school games…even the good ones.

A similar thing happens with movies.  People love old movies like Casablanca and Citizen Kane, but would they really stand up on their own nowadays if it wasn’t for nostalgia?  Movies back then had a lot of restrictions because of the way technology was.  Cameras were hard to move and sound was hard to capture, which led to a lot of movies featuring little more than people standing around in a room and talking,  Now, that’s not to say that this can’t work (like in The Maltese Falcon), but a lot of old movies are very static.

 

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while nostalgia is a nice, warm thing…it does have its drawbacks.  I’m sure you’ve often heard the phrase “rose-colored glasses” to indicate that someone is blind to the bad side of something.  And that can be the case with nostalgia.  We remember these times, places, games, movies, and so on with pleasant feelings, but we often ignore that they had limitations or bad design choices that wouldn’t make sense in the modern era.

It’s okay to be nostalgic about something.  But like with many things in this world, moderation is key.

 

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.

Follow me on Twitter over here.

Can’t Remember: The Amnesia Trope

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

You wake up in a dark room, lying face down on a cold stone floor.  You groan, your head feeling like it weighs ten times what it should.  Taking stock of your surroundings, you find that you can’t see much in the dim lighting of the candles lining the walls.  There’s a rickety looking wooden table in the middle, and what appears to be an old antique dresser with a mirror on top just across from it.  Pushing yourself up off the floor, you wince.  Your body aches more than it should.  With shaky steps, you make your way over to the mirror.  Even in the dim lighting, you can tell you’ve had better days.  Your eyes look tired and your face is covered in dirt.  Turning around, you spot an old wooden door just outside the reach of the candles’ light.  You walk over and push it open, the door making a loud creaking that echoes into the hallway beyond.  You can tell you’re in some kind of ancient castle.  One of the windows has broken, the wind of the storm rushing in and blowing the worn red curtains all about.  You take a step into the hallway.

Then another.

You blink.

And that’s when it hits you, you don’t remember anything.  Why you’re here, where this is, and even who you are…it’s all missing, as if someone reached inside your head and pulled them out one by one…

 

The amnesia trope is a very common staple in fiction, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres.  People often malign the trope, saying it’s cheap or lazy.  And while I’ll agree that often the amnesia trope can be a sign of a writer who’s run out of ideas, there’s also a very simple reason the trope exists in the first place.

Because it’s an effective way to set up a mystery or driving goal for a character.

When someone in a television show, movie, video game, or what have you wakes up in a strange location without any recollection of why they’re there or even who they are, our innate curiosity is like “hmm this is interesting…I wonder what’s going on?”  Call it manipulative if you want, but it works.  It immediately draws us in because we can’t help ourselves.  We want to know more, we have to know more.  And amnesiacs in fiction tend to have far more interesting lives than their real-life counterparts.

Take The Bourne Identity for example.  In the beginning of the movie, the crew of a fishing ship fishes Matt Damon’s character out of the water during a harsh storm.  He’s been shot in the back multiple times.  There’s no identification on him aside from a strange device featuring the address of a bank in Zurich.  And it becomes quickly evident that he has combat training, as he manages to ambush one of the crew members and grab him by the throat.  It’s then that we learn that Damon’s character has no memory and has no idea who he is or where he is.  It’s a very effective opening that gives us a clear reason to get invested in the plot.

But the real reason Bourne Identity succeeds at gaining our interest is because they give us key interesting details about the character: the strange laser pointer device pointing to the Zurich bank, the gunshot wounds on his back, and his apparent combat prowess.  It’s not enough to just give a character amnesia.  The amnesia might draw in people initially, but unless they’re given some more details, that interest will wane very quickly.  This is especially true in modern fiction, because people have seen the amnesia trope used so often that a writer will have to do extra work to keep them invested.

While the amnesia trope is very common in thrillers and mysteries, I think more recently it has found a home in video games, particularly those of the horror variety.  Like before, amnesia is a good way to get people interested, but in video games it serves another important purpose.  In a game it’s crucial that the player identifies with the character they are playing as in some way.  Amnesia is a very useful tool in this sense, because it allows the player to jump in at a point where they have about as much information on their situation as the character in the story.  In this way, they are experiencing the mystery right along with the character.  If the main character suddenly got amnesia halfway through the game, it would just create this weird disconnect for the player and they would likely lose interest.

Take Amnesia: The Dark Descent as an example.  Our journey begins as the main character, Daniel, is stumbling through the halls of a castle struggling to maintain his memory.  The scene fades in and out of blackness as he makes his way through the stone corridors.  He recites off details about himself, but by the end of the intro he can barely manage to say his name.  He wakes up later on in the middle of a hallway, with nothing aside from a trail of pinkish fluid to follow.  As we go through the game, we slowly learn more about his predicament and how he ended up in this strange, haunting castle.  Because, like I said, the amnesia trope can be effective as long as a writer handles it with care.

In the end I think the amnesia trope has a bit of a unfair reputation.  Like anything, it can be overused, but just looking at the memory tropes page at TV Tropes shows you just how versatile it can be.  It pays to recognize that everything, even the most cliche of tropes, have their place in fiction.  And yes, that even includes demons, which I have very loudly complained about many times before.  But it’s a tricky balancing process.  You can give a character amnesia, but if you don’t give the character a compelling reason to have amnesia then the effect is lost on people.  I’m of the opinion that originality in stories is a little overrated.  As long as you can put a unique and interesting spin on a story, and do it well, then it really shouldn’t matter if your story is heavily inspired by one thing or another.  EVERYTHING is inspired by one thing or another.  All of fiction can have its roots traced back to the ancient tradition of oral storytelling.  True originality simply doesn’t exist.

A writer needs to be able to make use of all the tools in their toolbox, so to speak.

2016: The Year Everybody Loved to Hate

We’re only three days into 2017 and already the narrative has been established: 2016 was an awful crap fest of a year and we’re glad it’s gone.  But was it as bad as we think?  Was there really nothing at all redeeming about the past year?

A lot of the hate surrounding 2016 seems to have a lot to do with how we ended the year on a rather sour note.  The aftermath of the election was still front and center in our minds and the death of Carrie Fisher was and still is weighing on us.  When it comes to 2016 these are the two things everyone seems to be talking about right now: the election and celebrity deaths.  Now, the election was a heated one and there were a lot of celebrities that passed away last year, but I think some good things happened too.

For starters, it was a great year for the domestic box office, making over eleven billion dollars.  That’s the first time in history.  And the year was full of noteworthy movies, the top three grossing being Finding DoryRogue One, and Captain America: Civil War.  Although we might as well just call it “Disney gets richer” because all three of those came out of studios owned by Disney.

But even though Disney ruled the box office it was still a great year for other movies as well.  I personally really enjoyed 10 Cloverfield Lane, the kinda-maybe sequel to the original Cloverfield back in 2008 (although you don’t have to have seen the first one to enjoy it).  It was a smartly paced horror thriller that proved that you never really can trust John Goodman.  And I mean ever.  Right when you think you’ve grown to trust him the movie throws something back at you that casts doubt on the whole situation.  It’s tense, exciting, and never really lets up.  If you’re a fan of horror or even just thrillers in general, I highly recommend it.  Even the debut trailer for the movie was great, capturing that gradual sense of unease as things grow more and more demented.

 

 

I also really enjoyed Arrival, a sci-fi film with a unique take on first contact with aliens.  I already posted a full review of it a few weeks back so I won’t go into so much detail again.  It’s a smart movie that puts the focus squarely on the impact of aliens arriving on Earth.  Their intentions unknown, the governments of the world scramble to assemble teams and figure out what the purpose of their arrival is.  It’s a high concept movie with a decidedly human core to it.

But it wasn’t all rosy in movie land.  As much as I would like to put Rogue One on my “best movies of 2016” list I simply can’t, mainly because it’s lackluster first half was only saved by such an extraordinary second half.  And then there was also Blair Witch, the 17 years later sequel to The Blair Witch Project, which failed to capitalize on any of its interesting elements and instead settled into a boring parade of pointless jump scares and shadow retelling of the events of the first movie.

It was also a great year for alternative energy or “clean energy”, if you prefer.  Solar energy is now the same price or cheaper than fossil fuels in thirty countries around the world.  Not only that, but Tesla managed to power an entire island using solar panels.  Sure the island has only 600 residents, but it’s still an amazing feat.  It shows that the future of energy may finally be arriving.  You may or may not believe in global warming, but I’m sure you can at least agree that fossil fuels will not last us forever.  Regardless of global warming, we have to secure humanity’s future by switching over to renewable energy sources.

And hey, remember Pokemon GO?  It was that mobile game that actually got people to go outside and walk around.  How amazing is that?  A video game actually made people go enjoy the outdoors.  Never mind the media, who apparently tried their best to sour the achievement by reporting all the accidents that occurred with people playing the game (although at least one such report of a highway accident involving the game was false).  The hype around Pokemon GO has certainly died down at this point, but there’s no denying the impact it had on popular culture.

See here’s the thing with 2016: I think most of the bad stuff that happened was at least slightly blown out of proportion by either the news or social media.  There were certainly a lot of high-note celebrity deaths last year, but as Cracked points out pretty much every year is the worst year in celebrity deaths.  And something I didn’t mention before, but in the aftermath of that Dallas shooting in July where five police officers were killed we had this narrative in our heads that the United States had become such a battleground for our forces in blue that they were afraid to even step out the door because they might not come back home.  Never mind the fact that the number of police officers being killed has been, on average, declining for the past few decades.  It just shows you how our perception can be shaped so easily by exaggeration.

 

us-officers-killed-graph

Source: BBC.

 

And when it comes to the election, yes there was a lot of vitriol flowing around, but we have to remember that this has been the culmination of the public frustration that’s been brewing for quite some time.  Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders wouldn’t have gotten nearly the amount of attention they did if they had run even just a decade ago (Trump did actually try running for the Reform Party back in 2000, but withdrew before the voting began).  And while Trump’s win greatly upset a lot of people, I don’t think it makes 2016 a terrible year.  If anything, I think it makes 2017 an uncertain year because now he’ll actually be able to start doing things when he takes office on January 20th.  Before, all he could really do was talk (or tweet).  It leaves us with an uncertain future on progressive policies and environmental issues.  I mean, Trump is the guy who once said that wind turbines are killing all the eagles.  No joke.

But despite all my defenses of 2016, I still don’t think it was a great year.  Hell, I’m not even sure if I would necessarily call it a “good” year, just an average one.  But it certainly wasn’t the doomsday terrible good-for-nothing year that many of us seem to have in our minds.  If anything, instead of focusing on the bad parts of 2016, we should be focusing on fighting to make sure 2017 is a good year and goes where we want it to.  The past can inform us, but it can also bind us and steer us away from the things that matter.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  But before I go, I do want to say one thing.  I made a resolution during New Year’s that I haven’t shared with anyone else yet, so this is the first time I’m speaking of it period (aren’t you lucky).  My resolution is that I will write a short story each month this year, so twelve in total.  And on the final Wednesday of each month, instead of a normal blog post I will be posting the story for that month for you all to read.  It’s another way to help me keep writing (I have been working on a full-length book, but working on that all the time really takes its toll after a while so I’ve wanted new projects for a while).  Please, do leave feedback on the stories and tell me what you think.

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

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Elsewhere in the Galaxy Far Far Away: Rogue One Review

Warning: there will be spoilers for Rogue One below.  Read at your own risk.

As the first true standalone movie in the Star Wars franchise, Rogue One has a lot to live up to.  It has to stand on its own two feet with its own self-contained story but also tie itself in to the greater story of Star Wars as a whole.  There is a lot to be excited for in this movie, but there is also cause for concern.  So, is Rogue One worthy of the Star Wars name?  Did it succeed in crafting its own memorable story?

Well…yes and no.  The answer is a bit complicated with this one.

Rogue One is in some ways a prequel to A New Hope, the first Star Wars movie ever made.  It tells the story of a group of ragtag soldiers who steal the plans for the Death Star (which, if you remember, was what Darth Vader is looking for at the beginning of A New Hope).  On its face, this seems like the perfect setup for a Star Wars story.  It fills in a gap that hasn’t really been explored (at least in the movies) and tells a story fans have been wanting to see.  Unfortunately, as I’ll get into in a little bit, the movie seems to cater to the fans a little too much, leaving more casual viewers in the dust.

The crux of the thing is that Rogue One feels like a battle between its two halves.  The second half of the movie is great and has an amazing climactic battle, but the whole thing is weighed down by a jumbled and sloppy first half.  When the movie begins, we see Jyn Erso (the movie’s protagonist) as a child.  We are clued in to her father’s ties to the empire, and without spoiling too much, Jyn is forced to go on the run.  But then the movie jumps ahead to Jyn as an adult, and we see that she’s in an Imperial prison.

Wait…what?  How did this happen?  It’s hard not to feel like something was missing in between.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the case for much of Rogue One‘s first half.  We’re spirited away to a handful of different planets at light speed with very little detail provided on any of what occurs.  It actually took me some time to get my bearings after the opening sequence was over, and that’s not a very good sign.

The rapid fire pacing continues as we see Jyn being taken to an Imperial labor camp.  It seems like this would be a good time to show off the movie’s grittier side and show what life is like under Imperial rule right?  Well too bad, because this sequence lasts all of thirty seconds before Jyn is rescued by the Rebels.  Even once she’s brought to the Rebel base we don’t get much in the way of exposition on her criminal background.  We just get a list of the crimes she’s committed.  It still doesn’t tell us what exactly she did that got her thrown into prison.  And her muddled backstory continues to confuse throughout the first act.  At one part there’s a dream sequence of Jyn living with an Imperial family or something, and it’s not properly explained at all aside from one or two lines of dialogue later on.  It’s all a mess that could have been handled so much better.

Ironically, despite Jyn’s backstory problems, she’s actually the most developed character in the movie.  Despite the large amount of characters in the movie, all of their character traits are handled in broad strokes.  There’s the nervous Imperial pilot who defected from the Empire, the handsome and charismatic leader, the hardened fighter who wields a fully automatic laser rifle, the mystical force-attuned samurai guy, and so on.  Even Saw Gerrera, a character who is hyped up quite a bit during the first act, barely has any impact on the movie as a whole.

Honestly the only true standout character aside from Jyn is K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial robot who, as another character puts it, “says anything that comes into his circuits”.  He’s a dry, sarcastic character who serves as the comic relief in the movie.  And it works.  Early on in the movie there’s a scene where he nonchalantly tosses a grenade behind him to blow up a few Stormtroopers before he quips “yeah, I should’ve stayed on the ship”.

It’s not just the character exposition that’s handled poorly either.  Throughout the movie, there are these little references and nods that have nothing to do with anything besides being a nod to the fans.  And not just the regular fans either, but the super fans.  The ones who digest everything Star Wars they can get their hands on.  There’s a lot of details and information dropped in the first half of the movie (particularly when they get to Jedda) that doesn’t have any significance to the casual viewer.  They do that kind of stuff in superhero movies as well, add little easter eggs that will slip past normal views but will leave the super fans saying “oh yeah that’s obviously a reference to issue number 523″ and so on.  It always struck me as heavy-handed because for a casual view, those moments are jarring and interrupt the flow of the movie.  I mean sure, Star Wars is so big that it probably doesn’t make much of a difference, but it still mucks up the pacing.

Even Darth Vader’s presence in this movie seems to serve no purpose other than fan service (although he does have one really cool scene near the end of the movie).  The first scene we see him in takes place in some random castle thing on the planet Mustafar (the lava planet from Episode III where Anakin and Obi-Wan have their duel), and it serves basically no purpose.  There’s no new information given to the audience.  It just gives us what we already know.  It seems to exist solely to appeal to the fans by showing off more of Darth Vader (and his voice is pretty bad sounding…85-year-old James Earl Jones does not sound nearly as intimidating as he once did).  The scene could have been cut from the movie and would have had barely any impact on it.

Despite all of these misgivings about the first half of the movie, the second half more than makes up for it.  It has a razor-sharp focus on its action, we get payoff for Jyn’s personal story, and it culminates in a prolonged, epic battle that features action on the ground and in space.  It’s an epic moment for the movie that is expertly handled.  There’s honestly not a whole lot to say about the second half except that it recognizes that action is what it does best.  It’s just a shame that the first half of the movie wasn’t as magnificently crafted as the second half is, otherwise I would be inclined to put it way higher on the list of Star Wars movies.

Overall, I would say that Rogue One is good.  The first half is a bit of a dud and drags the movie down, but the second half excels with its focus on action.  The movie certainly has a lot of grit and grime to it, although I found it a little strange that for being labeled as a darker movie, it’s not until near the end that it truly embraces its darker side (pun not intended).  It’s certainly an inconsistent movie, but still worth seeing.

Let me put it this way: if you’re looking for a movie to watch this holiday season, you could do a lot worse than Rogue One.

 

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

I was saddened to hear that Carrie Fisher (who played Princess Leia in the original trilogy as well as The Force Awakens) died yesterday.  She was a truly inspirational person and honestly nothing I say can do her justice.  Today the world mourns one of its heroes.

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