Spotlight: Cryostasis

 

…I have no idea what this game is about.  At least not entirely.

On the surface, “Cryostasis” doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary.  It’s a survival-horror game where you as the player make your way through the frozen wreck of a ship, doing battle with mutated monsters and making the best of your limited resources.  But there are some unique elements.

For example, your health is determined by temperature.  The colder you get, the weaker you are and the easier it is to die.  This means that the only way to gain health back is to seek out heat sources.  You can regain health by warming up at a smoldering pile of wood…

 

 

…light bulbs…

 

 

…and other, less conventional heating sources.

 

 

This interplay of heat vs. cold also plays into one of the major thematic motifs of the story, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

As you progress through the ruins of the ship, you’ll do battle with the mutated denizens with a variety of melee weapons as well as some guns you’ll find later on.  Combat is slow and clunky, but purposefully so.  Being in such a cold environment and clad in heavy winter gear, you’re not going to be running around and jumping off of walls like an action hero.  No, the game forces you to play methodically.  Because if you don’t, you will die.

 

Hello sir! Do you mind if I…AXE you a question? Ha ha ha…follow my blog for more top tier jokes!

 

So now that the basics of the gameplay are down, let’s jump into the story.

Spoiler alert: it’s weird.

As the story begins, we’re treated to a very optimistic and upbeat quote…

 

I lied.

 

But before we even get control of our character, we’re introduced to this strange parallel plot of a group of villagers and their trek through a dark forest.  It almost feels like a fairy tale of sorts.

 

This plot runs parallel to the events of the game and helps provide some insight into the themes, but we’ll get to that a bit later.

 

After this brief introduction, the player is then given control of their character.  Through a series of flashbacks (triggered by interacting with a faceless figure in a coat), it is revealed that the player character (known as Alexander Nesterov) traveled to the wreck of the icebreaker via sled dogs, but was forced to continue on foot after the ice broke and wrecked the sled.  As Nesterov progresses through the ship, he experiences flashbacks to when the ship was operational, and it becomes clear that some type of disaster took place.

But just when you think you might have a handle on things…this happens:

 

 

The game prompts you to use your “mental echo” ability to travel into the man’s past and fix his mistake so that he survives (because, you know, that’s a thing…that…that normal people do).  These sections are often like puzzles where you have to figure out what to do.  Some are simple and logical, while others are more obtuse and frustrating.  For example, a later section sees the body of a man dead in his chair after a window exploded and pierced him with glass shrapnel.  The simple solution would be to just exit the room and shut the door behind you, right?  Wrong.  That doesn’t work.  Apparently the real solution is to hide behind the chair and let the chair take the hit.  Only then will you be able to progress.

Because logic is for suckers.

 

You get this message upon the completion of your first “mental echo” segment. I love how even the tutorials are cryptic.

 

As the story continues to progress, more flashback events give insight into the story of the ship and its crew.  And we start to get an idea of the major players in the story.  Most notable in these beginning sections are the ship’s captain and his first officer.  The first officer wants to use some sort of divining rod equipment to help steer the ship through the ice, but the captain decides to rely on sheer intuition alone.  This leads to a confrontation between the two men where they argue over the dangers of the course the ship is taking.

 

Famous last words…

 

The captain disregards the first officer’s advice and, predictably, the ship finds itself stuck.  The first officer decides to go behind the captain’s back and send a message back to the company that owns this ship.  He gets a message back and, despite being advised by the ship’s security officer not to share it with the captain, does so anyways.  The contents of the message are kept hidden for a while, but its effect on the captain is evident.  He gradually grows demoralized and finds that everyone he turns to seems to despise him.  When he goes to the chief engineer of the ship to share the message, the engineer rebukes him and tells him to just go away.

 

 

Eventually there is a flashback with the captain standing on the deck, looking forlorn as he holds the message in his hands.

 

 

After a moment, he releases the piece of paper and it floats away from him.  It is then that the contents of the message are finally revealed: the owners have decided that, following the ship’s completion of its current journey, it is to be decommissioned.

 

 

This feels like a good time to pull that parallel fairy tale story back into play.  In the fairy tale, the people are trying to escape a forest, but the forest seems alive and wants nothing more than to  prevent their escape.  It is in their darkest hour that a man among them named Danko takes charge and leads them onward.  At first, the people rejoice at Danko’s leadership, feeling hope swell within them.  However, as the journey continues and grows harder, resentment begins to take root.  They begin chattering among themselves, becoming doubtful of Danko’s ability to lead.  Eventually the people rebuke him entirely, to which Danko fires back, criticizing them for how easily they allowed themselves to be led.  The people then start surrounding him, clearly intending to kill him…

Numerous parallels to the game’s story can be found.  For example, the idea of man vs. nature becomes a very strong motif in the latter half of the game, with the shifting ice around the ship a parallel to the malevolent forest from the fairy tale.  There’s a “mental echo” segment where you play as someone in a slaughterhouse, and the solution is to open the gates and let the cows go free.

 

Damn liberals and their environmentalism…

 

Not to mention there’s a later, optional segment where you help a polar bear escape from the people hunting it.

But I digress.  As the story continues it becomes clear that something bad happened to the ship’s nuclear reactor considering…you know…there’s a giant hole where it used to be.

 

 

It’s also revealed that the crew began to suffer some kind of massive medical emergency, which appears to stem from some kind of radiation leak from the reactor.

 

 

On top of that, the ship’s layout starts to become more surreal.  Doors begin to disappear, entire areas shift around you as you interact with things, and there’s even one really bizarre scene where, after activating an old-fashioned film projector, you’re forced to battle enemies shooting at you on the screen before one of them walks through the damn thing into the room itself.  All of this seems to imply that the ship you travel through during the game might not entirely be real.  But it’s hard to say.  The game is metaphors layered on top of parallel allegories.  It confuses the hell out of me sometimes.

In any case, following his thrashing by the rest of the crew, the captain makes one last desperate move.  He orders the ship full speed ahead in an attempt to brute force their way out of the ice.  During the attempt, he is injured as the first officer and security officer break into the bridge.  They order the ship in reverse, which only makes things worse and ends up dooming the ship once and for all.  While the crew deals with fluctuating temperatures and radiation sickness, the main officers hatch a plan to take a helicopter and abandon the ship and its crew.

One popular theory is that the captain of the icebreaker is the parallel to Danko in the fairy tale, and I can see why.  They both lead their people.  And they’re both rebuked by their people when they fail to lead them to safety.  The parallels between the two of them are numerous, and it seems to be the most solid conclusion.  However, it is only but one interpretation, as I’ll explain shortly.

As the game nears its close, the two parallel tales come to a head.  In the fairy tale remember, the people are circling around Danko, ready to kill him.  But Danko finally sees that it is not hatred that drives them, but fear.  His resentment is then swept away by a wave of compassion, which causes his eyes to start glowing with light.  The people misunderstand what’s happening, fearing that the glowing is another symptom of Danko’s anger.  But then, Danko rips his still beating heart out of his chest, the sheer light of it obliterating the forest and giving way to a new land.

Danko looks upon this new world with a smile, then falls over dead.  Because happy endings are for losers.

On the icebreaker, the first officer and the security chief carry the captain to a helicopter piloted by the chief engineer.  The crew watches anxiously as the helicopter begins to take off, leaving them all behind.

But it’s not over yet…remember that whole flaming heart thing from the fairy tale?  Yeah…the ship’s nuclear reactor functions as that parallel as it decides to go all ker-plooey and explode.

 

Hooray! Everybody dies!

 

The helicopter is vaporized, and the following scene implies that the explosion transformed the crew into the monsters you fight throughout the game.

So yeah, that’s it.  That’s the story.  I mean, there’s no way things could get weirder or anythi-

 

 

 

 

Hold on a second…I have to go make sure nobody spiked my drink…

So the final boss of the game is Father Time.  No, I’m serious.  I’m dead serious.  The title of the level itself is “Chronos”, which is the ancient name for the personification of time.  So yeah, the giant blindfolded man with the hourglass is literally Father Time.

And you must do battle with him by shooting mystical orbs at the people who appear around him.

Yeah it’s definitely one of the most out of nowhere moments I’ve ever experienced in a game.  I mean, this game was bizarre to begin with, but when this happened I think my jaw literally dropped.

Anyways, after defeating Old Man Time (I can’t believe I actually typed that), he rewards you with an opportunity to go back and change one singular moment that alters the fate of the ship and its crew entirely.  There are multiple ways this can take shape, but for this playthrough it takes the form of the chief engineer.

 

 

There was that scene earlier in the game where he basically told the captain to piss off.  Well, you can change that by having him express sympathy for the captain, a small act of kindness that averts the tragic fate of the entire vessel.

 

 

The story then shifts back to the beginning scene, with Nesterov approaching the vessel by dog sled.  Only, this time people are waiting for him.

 

 

After the sled falls through the ice, the captain appears above and extends his hand, saving Nesterov from falling into the water.  He is joined by the chief engineer, the security officer, and another officer.  Together, the five of them head off toward the ship as the story reaches a close.

 

 

Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin with this craziness…

Like I said before, the fairy tale story is a clear parallel to the tragic tale of the icebreaker.  And like I said, a popular interpretation is that the captain is Danko’s parallel.  However, I’ve also heard it as the ship’s crew being Danko’s parallel, although I don’t particularly agree with that assessment.  It seems more fitting for the crew to be the parallels of the villagers in the story, as they gradually succumb to fear and begin fighting among each other.  Another interpretation could be that the ship itself is Danko, as the captain does personify the ship during an early scene in the game, saying that to be a true captain the ship must “respect you”.

There’s a lot more to unpack with this game, but I think I’m gonna leave it alone for now.  This post has gone on long enough.

I know I made light of the game’s weirdness at points, but in all honesty that’s part of what makes the game so fascinating to think about.  It’s so weird and so out there at times that it makes you want to understand, makes you need to understand.  And there are lots of things I didn’t even go over, like the theme of confinement or being trapped that’s a motif throughout the game (many of the enemies are horrifically constrained within their armor, with one tough enemy having only a keyhole on his helmet to see through).  There’s also references to other obscure Russian works of literature and art that I haven’t even begun to delve into myself (the game’s subtitle “sleep of reason” is one such reference).  But despite how cryptic and obtuse it is, the game has a charm to it that cannot be denied despite some of the technical shortcomings (i.e. the game chugs along at times, even on powerful hardware).  Unfortunately, the game doesn’t seem to be available on any digital storefronts.  In fact, the only way I can see buying it now is via a physical copy from Amazon.  So if you’re interested in trying it out, that might be the only way to do it aside from other…less reputable means…if you catch my drift.

In any case, thanks for reading my long ramblings about some obscure game barely anyone’s ever heard of.  Have a wonderful rest of April and check back on the third Wednesday of May for my next post.

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

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Spotlight: Star Trek Discovery Season 1 (Full Season)

Warning: some spoilers for the first season of “Discovery” follow.  Read at your own risk.

Space…the final frontier.

I mentioned this already when I did a brief review of the first three episodes, but “Star Trek: Discovery” initially inspired little more than skepticism in me.  It seemed like it was going to go too hard into the dark and edgy territory, forgetting what Star Trek’s roots were all about.  But after watching the entire season, I can safely say my fears were completely unfounded.

“Discovery” not only succeeds as a show, but proves that Star Trek still has a place in modern television.

 

Reusing old images is fun!

 

Back when I reviewed the first three episodes, I said that the two-part premiere had some rough spots.  And, looking back on the season as a whole, I can definitely say that it is probably the weakest of the entire season.  It does its job well enough, but it throws a lot of elements at you at once.  It sets the tone for the rest of the season, and gives the crew of the Discovery motivation to do what they’re doing.

I won’t spoil too much, but suffice it to say that Burnham’s character becomes infamous after the events of the two-part premiere.  She’s being carted off to a new prison roughly six months later when her trip is interrupted and she finds herself on-board the USS Discovery on the whim of its captain, Gabriel Lorca.  He offers her a position on the ship, which she initially refuses but quickly comes to terms with what her options are and decides to accept.

At first I thought the show was going to revolve around the mystery of Discovery and what was happening on the ship, because the first episode (episode three) that features the ship gives it a very mysterious air.  But the mystery of what the ship is working on is very quickly revealed.  I wouldn’t call it a detriment though, as most shows that hinge on a mystery like that tend to get drawn out and stale.  Rather, dealing with it sooner allows “Discovery” to move forward and into new territory.  And that seems to be a common theme.  The show shifts and changes as the season goes in, due in large part to some serious re-tooling going on behind the scenes.  The original show runner, Bryan Fuller, was asked to leave the show about a year before it premiered.  Some of his original ideas were left in place, but the show seemed to struggle with them.  Eventually, it seems that the show moved off in a different direction, and all for the better.  The second half of the season is even better than the first.

One of the greatest successes of “Discovery” comes in how it was able to combine the meaningful plots of the older Star Trek shows with the lighter, more action-oriented pacing of modern television.  But what might be an even bigger success is how it managed to create an appealing, engaging cast of characters so quickly.  Paul Stammets, Discovery‘s engineer, is a breakout favorite among show watchers, but I grew particularly fond of Sylvia Tilly as well.

 

Sylvia Tilly

 

Tilly is one of those characters whose defining trait upon first meeting her is her social awkwardness.  She talks a lot when she’s nervous.  Much like my initial reaction to “Discovery” as a whole, I was prepared to grate my teeth and be annoyed by her character, because television shows usually play up this trait so much it becomes annoying.  But Tilly becomes a great character in her own, taking on the mantle of Stammets’ protege.  She is often a source of comic relief, but doesn’t become the useless character I feared she might.  She’s actually given a decent amount to do.  And later on in the season, when Stammets is out of commission for a time, she is given an opportunity to show off what she knows and directly contributes to the success of the ship’s missions.

One of my favorite scenes with her happens fairly early on in the season.  Take a look.

Speaking of characters, it’s also one of the only major places where “Discovery” drops the ball.  Most of the show’s issues can be chalked up to the re-tooling going on behind the scenes and are forgivable.  But there are a couple of character arcs that could have been better.  For instance, Michael Burnham herself, who functions as the lens through which the audience views everything.  I mentioned before that Burnham becomes infamous after the premiere episode, and that’s due to a key choice she decides to make.  Well, at the end of the season the show attempts to tie together her character arc, insisting that she’s learned a lesson about violating principles and that her character is a better person for it.  And that’s nice and all, but I don’t feel like it’s entirely earned.  After the premiere and first couple of episodes, Burnham’s character development is mostly left on the back-burner in favor of the rest of Discovery‘s crew.  Sure, she’s is typically front and center when it comes to the action sequences, but it isn’t really until near the halfway mark when she gets a love interest that her character begins to show more development.  The second half of the season definitely showcases it better, giving her situations of moral complexity that force her to make decisions based on her principles.  But the sudden “I’ve learned my lesson” speech in the season finale seems a little misguided to me.

Another disappointment comes in the form of Discovery‘s captain, Lorca.  When he’s first introduced, there’s a distinct air of mystery around the character.  What his motivations are and why he decided to recruit Burnham in the first place are some of the questions that go unanswered for most of the season.  The only problem is, once the mystery around him is cleared up, Lorca becomes a very one-note character, almost cartoonish in a way.  It’s a disappointing endpoint for such an ambiguous and interesting character.

I could go on and on about “Discovery”, but I’ll spare you the time.  All I’ll say is that it’s definitely worth a watch, especially for those Star Trek fans who have been pining for a new show ever since “Enterprise” ended back in 2005.  It doesn’t do everything right, but everything that is there is damn good.  It’s a first season worthy of the Star Trek name, and I’m glad that they wrapped up the major plot lines in the season so that with the second one, they can go in newer and better directions.

Because let’s face it: an entire show about a war would get tiring eventually.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of March 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: Stranger Things Season 2

 

Warning: minor spoilers for “Stranger Things” follow.  Read at your own risk.

Ain’t no hype train like the “Stranger Things” hype train.

If shows like “Daredevil” and “House of Cards” put Netflix on the map when it came to the push for original programming from streaming services, “Stranger Things” is the one that put them over the top, as if to say “dude…this is serious business”.  The stellar first season was a massive hit.  And ever since the teaser trailer for season two dropped during the Super Bowl, the hype train has been steadily chugging along.  So the question becomes, does the second season live up to the first?

 

Spoiler alert: bad things happen to Will this season.

 

The first thing many people will likely notice is the difference in pacing.  Compared to season one, season two does a lot more building up and creating tension before anything really happens.  In fact, it’s not until the third episode when things start to get moving.  And this was a common theme I noticed in reviews: the slower pacing.

There seems to be this weird assumption in critic-land that having slower pacing than before is somehow a bad thing.  I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.  In many ways, it’s a good thing for this season.  It gives us some room to breathe, especially when compared to the breakneck pace things moved at in season one.  It also allows us to view these characters when they’re not under constant threat.  We get to watch them live their lives.  And it’s refreshing to just see some of these characters on a normal day, before everything inevitably goes crazy once again.  This season definitely has a larger focus on inter-personal relationships and conflict.

 

It’s especially refreshing to see Joyce Byers under normal circumstances, as she spent pretty much the entire first season as a nervous wreck on the verge of collapse.

 

Now, this does mean that each episode doesn’t necessarily have that cliffhanger hook that makes you want to keep watching, but that’s fine.  This is the second season.  At this point, we should be tuning in because we’re invested in the characters themselves, not because we have to see what comes next.  That’s something I’ve noticed a lot in modern television, and is particularly evident in broadcast television (i.e. not cable or satellite).  Advertisements for new episodes often are built around teasing a “shocking twist” that you’ll “never see coming” and will “blow your mind”.  Cliffhangers aren’t bad by nature, but if they’re used as the primary hook for a show without any substance behind them (such as complex characters), it just feels cheap and soulless to me.

But I digress.  “Stranger Things” season two introduces us to some new characters as well.  First off, we have new kid Maxine (Max for short) and her step-brother Billy, who basically spends the entire season being a massive a-hole.  Because of her step-brother and her family situation, which we learn a bit about later in the season, Max is a more hard-edged character than the other kids, although she does eventually end up following along with them.  And this is one of my only real gripes with this season.  While I appreciate the injection of new blood into the dynamic of the kids, Max and her step-brother don’t really seem to serve much purpose aside from causing tension within the group (although Max does have a pretty badass moment at the end of the season).

 

Sean Astin also stars in this season as Joyce’s new boyfriend. You’ll likely remember him as Sam from “Lord of the Rings” or from “The Goonies”, one of the movies “Stranger Things” took inspiration from.

 

 

Speaking of gripes, the various plot lines in this season may become a point of contention for some, as certain plots end up more fleshed out than others.  There was one in particular for me that fel underdeveloped.  As season two opens, we’re treated to an action scene with an unknown group of people fleeing the police.  It turns out one of them has psychic powers and a connection with Eleven.  It’s a great opener that entices us in with a bit of action.  My problem comes from the fact that this thread isn’t explored until near the end of the season.  There’s only one episode that centers around these people, and its only purpose seems to be to push Eleven in the right direction.

Oh yeah…Eleven’s back.  Spoilers I guess…although if you saw any of the trailers you already knew that.

Despite the complaints I or others may have, no one can doubt that the magic that permeated “Stranger Things” season one is still here.  Even if the beginning’s slower pacing rubs some people the wrong way, the season ends on a very strong note with some great character moments.  I’m always impressed by just how well-written and acted this show is, especially when it comes to the kid characters.  It’s funny too, because apparently when the Duffer brothers were shopping the show around to different studios, the studios wanted to cut the kids characters out entirely.  And now it’s hard to imagine the show without them.  It’s hard to imagine the show without any of the characters we’ve come to know and love.

And that’s the key thing: characters.  The characters are why we’ll return to Hawkins for season three.

Well…that and the spooks.  Everybody loves the spooks.

 

SPOOOOOOOOOOOOKS

 

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.

Spotlight: Star Trek Discovery (first three episodes)

It’s been a long time coming.

“Star Trek: Discovery” is the first Star Trek television series to air since the end of “Star Trek: Enterprise”, which ended its run twelve years ago back in 2005.  In terms of its place within the Star Trek universe, “Discovery” is set between “Enterprise” and the original “Star Trek” television show.  And it has nothing to do with the reboot movies.

But the question is, was the wait worth it?

 

The USS Discovery.

 

I must admit…I was initially skeptical of the show when I saw previews of it.  I was afraid it was going to go too far into the dark, gritty realm of things.  But after watching the first three episodes, I can safely say that while the tone is a bit more grim than the usual Star Trek fare, it works for the time period of the show.

When the show starts, we find ourselves not actually on board the Discovery, but rather a ship known as the USS Shenzhou.  The first two episodes can basically be considered one as they form a two-part pilot which serves as a prologue to the series.  In the first two episodes, we meet Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) the first officer of the Shenzhou, who is quickly established as the main character and the lens through which we view most of the events.

The two-part prologue does a good job of setting the backdrop for the rest of the series.  We see the Shenzhou encounter the Klingons, an encounter which sets into motion the war between the Klingons and the Federation (something fans will remember being part of the original series as well).  To be fair, the first two episodes are a bit uneven.  There’s a little too much witty quipping at the beginning for my liking, and some moments feel a bit rushed for time’s sake.  An example of this would be from the second episode when the Vulcan character Sarek, who from what I can tell was Burnham’s mentor as a child, telepathically speaks to her over thousands of light-years because they once melded minds a long time ago.  It’s a scene that just feels out of place and weird, not to mention its only purpose is so that Sarek can essentially tell Burnham not to give up.

Speaking of Burnham’s childhood, that’s something the pilot episodes handle really well.  We get snippets of Burnham’s past which fleshes out her character as someone who has experienced tragedy and hardship, as well as dealing with differences between cultures (Burnham ends up living with Vulcans for some years).  It helps set her up as a conflicted and nuanced character, one who will make drastic decisions whose consequences impact the arc of the show.  I would have liked a little more time spent on these however, as most of the flashbacks last less than a minute.

 

Michael Burnham

 

I don’t want to say too much more about the first two episodes so as not to spoil it for people who haven’t watched it yet, so let’s move on to the third episode.  While the first two episodes feel more similar to the recent Star Trek movies, the third episode introduces us to the meat of the show.  It picks up six months after the events of the pilot.  Burnham’s circumstances have changed a lot, and against her will she finds herself suddenly on board the USS Discovery.  There, she meets Captain Gabriel Lorca, who is immediately mysterious about his motivations.  In fact, Discovery’s whole mission is shrouded in mystery.  In the third episode we do get a decent bit of information about what Discovery is trying to do, but even so at the end of the episode it’s hinted that there might be more going on.

In terms of quality, the third episode is definitely the best.  It’s the most consistent and engaging of the three I’ve seen, and it sets up a nice, enticing mystery for us to get invested in.  Some might object to the whole “science co-opted by military” theme going on, but I think it makes sense considering the time period.  Starfleet is desperate for an edge in the war against the Klingons, so it makes sense that they might resort to more drastic measures.  And I like the idea that no one is perfect.  Sure, everyone loves Captain Kirk and Captain Picard, but they were men for a different time.  Television is much different than it was back in their eras, so it wouldn’t make sense to just replicate their shows but with higher quality effects.  Hardcore Trek fans may nitpick on a lot of things, but Star Trek needs to show that it has a place in a more nuanced storytelling landscape.

My only major concern with the series is that, due to it being a prequel to the older Trek Shows (aside from “Enterprise), everything they do might turn out to be moot.  For example, that big information reveal in the third episode revolves around the Discovery’s main experiment, something that would give them a drastic edge in the war against the Klingons.  Only we know that it can’t work out because it’s never used at all in any of the other shows.  My fear is that this will become a recurring trend with “Discovery”.  They’ll build up these new, awesome experiments Discovery is doing, only they’ll all fail because the continuity of the Star Trek universe demands it.

That being said, one of the small things I enjoyed was that “Discovery” has elements of wonder in it, something that I missed from the recent movies (which are basically just sci-fi action flicks with a Star Trek skin).  There’s a scene in the first episode where Burnham is struck with awe at the majesty of space, and it’s something that stuck out to me.  Hopefully, that sense of wonder doesn’t get completely lost in the mix, because it was a crucial element to why I liked Star Trek in the first place.

I have been impressed with what I’ve seen so far, so I highly recommend it to any sci-fi fans looking for a new show.  Sure, you have to subscribe to CBS’s All Access program to watch it, but if there was one show that would make it worth it, it’s “Discovery”.

Although there are…other ways you could watch the show.  Don’t worry, I won’t tell.

 

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.

Spotlight: The Defenders

Warning: spoilers for “The Defenders” and some of the other Netflix shows will follow.  Read at your own risk.

So it’s finally here…the event we’ve been waiting for.  “The Defenders” brings all four of the Netflix superheroes together so they can kick some butt.  And maybe throw bad guys through a building or two (I really gotta stop making that joke).  But the real question is, was it worth it?  Is “The Defenders” everything we hoped for?  Is it everything we wanted…nay…deserved?!

Well…yes and no.

But before we get into the nitty-gritty of the show, I wanted to point out a couple small details I appreciated.  After “Iron Fist” and its bland title sequence, I was glad to see they brought back the nuance for “The Defenders”.  During the title sequence, we see each of the four characters forms overlaid over aerial maps of New York.  Now, I can’t be certain considering I know basically nothing about New York, but I believe that each character is overlaid over the particular part of the city where they live and operate.

 

 

So Daredevil would have a part of Hell’s Kitchen while Luke Cage would be laid over Harlem.  But the detail in the title sequence goes beyond that even.  I didn’t really pick up on this until near the end of the first episode, but each character has a particular color associated with them, a color that you can see during the title sequence itself.  During the show, scenes that particular character dominates are color corrected to have an abundance of that character’s color.

 

So Luke Cage’s scenes have a yellow glow to them…

 

…while Matt Murdock/Daredevil’s scenes are full of vibrant red.

 

Jessica Jones has a deep blue, while Danny Rand is green.  This little detail takes to the sidelines once the characters finally start to meet up with each other, but it’s still a cool aspect of the show.  It’s not essential, but it’s these little things that fans love.

But anyway, on to the main event.  Like I said before, the answer to the question “was it worth the wait” is a little bit of a mixed bag.  The breakdown (at least for me) seemed to go like this: the first half of “The Defenders” is great while the second half gets a little sloppy.  I thoroughly enjoyed the first four episodes, watching as each of the heroes runs into their own problem to solve.  It was nice checking back in with these characters and seeing what they had been up to, although the first episode does spend more time on Luke Cage than anyone else.  Which makes sense, considering he was being carted off to jail at the end of the first season of his show, so they have to deal with that to get him back into place.

It was fun watching each of these characters do the thing they do best, with a slow buildup towards the inevitable meeting of the heroes.  The problem is that after these four characters meet and begrudgingly agree to work together, the show seems to lose a bit of momentum, as the next few episodes mostly feature the characters sitting around and debating their next move before the final showdown begins.

And it’s at this point that you realize just how weak Danny Rand is as a character when compared to the other three.

 

 

 

Now, to give some credit to the writers, they at least tried to give Danny a more interesting arc than just “I’m the Iron Fist…it is my destiny to destroy The Hand…blah blah blah”.  In the first episode, Danny has a nightmare about the apparent massacre of the people of K’un-Lun, showing that he feels guilty over leaving them.  The problem is that, after the first episode, this is never mentioned or referenced again.  In fact, Danny is played as more of a laughingstock than anything else, especially in the second half of the season.  Any time someone mentions that he’s the Iron Fist, everyone else in the room seems to have the same reaction of “the hell are you talking about?”  A good example of this would be when Murdock tells his friend Foggy that Danny’s the Iron Fist and Foggy remarks “I’m not even going to pretend I know what that means.”

I didn’t mind this approach at first, but the more I thought about it the more it bothered me.  You see, instead of trying to fix the flaws in Danny’s character they turned him into a literal joke.  The other characters pretty much just make fun of everything he says.  They took the lazy route and played Danny up for laughs instead of trying to make him feel deserving of a place on the team.  This is made all the more insulting once you realize that Danny is integral to the entire plot of the show.  The Hand needs him to complete their master plan.  Without him, their whole scheme falls apart.  In this sense, Danny feels less like a character and more like a maguffin, existing only to move the plot forward toward the inevitable battle against The Hand.

And speaking of The Hand, their big leader in this show is revealed to be a woman named Alexandra, played by none other than Sigourney Weaver.  Initially, I was excited to see her in this show, because Sigourney Weaver is a total badass.  Remember “Alien”?  Remember “Aliens”?  Yeah…total badass right?  But here she’s given very little to do aside from look imposing and make not so subtle references to the fact that she’s older than she appears, like when she calls Istanbul Constantinople.  She also has some very cringe worthy dialogue later on, even breaking out the “we’re the same, you and I” speech at one point.

 

Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver)

 

 

She is given a motivation though.  At the beginning of the show we are shown that she’s dying…all of her organs are systematically shutting down one by one.  This encourages her to push The Hand’s plan into fast-forward mode, despite the objections.  Because as it turns out, The Hand’s immortality revolves around a mysterious substance that they have run out of.  This bit didn’t make much sense to me, considering that we’ve seen people resurrect in the other shows without the help of this substance.  So why now do they suddenly need more of it?  Seems to me like another maguffin to get the plot where it needs to go.  Because, as it turns out, they used the last of this substance on Elektra.

Speaking of Elektra, what the hell is her motivation here anyways?  After her death at the end of the second season of “Daredevil”, Elektra is brought back to life by The Hand.  But her memory is erased so she can be turned into The Hand’s ultimate weapon.  Through some more not so subtle moments, we realize that this conditioning isn’t going to last forever, and that Elektra is starting to remember who she was.  But the thing is, once she remembers who she is, she still serves as an antagonist for no apparent reason.  If she remembers who she is, then why the hell would she be fighting against the man she supposedly loves?  It makes no sense.

And what’s so important about her being the “Black Sky” anyways?  Everyone goes on and on about it, but it’s never clearly explained what it actually means.

However, despite the flaws, “The Defenders” is a fun time.  The best scene is definitely the fight at the end of the third episode, where all four of the heroes come together for the first time and battle a bunch of The Hand’s henchmen.  But after that, the show starts going downhill.  It never gets to the point of being unwatchable, but through some strange plot choices and sloppy pacing, the second half definitely isn’t as strong.  I especially didn’t like the shenanigans they tried to pull in the last episode.  I won’t say much out of fear of spoiling it for those who haven’t watched it, but I will say this: they try to make you think that one thing happened, only to turn it around in the last thirty seconds of the show and be all like “ha we tricked you” even though most people will probably see it coming from a mile away.

At the very least, there isn’t any pointless filler.  Each episode moves things along the main plot.  So while it might not be everything we hoped for, it’s still well worth a watch, especially if you’ve gotten invested in the characters.

And now, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to go on a more personal rant…

I really wish The Hand hadn’t been the villains for “The Defenders”.  It takes things to such a cheesy, comic book level that it’s hard to take seriously sometimes.  It’s a group of frickin’ immortal ninjas for crying out loud!  Part of the reason I really enjoyed these Netflix shows at first was because of how different they felt from the standard superhero fare.  The first season of “Daredevil” hardly feels like a superhero show at all.  It plays like a gritty crime drama but with a superhero twist.  But as time went on The Hand became more and more apparent as Marvel rushed things out the door in order to get them into place for “The Defenders”.

I would have liked to see the four heroes fight against a crime syndicate for their first outing together.  Now I know someone is going to say it…”but…The Hand is a crime syndicate”.  It is, but it’s still a crime syndicate of immortal ninjas.  I would have wanted to see them face off against regular criminals, not a bunch of silly mystical types who, despite all the hype over being super secretive, take some really obvious actions.

A whole army of ninjas clad in black rappelling up the side of a hospital?  Sure seems stealthy to me!

I think it would have been more interesting if, for example, Wilson Fisk had been exposed but not captured at the end of “Daredevil” season one.  He could then escape to run things from the shadows and give the heroes a threat to deal with when they finally came together.  And with the addition of Danny Rand, they could have started teasing the existence of a mysterious organization known as The Hand.  Then, after the four heroes came together and defeated Fisk once and for all, The Hand could step out of the shadows and reveal that they were manipulating Fisk the entire time.  That would then give The Defenders another threat looming over them as they go about their own business.  Because, with The Hand gone, there’s no bigger threat anymore, not to mention that Danny Rand’s character has no purpose anymore, since his whole thing revolved around The Hand’s defeat.  I can’t really see their next big villains standing up to a bunch of supernatural martial artists.

And with that, I’m off.  Blog writer AWAAAAAY!

 

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.

Spotlight: “Iron Fist” Season One

Warning: spoilers for season one of “Iron Fist” follow.

…Oh boy……

Ever since “Iron Fist” premiered on Netflix back in March, it’s been panned by many critics.  It’s easily considered the worst of the Marvel Netflix shows and possibly even one of the worst shows on Netflix period.  The reception to it was so bad that Finn Jones, the actor who plays the main character in the show, blamed Donald Trump for the negative perception of the show.  According to him, because of the wide distrust of the president people can’t root for Danny Rand because he’s a white billionaire superhero.

 

This is the appropriate reaction to what you just heard.

 

But I digress.  “Iron Fist” is currently sitting at a 37 on Metacritic and a 17% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Why?  Were critics just being unfair?  Was the show really made more for the fans like Finn Jones also suggested?  Or was there something else, a reason that the show was so negatively received?

Well, as it turns out, there was a reason.  You see, “Iron Fist” season one is boring.  Like, really boring.  I have to admit that I struggled watching through the entire thing.  That’s not to say that there aren’t good points to the show, but they’re faint pinpricks of light in an otherwise gloomy sea of tedium.

And the problem starts with Danny Rand himself.

Now, to be fair to Finn Jones, I don’t think he’s a bad actor.  He does a serviceable job here.  The main problem is the character.  But before we get into that, we have to give some backstory.  As a kid, Danny Rand was in a plane crash with his parents in the Himalayan mountains and was the only survivor.  After being rescued by a pair of mysterious monks, Danny spends his formative years in a place called K’un-Lun, a mystical monastery that is only accessible every fifteen years.  There he learns martial arts and gains the power of the Iron Fist, turning him into a mystical living weapon.  He returns to New York fifteen years after his supposed death and tries to reclaim the life he once had.

The thing is, Danny Rand is perfect…too perfect.  In fact, he’s so perfect he’s boring.  He spouts off Zen sayings left and right.  He’s in total control of his emotions (at least in the beginning).  And he’s practically unbeatable in a fight.  I mean he walks into the dojo of Colleen Wing (one of the side characters) and almost immediately schools her in martial arts.  It’s ridiculous.  And then later on, any time his company runs into a scandal, he always does the morally righteous thing.  And I mean always.  There’s nothing interesting about his character because there’s no flaws to his character.  At least, not until like three-quarters through the season when the writers suddenly decide that his guilt over the death of his parents clouds his judgement and renders him unable to summon the Iron Fist most of the time.  If this was implemented from the beginning of the season, that would be one thing.  But the way it just shows up later is jarring.

 

The impeccable Danny Rand.

 

Danny Rand reminds me of that stereotypical rich guy who constantly shares pictures of his vacations on Facebook or Instagram.  You know the type: you constantly see them posing in sun-bathed tropical locales or other exotic locations.   And they’re always spouting off life wisdom like they know that’s best for everyone else.

But enough about Danny.  What about all the side charac-

They’re boring.  Just…boring.  Aside from Colleen, the dojo teacher that becomes his love interest, none of the characters really have anything important or interesting going on (except for maybe Joy…I found some of her scenes to be kind of interesting).  I don’t care about the day-to-day business of the Rand corporation.  I don’t care about corporate backstabbing.  And I certainly don’t care about a boring subplot dealing with painkiller addiction.  Seriously, screw that noise.  It’s like the show is caught between being a bad superhero show and a bad soap opera.

And the pacing…oh god the pacing.  It’s so off.  Like I said before, the main problem with “Iron Fist” is that it’s just boring.  I hope you like martial arts poses because I swear that at least sixty percent of this show is people striking martial arts poses and talking about what they’re going to do next instead of, you know, actually doing it.

 

Who cares about plot when you can strike some sick poses brah?

 

Even the title sequence is boring.  “Daredevil”, “Jessica Jones”, and “Luke Cage” all had nuance in their title sequences that hinted at certain aspects of their characters or overall themes for the show.  What does “Iron Fist” have?  A silhouette of a man leaving inky trails all over the place as he strikes a bunch of poses.

 

Whoo…it’s so good guys. I’m not even being sarcastic…

 

And speaking of pacing, my god the show has no idea how to build or sustain momentum.  When the show isn’t being dull and full of people talking or striking poses, things seem to happen way too quickly.  For example, the end of the first episode has Danny being drugged by his former friends Joy and Ward Meachum, then being placed in a mental hospital.  And then he breaks out of the mental hospital at the end of the second episode.  Like…what?  This is the kind of stuff you do in the middle of the season, not at the beginning.  Not only that, but the show spends the first four episodes or so dealing with Danny trying to prove his identity.  And there isn’t even a real payoff to it.  The conflict is abruptly resolved and the people trying to keep Danny from getting back into the company are suddenly like “hey Danny we’re your friends again…we can just forget about that whole mental hospital thing right?”

There are so many little things with this show that I could complain about.  A villain becomes a not-villain only to suddenly become a villain again later on in the season.  The characters spend way too much time talking about duty and honor.  The last episode feels like it belongs in an entirely different season.  Certain things just happen without any real explanation (I still don’t understand how Danny suddenly winds up in a freaking penthouse after being kicked out of Colleen’s dojo).  Characters make decisions that don’t make any sense.

It’s a mess.  But if I keep going, this review will go on forever.

In the end, I feel like if the show had been done with a lighthearted tone, things probably would have worked out better.  The silly nature of Danny’s character and all the overemphasized martial arts combat doesn’t really blend well with the show’s dead serious tone.  But even if they did go for a lighter tone, then it just wouldn’t fit with the other shows.  Any way you slice it, “Iron Fist” just fails to deliver.

And yet, it was still Netflix’s most binge-watched drama.  Kinda sad when you think about it, but that’s the power of Marvel.  People will watch it regardless, especially because of how the stories are interconnected.

All I can say is that I hope “The Defenders” was worth it.  Because Marvel has seemed to be in a hurry to get that out the door for the past couple of years, and that has led to a decrease in quality for the Netflix shows.  The second season of “Daredevil” felt disjointed at times, with two major arcing plots that didn’t seem to mesh together well.  The second half of “Luke Cage” season one saw a complicated villain being swapped out for one that had very little depth and whose only motivation is revenge against Cage.  But clearly, “Iron Fist” was hit the worst.  There’s so much unnecessary subplot that could have been left out in favor of focusing on making Danny not suck as a character and giving him an origin story that’s actually enjoyable to watch.  But as it stands, “Iron Fist” season one is only worth watching for the connection to “The Defenders”.

If you watch it on its own hoping for a good standalone story, you’ll most likely end up disappointed.

 

But hey, at least there’s martial arts poses…right?

 

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.

Spotlight: Dunkirk

Warning: minor spoilers for Dunkirk follow.

I’ve never been a big fan of war movies.  There’s only so many times I can be told that “war is hell” by watching a ragtag group of soldiers make their way through hell and back before it gets old.  This is why, despite the Oscar buzz around it, I’ve never been particularly interested in seeing “Hacksaw Ridge”.

Enter “Dunkirk”.  All of the pre-release hype surrounding the movie billed it as something totally different.

And you know what?  For once, the hype wasn’t wrong.

“Dunkirk” is about the event itself more than the people involved in it, which on its own is unique for the genre.  But the movie takes a non-linear approach as well.  The story is told from three different points of view: on land taking place over a week, on the sea taking place over a day, and in the air taking place over an hour.  This means that as we move through the movie, we see events happen from these different perspectives.  For example, at one point in the movie we watch as a couple of spitfire pilots take down a bomber that had just sunk a large warship.  From up in the air, we see people bailing out into the water, but because of our distance from it we don’t feel the full impact.  Then later, we see that same event but from the people down at sea level, which instantly makes the event far more harrowing than it was before.

This happens more than once throughout the movie.  The three points of view weave in and out of each other (for example, we see the three spitfire planes from the “air” perspective fly over the boat from the “sea” perspective).  My only gripe with this narrative style is that at first it can be a little disorienting.  The movie spells out for you at the beginning the time frames each perspective takes place over, but it still might take viewers a little bit of time before they understand what is meant by “one week”, “one day”, and “one hour”.  That, combined with the disjointed nature of the plot, might be a little off-putting to some.

I was also thrown off a little by the fact that the land segment was titled “the mole”.  I didn’t find out until after the movie, but “the mole” refers to the large concrete jetties they used to facilitate the evacuation of troops.  It’s a nice detail, but it seems inconsistent when the other segments are simply titled “the sea” and “the air”.

Despite these minor qualms though, the unique chronology of the film is what makes it so great.  It tightens the pacing, making sure that we’re never at ease or too far away from the action.  And this is underscored by the tense soundtrack, which features a low ticking noise that gets faster and louder the closer you get to something bad happening.

This non-linearity becomes an integral part of the film’s themes as well.  “Dunkirk”, at its core, is about the small victories in the face of a massive failure.  Historically, the battle of Dunkirk was a bitter and devastating defeat for the Allies.  They were forced to retreat all the way to the town of Dunkirk, where they were surrounded by the Germans and had to wait for rescue.  The movie captures the sense of hopelessness the event must have inspired in the Allied soldiers.  And the non-linear style of it allows us to see the struggles from land, sea, and air, which gives us a compelling overview of the entire event instead of focusing on a small group of people within the event itself.

The movie does give us key characters to observe all the happenings through, but in the end it is about the Dunkirk battle itself.  And even though we feel a sense of triumph by the end, it is tempered by the knowledge that this was a bitter defeat for the Allied forces.  The movie culminates with a reading of the famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech by Winston Churchill, but the rousing words are at one point superimposed over a shot of empty infantry helmets lying on the beaches, reminding us of the toll Dunkirk took.

In many ways, “Dunkirk” succeeds.  It succeeds at being a non-linear narrative.  It succeeds at being a tense and thrilling movie.  It succeeds at giving us an in-depth look at a historical event that is likely not well-known in popular culture.

But most of all, it succeeds at reminding us that “war is hell” in its own unique way.

 

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.