Weird Implications of the Horror Genre

I think most of us would agree that many horror movies are just made to be dumb fun and aren’t meant to be taken seriously.  There’s a movie called “Wish Upon” that’s coming out at the end of the week that’s about a magic box that grants people’s wishes.  But there’s a catch.  For every wish the box grants, someone close to the wisher dies!

Yeah…it’s pretty dumb.  But that’s usually the point.  These kind of blockbuster horror movies aren’t really about a story…they’re about spooks and scares and things going “BOO”.

Also gore…there’s a lot of gore these days.

But what if we took these movies more seriously?  It is true that some older horror fiction contained moral lessons or at least satirical observations on modern society.  So what would happen if we took these tales at face value?

Well…

 

Sex is bad

If you’ve never seen the show “Robot Chicken”, all you really need to know is that it’s a skit show involving action figures.  And it’s raunchy…oh so raunchy…

There’s a skit on the show that mashes together “Scooby-Doo” and “Friday the 13th”, with the crew of the Mystery Machine getting brutally murdered one by one by the masked killer Jason Voorhees.  At one point during the skit Velma complains that “the virgin lives the longest in these horror movies”.  And it’s true.  The virgin is the last one alive, particularly in slasher movies.

The excellent 2011 movie “The Cabin in the Woods” references this, stating that for things to work out, the virgin has to be the absolute last one to die, if at all.

But why is this exactly?  How did this become a trope?  Well, as it turns out, horror movies have a weird thing with sex.  Which is that sex is bad.  Very bad.  Unless you’re married.  Which is why in slasher flick movies, the promiscuous cheerleader and the football jock she’s dating are pretty much always the first targets.

The movie “It Follows” literally revolves around a monster curse that is passed on by sleeping with people.  It’s weird, but horror movies apparently grabbed on to this cultural fear of teenagers having sex.  The plot of “It Follows” reads like a paper-thin metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases.

 

You darn kids and yer unprotected sex!

 

It’s like horror movies abide by this strange, Victorian era sense of morality when it comes to sex.  Which brings us to our next topic…

 

Warped Moral Messages

The Sam Raimi movie “Drag Me to Hell” features a female loan officer who refuses an extension to an old lady, who subsequently turns out to be a gypsy or something and puts a curse on the main character which will send her to hell.

Seriously?  I mean, refusing a loan extension is a cruel thing to do, but even the IMDb plot summary points out that she only does it out of misplaced fear for her job:

“Christine Brown is a loans officer at a bank but is worried about her lot in life. She’s in competition with a competent colleague for an assistant manager position and isn’t too sure about her status with a boyfriend. Worried that her boss will think less of her if she shows weakness, she refuses a time extension on a loan to an old woman, Mrs. Ganush, who now faces foreclosure and the loss of her house. In retaliation, the old woman place a curse on her which, she subsequently learns, will result in her being taken to hell in a few days time.”

Given that this movie seems to take place in the modern-day, why not go after the people who caused the housing bubble to burst and created the economic turmoil that likely put the old lady in danger of being foreclosed on?  What about the politicians and the rich people who sat by and let everything fall apart?  I mean, if it’s that easy to curse someone, why not curse the people who deserve it?

But that’s horror movies for you.  They attempt to justify all manner of horrible things through the flimsiest lens possible.  Take, for example, the “Saw” franchise.

If you’ve never seen the movies, the basic premise is that a serial killer kidnaps people and forces them to play elaborate games involving deadly traps.  It’s a franchise that spawned seven different movies and is even spawning another movie later this year, seven years after the last movie came out.  But what bothers me isn’t how many sequels there are, but the motivation behind the killer himself.

In the second movie, Jigsaw tells a former police detective that he attempted to commit suicide after he was diagnosed with cancer.  Evidently, when his attempt failed, he was infused with a new appreciation for life.  And apparently, he was compelled to inspire that appreciation for life in others.

Inspiring an appreciation for life…by physically and psychologically torturing people until they have PTSD and nightmares for the rest of their lives.  And that’s if they survive.

Yep…seems legit.

 

Superstitions are not to be mocked

“There’s a logical explanation for all of this” – Guy who is about to be killed in horrific fashion

A great example of this trope can be seen in “Blair Witch”, the 2016 sequel to “The Blair Witch Project”.  It was…not very good.  Near the beginning of the movie, when the crew is first making their way into the woods, one of the characters makes their thoughts on the legend of the Blair Witch heard and mocks it for all it’s worth.  Then, on the second night, he is chased by some unknown entity and presumably killed.

Just goes to show you kids: don’t mock superstitions.  Because they’ll come true and kill you dead.

And this a common character in horror movies, especially ones involving local legends or folklore.  They’re a skeptic by nature, so they loudly proclaim their disbelief in “silly” superstitions and the like, much to the chagrin of others.

“You actually believe in Bigfoot,” they’ll ask with a mocking chuckle.  “Bigfoot isn’t real.  He’s a myth and a hoax, sustained by people who have nothing better to do with their lives.”

And then Bigfoot will promptly stroll out of the woods, rip the person’s spleen out of their chest, and it so far up their rear end that it pops out their mouth.

Actually, that sounds pretty badass.  I’d pay to see that movie.

 

Archaeology is nothing more than grave robbing

This is a weird one.

I’ve gone on record before about how I enjoy point and click adventure games.  Well I have a couple in mind when it comes to this trope: “Barrow Hill” and its sequel “Barrow Hill: The Dark Path”.

In these games, the central plot revolves around an isolated gas station and motel set near an ancient barrow or burial mound.  In the first game, archaeologist Conrad Morse triggers the horrible events that trap you and other characters in the area because he digs up the mound, taking dirt samples and treasures.  The implication is that he disturbed some kind of ancient spirit by doing so.  And in the second game, which features the spirit of an ancient Wicca witch, goes much the same way.  In the game you find the diary of an archaeologist who dug up the grave of the witch and angered her spirit.

Now, “Dark Path” ends with a message from one of the main characters stating that “there’s a difference between archaeology and grave robbing”.  But the game never makes that distinction.  There’s no point in the game where it points out what would be considered good archaeology.  Because for archaeology to work, things have to be dug up.  But according to the “Barrow Hill” series, that’s a bad thing.

You could argue that it’s more a point about having respect for ancient cultures and tradition, but without any clear indication of how you’re supposed to have respect for these things it comes across as a harsh indictment of the profession itself.  Even if it’s just about not forgetting the past, if we leave it alone eventually nature will erase any trace of these things ever existing.  Even if Conrad Morse hadn’t dug up the barrow in the first “Barrow Hill”, nature would have eventually eroded away the rocks or overgrown the area, which means that people would have forgotten about Barrow Hill anyways.  Think about how many ancient cultures or cities we don’t know about, that we may never know about because nature has long since destroyed any evidence of their passing.

Maybe Indiana Jones could get away with it.  Who knows?

 

I hope you enjoyed 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.

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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!

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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.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

They Are Here: Arrival Review

When it comes to science-fiction, I’ve always preferred Star Trek over Star Wars.  Now before you start burning me at the stake, let me explain.  They’re both great franchises, but Star Wars has always felt more like a fantasy movie to me, or at least more mystical than a normal science-fiction story would be.  As it stands, Star Trek sticks closer to the conventions of science-fiction than Star Wars does.  One of Star Trek‘s major aspects is the sense of wonder it elicits, the idea of exploring and pushing the boundaries of what we consider to be possible.

I was reminded of this as Jeremy Renner’s character ran his hand along the bottom of an alien spacecraft in Arrival, his face an expression of disbelief and awe.  This is something that, to me, science-fiction movies have been lacking recently.  Part of the reason I was drawn to science-fiction in the first place was because of this wonder, this awe.  It has the ability to make you question the way you perceive things, question your place in the world and the universe at large.  But modern science-fiction largely tries to be grounded, to adhere to strict, realistic rules in an attempt to create a story that could actually happen.  There’s nothing wrong with this, but in a way it is limiting to the genre.  Science-fiction should be free to explore the possibilities and even dream up new ones.

Let me put it this way: the man who invented the cell phone would never have done so if he hadn’t watched Star Trek.

But now, on to the main event.  Arrival is a science-fiction movie that centers around the appearance of twelve extra-terrestrial spacecraft at different points around the Earth.  No one knows why they’ve come or what their intentions are, so the world governments scramble to assemble teams and figure it out.  In the United States, the team includes linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who are our main characters for this movie.  Together with others, Ian and Louise enter into the alien spacecraft in an attempt to talk to the aliens and find out why they’ve come.

And this is what the entire movie is about: the implications of first contact.  What does it mean, how would humanity respond to it, and how would it affect the world at large.  For a while now, aliens in science-fiction movies have been relegated to the role of the invader, storming our planet in an attempt to plunder its resources and people.  In a post 9/11 world this made a certain kind of sense.  We here in the United States were shaken to our core.  We were afraid of the possibility of another attack coming from outside our borders, and it’s only natural that our movies would reflect that.  So in that sense it’s nice to see a movie about aliens where they don’t just want to kill us or harvest us or what have you.  It’s nice to see a science-fiction film that doesn’t just end up being a brain-dead action movie.

The movie stays on point throughout, keeping us centered on the aliens and humanity’s attempts to communicate with them.  Ultimately the central message at the core of the film is one about human unity.  Throughout the movie we see talks between the different landing sites around the world begin to break down.  Interspersed throughout the movie are snippets of the news showing people looting and causing havoc in various cities as the arrival of the alien visitors sends the world into a panic.  A recurring theme I saw throughout the movie was one of interpretation.  Every message they managed to decipher from the aliens was seen as either benign or threatening.  Louise followed the benign interpretation and the military/political leaders of course leaned toward the threatening one.  It creates an interesting back and forth that permeates the movie.  And while you are clearly intended to identify with Lousie, the other interpretation is at least understandable in some sense.

Now yes, there is a major twist that comes up near the end of the movie.  There were some out there who were saying that the twist comes out of left-field and was utterly unexpected.  I don’t necessarily agree with that.  The movie definitely engages in some subtle foreshadowing through the story, giving you small clues about what’s to come.  This isn’t to say that the twist should be obvious or something (I certainly didn’t see it coming), but at the very least once you know what it is you can see the seeds being sown earlier in the movie.

All in all, I felt that Arrival was a great movie.  One of the major criticisms I expect people to have about it relates to the characters.  I can see some people out there being upset that there isn’t a whole lot of character depth to the movie.  But I don’t think it was necessary.  The movie is about humanity as a whole, and spending too much time delving into one or two characters would have taken away from that I think.  That being said, I do wish Jeremy Renner’s character would have been fleshed out a bit more, as he is the co-star of the movie.

The only major critique I have of the movie is that I felt like certain things could have been handled better.  There’s a bit later on involving rogue soldiers that, while it impacts the way the rest of the movie plays out, isn’t addressed very well.  It just happens and then no one really talks much about it.  Along with that there are cutaway scenes involving Lousie’s daughter that don’t seem to have much purpose during the beginning half or so of the movie.  The movie starts with one of these, and it’s a very powerful opening, but after that it just crops up every now and then without much rhyme or reason to it until later on.

In the end, Arrival is a great treat for fans of science-fiction.  It tackles some big, looming questions in the wake of humanity’s first contact with an alien race and it forces us to confront the troubling aspect of the division among humans.  The message of unity certainly comes at an appropriate time considering the volatile nature of this past election cycle.  And the movie is smart.  It doesn’t treat you like an idiot or bash you over the head with its themes (even though they are clear-cut).  It might be a little slow-paced for some people, but true science-fiction isn’t just about guns and explosions.  It’s about human beings.  It’s about the possibilities of the future.

In a way, science-fiction is the story of us.

“It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.” – Ursula K. Guin

 

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.

Spotlight: The Babadook

Indie movies are often hard to recommend.  They tend to be very different from the usual fare you see in theaters, and not always in a good way.  In some ways they can be more rough than their big budget counterparts, often having to rely on their uniqueness rather than flashy special effects.  Sometimes this works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.

The Babadook is one of those times where it does.

Let me get something out of the way: I’ve been planning on watching this movie for a long time but due to multiple factors (including my own laziness) I never got around to it until now.  But I’m glad I did, because The Babadook is something that I’ve wanted out of modern horror movies for a while.  It’s actually about something.  It has a point, a theme behind it that drives the movie and its horror.  Compare this to most modern movies, like Paranormal Activity or Insidious, where the sole point of the movie is to scare you.

The Babadook is an Australian indie horror movie that centers around Amelia Vanek and her son Samuel.  The movie opens with Amelia having a dream about her husband, who we find out a little bit later died in a car crash while rushing Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Sam.  From the very beginning of the movie you can tell that the relationship between mother and son is a little strained.  When Sam hears monsters in his room, Amelia reads him a bedtime story and then sleeps with him.  But in the middle of the night, she brushes his hands off her and scoots to the other side of the bed.

As the film progresses we see that Sam has some emotional issues.  He insists on creating weapons to battle imaginary monsters and Amelia is actually called in from her job as an assisted living nurse to his school when he brings one of his creations there.  Frustrated with how they’re treating the situation, calling Sam “the boy” instead of by his name, Amelia pulls him out of the school and vows to find him a better one.

But then, one night a red book mysteriously shows up in Sam’s room.  Its title is “Mister Babadook” and the monster it describes becomes Sam’s new obsession.

First and foremost my favorite thing about The Babadook is that it relies on tension and spooky visuals rather than cheap jumpscares.  If you read my review of Blair Witch that I wrote last month you’ll remember that was one of my primary complaints about the movie.  It was obvious that it was an artificial experience meant to scare you rather than tell an interesting or meaningful story.  It focused too often on jarring audio cuts and things jumping out in front of the camera rather than atmosphere or tension.  Not so with The Babadook.  The movie keeps you unsettled, especially with its scenery shots, showing dark and unnerving shots of the house at night.  At one point it shows a time-lapse of dark clouds filling the sky, creating a surreal feeling as you watch.

 

the-babadook-3

 

As I said, the movie prefers tension over shocking the viewer with loud noises.  In fact, it’s not really until the movie hits the half hour mark that anything notably supernatural starts to occur.  Up to that point there’s a few bumps in the night and such, but that’s it.  Things really start to get creepy after Amelia tears apart the Babadook book, frustrated with how it has affected Sam.  But later on, she hears a knock on her front door.  And when she goes to look, she finds the red book sitting on her front step, pages taped back together.  Not only that, but there are now new pages made with the intent to taunt her, saying that the more she denies the existence of the Babadook the stronger it becomes.

For fear of spoiling any more, I’m going to stop talking about the story there.  Suffice it to say, it’s not always a fun movie to watch.  It’s gut-wrenching and raw.  And it does all of this without any gore or exaggerated horror elements.  For example, the scene with the cockroaches coming out from behind the fridge could have easily veered into cheap gross out territory, but it thankfully doesn’t.

 

Nah I'm not creeped out. Are you creeped out? I'm not creeped out, no way.

Nah I’m not creeped out. Are you creeped out? I’m not creeped out, no way.

 

And the movie also holds back when it comes to the appearances of the monster.  You never get to see a whole lot of it during the film, usually catching only quick glimpses (although you see a decent amount during its first major appearance while Amelia is in bed).  And on top of that, the Babadook says very little throughout the movie, making the creature even more mysterious.  Interestingly, I found out that for the monster the director decided to use stop-motion effects, as she wanted the movie “to be all in camera.”  Initially I thought the approach was a little goofy, but the longer the movie went on I realized that it enhanced the surreal nature of the experience.  In fact, if there’s one thing I can really complain about with the presentation of the monster it comes from the sound department.  One of the noises the Babadook makes is a strange, stock dragon roar that I know I’ve heard somewhere else (from a video game I think).  It seems out of place compared to the rest of the sounds, and every time it briefly pulled me out of the experience.

 

Speaking of being surreal, the movie plays with light and shadow at times, creating an interesting atmosphere.

Speaking of being surreal, the movie plays with light and shadow at times, creating an interesting atmosphere.

 

Speaking of criticisms, the only other major problem I had with the film involved the ending.  The ending works as it is, showing us the resolution between Amelia and Samuel’s characters, but we don’t really get any resolution with any other characters in the movie, which I thought was strange since the movie spends a lot of time showing how things fall apart between Amelia and others, specifically with her sister Claire.  It seems like a missed opportunity to me.

The other thing that bothered me about the ending has to do with the Babadook itself.  I won’t go into specifics, but part of the ending feels like it happens simply out of consistency for the rules they made up relating to the monster.  It probably has a deeper symbolic meaning, but for some reason that bit of the movie’s ending just stood out to me as being different from the rest of it.

But in the end The Babadook has a lot of heart in it.  The actors who play Amelia and Sam are great, convincingly portraying the strange relationship between mother and son.  Amelia always appears tired and worn, but tries her best to take care of Sam and truly does love him.  Sam in turn loves his mom and says more than once that he wants to protect her.  He speaks his mind, which as the movie shows doesn’t always have the best results.  But together the two of them form a sympathetic pair that serve as the driving force of the entire movie.  It might sound cliche to say, but The Babadook is more than just a spooky movie.  It’s about something altogether human.  And the Babadook itself is more than just a monster.  It’s a metaphor waiting to be interpreted by the audience.

I highly recommend this movie if you like horror movies.  Even if you don’t I still would because of how unique and powerful it is.  It has a greater aim in mind than simply being a scare fest, although I will say it certainly succeeded in getting under my skin at times, especially during the latter half.  But it succeeds because substance and style work hand-in-hand to create a truly atmospheric experience.

It’s not always a pleasant movie to watch, but it will certainly stick with you for a long time.

 

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.

5 Statements About Video Games I Disagree With

Anybody who’s followed my blog probably knows that I’m a big fan of video games, with them being one of the primary ways I spend my free time.  Now, there’s a lot of different thoughts and ideas floating around out there about video games and how they relate to us.

Here are five of those thoughts that I disagree with.

 

5. Violent games are corrupting our youth

This is something I heard a lot when I was growing up.  Violent video games were desensitizing kids and making them more prone to commit violent acts.  And considering the brutal nature of games like Mortal Kombat (which made a name for itself solely on how gory and violent it was), the idea made a certain kind of sense.  So why do I disagree with it?  Two main reasons:

  1. Television shows and movies have plenty of violence, yet they don’t get nearly as much criticism.
  2. There is no scientific study or literature that conclusively shows that playing violent games leads to a higher chance of committing violent acts.

In regards to the first one, I understand that one of the primary concerns with video games is the interactive nature of it.  Instead of passively watching the main character shoot a few dozen dudes, you are actively participating.  But like I said with point number two, no study has ever proven anything beyond the fact that playing video games may lead to increased aggression.

The other main issue with scientific studies into violent games is that many of them are flawed.  I remember reading about a study that took place while I was in high school (around 2005 or so I believe).  Basically they had two groups of people, one playing Wolfenstein 3D and another playing Myst.  After about an hour or so of playtime, they brought these two groups together and gave them air horns.  What they found was that the group that played Wolfenstein 3D would honk the air horn for longer periods of time than the people who played Myst would.

I think you can already spot some of the flaws here.  This study took place in roughly 2005, which means that at that time, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had already been released the year before.  And even if the study took place before it, there were other Grand Theft Auto games they could have used.  So then, why did they choose two games that were released a decade earlier in the 1990’s?

The other issue is the air horns.  Using an air horn does not translate to intent to commit violent acts.  Now, you can’t take a group of people and hand them guns (because that would be really REALLY bad), but air horns do not strike me as a good metaphor for increased aggression.

And this is the problem with most studies into the subject.  They don’t have a good way of interpreting the effects of games because they usually study subjects in a one-off manner, having them play a game and then seeing how they act immediately after.  It doesn’t take into account other factors that could contribute to this alleged aggression increase.

Besides, the juvenile crime rate in the 1990’s was on the decline, which is the same decade that video games began their rise to prominence.  So there’s no solid evidence to support the idea that violent games cause more real life violence.

 

4. Video games are mindless entertainment

This is another one I heard when I was growing up.  And while it is true for certain games (the Call of Duty franchise comes to mind), there are plenty of games out there that are more than just “mindless”.

Myst is one of the games I had growing up that was anything but mindless.  There were no enemies to fight.  All you had were your wits to solve the many puzzles laid around the island and uncover more of its secrets.  In fact, I remember my brother actually had a notebook journal dedicated to writing down clues for the game.  But Myst is not the only game that serves as a counter to the mindless argument.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game I have yet to play, but one that I want to get around to at some point.  It’s a game about a soldier who goes to a far off country to deal with what seems like a normal mission.  But when he gets there, things start going Apocalypse Now, with the main character’s sanity slowly degrading throughout the story.  The game is supposed to feature some of the most interesting and complex moral choices of any game ever.  For example, there’s one scene where you’re tasked with shooting someone who’s running away.  Now the two choices are clear: shoot him or don’t.  But apparently, there’s a third choice to be made in there.  You can shoot at the person but miss on purpose, making it look like you were fulfilling your orders but allowing the man to live.  And the game doesn’t tell you that this exists.  You just find that out on your own.

There’s also Journey, a game where you play as a nameless, faceless figure wandering a surreal desert landscape.  But it’s more than just that.  Journey is also a bit of a social experiment in that as you wander through the game, occasionally another player will be inserted into your game.  You can’t talk to each other or communicate (aside from gestures I believe), and you can’t identify each other either.  You can only make the decision to work together or ignore each other.

 

Journey

Journey

 

There’s also Papa & Yo, a game about a boy and his monster friend which was an allegory for the creator’s experience with an alcoholic, abusive father.  There’s Neverending Nightmares, a psychological horror game in which the creator drew upon his own personal experiences with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder to replicate a sense of bleakness in the game similar to what he felt in real life.  And there’s Gone Home, a game about a girl returning home and discovering all that has happened with her family in the year she’s been studying abroad.

So no, games are not just mindless entertainment.  They have plenty of potential to talk about complex and difficult subjects.

 

3. Games aren’t stories

This is one I ran into fairly recently, and is what inspired me to write this post.  It comes from a Cracked.com article entitled “4 Things Gamers Think Are Important (But Aren’t)”.  In the article, the writer talks about people who play games have come to expect movie-quality stories from their games.

From the article:

“The reason video games don’t have great stories is that they’re games. Games are different from stories. The first goal of a video game is always to be fun, but somewhere along the line, we decided that the only way to have games be taken seriously is to give them Serious Stories. So we decided to splice in cutscenes — whole chunks of the game in which instead of “playing,” we’re watching a CGI movie. This is the equivalent of playing chess with your friends, but taking five minutes before your turn to explain the motivation of your rook, and the tragic injury in his youth that prevents him from moving diagonally.”

Now, I get what he’s saying here.  Often the gameplay and the story of a video game can feel like they’re in separate worlds.  When the story world appears, control is usually taken away from the player as they watch a small movie within the game.  It creates this disconnect that sometimes hampers the experience of the game overall.  But while the author complains that calling the stories of games “stories” is simplistic, reductive thinking, I would argue that his reasoning is simplistic as well.

It is certainly true that many games with quote unquote “deep stories” tend to have their story sections get in the way of playing the game, but there are plenty of other ways games can tell a story.  For example, when two people who play games talk to each other, you’ll sometimes get these stories that start with “well this one time I was playing (insert game here) and this totally crazy thing happened”.  This is something fundamentally unique to the video game medium.  You don’t read a book and have some totally unexpected thing happen that didn’t happen to anyone else reading the book.  But in a video game, there is the potential to create events and stories that even the people making the game might not see coming.

I talked about a game called Salt in a recent post, and I think that serves as a good example of this.  Salt is all about the player’s journey.  There’s very little overarching story created by the developers (although that could change as it is still in development).  In the post I made a joke about how you could use the game’s journal feature to write a diary of a man going slowly insane.  But isn’t it cool that you are even allowed to do that?  You can literally tell your own story within the game, because it’s all about the things you discover and experience.  And considering that the world is procedurally generated, no two player’s experiences will be exactly the same.  They won’t discover the exact same island as each other (well, until they add multiplayer that is).

In short, games have story possibilities that no other medium has to date.

 

2. PC/Console gaming is superior

Oh boy, haven’t I heard this one more times than I can count.  In much the same way as rival sports teams have fans that will incessantly fight each other  over which team is better, video games have fans of formats that will fight each other over which is superior.

Let me get something out of the way.  For most of my life, I have been a console gamer (meaning that I played on things like the Super Nintendo, PlayStation, and so on).  It’s what I grew up with, not to mention the fact that I prefer sitting back with a controller to being hunched over a keyboard and mouse.  Yes, I understand that keyboard and mouse is more precise.  Yes, I understand that PC games have better graphics than console games.  I just don’t care.

Now, I will admit that for the last few years I have used my desktop computer to play games far more often than I have consoles.  I bought an Xbox One a couple of years ago, but I barely use it these days.  There just aren’t enough interesting games coming out for it, not to mention that I can get more games for cheaper prices on my computer.  But in the end, I will always prefer the feel of a controller over the feel of a keyboard and mouse.  It’s just more relaxing to me.

Besides, isn’t personal preference what it all comes down to in the end?  Why are we gamers constantly fighting over this nonsense?  Just play what you want to play and be happy with that.  Arguing over which format is better just sounds pretentious.

And speaking of pretentious…

 

1. Games are/aren’t art

If you ask Google to define art, this is what you get:

“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

Do you see what the issue with this definition is?  It’s too nebulous.  It doesn’t have a clear definition for what can and can’t be considered art.

And that’s exactly the point.

Look, this might sound funny coming from someone who wants to write books, but I don’t care if video games are art or not.  It doesn’t matter to me.  Because regardless of everything else, I consider games to be a form of expression, art or not.  And besides, hasn’t it always been said that art is in the eye of the beholder?

Do you consider games to be art?  Good for you.

Do you consider games to not be art?  That’s fine too.  In a way, you’re both right.

To me, art has always been a matter of perspective.  The definition from Google talks about how art is appreciated for its beauty and emotional power, but these two things are incredibly subjective.  I can’t hold up a painting and say “this painting has emotional power” because for some people it might not have that power.  To some people it might seem boring or uninspired.  To others, it might even be deemed offensive or insulting.  The fact of the matter is that whenever I look at something I am seeing it through my own eyes, through my own experience.  And while I play Gone Home and see it as a touching, emotional experience, others play the game and see it as boring and stupid.

Trying to nail art down to a concrete, scientific definition ignores one of the fundamentally great things about being human: we are all different in our own unique ways.  We all have our own perspectives, our own experiences.  And we use these things to shape our own unique path through life, our own unique 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.