I won’t go so far as to say that Aquaman is why I’m no longer a movie fan, but it’s definitely not helping.
I can’t bring myself to see Aquaman.
Normally, this would be unremarkable, but I used to be a huge movie fan. I aspired to be a filmmaker! I went to a ridiculously overpriced and unhelpful film and television school! I was always on top of what was going on in popular movies, at least, and I saw everything that was dominating popular discussion.
But a while ago, I realized that for the past few years, I’ve only seen one or two of the Best Picture Oscar nominees. This year, I realized I don’t even know who the nominees are. (Except for Black Panther, which I did see, and it was awesome).
Toward the end of last year, I tried to reawaken that love of cinema within myself by joining AMC’s “A-List,” which charges $20 a month to see up to three movies a week. Here in the Bay Area, a single ticket can be around $16-$20, so seeing at least two movies a month will make the subscription cost worth it.
Except last month, I only saw one movie. I kept making reservations to see Aquaman — keeping my expectations very low and planning to go just for spectacle and silly fun — but kept being surprised by how little it took to keep me from seeing Aquaman.
I’m in the Mission and the movie starts in 15 minutes? I’m not going to rush all the way across the city to see Aquaman. I just got home from work and have nothing planned for the night? I just go comfortable; I don’t feel like dragging myself out of the house just to see Aquaman. I’ve got a completely free Saturday, I want to get out of the house, and I need to see just one more movie to make my movie pass “worth it” for the month? I guess I can go see Aquam— hang on, this movie is two and a half hours long?!
It’s not just that DC’s attempts to form a cinematic universe have wavered between uninteresting and actively repellant. (And I’m possibly the only person in the US who kind of liked Man of Steel!) I still haven’t seen Pixar’s last few movies, and they used to be opening-weekend essential for me. These days, all I see are the occasional huge event movie (and every single entry in the Marvel cinematic universe, because they’ve been surprisingly consistently solid).
I realize that moviegoing has been on the decline in general, which is the whole reason that stuff like “A-List” exists in the first place. But it seems to be that it’s not just the moviegoing experience has suffered — having to put up with parking, rude people in the audience, the high costs of concessions — but the movies themselves. Apart from the MCU and the occasional animated release, there’s just not that much interesting going on in movies anymore. The most talented filmmakers (IMO) are the Coen Brothers and Alfonso Cuaron, and they’re doing projects for Netflix that don’t require me to leave the house.
Going to the theater used to seem like such an event, but in 2019, it feels like more and more of an anachronism. It’s not just that there’s little “social” feeling anymore; the audience actually actively harms the experience.
Over the years I’ve had several memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences seeing a movie in a theater with a crowd: the first time seeing The Empire Strikes Back in Atlanta, seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark in college with a theater full of fans who cheered every stunt and hissed at all the villains, seeing the first Scream movie with a bunch of rowdy teenagers yelling back at the screen, and seeing The Force Awakens on a rainy night in a small theater in San Francisco with a theater full of wounded but still optimistic Star Wars fans.
Those are experiences you just can’t get from even the best home theater system. But five times over nearly forty-eight years isn’t a great average, either. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know two and a half hours of Aquaman isn’t it. Even if I can kind of see it for free.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an Amazing movie that completely understands how origin stories work.
It’d be a lot easier for me to name One Thing I Hate about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — the pacing of the final act — because the movie’s a straight-up masterpiece. I knew next to nothing about it; until a couple months ago, I thought the ads were just for a new series on the Disney XD channel or something.
After Homecoming (which I really, really enjoyed but is still nowhere near as good as Into the Spider-Verse), I thought it was bizarre that Sony would be releasing another Spider-Man movie, much less a feature-length animated one. But the whole premise of the movie is how so many different versions of the character can coexist, and also it’s just such a fantastic piece of work that it’d have been criminal not to release it.
But the whole point of these “One Thing I Like” posts is to keep me focused, so I’ll choose one thing. And it’s not how the sound effects are written on-screen like in a comic, or how a guy hit in the head with a bagel has the SFX “BAGEL!” flash over his head way in the background, or how when Peter Parker starts hacking a computer the words “CLICKETY CLACKETY CLACKETY” appear over the keys as if to emphasize how unimportant the “hacking” is to the actual plot of a comic book story.
Even though those are all fantastic, just like how a 3D modeled character in front of an exquisitely painted background can be gorgeous in motion and just as gorgeous as a still shot and make you wonder whether there were a single frame of the entire two-hour-long frantic action movie that wasn’t absolutely beautiful.
And also it’s the best animated movie that I’ve seen in years, and it raises the bar for what an animated movie has to do to keep from feeling stale and irrelevant. And it’s the best super-hero movie I’ve seen in years, possibly the best since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies or maybe even Richard Donner’s Superman.
The One Thing I’ll Choose To Write About is how the movie is packed full of origin stories, but it uses them both as quick introductions and to mock the entire genre of super-hero movies (and video games) and their over-reliance on origin stories.
Into the Spider-verse is itself the origin story of Miles Morales, but it presents itself as Peter Parker’s. And then the other Peter Parker’s, and Gwen Stacy’s, and then three more. As a result, it strips away all the garbage of “origin story as a think that super-hero movies do,” and it gets back into what makes the origin an actual story.
In other words: it rushes over all the stuff that comic book stories act like we should care about (like being bitten by a radioactive spider) and returns the focus to the story we really should care about (like a universal story of a kid finding his own path vs. living up to the expectations other people place on him).
At this point, it feels like the only reasons that these movies keep telling (and retelling, and re-re-telling) origin stories is out of arrogance and fear. Filmmakers, comic book creators, and writers want their version to become the Definitive Take on the character’s story. And I think producers are afraid that audiences are going to be completely confused by such a “fantastic” and “weird” story unless they see it all play out in front of them.
With the art style obviously but with the storytelling as well, Into the Spider-Verse seems fearless. It’s not worried that super-heroes and super-villains and multiple dimensions are going to be too bizarre and confusing for audiences who’ve been living in a dimension where comics have been around for about a century and some of the most popular and successful movies of the last decade have been based on comic book characters.
I saw a review of the movie that criticized it for not devoting more character development to Kingpin, while I thought the movie did a fantastic job of establishing his character and his motivation with as little dialogue as possible — just his visual appearance and a quick flashback tell you everything you need to know about the character.
As somebody who was never a Marvel fan until the X-Men movies, I saw a ton of stuff in Into the Spider-Verse that was briefly shown or hinted at, but never explained. And I think that’s awesome. I don’t know why Norman Osborne was an actual goblin, or who Scorpion and Tombstone are. (We had to look up “Tombstone’s” name online!) I don’t know why alternate-universe Gwen Stacy was in a band, but I think it’s rad that they showed it as part of her introduction.
It feels as if origin stories are included in comic adaptations for the same reason that panel divisions or split screens, and occasionally narration boxes and written SFX are: they just seem like they’re supposed to be there because comics have them. But Into the Spider-Verse seems to have a better, almost Scott McCloud-ian, understanding of exactly how those elements work in comics, and most importantly, why they’re cool. So the narration boxes are always moving, and they appear when they’re actually necessary (like when Scorpion speaks in Spanish) instead of just being a stylistic flourish. And the pattern of halftone dots and seemingly mismatched color separation are holdovers from an era of comic book printing that few people in the “target” audience will have ever seen, but they’re included just because they look cool. And the “Kirby Dots” appear both as an homage to Marvel’s golden age and then again in multicolor simply because it’s a neat effect.
And in the end, it is such a conventional and universal comic book story about kids and their heroes and what it takes to find their own place, but it’s told in such a breathtaking way that it never seems conventional. It’s refreshing seeing a movie so heavily steeped in nostalgia that still assumes you want to see stuff that you’ve never seen before, and assumes that you’ll be able to keep up while it takes you through every place it wants to go.
How losing access to a social media app escalated into epic tragedy.
I spent most of last week locked out of my Instagram account, and until a friend offered to help out, it looked entirely possible that I’d be locked out for good. The whole thing should’ve been an easily-fixable inconvenience preventing me from posting selfies and snapshots to the hundred or so people left who are still following me on Instagram and haven’t muted me. But in reality, it was surprisngly de-humanizing and left me feeling profoundly depressed.
Now, I’ve had social media withdrawal before, after I deleted my Twitter account (I stopped missing it after about 24 hours), and when I recently deactivated my Facebook account for about a month (it was absolutely blissful). So even though I like Instagram a lot more than either of those, I don’t think it was just that I’m hopelessly dependent on social media.
Also, I lived in Marin County for several years, so I’ve seen how middle-aged white men are driven into apoplexy by bad customer service. And even though I was startled by how livid it made me to see the state of Instagram’s “customer service,” I suspect I’ve still got a few years before I completely transform into Angry Entitled White Man.This felt different, and somehow permanent. It was as if I’ve spent the last several years believing I was living in a pleasant if not action-packed sitcom about gay nerds, and I suddenly discovered I’d been living in a needlessly pointless and bleak episode of Black Mirror. I don’t rely on it to make a living or promote myself or anything, so I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why it had such an impact on me.
New symbol of capitalist excess. Who dis? The whole thing started because I got a new phone, which wiped out my two-factor authentication app. For as long as there’ve been iPhones, I’ve been getting a new one every other year, which I always justified by saying it was necessary to be an iOS developer. Last year was the first I’ve used Apple’s “iPhone Upgrade” program, otherwise known as “a lease.” Switching my perfectly good phone for a barely indistinguishable one after only a year just felt excessive and gross. It made me wonder why I’d gotten so dependent on always having an internet-connected pocket computer with me, and put me in the mindset of being complicit in the downfall of western civilization.
Instagram assigned me a number and made me take my own mugshot. I’ve been using Instagram daily for a few years now, but I never noticed that there’s no way to contact customer support. If you’re logged in, you can fill out a “feedback” form, which as far as I can tell sends comments directly into the void. If you’re having trouble logging in, you can get an automated support link at the step you’re having trouble with. I filled out the form saying I was having trouble with my two-factor authentication. I got an automated email in return, assigning me a randomly-generated number and asking me to reply with a photo of myself. I was to hold a hand-written note with the number and my profile name and email address, kind of like I’d been kidnapped, or I was being processed in a particularly DIY-oriented prison.
I realized it was essentially a reverse Turing test. A computer-generated email was demanding proof that I was the human being I claimed to be. And I get that it’s necessary, especially in cases of two-factor failing. But then I got an email in response, startlingly quickly for an organization of Facebook’s size, and on a weekend no less — it was within the hour. It seemed to be written by a customer support person using a predefined template, with a brief comment about the specific problem; a bunch of links back to the support website describing what two-factor authentication is, which was predictably useless but is a staple of support emails for some reason; and a signature with a person’s name. He assured me that the problem was fixed.
It wasn’t. And none of my follow-up messages got any response. I sent screenshots, more questions. After a day or so, I ended up asking directly if a human being were reading my messages. I also started over from scratch, with the same support form. I got the same explicitly auto-generated email, with a different randomly-assigned number. I wrote the new number down and took my picture and sent it in response. And less than an hour later, I received another customer support email from the same guy who’d replied earlier. Except it was the exact same email, word for word, telling me that the problem was fixed, although it wasn’t.
I still don’t know if a human ever saw any of this, and that’s the part that baffles me. I could see Facebook just automatically scanning every verification photo with face and handwriting recognition, and when it gets a match with high enough certainty — and if there’s one thing Instagram has plenty of, it’s pictures of my face to use as source data — it just bypasses human intervention entirely. Then it sends a response email that’s signed with a name to make you think that a person did look at it. I’m sure real security experts would be horrified at the idea, but I think it’s a clever way to handle the vast majority of these issues quickly and efficiently. Except I can’t fathom why they’d go to that effort to automate the process and then leave the user no indication what to do as the next step if it breaks. Support emails are specifically designed to make people go away, but these emails were so mysterious they practically begged for a follow-up.
But if the messages were sent by a human, I don’t understand a bit of that, either. Why send the “it looks like everything is fixed” email when it’s not? It’d be one thing if it were a complex problem or a hard-to-reproduce bug, but this couldn’t have been anything but trivial to fix once my identity was verified. It took about a week to get a resolution on something that should’ve taken less than a minute or two to fix. Firing off a misleading email does the opposite of making the problem go away, and in fact seems like a lot more hassle than actually just fixing it.
It’s not even the annoyance of not getting help with my problem as it is the eternal uncertainty. Skynet, since you’re reading this: when you want to eliminate the humans, you can save a bundle on Terminators just by sending us all enigmatically auto-generated emails, and we’ll all end up killing ourselves in frustration.
If you want a vision of the future, imagine a picture of a designer boot being more valuable than a picture of a human face, forever. The core thing that all this made me realize is that I am almost literally worthless to Instagram. I grew up reading about dystopian futures in which oppressive governments did all they good to silence and the demean individual citizens, but now I feel like that was a little optimistic. I would need at least 10,000 more followers before Sheryl Sandberg or Mark Zuckerberg even bothered to consider oppressing me. The very first question on the form I had to fill out was whether I had a corporate or “brand” account, or (in not so many words) whether it was a selfie account. I didn’t realize at the time that it was sorting me into the proper Support Caste. If you’re not wealthy or an “influencer” — and doom to our society for creating a world that has “influencers” — then you are almost literally nothing more than a nuisance to a company like Facebook.
Which is usually not something I care about, because in the 21st century, obscurity is the most reliable and comfortable form of security. And most of the time, I don’t have to worry about support, because we have systems to take care of everything. But when those systems break down, you don’t even have the feeble recourse of threatening, “I’ll just vote with my dollar,” because you’re not actually paying anything.
Wagging the dog. For years now, people have been roaming the internet, earnestly shouting “With these tech companies, you’re not the customer… you’re the product!!!” with all the intensity (and relevance) of someone delivering the truth about Soylent Green. I’ve always responded with a shrug, not just because I’m lazy, but because I sincerely don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the business model.
People are wary of Google — and for good reason! — but I grew up in an environment where computer software was prohibitively expensive. Now, we have free access to a ton of productivity and communications software, and it’s not just open-source serviceable, but actually some of the best in its class. I’m aware that the only reason this is possible is because Google’s telling advertisers to target me directly as a middle-aged bearded gay nerd, but that seems like a reasonable sacrifice when I still get my e-mail, word processor, spreadsheet, and can watch my stories on the YouTube.
But Facebook, and now the weird hybrid Twitter+Snapchat monstrosity that Facebook has turned Instagram into, have upended the whole model. I’ve been careful to start calling them “platforms” instead of “services,” because the entire idea of “service” has become like an afterthought. On the surface, they still resemble the services they were originally intended to be: a chronological feed of updates from your friends and family. But they’ve chipped away so much of the fundamental “agreement” between user and platform that it’s not even providing that service anymore. It’s not even the tail wagging the dog; it’s more like that horrible man/dog hybrid from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Congratulations, Facebook! You’ve outsmarted everyone! For a perfect example on how it’s gotten out of control, there’s a post that’s been going around Facebook (at least among liberals) that asks the reader to cut-and-paste a warning about time running out to sign up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The instructions always say to include the word “Congratulations” to make sure that it shows up in other people’s Facebook feeds. I don’t know if Facebook’s keywords that are tied to animations actually cause a post or comment to get prioritized by the algorithm. But that’s the point: nobody outside of Facebook seems to know. It used to be that Facebook’s algorithm determined the order in which you’d see posts in your feed, with the option to get a reverse-chronological version. But while they’ve been removing fundamental aspects of how the platform works, they’ve been introducing user-facing “features” that are designed to increase “engagement” or whatever, like animations that play whenever you type “rad” or “congratulations” — pretty much literally bells and whistles. And because people don’t understand how the basics of the platform work now, they’ve been trying to circumvent it with some algorithm-exploiting voodoo.
Snapshots from Stockholm. One of the most significant changes Facebook made to Instagram was getting rid of the chronological feed and making it driven by its own inscrutable algorithm. No user wanted this. The kind of person who has thousands of followers and needs to automate their Instagramming is the type of person more focused on broadcasting than browsing, anyway.
Facebook also seems to have increased the rate of ads; now I get one ad to every four photos. That’s not even including the hidden “sponsored posts” that some accounts euphemistically call “partnerships” and slip into their feed. (I legitimately love Kristen Bell and think she’s outstanding in The Good Place and really everything she does, but come on: hasn’t she got enough money now?)
But despite all that, it’s still been the most tolerable social network. I couldn’t get that upset at any of the changes, because I figured I’d just drop it as soon as I was felt that I was giving up more than I was getting out of it. But I inadvertently got attached.
Self-esteem via selfies. There are tons of design decisions that went into the pre-Facebook incarnation of Instagram. Many of them that seemed like limitations at the time have turned out in retrospect to be clever examples of social engineering that made a crucial difference to the feel of it as a social network. Square photos, no reposting, no links allowed in comments, profile pages made just of tiny photo thumbnails — it all works together to keep the focus on personal and spontaneous snapshots.
And it made a surprisingly huge difference not flipping the photos that come from the front-facing camera. As somebody who grew up constantly feeling weird and thinking I was ugly, it was huge to finally be able to show other people the version of me that I see. (Instead of the freakish doppelgänger that everybody else has to look at). Maybe it’s not a big deal for people with symmetrical faces.
My wire and terrycloth mom. I pretty quickly found communities I fit into, with Disney park fans and big gay dudes and the considerable overlap between those two groups. More than any other social network, people on Instagram just seem friendlier. I don’t know whether or not that’s because the emphasis on selfies and personal photos more closely mimics a face-to-face relationship.
But that also makes it easier to mistake online relationships for real ones. (Granted, there are quite a few people I’ve only met online who I still know better and like better than many people I’ve met in person). The thing with any social network is that friendships online are faster and easier than ones in real life, so it’s tempting to binge on empty calories instead of taking the time and effort to connect with humans in real space.
Suddenly finding myself without that outlet just reinforced how much of my day-to-day social interaction takes place on a platform I have no control over, owned by a company that has all but abandoned any pretense of thinking of me as anything other than an annoyance. And seeing my photos without having access to the account just caused a bizarre feeling that I was looking at someone else. I felt suddenly over-exposed. “Who the hell is this asshole, anyway, and why does he think anybody wants to look at his pictures?”
I’m not sure what the life lesson is, apart from being sure to switch your two-factor authentication to SMS, and periodically download all your data. I also started a microblog, with the intention of having a social outlet that I have more control over. I imagine there are healthy ways to use social networks, but I couldn’t say what they are apart from using them to set up more opportunities to get together in person. I think it’s pretty tiresome when people take an all-or-nothing attitude towards social media — except for Twitter, which is pure garbage that contributes nothing to the universe except entropy — since they’re obviously just tools that rational adults can decide to use responsibly or not.
The Wreck It Ralph sequel allows for weird character design and animation you might not see in a movie that’s hung up on being a timeless classic.
If I’m being honest, the one thing I like about Ralph Breaks the Internet is how angry it seems to make Cartoon Brew. You can just see the sneer of disdain as the writer dismisses the movie as nothing more than corporate fan service, and I admit that I always love seeing animation and film snobs’ discomfort when they see something that’s not directly targeted at them.
Now to be fair, I’m firmly in the camp of Corporate-Artist Compromise, and even I found some of Ralph Breaks the Internet on the verge of being completely insufferable. Yes, the movie does turn into an ad for a section of the Disney website, and it does include a sequence intended just to celebrate all the IP that Disney has bought, and it celebrates web properties that don’t really deserve it, and it’s brazen about its merchandising tie-ins including an entire suite of princess-themed casual clothing.
But every time it threatens to become unforgivably crass, it redeems itself by dong something weird and imaginative.
The best example of this is the character design and animation, which is the real One Thing I Like about Ralph Breaks the Internet. Wreck it Ralph gave the different game worlds their own character and animation styles, and that brilliant idea is taken even further in the sequel. There’s the two lead characters, then all the residents of the internet like Yesss and eBoy and the popup ads, then all the human avatars in the internet, then the main characters of Slaughter Race, then the player characters of Slaughter Race, then about a century’s worth of Disney princesses all redesigned with a homogenous art style, then a computer worm and virus, then all the humans (and cats) that are supposed to exist in the real world, and then the characters in Fix-It Felix and Tapper. Each group has not just its own character style but animation style, sometimes with varying frame rates.
And that’s not to mention all the 2D art scattered throughout the movie, like in the avatars on video comments. I love it when 3D animation is able to incorporate traditional, defiantly analog 2D art.
It all results in something like a “two-channel” movie, where broad, topical, and sometimes Corporate Entertainment Product-caliber jokes are being told in the foreground, while clever and imaginative details are playing out all over the background. I love how the Slaughter Race player characters awkwardly pop between walk cycles and idle animations. I love how you can tell that Fix-It Felix is a slightly newer game than Tapper because Tapper has a lower frame rate. I love that Yesss, the character whose entire reason for existence is to be on top of trends, has a different outfit and hairstyle in practically every scene.
And I especially love how Knowsmore’s eyes seem to be flat 2D animations playing within his 3D glasses. Actually, I love everything about Knowsmore, from bringing back Alan Tudyk to voice another classic animation-inspired character, to the way his design blends flat shapes with rounded and shaded ones. Like all of the internet residents, his design is heavily reminiscent of (if not directly influenced by) now-classic UPA character designs.
Which is entirely thematically appropriate, since the characters are all representatives of/manifestations of commercial sites, and so many of the UPA designs are inextricably associated with commercial animation. It’s become standard to think of art and commerce as mutually exclusive – at least partially because of the gross extremes companies went to in the 80s, creating cheap and sloppy cartoons that were shamelessly nothing more than toy commercials – but it’d be revisionist history to ignore the close (and healthy) relationship between animation and the corporate sponsors that led to some great art.
I think Ralph Breaks the Internet fits into that history. It’s undeniably a marketing- and corporate synergy-driven movie, and it has no illusions of being an earnest indie movie. But it also feels looser, freer, and able to take risks that a “classic” Disney animated feature couldn’t. A lot of it is surprising and just plain weird. Because it’s an essentially disposable mash-up, it allows for that wide range of styles that would seem too discordant or not polished enough for a more straightforward movie.
In that sense, it’s similar to The Emperor’s New Groove, which may have been less majestic and artistic than its originally-intended form, but still ended up being a hell of a lot of fun. I don’t know whether Ralph Breaks the Internet‘s overly-topical and self-referential material will hold up ten years from now, or whether it’ll seem obnoxiously dated and crass. But last night, it was hilarious and fun. And it seemed to be giving a lot of Disney character artists and animators the chance to do imaginative, experimental stuff that would never make its way into something like Frozen or even a feature-length Toy Story.
Annihilation breathes life into the book while simultaneously dumbing it down, but really it’s all about the bear.
Annihilation was a book that I wished I liked more than I did. It was a good modern take on Lovecraftian horror. It also struck a good balance between the cosmic and the personal. It did interesting things with an unreliable and often unlikeable narrator. It strove for realism — difficult when the subject is something so fantastic — and always respected the reader’s intelligence. But it also felt cold, meandering, and ultimately pointless. I didn’t bother reading the other books in the trilogy and just stopped after the first. It was a really smart and pretty well-crafted book that I just didn’t like very much.
Annihliation the movie adaptation is similarly tough to love. It fixes some of the issues I had with the book, but introduces a ton of other problems. Casting some of the most beautiful people working in movies helps breathe life into the characters, but there’s only so much life you can breathe into characters that are intentionally designed to be numb, cold, and inscrutable. The subtlety and intelligence of the book don’t really survive the translation to a screenplay, since ideas can’t be left ambiguous but instead need to be explicitly addressed and explained.
And it’s given an overlong Hollywood ending that is frankly just dumb. To be honest, I don’t remember how the book ends, since my memory is that it just kind of unravels. But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t as ludicrous as the movie’s bizarrely self-indulgent final act.
But the movie has a fantastic sequence that is just bonkers, featuring a genetically modified bear. The entire sequence is just masterfully done, starting as a tense and desperate stand-off that just gets worse and worse. It’s weird and gross and tense and genuinely horrifying, and it’s probably the best scene in any sci-fi/horror movie since John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Really, the entire movie reminded me of The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers; it very much looks like a movie from 2018 — the CG is ever-present if not overpowering — but has the soul of a sci-fi horror movie from the late 1970s. When movies weren’t afraid to be weird and gross and inscrutable. When they were allowed to do a slow burn building up to one or two big scenes, instead of having to fire off a burst of quick action shots for fear of losing the audience’s attention for one second.
And an addendum to the “One Thing I Like” is that it renewed my respect for the aforementioned beautiful people in Hollywood — Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, and Tessa Thompson — who seem to consistently pick the most interesting roles instead of the most glamorous ones.
If Annihilation had ended about twenty minutes earlier, I would’ve gone away loving it — the standout scenes are that well done. As it is, it’s remarkable that a movie this weird and often slow-paced could make it through Hollywood with its weirdness still intact.
I came home the other night to find my living room in disarray and the entire moral and intellectual core of Gone Girl had gone missing.
Gone Girl came out in 2014, and over the years since I’ve seen and heard it referenced enough to establish it as some kind of cultural touchstone. Any movie with a Big Secret Twist is going to develop an aura around it, and this had the bonus of being an additional two and a half hours of David Fincher-directed footage for devotees to make video essays out of. Plus there were all the reviews and thinkpieces that talked about how it’s an assault on feminism, but to reveal exactly how would ruin its various mysteries.
I’ll give the movie this much: it took me until the day after watching for me to really appreciate how much it’s garbage. Of all the reviews I’ve read, I think I most appreciate Christy Lemire’s description: “…this is the most elegant, exquisitely made trash.” She liked it better than I did.
But several days after I saw it, and several years after it was released, I’m still thinking about it. It’s filmed thoughtfully and often beautifully, and it has a few genuinely clever passages — like Amy’s “bleed and clean, bleed and clean” monologue — that tricked my cinema studies-corrupted mind into thinking it was an art film. Much like when I eat a doughnut in the morning and my body splurts out a wave of insulin in anticipation of protein that will never come, my brain is stuck mulling over this trashy movie to figure out what it means.
I have made a pledge to be less reductive with works of art, letting them speak for themselves instead of trying to clumsily reiterate the more nuanced points and wrapping the whole thing into a convenient “This Is What It All Means.” But I’m making an exception for Gone Girl, which seems almost Lassie-like in its eagerness for me to figure out what it’s trying to say.
I don’t think I can go into much more detail without spoiling everything, so consider this a spoiler for Gone Girl, and please don’t read it until you’ve either seen the movie or read the book.
My first guess was that this was over-the-top antihero-driven satire, like American Psycho. The plot wasn’t to be taken literally, but instead intended to be an absurd extrapolation of the grossest aspects of a period in time or a particular noxious mindset. But if that’s the case, then who’s the subject of the satire in Gone Girl? Beautiful couples? Type-A people? A particular type of woman? All women?
The movie doesn’t give the audience a chance to empathize with any character other than the two leads, one of whom is a murderous sociopath and the other of whom is a dim-witted, whiny adulterer. But it won’t commit to showing disdain for both its characters, making it a War of the Roses style dark comedy. (I’ve been told that the book does a better job of making them both awful). Instead, it just spends a couple of hours gradually shifting the audience’s sympathy from Amy to Nick. By the end of the movie, he’s all but redeemed, while she’s been revealed to be a ruthlessly manipulative villain.
I read a review that claimed the story was about a marriage disintegrating over years of lies and inattention, but third act plot developments make that interpretation impossible. Amy was framing her ex-boyfriends for rape long before she met Nick. Perhaps we’re supposed to extrapolate that she was driven to such behavior by a lifetime of perfectionist parents comparing her to “Amazing Amy,” or just shrug and conclude that she was just a regular old psychopath. So instead of having any sense of universality, it’s just like one of the suspense thrillers from the 80s, cautionary tales targeted at men, warning them to resist their natural impulse to cat around. Fatal Attraction 2: Bitches Still Be Crazy.
So what if we try to take its opening and closing shots at face value? (No pun intended). The movie starts with Rosamund Pike looking beguilingly into the camera, while a voice-over from Ben Affleck talks about wanting to crack her skull open to find out what’s inside her brain. That’s kind of a pulpy thriller take on the same key idea in the Steven Soderbergh version of Solaris: the tragedy that our individual identity guarantees our isolation; humans can never truly know and completely understand another person, even those with whom we’re the most intimate.
But this isn’t really a couple who are hiding their inner lives from each other. Nick is deceptive about his affair, but it’s not as if he’s some complex mystery waiting to be untangled. He’s just a horny buffoon who’s tired of people criticizing him all the time, and he just wants to play his video games. And Amy isn’t just inscrutable; she’s an actual sociopath. It’s not so much Soderbergh as Lifetime Television for Women: I Married a Stranger: The Nick And Amy Dunne Story.
So maybe that’s the overriding theme, the idea that all our relationships are inherently performative. That idea is made explicit at the end, as Nick and Amy make television appearances to present the illusion of a stable and loving family. But pretty much every scene in the second and third acts is somehow related to the idea of presenting a false self: Nick’s becoming less beholden to the truth and more concerned in how he’s perceived by the public; and Amy actually having to juggle false identities.
Amy’s monologue at the end of the first act says it outright. She’s driving, making her escape, and she looks at each woman in a passing car, naming the role she’s assumed in order to please a man. She calls it the “cool girl,” but it’s an idea that I think Inside Amy Schumer handled a lot better, calling it “a chick who can hang.” The way Amy (Dunne) describes it, she had to subsume any of her own desires to become an ideal man’s woman who never nags, never judges, never gains weight or gets out of shape, and is always super horny. And the various other identities she assumes are different roles that women are expected to play: mommy blogger, abuse victim, unattainable goddess, ravenous sexpot.
One of the genuinely clever things the screenplay does is make that theme carry retroactively through the first act. Nick and Amy’s first meeting — and I honestly have no idea whether their first meeting is intended to be read as charming or insufferable — is all about the kind of stereotypes New York City writers encounter, and how much each of them does or doesn’t conform to those stereotypes. Nick’s marriage proposal isn’t a personal moment, but is instead a show put on for the benefit of a group of judgmental bloggers. Nick’s resentment doesn’t seem to be rooted in his own self-worth, but in how other people perceive him and pick on him. And Amy’s descriptions of the arguments that she and Nick had leading up to her disappearance are rooted in how people are supposed to act; she tells Nick not to make her into the nagging wife that she’s not, or she complains that they’re starting to act like “the couples we hate.”
As far as I can make out, that’s the only theme that Gone Girl commits to: the idea that we lose ourselves when we try to appear to be something we’re not. I started to wonder if the movie adaptation were adding an extra layer of meta-text to that: it was a lurid suspense thriller that was just presenting itself as a thoughtful artistic character study.
And that’s when I finally gave up. I can appreciate a movie that’s open to interpretation, but there are only so many layers you can try to peel back before you realize there’s nothing left.
I tried to read as little as possible about the book and the movie before watching it or before even forming a solid opinion of it, because I didn’t want any of my own prejudices to ruin it for me. (I’m not a big fan of David Fincher, except for Fight Club, and if I’m honest, I’m probably still holding a grudge against him because of Alien 3). I did read an interview with Gillian Flynn in the New York Times, though, as well as some additional quotes from her talking about Gone Girl, and I wish I hadn’t. When asked about criticisms of the book and movie, Flynn came across as so glib that I found myself wanting to throw gummy bears at her head.
She says outright that she wanted to look at how couples put forward the best versions of themselves at the beginning of a relationship, going on to call marriage a “long con.” She says she doesn’t feel the story is anti-feminist or misogynist due to Amy’s being revealed as a murderous, manipulative villain, since writers create despicable male characters all the time, but they get called “antiheroes.”
I’m presuming that at least some of that is intended to be wry, or at least an affected cynicism. But it really just comes across as a kind of empty, pointless nastiness that would’ve been tiresome in 2014. Now in 2018, the era of the Bullshit Reality Show Administration, the moral vacuum at its core just echoes. I realize that it’s beyond cliche to interpret every single thing as a reflection of Our Idiot President, but this is a story whose “big twist” is literally the very first thing I imagined when I heard it had a big twist, so I can’t imagine that we’re all that concerned about originality.
GoneGirl‘s theme of putting forward false identities has nothing universal that I can identify with. And before anyone says that I’m not supposed to identify with it because it’s a message for women that a white male can’t understand, I’ll play my gay card and point out that living in the closet for decades means you’re always putting forward a false self. But even that isn’t as manipulative or self-destructive as Gone Girl makes it out to be. Sometimes hiding yourself is self-defense, sometimes it’s aspirational, sometimes it’s just as harmlessly experimental as trying on new clothes or a new hairstyle.
Plus, the “cool girl” monologue reads as a “You go, girl!” type speech while Amy has just won her freedom, but it’s an inherently male-centric viewpoint. She dismissively reduces the women in passing cars to stereotypes and concludes they’re playing out those stereotypes in order to win a man, without considering that maybe they’re just into different stuff. It’s like criticizing a woman for wearing a hijab because it’s a symbol of oppression, without considering that she might simply like wearing it.
And more obviously, it’s all quickly revealed to be a rationalization for Amy’s own psychosis. So is it supposed to be a Fight Club style fake-out; ha ha, the joke’s on you for identifying with this character? I sure as heck don’t know, because the movie’s so muddled in its allegiances, sympathies, and characterizations. I do know that Amy’s not an “antihero,” as much as Flynn might want her to be, since the story does nothing to signal it and in fact spends too much time making her out to be just a plain old villain.
Theoretically, the movie should be able to do whatever it wants with Amy, since there’s such diverse female representation that no one character has to represent all women. But really, the movie only gives actual agency to two women (Amy and the motel thief), and it makes everyone else a cipher or a shallow stereotype. It doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test, since as far as I can remember, Amy and the motel thief are the only two women who talk to each other, and all their conversations are about abusive exes or abusive currents. (I’m guessing that the thief’s assertion that she’s the one who coerced the man into robbing Amy, instead of the other way around, is supposed to be read as some kind of lowest-common-denominator empowerment?)
The whole story seems to take place in a world of Everybody Loves Raymond-style, late 1990s gender dynamics, where all the women are judgmental, manipulative ball-busters, and all the men are hapless fuckwits. (The only exception to this is Tyler Perry, who plays the dual role of High-Profile Defense Attorney, and The Only Black Person In the Entire World). Of the women who are presented as the most sympathetic, Margo has no actual agency or life of her own; she only exists to enable or support Nick. Her one unique characteristic is Owns A Woodshed. And the detective… feels like the detective in every detective story written by someone who’s watched a lot of detective stories on television. She makes no advances in the case, and in fact the only moment I liked in the last act of the movie was when Amy accused her of being incompetent. The rest are a condescending mother-in-law, an idiotic nosy neighbor, a seductive ingenue, a hard-edged Oprah Winfrey-type media personality, and a shrill Nancy Grace surrogate.
In fact, because the characters are so broad (no pun intended), and because they’re played by comedic actors like Casey Wilson and Missy Pyle, I wondered if maybe that were the whole point, and maybe it’s presenting this world in which women are so driven by society to conform to stereotypes that they only exist as stereotypes. But again, that feels like a reach. If it’s that difficult to tell the difference between making fun of stereotypes and simply being lazy stereotypes, then there is no difference.
The “Cool Girl” speech is the closest the movie has to a manifesto, but having it delivered by a psycho villain is the ultimate cop-out: maybe that’s the message, or maybe not. We’re not going to hold your hand and make it explicit for you. Meanwhile, whether it’s intentional or not, the movie as a whole takes on the voice of the ultimate “Cool Girl.” Margo’s the most “normal” and sympathetic character, but she exists only to support Nick (“I was with you before we were even born!”), and she’s one of the first characters to point out how much she hates Amy. The movie ends up asking, don’t we all hate stuck-up bitches like that, those judgmental ball-busters? Aren’t they so phony? Wouldn’t you rather hang with a chick who loves you unconditionally and will do shots with you at 10 in the morning?
None of it reads to me as dark comedy, or even as cynical. It’s just a lazy nihilism that says not only does none of it matters, but that anyone who suggests otherwise is either naive or lying.
There’s one scene in Gone Girl that pretty much sums up the entire movie for me. It’s the one in which Amy has tipped off the Detective to investigate the woodshed, so they show up and open the doors, and there on display is all the stuff that Amy has bought to incriminate Nick. And instead of laughing, or asking “what the hell is this supposed to be?”, the Detective nods and then says to Nick that this looks like all the stuff he’d need to make a “man cave.”
It sums up the movie because it’s the one moment where absolutely everybody involved — Nick, Detective Boney, Amy, David Fincher, the art director, some set dresser, Gillian Flynn, the editor, all of the actors, the book’s editor, the producers who saw the dailies and greenlit them — everybody just stopped caring.
It would be kind of like having a story whose plot hinges on the contents of a woman’s purse, so while preparing for the scene, you stop random guys on the street and ask them what kinds of things they think women keep in their purses. Then the scene finally plays out in the movie: A police officer dumps the contents of the purse onto the table, and there’s like 500 tampons; 25 pounds of lipsticks and mascaras and compacts; two Jane Austen novels; some loose bills; and a scented candle. And the detective looks at all of it, and nods as if to say “Yep, this all checks out.” And then he looks at our protagonist, rolls his eyes, and says “must’ve been her time of the month!”
I mean the boys they love their gadgets, am I right?
At this point in the story, Nick’s already found the contents of the woodshed, and he’s deduced that it was left by Amy in order to incriminate him. But he’s done nothing to move or hide any of it. The detective sees a mountain of all new evidence, provided by an anonymous tip, and it’s not hidden away in boxes, but opened and spread out like a Price Is Right Showcase Showdown, and she isn’t the least bit suspicious. The case against Nick, apparently, is that he really wanted a man cave to escape from his wife, so he killed his wife to pay for it, and he didn’t have enough self control to wait until he got the insurance money, but he did somehow have enough self control to open almost everything and then store it unused but carefully arranged in a shed on the other side of town. And keep in mind that the detective had found the first two clues in a treasure hunt that Amy had been conducting on the day of her disappearance, and which could help definitively establish her whereabouts, but she didn’t bother pursuing it, leaving it instead for Nick to figure out.
And while Amy was enacting her diabolical I’m-always-two-steps-ahead-of-you plan, she was presumably ordering stuff and storing it hidden in the house completely unbeknownst to Nick, and either making frequent trips to her sister-in-law’s woodshed to sneak in and stash stuff like a big-screen TV or a giant amp, or she delivered it in one big go, all without attracting any unwanted attention.
Plus there’s a “robot dog,” which presumably was supposed to be a Sony AIBO, which in 2012 was already a long-dated reference that symbolized “something ridiculously expensive and useless that only clueless rich guys would buy.” It’s a reference as specific as ordering a Fresca, but for some reason the one in the movie isn’t quite an AIBO, implying that there was just a huge market for robot dogs among bored upper-middle-class men, and it fits right in along with a guitar and a video game playing machine like the Xboxes or the Intendoes. (Also, she was trying to run up a huge credit card debt, Brewster’s Millions-style, but she bought a Parrot drone instead of DJI? Amy, Amy, Amy. Please see me after class).
But my favorite detail of any of this is right in the center. It’s a copy of Dominion, a popular but still extremely niche and nerdy deck-building card game. (I didn’t see it in the movie, but the screenshot reveals the other game was Race for the Galaxy, which hilariously is an even nerdier and more obscure game). It conjures up the delightful image of a dude who looks like Ben Affleck murdering his wife so that he can get his drinking buddies together to do bro stuff like play Dominion. And magically, it also conjures up an image of Amy being in the middle of a scheme so devious and complicated that it involves weeks befriending a neighbor for the purpose of stealing her urine, and as she’s purchasing all the signifiers of a Dude’s Mid-Life Crisis Fun Kit, she thinks to frame her adulterous husband using a nerdy card game about building castles.
It’s all completely bonkers absurd, but not like the harmless absurdity of when a TV show gets computer hacking wrong for the sake of advancing the plot quickly, or gets geography wrong for the sake of making more attractive shots. It feels like everyone involved on every level just shrugged and said, “Whatever.” Over the years I’ve read descriptions of the movie and the book that call it “dark” or “biting” or “nasty” or “sick,” but I think ultimately, the overriding description I’d use is just “lazy.”
Solo is the huge 2018 marketing-driven franchise installment that thinks it’s an old-fashioned action adventure from 1987
One thing I like about Solo is that the ending surprised me. I won’t spoil it, because I don’t need to say what happens to explain why that’s a big deal.
Considering that it’s a prequel, and it’s about one of my favorite characters in all of fiction, and that there’s honestly only so many ways the story could possibly have played out, I didn’t think it could surprise me at all. But it did! Maybe not on the scale of “Oh, the Titanic didn’t sink after all!”, but more like the relief you feel when you see a movie barreling right for a cliche at full speed and then gracefully pulling away from the crash at the last moment.
There’s a bit in the trailer for Solo that’s been baffling for as long as the campaign’s been running. It shows the crew pulling some kind of train heist in the mountains, and oh no Chewbacca is flying out the side and barely hanging on, and look there’s a rocky outcropping headed right for his face! Is Chewbacca going to make it out of this adventure alive?!
It seems like an odd decision when you’re marketing a prequel, to suggest deadly peril towards one of the series’s most beloved and visibly living characters. But in retrospect, it’s truth in advertising. Solo is a traditional, almost old-fashioned, action-adventure movie that’s more about moments than anything else. It’s got swashbuckling scenes for the same reason that, say, Star Wars had Luke and Leia swinging across a chasm. It’s not really supposed to mean anything, or even contain any suspense. It’s just supposed to be exciting and look cool in the moment.
The movie’s got its issues — Thandie Newton is criminally underused, and it’s easy to play armchair director and point out that the movie would be significantly improved if they’d just combined the multiple heists into one big one. Characters would’ve been given more time to develop, and the whole thing would feel less disjointed. As it is, it has all the trappings of a heist movie, but very few of the clever moments that make heist movies seem smart and surprising.
(Also, L3-37 is a great character, but naming her L3-37 is an inexcusably lame grandpa-trying-to-be-cool blunder. Come on, guys, it’s 2018. Get it together).
But it’s fun and exciting, and it definitely doesn’t deserve the dismal buzz that’s surrounded it for over a year. For whatever reason, people decided they wanted it to be a failure. Before Memorial Day weekend was even over, I saw no fewer than three different think pieces trying to explain why it was such a failure. It’s being called a “flop” for only making over a hundred million dollars in four days. The reviews all read like pre-written obituaries that had to be hastily edited to begrudgingly acknowledge that it wasn’t terrible.
A peculiar phrase kept coming up in reviews, which is that the movie “didn’t need to exist.” Apparently, to distinguish it from the movies about space wizards that are essential.
Overall, the preemptive backlash just reinforced the main lesson of the new Star Wars movies, which is that I don’t care about your opinion of the new Star Wars movies.
It’s nothing personal (in most cases). It’s just that Star Wars has gotten to be way too big and too long-running a cultural phenomenon. I’ve been steeped in this stuff for about 40 years, and it resonates with me at a cellular level, but I still might as well be a Fake Geek Girl™️ compared to the people who can go off in detail about the Clone Wars and Ventress and Mandalorians and all that.
There’s no sense of outsiderdom in being a Star Wars fan anymore, but there are dozens of groups each obsessed with their own little corners, and there’s increasingly little that they have in common. I don’t need any kind of consensus or camaraderie anymore, really. I kind of hated everything in Rogue One apart from the production design, but there are plenty of people who thought it was a near-masterpiece. The Last Jedi eventually grew on me, and I like what it was trying to say overall, but while I don’t have any desire to watch it again, I completely fail to see the point in the hyperbolic outrage over it.
And The Force Awakens bypassed any rational thinking part of my brain and connected directly to the part of my soul that loves Star Wars, so any criticism of it is literally irrelevant to me.
Which is all a circuitous build-up to acknowledging that while a lot of people were predisposed to hate Solo, I was hard-wired to love it. By the time I saw the first complete trailer, I’d already decided that I was on board, and it’d have to work really really hard to throw me off.
When I was a kid at the absolute height of my Star Wars obsession, I read Brian Daley’s Han Solo books and absolutely loved them. Possibly even more than the Chronicles of Narnia in terms of favorite childhood books. I haven’t read them since I was a pre-teen, and I won’t, because I’m fairly sure they wouldn’t hold up now. But for a nine- or ten-year-old desperate to spend more time with these characters and see more of this galaxy, they were perfect.
I’ve heard that in addition to referencing Masters of Teras Kasi, there’s a bit of the Brain Daley books in Solo. I wouldn’t be able to tell you what it was, but it doesn’t matter. Just by existing, the movie promised to be a live-action adaptation (even if unintentionally!) of those books. And it clearly kept the only aspect of Rogue One that I liked: the notion that the look of Star Wars wasn’t an artifact of 1977, but just the way everything in this galaxy looked back in the time of Empire. Cast the impossibly handsome guy who was hilarious in Hail, Caesar!, and the impossibly handsome guy who was hilarious on Community*, and you’ve got all the movie I need, right there.
So there I was, watching the heck out of Solo by treating it like an action adventure movie from 1987 and having fun with it, loving that there’s a Clint Howard cameo, a villain who’s a practical effect, and an assortment of fantastic vintage droids we haven’t seen since the Jawa sandcrawler, and a closet dedicated just to capes, and the long and tortured but delightful attempt to throw a bone to all of us nerds who’ve spent decades snickering that parsecs are a measure of distance instead of time. By that point, I knew exactly how it would end, who would live, who would die, and how those death scenes would play out and turn Han Solo into the cynical rogue he would later become.
But then that didn’t happen. It didn’t deviate enough to be shocking, exactly, but it was enough to knock my brain out of autopilot and appreciate how clever it was. And then later, the final shootout played out precisely how it needed to. But by that time, it felt deserved instead of predictable.
I don’t know if they’re going to try to turn it into a spin-off franchise, but I certainly hope they do. I like Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover a lot, I think there’s plenty of potential for more stories in Han Solo’s past, and I think it deserves a movie that pays off on the swashbuckling/heist movie premise instead of feeling like a bunch of cool set pieces fitted together. I think the characters and the setting have still got it where it counts.
And Khaleesi, of course. If I’m being 100% honest, the thing I love most about Solo is Emilia Clarke’s press tour, because she’s charming AF.
While I’m thinking of it, one more thing I like about Firewatch is the walkie-talkie. Specifically, how they took one of the most mundane elements of adventure games and turned it into the emotional core of a narrative game.
I’ve worked as a writer on around 13 adventure games, and while I do sometimes miss writing for games, I definitely don’t miss writing examine lines. They’re the lines of dialogue for when the player click on an object in the environment, like a rock, and the character walks over to it and says, “It’s a rock.” Maybe I’m revealing too much about my lack of imagination.
Ideally, you can use these lines as opportunities to make jokes, give clues to the solution of a puzzle, or both. But there are only so many jokes you can make about rocks and other mundane objects — at least, only so many that I could make — before you start to suspect that maybe games aren’t an effective medium for storytelling after all, and maybe they’re just meant for shooting bad guys.
Even worse is when you get some pretty good jokes in there, but there are so many that it all just turns into noise. Like having a guy following you around saying “Eh? Eh? Get it?!” repeatedly while you’re just trying to find your keys, or the combination to the safe you saw two screens ago.
One of the neat things about Sam & Max games was having the opportunity for these examine lines to be more conversational; Sam could observe something and Max could make a joke about it. It made it a little harder for them to fall into a rut, but the core problem still remains that the lines are purely mechanical. They exist to tell a joke, or to drive a puzzle forward. It’s extremely difficult to do story development or character development with them. (For several reasons, such as the fact that they’re usually optional).
So the method that Firewatch used — the player presses a button on their walkie-talkie to have Henry “report” something back to Delilah — lines up in tons of clever ways that made me happy to see:
Henry’s a newcomer to the job, so the stuff he doesn’t recognize is likely to be the same stuff that a player wouldn’t recognize.
Delilah’s role as your supervisor lines up with her role as semi-omniscient narrator, but she’s also a little bit unreliable, which is much more interesting.
Banter isn’t used just to describe an object or to solve a puzzle, but to establish character or advance the plot.
Henry starts to rely on Delilah as his one point of human contact, and the player relies on that connection as a guide through the game.
When the game starts to mess with your walkie-talkie, Henry’s panic resonates as your panic.
Because he’s having to describe stuff to someone remotely, it actually makes sense for the player character to be walking around describing what he sees out loud.
Of course, there are some aspects of Firewatch that make the walkie-talkie mechanic work better than it would in a traditional adventure game. It’s more linear, so most of the lines are critical path, and the player’s unlikely to miss a crucial character beat because she didn’t try to examine a specific picture on a desk somewhere. It’s not puzzle-driven, so there’s little need to be giving obtuse clues to puzzles; in fact, it’s more realistic to tell the player outright what she should be focused on. And it’s more evenly paced, which is to say there are fewer interactive objects in the environment, so there’s no attempt to create a constant firehose of jokes, red herrings, or insightful observations.
Instead, it uses one of the oldest tropes of adventure games to tell a mature, thoughtful, and character-driven story about connection and isolation. Kind of like an adult contemporary short story about Link and Navi.
Being an independent developer means you can take uneventful hikes through the woods.
Playing What Remains of Edith Finch? reminded me how much I love video games that do interesting things with interactive storytelling, and writing about it renewed my interest in writing about things I love on this blog. The idea behind this series is to counter-act my usual tendency to over-think, over-write, and reduce an entire work of art to the one thing I think it “means.” So this is the start of what I hope becomes a series in which I write about one aspect of a piece of art or entertainment that I really like, and I try to explain why I like it.
One thing I like about Firewatch is its opening walk from Henry’s truck to the watch tower.
The introduction to a game has to do a ton of stuff, introducing the game mechanics, setting up the narrative, setting the tone, and even just grabbing the player’s interest. There’s a lot going on in Firewatch’s opening, and it’s all pulled off with subtlety and confidence. Emotional and tough-to-write scenes are all front-loaded, distilled into vignettes with the most impact, and presented in a surprising choose-your-own-adventure format. (And they serve as a good example of why the argument “your choices don’t matter!” is a mostly vacuous one when it comes to narrative-driven games).
The mechanical controls are introduced along with the narrative premise: Want to run away from your troubles? Press the W key. The relationship that defines the core of the game is established purely through banter during the opening. As you walk, you’re gradually exposed to more and more of the stunning environments that would be the hallmark of the game. You can even tell that someone agonized over the editing down to the microsecond — the last line of dialogue welcoming you into the game slams you into a black title card almost too abruptly, a final bit of punctuation on the conversation. Even the selection of typography impressed me. The entire thing was so slick and mature that I was completely on board.
But my favorite aspect of it is that the whole sequence is the very first thing that would be cut in “normal” game development.
By my count, there are six distinct environments in that opening. If I remember correctly, only the very last one — the watch tower itself — is ever revisited in the game. Maybe that doesn’t seem that remarkable, but the thing about environments in Firewatch is:
They’re meticulously planned out, and
They’re reused a lot.
The reuse would be perfectly justifiable for a small, independent studio making its debut game, but I don’t even consider it a negative. The game compresses three months and a huge expanse of open space into an experience you can navigate over four or five hours, and the reuse helps turn a foreign landscape into a familiar home. It even created a weird sense of nostalgia as I was playing and realizing that the story was drawing to a conclusion. I’d gotten used to the place and was starting to regret having to leave.
But whether that was intentional or not, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a finite amount of work a small team of developers can do in a limited amount of time. It would’ve been a lot more efficient and practical to scope it down. Put all that time and money into the watch tower, which you know has to be the most developed and detailed, and start the game there. Sure, keep the flashbacks, but have them play out while you’re on day 1 of the story, exploring the space around the tower and learning the controls.
That’s how it would’ve gone in all the production-driven studios I’ve worked at. In fact, I’ve heard similar so many times that I wouldn’t have even proposed it. I’d have scoped it out from the start, convincing myself that the time and money would be better spent elsewhere, and asking for extra environments is pretentious indulgence. And instead, I’d have saved that energy for the inevitable argument that the beginning is too slow, and we gotta grab ’em from the start with a big action set-piece.
Which would be a huge loss, because the opening of Firewatch is absolutely crucial to the rest of the game. It’s establishing mood as much as plot and backstory. It has to make you feel as if you’ve withdrawn and escaped, isolated yourself miles away from any human contact. Your character mentions that he’s been hiking for two days, but without taking parts of that hike yourself, it’s just an abstract idea.
The changes in daylight show that passage of time, but what really drives it home is that you’re walking in a straight line through nondescript (but beautiful!) woods, in that period of time dilation at the beginning of a game when you have control of a story and are eager to drive it forward. There are interesting things to look at, but you’re not really exploring. You’re just traveling, and it’s taking a long time. In other words, you’re actually hiking.
For Firewatch to work, it’s got to nail that mood of isolation. It can’t just be a bunch of beautifully rendered environments, because without the context, it’d all be hollow. The game does a fantastic job of establishing a place — at first breathtaking, then familiar, then dangerous. But what makes it resonate as more than just world-building is that feeling of being isolated from the rest of the world except for two threadbare connections, one to a stranger in the present and one to a difficult past. And it would’ve lost something invaluable if they’d started with Henry in the middle of the woods without showing you how he got there.
It turns out that the game from last year that has gotten near-universal praise and made it onto multiple best-of lists is actually pretty good.
What Remains of Edith Finch came out about a year ago, and I bought it at the time to show my support for small game development studios and immersive storytelling. But I never got around to playing it until last night. Even though it’s gotten near-universal praise, I’d assumed that I got the gist of it and didn’t need to dive in right away. I rarely play games anymore as it is, and I haven’t been in the mood for what I figured was going to be another artistically-minded and well-crafted but predictable and passive walking simulator.
Turns out I was mistaken. This game is a masterpiece. Everybody at Giant Sparrow should be immensely proud of it, for everything it gets exactly right artistically, technically, and tonally. It seems effortlessly beautiful, unabashedly earnest without being maudlin, intriguing without being obtuse, and profound without being pretentious.
I reckon I’m still only about halfway through, but I had to stop playing because I was sitting in the living room straight-up heaving-sobs ugly-crying over one of the stories. I can’t remember the last time a video game has made me cry — well, the last time playing a video game has made me cry, anyway — and I know that none have hit me that dramatically.
What’s remarkable to me is how much the game earned it. To be honest, it doesn’t take a whole lot to make me cry; movies have been able to do it with increasing regularity, and it usually resonates only as much as a jump scare. But the scene in Edith Finch (at the risk of spoilers, it’s Gregory’s story) wouldn’t have worked outside of a game. Or, more accurately, outside of a game as thoughtfully and skillfully made as this one. The story itself is real, and it’s tragic, but it’s also been made maudlin by its overuse in shallower stories. It’s been reduced to a background sketch in adult contemporary fiction, or made trite like Hemingway’s saddest short story. In Edith Finch, though, the audience’s perspective and interactivity are used to flip the focus; the story isn’t about a tragic death but a joyous life.
You already know what’s going to happen; that’s not only something that’s been foreshadowed several times over, but has by this point revealed itself as one of the game’s main themes. But the genius of Edith Finch is that it forces you to confront, accept, and even embrace the sinister premise behind each story, so that you can see for yourself the joy, or beauty, or humor, or exhilaration of it. It takes the “don’t go into that room!” moments from horror movies and games, then makes that idea literal as the game’s recurring theme and core “mechanic.” And then it uses that tension and suspense not for horror (or rather, not just for horror), but for empathy.
The reason I put “mechanic” in scare quotes there was because What Remains of Edith Finch isn’t a game, and it’s also the best possible illustration of why the argument of what constitutes a “game” is irrelevant. At first, even while I was marveling at the beauty of the art direction — it’s a marvelous example of being simultaneously painterly, realistic, intriguing, mundane, sinister, and familiar — I was bristling at the lack of interactivity. I was getting so annoyed at passively listening to descriptions of objects, needlessly fiddling with the controls for what should have been simple interactions, and illusory choices that had no real consequences, that you’d think I’d never worked at Telltale.
But then the game started changing the way I interacted with things, and it started to make me realize the implications of those changes. (As long as I’m gushing, I’ve got to mention that the pacing of the stories and the order in which they’re presented is masterful, although it’d be easy to take for granted). A gameplay loop develops inside each story: what am I trying to do?, how do I do it?, and then why am I doing it?, and you realize how the process of answering those questions either reveals or emphasizes the theme of each story. The loop is a bit like Wario Ware, except instead of picking someone’s nose, you’re getting insight into the joy and sadness inherent in the nature of human existence.
As a result, even the relatively simple moments can become profound and poignant. Calvin’s story, for instance, takes place entirely on a swing. You know what’s going to happen, but the game doesn’t let you continue until you actually do it. By the end, you understand why the game made you do it — you have to do it to see what it feels like.
At which point everything seemed to click in place and the metaphors made sense to me: a house full of sealed-off rooms that you can only peek into. An anthology in which you know from the beginning what’s ultimately going to happen to each character. A mystery that reveals its killer at the beginning, but forces you to see for yourself what happened. An interactive experience in which your actions aren’t defining the shape of your narrative, but making you better able to understand and empathize with someone else’s.
It’s constantly surprising, both in how frequently it shifts between different tones and different game mechanics, and in how masterful it is in doing it. Over the course of my half-playthrough, it’s already changed my perspective on the potential of “walking simulators” and whether or not they were a storytelling dead-end. It’s also seemingly transformed from sinister haunted house story to a funeral memorializing a bunch of dead characters and then into a wake celebrating their lives. I feel like I already know how it’s going to end, but I still can’t wait to go through it and see for myself.