Them (One Thing I Almost Didn’t Like About Get Out)

I finally worked up the nerve to watch Get Out, and I really liked it. It was a close call, apparently.

(I’m going to avoid spoilers until the second half of this post. It’s remarkable how I managed to go about two years without having this movie ruined for me, and I think it’s vastly improved by going in as ignorant as possible!)

It’s been about two years since Get Out was released, and over a year since I bought it for home streaming, but I’ve only just watched it this week, mostly to make sure I’ve seen it before Jordan Peele’s new movie Us.

I could make excuses, but the main reason I haven’t watched it is because I’ve been scared of it. I love thinking about and post-analyzing horror movies but rarely enjoy watching them, at least if they’re at all serious in tone. I’ve got extremely low tolerance for gore and depictions of torture, as well. If I’m being honest, there are parts of Key and Peele that were almost too uncomfortable for me to watch, so how bad would it be without the necessity to be funny, and without basic cable censors? I’ve asked several times online for a summation of how violent/gory/scary Get Out is, but I always got mixed answers (because it’s subjective). My take, for anyone else who’s been interested but scared to watch it:

  • It’s excellent and deserves all the praise it’s gotten
  • It’s only got one real jump scare
  • Gore is minimal
  • It’s very funny in places, but isn’t a horror comedy
  • The scariest moments are all psychological horror and tension

Since it’s been so long since it was released, it seems like every white person on the internet has already posted their opinions and analysis of it, several times over. I don’t have much new to say, but I can at least be another white person on the internet and give my personal take on it.

Inclusion: I’ve said before that I was late to the party on both Inside Amy Schumer and Key and Peele, because I wasn’t sure that either show was “for” me, as someone who isn’t a woman and isn’t black. As a white liberal NPR-listening American, though, I’m 100% sure that Get Out is “for” me. I’m not exclusively the target audience, obviously, but I’m unquestionably part of it, and that certainty is actually pretty nice for once.

Even if Peele hadn’t explicitly said as much, it’s clear that the movie is a reaction to those of us who wanted to believe that the Obama Administration was a milestone, and that America was making progress towards becoming a “post-racial” society, even if we had a long way to go. This movie seems not only to reject that idea completely, but to make us question whether “post-racial” is a noble goal at all. The idea is really only appealing to those of us whose identities wouldn’t be assimilated — when white people say “post-racial” what we’re assuming (usually unconsciously) is actually “everybody looks different but is still essentially like me.”

Representation: I’ve been looking forward to Us as well — or at least, having every intention of seeing it and then chickening out to watch Captain Marvel again instead — because I still like the idea of intelligent horror movies and because I think Lupita Nyong’o is amazing. When I read the Rotten Tomatoes synopsis:

Haunted by an unexplainable and unresolved trauma from her past and compounded by a string of eerie coincidences, Adelaide feels her paranoia elevate to high-alert as she grows increasingly certain that something bad is going to befall her family. […] Us pits an endearing American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.

I was embarrassed, because I realized there was no mention in the synopsis, or in any of the trailers, that the main characters were black. I’d just assumed that Peele’s next movie after Get Out would be another example of social movie commentary about race, and I didn’t consider that it might not have anything to do with the protagonists being black. Apart from being made by a filmmaker who’s loved watching movies all his life but rarely seen himself reflected in the characters.

I haven’t heard much about Us other than that it’s really good, and now I kind of don’t want it to be social commentary. I’d love to see an example in horror where the endearing American family isn’t white by default.

Empathy: As much as I want to understand all the issues that surround representation in the media, there’s always going to be a limit to how much I “get it” since I’ve very rarely been in a situation where I’m the only white person. Even trying to go the intersectional route and comparing it to growing up gay surrounded by media that 99.99% for and about straight people, it’s nowhere near a perfect comparison.

I can say that during those few times when I’ve been in a racial minority, there’s been this undercurrent of unease that I just can’t intellectualize away, no matter how hard I try. I haven’t ever felt threatened, just different. And every time I’ve thought, “this is just weird,” it’s been accompanied by the realization, “but temporary for me, while they have to feel like this almost all of the time, and wonder if they’re physically in danger on top of that.” It’s profoundly othering, in a time when I’m doing my best to by empathetic, and it’s perpetually frustrating and discouraging for anyone who believes in a future where we’ll all just be comfortable around each other. I want to be the type of person who just gets it, but I’m probably more the type of person who subconsciously keeps saying “my man.”

Which is an idea that Get Out handles so perfectly, it’s astounding. The movie presents the perfect visual representation of being simultaneously marginalized and exposed, which refers back to the image of watching people on TV who aren’t like you, with the addition of being powerless to stop it.

It’s a huge part of why the premise is so perfectly suited to a horror film, which leads to my favorite part of the movie, which is the final scene, which makes any discussion of it a huge spoiler.

SPOILERS FOR GET OUT

One Thing I Love About Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel shows what can happen when you stop making superhero movies and start making movies for an audience familiar with superheroes

Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) Photo: Chuck Zlotnick ©Marvel Studios 2019

There’s a lot I loved about Captain Marvel, but if I had to pick one thing, it’d be how it culminates in a fight scene set to “Just a Girl” by No Doubt. It’s not my favorite scene in the movie, and I kind of agree with the criticism that it’s kind of corny and extremely on-the-nose. But it also felt to me like a perfect example of how everyone involved in the production just got it. It felt to me like a victory lap, not just for this movie, but for the entire decade-plus franchise of impossibly huge blockbusters.

To explain what I’m talking about, I have to take a step back and say that I disagree with most of the reviews I’ve seen of Captain Marvel. The consensus seems to be that this is a good but middling Marvel movie, which feels like a throwback to the first phase of origin story movies. And they say that Captain Marvel has a ton of potential, but that there’s little room for character development in this movie, and the story ends right as it’s getting interesting.

My response is to point out that Captain Marvel introduces multiple alien species; shape-shifters; a fight scene on a train through Los Angeles; chases in cars, jet fighters, and spaceships; a forgotten identity subplot; an investigation into a secret project buried deep inside a NASA base; an intergalactic war; and an adorable flerken.

It’s complicated, is my point, and weird in such a shamelessly nerdy, comic-book-saturated way that I still have a hard time believing that these are the biggest, most mainstream movies being made these days. This couldn’t have been released alongside the first wave of Marvel movies, since back then, people still believed that super-heroes were a tough sell for a mainstream audience. It wasn’t until Guardians of the Galaxy that the franchise got into sci-fi (and comedy, for that matter), but Captain Marvel tosses you right into the middle of a planet full of aliens in the first scene.

Over the years, I’ve tried several times to get up to speed on the whole sci-fi side of the Marvel universe. And even in comic book geek terms, Captain Marvel’s origin story is weird and confusing, with Krees and Skrulls and alien DNA fusion and multiple identities. I read and watched multiple “explain the history of Captain Marvel” articles and videos in preparation for the movie, and I never felt like I got it. Try explaining Carol Danvers’s back story in an environment where filmmakers still believe you have to show Bruce Wayne’s parents dying every single time or you’ll be completely baffled by the premise of Batman. After spending over a decade getting everyone accustomed to comic book storytelling, it’s a little easier.

And the best thing about everyone being accustomed to comic book storytelling is that it allows Captain Marvel to treat genres as pretty much irrelevant. So it can freely hop from car chase to space dogfight to spy movie to buddy movie and be confident that an audience in the 21st century is perfectly able to keep up.

It also means that it can trust that everyone in the audience knows how super-heroes work. Carol Danvers has the same character arc as every other super-hero: being thrown into an extraordinary situation, defining herself on her own terms, and gradually discovering the full extent of her powers. And when she finally becomes the Marvel Universe’s version of Superman (not a spoiler, since it’s all over the trailers!), there’s no longer any tension from just a fight scene. You know she’s going to win, so don’t insult anyone’s intelligence by pretending that the outcome is in doubt. Just lean 1000% into the 1990s girl power of the movie’s premise and acknowledge that the whole scene exists only to be fun spectacle.

So much of Captain Marvel felt to me like the filmmakers and the audience finally being completely in sync with decades of popular storytelling. It’s an origin story, but it felt like a long overdue relief from origin-story fatigue.

I can still remember being at Wondercon years ago and seeing hundreds of comic book geeks just losing their shit seeing the trailer for Iron Man. I was never a fan of the character, so I just didn’t get the excitement and was a little envious of it. Fast forward a decade, and I’m spending the first part of Avengers Infinity War grinning like an idiot at finally getting the chance to see Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange battling a bad guy in Manhattan.

In a way, it’s even more perfect that Marvel replaced the usual Marvel Studios logo at the beginning of Captain Marvel with a tribute to Stan Lee and a classy title card simply thanking him. This felt to me less like a genre film and more like an acknowledgement of just how pervasive and familiar that Stan Lee’s stories have become. It felt less like a superhero movie and more like a shared cultural moment.

One Thing I Love About The Good Place

The Good Place silently rejects decades of “white by default” in favor of showing what heaven is really going to be like.

I’m going to be careful not to post any spoilers about the series, and I won’t go into detail about any actual plot points.

The thing I love most about The Good Place isn’t that the human characters all come from different ethnic and economic backgrounds across the world. The thing I love the most is that The Good Place doesn’t even acknowledge its diversity as anything unusual. Of course heaven wouldn’t be populated mostly by white, English-speaking middle class people of European descent — why would you ever imagine otherwise? That doesn’t even make sense.

And yet it’s such a pervasive idea that I fell for it, subconsciously. I spent a long time thinking of this as a liberal progressive show, just for showing diversity. But it’s not actually progressive to acknowledge that the majority of the people on Earth aren’t white Americans. We’ve just let things get pushed so far out of balance that globalism and more equal media representation feel like bold progressive concepts, instead of just reality.

The Good Place isn’t a political show — in fact, I can think of a few opportunities it had to make political commentary, and it wisely avoided it. It always keeps a careful balance between cerebral and lowbrow humor, with its best gags suspended in that perfect state between brilliant and idiotic; making a pointed topical reference would cheapen the whole thing, somehow. And it deliberately touches on a variety of philosophies, but its own voice is a kind of optimistic humanism.

And it’s definitely, refreshingly, not the vapid, performative nonsense that tries to pass itself off as progressivisim in the 21st century. The show relentlessly mocks Florida, Arizona, America in general, and trash and douchebags of every variety, without seeming cruel but also without deflating into toothless, lowest-common-denominator humor. It demands that we all strive to be better versions of ourselves, but without ever succumbing to pearl-clutching or self-righteous indignation.

(Also, it almost never indulges in outright sentimentality, but it has made me cry on more than one occasion. Every time, it felt earned).

I definitely love The Good Place for all the ways it explicitly defies my expectations. For instance: at the end of the first season, I imagined what format the second season was going to take. They covered all that in a montage in like the second episode of the second season, then proceeded to go off in an entirely different direction.

But even more than that, I love the way it implicitly defied my expectations, challenging me for patting myself on the back for being a good liberal progressive. It doesn’t just say that men, women, black, white, American, Senegalese, Pakistani, Filipino, poor, rich, even angel or demon, all have the potential to be good. It says of course that’s the case, and it’d be stupid to think that that’s some kind of a big deal.

One Thing I Like About Happy Death Day (and Happy Death Day 2U)

Neither movie feels obligated to be scary, but ignoring genres makes them both better movies.

I’d heard a lot of good things about Happy Death Day back in 2017, but it wasn’t until now that its sequel has been released that I got around to watching them both. Incidentally: if you want to watch these movies, I highly recommend watching them back to back. Almost everything good about the sequel comes from the various ways it builds on, expands, twists, or subverts something from the first.

My first reaction to Happy Death Day was that it’s in the spirit of the Scream movies, but not as clever and not nearly as scary. It’s fairly smart and often pretty funny, and it felt simultaneously contemporary and retro. It was kind of like a lower-body-count throwback to a time before slasher movies spent a couple decades trying to out-murder each other.

But after seeing the direction Happy Death Day 2U takes the story, I feel like it’s actually the opposite of the Scream series in overall philosophy. While Scream was all about being a Gen-X self-conscious deconstruction of the horror genre, Happy Death Day seems like a millennial assertion that genres are more or less irrelevant.

Most slasher movies and monster movies treat their characters are disposable, giving them just enough motivation to set-up the next murder and making the hero just interesting enough to be able to hold an audience’s interest through to the end. But Happy Death Day loved its main character — and with good reason, since Jessica Rothe is charismatic as hell and by far the best aspect of the movie — and treated all of the “horror” as just a mechanism to show how her character develops.

And I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that the second movie is even less interested in the horror movie format, leaning heavily into sci-fi for a while before making it clear that it really doesn’t care about genre at all. It really just wants to spend more time with its characters and their story.

This results in some neat things that I’ve never seen before, such as a slasher movie with a pretty strong and emotional scene in which a victim gets to make peace with her killer. Or a story about time loops in which the audience is rewarded for noticing the changes. And some seemingly insignificant moments from the first movie — like the rolling blackouts — are made such a key part of the sequel that you have to wonder whether the whole thing was planned out from the start.

But straddling several different genres means that it isn’t particularly great at any of them. There are several emotional moments that just don’t feel earned, comedy moments that fall flat, dramatic twists and reveals the audience can easily predict, and suspense scenes that aren’t particularly suspenseful. Each movie has at least one gag that works really well (in the first, it’s Danielle answering “I missed breakfast” with “We all miss breakfast.” In the second, it’s Tree pulling a gun on a cop while he’s using the bathroom). But there are some so clumsy and forced that they threaten to ruin everything, especially when surrounded by scenes that are supposed to be emotional or suspenseful.

It also often feels extremely derivative. When Happy Death Day finally acknowledges Groundhog Day, it’s at the very end of the movie, and Tree claims never to have heard of it or of Bill Murray. Which seems highly suspect, even for a college student in 2017. (The idea that she’d never heard of or seen Back to the Future in the sequel is also ridiculous). I’m assuming it’s the filmmakers telling the audience they’re aware that their entire premise is just “what if Groundhog Day were a slasher movie?” while also justifying it as its own new thing. But it really just draws attention to the fact that much of Groundhog Day was at least as horrific as anything in Happy Death Day, although it was played as a romantic comedy.

Ultimately, I’d consider Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U to succeed more than they fail, and I believe it’s because there’s an earnest rejection of cynicism at the heart of both of them. They’re not that concerned with being self-aware deconstructions or re-examinations of existing genres because they’re not that concerned with genre. It’s not even a reboot or re-imagining or homage to Groundhog Day, because it doesn’t comment on or build on anything in that movie; it just uses all the same parts to tell a different story. The result is that it has genuine affection for its characters and a few really clever moments, but at the cost of several corny or derivative scenes.

As horror/suspense/comedy/sci-fi genre hybrids, they don’t really excel at any of those genres, but they also feel undeniably free of the constraints of those genres. They only feel obliged to tell fun and interesting stories, and for the most part (and thanks to some brilliant casting), they work.

One Thing I Like About Ralph Breaks the Internet

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 InternetWreck 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.

One Thing I Like About Annihilation

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.


One Thing I Like About Solo

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.

If You See Something, Say Something

Another thing I like about Firewatch


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.

One Thing I Like About Firewatch

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:

  1. They’re beautiful,
  2. They’re meticulously planned out, and
  3. 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.