Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Retro Review: Independence Day

In 1996, that would've been a tragedy.

Whether it’s A Nightmare Before Christmas on Halloween, Saving Private Ryan on Memorial Day, or Die Hard at Christmas, we've all got our favorite holiday movie traditions. For the 4th of July, there’s no better movie to watch than the aptly titled Independence Day. Conveniently abbreviated “ID4” by an incredible marketing campaign that helped push it to the top of the 1996 box office, it’s a funny, exciting, patriotic disaster romp that I love to watch every time America’s birthday rolls around and one of my top 10 all time favorite movies.

Looking back at it, Independence Day is remarkably tame compared to the destruction porn of today, as well as writer/director Roland Emmerich's later efforts. Instead of two hours of loosely connected edifice obliteration like we see nowadays, ID4 wraps up most of the disaster stuff by the end of the first act. By changing it up like that, the action doesn't get overwhelming to the point of monotony and we get to see actors doing stuff other than running and shouting.

That first forty-five minutes or so doesn't overdo it either. It plays out exactly like a good disaster film should: quietly introducing a looming threat and then teasing it just long enough to make the reveal satisfying. The new Godzilla did that using smoke, debris, and other scenery, but ID4 does it by introducing us to its characters. Just as the full alien menace might be revealed, it cuts away to meet a new group of people, and each group features secondary and tertiary characters who actually stick around for more than five minutes. That not only fleshes out the movie world, but also obscures who’s disposable since there are so many from which to choose.

When we finally get around to the city-sized alien spaceships, they don’t come out guns blazing; they settle in to a sinister hover above national landmarks. No swarm of alien fighters for some foreplay demolition either, just an eerie green spotlight on the target below. In LA, the spotlight shines in the face of Will Smith’s girlfriend’s stripper pal standing on the roof and mumbling “it’s so pretty.” Since we met her earlier, the knowledge of how utterly screwed she is builds tension in a way some random extra can’t.

Tension also builds from what doesn't happen at this point. Nobody shouts about rising percentages or counts the seconds to total annihilation. Even the ticking clock in the movie only appears a couple of times, but characters rush, drop things in haste, honk horns in frustration, bail from stopped vehicles, and anxiously check their watches in mid stride. When Jeff Goldblum finally shows us the clock hitting zero and ominously announces “time’s up”, we all hold our collective breath.

At last the special effects begin, which still look convincing today because they’re real explosions destroying scale models. CGI had just come on the scene, so it was only good enough to enhance a movie but not good enough to fully take over. That had two advantages. One, the best CGI today still can’t mimic reality perfectly, and two, spending all that time building a model and setting up a multitude of cameras to get that one shot right means nobody is going to obscure the final result. Thus it’s with a steady, distant camera we watch a wall of fire brutally smash its way through major cities.

And then, silence.

No slow motion pan of characters mutedly screaming in terror and grief while the sad music plays in the background, just the “July 3rd” title card and a lingering shot of destroyed New York City. That way everything gets a moment to sink in, and the date card gives our subconscious a frame of reference that adds a sense of scale newer movies undermine by jumping right off to the next action scene without rhyme or reason.

In the second act, ID4 shifts from a disaster film to more of a science fiction thriller, wherein a disparate band of characters come together as they try to figure out how to deal with an unstoppable killing machine. Since it avoids stacking coincidences as much as possible, the cast assembles with enough plausibility that we can focus our suspension of disbelief on the big things, like telepathic aliens. A lesser movie would've had Vivica Fox emerge from the rubble right next to the missing First Lady, run into Will Smith and the convoy in the desert, and then miraculously drive them all to Area 51 by random chance.

Meanwhile, the film builds on the despair created by the destruction in the first act. Our heroic Will Smith fueled counterattack turns into a desperate attempt to escape, and probably the only time in movie history the white guy gets killed off instead of the black guy. The alien prisoner intones that peace between us is impossible; they just want us to die. Nuclear weapons do nothing, the rescued First Lady dies anyway, and the optimistic environmentalist goes on a bender.

Were it Transformers: Age of Extinction, the goofy subplot about Randy Quaid's kid being sick would have appeared at this point to ruin all the other drama with its blatant attempt to generate sympathy. Instead, it’s cut in favor of better material. Unfortunately, so too are the scenes that explain how a Mac can hack an alien mothership, but you can’t have everything.

Once everyone is sufficiently depressed, we launch into the action-comedy finale. It’s also the part that aggravated tons of non-Americans. How deliciously ironic it is for people to complain about patriotism/jingoism in a movie that features an epic speech about humanity putting aside petty differences and uniting in common interest. I guess that line from the British guy about it being about bloody time somebody (America) came up with a counter-offensive was a bridge too far. Not that Hollywood is known for realism, but considering America’s military and economic might dominated the globe in the 90s, who else exactly would they expect to organize a worldwide counter-strike against an alien threat?

Anyway, ID4 sidesteps another action overdose by splitting up the cast so that Smith and Goldblum's characters embark on the quieter mission to the mothership while Bill Pullman and co. conduct the big aerial battle below. That makes both sequences feel longer without having to show a bunch of repetitive shots of F-18s blowing up and such. Plus there’s more room to insert comedy that would otherwise feel out of place.

Fortunately the filmmakers had the presence of mind to swap out the ridiculous ending where Randy Quaid randomly shows up in his biplane to sacrifice himself. Such edits seem to be infrequent of late. If somebody thinks something looks cool, it ends up in the final product no matter how much it ruins the flow, tone, or general consistency of the movie, if for no other reason than it usually cost a fortune to produce with CGI.

But even that silly ending could probably work with ID4’s superb soundtrack behind it. Whether it’s the terrifying alien attack, the quiet romantic moments, or the thrilling bombast of victory, David Arnold’s score sells every minute of screen time. Indeed, the hopeful little piccolo that kicks off President Whitmore's speech may be the only reason it comes across as fantastically rousing rather than pathetically cornball.

I could go on for pages more, but ultimately what we’re talking about here is fun. This movie is fun. It’s not bogged down with attempts to “ground it in reality.” It doesn't have all the color sucked out and replaced with muted grays and browns for the same. It has nods to similar past movies, but it’s not another rebooted retread of somebody else’s story. It doesn't rely on any one big star to carry the cast, though it did have the man they call Jayne in it, and the actors look like they’re genuinely into their roles. Despite the marketing campaign’s focus, the action doesn't overstay its welcome and therefore remains wonderfully exciting. It even makes you laugh from time to time to break up the tension. All in all, Independence Day is a textbook example of how to do the big summer blockbuster right.

So grab some popcorn and enjoy it again before they ruin it with a sequel.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Less is More than Meets the Eye

One city shall stand, one shall fall.
(Image by Sarjex - Check out her 

Much has been said about Michael Bay and the Transformers franchise under his watch, and I’m certainly no stranger to opining about the writers that normally are in charge of these films. Fortunately Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have gone on to ruin somebody else’s franchise, and Ehren Kruger who previously played third fiddle to them has taken the reigns. With them gone, we finally get to see how much the dreaded duo influenced the direction of these movies, and how much stemmed from Michael Bay just wanting to blow stuff up.

At the core of Transformers: Age of Extinction there’s a really great movie about an altruistic alien race of transforming robots whose spirit has been broken by the willingness of humans to screw them over, and the single dad who restores that spirit after a chance encounter with their leader. Or there’s a story about a cynical government bureaucrat stuck in an “us or them” mentality and exemplifying the axiom “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Or it’s an action packed take on the “should” vs. “could” of technological development. Or…well you get the picture.

Maybe Bay & Co. just got tired of hearing how there’s no plot to these movies and decided to give us every plot they could possibly think up, because this one is stuffed to the gills. That is not to say these plot threads are raised and forgotten as they were in the Orci/Kurtzman scripts, but they are developed at the expense of one another. Subplots and scenes that would normally be chopped out in the interest of time/sequels simply stay in the movie as though the first cut got canned and shipped without ever going through the editing process. It becomes a veritable round robin of story arcs that eventually meet up with some robotic dinosaurs for Bay’s patented CGI Explosion Fiesta.

And as much as I love me some epic dinobot action, they’re really not relevant to any of the story arcs in this movie. They’re just an attempt to up the ante in a franchise that can’t really get any more filled with things going boom. It’s unfortunate because, well, giant transforming dinosaurs are perhaps the one thing we haven’t seen before in these movies, and it’s a shame to waste them.

At the same time, Bay leaves out the smaller, transitional scenes that could glue those cool sequences together rather than cut the redundant action bits. It would take a few scant moments to show us the relative positions of characters and their travel routes to alleviate the feeling that everyone conveniently teleports to where they need to be, but then we wouldn’t have time for Optimus Prime riding a mechanical firebreathing T-Rex. At least not without officially crossing the three hour mark this movie sneaks under.

The action sequences drag on forever as a result, even more so than what I previously complained about in Man of Steel. Funnily enough, a truck riding a dinosaur to fight a small army of walking cars while being harassed by a spaceship trying to vacuum them all up still caused less devastation than the new Superman.

There is one good thing about the movie being overlong, and that’s getting to hear Steve Jablonsky do his thing. He handles the score once again, and he’s pretty much the only guy who has done his job perfectly every time so far.

Despite the editing problems, Bay & Co. did learn some lessons from the prior movies. The transformers themselves are more starkly and solidly colored this time, and the use of shaky cam and hypercutting was lessened, although not eliminated. In any case, it’s much easier to tell which robots are fighting which, and they’re given considerably more personality this time around, not that it’s a high bar to clear.

The toilet humor departed with OrciKurtz and has been replaced by mostly witty banter, which is something right up Mark Wahlberg’s alley. He leads an entirely new cast that includes Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci, both of whom never disappoint. All three of their characters were interesting in their own way, with Tucci’s even breaking a long overdone trope, but they’re unfortunately all handicapped by the spinning wheel of subplots I mentioned earlier. With something like five villains vying for the title of Big Bad and a dozen good guys running around, nobody can retain focus long enough to feel like a fleshed out character.

That’s really the bottom line with this one: the clutter turns what could’ve been a remarkably interesting summer popcorn flick into too much of a mess to shine. It’s not as ridiculous as Revenge of the Fallen, nor as irritating as Dark of the Moon, but even the original Transformers was more coherent. Too disappointing to recommend outright, I can only say that nobody does over-the-top action better than Michael Bay and there’s no better place for it than in a theater. So if that’s your thing, go ahead and add to Age of Extinction’s $300 million worldwide gross.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Lone Survivor Lives Up

They're the ones fighting.

As Allan Bourdius continued his awesome coverage of the 70th anniversary of DDay on Twitter, I noted my amazement that the entire venture didn't turn into a slaughter and complete defeat for the Allies given all the things that went awry that day. It’s a serious reminder that any plan can fall apart at the whim of Murphy’s Law, and unfortunately for the group of Navy SEALs at the heart of Lone Survivor, that proves true for them as well.

For those who don’t know, Lone Survivor relates the tale of retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell who, as the title suggests, is the only one of his comrades to come back alive from a borked mission to capture/kill a Taliban bigwig. Between a few goat herders, unreliable communications, the unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan, and a small army of Taliban fighters, the SEALs' mission priority quickly shifts from reconnaissance to simply getting home in one piece.

It’s pretty impressive how well the film conveys the brutality and the desperation of the ensuing firefight. Between the acting, the cinematography, and some stuntmen who really know how to sell a fall, it’s not hard to find yourself wincing just watching it. Hollywood usually likes to exaggerate things for effect, so one might find themselves questioning the plausibility of these guys taking as much damage as they do and continue fighting, but from what I’ve read, the movie actually tones it down some. For example, Luttrell had to crawl several miles after shrapnel tore up his legs, but in the movie he’s only reduced to walking with a bit of a limp. Sometimes reality is simply more unbelievable than fiction.

And yes I did compliment the acting up there. I know people like to give Mark Wahlberg grief, but I can’t say I’ve ever had him ruin a film and this one is no different. Given his star power and the fact that he plays Luttrell, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see it turn into a one man action hero piece with every other member of the team used as red shirts, but fortunately this film didn’t do that. Instead we get a good look at team leader Michael P. “Murph” Murphy and fellow team members Danny Dietz and Matthew “Axe” Axelson, played by Taylor Kitsh, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster respectively. The actors do a fine job of conveying their personas without hamming it up or needing the script constantly double-back for a flashback or other random contrivance.

Of course, whenever somebody makes a movie about American soldiers that doesn't show them actively rebelling against the military, complaints about jingoism abound. I've seen that come up about this one too, but as usual it’s unfounded. The Americans are not portrayed as saints, and the Taliban are nameless and faceless because SEALs do not have time to ask for their personal histories in the middle of a gunfight. Further, there’s no moral equivalency to be drawn with the Taliban, who are in reality even more reprehensible than the movie portrays them. On top of that, one of the actual Hollywood embellishments of the film gives the Afghan civilians a chance to shine brighter, rather than minimizing or otherwise white washing their part in the story.

All in all this is a solid film, and despite knowing the story going in, I found myself really engaged and occasionally even surprised. It’s easy to forget what we as a nation ask our warriors to suffer through on our behalf, and it’s nice for once to have a movie that focuses on that rather than using them as props for a running commentary on the politics of the conflict in which they’re engaged. Director Peter Berg and his cast and crew said they set out to make an authentic movie that does justice to the men it portrayed and what they endured. As a civilian with no ties to the real life action heroes on which it is based, I’m hardly in a position to judge whether or not they succeeded, but I will recommend seeing Lone Survivor just the same.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

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Monday, June 2, 2014

Droning On (About RoboCop)

One of these things is not like the other.

RoboCop continues the tradition of rebooting franchises and not giving us the common courtesy of some form of subtitle so that we can differentiate between the new one and the old one. Seems like filmmakers hope that by sticking to the original name they can completely overwrite the original so that nobody remembers how much better it was. Fortunately, in this version Alex Murphy becomes a black cyborg with a single organic white hand so I can refer to him as RoboJackson and anyone who’s old enough to remember the 80s will get the joke.

RoboJackson is about everything except this Alex Murphy guy who gets turned into a cyborg and the family that has to live with that new reality. It’s about drones, corporate greed, businesses in bed with government, modern news coverage, and did I mention drones? It’s like the filmmakers saw all the wonderful satire of the original film and felt like if they didn't stuff this one full of social commentary, people would think they didn't get it.

The difference between their film and the original in that regard is that the satire of the original film was window dressing. It was just the backdrop to a story about a man trying to regain his humanity after being turned into a robot, and then that man getting some sweet revenge with his new robotic body. This movie is too busy cutting away to Samuel L. Jackson doing his best Glenn Beck impression and Michael Keaton’s evil corporate machinations to focus on that part. This guy doesn't know how to go home to his family because Gary Oldman brought him back to life as only a head and a hand. Who needs all the drone crap when you have any number of PTSD and wounded warrior allegories right there?

Joel Kinnaman was doing a perfectly fine job of acting, why not let him take a crack at that? It actually would've been an interesting way to retell this story, and thus perhaps justify itself. That’s not to say doing the drones vs. human police thing couldn't have been interesting, but it’s so on the nose in this movie that you might as well have had Sam Jackson shouting “Drones, motherf***er! Do you want them!?” (I’d totally watch that movie, by the way.)

Then you have the corporate greed thing, which the original film already handled. Not to mention pretty much every other movie since then. In the 80s it may have seemed like privatization run amok was the dystopian future to which we were headed, but now one would expect the construction of RoboCop to be the Hail Mary of a corporation trying to survive the squeeze between health care costs and government regulation. Michael Keaton’s character should have been a man desperate to stay in business and distraught that he can’t afford to keep enough officers on the payroll to protect the citizenry. Instead he’s just another CEO who’s so anxious to make money he’s willing to outright murder people.

Then again this is the sanitized, PG-13 version so they keep the murdering to a minimum, to the point of having RoboJackson zapping people with a taser instead of perforating their genitals. That was a result of the budget exploding and the studio getting nervous they couldn't recoup their money on an R-rated film, which only serves to reinforce what I said in the Godzilla review about filmmakers not having to worry about and work within their limitations.

So rather than the comically gratuitous violence that was a hallmark of the original RoboCop, we get a CGI Michael Jackson cylon dancing around the screen to blast apart equally non-existent robots. It’s not even Alex Murphy deciding which robots to blast most of the time since Gary Oldman's character somehow wires him to let the robot part make the decisions without him noticing. Does anyone else miss the days of an actual guy on an actual set with actual props doing actual things?

Thus yet another perfectly good cult classic becomes a bloated big budget CGI action fest complete with all the usual tropes and continuing the trend of watering down everything that’s unique about a franchise in pursuit of the all mighty dollar. Perhaps Hollywood loves that greedy executive plotline so much because they can relate to it so well.

Overall, it’s not a terrible movie, it’s just terribly average. If you’re looking to waste a couple hours with the upcoming Blu-ray, it’ll do the job adequately. Otherwise find something else to buy with your dollar.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Save the Princess, Save the World

"Well excuuuuse me, princess."
If we’re not hearing about some kid who was corrupted by violent video games, we’re hearing about how it’s an industry dominated by creepy misogynist males. Yesterday, I read an article by Jeopardy! winner Arthur Chu that somehow manages to link both things together. He uses the latest killer psycho as a springboard into a discussion about “nerd culture” and misogyny.

His argument wanders a bit between various media, but the crux of it is this:

But the overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.

So what happens to nerdy guys who keep finding out that the princess they were promised is always in another castle? When they “do everything right,” they get good grades, they get a decent job, and that wife they were promised in the package deal doesn’t arrive? When the persistent passive-aggressive Nice Guy act fails, do they step it up to elaborate Steve-Urkel-esque stalking and stunts? Do they try elaborate Revenge of the Nerds-style ruses? Do they tap into their inner John Galt and try blatant, violent rape?

It’s rather amusing that he would bring up Super Mario Bros. because anyone who’s ever actually beaten that game knows that even after going through all those castles, the princess doesn’t so much as kiss Mario at the end. She merely says, “Thank you Mario! Your quest is over.”  In fact, fans enjoy pointing out Princess Toadstool (or Peach if you prefer) doesn’t demonstrate much romantic interest in Mario despite his numerous rescues, and that evidence suggests the only person to get her in bed was actually Bowser.

So why would we keep rescuing her if she’s not going to fall into bed with us in the end? Because that’s not the point of the quest, and everyone knows it.  We male gamers have had to listen to this tripe for years now about how rescuing the princess is some misogynistic exercise that turns women into mere objects we fight to possess.  Fact is, Mario never set out to rescue Peach because he thought he’d get laid, and neither did the player controlling him.  We do it because a wrong has been committed against her, and we’re the only ones around still able to rectify that wrong.

Treating women like trophies is the bad guy’s shtick, and it’s that villain’s choice to act on that evil impulse which spurs an otherwise unassuming hero-to-be into action.  The hero doesn’t strip the princess of her power and freedom; he sets out to punish the villain and restore the princess to her rightful place as ruler of the kingdom.  Once she regains her power, she’s free to reward a hero in any way she wishes, be it a simple thank you, a kiss, wealth, power, or even a cake.  (Since the cake is a lie, the real reward is having grown into a capable adult during the journey, but that’s a much longer discussion.)

If a gamer wants to collect and abuse women, they’ll have to pick a game where they are not a white knight rescuing the princess. They’ll be playing something more like a Grand Theft Auto game, where they’re at best an anti-hero and at worst an outright villain.  Even then, it’s clear to any normal human being that the behavior of that kind of protagonist is not to be emulated in the real world. Otherwise we’d have an epidemic of nerds stealing cars and trying to run down people on sidewalks for fun.

Violence, misogyny, and all around immature behavior is not a function of “nerd culture”; it’s a fact of the human condition, one of which geeks and nerds are acutely aware. Most of them have been pushed around, disrespected, and otherwise treated like crap their entire lives, which is why they spend so much time buried in their favorite fictional universes.

Young male geeks and nerds submerge themselves in the role of the hero because they have the very natural instinct to pick up the sword and defend a woman’s honor from the villains who will always exist.  They may not understand social niceties or the intricacies of female behavior, but the instinct to protect is still there.  Casting that instinct as a latent form of misogyny that should be repressed only serves to empower villains, not women.

But with all that said, I haven’t answered Mr. Chu’s question, have I? So what do video games teach a guy to do when his princess still isn’t in this castle?  Fight his way to the next castle.

*h/t to Sarjex, for the graphic. Check out more of her work in her store.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Oh My God, It's a Godzilla Review!

"They are all...perfect."

Typically when I sit down to write one of these reviews, I take a quick look around the Internet to see what others have said so as not to sound repetitive and help crystallize my own thoughts. With this new Godzilla film, it seems opinions are all over the place. I, for one, thought it was awesome.

Perhaps the most commonly cited criticism is that we don’t get to see enough of the titular monster wrecking stuff. They’re not wrong that the big man’s actual screen time front and center is rather limited, but in this case it’s actually a good thing because destruction porn is getting old.

The reliability of CGI has shattered any limits as to what a filmmaker can put on the screen, and unencumbered by those limitations, they’re never forced to figure out how to sell the movie’s world to the audience. Instead of trying to one-up each other with better stories, characters, or emotional moments, they do it with longer, more explosive action sequences. In essence, they’ve forgotten the art of the tease. They just strip everything off and rub it in your face until one of you is finished.

But Godzilla isn’t a cheap thrill. Godzilla builds an atmosphere. It gives you a glimpse here and a glimpse there, letting your imagination take over and fill in the details. Just when you think you’re about to see it in all its glory, it dances away and you want to shout “oh come on!” Then finally, when the anticipation becomes nearly unbearable and you lean over the edge of your seat in frustrated expectation, only then does it go all the way. In that instant, your imagination merges with the reality before you in a glorious volcanic eruption of blue flame.

I think I may have cheered a little in the theater, even.

Fact is director Gareth Edwards did a fabulous job setting the tone, and I can’t remember the last time I was that tense in a theater. Long, steady shots and slow pans to reveal human characters right amidst the action really help sell the scale of it all, and as I alluded to earlier, there’s a lot of strategic obfuscation of the monsters to build suspense. That’s coupled with some really great sound design, so even if you can’t see one, you can hear it.

This movie is LOUD by the way. Godzilla’s roar will rattle your teeth, and Alexandre Desplat’s score starts out rather oppressive too. Fortunately by the end it settles right in to put the finishing touch on the ambiance. All in all, it’s impressive just how much Edwards was able to do with a little bit of leg and some heavy breathing to set the mood.

Of course directing includes getting the most out of your actors too, and that leads to the second major criticism out there, which is that, with the exception of Bryan Cranston, the actors are wooden and/or their characters are too shallow. That’s true. None of these people have much more to do than react to things. Most critics wanted the movie to focus on the dynamic character Cranston plays, but it actually centers on his son played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson who is much more sedate.

However, that actually worked for me on two levels. First, not having somebody chewing scenery or droning on for a half hour about their clich├ęd problems let me ride along with this guy, rather than simply watch him deal with this stuff. Second, since Cranston sets the tone early with such a rich performance, it felt intentional that some of the other characters were not so full of pathos. Given Cranston’s character spends so much time manically obsessed over what happened at the beginning of the film, one could expect his son to distance himself by burying his feelings to the point of constant stoicism. In addition, he’s a soldier whose job is to deal with bombs, and so he comes off as a guy who is simply compartmentalizing, rather than wooden. I don’t think it would’ve worked to have him Shia Labeoufing his way around.

I’d say the only real misstep on that front is with Ken Watanabe. His performance reeks of an incredibly deep back story, but we never really find out what it is and his character has so little to do that he could be cut from the film entirely. Then again, his is the one that officially kills any idea that Global Warming caused this mess, so that’s a bonus.

Ironically, Godzilla himself is surprisingly expressive. He’s not the dancing anthropomorphized kids’ version, but his face does convey a range of feeling from being cranky at being woken up to desperation to stay alive. Despite complaints from the Japanese that he looks fat, I think he was incredibly well realized, a grizzled veteran of a more violent age.

That kind of describes the whole movie: a remnant of a different time brought to the modern era. If you remember what it’s like to worry and wonder about something peeking out from the shadows, I think you’ll enjoy this new Godzilla, but if you’re looking for hardcore monster on monster action like Pacific Rim, this one’s not for you.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Godlike! Epic Games & Free Markets

Ah, those were the days.

Last week Epic Games announced they are making another Unreal Tournament (UT) game. Unreal Tournament is a first-person shooter franchise that helped define my college experience, with the first game providing comfort on many a lonely eve my freshman year and its successor Unreal Tournament 2004 being a go-to game for the cadre of friends I amassed over my tenure there. Years later I’d buy a brand new PC just to play Unreal Tournament 3, and though UT3 turned out to be a disappointing entry in the franchise, the idea of a new UT game is still pretty exciting. What’s especially interesting about this one is the business model Epic has put forward:

Mark Rein, the Gears of War and Unreal Tournament studio's VP, teased a new game last week. This Unreal Tournament will be a free game -- "not free to play, just free."

Fans with an Unreal Engine 4 subscription can participate in the crowdsourced development the next Unreal Tournament, with fan-created mods playing an integral role in its life post-launch. Epic intends to create a marketplace where creators can give away or sell their custom content. Epic's cut from those sales is what will pay for the game. 

Epic is certainly no stranger to giving players the freedom to modify their games. Previous UT games came with tools to build mods and maps, and players could run their own servers with these custom changes installed. The game clients even facilitated distribution of mods by automatically downloading them when someone joined the match rather than requiring that player to obtain it beforehand. Still, that’s a far cry from making user-generated content a central facet of the game and giving its creators the option to get paid for their work.

Presumably Epic hopes that this will generate some interest in and subscriptions to their Unreal Engine 4 development kit, but it’s still an intriguing way of going about it. They’re essentially betting on their player community not only being involved and productive, but actually becoming successful indie game developers as a result of that experience. I don’t think it gets much more consumer-friendly than that.

It’s just another wonderful example of capitalism at work in an industry that has largely managed to evade the grubby hands of government regulation and subsidy. Even the famed Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) that handles all those parental advisories you see on video game covers is a non-profit organization to which companies voluntarily submit their games for review. So the market is free to function like good markets do.

As a result we get literally free games and an industry that responds to the desires of the consumer, once it figures out what the consumer actually wants of course. When that desire is clear, loud, and direct like the backlash last year to some of Microsoft’s policies for the Xbox One, you’ll see even a corporate giant do an about face. When it’s a little murkier, the changes take longer. For example, overzealous Digital Rights Management (DRM) has given way to convenience-providing services like Steam, and pay-to-win freemium business models are being phased out for more balanced pay-as-you-go options like we’ve seen with The Walking Dead.

And since the big players can’t squash a little one under onerous regulation quite as easily as they can in an industry more deeply in bed with the government, they still have to worry about being upstaged by small, independent developers. One guy spending a few hours coding a simple mobile game can become a breakout hit overnight, and employees unhappy with the direction their studios take can leave to form their own development teams.

Imagine if instead we had a video game industry run like the health care one. You’d be mandated to have at least one video game system in your home, but the stores would only sell a combo pack of a Playstation 4 with a Wii U. Every time you turned the system on, you’d have to pay a $20 copay. The games themselves would cost $1,000 each, and you’d need to fill out three sets of paperwork about your gaming habits before being able to enter the store. (Though I think Game Stop does that already.) Of course the only store that would actually take your money would be the run down Walmart in the seedier section of town. Oh, and you’d occasionally be forced to buy your deadbeat neighbor the latest of Call of Duty.

Personally, I prefer the free market where Epic Games decides to try turning me into a producer and I get to play a game for which I’d gladly pay at no cost to me even if I never contribute a thing to the game’s development.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

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