As a few commentators have realised recently, the games industry has reached a crisis point, the convergence of an uncertain digital future, consumer apathy at a console generation that has lasted since before time began, and people realising that reading the internet on a phone is at least as much fun as having adolescent testicles figuratively forced into their mouths online.
Actually,”crisis point” is too mild, the sort of thing that can be managed back on course by a diplomatically worded email or a brainstorm session where the word “hero” is used as a verb. As articles like this one from Dan Dawkins at CVG make clear, that is unlikely: people have stopped buying console games (the key, terrifying fact: in the first six months of 2011, 21 games sold over 50,000 in their first week of sale, in 2012 just four managed the same).
What’s actually happening is a full-blown panic attack at 20,000 feet, depressurised cabin and blaring profit warning alarm giving way to the mid-air realisation that your parachute is actually a solid brass statue of Bobby Kotick pissing in the wind as the plane above you explodes upon impact with a screaming wall of fuck.
I’m not going to write another one of these articles, as I’ve got nothing to add to the debate except panic – for which they’re well stocked – and confusing metaphors about parachutes (the reserve chute, if you were wondering, was going to be a stack of Online Pass vouchers that had 1. already been redeemed and, 2. were on fire).
Instead I’m going to zero in on a very specific part of the discussion to make a point about something that’s been on my mind for a while: GAMES ARE TOO FUCKING LONG. Much attention has been given to the fact that free-to-play and microtransaction models are eroding people’s inclination to pay for games. This might be true, although I suspect that people never had much of an inclination to pay for them, or indeed for anything, and are only now finding themselves with options to not to. Rather, I think we’re focusing on the wrong economy here (a phrase I may well have stolen from the actual Dan Dawkins this afternoon).
When I consider whether or not to play a game, my worry isn’t whether I have the money to spare, it’s whether I have the time. We’ve fallen into a perverse way of thinking about game length, led in a headless, tyrannical pursuit of value for money by gaming sites which are on 24-hour standby to write agitating headlines about upcoming single-player campaigns that dare to last for under six hours.
Full-priced games are now remarkable if they come in at less than ten hours, and many of the biggest – Skyrim, Mass Effect – offer vastly more. It’s not just the length of the campaign we’re talking about here, either. Online modes in the likes of FIFA, Call Of Duty and Battlefield represent a full year’s worth of gaming at least, before we even mention co-op modes and DLC.
Premiered at Sundance this year was a documentary called The Queen Of Versailles about a billionaire couple who set out to build the biggest house in America – a 90,000-square-foot tribute to the vacant tastelessness of wealth with its own baseball field. Except halfway through the documentary the economic crisis hit and the film instead became a story about senseless overproduction and the excesses of late-American capitalism (the billionaires ended up shopping in Wal-Mart), a metaphor for the wider crisis itself.
Of course it’s flippant to connect the grand financial irresponsibility of a wobbling superpower with the fact I don’t like to play long videogames, but I’m going to do it anyway. The games industry has similarly overproduced – top-tier games are multi-million dollar productions that take years to make and are held to a staggeringly high technical standard. They’re huge, impressive monsters – even the failures. Besides which there’s a sort of sector-wide feature creep, with deathmatch, co-op, and an intricate skinner box of meaningless XP rewards designed to keep players engaged for as long as possible. No wonder nobody’s buying any new fucking games – the ones they have are brilliant, and last forever.
And where people get the cast-iron balls to demand this stuff, I don’t know. I have my original copy of Streets Of Rage II for the Mega Drive upstairs in a box, which still has the price on – £39.99. That’s £66.75 of today’s money, for a game that lasts for three hours – a value proposition that’d have you stoned in the high street today, but never stopped it being my favourite game of all time.
I watched the military action movie Act Of Valor because there was something about it from the outside that made me feel ill. The trailer – which you should watch, if you’ve not come across the film before – sells it on the basis of authenticity (“The characters in this film are portrayed by active duty US Navy Seals”) while the title makes it sound like a videogame, specifically an App Store chancer hoping to alphebetise its way ahead of Call Of Duty and Medal Of Honor into our hearts and download queues.
These things together make me feel uncomfortable – “kids, this is real” and “kids, this is like a game.” Because kids is exactly who the film is aimed at (in its final release form, at least) and the lingering underlying message is unavoidably “kids, have you ever thought about a career in the military?”
But before I shout “propaganda!” – because there’s more than that going on here, including some astonishingly awful acting – it’s worth looking at Act Of Valor in a little more detail. It’s a relatively low-budget Hollywood film (around $15 million) made in conjunction with the US military by small-time production company The Banditos Brothers. Previously the company had worked mostly on commercials and documentaries, one of which had been for the US Navy. When the Navy put a brief out to tender for a recruitment project, The Banditos Brothers – in the shape of directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh – pitched and won.
The recruitment project grew in the making, and eventually became a feature-length film showing SEALs in action, written, on the Navy’s recommendation, by 300’s Kurt Johnstad. What the McCoy and Waugh won, then, became the chance to make a film with extensive military co-operation. This is nothing new – Hollywood has a long-standing relationship with the military which basically goes “we’ll lend you our billion-dollar toys, and you make them look cool for PG-13 audiences coming up to recruitment age” (although the logic of specific agreements can be hard to follow – The Avengers was denied help because of its “unreality,” but Navy secretary Ray Mabus had a cameo in Battleship, a film in which Rihanna saves the world in khaki).
What’s remarkable in Act Of Valor’s case is that the cooperation goes much deeper than usual. The Navy gave their filmmakers everything except a production budget: access to military hardware, to special forces training missions (during which the film’s suitably corporate-video-with-laser-sights action sequences were filmed) and to Navy Seals themselves, who in the end became the film’s key cast (these Seals, who form the pillar of the marketing campaign, were on active duty – that is to say, this recruitment drive counted as active duty).
This kind of access usually comes at a price that could give even the biggest blockbuster bottom-line anxiety (“Guys, do we really need the gourmet sandwiches?”), with the hourly cost of flight missions on Behind Enemy Lines, for instance, pinned at $5,400. While the Navy didn’t write the cheques, they gave Act Of Valor the means to look like the big-budget film it wasn’t.
What I’m trying to establish is that film’s ties to the military are obvious and strong, but not without nuance. And, taken in isolation, the film itself isn’t particularly offensive. You sense that both the filmmakers and especially the SEALs onscreen are desperately keen to show their work not necessarily in a positive light, but as an uncomplicatedly professional business of which they are proud. In combination with the amateur acting – kept to a sensible minimum, but still the scene of fixed-eyed goodbyes (“I love you baby”) is like watching a glazed ham leave for college – the film generates a heartbreaking homework earnestness, a smiling sense of achievement as simple and unbeguiling as a wagging dog impatient to show you the shit it just did in the kitchen. You know, in case that’s what you wanted.
Action is the film’s obvious strong suit, generating impressive tension during one creeping hostage rescue in particular. But here the first uncomfortable crossover with games emerges, with a series of shots and images familiar from any number of contemporary conflict first-person shooters – the stat-sheet overlay, the aerial threat marker, the ubiquitous down-the-barrel view. It’s possible that this is cross-pollination – real becomes game becomes film that wants to be real so much it forgot why actors are so useful – but it seems impossible that the parallel wasn’t at least discussed during production.
The film is also structured like the games its name self-consciously apes, with a globe-spanning terror plot, and an eye for a set piece over and above logical plotting. There’s a practical reason for the film to be structured this way, as the production made opportunistic use of locations and equipment as they became available during the four-year shoot. But the similarity remains, and by the end the film becomes so episodic that its perfunctory rehearsal of words and meaning punctuate the action like ungenerous slices of bread in a thick conflict sandwich. Or even more depressingly, like introductory cutscenes that games typically offer us as a margarine narrative pre-dropoff, an ersatz replacement for sustained, significant human presence and the minimum required before the guns can start going off again.
And this is where things get queasy. What the film shares with Medal Of Honor and Call Of Duty in particular is a lean, efficient take on the military. No outwardly propogandist statements are uttered, but they’re there anyway in the the seductive ruthlessness of the hardware, the powerful mastery of war, the reverence for flags, badges and other totems of national strength.
This is the real power of the ‘real SEALs’ headline – in the same way that Call Of Duty has gifted a generation of teenagers the ability to recognise every automatic weapon on the market by silhouette alone, and Medal Of Honor rolled out ‘Tier One’ combat veterans (OK, a dude with a beard who lives in a hole in Islamabad) during its promotional campaign (or, “its efforts to sell war to children for profit”) these cold stabs at realism speak of a dangerous direct channel from entertainment to experience.
These more unsettling aspects of Act Of Valor film might have remained hidden behind the “look, Ma” showreel had the finished film not been marketed the way it has been. Having wrapped production, Act Of Valor was bought by distributor Relativity Media for $13 million in June 2011, just weeks after the military execution of Osama Bin Laden brought Navy SEAL sexy back.
Relativity was then responsible for the film’s promotion, and zeroed in on the crossover with games suggested by the film’s title and aesthetic. There was a tie-in campaign launched on the website of Battlefield 3 (watch the trailer on the Battlefield page, get an in-game dog tag reward), and a promotional deal with Call Of Duty-inspired YouTube star FPS Russia. It’s here that the awkward fusion of government-sponsored initiative and private drive for profit create a sinister, unacceptable hybrid.
As this thoughtful piece by Ed Stern makes clear, the representation of war in any medium of entertainment is a difficult thing. And of course, war itself is a difficult thing – as much as they make for unwatchable actors, the stars of Act Of Valor do a hard job, and one they believe in. While I feel all sorts of reservations about the reasons they fight and the effect it has, I’m in no position to criticise them.
What I will criticise is how Act Of Valor slid from slick-but-unsubtle promo reel to game-savvy propaganda, which found Xbox Live kids where they live and sold them a bullshit shortcut from online killstreaks to taking down jihadists.
This is more an outpouring of thought than an analysis with anything so cumbersome as documented evidence, but here is my central contention – that comic book movies have become to post-millennial Hollywood what the Western was for the studio-era industry.
The Western always had a distinct place among the other easily categorisable types of film produced by the American industry. Most genres represent divisions of tone – comedies, thrillers, romances. It’s unusual for a particular setting or style to become so common that it becomes a genre of itself. War films. Gangster pictures, maybe. Westerns for sure. And now comic books.
Obviously there were a smattering of superhero films before the recent deluge. Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978 was a terrific success, and Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 another. But they were remarkably mounted one-offs, rather than entries into a continuing cycle – they and their sequels were the superhero output of Hollywood for the best part of two decades until around 2000, with the odd Toxic Avenger and Darkman thrown in.
So in what sense do I mean that comic books are the new Western? Well, in two ways – the first a practical, industrial reason that might actually be fairly compelling, and the second a more grasping, “ideas about America” suggestion that’ll probably make me sound like Don DeLillo if he drank too much squash.
Firstly, then: the reasons for one movie getting made in Hollywood while another lingers forever an intangible might-be are murky, mysterious, and almost always to do with money. But at base it’s true to say that it comes down to a combination of things people want to watch, and things Hollywood is willing and able to make.
Westerns (and in less dominant shapes, gangster films and musicals) were perfectly suited to how films were made in studio-era Hollywood. The studios, vertically structured, were more possessive beasts – they owned the lots, the sets, the costumes, even the contracts of stars and directors, all of which were put to work again and again making variations on the same themes, standoffs and saloons.
The material arrangement of the old studios, in other words, was designed to make a constant rotation of similar films. And, for as long as people were paying to watch them, that’s what they did.
From memory I’ve always put the start of the latest cycle of comic book movies as X-Men in 2000 (I remember its arrival, and me having no real knowledge of comic books past a vague awareness of Marvel and DC – how things have changed). Looking at a list of releases, you could argue it actually started with Blade in 1998 (or if you’re being pedantic, The Matrix in 1999). Whatever – after this the superhero form established itself as regular enough to qualify as a genre in its own right, rather than an occasional tight-trousered variation on the action blockbuster.
There are been around 30 big-budget summer tentpoles since, which translates into something like three a year. We’re regularly introduced to less familiar superheroes (Elektra, Daredevil, Iron Man), and reintroduced to familiar ones when their creativity or box-office is flagging (which is why we’ve seen three different actors play Hulk in just nine years, why we’re about to meet a new Superman, and why Andrew Garfield is now playing Spider-Man despite Tobey Maguire’s latest turn making nearly a billion dollars).
There’s something fairly extraordinary going on here. In what other circumstances would we be happy to consume the same stories in such a short space of time? And why hasn’t this continual repetition of ideas and iconography resulted in a disastrous marketing meltdown? Instead Marvel has become a Hollywood studio in its own right, and, this year more than any other, comic books films are mounting the podium of the international box-office and doing lunges in their tight costumes even though they know everyone’s watching.
To answer let’s go back to that authoritative-sounding thing I said earlier – that Hollywood’s output comes down to what people want to see (and continuing revenues tick this box with a marker pen the size of the moon) and, something we’ll explore now, what Hollywood is capable of making.
While Westerns relied on sets and costumes and Jimmy Stewart, superhero films, almost by definition, rely on large numbers of intricate special effects. And the reason that X-Men’s release in 2000 becomes important in this context is that I’d argue it was around this time that we reached a sort of digital effects singularity – the point at which they became convincing enough to render dudes having claws and firing uncontrollable Freudian mind-lasers at one another without demanding of the audience a spectacular suspension of disbelief (notably the earlier Superman and Batman films were conservative with their need to visualise Complex Impossible Things).
So what I’m saying is that the comic book film became a natural fit with an industry which was increasingly geared towards special effects anyway (the rise of George Lucas’ ILM, James Cameron’s Digital Domain, Peter Jackson’s Weta, standalone computer animation). It put the industry’s most abundant talents to work, in the same way as the Westerns had decades earlier.
Which just leaves the question – why are people watching? We know that they are, as the figures speak for themselves (“I AM MASSIVE,” they mostly say “SERIOUSLY, BRO, LOOK AT ME, I’M FUCKING HUGE”). But where does this appetite for watching people with mutant powers, atomic hearts and chainsaw voices come from?
This is the crux of it, really (“it” being the meandering path of thought I wandered down recently after thinking “Ooh, The Avengers is a bit like The Magnificent Seven”). Comic book films have replaced Westerns as the medium through which America thinks about itself. For the longest time the founding myths and expansive ideals (not to mention genocidal imperialism!) of the Western have been part-propagandist pamphlet, part-national behavioural handbook for the United States. Not that I’m saying everyone watched them and felt that way, but they were a constant, cycled reminder of how the nation was born, and the principles of integrity and opportunism upon which it was based.
And without too much imagination it’s easy to see superhero films doing a similar job now – continually exploring what it means to be the most powerful force in a world of fractured, stateless enemies. It’d be too glib to connect the dots between X-Men beginning the cycle in 2000 and what happened in New York a year later. But it’s less of a stretch to say that 9/11 was a symptom of a changing world of conflict and diplomacy that these films were beginning to respond to anyway.
There’s also a case to be made that comic books – or at least the ones Hollywood is mining for material now – are just as bound up with the history of America during its coming-of-age century as the often real-life stories and characters of the West which Hollywood used and re-used back in the day (the railroad, Wyatt Earp, Billy The Kid, sweet, merciful Jimmy Stewart). Since his inception in 1938, Superman’s most interesting storylines have been all-but manifest looks at what it means to be a military superpower (and Iron Man, when he arrived in the 1960s, did a similar job for the atomic age). Captain America was born in the Second World War and remains frozen there, a reminder of the nation’s finest hour. Batman stands as a grand example of compassionate capitalism – how it’s possible to earn billions, care about the little man, and break arms all at the same time.
This year is a particularly good one to reflect on all this. The Avengers has made a ludicrous amount of money, and told us all a story about co-operation and companionship in the face of insidious enemies while reminding me of nothing more than How The West Was Won in its juggling of established genre stars (the Cinerama monster starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck and, of course, Jimmy Stewart). The Amazing Spider-Man is set to prove that audiences really don’t care that they just saw how Peter Parker became en-spidered already, at least no more than they used to care that they’d already seen John Wayne swaggering about on a horse and grabbing women quite roughly by the shoulders. And The Dark Knight Rises brings to a close a trilogy of films that rival the likes of The Searchers in terms of outstanding filmmaking, and staggering ideas about America and the world which also make you feel quite sad (too much to compare John Wayne silhouetted in the door frame with Batman crouched purposefully atop a gargoyle, both doomed to isolation in broken devotion to the place they belong? Probably).
I’ll leave you with the critic Tom Shone saying it best, as he so often does. On twitter recently he put the whole thing in perspective:
Does anyone honestly think that when America is dust, the artifacts they’ll pore over won’t be The Amazing Spiderman and The Dark Knight?
Quite right too.
I’ve not written anything for a while and I often find that when that’s the case the best thing to write about is David Lynch.
I’m probably old enough now that I can say that Lynch is my favourite filmmaker and not worry about changing my mind next week. The thing I love best about his films is that they feel so overbearingly loaded with significance, but very often refuse to surrender any meaning at all. Mystery is frequently the key to their lasting effect, a carefully constructed ambiguity that doesn’t, I don’t think, hide any carefully designed truth, just an artfully arranged set of impulses, images and textures that create a sensation that almost hums, like a harmonious atmospheric chord.
This is all just a disclaimer, of course, before I present one of the meanings that I do see, shared between my two favourite Lynch films, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr. Because while I’m antsy about ascribing anything as boring as logic to Lynch’s work, still those textures and chords are about something. Maybe nothing as simple as whether the Yellow Man is actually dead or just lobotomised, or exactly how the clashing realities of Betty and Diane fit together, but wider things about love and fear, and frequently, I think, about Hollywood and how films are made.
Lynch often seems to make films that are sensitive to when and how they were produced. And one of the remarkable things about Lynch’s career is that he’s worked in just about every type of production – from the no-money independence of Eraserhead, to the big-budget flail at mass market that was Dune, with Blue Velvet (a mini-major production even before king of the form, Miramax, arrived) and TV with Twin Peaks in between.
And each of these forms has led, one way or another, to the next. The success of Elephant Man opened up the opportunity for the folly of Dune, which in turn led to the scaled-down artistic control of Blue Velvet. Twin Peaks transferred Blue Velvet’s dark fascination with the hidden world of small town America to television screens, before transferring them back again with Fire Walk With Me. Mulholland Dr reversed the trick, taking a failed pilot for ABC and reinventing ideas designed to stretch a season into a tight, impossible cinematic loop.
In other words, Lynch made Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr fresh from traumatic industry experiences – the fiasco (if not quite flop) of Dune, and the wrenching pass on his new Hollywood-set pilot. And it’s hard not to see something of his reaction in the films themselves.
I’m thinking of two scenes in particular – in Blue Velvet, the louche cabaret of Isabella Rossellini singing Blue Velvet itself, and in Mulholland Dr., Rebekah Del Rio’s ghostly turn at Club Silencio. The scenes echo (or better yet, mime) each other – both mournful women singing ghostly ballads, and performances which seem conspicuously about performing.
Other bits of Mulholland Dr speak to Lynch’s uneasy relationship with Hollywood and its processes – Michael J Anderson’s surreal, sinister power figure, the treatment of bemused, Lynch-like director Adam Kesher as he strives for artistic control, and the otherworldly presence of the Cowboy. It is, in an oblique and thoroughly enjoyable way, about the confusion and frustration of working with ABC (and their corporate parent Disney), and about television production and independent movies and how they differ from the golden era Hollywood that ghosts through the film.
The scene in Club Silencio, when Del Rio’s moving performance is revealed as an emotional sham by the desynchronisation of sound, is like the schism experienced in the film itself when reality twists and characters switch identities, and also like the schism in the film’s transition from television to movie production – one possible meaning of the performance dies joltingly, but another fractured meaning takes its place.
The scene in Blue Velvet, on the other hand, is not only outwardly similar, but serves a parallel function. The film was made as home video was transforming the film industry, creating a new revenue stream that made Blue Velvet’s kind of high-quality, medium-budget production possible. Dino De Laurentiis is a key figure here. He produced both Dune and Blue Velvet, in between the two establishing his own small film studio, DEG, and taking risks by releasing his own, smaller movies – something only made possible by the lucrative second market of home video.
When asked what Blue Velvet is at the time, Lynch said: “It’s a song, and a texture”. The film is about fetishisation – well, obviously, but fetishisation of performance in particular. The ability to own films, in a condensed physical form, was new and looming – the VHS cassette like the square patch of blue velvet that good old mad Dennis Hopper rubs furiously as he watched Rossellini, grasping for a physical way to possess the sound and feeling of the music.
This is how I enjoy thinking about these scenes, anyway. You may – you should! – have other ways. In fact, there are so many asides and interesting offshoots to even these simple ideas about these two isolated scenes that this post has taken me three days to write, and plenty of resentful editing, just to make it semi-readable.
I’m going to listen to Little Jimmy Scott sing Sycamore Trees now.
I finally watched Prometheus, having avoided contact with all advertising, trailers and even conversation about the film for the last few months (this has not been easy, and on more than one occasion I’ve suddenly clamped my hands on my ears and emitted a loud bleating noise, which must have been alarming for those nearby). Ironically, this post is now littered with spoilers, because I am a bastard.
The thoughts of my excellent and interesting wife Sarah Ditum are posted here. Feel free to divisively tell us whose you enjoyed the most. For me, the film basically breaks down into a large collection of things I really enjoyed on one hand, and on the other a thread of grievances which is short but, when pulled, nevertheless cause the final third to unravel into an unsatisfying heap.
A lot of the anguished debate about the film has focused on how much it is or isn’t a prequel to Alien, with the raging ire of myopic fans like a gravitational pull tugging Prometheus into orbit around longstanding, long-boring debates about legitimacy, canon, and which of the two Alien Versus Predator movies Satan likes to watch best while barbecuing unbaptised children.
I don’t care about this stuff, in and of itself. In fact, the connection with Alien made me apprehensive – far more exciting than going backwards in a series that already has a perfect beginning is the thought of an original, ambitious science fiction film from Ridley Scott. The more explicit Prometheus made these connections, I worried, the more likely it would slide into obviousness and closed meaning.
With this in mind, there were a few things in the first half of the film which I really enjoyed, because they made Prometheus feel of a piece with Alien without sliding into droll plastic badge-wearing. The shorthand chatter of the scientific team felt regular and for the most part un-expositiony, like the blue collar crew from The Nostromo with a few extra PhDs. I particularly liked the odd couple of Sean Harris’ spite-lipped geologist (with beard, mohawk and tattoos, looking suitably like an outcast from the Alien-inspiring Heavy Metal magazine) and Rafe Spall’s tunnel-hooded biologist. They feel remarkably unremarkable – compellingly performed normal people, confronted with an extraordinary situation.
And because I was interested in Prometheus as a tantalising extension of Alien, I was even more intrigued to see it throw out links to Ridley Scott’s other work from around that time. The Engineer pyramid that the crew of the Prometheus investigate is clearly based on H.R. Giger’s concept art for Palace Harkonnen, created for a never-filmed version of Dune which Scott began before moving on to Alien.
And Michael Fassbender’s artificial person – one of the best things about the film anyway – is particularly interesting when viewed in the context not just of Alien, Ian Holm and Ash, but Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer, and Roy. And it should be viewed like this because Prometheus invites us to – its story of man searching for his maker is basically the same as Roy’s journey to meet Dr Eldon Tyrell (and to force his unglowing eyes bloodily into the back of his skull). Prometheus is scattered with some good writing and some poor (Charlize Theron lives in a self-sufficient life pod, you say? I BET THAT WILL STAY ATTACHED ALL FILM) but its strongest exchange, between David and scientist Charlie, sums up how poor Roy probably felt just before he went all thumb fury: “Why do you think your people made me?” “We made you because we could” “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you, to hear the same thing from your creator?”
I’ve written before about these creative crossovers and might-have-beens of 1970s Hollywood sci-fi, and it’s hard to mark as coincidental the fact that Scott acknowledges these links in his new film which is also about progeny, creation, and DNA. In maybe my favourite weirdness about the film, while he’s getting all self-reflective Scott also seems to rope Twentieth Century Fox into this fiction. I thought the fact that days-from-death Weyland looked like Rupert Murdoch was a coincidence until I read this interview, in which Scott describes the viral video featuring Noomi Rapace’s Dr Shaw.
That was part of her screen test. Then Johnny Hardstaff did the David one, and also played around and took the Noomi application for the job to an eye in the wall. She’s not talking to Mr Weyland – she’d never meet Weyland, she’d never be allowed to, wouldn’t even meet the secretary – it’s like a HAL eye, she’s applying to a job to the eye, which in turn is being watched by a minion, who gets a secretary, and finally gets to Rupert Murdoch, then actually to Weyland.
Which is brilliant and exquisitely odd, though the “powerful company of dubious ethics led by a fading patriarch” cap certainly fits (and makes sense of Theron’s daughter character looking terrifyingly like Elizabeth Murdoch).
It should have been the basis of a masterful, allusive look over Scott’s career in science fiction, a self-aware sign-off from a master. But Prometheus blows it. At some point the nods and suggestions turn into self-satisfied winking, somewhere around the discovery of the ominous canisters inside the Engineer structure. On first look it’s stylish echo of the horrific Alien egg clusters – shot low angle, edges ominously illuminated by glowing light. Except for the purposes of the film’s plot progression – biological nasty emerges from a thing and fucks everybody up – this isn’t an echo, it’s a straight-up replay. It’s the same. Being the same isn’t clever or enjoyable. It’s the same.
This also applies to David’s slide from sexless butler – a sort of space version of Niles Crane with a cooler hat – into nihilistic Dr Moreau. I’ve seen the fastidious English guy turn into the morally uncumbered robo-loon before. Far more interesting to see David keep a withering distance from his creators, as a perpetual reminder of the ship’s folly in seeking out humanity’s own.
I’ve also seen shocked but capable women gasp while looking through condensation-smeared glass as a mortal sex monster lurks on the other side (while Rapace was great, she didn’t top Sigourney Weaver, and it’s a shame the film had her try). And I’ve seen the bit where Fifield and Milburn get attacked by a proto face-hugger (it took place on an identical ship, and John Hurt was a better victim), and I’ve seen the bit where Fifield comes back as a mutant version of himself and starts throwing people about, but I’m pretty sure that was in fucking Power Rangers.
Because this is about the point where the film moves on from self-satisfied winking to all-out clowntrousers. Shaw escapes David’s brilliantly sinister attempt to force her into carrying a mutant squidmonster to term with a horrific self-administered laser abortion. Hooray! It should’ve been the film’s giddy guts-heavy showpiece, but is retrospectively hammered to shit by the dramatic juggling act of the next scene, in which Shaw, naked but for a few bloody bandages and row of staples HOLDING HER WOMB TOGETHER stumbles into the bedroom of the oh fuck he’s actually on the ship Weyland, who doesn’t say “Bollocks alive, Dr Shaw, there’s a bit of your uterus poking out” or “Where the shit are your clothes?” but something about her making him believe in aliens (even though it seems like making this crazy strip of dry skin believe in absolutely anything would be a piece of piss).
Recovering from this, slightly, the film moves on to waking up one of the Engineers, the ancient race of DNA juggling bastards who made us and were, apparently, about to kill us or turn us all into angry Fifield monsters. My problem here is that at this stage of the narrative this whole God-in-the-stars strand of sci-fi – gazing into the cosmos and wondering about the beginning and creation and that – has to have something better up its sleeve than the big pale dude waking up and twatting everybody in the face. Registering surprise that his race has been wiped out by a biological contagion and that he’s the only one left? Or that he’s been woken up by a race that his people have made, who somehow travelled across the stars to visit him? Or that they in turn have become creators themselves, building a synthetic human who’s already learnt his ancient language in an effort to communicate? No – fuck that, your fucking head is coming off, and this bastard is getting it in the temple.
The final kick in the cock is the appearance of the actual alien at the end, clearly intended to be a thundering dramatic blow but actually just a lazy coda at the end of a film which had long since lost its grip. I’m supposed to be curious about the black stuff. I know I am – I read an interview with Damon Lindelof where he said as much. But I’m not – firstly because the black stuff seems to do whatever the baser elements of the plot/Fox marketing department want it to do (“Make that worm really strong!” “Make that guy into a monster!” “Make it so we can say this film has a fucking Alien alien in it!”) and secondly because the interesting stuff is happening far, far away, with David and his relationship with mankind and Blade Runner and Ridley Scott. Far from being the lingering mystery giving the film staying power, the black stuff is the lame, obvious glue binding it unnecessarily to Alien, building awkward, unwieldy connections that damage what might have been a terrific film.
That deadening tinkle of water and tarmac hush of traffic can only mean I’m sitting outside the Staple Centre Inn for what is, for both me and the front desk night staff who gently closed the hotel door without making eye contact at 1.30 am yesterday morning, a sad and final time.
Today has been our busiest and longest of the show. For media the first day of E3 starts at midday, the third day usually ends halfway through in a lunge for the airport, making the middle day the fullest and meanest.
But that’s OK because the first thing we did this morning was meet Katsuo Harada, who’s the producer of Tekken and also the closest thing a person can get to being a barrel made of smiles and beard. One of the things I’ve always liked about fighting games are the hobbies listed pointlessly alongside fighter fist circumferences and depth of anger (I think Paul Phoenix’s profile on Tekken 3 said he ‘enjoys shopping’). Today I asked Harada what his hobby would be if he was a fighting character and he said they include yacht racing, diving, and building PCs (travelling the world and drinking was his sensible final choice).
Today on the Sega stand I heard the motion scanner whine from Aliens and I felt a jolt of alert excitement and recognition followed by a slightly empty pang of disappointment, which is basically a short version of how I expect to feel when the game arrives next year (I hope I’m being harsh, but realistically Dead Space has already stolen all the bits of the Alien series I really want to play in a game). Still, thanks to Colonial Marines the Sega stand also included the original queen alien model from Cameron’s film, which was excellent and rubbery and over twelve feet tall.
Back on the Sony stand I saw more of Beyond. It was gameplay and like Heavy Rain in that it had button-press sequences tied to character movement, although unlike Heavy Rain in that it features a sparkly supernatural guardian violently accompanying tough lady lead Jodie Holmes as she’s chased by the police, a bit like if Will-o’-the-wisp starred in an unlikely remake of a Bruce Willis movie. Jodie can also look after herself and fends off three attackers in a traintop fight using blocks and punches and taking her jacket off unexpectedly. Together with The Last Of Us and Ellie’s thumping brick-to-face moment it looks like Sony is the one developer who’s discovered what strong, interesting female characters look like, even if they all weirdly look like Ellen Page.
What serves me right for talking so much about The Last Of Us is that today after we saw an extended presentation of the conference demo I said hello to Neil Druckmann, and he went for a high five and I went for a handshake because I’m unbelievably English in a sort of rubbish way like a chipped plate. And then I went to change, which is the worst thing you can ever do, and ended up doing a diagonal handshake at around shoulder level and saying “What have I done?” out loud. Not in a cool way, just, like, “What have I done?” Maybe approaching people at industry events with my hand hovering at an ungainly angle in front of me will become my thing.
Then on the way back to our hotel this evening we walked a couple of blocks from the convention centre to avoid the exiting throng, and also the clot of hockey fans watching the Kings game through bar windows all along the streets outside. We jumped into a cab that was heading the wrong way on Olympic Boulevard. “I was gonna bust a bitch back there but there was all those cops” the driver said, explaining why he hadn’t made a u-turn earlier and at the same time almost snatching the day’s “Most Traumatically Sexist” badge from the guy on the Namco Bandai stand who acted out in jiggling cargo pants how he wanted us to make the women dressed as fighting characters “shake dat ass” all over a specially branded Ferrari using our camera. But he did it very energetically, and with his tongue hanging out like a dog who’s learning to control its new human body, and so he wins.
The image above, by the way, is the EA stand I made reference to yesterday or the day before. I was going to describe it as a panopticon of agony but decided that even after six coffees that was a bit much – this being before I’d actually explored the stand and its insistent roaring and desperate, angry volume. It’s a theme of E3 as I’ve experienced it – scores of people I know and admire, participating in an event which flogs shallow grotesques of manhood, womanhood and life with deadening scale and noise.
This is the last entry into my E3 diary because we’re leaving tomorrow at midday. I started writing because I needed something to do while progress bars filled up. I carried on because I hate LA and I enjoy swearing. I hope you enjoyed it, and I’m sorry if you didn’t. In fact I’m sorry anyway. I’m usually sorry.
I was looking at a schedule and panicking this morning while the last of those, the Nintendo conference, happened. I paid less attention as it’s their second conference, which seems like outright cheating, but also because I find the idea of a new console launch of any kind exhausting, and one with an Xbox-y pad and Pikmin like a deliberate attempt to upset me.
I’m currently sat in the driveway of the brilliantly reliable Staples Centre Inn, a mere two miles from the Staples Centre and with the finest internet I’ve experienced so far at the show. I asked some American journalists if all of the internet in California was inhumanely slow today and they said “only downtown,” which I’m 68% certain was a joke.
We got to the Convention Centre at eleven this morning to film the crowds entering the show. There was hollering which seemed as genuine as anything gets in LA when the doors were opened, from at least five different but similarly excited people. What struck me was that the gush of people entering the West Hall doors lasted for about five solid minutes, which is a lot of people to stand behind while waiting for a turn of Darksiders II.
Which is a joke because nobody went to see Darksiders II at all, including us who went to see Call Of Duty Black Ops II instead. It’s still a rebounding echo of the original Modern Warfare’s slick lethality, a game released five years and a changed universe of gaming ago. I’m loathe to save the president or even shoot foreigners again, despite the presence of armourdogs made of exploding woof and the particularly welcome sight of LA being bombed to utter bollocks. The most moving part of the demonstration was when the Activision staffer charged with playing through the game turned up the lights because he’d seen a European journalist with a white fucking jacket filming the screen with his phone. He was apologetic and asked sincerely “I’m a gamer too, please don’t get me fired.”
I played Borderlands 2, which is probably hard to demonstrate properly in twenty minutes, especially when that twenty minutes is spent holding fire continuously and watching robots fall to pieces. And I saw Hideo Kojima, who I followed through a thick crowd for about thirty seconds. When I finally caught up with him I said “Excuse me…” and his companion turned to me as they ducked into a door and said with brilliant, totally deserved contempt, “We’re going to the bathroom.” Rob decided to use the same urinal directly afterwards as it would give him something to tell people. He said “he does it the same as everyone else,” which is a scoop of sorts if you think about it hard enough.
The show floor is enormous and overwhelming, and at every cranked, floor-trembling turn refutes what I tell my ten year-old son when he asks if he’s old enough to play Call Of Duty yet: games can do more than killing people and driving cars. EA’s stand is a huge cylinder of videos and demo pods that’s very impressive to look at while at the same time being a sort of zoetrope spinning cracked glimpses of the end of civilisation. And if that seems melodramatic it’s worth mentioning I’ve had quite a long day.
Time spent at the Square Enix stand reinforced things I already knew: Tomb Raider seems to be a journey of learning to kill people, Hitman is a journey entirely about killing people, and I’d rather like to play them both anyway. Also, we were reliably informed by a member of the development team that the barcode on Agent 47′s head was once scanned and revealed to be a double-ended dildo available to buy on Amazon. I spent most of my time with Ubisoft thinking how nice everyone was, while suppressing a fury that still won’t go away about Assassin’s Creed’s Vita spin-off having a female hero. Which isn’t the bit I mind, of course, but the fact everyone seems very pleased about it, like the place for proving you’re cool with having a strong female (murder) character is on handheld console away from the main stream of the series.
Later while sat in the Sony media room uploading some of the endless files that are the increasingly abstract reason for us to be here in the first place I sat through the gameplay demo of The Last Of Us that was shown at the conference yesterday. It’s a different thing altogether without extraordinary cheering punctuating the game’s peaks of atrocity. On the one hand it looks a lot like Uncharted – the lighting, the ruins, the movement. But the world is a very different one – yesterday I mentioned how it was almost in deliberate opposition to Uncharted’s casual mass killings. Today a line I’d not head previously underlined that with a red pen 78 times – after Joel tosses a molotov cocktail onto a writhing, screaming enemy Ellie whispers “Jesus” and he tells her “Keep it together.” We understand that /they/ understand they’re doing horrible things, which seems unusual and interesting.
I told you I was biased.