Monday, 30 September 2013

Fearful Synergy

A couple of times now I've posted some recommendations. Blogs from people I know that I think are worth checking out. The first time was a plug for my brother David's blog, Hu's Reviews, and the second time I linked to, among other things, Hex Dimension, a collaborative geek site that features the Pathfinder campaign I'm involved in.

This week, something terrifying happened. Those two entities became one.

I don't know what demonic forces conspired to cause this. No doubt there were blood-rituals in the name of some eldritch god, or a great Crisis of colliding worlds. Rivers of blood, dogs lying with cats; you know the drill.
Whatever happened, one thing is clear: David is now writing for Hex Dimension.

I only found this out when their latest post had my brother's name on it for some reason. He hadn't mentioned it beforehand, and neither had they. I didn't even know they'd been in contact, so it came entirely out of nowhere! At least, it seemed to - but I'm not so sure. The whole thing reeks of conspiracy and deceit. Who knows how long they've been secretly plotting together, waiting for the right moment to strike?

The article in question, by the way, is a look at the evolution of the Dragon Age game series - from gritty RPG to psychedelic Hack'n'Slash and potentially back again - and it's well worth your time, despite the unholy union it represents. It sounds like he may become a regular writer over there, so consider this a megaplug: now you can follow Hex Dimension and my brother at the same time!

If this is my last post to this blog, know that it is because my brother and my Dungeon Master have combined forces, and that they were simply too powerful. We never stood a chance against this hybrid monstrosity.
Although he has clearly doomed us all, I bear David no ill will. I wish him the best of luck in his new gig - I just wish he'd told me about it!

Friday, 27 September 2013

Rush Review

I hate driving. Absolutely hate it. I'm not a terrible driver, but I can't process more than one thing at a time and I have the reflexes of a particularly stupid brick. Every time I drive to or from work I am acutely aware that I could die at any second - that I'm never closer to death than when I'm behind the wheel. It's not my greatest fear, but it's definitely my most frequent.

As such there were quite a few times in Rush - Ron Howard's new F1 racing flick - that I pretty much freaked out. There were nailmarks in my armrests and teethmarks in my fist. We see shots from drivers' perspectives - the road obscured by heavy rain and, at one point, concussion - which will fuel my nightmares for months. I'm incredibly glad we saw it on a Friday so I didn't have to drive for a few days.
It's tense, in other words. Cripplingly so. But that tension leads to a truly thrilling experience.

That's probably what you're supposed to feel every time you watch racing - thrills and tension - but I never have before. For me, Formula 1 is second only to football in terms of sports that are boring to watch but impossible to avoid. It's just little boxes going round in circles! The boxes move quite fast, and occasionally the front two boxes swap places or something, but I find it so repetitive and dull.
Rush quickly yanked me to the edge of my seat, though, by making it about the men inside those little boxes - flawed, often unpleasant, strangely heroic men. Knowing who it was that was careering round that track - not just their names but their characters and lives - changed everything, and I was completely caught up in it.

Rush is a true story but, uninterested as I am in racing, I had never even heard of Niki Lauda or James Hunt. That probably made things even tenser for me, as the opening minutes make it clear that something horrible is going to happen but I had no idea what. When something horrible did happen, that just made things worse because, now that the stakes were so high, I didn't know if it was over or just beginning.
Howard has made a powerful film from this real-life story. Quite often, biopics can feel kind of aimless, because the real world doesn't follow narrative structures. But, because both characters are pushing towards one specific goal - being World Champion - the drama here is always sharply focused. The film itself moves like one of its races, with Hunt ahead for a moment, then Lauda, then Hunt, and the sharp editing driving everything forwards quickly and economically. There are crash-cuts that skip whole months and entire races depicted in just one shot - it's breathlessly energetic.

One brilliant touch is that, while a digital film, Rush has been treated to look like actual period footage. It's softer and slightly grainy (sometimes, at least), which not only makes everything feel more authentic, but allows Howard to intercut the film with real race footage. That choice adds even more to the urgency of what's going on, as it's clear that at least some of what we're seeing is really happening and not just special effects. And, though it may be limited to this '70s look, Rush never seems limited by it - it all looks stunning.

Before we get to the actors, I should probably admit that I have a fairly enormous man-crush on Chris Hemsworth. Honestly, so long as he got his shirt off at least once I was going to enjoy this film. But Rush shows us that he's far more than just a ridiculously handsome face; the guy can act, too. James Hunt is a smooth, loud, confident charmer - as effortless and laid back with the press as he is with the ladies - but Hemsworth finds quiet ways to show us the uncertainty and nervousness beneath. It's a terrific performance - both grandiose and subtle - and, as well as getting his shirt off, we even get to see Thor's arse!
But, great as Hemsworth is, Daniel Brühl steals the show as Niki Lauda. Both men are pretty horrible at times, but Lauda is the more obviously unlikable. A self-centred perfectionist with no time for other people (to say nothing of his silly teeth), Lauda could have easily been played as a villain or as a tragedy, but Brühl, plus the strong script and Howard's excellent direction, really makes us understand and root for this strange, awkward character. This is a man who seems almost incapable of showing his emotions, yet the movie makes us feel them every step of the way.
During the final race, it's impossible to root for just one - we're so thoroughly invested in these characters that we want both to win. It's exhilarating and strange to have a movie - particularly a sports movie - where the question is not whether the main character will win, but which one.

It's not every film that can make you enjoy a sport you have no interest in, and it's not every biopic that can make you care about people you've never heard of, but Rush overcomes both those hurdles easily. Though it may deal with racing, at its core it's a film about people and, by grounding every moment in two phenomenal central performances, it's an extremely good one. Everything in Rush is compelling, from cars spinning out of control to people just talking. There's such great energy to it that it's impossible not to get swept up.
Whether normal people will be as violently affected by the driving scenes as I was, or if that's purely due to my hangups, remains to be seen. But even without that, this is a smart, forceful film, and a brilliant portrait of what was either an intense rivalry or the world's strangest friendship. It says a lot that, while parts made me want to close my eyes, it's such fantastic cinema that I couldn't look away. This film took a lot out of me; but it was worth it.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Superman's First Day

There is a Simpsons episode - you probably know the one - where Homer somehow ends up in command of a nuclear submarine. After almost causing an international war, he finds himself and his crew surrounded by battleships from all over the world, readying their guns. It’s ok though because Homer says, "It’s my first day!" and, laughing, they all let him off the hook.

Now, I hate to be that guy who feels the need to explain the joke (note: I don’t hate to be that guy), but the reason this is funny is that Homer’s excuse is no excuse whatsoever. The fact that it’s his first day on the job, whether that’s true or not, does not make it ok. It’s funny when they accept his pathetic excuse because, in real life, that would never happen - Homer would be arrested and severely punished.

I bring this up because, now that summer’s over, a number of sites have run Best Film of the Year So Far lists, and that means people are talking about Man of Steel. I’m not doing a list because the winner is so self-evidently GI Joe. If I was to write that list, of course, there is no way in hell that Man of Steel would be on it, but I don’t begrudge anyone who puts it on theirs. I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when these lists say things like, "Sure Superman made a few mistakes, but give him a break, he’s new at this."
Or, to put it another way, "It’s his first day!"

Let’s go back to The Simpsons. In that episode (which Google tells me is called Simpson Tide) Homer, like Superman, makes a few mistakes. His mistakes are firing the submarine’s captain at another submarine, and illegally entering Russian territory. That’s it. And we still know, naturally, that his excuse for this is terrible and that he would not get away with it.

Let’s raise the stakes. I want you to imagine, instead, that Homer’s mistakes had been far more severe. Let’s say that he gets into a fight with another sub somewhere just out of harbour, right by a coastal city. Being Homer Simpson, he probably still fires the captain at them. But then, when the enemy returns fire, instead of running away as he does in the episode, imagine Captain Homer indiscriminately fires a huge barrage of missiles in vaguely the right direction. The harbour explodes in an enormous fireball; one of the city’s bridges collapses; a couple of high-rise waterfront offices collapse into rubble. The enemy ship returns fire, taking out another bridge, the pier, and the entire seafront hotel district. It’s a really sunny day, so keep in mind how busy it is - the death-toll is already in the thousands. Homer keeps firing, though, obliterating the sea-wall, destroying what little is left of the beach, and reducing an enormous residential complex to ash and rubble. And so it goes on…
When Homer is finally apprehended, after he eventually targeted and destroyed the actual enemy sub (presumably because it threatened a family of three that was swimming nearby), he is understandably put on trial. Then, mid-trial, he wriggles out of his handcuffs and punches out the guard holding him. As the judge and assembled military staff look on in shock and horror he says, "Don’t worry, guys, you can trust me. I grew up in Springfield. I’m about as American as it gets." And with that, Homer Simpson strolls out of the courtroom and vanishes into the night. Nobody moves to stop him because, hey, he’s from Springfield, they can trust him. Besides - it was his first day.

People do see that this is what happens in Man of Steel, right? People do understand that? Because the number of people suggesting that "it’s his first day" is a reasonable excuse for mass-murder (or manslaughter if we’re being generous) is simply staggering.

You and me can screw up on our first day, because our screw ups aren’t particularly dangerous. We just get told that it’s wrong and we have to fix it or do it again. It’s not a big deal.
A job that involves guns or explosives or chemicals - where people’s lives hang in the balance - does not work the same way. If an armed cop or soldier, straight out of the proverbial academy, were to shoot up an entire street (or an entire town) of civilians, just to get one criminal, would anyone be ok with that person continuing to be a cop or a soldier? Of course not! We’d want them locked up and never ever let near a weapon again. That kind of screw up is a big deal, and the consequences would be serious.
What about the same situation with a superhero; a guy who can destroy buildings with one punch, and shoot fire out of his eyes. A godlike being with the potential to do far more damage than our cop or soldier ever could. If this guy screws up on his first day, this is a far bigger deal, and the consequences should be far bigger again. Like the rookies above, we’d want him locked away and we certainly wouldn’t want him to continue being a superhero. The bigger the damage and harm that someone can cause, the smaller the margin of error they’re allowed, and the less they can get away with a screw up.

I’m sure there’s a phrase for this exact idea. A saying of some kind. Oh right, that’s it:
"With Great Power comes Great Responsibility."

Peter Parker - Spider-Man - screwed up on his first day, too. He didn’t give any thought to the people on the street when he let a thief run by unchallenged - just as Kal-El didn’t give any thought to the people in the buildings as he punched Zod through them. And that thief killed Peter’s uncle.
Peter Parker has spent every moment of his life since trying to make up for that mistake, and knowing, deep down, that he never can. The weight of that one failure is what pushes Spider-Man to be better than he is - to always do the right thing, no matter how impossible it seems. Because Peter understands that he absolutely should not have screwed up, and that there is no excuse for it. Not even on his first day.
Spider-Man is a hero precisely because he recognises the enormity of his mistake and he wants to do better. Yet we are failing to recognise the enormity of Superman’s mistake just because he is a hero and we assume he’ll do better. To me, one of those seems incredibly backwards.

If Man of Steel is one of your favourite films of summer, or of the year, or even ever, than that’s great. I’m glad you liked it - have fun. But don’t you dare make excuses for it. A hell of a lot of people died in that film and Superman is responsible. It doesn’t matter that he was concentrating on fighting. It doesn’t matter that Zod struck first. And it certainly doesn’t bloody matter that it was his first day.
Superman doesn’t just have great power - Superman pretty much has all the power. And with that, like it or not, comes all the responsibility. Uncle Ben’s famous words apply to Spider-Man, they apply to Superman, and they absolutely apply to the real world.

But they don’t always apply to Homer Simpson. That’s the joke.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Harry Potter and the Expanding Universe

Harry Potter often gets called "magical". For one thing, it's a series about magic, but the word often gets applied to the world and the story and the characters, too. Sometimes it even gets applied to the writing.
But the truly magical thing about Harry Potter is that it's universal. Everyone loves it. Male, female, young, old - everyone. People who have never read a book have read those books. People who have never watched a film have watched those films. The sheer number of people reached by that franchise is unprecedented. It's magical.
And, because every single one of those people gave Warner Bros. money, both they and their rivals have been trying to replicate that magic ever since.

The list of potential The Next Harry Potters is quite long and fairly depressing. Narnia, Dark Materials, Eragon, Lemony Snicket, Percy Jackson, Spiderwick Chronicles and many others all tried, and failed, to recapture the universal appeal of Potter. And that's just the ones based on books. Some of them were good, some of them were very very bad, but none of them managed anywhere near the numbers that their producers aimed for, let alone hoped for. The closest anyone's come at this point are The Hunger Games, which mostly appeals to girls, and Twilight, which mostly appeals to morons, so neither of them have the all-encompassing audience scope we're talking about.
The studios are getting so desperate now, and are so rapidly running out of books, that they're actually making a pornographic Twilight fanfic movie. The situation is dire.

Following the similar fates this year of Beautiful Creatures, Mortal Instruments, and the second Percy Jackson, Warner Bros. (who didn't make any of those, but were certainly watching) has come to the conclusion that no-one will ever be able to recreate the magic. So, in the absence of The Next Harry Potter, they're bringing back The Old Harry Potter.

Cynical as that intro is, I'm actually quite excited about this. In fact, shockingly, I'm more excited about this than I was about Star Wars Episode VII. More than I still am about Episode VII.

To clarify: I am an absolute squealing Star Wars fanboy, where I'm only a casual fan of Harry Potter. I think Potter is pretty good, but I adore anything Star Wars - so I'm a bit confused to find myself more interested in returning to the wizards than the Jedi.

What I think matters here is that, in both cases, it's the world that draws us in. The stories are good (mostly) and the characters are fun (mostly) but it's the worlds created around those things that really take hold of our imaginations.
The reason I prefer Star Wars is probably because that world is so much bigger and better-realised than Harry's - a whole exotic galaxy versus one castle in Scotland, a couple of houses and a government building. But, conversely, that may also be the reason I'd rather see more of Harry Potter.

The new film - Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - is based on a small book that J.K. Rowling wrote for Comic Relief in 2001. The book is supposedly one of Harry's textbooks from school, with descriptions of the magical creatures found in Rowling's world and notes from Harry and Ron in the margins.
If that sounds like a terrible idea for a film, it's because it is. But from this starting point they seem to be extrapolating out a story about Newt Scamander, the fictional author of the book. I say "they" but I mean "she", because the screenplay's being handled by Rowling herself.

Now, that's pretty interesting. It makes my Star Wars comparison more apt, for one thing, because Harry Potter seems creator-controlled to an extent that only George Lucas has really managed before. Secondly, it's interesting because this is J.K.'s first movie script - she helped with the others but they were mostly penned by Steve Kloves - and I really want to see what she can do with it.
As the series went on, the books began to work better as films anyway - whether unconsciously or not, I think she wrote them with the film adaptation in mind. Deathly Hallows is my least favourite of the books by a huge margin, but was turned into among the best of the films. I'm quite excited to see how that will translate when she writes directly for the screen.

What excites me far more, though, is that we're finally getting out of that school. Hogwarts was great, don't get me wrong, and she did brilliant things with it (the Inquisition vs. Dumbledore's Army plot from Phoenix is probably my favourite thing in the whole series) but it severely limited the series' scope and the kind of stories it could tell.
One of the great many things that upset me about the final book is that we did, in fact, get out of the school, and the end of Half-Blood Prince seemed to hint at this huge exploratory quest across the wizarding world. I was so up for that! But then Hallows had maybe two new locations (both just houses) and otherwise they just revisited places we already knew or sat there in that bloody tent. It felt like such a waste.

Fantastic Beasts, on the other hand, will be set not just outside of Hogwarts, but outside of Britain. It opens in 1920's New York, apparently, which is already blowing this world wide open - other than one quick reference to Salem in Goblet of Fire, I'm not sure America's even been mentioned before.
The animals in the book version of Fantastic Beasts are found all over the globe, so if this is a film about Newt Scamander writing that book (which seems pretty likely) then it could almost be a globe-trotting Indiana Jones type story. Maybe that's too much to hope for, but it's certainly going to show us parts of this fictional world that we've never seen or heard about.
That's what's got me excited for more Harry Potter. Ever since we heard about Charlie Weasley (who works abroad with dragons) I've wanted to explore Rowling's world and learn more about it. And it looks like I may finally get that - Fantastic Beasts will be showing us far more of this world than the original stories, and that's fantastic.

The reason I'm less positive about returning to Star Wars is that, essentially, Episode VII seems to be doing the opposite.
The best thing about Star Wars, like Potter, is its world - its universe, if you prefer. A galaxy of magic-wielding samurai, space-pirates and innumerable planets each with their own crazy-looking aliens and cultures. Even when the story of Star Wars is not so good, the world it creates is never less than amazing.
Purely due to the size and strength of this world, Star Wars has almost limitless storytelling potential. You can pretty much tell any story you want, around the central ideas of interstellar conflict and the Force. Some of the best tales to come out of that world are the ones that have nothing to do with the main story of the films. The Knights of the Old Republic games, for instance, have fantastic stories, and are set thousands of years before any of the films even happen. The best episodes of The Clone Wars are the ones that deal with random squads of soldiers, or mercenaries, rather than the central characters or stories.
Episode VII had the potential to be about anything - they could have taken this story wherever they wanted. It could have been hundreds of years after Return of the Jedi, or on the other side of the galaxy, or going on at the same time but dealing with totally different characters and events. They had an entire universe to explore!

But the more we learn about Star Wars Episode VII, the less likely it seems that this is what they're doing. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and potentially even Harrison Ford are returning as the original cast, which ties us to a location and period barely removed from the original films. There's talk of continuing the story of the Skywalkers, which conclusively ended with Jedi and, if you really wanted more of it, got extended in various other media anyway. And finally, worst of all, they just announced a Yoda origin movie.

They've been talking about making standalone films in the Star Wars universe ever since they announced Episode VII. That sounded great, since "standalone" seems to imply independent stories like those best episodes of Clone Wars. For a few days it looked like they might make a Jedi-based Seven Samurai homage which, apart from being directed by my nemesis Zack Snyder, was exactly the kind of thing I was hoping for!
It looks instead like "standalone" meant nothing of the sort. They're doing Yoda's origin, and it seems almost inevitable that Han Solo and (groan) Boba Fett will be next.
This, and the fact they're sticking with the Skywalkers, means that they're limiting the scope of new Star Wars movies to the stuff we've already seen. I fully expect Episode VII to have a sequence on Tatooine - a crummy, backwater desert planet that isn't important in any way, except that we've been there before. They have a huge universe to play with, but they're hiding in the same tiny corner of it that we've already explored.
It's the equivalent of making a ninth Harry Potter film about Albus Severus Potter (snigger) at school with Scorpius Malfoy, while also making an accompanying side-movie to explain the (presumably pretty unpleasant) origin of Hagrid the gamekeeper. It's obvious and uninspired and it doesn't really excite me at all.

Instead, J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. are finally making their universe larger, while Star Wars seem to be making theirs smaller. I want to see more of these worlds - I want them to surprise me and show me things I've never seen. I still believe that Episode VII could do that - it is Star Wars, after all - but Amazing Beasts is already doing it just with its premise.
And that's the whole point, isn't it. If the ideas behind your film are unique and interesting and capture the minds of enough people, then you could be on to The Next Harry Potter. It might even be magical.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Mangaphobia 03: The Movies of Evangelion

Last month, Mangaphobia tried to untangle the convoluted knot that is Neon Genesis Evangelion. It failed. To understand why it failed, check out this incredible easter-egg from the DVD, which helpfully lays it all out! Needless to say, this is not the kind of knot that can be unpicked. This kind of knot requires scissors.
The scissors in question are the various Evangelion films that have come out since, each of which tries to unravel the chaos of the series in different ways. The first two films present an alternative ending to replace the series' last two episodes which, you'll remember, were thrown together after they ran out of time and/or money. The rest of the films (currently three, but I've only seen two) constitute a full reboot of the series, starting the story from scratch. Let's look at those two approaches separately.

The End of Evangelion

Technically, the series' first film is a strange two-part compilation piece called Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth. We won't dwell on that one because the first half (Death) is a re-edited seventy-minute cut of footage from the series, presumably to get newcomers up to speed, and the second half (Rebirth) is just a preview of the first twenty-five minutes of the then-in-production second movie, The End of Evangelion.

The End of Evangelion (which finally drops all mention of noble gases from the title) also splits handily in two - with the first half covering the events leading up to the oft-discussed Third Impact, and the second half dealing with the catastrophe itself. One of these halves is surprisingly good, and the other is a nightmare. In more ways than one.

When the show began grinding to a halt, it was often easy to forget you were watching a giant robot show. About halfway through the series, the Angels stopped being animalistic monsters for the Evas to fight, and were instead often weird floating geometric shapes or fractals that shoot lazors. They looked cool and had some cool powers, but they didn't lend themselves to decent fight-scenes at all. The battles got shorter and less entertaining and the show began to focus on other things instead, like nonsensical lore and Shinji's lack of personality.
So when SEELE inevitably betray and attack NERV, as they were clearly always going to, we've almost forgotten about the mechs. With Rei missing, Shinji (being Shinji) ignoring the sirens and alarms, and Asuka bordering on comatose, the film itself doesn't remind us about the Evas either - all the fighting is between regular troops with maybe a couple of tanks or trucks.
When things finally do kick off - when Asuka flings a battleship across a lake and starts kicking helicopters out of the sky - it's like rain after a drought.

Watching the Evas fight blobby monsters through the series was satisfying, but seeing them pound real military hardware is somehow even more so. Maybe it's the scale, the novelty, or the real-world familiarity; but whatever it is it's awesome and it's my favourite fight in the series.
Then, when Asuka has singlehandedly destroyed all their dudes, SEELE send in their own squad of Evangelions. Nine identical white Evas with wings, broadswords, and freaky grinning lips (there's no longer any pretence that these are machines). And so we get our first battle between equally-matched Evas - there's even a brief swordfight in the middle - and it's as new and thrilling as the fight before it.

The absolute best thing about these battles, though, is that they finally conclude Asuka's character-arc. She started the series compensating for her fear and insecurity with a mask of bravado, but we slowly watched that confidence disintegrate to the point where she could barely control her robot. Then the series just ended, with no payoff for her (or anyone else's) story. Here, at last, we get to see her overcome her problems and finally become a fully rounded character - and a badass one, at that.
Asuka's is by far the most effective, but we also get closure for a couple of the other characters, too. Misato, who until now has dealt with all her problems by either shouting at them or sleeping with them, finally spurs Shinji into action by being honest and open for the first time - treating him as an equal rather than a child. She undermines this slightly by promising him sex afterwards, but it's still character-growth.
Later, we even get a tiny bit of lip-service to show that Gendo has realised and accepted what a monster he's become.
In all three of these cases the characters just flatly state their motivations out loud like they're in a David S. Goyer film. The dialogue is tone-deaf and unnecessary but, because it's driving both the characters and the narrative forward (and because this kind of clarity is so rare in Evangelion), it's incredibly welcome nonetheless.

Then, at exactly the halfway-point, Third Impact happens.

The reason SEELE are attacking NERV in the first place is to ensure that Third Impact begins their way, not Gendo's way. So, who wins? When it does begin, who causes it?
Confusingly, SEELE and Gendo and Shinji's Eva (but not Shinji himself) all seem to initiate Third Impact simultaneously but independently. Gendo's actions seem to maybe be the most significant, but I have no idea why.
How does he start this enormous, worldwide cataclysm, exactly? Why, by groping the pert, naked, underage breast of his wife's clone, of course. He's merged himself with Adam, apparently, so that makes it ok. Rei looks unhappy and lets out a gentle rapey sex moan and then the whole world goes totally mental.

When I say totally mental I mean stuff like this. And this. And particularly this.
There is tonnes of crazy nonsense from this point on, as those pictures should illustrate, but the main important details are that Rei merges with Lilith, who takes Rei's shape and grows to the size of the Moon, then Shinji's Eva becomes both a giant crucifix and a giant tree and also merges with Lilith-Rei, and then everyone melts. Everyone. In the world.
You see, our human bodies are held together by something called an AT-field, which is generated by our soul, and not by the molecular bonds that hold together normal animals and every other form of matter in the universe. Angels and Evas are powerful enough that they can actually project their field (or their pilot's?) for use as a weapon or shield. Oh, and it stands for Absolute Terror field, because why not. When, in the series, Shinji melted in his pilot-seat, that was his AT-field collapsing and that, on a global scale, is what happens now.

This, at last, is what SEELE meant when they talked about the Human Instrumentality Project: the removal of unconscious psychic barriers between individuals and a return to the primordial soup. One enormous sea of souls, with shared experience and emotion; it's the end of pain and suffering and, most of all, loneliness. It's even accompanied by an upbeat, happy song - presumably to show how wonderful and euphoric it is.
It's also utterly demented.

I'll give it this, though: crazy madness it may be, but at least it's clear. We understand what's happening at all times - though NERV's second-in-command does outright narrate most of it to us (how does he even know this stuff?) lest we get totally lost. For perhaps the first time, we clearly and unambiguously understand what is happening in Evangelion, even if we're still not quite sure why it's happening.

What I don't understand is the sudden and jarring use of sexual imagery. There's nothing wrong with using sexual imagery in itself (at least, not if you have a point to make), but when you've been using another type of imagery - say, religious imagery - as strongly and as frequently as this show has, why throw a different and previously unused kind of symbolism in there too? What are you trying to say with that?
I get that giant naked Rei would be giant and naked - that's fine, and it fits the themes of Adam and Lilith and humanity's return to Eden ("Neo-Genesis" is almost right there in the title) - but why does she swallow Shinji's painful-looking Eva-tree into her face-vagina? Why does she have a stomach-vagina and hand-vaginas, for that matter? Why must we demonstrate the breakdown of AT-fields by having her sat astride Shinji, basically her own son, with their bodies merged at the crotch? Why do SEELE's Evas, who for some reason now all have Rei's face, writhe and moan orgasmically as they impale themselves on their spears? Why does Gendo grab her boob?
How does any of this fit with the Biblical myth motif that we've stuck with until now? I want to believe there's a valid reason for it, symbolic or otherwise, but I'm honestly not seeing one. It just feels gratuitous and gross, especially since it's all Rei - a passive, emotionless, child-like sex-doll.

I have heard theories that this unpleasantness is actually intentional; that the show is subverting anime-viewers' desire (perhaps even expectation) for sexualised fanservice. By giving them exactly what they want, but putting it in a highly disturbing context, it makes those viewers uncomfortable and disgusted in themselves.
That's the theory. My only response is to quote Yahtzee Croshaw: "Talk about it being 'ironic' all you want, but that doesn't change the fact that someone's rubbing themselves off to it even as we speak."

Fittingly enough, The End of Evangelion opens with an infamous scene where Shinji masturbates over Asuka while she's unconscious and injured in the hospital.
Many people use this scene as the go-to example of everything that's wrong with anime. Personally, I have no problem with it. It's icky, absolutely, but it's a very intentional character beat - showing us that Shinji is, in his own words, "so fucked up".
What I do have a problem with - what is an example, for me, of everything wrong with anime - is that it took us twenty-six episodes to reach this point. That's roughly thirteen hours with this character and, after all that, our best and only understanding of him is that he's pretty messed up.
Even worse is that, after a further ninety minutes, that's still the best we've got.

It doesn't look that way, though. It really seems like Shinji might have an arc this time, like Asuka and Misato before him. Unfortunately, this potential arc is delivered via the same introspective dream-bollocks the series wasted so much of our time with. As Shinji is absorbed by Lilith, his consciousness merges with Rei's and they talk over his problems. Yet again.
Despite the movie's increased budget, these dream sequences still devolve into the same characters-talking-on-a-minimalist-background that the series ended with. We also get incoherent scenes from Shinji's childhood (maybe), a montage of crayon drawings and the backs of animation cels, a bizarre fight with Asuka in their flat and, worst of all, a sequence of live-action clips of real people going about their lives. That live-action sequence is actually rage-inducing, as Shinji and Rei have an entirely nonsensical voiceover discussion about the nature of dreams that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything else in the film. Then, somehow, this navel-gazing causes giant-Lilith-Rei's neck to explode and she bleeds all over the Moon. Oh there you are, obnoxious ambiguity! We missed you.

Yet, tedious and annoying as this stuff is, Shinji does actually seem to be making headway as a character. He starts this psychoanalysis stuff unable to face life as an individual - it's all misery and pain, and everyone hates him. This comes to a head when he and imaginary Asuka have a weird argument that's mostly non-sequiturs, and he ends up strangling her. This is what drives Rei to make all the humans melt because, clearly, they just can't get along.
But then, after that insufferable live-action interlude, Shinji, straddled by his mother's naked clone child, begins to realise that life without individual people is no life at all; that his identity is defined by relationships to others. Without the potential for conflict, there is no potential for joy.
It's a simple, obvious point, but it's the closest this pretentious cartoon ever comes to being profound.

One interesting thing, for me at least, is that this is the complete opposite of the point the series was making. The original ending seemed to show Shinji embracing Instrumentality - welcomed into a communal dream-world by people both alive and dead. Here he rejects the process, choosing to remain an individual. I'm not sure what this change means exactly, but I thought it was interesting enough to mention.

With some basic truths finally figured out, Shinji's Eva bursts free from Lilith-Rei's eye (her normal eye, not her forehead vagina-eye) bringing an abrupt end to Third Impact. The giant Rei begins to fall apart, the souls go free, and Shinji's body reforms itself in Earth's new primordial sea. As he floats to the surface he has a positive life-affirming conversation with the soul of his dead mother (I've stopped trying to understand what, who or where her soul is at this point). Showing a hitherto unseen level of self-awareness, Shinji tells her that he'll always have doubts and fears about being alive, "But that's just stating the obvious, over and over."
Honestly, Shinji says that. Finally, this character seems to have evolved. He found some of the answers he was after, he figured out his crippling insecurity, he got closure with his mother, and he decided life is worth living. Character development! I may not have liked much of the fourteen hours it took us to get here, but I'm willing to give it a pass because, in the end, we did complete the main character's arc. There was a point to all this. That, at least, is something.

Except, of course, that the film's not over. There's one last scene, later, as Shinji wakes up on a beach of the new sea, with the remains of Rei's giant head decomposing in the background. He's lying beside an unconscious Asuka, who must also have reformed herself from the goo. Then, in a sequence designed to mirror the opening masturbation scene (random shots of the scenery over Shinji's quiet grunting) he strangles her. Just as he did in the dream, before he figured himself out. Then, when she unexpectedly moves, he stops and just cries pathetically to himself. Then Asuka calls him disgusting. Because he is.
Why does he do these things? What reason has this film given us for him to do them? There's only one answer we have: because he's pretty messed up. This is not a new, less insecure Shinji; it's exactly the same confused mess of a character from the start of the film. Which means that, ultimately, this is the same confused mess of a cartoon that it always was.

With that, all goodwill that The End of Evangelion earned evaporates. It gives us a great first half, with some of the best action and character-beats of the entire series - it even clarifies some of the show's more obscure loose ends - but then falls back into the same cycle of pretentious, repetitive nonsense. There's some imaginative imagery but, ultimately, it's just a meaningless parade of giant white boobs.
This film dealt with enormous, life-changing, world-shattering events. And Shinji learnt nothing from them. It seems Evangelion learnt nothing from them, either.

Rebuild of Evangelion

Ten years after the disappointing end of End of, Evangelion got rebooted. Still developed and created by much the same team that worked on the original version, Rebuild of Evangelion would be a series of four films that would retell the entire story in a shorter form with better production values. I was planning to avoid it - this franchise has wasted more than enough of my time - but, since the whole point of Mangaphobia is to give this stuff the benefit of the doubt, I clenched my teeth, downed a pint, and watched it anyway.

At the time of writing, the first three Rebuild movies have been released, but I have only been able to get hold of the first two. The first film is either called Evangelion: 1.0 or Evangelion: 1.11 - both titles are used and I don't know what the difference is - both with the subtitle You Are (Not) Alone. Because it just wouldn't be Evangelion without a title that doesn't mean anything.
1.1 is essentially the first five or six episodes of the series crammed into ninety minutes, with a few minor design changes (see: Lilith) and improved visuals. There's more CGI, for one thing, and some of the backgrounds are improved. It's basically the same, though, with the majority of it either using or possibly tracing the same animation.
I won't dwell on it, except to say that it's weird being reminded how great this show was at the beginning, back when it was fresh and interesting and full of promise. Maybe it's because this is streamlined into movie format, losing all the unnecessary stuff, or maybe it was always this good. Either way, the mysteries haven't gone stale and the characters haven't started annoying us yet. I still hated Shinji, of course, but that was residual hate from my prior knowledge, not because of anything he actually does in the film.
1.00 is good, in other words.

Then I watched Evangelion: 2.22 (or maybe 2.0) You Can (Not) Advance and, from the very beginning, it's clear that the game has changed.
We open with not just a sequence we've never seen before, but a character we've never seen before using an Eva we've never seen before to fight an Angel we've never seen before in a location we've never seen before. After a first film that stuck so close to the series, 2.20 is very very different. There are a few beats and events that we recognise, but they play out nothing like they did originally. This thing is very much its own beast.

It's not just different in the events of its story, either - its entire approach to telling that story is different. For instance: I now understand Second Impact. If you read my first post you'll understand just how big a deal that is. I don't yet know exactly what happened (in fact, what happened in Rebuild seems substantially different to what happened in the series) but I finally understand the significance and meaning of the event.

Second Impact was the literal wrath of God.

Whatever form the events took (the oceans turned to blood, for one thing) they left humanity with absolutely no doubt that God is real and that He is vengeful. This is something that becomes apparent while Misato says Grace and eats her lunch, and that unassuming little scene explains so damn much. This is a world where religion is an accepted fact - where it would influence everything, from science (souls, AT-fields) to business (SEELE, NERV) to politics (the Eva project, Instrumentality). This is a world where it actually makes sense to follow the instructions of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It explains everything.
Finally, after sixteen hours of dancing around its own premise and never giving an inch, Evangelion just hands us the information we need to put everything together, and it all suddenly clicks into place.

This was such a shock to the system that I wasn't really sure what was going on any more - and it was far from the only shock. Rei was smiling and showing emotion; Asuka was openly expressing her feelings; Gendo was acting like a human being; Shinji was displaying social-skills and even had friends! What the hell was I watching?!

The friends in question are a couple of boys from school, who Shinji saved from an Angel in the first film. He saved them in the series, too, but then one of them was almost immediately involved in a horrible event which almost killed him, and we never saw either of them again. In this film we actually get to see Shinji and these guys hanging out and having fun - Shinji actually has a personality, it seems, and he's beginning to come out of his shell.
The same horrible event does occur here, too, but it doesn't happen to a minor side-character - it happens to Asuka. This comes just as the three pilots are really starting to connect and bond, so the shock of the event, and its effect on Shinji, are far more powerful and earned than they were in the series. In both versions, it causes Shinji to quit - but where, in the series, he returned to NERV apparently on a whim, in Rebuild he makes a very conscious decision to go back and help Rei. It's driven by character choice, not by story requirement.
2.02 ends, incredibly, with Shinji Ikari personally causing Third Impact through sheer force of will, driven by his overwhelming determination to save Rei. This is pretty much the polar opposite of the passive introvert sociopath he's always been until now. In End, I considered it progress when Shinji learned the simplest of life-lessons, but now here he is reshaping the world through his own agency and choices.
I can't believe I used to hate this guy!

Evangelion: 2.202 is a revelation. It's what Evangelion always should have been. This cartoon always had such potential, but the show just left it there to stagnate. 2.2 is what that potential looks like when it's actually realised.
The characters are multi-layered and relatable, neither of which were true before, and they progress and change along actual arcs. Those arcs are then intertwined with the main arc of the story, so that the drama is always personal and engaging, and we always feel meaningful stakes. There's perhaps less fights - the Angels are mostly of the weird-geometric-shape variety - but the action is always informed by character and the final battle is spectacular and huge. It still has mysteries and weird mythology, but they're less invasive and, thanks to our better understanding of the world and our newfound investment in the characters, we find them more engaging. Actually, because of the new girl and her unknown agenda, even the mysteries are grounded in character.
After getting so much wrong for so long, it's ridiculous how much this movie gets right.

It's barely one month since I started Mangaphobia, and already this project is paying off. Left to my own devices, I would have stopped watching after The End of Evangelion and never looked back. But, because of the pledge I made on this blog, I forced myself onwards and actually found a smart, engaging anime that I really enjoyed. It's a start!

I'm now completely torn on whether or not to hunt down a copy of Evangelion: 3.?! You Can (Not) Redo. On the one hand, the Rebuild series seems to be blossoming into something fairly special but, on the other hand, I've been burnt by this franchise before. Twice.
It can't be long until Shinji starts repeating his issues ad nauseam and Rei starts growing extraneous vaginas, and I don't want to be there when that happens. But, on yet another hand, the preview shows Asuka looking badass with an eyepatch, and I would very much like to be there when that happens.

I think, rather than watching it now and having to write the third Evangelion post in a row, I'll hold off watching the third movie until the fourth one, Evangelion: Final, is released and I can watch them both together. I hope they change that title, though, because It Does (Not) Conform.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Elysium Review

In 2009 a weird little film came seemingly out of nowhere and blew my mind. It's such a bonafide classic that I seriously can't believe it was only four years ago. Chances are it blew your mind too. District 9 blew a lot of minds.
With it, semi-South African director Neill Blomkamp delivered one of the smartest, tightest science fiction movies in recent memory. A social allegory about apartheid, prejudice and xenophobia, using fantastical elements to comment on current real-world issues, it followed in the great tradition of sci-fi but did so without once becoming ponderous or slow - grabbing our attention with an inventive documentary style and propelling us into a world that could so easily be our own. District 9 felt deeply tangible and immediately relevant, staying with you and asking probing questions.

Blomkamp's second film, Elysium, is not like that.

Elysium does draw ideas from current social issues in a similar way - healthcare, immigration, capitalism, reliance on computerisation and the unfair distribution of wealth all play major parts - but, unlike District 9, the movie doesn't necessarily comment on them. They're used in the construction of this world and its story, but not in a way that can really translate to our own. Where the attitudes and politics in District 9 felt current and realistic, the ones in Elysium are pushed to absolute, fictional extremes.
This is a bleak future where Earth has become overcrowded and poluted, and the privileged few - the 1% - have retreated to a designer space-station called Elysium. While the rest of humanity struggle and suffer in Earth's wretched slums, the citizens of Elysium have lives that are carefree, decadant and, thanks to miraculous med-pods, free of disease and disability. This status quo is maintained by Earth's robot police state (controlled from Elysium) and by Jodie Foster's heartless defence secretary, Jessica Delacourt, who has no qualms about shooting down unarmed ships full of desperate refugees.
It's easy to see how this world ties into real issues, but it's equally obvious how cartoonishly extreme it all is. It's also a world that quickly falls apart if you look at it for long. The omnipotent med-pods almost completely break the premise - there's no conceivable reason they wouldn't also exist on Earth, and none is given - and a few points involving computers left me totally bewildered. It's hardly the flimsiest premise of the summer (in fact it’s one of the sturdiest) but the problems are there.

Luckily, while the premise is shaky, the details are exquisite. Blomkamp makes this world a real lived-in place, whether in Elysium’s gleaming corridors or the grimy, sun-bleached Earth. It’s a world with graffiti on the walls where every prop - from the weapons to the clothes to the ships to the robots - looks like it belongs in this place, and has done for years. This worldbuilding extends to the characters too; both the main cast and supporting bit-parts are real people with real lives happening in and around this story.
The character we follow through that story is Matt Damon’s Max, an ex-thief now working in a factory, building the self-same enforcement robots that we first see breaking his arm for backchat. Following an industrial accident, Max is blasted with radiation and told that he only has a few days left to live. With nothing left to lose he dons a strength-enhancing mechanical exoskeleton and vows to reach Elysium, at any cost, where he knows the equipment exists to save him.
This story would be compelling enough alone, but it becomes entangled in a larger political struggle on Elysium which pushes the stakes much much higher. The film never loses sight of the personal struggles at its core, though, with Max and others all personally invested for their own reasons. Max is surprisingly selfish, in fact, like District 9’s Wikus before him, but because we understand why (this is certainly a world that would breed selfishness) and because Damon is just so good in the role, we’re always behind him.

Also keeping us on Max’s side is the fact that the villains are downright despicable. Foster's Delacourt is a nasty piece of work - the embodiment of Elysium’s elitist cruelty - but her dirty work is handled by a mercenary named Kruger, played with insane glee by Blomkamp’s usual partner Sharlto Copley. Kruger is a psychopath - introduced as a murderer and a rapist - who only works for the authorities because it lets him kill without consequence. He’s genuinely scary, becoming more and more unhinged as the film goes on, and ever more determined to take Max down.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that, on top of the clever allegory and everything else that’s going on, District 9 is also a terrific action movie. As Max clashes with Kruger - and with various robots too - we realise that Elysium is the direct extension of that. The reason that the themes here are not as deeply explored as Blomkamp’s debut is that, first and foremost, Elysium is an action film. And it’s a damn good one.
The fighting is tight and close, feeling personal and exhilarating. Whether punching a robot or blasting at Kruger with a railgun, the violence is always emotional and driven by character. It’s also brutal - Max fails a lot more than he succeeds, even in his exo-suit, and he spends much of the film on his back, bleeding and bruised, which isn’t always the case for action heroes. We never get fatigued, however, because the action is constantly changing and introducing new and inventive elements - there are katanas and energy-shields and an awesome gun that fires exploding scatter-bullets.
The effects involved - the CGI ships and robots hunting Max - are gorgeous, looking every bit as real as the practical ones we see in Max’s factory. Elysium itself, a ringworld hanging just at the edge of space, looks wonderful, and there’s a fantastic stop-motion-looking med-pod sequence that I’m not going to spoil. The entire film looks amazing, honestly, from prop design to lighting to the way the action's shot. There's some interesting choices, like filming the space scenes in a handheld style and using some strange proto-bullet-time tricks during fights, but they're always engaging and they add to the rough, lived-in texture the film already has.

My one complaint - my only complaint, beyond the dodgy premise - is that, gorgeous as this film is, it looks just like Mass Effect. Everything from the robots to the orange computer interfaces looks exactly like those games. And Elysium itself doesn't just look like the Presidium, it is the Presidium, both within its white corridors and outside in its gardens. This is probably (hopefully) just a coincidence, but when Kruger starts shouting threats in a garbled South African accent, it's a coincidence that's impossible to ignore.
But in the end everything, including any unfortunate similarities to game franchises, comes together into one phenomenal experience.

No, Elysium is not as good as District 9. But, then, the last film I saw that was as good as District 9 was District 9. Despite drawing from social issues to build its world, Elysium is aiming no higher than just delivering an exhilarating action film - which it manages with violent ease. The fact that the setting and characters feel so real, that we care about everything we see on screen, and that this film can spark conversations about current affairs, show just how much smarter it is than the action we normally settle for.