Archive for the ‘video game’ category

Ready Player One

July 29, 2018

rpoI lasted about two pages into Ernest Cline’s geek-friendly novel Ready Player One. The book’s voice was just too obnoxiously steeped in trivia, with nothing really to say about the pop-culture landmarks it referenced and/or used. I remember thinking “There are so many good or great books yet to read, and I’m going to spend my dwindling sentient time on this?,” and back to the library it went. The movie version, directed by Steven Spielberg, promised to be the same only flashier and louder, yet Spielberg has performed an act of alchemy similar to the upgrade he administered to Peter Benchley’s Jaws. The voice is still there, but here it just serves to help Spielberg move the story along. As with the Jaws novel, Spielberg keeps what works and circular-files what doesn’t.

The result is a juicy wad of bubblegum entertainment, visually antic and immersive without feeling assaultive, fast-paced without feeling rushed. If Spielberg is using the pace so as to deny us time to think about the flaws, he certainly does it successfully. The many pop references from the ‘80s (and some from later, like the Iron Giant) are merely part of the background fabric; you can conceivably not be familiar with any of the cameos, callbacks and in-jokes at all and still follow the basic throughline, which is that young protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) seeks to win a contest that can buy him out of his poverty and prove he’s somebody. Reading that description, you wouldn’t know that the story is set in 2045 or that much of the action takes place in a virtual-reality game world.

Ernest Cline might be high on the underarm fumes of his childhood, but he lucked into one of the basic satisfying narratives, and Spielberg zeroes in on it. Of course, Spielberg is part of the pop culture that Ready Player One and most of its characters lionize. His perhaps unavoidable acknowledgments of this fact are limited to eyeblink images. Wade, aka Parzival in the game world OASIS, must find three keys relevant to the sad past of the late game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the cocreator of OASIS and author of the contest. Rylance files yet another ace performance as a man who speaks haltingly and has complex emotions and feelings of guilt and waste. Some have read Spielberg’s friend George Lucas into Halliday. I don’t disagree.

Most of what we’re looking at in Ready Player One is computer-generated animation mapped onto greenscreened bare sets, but Spielberg manages to suggest it all exists physically and gives it heft, the sound of weight. Editor Michael Kahn (assisted, as on Spielberg’s The Post, by Sarah Broshar) gets the constantly moving images and compositions to click together into action sequences with momentum and even poetry; cinematographer Janusz Kaminski drops his usual desaturated muck and helps the movie look like one of the sleeker examples of the ‘80s blockbusters it wants to be. I’m a sap, but Ready Player One won me over right out of the gate — Van Halen’s “Jump” ushered me back to the summer of 1984, to an age (thirteen passing into fourteen) at which I would most have appreciated the movie. (’84 was also the summer of Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) The soundtrack is a mix of I-love-the-’80s Spotify playlist and Alan Silvestri’s sweeping score — Silvestri was around back then and knows what an ’80s fantasy should sound like.

Can nostalgia be trusted? It’s as valid an emotional response as any other, and you’re free to take or leave it. Steven Spielberg is still probably the most powerful director in Hollywood, but he’s lost a step or two — he almost couldn’t get Lincoln made. So Ready Player One is partly a trip back to the era where Spielberg was truly master of the universe. Back then, not many people questioned why the hero should be a white male and not a female (Olivia Cooke as Wade’s teammate and love interest Art3mis) or a black lesbian (Lena Waithe as Wade’s best friend Aich) or Asian (Daito and Sho). That aspect of the narrative makes the movie feel retro in annoying ways, but that’s also the cost of watching actual ‘80s movies.

Aich, Daito and Sho almost seem like Spielberg’s stab at atoning for The Color Purple (a movie he would not get to make today, and rightly so¹) and Short Round. Look at the movie long enough and close enough and you might start to imagine it’s as much about apology as celebration. The director who shot Jaws in the ocean because a studio tank would be too fake now makes movies almost entirely on a digital canvas like every other blockbuster director, and he’s partly responsible for why we’ve wound up in a place where our eyes no longer believe reality in movies. Tom Cruise risks his neck doing stunts, and we shrug now because it can just as easily be faked with CG. It’s really him, it’s not really him — who cares? This movie’s message, “Reality is real” (to be fair, a Cline-ism), comes to seem less a bromide than a plea.

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¹But in 1985 it could hardly have been made by a Cheryl Dunye or even an Ava DuVernay, so Spielberg at the height of his powers got the thing made, to the joy of some and the dismay of others, and he didn’t do all that bad of a job of it, considering he was not many readers’ first or hundredth choice to adapt it. But in 2018 there’d be no excuse not to give a new film based on the Alice Walker novel to a gay woman of color to direct.

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Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

May 14, 2017

resident-evil-the-final-chapter-clipOne thing horror fans remember well from the fourth Friday the 13th film: never trust a horror sequel that calls itself “The Final Chapter.” There may, however, be a reason to take Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’s word for it. For one thing, franchise star Milla Jovovich isn’t getting any younger. Sure, she can leap and shoot and fight with as much éclat as ever at age 41, but for how much longer? And did she really intend to do six of these things in the first place? As of now, Jovovich has led the longest-running female-fronted action franchise in Hollywood history (the all-time record probably belongs to Lupe Vélez and her eight-film Mexican Spitfire comedy series from the ‘40s). She can safely rest now, and perhaps focus on other projects that don’t involve throngs of ravenous undead.

You probably don’t need to have seen the previous five movies to follow this one; the story (by director Paul W.S. Anderson, who is also Mr. Jovovich) is as violently incomprehensible as the others, anyway. The gist is that the cure for the T-virus (which created the zombie outbreak) exists in “the Hive” in the ruined Raccoon City, and Jovovich’s Alice must find it (within 48 hours, of course) and release it to save what’s left of humanity. Zombies and various other critters get in her way, as well as the nefarious Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen), who pursues Alice and her cadre of fellow warriors. Or it could be his clone. I’m still not sure. Along for the ride is returning comrade-in-arms Claire (Ali Larter), from two of the earlier movies.

Anderson has directed four of the six Resident Evil films (including the first one), and though editor Doobie White has been encouraged to make unreadable hash out of most of the action sequences, there actually is some apocalyptic-aesthetic beauty here and there. Often, the camera pulls back and back until it surveys the wreckage of a city from a great distance or height. The rubble contrasts sharply with the antiseptic white-on-white glossy surfaces of the villain’s lair. There’s poetry, too, in Jovovich’s husky snarl of a voice — this heroine may or may not be recognizably human after facing so much horror. I think after six films and fifteen years of this, both Jovovich and Alice have earned a respite.

The movie and the franchise in general sit largely humorlessly at the action-flick table, glowering with the higher purpose of saving humankind from the rotten Umbrella corporation. The films are more “badass” than fun, really. This could be why the series has never been especially lucrative in America — even the most domestically successful, 2010’s Resident Evil: Afterlife, only made $60 million against a $60 million cost — but has blown up overseas; this last segment cleared a mere $27 million here, but pocketed $312 million globally, becoming by far the franchise’s top breadwinner. So … maybe there will be post-final chapters? The ending does leave the door open for more adventures.

More adventures with whom, though? Separate from the live-action series, there have been animated, direct-to-video Resident Evil features; the third, Resident Evil: Vendetta, will soon menace theaters and digital streaming platforms near you. These animated movies follow other folks besides Alice, like Leon S. Kennedy, a hero familiar from the RE videogame series. (Leon also turned up in the previous live-action outing, 2012’s Retribution, alongside Michelle Rodriguez, whose sullen presence is missed here; slight lookalike Ruby Rose represents instead as a tomboy mechanic, but she isn’t around long.) As for future live-action entries, who knows? Jovovich deserves a break, but I hate to think of these movies not anchored by her agility and her growl. It’s bad enough we now face Alien movies without Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and my growing sad suspicion is that if Warner Bros. could get away with putting out a Wonder Woman movie without Wonder Woman, they would.

Resident Evil: Afterlife

September 12, 2010

The Resident Evil films are probably better experienced in one big gulp, as a sort of ramshackle saga, than as individual flawed movies. The last time I reviewed one of these things, it was the second one, 2004’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and I made the mistake of judging it as a movie. What it was, actually, was one chapter in a larger movement, the movement being a showcase for Milla Jovovich kicking ass and looking impressive. And there’s nothing much the matter with that, especially considering that this is the first action/sci-fi/horror franchise with a woman front and center — much less one that’s hung in there for eight years and four films — since the Alien series closed its doors. As such, the Resident Evil films are of undeniable importance. And in Jovovich this franchise has an athletic yet attitudinizing heroine, a star who doesn’t act so much as indicate (as per her roots in modeling), but that never stopped all those male action figures, did it?

Does the plot really matter? Alice (Jovovich) is once again pitted against the evil Umbrella corporation, which wants to experiment with and capitalize on the virus that caused the zombie epidemic. Robbed of the superpowers she showed off in the previous film (2007’s Extinction), Alice flies a plane into Los Angeles with her rediscovered partner Claire (Ali Larter) in tow. A few survivors greet them, hoping they’ve come from the safe haven Arcadia to rescue them. One of them, the mistrusted soldier Chris Redfield (Wentworth Miller), is a character from the Resident Evil video game. On the streets below are hordes of zombies, some of whom extrude tentacles from their faces, and there’s one hulking creature called the Executioner, who wields a mighty axe.

Resident Evil: Afterlife is being shown in 3D in some theaters, and unlike many fake-3D efforts this year, this one’s the real deal, shot with the same stereoscopic process James Cameron devised for Avatar. The look is clean, crisp, hermetic — you can almost feel the air conditioning in the vast chambers of the Umbrella lairs. With 3D, you can’t go hog-wild with herky-jerky editing and a shaky-cam, which seems to suit director Paul W.S. Anderson just fine; indeed, so much of this 90-minute movie is filmed in ponderous slow motion that I suspect there’s only enough actual footage for a short film. There certainly isn’t enough script; the movie just kind of comes to a stop instead of, y’know, ending. But there are worse ways to pass an hour and a half than watching Milla Jovovich and Ali Larter shooting the hell out of zombies and mutants. Larter’s a former model too, so these two are like glam sisters in mayhem. It may not be a step up from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, but I can’t bring myself to call it a step down, either; a step sideways, perhaps.

Silent Hill

April 21, 2006

The creepy survival-horror video-game series Silent Hill, from what I gather, is an immersive and mystifying experience. It’s all about atmosphere and dread. The movie version is like a big piece of fan fiction that fills in everything left unexplained in the games, and some fans of the games may appreciate that, while others may not feel that the invented mythology lives up to the story in their imaginations. I come to Silent Hill as someone who’s seen the game played a couple of times, so I approach it as a horror fan watching a horror movie. What I can tell you is that the film imports the atmosphere successfully, but everything it adds felt tired to me — ah, jeez, not religious wackos again.

Silent Hill is certainly the oddest film in a long while to get a wide release in this country. Gnarled, twisted, faceless things come writhing out of the shadows, presenting not danger so much as a kind of metaphysical repulsion. The game started with the Japanese, as so much recent horror does, and they know how to tweak the senses with nightmare logic. For them it all seems post-Hiroshima — all ghosts, or deformity, or deformed ghosts. What a French director (Christophe Gans, who made Brotherhood of the Wolf) and a Canadian screenwriter (Roger Avary, who cowrote Pulp Fiction and directed The Rules of Attraction) do with this fundamentally Japanese material makes for a strange yet conventional mix.

Rose (Radha Mitchell) has been worrying about her little daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland), who’s been sleepwalking and talking about a town called Silent Hill. The place has been deserted for years, a casualty of coal-mine fires. Despite the wealth of online information about the town, Rose decides to take Sharon there. In the dead of night, and without her husband (Sean Bean, little more than an afterthought). Well, if we outlawed dumb behavior in horror movies, there’d be none left.

A female cop (Laurie Holden) gets involved, and soon she and Rose are exploring the ashy town, looking for Sharon and dealing with various freaky creatures. One such critter, known to fans as Pyramid-Head, is the movie’s equivalent of a “boss battle.” Indeed, even gamers who aren’t familiar with Silent Hill will recognize the structure: Here’s a Clue! You may want to investigate room 111. There doesn’t seem to be a room 111, but there is a painting here — press the X button to check it.

Christophe Gans fashioned a pretty good werewolf-fantasy pastiche with Brotherhood of the Wolf, and here he goes all out with the rusty, gore-spattered walls and chained-up corpses. Silent Hill is unquestionably the most visually alive film based on a video game, though, given the source, it would take concentrated ineptitude not to make it look interesting. But all of this creepiness and visual ingenuity leads to … a bunch of holy-roller throwbacks who shout, without irony, things like “Burn the witch, kill the demon!” (I half-expected Michael Palin to pop up and accuse Rose of having turned him into a newt.) The last third of the movie, devoted to these idiots in 19th-century drag (led by a poofy-haired Alice Krige), is exceptionally dull, despite the appearance of a barbed-wire demon that earns the movie its R rating all by itself. The message goes all the way back to Carrie: Don’t abuse weird little girls or they will fuck you up.

The set-up of Silent Hill, like the video games, is intriguing and original — newcomers won’t be sure where it’s going. When everything starts being explained, though, the mystery evaporates and the world of the game loses its eerie bafflement — which is half its power. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is no more than functional and the acting little better (Radha Mitchell tries and sometimes fails to squelch her Aussie accent; Sean Bean doesn’t even bother to cloak his English accent; somehow, he’s supposed to be playing someone named Da Silva — his family must be from the famous British part of Portugal). Silent Hill takes something freaky and unclassifiable and gradually turns it into … a horror flick. And a horror flick that, as a horror fan, I’ve seen before: yeah, The Ring meets Hellraiser meets The Village. The game wasn’t anything meets anything. And now, unfortunately, the game has met Hollywood.

BloodRayne

January 6, 2006

When the credits proudly announce “Special Appearance by Billy Zane,” you know you’re in trouble. Zane, however, is actually pretty funny in BloodRayne, a witless action-vampire flick based on a video game. He plays Elrich, some sort of elite vamp who mostly sits in his study and acts snarky. “Would you stop throwing things at me?” he deadpans at a minion who has tossed a scroll and, earlier, a severed head onto his desk. Zane’s dialogue is the only evidence I could find of credited screenwriter Guinevere Turner, who wrote the ’90s lesbian indie film Go Fish and has contributed to Showtime’s The L Word. Well, that and the scene wherein the half-vamp heroine Rayne (Kristanna Loken) seduces a female vampire only to chomp her throat.

BloodRayne is the latest in director Uwe Boll’s ongoing crusade to take horror-oriented video games (House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark were his previous efforts) and suck all the life out of them. I’ve played BloodRayne, and its cut scenes are better than anything in the movie. The plot manages the dubious feat of being both dumb and complicated, like the worst James Bond movies, when all it’s really about is stopping king-shit vampire Kagan (Ben Kingsley) before he can gather three ancient body parts that can make him invulnerable. Kagan (no relation to Fagin, whom Kingsley played in 2005’s Oliver Twist) is essentially The Master from Buffy‘s first season, with the Darth Vader spin of also being Rayne’s father (he raped her human mother). Rayne, for her part, is essentially a distaff Blade, only without the impressive arsenal (she could use a Whistler).

But don’t let the presence of fanged bloodsuckers fool you: BloodRayne is really no more a vampire film than Grandma’s Boy is. It’s a derivative quest film, with Rayne accompanied by a motley crew (Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodriguez, and Matt Davis) as she searches for the elusive items — an eye in a monastery, a heart in a box underwater. As she collects these items, her energy points go up — uh, I mean her powers become greater (she can tolerate water, which once scorched her flesh). Unfortunately, Kristanna Loken’s acting becomes no greater. Then again, Maria Falconetti at her peak couldn’t do much with the lines Loken and everyone else (except Billy Zane) are given, and poor Michelle Rodriguez tries hard to maintain some sort of period-appropriate accent but winds up defaulting to her sullen mode. (She and her Girlfight director Karyn Kusama — who came a cropper with Aeon Flux — need to reunite fast and stop faffing about with dorky girl-power fantasies that are really about giving teen boys a peek.)

This was my first Uwe Boll film — weep now for my lost innocence, please — and he’s every bit as inept as I’d heard. His fight scenes are the worst kind of editing-room cheating, meant to cover for actors who haven’t been trained to wield anything more intimidating than a cell phone. Rayne begins the movie as a carny freak, and her escape from that degrading life is shown in a confusing flashback while she’s escaping. Yeah, it didn’t make sense to me either. Loken’s topless sex scene with Matt Davis — clang, clang against dungeon bars (ooh, how medievally erotic!) — might join Elizabeth Berkley’s Showgirls pool-thrashing in sex-scene infamy. Blood squirts and spurts everywhere, a tribute of sorts to the sanguinary game, only the blood looked more realistic there. Meat Loaf collects a check for a couple of scenes as a vamp libertine; Geraldine Chaplin — whose father Charlie is not, let’s hope, following her career from the afterlife — pops in as a fortune teller who fails to tell Kristanna Loken not to sign on for any more Uwe Boll movies based on video games. As it happens, Loken is due to appear in Boll’s In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale in December 2006. Mark your calendars.

Doom

October 21, 2005

Doom_051026023806352_wideweb__300x375A truly bold movie adaptation of the first-person-shooter videogame Doom would simply be an hour and a half of … well … first-person shooting. The camera would take the point of view of an anonymous soldier as he blasts his way through various mutants, zombies, and other unfriendly creatures in the catacombs of Mars. There is actually an extended sequence like that in the movie, tipping its hat to its popular source. It’s pretty clever and has a kind of trigger-finger wit. Otherwise, Doom the movie is likely to thrill only those who have been yearning for a Doom movie. Most others will have seen it all before, in superior action-horror films (Aliens, Predator) and not-so-superior ones (Resident Evil).

Scientists on Mars have been diddling around with a 24th chromosome that makes humans superstrong and almost indestructible. The process, though, also functions as a sort of moral litmus test: If you’re predisposed to violence or psychosis, it’ll make you a monster. So the result is a bunch of dead scientists, and a crew of Hollywood-issue Marines are shipped off to Mars to investigate. Character subtlety is out of the question: the only Marine with a full name is John Grimm (Karl Urban), which suits his general mood. The other guys go by names like Goat, Duke, Destroyer, and Sarge (The Rock).

Helmed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, a decent cinematographer (Thirteen Days, The Devil’s Advocate) turned schlock director (Cradle 2 the Grave, Romeo Must Die), the movie streaks by in unscannable short bursts of gunfire. Doom is plenty bloody and violent, though the hyperactive editors (four are credited) make sure you don’t see much of the carnage, in effect doing the MPAA’s censorious work for it. The videogame was (notoriously) much more brutal; the movie is suggestively brutal, offering quick glimpses of torn flesh, spattered blood. In one memorable bit, a tube of a character’s watery brain matter is applied to a monster’s severed tongue to see if there’s a reaction. That sentence has possibly never been typed before, and I suppose I have Doom to thank for it.

The Rock continues to pursue his apparent dream of being a stoic and colorless action hero, without a trace of the humor he’s shown in interviews, in supporting roles, or even in his old wrestling persona. His one tender moment is played opposite an enormous gun, taking trash-movie autoeroticism about as far as it can go. (Regardless, we see it fired only twice.) Usually a director would try to cast eccentrics around a rock like The Rock, but here we only get Karl Urban, here used for his imposing physique and little else. Urban emerges as the film’s closest thing to a hero, but he’s still not very close, playing a hard-boiled soldier who goes on the mission mainly to rescue his scientist sister (Rosamund Pike, who couldn’t act worth a damn in Die Another Day and still can’t). Only Richard Brake, as the sleazy and duplicitous grunt Portman, gives a performance of any interest, and even that’s on the level of caricature.

And what exactly did I expect from a movie based on a shoot-’em-up videogame? Well, there’s no rule that videogame movies have to be idiotic. And there’s no rule that action-horror flicks need be dumb: James Cameron’s Aliens remains the gold standard in a debased subgenre. Doom, however, proceeds as though those were inviolable rules. And except for a moment involving a monkey in an airshaft the script is as humorless as The Rock’s character. Some time ago there was a famous Internet clip of the online game World of Warcraft, in which a player loudly proclaiming himself “Leroy Jenkins” ran heedlessly into a hazardous level and (hilariously) got everyone else killed. Doom could’ve used a Leroy Jenkins.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse

September 10, 2004

Look: I am far from a cinema snob. I seem to recall saying nice things about Jason X, Anchorman, and other appeals to the base corners of our nature. And I know when to scale down expectations, such as when approaching a horror film based on a video game. The first Resident Evil film (2002), which I recently caught up with on DVD, was dumb as a box of hair but a serviceable Saturday-night beer-and-pizza flick. It certainly didn’t hold a candle to the zombie films of George Romero (who was once slated to direct it), but it moved well enough, and in Milla Jovovich it had a heroine not unpleasant to regard. Resident Evil made money, so now we have Resident Evil: Apocalypse, which doesn’t even hold a candle to Resident Evil. George Romero could direct a birthday-party home video scarier than this.

Not that I expected groundbreaking horror. You go to a Resident Evil flick for the action — specifically, Milla Jovovich vs. zombies. Problem number one: Milla doesn’t really get into the game until halfway into the proceedings. For the first half, we’re following a motley crew of survivors who’ve been locked into Raccoon City with hundreds of zombies — two super-special cops (Raz Adoti and the comely nonactress Sienna Guillory, who plays video game holdover Jill Valentine), a comic-relief black guy (Mike Epps), and a whiny TV reporter (Sandrine Holt). Presumably other humans are kicking around the quarantined city, too, but they must be hiding really well.

Just when things are looking bleak for our four default heroes inside a church — which has become a haven for three vicious mutants with tongues long enough to make Gene Simmons insecure — in rides Milla, on a motorcycle, through a stained-glass window. She dispatches one of the mutants, I think, by entangling it in the flying motorcycle and shooting at the gas tank. Which brings us to problem number two: You can never be quite sure what’s going on. In The Five Obstructions, filmmaker Lars von Trier challenges his mentor to remake a short film in a variety of ways, including one variation in which each shot is only half a second long. RE:A‘s director Alexander Witt (a former second-unit director) and his trigger-happy editors must’ve taken their inspiration from that challenge.

So the action — what we’re there for — is incomprehensible, and the story — what we’re not there for — even more so. At least the first Resident Evil took a minimalist video game structure, with its characters proceeding through identifiable levels. Here, the overdue plot motor kicks in when a brainiac (Jared Harris) offers Milla and the gang a way out of Raccoon City in exchange for rescuing his daughter. They’re on a timetable, too, because the city is due to be nuked by government/military/corporate powers (in this film there’s hardly a difference) at sunrise. So we enter the Escape from New York level of the game, complete with a towering nemesis, appropriately named Project Nemesis, who looks like a cross between Swamp Thing and Eddie, the crazed critter on all those Iron Maiden album covers.

Milla faces off against Swamp Eddie on orders from the bad guys, with the editors working overtime to convince you that a 115-pound former model can wipe the floor with a genetically-engineered hulk. (We’ve just seen her take out a dozen armed guards, but she apparently can’t take out the four or so guards forcing her to fight Swamp Eddie.) The zombie dogs from the first film return briefly, in a pathetic swipe from Jurassic Park‘s raptors-in-the-kitchen scene. The brainiac’s little girl may or may not be the human prototype for the taunting holographic girl in the first movie; the sequel never stops to tell us.

At least Resident Evil paired Milla with Michelle Rodriguez, who brought her sullen Latina brio to the party. This film brings in Jill Valentine, apparently quite a popular character among fans of the game, and though Sienna Guillory looks just like her, it would’ve been nice if the filmmakers had eschewed physical similarity in favor of an actress who can act (not to mention one who’s even faintly plausible as a tough cop). The movie also doesn’t care about the millions of lives lost in Raccoon City as long as our heroes get out unscathed and ensure yet another sequel. And, yes, the ending leaves things wide open for a Resident Evil: Post-Apocalypse, or whatever they wind up calling it.