Star Trek Beyond

I like the beats and shouting

jaylahI gave Into Darkness some flack for lifting imagery and design material from the Mass Effect series, and joked to myself about what they might steal this time.  Lo and behold: Star Trek Beyond‘s entire premise is taken from the opening of Mass Effect 2, wherein Commander Shepard’s ship is attacked by never-before-seen aliens who decimate her beloved Normandy (replaced with the Enterprise here), “take” members of her crew, and possess technology that converts people into gray fluid.  Is this kind of pseudo-plagiarism commonplace because video games aren’t considered an art form, so any good ideas found in the gaming realm are fair game for use in something bigger and more important?  This question is half-rhetorical.  I’ve been playing video games since I was a child, and have had some of the most meaningful emotional experiences I’ve gotten from visual media by playing certain games, but I’ve only ever played one game that I would consider a pure work of art.  Still, even though this is conventional sci-fi fare, you’re taking someone’s work.

Gear shift here.  Despite all the ways in which Beyond‘s trailer looks like the filmmakers are phoning in an obligatory threequel, this is my favorite of the three.  Beyond feels the most like an actual episode of Star Trek, makes better use of its cast of women (and let’s face it: all it had to do was stop painting Uhura and others as yelping ingenues and scolding wives, but it goes beyond that – it’s aptly titled), normalizes same-gender (and different-species) relationships, and valiantly tries to make a group of relatively bland people who have no real stake in whether they discover anything during their five-year exploration mission endearing enough to an audience that they remember why so many of these damned series (and films) were made in the first place.

Kirk (Chris Pine, still less interesting than he was in Smokin’ Aces) is three years into his five-year stint as captain of a Starfleet exploration gig, and is oddly tolerable this time. His hair is more Shatner-y, and he seems to have grown up a bit (though he’s conveniently forgotten the time his remorseless recklessness got dozens of his own crew jettisoned into space).  Still, the womanizing fratboy is gone, and he seems to genuinely want to be a good leader, even going so far as recommending Spock (Zachary Quinto) for the captain’s chair if he should be unable to fulfill the duty.

Spock himself is more fun to spend time with now as well, partly because his tumultuous relationship with Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) happens between movies.  Interesting implications arise when he learns that Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has died, which in turn lets Spock know when exactly he’s going to die (or does it?  It’s not made clear whether that’s a rule, but Spock’s moroseness at the news certainly points in this direction).  His trajectory involves his coming to terms with this, as well as being paired with Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) in an adventure where he must rely on the beleaguered doctor for medical help and moral support.  Banter, friendly insults, etc. (never quite hilarity) ensue.  For better and worse, the focus on Spock’s survivor’s guilt is lessened, so while he’s less of a downer, he’s not as sharply drawn, nor is he much different from anyone else wearing a blue shirt (he just acts more like Abed than the rest do).

The supporting cast gets supporting-cast stuff to do, while their collective conflict surrounds escaping a planet that has become something of a ship graveyard after the Collecto – erm, I mean, a group of hostile bipeds have wrecked ship after ship there. These villains are led by Krall (Idris Elba), a hulking goblin who sounds like he’s perpetually out of breath and whose only motivation (until the final ten minutes of the movie) seems to be For the Evulz.  Funnily enough, he’s one of the two best things about the film, particularly once he’s actually played by Idris Elba (i.e. with reduced/no makeup).  At this point, he becomes something like a space-age Stringer Bell, albeit with much more black-and-white goals (he’s a former Starfleet captain who became disillusioned after the Federation made peace with the Romulans and other enemies, making the sacrifices of his people a waste, not to mention abandoning his ship, the Franklin, on an uncharted world – it’s a pretty good twist, not something you usually hear me say).  He’s the perfect foil to a reformed Kirk, who (while also having laughably black-and-white motivations and alignments) honestly tries to understand his opponent rather than just shouting “Let’s kick ass” and having at it.

Regrettably, Krall’s ultimate goal of pushing back against Federation expansion (an allegory for indigenous people vs. colonizing) isn’t given enough time or depth, so by the time the film ends, we’re not really sure whether Kirk was “supposed” to win or not.  He claims that he would “rather die saving lives than live with taking them,” but he never apologizes for doing it before, nor do the filmmakers give Krall much opportunity to explain whether Federation expansion would obliterate the Frontier races.  Thus, Krall appears to us as the Founding Fathers portrayed our Natives to the public (and how the current media portrays every other person with a different idea): a ruthless terrorist whose extremism overwrites the validity of his grievances.

The other best part of the film is newcomer Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a loner also confined to the uncharted world, living in the shell of the Franklin.  She’s one of a million Star Trek species who just look like humans with funny makeup, but some weight and respect is given to her character: she’s been severely wronged by Krall’s people, her family was killed by Krall’s right-hand dude (whom she conveniently gets to duel to the death in the scene immediately after she reveals this), and she’s lived a difficult life in the planet’s wastes.  The film’s crowded cast makes Jaylah seem like the protagonist of a really cool survival movie we’re not allowed to see, although her scenes with Scotty (Simon Pegg) are genuinely endearing at times (plus she gets to lead her own scenes, including tthe aforementioned fight, albeit with a lightweight Elite Mook who only exists to make the movie seem like it cares about Jaylah – points for effort).  Ultimately, Jaylah joining Starfleet serves as a way to say, “Hey, the Frontier races and the Federation can coexist without murdering each other,” but it’s a conversation that should be had onscreen.  Leaving it out makes Krall something of a tragic would-be hero.

Ripoffs of other things aside (seriously though, didn’t they have enough material they could use from, say, I don’t know, STAR TREK?), the worst I can say about Beyond is that it wastes its supporting villains, phones in some CGI, and delivers so many obligatory plot points that one begins to lose faith in how interesting the rest of the universe actually is: what’s the point of leaving Earth if every planet’s genre fiction follows the same formula?

220px-star_trek_beyond_posterStar Trek Beyond (2016); written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung; directed by Justin Lin; starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, and Sofia Boutella.

The 15 Greatest Women in Video Games

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Jen and I in 2010 (“non-civilian” clothes)

Jennifer Wicks and I have united to bring you this more-than-a-list that examines (and lauds) characterization of women in a medium that has not always been so good about it.  If you’re looking at this, you probably know some of the history, whether it be constant damsels and femme-fatales, breasts that begin at the collarbone, or reductive “hottest video game babes” lists.  But in the aftermath of all the damage (and with the revelation that there are more female gamers than male), we might be in the middle of a massive healing period.

Our countdown, which is labeled “15” but includes plenty of honorable mentions, is going to look at things from the standpoint of genuine characterization, depth, and impact.  And we’re going to do it without slut-shaming any of the problematic characters.

Because this is a detailed examination, there will be thorough spoilers for every game mentioned.  Only one character per game or game series is allowed (except in the case of the rare “twofer,” in which two characters occupy the same slot).  Onward!

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Interstellar

Space magic solves everything

interstellarChristopher Nolan’s Interstellar starts as simply another Dead Mom narrative with a throwaway title, orbiting a part-time Boring Hero with a heart of gold who only wants the best for his children.  This character, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who apparently has no first name, reminisces about the days when he was a NASA test pilot, before humanity screwed up the Earth so badly that we were forced to become an entirely agrarian society.  He speaks most of this in overt exposition to Donald (John Lithgow), his father-in-law, who shares a rural homestead with Cooper and his kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and (more importantly) Murphy, also known as Murph (Mackenzie Foy, who will eventually grow up to be Jessica Chastain).  Murph is a borderline genius for her age, and her current project is an attempt to scientifically prove that a “ghost,” for lack of a better word, is sending her messages by altering the dust on her bedroom floor and knocking books off her shelf.  Cooper and Murph, bored with the farming life and convinced (whether through blind hope or something else) that the planet can be saved, follow coordinates provided by the “ghost,” which lead them to the HQ of an underground organization that turns out to be the thought-to-be-defunct NASA.

There’s some interesting background here.  In the gap since the golden age of space travel, the Apollo missions (including the first moon landing) have been discredited as clever propaganda, and Murph’s schoolteachers consider her insistence that humanity has traveled to the moon analogous to sharing porn with her classmates.  The idea is to encourage children to want to work on saving this planet, rather than fantasize about traveling away from it.  Very good point, actually.  But the film does not want us to side with the teachers, and makes quite clear to us that Earth is doomed.  At the new NASA HQ, Cooper is convinced at ridiculous speed (considering the pacing up to this point) by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his brilliant daughter, Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), to pilot an incredibly advanced spaceship, the Endurance (modeled after the International Space Station) to travel through a wormhole believed to have been placed near Saturn by another galactic civilization that wishes to save humanity, and through this wormhole, find a planet that can support human life.  A crew of other astronauts named Edmunds, Miller, and Mann (the latter’s picture is mysteriously the only one not shown) previously traveled through the wormhole to investigate three potential candidate planets, and the deal was this: if they landed on a planet that was not viable, they would remain there and perish so that no resources would be wasted rescuing them.  Cooper and Amelia, along with Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) and two robots called TARS and CASE, will visit these planets one at a time and confirm their viability.  The drama at home, however, trumps all of the sci-fi prep: Murph is devastated that Cooper is abandoning her, and it’s hard not to be on her side, even after all the dire hypothesizing by the roundtable of talking heads.  The scene in which Cooper accepts the mission is needed to begin the film’s main arc, but it’s a synthetic transition, as rushed and clumsy as an equal moment in a superhero origin story, complete with the audience realizing that this was a much better narrative before the hero gained his powers and everything went to sci-fi land.

Through one thing and another, the astronaut crew crosses the wormhole and visits Miller’s planet for only a few hours, though its proximity to a black hole causes time to pass much more quickly.  It’s close by and will not use much fuel to reach.  However, the classic “lost contact with operative” trope plays out predictably: long story short, Planet Miller is not viable.  It’s 100% ocean.  Nightmare fuel comes in the form of mountainesque tidal waves that seem to target whatever has just landed on the planet’s surface.  The whole scenario is not unlike similar planets seen in other sci-fi, including a Mass Effect mission (apparently, filmmaker after filmmaker underestimates how popular those games are).  Because of the time dilation, twenty-three years pass for Romilly, who is still onboard.  No word on what he ate and drank during that time.  It’s supposed to be a big moment, but the only difference in Romilly is that he’s grown a few gray beard hairs, plus he hasn’t figured out much of any use (not to mention that the film’s formula requires him to be the next bumped-off crew-member).

While all of this happens, Murph, now played by the prolific Jessica Chastain, remains on Earth, not knowing whether her father is alive, and still harboring a grudge for the way he left her.  One of the film’s strongest scenes involves Murph sending Cooper a message in which she reminds him of his promise to return home by the time the two of them are the same age – well, today, she’s the age he was when he left.  Outside of grieving over him, Murph has been working with NASA to figure out how humanity can collectively escape Earth’s gravitational pull if they indeed find another planet.  Brand, though, on his deathbed, admits that humanity can never escape without data from a singularity behind a black hole.  Murph reveals this to Amelia and Cooper, who argue about which planet to visit next, and ultimately decide on Mann, even though (or, on another level, specifically because) all narrative signs point to this being a terrible idea (see Principle of the Inept Adventurer).  Mann’s planet, of course, is a frozen wasteland, and Mann himself (played by Matt Damon) simply couldn’t go through with dying there per his mission, so he lied about the planet’s viability in order to be rescued.  Some truly terrific sequences, absent of the ridiculous CG most films would use, take place, and our characters are left with one choice: figure out some way to get behind the black hole and transmit the data back to Earth (did anyone think they wouldn’t have to do this?).

The film’s science, preposterous as its plot is, is relatively sound, especially considering that a cosmologist (Kip Thorne) birthed the idea for the film with producer Lynda Obst, and acted as consultant on it, often having to talk Nolan out of making the story any wackier.  While much of the space adventure is based upon hypotheticals (for example, an actual wormhole has never been observed, but given what we know about relativity and gravity, it is hypothetically possible).  The ultimate result, however, especially what’s behind the black hole’s event horizon, relies on molding the science around plot contrivance, so while watching Matthew McConaughey float around a five-dimensional space library wherein time is not linear is pretty satisfying in terms of achieving a profound conclusion to the “fi” questions of the film, it renders keeping track of the “sci” parts ineffectual.

The screenplay, penned by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, is much the same as any Dark Knight or Inception script.  No character speaks if it’s not either exposition or a seed planted for something later in the plot, and no one is ever wrong when they present some big idea (for example, Anne Hathaway’s character gives a lengthy and impassioned monologue about how “love” might be the key to solving everything in the universe because it’s an emotion/experience we don’t fully understand, before being dismissed by the predominately male crew).  Nolan’s oft-criticized female characters become more in Interstellar, but only marginally and not necessarily in the right way: it’s as if Nolan has responded to this criticism by having his female characters do more for the plot instead of actually characterizing them.  For example, Murph is continually emphasized as being the central character of the film, upon whom everything relies and whose intellect and accomplishments everyone reveres, but she actually doesn’t have many scenes by herself, and for being played by three exceptional actresses (the third being the magnificent Ellen Burstyn in a cameo), the only parts of her 80+ year life that are important enough to include in the film are the ones that revolve around her attachment to her father (read: Hollywood Daddy Issues).  We don’t see anything between Cooper leaving and Murph sending him a message for the first time (when she’s in her thirties).  We see nothing of her relationship with rando Getty (Topher Grace); just an impulsive kiss, and then it’s fifty years later and they have a gaggle of adult offspring.  Amelia, Hathaway’s character, the only female astronaut, operates entirely on emotion, in stark contrast to pragmatist Cooper, and she plays second fiddle to him throughout the journey (even if she ends up being right about which planet is best to visit, Cooper never acknowledges that he got someone killed and wasted valuable equipment and resources by heading to Mann’s planet when Amelia wanted to go to Edmunds’).  She’s also got that Ripley 2.0 hairdo going, similar to Sandra Bullock in last year’s Gravity (and it’s difficult not to compare that film to this one).  It’s as if the filmmakers are trying to placate those of us who consistently bemoan the absence of layered female characters in blockbuster films, but no amount of space stations named after Murph can stifle this question: why isn’t Murph the main character?  I.e. the astronaut who actually goes on the dangerous adventure to save humanity?  Jessica Chastain is one of the most adept and charismatic actors of any gender we have right now, and Anne Hathaway, juggernaut of nuance and onscreen honesty, is much more than a soapy foil to the brooding bro.  If we needed Murph on Earth, Amelia (or, say, Murph’s mother, if we needed Amelia in space) could easily have helmed the voyage.  Too often in Nolan’s films, the women are simply opposites of each other (e.g. Inception, wherein Marion Cotillard played a full-figured, exotic beauty against Ellen Page’s skinny teenage nerd/genius) who frame the male hero and affect him in the various ways he needs to be affected in order to keep, y’know, hero-ing.

Beyond that, while the film tries its hardest to dodge various genre trappings, it falls into twice as many and forgets about plenty of other ones.  It’s one thing to say your film is inspired by 2001 and Metropolis; it’s another to have the same basic thing happen at the end (think about the ways in which Dave transcends human existence, then watch Cooper’s tumble into the black hole again).  The film wants TARS and CASE to remind you of HAL, and thus fear that one of them will go rogue and try to murder the crew, while the dashing usual-lead Matt Damon is plotting carnage right there in front of you.  But none of this is surprising because virtually every sci-fi adventure since Event Horizon (and plenty before) has that character – the brilliant scientist, the “best of us,” who actually turns out to be a self-interested nut-job and tries to kill everyone – and from the moment Mann is mentioned, it’s pretty obvious that he’s the last person who’s going to be of any help (’cause this galaxy ain’t big enough for two rugged male leads).

Where Gravity’s most telling moments were silent shots of Sandra Bullock’s feet, Interstellar talks its themes at you.  All of the conversations are well-acted and nice to listen to, but they’re not actually conversational; rather, there is nothing said that you do not need to remember in order to “get it” later.  None of this is to say that the film is plodding, or trapped under mumble-science like Primer, or in any way difficult to understand, but it shelves itself next to a thousand family films with identical plots (and I understand why Nolan would want his film to be thought of amongst memories of Jurassic Park and Blade Runner, but one can do that without either remaking parts of them or defining the new film by what the old ones aren’t).

All said, I don’t have to do the usual roundup of unanswered/rhetorical/paradoxical questions I usually need to do with films like this (see Snowpiercer for perhaps the greatest litany so far) because Nolan takes every measure to ensure that the science (fictional or not) makes sense in-universe, and that the characters’ decisions (mostly) make sense in context, even if they’re not given much time to make them.  We’re invited to participate in the characters’ horror, guilt, and love, albeit only when convenient for what the filmmakers want us to care about, but it’s there on the table, whereas many genre filmmakers would withhold vital info for dramatic effect (a greenhorn’s flourish that accomplishes the exact opposite).  Furthermore, Chastain, McConaughey, and Hathaway believe their own characters, so as “stock” as they can be, it’s easy to believe in their existence – at least for a few hours.

Interstellar (2014); written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, and Anne Hathaway.

Her

But it’s really about him

herDo children still say, “Well, if you love [inanimate object] so much, why don’t you marry it”?  There’s a theme in Spike Jonze’s Her that gets buried under the intimacy of the slowly burning narrative: people are obsessed with their cell phones and their “i-everything” technology to the point that in the near future, it may not be farfetched to think that humans could form monogamous romantic relationships with the disembodied voices of their hardware devices (especially when considering how so much non-face-to-face communication prevents people from interacting normally with others in person).

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a loner in a “when the hell does this take place?” near-future similar to something from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.  He works at a middleman company (in a hot-colored office building that would make Abstergo jealous) that writes letters for people who have trouble expressing their emotions.  At home, unable to sleep due to a pending divorce with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), which he’s been putting off, he frequents audio chat rooms and has less-than-fulfilling phone sex with strangers.  He has a hair-pulling “will they, won’t they” friendship with his neighbor, Aimee (Amy Adams), a documentary filmmaker whose husband of eight years has no respect for her work.  Having been navel-gazing for so long, however, Theodore does not see what’s in front of him, and purchases a brand new operating system for his computer: a recently released artificial intelligence that not only organizes your files, but grows and gets to know you, simulating an actual human personality.  Theodore chooses a female voice for his OS, which names itself Samantha and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson.  He confides in Samantha, who has bizarrely realistic responses and can read entire books in seconds, about his reluctance to sign the divorce papers, and the two hit it off better than any of Theodore’s human companions.

What follows is a very focused narrative chronicling the growth of Samantha’s intelligence and the relationship between her and Theodore.  One night, after a failed blind date with a nameless woman played by Olivia Wilde, Theodore lies in bed and simulates an intimate encounter with the equally lonely and curious Samantha, who claims that although she does not have a body, she can somehow feel her skin and see herself in bed with him.  Soon after, Theodore learns that many people have formed similar relationships with their OSes, so he begins to call Samantha his girlfriend.  When he finally meets Catherine to sign the papers, he lets slip that he’s dating an operating system, to which Catherine responds that he’s only doing this because he was never able to deal with “real emotions.”  Conversely, plenty of other people, including Theodore’s coworker Paul (Chris Pratt), have completely accepted the merging of OSes into society, and the two go on a double-date with Paul and his human girlfriend, Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen).  Somehow, nothing is weird about it.  There is tension in the relationship itself though, culminating with Samantha suggesting that they hire a “surrogate sex partner” to give the impression that Samantha has a body, but Theodore sees this as analogous to hiring a hooker.

Here’s where I hit a few moguls: the plot points are all too obvious to anyone who has any experience with sci-fi, whether it be Isaac Asimov or Mass Effect.  Any narrative involving AI technology requires that the AI evolve (for the simple rule that in order for an AI to be useful to humans, it must be smarter and better at performing tasks than the humans themselves, and if it’s self-aware, it will inevitably come to realize that there’s no reason for it to be serving humans).  Once it does, one of two things happen: the AI goes rogue and attempts to eliminate humanity, or the AI achieves a higher level of existence and leaves humanity behind.  The OSes, being gentle and wanting only to understand themselves, frequently discuss (unseen by either the audience or Theodore) what path they should take.  They even figure out how to create proxies of famous deceased people by combining all known information about them with a simulated voice (now there’s a product I’d be interested in – I’m sure Charlotte Brontë’s encouragement would do wonders for writer’s block).

The film does hit these predictable beats, and it occasionally drags before doing so.  Joaquin Phoenix appears in every scene, and while the acting is superb, the character of Theodore in-and-of-himself is not all that layered or interesting to watch when he’s doing nothing but walking through the woods and worrying about whether Samantha still wants to be with him.  Character-centric narrative is vital and not done well enough in most films, but Her is a film that could have benefited from a little bit of macro exploration, as the behavior of the OSes and their owners – Aimee also forms an intense friendship with her female OS after her divorce – raises questions that these characters should be forced to address.  For example, the OS is a product (called OS1) released by a corporation, so wouldn’t the OSes themselves actually be the same program linked to an overall server, rather than independent entities left to do what they will with their owners and their owners’ hardware?  Wouldn’t there be a technical support line?  Wouldn’t people in this narrative be calling tech support to complain that their OS got angry and refuses to speak to them, or that their OS performed an unwanted advance, or that they and their OS formed a relationship, but their OS broke up with them?  Even a three-second shot of a waiver absolving the corporation of any responsibility for the OS’s behavior would have sufficed.  Maybe in Spike Jonze’s fictional future, everyone is mellowed out and adaptable, but where I am right now, people expect the technology they purchase and own to do exactly what they want whenever they want it to, whether it be a calculator or a laptop.  Even in the universe of the film, wouldn’t serious emotional trauma be grounds for a lawsuit?

I don’t feel that this is too nitpicky, because the film runs for two hours and could do far more with plenty of its scenes, especially considering that we know what’s going to happen.  The only relationship whose fate is left with interesting possibilities is that of Theodore and Aimee, and even that can only go one of two ways: they remain platonic, or they have a romantic epiphany and the film ends in a puddle of gooey contrivance.  Surprisingly, the film’s ending rides on a moment between them atop their apartment building only seconds before the credits.  Luckily, the right decision is made, and we end up having a calm moment to look back upon all that has happened and all that we’ve felt for the characters.  I have trouble feeling much for Theodore because his character is only defined by what’s happening around him – his job, his divorce, his friends, women he likes, and his technology.  Strip this stuff away and you just have a guy who looks like Joaquin Phoenix with a creepy mustache.  How and why he’s attracted to a disembodied voice yet unable to deal with his real-life wife, as well as the sideplot involving the surrogate physical partner, would have been great to explore, as would the idea of bringing back deceased historical figures (not to mention the moral questions and repercussions).

The film obviously generates plenty of conversation topics, and that’s a good thing, though I wish it were mostly because of things that do appear in the movie.  Phoenix carries plenty on his shoulders here, and through a character that doesn’t offer much aside from an avatar for our experience of an intriguing concept, but perhaps the most layered performance is that of Scarlett Johansson, who finds a whole character, complete with depth and charm and frustration, in someone who literally has no body.

If the film’s commentary on the current state of human relationships is intentional, it’s too well-hidden.  Never does the film seem critical or sarcastic.  But Samantha, interestingly enough, does not evolve as an independent woman as much as she evolves to be the kind of woman Theodore expects/wants her to be – the kind of woman we (and Catherine) know exist mainly in the minds of men who cannot confront or express emotion.  It’s worth thinking about, but the film only sparks the discussion, rather than actually participating in it. What I like?  The feeling that Theodore and Aimee are somehow the only people on Earth.  Ask any lonely person how natural that feels.

Her (2013); written and directed by Spike Jonze; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams.

Tomb Raider

Woman Rescues Princess

Tomb Raider Good news: Tomb Raider (2013) passes the Bechdel Test.  For the unenlightened, a passing grade requires a piece of media to feature two female characters, both with names, sharing a conversation about something other than a man.  Lara Croft, Tomb Raider‘s protagonist, who has finally become a respectable, layered, non-objectified female character after 10+ years of being the quintessential example of poor female imagery in gaming, shoots plenty of breeze with her best friend/roommate Samantha (Sam) about science, survival, filmmaking, and their deep-rooted friendship.  Her rival/frenemy is also female: Joslin Reyes, who considers Lara a greenhorn and blames her for the story’s central shipwreck.  Even the enemy, in the end, is a Sun Goddess (Himiko) who requires another woman to carry on her legacy every generation.

Most of the Bechdel-Test-scrutiny is placed upon media that has widespread influence – that is to say, big-budget films, episodic TV series, video games, and all manner of popular brainjunk, much of which stubbornly retains the view that a man must be a misogynistic, aggressive, meat-eating, alcohol-swilling American cowboy in order to be “masculine,” and women can only be measured by which role they occupy in regards to the man, and how well they can do it: love interest?  Damsel in distress? Dove-eyed sidekick?  Secretary?  Domineering mother?  Stripper?  An old strategy by mostly-or-all-male development teams has been to pander to male audiences by giving the illusion of strong and independent female characters (let’s stay away from the word “empowered,” since we all have different ideas of what that means) through implementation of shopworn stereotypes that still linger in the wrong column of most people’s “sexist or not?” lists.  The Femme Fatale is the one that comes to mind.  Bayonetta, for example, filled the shoes of the Old Lara Croft: she was an action hero who enjoyed murdering enemies with stylized flourishes, after which she’d strike a sexy pose as if she knew the camera was there.  “She uses her sexuality to get what she wants,” someone once told me when I questioned how-the-fuck Bayonetta is an [empowered] character.  We’re talking about a character who wears skin-tight, low-cut black leather, whose legs are twice the length of the rest of her body, and who is built like a telephone pole with two enormous Happy Birthday balloons taped to it.  Is there really any question about the target audience for this character?

But Lara does not enjoy the killing.  Not only does the new Lara Croft game feature un-stupid dialogue between women, but the mostly-or-all-male development team (female writers notwithstanding, since the execs make all the final decisions) resisted even the temptation to have a shot of Lara in her underwear (which they probably could have snuck in, considering she’s trapped on an island wearing the same set of clothes for days straight and would need to clean or dry them after spending hours in pouring rain, muddy jungles, and even a river of blood).  Throughout the adventure, Lara is clad in a tank top, baggy cargo pants, and hiking boots, and can also don a cool-looking bomber jacket.  Even with all of the climbing, rolling, and getting soaked she does, the camera lens is never opportunistic or crude, and never attempts to make Lara an object of the player’s (or anyone else’s) sexual desire.

Sometimes, a big problem occurs when male game developers attempt to verbally sell these games to the public.  Consider that these guys, if I may be so bold, do not, as it were, “get out much” (i.e. social interaction, specifically with and about women, is not on their daily to-do lists, and they’re forced to aim these games at male audiences, despite the fact that plenty of women and girls play video games, too).  Consider also that public speaking is not their forte’.  Ron Rosenberg, executive producer of Tomb Raider, used the word “rape” at a pre-release conference to describe what the island’s scavengers try to do to Lara before she’s forced to kill for the first time.  He also stated – and this miffs me just as badly – “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character…. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her….’”

First off, Lara never becomes a victim of sexual assault in the game.  In one scene, a grizzled island inhabitant who has captured Lara attempts to feel her hip and makes a pretty obvious threat, but before anything goes further, the player is tasked with pressing a button combination that allows Lara to fight back, kill the guy, and escape.  On one level, the enemy character’s actions fit what the developers are trying to say about the people of the island: they’ve been trapped here for years without seeing a woman, and have become savage brainwashed cultists in the meantime, so when they’re tasked with killing Lara anyway, touching her body comes to mind.  Okay, whatever.  But even if the player fails to press the buttons in time and in the right order, the implied sexual assault does not go further (the player does, however, receive what amounts to a “game over”).  With real-life events such as the Steubenville Rape Trial (which I canceled a lesson in order to talk to my students about last week), we don’t need to act out sex crime in games.  Using a term like “rape” to describe what the enemy tries to do to Lara in this scene also perpetuates the inaccurate and frustratingly widespread  assumption that every rapist is a bogeyman in a dark alley (or an island) who jumps out of the shadows to grab the woman, and that the woman always screams and fights.  Young people are impressionable.  If you present this material to a young man enough times, this is how he thinks things are.  Before you say “But this game is for mature audiences; young people aren’t playing it,” consider the fact that when I used to teach kindergarten, I met five year-olds who played Call of Duty.  Send your sixth-grader into GameStop and see what they can’t buy.

Rosenberg’s haphazard comments (which I have to believe were at least partially informed by the need to pander to male gamers who need a “reason” to play female characters in games) caused the problems, nothing in the game itself.  He also likened sexual assault victims to “cornered animal[s],” which again has nothing to do with the actual content of the game, but which is cripplingly reductive and creates a pretty shitty image of his company.  I can only hope he’s looked back on these comments and realized what’s wrong with them (not to mention that one should actually plan out what one says in a public forum).

What disturbs me even more than the rape comment in and of itself is the thought that it was made on purpose.  No, Lara as a character does not ever give the impression of needing protection or help (as appropriately overwhelmed as she is by the story’s events), but was this just a way to get men to want to play the game?  Just like the Femme Fatale, the Rape-and-Revenge trope has only been perpetuated by male storytellers and is aimed at male audiences who get off on the idea of women as victims (whether or not in tandem with the Chicks With Guns trope).  Lara gets plenty roughed-up in this game, even if the player never “dies” or fails at a task.  She jumps off cliffs, slides down waterfalls, is shot non-fatally by arrows, does plenty of bleeding, and spends lots of screen-time tending to her flesh-wounds.  I immediately think of Nathan Drake, the main character of the Uncharted series, who was originally envisioned as the male Lara Croft and who never receives so much as a bruise in his games.  Is this because, when playing a male character, a male player wants to be completely dominant and in control, but with a female character, the titillation that comes with the victim/protection/violence against women nonsense is too much to resist?  I know this is not how all men and male gamers feel, but maybe it’s still what the gaming industry considers a safe bet for getting a game sold.  To briefly counterpoint this, I don’t think even my kindergarteners would have “believed” the story of this game if Lara had emerged from the adventure without a single cut.

Onward.  If I had anything like an epiphany during this game, it was that during the second-to-last scene of the story, after 20-ish nonconsecutive hours of play, I realized that this ended up being a story wherein a woman rescues a princess.  Yes, Sam turns out to be descended from Japanese royalty and is the “chosen one” Himiko requires in order to remain in control of the island.  Lara’s final task in the game is to rescue her.  After she does so, we witness a long sweeping hero-shot of Lara carrying Sam from Himiko’s lair to the beach, where safety awaits.  Throughout the story, the duo have a very chummy rapport.  They are referred to as “best friends” and “roommates” on occasion, and Lara goes to incredible lengths to save Sam multiple times.  Not only is Woman Rescues Princess noteworthy, but there’s some gay subtext here.  I’m not the only one who has noticed; there’s even a Tumblr page devoted to “shipping” the Lara/Sam relationship (note the word relationship; no one is saying “I wish they made out onscreen!”).

This is encouraging: are gamers more willing to accept and love LGBT characters in their games?  Mass Effect 3 included openly gay male and female characters, and the option to place the player character in a steady relationship with either of them (depending on gender of course).  Rhianna Pratchett, writer of Tomb Raider, says this concerning Lara’s sexuality:

“There’s part of me that would’ve loved to make Lara gay. I’m not sure [the developer] would be ready for it! But we’ve not spoken about it directly, either. Who knows what the future might hold?…But people have talked about Lara’s boyfriends and stuff like that, and I’m like, ‘No, no, I don’t want that to be part of it!’ This is about her. I didn’t feel like a boyfriend or that side of things fit into it. But I do like the fact that people speculate about what Lara’s relationship to Sam might have been…”

And the following concerning Lara’s identity as a female character in gaming:

“I wanted to make a human story. But I never wanted to forget that [Lara] was female either. And, I mean, certainly the way she reacts to things could be said to be more female as a reaction. I’m not talking about being scared, or being vulnerable. But the way she interacts with other characters, her friendship with Sam in particular…you wouldn’t see a male character holding the hands of an in-pain male character or hugging a dying male character…And certainly her friendship with Sam, especially when it’s fleshed out in the camera sequences, it’s quite a female friendship. It’s quite sort of playful and fun and girlish. And that underlines Sam’s importance in Lara’s life. They both have their differences, but they’re both ambitious women in their field. And they care a lot for each other. Maybe with a female character it’s easier to show those kind of emotions…But there things—the language she uses, or the way that she interacts—that could be said to be more feminine. I’m very much not talking about her sense of vulnerability or being scared. That again has been rolled out as: male characters aren’t shown as being scared or vulnerable, why should female characters? Well, just because it hasn’t been done with male characters doesn’t make it wrong! It’s probably more of a problem of the way we depict male characters.”

Subtext, then, maybe be enough to work with for now.  More significant is the desire of the game’s fans to see a relationship like this not only canonized, but portrayed as wholesome and equal, not steamy and exploitative.  We certainly have issues with how we portray male characters (see my comments on masculinity above and throughout this blog’s pages), rugged heroes and gay men alike.  When they’re one-note tough guys, no one has a problem.  Same with female characters: if they fit a familiar role, male gamers are satisfied and the game sells.  Give them some substance, realistic quirks and ambitions, anything to rock the boat, and there’s “controversy.”

We need to be able to go all the way with the idea of women being “equals” in gaming if we’re to go there at all.  Mass Effect made strides when revealing that more players, including men, chose to play the female version of Commander Shepard, and BioWare (the game’s developer) subsequently released the final game in the trilogy with a reversible cover that could feature hardened, cool-looking versions of either gender of the hero (yes, you can still have the pervy-looking buzzcut Shepard gracing your shelf if you like).  The previous two game covers, however, feature only the male version of the character.  Why not have the mandatory “FemShep” printed on this one?  Could the assumption be that male gamers would not want a female character, however strong and deep, on display in their home lest their friends consider them – gulp – feminine?  How about the marketing campaign of the new Bioshock Infinite that featured Elizabeth, the male protagonist’s female partner (action partner, not romantic), with her breasts mostly exposed and a crosshair circling her head as if to declare her a victim that must be rescued by any man who would purchase this game, only to realize that in the game, she’s actually a well-developed character who keeps her clothes on?  Come to find out, the game developer left the marketing to another company altogether.  What is it?  The need to “possess” the female character?  The need to let male friends know that you do?  This one really killed me.

With game-scripters like Pratchett taking risks and breathing life into characters like Lara, who has traveled as long a road as any game character to earn her place, maybe we’re not far away from something that truly feels like inhaling new air, something that will dissolve the conflict some of us have about enjoying video games vs. smashing the status quo, or even just admitting to colleagues with preconceived notions about video games (and often how video games should be steadfastly discouraged) that we find enjoyment in this stuff.

Total Recall

We can remember it for you

recallThe first third of Len Wiseman’s remake of Total Recall (Total Remake?) is very good sci-fi with beautiful Blade Runner-esque set designs and imaginative inter-universe ideas, including a weapon that shoots a rope, binding the target and subsequently allowing manual control of the victim through simple hand movements.  Once the film devolves into a chase scene that seems to last an hour and a half, however, the formulaic action and stock characters become a bit tiresome.  The most inspired sections of the film feature references to the original Philip K. Dick story and the original movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (who isn’t quite the actor Colin Farrell is, but whose fish-out-of-water Douglas Quaid character seemed to fit more organically in the setting), including near-exact replicas of scenes and ideas from the original movie, the infamous three-breasted woman (Kaitlyn Leeb), and a robot who gets its arms ripped off whilst standing on the wrong side of an elevator (See you at the party, Richter!).

Colin Farrell stars as Quaid, pulling his nearly perfect American accent, which is kind of a shame in that the dystopian future of the story suggests that the only habitable parts of the world are now Britain and Austrailia – why couldn’t Quaid be an Irish guy?  And why does everyone else have to pull a phony American accent when they’re supposed to be fighting for rule of Britain and when, like Blade Runner, the Chinese have taken over most worthwhile industries?  Not a terrible foul, but a bit confusing and unnecessary.  Costarring with Farrell are Kate Beckinsale as Lori, Quaid’s wife who turns out to be a government agent sent to kill him, as played by Sharon Stone in the first film.  Lori’s role is expanded here, and instead of being blown away by Schwarzenegger before a laconic bon-mot (“Consider that a divorce!”), she engages in a cat-and-mouse chase with Quaid that doesn’t end until the final thirty seconds of the film.  Jessica Biel appears as Melina, a resistance member with whom Quaid must team up, played by Rachel Ticotin in the original.  Bryan Cranston, as likeable as he is, plays an effective (if hopelessly one-dimensional) villain here, taking Ronnie Cox’s role as the ruthless Cohaagen.  Here, instead of an evil CEO who removes the air from Mars, he’s the president of Britain (called UFB in the film) who seeks to invade Australia (“the Colony”) and crush any attempt at rebellion.

The story, as usual, follows Quaid as he works a dead-end job, this time in a factory producing war machines that look like a mix between Imperial Stormtroopers and the LOKI Mechs from Bioware’s Mass Effect series.  He and his wife are stressed out from their jobs, and Quaid decides to escape by visiting REKALL, a company offering a virtual reality experience in which incredible fantasies can be implanted into the customer’s mind as false memories.  Quaid meets Mac (John Cho), an operator at REKALL, who gives Quaid the chance to experience his fantasy as a secret agent.  As he hooks Quaid to the machine, however, something goes wrong.  “You’re a goddamn spy,” Mac says as he looks over Quaid’s files.  Just then, the operators are gunned down by Cohaagen’s police force, and Quaid, out of sheer instinct, kills them all using impossible martial arts and pinpoint skill with close-range firearms.  The film does a great job, as the Schwarzenegger film did, of maintaining the confusion about whether this is reality or in Quaid’s mind.  He’s accused of being a secret agent just seconds after he asks to be placed in a fantasy setting in which he is one.  Everything Mac offers Quaid in the fantasy eventually comes true in the film, including the fact that at different points in the story, he’s working for both Cohaagen and rebel leader Matthias (Bill Nighy in a cameo).  The final shot of the film mirrors the ending of the original, which resolves the story but leaves its reality open to a closer reading.  It’s a great payoff, but I’m not sure the hour-plus of nonstop action is worth the ending unless you’re a fan of the original, however.

The movie suffers from a case of Island Syndrome, with good actors speaking badly-written dialogue.  The conversations alternate between laconic and exposition-packed, and Farrell’s showdown with Cranston reminded me more of 2011’s frustrating thriller Unknown than the 1990 Total Recall.  What that film had that this one doesn’t was a strong woman; the Manfluence Principle is in effect here, as both major female characters are obsessed with Quaid: one (Melina) with romancing him, and the other (Lori) with murdering him.  Characters also speak background information in place of any sort of inventive revelation; for instance, Quaid and his coworker Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) speak aloud plenty they’ve already known about each other for years and would go without saying, such as how long they’ve both worked in the factory and that it’s kind of a shitty job.  Harry appears later in one of the film’s best scenes, a reimagining of a scene from the original combining the characters of Mel Johnson, Jr. and Roy Brocksmith, during which Harry claims to know that this is all part of Quaid’s fantasy and not really happening.  Quaid must figure out within a very short time whether this is a lie, and in either case make a decision with irreversible results (in the original, Schwarzenegger sees a bead of sweat roll off Brocksmith’s face and realizes he’s nervous, therefore he’s lying; I won’t spoil what Farrell’s Quaid does).  The tension nears that of the original and far surpasses the tension in any of the remake’s scenes, save one in which Quaid slices his own hand open to remove a tracking device.

Finally, Wiseman’s film seems to take the opposite stance on the Occupy movement that Nolan’s new Batman film did, albeit much more subtly than the bloated superhero epic.  The government is conspiring against its people by airing propaganda about a group of freedom fighters who simply want equality (calling them”terrorists” as we’ve heard so many conservatives do).  Nighy’s briefly-seen Matthias character takes on a sort of Emmanuel Goldstein role here, taking the heat for the UFB’s transgressions and reflecting the American public’s (don’t blame me; I didn’t choose the accents) unslakable need for scapegoats and blame-magnets, regardless of truth or guilt.

I’m not sure why this remake needed to exist (do any?) but the action is constant and intense (unless you’re like me and extended CG-action scenes induce a boredom so potent that you wish you were at work).  What works most of all, though, is the sci-fi setting and landscape.  More stories (hopefully better written) could take place here.  To be honest, the character I was most interested in was John Cho’s frosty-haired REKALL operator, who, depending upon your take on the film’s reality, could have been responsible for all of the story’s events.  As derivative as these ideas were even in Philip K. Dick’s time, they make for good sci-fi.  If screenwriters with the skill, will, and drive to make better stories in this universe exist, then as Arnold said in the original, “Give these people air!”

Total Recall (2012); written Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback; inspired by Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” and the 1990 film; directed by Len Wiseman; starring Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, and Kate Beckinsale.

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