Suicide Squad – Review

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This is the film I was most excited to see this summer. When it comes to comic book universes, the DC world and its characters have had my heart since I was eight years old. The stakes were high: some of these characters were being brought to live-action life for the first time, while others, like the Joker, were about to be reinvented for an entire generation of movie-goers. And after Batman v. Superman was torn apart by critics and became, among superhero fans, possibly the most divisive comic book movie of all time (even though I personally loved that film), the DC cinematic universe really needed a win. And though I wanted Suicide Squad to be an incontestable masterpiece, I have to settle for a stylish, messy film with streaks and flecks of brilliance.

Early on in its production, set leaks and updates seemed poised to make sure that we felt like we had already seen the entire film before it came out. And then, suddenly, we knew next to nothing about the plot of the movie. A series of trailers showed a misfit band of bad guys brought together to do… something, and we had no idea what the movie was going to be about, or even who the villain would be. Unfortunately, what was being so carefully concealed for a while there is a pretty flimsy story. Our team of bad guys take on an evil whose goal is… practically the same as the main villain from the first Avengers film: shine a pillar of light into the sky and bring an army of faceless evil into the world, only with more of a Gozer the Traveler flair.

Against this dark force stand our anti-heroes, a team of special individuals who are supposedly being brought together in case the U.S. government needs someone who can stand up against a metahuman as powerful as Superman. This rationale becomes laughable when we actually see what most of the squad is capable of. No, a guy with perfect aim and a mentally damaged woman could not stand up to the likes of General Zod. But if we can get past the eye-rolling and buy into that conceit, the characters are colorful and certainly grab hold of your attention early on.

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The heart of the film is shared between four characters: Deadshot, Harley Quinn, El Diablo, and Rick Flagg. Most of the other members of the Squad end up background characters. Nobody is coming out of this movie saying, “Wow, wasn’t Captain Boomerang awesome?!” He’s there. He has his moments. And that’s about all that we can say about Killer Croc, too. Or Katana, a character I love from the comics who does not get much to do here except stand around looking dangerous. Which she does with aplomb. Will Smith’s Deadshot aims to become one of the few emotional tethers between the audience and the film. An assassin with the heart of a family man, his relationship with his young daughter is one of the few human connections the audience is invited to feel between its characters. Yeah, it feels a little like you’re being manipulated at times, especially watching the flashback scene in which Deadshot is caught, but it is as human as the film gets. Smith’s charm goes a long way toward making the film feel fun, which it sometimes struggles to do. This is not Guardians of the Galaxy, even though it hits some of the same storytelling beats. El Diablo is one of the characters who stood out unexpectedly. His character arc is the most dramatic in the film, and his attempt at giving up a life of crime makes him one of the most heroic members on the team. Rick Flagg is the good guy soldier type tasked with making sure our anti-heroes stay together and do their job. He also has a personal stake in the team and their mission. He works as a kind of moral center to the team, but he himself is, unfortunately, not as interesting as all of the characters that surround him. But we need him to play straight man to everyone else’s antics.

Viola Davis as Amanda Waller is just about perfect. Whenever she is on screen there is never any doubt as to who is the most in-control person in the room. DC fans who might have been disappointed in Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor might find what they were looking for in Waller. She’s smart, cool, has her claws in the government, knows all about metahumans, and has a mean streak at her core that never ceases to catch people off guard. My only gripe is that she is underused in the film’s second half.

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Harley Quinn seems to have overtaken Wonder Woman as the premiere female character of the DC comics universe. She’s beloved by fans, endlessly marketable, and psychologically complex enough to inspire arguments. Margot Robbie does a good job with the character, but suffers from a script that does not show off nearly enough of what Harley Quinn could be. She tends to be the group’s Smurfette, and though they obviously want her to be the team wild card, she is never let off her leash enough to really cut loose. In short she is underused, even though she is one of the main characters and gets plenty of screen time. Her main purpose in the film, other than serving as fanservice, seems to be a reason to draw the Joker into the plot. Their strange, alien “romance” is one of the highlights of the film, even though it leaves me hoping that the DC cinematic universe follows what the comics are currently doing with the character and sees her step out from the Joker’s shadow and become her own lead. I’m fine with them starting the character off in her Mad Love, Joker’s Sweetheart phase, but Harley has grown beyond that on the page, and her on-screen incarnation should do the same.

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Jared Leto’s Joker is a visual feast, but is never allowed to be a character in the movie. He only has one Point of View scene in the entire movie, and it lasts about two seconds. It’s an important two seconds, and vital for understanding the twisted Joker/Harley romance, but it’s not enough to give the character any kind of depth. Heath Ledger’s Joker was a revelation, a complicated villain with philosophical reasoning behind his wickedness. Leto’s Joker feels like a step backward, a garish gangster with only the most basic selfish motivations for anything he does. Now, none of this has anything to do with Leto as an actor. He’s actually great in the role. He just wasn’t given a script worthy of the character. If you are looking for a scene as delicious as the Dark Knight’s police station interrogation or hospital scenes, you are going to be sorely disappointed. The only saving grace here is that this was never the Joker’s movie, and so much of the character remains a mystery that the next time the DC cinematic universe decides to use him (perhaps in an Affleck-directed solo Batman film?), they really could take the character anywhere they wanted to go. And I would be there to see it. I remain intrigued. But for now, Suicide Squad serves only to whet the appetite of Joker fans, not to give them anything they can sink their teeth into.

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The characters are hit-and-miss, the plot is a mess, and the action sequences are far too often pitting our misfits against what amount to DC’s version of Rita Repulsa’s putties. I sat in the theater watching the Squad’s first encounter with the forces of evil, irritated and painfully aware of how little investment I had in the fight. I’ve grown tired of faceless hordes of chitauri, dark elves, and Ultron clones for comic book heroes to slaughter. I want fights that matter. Thankfully Suicide Squad does have a couple of those, but you have to wait a long time for them, and almost every fight leading up to the “Boss” fight comes in a single flavor. Much as it was in Guardians of the Galaxy, the eventual bond of friendship that forms between the team feels forced. And because half the team here have been relegated to background characters, and many of them are supposed to be remorseless killers, it feels even more forced. When the characters finally sit around and have a conversation with each other toward the end of the film and start to become a “family” of sorts, it just doesn’t feel earned.

And yet, for all its flaws, Suicide Squad does some things right. David Ayer’s film looks gorgeous from start to finish. The costumes and make-up are fantastic. The Joker’s new look has been controversial, to say the least, but for this film it works. El Diablo’s skeletal tattoos, the Enchantress’s mystical regalia, Deadshot’s gear: all of it looks really cool and fits the larger aesthetic of the film. The visual effects for the Enchantress, in particular, are spooky and memorable, and when the team surveys the physical damage their mysterious adversary causes to both people and the cityscape, it’s chilling in a Lovecraftian way. Harley’s origin flashback, the film’s supernatural sequences, and many of the Joker scenes all look darkly beautiful on screen. (There is even a sequence bringing to life one of Alex Ross’s famous paintings, which is sure to delight comic book fans.) They may not be critical darlings, but so far DC has yet to release a film in its cinematic universe that doesn’t have a unique visual stamp on it. This film universe looks nothing like MARVEL or the X-Men’s world, and I’m hoping this is a trend that continues with next year’s Wonder Woman.

Suicide Squad is style over substance, but when the characters do shine, they make a case for each of them getting to headline their own film. There is absolutely no reason not to give Harley Quinn and Deadshot their own movies right now, and make Waller the puppetmaster of the entire DC cinematic universe. I was engaged with all of the character-heavy moments, from their introductions and flashbacks to their dreams and fantasies, but felt my attention wavering during the action sequences until the end. With three movies out now, the DCCU should be taking flight, but instead it still seems to be finding its feet. I’m not concerned, especially since Geoff Johns has been given keys to the kingdom over at Warner Bros. If we can get some better writing to go with the unique visual direction and characters we’ve been getting in their films so far, the films of the DCCU could end up something special.

Batman v. Superman is Awesome – the Critics are Wrong

Batman v. Superman poster

So the movie is out, reviews are in, and most critics agree that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a bad movie. As of this writing it is currently holding a 30% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics calling it a “dour disappointment” and claiming that the creators of the film “managed to drain all the fun out of these characters and their world.”

Can it really be that bad?

No, it’s actually quite good, a visually stunning spectacle that delivers on its promise to bring together two of the most popular superheroes in the world for a fight that may decide the future of humanity. Zack Snyder remains a fantastic visual director, and Hans Zimmer’s score is electric. Ben Affleck does not disappoint as the Batman, there are Easter eggs aplenty to excite the comic book fans in the crowd, and the action sequences are wonderfully crafted.

So what went wrong? Why do so many critics say that this isn’t a movie worth seeing?

By now MARVEL Studios has trained the moviegoing audience to expect certain things from a superhero movie. (I say this as a fan of the MARVEL cinematic universe who just finished watching the second season of Daredevil and loved it.) MARVEL’s films tend to keep to a familiar formula and tone, and after a dozen of them we think we know what a superhero movie is supposed to be. (Even a genuinely lackluster MCU film like Thor: the Dark World ranks more than 60% on Rotten Tomatoes.) Most of the critics of Batman v. Superman are panning it for not being fun. And by “fun” they mean funny and lighthearted the way that MARVEL’s films are. To them, a serious superhero film is a contradiction.

Not that the film doesn’t suffer from being a little too dark and brooding. It does, but not as much as the critics would have you believe. The reason for this is probably that DC has learned over the years that their greatest critical and financial successes have come from telling darker stories (Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, their animated films, the Arkham video games…). Meanwhile, their attempts at lighter fare (such as the awful Green Lantern film) have not been as well loved, to put it mildly. The Dark Knight raked in over a billion dollars and they thought they knew what the audience wanted from their movies. It’s a misunderstanding that has haunted the current film version of Superman, who is consistently glum. Indeed, Superman is the one character that Snyder does not get at all.

Despite that, Batman v. Superman is a triumph of comic book inspired cinematic storytelling. To paraphrase another DC film, it may not be the movie we deserve, but it’s the one we need. MARVEL’s formula is beginning to show its cracks. As much as I enjoy them, I’m starting to walk out of the theater after seeing one with the feeling that I’ve seen that movie before. They are still fun, but they no longer feel special. Age of Ultron was a better film than the first Avengers movie, but it didn’t really give the audience anything they hadn’t seen before. The comic book movie craze is showing no signs of slowing down, but I find myself wanting something different. And Dawn of Justice delivers. It may not be a perfect film, but for every moment that falls short, another soars.

Batman v. Superman takes its heroes seriously. We get to see what it looks like when the gods come down from Heaven and make Earth their battleground. And even though this take on the popular characters is going to polarize fans, I give DC credit for daring to do something different with their familiar heroes. This Superman is not universally beloved by the world. He’s practically worshipped by some, and outright despised by others, and all his efforts to do good seem only to open the door to more tragedy. This Batman is not the bloodless ninja warrior from Nolan’s films. He’s grown old and bitter, even cruel. He’s so cynical that he’s not capable of seeing the goodness in someone like Superman. This Lex Luthor… is something we really haven’t seen before.

I love the character of Lex Luthor, and every on-screen portrayal of him has brought something new to the role. Gene Hackman gave us a charming but silly criminal mastermind. John Shea’s take on the character was a white collar criminal and romantic rival to Clark Kent. Kevin Spacey’s Lex was a darkly jealous supervillain. Michael Rosenbaum gave us the definitive Lex Luthor by portraying a noble young man who slowly lost his soul in exchange for power. We’ve seen the character from quite a few angles over the years, but Jesse Eisenberg’s plays the character with a manic intensity we haven’t seen before. His playful menace is hypnotic, and while fans seem divided over his performance, I was enthralled.

Even though the movie hums with new ideas, the hearts of these characters are still very much familiar territory. Even in a world that does not accept him as their friend, Superman is an awe-inspiring force of goodness with a very human core of love. Even though he’s let his life and home fall into complete disrepair, Batman is still out there saving the innocent and fighting the never ending battle. Even though he comes off as something of a goofball, Lex Luthor is still a genius who wields science as a weapon like one who would take on God himself.

I am excited to see where Zack Snyder and company take these characters in the upcoming Justice League film. Especially Superman. After that ending, there is a world of potential. For a hero like him, the sky is no limit.

 

Stray thoughts:

They sure took the criticisms of Man of Steel‘s wanton destruction to heart, didn’t they? Unfortunately I think they went too far. There were no less than three different instances of assuring the audience that areas where the film’s final villain was rampaging were depopulated, which made the whole affair feel a little too safe. You shouldn’t tell viewers, “Don’t worry, there’s no one around for the monster to hurt.”

Seeing Wonder Woman in action was a pleasure, and makes me excited to see what she does with her own movie next year. It’s taken a long time for comic books’ premiere heroine to get her own film, but if what we see here is any indication, the wait might just have been worth it.

Snyder’s Ultimate Edition director’s cut is supposed to be half an hour longer. I’m still not convinced a film with Superman in it needs an R-rated release, but I’m eager to see the definitive version of this movie.

The glimpse we see of the other Justice League characters was kind of cheap, but at least it didn’t distract from the main event of the film. I was wondering how they were going to fit Aquaman into this movie. Wonder Woman’s role felt natural, even if a bit tacked on, but any more would have been too much.

Hans Zimmer’s score is a super-power in itself. I love his twisted, broken Lex Luthor theme.

Now that I’ve seen the DCCU’s Batman, I’m twice as excited for Suicide Squad.

Wax & Wane

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The wonderful folks at Nosetouch Press have a new anthology out, full of stories about witches. It includes my own story, “Night’s Favored Child,” the tale of a young necromancer who comes calling on a house full of spooky fantasy creatures to find out who murdered a friend of hers, but things may not be quite as they seem…

To all my magic-loving Fictioneers, Wax & Wane is available now, RIGHT HERE!

Deadpool and the Rewards of Showing the Fans some Love

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Deadpool was as good a movie as I could have hoped for. Apparently I’m not alone in thinking so, as the film just took the number one spot at the Box Office for the second week running. But what struck me, even more than the wild financial success and the positive reviews, is the overwhelming enthusiasm and ownership that the fans have shown the film all the way through its production.

This enthusiasm has pulled the film from anger at the way the character ended up realized in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, through the leaked test footage that led to the character’s film reboot, to the triumph of the final product. In an era where we are being offered countless comic book adaptations to choose from, the value of the momentum that fan excitement brings a film can’t be overestimated. The lack of such momentum helped to kill the recent Fantastic Four reboot in its cradle.

It’s worth comparing how the two movies treated the fans’ outcries. In the case of Deadpool, the initial reaction to the way the character appeared in Wolverine wasn’t immediately heeded. It wasn’t until the test footage was leaked and fans had the opportunity to display an overwhelming support for a different vision that the powers that be saw that there might be value in giving fans what they wanted. The decision to make the film Rated-R, and use that as part of the marketing, was a risk, but like the initial test footage itself, it was met with overwhelming support by the fans. They had a sense that the film was being made for them. In the case of Fantastic Four, decisions such as the reimagining of Doctor Doom left fans with the sense that the movie wasn’t interested in bringing the characters they loved to life, and when their complaints were ignored, the message the fans received was that this wasn’t a movie that was being made for them. At no point in production did the filmmakers do anything to assuage their concerns, and when the trailer finally hit the Internet, it didn’t offer anything special. Added to this were persistent rumors that  In the end, the movie never had a chance.

The success of Deadpool (or any film) can rarely be credited to a single factor. A lot goes into making a movie. And I don’t believe that the R rating had much to do with it. The fact that it was a comedy, a superhero movie in an established film universe, and starred a charismatic actor all helped to make it what it was. But the momentum that the fans gave it at every turn in its production made sure that it landed with an audience that already considered it their own.

That’s the lesson I hope that production companies take to heart. It’s not the sex scenes and the gore that made Deadpool a success. The R rating wasn’t the thing that made the difference (or else films like Watchmen and Kick-Ass might have done better at the Box Office). It was that the online community felt at every stage that the filmmakers were being true to the character and giving them the film they wanted. They felt like the movie was their own even before they saw it… so they went and saw it. Deadpool wasn’t nearly as famous as the Fantastic Four (though if he’s not by now, he soon will be). He doesn’t have any villains that are of the caliber of Doctor Doom. But the fans embraced him as their own and rejected a team of superheroes that they grew up with because they knew they weren’t going to be the characters they grew up with. The superhero craze is not dying down any time soon. Every year more heroes enter the fray, on television and film both, and rake in hundreds of millions of dollars. Characters that almost no one had heard of before, such as the Guardians of the Galaxy and Jessica Jones, are now huge hits. In this world a production can’t afford to alienate its fans from the beginning, as Fantastic Four did. If Deadpool can teach us one lesson that can be applied safely to all the films that aren’t Deadpool, and don’t need swearing and nudity and ultraviolence, it’s that if the sea of superhero fans that are out there feel as though you are making the film for them, then you won’t need to try to convince them to watch it. Their hearts will already be in it.

Of Dragons and Samurai: Plotting Out a Short Story

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[This article is a guest post by fantasy author Denarose Fukushima!]

Much thought should be given when dealing with dragons, even ones crafted from words. There are so many kinds of dragons, so many different myths and legends, that it can be difficult to find authentic information about traditional dragons. The same goes for finding facts on a culture other than your own (which may have been very misrepresented in today’s modern media). A story with as much integrity as an author can muster is well worth the work.

 

After deciding that my story would be about a dragon in feudal Japan, I had to do the research. Though I am half-Japanese, I wasn’t raised with any Japanese customs; all of my knowledge comes from research that I conduct in my spare time as well as a class on Japanese Literature I was fortunate enough to take in college. I very carefully looked for the information I needed by reading up on dragons and how they were depicted in Eastern cultures. I already knew that in Asia, most dragons are usually shy, wise water creatures who can bring good weather for crops. But I wanted a dragon who was more villainous in nature. After a little work, I found the stories of Kiyohime and Yamata No Orochi, two Japanese dragons who were known for killing humans. I decided to make Ryuga a descendent of Orochi and have Kiyohime act as his friend. From there it was easy to develop their personalities.

 

But where would you even begin, when you want to write a story about a jaded dragon who refuses to sit by and let the world change around him? That was the biggest question I had to ask myself when I started to write “How the Dragon Won a Battle in a Never-Ending War.”

 

For me, there were a few very tempting options. I could have started with the samurai who would serve as an antagonist to the dragon. I had already written little unpublished tidbits for Sasayaki and knew his character much better than I knew my main character, Ryuga. However, I worried that he would steal too much focus if the reader only knew Ryuga through Sasayaki’s point of view, so I decided to introduce him later.

 

Starting the story with the death of Ryuga’s comrade had its appeal, too. I struggle to make the beginning of a story interesting enough for a reader to invest in, and death is such a loud, insistent thing, so impossible to ignore. But I wanted the character death to have more impact, and the reader wouldn’t have been very affected if they didn’t even get the chance to know the doomed dragon Kiyohime. I also had to show how Ryuga interacted with her and didn’t want to deal with flashbacks.

 

So I made the decision to begin with a simple meeting between Ryuga and Kiyohime. It would give the reader a good look at who Ryuga was and hopefully make them question how much he actually valued his friend before she died.

 

From that point, I knew there had to be an internal struggle. I wanted Ryuga to fight hard for his cause, even if it meant it would make him do terrible things. But even though he was determined, I wanted him to question himself. He had to think about other influences and wonder if he was really fighting for a noble cause. He had to doubt his own ability and even consider Sasayaki’s point of view. He would also need to be aware of the changes that were happening in his own character and decide if he could live with them.

After asking lots of questions and getting written feedback from my sister (who possesses a degree in Japanese Studies) and a couple of trusted colleagues, I felt more at ease with editing and could focus more on the events.

 

The hardest part after that was having to choose between making Ryuga seem more sympathetic or making him seem like a terrible villain. In the end, I’m not sure that I ever did skew one side more than the other; I had given enough thought to Yamata no Ryuga, enough for him to more or less think on his own, and the story was stronger without my own ideas of what the reader should or shouldn’t think pressing down on him. After all, dragons were meant to fly.

 

“How the Dragon Won a Battle in a Never-Ending War” can be found in the anthology From the Dragon Lord’s Library, available here!

Follow Denarose Fukushima on Twitter!

 

Here There Be Dragons…

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Do you like stories about dragons? The Fictioneers at 18thWall Productions have put together this anthology of dragon tales, and I’m fortunate enough to have one of my stories featured in it. “Quarine and the Isle of Spirits” tells the story of a young girl who decides to run away from home by building a raft and setting out on the open ocean, where she finds herself tested by an island of ghosts and her life rests in the claws of a mysterious sea-serpent. You can find the story HERE, or buy it from Amazon.com RIGHT HERE.

7 Cool Horror Films to Watch This Halloween

Looking for something fun and spooky to watch this Halloween? These are my picks—and my reasons why they’re so awesome—for some of the most thrilling horror movies out there. Perfect for staying in on the night when the border between our world and the other side is at its thinnest. Here they are, in no particular order…

#1 – The Omen

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This one is a classic, a suspense-filled masterpiece of 70’s cinema. It’s also one of the best examples of the Creepy Kid genre of horror films. The darkness that surrounds little Damien is palpable throughout the entire movie, from the moment his nanny commits suicide, all the way to the terrifying revelation in the graveyard. The movie also boasts one of the best decapitations in movie history. (You know… if you’re into that sort of thing…)

#2 – The Blair Witch Project

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The film that singlehandedly popularized the “found footage” movie genre, The Blair Witch Project remains one of the best films of its kind. It’s low-budget, devoid of color, with few actors and a somewhat-vague mythology, but it remains effective. Much of the tension comes from watching the characters slowly start to panic as they realize the terrifying truth about their situation. Good luck walking in the woods alone right after watching this.

#3 – Tremors

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This list wouldn’t be complete without a good old-fashioned monster movie. Tremors is unique because most monster movies rely on darkness to instill the fear of the unknown in the viewer, but since the lethal sandworms attack from under the ground, it’s not necessary. Most of the movie takes place in broad daylight, and it’s still frightening. The danger is balanced with a healthy dose of comedy, making the movie great fun.

#4 – Kairo

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Ghosts are invading our world through the Internet. Japanese cinema has plenty of great horror films, but this one is my personal favorite, partly because of the philosophical undertones and themes of human connectedness in a world where so many of our relationships are online, and partly because of the brilliant slow unfolding of what is actually happening to the world at large. The threat seems undefinable at first, but as the number of characters in the background dwindles with each passing scene, it comes into frightening focus.

#5 – Poltergeist

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What is it with ghosts trying to reach us through our technology? This time they are talking to a little girl (resident Creepy Kid Carol Anne) through her television set. Like Tremors (and the next film on this list), the movie strikes the balance between terror and comedy. The family being haunted by these spirits is likable, so you actually care to see them survive. Even so, there are some truly iconic horror scenes here: the spooky tree, Carol Anne trapped in the TV, that horrible clown doll… moments that will stay with you long after the end credits roll.

#6 – John Dies at the End

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Extradimensional beings are trying to invade our reality, and only a pair of slackers that have been exposed to an alien drug called Soy Sauce can stop them. This film is based on the book by David Wong, one of my all-time favorite Fictioneers. Want to see someone attacked by a flying mustache? How about a drug trip that rewrites the past? A young woman open a door with the ghost of the hand she lost in an accident years ago? This movie has it all (and still manages to leave out over half of the things that happen in the book). It’s funny. It’s frightening. It’s awesome.

#7 – Event Horizon

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At its heart, Event Horizon is a story about a Ghost Ship. Only this one is in space. Lovecraftian Horror meets science fiction and Sam Neill gives a chilling performance as the architect of the damned vessel, Doctor Weir. Very Bad Things happened to the crew of the Event Horizon, and our crew of unfortunate souls are looking for answers. Rumor has it there’s an unedited copy of the massacre scene floating around somewhere on the Internet, but you can also just read the novelization of the film if you are morbidly curious. It’s suitably awful. But it’s Weir’s character arc and the way the ship messes with the minds of the crew that provide the real thrills here. Even in a distant future in which humankind is exploring the universe, the scariest place is still inside our own heads.

Making Friends of Monsters

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I’ve slain a lot of fantasy creatures in my time. That’s the way most role playing games work: you kill monsters, you gain experience, you level up, and eventually you fight the last boss of the game and you win. Toby Fox’s indie RPG Undertale subverts a system that I’ve become quite comfortable with over the years and instead offers you the option of seeking a nonviolent resolution to every single fight in the game, from random encounters all the way to the final boss.

 

The story of Undertale is beautifully simple: you play as a human child of indeterminate gender who has fallen down into the monster world, and has to choose whether to save or destroy it as you find your way back home. It’s a ghostly Alice-In-Wonderland story with characters that are every bit as outlandish and memorable. But this fairy tale’s Alice has some heavy choices to make along the way.

 

Even though my fantasy trophy room is lined with the heads of slimes and cactuars by the hundreds, I do tend to play the kindhearted role in games when I’m given the choice between choosing an good or evil path. But usually even taking the “good” path means killing a lot of random monsters, or bandits, or postapocalyptic raiders. It’s only the big dramatic decisions that decide whether you are a hero or villain, not the thousands of insignificant creatures you kill in the name of gaining levels and powering up. The world of Undertale works differently, though. Every monster is treated as a life, with insecurities and motivations of its own. Whether it’s a wannabe commedian trying to tell jokes to you even as he attacks you (and worrying that his father is right and he won’t ever make it as a comic), to the adorable Tsunderplane (a sentient airplane that might have a crush on you, and is only attacking so you won’t realize she actually likes you), every random encounter has a soul. Right from the start, the game appeals to the player’s sense of empathy, humanizing the enemies it throws at you and challenging you to find peaceful ways to end the encounter instead of butchering them for the experience points.

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Empathy is in short supply in gaming. From all the First Person Shooter clones that train you to see human beings through the scope of a rifle, to RPGs that send armies of fantasy creatures after you, most games reward you for not caring. Undertale’s empathy-based gameplay is a refreshing change, but by being the exception it throws a glaring light on the rule. Adventure games train us to mow down hordes of foes without a second thought, and they reward us for doing it. In fact, Undertale‘s gameplay is so counter-intuitive to me that when I realized after sparing my first few monsters that I wasn’t getting any experience points for it, I strongly considered abandoning my original plan to complete the game nonviolently. Because I wanted to go up a level and see my stats increase. It sounds horrible when I think about how much I came to care for all the characters I encountered, but my first instinct was to feel cheated that I was going to miss out on growing more powerful. Where does that instinct come from? The answer, of course, is that a lifetime of Final Fantasies, Dragon Quests, and Mass Effects have taught me to enjoy the feeling of gain that comes from killing enemies without a care. I like getting cool new weapons and having my strength and health points increase. The phrase “Level Up!” is music to my ears. And that’s because most games don’t work at making you feel that your bloodthirsty actions have any cost. Well, in Undertale they do.

Undertale totally have to kill you and stuff

If you kill monsters in Undertale, eventually they are gone for good. The weird deer creature whose antlers kids draped in gaudy Christmas decorations? Gone. The dog knight that really just wants to be petted? Erased from the world. You can kill everyone. The game’s bosses? Each one can be destroyed, just like they are in countless other games, but in this world it’s going to cost you, because if you choose to play nonviolently, to do what the fans are calling a “pacifist run” of the game, they can become your friends. You can have friends that are skeletons and ghosts, a mermaid knight and a reptilian scientist that loves anime, all monsters that you can turn into allies and get to know better and have fun with. And all it costs you is some silly experience points and level-ups. Who cares about things like that when you can go on a date with a puzzle-loving, pasta cooking skeleton dork? And that’s Undertale‘s secret: it finds other ways to reward you. A peaceful playthrough of the game can be tough. You never seem to have enough health because you never went up a level, so the 20 health points you start with are the 20 health points you enter the final battle with. You get hurt. You die a lot. But you get friends and the reward of knowing you are doing the compassionate thing. And that is something that thrills me. Violence is the easy answer to problems. Love is harder, and leaves you hurt, but it is the power that saves rather than destroy. I’d rather make friends of these cool characters than kill them. They are monsters, but they are also people.

 

Having finished my pacifist run of Undertale, I can say confidently that love and kindness are rewarded in ways far better than merely making your character more powerful. It stands in stark contrast to the sea of games that encourage the player to put personal power and advancement over friendship and kindness. If that sounds sappy, well it fits the charm and humor of the game, but maybe we should question why love in gaming sounds silly to us, but killing a score of enemies to gain a level makes perfect sense. In a way, playing Undertale is like retraining your gaming brain. It rewards player empathy and caring, and it leaves you wishing there were more like it.

Rachel Nussbaum Talks Writing Endings

Short story writer Rachel Nussbaum writes a guest article in which she discusses pressing on and getting the ending right. Just a brief, encouraging read and solid advice. It can be found HERE.

“I’ve learned that the perfect ending isn’t something you can force. Trying to rush something when it’s not ready just turns it into a convoluted mess. It’s okay to slow down, to take a break from a project, and give yourself a chance to step back so you can look at things objectively.”

 

Rachel’s next story will be featured in the upcoming The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk, available from Amazon on July 14th.