First World (War) Problems

I wrote the below article last year and posted on the astute and venerable games website (formally Teletext site) Gamecentral. I post this again today as I still feel that it’s still relevant given the release of Call of Duty: WWII. The article questions whether first person shooters are a suitable way to portray any real world war, and whilst there are direct references to Battlefield 1 you can apply them almost uniformly to COD:WWII.

And so…

I was one of those folks who had an allergic reaction to the idea of Battlefield 1 when the First World War premise was leaked. I’ve considered why I had such a strong negative reaction to it, and in part I thinks it’s due to way I was taught about the war in school. Additionally, hearing about the experiences of the late Harry Patch, known as ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’, connected all of what I’d learnt in school about the actual human cost.

Finally, the powerful and excellent novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks really hammered home the obscenity of the war to me. Even as I reflected on it all there was a something else that disturbed me about the idea of Battlefield 1; it’s a first person shooter.

You’ll have to stay with me here, and I should point out that as a gamer, I love first person shooters. I’ve spent hundreds of hours on dozens of FPS games over the years. The FPS I’ve enjoyed the most tend to be somewhat removed from reality and dislocated from real life and history in some marked way. I never liked Call Of Duty 3 back in the day (a Second World War game) and I always felt a vague distaste whilst playing it, though I couldn’t articulate why at the time.

I never gelled with Call Of Duty: World At War either, even though I completed the game. This past summer I had an odd moment of déjà vu as I stood before the Reichstag building in Berlin and wondered why I felt I had been there before. The answer of course was that the Reichstag was the final crucial conflict in the final European battle of the Second World War, as well as World At War. The Reichstag remains, on the outside at least, noticeably bullet chipped as a result of that conflict, so I found it a little disquieting to equate the disposable carnage I wrought in World At War with the reality looming before me.

Despite my misgivings about Battlefield 1 I’ve come to recognise that if the subject of historical warfare is suitable for books, music, and movies then there should also be room for representations of real war in games. What I would argue though is that if you are going to base games on a real world conflict you have to take responsibility for depicting the subject matter in a thoughtful and valuable way, and not reduce it to mindless Bayhem. This is a challenging task with a single-player FPS and nigh on impossible to do with an online FPS.

For example, the well-respected Valiant Hearts was a great game with a very different tack on the kind of storytelling, perspective, and gameplay you might expect in a ‘war’ game. The Total War games, as another example, are extremely violent and yet are also enthralling, educational, and abstract. I think fundamentally it’s that abstraction coupled with their educational and artistic qualities that makes Total War and Valiant Hearts much easier for me to engage with.

In Battlefield 1 there is comparatively little abstraction from the real violence of the First World War. When I played the beta I clicked the right stick on my PlayStation pad and my character charged with a convincingly feral war cry before plunging a bayonet into the enemy, and then proceeded to nail him to the ground with it. This is a visceral depiction and more than that, this actually happened in the First World War. This is how real people died, and in the Battlefield 1 multiplayer you get points for this. It’s rewarded and therefore rewarding.

If games are ever to be considered as art, and if art is understood to shed light on the human experience, in what way does the facsimile of a bayonet charge educate or shed light on the war and those fighting in it? Well, you could argue that this visceral depiction of close quarters violence conveys something of the horror, fear and adrenaline felt by soldiers in the First World War. However, the reality of the FPS experience is that rather than horror, the player only really feels the satisfaction of the kill, the heady ego boost inherent to having inflicted a humiliating end to another player.

Again, you could argue that even this is valuable experience, as a taste of the dark heart of humanity and bloodlust – or some such nonsense. The truth is that in a FPS we don’t think or reflect upon it when it happens, we’re not given time. Instead we just laugh, or find a satisfied smile on our faces as we are tickled by it. In Halo, Titanfall, Doom, or even Wolfenstein: The New Order, this is all well and good, they are ridiculous and don’t pretend to depict real conflict.

The violence itself is often Tom and Jerry-esque albeit with a few more gallons of blood and guts! I don’t have blanket issue with violence in video games, in fact contrary to those who claim gaming incites violence I feel that violent games often act like a pressure release valve and provide a cathartic outlet for people, and may actually have a more positive social benefit in this regard than many accusers would credit.

What I do challenge however is the suitability of the contemporary FPS genre as an appropriate means of depicting something like the First Word War. Although at first glance the FPS genre would seem to be the most natural fit for a historic war game like this, I think it’s precisely the FPS viscerally exciting nature which precludes it from being the best genre to depict real warfare with the gravity it deserves.

FPS have long been about the satisfaction of destroying and dominating the opponent. That’s the joy of a good FPS, particularly online, and it’s great to get the adrenaline pumping in the games I’ve already mentioned, and to laugh and whoop at demolishing the ‘bad guys’. But, when I consider having that same emotion and stimulation from a FPS created to exploit the context of a global conflict in which millions of people died, I find it more than a little tasteless.

Battlefield 1 will no doubt be an enormous financial success, and there’s always the chance it will foster a greater understanding of the First World War and its impact on the world. I’ve watched the recent 12-minute Storm of Steel single-player gameplay and I was somewhat relieved to see how far off the mark some my initial fears were with the depiction.

However, despite DICE’s admirable and clear attempts to bring a kind of bleak solemnity to the game, I’m certain that these attempts at gravity and impact will be swiftly ground to dust under the weight of repetition and swept aside in the drive ‘for the win’ that FPS inevitably bring out in us all.

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Thor: Ragnarok – Review

The Thor films have always felt as though they have fallen short of their potential. They’ve had all that Norse mythology to draw from and yet they never seem to take advantage of it. Never the less I’ve always had a soft spot for the films. The original Thor had a wonderfully grandiose feel and with Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair you got the impression that he was rubbing as much of Shakespeare’s special sauce into the film as possible to give it a faint, if muddled, whiff of one of the bard’s tragedies. The second film was a bit of a uneven mess, and is still the weakest of the three though it had the balls to kill off Thor mammy in a sincere attempt to generate some pathos. Thor: Ragnarok has no particular interest in character development or theatrical flair. This movie wants you to feel like your strapped to a speeding roller-coaster as you’re blistering through the centre of a fireworks display whilst tripping balls on mescaline and laughing gas….and it succeeds, more or less.

Thor: Ragnarok follows Chris Hemsworth’s winning bicep-ticled God of Thunder as he’s cast from Asgard by God of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), finding himself enslaved on the planet of Sakaar, where Jeff Goldblum’s whimsical tyrant the Grandmaster amuses himself with Gladiatorial games. Thor then embarks on a quest to escape his imprisonment, defeat Hela and save the day with the aid of a Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and a Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). It should be said that not a single cast member puts a foot wrong in comic delivery throughout, and they are each convincing and likeable in their roles.

That director Taika Waititi can do comedy isn’t a surprise, with films such as the bonkers vampire docu-comedy What We Do In The Shadows and the endearing Hunt for the Wilder People under his belt. I was pleasantly surprised to see is that he also has a flair for big budget action scenes. Waititi manages to do what most directors can’t these days, and that’s take a pleasingly choreographed action scene and film it without feeling the overriding urge to jam the camera (and therefor the audience) up the nostril of combatants. Choosing rather to frame the shots in such a way that you can see everything unfold. The fights are generally great in Thor: Ragnarok but they do suffer from being almost entirely CG, even when it’s not really necessary. In fact, the CG is rampant in this film, and it’s a bit of a shame because (despite Waititi’s ability to actually show you the action) it really detracts from the impact. There’s a scene which establishes Hela as a thoroughly badassed badass, that should have and could have been amazing if even half of it was live action, as it is you kind of switch off until CG Cate Blanchett does what she does.

There are other problems with the film too. As stated before there’s absolutely no pathos. To the degree that there is next to no first act to the film. Thor suffers two irreparable losses within moments of each other and is seemly nonplussed as the rest of the film skips by gleefully, more interested in quips than character. Every moment where a sincere emotion might be felt or expressed is undermined by comedy, and you find yourself waiting for the next gag rather than paying much attention to what’s actually going on. This lack of character development hits Cate Blanchett’s Hela the most, who despite looking fantastic and deadly, has a characterisation that so paper thin that it’s almost translucent. A final point to make is that this film was also to draw from one of the most critically acclaimed Hulk stories, ‘Planet Hulk,’ I cannot go into this aspect of the film without spoiling it, so all i’ll say is that whilst the Hulk is highly entertaining in it, this film does not do Planet Hulk justice in any way.

Thor: Ragnarok is a titillating and at times hilarious comedy action flick that is undeniably enjoyable, but it lacks substance. It is, in short, a big dumb romp of a movie. Marvel have essentially been reproducing and repackaging the spirit of Raiders of the Lost Ark for the last 16 or 17 films, and I’ve been fine with that up to a point. But it would seem that Marvel have forgotten that the Indiana Jones movies didn’t have just great action and comedy, they also had heart, and that is what’s missing from Thor: Ragnarok… and Guardian’s of the Galaxy 2… and Spiderman: Homecoming… and Doctor Strange.

The sun’s getting real low, Marvel… the sun’s getting real low…

Score: 3/5 – Good

Blade Runner 2049 – Review

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Initially when I heard they were making Blade Runner 2049 I could only conceive that they would churn out a cynical, half baked, half written shambles of a film which would make its money purely off its connection to Ridley Scott’s visionary original. I could not have been more wrong.

Blade Runner 2049 begins as we join K (Ryan Gosling) fulfilling his duties as a Blade Runner, a hunter of Replicants (synthetic humans created as slaves to mankind), who are “retired” with high calibre bullets when they flee bondage or rebel against their human masters. K who is despised by those around him has only one significant other, that of his intangible holographic ‘off the shelf’ AI girlfriend ‘Joi’ (Ana de Armas).

When a newly perceived threat to the stability of LA and beyond is discovered, K is given a new mission which pushes him to question the foundation of everything he has believed and leads him, in time, to encounter (Harrison Ford’s) Rick Deckard.

To quickly touch on other characters within the film I should make mention of K’s callous superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), Niander Wallace, the walking God complex and father to ‘Modern Replicants,'(Jared Leto), and the emotionally damaged and barely restrained Luv, Wallace’s right hand woman(?) and favourite child (Sylvia Koeks). All are fantastic (especially Sylvia Koeks) but to go further into their place in the story would be to say too much.

Blade Runner 2049 handles some deep and hefty subject matter revolving around identity, self worth, how easily we dehumanise others, and what it means to be human. More often than not big budget movies are in a rush to the finish line and they trample all over their own stories performances and script to get there. Not so with Blade Runner 2049.

The original Blade Runner was a film awash with ambiguity. Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard is tasked with ‘retiring’ four killer Replicants, and each time he does it feels like murder. Even Deckard himself isn’t what he seems.

Blade Runner 2049 is less about a pervading sense of ambiguity and more about the slow unravelling of a revelation. It’s a film that has points to make and a story to tell, something that director Denis Villeneuve does beautifully by giving you the time to consume and ruminate over the enticing breadcrumbs he places before you, even as K wrestles with the evidence and their implications.

When you think of the original Blade Runner there are two things that come to mind: the visionary dystopian future setting, and the incredible soundtrack by Greek composer Vangelis. Denis Villeneuve handles Blade Runner’s dystopia with a deft hand, expanding the world without over-blowing it or losing any of what made the original great, and when it comes to the score; Hanz Zimmer hits us with an almost guttural base level synth that vibrates through your rib-cage, all with Vangelis’ original Score weaving throughout it. It’s fantastic.

Denis Villeneuve follows on from last year’s outstanding Sci-Fi master class Arrival with yet another modern classic. What Blade Runner 2049 manages to do is tell a story that not only draws on the original but expands on it in every meaningful way. It’s top tier story telling and one of the best sci-fi films ever.

Score 5/5 Excellent

Atomic Blonde – Review

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First thing; No, this isn’t a film about the incumbent President of the United States and his “It’s my ball (Planet Earth) and if I’m not winning (???), then no one’s playing (Armageddon)” mentality.

This Film is at its heart an espionage action thriller set against the backdrop of the last five days of the Berlin Wall, which surprised me because the trailers had me thinking this was going to be the same breed of movie as John Wick. It’s not.

The titular Atomic Blonde (Charlize Theron) is a MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton. Broughton is sent on a mission to Berlin to find a microfilm (inexpliciably) filled with a list of all of Britain’s spies as well as the identity of a traitorous MI6 agent. It’s kind of like the plot of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, except there’s a lot more in the way of broken glass than cut glass getting thrown around. Broughton’s contact in Berlin is the grimy David Percival (James McAvoy) who’s gone “feral” in his unsupervised role as the senior British agent in the contested city. Spy craft and skulduggery doth ensue.

If it seems I’m a little uninspired by the story that’s because it’s about as wrote as these things come, and the film is further hampered by it effectively being a retelling of events that have already happened as Broughton is debriefed, bruised but not beaten, in London.

The film’s plot is generally a little muddled for the first hour of its 1hr 55 min running time, and the constant interruptions caused by the film cutting back (forward?) to these debrief scenes only serves to rob the film of its momentum and clarity. It’s especially annoying given nothing of import happens in these scenes and they do not drive the story further forward at all. It’s all exposition, red herrings and “I say old chap.”

So, I’ve laid into the Story a fair bit, but that doesn’t mean Atomic Blonde is a total failure. It has plenty going for it. First off, as stated before, it has Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton. It’s to be applauded that Lorraine is treated no differently in this film to how any male action hero would be, and she appears to be as well schooled in the art of ‘imma gon break yaw face’ as any other action star, plus she’s sexy, she’s cool and she’s at the heart of what is arguably the best action scene ever seen in a western film. There is a 10 minute giggle inducing (seemingly) single shot action scene, that takes you through some of the most authentic looking bone breaking combat around. It’s grizzly and downright horrible at times and Charlize Theron is utterly convincing throughout. The only problem is that while the action, when it does occur, is superb; there just isn’t quite enough of it.

This is Director David Leitch’s first solo film as Director, though he co-directed the outstanding John Wick alongside Chad Stahelski. What we can now say is that both Leitch and Stahielski are each independently, fantastic action directors.

For all that Atomic Blonde suffers from its structural faults, David Leitch does a lot right with this film, it’s stylishly shot, he got great performances from his actors, and it’s clear he’s trying to grow into something more than ‘just an action director.’

A special mention goes out for the eighties-tastic sound track which can be overbearing and out of place at times but may well bring a smile to your face, even as your watching someone getting beaten half to death with a skateboard to ‘99 luftballoons.’

Atomic Blonde is a stylish, sexy action thriller stuffed with great actors and top tier action set pieces, brought down markedly by its overly familiar story and momentum cancelling structure. If Furiosa in MAD MAX FURY ROAD hasn’t cemented Charlize Theron in your mind as an action star, Atomic Blonde will, and if Atomic Blonde: The Revengening ever comes out, I’ll be all over it.

3/5 Good.

Dunkirk – Review

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I was a little concerned that when I was finally ready to start my blog I would end up reviewing something awful (Anything by Michael Bay), and have my first impression be that of the sneering critic. Happily I’m ready now and the film to be reviewed is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.

Based upon the events of the evacuation of Allied forces from main land Europe during the Second World War, Dunkirk explores desperate scrabble for survival and the lengths the military and civilians went to, to save the defeated Allied forces from complete annihilation.

Christopher Nolan has a fascination with the role that time and chronology play in cinematic storytelling, which we’ve seen him explore to mesmerising and mind boggling effect in films like Momento (2000), Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014). In Dunkirk Nolan is at it again as he takes three thematic story threads, land, sea and air, and weaves them through three time frames; one week, one day and one hour. As the film progresses each theater of conflict and each time period comes to intersect in a nail-biting finale which has you flitting through emotions of relief, loss, joy and hope. It’s ingenious and so dexterously done; without words on screen to constantly remind the audience as to where and when we are. The director trusts that his audience will get it as the film proceeds.

When we come to the performances, be it Kenneth Branagh’s grimly pragmatic Navel Commander, Mark Rylance’s rock solid civilian boatman, Tom Hardy’s unflappably cool Spitefire Pilot and yes Harry Styles desperate foot soldier; All are pitch perfect. No-one feels out of place and they all contribute to what turns out to be a suspenseful and relatively dialogue free movie. So much so that at times you feel like your watching an old school silent movie.

So, when you have a master director and boatload (sorry) of excellent performances you’re pretty sure to have a great film, but what elevates Dunkirk into the realms of the superb is Hans Zimmer’s score. From the moment we arrive at the beach there begins a metronomic rhythm, its quiet at first, just enough for you to hear it. Just enough to convey the feelings of anxiety and impatience, and when the film wants to it pushes from anxiety to fear, the staccato tick, tick, tick saws at your nerves as the violins hit the rhythm. The score is there to manipulate you and its ever present throughout the film, it surges and falls, and is never really gone until the moment is right, and when it stops the silence is deafening.

That the film manages to treat the subject without the jingoism so often present in American war films makes the Dunkirk a powerful human story, rather than frothy patriotic nonsense. Nolan’s bold style and clarity of vision coupled with the excellent performances and the nerve jangling score make Dunkirk something of a modern classic and a must see.

SCORE: 5/5 Excellent