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Non-Review Review: Tomb Raider (2018)

Tomb Raider is an excavation of a video game classic.

Tomb Raider gets a lot right in terms of pitching itself as an action-driven blockbuster, certainly enough to elevate it above recent computer-screen-to-cinema-screen efforts like Assassin’s Creed or Warcraft. Tomb Raider has a solid action director in Roar Uthaug and a charismatic lead in Alicia Vikander, while understanding that the premise of the movie rests within its title. Tomb Raider is a movie about raiding tombs, and even the somewhat strained opening act is very striving towards that objective.

“Okay, where’s this tomb I need to raid?”

At the same time, Tomb Raider suffers from the problem that haunts so many video game adaptations, which is a complete misunderstanding of the mechanics and appeal of the medium. The appeal of video games is one of immersion. It is one of actually doing something (almost) firsthand; solving puzzles, making decisions, timing your reflexes just right. These are aspects of gaming that are very difficult to emulate on the big screen, but it seems like the best video game movies understand that the possible appeal of video games is in watching that doing.

Instead, like Assassin’s Creed or Warcraft before it, Tomb Raider makes the mistake of assuming that the audience’s investment in video game world-building extends beyond their direct engagement with it. Tomb Raider too often feels like a video game movie that believes the appeal of playing video games is to watch the in-game cut scenes.

“No, but seriously… tomb?”

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Non-Review Review: Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a weird and interesting experiment, in part because it is a nostalgic and belated sequel that remains caught between its past and the present.

Welcome to the Jungle joins a long (and perhaps undistinguished) line of twenty-first century franchise revivals for beloved nineties properties. The original Jumanji was a hardly a breakout hit, even if it did make an impression on a younger generation who would have grown up on it as part of Robin Williams’ nineties family-friendly oeuvre along with Hook or Ms. Doubtfire. Indeed, Jumanji is arguably the nineties Robin Williams film most perfectly suited to a revival like this, in that it involves a premise that can be divorced from its iconic and beloved star.

Franchises find a way.

At the same time, Jumanji is undoubtedly near the bottom of nineties adventure films in need of a revival, lurking in the shadow of other resurrected blockbusters like Independence Day or Jurassic Park. Perhaps because of this distance, and perhaps because of the lack of a true cult iconography, Jumanji serves as an interesting control case. This is a film with one leg in the present, aimed at what modern families expect from blockbuster entertainment. The other leg it planted firmly in the past, harking back to certain aspects of formula that seem almost quaint.

Welcome to the Jungle is not a particularly good film, but it is an interesting one. It serves as a prism through which certain aspects of nostalgia might be deconstructed and explored.

Players.

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Harsh Realm – Kein Ausgang (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

So, what does an average episode of Harsh Realm look like?

After all, the show was cancelled after only three episodes had been broadcast. Those three episodes were all written by the creator, and formed something of a loose introduction to the show. Inga Fossa ended with our protagonist finally accepting his place in the virtual world and his mission to defeat General Omar Santiago before the dictator can destroy the real world. There is a sense that the show had yet to even demonstrate what a regular episode of Harsh Realm might look like. It was over before it had even begun.

Jumping into action...

Jumping into action…

Kein Ausgang is the first episode of Harsh Realm to be written by somebody other than Chris Carter. As such, it is an important milestone in the development of the series. It is also the first of two episodes written by Steven Maeda, who would prove to be a pretty reliable set of hands in the life of the young show. Based on his contributions to Harsh Realm, it is easy to see why Carter drafted Maeda over to The X-Files in the wake of Harsh Realm‘s cancellation, even if his contributions to that show were a little more uneven.

Kein Ausgang offers an interesting glimpse of what Harsh Realm might have looked like going forward, if Fox had waited more than three episodes to cancel the show.

Shining a light on it...

Shining a light on it…

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The X-Files – First Person Shooter (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

On paper, this should be a slam dunk.

X-Cops was an incredibly risky and experimental episode of The X-Files that really pushed the show in an unexpected direction. The idea of crossing over into Cops was strange and surreal; it seemed like a gimmick that could backfire spectacularly. How could an episode of The X-Files adopt many of the identifiers and signifiers of Cops while still managing to tell its own story? It was a risky proposition, but writer Vince Gilligan and director Michael Watkins managed to pull it off, producing a definite highlight of the seventh season. (If not the final three seasons.)

Game on.

Game on.

First Person Shooter is a similarly ambitious episode, but one that should be a much safer bet. While it pushes the show outside its comfort zone in terms of setting and concept, it does not stray too far from the basic X-Files template. It is written by outsider writers William Gibson and Tom Maddox, but could logically be seen an extension of their superlative script for Kill Switch. In fact, Kill Switch wasn’t even the show’s first “killer artificial intelligence” story; Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa had written Ghost in the Machine as the series’ eighth episode.

On paper, First Person Shooter is ambitious without being entirely unprecedented. Still, the script bends the show too far out of shape. The episode seems to warp and distort the series around it. Despite the fact that First Person Shooter contains far more of the trappings and structures of The X-Files than X-Cops, the episode feels far less comfortable in its own skin. First Person Shooter plays almost like an episode of The X-Files filtered through a lens of unreality; it feels like a textured wireframe model of an X-Files episode, wandering lost in the uncanny valley.

Game over.

Game over.

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Non-Review Review: Hitman – Agent 47

Hitman: Agent 47 is not a good film, but it is bad in interesting ways.

The video game adaptation fad of the nineties has given way to a wave of blockbuster comic book movies. Those comic book adaptations have fared much better – both critically and commercially – than fare like Super Mario Brothers or Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. As such, Hitman: Agent 47 feels like something of an outlier; it is a reboot of a video game property that already failed to take flight in a movie released eight years ago. Even if there is a resurgent interest in video game movies, it seems strange to return to this video game movie.

You know, that looks like a highly impractical way to hold those guns...

You know, that looks like a highly impractical way to hold those guns…

At the same time, there is something quite compelling about the structuring of Hitman: Agent 47. Perhaps inspired by the success of the relative fidelity of twenty-first century comic book adaptations, Hitman: Agent 47 struggles to provide a relatively faithful adaptation of the game-playing experience. Though the structure and tone of the movie might jar with the source material, director Aleksander Bach is careful to preserve as much of the game-play experience as possible. Extended sequences of Hitman: Agent 47 play as a walkthrough of a life-like video game.

Which, of course, only serves to make the film feel somewhat redundant; watching a bunch of actors play through scripted game-play-like scenarios might offer a faint echo of the thrill of playing a video game, but captures none of the investment.

Bloody mess...

Bloody mess…

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Non-Review Review: Pixels

Pixels has a fun concept.

The idea of video game characters invading the world is a delightfully gonzo piece of pop culture nostalgia. It is easy to see why Sony picked up the option for Patrick Jean’s 2010 short film, even if the concept was not new. Neither version of Pixels can quite measure up to Raiders of the Lost Arcade, the short that aired as part of Anthology of Interest II during the third season of Futurama. That ten minute short story captured the sheer unadulterated joy of a world under siege from its juvenile obsessions.

You are my sunshine...

You are my sunshine…

There are a lot of problems with Pixels. The most obvious is that it seems completely disinterested in its core concept as anything other than a vehicle for Adam Sandler. There is a lot of CGI and a number of recognisable pop culture references, but Pixels plays just like any other Happy Madison vehicle. It is an excuse to pair Adam Sandler up with a beautiful actress and pay for trips for friends and acquaintances around the world while making jokes that were tired when most of the audience was making them in the playground.

Pixels never embraces the goofy joy of an invasion of eighties video games, instead wallowing in the presence of washed up nineties hackery.

All the President's... People.

All the President’s… People.

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The X-Files (Topps) #13 – One Player Only (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

After a twelve-issue opening mega-arc of interconnected stories about conspiracies-within-conspiracies and wheels-within-wheels, author Stefan Petrucha and artist Charles Adlard step back a little bit to close out their run with a series of standalone stories. The four issues (and three stories) that make up the rest of their run on Topps’ X-Files comic stand alone. They are connected by themes and subtext, but very clearly stand apart from what came before. Indeed, they play out almost like a postscript to the main body of work, a series of smaller bite-sized chunks.

In that light, it is interesting that One Player Only feels – superficially, at least – a lot more in step with the television show. The early issues of the comic had seen Petrucha and Adlard creating their own supporting cast and their own conspiracy, so as to avoid stepping on the toes of the production company. The Cigarette-Smoking Man was largely reduced to a number of cameos, with Skinner popping up once or twice along the way.

Ghosts in the machines?

Ghosts in the machines?

Not only does One Player Only feature a guest appearance from supporting characters like Mr. X or yhe Lone Gunmen, it also harks back to the structure and format of the first season of the show. On the most basic of levels, One Player Only feels like a more cyberpunk take on Ghost in the Machine, right down to the fact that Mulder is drawn into a murder at a tech company by an acquaintance from his days in the Violent Crimes Division. At one point, Mulder and Scully stumble on a ransacked house, for Mulder to deadpan, “Hm. Nothing new.”

However, if one peels back the layers, One Player Only is a fascinating piece that sets the tone for Petrucha and Adlard’s last three issues on the series, while infusing the comic with a host of fascinating cyberpunk stylings and body horror that seem to call forward to William Gibson’s future writing for the show.

Coding out...

Coding out…

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