Muffled: Ubisoft’s Cold Shoulder to Video Game Heroines

*** Be forewarned: this is an impassioned piece you’re about to divest 7 minutes in. The word “Chickensh*t” pops up at least once. It should’ve a few more… ***

Risk turned reward: Ubi doing it right.

Ubisoft has a lot going for it: a plethora of virile franchises, development teams strewn across the globe, direct lines to the Hollywood money-making machine, and an audience of hungry gamers anxiously awaiting the next big title off the celebrated corporation’s roster. And yet, for a company reaping so many rewards, Ubisoft has also become the definitive industry poster-child for marginalizing and casting away “risky” ventures.

CASTING GENIUS!

Yesterday, feminist sound-offers, Bitch Media, put out a thoughtful and really thought-provoking piece about the VG-industry’s continued reluctance to incorporate fully-developed women protagonists into their games (props, Lucy V.!). Setting their specs on Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry franchises in particular, BM blasted the conglomerate’s consistent side-lining and objectification of female characters, pointing out how even “badass” fem-roles are usually narrowed down to two categories: eye-candy damsels and under-written love-interests. Notice the dashes punctuating those roles… they even sound more like fractured artifices than actual designations of personality or substance.

“Under-developed female leads, you say? Funny, I’ve never heard such a thing…”

Considering how BM notes that a whopping (and coming from the dude who hears soprano chatter over Xbox Live, like, every time I’m on the thing] believable) 40% of gamers are women, it’s frankly chickensh*t for a powerhouse publisher to leave female gamers grasping at air when it comes to offering up relatable player characters. And as rant-prone as I am, you’ve gotta admit, mah suit-wearin’-brahs, marginalizing half your audience is the equivalent of cutting your balls off and hoping the shaft alone will do the trick when come time to unzip (I’m looking at you, Watch Dogs 2).

25 Years of Properly Rep-ing for Target Demographics!

Speaking of which…

LOOK, 2 WIMMINS! Two have masks, so MAYBE FORE!

Easily one of the most promising, profitable, and understandably divisive games released this year, Watch Dogs takes the cup as the best example of how to take a fantastically risky concept and absolutely drown it in equal parts vanilla-flavored machoism and Batman-growls (as ‘Lego Movie’ Batman might say…). Sure, the flat-out stunning E3 2012 premiere left just about every gamer with a peen or a vagine this side of the moon with pants as soaked as Chicago’s fictitiously hackable streets, but, alas, hype can be just as much a killer as the game’s prospective dark knight.

Early on, there were whispers of multiple, branching protagonists other than Aiden Pearce’s overly familiar tough-tech-savvy-bro-in-trench-coat persona thought to be playable throughout the game. Ubisoft, (I admit, bro) logically, put a bullet squarely in that particular direction’s temple: development for a game that sprawling on transitional hardware (2012-13 being next-gen’s pre-epoch) would’ve pushed back release dates (and, effectively, cash-drawer ‘cha-chings’) years beyond even the two it took to turn the demo into a fully-packaged product 23 months later. Instead, they stuck to what they knew would work: keeping the typical hero the hero, and hyping the game as their newly-minted flagship franchise.

No, Aiden. That baton does not set you apart from other heroes in the Ubiverse…

And regardless, Dogs is great game. The mechanics are there, even if the graphics won’t get your juices flowing. But storywise, it’s a wash. Aiden Pearce is, indeed, as blasé and contrived a testosterone-pumped male-protag as there ever was, is, or will be. Citing critical, peer, and personal impressions of our narrative driving force, he is simply the shade of an anti-hero, propelled by lackluster and impersonal tragedy to commit inhuman (and, therefore, VG-typical) acts of selflessness and diabolism, punctuated by sweet parkour moves and cell-phone finger-swiping. In other words, he’s a stinker and better left the way of Altaïr in the original Assassin’s Creed (aka, earning nods in a sequel and otherwise just drifting off into the perpetual haze of whogivesaflyingf*ck).

His niece died. He’s out for revenge. What a good uncle.

But wait: I’m not all rant, guys. I have a solution here. Hell, I even have a money-making, brand-saving, demographic-pleasing solution ya’ll can drop and kiss my pearly white, dude-bro pancake-@$$ for.

“Don’t hate me jus’ cuz I’m cliché.”

Make the protagonist of Watch Dogs 2… wait for it…

Danny Brown?

… wait for it…

Mark Dacascos?

… wait a couple years more for it (get it? Just kidding: of course you do) …

Dead Mao Five (super-hip celebrity inclusions abound!)?

A woman.

Pretty much the reaction I anticipated.

OH SHI-. I did it now.

Moar relevent? (THANKS BARCO????????)

Yeah, bitch. Make the next hero of your “ground-breaking franchise” a woman, and earn yourselves a big ole pat on your own backs for actually bolstering your hype with some socially-conscious and inventive narrative re-imagining. Watch Dogs‘ greatest asset ends up being its open conclusion which grants more than enough room for a fresh protagonist. So step up to the plate boys: you’ve thrown yourselves a home-run here.

Spoiler Alert

Offering a fresh locale that alludes to the original’s fictitiously wired Chicago while adding consequential ‘umph’ to the conspiracy-laden experience will open the doors for gaming-gold. I’ve got two words for you-… okay, more like one word with a couple characters that signify a couple more words for you: Washington D.C. What better place to wreak some high-tech-hyper-havoc than the streets of our fair nation’s capitol? And who better to shake things up than a female hacker at the center of it all?

The Girl with the Journey Tattoo?

Sure, we had Clara Lille this past outing. *Yawn* The Lisbeth Salander-lite hardly figured into the action, quintessentially regulated to the time-tested video game role of sexy voice in our hero’s earpiece before predictably getting offed. Even in the ONE mission where she actually makes it into the gameplay as a non-playable character, she is deemed practically useless in a combat scenario. Given, she’s a hacker, not a killer. BUT FOR REALZ?

RUNAWAY!

Having the new female protagonist also inhabit the role of a hacker will be a must, but that doesn’t mean she can’t evolve into the baddy-popping Vigilante of the the first game (or, even better, how about ‘The Liberator’… DC-relevant, right there. Ubisoft, you guys can totally send me the check whenever you’re ready). I’m thinking you start her off something along the lines of Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider reboot Square Enix put out a couple years ago (minus the whole torture porn-lite vibe, and the sex sounds Lara seems to make every time she does anything remotely physical in that game… as my girlfriend pointed out, those sounds are hella suspicious late at night when she’s reading in the next room). Have her struggling to reload the first time she empties a clip from specific type of gun. Have her earliest takedown move be a swift kick to some crony’s balls when she’s forced into a melee. Have her feel fragile in a human sense, not in a ‘girly’-sense. Immerse us. Make her grow as a character and our attachment to her development grow in tandem.

Looks like we’ve made a little progress…

I know this ideal is achievable because, hey, Ubisoft’s done it before.

He’s a RELUCTANT mass annihilator of pirates and mercenaries, okay?

In the aforementioned Far Cry series’ magnum-opus, Far Cry 3, players start out as a pitifully under-skilled, vulnerable, and, therefore, believable protagonist, Jason Brody. He’s neither hardened, nor particularly brave at the beginning of the game, and yet he turns into (for better, or… well, actually, definitely for worse) a veritable killing machine worthy of John Rambo via his descent into a contemporary version of Heart of Darkness. In Watch Dogs, we’re led to believe that our hero is already engrossed in some form of vague darkness, thus, who cares why he sounds like a really angry Christian Bale with hay fever? Who cares how he learned to beat the crap out of every hardened street thug in the Midwest with a police baton? Who cares how he got that police baton? He’s a dude. And a badass one at that. That’s all the information we need. And according to Ubisoft, that’s just about all we deserve.

^Hero of Watch Dogs, laying down the h8ers.

But what we really deserve… and by we, I mean gamers (men, women, and even those 11 year olds who yelling at their moms over the mic that, yes, they will come down to eat once they hit that ever-looming XP-cap), is a willingness from publishers to offer creative and fiscal support to the risk takers. Narrative ground-breaking doesn’t happen on reflections of the tried-and-true-and-tried-and-dried: it happens on the damp banks of unexplored content, the tides of yesteryear’s strengths and merits gently rasping the shores. After all, we’d be better off soaking up the rays of critical and commercial success on the beach than stuck in the undertow, swept under retreating waves of macho misgivings.

Motion Pictures Reviewed: Elysium

Following his hugely successful Apartheid-with-aliens film debut, District 9 director Neill Blomkamp sets his sights on more dystopic science-fiction social commentary with the gorgeous Elysium. Does this tale of futuristic class warfare prove a blockbusting game-changer or another video game-esque blockbuster?

Totally original marketing.

It’s good to be rich in 2154. As the privileged elite took to orbit in their giant, outer-space Mercedes Benz logo, totally inconspicuously dubbed Elysium (FORESHADOWING ALERT!), they took all their fancy cancer and deformity curing technology with them. Left behind were the 99%, now living in a collection of literal shanty-towns that all curiously look like the eponymous South African ghetto full of aliens in District 9. Needless to say, the destitute state of the world the wealthy have all but abandoned leaves the masses looking to the glittering station in the sky for salvation: a salvation the occupants of Elysium are keen on keeping to themselves. That is, until Matt Damon, replete with power armor and a handful of really cool guns, comes knocking.

Introducing the 2154 Model Mercedes-Benz Elysium series…

Within the first fifteen minutes of Elysium, it becomes wholly apparent that Neill Blomkamp has come to embrace Hollywood, as well as its age-old philosophy that successful followup features are built on bigger SFX budgets and rapidly depleting sets of neurons. One needless, goopy origin-story and a couple of eye-popping establishing shots of our respectively glittering and dirt-caked settings later, it’s easy to get the sense that Blomkamp is far more interested in treating his audience to a visual feast rather than a full-spectrum epic. After all, an epic in the truest sense usually entails a smidgen of depth behind its setup, and here all we get is a shiny new matte on a Pinto: sure, it looks like a brand-new, gorgeous, compact vehicle, but it’s really an outdated model practically begging to explode the moment you put the keys in.

Looking classy, Los Angeles: I’m guessing the movie industry tanked around 2050…

Given the wizardry at work in Elysium, however, the Pinto-metaphor is, admittedly, an ill-suited comparison on a technical level. From the dilapidated sprawl of the LA-wasteland to the sterilized office-park paradise of Elysium itself, the film does a fantastic job drawing its audience into the dystopic future setting. Robotic police units patrol seemingly endless barrios with inhuman coldness, while the city’s hapless denizens are forced to take dangerous factory-floor jobs, usually building the various hi-tech treasure-troves that are shipped off world to the wealthy in wait. Design work for everything from cars to spaceships to robocops to Blomkamp’s typically over-the-top weapons of mass destruction are (literally) beautifully realized and believable.

“RIPPIN’ SOMEONE’S HEAD OFF”- Matt Damon does his best Fred Durst impression (http://youtu.be/ZpUYjpKg9KY). The movie and the song are intellectually made for each-other.

If only the narrative held the same engrossing promise as the film’s look, Blomkamp might make it into the same pantheon of ad-guys-turned-auteurs as Ridley Scott; Scott enthusiasts will undoubtedly draw parallels between Elysium and Blade Runner, as both are visually stunning but flawed story-wise. However, where Blade Runner still managed to tackle relatively fresh concepts using tested, noir-ish tropes, Elysium falls back on tested-tropes without offering the necessary freshness in concept. At its core, Elysium is a messiah story with an Occupy-movement latency: urbane social commentary plastered over a predictable and all-too familiar fable about a hero who’d give everything to even the score. While it makes for a brisk, exciting two hours, it won’t tickle your psyche over any of its ideas.

Spider digs that exosuit, bro!

Convenience becomes Blomkamp’s all-encompassing plot-device, as each circumstance our savior, car-thief on work parole, Max (Damon), finds himself stuck in leads him closer and closer to his childhood dream-turned-nightmare trip to the big Dubai in the sky. On his way to work one morning, he is promptly harassed and beaten by a couple of aforementioned law-enforcing tin men he may or may not have helped build on the factory-line he works during the day. After visiting his equally robotic parole officer in the film’s smartest scene, he just so happens to go to the hospital where his childhood sweetheart (Alice Braga) ever-so-selflessly works as a nurse and cares for her leukemia-stricken daughter. Long story short, Max gets blasted with enormous amounts of radiation following a work accident, is given a week to live, and, appropriately, a week to get his ass to space to cure his rampant case of multiple organ failure. Helping him out along the way is a crippled weapons-dealer named Spider (Wagner Moura), a handful of culturally diverse cannon-fodder characters, and a surgically grafted “exosuit” that gives Max the power to rip the heads off robots and deflect blows from a futuristic samurai sword.

Samurai swords are so future.

While Damon plays Max with an understated grace the character barely deserves, his foes bide far less promisingly in the acting and storyline department. William Fichtner’s steely industrialist is about as thinly drawn an antagonist as one can probably fathom, while Jodie Fosters’ inexplicably blood-thirsty Elysium Defense Secretary sports an accent as corny as her motivations are mind-numbingly simplistic. Doing a far better job being bad, Blomkamp’s perpetual partner in celluloid, Sharlto Copely, chews scenery left and right as mercenary Kruger. Holding no love for his two-dimensional employers above, this rampage-prone psychopath is a far cry from Copely’s meek government stooge, Wikus, in District 9. Letting Copely go off-hinge was a smart move on Blomkamp’s part, as Kruger quickly proves the most memorable villain of the film.

Yeah, so this happens… Sharlto throws a BBQ.

Despite it’s exhilarating chase-scenes, bullet-ballets, and inspired environments, Elysium‘s storytelling disappointingly takes a backseat to its displays of artistic carnage. Had Blomkamp and his writing team taken more time to flesh-out the denizens of this twisted, promisingly dark future, the film would have evoked its desired conversations about contemporary wealth-gaps rather than inevitable whining about its blunt narrative-shortcomings. A treat to watch, but a bust to analyze, Elysium plays it safe with its formula, yet triumphs with its aesthetic. While I can hardly wait to see what Blomkamp offers up next, I’m less stoked to eventually “engage” with it.

3.5/5

Motion Pictures Reviewed: Star Trek Into Darkness

Setting all phasers to stun, J.J Abrams’ bombastic sequel to 2009′s Star Trek revamp ups the stakes, casting the now not so fresh-faced crew of the U.S.S Enterprise into a titular Darkness. Does this deep space boldly go where no one has gone before, or is it stuck in orbit over the same old content?

Keeping my fingers crossed this movie doesn’t crash and burn…

Star Trek is smart, but, man, it can be a real snoozer, too. For all its scientific credibility, expanded mythology, and hamtastic cast members, the series’ preoccupation with phaser-based space operatics have always left it playing second-string to Star Wars‘ lightsaber enhanced smorgasbords of destruction. Ever the intuitive auteur, J.J Abrams set out to reboot the franchise back in 2009 to great results: both a critical and commercial darling, Star Trek proved a cleverly reworked envisioning of the original series that pleased Trekkies and newcomers alike. Four years and a two hundred million dollar budget later, Abrams takes to the captain’s seat once more with the heavily-hyped and awesomely titled Star Trek Into Darkness.

Boldy going where they’ve all gone before.

Into Darkness finds the ever impregnable Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) doing what impregnable interstellar wunderkinds do best: saving the world(s) via increasingly daring and roguish means, a habit that puts him at the wrong end of the Starfleet’s good-side. Not helping things are Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) inability to tap into human subtlety, Dr. “Bones” McCoy’s (Karl Urban) negative Nancy-ing, and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura’s troubled love-life (dating an obsessively logical being can be a real drag…). As Kirk finds himself chewed-out of the fleet and his crew flies dangerously close to soap-opera melodrama, in comes a mysterious white guy with an English accent blowing up Starfleet assets with reckless abandon for human life. Pretty soon, Kirk and crew are back on boldly going where no one has supposedly ever gone before, zapping baddies and zipping around space in spectacular fashion.

PEW-PEW! (Chris Pine as Captain Kirk)

Hamming things up in the right way, BBC alum Benedict Cumberbatch puts on his very best annunciation face, taking every opportunity to come across like an outer-space Voldemort with giant guns and a nose. Despite admirably imbuing his character a not-so-subtlely terroristic tone, Cumberbatch’s villainous John Harrison ends up more of a half-hearted wink-wink at the one of the original series’ (admittedly) best antagonists than a truly terrifying embodiment of genetic supremacy. Peter Weller is a welcome newcomer, begging the line “Dead or alive, John Harrison’s coming with me”, while Alice Eve, as (FAUX-SPOILER ALERT!!!) his daughter, basically plays a platinum-blonde Kirstie Alley and vague love-interest for Kirk.

Totally a necessary addition to the Enterprise crew. Totally…

As with its predecessor, Star Trek is less about villains and romantic subplots than it is about high-stakes action sequences and brisk, hilarious chemistry between key players, and, boy, does Into Darkness deliver. The film (literally) ignites with an opening volcanic rescue scene, and only continues to up its game as the Enterprise races across the galaxy in pursuit of Harrison. Expect chase scenes galore: a particularly fantastic set-piece set amid a bustling 23rd century London in the movies final act will leave you breathless. Lightening the mood, Simon Pegg’s Scotty and Anton Yelchin’s navigator hastily-turned engineer Chekov make for some well-cast comic relief, while Pine and Quinto’s effervescently amicable bickering does a decent job developing the antagonism the two had in the first film into an endearing friendship.

It’s got spark… and Spock!

That said, much of the film lacks the distinct freshness Abrams brought to the table four years ago. Phoned in cameos by Leonard Nemoy, for example, seem more forced than necessary, while the updated Enterprise non-characters, featuring, amongst others, a bald android/Data stand-in and that equally bald lesbian mom from Under the Dome, come across as purely-aesthetic attempts to diversify the command-deck rather than flesh it out. These hitches, while minor, are glaringly apparent throughout Into Darkness, as are the overly overt and predictable shout-outs to the 1982 classic this sequel was basically birthed from.

Cumberbatch, big guns, and overt Wrath.

Visually terrific and a breeze to watch, Star Trek into Darkness proves an excellent popcorn affair, brimming with enough references to the old-school to keep fanboys happy and enough lens-flare enhanced action scenes to keep the rest engrossed. It decidedly lacks the same wit and narrative gusto the first entry in the reboot thrived upon; however, Abrams and Co. still offer up a remarkably fun and well-rounded blockbuster bound to leave you dazzled in the darkness.

3/5

Moving Pictures Reviewed: Only God Forgives

Bloody brilliant or just bloody?

Riding high off the critical and commercial success of 2011′s Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn and new-found partner in crime(film-making), Ryan Gosling, re-team on the obsessively brooding Only God Forgives. Does this neon and crimson-soaked tale of ruthless revenge live up to the duo’s prior triumph or does it take a beating under all its own pretensions?

He’s a very dangerous boy…

Nicholas Winding Refn has fallen hard for Ryan Gosling, and, honestly, who can blame him? Their previous collaboration, 2011′s love-letter to 70′s crime-and-car capers, Drive, stood as a testament to Refn’s ability to squeeze tension out of every uncomfortable silence and thundering engine roar, not to mention Gosling’s endlessly endearing ability to communicate with others solely through icy, unblinking stares. Critics and audiences alike loved it, and the duo clearly felt there was more movie magic to be had from the blossoming bromance. Lucky for the two, Refn had put one of his personal projects on hold prior to shooting Drive: this project, a revenge tale set in Thailand, promised to be darker and more brutal flick than Drive. There would be fists. There would be blood. There would be immaculate camera work. There would be Gosling. Of Course, if good looks alone could carry 90 minutes on celluloid, perhaps Refn would’ve been on to something here. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case.

Maybe that “unfortunately” is a bit unwarranted- don’t get me wrong: Only God Forgives is by no means the movie-buff wet-dream that Drive was. That said, it’s hardly a disappointing film when weighed on its own merits. Hauntingly (and sometimes downright beautifully) shot against the neon-tinged backdrop of Bangkok’s many alleys, karaoke bars, and dens of malicious intent, the film is visually absorbing. Refn clearly goes to painstaking lengths to meticulously frame every punch, gunshot, and swing of the sword. Even idle characters take on a hint of artistic exhibitionism, surrounding themselves in creeping strands of cigarette smoke or dousing themselves in crimson store-front street-light.

Kirsten Scott Thomas glows in Refn’s neon-tinged dreams.

The soundtrack is hardly a slouch either, for that matter. Cliff Martinez, another Drive alum, does an admirable job imbuing each scene with an appropriate sense of surreal and terrifying electricity. Minimalist synths carry the suspense of a long walk down a dimly lit hallway with understated grace, while the occasional blast of an organ cuts through digitized arpeggios during a climactic duel between protagonists. Martinez’s use of eastern-tinged rolling drums that echo throughout much of the film are key to bolstering OGF‘s pacing, not to mention the audience’s attention to the carnage that usually accompanies it.

Wanna fight?

If you’ve noticed, I’ve kept talk about silly things like, say, plot and acting, pretty hush-hush up till now. Not that either of those things are particular letdowns here: everyone on screen seems completely game for the task at hand, and the story, in which Gosling’s boxing manager/drug dealer goes on the hunt for those deemed responsible in his older brother’s death, is both seedy and bloody enough to keep your eyes glued to the action behind the slits of your fingers. The trouble is, there just isn’t enough of either to warrant much ado about them.

Bromance in its natural habitat

Gosling’s lead billing is confusing, given he probably has less than 15 spoken lines throughout the whole movie. While his screen-time, as Julian, is considerable, he spends most of it lugging around with a manic, wide-eyed expression plastered over his mug as he stares at hookers, boxers, cops, and his arms, over and over AND over again. Sure, it can be gleamed as symbolic of Julian’s stranger-in-a-strange-place-out-for-vengeance character arc (if that’s what you think you can call it), but whereas Gosling’s titular Driver wore his silence like a badge of badass honor, Julian wears it like a ball and chain weighing down what could easily make for a more engrossing character study.

“I haz arms.” – Julian

Likewise, Vithaya Pansringarm plays the near enigmatic Lt. Chang (aka, the not so subtle “Angel of Death”) with comparable restraint, though his icy silence makes far more sense given the near supernatural nature of his hound-of-justice character. The rest of the mostly Thai cast put up a good show (and occasional beating), though the real scene stealer of the flick is a very, very high strung Kirsten Scott Thomas as Julian’s mother, the aptly named Crystal. Offering both an air of venerability and maniacal intensity to this drug queen, Scott Thomas is not only believable in the role, but utterly terrifying. The overt hints at Oedipal interplay between herself and Julian flesh out the film’s commentary on the nature of family between savages, and elevates the film beyond its otherwise run-of-the-mill premise.

Somebody’s gearing up to get sliced

One might expect action to be the selling point in a movie like this, however Only God Forgives is far more a mood piece than a standard summer slug-fest. Sure, there’s violence, but most of it is carried out after a quick cutaway, leaving much of the bloodshed (honestly, quite thankfully) to the viewers imagination. Nobody’s head explodes à la Drive‘s shotgun scene, however there are plenty of gnarly fisticuffs and sword disembowelment to be had here. Keep in mind, this is not a film for the squeamish. That said, the violence itself is hardly tasteless, often playing out in a brutal ballet of flying steel and surging red. If anything, this is Refn’s most reserved outing yet, the shockers paling next to his earlier forays into the genre.

Pretty brutal… prettay, prettaay, prettaaay brutal.

Overall, Only God Forgives proves both an equally impressive and frustrating journey, an engrossing and stylish neo-noir piece bogged down by occasional bouts of self-indulgence and a lackluster script. It’s not Drive, but it’s still a helluva movie. And what’s not to like about that?

3.5/5

Moving Pictures Reviewed: Europa Report

In space, no one can hear your hype.

After a near year-long hiatus, I’m turning Sound/Off back on, bringing you some overdue insights into new and upcoming releases that may otherwise float under your radar.

Aptly labeled “hard science fiction” films are occupy an oft overlooked but beloved niche in a time of explosive blockbusters. Drawing from and yearning for a place in the pantheon of every-other-year smart space movies, Europa Report thrives on gritty believability in the face of otherworldly unknowns.

It’s rough not being Avatar. Hell, it’s rough not being Transformers. Trying to sell a science fiction film without the aid of 3D-enhanced explosions, Smurf-cat-people, or, for that matter, hundreds of millions of dollars, requires a certain tenacity and stringent adherence to understatement most movie studios and goers are quick to dismiss. That said, there have been some pretty stellar (HA! See what I did there???) exceptions to that rule over the past few years, particularly out of the independent sector: 2009′s Moon managed to merge space-based hard sci-fi with classic identity-thriller hallmarks, while, that same year, District 9 used a faux-documentary style to further the otherwise action-heavy alien apartheid film’s believability. Taking more than a few hints from both, Sebastian Cordero’s Europa Report blends hard sci-fi with found-footage and faux-doc structure to admirable and mostly successful results.

“Houston, we have a movie.”

Set in the not very distant future, the film follows an international team of intrepid explorers and scientists who set off to Jupiter’s moon of Europa in the hopes of discovering life underneath it’s frozen, jagged ice sheets. Predictably, things don’t really go as planned: after an early tragedy, as well as a communications blackout, the space-farers are left drifting towards their enigmatic destination without guidance or the certainty of returning home ever again. Built around the aforementioned framing of a found-footage documentary, Report takes recorded video feeds from the mission and tosses it together with interviews collected from the team’s coordinators back on Earth. It’s an intriguing model to frame the action around, but consistently feels forced to the point that the mission’s actual narrative feels a bit to jumbled at times.

TIGHT.

Luckily, once the comm-towers go down and the astronauts are left to their own devices, the film takes a sharp turn toward the engaging. The faux-doc framework pops up only occasionally after the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, and the rest of the story is basically told through crew logs. Surprisingly enough, the found-footage feel works pretty well here given the claustrophobic nature of the events at hand. Stuck in their proverbial tin-can and left without direction from their Earth-bound overwatch, the team is forced to move past their various personal differences in the name of science and human discovery to carry out their primary objective: to search for traces of alien life in Europa’s icy oceans. Of course, what they end up discovering is far more terrifying and dangerous than any of them bargained for.

Good to go?

The film boasts a pretty strong, under-the-radar cast: Michael Nyqvist (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo [Swedish], Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) aptly plays a veteran cosmonaut in the thralls of guilt over an early mission mishap, while Christian Camargo (Dexter‘s Brian Moser) and Karolina Wydra (House) are familiar and welcome faces. Lead billing goes to Sharlto Copely, coincidentally revisiting the faux-doc sci-fi niche he helped pioneer with the aforementioned District 9. Interestingly enough, Copely’s role in the film, while pivotal, is fairly confined, his screen-time cut down to the first-half of the adventure.

Copely isn’t in Johannesburg anymore…

While the actors all seem game, sadly, their characters are underwritten, basically boiling down to tropes like hopelessly inquisitive scientist, snarky skeptic guy, space janitor, and survivor chick with short haircut. Nyqvist breathes some life into the hardened yet vulnerable Andrei, though, given the filmmakers’ preoccupations with focusing on the science more than character development, any depth these personalities have are put on the back-burner. It’s a shame, considering the opportunity a claustrophobic environment like a space capsule can offer for inter-character conflicts and complex relationships.

Michael Nyqvist hates this mission.

Thankfully, the mechanical aspects of the film are tied together quite nicely. The special effects are admirably effective, from a lander’s slow descent onto an alien moon to a dramatic POV shot of an ever shrinking spacecraft in an endless blanket of black. It looks low-budget in a way that only adds to its plausible aesthetic. The editing is all over the place: structurally, the film crumbles under its jumbled and jumpy faux-doc narrative, though when the action stays within the confines of the mission, the cuts are done quite effectively. Flourishes of “radiation interference” cause color bursts and video noise and act as nice visual touches in contrast to the blue-tinged HD cams the mission logs are mostly comprised of. Every so often, a crew member picks up their own handheld cam, often leading to some of the most intimate and surprisingly touching moments in an otherwise strictly business outing.

On approach to awesome.

Without going into much detail (which, luckily the filmmakers don’t really, either), the extraterrestrial presence bolstering heart of the flick is tastefully and intriguingly presented. The nature of this outside force is kept a cleverly veiled, yet accessible, mystery that will keep you guessing till the last few frames of the movie. Without exaggeration, this is one of the finest portrayals of a third encounter I’ve ever seen. There’s no early reveal, no shadowy figures coming up behind our heroes and heroines, and really no explanation. And it’s cool, because we really don’t need one. Hats off to Cordero for holding back just enough to draw us in completely.

Brian Moser’s in spaaaace….

While it can be a bumpy ride, this trek to Europa is ultimately rewarding, offering not only a delicately reserved and believable look at a deep space search for alien life, but a fresh blending of sci-fi filmmaking styles that pay tribute to those that preceded it, while offering something fresh and understated to the pantheon. An impressive feat for an indie release, and for a genre that relies so heavily on inordinate amounts of money to draw in an audience. It may not pioneer the concept, but, despite its shortcomings, Europa Report boldly goes where few films have gone before and makes it feel like something exciting and new. Cheers to that.

3.5/5

Motion Pictures Reviewed: Prometheus

The wait is over: three decades after Blade Runner, Ridley Scott returns to the genre he redefined in Alien‘s spiritual precursor/successor, Prometheus. Does Scott’s bombastic space case make for universal appeal, or does it find him going boldly where every man has gone before?

A few months back I posted a relatively breathless preview of Ridley Scott’s new film Prometheus, the insanely-hyped science fiction creationist epic set before the iconic space-horror visual orgasm that was 1979′s Alien. Ever since 1982′s Blade Runner, Scott’s spent the past 30 years distancing himself from the genre that put him in the critics’ corner, inspiring film students, sci-fi junkies, and popcorn-lovers alike to openly embrace the ideas of subtly dystopic, corporately-controlled intergalactic shitshows. Alien, in particular, broke new ground in removing most of the sheen from futuristic space operas, opting for ethereal, industrial settings full of claustrophobic hallways, junktastic computer interfaces, and VHS-quality video feeds: it was situations and characters were realistic and the horrors that followed them were as strikingly inventive as they were visceral. Flash forward another three decades to 2012, and Scott’s budget (not to mention his ambitions) have become substantially… well, larger, a scale he uses to crank everything in Prometheus to an eleven on the “holy cow”-scale.

How is babby formed?

Scott’s desire to “think big” and “go big” with his artistic homecoming carries over into the main gist and (initially) driving idea of Prometheus: who are we, as human beings, and where did we come from? Scott’s “answer”, at least for the second half of that question, is a giant, bald, blue-pale muscleman who drinks some nasty black stuff in the first minute or so of the movie that causes him to rapidly decay, fall over a waterfall and spread his DNA around a prehistoric landscape, all after watching a gigantic spacecraft silently float away through thick grey clouds, back into the infinite sea of space. It’s an almost poetic hook that begs more questions than it does answers; fitting, given the nature of the ideas Scott aims to tackle here.

What’s with the sci-fi tendency to name spaceships after ill-fated mythological characters???

From there, we’re whisked off to 2093 aboard the Prometheus, a corporately funded deep-space research vessel tacked with uncovering the origins of mankind from the furthest regions of our galaxy. Their destination (with nods to devoted fans of the Alien franchise) is LV-223, a distant moon archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Repace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find numerous references to in ancient pictograms they found around the world. The uber-old depictions of humans worshiping giant humanoid figures that point toward a star system lead the two young scientists to conclude that these “gods” were actually prehistoric astronauts, inviting latter-day humans to “meet their makers” (a phrase ironically and a bit too overtly thrown around throughout the flick courtesy of Damon Lindelof’s crack/cracked-up script).

Brushing up on their history, no doubt…

What follows would be a bit too telling for people looking forward to literally unearthing the mysteries Scott hints at here, but I guarentee you there’s plenty of blood, sweat, and tentacles lurking in man’s cradle once the Prometheus has landed. Alien-franchise fans will have a blast with the impressive mythology-integration Lindelof brought to the table, particularly the shady background dealings of Weyland Industries, the company funding the expedition. Aside from the aforementioned alien nasties, the movie’s primary antagonists are these slippery corporate-types pulling the operation’s strings. Charlize Theron’s appropriately icy expedition supervisor Meredith Vickers makes interesting character-development turns, going from skeptical authority figure to surprisingly desperate woman-wronged; it’s fascinating and impressive that Lindelof could make such a seemingly two-dimensional character as deep as she is, but disappointing how short-lived and under-utilized her potential ends up given her strengths.

She’s as cold as ice…

Most other characters fall under this catagory as well: Repace’s Shaw goes full 360 on her concepts of faith throughout the film and demonstrates jaw-dropping resilience, yet lacks the rebellious punch of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in Alien. Idris Elba’s role as a blue-collared ship captain is appreciated but underplayed by the action at hand, especially given that he barely leaves the cockpit the entire movie. Marshall-Green’s Holloway character is wasted as a mere foil and romantic connection for Repace’s, leaving his potential impact in the film relatively unrealized.

Elizabeth Shaw’s not quite Ripley, but she still has to put up with some horrific situations in her underwear.

The rest of the crew are unfortunately underwritten, often carrying glimpses into what could have been (Sean Harris’ Fifield, the stoner geologist very much opposed to going down that dark, scary looking hallway over there) rather than what ends up being, which most of the time is a bloodied corpse. Most the blame falls on Lindelof here: he spends far too much time seeking ways to satiate franchise fan-bases without paying enough attention to drawing out his characters and making them act in believable ways. Believable character action, in particular, becomes an increasingly rare commodity as the body-count rises, crew-members often showing a lack of scientific restraint unbecoming of supposed world-class scientists.

Rising above the pack, however, is the ever lauded Michael Fassbender, sporting a fascist-esque blonde hairdo and impressive Peter O’Toole inflection. Playing the ship’s synthetic science officer (again, wetting the mouths of every Alien-franchise fan ever), David, Fassbender wryly takes his familiar role and inventively turns it upside-down, dropping hints at David’s underlying intentions and curiosities lost on the rest of the crew which merely shrugs his being off as pure mechanization. Watching Fassbender’s near-invisible wince when his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce under a crapload of makeup), says via hologram that David is “the closest thing to a son he has” despite the fact he “will never have a soul” is as heart-wrenching a display of humanity as any Scott has ever filmed in his near 40 year career. Early parts of the film dedicate themselves to observing David’s routines prior to the rest of the crew waking from their two-year hypersleep: he shoots hoops one-handed riding a bicycle… he studies countless languages and recites them perfectly… he watches Lawrence of Arabia, quoting O’Toole obsessively… he even watches crew-members dreams, a robotic voyeur seeking to understand what makes us tick. It’s creepy and intriguing all at the same time, ultimately trumping the initial creationist tones the rest of the script begs the audience to pay heed to.

Something to behold.

When Fassbender’s not busy stealing the scene, however, the scenes themselves are: despite character flubs, Lindelof and Scott have established a very impressive universe in Prometheus, one that ties into the Alien-franchise without necessarily feeling constricted by its design choices. Indeed, here Scott aims for grandiosity on a level unseen in Alien, dreaming up cavernous structures, gigantic alien creatures, massive action set-pieces, and gorgeous landscapes. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is no slouch on the visuals, his framing artful and technique engrossing. The 3D visual effects courtesy of the Moving Picture Company are some of the best realized since (as much as I hate the movie) Avatar, coming across as tastefully immersive rather than gaudily exploitative. Disappointing, to a certain extent, are some of the creature designs, branching a bit too far away from H.R. Giger’s source designs and opting for familiarly fleshy beings rather than distinctly (and bracingly) alien ones. That said, the visuals, as a whole will definitely not disappoint.

Nothing ominous about this at all…

Aside from somewhat sloppy writing and lackluster character development, the only other glaring problems with Prometheus are the numerous plot-holes and unexplained circumstances that sometimes pop up in the film’s second-act. I feel like the ball’s in Ridley’s court here: he overtly (and, even cheekily) sets up the film’s finale less as a culmination and more as a launching pad for a potential franchise, leaving his big questions mostly unanswered and his remaining characters’ blindly heading again into the unknown. For some, this turn may cheapen the experience, but for others (franchise fans in particular), it will only whet appetites for another outing. Visually stunning but a bit too rough for its own ambitions, this hype-machine grinds metal on literary levels, but proves ample popcorn-potential for most movie-goers. Prepare to meet your makers!

Ripcord Reviews: Japandroids – CELEBRATION ROCK

Coming off their infectiously energetic debut LP, Post-Nothing, Vancouver rock-revitalizers Japandroids aim to continue their frenetic take on punk anthem-building with their anxiously-awaited followup record, Celebration Rock. Is this the aptly titled opus that will push the two-man act past their noisy, angst-y cradle, or a sophomore misstep that keeps the boys in song-writing safe-zones.

You have no idea how right this picture is.

Let me get this out of the way (before my preface has me playing the part of critical waffler): part of Japandroids’ undeniable charm, as evidenced on their fantastic 2009 debut, Post-Nothing, is their heart-wrenching appreciation for simplistic and yet brutally energetic anthem howling. Did it matter that the majority of their first LP’s songs were predominantly composed of two or three lyrical lines shouted out over guitar-blasts and a sea of cymbal crashes? Not really: the album was so enticingly rapturous, it was hard not to smile or sing along or make it a permanent iPod fixture (guilty on all accounts). It also helped that these Canadian dudes put on a hell of a live show, complete with heavy duty fans to blow Brian King’s hair around. It was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had a small venue show, and probably any show I’ve ever been to. So yeah, I’m impartial to these guys, but that impartiality is warranted by the undisputed air of grandiosity and genuine passion Japandroids pump into every two-minute explosion of noise-pop genius they pump out.

Now that the disclaimer’s out of the way, we can approach the topic at hand: Celebration Rock. The band’s second LP has been self-described as a significant maturation marker on King and drummer, David Prowse’s, songwriting skill-sets, particularly in the lyrical department. We’ve actually seen evidence of this popping up over the past few years anyways, as the eponymous track on the Younger Us 7″ delivered some of the most poignant punk-rock lyrics this side of the apolitical sphere since the mid-80′s. When King wails “Remeber that night you were already in bed/said ‘fuck it’, got up to drink with me instead”, what’s amazing is that you do: between the sonic assault and King’s engagingly familiar voice crying out for raucous abandon, the collective experience of being a twenty-something cascades over that four-second musical peak and suddenly everything is relative. Deep, I know…

But all existential yahoo-ism aside, Japandroids are one of those rare acts that truly manage to pack a decade’s worth of life-experience into three minute rock songs, a skill they aim to utilize for the full 35 minutes of Celebration Rock. Where Post-Nothing was an album built as much on dynamism as it was on beat-to-sh!t drums and hammered guitar riffs, Celebration takes Japandroids down a decided path to full-frontal sonic assault. From the time that familiar blast of distortion kicks-in about a minute into “The Nights of Wine and Roses”, the band maintains a breakneck pace and volume all the way to the exuberant (and appropriately titled) finish of “Continuous Thunder”. And, unlike similarly energetic moments on Post-Nothing, here each headbanging piece feels fully crafted: the lyrics are exponentially more literate across the board (“The House that Heaven Built”), Prowse tightens up his game, and King mercifully spares us from another “Crazy/Forever”. The results are decidedly poppier, but in a good way: Japandroids were always at their best live when a crowd could bounce around, crying out lyrics with King at the mic like a club-bound echo. It’s the kind of record that plays like a bar-scene performance where you buy the boys a round of Jameson for the times and sweat and tinnitus.

Oh wait: been there… done that…

So, while Japandroids haven’t taken drastic steps away from their debut’s relentless rock n’ roll rampart, they have managed to hone their craft in a way that evolves previously unrefined facets (lyrics, musicianship) into sharpened sword-points of fuzz-blasted bliss. Enormously rewarding, energetic, and talent affirming, Celebration Rock offers a musical rarity these days: the feel-good record that won’t find its way into a Glee episode (if there is a god, thank him). So do yourselves a favor: go out, find the record, put $10 on the counter and the LP on whatever you have to play it with, and crank the volume to max. You’ll appreciate it later.

Crack Tracks (courtesy of Soundcloud):

“The House That Heaven Built” (Celebration Rock, Polyvinyl [2012])