Saturday, November 23, 2013

It's a-Me, Stereotype-io...

In 1993, one of the very first, and worst, video-game-to-movie adaptations were made. That movie was Super Mario Bros. And boy, was it a pile.

So I should start off that this isn't a Nerdview. My Nerdviews are meant to be exemplars of professional reviews, and a key trait of them is that anyone should be able to read one of my reviews and come to a contrary opinion of the movie. A fair, well-explained and contextualized review should allow for people who have opposing tastes to mine. A review should not tell people whether they should or shouldn't enjoy a movie, but whether they're likely to enjoy it or not. That's an important distinction, as nuanced as it is.

So this is not a review, because I'm going to flat out say it: you should not see this movie, unless you need to cure yourself of optimism for the video-game-to-movie franchise. In that case, Dr. Ben will prescribe 200cc of Super Mario Bros after eating--because it will ruin your appetite.

First of all, the plot of the movie was a mess. Inspired by the cartoony idyllic landscapes of the games, the plot naturally transplants the protagonists in a formless cyberpunk world of super-pollution and made Dennis Hopper King Koopa, the sleazier-than-usual president of a parallel dimension where humans descended from dinosaurs. Mario, played by the awesome Bob Hoskins, is dragged along by his brother Luigi, played by the toothy John Leguizamo, as they chase Luigi's best-girl Daisy across the ick-dimension. Daisy, played by Punisher-wife Samantha Mathis, turns out to be the long-lost princess of the suck-dimension, and for arbitrary reasons that makes her the key to Koopa uniting the dimensions and make him the de-facto ruler of both worlds. There's a lot of cheap fights with the most ridiculous little-headed goons of all time, a devolving-weapon that reduced Daisy's father into a fungus and other political enemies into goombas,  and the super-jump gimmick of the game is a pair of jump-jet boots that elicit some of the worst wire work in the genre.

The awkwardness of this screenshot is seconded only by the film's total fail.

Just reviewing my recollection of the film, I'm asking a dozen why's all over again. Why is Mario the punk of the plot? He's not initiating the action, central to the plot's conceit, or even getting the girl in the end. Why make King Koopa the president of a dystopian bolthole of retarded dino-men? How is that more plausible than a naturalistic fantasy land of colorful critters? And president, really? Way to make the story more accessible to the 7-12 year-old age range you were shooting for with your film. I'm sure they'll appreciate the mock election posters and "environmentalist" message.

See that "elect Koopa" poster? That makes it edgy.
Being edgy distracts from the stink, right?

Probably the biggest travesty of this film is that Bob Hoskins is actually good. As far as the cringe-worthy script and head-poundingly dumb directing lets him go, that is. He pulls off the swaggering of a Brooklyn plumber-turned-reluctant-attache-to-the-hero with his natural aplomb. And with this coming two years after his role as Smee in Hook and five years after starring in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I think he was positioning himself to play more kid-oriented roles. And then this was inflicted on his resume, the poor bastard. The production values around his veteran performance are just staggeringly bad when you bear in mind that this movie came after Terminator 2 championed early computer-generated effects and Aliens showed how effective purely practical effects could be. Not to mention that a little over a year later, Jurassic Park would be coming out and really rubbing our noses in how pathetic this movie's effects were.

The uber-intimidating badguys

Now, at the time, I'm sure every decision to deviate from the source material of the games was made on the assumption that literally depicting the game would be unbelievable to audiences. But in moving away from a surrealistic world that was already completely familiar and plausible to the target audience, the inept filmmakers made something that highlighted its own stupidity and failed to live up to the consistency of a cartoon world.

Yeah, burned.

But you can make something that starts with a familiar, real-world palette and then successively introduce fantastic elements that bring it even closer in line with the source material. And in so doing, you could make a Super Mario Bros movie that is both fairly faithful to the games and yet still accessible to non-gaming audiences.

As an example, and to apologize for dredging up bad memories of Super Marios Bros, I present to you: The Four Players.

I love this video, which depicts Mario as a gruff everyman who sort of goes through a more mundane Mr. Incredible workout routine to become the block-smashing bruiser of the game's stories. Just the label of 'the fixer' evokes many of my favorite hero tropes. Mario isn't just a happy Eye-talian--he's a hard-nosed man you count on to snake your toilets and rescue the princess.


Alright, I'm not crazy about Luigi going full pyro at the end there. If he would've stuck with breathing fire, or even just being a nutso pyromaniac loading up a rucksack of flower-powered molotov cocktails, would have felt much more natural to me. That said, I love the juxtaposition of Luigi as the strung-out bad brother who only reluctantly gets his act together when straight-shooter Mario comes a-calling. And who doesn't love the blunt characterization and drama of a well-done support group confession?

I need to watch You Kill Me sometime soon.

So I'll admit, that when Peach started singing, I was ready to roll my eyes. But cutting between the idealized club setting of the song and the 24-worthy torture scenes was genius and by the time the music crescendo'd, I was digging the song both on its own merits and for being so epically moving given this woman's circumstance.

Although regaining the fingers was kind of a cop-out, in my opinion. I like consequences in my story-telling, and I think an eight-fingered Peach would subvert the classic princess trope completely. When flesh-eating piranha eat your fingers off, they stay ate.

(Alright, now I'm getting sissy-weepy re-watching the video…)

Toad here as the soldier, is one of the most game-accurate visions of the character, but at the same time he's totally rocking the Guillermo Del Toro vibe. I could just see him riding a giant frog from beneath that tree in Pan's Labyrinth. Yoshi, anyone? Anyways, I'm a big fan of underpowered characters that get brutalized by their own heroism, so giving him the green mushroom (which gives an extra life in the games) is a great way to characterize the fanatically loyal soldier.

So there you go, cynics. You can make a video game adaptation from a really sparse, cartoony game and actually make something with film-worthy drama and consistency. It just doesn't happen. But at least we have awesome fan trailers to give us hope every once in a while.

Have a good weekend, nerds.

So so so wrong
(Oh, and Luigi should have a mustache. Nerdery out.)

Monday, November 18, 2013

New Mandate Trailer

I've talked about The Mandate a couple of weeks ago, but I couldn't wait till the weekend to blog about this latest update on the Romanovs-in-space epic. Perihelion Games has released a cool new trailer for their game, featuring Brit David Bradley doing a kickin' voice-over as Admiral Suvarov for an incredibly enticing trailer for the in-development space epic. Now, I'm not familiar with David Bradley (I'm not a fan of Harry Potter or Doctor Who, and I'm too scared of fleshy bits to watch Game of Thrones), but apparently he's got about six miles of nerd-cred. For me, he sounds a heck of a lot like Adam Nicolson, British author of the book examining Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, Seize The Fire. (I absolutely love that book, and Nicholson's wry English consonants most recently accompanied me on a kind of creepy bus ride from Indianapolis to Chicago last summer.)

In addition to the awesome VO quality that we're going to get for this sci-fi gem, I just love the tone they establish in this game. This is going to be a game where NPCs aren't just faceless meeples that you stat-grind as a parallel leveling mechanic--they're an engaging, dynamic, and fragile element of the game. They're your friends and your resources, and nothing you do can shield them from the risk that entails. Your crew will suffer losses, and the way you manage that loss on a dramatic and tactical level is going to be a central gameplay mechanic. It is very Nelsonian in that way, which grabs me all the right ways. (Seriously, check out Seize The Fire--the author-read audio book at least.)

It also makes me think of how exciting and avant-garde Mass Effect was going to be back in the days leading up to the first game's release. In particular, there was this commercial spot that still resonates with me to this day:

The idea of having mutually exclusive, NPC-destroying, time-based decisions to make is so much fun, and we never quite got the pay off in Mass Effect that the above commercial promised. Each game had very specific set-piece decisions that would very transparently give you a choice to kill person X or Y, but it never made it a heavy, pressed-for-time, combat-based choice like you get from this 48 second commercial. The first Mass Effect came close with the Virmire decision, but that still was a very canned moment. No matter how many times your NPCs got railgunned to the face, they were immune to any real injury until the script suddenly decided they were mortal.

With The Mandate, though, they're repeatedly stressing that every time your ship's hull tears open, you're losing crew, and that loss will not only potentially kill off individual characters, but having to replace or evaluate crew will impact the character of your ship and your character. This dynamic will make it where even the most assured victories will still have weight, as you try to grab as much power as you can without losing critical crew.

Oh, man, if this game doesn't get funded to the moon and back, I will be so disappointed in you, internet.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Agents of SHIELD (First 6 Episodes)

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the Nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

This is my first review Nerdview of a television series, and as such it's perfectly appropriate that I weigh in on the latest Marvel media property: Agents of SHIELD. I've got several other more important projects on the blog-burner right now, but this is probably the most immediately timely, as I can actually sound off on the series in the middle of its first season.

Expectations 'Odor': If you read my blog post earlier this summer, then you know that I've been looking forward to Agents of SHIELD for some time. I love the way SHIELD stories interweave the greatest characters and plots of the Marvel universe into a coherent story, especially in the post Civil War continuity (which at some point in the future I'll probably cover for those who aren't Marvel-fans). Secret War in particular was a great mini-series that showed how SHIELD and The Man push around superheroes to make the world safer--whether they like it or not. In particular, I like the SHIELD stories that expound on the ways mundane or low-powered agents of SHIELD are able to stand on the same field as Hulk and Iron Man. Sure, individual SHIELD goons don't last, but as an organization it pulls the strings of many of the heroes in the Marvel universe while still being a fundamentally mundane organization. As a fan of watching little guys push big guys around, it resonates.

So with Agents of SHIELD I want to see at least a bit more development of that theme: what place do NSA-types in suits have in a world of girder-grinding, lightning-throwing, super-sonic super-humans? But I also know that what we've got here is also a Joss Whedon series, and with that we're pretty much guaranteed several specific elements. First, that means a women-heavy cast of primaries, women warriors, and not necessarily in in believable roles or casting. I mean, Eliza Dushku kicking more butt than Tahmoh Penikett in Dollhouse--the heck?! Second, it means that disestablishment themes are probably going to either erode this version of SHIELD, or the team will be some sort of Black Ops splinter group to maintain Whedon's happy for rogue heroes. Third--and this is really something to be excited about--it means that the show will probably have different ages played on-screen and in the plots. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had Giles' personal life and character growth become a significant plot thread while also making us endure Buffy-as-waitress type plots. Firefly had Book alongside Kayleigh and River. Even Dollhouse, which revolved around brainwashed youth themes, showcased a lot of drama amongst the middle-aged conspirators being mocked by their own vapid creations. In Agents of SHIELD, then, we can look forward to Coulson and the youngest agents having distinct characterization and focuses in the meta-plot of the series.

But do I think Agents of SHIELD will be good? Yes. Great? Honestly, maybe. Just maybe. Because there's one element that I think could make a SHIELD show superb that I don't think Whedon would ever touch: the procedural. The thrill of investigation, of plots having certain core steps repeating to represent that the characters are in fact doing their jobs and not looking for this week's interesting thing. The Mentalist, Law & Order, and detective classic shows like Columbo are all great procedural series. In those shows you're guaranteed certain steps to get thrown into the matrix of a new mystery for nearly every episode, and it works. The most critical procedural to compare to Agents of SHIELD, of course, is The X-Files. Even though The X-Files featured outlandish plots, special effects monsters, and conspiracy theories, most of the episodes fell into a procedural format that established that even in the BS-filled land of The X-Files, they were still part of the FBI, which was a job and an organization that stretched beyond the cast of the show. Heck, they even had a petite warrior-woman mismatched with a physically uninspiring nerdy guy, all the better for Whedon to take notes.

But at least it won't be Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD.

Appreciation 'Beef': Bumbly bumbly bump. What's that? Oh, Agents of SHIELD is on? I mean, we're six episodes in and I'm still waiting for it to get started. I feel like these first six episodes have been part of a long, exceptionally badly-paced pilot episode. The writing is weak with only brief commercial-length moments of good scripting. The cast ranges from sublime to bland all the way down to absurdly annoying.

"As a fan of watching little guys push big guys around, it resonates."

In terms of the greater plot of the show, they've introduced a good number of elements from the greater Marvel universe, with Extremis, (proto-)Graviton, and the Chitauri being featured in the show so far. I'd probably suggest they slow down with their inclusion of these diverse elements, taking their time to establish more drama and mystery around them, but for the most part these kinds of Easter eggs are the most exciting thing in the show for Marvel-philes like me.

The action is fairly well-done, with Ming-Na Wen pulling off the physicality of warrior-woman Melinda May capably. Brett Dalton as Agent Grant Ward definitely does a better job of selling his stunts and action, but that's to be expected. So far two of the six episodes aired ("Girl in the Flower Dress" and "FZZT") have not featured much traditional action, and that's a positive trend I'd like to see emphasized in this series. In a world of superpowers and eldritch gadgets, combat should be brief and deadly, and there's a very real trend towards inserting bland fist fights to pad out the show where drama and actual investigation should sit.

Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson is great, and when he's actually placed in a scene where he gets to chew the scenery a bit, it's awesome. His moment with the terminally ill firefighter in FZZT was a gripping bit of drama that helped shed a little light on his seemingly spastic behavior--he's a man crushed by his own brush with death. I think the mystery around his revival/resurrection/reboot is a bit over-played, but since it is the only real over-arching mystery of the show right now, I guess I'll have to take it.

The rest of the roster, though, makes very little sense. First of all, six principal characters always feels light to me. (Heck, if you include Zordon and Alpha Five, the Power Rangers show started out with seven.) And that tiny roster is exaggerated by the red shirts of this show who are so paper-thinly developed that names and characterization are hardly ever given. In "Eye Spy" and "Girl in the Flower Dress" there are way too many scenes where there's no one on screen except two or three main characters, which is silly when you stop to consider the enormity of these plots, SHIELD itself, or even the density of SHIELD personnel in the movies. You can try to justify it by saying they need a small independent team or whatever handwaving goo-gawing you want, but in the end it's just a way to cheap out on production costs with a smaller cast, and it shows. Heck, half the episodes don't even show an actual flight crew for the massive plane they fly around--and if that bird can be managed by a lone pilot and no flight crew, then I'm a body double for Chris Hemsworth.

(I'm not, by the way.)

Setting the light weight of SHIELD in the show aside, though, the simple composition of the team is ridiculous, both in a contextual sense for the purpose of the team and in a meta-textual sense for the purpose of the show. They have a combat-competent leader in Coulson, but his almost petulant need to flout the regs is pretty vain since the show doesn't seem to have a boss for him to report to and have conflict with. As it is, having Coulson as leader constantly have to explain himself to basically all of his subordinates is not only tiresome, it's eminently stupid. Agent Ward is pretty strait-laced for a SHIELD agent type, but in a group full of recalcitrant misfits he ends up being either a sullen by-the-book regs-thumper or broody pretty boy by way of compensation. Melinda May is also very capable in combat, but reluctantly so due to her unexamined backstory. And in any case she's the only character we've seen piloting their plane, so the lady should be sitting in the plane most of the time anyways. Fitz and Simmons are a victim of their own silly premise--both annoyingly interchangeable, mutually-dependent, and inept at combat. The plot of "FZZT" revolves around the two characters being plot clones of each other, highlighting how they're doubly tiresome. So all in all, we have a SHIELD roster of a six person team with only three combat effective members, two of which do not ordinarily want to be in potential combat situations, and two who are incredible liabilities in combat situations.

"...we're six episodes in and I'm still waiting for it to get started."

And then there's the sixth member of the team: Skye. Skye is a former info-terrorist hacker the team brings on…'cuz. Normally a television show brings an outsider into a team of specialists to give the audience--also outsiders--a sympathetic window into the specialists' world. I call this a schlub (see my post on Gerard Butler for another example), and Agents of SHIELD has no need for a schlub, because everyone is largely ignorant or obtuse to each other team member's area of responsibility. So what does Skye bring to the team? Smug uselessness and pathetic attempts to be sexy with a smoker's voice? At first I thought they'd use her to introduce a sinister traitor meta-plot to define the first season, as it was clear she was maintaining contact with her Rising Tide info-terrorist group. Instead, that betrayal plot gets ham-handed four episodes in with the revelation that she was just doing it for her boyfriend, and that her acts of treason that got federal agents killed were mitigated by her stupid hormonal love connection. Not only do Coulson, Fitz-Simmons, and the plot itself give Skye a pass on her crimes, but the cast collectively tells Agent Ward to just get over it by the next episode. What was the point of introducing the betrayal and treason plot if the end result was to ditch it at the earliest and clumsiest opportunity?

Ugh. I can rant about Skye all night, but I won't. I will just sum up with this thought. The crew of the Serenity, assembled by luck and lowest-bidding to accomplish odd-jobs of the criminal underworld, was better selected, more disciplined, and more capable of addressing most SHIELD-oriented threats than the team in Agents of SHIELD. They had four combat capable crew (five on River's good days), a dedicated pilot, tech person, medic, and a seductress who could stay in character long enough to actually pull cons off.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': Agents of SHIELD has got me going through the motions. Don't get me wrong, I'm still watching this show every week, and I honestly believe there's potential in the show they've created, but so much of it is bumbling along right now that I feel like a Marvel-holic getting a watered-shot of a simulacra of the stuff to which I'm actually addicted.

Now, it may seem like I'm being a little harsh in light of the excellent Marvel movies, but wait: I'm going to get even more acerbic as I dial in my disappointment. We're six episodes into this series. Let's put that into perspective. By this point of screen-time (using show chronology, not airing chronology), Firefly had introduced Niska in "The Train Job", developed the entire crew's fabulous rapport in "Shindig", and blown everyone away with "Our Mrs. Reynolds". The X-Files had already given all of us the uber-willies in "Squeeze" with a boneless super-malleable cannibal serial killer, and established a good procedural investigative style and partner dynamic with "Conduit" and "Shadows". And Agents of SHIELD's stumbling is made even more unforgivable by the fact that The Blacklist, which started the same week, has been superb--especially in the ways that the Marvel show fails. They've got a great team that is diverse-yet-plausible, fantastic writing, good pacing, and several interesting meta-plots.

I'm waiting for Agents of SHIELD to come into its own, but I'm not holding my breath.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': As it stands, I think Agents of SHIELD will only appeal to a very small section of fans of the Marvel cinematic universe. I'm not going to assume everyone is going to get annoyed by the same elements the same amount as me, but there are just too many compromises to something that needs a very focused formula to work as a show. It still has too many superhero and genre elements to appeal to viewers who don't like the movies or comics, but those elements are so watered-down and subverted by the cliched action of the show that the movie and comic fans are going to feel let down at best or outright alienated at worst.

I hope that people will, like me, give Agents of SHIELD a chance to fix their problems, but even more so I hope that the creative team behind Agents of SHIELD will actually take the effort to fix these problems to make a series worthy of Mordor five or more seasons.

After Avengers, Joss Whedon is the magical summoner of comicbook fans.

(Fourth post this week, so the deficit is down to 3 out of 31)

Movie Web Monday: Alan Tudyk

Movie Web Monday: Each article in the web, I'll look at a specific actor's roles across three good movies. The third movie will in turn tie into the first movie of the next week's actor, whose third movie will continue the pattern. I will go through actors and movies at this rate, with the following limitations in mind: every movie(or television show) invoked will be one I either own, or wish to own; no movie or actor will be invoked twice. So sit back and enjoy as you fall into the nerdery's movie web. (Oh, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, telling you just enough to know if you'll enjoy the movie)

Alan Tudyk: Probably Won't Survive This Post

Movie: 3:10 to Yuma (Own it. Minor spoilers ahead)

In 3:10 to Yuma, Alan Tudyk plays Doc Potter, one of the supporting townsfolk who gets wrangled into joining the posse seeking to deliver Ben Wade into the hands of justice. (Man, that sounded a bit like a line from The Tick, didn't it?) He's a minor character, but in true Alan Tudyk form, he instantly charms the audience. While digging into a shot Pinkerton named Byron McElroy (played by Peter Fonda) to prise free a bullet, Byron notices that the doctor's wall is decorated with skinless sketches of horse and dog musculature. Byron of course asks what kind of doctor Potter is, to which the only slightly shaken doctor replies wryly:

Doc Potter isn't an imposing character--neither very outspoken nor terribly useful in a fight, but he sets himself up as stubbornly moral and reliable. In this western, the protagonists stand shoulder-to-shoulder with bullies and cowards, and it's fitting that two of the bravest men in this band end up being the crippled Dan Evans and the soft-spoken doctor. And of course, he ends up dying right in the middle of a punchline.

Speaking of which...

Movie: Serenity (Own it, several times over. SPOILERS SHALL FLOW)

Oh Serenity, how you move me. Between the short-lived television show Firefly and the spin-off movie Serenity, the adventures of Malcolm Reynolds and his crew are some of my favorite fourteen hours of media. The characters are likable, charming, and quirky. The world is worn and eclectically appealing. The events are pure in their anti-classist nobility. And Wash, the ship's lovable pilot played by Alan Tudyk, is completely emblematic of Joss Whedon's beautiful tableau. He's sarcastic and pliable, stubborn and witty, and totally in love with his wife even to the point of embracing a lifestyle you definitely get the feeling he wouldn't otherwise lead. Even in the climactic ship-scramble of the movie, when his superb piloting skills shine for all to see, he reminds us how unsuited to this violent business he is with his simple calming verse:

It's a tremendous contrast to the destruction and danger all around, and it sort of highlights how out of his element he is. And the glory of that moment--and his crushing, sudden demise in mid punch-line--really encapsulates the kindness and childish devotion of his character. Wash was probably too principled and soft to be part of Serenity's crew, but he was also too loving and devoted to ever leave them. It's a really nuanced characterization for Alan Tudyk to bring out in a character we didn't even get to know for a full season.

Movie: A Knight's Tale (Rent it)

A Knight's Tale is a anachronistic teen-oriented fluffy movie about a squire who lies his way into becoming a knight's tournament champion, while picking up an allegedly hot noblewoman along the way as a spare. Now I'm not a huge fan of A Knight's Tale. But that boils down almost completely to the fault of the two main characters and the runny-eggs sloppy romance between Heath Ledger's William and Shannyn Sossamon's Jocelyn, because I love the supporting characters and antagonist. Rufus Sewell doing what he does best with a smirking, sadistic streak cloaked in the velvet of classism as Count Adhemar. And Alan Tudyk as the fiercely belligerent, barely conversant fellow conspirator in the group. He's stutteringly insecure and defensive on his own behalf and that of the group, as is made readily apparent when Chaucer joins their group and Wat decides to threaten the naked wastrel:

His delivery of the line is so energetic and committed to the moment of realizing a barely literate friend raging that it's pretty much impossible not to consider this one of the best moments of the little movie. (Alan Tudyk doesn't buy it in this one, either, so there's always that.)

Oh, and this is the third post this week, which means that's 2 out of 31 for my blog post deficit. And we're only two days into the week, too.

Movie Web Monday will continue next time with a new actor, picking up with some other prolific player from the last movie listed above.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day at the Nerdery

Today is the ninety-fifth anniversary of the Armistice of Compi├Ęgne, which ended World War I, or at least the war between the Triple(or more, really) Entente and Germany, on November 11, 1918. Starting the next year, many of the Entente nations declared national holidays on the anniversary of the armistice. In the United States of America, it was known as Armistice Day until 1954, when Congress officially changed the holiday to Veterans Day, which has remained associated with the holiday ever since. Now, in the US we have a holiday in May for the remembrance of those who died in the armed forces (talked about first here and again here). Veterans Day, on the other hand, is dedicated to honoring veterans serving, retired, or passed away and to connect that honor to our everyday lives in a way that is distinct to the respectful rites of Memorial Day.

Today, I'm going to quickly highlight Veterans Day with a short list of great science fiction books. These books fall into the great tradition of what is known as the military sci-fi subgenre. Military sci-fi comprises story where military hierarchies, tradition, logistics, and/or tactics factor as heavily into the plot and setting as alien worlds and futuristic technology. What's interesting about these sorts of stories, when compared to traditional space opera, sci-fantasy, or social drama sci-fi, is that it respects the interaction of characters and traditions as somewhat timeless in the scope of how men and women conduct war. The three books I'm highlighting below, however, are not just really good pieces of military sci-fi; they're also all written by veterans, which allows a reader to analyze the book meta-textually. In so doing, these books aren't just great action-packed sci-fi classics, but they're an alternative way of approaching and analyzing some specific veterans.

They're also pretty quick reads, too.

Starship Troopers was written in 1959 and has remained one of the flagships of the subgenre of military sci-fi ever since. It's less of a conventional war story as it is part snapshot of a military oligarchical society and one teen's coming of age within that tradition. I've been a fan of this book since the fourth grade, and I think I've bought it at least a half-dozen times over the years out of a compulsion to always have one at hand. (Not unlike the way Jerry keeps buying copies of The Catcher in the Rye in the movie Conspiracy Theory.) Starship Troopers was written by Robert Heinlein, who graduated from Annapolis Naval Academy in 1929 and retired as a Naval Lieutenant in 1934, and is one of a smattering of not insane pieces of sci-fi written by him. I also recommend Space Cadet, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Red Planet for anyone interested in more of his books, but many of his others are really out there. But this one is a fairly short, fast-moving read that provides a good survey of the major themes of this category of fiction.

The Starfist series of novels is a great collection of 14 novels set in the 2400s. The premier entry in the series, First to Fight, was published in 1997, and presents the marines of the 34th FIST (Fleet Initial Strike Team) performing glorified police work on an inherently unstable world in the middle of yet another brushfire war. If you ignored the publication date, you might think the fiction is reactionary to early War on Terror military stories. The two things I really love about this series of books both relate to the elegance of the series' conceit: it all follows a specific company starting in a specific year. In the early installments, this means that the Confederation of Human Worlds has yet to make contact with intelligent (and hostile) aliens, and the conflicts of the first four books are about dousing political fires on the outskirts of human space. Secondly, the authors consistently draw characters and resources from a genuine military company, meaning that characters that are dropped as names in one book might become main characters you root for in later books, and that the politics of the unit's organization mean more to you as the series goes on. The series was written by David Sherman, who served 6 years in the United States Marine Corps before retiring as a Corporal, and Dan Cragg, who retired as an Army Sergeant Major after 22 years in uniform. They give the series a concentrated level of (US) military culture that sometimes comes off as a bit stereotypical but is always consistent and oozes bravado throughout.

Orphanage is the first of a series of seven (and counting) novels set in a near future interstellar conflict. The first book especially takes a lot of stylistic inspiration from Heinlein's Starship Troopers, though with a lot more action and dialed in characterization of the supporting cast. The first book begins with earth getting bombarded by aliens from the outer reaches of the solar system. As the entire planet reels from the devastating attack, they mount a suicidal expedition to counter-attack the alien presence on Ganymede. The mission is considered so dangerous that the powers-that-be declare that all soldiers selected for the mission must be orphans of the war, earning the book its title and setting a desperate, wounded motif for the series. Robert Buettner, who served as an Army intelligence officer, eventually takes the series into bigger themes, as the war forces humanity to reach out to other stars to battle the aliens throughout the galaxy. There's a lot of great sci-fi that plays intelligent homage to several other authors and series, though the focus and style of the action shifts greatly throughout the books as the nature of the war itself evolves. This is a great feature if you're prepared for it, but if you aren't it can be jarring as politics, logistics, and ethics quickly take the fore.

I hope you take the chance to thank the service people in your life this Veterans Day, and definitely check out these great novels whenever you get the chance. Besides being enjoyable nerd-fodder, they just might encourage you to think differently about these issues next Veterans Day.

Nerdview of Thor: The Dark World

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

This past weekend was the US release of Thor: The Dark World. As you could probably guess from my two reviews of Thor (regular and Thor-speak), from my glowing praise of Avengers, or my general love for Marvel, I have been anticipating this film for some time. What's more, the trials of parenting two babies demanded that I see the movie twice this weekend: once in 3D with my Friday gaming group, and once in 2D with my wife on Sunday. (Spoiler alert: I liked it)

Expectations 'Odor': As a Marvel-phile, I had a lot of expectations for seeing Malekith brought into the cinematic universe. In the comics, he's a magically-grounded half-dead dark elf, but based on the primordial narrative of the movie trailers, I imagine the film's origin for the dark elves would be more primordial, which can be a fine and elegant way to bring comic book issues to the theater. The first Thor movie had a bit more deliberate pace, with the most exciting combat front-loaded and the later action much smaller-scale skirmishes. Without the burden of origins and introductions for so many characters, I expected The Dark World to feature more evenly-paced, epic action sequences. Coupled with that, since the first movie already introduced us to so many Asgardians, I wanted to see the supporting cast develop and get their own moments to shine. Except for Jane Foster. I wanted her to get killed off and free up Thor for his true love: Sif.

Appreciation 'Beef': The first observation to make of Thor: The Dark World is that it has a definite sci-fi flavor to the action, as the opening sequence throws you into a fight that is part Battle of the Last Alliance, with fantasy-flavored Asgardians wading into dark elf laser fire while their dagger-like ships loom over head. The myth-as-science-fiction was established in the first movie, but in Thor it was more of a token explanation to make it easier for Thor to relate to Jane Foster. In Thor: The Dark World, however, that motif is brought to the foreground, as the bad guys use energy weapons, point-singularity grenades, have spaceships and agile fighters. Even the Asgardians show off some artillery and their own boat-like fighter craft. That, of course means dogfighting, and they actually do it quite well for a movie where such aerobatics aren't even expected.

Ornate and manufactured, but with a serial-killer sinister feel as well.
The overall aesthetic of the movie is just as well-done as Thor, with Asgard fleshed out a bit more this time around in its golden beauty. There's also glimpses of most of the other Nine Realms, but nothing to really evaluate other than variety. Though I must say that Svartaflheim (the titular dark world) was a really neat realization of that realm: blasted with ash and black sand, sky a sick not-quite-illuminated sickly mellow yellow with clouded veins giving the alien sky a thoroughly distinct look, and at the same time alluding to the twisted base perceptions of the dark elves themselves. Malekith and his people stand out against the fantasy look of the Asgardians with baroque sci-fi designs that reminded me of the Necromongers in The Chronicles of Riddick, which I really enjoyed. The dark elf foot soldiers in particular wear expressionless pale-faced masks with black eyes that I found really eerie and elegant at the same time.

Minor spoilers in the next paragraph.

I was pretty massively disappointed in Jane Foster as a character. And considering I was expecting, hoping, and needing her to die in this movie, that's saying a lot. To start with, she doesn't die. But we get teased as she comes oh so close to dying. What's worse, though, is that Jane Foster is by far the worst, most uninteresting character in the movie. She's snippy and childishly petulant for no reason, she drags down her scenes with cardboard delivery, and she's in general just a plain old plot cow. It's so bad that at one point in the film she's so useless she faints for no good reason other than to let Loki and Thor riff off each other while she kindly stays out of it.

That's right, I saw Battlefield Earth, and I haven't even purged it from my memory.

Foster's big fail notwithstanding, the rest of the cast is terrific. Chris Hemsworth is as at home and mature in the role of Thor as ever, showing genuine growth from the previous two movies. Tom Hiddleston as Loki reminds the audience of his chops, modulating between impishly mischievous comic, brooding schemer, and jealous brother. Plus, you'd have to be blind not to get lost in his smoldering stares in the first act cell-block scenes--just saying. And once again, Jaimie Alexander as Sif dramatically outshines Jane Foster on the screen. Physical, decisive, witty, and intuitive in her relationship with Thor, Sif in thirty minutes completely outshines her mortal competition for Thor's affections, and only the plot spares Foster from being shown up completely. Finally, Christopher Eccleston as antagonist Malekith gives a searing performance even through the hefty face prosthetics and voice distortion. Even when he's speaking in the dark elves' language, I got a kick out of his resonating, careful enunciation and the vile sneer he carries with his voice alone.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': Having seen the movie twice in its opening weekend, I think it's fair to guess that I enjoyed this movie. It's got most of the elements I wanted, and in greater quantities. Odin gets some token raven-time (important for us mythology enthusiasts), Idris Elba gets a bit more screen time to be awesome and thunder great Heimdall lines, and Darcy returns and has a slightly expanded role. (If Jane Foster has to come back, then so should Darcy. Although in order to avoid upstaging Portman's Jane Foster, Darcy is in three layers, a scarf, and a wool cap for about 90% of her on-screen time. And she's still more watchable than Jane.) Thor is mature in both his powers and character, and yet there's still a sense of growth in both areas, which is especially apparent in his interactions with Loki. And Loki....oh Loki, you're so awesome. I can't really think of anyone I'd rather see staring down a Kursed Algrim.

But Jane Foster! Grrr, in a movie that grabs me by the nerdlies so easily, it's very frustrating to have to endure her throughout another film. Expect a more in-depth, spoilerific rant about it in the future. Suffice it to say for now that she is, at best, a non-entity in the movie and probably the only thing I can pick out as an outright flaw.

I want to make a note here: I don't think this movie is worth the 3D up-charge. I rarely noticed it even when I tried, and those times when I did notice the 3D effect was normally in foreshortening shots. There it created a powerful depth of field, but I don't think it enhanced the movie as much as Captain America of Avengers did. I mean, subtlety in 3D is nice, but if you don't consciously notice or get at least thirteen bucks' worth of wow out of the experience, you might as well enjoy the movie in its 2D format.

Seriously, how the heck is this not the leading lady?!

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': Anyone who enjoyed Thor should enjoy Thor: The Dark World. It does almost everything just as well if not better than the first movie. And for those who didn't like the first movie will likely still find stuff to enjoy. The action is much more kinetic and spread out, the emotional content is dialed in even more in this movie as it doesn't have to deal with stranger-on-earth tropes as such, and there's a lot of great performances spread out throughout an excellent cast.

Who definitely won't like this? People who don't like the juxtaposition of mythological figures and science-fiction elements. This seems to be a common cry amongst professional critics--I guess they weren't listening to Thor in the first movie.

After the disappointment of Iron Man 3, it's nice to see Thor: The Dark World getting it right. They change Malekith quite a bit to fit him onto the screen, but he's still riveting and adroitly meets all the thematic demands set by the comic book version of himself--unlike the Mandarin in the last Iron Man flick. Everyone other than Jane Foster shows growth in this movie and is an improvement over their earlier portrayals, while Portman's character is a dull cloud in the middle of an otherwise sterling film. Regardless, though, she can't sully this movie for me, and it's definitely set the bar high for the next Marvel movie. It's doubtful I'll get to see this again in theaters, but if the opportunity came up I'd definitely accept. In the meantime, I'm counting down the days to Winter Soldier.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Marvel Hype: Cinematic Universe Phase Two

(...And Maybe A Little Bit of Phase Three?)

I'm not sure how necessary this is to constantly reiterate, but for those of you just joining or with the attention spans of Labrador Retrievers: I am a Marvel fan. I love the comics, I love the cartoons (erm...animated features, I mean), I love the movies. I love Marvel.

And right now, I am excited.

Why am I excited? Well first of all, this past week was Thor's day. No wait--that's not just a terrible pun/allusion to the etymological origins of the word Thursday--it's the night of the US release of the second Odinson movie, Thor: The Dark World. Apart from being a mega awesome sequel title (woot for sequels without numbers in the title!), the trailers for this film have had me totally stoked. I really liked the first movie, and this one looks poised to amp up many of the elements I loved about the first. Plus, with Jane Foster getting thrown into the thick of things for this movie, odds are good she'll get elf-kacked and replaced by Lady Sif--booyah! Either way, expect a movie review to be posted early tomorrow.

Most importantly, though, is the revelation that 3D screenings of Thor: The Dark World will have an exclusive peek at Captain America: Winter Soldier. Not only does this movie look poised to hit all the right notes in this first trailer, (Robert Redford?! Booyah!) but Winter Soldier is one of the coolest Cap-related storylines, and one of the greatest overall plots in the Marvel Universe. If you haven't read it, you owe it to yourself to check out the story arc--it's the first twenty issues or so of the Captain America series that began in 2004, written by Ed Brubaker--fantastic plot that brings back classic elements of Captain America and brings them to the fore with a shiny new appeal. It's like meeting your first crush years later and finding out she's just as cool as before, only now more clever, passionate, and into yoga. All-round win.

Throwing further fuel onto the fire of my enthusiasm, Marvel cinematic news is that James Spader is going to be portraying Ultron in the Avengers sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron. What?!


I mean, first of all, I want to throw a Marvel-fan hissy-fit over Ultron being the main villain in the next Avengers movie, which will come out before Ant-Man. I mean, Ant-Man is the creator of Ultron, and a lot of his (really really compelling) character quirks as a villain are directly precipitated by Ant-Man's personal character. This is totally putting the cart before the horse. (I wanted to say 'literally' there for emphasis, but the grammarian butt-hole living in my head wouldn't allow it) So clearly Ultron isn't going to share a remotely similar origin story to the comics, but does that mean that Hank Pym is going to be fundamentally changed as a hero in Ant-Man? Pym is very much defined by his world-threatening failure in Ultron's creation, and it's often as depicting his more self-destructive character flaws. The suggestion, then, is that those demons won't exist. What's next, are they going to make him a decent guy who treats his woman nice, is loyal, and always takes it slow?

Bah, who am I kidding? This is Joss Whedon we're talking about. You can say what you like about his creative choices, but he makes really interesting bad guys. Heck, if they made a Whedon Villains special like a Disney Princesses video, I'd buy it. And James Spader, too? I mean, they've already let slide that they scanned his face for VFX, so it's safe to say we're going to see some awesome acting from the man who is the pillar of Blacklist's early success. But I also used to be a big Stargate fan, so the role I'm really wanting to see him channel is Daniel Jackson, the rambling archeologist outcast.

Most recently, Marvel announced last week that they'll be partnering with Netflix to create four 13 episode serials over the next two years. Focusing in turn on Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage, the four mini-mini-series will culminate in a cross-over mini-series that will be called The Defenders. I already jumped the gun getting excited that Luke Cage would feature in Agents of SHIELD, so getting to see Power Man doing his street tank thing will be awesome. Not to mention the prospect of Daredevil being redeemed from the Affleck treatment he got in 2003. If they feature the lawyer aspects of Matt Murdoch, the Daredevil serials should be really engrossing--that pseudo mundane aspect of his character has always appealed to me. Same goes for Jessica Jones' wry private investigator angle and the post-tights drama that defines her. And Iron Fist's handwaved wushu business should be a fun splash of highly choreographed action to contrast the other three.

"Heck, if they made a Whedon Villains special like a Disney Princesses video, I'd buy it."

Oh, the next phase of Marvel's cinematic universe is already shaping up nicely with Thor and Captain America, and even Phase Three should be killer with The Defenders adding a lot of street-level mysteries and small-screen drama.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Myth Campaign: October 4, 166 Sword Age

Myth, The Shield Age: A dramatic synopsis of the tabletop RPG campaign I'm currently leading my friends through. It's a variation on GURPS, built up from and inspired by the excellent computer game Myth. In it, the player characters begin as a selection of relatively ordinary folk in an unremarkable town. Their adventures grow, the dangers swarm, and the PCs? They pretty much just have to deal with it without serious power progression. It's gritty, it's deadly, it's fantasy with a political and social edge and an emotional timbre: it's Myth: The Shield Age.

I've recently been watching a number of videos on YouTube depicting other people's role-playing game sessions, and it's really gotten my Game-Master juices flowing, so to speak. Wil Wheaton's Tabletop has chronicled two very fun RPG sessions in the past: the Dragon Age RPG was a fun and more traditional hack-and-slash adventure that got me to nerd-out to Sam Witwer's gaming style; Fiasco was a sublimely dramatic RPG without so much mechanics and direct violence, building a tableau of tragedy and drama and then setting it all on fire. Both are a lot of fun, and could merit detailed posts on their own (or more, if you know me). I've also been watching a series of recordings of a group that livestreams games using Skype and Roll20 to play an RPG set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Called "Rollplay: Dark Heresy", that group's fun antics almost lured me back into the grimdark dumb setting before a horrific boondoggle scared me right the heck off of the Games Workshop website (filmatleven on that).

But as much as these games have inspired me, they also leave me cold as a role-player and GM. Dark Heresy is based on the Inquisitor system which was my first love in the role-playing genre, but they add a rigid class system to it that makes me want to vomit in terror. The Rollplay group is fun, but also irreverent and obtuse towards the story in that power-gamey self-conscious way. I'm a thespy, snobby GM I guess, because as fun as it is to watch I know I would hate that in a campaign I was leading. Similarly, the Dragon Age episodes of Tabletop were a really entertaining watch, but the contrived elements of the class system is a turn-off to my gaming tastes. Fiasco is dramatically around my sweet-spot in terms of harrowing player characters without violence or fakey game progression being necessary, but it doesn't touch upon combat or traditional adventuring the way I would like.

What does? GURPS Myth, baby. Or at least the way I play GURPS Myth, it does. I'm actually in the process of returning to this campaign after more than a year off--I think we've played one game of it since my family and I moved to our current place. This synopsis is going to be focused on a fast summary of the story rather than highlighting the GURPS mechanics in action, though if any questions about the nitty-gritty come up, I'd be happy to answer them either in comments or future posts as appropriate.

Note that I'll be pretty careful to track dates, seasons, and holidays in my campaign. The passage of time is an important element of the game. Not only do I use time spent training in lieu of traditional game experience, but I try to keep world events on an independent timeline from player action--whether they dawdle or hasten towards their goals is up to them, but the forces of evil act out their own plans at the same time.

Also please keep in mind that I tend to run more R-rated or at least hard PG-13 games. You won't get too much bad language--at least not much bad contemporary language--but there is some more mature subject matter in the run of the plot. And I tend to cut loose with my descriptions of violence.

The twelfth of November,
One hundred sixty-sixth year of the Sword Age.

Here taken to script is the account of Alrid Hock, founding elder of Misty Downs, warrior of the The Legion. Tiernan Seithkarl, the Magistrate of Misty Downs for these past two years, has bid me record the dire goings of our village this past moon.

Misty Downs is a small village of perhaps three score families in Umbra, the region immediately east of Tharsis, the great billowing mountain at the center of the Cloudspine. The Cath Bruig village is honorably distinguished in The Realm as furthest north and west in the region. To the north just past Lake Ywrmasr lies The Barrier, filled with Myrkridia and soil now damned for one hundred and sixty-five years. Founded a generation ago, Thom Etteryn, Ostler Farris, myself, and two other brothers in The Legion were awarded these lands for our years of service in Alric's Legion, fighting in the First Myrkridian Campaign.

Having sheathed our swords, the five of us farmed the land and beat back the wolves and catamounts of the region. We have broken the earth and planted crops in the shadow of the last war, and as our families joined us we made the cursed soil fertile and built two generations in the fog dripping down from Tharsis.

But every good Bruig knows that peace is fleeting, and the wolf waits for its prey to slumber. For Misty Downs, it began on the fourth eve of October. I awoke from the harvest mind to a cry raised in the center of the Downs. I stirred my house and summoned the rest of the council to join all in the village square, before the Flooded Downs tavern where we always held town meetings.

"Giselbert Craw is gen missin'," the village crier reported. Giselbert was Laanor Craw's sister, daughter of Donovan Craw. Her father and brother stood by, eyes red and torches in hand. She was but a dozen and one years old.

Thom, Ostler, and I seized upon the townsfolk there assembled to get their witness. She had disappeared from the pastureland along with her father's small herd of fourteen cattle. The last of our assembly to have seen her was a Gowerna from the east named Danlyra. She was known to me already, as any Bruig Elder worth his teeth would meet any horsemaster entering his village. We quickly put the test to her. She had not touched Giselbert nor shared many words with her but to take directions to our village tavern as she rode in on her fine Gowerna riding mare. That was least two hours and spare before the crier rose the alarum amongst the town, but Danlyra saw nought else.

We mustered the men of the village to find Giselbert Craw. By this time, much of the entire village had put themselves under our cause, and so we parceled the men to range afield for her, while the women and children stayed close to home to keep fires lit for her swift return. Danlyra stayed at the tavern, tending to her horse and distracting my grandson Baith with her lilting words and strange expressions. Were her clothes less refined I'd have called the whore her true name, but she had the bearing of one beyond my station and all were pressed to find Giselbert.

By Wyrd's sight, we had a Heron Guard tending our Temple of Wyrdras for that season. We called him Ten Green Gem Vine, a name strange to those who never served with the Heron Guard in The Legion. He was young, even measured by my short span, but he quickly divided us and led our group into the dark. Tall and strong as all his blessed brothers are, he donned the glittering armor and twin fangs of his station and sallied into the hills.

The young Heron Guard selected a falconer from our village to lead the search, a huntress named Vera Wealwa. With her bird and bow, Vera led the men of the village to sign of young Giselbert. They found only a bloody patch of ground where someone had split ope one of the Craw farm's cattle and strewn its entrails about the field, knotting the gibs together here and there. The search parties ranged in small groups from there, forced together by darkness, fog, and wolf as the night deepened.

Vera led the Heron Guard, following a trail of what she scryed to be a single cattle into the scrub to the west of our village. Joining him was Keagan Na Anyon, our village blacksmith. Soot-browed and meade-bearded, he could swing his fists like many men swing hammers, and were he less fond of drink and brawling he'd have left Misty Downs years ago. Indentured to our last smith as a boy, Keagan clung to Misty Downs, though, and he was blustering to find Giselbert at the first cries from Laanor Craw.

Also joining their number was a wandering vagabond of perhaps thirty years. Named Crow, he carried himself unlike any beggar I've met in my two score and ten years. He held a stout quarterstaff, bound at the haft with leather strips, the mark of a staff used to striking more than leaning. A gourd hung from his belt, but his eyes were clear and acute. I saw him for a soldier even in the midst of the tavern, but on that night I thought to say nothing.

The four moved through the dark for hours, scrabbling up slopes and gutters torn by Tharsis' great eruption two ages ago. While many of our hardiest villagers turned back in exhaustion, Ten Green Gem Vine urged them forward, making every clue Vera found into a certain promise of Giselbert's well-being and proximity. Then they were suddenly set upon. Stones in the darkness whistled to crack against the Heron Guard and torch-wielding blacksmith, breaking the redheaded smith's nose and tumbling him. Drawing his twin swords, the Emperor's Twin Fangs, Ten Green Gem Vine charged into the stygian hills and let his blades find the guts of a bandit with a sling while Vera's arrows hobbled another as he fled into the night.

Two more highwaymen witnessed the slaughter and the armor of a Heron Guard and retreated into a cave nearby. As Keagan drew his sword and caught stride with the Heron, the group strode into the cave to find a nest of eight men waiting for them. Keagan, Ten Green Gem Vine, and Crow waded into the fight. Crow's staff broke bones and whistled teeth, but a spear threaded his ribs and he fell even as his cohorts' blades cut into the rest of them. The Emperor's Fangs gutted a man and twisted the leg off another, leaving the man screaming and bathing in a pool of his own blood. Keagan's sword threw a bandit down to ruin as well. While Ten Green Gem Vine tended to Crow's wound, Vera saw three more bandits returning to the cave, the one she'd earlier hobbled among them. Arrows answered stones, and the bandits tumbled into darkness and screams.

Inside the cave, three of the villains had the strength left to scream and beg for their lives, but the party ignored them. Keagan followed the path of the cave deeper to find signs of an encampment of sorts. A fire and spit, bedrolls for a dozen men, and a gutted cattle close at hand. And a heavy foreign curtain draw across a smaller tunnel to create a room. With the Heron Guard stepping beside Keagan, the curtain was cast aside, and they found Giselbert.
Major events since Soulblighter's defeat, about fifty years ago:

-Muirthemne and The Realm of the Cath Bruig are slowly being restored.

-Emperor Alric orders the Myrkridian Campaigns, periodic assaults on The Barrier to try to weed out the Myrkridia infesting the ruins of the last age.

-The Province in the west establishes its own king, beneath Emperor Alric.

The Barrier
The Barrier is a wild area, cursed by the gods. It fills the land north and west of Muirthemne, and is in turn teeming with beasts and foul creatures, the greatest of whom are the Myrkridia. A scorching desert filled with ruins nearly two centuries silent, every farmer knows that The Barrier’s soil radiates heat both night and day and will not permit seed to take root.

The Barrier is the scorched remnant of the heart of the Cath Bruig Empire. When Balor sacked Muirthemne in the last year of the Wolf Age, the winds carried the sorcerous blaze across the rest of The Realm, hastening the death of the towns in that region as their crops withered and fell even before the Dark laid proper siege to their walls. After Soulblighter’s defeat, the hordes of leaderless Myrkridia he let loose upon the world swarmed to The Barrier, drawn to the sites of massive carnage. As Alric and his Circle of Mages have begun pushing back the curse of The Barrier, he has also installed a dozen forts along the edge of the wastes, each supporting a company or more of the Legion’s soldiers, helping to keep the monsters within at bay.

Misty Downs
Misty Downs is one of the smallest and most remote villages of the Umbrage region, consisting of perhaps a hundred families. The nearest settlement is a Legion border fort, nicknamed Foggy Bottom, about a day’s travel to the northeast. Misty Downs benefits from frequent rains and mountain streams rolling down from the Cloudspine, and so most of the farmers in the area have a goodly number of cattle. The area is named for its hilly area that frequently clots over with fog banks.

The small, remote village of Misty Downs has roughly four hundred residents, most of whom rely on wheat and cattle farming. A day’s travel to the northeast is the Legion fort Cwmasr, nicknamed Foggy Bottom. Fog rolls into the hills around Misty Downs with regularity, especially in their wet autumns. Few travelers make their way into Misty Downs, due to the fact that it is so far from the roads and passes of the south. The nearest town is more than a day’s journey to the southeast, as is the Emperor’s Highway. The village, like many others in The Realm, was founded about forty years ago by retiring soldiers of the Legion. A few years ago, the veteran elders sold their holdings to an affluent noble named Tiernan.

Council of Misty Downs: elders Alrid Hock, Thom Etteryn, and Ostler Farris; Magistrate Tiernan Seithkarl; Seeress Nara Pugh.

This initial session was meant to turn the typical fantasy RPG on its head. Instead of everyone meeting inside a tavern before their call to adventure, the characters were scattered about the village as they experienced the village's building panic in their own ways. Then they were called to the tavern and asked to meet. Also, the concept of the men of the village meeting and pushing the female player characters out of the tavern to do so was a fun way of helping to establish that this would be a socially grounded medieval setting.

Danlyra, Gowerna noblewoman

Ten Green Gem Vine, Heron Guard

Vera Wealwa the falconer

Keagan Na Anyon, Blacksmith

Crow, Wandering Adventurer

Cliffhanger, that's right! If you guys enjoy this, I'll post more. This first entry roughly summarizes the action of our first night's gaming session, but since this one involved so much exposition too I think future Shield Age articles will cover more than one session at a time.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Enemy's Gate Is Down

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

Last night was the premier of Ender's Game, the film adaptation of one of the greatest pieces of sci-fi literature of the past 30 years. Based on a book published in 1985, and long in production with the author Orson Scott Card serving as screenwriter and producer in the past, this movie had been in an interminable production for years. During that time, the series has expanded to include a dozen sequels, comic book adaptations, and short stories. And it's still growing, with at least one more sequel and another prequel planned to be released soon. But the most important question, now that the movie has been released and the inevitable talk of a cinematic sequel has already begun: is it a good science fiction film?

Expectations 'Odor': If you've read my blog for any amount of time, you know that I've been waiting for this for a long time. I first read the book fifteen years ago, and it's important to note that I helped work on a screenplay adaptation of Ender's Game within a year. It wasn't long after I worked on my script and read the followup The Speaker for the Dead trilogy that the first rumors of an Ender's Game movie surfaced. Originally Wolfgang Petersen, director of Das Boot, Enemy Mine, and Air Force One, was attached to the primordial movie websites. Later, several X-Men alum were rumored to be on the project. Ultimately, I stopped trying to follow the pre-production limbo of Ender's Game. It just hurt too much. But Ender's story has remained important to me, and with this movie I've been getting progressively more and more excited since that first full trailer's release. I even wrote a tribute to my grandfather's passing in a format very similar to a Speaker for the Dead.

So my expectations are high. Probably a little higher than most fans of the book. The casting choices, as they've been revealed, have been extremely exciting--Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff seems an unintuitive-but-perfect fit, as is Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham. But at the same time, the trailers have done very little to indicate how much of the book's psychological depth and exhausted desperation--key themes in the novel--will make it to the screen. With not much to go on, I think my expectations, my enthusiasm, my criticism, and my hope probably all meter out to something fairly optimistic in the end. We'll just see what the pay off is like.

Appreciation 'Beef': Ender's Game is very pretty and well-acted. I hope you can hear the negative conjunction coming from around the corner because I've got a big 'but' coming... Ender's Game is very pretty and well-acted, but the plot is rather clumsy and unfocused. There's a lot of strong elements and really polished performances, but in the end the narrative suffers from a lack of strong direction.

The general design and cinematography of the film is really stunning. Without cashing in on sleazy characters or cheap visuals like a J.J. Abrams movie, the look of the film is simply legit and epic. Particularly for a new sci-fi brand that can't rely on established designs for anything, the principal designs of the suits, the game arena, the battle school itself, and the ship designs are all distinct, top notch, and largely fit the limited descriptions of the book. What deviations there are from the descriptions largely make sense, too. The bulkiness ascribed to the game suits was a lot more relevant in the 80s, but the form-armor of the movie looks contemporary and still somewhat protective. The game arena goes from the book's description of being a formless cube to being a glass bubble floating over the planet, giving the Battle School matches a dizzying backdrop to help ground the audience's disorientation. These three-dimensional battles were really well done and did a decent job--though overly condensed--of intimating the tactical geometry of the book's fights. The ship designs were rather more utilitarian than the John Harris cover art I'd grown accustomed to, but the proliferation of Harris' covers throughout 80s and 90s sci-fi means that using his covers for direct inspiration might not have felt that authentic. Heck, I just discovered that the original Ender's Game cover art was re-purposed from an earlier novel called Drunkard's Walk. In any case, I ate up the special effects and visuals of the film.

The acting was really gratifying, and predictably I found Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff and Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham really stole the show as Ender's mentors. Viola Davis also did a great job as the military warmachine's bleeding heart, Major Anderson. I wasn't especially gripped by Asa Butterfield's performance as the lead, but Hailee Steinfeld as Petra did a great job of playing off of him and adding a bit more heart to their scenes together. And Moises Arias, who played Bonzo Madrid, gave one of the most convincing portrayals of childish maliciousness I've ever seen in this sort of movie. In fact, for a movie containing so many young actors, I was pleasantly surprised that every actor seemed suited to their roles and those who didn't stand out were at least capable. Even Abigail Breslin did a good job of realizing the mature-but-impotent philanthropist Valentine Wiggin. And that's from someone who really didn't like her in Zombieland.


I understand that this is a movie and plays by different rules than a novel. I've always said that a strict adaptation is not necessarily a good one. But it seems every plot change the movie made was antagonistic to the themes that made the book popular and made the film's own voice dwindle. The timeline of the movie is a shambles. Apparently, the entire ordeal of selection, Battle School, and Command School takes only about 40 days. Literally, about thirty minutes into the movie they show a timer that says "28 days to alien homeworld." Not only is it eminently stupid to put a timer on a frakking third-act plot twist, but it is a slap in the face to much of the plot where Ender is being tested and refined. You have one month, dill-brains! Just start training him outright! They also overlook the second Bugger Invasion completely, which undermines the sociological and psychological topography of the threat. The whole point of the book is that the Formics first attacked with a scout force and then sent a proper invasion years later when they found a seemingly weak target.

One of the hurdles that Orson Scott Card has personally mentioned in an interview with Wired was that the book is very insular--much of the action is internalized within Ender's mind. The movie rather clumsily tries to flesh this out by vocalizing Ender's e-mails back to his sister, Valentine, but the correspondence is so bland it feels like a kid reporting on summer camp and doesn't really seem to fit the character or the setting--almost like he's self-censoring to avoid spilling classified info. If that was the case, it could serve the story, but it's a significant plot-point in the movie that Ender is being open with his bland, uninspired letters, and so it defeats the purpose of even including them.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': I'm glad I saw Ender's Game, and I may even see it again in theaters. The battle scenes were gorgeous, and Ford's delivery of Graff's hardline strategy for saving the human race is engrossing.


(minor spoilers ahead)

I can't say this is a very good movie. I'm not saying it's bad, but I find it hard to get into something that is so confused about what it wants to be. For a movie so rushed up until it happens, they take way too long to resolve the post-Command School plot. A part which I think would've been better left as a one minute post-credits scene, they draw it out more than any other scene in the entire movie when they didn't even build up to it properly.

They only partially met the three expectations I listed in my earlier post anticipating this movie. The third invasion of the Formics was not even a lie in this movie because there was no second invasion, and they seriously drop the bomb of that lie at the earliest possible opportunity so that the steaming dud doesn't even really impact the audience. And when Ender ignorantly wipes out the Formic homeworld, the emotional content of the scene is so backwards as to defeat the impact of the twist itself (for Ender, because with the timer reveal any audience member should see the twist coming). In the book, Ender is supposed to be mentally exhausted and spent, ready to quit when he petulantly 'breaks' the game with a suicidal and genocidal attack on the enemy's base. The observing leaders, however, are supposed to be relieved, cheering and crying and congratulating each other at that moment of victory. That cruel juxtaposition, then, beats Ender when he was already low. The movie, however, depicts the kids cheering while the adults somberly conference and inform Ender of the dire truth.

It may seem like a nit-pick, but the changes the movie made to the mind game Ender plays throughout his training was also tweaked in a fundamental way. In the book, when Ender commands his mouse avatar to burrow into the giant's eye and kill him, the giant then rots and becomes a green, rich hillside. This is not only dramatic symbolism that foreshadows how humanity will suborn colonies originally terraformed by the Formics, but it also alludes to Norse creation myths and the death of Ymir. The movie's simple omission of this detail robs the mind game of its elegance and symbolic force that could have really helped to elevate the quality of the narrative.

The changes to the timeline were especially illogical and unjustified. And omitting the Second Bugger War altogether entirely defeats the plausibility of Graff's position. That can't be overstated. I really had to insert the movie Graff into the plot of the book in order to have him make sense, and in order to match Ford's dour defeatism he brought to life. And that's not only imaginatively over-complicated, but it's rather pathetic.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': Fans of sci-fi who aren't terribly in love with the book--or haven't read it at all--might be able to get into this movie. I say might because the plot holes and weaknesses that gall me are still visible within the context of the movie by itself, but less obvious. Fans of the book will at best be pleased with pretty lights and great moments that do adhere briefly to the novel, but mostly they'll come away with a story that is more "inspired by" than "adapted from" Ender's Game. Fans may be able to enjoy it if they're sufficiently braced against such disappointment, but they need to really understand that no moment in the movie compares to a comparable part of the book in terms of dramatic and emotional content or social commentary.

You know, as a fan of the book's depth and someone who wrote a better screenplay in junior high, I'm not sure I was prepared for the plot to be the weakest part of this movie. I doubted the job the young cast might do. I worried the three-dimensional Battle School scenes wouldn't translate well to the screen. I thought they'd outright cut large sections of the book. Instead, they condensed everything without making the tough decisions to cut out some of the elements they underdeveloped and under-delivered, and everything else is rather more anemic because of it.

At the same time, in a world where World War Z was turned into a dumb action movie without real zombies, socio-political drama, or one recognizable element from the critically acclaimed novel and still get 67% on Rotten Tomatoes, I think Ender's Game deserves its chance. It's certainly closer to the text, more reverent, and more consistently respectful of the fans who made the book popular in the first place.