The State of Sci-fi Movies

2013 was a bad year for sci-fi. There were a lot of sci-fi films with potential that just didn’t pay off. I saw a few of them in the theater and none were really satisfying.

I went to see Oblivion because a group of friends was going and I like my friends more than I dislike Tom Cruise. And while I admire Oblivion’s restraint in the action and pacing departments, the script was riddled with the screenwriting equivalent of explosions: dumb, pointless plot twists. None of it made any sense but they were hoping the audience wouldn’t notice in the moment.

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I wish this had been an Elder Scrolls movie instead. Also, the actress on the left looks like Chell from Portal. A Poral movie would have also been preferable.

Most of the group thought it was okay. A few thought it was boring and a few liked it outright. But I’m guessing that all of them have virtually forgotten about it now. I haven’t because I found it so offensively vapid and boring that it kind of stuck with me. That’s what you call ironic.

I had high hopes for the sequel to the 2009 semi-reboot of Star Trek. I cordially like the 2009 movie even though there’s not a lot going on under the surface, it still did a lot of things right.

I cannot say the same for Star Trek Into Darkness. I hated this one. I don’t mean to be a hater, but I can’t help it. Instead of a proper story (Star Trek-appropriate or otherwise) we got a set of action scenes, references to older, better Star Trek stuff, and Benedict Cumberbatch playing a character named Khan who wasn’t anything like Khan.

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Borrowed pathos – this movie tries to invoke the feelings stirred by the best moments from old Star Trek and fails miserably

Into Darkness is bad on almost all non-technical levels. I have so many problems with this film that it’s not even worth going into. The screenwriters thought they were being clever by ripping off Star Trek II – the real Star Trek II. Sometimes reusing ideas works but here it just comes off as bad imitation. And it’s imitation without purpose or thought.

If I judge the movie on its own merits, it’s not very good. It’s shallow and empty and doesn’t do as much with the characters as Star Trek 2009 did. But if I judge it as part of the greater Star Trek canon (and the writers seem to be begging me to do this with their constant references and callbacks) then it’s a horrible, derivative mess. I left the theater offended and annoyed.

I had a passing interest in Elysium, the sophomore effort from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, but I lost the interest as soon as I saw the trailer. Reviews and word-of-mouth affirmed my lack of interest. Detractors cite its heavy-handed political commentary as a negative. I have no problem – theoretically – with movies that borrow current political issues for themes, but I have rarely seen it done well. Subtly is the name of the game. In Elysium it was not subtle unless I was very deceived by the trailer and other commentators.

My biggest sci-fi hope for the year was Gravity. I already talked about that in another post. If anything, my feelings about the movie have further cooled since I’ve seen it. I really don’t care if I ever see it again. It had no story. I didn’t really even have ideas. It also failed to connect with me emotionally. It was just a ride. If I want that sort of experience, I’ll go play a video game where I have some level of input into what’s happening.

There’s quite a few smaller sci-fi films I didn’t see but I indent to. I fully admit it’s possible there was a really good sci-fi this year that slipped under the radar. But the big names disappointed.

Fortunately, 2014 will bring us some more sci-fi movies with potential. Hopefully more of these will turn out well.

Christopher Nolan’s longtime director of photography, Wally Pfister, is taking the reigns of his first movie. Transcendence starring Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall is ostensibly about the technological singularity – a theoretical event where artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. This has been a plot point in a lot of fiction before, but Transcendence will attempt to guess what this might look like in the not-too-distant future of our modern world. Check out the trailer below.

Again, I don’t want to be a naysayer, but I am highly skeptical of the film industry’s ability to handle technology – and particularly artificial intelligence – in an interesting or remotely realistic way. It doesn’t happen very much.

I have two major problems with this trailer. One: the movie purports to be about the singularity but the plot actually seems to be centered around a character uploading his consciousness into a computer. That’s really not an exploration of superintelligent AI then, is it?

My bigger problem is that the whole thing seems to devolve into stupid action tropes by the end. There are lots of other ways an advanced AI would change the world besides causing lots of violence. We’ve seen computers go rogue before. The computer being evil twist has been done in countless other films. I was really hoping for something new and different.

I don’t have a problem with action movies – I really don’t. I have a problem with action films passing themselves off as something more intelligent when there’s really nothing to them. Why do so many sci-fis also have to be action movies? Why can’t they just be about ideas and characters and choices? Why can’t they be subtle and take their time anymore?

I really hope the trailer is just showing all the action to get people into the theater and that the movie itself is actually a lot more thoughtful than it appears here.

But I doubt it.

A bit more promising is the new X-men film: Days of Future Past. I’m cheating a little with this one. It’s probably more of a superhero film than a sci-fi, but since the plot revolves around time travel I’m going to say it’s close enough.

I really like this trailer a lot. Why? Because it’s about characters rather than action. I can sort of sense where the movie might be going, but I haven’t had the plot explained to me with clunky, pieced-together exposition. It makes me way more excited to see this movie than if it had just been a bunch of mutants fighting each other.

I always say X-men has the best central conflict of the big name superhero franchises. It’s great because our villain (Magneto) is right about human nature but his methods are morally wrong whereas our hero (Professor Xavier) is a bit overly optimistic – maybe a little naive – about humanity but his methods are morally admirable.

It’s easy to see how Xavier might have become jaded and hopeless after being betrayed by Magneto and crippled in X-men: First Class. It seems like it’s up to Patrick Stewart’s Professor X to redeem James McAvoy’s Professor X and restore sanity to the future. Or something like that.

The X-men film timeline is a bit of a mess right now. I’m not sure if they’re intending to fix that with a time travel story, but I like the idea of getting all these great actors in one movie.

And finally we have a sci-fi film from Christopher Nolan called Interstellar. Inception was arguably a sci-fi movie, but functionally it was more of a dressed-up heist film than anything else. This time around it looks like we’re going full science fiction – in space!

Interstellar is about… we’re not really sure yet. It’s a Christopher Nolan film and it’s a year away so details are scant. The teaser trailer provides very little information; in fact it’s mostly stock footage. Sadly, there is no space.

I’m up for a movie about interstellar travel and wormholes. Nolan’s films have been generally pretty grounded so it’ll be interesting to see how things go and what it’s all about.

Here’s hoping that 2014’s science fiction is more thoughtful than 2013’s!

Read this: “Why Christians Need Flannery O’Connor”

A friend of mine shared a great post the other day. It’s an op-ed by Russell Moore entitled “Why Christians Need Flannery O’Connor.” Read it. Go on. Read it.

I don’t know much about Flannery O’Connor beyond what the article mentions. Nevertheless, two things immediately stuck me as I read this and I think they’re worth noting.

One came as I read this:

“Some of our worship services are so clean and antiseptic, led by grinning preachers and praise bands, talking about how happy Jesus makes us, that we forget that the Spirit prompts us to “groan” at our sin and the suffering all around us… Some Christians, then, can wonder if something’s wrong with them when they feel as though God seems distant, or when, despite all the smiles at church, they still feel guilty for the way their hearts don’t seem to match up with their hymns.”

A hearty “amen” to that! I wish I could say I don’t relate, but I do. And right now it’s where I live.

On the one hand, I understand we need to strive for excellence. We shouldn’t get bogged down in our own sinfulness or the suffering of the world. But there’s got to be a better balance for our culture.

Sometimes we fail to compassionately meet people in their struggles. Isn’t it easier (and ostensibly correct) to just tell people to find their happiness and joy in Jesus? But what if our hearts are having difficulty being gladdened by that truth day to day?

Second point: I found this article really refreshing. Why? Because it’s one Christian praising the work of another Christian even though they don’t line up theologically on major issues.

O’Connor was Roman Catholic while Moore is a Southern Baptist. Those positions are pretty far apart yet Moore recognized something in O’Connor’s work that he saw as helpful to those in his tradition.

This shouldn’t be surprising or refreshing, but it is.

How often do we read about petty infighting instead of this kind of praise? In our noble quest for pure doctrine we’ve lost sight of our common ground. We’ve forgotten that as individuals we all have bents and we all overemphasize and underemphasize certain things. So do our churches and denominations.

Truth is truth, but Christ has many followers with many different perspectives. More often than not we have things to learn from other genuine believers – even those with whom we disagree theologically.

Telltale Games

Telltale Games logoIn the last year, Telltale Games has become one of my favorite game developers. They have, in my mind, supplanted BioWare as the foremost developer of mainstream, story-driven games.

For the uninitiated: Telltale makes episodic adventure games based on existing franchises. They’re shorter chunks of content that come out over a period of time rather than all at once. Usually a single episode about 2 hours long with 5 episodes in a season. They’re heavy on story, dialog, and simple puzzles. They aren’t “difficult” per se. It’s more about experiencing the story and characters rather than developing gameplay skills. It’s kind of like an interactive TV show or a choose-your-own adventure book, but less dumb than that sounds.

The company had limited success until recently. They made a lot of licensed games that were either based on obscure properties (like Homestar Runner or Sam & Max) or more well-known franchises like Back to the Future or Jurassic Park. The obscure ones didn’t sell as well because of their obscurity and the big name franchise games weren’t well received.

The first Telltale Game I played was Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People which, as a big Homestar Runner fan, I thoroughly enjoyed.

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I will always love Telltale for finally giving us Dangeresque 3

Last year, Telltale had their breakthrough success: a series based on The Walking Dead. Many, including myself, consider it their 2012 Game of the Year.

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Walking Dead changed things up a little bit. Over the course of the five episodes, puzzles were pretty much abandoned altogether. The main game mechanic became making choices. Who do you save? Who do you share your limited supply of food with? Who’s side do you take in an ugly dispute within your group of survivors? It might sound strange, but this works surprisingly well. It’s far more engaging than yet another zombie shooter would have been (…and was). In fact, it ranks as one of my favorite games ever.

I played the entire saga at once. I was completely enthralled the whole way through. The Walking Dead is perhaps the most gut-wrenching piece of media I’ve ever experienced, but the story blew me away and left me in tears. I love it.

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Believe it or not some of the best moments of the game look like this

But I’m a little worried about Telltale now. Was Walking Dead just an anomaly or have they really figured out the magical mix of gameplay and game writing technique? We shall see. Season 2 premieres next week. I’m desperately curious how they’re going to pull off what they’re attempting.

Recently, Telltale announced it will be doing two new series in the coming year: a series based on Borderlands and one based on Game of Thrones. With season 2 of the Walking Dead and the currently-running series The Wolf Among Us, it’s entirely possible that Telltale will have four concurrent game series come 2014. For a company that made only one game last year that’s quite a big leap in output.

This is what really has me concerned. Is Telltale biting off more than it can chew? They’ve hired a lot of new employees in the last couple of years. Rapid expansion is risky in any business but in a creative industry it can be especially problematic. They’re not building a bunch of new coffee shops or burger joints. They’re building story-driven franchise. They’re hiring people to make creative decisions and make things no one has ever made before.

Good creative products always require talent – not just money and manpower. That isn’t something you can just buy. You can hire people you believe to be talented, but it’s always a bit of a gamble. Quick growth means you have a lot of new blood that might not understand the culture and ethos of the your company and the products you’re trying to build.

Point is: I like the Telltale that gave us Season 1 of The Walking Dead and I hope their success and growth as a company doesn’t translate into a reduction in quality. I have no reason to think that yet. The Wolf Among Us is supposed to be great. I’ll be giving it shot soon.

As for the new games announced, Game of Thrones makes all the sense in the world. I don’t have any first-hand experience with the franchise myself. Never read it; never watched it, but from all I’ve heard it sounds like a great candidate for a Telltale-style adventure game. Making difficult choices and dealing with fascinating characters in life-and-death situations worked well in the Walking Dead’s universe. I’m sure it’ll work great in Westeros.

Game of Thrones

I am curious what story they’ll tell. By necessity it almost has to be some kind of side story. Obviously you can’t retread the events of the books because that will limit player choice and spoil the mystery of what’s going to happen.

With Walking Dead, there are as many stories as you care to tell: just make up a group of survivors. Maybe it’s the same way in Game of Thrones? I guess it could be similar. Sounds like more characters get killed off than in Walking Dead.

Tales from the Borderlands was the announcement that really surprised me. I guess in one way it makes a lot of sense: it really fits Telltale’s established art style. But when I think of Borderlands story is waaaaay down on the list of reasons to play it. It might not even make the list.

Borderlands 2 executed its story about 1000 times better than the first game, but that was kind of irrelevant. As long as the game had a billion guns and some wacky dialog we would have played it.

Tales from the Borderlands

I just wouldn’t have thought of this as a franchise ripe for storytelling. I’m sure it’s possible to make something enjoyable out of it. The tricky part will be getting players to care about the world and the characters. They’ve all been pretty disposable up to now. Amusing distractions in between shooting stuff, but that’s it. My guess is they’ll go for comedy over drama. That’s probably good route to take because all of their other licenses are likely to play out as tragedies. Not everything has to be as emotionally gripping and meaningful as season 1 of The Walking Dead. According to the trailer, a lot of people are still going to die in this one, but at least Handsome Jack’s laughing it off.