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How does one go about ending a ninety-hour narrative with hundreds of permutations along the way, and maintain workable canon for a triple-A franchise whose potential has just expanded into film? Not without a thousand cries of fans across the Internet, who lament the cliché and out-of-the-blue resolution, the stumble at the end of a triathlon that was building and building with increasing ferocity.

The ending was not as climactic or satisfying as it could have been, but Mass Effect 3 itself was the perfect ending to one of the industry’s finest trilogies, and one of science-fiction’s earliest moments in great, interactive art. While story-wise the ending was out of place, and theme-wise the ending was pretty nauseating, Mass Effect 3 is about the journey, and in this phase of the epic series, we say good-bye to old faces we’ve come to care about before facing down an enemy with the weight of two video-games and a fully fleshed out mythology.

 

Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy has had the good fortune of being a one-generation series, like Gears of War, and unlike Halo. One can go back and play Mass Effect on the PC or Xbox 360 and not feel behind at all. The graphics are maximized by opulent art design, the dialogue is sharp, and the story ranks high with gaming’s greatest. The RPG elements may take turns feeling shallow and overdone in places, the combat pales in comparison to contemporary third-person shooters, and the graphical artifacts and texture pop-in are so frequent as to settle into perceived normalcy, but the overall experience is one of a kind, and memorable on so many levels. For anyone interested in Mass Effect 3, there’s no question: start from the beginning.

The transition into Act II becomes a necessary step, and as most fans have it, the most necessary. Gameplay-wise, Mass Effect 2 is a moon-landing’s leap over the original’s endearing but clumsy system, augmenting the fun-to-use power and teammate abilities with better geography and cover mechanics. They nailed shooting in 2, where the composition of gunfights in a game like Gears of War is heightened by endless options, which affect not only combat but also art direction. The Gears of War games, while fun (the first is a co-op classic), have become a cliché in this Killzone/Resistance world. There’s a limited sense of creativity in what’s being shown, and what the players can actually look at. Mass Effect and its sequel vary enemy types and give us plenty of exciting ways to dispose of them, whether through ice bullets or Force-powers, and they all look cool.

It must be known though that Mass Effect at times, can be pretty ‘uncool;’ pretty lame in fact, mostly in spots of dialogue that are too histrionic or on-the-nose. The thing is, there’s so much dialogue in these games that little problems every four hours or so are rendered absolutely nil. Like Skyrim, which often features floating elephants and guys who return to talking about arrows in the knee after killing dragons with you, it’s easy, nay second nature, to overlook these shortcomings.

The biggest issue with Mass Effect 2 though was the story, which wasn’t as strong as the original’s. There was mystery and build-up and dramatic beats in Mass Effect’s storyline, where Mass Effect 2 is more ‘video-game.’ Your task is to go around and collect the roughest, toughest killers and soldiers in the galaxy to assist you in a suicide mission. And you know it’s a suicide mission because that term is used not just constantly, but consistently. That’s one way to build suspense, I guess. The problem here was that while these characters were great — Thane and Legion to me were standouts — and offered short stories in the form of side missions, the story was not predictable, let’s say, but not unpredictable like the original or Mass Effect 3.

Aside from the occasional mission thrown at you by the Illusive Man, like Horizon or the Collector base before the Omega Relay, you knew what had to be done, and did it. And aside from one or two surprise squadmates, you knew who you were picking up along the way. While Samara and Zaeed can die on their side missions, it becomes evident that they’ll all last to either die off or succeed when endgame strikes. In the original, you can actually turn Garrus down (out of racism), kill Wrex, and of course, leave Ashley or Kaiden to die. The squad was more dynamic, but that’s taken to new heights in the third installment.

In Mass Effect 3, a character is actually taken out of your squad and then returned. Some old squadmates from Mass Effect 2 return to the squad, and some only return to fight alongside you. There are two new characters, though we’re already associated with one through the second game. The only two squadmates that persist throughout the trilogy are Garrus and Tali, which leads to an interesting moment in the end, though not interesting to me, because I was romancing Garrus before the new secretary pushed herself on me.

While Mass Effect 2 was a big advancement, Mass Effect 3 feels like further refinement, which is perfectly acceptable, because Mass Effect 2 was extremely fun. The refinement however was thorough, spreading through many layers of the game and creating a better experience. Of course, this was nothing new to the franchise.

Even though Shepard carries over from game-to-game, the player must still build him/her up with skill trees and Paragon/Renegade points. There are also new systems to learn with each new game, because in the Age of the Internet, a company like Bioware can and will respond to fan criticism. Mass Effect has terrible inventory management? Mass Effect 2 has none. Mass Effect 2 has no items? Mass Effect 3 strikes a happy balance. There were even subtle changes to gradually streamline the experience, for example by Mass Effect 3 the player doesn’t have to engage an NPC in a conversation wheel if that NPC has nothing new to say.

In the original, a character would have a comment on the mission or something new to talk about after every major story mission. This could be accessed by an option that went something like “Let’s Talk,” which while sort of awkward, always yielded interesting results, and made Garrus, Wrex, Ashley, Kaiden, Tali, and Liara early favorites because it was you initiating these talks. But sometimes they wouldn’t have anything to say so the conversation would go like this:

Shepard: [A]
Garrus: Need me for something?
Shepard: … [Let’s Talk] Do you have time to talk?
Garrus: Sure.
Shepard: … [Sees No Options, Selects ‘Back’, ‘Good-bye’]: I should go.
Garrus: I’ll be here.

In Mass Effect 2, Garrus or whoever would just say “I’m in the middle of something, can we talk later?” Garrus alone would say “I’m in the middle of some calibrations,” which became not only an in-joke for Mass Effect 3, much like the elevators in Mass Effect 2, but a brief Internet meme. It grew because so many people heard it, as they’d always prompt their favorite turian for some chit-chat, and he wouldn’t have refreshed between missions. So in Mass Effect 3 characters on the Normandy enter into conversation wheels less frequently, because when selected, they talk, and Shepard responds without player interaction, without going into medium-shot mode.

The quality of voice acting during these interactions hasn’t changed, as old Mass Effect talents return, and some new names lend their voices and sometimes likenesses. The list includes voice-actress superstar Jennifer Hale, and big TV and movie names like Martin Sheen, Seth Green, Yvonne Strahovski, Tricia Helfer, Michael Hogan, Claudia Black, Freddie Prinze, Jr., and genre veterans like Keith David, Lance Henrikson, and Carrie Ann Moss. Sadly, Adam Baldwin didn’t show up, but his character was mentioned once, in an email…

They get equal time to shine in the instances where characters will talk one-on-one with player input, but in this game, lengthy conversations are typically based on plot, keeping the action moving forward, and maintaining Mass Effect 3’s brisk momentum.

For a story of this length, it’s hard to believe that Mass Effect 3 could be so fast-paced and frantic. The sense of movement is bolstered by the dreadful weight of what’s going on in the galaxy, and at the scale the weight operates on. The Reaper invasion was in the books from the start, but now we get to see the things in action, which is a one-two. Early on we get their attack on Earth, and shortly after we fight on the turian homeworld Palaven, which is what Earth could, and does, become by the end. The towering Reapers looming in the distance under the neighboring planet are dazzling and powerful sights, as tiny ships buzz around them in a laser show while Shepard wards off husks on the planet’s rocky, war-battered surface.

The franchise itself may not be the most original in terms of art style or premise, but by Mass Effect 3 it’s come to its own by being fully realized. The team has gone all the way with what they want to show and how they show it. Every planet is stunning, from the crumbling Earth to the lush salarian homeworld, from the temples of Tuchanka to the grand, barren vistas of Mars itself.

It’s something special when every ingredient in a rare formula comes together this well, where we have customizable guns that shoot all colors of lasers, walkways suspended over cavernous laboratories filled with explosions and hellfire, and the characters we’ve come to learn about and care for in the middle of all of it, throwing down powers when we say, while the invincible Commander Shepard does damage of his or her own, deejaying abilities and upgrades collected over missions that are more like scenes in a real story than objectives on a quest-list.

There’s an incredible balance of focused storytelling and player choice, a constant throughout the trilogy. While the Paragon/Renegade point system might work to counteract or outright contradict player choice, reducing conversations to means to the same goal rather than unique resolutions, the options’ mere existence was a monumental thing in the original, and a much-appreciated hallmark by Mass Effect 3. Conflict resolution is also a significant theme in the series, making conversation wheels logically connected and gameplay-wise highly immersive and satisfying.

The premise of the series is as follows: Like in 2001, there is a device, this time on Mars, that jumps our civilization ahead thousands of years, as we begin to conquer the stars with FTL travel and advanced military technology. As all of humanity is uniting as they reach across the sky, we quickly discover that there are aliens out there, including the ‘sexy’ asari, the bird-like turian, the warmonger krogan, fast-talking salarian, nomadic quarian, and ‘evil’ geth. The twist is that all of them, except for the geth I suppose, met up with each other through the same FTL technology — that of the ancient Prothean race. That’s interesting, but it means that we’re the new kids on the block. We’re the ones who have something to prove, and we don’t start well — the first thing humanity does is go to war with the turians.

Mass Effect jumps ahead of this when we pick up the controller, but all this information is gathered in the in-game codex, as well as canonical multimedia fiction, if you’re so inclined. The universe also slowly trickles in throughout the first game. Describing the Mass Effect games in a word is silly, but if I had to, I’d use “balance.” Truly the first one had a lot to juggle, like the first Transformers (2007) movie. In Michael Bay’s most powerful film, the prolific screenwriting team Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman had to keep so many things in mind: the fan base, the theoretical fan base, an international audience, kids, adults, an original storyline, canon, call-backs, and balancing the audience proxy character with what we really came to see, the titular truckbots. An enormous undertaking that maybe didn’t yield the best product (considering the source material, I’ll give it to them), but a creative undertaking nonetheless. In the case of Mass Effect, barring for a moment gameplay and genre, so much had to be invented and revolutionized and perfected — and the product was a damn good one, a game that stood out in a year of game-of-the-years, sharing lists with the likes of Halo 3, Bioshock, and Call of Duty 4, some of the most influential games ever.

As we see from Mass Effect 2, story isn’t the only thing that sets the series apart, but it is significant. It’s a rare thing to see game creators care this much about the story, which by Mass Effect 3, is undoubtedly what comes first — a further anomaly. People want to know what’s going to happen to… Joker, for Christ’s sake, never mind what the Reapers are all about and what’s going down on Earth. After two great games, players have become invested in something like they’ve never known. Games may have had good stories in the past, but here we’ve been following something, and shaping it ourselves.

The pressure was on for Mass Effect 3.

The game takes place a little while after the events of Mass Effect 2, when the Collector hive, and the Reaper technology it housed, was destroyed in a suicide mission. The suicide mission’s aftermath left Shepard grounded on Earth, with her/his ship taken away. The first human spectre, eh? Well the thing about Shepard is nobody, except for Admiral Anderson, listens to him/her. It’s sort of like when people say “there can’t possibly be aliens out there… in the endless universe,” which seems ignorant because there’s nothing that special about the Earth’s composition and distance from its system’s star. In this universe, aliens are aware of aliens, but the principle remains. Nobody believes that Shepard went to Ilos and saw things about sentient warships, because… there can’t possibly be sentient warships out there.

Anything’s possible, you ‘norant Councilmembers.

Comeuppance could have been enjoyed had it not been for the whole ‘Reaper invasion of Earth’ that undoubtedly left a few billion humans dead. Now it’s on Shepard again to unite races, mend fences, and show the galaxy that their dickishness has gone too far. An army of genocide machines from beyond space is one hell of a wake-up call to such things, but the krogan continue to cause trouble with turians and salarians, the geth and quarian just started fighting, and the asari? I suppose ‘dicks’ would be incorrect here, but you get the picture. All of these conflicts were built up over the course of the trilogy, and while it’s a little absurd, its delivery makes it easily digestible.

Shepard’s new suicide mission, to leave a devastated Earth and gather armies, bring the fight back home, is helped along by a squad filled out by friendly faces and new, but welcomed ones.

I thought one of the more interesting characters new to Mass Effect was the shuttle pilot, Cortez. Not because he was gay — my Shepard’s gay, I guess — but because of all the things you could do with that guy (though he was, I assume, a romance option for males). It was high time we got to talk ad nauseum with non-squadmates, though that never ended well for those characters in the past. RIP Pressly. Adams made it out okay; it was a surprise to see him back. I always wondered what happened to the guy who marveled at Tali and shut up forever.

It doesn’t add a new dimension to the game but enhances a preexisting one, the seeming suicide mission statement of Mass Effect 3. They realized that more conversations led to more opportunities for memorable moments of drama, and Cortez had his share. That’s the beautiful thing about a narrative that can take its time with a running time of hours and hours — we can explore. In a movie, you’d never talk to Cortez, not when there’s a birdman doing calibrations and a killer robot housing thousands of AI — right over there!

Opportunities for genuine, sometimes shocking, character moments open up, as does the path we stalk down further and further on our journey — that of discovering just what the hell Mass Effect has been about the whole time.

Does the Mass Effect trilogy embody, also like 2001, a glaring self-contradiction? It speaks to galactic (international) unity, a unity of races no matter what skin-color or creed, but it’s a human who’s speaking. Shepard is at the epicenter — and if it weren’t for humanity, the Reapers would have had their day and eaten it too.

But what’s being said then, that humanity only got to this point because of Prothean technology? There’s a great sense of history here, one that stretches back years and years — the themes of development over time and evolution are prevalent but never really addressed — and we get the idea that something about cycles and society was meant to be said.

Here’s a list of the themes in Mass Effect, before the ending of Mass Effect 3:

– Civilization
– Peace and Unity
– Heroism
– Racism
– Cycles
– People

Shepard is a true hero because he/she betrays everyone in Mass Effect 2 to do the right thing — he/she joins Cerberus. While this doesn’t go down well with Alliance brass, the Collectors are dead as fried chicken, and Shepard keeps soldiering on, despite the Council’s dedicated efforts against him/her. This is perhaps a manifestation of the power of enlightenment — Shepard isn’t great and inspirational because he/she is the player’s avatar and goes ‘ooh-rah let’s kick some Covenant ass (the Master Chief… never said that)’ but because he/she makes choices, and almost all the choices in the game relate to solving people’s problems and bringing them together.

So let’s look at Commander Shepard as an enlightened and commanding shepherd of people in an archetypical, mythological way. He/she isn’t a deep character — by fault of design — but he/she holds great significance on a higher thematic level. Stopping the Reapers will be his/her greatest measure, whether or not he/she can end interplanetary kerfuffle after generations and generations of hate. Could we one day start over, not because we were all wiped out by machine-gods, but because one person was enlightened enough to unite us?

But shouldn’t the best ending then become an alliance with the Reapers, a sort of ‘let’s just get along with everyone, while we’re at it?’ Why do the Reapers either get destroyed or mind-controlled? Because they make more sense from a figurative rather than literal standpoint; their existence is in service of this uniting of races, but they cannot take part, despite being a race themselves. They also represent, let’s say, traditional values — they’re driven by that age old belief that wiping out advanced civilizations when they’ve reached Level 10 on the Advanced Meter is good for the heart, which makes them the opposite of Shepard, and the opposite of true galactic peace.

Obviously, I mean have you seen those lasers?

So that’s all fine and acceptable, but then two huge wrenches are thrown — hucked, even. The first one wasn’t really thrown, because Mass Effect would be much different without it.

In fact, Mass Effect takes its namesake from this very piece of its universe — the whole Prothean thing. We discover a Mass Relay, which allows us to teleport ships — and gunships — to any corner of the galaxy, so long as it’s outside Dark Space and batarian territory. And whatever the Perseus Veil is. Also don’t touch the Omega 4 Relay; you’re not ready.

So we get this advanced technology and use it, use it to boost ourselves ahead and oh damn we’re already fighting the first aliens we see. They call the turian war, smartly, the First Contact War. A brilliant term. We weren’t, evidently, ready to have the First Contact Bake Sale.

We have to grow, we need Shepard to show us the way. But first he/she’s gotta scan keepers…?

I just don’t get it at this point. Everything I’ve just said seems to break down in that same sort of 2001 way. In A Space Odyssey, more explicitly in the book than in the movie, humanity rocks because we went to space! Look how far our civilization has come this is not just NASA propaganda by the near-future year 2001! But we didn’t do that much, did we? Sure, we went to Japetus, which took a whole hell of a lot of time and pages, but only because alien gods (Reapers) told us to.

The Reapers are like the alien gods or the Overlords’ overlords in Childhood’s End — what is their purpose? To play with civilizations. Until, I suppose, those civilizations don’t want to be played with anymore. But that’s… nonsense. This part of the universe doesn’t mesh nicely with that stuff about unity and heroism, because it’s all predestined… but it’s not.

What’s the point of breaking the Reapers’ cycle? What does that mean? I suppose it’s a break from those aforementioned traditional values, which keep civilizations in the caves and at each other’s throats, but that operates on a purely abstract level. No NPC has ever said those words, but they have noted that humanity was jump-started by Prothean technology, and the two are related.

And then there’s the issue of Mass Effect 3’s ending, much as I loathe to admit it. The main reason why the ending disappoints is because it takes all that stuff about uniting civilizations and shoves it. The whole time, guys, it wasn’t about aliens getting along, even though that mirrors player choice and has been the whole reason for everything so far, it was about organics versus synthetics.

I’m a bit shady on the details, but I remember that the ending felt out of nowhere on so many levels, ‘thematically’ being one of them. I suppose you could make the argument that ‘synthetics’ is just a metaphor for ignorance, but what the hell the geth, right? Legion sacrificing himself and that geth prime marching down the hill saying “we cool,” was an amazing moment, but those guys are still synths, right?

The inconsistency is the problem, not so much any sense of anti-climax, because resolutions were constant throughout the game — we say good-bye to all these characters and plotlines, and do it with panache.

That being said, there are problems outside the ending and the tangle of science-fiction ideas and themes, namely dialogue and storytelling spots. Of course, those two are that which I praise Mass Effect most on, because I like video-games, but I love science-fiction and stories. Otherwise Mass Effect would be pretty fun, but I’d just play Vanquish.

A lot of dramatic moments are deflated by on-the-nose dialogue, in instances where silence would have been more appropriate. I just referenced Legion’s sacrifice (which you may or may not have experienced), where the geth prime tumbles down the hill to inform the quarian admiral that peace will be had by all. A bittersweet moment, but damn is that geth prime’s dialogue straightforward. As you’d expect from a robot, but he pretty much repeats the situation in word-form, which is unnecessary, a dangerous thing to be in such a context.

There are a few moments like that, as well as instances of dreadful cliché, like Shepard’s verbal battle with Kai Leng amidst a fight — they’re dueling, as in Shepard takes cover and Kai Leng dances around the Illusive Man’s office, and Shepard goes “You’re good… at running!” and Kai Leng shouts, “Shut up!” as if that was actually getting to this hardened killer/displaced character from Deus Ex. It felt like an 80s action movie moment, where Kai Leng would in a second be like “I’m gonna KILL YOU NAAOOOWWW!” and charge forward.

But in terms of negativity, that’s all I have. Mass Effect 3 transcends its medium and has shown me just what storytelling — not just interactive storytelling — can do.

While Mass Effect 3 rounds out a trilogy, it’s a sign of things to come in this young but quickly growing industry. Beyond graphics or technology, in a little over a decade enemies in video-games have gone from thoughtlessly killed in Doom or Quake to mercilessly killed in Call of Duty to thought about in Halo 2 and 3 to finally sympathized with and cared about in Mass Effect 2 and 3. It’s story and characters that video-games are getting the hang of now, with titles like Uncharted and Bioshock always making headlines. They do new things, taking advantage of their long-form narratives, the player element, and the fact that stories aren’t what get games greenlit, so run free.

Mass Effect was the first.

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It’s 1982, and paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is summoned to the Thule research station in Antarctica by a rather intense Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), who’s made quite the discovery. Her expertise is required early on in examining frozen remains of an alien life-form, but when Thule is threatened by this thing from another world, it’s her survivalist instinct and pyro-tendencies that save the day–for the most part. If you’re familiar with John Carpenter’s The Thing, a remake in itself, there’s nothing new here in terms of structure or story, which depending on your viewpoint is a good or bad thing; for the 2011 film, the 1982 original was formula perfected, and this formula is not only repeated in Matthijs van Heijningen’s movie, it’s updated to satisfying modernity. We have, as we did thirty years ago, a team of scientists battling a malevolent alien creature capable of shape-shifting to the image of friends and associates, and gruesomely showing off in doing so. In this film, it’s the showing off part that sells.

When a member among the crew is suspected of being an alien in disguise, that’s bad news for him. When the alien then transforms into a more lethal form as self-defense, that’s bad news for everyone else. These transformations made the John Carpenter movie iconic, and in the new film, computer generated imagery and physical creature effects work in tandem toward sickening results. With a shudder of flesh and the grinding of bones, body parts sever, split, snake–and come after you. The creature makes a mockery of the human form, contorting it to mimic aliens it must have assimilated before, where heads meld together, and massive jaws rend out of stomachs to the tune of otherworldly wails. This is something you don’t want to become, be eaten by, or even look at–it’s easy to sympathize with the crew, who often turn on each other in the face of suspicion.

The crew of John Carpenter’s movie was a close-knit bunch of blue-collar boys, but at the first sign of trouble from the icy wasteland, tension brimming just below the surface begins to poke through. In Matthijs van Heijningen’s movie, potential factions are visible from the start: Americans vs. Norwegians, scientists vs. pilots, men vs. women, newcomer Kate vs. everybody, everybody vs. sinister Sander. As the film plays out, alliances and suspects shift–the alien could be anybody, and it isn’t telling. The prevailing question through not only this movie but the original is: who goes there? Human or alien? Characters only feel safe when they’re looking over their shoulder, and the alien certainly knows that frail human necks get sore after a while; paranoia manifests in tight grips on rifles and flamethrowers, and people are put into groups, examined, quarantined.

Moviegoers in 1982, when they did, came for the alien gore, and stayed for the psychological aspect. It’s a story akin to the greats in The Twilight Zone or Stephen King’s The Mist, where gooey creatures are portals to the much darker evils of man. Unfortunately, this piece de resistance of the story is not nearly as strong in van Heijningen’s film, though it does exist. A lot of it is that sacred law of diminishing returns, but mostly it’s the characters. For the most part, they’re enough to invest in but never truly cared for, as they occupy one of two roles: background detail or lazy stereotype.

There is precious little time for characterization; same as in 1982. But screenwriter Bill Lancaster was able to draw fully-rounded characters despite the forward-moving plot, placing great significance on every line spoken by individual members of the ensemble; they’re charged with defining not only the character, but the character’s place in the situation. Hefty work done efficiently, but not quite in 2011. The cast feels much larger this time, and that’s because we never get to know most of them by the time they’re assimilated. Names of the Norwegians were elusive, and it was difficult from the outset to keep track of everybody. By the time chaos hits Thule Station, these nameless guys are running around shouting things–often in a different language–which is appropriately panicked and confusing, so it works, but the audience is lulled into a distance from the action. It’s up to Kate to engage us, and whether or not she does is somewhat inconsequential, because the film would doubtless have been improved if the supporting cast wasn’t as expendable. For evidence of this, we can look to John Carpenter’s.

The film is written by Eric Heisserer (from drafts by Ronald D. Moore), based on “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, and he turns out a competent job, keeping the tension high despite mostly pale characters. Together with fine acting, the script is brought to life and touches all prerequisite bases for fun, alien-smashing action. As it checks steps off the list–unearth the creature, figure it out, deny it, suffer attacks by creature–the cast follows through in stride. Accents are masked and changed, tempers fluctuate organically, expressions speak loudly. In horror, strong emotions reign, whether it’s fear or anger or sadness. In science-fiction, suspension of disbelief is chiefly credited to the actors, and The Thing of course straddles both genres. Not an easy task on the part of the players, but one well performed here.

Unlike other modern creature features, physical actors could interact with equally physical monsters, though they were smartly enhanced by CGI. The creature itself is where the filmmakers stood apart from John Carpenter’s, as the original monster could seem to do anything–but move. The new creature is not only mobile but fast, and its new predatory nature adds a welcome element of suspense. Critics have noted that van Heijningen must have taken influence from Alien, with chases down hallways and even in some cases, creature design. One might of course argue that this is a necessary path the film needed to take.

The issue surrounding The Thing is that most films of its kind–good science-fiction horror movies–don’t need to take paths in the first place. They don’t have to be engineered to a specific blueprint in order to please people, but in this hideous day and age, where remakes of reboots of franchises of adaptations reign, the audience is king. With The Thing, the audience was a notoriously difficult bunch to please–fans. In adapting a preexisting work with any type of fan-base, there will be complaints. The filmmaker then has forked-roads to travel, whether he stays faithful to the source material or creates something new, if modernizing it or not is the right way to go, etc. He’s beholden to this crabby audience, which typically perceives his final decision as the wrong one. Producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman chose wrong when they decided to do a remake of a now beloved classic, and that was step one.

It’s a tragedy that The Thing was released to commercial failure in theatres, because it speaks to the greater realm of modern science-fiction film, a realm that’s slavish to the nerd kingdom. Not helping is of course that van Heijningen’s movie cannot stand on its own, where John Carpenter’s most certainly could, and felt nearly defiant, rather than adoring, in the face of its predecessor. This movie truly should have been titled Who Goes There?, but I suppose the distributors wanted to milk as much money from whatever marquee value The Thing brand name carries. Not much, as we discover. One is led to wonder exactly who was targeted to see this film. The big horror movie franchises of the day ring polar opposite to this one: Paranormal Activity, Saw, Final Destination–these days the creature feature has been displaced by the zombie flick, and those who appreciate monsters are used to the rubber or stop-motion dragons and Brundleflies of days gone by. CGI in The Thing? It was bad enough in 1982 when there was going to be animatronics and miniatures in The Thing, as opposed to only makeup effects!

So if not fans of The Thing, and if not modern horror fans, perhaps this will be The Thing to rein in a new generation of fans? Afraid not; the kids of the day would rather see ghosts and Death itself kill people, which, on a visual level, is to say nothing at all kill people. Movies (a visual medium, by the way) of that type also tend to feature kids, which is something of a selling point whether we like it or not. Compare Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character Wendy in Final Destination 3 to Kate in The Thing–there was romantic tension where now there is only survival and stern, commanding looks. While some might prefer the latter with more passion, a majority prefers the former, albeit casually. The youngsters of the day would just as quickly wonder what a Snake Plissken is as they would claim that the new Thing is a rip-off of the video-game Dead Space. Another audience not easily pandered to when sixty-year old aliens are concerned.

Additionally, and possibly most importantly, The Thing is a remake. It may technically be a prequel, but why then wasn’t it called Before the Thing, or The Thing Zero, The Thing 2, or One More Thing? Because those are all terrible titles–once again Who Goes There? was left wide open. The money-men were banking on its assets as a remake, not a prequel, and in late 2011, audiences have had their fill. Not only of remakes, but of horror remakes.

The giants in the genre have all been dried up in the last couple of years: Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Dawn of the Dead, even smaller titles like The Hills Have Eyes, Last House on the Left, Black Christmas, Fright Night, and of course, arbitrary entries in the John Carpenter canon: The Fog and Assault on Precinct 13. Maybe next year we’ll get rumblings of a Big Trouble in Little China remake, but dark. The Thing came far too late, though ironically it was just as late as John Carpenter’s was, following up Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby’s.

It may have felt like a good idea at the time, but revisiting The Thing was as fruitful as taking a tissue sample from the frozen alien specimen. It is as it’s always been–a film with a small, but significant appeal. Van Heijningen’s movie may not interest you on principle, but I’d advise you to seek it out on home video. It’s a creature feature in a league with Frank Darabont’s excellent The Mist rather than Underworld Evolution or Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and at its best moments, provides very real, very intense moments of terror that don’t merely recall the 80s days, but fill us with those same, welcomed feelings. It may not be the best sci-fi horror movie of all time, but it breaks this writer’s heart when a genuinely entertaining film is passed up because we were all expecting it to be bad. It’s the current climate–we’re done with remakes, and perhaps we could blame the victim here in saying that it shouldn’t have joined those ranks to begin with, but as the credits roll and we see how this story bridges into John Carpenter’s The Thing, I’m glad it did.

Hey guys, I don’t ever do this, but I’m gonna go ahead and recommend picking up The Thing on Blu-Ray when it drops on the 31st. There’ll be a new review shortly after then — just to show my appreciation. It’s a movie that somehow introduced novelty into its form as a remake, and makes for a highly entertaining monster flick.

This sounds like advertising, and I’m even wondering why I write this. The Thing (2011) isn’t the best movie I saw that year, but it’s very close to my heart. It also gets mixed into a fandom-related argument I find myself engaged in — don’t let personal bias get in the way. I won’t promise you’ll be blown away, but The Thing (2011) is like all remakes, prequels, sequels, or 3D re-releases: it does nothing to sour the original’s reputation as a classic, and stands on its own as an effective entry into sci-fi/horror canon.

When I was a kid there were three things that scared me: Ghosts, demons, and aliens. I didn’t really know what exactly a demon was, so I got over that one quickly. Ghosts are still scary to me. Please, refrain from asking why. I reversed on aliens almost instantly, and I cherish the opportunity to watch alternatively green and grey-headed aliens doing their green and grey day-to-days.

There remain, however, a few aliens. A few aliens indeed, that continue to scare the piss out of me. Let’s count down (eight, really), and just in time for Halloween…

10. Tralfamadorians (Slaughterhouse-Five)

Kurt Vonnegut’s aliens have a neat perception of life and death. And yet, they still die…

9. Na’vi (Avatar)

The idea of somebody putting their dingle into a giant blue cat makes me shiver in the night.

8. Martians (Mars Attacks!)

The fear I felt over the comedic aliens from the comedy Mars Attacks! ran so deep, I still have yet to see the film. That’s definitely the prime reason, though my general dislike of Tim Burton (outside of Ed Wood) doesn’t help. These aliens, which probably shook me the most out of any on the list, rank lower for a number of reasons, but the chief among them is, simply, I haven’t even seen Mars Attacks!. And I won’t let them control me.

7. Grant Grant (Slither)

Yes, mouth mutation will get you pretty far. It’s a little freaky; the cherry on top of this fleshy, pink blob from outer space–or your local podunk town. It’s Grant Grant, who’s been recently transformed by a tiny alien needle into a zombie hivemind.

Kill me Pardy.

6. God’s Very Own Aliens (M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs)

I’m a painful Shamhammer apologist. Granted, I haven’t seen too much of The Happening, skipped The Village, and will never touch The Last Airbender, but… well, that deflates my argument. Lady in the Water was good, that’s all I wanted to say. It’s not a horror movie, it’s a fairy tale–oh, I don’t care.

Signs on the other hand is very much a horror movie. It’s also a great scifi movie, and a solid story about faith and God. Here to help Mel find the word of the Lord are aliens, and they like to hide in scary places, like the TV. Look out

5. Tripods (The War of the Worlds)

Spielberg’s The War of the Worlds is a highly effective movie. The aliens, high and mighty in their damn tentacle-tanks, destroy everything. If they see you, and they emit that horrible fog-horn, you’re as dead as fried chicken. Chase scenes see buildings shattering like fried chicken, and boats topple over like they was made a paper. The scope of these creatures is immense, and I was held in high suspense of the reveal of the actual aliens. They weren’t as scary as I had imagined, but whatever.

The thing about The War of the Worlds is that when I first saw it in the theatres, I was very ignorant. In this case, ignorance paid off, based on some perspectives. I believed that The War of the Worlds, probably written by Jules Verne, found everybody killed by aliens at the end. Obviously this was before I Am Legend came out in 2007, where the idea that screenwriters might adapt a book’s story–or ending–faithfully was fully out the window.

So I was sitting there the whole time expecting aliens to win. When they didn’t, it actually felt pretty triumphant of them humans. Maybe that’s why I have such a favorable opinion of this movie. It’d be like seeing The Sixth Sense in the year 2000 and not knowing the end. You’d be watching from under your rock, but it’d work.

4. The Xenomorph (Alien)

While personally not frightened by the classic Drone/Warrior/Alien/Xenomorph, I was. Back when I was five and thought maybe aliens were real, I went to a Planet Hollywood, and on display they had a massive Alien Queen display. For some reason (perhaps I was ten) I could identify it as an alien, and was horrified: this is an alien that’s tangible, I thought. But since, I’ve made peace with the Aliens, and have seen every Alien movie, even the last one, AVPR: Aliens versus Predator Rated-R.

Spoiler olert… I liked it…

3. Killer Klowns (Killer Klowns from Outer Space)

It’s not necessarily their design, because they’re essentially just trolls in clown costumes/makeup. It’s what they do, all the twisted perversions of classic carnival imagery–which itself is benign but strangely dark. Klowns use their silly ray guns to encase people in flesh-melting cotton candy, throw flesh-melting pies, and eat flesh. A pattern.

The rescue mission at the end of the movie is shockingly suspenseful, because there’s been an established balance: how much we know about the Klowns, and how unpredictable they are. The team of intrepid heroes enters an incredibly hostile environment, and we simply do not know what to expect, but we do know that it’ll be horrific.

Killer Klowns is a horror/comedy. While it is very funny, I wouldn’t necessarily rank it up there with Shaun or Return of the Living Dead (or Tremors 2, if I ever get around to revisiting that one). It’s just a little too… eerie.

2. The Thing (The Thing 1982)

I’ve already spoken at length about The Thing, so I’ll say this in addition: the two Thing movies offer a whole to me as a fan of science-fiction film. In terms of the monster, The Thing ’82 satisfies the film fan half, while The Thing ’11 satisfies the sci-fi fan half. Because the movie guy appreciates spidery-heads and twisty dogs that make people go crazy, but the sci-fi fan loves a good monster.

Also, the blood test scene, the defribulator scene, and the dog scene are all extremely intense. The Thing is such a good freaking movie.

1. The Friends of E.T. (E.T.: The Ride)

If you’re wondering why there’s no picture of aliens for this one, I couldn’t bear to enter “ET the Ride,” into Google Images. This is an interesting one, because it’s very rare that images in a movie will legitimately frighten me (most recently this happened in Naked Lunch, with the parrot cage ‘sex’ that looked like a cruel mixture of Dante’s Inferno and Videodrome), but when you’re strapped into a ride, it’s a different dynamic.

First of all, you go into a building called “ET the Ride.” The scariest ride you’ve been on so far is T2 3D: Battle Across Time, because you’re now convinced that that twelve minutes you just spent were better than the 677 minutes of Terminator 3. You’re in Spielberg territory now, and you know what that means. ET is his most lovable creation, the candy-eating little bugger who just wants to get on home.

Whatever you do, don’t follow him there.

On ET the Ride, you and your group takes a bike ride through the forest to evade the government, who pops through the trees every once in awhile in their cars. A neat little diversion, and what I imagined to be the bulk of the journey. Then you fly over the moon, look at how high you are over the city, like Peter Pan.

And then you go to ET’s homeworld, and I think my father said it best: “I didn’t realize ET lived in Hell.”

There are aliens that have wrinkly holes for eyes, aliens that look like rotted pumpkins that got just so rotten they started spontaneously growing half-formed near-human faces, as if pumpkins, in some horrible far-flung Lovecraft universe, did that. It would be scary enough if there were two of these things, but they line the walls–for a long time. Orange steam is blowing and you’re touring slowly as they chant in unison how happy they are you’ve brought their friend home.

How happy they are he’s brought dinner.

Seriously intense stuff. I didn’t know if I was gonna make it, and if you think I’m joking–or a pussy–I shall pay for your roundtrip tickets to Orlando.

Feel like you’re getting the better end of that deal….

I was gonna do something more thoughtful for my 100th post, but I don’t have a job right now and can’t buy the entire David Cronenberg library from Amazon, or the Dollars Trilogy on Blu-Ray. Those posts will have to wait.

There was a moment in The Thing when I did lose focus and begin to drift, started thinking that I couldn’t wait to get home and watch some more Party Down. Indeed after the opening moments where we see that this movie isn’t characterizing its scientists nearly as carefully as they did in ’82, it slows down to something of an odd pace. The alien is loose and running around, and so are the characters. Scenes from the first movie (of this ilk) are recycled; we get a sense of where they’re going with all this, but it’s not engaging. This continues for only about a half hour/forty-five into the movie. After that, the gloves come off, and I saw exactly what I wanted to see – and more.

In the original The Thing, there are three major Thing set pieces that always stand out in my mind: the dog, the spider-head, and the blood test scene. They’re all self-contained pieces of fantastic horror, and they do exactly what most horror films skip over. In the new one, there is exactly one scene like this – and it’s a pretty good one. Keeping spoilers to a minimum (ironically enough), it’s the origin of the two-faced thing that gets examined in the original movie. The rec room scene, I suppose I’ll call it, has got a great transformation sequence, a lot of Thing-related fatalities, and above all – and this is what the original did that few other horrors do – it was really intense.

Watch the movie for this scene, because this is when it’s most like the Carpenter version. That movie alternated between dedicated suspense and high-intensity terror. That formula didn’t translate wholly to the new movie, which tries its hand at the suspense part far more often, and doesn’t excel. The rec room scene is key though; writhing body parts split off and start skittering away as the face moans its alien moan, flamethrowers aren’t working, tables are being flipped, people are screaming in horror – it’s an expertly done scene, and it gives us a really cool Thing monster, something that I’ll touch on later, because presently it reminds me of what this scene, and the movie, is very reminscent of.

That’s The Mist, the wonderful Frank Darabont adaptation of God-knows-who, which had, like this movie, somewhat CG-obvious creatures, fire-axes being used to kill said creatures, paranoia, and a nostalgic monster movie sensibility. I believe that when Darabont set about making The Mist, he probably wanted to do what Kubrick did for science-fiction with 2001 – make the ‘proverbial good monster movie.’ That’s why there’s a black-and-white version on the DVD.

This is something that sets both The Thing 2011 and The Mist apart from modern horror movies. Attached to the new Thing was a trailer for Paranormal Activity 3, which shambles into theatres this month. That’s the type of horror movie the demographic (teenagers) wants to see. They’ve never been into creatures and monsters – it’s all about just people, just dying (the Human Centipede definitively does not count as a monster). That’s why Final Destination does so well, and Saw, and all those slasher movies that find creative ways to kill people. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but hey – I love a good monster every once in awhile.

I know what you’re thinking – The Thing wasn’t really about monsters, because the thing never got five feet without being fried. The horror came from the transformation sequences, and all the grisly, disgusting inventions it cooks up to escape the flame. This new movie decided, thank God, to take things a step further, and this is the real reason to see this movie before it closes shop without making its budget back. The Thing doesn’t mess around. He wants two things – to survive, and to kill. Due to the limitations of the animatronics back in the day a decade before Jurassic Park, the alien wasn’t limber, wasn’t mobile. It wasn’t much of a hunter.

People are often face to face with a dribbling, fangy alien with tentacle face, or hiding from it without nothing but an ineffectual knife – these moments were a pure joy and certainly worthy of comparison to the 1982 flick. It’s simple really: the design is cool. Though I’ve played the games, the aliens look a lot like, or take the principle of, the monsters from the Silent Hill series. You take a human body and twist it into a four legged tentacle monster. It’s really the most unnatural, unnerving thing you could ever imagine being in the same room with.

Luckily our intrepid heroine is able to take action, and she proves quite capable in this movie. Picking up on the creature’s game pretty quickly (she probably got a few pointers from Kurt on the sets of Sky High and Death Proof), she leads the charge as Norweigans are being picked off all around her. I never really got to know any of these people. I know none of their names, save Sanders and Peder, though I don’t know who Peder is, just that his name came up in subtitles a lot. These guys, heroine Kate Lloyd included, aren’t nearly as memorable as MacReady, Childs, Norris, Palmer, Fuchs, Windows and the gang. When they died I was really more interested in their transformation, and what mutants their bodies would provide. I wasn’t really upset or anything, except maybe for the younger looking guy and the dude who gets killed by the facehugger arm – everybody was just standing around watching as he died a slow, horrible death. Pobre bastardo.

There is an ending in this movie that will undoubtedly piss off the purists. It’s a sure case of ‘we never needed to know that,’ but it’s like Gears of War 2, for those who played it – they show you questions, meaning they do things that are cryptic and try to maintain that less-is-more legacy that’s served the genre so well. In Gears 2, that was plainly amatuerish storytelling. Here, very little is gained, as mystery is uncovered only to give way for mystery, but it all seems useless, because the first mystery was so good.

The Thing was the Avatar and the Machete of 2011 for me. While I wasn’t as excited to see this as those two, this one is so, so much better. Would buy again, and indeed sometime in the future I’ll revisit this one to talk about the ending, and some other things that require spoiling for elaboration on. So for now I’ll leave you with one final recommending comment: Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a total badass.

If you’ve seen The Thing from Another World, the classic Howard Hawks film from 1951, you remember the vegetable Frankenstein monster, the snowy setting, the 50’s charm, and the iconic line, “Always, watch the skies.” It’s a movie about the clash of ideals, here between military and science, about alien invasion and heroism. It may not be as intellectual as The Day the Earth Stood Still or as recognizable as Forbidden Planet (to use its contemporaries), but its an entertaining ride with a few great moments and wonderful characters.

It is, though, very light. The characters never seem to take the issue too seriously, and this reasonably reflects on the situation. There’s really nothing all that scary about Frankenstein’s monster in the year 1951 when one has access to rifles and electric floors. Never once did I feel like this creature would be victorious, or even half of the crew would be injured. This is where I come in and say that John Carpenter’s The Thing is so much different – and it is – but comparing these two seems almost wrong. Yes, they are two very different movies on a tonal and visceral level, but more than that, neither of these movies should have to live in each others’ shadow.

They’re both major entries in the canon of science-fiction film, but it seems that rarely do sci-fi fans appreciate both equally. I don’t. With the coming of a third Who Goes There? movie, I begin to wonder just what people will make of this unofficial trilogy sixty years in the making.

But that’s not important now. Merely musing…

We’re here to talk about The Thing, because this is not only one of John Carpenter’s best, but one of the very best science-fiction films. Certainly one of the best horror movies, though many would consider it second as horror/sci-fi to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Just like how Robocop owes its production to The Terminator from three years earlier, Scott’s sophomore picture is the reason why The Thing exists as it does. It showed a world hung up on Star Wars that space wasn’t such a nice place, and that science-fiction was more than a pretty face. It was an acne-scarred, sniveling one.

After the dreary sixties, and I suppose the dreary seventies, Star Wars reinvented pulp science-fiction, the romantic heroes who got the badguys and heroines who got kidnapped. I wouldn’t say that Alien is necessarily counterculture; it was born of a rather brilliant idea of O’Bannon and Shusett’s for a horror movie – what’s the scariest thing you can think of (the answer of course being rape by alien) – but possibly The Thing is. It’s aggressive, paranoid, violent, raw.

And yet, it’s a callback to the original short story by John W. Campbell. Carpenter wanted to do what Christopher Nyby and Howard Hawks didn’t: talk about what people do when thrown in an isolated space with the most frightening thing imaginable. This creature takes the identities of others, as well as their places, and this begs the question “who among us are human?” Since you can only be sure of yourself, this question offers Reason 1 why The Thing works.

The other is something of a controversial thing, the effects. Nobody can watch the The Thing and scoff at Bottin’s makeup and animatronic monsters. They’re a highlight in eighties visuals for sci-fi film, an absolute horror and joy to watch. Not only do they look freaky, they move around in ways you don’t want them to and do things to really mess people up. But some people are so understandably taken by these effects that they’re distracted, or come to think that they’re the reason for the movie. While the effects amount to Reason 2, they also did a lot to hurt the movie’s critical reception.

This is certainly an odd analogy but take for example Higher Learning, a film by John Singleton. Critics liked it, but didn’t think it had a strong enough romantic appeal (strong character relationships) and believed the characters were stereotypes. Essentially they wanted the movie to be more conventional drama. Having character drama about romance isn’t the movie’s point, that would definitely draw away from its message, which is all about how radical thinking is proliferated through generations, masquerading as education. Why is it that film is a medium that must conform to certain conventions and standards? Why must we always be entertained by these things?

The Thing‘s effects shouldn’t be tuned down. Perhaps that thinking stems from our appreciation of The Thing from Another World, which creates suspense with no gore. What works about the effects in The Thing is their service to atmosphere. There’s nothing more scary than Antarctica. Oh wait there’s nothing more scary than a creature that can take our identities. Now there’s nothing more scary than a stomach that eats your arms. We’re touring through a nightmare reality, a terrifying hallucination that is testing these men, seeing how long they’ll dangle over the abyss before falling off – snapping and turning on each other.

It’s a Twilight Zone-esque character study with a budget. We have characters thrust into a situation that keeps getting worse, where even survival seems pointless. In The Twilight Zone, the cheesy effects actually serve a purpose (whether intentionally or not), they create a layer for us to pierce through and see what’s just below the surface – they force us to investigate, and be rewarded, more often than not (some of those episodes are pretty aimless). The Thing does have the effects. No big-headed aliens, no Sasquatch thingy on the wing. We have an effective glimpse at not an alien creature, but at an alien world, and it’s scary as hell. I suppose it is forgivable for people to be distracted, but it’s the two elements that are absolutely crucial.

That of course is neglectful of the characters themselves, the script, the direction, the acting, and the music (though Morricone himself earned the film a Razzie, forever sealing that organization’s fate for me as “jokards”), all of which are astounding, especially for science-fiction film. Only rarely do we see attention to detail on all fronts in a movie with aliens.

Will we see it again tonight with The Thing (2011)? I know we’ll at least see the effects. They’re in the trailers, and they look great, if a bit Dead Space-ish (ain’t nut wrong with that). I assume that lip-service will be paid to the who goes there aspect of the story, but that’s just fine. As long as a body is on a laboratory floor morphing in the most horrifying ways only to be blasted by Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s flamethrower – that’s all I need.

After being treated to a host of modern classics in the 1990s, science-fiction fans faced a cinematic drought once the decade turned, something that lasts even to this very day, where rare gems like Children of Men and District 9 come along far and few between to offer brief respite. Even though both of those movies were adaptations, they felt fresh thanks to keen filmmaking and sharp storytelling, and their contemporaries languish because the genre market is suffused with big names we’ve seen before on comics, novels, video-games, other movies, the shelves at Toys R Us, and – coming soon – board games. In most cases, this has proved to be quite the burden, as the commercial potential for such franchise titles pushes studios to pump them with many millions of dollars, which limits artistic risk-taking.

For such risk-taking we tend to look toward the indie scene, though as of late the line between independent film and big studio picture has blurred with the latter trying to ape the style of the former (Juno, Little Miss Sunshine), and the ease of access to industry standard tech for consumer-level videomakers. Great visual effects are no longer solely the territory of giants like Digital Domain and Weta Workshop, they can be found online in fan films like Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy and Portal: No Escape. It would seem then, that even the independent science-fiction movie could be dumbed down.

That is of course if you believe that effects and expensive things come at the price of good storytelling and compelling characters. There does exist that obnoxious stereotype where all indies are good and minimalistic like The Man from Earth and all studio flicks are overblown and underthrought like Transformers 3. Time and again this has been proven false, so don’t be heartbroken when you discover that Monsters, as directed by Gareth Edwards, looks the part of a Hollywood spectacle.

In it, we follow off-and-on anti-hero Andrew Kaulder, played by Scoot McNairy, and the ever-needy Whitney Able, played by Samantha Wynden, as they journey through a Mexico infected by a mysterious alien menace. Not much about the aliens, referred to as ‘creatures’ here, can be gathered from watching the film, and certainly not the expository opening text that sets the scene. We come to assume that they’re hostile, as we see a military platoon fighting one and running around screaming like an updated moment from classic 50s B-movie science-fiction.

This film does feel rather modern, escaping its pulp alien invasion roots by employing shaky-cam (a staple of the independent movie) and documenting a human story. Much like Signs and to some extent Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, the aliens are significant, but a background element. We get the sense in all three movies that Battle: Los Angeles is happening somewhere, but somewhere not here. It’s an interesting take on the invasion story, and it serves well here.

The alternative would of course be unimaginable and inappropriate, for Monsters, as we might surmise from its deliberate title (going in we doubt that the eponymous Monsters will shake out to be the aliens in the end), is a drama. Elements of reality cross over to this shattered landscape – Mexican borders, invasive American military, poverty, and xenophobia, and very quickly it’s known that the movie isn’t here to showcase explosions and car chases and Transformers, but bring to light ideas. Like the greatest in science-fiction, Monsters makes a grab at asking the big questions, challenging us to shake our noggin awake.

Whether or not it succeeds in this regard seems somewhat inconsequential – audiences can sit down with District 9 and have a laugh or two before being absolutely riveted, and never put a thought to what’s just under the surface. Monsters is the same way; not as exciting, but engaging enough to make a satisfying experienced, filled out by devastated and desolate but always beautiful landscapes, and technically hampered only by flat dialogue and spotty acting.

Kaulder and Sam climb their way up to an ancient pyramid for a night’s rest later on in the film, and look out over the US-Mexico border, which has grown to a superstructure and replaces the horizon. They’ve been through hell to reach this point, and remark on how odd it feels to be outside America, looking in. We feel that this movie could have ventured to prod deeper and benefitted, but know also that moments like these could have played out much more heavy-handedly. So while this may stand out in a line of grim superhero movies and giant robot spectacles, it doesn’t quite reach the bar set by Children of Men or Signs, but it was a hearfelt effort nonetheless.

 

 

I am not a reader of fiction. Non-fiction I can handle, so long as it’s a subject matter I can appreciate, like blog-writing theory. But fictional novels take me hella long time, which has discouraged me from getting into them unless they’re the absolute correct titles. One such title in the canon of science-fiction literature was Childhood’s End – and yes, it took me a long time.

That’s actually one of the reasons why I liked it, and why reading longform SF narratives is such a great experience. Because it is such a commitment for me to dive into a book of wow 200 pages, it’s something of a journey where I’m consciously pushing the story forward or putting it down. Not like watching a movie, which is by nature a passive experience and has to really reach out to be great. The novel already has that leg up, so when it reaches out, it can reach fantastic potentials.

It’s similar to watching the credits roll after a real single-player campaign in a video-game, for example Mass Effect. You’ve been everywhere with that character, done cool things and met neat people. You were taken on a journey that you had a level of control over. It’s more likely that I’m satasfied at the end of that game because of solid design than its length, but whatever. Of course, Childhood’s End, and by extension many science-fiction novels, details a better story than Mass Effect, though there are similarities. One can’t help but think that Reapers are just a malevolent Overmind, and that the twist revealing the Overlords’ true fate is akin to a twist that occurs in Mass Effect.

The relationship between man and alien is described uniquely in either title, unique to each other and other alien invasion stories. In The War of the Worlds we have a military invasion, but we never get the feeling that these are all-powerful beings or anything out of our tactical range. By populating galaxies, the scope of Mass Effect and Childhood’s End is enlarged – and none of this is to say that the two titles are anomalies in the landscape of science-fiction; rather that it’s interesting to trace roots of inspiration, if that’s truly what the novel was for the video-game.

Childhood’s End, despite a first 130 pages that left me scratching my head, is by the end one of the novels that reaches the aforementioned fantastic height. Watching way too many lukewarm to good science-fiction movies as I do, I forget just how powerful and moving a title in the genre can actually be, despite its lack of conventional human drama, though that was present at times. The ideas presented in the story by the last chapter, “The Last Generation,” shook me. It presented a situation that was so larger than life and so devastating that I couldn’t help but fall into something of a light depression. It was bizarre.

It’s a story about the end of humanity, and how it’s told is, as everyone has already said in the 60 years since its reception, imbalanced. The narrative is told episodically, and we have four major characters relating the story through the expanse of a hundred years. I don’t know how this decision was reached, but throughout the course of the first and second chapters (out of three) I was getting Dollars Trilogy syndrome – no clear plotline equals no sense of development. There were characters and situations detailed that didn’t seem pertinent to what I was interested in, but there was a reason for it, by the end.

I just wish it didn’t take so long. Indeed, there is a lot about how puny humans cannot understand the Overlords and how the Overlords are so secret, and these themes run throughout the first and second chapters. The payoff is in the third act, and it is so grand I would be sinning to spoil it. I understood why there was so much discussion of x, y, and z, and perhaps if I read more often it wouldn’t have taken so long to get that payoff so I wouldn’t be upset, but when I look at the book, it’s divided into thirds where it could be divided in half.

Or the first two thirds could be telling as fascinating a story as the last. Regardless, there are still wonderful revelations to be found in the first two chapters; this was not a slog like other science-fiction novels I’ve experienced, namely Atlas Shrugged. It always held my attention, and if that’s not enough of a recommendation – the last chapter basically blew my mind.

Perhaps later I’ll try to do a more in-depth study, but I wanted to keep this spoiler free.

Spoilers for District 9

I think that the first time I saw the movie, sitting in the theatre in August 2009, I was kind of down on the very end, where Wikus doesn’t transform back into a human. Of course, I didn’t fully fathom what the transformation meant. I knew there was allegory, that District 9 was thick was metaphor, and some of it was pretty blatant. But the transformation was a visual metapor, and this was something that didn’t quite connect at the time. The movie ends with Wikus’ wife talking about the alienized hero, and we see him making a flower out of garbage – both are notes of hope, and even though the ending isn’t necessarily ideal for our fast-talking protagonist, we know that the future is bright because one person was able to sympathize with the Prawns.

So what’s more important than the bright future, or even the denoument preceding it, is the ending fight scene. Often laughed off as a cheap action movie third act, giving me flashbacks to the dreary criticisms of Sunshine and its infamous third act, so much happens in the final action sequence, a culmination that explodes with an energy typically lost on modern day SF movies (I’m looking at you, every superhero movie ever made with the exception of Punisher War Zone). This is the quintessential sequence to showcase the expert craftmanship employed by Neil Blomkamp, as it combines all the great editing and camerawork we’ve now gotten used to as established eary on – but there’s a difference, a sense of gravity and weight to everything that is going on.

Van Wikus dons a mech suit and gets Christopher Johnson to safety, and then murders as many hostile PMCs as possible in appropriately angry and gory ways. It’s surprisingly visceral. We feel everything that Wikus does, as he goes on cursing everyone out and firing off lasers and rockets. He’s finally embodied the true essence of empathy and cross cultural understanding: he had long ago crossed the bridge between the worlds of humans and Prawns, but now he is finally able to do something about it – and he’s pissed. That’s what District 9 is all about. It’s a more-than-clever movie that combines sociopolitical philosophy with hard-hitting, unexpected, jaw-dropping entertainment, and does it in such a way where the former is an extension of the other. It works out so well because this movie was a very personal work from director Blomkamp.

It’s not a Ghost in the Shell scenario where action and philosophy sequences are often segregated (often, not always – recall if you will the museum sequence filled to the brim with tiny little metaphors), the ideas are embedded in the actions and events, and these actions and events just so happen to have the polish of top-tier science-fiction action harkening back to 1991. That the culmination of ideas could happen in this moment of rage and chaos and violence and works so beautifully speaks to the general consensus of the movie – nobody saw it coming. The trailers made it look good, but I don’t think that anybody could have guessed just how great it would actually end up.

In fact, let’s for a moment examine the other major science-fiction movie of 2009, something that certainly won’t appear under the “An Appreciation” moniker – Avatar. It was on television today and I was watching the ending war scene like ‘yeah, yeah, this is pretty cool stuff. I love space marines…’ but as it went on I just kept shaking my head and checking my watch (even though I was watching TV). There was something just so idiotic about the whole thing, and I really need to revisit that complicated film. But anyways I realized why I didn’t like the Na’vi, and along with I just like space military better on principle – characterization goes a long way, and it was largely absent here. Such is not the case with District 9. There are no cheap archetypes here, no wise mentors or heroic sacrifices from secondary characters. It’s a film that feels and looks genuine, not overdone and underprepared (somehow).

With Elysium still in development, or late development, we still can only hope that the infamous ‘sophomore slump’ that has claimed so many filmmakers does not extend to Neil Blomkamp, because his debut is in the same league as John Singleton’s and Tarantino’s. It’s not only set a precedent for his career, but for the science-fiction genre, and nearly two years later it has yet to be matched.

And how could you not? As much as I know I’ll enjoy the film when it hits theatres in October, I know it won’t last long or be well-recieved or good. It’s just not a movie that needed to be made, but I look forward to it anyway as a fan of the John Carpenter original, a fan of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and a guy who saw and enjoyed somwhat the Howard Hawks original original. The Who Goes There? story template is great, and even without that key casting I’d still look forward to it, even if it is seemingly just another in the line of horror remakes following the Wes Craven reboots of recent times and Friday the 13th and all that.

Horror is such a shitty genre nowadays that remakes don’t faze me. If original material turns out to be garbage like The Strangers, then I welcome familiar faces and ideas. I’ve come to peace with the fact that The Mist is the product of a brilliant filmmaker who probably won’t continue to dabble in horror (unless it’s Stephen King), and that M. Night Shyamalan is making some terrible, terrible choices years after his incredible Signs. Maybe it’s just fine by me because horror isn’t one of the genres I look for. I like horror/comedy, but I haven’t seen too many of those I’ve disliked. From Return of the Living Dead to Slither, the horror/comedy has been good throughout the ages, but I didn’t even like a horror classic like The Exorcist so how am I supposed to like its inevitable remake?

It’s a difficult genre, and I guess that’s why these filmmakers do it. Nothing is sacred, as people are bound to say, but I really don’t care about that. They’re not actively working to ‘ruin’ the original film, and the constant theory against the naysayers is that maybe attention will be brought to the old one with the release of the new one. Who knows? And that’s right – on some level John Carpenter’s The Thing was a remake, and it’s a classic, as is The Fly remake. Who’s to say that this new one won’t be? Aside from history and the formula it seems to be following…

In fact there are other things that concern me about this new movie. A long time ago I got into some farcical argument with a ’30 year old woman’ on YouTube.com, and it was on the video for The Thing 1982 trailer. Maybe you can still find it, I don’t know – I’m HeroOfCanton99, like Jayne and 1999 combined, the year I wanted people to think I was born in. Basically this lady’s stance was that she was uncomfortable with a girl being cast in the movie, because some seriously horrific things tend to happen to people in The Thing. I said “Damn it, I’m agreeing with you, you freaking moron,” but she didn’t really realize and continued to argue out loud to herself. It was surreal. Wonder what’ll happen when she finds out about the women in Gears of War “Curb Stomp Downed Enemies” 3?

I don’t feel entirely comfortable with it because I’m aware of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s history – three horror flicks, one where she gets killed, probably gruesomely. She’s assumedly not afraid of it, but I am. I don’t want to see that. I wouldn’t want to see it if it was anybody else, not just Mary Elizabeth Winstead, though that certainly doesn’t help. In The Thing, it’s not the character deaths that are actually gruesome: people die when they burn by flamethrowers. The terror comes out of the creature’s mutations, where faces split open and heads tear off slowly and painstakingly while tongues lash around and it’s the most horrible thing you’ve ever seen done to a human body. So awesome. God just typing that makes me want to watch the movie again. Really ingenious horror, and really cool sci-fi – the perfect blend captured here in this totally underrated flick.

If Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s head falls off and turns into a spider I might just vomit, but I’ve made a speculation as to what happens in this new movie:

The Swedish guy at the beginning of The Thing was a guy, not a girl. That means that she either dies in the helicopter explosion, dies earlier, or escapes to the mainland. I think that she’ll escape and leave the male hero to chase the dog and magically become non-foreign. Maybe that’ll pave the way for sequels… which is an odd thought. Hm, if they made a Thing remake trilogy, that would mark one of the strangest movie series ever.

That’s only a guess. Chances are she gets killed by a massive Thing monster, because I hear that we’ll see different forms of the creature, which is a good change of pace. Maybe one form will be Frankenstein’s monster, like the 1951 movie. HRRRNGGG

Another issue I have is an idea resulting from a filmmaker’s passion for the original movie. When McG, a big fan of the Terminator movies, made a Terminator movie, he had a lot of visual call-outs to the earlier films, particularly the first. I didn’t mind; I thought it was cool because I share his sentiment that those two movies are totally sweet. But if the director of The Thing (I’m not going to try to spell his name) also does this visual homage deal and has similar things happen, for some reason I don’t see it as working, perhaps because of the proximity to this story to the 1982 one.

In other words, won’t it be silly if the crew of the 2011 had a blood test scene if only days later a different crew did? Eh it’s a nerdy complaint, but that’s why it’s an issue and not a problem, I guess. Also, will this movie take place in 1982? Or will it be like Casino Royale (2006) and take place in the future of the 60’s Bond films, despite its chronology as first in the series?

So that’s it. If Avatar and Machete were the most anticipated movies of years previous, well, that’s not a good track record, so The Thing better work out because I definitely look forward to it more than… Captain America? If they do things similar to the 1982 movie I don’t see much margin for error, but that’s probably what was said about The Phantom Menace. Well, that’s definitely what was said.

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