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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.

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.

 

Arthur C. Clarke is one of those guys that can spin the most fantastic tales in vibrant detail and searing energy – but good God does it take a long time to get there. Before we reach the ending segment that blazes with imaginative poetry, we must slog through the travels of one Dr. Heywood Floyd, and before that the hardships of ape-men, and after that, the day to day operations of the iconic spaceship, the Discovery. Forever. After only two novels I can say that Clarke has really turned me off from the hard science-fiction subgenre (cyberpunk was more my jam anyway), but – he hasn’t turned me off from Clarke. As long as we find reality-blasting scifi at the end, the first two-thirds of the novel will always have a grand payoff.

Anyone new to the 2001: A Space Odyssey novel in this day and age may already be familiar with the movie, whose ending dazzles and confuses – “can somebody tell me what the hell’s going on here?” or whatever that guy said – and be expecting the mindwarp through Jupiter, the bright white hotel suite, and the transformation into the Star Child. It hung over the narrative for… well, the narrative, and knowing it was coming did slow the less exciting moments of the book: I know this crazy shit’s going downs, but fuck me it’s taking forever. By God – Bowman and Poole’s segments before (and often during) HAL’s breakdown are very tedious. Technical details of the ship are abound, and they do seem convincing (hell, I’m no optometrist), but they’re no substitution for storytelling, or even plain exposition.

The frustrating nature of this story is inherent to its premise, and is very, very Arthur C. Clarke. Halfway through the novel we’re introduced to the Discovery mission, a manned voyage to Saturn – unprecedented even ten years after this odyssey was slated to occur. This outreach to the stars is going to take time, and if you’ve ever read a manual on science-fiction writing theory (er, this is purely speculation on my part), you’d know that those authors take to hard science-fiction like nothing else – here’s an excerpt from an essay by Poul Anderson, and note that the essay is titled, “The Creation of Imaginary Worlds”: “Remember, though, that this bit of arithmetic has taken no account of atmosphere or hydrosphere. I think they would smooth things out considerably. On the one hand, they do trap heat; on the other hand, clouds reflect a great deal of light, which thus never has a chance to reach the surface; and both gases and liquids blot up, or redistribute, what does get through.”

While I have yet to read Anderson, I acknowledge his high place in the science-fiction world. But Arthur C. Clarke was an early champion of the form, right up there with Asimov and Campbell, who balked at the sword-and-sandal-and-space stories of the television and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Clarke details his ship with a dedicated attention to detail – what the hell else is there to do on a spaceship to Saturn but walk about and muse over it? We learn so much about this damn ship that adds nothing to not just the story but the themes it’s like what people talk about when they talk about Michael Bay’s latest – he’s masturbating all over the screen with those fucking explosions. This is what Clarke does to get hard… science-fiction (boy that was… I’m sorry).

Doesn’t help that his two characters in this segment are astronauts – and let me tell you something: he loves the astronaut. In preparation for the collaborative 2001 project, a movie and novel in one go, Clarke visited the folks at NASA and I’m sure did extensive research (or just knew this stuff after years of reading), and his admiration and respect for the now-in-limbo space program shows through. Honestly, this is kind of a bad thing. Bowman and Poole aren’t really characters, but I didn’t expect them to be particularly stirring. That’s not it – they’re gods. Indeed astronauts need to be prime specimens in terms of physical ability and mental capacity but good lord from broad descriptions of these two to minor asides, it is pounded into our heads that these guys are the best at what they do and they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t and goddamn it they never screw up and wouldn’t even think about screwing up because it’d be a waste of that aforementioned mental capacity–

The application of this characterization actually does exist in the text, as once things start to fall apart for these guys, you know they’re in deep shit, because Christ – they don’t screw up. And boy do things go to shit… Pretty soon they grow suspicious of their shipboard AI, the famous HAL “Open the Pod Bay Doors HAL” 9000, that mild-mannered red eye that keeps the rig floating. Seems he sent Poole out on a maintenance mission, which requires dangerous and risky travel outside the ship. There was nothing to be fixed, and they get that uncomfortable feeling, that creeping suspicion like any minute now I’m getting knocked into space by my own runaway space-pod. Pretty soon Dave Bowman finds himself all alone on the ship (there were the scientists, but the cryo-pods were tampered with*, pretty much ensuring that the mission was a one-way ticket) with an A for asshole AI. His conflict with HAL is definitely a highlight of the novel.

The thought of wording every sentence carefully so as to not tip off the enemy in a battle with this all-powerful intelligence is a terrifying situation, one that isn’t nearly as effective in the film. Because of the narrative style employed in Kubrick’s movie, there are limits on its storytelling range; certain things must be explored less than others so as to not draw attention away from what’s most important. In the movie, the malfunction of HAL serves a specific narrative purpose in the discussion of humanity – here we have the bit about technology, a mirror intelligence that could pose a bevy of problems, namely murder. The main point of the movie is the ending, where Dave Bowman becomes the Star Child, his transcendent intelligence spelling out humanity’s future in space. To do this we must overcome our dependence on technology: A to B to C. In the novel, more attention can be paid to each scene, where such is not the case in a film of this classically minimalist style.

Bowman is eventually victorious, but the toll is almost too much to bear, especially when considering he’s got a few months left before Saturn. Seems like Jupiter, the planet he had to slingshot around** for speed, is still in the rear-view. Now we’re just waiting for something to happen, and only then does Bowman happen upon a gigantic monolith on the moon Japetus, delivering the famous line that I was waiting for the whole book, “My God – it’s full of stars!” From there, you know what happens.

He turns into a big ol’ baby, an astounding, mind-bending transformation. It’s the The Last Generation of 2001, and it’s just as incredible as it was in the movie, if not more so. It does also however, present a major issue I have. The romance of man’s vertical manifest destiny, as willed along by his best and brightest (descriptions of Poole and Bowman are like hero worship) is contradicted by the aliens’ predestination. Just as in Childhood’s End, these godliens watch over us and are described as farmers of the stars, where the crop is the mind, the dawning of intelligence. So what is being said here?

The movie on the whole makes a much stronger point, where the novel is somewhat muddled. Ambiguity is the name of the game for the film, where in the book we’re treated to one of the strangest chapters in the book, “Concerning ET’s,” which states definitively that the monolith was the work of super intelligence space ghost gods. Creatures so evolved they take to monitoring the development of intelligence in other worlds as a pastime, and eventually reach a stage where they no longer require their massive, synthetic spaceship bodies (wonder if Casey Hudson and co. ever read this one) to become part of the cosmos, something like what happened to the dude in Phoenix Vol. 2. This chapter is the perfectly analogous to the greater work; a survey of a textbook transplanted into a narrative, and here we delve into at first interesting territory, but soon declines and worships scientists again. By the time we get back to the cool stuff, he’s lost me again. Most stories take a break in the action to have character moments. 2001 breaks to engage in thoughtful and polite discourse on a range of science topics. Indeed, we go from aliens to space travel to Childhood’s End to Ghost in the Shell to God in a span of five or so pages.

So indeed there are alien gods out there, and they’ve set the monolith up on first the Earth and then under the Moon’s surface for us to find – a Sentinel, if you will – just waiting for the day when we reach Saturn and turn into space-babies. In the movie, it’s sort of ambiguous. Perhaps the monolith isn’t meant to be taken as reality, it’s just a cinematic manifestation of Intelligence, or maybe it’s just something left behind by a better civilization. I never got the idea that we were playing into a greater plan by doing these things. At the end of the day, getting to Saturn is great and all, but fuck – it was just a matter of time, according to these aliens.

2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t a perfect novel, and the film isn’t a perfect movie. They’re both highly enjoyable though, and offer brief moments of jaw-dropping science-fiction in between all the molasses.*** It’ll be awhile before I pick up another Clarke; I really got to psyche myself out because it can be quite the endurance test, like what David Bowman went through to reach that wonderful endgame. So watch out, Earthlight – you’d better have some fucking world-ending shit going on in you…

 

*This scene is so obnoxious in the movie. Those fucking alarm noises go on for way too long – so long that my father actually went into the room I was watching the thing in to see what was going on: “Oh, it’s the movie. … Yeah…”

**The visual reality of putting Saturn with its many, gloriously described rings on the silver screen was too much for even pros like Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull. Rather than slingshot around Jupiter, Bowman ended up there, but that slingshot idea would find its way into 2010: The Year We Make Contact, a surprisingly touching scene in a surprisingly touching movie.

***Molasses seems like a broken metaphor; sure, it means slow, but molasses is also sweet, correct? I wouldn’t know – I’m not from a hundred years ago, lol. See? I said lol.

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.

 

This is an exceptional piece of science-fiction. It is at once contained within a broader serialized, narrative structure, and a story that escalates from the personal to the grandiose on a cosmic level in a brisk but dense 260 pages. It mixes humor and tragedy, cartoon buffoonery and provocative SF what-ifs?, all while telling a rich and engaging story. The final half recalled to me one of the most startling moments in science-fiction I’d experienced recently – “The Last Generation” segment of Childhood’s End. Its turbulent story kept getting larger and larger and more exciting, similar to how “The Last Generation” seemed to encapsulate Children of Men and Akira as it discussed the end and transcendence of humankind. Plotwise, Phoenix isn’t too far off, telling a story about the death and rebirth of mankind as its hero Masato is granted immortality, a terrible burden he can’t handle, and illustrates that point by shooting himself in the head – to no avail.

You’re probably wondering why I’m only talking about Volume 2, and the answer is simple and sad: the first volume is hella lot of money, and as much as I’d like to read it, just can’t. I don’t think Volume 3 is even in my price range either, so I’ll have to shoot right on to 4 from here on out. I don’t the answer for this price-kerfuffle, but I assume it’s some company/international/licensing fuckups. One of those words. From what I read of the back cover of this particular volume, each story is self-contained, so I suppose it shouldn’t be that much of a problem. Indeed, I can’t imagine what a “Phoenix, Vol. 3” would even look like – if I were a writer I would scratch my head bloody on where to go from here.

In the future, people have destroyed the planet. Or perhaps, in the near future, we’ve destroyed the planet, and this has forced our children and grand-children underground in massive subterranean cities. These cities are governed by supercomputers, think HAL 9000 but switch out the ‘homicidal’ for ‘genocidal.’ Eventually the computers, whose orders must be carried out unquestioned, want to wage nuclear war. Meanwhile, our hero Yamanobe Masato escapes the city into the dangerous surface-world where he eventually meets up with old Dr. Saruta and his robot friend Robita. Masato was on the run for harboring an illegal alien creature, and fellow space-patrolman Roc was after him. Masato made the mistake of falling in love with a shape-shifting “moopie,” whose dreams transport people to virtual worlds of wonder and romance. In Dr. Saruta’s terrestrial dome fortress, the moopie Tamami and Masato run into a magical bird of fire that transcends space and time and can speak telepathically…

Despite the comparison to works of Arthur C. Clarke, Phoenix is far from hard science-fiction. In fact, it would have the more conservative SF nerdlets among us pissing their pants in frustration (I don’t suppose people actually do that) for its seemingly freewheeling mixing of genre tropes from both science-fiction and fantasy. Nobody likes the term space-fantasy, or science-fantasy – so let’s just discard subgenres for a moment. Indeed, there are magical birds that can shrink to smaller than an atom co-existing in a future of robots and spaceships, and my jaw dropped with each revelation of something fantastic. We go from futuristic city to shape-shifting aliens to magic birds to God in two-hundred pages, and it sounds clumsy when I say it, but it all gels so well, and you never doubt its confidence, as this is afterall the masterwork of the godfather of the medium.

This is my introduction to Osamu Tezuka, who’s perhaps best known as the creator of Astro Boy. I was attracted more to Phoenix than his iconic boy android for what little I’d hear about on podcasts and blogs; in my head I concluded that this was The Fountain in comic form before we had The Fountain in comic form. Themes of immortality and combating death were things I enjoyed from that particular movie, and wanted to see again. Tezuka does deal with these things, but never hacks at your soul and makes you depressed like Arrenofsky did so skillfully and so underratedly in 2006. He interweaves humorous touches that are sometimes deftly performed and sometimes not so much, but are always in keeping with the tone.

What tone is that? I hardly know, but Phoenix comes off as a pulpy science-fiction story with a tremendous amount of pathos and a heart-breaking, literary story. As much as it blows your mind with moments like Masato lamenting his eternal life span and contemplating how he’ll live the next billion years, it’ll keep things light with its visuals and characters who aren’t always as serious as the situations they occupy. In this way, Phoenix did for me what Rin Taro’s Metropolis from 2001 did for others. Metropolis, and I could see this, juxtaposed rough – albeit PG-13 rated – violence with cute Tezuka designs, in doing so heightening the impact of that robot being shot, probably by Roc. He does that.

Another thing I greatly enjoyed about Phoenix is that every character was at least memorable. At best they were downright compelling in their metaphyical journeys, and at the least they were good for a gag or two. Even the villain in the piece, Roc, isn’t a total bastard, though he does kill Robita, which was uncalled for. I went into this with a bias against Roc from Metropolis, where, if I remember correctly (probably not), he was a plain dick-o. In this story he does terrible things, but there are moments where genuine humanity flashes through those immovable sunglasses. His relationship with Masato is interesting; it’s clear they were once friends, but the job ate Roc up and turned him into a monster. He is humbled by his doom at the hands of radiation, and goes out reflecting and appreciating the environment around him, something he probably never did as a space-patrolman.

Phoenix’s haughtier themes never seem preachy because there is an underlying innocence that should really, in the end, read: earnestness. This is a passionate work of art with a social conscience, and like Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, which outlines the evils of drugs by showing what measures we must go to end them, provides a very human story amidst the fantastic, never losing its inspiring sense of wonder and tragedy.

 

 

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 The Abyss, Avatar, my life

James Cameron is a champion of technology in film, and his latest thing is 3D. I’m among the majority that tends to scoff at 3D in movies and TV; there’s just too much about it I disagree with. But in the case of Avatar, 3D makes sense, and it is perhaps the only movie where the visually stunning gimmick has thematic significance, aside from maybe Friday the 13th Part III. It’s a movie where immersion is of the utmost import, such that it should stretch beyond the hero and onto the audience. We feel what he feels because it’s our journey of discovery too – he’s our avatar.

The award-winning filmmaker has always upped the ante with each movie in terms of technology, diving into one of the most difficult and technically challenging shoots ever with The Abyss (which nearly claimed the life of Ed Harris), and diving further with those deep sea documentaries and that critical darling Titanic. It’s kind of ironic, seeing as how his iconic Terminator would theoretically make him out to be some kind of creative luddite.

Alas no, and Avatar is the next step in this evolution, and it’s hands down the best-looking film of all time. Best visual effects, besting Transformers and The Lord of the Rings and Pirates 3 and even Terminator 2 by miles. Is it the most beautiful film? That comes down to art design, and I still contend that movies like Akira and Ghost in the Shell 2 achieve higher in that department. It’s something that can’t be overlooked or treated lightly – impressive doesn’t even begin to describe the quality of work here, so in the end I don’t think it’s entirely unfortunate that the visuals are the only thing the movie has going for it.

Now, for two years I had read every article online about Avatar, seen every production still and followed it closely such that the words Project 880 burned into my eyes; I had never been more excited for a movie. It was James Cameron’s return to feature films after a decade, and his return to science-fiction (more importantly) after nearly twenty years. Also note that the last time he made a science-fiction film, he made Terminator 2. Everything seemed to add up, and this was looking to be the most ambitious magnum opus attempted. It would be his first SF flick I’d be alive to see in theatres, so I was going opening night.

That decision came probably in 2007. Two years later, it was two days after opening night, a Sunday. Me and a friend of mine were able to see it at the IMAX, which was pleasant, as that screen was both huge and three-dimensional. Two and a half hours later I stumbled out. My friend was like, “Yeah that was pretty good. What did you think, Harry?” and I thought about it. And thought about it. And thought about it.

And I continued to think about it. I recall recording a podcast about it, but don’t remember what I said. Probably that it was good but not nearly as good as it should have been. Well it’s July 9th 2011 as I write this, it’ll probably go up tomorrow, and I’ll tell you one thing: I now understand what people feel when they hear the words The Phantom Menace. They cringe inside, they feel slightly embarassed.

As the months were drawing closer to December 22, 2009, the Internet was ablaze with a storm of “holy shit Avatar trailers… suck?” and I was one pissed off little nerdlet. That’s actually what made me break up with a podcast I had listened to loyally for like two years – Slice of Scifi. It was the very first podcast I had ever heard of, and was kind of a personal stepping stone into further nerdom, but when the first Avatar trailer was underwhelming and one of the guys said, “He should just stick to documentaries,” I couldn’t believe it. To be fair, I remember the other guys wrangling him in like “Hey. That’s too far,” but it was too late. I loved James Cameron. He had done only good for the world, unless you count those many ex-wives and one disgruntled Harlan Ellison (not JC’s fault).

I was like, “Have you people forgotten what this man has wrought?” Apparently T2 wasn’t like the greatest thing ever, and it kind of makes sense. I grew up watching the movie, and would only later discover the general consensus was that Aliens was actually his best film (this is in nerd circles, of course, where we don’t use the T word. No, the other one). My heart was broken; I felt betrayed, but my burning desire to confirm that Avatar would blow my fucking mind, man, burned all the brighter – and it burned for half as long, as the movie was nearing release.

In the aftermath, I still don’t want to hear commentary on Avatar, and fortunately have suffered only a minimal amount. It’s just hard because I acknowledge that it’s a bad movie, but I’m in denial. Also exacerbating my perception of the film is the fact that the visuals are out of this world. They elevate the movie, but it’s still a bad, bad movie. It sucks. Seriously, it fucking blows. Cameron took ten years to write this script? Should’ve been looking over Nolan’s shoulder – and I never thought I’d say that.

Apparently I can say that it sucks, but I won’t hear it from anyone else. It’s like if somebody is self-conscious, they can laugh at themselves nervously and say they’re weird, sure. But God forbid anybody else do the same. If I were in your position reading this (I hope somebody reads this) I’d be shaking my head and thinking, no, nobody should read this. It’s inappropriate.

But like I said earlier. It’s July 9th, 2011. It’s been awhile. I’ve had time to think, and I’ve come to my conclusions. I guess now I should tell you why. (Please God don’t let this be a Scott Pilgrim-lengthed post… it won’t be nearly as fun to write…)

The biggest problem I’ll always have with Avatar, and with James Cameron, is his treatment of the military in his movies. Aliens owes everything it is to Military SF like Starship Troopers – essentially Cameron pulled a Wachowski Brothers and said “I want to do this for real,” (preempting Verhoeven by ten years) referring to space marines, of course, who have never been seen before or since the 1986 movie. The military isn’t depicted unfairly or anything, but their ultimately being criticized in a Vietnam War allegory – situations occur where technologically advanced forces are beaten time and again by the lesser-equipped simply because they didn’t know what they were doing.

In The Abyss, the military once again dons the face of Michael Biehn, and they are spoilers the badguys. The Terminator actually offers an interesting view, one that I agree with – the marriage of technology and warfare seems to breed something we won’t be able to handle in years down the road, and here it’s depicted as Skynet. Isn’t it interesting that in order to fight this ungodly child we have to resort to warfare as well? That could have made an interesting study, but unfortunately that’s never what Terminator was about, and instead of something where we destroy ourselves with combat, we get Rise of the Machines.

And finally in Avatar we have the space military in all their glory – but they’re assholes. We have one qualifying line in the beginning where hero Jake Sully notes that these are sort of the rejects, a PMC squad working for a capital-c Company, think Weyland-Yutani. Alright, fine, they’re not really America’s military or Space America’s marines or anybody we should be rooting for, but the end product is still space marines are the bad guy. And that really rides me. I’m not some gun-nut who unconditionally praises American’s army, it’s just that my feelings about the military seem to conflict with Cameron’s various depictions, and goddamn it – it wouldn’t be so bad if the heroes of the tale, the Na’vi, weren’t so goddamn insulting.

I’m not even saying they’re disrespectful towards Native Americans – I’m saying they’re disrespectful towards me because they use the fact that they’re Native Americans, and nakedly so, to draw sympathy rather than use actual characterization. What does Zoe Saldana want? I don’t know, to save the trees. Oh so her character coincides with the message of the film. That means she’s a blank slate to which Cameron can paint his environmental theme – she’s like Mr. Exposition for the moral of the tale, and that’s bullshit. That’s not writing; the themes should come about in a more organic manner. We shouldn’t be tricked into getting the message, we should just get it.

Let’s look at these goddamn things, these Na’vi [from Zelda]: they’re interesting looking, but I don’t like them at all. Not only do they look like taller versions of Asari, they’re somehow worse, if that’s even imaginable. They’re cliche because they’re Out-to-Save-the-World Native Americans, and they’re uninteresting because Cameron thought that he didn’t have to write anything beyond that. Was that seriously your selling point? Did you actually think that that made these things compelling? That they liked nature? Are you fucking kidding me?

And we haven’t even touched upon the alien sex. I guess the most poetic way to show our hero becoming one with nature was to have him bump uglies with a nine foot tall cat, and (actually, does that even happen in the movie? I forget) I guess it’s just consistent enough with the other garbage going on that we don’t notice how zoophillic that is. It’s okay though – she’s hot. Look at that sexy tail… Well, at least Zoe Saldana is in real life actually very attractive, and – fun fact – another extremely good-looking woman, Yunjin Kim (Lost, Shiri) screentested for the same character. But anyways…

He tries to draw us into an unconventional romance through conventional means, and nothing could be more inappropriate or miscalculated. It’s true love and it has to be, as the message to stress with Avatar is be cool with everything and everyone. Cross-cultural boundaries should be breached, but more generally and more significantly, we need to have open minds if we want to save the world(s). Makes sense on paper, but in the film, it just does not work. Let’s look at some other unconventional relationships in movies, and the two that come into my mind maybe aren’t obvious examples of this which is itself not an obvious thing: JSA: Joint Security Area, an old standby on Dreck Fiction, and The Yakuza.

In JSA we have, and I hate this term, a bromance. What’s more, it’s a forbidden bromance, but let’s just call it a friendship. These guys aren’t supposed to be friends – it should be shocking that they’re even talking to each other. Their relationship develops very naturally throughout, and when it all comes crashing down, like they anticipated, it’s tragic. It works because we get a feel for these characters and we don’t want to see them fail.

With The Yakuza, we have an interesting relationship between two guys, Harry Kilmer and Tanaka Ken. What they have is both weaker and stronger than a frienship, because they share something important but can never just chill and hang out. Dialogue between the two is alternatively tense and poigniant, and it’s handled just as we should expect from such writers with pedigrees as Paul Shrader and Robert Towne.

So the fact that Cameron treats his odd relationship with normal terms – courtship, which is bizarre – is embarassing and kind of naive. There even could have been an interesting discussion there about cross-species relationships, but as it stands the Na’vi just persist in being no different from us afterall. This really is like Mass Effect, but that title – a video-game, mind you – makes up for it with surprising levels of characterization and a cool SF story.

Avatar has no such thing. Its story is template. Formula. Seen before. As much as those fuckings mountains in the sky are wowing and unprecedented (except for those wonderful Internet comparison photos, courtesy of a dozen beautiful minds), we can’t be entirely swept away because this story is so damn familiar. Story beats seem to be hit like somebody’s checking them off a list, and as a result, everybody is a stereotype or an archetype. There isn’t one original character in the entire movie. We have the tough-as-nails mentor with a heart of gold played by Sigourney Weaver, the tough-as-nails pilot played by Michelle Rodriguez, the guy who starts out antagonizing our hero until he becomes one of the People and then heroically sacrifices himself, the racist old guy (the only good character), the nerdy technician, and the flawless hero.

Star Wars is a similar situation, in that it used archetypes like the gunslinger Han Solo and the Hero’s Journey hero Luke Skywalker. But in the context of what Star Wars is, it makes sense and it works beautifully, which is why that movie is and will be remembered for being a good movie, but Avatar will be remembered for being pioneering. Unfortunately people and things that set the wheel in motion are forgotten when surpassed – think Willis O’brien when Ray Harryhausen came along.

The potential Avatar had was really the thing that pissed me off the most. It’s a science-fiction movie by James Cameron. It’s got dragons, it’s got space helicopters, it’s got war. How do you fuck that up? Big things and littles things. Big things like blank-slate characters, and little things like moments that just feel so out-of-place and immature, like when the rhinos pop out of the forest to victory music and overwhelm the enemy soldiers at the last second.

It’s a beautiful movie, and it will always look good because the art design will hold up, though I do think the mechs were better-looking in The Matrix Revolutions. The casting was good, the technology was in place, but the script needed work – about ten more years. And left in the center is one confused nerd, and I doubt I’ll even seek out Avatar 2 in the theatres. I just wish he’d drop this ‘trilogy’ bullshit and go ahead with Battle Angel. Maybe at this point in his career he needs established characters to work with, but who knows? Hopefully I’ll come to reneg on those words.

I’ve been wrong before.

Not only has the original movie’s tagline become quite the cliche, such that it’s near impossible to riff on it because all the variants have been said, nearly everything else about it has been equally recycled into other, later pieces of popular media. Even to the day we see the influence of Alien and Aliens, in video-games from DOOM (originally supposed to be an Aliens game) to Dead Space (2008), and in movies like Sunshine and Pandorum and countless others. It’s a historical milestone in the genre of science-fiction, single-handedly lifting sci-fi/horror from dreck fiction to a level not seen since the classic Frankenstein films. Alien is a classic, Aliens is a classic. Alien 3 is one of the most underrated science-fiction films, or possibly films, of all time. Alien Resurrection is a story that can’t be approximated briefly in a cute sentence here.

The four Alien movies make up what is undoubtedly the greatest sci-fi movie series, and it’s about what scares us the most.

That was the origin in fact, that very question; Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett got together and asked. They came up with one word, an r-word that you’ll probably guess at with ease. What if that happened to you? What if the thing on the other end was a goddamn alien creature with a big old alien penis? What if you were in space, and no one could hear you scream? What if you discovered that there was in the end, no hope, but in your own will to survive?

Thus Alien was born, but first, perhaps we should take a moment to recall Alien 0.5 – John Carpenter’s very first film, Dark Star. This movie starred Dan O’Bannon as a hippie astronaut among hippie astronaut, and his assignment was to chase an alien through the various corridors of the ship. That sounds familiar, only the alien in question is a beachball with rubber monster feet attached to it. I don’t think HR Giger had his hands on that one.

What’s interesting about Dark Star is not necessarily that it’s a great movie, but that it silently impacted science-fiction and nobody but nerds knows about it. Nerds and Danny Boyle I guess, who paid homage to the 70’s flick by naming one of his astronauts in Sunshine after a character in Dark Star, Pinbacker.

O’Bannon’s next project would be a bit more popular; Alien went on to be quite the commercial success, which really set Ridley Scott up for a sophomore slump in Blade Runner. It’s a shame that the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? adaptation grossed so little, because it put the director off of science-fiction for thirty years. Blade Runner and Alien truly stand out in Scott’s filmography because of it, and because so much attention and craftsmanship was put into the film’s look. Matchstick Men looks nice, but it doesn’t have the classic lighting composition and atmosphere that heighten the tension or create a sense of apocalyptic decay.

The production design in Alien indeed is legendary, as you’ll see it repeated several times over in sequels and in pieces of media that bear a resemblance. The movie, intitially entitled Star Beast, was just as cool to rip off as Star Wars and the later Blade Runner – it was fashionable. All of a sudden science-fiction had a sense of range to it, and this is all thanks to the visuals. Star Trek and Star Wars told us that we could see the great heighs of man as imagined by creative masters like Roddenbery and Lucas, while Alien and Blade Runner told us we could shove all of that. The two movies have the classic ‘used future,’ look, and it makes sense in either context.

Alien finds its seven crewmembers on the Nostromo, a Conrad reference that seems fitting after The Duelists, which was Scott’s debut. As we discover from an initial conversation over grubby food, they are blue-collar workers. They aren’t talking about saving the world from space vampires – they’re talking about shares and getting paid. These are the characters who are established at the front of the film, and we get to know them by the time they reach LV-426, which I don’t think is named in the first movie, but will be revisited later.

The movie moves incredibly slowly, but it has to. There is narrative progression, and this happens on many levels. Because it’s a movie about what scares us the most, it’s also a movie about reaching out and touching that fear, as one would expect on the frontier of space. Thus we see our heroes experimenting with the alien facehugger, noting that it has acid blood and tightens around Kane’s neck when threatened, and then rallying together to try to find a cat-sized alien which is now loose in the ship after the film’s most iconic scene – the chestburster.

We assume that it’s cat-sized because that’s how it left Kane’s dead body, skittering off the table and into the depths of the Nostromo. When we find that it’s not, that it’s a rather large creature, we can’t be sure of anything. And that’s when the movie begins to really take off.

First, we’re frightened of the creature. It becomes a ubiquitous threat, always hiding somewhere on the ship, ready to pounce with its terrible tongue-jaws-dick. Then, we’re frightened of the Company. We discover that they’re so goddamn cold they consider the crew to be expendable, something that would repeat in every other movie about aliens, from Predator to Alien Lockdown. Then we’re afraid of each other – Ash turns out to be a robot, which is very phildickian. This provides for one of the most intense scenes in the movie, as Ash is bleeding and vomiting this horrible white ‘blood.’

Finally, we become frightened of the ship itself, our surroundings. It’s always been creepy, as the description of Alien as a haunted house movie in space is fair, but towards the end of the movie, it becomes hostile. Fog is blowing everywhere, emergency lights are flashing, alarms are ringing and Mother, the ship’s computer, is counting down until an explosion. Caught in the middle is Ripley, who’s had to experience the fears of all of the above, and is now struggling against the last.

We can only overcome these fears by being reborn, which is why the ship is the final thing to be feared, other than the fact that it makes for some great hallway-running sequences, which is also iconic. Ripley is reborn when she takes the shuttle out from the Nostromo, essentially breaking away from Mother. That’s not the end of the movie however, although we do get a sequence akin to Metroid‘s perfect clear ending.

If that was the end of the movie, the victory over her many fears would not have a measure, and the movie would be about nothing. The alien returns, and Ripley is able to defeat it by being calm and a badass. She harpoons it and sends it flying out the airlock, and she’s the only survivor, save one lucky cat. She is able to have this victory because of her will to survive, which is the only thing that can save you from your worst fears.

This is the point of the movie because we have to explore our worst fears to get to that point. That’s how we have one of the most excellent horror films ever crafted, filled with glorious set pieces and surprisingly intense moments that hold up thirty years later.

There is however one point of contention I have. It has to do with Ripley, who is played by Sigourney Weaver, the one recurring character (well, besides the titular alien) across all four movies. Considering that Ripley has at this point become at archetype, such that even to the day she has characters modelled after her – Mary Elizabeth Winstead in The Thing prequel is taking on that role, which I look forward to – as she is the most famous heroine in science-fiction film, it’s disappointing to realize that her origin in Alien is born out of horror than feminism.

Indeed she is the Final Girl, and this is because she is a female, and because we assumed Tom Skerrit, who gets top billing, was going to be the last one out to shut Nostromo‘s lights. Once he dies, we can’t be sure who it’s going to be, thus creating more horror for the viewer because the Alien could jump out and kill anyone. She is the hero to take away audience comfort, not because ‘wouldn’t it be cool if it was a girl kicking ass?’ I’m sure there was some of that, but it’s certainly expanded upon more in the James Cameron (naturally) sequel, Aliens from seven years later.

For a more in depth look at Alien and the Alien series, be sure to check out Roz Kaveney’s From Alien to The Matrix: Reading Science-fiction Film

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