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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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Total Recall is among many of the short story adaptations of the author’s work, something that makes sense from a screenwriters’ standpoint, and hopefully from the producers’, because as Cronenberg has said of adaptations, they’re less translations than they are transformations. A Scanner Darkly and Blade Runner are polar opposites when it comes to the method of their respective adaptations, and they serve as telling analogies to the difficulties of not only adapting novels, but adapting Dick. To the screenwriter, novels have structures that can be broken down into three acts, which based on the novel, may be true, but isn’t always, and thus these movies aren’t always successful. Look at Dune – well, don’t. I’m sure there were other problems with that one. *blek*

With a short story, the screenwriter sees story elements, and these can be transcribed onto film. And Philip K. Dick shorts usually have strong, high concept premises, so that’s what you’ll see in Minority Report and Total Recall and others – the premise, and story elements. Unlike Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau and Paycheck and the other PG-13 Dick flicks, Total Recall is lousy with MPAA-here’s-the-middle-finger-you-assholes moments. Bullets don’t rip people to shreds like this in movies, not even in John Woo. This must be the work… of Paul Verhoeven.

Before Hollow Man, Paul Verhoeven was a force to be reckoned with as a champion of science-fiction film. He did a lot to sell the genre as an effective medium of satire, with each of his entries in an unofficial scifi trilogy – Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers – becoming increasingly bolder in their sociopolitical statements. They also share something even more important: they’re all great, fun movies. Big and full of explosions and car crashes and guns, guns, guns.

 

Total Recall, based on “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” by Philip K. Dick, is not quite as successful in its introspections Robocop, but at least as successful as Troopers, and this is just fine. At the end of the day, Total Recall is an Arnold movie, meaning it’s an iconic action movie with a lot of macho. Arnold is a presence, he’s the face of American action cinema, spanning just as many subgenres as Sly Stallone but with more success (in that, for example, The 6th Day was technically better than Judge Dredd), and he makes any movie he’s in an Arnold movie. Just think – Aliens almost had Arnold playing Hicks; it was very close to being an Arnold movie.

This particular Arnold volume has an interesting twist – it offers a few phildickian questions into the “What is real?” half of the author’s preoccupations, going so far as to create one scenario about mid-way through that’s reminiscent of Ubik. Sharon Stone and some fellow ‘working for’ Rekal approach Quaid and try to explain this scifi adventure away as a fantasy, that they’re simply avatars trying to reach Quaid from the other side. For a moment the audience is confused. Perhaps this isn’t real?

Then Arnold shoots the guy and there’s an action scene, which is great, though it washes away all that ambiguity in favor of what Total Recall prioritizes: action with a capital a. To be fair, there is enough narrative evidence to throw out the question, for example this has the John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness issue of insanity, where the audience can’t really be convinced of one character’s mental hiccups when the movie isn’t told exclusively from his viewpoint. Not every scene has Quaid in it, just like not every scene in Carpenter’s flick has Sam Neil. Yes, it would be interesting to have that question, and it is a good idea, but the scifi action movie is a popular medium, an audience’s medium. The Philip k. Dick novel is not, certainly not in the year 1990, at least, or whenever this film was first brought to the studios – a guaranteed long time before release.

For all its charm, Total Recall was a troubled development. Of all people, David Cronenberg was attached to it, which to me is just wild. To think that Total Recall could’ve been more Naked Lunch than Commando is an intriguing thought, but if Cronenberg was to adapt any Dick I’ve read so far I hope it’d be Ubik: there’s plenty of body horror in that one, with all the people dissolving and the android bomb and the guy who eats people whole. I could see it. Unfortunately Cronenberg’s sort of gone in a different direction, but A Dangerous Method still looks amazing.

Anywho, Total Recall eventually (or perhaps always was, I don’t rekal) got the treatment of Dan O’Bannon, another cult favorite, also responsible for genre favorites like Return of the Living Dead and (funnily enough) Screamers. I don’t know who did this, but somebody along the way did something really cool to the short story, which for quick recap, is much simpler, and quite the good laugh, though a different brand of humor than “Consider that a divorce.” There is dedicated imagination in Total Recall; it’s filled with a great many ‘things.’ The number of inventive gadgets and SF elements is staggering, each unique and often offering a set piece or clever moment (bursting through X-Ray wall, for example) as cinematic application.

In addition, there’s an element of metanarrative here that I’ve always found interesting, and this seems to be a common theme in Arnold movies, from Commando to Last Action Hero, and even Terminator 3. At some point filmmakers realize that the Arnold movie can be a delicate art – one that’s self-aware. This isn’t quite like that, but references to a secret agent hero defeating the badguy and getting the girl in the end are made by Rekal yuppies, and there’s no better quintessential secret agent hero than the Arnold. Layers of unreality, I suppose – stories within stories.

Total Recall is bursting at the seams with stuff. One-liners and gratuitous violence galore, it’s a perfectly, characteristically paced Verhoeven action picture. We never move from scene to scene without a big set piece, without Michael Ironside or Dick Jones running and gunning through a rich world. The production design in Total Recall is pure joy. The interiors kind of remind me of the Citadel and other planets from Mass Effect, where alien landscapes are in plain view right out the windows. The mutant effects, from the vagina-face dude to Benny’s arm, are all charmingly practical makeup effects. The big vehicles and the weapons are cool, so it goes. Check this one – it’s a classic.

See you at the party, Richter.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

The prospect of a big bad Mass Effect movie is enough to get fanboys in a tiff, as there is some actual mythology there to be potentially ‘ruined,’ just like how after the abysmal sequel to Resident Evil (2002), they couldn’t make any more video-games. What a ruined brand, damn shame. Super Mario, also. As a fan of space opera when mixed with military SF elements, the Mass Effect universe was a natural fit for me, and I’d gladly watch a non-playable version. We haven’t really had video-game movies lately, and I must be the only one complaining about that, but some of the best games have yet to be attempted – Halo, Metal Gear Solid, Bioshock, (what ever happened to Joust, man?) etc.

If Mass Effect was adapted into a movie, I would be into it, so long as they don’t get another music video first timer dude to do most of the creative aspects. But as far as I’m concerned, the more stuff like Mass Effect the better – let’s expand this franchise to what Halo used to be. My one concern over the potential Mass Effect movie (I don’t want to keep using it in terms like it’s being made, not matter what IMDb.com might have you think) is the hero of the tale. Commander Shepard is a wonderful character in the way that the Transformers (2007) script is: he is able to satisfy many different demands without necessarily being deep, or… good, in a traditional sense. The renegade option makes him more a badass than a creepo (you can tell the writers had a good time with some of the dialogue), and his depth, of which there can be none as an RPG avatar, is offset by the supporting cast. Garrus is totally awesome.

But the problem here is that he, the male Shepard, is the default. My only complete playthroughs of either games. Have been with female Shepards, but she is not the default sex. The default Shepard, the one you see on the box, is modeled after a real person. FemShep, as it were, is not. There are many fans out there who choose the female Shepard over the male, and some of these reasons are silly (lesbian alien sex). Sometimes people just want to follow around a cute little buttocks. Some people find Jennifer Hale to be a better voice actress. I agree, she is pretty solid.

I prefer the female Shepard partly on principle. No lesbians – my Shepard got with Kaiden, which was a strange experience for me to hit on a guy. But at the end of it all I reasoned that there simply aren’t enough badass female characters in audio/visual science fiction, and markedly less in this neato space opera environment. To support this claim, I’d like to deconstruct some of the names people bring up when we say, strong female character.

Let’s start this off with an easy one. I love the Major just as much as I love her respective series, though to varying degrees based on which medium. Stand Alone Complex Major was highly entertaining to watch kick cyborg ass, and the movie character (in both films) was thought-provoking in premise, and intruiging in Innocence. But there are several reasons why she doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. 1) Masamune Shirow. 2) That episode in 2nd GIG where she was touring China with that little kid… creepy hotel scene with ambiguity in the English dub. 3) it’s debatable whether or not the nudity in the original film came about prominently because of the existentialist themes, or for fan service bullshit. The fact that it is debatable is deflating, and is rooted in number 1.

Now for a fan favorite, one I’ll never understand. Princess Leia from the ‘holy trilogy,’ is considered to be a classic strong female character in SF. I guess it’s kind of easy to figure out; the reason why good or positive or equal-to-or-greater-than-men female characters are rare as good weather in New England (zing) is because it’s written notoriously by nerds. Male nerds. Remember what Philip K. Dick said about his kind, the SF writers – they know little about science and their fiction is generally dreadful. Indeed, these people are people after all, not gods. I don’t know if you knew that. So I guess you can’t blame them entirely for the Princess Leia being totally lame, first a kidnapped princess to be rescued, then an object of cliche romance, and finally, and my favorite, a ‘sexy’ slave girl in the iconic metal bikini. At least she had compelling characterization to back it all up, of course.

The Matrix gets a lot of hate. But one element people never criticize is the only element I ever will: Trinity. A good, if shallow and hopelessly sidekicky character, she does the Kung Fu and motorcycle jumping, and this is a good thing. But just like a lot of The Matrix, she’s not original. She’s essentially a carbon copy of Molly from Neuromancer, in terms of appearance and role, despite lacking Freddy Kreuger cyber enhancements and Batou eyeglasseyes.

Mace from Strange Days. No complaints. Now we just need people to watch Strange Days.

I’d catch a grenade or jump in front of a train for a woman like Summer Glau, like that terrible song goes, though in reality she’s had to endure plenty of networks lobbing grenades at her time and time again – and I just stood by, helpless. Firefly is one of the great tragedies of TV and science-fiction, and while Terminator: SCC was alright, it still got cancelled. If you put Summer Glau in your show, two things will happen: I’ll perk up, it’ll get cancelled. So let’s look at one of her better known characters: River Tam from Firefly/Serenity. I saw Serenity first, and thought she was just a crazy kick-ass crazy girl, but Firefly showed me that no, she didn’t do the kung-fu all the time. Basically what we have here is this blank slate personality akin to the Major, but instead of being quietly philosophical or barking orders, her perogative is to alternate mumbling and screaming. And going back, the kung-fu kind of pisses me off. I don’t know why. Firefly didn’t exactly have the best female characters though, probably the worst being Inara, who was so blatantly eyecandy it was embarrasing. What the hell does high-class prostitution have to do with anything in this universe?

James Cameron knows how to combine women and robots without compromising either. Sarah Connor was badass enough to warrant her own TV show, and the adapted Ellen Ripley earned Sigourney Weaver a nomination at the Oscars. Even the Lindsay Briggs in The Abyss was more complicated than required by the premise of an exploratory underwater adventure. But Netyri is hell weak, man. Out of context, “you will never be one of the people,” is one of the worst lines ever. “You are like a baby!” on the other hand makes me chortle; the former is cringe-inducing.

Think of the great man characters filmed sci-fi has given us. First one that pops to my mind is Snake Plissken. Bit of a cliche, but totally owned by Kurt Russel. How about Han Solo? Everyone loves Han Solo. I got nothing bad to say there. He was essentially the cookiecutter Western genre badass, maybe a Man with No Name (or a Man with a Ridiculous Name) in space. But he gave back to SF, showing us that not every space opera needs black and white heroes, but even anti-heroes can be redeemed and sympathetic. He also gave us Malcolm Reynolds, the successor to the form.

Some people do however know how to write cool female characters. A more recent example is Eden Sinclair from Doomsday. Awesome movie, awesome actress, awesome name. Maj. Eden Sinclair is essentially just a better version of Snake (that says a lot, both Escape movies are stellar), but with a robot eyeball. I doubt I would have liked the movie as much if it had starred, I don’t know the guy from Dog Soldiers. Conversely, Dog Soldiers would have been more entertaining to me had it starred Rhona Mitra. Well isn’t that interesting? Probably not, I think I just appreciate Rhona Mitra as a screen presence.

Basically I’m just tired of science-fiction film and TV and video-games being a man’s only club. For the most part, women play supporting roles, and when they don’t, they are men without penises. I guess it’s a difficult thing to write a compelling or at least positive woman character for the average SF writer. I know I sure as fuck couldn’t do it – I don’t hang around women, I just choose to see them shoot up alien worlds on the televsion.

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