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Because It’s THRILLER, Thriller Night

As always, this past week I have neglected my family, friends and needy harem in favour of reckless media consumption. But  although I’ve enjoyed myself (Bastion is great, Prometheus is much better than everyone says it is, Transformers 3 is even worse than I thought it would be), I haven’t had any epiphanies of brilliant pop-culture insight. So rather than the usual diet of reviews, puns and murder allegories, today I’ll be talking about a subject important to every one of you: me. Namely, my own irrational phobias and fears. Although I hesitate to give the internet weapons to use against me, sometimes you have to write what you know, and what I know is shitting myself.

(Note that these will be irrational fears, so depressing, realistic fears like car crashes and cancer happening to my loved ones will not be on here. Although rest assured, I would definitely freeze all my loved ones in protective cryogenic suspension if I could.)

 

 

Snakes

Fear of snakes (ophidiophobia) isn’t uncommon. They’re not exactly loveable creatures – they’re extremely deadly, slimy reptiles that have all the worst characteristics of penises and are commonly blamed for women’s love of fresh fruit. Add to that, I live in Australia. We have seven out of ten of the world’s most poisonous snakes (including the top five), several of my friends have snake-bite scars, our culture thinks that the word ‘safety’ is Latin for ‘gay’. When I was six and we were developing our property, it was common to see Mum or Dad (or Grandma) coming down from the bushes carrying a dirty shovel and a decapitated snake corpse.

But my fear goes beyond any rational respect for snakes’ deadly nature. I’m not perturbed by the possibility of being bitten, I simply believe with all my soul that every snake, everywhere, ever, should be set on fire. Fuck snakes. I will catch spiders, I will play with lizards, I don’t have a problem with sharks or crocodiles or drop bears, but snakes are stealthy, aggressive, fast, deadly, snobbish (?) little strings of slithery death, and if I see one I will jump on the nearest raised surface and live there until the surroundings have been firebombed. Every nightmare I have had for the last decade has been about having to swim across a pool (or walk across a floor) that’s straight covered with snakes. I feel them slithering over me, I push through them and dodge around them, and I gradually realize that there’s a snake under each foot and hand, snakes just everywhere, and they all start biting me simultaneously.

Oh well. It depresses me that the one thing I can ever hope to share with Indiana Jones is his weakness.

 

 

Cups

Wait, hear me out. Have you heard of the SCP Foundation? It’s a really nifty little internet project (I’ll do a post about it at some point in the future) about a bureaucratic, morally ambiguous X-Files organization and the creepy shit (SCPs) it tries to contain. It’s good stuff, well-written and original… and then something like this fucker turns up (http://www.scp-wiki.net/scp-198).

It’s a cup that shapeshifts and teleports until you pick it up, whereupon it bonds with your skin and forces you to drink your own shit/piss/blood/worse until you die. Pretty basic horror stuff, right? Yeah, but ever since I read that, I suspect every cup in my house of being a demon.

I understand this is a ridiculous phobia to have, and there are much scarier things on that wiki (093, anyone?), but shit my macaroni, I use cups all the time, and what if I’m about to die drinking my own pee? I have thought long and hard, and I think there are very few worse ways to die than starving to death while choking on your own bodily fluids. I’ve never trusted inanimate objects, and now it seems very possible that they are actively plotting to torture me to death. Ever since I read that article, I’m very careful about where I place my cups and water bottles. I always remember where they are, and if I can’t remember leaving something there, I always grit my teeth a little before picking it up.

So yeah. At least it’s not like any other[1] common[2] household[3] objects[4] could be plotting to murder me, right?

 

 

Instant Horrible Tumours

Hear me out. So, you know what a gamma-ray burst[5] is, right? They’re narrow beams of radiation, usually emitted by supernovae, and they’re pretty frigging powerful – we can easily detect bursts that occur in other galaxies. The thing is, if a gamma-ray burst came straight for Earth… well, those things travel at the speed of light. We wouldn’t know about it until it hits.

So, say I’m going for my afternoon jog (ladies). Because I am hilariously unfit and unwell, I will often get dizzy (doctors). Instead of realizing that the ‘unable to breathe’ thing means I should slow down, I immediately assume that a gamma-ray burst has just hit Earth. Right now, massive tumours are expanding throughout my tissues, my organs blistering under the relentless barrage of radiation. I feel dizzy because my brain is melting under the baleful gaze of a dying alien sun. Any moment now, my head will be full of searing pain and I, along with the rest of the hemisphere, will collapse dead to the ground.

Of course, then I get home, have a shower and watch TV. So I probably haven’t undergone any interstellar radiation assassinations yet. But gamma-ray bursts are very possible, and unlike asteroid strikes or rogue black holes, almost impossible to predict or defend against. For example, WR 104 is a Wolf-Rayet star around 8000 light-years away. Some smart people[6] reckon that WR 104 is about ready to pop its electromagnetic load, and measuring its axis, any burst would be within 16 degrees of Earth. In other words, it’s the gun pointed at the head of the world.

Don’t worry, this is still an irrational fear. For all the smart people and money we pour into it, we really still know shit-all about astronomy and the universe, and the odds of 104 blowing during my lifetime is absolutely infinitesimal (good luck, my immortal cyborg children!). But tell that to me next time I get dizzy.

 

 

Strangers

Again, this is a pretty common (and even, sometimes, reasonable) fear. We don’t know randoms on the street, and as such we can’t necessarily trust them to not stab us in the eye sockets for our spare change. But my worries go beyond the usual ‘in a bad part of town, don’t make eye contact with the tattooed guy’ fears.

If I am walking around Brisbane, and I pass someone who isn’t a middle-aged, well-dressed female, I will assume they are planning to kill me. That’s just how I think. Oh, a businessman coughed while going to work? He probably just gave me ebola. That bag lady who probably owns seventeen cats? Yeah, she’s carrying a switchblade and she wants my bling (my bling being an empty wallet, a carrot and a $20 plastic watch). That young guy, fresh from the gym, who just boarded the train? He has machine guns in that backpack, and he is absolutely going to shoot up this entire train.

I assume that passing cars will suddenly swerve and run me over. I assume that anyone who isn’t a criminal is a disease carrier, and anyone who isn’t a disease carrier is an alien cyborg. I remember one night at 8 o’clock on King George Square (literally the most brightly-lit, well-trafficked spot in the city) I was approached by a 12-year-old boy, and I was ready to throw my backpack at him and sprint across the nearest road. It turned out he just wanted the time, but you see what I mean. Once you realize that Bad Guys look just like regular people, everyone is potentially a serial killer.

I’ve pretty much got this under control now. I accept that serial killers tend to avoid food courts and crowded footpaths at midday, I realize that despite my shapely physique and symmetrical features I’m not much of a rape target, and it’s been days since I switched train carriages because I thought those schoolkids looked ‘stabby’. Still, the paranoia remains within my psyche as a reminder of my even more paranoid past. And that leads me to something different – the one thing I will NEVER, ever be afraid of again:

 

 

I am unafraid of Heart Attacks

As you might have guessed for yourself by now, I’m not the most well-adjusted individual. So far, thank the Lord, I’ve managed to dodge any really life-destroying issues, but I’ve still dined extensively at the smorgasbord of psychological disorders. In 2010, my main affliction was panic attacks.

Everyone knows the term, and according to the Australian government[7], about a third of you will get a taste of one at some point in your lives. But what isn’t clear on WebMD is what the really bad ones are like. Really bad panic attacks show up randomly, for no reason, over a period of months. And they (or at least mine) feel exactly like heart attacks.

Well, like they’re supposed to feel, anyway. Your heart starts pulsing with pain, your left arm gets stiff, you feel your pulse and it’s all over the place. You get really, really light-headed, and if you don’t stick your head between your knees, you could very well pass out.

All this happens for a variety of reasons[8], and too many of the things can massively increase your susceptibility to real-life heart attacks. But I will never be scared of those. Why not?

Because I couldn’t make panic attacks go away. Counselling, medication, the handy distraction of my meth habit – they didn’t stop my heart from feeling like it was exploding every second day. So, I learnt to simply ignore it. Every time my chest clenched in agony and my brain started screaming “shit a brick, you’re about to die”, I gritted my teeth, reminded myself that this was the tenth ‘heart attack’ this week, and kept doing what I was doing. It took ages, and I’m pretty sure a less paranoid and irrational person could have cured themselves in a tenth of the time, but I learnt to just ignore simulated heart attacks. A few months after I stopped being such a gullible pussy, my brain finally packed it in and stopped sending the symptoms. Yay, mental health!

But my circuitous point is that I’m not afraid of heart problems anymore. Not because they’re not a threat to me or anything, but because I’ve taught myself, by torturous, rote practice, to just ignore them. File them away under the same category as unicorns and enjoyable Monopoly games. They’re not real. If (when, knowing my relationship with chocolate) the day comes that I actually do get a heart attack, I’ll probably be halfway to the floor before I realize that yes, I should alert somebody about this. So more jogging for me.

 

What’s the moral of the story? None, really. I’m a weird guy, snakes are evil, don’t trust your cups, and it is very difficult to learn about astronomy without becoming pointlessly suspicious of the night sky.

Look out for my next edition, More Space Shit That Is Right Above Your Head And Could Totally Kill You, But Probably Won’t, But Might. Coming soon to bookstores near you.

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Overcategorization

Science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you read too many essays in your spare time, or sci-fi, if you’re a barbarian) is a vast genre. I suppose that any genre is sufficiently broad when you over-think it, but I think SF goes beyond that – it includes everything from short, surreal parables like Harrison Bergeron to present-day, magic realism-esque works like Primer to galaxy-spanning, Tolkienishly detailed universes like Dune and The Culture. You have popular television, film and video games – compare the 90s shooter Doom to, say, The Matrix – and then you have the controversially SF, like post-apocalyptic, techno-fantasy such as Discworld, and steampunk fiction.

Man, that was dry and verbose. Listen, science fiction big. Different kinds of science fiction very different from each other, grunt grunt, go hunt mammoth.

Anyway. I think SF would get a lot more readers if it were easier to tell what kind of SF you were reading, so I’ve created/tweaked/blatantly copied a sorting algorithm for science fiction. (I also did it because I’m a neurotic mess who loves tables, graphs and straightening pens). I divide things by the GENRE, the HARDNESS and the STYLE.

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The GENRE is the kind of story it is. Pretty simple. Obviously this can overlap with other, non-Emmett-invented genres like romance, horror and noir.

Clarke: Relatively short, literary SF based around a single complex idea about technology, the future or human nature. A very concise, concentrated piece that says something novel about a technology or an attitude, often based around a ‘twist’. Named after the master himself.

For example, most of Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov’s short stories. Heck, most short SF stories in general (Vonnegut, Dick, Pohl…). Rarely shows up outside the written word, although 2001: A Space Odyssey, Moon, the TV series Dollhouse and, arguably, the film Sunshine are all (excellent) exceptions.

Space Cadet: SF focused on space flight, politics and war within the next 50-100 years, adopting a hyperrealistic attitude, often overlapping with rocketpunk.

For example, most 50s and 60s literature. Rare in other media. Smith’s Lensman series, most of Heinlein and Corbett’s work, and the old Buck Rogers pulp are examples.

Wagon Train: Episodic SF where a group of adventurers regularly encounter new planets/races/alien menaces, and defeat them through a combination of heroism and intelligence.

The original Star Trek invented it, and every SF television series since has been at least partially Wagon Train as a result. Most Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica and even Babylon 5 are examples.

Arc opera: long-running, often high-concept SF that tells a long, complex story involving multiple arcs and many characters. Usually combines elements of Clarke and Tale Opera.

For example, Babylon 5, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Dune series, most modern literary SF (Hamilton, Niven, Reynolds, Haldeman etc), and more debatably, Discworld.

Tale opera: short, self-contained SF (like Clarke), but instead of illustrating a single ‘clever’ idea about the future/human nature, instead focuses on telling a traditional story with normal characters and themes, but set in the future. Sometimes not considered ‘real’ SF, but this doesn’t make it bad.

For example, Firefly, Star Wars, Transformers, the vast majority of SF movies.

 

 

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The HARDNESS is, basically, how realistic the SF is. Bearing in mind that being unrealistic does not make something bad, I modified TVTrope’s Mohs Scale, seen here[1]. Note that ‘handwavium’ is any technology invented when the writer waved his hands and said ‘we need it for the plot to go forward’.

Water – no particular attention paid to science as we know it, or internal consistency. For example, Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Transformers.

Plastic – little regard for science as we know it with lots of handwavium, but with some internal consistency. For example, Star Wars and Discworld.

Wood – decent amounts of handwavium, but with a decent attempt at internal consistency, and attempts to link with existing laws of science. Star Trek started out here, but has descended to Plastic over the years; most TV, video game and film SF falls here.

Iron – one or two carefully thought-out pieces of handwavium, and an otherwise sincere attempt at realism. Most good literary SF falls here, as well as Dollhouse, Primer, Blade Runner, 2001, Terminator and many other good films.

Diamond – no handwavium or other undiscovered/probably impossible things at all. Very rare in popular culture (Apollo 13 is the only one I can think of) although more present in Space Cadet and Clarke literature.

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The STYLE is like the visual aesthetic. It’s not that important to the guts of the story, but it affects what the reader pictures in their head… at this stage, I’m just being neurotic.

Spires and Togas: the idea of an idyllic, utopian, ludicrously advanced society where everyone lounges around all day like Romans, far above the petty concerns of modern-day humans. Showed up a bit in Star Trek and Babylon 5, as well as a lot of Asimov’s literature.

Biopunk: an emphasis on cloning, genetic engineering and biotechnology. More modern stuff tends towards this, ranging from the conservative (The Island, Michael Crichton’s works) to the fantastical (Peter Hamilton).

Rocketpunk: an emphasis on realistic, nuclear-powered space travel, often with little computer technology and a 50s-style culture. Generally found in Space Cadet works. Heinlein and Doc Smith

Postgothic: a gothic, surrealist setting with deliberately arcane, intricate and evocative technologies and settings, often with an emphasis on horror stories. Reynold’s novels, and some of Vonnegut’s stuff.

Cyberpunk: technologies based around virtual realities, cybernetic modification and advanced computers. The Matrix, for example, as well as the vast majority of authors at one point or another.

Neon Lights: an overabundance of neon holograms, simplistic but shiny interfaces and disco-ish settings. Mass Effect, Deus Ex and a bit in the Star Wars prequels.

Presteam: cultures and races that resemble or play off pre-Industrial Revolution Earth, and in general is less ‘high technology’ and more ‘very imaginative fantasy’. The Dune novels are a triumphant example, and Star Trek wandered into this occasionally as well.

Alternate History: Exactly what it says on the tin. Harry Turtledove is the undisputed master, although John Birmingham isn’t too bad.

Weirdnow: Basically the world and technology of today, but with one or two important technological or cultural differences. Almost unseen on television apart from Dollhouse, but most authors hit this at some point, and many movies, from The Thirteenth Floor to Terminator, stray into this.

Military-Industrial: the future is gunmetal-grey, riveted and named things like ‘M955 Vulture, 62mm’. Halo, Avatar and Aliens are particularly explicit examples.

To Boldly Stay Here

I’m an out-and-proud nerd. I get offended by continuity errors, I could write a thesis on why the Harry Potter universe is unbelievably sinister, and I take Batman’s name in vain. I can tell you the exact capabilities of each generation of Power Ring, and the KE of the Death Star turbolaser blast. I try not to discriminate, but when it comes down to it, my first and only love is science fiction. I kidnap and strap down drifters purely to lecture them on the visionary genius of Heinlein and Doc Smith. I will stab you if say the 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner movies were better than the original books. I calculate my own delta-v ratios, and cannot understand why other writers don’t. But I am deeply sorry. Contradictory as it may seem, insane as it may be, I have fallen short of my contractual obligations as a science fiction nerd, in that I’m not particularly crazy about Star Trek.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the universe, I remain genuinely scared by the Borg, and the fact that I can’t do Spock’s ‘live long and prosper’ gesture is one of my deepest regrets. But when it comes right down to it, Star Trek doesn’t bring a lot to the table. Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Lexx, Stargate SG-1… even Farscape and the odd Macross episode kick its ass back to the Delta Quadrant. Nonetheless, I add one caveat to the above heresy. No matter what can be said about the other series and movies, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (henceforth DS9) is a damn, damn good show.

Poor ol’ DS9 is the dark horse of the series. EVERYONE’s heard of Kirk and Spock, and most people remember Captain Picard and the red-and-black uniforms of the The Next Generation, but absolutely none of the laity remember Deep Space Nine. And I find that about as fair as Harvey Dent’s judicial reasoning.

The original series (Kirk, Spock et al) was an utterly irreplaceable trailblazer. It changed the face of television and science fiction. But as an actual show? Try and watch a single episode – cardboard sets, stop-motion aliens, William Shatner enunciating, William Shatner flirting, William Shatner trying to throw punches with more energy than an aggressive snail – and tell me it still holds up. The Next Generation fixed up the production values and acting, but suffered from generally average writing and philosophising with all the grace and logic of a rhino in roller skates. As for Voyager, Enterprise, most of the movies… good ideas always let down by average acting and worse writing. But DS9 stands as a beacon of great writing, acting and production values. It’s a great show, not just by Trekkie standards, but by the standards of regular, gamete-possessing human beings as well. Here are some reasons why.

Hello, Unfortunate Implications

Unfortunate implications are when you think about a show too hard, and you realize that some awful thing must have happened in-universe to provide the happy ending you just saw. Like how the Jetsons takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and Neo killed a whole bunch of completely innocent cops. Star Trek has always been absolutely rife with them, mainly because Gene Roddenberry was that dangerous creature: a starry-eyed idealist without any practical intelligence whatsoever. The ‘ideal society’ of the 24th century has more holes than my member after that unfortunate threshing accident. They’d take me forever to go through (if you’re interested, check out these sites, and then marry me), but a few include:

  • Large-scale social brainwashing
  • Military control of government
  • Completely state-owned transport and communications
  • End of religious freedom
  • Institutionalised suicide, cloning, racism and slavery
  • Too much Shakespeare

It really grates on a viewer who thinks hard about the show, and when you’re dealing with people who willingly wear Spock ears in public, you need to prepare for that eventuality.

But DS9 didn’t stick its fingers in its ears and mumble something about the deflector grid; to a large degree, a degree never since repeated, it pulled up its skirt, strapped itself in and took on the Unfortunate Implications head-on.

The Federation seems a lot like a police state? That’s because it kind of is, and that’s a big moral conflict for some of the main characters. The Next Generation‘s unsustainable attitudes to religion, racism and slavery are generally overturned, and the stupid Shakespeare-based monoculture is similarly removed. On DS9, men are still men. They get smashed, go to brothels, carry guns that don’t look like women’s electric shavers and they treat other races and religions slightly more respectfully than the conquistadors. This is best summed up by the scene in the first season where Q – the capricious demigod who’s been messing with the stoic Picard of TNG for seven years – rocks up and tries to play his games with Deep Space Nine’s captain, Sisko. Instead of quoting Hamlet or engaging in philosophical debate, Sisko punches Q in the face. Which neatly brings me to…

Ben Motherfucking Sisko

Captain Kirk was a caricature of a caricature of William Shatner’s personal fanfic. He was awesome, but he also acted by yelling random words, was a walking incubator for several thousand alien STDs, and fought like he was falling asleep in jello. Picard was acted by the treasured Patrick Stewart, but as I alluded to above, he was more of a pussy than my kitten’s vagina.

Sisko was a real, complex, sympathetic character who also happened to be a total badass. His negotiation strategy was to stare unblinkingly at his opponent, speak very softly and deeply for a few minutes, and then yell with all the combined rage of Liam Neeson, the Hulk and people on 4chan. His best friend was a seedy old man in the body of a teenage girl, he considered extortion roughly equivalent to a handshake, and he pulled off a goatee. He made morally grey decisions, was put in no-win situations, and he somehow pulled through. He actually had a character arc, which brings me to…

So That’s What We Pay Actors For

‘Duet’. ‘The Visitor’. ‘Crossfire’. ‘Hard Time’. ‘Shadows and Symbols’. ‘Far Beyond the Stars’. While we have established that I am quite a wimp, DS9 is still the only Trek that has ever made me cry.

Avery Brooks (Ben Motherfucking Sisko, above), and much of the rest of the cast – Nana Visitor, Rene Auberjonois, Andrew Robinson, Marc Alaimo – are good at their trade. They emote. They have complex, well-developed characters that change over time in response to events. It sounds like such an obvious thing, but it’s surprisingly rare, even in the best shows, that so many simple elements come together to form a groundbreaking, heartwrenching whole. I could have watched these people for another seven years. I would marry Major Kira, if she was human, and in the 21st century, and not fictional. DS9 ran 178 40-minute episodes during its run, and over that whole period, characters grew in organic, worryingly relatable ways, like particularly charismatic warts.

War, What Is It Good For

Trek is episodic. Trek almost invented episodic science fiction. TOS, TNG, Voyager and Enterprise all have a new plot every episode, with very few overarching threads. It made sense; spaceship goes to new planet every week (which somehow always looked like southern California). They meet new aliens every week (which somehow always looked like Californians with rubbery facial tumours). Crew fixes problem, flies off. Not so with DS9.

Set on a space station (the titular Deep Space Nine), it was difficult for Sisko and crew to go somewhere new every week. Plots came to them, because the station was positioned on a diplomatically, militarily and economically critical point of space. And that naturally led to overarching plots – the Prophets, and the Dominion War.

For the first and only time, we saw a full-scale war in the Star Trek universe. It justly stomped on Roddenberry’s inconsistent pacifism. It made a decent attempt at showing the horrors of war (not being a HBO show, this basically meant ‘explain the horrors of war to the camera, and then show us one ambiguously dead body’, but oh well). It gave us lots of pretty explosions. It was good, especially considering the other series’ approach to interstellar warfare (Picard preferred Eat, Pray, Love to The Art of War, and nobody told Kirk that he couldn’t punch or seduce his way out of a starship fight). Sure, Star Trek ground combat still consists of bayonet charges and dramatic stares, but it was an improvement.

And the Prophets arc… well, it’s difficult to talk about without spoilers. Suffice to say that in a lot of science fiction television, religion is either quietly slid under the table (Doctor Who) or strapped to the table and eaten for breakfast (The Next Generation, Supernatural). By using a made-up and thus inoffensive faith, DS9 was able to give us a mature science fiction interpretation of the issues involved. It was cleverly done, inoffensive yet piercing, intelligently critical, and left ambiguous enough to get the mental gears turning. Oh, and I guess it was good writing and characterisation and everything, too.

Anyway, that was a bit heavy, and difficult to elaborate on without spoiling some of the best televised science fiction ever (‘In the Pale Moonlight, anyone?). So my final recommendation would be:

Shitballs, That Is Some Inspirational Music.

Listen to the theme (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORp0T6zYByM). Just listen to it. Soak up those swelling notes, the layered chords, the little swoosh of the spaceship at the end. Doesn’t that make you want to get out there and get trapped in a satire of James Bond films, be framed as the Roswell aliens, shapeshift into a marital aid, recreate Das Boot in the atmosphere of a gas giant, be hit on by an omnipotent being, become emperor of your entire race because you assassinated the last emperor, track down and destroy Willie Mays to save the universe, promote a random supporting character to leader of the Revolution, meet your goateed evil counterpart, travel back in time and infiltrate Captain Kirk’s crew, render several planets uninhabitable and have freaky energy-creature-cloud-glowy-mist-thing sex?

Maybe it’s just me.

Vrrrrrrrmmmm, vrrrrmm, VREEEEKSSH

“And then he woke up and it was all a dream.”

NO. Bad. Bad, bad, bad writing. The ‘it was all in his head’ schtick means that everything that just happened was irrelevant. You’ve just outdone my twelve-hour marathon of Dane Cook shorts and won at Wasting People’s Time.  If the plot and character development was all nonsense, then I may as well have just spent the time knitting my own tampons (I am male, thus accentuating the pointlessness of this activity). This isn’t a writer’s crutch, it’s a writer’s $20000 robotic wheelchair.

So why, oh why, does Driver: San Francisco not piss me right off? Let me answer that question with a question: how long has it been since you made explosion sound effects with your mouth? Since you made a ‘ka-ba-booosh’ noise, loudly, in front of other people, without any shame at all? My answer is “maybe ten minutes ago”. Because of Driver: San Francisco.

Maybe I should take a deep breath, replace the filter between my brain and the keyboard, and explain.

Driver: San Francisco is (surprise!) a driving game set in San Francisco. You play John Tanner, a detective whose job description seems to be ‘test the city’s lamp post durability with your front bumper.’ And you get put in a coma within ten minutes of the game’s storyline. The rest of the game is explicitly a dream you have in a coma. 99% of the game is inside your head. It Was All a Dream. Bullshit Plot Point #001.

So why did I really enjoy this game?

As I alluded to above, it’s not for any higher, plot-based reasons. The writer thought that a ‘theme’ is one of the noises a turbocharger can make. There fewer plot twists than twisters, and the game does not feature tornadoes. And let me summarize the named characters: there’s White Guy, Black Guy, Scowling Guy and Hot Chick.

So no, it’s not any transcendent writer’s genius that lets me forgive the bullshit coma-dream business. It’s the raw, primal, animal satisfaction of the gameplay.

You see, with the justification that Everything Is a Dream, John Tanner (White Guy) gains the ability to body-hop into almost any car on the road. You don’t do Grand Theft Auto-style carjacking or walking around when you need a new ride. You float right on up out of your body and possess the crap out of the nearest soccer mum. And this poorly-justified little superpower instantly makes Driver the best driving game I’ve ever played.

With the ability to flick between cars at will, an entire new paradigm of movement is opened up. You’re not just another chump behind the wheel, you are any chump behind any wheel. In a street race? Park a semi trailer across the road and trap the other racers in a dead end. Chasing down a perp? Shift back and forth between the various police cars – every time you spin out or crash, you grab the nearest vehicle and keep driving. Trying to crash an enemy? Don’t nuzzle them tenderly with your bumper like you’re a dog meeting new dogs’ assholes – shift into that gas tanker in the oncoming lane and ram that enemy head-on.

Body-hopping opens up an incredible range of possible strategies, but I always seem to come back to ‘grab an oncoming truck and initiate an 8-lane pileup’.

And it is incredibly, cathartically, cartoonishly awesome.

Cars spin out and flip like drunken ballerinas. Shattered glass, sheets of metal and loose tires fly across the road. When you drive a car off a ramp truck – and you will, at least twice a minute – it slams down onto the ground like your shits shouldn’t.

Everything about Driver cultivates an atmosphere of innocent, happy, gut-level satisfaction. Pedestrians duck out of your way with Jedi reflexes, and seatbelts may as well be the protective arms of an angel, because nobody ever dies in the game. The streets of San Fran are sunny, bright and full to bursting with gleaming metal speed machines, just waiting for you to hijack and destroy them. The graphics are wonderful (for a console game, anyway). Even the writing gets in on the fun –while the main plot is, as hinted above, almost worthless, John Tanner is actually a pretty likeable guy. He’s a bit of an irresponsible dick, just like most video gamers when there’s a controller in their hands, and he causes all this mayhem with an unstoppable sense of humour. To give you some idea, the first thing he does when he discovers his body-hopping power is to shift into the body of a learner driver, before trying to give the instructor a heart attack by ramping off everything in sight. He’s a pretty cool guy.

Much like in real life, smashing into smart cars head-on helps me forget a lot of other problems. The physics are a little wonky, there are a lot of invisible walls, and again, the main plot is fucking stupid. But when it comes down to it, I love flinging school buses into the oncoming lane like I’m playing darts. And so long as the state government keeps rejecting my bus driver application, Driver will always have a place in my heart.

And Now For Some Motivation

Peter Singer, one of Australia’s most notable philosophers and professional awful person[1], argued that any privileging of human beings above animals is nothing more than irrational ‘speciesism’, in a way analogous to racism or sexism. To absolutely butcher his complex (and admittedly, not totally stupid) arguments, he said that humans aren’t all that special.

While such an extreme stance is rare, this message is often restated and supported in popular culture, and especially by environmentalist groups. Not trying to be overly political, but a common theme is that Mother Nature (or the simply ‘the environment’) is far older and more impressive than the human race. When humans damage the environment, they’re casually going against the very rhythm of life itself – they are acting unnaturally and immorally, because humans are not more special than nature as a whole. You can see this in countless films, from Avatar to Disney’s entire production history to even The Matrix.

And I, for one, will stand up and say, “that’s bullshit.” Humanity isn’t special. We’re the specialest. We’re King Special of the Special District of Specialvania, and that isn’t just because I happen to be a human. It is an objective fact.

Before I descend into crazed ranting, let me add the proviso that I am not a closet global-warming sympathizer. I am not a fan of killing the biosphere or pointlessly executing endangered species (except for pandas of course. Fuck pandas). But the idea that mankind isn’t particularly impressive to Mother Nature, or that our environmental rampages are somehow ‘unnatural’, is just plain wrong.

As a science fiction reader (and occasionally writer) since an early age, I’ve always had difficulty distinguishing between different human groups. Patriotism never made much sense to me – why are we concerned with these utterly arbitrary geographic divisions, when we are all one species, united against the hungry Tyranid hordes/encroaching Borg collective/Vogon Destructor Fleet? I’ve always thought of the universe as homo sapiens vs Everything Else. And so far, we aren’t so much winning that fight as fisting Everything Else’s wife over his decapitated, desecrated and amusingly decorated corpse.

First, we have the obvious advantage over every other being in the known universe – sapience. Discounting unproven entities, we’re the only ones who can think, talk, feel, make Youtube videos of Star Wars characters lip-synching to pop songs[2] and design aeroplanes. Our intellectual superiority – and from that our language, society-building, ethics and Simpsons episodes – is completely unique, and unquestionably vital. But I’m not actually going to talk about sapience. Partially because it’s been said better by smarter people, and partially because I want to finish this and watch Community, but mostly because that’s not the point I’m trying to make. Singer, and the general ‘Mother Nature is vast and ancient and good’ lobby, already know humans are smart. I just want to talk about how, culture and philosophies aside, we are the best animals.

We are the best animals. By that I mean that we are the ‘best’ at surviving, prospering and developing., per Darwin’s venerable thesis. Homo sapiens are, by the standards of natural selection itself, the best creatures in the known universe.

It’s common to think of us people as pathetic weaklings in comparison to the rest of the animal kingdom; that the only thing that keeps us alive is our mighty brains. Well, as several millennia of grunting cavemen would tell you, that’s not exactly true.

Humans are proof that ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ is not an insult. Ignoring our big craniums and sesquipedalian loquaciousness, we are probably the most versatile and adaptable beings on the planet. Sure, plenty of creatures can run, climb, swim and fight better than us, but is there a single one that can match us in all of those categories? Our endothermic nature means that we can live almost anywhere on the planet, even without the advantage of clothing. We can eat pretty much anything – mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, insects, fruit, figs and roots are all fair game to the human digestive system[3], while most animals are stuck with just one or two foods that they’re perfectly adapted to eat (anteaters, anyone? It’s in their name). In cases where we can’t outrun, outclimb or hide from a predator – which is pretty fucking rare – we aren’t too bad in a fight. Very few animals have human levels of agility, flexibility and adrenaline reserves. Hell, we have as much muscle tissue as a male Jaguar! Sure, a chimpanzee or great ape might be able to lift more than us, but they’re poor walkers, they can’t punch, and they can barely swim. Our various tendons are much looser than comparable primates, letting us throw things with great accuracy, keep our heads level while sprinting…

I could go on like this forever. The human body is a powerful, efficient, versatile self-repairing machine that makes traditionally ‘better’ animals, from cats to sharks, look like retarded paraplegic gerbils. Do you know what ‘persistence hunting’ is[4]? It’s how a lot of early humans probably hunted big prey, before the invention of flint-tipped spears and fire. A group of hunters would spot something big, herbivore or not, and chase it. And chase it. And chase it. They would track that wildebeest, at walking, jogging or running pace, for hours or even days. Because of our ability to sweat and our ridiculously efficient muscles, tribes like the Tarahumara[5] can chase big herbivores on and on through the Mexican desert, until the prey just couldn’t keep running. An easy kill. Horses are some of the only other animals that can sweat – nearly everything other mammal, from cheetahs to gazelles, need to stop and pant after a while. Boom. Caveman lunch.

And if we become lunch? Well, there’s a reason most of you are reading this with porn up in another tab. We make babies like they’re going out of style (they’re not), we don’t slow down even when there is literally not enough food to keep us all alive, and we unquestionably have the most fun while doing it[6]. Good work, random animal. You killed a couple of humans. There are billions of us, which is just a stupidly huge number. That’s part of what makes fictional apocalypses so unconvincing to me. I actually crunched the numbers on a Borg assimilation of Earth with one cube (because I am a level 100 nerd), and you know what? They can’t do it. Even if we offer almost no resistance (because it’s futile), ten thousand Borg assimilating is slower than six billion humans fucking. Same with a zombie virus – they can infect us as much as they like, but even if it takes ten humans to kill a single zombie (it doesn’t), they will lose the numbers game.

We are precisely forged, perfectly honed survival machines, and I’m sick of hearing that Mother Nature (or a fictional apocalypse) is more powerful or more perfect than us. You know what? That bitch made us, and we are much, much better than her.

And it did not work out for her when she tried to kill us.

That’s the trouble with labelling human expansionism and environmental destruction as ‘unnatural’. I should disclaim again that I don’t support irrational tree-clearing or emission-emitting. But the argument that it’s against the grain of nature is bullshit. Animals eat what they can, fuck like Keith Richards and kill anything that looks at them funny, and humans are the best at being animals. Nearly all of our destructive (and self-destructive) behaviour has an analogue in the animal kingdom. Beavers mess up ecosystems with their dams, overpowered predators like eagles can devastate food chains without competition, and a whole gamut of creatures, from termites to baboons, war with each other, rape each other and kill each other pointlessly[7]. It isn’t unnatural to be an abusive, inconsiderate shithead of an organism – that’s the most natural thing imaginable! We are just TOO DAMN GOOD at it.

We’re so good at being animals, we destroyed the balance. We broke the game. We’re the BFG-9000, noclip mode, we’re the accountant playing Monopoly with his toddlers. Normally when an animal messes with the balance, everything else adapts to compensate, through thousands of years of evolution. But homo sapiens didn’t give nature anywhere near enough time. We wiped out countless large herbivores across the globe, from mammoths to bison[8], and then learned how to plant crops and become totally independent. We moved out of Mother Nature’s house just as she tried to cut us off. Don’t even get me started on the other boons of sapience and technology. After a few thousand years of eat, fucking and killing, mankind isn’t so much on top of the food chain as making up whatever sort of chain we damn well please. We have created a world where it’s not just the fittest who survive – we’ve created a world where anyone, from the weak to the sick to the disabled, can often have a fighting chance to not just survive, but be happy for a significant portion of their lives. When you consider what happens to the weaklings of Mother Nature’s herd, you start to realize just how much of an improvement that is. We have created a world where, for some, happiness and emotional fulfilment are actually more pressing concerns than survival.

So, don’t kill the environment. Not because it’s unnatural or offensive to Gaia or because Eywa will send a horde of space rhinos to trample you, but because you’re better than that. You are a human with power and smarts and potential, and you are good enough to duck out of Mother Nature’s bloody, awful game and be nice.

One man (or woman) is a special, beautiful, and absurdly overpowered animal, and is either the only sapient being in light-years, the favoured child of a loving God, or a god himself.

Six billion humans are the endgame of Mother Nature, the wondrous repository of all philosophy, morality and superhero movies, and taken together, they have a good chance of surviving almost anything the universe can throw at them (jinx).

No matter what your belief system, be proud to be human. Every stranger you pass in the street is the evolutionary equivalent of the atomic bomb, and humans invented atomic bombs. Save the environment because logic or your conscience says that’s the right thing to do, not because nature is somehow better than us.

And if you accuse me of being speciesist, congratulations on being human, because we are the only beings smart enough to invent a concept as retarded as speciesism.

“Kingdom animalia, Phylum chordata

Class is mammalian, cuz boobies, we gotta

Order is primates, Family hominidae

Genus is homo, but you know you’re in to me

cuz I am the species, known as sapien

Dogs used to eat me, but now they bring the paper in.”

-Troy and Abed, delivering the rallying cry for mankind.

Don’t Fear the Reaper

I was pretty gay when I played Mass Effect 3.

Because the male voice actor is terrible, I elected to play a female Galaxy-Saving, Alien-Vanquishing, Reporter-Punching Shepard way back in the first Mass Effect. I’ve stuck with her since, and over the last five years she and I have wound up in the strong, comforting arms of a man. Well, a male – Garrus Vakarian.

Telling someone you have a spouse in a video game is equivalent to putting on clown makeup and licking their hair. Much like my collection of formaldehyde-preserved body parts, it makes most people uncomfortable when discussed. You don’t get this with other media – if you like romance in video games, it’s implied that you squat over the faces of sleeping teens. If you like romance in movies, you’re normal, or Katherine Heigl. I understand this divide. Video games are unique in that they put you in the position of the character. You aren’t watching Spider-Man, you are Spider-Man. And so when my Commander Shepard finds love with Garrus, I’m not just watching. It’s me in a passionate embrace with that bony, bird-faced Dirty Harry.

I understand if you now want to keep me away from your children at all costs. But I think that this says something really good about video games as a medium.

Understand that as me, I have no chemical investment in this relationship. Garrus is a PTSD-suffering alien with a face like an armoured eagle, a voice like Christian Bale’s Batman speaking through shoddy autotune, and a body like a suit of armour, because he never takes off his armour. There are no sex scenes, at least not for this couple. The culmination of our relationship was in drab conversation. Heck, I have little interest in romance. I mean, I tolerate it when done well – TV gets it right more often than movies – but like most Y-chromosomes, I’ll only watch romcoms at gunpoint.

And yet.

And yet, in a pretty gay way, I really did care about Garrus. Our ‘courting’ (by which I mean flirtatious one-liners in the middle of a laser gunfight) was touching, in a totally non-serial-killer way. He was a believable, complex character, with a lot of good qualities. So many good qualities that I, as a male human, was able to appreciate him as a male space monstrosity.

This is the reason Mass Effect lives in my heart (not a serial killer). Because, more so than most novels, I truly cared about the characters. Garrus, Liara, Tali, Mordin, Joker, Wrex, EDI, Anderson… even Jack. I could list these guys all day. Just writing their names makes everything turn sepia and gives me an emotional flashback set to something Adelle (or in Grunt’s case, Nordic death metal). I really did, and still do, give a shit.

Mass Effect 3 was some perverse Tale of Two Cities. The storytelling was both some of the best and the worst I’ve ever seen in a game. It was in the little character moments that it shone – seeing how much Jack has changed for the better, Mordin’s quips, your crew getting drunk before the big fight. And it was in other moments that it fell – pointless, commercialized character redesigns. Plot holes that serve no purpose other than to squeeze in another explosion. The Rachni-fucking endings.

This isn’t a review. I’m not sure I could write one – the game’s quality is undeniable, and for fans of the series, it’s simply essential to get any degree of closure. But EA, big business and corporate greed (I’m such a dirty lefty) have fucked it up in an integral way, in the way that hurts the most to fans like us, fans who really invest in these electronic friendships and romances and the contents of future technology owner’s manuals.

I just want to put out my two cents’ worth. Mass Effect 3 is a great shooter, with simultaneously wonderful and abysmal storytelling, and the ending fucks its fans even more than when the Aliens vs Predator Collector’s Edition shipped with a barbed dildo. But more than that, it’s an important symbol of the advantage of interactive media, of making the audience into the protagonist. It made fear for the mental health of my purple-clad, impossibly-accented mechanic as she drowned her sorrows. It made me truly happy for a guy with brittle bone disease when he got lucky with the spaceship. It made me fucking cry when my orange-faced, hyperactive scientist went out with a bang.

The series was and is great because of emotional moments like that. If Bioware and EA had remembered that, maybe ME3 would have been Game of the Year rather than Emotional Betrayal of My Life (exaggeration).

As it is, I hope that Garrus can move on from me. I just want him to be happy…

This is Really Long, and I Could Have Gone On

Because saving Hitler’s life was so popular, I’m going back to that old SF standby, time travel. More specifically, the Terminator films.

You should be hearing a DUN DUN DUN DUN-DUN DUN in your head right now. And if you didn’t, this will probably bore you to tears, because I’m about to go on, on and fucking on about those films.

 

Now, backwards time travel is inherently paradoxical. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s impossible – logic doesn’t work too well in quantum physics either – but it does mean that time travel movies never make much sense. With the possible exception of Primer, but if you understood Primer the first time through, you are clearly an omniscient mathematical savant who is currently reading blogs on the internet rather than working at CERN or counting the number of clouds in the sky or something (I don’t understand how maths works).

But anyway, Terminator gets a lot of grief as making even less sense than the norm. There’s this Cracked article[1], and the Headscratchers[2] page on TV Tropes is 78 motherfucking pages long. It flaunts the Grandfather paradox, the consistent causal loop paradox, the inconsistent causal loop paradox, and the Why Is That Dude Naked When He Can Clearly Make His Skin Into Clothes paradox. Don’t even get me started on the divisions between the TV series, the third movie, and the Sam Worthington Tries to Act movie.

 

But I love nude Arnold Schwarzenegger, I love trench coats and sawed-off shotguns, and I love Terminator. I have come to stand in its defense. Come with me if you want to make sense of ridiculous action movies (ha, ha, please don’t hurt me).

 

I stand, and say that Terminator makes EXACTLY as much sense as it should. Or, it makes perfect sense that it doesn’t make sense.

 

 

I may need to back that up.

If you remember my article about Killing Hitler Early, you know there are many popular interpretations of how time travel would work[3].

Terminator has a lot of conflicting evidence about just how Skynet’s time travel devices (I dub them the RETARDISes) work. Terminator 1 seems to be a closed causal loop, as per Stephen Hawking’s idea. Terminator 2 seems to be a Reset Button (inconsistent causal loop) version, where the old future was destroyed and they managed to create a new one. Terminator 3 and Salvation were fucking stupid, but they indicated some weird version of a closed causal loop, or perhaps the Many Worlds Theory.

And the very underrated TV show, Chronicles, seemed to be either Many Worlds or Reset Button. Now obviously, no matter which you pick, you’re going to run into plot holes somewhere down the line. Most people choose Many Worlds, and assume that each film takes place in a different timeline, created each time a RETARDIS is used.

 

I’m going to take a second out from this, and explain what I think the future of the Terminator universe looks like.

Each film except Salvation makes it clear that humanity is kicking Skynet’s fucking ass by the time the RETARDIS is invented. This makes perfect logical sense – as per NATO’s mid-1980s predictions[4], a full-scale nuke fight during the height of the Cold War would have killed off ‘just’ around 3 billion people, over a 10-year period. That leaves over 3 billion humans left over, and all Skynet has are a few drone aircraft, a handful of surviving robotic factories and some satellites. John Conner’s eventual victory would be hard-won, but ultimately unsurprising.

So Skynet invents the RETARDISes, and starts sending its infiltrator units back in time to wipe out human leaders. This isn’t a bad plan – without strong leadership, most of mankind might not even realize that Skynet was behind the attacks, or even that it exists. But here’s the kicker. RETARDISes clearly DON’T do Many Worlds time travel, because if they did, there would be no point in sending Terminators back in the first place. Skynet will still be destroyed in the original time line, and computers are simply not sentimental enough to care about the fate of another timeline’s Skynet. This leaves us with one option. It jibes with most of what we’ve seen, and it explains exactly why the series has so many plot holes.

Every RETARDIS is one giant Reset Button.

 

Every time someone is sent back in time, the entire future changes. No additional timelines are created – there is just one timeline, and it is in a constant state of flux. What is true one day may not be true the next.

RETARDISes are the equivalent of a nuke – they totally changed the nature of warfare. Sending agents back in time becomes a gamble – you know that the moment you hit that button on your RETARDIS, reality is going to shift around you. You’re hoping that it will shift to favour your side.

This explains why Kyle Reese’s story of the future was wrong. Due to all the time travel of the first two movies, the future was changed drastically. Not enough to prevent the Metalpocalypse, but not in Skynet’s favour either, because they sent the T-X back to kill John Connor and Claire Danes in T3.

‘But what about Chronicles,’ you ask. ‘T3 ended with Judgment Day happening. Doesn’t Chronicles thus have to be an alternate timeline, proving the Many Worlds theory?’

Well, helpfully incorrect hypothetical questioner, not necessarily. T3 happened, Judgement Day happened… and clearly the future humans managed to send someone back to destroy the military Skynet of T3. We didn’t see this, but that prevented the events of T3 from occurring, and the events of Chronicles happened instead.

 

And this is where this theory is proved. Because Chronicles features several time travellers, coming back at different points in the past, from different points in the future, for a variety of different reasons. And explicitly, the future is different every time.

There are no multiple timelines. There is just one, and for every soldier sent back to the 21st or 20th centuries, that future changes radically.

 

Judgment Day’s date is constantly shifting. Humanity’s success against Skynet is constantly changing. The very technology Skynet has access to is constantly changing – this might explain why there were no lasers in Salvation, because someone killed their inventors or blew up an important factory or something.

 

Do you get how much that changes the nature of war? Defeats can be turned into victories. Resources can be secured for your side before the fighting even began. Key enemy figures can be assassinated as children, you can win the war before it even starts, and the enemy can do the same to you.

This is why Salvation was stupid. Because in Terminator, the future ground war – with artillery and nukes and planes and giant mechs – is almost inconsequential. The, the chrono-commandoes and the RETARDISes are the weapons which will determine victory.

 

When you think about it, this explains almost every hole in the films. How /why did X happen? Because either Skynet or the humans sent a chrono-commando back to make sure it did. Why is the T-1000 so much more advanced than any other Skynet machine? Because he was created with technology from a different, more advanced version of the timeline. Why does Judgment Day keep happening, and yet there is supposedly no fate but what we make? Because Skynet can make fate too, and just as Sarah Connor tries to prevent its creation, so its chrono-commandoes fight to ensure it. In Chronicles, why do the future humans seem so dangerously in league with the robots? Because their leaders spent most of their lives being saved by reprogrammed robots!

 

This still leaves a couple of paradoxes – inconsistent causal loop problems, mainly. As well as a few plot holes concerning the operation of the RETARDISes (I’m pretty sure the Must Be Nude thing has bugged a lot of people).

 

But that can be explained with the simple realization that RETARDISes don’t obey normal rules of logic. They’re fucking time machines. They spit on logic more than Schrodinger’s cat piloting a pink Gundam. Clearly time travel can be done, so in the universe of the Terminators, logic is provably wrong at times.

Also consider that these things were designed by a weird, insane-by-human-standards being. That being was weeks from death when it designed and built these things. There’s a very good chance that every time the RETARDISes were used, they were in a bunker being shelled by laser mortars. These are not ideal manufacturing conditions. The RETARDISes are kind of like Japan’s kamikaze planes – a desperate, feverish deployment of weapons that are not fully understood or controlled. Why do they have to go back naked? A RETARDIS may as well be Edward Cullen for all the sense it has to make. They go back naked because the fucking thing will only send back naked things, and I’m too busy being nuked to redesign it. Why don’t they send chrono-commandoes further back, to the 1800s or something, and just go fucking nuts on JC’s ancestors? Maybe the RETARDISes use more power the further back you go, or maybe they’re worried that one of JC’s ancestors knew a guy who knew a guy who helped build the thing that helped build the thing that eventually let Skynet make laser rifles. I don’t know, and I don’t have to.

 

You want consistency, logic, and sense? Terminator fucks sense with Schwarzenegger’s indestructible robotic cock. This is a universe where our notions of logic and physics are just plain wrong, where the past and future are constantly changing, and where one chrono-commando can change the fate of the world more than a hundred nukes. This is a universe where four movies and a TV show can describe five different versions of a future, and they’re all correct.

 

Judgment Day has happened at least five times. It’s probably happened hundreds of times – reality reboots every time a RETARDIS is switched on. Lasers or no lasers, T-1000s or Claire Danes, everything is changeable. I don’t even know if an ultimate victory is possible, but if it is, it will be secured here, in the past.

“No fate but what we make?” Bullshit.

 

There is no fate, whatsoever.


[3] That wasn’t a very scientific article, and I’m not about to change my tone, so if you’re actually interested in the proper terminology for all this shit, read Paul Davies’ How to Build a Time Machine. Good read.

Fist > Machete > Machine Gun > Common Sense

It says something about a film when you can look at the cast listing, and none of the characters have last names, and the tenth-highest-paid actor is listed as “Machete Gang #1.”

The Raid is one of thosemovies. You’ve probably heard of it – it’s an Indonesian action flick that gained some attention at the Toronto film festival. A SWAT team enters a drug lord’s building and has to fight their way up to the top floor and kill the bad guy. There. You now understand everything important about The Raid’s plot.

That’s not to say there isn’t a plot – there are definitely characters, and twists, and motivations. But none of them are very interesting, and either the subtitles aren’t very accurate or the script was written by someone who’d just been kicked in the head by the film’s protagonist. The Raid is less like a novel, and more like a can of Red Bull – a purely chemical adrenaline rush.

And that is absolutely not a criticism.

Hollywood has done some truly great action movies. Aliens, Terminator 2 and Die Hard were gems of mass appeal, genuine emotion and original ideas. But the West can never seem to match the East for pure, brilliant fight choreography, and this is where The Raid delivers. It turns out that in Indonesia, SWAT teams are trained in kickboxing first and rules of engagement never. The first thing the police do in this film is garrotte someone. Losing all your guns and teammates doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your drug bust – it just means that you need to find the Drug Room (yes, there’s a drug room) and bust it with your bare hands. The mob boss’s only defensive strategy is ‘screaming machetes’. You can hang paintings on the hero, because his skull is hammered into every wall in that building.

For all my indisputably hilarious one-liners, this isn’t a ‘wacky’ action film (I’m looking at you, Ong Bak, you glorious son of a bitch). Everything is played quite straight, but not wearingly so, which all ties into that Red Bull thing I mentioned earlier.

The tension in The Raid almost never lets up. The first twenty minutes of slow, stealthy (by which I mean garrottey) infiltration build up your anticipation to snapping point. And then ten minutes of gunfire and roundhouse kicks. And then someone yelling, or a dramatic moment involving yelling, or hiding from a bad guy, or performing desperate battlefield surgery. And then more kicks. It’s all tied together by an absolutely fantastic techno-orchestral soundtrack, which sounds like Inception crossed with an absolutely sick rave.

My circuitous point is that The Raid is gripping, like when you can’t let go of an electric fence (in a good way). Really, the fight scenes are just relaxing – they release all the tension that you’ve been building up, and let you ease back and just watch the balletic dance of kicking, backflipping and skull/wall meet-and-greet programs. The fight choreography is absolutely top-notch – it’s from the company that produced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, so no surprises there. The battles are truly artistic, making cubist masterpieces out of spine fragments, and juxtaposing the tender, natural intricacy of the human throat with the harsh, aloof beauty of a combat knife… sorry, just wandered off into serial killer territory there. Just trust me that when it comes to action, it’s hit murder punch fun death good.

So, what is there in terms of criticism?

Well, it would be nice if the gunfights were as well designed as the fist/foot/knife/baton/machete/chair/filing cabinet/light bulb/axe fights were. As it is, it feels like the head mobster cast a magical spell on the building to neutralize all firearms about thirty minutes in.

But more importantly, there isn’t much movie behind the mass murder. There is some attempt at characters, plot and emotion, but after the intense adrenal high of watching hero Rama tear through Machete Gang #7-16, I’m just not into watching the obviously traitorous character reveal himself to be an obvious traitor. And I’m not sure which is at fault, the script or the subtitles, but “if I’m mad, I will enrage” is not a badass quip in any language.

Really, you could cut out every character name, line of dialogue and talky scene from The Raid and not really affect the quality of the movie. I don’t object to that out of hand, but when Hard Boiled, Kill Bill and First Blood have proved that plot and mass eviscerations go together so well, The Raid can’t help but be left a bit behind.

So, what’s the final verdict?

If you like violence in any form, you will love The Raid.

If you don’t really enjoy arterial spray, you will find The Raid uninteresting and sickening.

And if you have any medical understanding of how the human skull is not as strong as concrete, you will be very, very confused.

Yes, I Know It Came Out a Year Ago

When I review a game like Homefront, I become almost delirious with joy. Normally with a review you have to balance your positive and negative remarks, string both together in a kind of coherent, almost plot-like way that works towards a conclusion, and maybe even be entertaining while doing that. Homefront doesn’t give me that problem, because I only need to provide one kind of remark, and the only conclusion the game is working towards is the extermination of the very concept of joy.

Homefront is bad, then. Not Alpha Protocol bad, where some diamonds can be seen glinting within the enormous turd. Not Starcraft II bad, where I just don’t like the genre. Homefront is completely unoriginal, unsatisfying, is almost broken at times, and you’d probably have more fun using the disc to play Frisbee with a feral German Shepherd. Yes, your hand would probably be eaten. Yes, you’d still have more fun than you would playing Homefront.

 

The game’s problems can be broken up fairly easily – plot problems, and gameplay problems.

First, the plot and atmosphere. As you may have guessed from the box art, this is a Red Dawn style game about the invasion of America by Communist baddies, and today those baddies are North Korea.

Ghhhkk. Grrhhk. The stupid… it burns…

I hear that the invaders were originally intended to be China, not that that’s particularly less ridiculous (hint: China has somewhere between 20 and 1000 nuclear bombs, the US has over 7 000). Nonetheless, the fake newsclip-style intro cutscene explaining the invasion is still the most enjoyable part of the plot.

Homefront’s problem is that it can’t decide what it wants to be: a gritty, horrific, morally ambiguous depiction of guerrilla warfare like Red Dawn, or a militaristic patriotic wankfest where you get to kill every dirty Pinko on the continent like Red Dawn. So we wind up with North Korean soldiers whose entire occupation strategy seems to be ‘make everyone kneel with their hands on their heads’. I’m not kidding – in the intro sequence, you’re driven through the entire town and every single fucking person is either putting their hands on their heads or pointing a gun at someone with their hands on their heads. It’s not a compelling depiction of the horrors of war, it’s a cartoonish depiction of a Captain Planet villain that will give you the impetus to murder every single yellow person you see. It plays out like Colonel Kilgore stapled American flags over Glenn Beck’s eyeballs, gave him an M16 and told him that all Asian people are homosexual terrorists. The plot was written by a man who prefers Rambo 2 to blowjobs. I’ve less obnoxious nationalism from the actual North Koreans. It’s as tasteful as a Boy Scout troop leader wearing nipple-clamps.

My dirty lefty ranting aside, the writing’s shit. Characters are flat, they die tragically heroic deaths that mean absolutely nothing to the player, every North Korean soldier in existence apparently discounts the pitched gunfire the next building over as ‘just the possums again’, the twists and turns of the plot are poorly explained and the ending is abysmal. Oh, and the game is criminally short. I finished it in four or five hours, and as I’m about to explain, that wasn’t because I rushed through it on Kiddie Mode.

And yes, before you ask, the graphics are awful.

My hate-bile is starting to turn my saliva green. On to gameplay.

Homefront’s relationship to COD is like Mini-Me’s to Doctor Evil: neither are particularly fantastic, but only one is diminished, physically retarded and prone to crawling across the table and biting your finger off. “Here is a small field covered with chest-high objects and surrounded by invisible halls. Here are some dudes, kill dem cunts” pretty much sums it up. Oh, except it’s awful in every way. Enemies don’t take cover  until they’ve had a ten-minute shower and a footrub, there are about eight guns total (if you’re playing multiplayer, the only shotgun comes as motherfucking DLC), and they’re all as satisfying to fire off as a premature ejaculation.

But the real problem is the aiming.

Homefront, you know how thumbsticks are hideously inaccurate compared to mice? You know how most console games either give us nice, large reticules, or a subtle amount of auto-targeting to compensate? Your character aims like his arms are made of snails and his brain is made of marijuana. Killing dem cunts isn’t fun, it’s a bloody chore, which means Homefront has failed at the simplest game design concept in the history of the universe.

And of course, the bad guys suffer no such aiming woes.

Homefront is difficult, and it’s the kind of fake, artificially imposed difficulty that makes you want to shit into your disc drive and mail the whole package to THQ. Enemies are psychic sniperbots. Checkpoints were placed by throwing darts at the game disc. Taking damage turns your entire screen into a pulsating mass of red veins, and your character starts breathing like he’s paying $2.99 a minute for this call. And the game routinely puts you in frustrating situations – by using a silenced sniper rifle from the top of a church tower, you manage to clear a path for your comrades to the escape helicopter. Then they’re spotted and attacked en masse, you’re knocked out of your tower, and told to fight your way through the 50 or so enemies to get to da choppa. You know, the choppa that the AI only got to because you spent ten minutes carving a stealthy path for them. And then they bitch at you. “Hurry up, Jacobs, we can’t hold here! Come on, Jacobs, we gotta go!” Excuse me while I murder my way through the Assault Rifle Appreciation Convention here, assholes, the one that you took ten shitting minutes to sneak through. Nope, don’t support me, don’t start shooting yourselves. I got this.

One last gripe before I execute this game and roll it into a mass grave. Like COD, Homefront ensures that you don’t break its linear, ‘cinematic’ chain of events by making the entrance to the next area only openable by NPCs. As in, if you’re in a yard and your objective is in the house, your allies will have to kick down the door so you can progress. Now this is really lazy level design, sure, but it takes Homefront to make it completely broken. So you finish a firefight, you pick up some ammo and maybe swap a weapon out, teabag a few o’ dem muddafuckin’ gook corpses. You see the door to the next area, amble over to it, and wait for NPC mate to come over and open it.

And you wait.

These guys will not let you progress until they are good and ready. They wander in random directions, get stuck on walls, have lengthy conversations with each other and then stand in front of the door for at least five seconds before actually doing anything. And the worst part is, you shouldn’t need to wait for them. I am a trained US Marine, I should be able to climb a ladder or crawl through a hole, but until your buddy goes first to show you how, all you can do is rub yourself futilely up against the wall or ladder, desperately wiggling your hips against the brickwork. It’s like amputee masturbation.

Wait a… grrksk… grrrkkk.

Okay, crap. Thaks t all this hate-bile, my saliva has nw actually tured dagerusly acidic; it’s bured hrugh my lwer jaw and ’s disslvig my keybard. Ths relly relly hurs. Help… Elp!!!! Eeerrrrrrrgggghhhhh!!!

When the Man Comes Around

What is it about country music that makes everything Epic(TM)?

Maybe I should explain.

Country/folk ballad music is… not without its detractors. I believe a wise man once described it as “the music of pain”. I’m not sure if it’s ever been popular, and it certainly has an overabundance of really shitty artists. Don’t get me wrong – I do like it. I have a lot of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Dolly Parton, and if you say ‘Taylor Swift’ I will stab you with a sharpened Ray Charles CD.

But it’s not incredible stuff. It’s just a few plunky guitars, the occasional harmonica and a middle-aged Southerner singing about how he lost love, loves Jesus or has to shoot someone. It certainly doesn’t get my blood up, and it certainly doesn’t make me want to re-enact Die Hard around my speakers.

So why, for the love of Bill Munroe, is it so badass? Why is it that when you take a video clip of drama, or violence, or explosions, and play a soulful ballad over the top, it becomes wall-punchingly awesome?

Let me show you what I mean.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmMidL8KUOE

Did you watch that? I’ll spoil it for you – it was a trailer for the game Prototype 2, and it was bathtub-shittingly retarded.

If OJ had told the prosecutor that his goldfish would die while he was in jail, it would have been more touching and emotional than that trailer. It’s a drug-addled leper’s idea of poignant. My fungal growths are more dramatic.

But you layer Cash’s ‘Hurt’ over the top, and for a moment there, you can almost forget that it’s about an angsty tentacle monster roaring like a poodle while wearing the most ridiculous popped collar you’ve ever seen. Purely because of the song, the relevance of the lyrics and the sombre melodic beat, I actually wanted to slice something with my blade-fist.

I can’t make a blade-fist. I’m not even sure I can make a regular fist. But country music gave me the power.

This is not an isolated trend. Remember the Dawn of the Dead remake? The credits sequence showed a bunch of news reporters getting murdered by zombies, all set to a chirpy country music song about the apocalypse. It was the best part of the movie, and that was not a bad film.

Johnny Cash is good at this, but he’s not the only one. Watchmen featured a Bob Dylan song over some imaginative credits too. That was awesome too.

And Hollywood has figured this out. Since I first noticed this trend, I’ve seen True Grit, Splinter Cell Conviction, Prey 2 and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles all do it. It’s a simple formula: country music + slow motion shots of murder = awesome.

Now, I’m not an artist. I don’t understand music or cinematography – heck, I’m pretty sure I’ve actually bobbed my lead to LMFAO at one point. If I had to try and explain this trend, I’d say it has something to do with juxtaposition – the contrast between gentle, sad, deliberate music and brutal, violent images. It’s kind of like what they did during Vietnam – use a combination of shocking TV images and disjointed, weirdly cheerful music to get an emotional reaction.

But hey, I don’t have to explain this trend. All I have to do is point and nod. And pick up a steak knife, move in slow motion and disembowel the nearest inanimate object every time Hank Williams comes to town.