Thoughts on the Bioshock Movie (Part 2)

Movies, Video Games

Last week my arguments against the Bioshock movie revolved largely around the fact that I do not believe that the game’s experience can be faithfully reproduced in a non-interactive medium. My two arguments in favour of the film aren’t so much counter-arguments to my last observations as they are sort of lateral benefits.

This is not a "the goggles, they do nothing!" joke

Steampunk

The niche subculture of steampunk has been getting a lot of Internet attention lately, which translates into roughly one or two casual mentions in paper publications (check out the New York Times article or the even better one they didn’t publish.) The whimsical charms of the genre have been well explored by books (The Difference Engine), comics (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), video games (Final Fantasy VI), anime (Fullmetal Alchemist) and Japanese cinema (Howl’s Moving Castle.) However, the genre has been woefully underexplored in Hollywood.

I’m no film buff, but even I can rattle off a few steampunk films made in recent years (Wild Wild West, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Golden Compass.) They all have two things in common: the fact that they were adaptations from other media and the fact that they were ultimately forgettable (which is the polite way of saying they sucked.) Indeed, these films almost make me wish that Hollywood would go back to ignoring steampunk.

The truth is that I would be very pleased if the Bioshock adaptation were to be the exception to the rule and finally turn it around for Western steampunk cinema. The genre’s impossible machines and incredible scale make it uniquely suited for the sort of “Hollywood magic” that is usually wasted on brainless action films nowadays. Furthermore, Bioshock proved that combining steampunk visuals with steampunk audio was a recipe for success. Watching someone being stalked by insane splicers while a broken phonograph in the corner wails “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” would alone be worth the price of admission.

A Story Worth Telling

As Daniel and Duncan commented on my last post, there is in fact a story within Bioshock that may be a better fit for film; a story told only through audio diaries, posters and dialog and ultimately filled in by the player’s imagination. I’m speaking of course of the rise and fall of Rapture, and the conflict between Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine. Using the film to fill out the city’s backstory would be an interesting idea, and would definitely mitigate some of the criticisms from my last post.

However, I have somewhat mixed feelings about this idea. In the video game, the story of Rapture is essentially told backwards. For instance, we see a Little Sister long before we discover what she is. We enter the abandoned buildings and see the party remains without knowing what caused the people to flee. Excising the mystery by doing things the other way around would definitely make the characters and setting much less compelling.

Alternately, I would propose that the best thing the Bioshock movie could do would be to rework the video game’s weak denouement. Anyone who has played the game knows that the story takes a sharp downturn after the events at Hephaestus. While the scenery remains interesting (especially the “school” for Little Sisters), the game’s last third introduces plotholes, a completely unnecessary last boss fight and two ultimately unsatisfying endings. From interviews with Ken Levine, my general impression is that this sloppiness was due to time constraints and upper management pressure. The film could be Irrational’s chance to correct these errors and finally give Bioshock the coherent ending it deserved.

For more Bioshock goodness, be sure to check out Michael Abbott’s podcast interview with Steve Gaynor of 2K Marin over at The Brainy Gamer.

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Thoughts on the Bioshock Movie (Part 1)

Movies, Video Games

Bioshock

Last Friday it was announced that a Bioshock feature film was in the works, to be helmed by Gore Verbinski of “Pirates of the Caribbean” fame. In theory this is terrific news, Bioshock was one of my favourite games of last year. Its objectivist theme and unique setting made it rich for analysis, and it spawned several terrific essays from some of my favourite games writers.

However, I can’t help but feel ambivalent about this movie deal. Despite the fact that video games and blockbuster films have a bad history with each other, it seems that Hollywood is still chomping at the bit to churn out more. More importantly, there are several outstanding qualities of Bioshock that I believe cannot be faithfully reproduced in a non-interactive medium.

After thinking long and hard about whether a Bioshock film would “work”, I believe I’ve come up with some decent arguments for both sides. I’ll begin with the case against.

Perspective

Video games have an almost exclusive license on the first person perspective in visual media. In recent years, there have been several games that have made use of this perspective in particularly interesting and effective ways. For instance, the execution scene in Call of Duty 4 was extremely jarring because it was shown from the perspective of the condemned man. The apartment raid at the beginning of Half Life 2 was also greatly enhanced by the first person view.

The use of the FPP was used to great cinematic effect in Bioshock. For instance, I would rank the bathysphere descent into Rapture as one of the most unforgettable moments in gaming. This is also true of the now infamous scene with Andrew Ryan towards the end of the game. The decision to harvest the Little Sisters was so gut-wrenchingly difficult because the little monster was squirming in your digital hands. Throughout the game, control of the camera was only rarely taken away from the player, and only at certain significant points. This helped to reinforce the themes of control and choice.

I’m highly sceptical that these experiences can be faithfully reproduced in traditional third person film style. There is a staggering difference between watching a digital representation of one’s self compromise their humanity in order to survive in the underwater dystopia and watching (oh let’s say) Nathan Fillion do it. Furthermore, moving into the third person means that suddenly this character must have an appearance, dialogue, and personality. This segues into the problem of…

Choice

Bioshock’s main character, Jack, has very little discernible appearance or personality (minus one out-of-place piece of dialogue in the opening scene.) He is an empty vessel, which the player fills with their own character, desires and personal narrative. He is essentially “you”, a digital extension of the self. I would argue that this small detail is critical to making the game’s overall theme of “choice” work. It’s not Jack choosing whether or not to sell his soul to survive in Rapture, it’s you.

To make matters worse, in film the choice between right and wrong disappears entirely. Jack is bound to confront a Little Sister at some point in the film, and he’ll either harvest her or he won’t (I’m betting the latter, Hollywood isn’t very comfortable with morally ambiguous heroes.) Whichever outcome ends up in the final script will be the choice Jack makes every single time you watch it.

Will this make a difference in the film? It’s hard to say. There was a lot of pre-release hype coming from Irrational Games about “choice” in Bioshock, but in reality very little of it was built into the narrative. You either harvested the Little Sisters or you didn’t, resulting in one of two black & white endings.

Furthermore, it is entirely possible that Verbinski’s team may choose to focus the narrative of the film on Bioshock’s other outstanding themes, such as objectivism. However, from my perspective, the idea of choice is so deeply tied into every aspect of the game that concentrating on anything else would be a completely different story. I suppose this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Ecosystem

To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of Bioshock was how Rapture worked as a living (dying?) city. The enemy A.I.s often interacted together in strange and unpredictable ways. For instance, sometimes an enemy splicer would decide to pick a fight with a Big Daddy, resulting in a heated battle that did not involve you at all. Staying alive in the game depended greatly on one’s ability to figure out how the various elements of Rapture’s ecosystem (security cameras, splicers, Big Daddies, turrets, exploding barrels) were going to interact.

The stroke of genius in this equation was making the Big Daddy and Little Sister team a sort of neutral entity in the world. Having a wandering boss which the player could chose to engage at their convenience really tied the entire ecosystem idea together. In fact, it was the Hunting the Big Daddy video that initially convinced me that Bioshock was going to be new and different.

I concede that the Big Daddy and Little Sister characters are iconic enough to remain scary and interesting even in a non-interactive medium. However, take away the idea of “ecosystem” and the lumbering Big Daddy is really no different than any other movie bad guy. Sure they might include a token scene with a Little Sister crying for “Mr. Bubbles”, but it won’t have the same weight without the associated guilt of knowing that you provoked and killed a neutral creature (bringing us back to the idea of choice.)

Coming this weekend: arguments in favour of the Bioshock film.

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The Golden Compass

Books, Movies

There have been very few mainstream film releases this year that I’ve had any interest in. I think that the last movie I actually saw in the theatres was the brilliant Hot Fuzz. There is, however, one film coming out before the end of the year that I’ve been eagerly anticipating for quite some time now.

The Golden CompassIn my last year of high school, I read Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I was instantly fascinated by Lyra’s world; its strange combination of steampunk, science, magic and religion was unlike anything I had ever imagined. Her parallel universe had its own language derived in part from archaic words: Oil became Naphtha, Greenlanders became Skraelings and electricity became anbaric power. I have read the series many times since then, and Pullman’s imagination never ceases to astound me.

When I first heard about the film adaption of The Golden Compass, which is arriving in theatres this weekend, I was cautiously optimistic. The thought of Jordan College being filled with Hollywood actors tempered my excitement. If the movie version of my favorite book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes an adaptation ends up being nothing like the vision of the story that you had built up in your head.

That being said, after watching the first five minutes of the film courtesy of the Internet, it seems like they did a great job with the visuals. The little girl playing Lyra seemed appropriately spunky as well. However, the rapid-fire explanation of Dust, Daemons, and Panserbjørne was extremely disappointing. The best part of The Golden Compass was being gradually introduced to the strange things in Lyra’s world, and listing them off right from the start spoils the mystery. It’s also evident from the trailer that the religious tone of the books has been severely diluted. Instead of the bad guys being the alternate universe Catholic Church, they’ve created a quasi-fascist organization to pit against Lyra and her friends. I question how they’re going to deal with intercision and puberty without the religious slant.

I’m sad to say that even if the movie is junk, they’ll be taking my money anyways. Even if they do ruin it, at least I’ll always have the books!

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Memento & External Memory

Internet, Movies
Memento

It had been in my movie backlog for ages, but I finally got around to seeing Memento this weekend (and absolutely loved it.) It’s nearly a decade old, but here’s a brief spoiler-free synopsis for the uninitiated: it’s a story told chronologically backwards about Leonard Shelby, a man with short-term memory loss trying to avenge his murdered wife. To remember who people are, where he lives and what he’s doing, he consults relevant notes and pictures in his pockets at all times, keeping the most vital information tattooed on his body.

While the character’s handicap was extreme, I felt a strong empathy with his condition. I’m a forgetful person by nature and, like Leonard, am constantly relying on external memory to function. Text files, post-it notes, e-mails and address books have become my substitute for real memory. I hardly take the time to remember anything nowadays; birthdays, telephone numbers, assignment due dates and addresses are taking up less and less of my cerebral real estate.

It doesn’t stop there; I am now reliant on the internet for information. I’ve hit ten Google searches and half a dozen Wikipedia articles in my twenty minutes of writing so far. My daily hits on both sites likely number in the hundreds, and twice as many when I’m programming. Having a wealth of information at your fingertips is a major boon, but my work is now dependant on it (as referenced by a recent xkcd strip.) When the internet goes down, I cringe at the idea of stooping to consulting the phone book, a real map, or my 40 year old Encyclopedia set.

While it’s true that our grandparents’ generation could dial a friend, get directions and long divide using brain power alone, is the relegation of our long term information storage and computation power to machines necessarily a bad thing? NY Times columnist David Brooks argues “no” in a recent article entitled “The Outsourced Brain.”

Until that moment, I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants — silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.

What do you think? How do you use computers and the internet as a brain-extension in your daily lives? Is “outsourcing” our brain power helpful, harmful, or inevitable?

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Children of Men

Movies

TV Reporter: The world was stunned today by the death of Diego Ricardo, the youngest person on the planet. […] He was 18 years, 4 months, 20 days, 16 hours, and 8 minutes old.

Children of Men

I’ve always had a fascination with narratives set in a dystopian future (see 1984, Brazil, Brave New World, Blade Runner, even Half-Life 2). The good ones evoke a convincing world that could conceivably represent our own future. The great ones use this world to explore philosophical and moral issues. What struck me as unique about the film Children of Men, however, was how it presented a world rocked by an extension of our own contemporary Western issues: divisive immigration policies, xenophobia, terrorism, and overzealous homeland security. This picture of the world looks and feels real; it is by far the most convincing vision of the future I have ever seen.

The world of 2027 is on the brink of ruin; two decade of inexplicable human infertility have led to widespread societal collapse. The film is set in Britain, where the anti-immigrant sentiment has been pushed to the extreme. The oppressive government ships thousands of illegal immigrants to sprawling refugee camps, with imagery and brutality that echo the Holocaust.

Children of Men

The plot follows Theo Faron (Clive Owen), an activist turned bureaucrat, who, due to a string of complex events, becomes the guardian of what may be mankind’s only hope for survival: a miraculously pregnant woman named Kee. While the plot is excellent, it’s the imagery, setting and cinematography that are the real stars of this film. Very little is explicitly stated; it’s the visuals, such as a country field filled with the burning corpses of livestock, that tell the story of society’s collapse. Many scenes are done with a single unbroken wide shot, which allows the viewer to take in the richness of the landscape.

Children of Men is quite simply a remarkably good movie, and I would recommend it without reserve to anyone. Whether it’s the bleak landscape, the tremendous visuals or the touching characters and dialogue, everyone will be able to find a part of this film that affects them in a very profound and meaningful way.

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