Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

What are the two biggest, most consistent weaknesses of the Marvel movie franchises? Well, they have a lot of trouble with direct sequels -- the sole exception being Captain America: Winter Soldier (why, oh why did I never review that movie?!). They also have a lot of trouble with villains -- the sole exception probably being Loki. I'd also throw in a third weakness, which would be the over-reliance on McGuffins to carry the plot.

Well, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 actually manages to avoid all three of those Marvel pitfalls!

Vol. 2 gets around the sequel slump by slowing things down a bit so that it can be a more character-driven story. For the majority of the film, the stakes are set pretty low and personal, and each character gets a chance to be an actual character rather than just an action hero. The main plot revolves around Starlord connecting with his long-lost father, only to discover (almost too late) that said father is actually a supervillain, and that he didn't realize that he had another father figure right there beside him the whole time. That's a great setup. But I almost feel like Starlord and the rest of the Guardians crew feel more like the B-Story here, because this movie feels like it's more about Yondu than about Peter Quill, Gemorah, or any of the main cast. But that might be partly because the entire cast gets such a balanced amount of screen time, and no one character or plot thread dominates the others.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 - Starlord and dad
This movie operates on a smaller scale, with a more personal conflict -- at least initially.

Despite the frequent cuts and the presence of almost half a dozen individual plot threads, the movie is remarkably tightly-themed. Virtually every plot thread in the film revolves around family. Quill meets his father. Gemorah finally gets to understand her sister. Rocket is dealing with raising Baby Groot and confronts his own inability to stop being an asshole long enough to let anybody actually like him. Drax is being repeatedly reminded of the loss of his own family. And Yondu is dealing with the feeling that he's a failure in the eyes of anybody who he ever might have considered "family".

This family-centered core of the movie then manages to help resolve the second major issue with Marvel movies. Vol 2 actually has a pretty interesting and mysterious villain...

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Arrival movie poster

I did it again. I waited until the last minute to see a hard science fiction film until it was just about to leave theaters, even though I complain about the conventional Hollywood logic that hard science fiction doesn't sell tickets. In my defense though, I was preparing for a trip out of the country when this movie released. So my excuse this time is far better than my excuse for missing opening weekend of The Martian. And once again, this film's 94% on Rotten Tomatoes (as of the time of this writing) and its exceeding box office projections (coming in third behind a Marvel comic book movie and a children's movie) seems to vindicate that Hollywood can still make high-concept, hard science fiction films, that people will go see them, that people will understand them, and that those people will like them.

Arrival is as hard as hard science fiction gets. Think Contact; think 2001: A Space Odyssey; think the Star Trek TNG episode "Darmok". Arrival is all about communication, and it offers an interesting exploration of how language influences the way that we think, and how our thoughts are filtered through the language that we speak. The entire movie is about the efforts to communicate with the aliens, while human beings progressively become incapable of actually communicating with one another. There's no real villain, exactly one explosion, and the threat of China and Russia starting a war with the aliens on the other side of the globe is a distant, but tangible threat. This film is slow and methodical, much like the efforts to teach a new language to someone, and it makes absolutely sure that the audience will be able to follow along with what is going on.

Moreso than our attempts to communicate with aliens, this film is about our ability (or inability) to communicate with each other - at every level of society. From individual relationships, to professional relationships, to political relationships, to international diplomatic relationships, and even the relationship between the media and the public.

Arrival - international communication
Arrival is more about our inability to communicate with each other, than our inability to communicate with aliens.

It's difficult for me to say anything more about this movie without absolutely, completely spoiling everything. Suffice to say, the high-concept science fiction stuff is very well handled. This movie earns some comparisons to Interstellar, but is far more intelligent and manages to not be hokey at all. Read on if you want spoilers...

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Star Trek 50th anniversary

On September 8, 1966, a cultural revolution started. The first episode of a new science fiction television series named Star Trek premiered on NBC. This series broke new ground in the genre of science fiction by being one of the first series ever to present high science fiction concepts to television audiences, while also using its space adventures as allegories for contemporary social and political issues. While it presented itself as mindless space adventure in the same vein as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, it took a serious approach to science fiction that (at the time) was limited to literature like the novels of H.G. Wells and the stories of Isaac Asimov.

Star Trek wasn't the first serious science fiction television series. Shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits had existed for a almost a decade. But Star Trek differed from these series in that it depicted a revolutionarily positive and uplifting version of the future of humanity during the height of the paranoia of the Cold War. Humanity, according to Star Trek would overcome the threat of mutual destruction that the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union posed, and we would come out the other side with a spirit of cooperation and a desire to peacefully and benevolently explore the stars, exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations.

Television science fiction was dominated by childish adventures like Buck Rogers
and more cynical anthology series like The Twilight Zone that drew off of Cold War paranoia.

The show was created by Gene Roddenberry, a former United States army air force pilot and Los Angeles police officer who eventually found his calling as a television writer and producer. He wrote and produced some police dramas and westerns before pitching his defining project: Star Trek. The show was picked up by Desilu Productions, a company that was run by Lucille Ball (yes, the titular actress of I Love Lucy) and her husband. The production of Star Trek was tumultuous. The show was canceled by NBC after its second season, only to be revived due to an unprecedented, fervent letter-writing campaign staged by its fans. It did not survive its third season, however, as Desilu Productions was rapidly running out of money, was forced to cut budgets, and NBC moved the show to the dreaded Friday night slot. In an age before DVRs, or even VCRs, if people were out on the town on a Friday night, and they missed an episode of a show, then that episode simply went unseen.

Gene Roddenberry
Gene Roddenberry's optimistic vision
of the future remains endearing.

The series eventually saw tremendous success after its cancellation due to its episodes being syndicated during the 1970's. It gained a cult following that grew and grew, setting up conventions that would come to draw thousands of attendees. Though not immediately apparent, Star Trek would grow to become one of (if not the) most successful science fiction properties in the world. The series is often cited by scientists, engineers, and astronauts as their inspirations for their careers, and the technology of the series has inspired many real-world technological innovations, such as wireless communication, mobile devices (in particularly mobile phones), speech-recognition software, and so on. Roddenberry became the first TV writer to receive a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, has been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame, and was one of the first human beings ever to have his ashes carried into earth orbit...

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No Man's Sky

After experiencing some annoying performance issues on the PS4 version of Dark Souls III (including a framerate capped at 30 fps), I decided that I'd hold out the extra three days for the PC version of No Man's Sky. I assumed that the keyboard and mouse controls would be more comfortable, since the game is half shooter, half flight-sim. I assumed that the PC version would perform better and look better. And I figure that the game will eventually enjoy a vibrant modding community that is likely impossible to spring up on the PS4, since (as far as I know) the PS4 does not support modding in any way. I, once again, may have been wrong in my choice of platform

In addition to having to wait three extra days for the game to release on PC, I've read a lot of reports of severe problems with the PC version of the game at launch. It simply won't run on certain machines with certain graphics cards. Many rigs have consistent performance issues. My PC is a few years old, but it more than meets the system requirements for the game, yet I've been stuck having to run it on medium graphics settings. Upping the settings to high only results in the game becoming unplayably slow whenever I step into the cockpit of my ship. I'm talking, like half a frame per second, and the game dropping all my inputs. The final insult is that the game breaks when you alt-tab out of it, which prevents you from alt-tabbing back into it. If you alt-tab out, you'll have to kill the process in task manager and restart the app - which, of course, will cause a loss of any progress since the last autosave. So despite having a dual-monitor set-up, I can't alt-tab out to open up podcasts or play some tunes while I warp around the galaxy.

Most of these problems will likely get fixed at some point (and some of them already have), and hopefully I'll be able to run the game at high graphics settings. But in the meantime, if you're interested in playing the game, then the PS4 version is probably the technically superior one right now. Apparently, the PS4 version also has numerous performance issues, including crashes.

Sadly, technical problems are only the beginning of my complaints with this game.

Betraying the naturalist within

Instead of being a game about exploring strange new worlds and discovering exotic wildlife and natural wonders of the universe (as I'd hoped), No Man's Sky turns out to be quite the opposite: a game about conspicuous consumption. The core game loop does not consist of landing on an alien world to explore and catalog the local flora and fauna. Instead, you land your ship in a vibrantly-colored patch of minerals and plants, and you begin strip-mining the site clean. You harvest the raw materials that you'll use to refuel your space ship so that you can warp to the next planet to strip its resources for more fuel.

No Man's Sky - cataloging alien life
The incentives to catalog alien life feel extrinsicly-imposed and not a natural part of the core game experience.

Actually seeking out and cataloging the local wildlife takes a backseat - if you even bother to do it at all. The game isn't about that. There's nothing in the core gameplay loop or narrative that actually sets the game up to be about cataloging alien life. The only reason that the player has to even bother with scanning and analyzing is because you're rewarded with in-game currency for scanning stuff, even though there's no in-game reason (that I could discern) for why you would be getting paid to catalog alien life or who it is that's putting the money in your account. It all feels so thoroughly divorced from the rest of the game, and the money feels like an extrinsic incentive that is imposed from outside the scope of actual gameplay. In fact, I don't know why the game would have an in-game reason for why you would get paid to catalog stuff. After all, these planets are all already known by somebody in the game universe - they have space stations in every star systems and colony modules and trading posts on every planet long before you ever get there to "discover" them. So not only does cataloging life feel like an extrinsically-imposed mechanic, even this process of "discovering" feels completely fake and artificial...

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Stranger Things

After P.T. took the PlayStation Network by storm two years ago (geez, has it already been that long?), I set up my Google news feed with a subcategory specifically for Silent Hill news. I wanted to keep up with the progress of the game, since it looked like the most promising project the series had seen in a decade. After the traumatic cancellation of Silent Hills, that news feed has been mostly populated with articles mourning the loss, or with conspiracy theories about the game's return. Lately, however, a new story has been repeatedly populating that news feed: reviews and interpretations of the Netflix original series "Stranger Things".

With the internet's insistence that Stranger Things is "the show that Silent Hill fans have been waiting for", and some recommendations from co-workers and friends, I decided to give Netflix's new horror thriller a chance. So while House of Cards and Daredevil still sit unwatched in my Netflix queue, my girlfriend and I powered through all eight episodes of Stranger Things within a week.

Stranger Things reminded me a lot less of Silent Hill, and a lot more of Twin Peaks and E.T., but I loved the series nonetheless. I found myself amazed by just how much the show looks and feels like something from the late eighties or early nineties, and by how well it manages to capture a sense of nostalgia for its sources of inspiration without having to license them outright. Hollywood could learn a thing or two from this show. The insistence on reviving franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Transformers, Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, The X-Files, etc., is starting to wear very thin. At best, these films feel like high-budget fan fiction. At worst, they feel like cynical attempts to play off of nostalgia for a quick cash-grab. Very rarely do they feel like genuinely inspired works of creative art. This reliance on adaptation instead of inspiration has created a dearth of creativity that in many cases has tarnished once-venerable intellectual properties.

Stranger Things - the Upside Down
The internet claims that Stranger Things is "the Silent Hill show that fans have been waiting for".

Stranger Things doesn't stoop so low. It wears its influences proudly on its sleeves, but it also remains, thankfully, it's own entity. It never feels derivative; it never feels stale; and it never feels creatively bankrupt. It's not exactly original (as it blatantly incorporates elements of its inspirations into its plots and characters), but it also manages to occasionally surprise with its clever subversions of genre tropes. It never feels like the shallow fan service that I've gotten so used to seeing from Hollywood blockbusters, and (most importantly) I could enjoy it without the baggage of expectations from a recognized namesake.

Much of this is due to the characters and performances, all of which are great...

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A gamer's life...

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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