They create worlds: Alien: Isolation

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

When I was a kid playing pirated games on my beloved “breadbox”, the C64, games based on movie licences tended to be ubiquitous, largely interchangeable and mostly dire affairs. Whether they were mediocre shooters or bad action adventures, if it wasn’t for the title screen and (if we were lucky) a bit tune rendition of the movie’s theme, it’d be well-nigh impossible to know that what you were playing was supposedly an adaptation of Licence to Kill (yes, those two dozen huge pixels represented Timothy Dalton) or Platoon (a surprisingly enjoyable action game, albeit one that dropped the film’s anti-war angle in favour of some more mass market-friendly Vietcong shootery). Whatever connection there was to the films that purportedly inspired the games ended up being mostly imaginary.

Alien: Isolation

Cut to almost thirty years later, and you’ve got Alien: Isolation, a game that doesn’t just kinda, sorta look like Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi horror if you squint at it in just the right way. No, Alien: Isolation pretty much looks, sounds and feels like being in the original Alien – that hokey advertising phrase of ‘being there’ finally feeling like an accurate description. Computer hardware is finally up to the task of recreating sights and sounds to an amazing degree of fidelity, and Isolation makes highly effective use of this.

The game doesn’t just reproduce the production design of Scott’s film, although even as a sincere, well-crafted act of imitation it would be impressive. The corridors of the space station Sevastopol, which you walk (or, more often, sneak through) as Amanda Ripley, daughter of the original films’ heroine, represent a smart extension of the movie’s fictional universe. Giger’s classic alien stalking a Ripley through a mostly abandoned space station: this may sound like fan fiction of the least imaginative kind, and at least in terms of plot and character writing Isolation stumbles somewhat, but these things don’t matter when I put on my surround sound headphones and dim the lights. As I peek around the corner, get out my motion sensor and wonder whether that onscreen blip is one of the androids (which would be bad enough) or the alien itself (which would be worse), I’m there, in Alien, as I dreamt after I first saw the film on TV.

Alien: Isolation

One ingenious touch in this respect is the game’s faithful recreation of Alien‘s retro-futurism. The screens on the Sevastopol, just like the ones we remember being on the Nostromo, aren’t Ultra HD LCDs, they’re cathode-ray tubes, and their blurry, pixellated displays look one step away from Pong consoles. Similarly, the sounds emanating from those screens are the bleeps and bloops of the future of yesteryear. Isolation‘s low-tech hi-tech may not be logical, strictly speaking, seeing how an average mobile phone vastly surpasses the Sevastopol’s computers from the look and sound of it, but it gives the environments the same lived-in, faintly outdated feel that the Nostromo had. For want of a better word, there’s an analog rather than digital quality to the Sevastopol, a materiality that is still rare in video games.

Alien: Isolation

The flipside of all of this is that Alien: Isolation may just succeed too well at putting you inside the world of Alien. Slowly walking down a dark corridor, starting at every flickering light and mechanical hiss, in the knowledge that a biomechanical horror is after you, isn’t fun. I’ve previously described some of my favourite game spaces – such as GTA V‘s Los Santos – as dreamlike versions of real places; the Sevastopol is like a nightmare version of the Nostromo, already a pretty nightmarish place to find yourself. And just like the doomed crew of that vessel, I find myself looking at that blurry blip on the motion sensor, getting closer. And closer. And closer.

‘Twas the bear that done it: discussing The Revenant

12 Oscar nominations, a budget of $135 million and one very angry bear: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is the revenge flick that’s likely to continue being the talk of this award season. Reason enough to discuss the film one-on-one, like a better behaved Leonardo di Caprio and Tom Hardy, though with less grunting and accents that are easier to comprehend.

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50 Shades of Lepidopterology

Watching The Duke of Burgundy was a pleasure, albeit an unexpected one: for one thing, I didn’t expect an all-female film depicting a sado-masochistic relationship between two lepidopterologists to be so relatable, for another I didn’t expect to laugh out loud at a sly yet strangely sweet joke concerning urophilia. Berberian Sound Studio, the previous film by director-writer Peter Strickland, intrigued and unsettled me in equal measure, but at the same time it didn’t much engage me emotionally. In spite of a typically strong performance by Toby Jones, it struck me primarily as an exercise in style, atmosphere and genre – and one, at that, whose intended audience didn’t really include me, as my knowledge of Giallo is slight.

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Twin sons, one mother or another

ichsehichseh1Although Goodnight Mommy is not rich in jump scares, it is very much a horror flick. Comparisons to Haneke’s earlier work, especially to Funny Games, are in order – the two first-time directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala are Austrian, like Haneke. Veronika Franz is also the co-writer of all of Ulrich Seidl’s screenplays, whose Paradise trilogy I’ve reviewed elsewhere. That should give you a clue as to the movie’s atmosphere, although there is not much of Seidl’s symmetrical rigidity here.

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Money is funny. Funny how?

thebigshort4If I had known Adam McKay was the idea man, writer and director behind Will Ferrell vehicles such as the Anchorman movies or Step Brothers or Talladega Nights, or even the writer of Ant-Man, I might have avoided The Big Short. I’m glad I saw it, not least because it covers similar territory as Margin Call. The Big Short is McKay’s first movie as a director without Ferrell, and maybe more serious than his previous work. It’s about the credit and housing finance collapse in 2007. Yes, it’s a comedy about greed, cluelessness, unemployment, financial ruin, indifference and death. It’s not flawless, but it’s witty and fast-paced, and it has an ensemble cast that speaks for itself.

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Carol for Christmas

Todd Haynes’ Carol is a great way to end your movie year, or to start the new one. The movie works well on many levels, the most noteworthy of which is that Cate Blanchett’s role as the title character seems to have been written for her. It wasn’t – the movie is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt from 1952, but I couldn’t see anybody else in that role.

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Force of Habit

“Remember when…?” is the lowest form of conversation.
– Tony Soprano

Now, I’m far from considering Anthony John Soprano the touchstone of film criticism, but I kept thinking of this particular dictum of his throughout much of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Don’t get me wrong: in almost every respect I consider the movie better filmmaking than the sequels.* J.J. Abrams knows how to stage zippy, effects-heavy action with enough personality so it doesn’t just feel like a VFX showreel. The performances are good throughout, with Harrison Ford bringing more of his erstwhile charisma to the screen than he has in a long time.

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