The Rear-View Mirror: Jurassic Park (1993)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

I have a confession to make: I don’t particularly like Jurassic Park. Sure, Spielberg gets the sense of wonder just right, the visual effects still hold up well, Bob Peck’s death scene is fantastic and it’s got Samuel L. “BAMF” Jackson – but I will take that big, rubbery shark over T. Rex and Friends any day of the week.

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Longing for that paper moon

For all the imagination that goes into creating new worlds and fantastic creatures on screen, film and TV are predominantly beholden to naturalism. For these media, suspension of disbelief means being able to accept wholeheartedly what is on screen as real, at least for the purpose of the story you’re watching. Directors, VFX crews and CGI artists need to keep happy the twin deities of Spectacle and Realism: that dragon, that lizard the size of a building, that planet that no one has ever set foot on, they all need to fool us into believing that they are real.

Infinithéâtre's Kafka's ApeI am not immune to the lure of big screen spectacle, and I like a well made special effect as much as the next geek. I too get pulled out of a film if the greenscreen fakery is too obvious, if the orcs, goblins or giant worms look like My First Photoshop. At the same time, there is something limiting to the extent to which we’re conditioned to expect a narrow, superficial expression of naturalism. There is something liberating to forms that are overtly unreal: even at their most real-seeming the animated worlds of, say, Hayao Miyazaki are made rather than found, and the audience is aware of this, whereas the Pandora of James Cameron’s Avatar needs to look as much as possible as if Cameron and his crew had filmed on location. And the more what we see is removed from the Real Thing (or the Convincing Fake), the more we as audiences are tasked with co-creating these worlds in our imagination. Continue reading

These Dead are made for Walking

Zombies. How’s that for unlikely media stars? I used to think it’s only geek culture that goes for zombies in a big way, with stuff like the Marvel Zombies series (seriously!) and with even the most unlikely games having to shoehorn in a mode where you battle the undead hordes.

But no, zombies have arrived in a big way, and they seem to be here to stay. Perhaps the biggest success in this respect has been Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, a comic series started in 2003 which by now has generated not only a TV series that is currently in its third season – and an adventure game series by Telltale Games that is one of the most unexpected gaming hits ever. Adventure games are a bit of a zombie genre themselves; back in the ’80s and ’90s there were many best-selling series, from the Monkey Island games to Sierra’s countless Quest titles, but these days there simply aren’t any triple-A graphic adventures. Telltale, too, have not always produced sterling games, often resorting to tired genre clichés in various series of games trying, with varying success, to revive old franchises, including video game follow-ups to the Back to the Future and Jurassic Park series of films.

To be honest, I didn’t expect much from The Walking Dead. I read the comics but quickly gave up; they start well and are admirably ruthless at depicting a world after the zombie apocalypse where no one is safe from being chowed on by shambling corpses, but the writing is often clumsy and the plotting increasingly became about little other than escalating worst-case scenarios with a touch of sadism towards the characters. (I don’t expect the scenario to be all sunshine and lollipops, but ceaseless grimness and brutality quickly become boring.) The TV series seems well made enough, but zombie fiction tends to rehearse two plots over and over again: 1) the zombies are coming! and 2) man is wolf to man (oh, and the zombies are coming!). How much story can you squeeze out of the overall setup?

Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead doesn’t tell a story that is fundamentally new, but it succeeds at taking the shopworn premise and giving it a spin. For anyone who’s ever despaired at people seriously discussing how they’d fare in the undead apocalypse (and listening to the kind of guys who’d seriously claim that they’ve got it all figured out: “Man, all I need is a sharp katana and 500 tins of baked beans…”), the game puts you in the shoes of a survivor and makes you take some hard decisions. Do you save the person who’s most likely to be of use but who hates your guts or do you throw him to the undead in favour of the woman you’re kinda sweet on? Do you distribute your limited food and water among the group or do you keep them for yourself and the eight-year old girl you’ve taken under your wing?

The game was advertised on the strength of the choices it gives the player, but admittedly the plot doesn’t change in any major ways based on what you do. What does change, though, is how the characters feel about you and how you feel about the characters. What Telltale does magnificently is engage you in the story of a small band of characters – none of which fit the typical video game template (no super heroes, space marines and busty female archaeologists in this one!) – and make you feel the escalating dread and weariness. Whatever you do, you don’t end up saving the world. You might not even save yourself. In The Walking Dead, winning may mean making sure that Clementine, the little girl that ends up in your care, survives another day, that she gets to eat, and that you’ll manage to keep her and the dwindling group of survivors from losing not only their lives but indeed the will to live.

In the end, Telltale’s take on the Walking Dead universe reminds me of nothing as much as of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It doesn’t have the same beautifully sparse prose, but it has the same trajectory – and it effectively puts me in the shoes of The Road‘s father, desperately wanting to make sure that the child I’m looking after is safe but at the same time knowing that I must not do so at the price of my own humanity. The relationship between Lee, the player character, and Clementine is one of the most successfully executed relationships in any game I’ve ever played, and it beats most similar relationships in films and TV. Hell (on earth), even Mr Ebert might appreciate this one when he isn’t yelling for those damn brain-eating kids to get off his laaaaarrrrgh-

P.S.: My apologies for the pun in the title – the only thing that’s funny about it is its smell…

My favourite kinds of imperialism

We’re getting close to the end of The Sopranos. Both Rome and Carnivale only have one more season to offer us. And at the speed at which we’re going through West Wing, President Bartlett will have finished his second term in record time.

How to find good, new series? Used to be, I could pretty much get three out of four HBO series on DVD and be happy for the next year or so. Even if some of them found an untimely end, the journey was absolutely worth it.

Now, though? Can’t say I’m all that interested in Hung, and I’m not sure I would enjoy Big Love (which may be due to my lack of trust in Bill Paxton’s acting abilities – “Game over, man!”, indeed…). What about all these new series starting on other channels, though? The Elmore Leonard series Justified sounds like it might be fun, and I’m definitely hoping to get Caprica, provided that it doesn’t get cancelled after one series.

However, HBO seems to be stepping up its game, with not one but three series premiering this year. The one I’m currently most excited about is the one I only found out about five minutes ago: Boardwalk Empire, by Sopranos alum Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese – yes, you read that right, the Raging Bull of mob cinema himself! Check out the trailer, which looks like the murderous bastard child of Once Upon a Time in America and The Sopranos:

Also looking quite promising, although in a more Norman-Rockwell-meets-Interracial-Slaughter way: The Pacific, which seems to be a sort of companion piece to Band of Brothers. Oh, and it stars the little kid from Jurassic Park, all grown up. Listen, boy, you should know better than to return to island jungles! (Cue bad “Doyouthinkhesaurus?” jokes about jungle warfare…) Again, let me peruse YouTube:

Finally, the creators of my favourite series (it shares the pedestal with Six Feet Under) are doing a new show on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It’s called Treme and it’s got the usual awesome cast of actors, including Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters. It’ll be good to see Lester Freamon and Bunk Moreland back in action!