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…

Whatever happened to Steven Spielberg?

Yes, I’m a pretentious film geek who salivates at the sound of “Criterion Collection”. I like Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (a little known Swedish children’s movie about a boy and a seal at the local circus – it’s basically Free Ølåf) and Fellini’s La Strada – but I love the great popcorn movies. For me, there are two almost perfect representatives of that hallowed group of films: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws.

What happened to the man who made those films, though? Spielberg is still one of the best craftsmen in Hollywood, but the thing that was exhilarating about his early films was their sheer energy. There was a joy to the filmmaking, a childlike sense of fun, that made Spielberg unique. It’s there in the two films mentioned, and it’s also there in E.T. (mixed with a generous dollop of sentimentality) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind – but the biggest failure of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was that it was tired and felt forced. There was little of the exhilaration of the earlier films in the series, especially of the first. Obviously this could be attributed to Indy having aged himself, but that’s a disappointingly humdrum explanation that pretty much begs the question: why have a fourth Indy movie in the first place?

More than that though, rewatching Jaws over the weekend I was made aware of how Spielberg in his early days was much more ruthless. He didn’t have qualms about having a young boy be chomped by a shark, he didn’t think twice about having a number of pretty gruesome deaths in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It wasn’t the childish sadism of Temple of Doom, but it basically meant, “Yes, horrible things can happen. Anyone can get it in the teeth.” And as a result the films were more exciting. If even a kid can be eaten by a shark, well, then nobody’s safe. (Compare Jurassic Park, where the kids and the heroes are never really in jeopardy – it’s pretty much nobodies and evil lawyers that get eaten. It’s amazing that a cheesy, bad film such as Deep Blue Sea gets this better by making it clear from the first that anyone can die – even Samuel L. “Badass” Jackson.)

The much-ridiculed CGI retouching of E.T., replacing guns with walkie-talkies is symptomatic of this fretful, overly squeamish Spielberg. The BMX chase in the original version of E.T. is exciting, and the moment when they get out the guns, we know: Uh oh. Something bad could happen. Compare the same moment in the ‘remastered’ version, where the impression we get is that the worst that could happen is, they might be caught by the grown-ups and given a severe talking-to. Where’s the danger? Where’s the sense of actual risk? If you take that away, characters that we care about become invincible video game characters with the god mode turned on.

I’m in a minority in that I quite liked much of War of the Worlds, but it’s a prime example of a film that suffers from Spielberg’s “playing it safe” doctrine. It’s pretty clear, in every single scene, that he wouldn’t kill off Dakota Fanning – and while her brother puts himself in a situation where he’s almost sure to die, we get an unbelievable, corny deus ex ending that many filmmakers who are much less skilled than Spielberg would have scoffed at.

Obviously Spielberg isn’t the young man he was when he made Jaws or Raiders. He’s older now, so it’s only to be expected… but did he have to become so damn po-faced? Where’s the glee? Reduce Spielberg to his (considerable) skill while taking away his sense of joy and adventure, and you get Zombie Spielberg.

And everyone knows that only Godzilla Lucas can fight Zombie Spielberg.

It happened at the movies… (2)

28 Days Later and Millions – these films couldn’t be much more different in terms of what they’re about, yet they’re so obviously directed by the same person… I missed the former at the cinema due to middling reviews (and probably also the agonised moans of zombie aficionados all over the internet). Then, after I’d already pretty much forgotten about the film, a friend lent it to me on DVD. I didn’t expect much when I popped the disk into the player, but I was very positively surprised to find one of the most atmospheric, effecive, thrilling and beautifully paced films I’d seen that year. Yes, the ending is a mess, but it can’t ruin what the first 75% of the movie has built up. The shots of a deserted London alone deserve to become one of the iconic images of British cinema.

Millions, too, was an unexpected joy. The film is wildly inventive and balances its sentimental elements (that feel truthful and are never overplayed) with a sly sense of humour. It’s on a very short list of Christmas films that don’t make me feel like throwing up my eggnog all over the prezzies. And it’s got two of the best child performances I’ve ever seen on film.

Add to these two cinematic surprises directed by Danny Boyle that I’d seen a marvellous stage adaptation of Alex Garland’s evocative novel The Coma, which you can find a trailer for here. Garland also wrote the script for 28 Days Later, so when I heard that the two of them had teamed up again for Sunshine, a sci-fi movie, I was excited.

After seeing the film at the cinema, I was disappointed. I’d wanted to like, even love, Sunshine, and again, the first 3/4 gave me a lot of material to love. If you submit to its slow buildup of tension, it’s one of the strongest films of a space mission going horribly wrong since 2001: A Space Odyssey. And then it attempts to become a metaphysical thriller – but it slips and becomes a somewhat more restrained (but not much better) take on Event Horizon. When I read the script afterward, I realised what they were going for, but unfortunately they didn’t quite manage. On a larger scale, it was 28 Days Later all over, but moer disappointing, since this time I expected something great to begin with.

Still, do the final 30-40 minutes destroy what came before? They almost did on my first viewing; nevertheless, the preceding scenes are what stayed with me. Boyle and Garland succeed at impressing something of the immensity of the sun, and of the astronauts’ task, on us. This isn’t Armageddon or Deep Impact, it’s not heroic Bruce Willis going off to save the world to the strains of Aerosmith. These are normal people who’ve been given a task that, if you think about it too much, will drive you mad.

And while the film’s sort-of-villain verbalises the metaphysical implications less than successfully, the visuals of the dying sun actually convey some of what he says. Staring into the annihilating fires is perhaps the closest you can get to looking at the face of God. It’s interesting, though, that Garland, an atheist, and Boyle, more of a doubtful theist, read their film, and its metaphysical dimension, in completely different ways: the movie is wise not to come down on any one side of the God issue. It just sits there, like the dying sun – and if you stare at it for too long, it may just burn off your face. Now didn’t your mother warn you not to sit too close to the telly?

P.S.: Here’s the film’s international trailer. I do apologise, though, for the criminally overused orchestral piece nicked from Requiem for a Dream. (How anyone can think it’s a good idea to use music from that film to evoke ‘epic-ness’ is beyond me.)