What We Can Learn From The Star Wars Holiday Special (For Real This Time)

Last year, I gathered all my courage, mourned not being able to watch The Incredible Hulk, and finally sat down to watch the Star Wars Holiday Special, which is commonly called one of the worst moments in television history and one of the biggest missteps in the Star Wars franchise, sentiments that are completely and utterly 100% true. And while I played up this awfulness for comedic value, I figured it was time to actually write out what works well and what doesn’t in the special because, despite what pop culture might tell you, I was surprised to find that the special is… not that awful.

Now, don’t get me wrong; the special is not some misunderstood masterpiece that has aged like fine wine. It is a bad show with seemingly endless padding, almost ten minutes of non-stop Wookie gargling without subtitles, stirring and whipping, and the… inconsistent acting. And that’s before Leia breaks out into song. But as hard as it may be to believe, there’s also some good things, too: the lighthearted, feel-good music, seeing Luke, Leia, Han, and all the other classic characters doing their stuff, the 70’s style that saturates the whole thing, and some downright hilarious Youtube comments.

Now, lest you feel the temptation to actually sit down and watch the special (an endeavor I don’t recommend unless you’ve consumed copious amounts of alcohol) sit back and let me present to you the hard-won writing lessons I got from watching this piece of 70’s kitsch.

What does the story do well?

The core concept isn’t bad

Regardless of its execution, the story of the Holiday Special itself isn’t bad: During a period of galactic civil war, Chewbacca tries to get back to his family on Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day, the most important holiday in Wookie culture. But it won’t be easy: the Galactic Empire is in hot pursuit of Chewie, and maintains a presence on Kashyyyk harassing the locals. Not only will Chewie and Han have to escape the Empire, but Chewie’s family will also have to outsmart and outwit the local Imperials before Chewie arrives so they can all safely celebrate. That’s not a bad story at all, which leads the Special to stand as proof that even the best story ideas can fail due to other circumstances.

It has a good introduction to Boba Fett

While fans generally agree that the Holiday Special is awful, there is also agreement that the best part is a short cartoon that features the first appearance of Boba Fett, one of Star Wars’ most famous side-characters. And they’re right! It’s a short, self-contained story that takes full advantage of it’s animated medium to create interesting and unique visuals that would be expensive to do in live-action, as well as give Boba a moral ambiguity that left first-time viewers wondering if he truly was an ally or someone nefarious, all aided by an excellent voice performance by Don Francks. Plus, hearing Darth Vader in any cartoon is always an excellent thing.

It shows what life is like for ordinary people in a sci-fi universe

If there’s only one thing the Holiday Special does well, it’s to show what life is like for ordinary, everyday people in the Star Wars galaxy, the folks who aren’t involved in the war, who aren’t firing blasters at Stormtroopers, and who just want to get through their day. We get to see cooking shows, what a Wookie home is like, the toys a child has in this galaxy, and what common people do to relax and have fun.

While showing ordinary life in a fantasy world sounds boring (don’t we indulge in fantasy to escape from everyday life?), it actually adds a lot of depth to that universe. Films and books typically devote little to no time showing what everyday life is like for people in fantasy worlds because of needing to focus on whatever is threatening that world. Devoting an hour and half to showing people buying and preparing food, playing, relaxing in bars, and celebrating holidays doesn’t bring in the big bucks at the cinema, after all, which makes these kind of stories rare, and even rarer in one of the biggest film franchises in history.

What could have been done to improve the story?

Everything

Okay, that’s too easy.

It could have cut out the Wookie porn

Unless it is a vital part of the story, we don’t need to watch an elderly Wookie getting sexually stimulated by softcore virtual pornography.

It could have cut out all the padding

On retrospect, I think one reason the Holiday Special earned such a disastrous reputation is that so much of it feels like padding. Part of this is due to the variety show format, but while parts of it are… tolerable… most are not, such as Malla stirring and whipping, and almost four minutes of assembling a transmitter. If these segments were removed and the story revised to focus on the holiday aspect, it would have been a stronger, more enjoyable tale.

It could have made the story more ‘holiday-ey’

While the slice-of-life format of the Holiday Special is a welcome change from the constant, non-stop war seen in all the Star Wars films, the holiday aspect feels almost non-existant. While it wouldn’t make sense for the Star Wars universe to just copy Christmas traditions verbatim, it would have been nice to see more holiday traditions throughout the special, such as festive decorations, gift-giving, etc. Even having Itchy, Lumpy, and Malla try to spread holiday cheer to the Imperials who come to their house would have helped embody the spirit of a winter holiday. As it is, the special’s only holiday aspect comes at the very end; while this works as the climax to the story, it would have been better to have more moments of festivity throughout.

Conclusion

While it deserves much of the negative reception it’s received, the Star Wars Holiday Special is, like every story, a product of its time. Where the rest of the Star Wars saga is a timeless story, the Holiday Special is a weird time capsule of the late 70’s, for better or worse, a time where where variety shows were viable entertainment, but starting their slide into obsolescence, and the Star Wars franchise was still trying to find its footing. And while there is a lot to dislike here, there’s still some good stuff, too. In a way, the Special is like our own holiday season: If we honestly search for things to be thankful for in a world filled with pain, suffering, and misery, we can find them.

Happy Winter Holidays, everyone.

The Best Background Characters: Unimpressed Spider-Man Guy

Every story has a cast of characters that we follow and watch and come to love… but what about the background characters? The nameless masses who rarely get our attention? This column examines my favorite background characters who deserve a moment in the spotlight.

***

The Movie:

‘Spider-Man 3’

The Character:

A guy who’s not impressed at seeing New York City’s most famous superhero.

The Scene:

(The guy in question appears a few times in the repeated crowd scene, but for the purposes of this article, he appears at 4:33 in the bottom left between the two firefighters)

Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight

Unless you’ve been living in quarantine in an apartment with no internet, TV, or magazines to read for the past year, you’re probably aware that this Friday, December 17th, marks the arrival of a new Spider-Man movie! But while most superhero fans (myself included) are excited at the thought of seeing some classic characters from Sam Raimi’s time with the webhead, there might be one guy who couldn’t care less.

2007’s ‘Spider-Man 3”s climax features Spider-Man arriving at a construction site to save Mary Jane from both Venom and the Sandman, beginning with a crowd cheering his arrival. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that not everyone is enthusiastic to see him. Specifically, this guy:

Who is this man? Obviously just some unnamed citizen of New York City, but while everyone else is excited and clapping at seeing Spider-Man coming to the rescue, he responds with half-hearted clapping and a look of profound indifference. Maybe he’s an ignored nobody, someone working two jobs just to make ends meet, and he admires Sandman and Venom, in the way that a lonely, powerless individual admires those with the power to get what they want, and wants to see them stick it to The Man.

Sadly for Unimpressed Spectator Guy, Spidey’s interrupted his fun, and he’s going along with the crowd while trying to hide his disappointment at knowing that Spider-Man’s going to save the day. Makes you wonder if he would have been cheering and clapping when Thanos wiped out half of all life in the Universe.

What We Can Learn From The Resident Evil Film Series: Part 2 – ‘Apocalypse’

NOTE: Some of the links and videos in this article contain language that is not safe for work.

Despite bearing little resemblance to the video game it was adapting, 2002’s ‘Resident Evil’ was enough of a hit at the box office to warrant a sequel, one that arrived in theaters two years later with ‘Resident Evil: Apocalypse.’

Picking up almost immediately after the events of the first film, ‘Apocalypse’ follows Alice as she heads out into Raccoon City to fight the undead and escape while the sinister Umbrella Corporation – proving that they have the intelligence of a rotting cucumber – reopen the zombie-infested Hive, triggering a citywide outbreak, and forcing Alice and several newcomers to find a way to escape the city before the whole place is nuked to prevent the virus from spreading to the wider world.

Much like its predecessor, ‘Apocalypse’ was not a critical hit, and is rated among professional critics as the worst in the series, while fan reception was (and continues to be) mixed. But despite this, the film was a box office hit, making $129 million worldwide on a $45 million budget, which meant there had to be some things in the film that fans liked. So with that, let’s wade into the hordes and see if we can figure out what they are.

What does the movie do well?

It’s more faithful to the games

Compared to the previous movie, ‘Apocalypse’s greatest virtue is that it actually feels like an adaptation of the games instead of a standalone zombie film with the Resident Evil brand slapped on it. The movie has locations from the games (Raccoon City, the police department), monsters (zombies, zombie dogs, lickers, and Nemesis), characters (Jill Valentine, Carlos, Yuri, Nicholai, and Ashfords), and does a much better job embodying the spirit of the original Playstation games, while also leaving out elements that wouldn’t translate well to the big screen. (Burn in hell, water-tetris puzzle)

It has a very effective stairwell scene

Though it’s more focused on action, ‘Apocalypse’ does feature its fair share of horror elements, with people being eaten alive by zombies, unstoppable monsters, and abandoned environments. But one scene early on stands above the rest: a woman flees from a horde of zombies inside a stairwell, only to come to a locked door and just barely manages to enter the code to unlock the door and break out onto the roof.

Though a short scene, it taps into the primal fear of being trapped in an enclosed area and facing a horrific, painful, and slow death.

It has a great introduction for Carlos

In fiction, first impressions matter, and Umbrella operative Carlos gets a great one, as seen in the above clip: Seeing a woman fleeing from zombies, he immediately abandons his current mission, rappels out of the helicopter, kills all the zombies, and tries to save the woman, who, having been infected, takes her life.

While Carlos’ efforts were in vain, the scene establishes that not only is Carlos an accomplished marksman, but despite being an employee of the most evil corporation ever, he has a heart and is not afraid to go out and save innocent people even if it means defying his orders, instantly making him a likable man we’d want to be around if we got stuck in a zombie outbreak.

It has an effective ticking clock

The first film had Alice and her friends racing against the clock to escape the Hive before it was sealed, and ‘Apocalypse’ ups the ante by forcing Alice, Jill, Carlos, and the others to escape Raccoon City before the Umbrella Corporation destroys it with a nuclear bomb. Having an unbreakable deadline gives the characters a great motivation to constantly keep moving, as well as giving their every choice and decision additional weight, forcing them to be strategic with how they spend the limited time available to them.

It gives all the characters a good reason to risk going into a zombie-infected area

So often in stories where a character or a group of characters are forced into performing an unpleasant or dangerous task to gain something they must acquire, ‘Apocalypse’ has a rare twist: In order to secure an exit from Raccoon City, Alice, Jill, and the others are recruited by Umbrella Scientist Charles Ashford to rescue his daughter before she’s turned into radioactive ash by the incoming nuclear missile. Having a loved one rescued is a refreshing change from so many deals where one side is aiming to get more wealth, power, or selfish desires. Plus, audiences will always applaud characters who go out of their way to rescue children from dangerous situations, even ones they don’t know.

It has an effective backstory for the virus

Though the first film revealed that the T-Virus was going to be used as a military weapon, ‘Apocalypse’ reveals that the virus was actually created by Charles to save his daughter from a disease that would have left her crippled for life. Such a revelation makes Charles Ashford a tragic figure: the father who only wanted to save his daughter and help humanity, only to lose control of his creation to a heartless corporation who defiled his creation and turned into a weapon of mass destruction. Even worse, by creating the T-Virus, Ashford – a fundamentally good and decent man – unknowingly became the person who brought humanity to the brink of extinction. Yikes.

It has a fantastic main monster

If there’s one thing that both fans and critics can agree on, it’s that ‘Apocalypse’ does a superb job with its main monster, Nemesis, who is brought to life directly from the third game via great use of prosthetics and practical effects. Unlike the Nemesis of the game, who is a nearly mindless killing machine, the Nemesis of ‘Apocalypse’ is a monster who doesn’t slaughter everyone in sight, but only attacks enemies he’s ordered to; in my favorite scene of the movie, Nemesis, having killed a group of STARS operatives, comes across LJ, the film’s comic relief and a civilian armed with two handguns. Realizing that he doesn’t have a chance of taking on this hulking brute, LJ tosses his guns and surrenders. Seeing that LJ doesn’t pose a threat, Nemesis spares him and leaves.

Much like the title monster from the Predator series, giving Nemesis a moral code (for lack of a better term) makes him a much more interesting foe than if he just killed everyone and everything in sight.

But what truly makes Nemesis so interesting is the (fairly obvious) reveal that he’s actually Matt from the previous film, now mutated and twisted into a monster under Umbrella’s control, forced to fight and kill against his will. And like any great monster, seeing him break free from his unjust fate is a crowd-pleasing moment of the highest caliber: Matt may still a monster, but he’s now on the side of the angels and helps Alice and the others escape, sacrificing his life to do so. Audiences love a monster who abandons its killing ways, and who fights to save good people of its own free will, and Matt/Nemesis fits that role perfectly. No matter what other flaws ‘Apocalypse’ has, Nemesis stands apart as its single-best element, and becomes one of the best characters – and the best monsters – of the entire series.

What could the story have done better?

It could have given the characters a concrete goal earlier in the story

As noted above, ‘Apocalypse’ gives Alice, Jill, and the others a ticking clock to up the tension and drama. The problem is that they aren’t given this clock until about 42 minutes into the film. Had they learned about the nuke by the end of the first act – or been given an equivalent goal to work towards – the story would be more focused and had a more tangible finish line instead of the generic, ‘Oh noes we gotta get out of the zombie-infested city.’

It could have come up with a more definitive reason to do Project Alice

Pop Quiz time: You are an evil Umbrella Corporation agent in charge of Raccoon City and have just learned that the T-virus is rampaging out of control. You order a nuclear strike to obliterate the city and (hopefully) stop the virus. What is your next move?

A: Immediately evacuate all Umbrella personnel, equipment, and vital data as far away from the city as possible, as quickly as possible.

B: Decide that now is the perfect time to set up tents and do a field test on a biological weapon.

The film chooses option B, and it comes off as nonsensical; why spend your limited time doing a field test when you should be running for your life? Adding a scene where Major Cain decides that deploying Nemesis to ensure Alice is killed to prevent her revealing what happened in the Hive would have alleviated this problem. Or, better yet, have Cain be ordered to do the test from his superiors, much to his annoyance, showing that he’s more interested in taking care of the men and women under his command, and only does such a test begrudgingly, hating that he has to risk his personnel for such a stupid reason.

Speaking of Project Alice…

It could have removed Project Alice

While ‘Apocalypse’ has issues that most action horror films have (too many characters who exist just to serve as cannon fodder, an unremarkable story, cliched ethnic stereotypes who serve as comic relief, etc.) and issues with logic and common sense (The Umbrella Corporation couldn’t find Angela after the crash, but her father can locate her in a minute with a personnel tracker), it’s biggest problem is the decision to give Alice superpowers and an unpleasant, smug attitude who is stronger, faster, and better than established canon characters at everything and puts them down at every opportunity in an attempt to look cool and awesome (all of whom eventually come to devote all their efforts in helping her).

The problem is, by making Alice ‘cooler’ than Jill, Carlos, and everyone else, the film has her constantly coming in where she’s not wanted or needed, and stealing the spotlight away from characters who are in the game and should be having their own moment to shine. Instead of seeing Jill and her companions using their wits to escape the church by the skin of their teeth, Alice drives inside on a motorcycle and kills all three attacking lickers with ease. Instead of seeing Jill triumphantly kill the zombie dogs after fighting to keep Angela safe, Alice literally comes out of nowhere and kills them instead with no effort. And instead of seeing Jill and the others fighting to within an inch of their lives and expending every bullet they have to take Nemesis down, Alice beats him in a horribly edited fistfight.

Now, imagine a version of ‘Apocalypse’ where Alice has no superpowers. She can’t jump over a fence in a single-bound, can’t take out three hunters with barely any effort, and can’t fight Nemesis in hand-to-hand combat. She’s an ordinary person fighting for her life with other people who are just like herself, with only their wits, courage, and whatever supplies they can gather. Worse, the Umbrella corporation wants Alice dead before she can reveal to the world what was going on in the Hive, and sends Nemesis to kill her. Now she not only has to fight an entire city filled with the undead, but a homicidal monster with a minigun and rocket launcher while she has, at most, a pistol and shotgun, forcing her to constantly run from a beast she can’t kill until the climax where she has to stand and fight. Doesn’t that sound more engaging than superhero Alice killing everyone and everything with ease? Watching overpowered characters escape from danger again and again is not engaging; watching ordinary people fighting and overcoming impossible odds while completely out of their element is.

While Project Alice drags ‘Apocalypse’ down and would cast a shadow over the rest of the series, the rest of the film is a perfectly serviceable action film. I admit to enjoying it quite a bit more than its predecessor, and it moves the story forward in a logical way, and serves as the cutoff point for the series: Up to this point, the movies have followed the games, more or less. But from here on out, Anderson’s films head into uncharted territory and forge their own path separate from the games. Tune in next time, when we’ll take a look at the 2007 sequel, ‘Resident Evil: Extinction,’ and see just how that path begins to play out.

What We Can Learn from The Resident Evil Film Series: Part 1

It’s October once again, and our annual celebration of all things spooky: Vampires, skeletons, ghosts, witches, political lobbyists, and everything else that lurks in the shadows under the midnight moon. But there’s nothing to celebrate about the troubled times we live in: democracy is under siege worldwide, the climate is changing for the worse, and a virus is running rampant that causes some people to go mad and attack others for the most trivial of reasons. In light of all these troubles, I thought, in spirit of the season, why not take some time to unwind by watching a movie series about a virus running rampant that causes people to go mad and attack others, eventually destroying civilization and bringing humanity to its knees? The series of which I speak is the long-running, seemingly undead saga of ‘Resident Evil.’

Ever since the introduction of the original Resident Evil on the Playstation in 1995, the series has gone on to encompass 28 games (!), several novels, action figures, and even a freaking restaurant. It’s not surprising that a movie adaptation would eventually come along, and we got such an adaptation with the Paul W.S. Anderson series that ran from 2002 to 2016. While a critical failure, the series was a financial success (they remain the highest-grossing zombie movie series in history), which means that they must have been doing something well. That’s why we’re going to dive into all six films and see if we can discover just what those things are.

Much like my previous analysis of Friday the 13th, the Matrix fight scenes, and the Jaws series, we’ll be taking a look at each movie and seeing what they do well, and what could have used some improvement. And once we reach the end, we’ll see what the series accomplished and what lessons it can offer writers. So without further ado, let’s dive into the world of movies about video game zombies. We’ll start at the beginning, with the simply-named, ‘Resident Evil.’

Released in 2002, the movie follows a group of heavily armed Umbrella soldiers and a lady in skimpy clothes as they infiltrate the Hive, an underground research facility where a killer virus has broken loose and turned the people inside into bloodthirsty zombies, hideous monsters, and other icky horrors that our heroes must fight in order to escape.

What does the film do well?

It has an effective horror location

Any self-respecting horror story has its characters eventually stuck in an isolated, out-of-the-way location where it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get help, forcing the characters to rely on their wits and each other. ‘Resident Evil’ is an interesting variation of this: the film takes place almost entirely within the Hive, an underground research facility located beneath a major metropolitan area. This serves a dual purpose: It makes it so that the characters are so close to help, but are still cut off, and since the facility is deep underground, they can’t just jump out of a window, run out through the main door, or otherwise easily escape. Worse still, if the virus breaks free, everyone the surface will suffer the same fate as the poor souls who have been transformed into undead ghouls.

It has an effective ticking clock

One of the best ways to keep a story moving is to have a ticking clock, something bad that will occur if the protagonists don’t accomplish their goals in time. ‘Resident Evil’ features a particularly effective one: Alice and the other security forces heading into the Hive have to get back out or they’ll be trapped inside when the Hive is permanently sealed. That’s a good incentive to keep moving and ensure that the story does, too.

It has a great psychological death scene

‘Resident Evil’ gets off to a good start by having a bunch of innocent workers die during the initial virus outbreak, most by being gassed, some by being dropped to their death in an elevator, and one poor lady getting her head smashed into goo. It’s all suitably unnerving, but I think the most effective part takes place in a sealed lab.

(the scene in question starts at 4:55)

There, three workers realize that, because the lab is sealed, the water pouring in has nowhere to go. If they don’t find a way out, they’ll drown. Later, when Alice and the soldiers pass through the lab area, we learn that the workers did indeed drown.

The other deaths in the opening may be more graphic, visceral, and direct, but for my money this is the most unnerving death scene of the film. It taps into the fear of facing a horrible, painful death and not being able to do anything about it. Worse still, it’s not a quick death: you would have plenty of time to watch the water slowly rise, covering your knees, then your waist, then your chest, and shoulders, until there’s only a few inches of space left for you to breathe… and then there would be nothing. And all the while you’re trying to cut your way out with an axe, only to realize that there’s no way out. You’re going to drown, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. It’s a terrifying thought, and a perfect example of how horror is more than just decapitations and buckets of blood being thrown all over the screen: It’s about suffering and being helpless to stop it.

It has an awesome deathtrap

If the James Bond and SAW series have proven anything over the years, it’s that people get a kick out of elaborate deathtraps, and ‘Resident Evil’ features a particularly infamous one: the laser hallway.

This scene is a doozy because it’s so simple, yet devastatingly effective: our operatives are trapped inside a tight, confined space with nowhere to hide, and their only hope to survive is to dodge the lasers until the system is shut down. But the lasers’ path is unpredictable and constantly changing, culminating with an inescapable grid that chops One into bite-sized pieces.

Yet, like all great traps, it is possible to survive. The people facing it have a chance if they’re fast, flexible, and have taken plenty of Zumba classes, but messing up just once means losing body parts if you’re lucky, or death if you’re not. It’s simple, effective, and memorable, so much so that even the Resident Evil video games featured a homage to it.

It has a villain doing the wrong thing for very justifiable reasons

While Alice and the Umbrella soldiers have to deal with zombies, zombie dogs, a licker, and the man who is ultimately responsible for starting the outbreak in the first place (for money, of course), their main adversary is the Red Queen, the AI in charge of running the Hive. But while it is responsible for killing a few hundred workers and researchers, it was not done out of malice: The Red Queen, in order to prevent the highly contagious T-Virus from escaping the Hive and reaching the surface, decided that killing everyone to keep them from escaping was the best course of action in prevent a planetary pandemic. And considering what happens in the later films, the Queen’s logic is dark, but understandable: Kill a few hundred to prevent humanity being brought to the edge of extinction.

The very best villains are the ones that make audiences ponder what they would do in their place, making them more memorable than the routine, ‘kill ‘em all for money/power/the evulz/etc.’ villains we see so often. It’s hard to beat a villain who relies on logic instead of malice and does horrific things for the right reasons (and is even willing to let Alice and the others escape if they kill the one infected member of their group).

It features a great cliffhanger ending

As is so often the case in action-horror movies, only a few people make it out alive at the end (Alice and Matt) before the Hive is finally sealed. But the movie doesn’t end there: the true ending finds Alice waking up in a hospital and emerging into an abandoned Raccoon City. There’s no help coming, no rescue party, and all Alice has is a single shotgun to face off against the unseen armies of the undead. Even worse is the knowledge that Matt is being put into the Nemesis program, a great tease for fans of the game as to who will appear in the next film. And while it’s always risky to end a movie on a cliffhanger (there’s no guarantee you’re going to get that sequel), this one is terrific, leaving viewers imagining what’s going to happen next in a world that’s on the brink of the apocalypse.

What could the story have done better?

It could have been much more faithful to the games

The biggest flaw with ‘Resident Evil’ is that it has almost nothing to do with the game it’s based off of. While the main elements are here (a team of trained operatives, a mansion, zombies, a licker, and the Umbrella Corporation), none of the characters from the game appear, and we have a plot that bears little resemblance to the source material, a massive disappointment for anyone who hoped to see Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, and Barry Burton’s Jill Sandwich jokes.

When a book, a video game, or other property gets adapted into a film, fans of those properties expect to see the story and characters brought to life on the big screen, and ‘Resident Evil’s lack of faithfulness to the source material leaves it feeling like a In-Name-Only adaptation designed to deprive fans of their cash without giving them what they were expecting.

There are too many side characters

‘Resident Evil’ features the undead horse-trope of ‘large group of individuals go through a horror movie where 80% of them exist to die horribly.’ While there are plenty of deaths to satisfy horror fans, those deaths would have much more impact if we got time to know more of the soldiers, giving their deaths more emotional weight. As with so many other films of this type, it might have been better to have only a handful of characters instead of a lot.

It has a cliffhanger ending

The biggest risk of having a cliffhanger ending is that, unless you’re doing an installment of a major, pre-established franchise or already filming the sequel, a sequel is not guaranteed. People may just not go see the movie, the hoped-for profits never come, and a followup is never made, leaving a cliffhanger eternally unresolved. While ‘Resident Evil’s gamble paid off, it could have also left fans angry at never seeing the coming zombie apocalypse or Nemesis stomping about while yelling about stars.

Cliffhangers, while effective, should be used carefully, both in case a project never gets a followup, or if the followup itself is… well, we’ll get to that later. But we’ve still got five movies to go through, so tune in next time where we’ll see Alice jump out of the frying pan and into the zombie-infected fire in ‘Resident Evil: Apocalypse.’

Five Ways Sauron Is A Good Role Model

When it comes to role models, you can do a lot better than Sauron, The Lord of the Rings. Ever since his debut in 1954 with the publication of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring,’ Sauron continues to reign as one of literature’s most famous fantasy villains. Yet, as Elrond noted, nothing is evil in the beginning, and even with his egomania, his desire to brainwash and enslave everyone in Middle-Earth, and his desire to become a god king, there are still some good and noble traits to Sauron’s character. So let’s dive in and take a look to see the dark lord’s admirable traits:

5. He uses cunning and intelligence over brute strength

For those unfamiliar with the backstory of Tolkien’s world, Sauron is essentially an angel who served a god of evil (Morgoth) that sought complete and total domination over the world and everything in it, corrupting the very essence of the world so that his evil was forever entrenched with it, causing strife among all those on it forever.

While Sauron was incapable of performing similar feats, he was arguably more intelligent and strategic with the strength, power, and resources that he had. Instead of seeking to control everything, he only sought to control the minds of those who lived in Midde-Earth, using lies, charm, deciet, and his Ring to strategically advance his goals. If Morgoth was the overpowering brute who believed in overwhelming power and physical might, Sauron was the quiet, silent type who lurks in the shadows, biding his time until the moment is right to strike with a scalpel for maximum effect.

4. He commits himself 100% to making his dreams come true

In a way, Sauron is the ultimate made-man (maiar?). Before he fell into evil, he loved perfection and order, and joined Morgoth to help make his dream become a reality. When Morgoth fell, did Sauron run away, hide in a cave, and weep for his dead dream? Nope; he abandoned Morgoth and continued on his quest. No matter how many elves, men, hobbits, ents, and gods were against him, Sauron refused to abandon his dream of a perfectly ordered world, to the point that he was willing to risk everything and created The One Ring to achieve his goal, with the risk of being reduced to a permanently powerless, helpless spirit if it were ever destroyed.

Regardless of how abhorrent his actions were, you can’t help but admire Sauron for having the courage to follow his heart and do everything he could to make his dreams come true!

3. He isn’t afraid to ignore authority figures and forge his own path

If there’s one thing Sauron cannot be faulted for, it’s his courage in rebelling against actual, physical gods. While Sauron is a powerful angel (perhaps the most powerful), he’s still outmatched by the gods who rule over all of Arda, and the god who created them, a god that Sauron has seen in-person. Yet, Sauron willingly and purposefully defies all of them, refusing to let himself be bound by rules, orders, and commands forced down on him from those more powerful than himself. Sauron has a dream, and he’s not going to let anything stop it!

Who among us hasn’t felt the frustration and anger of being ordered to do something by our parents, our bosses, organizations, or the government? How about being told what to do and how to live our lives without those in power caring about what we want to do? How many of us have dreamed of giving those authority figures the finger? Sauron did, only he did it to gods who could wipe him out in an instant. Whatever his many failings, the guy’s got guts.

2. He’s fallible and fails as often as he succeeds

Hold on a second! Why should we admire a dark lord who fails just as often as he succeeds? Because that makes said dark lord a much more interesting, well-rounded character instead of the cliched dark lord who is all but unstoppable, who is the best fighter, has the best armies, and commands power beyond imagination. And at first glance Sauron appears to be such a character. Here’s a list of his greatest triumphs throughout his career in villainy:

1. Became the second-in-command of the most evil being who ever existed.

2. Created the most evil object in history that no mortal could hope to control.

3. Brought down the most powerful human kingdom to ever exist using nothing but words.

4. Created the Ringwraiths

5. Tricked the elves into creating magical rings that would allow Sauron to control their minds and the minds of anyone who wore them.

6. Could sing songs so powerfully and so skillfully that he defeated a very powerful elf in a battle of wills (presumably it was this song).

7. Came very close to conquering the world twice, and would have succeeded if not for last-minute interventions.

8. Created a language from scratch to allow all his followers to speak a common tongue.

But with the good must come the bad, and here are Sauron’s greatest failures:

1. Was defeated by a really big doggy in a fight.

2. Was beaten multiple times by the armies of elves and men.

3. Had his ability to take a pleasing appearance taken away by God himself.

4. Failed to take over the minds of the most powerful elves and the dwarves using The One Ring.

5. Was killed by an elf and a man on the side of a volcano.

6. Failed to take over the world due to the actions of a 600 year old schizophrenic midget.

While powerful, Sauron still failed in many of his quests. Every time he fought others in hand-to-hand combat, he lost, and his ultimate scheme to enslave the world failed as well. Yet, its this fallibility that makes Sauron so interesting. He’s like the Terminator in the first Terminator film: He’s stronger, more durable, more intelligent, and more powerful than everyone else in the story. Taking him on in a fight is incredibly dangerous. Yet, he is not invincible, and knowing that he can and does fail makes him more interesting as a character. And speaking of failure…

1. He never, ever gives up

He may have massive armies at his command, an unmatched intellect, the ability to use magic and trickery like no one else, and have the ability to take over the world, but Sauron’s greatest strength as a villain is that no matter how many defeats he suffers, or how many times his plans fail, and no matter how many times he’s killed, Sauron never, ever gives up. No matter what you throw at him, no matter how badly his armies are decimated, or how many times his kingdoms are overthrown, Sauron will just get back up and keep going. He will let nothing stop him, and he’s quite possibly the closest thing Middle-Earth has to a Terminator: No matter where you’re hiding in Middle-Earth, Sauron is out there. He can’t be reasoned with. He can’t be bargained with. He doesn’t feel pity or remorse, and no matter how many times you defeat him, he will come back and he absolutely will not stop, ever, until he has conquered Middle-Earth.

If you take away all his villainy and see his virtues, Sauron suddenly becomes a role model that anyone can look up to, including children. He fits the profile of the plunky underdog almost perfectly and delievers a timeless, universal message everyone can aspire to: You may not be the most powerful, the strongest, or the most capable of people, but if you make the most of what you have, follow your heart, refuse to accept defeat, and keep going no matter what life throws at you, you, too, can make your dreams come true!

Well, just as long you aren’t followed around by an elderly and demented midget. If that happens, you’re screwed.

How To Make ‘Aliens’ Even Better

Ever since the release of ‘Aliens’ back in 1986, it’s been hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi action horror films of all time, as well as one of the greatest sequels ever. While I agree with both sentiments, I still prefer the original, 1979 ‘Alien’. Where ‘Aliens’ is about highly-trained warriors taking on a threat they can kill, ‘Alien’ is about everyday people struggling to defeat an opponent who’s stronger than them, faster than them, and can kill them in an instant. ‘Aliens’ has a stronger focus on action, while ‘Alien’ has a better formula for horror.

Recently, that got me thinking: What would ‘Aliens’ look like if we were to, say, take away all the marines, guns and military-grade equipment?

In this parallel universe, ‘Alien’ ends with Ripley, Parker, Lambert, and Jones escaping the Nostromo, which explodes and kills the Xenomorph. Sixty years later, the three survivors are woken by the escape shuttle’s computer detecting a nearby colony. Ripley and the others set down on the planet, only to discover that the colony is in ruins. Sneaking inside, Ripley, Parker, and Lambert (Jones remains on the parked shuttle) find Newt and realize that the colony has been overrun by Xenomorphs. Needless to say, the group tries to get back into space to avoid facing any more penis-monsters from beyond the stars, but the shuttle is overrun by said penis-monsters. While they just barely manage to rescue Jones, the shuttle is rendered inoperable via acid blood, stranding Ripley and the others on the planet.

Lambert, predictably, freaks out. Parker’s not happy, either, but Ripley manages to calm them down: if they can use the colony’s communications grid to call for help, they can then hunker down and wait for a rescue, as Newt managed to survive on her own without any training. But due to damage to the colony’s atmosphere processing unit, power is out throughout the complex. Parker and Lambert jury-rig the system to let them send off a single broadcast, and then all they can do is survive until help arrives. But as in the original film, the processing unit begins to melt down, and without any means of escaping into space, everyone will be forced to flee into the inhospitable wilderness of LV-426 and fend off any Xenomorphs that come after them.

Would Ripley and the others be able to survive? Would they be able to drive far enough away from the plant before it explodes? Would they be able to last months before help arrives? And, most importantly, would they be able to discover why kids like the taste of Cinnamon Toast Crunch? I’ll leave that up to you, but this thought experiment changes the tone and feel of the movie completely: by replacing marines and their weapons with untrained civilians, ‘Aliens’ becomes a more frightening movie because surviving becomes so much harder without smartguns, pulse rifles, and APCs. Ripley and her friends would have to scavenge whatever equipment they could find and improvise in order to fight for survival. And where they had to only face one alien last time, now they have to face dozens, if not hundreds. Survival is still a possibility, but much less likely.

The bottom line from this thought experiment? Untrained, unprepared, everyday people are almost always the best protagonists to have in horror movies, as the fight to survive will feel more authentic than if our protagonists are highly-trained, testosterone-filled, well-armed soldiers. Take away the big, powerful guns, the body armor, the apcs, grenades, missiles, and fighter craft, and you’re no longer the alpha predator; you’re prey, and your fight to survive will be all the more intense.

Favorite Moments: King Kong With A Lightsaber

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Video

Why it’s great

If I had to pick Hollywood’s most famous weapon, I’d choose the lightsaber. Ever since it’s introduction in 1977’s ‘A New Hope,’ it has become a part of pop culture, imitated, parodied, and sold in toy stores for decades. There’s a long-running joke online that adding lightsabers to anything immediately makes it more awesome, and I can’t think of a better example than seeing a skyscraper-sized monkey wielding a lightsaber against an equally-large reptile.

What We Can Learn From A Nightmare I Had Last Night

Normally most of us try to forget our nightmares, especially the more distressing ones, and I’m no different. But after a particularly vivid nightmare last night, I decided to instead remember it and see what nuggets of writing wisdom could be unearthed.

In the nightmare, I was in a future where poverty, suffering, and desperation was out of control in the United States (in other words, the present-day). But in this nightmare future, kidnapping is a frighteningly common occurrence, and I was only the latest victim. I was kept inside this grungy, run down house by a group of young 20 somethings who didn’t see me as a person but as a product to be used, sold, or traded. Thankfully, I managed to sneak out of the house and tried to run to freedom, including going through the backyard of a house owned by a bear and asking her for help. However, when I was being pursued and realized there was no way to escape, I used the back button on an internet browser to go back in time so I was back at the house to try and figure out a smarter way to escape.

Then, to make matters worse, I was shown why all this suffering was so commonplace: the kidnappings were done in such a way that if you resisted your captors or tried to escape, they responded by digging out your eyes, cutting off your limbs, then digging out your ears, ripping out your teeth, then your tongue, and finally tearing off your nose so you would become little more than a living sex toy to be used however rich people wanted to use you. It was no wonder so many people just meekly went along with whatever their captors wanted.

But it wasn’t just what happened to individuals: the kidnappings were all being orchestrated by an unspeakably powerful gang that was making headroads into the United States, and threatened all members of law enforcement that the fate of being turned into a blind, deaf, mute, and crippled sex toy was what would happen to their loved ones if they tried to stop the gang in each city they went into, and the gang had the power and ability to do so, meaning it was not an idle threat. Against such malevolence, police and federal law enforcement were all but powerless… and that’s when I woke up, thank God.

What did the nightmare do well?

It used the ‘If you try anything we will harm your loved ones’ trope to devastating effect

It may be used time and time again in countless stories, but there is no faster way to make a good character capitulate to evil than by having evil threaten his or her loved ones with horrific suffering. That taps into our deep-rooted desire for our loved ones to be safe, and the terror of something awful happening to them. While simple, it’s always a devastatingly effective storytelling tool (and an excellent way to make your audience eager to see the villains get their equally horrific comeuppance).

It showed evil as cold and indifferent

It’s easy to imagine evil as smug, cruel, and enjoying tormenting people. But the other side of flashy, smug evil can be equally frightening, if not more so: The kidnappers I faced in the story didn’t care about me or my feelings. They were unaffected by screams, pleas for mercy, threats, and begging. To them, captives were just products, and using torture didn’t bother them at all. They were indifferent to human suffering.

That kind of evil is, in my opinion, more frightening because we expect people to be swayed by emotions, even if it’s only to be more cruel and to laugh at our pain and suffering. But people who aren’t moved are like aliens or robots in human flesh: they may look normal, but we realize that something about them is wrong, and we instinctively fear them because they’re unpredictable and could do anything to us without any warning. They are like spiders, always watching you, never betraying any emotions, waiting to strike when you least expect it, and when they do, it’s unexpected and overpowering. At least with people who relish watching you suffer, you know what to expect and can try to prepare. But with these people? You can’t.

Cold and impersonal is the opposite of smug and selfish. Both work in different circumstances, but in my opinion the former is more frightening.

It threatened the protagonist with a fate worse than death

While death is often seen as the ultimate bad ending, there are fates far, far worse: Does spending decades as a limbless, blind, deaf, mute, and helpless living sex toy sound like fun to you? In any case, threatening a character with such a fate is a quick way to show that the antagonists aren’t messing around.

What could be done to improve the nightmare?

The bear could have had more characterization

The bear I encountered was a fascinating individual, as it was a single mother, had a house, and dressed in human clothes. Clearly, it was an intelligent being who was able to hold down a job and afford a house, but when it saw me and heard my pleas for help, it did nothing but stare at me with its stupid bear-face. The nightmare missed out on the chance to show what it would be like to interact with an intelligent, talking animal, but instead chose to do nothing. How lazy.

There was no explanation how time travel worked

In an otherwise rational, logical, and cruel world, there was no dwelling on the fact that time travel was real, or how it worked. There wasn’t even an attempt to explain how pressing the back button on an internet browser allowed me to reverse time and only have me be the one to realize it. What a disappointment.

Conclusion

Though there were some missed opportunities with regards to the bear’s characterization, and being able to time travel using the back button on an internet explorer was out of place in such an otherwise consistent and grim world, the nightmare did an amazing job showing how indifference can be terrifying, and how threatening ourselves and our loved ones with a fate worse than death is evil’s greatest and most powerful tool. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend revising this nightmare, as it really wasn’t fun to watch or experience. I’d recommend something like this instead.

“No”

One of the great pleasures in fiction is coming across characters who are focused, determined, and know exactly what they want in life, and if you’re a writer, you’ve probably looked into creating such a character yourself. Like most writers, you’ve probably read about how you’re supposed to ask what your characters want to learn more about who they are. While it’s sound, timeless advice, there’s a deeper, more meaningful aspect to it that’s rarely discussed.

First, though let’s take a look at some famous villains and what they want:

1. Sauron wants to conquer Middle-Earth, and he has the strength, the military might, and the intelligence to pull it off; all he needs is his ring, and he will stop at nothing to retrieve it.

2. The Deacon from Waterworld wants to find and pillage Dryland, and he never gives up, no matter what obstacles are in his way, including the incompetence of his underlings.

3. Disney wants to buy every corporation, media franchise, and nation on Earth, and they won’t let pesky things like laws, common sense, or an outraged public stop them.

Now, let’s look at some famous heroes and what they want:

1. Gandalf will stop at nothing to prevent Sauron from taking over Middle-Earth, but while he puts his allies and assets in harms way, he doesn’t hesitate to put himself in harm’s way as well.

2. Luke Skywalker will redeem his father from the Dark Side and refuses to give up, no matter the odds, even when he has to turn himself over to the Empire and stand before the most powerful and evil being in the galaxy.

3. Jack Dawson may be a scrappy beggar with nothing to his name but the clothes on his back and sketches of naked French prostitutes, but he’s not going to let anything get in his way from saving Rose aboard the Titanic.

All these heroes and villains have simple, identifiable goals, but have you noticed that there’s a common thread among them?

None of them will take ‘no’ for an answer.

This is the deeper meaning behind ‘what do your characters want?’ What do they want so badly that they will refuse to give up, no matter the odds, no matter how many people say, ‘no, you can’t do that,’ or even if they lose everything dear to them? Combine this determination with the classic advice and we get a new, richer version:

‘What do your characters want so much that they won’t take ‘no’ for an answer?’

Answer this question and you’re already halfway there to creating a determined, focused character. Even better, combining an antagonist who refuses to accept ‘no,’ and a protagonist who refuses to accept ‘no,’ results in guaranteed conflict, the lifeblood of any story. Better yet, make both sides morally ambiguous and the conflict becomes even richer:

1. A soldier has to maintain a quarantine on a city infected with zombies and knows that if any break out, his family will eventually be attacked and turned into zombies themselves. But while guarding a vulnerable section of a wall, a desperate survivor with her little boy comes up to escape. Problem is, her boy has been bitten and will inevitably turn and spread the virus. Her mother is aware of this, but is determined to find a cure and is willing to kill to get her son out of the city.

2. Two battlefleets sail towards each other: one is from an empire that is on the verge of total victory in the galaxy, and only needs to conquer one last planet to obtain complete control over the galaxy so they can use every world’s resources to build a fleet to combat an even bigger, more dangerous alien fleet that’s heading their way. But the fleet from the last planet will stop at nothing to protect their people from a lifetime of slavery, even if it means deploying planet-destroying weapons and wiping themselves out to defeat their enemies.

3. A terrorist organization sneaks into a city to plant a nuclear bomb and blow it up to kill an evil and corrupt president and his cabinet who have turned their once-democratic country into a third-world dictatorship; wipe them all out with one bomb, and the country has a chance to recover. The city’s police officers – who have dedicated themselves to protecting the innocent – set out to stop the terrorists no matter what the cost, even if some innocents are caught in the crossfire.

It’s easy to come up with ‘my character wants to save the world/get rich/win the baking competition/stop the Disney corporation from taking over the world,’ motivations when developing our characters, but if we take the time to ask what they want so badly that they will sacrifice everything to get, we will get to know them better, and make them even more compelling for our audiences to follow.

The Spiritual Side of Waterworld

While 1995’s, ‘Waterworld’ can be seen as a parable about industrialization vs. sustainable living, I realized the other day that it can also be viewed as – believe it or not – a spiritual film.

First, let’s consider the film’s setting: a wild, desolate world where people struggle to survive and constantly fight each other for food, resources, and housing, much like our own.

Secondly, consider the world’s inhabitants:

1. The Smokers, who represent the darker side of humanity: unmatched cruelty, out-of-control egos, stupidity, self-righteousness, inability to plan for the future while satisfying immediate, short-term goals, etc.

2. The Drifters, who are neutral and focused sorely on survival. With only one exception (an elderly man in the extended cut) all of them are selfish and greedy.

3. The Atollers, who represent the more enlightened side of humanity: cooperation, law, living close to the land, etc.

Seems simple enough, and it’s easy to guess who the good guys are supposed to be. But a closer look reveals the Atollers to be xenophobic, closed-minded, judgemental, prejudiced, paranoid, and isolationists with no interest in helping others unless there’s something in it for them. If the Smokers are the uneducated masses who are religious fanatics, then the Atollers are the science-oriented elites who see themselves as superior to everyone else who will let you drift away to your death unless you have something of use for them.

Now, both the Smokers and the Atollers want safety and security: the Smokers seek the mythical Dryland to rip up and use as they please, while the Atollers see it as superstitious nonsense and hide in gated communities. But in the end, neither get what they want: the Smokers are all killed, and what few Atollers are left are stuck out at sea. And while Dryland exists, only a few people make it there:

*Helen, who tries to persuade the Atollers to change their ways, and devotes her life to protecting a child.

*Enola, an innocent (if annoying) child.

*Gregor, a kind man of science and learning who accepts the Mariner, despite him being a mutant.

*The Enforcer, a firm, but fair lawman who assists Helen and Gregor in saving the Mariner and Enola.

*The Mariner, who starts off as a selfish Drifter, but learns to care for Helen and Enola and risks his life for them.

And if that’s not enough, all five of them make it to Dryland by flying through the clouds, like souls flying up to Heaven. Heck, the events of the movie begin (offscreen) with Enola’s parents – the only inhabitants of Dryland – sending off their only child to give humanity a way to Paradise. While anyone can still find Dryland, taking the time to learn and understand the message Enola brings will make it much easier and quicker.

When we combine all these elements, ‘Waterworld’ can be seen as a spiritual parable for life: We are all drifting through the world with various levels of comfort and privilege, and while everyone wants something better beyond the life they have, only those who are willing to change and help others freely will make it to Paradise.