What We Can Learn From The Resident Evil Film Series: Part 3 – ‘Extinction’

With the conclusion of 2004’s, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, the Resident Evil film series was in a unique position: because of Apocalypse’s open ending, future movies could either stick to the story, characters, and settings of the games, or forge a new path that wasn’t tethered to its source material. While the safest option was the former, the series went with the latter, but with a twist: it would take characters, monsters, and ideas from the games, but explore what would happen if the T-virus escaped into the wider world instead of being stopped time and time again.

The answer? Disaster.

Picking up five years after the events of Apocalypse, Extinction drops us into a world where the T-virus escaped Raccoon city and spread worldwide, causing billions of people to turn into zombies and turning the planet into a barren wasteland on the brink of total collapse. Now, Alice and the few remaining survivors struggle not only to escape the undead, but end the pandemic once and for all (and presumably struggle to find toilet paper). It’s a great setup for (what was supposed to be) a series finale, so let’s see what worked, and what didn’t.

What does the story do well?

It has an opening that sucks the viewer in right away

If there’s one thing that Extinction does truly well, it’s getting the audience’s attention from the very start by having Alice wake up in the shower from the mansion from the first film.

But this can’t be; the mansion was destroyed when Raccoon City was nuked. And then when Alice leaves the main room, she enters the famous laser hallway, and then a hospital hallway, leaving us to wonder if this a dream, a flashback, or something else… only to discover that Alice is actually a clone going through a murder training simulation run by Dr. Issacs.

By showing the audience something familiar, yet mixing up to play with expectations, the movie gets their attention immediately and makes them want to see more.

It has a unique twist on a zombie virus

Most zombie movies have their respective virus turn people (and the occasional animal) into zombies; Extinction mixes things up by having the virus affect water and vegetation as well, something I don’t recall any other zombie film doing.

Granted, this idea is retconned out in future films (and it does bring up the question of if there are undead plants that desire to eat the flesh of the living), but it’s a fascinating idea that makes the T-virus a truly diabolical threat to humanity: by wiping out plants, then herbivores, then carnivores, and eventually the entire food chain, it means that humanity will inevitably go extinct, lending even more urgency to find a cure.

It has a clearly defined goal for the characters

Extinction continues the Resident Evil film series’ tradition of giving the characters a clear, concrete goal to work towards. Here, it’s to reach a settlement in Alaska that’s free of infection, a safe haven in a world that’s dying. By making the film’s goal have a clearly defined finish line, it gives both the characters and the audience something to focus on instead of just meandering around.

The comic relief character has become more mature

While Apocalypse had it’s share of problems, one of the most egregious was making LJ little more than a walking cliche of the trash-talking, sassy black gangster. Thankfully, Extinction corrects this; while LJ is still the story’s comic relief and cracks a few jokes, he’s much more serious this time around, focusing on doing his part for the convoy, trying to save people, and mourning his girlfriend after she dies. You really sense that LJ has gone through a lot in five years and has grown as an individual… which makes it all the sadder when he (and we) realize that his death is inevitable after being bitten by a zombie in the first act.

The post-apocalyptic convoy gets along with each other and has a good leader

One small thing I like about Extinction is the lack of conflict among the survivors in Claire Redfield’s convoy: there’s no infighting, squabbling, or backstabbing. After countless post-apocalyptic tales where everyone is at each other’s throats, it’s a welcome change to have a similar story where people can get along and work together. This also extends to the convoy’s leader, Claire, who – instead of being a tribal warlord who rules through threats and fears – treats those under her care with respect, is honest with them about difficult decisions they have to make, seeks their input before making those decisions, and works hard to keep everyone safe, even if it means charging into battle instead of letting others fight for her.

It has a unique monster that relies on numbers instead of strength

Aside from the zombies themselves, the Resident Evil film series likes to focus on individual monsters to antagonize the heroes; while Extinction does feature a Tyrant at the climax, it is unique in all the films in that it has monsters that rely on sheer numbers to win instead of being bullet sponges, and that’s the undead crows.

While it would be fairly easy to kill a single crow in a fight to the death, having hundreds attack the convoy makes them a much bigger threat that’s impossible to stop with bullets or conventional weapons, making them into a truly unique enemy in the series.

It has a great setting for the final act

Compared to the dark, gloomy settings of the two previous films, Extinction spends most of its runtime in the desert during bright, sunny days. But at the end, Alice has to got into another underground facility to face off against a heavily-mutated Dr. Issacs and save humanity. But it’s not that the facility is deep underground that makes it so compelling: by the time Alice arrives, the place has been wrecked and torn apart by Issacs. There’s no one left alive, all the lights are flickering on and off, and evidence of Issac’s rampage are everywhere. Alice knows that Issacs is somewhere in the facility, and it’s just her against him. And, smartly, the film holds off on showing him as long as it can, letting our minds race and wonder just how grotesque he must look after mutating and inflicting so much carnage.

This buildup is surprisingly suspenseful, and arguably the tensest sequence in the entire series. Having the final battle take place in a replica of the mansion from the first film is also a clever way to end the series where it began (sorta), and using the laser hallway to finish off Issac once and for all is a great example of why bringing back fan favorites to save the day is always a win.

It tones down Project Alice

Compared to the previous film where Alice was an arrogant Mary Sue who could take on anything that came her way with ease, Extinction learns from those mistakes and tones her down considerably, making Alice more subdued and getting rid of her ‘I don’t give a shit’ attitude. And unlike the last movie, the other characters have more opportunities to have their own action scenes and moments to shine without Alice coming in to steal her thunder.

While she’s still the main character and still the focus of this film’s universe, Alice feels more like a normal person, and that’s a welcome change from the previous film.

What could have been improved?

Issacs could have had a more logical plan throughout the film

Dr. Issac’s plan of domesticating zombies to create a loyal work force to rebuild the world is not only silly, but flies in the face of all logic: Considering how the T-Virus has brought humanity to the brink of extinction and turned the world into an uninhabitable wasteland, you’d think that Issacs would realize it makes more sense to destroy the T-virus and everything it’s infected instead of creating zombie butlers, zombie farmworkers, and zombie retail employees, which could have led to an interesting conflict between him and Alice: both groups would want to save the world, but Alice and her companions wouldn’t trust Umbrella or Issacs, a relationship that could have had all sorts of compelling drama. That’s also not factoring in the nonsensical ‘tests’ he has the Alice clones go through. (Why not just grow one and regularly extract her blood instead of wasting an unimaginable amount of resources putting dozens of them through unwinnable deathtraps?)

This point could be negated, however, if we theorize that Issacs is actually using his research as a mask to create an army of super-zombies that he alone will be in control of, allowing him to overthrow Umbrella and become the sole ruler of Earth. It’s still a silly plan, but a bit more logical and reinforces his sociopathic nature.

LJ’s inevitable death could have been explored more deeply

Near the end of the first act, LJ is bitten by a zombie while investigating an abandoned motel and hides this from the others, progressively becoming sicker until he finally succumbs at the end of the second act and bites Carlos before being killed. And while it’s depressing to see the admittingly charming LJ die an undignified death (In the original script LJ actually accompanied Alice into Issac’s underground compact), the movie misses the opportunity to have LJ confess to the others that he’s been bitten, and the drama that would come from that: perhaps the convoy would have decided to let him live long enough in the hopes of finding an antidote, with LJ determined to do as much as he can to help the others before he succumbs. But instead, we get him hiding his zombie bite, which makes the other characters look quite dumb for not realizing that he’s getting progressively sicker and weaker.

The secret facility could have been guarded by more than a single chain-link fence

This has little impact on the story, but it’s improbable that Issac’s super-secret, camouflaged underground fortress is protected from billions of zombies by a single chainlink fence. How it hasn’t been breached after five years of zombies banging against it is beyond me!

It could have cut down on the number of characters

It’s a tale as old as time: a zombie movie comes out, and it’s filled with lots of expendable characters who are only there to be killed off by the undead, and Extinction makes the same mistake of introducing lots of new characters without giving us reasons to care about them. K-Mart, for example, is a teenager who was found in a K-Mart and… that’s all we know about her. Similarly, all we know about Betty is that she’s the group’s medic, LJ’s girlfriend, and the two care about each other.

To the film’s credit, it doesn’t try to make us care about everyone, instead letting most of the convoy’s survivors be nameless masses to be eaten, but it would have been better to cut down on the new characters. Instead of a multi-vehicle convoy with dozens of people in it, perhaps it could be a three-vehicle convoy with a dozen people maximum, giving the story a bit of breathing room to let us get to know them better.

It could have removed the cliffhanger ending

When originally created, Extinction was billed as being the final installment in the Resident Evil film franchise, complete with Alice learning that she can wipe out the virus for good near the end of the movie. Yet, instead of cutting to ten years later where the undead are gone and nature is healing, Extinction ends with Alice waking up her clone buddies in preparation for an assault on Umbrella’s Tokyo headquarters. While this ending would have worked if the series had ended (the main conflict is resolved and Alice has everything she needs to wipe out the virus and bring justice to Umbrella), Extinction doesn’t feel like the end; the story clearly isn’t over, and there’s more to come (an idea that would be revisited later in the series to better effect).

Personally, I find Extinction to be the best of the original trilogy: it manages to achieve a respectable balance between plot and action (along with some really great music), as well as trying to tell it’s own unique story while being faithful to the spirit of the games. It doesn’t do anything overly well, but neither does it falter too much, making a solid, respectable B movie, and would have made a satisfying end to the series… but the truckloads of money it got at the box office ensured that it would rise once more and continue on. Come back next time, where we’ll head into the franchise’s second half with ‘Resident Evil: Afterlife.’

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 Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe’

Super Mario Brothers. The Legend of Zelda. Doom. Metal Gear Solid: throughout the history of video games, certain titles have risen to the top as the titans of the field, champions who will be immortalized forevermore by history. But one title has long been forgotten, one that deserves to be remembered among the likes of Super Mario 64, Duke Nukem, and Grand Theft Auto:

The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Released for the Philips CD-i in 1992, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe is a boring, barely-interactive wondrous experience that catalogs Robert Mapplethorpe’s flower photography, allowing us, the unlucky viewers, to admire them at our leisure. After all, after a long, hard, day at work in a soul-crushing job, who wouldn’t want to come home, turn on a video game console, and watch pictures of flowers for hours on end?

So relax, settle down, and join me as we contemplate and admire the virtues of one of the greatest video games ever created by mankind, and what its blessings can do to enrich our efforts to craft stories of beauty and wisdom.

What does the story do well?

It’s simple and focused

The mark of a great story is that it can be summed up in one sentence. The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe can be described as, “Enter a virtual museum to learn about and admire a collection of flower photographs.” It’s not flashy, it’s not complex, but it’s a streamlined story that’s easy to understand follow with no fat or unnecessary subplots that need to be trimmed.

It shows the timeless partnership of rock and elegant music

There are many different types of museums around the world – bare ones, colorful ones, and ones decorated to match a certain period in history. The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe takes the timeless combination of grey rock with the eternal grace of classical music. If we, as writers, are looking to create a memorable museum for our characters to wander through, we should remember that a simple venue of stone and music can be the most effective, rather than something over-designed that takes away from the priceless art and artifacts on display.

It takes a comedic subject with the utmost seriousness

The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe’s greatest virtue is that treats photographs of flowers with the utmost seriousness. From the classical music to the curator trying his hardest to make photographs of flowers interesting instructing us in Mapplethorpe’s use of color and light, the whole game is insane a delight. Yet, this formula of a museum, classical music, and serious curators can be applied to any number of silly subjects to great effect. Consider the sequels we never got:

The mops of Robert Mapplethorpe

The toilet plungers of Robert Mapplethorpe

The flaming oil drums of Robert Mapplethorpe

Now, visualize people in a story wandering the sacred halls of exhibits and admiring these subjects with Beethoven playing softly through the speakers. The image is delightfully absurd and plays with the cliched-but-fun trope of fine art being incomprehensible and/or ludicrous.

What could have been done to improve the story?

Mention Mapplethorpe’s extensive BDSM photography

If you’ve never heard of Mr. Mapplethorpe, you’d be forgiven for thinking that his career consisted entirely of flower photographs. But in reality, most of his work was focused on BDSM pictures, many of which included himself. For obvious reasons, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe doesn’t mention this, but it makes the whole game funnier when you think that the photographer spent most of his time photographing gay men wearing bondage gear. The contrast between such different subjects (with classical music, no less) is hilarious. Too bad the Phillips CD-i was never blessed with The BDSM photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe

Include some sort of action involving the flowers

While the elegance, beauty, and grace of the game cannot be denied, it also cannot be denied that it’s… well, not the most engrossing of video games to play as you click from one photograph to the next. This could have been avoided if there had been a campaign mode where you sent Mr. Mapplethorpe’s flowers into battle against giant robots, or something. That alone would have turned this into the greatest video game ever.

Conclusion

Though it is one of the most ludicrous videogames ever made not the most exciting videogame, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe is a shining example of how taking the most boring mundane subjects with the respect and seriousness you’d find in a fine art gallery is comedic gold. Yet, we must not also forget there there needs to be some sort of context or reason for people to pursue instead of the simple pleasure of looking at pictures when playing a videogame. If the game was about, say, a highly-trained operative traveling the world to rescue the stolen photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe from North Korea, Al-Qaeda, escaped Nazis, and other nefarious forces to return them to the museum, it would have been much more interesting to play.

Perhaps one day, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe will be given a high-definition treatment to upgrade the graphics, the presentation, and finally allow a new generation of gamers to experience the beauty of flowers. But until that day comes, we can be content with the lessons it teaches storytellers… and admire the flowers, too.

Perfect Moments: Ellen Ripley’s Message

Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.

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The Game

‘Alien Isolation’

The Moment

Why it’s perfect

Earlier this week, I suggested a new way of watching the Alien series in order to give it – and Ellen – a more hopeful ending instead of the bittersweet one in both ‘Alien 3’ and ‘Alien: Resurrection’. Part of that new trilogy was the videogame, ‘Alien: Isolation’ because of the strength of its core concept: Ellen’s daughter, Amanda, has spent 15 years searching for any clue about her mother’s fate after she disappeared aboard the Nostromo, and after fighting her way through a decaying space station while hiding from the cosmos’ most terrifying alien, she finally finds a message for her that was recorded by her mother.

When I first played through ‘Isolation’, I almost teared up at this moment. Not only does Sigourney Weaver perfectly play Ellen once more, but bringing an emotional, tragic side of her we almost never see, but the meaning behind this moment is so tragic: This is the first time Amanda has heard her mother in 15 years, and can give her both closure and hope; the novelization of the game reveals that she believes her mother is still alive, and the story ends with her vowing to survive at all costs so she will one day reunite with Ellen. For the first time in over a decade, she has a reason to live, to survive against all odds.

Sadly, it’s not to be:

While Amanda did get closure, and presumably died hoping that her mother was still alive, knowing that the two would never see each other again makes Ellen’s message so perfectly bittersweet.

Favorite Moments: A Balrog Talks

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

One of the biggest advantages licensed video games, books, and comics have is the ability to expand upon a fictional universe, to fill in gaps, holes, or just explore unseen parts of a mythology. Sometimes, though, they can also clarify and add onto that mythology in small, but meaningful ways. With no new books in JRR. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth set to come anytime soon, video games based upon both the films and books have stepped up to allow fans of Tolkien’s universe to continue exploring Arda and uncover its secrets (though how these secrets fit into the established cannon varies considerably).

‘Middle-earth: Shadow of War’ follows Talion, a Gondorian warrior who, after becoming best buddies with a long-dead Elf king out for revenge against Sauron, becomes an half-dead zombie lich thingy after sharing his… oh, whatever. It’s an excuse to run around in Mordor and troll Sauron by killing as many of his orcs as possible. Because this particular game (and it’s predecessor, ‘Shadow of Mordor’) take a loose interpretation of Middle-earth lore (and that’s putting it lightly!), it lets the player fight a balrog. While such moments happen in other Tolkien-licensed games, what sets this encounter apart  is that, for the first time in any piece of Tolkien media – licensed or original – we hear a balrog talk.

For those who are unaware, balrogs are ancient demons who existed before the creation of the physical world in Tolkien’s mythology. But these aren’t mindless brutes: They’re intelligent spirits who joined with Melkor (Tolkien’s Satan) in an attempt to corrupt and destroy everything for the lulz (presumably). However, while they can make noises, such as roars, screams, and yells, the only intelligent speech they give is described in vague terms, such as them giving commands or mocking enemies. ‘Shadow of War’ is the first time where we actually hear one of these demons talking, and while we get subtitles, they’re not translated, leading us to wonder what on earth it’s saying, as best embodied at 8:42 in the video above:

Balrog: Onguk nakhân

Talion: What did he say?!

Celebrimbor: Does it matter?

It’s moments like these that make me appreciate how much expanded universe material can add to a franchise: Here, we get a moment that humanizes (for lack of a better word) a demonic being; in the books and movies, balrogs are incredibly dangerous demons who excell at killing things. Here, one is given a voice, showing that they’re sentient beings who can think, plan, tell knock-knock jokes (unconfirmed), and, presumably, have personalities. That allows us to see balrogs in Tolkien’s works in a new light by letting us imagine what their personalities might be like, adding more depth and layers to Tolkien’s world, as all great expanded universe material does: It doesn’t replace or supersede what’s come before, but adds to it, and makes it more enjoyable than before.

And all of this from a demonic spirit talking. Not bad!

By the way, if you’re curious as to what the balrog is actually saying, one of the game’s developers posted all of its translated speech here. If you’d like to read some debates about Balrogs and their vocal traits, click here.

Favorite Moments: The Ghetto Matrix

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:

No story-related material today, just a guy poking fun at ‘The Matrix: Path of Neo’ and some of its glitches and unintentional comedy. My favorites are the best way to kill someone quietly, and Morpheus’ attempted escape from the skyscraper.

I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 6

Last week, we took a look at the two duels of ‘The Matrix Revolutions,’ the final film of the fabled sci-fi trilogy. But while it was the last movie (at least, to date, if rumors of a Morpheus-centered prequel ever come to fruition), there were two more Matrix video games released in 2005: ‘The Matrix Online’ (which is no longer playable), and ‘The Matrix: Path of Neo,’ which allows players to replay the events of the movies from Neo’s perspective.

Like all movie tie-in games, ‘Path’ modifies the events of the films to better suit the interactive nature of the medium, featuring far more action, gunplay, and fights, including all the major duels from the series. I was originally planning just to analyze at the Super Burly Brawl, but after taking a look at the game to refresh my memory, I found that there was one other duel that’s so bonkers that it’s easily the wackiest thing the series has ever created:

Neo vs Ant-Men

Emotional Context: In his quest to save humanity, Neo fights anthropomorphic ants in the depths of space.

Analysis: When you saw ‘The Matrix’ for the first time, did you ever imagine that lowly hacker Thomas Anderson – who helps his landlady take out her garbage – would one day fight giant ants in space? No? Well, neither did I, but thanks to ‘Path,’ we can now see that Neo’s true destiny was not to save humanity and the machines from a mutually destructive relationship, but to battle giant ants in the depths of the cosmos.

In all seriousness, what makes this duel stand out is just the sheer absurdity of the fact that Neo is fighting giant ants in space. Instead of a trench-coated program, an agent, or a police officer, he takes on giant insects who squeak and roar as they fight him. It’s like watching James Bond take on a homicidal clown inside a bathroom at the White House, or Harry Potter battling a tyrannosaurus rex at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

Depending on what movie they’re watching, what book they’re reading, or what game they’re playing, audiences expect fights to be consistant with the universe of the story they’re watching. To have such an unexpected opponent grabs their attention because it’s new and unique, feeding the novelty of encountering the unexpected and keeping them interested, much like that one time Luke Skywalker fought a clone of Darth Vader who turned into a giant scorpion. (link contains language that is not safe for work)

Fun fact: In addition to the ants, Neo was originally also going to fight leprechauns in ‘Path,’ but they were deleted from the finished version. Shame; the universe is a darker, bleaker place having never seen the savior of humanity fight midgets shrieking about their gold and presumably attacking with rainbows.

The Super Burly Brawl (Path of Neo Edition)

Emotional Context: Neo battles Agent Smith to save humanity and the machines

Analysis: At first glance, the ‘Path’ adaptation of this fight is almost identical to the one seen in ‘Revolutions.’ But without counting the changes made for a more exiting gameplay experience (more fighting, extended arenas, etc.) the game makes one big change:

Neo wins the fight.

While the film version of the Super Burly Brawl was about Neo sacrificing himself to give both humanity and machines a chance at a brighter tomorrow, the game version is about punching Smith to death, culminating with Mega Smith – a Godzilla-sized version of the agent that Neo then punches to death before once again entering Smith and deleting him from the inside out, as he did in the first film, leading to peace between the machines and humanity, and a triumphant playing of Queen’s ‘We are the Champions.

Much like how the various versions of ‘Friday the 13th’ allowed us to see three different versions of the same story, ‘Path of Neo’ allows us to see two versions of the same fight. While the film version is about drama, death, and sacrifice, the game version is about action, good triumphing over evil, and fan service. The only mistake the fight makes is not showing what happened to Neo after deleting Smith for good (in any story, there needs to be some sort of resolution for the characters we’ve followed, even if it’s just a ‘we don’t know what happened to them, but they’re still out there, somewhere’ ending), but as a fan, it’s so satisfying to see Neo have the upper hand throughout, and making it so that he’s the one to ram Smith into the streets, instead of the other way around.

While this version of the Super Burly Brawl may not have the dramatic weight of its movie counterpart, it does satisfy the base urge to see the protagonist resoundingly defeat the antagonist in a fight where both are at the peak of their abilities. There’s always room for self-sacrifice in fiction, but sometimes it’s refreshing to embrace the classic trope of the protagonist defeating evil without dying in the process, and looking awesome while doing it. Or, as Youtube user LovecraftianToenail put it:

‘it takes a lot more maturity to have fun than to be GRIMDARK SERIOUS ABOUT EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME.’

And with that, we conclude our look at all the duels in the Matrix series. Come back next week, when we’re wrap things up and see what lessons we can learn from all these punches, kicks, and bullet-time shenanigans.

Favorite Moments: Futureman’s Bright Idea

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:

We’ve all experienced a moment where our best-laid plans fail spectacularly. At the time, there’s nothing funny or amusing about it, as we’re usually too blinded by embarrassment, shame, and grief. But as Futureman’s video shows, there’s great comedy to be found in gearing up for something that will look amazing… only to fail so spectacularly that all you can do is either laugh or sit there in stunned silence.

Favorite moments: ‘Stick to the shadows, Master Frodo’

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:

(Skip to 5:40)

Why it’s great:

In most kids movies, there sometimes comes a moment where the young star of the show has to embark on a dangerous mission to save the day, and sometimes those missions involve sneaking around without being seen. Looking past the obvious question of why it’d be sensible to send a pre-adolescent out on a solo sneaking mission up against dangerous, competent, and trained adults, those missions usually end with the youngster managing to embrace the spirit of the ninja and succeeding in saving the day.

But what if they didn’t?

As seen in the video above, Frodo Baggins bravely attempts to – in the words of reviewer OhhhMarmalade – become one with the shadows and escape from the Shire, complete with the theme music from Metal Gear Solid… only to instantly fail, be caught by the Ringwraiths, and plunge Middle Earth into a never ending age of darkness and hellish suffering.

Whoops.

What amuses me most about the segment above is showing what would really happen if Frodo, or any unqualified person, tried to become a ninja and become one with the shadows as they tried to sneak out of a heavily patrolled area: They would probably be caught almost instantly. It doesn’t matter how pure of heart they are, how noble their quest is, or that they love their family very much: They’re not trained, they’re not qualified, and they’re doomed from the moment they set out.

While there’s far, far too many instances of people failing at trying to do something they can’t in real life, having someone fail immediately at the big, important task/quest they set out to achieve seconds after starting can make for some great comedy, as poor Frodo demonstrates. It gets even funnier if they’re The Chosen One who have to save the world, which can then lead to all sorts of interesting situations: What do the other characters do now that the Chosen One has failed/is dead? Do they try to fulfill the quest? Realize that it was a terrible idea to send a child out to do an adult’s job? And if they do try to pick up the quest, do they have any chance at all at succeeding, since they weren’t chosen by fate/prophecy/God?

Failure can be funny, but it can also open up new avenues and scenarios in storytelling that are otherwise underutilized.

What we can learn from ‘Let’s Go’

Armageddon. Ragnarok. The end of all things. Almost every culture and mythology has its version of the moment when everything ends and the human race is wiped out.

But what if someone survived?

A few days ago, I came across the above music video, which tells the story of a Chinese astronaut who devotes his life to making it to the Moon, only for it to be all for nothing. Though only a little over three minutes long, it’s a gripping story, so let’s take a look and see what it does well.

You audience admires determined, focused characters

Though he gets no lines, or even a name, the astronaut in the video gets our attention thanks to his strength of will: Thanks to a very efficient montage, we see him devoting everything to accomplishing his dream of getting on the Moon, sacrificing joy, happiness, or even love. Yet, we still root for him to succeed: How many of us wish we could devote every waking moment of our lives to accomplishing our dreams? Sadly, many of us can’t, which makes us envious and (begrudgingly) admiring of those who can. The same goes for fictional characters. Perhaps your character wants to become president, or go into outer space, or win a spelling bee. Seeing them striving to accomplish a dream makes for compelling drama as they learn whether their dream is really worth everything they’re sacrificing.

It’s important to note that determined, focused characters don’t need to be heroes. Consider the T-800 and the T-1000 in the first two Terminator films, Sauron from ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and the Thing from the 1982 Universal film of the same name: All three have solid, achievable goals (kill John Conner, take over the world, and take over the world by assimilating everyone on it), and stop at nothing to achieve those goals. Both antagonists and protagonists benefit from laser-like focus, and when their strength of wills clash, it can make for some of the most compelling drama ever put to page or screen. Need proof? Consider Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in ‘Return of the Jedi’: The former wants to redeem his fallen father, and the latter wants to convert him to the dark side. Neither will budge, and their duel of wits becomes what is arguably the most dramatic sequence of any Star Wars film:

Consider exploring what would happen to the lone survivor of a world-ending event

What would you do if the world was destroyed, and you were the only survivor? What would you do? How would you live? Would you even try to, or let yourself succumb to despair and throw yourself out the airlock? In the case of the music video, the astronaut realizes that what really mattes to him most is achieving his second chance of experiencing love, and he stops at nothing to make it happen.

While destroying the world shouldn’t be done lightly in any medium, doing so has the advantage of forcing a character to confront reality without all the masks that they put up to protect themselves from other people and society at large. Do they go nuts and indulge their every whim? Succumb to despair and meaninglessness? Or do they defy the odds and refuse to give in, searching for others who might have survived, or chronicling everything for whatever sapient life form comes after them? There are countless possible answers, and wanting to see what happens to isolated, vulnerable characters will keep an audience engaged in our stories.

Consider having your character escape/navigate/survive the fallout from a world-ending event

When something big – like a building, a city, or a planet – is destroyed, it creates a lot of debris and wreckage. In some situations, it gives us an opportunity for a unique action scene of characters having to escape said debris. ‘Let’s Go’ has the astronaut fighting to reach the space station before it gets out of reach, but to do so, he has to go through a debris field consisting of wreckage from Earth, making it extremely difficult for him to reach his goal, and with the promise of certain death if he fails.

When writing our own stories, having to navigate the ruins of a wrecked mega-structure can lead to some exciting action scenes that we don’t get to write very often. If the opportunity arises, embrace them and milk them for all they’re worth. One of my favorite examples comes from 2016’s ‘Independence Day: Resurgence,’ in which David Levinson and friends have to dodge falling debris sucked up from all over the Earth that subsequently rains down on London.

Consider having your character/s decide to accept death and pass the time as best they can

In disaster movies, it’s very common for the survivors and main characters to either find a way to stop the disaster, or start rebuilding afterwords, hopeful and upbeat that one day, things can return to normal.

But what if they couldn’t? What if they had no chance at all of rebuilding, or surviving, and death is inevitable?

One type of story we don’t see too much of these days is the disaster story where there’s no way for the characters to survive in the long run. It’s easy to understand why: Audiences want a happy ending, or a hopeful one. A story where everyone is going to die, won’t leave them feeling good after leaving the theater, closing the book, or turning off the game console. But if we choose this path, writers have a unique opportunity to explore what characters might do if they only have a little time left to live. Will they weep? Try to make peace with their god? Resolve any lingering conflicts with their loved ones? Or will they accept it and try to have fun before the end? Both astronauts choose the last option in ‘Let’s Go,’ deciding to play video games together as they drift off into the void.

Choosing the path of inevitable death need not be dark. It can be sad, but it also gives characters one more chance to enjoy themselves, or to choose how they will spend what little time they have left. And if they go out having fun, or healing long-simmering hurts, that can be just as uplifting as a happy ending.

The Takeaway

Our audience will always admire a protagonist or antagonist who has a goal and obsessively pursues it, even at a cost of personal happiness. They’ll be even more interested if that individual is the only survivor of a world-ending event, and applies that determination to surviving or continuing on, no matter how bad things get. But if they are doomed, those characters can become their most interesting selves when they have to decide how to spend what little time they have left.