The Best Apocalypse Ever

I’ve been looking forward to The World’s End since 2007.

Why 2007, you ask? Because 2007 was the year of Hot Fuzz.

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A while back I posted about my top five favorite movies of all time. Hot Fuzz was either number three or number four (I could go back and check, but I’m too lazy). It’s hilariously funny and endlessly quotable, it’s action-packed and even has a lot of heart. It was also a personal milestone for me, in that it was also the first movie I ever saw in theaters twice in two days. I saw it the Friday it came out and loved it so much I saw it again the next day with my Dad, who loved it every bit as much as I did. We still quote it to each other all the time.

I’m also a huge fan of Shaun of the Dead, which has the distinction of being my number one all-time favorite zombie movie. I love it for many of the same reasons I love Hot Fuzz: it’s hilariously funny, surprisingly scary at times (since it’s a zombie movie), and it has loads of heart. Both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are brilliant sendups of their respective genres (zombie movies and 80’s-era action flicks), which pay tribute to their inspirations while also creating something entirely new and unique in their own right.

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It’s been a while since the writing/directing/acting team of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright last teamed up. Their last film together was of course Hot Fuzz, and fans of their previous efforts (myself very much included) had been eagerly anticipating their next collaboration, which was, I have to say, quite a long time coming.

Which isn’t to say that Pegg, Frost, and Wright haven’t been busy in the intervening years. Pegg and Frost made the hilarious sci-fi spoof Paul…

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While Wright directed the surefire cult classic Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World…

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And Pegg also scored a couple hits with a few little series you may have heard of called Star Trek and Mission: Impossible.

But at long last, 2013 brings us The World’s End, the epic conclusion to the trilogy that has come to be known as the Cornetto Trilogy, as fans have dubbed it, or the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy, as Pegg and Wright (who wrote all three films together) refer to it.

And I for one am pleased to report that it was well worth the wait.

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The World’s End is the most fun I have had at the movies all year. And I’m not just saying that because I’m such a huge fan of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The World’s End is a tremendously entertaining film, and while I for one have enjoyed this summer movie season (despite the near-constant bitching on seemingly every other corner of the internet, I think it’s been a top-notch year for blockbuster summer entertainment), I don’t think I’ve enjoyed any other movie this year as much as I enjoyed this one. It’s 109 minutes of sheer, gleeful entertainment, and while it only came in 4th place in the box office over its opening weekend, I have no doubt that it will be remembered every bit as fondly as its esteemed predecessors.

The plot revolves around five friends: Gary (Simon Pegg), Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine, who co-starred in Hot Fuzz), Peter (Eddie Marsan, Inspector Lestrade in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies), and Oliver (Martin Freeman, aka Bilbo Baggins). There is also Oliver’s sister Sam (Bond girl Rosamund Pike), whom Gary had a dalliance with back in the day, and whom Steven has always had feelings for.

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Back in the day, the five school friends failed to complete a legendary pub crawl, and now that they’ve all grown up and moved on, ringleader Gary is determined to get the gang back together and finish that pub crawl.

Most of them have done pretty well for themselves in the intervening years: Peter works for his dad selling high-end Audis, Oliver is a high-end real estate agent (Bluetooth firmly in ear), Steven builds houses, and Andy is a partner at a law firm (his name is on the door and everything). Gary is, well, still Gary. He’s pretty much exactly the same person he was back in school. He even drives the same car. (Peter: “Wow, Gary, that looks a lot like the car I sold you back in 1989!” Gary: “That’s because it is the car you sold me back in 1989! Best 300 quid I ever spent!”)

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But, in the grand tradition of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, things in the small town of Newton Haven are not as they seem.

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I won’t say too much more about the plot, aside from saying that many pints are consumed, many hilarious British F-bombs are dropped, and many gallons of blue robot blood are spilled (actually it’s more like ink).

The World’s End represents a role reversal for Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, since in this film Frost plays the straight-laced one and Pegg is the troublemaking man-child. Both actors play their roles extremely well, and Pegg in particular looks like he has never had more fun in his life.

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But at the same time, Gary’s outlandish behavior masks a troubled soul underneath. Gary is the exact same person he was when his friends all knew him back in school, he hasn’t been able to move on and is determined to relive the gang’s glory days. It is clear that Andy harbors some deep resentment towards him, and a gradually-revealed betrayal from their past together really hits home. Gary’s inability to move on is his coping mechanism for dealing with the fact that his life isn’t all he thought it would be when he was younger. Gary’s friends have all dealt with this and moved on, but Gary hasn’t.

These sorts of character touches make The World’s End a surprisingly poignant and ultimately very heartfelt film, just like with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. I always get a little choked up during the scene in Shaun of the Dead in which Shaun has to shoot his zombified mother. Sniff.

At their core, all three films in the Cornetto Trilogy are about friendship, and learning how to grow up and become a better person when you realize that your life maybe isn’t what you wanted it to be, and how sometimes it takes a hell of a jolt (like a zombie invasion, for example) to help you realize it. All three of Wright, Pegg, and Frost’s collaborations do this while at the same time being riotously funny and effortlessly mixing in the requisite genre elements. It’s a tricky balancing act, but the trio of Wright, Pegg and Frost make it look easy.

Wright brings the same sense of fun that he brought to his previous directorial efforts, and he stages the film’s chaotic bar brawls with the same sort of hyperkinetic energy he brought to the many fights in both Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim (one fight where Gary tries desperately to finish his pint while chaos roars around him is particularly funny). The acting is also excellent from the cast of outstanding British actors, and just like Timothy Dalton in Hot Fuzz, another former James Bond makes an appearance.

Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg wrote all three films together, and they write zippy, hilarious dialogue and create really great characters. You feel like you know these guys, and despite the far-fetched sci-fi elements, you always feel like you can identify with them. Gary, Andy, Steven, Peter, and Oliver all feel like truly different people with real personalities, and all of the actors make you believe without question that these guys have all known each other for years. There’s a real sense of shared history between them which feels really genuine.

But enough talking! Why are you still reading this? Seriously, go see The World’s End! You’ll be hard pressed to have more fun in a movie theater this year.

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Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch. Who knows, I haven’t watched Hot Fuzz in a while…

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The Heart of Darkness

I recently played a video game called Spec Ops: The Line. The game has been out for a while and I picked it up for twenty bucks at my local Gamestop. At first glance, the game appears to be yet another cover-based third-person shooter, the mechanics of which will be immediately familiar to anyone who played the extremely popular Gears of War series.

And indeed, the gameplay is solid, if unspectacular. But I hesitate to call the game “fun.” This sounds odd to me, since if a game is not fun, it must not be a very good game, right? In most cases, yes. But that is not the case with Spec Ops: The Line. The game’s storyline is one of the darkest of any game I have ever played, and it made me question my desire to play video games in which you mow down countless bad guys. It made me question the very morality of what I was doing, which to me was quite extraordinary.

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The game takes place in Dubai, which has been ravaged by the worst sandstorms in recorded history. When the storms started getting really bad, Dubai’s politicians and wealthy citizens abandoned the city, leaving everyone else behind. A decorated but troubled military commander, Colonel John Konrad, volunteered his unit, the fictional Damned 33rd, to help the relief efforts, and then deserted when the 33rd was ordered to abandon the city.

Dubai became cut off from the world, and 6 months later a looped radio signal is broadcast, saying: “This is Colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll: too many.” Hearing this, the US military covertly sends in a three-man team of Delta Force operators: Captain Martin Walker (the player-controlled character), Lieutenant Alphonse Adams, and Staff Sergeant John Lugo. Their mission is to confirm the statuses of Konrad and any other survivors, and radio for extraction.

What starts out as a simple recon mission soon turns into a soul-shattering descent into madness. Given the setup, you’d think that maybe the 33rd was taken captive by some sinister group, you, the player, would rescue them, save the city, and everything would be fine, right?

Wrong.

Very, very wrong.

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It turns out that there’s a whole civil war going on in Dubai, being waged by various factions. Some of the 33rd is still loyal to Konrad, while some of them rebelled against him. There is also a group led by a handful of CIA agents, who don’t want the truth of what happened in Dubai to reach the rest of the world.

When you, the player, first encounter members of the 33rd, they think you’re with the CIA and attempt to kill you. This leads to the very unusual (for a video game) scenario of you having to fight and kill fellow American soldiers.

Wait, what? Aren’t you supposed to be killing the bad guys? The question the game asks is a familiar one, but relevant nonetheless: Who is the real bad guy? The answer, the game suggests, might surprise you.

As you progress through the game, you eventually come across an area heavily fortified by the 33rd. There’s a mortar nearby, and Walker decides to use it to clear the area with white phosphorus shells.

Now, white phosphorus is extremely nasty stuff. It causes deep second and third degree burns, and it sticks to the skin and can cause extensive damage to internal organs due to being absorbed by the body. If you really want to, you can go to Wikipedia for an image of the kinds of injuries it causes, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s an image I’m not going to post on my blog.

So, in the game, you use the white phosphorus mortar to clear the area of hostiles. As you move through the carnage afterward, you encounter a severely burned soldier, on the verge of death.

“Why?…” the soldier croaks.

“You brought this on yourself,” Walker replies.

“We were helping…” the injured soldier tries to say, but dies before he can finish.

“What?” Walker asks, confused. He looks around, and sees something. “Oh, no…” he says softly.

It turns out that the 33rd had been providing shelter for civilians, and you, the player, have burned them all to a crisp.

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Here’s the scene on YouTube, if you can stomach it.

Walker is heavily traumatized by this turn of events, and Adams and Lugo begin to lose their faith in their commander. Walker vows revenge against the 33rd, blaming them for, as he sees it, forcing him to fire the white phosphorus.

A little later, you find a small radio through which Konrad begins communicating with Walker, and openly questioning the morality of Walker’s actions. Walker refuses to take any responsibility for what he has done, and blames Konrad for forcing his hand. Adams and Lugo grow more and more distrusting in their commanding officer, and begin to voice their distrust more openly.

Walker, Adams, and Lugo eventually team up with a CIA agent named Riggs, and help him hijack the tanker trucks carrying Dubai’s water supply. Riggs, however, intentionally crashes the trucks, intending to wipe out the entire remaining population of Dubai so that no one will know about the atrocities committed there. And so you, the player, are once again (at least partly) responsible for an atrocity: the inevitable death of Dubai’s entire remaining population.

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This image is of Walker as the game progresses. The deterioration is pretty obvious.

Walker is beginning to hallucinate, and Konrad continues to question his judgment, as do Adams and Lugo. After a helicopter crash, Lugo is lynched by an angry mob, and the player is given the choice to either scare the crowd away by firing into the air, or gun them down in payback.

Let me reiterate this: you, the player, are given the option to fire into a crowd of civilians to pay them back for the death of your comrade. This is almost unprecedented. I almost can’t believe something like this made it into a widely-released video game.

Walker continues to hallucinate, and Adams clearly no longer trusts him. Walker informs Konrad that he is coming to kill him, and Walker and Adams make their way to the tower (which I think is supposed to be the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building) where Konrad is holed up.

After another fierce firefight, Walker barely makes it to the tower, while Adams goes down fighting the last of Konrad’s men. As Walker enters the tower, the last of the 33rd surrender to him and inform that Konrad is on the penthouse deck of the tower. Walker goes to confront him, and at first Konrad appears to be the man behind the atrocities, until Walker finds his decaying corpse.

Yep, Konrad committed suicide well before the game began, and Walker has been imagining everything Konrad said to him in an attempt to rationalize his actions, and to distance himself from his guilt over having caused the deaths of so many civilians and fellow American soldiers. Walker’s projection of Konrad tells him that he had many opportunities to leave Dubai, but didn’t and pushed recklessly ahead from a misplaced desire to be a hero, and only ended up causing more death and destruction in the process. The game ends with Walker’s projection of Konrad pointing a gun at him (which is of course Walker pointing a gun at himself) and beginning to count to five.

There are a couple of different endings to the game after this point, but I will again refer you to Wikipedia for the details since there are other things I want to discuss here.

Spec Ops: The Line is nightmarish in many ways. What starts as a recon mission becomes a massacre, with the player character starting the game looking like this…

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And ending it looking more like this:

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In this game, you objectively fail your mission. Not only do you fail, you fail spectacularly: you spend the majority of the game fighting and killing American soldiers, and are responsible for mass killings of civilians on more than one occasion. Your actions have helped lead to what will probably be the extinction of Dubai’s remaining population, which is pretty much the exact opposite of your mission going into the game.

For much of the game, Walker blames Konrad for what has happened. The twist that Konrad has been dead the whole time of course means that Walker himself was entirely responsible for everything that happened. Revenge against Konrad was just a smokescreen, and Walker’s attempted rationale for the atrocities he himself commits turns out to be meaningless.

All of this is very fourth-wall breaking. Walker’s actions throughout the game are also the player’s actions, and the player is therefore responsible for some truly horrific deeds.

In most games, when you die and the game reloads your last checkpoint, a hint appears on the loading screen to help you out. Spec Ops: The Line does this as well, until late in the game, when different sorts of messages begin to appear on the screen.

Messages like this:

Do you feel like a hero yet?

Can you even remember why you’re here?

The United States Military does not condone the killing of unarmed noncombatants. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?

Killing for yourself is murder. Killing for your government is heroic. Killing for entertainment is harmless.

And perhaps most devastatingly:

You’re still a good person.

Damn.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game that makes you question your desire to play violent video games, even as you are in the process of playing one. It makes you think about all those violent games you’ve played in the past, and how you were so proud of yourself for setting a new personal record for most kills in one round of Call of Duty. It makes you question all those achievements you’ve gotten for killing certain numbers of enemies with different weapons in game after game after game. It makes you question the choices you make. It makes you question why you are playing this particular game, even as you continue to play it, and why like Walker, you stick it out to the very bitter end. It’s a deconstruction of the entire shooter genre, and while it’s not exactly subtle, it deserves credit for the questions it raises.

The implications of these questions are ones I don’t really want to think about, but at the same time, I admire the creators of this game for having the stones to bring them up. I think I read somewhere that one of the main inspirations for the story was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the parallels to which are pretty clear in the game.

Also of note is the terrific vocal performance of the great voice actor Nolan North, who does a tremendous job of conveying the erosion of Walker’s sanity as the game progresses. At the beginning of the game, Walker sounds cool and composed, as you near the end, he sounds downright frantic. Even if the name Nolan North isn’t familiar to you, I can all but guarantee you’ve heard his voice if you’ve played just about any game over the past several years. Seriously, the guy’s IMDB page is about a mile long.

There’s not really any specific point I wanted to make with this post. I spent a good portion of this last weekend playing this game, and it affected me so much I just had to get my feelings out, since writing is such good therapy. I’m sorry this post was such a downer, if you read it to the end, thanks for hanging in there with me.

The next movie I’m going to write about will be The World’s End, the reunion of everyone’s favorite crazy British actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost with everyone’s favorite crazy British director Edgar Wright. I’m really looking forward to it.

But until then, I need to go lie down.

It’s Better Up There

I’ve been looking forward to Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” pretty much ever since it was first announced. Back in 2009, Blomkamp’s debut feature District 9 became one of my surprise favorite films of the year. It kind of came out of nowhere for me, and I didn’t really have much interest in it until it came out and got really good reviews, so I decided to check it out and was very pleasantly surprised.

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I watched it again last week and it still holds up really well. The effects are top-notch (which is especially impressive given the movie’s relatively small budget), the acting is solid, the action is intense, and the story is original. And yes, there are certainly allegorical ties to Apartheid, but if you want to you can ignore the allegorical aspects of the film and simply enjoy it for the smart, original science fiction film that it is. I could go into the symbolism and such, but that’s a discussion for another time. I actually wrote a paper about District 9 in college, which is kind of cool I guess.

But anyway, on to Elysium.

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The plot of Elysium is fairly simple: in the future, Earth sucks. People on Earth basically live in a soul-sucking wasteland, and the Los Angeles of the future is half-desert. The wealthy folks, however, have it pretty good: they live on Elysium, a luxurious space station orbiting high above the Earth. They live in grandiose mansions and have these great machines that quickly heal all injuries or illnesses. Jodie Foster plays Delacourt, the station’s ambitious head of security, who just may be a bit too ambitious for her own good.

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Back on Earth, Matt Damon plays our hero Max, bald, buff, and tattooed. He’s dreamed of going to Elysium ever since he was a boy, growing up in an orphanage with his friend Frey, who is now a nurse with a daughter of her own. Frey’s daughter is in the final stages of leukemia, which will provide Max with a bit of extra motivation later on.

One fateful day, Max is inadvertently exposed to a lethal dose of radiation while working his job at the robot factory, and just like that, he only has five days to live. In a darkly funny scene, he is given painkillers by a medical robot, which tells him in its emotionless robot voice that “the pills should keep you functioning until your death.”

With no other options available to him, Max hooks up with some of his old pals who have a plan to get to Elysium, a plan that is, of course, So-Crazy-It-Just-Might-Work. In the process, Max submits himself to a gruesome operation (performed by some highly questionable surgeons) that welds a sort of robotic exoskeleton to his body, which greatly enhances his strength and endurance.

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And of course, when overly-ambitious Secretary of Defense Delacourt cottons on to their plan, she dispatches her secret weapon: Kruger.

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Kruger is played by the wonderfully-named Sharlto Copley, best known for playing Wikus, the hapless protagonist of District 9. Kruger is such a fearsome badass that he is already another one of my favorite villains of the year. He’s like the freaking Terminator: unstoppable, relentless, always showing up when you least expect him to, and when you really, REALLY don’t want him to.

He’s so tough he even survives getting his face thoroughly mangled by a grenade, and gets his face gruesomely reconstructed by one of Elysium’s healing machines in a scene that is definitely not for the squeamish, but is also undeniably impressive in terms of the special effects.

The showdowns between Max and Kruger are suitably epic, with Kruger’s ferocity and state-of-the-art exosuit pitted against Max’s black market knockoff exosuit and insatiable will to live. The two are great foils to each other, and make for a memorable pairing of hero and villain. And seriously, Sharlto Copley proves he has some serious range. His character in District 9 and his character in Elysium couldn’t be bigger opposites, and it is very much to the actor’s credit that he makes both of them work as well as he does.

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There’s also some serious hardware for our hero Max to contend with, and it will come as no surprise to anyone who saw District 9 that director Blomkamp once again comes up with some extremely cool sci-fi weaponry, equally as capable of shredding bodies as the alien weapons were in District 9.

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That ChemRail gun in the above picture gets my vote for Most Badass Sci-fi Weapon of 2013 so far. Elysium is a violent film, definitely not for the squeamish. There aren’t quite as many of the ultra-gory corpse-splosions that splattered most of the second half of District 9, but if you don’t like watching people getting literally blown to bits then you’re probably better off not watching a Blomkamp film.

And as with District 9, Elysium does have some allegorical aspects, even if they’re not as specific as District 9 was to South African Apartheid. It’s a science-fiction parable about the haves and the have-nots, but I’m not too concerned with the politics of the film. You can find people arguing on internet message boards and such over whether or not the film is socialist or some nonsense, but I could care less.

In my opinion, if you let yourself get so wrapped up in the political undertones of the film that you forget to have fun (since it’s a MOVIE and is meant first and foremost to be ENTERTAINING) then you’re just missing the point of going to the movies in the first place. Yes, movies can inform and enlighten us. I’m not denying that. Film is an incredibly versatile medium. But I think if you go into a summer sci-fi blockbuster and get all bent out of shape over the political undertones, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.

But enough about politics. It’s been a good year for sci-fi, and Elysium continues that trend. I’m already looking forward to whatever shenanigans Blomkamp has in store for us next. District 10, anyone?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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I’m also a big fan of these retro-style posters.