Le Cinema de WTF: Assassin’s Creed

To say that movies based on video games have a mixed track record would be putting it mildly. To put it less mildly, most of them suck. In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit to having a weakness for the Resident Evil and Tomb Raider movies. They are good popcorn movies. They are mindless fun. I enjoy them. But are they, strictly speaking, good movies? No. No, they are not.

Assassin’s Creed was the movie that was going to change all that. The movie adaptation of the long-running video game franchise stars Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Freaking Irons. These have to be the three most critically-acclaimed actors to ever star in a game-based movie. The latter two are Oscar winners, and Fassbender is an Oscar nominee. The movie was directed by Justin Kurzel, a talented up-and-comer whose previous film was a well-received adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which also starred Fassbender and Cotillard. Parts of the movie take place during the Spanish Inquisition, a time period the games have not explored and that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on film before. This was a movie with ambition, damn it.

And yet, it has a dismal 17% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating that it was soundly thrashed by the critics.

So what happened?

Image: 20th Century Fox

Before I get into that, I need to explain how the games work, or none of this will make any sense. In the marketing for the games whenever a new one comes out, the trailers and TV commercials only show off the cool stuff: hooded badasses using hidden wrist blades and other pointy implements to singlehandedly take out legions of hapless suckers in cool historical backdrops. Sounds great, right? But what these ads don’t tell you is that the cool historical stuff is only part of the story.

The story revolves around the conflict between two ancient and secretive groups: the Assassins and the Templars. In most of the games, the player controls an Assassin, and the Templars are the primary antagonists. The games begin in the modern age, where a mega-corporation called Abstergo Industries (secretly run by the Templars) has developed a technology called the Animus, which allows people to relive their ancestors’ memories through a kind of super-advanced virtual reality.

The historical parts of the games are the main focus, but they’re all just flashbacks, a sort of game-within-a-game. The series’ timeline and mythology are incredibly convoluted, and even though I’ve played five or six of the games, I spend most of them not having any idea what is going on, and I couldn’t give less of a hoot about the Assassin/Templar conflict that has been raging throughout the centuries. Can you see how this might be problematic for a movie adaptation?

As much as I enjoy the historical parts of the games, the modern-day parts are an absolute snoozefest. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, for example, you spend most of the game doing awesome pirate stuff like sinking people’s ships and taking their stuff, but every once in a while the game kicks you back into the present day and makes you wander around an office building and hack into security systems with an iPad. If that sounds boring, I can assure you that it is. I love Black Flag, it’s a fantastic game, but the present-day sections are as boring as hell, and I would always complete them as fast as possible so I could get back to the fun pirate stuff.

Image: Ubisoft

Well, in this sense the movie is a good interpretation of the games, since the historical sections are great but the modern-day stuff, well, isn’t. The film opens in 1492, with a man named Aguilar being inducted into the Assassins Brotherhood. Fast forward to 1986, and a young boy named Callum Lynch. He walks into his house one day to find his mother dead, apparently killed by his father. Men with guns converge on the house, and Callum’s father tells him to run. As he flees, Callum’s father is taken into custody by the armed men, under the command of Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons). Fast forward again to Callum as an adult, now played by Michael Fassbender, who is on death row, and is soon executed by lethal injection.

Except he isn’t, or the movie would have ended a lot sooner. He wakes up at the Abstergo facility in Madrid, and is told by Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), Alan’s daughter, that Abstergo has secreted him away because they want to use him in the Animus. Abstergo is looking for the Apple of Eden, which contains the genetic code for free will, and Abstergo wants to use the Apple to subjugate humanity and end violence and corruption. Abstergo wants Callum to relive the memories of his ancestor Aguilar (also played by Fassbender), as they believe that Aguilar’s memories will lead them to the Apple.

Did you get all that? Well strap in, because we’re just getting started. This does present an intriguing ideological conflict, since it could be argued that Abstergo’s motives are pure. Ending violence and corruption in the world sounds good, but taking away humanity’s free will in the process would be less good. The Assassins want humanity to be free, even if that means being free to destroy itself. Abstergo and the Templars are like the League of Shadows in Batman Begins, as their motives are okay but their methods leave a lot to be desired.

Image: 20th Century Fox

But the movie’s plot is ridiculously hard to follow. I haven’t played every game in the series, but I’ve played quite a few of them, and I still had very little idea of what was going on for most of the movie. I can only imagine how confusing the movie would be for someone who hadn’t played any of the games. And I have to say that the movie has the most baffling ending of just about any movie I’ve seen in the last couple years. It should end with a bang, but it ends with a whimper. And the end credits are fifteen minutes long, which is ludicrous. The movie’s running time is 115 minutes, but fifteen of those minutes are taken up by the end credits.

The film’s best parts are the flashback sequences that take place during the Spanish Inquisition. These are the scenes that follow Callum’s ancestor Aguilar, as he fights to keep the Apple of Eden from falling into Templar hands. These scenes also comprise most of the action sequences, which is great because you know that whenever Aguilar and his sidekick Maria show up, shit is about to go down. And the action sequences are great. They do a fantastic job of emulating the free-running style of combat in the games, and the athleticism of the stunt performers is impressive.

They also look great. The locations look very good and the sets, special effects, and particularly the costumes are all great. I give special consideration to the costumes because the outfit Aguilar wears is so cool, and looks exactly like something that would be seen in the games. There’s a real thrill in seeing an actual person looking like he could have walked off the screen from a video game.

Image: 20th Century Fox

But as much as I like the Aguilar sequences, they have two crucial flaws. The first flaw stems from the decisions the filmmakers made in adapting the Animus for the screen. In the games, the Animus is basically a chair a person lies down on and is hooked up to a bunch of machines, like in The Matrix. The filmmakers apparently decided this would be boring for an audience to watch (or perhaps too similar to The Matrix), and turned the Animus into a giant harness that descends from the ceiling in the middle of a large room, allowing for the person plugged in to the Animus to move around as he literally re-enacts his ancestor’s actions. It’s a cool idea, but the problem is that in the middle of the Aguilar-based action scenes, the movie cuts back to Callum hooked up to the Animus mimicking Aguilar’s actions. It severely disrupts the pacing of the fast-paced action sequences.

The other problem with the action sequences is that they are almost entirely bloodless. People are slashed and stabbed with barely a drop of blood spilled. The movie is rated PG-13, which is weird when you consider that all the games are Mature-rated, which is the video game equivalent to an R-rating. I hate it when people are killed in movies with swords or knives and there’s no blood. This isn’t because I want every movie to be as bloody as possible (I don’t). It’s because it takes me out of the moment. It kills the immersion because it makes me think, “I am watching a movie that was edited in order to get a PG-13 rating.” This is something you don’t want to think while watching a movie, because it means you’re not fully in to the experience.

For me personally, Assassin’s Creed the movie may very well be one of the most accurate game-to-movie adaptations ever made, since it mirrors my experience of playing the games almost perfectly. I love the historical sections despite their flaws, but the modern-day stuff is slow and boring and I just want it to be over. Just like in the games, the film’s modern-day sections are dull, taking viewers away from the vibrancy of the historical settings and depositing them in drab-looking rooms and hallways. The plot is nearly incomprehensible, and the characters are hard to care about. Justin Kurzel is a talented director, but adapting such a dense and convoluted video-game mythology to the big screen was always going to be a tall order.

Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth is well worth checking out, however. Fassbender makes Macbeth a sympathetic character, a man who doesn’t realize he is a monster until it is far too late. And he has great chemistry with Marion Cotillard, who plays Lady Macbeth. It’s also a great-looking movie, and the ending sequence where Macbeth fights Macduff is stunning. Macbeth and Macduff do battle against the backdrop of a burning village, and the entire sequence is engulfed in an orange haze that gives it an eerie, dreamlike quality. The music in both Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed is awesome. Both films were scored by Kurzel’s brother Jed, and his moody, ominous music greatly improves each film. Both of Justin Kurzel’s films are rich in atmosphere, and Jed Kurzel’s music is a key part of that.

Is this, from a purely technical standpoint, the best video game movie ever made? Quite possibly, yes. It’s reasonably well-made and the acting is solid. But it is undone by several crippling flaws. In spite of its flaws, I have to give it some credit for at least trying to rise above its video-game-based-movie brethren. Can you think of any other movie based on a game that has actual ambition? This is the only one I know of. It’s hard to fault it for being too big for its britches because of this, even though the end result is a film that can generously be described as a mixed bag. Unsurprisingly, sequels are in the works, so maybe some of the narrative flaws will be worked out. I hope so, because there’s a lot of promise here. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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Don’t Stop Me Now

Hardcore Henry is a difficult movie to write about. In many ways it’s less of a movie and more of an experience. It takes many of its cues from video games and is a lot like playing a game without a controller.

It’s also difficult to write about because there isn’t really a main character. The entire film is shot from a first-person perspective. The action unfolds from the point of a view of a guy named Henry, but Henry himself really isn’t a character. He has no memories, no voice, and might as well have no face (since the audience never clearly sees what he looks like). The film is unique in that it basically makes the viewer the protagonist.

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There are many video games which feature silent protagonists (like most entries in the Call of Duty series), and Hardcore Henry follows in their footsteps. In the first scene, Henry awakens. He is missing an arm and a leg, but no worries, a woman named Estelle who says she is his wife gives him cybernetic limbs to replace his missing ones. These cybernetic appendages are quite a bit more powerful than standard human limbs, and the film’s opening scenes establish that Henry has enhanced strength, speed, and stamina, although he has no memories and remains entirely silent for the duration of the film.

His silence is due to the fact that his speech module is never installed, since the film’s main villain makes an appearance before that can happen. His name is Akan, and he’s a sneering bleach-blond douchebag who looks a bit like Benedict Cumberbatch in that crappy movie about Julian Assange. He also has telekinetic mind powers which are never explained.

HARDCORE HENRY

HARDCORE HENRY

The movie is structured much like a video game, as Henry is presented with an escalating series of challenges. Showing up throughout the movie is Sharlto Copley, who has seven or eight different guises and certainly appears to be enjoying himself. Copley’s character is named Jimmy, and the movie makes a running joke of how he keeps getting shot or blown up only to appear again shortly afterward in a different costume with a different personality.

Jimmy supplies Henry with a phone he uses to give Henry instructions periodically on where to go, and even gives him video game-style waypoints. Jimmy also provides much of the weaponry Henry uses, which ranges from shotguns, machine guns and suppressed pistols to rocket launchers, hand grenades and even a creatively-used pair of pliers.

Hardcore Henry is a movie which features a substantial amount of carnage, all of which is seen as if the viewer were the one perpetrating it. There’s a lot of rapid camera movement, and these factors combine to make a movie which will not be to everyone’s tastes. The best way I can think of to describe it is that it’s sort of like a combination of Crank and John Wick, only in first-person.

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The violence and the fast-moving camera didn’t bother me personally (I’ve played a lot of video games so I guess I’m used to both of those), but I have read some reviews of the movie by people who felt reported feeling nauseous. I never did, but I can understand how a movie like this would turn some people off.

But at the same time, this is a kind of movie that has never been done before in the entire history of motion pictures, and that to me is worth something. Yes, first-person camerawork has been used in films before, but never has there been a film shown entirely from a first-person viewpoint, and especially not with the kind of elaborately-choreographed action sequences that Hardcore Henry is chock-full of.

The film has a brisk 96-minute running time, and most of that is crammed full of (literally) head-spinning action. There’s a car chase, a sniper scene, some parkour, an apartment shootout, a brothel shootout, a tank scene, and after all of that, the movie climaxes in a massive battle royale on the roof of main villain Akan’s corporate headquarters, in which Henry battles dozens of cybernetically-enhanced henchmen, along with the telekinetic baddie himself, who is basically the movie’s final Boss character Henry has to defeat in order to beat the game.

There were at least two points during the final battle where I thought okay, that has to be the end, right? But then Henry injects himself with a few shots of adrenaline (like a classic video game powerup) and the carnage continues. Just when you think Henry is finally down for the count, he gets up and just…keeps…going (and yes, the Queen song Don’t Stop Me Now is played at some point during this orgy of chaos and mayhem).

The plot of Hardcore Henry is pretty thin, and exists mostly to initiate the action sequences. There are a couple of twists and turns along the way, and unsurprisingly not all of them make a great deal of sense. But I can forgive the filmmakers for that, since the movie’s technical achievements are still pretty impressive.

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Ultimately, your enjoyment of Hardcore Henry might depend on how much you enjoy playing video games. It’s a gimmicky movie for sure, and I’ve read hugely different reviews of it. Some people say you absolutely must see it on the big screen, others say it’s not a movie that was meant to be seen on the big screen. Regardless of which stance you choose, it’s worth seeing for action junkies.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie. It’s hard to see it giving rise to a new genre of action movies, I don’t know how eager other filmmakers will be to duplicate its style. But I can definitely see it becoming a cult classic in the years to come, because there is nothing else quite like it.

hardcorehenry-fi

GIRL POWER: Tomb Raider

Some movies can enlighten you, teach you something, make you feel deeply, and teach you something about the human condition.

Other movies don’t do any of that, and that’s fine.

Angelina Jolie’s two Tomb Raider movies from 2001 and 2003 are perfect examples of that. The plots of both movies are forgettable, they frequently don’t make much sense, they’re unrealistic blah blah blah who cares.

I love both movies, for one very simple reason: they’re FUN.

Seriously. They’re both really, really fun. If you haven’t seen 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider or 2003’s Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, you really should. Get them on Netflix or whatever, pop some popcorn, sit back, and have a blast.

Most people are probably familiar with the name Lara Croft, even if they haven’t seen the movies or played any of the video games. Everyone knows this character, right?

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And okay, I get that some people aren’t that big a fan of this character, but I don’t care because I love her and I have no problem saying that on the internet where anyone can read it.

But the reason I love her isn’t just because of her prodigious assets. I love her because she is, wait for it, a FUN character. Who doesn’t love a badass treasure hunter? She fights bad guys, she goes to exotic locations around the world and finds cool stuff. Who doesn’t want to live that life? The character of Lara Croft is wish fulfillment to be sure, but in case you hadn’t figured it out by now, I am totally okay with that. The recent video games have shown there’s maybe more to the character than just wish fulfillment, but I’ll get to that in more detail later.

First, the movies. They’re guilty pleasures. A while ago, when I wrote about the Mission: Impossible movies, I called them Popcorn Perfection. The same could be said of the Tomb Raider movies. They’re popcorn escapism at its finest.

tomb raider psotre1

The first movie involves Lara’s quest to locate a mystical triangle which grants its user the power to control time. Of course, this ancient artifact was split into two pieces that are located on opposite corners of the globe, and both must be found in order to wield the great and terrible power. Also, Lara is facing off against the Illuminati, who also seek the triangle.

If at any pointed during that plot description you yawned, or perhaps snorted derisively, it’s okay, I forgive you. This is a safe place, and there is no judgment here. Like I said, the plots of these movies are nothing special.

But what the plot does allow for is exotic locations and lots of hugely enjoyable over-the-top action scenes. One particular highlight takes place in a tomb (of course) where a bunch of statues come to life and start attacking people. It’s cheesy and wonderful, and features some less-than-convincing early-2000’s CGI.

The movie also features an appearance from pre-Bond Daniel Craig, speaking with a flat American accent, which is really off-putting since I’m so used to his smooth British tones. It’s always weird when you’re used to hearing someone sound a particular way, and when they sound different the whole thing just feels sort of off. Craig’s accent isn’t particularly bad, it just sounds…funny.

Speaking of accents, Angelina Jolie really nails Lara’s posh English accent. I find that American actors are usually terrible at doing English accents, while English actors are really good at American accents (you’d never know from watching the Dark Knight trilogy, for example, that Christian Bale and Gary Oldman are both Brits). Fortunately, Jolie is the exception to this.

Her English accent really works, and I think the key to it is that she doesn’t over do it. Half the time when Americans try to sound English they exaggerate it way too much and end up sounding like idiots, but Jolie’s accent is more understated in the Tomb Raider movies and it really benefits the character a lot.

And if it seems like I’m harping on the accent, it’s because it’s important to making the character of Lara Croft work, and if the main character didn’t work, then the movie wouldn’t work. It would have been easy for the producers to say, “screw it,” and have Jolie speak with her natural American accent, but they didn’t. Lara’s Englishness is an essential aspect of her character, and credit to the filmmakers for not messing with that.

Ok, rant over. The first movie is loads of fun. It’s full of goofy action and seems at least somewhat aware of how silly it is. In one scene, after an epic shootout in Lara’s stately manor, a UPS guy comes by the next morning, and finds Lara’s butler and her tech guy (both of whom are good comic relief) cleaning up the debris (which includes shoveling rubble into a wheelbarrow). As Lara signs for the package, she sees the delivery guy looking around incredulously and she says “I woke up this morning and I just hated everything.” The UPS guy gets the hell out of there in a hurry. That’s always cracked me up.

The movie even ends on this freeze frame, and there’s something awesomely cheesy about a movie ending on a badass freeze frame.

lara croft freeze frame

The movie also clocks in at a brisk 100 minutes, which is perfect because it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Unfortunately, the sequel, The Cradle of Life, is 117 minutes long, which feels a bit overlong. The sequel follows Lara as she attempts to find Pandora’s Box before an evil megalomaniac can find it and unleash it upon the world.

The sequel also features pre-300 Gerard Butler as Lara’s sidekick. They used to have a thing together, of course, which complicates their relationship. Overall the sequel doesn’t feel quite as fresh as the original and it drags near the end, but it’s still plenty entertaining, and is helped immeasurably by Jolie’s presence in the title role.

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Seriously, kudos to whoever had the idea to cast her as Lara, she’s great. You might say that there’s not a whole lot of depth required to make this character work on screen, and in some respect you might be right, but Jolie really is great in these movies, and I swear to God it’s not just because she looks like this:

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Although of course I would be lying through my teeth if I said that had nothing to do with it. But hey, this is a judgment-free zone, remember?

And the last few years have been good for Lara. The last couple Tomb Raider games have been fantastic, and it’s my recent addiction to Rise of the Tomb Raider that helped inspire me to write this post.

Developer Crystal Dynamics has done great work with the series, and proved that there’s more to the character than just being aesthetically pleasing. The recent games have taken Lara back to the beginning and emphasized her vulnerability and her humanity. She’s also more, shall we say, realistically-proportioned than she used to be, although she remains supermodel-gorgeous.

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2013’s Tomb Raider reboot was dark and gritty, and at times shockingly violent (there’s a sequence where Lara falls into a lake of blood) but it did a great job rebooting the character and showing that there’s more to Lara than just looking good. The most recent game, Rise of the Tomb Raider, which came out last year, is a tremendously fun game which offers a deep and varied gameplay experience. It’s also not as dark as its predecessor, which is a bit of a relief.

The movies and the recent games have done a superb job of capturing the appeal of Lara Croft. She’s just a fun character, and there’s more to her than meets the eye. She’s more interested in knowledge than treasure (it’s not like she needs more money, she’s already fabulously rich), which makes her a hell of a lot more interesting than someone who’s just in it for the money.

Lara Croft has come a long way, and if the next Tomb Raider games are as good as the previous ones, I’ll be more than happy.

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.

 Walker before and after

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…

 spec-ops-3 good

And ending it looking more like this:

 spec-ops-the-line-e3-2012-screenshots-1 bad

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.

2012: The Year in Villainy, Part One

It’s hard to be a villain. A villain has to accomplish a lot of things: he has to be a plausible threat for a hero, he has to create a conflict for the hero to resolve, and he has to be evil enough that you root for the hero to beat him (though it is fun to root for the bad guys sometimes). Frequently, villains are underdeveloped, which can make a story seem unsatisfying if the hero does not have to overcome a plausible threat. There is a lot riding on a villain. Here, then, are my picks for the best television and video game villains of 2012 (movie villains coming soon).

Vaas and Hoyt in Far Cry 3

In the game Far Cry 3, you play as Jason Brody, a regular Joe on a tropical vacation with his pals, when, wouldn’t you know it, you end up captured by a terrifying pirate named Vaas. Vaas kind of reminded me of the Joker in The Dark Knight, he’s terrifying but you kind of miss him when he’s not around. Vaas captures your friends and intends to sell them into slavery, so you spend the first half of the game rescuing them. I was kind of sad in a twisted sort of way when you kill Vaas halfway through the game, the story doesn’t have as much energy without him. But in the second half of the game, you go after Hoyt, Vaas’ boss, a psychotic drug runner and human trafficker, who forces civilians to run through minefields and later cuts off one of Jason Brody’s fingers. The storyline in Far Cry 3 was a little wonky overall, but Vaas and Hoyt were two of the more memorably nasty video game villains of 2012.

The Didact in Halo 4

The Didact is a classic example of how the threat of the villain needs to match the strength of the hero. The Master Chief is a genetically-enhanced supersoldier in a totally sweet suit of armor who has slaughtered aliens across the galaxy, so it takes a sizable bad guy to pose a threat to him. The Didact fits this description. He’s some sort of evil alien who’s been imprisoned for a really long time, and when those silly humans manage to awaken him, wouldn’t you know he’s got all kinds of evil plans. The story of Halo 4 was a bit muddled in my opinion, I had a hard time figuring it out, but I knew I had to stop the Didact from digitizing the entire human race (which would be bad). When your evil plans involve the destruction (or something) of nothing less than the ENTIRE HUMAN RACE, you know you’ve got a very evil villain on your hands.

Raul Menendez in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2

Menendez is the most well-developed video game villain of the year. He’s extremely evil, but he manages to come off as a human being instead of a cardboard cutout. He does some horrible things, but knowing about his backstory makes you sympathize with him to some degree, which is impressive. There are even a few parts of the story where you play as him, which is a first for the Call of Duty series. He’s much more interesting than the villains from the first Black Ops game, Dragovich and Kravchenko, who were certainly evil but not much more than stereotypical Russian Cold War bad guys in the vein of early James Bond flicks. At the end of Black Ops 2 you can choose to either kill or capture Menendez, and it is a legitimately tough choice to make, which really speaks to how well his character is developed.

Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2

The wonderfully-named Handsome Jack is one of those sarcastic, snide, taunting bad guys that really makes you hate him. He calls you periodically throughout the game to taunt you, and his taunts are well-written and well-delivered. Whoever voiced him really did a great job. The first Borderlands game lacked a central villain which made it feel unfocused sometimes, but the addition of Handsome Jack to Borderlands 2 added a clear sense of meaning to your actions, and it upped the stakes considerably. He’s a bit cartoonish which is in keeping with the rest of the game, but his taunting gives the player a strong motivation to get rid of him.

Derek C. Simmons in Resident Evil 6

Wait, what? Simmons? If you’re like me, you think that Simmons is the absolute lamest name for a villain in the history of the universe (though there was villain named Irving in Resident Evil 5, which is also pretty lame). This freaking guy looks like Colonel Sanders and is about as threatening as a pile of used Kleenexes. Sure, he’s evil, unleashing zombie viruses and whatnot, but the plot of RE6 made no sense whatsoever, and Simmons never emerges as anything more than a moustache-twirling villain, who’s evil just for the sake of being evil. I’m half-surprised he never tied someone to railroad tracks and cackled with glee. So why am I including him? Well, he is memorable in the sense of being a complete joke, though not in the sense of being memorably evil. I mean seriously, Simmons? Worst. Villain name. Ever.

The Governor in The Walking Dead

Ah, the Governor. The most infamous villain from the comics, he finally made his debut in the third season of the hit TV series. He seems okay at first, offering a safe haven to some of our main characters. But he is soon revealed to be pure evil, keeping severed zombie heads in fish tanks and brutally interrogating two of the most likable protagonists. He took a shard of glass to the eye in the midseason finale a few weeks ago, and I am looking forward to finding out what kind of brutal vengeance he has in store in the second half of the season, which I think starts in February. The first two seasons of The Walking Dead also lacked a central villain (other than, you know, the zombies) and the addition of the Governor to the show has given it a boost it sorely needed after the slow-moving second season. Much of the credit goes to actor David Morrissey for giving him the right balance of likability on the surface and dangerous insanity within. The third season of the show has been, in my opinion, the best so far, and the Governor has a lot to do with that.

Glaber and Ashur in Spartacus: Vengeance

I love Spartacus. To the uninitiated it is little more than a delivery vehicle for copious amounts of gore and nudity, and while there are indeed plenty of both of those, there is also a surprisingly deep and resonant story, populated by a cast of memorable characters. That many of these memorable characters also happen to be evil as sin works out pretty well for my current purposes. Gaius Claudius Glaber is the main villain, at whom much of the titular vengeance is aimed. He is the man responsible for selling Spartacus and his wife into slavery, and Spartacus holds him responsible for the death of his beloved wife Sura. Glaber is another one of those sneering villains who is just utterly detestable. Ashur, the treacherous Syrian, who survived the massacre that ended the show’s first season, also returns to cause all kinds of trouble. I might write more about these two at some point in the future, since I love this show and have been wanting to write about it for a while, but for now let’s just say that the final season of Spartacus, subtitled War of the Damned, is one of my most-anticipated entertainments of 2013.

COMING SOON: My favorite movie villains of 2012, and a nice cheery New Year’s movie.

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