Friday, January 29, 2010

Classic PC Game Reviews, Vol. I -- Thief: The Dark Project

Appearing in 1998 was a tough business for any PC game if it wasn't titled Half-Life, particularly for other first-person shooter types. Better just leave off the groundbreaking new genres until next year, lads.

But the folks at Looking Glass Studios didn't, and aren't we all glad. Thief: The Dark Project is the ancestor of all stealth-based games, period. It also happens to still be the most fun. No game before (or since) has so single-handedly created an entire sub-genre of first-person shooters (Thief is often called a "first-person looter" for obvious reasons).

The concept is straightforward (steal things and don't get caught), but the execution is quite complex. Your character Garrett has plenty of tools at his disposal to deal with guards, locked doors, and inconveniently-placed light sources, but supplies are limited and many situations require you to rely on patience and three-dimensional thinking (the importance of "up" cannot be overstated) to get the loot you're looking for. Imagine that -- patience as a mandatory element in a first-person shooter. I cannot stress enough how refreshing that is in a gaming world that mostly has the FPS genre constantly shouting "OMFG TIME-TRAVELING KILLER ALIEN ROBOTS FROM OUTER SPACE GRAB YOUR BFG9000!!1!"

Further, in an era of gaming where detailed graphics and physics seem to take precedence over immersive storylines, Thief puts others to shame with its beautifully-crafted cutscenes and brilliantly-detailed fantasy world full of intrigue, revenge and the undead.

Speaking of which -- Thief is also one of the most absolutely terrifying games I've ever played, surpassed in its cardiac-arresting potential only by Doom 3. To illustrate, I'll relate an anecdote from the early days of my career in larceny and graverobbing: I was wandering through the bowels of an abandoned mine, trying to find my way up to the Hammerite prison above, when what should appear in the darkened hallway ahead but a corpse, rotting happily away in a forgotten mining tunnel.

"Gross," thought I, as I stepped over it and headed on down the passage.

Suddenly a decidedly inhuman groan blasted out from my speakers (Thief is best played at high volumes to increase your sensitivity to loud or unnecessary noises). As unnerving as that was, I still had the presence of mind to spin my mouse in circles, frantically searching for the source of the sound. Nothing to be seen, so I just crouched down in the shadows and waited, which is generally the proper course of action until you know what you're up against. Unfortunately for me, I was facing away from the corpse on the ground nearby, which as you've probably deduced by now, wasn't really a corpse in the strictest sense.

Well, a few seconds later, I heard another unpleasant moaning sound, this time from away left. As I twisted to face the noise, a sickening *crack* took my health bar down to about two hit points, and I was staring in horror at a zombie looking to OM-NOM my brains. And he did. Oh, how he did.

My reaction? Near heart failure. This was the case for me on all four of the levels featuring undead foes, particularly "Return to the Cathedral," which induced complete paralysis. I was literally incapable of moving Garrett through the level for several minutes for fear of disturbing the Cathedral's ghastly residents. All of Thief's various elements -- story, music, ambient noise, lighting -- combine perfectly to completely immerse the player.

Other comments: Have you ever wanted to be Indiana Jones in a video game? Thief lets you do that in several levels, and far more satisfyingly than any of the actual Indy titles. Thief also accommodates many styles of play through three genuinely different difficulty settings and sheer open-ended level construction. It has also given way to an enormous fan-mission and fanfic following, which you can take part in at Thief: The Circle. Thief: The Dark Project certainly isn't the most influential title of its time, but it was without doubt one of the most innovative. A must-play for anyone who prefers mind-over-matter gaming.

So -- why is it underrated? Well, as mentioned before, coming out in close proximity to one of the best-selling and most critically-acclaimed games of all time is rough, especially when your game is drastically different from that particular title. But in my explorations into the demise of Looking Glass Studios in 2000, I've heard that Thief's unjustly low popularity-to-quality ratio was also due to a simple lack of effective marketing. The game does enjoy favorable opinions from pretty much everyone I talk to about it, but a strangely small number of those people have ever actually played it or its sequel, Thief II: The Metal Age.

So get out there a find yourself a copy. There's a surprising number of supposedly brand-new copies on eBay at the moment, and the entire game consists of about 3 or 400 megabytes (insta-Torrent, anyone?), so you really have no excuse. With any luck, you'll end up like me: aggressively shushing nearby friends who, with their noisy careless lifestyles, are sure to expose you to the heavily-armed guards around the corner.

5 stars of 5.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Wonderful World of Third-Party Modding

I've been playing video games as long as I can remember. When I was seven or eight years old, I saved up my allowance for months so I could bum a ride from mom up to Funcoland and buy me a used Sega Genesis. Around the same time, one of my uncles gave my brother and I his old NES with a copy of Super Mario Bros. 3, which is easily one of the top five most good-old-fashioned-fun games in existence. That and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 made up an admittedly enormous part of my childhood.

So I guess you could say I was originally a console gamer. They have (correction: had) simple user interfaces and a gentle learning curve in most games, meaning that an interested and determined youngster like myself would have no trouble kicking Dr. Robotnik's ass out of Sonic's neighborhood. But then when I was about 11 or 12, a friend from school introduced me to the keystone of my future gaming career: Star Wars Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight. Being at the peak of my interest in Star Wars, this game had everything to satisfy my geek cravings -- spaceships, laser guns, and countless thousands of hapless stormtroopers just asking to be blasted to bits. But most importantly, it was the first first-person shooter to allow the player to become a Jedi Knight, and to wield a lightsaber. A lightsaber. Quake II, eat your heart out.

Needless to say, I bought myself a copy and didn't stop playing it (until the sequel came out). Since then I've expanded my library of PC games considerably, including most of the genres available -- first-person shooter, real-time strategy, RPG, etc. At some point along the line, though, I came across some intriguing downloads for Jedi Knight: player-created modifications that altered or added to the gameplay in some fashion. Some were more or less cosmetic, such as the ability to change your lightsaber color, or the outfit your character would wear. But others actually played around with the game mechanics, adding everything from new force powers to entirely new levels, some of which reproduced particular events from the Star Wars films. Memorable examples include Luke vs. Vader at Bespin, and the escape from the first Death Star. What's more, many of these mods were functional in multiplayer games, which added even more to the experience. The screenshot here is the finale of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a user-created multiplayer level for Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy.

Of course, I began to search for mods for my other favorite games too, most notably Thief: The Dark Project and Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. I was rewarded with more than enough great mods to give the games a whole new dimension of interest, dramatically increasing their replay value. Indeed, some of the mods make their respective games significantly better by adding features that felt missing from the original. Many mods for JKII add Force powers that were seen in the films, but were for one reason or another not included in the stock version of the game; mods for Star Trek: Bridge Commander add new ships and new star systems from the vast canon Star Trek has to offer.

Some modders take these additions to the next level, combining many smaller mods into one big package. This often has the effect of drastically improving upon a game that has become outdated in its features and graphics or did not meet player expectations to begin with. Such is the case with the Koba yashi Maru mod for Bridge Commander, a "total conversion" that adds dozens of features to what was already an enjoyable game, though seriously undercooked. Now I can board and capture enemy wessels, or command the USS Enterprise-A and a fleet of Federation ships against a Borg Cube, or conduct systematic phaser sweeps of nearby space in the hopes of finding the Bird of Prey that can fire while cloaked (an experience every Trekkie should have at some point). Another fine example is Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul, which as the name suggests, completely alters the gameplay of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. This one is perhaps the most impressive modding effort I've ever come across -- it adds literally thousands of new weapons, characters, factions, etc. to already massive game. And more importantly, it corrects some serious inconsistencies in the leveling system that have turned many players away from an otherwise beautifully constructed game (read an interview with the author, "Oscuro," on said issues here). It also makes the game a lot harder, which is good for those of you who were confused at the fact that a level 2 player could stomp the crap out of end-game enemies just because stock Oblivion levels its baddies concurrently with you. It's worthwhile to point out that, though Oblivion is more or less the same on all systems it appears on, only the PC version can be altered to the user's wishes.

Further still, some gamers have taken it upon themselves to expand on the virtual world of a given game by adding some brilliant story-based content. Thief: The Dark Project and Thief II: The Metal Age are two of my favorite games ever, and luckily there have been plenty of devoted taffers out there who learned to code in the Dark Engine and have produced the largest third-party library of single-player content I've ever seen, and is still being added to today (the original Thief came out in 1998). These fan-made missions have kept us all from enacting our larcenous virtual lifestyles in reality, because unfortunately the games' parent company, Looking Glass Studios, went bankrupt shortly after releasing the second title. Another sequel, Thief: Deadly Shadows, was produced a few years later, but it was far inferior to its predecessors, despite having more advanced technology at its disposal. Though a fourth is reportedly in the works at Eidos Montreal, we're all aching to relieve some more noblemen of their priceless valuables in a more updated graphics engine.

Well, until "Thi4f" arrives, we can be satisfied with The Dark Mod, which uses the Doom 3 engine to create an almost-perfect clone of Thief II, but with superior physics and graphics (pic at right). The level-editing program can also be downloaded, meaning that anyone with the persistence to learn how to use it can make their own missions and post them to the Dark Mod website (this is also true of the level editors for Thief and Thief II). Another similar such effort is Thievery UT, a multiplayer Thief game built on top of Unreal Tournament that pits players against each other as either thieves or guards. Their respective goals are simple: thieves steal stuff, guards try to stop them. It incorporates all the classic elements of the Thief series into the gameplay: a lightgem to let players know how visible they are, noise-based detection, and an array of different sorts of arrows to aid you in your burgling (water arrows to put out torches, rope arrows for hard-to-reach places, etc.). To my knowledge, there is no commercially-available PC game that includes stealth-based multiplayer.

Even more impressive, though, are games that are built entirely from scratch. Some fantastic examples include Mount&Blade, a third-person medieval combat simulator (see picture), and Star Trek: Excalibur, a forthcoming title that was originally intended as a mod for Bridge Commander, but was upgraded to eventually become a completely fan-made Star Trek game. (The visuals provided for this one so far are positively stunning.) These mods and user-created games are usually free, and if not, they're very affordable (a permanently valid serial key for Mount&Blade, which gives you access to the current game and all subsequent updates, will cost you only about $30, a little over half the price of a new retail PC game these days). This means that the developers are basically working pro bono to release some really phenomenal work.

All this geeking out really does have a purpose, besides letting you know about the incredible mods I've found over the years. I want to point out that while the video game industry has become intensely commercialized over the past five to ten years, which has in many cases led to decreased quality of the products (see: pretty much any movie tie-in game ever made), there are still communities of gamers out there who do this because they love gaming and they want to contribute to the overall experience of a certain game. In fact, it has often been the case that a modder will add incredible features to a game that, by all rights, the professional developers should've added in the first place (case in point: Bridge Commander vs. Kobayashi Maru). Many of the fan-made missions for the Thief games are arguably better than some of the originals. I think it's important that all gamers appreciate and utilize the truly massive community of computer game modding, not only because it can renew an aging game's lease on life, but also because PC games are the only kind where user modification is even possible at this point in time. Let's be perfectly clear: the level of customization in any PC game is limited only by the game engine in question and the user's determination in learning to modify the code. So until the Xbox 360 or PS3 lets me fly a Borg Cube against the Death Star, I won't even consider buying a console.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Top 10 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Films of the Decade

Having read a few other "Top X Films" lists recently, I decided it might be entertaining to put together one of my own, but specifically geared toward my preferred genres. I really enjoy making these sorts of lists, though I am almost always infuriated by trying to rank them in any fashion, so I'll present them alphabetically instead. My criteria are as follows: overall quality, influence in our culture, and reception by the film's fan base (if any). If multiple entries from a single series make the cut, they will be listed as one title so as to save room for others.

So, here they are. It took me a dreadfully long time to pick these out -- apparently I don't think much of most sci-fi/fantasy movies of the last ten years. Some titles, such as Moon and Minority Report, have gotten great reviews from critics and close friends, but alas, I've not seen them, so I couldn't justify putting them here. Questions/comments/complaints are much appreciated.

28 Days Later (2002)

Quality: This remix of the usual zombie flick is one of the more intense films I've ever seen. Director Danny Boyle melds the despair of an abandoned post-apocalyptic London with a very repulsive fear -- and I don't think it's fear of zombies. Because we're told early on that they're infected with a virus rather than possessed (or however zombie movies usually explain themselves), I think we're frightened more by humanity's latent violent tendencies than by the mindless hordes. The line between "normal" and Infected is progressively blurred as the film reaches its climax, and this horror/thriller ends up not really being about zombies at all.

Influence: You just don't see the stiff-jointed, shambling kind of zombies anymore, whether at the movies or in video games (parodies notwithstanding -- i.e., Shaun of the Dead). I'd say it's mostly because of this picture. It also reminds us something we're likely to forget amidst a deluge of shock-horror with less brains than any stumbling zombie (what are they on, like Saw XXVI or something?): that horror movies can, in fact, be just as intelligent as any other genre.

Avatar (2009)

Quality: James Cameron is back at the sci-fi he does so well. While Avatar certainly doesn't come close to such classics as The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or Aliens, it has everything we love about a Cameron flick, and in true sci-fi spirit, contains a relevant social commentary -- something I feel has been rather lacking in science fiction movies lately. See my full review here.

Influence: Well, it's the second highest-grossing film of all time after Titanic (not adjusted for inflation; the top two there are Gone with the Wind and Star Wars). The way this one's selling tickets, though, James Cameron just might dethrone his own number-one in the near future. I wonder if he's officially set sail on his massive ego trip yet...?

Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008)

Quality: Aside from great writing, casting, and directing, these two films bridge the gap between the typical summer blockbuster action flick and serious crime drama. Anytime I watch The Godfather or The Departed these days, I find myself thinking, "You know what this show needs? More Batman." Further, The Dark Knight thoughtfully addresses more topics relevant to our culture than you can toss a Batarang at, such as terrorism, torture, government surveillance, and the overarching question of whether Batman himself is a morally acceptable hero. Nolan refuses to let you just sit back and enjoy, particularly with Dark Knight -- these two films are both extremely entertaining and emotionally draining.

Influence: This is Batman. If you need an explanation of this character's importance in popular culture, you are either amnesic or an extra-terrestrial. One serious comment, though -- nobody who's seen these will ever take comic book films lightly again.

Fan Reception: With the exception of Star Wars nerds, I can't think of any other fan base in all science fiction and fantasy that have had more cause to be disappointed with their films than Batfans. After a bang-up job from director Tim Burton with Batman (1989), Batfilms pretty much went down the toilet until 2005. Coming out of the theater from Batman Begins, I was absolutely speechless, except perhaps a few sputtered expletives. A good Batman movie? What the hell was this? Had I somehow stepped into an alternate dimension? Christopher Nolan's renditions get more at the heart of the Dark Knight than anybody ever has on screen and, even disregarding my personal bias, are quite easily the best comic-book-hero movies ever made.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

Quality: This was the hardest to include on the list, and I confess that it mostly got here because I can't recall any other sci-fi/fantasy films of the last ten years that really deserve to be here (at least, not ones that I've seen). However, this film is pretty good, and tends to be one of the few fantasy films other than LotR that I can handle on a regular basis. The acting is decent, and even good at times (mostly from Liam Neeson, Tilda Swinton, and James McAvoy). Well worth your time, even if its sequel was rather disappointing.

Influence: Well, this movie succeeded in reviving interest in C. S. Lewis's novels, which I suppose is worth something. The blatant Christian allegory is a little hard to swallow sometimes (at least for me), but thankfully it's not too overbearing as to ruin the whole experience. Hopefully the third film in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, will do better than the second.

Fan Reception: Having considered myself at least a one-time fan of Lewis's novels, I can say this film was a satisfying update of a story that I've really enjoyed for most of my life. If you can find it, check out the BBC's TV version from 1988, which also pretty faithfully renders this children's classic.

District 9 (2009)

Quality: My hands and arms were sore after I got out of this movie. Why? I'd been gripping the armrests too hard. "Intense" is an insufficient word -- this film completely absorbed me for its full duration. Some people seem to think its blatant similarity to apartheid is overbearing, but I actually found it easier to pay attention to the details if that comparison was just a given. Fantastic acting from the lead character; my only complaint was that the primary antagonist was really two-dimensional (though nonetheless despicable). It's also pretty graphic (once it gets running, human beings are going SPLAT! almost nonstop), but it doesn't feel gratuitous, which I think is really difficult to pull off.

Influence: Hard to say. It's been making a lot of lists like this one, so it's certainly well-liked, but I fear it'll get lost in the hype around Avatar and other eagerly-awaited films of 2010.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Quality: While all of the Harry Potter movies are pretty entertaining, this one makes the list because it's the first one to really take itself seriously as a film instead of just existing to appease fans of the book. It may not be as funny or as faithful to the novel, but this is the one that comes closest to getting everything right. The addition of Gary Oldman to the cast is very welcome, and Alan Rickman is fantastic as always. Some of the scenes in this movie actually provoke an emotional response in me, which is noteworthy because most of the time when I watch fantasy movies, my only thought is: "So... why am I sitting through this instead of The Fellowship?"

Influence: Well, until dethroned by the Twilight series as the teeny-bopper flick of the year, this was the series that had everybody's hearts a-flutter (and still does to some extent, with the final novel coming out as two movies in the next couple of years). Whatevs to that. I mean... I guess I'll see them.

Fan Reception: I'm not as well equipped to answer this question, having read the novel some years ago, but I don't hear any more than the usual complaints for a book-to-film translation.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Quality: The absolutely incredible amount of time, care, and money devoted to these films is evident in almost every single frame. It will be nearly impossible for anyone to ever make another fantasy movie without being compared to the standard set here. And rightly so, as modern culture's fascination with mythological and fantastical narratives owes much (if not all) to the publication and popularity of the Tolkien's novel(s) in the 1950s and 60s. An honorable mention goes to the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), which I regard as the best of the three on account of its nearly flawless script. These are the best fantasy films ever made, period.

Influence: This is The Lord of the Rings on the scale it deserves, expanding its already good reputation as a novel into audiences that it has likely never reached before. I routinely encounter people who love these films though they've never picked up Tolkien's books, much less any other fantasy literature. It might not yet be quite cool to be a Trekkie, but if a six-year-old can talk more intelligently than you about the One Ring of Power, you better set aside roughly nine hours (eleven, for the extended versions) and educate yourself.

Fan Reception: I've only heard one Tolkien fan ever say he just plain didn't like these movies. Sure, we've all got little complaints here and there (the depiction of Faramir and the lack of Bombadil are usually mine), but overall, I'd say these are some of the best book-to-movie translations ever produced.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Quality: The best kind of fantasy does its damnedest to blend itself seamlessly with reality, and I can't think of another film offhand that does it so directly as Pan. Refreshingly but not depressingly dark, Guillermo del Toro presents a moving tale of escapism that defies unraveling -- specifically, even after quite a few viewings, I still can't tell if Ofelia is imagining everything, or if her magical friends (and foes) are really real. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as they say, which is one of many things that keeps bringing me back to this movie. Another is the acting, particularly Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), and Captain Vidal (Sergi López i Ayats). Also, props to del Toro for creating a quite original, quite scary monster in the Pale Man -- rare enough these days, considering most horror bad guys these days are either run-of-the-mill axe-murderers or just too wildly bizarre in appearance to be frightening.

Influence: We've got a guy who's clearly very serious, careful, and passionate about creating fantasy narratives to direct the upcoming Hobbit films. I'll warrant this is mostly due to his success with Pan's Labyrinth.

Serenity (2005)

Quality: In my opinion, logical, effective character development has been sorely lacking in sci-fi films of recent years. It's almost as if, in favor of developing the plot (if it exists) or setting themselves up for a sequel (whether warranted or not), sci-fi directors have nearly uniformly decided to sacrifice their characters to uninspired dialogue and wooden performances. But while Anakin Skywalker was stomping about the galaxy pouting and putting on eye-shadow, Joss Whedon was busy abducting Han Solo and making him captain of his own TV show. Well, not really Han Solo, but Serenity features exactly the kind of characters that every Star Wars fan wanted more of -- less Hayden Christensen whingeing and more Harrison Ford blasting bounty hunters in seedy cantinas. Serenity shows up even the biggest kids on the block with its real, gritty characters and clever story.

Influence: Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much in this category. The film wasn't particularly successful in ticket sales, nor have the dickwads at Fox decided to give the positively fantastic TV show a second chance. At the very least, though, Joss Whedon has proven himself to be as good a film director as he is a television writer/director/producer.

Fan Reception: As with Lord of the Rings, it's rare to come across somebody who liked Firefly and didn't like Serenity. Though the show is slightly better, this is likely just due to the difference in medium.

Star Trek (2009)

Quality: Disregarding questions of authenticity, this is a fantastic film. With the exception of a few minor complaints (which you can read here), Star Trek's only mainstream competition for best sci-fi of 2009 was District 9. J. J. Abrams certainly can direct, and the new cast is almost always spot-on with their characters.

Influence: Suddenly it's cool to be a Trekkie. While this might be a relief from endless wedgies and loss of lunch money to any walking nerd-stereotypes out there, I'm not sure I'm happy to have all the new company around -- it's somewhat akin to hiking for hours into the middle of nowhere, coming upon a stunningly picturesque waterfall or something, and then having a bunch of loud, camera-wielding, obnoxious-American tourists stomp right up behind you. (This has happened to me, in real life, on several occasions.) It's harder to enjoy with all the extra noise. Further, the filmmakers are dangerously close to catering to mass audiences in favor of sticking with what makes Trek great, and that's baaaad.

Fan reception: I'm sure a few hardcore Trekkies out there are hard at work using red matter to construct a black hole so as to suck up the Earth and all existing copies of this blasphemous film, but I also know plenty who really like it, myself included. Time will only tell where they take the franchise.

So, there it is. I find it curious how many of them have very bluish tones in their posters. Not sure what that means.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

There Will Be (Ridiculous Quantities of) Blood -- Daybreakers

Around the turn of the last century, Bram Stoker's novel Dracula was hard at work turning the vampire into a staple of horror fiction. The not-so-fictional count of Transylvania was cunning, vicious, bestial, and of Slavic origin -- all things that terrified and titillated the delicate sensibilities of Victorian England. Further, there's an element of sexuality in Dracula's interactions with Lucy and Mina (and the Count's wives' with Jonathan Harker) that serves as a thin veneer for some very predatory, very BDSM urges. This seems largely what Francis Ford Coppola was trying to tell us with his 1992 rendition of the original tale, which strips that veneer away to reveal a bunch of bloodsuckers who copulate whenever (and with whomever) possible.

So vampires, and specifically vampire films, are definitely about sucking of one kind or another. But they're also definitely about blood. Lots and lots of blood. Consider, for example, the old Hammer Dracula flicks (featuring the eternally villainous Christopher Lee), in which even the slightest laceration often spurted red fountains of epic proportions. The only exception, of course, was when Dracula was biting somebody -- can't have blood spraying everywhere and staining his perfectly starched collar. In any case, motion picture tradition clearly tells us vampires are supposed to be wicked, animalistic, and horny as hell, and the hemoglobin needs to be positively dripping from the ceilings wherever they may roam.

Well, with three of those four criteria, Daybreakers squarely punctures the jugular (that's the first and last pithy vampire pun, I promise; more on the lacking fourth criterion later). Michael and Peter Spierig waste no time showing us they can blow up heads and coat the walls with velocities and quantities that would turn Zack Snyder red with envy. Perhaps the best scene in the film features all three of four, in which the protagonist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) and his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) are at home when a burglar calls. But this prowler is looking for blood, not bling. He's a "subsider," this flick's name for vampires who haven't been drinking lately and have become hideous, bestial man-bat creatures who'll gladly drink even another vampire's blood for nourishment, which only worsens their condition. The scene is quite intense and quite gory, possibly the only occasion in the movie when the graphic violence feels justified. The subsider is truly disturbing, being only one of two such movie monsters in recent memory (the other being the Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth).

But alas, that scene is rather early in the film's 1:38 running time, and it can't carry the whole burden by itself. The premise of vampires as growing majority rather than hunted minority is unique, but it doesn't get developed much beyond that (except to hear lots of reporters and pasty-faced citizens say: "We're running out of blood! Panic in the streets!!"). The characters are painfully two-dimensional, even with considerable talents Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill on the job. Even Ethan Hawke, who has always impressed me, seems more weary of his lines than depressed at being unable to save vamp-humanity from starvation. The film is also mostly devoid of the barely-concealed sexual overtones mentioned earlier, which I think are usually the more thought-provoking elements of vampires flicks. There's one scene that sort of skews in that direction, but it plays out more as a brief, bizarre arranged marriage ("It's for your own good, dear") than anything else.

When the credits roll, we're drowning in blood and gasping for some breath of reason behind all the bodily explosions -- some thoughtful themes must surely be lurking somewhere in this shiny, gothic near-future. But the concept is wasted and the fleeting attempts at social commentary vanish as quickly as the vampires when exposed to direct sunlight. If only there had been a more complex relationship between vampires and humans (beyond predator-and-prey), we might have perceived at least some kind of elementary metaphor for exploitation of minorities by a privileged class or something. If you're looking for a recent sci-fi that lives up to the loftier aspirations of its genre, find yourself a copy of District 9, Avatar, or  Watchmen. Daybreakers turns out to be nothing more than a worthy successor to those old Hammer Dracula flicks -- gallons of blood and not much meat.

2 stars of 5.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Who would win in a fight - Sauron or Voldemort?

And now for something completely different... Drawing on the classic geek tradition of pitting two sci-fi/fantasy characters against one another to determine superiority, I give you Sure as Shiretalk's first fictional deathmatch: Sauron vs. Voldemort.

I hereby disavow any attempt at objectivity or fairness whatsoever, for obvious reasons. I trust no one will complain, though, as this really isn't a fair fight to begin with. It's just funny. Anyway -- an introduction for the combatants.

Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, is the embodiment of evil in The Lord of the Rings and several other works by J. R. R. Tolkien. He is an ancient supernatural being, often likened in form to an angel or a lesser god, who possesses immeasurable physical and spiritual power and commands countless thousands of the foulest and most cruel creatures in Middle-earth through sheer force of will. His stronghold in the land of Mordor is nearly impenetrable; in single combat, only four opponents in his long history have bested him, and even then the defeat was only a brief respite from his repeated attempts to cover all the world in darkness. He is the maker of the One Ring of Power, arguably the most powerful force of corruption and domination in all sci-fi/fantasy writing. Plus, he's got that badass spiky armor and is clearly watching us from outer space.

Voldemort of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels is an orphaned, emotionally unstable villain who, after receiving training at a magic school somewhere in the mysterious uncharted wilderness of England, decides he's pissed at the world (or something) and goes on a killing spree after gathering equally angsty and/or racist-against-normal-people followers to his nondescript cause. Then, when he hears about a child being born who might be able to stop him being such a wanker, he tries to off the kid before he's old enough defend himself. In a flash of brightly-colored magic and glaring plot inconsistency, he's disembodied and goes into hiding for some 10 years, after which he is repeatedly foiled by a handful of teenagers in his attempts to just get back into some kind of body.

Now, obviously we'll have to put Voldemort and Sauron up against each other in corporeal form, otherwise we're bound to get tangled up in arguments of what powers they'll have, which minions are allowed, how many, etc. etc., which would require entirely too much effort for a battle this one-sided. For the sake of generosity, let's give Voldemort the home-field advantage. As he doesn't seem to have a single stronghold or other such headquarters (what kind of hack is this guy, anyway?), we'll say that's pretty much anywhere but Mordor. Hell, let's even give him the element of surprise, for good measure.

So, here's Sauron, strolling down the lane, minding his own Dark-Lordly business, day-dreaming of all the myriad ways he could enslave the known world, when out jumps Lord Voldemort, wand at the ready. "What's this," wonders Sauron, "another poncy Elf trying to steal my jewelry? Wait, what's with his nose? It's, like, not there..."

At this point, attempting to engage Sauron in combat, Voldemort might attempt to hurl some of those flashy lights from his wand accompanied by distorted Latin phrases, perhaps even that most dreaded spell in all of the Potter-verse -- the Killing Curse (which sounds suspiciously like the most common utterance of every amateur magician on the planet; wonder if that's ever gone wrong for any of their pet rabbits...).

Well, after the smoke has cleared, we might expect to find Sauron's empty armor lying in heap at Voldemort's feet. It was, after all, the Killing Curse. Whoa.

But, much to Voldemort's chagrin, we find Sauron, standing quite as he was, halted in his tracks, swatting those obnoxious lighting effects out of his eyes. It apparently takes more than a conjurer of cheap tricks to rub out the fucking Dark Lord of Mordor, Enemy of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth. Who knew?

Now, Sauron can only assume that this puny human's action was an attack, ineffective though it was, and as such should generate a reaction of equal or surpassing prejudice. Depending on Sauron's current disposition, I foresee two possibilities: if he's up for a bit of fun and games, he might decide to enslave Voldemort with his unmatched strength of will (augmented by the Ring), forcing him to, say, jump into the Crack of Doom, or drink bleach, or otherwise dispose of himself in some unpleasant manner. Or maybe Sauron's just not in the mood for nancing about, in which case this will likely happen. After which, the Lord of the Rings will almost certainly brush his shoulders off.

Major bummer for Voldemort, eh? But he shouldn't feel too bad -- it happens to even the greatest of Elves and Men. At any rate, the lesson learned for upstart little wizards with delusions of grandeur is: Sauron will fuck your shit up.

Result: Sauron wins through sheer willpower and/or giant spiky mace of doom, combined with general awesomeness. Check out a similar result on YouTube (note the Terminator 2 soundtrack over Sauron).

Next time I'll try for a more evenly-matched pair, I promise.