Monthly Archives: August 2020

The Speech of The Colonizer

Around the lead up to Captain America: Civil War and again when Black Panther came out, there was some discussion online about T’Challa’s accent. The big question was how would the king speak? Popular thought posits that regality sounds ‘proper,’ and that ‘proper’ would be an English-tinged accent. When we, in pop-culture, think of kings and royals it’s the English monarch we often consider as the modern epitome of it.

In Black Panther, there was a conscious decision for T’Challa to not have a British (or American) accent. Rather, his diction has a distinct African flair (specifically, that of the Xhosa in South Africa and Zimbabwe). Wakanda exists as an epic utopia, and it does so without the undercurrent of western — that is to say white — supremacy.

There exists a notion in the popular consciousness, borne out of generations of white-washed history, that it’s been ‘Western Civilization’ that has gifted the world its arts and culture. The Greeks and the Romans, the English and the French, and now the Americans; they have been the ones who wrote the classics that form the foundation of any cultured education. To say nothing of the Chinese development of printing, the Hindu-Arabic numeral system in use today, or even the complex coding that was the Andean quipu; anything of relevance comes from the (often white, and mostly male) west.

Wakanda has none of that. Within the Marvel mythos, the country was never colonized and so never affected by western influences thus they wouldn’t have British accents, nor even American. Thus Black Panther pushes back on the idea that non-British/American accents are ‘lesser’ or backwards.

That’s a big deal.

Accents are tied in many ways to presumed intelligence. The better you speak, the more educated you are. The fancier your accent, particularly if it’s English, the better (a trope Arrested Development had a great deal of fun in its Mr. F arc). Black Panther didn’t just rebuke this idea, it flipped the script, taking an accent oft relegated to the newly immigrated or the uncivilized and positioning it a position of regal dignity. It seems such a small thing, but it’s a blatant statement that you don’t need to speak with some variant of Received Pronunciation of the Transatlantic Accent to sound dignified.

This is something I’ve been thinking about in the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s death. I talk a lot on this blog about representation and all that. For me, a kid who grew up in a former colony and later learnt in the US that the way people from there spoke was ‘funny’ and ‘wrong,’ it so much to have been told in a major movie that, hey, it’s okay. And it’s pretty cool. To say nothing of what else Boseman did, that little impact on accents and the perception of speakers, that’s a legacy.

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Unrealistic

Board games aren’t realistic. Monopoly doesn’t look like any metropolis and the geography in Settlers of Catan makes Giant’s Causeway look conventional. The diseases in Pandemic are translucent cubes instead of microscopic blobs.

This all makes sense, of course. Board games are an abstraction of reality, paring down big concepts into statistics. This can be super simple, like chess as a simulation of warfare tactics, or super complex, like H.G. Wells’ Little Wars, an early war game that used dice and probability to recreate battles. Even Little Wars, for all its realism, required a measure of imagination — these weren’t real cavalry and cannons.

Realism’s not the point, though. Games are meant to scratch a specific itch that hovers somewhere between problem solving and diplomacy, depending on the sort of game (Uno has both at high speeds). Many of them make an effort to simulate something found in the real world, and sometimes they succeed — Pandemic Legacy feels remarkably realistic in times of Covid, what with talking about quarantine zones and finding ways to contain the spread as best we can. The goal in designing the game probably wasn’t to create a one-to-one representation of what handling a pandemic would be like, but rather to take the elements that make that course of action unique and translate it into game mechanics. You have to cooperate with one another and balance finding cures with containment while keeping in mind that the same routes that you take to go from city to city are vectors for the virus. Do I think that being halfway decent at Pandemic gives me the skills to take on an actual real-life pandemic? Oh, heck no. But it’s certainly a fun abstraction of the real thing.

I saw someone, somewhere described Civilization VI as the ultimate board game despite it being, well, a computer game. It very much feels like a board game though, with its hexagonal playing field and turn-based gameplay. Where it differs is with its plethora of interlocking systems, ones that make the Game of Thrones board game seem simple. You have to manage various economies (Gold, Faith, Science, Culture, Food, and Production) while making sure to get Strategic Resources (and maybe Bonus and Luxury) ones too, all while competing with however many other players are in the game to win. There isn’t a simple ‘win’ condition either, you can achieve victory through Domination, Tourism, Religion, Diplomacy, Science, or just run out the clock and win with Score. There’s a lot going on.

Though Civilization does a lot to simulate ruling a civilization over 6000-odd years, there’s little attempt to make things look super realistic. The tiles of the game look like a high-definition Settlers of Catan and cities and developments are far, far from scale (that, or most people in this game are the size of buildings). There’s no clear sense of size, either, as a single hex is only big enough for one thing, be it a farm, the Eiffel Tower, a city square, or the Great Pyramids. Hexes don’t translate to kilometers at all, and there’s no expectation for them to match anything. It’s an abstraction (again, not unlike a board game) that’s part of the whole empire management aspect of the game. A more ‘realistic’  version, with civilizations a ‘proper’ distance apart and everything to scale would, arguably, be too complicated to be as accessible as it is.

I don’t think games like Civ or Pandemic are particularly realistic. I also don’t think they need to be realistic. The abstraction is why it’s fun; boiling reality down to mechanics is how the games are interesting. Spreading religion and culture doesn’t work in real life quite the same way, so gamifying it is what makes it work. All this to say, yeah, Civilization isn’t too realistic. But I still really enjoy it. And that’s okay.

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Discussing Invasions in Committees

When you think Star Wars you don’t really think about the nitty-gritty of politics. Sure, you’ve got the admirals aboard the Death Star in A New Hope talking about dissolving the Senate and all that, but honestly, that’s about it. This is a space Western, we’re not dealing with boring politics here.

Unless, of course, you’re thinking of the prequels. The Phantom Menace’s second act has a lot of it, as does Attack of The Clones and Revenge of The Sith. It’s… a bit of a sharp departure from the saga that’s got a lot of laser fights and space ships (although, I’d argue the story’s far deeper than that). In any case, it’s a bit of a bummer.

It’s disappointing, though, because the political arc of the prequels is actually really cool. We start with the Republic, a Galactic coalition with no standing army. The Phantom Menace sees an upstart politician use a trading blockade to wrest power from the established authority, predicating it on a vote of no-power rather than a standard end-of-term election, effectively staging a political coup. Ten years later, in Attack of The Clones, that same politician uses the threat of division to raise an army and start a war, the process of which sees him granted emergency powers and a much stronger political hold. This all culminates in Revenge of The Sith where the Republic becomes an Empire, and the Chancellor an Emperor. And so, famously, liberty dies.

It all makes for compelling political fiction, just presented in a really lousy fashion. Though the political plotline is integral to the story of the Fall of The Republic, it feels tangential to the far more interesting story of the Jedi, the Clone Wars, and Anakin’s fall. Sure, Palpatine’s rise is interesting and all, but what we really care about is the story of Obi-Wan and Anakin, and, yeah, Padmé too. Unfortunately, these characters are affected by the political plots rather than affecting it (save Padmé in Phantom Menace). Taking the focus away from the heroes to focus on senatorial politicking would be like, well, taking the focus away from Jedi adventures to talk lackluster politics.

The problem is that Palpatine’s plot, though empirically interesting, doesn’t really have much to do with the main story involving the Jedi, which is emotionally interesting. Our attention, as an audience, is divided between two divergent plotlines. We’ve gotta pick one to put our interest in, and our interest goes with the people with laser swords.

Here’s the thing, though: As a kid, I didn’t mind the senate scenes too much. Sure, there was a notable lack of lightsabers, but there was a measure of voyeuristic intrigue to be privy to these machinations. Politicking isn’t usually a thing in kids’ media, so it’s pretty neat to get to see it in a movie like Star Wars. Granted, I am also that kid who got into The West Wing with his parents before Revenge of The Sith came out in theaters, so maybe I’m weird like that. In addition, the narrative of a politician using a (manufactured) crisis to seize power is a compelling one that, in better hands, could have really worked into the Star Wars that envisioned the original Empire as an America that had fallen to its baser desires.

Every now and then, I hear people decry the politicking of the Prequels as being the movies’ biggest failure. They’re not a highlight, but the idea is there, though the execution is certainly lacking. Perhaps it would be better served were it more closely intertwined with the characters’ stories, allowing them to take an active role in it all. But then, that would have the mostly-apolitical Jedi getting even more involved in the Senate, which would really only make Palpatine’s accusation of a Jedi coup even more plausible, and really, that’s the last thing he needs.

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Anti-Climatic

I’m still thinking about Pacific Rim, because, man, what a movie.

The obvious awesome moment of it all comes during the Hong Kong battle. Two Kaiju attack the city, an unprecedented event. They take out two of the Jaegers defending the city and incapacitate Striker Eureka, the strongest of the lot. The task of saving the city falls to pilots Raleigh and Mako, an untested team that failed their trial run.

This time, though, they ace it. Piloting Gipsy Danger, they defeat the Kaiu Leatherback in a decisive battle in the harbor, then move through Hong Kong in pursuit of Otachi. The ensuing battle is nothing short of epic, involving crashing through buildings and using an oil tanker as a bludgeoning weapon. It culminates with Otachi flying into the upper atmosphere with Gipsy in tow. To free themselves, Raleigh and Mako break out Gipsy Danger’s sword and slay Otachi, then land in an empty stadium.

It’d be hard to top that sequence. It’s a wonderful culmination of Raleigh and Mako’s character arcs thus far, and an excellent action sequence that really utilizes the scales of these giant robots and monsters in a great way (see: oil tanker as an improvised weapon). This is the movie’s midpoint, the climax is yet to come. How then does Pacific Rim go bigger?


It doesn’t.

Pacific Rim finds a different route for its climax. There’s already been an epic Robot vs Monster fight and it doesn’t feel the need to try and outdo itself. The final battle: Striker Eureka and Gipsy Danger versus three Kaiju, is a straightforward affair that takes place underwater without too much pomp and circumstance. This is fine because killing the Kaiju isn’t the goal of this mission — the objective is to get into the breach and blow it up. The Kaiju aren’t so much an opposing force as they are obstacles for the heroes to get past. In this movie supposedly about robots fighting monsters, the big climax isn’t a fight between robot and monster.

This frees the movie to go really big at its midpoint, without having to hold anything back nor fear of tiring out the audience. Any action movie runs the risk of numbing its audience to spectacle by the time the climax hits; Transformers is just so many giant robots fighting each other that the final Big Fight just feels like one of many (conversely: it’s remarkable how John Wick keeps its fights feeling fresh and interesting without tiring you out). When Pacific Rim puts all its energy into one fight sequence, it allows for all the Awesome to be present — and be as a direct result of Raleigh and Mako being able to work as a team.

Much of the movie is themed around connection and teamwork — remember, it’s how the Jaegers are controlled! Not long before the Hong Kong fight, Raleigh and Mako pilot Gipsy Danger together for the first time and it does not go well. They’re effectively grounded from operations and ostracized by the other pilots and crews. Hong Kong is their chance to prove themselves. And they do.

But what about the actual climax? By digging into the other part of the movie — teaming up together to save the world — Pacific Rim recenters around teamwork. The final fight isn’t a fight, it’s a relay race with everyone buying time so someone can get to the breach and blow it up. Remember, Pacific Rim is not a war movie, these are Rangers, not soldiers; they aren’t fighting to kill but fighting to save everyone else. A final fight with the goal of defeating the Kaiju would be derivative of the midpoint; by making the big climatic choice Raleigh and Mako’s to take Gipsy into the breach, Pacific Rim goes all-in on its themes of unity and love. The biggest, most important thing in the story isn’t slicing a Kaiju in half with a sword, it’s doing everything you can (together!) to save the world. The fight isn’t the point. Saving people is the point.

This choice to have the final climax be a smaller spectacle than the midpoint can be used to spectacular effect. Captain America: Civil War’s Airport Battle is the big thing in the middle of the film, with the final fight between Captain America and Winter Soldier against Iron Man being a more intimate, smaller fight that’s equally as intense because it’s all about the movie’s theme of divisions. The Lord of The Rings books don’t climax with a big fight against the forces of Mordor (that’s the ending of Book Five), but with Frodo and Gollum grappling for the ring at the Cracks of Doom in Book Six, because this is a story about the smallest doing the most. The Battle of Crait doesn’t hold a candle to the duel in Snoke’s Throne Room, but The Last Jedi’s climax is about self-sacrifice and fighting for a cause. Luke doesn’t defeat Kylo Ren by besting him in combat, he wins by being the most selfless, the most devoted.

Going smaller for a climax runs the risk of being anti-climatic, especially because we, as an audience, are trained to expect the Big Thing at the end to be the biggest. When done well, though, a good climax brings the movie together, usually as a fusion of character arcs, story, and theme. For Pacific Rim, it’s all about saving the world. Together.

Ugh, I just really really love Pacific Rim.

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Pacific Rim (During an Apocalypse)

Today is a good day to rewatch Pacific Rim. But then, honestly, aren’t most days?

For the past few months, I’ve been ruminating on the apocalypse in the back of my mind, owing to the whole, y’know, everything going on around us. While replaying The Last of Us, part of the game rung hollow, as the pandemic around me saw people banding together, rather than turning against each other. Though, then again, maybe that’s the difference between an airborne virus and a fungal parasite that takes over your brain.

Death Stranding was an eerie delight. Wandering around a post-apocalyptic America (that looked like Iceland) and making deliveries from isolated hubs of humanity while helping them form connections felt like a very apt thing to do in the time of COVID-19. It’s notable that, for as bleak as the imagined world is, Hideo Kojima’s game is quite optimistic, envisioning a world where connection between people is still possible, no matter how isolated they might be. Again, oddly prescient given that it came out last November, and very apt (that this is without getting into the whole meditation on the line between life and death that gives the game its name).

Pacific Rim is another movie about an apocalypse or at least an impending one. Giant kaiju have invaded the planet and are wreaking destruction along coastal cities. Given that conventional weapons don’t do great against Kaiju and that they have toxic blood, the natural solution is to build giant mecha and beat the crap outta them. The Jaegers offer a way for humanity to stand against the Kaiju invasion.

Now, Pacific Rim checks all my boxes. Ragtag multinational teams. Badass women. A story that unironically wears its heart on its sleeve. Giant robots. I’m not saying this movie’s perfect, but if there’s a Maslowian hierarchy for what makes for a perfect comfort movie, this one comes pretty darn close to actualization.

As we find ourselves in the throes of mild societal collapse (within the US, anyway), it’s really easy to wanna revisit post-apocalyptic fiction for glimpses of alternatives or an eerie comfort (see ruminating on the apocalypse, above). Death Stranding is about the importance of connection; The Day of The Triffids sees survivors making do despite the failings of humanity that led to the end of the world.

And Pacific Rim? The heroes of the movie are those who choose to stand against impending doom; they don’t hide behind walls but instead do whatever they can to stop the Kaiju from destroying the world. Pentecost, the leader of them all, outright says that “we are cancelling the apocalypse,” because in the world of Pacific Rim, apocalypses can be canceled. The world ending doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world

I think part of the beauty of Pacific Rim is that it’s not just about giant robots fighting giant monsters, although, sure, that’s part of the appeal. In this world these giant robots can’t be piloted by one person alone, the technobabble explanation being that the neural load is too much for one person. What this means is that to pilot a Jaeger, you need to do so alongside someone else, the process of which requires emotional openness and trust. You can’t cancel the apocalypse by yourself in Pacific Rim, you need someone else. It’s not one man saving the world, it’s about a team doing it together.

Quarantine has us isolated. It’s been months since I’ve seen many of my friends in person. There’s a comforting fantasy in Pacific Rim, where connections are what matters in the end, and by doing what we’re doing together — even if it’s isolating at home and not piloting a Jaeger — we’ll be able to make things better. Or maybe there’s just never a wrong time to watch Pacific Rim.

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