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Letting Lara Down

I was pretty excited for the Tomb Raider movie that came out a couple weeks ago. I’m a huge fan of the game it was based on, the Tomb Raider reboot that came out in 2013. The game was an origin story for Lara Croft, one that gameplay-wise took cues from the Uncharted series it had partially inspired but then been eclipsed by. One thing I really liked about the game was how it made Lara less of a sex object. Gone were the catsuits, short shorts, and crop tops; in were the khakis and tank top (it mayn’t sound like much on paper, but the difference is marked). In addition, the game turned Lara into a survivor; shipwrecked on a mysterious island, she hunts for food, searches for her friends, fights bad guys, and uncovers a mystery. If the movie could capture that then we were in for a ride.

And, well, it kinda does, but more than anything the adaptation really plays down its women. Which is as frustrating as it is odd.

Heads up, we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of plot here, so spoilers abound as we dig around.

Let’s talk Lara, since she is, after all, our protagonist. In the film, she’s a down-on-her-luck heiress who can’t receive her fortune because she refuses to sign the papers confirming her father is dead. She’s a courier struggling to make ends meet who only ends up going on her adventure when circumstances force her to her inheritance and the discovery of her dad’s research into the mythical island of Yamatai. There’s nothing quite bad here (except that pacing-wise this takes up a solid third of the movie); it’s honestly fairly typical as far as hero stories go and all that. But it really does the Lara of the 2013 video game a disservice.

Lara, in the game, is an archeological grad student; so right of the bat Lara is presented as being both intelligent and educated. She’s clued in on the myth of Yamatai by her college friend  Sam Nishimura, who herself is a descendant of the Yamatai people. Lara’s subsequent research convinces the Nishimura family to fund an expedition looking for Yamatai and to find the fate of its mysterious Sun-Queen, Himiko. In the game’s version of events Lara is given a lot more agency in the story. The expedition to Yamatai is of her own design, not something she takes on from her father. So not only is Lara an archeologist by trade, but she’s one competent enough to make an expedition happen. You could argue that the movie makes her more relatable, but Indiana Jones is a university professor and no one says he’s unrelatable.

Within the different backstories is a key difference: Sam. In the movie, Yamatai is something Lara investigates because of her father. The game positions it as something she’s into and found out about because of a (female) friend. Look, there’s nothing wrong with a young woman going on a quest to find her father (heck, it’s a trope I’m fond of), but the game’s plot both shows us a Lara with more agency and offers a version of events where Lara’s quest doesn’t revolve around a male character, rather displaying the friendship between two women.

And without Sam, we’re also without a lot of what makes Himiko interesting. In the movie, she’s a long-dead queen with a disease that, when infected, makes people disintegrate, and so was sequestered away on Yamatai. The Himiko of the game, however, was a supernatural queen who ruled Yamatai with an iron fist, transferring her soul into younger bodies to gain a sort of immortality. When a rogue successor took her own life rather than be a host, Himiko was trapped in her body and her kingdom declined. Along comes Sam centuries later, and Mathias (who’s the main antagonist in both versions) wants to offer her up as a new host. So it’s up to Lara to save the day. Once again, the game, by being a little more over the top, has a narrative with a lot more women doing stuff. Himiko isn’t Plague Victim Zero, she’s an immortal queen who was thwarted by a brave young woman. The present day sees Lara saving her best friend and putting to rest a vengeful, weather-controlling spirit. In the movie it’s Lara’s father who, once infected, blows up himself and Himiko’s remains. Lara still stops Mathias in the movie, but she’s given one less thing to do.

Look, the movie’s flaws are plenty and they mostly fall into the realm of plotting and structure. But the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise offered a new vision of Lara Croft and her mythos, one that featured a kickass Lara that was surrounded by other women of note. The film offers a perfectly fine Lara, but she’s a far cry from the one in the game. Like I said, it’s frustrating to see a movie take a narrative that’s so female driven and, well, take away its women’s agency. The source material was so rich; had so much going for it. And yet. Here we are. A decent enough strong female protagonist who could have been so much more.

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Star Wars as an Anti-Capitalist Discourse

Oh you thought I was kidding? Here we go.

Star Wars takes a lot of cues from Westerns. Characters like Han Solo and places like Mos Eisley’s cantina make it pretty obvious. But it’s also apparent in where it takes place: the fringes of society. Be they remote planets desert or frozen, these stories take place away from economic and cultural hubs. Which, given that we follow the good guys, makes sense: implicit in the Star Wars movies is the idea that places of wealth and opulence are the breeding grounds of evil. In other words, the real villain in Star Wars is capitalism (and the Sith too but bear with me here).

Let’s look at where we spend time among the wealthy in the Original Trilogy. Outside of Imperial Battle Stations, the only place we visit that is remotely ‘first world’ is Cloud City, a gorgeous city whose wealth is built on Tibanna Gas mining. It’s beautiful in the way sci-fi modernity is. But its gleaming hallways belie a darker secret. It is when the Rebels come to Cloud City (the richest civilian place we’ve seen) that they are sold out. Han is tortured and frozen in carbonite, Luke is lured into a trap and told that the bastion of evil is his father. But Lando’s a good guy, you say. Well, he was. He’s Han’s friend, turned ‘respectable’ by the capitalistic influences of Cloud City. It’s when he’s compromised as such that he betrays his former friends, but he finds redemption when he leaves Cloud City and joins the Rebellion on the outskirts of the galaxy.

The Prequel Trilogy brings us closer to civilized space, with the planet of Naboo, an idyllic, peaceful planet. The villains in The Phantom Menace are the Trade Federation, an economically driven group who, in the wake of a tax dispute, blockade the planet and invade it. It is a financially-driven, militaristic, occupational force that the heroes strive against. When the Republic and the Confederacy go to war, the Trade Federation is joined in leadership of the latter by other corporate entities; such as the Banking Clan and Corporate Alliance. The war is marked by economic entities turning against the government; the villains in the story are capitalists fighting against economic control.

In addition, there’s Coruscant, the glittering capital of the Republic. Like Cloud City hopped up on steroids, it is a hub of wealth beyond compare. Here is the Senate, a governing body locked into inaction; a Jedi Temple stuck in orthodoxy unable to adapt to the changing times. Not much good comes from the rich capital.

It’s in The Last Jedi where the anti-capitalist bent of the films comes to a head. In an effort to undermine the villainous First Order, Rose and Finn go on a desperate mission to Canto Bight, a rich city most known for its casino. Finn quickly learns that the city’s wealth is built on the back of the military industrial complex. The rich folks wheeling and dealing are profiteering off a war the Resistance is fighting for survival. Though maybe not outright evil, they are decidedly not good people. The codebreaker who Rose and Finn ally themselves with ends up selling them out, simply because the First Order offered him more money. It’s money, and the unfettered pursuit of it, that tends to create villainy in Star Wars.

Throughout the films, lesser antagonists are driven by a want of money: Greedo wants the bounty on Han’s head, Watto refuses to sell anything for cheap, Unkar Plutt is miserly with his rations. Luke and Obi-Wan use Han’s love of money to get to the Death Star and rescue Princess Leia; but it’s when Han stops caring about the money that he really becomes a hero. Star Wars makes it pretty clear: the capitalists tend to be villainous, those who don’t emphasize making money are heroic.

By taking place primarily on the outskirts of society, with its interactions with society dominated by free enterprise tending to lead to misfortune, Star Wars takes a stance against unfettered capitalism. To be heroic in Star Wars is to do things for more than economic gain. To pursue money above all else, to be motivated by capitalism, well, that might not make you the Empire, but you’re certainly not a good guy.

Writer’s Note:

Well. That was fun to do again. It’s a lotta fun to dig into something I love as much as Star Wars and connect dots to create a meaning that may or may not be intended (though The Last Jedi railing against the military industrial complex is certainly deliberate). Is Star Wars itself anti-capitalist? Maybe a little. Will I do more of these oddly in-depth analysis? Maybe.

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The End of (Star) War(s)

After the original Star Wars trilogy wrapped up, Lucasfilm started letting other people play in the sandbox they’d created. And so the Expanded Universe came about: more stories set in the Star Wars universe continuing the adventures of Luke, Han, and Leia. Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy really kicked the EU into high gear, and an impressive series of novels, comics, and games were born, each crossing over and referencing each other. It’s a lotta fun, and I’ve read/played a lot of them.

In the EU, the Battle of Endor was only the beginning of the end. Various Moffs, Admirals, and Warlords rose up to fill the Emperor’s void. The Rebellion, now the New Republic, set about mopping up threats until a formal treaty was finally signed 15 years after Endor, properly ending the Galactic Civil War. But of course there were still adventures to be had. The Yuuhzahn Vong invaded six years later, the Dark Nest Crisis was a thing, and then there was another Civil War which is kinda where I checked out. Point is, the galaxy was almost always at war.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm and decided they would make new movies, they nuked all of the EU, primarily so they could start with a blank slate from which to start the then-upcoming Episode VII. On the one hand, I was really bummed because there went the Thrown trilogy, Wedge Antillies’ legendary reputation, and some really cool Clone Wars-era stories; but then that also got rid of some of the later books when things started getting really moody and stuff, so, y’know, not the worst call. Point is, The Force Awakens started a new idea of where Star Wars went post-Return of The Jedi.

And it’s different. There’s a villainous First Order but the New Republic isn’t fighting it. Rather, Leia’s started a Resistance to fight back. Which is odd. Why is there a Resistance when there’s a government that should be fighting that war? In essence: Where’s the New Republic’s fleet?

Turns out, the New Republic demilitarized after the Battle of Jakku. In the new canon, Jakku, one year after Endor, marked the final fight between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. The Alliance’s decisive victory led to Galactic Concordance and the war ended right there. That was it. No Grand Admiral Thrawn, no Black Fleet Crisis, no Rogue Squadron. And with the war over, they demilitarized. The First Order wasn’t perceived as a legitimate threat, so they didn’t take up arms again and then it was too late.

Let’s ignore the fact that this plot point should have been at least referenced in The Force Awakens and instead talk about demilitarization. Historically, when wars were over, countries would demilitarize, military budgets would go down and armies would shrink considerably. After World War II, however, the US did shrink its army, but its military/defense budget never returned to pre-war levels (and still hasn’t). Put simply, the US has constantly been at war since the 1940s, be it a Cold one or something against Terror. The idea of demilitarizing after a war, decommissioning ships, reducing war R&D, shuttering bases, is a foreign concept in American pop culture.

And yet, that’s what happens in the new Star Wars canon. With the Empire defeated, the New Republic put away its guns and played peace instead. Which sounds kinda weird, but that’s ‘cuz we (the US and people who consume US pop-culture [which, in recent years has come to encompass American politics as well as media]) are just not used to that idea. The implication’s pretty clear: When the war’s over, the good guys disarm.

Of course, as the First Order rises the New Republic is hesitant to re-arm and so it falls on Leia’s Resistance to serve as a paramilitary force to stop them. Things go sideways for the New Republic pretty quickly, mostly ‘cuz they underestimated the First Order. But that’s not the New Republic’s fault for being pacifist, it’s because the First Order’s martial and ruthless.

Star Wars is, of course, about wars (in the stars!). But for all its martial posturing, its, courtesy of the new canon, also a world where that war ends and is followed by demilitarization (and peace!). It’s such an odd notion, one that borders on fantasy, but then again, Star Wars is supposed to be a fantasy, isn’t it?

N.B.: This has been Josh thinking far too much about Star Wars. Tune in next time to hear Josh analyze the Star Wars saga as an anti-capitalist text. And the time after that to see my analysis of the Star Wars movies being anti-war. Finally, I’d like to apologize to John Horgan for borrowing his book’s title for this blog post.

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A Celebration

I’m a nerd. That kinda really goes without saying. Spend five minutes on my blog and you’ll see me talking about Firefly, giant robots, The Lord of The Rings, comic books, Jacques the Fatalist, and looking at video games through a surprisingly feminist lens. I really enjoy this stuff.

And over the years nerd culture has gotten more mainstream. Superhero shirts are in these days and Star Wars is cool again. It’s pretty neat to these things that used be kinda niche getting brought into the limelight, with the praise and big budgets that follow.

So nerdy stuff is in, and the cherry on the sundae is Steven Spielberg making a movie based on a very nerdy book: Ready Player One.

(Yep, this is it, the post on Ready Player One)

Preface: I first read the book a couple years ago and I really enjoyed it. There’s a chapter about getting a perfect score in Ms. Pac-Man which, as someone who makes a beeline for the Ms. Pac-Man cabinet in an arcade, was a lotta fun to see in a book; it spoke my language. Now, sure, author Ernest Cline has a tendency to cross the line from enthusing to over-explaining. And his handing of his female characters does leave a lot to be desired given that it’s 2018. And, yes, it borders on a self-insert fic with its nerdy fantasy fulfillment.

But with all its flaws, there are some great things in it. This is a book that sees value in the digital. Much of the book takes place in the OASIS, a virtual world everyone can log in to and play games and live life. Experiences in the OASIS were treated as being real and worthwhile, which as anyone who’s gone deep into a video game can go, is how it feels (I don’t remember mashing buttons when I look back on games, rather I beat that Thunderjaw in Horizon Zero Dawn, I assembled a crew to stop the Collectors in Mass Effect 2). It’s unusual to see a book take what’s essentially a video game so ‘seriously,’ in that the virtual stakes matter. Adding to that, here was a story that treated online friendships as being as important as real life ones. Unlike other depictions of nerdom (and really, a lotta stories) which tend to demean them, this one valorized these relationships. And as someone who’s made some of his closest friends online, it’s something I really liked about it.

So the movie adaptation gets announced and people start paying a lot more attention to the book and its flaws came under scrutiny. As well they should, because there’s no excuse for poorly written women and bad prose can always be better. But then there’s the criticism where Ready Player One is compared to The Big Bang Theory. And that’s, well, wrong.

The Big Bang Theory came about before nerd culture was hip and the central joke of the show was that those nerds were dorky. I watched — and liked — the show at first for its references but over time grew tired of it and, after a while, insulted. This was a show that was laughing at me and folks like me, not with me. Yes, they make deep cuts and go the distance to get some things in,  but ultimately it’s not a show that makes nerds good joke fodder, but not someone you’d like to be. Halo nights were seen as a dumb alternative to going out, not a really fun thing to do. Ready Player One does the opposite: It makes being the biggest nerd a hero-worthy quality. We don’t enjoy reading about Wade because his situation makes him the butt of a joke, we wanna be him.

Enter the movie. The adaptation improves on the book’s flaws; pacing is better, less expo-speak, the love interest Art3mis is both better and a little worse. And dear god it’s nerdy. A bunch of Master Chiefs from Halo rush into a battle where overhead flies in flipping Serenity and then a FRICKING GUNDAM jumps out of her hold to fight a certain giant Kaiju. But what’s so wonderful about Ready Player One — and Spielberg’s direction — is how much the movies loves its subject matter. The Spartans’ guns have the exact right sound effect when they fire (and when the needler gun shows up, same!); and the pose and movements of the Gundam feel lifted from the anime. The movie doesn’t just throw the images around, it wants to get them right. And it’s so freaking satisfying. It’s much more than just lip-service.

The nerds in Ready Player One — and that’s all the main characters except the villain (which is a statement in itself) — are cool. They’re the ones who can do stuff and, more importantly, they have fun. Art3mis teases Parzival with a chestbuster puppet, which, dorky as it is, feels real. It’s not funny because lol, Alien reference; it’s funny because it’s a gag for the characters too. The movie celebrates being a nerd.

The movie’s not all nerdy jokes, though. Yes, it’s got more nerdy references than you can shake a stick at (Hadouken! Adventure!), but it’s got a lot of heart and it’s really cute. The movie dispenses with a lot of the technicality from the book and zeroes in on a really fun, dare I say it: ’80s-esque adventure story. Sure, it’s got its problems, but at the end of the day I was so enchanted by it that I stopped caring. Without the references, it’d be fun enough, but with them all, and how they’re treated, it really feels like a celebration.

Plus, Aech’s homemade Iron Giant is referred to as a MOC, which is a term you usually only hear in the LEGO fandom. But now it’s there in a movie. And that’s really freaking cool.

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Lost The Heart

Sometimes it’s hard to explain why something good is so good; why does this one movie work. Other times, you have an example of the same thing executed less well and you’re all “ah, that’s why that one was so good.”

So let’s talk Pacific Rim Uprising, and by extension, the original too. Ostensibly, both Pacific Rim and its sequel are about giant robots fighting giant monsters. What made the first one great, though, was that it was about so much more, about connection, about unity, about hope and idealism. Somehow, in the midst of it all, Uprising doesn’t quite capture the magic of the first.

For one thing, Pacific Rim effortlessly tied together theme with world building. Consider drifting. The mental strain of piloting a Jaeger (one of those giant mecha) is so taxing that you need two people connected by a neural link, a drift, in order for it to work. It makes sense enough in the universe (them’s just the rules) but it also lets the movie explore its theme of connection. You can’t pilot these mechs and save the world by yourself; you gotta be willing to connect with someone else. You can’t fight the monsters alone. In Uprising, drifting is given lip service but never really explored. The movie doesn’t get into drifting or is ramifications the way it could, which is a bit of a bummer given how rich an opportunity it is.

Similarly, the Pan Pacific Defense Corps takes on a more militaristic personality in the sequel. Right off the bat, the PPDC is introduced as doing security and policing, a far cry from the scrappy resistance in the original. As the plot gets going, we see more formality in the ranks, a lotta officers-on-deck and the like. These elements may have been in the background of the original, but, given director Guillermo del Toro’s own pacifistic world view, were never really the focus. Uprising leans further into the paramilitary side of the PPDC, making them more warfighters and less of a resistance. It’s nowhere near as militaristic as, say, Transformers or even Iron Man, but, in light of the original, it’s lost some of its youthful idealism. Even the protagonist’s big speech at the end sounds ripped from a war movie, one that’s of course answered by a chorus of sir-yes-sirs; a far cry from the call to believe in something bigger that was Pentecost’s We Are Cancelling The Apocalypse speech in the first.

I know that’s an unfair comparison; We Are Cancelling The Apocalypse is the best call to arms speech that’s not in Henry V or given at the foot of the Black Gate. But that speech is really the thesis statement of Pacific Rim (check out my old breakdown over here). Pacific Rim unabashedly takes its Jaegers and Kaiju deathly seriously, and has so much fun with it. Uprising, however, keeps one foot on the shore, not quite willing to jump in. Pentecost’s big speech is mentioned, almost in a tongue-in-cheek way, by a few characters. Most telling, though, is that when the Kaiju reappear they are quickly given codenames, as in the first. Where the original acted as if calling a monster Knifehead or Otachi was perfectly normal (not to mention badass), Uprising has a character summarily dismiss the codenames once they’re given. It’s a small thing, but it belies the film’s attitude of being slightly too cool for all this giant monster stuff. And so we lose some of that wholehearted commitment that made the original so special.

Maybe I’m being a little too hard on Uprising. And maybe that’s because I hold the original in such high regard. Maybe it’s also because the movie kept dangling narratives I really like but never explored it. Newcomer Amara is inducted into the Ranger program and trained to be a pilot, but we don’t really go into the whole cadet story, which is a shame, cuz I love those stories (Kingsman, Ender’s Game). Nestled in there too is this multinational team doing stuff (which is my mostest favoritist thing, end of story), but we don’t spend that much time with Amara’s team. And you can’t show me a team consisting of an American girl, Russian girl, Indian dude, Latina, and Chinese guy and then take it away from me.

Were this not the sequel to Pacific Rim I think I’d be a lot more forgiving. It does a buncha things well and does deliver on that sweet sweet giant robot action. The Jaeger’s names are unapologetically awesome (frickin’ Saber Athena) and there is still that multinational bent of the first. But Uprising doesn’t quite have Pacific Rim’s heart, and that’s a damn shame.

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Of Men Mighty and Mega

Mega Man was the video game I cut my teeth on. Well, more accurately, Mega Man X4. It was a tough game that I worked my way through as a kid. Didn’t beat it until at least three years after I got it, but still picked up Mega Man X5 and Mega Man X6 (and Mega Man 8) in the meantime to fight the new bosses, master the new levels, and get my ass kicked time and time again. I got better, beat them, got into the harder Mega Man Z games (look, the naming conventions are weird but make sense). Every couple years I revisit them, particularly Z3 and X5, my undisputed favorites.

All this to say, I know my Mega Man.

So what makes a Mega Man game? Theme-wise, it’s good robots fighting a bunch of bad robots, usually eight, then fitting a bigger boss. Mechanic-wise, it’s a lotta jumping and shooting mixed in with being able to get a defeated boss’ weapon which is another boss’ weakness. There’ve been some variations here and there (the X games added dashing and wall kicking), but for the most part, things are quite similar.

For the sake of convenience, I’m excluding the Battle Network and Legends games from this, since those are an RPG and Action-Adventure respectively, and are different genres from the others which are very much pure Action Games.

Point is, there’s a particular sort of gameplay when it comes to Mega Man.

But, I’d argue, that a big part of Mega Man’s game design goes beyond that. What makes (well, made) the Mega Man games so distinctive was how well they did what they did. The mechanic at it’s core: running, jumping, and shooting, was perfect. The controls were as tight as they got, and the levels just right for them. Mega Man’s jump was also precise, you always knew right where you were jumping. Dashing as X or Zero was equally so, and the moment you took your finger off the button, they stopped moving.

This meant that no matter how crazy the stage design got (and good grief some stages are maddening), you were always in control of your character. Bottomless pits and spike traps were (usually) more challenges of dexterity than outright attempts to kill you. The stages were fair, with most new obstacles being obviously such. This meant that when you died (and you will), it was more often than not because of a mistake on your part, one that you can see. The games were about slowly learning stages and bosses, and then executing everything flawlessly.

And, most importantly, they were fun as hell. And Capcom no longer makes them.

But a few years ago Keiji Inafune, someone who worked on the original Mega Man games, was Kickstarting a new game that looked an awful lot like Mega Man: Mighty No. 9. The game’s a platformer, you run, you jump, you shoot, you beat bosses and take their abilities. Heck, the game was number nine, a clear reference that both the original and X series ended at number 8 (besides the retro revival for the originals).

Mighty No. 9 was released a couple years ago, but I didn’t get around to playing it until this week upon it being free for PlayStation+ Subscribers.

And it is not a good game.

Lackluster visuals and presentation aside, it’s just… not really fun. It’s not the difficulty, rather it feels like the game cheats. Jumping onto a moving vehicle feels like a crapshoot, and avoiding attacks is luck more than anything. Sure, it’s fun to figure out a boss’s weakness and lay into it, but it’s missing that special something.

Namely, the precision that made Mega Man such a great series. Platforming feels wonky, the ‘AcXelearte’ dash is as likely to get you killed as out of trouble, and there’s no wall kick that made the X and Z games so interesting but instead a ledge grab that feels finicky at best. The gameplay loop just doesn’t work.

Part of what made the Mega Man games such fun was reaching that point of flow, where you kinda mesh with the controller into a sorta zen as you try and finish a stage and beat a boss. Instead here I am, a lifelong gamer, fumbling with the controller in Mighty No.9 ‘cuz Beck won’t grab on to a frickin’ ledge. Look, its boss fights are fun, I’ll give it that, but it just doesn’t feel like Mega Man — which it’s quite clearly intended to. Maybe were it not so clearly meant to be such it wouldn’t feel this bad a game.

Actually, it probably would. It’s clunky, and really makes me miss Mega Man.

So I’ll probably end up replaying X5 or Z3 next. Just gotta beat this game next because I will not be daunted by poor game design!

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Beauty in Destruction

I saw Annihilation this week, which, y’know, shouldn’t really be surprising. I like Alex Garland as a writer (Never Let Me Go is heartbreakingly beautiful, Dredd is a solid action movie) and enjoyed his directorial debut in Ex Machina. Annihilation is science fiction replete with a primarily female cast, so it checks a lot of boxes for me.

And it’s a wonderful film, truly haunting with some moments of absolute horror, but one that is essentially devoted to the pursuit of the sublime, of that terrible beauty. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, but the trip to end is one that stays with you.

It’s also super clear that Alex Garland has played The Last of Us. No, plot points aren’t borrowed from Naughty Dog’s great game. There’s no fungal virus and it isn’t about the relationship between two very different people. But Annihilation, though based on a novel, undoubtedly draws on the video game in its portrayal of the world beyond the Shimmer.

The central plot of Annihilation deals with the Shimmer, a phenomena radiating from a crashed meteor wherein everything within its thrall gets, well, weird. The mystery of the Shimmer and what lays within is the big question of the movie and drives Lena and her team to investigate. Over time, it becomes clear that the Shimmer affects organic life somehow, and changes it.

A heads up, though, some minor spoilers for Annihilation are inbound. Unless you’ve seen the trailer, than you’ve already seen what I’m talking about (I hadn’t, and upon watching it now, holy crap that thing reveals a bunch).

It affects people too. Lena and her team come across a prior expedition from about a year before. The members were affected by the Shimmer, and their bodies begun acting up. At the bottom of the pool they find the remains of a person who has since become almost plantlike and fungal and merged — grown — into the wall. His legs are still there, seated, but his entire upper torso has, for lack of a better word, flowered. It’s gruesome — his skull is several feet above his legs at the top of the ‘plant’ — but it’s also beautiful, in its own way.

The Last of Us (which, coincidentally, came out a year before the book Annihilation is based on did), features the same image. Over time, those infected by the fungal cordyceps will stop moving, settle down, and grow into their surroundings until all the remains is the vague silhouette of a human being surrounded by waves of fungus. While playing the game you will encounter these strange ‘corpses,’ sometimes moving them aside, sometimes just walking past. They’re grotesque, but at the same time beautiful.

The same can be said of how The Last of Us portrays its apocalypse. The world’s been ravaged by neglect and the Infected, and yet it’s somehow still beautiful. The flooded desolation of Pittsburg is tattered with trees and greenery growing through and around buildings; it’s all so lovingly rendered that the landscape of the apocalypse almost loses its despair and takes on its own serenity, grandeur. Consider the giraffes, and how amidst the bleakness there was such beauty. Annihilation has its share of abandoned structures and desolation, but the Shimmer speckles it with flowers and other bits of pretty. Somehow the abandoned is beautiful, even with the horrors inside.

What connects Annihilation and The Last of Us isn’t just the imagery (although, dude, those bloomed corpses are super similar), but rather how unique is how they portray destruction. Other similar stories with wastelands, be they the thousands-of-years-later ruins of Horizon: Zero Dawn or bombed-out town in your war movie of choice show beauty in contrast to destruction. Look at that shell of a tank, now look at the majestic tree next to it. For Annihilation and The Last of Us, destruction is intrinsic to beauty; it is the former that causes the latter: there is worth in the decaying frame of a half-sunken house, the corpse of an infected is as beautiful as it is terrible. It’s a haunting aesthetic, one that informs the incredible atmosphere of both works.

Addendum: A quick google shows that, yeah, Garland’s played The Last of Us and it’s one of his favorite games (alongside Bioshock). So maybe I’m not crazy about the influence the video game had on his movie, after all, artists steal.

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