Thursday, December 14, 2017

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi": Initial (Baffled) Impressions

The title crawl should have been in red.
That would have really pissed people off.
Another year has come and gone, so the other night I dutifully donned my homemade Emperor Palpatine robes and m'colleague and I trudged off to the cinema to watch another Star Wars film.

I looked like this about halfway through.
I have to admit that, despite my criticism of The Force Awakens, I was quite eager for The Last Jedi. I'd gotten it into my head that Rian Johnson was the right man for the job, and that what he was going to deliver would be a solid, satisfying Star Wars outing which would probably be a bit better than The Force Awakens. We'd have Rey and Luke, Finn and Poe, some action, and a set up for things to come. I wasn't as hyped as I might have been, but I was ready to watch a Star Wars film which would leave me thinking that what I'd just seen was a sci-fi action film which would be a worthwhile addition to the Star Wars rewatch cycle along with the despecialised editions of the Original Trilogy and the occasional touch upon Episode VII.

This'll be exciting in the finished film, right?
That's not quite what I actually got, and if I am to give The Last Jedi credit for anything, it ought to be for the fact that it surprised me. This was overtly not J.J. Abrams' Star Wars, almost wholly lacking the slavish devotion to George Lucas' narrative style and cinematography which dominated Episode VII. The Last Jedi in many respects feels like its own beast, although admittedly at times it feels, like its predecessor, like a remix of its equivalent episode in the Original Trilogy. This, I think, is what made The Last Jedi challenging for me, and at first viewing ultimately somewhat disappointing, as I juddered back and forth between thinking "This is a bold take on things" and "What the hell am I watching?!"

Tosses the tone over his shoulder too.
My initial reaction is that The Last Jedi is an overly-long, rambling, unfocused, confused mess of a film which doesn't fully appreciate its own strengths and is torn between two parallel narratives, one which is fundamentally engaging and another which is intrinsically tedious. This is a result of a problem with pacing and structure which makes the film suffer substantially. The film regularly snaps back and forth between Rey and Luke scenes on the planet Ahch-To, which I found engrossing, and Finn and Poe stuff with the Resistance fleet, which over time bored me to tears, and as I often say about films regarding which I have mixed feelings, this is a game of halves.

"What should I do with Kylo Ren in the middle acts?"
"I dunno, stick him in a room for hours."
It's my impression from one viewing that, as both director and screenwriter, Rian Johnson comes across as overwhelmed, trying to give a substantial narrative to all of his growing cast of major characters: Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren, Leia and Luke, as well as newcomer Rose, and whether of his own volition, or mandated by Lucasfilm/Disney, the film ultimately fails to wholly recognise that it is only Rey and Luke's story (and by extension Kylo Ren's) which is especially interesting or substantial. This is particularly egregious in the final act of the film in which Rey, notionally our main protagonist, almost disappears, being relegated to manning Luke's old firing position on the Millennium Falcon rather than actively participating in the plot. That's not to say that the ending isn't about Luke and Kylo Ren, but it has a particular insistence at the same time in focusing on the Resistance, as represented by Poe, Finn and Leia, a narrative which in my view wasn't the crux of what the film explored most effectively: not the idea of resistance, but rather of balance. I particularly wondered as I watched whether the depiction of the First Order as an unstoppable tyranny, despite being crippled at the conclusion of the previous film, was some kind of political statement reflecting  the popular conception that "the bad guys are running America" at the moment, which is arguably true in a greater-or-lesser-of-two-evils sense, but feels inconsistent with the previous instalment and almost exhausting; if the First Order is still so strong, and the Resistance so utterly weak, it's hard for me to care. I want to avoid delving into hypotheticals in this article, but I can't help but feel as if the narrative would be more interesting if it was more microscopic in scale, with the conflict limited to a small section of the galaxy and the belief that even the most remote and seemingly-unimportant part would be worth fighting for if its freedom was threatened.

Was he not played up as much in the
promotion for this one?
The fact is that the film is a bombardment, much like a First Order dreadnought firing lasers at the Reistance fleet, with a plot which seems to take place over the course of about seven acts and is constantly assailing the viewer with new elements and situations; calling them developments might be overstating matters. I was constantly wavering between deep interest, particularly when Rey and Luke were onscreen, and complete bewilderment whenever we returned to Finn and Rose or Poe, wondering why their plot needed to exist at all, why I should care about it and when it would get back to the half of the story which I found interesting. Another thing which occurred to me is that this feels less like an Episode in its own right and more like a followup to The Force Awakens, especially in the reuse of settings and the close connection of the two narratives, which leaves me feeling like there should be another couple of films rather than just one. Who knows? Perhaps there will be if the Disney accountants have anything to say about it. Perhaps this trilogy will bleed into Sequel Trilogy II.

Let's cut the rest of the fat and get to what I liked and didn't like.

What I Didn't Like
1. The Resistance Plot
Stay in the pod, Finn!
As I've established, I simply wasn't interested in the large percentage of the narrative devoted to the Resistance fleet trying to escape from the First Order. This element, depicted equivalently in the first act of The Empire Strikes Back, here covers almost the entirety of the film. It reached the point in which it became utterly absurd, in my view, that the two fleets were pursuing each other through space seemingly in first gear, with neither side able to catch up to or outrun the other for reasons which weren't clear to me. I understood that the fleet couldn't jump away without being caught again, but why was it so hard for the First Order to simply catch up to the Resistance and blow them out of the sky? They have a ship the size of a small country, but they don't have the technology to go a little bit faster than their enemies?

Dead Phasma toys: only $9.99 each.
Somehow, the course of this pursuit gives Finn and Rose time to go to a completely different planet, find help and come back. Furthermore, after it's over, following multiple scenes of devastation on the part of First Order battleships, Finn and Rose going to a casino, Finn, Rose and Benicio del Toro going to the First Order flagship and getting captured, BB-8 driving an AT-ST and hyperdrive ships slicing other ships, the Resistance lands at a giant bunker which looks like a snow plow to have yet another fight with the First Order. By this point I couldn't believe how long the extended conflict between the two parties was going for. It was just too much. If this had been, say, half an hour of the film it would have been tolerable, but it dominates it, and distracts needlessly from the film's strongest elements.

If only he'd stayed dead.
I also didn't particularly enjoy Poe's character arc in this. In The Force Awakens he came across as a fairly pragmatic combatant who was, for instance, prepared to abandoned the Jakku village if it meant he could keep the map from the First Order. Here he just seems like some cocky try-hard who can't take orders and needs to learn a lesson about leadership. Was it really necessary? Oddly enough, despite liking the character in The Force Awakens, in this film I found him a bit annoying.

Monkeyshines.
2. Too Much Humour
Obviously Star Wars is pretty lighthearted at times, and the Original Trilogy has plenty of memorable one-liners, but The Last Jedi is somewhat overwhelming in this regard, starting with a joke featuring Poe pretending he can't hear Hux over the radio and only becoming bigger from there. Hux looks like a complete buffoon, Luke plays practical jokes and delivers snarky one-liners, Finn and Rose exchange quips and so on to the point at which it's hard to take anything seriously. It feels like they took Poe's brief piss-taking of Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, and a few sarcastic Han lines and excited Finn remarks, and blew them completely out of proportion in this script. I'm a miserable, joyless, self-hating, lonely, jaded wretch, but give me a break. The audience in the cinema was laughing it up, though, so I guess it hit the right spot for some. My biggest issue was that Luke came across as too flippant and dismissive a lot of the time, and insufficiently consistent with the character we last saw in Return of the Jedi.

Luke's Star Wars: The Card Game set.
3. The Best Stuff is Not Fleshed Out Enough
So Luke's a recluse who wants the Jedi Order to die, Rey and Kylo Ren have developed a telepathic link, Leia can survive a hard vacuum and the Force still needs balancing. These are all interesting elements of the film, but they just don't get the attention they need to really satisfy. There are conversations between Luke and Rey about the Force and the Jedi which are too short and leave us begging for more. Menawhile, when Rey is communicating with Kylo Ren, we don't have a good sense of what Ren is doing at the time in order to contextualise his experience of this link. He just seems to be standing around in a room. We get some philosophising about the Force, including a surprise appearance from Yoda, but it's all glossed over in a few short scenes. If we'd spent less time mucking around with Finn in Casino Night Zone and the Resistance and First Order fleets participating in the slowest car chase of all time, I feel as if the screenplay could have really come to grips with these elements, which instead to me felt rushed and incomplete, as if we were only seeing edited highlights of something more complex and profound.

"Steady, Dack. Attack pattern delta."
4. Lack of Atmosphere
Just a small thing, but when we met Snoke for instance I felt like there was very little sense of tension and presence. It was similar with Rey being around Luke, I suppose. Something in the cinematography and sound design at these points made me feel distant rather than immersed, as if I was watching the film through a window in another room. Perhaps that was an effect of exhaustion and Irish whisky, but I can't help but feel that a trick was missed at some of the notionally most awe-inspiring moments of the film. Then again, perhaps it was deliberate, as I'll detail in the next section.

What I Did Like
1. Spins on ideas set up in The Force Awakens
Phone home.
...I've never seen E.T.
Who's Snoke? Just an arrogant, overconfident idiot with delusions about how much control he really has, like the Emperor but even more foolish and blind. Who were Rey's parents? Nobody important. What has Luke realised in his time away? That the Jedi were selfish hypocrites. All this stuff seemed fairly bold to me, with Rian Johnson slicing through all the "mystery box" bullshit set up by Abrams in the previous film. The answers are straightforward and convincing. Killing off Snoke in particular was a sensible and gutsy move, preventing him from seeming entirely like a rehash of the Emperor (although he still kind of is; he's just a shittier version of the Emperor, basically). Here I wonder if the lack of atmosphere was deliberate, so that we could recognise that Snoke was not all that he seemed. Establishing that Rey's parents were nobodies is a refreshing touch of realism. In this respect, the film seems like an antidote to the more egregious rumour-mongering elements of Episode VII, which only really existed because of the famed twists from the Original Trilogy.

The lightsaber kind of looks like a plastic tube in this scene.
2. Rey and Luke
Although we didn't see enough of them, both of these character were welcome. I still think Daisy Ridley's Rey is the best part of the new Trilogy, despite the fact that I think she could he come across as a little more aware of the nature of Luke's successes and failures and how they could be applied to her own experience. I suppose she possesses a little hubris, which ultimately is another way in which aspects of this film echo both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as the film is somewhat like Luke's motivation in Jedi with Empire's outcome: tries to turn villain back to the light but fails.
Good thing he didn't really quit voicing the Joker.

Mark Hamill is entertaining as Luke, and although at times I thought he came across as too dry and jaded, he fitted well enough into the role of a character who has been scarred by his experiences. In particular, the cool confidence Luke presents in Return of the Jedi is gone for much of this, replaced by self-awareness and resignation. In his final confrontation with Kylo Ren, however, much of the strength of Luke in his prime re-emerges, as we see Rey re-ignite something of his faith. This would all have been improved if the film had simply had more time to devote to these characters. I'm almost reminded of the Hobbit films, which became endlessly distracted from Bilbo in an effort to be more epic. In this, I feel like the film keeps wandering away from its titular Last Jedi (singular or plural), which is frustrating, but when they're around they're generally worthwhile. I criticised the lack of "atmosphere" surrounding Luke, but again, perhaps it was deliberately to make his later scenes more satisfying. This would have worked better if we'd seen more.

"My nose still hurts."
3. Kylo Ren
Dildo Ren was a bit more interesting in this than he was in the previous, particularly in his Force-based conversations with Rey, in which they test each others' character. With all this stuff it's not contextualised or developed to its fullest extent, but it's still interesting. In particular, we gain a more complex insight into his backstory, thinking that Luke betrayed him and establishing his Vader-like desire not just for power but for order, and this is played upon by showing him, unlike Vader, killing his master in order to seize control. We're left wondering where the narrative can go next, which I suppose is as good a selling point for Episode IX as any. I liked the idea of Ren usurping Snoke's place as Supreme Leader of the First Order; it's noteworthy that when he tells Rey that they need to dispose of the past, he collectively refers to the Sith and the Jedi, but only to the Resistance in isolation, establishing that he cares more about the ideology of the First Order than might otherwise appear.

4. Leia can breathe in space
She still didn't hug Chewie.
A lot of people didn't like this element, apparently, but I thought it was kinda cool. She's meant to be strong with the force, albeit untrained. Why shouldn't she survive being blasted into a hard vacuum? I only wish that I understood better her role in the plot overall. It was pretty obvious that she wouldn't be killed so abruptly on the bridge, although I fear that this sequence was intended to set up Episode IX elements which will no longer be possible to fulfill.

"Gawsh, this Jedi training is rrrather
different to what I expected, eh what?"
Conclusion
I still don't know where I stand with The Last Jedi. Was it an occasionally-good blockbuster which is receiving rave reviews because it's full of big explosions, corny one-liners and over-egged "cool" moments to please the dummies, or is it subtler than I'm giving it credit for and warrants more viewings? Perhaps it's a little of both. Perhaps I'm no different to the Original Trilogy fanboys walking devastated from the cinema in 1999 because they didn't get exactly what they imagined in the preceding years. Maybe the film's composition is meant to represent its themes, with the balance between light and dark being reflected in the balance between interesting reflection upon the franchise and mindless slush. On the other hand, maybe it won't bear that much scrutiny. Perhaps only time and an endless cavalcade of better or worse Disney Star Wars films will tell.

So anyway, do the Jedi need to die out or not? Luke thought so, and Yoda seemed to agree with him, but then at the end Luke seemed satisfied that Rey would allow the Jedi to continue on. I'm sure there's some deep and detailed explanation buried deep in the film...
Do Wookiees age in reverse? He looks
a lot more sleek than he did in '77.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Hot new feature! Instead of exerting the energy required to read the review, why not listen to me read it to you with limited enthusiasm instead?


He should have found a turtle.
A slow, pointless rehash of the slow, overanalysed original, in Blade Runner 2049 Ryan Gosling gets shot, stabbed, punched by Harrison Ford, blown up and forced to recite poetry, he makes out with a hologram, burns an innocent man's house down, drowns a woman in the back of a waterlogged car, wades through urban sprawl, junkyards, wastelands and two and a half hours of droning Hans Zimmer bombast, and eventually dies of sheer boredom and the odour of Harrison Ford's sweaty t-shirt.

Right, now that I've got the facetious version out of the way, let's get to the real review.

It's not a real sequel 'cause none
of these got squeezed out.
I have to admit that, despite natural cynicism, aspects of Blade Runner 2049's marketing campaign worked on me, particularly the teaser. Seeing our new protagonist, Ryan Gosling's Officer K, in an orange-tinted wasteland led me to imagine that we were going somewhere new in this far-removed sequel, perhaps to see something different. The full trailer impressed me less, as it seemed to be going down a dramatic route which didn't seem particularly unusual, but I was willing enough to see the film.

What if there's a big crowd on the bridge?
Probably the best compliment I can give to Blade Runner 2049 is that it feels like a strong sequel to a slightly different film. I rewatched Blade Runner a few days before seeing this, specifically the Final Cut, and having not watched the film in its entirety for probably ten years I was reminded most strongly of how abstract and dreamlike its tone is. The score by Vangelis is a major contributor to this, of course, but the cinematography, including long, lingering shots, and the performances, intentionally or otherwise, also create a haziness and distance which focus the viewer primarily on the ideas the film is contemplating, rather than a strong narrative, which the original notoriously lacks. As a result, I found myself feeling increasingly convinced that making an authentic-feeling sequel to Blade Runner was impossible, that the characters and setting did not and could not exist outside the boundaries of the text; the film accomplishes what it sets out to do, and is complete. That's not to say that the film is perfect; it is probably slower than necessary at points and arguably suffers from a seemingly-uninterested performance by Harrison Ford and a lack of onscreen chemistry between him and Sean Young, which makes the relationship between Deckard and Rachael less interesting than it might otherwise be. Nonetheless the excellent visuals and score and the performances of the replicant characters, particularly Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, are very compelling.

Probably paid over $5,000,000
per minute he was in the film.
A good sequel preferably expands upon or investigates new possibilities suggested by the original, rather than simply rehashing what happened before, and it's to Blade Runner 2049's limited credit that Ryan Gosling's K is not simply hunting down a fresh batch of rogue replicants, perhaps with the assistance of Harrison Ford's Deckard. Rather, he is investigating a possibility of replicants becoming capable of natural reproduction, a situation which would threaten the humans' dominance over them while simultaneously resolving their new manufacturer's supply problems. Despite the fact that this is, ultimately, heavily related to Deckard and Rachel's story from the original, it is certainly a different direction. The extent to which we ought to give the film credit for avoiding this fairly obvious pitfall is, however, worth bearing in mind.

I heard that to prepare for the role he bred
a family of artificial humans and killed them all.
To the same extent, that direction itself is arguably less compelling than that of the original, in that while the 1982 film's topic of interest is fundamentally existential, Blade Runner 2049 is to a greater extent political, and while there is of course no bad time to warn of the potential technological advancement has to enslave us, or to create new slaves, I can't help but feel that this new film's concerns are ultimately more mundane than the first. This perhaps is appropriate given how much more grounded the sequel feels compared to the original, but also suffers in terms of the relative lack of attention it receives, as the idea of the abuse and suffering of the expendable replicants is only touched upon lightly until the concept of an underground replicant resistance is, in my view, clumsily inserted into the film in the final act. This left me, at least, thinking about the political ruminations of the film despite the fact that so much is devoted rather to the growing inner life of the protagonist, Officer K.

Not Emma Stone?
Ryan Gosling generally has a solid reputation and I feel like he was an appropriate casting choice for this role. K's story is certainly interesting, although I can't help but wonder how much it retreads that of both Rachael and Roy Batty in the original, particularly in his search for truth and meaning in his life. As such, probably the most engaging part I found to be the relationship between K, who is a replicant, and his hologram companion, Joi, to the extent that I started to think as I watched that a film about a relationship between two artificial life forms would make for a better film than a story about replicants being able to have babies. That being said, anti-replicant prejudice must be pretty bad if, in this world, even Ryan Gosling would need to purchase an electronic girlfriend.

At least banning plastic bags helped a bit.
K's character development is effective, as he transitions from a law enforcement killing machine to a man in fear for his life to one who is disappointed when his subconscious desire to be "special" is thwarted, to finally making a choice and acting to help others, although I'm not entirely convinced of how striking the resolution is. It's the steps in between which are arguably more memorable and perhaps not followed through to the extent that they could be. Are we really that surprised when K, a man of the law, decides to save Deckard from off-world torture so that he can be reunited with his lost daughter? For me, at least, it lacks the impact of Roy Batty's decision to save Deckard's life at the end of the original. Given that we only see K retire one replicant in the course of the entire film, the narrative appears to be drawn in morally simpler terms than the original, which ties back to the political angle of the plot. Despite the strength of Gosling's performance in particular, this made the film to me feel equal parts redundant and simplistic in light of the original. Perhaps I would perceive this differently if this was not a sequel, but it is. It's worth noting that K's serial number and his nickname, Joe, both evoke the protagonist of Kafka's The Trial, which arguably has more in common with the tone and atmosphere of the original Blade Runner than this sequel.

If this reminds you primarily of Fallout: New Vegas,
you need to read and watch more stuff.
The strengths of the film, beyond the performances, are primarily visual. Part of my homework for this film, besides watching the original, was watching two of Denis Villeneuve's recent works of apparent relevance: the 2016 sci-fi film Arrival, and the 2013 psychological thriller Enemy. This film is consistent with Villeneueve's strengths at creating atmosphere, suspense and a feeling of unease, although as I've said I think the atmosphere of the original is more fascinating. While I believe the film has been criticised for being too slow, I personally found it to be paced quite well, the lingering camerawork matching K's confusion and blunted emotional state. The film also takes us beyond the rain-swept LA to a protein farm, junkyard San Diego, snowbound Southern California, and atomic wasteland Vegas. In all honesty I feel as if these settings, particularly the Vegas one, deserved more use, and that the film ultimately spent too much time retreading the streets of LA and the Tyrell building in particular. I still don't believe they gel with the atmosphere of the original, but they're interesting enough on their own. The most dubious visual is probably the elaborate means used to depict Rachael in the film with the appearance of 1982 Sean Young. One could make the excuse that she's meant to look fake, but that doesn't really change the fact that she doesn't look like the real deal, and in the wake of this, Rogue One and the increasing number of films which try to reuse the likenesses of older or even dead actors I suspect we have a glut of trips down memory lane ahead of us.

"Who are we again? Am I a replicant?"
The film's soundtrack is adequate, but apart from a few moments in Vegas, for instance, I don't think Hans Zimmer brought too much to the plate. His trademark, now cliché, droning fits this film to a degree and is used with more flair than in other features, but it can't compare to the original's Vangelis compositions. It's noteworthy that the most musically memorable moment in the film is during the scene at the end featuring K lying down on the steps, during which Vangelis' 'Tears in Rain' track from the original plays, linking K with Roy Batty. This somewhat emphasises to me, however, the extent to which K simultaneously has to fulfil the roles from the original of Deckard, Rachael and Roy, exemplifying the dearth of well-developed original characters in the film.

"Two. Two. Four. And noodles."
As I've said, the performances are all strong, but new faces including Luv, Joshi and Mariette don't have much to do as characters despite each having a number of scenes. If anything I think Luv is overused, underwritten or both. Jared Leto's Wallace is effective in the two scenes in which he appears, but in my opinion was too openly evil as a character compared to the polite hollowness of Tyrell from the original. Dave Bautista gives a very different performance to how I'm used to seeing him, as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, and I could have seen more of him, and the character of Ana Steline was similarly well-realised as someone who appears to be a detective-story side character who takes on greater importance later. Edward James Olmos has a nice cameo as Gaff which perhaps reminds too much of the strength of the original film. Harrison Ford was, in my opinion, better in this than in another recent reprisal, The Force Awakens, but despite the greater range I felt he conveyed, nonetheless I didn't see him as Deckard, as he lacks the languor of the character as originally portrayed. Of course he might change over thirty years, but it'd be nice to see something of the original character still in there. It might be argued that his original performance was lacking, but as it suits the tone of the original, I missed it in this.

Part time.
Blade Runner has been criticised for its limited narrative, but I would argue that Blade Runner 2049 does too much to avert this. As I've said, the story seems to offer less room for meditation upon loftier subject matters, and given the strength of the visuals and some set pieces I'll discuss in a moment, it almost becomes a distraction. Certainly, by the time K found Deckard, and perhaps earlier, I felt that the iris of the narrative started to narrow more and more, taking the film in a direction which I thought risked becoming too formal and too structured in contrast to the best parts of the film when the stoic K stalks through the collapsing world around him.

I think she's in the film more than Ryan Gosling.
In this regard, another of the film's strengths are a number of visually or dramatically pleasing moments which stand out amid their surroundings. These include a scene in which Joi uses Mariette as a physical presence to allow her to be more intimate with K, and sequences in which K is obliged to take a baseline test to confirm his emotional detachment from his mission. It's noteworthy that while these serve K's characterisation, they seem like distant memories by the time the film leaves Las Vegas, at which it becomes a routine sequence of secret societies, interrogations, a climactic battle and an emotional departure. The final punch-up and drowning of Luv in Wallace's car is strikingly shot, but again pales somewhat compared to the confrontation between Deckard and Roy in the original, and it significantly shows how little characterisation Luv is afforded despite appearing in the film so much.

You wouldn't know he was a wrestler
if it wasn't for his tiny head.
It's probably worth pointing out as well that when the film focuses too greatly on its own plot, that plot shows limits. For instance, Joshi takes K completely at his word that he has eliminated the child, presumably simply because replicants are believed to not be able to lie. The question of why the child's records were doubled was not resolved as far as I could tell, although I may have missed something. It's not clear why Wallace needs to have Deckard sent to an off-world facility for further interrogation when he seems to be able to act with impunity on Earth. Furthermore, K simply states that Deckard will appear to have died in the car crash at the end even though there is no body. I was somewhat amused by the lines from Wallace which touch upon the "Deckard is a replicant" idea, implying that he was intended to couple with Rachael by nature or design, although it reminded me substantially of Alex Garland's 2015 film Ex Machina in which a character was manipulated in a highly similar manner. As I've said, the appearance of a replicant resistance movement also seemed trite and clumsily-included to me, an element out of place in the disaffected world of Blade Runner. Oh, and I guessed that the remains discovered at the beginning would be Rachael's bones almost as soon as they appeared. At least K turned out, in the end, to not be the child, which would have been much too neat and convenient. I appreciated that.

Rather than 'Joe', she should have started
calling him 'Special K'.
Perhaps my impression of Blade Runner 2049 has been excessively coloured by the original, but I think that comparisons are only fair when a film utilises not only cast and creative minds but even archive audio and footage from the earlier text. The fact is, Blade Runner 2049 is a very solid, nice-looking, well-performed, reasonably engaging science-fiction film, but I think it was always doomed in trying to be a sequel to the original. If anything it reminded me of how much I like the original, despite how flawed it is, and how much I'd appreciate a return to that kind of filmmaking. This shouldn't take away from the new film's strengths, and it probably merits a rewatch, but I can't help but feel like this piece, given its reheated elements and box office performance, is most strongly embodied by the duplicate Rachael who gets rejected and shot.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

On the Closure of Spartan Games


"Let's go hide in a Rorke's Drift set. No one will notice!"
I was fairly shocked when, on Friday evening, I saw an announcement abruptly stating that Spartan Games, makers of the tabletop miniatures games Dystopian Wars and Firestorm Armada, and their spinoffs, had gone out of business. I had assumed based on what I believed was a moderately successful Kickstarter campaign to add to Dystopian Wars last year, along with the launching of a Firestorm Kickstarter, that things were puttering along. It's true to say that the game I actually collected, Dystopian Legions, had fallen by the wayside, but as one of the regular contributors to the Legions section of the Spartan forums I myself had recently answered a call for the formation of a new official group of fans aimed at revisiting and discussing the future of that game. The very sudden announcement of the closure suggests to me that the company's directors did not themselves expect the need to close when it occurred. Seemingly a point was reached at which debts could not be paid. I've never studied business, but this is what I gather from what I've read online.

I think there are a few reasons to account for Spartan's unfortunate demise. I intend to sketch the external ones before considering the internal ones in-depth. Obviously, tabletop gaming is a very competitive market. The combined revival or boom of board games along with the appearance of new toy soldier games obviously means there are many more products vying for consumers' attention than previously. Nonetheless, Spartan's two main games seem to have filled something of a niche, as to my knowledge there isn't a glut of naval combat games in the current market, and I get the impression that Dystopian Wars was their most successful intellectual property; if so this was probably because it occupied such a unique position. On the other hand, while Games Workshop's Battlefleet Gothic doesn't have much presence anymore, I suspect that in recent years Firestorm Armada faced increasing, and probably insurmountable, rivalry from big-brand space combat games, particularly the Star Wars franchise's Armada and X-Wing games. The other factors are, of course, that running a business is, to the best of my very limited knowledge, extremely challenging and that personal factors of health seem to have been an issue as well.

To discuss Spartan's apparent issues from an outsider's perspective obviously risks presuming a great deal. Not being privy to internal goings-on, I can mostly discuss Spartan's reputation rather than anything factual. However, since I became a collector of their products in, if I recall correctly, late 2013, and having read discussion across the internet, the following apparent problems seemed to be identified repeatedly.

How do you make guys who look like this and still not
manage to get stereotypical nerds to give you loads of money?
1. Lack of Focus
Almost certainly the most common complaint against Spartan was that their company's direction lacked focus. When I started collecting, Spartan had four main games: Uncharted Seas, Firestorm Armada, Dystopian Wars and Dystopian Legions. Legions was, at the time, seemingly the latest big thing as I believe there had been a recent number of releases fleshing out the four starting armies of the game. Spartan promised three more armies in the near future.

However, this never really came. Instead, the next big release was Firestorm Planetfall, the ground-based game set in the Firestorm Armada universe. This seemed reasonable enough to me, as it meant that now the Firestorm and Dystopian settings had two levels of game. New releases for Legions dried up, however, and with heavy focus now given to Planetfall the promised additional armies only manifested in the shape of a couple of pieces two or so years later. Only one of these was ever expanded upon, and that not completely.

At this point I started to get the impression that Spartan's approach was becoming a little unfocused. They had a particular problem of telling their fans that things were coming, and even setting dates, and then not matching the expectations they set up. I was rather bemused when Spartan announced that they had made a deal with Microsoft to make games set in the Halo universe, and as with everything else this rapidly expanded to both a space game and a ground game, much like Firestorm. Spartan's own official announcement admits that the Halo games distracted from the other products, which rather leaves me wondering why Spartan took on the project in the first place. Meanwhile it seemed there were occasional bursts of releases for Dystopian Wars and Firestorm Armada, but I got the sense from what I read that players of those games felt that there were deeper issues not being addressed.

All on board the Legions hype train that never left the station.
This came to a head when, in 2016, Spartan announced that they were going to use Kickstarter to launch yet another game, "Dystopian Empires", which was to be set at a scale between Wars and Legions. Fan response was overwhelmingly negative, and after much consultation the Kickstarter was reworked into a Dystopian Wars project intended to support the existing game. Spartan seemed surprised at the fan response to the Dystopian Empires proposal, which strongly suggested to me that they had lost touch with their customer base and were becoming increasingly sidetracked by whichever pet projects took their leaders' fancy at the time. Another indication of this was observable in that, at a convention last year, rather than promoting all of their existing games, Spartan instead demonstrated a "Weird World War Two" game they had been working on in their spare time called "Project Götterdämmerung", which was never released for purchase. It appeared in fact that the "hobby" aspect of the "hobby company" had taken over, in which the hobby interests of people running the company were heavily distracting from running the business effectively.

All of this gave Spartan a reputation for spreading itself too thin, trying to launch lots of games rather than develop them in depth. Unfortunately, I would be inclined to argue that the launch of Dystopian Legions was the first mistake, as this started the trend of more and more games being launched. As Uncharted Seas was already passing out of focus, it seems to me that Spartan's most sensible approach would have been to keep investing in Firestorm Armada and Dystopian Wars and to have left the spinoff projects as speculation. Perhaps then Spartan could have comfortably maintained itself until such time as it was safe to try something new.

"I never even got my own rules!"
2. Lack of Market Research
As I have said, it seems that with Dystopian Wars in particular Spartan had found a strong niche for 19th-century battleship combat not provided by any other major system. Dystopian Legions, however, was a different story. The game was trying to enter an extremely competitive 28mm war game market with many established games. In addition, the game competed with two major genres: the sci-fi war game market, traditionally dominated by Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000, and the historical war game market, which has had countless rival manufacturers for years. The game was also released using exclusively metal miniatures. While historical war gamers, who traditionally are from an older generation or more mature market, would be accustomed to this, younger game players, particularly of sci-fi games, are used to plastic, and perceive metal models as cumbersome and irritating. Furthermore, as was repeatedly pointed out, the Dystopian Legions models were of a slightly larger than 28mm scale, being closer to 33mm, making them not entirely suitable for use in other games. The Kingdom of Britannia models in particular could have been used under different circumstances as substitutes for Games Workshop's Imperial Guard, particularly the long-abandoned Praetorian army, but players were not willing to use the larger models for this purpose. Spartan cannot really be blamed for not making models which were usable in another company's game, but it's worth noting that making a product which can also be used in the games of Games Workshop, the biggest company in the market, is a very sensible way of attracting custom from existing collectors. This is an approach which has allowed Mantic Games to flourish.

Firestorm Planetfall, meanwhile, was trying to enter a market for a vehicle-scale science fiction tabletop game, traditionally occupied by Games Workshop's Epic 40,000 but more recently entered by the game Dropzone Commander. Spartan was, therefore, probably not well-positioned to enter this market, particularly when their customers were already desiring changes for Dystopian Wars and Firestorm Armada, and when Dystopian Legions was not complete.

Not even these guys could heal the cash haemorrage.
Making a deal with Microsoft to produce Halo games seems to have been a further unwise decision. Not only was this licensing deal probably rather costly, it likely suffered from other drawbacks. One is that Halo is simply not the hot property it was in the mid 2000s. The games are still popular, but not traditionally with the same demographic as collects tabletop games. Furthermore, by launching both a space battle and land battle game for Halo, Spartan not only appeared more unfocused than ever but was in fact competing with itself by producing rivals to its own Firestorm games.

Spartan's apparent naïveté concerning the market was also demonstrated during the first Kickstarter they launched, in which they attempted to fund a modular scenery project for which there was no apparent demand, and which did not have a clear use with their own games. They also appeared to set an excessively high funding threshold which was too ambitious for a company performing their first Kickstarter. This project additionally tried to launch through the back door yet another game, a Greek Mythology-themed skirmish game called "Death or Glory". This project had to be canceled when it was nowhere near completion, and created a sense that Spartan were approaching projects and products willy-nilly, assuming that if they put a product out enough people would buy it. Of course I cannot know what the situation really was, but this was how it seemed to an outside observer.

3. Impenetrability
This may be a more personal reason of mine for Spartan's problems, but in my view an issue with their products were that the rules for their flagship games were too complicated. Dystopian Legions I found manageable, but the rules for Dystopian Wars, when I tried to collect it, I found virtually incomprehensible, and their sheer complexity and lack of straightforward organisation put me off collecting the game any further. A simplified rule set did attract my attention, but of course trying to manage yet another set of rules was also Spartan seemingly stretching itself even further.

It's okay that the South won the civil war in this universe because it was fought for different reasons...
(Probably Unfair) Comparison with Mantic Games
It's worth comparing Spartan with Mantic, who appear to have been flourishing in recent years. They have used Kickstarter effectively and have, like Spartan, launched numerous games: Kings of War, Dreadball, Deadzone, Dungeon Saga, Warpath and two licensed games: Mars Attacks and The Walking Dead: All Out War. Another game, Star Saga, is upcoming. So what's the difference?

1. Mantic supports their games if they are ongoing or completes them if they are limited. Kings of War receives regular new releases. Dungeon Saga had all of its expansions released so that the game was completed. Spartan, by contrast, released about half of Dystopian Legions and then gave up, apparently through a combination of insufficient return on their investment and distraction by other projects. It's a different situation as Legions was not Kickstarted, but it shows why there needs to be a clear plan for completing a project when it is begun.

2. Mantic makes straightforward rules. Some might find them a little too simple, but one of Mantic's biggest advantages are that their rules are easy to understand. Learning the rules to Kings of War can be achieved in one or two read-throughs. Learning how to play Dystopian Wars is a project in itself.

3. Mantic provides a clear alternative to Games Workshop. This is how Kings of War started, and this approach has continued to allow the company to fill a niche, in this case for more affordable fantasy and science fiction miniatures and for alternatives to long-dead Games Workshop board games. Projects like Dystopian Legions missed an opportunity to poach similar custom from existing collectors.

4. In their early Kickstarter days, Mantic set humble funding goals. The initial Kings of War Kickstarter had a goal of $5,000 USD. Compare that to Spartan's first Kickstarter, for the modular scenery no one wanted, which asked for a rather unrealistic £80,000. Obviously the circumstances are different, but it shows different levels of awareness of entering the crowdfunding scene.

Now, I realise that Mantic has plenty of its own problems with things like quality control and having issues with deadlines at times, but nonetheless they've managed to take a fairly robust approach. Perhaps this comparison is unfair, but Mantic have been, I would argue, in a position to expand because of the nature of their product. Spartan were not in a position to because of the largely more niche nature of their products, yet tried to anyway.

Conclusion
How could you screw up British Redcoats in pith helmets
fighting Prussians in pickelhauben?
I hope the people who worked for Spartan find their feet, and it'd be nice to imagine the Dystopian and Firestorm intellectual properties falling into the hands of someone who can handle them with a more focused and market-savvy approach. It's also possible that I have no idea what I'm talking about, and everything I said is based on random observation and a dilettante's "gut instinct" perception rather than anything scientific or rigorous. Nonetheless, in the meantime I'd say the fate of Spartan functions best as a warning of the risks associated with the current tabletop market and a reminder for businesspeople who are also hobbyists to not let the hobbyist's passion and tendency towards distraction overwhelm the importance of pragmatism and focus.