Friday, December 28, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

An Unexpected Journey twenty minutes in.
Anyone who knows me knows that I like The Hobbit. It's arguably my favourite novel, and I've been known to assert, facetiously or otherwise, that it is the pinnacle of human literature. The works of J.R.R. Tolkien are one of my lasting passions, one of the few things about which I'm not cynical and derogatory, and I have a great deal of affection for them. Does that mean that I like the film adaptations? No! Of course not; what are they beyond being pale imitations of a source material which cannot be conveyed with any kind of accuracy through anything other than literature? The film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings are visually detailed but thematically shallow renditions of a vastly complex text dumbed down and generalised for an audience which only wants more and more of the same thing. They must be some of the most stupendously overrated films in existence. It was for these reasons that upon learning that Peter Jackson was making a film of The Hobbit I was suitably concerned.
One thing needs to be established first: The Hobbit should have been made before The Lord of the Rings. The plot of The Lord of the Rings ultimately owes too much to The Hobbit for its dramatic integrity to be fully realised alone; instead we get a version of the original turned into a prequel based on the film version of the text which is actually the sequel. This, the need to re-dress The Hobbit as a prequel to the films of The Lord of the Rings, is one of the main issues with the film, as well as its plot being tortured over three films instead of at the most two.
Ian Holm upon learning what happens to his face.
As such the film begins with a long-winded voice over. We appropriately start with Bilbo, but it's the older Bilbo from the time of The Lord of the Rings played by Ian Holm with some extremely distracting CG work on his face to presumably make him look less old. Seriously? We know Ian Holm's old; he can't look that much older than he did back in the late 90s or early 2000s when the earlier films were made, and even if he does, who cares? This is, however, representative of the overuse of a good deal of unnecessary CGI in the film. I suppose they really shot themselves in the foot by casting an old actor to play Bilbo in the earlier films anyway. Remember how Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring muses that Bilbo hasn't aged a day even though he visibly has between the opening monologue and the beginning of the action? Why did they do that? He's meant to have not aged between 50 and 111 anyway, so why bother casting an older actor to play the role rather than just using makeup later when necessary? Again a consequence of not doing The Hobbit first.
An Unexpected Journey forty minutes in.
So old Bilbo delivers this long-winded monologue about the Lonely Mountain and the Dwarves and how it was taken by the dragon, Smaug. I can't stand big abstract monologues for the sake of doing a story dump. It annoys me in the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring and it annoys me here; it's just lazy storytelling designed to sucker people in by giving them some action early rather than delaying our gratification. Dale and Erebor look nice enough even if Erebor's interior is a bit of an excessive CGI extravaganza which stretches disbelief to the limit. I was impressed also by their maintenance of the Thrór-Thráin-Thorin family tree. We're only teased, somewhat effectively I suppose, with hints of the dragon. I'll give a comprehensive account of major changes from the real storyline of the source material at the end but they begin here.
"You are aware that I am not really a wizard?"
Once Bilbo's rather heavy-handedly established the goal of the forthcoming mission we return to Bag End for a conversation between Bilbo and Frodo. While Ian Holm and Elijah Wood seem to have assumed these old identities from a decade ago without difficulty it doesn't really excuse the fact that the whole scene is, really, quite pointless and mostly seems to exist to pad the film out. In my opinion the entire sequence should have been cut and we should have started with our true beginning, young Bilbo smoking outside Bag End and meeting Gandalf. This scene is more or less adapted in a straightforward fashion in terms of dialogue and action from the novel. What a coincidence that it's an example of one of the strongest scenes in the film! Professor Tolkien's own dialogue always sounds better. We follow this with the unexpected party and the introduction of the Dwarves.
Ever since they were first revealed I haven't been able to help but feel that the Dwarves are a little overdesigned and the film didn't change my opinion. I understand perfectly that they wanted to make them distinguishable, but wouldn't the differently-coloured hoods have helped with that? We get the "That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates" song, which is nice, although the general rowdiness and crudity of the Dwarves is a bit of a tired cliché, incidentally one which is at odds with Professor Tolkien's depiction of them as a bunch of stuffy middle-aged men, which I think could have been more interesting. It certainly would have been a more effective contrast to the flashback scenes of battle and war depicting the Dwarves in their wrath. That being said the Dwarves are generally likeable and sympathetic; an especially good job is done with Balin, as well as Fili and Kili despite the fact that they've obviously been done up to keep the girls interested.
An Unexpected Journey sixty minutes in.
One thing I might quibble about is the pronunciation of some of the Dwarves' names. These names are Old Norse in origin and derive from the Dvergatal or Dwarves' List in the Old Norse poem Völuspá. Óin and Glóin's names therefore according to the transcription of Old Norse Icelandic should be pronounced something like "Owin" and "Glowin", but in the film they're pronounced to rhyme with "coin" as if the accented o and the i were a single diphthong in modern English pronunciation. Now the BBC pronounced these names correctly in their radio adaptations of Professor Tolkien's work. It's surprising that, for all their efforts to pronounce Elvish somewhat correctly and so forth such a basic mistake was made in this film. Similarly the names of Thorin's father, Thráin, and his cousin, Dáin, should be pronounced something like "Thraa-in" and "Daa-in", but in this they're pronounced again as diphthongs to rhyme with "stain". It's a disappointing oversimplification, albeit one which ought only to be noticeable to Old Norse scholars.
"This big!"
This leads us to Thorin. In my opinion the characterisation of Thorin and his story arc is one of the film's more serious weaknesses. Thorin is transformed from this rather pompous, self-important and greedy but ultimately good character from the novel into a sort of proto-Aragorn, grim, dark and brooding, who steals focus and attention from Bilbo. The Dwarves seem to dread his arrival; instead of a humorous entrance with Bombur falling on top of him in the front hall he turns up after all the other Dwarves and in comparison to pretty much all of them is strikingly noble. Some of the members of the company, particularly Balin, Dwalin, Óin and Glóin really feel like Dwarves; stocky and solid types, bearded and weathered, and to me they were the ones who most strongly captured the feeling of Professor Tolkien's own characterisation, albeit still rather exaggerated.
"Only how many lines each?"
Thorin by contrast doesn't really feel like a Dwarf at all, much like his nephews Fili and Kili. I almost feel like this image of a "handsome Dwarf" is a contradiction in terms because despite the strength of characterisation they just feel like short Men. There is something of that indefinable "Dwarvishness" which is captured in, say, Balin, which isn't in Thorin, who looks like something out of a magazine and acts like every other boring anti-hero for the last thirty years. Instead of being a character whose outward grouchiness and greed conceals the soft harp-playing smoke-ring-blowing core he's an angsty warrior-king who's constantly chewing out anyone who second-guesses him: Bilbo, Fili and Kili, even Gandalf. It gets a bit boring after a while and just makes Thorin seem like a cookie-cutter anti-hero bad boy from the worn out Hollywood mould. He is of course given something more in his backstory. Now he, not Dáin, fought Azog at the gates of Moria; apparently Azog swore to "wipe out Durin's line", although it's never explained why. It's also never explained who Durin is, actually. Over the course of the first third of the film we receive two major Dwarf flashbacks and it really does seem a bit like too much. This causes us to become more and more distracted from Bilbo.
"Mr Bilbo, where are you off to?"
"I think my career might finally be taking off!"

Speaking of which, let's get back to Bilbo. Martin Freeman does a good job as our titular Hobbit, appearing suitably bewildered and bewuthered as it were. I do feel somewhat that his typical bemused sense of resignation at the absurdity of existence does somewhat grate with the characterisation of Bilbo, however, as a comfortable stay-at-home type having his eyes opened to the outside world. He often feels too world-weary already. He's good enough at seeming painfully middle-class and awkward when applicable as the adventure continues, although some of the times where he's openly hostile to the Dwarves invading his house or openly refuses the "call to adventure" in very strong terms don't always gel especially plausibly with the depiction of him being forced to abandon his reluctant, avoidant, passive-aggressive tendencies and embrace his "Tookish side". This is the problem which occurs when the film starts to deviate too drastically from Professor Tolkien's original narrative for the sake of padding or elaboration; eventually the original story they're following and the embellishments simply don't cooperate.
Speaking of embellishments, once we're finally out of the Shire these come to the fore and the sense of disconnectedness really begins. The first incident is in Balin's (somewhat altered from the source) account of the War of the Dwarves and Orcs and the Battle of Azanulbizar outside the gates of Moria, which I've already mentioned. By this point we're getting relentless amounts of Thorin, and Bilbo's starting to fall by the wayside. Following this we have another deviation to Radagast the Brown.
"The fourth series was definitely going to be the best."
A lot of apologists for this film have made the argument that the padding can't be criticised because it derives from Professor Tolkien's own work, particularly the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings. While this is to an extent true of the Battle of Azanulbizar flashback it's totally untrue of the Radagast the Brown diversion, which is completely spun out of whole cloth. The entire sequence of events with Radagast is another element which should have been completely omitted. Radagast is a typical Sylvester McCoy performance which is employed for some cheap laughs and a bit of side-plot development while giving an unsubtle and inaccurate acknowledgement to fans of the books. He bumbles around, cures a hedgehog, gets bothered by some spiders and goes to Dol Guldur. Later, after the incident with the trolls, he turns up to lead some hunting Orcs on a wild goose chase in a rather bizarre sequence where he seems to drive his rabbit-drawn sled around and around in circles while the Dwarves run on foot to Rivendell. Despite the fact that at some points he seems to be no more than a hundred feet away from the Dwarves the Orcs never seem to notice that their real quarry is right there. This is another sequence which could have been omitted, but it's time to get back to the Trolls.
After many hours of travelling they finally
got to Chapter 2.
The episode with the Trolls was a strong moment in the film; I felt that the Trolls were, with some reservations about the high-pitched squeaky one, well-portrayed and performed. While it was a shame that they changed the way the Trolls were defeated that's again a consequence of the three-film choice. One of the major tipping points of the novel is the stage at which Gandalf leaves Thorin and Company; he can no longer be the one who turns up and saves everybody, and as such Bilbo has to step up to becoming effectively the leader. By torturing the tale out over three films, however, we don't even get that far, so we have to accelerate Bilbo's development a little bit. The part where he distracts the Trolls was a little odd but at least it fit with the general idea of keeping them occupied until the sun came up. One thing I might note is the inherent ridiculousness of this entire episode. The Hobbit is a very episodic novel, and events don't begin to interrelate until late in the plot. The Troll affair is basically a silly incident where three giant cockneys truss up the Dwarves and get tricked into having an argument. While they did a good enough job in the film to use the Troll incident to imply the waxing of Sauron's strength it didn't exactly fit very well with the overall tone. Seeing Richard Armitage, serious as can be, tied up in a sack at the mercy of three big computer generated lads from the East End came across as even more ridiculous than it already is. This film puts itself in a difficult position by trying too hard to reconcile the more childlike tone and story structure of its source with the gravitas of its literary sequel and its own pretensions of legitimacy. It was one of several moments in the film that had me feeling vaguely unsettled. There's too much inconsistency.
Peter Jackson's house.
After the aforementioned chase with Radagast and his bizarre rabbit sled we get to Rivendell. Despite my complaints about the tone up until this point I was finding the film more or less enjoyable, Radagast bits aside. It was during this segment however that I found the film frustrating. Much of the action is taken up with a meeting of the White Council, or Council of the Wise, composed of Saruman, Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond. Galadriel gets a bizarre moment where she seems to rotate on a Lazy Susan concealed beneath her dress. Saruman waffles on about the Dwarves and Gandalf and Galadriel have one of their telepathic conversations. I found this whole scene to be totally long-winded and unnecessary, just a fan-pleasing effort to bring back Galadriel and Saruman and serving little real purpose. The Council appears to oppose the Quest for no good reason and the whole thing is such a general waste of time that Bilbo and the Dwarves head off without even bothering to wait for Gandalf to catch up (I realise this was turned into a plot point, I'm being facetious). We're given some poorly-explained Necromancer side-plot that they could have made infinitely simpler for themselves and drastically improved the pacing and flow of the story if they'd simply followed what Professor Tolkien actually wrote. Radagast, incidentally, disappears with no explanation and isn't seen again.
Who are you again?
What frustrated me about this whole sequence, besides weird things like the Elves being vegetarians and stuff, was that we got to see so little of Bilbo. Besides Elrond reading Thorin's map we don't get to see Bilbo's wonder at the House of the Elves or his sense of discovering an amazing new place and so on. It's all glossed over for boring White Council exposition. I might as well also mention at this point that we're additionally getting cutaways involving these Orcs hunting Thorin. Why are they hunting Thorin? Who knows really. Azog wants to kill Thorin for cutting off his hand I guess. It's just more time wasting that could have been deleted, and more of a distraction from Bilbo. Who's story is this? What's going on?
One of the many harmless escapades
encountered by our heroes.
Anyway we finally get to the Misty Mountains. Can you believe this is only the fourth chapter of the novel? I was surprised at the inclusion of the stone giants, although I found the scene to be faintly ridiculous. The giants have a huge fight in which the Dwarves miraculously survive landslides and geological calamities which seem to recur frequently for the remainder of the film. Bilbo gets caught hanging off a cliff and Thorin gets annoyed at him, after which he tries to sneak off and leave. This seems to echo the "Go home, Sam" debacle which was shoehorned into the film version of The Return of the King (it has no precendent in the novel) and which further muddies Bilbo's characterisation. First Thorin's insulting him in Bag End (with a line Glóin delivers in the novel, incidentally, and gets reprimanded for by Gandalf; no such friendly support here), then he's helping the Dwarves with the Trolls, now Thorin hates him again. It's all over the place and inserted simply to exaggerate the sense of drama. Then it's down to Goblin Town.
"Hello Possums!"
This is the point where I started to feel like the film was really getting bogged down. Bilbo gets separated from the gang so that we can hasten to the Riddles in the Dark sequence, but the rest is just a CGI assault on the eyes where not entirely convincing Goblins ruled over by a motion capture Barry Humphries generally arse about. Gandalf shows up and there's a big chase, not just down a tunnel but with scaffolding and bridges and bizarre Mr Magoo esque moments with swinging beams and more falling down steep slopes. Is this a film or the log flume ride? It'd mostly be fine if it wasn't for the fact that we've already had a crazy chase sequence earlier with the unnecessary Radagast sled silliness, and even still it's a bit over the top. The film is so breathlessly desperate to be spectacular it starts to become tiring, like a drunk guy who gets a big laugh on one joke and so won't stop repeating it even when no one finds it funny anymore. The Great Goblin jumps up onto a bridge at the end like the second stage of a boss fight from a video game and is swiftly dispatched by Gandalf. Lots of this film feels like a game, really - intense chases and bursts of violence punctuated by cutscenes. The pacing is really all over the shop.
"A trilogy? Seriously?"
Where this suffers in particular is the interconnection of this sequence with the Riddles in the Dark. This is one of the strongest points of the film. I'm not a huge fan of Andy Serkis' Gollum; I find him too "cute" and funny despite all his creepiness. I'd prefer it if he was more seemingly ancient and wretched and sinister. I did like the employment of the shining eyes, however. Nonetheless the Riddle game was done well for a sequence which is essentially two people trying to outwit each other; it was conveyed visually with surprising effectiveness, but intercutting it with the Goblin Town events disrupts the pacing and the sense of anxiety and torturous uncertainty. Bilbo may have lost sight of Gandalf and the Dwarves but we haven't, so we lose our sense of his total isolation with this murderous villain. This also badly disrupts his escape from Gollum's cave and discovery of the powers of the One Ring, although the point at which he stops himself from killing Gollum is an effectively realised moment.
"Arr! Set sail for the Lonely Mountain!"
All that remains is the warg attack in the woods. For a start, Azog looks like crap. I thought his CGI body was very unconvincing and that the design used for him was dull. Giving Thorin a nemesis only confuses his motivations anyway. What is also bizarre is when Thorin strides out ready to confront Azog and gets completely owned, requiring Bilbo to save the day. I often didn't understand what they were trying to convey with Thorin; at times they seemed to be presenting him as this troubled but worthy leader, and at others he just looked like an incompetent idiot. There's also the ludicrous fakeout where he appears to be dead and then just blinks and gets up unharmed. His eventual acceptance of Bilbo is fairly heartwarming but it overemphasises the development for Thorin rather than Bilbo, who seems to change his mind about ditching the Quest once again for no particular reason. It's much more effective, I feel, in the original novel when Bilbo repeatedly calls the Dwarves out when they're being selfish and blaming him for their problems and reflects his increasing strength of character which simply isn't something we get here.
Blue Elvish Steel
All in all the film's an adequate adventure yarn but it's simply too long and when it tries to extrapolate the backstory in order to pad things out it unnecessarily mangles it and overcomplicates things. There isn't enough focus on the titular character, Bilbo - too much is given to Thorin and too much screentime is wasted on the White Council - and the general sense of pacing is off, from fight to fight and chase to chase interrupted by awkward exposition dumps which don't even accurately reflect Professor Tolkien's delicate story structure. The mood swings wildly from the facetious and absurd to the melodramatic and while the performances are generally strong they're made to follow unambitious Hollywood templates which make the entire story seem stale and inconsequential. We could have received a refreshing fish-out-of-water type tale of an isolated individual rediscovering himself with a supporting cast of grumbling associates. This could have been layered over a darker backdrop if necessary to hint at what we know to be coming in The Lord of the Rings rather than giving it a fanfare and making us forget about the rest of what's going on. Too much of the film reflects the need to drag things out over three instalments: extra chases and fights, made up and inconsistent characterisation, and badly paced scenes that should simply have been abandoned. Its excessive length and inconsistency are items of disappointing evidence for the dangers of corporate greed. Cut Old Bilbo and Frodo, most of the White Council material, Radagast in his entirety, and Azog, and have the explanation of the Dwarves' backstory slowly revealed over the course of things and you'd have a good adventure fantasy. It could even have still ended as early as it did in the novel's sequence of events and nonetheless been a perfectly fine adaptation with a two hour runtime; it's not like it was split into a trilogy and the first film only goes for eighty minutes or something, it's two and three quarter hours long! If they've got as much material as they claim and were really intent on a trilogy then surely rendering the story as, say, three two-hour films would be easy; couldn't they have cut some of this junk out? As it is it's only an adequate piece of cinema which struggles to decide what its plot and character focus is with some iffy special effects and a rather fatuous representation of the source material. It's primarily worth it for Bilbo; so much else should, like Mr. Baggins' pocket-handkerchiefs, have been left at home.
Me when someone claims the films are accurate to the books.
Story Notes - Some major changes from the Real Story and the Original Text
1. The Arkenstone - This wasn't taken by Thrór as a sign of his "divine right to rule"; that would sit very uneasily with Professor Tolkien's view of the role of providence. The Elves also didn't pay homage to the Dwarves. Incidentally, I don't know what the deal is with Thranduil's weird head tilt. The Elves didn't ditch the Dwarves when the dragon attacked, either; Thranduil's halls in Mirkwood were several days' march away and they had virtually nothing to do with the Dwarves. The actual enmity between the Elves and the Dwarves dated back to the First Age when the Dwarves of Nogrod sacked Doriath in Beleriand, where Thranduil lived, and stole one of the Silmarils; it had nothing to do with Thorin's people, the Dwarves of Durin's House. There was only a general uneasiness and distrust; neither side considered the other to be their enemy. The Elves of Thranduil of course had absolutely nothing to do with the Elves of Rivendell, which makes Thorin's antipathy for the household of Elrond even more inexplicable.
2. The Dwarves - in the novel while they are presented as doughty fighters in the early events they're mostly unarmed and ill-prepared for combat. They're also less distinguishable. Thorin is the leader, Balin is old, Fili and Kili are young, Bombur is fat and Dori is strong, but that's about it.
3. The Battle of Azanulbizar - it wasn't to reclaim Moria. Thrór, crazed after the loss of Erebor, went to Moria with only a servant, Nár, and there was decapitated by Azog the Orc who had taken rulership of the abandoned Dwarf mansions. Thráin and Thorin waged a long war with the Orcs of the Misty Mountains for revenge. In the end they confronted the Orcs at the gates of Moria and Dáin Ironfoot, Thorin's cousin, slew Azog, but the Dwarves could not reclaim their ancestral halls because despite their victory over the Orcs the Balrog of Morgoth still lurked inside, an enemy they had never had the strength to best. Incidentally this entire sequence was reserved for the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings and is only mentioned very much in passing in The Hobbit.
4. Durin - He was one of the first seven (yes, seven) Dwarves, and the original ancestor of Thorin and his family. He established Khazad-dûm (later known as Moria) in the Misty Mountains during the First Age, and many of his successors were so like him in appearance that they too were named Durin. It was Durin VI in the Third Age who was slain by the Balrog; a year later Moria was lost to that demon.
5. Radagast the Brown - Radagast appears exactly once in the entire storyline. During the events of The Fellowship of the Ring Saruman gave him a message that he requested Gandalf's presence at Isengard. Radagast delivered the message and promised to send whatever other news he could via his animal friends. It was because of this that Gwaihir the Windlord, one of the Great Eagles, was able to rescue Gandalf from the pinnacle of Orthanc. Radagast is mentioned but unseen in The Hobbit. That's it. That's everything Radagast does. According to everything published Radagast had absolutely nothing to do with the investigations into Dol Guldur and the Necromancer; these were entirely conducted by Gandalf prior to the events of The Hobbit. There isn't even any evidence that Radagast was a member of the White Council.
6. The chase sequence - The events in which the Dwarves are pursued from the Trolls' cave to Rivendell is entirely an invention of the film. In the novel the Dwarves have a completely peaceful journey from the Trollshaws to Rivendell.
7. The Trolls - in the novel it's Gandalf who keeps the Trolls distracted by impersonating each of them from a safe distance in order to prolong their argument.
8. The White Council - this was indeed composed of Gandalf, Saruman, Galadriel and Elrond, as well as Círdan the Shipwright, who is omitted in this film; he certainly has the smallest role in the text. It's worth noting in this sequence of the film that Saruman argues that Sauron was destroyed. This is inconsistent with the source material because the Wizards (or "Istari" to employ the Elvish term Saruman correctly uses in the film) were deliberately sent to Middle-earth by the Valar to oppose the will of Sauron. The Council knew Sauron was still active in Middle-earth, they simply for a long time didn't know where or what he was up to. Saruman never argued that Sauron had been destroyed; he definitely still considered him a threat. He simply, and falsely, argued that the One Ring had been irrecoverably lost because he desired to find it for himself, and delayed the attack on Dol Guldur in the hope that the Ring would reveal itself if its master was given time to regain his strength. By the time of The Hobbit the Council was already completely aware that Sauron was the lord of Dol Guldur. It's worth noting that when The Hobbit was written Professor Tolkien hadn't even invented Saruman or even Galadriel, whom he later retconned to play a fairly significant background role in The Silmarillion. The Council did not oppose the Quest for Erebor even slightly, and indeed had nothing to do with it whatsoever; Gandalf was really pulling a lot of strings. The Council didn't meet while Thorin and Company were at Rivendell (they didn't even always meet there, they also convened at Caras Galadhon and Isengard) and Gandalf accompanied Bilbo and the Dwarves from Rivendell without obstruction.
9. The Morgul Blade - no such incident ever occurred. The Witch-King of Angmar did indeed destroy the North Kingdom, Arnor, sister-kingdom of Gondor from The Lord of the Rings. This occurred much earlier in the Third Age. However, he was never sealed into a tomb or anything of the sort. The Witch-King of Angmar was the Lord of the Nazgûl, Captain of the Ringwraiths, and had never died. He was given one of the Nine Rings of Men by Sauron during the Second Age and gradually faded until he became a Wraith. He had no tomb because he was undead; his life was indefinitely prolonged by the Ring, even though his body faded away. After Sauron's defeat at the end of the Second Age he went into hiding with his master; later in the Third Age he took control of the evil realm of Angmar in the North and used it to destroy Arnor. Afterwards Angmar was defeated by an army from Gondor and the Elves of Rivendell and the Grey Havens. After this the Lord of the Nazgûl went South and conquered the city of Minas Ithil in Gondor, which became the city of Minas Morgul from which he began harassing Gondor (Arnor no longer being a problem) and preparing Mordor for the return of Sauron. He was never in a tomb, he never had anything personally to do with Dol Guldur or Mirkwood and he didn't die until Éowyn and Merry slew him in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields during the War of the Ring. How could he have a "Morgul Blade" if he was sealed away in tombs, not off ruling over Minas Morgul, the namesake of said blades?
10. Goblin Town - Professor Tolkien uses this segment to give a brief diversion about the technological advances of the Goblins, suggestive of his recurring theme of the dangers of progress for its own sake, especially in the areas of industry and weapons. For some reason the Goblin-Town of the film is a ramshackle cavern full of troglodytes; a disappointing case of point missed for the sake of spectacle in my opinion.
It's also worth mentioning that Bilbo was present with the Dwarves during their encounter with the Great Goblin and was only separated from them and met Gollum later during the escape.
11. Azog - as I mentioned above, by the time of The Hobbit Azog was dead; the rulership of the Orcs of the Mountains had passed to Bolg, his son. There's certainly no plot involving him hunting down Thorin or meetings on Weathertop or anything of the sort. Incidentally Bolg was quite heavily played up in the promotional material for the film and then failed to appear, which suggests to me that his role and Azog's were probably altered rather dramatically quite late in the day.
12. Thráin's Key - Gandalf was given the key and the map by Thráin, Thorin's father, in Dol Guldur while he was there seeking the identity of the tower's ruler. Thráin had been imprisoned there by Sauron who captured him to recover the last of the Seven Rings of the Dwarves. This eventually gave Gandalf the impetus he needed to get the Quest in motion; as the film mentions, it was important to prevent Smaug from being a weapon in Sauron's hands. The film never has Gandalf account for how he acquired the key, and so we are needlessly presented with Radagast investigating Dol Guldur when this could easily and more accurately have occurred through Gandalf.
13. The Necromancer - He was discovered to be Sauron by Gandalf some time before the events of The Hobbit. While Sauron operated under the guise of the "Necromancer of Dol Guldur" he was never perceived as someone who literally raised the dead (which is largely impossible according to the metaphysics of the story). Professor Tolkien rather chose the term for its more general connotations of an "evil sorcerer". In the film Saruman suggests that the Necromancer might be a merely "human" enemy. The term "human" is never used within the stories. The mortals are called Men and the immortals are Elves. Elves and Men (including Hobbits) could both be considered "human". The Necromancer is also accused of using "black magic" by Radagast and the White Council. "Magic" is essentially a meaningless term in Middle-earth; ignorant folk used it to describe those powers and arts employed by Elves, Wizards and the Enemy which were beyond their comprehension. It's certainly not a term members of the Wise would have used among themselves. A very minor point I know, but Galadriel makes an issue of it in the book so why can't I?
An Unexpected Journey two hours and forty-five minutes in.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Battling with Monsters: the non-existence of "Fake Geek Girls" and the human disease

So how did this whole "Fake Geek Girls" business begin? Well basically some jerk in the comics industry posted some rant complaining about how people of the female persuasion were apparently infiltrating geek culture in order to get attention from people of the male persuasion. Apparently the main offenders were girls in costumes of various degrees of skimpiness who were allegedly parading for the attention of drooling male geeks who didn't know any better. Basically there are a lot of assumptions about both men and women floating around here. Then some people who didn't think very much of this accusation at all got wind of it and a lot of remarks were thrown about and all in all there was a general to-do on the internet around this whole idea of the female presence in what I hesitatingly call "geek culture".
Now anyone who's read this blog, who knows me or has ever been anywhere near me when I'm in a conversation with someone who likes stuff such as the modern misinterpretations of Doctor Who, Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes will know that I think geek culture as it currently exists is going down the tubes and needs to be violently destroyed, but that's got nothing to do with women, it's because it's all turning into exploitative mass-market populist trash which diverts original, intelligent concepts towards sentimentality and spectacle. But I digress. My point is that any problems that geek culture has are nothing whatsoever to do with gender or sex, if I may use such a horrendously inappropriate term in its most scientifically clinical and categorical manner. They possibly involve modern media pursuing various demographics in various exploitative ways, but that's arguably a problem with the nature of corporate media and modern creative types being intellectually lazy self-congratulatory nincompoops; and given the roughly equal nature of the gender divide I think it's fair to say that there are probably an equal number of fatuous easily-exploited people on both sides of the reproductive-organ-possessing fence.
What I'm trying to say in my charmingly incompetent way is that "fake geek girls" simply don't exist, or if they do they're such an infinitesimally small minority as to be totally negligible. Not everyone likes everything for the same reasons, of course. You only have to go to a "pop culture convention" as they're so blandly named here in Australia at least for that. Now I'm the kind of incredibly charismatic individual who scours stall bargain bins looking for rare, overpriced action figures out of a kind of self-destructive obsession and dresses up like a complete tit, usually as a famous comic book supervillain of some description. If anyone likes getting attention at cons, it's me. Surprisingly, there are few more satisfying ways to spend the time at these events than being stopped every thirty seconds so someone can take your photograph. But the majority of the time these are families with small children or very enthusiastic devotees of the works the costume represents. It has nothing to do with trying to somehow grab the attention of impressionable people of the opposite sex.
So it is with this idea of "fake geek girls". I cannot for the life of me say with anything even remotely approaching confidence that I've ever met anyone of the female extraction at a convention who was openly or otherwise dressing up in order to attract the attention of the kind of desperate, lonely people that we male convention goers are often presented as being. Believe me that this isn't just due to a dearth of numbers; like men, women are at conventions and being geeky in droves, and many of the people with whom I have spent the most time at these events are of the gynecic disposition. Naturally many of the biggest enthusiasts at conventions, both male and female, are there to meet the actors from shows which are important to them. Personally I'm not hugely interested in meeting actors because I think they're just the puppets and it's the directors and writers who could really answer the big creative questions but are seemingly rarely invited or just uninterested, at least as far as television and cinema are concerned. It tends to be another matter with comic book artists and, to an extent, novellists. But I digress again. The point is, people are there for various reasons: shopping for merchandise, meeting celebrities, socialising with friends, a whole gamut of enjoyable activities. As far as I'm aware "attention seeking" is not one of them.
"Geek girls" certainly do exist, although I think we should more properly say "geeks", or just "people", because the problem of people shoehorning themselves into categories in an effort to conform is a whole other can of worms, but "fake geek girls" do not. Men and women are, by and large, as far as I can tell from personal experience involved in the culture for the same reasons - they enjoy the relevant media. There's been a lot of confusion about what's meant by "geek" in this regard but I'm going to play by the relatively straightforward but surprisingly overlooked definition of anyone who really likes some of the following things: video games, science fiction, fantasy and related genres in the mediums of television, film and literature, and comic books and related cartoons (of both the Eastern and Western variety). I'm sure that's not definitive but in terms of the "pop culture" side of things it's about as good as I think it's going to get. I'm not using "geek" to refer to people with an eclectic taste in music or who slavishly buy every Apple product upon release. You can, but in this context it's totally irrelevant and misleading. But then again the term "geek" is misleading. We're all just people for goodness' sake, it's when we start putting ourselves in boxes that problems occur.
But gender or (gasp) "sex" is one such box that people apparently love to put themselves into with great expedition. To neatly assume one of my many roles as an armchair psychologist, I think it's fair to say that most of this "fake geek girls" paranoia comes from simple bloody-minded territorial anxiety, which has been described elsewhere as a puerile "no girls in the treehouse" attitude. The depiction of geek culture as dominated by lonely, socially maladjusted males is on its last legs in terms of relevance, but is seemingly upheld with a kind of unironic and not fully self-aware pride by some. Sure, many of the males are no doubt just as lonely and socially maladjusted as they've always been, but the point is that they're just one pocket in the trousers of state of the geek nation. Not that I encourage the use of the term "geek nation", that sounds totally self-aggrandising and ridiculous, but I thought it was a nice turn of phrase, albeit one possibly ripped off from somewhere. Regardless, those who resist a female presence in geek culture are definitely on a sinking ship; even if it was a problem, it'd be too late anyway. Geek culture is inhabited by both men and women and that's the way it is.
Getting back to my earlier claim, however, the simple fact of the matter is that these are a small minority of men who feel threatened. These men apparently do exist because they keep putting rants about women on the internet and making people angry, but at the same time they're probably pretty negligible themselves, much like the actual "fake geek girls" would be if they existed at all. At least these men would be negligible if they didn't keep saying stupid things about it online and offending people. Given that I'm a borderline involuntary solipsist who is always kind of surprised to learn that other people still exist when I'm not looking at them however I'm not the best person to ask when it comes to numbers for these misguided male march-wardens of geekery. I do get the impression from time to time however of girls at conventions being bothered by men who resent their costumes or mere presence and interrogate them to see if they're actually as committed to the cause as they themselves are, because to them geekdom is a sort of cross between a cult worshipping a pantheon headed by overrated hacks like Joss Whedon and Steven Moffat and a jingoistic Cold War scenario where indistinguishable faceless entities like DC and Marvel and Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are made to mindlessly fight each other, and that leads me to believe that these men do exist. I've certainly more evidence for that than I've ever found for girls who go to these things for attention.
Because I mean seriously, why would anyone do that? Why would anyone derive value from that kind of attention? Firstly it'd involve far too much effort, and secondly it's just insane. The attention of male geeks, who stereotypically perceive women as objects of tremulous worship at (arguable) best and as some kind of alien species to be destroyed with precision laser fire at worst has surely got to be on a pretty low rung on the attention ladder. But even putting aside for the moment how stupidly this perceives women's intentions, it's pretty damn ignorant about most men as well. I'm not saying that men don't exist who fulfil this stereotype to a greater or lesser extent but stereotypes are by their nature exaggerated: there are plenty of men who are, relatively speaking, fairly balanced, and aren't sitting around at conventions like combed-over businessmen in a 1930s cartoon cabaret trying desperately to conceal their bulging erections with their fedoras and vases of flowers placed on those convenient side-tables everyone had back then and so on.
But even if it wasn't regarded as the utter nadir of desperation, or perpetuating utterly ludicrous stereotypes about both women and men, the very idea that anyone would bother is just nonsense. People have far more complex reasons for dressing up and attending conventions, like their curiously obsessive relationships with popular culture, escapist world-resentment and desire to assume fictional identities, than anything so basic as attention. I think sometimes said women receive a lot of attention, generally quite unwanted, from tiresome men who do get a pervy kick out of that sort of thing, many of whom are actually far less "geeky" (if such a thing can be measured) than the women, but it's far from the intention of these women, it's reasonable to say that in our enlightened modern age women shouldn't have to "expect" it or accept it as the price for doing what men do with impunity, and I can say with weary conviction that I've encountered far more men who perceive conventions as some kind of hunting ground for scantily-clad girls than I have girls who go for attention, which is to say more than zero. I mean for all I know complete strangers regard me running around like an idiot dressed as Magneto in my foam helmet and spandex with toe-curling lust but at least they have the decency to keep it to themselves.

This fury expressed towards women, however, that these men aren't keeping to themselves might lie in a projection of repressed sexual guilt deriving from traditional patriarchal gender roles, but I couldn't be bothered getting into that right now. Basically if men are so annoyed at these alleged female attention seekers, which is to say they're annoyed at themselves for finding women in general attractive (and not because they're geeks or because of their costumes but simply because that's what I'm afraid to say does happen from time to time between men and women), then they have no one else to blame but themselves either. I mean, you see gentlemen of athletic build at these things often lacking in the shirt department and women don't seem to be up in arms about "fake geek guys" seeking attention. This is a dilemma the patriarchy has created for itself through a tradition of trying to get men to be heartless steel monsters. When they realise that they find people attractive, when they realise that they feel anything, they panic. Anyway, where was I?

So of course the problem lies with those men who are threatened by women invading their culture, because by feeling like an "Other" in the eyes of mainstream society all their lives they've formed a kind of solidarity around that and feel like women represent the outside world pulling down the fences of the playpen. And of course the fences are coming down, but women aren't doing it, they're certainly not doing it with some kind of agenda, and of course many of them have been right there in the pen for the whole time with the men, doing the same things but apparently going unnoticed. Maybe more "conventionally normal" people are present, if I may use the term, than there used to be, and the female element of that has made the female presence in general more noticeable, but that would be a complete guess on my part. Of course female geeks will be slow to emerge when they're constantly under male scrutiny and male gaze. Really, it's just fear of the exclusive club being "open to the public" and the associated threats to the identity of those who are voicing this stupefying argument.
I'm the kind of person who at the end of the day believes that gender politics is a big load of arbitrary rubbish we're indoctrinated to accept as natural by a fundamentally psychologically disturbed society with disorders so ingrained they're no longer noticed, and no more than anywhere is that obvious than when I see these kinds of issues. As far as I'm aware it's supportable that, on a psychological level, men and women are inherently more similar than they are different, and that in the final analysis we're humans before we're male or female. Many of our problems arise from our overwhelming desire to categorise ourselves because of our desperate need for a sense of identity and a feeling of belonging. We want to be put into sets because it seems like we're less alone in a vast, empty and meaningless universe and that there is some purpose to our short and uneventful lives. Categories make it seem more like there is an order, a system, a plan. But we are a conflicted creature, and so our categories must be "defended" because if they collapse we'll be forced to gaze unshielded into the abyss. That's the fear that lies at the heart of this absurd, privileged problem, reeking of contemporary entitlement, which has recently raised itself through this culture as one head of the Hydra of gender issues.
There are a few other points to mention. One is the inclusion in this "fake geek girls" nonsense of so-called "booth babes", ie girls who for promotional purposes dress up in outfits of various levels of appeal to advertise a product. What the hell does that have to do with these imaginary attention-seeking convention attending ladies? These are just women doing a job. Do some of them probably not give a damn about the Sinestro Corps Oath or how many models of the Enterprise there have been? Quite possibly, but they're not there to get attention, they're there to do their job and they're advertising for a business, not seeking some egocentric satisfaction. Beyond the obvious and lamentable cultural exploitation of the female image inherent to that they're quite irrelevant. But the confusion of this concept with that of imaginary females infiltrating geek culture for attention powerfully emphasises that these "fake geek girls" simply don't exist and that it's just a handful of men who desperately want something to get angry about. If they do exist they must be lurking in some secluded place which would significantly obstruct all that attention seeking they're meant to be getting up to, because I've never seen them.
Of course I've read the response also that this kind of exclusionary policy on the part of this handful of frustrated men is wrong because being a geek is about sharing your passions with other people who share said passions. It's not. Part of this whole problem lies in assuming that just because you and I like the same stuff that somehow that means our personalities are compatible as well. Sure, I might meet someone who is a die-hard Tolkien enthusiast who can name all of the High Kings of the Noldor in order or give an account of the metaphysics of Ring-lore in regards to Morgoth's lingering presence in Arda as corroborated by the Professor's most final account of the matter but that doesn't mean we're going to be friends. If being a geek was all about sharing and was inherently a social experience then presumably there wouldn't be these confrontational men who quite possibly project their feelings of entitlement onto women in geek culture because they feel that this corroboration of hobbies should spontaneously give rise to friendship or, worse still, romance. In this regard it's not just about the existential dread which derives from the categories being broken down but frustration with the disappointments of the socialisation of the geek experience. If we perceive and portray geek culture as a community a priori then we're inevitably going to be let down when we discover that geeks can be just as hostile, unwelcoming and unfriendly as anyone else, because we may be geeks, or men, or women, but at the end of the day as I've said we're all humans and I'm not sure if you're aware of this but humans are jerks. We may have reached the evolutionary stagnation point by having achieved the intelligence to be better at staying alive than other animals as well as causing other animals to not be alive any more and to be served up deliciously, but that doesn't mean we're perfect, or even especially good. I could recommend that someone who enjoys Batman films read a selection of notable comics featuring the Caped Crusader, but unless they're already my friend and have asked for my advice I'm unlikely to bother. Who cares if they read it or not? In this amateur's view it's not common interests but compatible personalities which are the basis for successful human relationships of all kinds.
I don't wish this to turn into some kind of misanthropic diatribe but we can't assume that "sharing" means that everything's going to be happy and wonderful between everyone, or that people are going to love or even like each other based on such trivial commonalities, because that's an extremely reckless assumption. If the psychoanalysis is accurate, which for all I know it isn't, the frustrations of this angry minority is born of exactly this kind of thinking. If we take the hypothesis that one of the reasons these men are so upset is because, secretly, they're resentful that they cannot possess these attractive women entering their circle, then we must be wary of the sociality of geekdom, because this kind of immaturity does exist, like the whole spectrum of both positive and negative behaviours. I'm not saying that there shouldn't be communities, but rather that representing geekdom in its totality as some kind of automatic friendship pass is only going to bring about problems because people aren't collectively all that naturally compatible. Being human is, by the mixing of our emotional and rational natures, all about dealing in compromises, and it's when we try to force absolutes that things go wrong. As long as humans are human that's the way things will be.
What it all comes down to in my opinion is that, really, identity is overrated, or at least a collective identity. When people reach the point where the mere presence of the opposite sex in their subculture leads to them hurling baseless accusations of fakery and attention-seeking all we see are scared people who don't want to face the hard facts of existence. It's these people who need to realise that their categories don't matter or mean anything, and are not nearly so important as to be under attack from an imagined enemy which could only ever be the product of a delusion. I'm not saying we should all just sit around thinking about entropy and death, just to maintain a little perspective, and to remember that really it's not culture, or gender, or any other little box like religion or politics which makes people "bad" or "good", but rather that one big box we're all stumbling around in - being human.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


When is Bond not Bond? People might reference such instalments as my guilty pleasure Diamonds Are Forever along with The Man With The Golden Gun, Moonraker, and Die Another Day as the worst examples of Bond films, through weak actors or contrived plots or what have you. Skyfall however takes the cake by being absolutely mind-numbingly tedious.
Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were all about rebooting Bond; taking him back to his roots, examining what made him who he is and getting to grips with the psychology and emotional world of a British Secret Agent with a license to kill. Casino Royale was undoubtedly far more successful than Quantum of Solace in that regard but at least they were doing something. Skyfall seems hell-bent on returning 007 to his traditional place as Britain's all-purpose troubleshooter, assuming the trouble literally needs to be shot. Spoilers beware, but we're introduced to a new Moneypenny, a new M and a new Q to fill out Bond's traditional supporting cast. The only thing missing is a villain with a big laser threatening to take over the world.
But Skyfall is assuredly lacking in big lasers or world-high stakes. This is fair enough of course; everyone knows massive stakes lose their impact through tireless repetition. This is about one man's vendetta, and not against Bond or the world but rather against M, who is given a drastically expanded role and relevance to the main plot. Villain du jour is Raoul Silva, a former MI6 computer hacker with a grudge. It's kind of like Goldeneye if Boris was the main villain rather than Trevelyan, which I hope suggests something about the quality and tone of the film.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. The core of the film is Bond's "resurrection". We've seen the character reborn in Daniel Craig's first two outings; now the Bond of days gone by is being brought back to life. Bond is accidentally shot by Moneypenny in the film's opening action sequence and must undergo a metaphysical restoration to life when MI6 and M need his help. We're consistently beaten over the head with how crap Bond is: he can't shoot straight, he's not as strong as he once was, he's getting old and worn out. Over the course of the film Bond, and by extension the audience, must re-learn Bond's power. The fiftieth anniversary instalment asks us the question "Is Bond still relevant?" and tries very enthusiastically to reassure us that "Yes, he is!"
The problem with this postmodern introspection is one fundamental question: who cares? The idea of whether or not Bond is still "relevant" is surely by its very nature absurd. James Bond is a superhero, a larger-than-life character. He's part of a made up division of a British intelligence service so mythologised as to be practically surreal. Bond has always been about escapism: outrageously exotic locations, impossibly beautiful women, amazing technological wizardry. At the end of the day he's never been about reality, even at the height of the Cold War or the War on Terror, certainly not in his cinematic guise. The matter of Bond being "relevant" is nonsense: by his nature he's always been relevant or never been relevant, and in this case it's the same thing.
This is the dilemma which lies at the heart of Skyfall; like enormous swathes of current popular culture, it's mostly just pretentious self-referential posturing which achieves nothing beyond the massaging of its own ego. Making an introspective Bond film is the worst kind of grandeur delusion, acting like the Bond franchise is some kind of high drama rather than a culture phenomenon about a man who jets around the world seducing women and shooting people in the name of Britain.
As I've said, the main plot is about M and this fellow who claims to have been betrayed by her, Silva. Silva's a fairly lacklustre Bond villain in my view; not everyone has to be a foil to 007 or a maniacal supervillain but he's just a camp Spanish man with an inexplicable ability to stay slightly ahead of Bond in crowded corridors. He of course has the arbitrary deformity, a false jaw disguising lost teeth and a saggy face, but beyond that he's rather unimpressive. We're made to see him as very threatening of course: he blows up MI6, he escapes from MI6, and he has his own island in a deserted industrial town which reeks of the limbo landscape from Inception. He achieves all this through computer mastery, the details of which are as usual glossed over to grip us with the dangers of the Information Age, but of course the final confrontation with him ends up being a bunch of guys shooting each other, some big explosions, and a helicopter. 007 should have beat him to death with a PC monitor or something.
The first half of the film feels like incredibly by-the-numbers Bond. We start off with a car and train chase in Istanbul, then it's back to London, then Shanghai, Macau and the desert island. Now if this was Roger Moore he'd probably end up chasing Silva around the island while one of the apartment buildings slid open to reveal a spaceship or a giant laser or something but no, Silva gets captured by MI6 and it's back to London again. At this point the film starts to get weird. It's worth noting that the first half also features the only thing approaching a Bond girl, Silva's arbitrary squeeze Severine, who gets killed before Silva's capture. Bond notes from a tattoo on her arm that she must have been in the sex trade in her past, but he still rather awkwardly seduces her in the shower, which I felt was a decidedly dodgy treatment of sexual abuse. Anyway, she gets offed, no more Bond girl, which feels like a major absence in terms of bringing all this old-fashioned Bond business back into the case.
The second half of the film is a big run-around the UK, first with Silva attacking M at a hearing in Westminster. I naturally assumed this would be the climax: terror strikes in the heart of London! M is vindicated, we're not as safe as we think! etc. But no, Silva escapes and the film proceeds to go for about forty minutes longer than necessary as Bond takes M into hiding at his family estate, "Skyfall", in Scotland.
What follows is the most bizarre Bond action sequence ever conceived, as Bond, his old gamekeeper and M rig up the house with a series of "hilarious" Home Alone style traps like the old shrapnel in the light fittings routine or the time-honoured shotgun shell floorboard trick. Where the hell did this wisecracking old gamekeeper guy come from? What the hell film am I watching? We're revisiting Bond's childhood but really receive no major revelations; he blows up the house, somehow survives an extended wrestle with a terrorist in a frozen pond, and knifes Silva in the back, but not before M is fatally wounded. So passes M.
It's potentially interesting to have a plot so centred around M. It's potentially interesting to visit Bond's ancestral home. It's potentially interesting to have an ignominious final battle with the villain. But does it work here? Not in my view. This last section of the film felt ridiculously tacked-on and unnecessary for Bond's resurrection. I was gritting my teeth in agony as the film repeatedly failed to end at suitable moments, and it was this last Skyfall section which ruined the experience for me and turned my opinion of it from a serviceable but ultimately forgettable Bond encounter to one I genuinely disliked.
The one good part of the film is Ralph Fiennes' presence as Gareth Mallory who, spoilers beware, is set up as the new M. We're introduced to Mallory as a stuffy bureaucrat who, over the course of the film, reveals himself as increasingly competent, capable and supportive, and whose character progression is far more believable than the sight of Craig's craggy, stone-hearted Bond shedding obligatory Hollywood tears over M's body. The whole problem with Skyfall is that it's too damn long for its unimaginative set pieces and self-gratification, making the whole process utterly tedious. The first half is adequate, if unspectacular and rather lacking in impact in terms of its direction, but the second is simply tiresome and far too evocative of other, inferior action and spy films of which Bond was traditionally the unreachable idol. The majority of the dialogue is thin and equally shallow, with characters regularly stating the obvious or delivering lines as if they're ripe with gravitas when they simply aren't. Numerous jokes fall utterly flat and Silva's characterisation relies excessively on him expounding predictable lectures about his betrayal and M's failure which could be found in the mouths of any modern cinema villain.
Bond floats through the first half of the film in particular through improbable locales like an uninhabited Shanghai skyscraper and a Macau casino with inexplicably vicious and improbably large Komodo dragons in a dreamlike reverie all the way up to the surreally deserted island. If this is meant to reinforce Bond's relevance it spectacularly fails to do so, making the franchise's tropes seem artificial and arbitrary. The second half is, by contrast, a bizarrely grey run-around which simply doesn't feel like Bond at all. The series should of course try new things but they at least have to be interesting, and this isn't. It feels like halves of two films jammed together, one Bond and the other a montage of cheap British spy-fi television, all squeezed through a filter of weak Christopher Nolan imitation, producing less of a whole rather than a more complete product. I ultimately found it deeply unsatisfying, largely because of how utterly boring and long-winded it became to little purpose. This was, in my view, not the film to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bond in cinema, no matter how many machine-gun Aston Martins are thrown in.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Assassin's Creed

My ambiguous relationship with mainstream gaming is not a hidden fact. It's been an increasing opinion of mine for some time that as it becomes mainstream-oriented, geek culture as a whole is becoming more dominated by hype and sentiment at the expense of quality. It's for that reason primarily that I have heretofore largely avoided Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed franchise. There was something about the regular sequels and equally regular mass marketing campaigns that screamed "excessive hype". I could see it being one of those things people probably got more excited about than was reasonable because they didn't know any better. That's not entirely fair, because the games have never met with the kind of over-the-top review scores and ridiculous praise some franchises receive, but they have certainly been a consistent output which reeks of greedy market saturation. However I saw the recently released Assassin's Creed III in action recently and thought to myself that maybe I ought to give the series a proper go, having already attempted but lost interest in Assassin's Creed II. I felt I needed to start from the beginning, so I braved hell and high water quite literally to make it to the shops to get Assassin's Creed, the original game from 2007.
At the end of the day I can say this with confidence: Assassin's Creed is okay. My expectations were fairly low and they were probably exceeded by a tiny margin. The first game's strength lies in its control scheme and environments. Its main weak points are, in my opinion, its learning curve and approach to difficulty. Many reviews I've seen beforehand bemoan the first game's alleged repetition, but as such I was expecting it and never really felt frustrated by it; that's just the benefit of hindsight.
In Assassin's Creed you play primarily as Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, a member of the secretive order of Assassins, in the medieval Holy Land at the time of the Third Crusade in 1191. The framing device for this historical folderol is that Altaïr's distant descendant, Desmond Miles, is being forced by a sinister corporation to relive the memories of his assassinating ancestor through a device called the Animus in 2012, which was at the time of the game's release the near future. This establishes that throughout history two secretive organisations, the Assassins and the Templars, have been vying for the fate of the world. Over the course of the game Altaïr is directed against numerous Crusade-era targets, both Christian and Muslim, to discover that the Templars are seeking mysterious ancient artifacts to achieve world peace through mass mind control. The Templars' modern-day equivalents are now using Desmond's ancestral memories to recover the location of said artifacts.
Now you'd be excused for thinking that this plot could easily be found in the pages of a best selling trash paperback by someone like Clive Cussler or Dan Brown, and admittedly it's not the most compellingly original narrative ever devised. It's all too tempting, I feel, for us to wish to attribute some romantic connectedness to the repeated atrocities of history in an effort to contrive any sense of meaning to the horror or to romanticise or glamorise them in order to dull their edge. I feel that this in some ways potentially detracts from some of the themes of the game, which does struggle rather heavy-handedly but nonetheless deliberately to make an argument about the balance of free will and order, but it would be hard to make a game of it otherwise. Altaïr is a startlingly dextrous killer with an extremely stylised outfit and the general air of cruising around the Holy Land knifing nasties does seem to detract somewhat from the serious airs the game tries to put on.
Nonetheless it is in Altaïr's cruising that the game succeeds. Travelling through the game's three major cities of Damascus, Acre and Jerusalem is a free-flowing and smooth experience which never really feels like a chore. Altaïr can walk, stroll, run or sprint depending on the circumstances, and in sprint mode can smoothly ascend buildings, jump gaps and generally clamber about like a white-robed monkey with a big knife. The free-running is easily the best part of the game, where making smooth traverses across the rooftops of a detailed city feels natural and rewarding. Each city is divided into three major districts, each district unlocked when its resident assassination target is assigned. The cities feel fairly believably large and realistically designed and ascending high vantage points atop towers and major public buildings to better "synchronize" Desmond's experiences with those of Altaïr give a satisfying sense of scale and grandeur which is echoed on arrival to the cities themselves, especially Jerusalem. This is held back somewhat by the amusingly small "Kingdom" overworld linking the major cities which is about a kilometre square when the real cities are all over one hundred kilometres apart. The Kingdom serves very little purpose and doesn't even need to be traversed once you've visited the city you intend to travel to at least once so I'm not sure why they bothered with it; it certainly reduces the sense of scale. Given that you spend most of your time in the cities themselves and that they do feel realistically sized for the time period (even though I imagine they're probably not) I really think it's an element which could have been left out.
One major issue with the cities is the sound. Ambient noises are used to signpost sidequests and liven up the locations, but there are very few voice clips and the same speeches and dialogues are repeated endlessly. It's not helped by the fact that Damascus and Jerusalem, being both Saracen-controlled, use the same voices; at least the Crusader-controlled Acre mixes things up a bit. After a while I found hearing some Saracen chap crying "Praise be Saladin!" every five minutes to be rather wearisome. Similarly once you've heard a nasty guard accusing someone of being a "Dirty thief" the first time, that's all you're going to hear for the rest of the game. It's a little mind boggling that a game which had so much effort put into the physical details of its setting had relatively little done in terms of audio. The single voice of the numerous Acre beggar women is particularly excruciating.
With that in mind we should move onto the stealth mechanics. For a game about being an assassin, the stealth isn't great. The awareness of guards is indicated by a flashing light in the corner of the screen, which changes colour from white to yellow to red depending on how alert the guards are to your presence. If guards become fully alerted to you, either because you committed a violent act near them, lingered in a restricted area or otherwise drew attention to yourself in an unfavourable way, the light goes red until you move out of their line of sight. Then you must hide yourself pronto to completely shake them off. This is fine early in the game, but as it progresses there are more guards, especially on rooftops, and they're more wary of a white-robed killer in their midst as their bosses tip them off that someone might be coming. At times the red light will start blinking and you can't tell who's onto you. At other times you have to pace along incredibly slowly to avoid drawing attention to yourself even in the regular city environs, which makes street travelling tedious and frustrating, especially during timed missions in which you must assassinate a series of targets in plain sight before a handful of minutes run out. At other times a drunk will push you into somebody or you'll simply cause a passer-by to drop their luggage, at which points it's drawn swords all around and Altaïr fleeing for the nearest roof garden or bale of hay. The guards are weirdly relentless too; Altaïr's meant to be a trained killer with the balance and poise of a gymnast, but for some reason all the guards are just as good as him at scaling huge edifices, swinging from narrow beams, performing precision jumps and, most bizarrely of all, surviving two and three storey drops to pursue you from the rooftops back to the streets. I would expect them to be competent swordsmen but their inexplicable acrobatic talent detracts from Altaïr's own presence and often makes losing pursuers stupidly difficult. As such it becomes more and more important to simply not attract attention.
This is why I have an issue with the game's learning curve. In order to increase the game's challenge as it progresses, you're not so much confronted with more difficult stealth opportunities or more precise kills; you're simply restricted in what you're allowed to do. While you do regain equipment and abilities as Altaïr recovers his rankings in the Assassin organisation, it feels as if the game simply takes away your freedoms and reduces what you can do rather than genuinely increasing the level to which anything is tested beyond your patience. There is no greater skill or finesse at avoiding detection in later parts of the game, just more situations where you're forced to hold down the button that makes Altaïr walk more slowly. Again, it doesn't test your skill, just your patience, boredom threshold and attention span.
My other major frustration in this regard is to how the game teaches you its combat. The combat system is, essentially, fine. You have several different weapons with different speeds and levels of damage and surviving and succeeding in combat is a matter of successful blocking and well-timed counters and grab breaks, as you might expect such swordplay to be. However beyond some arbitrary and overly simple training exercises you run through each time you're given a new combat skill, the game doesn't force the player sufficiently to hone these skills in real battles. In virtually all circumstances for the majority of the game, combat can be largely avoided. You drop in, stab your target with the hidden retracting blade on your wrist, scarper from the guards and hide until the heat's off. Your only other major opportunities for combat are if you deliberately antagonise guards or in the random acts of philanthropy you can perform around the city where you rescue citizens from bullying soldiers. These rescue missions are almost always entirely optional, however, and give little reward beyond assistance with escaping or hiding should you be chased in future, and are generally relatively straightforward, so there's really very little apparent necessity for you to practice your swordplay.
This gets turned on its head frustratingly late in the game when you begin being forced to take on large groups of heavily armed opponents single-handed; you can't run or stealth kill a specific target, only grind your way through masses of knights, and if you haven't mastered the counter attacks, which I myself had no reason to before then, you'll find yourself being killed over and over. I had to learn how to fight during the fights which should have been testing everything I'd learned to that point. The counters are tiresomely difficult to time correctly; while it's possible, using the hidden blade, to perform one-hit-kill counters, these are never taught at any point in the game, and for me at least it became a teeth-grinding process of trial, error and muscle memory until I was able to bludgeon my way through the unending ranks of Crusaders who were out for my blood.
This particularly rankled in one of the game's final confrontations in which Richard the Lionheart pits you against your prime target, Robert de Sable, arguing that whoever wins a fight to the death is surely favoured by God and must be telling the truth about what's going on. "Fair enough," I thought, "It's fitting for the period for me to have a duel to the death with de Sable with the ring of honour proving who is vindicated." But no, apparently this trial before God meant de Sable got to send ten heavily armed Templar knights at me, all of whom I had to fight entirely on my own before facing de Sable himself, while Richard happily stood there like a complete plum as if this was entirely fair and reasonable - he is presented as if, compared to the other nutters in the game, he's one of the sane and wise leaders. Similarly, in an earlier confrontation where I had to kill de Sable's decoy, I couldn't, as I had every other time, drop in and knife my target. No, I had to stand there like an absolute lemon during a cutscene before the decoy and a huge gang of knights with archer support all charged at me swords drawn. The game at no point ever trains you to take on these kinds of numbers, yet you're expected to have figured it out. It really is needlessly punishing. So those are my two main issues with the gameplay: the very forced and arbitrary way the game tries to increase the stealth difficulty and the complete lack of progressive, organic training for the combat. The practice area back at the Assassin fortress is far too simplistic and easy to give you a realistic impression of how to perform these skills in the field.
In terms of repetition it's true to say that the preamble before the main assassinations does become predictable after a while. These are times when the game's story, despite being a little unimpressive, sacrifices the gameplay. Sitting on a bench while two stooges talk about party decorations at your next target's big do or swiping some compromising correspondence from a courier's pouch are unchallenging tasks which feel like little more than padding. That being said, some of the Informer missions do change things as the game progresses, with more targets to be eliminated and narrower time limits. Nonetheless I must admit that it's not great; the main problem is that the interrogation, eavesdropping and pickpocket missions give you nothing to practice which is useful during the more harrowing parts of the game. While hunting down targets for an informer do somewhat test your stealth skills, such as they are with the game's rather limited stealth mechanics, there are no mandatory missions which require you to improve your combat, which would have really helped. Similarly these sections are compounded in difficulty by the presence of beggars and various troublemakers - drunks, madmen and the like - who target you and only you for harassment, getting in your way or shoving you about, which reduces rather than enhances the sense of realism. The drunks should be bothering everybody; it could be more interesting trying to avoid sprawling civilians getting into brawls rather than being unrealistically picked out for irritation every time. The madmen wander the streets in ridiculously high numbers. The beggars are just implausible; I think desperately poor women would pick softer-looking targets for their pleading than heavily-armed, stony-faced stalkers. It's really just a forced way of making the stealth more frustrating, and it's really these kinds of very artificial enhancements to difficulty which spoil the later parts of the game.
In the end Assassin's Creed is mostly worth it for the free-running, which really is very enjoyable, and the animations and scenarios can make it very satisfying to leap from roof to roof, shimmy down a fresco, jab some unsuspecting Templar lieutenant in the vitals and then scurry away again before the guards know you from a passing ghost. The graphics are pretty nice for a game from 2007 and it feels reasonably natural. The voice acting isn't stellar and neither are the weird dreamlike cutscenes which occur every time you perform an assassination, in which Altaïr gets to have a long and cryptic dialogue with the person whose throat he just perforated, but the presentation generally gets by. The game played pretty smoothly on the Xbox 360 and apart from some frustrations with the lack of precision on the D-pad picking weapons it runs well on that system. I don't think it's the kind of game I would want to play on PC. It's pretty cheap these days so it's worth getting if you need to kill some time, and even though some of the gameplay elements are a bit cheap and the story's a little pretentious it's still an enjoyable experience.

Monday, October 8, 2012

"Mogworld" by Yahtzee Croshaw

A couple of years ago Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation fame made the step into writing with the publication of his first novel, Mogworld. It's not the first novel he's ever written - you can see some early unpublished works on the old version of his website - but it's the first one he's had published and the first one since he became a celebrity outside the amateur adventure game community. With his second novel, Jam, on the way, I thought I'd re-read Mogworld and offer some thoughts.
Mogworld plays it safe. Yahtzee knows his readers are going to be geeks who watch Zero Punctuation, so he's written a novel which is both a fantasy and a satire on video games. Anyone who has read any particularly generic fantasy literature or played an online game like World of Warcraft will get many of Yahtzee's points straight away. With that in mind it's worth considering that Mogworld is possibly too safe. It tries to make a point about the genres which dominate what I might hesitantly call "geek culture" without being too alienating to a non-geek audience - if you've never played an online rpg or read fantasy before you probably still won't have too much trouble - and so a lot of what he writes about comes across as a little thin or underdeveloped. The main instances of this are that the plot takes a very, very long time to reach what is really quite a rushed conclusion, and the fact that the characterisation is limited and the setting is painted in strokes so broad that it doesn't necessarily grasp the imagination.
This causes the plot to in many ways feel very artificial and even dreamlike as basic characters float past vague backdrops through a series of improbable coincidences strung together in a rather predictable way. The protagonist is Jim, a recently-resurrected undead mage who believes that he was on the verge of a great spiritual revelation immediately following his death, and who is thus seeking to end his unnatural longevity. This ambition is frustrated by the Deleters, mysterious angelic beings who insistently return him to his body. What was given away from the off in promotional material about Mogworld and thus spoiled a good deal of the dramatic irony and surprise is that Jim's whole world is a completely procedurally-generated MMORPG whose history has been simulated to ensure a realistic setting for the video game. Having reached the level of development they sought, the game's developers have now halted death so that the game's NPCs and the player characters, who are all existing individuals in this computer-generated world, can continue in perpetuity. Jim is accompanied in his quest by Meryl, an airheaded undead girl, Thaddeus, an undead straw fundamentalist priest, and Slippery John, a thief who constantly refers to himself in the third person for unexplained reasons.
If you've read early Discworld or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy you've encountered Mogworld's style of humour already - punning English words turned into foreign-sounding names, incompetent characters constantly getting into trouble and the juxtaposition of the fantastic with the mundane. The necromancer who resurrects Jim and his companions, for instance, is an evil dark lord who lives in a "Doom Fortress" (one of Yahtzee's favourite phrases, I've noticed) who also happens to provide excellent job opportunities and is referred to like a well-loved executive in a corporation. The equally dangerous Baron Civious' wife talks like a cooing English matron. Melodramatic fantasy behaviour is always lampshaded or immediately undermined by something prosaic or stereotypically lower-class. The world is also built as an intentionally generic swords-and-sorcery environment in the vein of, say, Dungeons and Dragons or Conan the Barbarian. This would be enough if it hadn't been done a million times before; as it is it just feels like it's retreading ground already totalled by Terry Pratchett's first few Discworld novels and to me at least seemed stale and unambitious. The funniest moments in Mogworld derive from the characters, especially the game developers, and their interactions, not from crafting a deliberately silly universe. Jim is, similarly, a typical cowarldy, sneering, unlikeable comic-fantasy protagonist in the style of Rincewind from Discworld or perhaps Rimmer from Red Dwarf whose personal tragedy is constantly weighed against his misanthropy and arrogance. Indeed much of the characterisation of the core group, as well as the programmers, the villain Barry and his benefactor, the egotistical game developer Simon, fall rather heavily into the Red Dwarf or Blackadder zone of a group constrained for whatever reason to only interact with each other, which is effective for television but can't necessarily carry the narrative of a novel. It might explain why so much of the plot is a string of bizarre episodes and encounters.
Yahtzee, to his credit, uses Mogworld to explore some interesting ideas about the value of life and the possible dangers of immortality, as well as, perhaps most effectively, questioning what constitutes self-awareness and consciousness. These ideas, however, are not necessarily borne out as well as they could be. Jim, for instance, only discovers at the very end of the book that his world was created for entertainment, and the ramifications of this particular scenario are given little attention. The novel could possibly have done without its epilogue, which offers up a conclusion which seems to not follow through on all the possibilities of the plot of sentient game characters and the consequences for their existence. Yahtzee flits in and out of examing an idea about a hero vs a protagonist which seems to distract him at the end, and I think this is the main issue with Mogworld: it's trying very hard to say something but seems undecided about what it wants to say and therefore all of its arguments end up not being fully realised. It's not helped by, as I've stated, the underdeveloped setting and the routine quality of some of the humour. In addition, at the risk of coming across as a bit of a snob, Yahtzee's vocabulary is a little unspectacular and probably could use fleshing out; there were times when the heavy reuse of certain words made some of his writing fall flat.
Mogworld's definitely a decent enough novel carried by some interesting ideas and a patter of humour which is rarely laugh-out-loud but compelling enough. Its main issues are the meandering narrative and its somewhat scattergun approach to ideas. I have a great deal of respect for Yahtzee creatively and it's interesting to read a novel by him, but as I say it feels like a safe first publication relying heavily on references to and conceits from other works, and I'm hoping that in the upcoming Jam Yahtzee will take the opportunity to expand his potential to something hopefully a bit more audacious.