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TOM FRANCIS
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Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.

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By me. Uses Adaptive Images by Matt Wilcox.

Heat Signature’s Launch, And First Player Legend

A Leftfield Solution To An XCOM Disaster

Rewarding Creative Play Styles In Hitman

Postcards From Far Cry Primal

Solving XCOM’s Snowball Problem

Kill Zone And Bladestorm

An Idea For More Flexible Indie Game Awards

Teaching Heat Signature’s Ship Generator To Think In Sectors

What Works And Why: Multiple Routes In Deus Ex

Natural Numbers In Game Design

Naming Drugs Honestly In Big Pharma

Writing vs Programming

Let Me Show You How To Make A Game

New Heat Signature Video: Galaxies, Suction And Wrench-Throwing

What Works And Why: Nonlinear Storytelling In Her Story

My Idea For An ‘Unconventional Weapon’ Game

From Gunpoint To Heat Signature: A Narrative Journey

The Cost Of Simplifying Conversations In Videogames

What Works And Why: Invisible Inc

Our Super Game Jam Episode Is Out

What Works And Why: Sauron’s Army

Showing Heat Signature At Fantastic Arcade And EGX

What I’m Working On And What I’ve Done

The Formula For An Episode Of Murder, She Wrote

Heat Signature Needs An Artist And A Composer

Improving Heat Signature’s Randomly Generated Ships, Inside And Out

Gunpoint Patch: New Engine, Steam Workshop, And More

Distance: A Visual Short Story For The Space Cowboy Game Jam

Raising An Army Of Flying Dogs In The Magic Circle

Floating Point Is Out! And Free! On Steam! Watch A Trailer!

Drawing With Gravity In Floating Point

What’s Your Fault?

The Randomised Tactical Elegance Of Hoplite

Here I Am Being Interviewed By Steve Gaynor For Tone Control

Heat Signature: A Game About Sneaking Aboard Randomly Generated Spaceships

The Grappling Hook Game, Dev Log 6: The Accomplice

A Story Of Heroism In Alien Swarm

One Desperate Battle In FTL

To Hell And Back In Spelunky

Games Vs Story 2

Gunpoint Development Breakdown

Five Things I Learned About Game Criticism In Nine Years At PC Gamer

My Short Story For The Second Machine Of Death Collection

Not Being An Asshole In An Argument

Playing Skyrim With Nothing But Illusion

How Mainstream Games Butchered Themselves, And Why It’s My Fault

A Short Script For An Animated 60s Heist Movie

The Magical Logic Of Dark Messiah’s Boot

Arguing On The Internet

Shopstorm, A Spelunky Story

Why Are Stealth Games Cool?

E3’s Violence Overload, Versus Gaming’s Usual Violence Overload

The Suspicious Developments manifesto

GDC Talk: How To Explain Your Game To An Asshole

Listening To Your Sound Effects For Gunpoint

Understanding Your Brain

What Makes Games Good

A Story Of Plane Seats And Class

Deckard: Blade Runner, Moron

Avoiding Suspicion At The US Embassy

An Idea For A Better Open World Game

A Different Way To Level Up

How I Would Have Ended BioShock

My Script For A Team Fortress 2 Short About The Spy

Team Fortress 2 Unlockable Weapon Ideas

Don’t Make Me Play Football Manager

EVE’s Assassins And The Kill That Shocked A Galaxy

My Galactic Civilizations 2 War Diary

I Played Through Episode Two Holding A Goddamn Gnome

My Short Story For The Machine Of Death Collection

Blood Money And Sex

A Woman’s Life In Search Queries

First Night, Second Life

SWAT 4: The Movie Script

Film Catch-Up

In Bruges

Despite being an English word in front of a Belgian placename, the title manages to make this sound like ponderous French arthouse cinema. Really, they should have called it: In Fockin Bruges? Wit You? Continued

The Most Needlessly Complex Terror Plots In Film History

“Oldman kidnaps the most closely guarded man on the planet in order to negotiate the release of a dictator who’s being held by … Russia. That’s right, he’s threatening to kill the President of the United States to scare a country that just spent the better part of a century glaring across the Bering Strait and muttering ‘motherfucker’ under its breath.”

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There Will Be Country For Old Men In Real Life, Baby

I’ve already seen more great films this year than in the entirety of last year, but 2008 can’t really take the credit – pretty much all of them came out in 2007 in the US. The films I expected to love turned out to be merely good, and the films I had little hope of enjoying, I loved. I’m at the stage now where I don’t think anyone can agree with me even on just these seven films, let alone my increasingly bizarre viewing history.

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There Will Be Blood: I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed this. People who haven’t seen it keep asking me what it’s like. What’s it like? It’s a masterpiece. It’s an extraordinary piece of cinema, a phenomenal performance, a work of art. Did I like it? No, not really.

I’m just not that interested in cinema, or performances, or art. I was gripped all the way through, and as critics have said, what’s exciting about it is that you have no idea where it’s going. But by the end – which is macabre, surreal, comic, and utterly sick – I just thought “Oh. Nowhere, then.”

no-country-for-old-men

No Country For Old Men: This I did enjoy, a lot, but I still choke on my popcorn whenever someone calls it the Coens’ best. Are we talking about the same Coens? The Fargo, Lebowski, Fink, O Brother, Hudsucker Coens? Maybe there are other Coens.

Again, it’s extraordinarily cinematic and artistically beautiful in a whole set of ways I don’t care about. What I did love about its direction was the fetishistic attention to detail: the sweeping black scuff-marks on the police station floor from the cop thrashing as he choked, the burn-splatters around close-range gunshot-wounds when they’re stripped bare for treatment, the way one character’s fate is only communicated to us by whether or not another checks the soles of his shoes.

It’s also probably the most excruciatingly tense thriller I’ve ever seen – there are long scenes where you know precisely what will happen, but not precisely when, and I felt like I lost years of my heart-healthy life to each.

What I liked most about it was that it felt like how a thriller premise would play out in the real world: the major plot events are determined by brutal, random chance that doesn’t bias the hero or villain, and when a character dies, it’s not always a poetic defeat at the hands of his nemesis.

But unlike most of its fans, I didn’t think the ending was profound or interesting. I get it. I got it a while back. I got it from the title of the movie. I didn’t need the credits to roll on some absurd symbolic chin-stroking introspection to tell me what the point of the film was.

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Gone Baby Gone: This absolutely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the above two, but rarely is. It’s a noir private-detective thriller starring Casey Affleck, who is a dramatically better actor than Ben in both sense of the word; and directed by Ben, who is a dramatically better director than actor, again in both senses.

It revolves around a missing child, and the length and breadth of dilemma they mine from that scenario is alarming. It culminates in a decision so tough that you’re left with no idea who you’re rooting for, even as it tears all the good guys apart. That’s the hardest part of noir to achieve: true moral ambiguity, a situation so sticky it’s no longer clear who’s doing the right thing. Gone has a resolution of sorts, but it’s so hard won that it feels sobering rather than victorious.

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Charlie Wilson’s War: Very much liked this, but given that it was written by Aaron Sorkin and prominently featured Seymour Hoffman, I’d expected to love it. Hoffman is superb – a whole film about his character rather than Hanks’ would have been magnificent. I just didn’t care all that much about Wilson’s private life, or Roberts’ character’s subplot, and those took up a lot of the running time.

knocked-up

Knocked Up: This is the only one I did see last year, twice in fact. It’s the funniest I’ve seen in ages, and emotionally honest with it. The premise is cheap – “Ha ha what if an ugly guy got you pregnant? Lol.” – but then the film never flinches from the awkward, unhappy consequences of that.

It pays for that poster by having to tackle a really hard question: what do you do if it’s not working out but there’s a kid? And it doesn’t dodge it by having them magically turn out to be soulmates or by killing off the baby (you laugh, but it’s been done). It actually gives an answer, comes out and says “This unhappy compromise is slightly less unhappy than the other unhappy compromises.”

Also, lol. Jack and Jill – the network executives who alternately congratulate and neurotically demean Katherine Heigl’s character – are worth the ticket price alone. And the weird, slight-too-friendly relationship between Seth Rogen’s character and Paul Rudd’s – the only real soul-mates of the film – just gets funnier and funnier. There’s also a lot of good relationship philosophy, meditations on chairs, a fantastic performance from a kid, and the seriousness of Steve Martin vehicles. In fact, quotes:

“Marriage is like a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond, only it doesn’t last 22 minutes. It lasts forever.”

“Oh, Matthew Fox? The Lost guy? You know what’s interesting about him?”
“What?”
“NOTHING.”

“Where do babies come from?”
“Where do you think they come from?”
“Well. I think a stork, he umm, he drops it down and then, and then, a hole goes in your body and there’s blood everywhere, coming out of your head and then you push your belly button and then your butt falls off and then you hold your butt and you have to dig and you find the little baby.”
“That’s exactly right.”

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Dan In Real Life: I don’t even know why I saw this, the best I’d heard was that it wasn’t as bad as it might seem. That’s true; it’s wonderful.

It’s so damn hard to make me care about a character, let alone root for them, but Dan (Steve Carrell) treads a tightrope between pathetic victim and jerk that just about keeps him clear of either – a rare feat.

Each time it builds excruciating emotional tension, it doesn’t so much diffuse it with humour as release it in a controlled explosion. I’m sure most of the things I laughed weren’t funny at all, the script just has an uncanny knack for poking me in the ribs when I’m most vulnerable.

Like Knocked Up, it takes a really tricky mess of plot points and doesn’t shy away from picking a line of best-fit through them, but its unflinching acceptance of the consequences of that doesn’t hold up all the way to the end. There’s just one, brief, tired old trope for resolving a love triangle that they roll out towards the end to keep everyone happy, and it does marr the otherwise impressive awkwardness of the whole ordeal.

bee-movie

Bee Movie: What the hell? Why did everyone tell me this sucked? I caught this on a plane, because one person of five had told me it was ‘okay’. It was great! I laughed ten times more than I did during Ratatouille, none of the characters were anything like as annoying, and it was actually rather original. There’s a bit where Jerry Seinfeld bee flies repeatedly into the same pane of glass about ten times before stopping, looking at it for the first time and muttering, “Oh that is just diabolical.”

enchanted

Enchanted: I really thought I would loathe this, and I didn’t. It’s about a Disney princess who comes to life, so you can imagine what else was on the plane that I ended up watching it. But it’s sort of almost halfway charming. All I’d seen before was a clip of that awful “That’s How You Know” song on the Oscars, which Once rightly pounded into the dust and snatched the award from. But when that number actually came around in the film, with the slightly absurd way it starts, and the reggae buskers – I tried not to smile and was unsuccessful.

Things I Forgot To Talk About Round-Up

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“Ahh, paradox resolved. Someone get a mop.”

Futurama: Bender’s Big Score: if you’ve seen Score and felt that it’s a little heavy on the fan-service – hi. I’m one of those fans it was servicing, and it did it very well. I didn’t need that much Leeloo, and the songs were needless and clumsy, but other than that it was joyous.

I’m the sort of fan who gets an enormous kick out of the new theme tune, the triumph of bureaucracy, the explanation for how Gore lost the election, the obsessive retconning of the pilot episode’s pivotal moment, the cyclic timeline mathematics and the titular payoff at the very end. Speaking of the theme tune, have you heard the 1967 original? It’s surprisingly awesome.

 

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“Are you free?”
“You have no idea.”

Dexter Season Finale: the only thing wrong with this season of Dexter (apart from the unaccountable soap-opera interlude that was Rita’s mother) is a certain character lapsing into a hideous crazy-stalker stereotype. But the finale got so much mileage out of the mess this created that I can almost forgive it. The scene with three people and a large black bag was almost unbearable to watch. More spoilerific discussion should probably go in the original comments thread.

But yes, fantastic. The leadup to this over the last handful of episodes is the best Dexter has ever been, and Dexter is itself near-perfect television.

 

“Let’s see if the best bed in Kaer Morhen can hold us!”

The Witcher: broken sexist porno that’s coming up in a lot of game-of-the-year lists, and got huge review scores everywhere but with us. You play a badly scarred grey-haired old man in leather trousers, to whom a procession of identically-shaped redheads surrender themselves sexually after three lines of astonishingly bad dialogue. Post-deed, you are awarded an achievement souvenir card showing the girl naked, just in case you didn’t already feel like a pathetic mysognist.

Somehow it’s even more wretched than the despicable Leisure Suit Larry games – the last of which revolved around date rape. The fact that Larry’s love interests even needed to be date-raped before they’d sleep with the idiot hero automatically makes them stronger characters than the Witcher’s.

It’s not that I can’t imagine what people see in the Witcher – I haven’t played it through, maybe it gets amazing after four hours of insufferable dross. I’m just appalled at what they can ignore. The huge script cutbacks before release have been achieved by simply deleting swathes of lines, so conversations are riddled with bizarre, glaring holes that not just make for abysmal fiction, but in many cases render events truly incomprehensible.

 

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“Laurent ran guns for the resistance.”
“Which resistance?”
“He won’t say – apparently they didn’t win.”

Ratatouille: I hate to be down on such a sweet film, but I’m so tired of that nervous kid cliché and the angry boss who’s supposed to be funny because he’s short. Brad Bird has uncharacteristically little to add to those grating, ancient stereotypes, and the central conceit is just surreal.

The premise is a rat who can cook, and a kitchen boy who cannot, but the film has no workable idea for how the two can collaborate. It ends up inventing a physiological mechanic so utterly nonsensical that it’s downright creepy to watch.

The rat and dough physics modelling is fantastic, and it made me laugh perhaps twice, but it’s so far from the spark of The Incredibles.

 

“I’m looking for some alien toilet to park my bricks, who’s first?”

Duke Nukem Forever Trailer: after ten years of development, the first movie of the incarnation that’s actually likely to be released has come out. It features no dialogue until, at the end, protagonist Nukem stands up and says, essentially, “I want to shit on you.”

I am at a loss.

Gollum Beat Box Like You Never Seen

Selected verses from “The Lords of the Rhymes“, Quickbeam, Bombadil, et al.

Yo my name is Gimli and I’m a fucking dwarf
I been slaying motherfuckers from the South to the North
That ain’t Mirkwood I’m chopping with my battle-axe
I’m on an orc stampede like Shadowfax

Now all you Boffins and Bolgers, Bracegirdles and Proudfeet
I’m the skinny hobbit with all the phat beats
My name is Merry and I’m five feet tall
I used to fuck shit up at Brandybuck Hall

Yo, I’m harder than a Mithril coat
A hundred is the number of the orcs I smote
I battled Helm’s Deep and I took Minas Tirith
If you don’t watch out, I will make your ass disappeareth

The Order of the Phoenix

Right, that’s it. If Transformers isn’t any good on Sunday, I’m giving up on fun-but-dumb films altogether – I no longer enjoy them. I didn’t like the latest Pirates of the Carribean, I hated Die Hard 4, and last night even Harry Potter left me cold. My brain just doesn’t have enough to do during these, which is really saying something given that I enjoyed Gerry, a film where the memorable quotes page on IMDB constitutes the entire script, and the only two characters have the same name.

gerry

So I either think about other things entirely (is this seating arrangement socially optimal? Almost, I decided), or pick holes. That CGI object isn’t correctly synced with the actor’s hand. The next line is going to be “Something to fight for.” Emma Watson can only act during even-numbered minutes of the odd-numbered Harry Potter films.

When I read the same story in book form, I cared about everything. And really, it’s a story that suits cinema better than literature in a lot of ways – the fizz and crackle of wizardly battling comes across very poorly in text. But this director’s concept of being faithful to the book seems to be checking all the subplot boxes, which is impossible to do well in under six hours. So the three most affecting elements of Phoenix are all glossed over with almost comic brevity. Those being:

  • Delores Umbridge’s torture: I thought the actress here was great at portraying her syrupy strain of institutionalised evil, but the real potency of the character comes from the horror of what she makes Harry do. He has to claw her words in his own flesh over and over and over again every night, writing in blood over his scar tissue before it can heal. It’s the repetition that’s galling – that’s why it’s such a wonderfully fiendish play on the familiar punishment of ‘doing lines’ – but in the film we see him do it once. Misses the point, dissolves the horror, defangs Delores.


     
  • Neville Longbottom becoming more than comic relief: after mocking his idiocy for four whole books, Rowling adds a streak of genuine tragedy to Neville, and a sad little stirring of redemption. It’s an easy pluck of your heartstrings, but a resounding one. Here’s how this story is told in the film:

    (Neville Longbottom is standing in front a wall looking at a newspaper clipping that shows a photo of his parents. Harry joins him)
    Neville: Hi Harry my parents were killed by Bellatrix LeStrange after she tortured them for information I’m proud to be their son but worried that I won’t live up to their good name thanks bye.

    Fin

     
  • Harry’s increasingly conflicted relationship with Snape: the entertaining thing about Snape as a villain is that he isn’t one, he’s just an extremely unpleasant good guy. Or so Dumbledore insists, and since he’s virtually God in the Harry Potter universe, we tend to trust his word over even Harry’s judgement.

    In Phoenix, Snape is the only one able to teach Harry to defend his mind from Voldemort’s invasive telepathy, an arrangement they both resent enormously. But also a great device not only to force Harry to see Snape as a good guy, but to let both of them find out the truth about each other.

    By repeatedly invading Harry’s thoughts, Snape quietly has to face that most of his conspiracy theories about Harry have been wrong. But when Harry inadvertantly gets into Snape’s mind, he has to face that more or less every disparaging thing Snape has said about Harry’s father is true, and a lot worse besides. This is a huge deal, a genuinely quite brave twist, and the most devastating thing that’s happened to Harry so far. His only reason for enduring the increasingly horrible things life puts him through is this dream of living up to the example of his parents, and avenging them.

    We do get the moment of discovery itself in the film, inside Snape’s mind, but it’s topped and tailed: it happens almost immediately after the lessons are started, so we get nothing of the way Harry and Snape’s relationship has changed, which is probably the most interesting thing in the book. And we get nothing of the aftermath, which is easily the most important thing in the book.

It feels like they think fans are more interested in seeing every subplot paid lip-service than in any of them being done justice. I could be entirely happy with a film of Phoenix that left out all three of my favourite things about the book, if it just did anything else well. If it just had some downtime, some of the day-to-day stuff that lets you get to like the characters before they get knocked around, I’d care.

The fun of Harry Potter is never the plots, it’s getting to live in their world for a bit. It’s enduring the Dursley’s long enough at the start of each book to be relieved and excited to get back to Hogwarts and his friends. It’s butter-beer in Hogsmeade, non-plot-critical Quidditch. This ruthless, workmanlike cramming the films are so hellbent on is wrecking the magic.

Visually it’s marvelous; another adoring tribute to the universe that matches my imagination beautifully. The effects guys really do care about doing everything justice, and they’ve got the creative juice to manage it all and more. That just makes it more irritating that they’re still using directors who waste it incompetently, when in Alfonso Cuaron they’ve already found the guy who can give the rest of film the character its effects already have.

This Month In Terrible, Part 2: London Olympics Logo

ologo

It’s depressing to think that in my life, I will never write anything as funny as this logo. What the hell is it? The first thing I thought when I saw it, once I’d dried my eyes, was “What does the R stand for?” If the oblique angles that make up 95% of this image are supposed to represent the digits of 2012, what’s this:

ologo2

It’s so typically British to have the only bit we could be proud of – that it’s in England – written in all-lower case seventies sci-fi script on the underside of something that might once have been a two.

Also hilariously dismal and quintessentially British is the ad they made to capture the spirit of these Olympic Games. It shows shining examples of the heights of excellence that the British spirit can achieve: a woman who’s managed to slim down to a mere fourteen stone, a disabled boy who can now ride horse without falling off more than three times, and a mother who, when she really tries, can cycle almost as fast as an OAP-buggy. It ends by speculating that she might one day be good enough to hand a bottle of water to a real cyclist. To sleep, perchance to dream.

Not The Finale Post

I have so many season finales to watch now, it’s like the end of the world. The only one I’ve seen so far is Heroes, which I will refrain from commenting on here until I’ve thought of a better way to deal with the spoilers problem.

This is why this is not the post about season finales. Instead, it is about these things:

Pirates of the Caribbean 3: Dead Man’s World Of End-Sparrow. In one of those things that didn’t really happen to me much when I worked in a warehouse building skateboards, I was taken to a preview screening of this on Wednesday in a stretch limo with free champagne, which I did my level best to pour on the editor of Disney Girl magazine. It is, I thought, ‘okay’. I would stretch to ‘quite good’ if this was the first one, but it lacks so much of the fun of the second that I find it hard to recommend. Particularly since everyone hated the second.

The first one was the zombie pirates one, and was good because it was breezier and funnier than you expected. The second was the fish pirates one and was great for its absurdly long, wildly overdone, bloody-minded physics-driven set pieces on gorgeous tropical islands. The third is about a big book of rules and some crabs that look like rocks.

None of them make a whole lot of sense, and I don’t recall what actually happened, plot-wise, in any of them (at the start of 3, everyone is alive and roaming around, so I assume nothing of import happened in the last two). But the third one doesn’t use its license to be absurd to do anything very fun. All the spectacular bits are just ship battles, which we’ve seen in some depth before.

pirates

I actually love ship battles, but they can’t hold my attention for long in dumb films. The reason they’re exciting is that they’re so physical – you can see the cannonballs, you can see which bits of the ships they smash, the damage is all evident and so the outcome is believable. In dumb films, such as this one, captains are idiots and the hero’s ship wins because it’s made of magic.

At one point a billion-strong armada retreat from two enemy ships, because they destroyed the flagship (because, for no reason, the captain couldn’t decide whether to fire or not). John, who loved it, argues that this is normal film logic, but the whole setup for the scene is “They can take this guy, but what do they do about the billion ships?” It’s hard to enjoy a dumb film about naval combat, politics and trickery if you’ve ever seen Hornblower, which was eight non-dumb films about naval combat, politics and trickery, with characters it is possible – nay, easy – to like.

Aside: Geoffrey Rush is still such a watchable pirate. While Depp’s drunken eyebrow-work on Sparrow gets tiresome, Rush can still just say “Arr” or a sentence of the form “X be Y”, and I am immediately happy.

Score: okay.

GC2DarkAvatar 2007-05-15 23-59-18-48

The reaction to my Galactic Civilizations 2 War Diary: which has been surreal. This is a ten-thousand word account of a single match of an expansion pack to a little-known turn-based strategy game with poor graphics, and no-one seems to mind. It’s not the hits or links that it got, surprising as they were, but the extraordinary comments. I just read someone saying- well, I’ll quote: “My brother and I would read the blog, then get together to discuss what he was doing right, what he was doing wrong, and what he needed to do to win.” This makes me feel amazing.

I like very much that I work on a magazine where I’m allowed to give stupid ideas like this a try. I did most of it at home or after work, but only because I love writing this kind of stuff so much. I had some New Years Objectives this year, one of which was to write something that got the same kind of reaction as my report on the Eve Online assassins – which has always frustrated me by being better-received than almost everything I’ve written since. This got a different kind of reaction altogether.

Comments at PC Gamer
Comments at Joystiq
Comments at the GalCiv site
Comments at Kotaku

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Facebook: it’s like social networking, except that I like it. I’m on everything – MySpace, LiveJournal, Blogger, Twitter, WordPress, Technorati, Tumblr, Flickr, Last.fm – but Facebook is the only one that seems really smartly designed in terms of how it connects you to people. It’s good at knowing what you’ll find interesting about what your friends are up to (almost anything), so the main news feed you get from it is incredibly fast-flowing and rich in interesting goings-on.

Now I have to watch TV.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

I saw Spiderman 3 yesterday, so here’s my review of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It – unlike Spiderman 3 – is fantastic.

It’s the 1978 remake I’m talking about, with Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy and a very young and very excellent Jeff Goldblum. It is a strange concept to me that a movie released before I was born could be a modernisation of something even older (were eyes even invented before then? Mine weren’t), but from what little I know of the original, it doesn’t seem like a remake the way they do them today. It’s darker, truer to its premise and closer to the original novel than the first film version, almost a de-Hollywoodisation by comparison.

Oh, I should probably explain why I’m suddenly talking about an incredibly well-known 1978 classic sci-fi film. Er, it was on TV last night. And I hadn’t seen it before, and thought I should, even though I rarely like old films, and I even less often like old films that are considered classics. Classic seems to mean ‘no longer any good’. I have some classic cheese in my fridge.

But I was amazed by this, and more importantly horrified by it – I think more so than at the Ring films. The cultural touchstone it spawned was about this idea of everyone going about business as usual, but somehow not being themselves, lacking emotion. That’s not very scary. It doesn’t get scary until so many humans have been replaced by ‘pod people’ that the humans are trying to blend in with the pod people rather than vice versa.

People have to pretend to be people pretending to be people. The film is never explicit about how many have changed, partly because the ambiguity is part of the menace, but there is a distinct turning point. Because from that point on, whenever a pod person discovers a human in public, they point at them and scream.

It feeds on two potent psychological tricks that don’t get used enough: firstly, that there’s nothing more horrifying than something that’s absolutely horrified of you. And secondly, the scariest images are also the most absurd – and potentially comic.

I came across an incredibly spoilerific screenshot from the film while digging out the image above (which is not spoilerific – it never happens in the film), which captures the most brilliant, horrible and chilling moment, but just looks hilarious out of context. It’s hard to imagine a more modern film daring to do something so easy to mock, but Body Snatchers leads up to it gradually and creepily, so that when you’re actually watching it (alone, or with people who can shut the hell up), it’s terrifying.

There’s also an extraordinary scene where pod people hatch all around Donald Sutherland as he sleeps in a deckchair outside, all born adult but malformed, and they’re oddly convincing. They make odd noises as they hatch, but not the bland sci-fi squelching almost every other film involving aliens succumbs to. It’s remarkable what a difference that makes – these things were done with puppets thirty years ago, and they’re creepier than any CGI I’ve seen.

Then there’s the dog thing. I have no earthly idea what the dog thing is all about. The film is otherwise very consistent, and even corrects some nonsenses of the original. Then there’s a dog thing, and it’s sudden and unexplained and utterly horrible, but again, probably just funny out of context. I would think if you have seen the film, it would have been a long time ago, so I’d be intrigued to know if anyone remembers the dog thing.

Primer

I use Amazon.co.uk’s DVD rental-by-post thing, which is one where you can keep the DVD as long as you like while you’re subscribed. This is good because they can’t have Primer back yet. After watching it, I spent forty minutes reading Wikipedia’s superb dissection of the film’s nine distinct timelines, featuring eleven iterations of the two main characters and a flow chart, then I watched it again with the director’s commentary on. Then I watched it again. Craig raises the objection that something ought to be comprehensible to the human mind on first viewing, and it’s true that this is not. I have a certain amount of time for enjoyably dumb films, but to me this is what entertainment should be: something beyond you, not pandering to you, something that both needs and deserves to be explored and understood.

It’s written by, directed by, produced by, scored by, edited by, partly filmed by and stars a former engineer who’d never written, directed, produced, scored, edited, partly filmed or acted in a film before, for $7,000, with a crew of six and only one trained actor. Its creator’s mum and dad supplied the food. And after watching it, you have to wonder why anyone needs more than that to make a film that doesn’t call for any particular special effects, because none of it really shows. It’s set in real locations which are free and appropriate, mostly with available light which makes it look realistic, and most of the people are people rather than actors, which makes them more convincing because actors don’t act like people anyway. It took two-hundred and fifty-six people and five million dollars to make Memento, a similarly stark and intricate film, and I’m not sure why.

It helps that Primer is about a couple of hi-tech engineers who run a tiny electronics business from their garages on top of their day jobs. In case the thing about timelines earlier didn’t give it away, it’s about time-travel. But it’s unique among time-travel movies in being almost entirely convincing, in about three ways:

1. If time-travel is ever discovered, it will be discovered like this. In Primer it’s a side-effect of a tweaked version of an existing type of machine, and they almost don’t notice it does it. It’s only by chance that one of them stumbles across the fact that the Weeble whose weight they’ve been successfully reducing has accumulated six years’ worth of mildew in its brief time inside. A long and quite slow-moving chunk of the film leads up to this in a very natural way, and the cautious excitement of intelligent nerds making something work is so well-invoked that I found myself quite thrilled when just they got this high-temperature superconductor to work at all, let alone travel through time.

2. This actually makes sense. It effortlessly explains all three usual objections to time-travel scenarios: a) Why haven’t we seen travellers from the future already? The furthest these machines can take you back is to the moment you switched them on. b) Why don’t you appear in empty space when you come out in your destination time, given that your starting point was elsewhere on the Earth’s orbit? You stay physically within these machines as you travel back in time, and you do travel back in time rather than teleport to a specific earlier point: you live backwards in the box while the rest of the world lives forwards. And c) Whatever you do in the past will already have been done in the past, removing the reason for you to have gone back in the first-place. Here, changing the past changes the past of the timeline you’re now in, which is no longer the same as the one you came from. It’s still useful because you can live in this new one, and your self here is planning on getting in a time-travel box which will remove him from it.

3. It’s not glamourous. They don’t whoop and jump around the room when it works. There’s no montage where they win the lottery and get drunk. It’s a hard, weird process to go back: you have to spend as much time as you want to travel inside an argon-flooded coffin, and there are side-effects. These guys try it for six hours a day, make measured profits on the stock market, and carefully isolate themselves from their contemporary dupes.

The plot itself is focussed exclusively on the use of these devices and the relationship between the friends who invented them. There are wives, children, friends and an outside character who plays an enormously important role later on, but none of them get more than a minute of screentime, and we never even find out why the outside character does what he does – simply because the two friends themselves don’t either. That level of focus is essential to detail the incredibly dense web of events that unfold over just a few days of traditional time, and probably only a week or so from the perspective of the most time-travelled character (whose identity would be a huge spoiler at this point).

25th Hour

I inflicted both Die Hard 2 and Legends Of The Fall on myself this weekend, both abysmal wastes of time. I would like to suggest that Die Hard 2 is to Die Hard what The Phantom Menace is to The Empire Strikes Back. I would further put it to you that most of the relentless misfortunes of the imbecilic characters in Legends Of The Fall might have been averted if there had been more than one woman in the film’s universe. I was forced to watch both because I was too tired to move once they had started, and the remote was way over there.

But! Bank holiday weekend films can end on a high note! 25th Hour, 10pm, on BBC Two. Profoundly worth watching, primarily for the hilarious DEA agent duo. But also because of Ed Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman and The Other Guy as horrifically mismatched friends. It’s mildly well-known for Ed Norton’s character’s reflection’s racist rant about New Yorkers, which is riveting in the same way as a car accident.

I have to stop writing now, or the film will actually start before I post this, and the one person who would otherwise have seen this between now and it being too late would not in fact see it at all, and it would be too late.

Edit: That DEA Agent search in full:


AGENT BRZOWSKI
This sofa is not very comfortable.

AGENT CUNNINGHAM
Maybe it’s your posture. Posture’s very important.

AGENT BRZOWSKI
No, it’s this Castro convertible. It’s very uncomfortable. It’s kinda… kinda lumpy.

MONTY
Get it over with.

AGENT BRZOWSKI
I just don’t understand. It looks like such a nice sofa. How much did you pay for this sofa, Ms Riviera?

Maybe it’s the padding.

AGENT CUNNINGHAM
Ho yeah, could be the padding.

AGENT BRZOWSKI
Probably the padding. Yeah, there’s something lumpy in here, Mr. Brogan.

Sheeeeeeeit.
You know, it’s a good thing I found this? It’ll make your sofa much more comfortable to sit on.

Serenity

The following piece is bristling with devastating spoilers, so only continue if you’ve already seen it or don’t intend to.

Opera is rubbish. Space opera is only mildly better. No-one turns out to be anyone’s father in Serenity; royalty are not involved. There isn’t even a struggle between good and evil, and it has characters instead of charicatures. That, vaguely, is why it’s better than Star Wars.

I’m sorry, I love sci-fi, I happily endure the trashy bits and the awful acting, and lightsabers are awesome; but ultimately, I like things that are actually good. I prefer to genuinely enjoy something than keep my tongue in my cheek. Specifically, it was when I was crying, laughing and biting my fist at the same time that I decided Serenity is better than everything else.

The crying bit was the only one that owed itself partially to the preceding series – no-one could watch the film and not like Wash by that point, but for Firefly fans he’s an old friend, and his loss is absolutely wrenching; all the more so for being completely unexpected (sorry, people who ignore spoiler warnings). Usually when a character dies on-screen I’m praying we’re not going to be insulted by some flimsy device to bring them back or pretend it didn’t happen – revealing it to be a cheap trick to toy with an emotional involvement it never earned in the first place. This was the first time I was hoping for one of those, however dumb – it was the first time I’ve cared more about the character than the film itself.

Probably the most audacious part of Wash’s death isn’t the permanent loss of by far the best character, it’s that you’re laughing when it happens. If the surprise death in LA Confidential is jarringly sudden, it pales in comparison to this. Wash dies mid-gag – a good gag at that – and immediately after doing something brilliant. It’s cruel, but it’s not callous or cynical writing – it’s an acknowledgement that main characters don’t automatically get fifteen seconds of extra life after fatal incidents, that they don’t always go out sacrificing themselves, that the timing isn’t predictable. Violent death is quick and horrible.

There’s barely a minute’s grace before the jokes start again. It ought to feel incongruous, but then the humour was never flippant to begin with – most of the jokes revolve around the fact that they’re all going to die almost immediately. It was always a diversionary device for the characters with the funniest lines, so it’s never more appropriate than in the wake of a tragedy. As ever, it’s Wash’s inherent reasonableness and Jayne’s nihilistically pragmatic approach to machoism that compete for the most laughs, and you have to wonder again why no other sci-fi is anything like this funny.

The tension – the fist-biting bit of my emotional cocktail – is partly down to the stepping up of the scale of the story. Firefly was always about a bunch of fugitives trying to stay off the radar and make money; Serenity is the first time their story has spilled over into something affecting the whole universe. The personal scale of Firefly’s plots was part of its charm, but Serenity proves that a plot which connects that to the truly epic can be even more seductive. And the perfect link between the two has been very carefully set up throughout the series: River. It always made it clear that she was significant in some way, finally discovering this significance – and its magnitude – brings Serenity’s universe into focus.

The Alliance isn’t cosmetically unlike Star Wars’ Empire, but the context is crucial – in Serenity, the Rebellion’s already been quashed. There’s no war, if you don’t like them you just have to stay the hell away from anything resembling quality of life. And though the Alliance is the bad guy, it’s not the only one, and in the intro to Serenity you actually get their perspective (and it’s not that much less reasonable than the outlook of a patriotic country today). When the crew’s ploy forces the Alliance to face their figurative demons literally, both Mal and his nemesis lament the loss of innocent life – an unpleasantness other sci-fi feebly avoids with clones, drones and aliens.

That nemesis is another application of the fierce intelligence with which Serenity hacks away at sci-fi convention. An empire is led by bureaucrats, not a samurai and an electric pensioner. The guy you send to capture a sensitive target is your best black ops man – neither a freelancer nor a government official. Someone who is actually employed to do this sort of thing, and ruthlessly, spectacularly efficient at it. He’s stylish, certainly – the killing of the scientist in his first scene is one of the most macabre screen assassinations in memory – but it’s an elegant application of necessary force rather than a superfluous flourish. And when it comes to killing everyone the targets have ever known, that luxury is dropped without hesitation. Like every good agent, his violence is committed in a passionate belief in the cause, and the same understanding of the necessity of secrets, under-handedness and technically illegal operations that a real spy needs. This guy reassures his victims that they’ve lead a virtuous life before he executes them. He’s not evil, not even cruel, just ruthless.

It’s also brilliantly refreshing to see an a bad guy who, when the girl sneaks up behind him during the hero-nemesis fight, turns round and kicks her really hard. Nemeses are sick of getting knocked out with vases! If you keep doing that shit, women of action films, they’re going to have to hit you quite hard!

It’s not just rare for sci-fi to be this intelligent, it’s rare for something this intelligent to be so emotional. Memento and LA Confidential, though unquestionably cleverer than Serenity and utterly gripping, never put my engagement with the excellent characters to use in making me feel things. Or at least, what they made me feel now seems vague and academic compared to the wonderful trauma of watching Serenity. It has brains, heart, and space zombies.

State Of Things

I’d just like to say, this comments thing has been awesome. Thanks to everyone who’s added words to this page – they’ve been consistently clever and well-spelt. I knew you were all awesome, of course – I looked at my stats very carefully before deciding to have comments on the main page. According to the percentage of you using Firefox, James readers are approximately 1800% cooler than the general populace.

To celebrate I have worked out how to make Firefox realise I have an RSS feed, so that little orange broadcast icon should appear down the bottom. You can add it at as a Live Bookmark, or cram this link into a feed reader. You can even feed that feed to your personal Google page.

I am excited. We are about to get hit by a tsunami of amazingness, and I don’t see it stopping before the end of the year. Next month sees the return of Lost and The OC – the two most addictive programmes ever – and finishes off with the release of Serenity, the film of the third-best series ever, and a pretty much guaranteed entry into my elitist top films list. October is FEAR month, and given that I’ve now played the bizarrely early demo through about thirty-six times, I see myself getting lost in that pretty hard. Somewhere in that interim Hitman: Blood Money and Call Of Duty 2 are both due, but take that with a pinch of salt until you hear it from someone who knows anything. Contracts left a bitter taste in my mouth, so excitement over Blood Money is running low, and Call Of Duty 2’s promise is basically that it’ll put you through living hell, but both are bound to be an experience. I feel like I am owed Dreamfall fairly soon, but I don’t know where that’s coming from.

Let’s hope all that happens before mid-November, because in all probability subsequent events will be rendered irrelevant. I will not be playing other games for a few months. For the purposes of that claim, ‘reality’ counts as a game. I am waiting, of course, longing for sweet, sweet Oblivion. Which has Wonder Woman in it.

Oblivion

Mulholland Drive

Genre: surrealist psychological horror.

Stars: Naomi Watts (American version of Ring), Laura Harring, Justin Theroux (apparently an Irish bad guy in the second Charlie’s Angels film).

Plot: a partially failed actress is dumped by the girlfriend who got her the few roles she ever had, for a man, and hires a hitman to have her killed. In her grief and guilt, she tries to reimagine her life in Hollywood with showbusiness gloss, but her dreams are haunted both by reality and terrifying symbols of death and dementia.

Why It’s Great:

  • The plot is more complex than the top two films combined in some sort of really complex way: it’s probably not possible for a human mind to grasp it on first viewing, and because of that it – like any David Lynch film – has been made artistically beautiful enough to work as a rationally unintelligible surrealist piece.
  • Dream is entangled almost inextricably with reality.
  • Dozens of ingenious crossovers and quirks crop up once you make sense of it.

Adaptation

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Genre: forget about it.

Stars: Nicholas Cage, Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper (the homophobic dad in American Beauty).

Plot: tempting to say ‘forget about it’ again, but I’ll give it a go: a woman writes an article about a guy who steals rare orchids from nature reserves. The article is very popular, and a publisher asks her to adapt it into a book. She does, and calls it, like the article, The Orchid Thief. The book is very popular, and a producer asks screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to adapt it into a film. He tries, but can’t capture what he likes about it, and obsesses over his failure, ultimately writing first the entire history of the Earth, then himself, into the plot. Meanwhile, his admiring, friendly brother Donald takes up screenwriting himself, after attending a quicky course on it, exasperating his brother by coming up with lower-brow ideas typical of modern cinema and seeking Charlie’s approval. It’d take me about another paragraph of that size to explain the rest of the plot, then two or three more to qualify how much of it is actually true, and that the film he’s writing is in fact the film he’s in, which evolves dynamically as he, the character in it, makes decisions about how to save the screenplay he’s writing from either pretentiousness or never being finished. Instead, I just told you the plot of the plot summary I’d write if I was going to write the rest of this plot summary, but I did it rather cleverly within the plot summary itself, so perhaps I should have included the plot of the above plot summary before the plot of the rest of the summary, which doesn’t exist. I think I’m sooo goddamn clever.

By the way, I wasn’t just mocking myself there to mirror the relentless self-deprecation that consumes Charlie Kaufman when he realises what he’s done, I really do think what I did there was pathetic. If I wanted to mimic his self-deprecation, I’d do something like… well, see the last section called ‘Something Like…’

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Why It’s Great:

  • Well, check out the plot.
  • Nicholas Cage – I’m so confused about how I feel about Nicholas Cage now that I can’t even remember how I used to; was he the annoying guy who always seemed to choose great films, or was he the basically decent actor who always got stuck in awful ones? Now that he’s been in Bringing Out The Dead and this, and I realise I really do like Con Air, I think I just plain like him. He’s fantastic in this, as both Charlie and Donald Kaufman, who spend a lot of time on screen together. You can’t make yourself believe for a second that they’re the same person, even though no attempt is made to distinguish them appearence-wise, beyond their wearing different clothes. The two roles would make a good litmus test for actors in general – can they make two identical-looking characters unassimilatably different? He can, and it’s a spectacular film, so he must be good.
  • It’s hilarious. Not just Charlie’s self-loathing and Donald’s awful ideas, but the insane turns it takes toward the end, and the whole absurdly self-referential interaction between plot and genre.

adaptation-2

A Quote: “Oh my God, I’ve written myself into my screenplay.” “That’s kind of weird, huh?” “It’s self-absorbed, it’s narcissistic, it’s solipsistic, it’s pathetic! I’m pathetic! I’m fat and pathetic!”

Something Like… Oh my God, I’ve written myself into my plot summary. It’s smarmy, it’s arrogant, it’s demeaning to the film, it’s pathetic! I’m pathetic! I’m stupid and pathetic!

adaptation-1