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I read a lot. I also enjoy movies. Sometimes I write books.

Video Game Review: “Doom Eternal”

Last Friday, two hotly-anticipated games launched in the midst of tightening public lockdowns across the globe. The first was “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” a cheery Nintendo Switch title full of bright colors, cultivating relationships, and building up communities from scratch. The second was…not exactly that. But “Doom Eternal” is undeniably a visceral, chaotic, bombastic experience, and it’s precisely what some of us needed to beat the COVID-19 blues.

Building on its critically-acclaimed 2016 predecessor, “Eternal” stars the Doomguy, a silent marine wielding everything from chainsaws to plasma rifles against the marauding legions of Hell. With the help of the corrupt company known as the UAC, demons have invaded Earth, killing 60% of the population and launching a campaign to cement total control of the planet. Really, that’s pretty much all you need to know.

The centerpiece of “Eternal”—just like before—is its combat, the bulk of which takes place within massive arena-styled set pieces littered with monsters, ammunition, and environmental hazards. It’s there that the Doom Hunter confronts the astonishing number of enemy types on offer. Appearing here for the first time are the the monster-summoning Archvile, the hovering Doom Hunter, the missile-firing Arachnotron, and countless others. All of this is backed by Mick Gordon’s frenetic, pulse-pounding instrumental metal soundtrack.

“Eternal” is, quite simply, the best shooter I’ve played in years. As someone whose general approach to shooters is far more “spray and pray” than “careful ammunition stewardship,” I’m quite fond of the run-and-gun ethos of “Eternal.” You’ll spend lots of time hurtling through the air and slamming the trigger amidst a storm of lasers, bullets, plasma rounds, shotgun shells, and primordial fireballs. Even the most difficult stages—those that take a dozen or so attempts to finally clear—never cease to feel fun and fresh on every try.

What’s more, by changing up the types of resources dropped by enemies, “Eternal” introduces some deceptive tactical depth into the high-speed shooting: Do I hit the “flame belch” button to get the horde in front of me to drop armor? Do I chainsaw that fodder demon over there to get some ammunition? Am I close enough to leap to that staggering Dread Knight and finish him off for some extra health? If you can make it through some of these stages without sweat dripping off your controller, my hat goes off to you.

All that being said, I can’t unequivocally recommend “Eternal” to genre aficionados without flagging the flaws—in particular, some truly mystifying design decisions that shouldn’t have made it through playtesting. Chief among these is the introduction of the Marauder, an axe-toting demon with the capacity to block almost anything fired at him—except shotgun shells fired within a half-second window during his attack windup. It’s hard to overstate how unpleasant this character is: the Marauder transforms the game’s normal rhythm of breathlessly paced combat into something slow and tactical, much more akin to “Dark Souls” or “Bloodborne.” That’s not what I want from a game that otherwise prizes how fast the player can pump a three-rocket burst or chaingun clip into the maw of a gibbering Pain Elemental.

Platforming and swimming also make it into the mix this time around. And while some elements of this really work—the double jump and midair dash mechanics are strokes of genius—the game relies on altogether too many blind leaps or swims, which leads to a frustrating process of trial-and-error where the player dies repeatedly until the path forward is identified. But if I wanted “Tomb Raider,” by golly, I’d play “Tomb Raider.”

“Eternal” is also a bit more overwritten than its predecessor. The 2016 reboot memorably featured the Doomguy ripping an audio terminal out of the wall when it started launching into exposition. Here, it’s a little harder to get away from a turgid story about malignant aliens known as Maykrs brokering a deal with Hell to convert human souls into clean energy. But hey, who am I to judge? If you get pumped by lines like “The Khan Maykr is seconds away from resurrecting the Icon of Sin! Use the Crucible Blade!” then “Eternal” is the game for you. (Well, okay, that actually describes me too.)

Of course, I couldn’t write a review like this without eventually heading in a thematic direction—and here, what’s most interesting is the stark refusal of “Eternal” to sand the edges off its central conflict. This is an unapologetic good versus evil game, one that never expects the player to feel bad for an instant about smashing the skulls of roaring demons.

That tendency runs counter to the prevailing approach for blockbuster titles. In recent years—partially in response to public pressure over issues like inclusion, colonialism, and militarism—a lot of AAA video games have tended toward noncommittal narratives that lean hard into their own “gray areas.” Just to name a few recent examples: “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” questioned Lara Croft’s quasi-imperialist sensibilities, recent “Call of Duty” and “Battlefield” titles present but do not address issues surrounding the legitimacy of war, and “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” refused altogether to address the moral questions of the Peloponnesian War.

There’s a lot that’s not worth missing about the older era of video gaming—in particular, that era’s rampant sexism and objectification of women, and its regular reliance on crude racial stereotyping—and to the extent the medium has moved beyond that, that’s a big win. But the risk of the modern approach is that the only kinds of stories that get told are stories of relative good and evil (tolerance good; racism bad!). So too, modern-day social priorities can become so pronounced that they warp historical reality itself, a tendency exemplified by the decision in “Odyssey” to completely expunge the fact of historical sexism. If the player chooses to play as a female character, they will be treated exactly as if they were male. But i’m pretty sure that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act did not apply to ancient Greece, and—in a game that contains an “educational mode” designed for use in schools—it’s a bizarre decision.

Call me anachronistic, but I tend to think that—alongside the more modern sort of game—there’s still a place for stories of unambiguous good and evil, those that don’t attempt to situate the narrative around a historical moment but instead operate in absolute terms. (The reticence to do so, I think, corresponds pretty well with the unfolding “crisis of the novel” I’ve written about in other places.) “Eternal”—in all its offal-stained splendor—is precisely such a story. The Doomguy is an agent of carnage directed against the minions of literal, actual Hell—one character even suggests he might be a kind of avenging angel—and he is right to slaughter all the incarnations of evil in his path.  

Those who don’t share that commitment to doing right are pilloried. Notably, the demonic invaders’ human collaborators use the language of human resources departments, explaining that the preferred term for “demon” is “mortally challenged” and that it’s everyone’s responsibility to “welcome our new neighbors.” The game took some flak for this prior to release, but in context the jokes aren’t winking endorsements of real-world offensiveness: they’re swipes at a culture that has made itself incapable of discerning absolute evil when confronted with it.

It may seem paradoxical to describe the blood-soaked “Eternal” as, in one sense, innocent fun—but that’s what it is, in the deeper moral sense. For all the flamethrowers and grenades on offer, this is a grown-up, digitalized equivalent of running around in the forest with sticks. Not a single living human being is degraded or objectified, and I don’t even recall hearing a single curse word. (As a matter of fact, a literal film adaptation of the Book of Revelation might look rather close to what “Eternal” throws up onscreen.) It’s a perfect exemplar of the primal—and predominantly, if not exclusively, male—desire to see true evil destroyed, burned, and crushed underfoot, all in the name of freedom and the good.

Odds are that “Eternal” isn’t for you—and that’s fine (“trampling the serpent” doesn’t have to involve gouts of blood, I suppose). But I tend to think that, violence and ghoulish imagery notwithstanding, there’s still a (very) particular place for this sort of thing in mass culture. The power fantasy here involves the destruction of evil and horror, as opposed to exultation in it—as in the case of “Grand Theft Auto” or violent Internet pornography. In a particular social moment where opportunities for real-world heroism are on hold for many of us, it’s a breath of fresh air.

So as far as I’m concerned, let’s keep the chainguns blazing!

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2020 in Sci-Fi

 

Movie Review: “Emma.”

When I first heard about director Autumn de Wilde’s new take on Jane Austen’s classic novel, I’ll admit that I had a few questions. Chief among them: why even attempt to unthrone the near-perfect 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version? But I guess there’s always room for a fresh take—after all, we’ve been through three different versions of Spider-Man in that same timespan.

Since “Emma” is a classic, I won’t bother rehashing the plot in great detail. We have rich, sophisticated young Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy, best known for her starring turn in “The Witch”) who has a bad habit of making matches between her friends. We have family friend Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a man of great virtue who treats Emma like a little sister. And we have the simple Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a good-hearted girl that Emma’s just dying to pair up with handsome vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Many misunderstandings and longing gazes follow.

Traditionally, beyond the lush period costuming and sheer opulence on display, “Emma” plays out as essentially a story of moral transformation—of Emma’s maturation from a thoughtless socialite into a woman of real grace and virtue. De Wilde’s version, however, takes a different approach, preferring to treat the story as a more straightforward romcom. And that, in turn, gives rise to a film that has a rather different thematic undercurrent than one might expect.

On the older approach, the rarified world of Austen’s novels is a place where small gestures and nuances of etiquette have great meaning. (Overly frank or straightforward speech, in many ways, is a breach of that mannerliness: it fails to meet the standards of respectful communication that honor the other person.) That is to say, the dense thicket of customs and practices that feels alien and “Victorian” to the contemporary viewer is actually something that, to individuals at the time, would have been pregnant with significance.

De Wilde’s film largely avoids this dimension. The mores of the time are played for laughs throughout, and numerous characters—in particular Mr. Elton—are stretched into extreme versions of themselves for comedic purposes. Indeed, Mr. Knightley himself displays a certain contempt for formality, tearing off his stiff outer garments at every opportunity and lounging about on his luxurious rugs. (And his hair resembles nothing so much as Owen Wilson’s tousled mop in “Wedding Crashers.”

This, in turn, leads to a curious flattening of Austen’s moral landscape. The “casualization” of Mr. Knightley means that several of his key encounters with Emma—which often involve his upbraiding her for her thoughtlessness or vanity—reflect poorly on him, as if he’s speaking from a high horse he hasn’t merited. (Part of this is due to the fact Taylor-Joy and Flynn aren’t really that far apart in age, unlike Austen’s characters.) In essence, it’s harder to see Mr. Knightley as an exemplar of virtue than it was in the 1996 adaptation.

A similar issue arises in the case of Frank Churchill—a rich caddish fellow that Emma briefly pursues. In de Wilde’s adaptation, Churchill (Callum Turner) comes off as guileless and a bit of a dullard, incapable of intentionally misleading anyone. But in the 1996 film (and the novel), Churchill was far more winsome, a man capable of donning the trappings of virtue—of mannerliness and charm—but ultimately lacking any real moral fiber. This sets up the novel’s critical contrast, between Churchill’s superficial appeal (think Mr. Wickham from “Pride and Prejudice”) and Knightley’s deep maturity (a la Mr. Darcy). That simply isn’t in play here.

So too, the approach to love that underpins the story is reconfigured here. The novel centers on agape, unconditional love that properly informs all human interactions: Emma begins in selfishness and progresses toward selflessness, demonstrating in the end a real capacity to humble herself and seek the best interest of others. The new film focuses on eros, romantic or sexual desire: here, we’re treated to perhaps the sexiest dance sequence in any Austen adaptation, and Emma’s personal growth is scarcely remarked upon.

All of that to say: this is an “Emma” for the modern age, one that retains the formal trappings (unlike 1995’s “Clueless”) but largely diverges from Austen’s philosophical sensibilities.

To be clear, there’s still a lot to like in the 2020 adaptation. Taylor-Joy, in particular, is perfectly cast: there’s a real edge to her that Paltrow never displayed, a slight inhumanity reflected in the faint smirk that plays across Taylor-Joy’s lips for most of the movie. Emma doesn’t start out, in other words, as a bumbling but well-intentioned matchmaker—she’s someone who takes pleasure in manipulating other people, a habit antithetical to the development of real virtue. The pacing and cinematography of de Wilde’s film is also head-and-shoulders above other Austen adaptations, many of which tend to start dragging around the 90-minute mark.

So, suffice it to say that “Emma.” is probably worth an outing to the movies, if this is your kind of film. It’s well-crafted, elegant, and propelled by a great central performance. Hopefully, though, it does prompt some reflection—about exactly what Austen was trying to communicate through her work, whether she succeeded, and whether there’s anything in those messages that ought to be reclaimed and revived. I tend to think there is.

(Addendum: Full disclosure, I didn’t actually enjoy—or think about—Austen’s works very much for most of my life. I found them tedious and preoccupied with formalities I had little interest in contemplating. If you find yourself in that position, I strongly recommend reading George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and then contrasting the themes on offer with those in Austen’s novels. It’s a striking difference.)

 
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Posted by on February 29, 2020 in Historical

 
 
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