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

Movie Review: “Wendy”

As it turns out, Benh Zeitlin’s “Wendy” was one of the very last movies I saw in theaters prior to the massive wave of coronavirus-induced shutdowns. But it’s taken me a while to write this because it’s taken me a while to sort out my feelings about the film, which hides some deceptively complex themes beneath its spare, artsy exterior.

With “Wendy,” director Zeitlin—previously responsible for the indie darling “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which followed a young girl’s journey to save her bayou community from an encroaching disaster—has delivered a (very) loose take on the Peter Pan story. It won’t be to everyone’s taste—at times it’s excruciatingly slow and thematically opaque—but I nevertheless found it to have a distinctly haunting power, and its eerie ideas have hovered around in my mind ever since I left the theater.

Set sometime during the mid-twentieth century, “Wendy” begins when the eponymous heroine (Devin France) and her twin brothers James and Douglas (Gage and Gavin Naquin, respectively) decide they won’t follow their mother’s path and work at the local diner. Late one night, the three encounter the mysterious boy Peter (Yashua Mack), who beckons them onto a passing train and down an river by rowboat. At the end of their odyssey is a mysterious island filled with children who never seem to age.

This island harbors many secrets. The wellspring of Peter and his followers’ youth, Wendy and her brothers soon learn, is “Mother”—a colossal glowing fish with some sort of connection to the island. Faith in Mother’s protection, Peter explains, is the root of the island’s flourishing. But as it turns out, the island also has a dark side: those who experience great tragedy—such as the loss of a friend—immediately lose their protection and begin to deteriorate at a rapid clip, passing from childhood into old age in a matter of hours.

(Spoilers to follow)

That lurking curse soon begins to wreak its havoc. During a routine expedition, Douglas is trapped inside a boat wreck and apparently drowned. A despondent James begins to age rapidly, starting with his hands; in a startlingly grisly moment, James hacks off his own arm with a sword in a futile attempt to stop the transformation. (As soon becomes clear, this is actually an out-of-left-field origin story for Captain James Hook.) James then takes up with the island’s population of other “fallen” children who’ve lost their faith and grown old, spearheading an attempt to repurpose an old fishing boat, slay Mother, and feed on her flesh in order to restore their lost youth.

Despite the best efforts of Peter and Wendy and the other children, James succeeds in harpooning Mother. But in the instant of the great fish’s death, the light of Mother’s flesh scatters across the ocean and is lost, leaving James without hope of healing. Then, in an outpouring of grief, Peter and Wendy join hands with the other children in a building song, a single musical note that gathers up the fragments of Mother’s diffused light and restores her to being. James, however, remains withered and old: the best he can do is play at swordfighting with Peter, an aged man desperately grasping at whatever childhood joys might still be available to him.

At some point thereafter, Wendy and Douglas—and many of the other children—return home and go on to live full lives. James is never heard from again.

There are obviously a lot of religious motifs in play here, but “Wendy” reflects a decidedly non-Christian theological vision. Whether consciously or not, the film is a sophisticated aesthetic expression of the classical pantheism (Ross Douthat would use the term “paganism”) that has increasingly begun to inform a good deal of religious discourse within an ostensibly “secular” world. There is no trace of secularity in Zeitlin’s movie: in its magical realism and romantic approach to nature, “Wendy” is decidedly a repudiation of any philosophical paradigm that would treat transcendent value or the sacred (however vaguely defined) as meaningless terms. Yet this “sacramentality,” so to speak, is divorced from any larger theoretical framework.

What’s absent here is what an old professor of mine might call a “High Telos” understanding of history—the notion that there is a narrative arc to the human experience, that things are going somewhere in a cosmic sense. As theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg argued, it is difficult to make sense of Christian thought without an expectant hope of the coming Kingdom of God, a moment where God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

In place of such an overarching structure, “Wendy” instead centers the cycles and rhythms of the natural order. Mother’s death and rebirth is not a resurrection in the Christian sense—an eschatological rupture opening the way forward to the world’s ontological healing—but merely an interval of natural return, rather like the myths of the gods and goddesses of an ancient age (Mithras, Osiris, and so on). And the film’s closing shot—Wendy’s grown children joining Peter on a train bound for the mysterious island, with a smiling adult Wendy watching them go—perfectly encapsulates that theme of repetition and circularity. Nothing has really changed, except the date on the calendar.

This has profound implications for the film’s most troubled character, James. Christian thought has long centered on the tension between nature and grace, and here grace is in short supply. The closing moments of “Wendy” do indeed depict a kind of eschatological vision—a restoration of balance following imbalance—but there is a grim edge to that vision. Here, to transgress against the natural order (trust in Mother) is to commit an unforgivable sin, one that curses the malefactor to remain forever damaged and afflicted. And this punishment is not reserved to James, the one who would hunt and devour Mother: all the other children who experienced sorrow and grew old—regardless of the circumstances—are similarly sentenced to permanent decrepitude. Mother’s island is, in short, a kind of heaven without forgiveness.

As interesting—and unusual—as this sort of story is, I don’t know that most readers of this review would enjoy “Wendy.” I’ve laid out the underlying themes much more starkly than Zeitlin does—the film’s languid pace and dream like imagery will put a lot of viewers to sleep. But if you were ever curious about what art might be produced by a fully post-Christian culture—one that refuses either to depict traditional theological themes or consciously subvert them—“Wendy” is a memorable tale indeed. 

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Posted by on April 14, 2020 in Fantasy


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

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