Arrival.

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Before Star Wars leaped into our media consciousness in 1977, science fiction films were considerably different. After being a schlock stock of trade in the 1950’s and early 1960’s with a tirade of films featuring someone or something either becoming significantly larger, mutated or both (Zappa’s Ship Arriving Too Late to Save A Drowning Witch pops into mind: “All of them HORRIBLY LARGE from RADIATION”), the genre was brought into more slower-paced, thought-provoking territory. With Godard’s Alphaville in 1965, and continuing three years later with Kubrick’s 2001, the science fiction film became a format for more mature concepts. While the giant whatever sub-genre continued into the 1970’s (due mainly to the efforts of schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon — don’t get me wrong, I love his films), they were countered with the likes of The Andromeda StrainSolaris, not to mention Steven Spielberg’s entry the same year Star Wars premiered — Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Over the past few decades, a scant few other fruits have dropped from the “serious sci-fi” tree, which include Ridley Scott’s ground-breaking Blade Runner in 1982, Terry Gilliam’s visionary 12 Monkeys in 1995, Ron Howard’s moving take on the Carl Sagan novel Contact in 1997 and most recently 2004’s Primer and Moon in 2009. Most recently, in the vein of all of the above and more, comes Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.

Arrival is the tale of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is thrust from a life of bland academia into the forefront of an alien invasion. Paired with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician, they are tasked with trying to communicate with the inhabitants of an alien craft, one of twelve that have appeared above different countries on Earth. Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker), makes them aware of the global situation, albeit from a military point of view. The rest of the film is about how they not only manage to communicate with the visitors but also with each other.

While avoiding spoilers (believe me, I hate them much more than you do), that last sentence bears more review. As I have stressed throughout this writing, this is no Independence Day. It is slower paced, logical and heady, but not without a wealth of surprising ideas and intimate emotion. A bit of patience is required for those used to more action-oriented fare, but for fans of the movies mentioned above, it is a revelation. Communication is the main theme of the film, and, like my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok”, it is about the struggle to surmount the differences to find the greater good of what we all share. Cue the music:

Adams is incredible (as always), and Renner, who basically plays to the audience’s emotional state throughout the film, more than fills the role. Whitaker makes a credibly crusty Colonel, although I’m much more looking forward to him in the upcoming Rogue One. While the effects are seamless and awe-inspiring, the cinematography spot-on and the music successfully reflecting both alien and human themes, the real stars of the show are Eric Heisserer’s screenplay and Villeneuve’s direction. Going into detail about how they are would truly spoil the fun for anyone who hasn’t seen Arrival, but needless to say, if you’re a fan of “old school” science fiction with genuinely thought-provoking and emotionally moving themes, this film is definitely for you.

Westworld.

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Way back in 1973, science fiction author Michael Crichton (who had already had cinematic success with Robert Wise’s adaptation of his novel The Andromeda Strain) apparently finagled enough leeway in Hollywood to create a film that he would both write and direct — Westworld.

While not the greatest of films, Westworld had a number of fascinating concepts — many of which Crichton would carry over some twenty years later to his novel (and screenplay) Jurassic Park. Both were based on visions of far-flung amusement parks, places filled with a number of random elements which would end up subjugating their visitors. As Jurassic Park had dinosaurs that “found a way” to mate, mutate and rise against their surroundings, Westworld had android “hosts” that interacted with guests, with some of them becoming independent of their programmed scripts, much to the regret of their human victims.

Again, the film (while a huge fave of mine, ever since I saw it on TV on the CBS Late Night Movie as a kid) was only enough of a success to warrant a dismal sequel, Futureworld (which Crichton had nothing to do with), in 1976, it died a quiet death in the shadow of the Jurassic franchise (which is still ongoing, with the upcoming Jurassic World II). Leave it to Jonathan Nolan, best known for co-writing such amazing films as the Dark Knight series, The Prestige and the source of the film Memento with his brother, director Christopher Nolan, to find a new path in Crichton’s pre-Jurassic footsteps.

Along with co-author Lisa Joy, and fellow producer J. J. Abrams, Nolan has brought a much darker take on Crichton’s concepts. Given our greater understanding of such things as computer programs and Massively Multiplayer Online games (which Westworld is the ultimate iteration of — *SPOILER* in particular Ed Harris’ “Man in Black” could be seen as the ultimate “griefer”), Nolan runs with the given status of Crichton’s original and proceeds to warp and wend it to many new and fascinating ways. The echoes of Blade Runner and Moore and Eick’s brilliant take on Battlestar Galactica are informed here as well, with many new potential insights hinted at from the first episode. This new Westworld is gonna be a barnstormer (and I’m not only referring to what Harris does with Evan Rachel Wood), hopefully for seasons to come.

Gene Wilder (1933 -2016).

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To some, he’s Willy Wonka (not that chirpy, bubble-headed nebbish Johnny Depp played in Charlie & The Chocolate Factory), the wary misanthrope who wielded sly surrealism and biting humor to his advantage in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. It’s entirely possible you’ve seen him in this role on the interwebs:

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To others, he’s the Waco Kid, that gunfighter with impossibly fast hands and an equally impressive constitution for alcohol in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. But to me, he’ll always be Victor von Frankenstein (that’s FRAHN-ken-STEEN) in one of my all-time favorite movies, Young Frankenstein. From “Walk this way” (which actually inspired the classic Aerosmith hit), to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (not to mention the dreaded name of Frau Blücher!), the movie never fails to entertain — a good part due to Wilder’s writing and performance in the lead role. He went on and starred in several films with his consummate co-star, the brilliant Richard Pryor. He was also accepted the Old Vic, studied acting under Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg, and was a champion fencer. Later in life, he took up writing and released several novels, as well as promoting awareness to ovarian cancer, which took both his mother and wife Gilda Radner. Not bad for a kid from Milwaukee named Jerome Silberman.

20 YEARS OF QUAKE.

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A little late, yes, but I wanted to be sure and add my own drop in the quad bucket in tribute for probably the most influential (both inspirational and technical) first person shooter ever. And here’s looking to twenty more years (with id’s Quake Legends multiplayer game on the way, and a possible single player title from MachineGames — who on the day of Quake’s birthday this year offered up a custom episode for the original game) of gibs and glory to come.

The Dark Future of Modding.

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I’m checking my email every couple of hours or so, after having put in a request to be in on Bethesda.net’s tenuous venture to bring Fallout 4 mods to my Playstation 4. Unlike the Xbox platform, which runs on Windows 10 and can use native files, the PS4 has its own file formats and must have mod files converted in order to be applied to any games its running. Bethesda started a closed beta to get help in setting up this process, and I’m sitting on my hands ready to pitch in. It’s not that I’ve been unhappy with the huge amount of DLC they’ve provided (and will be continuing to provide over the next couple of months) for the relatively cheap $30 fee of my “Season Pass”, but there’s something about the freedom of being able to modify a game to my own rather odd tastes that I’ve missed for a while. In fact, one of the major reasons I’ve ever been interested in games is because of this.

Way back in 1995, I was slipped a copy id Software’s The Ultimate DOOM, and my life changed. Not only was I presented with one of my all-time favorite game experiences, but, as I learned from that burgeoning source of information known as “the internet”, I was also actually able to create my own DOOM content as well. Mind. Blown. Right? Soon I was knee-deep not only in the dead, but also in a world of linedefs, sectors, vertices and monster spawns. The only thing more engrossing and challenging than testing the growing number of fan-made “pwads” was spending hour after hour crafting my own.

The following year brought Quake, and my little map-making mind was blown yet again. Here was a fully three-dimensional world of warped science fiction and quasi-Lovecraftian madness, and a quickly growing community of fellow mod enthusiasts at the ready to expand its borders in their own particular ways. I was quickly introduced to a number of amazingly talented and generous folks from all over the globe, some of whom I still manage to stay in contact with to this day. Many of them have been involved with many of the games you’ve played on PC and consoles, as game developers quickly realized that not only was modding good for extending the life of one’s product, but also provided a stable of viable game-creating talent. When Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington created Valve that same year (1996), they brought with them a number of Quake mappers and modders to realize what would eventually become the first Half-Life. I’m sure this is already well-known, but even the tremendously popular Valve game Team Fortress 2 is based on a Quake mod made popular online shortly after the game was first released.

The modding communities for games have since become vital components to several popular franchises, even going so far as to creating product on par with those of the developers. This of course brings us to the current time, and some unsettling situations that have threatened the long-standing relationship between developers and their communities. Last year Valve tentatively tried charging for mods via their Steam Workshop, which quickly proved to be a major debacle, and now Bethesda’s burgeoning Bethesda.net site is having growing pains, trying to make Fallout 4 PC mods available to console gamers without providing proper credit to their creators. The threat of monetizing fan-made content without supporting the effort (which Valve tried, and many suspect Bethesda is ultimately wanting to try) is dividing the game makers and their biggest fans. Instead of making these situations easier for both parties involved, more obstacles are being thrown in the way.

Whether mods will end up being monetized or not (I’m hoping for the latter, for reasons), their future use across the board obviously needs to ensure that the creators are not only properly credited for their efforts, but that those efforts are able withstand the constant patching of the game software and endless combinations with other mods available. This will require a great deal of patience and diligence by both sides, not to mention from the users of said modifications. As it stands currently, the best vendors for mods are those outside the realm of developers, such as the marvelous folks at the Nexusmods, who provide a solid support team, forums and chatrooms that provide a free flowing interaction between the users and creators of mods for their supported games. Both Valve and Bethesda could learn a great deal from them, as they have gone out of their way to make modding a painless process, by not only keeping users up to date with new versions of mods, but even providing a installer which takes the ever-present question of “Where Does This Thing Go?” out of the equation. Until all of these bases have been covered, the future use of mods — especially those currently being applied to console versions — will be held in contention.

That reminds me — I need to check my email again…