Winter 2021 – Week 10 in Review

4 months ago 54

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Over in the hyperbolic media chamber, this was a week of projects, as I dug into games that had been sitting on the shelf for too long, and also passively watched maybe fifty episodes of background anime. After my housemates decided to watch the Bleach live action film (my review: it’s an anime live action film), one of them was inspired enough to return to The Source itself, and power through the entire goddamn Soul Society arc. So for once, the answer to “where is Bleach” is truly “here is Bleach.” We’ve got that and more to get to, so let’s start powering through the Week in Review!

First off, I played a whole pile of videogames this week, including polishing off Final Fantasy VII Remake. On the whole, I had a terrific time with the game, and felt it hit an incredibly difficult balance of reverence for the original versus establishing its own identity. Playing through the game felt like being ensconced back in my own adolescence; every incidental billboard, every goofy minigame, every flourish of worldbuilding that first brought Midgar to life, was recreated in dazzling form in the Remake.

Simple “loyalty to the source” would not suffice to create this effect – Remake had to extrapolate widely on elements that were barely present in the original, while still preserving FFVII’s unique tone. The team succeeded in this not just in their set design, but also in the vastly expanded script. Do you know how hard it is to compete with someone’s childhood memories of their favorite game, and actually beat those memories, and expand on the things they love in ways that make them even more lovable? Square had an impossible task here, and they didn’t just succeed, they triumphed.

As for the ending, it was clear from the start that this is not quite the same story as the original, and I’m perfectly okay – no, actually relieved to hear that. The original told its story! FFVII still exists, and the Remake was never going to recapture that story’s precision, ambition, and unique identity, if only because tech has changed to the point where it’s being framed like an anime, rather than a text adventure with graphics. I’m quite happy to instead see this game directly commenting on the original; assuming the audience knows the original story, and actually having a conversation about that story, rather than just a faithful retread of it. Mostly, I’m just so pleased with how this game has humanized my old favorites that I want to see them do all sorts of new stuff together. FFVII was a masterpiece, and I’m happy to let it rest, and see what Remake has to say.

With Remake finished, I returned to another game I’d left sitting on the pile: Control. I actually started Control early last year, but was quickly disappointed by the distance between the game and my expectations, to the point where I set it aside for a whole year. The problem I had with Control was, I love the SCP Foundation. I love the weird objects that hint at entire systems of being, I love the vicious monsters that demand profound ingenuity of containment methods, and I especially love the creepy-as-hell expedition logs. Give me a good expedition log, and you can keep me busy for, well, as long as it takes to read that expedition log.

Given my love of the SCP Foundation, I had some pretty lofty expectations going into a game that’s essentially “third person action-horror in the SCP Foundation.” What I discovered instead was a solid third person action game, one largely populated by mundane human enemies, where the monsters and madness I was accustomed to were in frustratingly limited supply. That disappointment, plus the bizarrely clumsy cutscenes (far too much inner monologue, ghoulish attempts at mocap acting), prompted me to drop the game before I got very far in.

Returning to Control, the monsters are certainly still a disappointment – when I hear SCP Foundation, I expect towering insectoids, demons that can melt through walls, and staircases to nowhere, and Control doesn’t have a whole lot of that. But given I know the game’s not gonna give me that, I’m now better able to appreciate the excellent world design, the plethora of internal SCP documents, the terrific gravity physics, and the existent embers of disorientation and weirdness. “SCP Foundation as action-horror game” is just such a good concept that even with my complaints, I’m still having an excellent time. And given the game’s been on an upswing basically since the start, I’m eager to see what the last act has to offer.

Next, as I said, we plowed through the entire goddamn Soul Society arc of Bleach. And what I discovered, or I guess just reaffirmed, is that yeah, Soul Society is some top tier shonen material.

Bleach’s first two arcs are genuinely very impressive, and I think each worthy of study in their own way when it comes to constructing effective shonen drama. While the first arc gracefully combines character-building, murder-mystery tropes, and action payoffs, the Soul Society arc is all about scale. How do you scale up a story while maintaining its coherency, and how do you construct an extended series of fights that all feel impactful, without the arbitrary structure of something like a tournament arc?

Soul Society does this in a variety of ways. First off, it was only clear on this rewatch how greatly this arc is improved by its murder-mystery scaffolding. While our protagonist Ichigo runs through a carefully tuned series of escalating battles, the murder of a captain gives Soul Society a far greater sense of lived-in presence, and allows the story to establish clear fault lines within its ostensibly united factions.

Through the murder mystery conceit, Soul Society complicates its drama, humanizes its antagonists, and creates a sense of urgency and danger that can run parallel to its heroes’ journeys, keeping an extremely long arc from feeling too repetitive. And when the captains begin to turn on each other, it feels like a natural narrative development – while also serving as the only possible way to actually use all the characters Soul Society introduced, and even maintain a certain degree of “power level coherency.” Soul Society executes shonen on a scale I’ve otherwise only seen HxH accomplish (though I’m sure One Piece gets there too), and my rewatch was a nice reminder that yeah, this manga’s big arc actually did kick ass. This genre can be pretty great!

And yes, of course, there were films. This week in movies started off with V/H/S 2, the sequel to the original fan footage anthology. Horror in general lends itself well to an anthology film format; the essence of horror is suspense, and dragging that suspense out over two hours generally requires a great deal of invention around the core source of dread. Great horror films use this as an opportunity to craft poignant personal stories, or even entire fantasy worlds – but reduced to its essence, horror fits neatly into twenty-five minute installments, as this collection readily demonstrates.

On the whole, most of V/H/S 2’s entries are simply “solid” horror vignettes – not disappointing, but also not something I’d actively recommend. The exception is the reason I actually sought this film out: Safe Haven, an expose into an Indonesian cult directed by Gareth Evans (The Raid, Apostle) and Timo Tjahjanto (May The Devil Take You, The Night Comes For Us). As its absurd directorial pedigree would attest, Safe Haven kicks an absurd degree of ass, and combines a delightfully macabre ritual horror story with Evans and Tjahjanto’s brutal, carefully choreographed, and kinetic approach to action and cinematography. If you enjoy either of their work, or are just in the mood for a well-crafted slice of unflinching horror, Safe Haven is an easy recommendation.

After that, we checked out Boss Level, about a man who keeps getting murdered by wacky assassins, and keeps waking back up on the same day, pre-murdered. It’s basically an action movie version of Groundhog’s Day, and in spite of its obnoxiously macho man tone, it does a fair job of making good on that premise. The best bits are when the protagonist is essentially trying to brute-force some difficult interaction, throwing attempts at wild ideas like “leap directly at the attack helicopter” in case it might result in a better level run. As an overall movie, Edge of Tomorrow is a much more compelling take on a similar premise – but as a background film you turn to whenever it gets to a cool scene, Boss Level shines.

Finally, we also checked out the Made in Abyss film, Dawn of the Deep Soul. I had pretty mixed feelings about this film, as while it was visually quite impressive, I felt like it abandoned basically everything that made Made in Abyss compelling, while wallowing in all of the stuff that makes it a disappointing and frequently unpleasant watch.

On the positive side, Deep Soul’s battle scenes are absolutely terrific. There are three major fights in this film, and each is more impressive than the last, doubling down on both visual splendor and tactical ingenuity again and again. You really get the sense of our team desperately throwing everything they have against an impossible foe, and there’s a wonderful sense of clear narrative progression across all the fights. In terms of action spectacle, Deep Soul is spectacular.

On the other hand, there’s the plot. While the original Made in Abyss certainly didn’t shy away from the violence and consequences of life in the abyss, it tempered those reflections with sequences that celebrated the visual beauty of its strange world, and the adventurous spirit that might lead one to challenge it. In contrast, Deep Soul takes place almost entirely inside the malevolent Bondrewd’s fortress, and mostly concerns him horribly torturing a procession of innocent children. I understand the story wants to convey seriousness, but this film’s narrative pushes far past that, into a kind of mean-spirited ugliness I associate with the worst of shonen juvenilia. There is no larger message to this film’s cruelty – it’s simply violent and cruel, because that’s the story the author wanted to tell. That tone of senseless violence, combined with the voyeuristic lingering on fragile young bodies, as well as the persistent jokes about their bodily functions, made for a routinely unpleasant viewing experience.

On the whole, while Deep Soul’s fight scenes were certainly great, I can’t really see myself recommending this film. It stares directly at a place of profound human ugliness, but turns away with nothing to say except “well, that was pretty cool.” Rather than genuinely grappling with the magnitude of its cruelty, Deep Soul simply felt distant and desensitized, reveling in gore just to feel anything at all. I don’t need to revel in gore to feel anything, and I didn’t enjoy Deep Soul’s catering to that palate.

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