Fans vs Money: The “They made it for US” argument.

Full disclosure, I have not read nor watched The Hunger Games. I am basing this entry purely on my feelings about what was said in this review of the movie and this comment on the review:

The problem for Bob is it’s a movie adaptation for a book which he’s never read. The stuff about the arena is explained in the books. Much of the stuff is explained in the books. They made the movie targeting people who have already read the book, so they know the details.

Mind, I do intend on reading the book at some stage. I’m just not too sure about watching the movie.

Okay, getting back to it. This is something that I have been wondering about. Is it really a smart move to make a movie adaptation of a property for the sake of the audience that the property already has while locking out potentially untapped demographics because of the level of assumed knowledge required to appreciate the story?

Or perhaps, is it a smart defence of a movie adaptation that does this very thing?

I suppose it is indicative of the times when a $78 million production budget (not including marketing expenditure) can be considered a “low” budget for a film that is ostensibly an action/adventure/sci-fi flick, and a major release at that (sourced from box office mojo.). It is, at the same time, not a small budget. Sucker Punch was a movie with a $82 million budget (large for a personal project!) and really still managed to flop horribly, with a worldwide gross of $89,792,502. So movies in this price range still represent a decent financial risk.

That’s not to say that The Hunger Games will not perform well. With an estimated $68 million back as of March 23rd Domestically (read as: IN AMERICA!) the film is well on its way to making back its production budget. I do not have numbers on drop off, but that’s a fairly decent opening weekend for a movie that seems to cater to people who have read the book and be somewhat distancing for those who haven’t.

Of course, not everyone is going to get hung up on the ins and outs of the universe being built in a film. Just look at the Star Wars prequel trilogy and its many inconsistencies and utterly stupid decisions made by characters for no other reason than the sequel trilogy demanded that things end up going a specific way. You may even cast your eyes towards the Bayformers movies and how they did not care for crafting good action sequences with consistency, continuity, a sense of space, or a sense of orientation. They didn’t even care about creating a consistent plot! Hell, they even threw pacing out the window too!!! They are massively successful.

However, Transformers, despite what fans may say, isn’t really a property that has that much to go off of. There is meat in a novel, or one would hope. It is not easy to translate everything from the page to the screen.

I would like to talk about a specific example of a book to film translation that lost lot of the material from the source text, but still managed to be entertaining without having read the book. I am, of course, talking about Jurassic Park. This is a movie that is considered a cultural milestone. It was a movie of great significance, being the first movie to have DTS sound in Theatres and the home video markets. It was a high water mark for visual effects. It was also a damn good film.

The movie is missing a huge amount of content to be found in the book, some of which made it into the third movie. An example of something that was left out was an explanation as to why park staff never noticed the dinosaurs were breeding. In the book, it is explained that the population sensors stopped counting after the population reached a specific target population. Let us call this X. If the population rose above X, the computers wouldn’t bother counting. However, if the population fell significantly below X, the computers would let staff know. This is a seemingly small detail, but it ties into the theme of the arrogance of man in the face of unknown technology. The staff never programmed the counters to count for populations greater than X because they assumed they had control over the population, saw no need to code it in, and decided to cut that corner to save time and money.

In the movie, this scene is is instead replaced by the characters berating John Hammond about his lack of care in developing the park and a small scene later in the movie where one character finds a nest of dinosaur eggs. It is not the same sequence of events in the book. A number of scenes were cut, and as such a chunk of dialogue was missing. However, the point that Hammond was arrogant enough to not consider the possibility that his creations were already out of his control before Nedry did what he did is still driven home with the discovery of the nest. Point still made.

Things need to be changed in order to reflect the medium. With books, you have a lot of space to work with. In movies, not so much. Thus it is understandable that there will be missing elements. However, there are ways to work said elements into the movie without having them explicitly take away from huge bits of screen time. In other words, they can be implied. This does take a bit of creativity on the part of the cast and crew. Non-specific examples include set dressing, such as movies where space ships have love letters stuck to a crew member’s walls, adding a little texture to the character and the setting. I do believe Sunshine did this very thing, making the isolation and remoteness of the crew more evident on a subconscious level. Of course they are lonely and far from safety, they’re on a space ship where they have to plaster their walls with letters from loved ones to remember they still have something to return to! By the way, watch the movie. Regardless of what you think of the end, it is an interesting film.

As I said, I have not seen, nor read The Hunger Games, and as such I can only go by what is being said in the review. This is very unprofessional of me and I apologise. However, I am not a professional, so there is that. In any case, from the reviewer’s point of view, there were elements of the film that seemed to be lacking. The commenter pointed out that they were covered in the book, the specific example being the area in which the contestants have to fight. The reviewer believed, not having read the book, that the arena was not clearly enough explained in the the movie.

I can see this as being a problem for some people, especially if the people running the game are able to conjure up disasters at will. How do they do this? Especially after the arena seems to be mostly normal looking vegetated areas?

Judging by how the film is tracking, it is not a problem for all people. I have a few friends who have seen the film without reading the book who enjoyed the movie. Then again, I also have friends who recommended I watch Transformers, because it would be the most awesome movie I saw that year. How I have not murdered them yet probably speaks to my self control…

There is probably something a little more interesting at play, where people are willing to forgive inconsistencies as long as the movie is engaging enough. Returning to Jurassic Park, where the hell did that massive drop come from? You know the one I am talking about, the one which the T.rex drops the car down after its initial rampage? It was not there in the previous scenes. In the moment, people do not care because it is that well done.

This is becoming less and less the case in modern films where frenetic cutting and bloated “special” effects sequences try to take the place of genuine suspense and engaging action. Hands up who of you could really tell which robot was punching which robot in the Transformers movies? The busy character designs do have something to do with it, but it’s the way the scenes are constructed that are most to blame. I saw the movie with someone who didn’t even realise Jazz had died until the end of the Mission City sequence! This is an indicator of a badly made movie.

Unfortunately, it is in vogue to construct action sequences like this these days and with the increase in films being shot with jittery cameras and split second cuts in the action, there is less for the film to hide behind. If someone can’t invest in what’s going on because they can’t tell what’s going on, they may wander to other things. Things such as what the point of a specific arc in the movie’s plot is. Or things such as what rules the universe is playing by. And if these things are found to be lacking, well then, you have a pretty disappointing product. (Although studies have shown that the more someone suffers to get something, the more they appreciate it, even if it is something utterly worthless. Unfortunately, I have forgotten the citations for this D: ).

So could it be that people defending film adaptations because the book explains things and the film is really just made for them and no one else are really just trying to justify the “suffering” they have gone through by inflating the film’s worth? I mean, surely you wouldn’t have sat through it if you hadn’t enjoyed it, right?

And if they are not inflating the film’s worth, is it a good argument to make? Would a studio really allow a director to make a film to cater to a specific audience rather than go for wide appeal? This is where the $78 million budget comes back into play. As I have said, it is simultaneously small and not small. Sucker Punch proved that even a budget considered small by block buster standards (the first live action Transformers movie had a production budget of $150 million), the consequences of an unsatisfying film can be financially dire. Sucker Punch was a film with niche appeal, what with combat mechs and demonic samurai packing chain guns, and it suffered for it. A film based on a book that assumes intimate knowledge of the source material for a budget that can result in a reasonably big loss is a risky proposition. It is unlikely, in “normal” circumstances, for a studio to green light a project like this.

I said “normal” circumstances because a few interesting things have happened, namely Harry Potter and Twilight. These are two franchises based on young adult books that have seen amazing box office performance. If not for the performance of these francises, I am sure The Hunger Games would have been passed on, and if it was not passed on, more time would have been spent on exposition. So if a franchise based on YA lit is a licence to print money, why should a film maker really care about the quality of their film as a stand alone product? Is it really that the film was made specifically for fans of the book, not holding their hands because they have the knowledge required to make things make sense? Or could it be that they couldn’t bother with weaving detail into the world because YA lit film adaptations seem to be a guaranteed hit and quality doesn’t really matter?

I speak not to the actual quality of the film (even though my last sentence may have implied that) but to the quality of the argument. It is kind of naive, or maybe a little bit egocentric to think money minded people developing LUXURY products with huge initial investment could possibly make a product specifically for you, and not Joe or Jane Everybody just because the product they made cut some corners in order to get out within budget.

Seriously (and I do apologise for the all caps), this is the argument you are making:

IT DOESN’T MATTER THAT THE FILM DOESN’T EXPLAIN SOMETHING WHICH MAKES THE FILM SEEM FLIMSY AS A RESULT BECAUSE THE BOOK EXPLAINED IT AND IT IS A FILM MADE SPECIFICALLY FOR US PEOPLE WHO READ THE BOOK AND WE KNOW WHAT HAPPENED BECAUSE WE READ THE BOOK AND THUS THE FILM IS ENJOYABLE BECAUSE OF OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH A PRODUCT THAT IS NOT THE PRODUCT IN QUESTION!!! IT IS ACTUALLY TO THE FILM’S BENEFIT THAT IT CANNOT STAND UP AS A PRODUCT IN ITS OWN RIGHT!!

Films are rarely, if ever, made for the fans. Take a look at video game adaptations. DOOM for example had almost nothing to do with the video game franchise in question. It didn’t go for the over the top lone man battles demons in hell approach of the first few games, nor did it really go for the atmospheric and sometimes terrifying Lone Man fights for survival against demons from hell after some idiot stuffed something up approach. It is a generic sci-fi action flick that tries too hard to be scary to be campy fun like the first few games, and tries too hard to be campy to be scary like DOOM 3, the game it cribbed most of its artistic design from. Also it completely drops the Demons from Hell angle because it would be too offensive to the general public. That’s right, the general public, not fans!

Also what the heck is Street Fighter and what does it have to do with the games?

Franchises are picked up because an executive or two think the idea can make money. More money is made the more people the film can reach out to. If a film is made specifically for the fans of an already existing property, how will that draw in new customers and by extension their new money?

Remember these two words should remind you of the errors of your thinking and of the dangers of niche products with large-ish budgets:

SUCKER PUNCH

Children of Men, or a powerful commodity?

So like Children of Men is one of my favourite movies of foreverrrr!!!!!

I was so very happy when it came out. It was a brilliantly bleak soft science fiction film, not without an odd sense of optimism that explored something I think is a very interesting topic.

So let’s set the scene. It is 20 minutes into the future and women have all become infertile. The world collapses and the last bastion of civilisation is an increasingly xenophobic and totalitarian UK. The UK has shut its boarders to foreigners and refugees are rounded up into camps and may/may not be executed. Also there have been no babies born for 18 years.

18 YEARS.

Also the film starts off with everyone being depressed because the world’s youngest person (who really came off as kind of a prick) is stabbed to death.

So far so interesting, no?

The *really* interesting part comes when our main character is introduced to a woman who, beyond all odds, turned out to be pregnant. This is a huge shock to him. Bigger than Ben Hur, and that was pretty dang big to begin with. What complicates issues is that said woman is a refugee.

Being the world’s first pregnant woman in 18 years and being a refugee in a totalitarian, xenophobic country makes things complicated for the poor woman. People start moving to utilise her and her body for their own political, social, or monetary gains. Our hapless main character is tasked with escorting her to a safe haven that may or may not exist.

The real meat of the film comes in the form of these sociopolitical tussles between an extremist group that wants to use the woman and her baby as a symbol of hope to help topple the government, and the looming threat that if the government finds her, they will make her deliver the baby, kill her and claim the baby is born of a local woman.

The idea that a woman can be reduced to nothing more than a biological function in the eyes of various political factions is a scary one indeed. The situation is one opposite of abortion, where the woman just wants to give birth to her child in peace, but there is an underlying unifying issue here. The issue the film is getting at is the lack of decision making power the woman has regarding to the functioning of her own body.

With abortion, the woman’s choice in the matter is often overlooked because the issue of murder comes in. The issue becomes a political, social, and religious matter first, and a matter of an individual’s choice in how their body functions second. It becomes a matter of whether taking a life is ever permissible or morally justifiable. Once this question is resolved, the issue of the woman’s choice of what to do with her body can then be addressed. The woman’s choice is already shifted back in favour of the consideration of the nature of death. It is a political issue because governments are afraid of offending potential voting demographics with unpopular decisions. It is a social issue because if taking a life is murder in all cases (i.e. immoral and unjustifiable) then the woman is a monster. It becomes a religious issue because life is sacred and it goes beyond a mere moral wrong. It becomes an affront to God to go against his design.

With the movie, the woman’s choice in the matter is overlooked because of the important political and social implications of a woman who is a foreigner being pregnant. It becomes a political issue because ascribing the level of importance a pregnant woman would have to a foreigner would fly in the face of the government’s stance on foreigners. It becomes a social issue because people fighting for social change want to use the woman and her body and her status as a refugee as a catalyst for said social change. It becomes a monetary issue because some people want to sell her and her baby to the highest bidder. Never is the woman’s opinion considered. In all cases these people want to use her body for their own ends and they view her as an entity that performs a specific biological function first and a fellow human being never.

Really, rights are nebulous things and I do not think there are any ‘natural’ rights or laws that make humans particularly special or human life particularly worth protecting. By this I mean there is no objective worth to human life. There will always be subjective worth. I know I was personally struck hard when a friend of mine committed suicide, so I know that life can mean a lot to people. I am just afraid of the ‘value’ of life being perverted and used by groups to push their agendas upon others.

So a good, thought provoking, depressing and hopeful soft science fiction film. Well done all involved.

“War has changed…”

When I was a kid watching cartoons I always got annoyed that the section of the wall that turned out to be the secret door was always a different colour.

If you are wondering what the preceding sentence had to do with a Fallout 3 quote, let me tell you it had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Really, what I would like to talk about this entry is a bit of a personal taste issue. I am talking about sound in Killzone 3.

Killzone 3 was a game that could in no way live up to the hype. One could say it pandered to the fans a little too much with the characteristic heavy killzone feel being watered down to make it feel like a slightly more weighty console Battlefield game. The attempts at making it colourful were well handled, I suppose, if an almost entirely out of character and inconsequential jungle stealth mission count for anything. Characters were omitted from the story without explanation (Natko, where did you go you annoying SOB?). But all in all it was a fun game. Except for the end. The end was one of the most disappointing ends in my recent video gaming history. It is really funny how much better Portal 2’s end felt while boiling down to the same thing. Both games were ended by the player pressing a single button, yet Portal 2’s ending felt immensely more satisfying. This is not what I want to talk about, however.

What I would like to talk about is sound. Particularly sound in multiplayer. The multiplayer portion of Killzone 3 was an interesting beast. It gave with one hand while taking away with the other. The ability to search for matches that suit your preference (Killzone 2: Pistol only? Sure, why not?) replaced by a somewhat shoddy matchmaking system that dumped you into a hopefully playable game (It did get better with time though). It, however, added Operations mode which was basically a mini campaign complete with cutscenes! Well done Guerilla Games, well done. But during beta, I noticed something that at first made me deeply uncomfortable, that then went on to give me immense joy.

This something special would later be dubbed “overly enthusiastic death sounds”. Yes, I felt joy at hearing people screaming and whimpering in agony as they bled out of their many bullet wounds. This, of course, is not because I am sadistic. No, it is because it gave the game a sense of authenticity that some may condescendingly call “Grim Dark”. By the way, Tvtropes was linked. Consider yourself warned. After all, it is war. I think it goes beyond saying that war is hellish. It was flavour like this that made me especially fond of the Killzone brand.

However, beta ended, and with it, so did the gloriously hideous and disconcerting death rattle. Or rather, with feedback from the community, GG patched it out with patch 1.12.

You can try your luck looking for the original screams here.

I’ve seen excuses that amount to “But soldiers are meant to be badass! No way they’d be screaming in pain and fear when they’re bleeding out!” Needless to say, I do not find that an appropriate excuse. I wonder, would, for example, Saving Private Ryan have been as effective if the scene where the medic bled out after being shot in the stomach didn’t have him crying hysterically after realising he was going to die. Steamboat Willie!!

It’s no secret that war shooters are big business. EA has recently stated that Battlefield 3 has reached 10 million sales. I find it disconcerting that consumers are happy to engage in bombastic military wank while being unable or unwilling to consider the darker or more depressing side of conflict. It’s all good to engage in war as long as the war experience plays out like a big budget action film and not like embedded war footage.

This really just makes me miss Six Days in Fallujah, a game that aimed to depict conflict in a more realistic, terrifying light by making the game play out like a survival horror game.
Unfortunately the game was cancelled due to it representing an actual conflict. And by cancelled, I mean the publisher that had originally had no problems with it decided to drop it as soon as it became controversial. Never mind that it was developed under the supervision of soldiers who fought in said conflict under their grace. Still, this is a particularly touchy subject since, well, real people died and this made their family understandably upset.

There is argument to be made that games are escapist fantasies, and for the most part they are. For example, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is basically a rich person simulator. What would you do on an island if you had lots of money and could afford a bunch of supercars? However, lumping all games into the escapist bucket is selling interactive media short. Games can be so much more than elaborate Skinnerian conditioning machines.

I urge those of you with a strong constitution to play Freedom Bridge. It is a very simplistic experience, and yet something so very soul crushing. Sure there are some in the comments that argue such a simplistic example of interactive media cannot be meaningfully classed as a game, but that is opening a whole other can of worms. It doesn’t change the fact that it is a piece of interactive media that sheds light on some of the horrors faced by people.

Some may argue that Killzone 3 being a work of fiction should not have to depict people dying in such a pathetic way. But if it is a creative work crafted by artists committed to a vision, what is there to say that they cannot make it as horrific as they want to? If it makes the end user uncomfortable, maybe it would make them think twice about the nigh on fetishistic portrayal of military paraphernalia and scenarios in their medium of choice.

In the end, I truly believe with patch 1.12, Killzone 3 lost something of itself. It watered down part of its character and compromised itself to make people consuming it feel more comfortable with their current schema of how military should be depicted in video games rather than challenging them to alter their perceptions.

As a little bonus have an educational (somewhat NSFW) video about War crimes in the Modern Warfare trilogy:

Enjoy!

Djent or What makes a Subgenre? or Hubris on my part

So, as some of you may know, there is a new Meshuggah album on the horizon. This would seem like an opportune time to talk about Djent.

Just what is Djent? It is one of the many subgenres of heavy metal music. What does Djent have to do with Meshuggah? Well, they coined it. Why Djent?

The onomatopoeia of a heavily palm muted distorted guitar chord which is usually played as but not limited to a 4 string double octave powerchord, and as a result sounds much more metallic and sonically present than a ‘chug’ ‘chugga’ or ‘djun’ per se…

Djent bands tend to use 7 or 8 string guitars, allowing them to populate their songs with an abundance of bassy sounding and groovy riffs. Songs may employ polyrhythms, or sound polyrhythmic. Here are some examples:

Whether or not Djent is actually a subgenre of heavy metal music is a matter of some debate and some controversy. While I believe having a term for music that sounds vaguely Meshuggah-ish is useful, others think the idea silly.

Maybe we should start calling doom metal ‘DUNNN’.

Post-metal band Rosetta has said. Let us for the moment overlook that post-metal itself is a subgenre that causes some confusion amongst metalheads.

There is no such thing as ‘djent,’ it’s not a genre.

Randy Blythe, vocalist of Lamb of God.

Understandable that musicians take issue to the fact that Djent is a subgenre that seems like it almost exclusively categorises music on the basis of the sound of a palm muted power chord. I hope you can see from the above videos that there are other stylistic similarities, however.

Unlike, say Gothenburg sound, the Djent scene doesn’t have a particular geographic centre. Gothenburg metal did go on to influence bands from other locations (think of the number of metalcore bands that use Gothenburg style riffs), Djent has really had a more global emergence.

Tesseract are a British band, Periphery are American, Textures hail from the Netherlands, SikTh are another UK based band, Coprofago are from Chile (and their name means feces eating), and of course Meshuggah are from Sweden.

But should we hold this against Djent? The age of the internet has really brought the world closer together allowing ideas to be disseminated much more rapidly than before. Technology has reached a point where for very little money, people can produce music in their own home. The power of the internet in creating a global base for a genre can be demonstrated by the fact that Bandcamp has a tag for Djent.

If a subgenre could be said to be a selection of musical output that shares specific, identifiable characteristics that can then be represented in a market as a separate entity from other flavours of the parent genre, then I’d say Djent may just be a subgenre.

In my infinite wisdom, I decided to play “journalist” (nb, I am in no way a real journalist) and interview a friend about what he thought constituted a subgenre. His criterion was as follows:

fan speciation

The presence of an entire community dedicated to Djent would satisfy this criterion.

Edit: He did concede that subgenres being a way to index and market specific flavours of a parent genre sounds more applicable and less recursive than fan speciation. I just really liked the term =P Told you I wasn’t a Journalist.

I do not see why a lack of geographic centre could possibly invalidate a subgenre of music, especially in today’s highly connected world. It may not have the culture of Black Metal or the immediate geographic recognisability of Gothenburg Sound, but it certainly has a recognisable aesthetic.

The main problem I see for Djent as a subgenre is that bands that exhibit Djent stylings have in most cases already been claimed by other subgenres. If, say Coprofago are a technical death metal band, why should they also be seen as a Djent band? Is there room for Djent? If Coprofago can reach more people through the Technical Death Metal label, is there a need for them to be recognised as Djent, even though they do have Djent elements in their music? Similarly, Periphery is easily subsumed by Metalcore and Mathcore. The Djent style can be applied on top of other subgenres, making the whole thing messier.

The beauty of music is having ideas bleed into and influence other ideas. Jazz influenced Hip Hop is a beautiful thing to my ears, where the majority of the non-Jazz influenced stuff isn’t to my liking, but that is neither here nor there. This bleed and cross pollination, however, makes indexing a pain in the backside of anyone who tries to go about it. I do remember reading reviews of Blackwater Park that stated Opeth were a Black Metal band. True, they had Black Metal leanings in their previous works, but by Blackwater Park, they were truly something entirely unlike Black Metal. In metal I find the cross pollination of subgenres to be a particular problem. The days of listening to a band and being able to clearly identify them as a Thrash band or a Death Metal band or an NWOBHM band are long gone.

So then is Djent better thought of as a series of characteristics to be slotted on top of preexisting subgenres? That is yet to be seen as the Djent movement is still in its infancy.

It’s a rather tricky thing in the end. I shall continue to use Djent among a community that identifies music as Djent because it is sure to lead me to music I will likely find interesting. To me that is the point of subgenre labels, not cultural wankery.