A Review of Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Despite being one of the most culturally enduring intellectual properties of all time, Dungeons and Dragons has never really made its way into film. There’s the really awkward Jeremy Irons one from the 2000s and its straight-to-DVD offspring, but it is unlikely that anyone is going to legitimately claim those as personal favorites outside of ironic humor. Perhaps this is a fault of Dungeons and Dragons inherently being a little bit derivative as a classical fantasy greatest hits collection. Whatever the reason, Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves seeks to right these wrongs by delivering a charming experience that perfectly captures the spirit of the Forgotten Realms in a fun comedic light.
Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves made the best possible first impression by thoroughly surpassing expectations that it would be a dumpster fire, instead proving to be both charming and engaging, especially for being an adaptation of a piece of media that is intrinsically difficult to adapt. It is charmingly written, holds a lot of love for the source material, and has a great cast. Pretty much all of the performances are excellent, with Regé-Jean Page’s character really standing out as fantastic. The comedy is a little hit-or-miss, but there is enough chemistry among the cast and a good-natured attitude that keeps the film going.
The biggest strength of Honor Among Thieves is its subtle world building elements, such as the Tabaxi puppet and little Rust Monsters climbing around buildings. A deep and passionate love and care for this universe emanates from the design team. The repeated use of practical effects is shocking in an era where everything is largely dominated by CGI. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of CGI (although it looks fairly competent, especially in the case of a rather adorable rotund creature), but little elements like the utilization of partly puppet-based costumes for more fantastical humanoid creatures is very commendable. It’s also pretty cool just to see places like Icewind Dale and creatures like the Displacer Beast on screen, and that smoothes over the occasional rough patch. These kinds of moments with incredibly cool creatures and locations serve as nice moments for both existing fans of the game while also being cool enough to draw in the uninitiated. You can absolutely lose yourself in the film’s beautifully realized world.
The only thing holding Honor Among Thieves back is its reliance on Marvel-esque tropes popularized about a decade back. The quippy dialogue works some of the time and isn’t overly off-putting, but it does feel very derivative of modern broad appeal cinema culture, and sometimes the jokes don’t land. Dialing back the hit-or-miss comedy back a little bit and maybe cutting one or two extremely Marvel-esque scenes would have gone a long way. This issue could definitely be worked on in sequels now that the IP feels like it no longer has to prove itself to a mainstream audience. The sequel should keep the upbeat comedic tone ; it’s just that the very distinctive dialogue writing style feels a little bit overdone.
Overall, Honor Among Thieves is charming for its beautiful world and fun characters with great performances, despite some MCU-esque awkwardness. There is a tangible love for the source material and a great deal of effort put into realizing the world. Fans would watch about another three of these with pretty much no questions asked, and it will be fascinating to see what they do with an inevitable Magic: The Gathering film.
Going Over the 2023 Oscar Best Picture Nominations
Like a seasonal influx of plague-carrying rats in 14th century Europe, the Oscars return once again to present a handful of films as the supposed best of the year. Here is a short breakdown of each best picture nominee so you can brag to your friends that you’re a cinema expert after picking the incredibly niche one as your winning horse.
Top Gun: Maverick: It’s a one to one remake of Top Gun but with the great Miles Teller from Whiplash. Are you fond of Top Gun? If so, you have probably already seen this eighty-seven times. It is generally a pretty charming film, despite being derivative of the original. The aerial cinematography is phenomenal and really impressive.
Everything Everywhere All at Once: A zany but heartfelt story where martial arts star Michelle Yeoh learns to utilize different alternate lives across the multiverse. This had a massive following when it came out, and fans of the film are extremely passionate. I think the blend of creativity and celebrity talent lends Everything Everywhere All at Once a solid shot at taking home an award or two.
Avatar: The Way of Water: Despite taking over a decade, James Cameron’s second film about ten-foot tall blue CGI cat people did actually come out this year. Narratively, The Way of Water is a little bit of a hot mess, but it’s visually beautiful and Cameron really knows how to shoot a movie. Great creature designs, above-average modern action, and generally pretty watchable even if it does suffer from a lot of issues carried over from the first film. At the very least, Avatar is probably winning best visual effects or something similar.
Elvis: Continuing the recent and extremely popular trend of the dramatic celebrity biopic this year is Elvis, in which Tom Hanks does a questionable accent for two hours. Austin Butler’s performance garnered a massive amount of praise and launched him to immediate stardom.
The Fabelmans: Steven Spielberg’s love letter to cinema, and likely a lot of his own experiences, is captured beautifully through this coming of age story about a young film enthusiast. It’s Steven Spielberg, the man is great.
Women Talking: Women Talking is a tense drama about the horror of sexual abuse, in this case in a small religious community.
Tár: Starring the great Cate Blanchett as a monstrous composer, Tár is stressful, engaging, and thoughtful, and it has generated a lot of buzz online.
Other nominations include The Banshees of Inisherin, a tale of a broken relationship between two friends living on a small Irish island; Triangle of Sadness, a classic but interesting premise of the super-rich being marooned on a desert island; and All Quiet on the Western Front, a remake of a classic war film based on a book of the same name.
A Review of HBO’s The Last of Us
Video game adaptations are a tricky thing to get right. There have been some films and series that break the mold, but most end up somewhere in the range of “meh,” “terrible,” and “so terrible it’s kind of funny.” This I believe stems from a combination of factors, including a general disdain for the idea of games as art that persists within Hollywood, unreasonably high fan expectations, and a general struggle to adapt something so deeply tied to interaction to a more static form. I am therefore pleased to announce that HBO’s adaptation of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us has so far proved to be pretty solid in its early episodes. The Last of Us was one of the most well-received and respected entries in the medium of video games when it released in the early 2010s, and with it in essence being 70 percent film already in terms of structure, it was dying for this kind of treatment. It has all the classic elements of a terrifying and unique zombie apocalypse, a strong emotional dynamic, and the world’s worst cross-country road trip.
Adaptations, particularly of video games, tend to drastically mess with the source material. Whether these be awkward additions, cut concepts, or just a completely unrecognizable transformation (see 1993’s Super Mario Bros.), these kinds of changes are typically not received well. The Last of Us smartly avoids this pitfall by sticking heavily to the original script, even to exact lines of dialogue and scene composition, and only making alterations in the form of smoothing out narrative sections that were largely gameplay heavy or inserting interesting flashbacks to before the “totally-not-zombie” outbreak. I really liked the additional scenes from the early period of the outbreak. It felt like they meaningfully fleshed out the world of the series and carefully built upon the framework the game provided. Seeing things like the flashback to Jakarta and the 60s talk show made the setting feel immersive and comprehensive. I particularly liked the extra scenes with Joel and his family as they made the eventual shocking collapse of everything around him that much more impactful.
The one issue I have with how closely the series sticks to the game is that hearing the same dialogue and seeing the scenes play out identically to the game evokes a little bit of a nauseating “déjà vu” feeling after a while. It’s not a huge issue, but they shouldn’t have felt that constrained by the source material.
In terms of performances, Pedro Pascal is fantastic as Joel. He really manages to capture the heart of the performances in the scenes before the collapse of society, and he comes off as very hopeless and silently angry in the bulk of the series. Bella Ramsey works well as Ellie, although she hasn’t been given too much time to really shine in any particular scenes yet. Her performance is solid though, managing to capture Ellie’s characteristic sarcastic demeanor, and she works well with Pascal.
The real standout element of the series is its cinematography and visuals. The series looks fantastic. The use of what I assume is a massive green screen or a digital backdrop screen to create these amazing vistas of overgrown urban landscapes works fantastically well, and the interiors of buildings are suitably grimy and disgusting. The level of attention to detail really makes the world feel alive and lived-in. The effects on the fungus are also pretty neat. The clickers look disgusting, the giant fungal masses on their heads are incredibly well done, and they make the suitably horrific clicking noises and screeches. I also really like the effects for the fungus that clings to buildings and the creepy little tendrils. They even managed to loot the fungal wall guy from Annihilation.
The Last of Us promises to be one of the best shows of the year and is a thoughtful adaptation of a modern classic in gaming. It has great performances, fantastic special effects, and a lot of creative spirit. I would strongly recommend the series if you happened to be a fan of the source material, or if you just like competently made zombie related media.
Casting a Spell Once Again: Magic: The Gathering’s Resurgence in Popularity
Magic: The Gathering holds the title of the original trading card game and has remained a consistent background staple of pop-culture since the early 90s. I’ve always enjoyed board and card games, and the Pokémon trading card game was my jam when I was growing up. 95 percent of Zoomers probably did not know the rules as kids, but Magic was always there. It allured players with its zany fantasy art, but always seemed overly complicated to me as a child and lacked the cuddliness of the Pokémon (your average Magic card depicts a giant, biomechanical zombie worm rather than, say, a large, yellow rodent). It wasn’t until middle school that I really got into the game, establishing a miniature, impromptu game in my local CCD class of all places. Then I just fell out of the game for several years, and it wasn’t until this year’s winter break that I was pulled back in. I’m so glad I started playing the game, however, as this is a great time for Magic, especially for new players.
Deck-building has always been a little bit of a hassle in Magic compared to something like Pokémon. In Pokémon you take some creatures with a vaguely similar aesthetic and you’re pretty much good after that. Magic uses a similar system of color-based card types, but there are endless strategies within strategies. Every color operates differently, there are multiple, deeply involved strategies in each color (milling, token spam, and artifact heavy to name just a few), and experienced players are going to crush you with the deck they’ve been carefully building for the last two to thirty years. It’s a lot, so when I found the recent Jumpstart ecosystem, a format where you combine two packs of cards into one larger semi-randomly generated deck, I was hooked back in. It combined a lot of the random fun of opening card packs with the knowledge that whatever you inadvertently create will be at least somewhat competitive. This was a great time, and I quickly drew my friends from my hometown into the bottomless abyss of card games alongside me. We played games with these packs for hours upon hours. Ultimately I found a combination of a pack titled “wolves” and a pack titled “gross” to be my personal winner after I won at least five times in a row with it and had it deemed “busted” by my comrades.
With this newfound excitement for Magic, I had a desire to play in a public setting. Typically, comic book shops or hobby stores will have a set of tables or a spare room for this purpose, likely with a guy who is shouting about three times louder than necessary. I went twice over the break to my local shop, but the second time was nuts. Dozens of people crammed into a room smaller than a Feinstein classroom. This was the launch of the first new set of cards for 2023, and people were excited. This brings me to Draft. By far the favorite format I tried on this foray back into Magic was Draft, in which players draft their decks from a rotating pool of cards and then play in a tournament format. Generally, you open a pack, take a card, and then pass it along and take a card from the pack of the person next to you. There’s a lot I like about Draft. It maintains a lot of strategy and choice while also feeling relatively straightforward and balanced as everyone’s picking cards from the same pool. In the extremely popular Dominaria: Remastered draft, I was able to finish fourth overall with a black and white deck I hastily assembled around a card depicting a giant, floating eyeball with a silly name. I take that as a win. 2023 is the 30th anniversary of Magic: The Gathering, and there’s no better time to get back into it if you’re like myself or try it for the first time. This upcoming February sees the release of the much-anticipated Phyrexia: All Will be One, which seems to have a very cool and creepy biomechanical visual aesthetic. If you’re a student or faculty member who happens to have an interest in playing some Magic or starting a tabletop-gaming club, feel free to send me a message at email@example.com.
The Cultural Obsession Continues
Pokémon is probably one of those few universal phenomena to be deeply ingrained in the gestalt consciousness of everyone born between 1990 and 2005. There’s something inherently appealing in collecting and battling weird little monsters. If you’re a Zoomer, you likely have some kind of buried nostalgia for Bulbasaur (Bulbasaur is the best of the classic trio and you’re lying to yourself if you think otherwise). Thus, it pleases me to announce that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is a fine addition to the rich tapestry of the pocket monster dynasty. I realize Scarlet and Violet are legally two separate games, but as the sole meaningful variation between them is the color of the reptilian creature on the box, I will refer to them as a singular entity.
The most immediately striking feature of Scarlet and Violet is the new format and transition to a full-open world. Past series entries have dabbled with this idea, but it comes into force in Scarlet and Violet. The entire game map is now sprawling and seamless, allowing players to traverse the most fully realized depiction of a Pokémon flavored environment to date. The gameplay itself is no longer the linear trail of battles that the series has long been plagued by, but is now instead a set of distinct objectives players can complete at their own personal leisure. It’s a fantastic change in form, reminiscent of what Elden Ring did for the Dark Souls format. It’s incredibly charming to see Pokémon roaming around little virtual ecosystems and the seamless nature of the world and gameplay’s relationship adds an extra level of immersion.
Despite whatever new features the game brings, there is only one thing people truly care about when one of these new drops happens, and that is the design quality of the monsters. Scarlet and Violet’s critters are excellent and a breath of fresh air after a couple years of mediocrity. The three starter Pokémon, Sprigatito, Quaxly, and Fuecoco, are adorable and manage to feel distinct yet cohesive. The rest of the Pokémon feel a little all over the place, but in a good way. I get the vibe of “here are a bunch of good ideas we had that we had never tried before,” rather than trying to theme them around the region. The best example of this is Finizen, an adorable little dolphin monster that fulfills the somehow unfulfilled niche throughout the eight previous Pokémon iterations of a dolphin themed creature. A key difference between every set of twin Pokémon games is its legendary poster-boys, but Scarlet and Violet makes these twins a key gameplay component in addition to just a fun layer of theatrics. Miraidon and Koraidon are two odd but interesting looking reptiles with vague elements of a motorcycle jammed into their biology. They’re both obtained early-on in a non-combat form and act as an impromptu vehicle. This works nicely with the new open world, and the bizarre lizard Harley Davidson will develop new abilities as players progress like gliding and climbing sheer cliff faces because of course they can.
With everything excellent on display here, there is still sadly an elephant in the room, and that is the game’s performance. The Switch is by no means a powerful piece of hardware. It’s around six years old and was underpowered when it first came out in comparison to its competition. Nintendo and its partners have smartly worked around this by largely producing stylized games or incredibly polished and optimized products that are generally unaffected by this limitation. Scarlet and Violet ignore this methodology and are a little janky and rough around the edges. Low frame rates, pop-in, and generalized bugginess are consistent issues without a real solution. I’d expect some of this to be fixed over time, but this will likely remain an unpolished game. I have seen people throw this game completely under the bus for these kinds of issues, but I don’t share that sentiment. Its flaws are persistent and a little annoying, but Scarlet and Violet ultimately remain a fun game despite them. The framework is solid and the game is filled to the brim with good ideas; the execution was just a little rushed.
In conclusion, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is an excellent addition to the classic franchise that provides a much-needed retranslation of the classic format while maintaining its signature style. Its additions to the ongoing catalog of pocket monsters are worthwhile and charming in every way. It had technical issues as a result of the Switch’s aging hardware and its own poor optimization but shines through these faults to remain a fun experience. I really enjoyed Scarlet and Violet, and I’m extremely excited to see where the series goes from here.
A Menagerie of Smooth, Psychedelic Dreamscapes
Australian psychedelic rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard—best known for their bizarre name and incredible variation in style and influence—have continued their insane pace of album releases this year with Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms, and Lava; Laminated Denim; and Changes. All three albums are excellent and definitely lean towards the stronger end of their discography. While I do wish the band would return to fantasy-inspired metal (we may have peaked with Murder of the Universe and Infest the Rats’ Nest), I really enjoyed the last month of their musical output. Allow me to break down my thoughts on the respective albums for you.
Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms, and Lava is the most jazz-focused of the bunch, with an upbeat and aggressive pace throughout. It’s pretty varied thematically, touching on fungus, space, and iron lungs of all things. Speak of the devil, “Iron Lung” is the real winner here. It’s a massive, 10-minute epic with fantastic vocals and some amazing drum and piano work, not to mention the woodwind and brass interspersed throughout. Obviously, it’s not directly related to the music itself, but the song has one of the weirdest and most unique music videos I’ve seen in quite some time in the form of a sprawling collection of odd, psychedelic paintings. It’s worth checking out. It’s generally a solid album, and while it didn’t quite reach my expectations for it based on its wacky name, it was a good time.
Laminated Denim is the shortest of the bunch, only an EP. It’s soft and poppy with a distinctive rhythm. It’s short, containing only “The Land Before Timeland” and “Hypertension,” but upbeat and fun. I like it, but it’s the weakest of the bunch and lacks the feeling of experimentation the band’s music usually encapsulates. It probably could have fit into either Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms, and Lava, Laminated Denim, or Changes in terms of style and length, so its separation feels odd. Even so, it was a nice little addition between its larger brethren and still makes for an enjoyable listening experience.
Changes is the final album to have been released over the past few months and the most different to the band’s usual style. There are some elements of synth, lo-fi, and other approaches they don’t typically engage in. “Hate Dancin’” is my personal favorite on the album. It’s extremely poppy, catchy, and melodic. “Gondii” is a close second, blending the lighter elements of the album with the band’s more traditional fast-paced style for a nice light rock tone. I like Changes, but it does have a tendency to sort of blur into itself. Every song is very similar, and I feel like some variety would have gone a long way towards making the album stand out amongst their rapidly expanding discography.
Overall, these three are generally solid albums. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard are pretty dedicated to their craft, and everything here has their distinct sense of style and quality. I do think that these are maybe a little generic in terms of their output, but still enjoyable. I would consider Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms, and Lava to be the strongest of the three, as tracks like “Iron Lung” stand out and there’s a distinct flavor throughout. Changes is sort of in the middle for me, as it’s pretty good and catchy but all sounds very similar and is a little at odds with the band’s usual stylings. Laminated Denim is probably the weakest for me personally as it’s very short but feels like it’s going on for too long, coupled with a lack of personality. Generally, though, I am impressed by King Gizzard’s output over the last month, and I’m excited to see what they do next.
What Were You Guys Even Working On?
A Review of Overwatch 2
The original Overwatch launched in 2016 to overwhelmingly positive reviews and massive enthusiasm. It was a sleek, incredibly polished, hero-focused, team-based, first-person shooter game combining elements of beloved games in similar genres like Team Fortress 2 and League of Legends. Combine that with the pedigree of Blizzard Entertainment’s then untarnished reputation and characteristic charm, and you have a guaranteed success. The original Overwatch flourished upon its initial release, floundered slightly as a result of extremely infrequent updates essential to maintaining public interest in a live-service game, and eventually largely disappeared from the public eye after a handful of years as development was cut off to focus on the upcoming Overwatch 2. The sequel promised major updates and improvements, backwards compatibility, and a massive amount of cooperative Players versus Environment (PvE) gameplay. Now years later, Overwatch 2 has released in a bizarre state that has left fans largely disgruntled and questioning if it even deserves to be called a sequel.
To be blunt, Overwatch 2 feels more like a corporate effort to salvage a dying intellectual property than anything vaguely resembling an update. This is Overwatch 1.5 at best, and even that feels like an exaggeration. The new content amounts to a singular character, six new maps (at the cost of three from the previous game leaving the rotation), and a change from six versus six game play to five versus five. The PvE content promised as a major selling point is absent and won’t be available until next year. The singular new character, Kiriko, is locked behind a paywall and inaccessible until players purchase an additional battle pass or put dozens upon dozens of hours into the game. The five versus five format often turns the game into an unbalanced mess, as most of the original content was based on having six players on each team. Tank classes in particular are now grossly overpowered. User interfaces and logos have been tweaked, but it’s a smoke and mirrors act to distract from the fact that this game is blatantly identical in every meaningful way to its predecessor. It’s the same characters, on the same maps, playing the same game we played in 2016.
I wouldn’t hold your breath for the cooperative PvE content to save this game, as everything points to that being a disastrous mess. Having the core new experience for your title massively delayed on launch suggests that something is substantially flawed. Beyond this, a small taste of the PvE experience is present in the limited Halloween-themed event, Junkenstein’s Revenge: Wrath of the Bride, and it’s terrible. The event boils down to a team of four players making their way through a repurposed multiplayer map and defeating a horde of bland, faceless enemies and repurposed, AI-controlled characters. It’s an uninspiring slog of one-dimensional combat. The AI heroes in particular have massive health bars on higher difficulties and are generally tedious to fight. Not a great first showing for the largest selling point of this “sequel.”
With the launch of Overwatch 2, Blizzard had the game adopt the free-to-play model and completely reworked its progression and monetization systems. The game is technically free to play now, although that feels largely unhelpful to the majority of players who bought the game six years ago. The game going free-to-play seems like an inherent win, but with it comes a host of other issues and aggressive monetization in other areas. It’s fairly common for game publishers to turn titles into free-to-play structured experiences when they fail to perform as expected or are seeing a sharp decline in their active player count. Consider it a last resort option of sorts. It’s generally an attempt to revitalize a failing title or at least make some money off it before it goes. Previously, you could unlock cosmetic items and skins for your characters by leveling up and obtaining loot boxes. These loot boxes were four random items, but they were easily accessible and free to obtain. This has been completely done away with. Leveling is gone, now replaced solely by the battle pass. Loot boxes are also entirely absent. The game’s cosmetics are now solely obtainable through premium currency bought with real-world money. These skins aren’t cheap, and even in relation to the absurd price of cosmetic items and skins in most modern triple-A video games, these are outlandish. Your average skin for a single character is going to cost somewhere around 20 to 25 dollars. That is insanity. There is no reasonable way to justify that cost. These skins don’t even hold much value since Overwatch is a game played from the first-person perspective, meaning you barely see your character while playing and are constantly switching between a pool of several characters. Based on this aggressive monetization scheme, I would also assume that the eventual PvE section of the game will be a separate cost.
In conclusion, Overwatch 2 is a repackaging of the original title to reinvigorate public interest without bringing anything new or interesting to the table. Any changes that have been made are largely detrimental, and the revised monetization scheme is highly aggressive. I enjoyed the original when it launched so it’s sad to see it come to this, but Overwatch 2 is a shameless cash-grab rather than something meant to excite and please its audience.
Film Review: Prey
A Thoughtful Reinvention of a Cult Classic
Despite being a cult classic in the genre of slightly campy, ’80s sci-fi action Predator (1987) has always had its challenges with sequels. You would think that making a movie based largely on a handful of very intense people fighting an invisible crab man in an exotic locale would be a relatively straightforward undertaking, but Predator’s offspring have generally remained somewhere on the spectrum of far too goofy to overly dour. Prey (2022) represents a meaningful step forward in this field, as it retains the spirit of the original film while creating its own distinct identity and flavor. It represents a combination of the best elements of what worked in the Schwarzenegger classic with a modern flavor and new take on the subject matter.
The inclusion of Comanche culture and the 1700s American Great Plains as a setting is both Prey’s most immediately striking feature and its greatest design decision. The Comanche culture adds a feeling of uniqueness to the film, as Native Americans are rarely represented in lead roles in large-scale productions, and the significance of hunting within Comanche society ties in well to the themes the franchise is known for. Amber Midthunder gives an excellent performance as the film’s protagonist, Naru. She instills an immense amount of charisma and energy into the role. Thematically, much of the movie takes place during Naru’s ceremonial hunt, which is a nice framing device for the film as it juxtaposes her own hunt against her foe’s. Naru’s skills develop and grow as she learns from her opponent and gauges its strengths and shortcomings. I really enjoyed the period piece elements of the film because they explore an era and people that are not typically represented in this kind of affair and feel substantially differentiated from the heavily militarized commandos of the original.
The film’s cinematography is continuously strikingly beautiful and really encapsulates the feeling of a great, expansive wilderness. The film has a distinctly warm color palette and lovingly captures the feeling of the American wilds, and the fantastic sense of atmosphere and exploration throughout fully immerses the viewer. There’s a particularly well-composed sequence that masterfully uses fog and smoke to create a tense and unnerving atmosphere. The Yautja (the canonical name for the titular species of alien hunters referred to as “Predators”) has been redesigned to appear more naturalistic, sporting a helmet that resembles an animal skull more than the traditional metal mask look. It’s a nice change of pace from the traditional design and works in the context of the film’s period piece elements.
What I would attribute to Prey succeeding where many a Predator sequel has failed is a combination of its tone and use of the original film as a reference. Projects like AVP: Alien vs. Predator and The Predator have been silly and outlandish, while films like Predators have been overly serious and dour. All of these films attempt to up the ante of the Predator status quo, with design choices like upping the number of Yautja, throwing in the Xenomorphs from Alien and its sequels, and generally trying to artificially intensify the film by cramming as much as possible into the final product. Prey opts for a different, more minimalist approach to great effect. The film is largely consistent with the ideas and structure presented in the original film, and simply builds carefully upon its design philosophy. The new setting keeps the film fresh, but it retains much of the original’s charm out of its reverence and understanding of what made it work.
In conclusion, Prey marks the first great Predator sequel through its strong acting, production value, “back to basics” approach, and unique point of view. It’s a real shame that Prey was exiled to Hulu (likely as a casualty of the Disney and 20th Century Fox merger, although that is simply speculation) as it’s one of the strongest and most exciting films to come out this year and deserves to have had a theatrical release.
A New Era of Horror
A Clash of Bold Innovation and Time-Honored Tradition
Throughout its history as a genre of film media, horror-related cinema has long been defined by the tropes and stylistic flourishes of its era. There has often been a film, or a small collection of films, that would go on to inspire countless successors, imitators, and more. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which went on to lay the groundwork for the slasher sub-genre, the original Scream which led to an era of revitalized quality and self-awareness within the genre, and even more filmmaking-based trends such as The Blair Witch Project, which single-handedly created the found-footage boom. Now, within the last decade or so, an era of horror polarized by a distinct separation in philosophy has spawned. We have seen the rise of both the elevated horror subgenre, which prioritizes a greater narrative message and depth of commentary within films, as well as a “back to basic” approach to horror cinema and an emphasis on rebooting or continuing classic franchises. The duality of the art form is truly unique and eventful, and only time will tell which facet this period will be better remembered for.
Elevated horror is a subgenre of modern horror that prioritizes a more cerebral experience for the viewer and contains a greater emphasis on a thematically driven plot and source of terror. Most of these films contain social commentary as a core component such as It Follows (2015) which dealt with sexually transmitted disease as a key theme. Get Out (2017) dealt with racial microaggressions as a primary talking point, and The Lighthouse (2019) came to terms with the effects of isolation on mental health. Elevated horror was largely popularized by independent American entertainment production company A24, as well as indie directors and directors typically classified within the art house genre of filmmaking. This often gives these films a very unique look and feel unlike other works in the genre. They often incorporate very distinct shot composition, sound design, soundtracks, and a more personal narrative style. A work like Robert Eggers’s first feature film, The Witch, a masterful but extremely slow-burn period piece about a Puritan family confronting evil lurking in the woods. Complete with era appropriate dialect, it could never have been funded and produced in an era before these films were deemed acceptable and profitable. This is the beauty of the elevated horror movement. It provides a gateway to new ideas within the genre and substantially more experimental styles of filmmaking.
The other primary genre of horror popularized by the modern era is a combination of back-to-basics horror and the revitalization of classic franchises. Back to basics horror is relatively simple. It’s a trend of increasing complexity that elevated horror has brought to the table in favor of the basic genre staples such as one-dimensional slashers or classic tropes. A great example of this is Don’t Breathe (2016), in which a group of teenagers must escape from a dangerous and agitated blind man. It utilizes a simple set-up and classic genre elements but injects modern sensibilities and advancements to create a more refined, unique experience. The revitalization of classic horror franchises has also been a massive part of the modern horror renaissance. A multitude of franchises like Halloween, Scream, Candyman, and soon Hellraiser have returned to moderate success, but are mostly of questionable quality. These films tend to suffer from the same flaws of other nostalgia sequels within the modern era and are generally less impressive than the fresh ideas that new, unique projects have brought to the table. Still, some of these reboots present an interesting opportunity to reconfigure classic films and franchises to be better than they were originally. The upcoming Hulu reboot of Hellraiser seems to be much closer in line to what the original should have been tonally, and that’s inspiring. Careful and cautious innovation based on what worked and didn’t work in the past is often the best form of innovation.
In summary, we live in a fantastic era for cinematic horror. We are at the forefront of an extremely competitive artistic arms race to reconfigure the genre in bold and innovative ways. This is a golden age for fresh new ideas and consistent high production values in the field of horror movies. Only time will tell if the ideals of the auteur, art house style film makers or the classic, straightforward approach of traditionalists will reshape the genre going forward into the next decade.
Bored of the Rings
A Review of Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is odd on a conceptual level. It’s an expensive adaptation of the appendices for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a collection of Tolkien’s notes about the history and characters of Middle Earth and The Silmarillion. It’s also notably set in the Second Age of Middle Earth, thousands of years before most of the beloved characters from the novels have even been born. Beyond this, it’s helmed by two inexperienced show runners that spurned the possible involvement of Peter Jackson, the man responsible for the best Middle Earth adaptations to date. Did it work out? It’s hard to say. There have been five episodes released at the time of writing, and while interesting ideas have reared their heads now and again, much of the show feels slow and stagnant.
Nearly every scene is absolutely decked out in a mountain of computer-generated effects. The sky, trees, and a lot of the environments are digitally edited. It’s disorienting and often visually unappealing. There are some genuinely impressive shots and locations, but most feel very bland or fake. In the original films, Jackson displayed an innate strength for fantasy landscape composition and intelligently only utilized CGI for things that genuinely could not be done practically. Despite the show runners’ insistence on keeping Jackson separate from the project, they still attempted to reverse engineer his filmmaking style. It’s all very odd and indicative of the muddled creative process that led to this project.
In terms of writing, the show feels unpolished and confused in what it wants to accomplish. Much of the story is inspired by Tolkien’s work in The Silmarillion, although due to legal issues the writers could not use the narratives presented in that body of work. Galadriel has been reimagined as a Wonder Woman-esque warrior, Elrond is blander and softer than his appearance in the original trilogy, and everybody else on the ensemble cast is original and largely forgettable. Galadriel in particular feels poorly written. She’s clearly meant to be an incredibly powerful and stoic character, but she comes off as tedious and unlikable. There isn’t anything to relate to in her character; she’s always right, and her attitude feels sourer as opposed to the stoicism they were likely looking for. Plot wise, the show has felt slow and disjointed. There’s a hunt for Sauron after his apparent disappearance long ago, a mysterious man from the sky, Elrond’s assistance to an elven smith, and evidence of a resurgence of orcs. All of these are fine ideas, but they’re presented in a way that feels completely dispassionate. Five episodes in and barely any plot progression has occurred since the events set up in the first episode. It’s a slow-burn style of narrative, but without the tone or complexity to pull off that kind of structure.
An aspect of the show that feels evident beyond the attempts to conceal it is that much of the show feels devoid of Tolkien’s signature character and vision. Tolkien’s work has heart and personality, and feels well-developed and lived in. It manages a tone that feels serious and stoic while also incorporating whimsical elements and a charming, friendly atmosphere. The Rings of Power does a constant tonal flip-flopping between dour melodrama and slapstick. The creators also seem to lack the attention to detail for the intricacies of Tolkien’s world, for example, they completely ignore the fact that Tolkien’s female dwarves have beards despite their push to have female dwarves in a prominent role onscreen for the first time.
Everything about The Rings of Power feels dispassionate about its source material, and ultimately unsure of itself. It may have been a smarter decision to just create a new fantasy universe or adapt a popular contemporary series. Tolkien’s work imposes too much pressure for most creatives to live up to and will be inevitably judged with absolute scrutiny to see if it is representative of Tolkien’s beautiful world. The Rings of Power is often bland, at times even feels soulless, lacking both the character of Tolkien’s work and the quality of Jackson’s adaptations.