Saxon Bullock

Writer, Journalist, Copy-Editor and Proofreader

Legion S1 (Some Thoughts…)

I meant to blog about TV in 2017 for the last month or so. There were two shows in 2017 that stuck with me more than anything, and trying to get my thoughts on the challenging weirdness of Twin Peaks: The Return into shape proved to be a tricky task. There was also Legion, which I adored, but blogging about it didn’t happen for various reasons, and seemed destined to be one of those ‘blog posts I never get around to’.

And then, this weekend, I spotted that there’s a quote from my SFX review of Legion on the back cover of the UK release of the Blu-Ray:

This boggled the heck out of me – getting cover quotes is always great, getting a cover quote on something I loved as much as Legion is a rare treat – so I had to write something.

There’s a hell of a lot to write about – the Wes Anderson-influenced production design, the trippy cinematography, the retro Sixties styles, the way it joyfully ignores any continuity with other X-Men related media and is all the better for it, the strong performances, the jaw-dropping use of music, the fact that episode seven contains an extended sequence that’s one of the most astonishing things I’ve seen on television in years, the kooky joy of Flight of the Concords’ Jemaine Clement as the 1960s-obsessed psychonaut Oliver Bird…

But the thing I love most about Legion is what it reminds me of.

We have a lot of superhero shows right now, and some of them are definitely ‘for adults’ – but up until now, that’s principally meant the Marvel Netflix shows, which are a very particular (and uneven) kind of mature that’s worn out its sense of novelty and welcome surprisingly quickly. None of them have really managed to capture what grabbed me about American comics when I first started reading them – they’re all going for relatively formulaic structures but with more monologues, more intensity and more ultraviolence. There’s no sense of them trying to do anything different, except in how adult they can be – a habit that, outside of S1 of Jessica Jones, hasn’t come across very well.

Legion, however, feels different in almost every conceivable way. There’s an infectious sense of invention and creativity to the show, an adventurous desire to push the envelope – and what it reminds me of are the truly weird, artistic and adventurous comics that came along in the wake of graphic novel landmarks like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Yes, you had lots of dark and gritty tales of vigilante justice, superhero stories but with added intensity and violence and upset – but you also had genuinely weird and adventurous stories that you simply couldn’t find anywhere else. Comics like Doom Patrol, Animal Man, The Sandman, Enigma, Hellblazer – boundary-pushing, unpredictable comics that were giving a sandbox to interesting writers who really wanted to see what comics could do, and wanted to do expand the limits of the everyday mainstream comic.

Legion captures that feel better than anything I’ve seen in our current deluge of superhero media. It’s the closest I’ve seen to the mind-expanding thrill of opening an early issue of The Invisibles, or Alan Moore’s epic run on Swamp Thing, or Neil Gaiman’s ambitious work on The Sandman. I can forgive Legion its flaws – like the weird pacing, the way certain characters get forgotten about, the way it peaks too early in episode 7, or the relative lack of conclusion in the eighth and final episode – for the way it uses superpowers as a way to look at mental illness, alongside the way we interact with the world, other people, and our memories. There’s a scene in episode 3, where two characters simply sit down and talk about their abilities in a calm and open way, that’s one of the most engaging things I’ve ever seen in a superhero show, and Legion delivers unexpected moments and stylistic curve-balls like that throughout its run. Season 2 is apparently due to arrive sometime in April – I have no idea where it’s going to go next, but I can’t wait to find out…

Films of 2017 (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Logan, Thor: Raganrok, Wonder Woman, Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049)

These aren’t all the movies I saw in 2017 – and admittedly, I didn’t see much – these are just the ones that stuck with me, in no particular order. (And looking at this list, it’s interesting how many of these are definite, rule-breaking, outside-the-box blockbusters. Nice to know that kind of thing is still possible…

STAR WARS – THE LAST JEDI

Star Wars is weird.

It’s easy to forget that the original Star Wars movies – especially A New Hope – are odd, personal, deeply idiosyncratic movies. It’s also easy to forget that the initial critical reaction to The Empire Strikes Back was a little mixed and muted. It’s also my personal theory that even if Lucas had managed to get the dialogue and characterisation a lot sharper and stronger on the Prequels, people would still have mostly disliked or hated them because they “weren’t enough like ‘proper’ Star Wars”.  The franchise has become such an impossibly huge cultural lodestone that it’s easy to go to a Star Wars movie in the wake of The Force Awakens and just expect roughly the same as what we got last time.

The Last Jedi doesn’t do that. It swings for the fences in a whole series of bold strikes, not all of which hit, but which are all fascinating for what they’re trying to do, which is blow the mythic structure of Star Wars wide open. Where The Force Awakens was a joyful sugar rush of nostalgia, The Last Jedi digs deeper into the story and the characters for a movie that’s singularly bonkers in a number of unexpected ways.

It’s a bit too long. There are a few moments where the storytelling gets a bit vague and hand-wavey (although these are NOTHING in comparison to some of the world-building plot chasms in The Force Awakens), and it’s a very particular kind of movie that ain’t necessarily going to land in the same joyful sugar-rush Force Awakens style for everyone. But it’s amazing to see a Star Wars movie this willing to take risks and do weird, unpredictable things, and tell a story that’s chewy and thematic and personal. Some will love it. Others will be nonplussed by it. But I’d rather have that than a franchise that’s stuck being a late 1970s George Lucas cover band until the end of time.

WONDER WOMAN

Possibly the best superhero origin movie since Superman: The Movie, which is ironic since Wonder Woman also shares a number of the same weaknesses – it’s at least twenty minutes too long, it’s tonally all over the place at times, and it comes close to falling apart in its big dramatic climax. But despite this (and some choppy action editing and overdone speed-ramping), this is also a beautifully earnest superhero epic that gets the thematic weight of World War One right, and brings the character of Diana to life in a way that emphasises her humanity and compassion. It’s a superhero tale, a war epic, a fish-out-of-water comedy, and a charming-as-hell love story as well. And the fact that it did all of this while being part of the otherwise shambolic DC Movie Universe only makes it more remarkable.

LOGAN

The moment I saw the Johnny Cash-scored teaser trailer above, I thought “Oh heavens, this movie has a good chance of completely destroying me”. And I was pretty much right. An R-rated, hyper-violent Wolverine movie sounded like a bad, potentially gratuitous idea in theory, especially one that was inspired by a Mark Millar comic, of all things – what I wasn’t expecting was an amazingly well-crafted bleak near-future superhero western that takes an unflinching look at ageing, mortality and the true cost of violence. Both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have rarely been better than here, and it’s one of the few superhero movies that genuinely transcends its genre. Just make sure you’ve got something happy to watch afterwards, for heaven’s sake…

DUNKIRK

There’s an opinion that gets hurled around a lot online that Christopher Nolan is a Stanley Kubrick-style emotionless Vulcan who makes movies that are absent any human feeling, and it’s heinous bollocks of the highest order. Yes, there’s a chilly, steely precision to a lot of Nolan’s films and he isn’t the best at BIG emotion (as proved by some of the weaker moments of the flawed but wonderfully ambitious Interstellar), but I don’t think an unfeeling Vulcan-style filmmaker would have been able to make this portrait of the Dunkirk evacuation quite such a traumatic and terrifying experience. Simultaneously a stripped down, experimental arthouse movie, a historical epic and a suspense flick, Dunkirk isn’t the place to come for historical context – this is an experiential, almost backstory-free movie that’s all about making you feel what it would be like to be in that situation, and Nolan makes every second count. He’s also one of the only filmmakers around who can still get away with doing deeply experimental movies on a blockbuster scale and actually get people to watch them.

THOR: RAGNAROK

The moment I heard that one of Taika Waititi’s touchstones for Thor: Ragnarok was the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, my interest was sparked – and the moment I saw the first trailer, I felt confident I was going to love a lot about this film. The end result is a gloriously kooky superhero movie that balances out some so-so storytelling and weird pacing with day-glo visuals and some incredible comedy. It’s a healthy up-side of Marvel’s continuing success that they’re able to push the envelope as far as they do here , and it was around the extended homage to the insane ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ tunnel sequence that I realised exactly how insane this film was prepared to go. The Jack Kirby-inspired production design is a delight, Chris Hemsworth is clearly having so much more fun getting the chance to flex his comedy chops, and it’s great to get a Thor movie that taps into the splendour and weirdness of classic runs like Walter Simonson’s Surtur Saga, while also adding its own deeply bizarre humour.

BLADE RUNNER 2049

I have extreme difficulty believing this film exists. A Blade Runner sequel was mooted for so long, and so obviously a bad idea (especially after the messy results of Ridley Scott returning to the Alien universe for Prometheus). It felt like a project doomed to failure – and then Denis Villeneuve came along, and ended up delivering a moving, absorbing and stunningly gorgeous 2 & 3/4 hour sci-fi tone poem that took the mood and themes of the original movie and pushed them even further. Visually and conceptually there is some utterly brilliant stuff here, and some major surprises as well – most notably, Harrison Ford giving a great, nuanced turn as an older, sadder Rick Deckard. I’m not in any way surprised that it didn’t do well financially – moody, dark SF that’s heavily influenced by the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky was never going to be a major box office draw, especially when it’s a 35-years-later follow up to a noted financial bomb turned cult favourite. Yes, it’s too long, and it doesn’t manage to capture the original’s suspense or intensity, but I’m just glad that a lot of people took a risk on something quite so bizarre, and that I’ll soon have the chance to buy the Blu-Ray and immerse myself in those intoxicating Roger Deakins-shot visuals once again.

Star Trek: Discovery (Some Thoughts…)

The storytelling is sometimes messy. The tone is often heavy-handed. The production woes show through at times (especially in episode two). The uniforms are far from sensational. The Klingons look weird. Michelle Yeoh is still nowhere near as strong a performer when she’s not working in her native language. The visual aesthetic is a bit too dark at times. Someone should have realised that the Klingon language is no fun to listen to for extended periods.

But it still feels like Star Trek.

There’s been some very strong reactions to Star Trek: Discovery – both positive and negative – and one of the most common negatives I’ve heard is ’this isn’t Star Trek’. Which is weird, because what it reminds me of most three episodes in – especially in part 3, the strongest episode yet and one of the best bits of Trek I’ve seen in ages – is the old ‘Classic Crew’ movies, especially Star Treks II and VI, which really played up the naval and ’submarine war’ aspects of life on the Enterprise. It’s no surprise, considering the director of Treks II and VI, Nicholas Meyer, is a consulting producer, and it’s a pleasure for me, because that’s my favourite flavour of Trek.

I’m not really a ‘fan’ of Trek. I enjoy the hell out of it when it works, but I’ve never followed it religiously. The Original Series never exerted the pull on me that Doctor Who did when I was a child, The Next Generation had a two season run (end of S3 through to beginning of S5) when I watched it regularly, but then I drifted away, and I never clicked with DS9, Voyager or Enterprise. The 2009 reboot gave me a brief sugar rush of excitement that wore off pretty quickly, especially when I rewatched it and realised how shoddy some of the storytelling in the movie is, and I did think for a while that Trek had been lost to the world of shallow wham-bang blockbusters.

And now we have Star Trek: Discovery, which is far from perfect, but is genuinely trying to revive the old-school nature of Trek – that it’s humanistic morality tales in a pulp sci-fi wrapping – and the results are more often successful than not. I think some fans are struggling with the fact that (a) the emphasis so far is on war, and (b) that we’ve gone back to before the original series again, and (c) IS IT CANON? To which I’d say, (a) this is a character-centric 15 episode series with what’s meant to be a self-contained, clear arc, where the central protagonist is obviously on a difficult journey of healing and redemption, (b) going back to war with the Klingons helps because that’s one of the archetypal Star Trek set-ups that almost everybody knows, and (c) this is pretty much another soft reboot, at least from an aesthetic perspective (for example – Star Fleet now have Star Wars-style holograms now, to avoid endless scenes of people talking on screens). They’re trying to meld the approach of the Classic Crew movies with the visual flash of the Abramsverse, and the results are pretty good. Of course diehard fans are going to complain – hells teeth, I’m a Doctor Who fan, and in that fandom, diehards complain about ANYTHING.

But the third episode hints that despite some clumsy teething troubles in part 1 and 2 – especially some murky world building around the Klingons, who now seem to have a weird Egyptian Death Cult thing going on (and also seem to be big fans of the over-opulent production design on The Chronicles of Riddick) – Star Trek: Discovery may be on to something, especially in the way it’s pushing its main character into some really difficult and challenging directions. Episode 3 also makes it clear why episodes 1 and 2 were kind of a self-contained ’set-up’ story, because all the heavy lifting done there really pays off. Sonequa Martin-Green is doing impressive work in the lead role, Doug Jones is wonderful as Saru, and this is the kind of story we haven’t seen before in Star Trek. There’s a long way to go – whether episode 3 points to how good the show could be or just turns out to be a quality blip remains to be seen.

For now, though, while I’ve never been a ‘true’ Star Trek fan, I’m enjoying Discovery, and I’m glad that there still seems to be room in today’s TV environment for a return to Trek’s intellectual and humanistic (if occasionally clunky) space adventuring.

Breaking The Loop

Dark Souls III made me want to stop playing computer games.

This was not in the predictable, ‘It was too difficult’ sense. The Dark Souls games (and their ‘sister’ game Bloodborne) are ferociously exacting in terms of gameplay and difficulty, but I didn’t give up part way through Dark Souls III. I ‘summoned in’ help frequently, using the online cooperative play that makes Souls games a weirdly honourable and fun place to be (especially for such bleak, punishing environments), and I didn’t actually make it through a single boss on my own, but I still battled my way through the entirety of the base game of Dark Souls III, and had an excellent, thrilling time.

And then I stopped. And I haven’t really started again. It was while I was playing Dark Souls III that it really hit me how addicted I sometimes get to computer games. It’s understandable why they can offer such an escape from the real world when life is full of stress and long-term complications that aren’t easily solved. Games can give you easily quantifiable goals, with concrete rewards – gameplay loops that reinforce your urge to keep going, to solve problems, to get past that puzzle or to defeat that boss. Games have helped me a lot at times – my girlfriend’s two-week hospital stay in October 2016 (thanks to a nasty bout of appendicitis) was made more bearable by spending much of my free time burying myself in the game Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, running around leaping off high buildings and killing Orcs by the barrel-load. But suddenly, I could feel how much I needed that regular sense of reinforcement, that sense of achievement, especially in a game like Dark Souls, where exploration, puzzle-solving and combat are all mixed together into a heady stew.

So I stopped. And despite a number of times when I’ve been tempted, I still haven’t properly picked up another game, after almost three months. I’ve been recently much more aware of my use of time, and I’ve been trying to organise myself better, to use the time that I have available in a better way. I want to get more done, I want to achieve things in life – and buying another massive computer game like, say, Horizon: Zero Dawn feels like too much of a time sink in terms of commitment. I’ve regularly gone through phases and obsessions before, but never one that’s ended quite so abruptly, and never one that I’ve felt so reticent and tentative about starting again. I’m not saying that I’m turning my back on games, or selling my PS4 – I still like knowing that I have the opportunity to play if I want to. And I may play some gentle, casual stuff that doesn’t eat massive chunks of my life. But for now, I think I’m going to be keeping my distance from games, at the least until my life is a little less crazy.

My Game of 2016: The Witness

I haven’t blogged for a while, and I’ve got no inclination to add to the endless selection of ‘2016 was awful’ posts. There were distinct ups and downs to 2016, but I want to talk about my favourite game of 2016, one that I’ve recently returned to playing.

2016 was, for me, an amazing year of games. On my first year of owning a PS4, I lucked into some very impressive games, some of which I played for over 100 hours, which is something I wasn’t expecting at all (my biggest gameplay total before was on the Mass Effect games, where I usually completed them after about 30 hours).

There was the open-world awesomeness of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, where narrative weirdness was through the roof and the endless possibilities and freedom for stealth were breath-taking. There was Uncharted 4, which matched bombastic blockbuster-style action with some surprisingly nuanced emotional storytelling, showing that there’s still new territory for big budget games to explore. And there was Bloodborne, a magnificent, terrifying ride through a world of Victorian Gothic horror that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and which pulverised my nerves in a way that had me utterly addicted. I’d never played any of the Dark Souls series (of which Bloodborne is a ‘sister project’), and I’ve never felt anything quite like the thrilling joy and achievement of actually beating certain bosses in Bloodborne (Yes, Blood-Starved Beast, I’m looking at you.)

But my favourite game of 2016? It’s The Witness, all the way.

The Witness is a puzzle game that’s very heavily influenced by the old-school computer puzzler Myst. Like Myst, you’re on a mysterious island and have to figure out a series of puzzles. Unlike Myst, the puzzles here aren’t bewilderingly presented, confusing and a bit boring. And most definitely unlike Myst, the island you’re exploring here is HUGE, and crammed to bursting with puzzles.

The basic principle of The Witness is that you trace a path on a maze, and this unlocks a new, slightly more difficult maze. The game takes this very simple mechanic – drawing mazes is literally the only way you can interact with anything in the game – and spins it out in so many directions it’s almost boggling. There’s barely any sense of repetition – the island is divided up into different areas, and each ‘zone’ mixes things up with a different variant, a different rule, a new twist that makes you look at the mazes in a different way.

It’s a simple gameplay loop, but my goodness it’s addictive. At first, there’s the joy of exploration – being able to see a new area beyond a gateway, and knowing that if you could just figure out what these odd symbols mean on this one particular panel, you’d be able to find out what’s going on over there. And then, once the game fully has its hooks into you, it’s gradually learning a different language, figuring out the relationship between one set of symbols, and knowing all along that there is a solution. The game almost always plays fair – there’s always a way of figuring it out, meaning that looking up a guide for the answers is pretty much defeating the point of the game. (Honesty time – there was one point where I succumbed, and there’s one type of puzzle I wouldn’t even have known about if I hadn’t glanced at a couple of guides. But other than that, I stuck to not looking, and I’m glad I did).

The game is fully open world, not locking you into any specific area, and you’re encouraged to simply go and wander if you can’t figure out a particular puzzle. Certain puzzles don’t make sense until you’ve solved a completely different area of the island anyway, and it’s also a beautiful environment to explore, helped by the fact that there’s no music and (aside from the rather pretentious audio logs scattered across the island, mostly quoting famous scientists or philosophers) no dialogue. Only mazes.

Probably the thing that I like most about The Witness is that it’s a game that I’ve properly ended up playing with my fiancé. Emma isn’t a regular game player in any way, and many of the games I play don’t click with her at all – but we’ve played massive sections of The Witness cooperatively, and it’s made it a wonderful experience, figuring out the mysteries and puzzles of the island together. It’s felt like being on an adventure, exploring the island, and I know I wouldn’t have found The Witness anywhere near as satisfying if it had been a more solitary experience. (And, to be honest, I’d probably have gotten a lot more stuck – Em is very good at spotting things and figuring out puzzles).

The Witness isn’t for everyone. The vague, underlying narrative that’s hinted at doesn’t really work that well (although it’s so vague it might as well not be there at all). It’s definitely a pretentious game at times. And yet, no game in 2016 gave me quite as much joy, and no game saw me scribbling down so many diagrams and mazes, leaving one of my notebooks looking like I’d been trying to catch a serial killer. If you have any interest whatsoever in puzzle games, The Witness is an absolute classic.

The island is waiting for you. Go explore.

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