Retrospective: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In today’s entry we’re going to be looking at the fourth film in the franchise, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation! Normally I would try to avoid talking about the quality of a film too much until I get to the actual analysis, but I feel like I need to be a little more upfront with The Next Generation than usual. As of the time of writing, this film is ranked #41 on the IMDb Bottom 100 alongside such prestigious contemporaries as Birdemic, Troll 2 and half of Uwe Boll’s early catalogue. Yikes. However, the film has received some reappraisal since its release and has its defenders, some even saying it’s one of the best Chainsaw sequels. Which side did I fall on? Well, you’ll have to read on to find out…

Y’know what? I really like this poster, it’s super intriguing. Long before I watched the film, this poster had always made me wondering about what it had to do with the movie? Like, was Renee Zellweger going to become a female Leatherface? Was that what “The Next Generation” was referring to? Plus that skin mask is legitimately creepy here.

PRODUCTION
When Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III failed to scare up big business, New Line Cinema shelved any further sequels that they had planned. As a result, the rights for the film reverted back to Kim Henkel, the writer and co-creator of the original 1974 film. That said, in part due to the shady financing of the original film, the rights for this franchise are quite complicated and required years of litigation to sort out properly. At the time of The Next Generationa trustee for the owners of the original film, Chuck Grigson, had a slice of the rights and had to be paid and promised a cut of the profits before Henkel could have a stab at the franchise.

For the production portion of this retrospective, I was able to find cast interviews and a documentary of the making of the film with first-hand footage which will inform most of my information and assumptions about the production, unless otherwise specified. Perhaps disappointed with the direction the sequels had gone, Henkel decided to go about making his own entry in the franchise, titling it The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the documentary, Kim Henkel implies that he never really understood why the original Chainsaw Massacre resonated with people so much; he says that it looks to him like a backyard film made by kids and that its appeal is that people like watching other people get brutalized. Special effects and stunts crew member J. M. Logan states that Kim Henkel said that The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre “was what he wanted the original Chainsaw to be. He’d been working on it ever since. This is the movie he wanted to make without Tobe’s influence. This was his pure vision.” The film was made on a low budget, on location in Texas with local cast and crew. It was produced by a wealthy lawyer friend of Henkel’s named Robert Kuhn, one of the investors for the original Chainsaw and one of the fellow rightsholders for the franchise. J. M. Logan estimates that the budget was in the neighbourhood of a couple hundred thousand dollars and everything was done as basically and cheaply as possible. Along with that came the creative freedom that Henkel had wanted and which Chainsaw sequels had thus far been denied. In many ways, filming tended to mirror the production of the original Chainsaw: shot on a gruelling schedule to avoid extra expenses and with the safety of the people involved being a questionable concern. The film was almost entirely shot at night in hot, humid weather with little in the way of amenities for cast and crew.

In retrospect, the cast was the most notable aspect of the film and which would dominate any discussion surrounding The Next Generation. Renée Zellweger was cast in the lead heroine role as Jenny, while Matthew McConaughey was cast as the main villain, Vilmer. Both were on the cusp of super-stardom and this was their first major leading role in a film. They, along with most of the other cast, were local Texan actors and for many of them, Chainsaw was one of their first films. Among the film’s heroes, Lisa Marie Newmayer was cast as Heather, Tyler Cone as Barry and John Harrison as Sean. Among the villains, Tonie Perenskie was cast as Darla, Joe Stevens as W.E. Slaughter and James Gale as Rothman. This film’s Leatherface (referred to only as “Leather” by the characters) was played by Robert Jacks.

After receiving positive reviews at a premiere screening at South By Southwest (which Matthew McConaughey reportedly attended), Columbia Pictures signed a distribution deal for the film. However, as Zellweger and McConaughey’s careers started to take off, Columbia pushed the film’s release back to try to take advantage of their newfound stardom (which is pretty common with small budget films like this, such as what House at the End of the Street did when Jennifer Lawrence‘s career began to take off). However, as they did so, an agent for Zellweger or McConaughey put pressure on Columbia Pictures to not release the film in order to prevent it from damaging their client’s career. Apparently this worked, because the film’s release was delayed further, which caused Henkel and Kuhn to sue Columbia for failing to follow through on their distribution deal. Then, to make matters worse, Chuck Grigson went and sued both sides for not delivering on the terms set in the deal he had signed with Henkel in order to get the rights. Tyler Cone and Robert Jacks have gone on record stating that they believed that Zellweger’s agent was behind this further delay, but considering that McConaughey is the only one named in the legal case Grigson made regarding the estoppel, it would seem to me that it was his agent who was responsible. In either case, neither Zellweger or McConaughey have disassociated themselves from the film or even really had bad words to say about it. After being reedited by the studio and being renamed Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, the film was finally released on August 29, 1997 in only 23 theatres in the US, grossing $185,989 and being critically panned.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens at a Texan prom. Heather finds her boyfriend, Barry, kissing another girl. She leaves in a huff and gets into Barry’s father’s car and speeds away as Barry get in with her and tries to console her. His efforts are thwarted by their friends, Jenny and Sean, who were apparently hiding in the back seats doing drugs this whole time. Heather’s manic driving gets the group into two accidents, the second of which wrecks the vehicle and leaves another motorist badly injured. Heather, Barry and Jenny go to find a service station while Sean stays with the injured motorist. The group finds a woman named Darla at a real estate office who calls for a man named Vilmer who has a tow truck. However, when Vilmer arrives, he breaks the injured motorist’s neck and then repeatedly runs over Sean with his truck.

Barry, Heather and Jenny try to get back to Sean, but somehow manage to get separated. Barry and Heather come across a house and try to find someone who can drive them out, but Barry gets held at gunpoint by W.E. Slaughter and Heather gets captured by Leather and stuffed in a meat freezer. When Barry goes inside the house to try to find Heather, Leather bludgeons him to death and then hangs Heather on a meat hook.

Meanwhile, the now-lost Jenny is picked up by Vilmer, but she quickly realizes that he’s insane, a fact which is confirmed when she sees Sean’s body in the back of the truck. She jumps from the truck and flees into the woods, but is pursued by Leather with a chainsaw. He chases her through the woods, to the house where Barry was killed and then back to the real estate office where Darla comforts her. This is short-lived though, because soon W.E. arrives and stuffs her in the trunk of Darla’s car. Darla goes to pick up some pizza for the family and then comes across a badly-injured Heather in the middle of the road, having somehow escaped the meat hook.

Vilmer begins taunting Jenny, but Jenny steals a shotgun and nearly escapes. Darla tells Jenny that Vilmer works for the Illuminati, but Jenny doesn’t believe her. Darla then takes Jenny to yet another dinner scene, where Vilmer continues to manically taunt Jenny and Heather. However, when he tells Jenny that Leather wants to wear her face for his new mask, a dark-suited man named Rothman shows up and intimidates Vilmer, telling him that he’s supposed to be showing Jenny the meaning of true horror. When Rothman leaves, a visibly-shaken Vilmer takes Heather and then crushes her head before telling Leather to kill Jenny with a chainsaw. Jenny manages to break free though and flees into the woods with Leather and Vilmer in pursuit.

Jenny manages to come across an RV being driven by an elderly couple and escape with them, but then Vilmer and Leather drive alongside them and the RV crashes. When Vilmer and Leather pursue Jenny on foot, a crop duster swoops down and strikes Vilmer in the back of the head, killing him. Leather is distraught by this and stops as a black car pulls up and rescues Jenny. Rothman is there and apologizes to Jenny for everything that happened, saying that it was supposed to be a spiritual experience before dropping Jenny off at the hospital.

REVIEW
You might be able to tell from that plot description, but Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is… hoo boy, it’s an experience to say the least. Let’s start with the things that I liked first though. First of all, the references to the original tend to be much more sly than the in-your-face references in Leatherface. By far the best reference was that the camera flashes in the opening scene mirror the flashes illuminating the corpses in the original film, even playing the same sound effect. It was very clever and actually has some purpose for the film as well as it signifies that these kids are going to be corpses before this is all over. Also, the film looks fairly professional, especially considering the low budget. It certainly doesn’t have interesting cinematography or atmospheric lighting (unlike Leatherface), but the film at least looks like it wasn’t shot by Tommy Wiseau (although there’s at least one shot I noticed where the camera is focused on wrong person, leaving the person the shot’s supposed to be focused on somewhat blurry). Oh, and I’ll admit that I grinned like a school kid when Matthew McConaughey walked out and went “ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT!” And… uhh… yeah, that’s seriously everything I liked. This movie was so bad that those are the best things that I can come up with to praise it for without reservation.

First of all, let’s talk about that script, because that’s where most of this film’s issues stem from. Seriously, at at least half of the notes that I took when watching this film were some variation of “WTF!?”, because there’s just so much baffling shit in this film. I mean, look no further than the introduction of our heroine, Jenny. She just shows up in the back of the car with Sean, having apparently been lying on the floor for the past several minutes silently as Barry and Heather argued and sped through the roads of Texas. I get that it’s supposed to be a funny moment, but there isn’t really any set-up so you can’t call it a joke, it just makes you go “wait, WTF just happened?” The Next Generation goes in a dark comedy direction like Chainsaw 2 did, but that doesn’t really explain all the insane stuff that happens, or make the comedy particularly good. For example, Darla is portrayed in her introduction as a cartoonish sexual deviant. When a group of kids break the window of her office, her response is to… flash them? Umm, it’s one thing to be an exhibitionist, but is she trying to encourage vandalism against her property as well? Then there’s the most obvious comedic scene in the film, where Darla goes to pick up pizza with Jenny tied up in her trunk. The scene just keeps going on and doesn’t really add anything to the plot, but tries so hard to be funny. The main issue is that this farcial scene just comes out of nowhere, suddenly making Jenny and Darla out to be a couple of oblivious idiots, as if this is a completely different movie. I mean, it’s kind of funny that Jenny just goes with Darla’s threats as long as she pokes some air holes in her bag, and it’s kind of funny that they’re surrounded by tons of people (including clueless cops) at the time. I get that this is probably meant to be a send-up of slasher films, where no one notices these crimes happening around them. However, the scene is so at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie that is just confusing and frustrating to watch. Plus, as I already said, the scene makes our heroine look like a complete idiot, which goes against the actual intent of the film in literally every other scene in the movie.

Then, when the film’s not trying to be funny, it screws up with writing so sloppy that you can scarcely believe that this film was written and directed by a professional screenwriter, let alone one who had considered this a passion project twenty years in the making. First of all there are all of the pointless characters, of which Sean is the most egregious. He’s is implied to be Jenny’s boyfriend and is introduced in a manner that makes you think he’s one of the main characters. Nope, he gets maybe three lines and then gets killed without us knowing a thing about him. How about the motorist who crashes into the group’s car? Nope, he gets left behind and then has his neck snapped the moment we see him again without having learned a thing about him (he’s literally credited as “I’m Not Hurt” after his one line in the film). I could just keep going on and on: there are the cops in the pizza scene, a friend of Heather’s who we meet at the prom, the old couple who pick up Jenny, crash and then are immediately forgotten, etc.

Then there are all the moments in the script that just don’t make any sense and which are just done for convenience’s sake usually. Like, how did Jenny manage to lose Heather and Barry? I get that a truck passed by and Barry and Heather chased it, but they’re on a road and Jenny has the flashlight, I sincerely doubt they could manage to lose each other. Or how about Heather inexplicably conjuring the upper body strength to pull herself off the meathook and then crawl out into the woods without anyone noticing? Or the scene where the film accidentally makes Jenny look like an idiot, because she doesn’t freak out when Darla calls Vilmer again. This comes after having already revealed that Vilmer is the guy who killed Sean, so shouldn’t she have realized that the tow truck driver is the guy who killed him?

Even beyond the script, there’s just so much wrong with this movie. We’ve got a car crash where you can clearly see the stunt driver in one shot and then in the next shot you see I’m Not Hurt with his head smashed against the windshield. You’ve got bad editing which makes it look like Barry, who’s within earshot of Heather, doesn’t even notice her screaming for minutes on end when Leather attacks her. You’ve got Rothman, who just finishes chewing out Vilmer for being a crazy, unhinged dickhead, turn around and then repeatedly lick Jenny’s face (WTF)!?! You’ve got “scares” which consist of people coming across something that isn’t actually scary and then playing loud, jump scare music. These aren’t even used as fake-outs for a real scare – they are the scares. Even when you have moments that are potentially thrilling, such as Leather chasing Jenny through the woods or Vilmer freaking out at the dinner table, these are just weak rip-offs of scenes which were effective in the original Chainsaw.

As for the characters, they are not great. Jenny’s a decent final girl and actually gets some chances to fight back and turn the tables on her tormentors, but Renée Zellweger’s performance is fairly flat and, as I’ve mentioned, sometimes the script just makes her into an idiot for no discernible reason. Then there’s Heather, but I really can’t tell you all that much about her. She seems like a fairly normal, stereotypical teenage girl, but Lisa Marie Newmyer’s performance is not great. Plus, as soon as she gets put onto the meathook her character doesn’t really have any more presence in the film… even though she somehow gets off the meathook, is present for the whole dinner scene, gets set on fire and gets her freaking head crushed. Seriously, she gets put through the wringer in the second half of the film, but she doesn’t really get to react to any of it. Then there’s Barry, who is both a total asshole and an idiot to boot. He’s the kind of character who cheats, lies and insults everyone to get his way, who is always talking up how great he is, and who just constantly does stupid shit (such as calling the guy with a gun on the other side of a flimsy door a “dumbass” after he locks them out of their own home).

As for the minor villains, we have W.E. Slaughter and Darla. W.E.’s played well enough by Joe Stevens, but the character isn’t particularly compelling – he likes to quote literary figures, but that’s about his only quirk of note. Darla, played charmingly by Tonie Perensky, is better and is probably the least-insane of the villains. However, she’s very cartoonishly sexualized and the fact that she spends half of her scenes with Vilmer getting violently abused by him is uncomfortable to say the least.

Moving onto the main villains, we’ve got “Leather” – that’s what this film calls him anyway and I refuse to consider this character the Leatherface we’re familiar with, because holy shit he’s an abomination. Gone is the Leatherface whose twisted motivations you could understand, now he’s just a cartoon who spends every moment of every scene he’s in wailing and screaming like an idiot. I’m not kidding – he screams the entire time he chases Heather, he screams when he bashes Barry, he screams during the entire 5-10 minute sequence where he chases Jenny through the woods… the only time he shuts up is during the dinner scene, but even then he does almost nothing during that entire sequence. It’s incredibly grating to listen to his ceaseless wailing. On a possibly-related note, Kim Henkel plays up Leatherface’s gender ambiguity much more than any other Chainsaw film does. Some people take issue with the idea of Leatherface in drag, but I’m okay with this, personally. Gender ambiguity and cross-dressing has always been a defining aspect of the character, a fact which is often forgotten (or straight-up ignored in the more commercial Chainsaw sequels). I’m not sure if I like the way that Henkel went about playing up this aspect of the character though. According to Henkel, Leather’s “confused sexuality” is “complex and horrifying at the same time”. He also claims that he made the gender ambiguity of the character more upfront compared to the original Chainsaw because “you can’t be comfortable because this is a minor and incidental perversion”… and when you add those two elements together, that sounds a lot like homophobia to me, or at the very least leveraging the homophobia of the audience against itself. That’s why I mention that Leather’s constant wailing might be intended to be playing into flamboyant gay stereotypes, not to mention the fact that the character’s name has been changed to “Leather”. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how to interpret this. It wouldn’t surprise me if Henkel is intending to parody gay stereotypes by making the biggest gay stereotype he possibly could (complete with a giant, roaring, penetrating phallus-shaped weapon), but I don’t feel like that was the intent, especially considering how the character has absolutely no agency of his own in this film. Making things even more complicated is the fact that actor Robert Jacks was, himself, a homosexual, but I don’t know how much influence he had on Henkel’s decisions about the character.

Even if the portrayal of Leather wasn’t questionable, the mask alone would make this the absolute worst incarnation of the character out there. Good God, there is nothing else in this film which shows how shoestring this film’s budget was than the awful Leatherface masks. They are so rubbery, like a Chinese knock-off of a Michael Myers mask. It looks even worse when Leather dresses up like a woman and actually wears a woman’s skin to achieve the effect – this could have been incredibly horrifying imagery, but it just looks like a bad, rubber Halloween costume. This is all so unfortunate because near the end of this film’s dinner scene, Vilmer claims that Leather wants Jenny because her face will make a great new mask for him. I don’t think Henkel realized it, but that alone is an amazing idea for a whole Chainsaw film. Just imagine that villainous motivation – Leatherface sees someone he thinks is beautiful and he’s chasing them around just to get ahold of their face so he can wear it and be beautiful too. Holy shit that’s a disturbing idea, one which is just a passing reference in this film and which never gets capitalized on. Fuck this movie.

As for Vilmer, he’s a strange case. I think that Matthew McConaughey puts in a legitimately good performance, totally losing himself in the role. However, he actually goes so far with it that it makes the performance distracting in its insanity. I mean, he’s always watchable, but the character is so insane and random that you can’t even begin to fathom what his motivations might be or take him in any way seriously – this is the sort of character who will deepthroat a shotgun one second and then hold it over his head howling like a Tusken Raider the next. The film doesn’t even bother with any mystery or suspense with the character, despite him appearing fairly normal – he shows up, immediately kills I’m Not Hurt and then kills Sean. I question why anyone even follows him because he seems to have no direction. Vilmer abuses Darla to the point of almost killing her on multiple occasions and he bashes W.E. in the head with a hammer when he gets angry, which actually kills his brother as far as we are shown. Of course, then we find out that he works for the Illuminati, the “people who killed JFK”. I went into this film knowing that about the Illuminati twist, but holy shit it made no sense. The film explains that the Illuminati want to give people a transcendent experience via “true horror” and aren’t really happy with how Vilmer is going about it, but… well, at what point did they become so disappointed? Are they okay with Vilmer murdering at least three other people just so Jenny can have this experience? Why would the people who killed JFK have any sort of interest in transcendent experiences for random people? Why would this secret society care so much about the integrity of this experience that they would elaborately murder Vilmer by crop duster and then appear to personally apologize to Jenny for it, thereby blowing their cover!? Maybe, again, if the film had set anything up then this might have come across as something other than baffling, but as it is it just comes out of nowhere. Oh and just to make things even more confusing, Kim Henkel has hinted that maybe Rothman isn’t really part of the Illuminati, maybe he’s just a cult leader… because that just helps make this movie better I suppose? I’m pretty sure that this whole Illuminati subplot is intended to be a Cabin in the Woods-style commentary on the relationship between horror sequels and the audience, saying that horror sequels have failed to provide audiences with a true, transcendent experience of horror. Rothman even comes out and straight-up apologizes to the audience, saying: “It’s been an abomination. You really must accept my sincerest apologies. It was supposed to be a spiritual experience. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am”. This might have been an interesting commentary if The Next Generation wasn’t a bad horror sequel in itself – being self-aware about being bad doesn’t excuse the fact that your film is still bad… if anything, it makes it more insulting that you didn’t just go and make a movie that wasn’t shit.

Hell, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is not just a bad horror sequel, it’s a truly abysmal one. To put it in The Howling terms, it’s no New Moon Rising (where it literally could not possibly be worse), but it’s in the ballpark of Your Sister is a Werewolf and The Marsupials, where the decisions about the making of the film were all wrong and you end up with something bafflingly bad. Or, to compare it to other slasher films, this movie is worse than Jason Goes to Hell (the Friday the 13th where Jason turns into a body snatcher and, among other things, crawls up a dead woman’s vagina in order to be reborn from her). This movie is just so dumb, senseless and dull, and has the audacity to think that it’s making some sort of grand statement in the process. Just thinking back on this movie makes me more annoyed with its existence. This is the sort of film which reminds you that creative freedom isn’t always a good thing and, while I appreciate that Henkel had his own vision for the franchise, the end result was not worth the effort at all.

2/10

Be sure to tune in again soon as we look at the fifth entry in the franchise, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake!

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Retrospective: Leatherface – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In today’s entry we’re going to be covering the third film in the franchise, 1990’s Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III! This is one of those rare movies where the trailer is more famous than the film itself, featuring an insane, Arthurian bestowing of the chainsaw to its titular villain. Any movie would have a hard time living up to a teaser that ridiculous, but could Leatherface beat sequel fatigue and the departure of Tobe Hooper? Read on to find out…

This poster is just… eww. The tagline sucks, the chainsaw looks ridiculous and I’m not a fan of Leatherface’s look at all (something which I will get into later). By far my least favourite main poster in the entire franchise.


PRODUCTION

After The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The Cannon Group had the rights to the franchise. However, by 1989 the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and in desperate need of cash. New Line Cinema bought the rights to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from The Cannon Group and hoped to bring another major icon into their stable on par with Freddy Krueger. The film was written by David J. Schow, who had done uncredited writing for New Line on A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. Schow decided to bring the franchise back in line with the original film, ditching the campy and comic elements that Hooper had brought to the fore in Chainsaw 2. The studio also sought to turn Leatherface into an icon in his own right, rather than focus too much on the Sawyer family, hence why the film puts the name “Leatherface” in the forefront for the first time.

After being turned down by Tom Savini and a young Peter Jackson, New Line approached Jeff Burr (who would later go on to direct several Puppetmaster sequels) to direct the film, as he had just come off of the relatively successful Stepfather II. Burr was very reverential of the original Chainsaw and as a result had some specific demands for the film if he was going to direct – he wanted to shoot in Texas on 16mm film like Tobe Hooper had and Gunnar Hansen had to come back as Leatherface. New Line Cinema thought that this was hilarious and immediately dropped Burr from the production, wanting someone who would kowtow to their own demands and hoped to secure a major actor to play Leatherface. Unfortunately for them, neither of these dreams came to pass and after their replacement director Jonathan Betuel dropped out, New Line convinced Burr to take over production again. However, by this time it would have been May or June of 1989 and New Line had set a firm release date of November 3, 1989, meaning that Burr was under an intensely fast five month deadline to complete the film. He also had to relinquish some of his demands, as sets had already been constructed in Southern California.

New Line didn’t get the big name actor they wanted for Leatherface and a deal could not be reached to get Gunnar Hansen to return. Instead, the role went to former wrestler R. A. Mihaloff. The film’s leading roles went to Kate Hodge (in her first film role) and William Butler (an actor now famous for getting killed in horror movies) as the hapless couple Michelle and Ryan. Horror legend Ken Foree, most famous for being the hero of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, was brought in to play the survivalist hero Benny. A young and virtually-unknown Viggo Mortensen was cast as the villainous Eddie “Tex” Sawyer, a casting decision which single-handedly made me interested in this film. Of the other villainous cast, Joe Unger was cast as Tink Sawyer and Tom Everett (in one of his first roles) as Alfredo Sawyer. Caroline Williams also appears very briefly in a cameo sequence, reprising her role as Stretch from the previous film.

Setbacks and creative clashes between Burr and New Line basically defined the production of Leatherface. Filming locations were destroyed by wildfires, crew members dropped out and sequences Burr had wanted to film, such as a scene where Leatherface would wield a chainsaw on horseback to play off of the Arthurian teaser trailer, were too expensive for the film’s minuscule budget. Test audiences also were not enthused about the film’s ending so New Line did reshoots and changed the ending without Jeff Burr’s knowledge, leading to a more definitively happier ending which doesn’t make a lot of sense. Then, when the film was submitted to the MPAA, the film was slapped with an X-rating (the last film which would receive this rating before the NC-17 rating was created), necessitating over five minutes of the film to be cut. All of these delays meant that the film was pushed out of its November 3rd released date and shunted to January of 1990, at the time considered the release window where movies went to die. All-told, the film ended up grossing less than $6 million and cooled any interest New Line had on turning Leatherface into a new icon for the company.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film’s opening crawl positions Leatherface as an alternate continuity to Chainsaw 2, where law enforcement raided the Sawyer house and apprehended Drayton, believing him to be the “Leatherface” Sally had referenced before she went crazy and died in a private health care facility in 1977. Drayton was executed for the family’s crimes, but Leatherface escaped. After an opening scene that features Leatherface killing a woman, the film follows a couple, Michelle and Ryan, driving through Texas. They pass a police checkpoint where investigators have discovered a mass grave of over forty murder victims before stopping at a gas station. Here they meet a hitchhiking cowboy named Tex and the station’s perverted proprietor, Alfredo. Tex gives Ryan directions to a nearby town that doesn’t appear on their map and then discovers that Alfredo has been spying on Michelle through a peephole in the women’s washroom. Alfredo and Tex get into an altercation which leads to Alfredo shooting him, while Michelle and Ryan flee towards the town Tex mentioned. However, night falls and the town is still nowhere in sight when the pair are pursued by a truck and attacked. Their car is damaged and they have to change the tire, which is just barely completed before they are attacked by Leatherface and flee. However, while fleeing they collide with another driver named Benny who is passing through the area. Benny tends to the couple and is initially skeptical of their claims about being hunted by crazy people, until he comes across a man named Tink who has found the scene of the accident. Benny grabs a rifle from his truck before Tink rams it and then Leatherface attacks. Leatherface nearly kills Benny before the sister of the woman he killed in the opening scene arrives to distract him before doubling back to help Benny. This woman, Sara, tells Benny that Leatherface and his family have been setting traps and luring passersby into the area to be killed, including Sara’s family. Benny then goes to try to help Ryan and Michelle, and Leatherface finds and kills Sara shortly thereafter.

With Sara dead, Leatherface then begins hunting Michelle and Ryan. While fleeing him, Ryan steps in a bear trap and Michelle is forced to escape without him. She comes across a house where she finds a little girl, who then stabs Michelle with a knife before Tex arrives and reveals that Michelle has escaped into the Sawyers’ lair. Tex ties up Michelle and then freaking nails her hands to a chair to make sure she doesn’t try to escape. The rest of the family begin to gather for dinner, including Tink, Leatherface, the elderly Mama Sawyer and Grandpa’s withered corpse. Ryan’s body is brought in and suspended with meat hooks before revealing that he’s still barely alive. Tink presents Leatherface with a golden chainsaw as a gift and then tells him that he still needs to finish the job and kill Benny to prevent any loose ends.

Meanwhile Alfredo, the family butt-monkey, is headed to a bog to dump the family’s latest victims’ remains. Benny sneaks up on him and knocks him out after unsuccessfully trying to get information. The little girl, revealed to be Leatherface’s daughter, kills Ryan with a hammer and then Leatherface prepares to kill Michelle as well. However, before he can, Benny finds the house and opens fire with his rifle, killing Mama, blowing Tink’s fingers and ear off and double-tapping Grandpa for good measure. In the chaos, Michelle tears her hands out of the nails and escapes. Leatherface pursues her into the woods while Benny and Tex fight. Benny kills Tex by lighting him on fire and then hurries to help Michelle. They fight Leatherface in the bog, with Benny being seriously injured before Michelle bashes Leatherface with a rock.

The next morning, Michelle manages to reach the road and is surprised when Alfredo’s truck pulls in front of her. However, Benny is driving it and offers to help her, but then Alfredo shows up and knocks him out. Michelle grabs Alfredo’s shotgun and then shoots him in the chest. Michelle and Benny then finally escape, driving away as Leatherface watches and revs his chainsaw.

REVIEW
It should perhaps be unsurprising that Leatherface ditches the comedic elements of Chainsaw 2 and brings the franchise back to its horror roots. It might have even overcompensated in some ways because this film is just grim and nasty at times. The film opens with Leatherface making a new mask from a fresh kill and we actually get to see him slicing the removed face up and stitching it together. There’s also the scene of Michelle getting her hands nailed to a chair which is just brutal to watch. The film seems like it was intended to be even gorier before the MPAA forced cuts, because there are a lot of potentially gory scenes which the film cuts away from at the last second (such as Ryan’s head getting bludgeoned). However, that doesn’t take away from the other nasty elements of the film which are less explicit. Alfredo is a disgusting pervert with juvenile, rapey vibes and I wished he would just die whenever he was on screen. Oh and then there’s the scene where Mama Sawyer tells Michelle that she cut her own genitals out years ago, that she also castrated Grandpa Sawyer and that Leatherface loves to rape and mutilate genitals as well… this just comes out of nowhere and is way beyond the sort of nastiness that we’ve already come to expect with this character. Like, wasn’t Leatherface established as a butcher who loves killing indiscriminately? Hell, the whole cannibalism aspect doesn’t even get touched upon. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re trying to work in more elements of Ed Gein into the character, but the way that it just comes out of nowhere in the last half of the film and goes against the character as he has been established is questionable (although it gives new meaning to the idea of objectifying people as “meat” in this franchise).

Another element worth noting is that most of Leatherface‘s story just doesn’t make any sense when you apply scrutiny to it. This wasn’t really an issue with the other two films – the first was very simple and realistic, whereas the second’s comedic and campy tone paves over some of the stranger aspects one could point out. However, Leatherface is just fundamentally flawed. For example, we find out during this film that the Sawyers are luring passing motorists into ambushes, which is a pretty cool idea and makes this film feel akin to something from The Hills Have Eyes. However, rather than intimidate locals into sending people their way, they instead set up an elaborate and pointlessly convoluted scheme. Basically, Tex tries to hitchhike with people who attend the gas station and take them back to his house. If that doesn’t work, he tells them about a shortcut to town and then gets Alfredo to pretend to shoot him to cause the motorists to flee to town and run into the Sawyers’ trap. Hey… why not just shoot any motorists at the gas station? Is that not less convoluted and less likely to go wrong? Why did they even need to hunt people down? I don’t think it’s for the fun of it all either, because later they complain about how there are still loose ends out there, but they went and created those loose ends in the first place with their stupid plan. Also, what about the body dumping? I thought the Sawyers ate their victims, but we see Alfredo dumping dismembered corpses into the bog and the bodies found by the police are also intact. So… what are the Sawyers even doing in this film? Are they just draining blood to feed to Grandpa and making skin masks every once in a while now?

There are also parts of the film which straight-up needed to be cut because they don’t add anything, such as a pair of investigators we’re introduced to early in the film who are digging up bodies and then never show up again. What was the point of introducing them? Or what about the reporter in the same scene who inflates the body-count and then can’t pronounce the state of decomposition? It’s meant to be a dig at news media, but the film never bothers to do so again, so what was the purpose of this? What about the earring worn by an armadillo, a dead coyote and Tink? This doesn’t seem to have any other purpose than to reveal that they’re linked, but this link goes unexplained and makes no sense in the film. Oh and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sara as well. She acts as a deus ex machina to save Benny’s ass from Leatherface, acts as an exposition dump to explain what is going on and then is immediately killed by Leatherface despite the implication that she’s a tough survivor to have lasted a whole week on the run. She’s a totally unnecessary character and if the production hadn’t been so rushed she would have been either fleshed out significantly or cut entirely. You’re telling me that she’s been lost in the woods and can’t get away for over a week now, but Michelle manages to get back to the road in a single night? Suuuuure.

As for the actual script, I’ve got to say that I really did not like Michelle and Ryan. They spend the first half of the movie bickering with each other and Ryan especially comes across as a dick. Michelle does get more enjoyable in the second half of the film when she starts fighting back against the Sawyers, but neither character is particularly fleshed out. It also doesn’t help that a lot of the dialogue in this film is really clunky, and Michelle and Ryan get saddled with a number of stinkers. For example, when Michelle is driving in the dark and they can hear a vehicle somewhere, Ryan and Michelle argue about where it’s coming from… until the truck turns its lights on behind them, Michelle comments on this and then Ryan yells “It’s coming from behind us!” The line just makes you want to go “No shit, dude!” There’s also a line where Ryan claims that there are a bunch of guys after them with guns, but only a minute later they’re saying that there are two people after them. Sara also has a pretty dumb line where she tells Benny he had the wrong idea bringing a gun to a chainsaw fight… um what? He later uses that gun to disarm Leatherface and take out half of his family in one volley, I’m pretty sure he’s fine.

Benny’s arrival helps breathe new life into the film, thanks largely to Ken Foree’s capable performance. Benny is just way more interesting to watch since, as a survivalist, he actually knows what he’s doing and is prepared for this kind of scenario. He even gets into multiple fights with the villains throughout the film and is constantly rescuing the less-capable characters selflessly. Ken Foree is great in this film, but I have to say that the best performance goes to Viggo Mortensen as Tex, hands-down. He’s no Chop Top, but Viggo works a fair bit of depth into the character. By Sawyer standards, he’s mostly sane and has a very charming veneer. However, when that veneer drops he reveals that he’s on the edge of breaking, such as when Tink calls him by his real name “Eddie” and Tex almost cuts his hand off before asking him politely to call him “Tex”. Unfortunately, the other Sawyers aren’t nearly as compelling. I’ll get to Leatherface in a moment, but while all of the Sawyers in this film have their quirks, no one really gets all that much material to work with. Tink is the tech guy for the family and seems to be fairly sane. Mama is the matriarch and has had a tracheotomy. Leatherface’s daughter is a little psycho (and the child actor playing her is not great at delivering dialogue). Oh and Alfredo is a one-dimensional piece of shit who talks to himself, threatens to rape people and is implied to have engaged in necrophilia. Lovely.

As for Leatherface, he’s once again a very different character. One rather cool addition to the character is that he wears a metal leg brace after the injury he sustained at the end of the first movie. This actually allows Michelle and Ryan to hear him approaching when he first arrives, which could have been a cool, Jaws-like way to build suspense. Unfortunately, it only really shows up in this first scene, but it was a potentially smart way to make the character even scarier. Also, Leatherface no longer seems like he’s severely mentally deficient, or at least nowhere near the same level of dangerously stupid as he was previously. For example, in this film he now knows how to drive and is teaching himself how to spell, although he seems to only be able to view humans as “food” in a humorously unsubtle scene. His biggest issue seems to be that he’s incapable of speech, but he actually fights back against his family now. In one scene, Tink throws Leatherface’s Walkman in the oven as a lesson, but Leatherface fights back and forces Tink to reach into the flames to retrieve it, which is a far cry from when Drayton Sawyer was beating him for killing people back in the first film. This ties into Leatherface being just generally far more physically imposing in this film. At one point he tears the trunk of Michelle’s car off with his bare hands and the golden chainsaw he receives near the end of the film is ridiculously massive (apparently weighing around 80lbs). Between being made less cripplingly stupid and getting ‘roided up, Leatherface feels a lot more like Jason Voorhees in this film, which I can’t help but feel was New Line Cinema’s vision for the franchise. However, it also makes the character feel more generic. Also, once again I’m not a fan of his mask. It doesn’t look rubbery like it did in Chainsaw 2, but it instead looks like it’s made of mud and is just plain ugly (in a bad way).

Another thing that really grates me about this film is that has some really heavy-handed references to the first film, especially in the first act, to the point where it almost feels like a remake at times. Off the bat, we’ve got a couple driving through Texas and listening to grisly news reports about a mass grave and then camera flashes illuminating corpses when we see this mass grave. Then when they reach the gas station, Alfredo takes Michelle’s picture and asks her to pay him for it and Tex tells us that Alfredo lost his job when the old slaughterhouse shut down. And, of course, there’s yet another dinner scene, this time complete with a body hanging from meathooks. Look, the dinner scene was truly iconic and horrifying, but do we need to rip it off in every subsequent Chainsaw film?

Man, I’ve really been ragging on Leatherface throughout this retrospective, but it really isn’t as bad as I’m making it sound. Taking cues from The Hills Have Eyes and having the villains lure victims into their territory (complete with booby-traps) is actually ingenious and, while the justification isn’t really there in the script, it helps give this film its own identity in the franchise. Having the villains actively hunting people now is actually a pretty smart way to advance the franchise formula, if only a little. Also, Jeff Burr’s direction is quite good especially considering the film’s low budget and the fact that at least half of the film is shot at night. This could make things very hard to see, but Burr lights the scenes very well without it seeming unnatural. Also, while the film is nowhere near as tense or suspenseful as the original, it does have some pretty horrifying and nasty sequences, as I have mentioned, which make for a gruelling atmosphere at times. And, as dumb as the script is sometimes, there’s also some great payoffs, such as when Benny uses Sara’s lighter that he acquired from her earlier to light Tex on fire, or when Michelle flees into a bog and the audience realizes that it’s the bog Alfredo was dumping corpses into earlier. It would be unfortunate if I did not mention some of the cool sequences as well, most notably Leatherface and Benny’s fight, where Benny disarms him and then Leatherface pulls out this mini-saw Tink made him, which he uses to cut Benny’s leg and get the upper hand!

What can I say about Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III? It’s a competently-made film which is just brought down by some unfortunate elements, most importantly its frustratingly annoying leads and the shaky plot. Oh, and the studio interference certainly didn’t help, because I’m certain that that led to the movie feeling like a generic slasher sequel (most notably in its rather stupid reshot ending and that there isn’t really any sort of social commentary to the film). That said, compared to its contemporaries, this film is miles ahead of such films as Jason Takes Manhattan or The Revenge of Michael Meyers, not to mention New Line running A Nightmare on Elm Street into the ground with The Dream Child and Freddy’s Dead. I have to say that it’s nowhere near as messy as Chainsaw 2, but it also less distinctive and the characters are far less interesting. All-in-all it’s a slasher sequel – a fairly decent one, but a slasher sequel none the less.

4/10

Be sure to tune in again soon as we look at the fourth film in the franchise, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation!

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Retrospective: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In this entry we’re going to be looking at the first sequel in the franchise, the aptly-titled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2! Like I mentioned in the previous entry, the my first introduction to this franchise was in a classic movie theatre showing the original film and its first sequel back-to-back. This film has amassed a very dedicated cult following, but does it hold a candle to the original film? Read on to find out…

This is kind of a strange poster considering that it’s a parody of The Breakfast Club, but considering the parodic intent of the film and the franchise’s themes of twisting traditional family structures, this is a pretty appropriate poster for the film.

PRODUCTION
Due to the very shady financing of the original Chainsaw, Tobe Hooper, the cast and the crew ended up seeing very little in return despite the film’s financial success. However, it went on to inspire other films and only four years after the release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, John Carpenter’s Halloween was released and kicked off the slasher craze of the 1980s. At this time, horror was becoming defined by gory exploitation films with high body counts, most readily exemplified by the Friday the 13th franchise, as well as the Halloween films, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Sleepaway Camp, Silent Night, Deadly Night, sequels to Psycho and countless one-off slashers hoping to become the next big thing. Perhaps inextricably linked to this increase in the popularity of slashers was the simultaneous rise in conservatism throughout the 80s, defined by the Reagan era. This was an age of moral panics and slasher films often became targets due to this (and as a result, many slasher films actually had their violence toned down significantly due to censorship, making them appear much tamer than films even 10 years later).

In the mid-80s and fresh off of the success of Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper signed a three-picture contract with Cannon films, a production company famous for creating a number of iconic, low-budget genre films during the 80s, such as Death Wish, Delta Force, Missing in ActionMasters of the Universe and, when they were on the verge of implosion, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. As part of the three picture deal, Hooper had agreed to make a sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in exchange for high budgets and creative freedom on his projects for Cannon. However, his first two pictures, Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars, were financially unsuccessful and so the pressure was on for Hooper to deliver with Chainsaw 2. So desperate was Cannon for a hit that before the film had even been written they went ahead and set a release date and booked screens, leaving Hooper barely eight months to complete the film. Hooper approached celebrated screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson (fresh off of such films as Breathless and Paris, Texas). Despite the time crunch and the stigma associated with writing a slasher sequel which would “[wipe] your name right off the Serious Screenwriters’ Map”, Carson agreed to write the script as he had found Hooper’s original film enthralling and felt that the director was capable of tapping into madness unlike any other filmmaker.

According to Carson, “The first thing I told Tobe was, ‘You’re going to have to find the right victims […] One of the things the first movie had going for it was that people were really sick of hippies and enjoyed seeing a Volkswagen full of ’em squashed. So, I went home to Dallas and went to the Galleria, which is a yuppie feeding ground. I saw all these yuppies buying piles of things, seven sweaters at a time. I called Tobe up and said, ‘I’ve found the victims.'” Despite various sneering references in the screenplay to yuppies, the film only ended up featuring one scene with them being killed. However, there are deleted scenes which reveal that there were supposed to be several other scenes of Leatherface and Chop Top harvesting yuppies which were ultimately cut from the film, which leaves the whole idea of poking fun at yuppies largely absent from the film after the first ten minutes are over. According to Caroline Williams, this was due to differences between Cannon and Hooper – Hooper wanted to make a satirical black comedy, but Cannon wanted a more straightforward slasher film and took Hooper’s vision away from him before release.

The only returning cast member from the original Chainsaw was Jim Siedow as Drayton Sawyer. Gunnar Hansen was apparently approached to reprise his role as Leatherface, but turned it down (likely due to pay concerns) and the role went to Bill Johnson instead in his first (and arguably only) major role. The film’s publicist didn’t think that there was any sense in securing the original actors anyway, since none of them had achieved major stardom. Of the new cast, the female lead went to Caroline Williams as radio host Vanita “Stretch” Brock in her first leading role. The film also features Dennis freaking Hopper as Lefty Enright. He was already a big star by the time Chainsaw 2 came out and would only become even more notable as Blue Velvet would be released that exact same year! Also worth noting is Bill Moseley as Chop Top in his first major film role. Moseley, who would later go on to become a horror icon, received the role for having created a parody film called The Texas Chainsaw Manicure which Tobe Hooper loved. The other notable cast member was Lou Perryman as L.G., who had been a film crew member for the original Chainsaw and who would tragically be killed by a real-life axe murderer in his home in 2009. Oh, and I would be remiss if I did not mention that the legendary Tom Savini (of Dawn and Day of the Dead and Friday the 13th fame) was brought on to do the special makeup effects in this film!

Much like the original, Chainsaw 2 released to significant controversy, earning an X rating from the MPAA for its violence and was instead released unrated. At the time of release, it was banned in Germany, Singapore, the UK and Australia and would remain so for 20-30 years in these countries! However, its controversial impact was certainly not as widespread as the original’s was.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
Like its predecessor, Chainsaw 2 starts with an opening voice-over which tells the audience that Sally escaped and told authorities about the Sawyer family, but no evidence of the crimes could be found and authorities denied that there ever was a Texas chainsaw massacre (thereby contradicting the whole conceit of the previous film being based on true crimes). The film then follows a pair of dumb teenagers who have come to town to party and cause ruckus as they drive erratically, fire a freaking magnum at street signs and phone into the local all-request station to harass the radio host, Stretch. During their joyride they run a truck off of the road. Later in the evening, the pair call Stretch to harass her again when the truck they encountered earlier pursues them and a chainsaw-wielding maniac hacks them and their car to pieces. Stretch and her co-worker L.G. hear everything on the phone and Stretch decides to keep the tape because she believes that some sort of crime had just occurred.

The next morning, the scene of the car crash is investigated by Lieutenant “Lefty” Enright before the police can arrive. Lefty is Sally and Franklin’s uncle and has been investigating chainsaw-killer deaths around the state, trying to find the perpetrators. He convinces the police to put out a bulletin in the newspaper for any evidence of what happened to cause this accident. Stretch sees this bulletin and takes her recording of the incident to Lefty, offering to play it on the radio to flush the perpetrators out. Lefty is inexplicably skeptical and sends her away, but after purchasing some chainsaws he tracks her down and agrees to help.

That night, Stretch plays the recording of the incident, which upsets several locals. At closing time, Stretch encounters an eccentric, sinister-looking man who asks for a tour of the radio station and says that he liked the tape she played that night. Leatherface suddenly bursts out and attacks, causing Stretch to run and lock herself safely away while the other man, Leatherface’s brother Chop Top, looks for the recording of the killings. L.G. returns to the radio station and is brutally bludgeoned by Chop Top as Leatherface breaks into Stretch’s hiding place. However, instead of killing her, Leatherface finds himself aroused by her and decides to spare her. He lies to Chop Top about killing Stretch and then the pair escape with L.G.’s body. Stretch pursues the pair to an abandoned amusement park until Lefty arrives on the scene. However, Stretch falls down a shaft and ends up in the Sawyers’ meat locker. Meanwhile, Lefty enters the amusement park and starts becoming extremely erratic as he chainsaws the support beams down, hoping to collapse the entire building on top of the Sawyers.

Leatherface finds Stretch while he is skinning L.G.’s body. Not wanting her to be discovered and killed by the rest of his family, he tries to hide her under a mask made from L.G.’s face and then ties her up. However, L.G. is somehow still alive and he cuts Stretch free before finally succumbing to his wounds. She sneaks out and tries to get past the Sawyer family, but is spotted and chased. When they finally catch up to her, Drayton tells Leatherface to kill her, but he refuses and Drayton tells him that he’s going to have to decide between sex and family. When Leatherface still refuses, he gets angry and Chop Top knocks her out.

Stretch awakens in another dinner scene and is brought before Grandpa, who once again tries to bash her head in. However, before he can finish her off, Lefty arrives and chainsaws Drayton in the ass and then gets into a FREAKING CHAINSAW DUEL with Leatherface! Stretch flees and is pursued by Chop Top. Meanwhile, Lefty impales Leatherface with a chainsaw, but the pair continue to fight before a dying Drayton blows everyone up with a grenade. Only Stretch and Chop Top escape, fleeing to the top of the amusement part where Stretch finds grandma’s body with a chainsaw. She steals the chainsaw and then slashes Chop Top open with it, sending him tumbling to the ground before she screams and dances in victory.

REVIEW
If you can’t tell from that plot summary, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a wildly different film than its predecessor. Whereas the original Chainsaw is gruelling and realistic, Chainsaw 2 is campy and over-the-top, aiming to be more of a horror comedy. You can probably imagine the whiplash I experienced going into these two films for the first time, back-to-back and completely unaware of what they were like! Perhaps Tobe Hooper was aiming for some of that true madness that L.M. Kit Carson was alluding to, but this film has some moments of utter batshit lunacy, frighteningly akin to the sort of stuff you might come across in Howling II (which was released only one year earlier… the 80s were a weird time for cinema). Some of this comes from the film striking a campy tone. This gets expressed in various ways throughout the film, but one method is through the portrayal of the amusement park setting, which makes me think of the goofiness of Mr. Freeze’s lair in Batman & Robin. The characters also feel more like “characters” than real people this time around as well. Even returning faces such as Drayton Sawyer have taken a mustache-twirling direction with his oversized van and gleeful cheering about his famous chilli recipe.

Scenery-chewing absolutely abounds in this film and while Jim Siedow tries his best, the most amazingly campy performances in this film go to Bill Moseley and Dennis Hopper without question. Bill Moseley’s Chop Top is a revelation, especially considering that this was his first major role. From his first moment on screen he is enthralling to watch, gleefully eccentric and dangerously unhinged. Even his character ticks of scratching his exposed metal plate with a hot wire and eating bits of his necrotic skin is fascinating, and he actually manages to get across the character’s Vietnam veteran background without having to hammer the audience with exposition. Chop Top is by far the best aspect of this film and effectively demonstrates that having a family of serial killers is a fantastic asset for the Chainsaw franchise to capitalize on.

Meanwhile, Dennis Hopper’s Lefty Enright is just baffling to witness. On his introduction, he comes across like the hero of the film, a Dirty Harry-style hero who’s going to come into town and stop the chainsaw killers. However, it soon becomes apparent that he’s about as deranged as the people he’s hunting and he even uses Stretch and L.G. as bait to lure the Sawyers out of hiding. We don’t really get a sense of just how much of a nut he is though until he gets to the amusement park and then starts screaming like a crazy person, quoting made-up scripture (“I am the Lord of the Harvest…”) and repeatedly yelling “BRING IT ALL DOWN!!! MAY THE LORD HAVE MERCY ON OUR SOULS!!!” like a madman. It’s hilarious and I’m sure that Dennis Hopper is the one who is making it all so gloriously over-the-top, because it makes absolutely no sense in the context of the film for this character to be so bonkers. He even gets into a dual-wielding chainsaw duel with Leatherface and wins, which might be the most badass concept ever put to film (until 10 years later when Kurt Russel would surf a tidal wave through downtown Los Angeles onto the back of Steve Buscemi’s car to punch him in the face). That’s right, this is a character who believes that the only way to beat chainsaw-wielding maniacs is by being even more of a maniac with even more chainsaws.

With all the scenery chewing going on, it’s easy to lose Caroline Williams’ lead performance was Stretch in the shuffle, but I have to give her credit for being a great in this film. She gets put through the freaking wringer throughout Chainsaw 2, getting harassed by the yuppies, getting used as bait by Lefty, getting chased around by murderous maniacs and having to deal with deeply uncomfortable rape vibes from Leatherface throughout the whole ordeal. Unlike Sally in the previous film, she actually gets a chance to fight back on occasion and uses her own cunning to pacify Leatherface enough to stay alive (despite the aforementioned rapey vibes). In my opinion, she’s definitely the best final girl in the whole franchise.

As for Leatherface, his performance is… different. He doesn’t come across quite as dangerously stupid as he was in the first film and his mental deficiencies feel more like a gimmick than central to the character. I also don’t really like how the whole “sexual awakening” subplot was handled because it turns the character into something of a joke and is just deeply uncomfortable to witness. When Leatherface breaks into Stretch’s hiding place, he gets aroused while waving his chainsaw around and soaking Stretch in beer. Stretch seems to understand what’s going on and keeps egging him on, saying “You’re really good, aren’t you?” He then sticks his chainsaw between her legs and makes what can only be described as an o-face before he revs his chainsaw orgasmically and destroys the room in ecstasy… I mean, holy shit, it’s the sort of scene that I can barely believe exists, but there it is. It also makes Leatherface’s chainsaw gimmick retroactively icky, since it explicitly makes the chainsaw a penis metaphor, an association which I would argue isn’t particularly appropriate for this character since he has never really been about masculine aggression or sexualized violence (in fact, gender ambiguity was very much an element of the character that the previous film established). Having to spend the bulk of his scenes getting outshone by Chop Top is bad enough, but I just don’t find Leatherface nearly as compelling in this film. The only character moment he got that I really liked was when he finds Stretch in the meat locker and tries to hide her under a mask made from L.G.’s face skin, showing a bit more of the character’s twisted but identifiable logic, as he believes that this mask will keep her safe like it does for himself. Oh and speaking of skin masks, I am not a huge fan of his mask in this film, it looks much more rubbery than the previous film and more like a scary mask prop.

I’d also be remiss if I neglected to mention Tom Savini’s contributions to this film. While I feel like it’s some of his lesser work (in part perhaps because his best makeup effects were apparently left on the cutting room floor), there are some pretty gnarly scenes in this film, such as a yuppie getting his head chainsawed in half and Leatherface getting impaled by a chainsaw during his duel with Lefty. By far the most impressive effect in the film though is L.G.’s partially-skinned and face-less corpse standing up and helping Stretch while she’s wearing his face. It’s incredibly gruesome seeing the exposed muscle and bones and the makeup effects make far and away the most horrifying moment in the film.

How about this film’s themes? The original film had some surprisingly interesting themes beneath its simple exterior; could its sequel channel a similar spirit to comment on society in the 80s? Well… that is hard to say definitively. Defenders of the film, such as Joey Click at Fansided, like to point out that it “is a response to ’80s consumerism and the rise of yuppie culture. A perfect companion to John Carpenter’s They LiveThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a film steep in ideas of the almighty dollar becoming king […] From the opening, where the Sawyers literally kill two spoiled yuppies, the film is full of examples of pushing back against a culture emerging from Reaganomics. The Sawyers are feeding victims to people, so it’s almost literal.” Tobe Hooper and L.M. Kit Carson’s discussions about what the film reveal that it was conceived to support these ideas. However, I feel like there was something lost in translation. I didn’t grow up in the 80s so maybe I’m missing some of the context, but the film we got doesn’t feel like the biting satire that its defenders claim it is. As it is, we’ve got two yuppies getting gleefully murdered and then an hour and twenty minutes of a radio host getting terrorized by maniacs. Drayton makes a couple barbs once again about how small businessmen are getting screwed by Reagan’s politics, but again, when the film is about a regular, small town radio host getting terrorized it’s hard to say that this serves much thematic point. I don’t think you can justifiably call a film a satire of 80s consumer culture when only the opening scene makes any real substantial reference to it. If the deleted scenes of Leatherface and Chop Top killing yuppies had made their way into the film then it might have achieved that vision, but the film that was released does not. For what it’s worth though, Joey Click also claims that the original Chainsaw had no themes or commentary though, so take their opinion as you will.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a bit of a mess of a film. It’s all over the place and it definitely feels like the seven month production schedule seriously compromised the final product, not to mention the indications that Cannon screwed with Hooper’s vision for the sequel. However, I can appreciate its attempts to do something different and it is certainly never boring. There are also some fantastic individual elements, especially Bill Moseley’s standout, iconic performance. Hell, there are also some very memorable lines in this film, from the iconic “the saw is family”, to Dennis Hopper screaming “I am the Lord of the Harvest…”, “May God have mercy on us all!!!” and “BRING IT ALL DOWN!!!” It’s not the sort of sequel that I would have liked to see from the original creators, but I have warmed to it slightly more after understanding what it is that they were going for. It really is a bonkers film though, so I can only give it so much credit.

4.5/10

Be sure to tune in soon as we take a look at the third entry in the franchise, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III!

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Retrospective: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Happy 2019 and what better way to start a new year than with a new retrospectives series? Consider it my gift to you! This time we’re dipping back into the horror well with one of the most iconic and storied slasher franchises, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Of course, that means that we’re going to start at the beginning today, with 1974’s landmark original, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (it’s worth noting that the original is the only film in the franchise which makes “chain saw” two separate words). I first saw this film during a late-night double feature at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa – they were showing the first two Chainsaw films back-to-back and it was possibly the coolest way to experience these films in their intended setting. Does the original still hold up 45 years later? Read on to find out…

A truly classic tagline right there, one of the best in cinema. For an old-school poster, it’s quite evocative too, showing one of the most iconic scenes in the film without truly spoiling it.

PRODUCTION
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was one of the first films by horror director Tobe Hooper, who would also go on to direct Poltergeist and the Salem’s Lot miniseries. Tobe Hooper came up with the concept for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre early in the 1970s. He was already working on a horror concept and was inspired by contemporary events at the time, such as Watergate and Vietnam, and by increasingly sensationalized and violent news coverage. He was also inspired by the crimes of serial killer Ed Gein. According to Hooper, the titular chainsaw was inspired by a trip to the store where he wished that he could hack his way through the busy crowds.

The script was co-written by Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel, who would form the backbone for the series going forward. Most of the actors involved were unknowns or knew Hooper personally. Most notable were Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty, Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface, Jim Siedow as Drayton Sawyer and Paul Partain as Franklin Hardesty – for all of them, Chain Saw was one of, if not their first, film roles.

The film’s budget was incredibly tight which caused numerous issues for the production. For one thing, most of the cast and crew were promised shares of the potential profits for the film. However, the value of these profits was really only a fraction of what was promised, since it was based on the profits of the production company, rather than the film itself. Furthermore, due to the desire to cut down on equipment rental costs, the filming schedule was extremely punishing on the cast and crew, filming every day for a month, up to 16 hours per day in hot and humid weather up to 43°C! Even worse, costumes couldn’t be washed due to continuity reasons (stains couldn’t disappear) and because they straight-up could not afford to replace lost costumes. This all contributed to some very dangerous conditions for the actors, all of whom acquired some level of injury during filming. Most notably, the extreme conditions caused Gunnar Hansen to have a mental breakdown and believe that he actually had to murder Marilyn Burns, leading to a scene in the film where he actually cuts her finger with a knife, drawing real blood. The scene were Kirk’s body is carved up with a chainsaw was also incredibly dangerous as it involved a real chainsaw being operated within inches of William Vail’s face, meaning that if he moved he would have actually been killed. All-in-all, the extremely limited budget made for a difficult shoot for the cast and crew, but it also led to some very notable elements of the film, such as its unconventional soundtrack and grainy, grimy aesthetic. It also led to Tobe Hooper aiming for a more commercially-viable PG rating, keeping most of the explicit gore off-screen. Naturally, the film was far too horrifying for this to ever happen, but the lack of explicit gore actually enhances the horror as it is largely left up to the viewers’ imagination to fill in the blanks.

The film was released with the intentionally misleading claim that it was based on a true story, a factor which was believed to have contributed to the film’s commercial success. The film also proved incredibly controversial for years, a fact which may also have contributed to its success. In addition to audiences walking out of cinemas in disgust, in Ottawa police advised theaters that they would face morality charges if they screened the film, the British film censors banned the film for years (in part because the word “chainsaw” was banned from movie titles), Australian censors banned the film for a decade, and was also banned in Brazil, Chile, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Singapore, Sweden and West Germany. Despite this, the film grossed over $30 million on a budget of around $130,000, making it one of the most profitable independent films at the time. It also helped to kick off the slasher genre, being one of the most successful slashers since Psycho and ushering in the success of Halloween a few years later.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre follows a group of young adults who travel to rural Texas to investigate the grave of Sally and Franklin Hardesty’s grandfather. There have been reports of grave robbing at his cemetery so they want to make sure his grave has not been disturbed. Joining them is Sally’s boyfriend Jerry and their friends Pam and Kirk. On the way back they go to visit the Hardesty’s old home and pick up a hitchhiker along the way. The hitchhiker acts very strangely, cutting himself with a knife and then slashing Franklin’s arm with a straight razor when he refuses to pay for a picture the hitchhiker had taken. Naturally, they kick him out of the van and then continue on their way to the house, searching for gas for the van on the way (the only gas station they encounter has no gas available).

Kirk and Pam try to go swimming but stumble across another house nearby and decide to see if there’s any gas available there. When they enter the house, they are both picked off by a masked maniac named Leatherface, who bludgeons Kirk to death and then hangs Pam on a meat hook before carving Kirk’s body up with a chainsaw. When Kirk and Pam are late getting back, Jerry decides to check on them and also stumbles across the house, where he finds Pam locked in the freezer before Leatherface also bludgeons him to death. With night setting on, Sally and Franklin are both becoming very worried about their friends and set off to find them, but are found by Leatherface, who kills Franklin and chases Sally around the countryside until she makes her way back to the gas station. However, the seemingly-nice proprietor kidnaps her and then takes her back to Leatherface’s house, revealing that he, the hitchhiker and Leatherface are all brothers in a serial killing family. They psychologically torture Sally over dinner and then try to kill her for their next meal, but Sally manages to escape and flags a passing transport truck. The truck accidentally runs over the hitchhiker and the driver injures Leatherface before Sally gets into another passing truck and flees.

REVIEW
As you can probably tell from the plot summary, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a pretty simple, straightforward film from a narrative standpoint. Rather than making this film feel generic or mediocre, this simplicity actually helps to sell the film’s assertion that this is a “true story”. It’s not like this is a mid-80s slasher film where the villain is hunting his long-lost family and killing in over-the-top ways, it’s just about a bunch of regular people who stumble across a horrifying family when they venture to the fringes of society. So many elements of the film help sell this aspect, from the grainy, grimey aesthetic (which would be emulated in future films such as All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), to the documentary-like filming style, to the unknown actors and their naturalistic performances. Even the film’s violence helps to sell the realism of the film. This certainly isn’t like a modern slasher which aims for creative and spectacular kills to help it stand out. Most of the kills here are sudden and brutal – Kirk and Jerry are both bludgeoned to death in a very quick and efficient manner, Kirk’s body and Franklin are chopped up by Leatherface off-screen and the Hitchhiker’s death by transport truck is also very sudden and not particularly gory. The disturbing imagery (mutilated corpses, stolen parts from robbed graves, etc) are also ripped straight from serial killer cases, most prominently Ed Gein. The film’s realistic feel is a major contributor to its success and why it is so disturbing. In fact, the ending doesn’t really make a lot of sense without this aspect – what purpose does the image of Leatherface flailing with his chainsaw in the sunset convey to the audience other than “the villain is still out there”? It’s so much more effective than the cheap jump scares that other horror movies think that they have to work in at the very end.

In addition to drawing on realism for horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has plenty of other ways to scare or unsettle its audience. The primal horror of getting chased by a masked maniac in the dark is obvious, but some of the most disturbing parts of this film are much more unconventional and interesting. My favourite technique is how Tobe Hooper will use extreme close-ups to disorient the audience and reveal bits and pieces of disturbing imagery, while cutting in between increasingly more terrified reaction shots of the characters. This is done on a couple different occasions. In the first, Pam falls in the Sawyer family living room and tries to take in the room, giving the audience snippets of bones and drawing the scene out as the audience pieces the scene together just like Pam, before revealing that the couch is adorned with human remains. The infamous dinner scene at the end of the film is also made all the more unsettling by the extreme close-ups of Marilyn Burns’ eyes, which project a look of abject terror which sells the scene and ratchets the intensity to stratospheric levels. A similar technique is also used in the opening scene where unearthed corpses are revealed in only momentary flashes from a camera. The audience’s imagination helps to fill in a lot of the blanks in all of these cases, a technique which The Texas Chain Saw Massacre leverages masterfully. Perhaps my favourite instance of this is in the opening credits, which play over a distorted, blood-red and black screen which is almost like a Rorschach test. This is made all the more unsettling by a voice over of news stories about death and violence, making these credits almost an image of madness, most of which is merely implied by the film and which is filled out in the audience’s minds.

I also want to give some attention to the acting in this film, because the performers are all universally great. Among the main cast, Marilyn Burns (Sally), Paul Danziger (Jerry), William Vail (Kirk) and Teri McMinn (Pam) all put in very convincing and naturalistic performances, but I want to give a special shout-out to Paul Partain’s wheelchair-bound Franklin. His performance is also quite natural, but he gets much more to work with and really makes for a more interesting character than the rest of the principle cast. I really disliked this character the first time I watched the film – he’s always pushing the other characters’ buttons, getting himself into trouble and whining about his woes. However, on further viewings I have really gotten a soft spot for Franklin, because he really is getting screwed over constantly. For one thing, the other characters mostly see him as a burden who got brought on this trip with them, evidenced by how as soon as they reach the family house they abandon him to have fun by themselves. This is also evidenced by how Franklin asks Sally if she didn’t want him to come with them and she deflects, saying that she’s just tired, denoting that she obviously did not want him to come. In addition, he just constantly gets shit upon by the world – the very first time we see him, he has to go to the bathroom beside the road and gets knocked into a ditch by a passing truck. Then he gets his arm slashed open by a random hitchhiker’s straight razor. Then he gets left out while all of his friends have fun. Then he loses his pocket knife. Then when all of their friends start disappearing, he begins to panic at the thought of losing Sally too and just pitifully sticks with her even though he can’t keep up on the uneven terrain. Oh, and then he gets chainsawed to death by a masked maniac to boot. I just feel so sorry for the poor guy, he’s just having an awful day and everyone else is treating him like crap.

The villains are also all very interesting characters. The idea of having a family of serial killers is pretty unique and is an often-forgotten element of the Chainsaw movies which helps set it apart from the other slasher franchises. The first member of the family we meet, Edwin Neal’s unnamed hitchhiker (given the name Nubbins Sawyer in subsequent films), is very compelling. He has a speech impediment and clearly has some sort of mental health issue, but is also just gleefully sadistic. His introduction is tense because he’s so clearly unhinged and fascinated by violence. He also clearly has his own internal logic which makes sense to him but to the audience is completely unpredictable, making any sort of interaction all the more tense. This is demonstrated in a couple different interactions, such as when he takes Franklin’s knife and then cuts himself with it to see how sharp it is. It is also shown when Franklin refuses to pay the hitchhiker for a photo, which insults him and leads him to attack Franklin. In the hitchhiker’s mind, he did Franklin a courtesy and the refusal is like spitting in his face for a job that he did.

There’s also the gas station proprietor (given the name Drayton Sawyer in subsequent films), who is played to perfection by Jim Siedow. He’s almost like an evil Mr. Rogers in this film – he’s the nice guy of his family, the only one who is clearly sane. However, he’s unmistakably evil: he abuses people for no other reason than to assert his dominance (seen when he prods Sally while tied up and when he beats up his siblings, making up excuses for doing so), oversees the violence in the family and then secretly sells human remains at his gas station as barbecued meat (oh, and ere’s some second-viewing horror for you: Franklin ate some of that meat). He also really hates getting his hands dirty, as evidenced by his line about how he can’t stand killing, so he leaves that to Nubbins and Leatherface. He’s just a really great, colourful and memorable character; I’d argue that he gives the best performance in the whole film.

Before we get to Leatherface, I also want to mention Grandpa Sawyer. He has a very minor role in the film, but the family’s patriarch is almost corpse-like. In fact, during the chainsaw pursuit, Sally comes across Grandpa in the attic along with Grandma’s decaying corpse and I thought he was just another corpse in the Sawyer house on my first viewing. Then when they drag Grandpa down for dinner later I thought they were just lugging a corpse around, so imagine my surprise when it turned out that he was actually still holding on to life! It was a “WTF!?” moment for me for sure and just another element of what makes that dinner scene so unsettling. Are we meant to believe that this is actually happening, or has Sally gone truly insane?

Then there’s the most enduring aspect of this film, the main attraction himself, Gunnar Hansen’s Leatherface. He’s such an interesting character and unlike most slasher villains. For one thing, he is obviously very mentally handicapped in this film (Gunnar Hansen attended a special needs school to study the students in preparation for the role) and is incapable of speech. In spite of this, he is arguably the most dangerous and sadistic member of the family. At one point, Drayton berates Nubbins for leaving his brother alone, implying that when left to his own devices Leatherface will just murder people indiscriminately. Like Nubbins, he has an identifiable but twisted logic in the film – from his perspective, people just keep invading his property and he’s defending it. He’s even visually shaken after killing Jerry, freaking out and looking out the windows to see if there are any other trespassers because he can’t understand what’s going on. However, he also clearly relishes in killing as he has a look of pure bliss as he carves people up. He even has some rudimentary, animalistic cunning, such as when he lures in Kirk and Jerry to their deaths by making pig noises. His mask is also a crucial aspect of the character. There are apparently three different masks worn in the film, each representing a different aspect of Leatherface. The most obvious are the iconic “killing” mask, which he wears to kill Kirk, Pam and Jerry. It has a really simple but great look in this film, like it’s very worn out and made in a very rough manner. It also shows off his eyes and mouth enough to allow Gunnar Hansen to be quite expressive. It might work best for me because it isn’t really designed to be a “scary flesh mask”, it just gets to be scary on its own merits (also, holy shit, I saw a face transplant article on CBC a while ago and they have pictures from the procedure… you could straight-up make a face mask like Leatherface’s in real life). He also wears two masks which are meant to make him look like a woman, which are possibly even more unsettling than the killing mask. He wears these during the dinner scene and they are meant to convey that Leatherface is trying to be “domestic” rather than a butcher at that time.

Despite being very simple on the surface, there’s a lot that you can say about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which makes it far more than just a really well-made slasher film. The most obvious theme to me is the divide between urban and rural, or society and savagery. Sally and her friends represent “civilized” urban society and when they venture into rural Texas it’s like a strange, unknown world to them. It feels like an American gothic story to me, where all of the evils of society are hidden just beneath the veneer of normalcy. Everyone in rural Texas is portrayed a being at least somewhat eccentric, from the straight-up psychopaths in the Sawyer family, to the drunken and crazy locals just hanging out at the graveyard. The land itself is even run down, from the shut-down slaughterhouse, to the quaint gas station, to the old homesteads that the group witnesses. The Sawyer family’s savagery seems like more of an extension of the reality that they live in, rather than some aberration unique to them. In their world, you have to do what you can to survive, including hunting to eat. I wonder if this is perhaps why Tobe Hooper decided to make Franklin a paraplegic to further show the divide between these two worlds. In the civilized world, Franklin can get by well enough, but as soon as he enters the rural parts of Texas he is getting attacked by the elements and the locals. Even his old family home can’t accommodate him in his state and he is ultimately killed by Leatherface because he’s unable to flee on the rough terrain. On a similar note, Kirk and Jerry are the men of the group and would traditionally be seen as the “protectors”, but the fact that they are overpowered almost instantly by Leatherface shows the might that he has in his own environment. Considering that the film has an early reference to cattle being killed with a hammer at the slaughter house in the “good ol’ days”, the fact that both of the men are killed this way clearly is meant to equate them with cattle in the Sawyers’ eyes.

And speaking of the slaughterhouse, that leads into another theme of the film which resonates with me regarding how capitalism is ruining the lives of rural people. Nubbins mentions that his grandfather and Leatherface used to work at the slaughterhouse and were legendarily good at killing cattle efficiently with a hammer blow. However, when bolt guns were introduced into the business it made the process even more efficient and presumably caused Leatherface’s job to be redundant. You could even argue that Grandpa’s living corpse is symbolic of the family’s refusal to let go of their past despite capitalism making their living obsolete. You can also see this economic depression in the fact that the Hardesty homestead has been abandoned and left unsold; no one wants the property anymore. Drayton also mentions when kidnapping Sally that he had to go back into the gas station and turn the lights off, because the price of wasted electricity is so expensive that it could put him out of business. You can connect the dots pretty easily for how a family on hard times with a talent for killing cattle would turn to murdering and eating people, all because economic opportunity has been drained from the community. You could also argue that this is why Nubbins takes Franklin’s refusal to pay for a photograph as such an insult. He believes that he did a favour for Franklin and gets screwed over for his work. This might even mirror the circumstances of Leatherface losing his job after years of loyal service, so Nubbins might be even more enraged by the snubbing as a result.

The other theme which I find particularly interesting is the concept of family. The traditional family dynamic is twisted in fascinating ways in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I’ve already mentioned how it’s unique that the film features a family of psychopaths, but it goes much deeper than that. The Sawyers have a traditional southern family, with grandpa as the patriarch and grandma having died some time ago. However, since he’s comatose and unable to lead the family, Drayton has had to take over as the head of the family, handing out abusive-levels of discipline to his brothers when they misbehave. Leatherface’s place is also quite interesting in this family – since the matriarch of the family has died, he wears masks with makeup on them to fill the void in the family. The family dynamic is most clearly felt during the dinner scene, which is clearly meant to be a nightmare version of the idea of “southern hospitality“, only now with human remains strewn everywhere, a family of psychopaths and the attempted murder of the guest. However, as twisted as the Sawyers’ notion of family is, it’s juxtaposed against the family dynamic of Sally and Franklin. Sally doesn’t get along with Franklin very well, in fact she seems to find him to be a burden that she is forced to bear. The only time they have any sort of familial moment is when Franklin asks if she wishes he didn’t come with them, but she clearly lies when she says that she’s just tired. In comparison to the Sawyers, the Hardesty family is more fractured and broken, even if it is more “conventional”.

As you can probably tell, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is far more than just an average slasher film. I don’t tend to like slasher films very much, but I really do love this one – it’s incredibly well made (especially considering the low budget which gets used as an asset rather than a hindrance), deceptively fascinating and deeply unsettling. Its status as a horror classic is undisputed and I would definitely put it up there as one of my favourite horror movies of all time.

8.5/10

Be sure to tune in soon as we move onto the next entry in the series, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2!

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Retrospective: God’s Not Dead – A Light in Darkness (2018)

Welcome back to the God’s Not Dead retrospective! In today’s entry we’re covering the latest, and possibly last, entry in the franchise, God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness. After the garbage fire that was the previous film, could it be possible for this series to get even more insulting? Read on to find out…

The poster carries on the same design aesthetic as the previous films in the franchise. I like it a lot more than the previous one – visually, it’s a far more interesting design.


God’s Not Dead 2 released on April 1st, 2016 and was (unfortunately) only an April Fool’s joke if you paid to see it. That said, it landed in the year that evangelicals would help to put Donald Trump into office as the 45th President of the United States, a result which has been… contentious to put it lightly and which has shed a light on how brutishly tribal, steadfastly political and stunningly hypocritical the evangelical church is in America. I do not think it an exaggeration to suggest that the God’s Not Dead franchise helped to bring about these turn of events in their own small way. These films were just reflections of things that evangelicals already believed, but (as per Sean Paul Murphy) Pure Flix was drawn to creating inflammatory content to generate more ticket sales, which fanned the flames and drove evangelicals to act.


Even before November 2016 rolled around, a third God’s Not Dead film had been confirmed, although the premise was not set. David A. R. White stated that “We’ve just been in a lot of prayer and trying to figure out exactly what God wants number 3 to be. Because you know we don’t just want to just do what we want to do, we really want to follow where God is leading on these movies.” Now, details on what exactly happened are hard to come by, but Harold Cronk (who directed the previous 2 films), Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon (the writers of the previous 2 films) were not brought back to work on the new film. Instead, an unknown writer/director by the name of “Michael Mason” was brought on to spearhead the third entry in the franchise, signalling a new direction for the franchise.


David A. R. White returns as Pastor Dave, this time taking on the film’s leading role. Benjamin Onyango would return as Pastor Jude and Shane Harper would also return as Josh Wheaton, but they both appear in relatively small roles and none of the other major characters from the series (such as Amy, Martin or Ayisha… sigh, so much for my Josh/Ayisha shipping) make any appearance. The new major roles are filled out by John Corbett as Dave’s estranged brother, Ted McGinley as the university chancellor and Jennifer Taylor as Dave’s love interest. The filmmakers also made a big deal about securing Academy Award winning actress Tatum O’Neal in a role, but it ends up being a very minor as one of the board members at the university.

Owing to how hard it is to find information about this film’s production, I actually found some intriguing little tidbits. On the minor end of things, I found confirmation that this film was at one point given the subtitle of “A Light in the Darkness”, but that the “the” was subsequently dropped, presumably because they would have thought it was too long a title. This just gives me a bit more insight into Pure Flix’s marketing ideas and why I was probably on the right track when I was thinking about why they didn’t just call this series God is Not Dead, as they clearly should have. Perhaps more intriguing is the identity of “Michael Mason”, as I found some conflicting stories which suggest that this is a pseudonym for an unidentified director. The candidate which had been suggested was Jon Gunn, director of My Date with Drew, Do You Believe? and The Case for Christ and it was postulated that he used the “Michael Mason” pseudonym because it would have been his 3rd Christian film in a row and might have pigeonholed him as a “Christian director”. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but it’s also worth pointing out that a November 2017 interview with Shane Harper had the film’s director listed as “Jonathan Michael”. Perhaps this an early, half-masked psuedonym before Michael Mason was settled on? Regardless, it’s really interesting to speculate on.

Also, one last thing to note before we move onto the story of the film: this movie bombed at the box office. While the first film had made around $60 million domestically and the second had made around $20 million, A Light in Darkness brought in just over $7 million – less than both of the previous films had made in their opening weekends. Ouch. I feel like by this entry the series’ reputation was already tanked, so there was less interest, not to mention that it was yet another unnecessary sequel. Perhaps most importantly though, the Christian film industry had really kicked into full gear since the release of God’s Not Dead, and as a result A Light in Darkness was beaten out at the box office by fellow faith-based films I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ, all of which released in a 3 week span around the Easter season (which I commented on at the time). It’s also probably worth mentioning that Black Panther was still tearing up the box office at the time as well.


The film opens with Pastor Dave getting released from jail after the post-credits scene in the last film because… well, we aren’t really told why, but they basically have nothing on him after all. Dave’s jailing creates a controversy about the church being on university grounds. Jude meets with Dave after his release and a couple nights later they hear a brick being thrown through the church window. Dave tries to catch the vandal while Jude goes to turn off the alarm – however, the brick accidentally caused a gas leak which explodes, fatally wounds Jude and burns the church. Dave is left in shock as the university uses this opportunity to try to seize the church grounds in order to build a student union centre, which Dave refuses. As a result, Dave seeks out his estranged brother, Pearce, who is a social justice lawyer and non-believer. With Pearce’s help, Dave goes to court against the university to retain control of the church, while waging a media campaign which inflames further controversy over both sides of the conflict.

Eventually, Dave discovers that a local student named Adam was the one responsible for the gas leak which happened accidentally after taking out his frustrations over the church. Dave has Adam arrested after confronting him, but Dave’s lashing out further hurts his public perception and leads to Pearce dropping out of the case. As Dave’s life begins to spiral out of control, he does some major soul-searching with God and realizes that he’s hurting people with his needless crusade. As a result, he announces that he’s accepting a settlement with the university, drops the charges against Adam, builds a new church elsewhere and just asks everyone to stop fighting one another.

As you can probably tell from this synopsis, A Light in Darkness is… actually a movie for once, not an over-glorified object lesson. It’s truly shocking to see the difference between this film after the last two entries – in fact, a significant chunk of my notes while watching were just me expressing surprise about how plot points are treated with far more nuance than they were previously. I have to give Michael Mason (whoever they are) some credit for just how much better this film is compared to the other two in nearly every way. Harold Cronk was a competent director, but his two films in this series had a very flat, workmanlike quality (and the less said about the scripts, the better). In contrast, this movie immediately demonstrates a considerably more interesting directing style and better cinematography. The script for this film is also miles ahead of the last two entries. In fact, I feel like A Light in Darkness only really has a couple of obvious issues that are worse than in the other films in this series. Worst of all, its pacing is glacial at times and without the batshit insanity or scenery chewing of the previous films, it’s easy to be bored for long stretches of this film. Also, David A. R. White is a decent actor for the most part, but having to carry a whole film on his shoulders seems like a bit of a strenuous effort for him. He had succeeded in the previous two films by being a bit of positive, comic levity combined with strong chemistry with Pastor Jude. However, A Light in Darkness sees Pastor Dave taking on a dark, dramatic role. There are a couple of moments in the film when David needs to display some sort of strong emotion (such as when he’s crying for Jude while the church burns and when he angrily confronts Adam about the fire) but he tends to be unconvincing, like he’s holding back for fear of looking silly. Again, he’s mostly solid though and his chemistry with John Corbett helps to keep things going strong.

I also have to give Pure Flix some credit for actually listening to the criticisms they received this time and using them to actually take a step forward… but just how big was that step? Let’s take a closer look…


One of the first things that will strike you about this movie (assuming you’ve seen the other two entries in the series), is that the portrayals of Christians and atheists are considerably more nuanced. Let’s focus on the portrayal of the Christians first, because that is probably the starkest difference compared to the other films. The Christians in this film are considerably more unsure of themselves and Pastor Dave is even straight-up villainized by the film for most of its second half. When Dave starts a social media campaign to get public support for his cause, this causes an unintended harassment campaign against the university’s chancellor, Elsworth and his family, as he gets doxxed, receives harrassing phone calls, death threats and has his window smashed with a brick. This is an unfortunately realistic example of how Christians can be dicks and how they can cause evil without even intending it. I’m wondering if this was inspired by Christian ugliness that the filmmakers witnessed stemming from their own movies perhaps? To make matters even more complicated, Elsworth is explicitly portrayed as a good friend of Dave’s, and possibly even a Christian too. This doxxing causes Elsworth to violently confront Dave, but the Pastor refuses to relent to help his friend.

Dave just becomes more of a mess from there. Adam texts him anonymously, hoping that Dave will forgive him for starting the fire. Instead, Dave confronts Adam, accosts him, pushes away a security guard and makes a huge stink which is caught on film and tanks his public reputation, but leads to Adam’s arrest… and we’re definitely meant to agree that Dave did the wrong thing here. Again, these should be obvious, but the fact that God’s Not Dead is agreeing with common sense is just so strange to me, they’ve conditioned me to expect the worst. Adam’s girlfriend, Keaton, has been questioning her faith throughout the entire film and it becomes obvious that it’s the actions of the Christians that are eroding that away. She confronts Dave, says that she’s seeing no mercy from the man of God and that Adam is “tired of feeling judged and rejected by the people who should be loving and accepting.” While the film is still clearly on the side of Christians, it at least is able to acknowledge that they’re often their own greatest enemy, rather than the external enemies that the other films leaned into.

The atheist characters are all given far more nuance that in the previous films as well. Dave’s brother Pearce is probably the most compelling character in the film. He has this playful “older brother” routine that he does with Dave in all their interactions, but it’s obvious that there is a tension due to some sort of major falling out with his family’s faith. That said, he helps Dave because they are family. Pearce even gets some digs in on Christians which ring true, such as when he accuses Dave of “playing the victim”. Everything comes to a head towards the end of the film when Dave chews out Pearce for leaving him to care for his parents alone. Pearce reveals that when he was struggling with his faith, no one took the time to help him to sort out his feelings, it left him feeling like no one cared. As a result, he lost his faith, which broke his parents’ hearts. The callousness and inaction of Christians bred tragedy which led to even more tragedies. By the end of the film, Pearce is still an atheist and this isn’t portrayed as some moral failing. He does take his childhood Bible with him, implying that he may go back to searching, but that’s left entirely up to the viewer to speculate.

The other major atheist character is Adam, who is immediately hostile to the church when he’s introduced. This might seem like old hat for God’s Not Dead, but it’s a bit of a misdirection as we are very much intended to sympathize with Adam. At the start of the film, Keaton breaks up with him for belittling her struggles over faith, which leads him to vandalize the church and then accidentally starts the fire when a thrown brick breaks a gas line. He is no Mark from the first film though, Adam is devastated by his part in this and immediately wants to turn himself in to the police. In fact, Keaton is the one who tells him not to for fear of getting into trouble. Later we find out that Adam is so hostile to religion because his mom was beaten by her dad and when she divorced him to get away, the church called her a sinner for it. Once again, we’re given an admission that Christians are the monsters sometimes and that the “rules” aren’t nearly as black and white as some people claim. That said, the pattern with Adam and Pearce is that they are atheists because the church pushed them away from faith, rather than because they have a logical foundation for their belief. Keaton supports this idea when she says that “the whole world knows what the church is against, but it’s getting harder and harder to know what it’s for.” Their experiences certainly don’t represent all atheists or people who fall away from the church, so I’m not sure that the filmmakers “get it” yet – they still don’t seem to understand that the things that the church fights so hard for (eg, homophobia) run counter to the things that it’s supposed to be all about (eg, loving your neighbour). Still, the non-Christian characters are still miles better than anything in the previous two films.

The other non-believing characters are treated in a similarly, mostly-reasonable manner. For example, the university board members actually have a pretty legitimate reason for why they want the church off of the campus – the church was there when the university was founded, but times have changed and now there is an issue of favouring one religion over all the others. That’s a textbook example of Christian “persecution” which is actually just treating them the same way that they would any other religious group. Furthermore, Dave’s arrest had been drawing unfavourable attention and the fire showed that there was violence starting to be committed over the building’s presence on campus. There are even some discussions about whether they might just keep the church on campus for historic reasons, but they decide that it’s better to build a student centre in the long-term. There’s no moustache-twirling, sneering, villainous monologue about how they’re going to kill God this time, they just have a very legitimate concern about favouring Christians over all the other faiths on campus (for an example of why this is reasonable and relevant, take a look at how Christians respond whenever the Church of Satan does anything). On a similar note, it’s also worth pointing out that the conspiracy theorizing of the previous film is mostly gone. In addition to the reasonable motives of the board, Pastor Dave is released before we’re even two minutes into the film because, the franchise has realized, there’s absolutely no reason for them to even arrest him in the first place. This should be obvious to everyone, but the fact that God’s Not Dead is acknowledging it as well goes to show just how different these films has become off the bat.

That said, the film does have some weird, lingering issues when it comes to its non-Christian characters. Early on we have a scene with Keaton and Adam hanging out with their friend Teo and his girlfriend. Teo leads the conversation, chatting about the Mandela Effect at length, which he equates to being as legitimate as the idea of Jesus walking on water. It’s a weird scene, because it’s either completely pointless, or the film is trying to say that the things that non-Christians believe are equally as ridiculous as any supernatural belief in Christianity… except that the Mandela Effect is not in any way a serious scientific belief, so I’m not sure why they had this scene at all. Furthermore, the non-Christian characters specifically get set off whenever Dave says that he believes in “one truth”, which suggests that the filmmakers clearly still believe that non-believers have some sort of knee-jerk hostility to Christians.

In addition to providing more nuance for the atheists and Christian characters, A Light in Darkness also erodes much of the persecution complex that the previous films were cultivating. The acknowledgements that Christians cause issues as well goes some way to establishing this. There is also one famous scene near the end of the film which makes this most starkly clear, where Dave speaks with Pastor Roland at a local, predominantly-black church:

Dave: “What’s important is that Christians stop rolling over all the time, when is it our right to fight? I’m tired of being pushed around. I’m tired of turning the other cheek. […] I’m just saying that I think it’s time that Christians stand up for themselves.” 

Roland: “People were drawn to Jesus because of his love, his patience and kindness. He managed to preach the truth without losing himself in the bargain. He was gentle with the meek and hard as a rock with the arrogant. And when he talked to the foolish, he was patient and never became a fool himself. And he was never proud David.” 

Dave: “This has nothing to do with pride, Roland. And no offence, but maybe you’d understand a little better if you were the one being attacked.” 

Roland: “Brother who do you think you’re talking to? I’m a black preacher in the deep south. I could build you a church with all the bricks been thrown through my windows. […] We cannot respond to hate with more hate. And don’t forget: we are called to be a light in the darkness.”

The message seems clear, even if Dave doesn’t necessarily “get” it at the time: black people have been persecuted for centuries and when the first sign of trouble comes to evangelicals they act like they have a monopoly on suffering. The fact that this film’s title is dropped in this exchange is also proof that this is one of the film’s fundamental messages, and honestly it’s a pretty damn good one. Hearing Pastor Roland talking about not responding to hate with more hate resonates far more effectively than the heavy-handed equating of Grace to Martin Luther King Jr in the previous film. This is also reflected on the God’s Not Dead blog where, after the second film came out, suddenly the tone changed from sensationalist and combative to calm and reflective.

For all the good steps that A Light in Darkness has taken, it still has some major issues gnawing away at it. I’ve alluded a few times now that the filmmakers still don’t quite understand what they were wrong about in the previous two films and, while I give them credit for trying to fix their problems, I can’t ignore how their lingering issues taint this film’s attempts at change. The proof of this is found in this film’s cameos. The only Christian celebrity cameo comes from the Newsboys, who make a very brief appearance on a news program where they make this nonsense metaphor about the symbology of the cross which doesn’t really add anything to the film. Despite this film’s efforts to step up their Christian message, the two main cameos in this film come from the conservative world: Dana Loesch, a spokeswoman for the NRA, and Judge Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News personality. If you have no idea who these people are then you might take this movie’s efforts to improve Christian and non-believers’ relations at face value. However, if you do know them, it undermines this movie’s efforts entirely because they are “two of the most aggressive and combative voices imaginable” and yet are portrayed as the voices of reason throughout the film. The AV Club review of this movie sums the situation up well:

“Frustrated Dave might well be paraphrasing Loesch’s video from last April, where she ranted against Trump protesters who “smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding […] The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.” When Loesch appears in the film, it’s to pull a “so much for the tolerant left” line in flagging the university’s decision. Later, Judge Jeanine gets to voice the film’s moral: “It’s a sign of the time: everybody’s yelling, nobody’s listening.” What she means is that the left is yelling and not listening to the right”.

The fact that Judge Jeanine is the one saying the film’s other moral stands in stark contrast to what Pastor Roland was saying, which puts this film into a major identity crisis. On the one hand, we have a legitimate effort to bring people together, to portray Christians and non-believers in a more respectful and realistic light and to urge its audience to be less divided. However, on the other hand, we have a film which is still in bed with American far right activists and portrays them as being far more reasonable than they are without any sort of irony. The film makes this even more embarrassing during an exchange between Pearce and Josh. Josh says that he was studying to be a civil rights lawyer and Pearce says that he didn’t strike him as a liberal. Josh replies that “I don’t think standing up for the oppressed is exclusive to a political agenda” and that “my beliefs are the foundation of change” because all humans are made in the image of God. He then lets out the ultimate stinker of a line when he says that “Jesus was the ultimate social justice warrior”… whoo boy. What “oppressed people” are you referring to Josh? Are you in favour of the rights of homosexuals? It should be obvious to anyone watching that evangelicals don’t have a good history of standing up for the oppressed, for even being “social justice warriors” and that conservatism is by its very nature uninterested in the rights of minorities. It’s one thing to make the not untrue statement that Jesus supported social justice, but it’s another to say that evangelicals are a force for social justice. These are, after all, the people who voted in, and continue to support, Trump in spite of everything that they profess to hold good and moral.

Combine all of this with the film’s ending, where Dave sacrifices his crusade for the church in order to stop both sides from fighting with one another, and we’ve got a conclusion which seems to run counter to the message that the film had been building towards. “Let’s stop shouting at each other and start listening. It’s the only way that things will get better” could come across as a legitimate call for Christian peacemaking in a time when the country is divided. However, by putting their message into the mouths of out-of-character conservative activists, I have a hard time seeing the film’s ultimate intent as anything but the following: after eight years of Obama, evangelical get their own candidate into power, decide that there’s no reason for anyone to legitimately protest now and are just trying to shut down all opposing views. After all, “stop shouting, start listening” suggests that the people you’re shouting down have something legitimate to say, which is hard to justify when you consider the surge in racist and nationalist movements, or that America is drawing itself dangerously close to fascism.

A Light in Darkness is a confused film. It’s a bit dull at times, but I was actually enjoying myself for the most part. There are moments that I legitimately liked quite a bit, particularly the shot where Dave prays and the church around him melts away into a view of space, getting across the idea of God’s presence without requiring words. It’s the first time in this series that God appears and is actually a loving deity for once, giving guidance to a lost and grieving soul. However, as I have said at length, the filmmakers’ refusal to break from their right-wing associations completely undermines the sincerity of the film’s message. This has led to some very polarizing reviews from audiences, with some fans of the other films disliking it for not being “inspiring” enough, while others appreciated the strides the film took to improve the series. For my own part, I feel like A Light in Darkness is just short of being a truly good film. I never would have expected to say this, but it’s almost too bad that we’re probably not going to get a fourth film – I’m extremely curious to see how the franchise would have evolved given one more try. Oh well, hopefully Pure Flix doesn’t backslide after this film’s tepid reception.

5/10

And here is my final ranking of these films:
1) God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness – 5/10
2) God’s Not Dead – 4/10
3) God’s Not Dead 2 – 2/10

Thanks for tuning in for another retrospective series! This one was a bit more torturous than the others just due to the films involved, but I always love writing them. Until next time!

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Retrospective: God’s Not Dead 2 (2016)

Welcome back to the God’s Not Dead retrospective! In today’s entry, we’re going to be looking at the second film in the franchise, the succinctly-titled God’s Not Dead 2 (although I think we all know that it should have been called God’s Still Not Dead, c’mon guys!). After the commercial success of the first film, a sequel was basically guaranteed. However, would the filmmakers be able to overcome their insulting depictions of Christians and non-Christians this time? Read on to find out…

…eh, I don’t really like this poster much. I mean, it’s fine, it gets across the point of the film, but I preferred the more minimalist design of the original.

Considering that God’s Not Dead put Pure Flix on the map and raked in more than thirty times its budget in theaters alone, a sequel was a virtual certainty and was quickly announced by the studio. After the success of the first film, the studio was able to tap some higher-profile actors to fill the main parts, most-notably Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina the Teenage Witch) as the film’s leading lady. Also filling out the main cast were Jesse Metcalfe, Ernie Hudson, Pat Boone and Ray Wise as the mustache-twirling antagonist, in addition to a few returning cast members from the first film (most notably, producer David A. R. White as Pastor Dave). The first film’s success also meant that Pure Flix was able to get some Christian public figures to appear as well, including Lee Strobel (who had been name-dropped in the first film), J. Warner Wallace and Mike Huckabee.

As for the making of God’s Not Dead 2, I’ve been having trouble finding really interesting information about the making of the film and I don’t want to speculate too much, so take the next part with a bit of salt. Unlike the first film, there isn’t as much information about what actually inspired God’s Not Dead 2. However, considering the content of this movie, I would not be surprised if Pure Flix’s association with the Alliance Defending Freedom played a major role in the creation of this film, which is further evidenced by ads for the ADF in the end credits and on the movie’s website. As Sean Paul Murphy had said previously, Pure Flix’s audience were growing more interested in films with political agendas rather than simply “Christian” films.

It’s also worth noting that the filmmakers were clearly very aware of the backlash that the first film had inspired from atheists. Responding to claims that the God’s Not Dead films misrepresent Christian persecution, David A. R. White told The Blaze “It’s an interesting thing, because, if it wasn’t real, why do they get so offended by it? […] I don’t think it would annoy people if it wasn’t true.” I… what?

David… you know that people get annoyed by lies too… right? Are you so deep into the evangelical bubble that you can’t see anything else? Sigh… I think I’m starting to understand why the “logical” arguments in these films are so unconvincing.

The story of God’s Not Dead 2 picks up a few months after the last film ended and follows a high school history teacher named Grace Wesley. One of Grace’s students, Brooke, comes to Grace for advice because her brother has recently died and she doesn’t know how to cope with the loss. Grace confides that she trusts in Jesus, which helps to prompt Brooke to explore Christianity after she discovers a Bible that her brother had kept hidden. Brooke then asks a question in class about the non-violent protests of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr, relating them to Jesus, which Grace answers and explains. However, one of her students reports her for doing so, which prompts the school board to try to fire Grace. Grace is represented by a young, non-Christian lawyer named Tom Endler who tries to get her to stand down and concede to an apology. Grace refuses because she believes that she did nothing wrong. Brooke’s parents are then approached by Pete Kane of the American Civil Liberties Union, which wants to represent them in suing Grace with the explicit intent of stamping out Christianity in America once and for all.

Grace is then put on trial for violation of the separation of church and state, with Pastor Dave managing to end up on the jury for the case. Tom mounts a defence by arguing for the historical authenticity of Jesus with supposed “experts” Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace showing up to explain as much. Brooke is eventually brought in by Tom and Grace to testify, but she ends up giving further evidence to the ACLU’s case by revealing that Grace had spoken to her about Jesus outside of school. Everything’s looking grim for Grace when Tom comes up with a baffling final gambit, putting Grace on the stand as a hostile witness and badgering her to tears about her faith, saying that they’re going to silence, fine and jail all the Christians. Somehow, this causes the jury to rule in her favour, much to the embarrassment of the ACLU. After the credits, Pastor Dave is arrested for not handing over sermon transcripts earlier in the film.

As you can probably tell from the plot summary, God’s Not Dead 2 ditches the previous film’s interconnected storylines in favour of one main plot. There are still a couple subplots, but these are given far less prominence than in the first film and all tie directly into the main plot. This, honestly, is probably to the story’s overall betterment, as I did suggest previously that God’s Not Dead could have used some stronger focus overall. Honestly, in a lot of ways God’s Not Dead 2 is an improved sequel – the production values are a bit better, the performances are all good across the board, the story’s a bit more focused and the scope and stakes get raised enough that this doesn’t just feel like a straight rehash of the first film. There were also some subplots that I thought were legitimately really good – basically everything revolving around Martin (Paul Kwo, reprising his role from the first film) is great as we witness him grow from an awkward and excited young Christian to one who is resolved to preach, even when it costs him the respect of his family. I also found elements of Amy’s subplot (Trisha LaFache, also reprising her role) to be interesting, as she grapples with her faith after her cancer goes into remission. Unfortunately this intriguing aspect of her character gets dropped pretty quickly and, while Amy remains in the film for quite some time thereafter, she doesn’t really add anything interesting in the rest of her screentime.

The only problem is… well, God’s Not Dead 2 sets itself up in such a manner that an objective and detached review of it is basically impossible. Like I just said, technically this film has the pieces needed to be better than the first movie. Story-wise, I found its courtroom melodrama and proselytizing duller than the first movie’s classroom drama, despite the overall tighter focus of the sequel. I think this simply comes down to the rivalry of Josh and Radisson, which was far more interesting than Grace and Tom’s flat characterization and Pete’s scenery chewing. That’s not really the main issue though, as it’s the actual themes of the story that lets this movie down so hard and make the two hour runtime into even more of a slog. Once again, the filmmakers ideological bent is on full display, but this time they really lean into it, to the point where it straight-up ruins their movie from conception. The plot is just plain dumb and stretches credulity to the breaking point. That said, if you’re a part of the conservative evangelical bubble then you might not even notice that there is an ideological bent to this movie at all – or worse, you might even feel validated by it.

Let’s just get right into the portrayal of atheists in this film. It’s clear that the filmmakers were aware of the atheist backlash that the first film inspired, but it seems that it only inspired them to double-down, because God’s Not Dead 2 is way more offensive to atheists than the previous film was. This is evident from the very first scene of the movie through the portrayal of Brooke’s parents, Richard and Catherine. Brooke is clearly struggling and withdrawn because of the death of her brother, but her parents are totally over it and don’t seem to care anymore at all. Right off the bat this is a step beyond anything that the filmmakers had portrayed in the previous film. They imply once again that atheists are incapable of love, but now they also seem to believe that they can’t even care about their own children!? I was watching and wondering if this might just be a coping mechanism for Brooke’s parents, but no, this movie straight-up implies that atheist parents don’t give a shit about their own kids. I’ll be honest, I was floored by the very start of this film, it was unbelievable that the people behind this film would think this of atheists. I mean, as I have reiterated multiple times now, they were aware that atheists were offended by how they were portrayed in the first movie, so you’d think that the right move would be to be more careful in how you represent people going forward to make sure that there are no misunderstandings, right? Well, we’re getting the message loud and clear here, the filmmakers clearly think that atheists are heartless automatons. I had thought that the filmmakers just sucked at portraying non-Christians in the previous film, but here we get to see right off the bat that everyone involved in the production of this movie is totally incapable of empathy. Brooke’s parents never get better throughout this movie. There is no sympathy from or for them. During the trial, Richard is more worked up about his daughter getting “preached to” than the fact that his own son died. Seriously, shouldn’t atheists mourn harder when someone they know and love dies? Hell, at the end of the last movie, we were supposed to think it a good thing that Pastor Dave and Jude were celebrating the death (and last-second conversion) of Radisson. Just… how could they be so lacking in empathy for people who have different views?

Also worth pointing out is Martin’s father who shows up for one brief, but important scene. After Martin converts to Christianity, his father arrives to take him back to China because he believes that Martin is disgracing his family and that Martin is throwing away his future and the sacrifices that his family has made for him. It isn’t really explained why he believes this, but I think that the audience is supposed to understand that China persecutes Christians and implies that this is the end-result of state-sponsored atheism. When Martin refuses to recant, his father slaps him (which now means the God’s Not Dead films are two for two when portraying non-Christians of other nationalities as violent degenerates, hooray!), disowns him and then immediately returns to China. In all honesty, this scene works far better than the domestic abuse sequence in the first film and could have maybe been an affecting scene if there had been any sort of reasoning given for Martin’s father to be so vehemently anti-Christian. Instead, it just comes across as more of the same “atheists are bad and hate Christians just because” message. Give me the God’s Not Dead movie about Martin going back to China to be a minister, that could actually be incredibly interesting if it was written well (although knowing this production team, I have my doubts).

The most prominent atheist character is Pete Kane of the ACLU. For what it’s worth, Ray Wise puts in a deliciously hammy performance, turning every line from Pete into a sneering, sinister proclamation that guarantees that you’ll at least be entertained when he’s on-screen. That said, the material he’s working with is just plain stupid. I’ll get to the fact that the ACLU are the villains in this movie later, but Pete Kane is meant to represent how dastardly and hateful the organization (apparently) is. From his very first scene, Pete is seen as eagerly relishing the chance to make an example out of Grace and to “prove once and for all that God is dead”. He’s not even subtle about it when he’s around Grace and Tom, telling them straight-up that “I hate what people like your client stand for and what they’re doing to our society”. Bloody hell, I know that there are militant atheists who talk like that, but this movie acts like they’re the status quo.

Of course, the film tries to make Pete out to be a hypocrite during the trial when he claims that “Christianity is not on trial here” in his opening statement, despite it being obvious to the audience that this is not the case. To hammer that home, he also makes a big fuss about not wanting to offend any Muslims in the court, dog whistling to the audience the idea that liberals are afraid of offending Islam but hate and attack Christianity. Basically, throughout this movie Pete grins gleefully any time something happens that negatively affects Christians, while looking exasperated any time someone in the defence acknowledges that it’s pretty much a settled fact that Jesus existed. Hell, he looks downright shocked when J. Warner Wallace reveals that he was an atheist and that “I’m a Christian because it’s evidentially true” (in your opinion, sure).

As cartoonishly evil as Pete Kane is, his characterization is echoed in a number of smaller atheist authority figure roles in this film, all of whom are totally hostile to Christians. Whenever the news media gets shown in the film, the newscaster goes on a tirade about how Grace and Christians are zealots, fundamentalists and that the only extremists we need to worry about are the hardcore Christians. This portrayal of the media just felt so weird to me because it has the tenor of a Fox News segment, but with right-wing talking points swapped out for insults that get thrown at conservative evangelicals. Maybe I just don’t know the American media and how sensational their reporting style is, but I feel like this might just be the filmmakers projecting their own media’s style and assuming that that’s how everyone does it.

In addition to the media, the entire school board is immediately against Grace (her union rep even says “What were you thinking?” when asked whether Grace said the “words of Jesus” in class). Principal Kinney is particularly villainous, giving Grace these over the top evil looks and during her testimony against Grace is almost as much of a mustache-twirler as Pete Kane. Kinney is also seen shutting down a student protest led by Brooke in an effort to further silence Christians (that the audience this movie was directed at would be trying to shut down student protests that disagree with their politics less than two years later gives a contemporary viewing some delicious retrospective irony). Meanwhile, when Pastor Dave refuses to hand over sermon transcripts to the prosecutor’s office, the officer overseeing this goes from being fairly casual and routine to something resembling a body snatcher. I’m not kidding, he stands up, stares and ominously asks Dave if he really wants to refuse to comply, before stating that “a nail that sticks up gets hammered down”.

Now before I get into the next section I need to write about the only sympathetic non-Christian character in the film, Tom. We’re never really given his opinion on faith at any point in this film, other than that he’s a “non-believer” at the time when he agrees to represent Grace. Surprisingly, we don’t even get a big conversion scene by the end, although it’s probably safe to assume that he is totally convinced by the pro-Christian arguments as the film, since the movie seems to think that they “proved the existence of Jesus Christ” as the ACLU puts it at the end. The thing about Tom is that he’s just doing his job without letting personal biases get in the way, which shouldn’t be that unusual but… well, this is God’s Not Dead 2 and it’s shocking whenever this series doesn’t imply that a non-Christian eats babies for breakfast.

Anyway, one of the strangest parts about the portrayal of atheists in this film (Tom aside) is that there’s this uniformity to their actions which suggests that the filmmakers seem to think that there’s some kind of enormous atheist conspiracy unfolding in America looking to silence all the Christians. How else can you explain the uniformity of the atheist characters’ hostility to the Christians, their unspoken agreements about what is “unacceptable”, their encroachment into Christians’ freedoms and their certainty that Grace is going to be destroyed from the outset? The way that this film’s plot gets kicked into motion even suggests conspiracy, as the second Grace mentions Jesus in class, a student secretly gets his phone out and texts… somebody about it (it’s unclear who, it could have been Obama himself for all we know), as if this was a surveillance state like North Korea. At worst, a student might mention that their teacher talked about Jesus in class, but odds are that absolutely none of the students would give a shit. Hell, I live in godless, heathen Canada and when I was in high school we had a history teacher throw on a VHS tape about how the Bible was useful for archaeologists – a couple of students in the class scoffed, but that was about it. I know that’s anecdotal, but c’mon filmmakers, do they really think that students would immediately rat her out?

The whole conspiracy angle of the film gets more obvious when the ACLU become involved, as even before Pete arrives the school board discusses how the ACLU has been waiting for a case like Grace’s for years, as it provides them with the opportunity they need to silence Christians for good. The choice of the ACLU as villains for this film, especially when painting them as hypocritical and evil bastards, is truly baffling and I can only think that it’s a result of the filmmakers’ ideological leanings and their association with the Alliance Defending Freedom. The ACLU often sticks up for the rights of LGBTQ people, access to abortion and the separation of church and state, which turns them into an obvious target for conservative evangelicals, despite the fact that the ACLU defends the rights of pretty much anyone, Christians included. To put it simply, “essentially all of [the ACLU’s] positions irritate social conservatives […] the ACLU supports free speech including the free expression of religion; what they oppose is government funding or lending official (or the perception of official) support to religious activities in violation of the Establishment Clause. Furthermore, the ACLU has defended the rights of religious bigots to espouse those views, although it does not condone the contents of their speech.” Interestingly, the ADF are totally absent in this film, as is any sort of public support for Grace (up until Brooke organizes a protest for her). Does anyone remember Kim Davis, and how her refusal to issue wedding licenses landed her support from public and political figures, such as Mike Huckabee (who shows up in this film to fellate the evangelical audience for a vote)? The film instead makes it seem like no one supports Christians in order to make it look like they’re a minority class.

 
 

Anyway, when the ACLU gets involved in the film, they sway Brooke’s parents to sue Grace by promising that “there is not an Ivy League admissions board that could resist giving Brooke a spot because she was involved in a landmark separation of church and state case”. This was another one of those moments that made my jaw drop at the audacity of this film. So the entire Ivy League is populated by militant atheists who only admit similarly-atheist students? Bloody hell, is it any wonder that evangelicals are accused of being anti-intellectual? Similarly, the prosecutor’s office demanding sermon transcripts is treated like this grand next step on the road to making Christianity illegal, the sort of thing that evangelicals always say is definitely coming. This scene is actually based on something that happened… but it feels like the writers totally jumped the gun, because “Houston mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed sermons from five churches in her city in an ill-advised reading of rules about churches, tax law, and politics. The subpoenas were rescinded a few months later, after widespread outcry and several lawsuits, as well as a national campaign to mail Bibles and sermon notes en masse to the Houston mayoral offices.” Simply put, they take an event that happened, but change the outcome to make it seem like the atheist conspiracy is all-powerful and overreaching in America and that the audience’s freedoms could be snuffed out any day.

This conspiracy theorizing is borderline-hypocritical when you consider that one of this film’s defences of the historical veracity of the gospels is that there wasn’t a conspiracy involved in their authorship. Their justification for this is that since there were too many witness involved, someone would slip up. It’s actually not a particularly great argument, since conspiracy isn’t exactly the issue. I’d definitely recommend diving into the history of the gospels and early church, but in short the text of the gospels we have today were all very likely second-hand accounts, would likely have been coloured somewhat by the burgeoning schools of thought within the young religion about who Jesus was and what he represented, and weren’t even necessarily meant to be what we would now consider as “historical” accounts. Anyway, this conspiracy defence seems odd when you consider that this film is throwing in its own atheist conspiracy theory, although the filmmakers would probably say that it’s self-evident when you look at all the “persecution” in America. I’ll just let Sister Rose Pacatte of the National Catholic Reporter comment on this aspect of God’s Not Dead 2: “the premise of both films is nothing more than politicized religion as a vehicle to feed conspiracy theories.” Ouch.

 
 

All of this feeds into the fact that God’s Not Dead 2 is explicitly a more political film than the first was. In his interview with The Blaze about the film, David A. R. White said that this film was “all about making an impact” and that it was an intentional move for the story to shift to the public square. It shouldn’t be surprising that this film was released in the middle of the 2016 presidential leadership race, with the aforementioned Mike Huckabee clearly making a cameo just to appeal to the evangelical vote. By portraying government overreach and painting all authority figures as openly hostile to Christians, the filmmakers also incentivize their audience to mobilize against these institutions in order to “take back America”. After all, Tom’s opening argument in the case is that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not mentioned anywhere in the constitution or bill of rights, which seems to imply the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation that has morally eroded over time. Tom’s opening statement is a baffling argument which is only technically true, but the First Amendment makes it crystal clear that not only is separation of church and state enshrined within the law, but it was also a principle of the nation’s founders. Hell, if we’re going to be nitpicking constitutional amendments, then the Second Amendment is free game as well. This is another moment that just feels like the filmmakers won’t understand the people that they’re writing about, because arguing technicalities about church and state separation does not feel like the sort of thing that a non-Christian lawyer would engage in – rather, it sounds like the sort of weak argument an evangelical might espouse impotently to other evangelicals.

In the first film, there were plenty of characters who were atheists or hostile to Christians, but it was always framed as a personal and individual thing. In God’s Not Dead 2, this is reframed into being a political issue. The scene where Grace mentions Jesus in class does so in a manner which also correlates the message of Jesus with that of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. Taken by itself, this is a reasonable comparison to draw. However, the film also very explicitly wants us to see Grace and her situation throughout this film as being a parallel to Jesus (even having her echo the words of Jesus during his crucifixion, asking God if he has forsaken her), and therefore implies that the struggles Christians face in America are on the same level as the Indian independence and black civil rights movements. It should go without saying that this is unthinkably deluded and borderline insulting when you consider that they’re appropriating progressive icons to attempt to justify their conservatism – not to mention that only months after release this movie’s audience would, by and large, be voting for a man who was blatantly racist, xenophobic, authoritarian and immoral.

I also find it quite interesting that, for a movie which so blatantly proclaims the existence of God in its title, He is completely absent in this movie. Don’t get me wrong, the characters talk about God all the time, how good He is, how much of an impact He has on their lives, etc… but God doesn’t actually do anything in this movie. At least in God’s Not Dead, God was very clearly present in Dave and Jude’s storyline, even if it did end up portraying him as some sort of Final Destination murder-force. In comparison, Grace’s victory is portrayed as a surprise, but there isn’t any sense that it was some sort of miracle from God. The film also makes arguments about the historical existence of Jesus, but these are far less frequent and given less prominence within the story compared to Josh’s lectures. Furthermore, at least the first film seemed concerned about the fates of its non-Christian characters. In God’s Not Dead 2, the only people that convert are the ones who were immediately receptive to the Christians’ message, and the rest of the non-believers are nothing more than evil, unrepentant obstacles to “the truth”. As a result, God’s Not Dead 2 is arguably not really a “Christian” film in the sense that it’s not about the virtues of the faith – rather, it’s a political film about the imagined struggles of the American brand of evangelicalism.

Add it all up (the disingenuous portrayals of Christians and atheists, the conspiracy theorizing and the political rallying cries) and you have a film which puts the evangelical persecution complex on display greater than just about any other film out there. This also ties into this not really being a “Christian” film at all – after all, the conflict in the movie is entirely driven by the persecution that all of the Christian characters are subjected to by the rest of the world (Amy is the only exception, although her very minor crisis of faith is resolved the next time that we see her). Grace makes this clear in what is clearly intended to be the film’s core message: “I would rather stand with God and be judged by The World, than stand with The World and be judged by God” (“The World” in evangelical nomenclature meaning the necessarily sinful and immoral culture outside of Christianity which clashes with the “true” values of the Bible). This also applies to the numerous court cases listed in the film’s end credits, similarly to the first film. Naturally, the film’s audience takes the presentation of these cases at the filmmakers’ word, although if you look into them closer, it becomes clear that these cases revolve around Christians not understanding discrimination in business settings, Christians refusing their professional obligations as healthcare providers, or involve the filmmakers intentionally leaving out crucial details entirely to make the cases seem like persecution when they clearly aren’t (if you’re curious about all of the cases, The Friendly Atheist has a comprehensive rundown). You can see the persecution complex on full display on the God’s Not Dead website, which for years was documenting similarly one-sided accounts of Christian persecution throughout America, and had this exceptionally nasty, sneering, combative tone that it would apply to everything, even when celebrating the film’s release.

If you’ve checked out any of those links to the film’s blog, you might also have noticed how this movie constantly markets itself. God’s Not Dead 2 has more product placement than a Michael Bay or Adam Sandler movie, the only difference being that it’s exclusively advertising for products in the evangelical bubble (a bubble which, might I remind you, heavily commodifies religious adherence and expression). Just look at this list of really obvious plugs throughout this film:

  • We’ve got Lee Strobel showing up during the trial, is placed as an expert we should look up to, literally name-drops his books in a manner that doesn’t make sense within the scene, and then gives us a sales pitch about why he’s an authority on the historical existence of Jesus.
  • We’ve got J. Warner Wallace showing up in a similar manner, name dropping his books and then being poised as a credible expert with evidence that Jesus is God (which he never really gives us, so I guess you’ll have to buy his book).
  • We’ve got the Newsboys who show up to perform a new song and hope that it becomes another #1 hit after their success with the first film.
  • The end credits directly advertise for the Alliance Defending Freedom in the event that you feel persecuted for your faith.
  • In addition, the film advertises itself no less than 3 separate times during its ending, telling the audience to once again text “God’s not dead”, and even offers a handy, prebaked hashtag for everyone to send out on social media in order to generate buzz for the film. Bloody hell…
And, because this is the Christian media industry, this isn’t even the extent of this film’s monetization. In addition to the film itself, this movie has its own branded soundtrack, study guide (including a student version!), 40 day devotional, a novelization, t-shirts, audiobooks, church kits, a series of books based on the movies, even a goddamn silicon bracelet. Movies like this are their own mini-industries within the evangelical bubble, much like Star Wars is to the wider culture.

I’ve had to do a lot of thinking to give this movie a final score that I could feel secure in awarding. It’s easy for this film’s audience to say that people who hated this film merely disagreed with its message (in fact, it’s probably playing into the filmmakers’ intent doing so). On the one hand, I have to give the film some points for being fairly professionally made, and Ray Wise is always entertaining to watch. However, the film refuses to present itself in an enjoyable way to anyone outside of a very narrow political worldview – in fact, it’s openly hostile to worldviews that don’t match the filmmakers’ own. As a result, I feel more than justified in saying that this film is straight-up trash which exists only to stoke evangelicals’ persecution complex and to cynically rake in cash and political fervour in doing so. I would rather watch a freaking Bibleman video than this movie again.

2/10

Bibleman, Bibleman! Does whatever a Bible can! This isn’t a joke, it’s real guys! Can’t afford sets? Proselytise! Look out! Here comes a Bibleman!

Be sure to tune in again soon as we come to the final entry in this series: God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness!

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Retrospective: God’s Not Dead (2014)

It has been quite a while since my last Retrospectives series. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of ideas for write-ups during the past several months (some more conventional than others), but I kept getting drawn back to the same series: the God’s Not Dead franchise. Hoo boy… Considering that this is a series rooted inextricably in ideological arguments, hopefully you can understand why it took me so long to get around to this one. To be upfront, I’ve heard a lot of commentary on this film, but I tried to not let it colour my opinions on the film too much going in – I wanted to see if there was any merit to all the vitriol this film has inspired. So strap in, we’re going to start this at the beginning, with 2014’s God’s Not Dead.

The film’s poster is decent, I have to admit. I could do without the crowd at the bottom, but there’s a certain evocative element to this design which I can’t deny (even symbolically, down to the black/white contrast), plus it makes sense for the film’s story… Good job, I guess.

God’s Not Dead was produced by Pure Flix, an evangelical movie studio and distribution company which had been creating Christian films for about 10 years before God’s Not Dead. According to Russell Wolfe, co-founder of Pure Flix, the concept for film came about when the studio was looking for ideas and were suggested to make a film about apologetics. Around the same time, the Alliance Defending Freedom (a conservative, evangelical lobbying group which has been labelled as a hate organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center) were telling the producers stories about apparent Christian persecution, which inspired the campus setting of the film.

That’s the official story at least. I can’t be the only one who has heard of the urban legend of the “atheist professor” while growing up in the church. God’s Not Dead cribs liberally from this myth, even down to some of its arguments which, as one writer puts it, makes this the first film based on a chain email. Kelly Kullberg has also argued that the producers of God’s Not Dead stole her own life story, which caused her to sue them for $100 million. This lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, with the judge claiming that the film and her own script weren’t similar enough to constitute copyright infringement. Whether this is because Kelly Kullberg was also ripping off the atheist professor story or not is unclear.

God’s Not Dead ended up being a surprise hit at the box office in its limited theatrical release, bringing in around $65 million on a $2 million budget, despite having no real mainstream star power or marketing associated with it. As I have written about in the past, this success came about from the free viral marketing that churches offer these kinds of projects – the pastor tells their congregation to go see this movie because it will affirm their faith, and so the film has a built-in audience that it doesn’t even need to dedicate a marketing budget towards to reach.

The story of God’s Not Dead is structured in a manner similar to Paul Haggis’ Crash, with a number of characters’ narratives intersecting, and all centred on an overarching theme, in this case Christianity and faith. The main plot revolves around a student named Josh Wheaton who takes a philosophy class taught by the notoriously hostile Jeffery Radisson. Radisson tries to get everyone in the class to declare that “God is dead”, but Josh refuses and is forced to defend his position over the course of the next three lectures, while Radisson grows increasingly hostile at his defiance. Meanwhile, we’re treated to a few side-plots: Amy is a hostile liberal journalist who gets cancer, her boyfriend Mark is a psychopathic and self-interested businessman (there isn’t really any thrust to his scenes beyond that), his sister Mina is Radisson’s girlfriend (or wife maybe? It isn’t clear at all and I have heard conflicting answers) who is growing apart from him because she is a Christian, Ayisha is a secret Christian within a very traditional Muslim family, and Pastor Dave and Pastor Jude can’t get their car to start when they want to go on vacation (seriously, that last one is a subplot which gets a lot of screentime during this film).

Eventually, this all culminates in Josh winning the debate against Radisson, most of the atheist characters convert to Christianity and Radisson gets hit and killed by a car, being converted on his deathbed by Pastors Dave and Jude (and thereby justifying all the screentime they’ve had throughout the film on their seemingly pointless subplot). Everyone rocks out at a Newsboys concert and the film encourages everyone to advertise the film for them (again, seriously).

With the plot out of the way, let’s get to the positives for God’s Not Dead first. For the most part, this is a very competently-made film. The directing and production values are better than you’re probably expecting – it certain looks like an independent film, but not an amateur made-for-TV movie. The acting is also mostly solid across the board, with only Josh’s girlfriend putting in a clearly bad performance (although she is dispensed from the plot pretty early on, luckily).

Other than that though… hoo boy. I’m just going to get the technical issues out of the way first; the editing is really weird sometimes. For an early example, Radisson is handing out pieces of paper to his class to sign “God is dead” on, when the film suddenly cuts away to Pastors Dave and Jude arriving at the airport. This cut was made for seemingly no reason, and I can’t understand it because it deflates the tension of the classroom scene. The only justification is that at the end of their scene the pastors say “God is good”, which is then contrasted by Radisson saying “God is dead” before cutting back to the classroom, but this doesn’t justify that first, abrupt cut in the slightest. There are weird edits like that sprinkled throughout God’s Not Dead, in part due to its story structure. That said, the script is definitely the main issue in this film, and it brings down an otherwise competent production. I’ll get to the broader implications of the script later, but for now aside from the pastors and maybe Josh, the characters are, on the whole, very one- or two-dimensional at best, serving more as object lessons rather than fully-realized characters. Obviously, that is a major issue for a character drama like this. Furthermore, this film’s script is just plain dull for the most part, stretching itself thin over an almost 2 hour runtime. I recall that around the 40 minute mark I was feeling like the movie was starting to drag, and then I saw that there was still more than an hour left and I just thought “How!?!” Honestly, the film could have done better by focusing much more on the main plot, maybe building some tension by actually giving us some insight into Josh’s research (he just sort of shows up with his big presentations each time), and show us more of the strain that this stand was apparently putting on him (he loses his girlfriend due to ridiculous circumstances and Josh says that he is falling behind on his school work because of it, but we never really see how this is really weighing on him).

Still, God’s Not Dead would have probably just come and gone without a fanfare if that was all that was wrong with this film’s script, but I think we all know that that is far from the case. God’s Not Dead fails spectacularly in two main departments: its apologetics and its portrayal of Christians vs non-Christians, both of which I feel are rooted in the filmmakers’ ideological bases. I feel like the filmmakers were expecting a negative reaction from the secular world when they made God’s Not Dead, but I do not think that they were expecting that the most vehement drubbings of the film would be from within the Christian world itself, due to these two major flaws.

Let’s start with the apologetics. Both Josh and the film itself are quite explicitly tasked with proving that God exists, but their arguments in favour of God are not particularly compelling. Josh presents three lectures which I’ll boil down simply:

  1. The Bible always contended that the universe didn’t always exist, whereas science assumed the universe had always existed until the Big Bang was discovered, implying that science shouldn’t be taken as an absolute. He also argues that something had to have caused that Big Bang to occur in the first place. When a student asks who created God, he says that that’s based on an assumption that God must be created.
  2. When faced with Stephen Hawking’s assertion that the universe created itself, Josh uses some quotes to undermine Hawking’s authority and suggest that since Hawking also said that philosophy was dead, taking him at his word would contradict Radisson’s entire career. He then says that evolution doesn’t prove where life came from and claims that in a cosmic sense, life and all of evolution has occurred very suddenly (that particular argument was just confusing when watching and, on review, makes no sense – it’s just plain wrong, evolutionary time isn’t measured on a cosmic scale, it’s measured on an… evolutionary scale).
  3. Josh argues that evil exists because of free will and that we can join God in heaven because He allows evil to exist temporarily (also very funny in this part, the filmmakers use a slide of The Creation of Adam by Michelangeo and airbrushed Adam’s dick off so as not to offend any prudish evangelicals in the audience). He argues that without God there are no moral absolutes, although Radisson would say that cheating on a test would be “wrong”. Josh quotes Dostoyevski, saying that “without God, everything is permissible”. Josh then makes the claim that “science has proven God’s existence” without any basis, and gets Radisson to admit that he hates God, to which Josh asks “how can you hate someone who doesn’t exist?”

I don’t really want to spend a lot of time breaking down these arguments (if you’re interested, there’s a good article on Psychology Today which does just that), but suffice to say that they don’t even come close to proving that God exists, despite Josh’s assertion otherwise. Most of his arguments are just turning atheistic arguments back at themselves or creating an intellectual uncertainty that an individual could choose to fit God into. At best, his arguments convey that we don’t know where life came from, so if you want to believe in God then that’s your choice, but that’s still a failing grade when your stated task is to prove the existence of God. Even worse, while Josh could conceivably make a case that God exists in general, he instead makes his task basically impossible by immediately restricting himself to proving the existence of his own Judeo-Christian God. This results in quite a few potential objections that could have been made towards Josh, but are never brought up, such as that his argument over evolutionary leaps sounds an awful lot like he’s trying to justify the creation narrative, of which there is absolutely no evidence. It’s clear that the filmmakers did some apologetics research (there’s even someone credited with this in the film crew), but I question whether they put the film’s claims up against real philosophers or academics. If they did, then it certainly does not come across in the film, because the arguments are clearly weak. All that said, considering that this film is clearly directed towards the evangelical bubble, it’s expecting its audience to already have formed the same conclusion as the filmmakers, meaning that the need for strong proof is basically non-existent.

The other big issue with God’s Not Dead‘s script is its portrayal of Christians vs non-Christians. Let’s start with the Christians: they’re all portrayed as intelligent, respectful, happy, even-tempered people which everyone should aspire to be like, from the applauded heroism of Josh, to Ayisha’s faith in the face of persecution, to the eternal optimism of Dave and Jude. The one exception to this is Josh’s girlfriend, Kara – she is set up as someone who is a Christian, but when Josh decides to stand up for his faith she constantly orders him to just lie and sign the paper. She’s also a total idiot: she picked a crappier school in order to be with him, she has the next 50 years of their life together mapped out and him failing this philosophy class is enough to derail the whole plan. Kara is an awful, stupid shrew of a character who only exists to up the stakes for Josh when she breaks up with him (although considering how he reacts, they weren’t going to last 50 more years anyway) and to contrast against the “virtuousness” of Josh. I’d argue that, based on the way Kara is written, we’re meant to her as”lukewarm” or “not a real Christian”, since she does not give God priority in her life.

In contrast, let’s look at our atheist characters… individually, because holy crap is there a lot to say about all of them. Let’s start with Mark, played by ex-Superman Dean Cain – Mark is an unabashed, self-described asshole businessman who only cares about making himself better off. In his introduction, he won’t even give directions to his girlfriend unless she will do something for him in return (I keep having to make this same aside throughout this review, but again, seriously). Even when his girlfriend tells him that she has cancer, he accuses her of “breaking our deal” that their relationship is just about getting something out of each other for personal reasons, and then immediately breaks up with her because a cancer-striken girlfriend is a total drag. Oh, and he also has a mother with dementia who he refuses to see because she won’t even remember that he was there. And to put a cherry on top of it all, it is very much implied that Mark is the one who hits Radisson with his car and then leaves him to die. Mark is a deplorable, selfish, unsatisfied, loveless person who is very clearly meant to be the object lesson for Josh’s assertion that “without God anything is permissible”. Put simply, Mark is meant to represent the fundamentalist idea that atheists are amoral (it’s a pervasive enough idea that even atheists tend to think it’s true), but is such a cartoonish dick that you have to wonder if the filmmakers really think that there’s anyone like this. Look, I shouldn’t have to say that being religious doesn’t make you a moral person any more than being an atheist makes you amoral. In fact, if the filmmakers had done some actual philosophy research, they would have known that ethics and morality are an entire school of thought in their own right which doesn’t require a religious background.

Next we’ll look at Amy, Mark’s girlfriend who is a gotcha journalist and blogger. Amy is clearly intended to be a left-leaning character, although thinly drawn and from the perspective of someone who obviously doesn’t understand why a leftist might legitimately hold those kinds of beliefs. This is shown early on when Amy ambushes… sigh… Willie Robertson (of Duck Dynasty fame) and his wife. Her interview questions consist of the following: does he hunt (duh), what gives him the moral right to maim animals (“I don’t maim ’em, I kill em!”) and what does he say to people who are offended that he prays on his TV show (he shuts her down with Bible verses). Naturally, Willie throws out some way-too-eloquent-to-be-real answers and Amy doesn’t even respond or react to them with her own questions or follow-up. Look, obviously there are anti-hunting people, just like there are people who don’t want to see prayer on TV, but these are definitely a very small minority – most reasonable people don’t really give a shit about either. Now, what if Amy had been upfront about the sorts of things that actually rile people up about the faith of the Duck Dynasty crew, the sorts of things that a real journalist would probably be interested in capturing in an interview? Would it have seemed like the secular world is just targeting people of faith unjustly? Would his rebuttals have seemed to reasonable when he’s trying to explain that he doesn’t hate gay people? Somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, Amy gets cancer out of nowhere and spends most of the film grappling this grim reality after Mark dumps her. By the end she’s back to her old tricks, sneaking into the green room with the Newsboys before a concert and asking the band “How can you sing about God and Jesus as if they’re real?” Umm, because they believe that they are, duh? The band then throws out some more very obviously scripted answers which cause Amy to break down and convert out of absolutely nowhere. If Mark is meant to represent the amorality of atheism, then Amy represents the liberal media. However, in addition to making Amy a really poor journalist in general, the filmmakers once again show that they don’t understand why Christianity is so often “targeted” by the media by not realizing that it is the beliefs associated with Christians which come under fire (such as homophobia or, ahem, anti-intellectualism), rather than belief itself.

Rounding out the main atheist cast is Jeffery Radisson, Josh’s philosophy professor, representative of the “liberal elite” in education… I have a ton of notes to get through on this one because he is so, so bad. Before we even meet him, Josh goes to enrol in his class and is discouraged from doing so because Radisson has such a history of anti-religious fervour that the entire school is well aware of it. Somehow Radisson has never been disciplined for being blatantly discriminatory, even though he starts every semester off by trying to get everyone to sign a paper to say that they agree that “God is dead” (the act of which, he reveals, is worth a whopping 30% of the students’ total grade!?! What kind of a bullshit class is this?). Radisson seems simultaneously shocked when Josh denies this, and smug in his belief that a first year philosophy student won’t be able to prove the existence of God.

As events unfold, a number of things about Radisson’s character become more and more clear to the viewer. First of all is that he is incredibly hostile and clearly nursing a personal grudge, which is truly apparent when he stalks and confronts Josh after class on a couple occasions and tells him that he’ll freaking destroy his future for defying him. Radisson ends up being straight-up dictatorial, wanting all his students to fall in line with what he believes and turning into a giant man-baby in the face of any sort of dissent. This is also demonstrated in Radisson’s relationship with Mina, a former student of his who he somehow fell in love with despite the fact that she is a Christian! During a faculty dinner party, Radisson constantly belittles Mina and her faith for no other reason than because he is a smug, misogynist dick, which the entire faculty goes along with (because they are all atheist monsters as well, even down to shark-like glances at Mina when she pipes up about her faith). When Mina (understandably) breaks up with him, Radisson says that he won’t accept or allow Mina to leave him, a move which obviously doesn’t work. I mean, who aside from a narcissist or a sociopath would think like that?

As Radisson’s life just falls to pieces, between Mina leaving him and Josh “beating” Radisson in each debate, it’s revealed that Radisson is such a militant atheist because when he was 12, his mother died of cancer. God didn’t answer his mother’s prayers or his, so he hates God for taking her away from him, a fact which proves to be the coup de grace in the final debate. This makes Radisson demonstrative of the infuriating fundamentalist belief that “there are no atheists”, since they can’t even conceive of the reasons why someone could logically and reasonably not believe in God. The end of the film seems to suggest that his experiences have caused Radisson to undergo a fundamental change in his life and he goes to try to reconnect with Mina before changing his life and becoming a better person. Just kidding about that last part, the filmmakers have him get hit by a freaking car and make a deathbed confession to Pastors Jude and David (justifying their role in the plot and implying that this was all part of God’s convoluted murder plan), rather than provide first aid to the severely injured man. It all makes Jude and David come across as callously perverse in a sense, as they say that this deathbed conversion is a cause for celebration – I mean, I understand their logic, but a dude just freaking died here.

Beyond all that, Radisson is just further proof that the scriptwriters don’t understand the kinds of people this movie is supposed to be portraying, nor did they bother to consult any. I doubt there’s any atheist philosophy teacher who hates God so much that he would avoid even discussing him. I mean, if I was in that class I would take the invitation to sign “God is dead” as a teaching tool to show the class that you’re not supposed to take anyone’s word for granted – this is a philosophy class after all, which is supposed to be about the art of solving problems using logic. Radisson also seems to hold quotes from scientists such as Stephen Hawking (even on subjects he is not accredited for such as theology and philosophy) to a level bordering on reverence. When Josh dares to challenge Hawking’s belief that the universe created itself, he scoffs at Josh’s insolence. It’s almost as if the scriptwriters believe that an atheist believes that science or scientists are inerrant on the same level that evangelicals hold their Bible. Even the philosophical quote that makes up the film’s title, “God is dead” from Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is botched in this film so badly that I had to look up to make sure that my interpretation of it wasn’t wrong (it wasn’t). Radisson claims that the phrase means that it is settled that God does not exist, nor has he never existed. Rather, this quote is tied to a very specific time and place – the advent of the Enlightenment and modernity at the turn of the 20th century had brought about social changes which were causing belief in God to plummet in the Western world. As a result, the concept of an “absolute moral reality” (God) was now meaningless, which would lead people into nihilism. As David Kyle Johnson puts it:

“Radisson doesn’t know what the phrase ‘God is dead’ means. […] He thinks it means that ‘God never existed in the first place.’ The phrase, coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, means nothing of the sort and in fact has nothing to do with God’s existence. Instead, Nietzsche was trying to argue that belief in God no longer affected how people live their lives; specifically, God was no longer used as a moral compass or a source of meaning: If only Radisson, and the makers of the film, had bothered with a four second Google search.”

Oh and I would be totally remiss if I forgot to mention the worst subplot in the film, the one revolving around the only non-Christian religious character, Ayisha’s father, Misrab (is… is that intended to be a pun on miserable? Bloody hell…). From his introduction, Misrab comes across as controlling and traditionally conservative in his Islamic faith, most notably by forcing Ayisha to wear a niqab in public and questioning her when he sees someone make casual conversation. From her introduction Ayisha shows that she does not want to wear the niqab, taking it off whenever her father is not around to see her. Misrab comes across as very sinister from little more than the way that the camera frames himself and Ayisha. It is later revealed that Ayisha has secretly converted to Christianity when we see her listening to a sermon by… Franklin Graham!?! Oh what the literal fuck were the filmmakers thinking when they dropped that name bomb here? Could they be any more tone-deaf? Again, bloody hell, this is the worst subplot in the whole damn film. Anyway, Ayisha listens to Graham’s sermon and then her brother sneaks up on her for absolutely no reason, sees what she’s listening to and then tells Misrab. Misrab goes into a rage (presumably because she’s listening to other religions, but who knows, maybe he’s suitably pissed that she’s listening to Franklin bloody Graham) and begins angrily slapping Ayisha in an incredibly uncomfortable domestic abuse sequence that ends with him throwing her out onto the streets as both of them cry at the circumstances that led them to this outcome. As villainous and reprehensible as Misrab is, I can at least understand where he’s coming from here and see that what he’s doing is breaking his heart, rather than just being cartoonishly evil like the atheist characters. I realize that this sort of awful shit happens, but bloody hell, what does it say about the scriptwriters when the only non-white family in the whole movie is a stereotypical, misogynist, domestically abusive Muslim family, especially considering the sort of audience this film is supposed to be catering towards?

Part of the problem with Ayisha and Misrab’s subplot is that I question whether the scriptwriters really knew what they were doing with it, or whether they just threw it in for an example of Christian persecution and an opportunity for some serious melodrama. I feel like the main reason this was added to the movie was because most of Josh’s proofs of the existence of God could apply to Islam as well, so the filmmakers felt the need to show that they were just as wrong as the atheists. Islam ends up being a contrast to Christianity – whereas the Christians are free and don’t hate women, the Muslims come across as dangerously old-fashioned and violent. The thing is though, this subplot is disingenuously one-sided. For example, while the film portrays Islam as being stifling and oppressive to women, I have seen and heard numerous stories over the years of women who have left the Christian church because of the way that it treats women. The sort of Islamic tradition on display in God’s Not Dead is a clearly conservative one rooted in “sharia law”, which is not too far off from the sort of theocracy that American evangelicals seem to hypocritically push for. Furthermore, Misrab tries to comfort Ayisha early in the film, saying that:

“It’s hard living in their world and being a part of it. A world you can see but can’t touch. I know they seem happy, but know that when you look around at all these people, there is no one who worships God, not the way he deserves and demands to be worshipped. We must never forget who and what we are. That is the most important thing.”

That statement could have just as easily been given to, say, Paster David and no one would question it, but I’m not sure the filmmakers even realize how their depiction of Muslims in this film really isn’t far off from the reality of Christians. After all, how many LGBT youth have been disowned or thrown out of their houses by supposedly Christian families for coming out of the closet*? There’s just so much disingenuous cognitive dissonance in the portrayal of Christians and Muslims that it’s just as insulting as the characterization of atheists.

If I haven’t made it obvious, I feel like a lot of this film’s failings stem directly from the filmmakers’ skewed evangelical ideology. This is quite evident throughout the film as I have already stated, from the lack of understanding of basic philosophy (in a movie about a philosophy class), to the arguments convincing only to someone who already believes in them, to the insulting depictions of “the other”. It even shows up in the little moments throughout the film – at one point, Josh and Pastor Dave estimate that, out of 80 students in Radisson’s class, Josh is the only one who has ever been to church. This is a preposterous estimate considering that nearly 80% of Americans are Christians, but it belies the belief shared by evangelicals that they are an oppressed minority (growing up in an evangelical household, I certainly believed this too). As Alissa Wilkinson said, “White evangelical Protestants, who make up the lion’s share of the so-called faith-based audience, are the only major religious group in America who believe they face more discrimination in America than Muslims do. And nearly eight in 10 white evangelical Protestants believe that discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities”. This is made all the more obvious by the end credits, which list a number of “examples” of Christian persecution in America… if you count business discrimination, largely revolving around refusing to serve homosexuals and providing health care for abortions, as “persecution”.

The filmmakers’ conservatism also plays into some of the film’s failings. Now, I don’t believe that there was an explicit intent to make God’s Not Dead into a piece of conservative propaganda, but the filmmakers very clearly fall on that side of the political spectrum, from the people they choose to credit onscreen (Lee Strobel, Franklin Graham, Willie Robertson, etc) and those that influenced the film off-screen (the Alliance Defending Freedom). This leads to such previously mentioned failings as having a Muslim character listening to Franklin Graham, to having Amy be a left-wing caricature. Sean Paul Murphy, a scriptwriter for Pure Flix, actually might have some insight into how politics were influencing the studio’s direction by the time God’s Not Dead was being produced:

“I grew up watching indie films of the 80s and 90s, those filmmakers managed to make art with small budgets because they had a passion for the medium. It’s not the budgets. It is a disregard for the art of filmmaking. And faith films will not get better until the audience demands something better, but they tend to evaluate films solely on the message itself. As for the counterproductive hatred of atheists and other non-believers, I tried to buck that trend. In Hidden Secrets, the first film produced by Pure Flix (but its second release), my co-writer and I sought to create a fuller, more sympathetic portrayal […]. Nowadays, however, the audience reward films that fight the Culture War for them.  It is easier to generate anger than compassion. I have no interest in that.”

As a result, we’ve got a film with aspirations to sway agnostics towards God, which claims that it has empirical evidence for His existence, but which fails to even understand the positions of those it is arguing against. Meanwhile, it draws in Christians with cameos from celebrities within the evangelical bubble, has a cross-promotion with Christian music label Inpop Records (which provided the film’s soundtrack, including the title song), sets up a blatantly cynical viral marketing campaign which encourages the audience to tell everyone to watch the film and provides an affirmation that everyone’s out to get the poor, innocent Christians. After all, the conflict in this film stems from a hostile atheist forcing his beliefs on a Christian, when that Christian was content not to force them on anyone.

In summation, God’s Not Dead is just a boring movie to watch, with a crappy script and extremely problematic portrayals of Christians and non-Christians at its core which undermine any sort of debate which they may have been trying to foster. It’s not even like I fundamentally disagree with the premise of the film (I do believe in God as well), it’s more the filmmakers wrongheaded notion that the world is suppressing Christianity that’s the issue. There is a line of thought on this film which claims that this film is about “being forced to accept that other people might believe something different”, or that the filmmakers hate atheists and relish in their suffering, but I don’t believe that is the intent. Their conception of them is, however, downright insulting, owing to a profound lack of imagination and empathy. When it comes down to it, I just don’t believe that evangelicals understand why it is that students tend to grow out of the church when they go off to school, and the answer is, quite simply, evangelicalism. When you create such a rigid, dogmatic and fragile structure which requires a denial of science and intellectualism, coupled with a belief that every word of the Bible is infalliable, and that this is the only way to be a true Christian, then of course they’re going to come to the conclusion that it’s all wrong. Maybe if they could actually step outside of the evangelical bubble, then perhaps they could have come up with some stronger arguments for why God is not dead**.

4/10

Be sure to come back soon when I cover the next entry in the series, God’s Not Dead 2!

*I’d recommend reading Unfair by John Shore for some heart-wrenching examples of this.
**Sigh, why did they call this “God’s not dead” anyway, considering the quote it’s named after is “God is dead”? The only thing I can think is that the producers assumed that there wouldn’t be enough audience members familiar with Nietzche’s quote, and therefore “God is not dead” would be less natural-sounding than “God’s not dead”. Again… doesn’t give much credit for the intelligence of your audience.

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Retrospective: Jurassic World (2015)

Welcome back to the final entry in the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this entry we we will be looking at the latest film in the franchise, Jurassic World. After years of false starts, could the Jurassic Park franchise rejuvenate itself for a new audience? Read on to find out…

There was a more “traditional” Jurassic Park poster, but this was probably the big one and demonstrates how the franchise’s marketing has shifted in the 14 years since Jurassic Park III.

Following the release of Jurassic Park III, the franchise entered a protracted state of development hell. Spielberg and Johnston hinted at a number of ideas that they had for sequels, including pteranodons attacking the mainland as hinted at the ending of Jurassic Park III. However, development seemed to shift away from following-up on Jurassic Park III‘s loose threads and onto other ideas. One of the first which seemed to gain traction involved the dinosaurs spreading uncontrollably, with Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough reprising their roles and the lovely Keira Knightley being rumoured to play a grown up Lex Murphy. Stan Winston’s studio moved forward with special effects planning, filming locations were scheduled and actors were signed on, and it seemed like Jurassic Park IV was underway.

However, not all was well on the project. A script couldn’t be agreed on, perhaps because the central premise was bonkers – pretty much every story that they came up with revolved around some sort of genetically modified dinosaurs being used as mercenaries and wielding guns. Drew McWeeny, who saw an early version of the script, probably said described the situation the best: “I think it’s well-written and certainly inventive, but I also think it just might be the single most bugfuck crazy franchise sequel I’ve ever read, and I’m not sure we’re ever going to see this thing onscreen. It just doesn’t seem possible that Universal would make something this vigorously whacked out.” Suffice to say, the film continued to have issues putting together an acceptable script and its production dragged on longer and longer. Years after the fact, concept art from this time in the film’s development leaked online, which featured a variety of ass-ugly dino hybrids.

Between 2006-2008, a variety of stories, scripts and filming rumours were bounced back and forth, but still nothing was materializing. Then, on November 4, 2008, Michael Crichton passed away and it seemed like the general consensus was that the franchise should die as well. However, rumours surrounding a fourth film persisted regardless, with Johnston stating in 2010 that there were plans in place for another trilogy.
It wasn’t until early 2012 that Jurassic Park left development hell and began to materialize into what would become Jurassic World. Retrospectives veterans Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver were brought on to script the project after the success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Brad Bird (of The Incredibles, The Iron Giant and Mission Impossible 4 fame) wanted to work on the film, but was preoccupied with Tomorrowland, so instead he suggested that producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall consider Colin Trevorrow. Trevorrow had only directed one full-length film at this time, Safety Not Guaranteed, but the producers were sufficiently impressed by it that they brought him on board. Juan Antonio Bayona, director of the tsunami disaster film, The Impossible, was also considered, but was unable to commit to the project. He would eventually be brought on to direct the sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Trevorrow became involved with rewrites of the script along with Derek Connolly, and they incorporated three ideas that Spielberg wanted – a functional theme park, a human who has a relationship with trained raptors and an escaped dinosaur antagonist. A few scenes were also inspired by sequences in The Lost World novel, namely the velociraptor motorcycle chase and the Indominus Rex’s ability to change colour.

Chris Pratt was cast in the lead role of Owen Grady, a role he landed just prior to his big breakthrough in The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy. As a result, he was inadvertently the first real “movie star” to lead a Jurassic Park film, an inadvertent situation that the marketing was quick to capitalize on. Bryce Dallas Howard, an actress I admire who (at the time) had been looking for her big break as a lead actress for about a decade, was cast as the female lead, Claire Dearing. The film features two child leads played by Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson, who play Claire’s nephews who are visiting the park. The film’s human antagonist is Vincent D’Onofrio as Vic Hoskins, who wants to use the dinosaurs for military operations. Rounding out the main cast is Irrfan Khan as Simon Masrani, the owner of Jurassic World after the death of John Hammond. The only returning character is B.D. Wong’s Dr. Henry Wu, who had a small role back in the original Jurassic Park as the scientist responsible for creating the dinosaurs, and who returns here in a small but important role.

The story of Jurassic World picks up in the present, where John Hammond’s vision of a dinosaur theme park has been realized and has been a fully-functional success for years now. The film follows Claire Dearing, the park’s administrator who is preparing to launch a new attraction involving the park’s first hybrid dinosaur, Indominus Rex, but there are security concerns regarding how dangerous it is. She is asked to have the park’s raptor handler and trainer, Owen Grady, to come and inspect its paddock to ensure that it is safe. Meanwhile, Claire’s two nephews, Gray and Zach, travel to the island to see her, but she is too busy with work and they end up having to sight-see together. While Claire and Owen are inspecting the Indominus paddock, the Indominus engineers an escape and the pair then have to try to stop the rampaging beast, protect the safety of the park guests and find Gray and Zach.

If the previous two films in the franchise were meant to be distillations of what Jurassic Park is, you would think that dino-carnage is the only thing that actually matters in this series. However, the dino-carnage in Jurassic Park only mattered because of a number of other elements which made the film so much more than those b-movie roots – strong characters, spectacle, a compelling narrative and a fascinating sci-fi hook. Jurassic World recaptures at least a couple elements of this formula which the other two sequels had lacked, and is definitely owes more of its structure to the original film than any other movie in the franchise. In addition to the theme park angle, it also explores some ideas which were largely brushed aside in the other sequels, such as the theme of humans tampering with genetic engineering.

Seeing a fully functional park is definitely cool and easily one of the best aspects of Jurassic World. It actually takes 40 minutes for things to start getting bad, so we get some time to see attractions and how the park operates. While it isn’t as interested in the spectacle and logistics of running a theme park as Jurassic Park was, it does use this to help ratchet the stakes up as the film progresses. As things get worse and worse, the guests’ safety becomes a concern, as does the fate of the park itself, which can’t survive another major PR disaster. That said, the portrayal of the park and its safety is also very questionable, and I’m pretty certain that this wasn’t intentional either. Like, how has the Mosasaur never jumped into the crowd and killed anyone yet? How have the raptors never jumped out of their enclosure’s low walls or dragged the handlers down by their poles? Didn’t Jurassic Park insist that raptors were basically diabolical? And why does the gyrosphere ride have no rails and allow people to drive around virtually endlessly amongst herds of dinosaurs? Even the Jeeps in Jurassic Park were on rails. These are just a few of the weird issues that permeate throughout Jurassic World‘s portrayal of its titular park, and while they’re really just small niggles, they’re just weird, distracting and rather obvious engineering problems.

The other fantastic idea that Jurassic World presents is the idea of a hybrid dinosaur. In the novel, genetic engineering was a more important element of the plot than the actual dinosaurs were, so the franchise probably should have exploited this element a long time ago*. The Indominus Rex makes for a truly fearsome antagonist, to the point where I don’t know how future films in the franchise are going to manage to live up to it. I mean, any dinosaur antagonist will feel like a step down now, and human antagonists have never been compelling. What makes it so fearsome is its unpredictability and high intelligence – the twist that it is part-raptor was quite clever and makes for a great “Oh shit” moment when it turns Owen’s pack on their human handlers. It also doesn’t hurt that the Indominus Rex is brutally violent. It immediately leaves an impression with its first victim, who you can see getting his leg ripped off as the Indominus devours him. Moments later, it chomps down on a helpless security guard without mercy. Then when the ACU try to contain it, it annihilates the squad and one gets messily devoured while blood showers the camera. These first couple scenes really establish how nasty (and questionably PG-13) the Indominus Rex is, and the film is always at its best when it is involved in the action.

Remember how I said that strong characters were one of the core elements of Jurassic Park? Well… Jurassic World did not get that memo, and it suffers greatly for it. Owen does some cool things, but he’s such a generic American action hero – he’s always right, he’s a man of action, he is brash and standoffish, he doesn’t adhere to authority he disagrees with, etc. One would hope that more of Chris Pratt’s natural charisma would get to shine through, but unfortunately it is mostly buried underneath a bland character. Claire is similarly just an archetype, the workaholic woman who learns to ease up over time. Bryce Dallas Howard does her best (and kind of succeeds), but the role is… questionable to say the least – I’ll get to that later though. As for the two kid characters, Zach and Gray, they live up to the series’ legacy… which is to say that they have one character trait and are otherwise useless to the plot outside of being a burden. Gray is implied to be a high-functioning autistic genius who is obsessed with numbers, but this never really actually impacts the plot any. Zach is his older brother, who is just an insensitive dick for most of the film until he decides to become a better brother.

Outside of the leads, the new owner of the park, Masrani, is actually pretty cool. He actually takes responsibility when things go south and is surprisingly heroic… I just wish that he got to do more before his unfortunate death. The character of Lowry is also a mixed bag – on the one hand, he actually has some good comic relief moments, particularly his subverted “action romance scene” moment. However, he’s also borderline insufferably meta, being an extremely obvious audience surrogate and Jurassic Park fanboy who makes no sense within the context of this universe. He is kind of funny the first time you see the movie, but he just gets cringier on repeat viewings.

Vic Hoskins is also so terrible that he brings the movie down along with him. The character himself is just irredeemably evil for the sake of being evil, to the point where he sees dinosaurs attacking the innocent guests and grins about it. The moment he appears on screen you know that a) he’s going to be the bad guy, and b) he’s going to get munched on before the film ends. More crucially though, Hoskins is the vector through which the film introduces its idea of having raptors trained as military weapons. This idea was already tenuous enough in Aliens, and here it makes even less sense. Like, there are a host of really obvious reasons that real world militaries are turning to drones and cyber technology rather than training animals for combat (reliability, cost, practicality, ethics, etc). Really, this is the sort of idea where creating genetically engineered humans might actually make sense at some point within the Jurassic Park universe, but the technology is clearly not there in this film. It’s just an awful subplot which unfortunately only gains prominence as the film moves towards its conclusion and weakens the latter-half of the story.

That’s part of my problem with Jurassic World – it has some clever ideas, but it often just decides to take the dumb or lazy route for the sake of convenience. Maybe the most eye-rolling example of this is that everyone’s radios/phones stop functioning properly at the absolute worst times. This is an inexcusable trope in most films when it happens once, but this happens at least four freaking times in Jurassic World. Even worse, Zach and Gray’s phone won’t get any reception one minute, but then the next it suddenly works and alerts the Indominus Rex to their position because convenience. There’s also a moment where Masrani is told that, despite being the owner of Jurassic World and InGen, that he’s not authorized to know what genetic modifications were made to the Indominus Rex, a claim which he doesn’t even question, because the film wants that to be a twist later. The characters also make just so many stupid decisions for the same reason – because it’s what the plot needs. For example, after being told to return to the park, Zach drives off in the gyrosphere with Gray and, after seeing a hole torn in the fences, decides that that would be a good time to go off-road. Oh, and predictably, the gyrospheres have no override system, or anything to stop them from leaving their enclosure. Hell, the whole plot hinges on character stupidity – when Owen and Claire think that the Indominus Rex has escaped, instead of calling the control room to figure out where it is, Claire speeds off in her car and then calls them, because the plot requires her to be a) away from the Indominus Rex paddock, and b) in the control room. Even worse, Owen and a couple workers decide to saunter into the paddock before finding out where it is, which ultimately leads to the Indominus Rex escaping.

This issue of laziness and convenience is so bad that I feel like I need to break down a whole sequence just to demonstrate how egregious it gets. So, first off, Owen and Claire are being hunted by the Indominus Rex in the ruins of the old park when Masrani flies overhead with his helicopter. This causes the Indominus Rex to give chase to the helicopter, which it somehow gets ahead of. Then Owen and Claire suddenly teleport to be right beneath the helicopter as it chases the Indominus Rex into the aviary. Pterodactyls and dimorphodons escape and begin flying towards the park guests. This is where the editing (unsuccessfully) tries to mask the ridiculous leaps in distance, time and logic that unfold in order to make this scene work. The dinosaurs pursue Zach and Gray’s jeep back to the park, while Owen and Claire somehow run to some command centre** before the flyers can make it to the guests and attack. Zach and Gray make it back and then minutes later, Owen and Claire arrive with the ACU before things can get too out of hand. And then, to make things even more silly, Owen and Claire make out while people are getting mauled all around them. The time/space dilations here are on the level of the latter seasons of Game of Thrones, where they’re clearly just throwing logic out the window to craft the scene that they want and to get characters where they’re needed, and expecting us to be too passive to notice. I’m not sure if this is on the script, the editing, or Trevorrow’s direction, but it is Jurassic World at its worst.

In regards to Trevorrow’s direction, it is generally decent throughout. He takes a cue from Jaws in hiding the Indominus Rex from full view until well over an hour into the film, which was a wise decision. However, his action sequences are hit-or-miss affairs. Unlike Spielberg, whose films both had long and extremely tense action set-pieces, Trevorrow’s action sequences are far more frequent, but lack the same sort of punch. The first two Indominus Rex attacks are exciting, but brief, and final battle is exciting (in part due to its fanservicing), but most of the action sequences don’t really stand out all that much to me. Sure, they’re bigger and louder than the dino carnage of the other films, the body counts are considerably larger, and they somehow managed to work multiple explosions into a film involving dinosaurs, but they lack that same level of investment and excitement. This might be because the story isn’t compelling enough, or that we don’t really get all that invested in the characters, rather than that the sequences themselves fall flat on their own.

The special effects are also worth noting in Jurassic World. Previous Jurassic Park movies always relied skillful utilization of animatronics, puppetry and top-notch CGI to bring the dinosaurs to life. Jurassic World, by contrast, switches almost entirely to CGI for this purpose, and it really shows. The creatures are clearly rendered with far more detail, but they don’t feel nearly as real to me. Contrast the gallimimus scenes in Jurassic Park and Jurassic World as an example, there’s something about how the dinosaurs and characters interact which doesn’t hit the same chord. The early sections of the film impress that “no one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore”, which is a clear commentary on the status of blockbusters since Jurassic Park III came out. Since then we’ve been inundated with so many CGI-heavy blockbusters that relying exclusively on CGI just makes Jurassic World lose any sort of special feeling that the series used to enjoy. Hell, say what you will about Jurassic Park III, but the spinosaurus was an animatronic in half of its action scenes, and a bloody impressive one at that. As far as I can tell, animatronics were used a grand total of once in Jurassic World, when Owen and Claire find a wounded apatosaur. This was actually a wise time to use animatronics too because it makes the scene feel more real and sad as it slowly expires in the characters arms.

Finally, as I alluded to earlier, it wouldn’t be an I Choose to Stand post without mentioning the film’s, um, troubling gender relations. There have been many words said about whether Jurassic World is sexist, but is this merited? Thanks to memes, most of this conversation was boiled down to “Claire wears heels, because sexism”, but is there more to it than that? Well, the film portrays Claire as a workaholic, uninterested in other people and too busy to have normal relationships with people. She is also very clearly written to be obsessed with maintaining control. The character’s entire arc is about learning to stop putting so much value into her career and more into getting a relationship and having children. This could be a totally fine arc if handled well, but Jurassic World makes some really strange decisions which make me question whether it is just archetypically sexist, or just ridiculously ignorant of the implications its narrative is conveying. Like, there’s literally a scene where Claire’s sister tellers her that she should have kids, which Claire says is unlikely, but her sister insists that she will and that it is worth it. I mean… are they aware how condescending this scene comes across? Are they aware that this is in any way a potentially touchy subject? As The Daily Beast puts it, “Jurassic World is not about corporate greed, anti-militarization, crass commerciality, disrupting the food chain, or dinos eating the shit out of people. No. It’s about a woman’s ‘evolution’ from an icy-cold, selfish corporate shill into a considerate wife and mother.” Meanwhile, her relationship with Owen just reinforces this – he is belligerent, but always one who takes control when he can, which seems to be what attracts her to him. He’s basically the definition of a manly man, and she isn’t able to be truly fulfilled until she ditches her icy exterior for him.

Beyond Claire’s characterization, the death of Zara also has attracted some questions of sexism, mainly due to the way the rest of the film treats women and just how over-the-top her death is. While I personally feel like this is another clear instance where Trevorrow was just tone-deaf about how this might come across, I’ll just leave you with this quote from him where he is oddly excited by the notion that he’s going to get to murder a woman in spectacular fashion:

“It was the first time a woman was going to die in a Jurassic Park movie. We’re an equal opportunities bunch of murderers! So we felt, ‘Alright, let’s make it the most spectacular death we can possibly imagine – let’s involve multiple animals from sea and air…’ I love this moment so much. We’re playing on the audience’s expectation and jadedness. […] But we definitely struggled over how much to allow her to earn her death, and ultimately it wasn’t because she was British, it was because she was a bridezilla. […] In the end, the earned death in these movies has become a bit standard and another thing I wanted to subvert. ‘How can we surprise people? Let’s have someone die who just doesn’t deserve to die at all.'”

All-in-all, Jurassic World is kind of a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, it’s hard to deny that it’s probably the best Jurassic Park sequel we’ve gotten… and yet, due to its bland characters, lazy plot and general stupidity, I kind of hate a good deal of it. It’s an odd situation, where I appreciate the first half of The Lost World enough to give that film some love, and I truly enjoy the dumb fun of Jurassic Park III, but find myself turned off by how lazy and generic Jurassic World gets at times. The film could just have been so much better if they trusted in their audience’s intelligence a bit more.

6.5/10

So, what does the future look like for Jurassic Park? Well, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom releases this year, so it doesn’t seem like we’ll need to wait another 14 years until the next entry. That said, Fallen Kingdom looks… intriguing. The first trailer definitely turned me off – on the one hand, at least it’s trying something different and we’ve been told that the bulk of the plot is being kept secret for now, but is the volcanic eruption the crux of the plot? Trying to evacuate the dinosaurs? I’m sorry, but that doesn’t sound like the basis of a particularly compelling film to me. However, the Super Bowl trailer dropped just days before this was posted (and after I had written this retrospective), and was considerably more intriguing. Looks like dinosaurs on the mainland again? Maybe as a more central part of the plot, it could work this time.

If I was going to write a Jurassic Park film, I’d probably push the genetic engineering element even further forward. The films have kind of ignored the impact of their own tech on the wider world. For example, while human-dino hybrids are an awful idea, the idea of more genetic manipulation in general is under-utilized outside of the Indominous Rex. And what about rival corporations? Part of the concern was that InGen didn’t earn their knowledge, but how much worse would it be for the corporate knock-off brand of dinosaur? Why do they need to go to InGen for weaponized dinos, why not go after a competitor which they obviously would do if InGen won’t suit their needs? Why even use animals for their weaponized creatures anyway, why not just create super soldiers? There are plenty of angles that can be covered, but the issue with Jurassic Park continues to be that audiences expect the same plot structure in each one.

This is how I’d rank the series from worst to best:
Jurassic Park – 9/10
Jurassic World – 6.5/10 (I waffle between this being the best and worst sequel in the franchise though)
Jurassic Park III – 6/10 (arguably the worst, but it’s at least more consistent and fun than The Lost World in my opinion)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park – 5.5/10

*I actually heard an interesting fan theory that the spinosaurus in Jurassic Park III was actually InGen’s first weaponized experiment, which would explain its considerably heightened aggression compared to the dinosaurs in the previous films. The film hints that InGen has been working on other dinosaurs in secret, but it never actually followed up on that plot hint. It would be an obvious retcon, but it’s a cool idea that I kind of hope that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom will follow up on.
**One could argue that this command centre was somewhere close to the old park ruins and the aviary, but I’m not buying that. First of all, there are a lot of people here, and if that was the case then Zach and Gray could have just headed here instead of back to the park, since an active building would have been marked fairly obviously. Secondly, if it was there then couldn’t Owen and Claire have gotten some help? Or maybe Masrani could get some ground support? And why wouldn’t the Indominus Rex have gone here instead of hunting the heroes if there were other people close by? It’s an obvious plot hole, and one which we’re supposed to ignore for convenience’s sake. Unfortunately, at a certain point, convenience gets abused to the point where I can’t help but notice it as the pile just gets higher.

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Retrospective: Jurassic Park III (2001)

Welcome back to part three of the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this post, we’ll be diving into 2001’s Jurassic Park III. After the muted reaction to The Lost World and Spielberg’s decision to step away from the series, would a new director inject fresh life into the franchise? Read on to find out…

After The Lost World, Spielberg was ready to step away from directing the franchise and instead went on to produce. Joe Johnston instead was brought on to direct after having offered to direct the previous entry. Johnston would later go on to be well-known for The Wolfman and Captain America: The First Avenger, but at the time he was already famous for making quality family-friendly, special effects-heavy blockbusters such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji and The Rocketeer. Without a novel to form the basis of the plot, a new story had to be written from scratch for the first time in the series history. The first draft of the script revolved around teenagers getting stranded on Isla Sorna, but this was ultimately rejected when Johnston was officially brought on board. The second script revolved around Pteranodon escaping from Isla Sorna and killing people on the mainland and featured a number of characters which would make it into the final film, including Alan Grant and Billy Brennan. This script would have had two main plots – one with Grant and company crashing on Isla Sorna, and another investigating the attacks on the mainland. Production went underway for this version of the script, with sets, costumes and props built to support it. While it was not based on any previous works, some action sequences were inspired by scenes from the novel versions of Jurassic Park and The Lost World, such as the aviary and the spinosaur attack on the river.

However, in an Alien 3-style turn of events, the script was rejected by Johnston and Spielberg only 5 weeks before filming was scheduled to begin, with $18 million already poured into the production and a series of sets which now needed to be worked into a non-existent story somehow. The parallel plotlines were deemed too complicated and the film was ultimately truncated into a single rescue mission plotline, with a script getting rushed to meet the filming schedule. A final script was never actually completed during the production, which is never a good thing to hear (although some films, such as Iron Man, prove that this can still work out in the end).

As I alluded to before, the only returning character in a major capacity in Jurassic Park III is Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant. Laura Dern makes a delightful return in an important cameo role as Ellie Sattler, although some fans might be disappointed to see that Grant and Sattler did not work out as a couple. Considering that she very much wanted kids and he did not, it’s not surprising to see, but Neill and Dern have great chemistry still and there’s a sad undercurrent in their interactions which shows that they clearly still really like one another. Of the new cast, the most notable is definitely William H. Macy of Fargo, Boogie Nights and Shameless fame, who plays Paul Kirby. Téa Leoni also appears as his ex-wife, Amanda Kirby, and Trevor Morgan as their son, Eric Kirby. Rounding out the main cast is Alessandro Nivola as Billy Brennan, one of Grant’s dig assistants who is a bit of an adventure-seeker. The cast is actually rather small and not nearly as strong compared to past films in the series, but most of them put in solid performances (barring one, but I’ll get to that later).

The plot of Jurassic Park III revolves around the Kirby family, whose son Eric gets stranded on Isla Sorna. Desperate, they con Alan Grant and Billy Brennan into helping them find their son, but soon get stranded on the island and have to fight for survival as they are hunted by a relentless spinosaurus and a pack of velociraptors… wow, I’m actually kind of surprised that I got the whole plot summarized there in only two sentences, but that just goes to show that Jurassic Park III is a very thin film on the plot side of things. Considering that the script never was completed, this should perhaps be not so surprising, but Jurassic Park III is content to just be a fairly standard B-movie action-adventure story. Compare the set-up and character establishment we get in previous films in the franchise to Jurassic Park III. In Jurassic Park, we get nearly an hour before the running and screaming starts. In The Lost World, we get nearly 40 minutes. In Jurassic Park III, we get only 20 minutes to get to know people before the film rushes us into the running and screaming. On the plus side, at least the rescue mission set-up gives the audience and characters direction, provides emotional catharsis and a bit of time to breathe between action sequences and allows the characters to develop a bit, but no one is going to say that Jurassic Park III ever takes its time to get anywhere.

Perhaps owing to the rushed script, much of Jurassic Park III‘s plot feels incredibly contrived. While the idea of someone getting stranded on Isla Sorna is an interesting idea, the entire plot gets thrown into motion because Eric and Ben (Amanda’s boyfriend at the time) are parasailing and the crew of the boat they chartered gets devoured without explanation within minutes of arriving after passing through a fog. This is just the first of a number of “convenient” events which occur which don’t really make a lot of sense or which aren’t really explained. Like, within minutes of landing on Isla Sorna, the characters are attacked by the spinosaur, the “professional” mercenaries with the big guns are wiped out and their plane crashes, putting the rest of the plot in motion super conveniently. Then there’s just lots of little moments that are done for a cheap scare or “because plot”. Why is Ben’s skeleton still hanging in the tree he crashed in? Why does the raptor hide behind the glass tank motionless? Why is the spinosaurus even hunting the humans anyway (at least The Lost World went to great pains to justify why the t-rexes would be following the moveable feast)? And who the hell is constantly calling Paul’s satellite phone every second of the day!? Hell, we even get another Chekhov’s Lucky Pack for the second film in a row.

On the character side of things, it’s nice to see Alan Grant back. While Malcolm’s the funner, more dynamic presence in Jurassic Park, Grant was always my favourite character. In this film, he has gotten surlier, more world-weary and disillusioned after the events of the first film. Billy provides a nice counter-point to him, with some youthful enthusiasm and optimism, although his character isn’t as well developed as one might have wished. As for the Kirby family, Paul is definitely the likeable and learns to grow braver and more capable as the film progresses. Eric is also rather interesting, being probably the most capable character in the film, although once he gets rescued he just becomes more of a tag-along. That said, he’s the first child character in this series to not be a complete burden and is probably therefore the best child in the whole franchise. Finally, we have Amanda Kirby, and oh my God is she annoying. Eric isn’t the burden in this film, because that role goes to Amanda, who is constantly making insufferably stupid decisions. I’m not sure if she’s supposed to be so annoying, or if that’s Téa Leoni’s fault, but bloody hell you’re going to wish that she would become dino chow, even though within the first 10 minutes you know exactly who is going to live and who is going to die in the film. Of the obvious cannon fodder, I actually rather like Udesky, who knows that he’s in way over his head and just wants to get the hell off of this island. He tends to be good for a laugh at the expense of his cowardice, he lasts just long enough to leave an impression on you and gives us probably the best death in the film to boot.

Joe Johnston is a very competent director, but he doesn’t bring the same sort of energy to the proceedings as Spielberg. He may not have had his heart in The Lost World, but that film still had its standout sequences which Jurassic Park III can never really match. The first spinosaur attack and the aviary scene are both quite exciting, but the action sequences tend to not stand out quite as much as they did in the past. That’s not to say that they’re bad, but they just aren’t given the same sort of flair. Sometimes the direction/editing is wonky as well, most notably when Grant gets knocked out on the plane, which is handled with a first person perspective fade to black. The film moves at a brisk 90 minutes, which could be down to the fact that there was no script in place more than anything else. Also worth noting is that the special effects are still very good, the CGI is well-utilized and the animatronics are still central to bringing the dinosaurs to life.

Perhaps due to his past as a director of kid-friendly family blockbusters, Jurassic Park III is much lighter in tone than previous entries were. The emphasis seems to be on fun and humour and rarely on building tension and horror, which is further aided by the way the film telegraphs very obviously who is going to live and who will die. The only character whose fate is up in the air throughout is Billy and in the film’s standout sequence, it appears that he is killed by a flock of pteranodon (we can even see a lot of blood in the water as he is washed downstream). However, the film totally cops-out in the ending when it reveals that not only did he somehow survive this attack without any sort of explanation, but the US Marines also manage to find and secure him before Grant and his group. It’s a bullshit ending that makes absolutely no sense and just feels like someone threw it in at the last moment to give us an unearned feel-good ending.

Jurassic Park III is certainly the divisive film. Some people like it more than The Lost World, but there is also a sizeable chunk of the fanbase who despise it for a number of reasons. There are some people who dislike the admittedly lazy and throw-away plot, or the shift from a serious and tense tone to one that is much more light-hearted. The sense of wonder has also been largely jettisoned in Jurassic Park III, focusing instead entirely on the running and screaming with one very short scene of admiring the herbivores late in the runtime. The portrayal of the dinosaurs also has definitely caused some fanboy rage. The spinosaurus is less of an animal and more of a terminator as it chases the survivors around the island. Fans also hate that the spinosaurus beats a t-rex in a fight early in the film, which is thrown in as an obvious way to establish that “this new dinosaur is better than the one you already like”. The rage that scene inspires is bad enough that the Jurassic Park wiki page for it has to include warnings not to get butthurt about it. Some fans also hate how the velociraptors are portrayed, although they are definitely more menacing than they were in The Lost World in my opinion.

For my own part, I’m a bit mixed. I definitely acknowledge Jurassic Park III‘s obvious problems, but it’s obvious from the get-go that the film is aiming to be little more than a b-movie filled with unpretentious dinosaur fun and I feel like it succeeds in its aim. It’s certainly less disappointing than The Lost World, which aimed higher but missed the mark, even if Jurassic Park III‘s aims are far lower as well. It’s definitely a throw-away film, but I always enjoy myself when I watch it so I feel like it deserves some points for that at least.

6/10

Be sure to come back soon as we round out this retrospective with Jurassic World!

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Retrospective: The Lost World – Jurassic Park (1997)

Welcome back to the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this entry we’re going to be looking at the second film in the franchise, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. After the first film set box office records and captivated the imaginations of audiences everywhere, a sequel was practically guaranteed. Could Spielberg and company recapture the same magic which made the original film so special? Read on to find out…

As I said in the previous entry, The Lost World: Jurassic Park apes the original film’s poster hard, only really differentiating itself with rougher, decayed design and a cool tagline.

After the success of the first novel and film, Michael Crichton was pressured to write a sequel. Most fans (myself included at the time) had expected the sequel to involve Nedry’s embryo canister in some way, and even Spielberg explored this option, although it was ultimately dropped and never explored outside of the Jurassic Park Telltale game. After discussions with Spielberg and others, Crichton eventually relented when he got an idea for a sequel, which would be published in 1995 under the name The Lost World. However, by the time the novel was nearing publication, Spielberg was uncertain if he was going to return to direct, with Joe Johnston (who would eventually direct Jurassic Park III) offering to take his place. Shortly after The Lost World was published, Spielberg announced he would direct the film, although with some reluctance.

The Lost World novel was… not great, to say the least. It’s pretty clear that Crichton’s heart wasn’t truly in it, and the plot definitely suffers for it. The story of the novel revolves around Ian Malcolm hunting down a scientist who is stuck on Isla Sorna while Lewis Dodgson (the guy who Denis Nedry betrays John Hammond for in the original book and film) attempts to capture dinosaurs at the same time. Lots of mindless dinosaur-based carnage ensues. The film wisely discards most of this plot set-up, retaining only the most skeletal bits of it, most notably the idea of a “site B” where the dinosaurs were bred in secret in their own ecosystem. Perhaps notably, Crichton was not involved in the writing of the sequel. Other than that, the film also features a sequence from the novel where t-rexes knock a vehicle off of a cliff, which ended up being the standout moment of the film. The Lost World also features a number of sequences inspired by the first novel, including the opening beach attack, a character being swarmed and killed by procompsognathus, and a t-rex attacking characters hiding behind a waterfall.

Other inspirations on the film included Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (which obviously inspired Crichton as well) and the film Hatari!, which apparently influenced the scenes of hunters capturing dinosaurs. The ending was also changed three weeks before filming began, because Spielberg decided that he wanted to see dinosaurs attacking the mainland instead of the originally-planned ending which would have seen the characters attacked by pterodactyls as they attempted to flee the island.

The only actor returning in a major role is Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm. As the standout of the first film, this was a rather inspired idea, although this film sees him becoming more of a standard action hero than the sardonic, doom-saying mathematician he was in the first adventure. Richard Attenborough, Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello appear in cameo roles as their characters John Hammond, Lex and Tim, respectively, but they do not have a huge impact on the plot. New additions to the cast included most notably Julianne Moore as Sarah Harding, Ian’s lover. Vanessa Chester is also brought in as one of Ian Malcolm’s daughters, a spunky African-American girl named Kelly (the fact that she’s a mixed race child is actually quite surprising and notably refreshing, considering how rare this still is to this day). Rounding out the heroic cast is a young Vince Vaughn also appears as a resourceful and opinionated nature photographer, Nick van Owen, who is joined by Richard Schiff’s detail-oriented engineer, Eddie Carr. On the other side of the coin, the film’s primary antagonist is Hammond’s nephew, Peter Ludlow, played by a weaselly Arliss Howard. The film also features a couple standout performances from the hunters, particularly the late, great Pete Postlethwaite as Roland Tembo. Of the new cast of characters, Roland is by far the most entertaining and badass, easily stealing every scene he’s in with his intensity. Also worth mentioning is Peter freaking Stomare as a seemingly sadistic mercenary, Dieter Stark. All-in-all, a good cast nearly on par with the original, and once again no one puts in a poor performance.

The Lost World picks up 4 years after the first film ended. InGen has covered up the incident and Ian has been discredited after he tried to go public with what happened. However, after a dinosaur attack on a wealthy family, it is discovered that InGen is hiding a second island full of dinosaurs on Isla Sorna, where they would breed them before their delivery to the park. Hammond commissions Ian and a team to document and protect the creatures in their habitat, and Ian initially refuses until he finds out that his girlfriend, Sarah Harding, was approached as well and is already on the island. He and his team head to Isla Sorna to rescue her and realize that Ian’s daughter, Kelly, has stowed away on board as well. Before they can do anything about this realization, a group of hunters led by Hammond’s corporate nephew, Peter Ludlow, arrive on the island and begin rounding up the dinosaurs to take to the mainland. Nick van Owen and Sarah free a bunch of the dinosaurs and destroy the hunters’ camp, but discover an injured t-rex infant and try to rescue it. The baby’s parents follow them back to their trailer and attack it, leaving both teams stuck on the island and having to band together to survive…

Remember how I said that there was a current of child-like wonder running through the first film? The Lost World is much darker in comparison, with some really nasty scenes punctuated throughout: the opening scene where a child gets mauled by procompsognathus, Eddie getting ripped in half by a pair of t-rex, Carter getting stomped on by a t-rex and sticking to the bottom of its foot, Dieter and Burke’s deaths ending with a shower of blood, raptors wiping out probably two dozen hunters mercilessly and the civilians getting chomped in San Diego. It’s still PG-13, but it’s certainly darker and scarier than the first film was, without the awe that the first film inspired at times. In spite of this, the film is also clearly aiming for a younger demographic than the first film as well, as it is quite clear that the studio was building in merchandising opportunities whenever it could. This is felt most obviously in the InGen hunting team’s equipment, which includes elaborate vehicles like something out of a G.I. Joe cartoon. I can actually remember the toys that they were selling at the time, and the hunters’ vehicles were featured quite prominently there. This clearly mandated merchandising is just one example of how The Lost World is a film which doesn’t have nearly as much heart put into it as the first did, being largely made due to fan and studio pressure.

The film also suffers from a weak script. While no one puts in a bad performance, it doesn’t help if your actors aren’t given anything to work with, and The Lost World definitely fails nearly everyone in this regard with a plot which is far too thin. For example, we’re given only 30 minutes to establish all the characters and make us care about them before the “running and screaming” starts, which is only really 1 or 2 scenes for most of the principal cast. The script just doesn’t flesh anyone out enough or give them time they need to make us care. Kelly suffers most egregiously from this, being nothing more than a burden and only contributing in one cringe-worthy scene of Chekov’s gymnastics to save Ian from a velociraptor. Sarah Harding and Nick van Owen also suffer greatly from the scripting deficiencies, with us only really getting the thinnest sketches of their characters before the action begins. Making things worse, we don’t really get any development of any sort for the characters after their 1 or 2 scenes of establishment, which just makes it even harder to care about anyone.

Furthermore, the characters tend to act stupidly for little more than plot convenience. For example, Sarah (a paleological behaviour expert) decides to start petting a baby stegosaur while in the middle of their herd, which obviously leads to the rest of its family attacking her to defend their baby so we can get an early action sequence. She also later tells the group that the t-rexes will be tracking them with their superior sense of smell and then in the next scene is seen with a jacket covered in baby t-rex blood smearing it all over the trail behind them like a total oblivious idiot when Roland points this out to her (and of course, not even Roland thinks to actually ditch the jacket at that point). Nick is also a common victim of this problem, most egregiously when he decides to rescue the baby t-rex by bringing it back to the team’s trailer, thereby bringing the wrath of the parents down upon them. Even Ian isn’t immune to this – one minute he’s desperately trying to get Kelly off of the island, and then the next he’s helping Sarah and Nick sabotage the hunters before trying to get the radio to work again so Kelly will be safe (of course, Sarah and Nick’s sabotage operation destroys all the radios on the island, whoops!).

All that said, the film is buoyed significantly at the 45 minute mark by the t-rex attack on the trailer. This is easily the best part of the film, which ramps up the tension as we wait for the t-rexes to approach, to their attack which flips the trailer and leaves it leaning precariously over a cliff while Sarah lies helplessly on a breaking pane of glass, to Eddie’s heroic rescue attempt and subsequent tragic death. It’s a major shot in the arm right when the film needed it and arguably one of the best single sequences in the entire franchise. And honestly, character development issues aside, The Lost World is basically as good of a sequel to Jurassic Park as you could expect up until this point… however, the moment that trailer falls off the cliff and explodes, the film suddenly nosedives significantly, turning into a series of running, screaming and senseless death (Roland himself says it best when he calls the group of faceless mooks a “moveable feast”). As I said in my retrospective of the first Jurassic Park, that film could have been worse in its second half when the characters stop developing and just run away from the dinosaurs, but we already had gotten to know and like them by that point so it wasn’t an issue. The Lost World does not have that luxury. It has a hard enough time making us care about its principal cast, not to mention the dozens of nameless, faceless cannon fodder which are suddenly brought into the fold at this point. Sure, we get some interesting action sequences here, such as the t-rexes attacking the hunters’ camp and velociraptors ambushing them in the long grass, but these scenes lack the emotional punch of the first film and instead trade that for sheer visceral excitement. They succeed to some degree, but it is not a worthwhile trade-off by any means.

The film also suffers in the notoriously half-baked t-rex escape in San Diego. You can definitely tell that Spielberg rushed this ending into the film, because it very distinctly feels like it was filmed and conceived separately from the rest of the movie. The idea of a t-rex rampaging in a populated city is actually rather interesting and fits well into the series’ themes, but the film does not set it up well enough for it to feel like an earned payoff. Instead, it plays out like a very bog-standard monster movie and jettisons all but two of the characters we were supposed to be trying to become attached to throughout the rest of the film. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Die Hard with a Vengeance and its clearly half-assed ending. It does serve as one of the big showcases for the CGI though, which has improved significantly in the intervening 4 years between films. In fact, I’d say that The Lost World deserves the reputation that Jurassic Park‘s special effects are so often bestowed with, because the CGI is utilized more often and holds up nearly flawlessly. That said, the animatronics and puppets are still being used frequently in this film, which is great to see as well and helps to ensure that the film’s effects still remain great to this day.

All-in-all though, The Lost World is disappointingly mediocre. It has promise, but it seems content to just squander all of it and turn into a mindless romp packed with as much dinosaur carnage as possible by the halfway point. The non-existent character development also cripples any sort of emotional investment in the film, making the carnage far less engaging than it was in the first film. In fact, The Lost World is the 3rd-lowest-scoring film in Spielberg’s filmography, after Hook and 1941, making it something of a black mark on his directoral career. Maybe with a bit more time in the oven and a bit more enthusiasm, Spielberg could have spun gold again, but as it is, The Lost World falls short.

5.5/10Tune in next time as we tackle the third film in the franchise, Jurassic Park III!

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Retrospective: Jurassic Park (1993)

Holy shit, surprise, it’s another Retrospective series! I honestly wasn’t expecting to do another one of these, since they tend to take quite a bit of time, work and effort to put out to a level I’m happy with. That said, I was thinking back on the Jurassic Park film franchise just the other day and it was making me think of how interesting this series’ journey has been, which started giving me that writer’s itch. And so, let’s launch into this with the first entry in the series, 1993’s Jurassic Park

Pretty much the definition of an iconic poster. Simple, but so evocative. In fact, it’s so iconic that every subsequent poster in the series has aped it wholesale.

Normally I beat around the bush and try to act coy about what my overall thoughts on a film are in one of these reviews. I’m not even going to bother with that pretense here – Jurassic Park is a bloody classic. You know it and I know it too. I mention that up-front because it’s relevant to note that the film is based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name which, somehow, is even better than the movie in my opinion. The novel hits most of the same beats as the film, although basically every scene or character is different in some manner. Some particularly fun examples of differences from the original novel are that the lawyer, Donald Gennaro, was originally written as a muscle-bound badass who punches a velociraptor in the face when it bites him in the arm, John Hammond is originally a petulant and unrepentant corporate villain, and that the big climax with the raptors involves far more of the creatures on the loose which the heroes end up having to fight with freaking rocket launchers. In addition, the novel has much more detailed discussions about chaos theory, while also fitting in so many action sequences that the novel would still be plundered for inspiration in the next 2 sequels. The novel is also notably far more violent, with scenes including such gory imagery as babies being eaten in their cribs, men being disemboweled and eaten alive and dinosaurs getting blown in half. I actually wrote a paper in 12th grade about all the differences between the film and novel and the only element which survives basically intact is Denis Nedry’s character, who is just as much of a slobbish buffoon in both mediums.

Anyway, before the novel was even published, Crichton and Steven Spielberg were in talks about the premise, which Spielberg thought was fascinating. A bidding war between 4 studios broke out, but Spielberg and Universal won it and got underway producing the film. Notably, Spielberg wanted to make Schindler’s List, which would be funded after he directed Jurassic Park. Basically, in the year 1993, Spielberg ended up putting out 2 of the best movies in their respective genres because the man is just that much of a legend.

Also key to the film’s success were its ground-breaking special effects work led by Stan Winston (of Aliens, Predator and Terminator fame) and Phil Tippett (who did stop-motion effects on Star Wars and RoboCop). Originally the dinosaurs were going to be achieved through a mixture of animatronics and stop motion, but Spielberg found the stop-motion effects to be unsatisfactory. Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic claimed that they could use computer generated imagery to achieve the desired effects, which he demonstrated with footage that would form the basis of the scene of the T-Rex chasing Gallimimus (which prompted this exchange immortalized in the film: “When Spielberg and Tippett saw an animatic of the T. rex chasing a herd of Gallimimus, Spielberg said, ‘You’re out of a job,’ to which Tippett replied, ‘Don’t you mean extinct?’“). The CGI tends to get all of the praise, but most of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are actually brought to life with puppetry and animatronics, which are all top-notch and help to make the effects work even more impressive and life-like. That said, the CGI is often heralded for being better than anything that gets put out today, which is definitely a stretch. It is usually quite good, shockingly so for 1993 special effects, but you can often tell when CGI is being used and when animatronics are. In fact, at times the CGI is just straight-up poor, most notably in the “big reveal” scene where Alan Grant sees the brachiosaurus for the first time, and we end up seeing this unconvincingly-textured behemoth marching across the land. That’s actually rather unfortunate because it dilutes the impact of the scene a bit, although it would have been mind-blowing in 1993. Thankfully, CGI is never over-utilized, only being relied on when it is needed.

Jurassic Park is also gifted with a very talented cast, none of which puts in a poor performance.* Jeff Goldblum’s character, Ian Malcolm, is the clear standout just by virtue of Jeff Goldblum playing his usual brand of eccentricity, but he’s only a bit more entertaining than Sam Neil and Richard Attenborough’s characters. Hell, even the bit parts are intensely watchable, from Bob Peck’s badass game warden Robert Muldoon, to Wayne Knight’s bufoonish villain Denis Nedry, to Samuel L. Jackson’s sarcastic Ray Arnold. As I wrote earlier, nearly every character differs from their book counterparts, but the changes to John Hammond are the most impactful on the plot. Taking him from being a curmudgeonly and greedy bastard to a well-meaning, enthusiastic entrepreneur lends the film an air of tragedy, most keenly felt in the scene when he bemuses on his past with Ellie Sadler (capped perfectly with a heart-breaking reading of his signature line, “spared no expense”).

The very first thing that strikes you about Jurassic Park is John Williams’ score, which sets the tone perfectly. It puts you on edge when it needs to and swells you to excitement at the perfect times. When I was writing my notes while watching the film, literally my very first one was “Immediately, oh God the music”. Tying into this feature, the script and Spielberg’s direction build so much suspense that any sort of comprehensive list would just be a plot summary. That said, the t-rex attack is probably the textbook, standout example of how to build suspense in a major action sequence.

Jurassic Park is a film of two halves. The first half is used to establish the setting and plot, begin building up suspense, and (primarily) to provide the audience with speculative wonder and adventure. This emphasis on wonder actually makes the second half more impactful, because we get to see how amazing this island is and the creatures which inhabit it. It’s very easy to get caught up in John Hammond’s own enthusiasm for the park and root for its success in spite of any concerns of its safety, particularly during the “Mr. DNA” scene (which also happens to be an ingenious way to explain the admittedly ponderous scientific elements of the book in a quick and palatable way). Even when the film shifts from adventure into an action and horror in the second half, the sense of inherent wonder at this island still lingers at times, such as when Grant, Lex and Tim take shelter in a tree and witness a herd of brachiosaur feeding.

The second half of the film is where things go pear-shaped for the characters and all of the suspense that has been building up boils over into basically non-stop action-horror for the next hour. The survival-based half of the film seems to have been the main thing which has been seized-upon with subsequent Jurassic Park films, rather than the sense of wonder which sets this film apart so much from its sequels (not to get too ahead of myself, but Ian Malcolm lampshades the plot structure himself in The Lost World when he says “Oh, yeah. ‘Oooh, ahhh,’ that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming”). This is notable because one of the most common complaints about Jurassic Park is that after the first hour, the characters basically spend the rest of the movie running away from dinosaurs rather than being developed. Only Grant and Hammond learn some small lessons in this whole time, but otherwise you could swap nearly any character out for another without impacting the plot any as everyone’s just running and reacting to the dinosaurs hunting them. That said, I don’t feel like Jurassic Park truly suffers because of this – it’s a notable weakness, but luckily the characters were already established well in the preceding hour and given distinct and likeable personalities, so we still care about them when the film isn’t giving us more reason to.

Other than that, I can only point out a couple other weak points with the film, but they’re really nitpicky. One would be the kids, Lex and Tim, who are basically just burdens. They do have thematic significance (helping to develop Grant’s character), provide some additional wonder and Lex manages to get the security system working again briefly, but otherwise they can be a bit of an annoyance and would begin the “obligatory child character” trope which would plague the series going forward. I also am mixed on the t-rex’s vision, which Grant conveniently knows is based on movement. On the one hand, it provides some more tension, but it’s also super convenient and largely ignored in any subsequent film (Crichton’s sequel novel even tries to retcon it out in very clumsy fashion). There are also some mise-en-scene issues with the cliff suddenly appearing in the t-rex paddock, but this could just be down to poor explanation of spacing, plus the film does a good job of making you not notice this anyway. Other than that, it’s kind of silly that the wrecked car chases the characters down the tree, but again… nitpicks. This movie freaking rocks, is a defining film from my childhood and is definitely amongst my favourite films of all-time. It’s a classic, no question.

9/10

Be sure to tune in soon for the next entry in this series, The Lost World: Jurassic Park!

*In fact, literally the only performance in the film which I would classify as “poor” is Gerald Molen, who plays Dr. Harding (aka, the guy who is looking after the sick triceratops). This is probably because he’s actually more of a producer rather than an actor who… wait… he produced 2016: Obama’s America? What the hell!?! Ugh, well now I’m going to cringe twice as hard every time he says, in response to the triceratops’ pupils being dilated, “They are? Well I’ll be damned!”
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Retrospective: Metal Gear Afterthoughts & Greatest Moments

AFTERTHOUGHTS
This has been quite a journey that we have embarked on. It literally took me months to complete all of the games in the franchise and, at times, felt like I had taken on a second job, but it was definitely a worthwhile experience which has given me a new appreciation of the franchise. Seeing how the gameplay has evolved and gotten more complex was very interesting, and actually improved the original Metal Gear Solid in quite a few ways for me (especially the key cards and backtracking which I found annoying in my first playthrough, but which are refreshing compared to previous games in the franchise). I also got to experience a few games that I had wanted to play but never actually got around to – namely, Metal Gear, Solid Snake and Rising.

It was also interesting to get a better look at the Metal Gear story. The franchise is notorious for having a supposedly “incomprehensible” story, but I have always found this to be a ridiculous assertion. The series’ overarching narrative is certainly extremely complex, convoluted and doesn’t make a lot of sense at times, but it isn’t all that hard to follow in each game. Also, considering that the overarching story was made up from game-to-game, it’s nothing short of a minor miracle that the story is as satisfying and reasonably coherent as it is, especially with the numerous retcons which have occurred in each new installment.

If I have time at some point in the future, I might also do a bonus review for the two Metal Gear Ac!d games, as they were both very fun and unique experiences. Other than those two games, Ghost Babel for the Game Boy Advance and Portable Ops Plus for the PSP are both ripe for a potential bonus retrospective… hell, maybe even Snake’s Revenge for the NES as well if I’m feeling extremely masochistic. We’ll see if any of these entries actually happen (I’m long overdue for an entry for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for that franchise’s retrospective series), but perhaps one day. I’ll try not to say “Kept you waiting, huh?” though.

10 GREATEST MOMENTS IN THE METAL GEAR FRANCHISE
Here are, in my opinion, the 10 greatest moments in the entire franchise. They could be cutscenes, or gameplay twists or even epic boss battles: what matters is that they’re very memorable and/or extremely key to the overarching narrative.

Honourable mentions: Sniper Wolf’s death scene in Metal Gear Solid and the Raiden switcheroo in Sons of Liberty.

10) “I just don’t fear death.” (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots)

For all my complaining about Raiden in Guns of the Patriots, this fight scene alone made his inclusion worthwhile. The sequence is well set-up: throughout Act II, Raiden is hinted as having a major return and our heroes get into severe peril. Then, when Raiden shows up, we’re not sure what’s going to happen – there’s something different about him, but can he really deal with that many Gekkos? As we soon discover though, he definitely can as we get treated to the most purely entertaining sequences in the entire franchise. The escalation is just fantastic too as suddenly Raiden is not only contending with Gekkos, but the immortal beast Vamp as well. The choreography and direction of the fight are the real highlights – it doesn’t serve a lot of story purpose, but it is extremely entertaining and memorable, to the point where an entire game was made and sold based on this exact sequence. Now that is impressive.

9) Gustava is Killed By Gray Fox (Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake)

Some people might prefer the fist fight with Gray Fox in the land mine field or Solid Snake’s confrontation with Big Boss, but to me there is no bigger story moment in Solid Snake than the death of Gustava. Despite the game’s extremely limited storytelling abilities and her short screentime, Gustava was an instantly-likable character. Her death on the rope bridge marks a major shift in the game’s narrative, as Gray Fox and Dr. Madnar both betray us and the game’s best character dies in our arms, regretting that politics kept her from being with the man she loved. Tragically, we later discover that that man was Gray Fox himself, who unwittingly killed his one true love. This causes Gray Fox’s own death to be somewhat hopeful, and his subsequent forced resurrection to be an even more horrific form of torture.

8) Shining Lights, Even in Death (Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain)

Even if The Phantom Pain is lacking in its narrative, it’s undeniable that this mission is incredibly powerful, and is a skillful weaving of narrative and gameplay mechanics to produce a truly emotional moment. As Venom Snake makes his way through the horrors in the quarantine zone, you might come across soldiers that you recognize – you recruited everyone here, they have all fallen sick, and you need to do something to rescue them. However, it soon becomes apparent that there is no cure and, worse, if something isn’t done, then an epidemic could get unleashed on the world. As a result, you are forced to gun down each and every one of your men. Most of them don’t fight back. Some call you a monster. Some of them beg you to do it, as they salute and hum the Peace Walker theme. Even when you think that you found one survivor, the hope is short lived as they are infected in mere moments. By the end of it all, you know that all of these men and women are dead because of you – by your own hand, because you brought them to Mother Base and in your service.

The subsequent cutscene just makes things even more powerful. Keifer Sutherland justifies his casting with a very emotional and tragic performance as Venom Snake tries to come to terms with his actions, culminating with a fantastic little monologue:

“I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea. I will always be with you. Plant your roots in me. I won’t see you end as ashes. You’re all diamonds.”

Furthermore, the ending of the game makes this sequence even more of a tragedy – you caused these men to die, but the only reason you were put into this position was because the person that you idolized was using you as an unwitting decoy in order to keep themselves safe. If Venom becomes evil between The Phantom Pain and the original Metal Gear, you can bet that this was a major contributing factor.

7) REX vs RAY (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots)

Of all the pure fan service moments in Guns of the Patriots, the Metal Gear battle between REX and RAY is probably the most wildly enjoyable. It serves basically no story purpose (in fact, one could argue that it is ultimately detrimental to the game’s narrative in a few ways), but damn is it ever incredibly entertaining. I don’t think anyone ever expected to be able to pilot their own Metal Gear in one of these games, let alone use one to battle another Metal Gear. It’s a very fun, empowering and awe-inspiring sequence which is so purely entertaining that it’s easy to ignore how inherently silly it is.

6) “This Is Good, Isn’t It?” (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots)

Big Boss is still alive. This is a rather insane reveal to work into the epilogue of Guns of the Patriots, but considering that the franchise has expanded to be the overarching stories of Big Boss and Solid Snake, it is even more appropriate to give him the proper send-off in retrospect. While this scene goes on just a little bit too long, it manages to end the franchise in an incredibly satisfying and conclusive way – The Patriots are gone for good, Big Boss finally comes to understand The Boss’s will, Big Boss and Solid Snake are able to reconcile as father and son, and Solid Snake regains his will to live and see out the last days of his life in peace. This is capped off with Big Boss’s final words to Snake as he smokes his last cigar: “This is good, isn’t it?”

5) “You Like Castlevania, don’t you?” (Metal Gear Solid)

I had considered not including this moment at all, but on further retrospection it occurred to me that this was really one of the formative moments in the franchise. For many gamers, having Psycho Mantis tear down the fourth wall and perform his parlour tricks was a massive shock. Suddenly this wasn’t just a normal video game, and Psycho Mantis wasn’t just a normal video game boss. The sheer amount of outside-of-the-box thinking required to both design and defeat Psycho Mantis makes the fight incredibly entertaining. While it has lost some of its lustre due to cultural familiarity eroding away the surprise of it all, it remains a very enjoyable experience to this day.

4) “I NEED SCISSORS! 61!” (Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty)

The Raiden switcheroo is the usual talking point when it comes to Sons of Liberty, but I recall fondly that Raiden’s naked romp through Arsenal Gear is the game’s real, truly important twist. Everyone knows about the Raiden switcheroo by now, but I imagine that there are still tons of people who will be playing Sons of Liberty and then be completely baffled as Raiden runs around naked, as the Colonel constantly calls Raiden with strange messages and as ninjas start appearing out of nowhere. And how many players put down their controllers in frustration when “Fission Mailed” showed up, before realizing that the game fooled them? Sons of Liberty really starts to jump off the deep end here, and does so in spectacularly, memorably absurd fashion.

3) Old Snake vs Liquid Ocelot (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots)

As the final clash between the series’ main hero and its arch villain, the battle between Old Snake and Liquid Ocelot has a lot to live up to. Thankfully, it is one of the most distinctive boss battles in the entire franchise, as the two foes brutally pummel one another into submission. By the end, there isn’t even any dignity to the affair – it’s just two tired, old men beating one another to death for little purpose. It’s an incredibly sad and sobering affair which gets drawn out for quite some time, allowing us a chance to take in all of the trials we have been through with these characters.

2) “We Are Not Tools of the Government…” (Metal Gear Solid)

The death of Gray Fox in Metal Gear Solid is one of those major formative moments in a character’s development which can be clearly seen in subsequent games in the franchise. Throughout his life, Solid Snake is used as a tool by those above him, and he constantly fights back against this perception until he is able to achieve it. This moment is also called-back to by Solid Snake as a key part of Sons of Liberty‘s theme of “memes”, as he passes this idea on to Raiden, who internalizes the idea himself. In fact, within the universe of the game, this is likely a meme that was passed on to Gray Fox from Big Boss himself.

All of this in addition to being a very major moment in Metal Gear Solid itself, as Gray Fox sacrifices his life to save Solid Snake and give him the opportunity to destroy Metal Gear REX. In doing so, he demonstrates his friendship with Snake, and tries to atone for his lifetime of sins.

“We’re not tools of the government, or anyone else. Fighting was the only thing… the only thing I was good at. But… at least I always fought for what I believed in.”

1) The Ladder (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)

…just kidding.

1) “She Was a Real Hero. She Was a True Patriot.” (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)

The entire ending sequence of Snake Eater is by far the greatest moment in the entire franchise as far as I’m concerned. The showdown between Naked Snake and The Boss is already tragic, with the final trigger pull being a particularly heart-wrenching moment as the player musters up the fortitude to end The Boss’s life. That said, this all really comes into its own in the final series of cutscenes when Naked Snake discovers the truth of The Boss’s “defection”. Her defection was in fact a ploy to get close to Colonel Volgin and steal The Philosopher’s Legacy for the US government. However, The Boss soon realizes that in order to complete the mission and save the world, she will have to not only sacrifice her own life, but be remembered in history with disgrace. Considering that she has spent her entire life in service of her country, including giving up her only child and executing her lover, this is a despicable fate to befall such a noble woman. This revelation plants the seeds from which the rest of the conflicts in the franchise will grow, as her few disciples make misguided attempts to live up to her legacy.

“Snake, listen to me. She didn’t betray the United States. No, far from it. She was a hero who died for her country. She carried out her mission knowing full well what was going to happen. Self-sacrifice… because that was her duty. […] Out of duty, she turned her back on her own comrades. A lesser woman would have been crushed by such a burden. The taint of disgrace will follow her to her grave. Future generations will revile her: In America, as a despicable traitor with no sense of honor; and in Russia, as a monster who unleashed a nuclear catastrophe. She will go down in official history as a war criminal, and no one will ever understand her… that was her final mission. And like a true soldier, she saw it through the end. […] Snake, history will never know what she did. No one will ever learn the truth. Her story, her debriefing… will endure only in your heart. Everything she did, she did for her country. She sacrificed her life and her honor for her native land. She was a real hero. She was a true patriot.”

PERSONAL RANKINGS
1) Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater – 10/10
2) Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – 9.5/10
3) Metal Gear Solid – 9.5/10 (Literally the only reason that I have put this below The Phantom Pain is because it is a far less expansive and replayable experience, although for its time Metal Gear Solid was a SIGNIFICANTLY more important game.)
4) Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots – 9/10
5) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty – 8.5/10
6) Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake – 8.5/10
7) Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker – 8/10
8) Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes – 7.5/10
9) Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance – 7/10
10) Metal Gear – 7/10
11) Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops – 6/10

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Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid V – The Phantom Pain (2015)

So finally we come to the most recent entry in the Metal Gear franchise – and likely the final entry for that matter in the eyes of most fans. Would Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain manage to bring the series full circle, while charting an ambitious new style for the series? Read on to find out. (Since this game is quite recent still, I will point out that there are MAJOR spoilers throughout this article.)

DEVELOPMENT
First off, it must be said that The Phantom Pain was fraught with an incredibly troubled development which is almost as intriguing as the game itself. We still don’t have all the details, but a sketch of the events which transpired has developed over time, which I will briefly recount here. Shortly after the release of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, it was revealed that Hideo Kojima, Guillermo del Toro and Norman Reedus had been brought together to create Silent Hills, an announcement which people discovered after exploring the mysterious, acclaimed tech demo P.T. Fans of that series thought that this was a sign of a return to glory for Silent Hill, which had been languishing for 2 console generations by then after a long string of bad-to-mediocre releases.

However, only a few months after the announcement of Silent Hills, disaster struck. After a corporate restructuring Konami had begun to scale back its AAA gaming publishing, choosing to instead focus on less-risky mobile games and licensed slot and pachinko machines. While we don’t know the details of what happened, this caused a rift to grow between Konami and Kojima. The red flags started rising when “A Hideo Kojima game” was removed from all Metal Gear promotional art for The Phantom Pain and on previous Metal Gear games. Soon, Kojima announced that he would be leaving the company following the completion of The Phantom Pain, which instantly caused panics over the status of The Phantom Pain and Silent Hills. Ultimately, Silent Hills was cancelled after an agonizing couple of weeks of silence, with P.T. being pulled from PSN shortly thereafter in spite of massive backlash, while Konami insisted that The Phantom Pain would be unaffected.

The exact causes of the split between Konami and Kojima are uncertain, but it can be inferred that money was a prime factor. Perhaps due to Konami’s desire to downsize their console gaming presence, there have been many reports that they were uncomfortable with the high budget on The Phantom Pain, which reportedly surpassed $80 million. This might also have been a major contributing factor to Ground Zeroes‘ separate release, in an effort to recoup costs quickly. On a related note, timing was also likely an issue – Konami likely wanted the game to be released within a certain budgeted timeframe, and Kojima’s vision was too ambitious to fit comfortably into these restrictions. Ultimately though, this lack of transparency on Konami’s part has damned them in the eyes of the public, even if they do potentially have reasonable motives (I mean, if Kojima Productions had become too expensive for them to maintain then fair enough, but if you don’t say a damn thing to us about it then we’re going to side with the creative auteur behind our favourite games).

PLOT SUMMARY
The game’s plot picks up 9 years after the events of Ground Zeroes as Venom Snake (aka Big Boss) wakes up from a coma to find himself in a dangerous new world. His muscles have atrophied, his body is embedded with shrapnel and his left arm has been amputated. Before Snake can be fully rehabilitated, the hospital comes under attack by XOF forces and a mysterious psychic boy and a deadly, flaming phantom. Snake barely escapes, thanks to the guidance of an unknown man calling himself Ishmael and a timely get-away courtesy of Revolver Ocelot.

From there, Snake heads into Afghanistan to rescue former comrade Kazuhira Miller, who has spent the last decade building a PMC named Diamond Dogs to seek revenge on Cipher for the destruction of Mother Base. Along the way, they uncover a plot by the rogue XOF commander, Skull Face, who has rebelled against Zero and has effectively brought much of Cipher under his control. The hate-filled rogue has decided that Zero’s ambitions of world unity through information control are doomed to failure, and that the only way to unite and control humanity is through fear and revenge. In order to achieve this, he intends to spread chaos by constructing a new Metal Gear, Sahelanthropus, and by distributing inexpensive nuclear weapons to PMCs and smaller nations, stopping nuclear-equipped nations from strong-arming others (while also retaining control of these nuclear weapons as a fail safe). Secondly, he intends to eliminate the English language as a form of revenge for the loss of his own mother tongue – with English as the world’s dominant language, all other languages (and therefore cultural understandings and viewpoints) are under threat of singular control, all as part of Cipher’s intention for global unity. To do this, he has weaponized an ancient species of parasites which reproduces when it recognizes distinct vocal patterns.

In his time building Diamond Dogs, Kaz discovers that Huey Emmerich was responsible for the attack on Mother Base 9 years earlier. Huey has been working for Skull Face and is responsible for the construction of Sahelanthropus. Snake captures Huey and puts him to work developing a new Walker Gear for Diamond Dogs, but is kept under surveillance. They also discover a mysterious, mute sniper named Quiet, who has incredible powers mirroring XOF’s SKULL unit. Kaz immediately distrusts her, but Snake and Ocelot allow her to join Diamond Dogs and provide Snake with support on missions.

Diamond Dogs begins hunting Skull Face in Angola, but in the process Mother Base becomes afflicted with an outbreak of the vocal cord parasites after Snake brings back contaminated materials. The outbreak runs rampant until Venom Snake rescues Code Talker, the man who developed the parasites under duress from Skull Face. A young boy named Eli, suspected to be one of Les Enfants Terrible, is also captured and brought to Mother Base, where he constantly flaunts Snake’s authority.

Snake then goes to attack Skull Face head-on, but is captured and taken to Sahelanthropus, where Skull Face tries to get The Man on Fire (revealed to be a phantom of Colonel Volgin) to kill Snake. However, the nearby presence of Eli causes a young Psycho Mantis (Volgin’s puppeteer) to switch allegiances and unleash Sahelanthropus on Snake and the XOF troops. Much of XOF is destroyed and Skull Face is mortally wounded, but Snake manages to take down the Metal Gear after an epic battle. He and Kaz then gloat over Skull Face’s dying body, mutilating him in retribution before Huey puts him down for good. Diamond Dogs retrieve the remains of Sahelanthropus, putting it on display at Mother Base as a symbol of their victory as Eli and Psycho Mantis look upon it with their own nefarious designs.

In the game’s second chapter, Kaz begins a witch hunt within Diamond Dogs’ ranks, hoping to root out all within their ranks that he deems dangerous. Particular targets of his wrath include Quiet and Huey Emmerich, who is revealed to be a pathological liar the more he is interrogated. After a second, more serious, outbreak of a mutated strain of the vocal cord parasite ravages Mother Base, it is discovered that Huey was responsible. He is banished by Snake just before Quiet goes missing. Snake tracks her down to a Soviet base, where he discovers that she has been infected with the English strain of the vocal cord parasites. Skull Face had intended for her to infect Diamond Dogs with it, but she had turned against XOF and taken a vow of silence. However, after witnessing the mutation of the infection on Mother Base, she had realized that she was too dangerous to remain there. After an intense battle with the Soviet army, Snake is injured and Quiet is forced to break her vow of silence to call in helicopter support to save his life, damning herself to death from the infection. After Snake is rescued, she wanders into the desert to die alone.

Some time after this, Venom Snake receives a tape which reveals that he is not the “real” Big Boss, but rather the helicopter medic from Ground Zeroes. After the helicopter crash, Cipher conspired with Ocelot and (eventually) Big Boss to create a decoy to draw the attention of XOF while the real Big Boss set about creating his own nation of soldiers in secret. Kaz is incensed by this revelation, denouncing Big Boss as a traitor and pledging to support Venom Snake and the sons of Big Boss to bring him down. Ocelot remarks that a time will soon come when these two Big Bosses will be at war with one another, just as the sons of Big Boss will clash.

In post-game recordings, we also receive some plot revelations. While Kaz is furious at Big Boss for betraying his trust, he is also angry with Cipher, which he had been working in concert with to help establish the beginnings of the war economy. He had followed their instructions under the belief that they were going to reunite him with his old friend, making the reveal Big Boss’s decoy sting all the worse. We also hear recordings from Zero himself. Following the unauthorized attack on Mother Base, Zero had been acting to get XOF under control, but Skull Face infected him with a lethal parasite, throwing his ambitions into disarray. A rapidly-deteriorating Zero orders Donald Anderson (aka, SIGNIT) and Strangelove to create the AI network that would come to be known as the Patriots. In his last recording, Zero visits a comatose Big Boss in hospital, revealing that despite their differences, he is still quite fond of his foe. His system thrives on conflict, and therefore he needs someone like Big Boss to cause it.

GAMEPLAY & DESIGN
The Phantom Pain opens with a very intense and harrowing hour-long introduction into this brave new world. This sequence works very well for two reasons – it takes its time to draw you into the scenario and then, when it lets loose, you have absolutely no idea what is happening or why. It’s deliberately uninformative, but this just makes the horrifying events which happen here more impactful. I definitely got some Silent Hills vibes here and think that Kojima was dying to try his hand at a horror experience.

Once this sequence is complete, The Phantom Pain truly begins in earnest. While Ground Zeroes offered us a tantalizing taste of what an open world Metal Gear game would look like, that game absolutely pales in comparison to the freedom that The Phantom Pain offers*. The second that you get thrown into the expansive Afghanistan map, you feel a little overwhelmed with how much freedom the game has given you to approach missions, and where exactly to focus your efforts. The maps are dotted with all sorts of enemy outposts for you to approach or avoid at your discretion, while dozens of unique items, weapons, gameplay systems and AI buddies open up entirely new gameplay styles and practically guarantee a different experience for everyone. This also can lead to some incredibly intense moments where you end up in an extremely tight situation and find yourself improvising a solution on the fly which miraculously ends up working… whether due to your skill or the overwhelming force you choose to bear down on enemies, it’s up to you.

The game features two open world maps in Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border, both of which are rather unique. Afghanistan is dotted with cliffs and covered in desert, its action mainly centered around the roads controlled by Soviet troops. As a result, this map is actually surprisingly linear, with mountains forcing the player through series of choke points and making confrontation a regular affair. This is moderately disappointing, and can make traversal a real chore as the game wears on. However, Angola-Zaire is far more open, with the majority of the map traversable however the player wishes and roads being little more than an enemy-filled suggestion. This map is mainly covered in plains and swampland, with some jungles and villages offering a wide variety of ways to sneak about.

The game also features the most recent version of the base management meta-game which was pioneered in Portable Ops and Peace Walker. The Phantom Pain‘s base management is extremely similar to Peace Walker‘s, with troops captured in the field being assigned to various positions based on their skills to unlock new weapons and items. Going hand-in-hand with base management is the improved fulton extraction system. Fulton is one of the game’s strongest assets and is better and more convenient than ever. Instead of being limited to a handful of extractions as you were in Peace Walker, The Phantom Pain will quickly give you access to dozens of balloons to snatch enemy troops, supplies and eventually even vehicles as it pleases you (and if you run out of balloons, then just send a supply request for some more). My only complaint with this is that the fulton system is almost too good now – until your base gets completely filled up, there’s basically no reason to kill enemies when you can just fly them away with your balloon and make them join you. It also makes the numerous tank battle side-ops in the game a complete joke when you can just fulton the tank away without a fight and then take out the oblivious escorts (and fulton them too to boot). Still though, this is a rather minor quibble, as extracting enemies is one of the defining aspects of the game.

The Phantom Pain also contains a very fun buddy system, in which a very useful AI companion will join you in missions and follow commands. This system functions flawlessly and is an unexpectedly great addition. You start off with a horse named D-Horse who helps you traverse terrain easier and who can allow you to shoot while on the move (something that you can’t do while in a jeep or truck, probably so that D-Horse stays useful in the mid-to-late game). However, as you play, you can gain access to a wolf named D-Dog, a supernatural sniper named Quiet and a Gekko-like walker named D-Walker. Taking them on missions increases their bond with Snake and opens up powerful new abilities for them to unleash on enemies. All of them have their uses, but for my money D-Dog is the best – having 100% situational awareness is incredible for someone like me who doesn’t need a lot of help taking down a base silently. However, Quiet is also very good. She’s arguably overpowered, but she’s an incredible asset to have in missions backing you up… and can provide a fantastic distraction if the enemy’s defences are just a little too organized for your liking.

Returning in an expanded form from Ground Zeroes is driveable vehicles. Unfortunately, they’re not all that big a deal on the whole. The jeeps are the most useful of them since they help you traverse the maps far quicker than on foot (which is going to quickly become a problem once you inevitably swap out D-Horse for D-Dog or Quiet). However, the other vehicles are pretty useless for most of the game. The trucks are too slow to use effectively, and you still get spotted when driving them far too easily. The LAVs and tanks are funny to use on an enemy base once or twice, but aside from that they’re practically useless aside from a very small handful of boss battles, but even then they take a ridiculous number of shots to take out most enemies. For example, in one side-op I needed to shoot down a chopper but didn’t want to bring a missile launcher for the task. As a result, I took the heaviest tank to destroy it, but the chopper ended up taking more than 6 shots without an issue before it blew up my tank with its machine gun. Driveable vehicles are definitely a cool addition to the series, but it’s too bad that they’re just not all that useful outside of getting from place to place in less time.

The enemy AI is also definitely the best that the series has ever seen in my opinion. Sons of Liberty‘s AI was relentless when they were on alert, but The Phantom Pain‘s AI feel like geniuses sometimes. They call for help from nearby allies. If they see something suspicious more than a couple times, they’ll call in an alert which will put everyone in the area on edge. They also will warn other outposts of your presence and call in for backup if you reveal yourself. If they spot you, they’re not going to ease up until you neutralize everyone or until nearly a day of in-game time goes by, which is miles ahead of the goldfish-memory enemies we’ve seen in the past. Their vision cones are also fairly reasonable – they’re still rather near-sighted, generally needing to be within about 50-75m to spot you if you’re running, but if it was any closer then that the game would likely be far more frustrating. If anything, they’re far more reasonable than the laughably blind enemies in Portable Ops or Peace Walker. What all this adds up to is enemies who are actually rather thrilling to outwit, while remaining predictable enough that a skilled player will be able to take advantage of their routines as they get better at the game. It also makes me feel kind of bad when I kill enemies, especially when they get so badly wounded that they’re left bleeding out – I end up wondering if they have families back home and why I am killing them. This, of course, incentivizes non-lethal attacks and fulton even more.

It’s also worth noting that there are in-game counters to some of the tools that you will use on the enemy, and vice versa. If you go for a lot of headshots, enemies will soon be wearing helmets. If you use smoke grenades, they’ll wear gas masks. If you use decoys to fool enemies, you might soon find yourself the fool when an enemy decoy psyches out your plan of attack. These counters can make enemy encounters very challenging as a form of emergent gameplay (especially the riot suits that show up late in the game, which are the bane of my existence and make my stealthy playthroughs incredibly challenging). However, they can be countered by your combat units, by sending them out on missions to destroy enemy supplies. Doing so though costs you opportunities to gather resources and GMP, feeding into the game’s infinite strategic possibilities.

The game’s voice acting is good as you should expect from the series. Of particular note, Keifer Sutherland really grew on me and I think he does a really fine job as Snake… the only problem is that he is silent for long stretches of the game. Like, David Hayter’s Snakes would comment on things and reply whenever people talk to him. In this game, Venom Snake is often strangely silent when people are talking to him, with a particularly long jeep ride being the strangest example where it feels like Snake’s lines are completely missing. I’m not sure why Snake is so quiet for most of the game – perhaps Keifer Sutherland was unavailable to rerecord some dialogue, or the game’s constrained development didn’t leave room for some of the dialogue to be inserted, or perhaps it was intentional as a part of the theme of the power of words? Whatever the case, it’s a little awkward and too bad that we didn’t get more of Sutherland’s bad ass Snake performance.

Oh, and by the way, in case you were wondering, the game’s graphics are fantastic. I wonder how much they had to downgrade them for PS3 and Xbox 360 in order to make them work on those systems, or whether they compromised the current gen versions to make them work. If nothing else, this game really showcases how fantastic and scaleable the Fox Engine is.

However, for all of its positives, there are some issues with The Phantom Pain‘s gameplay, some nit-picky, some more substantial. On the more minor side, there are some complaints about the opening credits which play at the start of every mission. These wouldn’t be much of an issue, but they do end up being “spoiler-ific” at times when they reveal that Skull Face or a SKULL unit are going to show up at some point when you wouldn’t have known otherwise. Each mission also has a post-missions credit sequence, but at least this can be easily skipped. The credits are obviously a rather minor issue and I quickly just learned to ignore them as I fiddled with my iDroid and reloaded weapons, but it’s hard to argue that the game wouldn’t have been improved somewhat if they had been removed.

Also worth pointing out is the game’s fast travel system. As the game goes on, traversal becomes a major chore and begins to feel like it’s padding out play time. Enemy bases become a pain in the ass to encounter when you’re trying to get somewhere and it becomes obvious that large stretches of the maps are just empty land. Considering the size of the maps, and the limited travel routes available in Afghanistan in particular, a proper fast travel system should have been implemented to cut down on the hours of point-A-to-point-B busywork which is going to pile up. The game does feature a very basic “mailing” system, but it is barely explained in game and is not particularly helpful – basically, there are obscure delivery points across the map. You must get to each of these points and then steal the point’s shipping manifest. This will allow you to be delivered to that location by hiding in a cardboard box at a delivery point when there are no alerts. As you can probably tell, it’s a cumbersome system that still requires a ton of traversal through empty space to even get it working, and even when it is functioning, it delivers you into the heart of enemy bases… not the ideal place to end up as you can probably tell.

Ideally, the game should have just given you the option to ride your helicopter to different landing zones without having to exit the map every time you climb on board. It already does this when you visit Mother Base, why can’t it do the same in the main maps? This would also disincentivize overuse and over-reliance on fast travel, since calling the helicopter costs GMP.

On the more substantial end of the complaints, the open world means that enemy encounters are far less deliberately designed than in previous games. This is an obvious trade-off, offset only by a few missions which take place within confined areas (such as “Code Talker” or “The War Economy”), but it is worth pointing out. On a similar note, the game’s side-ops have been designed to be plugged into around a dozen particular places on each map. This makes these encounters feel more dynamic, but they almost always play out the same way, with troops and targets located in the same areas. Furthermore, the side-ops’ variety is nowhere near the level it was in Peace Walker. If you want to get 100% completion, get ready to grind through the exact same missions over and over again. Each side-op type has more than a dozen extremely slight variations (eg, “Extract the Highly Skilled Soldier 16”), but even the differences between these side-ops are only marginally different from one another. Even more annoying is the fact that the game will continue to spawn completed side-ops on the map. Sure, you can ignore them when you come across them, but if you’re like me then just entering their area of operations is going to make you feel like you have to complete them, if only for the (reduced) GMP reward.

Speaking of repetitiveness, the game’s second chapter is notorious for making you repeat earlier missions under different circumstances. While it’s a little better than Chapter 5 in Peace Walker, this section of the game feels very tacked-on and is almost certainly a product of Konami’s interference on development. Basically, the game requires you to replay most of the harder missions that you beat earlier in the story, but with different conditions for completion. These are Extreme (more punishing difficulty and no reflex mode), Subsistence (start with no equipment and no reflex mode… I found these missions incredibly frustrating) and Total Stealth (an alert phase results in instant game over – this was basically my existing play style so I didn’t mind this too much). I would have preferred if every mission could be replayed voluntarily with these conditions, but as it is it’s clearly padding to try to distract from the fact that most of chapter two’s actual “story missions” are over glorified side-ops.

Also, the mission “Truth: The Man Who Sold the World” is a particularly egregious offender in this regard and bears extra mention. Billed as a proper story mission with an actual impact on the game’s narrative, this mission is little more than a straight replay of the game’s opening mission with only a small change near the beginning and a slightly shorter ending to differentiate it. Other than that, you’re forced to replay the whole opening hour all over again, but this time with full knowledge of what’s going on. This sequence fails for a number of reasons. First of all, knowing exactly what’s happening robs the scene of the impact and horror which it had the first time you play. Secondly, making its completion a requirement to reach the game’s true ending turns it into a slog and highlights just how on rails this whole segment is. Aside from a couple of short moments, there are almost no changes here from the original opening – hell, even the tutorials have been kept in place, making this section feel incredibly contrived. You think that they could have at least cut down most of this sequence or changed more things to keep it from dragging on and becoming incredibly tedious.

Also, many of the game’s “boss battles” are amongst the absolute worst in the entire franchise. The “Cloaked in Silence” missions (both the original and Extreme versions) are very fun and tense, as are the “Sahelanthropus” encounters (again, both the original and Extreme versions). However, all of the boss battles against the SKULLs are infuriatingly awful (with the sole exception of the sniper SKULLs in the standard version of “Code Talker”). The SKULLs are bullet sponges, requiring hundreds of bullets to take down. If you thought that the mechs in Peace Walker were bad, imagine that, but with 4 of them chasing you around. The armoured variety almost impossible to take down if you didn’t happen to bring a Machine Gun or Sniper Rifle with you. I shudder to imagine how awful it would be to try to defeat them non-lethally. There’s basically no strategy involved in defeating them either – just hold down the trigger and try not to get killed as you fight these annoying bastards for upwards of 10 minutes. Even worse, on Extreme missions, they can one-shot you with ease. This absolutely ruins the sniper battle on “Code Talker”, where you can’t even get a shot off without having 3 other SKULLs instantly kill you (the secret here is to call in a tank to shoot them, but this will take 10-15 minutes of incredibly tedious work to pull off, they still take 8 shots to down and they can still blow up the tank if you don’t play uber-conservatively). The armoured SKULLs on “Metallic Archaea” are even more annoying when you factor in a save glitch in the game which can be triggered by taking Quiet into this battle, especially considering that her anti-material rifle is the easiest way to bring these suckers down. I ended up having to take D-Walker and fired off every last one of my mini-gun shots to take down just 2 of the bastards.

So yeah, bottom line: F–K THE SKULLS WITH A RUSTY PIPE.

Finally, we have Konami’s awful microtransactions which have marred the game since release. First of all is the game’s forward operating base (FOB) system. On the one hand, this is actually a pretty cool opportunity for dynamic multiplayer action. However, its implementation sours the water very quickly. For one thing, playing online instantly slows down your menus consistently every time you open your iDroid (which, if you haven’t played before, is constantly). Thankfully you can disconnect in the pause menu, an option which I took advantage of for nearly my entire playthrough.

On top of this is the whole ploy behind FOBs – MB coins. This is Konami’s microtransaction currency which they generously offer to sell you in up to $80 chunks. With MB coins, players can purchase additional FOBs to gather resources for their bases and to buy cosmetic items in Metal Gear Online. Oh, and to buy freaking FOB insurance, a feature which was patched in a month after release. FREAKING FOB INSURANCE. If “FOB Insurance” doesn’t become the new “horse armour” of this console generation then there is truly no justice in the world. Up until recently I dismissed microtransactions in these sorts of games as a silly cost recouping gimmick which I can easily ignore, but I have decided that they really are a distasteful blight. The whole point of microtransactions is that they are meant to fund free-to-play games. However, when full-priced, AAA games try to get in on this action, it’s breaking this financing strategy. Unless they’re going to compensate by giving us something (such as free, worthwhile DLC), then they’re simply fleecing us for more money.

As you can probably tell though, Konami seems to have created many of the biggest issues in The Phantom Pain. The game just feels unfinished on the whole. While cutting features is a necessity in nearly every game’s development, the corporate restructuring of Konami late in development seems to have caused the company’s leadership to give Kojima a firm deadline to release the game and less support to complete his vision. This likely caused Kojima to heavily compromise and ditch a ton of features that he had been planning on including until this time and is likely the source of the split between Kojima and Konami. Since release, fans have discovered a massive amount of planned content was cut, including 3 new (likely smaller) maps, Snake Eater-style guard dogs and even a whole third chapter. It can also be deduced that Chapter 2 was likely heavily stifled by these cuts as well, with the plot thread about Eli stealing Sahelanthropus being dropped entirely, Kaz suddenly going blind and the game’s ending appearing with no narrative explanation whatsoever. Furthermore, the presence of “The Kingdom of the Flies” on the collector’s edition bonus disc suggests to me that this mission is intended to be canon but was not given the proper time to be included. While Konami may have declared that The Phantom Pain‘s development was not affected by the friction between the company and Kojima, I have an extremely hard time believing this, and the unfinished nature of the final product goes a long way to reinforcing these notions.

I’ll be honest though, most of these complaints are massively outweighed by how well The Phantom Pain plays. All-in-all, the game is an absolute joy to play. The freedom that it gives you to approach situations is unparalleled and the toolbox that it gives you to unleash your imagination is expansive. I had worried that the game’s daunting 30+ hour length would make replaying the game an unattractive idea, especially when compared to the much more reasonably-paced games in the franchise. However, as I’m writing this about a month after I finished the game, I’m already getting hankerings to replay it so this fear seems to have been somewhat allayed.

STORY & CHARACTER ANALYSIS

The Phantom Pain has the opposite problem of Guns of the Patriots: the game emphasizes gameplay to such a degree that it becomes detrimental to the story. Furthermore, the friction during development seems to have only made these issues worse in some ways – as I have said, entire storylines are dropped, whereas others are introduced out of nowhere. That’s not to say that The Phantom Pain has a terrible narrative (it’s still far more thought-provoking than most games out there), it’s just far more fractured than we’re used getting from a Metal Gear game. I also believe that the game places more emphasis on themes rather than telling a straightforward narrative which contributes to its murky reception.

Before I dive into the game’s themes, I have to say that the game’s story is incredibly confusing if you don’t listen to the supplementary audio tapes (and, to be honest, it can still be confusing even with the tapes, particularly in regard to the vocal cord parasites). These tapes generally fulfill the roles which exposition dumps would have in previous Metal Gear games, explaining every concept, the setting and characters’ histories. Considering the time that you have to spend getting from place to place, there should be plenty of opportunity to listen to the tapes, and they do a great job of keeping you interested as they convey fascinating insights into Afghan War history or the  I can’t imagine trying to understand the game’s story without the aid of these tapes; it would be a completely different experience.

The tapes also really flesh out many of the characters. Code Talker in particular is a rather unimportant side-character after he cures the parasite outbreak, but when you listen to the dozens of tapes about his research and motivations, he becomes extremely sympathetic. Hell, he might be my favourite character in the game and that comes down entirely to the numerous recordings he has made explaining his life and the tragedies that have befallen him (plus I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get the way that he says “DA VOKUL CORD PARASYTES” out of my head).

Also, the secret post-game tapes are crucial to understanding the game and assuage some peoples’ complaints about how Guns of the Patriots revealed that Zero was the force behind the Patriots. These tapes give us our first clear glimpse at Zero’s motivations since his very brief cameo in Portable Ops, and bows out the series with a very sympathetic look at arguably the biggest villain in the whole series. Since Guns of the Patriots, Kojima has seemed to be trying to hammer home the idea that there are no true villains in the Metal Gear saga, only flawed individuals with the noblest intentions. Zero’s characterization fits into this idea very well – in creating Cipher, he is attempting to bring about world unity through information control. Unfortunately, Cipher has become quite unwieldy, necessitating the invention of AIs to control his system without having to worry about figures such as Skull Face overthrowing him. His friendly demeanour towards Big Boss also stands in sharp contrast to Kaz and Big Boss’ own murderous, revenge-fueled motivations.

And speaking of revenge, this is the first theme of the game and the one most clearly foreshadowed by Ground Zeroes. Also worth noting are the game’s frequent allusions to Moby Dick. These not-so-subtle references underscore The Phantom Pain‘s analysis of revenge, since Moby Dick‘s Captain Ahab is famous for allowing his desire for revenge consume and destroy him. Revenge is the driving motivation of nearly every character in the game – Kaz and (to a lesser extent) Venom Snake are both principally concerned with exacting revenge on Skull Face for destroying Mother Base 9 years ago, while also reserving a future desire to get back at Zero. Huey Emmerich seeks his own petty vengeance against Diamond Dogs and Cipher. Quiet is torn over whether she should complete her own mission and get revenge on Venom Snake for her immolation. Skull Face’s evil plan is entirely focused around a ploy to exact revenge on the English language for stealing away his mother tongue and for robbing him of his identity. Colonel Volgin’s desire for revenge is so strong that it turns him into a literal demon. Eli’s thirst for vengeance against Big Boss is so strong that he becomes a conduit for Psycho Mantis. Hell, Code Talker even expounds that the vocal cord parasites are, in essence, exacting revenge for their near extinction by ancient humans. So yeah, as you can see, there’s a shitload of revenge-plots at play in The Phantom Pain.

If that were where the exploration ended, then it would be a rather shallow, well-trodden theme for the game to tackle (although Taken comes to mind as a legitimately good example of the shallow side of revenge fantasy). However, The Phantom Pain is more interested in what revenge does to a person. As a general rule, every character who is motivated by revenge either relents or has it destroy them in the end. Kaz goes from a charismatic, likeable leader to a paranoid, cold-hearted, xenophobic bastard who sees insubordination at every corner and loses his friendship with Big Boss as a result. Huey’s bumbling attempts at revenge alienate him from everyone around him and nearly get him killed, turning him from a well-meaning person into a monstrous villain. Skull Face is defeated only because he underestimates his desire for revenge and loses control of Psycho Mantis, causing his plans to literally come crashing down around him. In “The Kingdom of the Flies”, it is also revealed that Eli is nearly killed when he refuses to stand down in the face of Cipher and Venom Snake, surviving only because of the timely intervention of Psycho Mantis.

On the other end of the scale though, Quiet and Venom Snake’s journeys are far different. Quiet is horrifically disfigured by Venom Snake during the hospital escape and is only saved when Skull Face implants her with parasites to be used as a biological weapon to exact her revenge. She initially goes along with this plan, but at some point her perspective changes. Perhaps because Venom Snake spares her life when he had the chance to kill her, she decides not to carry through with her mission, despite still wrestling with desires for vengeance. It is also implied that she starts to develop some feelings towards Venom Snake in spite of their rocky history. In the end, she sacrifices her own life in order to save his in an ultimate display of forgiveness. It’s a rather beautiful demonstration of the hollowness of revenge, while forgiveness leads to redemption.

Venom Snake on the other hand does not seem to be quite so gung-ho about revenge as Kaz. On the one hand, he does want to seek him out, but he does not seem to get a gleeful satisfaction out of it like Kaz. Furthermore, he also seems to be just as motivated by the evils that Skull Face perpetrates (if not more), rather than just seeking to settle his personal vendetta. He also is demonstrably merciful to people who do him wrong, such as Huey Emmerich, Eli and Quiet (although this is player-determinate, depending on how people play, he might end up being a vicious monster outside of cutscenes). This changes in the game’s ending though, when the truth about Big Boss and Venom Snake is revealed. Venom Snake is portrayed here in his demonic form, suggesting that the truth that Big Boss forcibly stole away his own identity drives him to become evil. The parallels between Venom Snake and Skull Face are so clear here that I’m basically convinced that this is supposed to be the intended interpretation of the ending, and it also helps to explain some of the logical gaps that this twist creates. There’s a fantastic essay that you can read here which goes into greater detail which I would recommend reading.

Also, before I move on to the next theme, I must say that this analysis of revenge retroactively makes Metal Gear Rising even more of a red-headed stepchild of the Metal Gear franchise. That game is basically the definition of the shallow revenge fantasy, which puts it greatly at odds with this game’s message that revenge is a desire which destroys people and can literally turn them into a monstrous figure. I know that Rising is intended to be dumb fun, but this just makes it even more of an inconsistent issue within the series canon.

The second, and perhaps most important, theme in the game is the power of words and language, and their place in the formation of identity. Having done studies in communication, language and colonialism, these themes resonated with me quite a bit and might have actually made this particular aspect of the game even more profound for me. Caliban’s famous lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest came rushing back to me many times due to the game’s themes:

“You taught me language, and my profit on’t

Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you

For learning me your language!” (I.ii.366–368)

The power of language is an extremely under-appreciated force, so it’s heartening to see it highlighted in a video game of all places. As a side note, I think that a major reason why the Planet of the Apes remake sucked so bad was because it underestimated the power of language. By having the humans and apes able to communicate with one another from the outset, the entire idea of humans being a subjugated, inferior species just goes out the window, because if the apes didn’t sympathize with them then the humans would just organize and fight back.

The least-subtle example of the power of words in The Phantom Pain is the vocal cord parasites. When they first showed up in the game, I thought that having seemingly supernatural parasites all of a sudden showing up was a ridiculous plot development on par with the overuse of nanomachines in Guns of the Patriots. The existence of weaponized, supernatural parasites would probably be something that would have been useful in subsequent evil plots, but having something so over the top exist for only one entry strains credulity. While they may still be rather ridiculous in a lot of ways, their inclusion actually makes some sense… if you listen to Code Talker’s cassette tapes, that is.

In essence, Code Talker reveals that mankind evolved in symbiosis with a strain of parasites which initiated vocalizations as a mating call. Over time, the influence of the parasites caused early humans to evolve the ability to produce complex speech patterns without requiring the parasites to do this for them. As a result, humans began to use these vocalizations for their own purposes, meaning that the vocal cord parasites were no longer able to make their mating calls, while a retrovirus transcribed the ability to speak right into man’s genes. I believe I have actually heard parasites cited as a possible explanation for what might have caused humans to gain the power of speech, so there seems to be a precedent for this plot development, and one which ties into the game’s themes quite naturally when you look into it. While it’s a rather blunt way to incorporate this theme and the parasites’ abilities can be rather ridiculous, with the contextualization of the audio tapes I actually warmed up to them somewhat (although the more supernatural parasites have to be one of the biggest credibility stretches in the entire franchise).

The two characters who most clearly exemplify this theme are Code Talker and Skull Face (although there are others who tie in a little more loosely). Code Talker is a Navajo (or Diné) biologist who is terrified that his culture is going to be erased. After centuries of American imperialism, the Diné way of life is at risk of going extinct as his people are forced into residential schools, where their culture and language was systematically and insidiously stripped away from them. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, English’s worldwide dominance has put the very existence of smaller languages at considerable risk. Code Talker watches as his peoples’ language is exploited in World War II as a cipher, while the discovery of uranium deposits in Navajo lands causes many Diné to begin mining it to fuel the Cold War – with deadly consequences. These injustices cause Code Talker to delve into his research of parasites, which Skull Face exploits to become ethnic cleansers under threat of wiping out the Diné if he fails to comply. To Code Talker, language arguably the key factor of his peoples’ identity:

“To erase our words was like erasing our people. Their ‘education’ was tantamount to ethnic cleansing. Over time, the overt persecution of our language stopped. But to this day it continues to be eaten away by the lingua franca that is English. Many of the Diné outside the reservations can speak nothing else. It isn’t just our language. Across the world, minority languages are being destroyed by dominant languages. Many are on the verge of extinction.”

Similarly, Skull Face is a living embodiment of the dehumanizing effects that cultural imperialism can have on a person. As a child, his mother tongue was robbed from him by foreign invaders who forced him to adopt their language. During World War II, he was caught in a factory bombing, stripping him of even more of his identity as his body was covered in horrific burns. As he was passed from nation to nation, Skull Face’s languages were in constant flux and he began to understand the under-appreciated powers of language:

“I was born in a small village. I was still a child when we were raided by soldiers. Foreign soldiers. Torn from my elders I was made to speak their language. With each new post, my masters changed, along with the words they made me speak. Words are… peculiar. With each change, I changed too. My thoughts, personality, how I saw right and wrong… War changed me – and not only my visage. Words can kill. I was invaded by words, burrowing and breeding inside me.”

In Skull Face’s view, Code Talker’s discovery and development of vocal cord parasites presented him with the perfect vector by which to extract his revenge. Skull Face seems to have a very skewed take on “The Boss’s will”, emphasizing her desire to “let the world be”. However, in order to do so, he believes that the answer is through chaos rather than control. English will have to be eradicated because of the homogenizing threat it poses to cultures the world over, and also conveniently helps him to get back at another target of his vengeance (conversely, Zero’s plan is to use English to unite the world as part of his conflicting interpretation of The Boss’s will).

On the other hand though, Quiet is basically a living counterpoint to this theme. By choosing to remain silent, she cannot construct her identity through speech. Her actions are the only things which “speak” for her, and so people project their own prejudices onto her. Kaz in particular wants her dead when he discovers that her abilities are the same as the SKULLs, whereas Venom Snake and Ocelot are simply cautious, interpreting her actions as an attempt to help them.

It must be said though that this theme links back to Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Liberty really well, since those games are all about “genes” and “memes” – the role of fate and identity in the formation of an individual. I imagine that Kojima intentionally added this little bit of connective tissue to link The Phantom Pain to the subsequent Metal Gear games, although it would have been nice if it had been set up even a little bit in Ground Zeroes.

This brings us to the game’s third main theme, the titular “phantom pain” sensation which manifests itself at various points in the narrative and within the player. The game contains many references to phantom pain, almost all based around Venom Snake. The most overt example is Venom Snake’s amputated arm, which he states actually is experiencing the titular sensation. There are other, more subtle examples throughout the story though. One particularly affecting example is during the mission “Shining Lights, Even in Death”. After being forced to kill many of his comrades to prevent a mutated strain of the vocal cord parasites from being unleashed, Venom Snake finds himself unable to part himself from his fallen comrades, the men who died at his own hands:

“I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea. I will always be with you; plant your roots in me. I won’t see you end as ashes. You’re all diamonds…”

Instead of giving them a burial at sea, Venom Snake turns their ashes into diamonds to give his men a visual reminder of the dead. In essence, the soldiers of Diamond Dogs have become an extension of Big Boss himself, and he cannot simply give them a funeral and then move on. To me, this scene seems to represent Snake’s attempts to reclaim a small part of the men who he has lost. The ending can also be seen as a an attempt to show that Venom Snake is going to be swallowed up in the identity of Big Boss when he dies, meaning that no one is going to even know he existed and will just attribute his actions to someone else.

A similar scenario plays out in the secret Paz storyline if you discover a hidden room on the medical platform. Inside this room, Venom Snake discovers Paz who suspiciously survived the seemingly fatal explosion in Ground Zeroes. However, as the player progresses through this storyline, it becomes increasingly clearer that this is not the real Paz, but only a figment of Snake’s imagination – a phantom from the past. At the culmination of this storyline, we come to realize that this is a visualization of Snake trying to come to grips with her death, especially since he only remembers her as the innocent child she had been portraying herself as throughout most of Peace Walker. While it may seem like a bit of a stretch to call this “phantom pain”, you must also remember that Venom Snake is not the real Big Boss, but rather the medic on the chopper who extracted the bomb from her stomach in the first place. He feels so much guilt for failing to save his patient and for indirectly causing the deaths of many of those around him that it penetrates the hypnotically-induced mind wipe that he has undergone to turn him into Big Boss. This guilt is a lingering phantom pain of a life and an identity which has been lost, and is a crack in his otherwise complete facade.

Finally, we come to elements of “phantom pain” which have been injected into the gameplay by Kojima. The most obvious and affecting example is the culmination of Quiet’s storyline. Following “A Quiet Exit”, Quiet is no longer able to be taken as a buddy (until the November 2015 patch, which will allow her to be recruited again when you complete “Cloaked in Silence” 7 times). Considering how useful (and arguably overpowered) she is, this can make some missions much harder and you find yourself missing Quiet constantly. I’d catch myself heading into “Sahelanthropus (Extreme)” and “Code Talker (Extreme)”, two missions where Quiet’s really the best buddy to take, and then catching myself in the thought. It’s a rather sombre moment every time it comes up. For my money, this is easily the most effective use of phantom pain in the game, and one which I encourage players to actually go through with – there are far too many people complaining about this decision, but as an artistic choice I find that it works quite well, even if it stings constantly.

Aside from Quiet’s ending, there are other gameplay and narrative elements which more dubiously tie into the idea of phantom pain. I believe that Kojima himself has said that he intentionally omitted a boss battle with Skull Face because he wanted the player to feel a lack of catharsis for having his defeat snatched away. This disappointment has caused some people to say that Skull Face was an awful villain, although I would have to disagree. He is quite charismatic and imposing and drives the player’s actions forward – we just don’t get to off him ourselves, and that seems to rub some people the wrong way. However, between such intentionally-subversive narrative elements and the clearly unfinished state of the game, it becomes an exercise in futility to try to figure out what was meant to cause “phantom pain” and what wasn’t. Many people have pointed out their dissatisfaction with the game’s ending, especially the lack of conclusion for Eli’s storyline, is just Kojima trolling us through the titular phantom pain. I personally don’t think that this was the intended case though – by digging through the game’s files, the community has found that quite a few elements, including a whole additional chapter, were dropped from the final product. If anything, I believe that Kojima had a conclusion planned, but when he discovered that he wasn’t going to get to implement it, he might have compensated and just decided to leave what they had open to this interpretation while he struggled to get the crucial elements finished in time for launch (such as “Truth: The Man Who Sold the World”, which would explain why this mission/revelation suddenly happens with no narrative explanation to kick it off – I imagine that it would have been precipitated by some event in Chapter 3 that never came about).

Moving on to some character notes, you just know that I have to speak about Quiet. Way back when she was first revealed I had some choice words about her character design, but I did refrain from jumping to conclusions since it sounded like Kojima had some sort of good justification for it. However, as you are probably aware, the justification is a ridiculously paper-thin excuse to make Quiet be as close to naked as possible, as often as possible (in short, she breathes through her skin so she can’t wear clothes or she’ll suffocate!). Making it worse, basically every time she’s on screen, Kojima subjects Quiet to a really perverted camera which focuses all its attention on her tits and ass as she waves her ass your face or her tits jiggle like a plate of Jell-o. It’s fan service at the very lowest of the lowest common denominator, and it just makes me embarrassed whenever she appears on screen… and that’s too bad, because she really is a cool character. She is a fantastic buddy to take on missions and you actually start to develop a legitimate bond with her as she saves your ass for the hundredth time or when she endearingly plays in the rain with a hesitant Snake (a rather cute and otherwise innocent scene which the camera tries its best to turn into a porno). The end of her storyline is also very poignant and I found myself very affected by her sacrifice. It’s just… that character design. Holy shit does it ever make it difficult to take her seriously in any way.

Having played through the game, I do think I understand the actual logic behind her design, but it’s not a pretty explanation. Since we know that Quiet will heroically sacrifice herself for Venom Snake, and that the player is intended to build a strong bond with her so that this sacrifice and its subsequent lingering pain will resonate, it is obvious that Kojima wanted to ensure that players would really like Quiet. However, instead of trusting in strong characterization and useful action, I believe that he decided to piss all over subtlety and took the most juvenile, lowest common denominator approach and just made sure that the player would lust like hell after her to form an attachment. I mean, in a sense it does kind of work, Stephanie Joosten is an undeniably gorgeous woman after all… but c’mon. It’s off-putting and kind of insulting to the player’s intelligence, and it becomes nearly impossible to take her character seriously due to her awful design.

Personally, I far preferred Quiet’s XOF Uniform once I unlocked it. While its existence instantly throws the “she’ll suffocate!!!” explanation into the wind, it simply is so much more sensible than her default outfit that it’s not even funny. It actually looks like a uniform that a soldier would wear and just fits her character so much better. I was actually worried that it might look a little too bland at first, but after a couple missions it had really grown on me and it made me lament her default costume even more (although now I could actually play the game when there were others around, so bonus). Hell, this might sound odd, but I wasn’t bothered at all by the cleavage-bearing Sniper Wolf costume that you can unlock by beating “Cloaked in Silence (Extreme)”. I’m not even sure exactly why either… Does her default outfit make Sniper Wolf look tasteful by comparison? Or perhaps I appreciate it when even a touch of subtlety is employed rather than pornographic fan service? Or maybe Sniper Wolf just has a better character design in general, striking a nice balance between a serious uniform a soldier might wear, while making it just cheesy enough that it has a sort of comic book sense of style? I’m not really sure, but I imagine the answer is somewhere between all three of these suggestions.**

Huey Emmerich also deserves a special mention for his role in The Phantom Pain. While there were some subtle hints in Ground Zeroes that he was responsible for the attack on Mother Base, it is not until The Phantom Pain that Huey is turned into a full-blown monster. This is a jarring change from his status in Peace Walker to say the least. On the one hand, I really did not like how his relationship with Big Boss paralleled Solid Snake’s relationship with Otacon so closely in Peace Walker, as it began to strain credulity (and before someone points it out, I don’t care if Metal Gear‘s a ridiculous series; there’s a difference between elements of magical realism and in having two generations of characters meeting up under the same circumstances out of sheer coincidence with absolutely no guiding force bringing this about). With that in mind, I significantly prefer Huey’s portrayal here as a lying, cowardly, spiteful individual as it allows him to create his own unique mark on the franchise’s story, but the justification for it is almost non-existent. The only real hints at these developments in Peace Walker that I could find are that he seems to blame his father’s genes for every misfortune that befalls him (showing a lack of responsibility) and that he believes wholeheartedly in deterrence (peace through force of arms), but even these traits are subverted through other actions that Huey makes throughout that game’s story (he feels strong remorse for his development of Peace Walker and doesn’t actually want to see any nuclear weapons be used, respectively).

With Peace Walker taken into consideration, Huey’s portrayal is problematic for a number of reasons, which is especially odd since The Phantom Pain is supposed to be a direct sequel to that game. The explanation for Huey’s complete change of character is left conspicuously ambiguous, which makes it difficult to understand some of the evil things he does. At least in Kaz’s case, losing Mother Base and his arm and leg are enough to understand if the guy goes over the edge. The only way I can rationalize this turn is to assume that, when Huey joined MSF, he believed that he would no longer be exploited to create machines of war. However, after Kaz acquired the nuke from Peace Walker and equipped it to Metal Gear ZEKE, Huey slowly realized that he was being used once again. As a result, he collaborated with XOF forces to bring down MSF, although this ended up being more deadly than he had expected. As a result, he is captured by Skull Face and forced to work on Sahelanthropus, pushing Huey over the edge and causing him to become a paranoid, distrustful coward who assumes that everyone is trying to exploit his talents for their own gains (which, when considering the threats and torture he endures, and that Diamond Dogs force him to work on D-Walker and Battle Gear, might not be too much of a stretch to imagine). Perhaps most difficult to justify though is his cold-blooded murder of Strangelove, who he was clearly head-over-heels in love with in Peace Walker. Obviously these feelings could have cooled somewhat in the time after she gave birth to his son, especially since (as she elaborates in her dying confessions) she did not reciprocate any love for him and simply used him as a willing sperm donor. In any case though, locking her in an AI pod to suffocate seems like a major overreaction to the fact that she secretly sent their son away to keep him from being used as a test pilot for Sahelanthropus. The only thing I can possibly infer here is that the choice of “murder weapon” is interesting – it is never directly stated, or even really implied, but perhaps Huey realized that she loved The Boss and not him, and so he left her to die with her symbolic lover in the Mammal Pod. It’s too bad that there’s not more justification given for Huey’s actions though. I think my speculations are sufficient to explain his actions, but they’re little more than my own personal theories filling in some rather large narrative gaps, since the game doesn’t deign itself to even bother giving an explanation.

Moving on to a few other notes about the story, I think I personally would have preferred a more “retro” style design for Sahelanthropus. As it is, it’s clearly the most powerful Metal Gear ever built, despite being smack dab in the middle of the series continuity and clearly intended to be the basis for Metal Gear REX. It’s the usual sort of irritating technological inconsistency that springs up in prequels all the time, like how the galaxy of The Phantom Menace is so much more technologically developed than that of A New Hope. The iDroid is a similar sort of anachronism, but at least in its case it is a rather minor issue which can be ignored, and it’s not like there’s a progression of iDroids in the series, with this one suddenly being the most advanced despite being in the middle of the continuity.

Also worth noting is that The Phantom Pain ditches most of the series’ signature instances of silly humour. While we get the glorious “Hamburgers of Kazuhira Miller” cassette tapes and a few humourous weapons and items (such as the surprisingly useful Water Pistol or the amazing Decoys), the game’s story is a very straight-faced affair… even when it is introducing parasites which coat the skin in carapace or when there’s a bikini-clad sniper shooting jets from the sky with her rifle. Obviously the series’ stranger elements clash with this tonal shift quite a bit, although the quirky elements remains charming enough that it still manages to hold together. The serious tone makes some of the nastier moments in the game resonate quite well, particularly “Shining Lights, Even in Death”… but considering that there are still so many over the top plot elements in place, it can still be difficult for some people to accept the narrative dissonance on display.

As for the game’s narrative on the whole, it basically boils down to filling in a few of the blanks in the series continuity. In very general terms, The Phantom Pain tells the story of why Zero puts his faith in AIs to create the Patriots network, why Kaz turns on Big Boss by the time Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake rolls around, where Big Boss acquired his “legendary mercenary” reputation and how Big Boss managed to create two military nations and “survive” being “killed” by Solid Snake in Metal Gear. Contrary to the marketing and popular belief, The Phantom Pain is NOT about Big Boss’ descent into villainy – it should have been pretty clear in Guns of the Patriots that Big Boss was never a straight up mega-maniacal monster. All of his “villainous” actions in Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake were insurrections against the Patriots. Yes, he did some shady shit to get there, but his intentions were always understandable.

As for the game’s controversial ending, I’m a bit torn. First of all, having to replay the entire opening again dampened by enthusiasm for it significantly. Secondly, I think that the big reveal made for a pretty clever twist, not quite on par with the Raiden switcheroo, but close. However, the twist leaves far more questions than answers in the end and muddies the chronology significantly between this game and Metal Gear since there’s little info given for why the Big Bosses would turn on one another (although the essay I linked to in the revenge segment is, I would argue, a strong contender for the intended interpretation). It is also problematic since Big Boss clearly doesn’t want you to succeed in Metal Gear, so we’re left with two options. Either Big Boss was putting on an act in Metal Gear and wanted Solid Snake to actually kill Venom Snake for him, or Big Boss and Venom Snake were still working together and they really didn’t expect Solid Snake to get as far as he did. Neither option is airtight, although I think that the betrayal idea fits best with the overarching series storyline.

I’ve gone through almost 5500 words now delving into themes and character analyses in some detail without really getting to the heart of my feelings on The Phantom Pain‘s story… which will honestly take a small fraction of the time and space. Ultimately, the narrative of The Phantom Pain leaves a lot to be desired, being one of the weakest entries in the entire series in this regard. Perhaps it is because of the open world structure, or because the game is so clearly unfinished, but the events don’t really cohere particularly well in the end. There are definitely standout moments within the story, but on the whole, most of the missions don’t seem to be building up towards anything and simply feel like busywork. The lack of payoff in the end hurts matters even more, because why should we give a shit about all the stuff with Eli if he just pisses off into the sunset with Sahelanthropus and is never heard from again (outside of the collector’s edition DVD of course)? Then there’s the rather ridiculous elements revolving around the parasite soldiers which, again, remind me a bit too much of The Phantom Menace.

That said though, if you can untangle the twist and throw in “The Kingdom of the Flies” then The Phantom Pain acts as a pretty great mid-point for the franchise’s narrative. The pieces are set for all of big showdowns which will occur from here on out as the relationships between Ocelot, Big Boss, Venom Snake, Kaz, Liquid Snake, Solid Snake and the Patriots all begin to simmer towards a boiling point. As a middle chapter, that’s probably a good place to get the series to, but it’s just too bad that it had to be so messy on the way.

All-in-all though, simply due to its stellar gameplay Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain could easily be considered the best Metal Gear game. Its gameplay is incredibly fun and ambitious. However, while its themes are very interesting (if not particularly deep or subtle at times), its actual narrative leaves quite a bit to be desired, putting it well behind Snake Eater in that regard. It will be interesting to see how the reception for The Phantom Pain evolves over the years and whether it cools off or becomes stronger as people get over the initial sting of missing content and the twist. If Konami releases new story DLC, then this could also have a major bearing on the game, since “The Kingdom of the Flies” alone would make the game feel significantly more complete. As it is, it’s an amazing game, but one can’t help but wonder what it would have looked like if Kojima had gotten the opportunity to get it into a reasonably finished state…

9.5/10

*Much to Ground Zeroes‘ detriment, I might add. It would be awesome if they could retroactively unlock the gadgets and options from The Phantom Pain in Ground Zeroes to shake up that game somewhat and make it a little more open. As it is, Ground Zeroes is going to feel incredibly limiting now that we have seen what The Phantom Pain has to offer. As an interesting note, prior to release, Kojima had said that he’d allow us to explore Camp Omega again in The Phantom Pain, but this feature ended up being cut… surely due to the strained development period and time constraints.
**Also worth pointing out is one of the excuses given for Quiet’s attire: “well EVA was wearing even less during Snake Eater and no one gave a shit!” This is a very weak argument on many levels. For one thing, I have always found EVA’s costume to be ridiculous as well, but at least in her case she’s actually trying to be seductive and the game is trying to recall cheesy 60s spy flicks so it has some narrative justification. Secondly, when the game was first released on the PS2 in 2004, game journalism was far less developed than it is now. Back then, it mainly consisted of previews and reviews, with maybe some interviews and commentary. However, in the current climate, video games are taken far more seriously, so commentary on the content of a game is far more common and, in all honesty, this is a very good development. Even then, I doubt games journalists of today would bat an eye at EVA’s attire, but I can fully understand the hullabaloo that Quiet has caused.

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Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid V – Ground Zeroes (2014)

Welcome back to the Metal Gear retrospective! In this entry we’re going to cover the 10th game in the franchise, 2014’s prologue, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes! I actually wrote a review for this game back when it first came out, but in… er… retrospect it was more of a justification for the game’s length rather than a real review. As a result, I’m going to make sure to cover more info on the game itself. How does it hold up now that the price has dropped significantly and with the game being given out for free on a couple different occasions now? Read on to find out…

(For the sake of this review, I used the PS4 version as my benchmark. I can’t comment on the PS3/Xbox 360 versions.)

DEVELOPMENT
Even prior to the release of Peace Walker, Kojima teased the idea of Metal Gear Solid V. His team was busy developing a new game engine which would become known as the Fox Engine. The freedom of the Fox Engine would allow for a fully open world Metal Gear game, a notion which Kojima had been attempting to achieve since Snake Eater. With work on the Fox Engine wrapping up and the next generation of consoles approaching, the decision was made to make Ground Zeroes a cross-generational game.

Prior to the game’s official announcement, Kojima went on record saying that his next game would deal with delicate, even taboo, issues which might not make the final cut in the game or which might be so shocking as to negatively impact the game’s sales. Ground Zeroes was finally revealed in the summer of 2012 through a Japanese trailer which consisted of the game’s opening cutscene. This was also the venue where Kojima announced that the game would be running within an open world setting, emphasizing player freedom to approach their objectives. It would also be available on a very wide release, with the PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC all being able to play the game.

Some confusion began to grow as the game’s development continued. A trailer for a game called The Phantom Pain by “Moby Dick Studios” was quickly deciphered to be another Metal Gear game in simultaneous development. After some speculation, it was officially announced that The Phantom Pain was a part of Metal Gear Solid V, causing people to believe that this game and Ground Zeroes were going to be a single game. However, it was later clarified that they would be 2 separate games, with Ground Zeroes serving as a smaller prologue.

The game then began to encounter some major controversy. The long-time English voice actor for the Solid Snake and Big Boss, David Hayter, was replaced by Kiefer Sutherland. Fans bristled at this revelation and threatened to boycott the game, to no avail. Fans also complained about the game’s addition of “reflex mode”, which allows for a chance to eliminate guards after being spotted without setting off an alert, and a fast-regenerating health mechanic, both of which were seen as making Metal Gear too “casual”.

During the game’s initial release, the PlayStation versions received the “Déjà Vu” mission as a console-exclusive mission, whereas Xbox versions received the “Jamais Vu” mission. These two missions were timed console exclusives, which were unlocked for free for both consoles a few weeks after release. Naturally, the announcement about console-specific missions riled up some fans as well.

Probably the biggest source of controversy around the game though arose from Game Informer‘s Metal Gear Solid V cover story. In their commentary, they stated that the game was comparable to the Sons of Liberty demo, but paid for separately. Furthermore, they commented that they had completed the main mission in 2 hours, but some testers had run it in only 5 minutes. These comments caused fans to react extremely negatively, with people claiming that Konami expected them to drop $30-$40 for a demo with only 5 minutes of gameplay. These complaints were fresh in the public’s minds when the game finally released in March of 2014 (although the PC version would not be released until December).

PLOT SUMMARY
In the aftermath of Peace Walker, the UN has requested to inspect Mother Base for the presence of any nuclear materials. MSF initially turned the request down, but Huey took it upon himself to reverse the decision to try to make MSF appear to be a beacon of peace. As a result, Big Boss and Kaz prepare for the inspection by hiding ZEKE and their nuclear warhead, and evacuating civilians and heavy equipment offshore.

However, as they prepare for the inspection, Miller discovers that Paz survived her encounter with Big Boss. She has been captured by Cipher for interrogation and is now stationed in Camp Omega in Cuba. Hoping to rescue her, Chico sneaks into the enemy base, but is captured in the attempt. The Intel team attempts to discover Chico’s location, but after some time a cassette tape is received which contains a distress call from Chico. Big Boss and Miller suspect that the request is a trap, but with the inspection bearing down on them and the sensitive knowledge held by Chico and Paz, they have no choice but to attempt a rescue.

As Big Boss infiltrates into Camp Omega, Skullface, the leader of the Cipher special forces unit XOF, departs by helicopter and then heads out to sea to perform the UN “inspection”. Big Boss witnesses the helicopter convoy heading out and then moves to retrieve the prisoners. Making his way through the base, Big Boss locates Chico and then takes him to the shoreline for extraction via helicopter. Chico laments that Paz is already dead, giving Big Boss a cassette tape of her being tortured. Undeterred, Big Boss heads back into Camp Omega to locate Paz. He finds her in the basement of the Admin building, chained up in the boiler room. He sneaks her back out to the extraction site and then heads back towards Mother Base with the two rescued prisoners. However, on the way back, Chico discovers that Paz’s gut has been stitched up. Big Boss realizes that she has been rigged with a bomb and orders a medic to come inspect her. After a painful surgery without anesthetic, the bomb is extracted and thrown into the ocean.

Contact is soon lost with Mother Base though. When they arrive, they see that the base is on fire and that many of the struts have collapsed. The helicopter lands on one intact strut, which allows Big Boss to save Miller and a couple other soldiers before evacuating. Miller blames Paz for the destruction of MSF, but she stands up and reveals that there is a second bomb before jumping out of the helicopter and exploding. Despite her sacrifice, the blast radius knocks the helicopter out of control and sends it careening into the path of an XOF helicopter, causing the two aircraft to crash and putting Big Boss into a coma…

GAMEPLAY & DESIGN
First off, I have to say that in a lot of ways it is fair to call Ground Zeroes a paid-demo, as it really is a stripped-down tech demonstration for the game’s main act. That said, it does have quite a bit of content to experience which helps to justify its stand-alone price point. For one thing, there are 7 different missions in this game which can all be replayed and experienced in a number of different ways. The main “Ground Zeroes” mission alone should easily take up 1.5 to 2 hours to beat on a first playthrough. In addition, unlike many open world games, all of the side-ops are well worth trying out. They all have their own interesting little stories and fairly unique objectives which make them both fun and challenging. For my own part, I have probably sunk at least 8+ hours into this game.

Of course, the “Ground Zeroes” mission is where most of the gameplay lies, and it is thankfully very fun. It is reasonably lengthy and offers a ton of player freedom. While you’re supposed to rescue Chico first, you can actually choose to go for the more difficult approach and rescue Paz first, which adds a whole new angle of challenge and difficulty to the mission. The other side-ops change up the gameplay quite a bit, tasking you with eliminating targets, retrieving intel or even killing body-snatchers.

In terms of mechanics, Ground Zeroes plays similarly to Guns of the Patriots in many ways. The radar and all associated systems have been completely eliminated, meaning that reconnaissance and situational awareness are now crucial to stealthy gameplay. The controversial reflex mode is a major boon in this department – with most of your aids now excised, having that last ditch effort to land a headshot is extremely helpful, without feeling absolutely broken either. Of course, if you’re just too damn “hardcore” for this pansy-ass bullshit, then you can just turn it off. And then eat some nails, presumably.

If you do get stuck in a straight-up gunfight, Ground Zeroes‘ combat is extremely refined. Gunplay is very fun and smooth, not featuring any of the stuttering which was common in Guns of the Patriots. Enemies’ animations when they get hit are notable for how surprisingly good they are, with shots to various parts of the body staggering them in that direction. CQC has also seen another makeover, with standard combat chains actually being a viable option, rather than having to rely on chokeholds and hold-ups to get anything done. You can also steal enemy vehicles, such as a jeep, truck or LAV (which has always proven extremely useful to me when extracting Paz).

Despite the game’s philosophy of providing player freedom, there are some annoying design decisions which go against this idea. Probably most importantly, the lack of ability to customize your loadout is a major problem which hurts replayability. Sure, you get some bonus weapons at the start of the mission when you replay it, but they’re very limited in variety. There’s also just a lack of meaningful weapon variety in general, with nearly everything being procure-on-site. The game also locks its 2 bonus side-ops, “Déjà Vu” and “Jamais Vu”, behind a collectible hunt. This is rather annoying because this locks off a good 30+ minutes of content (for just a single playthrough) which most players aren’t going to bother to unlock. It also doesn’t hurt that “Jamais Vu” is arguably the funnest side-op in the whole game.

STORY & CHARACTER ANALYSIS
Like most Metal Gear games, Ground Zeroes opens up with a very impressive cutscene which shows off a Alfonso Cuarón-style continuous tracking shot which shows the player around Camp Omega. Here we are introduced to all of the key players, including the enigmatic villain of the game, Skull Face. Most of the story is told in a rather simple, straightforward manner, but the story itself is fairly compelling. A lot of supplementary information related to backstory is sectioned off in the game’s optional and collectible cassette tapes (including all of Paz’s secret tapes from Peace Walker). While it will take you over an hour to listen to all of the tapes, I would definitely recommend that you do so, as they fill out the whole political situation surrounding the game’s story very well, lend it additional gravitas and show the various characters’ motivations. The interrogation cassettes are also rather important as they flesh out Skull Face’s character, especially considering that he is basically a shadowy figure off-screen for the whole game.

Of course, there is one very lengthy and difficult-to-listen-to cassette tape which details the torture inflicted upon Chico and Paz, which features Paz being gang raped by the soldiers, having Chico be forced to rape Paz (with Skull Face twisting it into a sick reward for the boy, who you must remember had a crush on her) and having Skull Face be heavily implied to insert a bomb into Paz’s vagina. The amount of suffering that she endures is unimaginably awful, and the fact that this sequence is an unlockable “reward” caused a fairly big controversy. Claims that depictions of sexual violence were being used as a “reward” for the player were rather overblown, as I’m sure that most players will concede that these are hardly a “reward” at all, but rather plot explanation. You could definitely argue about the necessity of such depictions, but this was one controversial aspect of the game which I think was overblown from people who didn’t actually play the game.

It’s also worth realizing that all of the torture inflicted on Paz ties into this game’s main theme, which revolves around the ethically bankrupt actions carried out by governments. Camp Omega is clearly intended to be a representation of Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and the tortures inflicted on the characters are meant to be a commentary on the moral shadiness of American anti-terrorism methods. The game compounds this idea with its theme song, “Here’s to You” (which was previously used in Guns of the Patriots‘ closing credits). The song is about a pair of anarchists who were executed by the American government in the 1920s, who are believed to have been executed for their political beliefs rather than any actual actions the pair might have committed. The song plays at a few key moments throughout the game, particularly during the opening and when Paz is being tortured by Skull Face.

With these themes in mind, I don’t believe that this game is truly about Big Boss, as it may seem to be at first glance. In my opinion, this game is all about Paz. She is the one invoked by “Here’s to You”, the martyr who is killed by the government, and the only character who has a real arc in the game. In her own audio tapes at the end of Peace Walker she reveals a conflicted desire to turn on Cipher and live as a true student of peace, but those dreams were lost. She also revealed a dislike of Chico, but when the two of them are being tortured she seems to warm up to him a lot. She even comforts him throughout their torture, even when he is forced to rape her and even though she is receiving the brunt of their depravity. She also refuses to break throughout the interrogations until Skull Face presents her with an offer – Big Boss’s life for Zero’s location. Betrayed by her own organization and perhaps looking to redeem herself for her previous actions, Paz sacrifices her own life to help ensure Big Boss’s survival. This is further demonstrated by her willingness to throw herself out of the helicopter at the end when she realizes that they didn’t find the second bomb planted on her. All of the suffering she is inflicted with makes Paz seem like something of a Christ-figure in this game. It’s easy to miss all of these plot points though if you don’t dive into the game’s audio tapes. Without them, this is a simple story about how Big Boss rescues a couple of targets. With them, this is a story about Paz’s struggles, her choices, her strength in the face of evil, and her defiance until the end.

Ground Zeroes suffers a bit as a prologue though. If the purpose of a prologue is to set up the events which unfold in the greater story, then Ground Zeroes is rather inadequate. Judged from this game alone, you’d think that The Phantom Pain would be primarily concerned with the dark side of nationalism/government control, but those plot points are never raised again. The only way that the two are really connected in a meaningful way is that it sets up Big Boss’s desire for revenge, but if you want a really tight narrative (especially in a two-part release) then you should at least try to work in the other themes in the game, rather than just the simple motivations. This is, of course, not entirely this game’s fault, but it is a strange point which makes some of the more fantastical elements of The Phantom Pain more awkward, especially after the extreme seriousness of Ground Zeroes.

All-in-all, Ground Zeroes is a very fun, but limited game. Questions of the length and value of the game persist long after its release. It is definitely a fun experience, but it really does feel like a rather large demo when all is said and done. Luckily, it is also quite cheap to acquire these days, making questions of value less of a deal-breaker for more people. For my own part, I’d recommend checking it out before jumping on board with The Phantom Pain, but be sure to experience the main story and the side-ops for maximum enjoyment.

7.5/10
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