250px-planescape-torment-box[Last week Beamdog released an enhanced edition of Planescape: Torment for modern desktops and tablets. In honor of this occasion (and hopefully to drive more people to play it) I decided to post a full-length review of the game, which I’ve somehow never done despite going on about my love for it all these years. Be warned: some spoilers ahead!]

What always strikes me first about Planescape: Torment every time I start a new game is how weird it is.  Your character –called “the Nameless One”–wakes up in a mortuary, apparently as an amnesiac zombie, and is greeted by a floating skull who proceeds to read a message written on the Nameless One’s back.

And that’s just the opening few minutes of what’s at least a 20- to 30-hour game.  It doesn’t get less weird after that.  You meet a whole host of bizarre characters: a chaste succubus, a living suit of armor, a man who is eternally on fire, a living cube with crossbows… the list goes on.  And that doesn’t even address the weird setting–an indescribable world of twisting labyrinths and cities that shift both in physical space and across different planes of reality.

All in all, it’s a strange and disturbing universe that the Nameless One must traverse in order to complete his quest.

And yet, for all the outré creatures and situations you encounter, it always remains possible to relate, even if it’s only in some twisted way, to the humanity of the characters. That is the first piece of genius that points to the heart of Torment’s brilliance: though it is surreal, it is also real on an emotional level–more real, in fact, than many other games that strive for super-realistic graphics and gameplay.

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Gameplay screenshot via Planescape.com

There is a heart to Torment‘s characters, and a logic to its locales and events, because they are all connected by a unifying theme: their relationship to the Nameless One, and how his actions impact all of this is the thread that weaves all these fantastical elements together into a coherent whole.

The fundamental feature of all video games is interactivity.  What differentiates games from other art forms is that the intended audience is meant to actively engage with the game.  It is not merely a passive experience, but one in which the audience is meant to take some action which in turn advances them towards a goal.

In games with narrative–what we might call “dramatic games”–the player’s actions are supposed to advance the story.  By performing an action, the player sees what happens next.  In more sophisticated games, the player has some choice of what actions to perform, and these affect the course of the larger story.

The full potential of this storytelling style is seldom realized in most dramatic games. Generally, most stick with the tried-and-true formula of the player advancing a straightforward narrative by performing a set of actions. But in Torment, the concept of interactivity is wedded to the story of the game itself.

One of the central themes in Torment is the idea of “consensus reality”–the idea that by agreeing to believe in something, it becomes effectively “real”. This is also tied to the game’s famous recurring line: “What can change the Nature of a Man?” (In some endings, the Nameless One can argue that “whatever you believe can change the nature of a man, can.”)

With its relativistic approach to “reality” (that is, the reality of the game world) Torment acknowledges a little-noted but integral truth of gaming: that the game-reality is subject to the manipulations of the player.  In other words, since the player is interacting with the rest of a pre-programmed world, it is ultimately their “reality”, to shape as they see fit.

This is technically true of any game. When you play anything, from Pong to Minecraft to Fallout 4, you are interacting with a virtual world and manipulating it according to your desires.  The difference is that Torment is implicitly aware of this, and it makes the player character’s relationship to the world mimic that of the player themselves.

It is this subtle, critical point that makes Torment an all-time classic that’s still being played nearly 20 years since its release.

Nearly everything that happens in the story, and every character who appears in the game, either has previously been or currently is affected by the Nameless One’s actions. The entire game-world is (or can become) a reflection of the Nameless One’s character, either in his current life or in previous ones.

The architect Louis Sullivan famously wrote that “form ever follows function.” He meant this not merely as an architectural philosophy, but as a wide-ranging principle of design.

I’d argue that good design in narrative isn’t so much a matter of form “following” function, but simply form and function being in harmony.  In drama, you might decide the “form” (the medium/genre in which you will tell your story) before the “function” (the content/theme of your story), but they had better work well together.  That’s why it’s tough to write an action movie that glorifies pacifism, for example.

In Torment, form and function complement one another perfectly: the gameplay involves the player making decisions that alter the world, and the story is about how the Nameless One’s decisions alter the world.

Of course, Torment’s story and dialogue are brilliant on their own merits, and even in another form (it was adapted into a book, after all), the writing hits all the right notes: witty, moving, disturbing, clever and deeply philosophical.

But what makes the lines so powerful, and the intensely introspective storyline so memorable, is the fact that the player is able to make the game their own through their choices.  The player and the player character effectively merge, in a way that transcends (I used that word deliberately) the usual emotional distance between player and avatar.

It’s a difficult in any game to get players to really connect with the characters or the setting.  They intellectually know it’s all just pixels drawn by a bunch of zeroes and ones. And besides, how much can in-game choices “matter”, if you can just reload and try again if it doesn’t work out?

What’s truly amazing is that Torment should theoretically be less accessible than the average game. The strange setting and characters, forbiddingly odd even by fantasy standards, adds another barrier to the player’s ability to relate to it.

And then there’s the fact that the player character’s “death” means even less than in typical games.  He’s immortal; so it doesn’t matter if he gets killed in a fight; he just wakes up again afterwards.  In theory, this should make every conflict less emotionally-charged than it otherwise would be.

The designers stacked the deck against themselves, and then overcame the odds to deliver one of the most emotionally compelling games of all time. And so Torment‘s weirdness is not a flaw, but a strength–it adds to its unique flavor.

Throughout this review, I’ve said relatively little about the specifics of the game itself. That’s because the game defies description–and I think that’s because it’s like a mosaic: I can’t explain why it’s beautiful by showing just one tile–you have to see the interconnected nature of the whole thing to understand it. The best I can do is describe the sense I got from looking at it.

If you like dramatic, narrative-driven video games and you like to think, give Planescape: Torment a try.  You’ll never forget it.

ghost poster1. Plot Summary

Ghost in the Shell is set “in the near future” according to the opening title card, in a world in which people are cybernetically enhanced. It opens with a young woman named Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) waking up inside of a life-like mechanical body.  The doctor who performed the operation tells her that she is the survivor of a terrorist attack, and that her body was destroyed but her brain was saved–the first such instance of an entirely mechanical body.

The Hanka Robotics company that funded this miraculous operation then puts Killian to use as anti-terrorist agent in a group called “Section 9”. The Hanka CEO makes it clear that Killian, as the first fully mechanical shell housing a human brain, is a powerful weapon.

The film flashes forward a year to Killian, who is now a Major in Section 9, carrying out counter-terrorism operations.  After a gun battle with some hacked robots, Major Killian examines and attempts to hack the remains of one of the robots, the Major gets clues as to the location of the hacker, but also exposes herself to counter-hacks.

Eventually, the Major and her team track down the hacker, but when she finally finds him, he captures her and explains she is not really the first purely mechanical body created by the Hanka corporation.  He was a failed attempt they made prior to the Major.  He explains that they wiped her memories and gave her false ones. (Throughout the opening act, the Major has experienced odd hallucinations or “glitches” as her brain remembers fragments of her real past, including a burning pagoda-like structure. The hacker has a similar image tattooed on his chest.)

The Major finds the doctor who performed the operation who admits that the hacker’s story is true, and that in truth, there were 98 other test subjects who failed before the successful operation on the Major.

Now that she knows the truth, the Hanka corporation decides the Major is a threat, and the CEO orders the doctor to destroy her.  Instead, she gives her the address of her real home and helps her escape, before being killed by the CEO.

The Major goes to the address and finds a woman who she realizes is her mother, and who tells her how her daughter ran away a year before and was reported by the government to have committed suicide after being captured.

She contacts the other members of Section 9, which causes the Hanka CEO to attempt to assassinate all of them, but they manage to defeat his soldiers. The Major then meets the hacker at the ruins of the pagoda-like structure from their visions–it was their hideaway, where they both lived before being captured.

Hanka deploys a massive “Spider Tank” robot to destroy them.  The hacker is killed, but the Major destroys the Spider Tank and the Section 9 leader shoots and kills the Hanka CEO after the Major tells him to do so.

In the closing scenes, she meets with her mother and then continues going on missions for Section 9.

2. Analysis

That all probably sounds pretty confusing if you haven’t seen the film.  In fact, even having seen it, it sounded a little confusing to me just writing it.  But it all pretty much worked for me while I was watching the movie.

I went to see it because I like cyber-punk dystopian stories that deal with trans-humanism.  This is due to my fondness for the Deus Ex series of video games, which are set in futuristic dystopias and deal with augmented humans and the theme of humanity merging with machines. I saw a few bits and pieces about Ghost in the Shell and thought it looked kind of like that.

And I actually underestimated its resemblance to Deus Ex. For me, it was practically like watching Deus Ex: The Movie. The city in which most of it takes place looked like the cities in Deus Ex, right down to the intermingling of super-futuristic technology with trash-filled alleys and nightclubs. The fighting factions of hackers, mega-corporations and governments was straight out of that series as well.

The Major’s friend Batou reminded me strongly of Gunther from the original game, and the opening credits sequence looked like the start of Human Revolution. Even the guns looked like something J.C. Denton or Adam Jensen might wield.

More than that, even the structure of the plot was similar:

  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist works for counter-terrorism organization.
  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist finds out s/he is being lied to by said organization.
  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist starts to have sympathy for the people s/he was originally fighting.

And to be clear, this didn’t bother me a bit.  I’m not saying they just stole all the ideas from Deus Ex. In fact, the Japanese graphic novel on which it is based (which I have not read) was written in the early ’90s, before Deus Ex. So I don’t know which is influencing which.  And frankly,  it doesn’t matter to me.  The fact is, it’s a good concept, so it pretty much works. All these things are common tropes of the cyberpunk genre.

Now, that isn’t to say that there weren’t some rough spots. There definitely were, including a major (no pun intended) one that I’ll get to later.  But I want to make clear that if you enjoy dystopian cyberpunk science fiction, you’re probably going to enjoy this.

At times, it felt like the greatest video game adaptation in history, even though it isn’t one.  There was tactical, squad-based combat, there were exciting gun battle scenes, and there was even a boss battle–in fact, the “Spider Tank” almost seemed like a brilliant parody of a typical video game boss fight.

The action sequences were pretty well-done, and most importantly, didn’t drag on too long.  In fact, except for one element (again, I’ll get to that later) they were surprisingly good.  The only one I really disliked was a scene in a nightclub where the Major is handcuffed to a stripper pole by some thugs who then hit her with some sort of electric prod.

First of all, it seemed like a bit of salaciously sexualized violence needlessly tossed in to titillate immature people. Second, it made no sense whatsoever why the Major would be susceptible to torture–why would anybody build a counter-terrorism cyborg that could feel pain?

Of course, the Major escaped–it wasn’t really clear why she waited–and satisfyingly beat up the thugs, albeit in a rather silly pole-dance-fight sequence. (It’s not as bad as that sounds–but still, not the film’s high point.)

One of my favorite scenes was the one in which the Major hacks into a broken mechanical geisha. I won’t try to describe it, but the visual metaphor they used for the hacking–and subsequent counter-hack–was very cleverly done. It was a good way of dramatizing the process.

Now, there are a lot of nitpicks one could make about the technology in the movie.  How can they have these super-sophisticated robots but still be using cartridge-based firearms? Moreover, how come the robots and augmented humans can still be destroyed by bullets?  There’s really no good answer, but this is where the concept of “suspension of disbelief” comes into play–if the story is good enough, the audience will accept it.

Except–and here’s that flaw I’ve been alluding to–there was one thing that totally ruined the immersion for me.

At the start of the first big action sequence, the Major is covertly monitoring a meeting that gets attacked by hacked robots.  She is standing atop a skyscraper in a black coat, which looks pretty cool.  When the attack starts, she leaps into action and… throws off her black coat to reveal the “outfit”–if you can call it that–pictured in the poster above.

Except the poster makes it look way better than it does in the movie.  Here’s a still from the movie:

ridiculous
via IMDb

This looks absolutely ridiculous.

For some reason, when particularly intense fights happen, the Major takes off her clothes and fights in what I guess you could call her “underwear”.  This allows her to periodically turn invisible, which is a useful tactic.

However, what is not a useful tactic is running around in what appears to be a bright-white naked human body. It’s hard to get any more conspicuous than that.

Images of Scarlett Johansson in this costume have been used heavily in the film’s promotional materials.  I guess this is just the marketing people trying to follow the age-old adage that “sex sells”, and figuring that this will appeal to teenage boys. (Although I was once a teenage boy, and I don’t think I would have thought this was hot even then.)

The effect is absurd and stupid.  The special effects are generally good, but on this, they really fall down.  The impression you get is that the bad guys are being attacked by a naked mannequin with a realistic-looking head superimposed on top of it. It’s slightly creepy but mostly just laughable.  It reminded me of the game Mass Effect 3, when the A.I. that pilots the ship takes over a robotic body that looks like–of all things!–a slender human female.

I would be inclined to complain that this is a rather cheap, crass and sexist ploy to get attention, except that it’s so silly-looking it’s kind of hard to imagine anybody thinks it’s sexy.  (And if they do, I can’t imagine what their reaction to walking into a clothing store with mannequins must be.)

This is even worse because most of the time, the Major wears perfectly respectable, everyday cyberpunk-heroine outfits that look just fine.

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via IMDb

(Side note: I have no idea what’s up with all the knives in this movie.  People would have knives and never used them.  The utility of a knife as a weapon in a world populated by cybernetically-augmented humans and pure machines seems limited.)

I don’t generally pay much attention to costumes in movies, and I feel slightly sexist myself for even discussing this.  (The natural feminist counter-argument would be that a strong, independent anti-terrorism cyborg has every right to wear what she deems best.)  I’m just saying it looked so bizarre that the scenes where it happened became unintentionally comical.

But what bothered me most about the suit is the fact that I could see people getting the wrong impression about this movie from how much it’s used in the marketing.  I was afraid the movie might be nothing but a flimsy excuse to give callow teenagers something to gawk at between shoot-’em-up scenes, and for the most part, it’s not that.  Apart from this relatively small (albeit really stupid) element, it’s actually a surprisingly thoughtful film, as these things go.

With that, enough about costumes.  Back to plotting and character–things that really matter.

Juliette Binoche is really good as the doctor who saves the Major and gives her the new body.  Hers was probably the most complex character–she is driven by a passion for science, and a genuine desire to help, but makes a Faustian bargain with the less-than-noble Hanka corporation to do so.

Her death scene, however, was poorly-handled.  It was clear enough when she helps the Major escape that she would be killed unless the Major saved her.  That she simply left her there made her seem a little cold.  Also, there is a logic problem in that the doctor is shot through a window looking into the room where the Major was held in captivity–you would expect that to be bulletproof glass.

There are no great feats of acting in this movie, but it’s not really the sort of movie that allows for or needs it.  All the actors delivered very solid, competent performances.  And the characters, while mostly stock figures of the genre, are reasonably well-written and consistent.  The script has only one memorable line and no masterful plot twists, but it is well-paced and workmanlike, with no serious flaws.

I would have ended the movie about two minutes earlier than it actually ends.  The last two scenes–of the Major reuniting with her mother and then going on a mission for Section 9–raise more questions at the worst time.  Who is the Major fighting now?  Is she still working for the government that collaborated with Hanka to kidnap her in the first place?  It seemed strange, and made the film a little less satisfying than it could have been.

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by Ghost in the Shell.  It is not a great film, but after the modern science-fiction films I have seen–Prometheus, The Force Awakens–even basic storytelling competence was really a treat.  If you like cyberpunk or science-fiction in general, I recommend it.

Now if only Section 9 would issue the Major a less-ridiculous stealth uniform…

Against my better judgment, I’ve posted an amusing (?) little trifle: it’s an attempted parody of High Fantasy that I wrote when I was 15 years old.  I found it the other day while looking through some of my old projects that I had set aside.

Nothing is stranger than revisiting something you did a long time ago.  People change over time, and so it can feel as if you are reading a brand-new author.  If I were a third-party, I would be quite baffled to find that the person who wrote this absurdity also wrote this. And now I am forced to confront the fact that not only did the same person write it, but in each case, I was the perpetrator.

Effectively, I might as well be a completely different person than the stuck-up teenager who first sat down to write thinking he’d be the new P.G. Wodehouse or W.S. Gilbert. And yet, presumably that teenager is still stored somewhere in my brain, although try as I might, I sometimes have difficulty summoning him to explain what he was thinking.

Anyway, that’s all a tangent.  Here is “The King”, or “What I Thought Was Funny At The Time”. Enjoy!

“Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.” [He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.]Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Aphorism 146

On June 6, 2014, I was struck with the inspiration for a novella.  It came to me in a flash as I was riding in the car.  I had just begun work on what would become The Start of the Majestic World a few weeks earlier, but the idea for this other book came to me so close to fully-formed that I felt compelled to write it down.  I finished the first draft in August of 2014, and then spent the next year editing it.

What was remarkable about the experience was how easily it all came to me.  Normally (for me, anyway) writing a story is a difficult and tedious process.  I have a general idea what I want to do, but filling in all the details is a long, painful ordeal.

Not on this one.  90% of it came to me in the space of a day.  Everything from a detailed plot structure to the characters to minor bits of description and lines of dialogue appeared ready-made.  It was almost as though the book wrote itself. Not only that, but I very quickly became convinced it was the best story I had ever written.

So why, given that, haven’t I already published it, since I wrapped it up over a year ago?

Well, the thing is, it’s really, really dark.

Most of my stories are horror, or at least have horror elements.  I’ve written stories involving human sacrifice, murder, torture, demonic possession, and all sorts of other disturbing things. So it’s not like I’m a stranger to grim subject matter.

But this was different.  It was creepier than even some of the stuff that Colonel Preston did in Majestic World that I ultimately cut for being too disturbing.  And the ease with which it all came to me only made it more troubling.

I did a lot of soul-searching after writing this book.  That sounds dramatic, but I really did start to wonder about what kind of mind would come up with this kind of stories.

A lot of things have changed in my life since I first got the idea to write it, and for whatever reason, I haven’t felt the same desire to write horror since I finished it.

I was thinking about this recently, ever since the calendar turned to October.  I still love this month, and Halloween, and spooky stories–but I think I want to return to writing less intense stories; more on the order of The Revival, that stresses atmosphere and mood. And maybe I’ll dabble in other genres as well.

With all that said, I am thinking of publishing this book soon.   I spent the time to write it, so I think it is worth putting out into the world.

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“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. Image via Wookiepedia, reused under Fair Use.

This week, Star Wars: The Force Awakens surpassed James Cameron’s Avatar as the highest-grossing movie in U.S. history. I had some pretty harsh words to say about Avatar when it came out. I thought it was absurdly over-hyped and over-rated. A mediocre fantasy/sci-fi film being marketed as a cinematic triumph merely because it was “3D”.

Avatar was a work of utter genius next to the abomination that is The Force Awakens.

I knew going in that Force Awakens was playing the nostalgia card and trying to imitate the original movies rather than attempt anything innovative, so my hopes weren’t high.

It was still worse than I could have ever imagined. Even the Star Wars Holiday Special was better than this nightmare.

This movie has all the flaws of every Star Wars movie ever made, only more so. It has dialogue that is worse than anything Lucas ever wrote. It has characters who appear out of nowhere, with no buildup, and are disposed of summarily almost as soon as they arrive. It has a plot that makes Attack of the Clones look like an intricately-woven masterpiece of storytelling. It has horrible CGI special effects that are worse than the prequels’ decade-old CGI effects, and it has sets and costumes that are worse than the originals’ four decades-old sets and costumes. Somehow, the CGI stormtroopers in the prequels look more real than the real stormtroopers in The Force Awakens.

The villains in this movie are called things like “the First Order” and “the Knights of Ren”. It is not clear who they are, what they want, how they got there, or how they got all the men and materiel that looks like the stuff the Empire had 30 years before.

Opposing this inexplicable fascist regime is something called “the Resistance” which is allied with something else called “the Republic”. Since these organizations are both affiliated with the heroes from the originals, the fact that the First Order achieved this absurd degree of power indicates that Luke, Leia, Admiral Ackbar and the rest must be utter morons. They toppled one Empire only to somehow allow another one almost exactly like it to spring up!

Luke, perhaps having become rightly ashamed of his role in this disaster, has vanished, and Leia is looking for him. The movie begins with a Resistance pilot, Poe Dameron, meeting an old man who gives him a map that may lead to Luke. Poe then gives the map to a droid, and is captured by the stormtroopers of the First Order. The droid escapes and is rescued by a junk scavenger, Rey.

Meanwhile, the lead villain, Kylo Ren, interrogates Poe, who eventually tells him about the droid. While Ren is away, one stormtrooper decides to free the pilot and escape with him. The stormtrooper, who is named “Finn”, apparently managed to resist years of brainwashing and became horrified when ordered to fire on civilians.  This has led him to desert. (His name and his intro both made me think of Flynn Taggart)

The two steal a TIE fighter and escape, but are shot down. Finn ejects and, thinking Poe has been killed, wanders the desert planet for help, eventually finding Rey and the droid, moments before the First Order soldiers do. Rey, Finn and the droid escape aboard the Millennium Falcon, which is conveniently in the junkyard / shantytown that Rey lives in.

Let me now pause the synopsis to analyze this sequence. The Millennium Falcon is an extremely famous ship. As we shall find out soon, Han Solo, the ship’s owner, is legendary for his exploits in the war. Moreover, Rey makes her living selling ship parts scavenged from wreckage, and yet for some reason a fully-functional ship was sitting right here?

During their escape, they of course engage in a dogfight with the First Order forces. At one point during this fight, one of them says “we need some cover.” Cover is essential during a gunfight on the ground. It is virtually impossible in an aerial battle. This is utter nonsense.

Let me also stop to mention that Daisy Ridley’s flat performance as Rey pretty much kills any tension this scene might possibly have possessed, though in fairness to her, Rey is extremely unlikable, so it’s not all Ridley’s fault. John Boyega’s performance is good, and Finn is a relatable “Everyman” character, but it’s not enough to save the scene. This state of affairs will persist throughout the film, so feel free to go back and re-read this paragraph every time I mention either character– it will apply equally well at that time.

Somehow or other, the two get pulled aboard a large and sinister ship. They hide in the Falcon‘s trademark secret compartments, which does no good at all when they are boarded by Han Solo and Chewbacca, who know that underneath the floor is the first place to look.

Rey and Finn are shocked to meet the legendary Han Solo, who tells them that Luke is missing, and looks at the map the droid is carrying. He tells them it will help them locate Luke. He also tells them that he is smuggling some kind of giant monsters, and has apparently angered some tangential hooligans in the process.

By an extraordinary coincidence, several rival gangs of these tangential hooligans happen to show up at once, demanding that Solo pay them back or turn over his cargo or something. The hooligans also are looking for Rey and Finn and the droid on behalf of the First Order, even though the First Order only realized they should be looking for them 20 minutes earlier.

At this point, the monsters get loose, killing the hooligans and enabling our heroes to escape in the Falcon. Han urges them to join the Resistance and takes them to a cantina clearly meant to evoke the one in A New Hope.

Here they meet the worst character in all of Star Wars–a poorly animated cat with glasses. Yes, you read that correctly. All I can think is that someone said “What if we crossed Jar Jar Binks with an Ewok, and then gave them the same function as Dexter Jettster?” And then they did it, and they got this idiotic character, who is ham-handedly introduced for the sole purpose of plot development. The character is named Maz Kanata, but they should have just called her “Eks Pozishun”.

Around this time, Finn decides he wants to run away and not bother fighting the First Order. He tries to arrange passage to the Outer Rim with some more tangential hooligans. Elsewhere, Rey wanders off down a dark corridor where she hears ghostly voices. There she finds Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber in a pile of junk. When she picks it up she is subjected to a vision that indicates she is Force-sensitive. She’s scared by this, and says she doesn’t want the lightsaber when Maz comes to find her. (Maz, by the way, somehow came to have Luke’s lightsaber. The ridiculous contrivances never end in this Galaxy.) Rey runs away, and Maz gives the lightsaber to Finn.

Meanwhile, the First Order has just completed building their impossible planet-destroying base that makes no sense. One of their military commanders, who makes the Colonel from Avatar look like a subtle, nuanced and well-developed character, gives an absurdly hammy speech to celebrate the first firing of the superweapon.

It was completely unclear to me what they destroyed with it. I mean, clearly it was some important bunch of planets, but who the people on the planets were, or what was important about those planets, or why we should care about them was unexplained. Hack screenwriting at its absolute worst.

I know, I know: you’re thinking “But the same thing could be said about the destruction of Alderaan in Episode IV!” Well, yes; but it worked in that movie because everything was new. It was the first one most people saw, and we expected to be dropped in the middle of things. Force Awakens is supposed to be a follow-up movie, and so the audience reasonably expects to be able to follow along from the previous movie, and not have a bunch of new stuff dumped on them.

Could they not have blown up something we cared about? Something we had seen before? Barring that, could they not have at least blown up something that had some strategic significance?

At roughly the same time that they are blowing up the planets, Kylo Ren and his men arrive at the planet Solo, Finn and Rey are on, and commence shooting everyone. Ren captures Rey, and carries her off in accordance with melodramatic tradition. I was surprised he didn’t say “I have you now, pretty one!”, and twirl his mustache, except of course he has no mustache. Possibly the reason for the mask is that he was ashamed at being a stock villain who had no mustache.

Finn fights off the stormtroopers using Luke’s lightsaber, and “the Resistance”, including Poe, arrive in X-Wings to fight the First Order. This is the one part of the film that might have managed to evoke some nostalgia for the original Star Wars, except that such battles have been done better and more often by countless of the “Expanded Universe” stories. This tiny dogfight paled next to, say, Rogue Squadron II. But I suppose the generation Force Awakens is pitched at never played those games.

Ren and his forces leave, and General Organa (formerly known as “Princess Leia”) arrives, and shares a brief moment with Han Solo, the father of her son (Kylo Ren). It’s the best scene in the movie, probably because the annoying newcomers get out of the way for once and let us see two original Star Wars characters (one of whom is even portrayed by a good actor!) speaking to each other.  Their lines are really good too:

Han: You changed your hair.

Leia (giving him a sarcastic look): Same jacket.

Han: No… different jacket.

This was a good scene.  It deserved to be in a better movie.

Leia and the Resistance take Han and Finn and the rest of the crew to their base, where they begin to analyze the situation.  The First Order’s new weapon is an even bigger Death Star–a hilariously lame idea that the movie seems hellbent on emphasizing as much as possible; going so far as to have the Resistance displaying holograms of the two weapons side-by-side.

Oh, and do I even need to tell you that Ren has taken Rey to this same super-base to interrogate her regarding the whereabouts of Skywalker? Didn’t think so. You’d think these evil overlord-types would have learned by now not to conduct all their business aboard their superweapons after what happened to the first two Death Stars. It’s like if Hitler had his personal office on the battleship Bismarck.

Rey resists Ren’s interrogation, and for some reason he takes his helmet off, revealing that he looks like a young Alan Rickman-as-Severus Snape. (I suspect Disney’s marketing people were well aware of this resemblance.)

The Resistance, realizing they have to destroy the new superweapon, launch a daring raid to infiltrate the base, led by–who else would you choose?–Han, an old man who has already deserted the cause once, and whose own son is the leader of the enemy forces, and Finn, who a few days earlier actually worked for the First Order.

Rey meanwhile has managed to escape and is wandering around the First Order’s base at random.  Ren can’t use the Force to sense her because he is too busy throwing temper tantrums that would make even young Anakin Skywalker ashamed.

Han, Finn and Chewbacca eventually run into Rey, and then set out to plant the explosives at the critical point that will destroy the station.  But will they be in time? The weapon is nearly charged, and the Resistance leaders know it is mere moments from firing and destroying their planet.

Many have criticized this sequence for being blatantly copied from Episode IV.  But that’s not really the problem. All the Star Wars films intentionally echo one another; so having this same setup isn’t what’s wrong with this sequence.

What’s wrong with this sequence is that it’s done really badly.  Everything about it feels like the work of amateurs. No–not amateurs.  Hacks. It feels lazy.  When experts do it, it’s a recurring leitmotif. When amateurs do it, it’s a loving homage.  But when hacks do it, it’s just depressing recycling.

When the First Order base is close to firing, C-3PO actually says “It will take a miracle to save us now!” This is by far the worst line in Star Wars. I can’t believe it made it past the editors.  Note that there is no similar line in the equivalent scene in A New Hope. That’s because Lucas didn’t need to tell his audience “Hey, you feel tension now! The heroes are in trouble!”; he had built that feeling organically, and the actors expressed it with their eyes and their body language. A New Hope is by no means a great film,  but it felt like the work of people who cared.

Star Wars died for me at this point. So I guess it was fitting that in the next few minutes, the last truly interesting and likable character–not to mention good actor–from Star Wars also made his exit.

Aboard the base, Han confronts his son (while standing over a bottomless pit, of course) and asks him to return to the light. Ren removes his helmet, turns to his father, says some words of contrition–and then runs him through with his lightsaber. The mortally-wounded Han then plunges into the pit below.

It’s a powerful moment–more powerful, indeed, than J.J. Abrams “can possibly imagine”; because it symbolizes how his movie destroys the soul of the franchise.  Here we have a beloved character from the original movies being cut down by a two-bit emo villain cobbled together from spare parts.  This is the moment when Star Wars fundamentally changes from being the epic space opera Lucas envisioned into, in every sense, a Mickey Mouse operation.

The rest is perfunctory–the X-Wings blow up the enemy base, the heroes fight a lightsaber duel with the villain (Both Finn and Rey take their turn) and escape victorious back to the Resistance base.  It all feels very much done in haste–“here you go, here are your classic Star Wars tropes, eat them up!”–with no emotional power. The essence of the characters is forgotten. We never really see Leia mourn Han’s death–there’s no time for characterization or emotion, as she has to hustle Rey along to the final plot point: finding Luke Skywalker.

R2-D2 powers up and together with the new droid they are able to complete the star map that leads to Luke–a scene that looks even more ridiculous than it sounds, once you realize it is comparable to the Joint Chiefs of Staff having been unable to locate a China-shaped cut-out from a map of the Earth.

Rey flies off in the Millennium Falcon to a very beautiful planet of rocky islands. There she finally finds the protagonist of the original trilogy, looking worn and grizzled, with a thick grey beard.  Luke, ever the odds-defying hero, pulls off one more miracle escape: the film ends before his character can be ruined along with everything else.

I’ve criticized George Lucas a lot, and he made a lot of artistic decisions I don’t agree with. But dammit, he was an artist, and he had a talent for film-making. And what’s more, he had a vision.  Here there is talent, perhaps, but no vision.  This is a cargo cult Star Wars–made by copying superficial aspects only, with no understanding of what made it compelling.

Given all that, why do so many people like The Force Awakens?  I don’t know–maybe it’s the same reason so many people like Donald Trump: both are loud, in-your-face, and have so much money backing them that they won’t go away.

Philip Eil, writing in Salon, has a good article on “the genius and repugnance of H.P. Lovecraft”. It’s an issue that I think every Lovecraftian author has had to face at some point: how can we reconcile admiration of the “cosmic horror” genre that Lovecraft did so much to pioneer with his horrifying racial views?

It’s the old dilemma of separating art from the artist; similar to having to come to grips with the fact that Richard Wagner could on the one hand be enough of a genius to write “Ride of the Valkyries”, and on the other be an anti-Semitic bigot.  There are too many examples to count of cases where somebody is an absolute genius in their field, but a wretched person otherwise.

But there’s another, even more troubling question in the case of Lovecraft: what if the reason for his racism was also the reason for his talent for writing horror?

Racism, after all, is inherently based on fear of “The Other”.  Lovecraft was afraid of any and all non-WASPs, and it was probably that same xenophobia that made him able to concoct weird and terrifying creatures like Cthulhu.

Before anybody decides to quote me out of context: no, I’m not saying you have to be a racist to write horror.  I’m just saying Lovecraft’s racial fears and his horror often seem inseparable.  “The Horror at Red Hook” is, technically speaking, a good horror story,  but it also turns into one of Lovecraft’s most appalling racial screeds.

S.T. Joshi, the prominent Lovecraft biographer, is quoted in the Salon article as saying “There are perhaps only five stories in Lovecraft’s entire corpus of 65 original tales (‘The Street’ ‘Arthur Jermyn,’ ‘The Horror at Red Hook,’ ‘He,’ and ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’) that have racism as their central core.”

Well, let’s not forget that in Lovecraft’s best-known story, “The Call of Cthulhu”, the evil cultists are invariably swarthy, unlike the Anglo-Saxon or Nordic “good” characters.  I don’t know how you define the “central core”, but racism is certainly present in huge swaths of “Cthulhu”.

However, while Lovecraft’s general fear of everything that wasn’t born and raised white and in Providence may have sparked him to be a horror writer, I do think his best stories (“The Haunter of the Dark” and “The Music of Erich Zann”) are the ones that don’t have racism.  (“Haunter” has a little bit of condescension towards Italians, though they are ultimately proven right in their superstitious views.)

Whenever Lovecraft’s racial views crop up in his stories, it has the effect of bringing the reader “back to Earth”–sometimes literally, since it puts the focus on the transient prejudices of a 20th-century writer, rather than on the timeless, cosmic sense of alien fear Lovecraft sought to evoke.

So while it may be that Lovecraft’s xenophobic mindset put him on the road to writing horror, I take comfort in the fact that his most effective stories were the ones that he didn’t corrode with his racism, and stuck to exploring universal human fears of unimaginable and unearthly monsters.