Monthly Archives: November 2015

Movie Review: Interstellar

309274ill01a_Names_WI’m a huge fan of Nolan movies and beside Inception my top list of favorite movies of all time consists of Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and The Empire Strikes Back. Yet somehow I had not seen Interstellar until now, even though it was a foregone conclusion that I would love it. Even with just knowing that it’s a Nolan movie about space and wormholes. Once I heard that much last year, I didn’t watch any trailers or read any preview articles about it, knowing that I would eventually see it, almost certainly love it, and love it all the more the less I knew about it in advance. But somehow I never watched it when it was released or got it on DVD when it came out until now. It was actually just me wondering out of the blue how the music for the movie would be and looking it up it sounded really quite amazing. This had me think about a technical question on how it was done and suddenly I found myself being only 80% blind to the content of the movie instead of 95% as I had been before. That convinced me that I had to actually watch it and to watch it very soon! Which I did yesterday.

And I should have watched it last week! It would have been so much better going into the movie completely blind, not even knowing what the story is about. Not knowing about the setting, not knowing about the underlying conflict, not knowing about the goal. Many people consider Nolan movies to be confusing, but I personally think the one way in which they could be better would be being less predictable. And even just knowing a few basic things about the plot lead to me not really being surprised by the story of Interstellar. So in this review I will not be talking about the story at all but instead about why I think you should really see this movie. If this kind of movie is for you. Of course there is so much to talk about in this movie and I think I will do another post in a near future where I will totally nerd out about all the things I’ve seen and discovered.

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But for now I’ll try to keep it strictly to the merrits of the movie aside from the plot. To outline the story just in very broad strokes, it takes place in a future where the world is in terrible shape and the hope for the future of huminity lies in the exploration of distant planets in space. However, the physics involved that allow humans to reach other planets do extremely strange things to our perception of time and space, which results in a very weird and bizare experience for the astronauts. A lot of talk about the movie has been about how much actual hard physics and space technology is in the movie and how much more accurate it is than any other movies that have been made before. And that is true. But Interstellar is not a hard science-fiction movie! This is a really funky movie. Much more than Dark Knight movies and even Inception, this movie is all classic, oldschool Nolan mindfuck. Or, as I would rather think about it, classic Nolan cerebral lovemaking. Nolan’s movies are often considered to be postmodernist or existentialist, and Interstellar certainly is weird. But there is absolutely nothing humorous, ironic, or mocking about it. It’s not a crazy fun ride or a space adventure or anything like that. This is a seriously heavy philosophical and emotional movie. One might even be temped to call it spiritual, but that term probably would create the wrong impression. It is in fact one of the defining aspect of Existentialism that it sits firmly on the blurry part of the border between philosophy and spirituality. It is concerned with issues that are traditionally considered religious while at the same time rejecting the concepts of the supernatural or the divine. All of Nolan’s movies touch on this spehere, but Interstellar dives into it much deeper than ever before.

And I think this is the main factor that will determine if this movie is for you or not, and how much you’ll enjoy it. The Batman movies are somewhat unusual superhero movies, but they are still superhero movies. Inception left many people confused about the plot, but it still entertains as a popcorn action movie. Interstellar just won’t do that. It doesn’t really have any action scenes and a narrative that is pretty simple. (While it’s very deep, it’s not complex.) And it’s almost three hours in length. Almost everyone is used to movies that run 120 minutes, but adding 45 more minutes to that makes a big difference. And since it isn’t packed to the brim with plot development, it also is pretty slow paced. Oh, and yeah: It’s also very bleak. It’s not a violent movie or an agonizing movie, but it’s dark. I’ve been thinking about elaborating on this a lot, but everything I come up with feels like it would give away too much. I think a comparison with Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell is really quite appropriate here. If you can get something out of these kinds of movies, I think you’ll also enjoy Interstellar.

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Stumbling around in Morrowind

I first played Morrowind right back when it was first released in 2002. But I didn’t get very far as I was just too confused about what I was expected to do and how to figure out how the many aspects of the game work. A few years later I gave it another try but after 20 hours or so I gave up on it once more. Many, many years later I played Skyrim (though that was more than a year after it’s release), and being a much more polished game I had a much easier time getting into it. But again, I soon got bored with it after 30 to 40 hours once I realized that doing all those sidequests is ultimately pointless. All the enemies are scaled to your level and the game is pretty easy to begin with, and nothing stops you from just doing the mainquests all in a row. And possibly be done with them in 20 hours. All the other stuff you do has some interesting sounding dialoges at the start, but then you always go into either a cave or a tomb and kill everyone you find there to get the item at the end and return it to the person who send you to get it. But for what? That person never again has any interactions with you after that and it’s not like you established any relationships or made any progress towards something. You improve your skills and gain treasures, which you can use to make better equipment and learn more spells. But for what? You are already strong enough to deal with everything. You don’t get any stronger because the enemies will always be adjusted to remain just as difficult. And unfortunately, the two main storylines both suck.

But from what I’ve heard, Morrowind is quite different from Skyrim in these respects. The main storyline is much more interesting and the culture of the land original and not just standard generic vikings. And there’s a point to going on other adventures because you have to become powerful enough to be able to survive in the areas where the main storyline takes you to. So with new hope I installed Morrowind again yesterday and jumped straight into it after roughly 10 years.

And at first I enjoyed it very much. But after 5 hours or so, the initial excitement about the weird landscape and intriguing culture started to fade. And I think it was about 10 hours into the game when I made it to the big capital city of Vivec when all motivation to continue left me. And shortly after I’ve quite playing, I realized that this was pretty much the same part of the game where I stopped the last time, 10 years ago. Because in Vivec, the huge flaw of the game becomes terribly obvious. The game is totally dead. It’s lifeless and lacks any soul.

If you’re familiar, that might sound very surprising and completely unjustified. The world of Morrowind is one of the most amazing and creative fantasy settings ever made. Which is true. But the way this amazing world is presented in the game is just mind crushingly dull. It’s so boring. Almost the entire game conists of nothing but deserted paths through the landscape and empty hallways that always look exactly the same. And unless you’re in a tavern or guild house, there just isn’t anyone around. Technical limitations are something that usually is not to be blamed on the designers. Back in the day, Morrowind actually looked very impressive to me. But aside from the giant mushroom trees, the world is really extremely monotonous. The only kind of decorations you find in the towns are wooden boxes. No plants, no animals, nothing. I had to think back to Baldur’s Gate, which was released four years earlier, and while the towns in that game where technically extremely simple, they just felt so much more alive. The colors not as washed out and much more detail on the 2D buildings and flat landscape. And most importantly, it had ambient sound. You hear people yelling in the distance, noises from people working, and lots of animals. Morrowind doesn’t have any ambient noise at all, and that’s perhaps one of the things that really kills the game. Skyrim does and it makes a huge world of difference.

I’ve always loved the world of Morrowind and from what I’ve read it has a very good story. But possibly the worst thing you could ever say about a game is that it is vastly more entertaining to read about it than to actually play the thing yourself. But with Morrowind, this is exactly what is the case. I love the world, but the game is just bad.

New Fantasy Series Concept: The Old World

I’ve started getting interest in writing stories about a year ago, but neither the format of big novels or various stand alone short stories really got my creativity going much. Novel series take years and hundreds of pages to write and tend to deal with always the same people and places the whole time, while stand alone stories are so limited in scope that I never felt it worth making the effort to create an interesting world or good characters. The pulp series format seems to be a lot more to my liking, and I actually enjoy reading the Sword & Sorcery variety the most of any fiction. However, when looking at classic series like Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, or Kane, there’s always also a bit of the monotony that comes with big novel series. Different places in the world, but always the same protagonist with the same perspective on things. So I came up with an idea of having various self-contained stories set in the same world, but with different protagonists. This has developed into a more complex concept and I would like to hear what other people think about it.

The past four years I had been working on a fantasy setting for roleplaying games and while my interest for that has gone very much into the background for now, I’ve already had lots of great creative ideas that I still want to use. Since the purpose of the world is quite different, many of the changes are quite substential, going much narrower and deeper. I actually like the name Ancient Lands much more, but to keep my notes clearly separated I am calling this new version the Old World for now.

The Format

As I said, the basic concept I have in mind is a series of self-contained stories all set in the same setting. But an idea I really like is to have significant crossovers between the stories. I am really not a fan of the superhero genre, but the idea of having lots of protagonist and having them appear as secondary characters in other stories is something I always considered fascinating. Star Wars novels have that a lot, and you could even say the movies do, with lots of classic characters having minor roles in the Clon Wars movies, with Obi-Wan and Yoda doing the reverse. A very strong influence also comes from many TV shows from the 90s, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, or X-Files. Mostly you have these stand alone episodes with the Monster of the Week  (or Murder, or Space Anomaly), but every so often you have secondary characters that show up occasionally. Often the stories don’t involve all the main characters but really deal with only two or three, with the others serving only as minor secondary characters or not appearing at all. And sometimes you have clearly distinct subgroups. In Babylon 5, the two characters G’Kar and Londo almost have their own thing going on that only occasionally touches with the story of the crew of the space station. And in Deep Space Nine, the weasly bar owner Quark has close interactions only with the security chief Odo but barely anyone else of the main cast. He does however have several episodes with his own personal antagonists like the Grand Nagus, Brunt (FCA), his mother, or his klingon ex-wife. Who all never have any meaningful interaction with the rest of the main cast.

And that’s the probably rather unique part of the concept I have in mind. At the core is a group of perhaps a dozen or so main characters who have a web of relationships with each other. Some are allies, some are rivals, others share a common past. Geographically they are pretty far spread out, but their common field of interest (more on that in the next section) frequently has them crossing paths.

One almost-example I know about are the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski. The first two books are stand alone stories which all have the Witcher Geralt as the protagonist, but unlike Conan and Kane, secondary characters have regular reappearances. Dandelion is with Geralt on a lot of his adventures, Yennefer appears in several stories, and Ciri, her grandmother, and an old druid also have multiple appearances. From the third book on the format shifts to novels, but the individual chapters are still structurally very similar to the earlier stories. The first chapter of Blood of Elves has only Dandelion and Yennefer (who only met once before as adversaries but are both friends of Geralt) with Geralt not appearing at all, and the second has Triss as the protagonist, with Geralt being one of several secondary characters of equal position to Vessemir and Ciri. Each chapter connects together to a larger storyline and they are nit really self-contained, but it’s otherwise pretty close to my idea.

What I want to do with the writing is to always have only a single point of view character per story and everything that is in the story is what that character sees, hears, and knows. If that character is not aware of something, it’s not revealed to the reader. I also want to do it in a limited form of omniscient narration in that the description of things also includes details and background information that the character knows, without having someone say them out loud or that character saying them in his head. But I have no intention of ever revealing the narrator as a distinct person or directly address the readers in any way. While I like omniscient, that thing is always too cheesy for me. Continue reading

The greatest obstacle for writing stories

It is now a little over a year ago that I decided I want to try my hand at writing Sword & Sorcery. It seemed like the perfect medium and genre for me. It has all the things that entertain me the most and most works are either single stories or short novels, which is a form particularly well suited for my habit of rarely beeing able to stay commited to a creative work for longer than a week or two at a time. Still, I have not produced a single thing yet.

It has not been completely in vain, though. I’ve been learning a lot about the basics of good storytelling and read a good number of books that both gave me a lot of good ideas for what I might write about, what kinds of elements in particular I enjoy, and how they work and are best used in practice. I feel much better prepared now than I used to be a year back.

But there is one big thing that is always holding me back and keeps me from really digging into the actual work. And it’s a silly one. My ideas are too good. Or at least, I like my ideas too much and I don’t want to waste them now when I will obviously write a first dozen or so stories that will be really terrible, They are great ideas I want to save up for when I am good enough to do them right.

Unfortunately, that kind of thinking doesn’t get you anywhere. I had actually started working on three stories so far, but knowing that they will be junk nobody will read, I didn’t really care about them or had any motivation to try making them good. And practice does not make perfect. It only does when you’re able to see where you made mistakes and which attempts to improve worked out and which didn’t. If you don’t even care if it will be good, you’re not going to learn anything from it. You’re only training yourself bad habits that you have to learn to stop later one.

So I am stuck, searching for ideas that are good enough to make me want to make them good, but also not so good that I want to save them for later.