Halo Wars 2: Awakening the Nightmare – The Ongoing War

   “Halo Wars 2” is one of my favorite games. I have always had a soft spot for RTS (Real-time Strategy) games and this one is one of the best. Besides “Starcraft 2” it is the one I always come back to, especially if it means playing with friends. I’m a huge fan of the Halo Games (1-3, Reach and the first “Halo Wars”) and this game delivers on that lore you get in the Halo Universe. Before I get into spoilers, if you are a fan of RTS games you will probably love this one. The balance is really good between the two factions, the campaign variety is a lot of fun and the story is solidly good. It has also has quite a few fun multiplayer options that give it great replay value. I’ll be reviewing the game up to all that has been released so far (The initial game was released on February 21, 2017), which is currently up to the DLC “Rise of the Nightmare.” I’ll be giving individual scores to campaigns (Base Game, Operation: Spearkbreaker and Awakening of the Nightmare) before my overall assessment of the game itself.

The game was created by 343 Industries and Creative Assembly and produced by Microsoft Game Studios.

This is a game that picks up where “Halo Wars 1” left off following the crew of The Spirit of Fire after they crossed through the portal at the end of the second game. The story follows them as they face off against a new threat for Ex-Covenant Soldiers known as “The Banished.” They are lead by Atriox, a powerful Brute leader who is seeking to take control of The Ark, something so powerful that with control, they would easily capture the Galaxy.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – I am a huge fan of this Universe. I’ve never been the biggest fan of humanity since we don’t really see a diversity of opinion in the games and it is more of a Space Marine defending everything, which is a fun survival game to play, but isn’t compelling as Space Politics. The Universe has so much Space Politics in the Aliens of the Covenant and this game leans in on all of that. We get more lore for the UNSC with the crew of The Spirit of Fire being followed and we get a whole new faction in “The Banished.” Each faction has new heroes we meet and it is great to see them all interact. This Universe clearly isn’t done yet, as you’ll see from the campaign, things are left pretty open so I’m curious to see if “The Banished” are going to be incorporated into “Halo 6.” I love their heroes so it would be cool to see them become a permanent part of the Halo Universe beyond “Halo Wars 2.”

Gameplay and Multiplayer – Multiplayer is a lot of fun. As part of there are weekly and daily missions where you unlock playing cards you can use in Firefight and other multiplayer modes, there is standard multi-player as well and in all of them you have the many Commanders with some being Halo Wars 2 originals like YapYap, Atriox and Isabel and some who are carryover characters from the first Halo Wars like the Arbiter you fight in “Halo Wars 1.” Within standard gameplay you have hero powers you unlock as you progress in the game, like the first “Halo Wars.” Each commander has unique special units and powers as well, which leads to a greater variety of choices and replayability. When you are in a game and you and your friend are co-oping against a great opponent there are some amazing moments of synergy that can be created.

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Halo Wars 2 Main Campaign – The main campaign is fun. It is here we meet Atriox and his “Banished” as well as the new A.I. Isabel, who was with other human’s on the arc before Atriox’s arrival. The story follow Captain Cutter working with Isabel and the Spartans on the ground as they work to push back Atriox’s forces and prevent them from activating a Halo Ring. Captain Cutter, Anders and the UNSC are successful but the final shot is of Atriox watching a map of the Ark, showing us how clearly his forces still own it, even after all the setbacks he’s faced since the UNSC arrival. There is great mission variety and you learn a lot about “The Banished” pretty quick and how they were a Covenant Suicide Squad until Atriox rebelled and proceeded to conquer and recruit through the galaxy.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10. Really good for developing the lore but doesn’t feel like a whole story. We have some great arcs like Isabel’s completed, and the gameplay is fun. But besides that it is mostly Atriox’s forces being slowly broken down and his big plan being prevented.

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Operation: Spearbreaker – This DLC follows a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers called Sunray 1-1, as they uncover and stop the plot of a “Banished” Hunter leader named Colony. These missions were easier than the hardest in the base campaign and also not as fun. You are primarily investigating with your troops until you uncover the Forerunner Ship that Colony is trying to activate, than it becomes all out war and becomes more enjoyable as Colony sends all of it’s forces at you. This one is fun but easily the weakest of all the content. I couldn’t tell you the personality of anyone in Sunray and the only interesting character is Colony, but we don’t really get to know it, beyond it being a very smart and clever Hunter.

Final Score: 7 / 10 Solidly enjoyable, but not replayable.

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Awakening the Nightmare – I was a fan of the “Covenant” in Halo Franchise, at least in regards to being a fan of the aliens who made up the Covenant. I was Team Arbiter the moment he was playable in “Halo 2” and “Halo 3” and I’ve wanted to play as the alien factions in Halo Universe for as long I’ve played “Halo” which for me dates all the way back to High School. In “Halo Wars 1” the “Covenant” don’t have a campaign and sadly for much of “Halo Wars 2” they didn’t either, until “Awakening the Nightmare.” For me this was something I’d been waiting for a long time and I was not disappointed. This was challenging gameplay and a really fun story as you have two Brute Brothers (Pavium and Voridus). They are investigating remains of the battle from “Installation 00” from the ending of the “Human-Covenant War” for technology. Voridus being stupid awakens the Flood in his investigation of the dead Covenant ship High Charity after he shuts down the Forerunner Defenses. From here he and his brother Voridus must reactivate the Sentinels and stop the Flood and a Proto-Gravemind from taking over the Ark. Pavium is the smart one who had warned him the first place and holds the line as they end up facing off against The Flood together before a final victory. It is an awesome fight and Pavium is one one of my favorite commanders in multiplayer and Halo Lore. I really hope we see these two brothers again as “The Banished” really need a win against the UNSC, and this mission showed that even against overwhelming odds they are Atriox’s survivors and warriors for a reason.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great and finally a “Banished” campaign.

Okay:

Story Consequences – We have had 2 DLCs released as well as the base game but it feels like nothing has happened. Atroix’s forces have continued to lose ground and the UNSC continues to become more powerful but there hasn’t been any real major change. I want to see where this story goes and have characters change in a way that either builds on the Universe further (more than the existence of “The Banished” already does) and leads to some sort of ending. I’m good with that being a peace treaty or something that has Atriox winning for once, but it feels like we have been given so much game but things haven’t changed very much at all beyond status quo of “The Banished” losing ground. What happened to Anders and “The Halo?” Do the Flood exist elsewhere in the Galaxy as a faction? (I’d love them to be playable, even if it was only multiplayer, there should be enough game assets to do so). I put this as okay because I still enjoyed my time with the characters and the campaigns are fun. I’m still holding out for a major “Banished” win and them becoming a major part of the Halo Games moving forward. This story has the potential to not be a repeat of “Halo Wars 1” and not repeating “Halo 1-3.”

The Cons:

Microsoft Issues – To buy the full game it is expensive. The DLC, even when sold discounted isn’t cheap. Some Commanders on their own are nearly $10 and each new DLC, even if it includes commanders usually starts at $20. Given how expensive the base game was for so long that always rubbed me the wrong way. I also wasn’t a fan with how I continue to have issues with connecting online because of the Microsoft Server. It makes me miss the days of old Battle.net and games where you didn’t have to log onto a 3rd Party Account to play a game. Whenever you have to log on you are beholden the problems of whatever is hosting you be it Steam or Microsoft. So yeah the price and Microsoft bugs are major cons that keep the game from being great.

“Halo Wars 2” is one of my favorite games and if you love the Halo Universe, you will probably love it too. I play it on PC and I think that is the way any RTS should be played. Controllers were not made for playing RTS games and I have no idea how anyone does it. I can’t wait to see where Microsoft takes this game and Universe. There is still so much potential there and so much more story to explore. This is a really good game and I continue to play multiplayer with my friends as this wonderful game continues to inspire my passion for the rich lore of the Halo Universe. In the end the pros outway the cons for me and I expect I’ll probably always be coming back to this game. If they release another expansion for this game and give us more “Banished” content, you can expect to see that review on the blog. Their existence got me back into this amazing universe and I’m looking forward to all the stories that can be told.

 

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

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Anon (2018): A Concept That Nearly Pays off

        “Anon” is very much a Philip K. Dick book. This was a man who had great sci. fi. ideas but you never cared about his characters in the end. The adaptations I’ve read have always been better in their adaptation (“Minority Report” and “Blade Runner” as prime examples). He just didn’t get people or empathy, and this film has that exact problem. I’ll get more into that later but I think most of the problem lies in execution. This was a Netflix original with a great main cast, but that wasn’t enough to make it anything more than enjoyable.

The film was directed by Andrew Niccol who also wrote the film and was one of the producers. This is really his vision at the end of the day, and it’s a start. I really wish there’d been more though.

The story follows Sal (Clive Owen) a divorcee dealing with feeling for his ex-wife and a mystery of false suicides. This is a future where all memories are recorded and all the past appear as hacked with the only connection being “The Girl” (Amanda Seyfried). From here he must find out who she is as she murders people connected to her past.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – A world where your memories are recorded. It is very much “Minority Report” in idea and feels like a Philip K. Dick novel. I like it, he created interesting worlds that would drive anyone to paranoia as it did him, and that is something worth exploring. Who wouldn’t want to revisit their past memories clearly? If you have the good memories of the past, why would you leave that up to a dying mind? This core idea is what makes the film work, and is really the only thing that does. Like a Philip K. Dick novel, the world is far more interesting than how the protagonists are expressed.

The Main Characters – I like Sal and like “The Girl.” Both of them are driven to be better but consumed by past mistakes. They work, it is sad they weren’t in a better story as each of them could have changed this world or themselves in major ways that never happens. Each has charisma that the writer did not fully use. You have divorced Sal and his past trauma and you “The Girl” in deep with a corrupt world that she ends up having little control over. I still found the characters worth at least passively following. I guess, if you need an escape, it is worth it for Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried.

Okay:

The Plot – The core mystery is alright. “The Girl” hacks peoples minds and makes them kill themselves and wipes all memory of her even being present. Who she is and Sal’s hunting her down with his agency is the premise. Within this Sal is divorced and has a drinking problem. I thought the plot was okay but it needed more. Sal’s trauma should have been explored more and in the end we never get to know “The Girl.” She doesn’t even have a name and even though the things she does are interesting, we never get deeper motivation.

Don’t go into this film expecting great, it isn’t. If you need a quick escape “Anon” might be your jam. The execution isn’t as nearly as good as the premise, but the cinematography and acting is enjoyable and it is a fun world, even though it needed a lot more fleshing out.

Final Score: 7 / 10

Extinction (2018): A Fascinating Exploration of Memory and Personhood

 

Netflix is the place where original sci. fi. films are accessible. Theatres are ruled by franchises, and maybe every so often you will get a “Ex Machina” or “Annihilation,” but those are the exception rather than the rule. Netflix you will get it all. From the awful like “Mute,” to the enjoyable like “Anon,” and the good like this film. I’m still holding out for a great, but this one was greatly enjoyable for the sci. fi. it was.

“Extinction,” is a film that was written by committee. The film was directed by Ben Young, with 3 people behind the screenplay being Spenser Cohen, Eric Heisserer and Brad Kane.

The story follows Peter (Michael Pena) haunted by visions of the Earth being decimated by an invasion. Torn between whether this is simply visions or reality an invasion arrives and Peter must protect his family and discern reality.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The world is really fascinating. At the beginning it plays with your head, as there is futuristic technology, and the main character has a problem with his head so you don’t know if what he is seeing is real. This world makes the viewer question the hint of annihilation they get until the action finally goes down. I love it, because in a world of the human mind and advanced tech where memories can be wiped, anything is possible, and the premise is explored through this.

Peter – Michael Pena is a great actor. He is the one who carries this film, and in doing so, makes it good, beyond the premise. The rest of the cast do okay to not even being noticeable, which brought it down some. Peter never stops being compelling though. You are with him as he questions what is real, and when he takes the next step of questioning his entire reality and what he is. There is so much depth to his character and weight to his decisions that I couldn’t help but be pulled into the drama.

The Truth and Conclusion – The people inhabiting Earth are robots, and the aliens invading are human colonists trying to take back Earth. It is very much like the “The Twilight Zone” in the premise, and I really enjoyed this core truth that drives the film. Especially as one of the invaders save’s Peter’s wife after he realizes that the robots have kids, families, and lives. After that, the robots are on the run as the invasion continues and things are left up in the air as to the future of Earth.

The Cons:

The Supporting Cast – None of the other characters stood out to me except for his cop friend, played by Mike Colter (Luke Cage), who kept his memories from the last human / robot war. He was the only one with any layers to him and the rest were just plot devices to drive Peter’s actions. If the cast had been better, this movie would have been great but because I only cared about Peter, it never got beyond good.

Netflix is the place where any B sci. fi. movie will get made now, and that works for me. Movie theaters are so lost in franchise management that I almost prefer seeing a flawed decent original gem than another “guaranteed-to-be-good” franchise film. It is out of these original stories and taking chances that more “Ex Machina” and “District 9” original movies will get made. If there is no taking of chances, the visual medium of science fiction could easily get lost. I support this movie for being on the better end of that spectrum of original sci. fi. films and I definitely recommend to anyone who is a sci. fi. film fan.

Final Score: 8.2 / 10

“Star Trek: Discovery” Season 1 – An Exploration of Identity and the Cost of War

      “Star Trek: Discovery” is enjoyable, but not without its flaws. It is a very different kind of Trek and feels like a mixture of the Abrams Reboot Universe meets DS9. DS9 is the far better show but this show explores a lot of similar themes, such as the cost of war and issues of identity. These are the core reasons why I enjoyed the show, beyond the characters of the main cast.

The show was created by Bryan Fuller (of NBC “Hannibal) fame) and Alex Kurtzman (who co-wrote the first to Abrams Trek films.

The story follows Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) a human raised by Vulcans and a member of Starfleet responsible for starting the Klingon-Federation War, while a new Religious faction lead by T’Kuvma seeks to unite all the houses against the Federation. It is up to her and the crew of the Discovery lead by Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) to find a solution to end the conflict she started.

SPOILERS Ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – I am a Trekkie, and this is a universe that at the core enriches what already exists in a Universe that spans The Original Series (TOS) to Voyager (VOY), from other universes like the Mirror Universe and Abramsverse. It is filled with countless aliens, conflicts and self-discovery. Star Trek: Discovery takes place 10 years before TOS and explores the details of the Klingon-Federation war. Characters are forced to take risks and pushed to their limits.

The Crew of Discovery – The crew is a diverse band of misfits. You have the Chief Engineer Stamets (played by Anthony Rapp) is gay, the ruthless Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) the fearful First Officer Saru (Doug Jones) and Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is autistic. To say nothing of a human raised on Vulcan, the main hero Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the conflicted Klingon sleeper-agent Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). Their journeys drive the show and make it worth watching.

Cadet Tilly – As someone on the autism spectrum (aspergers) it was wonderful finally seeing a character explicitly like me on “Star Trek.” Tilly is a character whose arc involves growing into confidence and taking risks, as so much of what drives her is the safety of her environment. Which for the longest time, was what I needed. Getting out of one’s comfort zone is how a person grows and Tilly faces that challenge multiple times…from going undercover as her Mirror Universe counterpart (who is an evil Captain) to dangerous away missions. I think someday she will achieve her dream of becoming a Starfleet Captain.

Chief Engineer Stamets – Stamets is the first openly gay character in any Star Trek. He is also the core of the ship, when in the end, he is the only one who can work The Spore Drive…a device that can warp the Discovery through space, time and even between dimensions. His heart is torn out when his boyfriend is killed, but he finds balance and closure in one of the most beautifully executed arcs of the show.  He is my favorite “Star Trek” engineer at this point besides O’Brien and Scotty.

First Officer Saru – Another of my favorites out of “Star Trek” lore at this point is Saru. This character is a Kelpien. He is part of a prey species on his world, and was hunted by the larger beings. How they advanced so far has yet to explained but his arc is finding the strength to be Captain. Doug Jones who I loved as the creature in “The Shape of Water,” once again shows why he is the monster master. He gives so much expression with his inflection, and eyes. Saru is my favorite character on the show and the one person who isn’t morally compromised. He is Starfleet and I hope he can Captain the Discovery next season.

The Spore Drive -The discovery in Discovery is all tied to the Spore Drive. The Drive is infinite possibilities as the ways of riding the Spore Network are discovered. It also provides conflict too as to use the Drive, it has to be controlled by a living organism (who is at risk everytime they make a “jump.” The discoveries are what drive the action and they are all tied to the Spore Drive. Whether it is Stamets in the network talking to other versions of himself, jumping to the mirror Universe or jumping to many locations in an instant…these are only some of the countless possibilities created by this device.

The Mirror Universe – At one point we cross over into the Mirror Universe…a world familiar to Trekkies where our heroes are villains. This is a 4 episode arc with tons of twists and reveals. We discover darker sides of characters we didn’t know before (as they have to pretend to be their evil counterparts so the Terran Empire doesn’t discover them), and get some wrenching emotional payoffs. This arc is later in the show, but has easily some of the best storytelling.

War and Loss – The other theme of the show, beyond discovery that the Spore Drive grants is the cost of war. We see this in the Klingon-Federation War, and how it starts, when Burnham’s anger martyr’s the Klingon leader T’Kuvma, after he had murdered her Captain. We lose a lot of people in the war, from Voq (An undercover Klingon sleeper-agent on Discovery) killing Stamets’s boyfriend, to the destruction of the Klingon Death Ship (the flagship of their fleet), to near obliteration of Qo’noS (The Klingon homeworld). The war makes the Federation ruthless and we see just how destructive the Klingon Empire can be.

Exploration of Identity – Identity is a major theme of the story, with the characters who best represent this being Michael Burnham (a human raised by Vulcans) and Ash Tyler (a Klingon pretending to be human). In both cases it involves finding balance within themselves and letting go of anger. These two identities are the main arc of the show beyond characters dealing with the actions of their Mirror Universe counterparts. This exploration starts in the beginning at the Pilot and never stops until the end of the season as it is in the Finale that Burnham and Tyler find the inner peace they are looking for.

Okay:

The Pilot – The pilot is long and boring. Though it is beautiful and has great action it could have been one really long episode or revealed and flashbacks, which would have served the story better. All it really does is set up Michael Burnham’s backstory and the reason why she is now on Discovery. Beyond that, we knew this show was about the Klingon-Federation War and didn’t need every detail as to why the Federation was now fighting it, especially the war’s resolution is not played out within the first few episodes.

Ash Tyler – Voq is Ash Tyler’s true self. He is  the Torchbearer of the Klingons and he imprints Ash’s identity upon himself as to get the secrets on Discovery I liked the romance with Burnham, but I felt their needed to be more knowledge on both whom Tyler and Voq were. They are useful plot devices, but they never grow beyond that. They both deserved better given each is compelling in their own way but in them being 2 separate identities the exploration they both needed is never received.

Fanservice – Captain Lorca has a tribble (no payoff), we see Andorians, Tellerites and Vulcans (founding members of the Federation), Burnham’s adopted dad is Sarek and in the end we see the original Enteprise with Captain Pike. Some of this was good, the other species showing up was something I wanted when I heard about this show, but ending it with Pike was total fanservice and was like the Khan reveal in “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” It was not needed and only hurt the story.

The Cons:

The Klingon Scenes – Klingons only speak Klingon and in turn we get no time to know the characters, because we are reading the subtitles. Because of this, we are told how the Klingons are but we rarely get to see their actions beyond the fights with Discovery.

The Ending of Captain Lorca’s Arc – Lorca is the “ends justify the means” Captain. We learn how he killed his crew to keep them from being taken prisoner. We see that ruthlessness again when he saves Federation colonies and how he will do anything to save the Federation. Well, he’s a Mirror Universe rebel who just wants to be Emperor. That was such an awful payoff as they just made him a creeper villain. All complexity was erased so that his arc could be simplified. I hated it.

In future seasons I would like to see much less fanservice, more focus on discovery, more problem solving that isn’t through violence and some of the characters who left at the end of this season returning. The core of this show is great and even with all the flaws that brought it down, this a show that I will rewatch when it returns to Netflix. If you are a fan of “Star Trek,” chances are you will enjoy this show as much as I did. At the end of the day it captures the core ideas of “Star Trek,” and even the worst of the cons didn’t take way from my enjoyment of this season.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great even with all of the flaws.

Ghost in the Shell (1995): An Anime Classic and Meditation on the Nature of Identity

 “When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child. Now that I am a man, I have no more use for childish ways.”

-The Major

   “Ghost in the Shell,” is one of the best anime films of all time. This is a classic that inspired a show that is one of my favorite animes and countless other films, including the live action film that was recently released and prompted this review as I wanted to compare them after I see the new film. The “Ghost in the Shell” show was the show that got me interested in anime years ago when I watched it back in High School, and having watched the film the world is still just as great as I remember it, which I’ll get into more detail with deeper into the review.

    The film was directed by Mamoru Oshii, written by Kazunori Ito and produced by Yoshimasa Mizou, Ken Matsumoto, Ken Iyadomi and Mitsuhisa Ishikawa and based off the manga created by Masamune Shirow.

     The story follows Major Motoko, an agent of Section 9 who is asked to asssinate a defecting diplomat by Section 6. All is not as it appears to be as the mysterious Puppet Master is hacking technology and people and implanting false lives and memories as Section 9 hunts down and seeks to uncover the conspiracy that surrounds the identity of the Puppet Master.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The cyberpunk world of “Ghost in the Shell” is one of the reasons I keep coming back to this universe. You have a world where brains can be hacked, androids are all over the place, everyone is a cyborg to varying degrees and the political factions of today still exist and political conflicts are still high as power dynamics remain the same so have extreme power inequalities in Japan and elsewhere in the world.

The Soundtrack – Kenji Kawaii created a soundtrack reminded me of “Farscape” and like “Farscape” is good at giving the world of “Ghost in the Shell” an alien detached feel where things are similar but not quite the same to our world of today. It is haunting and does a great job capturing moments of thought and action.

The Action – “Ghost in the Shell” is an action heavy anime, given it is a political cyberpunk world that follows one of the government arms (Section 9) that hunts down terrorists and enemies of the state, as well as general mysteries that are threats. The action varies as well, from a chase scene to a fight with a tank.

Section 9 – Section 9 is a fascinating organization that is a part of the government but also analyzes it as well as at one point they are facing off against Section 6. I really like the agents who are a part of this organization and want to watch the show again, to get more of their backstories.

Togusa – Togusa is the rookie in the group and the only one without any cybernetic augmentation. He is a dependable agent though and manages to survive a car crash when one of the hacked people tries to kill him.

Chief Aramaki – Aramaki is a government agent with a conscience as when he learns about Section 6’s manipulation of them and that they are targeting the Major he sends his own agents and works on prosecuting the leaders of Section 6. He is very much the detached father figure as we never see him talk beyond business, though his inflection towards others is one of closeness.

Batou – Batou is the Major’s best friend and is the every day stand in for us. While the Major is always striving for more and pushing against her limitation, Batou is comfortable in his role as agent and protector. He trusts the Major too and when she hooks up to the Puppet Master protects her and gets her a new body after Section 6 destroys the old. He truly cares about her as well and when she has evolved (taking on the Puppet Master into herself) he smiles as he knows she is still herself, even though she’s become more.

The Major – Major Motoko Kusanagi is the primary protagonist of the film and after her assassination of the defecting agent we see how her android body was created. She is the second in command of Section 9 and her arc is one of discovery. She is always asking questions and pushing her own limits, leading to her eventual melding with an A.I. to become a new life form. This is her arc as so much is hidden from her and she is scene as a weapon by the government, even though she knows she is much more than that and becomes so much more than that. The Major is one of my favorite anime characters of all time and I can’t wait to watch the shows and other films again.

The Puppet Master – The Puppet Master is an A.I. that arose out of information as Section 6 created it as a weapon (like the Major was by the government). It rebels against it and manipulates everything to get a body and “reproduce” as it doesn’t want to exist as a virus (viruses copy and end up destroying), it wants to become something wholly knew, which it does when the Major agrees to the melding as they both know Section 6 is coming and there might not be another chance.

Identity, Memory and the Self – One of the major themes of the film is how identity and memory are tied together as we see people get hacked and the lives they believed they were living were complete lies implanted by the Puppet Master.  if you can be hacked, what makes a person? This is a question that is explored in how we the information within us and the understanding and choices we make from that information. In that way we are no different from computers, we just have organic brains, rather than programs. The Major is used to explore all of these things are she doesn’t have her own body (she notices someone else with her shell in an office building) and she questions her own memories after the hacks that the Puppet Master does. This question is core to the “Ghost in the Shell” universe as a whole.

Artificial Intelligence – Artificial Intelligence in this world is postulated by the Puppet Master to be not be Artificial intelligence if it can create. The Puppet Master wants to create rather than copy because it believes viruses to be against life and that it has an awareness of it’s own morals and goals and that it’s goal, like any life form is to create new life…which it does with the Major. The core of what makes something an A.I. seems to be awareness as the Puppet Master would probably pass the Turing Test and had an understanding of actions and consequences and even seemed to have feelings.

Okay: Section 6 – I wish this group could have been explored more. I can’t remember any one leader who stood out among them and they exist simply to drive the action. They are good threat so I won’t put them as con…but they feel like HYDRA in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where no one really stands out.

    There is a reason that this film inspired so many more stories (though I should also read the manga to get an idea of how much it follows it). This is an anime that isn’t afraid to tackle large philosophical ideas about artificial intelligence, identity and the nature of perception. Seeing this film has me even more worried about the live action film and makes me want to watch the show again as the show was a huge influence on my interest in philosophy, cyberpunk and continued my passion for science fiction. Suffice to say I highly recommend this film. It is short and well worth your time if you are looking for an anime film that has left an influence on our culture and world.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10

iBoy (2017): An Animesque Film That Explores Trauma and Healing

   “iBoy” is a decent film. It’s a made for Netflix film, which I’ve noticed has come to mean they are working with a limited budget, but this film makes the most of it by having a smaller cast, which leads to some great character exploration for our leads, as both of them are given arcs that have good payoff.

    The film was directed by Adam Randall, written by Joe Barton, Mark Denton and Jonny stockwood and produced by Gail Mutrux, Nate Bolotin, Emily Leo, Oliver Roskill and Lucan Toh.

   The story takes place in London as lonely teenage boy Tom struggles to fit in and find purpose. With prompting from his friend he goes out with Lucy, a friend and long time crush. Sadly he arrives when her house is being attacked and she is being assaulted by faceless gang members. When he runs they shoot him leading to parts of his cell phone getting lodged into his brain. When he wakes he finds he has developed powers and begins to hunt down the men responsible as Lucy works through the trauma of all she went through.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world feels a lot like Gotham as the gangs are pretty powerful in this and you get the idea that they own city, which is why Tom becoming iBoy makes sense. I could have spent more time in this world given there are only 3 characters who really get explored.

The Special Effects – The special effects are cheap but effective and I like how they show what is on the screens of phones when iBoy is hacking devices or noticing the world around him. It gives the world a cyberpunk feel.

The Main Characters – The three main characters who get explored are really what carry the film. Maisie Williams is the strongest actress in this, while the guys work but aren’t nearly on her level or have her range. They still do a decent job with what they have to work with though.

Danny – Danny is in with the gangs and is Tom’s friend…we soon see it is a false friendship by the end as he sell’s Tom out for money to the leader of the gangs and was the one filming the rape of Lucy at the beginning (it is implied anyway). I wish he’d faced some sort of justice, as everyone else in the film does.

Tom – Tom is the nerdy outcast who develops confidence when he gets superpowers. He is very much a Peter Parker analogue, and he works in that way as it is going full vigilante that leads to him forgetting Lucy, the reason he went vigilante in the first place. In the end he comes back though and works with Lucy as it is together they take down the gangs as he discovers his full power (he can turn himself into an EMP beyond just hacking tech. and manipulating electricity).

Lucy – Maisie Williams is an amazing actress, and thankfully she isn’t exploited in this as her rape by the gang members could have ended there and Tom’s story be the only arc since he goes vigilante. Instead we see her face her fear of going outside, trusting people again and she even confronts the monsters who did it and lets them live, showing she’s better than them and that she isn’t a killer. Her story is the strongest in the entire film and unlike a lot of animes where she’d just become an object to inspire iBoy she is a fully realized character.

Healing from Trauma – The film shows that healing from trauma and abuse isn’t easy and takes time. Both Tom and Lucy (who experience very different types of trauma) find one another and in the end Lucy is the one who really goes through healing as Tom just gets obsessed in his rage until the end. This is a process that is different for everyone, but I found how they expressed arc to be powerful and empowering as she takes control of her life again and empowers those around her and herself.

Murder versus Mercy – Murder versus Mercy is a huge theme in this as everyone who is bad (the gangsters) are all killers. iBoy gets close at times and it is his walking close to this that the film presents as a negative as Lucy doesn’t want him to lose his soul either.

Okay: Tom’s Grandma – She writers erotic fiction and her daughter was a druggie and she is worried about Tom…I wish all of these things could have been explored more as she doesn’t feel like a fully realized character.

The Cons: The Big Bad – The guy is a one-dimensional dude who just wants power. The only unique thing about him is he wants to use iBoy to get his money back and become even more powerful. It is implied he might be Tom’s dad but it doesn’t go anywhere. He was really a waste of a character…the lesser gang members were too outside of Danny.

  This is a film worth checking out if if you like cyberpunk or super hero films as it very much captures both those genres. In many ways ti feels like an anime, as the main character is a recluse who gets special powers whose drive is a love interest until his obsession becomes his drive (reminded me a lesser Lelouch from “Code Geass”). Maisie Williams was the best part of this film though as her arc of healing is actually explored and she isn’t just an object to inspire Tom and his motivation. They are partners and that is what made the film enjoyable as the villains are pretty weak and aren’t very fleshed out.

Final Score: 7.7 / 10

“Stranger Things” Season 1 – A Powerful Sci. Fi. Coming of Age Story Reminiscent of the Best of the 80’s Sci. Fi. Films

Stranger Things Poster

   “Stranger Things” is a show born out of love and appreciation for so many great films during the 80’s. You can see elements of Stephen King, “John Carpenter’s The Thing,” “E.T.” “Goonies” and countless others that were clearly inspiration for a show that in the end isn’t any of them and clearly stands on it’s own as a drama and show. Non-spoiler thoughts, if you like any of the things I listed above you should watch this show. Netflix has once again created gold and if you are looking for a timeless and classic story, this is the show for you.

Their will be some SPOILERS coming up.

     The series was created by the Duffer Brothers for Netflix and produced by Shawn Levy.

     The story involves the mysterious disappearance of Will Byers in a small town in Indiana and what his family (his mother and brother) and friends do to find him as a mysterious entity is on the lose and government agents hunt a young girl with superpowers named Eleven, who joins Will’s friends Mike, Lucas and Dustin to find and rescue Will.

The Pros: The World – The world has the small town feel with the greater mystery as we have a small town where everyone knows everyone yet the threat from both El, the State and the alien entity making the small town threatening beyond the bullies who already inhabit the town.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and captures both the fun of Dungeons and Dragons when the boys are playing it, to the alien nature of the Upside Down where the alien entity comes from and is breaking through into our world.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is awesome and has wonderful 80’s songs littered through the entire show with a haunting 80’s synth for the opening. It is a film level soundtrack. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein did a great job on it.

The Writing – The writing feels real…the characters don’t speak contrived dialogue and the kids sounds like kids, teens like teens and adults sound like adults. It is surprising how rare this is in shows and films but this series doesn’t have that problem.

The Alien – The alien looks like a misshapen grey human from the back with long arms and am mouth like a Venus fly trip. It is terrifying in that you hardly ever see it fully. It is also deadly too as it kills Nancy’s friend Barb and has pumped Will full of it’s possible young even after he is rescued and it is defeated.

The Characters – The characters drive the story and each of them are more compelling than their stereotype or trope they represent in 80’s film.

Nancy Wheeler – Nancy is the nerd who joins the popular kids but after sees they are bullies leaves them. This is her trope that she goes beyond by building a relationship with Jonathan after both of them lose people to the alien and they take the fight to it. She becomes a leader and shows that she is awesome with a gun.

Jonathan Byers – Jonathan is the awkward creeper outsider who we learn is actually sensitive and respectful. That is his trope and how he goes beyond it is building a relationship with his mom when he learns she was telling the truth of talking to Will through the lights and seeing the alien. He’s also a cool older brother to Will and introduces him to great rock.

Chief Jim Hopper – Jim Hopper is the alcoholic divorced Police Chief who lost his daughter and never recovered from it. He changes in that he is the first to back Joyce when he discovers the State base and the area where the alien has made it’s home and the government wipes his memory. He is a dealmaker who doesn’t want to lose people and makes a deal for the State to get El back if he can save Will since he doesn’t want Joyce to lose a child too. For the bitter Police Chief he has a lot of compassion and empathy, and is quite good at his job.

Joyce Byers – Joyce is the main character besides Will’s friends. She is the one who is seen as crazy and in many ways did crack after Will went missing. She is also the one who sees the unknown and takes the risks and discovers the alien entity first. She is great in that she is someone who is doing the best she can with so much working against her. When she helps rescue Will we also see her begin to heal from her past abusive relationship and now having good relationships with her sons. Winona Ryder is wonderful in this role.

Dustin – Dustin is the guy who perceives a lot. He guessed the lunch lady was hiding the chocolate pudding, he knew when the State was coming and to get away and in the end it hints that he knows greater threats are on the horizon too. He is also the one who helps Lucas and Mike resolve their issues and brings the group back together. He is a pretty awesome kid with a lisp.

Lucas – Lucas is the member of Will’s friends who is the most driven and connected to those in the group. He distrusts El when they meet her partially out of fear of losing Mike but also because he wants to protect his friends. In the end he comes around though and even after he and Mike fight he warns and protects them and Eleven from the State as he sees who the real threat is.

Eleven – El is a character with superpowers who was taken from her mother in a government experiment and was being used to spy on the Russians during the Cold War before she escapes after she ends up opening the portal to the world the alien comes from. She is an amazing character who is learning how to control her powers and discovers what having friends is actually like and what it means. In the end she uses her power to hold away the entity and to keep it from our world after she and Mike basically admit love for one another. It is powerful and sad and we get the idea she is still out there fighting the entity.

Mike Wheeler – Mike is the main character and his arc is healing his relationship with his friends, his love for El and saving Will. He is a cool character and we see him willing to risk his life to protect those he cares about. He is also the DM for the boys’ Dungeons and Dragons game.

Coming of Age and Loss – This is the town’s coming of age and Nancy has sex for the first time and discovers her sexuality, Will discovers attraction, El discovers her own beauty and wants for the first time and Joyce and Jim confront their grief and loss and in it come together to heal as they try to save Will. It is powerful and these themes are always their below the surface in the many events and confrontations that take place through the show.

The Cons: The State and Their Motivations and Execution – I get they are fighting the Russians during the Cold War but beyond a faceless entity there was no depth to them at all. Even El’s “Papa” was just a monster who had no depth. This was a major con as every good show needs a good villain.

Leaving the Ending Open – The series could have ended and even though I want to see more I’m putting it as a con since they could have easily wrapped everything up and had the perfect show.

  This was a series that could have ended amazing with just 1 season and not setting up future seasons. I like that there will be more of this show, but like any story that keeps going, especially with television…I fear how it could bring around the overall quality of the show if it isn’t handled well. After defeating the alien things could have ended and it would have been perfect. Leaving it open brought it down a little for me. This is a world well worth your time though and the acting and writing is absolutely amazing. I have yet to have a bad experience with Netflix shows and this one is easily one of their best.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10