John Carpenter’s The Thing – a masterclass in horror.

There are two things that the majority of horror movies today lack – artistic flair and good writing. The Thing (1982) has both of these in spades. But how exactly did this remake of a classic movie establish itself as one of the giants in the genre?

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The Thing is beautifully shot. Take a look at the image above. This one frame tells you all there is to know about what is to come, it creates suspense, it gets the viewer wondering what the hell the title is referring to. But what’s more, the scene has character, it has definition. It begins by passing through a few rooms, lit up but empty, completely devoid of human presence. The camera progresses through them carefully, before the shot changes and we’re suddenly in the hallway. The camera is on the ground. Then a dog’s head pops out through a doorway at the far end of said hallway and the camera begins to slowly back away from it as it approaches. No effects, no jump scares, just the distant sound of music somewhere else in the compound and the howl of the wind outside. No more than 30 seconds of screen time give the viewer the full picture and tell them all there is to know about the situation without so much as a single line of dialogue – loneliness, isolation and a hidden enemy that could be disguised as any one of our main characters. The enemy is fear itself. It stalks through the icy compound and finds shelter in the heart of each member of the group.

Few movies can create as immersive and haunting an atmosphere as that of The Thing. Once the monster is revealed in the first 20 or so minutes of the movie, the surroundings become claustrophobic. There’s nowhere to escape. The group is on Antarctica, with a storm coming up that puts any evacuation plans on hold. They soon discover that the alien can transform into any living being it devours. The subtlety and, in many cases, the nonchalance of the dialog is key to making every scene nerve-wracking and suspenseful. Who’s a real human, and who’s just an alien masquerading as one?

What’s intriguing about The Thing is that none of the characters are idiots. Whereas as most modern movies in the horror genre have you constantly marveling at the protagonist’s utter inability to think clearly and come to logical conclusions, most of the actions of the group in The Thing are based on sound reason. They come up with ways to protect themselves, they come up with ways to isolate those members of the group they suspect might’ve come into contact with the alien. None of what they do saves them, though, and that’s part of the beauty of this movie. When they hear the dogs frantically barking and growling in their cage, they immediately prepare themselves for any and all scenarios, not only do they bring handguns and a shotgun, but they also bring out the heavy artillery – a flame thrower. It’s realistic behavior, caution borne out of their claustrophobic and lonely environment, a response that the viewer can relate to and see themselves having in the given situation. That’s why the group’s plans falling apart and resulting in the death of yet another member each time is so terrifying – the viewer realizes that he wouldn’t be safe under these circumstances either. One cannot simply tell themselves that they’d be fine if they were in the movie because of X character’s ridiculous decision. It’s all realistic, it’s all tangible.

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Another key component is the monster design. It’s a terrifying feat of practical effects that remains impressive to this day, despite the tremendous progress in the field of CGI. The alien, apart from having an otherworldy, almost incomprehensible look to it that makes it all the more hard to logically process and thus make less intimidating, exists in the world and is affected by lighting in the same way that, say, Kurt Russell is in the movie. It looks more present, more threatening, easier to interact with for the actors, meaning it creates an opportunity for more believable performances. With how prominent the green screen is in modern cinema, the art of beautiful practical effects and prop work is much easier to appreciate and enjoy. Rob Bottin really did an amazing job.

And how could one forget Enio Morricone’s cold, spacey theme that fits the movie like a glove. Morricone even mimicked Carpenter’s own synthetic sound, making the project seem like an even tighter package that it already was.

In the age of hauntings, possessions and all other sorts of ghostly and demonic activity in the horror genre, it’s important to remember that it’s not all about the jump scares and the shaky cam/found footage. Horror movies can be well-made. They can be suspenseful, atmospheric, beautiful artistically – just like any other film out there. Horror shouldn’t be allowed to turn into a basket full of cheap scares and uneven audio.

In Bruges and creating sympathy for the anti-hero.

In the vast majority of cases, the idea of a story is to take the central character on a journey. That could refer to a physical quest that leads to changes within the protagonist and his surroundings, or it could mean a spiritual one that either changes the character fundamentally or reasserts his or her preexisting beliefs and feelings. Regardless of the details, the skeleton of a story almost always revolves around one person discovering something about themselves, or about the nature of the human condition, with the latter realization also having an effect on the particular character.

That’s all fine and dandy, but how do you make a viewer, reader or listener connect with someone who isn’t a good person? How do you make a normal, functioning human being empathize and sympathize with a criminal?

In Bruges is the story of two hit men who hide out in, unsurprisingly, Bruges, after a botched job that involved the accidental murder of a child.  The viewer doesn’t know the backstory from the get-go, so at the surface layer Ray, the younger of the two, just seems like an infantile idiot who can’t appreciate the finer things in life and still acts like a kid whenever things don’t go his way. He pouts, he’s vulgar and his manners leave much to be desired. So how come by the end of the movie the viewer is rooting for him?

The other hit man, Ken, portrayed by the wonderful Brendan Gleeson, is an integral part of it. He’s an older man, kind, well-mannered and well-spoken. While Ray refuses to even look at the beautiful architecture of the town, Ken walks around with a faint smile on his face, stopping here and there to take in the view and admire the beauty of the place. He explores, sees the sights and revels in the atmosphere, all the while doing his best to make Ray see Bruges for what it is – not a prison as the younger man sees it, but a beautiful spot for tourism. Near the beginning we see Ken climbing the Bruges tower and looking down on Ray as he sits huddled on a bench in its shadow, a symbolic scene that illustrates the divide between them not through words, but through picture. Gradually, Ken becomes a father figure for Ray, who comes to respect him in a way that many younger people do when they finally connect with one of their elders. As time goes on, Ray starts smiling, greeting people around him. He meets a girl and they fall in love. Despite his prejudices, he befriends a dwarf that’s almost as grumpy as he was in the beginning of the film. This is the superficial layer of Ray’s path, what even the casual movie-goer can see and appreciate, but the second layer is Ray’s struggle to reconcile his past with the present. To come to terms with the fact that he murdered an innocent child, and to find the strength to become another person and, as Ken puts it ‘save the next little boy.’

One important part of the movie is the flashback to Ray’s first job and last job. He’s in the confessional, speaking to his target, a priest. After a brief conversation, Ray pulls out his gun and shoots the man twice. The priest staggers away from him and opens a door in an attempt to either escape or to make the child in the room behind said door run away. Ray never sees the boy, but instead fires a few more shots into the priest’s back as he stands in the doorway. Once the body falls to the floor Ray approaches the door and sees a little boy with a bullet in the side of his head, sitting on a bench with a piece of paper in his hands. Ray immediately falls to his knees in shock. He stands there, dumbfounded and on the edge of tears, before Ken runs in and drags him out of the shot, but the camera lingers on the two bodies, Ray’s handiwork. It’s important to note that some parts of the movie are seen through Ray’s eyes, and this is one of them. The camera staying behind and ignoring Ray and Ken’s escape from the scene is actually Ray’s thoughts. They never leave that room, he never forgets what he did to the boy. While in Bruges, it seems as if he’s trying to forget about it, but it never works. In one scene he tells Ken he’s had thirteen pints of beer, but he’s still not drunk in the slightest. His conscience is always there, never letting him rest. One night he parties with cocaine, hookers and alcohol and he seems to have all but forgotten about his sin. But in the morning he wakes up alone, Ken gone from their shared room in the hotel, and we see a close-up of his empty gaze and tears rolling down his face. This is a painfully realistic portrait of grief and sorrow, of how they never leave you, no matter how hard you try to hide from them. That morning he gives all his remaining money to the proprietor of the small family hotel they’re staying in and goes to a park. He watches the kids playing for a while and waits for them to leave his vicinity, before pulling out his gun and cocking it. Ken stops him at the last moment, and they have a heartfelt talk afterwards, where Ray breaks down.

The rest of the movie facilitates Ray’s spiritual change – he finds something to live for, he finds a way to forgive himself. He finally wants to live. But let’s take a step back from In Bruges and assess what the movie did to turn Ray from an anti-hero who fat-shames American families in the street and beats up Canadians into a young man who made a horrible mistake but truly wants to turn his life around.

Point of view – letting the viewer inside the head of the character is very important. We see his motivations, his fears, his regrets. The great orchestral score helps convey Ray’s pain and puts the viewer in his shoes. The scene where he kills the boy is truly chilling, thanks to the cinematography and Collin Farrell’s brilliant performance, we see the instant regret in Ray’s eyes, we see a precipitating event that changes the character.

Supporting characters – Ken is possibly the most important part of Ray’s redemption. He turns into a father figure for him, helps his through his toughest and darkest moments and at the end sacrifices himself to give Ray a chance at living out his new life. Ray’s childish behavior is, at first glance, a negative character trait, but looking more closely at the relationship between Ken and Ray, we see that Ray is still practically a kid. He isn’t fit for the world he got himself into and it’s quite possible that he had no choice either (Ray mentions doing what he did for money, no out of rage or hate or any other reason).

Change – it’s important to bear in mind that Ray is an anti-hero, not an antagonist. He isn’t necessarily good, but he isn’t particularly bad either (as the movie itself also points out during Ken and Ray’s discussion about purgatory). Ray goes through several phases before finally arriving at his destination – the desire to live. At the end, it feels as if the viewer’s gone through the same journey and experiences the same catharsis as Ray, making it almost impossible not to feel a genuine connection with the character.

And finally, actions have consequences. For a character to feel believable and to act like an actual human, he or she needs to bear the weight of causality. The accidental murder never once leaves Ray’s mind. It’s a monumental beacon in the sea that is his life and it’s impossible for him to ignore it. Every emotion that he experiences throughout the story is in some way affected by this one event, making him look, feel and sound like a real person, one that the viewer can establish a relationship with.

Why Before Sunrise is a great movie.

I know, I know. I know exactly what most people think whenever romantic movies are brought up – they’re low brow, they’re slow and meandering or too quick and illogical, lacking in structure, lacking in coherence of plot or message, too whimsical or lovey-dovey. I get all these complaints, and they’re completely reasonable. But the reason for this is the fact that romantic movies are a rarity. What we get today, and have been getting for a while now, are whitewashed rom-coms with uninteresting premises and casts that look like they were picked out of a fashion catalog. The type of movies that Matthew McConaughey used to star in before Hollywood realized he’s actually a decent actor. Movies like Fool’s Gold, The Switch, Just Go With It, The Bounty Hunter… you get the idea.

Before Sunrise is nothing like that. The only way to describe it in my mind is as one of the most grounded and realistic love stories ever filmed. The characters are immensely believable and likable, each with their own little quirks and personal issues. In the beginning the relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) is delicate, a casual acquaintance borne out of necessity and in response to events that were completely out of their control. They proceed to become closer and closer until, eventually, getting together. The latter half of the movie follows the two as they walk through Vienna and explore the city, before going their separate ways.

I realize how generic this quick summary of the film is, but what makes it truly shine is its writing. The dialogue is human. It flows well, it sounds well, it’s delivered in a manner that makes the viewer believe the actors behind the on-screen characters are, in reality, just strolling through the Austrian capital and talking about anything and everything. That’s where the depth of Before Sunrise is as well – Jesse and Celine explore some complex issues together. The underlying theme is time. Before Sunrise, to me, functions as a sort of microcosm of life. The beginning of the story is their meeting on the train, a completely random event that could have never even occurred if certain variables had been assigned different values, if we were to talk about reality as if it were a computer program. That’s birth. They hit it off, become friends, have fun, walk around, get more intimate. This is life, the very process of living, of being human. They end of their first (and last) day together is death. But they make a deal to meet again 6 months later, same place, same time. That’s reincarnation, something Jesse touches on earlier in the film while playing Q and A with Celine on the train. Time is the one and only constant. The one thing inhibiting their ability to remain together. The idea of time as an unconquerable foe is further reinforced by Jesse, who quotes W.H.Auden’s As I Walked Out One Evening:

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

Now let’s reach even further. Let’s take a look at one of Hollywood’s favorite philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, and his idea of eternal recurrence. The idea is quite simple – if time and space are infinite, then the chance of everything that has ever been occurring once again is greater than zero (and this isn’t solely a philosophical concept, see the Poincare recurrence theorem; basically things return to almost the exact state as the initial one given a large, but finite, amount of time). And that’s exactly what Jesse and Celine aim to do – they have to disappear from each other’s lives for a while due to circumstances that they cannot change, but they also have time, loads of it. They’re young and in love, plenty of time for everything, right? That’s why they aim to do almost the exact same thing as they did before. This is the gist of the idea that time is cyclical, rather than linear. As that overly dramatic guy in the diaper in True Detective season 1 said “Time is a flat circle.” Yeah, that’s a good way of simplifying it.

Philosophy aside, Before Sunrise is great from a purely film making perspective. As a fan of continuous shots, this movie was a dream come true for me. Long shots aplenty, interesting framing and frame entrance, the movie features some very neat technical intricacies that make it a very accessible, easy to follow experience that satisfies the eye.

All in all, Before Sunrise is near flawless. It does everything a romantic movie should do, while also throwing some extra goodies into the bag to make it even more enticing. Its writing and camera work during the long, sometimes seemingly pointless, dialogues put it on par with some of the greatest movies of the past decades like The Big Lebowski and Pulp Fiction, but unlike them it offers a much more subdued and, depending on your preferences, boring story.

Oh, and the saddest part of this movie is knowing that it was mostly downhill from there for Ethan Hawke.

 

 

 

Under 800: Zodiac (2007)

Of all the incredible movies in David Fincher’s portfolio, Zodiac is perhaps the most underrated one, at least from a consumer’s standpoint. Its performance at the box office was only just satisfactory, making almost exactly 85 million dollars on a 65 million budget. The reason for its relative commercial failure is quite simple – Zodiac is a character study, a procedural thriller that doesn’t feature any gunfights or over the top action sequences. It’s grounded and focused on mystery and puzzle-solving. For those interested in cinema’s inner workings, it was certainly one of Fincher’s best works. The film oozes suspense and anxiety – Harry Savides’s cinematography helps set the moody tone of San Francisco in the 70s. The camera spends much of its time tightly following the characters’ actions throughout the movie, but never once does it reveal the Zodiac killer’s face, staying true to the real murderer’s enigmatic nature. The lighting, the static shots that reveal details in the background, the sheer dynamism of many of the office scenes, all of it comes together to form a truly satisfying experience on subsequent watches, rewarding the viewer with the amount of detail that went into crafting the movie. The SF Chronicle’s offices in the movie are exact copies of the real ones, even down to the items sitting on each desk, testament to Fincher’s determination to make his reconstruction of the events that transpired between 69′ and 83′ as true to life as possible.

What makes Zodiac shine, even more so than Savides’s work and my personal favorite trait of Fincher’s, which is to only use one shot when possible instead of five, is the great cast. Gyllenhaal portrays Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the SF Chronicles who becomes obsessed with the Zodiac murders and does everything in his power to uncover the killer’s identity. This role is testament to his ability to play the everyman better than most A-listers out there. He breathes life into his character and makes him look, behave and feel like an ordinary man, aware of the surrounding world. He has a way of understanding these personages that rivals even Stephen King, an author known for the believability and likability of his Average Joes, his Stu Redmans and Jake Eppings. Of course the rest of the cast deserves recognition as well. Mark Ruffalo delivers an amazing performance as the tired cop, no doubt one that Scorsese took note of when casting Shutter Island. John Carroll Lynch is as good as he’s ever been and, sadly, received as little attention and praise as he usually does after a film’s release. He seems to be one of those actors that are incredibly competent but never receive a breakout role that puts them in the spotlight. I would truly love to see him handle the role of the protagonist in a bigger project.

And of course there’s Robert Downey Junior being Robert Downey Junior. His cynical smart guy with a tender heart schtick is yet to grow old.

Overall, Zodiac is an almost perfect movie, not because it aims very high or because it does anything particularly innovative or special, but because it does what it sets out to achieve extremely well. Some critics slammed it for the lack of shoot-outs and high-stakes action sequences, but this complaint shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what Zodiac is. Would anyone criticize True Detective‘s first season for having but two or three gunfights? The focus of these works lies elsewhere entirely. The antagonist is less Hans Gruber and more Joker – the idea is to lay bare the protagonist, to change him through indirect action by provoking him to question his constitution. Zodiac explores obsession. At the end of the day, what is Robert Graysmith but a tame version of the Zodiac?

 

The World’s End and the quest for meaning.

Edgar Wright has the unique ability of creating movies that are consistently fun, as well as funny. Almost every single element of his movies is crafted in a way that is rewarding to the viewer – the editing, the plot and dialogue, the acting, the background. All of it comes together to create an experience that holds the attention like few other pieces of media can. Wright relentlessly tackles genre convention, turning each one of his movies into a queer mix of homage to and parody of the good old days. But most importantly he’s demonstrated, much like his good friend Quentin Tarantino, that movies can be both entertaining and engaging, both intellectually and artistically.

The World’s End is a stark example of Wright’s ability to weave some surprisingly profound questions and commentary into a movie that, on the surface, is all about a group of childhood buddies getting back together after many years apart. This essay will only touch on one of them, as the themes are fairly broad and lend themselves to long-winded speculation and discussion (e.g free will and what it means to be human).

In the very beginning of The World’s End (henceforth referred to as TWE for the sake of brevity), we see a group of five friends in a small town. Every group of rowdy school kids needs a leader, and this one’s is Gary King – an arrogant braggadocio with a penchant for disrupting civil order. Gary leads his merry band into trouble of all sorts, the culmination of  the boys’ folly being The Golden Mile, a pub crawl through the quaint town of Newton Haven. The opening sequence ends with Gary and two of his friends, Andy and Steven, sitting atop a hill overlooking their hometown after the unsuccessful pub crawl. Gary, who narrates the flashback, says that it was then he knew that nothing in his life would ever beat that moment.

The rest of the movie is a direct consequence of Gary’s inability to move on. He leaves Newton Haven like all the rest of his friends, but he never really escapes it mentally. Andy, Steven, Peter and Oliver (all bearing second names like Chamberlain and Knightley, to underscore Gary King’s influence and stature earlier on in their lives) become successful businessmen. They settle down and adjust to the ‘real world’, to adulthood. Gary does no such thing – he remains the same old person, even down to the clothes he wears. He drinks excessively, swears like a sailor and, most jarringly of all, continues to act like an awkward teenager.

The viewer is left under the impression that Gary is just an infantile bum who can’t kick it in the real world throughout most of the move. Some subtle hints make it obvious that he has some sort of mental problem, but it isn’t until the climax that we truly realize what Gary’s issue is.

“It never got better, Andy. It never
got better than that night. It was
supposed to be the beginning of my
life. All that promise and fucking
optimism. That feeling that we
could take on the whole universe.
It was a big lie. NOTHING HAPPENED!”

Gary’s philosophy throughout the movie is fairly straightforward – he just wants to have a good time. This line, though, lays bare the essence of his problems, and shows exactly what it is that he lacks in life: fulfillment, purpose, meaning.

Children are usually raised to believe that anything and everything is within their reach as long as they work hard enough for it. This is not necessarily the parent’s fault, rather a consequence of a young kid’s innate gullibility. It’s only natural that someone as inexperienced as a child or a teenager would be left under the impression that the world is their playground, that it’s a ‘monkey see, monkey get’ sort of existence. Why wouldn’t it be? A child does not understand the mechanisms of the world’s they’ve only relatively recently been born into. Nevertheless, these mechanisms exist and they slowly take their toll on the young mind, chipping away at its dreams and hammering in the idea of a more grounded way of life. It works in most cases, but there are, as always, outliers. Gary King is one of them. The freedom of his youth is as sweet as nectar. The taste lingers on his tongue, much fainter than it was initially, but just about there, just about strong enough to remind Gary of the life he’s grown out of, the life he lost. His friends are gone, his influence is non-existent in his new home far from Newton Haven. But instead of letting his old life fade into obscurity and live on as a fond memory in his head, he desperately holds on to that semblance of normality that he associates with his teenage years. But a berry that is edible in the summer could turn out to be poisonous in the winter – alcohol, once a way for him to enjoy the company of his friends even more, becomes an end in itself; his behavior lands him in a mental ward. This is what hedonism led him to – a life of regret and disappointment. Gary’s life was devoted to his friends, to partying, to having a good time while he could. But that’s not a solution to the core problem – existence itself.

I shan’t pretend to know any more about the essence of life than anyone else. Why are we here, what is our place, our purpose? Is the meaning contained in the act of living itself? All questions that arise at one point or another. It is the individual’s duty, to himself first and foremost, to find an answer that suits him. Evading the questions altogether is a perfectly valid response. After all, why should one concern himself with that, when the ultimate truth is ultimately unobtainable? But some remain thirsty – for knowledge, for meaning, for a reason. Gary wants a reason to live, he needs one. The idea of an empty Universe, cold and inhospitable, has crept into his mind, whether he knew it consciously or not.

Freedom is a term that is thrown around around the world in relation to pretty much any topic imaginable. To be free is to be human, to be free is to be alive. But are we free? Is it possible for someone in the modern world to be truly free? How can man be free if he has to work 60 hours a week to sustain himself and his family? How can he be free if borders restrict his access to certain parts of the world, if laws are imposed upon him by people far away from him, people he’ll never meet, never converse with? Gary prided himself on being a free spirit. A teenager who could have a few pints with his mates then go into the disabled’s bathroom in the very same pub and have sex with one of his classmates. All Newton Haven knew the name Gary King. But what happens when the King comes out of his castle and walks among the commoners dressed like them? The respect is gone, the love is gone. The freedom is gone, a fleeting shadow of its former self, an empty term that lacks its punch in a world that, sadly, cannot function like a fairy tale. Gary’s idea of life is shattered. His purpose, his pursuit of a good time, is impossible. All this is brilliantly summed up in another line from the climax in the World’s End pub, when Andy sees Gary’s wrist bandages and badge from the mental ward:

“I got help. You know what help was?
Help was a lot of people, sitting
in a circle talking about how bad
things had got. That is not my idea
of a good time.”

“They told me when to go to bed,
Andy. Me, Gary fucking King!”

Andy, Oliver, Peter, Steven, they all adapted, accepted the facts of life and pursued the traditional trajectory of individual development. Gary couldn’t, he wouldn’t. His meaning was his freedom. That’s why he seems so happy after the first big fight in the toilet – everyone in the town is a blank, it’s practically a free-for-all. He feels the old blood coursing through his veins, compelling him to act, to live. The scenario is new, but the concept is old – man leaves his comfort zone (meaning the mundane and banal) and ventures off into unknown territories to rediscover himself. Gary’s trip is at first mental, but later becomes physical after the end of modern civilization. A real-world example of this would be Christopher McCandless, who ran away from his cushy middle class life in the pursuit of fulfillment. His tale ends tragically, but one must hope that he found whatever he was searching for.

 

On the beautiful simplicity of the Middle Ages in film and literature.

 

Rolling, sunbathed meadows, pastures littered with sheep, their fleece as white as fresh snow, bare-foot children running through the not-so-dirty dirt road that weaves through a quaint village, comprised of wooden huts with straw roofs. Hard working men in plaid shirts labor in the radiant sun, forging, crafting, building. And all this is seen through the eyes of a comely knight-errant striding atop his gorgeous charger.

A pretty picture, to be sure, and one that most of us know all too well. Few things are more reassuring than the highly romaticised vision of the Medieval countryside. It’s simple, it’s naturalistic and wholly void of any sort of pretension or malignant thought. The Shire is a wonderful example of this very sentiment, a place of innocence in the face of the hardship and danger that grip the world around. And therein lies the allure of these tales, of this idyllic imagery – they are the pinnacle of escapism. Every one of us has, at some point in our lives, be it at a time of unbearable stress or existential desperation, dreamed of a simpler world, one where purpose is easy to discover, adventure hides behind every corner, as does opportunity, and social mobility is as quick and easy as wielding a blade in combat. To hell with the details, to hell with the technicalities of reality in the Middle Ages, historical accuracy needn’t have a central place in a fairy tale. Think of Heath Ledger’s A Knight’s Tale – the story of a peasant that dons a knight’s suit of armor and takes part in jousting tournaments in said knight’s name, earning both himself and his friends coin and renown. The movie shamelessly borrows from true historical tales, as well as from other pieces of fiction. It combines classic rock (Queen, David Bowie) with a story that, at its core, is quintessential example of chivalric romance. It’s truly a dreamy experience (though, from a purely cinematic standpoint, it’s far from perfect).

But the desire for simplicity goes beyond the dream of a world that is easier to understand. In the age of the precariat, one wishes for a higher meaning, to discover his true calling in life, that which would fulfill and satisfy him. Economic insecurity turns man into machine, constantly performing repetitive tasks, until being summarily shut down. Wage stagnation and income inequality are some of the biggest hurdles that the generations to come must overcome, especially if the rise of the precariat class is to be stemmed – labor productivity grows much faster than wages and there are only so many hours in the day. In this climate of uncertainty and rampant class disproportion, it’s no wonder that the individual would look for reprieve in a magical place where the worker receives the fruits of his labor, where evil is black and good is white and one can easily hack evil to bits with their trusty sword if need be. Even nuanced works that borrow heavily from the history of Medieval Britain like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire feature a faction or party that is clearly morally superior and, sooner or later, receives a chance to retaliate, to exact vengeance upon those who wronged both it and the surrounding world.

The other crucial component of Medieval romanticism is the knight – typically a wanderer, lone wolf or one with a small pack, rarely displaying more than a limited array of emotional responses. The knights-errant are influential stoic characters, precursors to action movie badasses, as portrayed by the likes of Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Wesley Snipes. And why is any of this particularly important? Because a strong character, one who is physically able and mentally sound, who lives a fulfilling life and is constantly confronted with something new, offers the opportunity for the reader, viewer, or player to live vicariously through this protagonist’s experiences. In an age where depression is becoming an ever more serious issue to public health, there is no wonder that some individuals turn to mediums such as gaming and film to explore aspects of life that are inaccessible to them in their current state. Becoming famed monster-slayer Geralt of Rivia in the Medieval Europe-inspired world of the Witcher offers something that a person suffering from severe anxiety or chronic depression may never experience otherwise. Likewise, watching The Seventh Seal, a film in which Max Von Sydow, a knight returning from the Crusades, finds Europe enveloped by the Black Plague and plays chess with Death, might bring the viewer closer to realizations that he’d never have reached himself, might even help him on a profoundly intellectual level.

Or maybe it’s all harmless diversion and my Occam’s razor simply hasn’t been sharpened in too long.

Under 800: Clash Royale and microtransactions

With approximately 200 million downloads across all mobile platforms, Clash Royale is one of the most played games in history. It’s not particularly hard to see why that is – nigh on infinite replayability, coupled with an addictive gameplay loop, based on both luck and skill, and, of course, the gambling element. It’s become customary for multiplayer-only games to feature chests, containing different sorts of loot. Overwatch and Counter-strike crates give the player the chance to change the look of their character models or their guns. Other games, mostly mobile ones, fully embrace the idea of making the player rely heavily on paid features, provided said player wishes to be competitive. This is the so-called ‘freemium’ model – the game is free, and so is progressing through it, in theory, but there are plenty of ways to aid your progress by means of cash transactions. It’s very rare nowadays to find a mobile game that doesn’t feature a shop. In-game currency, different lootcrates and chests that cost real money but are little more than glorified slot machines, meaning that the player, effectively, pays not for the items in the chests, but for the opportunity to win said items. Your money rarely guarantees you anything, it merely speeds up the same process that even F2P (free-to-play) players go through. Needless to say this practice is extremely predatory, as the main demographic of mobile games is young adults aged 16-21, and that’s completely ignoring the fact that many of these games also attract vast hordes of minors.

Let’s take a closer look at Clash Royale. CR is a deck-building game, the player chooses their own set of cards and dukes it out against other players in cool-looking arenas. The catch is that not all cards are created equal – some are inherently overpowered and are obviously created as a means of baiting people into purchasing chests. Upgrading cards changes their stats, and requires the player to acquire a certain amount of the same card to do so. The first level requires two copies, the next one requires four, the third requires ten, the fourth – twenty. And so on. Cards come in different rarities, meaning that the chances of getting them from a chest (the player receives a free chest every four hours, and one chest for every win until they fill up their allocated chest spots, four in all) depends on their quality – higher quality means lower chances. Chests work in much the same way. They too come in many shapes and sizes, the rarest ones have the highest chance of dropping cards of the highest rarity (Legendary). There is a complicated system that governs the chests dropped after a match win, one that involves cycles of hundreds of chests, most of which of the lowest possible quality, which means that an F2P player could go as much as 600 match wins without receiving a chest of the highest rarity.  Oh, and did I mention that there are two types of in-game currency? The player requires gold to pay for the upgrades (yes, you have to pay even after collecting all the necessary cards) and for the occasional card offers in the market. The other currency is the gem. Gems are rarer, and much harder to save up. They’re used for speeding up the opening of chests (because chests take time to unlock, the lowest quality chest takes three hours, while the higher quality ones take a full day to open).

I haven’t gone through all of the intricacies of the chest- and card-drop systems as this would complicate things even further, and I can’t even begin to imagine how confused someone who doesn’t play the game would be upon reading this. Is it possible to play without paying so much as a cent? Absolutely, but the process of levelling up and progressing through the arenas is going to be slow and painful, and you’re always going to be acutely aware of how much easier the game is for people who pay their way to the top. Is it possible to beat these people? Sure, that’s the beauty of Clash Royale – the player’s ability to react mid-game and create different strategies is absolutely crucial, and no amount of money can buy that. But there are plenty of other games that don’t have that going for them. The likes of The Smurfs’ Village, Clash of Clans (as well as most of its cheap knock-offs, for that matter) and Candy Crush are barely-concealed slot machines that either become impossible for F2P in the late-game stage, or don’t even bother hiding the true idea behind them.

There’s an argument to be made in favor of purely cosmetic microtransactions, but the truth is that chests, crates, lootcrates, or whatever else shady developers choose to call their flavor of RNG-based rewards system, abuse the vulnerability of kids and the mental disposition of adults prone to gambling addiction.