Because I Feel Obligated to Write Something About Bandersnatch

Folks, it is time to revive the old blog again because Netflix has released their first (relatively) adult-oriented interactive film, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. As someone who writes narrative-focused games with branching narratives, I’d be remiss to completely ignore Bandersnatch and as someone who wants to promote himself (however reluctantly) I’d be stupid not to weigh in on a moment of cultural zeitgeist.

If you don’t know what Bandersnatch is and care about spoilers, I’d recommend that you stop reading this post. I’m gonna spoil the shit out of Bandersnatch. If you care, go watch/play it before you read any further.

If you don’t know what Bandersnatch is and don’t care about spoilers, Bandersnatch is an interactive film produced by the creators of the Channel 4/Netflix series Black Mirror. Black Mirror is, in turn, an anthology TV series exploring the intersection of modern society and modern technology. The story of Bandersnatch changes based on decisions made by the viewer. The viewer chooses whether the main character, Stefan, eats frosted flakes for breakfast. The viewer also chooses whether Stefan murders his father. Yep.

Along with my partner, I write video games that are typically classified as visual novels (though, due to certain biases, we often call them adventure games). Bandersnatch,at its heart, shares a lot of DNA with visual novels. Specifically, the participation of the reader/player/viewer is limited to occasional choices that affect the development of the plot. That is how the viewer/player interacts with the work and affects its storytelling. You could call it an “interactive movie” or FMV game or get everyone angry with you by asking whether it is a movie or a game, but I approached it like I would a VN. Because that’s what I do.

Another way of looking at it: I often remark that Woodsy Studio makes indie Telltale games; which is to say that we strive to achieve similar (branching) storytelling but with a team of literally two people and very little budget. Bandersnatch is the opposite. It is like a Telltale game made with even more people, with actual actors and millions of dollars of production. And, for better or worse, it is going to be the first time a lot of people experience a branching narrative production.

So I had to write something.

HERE’S WHAT I LIKED:

First: The best part of Bandersnatch is the book. For those who haven’t seen/played it, the story of Bandersnatch focuses on a young game developer in 1984 who is adapting a book (called, of course, Bandersnatch) into a game. The game he is making is effectively an indie visual novel. The book is a “choose your own adventure” novel. But it’s not like any real “choose your own adventure” novel, because it is a (relatively) critically-acclaimed piece of outsider art written by a troubled artist plagued with mental illness. People respect it. People revere it as a novel of meaning.

Bandersnatch (the Netflix interactive film) starts by positing that Bandersnatch (the Choose Your Own Adventure book) could be art. This was really important to me, because interactive fiction games/visual novels are often denigrated with a comparison to those very same books. Writing interactive fiction would be SO MUCH BETTER if there was a massive critically-acclaimed fantasy CYOA book from the 1970s that we could all use as a touchstone but we’re not that lucky.

The metatextual treatment of Bandersnatch (the book) in the film was kind of a lame rip-off of the metatextual stuff in House of Leaves, but holy cow it was nice to see an alternative reality in which a “choose your own adventure” book was treated with any amount of reverence.

Second: The joke ending was great. Maybe my biggest regret was that literally the first ending we watched was the one where the viewer/player reveals themselves as a Netflix member. The main character, Stefan, relays this to his therapist who goes on to posit the very reasonable question: if we are TV characters, why aren’t we doing anything more interesting?

When you agree with this (by selecting FUCK YEAH) from the menu, Bandersnatch turns into a very brief Edgar Wright-esque action comedy. The therapist dual wields batons. Stefan’s father intervenes, Terminator-like, and the way to disable him is to choose to kick him in the balls.

It’s incredibly dumb. It’s incredibly fourth wall breaking. It was also hilarious. Sadly, none of the real endings were even able to match the appeal of the joke ending we got first.

Third: The best/most serious ending, which wholesale rips off The Butterfly Effect (which itself might have been ripping off Donnie Darko) introduced me to Laurie Anderson. If you want to talk about Black Mirror and the failure of algorithms, it’s absolutely wild that neither Spotify, nor Amazon, nor Pandora has ever recommended me anything by Laurie Anderson.

Fourth: It was fun. I watched/played Bandersnatch for two hours or so with my partner and a friend and we enjoyed it. That can’t be disregarded. I largely felt the same way about Bandersnatch that I did about Heavy Rain. The story wasn’t great. But it was fun to experience it with other people.

HERE’S WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

First: I want to sit down with Charlie Brooker (the creator of Black Mirror) and ask him just how much of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors he played before deciding that he “got it” and “could totally do this.”

Here is where I warn you about 999/Zero Escape spoilers but, c’mon, if you haven’t played 999 yet…that’s your own fault.

The fundamentally interesting part of Bandersnatch that (allegedly) sets it apart from other interactive branching narratives is that on some paths Stefan becomes aware of the fact that there are branching narratives. He also becomes aware that he is being controlled via the choices you (the viewer/player) make and this drives him to madness.

That’s cool. That’s definitely cool. But presenting that as a novel concept is fucking bananas. Visual novels have chipped at the fourth wall for years. Doki Doki Literature Club did it, Hatoful Boyfriend did it, our own game miraclr did it, and probably (for this point) most importantly, Zero Escape did it and did almost the exact same gimmick way better.

At various points, Bandersnatch toys with the idea that experiencing other/failed paths informs Stefan about how he should act. New choices open up based on the paths you’ve seen and, at times, this feels intentional. Other times, it feels weird and arbitrary.

The best example of this is a password-cracking sequence that happens near the very end of (several) paths. This is a moment literally straight out of multiple points in the Zero Escape series. In those games, your character is (for various reasons that are explained in excruciating detail) able to glean knowledge learned in failed narrative branches to solve problems in the present. This manifests itself as passwords/lock combinations several times.

Bandersnatch does the same trick. But it never (really) explains at least one of the possible passwords. You get the password “TOY” via a bad ending in one branch, but it’s executed rather cheaply. Specifically, you don’t actually learn the password but presumably Stefan guesses it because of a thing he heard.

That’s fine, I guess, but the real problem is there’s no payoff for the idea that Stefan learns more through the branches. There are approximately five times it ever comes up. There’s a wink-and-nod early on about two characters meeting for the second time, there’s the password stuff, and…that’s basically it.

Maybe I could forgive that, but VNs have pulled the same trick so much better for so much longer.  999 (a game almost a decade old) hits this very specific idea out of the park so hard that it’s a little embarrassing Bandersnatch didn’t handle it better.

Seriously, if you watched Bandersnatch and think the idea of a character who learns from other timelines is fun play 999 right fucking now just do it.

Second: So here’s the thing about interactive fiction and interactive narratives…

You can have branching stories (great!)

You can have different endings (hell yeah!)

But ultimately every player will have a true ending. It is incredibly important that the true ending–the last one the player experiences–is at least “good”. Viewers/players shouldn’t depart your story with a bad taste in their mouths.

THIS IS INCREDIBLY HARD.

In a game with multiple endings, there’s no way to know the order in which your players will experience them. Some games (999 again) fix this by gating the true ending behind all others. Anyone who completes the game–truly completes it–will get the most satisfying ending. Other VNs, especially dating sims, cordon off endings/routes based on choices made by the player that will ultimately make their ending the most satisfying one possible. After all, if you chose to romance Edward… You should be happy if that’s your ending.

Bandersnatch messes this up on a couple levels. Whenever you get an ending, you are directed to go back to a key point that could branch you off into another ending. This is done regardless of ending. There is no stopping point, unless you choose to exit. There is only seeing all the “major” ends. AND IT SUCKS.

I say it sucks because we got unlucky. We got the funniest ending first (action movie fight). Then we clearly got the ~canon~ ending (Netflix remakes the game and the curse continues). Then we got the Butterfly Effect ending (Stefan kills himself and stops the cycle).

Any one of those would have been a fine “true ending”. But after each one, the app pushed us to keep going–as if there was more to see that would make everything EVEN BETTER.

The next twenty or so minutes were weird conspiracy shit that undermined everything in every other ending and wasn’t well executed and we ended Bandersnatch on the worst possible note. None of the endings were particularly good (the action movie ending was fun, the Netflix ending was at least appropriate and completed the arc of the story), but for us the show effectively “ended” after the worst possible one and that kinda sucked.

HOT TAKE: I’ve been giving the Butterfly Effect ending (Stefan goes back in time and kills himself and prevents the game from being made) a lot of shit but if it had force closed the Netflix app and deleted Bandersnatch from Netflix for my account… I might be shouting to the heavens that the whole thing was amazing

Back to real serious points: This is going to be the first experience a lot of people have with interactive/branching narratives and I’m not thrilled.

Bandersnatch largely can’t decide how sincerely it wants to engage with its own concept. I’m perfectly happy with ironic/meta  interactive fiction (see 999, Doki Doki Literature Club, miraclr), but I don’t think that’s the point here. Bandersnatch seems torn between introducing the world to IF and tearing down IF (the only ending where the game gets good reviews is one where the game is only faking narrative choice rather than embracing it), and it doesn’t do either particularly well.

It seems like Bandersnatch is going to be a success for Netflix, so I expect they’ll keep making more interactive film experiences. That’s good! There’s nothing about the format that prevents it from telling a compelling, interesting story. But in my opinion, Bandersnatch is not that story. If you liked it, that’s fine! It was very entertaining! I’d suggest you check out some visual novels. Maybe visual novels by Woodsy Studio (hint hint).

If you didn’t like Bandersnatch, however, I really want to be clear that there are (and have been, for decades) games out there that have been applying the same mechanics (and themes) to much better effect, so don’t write off branching narratives and interactive fiction just because the BBC and Netflix tripped over their own feet and (likely) didn’t play enough of those other games to get the formula right.

 

 

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I Watched Saving Christmas So You Don’t Have To

I had a lot of expectations for Saving Christmas, the 2014 Kirk Cameron vehicle about reclaiming the holiday spirit. I thought I knew what it would be–a trite, sappy tale where secular nerds get owned by a Christian Gary Stu then everyone goes to an Evangelical rock concert. You know, basically a holiday Christmas themed God’s Not Dead. It’s not. Saving Christmas is something so much worse. It’s a film that makes the Atlas Shrugged trilogy look in comparison like a masterpiece of filmmaking and, maybe, even ideology.

No, really.

poster

Saving Christmas is not the film promised by this poorly-photoshopped poster. For example, nothing on this poster would indicate that the entire movie takes place at a single Christmas party–with the majority of it spent in a car parked outside said party. This poster shows a ton of action and movement, perhaps suggesting that Kirk Cameron will take drastic steps to save Christmas, like beating a teacher who says “Happy Holidays” with an oversized candy cane, but fails to demonstrate that the film is actually an entry in the My Dinner With Andre genre. Which is to say, it’s almost entirely a dialog between two middle-aged men.

But enough dancing around the candy-striped elephant in the room. Lets get this thing started.

Continue reading

I Watched Left Behind (2000) So You Don’t Have To

ProA few weeks ago, I took a look at the 2014 adaptation of the Evangelical Apocalyptic Bestseller Left Behind, mostly because it starred an underutilized Nicolas Cage. However, I was disappointed to find that the film was nothing more than a typical Airplane-but-with-a-straight-face Hollywood thriller, veneered with an awkward Christian finish. Other than the central concept–the rapture–all of the bizarre sci-fi/fantasy and niche Bible interpretation of the books was stripped from the story. There was no conspiracy, no Antichrist, just a man trying to land an airplane that was (somewhat inexplicably) damaged shortly after the rapture.

When I realized that the film lacked almost everything that made the books intriguing to me, I decided to see if the earlier adaptation–which went so deep into the series it received two sequels–had the meat I was looking for. Once I saw that one of the first credited roles in the 2000 adaptation was for Nicolae Carpathia, the aforementioned Antichrist, I knew what I had to do. I had to watch it.

I spent a long time trying to find the source for this "compelling, engaging" quote to find the context. I suspect it was probably said by Kirk Cameron in an interview that happened to be televised on CNN.

I spent a long time trying to find the source for this “compelling, engaging” quote to find the context. I suspect it was probably said by Kirk Cameron in an interview that happened to be televised on CNN.

Left Behind 2000 is not a glossy, quasi-high-budget bore like Left Behind 2014. No, this is a rougher, stranger beast that ventures deep into the weeds of the book’s bizarre world. So, in other words, it was actually kind of entertaining.

chap1It’s like a flashback to my Atlas Shrugged posts, because it’s time again to introduce a whole new cast of actors playing the same damn characters. Fortunately, these folks reprise their roles for the rest of the trilogy, which hilariously gives these slapdash films a leg up on the pyramid scheme that somehow funded the Rand adaptations. This means it should be the last time I go through this song and dance for a while.

Replacing our Lord and Savior Nicolas Cage in the role of everyman hero and aspiring cheater Rayford Steele is Brad Johnson. You might think you know who Brad Johnson is, but that is probably just because he has the world’s most generic name and looks like someone tried to create Dennis Quaid in the Skyrim character generator. His most significant credit is a supporting role in the Steven Spielberg film Always. Right now I bet you’re googling to see if I’m lying about Steven Spielberg directing a film called Always. I’m not. Brad Johnson also had a role on the TV series Soldier of Fortune, Inc. along with Dennis Rodman. I’m not lying about that one, either

I'm Brad Johnson and you probably remember me for movies I wasn't in and don't believe my actual credits are films that exist.

I’m Brad Johnson and you probably remember me for movies I wasn’t in and don’t believe my actual credits are films that exist.

Rayford’s daughter, Chloe (also pictured above) is played by Janaya Stephens. Like Brad Johnson, she has an incredibly familiar looking face but I haven’t seen a single thing she’s credited in so either this entire cast is teaching me that I dropped in from a parallel universe or I watched a lot of the CBS procedural Flashpoint in my sleep. Did you know that Amy Jo Johnson, aka the Pink Ranger, was a lead on Flashpoint? Jesus Christ, at this point even I feel like I’m just making all of this up.

Most importantly, though, is the role of intrepid young reporter Buck Williams. Rayford Steele was easily the hero of Left Behind 2014 but Left Behind 2000 puts Williams front-and-center. And instead of being portrayed by Chad Micheal Murray (who at least looks like a war reporter), Williams is now played by Kirk Cameron. Yes, that Kirk Cameron. In fact, this whole series of films was basically a passion project for Kirk Cameron, who is perhaps the most outspoken hard-Evangelical voice to somewhat intersect with Hollywood. That’s right, Mike Seaver is all grown up and he wants to tell you about Jesus.

Kids, let me tell you about the real growing pains: the pains experienced by our lord and savior on the cross so that we would grow closer to him.

The film opens with Buck Williams reporting from Israel, interviewing scientist Chaim Rosenzweig in the middle of a wheat field. Dr. Rosebranch has developed a miraculous way to grow food in the desert. This will supposedly solve the problem of world hunger, which vastly oversimplifies the actual problems that cause world hunger and overlooks the fact that the target audience for films like Left Behind 2000 would protest the hell out of this GMO menace.

In the middle of the interview, the sky suddenly fills with planes. Only a few minutes in and we’re already well off the rails of Left Behind 2014 because that film sure as hell didn’t start with a war against Israel.

"Who could be attacking us?" "Well with this many planes it's literally either the US or maybe Russia."

“Who could be attacking us?” “I don’t know, Israel usually has good relations with D-list CGI artists.”

As the bombs begin to fall, Dr. Rosebranch and Buck run into a nearby bunker that turns out to be Israeli military command, conveniently located right next to the rural wheat field developed by the good doctor. There is a lot of hacky military ops speech and doomsaying that Israel is unable to scramble its own airforce to defend itself.

Then the sky goes black and the planes start blowing themselves up.

As I walk through the valley of death, I fear no falling debris for I have plot armor in my heart.

As I walk through the valley of death, I fear no falling debris for I have plot armor in my heart.

Ever the plucky reporter, Buck runs out to the wheat field to get video of the exploding planes where he meets a mysterious old man who says a bunch of cryptic shit to him.

BUCK: Sir, why are you dressed like a caricature of god? OLD MAN: You are going to live through this and still be a nonbeliever until the end of the film.

BUCK: Sir, why are you dressed like a caricature of god? OLD MAN: You are going to live through this and still be a nonbeliever until the end of the film.

The mysterious attack on Israel, the identity of the attackers, the unexpected eclipse, and the sudden self-destruction of dozens of aircraft are barely ever mentioned from this point on in the film. I think Buck Williams does, once, ask “what went on back there?” but the world proceeds like everything is generally normal and not absolutely batshit insane. Well, up until people disappear.

When Buck returns to the U.S.,he meets up with a conspiracy theorist friend who works for a major bank. The friend claims to have inside info that he can’t hand over yet, but insists that Buck investigate the international bankers he works for because they’re up to something big–specifically in relation to a global currency. Buck thinks this is crazy until a story comes across his desk about Europe unifying its economy with Korea (what) and he realizes that conspiracy dude was right.

They want you to believe it's the chemtrails but I know that my morgellons is caused by the adoption of standardized data transfer via USB.

They want you to believe it’s the chemtrails but I know that my morgellons is caused by the adoption of standardized data transfer via USB.

Over in Chicago, we pick up with the plot of Left Behind 2014. Rayford Steele is an airplane pilot who has to leave his family for an unexpected flight to London. He does this a lot, because his wife has become a born-again Christian and is really annoying about it. Rayford and his daughter Chloe fight over this but he puts his foot down and leaves. His flight just happens to contain Hattie Durham, a stewardess who Rayford has been flirting with, and Buck Williams. I don’t think the movie ever explains why Williams was in Chicago or when he went there, but there he is. Maybe he just flies out there for the pizza.

In this version, Hattie is played by Kirk Cameron's real life wife because of course she is.

In this version, Hattie is played by Kirk Cameron’s real life wife because of course she is.

Hattie reveals to Rayford that this is her last flight as a stewardess and that she is departing the airline for a position at the United Nations. No, this does not make any kind of sense. Just go with it. Rayford is disappointed and Hattie tries to get him to give her “a reason to stay.” Just as they’re about to kiss, a bunch of people on the plane disappear.

mandisappeared

He should have upgraded to first class.

Panic breaks out on the plane and Rayford decides that they need to turn back and land in Chicago. If you recall, this was the primary plot of Left Behind 2014. In this film, Rayford merely deploys the oxygen masks and lands the plane at a runway (you know, the traditional method) less than a third of the way through the running time.

That’s right, folks, we’re already past the plot of the recent adaptation and there’s over an hour to go.

kirkmask

chap2With Rayford and company off the plane, Chloe isn’t forced to carry the entirety of the plot on the ground. A huge part of Left Behind 2014 featured Chloe wandering silently around the city and giving pained looks in the general direction of catastrophe. Now everyone’s around to do it.

Chloe is on the way back to school when she comes upon a huge car accident. A crazed man steals her car as she’s trying to figure out what happened.

How the hell is this truck still upright if its driver disappeared in the middle of the highway?

How the hell is this truck still upright if its driver disappeared in the middle of the highway?

Rayford heads home to find his entire family is missing.

This is all actually very morbid if you remove it from context but in context it is hilarious.

This is all actually very morbid if you remove it from context but in context it is hilarious.

And bizarrely, Buck follows Rayford home because Buck really needs to get to New York and all the airports are shut down. Rayford says that he knows a guy who can help, but Rayford immediately falls apart when he realizes that everyone he cared about is gone. He doesn’t know at this time that Chloe is actually just wandering around somewhere else, so naturally this is a dark time for him.

He threw a bible, which is like kicking a dog in the world of this film.

He threw a bible! A BIBLE!

Chloe comes home and this should really cheer up Rayford more than it does. He remains in his room, moping, and Chloe is left with the answer of which child was Rayford’s favorite: not her. Their reunion is short and played without any emotion and Rayford just keeps staring at the television because there are more important things to get to. What are those things? CONSPIRACIES.

Around this time, we’re introduced to a new character who was never even mentioned in Left Behind 2014. That’s right, we meet Nicolae Carpathia, a UN politician who is beloved by the world. He talks with an Eastern European accent, wants to bring about world peace and nuclear disarmament, and is handsome in a way that recalls the guy at the last Republican debate twitter was freaking out about.

Am I a robot wearing a human mask or a human wearing a robot mask? It matters not. Carpathia! 2016

Am I a robot wearing a human mask or a human wearing a robot mask? It matters not. Carpathia! 2016

Even though we, as the audience, know better, Carpathia appears to be a great, stand up fellow. He’s only got one problem: all of his power comes from a couple of international bankers who have been working behind the scenes to hoist him up into the halls of power. And they’re the same international bankers from the Conspiracy Theorist’s rantings earlier. They have a nefarious plan involving Dr. Rosebranch from earlier and someone is going to have to uncover it. Who better than Intrepid Reporter Buck Williams?

Back in Chicago, with Rayford barely managing a smile at Chloe’s return, Chloe decides to help Buck Williams (who is sleeping on the couch and, I guess, planning to nap until Rayford snaps out of his funk). They meet up with a private pilot who takes Buck to New York. With all the crazy stuff that just happened–not to mention the even crazier stuff in Israel the film has already forgotten about–Buck is ready to give his conspiracy theorist friend another shot at a story.

REMEMBER WHEN THOSE GOATS WERE FIREBOMBED THIRTY MINUTES AGO? NO, ME NEITHER.

REMEMBER WHEN THOSE GOATS WERE FIREBOMBED THIRTY MINUTES AGO? NO? ME NEITHER.

Unfortunately for Conspiracy Theorist, Buck isn’t the only one who wants to give him another shot. Get it?  Because he’s dead. He was shot. By a gun. Buck shows up just in time to find his body and find the secret minidisc that he hid in his watch. Remember minidiscs? Yeah, those were a thing for about five seconds.

Buck also takes a look at Conspiracy Theorist’s computer because, like anyone else, he’d rather not have to track down a minidisc player in The Year of Our Lord 2000. This is almost a fatal mistake, because there is a sniper watching over the apartment. At first, we believe that this sniper is taking aim at the fuzzy head of Kirk Cameron/Buck Williams. But then…

shootcomputer

Luddites have gone too far.

Believe it or not, the assassin choosing to scare Williams by destroying the computer rather than kill Williams by destroying his head is explained later in the film so I’m not going to explicitly shit on that particular plot point. But I do think that Kirk Cameron’s dive was, at best, a 6/10.

Buck makes it out of the apartment alive and takes the minidisc to a couple of his friends over at his news network, the barely-cleverly named GNN. They review the disc and find a bunch of cryptic documents and a plan for rebuilding Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The images are exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to find on the minidisc hidden in a conspiracy theorist’s wristwatch, but Buck takes them seriously (probably because of the sniper) and arranges a meeting with a government friend who was also in contact with Conspiracy Theorist.

chap3With Buck gone and Chloe floating somewhere on the periphery of the story, Rayford Steele finally pulls out of his funk and starts to realize that maybe his wife was right. All the kids are gone, as well as select adults. And his wife was one of those adults. And she was always talking about that “rapture” thing where all the believers would disappear.

Mulling over these thoughts, Rayford heads to the church where he finds one of the pastors, left behind himself, engaging in one hell of a monologue to God.

This is definitely a dude who sits on a chair backwards when he raps about Jesus to the teens.

This is definitely a dude who sits on a chair backwards when he raps about Jesus to the teens.

Pastor BanisterJumper isn’t just angry with God. He’s also angry with himself because he knew the words from the Bible and spoke them, but didn’t believe them. And now it’s too late because God’s already made his rapture calls and there’s no second chances when it comes to being saved from the times of tribulation.

There’s an interesting discussion to be had on this ethical quandary: if Pastor BanisterJumper had a truly altruistic spirit, then the fact that his words saved others while he was left behind should actually make him happy and not mad. Then again, the fact that he’s still on Earth proves his frailty of spirit and– fuck, I’m giving this movie too much legitimate thought.

Oh god, why wasn't I a good boy when it mattered. Now I am stuck here and you will never tell me I'm a good boy again.

Oh god, why wasn’t I a good boy when it mattered?

Pastor BanisterJumper’s speech inspires Rayford, who was lurking in the back of the church, to fully accept what is happening and devote his life to Jesus. Together, they find a tape left by the lead minister at the church, explaining why he and everyone else disappeared. Mercifully, the film doesn’t show the entire speech made by the minister, but apparently it answers all the questions Rayford has. To me, however, it raises a lot more questions.

Specifically, I really want to know how many IRL preachers have made videos to be played to their congregation in the event of the rapture.

I also made a tape to play in case the Scientologists were correct. If you are the person discovering these tapes, please destroy whichever one is no longer needed.

I also made a tape to play in case the Scientologists were correct. If you are the person discovering these tapes, please destroy whichever one is no longer needed.

While Rayford is sitting in the corner, finding his religion, Buck Williams is meeting with his friend at the U.S. Government. He finally outlines the conspiracy as he sees it: the international bankers have loaned the United Nations billions of dollars and are planning on calling in the debt. They are waiting until Dr. Rosebranch hands over his formula for growing wheat in the desert and the UN seizes 10 vast tracts of previously uninhabitable land to use to feed the world. Then they will bankrupt the UN, take over the land themselves, and the international bankers will control the world food supply.

The US official tells Buck that he will get the FBI and CIA to investigate this and warns Buck to head somewhere safe and lay low. Buck is then distracted by a beggar while the US official gets in his car. We all know what happens next.

This dive, though? Solid 8/10

This dive, though? Solid 8/10.

With nowhere else to go, Buck returns to Rayford and Chloe Steele and tries to enlist their help in getting to the United Nations to stop the transfer of the Dr. Rosebranch formula to the soon-to-be-bankrupt UN. Buck is shocked to find that his new friends have converted to Evangelical Christianity in the mere days since he last saw them. Rayford tries to warn Buck that there is more to the happenings around the world than just a follow-the-money conspiracy, but Buck isn’t ready to believe.

Remember that this is a week after Buck watched the sun disappear in Israel and dozens of fighter planes explode without a good reason. But the movie has forgotten about that.

Buck heads by himself to the United Nations, where Nicolae Carpathia has just been named Secretary General with the help of the nefarious international bankers. Even stranger, Hattie Durham–you know, the woman who was a stewardess just days before–is working as his personal assistant. Listen, I’m aware it’s entirely possible that she was qualified to be in a highly-placed position at the UN but for unknown reasons was working in an entirely different, largely unskilled field. But, uh, pretty unlikely.

NICOLAE: I am the Secretary General of the United Nations! What do you mean I cannot have the whole can of soda?

NICOLAE: I am the Secretary General of the United Nations! What do you mean I cannot have the whole can of soda?

This strange placement is incredibly fortunate for Buck Williams, however, as Hattie (who knows him from the plane earlier) is able to help him get an audience with Nicolae so that he can explain the conspiracy and prevent the international bankers from enacting their terrible plan.

Nicolae looks over the minidisc that Buck retrieved from the body of Conspiracy Theorist and feigns horror at the contents. He claims that he knew nothing about any of this and vows to make things right. We, as the audience, know that this must be an act. Because look at him.

I really wonder about the licensing/product placement issues that came up with the Antichrist conspicuously using an Apple product.

I really wonder about the licensing/product placement issues that came up with the Antichrist conspicuously using an Apple product.

Buck is about to leave satisfied when he notices a blueprint for rebuilding Solomon’s temple on Nicolae’s desk. He asks Dr. Rosebranch why he would want the temple rebuilt when it would inevitably cause a war. Dr. Rosebranch explains that Nicolae has found a way to rebuild it without destroying the Muslim holy site and that this is all part of Nicolae’s great vision. Nicolae explains further that the temple, along with nuclear disarmament and the Grow Wheat In The Desert Project are the three prongs of his plan for seven years of peace.

This throws up a ton of red flags for Buck but, apparently, no one else. I don’t know about you, but when a world leader is going around saying that he’s about to create seven years of peace, I think someone needs to ask him what he intends to happen in year eight. But maybe that’s just me and Buck Williams. Buck is also unnerved because all of this mirrors (an interpretation of) biblical verses that Rayford and Chloe were warning him about.

This creepy map that remakes the world? It is just an art project. I am just an artist. Do not fear me.

This creepy map that remakes the world? It is just an art project. I am just an artist. Do not fear me.

Nicolae invites Buck into the meeting of the UN Delegates where he intends to complete the handover of Dr. Rosebranch’s research and expose the shady international bankers before they can complete their plot. Buck hesitantly joins them along with Hattie (who has completed the most amazing career path in history by being invited to this meeting).

At the meeting of the UN delegates, Nicolae begins to rant about uniting the world in a new era of peace which will make the delegates kings among their people. This freaks out Dr. Rosebranch, who is slowly beginning to realize that (if nothing else) Nicolae is power-mad. Before the good doctor can object, however, Nicolae uses the Jedi Mind Trick to make him sit down.

These are not the antichrists you are looking for.

These are not the antichrists you are looking for.

When the time comes to expose the dastardly international bankers, Nicolae informs them that news of their conspiracy to bankrupt the UN has already reached the press. Then Nicolae takes a gun from one of his bodyguards and murders both international bankers on the floor of the United Nations, in front of everybody.

Seriously.

And people say nothing gets done at the United Nations.

And people say nothing gets done at the United Nations.

Nicolae explains that this had to be done to ensure world peace and literally brainwashes everyone in the room (except Buck) to believe that the international bankers died in a murder/suicide once they realized that their plan was exposed. The police rush in, Nicolae is painted as a victim in all of this, and Buck can’t find one person who will admit to the version of events that he witnessed.

Horrified, Buck realizes that Nicolae is the Antichrist and Rayford was right all along. To make matters worse, Buck even helped Nicolae with his ultimate plan–the assassin from earlier shot the computer because he wanted Buck to live, publish the story about the conspiracy, and give Nicolae cover for killing his international banker friends/benefactors.

Buck returns to Chicago and the church where Rayford, Chloe, and Pastor BanisterJumper have set up a new ministry to convert folks post-Rapture. He joins them and the film ends like all good films should end: with an evil man in absolute power and everyone smiling.

BUCK: I just helped facilitate the rise of the Antichrist. CHLOE: Well we all make mistakes.

BUCK: I just helped facilitate the rise of the Antichrist.
CHLOE: Well we all make mistakes.

epiThis is a terrible movie but it’s also god damn crazy. It can only get crazier in Tribulation Force: Left Behind II, which is a real thing that was made by human beings because the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince us that he doesn’t exist.

Stay tuned for that in the next couple weeks.

 

I Watched Left Behind (2014) So You Don’t Have To

ProlPart of me really wants to read the Left Behind book series. Just load up the description of any one of the 16(!!) books and you’ll understand why. They are absolutely, off-the-wall bonkers crazy. From what I can tell, the later books devolve into low-rent Christian Metal Gear, and they sound kind of amazing. Just for example, the anti-christ is a genetically-engineered UN Secretary General descended from Roman emperors named Nicolae Carpathia. And his right-hand man is a Catholic (these books are firmly evangelical) who can call down fire from the sky with power given to him by Lucifer.

The only problem is that the Left Behind books are terribly written and there are better ways to consume batshit crazy stories, so I never got around to reading them. However, I was always curious. And when I found out that the first book was being adapted into a film starring Nicolas Cage? Well, you could say I was a little excited about that. I knew there was already a series of movies, but this was before I was writing long blog posts about bad movies, so I never sought them out. But for Nic Cage I was willing to make an exception.

Left Behind came and went in theaters with such little fanfare that I barely noticed it. Then it slipped onto DVD and finally emerged on Netflix, where it reminded me of its existence. And just in time, since I was wrapping up my Atlas Shrugged recaps.

Unfortunately, Left Behind strips the book of almost all its high level insanity. There’s no anti-christ, no global war, nothing. The movie doesn’t even cover all of the book, just the first day after the rapture and a single airline flight. When I was done, I realized I really should have watched the first adaptation, which does touch on the crazy.

But I was too late. I already made all the gifs and everything. So without any further statements of regret, here’s 2014’s Left Behind.

chap1The film opens with Chloe Steele returning to New York to visit her father, Rayford, for his birthday. Yes, his name is Rayford Steele. And yes, he is the character portrayed by Nicolas Cage. Unfortunately, Rayford Steele is an Important Airline Pilot and he has been called to work to fly a plane to London on his birthday. Everyone is really sad about this.

I can't believe I married Nicolas Cage.

I can’t believe I married Nicolas Cage.

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I Watched Atlas Shrugged Part III So You Don’t Have To

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jamestripsRead Part I

Read Part II

proIf there was anything that Ayn Rand loved more than her friends’ husbands, it was the free market. This was not a view shared by the producers of Atlas Shrugged Part III.

Very few people asked for Atlas Shrugged to be adapted into a film, let alone three films. The first installment earned less than five million dollars at the box office, and only a few million more on DVD. It failed to recoup even half its budget and was critically panned across the board. Nevertheless, the producers pushed forward with their plan, even if they couldn’t bring back the director, most of the crew, and all of the cast. The second film was financed through a debt sale and filmed over a single month, the dying gasp of a dream that should have never been brought into reality. Part II debuted on three times as many screens as Part I, likely due to its release near the 2012 election and the hope that money could be made off of the politically charged subject matter. Nope. Part II bombed even harder than the first installment, barely squeaking out over three million dollars.

The promotional materials for Far Cry 3 have taught us that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. So, naturally, the producers of the first two Atlas Shrugged films made a third one.

“How?” you ask, and I don’t have a good answer. No one with any sense would invest in a project like this–the third film of a trilogy that twice failed to earn a profit and consists, notoriously, of the worst parts of the book it is based on. Atlas Shrugged isn’t a masterpiece from the start, but it falls apart spectacularly in the last third, mostly because of a 70 page speech by one of the worst Mary Sue characters to ever be realized outside of fanfiction.net.

Part III reportedly cost 10 million dollars to produce, which is considerably cheaper than the first two films but still 10 million dollars more than anyone should have been willing to pay. To top that off, a kickstarter campaign was drawn into the mix. Allegedly, none of the money was used to actually produce the film, which begs an important question: where did it go? The page is really vague on that–“expanding the production and marketing” is the official wording. The producers elaborate on this in their video and FAQ, stating that the main purpose is to allow fans to be “part of Atlas Shrugged history.”

In other words, the kickstarter was a way to take money from people who were willing to give it. And can you really blame the producers when there were six people who paid $7,500 to have their name written on John Galt’s wall in the film?

rewards The idea of paying a bunch of money to get your name associated with the prime mover capitalist heroes of Atlas Shrugged is maybe the most amazing thing to come out of this whole series of terrible movies. It’s so dumb and it’s even vaguely even predatory, though I can’t feel sorry for the prey of this particular scam. And maybe, in the end, they’re onto something. Anyone who had their name put up on that wall has something in common with Ellis Wyatt: they basically set a bunch of money on fire.

In keeping with the fine tradition of continuity, the entire film has been recast once again. Gone is Samantha Mathis as Dagny Taggart, replaced by Laura Regan who you might recognize as (a) Harry’s wife on Mad Men or (b) the actress who portrays Robin Wright’s character in Unbreakable during flashbacks. That’s how little there is to say about her. Hank Rearden is no longer a mob boss, but played by Rob Morrow (in theory; we’ll get to that later). And the standout of Part II, Patrick Fabian, is sadly missing in action as James Taggart, but gleefully replaced by yet another in the revolving door of unsettling expressive actors, Greg Germann. Or, as you probably know him, Fish from Ally McBeal.

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Everyone else has been recast as well, including Ray Wise as President Thompson. Which is a hell of a disappointment because President Thompson is actually in this film for more than a minute and Wise is sorely missed.

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I Watched Atlas Shrugged Part 2 So You Don’t Have To

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Atlas Shrugged Part I: Full Post

proIt shouldn’t surprise anyone that Atlas Shrugged Part I was box office poison. It was a dry adaptation of the first third of an unfilmable book, starring Taylor Schilling pre-Orange Is The New Black. The studio presumed that it would find success because it courted a conservative market that is largely ignored by Hollywood. This was a huge miscalculation, because nakedly conservative films have (typically) been driven to profitability by church groups and Rand isn’t exactly a fan of religion. Also, while plenty of Republican politicians cite Atlas Shrugged as an influence, I’d wager that most either (1) haven’t read it or (2) didn’t understand it because otherwise they’d have to realize modern American political conservatism has way more in common with the regulatory capture and obstructionism of the villains than the ambitious drive of the protagonists. Socialism wasn’t the only windmill Rand tilted at with Atlas Shrugged, after all.

The misguided quest to film a book that didn’t need to be filmed should have ended with the failure of Part I. The free market spoke. But the producers didn’t listen. They still had a vision to complete, even if it would have to be reduced in scope and, hilariously, funded by selling debt. The entire cast was replaced. Jason Beghe took over for Grant Bowler as Hank Reardon. And Taylor Schilling was swapped out for Samantha Mathis, who is probably best known by readers of this blog as Daisy from the Super Mario Brothers Movie.

Sorry, Sam, but it looks like talking to a puppet dinosaur won't be the career low point you assumed.

Sorry, Sam, but it looks like talking to a puppet dinosaur won’t be the career low point you assumed.

When we last saw our heroes, Hank Rearden was fuming over yet another set of governmental regulations that would make it illegal to produce his “Rearden Metal”, which may or may not just be a type of steel. And Dagny Taggart was screaming at a burning oil field after tycoon Ellis Wyatt decided to torch all his product rather than let the government tax the state of Colorado. Wyatt then disappeared with a mysterious fedora-wearing dude, John Galt, whose very name has become a rhetorical question that no one has an answer for, because this world is very much like our own but does not have Google.

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I Watched Atlas Shrugged Part I So You Don’t Have To

proA disclaimer: I don’t hate Ayn Rand. Or, at least, I don’t hate her in the performative way that someone who falls on the left of social/political lines is supposed to hate her. Rand’s prose is mediocre, her characters hollow, her futurism half-baked, and the way that Objectivism has been twisted and weaponized in modern politics is horrific. However, at the core of everything Rand wrote was a brutal honesty that I just can’t bring myself to hate. Rand offers a window into the selfish, greedy part of humanity that is usually hidden, rejected, or couched in relentless apology. And very rarely she makes a good point, like a squirrel with a bad haircut finding single acorn after gathering a dozen rusty nails. Her unflinching acceptance of the human id causes her to stumble into some useful insights into the futility and self-absorption of guilt.

That said, engaging with most of Ayn Rand’s ideas is like smacking around an empty pinata. Sure, it’s fun to swing a bat, but ultimately by hitting the pinata you’re admitting that you think there’s something of worth inside it. So this post isn’t going to be about Objectivism, it’s going to be about a bad movie.

A really bad movie.

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