Review: Dune (2021)

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is incredible. The cast, the scope and ambition, the cinematography, the special effects and costume design and sets, the sound design, the score, the faithfulness to the book with a few small tweaks to update it and make it feel fresh…all elements excelled.

The visual aesthetics and moody musical themes were special highlights to me, really driving home the differences in the different factions and worlds. I felt the baroque, ostentatious, pseudo-fascist styles of the great houses pulled more than a little (in a good way) from other big-budget sci-fi films of the past twenty years like The Chronicles of Riddick, the Lynchian Dune, The Fifth Element, the Star Wars prequels’ Coruscant scenes, and maybe even Jupiter Ascending. All that said, it has its own unique visual flare; for instance, the arriving and departing spaceships had a surreal alienness to them, seemingly unknowable, like something out of a first contact film like Arrival rather than a space opera. The rumbling sounds and brooding music highlighted everything pitch perfectly.

And the film is damn-near-perfectly cast, with a lot of incredible star talent. Timothee Chalamet is a striking Paul Atreides, coming across as angsty and thoughtful and sensitive and a little disconnected from the human condition already. His best pouty moments of youthful petulance make me yearn for some way to see him play the role of Anakin Skywalker someday–he’d knock it out of the park. Rebecca Ferguson brings a lot more emotion and sympathy to Jessica than any other adaptation, while remaining capable and confident; her nature as a Bene Gesserit yet also a loving and devoted mother and wife is wrung for every ounce of tortured conflict here. Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, and Josh Brolin essentially define the roles of Duke Leto Atreides, Duncan Idaho, and Gurney Halleck, respectively, for me now. Even lesser roles that could have been forgotten, like Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir or Chang Chen as Dr. Yueh, provided more humanity than I would have expected. On the other end of the spectrum, Dave Bautista portrays Rabban as an almost evil mirror version of his Marvel performances as Drax (to great effect, given the brutish stupidity of the character), Stellan Skarsgard is unrecognizable and terrifying as Baron Harkonnen, and Charlotte Rampling is sinisterly conniving and mysterious as the Reverend Mother. It’s such a large cast, of course, and I could continue to go on and on, but that’s enough. We don’t see enough of the Fremen yet for me to say much about those performances–so far Zendaya seems great as Chani, while Javier Bardem seems a little off and more than a little goofy as Stilgar, but time will tell with the sequel.

This is the best big-budget sci-fi film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the best Dune adaptation I think anyone could hope for. It’s good, and it should definitely be seen in theaters. (I watched it in 2D IMAX at my favored cinema, the Indiana State Museum.) I recognize, though, that it may not be for everyone.

I am not a huge Dune fan. I’ve only read the first book–though I believe I’ve read it at least a couple times–and grew up with the David Lynch movie and watched the Sci Fi Channel miniseries in high school or college. I’m not disinterested, but I’ve never read further in the series. I have great fondness for the narrow exposure to this space opera that I do have. So I’m not perhaps a Dune faithful and could not nitpick every small detail, but I followed along expecting plot points, I was pleasantly surprised by recasting Liet-Kynes as a woman (whereas I recalled the male character in the book and its previous adaptations), and I even predicted where the first half of a two-part film adaptation would have to end. I think a bigger fan will love this movie too and will probably get even more out of it. I wonder if someone not so fond of or familiar with the source material might find the whole affair a bit ponderous, self-absorbed, and confusing, though. Then again, maybe they’ll get it, too.

If you like sci-fi, space operas, big-idea films, epic fantasy, or Dune itself, you should treat yourself–if you haven’t already–and go watch this soon.

Finding a way to finish Alien: Isolation

I’ve written before about my mixed experience with Alien: Isolation, and my abandonment of the game after too many failures in the medbay level (only Mission 5 of 18!). That was, amazingly, over four years ago, which was even then almost three years after the game was originally released. My brief attempt to return to it quickly shriveled into nothing as well.

Yet enough time has passed that I’d let go of my frustration, and I was far more curious about experiencing the rest of the story. And after all, I get into a certain mood starting about a month before October anyway. Watching Alien and Aliens again, I wanted to see the story of Amanda Ripley in full, to understand how it connects and adds to those classic films.

So I started again. I prepared myself for a potentially grueling experience, went with the lowest difficulty of novice, and started the game again. And I found myself really enjoying the game! It was very tense, but that was appropriate for the content of the game. I appreciated the atmosphere. I held my breath in adrenaline-pumping games of cat and mouse. I cursed and gasped in fear. I marveled at the considerable attention to detail the designers invested in every prop, every nook and cranny of the space station and starships you encounter along the way. I abused tactics that wouldn’t work on higher difficulties, becoming over-reliant on hiding spaces like cupboards, lockers, and the leg room beneath desks and tables. I advanced slowly and steadily. I had a lot of scary fun. The alien became less intimidating, more of a mechanistic gameplay challenge than a horrific creature, but that was fine. I enjoyed teasing out elements of the story. I enjoyed how the fate of the Anesidora and its crew provided an explanation as to why W-Y never sent its colonists to track down the derelict ship before Ellen Ripley could verify its location decades later, even as they settled on the same world that it was located on. (I don’t need a lot of explanations in space horror, but that was an unusual gap that was filled well here.) And I cared about Amanda Ripley, Samuels, and Taylor.

Yet I didn’t finish the game, and I don’t think I will. I ran into what seems to be the other section besides medbay that frustrates a lot of players: the long hallway connecting cluttered rooms that you must move back and forth along to power a generator, go back to flip a switch, and then return to the generator once more when the power goes out. Suddenly the xenomorph was acting much smarter than it had at any other point in novice play, and it was angry. It was always willing to hop in the vents, to open every cupboard, to creep around the room insistently. I was low on flamethrower fuel and couldn’t just flame my way through–plus, my conservative, over-cautious playstyle always backfired as I waited out useful opportunities and was too nervous to inch around tables to keep Ripley separated and just out of sight from the alien. Even after I decided to take a few days’ break, which became over a week, I still felt sick to my stomach thinking of forcing myself through the same anxiety-inducing hallway creeping and repetitive macabre death sequences. But I also felt horrible about giving up entirely because I really wanted to see the story through, and rather than less than halfway into the game, I was on Mission 17, the second-to-last mission!

This is the last screenshot I took, in Mission 16. That accurately reflects the end of my experience being able to actually enjoy the game. The next mission was just too much for me.

Thankfully, there were some ways I could still experience the story. My first option was to watch IGN’s Alien: Isolation web series. Unfortunately, this brief, seven-part series was inferior in basically every way. For starters, it was incredibly rushed, with no sense of horror, let alone mild fright, throughout. The alien was over-showcased. The character beats were stripped of meaning. There was very little breathing room. Important plot points were rushed or skipped entirely. Two skipped sequences were especially annoying. First, a scene shows the Anesidora‘s crew discovering the egg room on the derelict freighter and being attacked before anyone went off to shut down the beacon, and while they mention that they want to make sure no one else can find the discovery before this happens, there’s nothing to suggest they’d waste time searching for and deactivating the beacon when the captain’s wife has just been victimized by a life-threatening parasite. Second, Ripley is shown to purge the reactors to wipe something out, leading to the release of the surviving aliens onto the rest of the colony, but the series doesn’t bother to show or explain that she discovered the alien hive nestled in the reactor, thus making her choices incomprehensible. Outside of plot, atmosphere, and pacing issues, the animation is crude, coupling together still-good-looking game cinematics with very awkward machinima segments with poorly chosen camera angles that really let you notice the characters’ untimed, floppy-mouthed animations during dialogue that otherwise would have been obscured by various elements of a first-person video game experience. Side-by-side, the difference in quality is exceptionally jarring. Then there are some changes that seem downright unfortunate: Amanda’s discovery of her mother’s final message to her is powerfully delivered by Sigourney Weaver in the game, but the series must have had difficulties licensing the use of the voice again or something, because the context of delivery is slightly changed and this time it’s a combination of warped digital voice and Amanda’s own flat recitation of the dialogue, stripping the sincerity and much of the emotion from the moment. That’s true of the larger project, though: this condensed series plays like reading a Wikipedia plot synopsis.

The second option proved better: finding a YouTube series of playthroughs. I found an impressive walkthrough with no player reactions, just gameplay footage, and watched the one-and-a-half videos that showed me the rest of the game that I hadn’t played. This was tense and sometimes terrifying, even when I wasn’t the one having to get Ripley out alive, even when I knew that the purpose of this video was demonstrating a successful run through the game. I can honestly say that this was an ideal way for someone like me, someone with a low tolerance for the game’s punishing difficulty coupled with its sense of dread, to appreciate the other things it really excels at, like story, mood, atmosphere and visual aesthetic, voice-acting and sound design, lighting and textures, and so on. Given that it looks like most of the missions can be beaten around 30 minutes, I would even recommend that someone who has not been able to beat the game, or who has otherwise avoided it because of concerns about being able to successfully play through the content, just go out and find a good walkthrough series to watch like a single-season television series. For anyone who otherwise would enjoy the setting of the game or who is a fan of the franchise, of sci-fi, or of space horror but who would struggle to play the game to completion because of skill/patience/stress-tolerance issues, a walkthrough series is the way to go and worthwhile.

Having now seen the conclusion of the game, not just via rushed cinematics but through the experience of the final two levels, I feel at peace with my experience with Alien: Isolation, and I’ll remember the story, setting, and characters fondly and without regret.

(For the record, all the screenshots included here are from my own playing of the game. Also, amazingly, even with an incomplete novice playthrough, I managed to earn 40 of 50 achievements. I’ll take my small victories!)

Alien and Aliens: Horror and Sequels

I was rewatching Alien and Aliens, as I like to do from time to time, and a couple thoughts really stuck with me on this viewing.

First, people often like to distinguish the two films as horror versus action-adventure. Not only is that a tired distinction, but it doesn’t sit with me as very accurate. Aliens is in many ways just as much a horror film as the original, just of a different nature and with different themes. After all, our first view of Ripley’s perspective is a horrifying nightmare of a chestburster erupting from her as she recovers from prolonged “hypersleep” in her hospital bed, and we don’t actually know it’s a nightmare until Ripley does, when she wakes up. We see her startle awake, drenched in sweat, gripping at her chest, on a couple of occasions. Sure, the first act of the film has some less intense sequences, as we first navigate the corporate politics in the aftermath of the recovery of the only survivor of the Nostromo and then meet the colorful colonial marines who are sent on the rescue mission to Hadley’s Hope. But this is just a precursor of what is to come, and the gung-ho heroics end with the company of soldiers decimated and terrified. Newt’s repeated imperilment, Burke’s revolting scheme to smuggle xenomorph embryos, the picking off of the last squad members in the vents, the sheer tense dread of Ripley’s solo incursion into the alien hive, and the surprise maiming of Bishop are all at home in a horror film. Sure, you have the macho marines–for a third of the film, before the majority are ripped to shreds–and you have Ripley armed to the teeth, blowing up the nesting grounds and later growling, “Get away from her, you bitch” before fighting the alien queen in a mech-suit cargo hauler, but these are isolated moments. I won’t deny that there are definitely elements of an action-adventure film, as well as a Vietnam-era war film, baked into the movie, but there are plenty of moments that feel, for lack of a better word, horrific. Bruce Kawin defines horror in Horror and the Horror Film as “a compound of terror and revulsion” (p. 3), for instance. Additionally:

Above all, the horror film provides a way to conceptualize, give a shape to and deal with the evil and frightening . . . . As a genre, the horror film is defined by its recurring elements (such as undeath, witches, or gross, bloody violence), by its attitudes toward those elements (such as that transgressing limits is dangerous) and by its goal: to frighten and revolt the audience.

Kawin, p. 3-4.

Furthermore, “A film with a particular monster or threat usually is built around a particular fear or set of fears, including the outright fear of the monster and what it can do, as well as of what it represents, evokes, symbolizes, or implies” (p. 5). Certainly, Aliens capitalizes on many of the same fears as the original film: fears of death, of rape, of parasites. But it also seems fascinated with fears associated with pregnancy and parenthood. These include fears:

  1. of death on childbirth (after all, the characters take note that removing a facehugger resulted in both death of host and parasite, and we witness a couple different chestburster eruptions specifically killing women, once in dream and once in reality);
  2. of the rapid changes and pain and suffering of pregnancy itself (the use of “impregnate” or another variation to refer to the parasitic means of reproduction on display is used on more than one occasion, and Newt asks Ripley if the process is the same as childbirth);
  3. of somehow failing or abandoning a child (perhaps through premature parental death, as is the case with Newt’s parents, or letting them down in a time of need, as Ripley almost does when she goes to rescue Newt);
  4. of outliving a child out of order with the natural trend of events (as Ripley outlives her daughter through her prolonged hibernation); and
  5. of having a child kidnapped/molested (once more, see Newt, her third-act abduction, and the multiple efforts of facehuggers to latch onto her).

And, in channeling its inner war movie, it reflects cultural anxieties of what asymmetrical war can do, and did, to young soldiers. In fact, Kawin discusses many of these horror elements in his write-up of the Alien films in Horror and the Horror Film (p. 77-79). It’s not purely a horror movie, and by adding hordes of aliens the threat of the individual xenomorph is greatly diminished, but it certainly has a place within the horror genre.

Second, there’s a reason that I end with Aliens. My wife commented, as we finished rewatching Alien yet again, that she was fine with Alien by itself, that a sequel was never needed. Of course, with very few exceptions, a sequel is never needed. Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Fast and the Furious, Dr. No, and many, many other examples would have been fine without sequels, even though, in these cases, there were many good sequels (amidst many bad ones). But it’s especially true that at the end of Alien, the monster is contained, there is no immediate threat of further infestation, and we can choose to assume, if we so desire, that Ripley is eventually found and given a happy ever after. But what I like about Aliens is that it gives Ripley the chance to right the wrongs of the past, to face her fears, and to (hopefully) find peace. Whereas she lost everyone before, she manages to walk away with some survivors by the end of this film, and she has saved a young girl who would otherwise have been doomed. On top of all that, all those alien eggs on the derelict ship are presumably blown away in the massive explosion at the end. Hopefully Ripley and Newt will be free of night terrors for now on. Then Alien 3 undoes all that, killing off Hicks and Newt and dooming Ripley to die a horrible death by the end of the film. It is all for naught. There is something so bleakly fatalistic about it all; now, surviving is not the end goal, but rather simply destruction, including self-destruction. All is lost. Of course, the great thing about a fictional canon is that it’s all fiction, anyway. My personal headcanon is that Ripley and company arrive safely back on Earth, the alien threat eliminated, and this time Ripley is believed and vindicated because she has others, including an unerring android, to support her account; Ripley cares for Newt, and they wait for Hicks to heal, and the three become a family; the trio win generous compensation for the company’s negligence; the company can’t collect any biomaterials because the destruction of Hadley’s Hope wiped everything out; and we all live in a safer universe, at least for a while. There’s not a story there, there’s no needed sequel, but there doesn’t always have to be more to a story.

And that’s it, except for a third and final thought: damn, these remain great movies.

Review: The Many Saints of Newark

With The Many Saints of Newark, “the movie was not set up as a Tony Soprano origin story. It was a story about Dickie Moltisanti and it still is. It’s a gangster movie. It’s about gangsters in the late sixties, early seventies in New Jersey, both black and white,” David Chase told interviewer Alan Sepinwall with Rolling Stone in August. This provides a clear mission statement for the intended plot and themes of the film. While I think that goal is clear enough in the final product, it still is fundamentally an origin story, in part for Tony, but also in part for the entire Sopranos series.

In that same interview, Chase expressed some clear frustrations about the project: that he was not ultimately able to direct, that the movie was released immediately on HBO Max alongside the theatrical release, and that the movie was marketed as A Sopranos Story and as an origin story for Tony. But he also made clear that he pushed back on actual changes to the movie itself, and he said that he did not add more to Tony’s plot despite studio pressure and the remarkable ability of Michael Gandolfini to embody his late father’s appearance and mannerisms. So I think it’s safe to say that The Many Saints of Newark is more or less the movie that Chase as writer and one of the producers, cowriter Lawrence Konner, and director Alan Taylor set out to make.

All that said, it is not possible to separate this movie from The Sopranos. It’s not just a gangster movie. One of the four people I saw the movie with had not seen The Sopranos, and the surprise reveal at the end of the movie mostly left her bemused, not impressed and certainly not surprised. The characterizations in the film, with its colossal ensemble cast, largely rely on familiarity with the existing characters; while virtually all of the actors are allowed to bring their own takes to these well-known figures, there’s certainly a degree of impression baked into each portrayal of a younger version of a familiar character. That means that someone without knowledge of the show, or who maybe hasn’t watched it since it came out, will miss out on the foundation provided by the original portrayals of these characters, likely finding most of the performances to be too brief to provide more than superficial personalities. I’d also suspect it would be difficult to track the characters; I watched the show over the past year or so, and I still was uncertain about who some of Tony’s same-age friends, barely if ever mentioned by name, were. (Here I’m actually grateful that this was simultaneously released for home streaming, because I’m sure to watch again with subtitles on to pick up on more dialogue and see if some elusive character names are provided.)

The film also adds a tremendous amount to one’s understanding of the characters in The Sopranos. There’s plenty to unpack. Young Tony sees Dickie’s aging father bring home a beautiful Italian immigrant and beams up at her; it’s hard not to draw the connection to his hallucinatory Italian beauty decades later. Dickie and Tony have a relationship that mirrors, in many ways, Tony’s later mentorship of Dickie’s own son. A younger Livia looks somewhat similar to Carmela. The movie is an exploration of Tony’s boyhood psyche.

We see more clearly the forces at work in Tony’s life, pulling him many ways. While Livia’s borderline personality disorder is just as disruptive to her family’s lives as ever, it’s also made crystal-clear that Tony’s idealized vision of his father doesn’t match the thuggish and violent figure of his past. As a nice example of this, in a late-series episode of the show, Janice tells a drink-infused story about how Johnny once shot a gun through Livia’s hair when they were driving home from a dinner; Tony is quickly angered that Janice brings this up at all and denies that it ever happened. But we see this scene in the movie, and it’s truly horrifying, an abrupt switch from Livia’s constant complaining to the loud blast of the gun in the night and the brief moment when everyone in the car is sitting in shocked silence. That scene also provides an example of where the events depicted don’t quite line up with the story as told in the series; in fact, we even see some scenes from the series’ flashbacks that don’t quite happen exactly the same way, or events that don’t seem to match up with the suggested timeline of what happened in the show. It’s an interesting portrayal of the slipperiness of memory, the subjectivity of perspective. Even the movie itself shouldn’t be interpreted as the “canon” events of the Sopranos story, with its sparing use of surreal imagery and the frame narrative that is Christopher Moltisanti (voiced again by Michael Imperioli) telling the tale of his father from the grave.

It’s also not really about “black and white” gangsters in equal consideration, or about the Newark riots. At the core of the movie, this is a story about the relationship between young Tony and his “uncle” Dickie. There is a B plot involving the Newark riots, white flight, and anti-black racism from the police and the Italian-American community. That B plot has a lot of heady material but does not delve deep enough–I wonder if such an effort was even necessary at all in a movie about a particular Italian-American crime family, and I would argue that the result is largely a distraction from the main narrative. Despite providing a rival black mobster, Harold, (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) to follow as he breaks away from working for the Italian-Americans and launches his own numbers racket, we don’t truly see much from a black perspective. We see the riots, even up close, from a mostly outside perspective, often tinged with fear as the characters focus on the chaos and violence rather than the underlying racism and racial tensions that led to the riots, or we see them as the Italian-American mobsters use the riots as a smokescreen for their own illegal activities. Again, this would be fine if the movie were about the Italian-American criminals’ perspectives only, but it’s ostensibly about viewpoints from both sides of a racial and cultural divide.

As it is, the story is about Dickie, and we don’t really get enough time to understand Harold’s motivations or end goal. The Italian-American characters often have moments to talk to another character in moments of vulnerability, signaling their deeper emotions and concerns even if not stating them outright, and I do not recall Harold getting many such moments. It is a struggle to even sympathize with Harold, as he serves more as an antagonist stealing away from Dickie than an active agent in his own right. His turn to starting his own criminal empire is largely motivated by black empowerment performance art, leaving a spoken word session with the determination not to help his community but to get rich off his black neighbors through vice on his own terms. Certainly there was no need to make Harold more heroic, or smarter, than the Italian-American characters, but it was clear that his choice would lead to a lot of bloodshed and suffering for the people close to him, and it was unlikely that there would be any scenario where Harold would win big in a war against a much more powerful enemy. Additionally, in a moment that has very little setup in the film, we find out that he’s having an affair with Dickie’s own mistress, which seems more primed to reflect fears of interracial mixing or a slide away from the establishment of a white middle-class identity for Italian-Americans than anything that actually seems relevant to the characters’ experiences. In general, Italian-American racial attitudes and fears were provided ample screen time, while there was not really anything that felt like an authentic black perspective–although it’s worth noting that Leslie Odom Jr., the great actor that he is, found personal resonance in the role of Harold and attempted to bring a rich portrayal to what David Chase wrote.

It was not hard to remember that this was a movie created by older white men (making the recurrent use of the N-word by black characters a little cringeworthy, given who wrote the dialogue and made the choice to employ it). There are still plenty of stories to be told about protests, riots, injustice, and race relations then and now, but that story certainly wasn’t shared very coherently here. If anything, this subplot felt like a distraction from the core story, which very much was a Sopranos prequel. And there are stories to be told about the many lived experiences of black Americans, which can include tales of organized crime–in fact, the third-act appearance of Oberon Adjepong as real-life gangster Frank Lucas in a mostly cameo role is a reminder that there is already at least one good, complex portrait of a black crime lord in American Gangster.

As a Sopranos prequel, this movie excels. I’ve already talked about this, but it’s worth emphasizing that Many Saints adds new layers to the characters and events of the original series. Of course, if there were a single protagonist in the movie, it’s not anyone named Soprano, but rather Dickie Moltisanti, portrayed by Alessandro Nivola, who effortlessly swings between affably charming and murderously enraged. Dickie has a large influence in The Sopranos, despite being dead for decades by the start of the series. He’s representative of the good old days that are past. Tony’s explanation for Dickie’s death and the quest for vengeance he gives to Christopher are important late-stage moments in their fraying relationship. Finding out who Dickie was and what actually happened to him proves to be a worthy subject for an addition to the Sopranos narrative. He proves to be as tragic, gifted, and flawed a character as Tony ever was, sympathetic even as a criminal yet prone to horrific and inexcusable conduct when enraged. The return of his abusive father with a beautiful young Italian woman as his new stepmother sets off an Oedipal narrative that ends as wretchedly for Dickie as it did for Oedipus. There’s plenty of psychological subtext throughout the film, and Dickie’s conflicted feelings regarding his stepmother and his father–redirected toward guilt-assuaging visits to his father’s twin brother (with both brothers played by Ray Liotta) after the father’s death–are an essential part of his story.

I saw some critics complain that the movie does not offer a convincing turn to organized crime for Tony. But the movie ends with him only beginning to make that commitment, not through literal action but through an unspoken vow. A lot is left unsaid. A lot still must happen on Tony’s journey. But this is not a flaw of the film. There is enough to wink at Sopranos fans, but this movie is not, and never was, an origin story for Tony’s entrance into organized crime. Yeah, I’d watch a sequel with the cast assembled here reprising their roles as younger versions of iconic characters to actually depict that journey, but I also don’t need that movie. Yes, this is an origin story, but more than the specific path Tony took to becoming a mobster, this movie gives us even more insight into the roots of his later-life neuroses and provides a riveting tale of the tragic end of Dickie Moltisanti and the turbulent time that would be remembered by Tony and crew through rose-tinted glasses years later as the good old days.

What I’m Into: Fall 2021

It’s been a long time since I’ve had posts just talking about what I was into at a given moment. Not review, or analysis, just an overview of everything engaging me at the moment. Those posts were sort of aimless, but also sort of fun, because I’d just talk about whatever was absorbing me at the moment. I’ve had so much narrowed focus on big franchise things lately on the blog that I think one of these sorts of scattered, aimless, free-form posts is long overdue.

So, what am I into right now?

What I’m Reading

I’m reading quite a few things, hopping between them. I’m finally around to Michael Crichton’s posthumous Dragon Teeth, which so far has been an enjoyable Western adventure romp with the fairly unique focus on the Bone Wars and early field paleontology. Marsh and Cope are characterized quite colorfully but the rest of the cast, including the protagonist, are fairly bland. I’m simultaneously reading Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray, which does a great job portraying Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at an especially fraught moment in their relationship before the events of the prequel trilogy, alongside a lot of cool Jedi Stuff. Then I’m reading Jon Dubin’s Social Security Disability Law and the American Labor Market; it’s been a while since I’ve tackled a truly academic book, and so I’m making slow progress through this dense text despite the rather slender physical packaging, but it’s very worthwhile, and I’m sure it would be a tremendous resource not just for disability law scholars but practitioners like me and perhaps even a general reader seeking to better understand the arbitrary and archaic way that the Social Security Administration attempts to account for an individual’s ability to perform other work and to determine how much of that work actually exists, and in what form, in the national economy.

I’ve also been churning through the published materials for the Alien RPG from Free League. This is just tremendous stuff. I’m not particularly interested in published adventures in general but the cinematic mode gameplay modules that have been published so far offer some really tense, vivid, horrific scenarios. And mechanically, there are a lot of ways to make the players feel insecure, underpowered, under-resourced, and facing threats they can’t possibly comprehend or defeat. (I’ve seen at least one reviewer suggest that agendas and effects like panic take the roleplaying out of the players’ hands, but players would still have to play out how things happen–this if anything just sets up more dramatic opportunities and encourages a feeling of loss of control at key moments that reflects the horror focus of the game.) Just as importantly, the RPG recognizes that the Alien franchise has been about a lot more than the alien from the very beginning, and it builds out enough complicated politics between interstellar governments and mega-corps to provide entertaining storytelling possibilities for their open-sandbox campaign mode. I hope to get some friends to play through at least one or two of the cinematic games in the near future. I think I’ll have more to say about all the materials when I’m through reading them, but of course a proper review of a game is rather incomplete if not based on play experience, so you’ll have to take it with a grain of salt unless I get a group together for this quicker than I think likely. In fact, there are a few different Alien/Aliens posts coming up, but I’m going to keep them to a single day, rather than another series spanning multiple weeks; Halloween seems appropriate.

What I’m Playing

I’ve been in a bit of a tabletop gaming mood lately. Way back in February, I wrote about a routine I had of playing Ring Fit Adventure, a single-player RPG, and then Star Wars: Squadrons with friends over the course of the week. All of that’s changed since then. Ring Fit Adventure play is now quite sporadic. The single-player video game of choice varies a lot as well. And the Squadrons play changed over to (virtual) tabletop roleplaying with those friends; one of them has always been an exceptional gamemaster and has been leading us through an Edge of the Empire campaign, and I haven’t had this much fun with a tabletop RPG in years. I’ve even led a couple of sessions with some side characters set within the same continuity. So between that and reading the Alien materials more recently, I’ve been really energized to try to get to more tabletop roleplaying. As usual, I’ll probably spend a lot more time thinking about settings and stories than actually playing any of these systems, but it’s generative creative energy either way. In addition to the aforementioned materials, I broke down and purchased the Cypher System Rulebook and its Predation supplement because the Terra Nova-meets-Dinotopia-meets-Xenozoic setting looks too damn cool.

I also just pledged on Kickstarter to back a physical printing of Matthew Gravelyn’s survival-adventure journaling game Clever Girl because I can’t get enough of dinosaurs in games and fiction. It’s not the only unlicensed work heavily inspired by Jurassic Park that I’ve recently purchased–about a month ago, I got Dinosaur World from Pandasaurus; it’s a delightful competitive game about building the best dinosaur park you can, producing dinosaurs amid other attractions and amenities and attempting to keep interest in your park maintained through constant expansion and greater risk (it’s also a sequel to their previous Dinosaur Island, which I haven’t played). My wife and I have only played Dinosaur World once so far, and it took a while for us both to get a feel for how the rounds flowed and everything that we should be keeping in mind during the different phases. Once we got that down, it was a lot of fun, and I’ve been itching to play again with a full four players (it’s for 2 to 4).

We technically attended Gen Con this year, but we were only there for part of a day (Sam really struggles with crowds and being in public now). Nonetheless, between Gen Con and online purchases, I’ve picked up quite a number of board games–nothing super-new but certainly games released over the last few years that I’ve been wanting to play. Aside from Nemesis, the ones I picked out this year have been mostly licensed stuff. I’ll write more if/when I get around to these games. I also might write about some of the older games we haven’t played in a while if we pull them out in the coming months–which I hope to be the case more and more as we’re trying to set aside some time for board games, both between the two of us and with a couple friends, on a recurrent basis. Hopefully, there will be no dramatic new developments in the pandemic that would require us to back off from that.

Normally, I would have brought up video games sooner, but I haven’t been playing as much lately. I’ve been intermittently playing Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. I’m trying to do three playthroughs of each game in the trilogy (on top of the playthroughs I had in the original releases of these games). I’m currently on the second playthrough of the second game with my only Renegade character, and even without being a pure Renegade, I don’t enjoy how much of a dick you are with this playstyle. But I’ve been just as likely to play a little bit of Jurassic World: Evolution (yes, I keep coming back to it after all) or The Sims 4. I’ve even given Alien: Isolation another try, finishing…most of it. I’ll have a post about that experience on Halloween, as well. The video game I’m most excited about isn’t even out for about another month: Jurassic World Evolution 2 looks like an improvement on the original in about every way–and at 280 hours recorded, I’ve now put more time into this game than any other in my Steam library.

What I’m watching

I re-watched “The Ninth Jedi” and “The Elder” from Star Wars: Visions this weekend. They’re so good. I’ve also been watching Letterkenny, Marvel’s What If…?, DC’s third season of Titans, and Only Murders in the Building. I’m only current on Only Murders, which is hilarious while simultaneously being surprisingly heartfelt and mysterious. Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Selena Gomez are all delivering fantastic performances every episode. Lastly, for television at least, I’ve started watching The Haunting of Bly Manor, just as most people are now talking about Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix series, Midnight Mass. Ah, I’m forever behind the times.

I don’t think I’ve watched very many new or new-to-me movies recently, or at least not since The Suicide Squad, which has already been nearly two months ago. Once more, it’s what’s in the near future that my attention is more focused on. I’ll be seeing The Many Saints of Newark, actually in a cinema, sometime this week, and I’ll also be going to Dune in theater later this month or early November. I’m sure I’ll be posting reactions to both when I can.


I’ve written before about trying to balance consumption of big franchises and existing IP with original creative works. Looking at my blog posts this year, and paying attention to what I’m currently engaging with, I am a little disappointed to realize how heavily my consumption has favored the former this year. But since 2020, life has been tumultuous for a lot of people, and that’s certainly been true for my house. Plus, work has remained quite busy for about a year now. So I guess it’s okay if I’m taking in more junk comfort entertainment. I’d also argue that even though these creative works most benefit large corporations and often regurgitate existing ideas, characters, plot structures, and so on, some of the current franchise productions are managing to mine new territory and do really interesting things. Still, it’s something worth being mindful of, and it might gradually lead to a rebalance of what I’m spending my time on.

I think I’d like to sign off by doing something a little differently and talk specifically about what I’m into creating instead of just consuming. Outside of this blog and the briefs I prepare for work, I haven’t written consistently in a long while now. But I do have sporadic bursts of creativity. I try to jot ideas down in a journal. Over the past few months, a few dreams have connected with other, older ideas and led to two full outlines for fantasy stories set in a shared universe. I think they’re each maybe novella length, at least, and I’d really like to devote some time to writing those stories in full. I’ve also been dabbling with fan fiction, though I haven’t completed any of those projects. Some of it’s been related to those Jurassic Park gap stories I mentioned in that series of posts on here. The fantasy stories are closer to my heart and so even if I finish them, I probably won’t post more than some excerpts here, but I think I very well might just post any finished fan fiction to this blog. Maybe writing this here, publicly, will get me to commit to completing some of these projects.

And that’s just about everything I’m into, for now.

Jurassic Park Series Summary

This Jurassic Park / World series of posts finally meets its end. I had fun with it, and I’m also glad to be returning to the roulette of random topics for future posts. Especially since this series had some off-topic posts intermingled over the many weeks since this began, a list of all the final individual posts seems useful. So, to recap, I wrote:

  1. The initial introduction;
  2. A comparison of the first novel and the first film;
  3. What I love about the largely panned sequel;
  4. How I’ve come to accept the third movie, flaws and all;
  5. A review of Blue’s character arc;
  6. Which themes made The Battle at Big Rock so exciting to me;
  7. A reading of the Jurassic Park films as metaphors for family trauma;
  8. Gap stories I’d like to see, or a list of fan fiction projects I’ll probably never get around to; and
  9. What’s on my mind about Dominion as we draw closer to its release.

Some hopes and anxieties about Jurassic World: Dominion

[Warning: I’ll be discussing some rumors. These may or may not be spoilers. Not sure you can be spoiled by something that may or may not happen, but I know some people are very averse to even the faintest whiff of possible information about an eagerly anticipated future release.]

My hopes and anxieties are pretty intertwined for Jurassic World: Dominion. For instance, I’d love to see feathered theropods, and I know some will be feathered, but how will that be represented? How will the dinosaurs look? Will there be an explanation explicitly offered as to why some are feathered and others are not?

And I’ve heard that the opening scene shown before F9 was really cool (never saw it myself) but also intermingled dinosaurs from disparate times and regions in what was supposed to be the late Cretaceous. Maybe the feathered dinosaurs will be confined to the past? But either way, is there any explanation offered for a random assortment of dinosaurs in what is supposed to be a legitimate presentation of a prehistoric landscape? I suppose that just reflects my larger anxiety about inaccuracies to come.

In a related vein, I’ve heard rumors that Deinonychus will feature heavily in the new film. If that’s true, why would they double down on treating Deinonychus and Velociraptor as different species? I could always just accept that Velociraptor was really Deinonyhcus antirrhopus, mislabeled as V. antirrhopus (although still an inaccurate version of the animal). If the movie makes clear that they’re distinct, how do we reconcile the film Velociraptor, built more like a large Deinonychus or Utahraptor, with the actual Velociraptor mongoliensis?

It’s just a movie, and movies are art (even when they’re big, dumb, pop art blockbusters), and so we don’t need verisimilitude or accuracy. But I don’t see the reason to eschew reality–dinosaurs were fantastic enough as they actually existed! And given that we only have fossilized remains, there is still plenty to be speculative about, whether providing speculative behavior or feathering or coloration or even creating whole new speculative animals. Deviating from what we actually know about the animals just seems like a big mistake.

On the other hand, there are some things I’m without a doubt and without complication looking forward to. I’ve gone on and on about my excitement for dinosaurs just out and about in the modern world. And I’ll be delighted with the return of beloved characters from Jurassic Park, regardless of their role; the voice acting in Jurassic World: Evolution‘s Return to Jurassic Park was already quite a nice treat. It also sounds like the new movie will be a globe-trotting adventure, and I think that sounds rather fun.

At the end of the day, though, I’ll probably be fine with the movie however it turns out. Still, it would be great to end the Jurassic World trilogy with a bang!

The Jurassic gap stories I’d like to see

I have a false memory about The Lost World, before the movie even came out. I distinctly remember Velociraptors running through a field alongside a train in what appeared to be rural America. Where’d I get this image from? A dream? A misinterpretation of a trailer? It doesn’t matter. It’s not real, didn’t happen. But even before the movie came out, I remember hoping that dinosaurs would end up on the mainland. When the freighter plows into the dock and the scattered remains of its crew are discovered, I thought maybe this would mean that raptors had snuck aboard and would now wreak havoc along with the Tyrannosaurus. Of course, this was not to be. But because of that specific hope, the difficulty of understanding exactly how the freighter crew was killed off has stood out to me more. If not the raptors, then how did it happen? The juvenile was taken back separately. The buck was in the cargo hold. How did such a large animal get its jaws into the pilothouse, wrenching some poor soul free from a hand that remained firmly clutched to the wheel? Why did it kill the crewmember who closed the cargo hold back on it but left the body apparently undisturbed? And how did the crewmember survive long enough to close the hold? For that matter, why would the Tyrannosaurus voluntarily return to the hold? The pilothouse, more than anything else, stands out to me, because while normally presented in narrow angles, there’s every indication that it’s closed off to the outside and undamaged.

All that to say, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a gap story that fills in what happened. I think it’d be fun to have a private investigator hired by one of the family of the lost crew to investigate events. Perhaps this leads to the discovery that more than the Tyrannosaurus was aboard the freighter. Perhaps he encounters disinterested police officials and active resistance from InGen execs determined to minimize the already disastrous events in San Diego. Maybe he runs into a pack of escaped raptors–or something else entirely! I imagine it as a bit of Chinatown meets Jurassic Park.

But there are other stories I’d like to see (or create myself, in the form of a little fan fiction). There are a few moments not relevant to the films that could offer gung-ho action-adventure. For instance, the Dinosaur Protection Group site has in-universe documentation dated October 5, 1994 that reports current dinosaur population levels on Isla Nublar based on a “1994 clean-up” and estimated dinosaur population levels on Isla Nublar based on a 1993 report. So of course, following the mercenary team that went into the island and cleaned things up, collecting and containing and cataloguing surviving dinosaurs, would be an interesting story. TellTale’s Jurassic Park: The Game, which never really quite fit as a direct follow-up on events from Jurassic Park, doesn’t have a narrative that works well with the newer movies, and so that can safely be disregarded, leaving a big opening.

The list of dinosaurs on Isla Sorna is presumably similar to the report that Alan and Billy had reviewed before Jurassic Park III, in which the Spinosaurus was noticeably missing. That same Dinosaur Protection Group page I referenced earlier discusses the illegal creation of other dinosaurs that were abandoned on Site B, resulting in the rampaging Spinosaurus. The page says that the new research happened over nine months and started 100 days after InGen was purchased by Masrani Global, while another page says that bidding for InGen happened in 1997 and the illegally cloned animals were introduced in 1999. A story that chronicled the backroom dealings and unethical science, or the release/escape of the newly resurrected dinosaurs, would probably make for an interesting tale. And there’s another mercenary adventure story waiting to detail the recapturing of the escaped Pteranodons from Isla Sorna in 2001.

I imagine Henry Wu weaving his way through all of these stories: part of the efforts to contain the situation on Isla Nublar, returning from his shipboard evacuation of the island to collect valuable scientific information only to be shut out of further genetics efforts until brought in by Masrani for the illegal experiments in 1999 that I’d like to imagine had to be shut down when the Spinosaurus broke containment, and finally meeting up with Vic Hoskins, forming a fateful relationship that would prove pivotal in Jurassic World, when the ex-military man led the mission to collect the pterosaurs.

Then there are the stories that can happen post-Fallen Kingdom. I’ve already rattled off ideas before, but there’s one concept I’d sort of like to play with at some point. At its core, an enterprising rancher has gathered up a small herd of Gallimimus and plans to grow the herd. He soon encounters two threats: something is hunting his new flock of bird mimics at night, and a government investigator shows up to claim that he’s in illegal possession of contraband intellectual property. The two threats collide pretty quickly, deciding the fate of the rancher’s whole operation. I think there’s some mileage in that for a short story, at least.

Anyone else have any gap or side stories they’d want to see, or any fan fiction they’d like to point out?