A real tough mother: A critical review of “mother!” (2017)

Darren Aronofsky is a stand up guy. I assume. I’ve never met him, but I usually like his movies. However, I had reservations about watching “mother!”, his 2017 effort. If you’ll recall, the film came out in the summer and featured Jennifer Lawrence, which might have set some people’s expectations in a certain direction. The film was a box office bomb, and it sharply divided critics. Even those who liked it admitted that it was obscure, violent and at points disturbing, the kind of movie that features a bloody-yet-beating human heart suddenly appearing in a toilet. Still, once it came out on DVD, I figured the title could be understood as an audience suggestion.

That’s right. I watched “mother!” with my mother around Mother’s Day. I wasn’t unnerved about watching so controversial a film with her. No sir. We’re both adults, and we can get along like adults. That’s why I chugged two beers in the bathroom before starting the movie.

“mother!” begins with the titular mother (Lawrence) waking up–notably, her first word, and the first word of the film, is: “Baby?” But the baby she’s looking for is her husband (a very game Javier Bardem), a writer who has moved the couple into his childhood country home. He tries to write and she fixes up the stately estate, which is still recovering from a fire that nearly destroyed it.

This quiet partnership is disturbed when a man (Ed Harris) stumbles into the house one night, coughing and professing his admiration for the husband’s work. The next day, his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) appears. After that, it’s their bickering sons (real life brothers Domhall and Brian Gleeson). And after that, a spontaneous wake is held in the dining room, with more people gathering on the doorstep. The mother tries to keep the house from splitting at the seams and keep her husband’s attention before he’s lost in the crowd.

“mother!” is labeled a “psychological horror” film on Wikipedia, which is somewhat misleading. Not because I think serious art–and “mother!” is art, there’s no question about that–can’t be psychological horror. I am one of the biggest opponents of the mystery science gutter, and Aronofsky clearly agrees with me. He turned out a brilliant piece of psychological horror, “Black Swan,” which is also unquestionably art. However, while “mother!” starts out like a psychological thriller, it veers rather rapidly into more esoteric territory.

Some critics argued that “mother!” is a bit too scattered in its themes. Is it about the environment? Is it a biblical allegory? A parable about the dangers of male dominance? An examination of creative genius and those caught on its periphery? The evolution of culture? I ask, why can’t it be about all of that? F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that a great mind is one that can hold two opposing points of view in mind and stay sane. A great film is able to capture more than one theme on its screen, and smart viewers should have no problem handling them.

Even if those subjects aren’t quite your cup of tea, you can’t argue with the cast. Lawrence, Bardem, Harris and Pfeiffer all dive into their roles with strength and sensitivity. And even if you don’t like Ed Harris–is there anyone who actually doesn’t like Ed Harris?–you can simply marvel at the truly engaging photography. Despite taking place almost entirely in a single building, there is a stunning sense of scale. There is a sequence in the film’s second half where the house is made paradoxically both spacious and claustrophobic, and I think that was the moment I knew this was one of the best movies of the year.

The film does lack a score, which Clint Mansell fans can complain about, but the resulting sonic space is deafening. And what’s with the oddly perfect closing cover of “End of the World”? Who does Aronofsky think he is, Ken Levine? Or perhaps David Lynch?

All right, all right, I get it. Aronofsky can be an acquired taste. But for viewers who like the flavor, “mother!” is a fascinating and thrilling film that will stay with them long after the naysayers have gone home to mommy.

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Madmen who run unattended: A critical review of three endless runner games

Wait a second, wasn’t this year going to be all about video games? Well, we’re slightly less than halfway through. There’s still time, and time is of the essence in this review. One thing that the digital world has given us is the ability to distract ourselves for periods of time as long or short as we please. And some distractions seems tailor-made for those social situations where we’d really rather have our respective heads buried in our phones. I’m talking about the real time wasters, games for places like the DMV or family reunions.

Occasionally when I get bored, I pop open the App Store on my rickety old ipad and see what Lovecraft, Poe and worse inspired distractions there are out there. One can’t do this constantly, as it turns out that games that fit both my quirky interests and my budget–that is, games that are free–are not falling out of the sky. Still, sometimes I make good. This happened recently when I found a trio of distinct endless runner games of a similar flavor.

The first was the iOS exclusive “Blood Roofs,” which was by far the most ambitious of the lot. You play as a duet, an initially unnamed-yet-shirtless man carrying a crippled-yet-armed woman named Catherine, who are on the run from an unnamed force of unhappy critters in an unnamed, but very Old World looking, city. Catherine is a fairly crack shot with a submachine gun, and her companion’s ability to jump frightening distances and land safely suggest his calves are made of spring steel.

Visually speaking, “Blood Roofs” is fairly impressive. The city is detailed without being particularly repetitive, the monsters are inventive and large and have unpronounceable names (and, oddly enough, sound like Godzilla from time to time), and our heroes resemble a slightly pixilated Frank Frazetta painting. All in all, not bad. There’s also a decent amount of depth to the gameplay. There are plenty of collectibles to purchase with in-game currency (or real dollars, if you are so inclined) which are there to ease or extend the game. The most exciting of these are probably the increasingly wacky alternate companions, offering you a chance to trade Catherine for either an escaped convict with a flamethrower, a landlocked mermaid or a broken grandfather clock.

The controls are a little buggy, most notably when it comes to the jumps, with our heroes sometimes sailing right over a rooftop and other times failing to catch a single shingle. Jumps are a rather important part of a runner game that has the word “Roofs” in the title, but I imagine you’ll manage. One nice component of the game is that you genuinely feel like you’re improving and advancing as you go along. Besides, I suppose that that’s the trade-off for what is otherwise a surprisingly deep game. Well, that and having to look at that man’s well sculpted ass the entire time.

In a way, the most satisfying of the lot was probably “Nightmare Runner” (also available as a browser game) because it was the one that did the most of what it set out to do. “Nightmare Runner” is exactly what it says on the label: You are endlessly running, and you are hopefully just in a nightmare. The game is short on plot, longer on style and longest on ease of entry.

“Nightmare Runner” can be completely summed up with its description, a horror themed platformer/rail shooter, but that’s kind of the point. The lack of plot means that it’s something that you can turn on and play for five or 10 minutes without having to worry about save points of character development or anything like that, which is what these games all are at heart.

The style works too. Its world is built out of silhouettes and twisting tentacle things, some of which are floating toward you and have to be shot at in order to safely continue, but others of which loom in the sickly yellow background, which gives the screen a kind of depth and might make you reconsider just what it is you’re running on top of. Also, “Nightmare” passes the Lovecraft video game test: At one point, a monster the size and age of a small planet looms on the horizon, and you feel the cartoon awe for a moment. Until you kill it and realize it’s mortal after all. Probably.

About the only thing some people have complained about regarding “Nightmare Runner” is its market system, which uses purple gems to buy upgrades. Gems are almost nonexistent in gameplay, seemingly available only to those who fork over real cash in exchange for digital currency. But none of the upgrades seem all that necessary, so this is hardly a weakness, just an annoyance for OCD completionists.

Aside from utilizing some pleasantly quirky animation, and referencing a Doors song in its title, “Light My Fear” (also available on Android) was by far the biggest letdown of the lot. You play as the delightfully named Hector Baltazar, a young man with a passing resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe who wakes up in a forest with no idea of how he got there. I don’t either, but I personally think you can leave him there if you want. Nevertheless, Hector picks up a torch and starts making his way back to civilization, burning whatever hapless creatures of the night get in his path.

The most frightening aspect of “Fear” is its horrific controls, which often renders Hector standing stock still and being bitten to death on the ankles by very large spiders. Most criminally, if you do manage to slog through the stiff controls and unforgiving enemies, there is only one chapter.

OK, so it’s only a demo. That’s too bad, because it is a fun style, very Tim Burton-y for those who like that sort of thing. But it’s a demo that has been a demo for two years now, so the odds of it being smoothed out and expanded seem rather low at this point. Who knows? It might have ended up being the best of this trio. At this point, I’ll never know, and probably neither will you.

Best films (or thereabouts) of 2017

It’s that time of year again, when boys become men and men become wolves, to quote the great Tracy Jordan. In other words, it’s the time of year when we here at Idols and Realities attempt to vainly and vaguely round up the films of the past year in a list that approximates quality. As always, the better films will be near the top and the worser films near the bottom, but the devil is in the details. Regardless, the first film is the favorite, which means we’ll begin with:

Blade Runner: 2049

In a year that featured good movies, but never great movies, “Blade Runner 2049” stood tall. I did not see a better looking, more thoughtful, sensitively acted film. And it managed to be a worthy successor to the original by neither abandoning it nor abusing its source material. I suppose we shouldn’t expect less from director Dennis Villeneuve at this point. Just don’t try watching it if you haven’t seen the first one.

A Ghost Story

More contemplative than scary, although the ethereal photography and moody soundtrack might fool you, “A Ghost Story” is one of those pictures. It’s a meditation on love and release, on time and timelessness, and it is really slow at the beginning, so be warned. I eat this stuff up though.

The Limehouse Golem

I know it’s sort of a 2016 film, but it wasn’t widely released to Americans until last year, so bear with me. It’s a handsome, intelligent and fun–the latter if you’re into blood-splattered Victoriana, at least. It also utilizes art in a big way, one that’s worthy of a look at some later date. And who doesn’t want to watch Olivia Cooke and Bill Nighy in period dress?

John Wick: Chapter 2

Is “John Wick” a guilty pleasure? Probably. But there’s something about its stylish, ultra-violent lack of cynicism and self concern that I find…relieving. Keanu Reeves is honestly perfect in the title role, and all the movie’s neon affectations fit its image perfectly. It’s a comic book movie, man, the best one all year.

Little Evil

Or maybe this is the guilty pleasure. The Netflix original skewers the brevity of modern family life with the eternity of the Apocalypse. It’s funny, well photographed and sports the always affable Adam Scott. It’s a little long, but horror fans should be kept entertained by the tons of reference points scattered throughout.

It Comes at Night

Intelligently photographed (writer-director Trey Edward Shults interned under Terrence Malick) and sensitively performed, “It Comes at Night” is a dream-like post-apocalyptic nightmare. The titular night is both literal and metaphoric. Obviously.

Beauty and the Beast

All right, all right, shut up. It was a nice movie, OK? It looked good, had great costumes, they kept all the songs, and are you seriously going to tell me you don’t like Luke Evans? Go watch him in “The Alienist” if you want something a little more bloodthirsty.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

A tightly written, well acted and nicely photographed black comedy, but why do I feel like it would have been better if the Coen brothers had come up with it? Regardless, while “Three Billboards” might be more thought provoking than truly great, I’d rather watch an interesting movie than a boring one any day.

Pottersville

A Christmas movie about Bigfoot featuring Michael Shannon–if you need more than that, it’s also funny, for the most part, only approaching sappy at the end. Still, it’s Christmas. I guess I can do with a little sap. If nothing else, there’s a rather interesting theory about Sasquatch offered at the campfire.

Alien: Covenant

A return to form, perhaps, but also a bit of a letdown after the philosophical meanderings and sense of dread of “Prometheus,” for me at least. The screwy script and the more obvious scares are contrasted by the excellent cast and great visual design. I mean, it’s Ridley Scott doing an Alien film. It’s going to be OK.

Colossal

A scattered script and a limp ending are balanced by a great premise and Anne Hathaway’s layered, complex performance. Coupled with an excellent supporting cast, this is a weird, watchable and never weighty movie.

The Shape of Water

Well, this was easily the most disappointing film of the year. When Guillermo del Toro utilizes mythic archetypes, he approaches the mystical. When he utilizes Cold War stereotypes, he approaches the mundane. While the film is shallow in its plot, it’s deep in its visuals–luckily, del Toro can’t help that.

Logan

“Logan” starts out trying to be a moody, serious superhero film, and it succeeds, right up until it doesn’t. The mid-film identity crisis might not matter so much if the movie were more interesting on its own, but regardless, anything with Hugh Jackman chopping off people’s heads can’t be all bad

The Babysitter

Netflix’s original splatter spoof is funny, but it’s a little too hyper for it’s good. Regardless, if you’re a horror fan, you’ll at least get to play the “build a sci fi team” game at home.

Ingrid Goes West

This black comedy can’t decide if it wants to be sweet or offbeat, but it’s timely, I guess, and well acted by its leads, particularly the delightfully uncomfortable Aubrey Plaza and the clueless yet likable O’Shea Jackson Jr. Nice photography, although it is LA, so maybe I’m biased. I’m calling “stereotype” on some depictions of local characters though.

The Dark Tower

I am a Tower junkie, so I could go on about what doesn’t work here–and what does. Suffice to say that “The Dark Tower” pleases few for a variety of reasons. While it is possible to get some thrills out of watching Idris Elba shoot stuff and Matthew McConaughey snark evilly, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it.

The Circle

Slick and thought provoking, technological thriller “The Circle” is also incoherent, badly paced, over acted and, oddly enough, considering the money behind it, frequently poorly photographed. At least a smooth performance by Tom Hanks and an intriguing score by Danny Elfman help things along.

Rings

Intriguing, moody, atmospheric…and then the movie starts. You can’t blame them for not trying. “Rings” does attempt to build on the mythology of what has come before. It just ends up being a bit clumsy about the whole thing. Vincent D’Onofrio almost saves the day by being Vincent D’Onofrio.

Killing Gunther

This low, low budget (and Arnold Schwarzenegger produced) action mockumentary is sometimes amusing and sometimes real slow. There are fun performances from the largely comedy TV cast, but it’s never quite whacky enough for its own good, and it goes on for a bit too long.

1922

“1922” is well shot and good at evoking its era, but Stephen King’s latest cinematic ghost story lacks the chills it deserves. Also, I love Thomas Jane, but is it just me or is overdoing the old-timey accent just a little bit?

The Space Between Us

If it didn’t have Gary Oldman, it would be unforgivable. Without Oldman, it’s just a dull cosmic fish-out-of-water movie with a lot of money and little sense. With Oldman, it’s all that..and Gary Oldman shouting about space occasionally. Have fun.

Lycan

What starts as a familiar teen slasher with surprisingly good photography becomes an overly stereotypical teen slasher with a bad script. Plus werewolves. And you thought you had it rough in high school.

Atomic Blonde

This is a movie that was on the background and I was in the room occasionally. That’s all I can say.

 

Insert “The Time Warp” joke here: A critical review of “When We First Met” (2018)

I wasn’t even going to watch this movie, let along review it. “When We First Met” is a romantic comedy, and I am someone who hates humanity, so I do not seem to be the appropriate person to review this film. And yet, we did just knock out two Netflix original distributions in so many weeks, and this does involve time travel, so I guess it sort of counts as a sci fi. Let’s go for a trifecta.

Noah (Adam DeVine) has been in the friend zone for the past three years, and now Avery (Alexandra Daddario), his objet d’amor, is getting married. Consoling himself with far too much booze for a man of his constitution, Noah climbs into a (presumably) magical photo booth, which transports him back to the night he met Avery. He now has the opportunity to live that night over and over, until he can finally end up with Avery, a task easier said than done.

“When We First Met” didn’t set out to be a great movie, but it did set out to be a movie, and it succeeds at that. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot to it. The direction, by Ari Sandel, whose greatest claim to fame to date has been high school something-or-other “The DUFF,” never really rises above an MTV level of competence.

That leaves us with the script, by John Whittington, who was one of the five people worked on “The LEGO Batman Movie” screenplay and one of six people who worked on “The LEGO Ninjago Movie.” It’s not that funny. There are a few sex jokes, and a few “fish out of temporal water” jokes, but the film never seems comfortable settling into any kind of comedic groove. It’s even worse when it attempts philosophizing on romantic topics. Your reading of the ending as either sweet or bittersweet depends on how you analyze the questions the film clumsily raises, and the script wisely leaves any genuine interpretation out of the hands of any of the characters on screen.

So that that leaves us with the acting, which is not that great either. At least Daddario (of “San Andreas” and, more importantly, the first season of “True Detective” and the hotel season of “American Horror Story”) and DeVine (of “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” and, to his credit, “The Final Girls”) look like they’re having fun. They chew the scenery sometimes in their depiction of always-just-out-of-sync lovers, but it’s something to grab onto.

There might not be anything truly wrong with “When We First Met,” but there’s nothing that really makes it stand out either. The concept is amusing, but it’s hardly new. Time has toyed with lovers in everything from “Love in the Time of Cholera” to “13 Going on 30.” And is it just me, or is that photo booth basically just the fortune telling machine from “Big”? Even its title sounds familiar; I keep getting it mixed up with Lord Huron’s weepy, indie folk ballad “The Night We Met.”

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting notion: Being a time traveler, like being in love, can wear you out. I just hope a more thoughtful film has thought of it too.

Lost in the woods (again): A critical review of “The Ritual” (2018)

Well lookee here. Netflix dumped not one but two horrifying flicks on us humble audiences this month. We did “Cloverfield Paradox” last week, so why not join some of our distinguished colleagues and try to review “The Ritual” this week? It’s shocking that we’re actually watching another new release instead of something old but not old enough to be cool yet. It’s almost like we’re competent or something.

Well, with that descriptive intro, here’s the review.

Based on a novel that I’ve never read, “The Ritual” starts like a midlife dramedy, with a group of overgrown lads in a pub, planning their next vacation and struggling with the gap between bachelorhood and married life that widens as one slows down. Then one of them gets himself killed in a botched liquor store holdup (he was an innocent bystander, not a holder-upper). A few months later, his surviving friends are taking a hiking trip in Sweden where they hold an impromptu memorial. Things start to get weird on their way back, where they take a shortcut through a forest that throws off their sense of time and space, not to mention the fact that something in there seems to be following them. Surprisingly enough, after a stay in an abandoned house where each man is tortured by nightmares, things don’t get better…

For the most part, “The Ritual” is a solid blend of psychological and traditional horror. The director is horror vet David Bruckner, who’s into the co-directing thing (he was featured in “V/H/S,” which I saw and kind of remember, as well as 2007 “The Signal,” which I forgot I saw but never forgot I really liked). Either way, it’s unsurprising that “The Ritual” looks and feels good. It’s sort of the horror version of the John Ford rule: If you point a camera in some well lit rainy woods, and you don’t fall over drunk while holding the camera, you’re bound to make some atmospheric pictures (the cinematography was done by Andrew Shulkind, who has worked with Bruckner before, and the editing was Mark Towns, who hasn’t). Bruckner does more than that, also using the forest to build tension, add aggression and drive the plot in subtle and not so subtle ways.

I will also say this. For the most part, Bruckner knows when to keep the monster out of sight, which is a smart tactic, but it’s one that can lead to disappointment when the creature finally makes an appearance. However, when he does decide to show the creature…well, let’s say he does OK. Even those who have been less than satisfied with the movie seem satisfied with its creature.

The humans aren’t so bad themselves. A small, tight cast (it’s basically a four man play) ensures that we get to know our characters pretty well in an organic way. They feel real; each actor plays his part like someone you’d meet at the bar, whether they’re bragging drunkenly in the middle of the room or checking their watch in a dark corner. Admittedly, their individual psychologies are not examined in depth, but the connections between their dreams, desires and individual guilty consciences are all brought up. The movie might not be intellectual, but it is clever. Although Lord but those boys do swear a lot.

One complaint is that the film doesn’t do anything new. But is “The Ritual” genuinely unoriginal? Well, yes. Completely. It’s part “Blair Witch Project,” part Algernon Blackwood (please tell me you’ve read “The Willows”), part every crappy camping trip you ever shivered your way through as a kid. However, originality, like depth, is a tall order. A more pressing issue is the ending, which is far too fast. I’m not saying it lack resolution. It just sort of…stops. After so much pleasant–from a horror perspective–imagery, it can be quite disappointing to have such an unimaginative conclusion. Still, genre fans should be willing to forgive less than a minute of disappointment for 90 minutes of quality atmosphere. “The Ritual” doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is: for the four men on screen, a really poorly planned vacation.

Let’s do the twist again: A critical review of “The Cloverfield Paradox” (2018)

One problem with modern media, I think we can all agree, is franchise-syndrome. Cable and broadcast series stay around longer than their plotlines will allow, and film series reboot rather than die with honor. One interesting way of countering that has been a subtle return of anthologies, most notably with TV series like “True Detective,” “American Horror Story” and “American Crime Story.” Cinematically speaking, there are the Cloverfield films, which are typically quirky thrillers that get the J. J. Abrams touch: plots that are guarded like jealous lovers and doled out slowly, both in the advertising and the films themselves. Which explains why “The Cloverfield Paradox” is both a bit labyrinthine in its narrative construction and its Neflix release was only officially announced in a Super Bowl commercial. For us here at Idols and Realities, that also means we get to review something new for a change.

After a few rounds of quick exposition–I counted three–we join a cast of international science dudes onboard the space station Cloverfield. Seems they’re trying to kick-start an eternal energy machine to stop people on earth from fighting over oil reserves. After a couple years of misfiring, the machine finally works, but in doing so it breaks and it rips a hole in spacetime. Cut off from the Earth, the crew must try to work together as tensions mount and their minds and bodies are fractured by the chaotic effects of a splintering reality.

If “Paradox” sounds a little familiar, that’s perhaps because it enters that long lineage of films that can be classified as “haunted house in space,” that is, space opera by way of psychological horror occasionally kissing cousin to cosmic horror, as in “Alien” and “Event Horizon,” but sometimes played a little straighter, as in “Pandorum.” If you’ve seen any of those films, just imagine them slightly less coherent, exciting and interesting, and you have “Paradox.”

“Paradox” doesn’t go far to explain its own paradoxes–it’s a bad sign when “Event Horizon” is using sounder science than your film. Presumably some stuff gets jumbled when dimensions collide, which explains the quirky placement of certain objects, but it doesn’t explain why some members of the crew are fine and others get the space crazies. No, there are too many unanswered questions for the film to click as a mind screw. It’s weird, sure, but it’s not weird enough. On the other hand, maybe the film wanted to do something more philosophical, perhaps something about ethics. But that kind of question, while it could be posed, it not. Maybe it was in an earlier version of the script–there are some religious hints thrown around at the beginning of the movie, but they’re dropped pretty quick.

Furthermore, the movie doesn’t get particularly psychological, if only because it would be hard to pull off when all your characters are about as thin as construction paper. Gugu Mbatha-Raw does her best with the central, and therefore most complex, character of the film, but she can only so much. I like Elizabeth Debicki as an icy space lady, but that might just be because her haircut reminds me of David Bowie. The best of the bunch is probably Chris O’Dowd, who gets all the funniest lines of dialogue, which is a good idea because he’s Chris O’Dowd. So the movie at least does that right.

Perhaps it lacks an experienced hand at the wheel. Director Julius Onah has years of producing credits, but only one thriller to his name. What the film doesn’t get right or wrong, it simply does OK. The look never rises above handsome, but it never really sinks to genuinely ugly, preferring to stay in a safe, middling middle. Graphics are fine. Special effects are fine. Soundtrack is unmemorable, so it was probably fine. But fine don’t quite cut it.

The Cloverfield “franchise” has always taken its B-movie subjects somewhat seriously, resulting in either the wicked sense of humor of the first film or the genuine thrills of “10 Cloverfield Lane.” “Paradox” still maintains its predecessors seriousness, but it can’t live up in the other ways. And that ending. Perhaps it’s trying too hard. There are plenty of standard Cloverfield tropes in the plot: not-everything-is-what-it-seems, a decent dose of disaster and conspiracy, and there’s even a trace of that sense of humor. But there are no real thrills, too many questions left answered and all the wrong ones raised to begin with.

The problem is obvious, of course. “Cloverfield” had actress Lizzy Caplan; “Lane” had Mary Elizabeth Winstead–the film was lacking a distant, smoky brunette. I’m sure that would have fixed everything.

You can’t make this stuff up: A critical review of “Alan Wake” (2010)

In a move that was not necessarily the wisest, given rumors of a lack of financial stability, I joined Gamestop’s rewards program. The good news is that all the cheap, used games are even cheaper for the next year. The bad news is that I will feel compelled to purchase them to “make up” the cost of the program’s membership. Well, at least there should be some good reviews in it. After all, it’s 2018, the future and whatnot. Video games is what it’s all about. Nobody wants to read any more. Which is why the first thing I’m reviewing is a game in which you step into the shoes of a novelist.

“Alan Wake” opens with the titular writer being pursued in a dark forest by an even darker presence. This is revealed to be naught more than a nightmare, but Wake wakes (haw) up to an even greater nightmare. He’s going on vacation to Bright Falls, a backwater town in Washington state with his wife, Alice. After meeting some of the quirkier residents, Alice disappears, along with their isolated island getaway. It seems no one can remember their vacation house ever existed, although the local police remember Alice, and Wake himself becomes a suspect. Wake takes the investigation into his own hands, running up against an ancient evil that is slowly infecting the entire area with a gathering darkness.

“Alan Wake” is a game I’d been meaning to play for awhile. The main character, atmosphere and setting, even the soundtrack, give it the feeling of a “Twin Peaks” fan fiction written by Stephen King. A little ambitious, one might think, which is part of why “Alan Wake” is kind of disappointing. Not because it’s bad–it’s perfectly serviceable–but because it’s so just OK. Many of my issues with the gameplay and the story are eerily mirrored by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, so I’ll just leave this link to his video review here. That about sums it up, which is not difficult to do since the gameplay is so repetitive. Walk through the spooky forest for the umpteenth time, shine light here, shoot at that, climb to the top of this to advance to the next level, rinse and repeat.

 

The game is great at building atmosphere, but then it doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Indeed, “Wake” does atmosphere very nicely. There are some interesting affectations, like a “Twilight Zone”-esque TV show that plays in the game’s background and the stray novel pages you collect that tease the story along; the song selection is interesting and engaging; and the game has the spooky forest vibe completely nailed down. That’s both a blessing and a curse, because the game thinks of every excuse imaginable to get you into the woods in the middle of the night. You would think that Wake himself would eventually figure out that’s not the best idea, if only because he writes thrillers for a living.

Wake himself is an oddly unbalanced character. He shrugs off pickaxe blows from undead assailants with ease, and he’s handy with multiple firearms, which begs the question: Isn’t Wake is an alcoholic writer? How did he get so good at being so badass? Aside from creating a narrative quirk, there’s also a gameplay problem. Perhaps I didn’t have it on the right difficulty setting, but I never felt threatened. The game lurched between kind of tricky and far too easy. Accordingly, the best level was one in which Wake is on the run from police, weapon-less and dodging enemies rather than fighting them. Coupled with the spooky forest setting, I finally felt the tension.

Wake’s companions are a bit uneven themselves. Publisher and best pal Barry Wheeler looks and speaks like action sidekicks who have been helping heroes investigate haunted houses since the 1930s. Two characters who promised to be the most interesting–art therapist Emil Hartman and unstable FBI Agent Nightingale–are given all the backstory of a shallow puddle. And Wake’s wife has one facial expression: scary. But what if this was all the point?

The existential question is this: Is “Alan Wake” a sloppy game or is it a stealthily meta game? I started to suspect that the events I was playing through were actually happening on the pages of a book, perhaps written by the game’s mythical Thomas Zane. It might explain why Wake himself comes across as such an action hero–seriously, is the game commentary on the hubris of writers always making the heroes of their stories be writers?–and why his friends have such overly written dialogue, as well as those “collect ’em all” novel pages. It’s like they’re all living in a pulp thriller. Interesting? Perhaps. Intentional? I don’t know. There are further Alan Wake installments–but not the promised sequel–and I imagine they might confirm or deny, or at least expand upon, this theory. A more important question, unfortunately, is whether I’d want to play them. The answer is maybe, but I’d need at least one level that wasn’t just set in a spooky forest.