MOVIE REVIEW – THE THING

October 17, 2011

Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.

Rating System: 0 – 5 Bubbly Head Deaths with Zero being the lowest and five being the highest.

The Review

The Thing, which I will simply refer to as the Thing, is a prequel to John Carpenters 1982 film of the same title. It’s another re-telling of John Campbell‘s classic 1938 short story Who Goes There? A group of Norwegian scientists in the Antarctic discover an alien spacecraft and its pilot buried in the pre-historic ice. The reason they’re Norwegian this time is because this is the set-up for the Carpenter film. In that one, remember, the American group finds the burned out hulk of the Norwegian base… American paleontologist Kate Loyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited by group leader Dr. Halvorson (Ulrich Thomson) to help extract the thing from the ice. Note to self: if a creepy Norwegian scientist ever asks me to go to Antartica to see ‘something extraordinary’…JUST SAY NO!

Kate accepts and is whisked away to the snow and cold by American chopper pilots Carter (Joel Edgerton) and Jameson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje – good ole Mr. Echo from Lost) Once there, she is quickly taken to the crash site and finds a darn close copy of the saucer from the Carpenter film and the thing, both buried in the ice. After extracting the creature and returning to base, Dr. Halvorson immediately decides to drill into the ice and get a tissue sample. Later that night, as the base is having a celebration, the thing breaks out of the ice. The group manages to kill it, but not before it kills and swallows Griggs (Paul Braunstein). As the scientists begin to study the remains, Kate discovers that the thing can imitate other living things and that someone in camp is not who they say they are.

The rest of the film has the cat and mouse stalking of human versus thing. I don’t want to say too much more so you can enjoy the ride and keep guessing about who is who. But thanks to the Carpenter film, we know that things are going to end badly for our Norse friends. This time around, the thing is much more of a public thing than the earlier version we see. Actually, it’s a later version, if we’re going chronologically. This thing sprouts oodles of tentacles and teeth at the drop of a hat — any hat. My guess is that the later thing, the one that escapes from this film to the Carpenter film, decides that hiding is a better strategy. Consequently, this film has a lot more action while the Carpenter film has a lot more suspense. And while this generates more excitement, the film makers did sacrifice a lot of the horror potential of the story. So much so, that I would classify this film as a sci-fi action film more along the lines of Predator than a horror film.

The lack of character development also hurts this film. There are fifteen characters in this film! And with the exception of Kate, Carter and Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), they are almost unrecognizable and interchangeable. It would have helped immensely if the costume designer would have given them jerseys with numbers and names on their backs to help us keep them straight. If the film makers were going for more of a suspense and horror atmosphere, this issue would be much, much greater. As I’ve said before, the themes of “Evil is lurking everywhere” and “Nobody is what they seem” are powerful ones. This setup is perfect for them. Every twitch a character makes, every little thing that seems out of character just amps up the paranoia. And let’s face it, everybody has something to hide. Would we really be that surprised if the guy who we’ve always thought was a bit off suddenly sprouted a tentacle out of his head and attacked us? But since the flame throwers start throwing, and characters ‘thing’ out or are killed almost immediately, any chance of building paranoia gives way to action. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this film a bunch! Winstead is game, and she looks good swashing the buckle. The rest of the cast tries hard, but you can only push a cardboard cutout so far.

As a huge fan of the Carpenter film and its real, puppet effects by Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, I was concerned about how this version would look. There are a couple of great sequences of the thing going all CGI-thingy that hold up pretty well. There were certainly a few moments that looked a bit too much like a video game, but there were also a few sequences that Carpenter and Bottin would never even have dreamed of trying back in 1982. I do think that the designers did a great job of capturing the look and sound of the Carpenter film. The Carpenter film, aided by a great Ennio Morricone score, had gobs and gobs of that apocalyptic feeling. The Morricone score is hinted at several times throughout the new film, with the actual Morricone track Humanity (Part 2) – the heart beat piece, running at the end credits. Since the sequence of shots that are interspersed with the credit roll serve to set up the Carpenter film, it’s a good choice. The sound design was exceptional! I especially loved the antarctic ambiance that is present in the background of just about every scene. I know it’s only a howling wind sound, but it’s simple and it works. It suggests a bit of dread and hopelessness that a film like this really needs to succeed.

GAME INSPIRATIONS FROM THE MOVIE

Since some horror buffs, myself included, feel that Campbell’s story was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s 1931 short story At the Mountains of Madness, Call of Cthulhu is the way to go for this. If your game group is up for it, you can easily do a set up where one of the party is already infected. Give everyone a unique hidden objective to achieve so you can keep them guessing at each other’s motivations. Let them bicker and argue while the the thing secretly tries to take them all over. When you add the fact that there is a high chance that the whole party will be killed and the entire base will be set on fire and burned to the ground, we’re talking about an enjoyable evening of gaming!

All of the things at the Norwegian base that we see in the Carpenter film faithfully show up in the prequel. From the fire ax in the door, to the frozen corpse of Collin (Jonathan Walker) still grasping the straight razor he used to slash his wrists and throat, to the two-headed burned thingy that the Americans bring back to their base, there is plenty of fan-friendly continuity here. Also, stay for the end credits to see the Norwegians begin their helicopter chase of the infected dog. Seeing that made me feel a twinge of sorrow for those crazy Swedes…I mean Norweigans.

‘Course, what do I know?

You can check out this review as well as all the others at the Bloodwork blog on toxicbag.com.

Advertisements

Location: ICON
Date: 9/11/11

Result: Minor Crew Victory

Current Tally:
22 Games
15 Space Monster Victories
7 Crew Victories

Play Tester Game Playing Level: High

Note – Italics indicate that a card was played as an event.

As Turn 1 began, the Space Monster moved to Cargo Hold One and successfully damaged it. The Captain moved to the Computer Room and Science Officer Cinder moved to the Infirmary. Cinder then discovered that the monster had a chameleon ability (One of the Monster Attributes). The Monster then emitted an EMP (another Monster attribute) which shut down all of the lights, monitors and the ship’s computer for the rest of the turn. Alarmed by this, the Crew decided to attempt to fix the ship and began moving to the damaged sections. The monster appeared in Corridor Two and attacked Second Officer Palance. Palance wounded the monster on the first combat roll, but was killed when the monster emitted a sonic screech (the third and final attribute of this monster). Both player decks would expand to 40 cards during the end phase.

(Crew Player Larry Haskell rolls the dice for the combat in Corridor Two.)

Turn 2 started with the Crew arming themselves with guns. Next, they discovered that the Monster was using the vents to move around the ship. They quickly decided to hunt down and kill the monster immediately. The Monster avoided detection and managed to heal its wound. The Crew finally located the monster and attacked. During the melee, Britt was wounded and the Monster managed to get away.

At the beginning of turn 3, Navigator Hamm and Executive Officer Abel moved to the Bridge and began plotting the ship’s exact position. This would take the entire turn. The rest of the Crew headed towards the damaged sections. The Monster now attempted to evolve, but was unsuccessful. Cinder and SISTER turned up something useful to use against the Monster, resulting in the Monster losing a card from next turn’s hand. The Engine room suddenly lost pressure, making it uninhabitable for the rest of the turn. The Crew finished out the turn by quickly constructing a couple of electrical prods to combat the monster.

Turn 4 began with a bang as the cargo in both holds exploded. The Crew headed to the damaged sections to attempt repairs. Just then, the Captain and Science Officer Cinder moved to the Infirmary to look at something interesting. They would be forced to spend the rest of the turn there. The rest of the crew reached the damaged areas and managed to repair the damage in Cargo Hold One. New damage was detected in the Crew Mess. The Crew responded by splitting up again. The Monster appeared in the Cargo Hold Two and wounded Chief Engineer Milton before he was able to escape. The Monster again emitted an EMP, shutting down the ship’s system’s for the turn. During the End Phase, the Monster evolved to Stage One.

(Monster Player Derek Rompot indicates which Section new damage has been detected in.)

Turn 5 started with the Monster quickly evolving to Stage Two. To negate the monster’s sonic screech attack, three of the surviving Crew members put on EVA suits. New damage was detected in Corridor One. The Crew decided that in order to better fight the monster they would split into two teams. But this idea was immediately negated when they started bickering and fighting and not trusting each other. New damage was detected in the Escape Pod. The Crew was able to repair the damage in Corridor One.

At the beginning of Turn 6, the Crew moved to the Bridge and held a burial in Space for Palance. This forced the Crew player to randomly discard a card from his hand. The monster became distracted by the lights on a control panel and had to randomly discard a card. The Captain came up with a plan to deal with the situation and the Crew went into action. The Captain then attempted to activate the SISTER computer to gain an extra card for next turn’s hand. But SISTER was unable to elaborate. The monster attacked and killed Science Officer Cinder in the Crew mess.

(A mid-game look at the game board.)

Turn 7 began with the five surviving Crew members suddenly developing suspended animation sickness, resulting in all of their Crew cards being flipped to the wounded side for this turn. First aid was applied to Milton and Britt, so they would be back to full strength once the animation sickness wore off at the end of turn. The monster attempted to damage the ship while the Crew succeeded in repairing the damage in Cargo Hold Two. Knowing that the monster was going to become more powerful as the game progressed, the Crew constructed two incinerators to help fight it.

In Turn 8, machines repaired the damage in the Escape Pod. But just as that was taken care of, new damage was detected on the Bridge. The Crew spent the rest of the turn attempting to repair the damage, and one of the incinerators ran out of fuel and was removed from play. The Monster evolved to Stage Three at the end of turn.

Turn 9 began with Milton and Britt refusing to work unless they got some more money. The Captain went into the vents to try to force the monster out of the ship. His attempt failed, and he was killed at the third junction. Hamm was told to go take care of something by herself in Corridor One. The Monster appeared out of the shadows there and killed the hapless navigator. Now only three crew members were left alive.

(Larry reacts to the Captain’s death at the Third Junction of the air vent system)

Turn 10 started with Milton and Britt again refusing to work. Machines repaired the damage to the Bridge. The Monster attacked again and killed Engineer Milton. The two survivors, Abel and Britt, quickly moved to the Bridge to plot their next move.

Turn 11 began with action as the Monster managed to get into the Bridge undetected and kill Britt in the ensuing battle. Abel, armed with both pistols, managed to inflict three wounds and drive off the monster. But the respite was only temporary as the Monster again attacked. Abel’s aim was true, and he killed the Monster. The game had ended in a Minor Crew Victory.

(Derrek congratulates Larry on an exciting victory for the Crew.)

Lessons Learned:
Another exciting game, this one ending with the Crew winning! We got to see the Sonic Screech and the EMP attributes used together. They could be a deadly combination. The EMP will have to be tweaked. One suggestion by the players was to have a recharge roll during the end phase to see if the EMP is available again after it has been fired. I like that idea, and will put it into play for the next batch of playtesting. I was glad to see the Crew win a game, but they still need help to give them more of a shot!

MOVIE REVIEW – CONTAGION

October 13, 2011

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Rating System: 0 – 5 Bubbly Head Deaths with Zero being the lowest and five being the highest.

THE REVIEW

Contagion, hereafter referred to as Achu!, is a chilling story about a worldwide pandemic of a hybrid bat/pig flu. Achu! begins on day two of the outbreak as Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is returning home to Minnesota from a business trip in China. Although already infected and suffering from a runny nose, cough and headache, Beth has time to stop at Chicago for a quickie with her lover. He too becomes infected, and starts to spread the disease himself. We also see in rapid succession other people that Beth came in contact with in China, all succumbing to the disease. This is a great, and frightening sequence letting us know how quickly a virus can be spread.

Once Beth gets home, she has a seizure and collapses. Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), rushes her to the hospital, where she quickly dies. Already stunned by this news, Mitch returns home to find that his son Clark (Griffin Kane) has also died from the virus. From here the story picks up all of its various threads and begins to tell the story from several perspectives.

Independent internet blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) picks up on the rising body count and starts posting about it; the World Health Organization sends Dr. Ornates (Marion Cotillard) to China to investigate. Prodded by the Department of Homeland Security, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the CDC in Atlanta also starts to investigate.

The rest of the film shows us the spread of the virus and the medical community’s attempt to stop it. The multiple threads let the audience get to see the effects of the virus from different perspectives, from the ground level of Mitch Emhoff to the penthouse view of Dr. Cheever and the scientists at the CDC. Along the way we get to learn a lot of chilling concepts like what an r-not number is. The r-not of a virus, we learn, is a mathematical formula calculating the virus carrier and the number of people he or she will potentially infect. The flu, for example, has a normal r-not number of one. This means that a person infected with the flu is likely to infect one other person on average. The CDC soon estimates that the r-not of the film bug is more like 4, but it could be higher. The scary thing is, the r-not is a real thing, and it’s monitored by scientists every day!

Soderbergh and his cast and crew are pros, and they go about their business in a professional way. Overall, I enjoyed this movie. I especially loved the mid-movie montage of abandoned locations. We see in quick succession the gym, the mall, the bank and several other places that are usually teeming with people and noise, all dark and abandoned. There is something unsettling about seeing these familiar places in such unfamiliar conditions. The apocalypse fan in me also loved the scenes showing the breakdown of society. People looting and killing and being generally unpleasant with one another as soon as the power goes out shows us a scary concept: the idea that acting civilized and obeying the law goes out the window as soon as personal preservation kicks in. We see this demonstrated when Mitch witnesses some armed looters break in to a neighbor’s house. He promptly calls 911 to report the break in and gets an endless automated message. (“You have selected regicide. If you know the name of the king or queen being murdered…press one.”) Later on we see that Mitch himself is now looting his neighbor’s houses. Survival has trumped law and order. And to be fair, I don’t blame him; I would probably do the same thing. This concept of “where exactly is the line between obeying the rules of society and doing what you have to in order to survive” is a powerful one, and it would have been great to see more of it. The film makers could have shown us the moral struggle Mitch Emhoff experiences as he makes these decisions. And an actor like Damon has the chops to pull it off. But since there were so many other threads going on, the audience quickly got whisked away to another character’s storyline, and any drama about Mitch’s decision to rob and steal to survive was quickly dropped into the memory hole. The next time we see Mitch, the danger is pretty much over and power has definitely come back on.

This brings me to the movie’s main flaw. I felt that the film was a bit bloated. There were too many characters trying to tell too many stories. Especially the Dr. Ornates storyline in China. I wouldn’t have missed it if that whole bit had been dropped, and the pacing would have improved dramatically.

GAME INSPIRATIONS FROM THE MOVIE

By itself, Achu! doesn’t really fit into a workable game. Some serious re-working would have to be done. Something or someone causing all the unpleasantness would have to be added on. Call of Cthulhu has a lot of potential beasties that could be responsible for the outbreak, but any modern day rule set could work. It could also be re-worked for a fantasy setting as well. This could be a lot of fun, especially when you can throw in the medical knowledge and sensibilities of the period. Again, a lot of extra work for the GM, but it could be satisfying.

I loved the storyline involving the doomed Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet). One of my favorite scenes involves her interaction with the Minnesota Department of Health officials. She gives them a shopping list of what needs to be done; shelters, morgues, food, water and supplies. Their response was great. Instead of taking the steps needed to save as many lives as possible, they are more concerned with questioning how much her plan is going to cost and who’s budget it’s coming out of. It’s only a few exchanges, but the actors nail it. It felt real, and that was scary!

‘Course, what do I know?

You can check out this review as well as all the others at the Bloodwork blog on toxicbag.com.

Location: ICON

Date: 9/10/11

Result: Major Space Monster Victory

Current Tally:
21 Games
15 Space Monster Victories
6 Crew Victories

Play Tester Game Playing Level: High

Note – Italics indicate that a card was played as an event.

Turn 1 saw the engineers, Milton and Britt, complaining about their contract and refusing to work, while the rest of the Crew moved to normal duty stations. The Monster unsuccessfully attempted to evolve and the Crew decided to build the motion trackers. The monster moved about the ship and unsuccessfully attempted to damage it. The end of the turn saw machines repair the damaged cargo hold.

Turn 2 had new damage detected in Corridor One. Both engineers moved to the damaged section, but were unable to repair it. The rest of the Crew built the high-strength nets.

(Paul Hassebrook plays a card as the Crew player)

At the beginning of turn 3, the Monster damaged the now-vacant Engine Room, and Cinder discovered that the Monster was going to be harder to kill (One of the Monster Attributes). The Crew then constructed the electrical prods; Britt was told to go to corridor one to take care of something. All by himself, Britt was attacked and killed by the monster. While the rest of the Crew attempted to find it, the Monster again tried to evolve, but failed. The end of this turn would see the player decks expand to 40 cards.

Turn 4 began with the Crew learning that the Monster was strong and smart and out to kill them. This resulted in the Monster drawing an extra card for its next hand. Realizing this, the Crew decided to construct 2 incinerators. Both Cargo Holds suddenly exploded, causing light damage in each. Machines quickly repaired one of the holds. The Monster appeared in the Crew Mess and although it received a wound, it killed Navigator Hamm. The Captain came up with a plan and the Crew attempted to find the monster. The Monster evolved to Stage One at the end of the turn.

(Paul reacts to Hamm’s death in the Crew Mess)

Turn 5 had the Crew arguing amongst themselves, costing them a card for next turn’s hand. Cinder and SISTER then turned up something useful to use against the Monster, resulting in the Monster losing a card from next turn’s hand. Smith, the ship’s cat, got loose, making it more difficult for the Crew to track the Monster. The rest of the turn saw the Crew trying to repair the damaged sections and the Monster healing its wound.

Turn 6 saw the Captain activate SISTER and ask for advice, gaining an extra die in combat. The lights on C deck suddenly went out, making it much harder for the Crew to search.

Turn 7 began with the Crew discovering that the Monster was using the vents to move around the ship more quickly. New Damage was detected in the Engine Room, but was quickly repaired by machine. Engineer Milton was attacked by the Space Monster in Corridor Two. When the rest of the Crew got there…he was gone. The rest of the Crew spent the rest of the turn trying to fix the damaged sections.

Turn 8 had the Monster appear out of the shadows and attack the Crew. Although wounded twice, it succeeded in killing the Captain and Executive Officer Abel, the latter by emitting a sonic screech (one of the Monster Attributes). To protect themselves from this new deadly attack, the rest of the Crew donned EVA suits. The Monster evolved to Stage Two at the end of turn.

Turn 9 began with the Monster quickly evolving to Stage Three. The surviving Crew members quickly assembled on the Bridge and decided that they were gonna kill the Monster, rather than attempt to abandon the ship. The Airlock depressurized, making it inaccessible for the turn. The highly evolved Monster attacked and killed Cinder on the bridge. This left Palance alone to fight the Monster.

(Shane Beddingfield surveys the game board and his cards as he contemplates the Monster’s next move. Designer Steve Baldwin watches in the background)

Turn 10 saw Palance decide to make a last stand in the Computer room. She activated SISTER and would receive an extra card for the next turn…assuming there would be one. The Monster didn’t attack and instead attempted to damage the ship.

Turn 11 had the Monster attack Palance in the Computer Room. In the first two rounds of Combat, Palance succeeded in wounding the Monster. With only one wound left, the Monster attacked again and succeeded. With her dying breath, Palance fired a harpoon gun. If it hit (by rolling a 1), the Monster would be killed, resulting in a draw. But the die came up with a 4. Palance was dead, and the Monster had won the game.

(The final roll for the Harpoon gun. A 1 will kill the monster. Sadly a 4 was the result.)

Lessons Learned:
Another exciting game; this one ending with both players having a chance to win the game. We got to see the Sonic Screech attribute used successfully. The Search mechanic is still not working right. I’m also thinking that the bowels of the ship area – a safe haven for the Monster – will have to be adjusted as well. The Crew player needs something to even the odds. But again, the overall experience was positive!