The 2016 soft reboot of Hitman adopted an outsized back-to-basics approach, returning the series to open-ended stealth missions, and across bigger levels than ever before. It fine-tuned familiar systems to create the most playable, accessible incarnation of the series yet. Compared to that game, Hitman 2 is more of a refinement than a reinvention. It has big, brand-new levels, but the mechanical changes are rather slight, like allowing your character to hide in foliage, blend into crowds, or be seen in the mirror.
Of course, even refinement is cause for celebration. Hitman is one of the greatest stealth games ever conceived, and the sequel is still a dense assassination sim bursting with possibility, tension, and wicked comedy. As before, the bald, bar-coded Agent 47 infiltrates wide-open levels that offer a variety of ways to reach and then execute his targets—though with the aid of poison or a sniper rifle, sometimes he doesn’t need to reach them at all. Many of the mechanics and level-design philosophies carry over to this new game entirely intact, to the point where levels from Hitman (which can be redeemed if you own the earlier game or purchase them as additional content) even slot neatly into the Hitman 2 menu as if they’ve been there all along.
Also as before, the slightest bit of plot is threaded through the game’s five levels. The story is a rote, convoluted conspiracy thriller just po-faced enough to serve its higher purpose: contrast. Like its predecessor, Hitman 2 recognizes that the inherent silliness of its premise—the highly conspicuous 47 can successfully disguise himself as almost anyone, as if he lives in some bizarre one-clothing-size-fits-all parallel universe—is funnier when it plays some things straight. So, while the story is concerned with 47’s true origins and who runs the world from the shadows, it works best to highlight the pleasing nonsense of something like the stoic 47 wearing the costume of a big flamingo sports mascot. His head pokes out of the hole in the costume’s neck, an oversized beak wobbling above his chrome dome as he struts away to grimly murder someone for money. Throughout, 47 crosses professional, vocal, and even racial lines with ease, manipulating a deeply oblivious society to a degree so absurd that it all plays like outright social satire.
That you can complete levels normally while dressed as a pistol-toting security guard instead of, say, an animal wrangler referred to as a “hippo whisperer” is an integral part of the game’s comedy, though traditional approaches are rewarding in their own right. Hitman 2‘s combination of hiding in plain sight and ducking behind objects, creeping through hostile areas in search of a new disguise is as tense as it’s ever been. It’s still rewarding to pull off a careful series of plans, and still even more thrilling to watch those plans spiral out of control as you’re forced to violently improvise.
With its huge levels and the dizzying number of possibilities within them, the game walks a fine line between leading you along and leaving you to your own devices. The mission opportunities of the previous game, which set up the most outlandish and, more often, elaborate kills imaginable, sometimes made players feel as if they were going through a script as they went from one waypoint to the next. One of Hitman 2‘s larger improvements attempts to remedy this: Opportunities are now called “mission stories” and function in largely the same way, laying out a number of steps to follow, but they now tend to require some additional input or step. They less often lead you by the nose up to the moment of a kill so much as set up an environment for players to take advantage of. Other elaborate methods don’t receive stories at all.
However, the game again lacks much of a middle ground for getting through these stories. The “minimal” guidance option is preferable since it lists objectives without marking specific waypoints to follow, but in massive levels loaded with information, the openness can be daunting and a little frustrating when you’re expected to follow such specific steps. The stories are often the best way to get to know the locations and possibilities of a level, so it seems counterintuitive to come back to them only after acquiring an intimate knowledge of the location. To create a more fully fledged “minimal” option, the developers at IO Interactive might have done better to write vaguer objectives or use waypoints that only mark a general area (or some combination of the two) rather than get rid of the waypoints entirely.
Elsewhere, Hitman 2 still struggles a little to incentivize improvisation. The series has come far in emphasizing its preferred playstyle of exploration and experimentation across repeat playthroughs, but like the Dishonored series and many stealth games in general, what the game marks as an ideal playthrough isn’t always the most engaging way to play. Though level-specific challenges and even some of the mission stories don’t require perfect runs to complete, it sometimes feels as if the most rewarding parts of the Hitman series mean making your own fun with the tools available to you. IO Interactive have left more than enough of those tools lying around the levels to accommodate, but it remains a challenge they have yet to solve.
To some degree, the difficulty of encouraging improvisation and emergent play is a problem of the entire genre, and perhaps it’s a little unfair to expect Hitman 2 to solve such a far-reaching issue forever. But the fact that this issue stands out, and that it even seems like something IO Interactive could potentially address, is a testament to how far the Hitman series has come since its rough beginnings. Hitman 2 reasserts Agent 47’s spot at the apex of the stealth genre. Even if the lavish detail, excellent writing, and world of possibility within vivid levels mostly just refine what came before, that’s because IO Interactive have all but perfected what they set out to achieve in Hitman: Codename 47 nearly 20 years ago.
Developer: IO Interactive Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 14, 2018 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol
Review: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
It takes more than a little bit of programming genius to allow a game as simple and accessible as this to still keep the door open for in-depth competitive play.4.5
Conventional logic says that a game as enormous as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate should be collapsing under its own weight like a dying star. It feels like the Mr. Creosote of video games, a title almost disgustingly distended with content. The series roster has grown enormous beyond belief, and already another announced DLC character—Joker from Persona 5—threatens to be the wafer-thin mint that makes the whole thing explode. It would be all too easy for any developer to lose the rhythm of a game that juggles so such, so it’s a genuine feat of skill that Nintendo so ably holds the whole thing together.
Ultimate lives up to its name beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, though the game tries to deny that fact at the outset, when players can only use the original dozen or so fighters from the original Super Smash Bros.—a feeble and mildly irksome attempt on Nintendo’s part to drip feed the one component of gameplay everyone will want all at once. On its face, Ultimate offers the same familiar Smash Bros. experience: Pick your favorite character, and use a combination of straight-up strikes and special, series-specific attacks to essentially loosen your enemies’ grasp on gravity—and to the point where hitting them hard enough sends them flying off into the stratosphere, never to return. Thankfully, though, all it takes is 10 minutes in any one mode—fussing with the controls, playing with enemy head and torso sizes, or scanning an Amiibo—for the game to unveil its multitudes.
Play the game’s Classic Mode, a straightforward series of eight fights with dynamic difficulty, and you realize you’re no longer toying around with randomized enemies as in previous titles in the series, but taking a winking stroll down a memory lane that lovingly recalls the games from which these characters originated. Mario’s path leads him to an eight-enemy brawl against the Koopalings, followed by a confrontation with a giant-sized Bowser, featuring remixed final boss music from Super Mario Bros. 3. Simon Belmont’s Classic Mode path puts him up against a series of characters standing in for major bosses from past Castlevania games. His boss stage is a full-blown recreation of the final level from the very first Castlevania, complete with a teleporting Dracula and a second phase where he morphs into a 10-foot-tall demon. The tiny details in the plotting, locations, the music, character actions, and personalized boss fights would be impressive and admirable in any fighting game, and then you realize that Nintendo has done this for 74 characters, half of which aren’t even owned by Nintendo proper.
Every little accomplishment in Ultimate foists bonuses, spendable points, and new characters on the player. In the age of microtransactions, it’s easy to forget what actual abundance and reward in these types of games looks like. Nintendo cannot be praised enough for continuing to smile on every player for enjoying the studio’s games on any level—whether casually or competitively—while many competitors unapologetically turn their protects into gambling machines. The relative slowness of unlocking Ultimate’s full roster is forgivable in that context, though one imagines players who already have a favorite character in mind, or just want to play with one of the game’s new characters, will find their patience tested somewhat.
It’s hard to feel too bad, however, considering that the game is seemingly designed to keep dullness at bay at all times. Go beyond Classic Mode and there’s an endless number of changes of pace to the standard Smash Bros. battles. There are, of course, relatively straightforward ways to play, like tournaments. The standard-issue match modifiers that have been there for years have returned, like making every player into metal (thus harder to knock out) or giant-sized. There are also more robust and forward-thinking ideas like Squad-Strike—essentially a 5-on-5 tag mode—and Smashdown, which could be described as Ultimate’s interpretation of Fortnite; it’s an elimination mode where you can play as the entire roster, one character at a time, but losing as a character means they can’t be selected again.
The biggest new time sink is World of Light, a full-blown, 20-plus-hour RPG that plays like the unholy offspring of Smash Bros., Pokémon, and Magic: The Gathering. In it, an extraterrestrial being called Galeem pulls a Thanos and wipes out the entirety of the Smash Bros. roster, minus Kirby, who’s apparently Carol Danvers in this scenario. Kirby is then charged with traveling around the world and rescuing the souls of his comrades, which have been trapped by Galeem and are being used as red-eyed puppets to roam the Earth. It’s a strangely dark premise but not nearly as grim in execution.
The mode really boils down to a basic top-down JRPG journey, with an addictive series of Smash Bros. fights doubling as random encounters, augmented by special Spirit cards—essentially, Smash Bros.’s old trophy rewards but finally given an actual purpose—granting player and opponent alike random augments. It’s more involved than one might expect, to the point where this could have been the only part of Ultimate released to the public and no one would have probably complained. World of Light is held back mostly by some uneven spikes in gameplay, and, yet again, the slow way you unlock additional fighters besides Kirby means being stuck with a weak character for long stretches. Still, having it as a sizable chunk of an absurdly feature-packed whole is bound to buy a lot of forgiveness from players.
None of this would be worthwhile if the foundation of the series’s combat wasn’t still as rock-solid as ever, and even then, tweaks have been made to the gameplay elements that were already finetuned by Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U. The gameplay is slightly faster now, with a few useful indicators for telling how close off-screen players are to being completely out.
The Smash Bros. series has always been conceptually right as rain—a genius premise that’s been often imitated but never duplicated. Ultimate makes a strong case that no one ever will. It takes more than a little bit of programming genius to allow a game as simple and accessible as this to still keep the door open for in-depth competitive play. Whoever develops such a game requires an ethos as unshakably welcoming as Nintendo’s to prevent it from becoming a money-sucking, pay-to-play pachinko machine. Above all else, said developer needs a near-bottomless imagination to make it so that pitting the greatest video game characters ever created against each other is as exhilarating to behold the umpteenth time out as it was way back in 1999.
Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: December 7, 2018 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Cartoon Violence, Comic Mischief, Suggestive Themes Buy: Game
The 25 Best Video Games of 2018
This list recognizes games many of us love, but it devotes as much space to ones a few of us are passionate about.
In video game journalism, the desire for consensus is often wielded like a cudgel in an attempt to silence dissenting voices. Calls for so-called “objective” analysis—for a number-crunching product review rather than a thoughtful critique of what a game means, or doesn’t mean, to say—suggest a desire for the process to be all but automated. The cycle can be disheartening, especially when it suggests that what is said matters less than whether it lines up with impressions gleaned from marketing materials, or when it demands that a review score remain in the ill-defined bounds of an industry that feeds on hype and demands flattery.
But, then, it’s easy to conflate how people weaponize consensus with the concept itself, meaning it’s easy to overlook its uses. In such a loud, dense, and expensive medium, where everything seems to be crying for our attention all the time, it’s indispensable to be able to cut through the noise. It’s invaluable to see a handful of games everyone else is pointing to as something you should consider spending your money on. Those games—God of War, Marvel’s Spider-Man, and even smaller but no less beloved titles like Celeste—are on this list, the ones that captured our imaginations and dropped our jaws just the way they did for thousands of players.
Just as useful, though, is to be able to champion the unsung in the face of consensus. We can laud the expansive world of Red Dead Redemption 2 and the underwater alien vistas of Subnautica in the same breath. This list recognizes games many of us love, but it devotes as much space to ones a few of us are passionate about: the outsider art of Arbitrary Metric or Hidetaka Suehiro, the RPG-mirrored journey of a man named Gary, a cooperative prison break, a pulsating neon-tinged platformer. We prefer to think of consensus less as a means to silence dissent than as a way to hack away at the brush and clear a path for our own individual passions, as well as leave space for you to find your own. Steven Scaife
25. Forgotton Anne
Players waited for ages to see a game that captured the visual imagination and deep, earnest emotion of Hayao Miyazaki, and after Studio Ghibli helped work on Ni No Kuni, well, they were left waiting. Whatever magic the game contained was drowned out by one clunky RPG mechanic too many. The specific thing players yearned for has finally been conjured by Forgotton Anne, which goes beyond doing an admirable job of aping the look and feel of Studio Ghibli’s animation. Yes, the concept of a girl finding herself the orphaned enforcer of a world made by and for every forgotten object the human world has ever lost is ripe for the exact kind of emotional allegory that Miyazaki himself is famous for. Even still, Forgotton Anne has a power all its own when it comes to how it uses player choice against the player. The narrative sinks its teeth deep into exploring the idea of people struggling with being able to see immigrants as human, even despite the fact that Forgotton Anne‘s immigrants are very much not, and it’s soul-crushing how relevant that plot element became this year. It’s even more so when our heroine’s choices and hypocrisies and so-called altruism comes back to haunt her later on. Forgotton Anne goes to beautiful, unexpected places, and while it wears its inspiration on its sleeve, it’s very much its own remarkable creature. Justin Clark
24. A Way Out
What’s fascinating and successful about A Way Out is its insistence on a forced split-screen—even for online co-op. The game wants you not only to do your job, but to be aware of how the other player has gone about doing his or hers. This choice mirrors in players the begrudging trust that’s built between Leo and Vincent when the game’s prison-break narrative forces these two strangers to work together. You’ll chisel a hole in the wall while your partner in the next cell stands watch for guards. Then, it’s your turn to return the favor, by causing a distraction or breaking up a fight, knowing that you may need to rely on your partner later to do the same for you. But A Way Out actually shines brightest in its action-free sequences, which focus less on familiar cooperative activities and more on illuminating how players think—what they choose to focus on interacting with and how they respond when the stakes aren’t necessarily a matter of life and death. Aaron Riccio
23. Donut County
Donut County is an absurdist comedy game about a raccoon inexplicably gifted with a phone app that causes mass destruction via remotely controlled holes in the ground. Similar in tone to cult classics Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy, the game’s abstract concept is executed via simple gameplay wherein the player moves an ever-expanding hole around familiar settings to suck furniture, people, and buildings into the earth. There’s a sense of accomplishment in successfully annihilating everything in sight, from smaller items such as fence posts and pot plants, to larger ones like animals and gardening utensils, then cars and entire buildings. Nothing can escape you and your inexplicable instrument of doom. Donut County matches its one-of-a-kind gameplay with clever comedy writing, best demonstrated in an in-game encyclopedia—with its detailing of the raccoon’s ludicrous beliefs, such as cliffs being an alien-created trap—that satirizes the overused video game trope of collectables. Ryan Aston
At the heart of GRIS is the idea of recovering from anguish through coping strategies and empathy. As the game commences, a girl has undergone some kind of devastating trauma. Then, the player avatar, Gris, falls through the world and into a derelict and hopeless place devoid of color. A first, Gris can barely walk, her movements seemingly encumbered by her psychological tolls, but she perseveres through barren wastes to find a monument where she restores the first ounce of color to the world and gains the ability to jump. From here, each wordless and strikingly artful section of GRIS symbolizes a different aspect of dealing with a psychological trauma, which is represented here by predatory animals that manifest from black ink. Crushing depression is exemplified by gray colors and empty landscapes, which Gris brings color and form back to as she helps others, as well as reforms the girl’s fractured psyche. That the narrative is intentionally ambiguous is important, as the game would not have the universal appeal that it does if it only dealt with a specific traumatic event. GRIS is a triumph of deeply affecting interactive poetry. Aston
21. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memory
When The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories starts, it’s a bog-standard indie platform-puzzler—albeit with an eye-catching, fluid animation style—starring a girl trying to save her missing girlfriend on an abandoned island. The very second lightning strikes, frying the girl to cinders, and a moose in a lab coat brings her back to life, The Missing takes a hard left swerve into the realm of the surreal and never looks back for most of its play time. Death isn’t a teacher in the game, but a most morbid, all-purpose skeleton key that fits every lock to every door if you’re creative enough. It’d be a bonkers gimmick worthy of stunned applause by itself, and then it becomes clear exactly what all this suffering was meant to represent, and suddenly, it’s the most progressive and affecting game of the year, an exercise of excruciating sympathy toward the marginalized that has absolutely no parallel in gaming. Clark
Breathe it in, the grime and the decay and the desperation rendered in Paratopic‘s stark, lo-fi polygons. The game’s world is ambiguous and anonymous and empty, leading you through wilderness and concrete sprawl. It pulls you into garbled faces, pushes you down highways with no company but a suitcase and a distorted radio. You become disoriented as the game cuts away, throwing you into other perspectives and then back again. Are you in control? Is your fate truly your own? The long, still moments between cuts leave space for the dread of this world to seep in and build anticipation for something terrible. It seems inevitable. A short, experimental game from designers Jessica Harvey and Doc Burford and composer BeauChaotica, Paratopic is the nightmare version of so-called walking simulators, revealing the existential horror simmering just beneath their constraints. Scaife
19. Yoku’s Island Express
It’s tough to picture how a game could mix pinball with Metroid-style exploration, and even tougher to visualize how it might be pulled off well. But any skepticism melts away after just a few moments with Yoku’s Island Express as its title character, a postmaster beetle attached to a ball, careens across the screen. Instead of jumping, he’s propelled by pinball flippers seeded throughout the beautiful island environment, and the pinball/platforming combination immediately feels so fluid that it becomes less a strange gimmick than a natural extension of Yoku’s delightful journey. It’s a warm, friendly game filled with moments guaranteed to win you over from as early as the very first upgrade: a tiny party horn for Yoku to blow on and get a character’s attention. He might need it in-game to compensate for his short stature, but even in this crowded exploration-platforming subgenre, the blissful mechanics of Yoku’s pinball adventure ensure he stands tall as the rest. Scaife
18. Legendary Gary
It’s no secret that the game industry attempts to exploit our desire for escapism, and most developers seem fine with reinforcing this dubious status quo. But Legendary Gary, created by Evan Rogers, addresses the tension between art and responsibility with a tale about a young adult who spends hours playing a computer game called Legend of the Spear in order to forget about his duty of supporting his mother and girlfriend. As the titular protagonist advances further in Legend of the Spear, he notices weird connections between the game’s world and the real world. While the line between fiction and reality crumbles, Gary is forced to face the hurdles of life—a friend overdosing, the emotional hole left behind by his dead father, shady managerial politics at his supermarket job—as a man and human being. Many years ago, filmmaker François Truffaut famously asked, “Is the cinema more important than life?” The touching conclusion of Legendary Gary seems to respond, “Of course not.” Jed Pressgrove
Dandara is the most distinct platformer of 2018, as it involves no running or jumping. Instead, you must shoot the protagonist to select sections of floors, walls, ceilings, and suspended platforms from myriad angles. This fact alone puts the game in less-traveled territory, but developer Long Hat House doesn’t stop there. Sometimes when you travel from one surface to another, the entire screen rotates, giving the action a beautiful yet disorienting rhythm, especially when you’re evading the attacks of adversaries. Dandara is also built around unlocking segments of an interconnected world, but the game frequently subverts one’s expectations, as when you discover an area that’s plagued by an unhittable, bullet-firing enemy that chases you from one screen to the next. In another case, opening new paths comes with the catch of having to navigate around suddenly activated obstacles in previously completed sections of a level. After playing Dandara, you may never look at platforming or Metroid-inspired exploration the same way again. Pressgrove
16. Red Dead Redemption 2
Told from the perspective of a cowboy wrestling with a cultural shift in society, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a philosophical take on the American frontier. Arthur Morgan is a lawless man wanting to be lawful, but he’s too mixed up in gang affiliations to believe his life can ever truly be redeemed. Especially in its profoundly heartbreaking depiction of the demise of the Van der Linde gang, Red Dead Redemption 2‘s theme of loyalty in the face of hopelessness rises to the forefront of the gameplay experience. Just as impressive as that feeling of heft to the kick of revolvers is the level of detail that went into rendering all the towns you come across, each and every part of these locales informed by its socioeconomics. But what makes the game something truly special is how it examines its main character’s moral dilemma. Red Dead Redemption 2 tells us that sticking to our guns may leave us deader than a deer on a riverbank, and assimilation doesn’t always mean defeat. Jeremy Winslow
15. Into the Breach
This turn-based gem certainly lives up to the ominous implications of its title. From beginning to end, the goal of protecting cities from hostile aliens that burrow out of the ground frequently appears downright unmanageable. After much frustration and incredulity, you realize that trying to eliminate every threat is a fool’s endeavor and that the key to victory is a stingy, uncompromising, and cerebral defense; performing a non-damaging shove on a foe in order to block the entrance of another pest often guarantees more success than trying to outmuscle the existing opposition. Every decision is ultimately critical here, so to survive a tough battle is to feel an immense relief that’s nearly unparalleled in a video game industry that tends to reward and encourage more simplified approaches to problem solving. Into the Breach is the most chess-like video game in recent memory, an intense rebuttal to the titles that spoil and satiate us with their frequently meaningless choices. Pressgrove
14. ASTRO BOT Rescue Mission
Every console has had a game like ASTRO BOT Rescue Mission, some sort of instantly giddying title that astounds with the world it conjures and the control within it that you’re afforded. This being a VR title, however, it seems safe to say that ASTRO BOT goes a bit further than most with its immersion. There’s no fixed camera here to rotate about. Instead, it’s you who has to stand on tiptoes to see what lurks atop a construction site’s high-up girders, or crane your neck around in order to look—from cliffs or behind corners—for your missing robotic crewmates. At times, you even have to literally use your head to interact with in-game items—to break down barriers obstructing your miniature, controllable character, or to blow apart a giant white dandelion to reveal a new path. But the most wondrous part of ASTRO BOT comes when, after spending most of a freeform level swimming beneath the ocean, you surface and find your view partially obscured. A well-placed mirror reveals your robotic, controller-wielding self—and the bright yellow snorkel you’re wearing that now has seaweed stuck in it. It’s a brilliant nod to one’s desire to truly be a part of a game. Riccio
13. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Conventional logic says that a game as enormous as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate should be collapsing under its own weight like a dying star. It feels like the Mr. Creosote of video games, a title almost disgustingly distended with content. The series roster has grown enormous beyond belief, and already another announced DLC character—Joker from Persona 5—threatens to be the wafer-thin mint that makes the whole thing explode. And yet, it’s undeniable that the title lives up to its name beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Not just an all-inclusive compilation of nearly every piece of content from its predecessors, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate uses standard Smash Bros. fight mechanics as the foundation for a full-blown RPG. It also beefs up the series’s familiar Classic single player romp from being a bunch of random fights with LittleBigPlanet-style recreations of entire games and their most iconic moments. Even after cramming in everything you’ve ever seen in a Smash Bros. game, Nintendo still has a plethora of surprises to spring on the player—tiny delights waiting to be unlocked hundreds of hours down the road for any player of any skill level. Clark
12. The Messenger
Though The Messenger may resemble classic side-scrolling platformers like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Ninja Gaiden, it’s more than just a nostalgia trip. This boldly colorful title is consistently entertaining in both its gameplay and storytelling—challenging the player in ways that never feel gimmicky or punishing. But this Metroidvania is most impressive for the way it seamlessly leaps from 8-bit to 16-bit. The increase in pixel count allows Sabotage Studios to play around with player expectation: A stage that required a simple jump here and a well-timed dodge there in 8-bit may suddenly require avoiding swinging spiked balls across a series of slow-moving platforms in 16-bit. Even after multiple playthroughs, it feels as if the memorably scored The Messenger isn’t done finding new ways of throwing exhilarating curveballs at the player. Jeremy Winslow
11. Dead Cells
Everyday it seems another miserable, demoralizing roguelike hits stores, trying to be the next Dark Souls but utterly oblivious to the specific recipe of tone, timbre, and ethos that makes Dark Souls work. The success of Dead Cells comes from beckoning its players onward. You wake up a formless blob of organic matter, squeezed into a suit of armor. The game then promises power, answers, and awe, and though it refuses to offer these things for free, Dead Cells is rightfully confident that these things are worth it. It’s an impressively grotesque, gothic world that our unnamed hero has to make his way through in order to achieve freedom, but it never puts mastery over one’s environment or the enjoyment of the journey too far out of arm’s reach. There will be a whole class of games we dub “Cells-like” in the near future, and it would be folly for us not to honor the one that got the trend started. Clark
Octahedron is a rave in video game form. Here, you create your own platforms as you attempt to climb shafts filled with electric neon obstacles and viral creatures that scrabble about on their glowing fibrous legs shooting sound waves at you. Each level adds some new interpretation of the electronic soundtrack’s thumping beat, layering on the complexity until you’re contending with missile-launching turrets spinning in unison, avoiding platform-eating piranha plants, or manipulating blocky speaker-like cannons so that their streams of sound no longer block your path. This synesthetic experience feels like a close cousin to that of rhythm games, though Octahedron affords the player more freedom, since you’re restricted only by the number of platforms you can create before needing to land on a fixed surface. Hypnotically satisfying, the game is the song you can’t—and don’t—want to get out of your head. Riccio
9. Hitman 2
In the exclusive VIP room of the Isle of Sgàil castle, the five members of the Ark Society council gather to discuss their plans to hold power over the world. During this Illuminati-esque gathering, the members of this privileged elite wear masks to conceal their identities—to discuss how they will profit from fixing the climate change disaster they created. But unbeknownst to them, one member isn’t who he seems. The elusive Agent 47, having earlier tossed member Jebediah Block over a balcony, has infiltrated their ranks, and he sets out to murder them all, dishing out his unique brand of darkly comedic justice. The game, a fusion of escapist wish-fulfillment and satire, has the player deploy its familiar and new stealth mechanics across inventive scenarios. Whether in an exotic jungle or a Vermont suburb, 47 exploits the hyper-detailed nature of his surroundings to complete his executions, and frequently in hilarious disguise. Hitman 2 gives players the tools to make their own amusing stories within the game’s open worlds, from choking an F1 driver while disguised in a flamingo outfit, to blowing up a Columbian drug lord using an explosive rubber duck, to reprogramming an android so it can gun down an MI5 agent turned freelance assassin played by Sean Bean. Aston
The dash jump of Celeste‘s protagonist, Madeline, is one of the great platforming mechanics of recent years, but it’s not what makes the game remarkable. No, what makes Celeste remarkable is context. In the hands of Matt Makes Games, the familiar framework of ultra-hard platforming becomes an affecting narrative about mental health as naturally as if the subgenre had been building to it all along. Thoughtful character interludes punctuate Madeline’s dangerous climb up Celeste Mountain, moments of dialogue or anxiety that show her journey to be more than a physical one. She controls a monster, concludes a boss battle with an embrace, and all but flies while Lena Raine’s excellent soundtrack pulses in the background, as the game tosses off mechanics as satisfying as they are thematically resonant. Best of all, the difficulty-adjusting Assist Mode frames Celeste‘s narrative as one of triumph accomplished by any means necessary rather than through the lone correct path to the summit. Scaife
7. Guacamelee! 2
Guacamelee! 2 is the best-paced action game since 2005’s Resident Evil 4. This sequel just never takes a breath as it throws every possible type of challenge at Juan, the player-controlled Mexican wrestler hero who picks up various skills throughout the game at an absurdly rapid clip. Unlike the references in the first Guacamelee!, the allusions here to game history and trends don’t feel obligatory, instead serving as a way to satirize everything from player empowerment to convoluted plot structure. All of this wild material is anchored by some of the most flexible mechanics of any era; throughout, punches, slides, body slams, flying techniques, and more must be performed in succession to overcome numerous platforming and combat tests. DrinkBox Studios has delivered one of the better video game sequels with Guacamelee! 2, further cementing itself among the most exciting developers working today. Pressgrove
Subnautica‘s open world, an expansive ocean on an alien planet, is frightening and mesmerizing in equal measure. As a survivor of a water landing, you must manage your oxygen wisely as you delve deeper into a sea full of never-before-seen life. As you uncover resources from caverns, long coral tubes, ship wreckage, and more, you will create more sophisticated forms of technology that can help you advance the game’s unobtrusive story or grant you access to the darkest corners of the underwater setting. No stretch of water in video game history has offered such an enlivening and humbling experience, from when you first lay eyes on the majestic alien equivalent of a whale to when you struggle to swim to the surface on zero oxygen. Drowning in Subnautica leads to gaming’s most existentially provocative moment of the year, as the protagonist’s slowly fading sight is so convincing that you might find yourself believing that you’re crossing over, in an unexpectedly peaceful fashion, to an undiscovered dimension. Pressgrove
Florence relates the story of a twentysomething woman who falls in love with and ultimately separates from a cellist she meets in a park after her phone dies during her commute to a dead-end job. The narrative-focused game unfolds, and without a single word of spoken dialogue, as a series of puzzles. Though they may be rudimentary, they effectively capture the complex, overwhelming, and often warring feelings—frustration, joy, nervousness, and wonder—of people in love. Ultimately, Florence‘s message is one of self-acceptance and self-discovery. It’s easy to settle into a routine, especially after acquiring a comfortable gig, but the game illustrates that by doing so we sell ourselves short, turning our back to an even more fulfilling life. As Florence Yeoh spreads her wings and takes a chance on her dreams, players get to see the fruits of her commitment. It’s a subtle nudge from the Australian video game developer to do the same, because you’ll never know the outcome unless you try. Winslow
While Iconoclasts‘s bright and imaginative 2D pixelated graphics would look right at home on a 16-bit console of yore, its themes and ideas are very much that of the modern day. The game’s silent protagonist, Robin, is trapped in a fascistic society ruled by fundamentalist dogma, where her skills as a mechanic are outlawed, positioning her as a criminal and counterforce in a setting that opposes scientific advancement and free-thinking. Robin’s journey to escape execution and expose the truth of her society’s dominating political organization aligns her with other well-crafted characters who oppose the tyrannical theocracy both in ideology and ability, and it’s through its characters’ unique facilities that Iconoclasts demonstrates a kind of Ludonarrative harmony, as the gameplay and themes are in lockstep, crafting an experience that tackles important issues of faith, religion, and totalitarianism. Throughout, Iconoclasts‘s varied gameplay mechanics directly serve the narrative. Consider Robin’s special tool, an illegal wrench, and how it not only symbolizes suppression of science and personal freedoms, but is used as a weapon against enemies and a means of controlling technology and traversing obstacles, often directly modifying and rearranging objects in the world. It also pushes Robin toward her ultimate goal of fixing the broken world for good. Aston
3. Return of the Obra Dinn
The Obra Dinn is silent, with the ship’s crew either dead or disappeared. Gifted with a kind of supernatural pocket watch, you observe freeze frames of each person’s last living moments, looking for clues to their name, occupation, and cause of death to jot down in your little book. For insurance purposes, of course. Lucas Pope’s follow-up to Papers Please places soulless, dehumanizing record-keeping on a collision course with unimaginable horror, morphing the story of the crew’s last days into a logic puzzle as an indictment of capitalism. Many games have flirted with crime scene investigation in a guided capacity, but Pope actually turns you loose to sift through myriad, missable details on your own. Tattoos, accents, crew assignments, blood trails, and more must all factor into your calculations in one of the most satisfying, complex detective games ever created. One scene finds you jammed into a narrow space that restricts your movement, forcing you to only peek through a hole in the wall at the frozen terror beyond. It’s one astounding composition among many, proof that Return of the Obra Dinn is as meticulously wound as the pocket watch that sets it in motion. Scaife
2. Marvel’s Spider-Man
This was the year Insomniac Games taught us the crucial difference between inhabiting a superhero and actually being one. Heroes rarely get to relate to the people they save on a personal level. In gaming, it’s even rarer to see a hero who saves a specific person’s day for no reward, and in ways that don’t involve breaking bones. Video games excel at letting players wield great power, while ignoring the great responsibility that comes with that. Marvel’s Spider-Man, miraculously, excels at both. As breathtaking and awesomely kinetic as it feels for Spider-Man to swing through Manhattan before taking out bad guys in a wild death-defying mid-air dance, the game’s most daring feat is when the acrobatics take a sidestep to poignancy and humanity. The inherent coolness of being Spider-Man never overwhelms the portrayal of every character as human beings trying desperately to accept or transcend their problems, their sworn duty, even their mortality, and Peter Parker showing nearly infinite empathy in coping with his and their mistakes. Spider-Man, the webslinger, is cool. Spider-Man, friend of an entire city, is phenomenal. Clark
1. God of War
The eighth entry in the God of War series is full of classic, epic combat, as you’ll slay your share of elemental trolls, winged dark elves, and giant thunder dragons throughout the game’s campaign. But whereas its precursors placed mindless violence front and center, this game brings a new weight to protagonist Kratos’s every move. It’s in the heavier Leviathan Axe that he wields this time around, as well as in the lessons his actions convey to his son. The new Nordic setting also refuels the franchise’s creative roots. The game overflows with ideas and fresh locations throughout Kratos’s journey across the Nine Realms, with some side quests so expansive that they don’t just introduce an extra area, but an entirely different dimension with its own set of rules, like fiery Muspelheim or poison-fogged Niflheim. The regions that remain on the main path are central to Kratos’s literal and figurative journey: a witch’s autumnal sanctuary speaks to peaceful isolation; a giant’s frozen corpse, perilously climbed, illustrates the bitter results of war; and Helheim, the green-hued land of the dead, gives a firsthand demonstration of the implacable calling of the dead. Even God of War‘s central hub is something more than it immediately appears: The water level recedes multiple times over the course of the game, each time exposing new islets and interconnecting pathways to existing ones, much as Kratos’s taciturn surface is gradually stripped away to reveal his deeper nature. There’s a double meaning to everything, especially the more visceral combat, which forces players to think about how to best engage foes, but about what they’re teaching their in-game son. This collection of mythic stories is made more relatable, not more mundane, through the lens of parenthood. Riccio
Review: Just Cause 4
At least the game’s big-picture effects play to the developer’s strengths, particularly those of its new, proprietary Apex engine.2.0
As far as over-the-top action spectacles go, Just Cause 4 is a lot smarter than it probably needs to be. Like all of its predecessors in this semi-sandbox series, the game sees protagonist Rico Rodriguez dropping into a fictional country in the middle of a revolution, which he must liberate by causing chaos—or, rather, “creative destruction.” This time around, however, there’s a much stronger narrative purpose to each mission. You’re still given freedom to tackle them with a wide range of weapons, vehicles, and objects that you can airdrop at will into combat scenarios, but there’s a bit more nuance to the game than simply finding ways to blow things up.
Just Cause 4 doesn’t stint on any of its other content. For one, there are tons of aerial and speedy stunts to perform across the South American island nation of Solis. But in the end, the game is better at focusing players, as the objective-driven Region Strikes help to mask the more repetitious activities, just as three overarching, nonlinear extreme weather-themed main missions motivate you to slog through the Strikes, once those, too, grow tiresome.
If Just Cause 4 is good, it’s only in comparison to previous entries, and if it’s occasionally better than similar open-world liberation games like Ghost Recon: Wildlands or Far Cry 5, it’s only because it jettisons realism in the same way that Saints Row 4 did in an effort to appeal to those who find the Grand Theft Auto games to be too true to life. Just Cause 4 has a plot, just like its precursors, but in the end, it’s less about that and more about the many ways in which Rico can shift between using a parachute and wingsuit to dive into the heart of enemy bases, and how he can use a grappling gun to either fling himself toward foes or, more entertainingly, use a variety of turbo-charged or Fulton-esque balloon tethers to make other objects crash into enemies.
Sadly, the game’s physics rarely hold up to serious scrutiny. In theory, it’d be cool to jump your motorboat into an enemy’s base and then parachute out, grappling to a nearby sniper tower for cover. But even assuming you can drive that oversensitive vehicle without getting stuck on debris, the boat might randomly detonate mid-air thanks to some mysterious collision detection. Should you manage to zip away, chances are you’ll end up stuck on the railing beneath the tower instead of safely tucked away within it, and as you attempt to disengage, you’ll probably be blown apart by at least three different grenade-launching foes that weren’t there a second ago.
Just Cause 4‘s scripted moments tend to hold up just fine, as when Rico uses a raised missile silo as a ramp with which to launch his vehicle over a ravine. But the random events surrounding said moments get unintentionally silly, like when Rico’s vehicle lands on its front bumper and starts spinning, fixed in place, as if performing some sort of vehicular breakdance.
The prospect of getting to the bigger, badder missions with the cooler names—Operations Thunderbarge, Windwalker, and Sandslinger—shouldn’t be what inspires you to press on. And yet, those operations are to some degree worth the price of admission, as the extreme weather conditions you’ll encounter within them are not only an admittedly spectacular sight but a literal game-changer. The enemy AI is so lackluster that killing enemies, even with far-out weapons like lightning guns, often feels like gunning down ducks in a shooting gallery, but the extra complication of having to quickly grapple between targets so as to dodge lightning bolts in the middle of a camera-obscuring tropical storm livens things up. Gliding high above Solis in your wingsuit, as individual cities and villages and biomes blur together in the background, becomes a whole lot more exciting when a massive tornado is heading your way, forcing you to hustle. These epic flourishes, which can eventually be controlled by players, are a novel way to keep things interesting.
These big-picture effects also play to the developer’s strengths, particularly those of its new, proprietary Apex engine. Just Cause 4 does a fine job of rendering large, far-off effects and contributing to the more cinematic moments, but the up-close graphics of people and environmental objects are dated. Clunky textures and their eerie, artificial lighting shouldn’t be the price paid for quick loading times. It doesn’t matter how cool an individual set piece looks if all the smaller scenes leading up to it are marred by unresponsive vehicles, dumb AI, and shoddy physics.
Developer: Avalanche Studios Publisher: Square Enix Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: December 04, 2018 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game
Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass Is Less Than Half Empty
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
Review: An Acceptable Loss Is a Morally Urgent B Movie
Blu-ray Review: Julien Duvivier’s Panique
Blu-ray Review: Brian De Palma’s Obsession
2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions
Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass Is Less Than Half Empty
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Though based on a popular video-game series, Xavier Gens’s Hitman plays like a music video without the music, a spectacle of shiny weapons, spurting blood, and Jesus Christ poses that would have benefited from more overlaid songs and less blabber. Timothy Olyphant stars as Agent 47, a man bred by some secret organization’s killer-manufacturing program to be a lethal assassin. Given the premium his profession puts on stealth, it’s hard to understand why his employers have shaved his head and tattooed a barcode on the back of his neck, thereby making the suit-wearing killer stand out glaringly in the various Euro locales he’s commissioned to frequent. But then, questions of this sort are moot; Agent 47 was bald in the game, and thus regardless of practicality or logic, he must be here too. Olyphant, a charismatically noble presence in Deadwood and amusingly devilish bad guy in The Girl Next Door, is here reduced to glowering and posing with pistols, which is still a better fate than that suffered by Dougray Scott, who barely registers as the nondescript Interpol agent on Agent 47’s trail. Olyphant’s anti-hero is such a well-oiled murder machine that he’s a veritable RoboHitman, able to not only dispatch hordes of special ops soldiers but also to instantly survey, assess, and memorize his surroundings, so that he knows, while at a restaurant, that the woman sitting two tables away is actually a transsexual and that the Russian whore he’s dining with is wearing no panties. Despite the fact that Agent 47’s chrome dome is strikingly phallic, he nonetheless has the good sense to resist screwing Nika (Olga Kurylenko), a scrawny prostitute with her own facial tattoo as well as a slinky red dress that wouldn’t fully clothe a well-fed infant. His decision to remain chaste is about the only rational decision on display throughout the film, which otherwise opts for lazy nonsensicality at every turn, exemplified by a scene in which the superhuman assassin crashes into a hotel room, finds kids playing Hitman on their Playstation, and doesn’t bat an eyelash at what should be a mind-bending revelation that there’s a video game based on his ultra-covert life.
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Dougray Scott, Olga Kurylenko, Robert Knepper, Ulrich Thomsen, Henry Ian Cusick, Michael Offei Director: Xavier Gens Screenwriter: Skip Woods Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: 100 min Rating: R Year: 2007 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways.
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways. The hastily introduced and unceremoniously tabled (for now) “best popular film” Oscar. The impending commercial-break ghettoization of such categories as best cinematography and best film editing, but most certainly not best song and best animated feature. The abortive attempts to unveil Kevin Hart as the host not once, but twice, stymied by the online backlash over years-old anti-gay Twitter jokes and leading AMPAS to opt for George Glass as this year’s master of ceremonies. The strong-arming of its own membership to deter rank-and-file superstars from attending competing precursor award shows. If these end up being the last Oscars ever, and it’s starting to feel as though it should be, what a way to go out, right? Like the floating island of plastic in the Pacific, the cultural and political detritus of Oscar season has spread far beyond any previous rational estimates and will almost certainly outlive our functional presence on this planet. And really, when you think about it, what’s worse: The extinction of mankind or Bohemian Rhapsody winning the best picture Oscar? In that spirit, we press on.
There will be plenty of time, too much time, to go deep on the many ways Green Book reveals the flawed soul of your average, aged white liberal in America circa 2019. For now, let’s just admit that it’s as sure a nominee as The Favourite, Roma, and A Star Is Born. (There’s snackable irony in the fact that a movie called The Front Runner became very much not an Oscar front runner in a year that doesn’t appear to have a solid front runner.) And even though few seem to be predicting it for an actual win here, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has an almost spotless precursor track record, showing up almost across the board among the guilds. Predicting this category would’ve been easy enough when Oscar limited it to five films, but it’s strangely almost as easy this year to see where the line will cut off between five and 10. Adam McKay’s Vice may be without shame, but you don’t have to strain hard to see how people could mistake it for the film of the moment. Bohemian Rhapsody is certainly lacking in merit, but, much like our comrade in chief, Oscar has never been more desperate for people to like and respect him, and a hit is a hit. Except when it’s a Marvel movie, which is why Black Panther stands precariously on the category’s line of cutoff, despite the rabid enthusiasm from certain corners that will likely be enough to push it through.
Everyone can agree that Bohemian Rhapsody will be one of the best picture contenders that doesn’t get a corresponding best director nomination, but virtually all the other nominees we’re predicting have a shot. Including Peter-flashing Farrelly, whose predictably unsubtle work on Green Book (or, Don and Dumber) netted him a widely derided DGA nomination. The outrage over Farrelly’s presence there took some of the heat off Vice’s Adam McKay, but if any DGA contender is going to swap out in favor of Yorgos Lanthimos (for BAFTA favorite The Favourite), it seems likely to be McKay. As Mark Harris has pointed out, Green Book is cruising through this awards season in a lane of its own, a persistently well-liked, well-meaning, unchallenging throwback whose defiant fans are clearly in a fighting mood.
Had Fox Searchlight reversed their category-fraud strategizing and flipped The Favourite’s Olivia Coleman into supporting and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone into lead, the five best actress slots would arguably have been locked down weeks, if not months, ago, unless Fox’s bet-hedging intuits some form of industry resistance to double female-led propositions. As it stands, there are four locks that hardly need mention and a slew of candidates on basically equal footing. Hereditary’s Toni Collette has become shrieking awards show junkies’ cause célèbre this year, though she actually has the critic awards haul to back them up, having won more of the regional prizes than anyone else. The same demographic backing Collette gave up hope long ago on Viola Davis being able to survive the Widows collapse, and yet there by the grace of BAFTA does she live on to fight another round. Elsie Fisher’s palpable awkwardness in Eighth Grade and winning awkwardness navigating the Hollywood circuit have earned her an almost protective backing. But we’re going out on a limb and calling it for the rapturously received Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio. Voters could, like us, find it not a particularly great performance and still parlay their good will for her into a nomination that’s there for the taking.
Should Be Nominated: Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Toni Collette (Hereditary), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Take Toni Collette’s trophies thus far in the competition and double them. And then add a few more. That’s the magnitude of endorsements backing First Reformed’s Ethan Hawke. And his trajectory has the clear markings of an almost overqualified performance that, like Naomi Watts’s in Mulholland Drive, cinephiles decades from now will wonder how Oscar snubbed. If Pastor Ernst Toller and Sasha Stone are right and God is indeed watching us all and cares what the Academy Awards do, Hawke’s nomination will come at the expense of John David Washington, whose strength in the precursors thus far (SAG and Globe-nominated) is maybe the most notable bellwether of BlacKkKlansman’s overall strength. Because, as with the best actress category, the other four slots are basically preordained. Unlike with best actress, the bench of also-rans appears to be one solitary soul. A fitting place for Paul Schrader’s man against the world.
Closest Runners-Up: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)
Every Oscar prognosticator worth their bragging rights has spent the last couple weeks conspicuously rubbing their hands together about Regina King’s chances. The all-or-nothing volley that’s seen her sweep the critics’ awards and win the Golden Globe, and at the same time not even get nominations from within the industry—she was left off the ballot by both SAG and the BAFTAs—are narrative disruptions among a class that lives for narratives and dies of incorrect predictions. But despite the kvetching, King is as safe as anyone for a nomination in this category. It doesn’t hurt that, outside the pair of lead actresses from The Favourite, almost everyone else in the running this year feels like a 7th- or 8th-place also-ran. Except maybe Widows’s Elizabeth Debicki, whose fervent fans probably number just enough to land her…in 7th or 8th place. Vice’s Amy Adams is set to reach the Glenn Close club with her sixth Oscar nomination, and if she’d only managed to sustain the same loopy energy she brings to Lynne Cheney’s campaign-trail promise to keep her bra on, she’d deserve it. Which leaves a slot for supportive housewives Claire Foy, Nicole Kidman, and Emily Blunt. Even before the collapse of Mary Poppins Returns, we preferred Blunt’s chances in A Quiet Place.
Should Be Nominated: Sakura Ando (Shoplifters), Zoe Kazan (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Rachel McAdams (Disobedience), and Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls)
The same people who’re curiously doubting Regina King’s nomination chances seem awfully assured that Sam Elliott’s moist-eyed, clearly canonical backing-the-truck-up scene in A Star Is Born assures him not only a nomination but probably the win. Elliott missed nominations with both the Golden Globes and BAFTA, and it was hard not to notice just how enthusiasm for A Star Is Born seemed to be cooling during the same period Oscar ballots were in circulation. Right around the same time, it started becoming apparent that BlacKkKlansman is a stronger draw than anyone thought, which means Adam Driver (who everyone was already predicting for a nod) won’t have to suffer the representationally awkward fate of being the film’s only nominee. Otherwise, the category appears to favor previously awarded actors (Mahershala Ali and Sam Rockwell) or should have been previously awarded actors (Chalamet). Leaving Michael B. Jordan to remain a should have been previously nominated actor.
Get beyond the best picture hopefuls BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, which seem deservedly locked, and A Star Is Born, which is even more deservedly iffy, and you’ll see the screenwriters’ branch deciding just how seriously to take themselves this year, and whether they’re feeling like spiritually reliving the moments that found them nominating Bridesmaids and Logan. If so, then expect Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther to factor in here. If they most definitely don’t feel frisky, then maybe the foursquare First Man has a shot at reversing its overall downward trajectory. If they’re seeking that “just right” middle ground, then Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Death of Stalin are in.
It’s not unusual for some of the year’s most acclaimed movies whose strength isn’t necessarily in their scripts to get nominated only in the screenwriting categories. First Reformed, which even some of its fiercest defenders admit can sometimes feel a bit like Paul Schrader’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” greatest-hits package, stands to be another of them. But it’ll be a close call, given the number of other equally vanguard options they’ll be weighing it against, like Sorry to Bother You, which arguably feels more urgently in the moment in form, Eighth Grade, which is more empathetically post-#MeToo, and even Cold War, which had a surprisingly strong showing with BAFTA. Given the quartet of assured best picture contenders in the mix, First Reformed is going to have to hold off all of them.
Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass Is Less Than Half Empty
M. Night Shyamalan’s film is aimed at an audience from whom he cringingly craves fealty.2
What a difference nearly two decades makes. When writer-director M. Night Shyamalan released Unbreakable way back in 2000, the superhero genre was hardly the mass-cultural malady that it is today. An oddball take on caped crusaders and the like had a better chance of standing out in theaters, and Unbreakable was certainly one of the more eccentric uses of $75 million Hollywood studio dollars.
Shyamalan’s tale of a Philadelphia security guard, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who, after surviving a devastating train crash, discovers he has inhuman strength and a psychic ability to predict danger, was photographed in languorous long takes, with most dialogue spoken barely above a whisper. Unbreakable was really more of a slow-burning family relationship drama—especially between Dunn and his hero-worshipping son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark)—than it was a men-in-tights, or, in this case, man-in-rain-slicker action flick. But a cartoonishly clothed Samuel L. Jackson did often pop up as a brittle-boned character named Elijah Price, who pontificated about comic books as if they were a socio-cultural Rosetta Stone.
In one of his patented, P.T. Barnum-esque twist endings, Shyamalan revealed that Price fancied himself Dunn’s brainiac archnemesis. “They called me Mr. Glass,” he says of his childhood torturers. And so the stage was set for a future showdown, though lower box-office receipts than expected appeared to put the kibosh on that. But now here we are with the frivolous and protracted Glass, which finally pits Dunn and Glass against each other. Though there’s one other person involved…or perhaps we should say multiple people in one.
That would be Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the dissociative identity-afflicted villain known as The Horde, who was first introduced in Shyamalan’s 2016 hit, and stealth Unbreakable sequel, Split. McAvoy is once again the whole show here, with the actor receiving top billing over his co-stars. He shares several scenes with Split’s damaged final girl, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), and he leans full-tilt into The Horde’s various personalities. Among these interior others are prim British matriarch Patricia; nine-year-old dance freak/Drake fanboy Hedwig; macho sexual deviant Dennis; and a cannibalistic savage known only as The Beast, who’s as close to a Big Bad as the film gets. McAvoy’s energy and go-for-brokeness is infectious, and it’s something Glass could use a whole lot more of.
The film’s first 20 minutes or so put Dunn, now nicknamed The Overseer, and Crumb on a collision course that eventually lands them in the same mental hospital where Glass is incarcerated. The trio’s physician is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, seemingly rehearsing for her eventual role as Nurse Ratched in Ryan Murphy’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel), an icy unbeliever, so she says, in anything superheroic. It’s Staple’s goal to talk her three charges into renouncing their phenomenal powers. And talk. And talk. And talk.
Much of Glass’s running time is given over to therapy sessions in which Crumb cycles through his personas, Dunn looks alternately befuddled and constipated, and Glass lolls his Frederick Douglass-coiffed head to the side in drooling catatonia. (Is he faking his unresponsiveness? What do you think?) He’s barely the star of his own film, though Shyamalan has said in interviews that Glass is meant to reflect the title character’s fragile, erudite nature, as Unbreakable did Dunn’s reluctant heroism and Split did Crumb’s anything-goes psychosis.
There’s a certain clinical elegance to the crisp digital cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, much in keeping with Glass’s eye-catching, purple-accented wardrobe (love that monogrammed cravat!). It’s telling, however, that the most striking scenes here are flashbacks to the Eduardo Serra-shot Unbreakable. This includes a terrifying deleted scene from that film in which a young Elijah Price (Johnny Hiram Jamison) rides an amusement park Tilt-A-Whirl, with bone-shattering results and to the palpable distress of his mother, played by Charlayne Woodard. She reprises her role, as Clark does Dunn’s now-grown son, in Glass’s present-day scenes.
A bigger issue is that the film’s earnest deconstruction of comic-book mythology seems antiquated given our present glut of superhero media. It’s no longer a genre to be elevated since it has become the norm. Plus, the unintentionally hilarious way that Paulson says, “Have you ever been to a comic book convention?” is one of several signposts suggesting that Shyamalan’s geek cred is about, say, 20 years behind the times.
It certainly might have helped if Shyamalan were able to more humorously poke at his own pretenses. The wet-noodle climax in which all of Glass’s characters have a staggeringly non-epochal confrontation in a friggin’ parking lot could only have benefitted from a sense that the stars and the multi-hyphenate auteur were enjoying themselves. It’s only too appropriate that Jackson’s Glass sternly narrates this skeletally smack-a-doo finale as if he was a distressed academic lecturing attention-starved stoners.
Perhaps genuine fun is too much to ask from an artist who once wrote a po-faced tome about closing America’s education gap (put “I Got Schooled” into Google and delight, such as it is). There’s also another twist or two on the horizon, though it gives nothing away to say that the reveals amount to little more than “the real superhero…was mankind.” In the end, Glass proves to be another of Shyamalan’s pompous sermons about faith in oneself, aimed at an audience from whom he cringingly craves fealty.
Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard Director: M. Night Shyamalan Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 129 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: An Acceptable Loss Is a Morally Urgent B Movie
The film is a cynical critique of American foreign policy wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills.2.5
Writer-director Joe Chappelle’s An Acceptable Loss is a B movie with a morally urgent message, a cynical critique of American foreign policy in the Middle East wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills. By positioning the U.S. government as the film’s primary antagonist, Chappelle takes to task the repeated killing of innocent lives as collateral damage in the hunt for terrorists and other ostensible enemies.
The ethical quandary that arises from such an operation is embodied by Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter), a former national security adviser to Vice President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis) who’s taken a teaching gig at a Chicago university. As Libby secretly transcribes her experiences, and faces civilians who are angry over her role in a controversial military operation in Syria, Chappelle shows a surprising empathy for the character. The filmmaker outlines that Libby’s memorializing of her experiences and her honest attempt at assimilating within a society that more or less shuns her is borne out of feelings of regret.
But An Acceptable Loss’s compelling take on moral reckoning is compromised by the distracting presence of Martin (Ben Tavassoli), a grad student who consistently exposes lapses in the storyline’s logic. Martin mysteriously stalks Libby and sets up an elaborate surveillance system in her house, but it’s never explained how Martin can operate with the skill, knowledge, and proficiency of some kind of intelligence officer. Dubiously, when Libby and Martin need each other’s help in a moment of crisis, the film oddly passes on holding the latter’s disturbingly voyeuristic behavior accountable; Libby shakes her head, and then the film drops the matter completely. For a film eager to ponder the ethics of people’s actions, it comes off as strange that Chappelle doesn’t scrutinize Martin’s own.
Still, it’s difficult not to get swept up in An Acceptable Loss’s technical virtuosity. The film’s propulsive narrative is nothing if not efficient, aided in no small part by crisp editing that relishes the fine art of cross-cutting. The dark interiors that Chappelle favors create a Tourneur-like atmosphere of dread that subsumes Libby, underlining the covert nature of her documenting her secrets; even scenes in daylight have a strangely nocturnal feel to them. This visual style complements An Acceptable Loss’s pessimistic view of America’s foreign policy, which is sustained right up to the film’s hopeful coda. The film shows that if policy is to change, it greatly helps to be supported by people like Libby, someone who had been complicit in committing atrocities but ultimately embraced her humanity.
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Ben Tavassoli, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jeff Hephner, Alex Weisman, Clarke Peters Director: Joe Chappelle Screenwriter: Joe Chappelle Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2018