FILM FORTNIGHT: Trance

OK, I know that technically I’ve already done my scheduled fortnight, but shush; at time of writing I only saw this yesterday, and wanted to get my thoughts off ma chest.

This film is… different, but then again I did kinda expect it to be. Psychological thrillers are rarely simple affairs, but most tend to generate their weirdness from either a confusing, tangential plot or by employing every trick of cinematography in the book in an effort to mess with your brain. Trance does neither of these things, but nonetheless this is most certainly not your average mid-afternoon popcorn film.

The plot centres around an art heist; our main protagonist is Simon (James McAvoy), a young art auctioneer who gets himself mixed up in a plot to rob a Goya painting, ‘Witches In The Air’. However, for reasons that can’t really be explained without giving away any spoilers (the film’s somewhat odd storytelling structure makes it a veritable spoiler minefield), and in some respects are never fully explained at all, the painting manages to go missing. Blame for this falls squarely on Simon, who is suffering that old cinematic trope of amnesia, leading him to not remember what has happened to it. Indeed, one of the characters even puts in a subtle meta-commentary to this effect- but I’m getting sidetracked. Suffice it to say that the group, or more specifically their leader Frank (Vincent Cassel) pick hypnosis as a potential solution; and here the word ‘psychological’ rapidly prefixes itself onto the tag of ‘thriller’.

Amnesia as a plot device is a cliché seemingly as old as the hills, but here it gets the Danny Boyle treatment, and a subsequent new lease of life. Other reviewers have frequently compared the film to Inception for its superficially similar subject matter of the human mind, and it could be argued that what Inception did with dreams Trance attempts to do with memory. However, the comparison is not an especially valid one; whereas Inception was a fast-paced action film that perfectly showcased Christopher Nolan’s talent for scope and grand gestures, Trance is a far smaller affair that plays to Boyle’s strengths of bringing out the little moments. Here, the concept of memory is not only used as the core plot concept, but after being taken as it stands, it is summarily twisted, bent, lost, found, stamped all over, made to run around in circles for three hours, soaked, wrung out to dry and then left in a tangled mess that renders the simplicity of the original concept almost unrecognisable. Suffice it to say that this film most certainly does not take the obvious route with its subject matter.

Tinkering on the minute level is also evident in the film’s plot, an equally twisted affair that makes a marked departure for the more straightline storytelling of the other Boyle films I’ve seen. This might have something to do that this is the first of Boyle’s films for a while not to be based on a pre-existing book (see Trainspotting, Millions, Slumdog Millionaire & 127 Hours) have been based on screenplays adapted from existing books, but here we have an entirely fresh script, co-written by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge. The latter, I glean from a little research, was something of a Boyle regular during his early career (this is their fifth film together), and some stylistic similarities between this and their most famous collaboration (Trainspotting) become clear once you realise the link exists.

For the film’s first hour, Trance doesn’t offer much that could be said to be special; it’s an unconventional but perfectly understandable film that is written, directed and acted well, but doesn’t seem like it’s going to break any major rules. The first and second acts establish a few character relationships, a few ideas that look like they’re going to become important later on, nothing especially out of the ordinary. Indeed, if you’re anything like me, then you’ll think you’ve figured out what ‘The Big Twist’ will be somewhere around the hour mark, and will be just about ready to start feeling smug when the third act kicks in. And kick in it does; not only are the pace and tension each cranked up several notches, but the plot’s initial strangeness begins to give way to mayhem as chronology shifts back and forth, the worlds of hypnosis and reality begin to converge and the film’s themes and story really begin to twist themselves into the aforementioned tangles. Everything made out to be some important concept, a feature that we are sure will turn out to be important, is left by the wayside, and all the small details, slipped in so subtly and hidden so well, take on new significance- a peculiar reversal that, when I think about it, I’m surprised ever worked. That it does is testament to the way every contributor to the film begins to show their class during this period; James McAvoy puts the finishing touches on a stunningly versatile acting performance that covers just about every emotion and character trope known to humankind, whilst co-star Rosario Dawson (who plays hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb) begins to show the character beneath all the subtle woman-of-mystery stuff from the second act. Boyle too puts himself on show; all the careful execution of the first two acts, all the subtlety and false leads, all the things only hinted at through the minutiae of character behaviour, all are finally paid off in his chaotic finale, and it shows his skill off marvellously.

However.

I can appreciate an awful lot of things about Trance. I can appreciate the fantastic acting, I can appreciate the clever, intriguing storytelling, I can certainly appreciate the directorial skill. But somehow… I find I can’t quite enjoy it. Maybe it’s something to do with having unsympathetic characters, nobody we can ever think of as a hero (or, for that matter, antihero), maybe it’s that the plot doesn’t really have any consistent underlying emotional scenes, or maybe it’s just that all the things that really matter by the end are not given enough time to make themselves feel meaningful, amidst the mayhem of the third act. Honestly, I’m not quite sure, but it’s a shame, frankly; Trance is smart, quirky, exceptionally well done and tells a story like nothing else. I only wish it could feel meaningful too.

One last thing; how in the name of hell this film was given a 15 rating I have no idea. I don’t really have an opinion on the BBFC rating system, whether it’s appropriate and so forth, but I do have an opinion that if you have an 18 rating and a film with torture, nudity about as blatant as it comes, rather graphic gore, enough corpses to keep a coroner busy for a month and it doesn’t get it… well what the hell is an 18 then?

OK, I quite liked doing this, so I think I might make film reviews a bit more of a regular thing. I might even get round to making a category for them. Might.

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Attack of the Blocks

I spend far too much time on the internet. As well as putting many hours of work into trying to keep this blog updated regularly, I while away a fair portion of time on Facebook, follow a large number of video series’ and webcomics, and can often be found wandering through the recesses of YouTube (an interesting and frequently harrowing experience that can tell one an awful lot about the extremes of human nature). But there is one thing that any resident of the web cannot hope to avoid for any great period of time, and quite often doesn’t want to- the strange world of Minecraft.

Since its release as a humble alpha-version indie game in 2009, Minecraft has boomed to become a runaway success and something of a cultural phenomenon. By the end of 2011, before it had even been released in its final release format, Minecraft had registered 4 million purchases and 4 times that many registered users, which isn’t bad for a game that has never advertised itself, spread semi-virally among nerdy gamers for its mere three-year history and was made purely as an interesting project by its creator Markus Persson (aka Notch). Thousands of videos, ranging from gameplay to some quite startlingly good music videos (check out the work of Captain Sparklez if you haven’t already) litter YouTube and many of the games’ features (such as TNT and the exploding mobs known as Creepers) have become memes in their own right to some degree.

So then, why exactly has Minecraft succeeded where hundreds and thousands of games have failed, becoming a revolution in gamer culture? What is it that makes Minecraft both so brilliant, and so special?

Many, upon being asked this question, tend to revert to extolling the virtues of the game’s indie nature. Being created entirely without funding as an experiment in gaming rather than profit-making, Minecraft’s roots are firmly rooted in the humble sphere of independent gaming, and it shows. One obvious feature is the games inherent simplicity- initially solely featuring the ability to wander around, place and destroy blocks, the controls are mainly (although far from entirely) confined to move and ‘use’, whether that latter function be shoot, slash, mine or punch down a tree. The basic, cuboid, ‘blocky’ nature of the game’s graphics, allowing for both simplicity of production and creating an iconic, retro aesthetic that makes it memorable and standout to look at. Whilst the game has frequently been criticised for not including a tutorial (I myself took a good quarter of an hour to find out that you started by punching a tree, and a further ten minutes to work out that you were supposed to hold down the mouse button rather than repeatedly click), this is another common feature of indie gaming, partly because it saves time in development, but mostly because it makes the game feel like it is not pandering to you and thus allowing indie gamers to feel some degree of elitism that they are good enough to work it out by themselves. This also ties in with the very nature of the game- another criticism used to be (and, to an extent, still is, even with the addition of the Enderdragon as a final win objective) that the game appeared to be largely devoid of point, existent only for its own purpose. This is entirely true, whether you view that as a bonus or a detriment being entirely your own opinion, and this idea of an unfamiliar, experimental game structure is another feature common in one form or another to a lot of indie games.

However, to me these do not seem to be entirely worthy of the name ‘answers’ regarding the question of Minecraft’s phenomenal success. The reason I think this way is that they do not adequately explain exactly why Minecraft rose to such prominence whilst other, often similar, indie games have been left in relative obscurity. Limbo, for example, is a side-scrolling platformer and a quite disturbing, yet compelling, in-game experience, with almost as much intrigue and puzzle from a set of game mechanics simpler even than those of Minecraft. It has also received critical acclaim often far in excess of Minecraft (which has received a positive, but not wildly amazed, response from critics), and yet is still known to only an occasional few. Amnesia: The Dark Descent has been often described as the greatest survival horror game in history, as well as incorporating a superb set of graphics, a three-dimensional world view (unlike the 2D view common to most indie games) and the most pants-wettingly terrifying experience anyone who’s ever played it is likely to ever face- but again, it is confined to the indie realm. Hell, Terraria is basically Minecraft in 2D, but has sold around 40 times less than Minecraft itself. All three of these games have received fairly significant acclaim and coverage, and rightly so, but none has become the riotous cultural phenomenon that Minecraft has, and neither have had an Assassin’s Creed mod (first example that sprung to mind).

So… why has Minecraft been so successful. Well, I’m going to be sticking my neck out here, but to my mind it’s because it doesn’t play like an indie game. Whilst most independently produced titled are 2D, confined to fairly limited surroundings and made as simple & basic as possible to save on development (Amnesia can be regarded as an exception), Minecraft takes it own inherent simplicity and blows it up to a grand scale. It is a vast, open world sandbox game, with vague resonances of the Elder Scrolls games and MMORPG’s, taking the freedom, exploration and experimentation that have always been the advantages of this branch of the AAA world, and combined them with the innovative, simplistic gaming experience of its indie roots. In some ways it’s similar to Facebook, in that it takes a simple principle and then applies it to the largest stage possible, and both have enjoyed a similarly explosive rise to fame. The randomly generated worlds provide infinite caverns to explore, endless mobs to slay, all the space imaginable to build the grandest of castles, the largest of cathedrals, or the SS Enterprise if that takes your fancy. There are a thousand different ways to play the game on a million different planes, all based on just a few simple mechanics. Minecraft is the best of indie and AAA blended together, and is all the more awesome for it.