All posts by Matt Dykes

Matt is a huge film and TV buff who studied film and moving image production at university. In his spare time he enjoys reading comics and books, the occasional gaming session and writing novels.

Our Last Best Hope for Peace: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Babylon 5

Television as a medium has become the place to tell long-running stories and translate novels into a visual medium, but it wasn’t always that way. For the majority of its life, television was the place for simple, self-contained episodes that were easy to jump into at any point without knowing what happened before. There were several shows that broke new ground in the way television works, but none so game-changing as Babylon 5, a creation from the mind of J. Michael Straczynski that would change in how audiences watched TV.

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Composers and the Movies that Don’t Deserve Them

THERE ARE SOME GREAT MOVIE SCORES OUT THERE ATTACHED TO SOME REAL DUDS.

I am a huge fan of Film, TV and Video Game scores; easily 90% of my music is made up of them. I have several composers that I will listen to no matter what they do, and I have even watched films based on the music they composed for them. What I have come to notice throughout all of this is that some films do not deserve the music composed for them.

When it comes to music in films it is usually the last thing that is done. The film is almost out of money and people are brought in to create incredible compositions to compliment the visual feast of what is on screen. That’s not always the case, however. Sometimes the music doesn’t compliment the visuals, but rather supersedes them because the visuals just aren’t that good to begin with. The music in a film can create emotional responses as well as physical. I remember sitting in the cinema watching Avengers: Infinity War and the moment where Thor arrived in Wakanda brought a huge smile to my face. A huge part of that excitement came from that bombastic orchestral score. I have listened to it numerous times but I will repeatedly listen to a track called “The Forge” which contains the moment that Thor arrived in Wakanda. When that music kicks in I feel like I can do anything. Music has a way of instilling these raw emotional responses and film music is charged with doing that whilst also complimenting the visuals.

Because of my love of film scores I take note of particular composers and seek out their work without ever having watched the film they are written for. Sometimes when I finally get around to watching the film it’s…well, to put it politely…not good. I’m left with a sense of disappointment, not because the film is bad, but because the music I listened to was far too good to be associated with the terrible film I just watched. And that, my friends, is disappointing.

A perfect example of this phenomenon was the 2012 feature remake of The Sweeney. Lorne Balfe composed the score and at the time I had only heard his Assassin’s Creed III score, which was spectacular. When I listened to the music from The Sweeney I was blown away by how good it was. The experience was intense, ratcheting up the tension before opening up and becoming a bombastic action score that to me rivaled some of the biggest names in Film Composition. It was so good that I thought the film would be worth watching. So, I did just that, for about 40 minutes. What an awful mess with terrible dialogue and acting. The only saving grace was the music but I didn’t have to watch the terrible film to listen to the incredible music. I went back to listening to the music and tried to forget about the terrible film it was associated with, and in my mind made up a much better one.

This was the first time I had thought about the quality of the music vs the quality of the film. In recent years, big budget blockbuster films have had incredible scores composed for them while the films themselves have been by the numbers summer VFX films. Hans Zimmer has a name as a big blockbuster composer and it’s interesting listening to the music he composes for big budget blockbusters compared to the stuff he composes for the more story-driven films. Films like Interstellar and more recently Blade Runner 2049 feel like they have more thought put into the music, whereas his action scores are, whilst exciting, very much by the numbers, much like the films they are written for.

Rawr.

The most recent example of a bad movie having a great film score was the 2017 reboot of The Mummy. Brian Tyler composed a unique and interesting score that mixed Middle Eastern instruments with traditional orchestra, all of which lead to a very original sound. Mixing the two cultures expertly in the music created something that was much better than the film it was supposed to accompany. What was also extraordinary about Tyler’s score was that for the most part it was a live orchestra which is becoming more of a rarity with the advances in music synthesizers and the need to cut costs wherever possible.

Terrible films aren’t going away any time soon, but at the very least their scores will be top notch. These composers who are putting in the work will go on to bigger and “hopefully” better things, almost like some kind of composer rite of passage. If they can compose amazing music for these terrible films, then imagine what they could do with something of a higher caliber. Without terrible films needing talented but unknown composers, people like Brian Tyler, Lorne Balfe and Ramin Djawadi may not have been able to build a portfolio of work that got them their well deserved A-List assignments.

Cracking the Code of Video Game Adaptations

A LOOK AT FILM ADAPTATIONS OF VIDEO GAMES OVER THE YEARS TO SEE IF THERE’S ANY HOPE OF GETTING IT RIGHT.

Video games are all about audience participation; you have to take part in order for the game to progress. Part of why the medium is so successful is that the player is in control. Hollywood has tried to cash in on this phenomenon for years, with each movie or television show never quite capturing the magic of moving those animated pixels and polygons with the controller. With the release of content like Black Mirror Bandersnatch, and Minecraft Story Mode for the kids, the technology has allowed the viewer a greater degree of control, but is it enough? Has Hollywood cracked the code?

If you look at the history of video game adaptations none of them have been particularly successful, with quality ranging from mediocre to downright repulsive. The first of these adaptations was an animated TV show based on Pac-Man. The series lasted for 44 episodes over 2 seasons before being cancelled. The cartoon had little to do with the video game, which makes sense because it didn’t have much of a story to begin with. As time went on more and more animated adaptions of video games came out including a Super Mario cartoon, a Zelda cartoon, and even two Sonic the Hedgehog cartoons.

Hey, it’s Mario Mario and Luigi Mario!

The first feature film adaptation of a video game was Super Mario Bros, which released on the May 28th, 1993 and was both a critical and financial bomb. Despite some interesting visuals the film was a mess, with a ridiculous story, wooden acting, and CGI that was bad even for 1993. To make matters worse, it didn’t even look or feel like the video game it is supposedly based on. It’s like they took Demolition Man, Total Recall, Back to the Future Part II and Jurassic Park, put them all in a cheap blender and slapped whatever mush came out onto the screen. In the years that followed more video game adaptions would be released and each time they would do poorly from both critics and the box office. Some would turn a small profit whilst others would take huge losses. This was the case until 2001 with the release of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Tomb Raider revolutionized the video games industry. The first game was not only one of the earliest action adventure games to be produced using 3D graphics but it also had a plot and cinematic cutscenes. The protagonist was a smart, strong, and independent woman. This was a huge step not just for video games but for entertainment in general, so a movie adaptation was never too far off. They cast Angelina Jolie in the titular role, a move that turned her into the action star we know and love. Critics praised her performance but were less-than-impressed with the dull plot and the much too stylized action set pieces. Despite the poor critical response, the first Tomb Raider film made enough of a profit to produce a sequel; however, it wasn’t anywhere near as successful as the first film. It under-performed at the box office and even though the studio was interested in a third film in the series, Angelina Jolie was not. The next adaptation of Tomb Raider would not come out for another 15 years.

The problem with the Tomb Raider films was that they weren’t enough like the video games to please the die hard fans of the series and didn’t have enough action to satisfy an action-hungry audience. That would change with the release of the first Resident Evil movie in 2002, which would go on to become one of the most successful video game adaptations, spanning six films in total. Part of its charm was that it tried to weave in references to the games in creative ways. This was the first video game adaptation to try and capture a similar cinematography to the games they were based on. However, even with the little nods and attempts to replicate the look of the video games the film still didn’t quite capture the essence of the games. In the end it just felt like a flashy B-Movie. While that could have worked to the film’s advantage, the clunky dialogue and the lack of character development didn’t really help it.

Around this time, House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark emerged to ride the wave of Resident Evil’s success. Both of these films were directed by Uwe Boll, a man who would become synonymous with bad video game adaptations. Over five years he would direct seven video game adaptions, all of which would be negatively received by critics and audiences alike. Between 2003 and 2008 he directed 50% of all video game adaptions, none of which would make it past 10% on Rotten Tomatoes. They would all be financial failures. How he continued to get funding for these films was through a loophole in German tax laws, which has since been closed. He commented that at the time if you invested in a movie in Germany you got 50% back from the German Government. The films he pumped out had very little to do with the video games they were based on. He mainly used the games’ titles to generate interest, then did his own thing with the material.

Other films released during this five-year period included Hitman, Silent Hill, Doom, and Max Payne. None of the films did particularly well, nor were they well received by the fans of the video games they were based on. Whereas Hitman the game was all about stealth and precision kills, the film was produced as a flashy action romp. Combined with some miscast roles, a dull storyline, and blatant pandering, the film was practically stealth-killed on arrival. The 2005 Doom film was a particularly bad offender, having the film switch to a first-person perspective in the last act. The filmmakers had attempted to capture the feeling of the video game, but the problem was that watching a first-person shooter wasn’t nearly as exciting as playing one.

In the following years more and more video game adaptions would be released, most of them either sequels or remakes of existing films, and with the exception of the Resident Evil films each would perform worse than the originals financially. New adaptations failed to find an audience, one of the most egregious being the adaptation of the popular Tekken fighting game. It didn’t even make $1 million at the box office, and was one of the few films to achieve the 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Surprisingly, the adaptation of Prince of Persia did well at the box office. It was praised for its action, humor, and solid performances, although the casting of a Caucasian Jake Gyllenhaal as a Persian gained a fair degree of backlash.

The number of video game adaptions started to drop off; however, there were still further attempts find the next big hit. Each time the producers would state that their video game adaptation was “going to be different” and that it would succeed where the others failed. These promises started to attract A-list talent including Michael Fassbender, Dominic Cooper, Duncan Jones, Dwayne Johnson and Marion Cotillard. Despite talent interest, no one could prevail against this video game adaption curse.

There’s been talk of adapting Mass Effect, The Last of Us and Metal Gear Solid to film, but the truth is that not a single one of these adaptations would work. Mass Effect’s biggest appeal is that the experience is customized to your personal tastes. Who do you get smoochy with on the Normandy? Choice is yours! Are you better buds with Ashley or Kaiden? Again, you get to choose.

The problem with adapting a video game to film is that in doing so you immediately remove the most fun aspect of the medium: the ability to control the actions of the main character. The audience is no longer an active participant but a passive bystander to the action. The stories also get severely compressed in the adaptation to film, which means much of the character and world-building that players enjoy takes a back seat or gets dropped entirely, and it’s those elements that are foundational to the experience. The Last of Us in particular plays out like an 18-hour movie. I doubt you could cut it down to 10 hours let alone 2 hours without sacrificing much of what makes it pack the punch that it does.

Given the current rise of streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. maybe these video game adaptations should bypass the big screen altogether and let their stories breathe in a much more flexible and customizable format.

Having said that I still think that video games will never truly make a successful leap from the console (or PC) to live action because there is no interactivity in the experience of watching a film or TV series. While they recently attempted this with Black Mirror Bandersnatch, it was still limited in the amount of interactivity available. For me video games will always be a separate entity to film due to how much more interaction they have as an entertainment medium, and because of this I cannot foresee any video game adaptation ever making for a good film. I would love nothing more than to be proven wrong, but based on the last 26 years I won’t hold my breath.

A dimension of sound, sight and mind: The legacy of The Twilight Zone

A DEEP DIVE INTO THE SERIES THAT WOULD PUSH THE BOUNDARIES OF TELEVISION AND INSPIRE COUNTLESS PEOPLE

You unlock this article with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sixty years of a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just started reading an article about The Twilight Zone.

OK, so I’m not Rod Serling, but this is an article all about The Twilight Zone. A television series that would not only push the boundaries of television, but would go on to inspire writers, directors, actors and many more for decades to come. It would also be parodied, remade, referenced and lauded for just as long and will continue to do so for many more years to come. Each episode was played out as a self-contained story, which allowed the writers a huge amount of freedom to tell whatever story they wanted to tell. Every week, viewers tuned in, not knowing if the show was going to be about aliens, monsters, witches, devils, ghosts or any number of supernatural and extra-terrestrial beings.

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From Bomb to Modern Classic: The Shawshank Redemption 25 years later

A LOOK AT A BOX OFFICE BOMB THAT WOULD BECOME A MODERN CLASSIC.

Stephen King is mostly known as a horror writer; however, he has ventured into other genres on numerous occasions, although mostly with shorter stories. He wrote an anthology of short stories that made up the collection Different Seasons. One of the stories in this collection was called “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”, which writer and director Frank Darabont would option for $5,000 and turn into one of the most celebrated motion pictures of all time.

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A bird? A plane? It’s 40 years of Superman!

Imagine a time when comic book movies were not even a genre and the idea that they would dominate the box office would be laughable. Imagine a time when a film based on a comic book was seen to be a huge risk. That time is 1978 and a film was on the horizon that would change American Cinema forever. That film was Superman. At this point the most well known comic book adaptation was the live action Batman starring Adam West. The campy series was the exact opposite of what producers Ilya Salkind, Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler wanted to achieve. The development of Superman is the stuff of legend and borderline insane.

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Bosch: The Crime Drama You Should Be Watching

IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A NEW SHOW TO WATCH IN 2019, LOOK NO FURTHER THAN THIS EXCELLENT COP DRAMA.

In this age of binge watching and box set consumption people are forever looking for new shows to watch. The first show I recommend to everyone is Bosch. Based on the books by Michael Connelly, Bosch stars Titus Welliver as the titular character. A hard boiled, old school detective who constantly clashes with his superiors. It sounds like a cliché, and in some ways it is. But in others it is one of the most impressive crime series I’ve seen since The Wire.

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Alternative Christmas Movies

Need some alternative holiday films? Matt has got you covered!

As the time of turkeys, trees and tinsel descends, also does the time of cheesy movies about Santa, hyperactive elves and reindeer. Not everyone is a fan of these kinds of films but they’re hard to avoid, so I decided to give you a list of five alternative Christmas movies you can watch this yuletide season.

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50 Years of Zombies: Night of the Living Dead 50th Anniversary

A look back at 50 years of the walking dead and the legacy they left behind.

OK, so before you bite my head off, I know that zombie films have been around for longer than 50 years. The title of this article refers to the zombies as we know them today which begun with Night of the Living Dead. The “zombies” in Night of the Living Dead are closer in lore to vampires than actual zombies. While zombies are reanimated corpses, they didn’t turn others into zombies by biting them before Romero. In fact, Romero never referred to the monsters in Night of the Living Dead as “zombies”; they called them “Ghouls” in the film. He rarely had characters referred to them as “zombies” in his subsequent films, I can only recall one usage of the word “zombie” and that was in Dawn of the Dead. Anyway, back to the subject at hand.

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Call Me Snake: Looking Back on Escape From New York

Looking back on the legacy and influence of Snake Plissken.

Three words. Three small words introduced us to the baddest of all badasses, the man of few words, the one-eyed anti-hero Snake Plissken. My first introduction to the John Carpenter creation was on a television screen in Menorca at the age of 13. Escape From New York was playing on one of the channels in Spanish without any subtitles, making it difficult to understand. What caught and kept my attention was the incredible opening theme music, as well as the gritty and slightly futuristic look. I couldn’t look away.

When we were back in England I asked my parents to get me a copy of the film on VHS. Months later it was my 14th birthday and inside the colourful wrapping paper was a black VHS case with an image that remains iconic in my mind to this day: the giant decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty on the ground and three people being chased by a hoard of men with “John Carpenter’s Escape From New York” plastered on the cover. I jumped for joy and broke open the case immediately and removed the cellophane that covered the tape. I slid the cassette into my video player and I pressed play.

For the next 90 minutes I was transported to the grimy streets of Manhattan Island Maximum Security Penitentiary in the futuristic world of 1997 (bear in mind I saw this in 2001) and introduced to a cast of characters that were quirky, chilling, cool, dangerous and fun. I was totally immersed in the film and when it was over I rewound the tape to the beginning and watched it again. The high-tech police force contrasted against the no-tech prison fascinated me, but the biggest draw for the whole film for me was Plissken himself.

The character of Snake Plissken had gone on to inspire the character of Solid Snake in Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series, and only upon replaying it did I realize the connection. Let’s face it, Solid Snake is Snake Plisken and the game was basically Escape From New York: The Game. His gruff, gravelly voice is practically an imitation of Plissken’s. Both are forced into taking their assignments, both are captured, both find a tough female and neurotic male ally on the inside, and their only communication with the outside world is through a radio. As if that weren’t enough, both Solid Snake and Snake Plissken sport the iconic eye patch.

But I digress. Escape From New York was not some big-budget blockbuster, instead it was shot on a relatively low budget in St Louis. In fact, there is only one “New York Shot” and even that was actually two different shots edited seamlessly together. This is because they could only afford to shoot for one day in New York.

The shot in question is the tracking shot where Rehme walks into the Liberty Island Security Control room to get the call from air traffic control. The shot pans over into complete blackness, and then with a cut we find ourselves in Los Angeles as the panning shot continues on, showing the helicopters and approaching prisoner transfer bus. It’s a seamless edit that I wouldn’t have even known existed until I watched a documentary about the making of the film.

Throughout Escape, Snake acts as an of angel of death of sorts. Everyone he interacts with inside of the walls of the prison ends up dead, with exception of the President. He’s also pursued by death by way of the countdown on his watch, which promises his own demise. Because of this he has a do-anything attitude to accomplishing his mission, ready to screw anyone over who can help him find the President.

Kurt Russell talks in an interview about the moment he knew that the character of Snake was going to be a hit, they were shooting one night and John Carpenter wanted a shot of him running down the street and turning down an alley. They shot it and as Kurt turned the corner there were four big guys coming around the corner from their side. Because of the eye patch he wore Kurt had gotten into the habit of tilting his head to look at people and as he did that the four big guys backed away saying “Easy, easy, it’s cool.” After coming back out of the alley and back down to where the crew were set up Kurt said to John Carpenter, “I think this character’s gonna work.”

And of course it works. Snake Plissken just oozes a pure sense of “Do not fuck with me” in every scene in the film. He has such a presence on screen. It’s clear to see how Kurt Russell became the huge movie star that he is today off the back of his performance in Escape From New York.

The opening title sequence does an incredible job of setting up the world through voice over, provided by an un-credited Jamie Lee Curtis, and enhanced by Computer Generated Imagery. It is not the only piece of fake CGI that is in the film, for the sequence were Snake enters the prison he is flying a glider that has computer generated images of the cityscape, or so we the audience are led to believe. In actuality the CGI we are looking at is actually a scale model of the city with the corners of the buildings covered in high contrast tape and filmed it under a black light. The realistic models of New York were achieved by laying out a map of the city and scale model buildings made from cardboard and plywood were placed on top, the streets were blacked over with tape to give them a realistic look of a street. For the POV shot of the plane speeding towards New York the effects team painted the studio floor with a high gloss black paint to simulate the water that surrounded Manhattan Island. Future director James Cameron worked on the film, providing some of the matte paintings and working on the effects shots of Air Force One.

The supporting cast are fantastic in their respective roles. Lee Van Cleef plays the role of Hauk – the opposite of Snake. It’s easy to see that if Snake had remained on the side of the law he could have ended up just like Hauk. Hauk is just as fearless as Snake, and their first meeting shows how tough he is when four guards have brought Snake to him and he asks them to leave them alone. Throughout the film he is the only one who really believes that Snake can accomplish his mission, even though he can be seen as an antagonist for Snake he is also his only ally on the outside. This is a recurring theme in the film: snake’s allies are also his enemies. Brain – played by Harry Dean Stanton – double-crosses him multiple times.

The characters are quite well-developed for what is really a B-movie; they all have their own backstories. Donald Pleasence came up with an entire backstory for why the President of the United States is British. None of it was used but it was that sort of work that informed his performance creating a solid character. He also brought some of his own real-life experiences of being a Prisoner of War in his performance, the blonde wig he is wearing when Brain and Maggie break him out was his idea.

Issac Hayes portrayed the Duke of New York with an imposing level of seriousness. When he spoke he spoke with a slow and deliberate manner to make people listen and pay attention to every word he said. There was also some very subtle things that Hayes injected into the role. The Duke has a slight twitch in his right eye which is only seen a few times but it adds a level of depth to the character that not many other B movies would have in their characters. In contrast to the serious Duke of New York there is his right hand man Romero, named after director George A. Romero. Everything about Romero was to the extreme from his general look to his over the top performance, he is the audience’s first glimpse of the occupants of New York and it leaves an impression. His creepy demeanor as he slowly counts down from twenty still makes an impact today. Romero was portrayed by Frank Doubleday who appeared in Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 as the robotic and unfeeling White Warlord who calmly guns down a 12 year old girl. Here he is the opposite, everything is over the top in his performance. Doubleday was given total creative freedom when it came to Romero, the voice and look were all his choices.

Where the story is quite a simple one, what really makes it work is Carpenter’s direction and world building. The creepiness and desolation of New York makes it a character in itself. Carpenter originally wrote the screenplay in 1974 as a response to the Watergate scandal, it was turned down by various studios for amongst other reasons they felt it was too violent. He put it to one side until the success of Halloween allowed him to strike a two-picture deal with Avco Embassy, the other film being The Fog. Carpenter brought in his friend Nick Castle to polish up the script. Castle had played The Shape in Carpenter’s Halloween years earlier. Some of Castle’s changes were to add a sense of humour to the film. He also tweaked the ending that Carpenter felt needed some work.

Where Halloween is probably seen to be John Carpenter’s most successful film, Escape From New York is easily his most ambitious. I recently saw the film in a packed cinema and was once again glued to the screen throughout. The moment Carpenter’s score kicked in a smile came across my face and I was engrossed from start to finish. It’s nice to see that all these years later the film can still keep me engrossed the same as it did all those years ago. If I had the option, I would have tried to get the cinema to restart the movie from the beginning. It’s easy to see why the film and the character of Snake Plissken has become such a cinematic icon, even though the attempt to continue the story of Snake Plissken did not live up to the original’s gritty and grimy tone it didn’t stop the character from being any less iconic.

The only way I can think to wrap this up is by quoting the man himself, “The name’s Plissken!”