Extraction (2020), quick thoughts

You ever have the thought, a few scenes into a movie, that you’ve seen the movie before?

I wrestled with that feeling for all of a few minutes. Extraction feels like a reimagining of 2004’s Man on Fire, but with Chris Hemsworth instead of Denzel Washington.

I liked Man on Fire when I watched it over a decade ago. I have no idea how I’d like it now, but I imagine it stands up as a kidnapping-rescue-revenge action flick. Better than Taken, I suspect. Having Denzel Washington as your lead actor helps.

I can’t say that Extraction is going to stand the passage of time as well as Man on Fire, at least not in my head.

I don’t think that’s an indictment of Chris Hemsworth. I just don’t think this movie is as interesting or original as I thought Man on Fire was when I first saw it. For better or worse, my first impression will matter. 

It’s funny, honestly, thinking about it this way. I’m not pretending to offer any kind of objective verdict; I haven’t seen Man on Fire in ages, and I suspect I’d be more critical of it now. I wonder how it would actually match up with Extraction, side by side.

The element I most appreciated from Extraction (hey look it’s *SPOILERS*) was the parallelism between Ovi and Tyler, established most clearly in the last moments of the movie as Ovi rises from the bottom of the pool (paralleling Tyler’s sitting on the bottom of a river at the beginning) and sees what I can only assume is a phantom of Tyler (the blurry camera here only previously used to show memories of the dead). I liked the way in which this passed on Tyler’s mantle of trauma and loss, showing a little more of the impact the entire experience had on Ovi—but I also wished that Saju had been there too. By only showing one figure (who I assume is Tyler based on costume), I felt like it devalued the painful and tense relationship between Ovi and Saju. I can see why they might have chosen not to do that, especially if they wanted to leave some space in the audience’s mind for Tyler to have survived, but I feel pretty confident from the other choices (that blurry camera, Ovi’s time on the bottom of the pool) that Tyler died. Anyway. I’m just being an armchair director (or editor) at this point, so I’ll stop. *END OF SPOILERS*

If you want to watch a violent kidnapping-rescue-revenge action movie, Extraction is fine. It has good moments. It has a bunch of actors I like, most of whom don’t get as much narrative focus or development for their characters as I’d like. I don’t think it opens any fundamentally new narratives… but it certainly makes things go boom and has some impressive camera work alongside really solid combat choreography.

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Tamsyn Muir’s Sword-wielding Lesbian Space Necromancers

This isn’t anything in-depth about Gideon the Ninth or Harrow the Ninth. It’s much faster than that.

If “lesbian swords and necromancy in space” doesn’t sound appealing, I guess you should look elsewhere. I thought it was great. Gideon the Ninth has plenty of drama, channels anime in places and ways that I found very satisfying, and delivers convoluted mystery alongside swordplay, violence, and necro-magic. Tamsyn Muir (Tor page, Tumblr, homepage) has my attention.

I’m also enjoying the separate in-universe story The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex, which takes place before the opening of Gideon the Ninth.

For those who don’t like starting a series until it’s finished… first, that’s silly, it’s not how publishing works. If you want a series to exist, you should damn well read the first book and recommend it to others. Secondly, I don’t think you need to worry as much about that here: while Gideon the Ninth is obviously the first of multiple books, the ending ties the story up neatly and resolves things while still leaving room for a satisfying next story.

I read Gideon the Ninth last year and loved it. I took a little while to really sink into it, but once I had been caught I was stuck in it and couldn’t put the book down. It juked and weaved all over the narrative space; I never felt like it was letting me down by breaking narrative rules, but always felt like I should have seen the next twist coming and was instead surprised by it. I realize that might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it delightful.

I also loved the deeply anchored first person perspective that carried the narration throughout. I took a while to tease out where Gideon’s perspective was reliable and where it wasn’t, but honestly that only made the whole book more fun for me. The generally grisly nature of the story, the YA drama undertones (or just tones sometimes), and the excellent adventure / mystery plot were only made better by Gideon’s grumbling, scathing commentary.

I haven’t started Harrow the Ninth yet.

I’m really looking forward to it.

“Just Kidding”, quick political thoughts

Trump can waffle and correct himself and scrawl little words into the heaving blank spaces he left to carry his message all he likes. What remains is the fact that he is casting doubt on the American electoral system, casting doubt on voting by mail (which has staggeringly low rates of fraud, even lower than the already low American norm), and trying to use funding to support a piece of critical election infrastructure as a bargaining chip during a pandemic.

He’s said before that he thinks having more people vote is bad for him, and for Republicans in general. He said that back in March.

Now he’s withholding resources for allowing people to vote. It honestly doesn’t matter if it’s serious or “just a tactic.” It’s dangerous, and it’s bad for the republic. It’s bad for America, and for everyone in it, and, fuck, it’s bad for people outside it too because we can’t pretend America doesn’t influence the rest of the world.

I’m fucking upset. I’m angry. I’m… not surprised. Not especially surprised, anyway. Trump’s been saying—for a while now—that he doesn’t believe in voting by mail (despite voting by mail himself). He’s suggested (“joked”?) postponing the election. This is more of the same, but…

But withholding funding for the USPS so that it will be harder for mail-in voting to happen, during a pandemic, is abominable. It’s abominable from the perspective of public health, from the perspective of the continued health of our democratic republic…

It’s something that I feared, and something that I didn’t think he’d actually say out loud.

If knowingly suppressing the vote and eroding elections isn’t criminal, it really ought to be.

Watching Trump do these things, say these things, feeds the fears I’ve felt for years. I’ve told myself I’m paranoid, or at least that I’m catastrophizing, when I worry about Trump’s next steps, but time and again he does the thing that I feared.

The next step, the next thing I (and others I know) fear, is a large scale repeat of the Ballot Security Task Force which, in New Jersey in 1981, effectively suppressed minority voters (here’s the wikipedia article). Until 2017, the RNC was limited by consent decree because their actions in 1981 were so egregious. That consent decree expired (here’s Politico on the expiration of the limiting consent decree), and the RNC is working on recruiting and training election observers (Washington Post on the topic, note about observers is a little ways in) while Trump foments fear about fraud.

I’m not afraid that my vote won’t be counted, not really. I’m voting in Massachusetts, and I’m voting Democratic. If anything, my vote will barely matter for entirely different reasons. That’s okay. I’d rather not use first-past-the-post elections, but I’ll nerd out about election systems another day.

No, I’m worried about the chilling effect on participation throughout the rest of the country, and especially in those places where a small margin might make a big difference for Trump. I’ve been angry with the Republican Party’s elections strategies for a long time now, but if they manage to pull this one off—fuck.

Look, John Scalzi is a generally good person and has lots of other words, including plenty about voting, here.

He also has links to important voting resources there.

In case you’re too lazy, here: REGISTER TO VOTE and CHECK YOUR REGISTRATION STATUS

Election Day is November 3rd, 2020.

Draws, Dangers, and One-Shots, quick thoughts

When I’m building my own one-shot scenarios, I focus particularly on draws and dangers.

Draws are anything that compel people to be somewhere, preferably of their own volition. I want my players, and their characters (the PCs), to *want* to be where they are. I write about this in Be Hungry, a post about making characters, but here I’m thinking of it from the storyteller’s perspective. I want players to feel engaged, for their characters to actively pursue things in the course of play. If they don’t want to be there (player or PC), they have few reasons to stay involved with anything in a scenario. It’s possible to trap characters in a situation they don’t want to be in, but that’s usually more stressful for players. In fact, it’s so uncomfortable that it’s a frequent trope of horror stories. More on that later.

Dangers are just that; a danger is anything that might threaten the well-being of a character, or which presents a potentially harmful obstacle between a character and what they desire. A danger’s potential harm could operate on any of several levels: physical peril, social or emotional threat, or jeopardizing other things a character values. The severity of the danger is critical, and needs to be calibrated against both the draws of the scenario and the other dangers present.

Dangers must be calibrated against each other because they shape how PCs react to the world around them. If a danger is sufficiently scary, PCs will do whatever they can to avoid it. This could include facing other dangers which seem less scary, or simply turning tail and fleeing.

Dangers must also be calibrated against the scenario’s draws, because those dangers may scare off PCs or cause them to despair. As a concrete example, if PCs seek a unique treasure but discover that it lies on the far side of a vast pit full of demons, they may decide that the treasure isn’t worth the trouble. If there’s a secret route to the treasure and the PCs don’t find it, the PCs will probably just shrug and move on, marking that treasure as something to come back for later. This is perfectly normal and fine in most games, and such juxtapositions of draws and dangers have their place in stories, but it’s not going to deliver a triumphant story experience in that game session.

“We came, we saw, we turned around and went home because demons are scary.” As a story, it’s a little anticlimactic. Keep in mind, because this post is focused on one-shots, I’m not as interested in foreshadowing large challenges for later sessions… which is where that anticlimactic story may have a larger role.

To tell a dramatic and triumphant story—a frequent goal of one-shot scenarios—PCs should engage with dangers, resolve them, and reach the draw they sought. Ideally those dangers are scary enough to unsettle the players and make players feel good about resolving or bypassing them, but not bad enough to convince the PCs to give up and go home. It’s a careful balancing act. And it’s a balancing act that you can build into the scenario from the very beginning, both by making sure that the draws pulling PCs in are sufficiently exciting, and by making sure that the dangers don’t seem that bad at the start.

Notice the “seem” in there. It’s entirely possible to reveal that dangers are worse than the PCs expected part way through a scenario. Revealing that the danger’s threat is worse than previously realized is a very traditional way of increasing the tension of any story. It’s possible to do poorly, or to wear out the trope by doing it too reliably, but when done well it’s delightful.

Finally, one quick note on how horror scenarios work with draws and dangers.

Horror stories, which I mentioned near the beginning when talking about trapping PCs, can be different. Some horror stories thrive on the PCs’ sense of helplessness, their feeling stuck with a danger that is too great for them to defeat unscathed, or to overcome without losing in the process. In these horror scenarios, overwhelming dangers lie between the PCs and whatever the scenario’s draw may be (usually escape, or resolving the danger without overwhelming sacrifice). Classic movie examples could include anything involving being trapped in a space with something hunting you: Alien, any number of serial killer movies, various murder-puzzle movies like the Saw series, etc.

This doesn’t describe all horror stories though, and the topic is big enough that I’m going to leave the rest of it for another time.