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Dear Paranormal Activity, February 5, 2010

Posted by criticaluniverse in Movies.
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As a child I was subjected to horror movies pretty early on. Sometimes after watching these movies I wouldn’t be able to get to sleep hours after I went to bed. I would lie under the covers thinking of all the possible loose ends that were never tied up and more than once I soaked my pillow with tears. Needless to say I had an overactive imagination and I still do. One particular movie haunted me above all others and that movie was Frailty starring Bill Paxton and Matthew McConaughey. Something about the religious nature of the film scared me more than any hockey-mask wearing slasher ever could. To this date I have not seen a horror film that could measure up to my high standards of fear. 

Granted half of horror films of the last decade have been American versions of Japanese movies featuring pale young women with damp hair covering their faces crawling on ceilings and walls. The other half has been tedious remakes of American classics like Halloween and Amityville Horror. Oh and then there is the torture porn of the Saw series and the two Hostel films. It has not been a Golden Age of Fear. But then I saw the preview for Paranormal Activity and even my jaded skepticism was briefly diminished. Paranormal Activity takes a hint from movies such as The Blair Witch Project, Last Broadcast, Cannibal Holocaust, and Quarantine. In my opinion all of these movies are several degrees better than Paranormal Activity. 

And then I actually watched Paranormal Activity. I watched all 92 minutes of Paranormal Activity. After weeks of being told just how scary and refreshing it was I spent my dollar at Red Box and rented this horrible excuse for cinema. Paranormal Activity was filmed on a $15,000 budget with a 7-day shooting schedule. In this aspect I have to salute Oren Peli, the film’s director. For such success on his first attempt he definitely should be watched closely. Now for the criticism. I am extremely thankful for the movie’s short run time. Had I not been obligated to watch it or admit a completely wasted dollar, I would have hit power on the DVD player around minute 32. Luckily Peli must have decided a movie about doors slamming could only last so long. 

The two main character’s acting wasn’t particularly dreadful. They reacted reasonably enough. But then there is the psychic. I hope that no one ever mistakenly hires Mark Fredrichs for an acting gig because of the success of Paranormal Activity. The first time Mr. Fredrichs appears in the film his acting is passable, granted psychics can be somewhat looney. But when Mr. Fredrichs shows up later in the film to tell the woman being haunted that he couldn’t help her I fell off the couch laughing. I may have seen a worse performance at some point in my life but if I have then I lack all recollection of it. 

The thing is Paranormal Activity wants to be scary. With “reality” shows like Paranormal State and Ghost Hunters on TV it was only a matter of time before someone made a movie with the concept. Oren Peli was obviously reaching for a sense of reality with this, and for good reason. Reality, sometimes stranger than fiction, can also be scarier. But this is not the case. This is one circumstance that is quite the opposite. If I was interested in slamming doors I would rewatch the State of the Union address and take out my frustration on my bedroom entryway. There is one moment I found genuinely creepy, the scene where Katie is dragged out of her bed and down the stairs by an invisible “demon”. Word is that there is a sequel planned but this time I will be sure to conserve my one hundred pennies wisely.

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Dear Halo Franchise, February 5, 2010

Posted by criticaluniverse in Video Games.
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Let me start by saying that I myself am an X-Box 360 owner, and I have played every Halo iteration to date. The first in the series, Halo: Combat Evolved was the second game I purchased for my original X-Box and to this day I still have very fond memories of t he experience. The fact that my brother and I could both play co-op split screen was a major bonus, fighting off alien invaders is always better with a partner. Now let me say that as an avid science fiction reader I consider a lot of the Haloverse trash.

Space Marines have been done in military sci-fi a hundred times before, and a hundred times better than in Halo. I feel like the games are specifically dumbed down to be accessible to average people who don’t share an interest in sci-fi. I can understand, Bungie and Microsoft have to market this game to a larger demographic than sci-fi geeks in order to make money. The thing is Halo just isn’t very original. The main story takes place approximately 500 years in the future. In that time mankind has spread to the stars under the watchful gaze of the United Nations Space Command (more on the UNSC later). However despite significant leaps in space travel technology humans are still using extremely out of date weapons.

For example. The MA5B Assault rifle is a fully automatic, gas operated, magazine fed, 7.62mm personal combat weapon. In comparison the AK-47 is a selective fire, gas operated, magazine fed, 7.62mm personal combat weapon that has been in service since 1949. So in about 550 years assault rifle technology has not advanced…at all. One more example. Here we have the M808B Main Battle Tank which features a 90mm cannon that fires tungsten armor piercing ballistic capped rounds, a 7.62mm machine gun, a whopping maximum acceleration of 5.6 mph, and weighs in at 66 metric tons. In comparison the M1A1 Abrams has a 120mm smoothbore cannon which fires depleted uranium armor piercing rounds or HE rounds, a 50mm machine gun and two 7.62 mm machine guns, with an off-road speed of 30 mph, and weighs in at 67 tons. The original variant of the M1 has been around since 1980. Once again, modern weapons tech beats out future weapons tech.

Not only is Halo unimaginative but it is completely lacking military strategy. I have never served in the Armed Forces, though I wish I could, but I have read enough history and military sci-fi by authors who have served to know that Halo misses the mark for accuracy. Which is fine. It doesn’t have to be accurate. It is a game geared toward casual gamers and people who don’t care for all the details. What bugs me is that while reading Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising I couldn’t help but feel that NATO and Russia would have been far better suited to fight the Covenant than the UNSC. The only thing they would lack would have been the space ships. But seriously. Red Storm Rising was written about 20 years ago and is a book about the Cold War heating up. It is fiction but not science fiction. It is about humans fighting humans. And I still think the military forces in that book could have easily trumped the Covenant. It seems that the only tactic in the Spartan handbook is overload the fusion reactor on any UNSC ship in the vicinity and make a daring escape.

 It just seems to me that instead of doing their research, which is essential in sci-fi, Bungie just took a couple modern day weapons and gave them different names. Of course the weapons aren’t the only thing important to sci-fi, not by far, but in a sci-fi first person shooter they do have a degree of importance. It is a wonder that the UNSC was able to fight the Covenant at all with such out dated weapons. This brings me to the UNSC.

Here on Earth the United Nations is an inefficient bureaucracy, a compilation of countries committed to maintaining international peace and security. A job that the UN fails at most admirably. Things like the Rwandan Genocide, Srebrenica Massacre, Somalia, Iran, Sudan, and Darfur come to mind. Killing off an entire ethnicity? We, the United Nations, will write you a letter with fancy wording and threaten to put sanctions on you! Continuing with plans to create nuclear weapons? We, the United Nations, will blah blah blah. Regardless of real life Halo is fiction, set in a future 500 years down the road. Who knows? Maybe the UN got its act together and conquered space so that the assembly members could sit around a camp fire on Harvest and sing “Kumbaya”. Or maybe not. Apparently there were 23 billion civilian casualties during the Human-Covenant War. My guess is that these were the result of the UNSC’s failure to act. Or they may have been right on the ball, sending a very gruff letter and threatening sanctions on the Covenant.

The truth about Halo is that it is 85% style and 15% substance. I won’t deny that there were moments when, playing the Halo games, I got a sense of something epic. But the truth is that what Bungie created is a hype machine with sci-fi themes and a lack of military knowledge and research. Were any fanboy to read this I guarantee they would be outraged. That sort of things is a guilty pleasure of mine. Here soon I may write up a criticism on Halo 3: ODST which I find to be the absolute worst entry in the series. But for now I’m content to sit back and watch the sparks fly.