Saturday, September 27, 2014

How I became a fan of Highlander 2: The Quickening... stop laughing at me

Highlander 1986

Don't get me wrong. I loved Highlander when I was a kid. I even followed the film series enthusiastically up until part three, which came out when I was eleven. Eleven was apparently too old to enjoy Highlander sequels anymore. Or so I thought....

You know the tagline even if you don't know the movies: There can be only one. Why can there be only one? When the French Christopher Lambert (playing a Scot) asks questions like that, the Scottish Sean Connery (playing an Egyptian) replies with another question: "Why does the sun rise?" That's a cheat—in reality we all know why the sun rises, but we'll never really know why Immortals have to fight. Probably because someone thought it would be pretty bad ass.

To outsiders—and for nearly twenty years I was one of them—Highlander's popularity can be a bit mystifying. Let's get some of the bad stuff out of the way. Here's the biggest problem with the original Highlander: there are no answers. None. Zilch. The sooner you accept that the better because there's a decent movie lurking beneath the cheese. And who doesn't like sword fights that produce roughly as many sparks as a bumper car grid?

Yesterday, I watched the original film. The Queen music was awesome, the beheadings were satisfying, and the bad guy (played by the grossly underrated Clancy Brown) is a totally bad ass "seven-foot tall lunatic."

The rest isn't Shakespeare. Let's say you're a Trans-Am-driving gun nut who happens to pass a dark alley in which two strangers are sword fighting. Do you A) drive to the nearest payphone and call the cops or B) get out and shoot at these people? If you chose B, you belong in this movie.

The pacing is a bit rough, too, while the acting is just good enough. Even so, you're going to be scratching your head and making MST3K quips throughout. So when the movie was over I popped in the Blu-Ray edition of Westworld and all but forgot about Highlander. Then I went to bed where distant memories of the infamous sequel began to haunt me.

I remembered Sean Connery was in it and (minor spoiler coming up) just had to know what kind of movie magic they spun to bring his character back to life. I had frequently read how awful the movie was, which was at odds with how much I enjoyed it as an eight year old. So this morning I shelled out four bucks to rent it on demand.

I may never be able to enjoy another movie again.

Highlander 2 (1991)

See, other movies are not as good because other movies aren't Highlander 2. Other movies don't have the mysteriously likable Christopher Lambert, Michael Ironside, and Sean Connery—the trifecta as far as I'm concerned. Other movies are too logical, make too much sense, and have way too much taste, which is ultimately their undoing.

Every movie I have seen since I watched Highlander 2 has fallen flat.

I've said before I enjoyed Johnny Mnemonic in spite of how badly it managed to butcher its source material. Turning Molly Millions into a damsel in distress was unforgivable, but come on: it's the film that both managed to bring cyberpunk to the mainstream and kill it at the same time. I just take enormous pleasure in the 90s' ridiculous vision of the future. (See: everything from Van Damme's Cyborg to Billy Idol videos.) None of this stuff could even come close to holding a candle to the set design in Blade Runner, but it's as comforting as an old sweater nonetheless.

Highlander 2 is set in such a dismal future world. For the most part it's a pretty convincing one, though a little on the rich side, and it looks like they got more bang out of their budget than Freejack and Johnny Mnemonic combined. Some of the movie was even set on an alien planet at one point, but those versions of the film have been buried. All this jumping around takes the series out of the domain of fantasy and ushers it into science fiction, where I'm most comfortable.

When we first see Lambert's MacLeod, he's elderly and speaks in a hilariously phony voice. Why is it so high-pitched? Chalk it up to a brave yet misguided acting decision if you must, but never mind that. Just look at how big budgeted this all feels. The opening crane shots in and around the grand opera house are like nothing you'd see in a typical B movie.

That's because there was a shit ton of money spent on the production. Rumor has it the people who put up that money are partially to blame for the film's "problems."

The theatrical cut, the version I saw on Pay-Per-View when I was eight, corn-holed the entire mythology of the original film within the first few minutes. It accomplished this by asserting two things: one, the Immortals were (surprise!) aliens all along and two, MacLeod and Ramirez didn't meet for the first time in the original Highlander, but a long, long time before that.

Luckily for the director, this bit of contradictory dialogue had been filmed with characters who spoke telepathically, without moving their lips. The obvious fix was to phase out the original version and rerecord the dialogue. In the subsequent versions, and I'm not sure if I saw the director's cut or the newer "Renegade" version, all verbal references to the aforementioned alien planet are edited out of the dialogue... but the visual references remain. That way audiences are led to believe, if they're still paying attention, that it's not an alien planet, but Earth a long time ago.

The changes didn't really help the film, though. If anything, they made it a little more confusing. But hey, that's part of the reason I love it. I'm really not being ironic here. I fucking loved this movie.

beginning at 1:30, Siskel & Ebert don't agree with me

I've never seen anything like it before. That's probably the best compliment I'm capable of giving any movie. Look, it's not so bad it's good—it's so good it hurts. Seriously. It hurts in a way that it makes your stomach knot from tickled laughter, some of it intended, a lot of it not. Yet I found a lot more to make fun of in part one because this one didn't bore me for a second, while engaging from one end of the film to the other.

Highlander 2 shows absolutely no restraint in its crusade to not only give you what you expected, but absolutely everything you could possibly want. You get hover boards. You get bad guys who look like they're straight out of a Hellraiser film. There are jet packs with unfolding wings. There are numerous sword fights and awesome beheadings. And you will never see a hero have sex with the heroine so quickly after meeting and, ahem, I do stress the word "quickly."

Guess what. All of that awesome stuff happens in the first thirty minutes.

Adding to the plot's confusion, the world's ozone layer has deteriorated. MacLeod himself helped create an artificial layer of atmosphere to deflect the sun's radiation. I know he's immortal, but it must have been very busy life to go from warrior to antique dealer to world-renowned scientist.

Meanwhile, Virginia Madsen's character and a group of environmentalists break into the shield generator's complex and discover the real ozone layer may have repaired itself in the time since the artificial one went up. Madsen is so surprised by the discovery I have no idea why she broke into the complex in the first place—for shits and giggles? With MacLeod's shield in place, the world is constantly dark now and if her findings are correct, it's all for nothing. Madsen, by the way, is one of millions of people who have never seen a blue sky. You'll think, "Oh, the blue sky is going to be the payoff at the end of the picture." Yet it's not.

This movie is too insane to even follow convention.

Here's where the alien planet retcon screws up the current version: so the Immortals from the past watch the events in the future unfold as if they were being broadcast on live TV. Think about that for a moment. They're watching what's happening in the future from the fucking past. They also have teleporters time travel on their planet in the past. So you wonder why the villain didn't just travel to the point before MacLeod remembered he was an Immortal (I forgot to mention: our hero had amnesia at the beginning of the film) and chop off his head then. On second thought, it really doesn't matter at this point.

What matters is the film feels like the result of people who were legitimately crazy. Remember when I said I was dying to see what kind of movie magic they would use to bring Connery's character back to life? The answer is none. They used no magic at all. MacLeod screams the character's name and, inexplicably, Ramirez appears on a stage in Scotland during a performance of Hamlet. I'm not kidding or exaggerating here. That's literally how it happened.

The bulk of Ramirez's screen time is making the journey to America while acting not like an Egyptian, but an older James Bond whose flirtatious jokes have gotten a lot raunchier. "I don't eat anything I can't identify," he tells a flight attendant before looking to the woman beside him and adding, "Well, that's not entirely true." A pussy-eating joke!

And man, does Connery look like he's having fun or what? Meanwhile, you catch glimpses of Lambert's frustration with the doomed production. You occasionally see a flicker of How the hell did I end up in this turkey? in Virgina Madsen's eyes, particularly when she has to deliver a stupidly complicated piece of exposition. But Connery is having a blast and it shows. I've always been a fan of Connery, but I think I like him more than ever now. What grace. What charm.

Highlander 2, as it exists today, just doesn't deserve its sour reputation. It's too damn entertaining for its countless inclusions on "worst movies of all time" lists. Mediocrity is much more offensive than terrible. Highlander 2 tries—I mean it really fucking tries. It gets an A for ambition alone.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Wasteland 2 is out now

Now you can grab the standard edition of Wasteland 2 for $39.99, while the deluxe edition is still $59.99 as it was during early access. I thought standard was going to be more like $20 when it released, but if the game is as long as developers say it is (and the hard drive space it requires indicates it is), then $39.99 is probably just about right. I had an easier time getting the hang of Shadowrun Returns, but Wasteland 2 is worth the effort.

So far, anyway. Sometimes I want to beat the shit out of my computer, but most of the time I'm having fun. I think. I'm not really sure. I've managed to get nine hours out of it since Friday, so I can't say it's been a waste of money.

For my first playthrough I decided on pre-generated characters: a guy who likes blunt weapons (the most useful character in my party so far), a demolitions expert, a sniper, and a medic. The demo expert was dead within the first hour. My other three characters are still kicking, but only because of obsessive saving and reloading. This game is hard. Rewarding, but hard.

Or maybe I just don't know how to play games like this. I suspect keeping all of your original characters alive is probably missing the point, but that's just the way I play. The game indulges stuff like that: playing the way you want to. We need more games like it.

In the game you control a group of Rangers who belong to one of the authority factions in post-apocalyptic Arizona. You travel from one outpost to the next via an overworld map which, like The Adventures of Link, will provide random encounters with random enemies. I discovered early on you want to train your ranged units in melee skills because bullets are pretty hard to come by. Another thing to note is the game is infuriating. The Rangers are some of the worst shots in the world. To have a player character miss an enemy one space away three or more times in a row could very well result in a smashed computer monitor for many players.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Rocky Point: a flash story

I submitted the following story to a couple of flash markets several years ago, but came up dry. Since then I completely forgot about it. I'm nothing if not a terrible record-keeper.

Rocky Point is a real place. The geography I wrote about is accurate.

Rocky Point
a short story by Grant Gougler

When the military blew the dam it flooded a lot of the communities around the lake. Rocky Point was one of the luckier ones, I guess, because the single road leading into it was flooded, but the rest of it remained high and dry.

Whenever I run out of food, I anchor my houseboat twenty yards from the shore and swim in. Each time I’m pleased to find Tommy's Grocery—part convenience store, part bait shop—hasn’t been completely looted yet. Most of the people who lived in the community were evacuated. Those who weren’t aren’t exactly interested in Doritos and corn flakes anymore.

Tommy is still lurking in the back of the store. He grunts and growls through the tiny window in the employees-only door, but I shoved a big display of soda cans in front of the door so he can make all the fuss he wants, he’s not gonna get me.

I stock up mostly on meats and vegetables, in order of the stuff that’s got the shortest shelf life. The next time I come in I’ll probably have to start taking the packaged stuff exclusively. The meats in the deli case are beginning to develop a rainbow-colored sheen that worries me. The box of potatoes are growing appendages. Typically I’m starving to death by the time I work up the courage to go back to land. But the second I step foot into the store the smell of dead worms and minnows turns me off of eating food for a few hours. I’m beginning to smell Tommy, too. Fortunately, I’m used to the smell of human rot.

I load my take into a picnic basket which I float back to the boat on a lifesaver. I’m always chilled when I get out of the water. Instead of toweling off, I go inside and wrap myself up in the bed. This time I take a nap. When I wake up I crack open a warm beer and smoke a cigarette for the first time in my life. I don’t like the taste of the cigarette, can’t imagine anyone could, but I plan to smoke the rest of the pack later. I watch the sun set and then I pull anchor. I drive on to the floating gas station in Taylor Ferry and fill up my tanks. No telling how much gas is left in the pumps, so I stock up on all I can carry.

Funny thing about the electricity. It’s occurred to me more than once that someone must be at the power station, making sure the grid doesn’t go down. But never has it occurred to me to seek him out, not until now. I know where the power station is—it’s that solitary light out there on that cliff. Squint and you can probably see it if the diminishing sliver of sunlight doesn’t get in your eyes. I’m still thinking about introducing myself to whoever’s out there, even as I drive farther away from it. It’s a nice thought, but he doesn’t want to meet me and I don’t want to meet him. It’s going to be a while before people can trust each other again, even the living ones.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Cosmic Megastructures @ Popular Mechanics

I love cosmic megastructures or, as some call them: big dumb objects. Larry Niven's Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers are two of my favorite examples of the genre (I regretfully never got through the third book in the series, as the quality took an inexplicable nosedive). The first time I ever played Halo, I did an awful lot of sight-seeing in between battles—the scale of that original game was like nothing we had ever seen.

my copy of Ringworld

Right now, Popular Mechanics is running a series on these kinds of big science fiction ideas. These articles serve more as primers than in-depth analyses, but it's still a decent batch of reading material. Here's a list of the ones I've checked out so far:
There might be others, so keep an eye out for them. In the meantime, here's a picture of Niven's Puppeteers, who initially seem to be a cowardly race of aliens, but they turn out to be one of science fiction's most interesting creations:

I see Barlowe's Guide at second hand stores all the time, but it's worth the price for a new copy.

* * *

On an unrelated note, I don't read fantasy nearly as much as I read science fiction, but David Gemmell's Legend is kicking all kinds of ass for me. It's a light read that's half about the circumstances leading up to the inevitable castle siege, and half about the siege itself. Fun, fast-paced, and gloriously violent. I also have a soft spot for aging warriors, especially if they have a reputation to live up to, and the main character Druss is certainly that. Considering his age and physical flaws in this novel, I'm not sure how Gemmell went on to write more books with the character, not if they're as action-packed as this.

Which reminds me: we need more fun books. I've been reading so much dour shit lately I can't see straight. I liked Accelerando as much as anyone, but singularity fiction is getting capital-B Boring, much like the devout transhumanists who consistently barge into serious threads on futurism forums and bark about how the A.I. revolution is upon us. No, the technological singularity is not a given. If it does happen, what we've speculated so far is going to be as innaccurate as the Jetsons' view of the future. More importantly, stories set in the future don't have to be about the singularity, nor do they even need to mention why it did not occur.

For fuck's sake, I just want to see humans cruising around the galaxy in rocket ships again. Throw in some sword fights and pirates just for the hell of it. Too much to ask for?