500-Word Reviews

Digestible, medium-length reviews for books, movies, TV shows, and video games

More human than human

This post contains spoilers.

Genre: Science-fiction film #film

K walking into the desert

In Blade Runner 2049, K is a replicant — an android virtually indistinguishable from humans — who discovers his implanted memories are real, which suggests he may have been born rather than manufactured (an inversion of the original film in which Rick Deckard's own true nature is left ambiguous).

But after a long, emotional search for his literal humanity, K learns he is only a replicant after all. The Chosen One trope is thus turned on its head and for K, it's a crushing letdown — one that can also be difficult for the audience because BR2049 takes such great care to humanize the character.

Indeed, when K begins to believes he might actually be human, it's easy for us to go along despite evidence to the contrary. K can read a million words a minute, perceive microscopic details, and withstand (as well as inflict) tremendous amounts of physical punishment. How could one see him as anything but a machine? Yet K is utterly, convincingly human.

Outside of those physical abilities, there's truly little to differentiate him from anyone else. He eats, sleeps, and works for a wage. He lives among people. He bleeds. He cherishes his memories and shares them in private. He longs for companionship and nurtures the only relationship he has, however artificial. During his journey of self-discovery, his gradual loss of emotional control — culminating into something like a full-blown breakdown — only serves to humanize him further.

Sapper Morton faces K

From the beginning, K's rich human experience seems to support his possibly unique origins. Even before he has any reason to believe he could have been born, K displays a plethora of human traits in BR2049's wonderfully crafted opening scene: He falls asleep in transit, a small yet relatable thing; he shows respect for Sapper Morton's property, even though Morton is a replicant he has been tasked to retire; and he displays genuine curiosity about Morton's cooking before imploring him to cooperate, hoping to avoid the “hard part of the day” that clearly makes him queasy.

Joi also hints that K has long engaged in self-contemplation prior to that encounter. And who hasn’t? The movie's initial revelation — that a replicant has given birth — is likely little more than the catalyst for K’s long-brewing existential crisis, one driven by his very human need to be special. Having so dearly desired for a different reality, he eventually allows himself to believe in one. And when it crashes down upon him like a hurricane, his distress and ensuing depressive state once again only make him seem more human.

It's all too easy for the audience to deceive itself, along with K, into believing he is. Indeed, faced with someone whose experiences are so incredibly human, how could one perceive K as anything less? And in the end, does it really matter that he's not? The revelation that he isn't human only crystallizes that he never needed to be. Like Roy Batty before him, he's already “more human than human.”

A wonderful game that rewards curiosity

This review contains spoilers for the first 30 minutes of the game.

Genre: Adventure video game (sandbox, first-person) #game

Planet in space

Outer Wilds begins with your character waking from a nap by a campfire. As you slowly open your eyes, you notice a light, far above in space, streaking across the void. If you want, you can travel there and investigate. It turns out you’re an astronaut and today is your big day.

You get used to seeing that streaking light.

In the first thirty minutes of the game, you learn that only a handful of pioneers have ventured into space before you. Unlike them, you are equipped with the first tool capable of translating texts left behind by the Nomai, an ancient civilization.

Armed with this translator, you get into a rickety spaceship, take off, and set out in any direction you wish. The game’s solar system is tiny compared to the endless emptiness of real space, but nonetheless large enough that finding purpose can initially feel overwhelming.

The Attlerock, a nearby moon with a huge crater, could be a good place to explore. But as you wander, perhaps unsure of what to do, the sun explodes. Everything dies, you included. Then — you wake from a nap by a campfire. You slowly open your eyes and far above, a light streaks across space.

Was it a dream? Did you somehow survive a supernova? Are you in a time loop? Will the sun collapse again? Needless to say, your death leaves you with a lot of questions. Fortunately, the outer wilds have answers — and from the very start, the game equips you with all the tools you need to get them.

Map of Outer Wilds system

Unlike many video games, there are no gated areas in Outer Wilds unlocked only after meeting a prerequisite. There are no quests. No items to upgrade nor skills to enhance. No combat. At your disposal are a ship, spacesuit, translator, signal scanner, camera, and flashlight. With these tools, you can get anywhere and answer any question. You just need to explore the solar system and do a little digging.

Curiosity thus drives everything you do in Outer Wilds. As long as you have a question, you have a purpose; and the hunt for answers slowly reveals an intricate story full of wonderful eureka moments. Space exploration is brutally dangerous and there are many ways to die in the game, but because player knowledge — not character knowledge — is the only thing to gain, no virtual demise can erase your progress. A puzzle hides beneath the hostile sandbox of space, and little by little, you begin to see the shapes. Death is just part of the process.

Indeed, you may die countless times in Outer Wilds — yet, incredibly, you never actually need to. With the right knowledge, you can wake from that first nap and experience the intended ending in under half an hour. But to acquire that knowledge, you must first go through a masterclass in player exploration and discovery, one that ultimately drives you toward an emotionally touching conclusion. Even without that final reward, the journey is worth every moment.

What does it cost to get rich?

Blood staircases

This review contains spoilers.

Genre: Survival drama TV show #television #capitalism

Capitalist rhetoric claims competition, free markets, and hard work are all it take to make a fortune fair and square, and that those left behind have only themselves to blame. In gory detail, Squid Game explores the cost of that competition and shows how, no matter one’s personal character, acquiring wealth in a capitalist system is necessarily unethical.

The organizers of the game make its participants a promise: Unlike in the real world, where they have little chance of getting out from under capitalism’s crushing boot, they each have an equal opportunity to win. At first, the promise seems genuine. When a player is caught cheating, the game overseer executes him and his abettors without a second thought. And the first game they play — “Red Light, Green Light” — has a pretty fair set of rules.

But the pretense of fairness breaks down quickly. None of the players had been told they would be brutally murdered should they lose. And it’s only when the survivors express the desire to leave that the prize is literally dangled above their heads, its message clear and vicious: the more people die, the more money you stand to win.

The game’s creator absolves himself of responsibility, noting the participants agreed to the terms. He conveniently ignores that as a money-lender, he is guilty of contributing to the pressures that led players to accept the terms in the first place — and that his recruiters leveraged their hopeless circumstances to convince them to join.

Jung Ho-yeon

By the time players get to the bridge game, it’s overly clear the entire endeavor is not, as advertised, a respite from the capitalist system, but rather a microcosm of it. The only way to win is by making the right connections, ruthlessly eliminating and backstabbing the competition, and getting extremely lucky.

In the end, the last man standing is neither the savviest nor the most able individual. He could have been any one of the others who died. And his reward, a glowing pot of money, has come at the cost of hundreds of lives and his own humanity. What were the alternatives? To die or not participate at all — the latter an arguably worse fate as shown in the only episode, entitled “Hell,” that takes place entirely outside the games. In real life, though, not participating in capitalism is rarely an option.

In Squid Game, like in Parasite, the lower class fight each other for the scraps of the rich, who got rich by profiting off of them. The system is purported to be fair, but has perverse incentives and primarily rewards luck and exploitative behaviors. To merely fight for one’s survival is to actively participate in the demise of others.

Even though the winner was arguably the nicest person involved, he understands despairing at the blood spilled in the name of survival does not wash his hands clean of it. Consequently, he can’t bring himself to use the money. Spending it would be tantamount to spending those lives once more.

Institutional failure remains as poignant as ever

Bunk and McNulty

This review contains spoilers about the show’s themes, but no plot spoilers.

Genre: Crime drama TV show (five seasons, 60 episodes) #television #capitalism

When The Wire first aired, it didn’t really rate. It won no awards, the viewership was nothing to write home about, and the critical response was a resounding “It’s fine.” Yet today, almost every list of the greatest TV shows of all time feature The Wire somewhere in the top five. Why?

Many of its qualities are timeless. Its portrayal of police work, poverty and drug culture, education, and local government is not only totally honest and unpretentious, but also deeply human. It has a talented ensemble cast of actors who accurately represent Baltimore demographics. And then there’s The Bunk and all of his memorable zingers.

But The Wire is more than just a cops-and-criminals show. Over five seasons, it explores how institutions betray the people they’re meant to serve and the impossible challenges faced by those wishing to do something meaningfully good within those institutions. It’s an unusually realistic look at hopeless circumstances many Americans will find all too familiar.

Though the Baltimore Police Department takes center stage, it’s not the only star of the show. The department’s stories are part of an impressively consistent and well-written narrative thread that runs through all five seasons, weaving itself through those of other important institutions: the port union, the school system, the media, the courts, and of course, the criminal organizations.

Their parallels are ever transparent. Gangs share eerily similar hierarchies as the legal administrations tasked with taking them down — and are often, through backdoor handshakes and laundered money, more connected than it would seem.

Poot, Bodie, D'Angelo, and Wallace

And just as street-level thugs “stand tall,” silently eating charges to protect so-called friends whose loyalties end as soon as it is convenient, so too must corrupt politicians stand tall to avoid exposing their fellow white-collar criminals. There’s no such thing as a corrupt person in power working alone. Everyone’s got a hand in somebody’s pocket.

For all the small victories and feel-good moments peppered throughout its 60 episodes, The Wire ends on a bleak note. Its final message is unambiguous: nothing really changes. There are simply too many cogs in the machine, too many perverse incentives, and too many conflicting interests pulling in all directions.

If you have good intentions, institutions will grind you down until you choose to leave, are made to leave, or have nothing left of your former, optimistic self. The only way to get in a position to enact real change is to make so many deals and compromises that, by the time you’ve finally gotten into that position, you’ve essentially traded all its power away.

Almost two decades after The Wire first aired, Americans have long lost any trust that institutions have got their backs. Society is reaching all-time high levels of apathy and cynicism. More than check all the boxes that make good television, The Wire resonates powerfully. Let us hope it eventually falls down the ranks in those greatest TV show lists, not because newer and better ones are released, but because it stops being so goddamn real.

Faith's vulnerability to self-deception

Father Paul walks in church

This review contains spoilers.

Genre: Supernatural horror miniseries #television #religion

Midnight Mass is a series about guilt, grief, and a blood-sucking vampire. It's about the struggle to reclaim one's life after addiction has taken it over — whether that addiction is to alcohol, blood, or even self-pity; and about the strange, barely disguised cannibalistic undertones of Communion.

It's also a meditation on the ways religion can pit people against each other just as easily as it can unite them. How scripture can be wielded against the faithful, by both good and bad actors, to justify almost anything.

When they first meet, the vampire attacks and feeds on Monsignor Pruitt before giving him some of its blood. Because this has the side-effect of bringing the old man back to the prime of his life, he concludes the vampire is actually an angel. Already, his need to fit experiences within the framework of his faith causes him to ignore several glaring problems.

Hoping to spread this gift of rejuvenation, Pruitt brings the “angel” to his hometown on Crockett Island. He then inadvertently dies and comes back to life as a vampire himself, cursed by skin that burns in sunlight and a vicious thirst for blood. Despite these alarming symptoms, he doubles down on his plan to spread this condition to everyone on the island. It's only at the very end that he wakes up to its horrors.

Bev, Wade, and Sturge decide what to do with Joe

A central theme of Midnight Mass is how faith can be hijacked to enable otherwise well-meaning people to engage in such questionable behavior. Gradually, with the backing of scripture, Pruitt convinces himself and the faithful of Crockett Island to go along with an increasingly gruesome plot. Religion is shown to be vulnerable to becoming a vessel for horror, whether unintentionally (demonstrated by Pruitt) or intentionally (by Beverly Keane).

The rejuvenating effects of vampire blood are attributed to miracles. The vampire's terrifying appearance seems supported by Biblical passages that describe the fear angels once inspired in those they visited. And when Pruitt experiences mindless bloodlust for the first time, he decides God must have taken control of his body. It's easier to deceive oneself than to look upon the face of uneasy truth.

Among the few who do not fall prey to this self-deception are, unsurprisingly, a skeptic, a physician, and a Muslim. The temptation to find comfortable explanations that avoid challenging an easily-held belief is something we all know. Exercised well, skepticism and scientific inquiry can be tools for fighting that temptation.

But when the risk is not just to a single belief but to one's entire understanding of reality, the mind can grasp at anything it finds to protect itself. Faith cannot allow doubt to creep in and take hold, because that doubt risks becoming the hammer that shatters the whole thing. Instead, it can only double down on itself — more faith, rewarding itself for furious belief in the unbelievable. The alternative, for those who have only ever had faith to lean upon, is like a void, too dreadfully absent of answers to even contemplate.

Dialog-rich RPG with compelling inner-thought system

Detectives at the docks

This review includes very light spoilers for the start of the game.

Genre: Detective role-playing video game (open world, isometric) #game

In Disco Elysium, you spend just as much time talking to yourself as with other characters. That's because the skills you can level — such as Conceptualization, Volition, and Reaction Speed — are constantly pitching in with ideas about what you're seeing and what you should do.

For example, investing in Encyclopedia turns your character into a trivia machine, able to conjure up random knowledge about obscure subjects brought up in conversation. This typically starts as an inner thought, which you can then choose to share out loud — it might be helpful, but it's just as likely to come across as aggressive ADHD to other characters.

Most of the skills in Disco Elysium work this way. A wide cast of mental and physical impulses add unique flavor to everything you do — with both positive and negative consequences. Putting points in Drama can help you detect if somebody is lying, but investing a lot of points in Drama can turn you into a compulsive liar convinced that every word you hear is dripping with deceit.

Your inner thoughts also contradict each other. Logic may suggest an action that Empathy immediately shoots down. Physical Instrument, the skill concerned with musculature and organ health, isn't always pleased that Electro-Chemistry routinely urges you to take psychedelics.

There are countless ways for your skills to interact, which all depend on how you invest your skill points and the choices you make in the world. This makes the game deliciously replayable even if you've already absorbed the enormous quantity of narrative content it has to offer.

Skills sheet

Wonderfully, the game doesn't punish you for taking the inner dialog system all the way to truly outlandish extremes. As a loading screen helpfully suggests, you shouldn't be afraid to make strange choices, because people are less likely to question authority figures such as yourself. You can get away with genuinely absurd shit.

This can seem at odds with the game's generally serious tone and excellent writing, but the latter is exactly why it works, and that juxtaposition — the insane detective taking on a serious murder mystery — makes for a very entertaining experience, including when it causes you to succeed, or fail, in spectacular fashion.

For example, at the start of the game, your low-level skills — combined with an apocalyptic hangover that has left you very vulnerable — can comically let you down. In the very first room where Disco Elysium begins, it's possible to toggle the light too many times and give yourself a heart attack, thus ending the game on the spot. Moments later, you can fall on your face and die while attempting to punch a kid.

Eventually, though your actions continue to have consequences, they're fortunately less likely to outright kill you. The game does a beautiful job of letting you be whoever you want — whether that's a snobby Art Cop, a proselytizing Communist Cop, a Disco Cop on the hunt for the sickest beat in town, or something more sinister.

In short: a masterpiece.

Enter your email to subscribe to updates.