Sunday, 2 August 2020

Retrospective: Hannibal Rising (2007)

Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today's entry we're going to be looking back at 2007's Hannibal Rising, the Anthony Hopkins-less prequel which goes back to Lecter's origins. Could the film succeed without the star which had propelled it for the past 15 years? Read on to find out...

I'm "meh" on this poster. The eye makes for a nice callback to the much better The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal posters and the samurai mask is a clever way to play with series iconography, but there isn't enough here to get me particularly excited. The mere presence of Hannibal Lecter would have to be enough for you to swoon for this to be truly effective.

PRODUCTION
Even prior to the release of Red Dragon, the producers were giving thought on how best to continue their franchise. During interviews to promote Red Dragon, Anthony Hopkins revealed that he had written his own screenplay for a sequel to Hannibal which would have wrapped up the series with Clarice shooting Lecter, but it was never picked up. The future of the franchise was uncertain for many years with the producers going quiet about their plans. Behind the scenes though, Dino de Laurentiis was eager to move forward with a prequel detailing Hannibal's origins. He met with Thomas Harris and threatened to make a prequel without Harris' involvement unless Harris would come up with a story in a timely manner. It is almost certain then that the notoriously slow Thomas Harris rushed out his next novel, Hannibal Rising, in record time to retain creative control, while also writing the accompanying screenplay for the movie adaptation. I was able to find shockingly little information about this film's production history online, even less than Red Dragon, and this seems to be partially by design - the movie was kept a secret until only a few months before release. It seems that this was done in order to use the release of the novel as a springboard to generate hype for the film and prolong the book's own popularity by extension. Even then, very little details were known about the film ahead of time - various incorrect rumours less than 5 months before the film's release touted that the title would be Young Hannibal: Behind the Mask (perhaps changed because of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon?), that Anthony Hopkins would narrate the film, and that its final act would detail the time between Lecter's arrival in America and his capture by Will Graham.

Hannibal Rising would be directed by British director Peter Webber. While not a well-known director, he was coming off of a huge critical success with his debut film Girl With a Pearl Earring and so was an interesting choice. The role of a young Hannibal Lecter would go to French actor Gaspard Ulliel, while the supporting cast would be filled out by Gong Li and such prestigious character actors as Rhys Ifans and Dominic West. After the smaller box office take by Red Dragon, the budget was also scaled back from $78 million to just $50 million.

The first trailer wouldn't drop until mid-December 2006, just a month after the novel's release, with the movie itself set to release less than two months later. Universal passed on distribution of the film this time around and instead it was picked up by The Weinstein Company, hoping to score themselves a hit. It wasn't to be though because critical response to Hannibal Rising was scathing and the film opened to a modest box office take which quickly tapered off, bringing in on $82.2 million at the end of its worldwide gross... but honestly anything that makes Harvey Weinstein unhappy is a win for me.


Friday, 31 July 2020

Retrospective: Red Dragon (2002)

Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today's post we'll be looking at 2002's prequel/remake/cash-in, Red Dragon! After the negative reception of Hannibal, would a more back-to-basics prequel be able to reel in audiences? Read on to find out...

I'm not sure if you could make a more boring poster than this. Oh look, it's Hannibal Lecter! You all love him, right? We'll make sure he takes up 60% of the poster!

PRODUCTION
Frustratingly enough, there's no production history about this movie on Wikipedia or the Hannibal Lecter wiki and I couldn't find a making of featurette with any worthwhile information so I had to get creative and look up production information from way back in 2001 and 2002. Even before the release of Hannibal, Dino and Martha de Laurentiis announced that they were going to remake Red Dragon, emphasizing that Lecter's role in the story would be expanded and there were rumours that Ridley Scott would be back to direct it. Manhunter's critical reevaluation had surged by this point, with even more popularity coming its way with the premiere of CSI and there was some discontent at the idea of remaking the film less than 20 years later. However, given the more than 10 year gap between the publication of The Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter, it was obvious that no new Hannibal Lecter material was going to be produced any time soon so they needed to cash in somehow.

Hannibal's tepid response had soured many critics on the prospect of another outing though, with some saying that he had become a joke and moved into the realm of camp. Perhaps because of this, Ridley Scott didn't return for Red Dragon and the project pivoted in a more serious direction, more akin to The Silence of the Lambs' tone. As if to confirm this direction, Ted Tally returned to write the script after skipping Hannibal due to his objections to the novel's story. It was even rumoured that Jodie Foster may make a cameo appearance, despite the fact that Red Dragon was supposed to take place ten years prior to The Silence of the Lambs and everyone involved had noticeably aged in the interim (an obvious issue which the de Laurentiis brushed off casually). An issue which may have scuppered this idea was that MGM still held the rights to characters exclusive to The Silence of the Lambs, while Red Dragon was exclusively being distributed by Universal.

By the fall of 2001, human garbage pile Brett Ratner (of Rush Hour fame) had signed on to direct the film and a plethora of talent flocked to Tally's script, including Edward Norton as Will Graham, Emily Watson as Reba McClane, Harvey Keitel as Jack Crawford and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie Lounds. Hopkins, of course, would return as Hannibal Lecter, having secured himself an $8 million payday plus 7.5% of the film's profits for a role that is essentially an extended cameo. That just left the role of Francis Dolarhyde in the air. While Sean Penn was in early talks to play the role, Ratner wanted Ralph Fiennes, known at the time for dramatic roles in The English Patient and The End of the Affair, as well as being the antagonist in Schindler's List. In December of 2001, Fiennes won the role and started a hardcore workout regimen to try to get himself into shape - Dolarhyde was supposed to be an intimidating bodybuilder-type and Fiennes (who describes his body shape as "slight") had only a month until shooting began to bulk up, especially because he is completely nude for several of his scenes.

Ladies and gentlemen, you get to see Ralph Fiennes' great red dragon in this movie.

Also worth noting was the return of Manhunter cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who Ratner wanted so badly that he delayed production of the film in order to wait for Spinotti's schedule to open up. While some people questioned by Spinotti would try to shoot the exact same story again, he clarified that he felt like Ted Tally's script changed the feel of the movie; it was more faithful to the book and had a more realistic, grounded style. Faithfulness to the book also extended to the shooting, with Ratner filming on location in the book's environs as much as possible. Production designer Kristi Zea, who had worked on The Silence of the Lambs, was also brought back to try to give Red Dragon a similar feel.

The film released on October 4, 2001 and, while it did fairly well and received mostly positive reviews, it ended up grossing only $209.1 million, a little more than half the numbers Hannibal raked in. It seemed like Lecter fatigue had well and truly set in...

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Retrospective: Hannibal (2001)

Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today's post we'll be looking at the follow-up to the iconic The Silence of the Lambs, 2001's Hannibal! As you may be aware, this film has a... reputation to say the least. Could it live up to its predecessor's legacy? Read on to find out...

I goddamn love this poster. I remember as a kid seeing this in a movie theatre and having my imagination filled with possibilities about what this movie could be about. It's so grimy and creepy, leaving much to the viewer to intuit for themselves and hinting that this is going to be a darker film than its predecessor. It's also nice that it does its own thing while hinting at The Silence of the Lambs' iconic poster design.

PRODUCTION
Even before The Silence of the Lambs was published, Thomas Harris began conceptualizing a sequel where Hannibal was loose in the streets of Europe. However, after the surprise success of the film adaptation, demand for a sequel hit a fever pitch, especially from the owner of the film rights to Hannibal Lecter, producer Dino de Laurentiis. De Laurentiis regretted lending the rights to the character for free for The Silence of the Lambs, but planned on capitalizing on the newfound popularity of the character. He wasn't the only one looking to make bank though and there was soon a mad scramble to get in on the follow-up (better strap in because the production of this movie was fascinating and a good example of why I include production history in these retrospectives in the first place).

First of all Orion Pictures, which had produced The Silence of the Lambs, had been having financial issues for years and filed for bankruptcy in 1991, even before they could celebrate The Silence of the Lambs' history-making Oscar run. This would ultimately result in the studio becoming a subsidiary of MGM, selling all their rights to them in the process, including the rights to the character of Clarice Starling. However, Universal studios chairman Tom Pollock tried to convince de Laurentiis to make the sequel with them instead, with de Laurentiis alleging that they were strong arming him by putting other pictures they were partnered on on the line. This would ultimately be taken to court and when it was settled it was agreed that Universal and MGM would co-distribute the forthcoming sequel.

Of course, this all still up in the air because, despite coming to an agreement, Harris was still working on his follow-up and it would be years before it would be complete. This was back during an era when studios would actually wait for a novelist to write a sequel instead of just forging ahead on their own, as demonstrated with The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Director Jonathan Demme, Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster and screenwriter Ted Tally were all interested in returning for a sequel, with it being rumoured that Hopkins and Foster would each receive a cool $15 million to reprise their Oscar-winning roles. Finally, in 1999, the next novel in the series was published, titled Hannibal. The novel was met with mixed reception, with the main complaints revolving around its twisted violence and the ending, which sees Clarice Starling being drugged by Hannibal, engaging in cannibalism and then running off together in love.


When the details of the story came out, key members of the original film began to drop out. Ted Tally was disappointed with the novel and declined to write the script. Jonathan Demme passed on directing, citing his distaste over how violent it was and his disappointment about how Clarice Starling was handled (reportedly, upon hearing this, de Laurentiis said "when the Pope-a die, we create a new Pope-a. Good luck to Jonathan Demme. Good-bye."). Jodie Foster's refusal to return as Clarice Starling was particularly contentious, with her putting out several excuses talking around why she wasn't reprising her role in the film, from concerns about the story quality, to Demme not returning, to financial concerns (according to de Laurentiis, Foster's agent demanded $20 million and 15% of the gross, which he says caused him to reject her outright). Based on what was said at the time and since, I'd be willing to bet that the main issue was that Foster didn't like how Clarice Starling was being portrayed in Hannibal, with a secondary concern being and that de Laurentiis was going to lowball her pay. Luckily for de Laurentiis, Hopkins was viewed as the crux of the entire project and agreed to return as Hannibal Lecter, otherwise the film probably would have never been made.

Monday, 27 July 2020

Retrospective: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today's post we'll be going over The Big One, The Silence of the Lambs. I mentioned in my review of Manhunter that that film felt dated, in part because it came before this landmark follow-up. Does Silence hold up better? Read on to find out...

I love this poster. It doesn't give you any information about the film itself, it only gives you the title, a chilling mood and some symbolism to go off of, leaving your imagination to fill in the blanks. Also, if you look closely enough, you can see that the Death's-head Moth's skull has been replaced with a photograph of naked women arranged in the shape of a skull by Salvador Dali, further hinting at the film's themes.

PRODUCTION
Sometime after completing Red Dragon, Thomas Harris began work on his next novel, which he decided would revolve around a strong female character. While not initially conceived as a sequel to Red Dragon, Harris' female lead was almost instantly drawn to Lecter and the story developed out from there. The Silence of the Lambs was published in 1988 and was another success for Harris, winning him accolades and once again drawing the attentions of Hollywood. In 1987, prior to the novel's release, prestige production company Orion Pictures (which were coming off a string of Best Picture winners, Dances With Wolves, Platoon and Amadeus) and Gene Hackman secured the rights to adapt the novel, despite Harris' disappointment with Manhunter. However, they also had to negotiate to Dino De Laurentiis to get the rights to use the name "Hannibal Lector", since he still owned these (which makes the fact that they spelled it "Lecktor" in Manhunter even more baffling). Disillusioned due to Manhunter's failures, De Laurentiis lent the rights to Orion and Hackman for free. Perhaps due to Manhunter's underwhelming reception, The Silence of the Lambs would be produced as its own stand-alone film, with references to the events of Manhunter/Red Dragon which were present in the book being omitted. Hackman was initially set to direct and star in the film, but halfway through the first draft of the script he dropped out and the studio had to step in to finance the film and find a replacement director. The job went to Roger Corman alum Jonathan Demme.

Jodie Foster had expressed great interest in the role of Clarice Starling, but was initially turned down by Demme, who approached Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan and Laura Dern instead. However, when these choices didn't work out, Foster secured the role. For Hannibal Lecter, Demme originally considered casting Sean Connery, but he turned the role down (a pattern for Connery, who might be the most comically stupid actor in Hollywood for turning down projects he doesn't understand). The role instead went to Anthony Hopkins. The role of Buffalo Bill went to Ted Levine, who was largely unknown at the time, having played mostly bit parts up until that point.

The FBI cooperated with the production, providing consultation with the actors and even allowing the crew to film at the FBI Academy in Quantico. Hopkins drew inspiration for his iteration of Lecter from studying criminal case files, visiting prisons and presiding during several court cases. Meanwhile, Ted Levine focused on Buffalo Bill's queerness, visiting gay and trans bars and taking as much inspiration from David Bowie as he did from murderers like Ed Gein and Gary Heidnik. This led to the book and the film receiving criticism and protests from feminist, gay and trans activists over the portrayal of Buffalo Bill, who was viewed as demonizing gay and trans people, a reputation which still sours appraisal of the film to this day. In spite of the controversy, The Silence of the Lambs proved to be wildly successful, grossing $272.2 million on a $19 million budget and winning a number of accolades including sweeping the "big five" at the Oscars (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Adapted Screenplay), only the third film in history to do so.


Saturday, 25 July 2020

Retrospective: Manhunter (1986)

If you follow me on Twitter then you may have heard recently that I have been devouring the three seasons of Hannibal which had come to Netflix back in June. I had watched the first season back when it first aired but hadn't had a chance to see the other two so I was more than happy to take any excuse to get caught up. However, when the last episode ended I still hadn't gotten my fill - I needed more before my hunger would be sated. So I decided that I wanted to give Manhunter a shot, a film which I had a DVD copy of for nearly a decade but which had never actually gotten around to seeing. From there, although it wasn't my original intention, the idea of doing a retrospective on the Hannibal Lector films emerged.

Before we get into the meat of this series though, I do want to note that I haven't blogged in quite a while and explain why. In simple terms:
  1. I have a busy work and family life and so what free time I have I have been dedicating to other pursuits, such as other writing projects which I hope to turn into novels one day.
  2. On a related note, this blog really doesn't bring in a lot of traffic. I'm excited if I get, like, a couple hundred views on a post within a month. The most popular posts have views in the hundreds or thousands, but those are usually for obscure movie reviews that don't have a lot of traffic elsewhere or show up high on Google Image searches. Newer posts don't tend to do all that well, which is discouraging and so putting effort into other projects seems like a better use of time.
  3. I like writing these retrospective series (and things like them), but they take a lot of time to write and research for something I don't get any sort of return on other than my own satisfaction. Like, for the slasher showdown back in October, I spent a solid month of evenings watching the entire Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises and half of the Friday the 13th franchise, in addition to writing up short reviews of all the films... that's like 24 movies that I was blitzing through for a project which ended up getting subpar views and basically no reaction. I mean, I enjoyed it regardless and I wanted to see all these movies anyway, but you can see why it would be discouraging and make me prioritize projects elsewhere.
Anyway, that's more or less why I haven't blogged lately. I still check in here frequently, have been working on some future posts and have like a dozen drafts for other potential posts, but this is the one that finally made it out there. Considering that, like I said, I don't really have a regular audience here I doubt anyone particularly cares, but I want to get it out there regardless. So let's get into Manhunter then, shall we?

That is... a poster. I mean, there's nothing wrong with it in particular, but it doesn't get me excited or interested in this movie.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Dark Souls: The Ethics of Linking the Fire

In case I haven't made it obvious yet, I love the Dark Souls franchise. I adore the challenging, clever and strategic gameplay, but just as important to me is the series' lore. FromSoftware have crafted an incredible mythology for these games which, in my opinion, is the main reason why this franchise has had the longevity it enjoys, as it encourages players to dwell on their own theories and piece them together even when they're not actively playing the game. FromSoftware have also baked in an intentional amount of ambiguity, meaning that every player is going to have their own interpretation of the world and events that occur within it. On that point, several months ago Jim Sterling put out a video about his interpretation of the politics in Dark Souls and, while I agree with his interpretation of the lore for the most part, I found it interesting that our ultimate conclusions on how to complete the story differ. I had kind of taken it for granted that my interpretation of how to proceed in Dark Souls and its sequels was "correct", so it was intriguing to see other peoples' takes on how one should proceed in the game. Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that the Dark Souls franchise provides a fantastic case study to explore the philosophy of ethics.


Before we go on, it's worth establishing the basic lore of Dark Souls somewhat in case you're not familiar. In the world of Dark Souls, there was first the Age of Ancients, where immortal dragons ruled the world and nothing really ever changed. Then, one day, fire and souls appeared and the greatest of these souls were claimed by those who would become the four lords - Gwyn the Lord of Sunlight, Nito the Lord of the Dead, the Witch of Izalith and the Furtive Pygmy, possessor of the titular Dark Soul. Gwyn, the most powerful of the lords, kindled the "first flame" and used its power to wage a war against the dragons. The downfall of the dragons ushered in the Age of Fire, with Gwyn as its ruler. However, during all this the Furtive Pygmy split the Dark Soul into fragments, a small piece of which was possessed by every human. The Pygmy knew that one day fire would fade and that this would usher in an Age of Dark, which humanity would now possess. Indeed, while Lord Gwyn's reign was prosperous and saw the establishment of many powerful kingdoms, the first flame did begin to slowly fade, threatening to end his rule over the world. In desperation to prevent this end from occurring, the Witch of Izalith accidentally destroyed herself and her entire kingdom, turning them into demons, while Gwyn ultimately sacrificed his own life to the first flame to restore and prolong the Age of Fire.

The original Dark Souls picks up some time after Gwyn's sacrifice, with the first flame fading once again. As the fire fades, humans have begun being afflicted with the "curse of the undead", which causes humans to be unable to die, but they lose bits and pieces of their humanity and personality until they enter a zombie-like existence as a "hollow". The player takes the role of one of these undead who is tasked with gathering souls to become powerful enough to acquire the four Lord Souls. The driving force behind the player's actions is never quite clear - first, it's a vague prophecy about an undead who will collect souls and end the curse of the undead. Then they are confronted by Gwyn's daughter in Anor Londo, the city of light, and a serpent named Frampt who tell the player to collect the Lord Souls and use them to "link the fire". Ultimately, the player then has to confront Gwyn in the Kiln of the First Flame, where they then are presented with the choice of linking the fire, an act which the player probably still doesn't fully comprehend - which is what brings me to the point of this post. What should the player do at the end of Dark Souls?

There's one more thing that we need to establish before we can answer that question. It's worth mentioning that there is deception at foot in Dark Souls which many players will likely never even realize on a first playthrough (if ever). Anor Londo, the city of the gods, has been abandoned and darkened all this time and Gwynevere, who directs us on our quest, is an illusion. Furthermore, Frampt is not the only serpent out there, for there is another one named Kaathe who tells the player the "truth", that Gwyn usurped the Age of Dark from humanity in order to extend the Age of Fire, a process which he says goes against the natural order of the world. Frampt has been coercing undead to relink the fire through deceptive means and if the undead he was shepherding understood what this meant, they might not be so keen to see it through. In contrast, Kaathe reveals that he's looking for a "Dark Lord" who will rule humanity in this Age of Dark and is hoping that the player character will fulfill this role by slaying Gwyn and rejecting the fire.


Okay, now that we've got all of that out of the way, we can finally start looking at whether the player should link the fire or not. In his video, Jim Sterling talks about how he chooses to not link the fire because he likens it to real-world politics, where the gods are akin to the rich and humanity are akin to the oppressed working class who are exploited to give more power to the rich. In this reading, linking the fire is akin to holding up unequal power structures which are to your detriment. In that scenario, Jim chooses to not link the fire and to tear down the power of the gods in favour of humanity, which is a perfectly valid reading of this scenario. However, even being aware of this deception, I still choose to link the fire in Dark Souls because I believe that this is the most ethical ending.

There are several ethical philosophies that can be applied to try to determine what course of action is the most ethical to pursue. Paul Martin Lester lists and briefly explains six of them on his website: the golden rule, hedonism, the golden mean, the categorical imperative, utilitarianism and the veil of ignorance. For our purposes we will focus on utilitarianism for now, as it is the closest to conventional views of morality. According to the University of Texas' "Ethics Unwrapped", utilitarianism is a moral philosophy where "the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number [of people]". You may look at this and wonder how linking the fire produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people, especially since we have already revealed that the prolonging of the Age of Fire benefits the gods, while humanity is meant to inherit the Age of Dark. However, there is a key factor worth considering here - when he established the Age of Fire, Gwyn linked humanity's souls to the first flame, thus bringing about the curse of the undead and hollowed states. The undead may actually be intended to be humanity's natural state in an Age of Dark, but the Age of Fire has made it into an awful state of being which collapses societies and tears away the self. We see this many times over the course of the games, as colourful characters such as Solaire of Astora, Siegward of Catarina, Lucatiel of Mirrah and the crestfallen knight slowly lose themselves to hollowing, a condition that becomes more and more prevalent in society as the fire fades. As a result, the longer that the fire is allowed to fade, the more disruptive the curse of the undead is going to be for the lives of humans everywhere and the more people who are going to lose their humanity. When viewed this way, linking the fire is clearly going to cause the least disruption to the lives of the people, especially if it is done sooner rather than later.

The whole Frampt vs Kaathe debate is also worth a second look when deciding whether to link the fire. At first glance, most players who encounter Kaathe are going to assume that he's he one telling the truth about the world and the player's situation and therefore has your best interests in mind when he tells you not to link the fire. However, it's worth noting that Kaathe is a foil to Frampt and that both of the primordial serpents are kingseekers - Frampt wants to find a successor to Gwyn to link the fire, whereas Kaathe wants to crown a "dark lord" to usurp Gwyn's throne. As the player, that works fantastically for you, since you spend the whole game collecting souls and becoming (likely) the most powerful being in this world. However, is having one powerful overlord really the best option for humanity in the end, or is it better for humanity if one powerful individual is sacrificed instead to keep their way of life intact? Are we better off with another Gwyn-like figure ruling this Age of Dark, only more powerful since he or she has absorbed all of the lord souls? We, of course, don't really have an answer to this question, but it's worth keeping in mind when appraising the situation - we can't assume that Kaathe has the best interests of humanity in mind and, while it's great for us as the player that we could be the most powerful being in the world, it may not be the best situation for everyone else. As a result, Frampt's deception is likely warranted, as a being strong enough to link the fire is extremely unlikely to do so willingly. We actually see this play out several times in Dark Souls III, where the truth of the linking of the fire has become common knowledge and the man tasked to link the fire rejects his calling. Not only that, but three of the four resurrected Lords of Cinder who have already linked the fire once before reject the call and refuse to go through with linking a second time (not to mention that Aldrich was forced to link the fire the first time and Ludleth of Courland vividly recounts the pain involved in the experience, so there's little wonder why they don't volunteer to go through with it again). One can easily see how this deception would be necessary to convince the most powerful being in the realm to unwittingly volunteer to give up their power (and life) to link the fire.


Since the Age of Dark is supposed to be the time of humanity, wouldn't that inevitably be the best for humans though? This is, unfortunately, an answer that we simply don't know based on the lore that From Software have given us. This is, as "Ethics Unwrapped" puts it, a drawback of utilitarianism: "because we cannot predict the future, it’s difficult to know with certainty whether the consequences of our actions will be good or bad." In the Dark Souls franchise, we simply do not know what an Age of Dark is actually like. The closest we get is the Untended Graves in Dark Souls III, which seem to portray a dim future in which an Age of Dark has fallen (although this is definitely debatable). Since we can't even conclusively look to the Untended Graves for an Age of Dark, we only really have the Abyss to go off of. The Abyss is a place in Dark Souls which seems to have some connection to the true nature of the Dark Soul and humanity. The Abyss spreads across lands and swallows them up. The Abyss is so corrupting and dangerous that we know of three entire kingdoms (Oolacile, New Londo and Carthus) who have succumbed to it have to be destroyed and contained to stop its spread. It's worth noting that Kaathe is heavily implied to have been behind the spreading of The Abyss in Oolacile and New Londo, further suggesting that it plays some sort of role in his quest for a dark lord. The results aren't pretty though - the people who come into contact with The Abyss all go mad and/or have their bodies twisted into monstrous forms. As one goes deeper into The Abyss, they find numerous mysterious, incorporeal phantoms which are clearly meant to symbolize humanity. Whether these are the souls of the people who have been swallowed up by The Abyss or a more base form of humanity is up for interpretation, but all that is certain is that they drain the player's life force on contact. It's also worth noting that, in the original Dark Souls' DLC, The Abyss seems to stem from the unrestrained desires of Manus, thought by some to be the Furtive Pygmy himself and perhaps Kaathe's original candidate for dark lord. This lends further credence to the idea that the dark lord is just the most powerful being of their age, one who can shape people and the world around them with their overwhelming dominance. There is so much ambiguity about The Abyss and the Age of Dark though that it's hard to make a concrete judgment call on them. Is everyone living a terrible existence, but humans are living the least-terrible existence of them all? Is life as a humanity phantom or a maddened, misshapen monster really all that bad? I can't say that The Abyss is bad with absolute certainty, but it is clear that to bring about an Age of Dark would change our fundamental understanding of human life. In my opinion, the risks are not worth it, especially since we know that life in the Age of Fire is perfectly fine for humans.

That's the situation in the original Dark Souls, but what about Dark Souls II? Should the player ascend the Throne of Want, or turn their back on it? There are a couple new elements introduced in this game which are worth taking into consideration. First, the concept of cycles is introduced. Dark Souls II reveals that there is a constant back-and-forth of ages of fire and dark. As a result, we discover that even if you did embrace an Age of Dark in the original game's ending, the fire returns eventually and all of this will have played out again. Considering that the curse of the undead still persists, this would suggest that humanity is still linked to the fire and that these cycles of the Age of Dark aren't even beneficial for humans, further giving fuel to the idea that linking the fire is the safest choice. In Dark Souls II, Aldia calls the linking of humanity to the first flame "the first sin" and says it has corrupted the natural order of the world - however, until humanity can be unlinked from the fire, it is unavoidable. However, just because something is natural, that doesn't mean it is therefore the right or best option and Aldia knows it, as he rages in search of a solution to this problem.


The other variable worth taking into consideration in Dark Souls II is the theme of kings and their queens of Dark. Dark Souls II reveals that the defeat of Manus split his soul into fragments which became four granddaughters. These granddaughters would seek out kings, the most powerful people in the land, and seek to corrupt them and eventually take the first flame for themselves. Unfortunately for them, their corrupting influence would eventually be the downfall of each kingdom before their efforts could come to fruition, leaving only ruins or kingdoms in decline. Interestingly enough, by taking the crowns of each of the lords, you can actually stave off the effects of hollowing - it doesn't cure or end the curse, but it is a way to freeze it in place and effectively become a god of the Light and the Dark. In Dark Souls II, your ultimate goal is to take the kingdom of Drangleic for yourself and Queen Nashandra is your final opponent. In this game, it is explicitly the Dark which is manipulating you, as Nashandra is waiting for you to be powerful enough to take the throne before swooping in to take it for herself.

So, with Nashandra defeated, do you then sit on the throne and therefore link the fire? The answer feels simpler, yet more ambiguous than it did in the first game. The Throne of Want is analogous to the First Flame, but the exact effects of sitting on it are uncertain - unlike Dark Souls where you become human kindling, in Dark Souls II the ending implies that you'll establish your own kingdom. Or, if you choose to forgo the Throne of Want, you'll allow an Age of Dark to take hold once again. Considering the journey of this game, the ending where you take the throne is far more satisfying. I'd also argue that, since humanity is still linked to the fire, taking the throne is the best option in order to stave off the curse of the undead once more.


Finally, we have Dark Souls III, where things have taken an interesting turn. In this game, the fire has been linked so many times that each successive linking has produced a shorter and shorter Age of Fire, and now the fire itself is nearly spent. It's gotten to the point where the heir meant to link the fire refuses, figures who have previously linked the fire are resurrected and also refuse to link it again, and so people who failed to link the fire before are resurrected to try to get them to link it. The situation is so bad that space and time itself has become reshaped and distorted, desperately trying to bring about the linking of the fire that has become so fundamental to existence. Dark Souls III has several possible endings, but once again the "right" ending seems much clearer than in the first game. However, the variety of endings allow us to explore some of the other ethical philosophies in more detail.

There's only one ending which allows the player to link the fire, but the flame has become so feeble that it merely dances along their arms, instead of becoming a surging conflagration like in the first game. It's clear that the fire's power has faded almost entirely and that this act of linking at this point it is functionally pointless. However, this ending could be viewed as the "categorical imperative" ending. In the ethical philosophy of the categorical imperative, once something has been established as "right", it should always be done and there are no excuses not to not perform this action. Since the linking the fire has long been established as the "right" thing to do, it should be linked regardless of the long-term benefits (after all, have we not been looking down on Prince Lothric all this time for not linking the fire to begin with?). However, I personally find this ethical philosophy far too restrictive and inadequate. From a utilitarian perspective, since the fire is spent the curse is already wracking humanity, and the world itself has twisted to try to relight the flame - it's clear that the time to link the fire has past and that embracing the Age of Dark is the only option left to us (in fact, considering that the Age of Fire was becoming shorter and the curse of the undead more frequent, the most ethical thing to do would probably have been to embrace it sooner than this). So, what options does the game give us to bring this about?

In the normal ending, the player summons the fire keeper to snuff out the first flame. She reveals that although an Age of Dark is now settling, eventually fire will come again anew. Perhaps this will be a new flame, no longer linked to humanity. This seems to me like it is the most ethical of the endings from a utilitarian perspective, since it severs humanity's ties to the first flame and allows the Age of Dark to finally settle in on its own merits. It also gets around the problem we had in the original Dark Souls of one extremely powerful being dictating the flow of this age - a new Gwyn, using their power to extend the Age of Dark in the same manner that the Age of Fire has been unnaturally extended. This ending could also be seen as the "golden mean" ending. The golden mean ethical philosophy posits that the most ethical approach is to find a middle ground between two extremes (in this case, linking the fire and becoming the Dark Lord). Since you have chosen to not link the fire, but have not become the new lord of the Age of Dark, this ending strikes about as close to a middle ground as possible. The fact that this ending satisfies two different ethical philosophies is just further evidence that it's probably the best outcome for this world.

There's also a secret ending where, just before the fire keeper snuffs out the fire, the player betrays her and steals the last of the flame in the final seconds. It's the kind of ending you take if you're roleplaying a complete bastard who is collecting souls, any soul, to empower themselves at the expense of everyone else. One could view this as a particularly nasty "hedonism" ending. In ethical philosophy, hedonism posits that the most moral thing to do is to maximize pleasure while you can, because you don't know what tomorrow may bring. In the dark and brutish world of Dark Souls, your character has been slaying people and collecting their souls to empower themselves all game and with your journey at its end, there really isn't any reason not to just collect one more soul from this viewpoint. That said, obviously, viewed from any other ethical philosophy (not to mention conventional morality), this is by far the most unethical ending in the game.


Perhaps the most interesting ending involves completing a quest for the Sable Church of Londor, a coven of undead. During the course of gameplay, you can discover that the Sable Church are dedicated to fulfilling the legacy of Kaathe and want you to become the Dark Lord. Knowing this, it is perhaps unsurprising that if you choose this ending then you absorb the remaining power of the first flame into yourself and bring about an Age of Dark with yourself as its appointed Dark Lord. However, the ethics of this ending are dubious - not only do you have to marry and then kill Anri of Astora to bring it about, but the ultimate implications of this ending are left up to the player to interpret. As a result, this ending could be categorized as hedonistic or utilitarian, depending on how you imagine your rule as Dark Lord will play out. Interestingly enough, the eclipsed sun which has been in the sky throughout the late game turns into a pale, dark eclipse upon your ascension to Dark Lord, perhaps signifying that you have indeed become the Dark foil to Gwyn and your legacy may mirror his. Knowing this, allowing the fire keeper to snuff out the flame is probably the most conventionally-ethical option since it keeps the most people on an even footing, but the Dark Lord ending is the most interesting in my opinion.

Considering how much interpretation is involved in Dark Souls, a clear "ideal" solution is almost impossible to declare definitively. A Dark Lord ending may indeed be the best possible ending if you decide that your character will rule benevolently and not make the same mistakes as Gwyn. Similarly, not linking the fire may be best if you believe that it will end the cure of the undead - again, we just don't know and it's up to your interpretation of that ending to decide. This interpretation and debating over the lore and its implications is a major factor in Dark Souls' enduring popularity - as I said in my Love/Hate article on the series, the original game has been eclipsed in terms of performance, gameplay and challenge, but the world it has created is damn-near unparalleled and makes this game still stand out to this day.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

15 Best Movie Posters of 2019

Welcome back to the annual, year-end countdown of the best movie posters of the year! And just like that, this is now officially an annual thing! I've been browsing impawards throughout the year, keeping an eye out for eye-catching, interesting posters and saving them for later. Suffice to say, I had a bunch of posters to sift through and narrowing this down to a top 15 was difficult (not least of all because new posters are released all the time so I couldn't even begin to narrow the list down until the start of September). Also, starting this year I'm going to be giving extra consideration towards posters which are actually intended for mass distribution rather than posters which are intended to be artistic but very limited in their reach. I mean, this Dark Phoenix poster is really cool, but it's also clearly a poster you're never going to see if you go to a theatre. I'm still going to consider these kinds of posters if they're really good, but I find it more impressive when a poster which is meant to sell general audiences on the film does something particularly artistic or interesting.

Anyway, with those considerations out of the way, let's get onto the list! As usual, you can see the full-sized poster in all its glory if you click on the images.

Honourable Mentions
While Disney absolutely destroyed the competition at the box office this year, their posters were, by and large, very mediocre and lifeless. This poster for Frozen II was one of the few exceptions, with its interesting use of colour and reflections hinting at the plot and feel of the film. It ultimately just missed the list, but it was definitely worth mentioning.

This is another entry which could have easily made the list if the competition wasn't quite so fierce. It's got such a creepy design already and then as your eye gets drawn upwards you realize that the trees have been arranged in such a way that they spell "FEED". I like this poster a lot, it looks way better than a gritty, Grimms fairy tale adaptation should.

Having seen Us, I like this poster quite a bit with its minimalist design resembling a Rorschach blot, but with the right side missing bits which hint at the film's psycho doppelganger premise. It gets across the idea of the film very well, but I feel like it's just a bit too subtle to really be appreciated unless you've actually seen the film first.