Man vs Snake – a review

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I like pinball. I played Pong when it first came out. And I can count on one hand the number of video games I have played in my life…including Pong (others involve Star Wars or strip poker).

Thus, when I was asked by a friend to review the documentary Man vs. Snake: A Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler—recently released on Netflix—I seriously questioned our friendship.

nibbler

If Centipede and Pac-Man had a child

For the uninitiated, like me, Nibbler looks like the bastard love-child of Centipede and Pac-Man, and essentially involves an ever-lengthening snake that courses around obstacles gobbling energy packets while trying not to bite its own tail. In short, a joy-sticker’s wet dream and yet a game from the heyday of arcades that few knew existed.

What set this game apart from the others, however, was that its scoreboard included nine digits, so a score of one billion was possible. Yeah, this set my spine tingling as well.

The man in question is actually four men.

Back in the early 80s, teenage Tim McVey—not the terrorist, the documentary points out—played two days on one quarter and broke the billion-point barrier, under the watchful eye of local oddball and arcade owner Walter Day. Woohoo!! And for years, that was the end of the story; McVey’s singular claim to fame.

Until an Italian man claimed to have broken McVey’s record as a boy, holding the unofficial record for 25 years. Day refused to acknowledge the record. McVey refused to acknowledge the record. But to clear the slate, McVey determined to break the Italian’s score and make the whole argument moot.

And this is where the meat of the documentary takes place…McVey’s desperate attempt to reclaim his title, and quickly coming to grips with the fact (and joy-stick) that his body is not what it was as a teenager.

Oh, and the fourth man is Canadian gamer Dwayne Richard, who kind of joins McVey’s journey as sparring partner.

As documentaries go, this one is pretty well constructed. It has a strong narrative stream in the redemption story and the sparring that becomes a bit more personal. It has strong personalities in the four men and their support networks.

Unfortunately, it was too reminiscent of my own late teens/early 20s watching friends play Mario Brothers, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, etc. Boring.

It was like the movie 127 Hours, but with your hand stuck on a joy-stick rather than under a boulder.

Intellectually, I get the various stories here…the archetypes. But I cared not a single whit as to whether these guys broke the records, and therefore never invested in the players emotionally. They were simply too abstract and surreal for me to care, and the stakes were meaningless.

Note: The documentarians did a very good job of highlighting these eccentricities while being respectful of the people.

then-v-now

Game competitions have changed in 20 years

I understand that the video game world has completely changed in the last decade to become very much an international spectator sport. Nibbler is very much NOT of that era.

But if you want to watch a handful of middle-aged men obsess over an arcade console for 90 minutes or so, this might just be a documentary for you.

Much war, little craft

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It is important to start this review of the movie Warcraft by stating: 1) I do not play video games; and 2) I like fully self-contained movies.

I went into seeing Warcraft with incredibly low expectations (perhaps unfair) and walked out having those expectations largely met and perhaps slightly exceeded.

Based on the video game series of the same name, Warcraft tells the story of Orcs determined to take over a new world because their own has died, possibly due to a malevolent force harnessed by their leader. The residents of the new world—populations of elves, mages, dwarves and humans—however, aren’t willing to lose their world…or at least the humans aren’t, and so fight back with the help of The Guardian, a wizard of immense power who lives in a tower and who is dealing with his own problems.

And while most of the movie is the playing out of this conflict, there is also an underlying mystery of what this malevolent force is, which leads to an Orc chieftain questioning the morality of the proposed genocides, and a couple of father-son/mentor-student relationships to suss out.

You may notice that in this description, I have offered no character names but rather simply archetypes. That’s because none of the characters is particularly memorable, nor is much of the movie. Perhaps if I had a greater familiarity with the game, much of this film would fall into place for me, but without that, the movie is mostly just a series of tropes with dialogue so wooden, the average porn filmmaker would be aghast.

Perhaps this is racist (specie-ist?), but I struggled to tell one Orc character from another, in part, because none of them had any personality much beyond “Hulk smash”. Thus, when an Orc would rampage into a scene, I had no emotional cues and so simply sat as a witness to events rather than being a participant. And even where I could recognize specific Orcs—the aforementioned chieftain and leader—the characters tended to be so two-dimensional (despite shelling out $20 for IMAX 3-D) that again, I was left cold.

Manly men

Three men and a movie reviewer (also a men)

The human characters weren’t a lot better. All the men look like my friend Danny, with whom I saw the movie, and women were almost non-existent. I do, however, have to give the filmmakers credit on two fronts here. First, although most of the humans were Caucasian, there were several of other ethnicities. And none of the female characters (I repeat NONE) were damsels by any measure. Each of the women, whether Orc, human or somewhere in between, were women of conviction and empowerment.

As to the plot, my biggest beef was that the writers seemed to simply drop in a device whenever they needed it to move the story forward, without any contextualization. I’d like to give you some concrete examples, but any of the major ones would, ironically, be spoilers. Suffice it to say, you are advised to check your credulity when you pick up your 3-D glasses.

Everything that occurs in this story was much better covered in Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and Stargate…and The Ten Commandments.

But, in a strange way, that may end up being Warcraft’s saving grace as it frees the audience from having to participate in the story. Instead, you can just sit back and let the movie dance on your retinas, which is about as deep as it will go.

And this is possibly the one way in which Warcraft actually exceeded my expectations: it was visually captivating. The animation was incredibly good, with the Orc characters seemingly as real as the human actors. The fur of the giant wolves looked soft and the body movements of the griffins entirely plausible. Stylistically, I would put this movie in the realm of Avatar rather than Lord of the Rings.

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But back to the second point I raised at the start: self-contained movies.

Everything about Warcraft seemed to be designed to set up the myriad sequels that will be made, a trend in Hollywood blockbusters (and block-blowouts) that pisses me off. If nothing else, it shows complete disdain for the audience as it says “We really don’t care if you like the movie.”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have an issue with sequels and spin-offs in general. But when I go to a movie, I want to see an entire story play out, rather than have to wait for the next installment or rely on having seen the previous installment to understand the story (looking at you, Avengers).

This is one of the reasons why I am possibly the only person on the planet (this one, at least) who found The Empire Strikes Back to be lacking. It was a placeholder or bridge to The Return of the Jedi, nothing more.

Will I be back for Warcraftier: Where’s Your Messiah Now?

Not unless someone else is paying me to watch it…and for some reason, my online mahjongg isn’t working…and it’s raining or something.

 

See also:

Movie review: Warcraft by Danny F. Santos