Review: “Virtuosity” (Film)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a film that I’ve been meaning to watch for quite a while. I am, of course talking about the 1995 sci-fi action movie “Virtuosity”.

If I remember rightly, I ended up finding this film back in either 2016 or 2017 when I was going through more of a cyberpunk phase than usual (and trying to find as many things in this genre as I could). Although I ended up getting a DVD of it back then, I got distracted by other stuff and it ended up languishing on my “to watch” pile until shortly before this review.

So, let’s take a look at “Virtuosity”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS (and the film itself contains some FLICKERING LIGHTS, although I don’t know whether they’re fast/intense enough to cause a problem for some viewers).

The film begins with a uniformed policeman called Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) and another cop getting off of a train in a city filled with eerily similar-looking businesspeople. They are looking for a suspect. As they run through the pristine streets, the walls distort slightly. When they find the suspect – Sid (Russell Crowe) – a frantic gun battle begins between them. However, things start to go wrong and Sid quickly gains the upper hand.

It is then revealed that this is a VR police training simulation, developed by a large tech company, that is currently undergoing testing on convicts before being put into service. One of the convicts dies from a brain overload after being killed by Sid – an A.I. program based on the personalities of history’s worst murderers – in the simulation. The police chief, who is watching the demonstration, orders the program to be shut down before Sid fries Parker’s brain too.

And, yes, there is dialogue about how there are supposed to be safety features in the program. Which Sid has somehow overridden.

Parker – an ex-cop who has been jailed for seventeen years after taking violent revenge on the person who murdered his family – is returned to prison. The prison’s cruel guards deliberately send him to a general wing of the prison where, as an ex-cop, he is hated by the prisoners. After winning a fight with a far-right hooligan who has been suspiciously let into the hallway between the cells, Parker is later interviewed by a criminal psychologist called Dr. Madison Carter (Kelly Lynch), who is researching a book.

Meanwhile, the head of the tech company has a conversation with Sid and – for some bizarre reason – decides to find a way to allow him to exist in the real world. After tricking a nanotechnology researcher with a seductive A.I. program called Sheila, the company boss substitutes Sheila’s program with Sid’s. When a robotic clone of Sid emerges from the incubation chamber, he kills the researcher and leaves the facility in order to carry out a series of ever more vicious and sadistic crimes.

The police need someone to deal with Sid. Since Parker was the only one who stood a chance against him in the simulation, they offer him a pardon in return for stopping Sid…

Reluctantly, he accepts it. After all, it would be a rather boring film if he didn’t.

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it’s a reasonably fun and vaguely cyberpunk-influenced 1990s action movie. Imagine a mixture of “Demolition Man” and “Terminator 2”, but with a slightly lower budget and a slightly grittier atmosphere and this should give you some idea what to expect.

In terms of the film’s sci-fi elements, they’re fairly interesting in a retro-futuristic kind of way 🙂 This film is set in a very 1990s version of the future where realistic virtual reality, advanced fifty terabyte A.I. programs, data crystals, sophisticated bionic limbs and humanoid robots that can self-repair by absorbing glass into their bodies sit alongside CRT computer monitors, low-polygon CGI and old-school broadcast television. It’s a really interesting contrast and it gives the film a wonderfully ’90s atmosphere 🙂

There isn’t a single mobile phone in sight, but there are bulky video-screen payphones 🙂 I love 1990s sci-fi 🙂

Interestingly, this film uses the phrase “Interactive Sandbox” two years before the first “Grand Theft Auto” game was released.

Still, although the film takes some thematic influence from the cyberpunk genre – with self-aware A.I and amoral tech companies being major parts of the story – the film is probably more of an exploration of the nature of evil, infamy and narcissism. Throughout the film, Sid always wants a larger audience for his crimes (even going to the point of creating a TV show called “Death TV”) and, when watched today, it is hard not to see this as some kind of eerily prescient satire of the “attention economy”, social media in general etc….

But, given the controversies of the time, this was probably originally intended as more of a satire of violence in the media – with Sid giving a content warning about how “Death TV” is unsuitable for younger viewers, before cheerfully informing the rest of the audience that they won’t be able to look away. The film’s old-school satire of media violence also extends to the way that Sid often treats reality like a computer game and the way that at least one of his murders is shown to be a “copycat crime” based on an infamous serial killer.

But, saying this, this film is much more of an entertaining action film than a “serious” sci-fi movie. And, in this regard, it works really well. Not only does Parker have to deal with inner conflict about his past and obstructive bureaucracy, but Sid is also a suitably formidable adversary for him to fight too.

The film’s decision to allow Sid to heal by absorbing glass into his body creates a really good balance between making him an unstoppable Terminator-style villain and actually giving Parker a fighting chance against him.

Not to mention that the scenes where Sid heals are both hilarious and creepy at the same time.

Although this film contains some fairly dramatic and well-choreographed fight sequences and car chases, it’s probably slightly more of a suspense thriller in some regards. Throughout the film, Parker is playing a game of cat and mouse with Sid – with the balance of power between them shifting throughout the film. The film also adds to this by giving both characters very different motivations, with Parker wanting some way to either avenge his family’s death again and/or clear his name and Sid gleefully treating the whole thing like a game.

Again, this film came out two years before the first “Grand Theft Auto” game. So much for videogames being a “corrupting influence”.

Even though some of this suspense can get fairly predictable or cliched at times, it’s still really refreshing to see an action movie that focuses slightly more on a suspenseful premise and a carefully-calculated battle of wits between two characters in this age of hollow CGI spectacles.

Plus, unlike more modern and sanitised “PG-13” action movies, the fight scenes and car chases here actually have a bit of dramatic weight to them thanks to the fact that they make heavy use of practical effects and don’t really shy away from the painful emotional and physical consequences of violence.

Still, this film’s thriller elements do come at the expense of story to a certain degree. Yes, the film takes a bit of time to show us Parker’s tragic backstory and to give him some characterisation, but if you’re expecting a more contemplative or cerebral sci-fi thriller (like the original “Ghost In The Shell”), then you’re going to be disappointed. Not only are a few plot elements incredibly contrived, but the film’s pacing is slightly too fast too. Yes, it’s an action movie, but the film’s futuristic atmosphere and characterisation suffers slightly because of the relative paucity of slower-paced and more contemplative moments to counterpoint the frantic action and suspense.

Yes, there are some slower-paced and more serious character-based moments. But, not really as many as you might expect.

Plus, although this film tries to be a bit of a detective movie – with Parker and Madison visiting crime scenes and looking for clues about where Sid might be – this element of the film feels somewhat under-developed. Thanks to the faster pacing, they often seem to pretty much instantly work out the answers (which are always correct) without the kind of contemplative uncertainty and methodical investigation that makes the detective genre so compelling and suspenseful.

Yes, it’s good that the film shows Parker and Madison actually investigating crime scenes – but this is very much an action/thriller movie rather than a detective story.

As for the special effects, they’re reasonably good. Yes, the CGI effects look very old – but the film-makers made the sensible decision to only use them when absolutely necessary to the plot, allowing them to serve a narrative/dramatic purpose that helps to distract from their shortcomings.

Still, for the most part, this film makes use of timeless practical effects 🙂 Although the film’s action sequences feel very slightly more “low budget” than other blockbuster films from the age, they are still reasonably dramatic. Not to mention that the film’s practical effects are at their best during the more “sci-fi” moments – such as when Sid emerges from some kind of bio-pod after taking physical form.

The film’s effects are at their best when they are practical and sci-fi based.

And, even though the CGI looks really old, it still works because it is only used when absolutely necessary. Modern films take note of this!

As for the characters and acting, this film is really good. Although some story elements are rather cliched and stylised, the main cast handle the material really well. Denzel Washington plays an ex-cop with a morally-ambiguous past who is trying to get both redemption and revenge,with just the right mixture of tragic bitterness and sympathetic “goodness”. Kelly Lynch plays a fairly “realistic” psychologist/detective character and Russell Crowe plays Sid with cartoonishly villainous glee (which also helps to add some dark comedy to this rather gritty and serious film too).

The film’s set design and lighting is reasonably good too. The futuristic version of LA is kept fairly understated (basically just being 1990s LA, but with slicker architecture and a few well-placed pieces of “futuristic” tech), and the film also includes lots of the kind of gloomily industrial and gothic “futuristic” 1990s cyberpunk-style locations that are always fun to look at.

Although the futuristic version of LA looks a lot like 1990s LA…

…there are still some cool-looking 1980s/90s sci-fi style locations too 🙂

All in all, this is a fun action movie with a bit of a cyberpunk flavour to it. Yes, it’s slightly too fast-paced and a little bit cliched/predictable at times, but If you’re a fan of 1990s sci-fi or just want to see an action movie from a time before sanitised spectacle and over-used CGI became common, then this one might be worth watching.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

Review: “Practical Magic” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Well, due to hot weather and the fact that I was feeling less enthusiastic about reading than usual, I thought that it was time to take a look at a book I’ve been meaning to read for about two years. I am, of course, talking about Alice Hoffman’s 1995 novel “Practical Magic”, which I first became aware of when I watched the film adaptation during a “1990s films” phase I went through a couple of years ago.

Anyway, second-hand copies of “Practical Magic” were a bit on the expensive side of things for a while and I ended up reading a few other Hoffman novels instead. But, shortly after reading Hoffman’s excellent 2017 prequel novel to “Practical Magic”, I looked online again and noticed that second-hand copies of “Practical Magic” had come down in price 🙂 So, I’ve been waiting for a chance to finally read this book.

So, let’s take a look at “Practical Magic”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Scribner (UK) paperback edition of “Practical Magic” that I read.

The novel begins in rurual Massachussetts with a description of the Owens House, an old house lived in by two eccentric sisters called Frances and Jet who – like their ancestors – are believed to be unlucky. They have recently adopted their two young nieces, Sally and Gillian, after they became orphaned following a fire. The two girls grow up, going from being feared by the locals to being either respected or admired by them. When Gillian is eighteen, she has had enough of the town and sneaks out in the middle of the night to travel across America and meet a string of lovers.

Sally, on the other hand, is much less adventurous and stays at the Owens House with her aunts. A while later, she ends up meeting a local man called Michael and marrying him. They have two daughters – Kylie and Antonia – and things are going well until Sally starts to notice a number of strange omens. An odd feeling in the air. The clicking of death-watch beetles. Sometime later, Michael is killed in a car accident.

After a year of intense depression and mourning, Sally eventually decides to move to a suburb near New York with her daughters. The next few years pass and life is fairly normal, despite the fact that both of Sally’s daughters become teenagers and life becomes more chaotic as a result. Then, out of the blue, Sally suddenly gets an ominous feeling of foreboding one night.

To her surprise, Gillian knocks on the door. She needs Sally’s help. The body of her violent ex-boyfriend Jimmy is in the car and she needs somewhere to bury it…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is very different to the film adaptation. It’s an absolutely great book but, if you’re expecting a quirky “feel-good” dark comedy, then you might be disappointed. Hoffman’s original novel is a much more atmospheric, complex (in almost every way), creepy, bittersweet and intense story than the Hollywood movie that it got turned into. It’s this really interesting mixture of drama, horror fiction, literary fiction and romance that is fairly unique 🙂

Thematically, this is a novel about family, ageing, romance and magic. The novel focuses on three generations of Owens sisters, where each generation seems to influence the subsequent generation in strange and unexpected ways. Yet, each generation seems to have some things in common with each other despite sometimes trying to distance themselves from or define themselves against their older relatives. Characters’ personalities also change in unexpected ways as they grow older too. The novel also presents the weird mixture of friendship and friction within families in a reasonably realistic way too.

As for the novel’s romance elements, it portrays love as a capricious, intense thing that drives people to obsession, ruin and/or uncharacteristic behaviour. In this story, love is just as likely to bring misery as it is to bring happiness. Love in this novel is also much closer to overwhelming lust than romantic love in a lot of ways, which also adds a bit of steaminess, horror and/or intrigue to various parts of the story too.

This unusual – and sometimes scary- portrayal of love also links into the story’s theme of magic. This is less prominent than in the film, with the novel’s magical elements being portrayed in a slightly mysterious way and mostly consisting of things like omens, auras, folk traditions and occasionally spells. This understatement and mystery helps to lend a sense of realism to these magical parts of the story, whilst also giving everything an intriguingly fantastical atmosphere.

And, yes, this novel has atmosphere 🙂 It is this wonderfully intriguing mixture of modern gothic (with old houses, ominous moods etc..) and a slightly more “realistic” version of the type of timeless, stylised, rose-tinted 1950s-70s style American suburbia that turns up in fiction quite often. This is difficult to describe well, but this novel walks a brilliantly fine line between being a place where you want to relax in and a place that feels anything but relaxed.

So, I should probably talk about the novel’s horror elements. Although I’m hesitant to call it a “horror novel”, it certainly has some rather creepy moments of horror. These are both grittier and more understated than in the film and they include things like a tragic/gothic atmosphere, quite a few ominously foreboding moments, obsession, ghost horror, criminal horror, love spells gone wrong and a few menacing background characters. Although these moments are also there to make a few scenes feel happier or more reassuring by contrast, they lend the story a much darker atmosphere than the film adaptation and can certainly catch you by surprise.

Plus, unlike the film, the novel’s moments of supernatural horror are a little more on the slow-building, creeping and understated side of things and are also paired with a few more “realistic” moments of horror and tragedy too. All of this also helps to lend the novel a much creepier and more intense atmosphere than you might expect if you’ve seen the film.

On a side-note, another difference between the book and the film is in the locations. In short, the Owens House is much more of a major location in the film – with the majority of the book taking place in a suburb/small town near New York instead. Surprisingly, this works well with the novel’s horror elements – since it makes them feel more “realistic” rather than stylised and gothic. Likewise, because a lot of the novel takes place in “ordinary” suburbia, the scenes involving the Owens House also feel more atmospheric, otherworldly and intriguing by contrast too.

In terms of the characters, they are superb. As you might expect from an Alice Hoffman novel, they are both incredibly realistic and slightly stylised/quirky at the same time. All of the characters have realistically complicated flaws, emotions, anxieties, desires, motivations and personalities. A lot of the novel is about the relationships between the various characters, which also provides a lot of the story’s drama too. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation in this novel highly enough 🙂

Interestingly, unlike the film, the differences between Sally and Gillian are a lot more pronounced – with Gillian being more free-spirited and Sally being much more “boring” (for want of a better word). This contrast between the two characters works really well, even if it means that there are more argument scenes than you might expect and – for parts of the novel – Sally comes across as being a rather grumpy and unlikable character.

Another interesting difference from the film is that Sally’s daughters are pretty much the main characters during large parts of the novel, with the two aunts also being more like background characters than I’d expected them to be. Still, given that I’ve read the excellent prequel novel (“The Rules Of Magic”), the relative lack of characterisation for the aunts didn’t bother me too much. Still, despite this, they still get a fairly decent amount of characterisation during the relatively few scenes that they appear in.

As for the writing, it is spectacular as always 🙂 If you’ve ever read an Alice Hoffman novel, you’ll know what I’m talking about here. This novel’s third-person narration is written in this wonderfully flowing and poetic way that is both informal enough to be easily readable whilst also containing a level of personality and description that wouldn’t be out of place in a literary novel. Even if this story doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, this novel (or any Alice Hoffman novel) is well worth reading just for the sheer quality of the writing alone.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a reasonably efficient 278 pages in length, it never really feels too long. Likewise, thanks to the presence of several sub-plots and the way that the writing style flows, the story never really feels too “slow-paced”, even though it is very much a small-scale drama story (with horror and romance elements) rather than any kind of thriller novel. In short, whilst you shouldn’t expect to blaze through this novel ultra-quickly, it will never really feel slow either.

As for how well this twenty-five year old novel has aged, it is pretty much timeless 🙂 Although the atmosphere of the story sometimes feels more “vintage” than you might expect from a story set in the 1990s, this gives the story an oddly timeless quality (and it could easily take place in 1920s, 1950s, 1970s or 2000s America). Likewise, thanks to the excellent characters and characterisation, the story has an almost timeless level of depth, complexity and emotional relevance.

All in all, this is a really great novel that is filled with atmosphere, complex characters and excellent writing 🙂 Yes, it is very different to the film in a lot of ways – but if you want a memorable and unique novel, if you’re a fan of Alice Hoffman or if you just want a horror-infused romantic drama novel written at a level of quality you’d normally associate with literary fiction, then read this one 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

Review: “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human” By K. W. Jeter (Novel)

Well, since it’s November 2019, I thought that I’d re-read another “Blade Runner” – related book. I am, of course, talking about K. W. Jeter’s 1995 novel “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human”.

Yes, long before “Blade Runner 2049” appeared in cinemas two years ago, Jeter had written three totally different (and, now, non-canonical) official sequel novels to “Blade Runner”.

Although the final one (“Blade Runner 4: Eye And Talon”) seems to be somewhat rare and expensive, I happened to find cheap copies of the first two sequels in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield a couple of months before I prepared this review (because I couldn’t find my old copies of both books).

Since it has been about eleven years since I first read “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human” during a holiday in France, I thought that it was the perfect time to re-read it 🙂

However, since this novel is a direct sequel, you need to watch “Blade Runner” before reading this book. Likewise, although it isn’t essential, it is also well worth reading “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick (the novel “Blade Runner” is based on) before reading this novel, since you’ll get more out of it if you do 🙂 Of course, you don’t need to watch “Blade Runner 2049” before reading this book – since it tells a totally different story.

So, let’s take a look at “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

– This is the 1996 Orion (UK) paperback edition of “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human” that I read.

Set nine months after the events of “Blade Runner”, the novel begins with Chief Bryant drinking alone in his office in the hours after Gaff’s funeral. To his surprise, a mysterious person enters his office and, after a short conversation, draws a gun and shoots him.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, Deckard is living in a cabin in the woods with his replicant lover Rachael. Since she is nearing the end of her pre-determined four year lifespan, she spends most of her time in a stasis booth that Deckard acquired from several of his contacts, only regaining consciousness every few weeks to spend a single day with Deckard. Most of the time, Deckard is alone. So, when he hears the sound of a spinner heading towards the cabin, he isn’t sure if he’s imagining things.

This is especially true when the spinner lands and a woman who looks exactly like Rachael emerges from it. She introduces herself as Sarah Tyrell, head of the Tyrell Corporation since the death of her uncle Eldon nine months ago. Sarah wants Deckard to return to LA and do a job for her and, with the contingent of armed Tyrell Corp security she’s brought with her, he doesn’t exactly have much choice in the matter…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though it can get a little contrived and convoluted at times, it’s a really cool alternative sequel to “Blade Runner” 🙂

Not only is it reasonably true to the tone of the original film, but it is also darker, more spectacular and very atmospheric too. It’s the kind of sequel that was written for enthusiastic “Blade Runner” fans and, in some ways, is probably a more “accurate” sequel than “Blade Runner 2049” is.

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, it is a “Blade Runner” novel. Not only is it set during the summer in a slightly more expanded version of the grim, dystopian proto-cyberpunk world of the original film (with some of the hot, dusty post-apocalyptic atmosphere of “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” too), but it also expands on a lot of the film’s thematic material too.

In other words, this is a novel where – thanks to the existence of ultra-realistic robots – no-one can be quite certain who is human or even if they are human themselves. In addition to this, the novel also adds a lot of conspiracy-based paranoia which is evocative of the untrustworthy, unreliable world of “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” too 🙂

The novel also expands on several of the moral questions posed by the film, with Deckard being presented in an even more morally-ambiguous way, several references to times that blade runners have killed humans by mistake and more disturbing details about replicant slavery in the off-world colonies.

This, of course, brings me on to the novel’s horror elements. Whilst this novel isn’t a “horror novel” as such, there are quite a few disturbing moments and/or psychological horror elements here.

Whether it is a chilling train-based scene that subtly references the Holocaust, the scenes involving a “repaired” version of Pris or some hints about Eldon Tyrell’s backstory, this can be a surprisingly unsettling and disturbing novel at times. Yet, all of this horror is very much in keeping with tone of the original film – even if there is more emphasis on it than you might expect.

Surprisingly, this novel is also more of a thriller novel than you might expect. In addition to a few spectacular fast-paced action set pieces (some of which reminded me of “Blade Runner 2049” and the spin-off anime), this novel also focuses a lot on conspiracy-based paranoia, suspense and things like that too. Whilst this novel as a whole isn’t a particularly fast-paced thriller, it’s certainly a compelling one.

However, as mentioned earlier, some elements of the story’s conspiracy thriller plot can get a little convoluted at times. There are also a couple of small plot holes (eg: video filtering technology that works inconsistently in one scene) and a few scenes can also feel a little contrived too. Still, the level of plot complexity here is vaguely reminiscent of Raymond Chandler at times 🙂

In terms of the writing, it’s really good 🙂 This novel’s third-person narration uses a very descriptive, but appropriately hardboiled, style that goes really well with the story. Given that the original film is a masterpiece of visual art, it is really cool to see narration that captures this level of harsh hardboiled beauty. Yes, the descriptive elements of the narration do slow the story down a bit, but they also make it feel like a genuine part of the “Blade Runner” universe too 🙂

This novel also rewards your knowledge of both the film and Philip K. Dick’s novel, with numerous references to familiar locations from both things, a plot point involving a script error in older versions of the film, a dramatic scene involving the off-world advertising blimp, slightly more focus on background characters from the film (eg: Holden, J.F.Sebastian etc..) etc… Seriously, if you’re a massive fan of “Blade Runner”, then this novel is the kind of sequel you were probably secretly hoping for in 2017.

In terms of the characters, this novel is fairly good. In addition to seeing what has happened to familiar characters from both “Blade Runner” and “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?”, they also get a bit more depth too (after all, this is a novel).

In addition to this, the novel also contains a couple of new characters who are interesting alternative versions of familiar characters. If you’re a fan of the film, then all of this extra characterisation is an absolute joy to behold 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At 340 pages in length, it doesn’t look too long, but it will take you longer to read than you might expect. In other words, whilst this novel contains a few fast-paced moments, the story’s pacing is a little bit closer to the slightly slower, more atmospheric pacing of the original film. Even so, this novel can probably best be described as a moderately-paced thriller.

As for how this twenty-four year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well. Yes, there are a few “politically incorrect” moments (eg: some of Bryant’s dialogue, a somewhat transphobic scene etc…), but the novel as a whole feels almost as timeless as the original “Blade Runner” film. Not only that, the focus on post-apocalyptic wastelands and spectacular action set-pieces in some parts of the novel is also fairly evocative of the recent “Blade Runner 2049” film too 🙂

All in all, whilst this alternative sequel isn’t as good as the original film, it certainly comes close 🙂 Even though it may no longer be canonical, it is still well worth reading if you’re a fan of “Blade Runner”. It’s atmospheric, dark, complex and dystopian. It’s also somewhat closer in style and tone to the original film than “Blade Runner 2049” was too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “Butcher” (WAD for “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”)

[Well, due to a scheduling mishap, enjoy this bonus review today. Apologies in advance if there’s an article/review missing on any day in the future (and I’m still not sure why there were two scheduled for today).]
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Well, since I’m still reading the next novel I plan to review (“The Deep” by Nick Cutter), I thought that I’d take the chance to look at another “Doom II”/”Final Doom” WAD. After all, it’s been about three weeks or so since my last WAD review.

And, after clicking the “Random File” button on the /Idgames Archive, I found myself looking at a WAD from 1995 called “Butcher” by none other than Milo Casali, of “Final Doom” fame 🙂

As usual, I used the “ZDoom” source port whilst playing this WAD. However, given the level’s age, it will probably run on pretty much any source port. In fact, it’ll probably run on the original DOS version of “Doom II” too.

So, let’s take a look at “Butcher”:

As you may have already guessed, this is an earlier “work in progress” version of level nine from Final Doom’s “The Plutonia Experiment” episode. Given that this is my favourite ‘official’ Doom II episode (especially the twenty-ninth level, “Odyssey Of Noises”) and it is an episode that I’ll replay every now and then, it was really cool to see an earlier version of part of it 🙂

For the most part, the level is pretty much identical to level nine of “The Plutonia Experiment”. In other words, it is a reasonably challenging and slightly non-linear medium-length level that contains a few small arena-style battles, some well-placed monster closets and a few moments of more claustrophobic combat.

So, yes, it’s the same traditional – but challenging – type of “Doom II” level that you would expect 🙂

Given how amazingly fun, well-designed and re-playable “The Plutonia Experiment” is, playing this level was an absolute joy – even if I already knew where everything was and how to complete it. But, I suppose that I should probably talk about the differences between this level and the final commercial version of it.

In short, there aren’t many. Although the comments on the web page for the level tipped me off to the fact that the very final room of the level is smaller, easier and more primitive than the final version, the only other difference I was able to spot was the fact that the items in the secret area in the blue key room were slightly different.

Yes, the level is a lot more generous here, compared to the finished version.

The most noticeable difference is this final room. Not only is it smaller and less complex, but there are also far fewer monsters too.

All in all, there isn’t that much to say about this level. If you’re a fan of “The Plutonia Experiment”, then it is an interesting curio. If you’ve never played “Final Doom”, then this level will give you a taste of what to expect from the best official “Doom” game. Yes, the official version of this level is marginally better than this earlier “work in progress” version, but it is still an incredibly fun level 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “Red Dwarf: Last Human” By Doug Naylor (Novel)

Well, I’d initially planned to read another horror novel but, after being so impressed by the previous book I’d read, the two retro 1980s horror novels I’d been thinking about reading next didn’t really seem as interesting by comparison. Still, I needed to read something. And something good too.

Luckily, a few days earlier, I’d been searching the back row of my bookshelves and found a copy of a novel that I’d really enjoyed when I was a teenager. I am, of course, talking about Doug Naylor’s 1995 sci-fi comedy novel “Last Human”, based on the excellent TV series “Red Dwarf” that he wrote with Rob Grant.

Although it is possible to enjoy this book without having seen any episodes of “Red Dwarf” (and it might actually enhance your enjoyment of several scenes), this book will probably make more sense and you’ll get more of the humour if you’ve seen the TV show before you read the book.

So, let’s take a look at “Last Human”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1995 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “Last Human” that I read.

The novel begins with a brief scene showing the birth of the first ever human. Then, we flash forwards to the distant future where the last human in existence, a slob called Dave Lister, finds himself waking up on a prison ship. He has vague memories of a trial held by genetically-engineered life forms (GELFs) but the charges remain a mystery and all we get to see is Lister’s hilariously inept attempt at conducting his own defence.

Finally, the prison ship touches down on a desolate asteroid. Cyberia. A feared penal colony, where convicts have to spend their sentences in cyberhell – a nightmarish virtual world, designed to cause anguish and suffering.

Meanwhile, another Dave Lister wakes up on a spaceship called Starbug after a long period in stasis. After spending several decades reverse-ageing on a planet where time flows backwards, he is back to normal. It has been worth it though since it allowed him to resurrect Kristine Kochanski, his girlfriend. The rest of the crew – an android called Kryten, a hologram called Rimmer and a stylish humanoid creature that has evolved from cats (called Cat) also awaken from stasis too.

However, it isn’t long before they get an alert about a spaceship stranded on a nearby asteroid. Not only that, the ship seems to be an almost exact copy of Starbug….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a very funny comedy novel, it’s also something of a sci-fi thriller with horror elements too 🙂 Yes, the plot gets a little bit convoluted at times, but it all still somehow makes sense and the novel is a rather compelling and amusing read 🙂

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s comedy elements. These are an amusing mixture of character-based humour, funny dialogue, farce, dark comedy, background details, gross-out humour, slapstick, irony, innuendo, parody/satire, witty descriptions and puerile humour. This is the kind of novel that will literally make you laugh out loud every once in a while.

One interesting feature of this novel is that, occasionally, it will shoehorn random scenes from the TV show into the story. Whilst these scenes are some of the funniest moments from the show (and will be even funnier if you haven’t seen the show before), whilst they provoke a lot of nostalgia and whilst they do work in context, it does feel a little bit like lazy recycling.

Interestingly though, due to story events, Kochanski actually says a slightly altered version of Lister’s dialogue during at least one of these scenes. Likewise, the dialogue/story when Lister wakes up from stasis is altered slightly to include Kochanski too.

The novel’s thriller/horror elements are also quite well-written and help to provide some contrast with the comedy too. Not only is there a surprising amount of gripping suspense, but the story’s fast-paced scenes will also often tread a fine line between being slapstick/farce and being “serious” action scenes. The novel also contains a surprising amount of horror too – whilst most of this falls firmly into dark comedy territory, there are actually a couple of genuinely creepy moments here (such as alternate Lister remembering his evil foster mother etc..).

The novel’s sci-fi elements are fairly interesting. Whilst the novel takes the same tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre as the TV show does (and includes some fan favourites like GELFs, the luck virus, spare head three etc..), all of the sci-fi elements are surprisingly well-developed. They follow a logical set of rules that are not only used for some dramatic action set-pieces, but also for comedy too. Seriously, there are lots of silly background details and ironic pieces of backstory here.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Not only do the main characters from the TV show gain a bit of extra depth, but there are a few interesting side-characters too – such as Rimmer’s son (Michael R. McGruder) and an alternate version of Lister. Given that the novel derives a fair amount of humour and drama from the characters, they are reasonably well-written.

In terms of the writing, it’s really good. The novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly “matter of fact” way, whilst also being peppered with irreverent descriptions and asides too 🙂 Seriously, the writing style of this novel captures the atmosphere and style of the TV show really well…. Which is to be expected, given that it was written by one of the writers from said TV show.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a reasonably efficient 310 pages, it never really feels too long. Likewise, thanks to the humour and some well-placed set pieces, this novel as a whole feels neither too fast-paced or too slow-paced. Whilst the novel does have a slightly convoluted plot that can slow things down at times, the pacing becomes a lot more thriller-like during various parts of the story. So, it all balances out.

As for how this twenty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Yes, a bit of the humour will seem slightly old but, thanks to the sci-fi setting and the many types of comedy and drama included in the story, this novel feels both wonderfully nostalgic and almost timeless at the same time.

All in all, this is a fairly compelling, and funny, sci-fi novel that is a bit like what a feature-length episode of “Red Dwarf” with an unlimited special effects budget would look like. Yes, the plot gets a little bit convoluted at times and a few scenes are recycled from the TV show, but it still stands up fairly well as a spin-off novel 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get about four and a half.

Review: “Glory In Death” By J.D.Robb (Novel)

Well, for today, I thought that I’d take a look at a sci-fi detective novel from 1995 called “Glory In Death” by J.D.Robb. This was a book that I found by accident whilst searching one of my book piles for another book.

According to the receipt that was still in it, I found it in a charity shop in Rugeley a little over a decade ago – and, if I remember rightly, I bought it because of the cool “Blade Runner”/1990s computer game-style cyberpunk cover art.

So, let’s take a look at “Glory In Death”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 1997 New English Library (UK) paperback edition of “Glory In Death” that I read.

The novel is set in New York in 2058. Tough-as-nail police lieutenant Eve Dallas has been called out to a crime scene in one of the rougher parts of town after a prominent prosecutor called Cicely Towers has been found murdered.

After it becomes obvious that the crime wasn’t a robbery, Eve finds herself investigating the opulent lives of many of Cicely’s rich friends and family in the hope of finding the killer. Not only that, because of the prominent nature of the case, the press are also hounding her too and the police chief (also a friend of Cicely’s) wants results.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a bit different to what I’d expected. In short, if you’re expecting a neon-drenched cyberpunk thriller, you’re probably going to be a little disappointed. But, if you expect a slightly stylised police procedural thriller with some sci-fi/cyberpunk and romance elements, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel more. This is also one of those novels that only really gets ultra-compelling/ fast-paced during the later parts too.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re reasonably well-written. This novel is very much a police procedural novel and the story’s detective elements are handled fairly well.

There are several possible suspects and there’s a good mixture of interviews, forensics and other types of detection. Plus, of course, Eve also has to deal with the press/media too, which adds a bit of extra conflict and drama to the story (whilst also posing questions about journalistic ethics etc… too). And, like in many detective stories, this is one of those stories that becomes more and more compelling and suspenseful as it goes along.

Likewise, the case itself is fairly well-plotted, with enough subtle clues and red herrings to keep things unpredictable until the killer is finally revealed. Although avid readers of the detective genre may have better luck, I incorrectly guessed who the killer was at least once whilst reading the novel. Not to mention that Eve’s eventual confrontation with the killer is a fairly satisfying (if rather dark and gritty) conclusion to the story too.

The novel’s sci-fi elements are more understated than I expected. Whilst there are a few subtle “Blade Runner” references (eg: an advertising blimp, a photo-enhancement machine etc…), a couple of rain-soaked urban locations and a few scenes involving computers/VR, this isn’t really quite as much of a cyberpunk novel as I’d expected.

In short, the sci-fi elements are often more of a background detail that adds flavour to the story rather than an integral part of the story. With a few exceptions (eg: casinos in space etc..), this story could almost take place in the present day without too many changes.

For example, most of the novel’s futuristic forensic technology wouldn’t be too out of place in a stylised modern TV show like “NCIS” or “CSI”. So, given that this novel is from the mid-1990s, it is at least slightly ahead of it’s time.

The novel’s romance elements are interesting, if somewhat stylised. In short, the main love interest – Roarke – happens to be a multi-millionaire (with a lavish mansion, several holiday homes, a robot butler etc..) who has enough of a shady past to be intriguingly mysterious. He is passionate about Eve and cares deeply about her happiness, but is also arrogant enough for there to be several dramatic arguments between them. Whilst the romance elements work reasonably well, they can sometimes get in the way of the main story a bit (such as when Eve and Roarke randomly take a short holiday to Mexico during a dramatic part of the story).

In terms of the characters, the main characters are a bit stylised. Eve is a typical tough-as-nails detective with a dark past and a hunger for justice, Roarke is – as mentioned earlier – a slightly stylised love interest. But, the background characters are often a bit more nuanced and realistic which helps to add atmosphere to the story, not to mention that many of them are morally ambiguous enough that you’ll have a difficult job guessing which one is the killer.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is reasonably “matter of fact”, with some descriptive moments too. It’s hardboiled enough to fit in with the tone of the story, but descriptive enough to give everything a bit of vividness.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. At 296 pages in length, it doesn’t seem too long. Plus, although most of the novel is a fairly moderately paced story about methodical investigation and interviews, it becomes more compelling and fast-paced during the later parts of the story.

As for how this twenty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged surprising well. Whilst it contains a couple of dated descriptions, this is a novel that could have almost been written in the present day. Thanks to the slightly futuristic setting and the focus on rich people who live timelessly opulent lives, this novel seems surprisingly modern. Surprisingly, there are even smartphones (or portable video phones) in this novel too. But, thankfully, there isn’t any modern-style social media in this novel 🙂

All in all, this is a reasonably well-written, if stylised, police procedural novel with some romance and cyberpunk elements. Yes, it was a bit different to what I’d expected but, during the later parts of it, I found that I couldn’t really put the book down.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would possibly get a four.

Review: “Aliens: Alien Harvest” By Robert Sheckley (Novel)

Well, after reading S.D.Perry’s excellent “Aliens: The Labyrinth“, I was in the mood for another “Aliens” novel. And, after looking online, I found a couple of old second-hand omnibuses going cheap.

Once they arrived, I tried to work out which novel to read first and then I noticed that one of the novels – “Alien Harvest” from 1995 – was written by none other than Robert Sheckley.

I remembered his name because the very first book review ever posted on this blog (way back in 2013) was of one of his “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” novels that I read after being curious about all of the one-star reviews it had got online. Since I enjoyed that novel and since I wanted to read something by an author I hadn’t read in a while, I decided to read “Alien Harvest”.

So, let’s take a look at “Alien Harvest”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1996 Orion (UK) paperback omnibus that contained the version of “Alien Harvest” I read.

“Alien Harvest” begins in a dystopian future where Earth is in the later stages of recovering from an attack by ferocious alien creatures. Famed roboticist Dr. Stan Myakovsky is having a bad day. Not only has his spaceship been reposessed by a court order, but a visit to the doctor reveals that he is suffering from a terminal case of melanoma. The doctor offers him some illegal narcotics, made from alien secretions, to ease the pain – but points out that the disease has progressed to an incurable level.

As Stan sits around at home and begins to feel sorry for himself, there is a knock on the door. The mysterious visitor turns out to be an expert thief called Julia Lish who needs Stan’s expertise with robotics to pull off the heist of the century. Since Stan has got nothing to lose and since the heist will be a way to get back at his hated rivals in the BioPharm corporation, Stan agrees. After all, how difficult can a daring raid on an illegal secretion-harvesting operation on an alien-infested planet be?

One of the first things that I will say about “Alien Harvest” is that it is absolutely excellent, but it is also a very different novel to what I had expected.

If you’re expecting a relentlessly gruesome sci-fi horror novel, then you’re going to be in for a shock. This novel is many things – a brilliant piece of old-school science fiction, a gripping thriller, a drama, a bit of a comedy and a gloriously mischievous heist story – but it isn’t really that much of a horror novel. Even so, it is absolutely awesome 🙂

One of the best ways to describe this novel is that it’s kind of like a quirky 1950s/60s-style sci-fi novel (think Harry Harrison, Philip K. Dick etc..) but with a few brilliant hints of cynical “1980s cyberpunk”-style dystopian grittiness too (eg: in addition to the dystopian Earth locations, the early meetings between Stan and Julia are vaguely reminiscent of both the first meeting of Case and Molly in William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and the friendship between Pris and J.F. Sebastian in “Blade Runner).

This novel also has an absolutely brilliant three-act structure too. The first third or so of the novel is a gloriously slick 1960s-style caper story involving daring heists, criminal plotting, glamourous gambling dens and other such things. The second third of the story is a good slice of traditional space-based sci-fi drama. The final third is a little bit more of a horror/action thriller story, with some drama elements.

Although some readers may find this structure a little bit unusual or slightly slow-paced in parts, it works absolutely brilliantly and each segment of the novel segues into the next one perfectly.

In addition to this, this novel has personality 🙂 Although it is set in the universe of the “Alien” films, it is as fresh and different as a totally original novel would be. Not only does this novel have a gloriously quirky and nerdy sense of humour (eg: one of the characters is a surprisingly eloquent robotic alien called Norbert, there’s a Data-like android called Gill etc..), but the “world” of the story is also described in a brilliant way too. In addition to this, there is actual characterisation in this novel 🙂

Seriously, I cannot praise the characters in this novel highly enough 🙂 All of them come across as three-dimensional, albeit stylised, people who all have personalities, emotions, history, flaws and quirks. Yes, they all fit into the archetypes you’d expect (eg: genius scientist, master criminal, washed-up spaceship captain etc..) but they are all clearly shown to be interesting, unique people. Seriously, for a novel in this franchise, I was surprised at how much humanity it had.

Interestingly, most of what makes this novel so compelling is just good old-fashioned drama and storytelling. Yes, there are a few brief action-based scenes and a few brief moments of grisly horror but, for the most part, this novel is a cross between an old-school adventure yarn and a drama. There are perilous missions, mysterious locations, complex relationships, daring gambits, treacherous mutinies and other such things. All with lashings of gloriously nerdy old-school science fiction too 🙂

In terms of length, this novel is a little under 300 pages in length. Although the slightly slower pace in some scenes and the slightly more descriptive narration makes the story feel about 50-70 pages longer than this, the story never really feels particularly bloated. In other words, the story is well-suited to the length and never outstays it’s welcome.

As for of how this 24 year old novel has aged, it has aged in a really interesting way. Although the (mostly) third-person narration is still very readable these days, the fact that the novel almost seems more like a 1980s-influenced version of a classic 1950s-60s sci-fi novel gives it a wonderfully “retro” quality. It seems both very old and fairly modern at the same time. Not only that, the excellent characterisation means that the story’s human drama is pretty much timeless. Plus, although there are a couple of mildly “politically incorrect” moments, there’s nothing seriously eyebrow-raising here. So, on the whole, the novel has aged surprisingly well.

All in all, this novel is astonishingly good. It goes beyond being a mere sci-fi movie spin-off novel to being very much it’s own thing. If you like very slightly nerdy old-school sci-fi, if you like slick heist thrillers, if you like daring adventure or if you just like compelling human drama, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂 Yes, you might be a little disappointed if you’re expecting a splatterpunk-style horror story, but everything else about this novel more than makes up for the slight paucity of horror.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “The Diamond Age” By Neal Stephenson (Novel)

Whilst waiting for several books to arrive, I suddenly realised that I needed to find something to read in the meantime. Luckily, having read a lot in the past, I’m not exactly short of books. But, although I tried to read “The Difference Engine” by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling, I just couldn’t get along with the narration. Even so, I wanted to read something vaguely cyberpunk and/or steampunk.

Then I remembered that there was an old cyberpunk novel in the far corner of my room, wedged behind a stack of old DVDs. So, I decided to fish it out and take a look. It was none other than a second-hand copy of Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel “The Diamond Age”, which my younger self seemed to have bought for just 80p. After finishing it about two or three nights later, I realised that not only had I found buried treasure but that it was also the best 80p that I’d ever spent.

So, let’s take a look at “The Diamond Age”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1996 Roc (UK) paperback edition of “The Diamond Age” that I read.

“The Diamond Age” is set in a futuristic version of China, and revolves around an interactive book called “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”. Although this book was commissioned by a wealthy neo-Victorian gentleman in order to teach his granddaughter to think more subversively, an illicit copy of the book (that the book’s designer made for his daughter) is stolen and ends up in the hands of a young girl called Nell from the poorer part of town….

One of the first things that I will say about “The Diamond Age” is that it is one of the most intelligent and profound novels that I’ve ever read. I almost feel guilty about writing a mere review of this book, since some kind of dissertation would probably be more appropriate. Seriously, not only does it tell a complex multi-layered story (my short summary of part of the main plot really doesn’t do this book justice), but it also includes philosophical complexity, thematic complexity, narrative complexity and emotional complexity. Seriously, this book is a work of art.

When I started reading it, I worried that I was out of my depth. Like I’d tried to install a modern “AAA” computer game on the classic mid-2000s machine I typed this review on. But, as I kept reading it and got used to the narrative style, I began to realise what a treasure this book is.

Seriously, it’s the kind of book that makes films like “Blade Runner 2049” and the original “Ghost In The Shell” look like simple, shallow, superficial things by comparison. Not only that, it is the kind of book that holds all sorts of deeper meanings and profound moments that will make you think. In other words, if you put the effort into reading this book, then you will be rewarded for it!

I should probably start by talking about the book’s narration. For the most part, the novel uses a rich, dense, highly-descriptive narrative style that is heavily inspired by 19th century writing (but with some modern elements). Although this narrative style can be a bit of a challenge to get used to at first, you’re in for a treat when you’ve had a bit of practice at reading it.

This dense, formal and descriptive narrative style allows Stephenson to render every scene of the story with a level of high-definition comic book vividness that is really astonishing 🙂 This novel takes the “information overload” narrative technique of a novel like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and turns it into something even more sophisticated and refined. Basically, imagine the ultra-detailed artwork of Warren Ellis’s “Transmetropolitan” comics but in prose form…

The novel’s formal narration is also counterpointed with a couple of other narrative styles too. Whether it’s the traditional 1980s-style cyberpunk narration that appears earlier in the story (during scenes that are a brilliantly cynical parody of “Neuromancer” etc..), or the story within the “Primer” – which starts out as a simple children’s fairytale and gradually becomes more complex as the story progresses (and Nell gets older), the novel’s narration is more flexible than you might expect.

The characters and “world” of this novel are also more complex and realistic than you would expect. Unlike the classic cyberpunk novels of the 1980s, the main characters aren’t anti-heroes. The one character (Bud) who initially seems like a typical cyberpunk protagonist is, after a few pages, realistically shown to be a dangerous violent criminal (who is quickly arrested and sentenced to death). Seriously, this segment of the story is one of the most cynical parodies of 1980s-style cyberpunk I’ve ever seen.

By contrast, the main characters in “The Diamond Age” are people from different walks of life who live in a complex and dangerous world. The novel’s characters really come across as realistic people with emotions, motivations and personalities. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation in this story highly enough! Whether it is Nell’s journey through life, or the travails of poor Mr. Hackworth, or Miranda’s story arc, or Judge Fang’s Confucian beliefs leading him in unexpected directions etc.. the characters in this story are unique, interesting people.

In emotional terms, this story contains pretty much every emotion under the sun. There are descriptive segments where you will be in awe, there are scenes that will feel warmly reassuring, there are surprisingly harsh moments that will make you recoil with shock/horror/disgust, there are parts that will be really depressing, there are parts that will be really uplifting, there are moments that will make you laugh out loud, there are parts that will make you feel nervous, there are scenes that will make you cry (in a good way) and there are scenes that will fill you with righteous fury. Emotionally, this novel is a truly mature and complex thing.

But, the main attraction of this story is the sheer number of themes that it explores and deals with. This is one of those books that probably requires multiple readings and lots of background reading in order to really get the most of out of it, but here are some of the themes I found when I read it.

One of the major themes in this story is people attempting to make sense of new things using old ideas. Within the world of the story, there are groups of people who try to follow old ways of living in the belief that they are better. Whether it is the neo-Victorians (who try to emulate their 19th century namesakes) or the Chinese traditionalists who follow the teachings of Confucius, a lot of this story is about people apply trying to apply older standards to a futuristic world with varying degrees of success.

Another theme in this story is the power and value of stories. This novel is one of the best works of metafiction that I’ve ever seen. Not only does it contain a story-within-a-story, but the entire novel is about the impact that one person reading one book can have on the world. In addition to this, it is also a novel about how stories can teach and shape us. “The Diamond Age” is a beautiful celebration of the magic of reading and telling stories.

The novel also explores the tension between individuality and conformity. Whilst a lot of the novel focuses on Nell learning to stand up for herself and think for herself, the story takes place in a world that has been fragmented into numerous micro-states that are run by different ideological “tribes”. This novel takes a fairly deep look at the benefits and downsides of both individuality and conformity, with the reader often left to come to their own conclusions. Still, it is important to be aware of this theme, since the story’s ending won’t completely make sense unless you think of it in these terms (eg: is it better to be a unique individual in a dangerous situation or to find safety in extreme conformity?).

These are just a few of the themes explored in this novel (other themes include poverty, ethics, cultural capital, nature vs. nurture, gender politics, technology etc..). But, if you like things that make you think, then you’ll absolutely love this novel 🙂 Seriously, this is the kind of novel that is probably a set text for a university course somewhere. If not, it really should be. Seriously, I wish I’d read this when I was at university.

In terms of how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged astonishingly well. Not only does all of the futuristic stuff still seem very futuristic, but the narration still feels both timelessly old and timelessly modern too. Aside from maybe one or two brief sentences, references and/or descriptions, this novel could easily be published today and it would still seem very modern.

All in all, this review really hasn’t done this book justice. “The Diamond Age” is a bit of a challenging read, but it is well worth putting the effort into it! Seriously, this is one of the most intelligent, profound, unique and complex books that I’ve ever read. “The Diamond Age” is to books what “Blade Runner” is to film and what Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” is to comics. In other words, it is a profound, unique and thought-provoking work of art that will linger in your imagination long after you’ve finished reading it.

If I had to give this novel a rating out of five, it would get a solid five. Read it!

Review: “While You Were Sleeping” (Film)

Well, after a brief hiatus, my “1990s Films” review series is back! And, for today, I thought that I’d take a look at a Christmas-themed romantic comedy from 1995 called “While You Were Sleeping”. Surprisingly, I hadn’t even heard of this film until I happened to notice it when browsing online a few days before watching it.

But since it was a “1990s American Christmas” film and since it seemed to have some positive reviews online, it seemed like it could be worth watching. So, I decided to get a second-hand DVD of it and see for myself.

So, let’s take a look at “While You Were Sleeping”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS. Then again, it’s a romantic comedy and… well….

The DVD cover itself is a massive spoiler!

“While You Were Sleeping” begins with a character called Lucy (played by Sandra Bullock) reminiscing about her childhood and some of the inspirational things that her father said to her.

However, after his death, she has ended up working as a ticket booth clerk in a railway station in Chicago. She also leads a wonderfully peaceful and solitudinous life too (which is somehow a “bad” thing, because it’s a Hollywood movie).

Of course, this is presented as “lonely” rather than relaxing. Because, well, Hollywood.

But, she has a crush on a handsome businessman called Peter (played by Peter Gallagher) who passes through the station every day. Yet, she can’t quite bring herself to ask him out.

However, on Christmas Eve, some hooligans approach him on the train platform and, after a brief scuffle, push him onto the tracks. Witnessing this, Lucy rushes to the train tracks and finds that he’s unconscious. Luckily, she manages to pull him out of the way before he is run over by a train.

Pictured: Peter scuffling with some hooligans.

Later, she decides to visit him in hospital. However, the doctor will only allow family members to see him. So, after a bit of confusion, one of the nurses tells the doctor that Lucy is Peter’s fiancee. When Lucy arrives in the room, Peter is in a coma. She stays and talks to him for a while but, before she can leave, Peter’s family show up and are surprised to hear that he has a fiancee. Feeling awkward about the situation, Lucy decides to play along.

Meh. What’s the worst that can happen?

But, as she gets to know Peter’s family better, she suddenly realises that there’s something developing between her and Peter’s brother Jack (played by Bill Pullman). Then, on New Year’s Day, Peter awakens from his coma…

Hey, where are all of the zombies? Ooops! Wrong movie.

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it is very much a “feel good” movie. Although I was worried that the film’s premise would be cringe-worthily awkward to watch, there’s thankfully very little “suspense” in the film. All of the film’s potentially awkward situations are handled with a warmth and humour that helps to prevent the film from becoming nerve-wrackingly stressful to watch.

As for the film’s comedy elements, they’re reasonably good. Although there is a small amount of slapstick humour and some slight gross-out humour (eg: a character with a builder’s bum, a hilarious scene involving a story about a pencil etc..) most of the humour is more subtle and character-based, and it works really well.

Although there are some amusing lines of dialogue, many of the funniest moments of the film are when Lucy reacts to various events. The slightly farcical premise of the film is also a fairly good source of humour too. But, the comedy in this film is more of the subtle and light-hearted variety than the “laugh out loud” variety.

Seriously, I cannot praise Sandra Bullock’s acting in this film highly enough, particularly during the film’s subtle comedic moments.

Still, given that this is meant to be a “feel-good” Christmas-themed romantic comedy, this more subtle humour works really well. Not to mention that, due to the premise of the film, it is actually somewhat more of a comedy than a romance.

Yes, there is (sort of) a love triangle and the obligatory happy ending. But, for the most part, the film is more like a “feel good” comedy drama with some romantic elements, rather than a romance with comedy elements. Even so, the romantic elements of this film work fairly well.

And, yes, this scene is surprisingly heartwarming, even if it’s somewhat predictable.

Although some elements of the film’s story are a little bit predictable, there’s still a mild level of uncertainty about how the film is going to end whilst you are watching it. Not only that, the amusing misunderstandings between the characters and the film’s character-based drama also helps to keep the story compelling too.

As I mentioned earlier, this film’s story thankfully avoids nail-biting suspense or extreme awkwardness. This is achieved via some clever narrative devices – such as having two other characters (Lucy’s boss and Peter’s godfather) learn of the misunderstanding and either offer advice or, for various benevolent reasons, help Lucy to keep the pretence.

This scene where Peter’s Godfather tells Lucy to keep up the pretence is surprisingly heartwarming. Not to mention that it provides the set-up for several comedic moments later in the film too.

Likewise, one vaguely suspenseful part about Peter’s ex-fiancee Ashley (played by Ally Walker) showing up ends up being played more for laughs than for drama too.

Despite the vague suspense earlier in the film, Ashley’s main appearence is in this hilarious argument scene (and in an amusing scene later in the film).

Likewise, almost all of the characters in this film are friendly, funny and/or likeable in some way, which really helps to give the film a “feel good” kind of atmosphere. The stand-out character is, of course, Lucy – who manages to be somewhat shy and introverted, whilst also being fairly adept at dealing with the amusingly chaotic events of the film. Likewise, as I mentioned earlier, a fair amount of the film’s comedy comes from the subtle ways that Lucy reacts to various events.

Like in this scene involving some “spontaneous” redecorating.

Although the Christmas-related elements of this film are a little bit more understated than I expected, the film still manages to include a cosy, retro “1990s American Christmas” atmosphere that is an absolute joy to experience. Seriously, “cosy” would be a really good word to describe the atmosphere of this film.

In terms of lighting and set design, this film does fairly well. Although most of the set design is fairly “realistic” and looks a lot like something from a large-mid budget TV show, there are some absolutely beautiful shots of Chicago at night and of Christmas-themed locations too.

Such as this beautifully festive cityscape.

Or the wonderfully wintery exterior scenes in some parts of the film.

Or the awesome lighting in this short scene.

Musically, the film’s soundtrack is really good and it complements both the emotional tone of the film well. Whether it is the cheerful rendition of Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” early in the film or the slightly older Christmas music that plays during several scenes, the film’s soundtrack really goes well with the story.

All in all, this is a fun, cosy “feel good” movie that is just a joy to watch. Whilst it might not be “laugh out loud” funny that often, it’s the kind of light-hearted movie that will leave you feeling more cheerful than you were when you started watching it. Although the romantic elements of the film are at least mildly predictable, the film does at least offer a mildly interesting variation on a typical “love triangle” plot and all of the film’s romantic elements work fairly well too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four.

Review: “Bad Boys” (Film)

Well, for the next review in my “1990s Films” series, I thought that I’d check out an action/detective/comedy film from 1995 called “Bad Boys”. Although I vaguely remember watching the sequel to it sometime during the early-mid 2000s, I’m pretty sure that I haven’t seen the original film before.

So, when I noticed that it was part of a fairly cheap DVD boxset (which also included “Striking Distance” too), I thought that I’d check it out.

Before I go any further I should point out that this review may contain some SPOILERS and that the film itself contains some FLICKERING/ STROBING LIGHTS in one scene set in a nightclub (although I don’t know if they’re intense/fast enough to cause problems or not).

So, let’s take a look at “Bad Boys”:

And, yes, I’ll also be reviewing “Striking Distance” during this review series too 🙂

“Bad Boys” follows two narcotics detectives in Miami called Burnett and Lowrey (played by Martin Lawrence and Will Smith) who are investigating the theft of $100 million worth of drugs from a police evidence room. The only catch is that they’ve got to solve the case in four days, lest their department be shut down for incompetence…..

And, yes, the characters even comment about the fact that the evidence locker contains a large ventilation shaft.

After some of the stolen drugs are found at the house of a murdered ex-cop (along with the body of one of Lowrey’s friends), someone called Julie (played by TÊa Leoni) rings the police department and demands to speak to Lowrey.

Julie is a friend of Lowrey’s murdered friend, and she witnessed the entire thing (and, as such, is being pursued by the criminals). But, fearful of reprisals or corrupt police officers, she’ll only speak to Lowrey. However, Lowrey is out investigating a lead. So, Burnett is told by his boss to impersonate Lowrey.

Needless to say, hilarity, action and adventure follows….

As opposed to careful by-the-book police work and methodical investigation.

One of the first things that I will say about “Bad Boys” is that it works well as an action movie, a drama film and a comedy. However, the detective-based parts of the film can occasionally rely a little bit too much on coincidence and contrivance. Yes, there is some supsense and mystery- but the case at the heart of the film is mostly just there as an excuse for amusing situations, character-based drama and/or thrilling action set-pieces.

Still, the film does at least pay lip service to it’s “detective movie” elements, with the detectives occasionally investigating or following leads. However, this film is more of an action movie than a police procedural.

But, this isn’t to say that this film is all style and no substance. Although comedy and action are central parts of the film, these are still anchored in a compellingly dramatic story that revolves around two or three well-written characters.

Likewise, the film occasionally blends action and comedy in a fairly good way. Such as when the two detectives suddenly realise exactly what they’re hiding behind during a frenetic gunfight.

If anything, this film is more of a character study of the (occasionally antagonistic) friendship between Lowrey and Burnett than anything else – with both of them getting the bulk of the characterisation in this film.

Although Julie also gets a fair amount of characterisation too, the main focus of the film is on the two detectives. Even the film’s main villain is something of a two-dimensional character, who is just there to give Burnett and Lowrey an excuse to have a thrilling action-packed adventure.

Then again, a film about these characters just doing ordinary police work would also be quite fun to watch.

This character-based drama and comedy is helped by the contrast between Burnett and Lowrey’s lives (eg: Burnett is a fairly ordinary middle-class family man and Lowrey is handsome, wealthy, single etc..). However, although these differences play a key part in the film’s comedy, they usually aren’t over-emphasised to cartoonish extremes too often. And, despite many amusing arguments and/or misunderstandings, the two characters’ friendship is a central element of the film.

The film’s comedy elements work well, although they are a little bit more subtle than I expected. The bulk of the comedy comes from amusing dialogue between Lowrey and Burnett, in addition to the fact that they have to impersonate each other too. As well as this, there’s also some slapstick comedy, ironic humour, movie references and farce that helps to keep the film’s humour varied.

For example, one of the funniest slapstick scenes in the film is when Burnett tries his hand at weightlifting whilst Lowrey talks to an informant.

Although the film isn’t “laugh out loud” funny that often, the frequently amusing dialogue and situations often help to give the film a slightly more light-hearted emotional tone.

For example, this scene where the two detectives are pretending to be each other (and arguing, whilst trying not to look like they’re arguing) is absolutely brilliant.

The film’s action elements also stand up pretty well, even to this day. Since this film was directed by Michael Bay, it’s a given that it contains several dramatic explosions (with the rather pyrotechnic final battle against the villains being a good example of this). But the film also contains a few well-choreographed gun fights, fist fights and car chases too. The action scenes in this film are all fairly compelling, if somewhat “standard” quite a lot of the time.

Still, there are some interesting action scenes – such as one involving barrels and one where Lowrey chases a car on foot.

Likewise, the film’s pacing is also reasonably decent too – with the film remaining compelling throughout. However, at 116 minutes in length, the running time is a little on the bloated side of things. Yes, the film never quite feels “too long”, but it would have probably been even more compelling if the editor had been allowed to edit a bit more. Then again, compared to the films that Michael Bay made after this one, 116 minutes is relatively short in comparison.

In terms of lighting, set design and visual style – this film has some amazing moments. Not only are there lots of dramatic sunsets and cityscapes that just ooze mid-1990s awesomeness, but there’s also some truly brilliant interior design and cool set design, which is complemented with the kind of brilliantly gloomy lighting that is pretty much synonymous with the 1990s.

Yes, it’s ludicrous and completely impractical but, dammit, I want one of those large glowing clocks!

And this cityscape looks AMAZING!

I’m not sure if I prefer the set design or lighting design here. Both are amazing!

Musically, this films is rather interesting. Although most of the film’s background music uses a variety of instruments and styles, there is a single sequence of notes that turns up in many of the film’s songs. This sounds really thrilling and dramatic, although it is also one of those catchy pieces of music that will probably get stuck in your head fairly easily.

All in all, this is a good film. It is filled with comedic dialogue, thrilling action, stylish visuals and a compelling story. Although I have a few criticisms of this film (eg: the running time, the two-dimensional villain, the contrived elements of the investigation etc..), it is still a very good film overall.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four.