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Sonic the Hedgehog film review: You can slow your roll, Sega fans

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Enlarge / High-speed blur effect? Check. Golden ring? Check. Oversized eyes? Check (thank goodness). But what about the rest of the first live-action Sonic the Hedgehog film?

At least seven times during my screening of Sonic the Hedgehog, the first live-action film based on the classic Sega gaming franchise, I blurted to myself: “I can’t believe they nearly kept the old design.”

The nicest thing I can say about this week’s new movie is that Sega and Paramount dodged a monumental disaster. This film’s camera is in love with Sonic, the sole CGI-ified star. It constantly stares him down, lingers on his cartoon-bulging eyes, and allows the animation crew to sell his emotional state. Not that Sonic is a subtle character; actor Ben Schwarz (Parks & Recreation, the voice of Star Wars‘ BB-8) plays the titular role like a caffeinated 12-year-old, and it’s fitting. But the film’s heartwarming moments always include deep looks into Sonic’s eyes. That could’ve been very, very different.

Now, audience members can rest assured that this serviceable, acceptable, not-amazing-but-not-terrible family film wasn’t tanked by toothy, limber, squinty-eyed Sonic. With that crucial detail out of the way, the rest of the attached film isn’t as sensational or headline-worthy. The series’ first live-action film is neither a jolt to the pantheon of Sonic media nor a must-see video game adaptation. We’ve landed somewhere above The Angry Birds Movie, somewhere below Pokemon: Detective Pikachu.

A madman trapped in his own universe, not Sega’s

I land on an overall positive verdict mostly thanks to Jim Carrey’s whirlwind comedic performance as series villain Dr. Robotnik. His script has zero apparent ties to series lore (which, to be fair, is mostly two-dimensional cheese found in cartoon and comic-book adaptations). Instead, the writing and directing crew appear to have given Carrey full rein to play up the “egocentric, genius megalomaniac” archetype however he saw fit. Based on how far his character flies off the rails, with speeches perfectly synced to Carrey’s physicality and timing, I get the impression the actor ad-libbed what we get on-screen. Yet even if I’m incorrect, his rhythms and intensity fall into an incredible groove, as if he were teaching a masterclass on ’60s B-movie villainy.

To that end, neither Carrey nor anyone else here has an allegiance to a “Sonic-worthy” plot or references. When Carrey is hilarious, he’s acting like a madman trapped in his own universe, not Sega’s. And when Sonic is dashing around or fighting robots, the results rarely look like the action in the blue hedgehog’s classic games. He has maybe two “spin dash” moves throughout the film’s 90 minutes, and he rarely bounces on top of bad guys to destroy them. Not that it matters that much for the sake of the film, but I point it out for those viewers who might be dismayed that Robotnik doesn’t abide by series lore and trap woodland creatures inside of his robots.

Strangely, the filmmakers can’t get past a different superhero’s archetype: the Flash. Everything Sonic does in this film revolves around his ability to run fast, which they take to mean he has a mastery of time and space—that he can perceive the world around him in slow motion, or that he can run insane distances almost instantly. Most of Sonic’s visual gags in the film revolve around this concept, and a stack of licensed DC Comics books in one scene reads less like an homage and more like an open admission of a dry creative well.

Sure, he can slow time down, mess with nearby people while time’s frozen, and then call “time in!” to watch the sparks fly. It’s cute. I chuckled. But it’s not a very inventive twist on the ancient bullet-time concept. Why not make Sonic abide by the game series’ challenge of finding loops, ramps, and momentum-drivers to build his speed? Why not have him spin-dash to knock down walls? I can think of a bunch of silly, family-friendly gags that would revolve around those limitations and feel more authentic to the game series.

Someone get Sonic a map, please

The film's robot designs are just about it for non-Sonic CGI, and they're nothing to shout about.
Enlarge / The film’s robot designs are just about it for non-Sonic CGI, and they’re nothing to shout about.

Sega / Paramount

Instead, we get roughly four laugh-out-loud references to the game series (including at least one awesome meme), bolted onto a plot that comes saddled with a few cockamamie jumps in logic. For starters, the film opens with a very odd Sonic origin story: he was raised on a magical island… by a mysterious talking owl named Littlefoot. (No, you won’t find this owl in any other existing Sonic media.) This brief hedgehog-and-owl sequence honestly looks ripped out of the tragic Sonic 2006 video game, and the only nice thing I have to say about it is that it’s brief.

From there, Sonic is ordered to use his magic bag of rings to warp from one universe to the next any time someone sees him using his super-fast speed. (Why must he always hide, as opposed to employing his powers for good? We never get a good answer.) This changes when he lands on Earth—more specifically, a small town in Montana—and begins creepily stalking a cop named Tom (played by James Marsden of Westworld fame).

Sonic’s loneliness gets the better of him, and he breaks out of his hiding hole to ask for Tom’s help. What does Sonic need? Why, a ride to the other side of the United States, where his bag of rings accidentally wound up. When asked why he doesn’t insta-run there himself, especially in an emergency, Sonic complains that he doesn’t have a map. I mean, the film could have sewn that logic up by giving Sonic a leg cramp, a vitamin deficiency, or something. But it’s not that kind of movie.

The film pits Tom and Sonic, who become pals during this road trip, against Robotnik, a US Government-sponsored researcher who apparently gets hired to clear up CIA-grade emergencies. The film’s best quality is its focus on these three stars, as opposed to a bloated and unwieldy cast of family-comedy characters. Marsden is particularly nimble at walking the delicate line between being Sonic’s disciplinarian and his pal—and delivering just enough tension before letting Sonic go ahead with his wackiest antics. Sadly, the supporting cast mostly fails at its role of providing comic relief, with the exception of Carrey’s right-hand man, a bumbling agent played by Lee Majdoub (The 100).

But Marsden and Schwarz are nowhere near the sweetness, comedy, and coming-of-age payoff we got from the leads of Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, a film that also runs circles around Sonic’s CGI department. PDP crammed its scenes with dozens of impeccably rendered animal-monster things, while Sonic, this film’s sole CGI star, comes with some really otherworldly, awkward-looking rendering of fur and light bounces. More than a few times, I noticed strange reflections off of Sonic’s beady nose, which made me wonder whether this film could’ve used one more rendering pass. And the VFX people didn’t make up for this with their designs of Robotnik’s flying drone supporters; it’s all generic, laser-shooting robots from that half of the equation. (To be fair, their priorities probably lie elsewhere, and I don’t blame them.)

I’m glad Sonic had enough of its parts in place to get me through a viewing feeling entertained. But the only thing that would get me to recommend this film over other family-friendly options is, honestly, Jim Carrey’s performance. Nothing else in Sonic the Hedgehog feels particularly exciting, even within its specific niche of a clear “PG, not PG-13” rating.

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Review: More remix than adaptation, Foundation is top-notch storytelling

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Isaac Asimov’s hugely influential Foundation series of science fiction novels is notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen. The author himself admitted that he wrote strictly for the printed page, and he always refused invitations to adapt his work for film or TV. But Asimov was more than happy to let others adapt his work to a new medium, and he was wise enough to expect that there would—and should—be significant departures from the print version.

That’s just what showrunner David S. Goyer (Dark Knight trilogy, Da Vinci’s Demons) has done with Foundation, Apple TV+’s visually stunning, eminently bingeable new series. Goyer describes it as more of a remix than a direct adaptation, and to my taste, it is a smashing success in storytelling. This series respects Asimov’s sweeping visionary ideas without lapsing into slavish reverence and over-pontification. That said, how much you like Goyer’s vision might depend on how much of a stickler you are about remaining faithful to the source material.

(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)

The fundamental narrative arc of the series remains intact. It’s a story that takes place across multiple planets over 1,000 years, with a huge cast of characters. Mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris, Chernobyl, Carnival Row) has developed a controversial theory of “psychohistory” that essentially applies math to sociology to make predictions about the future of the Galactic Empire, which rules every living person in the Milky Way. Seldon’s calculations predict the fall of the empire, ushering in a Dark Ages that will last 30,000 years, after which a second empire will emerge.

The collapse of the empire is inevitable, but Seldon has a plan to reduce the Dark Ages to a mere 1,000 years through the establishment of a Foundation to preserve all human knowledge so that civilization need not rebuild itself entirely from scratch. He is aided by his adoptive son and right-hand man, Raych Foss (Alfred Enoch, who played Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter franchise) and his new protege, Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell, Voyagers), a math prodigy who travels to the capital to work with Seldon.

Seldon’s predictions make him a dangerous traitor in the eyes of the empire’s rulers. As he himself notes, those in power fear and despise change, and yet change is constant—and inevitable. Instead of executing him and creating a martyr, the rulers exile Seldon to the remote planet of Terminus at the edge of the galaxy, along with the members of the new Foundation, where they begin compiling the Encyclopedia Galactica.

Eventually, there is a threat from a neighboring outer planet, ultimately resolved by the warden of Terminus, Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey, Fighting with my Family). And the Foundation members learn that Seldon’s plan was far more ambitious and complex than they realized. He told them just enough to set events in motion, since the tenets of psychohistory include an uncertainty principle of sociology, whereby if the collective population learns too much about its predicted fateful actions, those actions will soon become unpredictable. The clash between Seldon and the empire has often been described as a thousand-year game of chess, but there’s an element of rolling the dice and trusting in probabilities for the long game as well.

Perhaps the biggest change from the books is the replacement of the Empire’s ruling committee with a trio of clones called the Cleons. Brother Day (Lee Pace, Halt and Catch Fire, Pushing Daisies) is the primary ruler, with Brother Dusk (Terrance Mann, Sense8) serving in an advisory/legacy role. Meanwhile, Brother Dawn (played as a child by Cooper Carter and as a teenager by Cassian Bilton) is being groomed to take over as the new Brother Day. This gives more of a human face to the rulers, with complex emotions and interpersonal relationships, and all the actors are perfectly cast. I personally would watch Lee Pace read the phone book, and he has much meatier fare to work with here. Technically, they are all perfect incarnations of the same man, at different ages, and this is both the source of their strength as a team and of their conflicts. (Dusk has gained valuable wisdom, if the younger, strong-willed Day could bring himself to listen.)

We knew from the trailers that Salvor Hardin, warden of Terminus, had been gender-swapped, but the character has also been completely reimagined. The Salvor of the books is a shrewd politician (the latest in a long line) who deftly navigates a fraught political environment as the Foundation plants roots on Terminus. In the series, Salvor is a young woman who is still figuring out who she is and what role she’s meant to play in Seldon’s great plan. She shares many of the same traits as Book Salvor, but they are not yet fully developed. She also has a love interest in intergalactic space junker Hugo Krast (Daniel MacPherson, A Wrinkle in Time), and a secret connection in the grand scheme of things that we shall refrain from revealing here.

Asimov’s original trilogy was (to my college self) an enjoyably brisk read, even if the prose got a bit dry and cerebral at times. Goyer has preserved that same tight pacing in the TV series, deftly weaving in character backstories to flesh them out, setting up relationships and the inevitable conflicts between those characters, and inventing some pretty big dramatic moments out of whole cloth to keep the story humming along and viewers hooked. The story jumps between settings and time periods quite a lot, but the writers have done an excellent job sign-posting those jumps, especially in the earlier episodes, to ensure viewers are sufficiently oriented to follow along. (No need for elaborate timeline charts here, as with The Witcher and Dark, although that may change with subsequent seasons.)

The actors all deliver strong, powerful performances from the aforementioned leads on down, and the cinematography and costume and production design are exceptional. Apple TV+ is deeply invested in this series, and it shows. If I had one tiny quibble, it would be that Goyer had so much ground to cover to set up this first season that the big ideas sometimes feel more ornamental than central. I’d love to see the ensuing seasons (assuming they transpire) take a few more breaths here and there to bring those elements front and center more often. I’m confident this writing team could do so without bogging down everything else that works so well.

In short, this is a terrific first ten episodes—Goyer envisions some 80 episodes, should Apple TV+ give him the chance—with no maddening cliffhanger. The finale resolves several plot lines and sets up a few others, leaving viewers both satisfied and eager for more. I think Asimov himself would be pleased with Foundation, particularly since his daughter Robyn is an executive producer on the series and signed off on Goyer’s vision.

The first two episodes of Foundation are now available for streaming on Apple TV+. New episodes will drop every Friday until the S1 finale on November 19, 2021.

Listing image by YouTube/Apple TV+

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Death Stranding Director’s Cut review: More fun, just as divisive

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Death Stranding‘s release in 2019 was probably the most anticipated game of Hideo Kojima’s career.

The Metal Gear director had arguably become the premiere auteur in video games. He had a reputation for convention-bucking design, meta-humor, and unapologetic cinematic influences. But this project was the first child of his acrimonious divorce with Konami, and no one had a clue what he might do next.

Death Stranding was appropriately weird, whatever it was. The first teaser showed crab exoskeletons crawling over a lifeless beach, tar handprints imprinted on the sand, a naked, weeping Norman Reedus (Senior Gaming Editor Kyle Orland noted in our original review on PS4, Death Stranding is Hideo Kojima unleashed. So what could possibly be left for a Death Stranding Director’s Cut? It turns out, quite a lot—just maybe not by that name.

Death Stranding Director’s Cut [PS5]

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A Hideo Kojima game, still

Yes, Death Stranding has finally hit PS5, and it’s as uncompromising now as it was two years ago—even if it doesn’t much resemble a director’s cut in the typical film sense. Unlike Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut (Sony’s other recent PS5 re-release buoyed by extended content), Death Stranding‘s doesn’t have a full-blown expansion bolted on to its older foundations to help flesh out its story.

Kojima doesn’t agree with its naming convention, either, which won’t faze anyone who follows his daily film, book, and music recommendations on social media. In a recent tweet, he offered a more fitting name for this release (“Director’s Plus”), confirming that there wasn’t a collection of cutting-room-floor scenes inserted back into the original’s ambitious, unwieldy script.

If you skipped Death Stranding when it was on PS4 or PC, Director’s Cut is the one to play. It offers fresh goodies for players to mess around with and a couple of fun, if bite-sized, new mission areas which blatantly call back to Metal Gear, among other things. As a bells-and-whistles port, Director’s Cut does a good job of expanding on its delivery-man-in-the-post-apocalypse-simulator premise, bolstered by the exclusive DLC of its release and tweaked further to take full advantage of the PS5’s suite of exclusive features.

These extras don’t necessarily push things far outside the grueling moment-to-moment revolutions of the game’s underlying systems—and in some instances, they even intensify the game. But what stands out more to me than the advertised toys is how KojiPro has gone back and seemingly re-finessed what was previously there, going so far as to smooth out some of the prickly rough edges that divided players on release. Though subtle, these revisions offer the best argument for playing (or replaying) this version. That said, I’ve loved Kojima’s work since 1998, so if you weren’t already on board for Death Stranding‘s wild ride, my digging into what’s new here may not change your mind.

For everyone else, you’ll find plenty of Kojima goodness. Director’s Cut leans into Metal Gear‘s inclination to turn on a dime from theatrical gravitas to left-field absurdity, something that was curbed a bit in the original Death Stranding. Now you’re free to run for your life past umbilical-corded monsters to building ramps for daredevil jumping over chasms, or you can use a cargo catapult as a remote-controlled mortar to bombard terrorists in POV with a load of parcels—y’know, normal stuff for any software carrying the “A Hideo Kojima Game” label.

There’s more here for diligent players, too. You can uncover additional equipment types designed for more efficient hauls across Death Stranding‘s desolate landscape, a genuinely unexpected shift that goes a long way toward making Director’s Cut as inviting for newcomers as it ever will be. There are also actual changes to the game world itself, though you’d likely never notice them without comparing this version with the PS4’s. Regardless of whatever you choose to do, though, you’re playing in Kojima’s sandbox. Hope you like his pitch.

Reconnecting the world?

If you’ve never touched Death Stranding, it’s a good example of what happens with a celebrity creative calls up all his buddies to make something crazy. Joining Reedus, several of its characters are played by actors or directors Kojima deeply admires, including Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Casino Royale), Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color), Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water), and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives), and Wonder Woman herself, Lindsay Wagner, though she was mostly let off the hook for voice work alongside Del Toro and Refn. A number of other friends appear as survivors in the world: Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Kong: Skull Island), Geoff Keighley, Junji Ito, Famitsu Weekly editor Hirokazu Hamamura, Remedy head and Max Payne face model Sam Lake—the list goes on.

Its plot sounds equally insane. After a future America is devastated by a mysterious cataclysm, invisible ghosts from a post-limbo otherworld permeate the land of the living. These ghosts (BTs, an abbreviation for “Beached Things”) cause voidouts (massive explosions that annihilate entire cities) when they come into contact with a human. Meanwhile, any corpse will transform into a BT itself if not incinerated. Following the disaster, the country is in shambles, and survivors from sea to shining sea to permanently hunker down in underground shelters. They want to avoid BTs and the storms of instant-aging “timefall” the monsters bring in their wake.

Sam Porter Bridges (Reedus), a porter from the organization Bridges (one of Kojima’s tamer name choices) is different. He can come back from the dead, for one. He also has an affliction that allows him to sense nearby BTs, and he is partnered with the baby from the game’s first teaser, BB, who lives in a pod on Sam’s chest and operates as a living spectral radar to make BTs visible. With these gifts, Sam is tasked by Bridges with the unenviable job of saving what’s left of America and reintegrating the now-disparate “strands” of society through an interconnected successor to the internet.

As such, you deliver cargo to people in need on a coast-to-coast journey while also bringing more nodes into the so-called Chiral Network. In a clever touch, outposts throughout the country indirectly connect you with other players on their own expeditions, allowing anyone “in-network” to share items, traversal equipment, vehicles, and (if they feel like lending a hand) lost deliveries, transported asynchronously in from others’ games.

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Apple turns post-lawsuit tables on Epic, will block Fortnite on iOS

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Enlarge / A Fortnite loading screen displayed on an iPhone in 2018, when Apple and Epic weren’t at each other’s legal throats.

Weeks after Epic’s apparent “win” against Apple in the Epic Games v. Apple case, Apple issued a letter denying Epic’s request to have its developer license agreement reinstated until all legal options are exhausted. This effectively bans Fortnite and any other software from the game maker from returning to Apple’s App Store for years.

Epic was handed an initial victory when the US District Court for Northern California issued an injunction on September 10 ordering Apple to open up in-game payment options for all developers. At the time, the injunction was something of a moral victory for Epic—allowing the developer to keep its in-game payment systems in its free-to-play Fortnite intact while avoiding paying Apple a 30 percent fee that had previously covered all in-app transactions.

But now Epic has faced a significant reversal of fortune.

In a letter sent on September 21 to Epic’s legal counsel, Apple’s lawyers said the company refused to reinstate Epic’s account until the courts issue a final, non-appealable verdict. Epic CEO Tim Sweeney revealed Apple’s decision in series of tweets posted on September 22. Sweeney claims the appeals process for the case could take as long as five years.

Apple’s revocation of Epic’s developer license—required to develop and distribute games to the App Store—was “valid, lawful, and enforceable,” Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers said in her ruling. This leaves the decision whether to allow Epic back into the App Store up to Apple.

Apple’s legal team also cited Epic’s alleged “duplicitous” conduct. Apple is referring to the move that sparked the case—Epic adding code into iOS’s version of Fortnite that enable users to buy items directly from the company.

The letter pointed to a tweet Sweeney had posted earlier this month. In the tweet, Sweeney said he “wouldn’t trade an alternative payment system away to get Fortnite back on iOS.” Sweeney said his words were taken out of context.

Sweeney tweeted an email he wrote to Apple’s legal counsel on September 16, stating that, while Epic was appealing the court’s decision, the developer had paid Apple the court-ordered $6 million in damages required by the September 10 ruling. He said that his company had disabled the server-side software required for in-game payments for players who still had Fortnite installed on their iOS devices. He also alleged that Apple lied about its intentions to work with Epic to bring the developer back to the App Store.

“Apple lied,” Sweeney said. “Apple spent a year telling the world, the court, and the press they’d ‘welcome Epic’s return to the App Store if they agree to play by the same rules as everyone else.’ Epic agreed, and now Apple has reneged in another abuse of its monopoly power over a billion users.”

While the September 10 ruling went in Apple’s favor, the company was not granted everything it sought in its legal defense. Judge Gonzalez Rogers gave Apple a victory in ruling it had not violated antitrust law, though the company lost the ability to prevent developers from including and advertising their own in-game app purchase payment systems. That ruling could lead to greater repercussions for Apple from other game makers or subscription service providers in the future.

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