Saw (2004)

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It’s mostly nonsense, but it’s an admirable piece of nonsense.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. I still meet some people who are impressed by the ‘ideas’ in this film. Jigsaw’s ideas are retarded. Not only do they sound bullshit to anyone a little familiar with antinatalism or right-to-die (This is what happens when people are unfamiliar with pessimistic philosophy), but it doesn’t make sense. Jigsaw rambles about appreciating life, yet he clearly doesn’t. His games are cruel and impossible to win. Plenty of times other people have to die. A person who appreciates life wouldn’t put them in such dangerous situations. Moreover, these horrifying experiences leave people with PTSD. People with PTSD hardly end up appreciating life. They have a high suicide risk.

But Saw is nonsensical from the start, but it’s nonsense with spirit. Somewhere around here is a brilliant, slightly silly and slightly deep psychological thriller. This could’ve easily been Se7en‘s and Cube‘s weirder brother. Jigsaw barely has a presence here, anyway.

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What went wrong? This was before the series became pure Torture Porn. That didn’t happen until the third installment. Rather, it’s an expansion on the claustrophobic thriller. The genre has a built-in emotional appeal. We’re immediately thrown into the psychology of the characters. Human beings love puzzles by nature since, well, the world is a puzzle. Birth throws you into life and you have to figure out what to do with it. Life also happens to be as terminal as Jigsaw’s game (Oh! the Irony!).

For a while, this goes really well. The film moves like a point-and-click game. Writing characters with unique reactions to their surroundings how you avoid directing an actual video game and it works. Lawrence and Adam, even if they aren’t the deepest characters, react differently from the very beginning.

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The art direction is also important, and that’s something the franchise never lost. If you’re telling your story using visuals, make those visuals count. Saw has a rusty, industrial aesthetic. Very few scenes depart from this. Jigsaw’s concept may be moronic, but at least he has a style of his own. The ‘games’ often consist of rusty, broken-down machinery and the rooms always look decrepit and falling apart. It’s the visual equivalent of Industrial Music and I mean that in the best way possible.

Another important aspect – and Saw’s biggest contribution to the world of cinema – is the soundtrack. It’s almost sad how one of the best scores in film history is wasted on this. The ending theme isn’t the only highlight although it’s so epic it should appear in every film. Clouser did a brilliant score consisting of creepy ambiance, metallic drums and buzz-saw guitar riffs. The last 30 minutes owe half their intensity to the soundtrack. A rusty world consisting of broken machinary demands the sound of these machines in the soundtrack.

Clouser is a versatile composer, so it’s not just those noises that are effective. Throughout the films there are some melodies and rhythms. They’re just as important at adding tension. What makes Clouser’s score so different is the fact he chose a specific sound that fits the film’s visual style. Most composers just stick an orchestra that gets louder in the climax. Clouser uses a few strings, but “Hello Zepp” has those rusty electronics, too. Listening to the soundtrack alone, it’s easy to forget how the film doesn’t live up to its promise.

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The film has various flaws, but it’s hard to pinpoint the big problem. Something those hold the film back from being Very Good, but what is it? It’s not the ridiculousness of the premise. Jigsaw’s presence isn’t felt too much and the twist in the end is just too bizarre to hate. Unlike other claustrophobic thrillers there are plenty of scenes in the outside world, but that’s a better option than info dumps. The direction feels amature-ish, but the unique aesthetic and odd premise points to an undeveloped but unique mind.

Perhaps it’s the needless sadism. The film isn’t as cruel as later installments, but these moments still feel wrong. The fact we’re meant to somewhat agree with Jigsaw is plain sick. He’s a psychopathic torturer who disregards human life and basic rights. The camera often lingers on people screaming in pain, which is uncomfortable. These characters are just pawns in the game anyway. Seeing them being tortured and crying in pain isn’t easy because of that. It’s their lack of humanity that makes their suffering so hard to watch, but also unpleasant and pointless. Fictional characters don’t exist, but they’re meant to portray living human beings. The disregard the creators show for them is unsettling.

Other small flaws are easy to forgive. The characters may lack a deep psychology, but Gordon and Adam react to the world in their ways. The actors aren’t great but they do put effort. Even little utterances and phrases are spoken differently. The best example is Michael Emerson as Zep. Although the script gives him no unique lines, he imbues his character with the instability that a person in such a position would suffer from.

It’s a shame the film’s legacy was ruined. At first it was called a Se7en clone and now it’s considered the bomb that kickstarted the Torture Porn genre. What it really is, is a bizarre, deeply flawed but fascinating claustrophobic thriller. It’s worth a single watch or two, just to absorb its ideas.

3 Industrial guitar riffs out of 5

Psycho-Pass

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Criminals who babble philosophically will always be present in fiction. It’s an acknowledgement that mere sadism isn’t enough. Even if a person is a sadist, there is more going on than plain cruelty there. If we can answer what makes a man start fires, maybe we won’t need fire extinguishers. Too often these stories are too fascinated with the idea of the underdog taking revenge at society. He may lose, but awareness that he’s wrong doesn’t make it any less of an escapist fantasy.

The person’s actions should follow his worldview. If they contradict that, then this contradiction must be addressed. People are messy so of course they will contradict themselves. If they do so in the story, it’s because the author made it so. If he made it so, he needs to connect it. Don’t put contradictions where they don’t belong. People don’t always contradict themselves.

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There’s a scene where Makishima gets into a fight and we see he’s a professional. It’s like before he went to star in Psycho-Pass, he stopped at Naruto and learned the ways of the ninja. I was supposed to be impressed, though. Not only is Makishima pretty and can predict people’s actions, he’s a champion at MMA.

It’s hilarious. It reminded me how Lisbeth solve an equation in the middle of the climatic fight. It’s so easy to give your character skills. You just look up the cheat codes, write the lines that say “add 50 points to Melee Skill” and you’re done.

Just because your character is skilled at a lot of things doesn’t mean the author is skilled. Character skills are often substitutes for personality. Makishima is your stereotypical Pseudo-Philosophical Villain. Forget about how the series quotes a lot of books. None of Makishima’s speeches are related to his actions.

All of his actions involve death and destruction. He gives people who want to hurt others the means to do so. When Makishima does something of his own, it’s also to cause hurt. The dominating theme is hurting others. He gives them the freedom to hurt others, but that’s as far as it goes.

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For freedom to be a theme, it needs to be expressed in different ways. The only freedom people gain is to hurt others. The violence is more varied. The characters include a bullied man, a girl sucked in her art and a person who loves the thrill of the hunt.

Makishima is not very differernt from the Jigsaw Killer. Despite talking about appreciating life, his traps were so dangerous (some can’t be complete without somebody dying) that it’s obvious he doesn’t value these people’s lives. Makishima babbles about freedom and the prison of the Sybil System, but he’s fine with killing an innocent person. There’s no worse way of ripping freedom from someone than killing them.

It’s all shock value without substance. The result is entertaining at first, but goes downhill fast. The anime goes south when it expected me to stare at a helpless, half-naked woman begging for mercy and take the villain seriously. It’s not dark, because true darkness is understandable. A villain whose motives we can comprehand and find reasonable is scarier.

If Makishima tells people to live free or die, how much of a choice is it?

What a shame. The series never chose whether it was a thoughtful story or a wild, exciting one. Either of these would’ve been fine. Being pretentious is the valley between the two.

The other side of the horseshoe fares better. The Sybil System is questioned, but it never becomes a strawman. The System is totalitarian, but it’s not an evil regime bent on oppressing everyone so the protagonist will have something to fight. Every system of government comes to power because it benefits someone.

The System doesn’t just benefit the Rich & Powerful. It benefits the simple people. The society has order, but it’s good order that leaves a lot of room for joy and wonder. Creativity may be restricted, but creativity isn’t everything. The artist may want to draw violence and the rocker wants to tell everyone to fuck off. Some would prefer to have a steady job and enough money to go for drinks with their friends.

The System also presents an alternative moral system to current society. We live in a society that praises people for getting money, having a lot of sex and being physically fit. Somehow all these promises of sex and money don’t prevent the high rates of suicide. So Sybil is not very friendly towards outcasts and has less room for creativity, but what if it’s a price worth paying for mental health?

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It’s a society where you see advertisements for ways to improve your mental health. Everyone is talking about their Hue and Psycho-Pass. If you think this is going too far, then take a look at our own society. We do the same only for physical health. Physical health is a giant industry of protein shakes, gyms and promises of social status.

No system exists without its outcasts, and Sybil has its own. Only how it casts out people isn’t so different than ours. We rage against models who aren’t stick-thin, as if being fat is a moral offense. Later, we’ll hang out with sexual harassers just because they’re charismatic. Sybil is harsh to the mentally ill, but forgets about the actions.

For a    series where mental health is a big issue, it’s surprising how lacking it is in character development. A flashback tries to develop one character. All it tells us is that she used to play guitar. Why did she take a different road than her friend? Why are their worldviews so different?

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Akane gets some development, but she’s an archetype they play with rather than a psychological portrait. Ginoza is slightly better, but everyone else spits exposition without modifying it. There’s a wild card, a bisexual analyst, a cliched noir dude who remains tough and an old geezer. Their personalities clash more than your average detective story, but there aren’t even hints towards a psychology they didn’t have time to develop.

Psycho-Pass has interesting ideas and a pretty fun story, but it has Makishima. It’s a pin in the tire that let all the air out. The ideas are too undeveloped and there aren’t enough of them to make up for this. It’s not a case of a series that’s too short, but a series that focuses on the less interesting parts.

3 dominators out of 5

Mirai Nikki (Future Diary): Redial

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The original series had a lot of great ideas that weren’t enough for 26 episodes. What a surprise that this OVA has more ideas that can fit in 30 minutes. Redial doesn’t feel like an epilogue. It feels like a sketch for the third season.

The obligatory beach section rears its head, but it’s not here for fanservice. Once again, the franchise takes a trope and plays by its own rules. The jokes and the focus is on the cast, which is as lively as ever. The ecchi moments don’t feel like tacked on but emerge organically. They involve only the characters who will deal with sexual confusion at that stage in life.

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The re-appearance of the diary holders has the same vivid characterization as the original. My theory was true. Each time a diary holder is allowed to do stuff, their personality comes alive. The 12th remains a hilarious, energetic presence. Everyone is crazy, but he’s so far out there that everyone else backs away.

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The 12th gets the most development, but others get some development. John Bacchus gets a few jokes of his own. The humor here stems from the characters themselves, rather than specific punchlines. Such comedy is more than funny, but builds the character. The impression these scenes leave is that Future Diary could develop a Slice of Life anime with its cast.

Things get fuzzier when Redial goes back in touch with the plot. It tries to develop the romance concept, but it ends up being confused on what it wants to say. The original was satirical about it. It presented an intense love, but showed its danger. Yuno’s obsession with Yuki isn’t healthy or productive, and the original knew that.

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The conclusion hints at a love-conquers-all message. The original always dealt with extremes, so a love that defeats such barriers isn’t out of place. It doesn’t align with the satire, though. As an exploration of Yuno’s psych, it’s too short.

The changes in the new world weren’t enough to change everyone completely. Rei still has a sadistic side to him. Expecting Yuno to be psych-healthy is ridiculous. Psychological problems often take time until they manifest. Give this a few episodes, and you could get a true psychological series. A psychological story doesn’t need a seriel killer. It’s enough just to follow a character, and this OVA hints they could do that.

Even Deus and Uryuu get some development in their brief appearances. 30 minutes aren’t enough to develop all of these ideas. It’s a nice addition and it’s great to see these characters in an alternative setting, but that’s it. There’s so much steam left in this franchise, it’s odd nothing else came out. Attack On Titan is getting so many spin-offs it might as well be a carousel. As good as that one was, it doesn’t have Future Diary‘s lively madness.

Hopefully, someone will pick this franchise again one day and give it a new spin.

3 blind men out of 5