Horizon: Zero Dawn Has a Secretly Upbeat Message About Human Destiny

I’ve been playing a decent amount of the new game Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s been justly praised on the basis of its very capable following of the open-world blueprint of games like Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption, and Far Cry. But the world has also gotten a lot of attention – the game imagines a distant future where civilization has basically collapsed, but there are many technological holdovers from a long-forgotten past.

That includes lots of huge robots which, I’m sure for Reasons, resemble dinosaurs and sabretooth tigers, and which make up the (really, really fun to blow up) main enemies of the game. But it also includes a lot of mundane objects, from ceramic mugs to corkscrews to a Bluetooth headset (more or less) that’s central to the game’s plot and mechanics. The humans interacting with this stuff have no idea how it works – the entire setting hinges on the dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology resembles magic.

The game’s approach to time and human collective memory, though, are what I think really set it apart. Post-apocalyptic stories are a dime a dozen, but that’s not what this is, despite the sense that there’s been a technological catastrophe. In Mad Max or Fallout, there’s a sense of nostalgia for the lost past, and a struggle to survive in a harsh present. They seem to reinforce, in that way, the inherent value of the real world we live in now – they suggest that we should treasure what we have, because look how horrible things would be if we lost it.

But things aren’t that horrible at all in the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn (these dual titles are really unwieldy, execs). There are wars and conflicts, but humans now live in fairly well-structured, semi-primitive tribes and proto-nations, including farming and hunting societies. They’re not 21st Century America, but they’re not some sad vestige of a glorious past. They’re just different, functioning societies.

And they don’t pine for any past, either. The builders of the technology they see all around them are more mysterious ‘others’ than direct forebears, closer to ancestral gods than actual people. There’s no powerful sense that protagonist Aloy and her people have ‘lost’ anything – this ecosystem of strange and dangerous robots, and occasional technological scraps, is simply the world they live in, and make their living from.

This sense a much different message about human fate than the standard postapocalypse narrative, and considering that we’re likely headed for something catastrophic pretty soon, it’s a bit of a light in the darkness. Humanity (according, ahem, to this video game) is robust enough to survive up and down cycles – while we may recede from the progress and horror of the 20th century, there will still be an essential humanity to us, and we will continue. We will make hunting armor out of car reflectors, and maybe that’ll be enough to propel us to the next good patch.

Writer Autopsy: What’s the Matter With the Conjuring 2?

I was very late to the party on The Conjuring, but when I saw it about two months ago it scared the pants off me. (There’s nothing dignified about a 36 year old man clutching his fiancée like some sort of mystical talisman against the dark – but it’s definitely fun.) So I was happy to devote a couple of hours to the followup last week – only to be disappointed. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s not that scary or interesting, even though it has a lot of the same ingredients as the first one.

But for a writer, a failed piece of work can be just as educational as a successful one. You can see the cracks – in fact, the cracks leap out at you. So here are the cracks in The Conjuring 2.

Structurally Fucked: The movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes long, give or take. Which is too long for a haunted-house movie to start with – but that weakness is really exacerbated by the frontloading of the haunting. We get an hour and 30 minutes of foreboding rattles and jump scares before the demon hunters show up – and that fight is the center of the story, especially since it isn’t until that conflict gets rolling that we actually gain even a hint of understanding as to the nature of what’s happening.

The long buildup might have been sustainable if there had been slightly clearer hints as to the nature or motivation of the ghost, but there just aren’t. Slight spoiler, but the ghost’s main motivation seems at first to be . . . wanting to watch a different TV channel?

Low Stakes: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but you know practically from the get-go that no one in this movie is going to die. Even after the haunting is clear to everyone, people just kind of hang around, remaining under threat. They go elsewhere if they want to sleep, suggesting that the ghost is about as threatening as a termite infestation. The exception, of course, is the ‘host’ character – but even she isn’t seen to be really in danger until a very late scene. The haunting, for her, is more of a bummer because it makes her a social outcast, than because she’s in actual danger. That’s just not a good way to generate fear.

Contrast that with the first movie, where people had a mounting plague of bruises and cuts, and oh yeah, your mom is trying to murder you. And your mom is Lili Taylor, and she’s totally terrifying.

Fake, Shallow Central Relationship: Since it’s now officially A Franchise, the Conjuring’s central duo are more important than in the first film. And nothing about them feels remotely real. God Bless Vera Farmiga, who deserves much better, but these un-flawed whitebread ghost hunters are terminally uninteresting. And their boringness makes the few moments when they express their mutual affection downright squicky – “It’ll give you something to look forward to when you get home.” Thanks, Mom and Dad.

All of which is to say that their relationship is core to the dramatic moment at the heart of the movie, when Dad Hunter decides to go into the house alone despite the danger. When Farmiga tells him, “I can’t lose you. I’m so scared,” it’s hard to buy, because they seem more like business partners and mutual beards than two people in love.

Doesn’t Question its Own Highly Questionable Premise: The movie makes a few minor gestures towards the haunting being faked, but it doesn’t rise to the level of a dramatic question, largely because the context makes doubt hard to swallow. Everyone who questions Mom and Dad Ghost Hunters’ core belief that demons love to possess children and haunt houses is depicted as a deluded, pinheaded ivory-tower academic, who is also physically weak. Dad Ghost Hunter is shown to be willing to beat someone up for his beliefs, which is, you know, proof that he’s right?

Even on its own terms, this does much less than the first film to explore the idea that demons prey on weakness and doubt. Honestly, it could even be seen as pretty anti-feminist, since basically all the family did to ‘invite’ the haunting is to be led by a single mother.

Anyway, intellectually shallow. I had the same problem with The Witch and its dangerously-close-to-total acceptance of women as conduits of evil – though that’s a far, far superior film.

Other Minor Stuff:

Uses the exact same “crosses flipping upside down” moment as the first movie (I’m pretty sure?). Gives us a three minute montage set to “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” which, sorry, doesn’t do much to actually convince me about the relationship.

David Altmejd is all of you weirdo hipsters’ daddy.

Early last week, I was visiting my brother in Houston, but swung by Austin, where I lived when I was a good bit younger. I bought some records at Waterloo, and then swung by a place I’d never visited before – Farewell Books. For some reason, the Yelp review set off my “awesome shit” spider-sense – and it wasn’t wrong.

Farewell is in the former Domy Books space, and was actually taken over by former Domy employees when that awesome, awesome project wrapped up. It’s now technically four businesses – the bookstore on one side, the equally rad Las Cruxes avant-clothing/jewelry/record shop/gallery on the other, and two I was a little less clear on somewhere in back. I was reminded just how great Austin can be when I ran into the critic George Elkind and, along with Farewell intern Jori (sorry dude, I forgot your last name!) went down several rabbit holes’ worth of conversations about comics, movies – and, finally artists.

I seriously mulled picking up Farewell’s copy of a complete Cremaster compendium book which, at $120, was an absolute steal. But then Jori got me to take a look at a David Altmejd book, and I instantly saw it was the more interesting choice.

Altmejd’s work does everything I so badly want someday to accomplish with my writing. He takes the fantastical and the grotesque and refines it to its absolute peak, making it impossible to say it’s not ‘art’. He is to studio art what Thomas Ligotti or Michael Cisco are to fiction, what Matt Brinkman or Charles Burns are to comics, what Alejandro Jodorowsky is to film, what True Detective Season 1 was to TV. He takes outre, low-brow ideas and formalizes them to a powerful sheen, explores their depths to find what really makes them tick – but without intellectualizing or sucking the life out of them.

I’ve just discovered the guy (shamefully), so I haven’t seen these works in person. But even on the page they are staggering, mind-bending, specific yet visionary. His creatures transcend anything that Tolkien ever cooked up, instead having more in common with the horrific beauty of ’70s extremists like M. John Harrison or Michael Shea (or their godchild, Jeff Vandermeer). These are things that most people aren’t creative enough to cook up even in their wildest nightmares.

He first came to prominence with a series of monster bodies and heads encrusted with crystals, which seemed to grow on them like mold or mushrooms. If you recognize the crystals, you might be a certain sort of witchy hipster, living a realm where the otherworldly has become at least a little bit more relevant. It’s unclear to me whether the chicken or the egg came first (crystal imagery has been around in hipsterworld for a long time), and saying that Altmejd’s work influenced the design of a few tops at Urban Outfitters is pretty insulting anyway.

But more importantly, his work expands on and delves deeper into what those trifles are just barely brushing the surface of – a certain kind of intense wonder, sometimes stomach-turning as much as brain-bending, that we experience in contact with that which is truly, deeply different. Altmejd’s figures are often vaguely humanoid, but nothing about them works according to rules we would recognize – gravity, biology, chemistry.

The fact that they gesture strongly towards the human, of course, makes them all the more astounding when they go a drastically different direction. They open up, turn inside out (both, admittedly, shortcuts to the uncanny), grow things, fall apart. They’re the wrong color, with the wrong affect – most often, none at all.

I’m just getting to now him for the first time, but just as much as Matthew Barney or William Burroughs before them, I can already tell that David Altmejd is sure to be that worst and best of things – an inspiration who is also an intimidation. A fragmentary dream of what I would like to achieve, but maybe never will.