The inner monster: Alien and It! The Terror from Beyond Space

6 01 2017

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Originally published on PopOptiq.

Otherness is the inevitable theme of films dealing with extraterrestrials. They are the ultimate foreigners, organisms who inhabit planets unlike our own. The problem for artists who tackle such stories is how to portray this Otherness. A common recourse is to humanize it, as in everything from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Star Wars. Another solution, however, is to accept what Fredric Jameson terms the “unknowability thesis,” which he ascribes to Stanislaw Lem (1). As the latter wrote in his novel Solaris: “Where there are no men, there cannot be motives accessible to men.” The truly alien, then, recedes into the shadows or the margins. It can hardly be portrayed if it cannot be grasped by the imagination, so it becomes a vague intangible presence, as in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, or a sheer force of malignancy and death, as in the two examples we will be covering, 1979’s Alien and the little-known 1958 B-movie that likely served as inspiration for Ridley Scott’s classic, It! The Terror from Beyond Space, by Edward L. Cahn. The unknowable, which is impossible to penetrate, becomes a mirror. The animal threats in Alien and Beyond Space, one a so-called Xenomorph and the other a Martian, reflect how humans react when faced with the inexplicable. Failing to find anything human in the monster, some humans might discover a monster in themselves.

The protagonists of Beyond Space, like those in Alien, are trapped inside a spaceship with an extraterrestrial killer. When the story begins, a rescue operation has just taken off from Mars and turned back to Earth after extracting the only survivor of an earlier mission, whom the rescuers believe is guilty of murdering his colleagues in a battle for dwindling rations and oxygen. The survivor, Edward Carruthers, blames a horrifying creature, but Col. Van Heusen, the lead rescuer, will admit to the existence of only one creature – and its very human selfishness and depravity.

Of course, Carruthers is right. When the voracious Martian sneaks into the rescue ship, the once-maligned survivor heads the charge against the intruder. Having initially embodied the figure of the monster, Carruthers manages to free himself of such associations. Indeed, the monstrous becomes an external threat, somewhere and something else. But viewers never shake off that initial impression: that the real monster might be only too human. In Alien, the monster within the human becomes a literal image: the Xenomorph begins its life as an embryo inside a human host, eventually bursting out and growing into a full-fledged assassin.

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If Carruthers can temporarily be considered monstrous, what makes the Martian so inhuman? And if the Xenomorph is anything but human, how can it spring out of a man? These extraterrestrials call into question the meaning of being human – as well as the function of environments made for and by humans. While the Xenomorph slinks around a maze-like cargo ship named the Nostromo, the Martian in Beyond Space finds its movements more limited in the narrow, vertical interiors of a rocket, whose crew ascends from one level to the next, closing airlocks behind it. The Martian breaks through each airlock, as the humans retreat to the ship’s nose, the final level, from which there is no escape. In Alien’s gargantuan Nostromo, the protagonists do not know where the Xenomorph is hiding, and the movie’s horror arises from their ignorance. In Beyond Space, meanwhile, the astronauts are perfectly aware of the Martian’s whereabouts, yet cannot do anything against its inexorable advance.

In both cases, the Other reconfigures the spaceship’s role. The winding passages and dank storerooms of the Nostromo become, through the Xenomorph, the underworld caves of a demon. The alien uncovers the inhumanity at the heart of the vessel: built to haul mineral ore, it is not principally meant for human comfort and habitation, and this fact turns against the crew. By contrast, the rocket in Beyond Space operates on a far more human scale, since its purpose is mainly to carry astronauts. Its interiors are optimized for daily life and what cargo it carries serves to protect the characters: an unlikely arsenal of handguns and grenades. Compared to the sublime labyrinthine rat race of Alien, Beyond Space presents a neater situation, easy to diagram along the y-axis: the extraterrestrial is on one level and the humans are on another. What complicates the protagonists, instead, is a lack of time: the Martian, eventually and inevitably, will reach the rocket’s topmost flight. It’s the inverse of the Nostromo’s predicament: the spaceship is not too unwieldy and massive, but too small, too rational, too efficient, too human. It’s as large as it needs to be for living, so there’s nowhere to hide. The Other redefines manmade structures, reveals their unsuspected essence, so that the rocket becomes an execution chamber and the Nostromo morphs into a coiling catacomb. The ensuing struggle in these reconfigured landscapes, however, is an attempt to define humanity’s destiny.

Alien (1979)  Sigourney Weaver Credit: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Neal Peters Collection

Fredric Jameson, in an essay on science fiction writer A.E. van Vogt, describes what he defines as the “two alien narrative” (2). Fans of Alien will find it strikingly familiar (indeed, van Vogt sued for plagiarism when the 1979 movie came out): “One living and terrifying monster (is) superimposed upon the traces and archaeological remains of what we can only supposed to have been very different monsters.” That is, an “evil alien form (…) is juxtaposed alongside a good alien form in which the lineaments of an alternate social organization become visible.” In Alien, the “good alien form” is obviously the pilot of the derelict spacecraft, which the crew of the Nostromo finds on planetoid LV-426, while the “evil alien form” is the Xenomorph, likely responsible for the tragedy that befell the dead extraterrestrial pilot, which in turn foreshadows what will later happen to the protagonists, who unwittingly carry the monster back with them to the Nostromo.

Two different Others, then, serve as contrasts to the protagonists’ civilization. The dead pilot in Alien represents technological advancement fallen to another’s wrath, to a horrible fiend, which stands for everything deadly and nightmarish about the universe. They trace different directions for mankind – either progress or primal darkness – and neither are encouraging. One path, for all its development, signals ruin and death, perhaps through hubris or overconfidence. The other, ruthlessly alive, is nevertheless a return to the basest animal mentality. Both are potential destinies. Among the main themes throughout the Alien franchise is how human short-sightedness attempts to use the Xenomorphs as biological weapons, with disastrous results. No military industrial complex can control the monsters incubated within us. The alien emerges from the human to consume everything its parents have built, finally replacing its progenitors.

Beyond Space narrates a similar process, but its “two alien narrative” is odd in that there is only a single alien, the Martian. Yet the astronauts hypothesize about an earlier and prosperous Martian society, which devolved into the individual monster that now hunts them in the rocket. As a Cold War parable, the point is obvious: humanity can follow the same fate if it insists on armed (and nuclear) conflict. Significantly, the astronauts cannot hurt the Martian with weapons. They will have to experiment with more creative – and less explosive – methods. The two extraterrestrials of Alien, then, are in Beyond Space combined into one Martian, a vicious representative of an advanced society undone by the awakening of its latent savagery. The result of this historical drama, in both films, endangers the protagonists in two ways: as a physical threat, in the shape of a monster, and as a harbinger of forces out to crush humanity.

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In its efforts to explain the Martian downfall, Beyond Space reminds us of Carruthers and his earlier, presumed guilt. Or more specifically, it reminds us of the human capacity for monstrosity, still a relevant theme despite Carruthers’s innocence. His eventual heroism cannot promise that human civilization will not someday be destroyed by the animal within – as the Martians were.

It is worth remembering, though, that we never see the remnants of that earlier and prosperous Martian society. We only hear human speculation about it. The unknowable Other is given meaning by humans, who use it to debate their own future. The extraterrestrial might be incomprehensible and unknowable, yet its impenetrable surface can adopt an oracular role. As French philosopher Clément Rosset puts it, “In the face of this Other (…) it will not be difficult to recognize the always strange and familiar traits of the Double” (3). This can occur because the Other reveals itself as surprisingly human, or because humans suspect that they themselves might be harrowingly Other. The fear, at the heart of Alien and Beyond Space, is that humans could one day be unrecognizable, that what we interpret as human could be erased even as we reproduce and evolve. Instead of cataclysmic extinction, we could endure a transformation so complete that it amounts to the same fate.

(1) Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005), 107-118.

(2) Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, 314-327.

(3) Clément Rosset, Propos sur le cinéma, trans. Ariel Dilon (Buenos Aires: El cuenco de plata, 2010), 67-73.





A Man Escaped: Robert Bresson as Maker of Stealth Games

19 01 2016

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A Man Escaped has often been called Robert Bresson’s masterpiece. I’m not sure about that claim. Lancelot du Lac is formally richer; Au Hasard Balthazar is more moving. But the director’s breakthrough prison escape film is, if nothing else, a perfect experience. Every shot counts, every composition works. The pace is flawless. Bresson uses off-screen space in ways that have since been extensively copied. Even unique modern masterpieces owe their debt to him, such as Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, about a housewife who might or might not have run over a child with her car, and who spends much of the running time walking in a daze, feeling guilty about the victim she might or might not have left behind on the road, terrified by the noises and figures at the borders of her (and our) perception.

In A Man Escaped, there are many things our protagonist cannot see, and we don’t see them either. This is a powerful narrative mechanic. Bresson insisted, in his writings, on the need for cinema to remove the corset of theatrical tradition, and his productive use of off-screen space (among other techniques) allows him to do that. The camera captures just a small fragment of a larger world.

Now, in theater, there is always an unseen narrative universe beyond the limits of the stage. But, as critic André Bazin argued, that kind of spatial limitation is to be expected in theater. We’re not, however, used to such limitations in cinema, and when they’re imposed on the medium, the effect is more claustrophobic, more impactful. Even if the protagonists are stuck somewhere, the movie can always – and very easily – cut to a new camera angle, so that we can be rescued from the architectural prison. When this doesn’t happen, we grow restless and terribly aware of our entrapment. Bresson knows this only too well. He never rescues us. He forces us to share the prisoner’s perspective, his limited vantage point, his ignorance about what surrounds him and what’s beyond his cell. It’s this that makes A Man Escaped so persuasive and why we identify so much with the protagonist.

Like many art house classics, it can now remind us of a videogame. As much as interactive entertainment tries to resemble Hollywood blockbusters, its real kinship is with this kind of austere, slow-moving fare. Which is what the latest so-called art games and walking simulators, like Gone Home and especially Dear Esther, have understood, and what earlier masterpieces, like the Thief games, had grasped. According to videogame historian Jimmy Maher, back in the 80s, Steve Meretzky, the man responsible for the epochal text-adventure A Mind Forever Voyaging, once sat down to breakfast and had the following epiphany: “Interactive fiction does setting incredibly well, perhaps better than it does anything else. Intricate plotting it does painfully and reluctantly and usually clunkily. Therefore why not make the player not so much a participant in the plot as an observer?” Scrap typical character development and three-act structures. Let’s do setting. Let’s focus on space, on exploration, on movement. On observation.

Bresson did something similar, but in cinematic terms. There’s little psychology in A Man Escaped. Yes, there’s a constant voiceover. But the protagonist’s thoughts are pragmatic: what he sees, what he needs to do, what items he has, how he will get past the Nazi security guards. Interactions with other characters always serve immediate needs. What’s most important, for the protagonist, is mastering his surroundings. Only after doing so might he deliver himself from the encroaching walls. The plot, or what can be called that, is structured around his growing familiarity with the prison’s layout. Transcendence needs physicality, needs a tangible, “realistic” environment. (Paul Schrader, in his study of the director, points out how Bresson highlights the surface of “everyday reality” precisely to undermine it, to make us doubt it. Just like our hero, in this film, wishes to undermine the very defenses he so restlessly studies with such zeal.) We need to feel the material world in our bones before we can imagine anyone’s emancipation from it.





Unfriended, or Two or Three Things I Know About Her Facebook Profile

8 01 2016

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The cluttered frame of this movie-on-a-laptop-screen can’t quite hide the fact that our Skyping and Facebooking protagonists, persecuted on the Internet by a vengeful spirit, will – if they die – die alone. Most horror films, in one way or the other, are about loneliness. Even those about groups of youngsters, like many slashers, are really about the whittling down of their numbers. Near the end of such movies, only one or two usually remain. The real horror is being left alone. But in this case, our heroes are alone from the outset, each inside his or her own room, and all it takes is a bad connection to sever what binds them together. They can’t come to each other’s aid, since they’re too far away. In fact, they can’t even move: if they leave their rooms, says the spirit, they die, so they have to remain seated while yet another Skype window winds down.

Nevertheless, this is not (only) another technophobic dystopia about how, in the era of interconnectedness, we’re less connected than we’ve ever been. It is cautious and pessimistic, sure, but it expresses that caution through uninhibited immersion into what it’s cautious about. That is, through deep familiarity with the subject. The filmmakers don’t wish to turn back the clock and do away with our technological toys. If that were to happen, there would be no movie and, more importantly, no audience to watch it.

The online environment of social media might be banal and commonplace to us, but it becomes alien and strange in this film, which uses the language of this environment, the loading screens and message alerts, the stuttering videos and pixelated cam feeds, to fulfil the requirements of the genre, for suspense and dread. Actions we perform every day are appropriated by the plot and milked for dramatic effect. Suddenly, these actions no longer seem purely utilitarian but hide more sinister possibilities. The movie-on-a-laptop-screen isn’t new: earlier examples include critical, experimental shorts like Transformers: The Premake. What’s more novel is how the online environment is resignified through horror genre tropes and expanded as a surface of expressive possibility.

Significantly, the vengeful spirit roams the online wilds because that is where she was shamed and bullied in the public forum of social media, which led her to commit suicide. What the film says, then, is not that we’re disconnected in the era of interconnectedness, but that, maybe, we’re too connected, not just to each other but to everything all of us ever do, to our pasts, accumulating in the endless, stupid, unfiltered archive of the Internet. As the bodies pile up and friendships are nipped in the bud, the real bogeyman becomes not the vengeful spirit but the endless exposure of our virtual selves, the collection of videos and photos and text messages that roam undeleted from one browser window to the next, waiting for another Google search. Our protagonists become not just strangers to their friends, but to themselves: they can hardly control their unruly online reflections, which outlive them in the form of a digital afterlife. Phrases like “In Real Life” no longer make any sense. What happens online doesn’t stay online and is very much real life. It’s so important, even, that it must be filmed, somehow. It cannot be ignored by cinema, because this new environment is, also, a new home for cinema itself and for the traffic of images.





It’s a Wonderful Life, but not for old maids

31 08 2015

What I admire about Frank Kapra, based on what little I have seen, is that he descends into depths of despair few filmmakers are willing to explore, and he does it in such a way that many viewers are unaware of how far down the rabbit hole they’ve come. Or rather, they don’t realize that, despite a happy ending, or what appears to be a happy ending, they’re still down there, deep inside the rabbit hole. Happy endings, in Kapra, are meant to reassure audiences, yet the slightest analysis reveals a more disquieting picture: the protagonist might have achieved a temporary moment of respite, or been saved from hell, or realized his worth as a human being, but what he has not done is solve the problems of the world, which he hoped to amend and which have brought him to his knees. Kapra shrouds the despair without nullifying it. What’s troubling in Kapra never disappears. It gets pushed to the background, but it remains there, waiting to burst forth.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a particularly obvious example (and to explain why, I am obviously going to have to spoil the ending, so avert your eyes, those who do not want to know or do not yet know): corruption wins. Smith’s famous filibuster, in which he attempts to clear his name and expose a graft scheme carried out by his unscrupulous fellow senators, is a disaster. The movie’s iconic shot, of James Stewart (i.e. Smith) standing next to a pile of letters, represents his final defeat. Those involved in the graft scheme have forged hundreds of messages, purportedly from citizens of Smith’s unnamed state, asking the protagonist to step down from his senatorial seat. The only reason we get an apparently happy ending is because one of the “villains,” Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), has a crisis of conscience, right there in Congress, and reveals all after a botched suicide attempt. There are two interpretations to make of this: either innate human goodness saves the day, in which case evil cannot win, because empathy and guilt eventually have their way; or rather, democracy is in the hands of the corrupt, who are the only deus ex machina capable of counteracting their own corruption. No one can sabotage their designs, except themselves. We depend upon the corrupt to regulate their own sins. The system cannot do it for us. It has failed, it has broken down. Idealists like Smith are powerless and their heroism is without consequence. Happy ending, indeed.

It’s a Wonderful Life is not much different (and to explain why, again, spoilers). George Bailey runs a savings and loans firm with a social conscience, lending to poor citizens who dream of owning a house. Mr. Potter, the most powerful man in Bedford Falls, wants his bank to be the sole financial institution around, and Bailey’s shenanigans prevent this from happening. Following a series of unfortunate events, Mr. Potter successfully and unscrupulously pins a case of bank fraud on George, which threatens to dismantle his firm and ruin his finances, and consequently, George contemplates suicide on the edge of a bridge, hoping his family can cash in on his life insurance policy.

Which is when, famously, his guardian angel descends from heaven and offers him a tour of a world in which George was never born, a dystopian Bedford Falls renamed Pottersville, a case of unchecked capitalism gone wild, as the town, now owned by Mr. Potter, has been overrun by the crassest of commercial interests, the charm of traditional Rockwellian America consumed by the expanding tumor of casinos and nightclubs. An unintentional moment of hilarity, which inspired the title of this brief post, is when George, having just learned that his brother has died in this alternate reality – because George was never around to save him from an accident, and thus more than a hundred American GIs died during the war, because they were meant to be rescued by George’s brother – having just learned such harrowing details, he then asks his guardian angel about his former wife, and so the angel recoils and tells him that, oh, he won’t like this, this is going to be really terrible for him. It turns out she’s an old maid! She never married! Apparently, in 1939, having your brother die was pretty bad, but being a middle-aged woman who had chosen to remain single – now that was tragedy.

Anyhow, the point is that George finally returns to Bedford Falls, realizing, after the angel’s tour, how crucial he is to his community, a lesson driven home when, upon returning to his family, he finds that all his friends and associates, seemingly the entire population of Bedford Falls, have agreed to pitch in and raise money for George to avoid legal trouble. So, happy ending? Not quite: George receives enough to stay afloat, but the years ahead, since he is the sole obstacle halting Mr. Potter’s domination of Bedford Falls, as revealed by the nightmare of Pottersville, will be years of struggle. The uphill battle against the amoral banker continues.





Even love needs a break: The Hunger Games and interminable fictions

17 11 2014

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The following is a translation of an article originally published in Spanish in A Sala Llena.

It’s tough to review a movie that is, in truth, half a movie. The first Hunger Games adaptation, from 2012, can be enjoyed by itself. But its sequel, Catching Fire, ends abruptly, and so does this first part of Mockingjay. The popularity of the source novel means that, as the saying goes, each movie is “too big to fail,” so that, before one of them is released, the following parts have already been filmed or green-lighted. They don’t have to stand alone, since they comprise a whole whose success has all but been guaranteed.

We meet Katniss Everdeen again (an intense and emotional Jennifer Lawrence), now turned into a revolutionary symbol for the outlying districts, which are trying to stage a disorganized revolution against the totalitarian Capitol. The war is also fought in the media, and Katniss becomes the televised face of the struggle (whose real mastermind is the discrete and scrupulous president Alma Coin, played by Julianne Moore). Katniss reconfigures the character she previously played in the titular reality show, and she uses her fame against the very dominant class that turned her into a star. Backstage, she’s directed by a team of ideologues and consultants, who manipulate her as bluntly as did the dictatorial state, although for supposedly more noble ends. Both parties, though ideological opposites, use the same communication tools, a theme already explored in artier fare (like Pablo Larrain’s No and Peter Watkins’s La Commune) but more than welcome in a mainstream spectacle.

A year from now, Mockingjay’s conclusion will be shown in theaters. Then we’ll be able to judge the quality of this preamble, which for the time being is but a fragment of an undefined whole. We’re now used to such blockbuster epics being divided up into episodes and released successively over two or three years. The Star Wars prequels, in 1999, began the trend, and were followed by The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Kill Bill, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Twilight, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and, obviously, The Hunger Games. In some cases, the individual films conclude their respective stories within their two-or-three-hour running times. But mostly, their fades to black don’t signal conclusions, not even open-ended ones, but only pauses. As in old serials, we have to return, at later points, to see the continuations of their plots. Although these classic adventures prefigured what television series would become, they have recently returned to the cinema, now as hundred-million-dollar productions (preceded, in movie history, by the Star Wars Original Trilogy and Back to the Future, inspired by the same model). Curiously, the same year that, as we said, this trend began, also saw the premiere of The Sopranos, which helped found the so-called Golden Age of television, marked by supremely ambitious shows. In some of them, like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, episodes don’t resolve tiny half-hour or hour-long plots, but simply progress lengthy continuous storylines, behaving like links in extended chains, structured for binge-watching on Netflix or Blu Ray. To summarize: movies have turned into televisions series, television series have turned into movies, and serials have become the new normal.

It’s likely that the median spectator is no longer satisfied with a short two-hour story: it needs something that’s three, ten, or fifteen hours long. No modern blockbuster lasts less than 120 minutes and even videogames, more and more frequently, include novelesque scripts. Such a serial architecture derives from literature: the 19th century novel, genre fiction, and comics. At any rate, it’s not a good cultural moment to be a lover of concision. In Jorge Luis Borges’s famous story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a fantastic universe, collectively generated by hundreds of authors, threatens to devour reality: “A dispersed dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their work continues. (…) So will English, French, and mere Spanish disappear from the planet. The world will be Tlön.” In our multimedia context, we’re surrounded by audiovisual fictions that, to make matters worse, suffer from narrative gigantism and occupy all of our (already limited) time. I write this as an admirer of the aforementioned sagas. But, sometimes, even love needs a break.





Sisters: Brian De Palma’s inconstant selves

17 11 2014

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For Sound on Sight:

In Brian De Palma’s Sisters, the titular siblings are French-Canadian Siamese twins surgically separated as adults. Danielle is gentle and lovely, and Dominique gloomy and anguished. This dynamic is complicated by the fact that the former needs the latter to develop her persona. Without Dominique, Danielle has no identity. To weave the fiction of her socially acceptable behavior, she must have Dominique bear the burden of her most disturbing desires. Yet the film, oddly enough, is not about Danielle or Dominique, but about the journalist Grace Collier. As Dominique recedes into the background, Danielle and Grace become the main antagonistic pair, a transition that culminates in an intense climax, a hypnosis dream, that imagines them as conjoined twins. As we learn, Dominique has been dead from the outset, and Danielle has transformed into her in moments of sexual and emotional excitement.

Keep reading.





7 Boxes: Living with cell phones in Paraguay

17 11 2014

7 Boxes

For Sound on Sight:

Even within Latin America, Paraguayan cinema does not exactly dominate the cultural conversation and, sadly, remains something of a mystery. In fact, outside of Argentina, Brazil, and maybe Chile, the rest of South America, in cinematic terms, is mostly uncharted territory (which is not to say no movies are made there, but rather that international audiences, even open-minded cinephiles, don’t know much about them). With this in mind, the breakaway success of 7 Boxes, by Tana Schémbori and Juan Carlos Maneglia, is startling. Since premiering in 2012, it has nabbed prizes in San Sebastian and Mar del Plata; has featured in film festivals in Mexico, Cuba, Sweden, Canada, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic; and has earned critical accolades wherever it has been shown. It is also the highest grossing Paraguayan movie of all time. Nevertheless, it still took two years to reach North American art houses, and it only recently opened in a handful of screens in Argentina, which neighbors Paraguay.

7 Boxes, in this age of sequels and franchises, is like Hollywood done right, except outside of Hollywood. Although, in many countries, it has been relegated to the festival circuit and has received a limited release, this is a formally conventional and fast-paced affair, featuring energetic handheld camerawork and an aesthetics of clutter, which, as in City of God or the more sophisticated Portuguese works of Pedro Costa, emphasizes the lived-in texture of poverty. Although it has plenty of violence, 7 Boxes is never solemn or sensational, allowing sudden and even surreal intrusions of humor to relieve the tension and bloodiness. Any movie of this sort risks suggesting that its humble characters know only hunger and crime, and though it would be false to say that 7 Boxes entirely avoids this pitfall, its protagonists do seem to enjoy a broad panoply of emotions, love and camaraderie, dreams and pure adrenaline, as they also interact creatively with technology.

Keep reading.








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