Thursday, 9 July 2020

Thursday Movie Picks: Globetrotting Movies


For this week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks is Globetrotting Movies. If you're not familiar with this activity, it's pretty straight forward. Each Week Wanderer over at the blog Wandering Through the Shelves presents a different theme. The idea is for participants to pick out three-five movies that fit that theme, and include a short description of their choices. In theory it's pretty simple, though sometimes finding movies to fit the category can be challenging.

According to Google, Globetrotting is defined as "the action of traveling widely around the world." Okay, that's pretty straight forward. So a "Globetrotting" film would be one that involves characters travelling around the world. Obviously, these films usually take place on Earth- I don't know of any globetrotting films set on other planets. Of course there are some science fiction films that could be
considered solar system or galaxy-trotting. Most of the Star Wars films see characters travelling to several different worlds. Alternatively we could point to movies like Interstellar that involve exploration of a Solar System.

So obviously, in a globetrotting film we can probably expect to see a variety of places visited by its characters, preferably locations that are very far apart from each other. A lot of globetrotting films may try to take advantage of their varied settings by using locations with very different environments, giving each visited place a unique appearance. Now admittedly it is a bit difficult to identify how far one must travel to be considered "globetrotting" but I would imagine at least travelling between different countries or continents. For instance, a film that takes place across several different American states probably wouldn't qualify.

It was tricky to pick out a set of films that easily qualified for the definition of "globetrotting." Figuring out what films constituted sufficient travelling was no easy task. But I found a few good ones, I think.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)


Now this might not be the first thing most people think of as "globetrotting" but... well... most of the world is covered in water, so it might be more globetrotting than most. Based on the famous novel by Jules Verne, this sci-fi classic follows four men in the mid-19th century aboard a highly advanced submarine that is centuries ahead of its time. While perhaps not offering as many different locations as its source material, it still takes the viewer on an epic underwater adventure around the world.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)


Okay, so technically three of the four Indiana Jones films could be described as globetrotting adventures, the one exception being The Temple of Doom (which, aside from the opening sequence, takes place entirely in India, largely around in and around one palace and a nearby village). But The Last Crusade probably has the most variety in locations visited. Over the course of his adventure, Indy travels to a bunch of different locations with their own unique environments, and the film makes full use of the different places he ends up.

Tomb Raider (2018)


The 2018 reboot of the Tomb Raider films draws on some of the changes that have occurred in the more recent games, particularly the emphasis on survivalist themes and efforts to get to know Lara on a more personal level. But it still offers a big globetrotting adventure across several different locations. What changes compared to the Angelina Jolie films is the fact that we meet a younger Lara before she's fully established herself as the Tomb Raider and still developing her skills while also dealing with some complicated personal issues. But even with the complications in her life Lara still isn't ready to give up pursuing an ancient legend in an effort to find answers and outwit a dangerous secret society that is deeply intertwined with her life.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Thursday Movie Picks: Period Dramas


This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks is Period Dramas. If you're not familiar with this activity, it's pretty straight forward. Each week, Wanderer over at Wandering Through the Shelves has a theme that gets posted on Thursdays (hence the name). Based on that theme, participants are expected to choose three movies and include roughly a paragraph on why they chose them. Pretty straight forward in theory, although sometimes is can prove more challenging than you expect.

Of course, "period drama" is a fairly broad term that could encompass a number of different films making this list slightly trickier to assemble. The obvious definition of a "period drama" would be a dramatic narrative set against the backdrop of a specific period of history, but this could encompass a wide range of sub-genres set across different eras. Probably the most obvious one would be the "costume drama"- elaborate melodramas (often romances) that make a huge spectacle of their selected era, (often somewhere in the late 18th or early 19th century, or sometimes adopting a Victorian/Edwardian setting). Typically the big thing you expect to see put on display is the fashion trends of the period (or at least those of the upper class- you don't normally see costume dramas about the poor). Depending on who you ask these are either examples of fine art or overly pretentious. Or somewhere in the middle.

Another sub-genre would be the "sword and sandal" films- big-budget historical or religious epics, many of them set in Ancient Rome. This type loves to make a spectacle of its setting (expect to see lots of Roman architecture), and may incorporate lots of special effects. We could also point to any number of war films that dramatize historical conflicts, such as the innumerable range of dramas about World War II or the Vietnam War. Certainly any drama set in the Victorian period would qualify.

Literature is also a common source material for period dramas. The romances of Jane Austen, for example, seem to be a popular choice.

So for the purposes of this theme, I had to come up with a selection of period dramas. Since it was a broad topic it was hard to narrow it down to just three. I did eventually manage to come up with three after filtering it down from a lot more, and produced the following selection. Plus an unexpected bonus.

Let's get started!

Barry Lyndon (1975)



Technically, several of Stanley Kubrick's films could be classified as "period dramas." Certainly Paths of Glory and Spartacus, and even Full Metal Jacket, but Barry Lyndon has a way of standing out. In the 1970's Kubrick took on the ambitious project of trying to make a biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte. A lot of what he did accomplish was quite impressive. The amount of research Kubrick had managed to do was alone impressive. He was going to go above and beyond. He had everything figured out. It was an ambitious project for sure, but if anyone could pull it off it was Stanley Kubrick. Then just as he was about to start filming, another Napoleonic film came out bombed. As a result, the investors panicked and pulled Kubrick's funding.

But while they may have deprived us of seeing what might have been the greatest biopic of all time, Kubrick did manage to take his extensive work on Napoleon and put into his next project- his underrated 1975 period piece Barry Lyndon. Based on a popular romance novel, Barry Lyndon follows an 18th century rogue who gambles his way into the aristocracy and gains just about everything he could possibly want, only to eventually see it all come crashing down (that's not a spoiler by the way, you're literally told from the beginning how it's all going to end). As far as costume dramas go, it's pretty well made.

Perhaps the most famous story about this film is one of Kubrick's more unusual decisions. For the indoor scenes, Kubrick was very adamant about using actual candlelight. It took a specialized camera normally used by NASA to make that possible, but it was worth it.

The Elephant Man (1980)


David Lynch's second feature film was a Victorian drama inspired by the real-life Joseph Merrick (referred to here as "John" due to a peculiar choice in the source material), the titular "Elephant Man"- a man who gained a great deal of attention from the medical world due to his unusual medical condition that puzzled doctors of the time, and which to this day experts still try to diagnose without success. They even got an actual cast of Merrick's head to use for the makeup job on John Hurt.

The Elephant Man brings to the forefront two aspects of Victorian society. It provides a thorough look into the British medical scene, offering a glimpse into the life of a doctor at the time, but perhaps more obviously it brings up the less glamorous subject of "freakshows". This is a once-common practice where circuses would gather "freaks"- people with weird physical quirks whose bodies would be put on display to be met with fascination and discomfort by their audience. The Elephant Man has a very cynical view of freak show exhibitions, and their tendency to exploit the misfortunes of others for profit.

Now some would argue that freak show acts actually helped a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have been able to make a living (contrast this with a film like The Greatest Showman, which emphasizes how a lot of people with deformities were generally marginalized at the time and how circuses were basically the only career paths available to them). While this angle isn't discussed much in The Elephant Man (if at all), it does show the problematic society that marginalizes people with conditions over which they have no control, and certainly questions the ethics of using a human's deformities for entertainment. In fact, one of the big questions of the film is whether Treves is actually making things better for Merrick or if he's just created a whole new circus.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)


As one of my professors once remarked, this probably should have been called The Draughtsman's Contracts because it's a major theme and there are at least two important contracts he takes (three if you count the "contract" at the very end). Peter Greenway's period drama revolves around an 18th-century sketch artist who is hired to produce drawings of a British estate, while also entering deals that involve sexual affairs with two upper class women. Oh, and there's a murder which may or may not have its solution in said drawings (it's a bit confusing). There's also a naked man who often pretends to be a statue and keeps appearing in various parts of the estate for reasons never made entirely clear. This film can certainly be described as "weird" but it does a pretty impressive job with the period detail.

Bonus: History of the World, Part I (1981)


I thought that while we're on the subject of "period dramas" it would be fun to also include an underrated film that parodies the genre. Mel Brooks' take on the period drama is an anthology that ruthlessly mocks various types of period dramas, both historical and religious.

The two main sections include a mock "sword and sandal" epic that follows the adventures of a "stand-up philosopher" in Ancient Rome, and a mock costume drama about the French Revolution. The film also has a segment depicting the "Dawn of Man" which includes a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a chronicling of early human discoveries such as the spear, fire, the first marriage (and first homosexual marriage), music, and art (which also caused the birth of the critic). And of course we can't forget the bizarrely cheerful song-and-dance number about the Spanish Inquisition.

Mel Brooks himself plays several different people over the course of the film (even having a dual-role in the French Revolution segment), but quite a few other big names also make appearances. Several of Brooks' regulars manage to find their way in- Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Dom DeLuoise, Ron Carey, Chloris Leechman, and Sid Caesar all show up. Other surprising appearances include John Hurt, Bea Aurthur, and dramatic narration by Orson Welles. 

Why We Need a Break From Batman



Batman is a character who has become so iconic that his very image is recognizable at a glance. The character has been portrayed by far too many actors to count across every form of media imaginable- comics, television, feature films, video games. You name it, Batman's appeared at some point. And that's to say nothing of the innumerable parodies and homages that have been made by fans. Batman is an extremely popular character that has resonated across generations, but that's part of the problem.

Like fellow comic book hero Superman, the character of Batman, and his sidekick Robin originated in the 30's. Also like Superman, a lot of the lore that has come to be associated with the character was not yet established. Batman was a caped hero who fought crime alongside a sidekick with some homoerotic undertones. Pretty straight forward really. Batman's first filmed appearance was actually a 1943 serial simply titled Batman that established some aspects of the franchise, such as the presence of a butler named Alfred, and the presence of a "Bat-Cave" that serves as a base of operations. It was also influenced by World War II-era racism against the Japanese, with its white heroes working to outwit a Japanese antagonist and occasionally spouting some unfortunate racial slurs.


A lot of what we've come to associate with Batman comes from the famous 1960's TV series, also called Batman. This series was designed to be campy and ridiculous. Batman, famously played by Adam West, was often getting into weird situations, often ending up in situations that led to over-the-top cliffhangers parodying those of older serials. Although it drew many of its characters from the 1940's comics, the show helped to solidify their roles as key figures in Batman lore. Several antagonists from the comic are established as Batman's main enemies- most famously the Joker (who by now has more or less become the "primary" nemesis of Batman), but also Two-Face and the Riddler, as well as an early version of Catwoman. We also see Commissioner Gordon established as Batman's friend on the police force.


Then we get to Tim Burton's 1989 Batman with Michael Keaton in the title role. Tim Burton made an unusual decision for the time by deciding he was going to break from the campiness of the show and present a much more serious interpretation of the character. Since then, Batman has gone through several different incarnations, some of which managed to add new characters that went on to be recognized as key pieces of lore. For instance, in Batman: The Animated Series Joker was often given generic henchmen, but then someone had the idea that it might be interesting to see a henchwoman for a change. This resulted in the creation of Harley Quinn, a character often reappeared in future versions of Batman's adventures and herself had a long and complex evolution.

But of course, the darkness and brooding of Batman remained throughout most subsequent iterations. With the exceptions of obvious parodies (as in The Lego Batman Movie) the idea of Batman being dark seemed to be solidified in the minds of his writers. After Tim Burton, we see it reappear again and again, from Batman the Animated Series to Christopher Nolan's Batman films to the Batman: Arkham series of video games. They keep trying to frame Batman as being dark and brooding. And to be honest, I'm kinda sick of it.

Every time Batman appears post-West, it's the same story. Bruce Wayne was the son of rich parents who were killed in a mugging-gone-wrong that happened after they left a theater one night, which inspired Bruce to become a vigilante who strikes fear into the hearts of criminals. Blah blah blah, you know the deal. Even The LEGO Batman Movie implies this backstory. Then of course we have all the same bad guys and their gimmicks- The Joker, who has a habit of cheerfully committing murder in a carnival atmosphere; the Riddler, who likes to challenge people to figure out his crimes based on riddles; Two-Face's habit of acting on a coin flip. It's been done.

And let's face it, maybe it was cool when Tim Burton did it, maybe even when Nolan did, but for all the efforts to treat the series as serious, the Batman franchise as a whole is pretty cartoonish. This is literally about a rich guy who puts on tights to fight crime and feels the need to make absolutely everything in his life bat-themed. Even many of his enemies. Joker, Two-Face, the Riddler, Scarecrow, the Penguin, Mr. Freeze. How are any of these characters realistic? They're all bizarre outlandish characters who rely on silly gimmicks, whose plans mostly hinge on destroying Gotham simply because they're evil. When was the last time Batman actually take on a criminal like you might find in real life?

Batman as a character has been portrayed in sixteen feature films and appearing in video games since 1986. I think we've seen enough of the character at this point, and yet we keep seeing a new Arkham game coming out every few years while other more interesting superheroes remain untouched. Sixteen different Batman films, some of which were released within only a few years of the character's comic debut. Yet it took seventy six years and the release of Batman vs. Superman just to get Wonder Woman (another character who is equally iconic in the comics) onto the big screen.


You know how many video games Wonder Woman has starred in? Sure, she's appeared in some games, either as a playable character in an ensemble cast or as a supporting NPC, but how many has she actually taken the lead in? Exactly zero. Batman, Superman, and other Superheroes get to appear time and again. Sure we can keep cranking out Arkham games because we haven't had enough Batman, but nobody seems to have considered the possibility of a Wonder Woman game.

And this is just it, I'm sick of Batman. I'm sick of his stupid costume. I'm sick of his brooding. I'm sick of his cliched backstory being repeated again and again for the sake of edginess. I'm sick of the relentless efforts to turn what is really quite cartoonist into something serious. I'm sick of every single thing Bruce Wayne uses having to be bat-themed. I'm sick of the whole "strike fear into the hearts of crime" thing that never seems to actually fix anything. The point is, Batman as a character has been done to death. He's been done so many times that every single repetition of the exact same thing is just infuriating.

You know what I'd love to see? I'd love to see a really good Wonder Woman video game- in fact I'd like to see a few. I'd love to see Wonder Woman take central stage more often. She's a way more interesting character than Batman anyway.

However, as Batman is a deeply ingrained part of our pop culture, and too profitable to go away any time soon, I would like to also propose some ideas for how it may be possible to refresh the character.

Literally how almost every single Batman story after the Adam West show begins.

One approach that might be a nice change is to abandon the serious brooding approach in favor of a return to Adam West-style campiness. You could still have similar plots but embrace the silliness of it.

Another possibility might be to try experimenting with alterations to Batman's backstory. For instance, how might it affect the character if only one of his parents were killed in the mugging, rather than both?

Yet another direction we could go is to perhaps rework the "strike fear into the hearts of criminals" thing, especially given that simply beating up criminals whenever they're found doesn't actually fix anything- in fact, if anything it's more likely to make it worse. Perhaps a suitable alternative could be to take advantage of his dual identity, with Bruce Wayne using his financial resources and connections to do things that actually help reduce crime, while Batman focuses strictly on the people who get in the way, perhaps even using one persona to gather information that can be used by the other. So that Bruce Wayne can use his connections to get information on organized crime then sabotages their efforts as Batman.

What this does show is a major gender bias in superhero media, one which is slowly changing, but still present. We can see a similar tendency with Superman, a character who originated only a few years before Batman, and went through an even more complicated evolution. The original comics from the 30's were much more simplistic than later iterations. The most prominent part of the lore to really be established was Superman's alter ego as a reporter named Clark Kent. Originally he was just an invincible human with bizarre superpowers who used his unique abilities to fight crime- not Lex Luthor or anything like that, but more realistic criminals like scam artists, extortionists, corrupt politicians, and so forth.


From there the character evolved and started appearing in serials. One particularly noteworthy appearance was the 1946 radio serial Clan of the Fiery Cross, a story arc in which Superman fought the Klu Klux Klan, aided by activists who had infiltrated the Klan and provided the show's producers with information. This serial was such a huge hit that it even ended up being a huge blow to the Klan in real life. But at this point, Superman was just that- a superman. He was just a guy who had lots of crazy powers that he could use to fight criminals.


And like Batman, Superman has been through many different incarnations across comics, movies, video games, and television. Over time these various iterations produced the lore that would become associated with the Superman franchise. It became established that Superman's love interest was Lois Lane. Like Batman, we start to see various nemeses associated with Superman- with Lex Luthor as the most prominent. Later on he started to get a backstory stating that he was an alien sent to Earth from a dying planet (offering more justification for his superpowers). Then there's also Superman's ongoing relationship with Batman. When the idea of him being invincible started to get tedious he was given a weakness in the form of a mineral called Kryptonite. Then there was the idea of him having a cousin, Supergirl, who was also sent to Earth.

But what can we say for someone like Wonder Woman? Sure, she's been through a lot of different iterations in the comics, but what else? She occasionally appears in animations, usually as part of an ensemble, starred in one TV show, and a single feature film (with an upcoming sequel), and zero video games where she has a starring role. Keep in mind that she's one of the most iconic figures in DC comics, often shown alongside Batman and Superman, not to mention she also made her debut around the same time. Yet a lot of what is written about her has not changed all that much.


So why is it that we get Batman and Superman again and again but so little of Wonder Woman? The simple answer is because Batman and Superman are white men. And that's just it? They don't have to be, that's just how they were originally designed and nobody ever questioned it. It's not like their sex or ethnicity are key defining features of their character, so why not change them? Surely we would not have to change anything if we had, say, a black actor playing Superman. Or even if we changed it up. Why not just have a female Batman or a female Superman? And I don't just mean Batgirl or Supergirl, I mean like actually have the roles of Batman and Superman be played by women.

And of course these female characters are consistently overshadowed by their male counterparts. Sure, sometimes Batgirl is incorporated into the Batman lore (emphasis on the sometimes) as a sidekick. Sometimes she is ommitted entirely, and sometimes you run into other situations. In the Arkham series, Barbara Gordon's status as Batgirl is restricted entirely to backstory. In the present, she is paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair, mostly talking to Batman over a radio, and offering a convenient excuse for the games to keep her from actually taking an active role in the story. She then gets reduced to a damsel in distress for most of Arkham Knight.

Now the good news is that there is some hope. The massive success of Black Panther shows that  non-white superheroes can still be huge hits, and we have seen a recent trend of female superhero movies finally starting to appear (after several decades of being almost non-existent)- starting with Wonder Woman (2018) and continuing through Captain Marvel (2019), Dark Phoenix (2019), and the upcoming Black Widow and Wonder Woman 1984. This surge suggests a growing awareness of the problem of gender inequality. So at least there is some effort to address the problem.


But the underlying issue still stands. The thing is Batman and Superman are getting old. They've been done to death. We need a break from them. Their tired backstories have been retold over and over again and they're always the same. We don't need a new Batman film or Superman film, TV show, video game, whatever. Give us something different. Maybe some more Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel. I am sick of Batman and Superman. If you want to go that route how about a good Supergirl movie, or give Batgirl her own film (especially considering her only feature film appearance so far was 1997's Batman and Robin).

And to their credit, sometimes this has happened. Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther both came from lesser-known parts of Marvel Comics and proved to be huge hits. The 2018 Aquaman film did a lot to undermine the character's long-standing and often-ridiculed reputation for being useless. But Batman and Superman are overused and have been in way too much. It's time to put them aside, at least for now. We need a break from them.

Friday, 12 June 2020

There's Always a Lighthouse, There's Always a Man, but this Time There's No City

Lots of free time, not sure what to do with it, trying to write more often, and I'm stuck in quarantine. Might as well use some of that time to watch some movies, right? Fortunately, I have access to Amazon Prime, and with that a fairly large uncatalogued of films I'd barely tapped until now (it was being used more often for watching TV shows). So here I was seeing what their fairly extensive library had to offer, and I stumbled across a curious title called The Lighthouse, an independent film from last year revolving around the growing conflict between a pair of lighthouse keepers. Sounded like an interesting one to check out.


Somewhere in the 19th Century, two men- Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) arrive at a lighthouse with a contract to oversee it for four weeks. The lighthouse is located on a remote island, the surrounding waters of which may or may not be inhabited by sirens and a kraken (it's a bit confusing). They go about their usual routines, doing the various tasks that need to be performed to maintain the lighthouse and chores that need to be performed on an everyday basis. But over time the boredom and repetitive work begins to mess with their heads. The fact that Wake seems to be keeping secrets doesn't help. When their replacements fail to arrive at the end of the four weeks, things only seem to get worse. Tensions mount between the two men as both start to lose their sanity.

Probably the most obvious touch in the film is its decision to shoot in black and white- which was actually a pretty good choice. Obviously the use of black and white gives the film an old-fashioned look, but it doesn't look like something you'd see in classical Hollywood. Instead, a lot of the film looks like something you'd expect to see from late 19th/early 20th century photographs of a lighthouse rather than an old movie. Structurally, The Lighthouse has a much closer resemblance to the European art films of the 1960's than anything you'd see from Hollywood. It seems to have traces of Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman, which makes the black and white all the more fitting. I don't think I can imagine this film being in colour.



Pulling off a minimal setting (the entire film being set in and around the lighthouse) with the cast limited almost entirely to two actors is no easy task, but The Lighthouse makes full use of these limitations. The film does a surprisingly good job of making the day-to-day lives of its protagonists seem compelling, even if some of the details can be harder to follow. Depictions of chores from repairing the roof to hauling coal convey a sense of boredom, frustration, and monotony, yet seem to really draw the viewer in. The tight spaces of the lighthouse itself are often used to create a sense of unease and disorientation that only heightens the Bergman-esque discomfort.

But while the film may have an interesting aesthetic, it's also just as much about sound. Diegetic sound is used to its full effect in conjunction with a haunting musical score that often includes suspiciously foghorn-like sounds. But when it isn't making use of its soundtrack or the various noises around the island, it's creating unease through silence. In fact a lot of the film's audio is made up of either diegetic noises or complete silence. Dialogue is present, but used sparsely. It actually takes some time before we hear anyone speak.

The two leading actors also do a very good job with their roles. Robert Pattinson has come a long way since Twilight. In The Lighthouse he fits into the role so well you could almost be forgiven for not recognizing him. Same with Willem Dafoe, who really developed a unique voice for Thomas Wake, though his thick accent may sometimes be hard to understand.


The Lighthouse is not an easy film to sit through, but it is one that is worth exploring if you are able to find it. I would recommend this to fans of art films from the 1960's, especially the works of Ingmar Bergman. In many ways, The Lighthouse feels like an homage to Bergman and some of his contemporaries (not as much Fellini or Antonioni in this one, though). But if even if, like me, you never really got into art cinema it's still an interesting experience.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Thursday Movie Picks: Prequels


Wow, it's been a while since I did one of these, but... um... I've been trying to do more writing somewhat more regularly and I suddenly remembered, I have this series and I got to wondering if it was still going on. Turns out it is! Awesome! Now I can see about participating in these events again. Hooray!

I can't promise I'll reliably have a post every week but I figure this will at least give me something to do in quarantine.

Also a chance to do some film discussion again. I know a lot of the few things I've posted recently have been more about video games with some incorporation of film theory, but what can I say? I've branched out, and there's a lot of stuff in film discussion that transfers well to other media.

Since I haven't done one of these in ages I suppose I should explain how it all works for whoever is actually still reading my sporadic ramblings. Thursday Movie Picks Meme is a regular activity hosted by a blog called Wandering Through the Shelves. The premise is pretty straight forward- each week there is a theme, and participants are challenged to pick three movies that fit the theme. The official page contains a schedule for all of this year's themes.

For this one, the theme is prequels- stories that are released after a prior installment but with stories set before the events of their predecessor, as opposed to a sequel, which usually tries to pick up where the previous entry left off.

Sometimes you can run into weird situations- like having an entry that is supposed to be a prequel but gets labelled as though its a sequel, for instance by having a "2" in the title. Other times you run into stories that are both prequels and sequels at the same time. One installment of the Borderlands series of games is cheekily titled the "pre-sequel" because it takes place in between the original game and Borderlands 2, making it a sequel to the former but a prequel to the lattter.

As I've often enjoyed doing, I decided to try to come up with some titles most people wouldn't think of. I know there are some obvious ones. I could easily point to the Star Wars prequel trilogy but that's probably going to be done by a few people. Instead, I chose some that you could almost be forgiven for not even realizing they were prequels.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)


Okay so technically the canonocity of Leone's "Dollars Trilogy," if one exists, is the subject of hot debate. Some fans can't even agree if Clint Eastwood plays the same character in all three films, letalone establish the a firm continuity. The fact that many of the supporting actors play different characters in each film (i.e. Mario Braga, who appears in all three films as a bad guy with a dramatic death scene) doesn't help. But most people agree that chronologically The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the last of the three films (after A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More) takes place before the other two. 

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is undoubtedly the best of the trilogy, showing the full extent of the skill Leone developed over the course of making its predecessors. In this one, three men try to reach a hidden stash of gold based on partial information. Clint Eastwood, of course, returns as the "Man with no Name" (referred to here as "Blondie") from the previous films. The role of this film as a prequel is arguably most evident towards the end- when we see him finding his famous poncho and putting it on for the first time.


Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)


You wouldn't think of this as a prequel, but The Temple of Doom takes place in 1935. Raiders of the Lost Ark takes place in 1936. Therefore it chronologically takes place before the first film, which makes it a prequel! The Temple of Doom admittedly doesn't have all that much to do with Raiders of the Lost Ark outside of the presence of Indiana Jones himself, mostly being a self-contained story that largely stands out from other films in the series in terms of narrative an aesthetic. Notably it is isn't a globe-trotting adventure like the other films (instead mostly taking place in India around a single area), and involves stopping the ruthless Thuggee cult, which is notably quite a jump from the Nazi and later Soviet armies Indy faces in his other adventures.

Some parts of the film are also just plain weird, even by Indiana Jones standards. One standout is the infamous dinner scene where our heroes are presented with the "fine dining" of live snakes, scarabs, eyeball soup, and "chilled monkey brains," a sequence that admittedly seems a lot more cartoonish compared to his later adventures. There's also a big sequence where Indy and his friends get chased in mine carts through a series of mine tunnels that look more like a roller coaster. Basically lots of insanity ensues.


Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)


Bet you weren't expecting this one. The more obvious choice for Star Wars would be the prequel trilogy, but in many ways Rogue One is a much better film.

Rogue One one is a prequel to the original Star Wars movie, following the events that led right up to its predecessor's opening sequence and (although unknown to the characters) allowing Luke's journey through the original trilogy to begin. Specifically, it chronicles the theft of the Death Star plans which, as you may recall, was crucial to the events of A New Hope, but originally happened offscreen. The film even ends more or less leading right into A New Hope's opening.

Rogue One is a really well made film, not even just as a prequel- it stands pretty nicely on its own, too. Jyn Erso has easily become one of my favorite Star Wars characters. Like the films made by George Lucas, it draws on a variety of sources. The plot itself is somewhere between a heist film and a war movie, with a lot of WWII influences. It also does a pretty good job of recreating familiar iconography and characters while still finding room for new material.

Bonus: Bioshock Infinite (2013)


I know, I'm cheating slightly by including a video game, but just hear me out!

Bioshock: Infinite takes on a number of peculiar deviations from its predecessors, most obviously the change in setting from an underwater city to a city in the sky. Basically, imagine a city that consists entirely of the worst parts of American history and culture, in the sky, with a turn-of-the-century aesthetic, and you've got the setting of Bioshock Infinite. In many ways it can be seen as a thematic successor to the original Bioshock, but it is also a prequel... sort of. The game takes place in 1912 (the original Bioshock was set in 1960). While the meddling of space and time by various characters in the game, as well as the protagonists' hopping between universes may complicate some of the timeline, chronologically it does take place before the first game. 

Interestingly, the downloadable storyline Burial at Sea directly ties Infinite to the original Bioshock, revealing how one of its key players set the events of that game into motion. 

Friday, 3 April 2020

Philosophy in Bioshock



On the surface, Bioshock seems like a pretty straight forward series of bizarre science fiction games. The series as a whole can be described as a mix of several different genres, combining a retro science fiction aesthetic with a hybrid of first-person shooter, puzzle-solving, and RPG mechanics. Bioshock has proven extremely influential. One can trace influences from earlier games, perhaps most obviously Half-Life 2, but its influence on later games is irrefutable. Later franchises such as Dishonored draw heavily on Bioshock's blending of genres and its distinct gameplay.

The series currently consists of three main games, plus two additional storylines released as downloadable content- Minerva's Den for Bioshock 2 and Burial at Sea for Bioshock: Infinite, with a fourth game currently in development. Additionally, novels expanding on the game's lore have also been published, and there was even a cancelled movie. The majority of the series concerns Rapture, a failed underwater utopia that exchanges hands through several different people over the course of the series. The third game in the series, Bioshock: Infinite, changes the setting to Columbia, a city in the sky (though Rapture makes a cameo, and its story is further developed in the Burial at Sea campaign).

The City of Rapture, as seen in the original Bioshock

For our purposes, this discussion will be focused primarily on the material related to Rapture, namely Bioshock (2007), Bioshock 2 (2010), and Burial at Sea (2013). All together this creates four distinct storylines (Burial at Sea was released in two parts, both with a different focus), with the player controlling a different character in each.

As is revealed over the course of the series, Rapture was created by a businessman named Andrew Ryan, who was fed up with government regulations infringing on his success. He is generally opposed to things like charity, that he feels interfere with a person's ability to earn through hard work. To him, this is the work of "parasites" who take what is not rightfully theirs. Ryan's concept of Rapture was a world in which everyone earned their own fortune, starting at the same place and climbing the ranks. Unfortunately for him, this did not go entirely to plan.

One of the big commodities in Rapture is a substance known as "ADAM"- a drug harvested from a rare sea slug that can be used to rewrite DNA. When administered, ADAM can be used to gain superpowers, such as the ability to shoot lightning or fire, to freeze objects or people, even telekinesis. It also can be used to obtain various "tonics" that can give the body various advantages.

Unfortunately, it is also extremely addicting as it causes instability in a person's genes that can only be resolved by continued doses. Prolonged use of ADAM results in gradual mental and physical deterioration, until the user starts to lose track of everything that makes them an individual, loses their capacity for rational thought, and turns into a mutated mess only capable of pursuing their next fix, known in the games as "splicers."

Because of its limited availability, ADAM is recycled through mutated children known as "Little Sisters." These are young girls who have been mentally conditioned to collect ADAM from corpses around Rapture. Because this makes them a target for splicers, they also have a bodyguard in the form of a "Big Daddy"- perhaps the most iconic part of the game. Big Daddies are re-purposed construction workers created by mutating humans and permanently sealing them inside a diving suit, while also having their vocal chords surgically altered.

There are important philosophical themes which are routinely explored in each game. Each of the main games essentially revolves around a different philosophy (objectivism in Bioshock, utillitarianism and collectivism in Bioshock 2, and American exceptionalism in Infinite). Additionally the series also wrestles with other complicated issues including human nature, guilt and redemption, the ethics of genetic manipulation, the existence of free will, the roles of government and business in society, the tendency of revolutions to replace tyrants with even worse tyrants, and ultimately the futility of trying to create a perfect society- a task inherently doomed to failure simply because humans are imperfect. But one particular philosophy has a tendency to re-appear again and again- objectivism, which also happens to be the very foundation on which Rapture was built.

Objectivism is a philosophical popularized by author and philosopher Ayn Rand (whose writing was a significant influence on Bioshock). In its simplest form, objectivism is a theory about the self- that one should focus first and foremost on maximizing their own well-being (we can contrast this with the theories of utilitarianism and collectivism, which focus on rejecting the self in favor of helping others). Rand's writing famously suggested that if everyone could adopt a lifestyle built on reason, self-interest, and capitalism, the world would be a much better place.


Objectivism is the foundation of Rapture's society, to the point where its founder is even named Andrew Ryan in reference to Ayn Rand. Fittingly, his primary rival adopts the moniker "Atlas," referencing Ayn Rand's book Atlas Shrugged). His real name, Frank Fontaine, also references another of Rand's works, The Fountainhead.

This ideology is present from the earliest moments of the original Bioshock. The player character, a man referred to as "Jack", narrowly survives a plane crash into the Atlantic Ocean and stumbles onto a small island containing only a lighthouse. Inside the lighthouse Jack gets his first glimpse of the bizarre and disturbing world which he is about to enter.

Upon entering the Bathysphere and submerging, a screen appears, and a short video plays in which Ryan introduces Jack (and the player) to his philosophy. He asks the question "is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow" and cites three examples of societies that say no. Ryan then claims to have "rejected those answers" in favor of constructing his own world, which became the city of Rapture. The slideshow illustrates what Rapture is supposed to be, and on paper it seems to create a very appealing world.


To hear Andrew Ryan tell it, Rapture is designed as the perfect society to accommodate the American dream. It is a place where everyone starts independently at the same level, and through nothing more than hard work can rise to greatness and receive a hard-earned reward. Ryan describes it as being free from the "parasites" of society (which in his mind, means anyone who would take what is rightfully yours). But already we start to see small hints of the problems with this idea. While in theory a place like Rapture can sound very appealing, in practice it is extremely flawed.

Ryan's speech includes his statement that the artist is free to construct as they wish, and the scientists can experiment without the hindrance of ethics. What Ryan is unable to understand is that the rules are in place for a reason, and why the complete freedom he is allowing is a recipe for disaster. We see this reflected in three different characters encountered over the course of the game, two of whom are encountered by the player, while a third appears among the game's many audio recordings that help piece together Rapture's backstory.

The first one encountered by Jack is Dr. Steinman, a once-brilliant plastic surgeon who has developed an obsession with perfecting the human form, to the point where he considers himself an artist on part with Pablo Picasso, and performs operations well beyond treating patients in a desperate attempt to mold them into his standard of beauty. We also see the cruelty of objectivist science demonstrated in Dr. Yi Suchong, a scientist who sells his skills to the highest bidder and finds the concept of empathy to be completely alien.

Suchong is revealed to have conducted a variety of less-than-ethical experiments on unwilling test subjects. This includes his contribution to making the "Big Daddies" but also his secret role in creating Jack. One audio log found in the game indicates that he was figures in not only making Jack, but also conditioning him to respond to certain phrases. In the audio log, he gives Jack a dog, lets him grow attached, then uses the trigger phrase "would you kindly" to make Jack snap the dog's neck.

His cruelty and self-serving worldview ultimately prove to be his undoing. As found in the audio logs in Bioshock and his brief appearance in Burial at Sea- Episode 2, Suchong's arrogance, selfishness, and lack of ethics actually impeded his progress. He is depicted as obsessively trying to find a secret formula that would force a bond to develop between the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. To this end he goes as far as to study the bond between Elizabeth and Songbird in another universe, even forcing Elizabeth on a pointless quest to gain a sample of her own hair.

The ironic detail is the bond is formed not through any chemical formula, but through a simple act of kindness (two little sisters helping an injured Big Daddy), a concept Suchong cannot comprehend. It is then this bond, the very thing Suchong has been determined to create, is what ultimately kills him. Even more ironically, he dies by his own selfish ego and lack of compassion. We first learn of the grisly scene in an audio log in Bioshock, and actually get to see it in Burial at Sea- Episode 2.

In both cases, the scene begins with Suchong recording an audio log ranting about his constant failures to create a bond between the little sisters and big daddies. His “report” is interrupted when two little sisters enter and try to get his attention. Suchong responds angrily and slaps one of them, which provokes the Big Daddy into attacking him.

Not only is Suchong killed by his own ego, but he dies completely oblivious to the fact that the very thing he has been trying so hard to achieve was accomplished, despite it literally staring him in the face. The two little sisters were obviously trying to get his attention to introduce him to their new “friend,” and if he’d shown the slightest bit of compassion he would have seen the successful bond. His reaction (“What are you doing? Get back... get back!!!“) indicates that he perceived the attack as being entirely random and unprovoked. As far as he was concerned a big daddy just came out of nowhere and attacked him for no reason.

Dr. Suchong, an objectivist scientist killed by his own selfishness.

We also encounter Sander Cohen, a snobbish "artist" who looks down on others, tortures his performers when they fail to meet impossible expectations, and has a tendency to produce some very questionable "art" when left to his own devices. The man holds impossible standards. One of the first things he is seen doing is torturing a “disciple,” Kyle Fitzpatrick, by plastering his legs to a piano bench and forcing him to play a musical piece on a piano rugged with dynamite. In  Burial at Sea- Episode 1, he is shown electrocuting a pair of dancers for not meeting his standards.


Cohen’s freedom to create has the detrimental effect of boosting his ego, to the point where he is unable to take criticism and even accuses Jack of being a “doubter.” Audio logs also reveal the story of a singer named Anna Culpepper, whom Sander Cohen wanted dead for criticizing his work. 

His “masterpiece” leaves one to wonder if censorship isn’t such a bad idea. This piece, which Cohen refers to as the “Quadtych,” is the one Jack is forced to help him assemble near the end of Bioshock. It consists of a group of plastered corpses displaying picture frames that end up containing photographs of the corpses of Cohen’s murdered “disciples.” 

Cohen's "masterpiece"

But of course, we cannot discuss objectivism in Bioshock without talking about the man at the center of everything: Andrew Ryan. "Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow," Ryan asks in the slideshow which first introduces us to Rapture. But it is less about working for a reward and more about keeping what you own. Ryan's backstory involves him growing up on the wrong side of the Russian Revolution, and watching as his family's property was seized by the revolutionary forces. Presumably being too young to understand the politics of the revolution, all he saw was his family's rightful property being taken by "parasites" creating the basis for his objectivist vision.

"Parasite" seems to be the term Andrew Ryan uses for anyone who disagrees with his objectivist vision, but he has one particular image in mind. To Ryan, a parasite is anyone who takes something which is not rightfully theirs. "Is a man entitled to the sweat of his brow?" indeed. According to Ryan, the "sweat" (or rather, the results of said man's work) is taken by someone else, rather than allowing the man to keep it. To hear his vision of Rapture, it is a world where everyone keeps what they earn.

This is likely rooted in the above-mentioned backstory, where Ryan saw what he understood to be his family's rightful property being stolen by others who did not deserve it. This fuels Ryan's behaviour and his social darwinist mindset. He has come possessive. To him, it doesn't matter if something is valuable or not, what is important is ownership. If its his property, then as far as he is concerned nobody else has  a right to touch it unless he allows it.

This belief is so deeply rooted that Ryan is even willing to destroy his own property to keep it from being taken. One audio log has Ryan relate an anecdote about a forest he once purchased. Others asked him to share it, but this is what Ryan considers to be a "parasite" in social terms. It was a simple matter of the fact that he owned it and therefore others had no right to ask him for anything. According to his anecdote, after failing to keep other parties away, Ryan chose to burn the forest to keep it out of anyone else's hands.

Ryan continues to display the extremes of his philosophy over the course of the game, most notably in the Arcadia level and later during his confrontation with Jack. In both instances, Ryan asserts his ownership of Rapture to the point where he is ready to commit mass murder when it is threatened by his rival Atas.

In Arcadia, Ryan begins destroying the forests which provide oxygen for the city, effectively planning to suffocate the entire city and all its inhabitants, simply to keep Rapture from being taken. This forces Jack to work with Julie Langford, a botanist with an experimental formula for reviving dead trees. When Jack finally reaches Langford's office, he arrives just in time to witness Ryan demonstrate how much he values ownership.

Ryan contacts Julie on an intercom, and emphasizes a contract between them which specifically states that Ryan owns the forest and can do whatever he wants. Since Julie was challenging this theory by trying to undo his damage, Ryan floods her lab with a toxic gas. Once again, it was all about the fact that Ryan owned the forest. He was destroying it, and in his mind Julie had no right to stop him. This is very much the same principle as the forest he described purchasing and then destroying in his audio log.

We see it come up once gain during the confrontation between Jack and Andrew Ryan. Ryan, now realizing he is defeated, opts to end his own life and allow Rapture to self-destruct. He might not have won, but he is ready to do everything he can to deny his rival the satisfaction of victory. In Ryan's mind, nobody else has any right to own Rapture, so if he can't keep it, the next best thing is to ensure nobody else can take it. Just like Arcadia and his previous forest, it's all about being entitled to what he owns.

Ryan's possessive nature becomes even more clear when one looks at how he rules Rapture. His belief in objectivism is almost fanatical, to the point where he more or less preaches it despite asserting that Rapture should be a secular society. He has messages broadcast throughout Rapture reminding people of its values and watch out for "parasites." The word "parasite" is used to build distrust in others. He goes the extra step of cutting off Rapture from the surface, and very meticulously controls who is permitted in and out (if anyone), censors dissidents and, despite claiming to create freedom for the artist, censors work he disapproves of.

Does this behavior sound familiar? It should, because these are the methods of a dictator. Ryan even has blatant propaganda designed for the sole purpose of indoctrinating children. The "Ryan Amusements" theme park in Bioshock 2 was specifically designed to reflect Rapture's values (much to the frustration of its creator), romanticizing the city's history and offering a "Journey to the Surface" ride designed to convince children that the surface is a horrible place full of parasites and that they should have no reason to want to go there.

Similarly, in Burial at Sea- Episode 2 Elizabeth encounters a daycare center which proudly features the characters of "Ryan the Lion and Peter the Parasite." The concept is a twisted version of the classic Aesop story The Lion and the Mouse, where instead of proving that the most seemingly insignificant details can end up being essential, the small mouse is seen as trying to steal what rightfully belongs to the lion. This image is plastered all over the daycare center, along with propaganda films that valorize "Ryan the Lion" (a child-friendly representation of Andrew Ryan) and condemn "Peter the Parasite" while displaying a simplified version of Ryan's philosophy. They even go as far as to valorize some kids as "makers" and publicly shame others as "takers."


From Burial at Sea- Episode 2; "Ryan the Lion" and "Peter the Parasite" are used as contrasting roles to indoctrinate children with objectivist values

Ryan's behaviour resembles a dictator in so many ways, but why should we expect anything else? After all who are some of the best real-world examples of objectivists  other than dictators? A dictator acts in their own interest, asserting their authority. An an authoritarian society the dictator owns everything, including the people. But the problem is that a dictator works at the expense of others. A dictator gains while taking from the people. The dictator is a parasite. This is the ultimate flaw in Rapture. Ryan didn't create a utopia free of the parasites he so desperately tried to escape- he created the perfect environment for those same parasites to thrive.

In fact, if anything Ryan was almost too successful in creating an objectivist society. Most of the city's inhabitants either embrace it, or are themselves victims of Ryan's philosophy, or both. Ryan may have claimed to escape from the parasites of the surface, but in Rapture he becomes one to the working class. He exploits them, kicks them when they're down, and eventually drags the citizens of Rapture into the mass marketing of plasmids, a drug that can rewrite a person's DNA.

The result is the splicers encountered throughout the series- once normal human beings who, thanks to Ryan's greed, began overdosing on plasmids that slowly destroyed them. After a slow period of mental and physical deterioration, these unfortunate people began to lose all capacity for reason and empathy. Their deteriorating minds combined with the memories contained in the ADAM reduce them to feral instincts, until all they can think about is a combination of their own survival and obtaining more ADAM at any cost. The splicers may be victims of Ryan, but they have also been themselves turned into disgusting caricatures of objectivist thought.


It is fittingly ironic that an objectivist should be the one to finally take down Ryan. Enter Frank Fontaine, a con artist who works his way into Rapture and begins challenging Ryan's position of power. Fontaine, despite his disliking of Ryan, actually embraces Rapture's values, he just proves to be better at playing by those rules. Like Ryan, Fontaine is an ambitious individual who works his way to the top for his own gain, but in many ways he is even worse. As Fontaine he is a liar and a power hungry cheat ready to do anything to maximize his wealth and power. But even worse is his alter-ego.

When is finally cornered by Ryan, Fontaine escapes by becoming the worst kind of parasite- the kind that pretends to be your friend. Ryan may have been a crook, and ultimately a parasite himself to the people of Rapture, but at least that was clear. Fontaine's strategy is to fake his own death and assume the identity of "Atlas." This is a persona deliberately crafted to manipulate others, with Jack only the last of potentially thousands of people fooled by this charade.

Fontaine's goal was to create a character that the underclass of Rapture could relate to, a working class hero from humble beginnings that can inspire the people to revolt. This is an especially cruel form of objectivism, as Atlas disguises himself as a utilitarian when in fact Fontaine is only exploiting others for his own selfish (and very objectivist) ends of wealth and power. He uses this persona to create dedicated followers who are ready to fight and die for him thinking they are part of a noble cause, and when he gets what he wants he has no problem turning on the people who helped him. He bludgeoned Elizabeth to death with a pipe wrench after she found his "ace in the hole", indirectly arranged the murder of Dr. Steinman (who performed cosmetic surgery to make Fontaine's "Atlas" character more convincing), and tried to exploit his control over Jack to make him "get stepped on by a Big Daddy."

From Burial at Sea- Episode 2, Fontaine adopts the persona of "Atlas" to manipulate the more vulnerable citizens of Rapture into serving him.

But we cannot forget the most tragic victims of Rapture- the iconic Little Sisters and their Big Daddies. Like splicers, both originated from normal humans who were subjected to mutation experiments against their will. The process results in the suppression of their identities and turns them into slaves for Rapture's economy. Under Ryan's protection, thousands of little girls were abducted from their families and genetically altered to become little sisters, children with no memory of who they used to be. Their function is simply to gather ADAM from corpses so that it can be reused, a process that is used for the sole reason that reusing ADAM is cheaper than obtaining it new.

The Big Daddies are implied to be subjected to an even more excruciating process. They were once normal people transformed against their will and brainwashed into serving Rapture, originally to perform menial labor before being turned into bodyguards for the Little Sisters. Though the process is never fully explained, it involves heavily mutating the subject, performing surgery on their vocal chords, and then permanently sealing them in a diving suit. The few we do get to know all ended up in their position simply because they got on the bad side of Ryan, or someone close to him. Several "parasites" were involved in this process, including not only Ryan himself but also Suchong, Gilbert Alexander, and Augustus Sinclair.

From Bioshock 2, Subject Delta was a deep sea diver who stumbled across Rapture by accident before being captured and turned into a Big Daddy.


This makes it fitting that the Little Sisters should be the basis for the key moral distinction that is made throughout Bioshock and Bioshock 2. In both games, the player needs to get ADAM to gain useful abilities (which are sometimes needed to clear obstacles). The primary way to get ADAM is from the Little Sisters, and there are two ways to do it. The player can "harvest" the Little Sister, killing her but providing a huge load of ADAM. They can also "rescue" the Little Sister, which not only avoids killing her, but also turns her human again and grants the player rewards later on (but at the cost of receiving less ADAM from the process).

This can obviously be read in terms of good and evil, but there are also other ways to look at it. The decision is something like a much darker version of the marshmallow test- a psychological experiment in the decision between short-term and long-term gain. In this case, the player can choose to immediately satisfy their needs by harvesting the Little Sister, maximizing the amount of ADAM they gain from her and being able to use it to gain more power more quickly. Alternatively, the player can accept a smaller short-term reward in exchange for a later payoff. The rewards come in the form of extra ADAM, supplies, and even unique plasmids, that can often be extremely valuable or even life-saving. A player who harvests the Little Sisters can gain more power right away, but may use up valuable resources that will be needed later.

In Bioshock and Bioshock 2, the player is routinely given the choice to rescue or harvest Little Sisters. If the player chooses to harvest the Little Sister, she is killed but the player gets more ADAM. If she is rescued, the player gets less ADAM but makes things better for the Little Sister, and can be rewarded later, 

It is not only a choice of good and evil, but a choice of whether to embrace or reject the philosophy of Rapture. Jack can choose to accept Ryan's objectivist thinking by harvesting the Little Sisters and focusing first and foremost on maximizing his own gain, or he can reject it by saving them and putting the needs of others above himself. As Ryan himself says "A man chooses, a slave obeys"- Jack is making that choice throughout the game, even before he realizes he is being controlled. This also reflected in the game's two possible endings that show opposing outcomes. 

Both endings ultimately see things working out for Jack, but in very different ways depending on whether he ultimately embraces or rejects Ryan's philosophy. If Jack chooses to embrace objectivist thinking, he goes on to seize control of the city, betrays the Little Sisters, and even manages to hijack a submarine with nuclear missiles, implying plans for further conquest. If Jack rejects objectivism, he instead abandons Rapture, bringing the Little Sisters to the surface and raising them as his own, putting them above himself. Jack can emerge as something better, or he can become a new parasite for Rapture.

It is fitting therefore that Jack should be given two allies who represent both sides: Atlas and Tenenbaum. Atlas, the false ally, spends most of the game pretending to be Jack's friend, but ultimately he turns out to be an objectivist out for himself. But even before the big reveal of his true identity, we see hints towards his selfish nature.

For his supposed friendliness and compassion towards Jack, Atlas displays a very dismissive attitude toward the Little Sisters. When he first shows Jack how to get ADAM, Atlas insists that the Little Sisters aren't even human, and encourages Jack to harvest them (contrast this with Sinclair in Bioshock 2, who outlines the pros and cons of both options but decides its the player's call). It is only through the intervention of Tenenbaum that Jack even learns that there is another option. As a man who only looks after himself, it is hardly any surprise that Frank Fontaine would insist on taking the selfish option.

Tenenbaum on the other hand, provides a contrast to many of Rapture's citizens, including both Ryan and Fontaine. She is the one person to question the morality of Rapture's scientists, including her part in creating the Little Sisters. By the time of the first Bioshock, she has been focusing on trying to undo the mutations on the Little Sisters with hopes to eventually bring them to the surface. Her introductory scene involves her saving a Little Sister from a splicer, and desperately trying to persuade Jack to take the "rescue" option (while Atlas insists he should harvest her).

Later on she helps Jack by surgically removing the “would you kindly” trigger from his brain, guides him to the serum needed to remove the rest of Fontaine’s conditioning, and finally helps him stop Fontaine for good. Fittingly, she narrates the ending of the game, her tone shifting depending on the player's choices. She expresses admiration for Jack if he rejects objectivism, but disappointment or anger if he embraces it.

Tenenbaum briefly reappears in Bioshock 2 and shows up again in its side-story Minerva’s Den. At the beginning of Bioshock 2, Subject Delta is contacted by Tenenbaum and guided to her hideout. She has already returned to Rapture to continue helping the Little Sisters, giving them a sanctuary in a train station where she seems to have done her best to make them comfortable. She also tries to help Delta, only leaving him when her hand is forced by the entrance of Sofia Lamb’s minions (though not without leaving Sinclair to continue helping him).


During the events of Minerva’s Den, Tenenbaum continues trying to rescue the victims of Rapture by helping Subject Sigma, another Big Daddy she recruits to help find an advanced computer known as “The Thinker.” Her involvement in finding the computer is ultimately to use it for further research in the hopes of eventually curing what she has come to know as the “ADAM sickness”- trying to find a cure for the effects of ADAM. The game's ending implies that after leaving Rapture, Tenembaum works tirelessly to find her cure and eventually manages to turn Subject Sigma human again- a process everyone else in Rapture was sure was impossible.

There is a counter-philosophy to objectivism, known as utilitarianism. In its simplest form, this is the belief that one should put the needs of others above themselves. Tenenbaum embraces this ideology, showing almost no concern for herself and only on helping the victims of Rapture. This makes her a fitting contrast to Atlas, and what better way to defy Ryan than by embracing the exact opposite of everything he values. It also makes her a contrast to Atlas, who only pretends to be a utilitarian. She ends up being one of the few people in Rapture who is not a parasite. Tenenbaum and Atlas therefore serve as contrasting guides for the player. The player can opt to embrace objectivism, and become a new Fontaine, or they can reject it, and become another Tenembaum. 

But utilitarianism itself is not a perfect system either. While it may have proven the better option in Bioshock, Bioshock 2 reveals that a utilitarian society is no better than an objectivist one, possibly even worse. In the sequel, we return to Rapture almost ten years after the events of the first game, to find that it has been taken over by a brilliant but manipulative psychologist named Sofia Lamb. Like Andrew Ryan, Lamb is fanatically devoted to her ideas- in this case she is a utilitarian.

Lamb's ultimate vision is exactly the opposite of Ryan's. Where Ryan promoted individualism, Lamb endorses collectivism. She has turned the citizens of Rapture into a cult she refers to as the "Rapture Family" and seeks to ultimately create a "true Utopian." Where Andrew Ryan thought this would be a person who climbs the ranks through simple hard work, Sofia Lamb believes it is a person who works for the greater good of the group. She ultimately believes that in order to achieve a utopia she needs to change people so that they are incapable of thinking for themselves, and only acting for others.

The problem with this theory, ironically, is that Lamb herself ends up displaying objectivist behaviour. For a person who speaks so much about helping others, she ends up proving to be extremely selfish. The audio logs encountered during the game reveal that Lamb exploited her position as Rapture's psychologist to manipulate others into joining her cause, and even after being sent to prison and wiped from most of the city's records she only took it as an opportunity to further solidify her hold on her cult. She kidnaps children from the surface to be turned into Little Sisters, treats her own daughter as a tool, abandons Gil Alexander as soon as he is no longer useful, and eventually tries to leave the entire Rapture Family to die in order to save herself.

Her own treatment of others also ties into her twisted view of utillitarianism. Lamb claims to "love" everyone the same, meaning she does not care about any of them at all. She shows a total willingness to sacrifice others if it furthers her goal of creating a "True Utopian." Gilbert Alexander contributed heavily to Lamb's early work, as well as the development of Big Daddies, before being made into a test subject himself, as part of Lamb's project. When the project fails, she outright abandons him, showing no gratitude for any of his previous contributions.

Gilbert Alexander in Bioshock 2, mutated into an unrecognizable form for Sofia's "true utopian" project, then abandoned when it failed.

Even Sofia's own daughter is not safe from her wrath. Eleanor Lamb has clearly rejected her mother's ideology, going as far as to resurrect her "father," Subject Delta, as part of a plan to escape. Sofia's ultimate plan is to turn Eleanor into the "first true utopian," through genetic manipulaiotn, a goal that sounds a lot like what she tried to do with Gil Alexander, only now with more confidence in its success. But even then her treatment of Eleanor is questionable at best. Sofia is keeping her own daughter imprisoned and sedated, then smothers her with a pillow in an effort to kill Subject Delta. This is only what she does to her own, to say nothing of the numerous children who she has had kidnapped to be turned into Little Sisters. It shows that a utillitarian can be every bit as much of a parasite as an objectivist.

The ultimate irony is that, despite her efforts, Sofia Lamb is unable to realize that people like she envisions already exist. Like Jack in the first game, Subject Delta has a choice of whether to embrace utilitarianism, or return to Rapture's objectivist roots. In the most optimistic ending, Delta chooses to put the needs of others above his own. He rescues the Little Sisters and spares as many people as he can, at he cost of his own life. Bioshock 2 has several different ending variations, but more optimistic endings tend to occur with utillitarian actions.

Unlike Jack, however, Delta's actions become an inspiration for Eleanor Lamb, who looks up to him as a role model. A more brutal player will slowly turn Eleanor into a cold-hearted killer, but a utilitarian player will start to turn Eleanor into a utilitarian herself. Eleanor will take leadership for the Little Sisters, bring them to the surface, become a personal guide, and (in the most optimistic outcomes) is able to be the bigger person by giving Sofia a breathing device after her room on the submarine is flooded.

In this version of events, Eleanor actually becomes the "true utopian" that her mother envisioned. What Sofia Lamb could not understand was that it was not something that could be forced onto a person. Remember Andrew Ryan's statement: "A man chooses, a slave obeys!" Delta and Eleanor CHOOSE to be utilitarian, and Delta reveals the ACTUAL way to share that view with others- leading by example and inspiring others to do the same.

In the more optimistic ending of Bioshock 2, Eleanor Lamb is inspired to become a utilitarian

This is even more ironic if we look back at Jack in Bioshock. He is referenced several times in Bioshock 2, and Sofia Lamb cites his mental conditioning as an inspiration for her goals. What she fails to consider is that, while Jack was programmed to follow instructions, he eventually broke free of that conditioning and became his own person. Just like Delta, Jack makes a choice to either embrace or reject Ryan's message. In fact, if Jack chooses to rescue the Little Sisters he actually defies the person giving him the instructions (remember that Atlas encouraged him to harvest them).

We also cannot forget about Elizabeth in Burial at Sea: Episode 2, who gives up her cosmic powers and immortality to help save the Little Sisters and (indirectly) bringing down Fontaine and Ryan. This is even with the knowledge that her chances of getting out in one piece are almost non-existant, and that Atlas will inevitably betray her as soon as she stops being useful to him. She ends up being quite selfless, her only comfort being an imaginary projection of Booker to whom she can express her feelings. It gets to the point where threats to the self do not even affect her.

We can see this near the end of the episode, when Elizabeth wakes up to find herself imprisoned by Atlas, who begins demanding he location of his "Ace in the Hole." To do this, he has her held down while describing a process known as a "trans-orbital lobotomy"- an actual procedure once common in psychiatric facilities that involved inserting a pick through the eye socket and tapping it with a hammer to penetrate a thin layer of bone protecting the prefrontal lobe. He proceeds to "demonstrate" by placing the pick under Elizabeth's eye (made more intense by the first-person perspective) and taps the pick multiple times, citing different things that would get removed if he were to reach the prefrontal lobe, and how it would essentially destroy a person's identity.

It is not hard to see why Atlas considers this an effective means of torture, but what proves Elizabeth's selfless nature is her refusal to give in. While the process is clearly painful, she refrains from offering anything more than a grunt, and taunts Atlas during the process, until he states that he is getting close to penetrating the bone. Elizabeth outright taunts him, even dares him to keep going, pointing out that doing so would actually be preventing her from giving him the information he wants. It is only when Fontaine instead brings out Sally, the Little Sister Elizabeth has been trying to help, and threatens to do the same procedure on her, that Elizabeth changes her tone. She seems to have very little concern for how she herself is affected- she only gives in when doing so can help someone else.

From Burial at Sea- Episode 2, Atlas tries to get information from Elizabeth by threatening her with a trans-orbital lobotomy

These examples prove the flaw in Sofia Lamb's reasoning. Lamb tries to force a collectivist ideology onto others, but Jack, Dela, and Elizabeth already are the types of people she imagines. What changes is that they are utilitarian by choice, and that is the only way to create the "true utopian" she imagines. It once again calls to mind Andrew Ryan's famous words: "A man chooses, a slave obeys." There are other characters over the course of the series that display similar tendencies. Sinclair in Bioshock 2 ultimately leans in the direction of utilitarianism- even before the game his business (Sinclair Solutions) was founded specifically to help solve other people's problems (albeit in not always ethical or legal ways), and he spends the whole game aiding Subject Delta, even after being transformed into a Big Daddy. Even Booker Dewitte in Bioshock: Infinite ultimately allows himself to die to end the cruelty of his alternate self.

The ultimate message to be obtained from the Bioshock series, if one exists, is the inability to create a perfect society. Both Ryan's objectivist and Lamb's utilitarian systems ultimately prove to be their undoing. In the end, the effort to create a utopia of any kind is inherently doomed to failure, simply due to human imperfection.