How Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Truly Embraces Its Comic Book Roots

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay, and Rodney Rothman and the directors made sure to truly embrace the comic book genre, while also managing to stand out is the oversaturated genre. From its fourth-wall-breaking jokes to its animated imitation of the comic book aesthetic, the film is made to feel like a classic Spider-man comic book that combines light humor with a story about responsibility and coming of age. The film was both critically and commercial acclaimed grossing over $370 million worldwide and being very well-reviewed on websites like IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, and Metacritic. The film fourth wall breaking jokes also allowed it to stand out in its genre by making fun of genre clichés like with the telling of the origin stories or the reference to objects essential to the plot as a ‘goober’. One of the most significant aspects of comic books they adapted was the existence of a multiverse. Comics have always had multiple versions of the same character and this was explained through the existence of different Earths, which is showcased in the after-credits scene where they travel to “Earth-67”. In comics, the heroes from different “Earths” would occasionally cross over, and Spider-Verse was the first major film to put this into a film. Spider-Verse introduced us to a group of new spidermen who were different from the teenage Peter Parker audiences had become accustomed to, as well as giving us a new, at least to film, main protagonist.

According to Patrick O’Keefe, one of the film’s art directors, Spider-Verse’s unique look was based around a few basic principals: the appreciation of the printed comic book form itself, the graphic simplification of animation, and the admiration of live-action cinematography. They wanted to emphasize the comic book features to the point of absurdity, and even included the classic “Thwip” onomatopoeia from the Spider-man comics. They also make sure to include stylistic elements of comic books like the thought balloons, the tingling lines that indicate Miles’s “Spidey-sense”, and the printed words which could be used as previously mentioned, for the onomatopoeia, or for things like warning that go with Miles’s “Spidey-sense”, for example, the words “Watch out” were printed when Miles was close to getting hit by a moving object. Furthermore, the entire movie makes use of thick black outlines and small dots to look more like a comic book, as well as having several scene transitions that involve going from one frame of a comic boom to the next. 

One of the essential steps in making this animation comic book like was to strip down aspects of how Imageworks already did their animation. An animated superhero film would be expected to use a lot of motion blur (like in the Incredibles whenever Dash runs), which is an animation technique used to imitate the smeared image of fast objects on film. However, one of the Spider-Verse directors, Rodney Rothman, wanted the staccato effect off no motion blur so it would give the movie more of the frame to frame comic book feel, as opposed to looking like another animated superhero movie. The directors also didn’t want to ruin the new visuals the film aimed to create by using motion blur. However, the new animation did lead to some issues. The images looked ‘too staccato’, they decided to borrow techniques from hand-drawn animation such as shifting the image every second frame. This is known as animating “on two’s” This lets the animators have more control over the speed and power of the movements of objects. Certain of the scenes would shift the image at every frame (this is called animating “on one’s”, this was done in the scene of Miles running through the snowy forest, the run is animated on one’s to emphasize speed with fast frame movements. In that same scene, he gets up on two’s because, naturally, they didn’t feel a need to emphasize the speed and power of that movement as much. 

You can even notice how the movements are less fluid in the few steps he makes up the tree until he started to swing. During the run, we see a frantic and panicked run, and having that be done on one’s will show the franticness of his arm movements and thus emphasizes the panic he feels when he can’t swing to escape from the people chasing him. The next scene shows him calmer and composed as he’s able to swing, and his movements don’t need to be as emphasized, so it goes back to being animated on two’s.

With the introduction of new “Spider-people”, we also see an introduction to some different animation styles. Except for Gwen and Peter, all the heroes from different dimensions have a unique animation style. Spider-Man Noir is animated in a noir style, Peni Parker has a more Japanese anime style, and Peter Porker is mostly animated in the same style as the rest of the movie but does have certain aspects which resemble Looney Tones, like the way he pulls out objects like a mallet out of nowhere. The unique animation style does make these characters memorable despite not having the most important roles because they stand out especially in action scenes.

The fourth-wall-breaking jokes are an important part of this film’s humor. The Spider-Man origins story is told by seven different Spider-Men, and it embraces all of the clichés of the superhero origin story. The repetitiveness is successful because the audience laughs at the irony of each superhero telling their ‘unique’ origin story, and ending it with saying they were “the one and only Spider-Man”. Spider-Verse itself is an origin story for Miles Morales becoming a new Spider-Man, so to avoid falling into the trap of being another origin story they decided to use the other heroes to tell their own origin story. Furthermore, having the characters who have already been superheroes tell their origin stories creates a coming of age effect when Miles finally tells his origin story in the same style at the end. 

For the first time in a Spider-Man film, we had a new main protagonist. Miles Morales is not only the first Latino African American Spider-Man but the first Latino African American superhero to star in a major motion picture. They make sure Miles’s background comes through with his taste in music and the use of Spanish phrases. For most of the 21st century, the superhero genre has been dominated by white male protagonists, and most of those movies would have the same “anyone can be a hero” cliché despite always having the same profile of person be the hero. In this film, we see the “anyone can be a hero” idea expanded to multiple races, multiple genders, and even multiple species. Even though the film has an underlying message about anyone being able to be a hero regardless of race or gender the film does show how Miles’s background makes him a unique Spider-Man. The scene where Miles is stuck to Doctor Octopus’s office ceiling tells us a lot about Miles. Firstly, we are re-exposed to what we already know about Miles’s taste in music, he loves hip-hop, and see him sing along just like he did in the first scene where we are introduced to him. 

This is also one of the many scenes where Miles is humanized. Constantly throughout the movie Miles messes up, mostly due to inexperience. After his world’s Spider-Man died Miles felt he had to take on the responsibility of taking on Kingpin and saving New York. He wants to help but struggles with his new powers, his confidence, and the loss of his uncle. The turning point in the movie is when his father speaks to him. After just losing his uncle and being told by the other Spider-Men that he wasn’t ready to help them Miles was at an all-time low. His father came to his door and gave him the speech about a “spark within him” and being able to “do anything he wanted with it”. This speech leads into him using his venom shock and breaking out of the webs he was stuck in, and eventually saving the day as the audience expected. This movie has a theme of failure and learning from it, which is what Miles constantly has to do as Spider-Man. The final battle scene shows us a completely different Miles, who even when he gets beaten down by the Kingpin he still gets up and continues to fight. As previously stated, this is a coming of age story for Miles, who despite his powers does come off as very vulnerable throughout this film.

Spider-Verse had the problem of bringing a new Spider-Man to compete with the already beloved Peter Parker. The reason for its success was its embracing of the old to bring in the new. Spider-Verse makes it clear that Miles Morales is the main protagonist and that this is Miles’s origin story. However, the still decide to include multiple versions of Peter Parker, including an older version of the one we know, to mentor Miles. The mentor role is something new to the older Peter Parker, and in helping Miles to get rid of his fears he was able to get rid of his fears when he goes back to fix things with his Mary Jane. The same happens with Gwen who can open up after her loss thanks to her newfound friendship with Miles. The Miles, Gwen, and Peter all have their character arc, so when they made Miles’s protagonist they still made sure that beloved characters like Peter and Gwen stayed very relevant by not only being Miles’s mentors but also going through their struggles.

Spider-Verse was a success because of how it embraced the source material while also being original. The animation doing everything it can to imitate the comics through the removal of motion blur to give a more frame to frame effect, or the aesthetic choices to the background to look like a moving comic book frame. The group of spider people would each stand out, even the three that had listed screen time, due to their unique takes on the origin stories, animation styles, or in some cases their character arc. The protagonists go through a compelling struggle which is both inner, with Miles trying to understand his powers and dealing with his problems, and outer, which is when Kingpin is trying to open his portal. Spider-Verse is a masterfully animated superhero film with compelling and relatable protagonists and a very self-aware sense of humor throughout the film.

Color in Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse

by Nick Nowicki

Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse is a superhero film that tries to emulate the experience of reading a superhero comic book. The film moves away from the live-action superhero paradigm and fills the screen with bold colors, halftoned graphics, and word-boxes that one would see in the comics. Color in particular plays a variety of roles in establishing character traits and developments throughout the film. This post analyzes three main uses of color in the film. First, I will examine how color is used to establish good and evil figures in the film. Next, I will focus on how color is used to emphasize the emotions of characters and the overall tone of a scene. Finally, I analyze the role that color plays in signifying turning points in the narrative arc and various character arcs.

Background on Comic Book Color

Four colors serve as the basis for most of the colors we see in early comic book prints and Into the Spiderverse: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. The CMYK color model (K being a “key” color, black) stands in contrast to the RGB model, as cyan, yellow, and magenta subtract red, blue, and green from white light, respectively. So, instead of white being the sum of our basis colors, as is the case in RGB, combining cyan, magenta and yellow produces black. It was of course cheaper to simply print pure black instead of combining all three inks.

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To produce an RBG color of a particular saturation, illustrators use a process called halftoning where small dots of each CYAM color printed over each other.

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Color: Separating Superhero from Supervillain

Audience members without any knowledge of Spiderman or comic books in general can look to a character’s color palette to see if that character is good or evil. Heroes tend to have lighter, brighter colors like red, pink, white, and blue while villains tend to have darker, unnatural looking colors like black, purple, or green. The one exception in Into the Spiderverse is the color black, since Spider-Noir, Miles, and Gwen all have black in their costumes.

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Into the Spiderverse cleverly uses these colors to give the viewer an early indication of the “bad guys.” Miles’ uncle, Aaron, is introduced as the “cool uncle” who is not as uptight as Miles’ father. When Miles visits Uncle Aaron for the first time, we get clues from his apartment that he might be a supervillain. As Miles looks up to his uncle’s apartment from the street, the light coming from his apartment gives the surrounding outdoor objects like the fire escape and building edges a purple tint.

When Miles sends Aaron a picture from his window, the phone screen and background is tinted purple. The purple furniture like Aaron’s sofa gives another signal that he might be some kind of “bad guy” in a sense not imagined by Miles’ father. Of course, we later find out that Uncle Aaron is the Prowler, whose costume uses purple and black as its primary colors.

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The color scheme used in Dr. Olivia Octavius’ lab also indicates that she might not be just a doctor who is working for the villains in the movie, but a supervillain herself. As Miles approaches her lab through the vent, the light from the interior of the lab gives the vent a light green tint. We see the same unnaturally green color coming from objects in her lab such as her computer screen and testing chair. Her second primary color is purple, another classic supervillain color that can be seen in her hair, skirt, and surrounding items in the room. These colors are all introduced to the viewer before she reveals herself as Doc Oc, allowing the viewer to foreshadow her reveal.

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Color: An Indicator of Emotion

After Miles gains his Spidey powers, his emotions manifest themselves on the screen in various ways. One of the most prominent reoccurring feelings throughout the film is Miles’ fear when overwhelmed by social pressure or danger. This fear causes a fight or flight response in Miles, usually triggering some Spidey power like invisibility. We also see the color scheme change at these points where Miles feels overwhelmed.

A good example is early on in the film when Miles sees that everybody in school has heard about him accidentally ripping Gwen’s hair out. In the style of a comic book, the screen becomes populated with boxes that show what Miles is afraid of: all the other students judging him and gossiping about him. Just as Miles is overwhelmed by the situation, the colors are intentionally overwhelming to match Miles’ emotional state. Pure cyan, magenta, and yellow are scattered in different boxes throughout the screen and jump out at our eyes.

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We see this appearance of the classic comic book color palette again when Miles is tested by the Spideys from each dimension at Aunt May’s house. When he fails to control his powers and fight back, Miles is knocked to the ground and colors seem to blur off of his body before his invisibility kicks in and he flees the scene. Again, the viewer is overwhelmed with bold primary colors to display Miles’ inner anxiety about achieving what is expected of him.

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The color blue is also used to set the tone of sad moments in the film. When the original Peter Parker dies at the hands of Kingpin, Miles runs home to his parents, who find out about Parker’s death as it is broadcasted on the news. The light from the television screen tints the apartment blue, and we next see the entire city tinted a similar blue as everyone sees the announcement of Parker’s death. The creators of Into the Spiderverse were not bounded by realism that live-action filmmakers are limited to, in trying to give a scene its emotional tone. Along with sad music, this blue tint further emphasizes the sadness of the city in response to the death of their hero.

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Color and Character Arcs

The main and supporting protagonists possess a set of primary colors that establish a part of their identities. When a character’s primary colors are emphasized or changed in some way, this change in color has a corresponding character development. Two key examples of this are in Spider-Man Noir and Miles’ character development.

Spider-Man Noir is introduced as a man whose life of fighting crime has led to become hardened and devoid of emotion. The black and white coloration of his universe reflects the fact that he does not have the ability to feel feelings. In this new universe, he discovers that he is not the “one and only” Spider Man, but that there are many others like him that share some variant of his experiences. At the film’s climax, we see that he has developed the capacity to have and share emotions. As Penni’s robot dies, he is behind her with his hand on her shoulder to comfort her. Before returning he says with hesitation in his voice and the Rubix cube in his hand:

“I…love you all. I’m taking this cube thing with me. I don’t understand it, but I will.”

When we see him one last time during the resolution of the film, he has solved the cube, the one colorful item in his colorless world. The interplay of colors with their absence (in the RBG system) serves as a symbol of Spider-Man Noir’s character change.

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Miles’ main character development in the film is defined by ability to harness the Spider powers that have been granted to him. Miles struggles with this challenge as he tries to learn how to be Spiderman from Peter, but cannot hone his powers successfully. He has no set of defining colors for most of the film. He tries to emulate Peter’s look with a red and blue Spiderman costume that does not fit him. The scene where Miles manages to hone his power and swing throughout the city with his new red and black costume solidifies his new identity as a true superhero. His true colors, red and black, are revealed to us, and we see a new Spiderman comic book falling onto the stack of others.

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Color at the Climax

At the climax of the film, the collider beam shoots out cyan, magenta, yellow, and many other combinations to represent the colors in all the universes in a kaleidoscopic way. The energy of the scene is matched by the vibrancy of each character’s main color or color scheme. We can see this additional vibrancy first in the fight scene with Doc Oc. At other points in the film, her green appearance is dampened by the surrounding colors. However, when she is in focus during the final fight with Spiderman, her green color is amplified by the presence of the collider beam and fills the entire screen. The peak intensity of her primary color is seen at the peak of her action in the film.

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Further, the final return of each Spidey to their respective universe is established by the use of color in the collider beam, rather than bringing the audience to each character’s universe. When Spider-Man Noir jumps into the beam, the room lights up in his primary colors: black and white. When Penni and Porker do the same, we see the room filled up with the color schemes of her robot, and the Looney Tunes world, respectively.

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Finally, Miles’ primary colors permeate the screen during his final fight with Kingpin. Miles’ greatest power is on display just as his primary colors are displayed in their purest, most vibrant form, filling the entire “space” of the collider room.

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Into the Spiderverse bombards the eyes of its viewers with the kinds of bright, robust colors one would see in a comic book. However, it does not do this for no reason. Other than honoring the medium from which the character Spiderman came from, color can be seen as a mechanism for differentiating good from evil, revealing a character’s emotions, and signifying character development.

Chiron’s Male and Female Relationships in Moonlight

by Tomi Kolapo


Moonlight by Barry Jenkins is a film seen through the point of view of the main character, Chiron. The film remains in Chiron’s perspective even as the character grows to be a teen and young adult. Over this time, the viewer gets to see Chiron interact with the people around him. Underlying these interactions is the fact that Jenkins makes sure to characterize as a shy, emotionally scarred individual. Thus, it is notable that he is able to form deep connections with some people. Among, the people he interacts with the most, Juan, Kevin, Paula, and Theresa, there appears to be a gender divide in the level of intimacy he has with these individuals. Aspects like the amount of contact, type of contact and color of the scene indicate the connection level difference between male and female. This serves as an indicator of Chiron’s sexuality.


From Chiron and Juan’s initial contact, the closeness of their connection is clear. However, the first notable instance involving physical contact is when Chiron’s mother denies Juan from contacting Chiron. She does this when Juan returns Chiron to Liberty city. Paula moves Chiron away from fist-bumping Juan. A fist-bump is an activity that has to be engaged in by both parts. Thus, it represents mutual affinity. Chiron’s mom realizes the fist-bump represents a connection between the two. Thus, her moving away Chiron represents her wanting to ignore that they have a bond. Or it shows her not giving Chiron a chance to realize he has a link to Juan by engaging in physical contact. Paula realizes the importance of physical contact in the development of a relationship.

However, Chiron’s mother’s rejection of Juan dos does not inhibit them from having physical contact at a later scene. A prominent instance of physical contact is when Juan is teaching Chiron how to float. First, it is important to acknowledge the nature of this activity. It is the type of thing a father would teach a child. The type of physical contact is also indicative of their closeness. Before he lets Chiron go, he is lifting him over water. Lifting is not an activity done to anybody someone likes. It is representative of a close relationship. For example, parents and relatives carry small children, not a random person the like. Also, his touch has to be gentle because he would not want the anxious and fearful Chiron to become tense or to start panicking. Thus, he uses a gentle touch which represents a tenderness. Chiron’s acceptance of that tender touch indicates his comfortability with Juan.

The colors the cinematographer chooses in the floating scene indicates the warmth of the interaction. The scene is noticeable by its blue tinge. Everything in the frame is altered due to the addition of a blue hue. This is not surprising since the scene is dominated by the sky and water which are blue. However, this shade of blue is lighter than what is usually depicted as water. The water is so light it is almost green. Thus, the scene has a softer tone, representing the relationship. By the surroundings appearing lighter, they are less of a menace to young Chiron learning to swim. Instead, they reinforce the pleasantness of the interaction.

Juan teaching Chiron to float


Both the sexual and nonsexual contact between Kevin and Chiron reflects an affectionate relationship. The story first introduces Kevin in a scene in which boys are playing the field. They end up playfully fighting on the ground. Rubbing against someone, while rolling on the ground is not an activity people normally seek. Such a close, constant, uncomfortable touch can only represent extreme emotion. It is either dislike or fondness. Since they get along after the scene it has to be fondness. It has to be this way because people do not want to get so close to someone unless they like them or want to fight them.

The fight between a younger Chiron and Kevin (Fight begins at 2.20)

Additionally, there is a scene of sexual contact between the two males. The sexual contact is implied due to Kevin cleaning his hands with sand and the fact that it follows a kiss. Also, the camera only refuses to show Chiron’s crotch and Kevin’s hand so it indicates that it is near Chiron’s genitalia. Touching genitalia is a touch that represents intimacy. Instead of directly focusing on the sexual act, the camera stays on Chiron’s head on Juan’s shoulder. Thus, the head-shoulder contact makes an already intimate act more personal. It shows that it is done by two people that cherish the sexual contact. A headrest is only done between two people that are comfortable with each other.

When Kevin and Chiron talk to each other on the beach, a hue of blue goes over the scene. The color lightens the setting that should be dark since it is at night. Also, the color adds softness to a discussion that starts going in a depressing direction. They discuss Chiron committing suicide by walking into the water. However, the blue hue that radiates in the scene comes from the connection between the two. It adds optimism to a dark time, which talking to a person of reciprocal fondness causes.

The intimate scene between Kevin and Chiron by the water

Paula (Chiron’s Mother)

Chiron loves his mother out of obligation, but not because they have developed a deep connection. One of the scenes of physical contact is when she yells at Chiron to give her money. During this interaction, she touches him in a stern, firm and threatening way with her hands. In this scene, she tugs on Chiron and hits him lightly on the abdomen. These are all more aggressive physical touching than happens in his interactions with the two men. This type of contact represents a relationship that expects reciprocity. It does not include the gentle touches of the males showing Chiron compassion.

In part 3, while sleeping, an older Chiron dreams of his mom in an angry mood. In this dream, his mom is dressed in a red top as she stands in the hallway yelling at Chiron. While she is yelling, there appears to be a neon pink or purple line around her. The color is one of the least soft and most alarming in the film. It is abrupt and not inviting when juxtaposed with the lighter hues of the rest of the scenes.  Therefore, the cinematography is indicating that this may not be the most affectionate relationship. It takes the audience out of the comfortability the lighter tones cause. It reflects the dynamic of the relationship. The scene emanates a lack of mutual comfortability.

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The scene with the neon light surrounding Paula


Theresa only ever touches Chiron once in all their interactions once. However, the lack of contact does not reflect a distaste for each other. It does show that they are not linked the same way that Chiron and Juan were. They do not have a closeness in their relationship that requires contact. Instead, their relationship is defined by respect. However, the relationship does not transcend to form an intimate relationship.

The one instance of touch is characteristic of the distance in their relationship. It is a stern touch in which Theresa holds Chiron by the chin and lifts it upward. Such a touch does not reveal affection. It indicates Theresa’s demand or request for Chiron to complete an action. This is confirmed by Theresa’s dialogue, “Stop putting your head down in my house” (Moonlight). This is a more assertive or critical statement than any that Juan makes towards Chiron. It reinforces the level of affinity that the touch indicates.

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Theresa lifting Chiron’s head

There are not any distinctive scenes of color between the two. This describes the steady, respectful, but unimpassioned nature of their relationship. It does not stand out as involving a special connection to the audience or Chiron.


With Kevin and Juan, Kevin shows himself to have warm and comfortable relationships with them. These relationships are the greatest pieces of emotional connection in a difficult life for Chiron. The way he allows these individuals to touch him reflects these individuals breaking past Chiron’s hardened exterior. The movie depicts scenes with Kevin and Juan in lighter colors. It reflects the warmth in these relationships. However, he does not have as warm a relationship with the women in his life. Even though it is usually a female character trope that women are warm characters that juxtaposes against harsh male characters. In this movie, he does not have the same fondness for Theresa and his mom that he does for men. With Theresa, he has respect for her, but he does not have a deep connection with her. Kevin loves his mother because she is his mother and only present parental figure. However, they do not profound connection. They cannot penetrate each other’s tough exterior.

The dichotomy between the nature of Kevin’s male and female relationships connects to broader themes in the movie. One of these themes is Kevin’s sexuality and his struggle to discover it. The film indicates that Chiron is not heterosexual, due to other people calling him a “faggot” and his mom blaming his mannerisms for him getting bullied. This is made explicit to the audience by the night on the beach with Kevin and the fact that he returns to Kevin even after the pain he causes him. Thus, the film is providing a signal by the characters he is able to connect with. The film is telling the audience that his inability to connect with women is not only due to the circumstances that Chiron lives. It could be that it is innate in him to form deeper bonds with men like Kevin and Juan. This reflects that Chiron’s circumstances do not totally obstruct him from his essence. His natural inclinations only adjust to manifest themselves in the situation that he lives. His homosexual inclinations make him comfortable with getting close to men.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse, A Masterclass in the Intersection of Sound and Animation


By Aditya Tandon

Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse hit cinemas with a storm in late 2018 as movie-goers of all ages came together to watch a new kind of Spider-Man film; not just because of the biracial protagonist, the presence of multiple spider-(wo)men, or the flawless comic-book styled animation, but because of how seamlessly all these pieces came together. It was a movie of many firsts, and it surpassed all expectations, later going on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Film. I must confess, however, the first time I heard about the film and all the fanfare around it, I assumed it was just another super-hero movie being propped up by a loyal fanbase. It was only upon finally watching it that I realized how grossly mistaken I was; I noticed the enormous detail that went into both the animation as well as the plot, and how much the film was able to achieve through the intersection of animation and sound. All of this comes together in what is perhaps one of the most iconic scenes of the film, Miles’ “Leap of Faith,” embedded in full below.

There are so many aspects being brought together to make this scene what it is; the voices in the background representing Miles’ growth and arrival, the upbeat music broken up by moments of silence, the palpable fear and uncertainty in the air, the symbolism of his gliding over the same building he fell from before, and finally, the intersection of all of it incredible beauty of the animation itself.

The Opening

The scene begins with Miles sitting on the ledge of a building, lighting striking in the background matching the tempo of the music, both the animation and the music being dexterously used by the creators. The audience immediately gets a sense of what Miles is feeling in this scene, the adrenaline created by the music, the doubt in his mind conveyed by the height of the building, the enormous expanse of the city behind him, and the wariness in his face. We feel entirely in touch with Miles here and without a single word being spoken, which only serves to illustrate the enormous power of animation and music, and perhaps less expectedly here, the shot of the frame in moving from the bottom to the top of the building.

Immediately following this, the scene cuts to a flashback of the journey Miles made from Peter’s home to the ledge that he was sitting on, and the internal growth that the audience is able to witness. Here, the editors beautifully created a montage of things people have said to Miles that push away the doubt we previously saw. Rather than flashing back to each individual moment,  the editors chose to have the voices in the background and this tool further allowed the audience to put themselves in Miles’ shoes; to watch as Miles’ confidence grew with each voice that we heard.

“I see this spark in you…it’s amazing.”

“Whatever you choose to do, you’ll be great.”

“Our family doesn’t run from things.”

“You’re the best of all of us, Miles. You’re on your way.”

In addition to this, visually, this growth is also apparent in Miles looking at his reflection in Peter’s suit. While this scene alone (Figure 2) could have conveyed that Miles was finally ready for the battle that was waiting for him, what makes it far more poetic is the scene of Miles unable to see his reflection in Peter’s suit earlier in the film (Figure 1). In drawing back to that first scene, the film is able to highlight Miles overcoming his self-doubt and his development in finally becoming worthy of the suit. All of this is brought together, the music, the flashbacks, the voices in Miles’ head, his journey to the building he first attempted to leap from, in less than 1 minute, and yet it packs an enormous amount of tension and emotion into one short scene.

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Figure 1: Miles unable to see his reflection fit into Peter’s suit
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Figure 2: Miles seeing his full reflection in Peter’s suit towards the end

Music: Blackway and Black Caviar’s “What’s Up Danger”

The use of music in this clip is especially apt on several different levels, not only in the lyrics of the song itself as Miles is getting ready to face his fears, but also in the pauses within it that let us appreciate Miles’ internal struggle and hear the sounds of his steps and the glass breaking. As the flashback scenes take place, we hear the music build up until it finally breaks for a moment as we hear Peter’s voice saying, “That’s all it is, Miles, a leap of faith.” This one moment, although it only lasts for three seconds, brings together Miles’ finally moments in which he realizes that he must trust himself; the audience does not actually hear him say this in any dialogue, but the music becoming increasingly quiet and the animation showing him take a deep breath are enough to tell the us everything.

Figure 3: The Leap of Faith






Whether we see it or not, Miles’ uncertainty in this scene is palpable, and it is further highlighted by two shots. The first is of the moment right before he jumps, where he is at the very edge of the frame with the enormous skyscraper beside him (The very beginning of Figure 3). This framing, in addition to the near silence of the music, accentuates Miles’ self-doubt and allows us to once again empathize with him; we understand that Miles is doing what he thinks is right, but not necessarily what he wants to do. Jennifer Scheurle, a veteran game designer, described the shot, saying,

“The building is so much larger than he is and dominates the screen. His environment leaves almost no room for him. He’s crushed by the weight of where he is and what he has to do next.”

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Figure 4: Miles’ fingertips holding on the glass

This sentiment continues in the beautiful animation of the next shot. As the music gets slightly louder and we hear the words, “Like what’s up danger?” Miles gracefully leaps off the building. We see Miles fingertips breaking the glass as he is unable to fully let go off the building, however, fear still clouding his mind as he pushes himself, nonetheless (Figure 4). It is in this moment that we are reminded of Miles’ age, that after all he is only a young boy afraid of the choices posed in front of him. Scheurle called this “the man infestation of his leap of faith: Miles is doing something necessary despite his fear, despite knowing how badly this could all go for him.” And as we arrive at one of the most beautiful shots of the scene, the extended silence allows us to take a moment and truly appreciate Miles’ feelings as well as the beauty of the animation.

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Figure 5: Miles rises on screen

As the silence continues and some form of serenity kicks in, the shot shows Miles rising even as he is falling. And in this moment, we do not question it, for Miles has indeed risen to the occasion. This does not last long, however, even as the silence continues, suddenly we are reminded that Miles is indeed falling as the grace of the scene disappears and we watch Miles flutter around. Rather than sustaining the serenity of the previous shot, the silence now serves to heighten the sound of the wind clashing against his clothes, until it finally returns, bringing only tension and worry back with it. In these scenes, by combining long periods of silence with short bursts of music, and even longer lengths of silence with sounds of the glass breaking or the wind, the film is able to create a reality even as we have already agreed to suspend our disbelief. Because of the use of the sound in combination with the expert animation, the audience is able to feel every sentiment of Miles’ without ever having leapt off a building – and this is the beauty of the intersection that one cannot stop appreciating while watching these scenes.



approaching screen fall
Figure 6: Accentuated comic-book style animation

Although our logical minds keep telling us that Miles will survive the fall, the anticipation creates a certain uncertainty as the fall extends further and further. In this scene, as the music finally picks up and we hear the words, “Like what’s up danger?” again, we witness the animation that made this movie so notable in the first place – we see an accentuation of the comic-book style in the blocks breaking up Miles’ descent, and all of this comes together to build up more tension as the music gets faster and Miles gets closer to us.

Finally, we watch as the music becomes louder still and Miles launches his webs and glides across the city in triumph, highlighting what is possibly my favorite piece of symbolism in this scene, but something that I entirely missed initially. As Miles is swinging we a see a contrast in the red and orange lights on the ground and the lighter shades of blue around him in the sky. Scheurle suggested that this is representative of how Spider-Man views the world: “The sky is peaceful and blue. The ground is dangerous, metaphorically on fire. The floor is lava, and it’s better, safer, for him to be in the air.” I thought this, in addition to the more apparent symbolism and connections to earlier scenes, showed just how much thought clearly went into this short scene, and reminded me of what made the animation of this film so beautiful.

As we come to the end of the scene, we witness one last connection to an earlier scene that perfectly culminates Miles’ journey thus far. Swinging around, more sure of himself now, we see Miles glide across the building from which he first tried and failed to leap off from, and as the music beings to fade out, both Miles and the audience know that he has come full circle.

This entire scene is one that many recognize and many have expressed their opinion of, but I think more than anything, it represents how beautifully animation and sound can come together to create human sentiment. When one watches a scene like this, there is no question of animated films being secondary to live-action, for Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse shows just how much animation can push the boundaries of what we expect from films. By not only developing intricate animation, with 177 animators working on the film at one point, but by combing it with varying volumes and tempos and moments of silence, this film illustrated exactly how to build emotion and develop characters, often without even saying a single word. And while this may only be one clip of the scene – and, certainly, one of the scenes that I felt was packed most with symbolism, call-backs, and possibly the most beautiful animation – it is representative of the entire film and the practices used to create this masterpiece.


An Elephant Sitting Still: A Sontagian Read

Kelly Mu

For me personally, Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag was perhaps the most impactful reading of the quarter. Its defiance of a long tradition of hermeneutics seemed relatable but also revolutionary. It shed light on a question that I have always struggled with, whether in reading literary works or watching a film. That is, how am I supposed to engage with a piece? Do I critically analyse every imagery and cinematic technique, or simply let my emotions consume me? An Elephant Sitting Still, a four hour Chinese film by the deceased director Hu Bo, was a chance for me to do both and reflect on their effectiveness.


For Sontag, the act of interpretation is a “revenge of the intellect upon the world”. It is a means of meaning-generation that distorts the artwork itself and makes it intelligible to the logic of the mundane, to stripe art of art. Sontag identifies two facets to interpretation: it could be liberating, an act of escaping a dead past, or it could be cowardly, stifling that which transcends the status quo. Unfortunately, theory has developed to the extent that it can only achieve the latter. Critical theory as a tradition is cumbersome and too self-focused, and current critics are only displacing art with their own ideological agenda through interpretation. Sontag desperately wants an “erotics of art”, or an immediate bodily and emotional response to an artwork rather than a calculated one. Real art makes us uncomfortable, nervous, and runs wild. Interpretation “tames” art by making it comfortable and acceptable. Instead of interpretation, Sontag proposes a “descriptive, rather than prescriptive vocabulary” for art and its form, where we describe our response to the art or describe the artwork itself, rather than saying what it means. For Sontag, film seems to be a valuable means to achieve the alternative. The myriad of forms in film (camera movement, composition of frames) gives no time for interpretation, but allow for immediate descriptive responses.

An Elephant Sitting Still is an interesting film to apply Sontag’s theories to. The movie is four hours long and consists of many blank shots: shots that only feature slow movement, somber music, with no camera movement and no dialogue. The audience easily gets lost in moments like these, which potentially have a few effects on their interpretation. The film perhaps allows for more “erotics of art” because it is abstract to the point which interpretation becomes near impossible. There is so little happening that it becomes difficult for one to weave a coherent interpretative narrative. But on the other hand, the film may allow for more intense interpretation because of its slow pace. Every change and camera movement now becomes even more noticeable and pronounced, and the audience has time to think about their meaning since there is so little going on. Unlike action-packed feature film, the lack of constant visual stimulus perhaps makes it easier for the audience to have the attention for interpretation.

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(I have selected an interesting scene from An Elephant Sitting Still, which features the three characters standing in a triangle, and then walking off-screen one-by-one. This simple change takes over a minute to take place. An Elephant Sitting Still is a film centered around four protagonists, narrating the course of one single, tension-filled day from dawn to dusk. It portrays a society enveloped by selfishness, and characters that either conform or try to resist. The three characters featured in this scene are Wei Bu, a teenage boy that runs away from home for accidentally killing a school bully, Huang Ling, a teenage girl that has an innocent affair with her teacher, and Wang Jin, the grandparent of the girl that he is with, who is forced out of his own home and sent to a nursing home by his own son. They have all escaped from home and are on a bus to see an odd elephant in ManZhouLi, that does nothing but sit still.)

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Here is what a Sontagian read of the scene might look like. Amidst diegetic white noise, the three protagonists stand in a triangle in silence. Distant conversations can be heard coming from the bus as the rest of the passengers also take a break from the long ride, and the audience is surrounded by a sense of depressing calmness. The three protagonists are technically free as they have taken their fate into their own hands and decided to run away; yet their positioning suggest a faintly discernible sense of attachment to the other, a longing for connection in their lost lives. Huang Lin is the first to leave her spot, and peeks several times at Wei Bu; her action is still influenced by that of others. Wang Jin entirely focuses on his granddaughter, but their private happiness is suffocated by the bleak atmosphere and seems helpless in comparison. Wei Bu is the only character that stands completely still throughout the scene: his looks are empty and dull, projected towards the distance. His shabby outfit along with his scar marks make him look almost dead, with no hopes for tomorrow. The camera is still, as is time: we have forgotten about all the conflicts and misunderstandings that have propelled them to end up here, and are immersed in the brooding of the individual characters. The emptiness of the scene is enchanting. The audience does not become bored, but is strangely attracted to the nothingness, as we stare into their purposeless and meaningless lives. A simple blankness of thoughts.

An ordinary interpretation for a film class would look like something different, as meaning could be extracted from many different details of the film. For example, one could analyse the geometric collisions that happen in the scene; the seemingly unbreakable triangle juxtaposed with the irregular background. The use of lighting and hues could also be meaningful. There are simultaneously two sources of light, one that comes from the front light of the bus which is parked to the left of the frame, while the other is a light that is blocked by Wei Bu. The light behind Wei Bu can be read as a ray of hope that he has determinedly turned his back towards and refused to accept. It has burned him throughout his life and has propelled him to defy the unethical actions of his poor family, such as taking the shopping card of someone else. But after the series of unfortunate events that have happened to him, he has decided to walk away from what he has believed in, though he is the closest to achieving any kind of purity out of the three protagonists.

There are a few things that I notice after doing the above analysis and also reading The Dicken’s World: A View from Todger’s, which Sontag calls a “rare example” of criticism that applies a “loving description” of a work of art. Firstly is that the analysis is taken by the logic of the artwork. That is, the audience or the analyst follows the rhythm of the work and the order in which events proceed. It is a faithful record of the work with a personal and affectionate touch. Interpretation, on the other hand, is a rearrangement of the work. The piece is dissected and taken apart, and put back again using the logic of the interpreter. This process is perhaps why Sontag sees both a creative and destructive power within interpretation: it gives the artwork a second life, for the better or worse.

Secondly, I don’t see how the two interpretations are meaningfully different, i.e. how a Sontagian read is able to escape the problem that Sontag criticises interpretation of having. I disagree with Sontag’s interpretation of interpretation, as an act of complete change, as telling the audience that “X is really… A”. Interpretation is the process through which we derive meaning from the written and spoken words of someone else rather than simply receive meaning. It is an act of “translation”, but it is also a process that is inherent in the way we receive information. Words are a medium through which we communicate certain thoughts, but they are not the forming elements of our thoughts. That is to say, we do not think in words but in abstract strands of unconscious ideas that only become a communicable message when we try to speak. There is therefore a process of translation which fits the thought into the word being used, as word is never the thought itself but merely a description of it. In receiving the words the listener goes through a similar process of translation which transforms the word again back into a thought, but the process happens without full accuracy since it is impossible to know exactly the other is trying to say and referring to.

Even if there are commonly held notions of what a word means, such as in the case of immediate referrals of pointing to “this” and “that”, our mutual understanding stops when the thing or thought being addressed becomes abstract and absent. Despite having overlaps in our thoughts when we speak a particular word (which is why I’m still able to write the essay and communicate), the boundaries of the word are blurred: we do not know when the span of meaning starts and when it ends. There might be a few numbers of objects which we agree are “tables”, but in our unconsciousness we do not coincide on what makes a thing a table and what makes a thing not a table. This difference is mainly due to our different perspectives and personal experiences, which evoke slightly different notions of the word “table”. What a speaker thinks of when she says a table may be entirely different to what a listener thinks of when she hears of a table. There is no collective consciousness in which everyone has the same understanding of what a particular word entails, and we rely on the imperfect medium of words to further communicate ourselves.

Thus, inherent in the act of understanding is interpreting. The listener implicitly receives the word in a way that is in accordance with her worldview, experiences and priorities, and in the process has given new meaning to the word, which is different both to how the speaker intended it, and what the collective mutual understanding of the word is. This difference in meaning is compounded when we collate words into sentences, and try to communicate greater meaning through essays or literature, and becomes more abstract when we are using film or an artwork as a medium. Even in a Sontagian read, the very act of watching a film and perceiving an artwork is distorting it and changing it in some way, albeit unconsciously. The fact that we are enchanted or feel awe in the presence of an artwork means interpretation is happening. The difference between a descriptive read and a prescriptive read is only one of articulation, because we are describing what we perceive in a way that is already entangled with personal biases and subjective judgements, responding not to the artwork itself, but what we interpret the artwork to be.

Therefore I think the difference of a Sontagian read does not lie in the act of interpretation, but in the kind of interpretation. Sontag is calling for an affective rather than a rational read: a blind devotion of the self into the artwork during the experience, rather than holding a clear head and a critical eye. I think a combination of the two would yield the best result, and is also the reason why I like re-watching films: enjoy the moment, but also remember to seek greater meaning through the details when the viewing pleasure cools down.

Realism and the Prison Break: A Man Escaped and Chicken Run


By Emil Sohlberg

A Man Escaped and Chicken Run, though both centered around prison escapes, have strong thematic differences. A Man Escaped (1956) tells the story of Fontaine, a French resistance member who escapes from a Nazi prison to avoid execution. Chicken Run, not a live-action film but shot with claymation instead, tells the story of chickens who escape from a chicken farm, their own version of a prison, before they are all killed and baked into pies. At face value, Chicken Run is bright and colorful, while A Man Escaped is darker and more cerebral, but these different feelings stem from numerous stylistic choices. These feelings are ultimately achieved through the films leaning away from and towards realism; in terms of sound and storytelling A Man Escaped is more realistic than Chicken Run, but despite being animated, Chicken Run’s use of space is more realistic than that of A Man Escaped. A Man Escaped highlights the quiet determination that perseveres under stifling conditions, while Chicken Run delivers a more bombastic, inspirational take on escape.

First, the sparse use of sound design in A Man Escaped supports realism and serves to highlight the tedium of being in prison, while Chicken Run’s uplifting score serves to inspire the audience instead. For the majority of A Man Escaped, the audience only ever hears exactly what Fontaine hears. The audience becomes accustomed to the sounds of a train going by, and of a guard clanking his keys up the stairs. When Fontaine disguises the sound of him scratching at his door, with a cough, the audience understands the need for this, as aurally, they are in the same place as Fontaine. There are few treats for the audience in A Man Escaped’s soundscape, because such treats would not be in a prison’s soundscape either. The few exceptions only highlight this, such as when classical music plays during the prisoners’ daily opportunity to leave their cells. Though they are doing the unglamourous work of dumping their toilet buckets and getting cleaned up, the music shows how valuable this time is for them, as a brief respite from their isolation. By comparison, Chicken Run’s opening sequence is non stop sound, with a musical montage over Ginger, the de facto leader of the chickens, and her countless failed escape attempts. A musical montage is inherently dissimilar to how the audience perceives reality, but that is not the priority here. The music playing during this sequence highlights Ginger’s determination and resolve, allowing the audience to recognize the repeating motifs at triumphant points throughout the rest of the movie, such as when Ginger and her accomplice Rocky escape a pie machine, sabotaging it in the process. Both of the movies use sound to indicate how the audience should be feeling, with the focus or lack of focus on non-diegetic sound being the key point.

Chicken Run’s opening sequence

doorchiselFontaine chisels at the door

Next, in A Man Escaped, the use of space and location to reveal little information about the prison gives the film a claustrophobic and oppressive feel, while in Chicken Run, beautiful claymation establishes the world so vividly that the possibility of escape feels real, tangible, and inspirational. Much of A Man Escaped is spent in Fontaine’s jail cell, a small room that the audience has plenty of time to get familiar with. Unlike the use of sound, where the audience hears what Fontaine hears, the audience actually knows much less about the spatiality of the prison than Fontaine does, revealed when Fontaine makes plans to navigate areas that the audience has never even seen. It is in this manner that A Man Escape is leaning away from realism, as even in prison would the audience come to learn its layout. Instead, the audience, when shown locations beyond Fontaine’s cell, only knows them in a disjointed manner; they are exposed to too few shots of travel between them, and are unable to put together any kind of cohesive big picture. This results in a sense of general unease, contributing to the film’s atmosphere. Interestingly, Chicken Run, not in spite of but rather because of its use of claymation, feels far more grounded in an actual world. Chicken Run operates on two scales, human-scale when the farmer husband and wife, the Tweedys, are interacting, but primarily on chicken-scale, when the chickens are the focus. There are several impressive shots in the film that connect these two scales together, such as when Ginger and Rocky are hiding from Mrs. Tweedy, that really give the audience an understanding of the size of the world. This connects thematically to the chickens’ motivation, introduced by a heartfelt speech from Ginger directed to her fellow chickens early in the film–to live somewhere green, with no farmers, where they can be free. Escape for the chickens is as much about reaching this place, as it is about leaving their current location. This motivation is far more impactful when the audience accepts their world as being real and expansive. Such acceptance is not a priority in A Man Escaped however, because getting anywhere specific is hardly even mentioned by Fontaine. What is really critical is just getting out and not being executed. This is why the limited exposure to space works in that film; the outside world would only take away from the isolation and desperation the audience is supposed to be feeling.

hidingGinger and Rocky hide from Mrs. Tweedy

incellFontaine sits in his jail cell

Chicken Run’s realism here cannot be described without also giving credit to the level of detail of the animation style, as well as the tangible physicality of the claymation medium. There are many details that appear exactly as they would in reality, such as one character’s glasses magnifying their eyes, or the fuzz on another character’s sweater. Close up shots reveal the rough texture of bricks and wood, and a coal bin has the exact gritty appearance of rusted metal. In one incredible shot, Mrs. Tweedy spins a metal saw with her fingers, and her face can be seen in the reflection of the saw as it’s spinning. Since the set actually exists in a physical form, there is realism in lighting as well. The chicken farm can be exposed to controlled lighting depending on weather or time of day, that comes across as far more sophisticated and true to life than an audience might normally expect from an animated feature. Interestingly, though A Man Escaped has a high level of realism on the basis of being filmed in reality, in some ways it feels less real than Chicken Run, due to the almost dreamlike unease stemming from its narrow spatial scope.

goodlightingSunlight on a cloudy day

sweaterfuzzMr Tweedy’s fuzzy sweater

spinningsawMrs. Tweedy’s reflection in the saw

A Man Escaped characterizes a prison escape as painstaking and methodical, with its straightforward and realistic story structure, while Chicken Run utilizes more traditional Hollywood convention to portray escape as an adventure. A Man Escaped is an unbelievably slow burn, with the majority of the film following Fontaine’s gradual progress on his escape plan. Though there are pencil confiscations and the execution of another prisoner who attempts to escape, there are no actual setbacks to the plan. One development, the introduction of his young cellmate, Jost, seems like it may be a setback should Jost prove untrustworthy, but it occurs so late in the movie and has so little effect on the plan that Jost’s very presence in the film defies expectation. Overall, A Man Escaped feels lifelike in its unpredictability, but the surprise of the film is actually how smoothly the plan goes. This is appropriate, as in reality, a prison escape is going to be the result of slow work and careful planning, that will either go off without a hitch or end with unredeemable failure. By contrast, Chicken Run has far more developments and setbacks, but they all happen at the exact places that they should in the conventional three act structure, making them feel more predictable. The result of this predictability is that the prison escape feels less like work, and more like a standard Hollywood adventure. There’s an act one inciting incident when Rocky, a circus runaway, arrives and claims to be able to teach the chickens how to fly. There is ascending action when the pie machine is delivered and destroyed, raising the stakes as the chickens learn their eventual fate. A major setback occurs at the end of act two, when Rocky reveals he cannot fly and abandons the chickens. Then there is a climax where the chickens desperately make an escape via plane. There is even a tidy denouement at the end of the film to show how happy the chickens are once they have escaped. The story never develops in a way to make the audience especially uncomfortable, as expected of a G-rated tale of escaping chickens (with the exception of one of the chickens being executed early on, which is mainly surprising due to how bleak it is, as it still functions properly as an act one inciting incident).

rockyarrivesRocky arrives

bigsetbackBig setback

Chicken Run and A Man Escaped are both excellent films revolving around prison breaks, but they are vastly different in how they regard realism in three areas. All of the choices of A Man Escaped are intended to increase tension and monotony: this means a subdued realism in sound, spatiality made more stifling through its lack of realism, and a story that is straightforward and realistic in its unpredictable predictability. All of this comes together to result in a realistic prison escape film, which feels appropriate as the story is based on real events. Chicken Run instead makes choices that are intended to be uplifting and inspirational. The non-diegetic score is thrilling and memorable, the space with real presence gives credibility to the characters’ motivations, and the storytelling follows tried-and-true methods of building the audience’s emotions.

Alien: The Terror of Not Being Terrified

Alien (1979) and Alien: Isolation (2014)

Julian Spencer

I don’t think there’s any genre that’s as hard to pull off as horror. The percentage of horror films, games, and books which are critically acclaimed (or, for that matter, even well reviewed) is uncharacteristically low. It’s not that these works have an issue with actually scaring the viewer; even the most experienced filmgoers can’t help but feel an adrenaline rush when a monster suddenly appears with an obnoxiously loud sound. Rather, it’s the fact that not all types of fear are enjoyable. When the shock of a jumpscare dies away, we’re left feeling like the subjects of a middle school “gotcha” prank, more frustrated than interested.

The distinction is in creating a horror which is enjoyable — one which inspires dread, doubt, and uneasiness — rather than immediate fear. This is exactly what the Alien franchise does so well. Recently, I dedicated a weekend to the original 1979 film and the tangentially based 2015 game Alien: Isolation. On a surface level, the two mediums are remarkably similar; as I explored the Nostromo, I was continuously stunned by the accuracy with which everything from the doors to the weapons to, of course, the alien, were recreated. On a surface level, they are practically indistinguishable. Though it was wonderful to relive these aspects of the movie, what brings me here today is how well the unique sentiment of the original picture is captured in the game.


One of many visual easter eggs the game includes.

In order to get a better understanding of how the franchise is able to transition so seamlessly between formats, let’s focus first on the film. Though the movie (and, occasionally, the game) don’t shy away entirely from jumpscares, they are much more interested in creating an environment of tension. This is, of course, not unique to Alien; most critically acclaimed horror movies follow a similar method, in which the ability of off screen space to hide potential horrors is critical to the intended effect. Typically, 6 areas of off screen space are cited: the four directions around the frame, the space behind the camera, and the space behind occluding objects in the frame. What keeps Alien relevant nearly 40 years later is the unique way in which its monster plays with this screen space. Despite incredibly minimal screentime, the alien is constantly present, slowly and deliberately moving in on the crew.

Ready to pop out from any direction.



When the crew aboard a commercial spaceship receives a distress signal, they realize they are legally obligated to investigate. Here is our introduction to off screen space: somewhere, in a specific quadrant, there is something to be investigated. This scene could be described as tense, but it is difficult to justify as scary; we simply have not been given enough information. However, this is a crucial moment for the story, opening a larger atmosphere of off screen space which will be built upon for the rest of the film.

The crew pinpoints a distress signal of unknown origin.


As we move closer to the distress signal, our fears become more realized. Kane, a member of the crew, stumbles across an enormous egg hatchery filled with unknown creatures. In a traditional horror sense, the eggs act as occluders, hiding from us a creature we simultaneously want to inspect and flee from. Yet, at the same time, Ripley Scott uses them to add to something much scarier. Though the camera lens is focused on the egg itself, we begin to build a different understanding of the larger world surrounding our frame. Eggs must mean that there are living creatures on this planet, ones which might choose to protect their young. Where before our threat was vague, both in location and form, it now takes a living form and a set location: the planet itself.

Kane inspects an egg.


After an attack by a recently hatched creature, Kane is returned to the ship while a creature clings to his head. Shortly following, the crew departs the planet and the faceclinger disappears. Again, the distance between us and potential danger shrinks. When the crew discovers the creature’s shedded skin, a frantic search ensues. The vain attempt culminates as a trashcan clangs noisily to the ground, causing a cheap jumpscare as it falls into clear view of the camera. For the first time, Ripley Scott brings the threat’s off screen presence to the forefront: no longer can we take solace in having an entire planet of potential locations for these creatures. The space our unknown pursuer could  occupy is now alarmingly small: the ship itself.

A baby xenomorph makes its escape.

As crew members are picked off one by one, the sense of constant approach continues. In the final sequences of the film, we are left with Ellen Ripley’s final attempt to outsmart the alien as she primes the ship for self destruction and activates the escape pod. Here is our final level of off screen space: a single escape pod whose entire interior is visible with one camera shot. In this climax, off screen space has shrunk entirely, and the only choice is confrontation. Any monster can loom out of sight; it is this ability of the xenomorph to approach without ever being seen that makes the Nostromo so uniquely chilling.

The escape pod leaves nowhere to hide.

With this new understanding of Alien’s atmosphere, let’s shift back to the video game. There are some immediate difficulties in this transition between mediums; the new level of freedom the viewer has means many common tropes no longer work. Rather than cringing as we watch a character make rash decisions, the player controls which rooms to enter and which corners to turn. There are no hidden spaces behind the camera nor close shots which constrain our view, but a first-person player who can look and move freely.giphy-2

Instead, video games often derive their atmosphere from a quest of sneaking and hiding. There’s a similar element of adrenaline as you move from closet to closet, but the type of scare is vastly different from witnessing an otherwise intelligent character make an irrational decision. This is precisely why I was so taken aback by Alien: Isolation’s ability to recapture the xenomorph: in my mind, video games and movies are supposed to feel different. Yet, 40 years apart, both renditions of Ripley Scott’s xenomorph felt all too similar. Looking back on the hours I spent with both mediums, I realize it precisely the original film’s innovative use of a “seventh” outside space that allows for the alien’s flawless transition into the world of video games.

Long, musty spaceship hallways are an integral part of the experience.

The game certainly earns its name; using the same techniques the film pioneered, the world outside slowly begins to shrink until you are left alone with the alien. The first scenes open with plenty of humans and androids, some of which may even decide to help you out. Objectives are often focused on retrieving items, completing tasks, and avoiding conflict with other survivors. Yet, as you march further and further into the darkness, the only human contact left becomes eerie audio messages and faded, hopeless graffiti. As fellow survivors dwindle, hope of rescue fades, and bright, open lobbies become dark, claustrophobic vents, the story quickly becomes a helpless cat and mouse chase. It is this unseen approach that makes the alien the same patient, inescapable predator it was in 1979.

Tight vents become one of few safehavens.

As the alien’s presence grows stronger and stronger, so too did my sense to look, to dispel the darkness and learn something about what is going on. As you know, this never goes well for the crew in Alien; the game is certainly no different. That doesn’t mean the developers never provide you with materials to tempt you in dispelling the unknown; early in the storyline, you’re given a motion tracker and a flashlight which can drastically improve navigation. The catch? Using either of these tantalizing items immediately draws the alien’s attention. Like any horror movie, we are driven so strongly to look (just for one second!), but are terrified to actually press the button. I quickly learned: the best way to survive is to put my head down and plunge into the unknown.

Don’t look.

It seems obvious, but there is an underlying assumption in this take on off-screen horror: to scare you, to make you want to look, the approaching monster must be… scary. On a physical level, the xenomorph certainly accomplishes this: a tail which functions to impale prey, a detachable jaw with humongous fangs, and some horrifying death scenes can’t hurt. However, physically recreating the alien is only a small element of the game’s terror; after all, so much of these two plots is based around not seeing the alien. In the movie, a large part of the beast’s effectiveness as an off-screen presence are the constant hints at its intelligence. We are constantly reminded that our pursuer can not only overpower and outrun us, but outsmart us as well.

“Physical intimidation” is putting it lightly.

In the cinematic world, this is simple enough to accomplish; the characters’ decisions are predetermined, and the director can simply film a tactical response from the alien. While the Alien grows to full strength, it hides from the crew. When Ripley activates the escape pod, it seems to recognize its only escape and stows away inside. When the crew begins a violent search, it confines itself to a maze of air vents. However, this causal relationship goes out the window in a video game. When the player’s actions are not predetermined, it is far more difficult to create a predator who can respond unpredictably and intelligently. 

Instead, Creative Assembly endows its alien with a brilliant AI mechanism, programmed specifically to avoid predictable routines. I have played too many thrillers where the star monster follows a preordained path. Once you begin to recognize the routine starts and stops, a threatening enemy is quickly reduced to a line of computer code. This creature, on the other hand, is more than an obstacle to avoid. By quickly reversing its direction and emerging almost randomly from various vents and passages, our pursuer becomes an intellectual force to be reckoned with. Oh, and the best (worst?) part? As you move through the game, it learns your hiding places… and it has no shame in ripping open doors to pluck you out of them.

The alien quickly learns your hiding spots.

This intelligence is central to the alien’s role as an antagonist: it is why his off screen presence is so terrifying. When I decide to step out of cover, quickly and quietly crouch-walking to the next available occluder, I am not simply terrified of whether or not I may simply bump into his walkspace in the room immediately ahead of me. Rather, I am aware of a hidden system at play beyond the immediate boundaries of my view: even if he has just left the room, nothing is to stop him from turning back immediately or reentering from the ducts above. These unpredictable movements give the alien a feeling of omniscience, an ability to disappear and reappear as he pleases. The progress you make through the game is never linear; the spot you just left may be just as dangerous as the one you are about to enter.

The alien unexpectedly descends from a vent.

As far as recreating the xenomorph goes, Creative Assembly has nailed it. With some creative twists, Alien: Isolation is a beautiful take on the off-screen space techniques that makes the original movie the classic that it is. Even if you can’t see him, the alien’s presence constantly lingers over you. As the world of the Nostromo shrinks, this presence grows exponentially, leaving you in a frenzied, destinationless escape from a cool, collected creature who can outwit and outrun you at any point. Though the game takes a vastly different approach, it creates the very same nerve-grinding combination of terror, hopelessness, and relentless isolation.