If you’re unfamiliar with Reign Over Me, it’s essentially the story of Alan Johnson, who runs into Charlie, his old college roommate. Alan and Charlie haven’t seen each other in years, and in the meantime, on 9/11/01, Charlie lost his wife, three daughters, and the family dog in a plane crash. Charlie has since been suffering from severe symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, getting to a point where he essentially keeps to himself, avoiding the in-laws just trying to interact with him, saying he doesn’t remember his family and mentally running away from that part of his life.
Charlie obsesses over a few things: classic rock, constant remodeling of his kitchen, and the video game, Shadow of the Colossus. His music both brings him back to a time before he had his wife and children (as he spends a lot of energy avoiding the pain that remembering his family brings him), and yet we also learn that one of his memories of his family is how his girls would wake him up on Saturdays singing Beatles harmonies. The kitchen remodeling hast to do with Charlie feeling guilty about having snapped at his wife about remodeling the kitchen just before she boarded the plane. Shadow of the Colossus, however, is never really explained in the narrative of the film.
When I first saw this movie, I actually was amazed at the writers for adding such a perfect detail to Charlie’s life, and I was really excited that I understood it, as it’s kind of an obscure thing for people not familiar with gaming (though in the gaming world, the game’s won several awards and accolades). And I had actually just beat the game like a week or two before hand (that’s some wonderful synchronicity for you Jung fans).
Shadow of the Colossus is actually more of a puzzle game than an action game. The plot isn’t fully fleshed out, in fact. All the player knows is that the main character has brought the corpse of a young woman to a temple in the middle of this valley, seeking to restore her to life. In exchange, he is tasked with destroying the 16 colossi in the valley. Each colossus is unique, having a different form and requiring different strategies to defeat them. The only enemies in the whole valley are the colossi, and the player just has to find each of them, climb up the giant opponents, and locate and exploit the weak points until the colossus is defeated.
So, we have Charlie obsessing over this game that is vaguely about bringing a dead woman back to life by climbing huge, towering villains and defeating them. Charlie’s even reinforced his own immersion in the game as he plays the game on a projector screen, so the image is blown up before him so that each colossus is literally towering over him, not just his character in the game. There’s an excellent shot, shortly after Charlie blows up after being “tricked” into having lunch with Alan and a therapist (“You have the stink of a shrink!…You order your salad like a shrink!”) of this from the screen’s perspective, and we see Charlie as somewhat small and pathetic in comparison.
He does appear to have these obsessions as a way to slowly, on his own, work out how he remembers his family. He says several times throughout the film that he doesn’t like thinking thoughts about his family, and when he’s forced to confront the topic in conversation, he immediately blows up, yelling at people, knocking things down. But despite his silence, he still embodies his pain, still lives it out in the way he remodels his kitchen over and over again as he constantly feels the dissatisfaction of the kitchen’s appearance as he, perhaps unconsciously, is still trying to make up to his wife for snapping at her about the kitchen. He still indulges in music in a way that connected him with his family. And he still keeps on climbing to the tops of towering monsters to slay them in an effort to protect his loved ones.
The game was such a brilliant choice for inclusion in the film. I feel like, without knowing what the game is upon viewing the film, it seems like such a random thing to focus specifically on one game for him to obsess over, but it does add a unique depth to the film as it offers Charlie a certain catharsis.