Journal tags: film

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T E N Ǝ T

Jessica and I went to cinema yesterday.

Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but in our current circumstances, it was something of a momentous decision that involved a lot of risk assessment and weighing of the odds. We’ve been out and about a few times, but always to outdoor locations: the beach, a park, or a pub’s beer garden. For the first time, we were evaluating whether or not to enter an indoor environment, which given what we now know about the transmission of COVID-19, is certainly riskier than being outdoors.

But this was a cinema, so in theory, nobody should be talking (or singing or shouting), and everyone would be wearing masks and keeping their distance. Time was also on our side. We were considering a Monday afternoon showing—definitely not primetime. Looking at the website for the (wonderful) Duke of York’s cinema, we could see which seats were already taken. Less than an hour before the start time for the film, there were just a handful of seats occupied. A cinema that can seat a triple-digit number of people was going to be seating a single digit number of viewers.

We got tickets for the front row. Personally, I love sitting in the front row, especially in the Duke of York’s where there’s still plenty of room between the front row and the screen. But I know that it’s generally considered an undesirable spot by most people. Sure enough, the closest people to us were many rows back. Everyone was wearing masks and we kept them on for the duration of the film.

The film was Tenet). We weren’t about to enter an enclosed space for just any ol’ film. It would have to be pretty special—a new Star Wars film, or Denis Villeneuve’s Dune …or a new Christopher Nolan film. We knew it would look good on the big screen. We also knew it was likely to be spoiled for us if we didn’t see it soon enough.

At this point I am sounding the spoiler horn. If you have not seen Tenet yet, abandon ship at this point.

I really enjoyed this film. I understand the criticism that has been levelled at it—too cold, too clinical, too confusing—but I still enjoyed it immensely. I do think you need to be able to enjoy feeling confused if this is going to be a pleasurable experience. The payoff is that there’s an equally enjoyable feeling when things start slotting into place.

The closest film in Christopher Nolan’s back catalogue to Tenet is Inception in terms of twistiness and what it asks of the audience. But in some ways, Tenet is like an inverted version of Inception. In Inception, the ideas and the plot are genuinely complex, but Nolan does a great job in making them understandable—quite a feat! In Tenet, the central conceit and even the overall plot is, in hindsight, relatively straightforward. But Nolan has made it seem more twisty and convuluted than it really is. The ten minute battle at the end, for example, is filled with hard-to-follow twists and turns, but in actuality, it literally doesn’t matter.

The pitch for the mood of this film is that it’s in the spy genre, in the same way that Inception is in the heist genre. Though there’s an argument to be made that Tenet is more of a heist movie than Inception. But in terms of tone, yeah, it’s going for James Bond.

Even at the very end of the credits, when the title of the film rolled into view, it reminded me of the Bond films that would tease “The end of (this film). But James Bond will return in (next film).” Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the very end of Tenet’s credits finished with “The end of Tenet. But the protagonist will return in …Tenet.”

The pleasure I got from Tenet was not the same kind of pleasure I get from watching a Bond film, which is a simpler, more basic kind of enjoyment. The pleasure I got from Tenet was more like the kind of enjoyment I get from reading smart sci-fi, the kind that posits a “what if?” scenario and isn’t afraid to push your mind in all kinds of uncomfortable directions to contemplate the ramifications.

Like I said, the central conceit—objects or people travelling backwards through time (from our perspective)—isn’t actually all that complex, but the fun comes from all the compounding knock-on effects that build on that one premise.

In the film, and in interviews about the film, everyone is at pains to point out that this isn’t time travel. But that’s not true. In fact, I would argue that Tenet is one of the few examples of genuine time travel. What I mean is that most so-called time-travel stories are actually more like time teleportation. People jump from one place in time to another instaneously. There are only a few examples I can think of where people genuinely travel.

The grandaddy of all time travel stories, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, is one example. There are vivid descriptions of the world outside the machine playing out in fast-forward. But even here, there’s an implication that from outside the machine, the world cannot perceive the time machine (which would, from that perspective, look slowed down to the point of seeming completely still).

The most internally-consistent time-travel story is Primer. I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who didn’t like Tenet and people who wouldn’t like Primer is a circle. Again, it’s a film where the enjoyment comes from feeling confused, but where your attention will be rewarded and your intelligence won’t be insulted.

In Primer, the protagonists literally travel in time. If you want to go five hours into the past, you have to spend five hours in the box (the time machine).

In Tenet, the time machine is a turnstile. If you want to travel five hours into the past, you need only enter the turnstile for a moment, but then you have to spend the next five hours travelling backwards (which, from your perspective, looks like being in a world where cause and effect are reversed). After five hours, you go in and out of a turnstile again, and voila!—you’ve time travelled five hours into the past.

Crucially, if you decide to travel five hours into the past, then you have always done so. And in the five hours prior to your decision, a version of you (apparently moving backwards) would be visible to the world. There is never a version of events where you aren’t travelling backwards in time. There is no “first loop”.

That brings us to the fundamental split in categories of time travel (or time jump) stories: many worlds vs. single timeline.

In a many-worlds story, the past can be changed. Well, technically, you spawn a different universe in which events unfold differently, but from your perspective, the effect would be as though you had altered the past.

The best example of the many-worlds category in recent years is William Gibson’s The Peripheral. It genuinely reinvents the genre of time travel. First of all, no thing travels through time. In The Peripheral only information can time travel. But given telepresence technology, that’s enough. The Peripheral is time travel for the remote worker (once again, William Gibson proves to be eerily prescient). But the moment that any information travels backwards in time, the timeline splits into a new “stub”. So the many-worlds nature of its reality is front and centre. But that doesn’t stop the characters engaging in classic time travel behaviour—using knowledge of the future to exert control over the past.

Time travel stories are always played with a stacked deck of information. The future has power over the past because of the asymmetric nature of information distribution—there’s more information in the future than in the past. Whether it’s through sports results, the stock market or technological expertise, the future can exploit the past.

Information is at the heart of the power games in Tenet too, but there’s a twist. The repeated mantra here is “ignorance is ammunition.” That flies in the face of most time travel stories where knowledge—information from the future—is vital to winning the game.

It turns out that information from the future is vital to winning the game in Tenet too, but the reason why ignorance is ammunition comes down to the fact that Tenet is not a many-worlds story. It is very much a single timeline.

Having a single timeline makes for time travel stories that are like Greek tragedies. You can try travelling into the past to change the present but in doing so you will instead cause the very thing you set out to prevent.

The meat’n’bones of a single timeline time travel story—and this is at the heart of Tenet—is the question of free will.

The most succint (and disturbing) single-timeline time-travel story that I’ve read is by Ted Chiang in his recent book Exhalation. It’s called What’s Expected Of Us. It was originally published as a single page in Nature magazine. In that single page is a distillation of the metaphysical crisis that even a limited amount of time travel would unleash in a single-timeline world…

There’s a box, the Predictor. It’s very basic, like Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine. It has a button and a light. The button activates the light. But this machine, like an inverted object in Tenet, is moving through time differently to us. In this case, it’s very specific and localised. The machine is just a few seconds in the future relative to us. Cause and effect seem to be reversed. With a normal machine, you press the button and then the light flashes. But with the predictor, the light flashes and then you press the button. You can try to fool it but you won’t succeed. If the light flashes, you will press the button no matter how much you tell yourself that you won’t (likewise if you try to press the button before the light flashes, you won’t succeed). That’s it. In one succinct experiment with time, it is demonstrated that free will doesn’t exist.

Tenet has a similarly simple object to explain inversion. It’s a bullet. In an exposition scene we’re shown how it travels backwards in time. The protagonist holds his hand above the bullet, expecting it to jump into his hand as has just been demonstrated to him. He is told “you have to drop it.” He makes the decision to “drop” the bullet …and the bullet flies up into his hand.

This is a brilliant bit of sleight of hand (if you’ll excuse the choice of words) on Nolan’s part. It seems to imply that free will really matters. Only by deciding to “drop” the bullet does the bullet then fly upward. But here’s the thing: the protagonist had no choice but to decide to drop the bullet. We know that he had no choice because the bullet flew up into his hand. The bullet was always going to fly up into his hand. There is no timeline where the bullet doesn’t fly up into his hand, which means there is no timeline where the protagonist doesn’t decide to “drop” the bullet. The decision is real, but it is inevitable.

The lesson in this scene is the exact opposite of what it appears. It appears to show that agency and decision-making matter. The opposite is true. Free will cannot, in any meaningful sense, exist in this world.

This means that there was never really any threat. People from the future cannot change the past (or wipe it out) because it would’ve happened already. At one point, the protagonist voices this conjecture. “Doesn’t the fact that we’re here now mean that they don’t succeed?” Neil deflects the question, not because of uncertainty (we realise later) but because of certainty. It’s absolutely true that the people in the future can’t succeed because they haven’t succeeded. But the protagonist—at this point in the story—isn’t ready to truly internalise this. He needs to still believe that he is acting with free will. As that Ted Chiang story puts it:

It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don’t.

That’s true for the audience watching the film. If we were to understand too early that everything will work out fine, then there would be no tension in the film.

As ever with Nolan’s films, they are themselves metaphors for films. The first time you watch Tenet, ignorance is your ammuntion. You believe there is a threat. By the end of the film you have more information. Now if you re-watch the film, you will experience it differently, armed with your prior knowledge. But the film itself hasn’t changed. It’s the same linear flow of sequential scenes being projected. Everything plays out exactly the same. It’s you who have been changed. The first time you watch the film, you are like the protagonist at the start of the movie. The second time you watch it, you are like the protagonist at the end of the movie. You see the bigger picture. You understand the inevitability.

The character of Neil has had more time to come to terms with a universe without free will. What the protagonist begins to understand at the end of the film is what Neil has known for a while. He has seen this film. He knows how it ends. It ends with his death. He knows that it must end that way. At the end of the film we see him go to meet his death. Does he make the decision to do this? Yes …but he was always going to make the decision to do this. Just as the protagonist was always going to decide to “drop” the bullet, Neil was always going to decide to go to his death. It looks like a choice. But Neil understands at this point that the choice is pre-ordained. He will go to his death because he has gone to his death.

At the end, the protagonist—and the audience—understands. Everything played out exactly as it had to. The people in the future were hoping that reality allowed for many worlds, where the past could be changed. Luckily for us, reality turns out to be a single timeline. But the price we pay is that we come to understand, truly understand, that we have no free will. This is the kind of knowledge we wish we didn’t have. Ignorance was our ammunition and by the end of the film, it is spent.

Nolan has one other piece of misdirection up his sleeve. He implies that the central question at the heart of this time-travel story is the grandfather paradox. Our descendents in the future are literally trying to kill their grandparents (us). But if they succeed, then they can never come into existence.

But that’s not the paradox that plays out in Tenet. The central paradox is the bootstrap paradox, named for the Heinlein short story, By His Bootstraps. Information in this film is transmitted forwards and backwards through time, without ever being created. Take the phrase “Tenet”. In subjective time, the protagonist first hears of this phrase—and this organisation—when he is at the start of his journey. But the people who tell him this received the information via a subjectively older version of the protagonist who has travelled to the past. The protagonist starts the Tenet organistion (and phrase) in the future because the organisation (and phrase) existed in the past. So where did the phrase come from?

This paradox—the bootstrap paradox—remains after the grandfather paradox has been dealt with. The grandfather paradox was a distraction. The bootstrap paradox can’t be resolved, no matter how many times you watch the same film.

So Tenet has three instances of misdirection in its narrative:

  • Inversion isn’t time travel (it absolutely is).
  • Decisions matter (they don’t; there is no free will).
  • The grandfather paradox is the central question (it’s not; the bootstrap paradox is the central question).

I’m looking forward to seeing Tenet again. Though it can never be the same as that first time. Ignorance can never again be my ammunition.

I’m very glad that Jessica and I decided to go to the cinema to see Tenet. But who am I kidding? Did we ever really have a choice?

Modified machete

The Rise Of Skywalker arrives on Disney Plus on the fourth of May (a date often referred to as Star Wars Day, even though May 25th is and always will be the real Star Wars Day). Time to begin a Star Wars movie marathon. But in which order?

Back when there were a mere two trilogies, this was already a vexing problem if someone were watching the films for the first time. You could watch the six films in episode order:

  1. The Phantom Menace
  2. Attack Of The Clones
  3. Revenge Of The Sith
  4. A New Hope
  5. The Empire Strikes Back
  6. The Return Of The Jedi

But then you’re spoiling the grand reveal in episode five.

Alright then, how about release order?

  1. A New Hope
  2. The Empire Strikes Back
  3. Return Of The Jedi
  4. The Phantom Menace
  5. Attack Of The Clones
  6. Revenge Of The Sith

But then you’re front-loading the big pay-off, and you’re finishing with a big set-up.

This conundrum was solved with the machete order. It suggests omitting The Phantom Menace, not because it’s crap, but because nothing happens in it that isn’t covered in the first five minutes of Attack Of The Clones. The machete order is:

  1. A New Hope
  2. The Empire Strikes Back
  3. Attack Of The Clones
  4. Revenge Of The Sith
  5. Return Of The Jedi

It’s kind of brilliant. You get to keep the big reveal in The Empire Strikes Back, and then through flashback, you see how this came to be. Best of all, the pay-off in Return Of The Jedi has even more resonance because you’ve just seen Anakin’s downfall in Revenge Of The Sith.

With the release of the new sequel trilogy, an adjusted machete order is a pretty straightforward way to see the whole saga:

  1. A New Hope
  2. The Empire Strikes Back
  3. The Phantom Menace (optional)
  4. Attack Of The Clones
  5. Revenge Of The Sith
  6. Return Of The Jedi
  7. The Force Awakens
  8. The Last Jedi
  9. The Rise Of Skywalker

Done. But …what if you want to include the standalone films too?

If you slot them in in release order, they break up the flow:

  1. A New Hope
  2. The Empire Strikes Back
  3. The Phantom Menace (optional)
  4. Attack Of The Clones
  5. Revenge Of The Sith
  6. Return Of The Jedi
  7. The Force Awakens
  8. Rogue One
  9. The Last Jedi
  10. Solo
  11. The Rise Of Skywalker

I’m planning to watch all eleven films. This was my initial plan:

  1. Rogue One
  2. A New Hope
  3. The Empire Strikes Back
  4. The Phantom Menace
  5. Attack Of The Clones
  6. Revenge Of The Sith
  7. Solo
  8. Return Of The Jedi
  9. The Force Awakens
  10. The Last Jedi
  11. The Rise Of Skywalker

I definitely want to have Rogue One lead straight into A New Hope. The problem is where to put Solo. I don’t want to interrupt the Sith/Jedi setup/payoff.

So here’s my current plan, which I have already begun:

  1. Solo
  2. Rogue One
  3. A New Hope
  4. The Empire Strikes Back
  5. The Phantom Menace
  6. Attack Of The Clones
  7. Revenge Of The Sith
  8. Return Of The Jedi
  9. The Force Awakens
  10. The Last Jedi
  11. The Rise Of Skywalker

This way, the two standalone films work as world-building for the saga and don’t interrupt the flow once the main story is underway.

I think this works pretty well. Neither Solo nor Rogue One require any prior knowledge to be enjoyed.

And just in case you’re thinking that perhaps I’m overthinking it a bit and maybe I’ve got too much time on my hands …the world has too much time on its hands right now! Thanks to The Situation, I can not only take the time to plan and execute the viewing order for a Star Wars movie marathon, I can feel good about it. Stay home, they said. Literally saving lives, they said. Happy to oblige!

Telling the story of performance

At Clearleft, we’ve worked with quite a few clients on site redesigns. It’s always a fascinating process, particularly in the discovery phase. There’s that excitement of figuring out what’s currently working, what’s not working, and what’s missing completely.

The bulk of this early research phase is spent diving into the current offering. But it’s also the perfect time to do some competitor analysis—especially if we want some answers to the “what’s missing?” question.

It’s not all about missing features though. Execution is equally important. Our clients want to know how their users’ experience shapes up compared to the competition. And when it comes to user experience, performance is a huge factor. As Andy says, performance is a UX problem.

There’s no shortage of great tools out there for measuring (and monitoring) performance metrics, but they’re mostly aimed at developers. Quite rightly. Developers are the ones who can solve most performance issues. But that does make the tools somewhat impenetrable if you don’t speak the language of “time to first byte” and “first contentful paint”.

When we’re trying to show our clients the performance of their site—or their competitors—we need to tell a story.

Web Page Test is a terrific tool for measuring performance. It can also be used as a story-telling tool.

You can go to webpagetest.org/easy if you don’t need to tweak settings much beyond the typical site visit (slow 3G on mobile). Pop in your client’s URL and, when the test is done, you get a valuable but impenetrable waterfall chart. It’s not exactly the kind of thing I’d want to present to a client.

Fortunately there’s an attention-grabbing output from each test: video. Download the video of your client’s site loading. Then repeat the test with the URL of a competitor. Download that video too. Repeat for as many competitor URLs as you think appropriate.

Now take those videos and play them side by side. Presentation software like Keynote is perfect for showing multiple videos like this.

This is so much more effective than showing a table of numbers! Clients get to really feel the performance difference between their site and their competitors.

Running all those tests can take time though. But there are some other tools out there that can give a quick dose of performance information.

SpeedCurve recently unveiled Page Speed Benchmarks. You can compare the performance of sites within a particualar sector like travel, retail, or finance. By default, you’ll get a filmstrip view of all the sites loading side by side. Click through on each one and you can get the video too. It might take a little while to gather all those videos, but it’s quicker than using Web Page Test directly. And it might be that the filmstrip view is impactful enough for telling your performance story.

If, during your discovery phase, you find that performance is being badly affected by third-party scripts, you’ll need some way to communicate that. Request Map Generator is fantastic for telling that story in a striking visual way. Pop the URL in there and then take a screenshot of the resulting visualisation.

The beginning of a redesign project is also the time to take stock of current performance metrics so that you can compare the numbers after your redesign launches. Crux.run is really great for tracking performance over time. You won’t get any videos but you will get some very appealing charts and graphs.

Web Page Test, Page Speed Benchmarks, and Request Map Generator are great for telling the story of what’s happening with performance right nowCrux.run balances that with the story of performance over time.

Measuring performance is important. Communicating the story of performance is equally important.

The Rise Of Skywalker

If you haven’t seen The Rise Of Skywalker, avert your gaze for I shall be revealing spoilers here…

I wrote about what I thought of The Force Awakens. I wrote about what I thought of The Last Jedi. It was inevitable that I was also going to write about what I think of The Rise Of Skywalker. If nothing else, I really enjoy going back and reading those older posts and reminding myself of my feelings at the time.

I went to a midnight screening with Jessica after we had both spent the evening playing Irish music at our local session. I was asking a lot of my bladder.

I have to admit that my first reaction was …ambivalent. I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either.

Now, if that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s pretty much what I said about Rogue One and The Last Jedi:

Maybe I just find it hard to really get into the flow when I’m seeing a new Star Wars film for the very first time.

This time there were very specific things that I could point to and say “I don’t like it!” For a start, there’s the return of Palpatine.

I think the Emperor has always been one of the dullest characters in Star Wars. Even in Return Of The Jedi, he just comes across as a paper-thin one-dimensional villain who’s evil just because he’s evil. That works great when he’s behind the scenes manipulating events, but it makes for dull on-screen shenanigans, in my opinion. The pantomime nature of Emperor Palpatine seems more Harry Potter than Star Wars to me.

When I heard the Emperor was returning, my expectations sank. To be fair though, I think it was a very good move not to make the return of Palpatine a surprise. I had months—ever since the release of the first teaser trailer—to come to terms with it. Putting it in the opening crawl and the first scene says, “Look, he’s back. Don’t ask how, just live with it.” That’s fair enough.

So in the end, the thing that I thought would bug me—the return of Palpatine—didn’t trouble me much. But what really bugged me was the unravelling of one of my favourite innovations in The Last Jedi regarding Rey’s provenance. I wrote at the time:

I had resigned myself to the inevitable reveal that would tie her heritage into an existing lineage. What an absolute joy, then, that The Force is finally returned into everyone’s hands!

What bothered me wasn’t so much that The Rise Of Skywalker undoes this, but that the undoing is so uneccessary. The plot would have worked just as well without the revelation that Rey is a Palpatine. If that revelation were crucial to the story, I would go with it, but it just felt like making A Big Reveal for the sake of making A Big Reveal. It felt …cheap.

I have to say, that’s how I responded to a lot of the kitchen sink elements in this film when I first saw it. It was trying really, really hard to please, and yet many of the decisions felt somewhat lazy to me. There were times when it felt like a checklist.

In a way, there was a checklist, or at least a brief. JJ Abrams has spoken about how this film needed to not just wrap up one trilogy, but all nine films. But did it though? I think I would’ve been happier if it had kept its scope within the bounds of these new sequels.

That’s been a recurring theme for me with all three of these films. I think they work best when they’re about the new characters. I’m totally invested in them. Leaning on nostalgia and the cultural memory of the previous films and their characters just isn’t needed. I would’ve been fine if Luke, Han, and Leia never showed up on screen in this trilogy—that’s how much I’m sold on Rey, Finn, and Poe.

But I get it. The brief here is to tie everything together. And as JJ Abrams has said, there was no way he was going to please everyone. But it’s strange that he would attempt to please the most toxic people clamouring for change. I’m talking about the racists and misogynists that were upset by The Last Jedi. The sidelining of Rose Tico in The Rise Of Skywalker sure reads a lot like a victory for them. Frankly, that’s the one aspect of this film that I’m always going to find disappointing.

Because it turns out that a lot of the other things that I was initially disappointed by evaporated upon second viewing.

Now, I totally get that a film needs to work for a first viewing. But if any category of film needs to stand up to repeat viewing, it’s a Star Wars film. In the case of The Rise Of Skywalker, I think that repeat viewing might have been prioritised. And I’m okay with that.

Take the ridiculously frenetic pace of the multiple maguffin-led plotlines. On first viewing, it felt rushed and messy. I got the feeling that the double-time pacing was there to brush over any inconsistencies that would reveal themselves if the film were to pause even for a minute to catch its breath.

But that wasn’t the case. On second viewing, things clicked together much more tightly. It felt much more like a well-oiled—if somewhat frenetic—machine rather than a cobbled-together Heath Robinson contraption that might collapse at any moment.

My personal experience of viewing the film for the second time was a lot of fun. I was with my friend Sammy, who is not yet a teenager. His enjoyment was infectious.

At the end, after we see Rey choose her new family name, Sammy said “I knew she was going to say Skywalker!”

“I guess that explains the title”, I said. “The Rise Of Skywalker.”

“Or”, said Sammy, “it could be talking about Ben Solo.”

I hadn’t thought of that.

When I first saw The Rise Of Skywalker, I was disappointed by all the ways it was walking back the audacious decisions made in The Last Jedi, particularly Rey’s parentage and the genetic component to The Force. But on second viewing, I noticed the ways that this film built on the previous one. Finn’s blossoming sensitivity keeps the democratisation of The Force on the table. And the mind-melding connection between Rey and Kylo Ren that started in The Last Jedi is crucial for the plot of The Rise Of Skywalker.

Once I was able to get over the decisions I didn’t agree with, I was able to judge the film on its own merits. And you know what? It’s really good!

On the technical level, it was always bound to be good, but I mean on an emotional level too. If I go with it, then I’m rewarded with a rollercoaster ride of emotions. There were moments when I welled up (they mostly involved Chewbacca: Chewie’s reaction to Leia’s death; Chewie getting the medal …the only moment that might have topped those was Han Solo’s “I know”).

So just in case there’s any doubt—given all the criticisms I’ve enumerated—let me clear: I like this film. I very much look forward to seeing it again (and again).

But I do think there’s some truth to what Eric says here:

A friend’s review of “The Rise of Skywalker”, which also serves as a perfect summary of JJ Abrams’ career: “A very well-executed lack of creativity.”

I think I might substitute the word “personality” for “creativity”. However you feel about The Last Jedi, there’s no denying that it embodies the vision of one person:

I think the reason why The Last Jedi works so well is that Rian Johnson makes no concessions to my childhood, or anyone else’s. This is his film. Of all the millions of us who were transported by this universe as children, only he gets to put his story onto the screen and into the saga. There are two ways to react to this. You can quite correctly exclaim “That’s not how I would do it!”, or you can go with it …even if that means letting go of some deeply-held feelings about what could’ve, should’ve, would’ve happened if it were our story.

JJ Abrams, on the other hand, has done his utmost to please us. I admire that, but I feel it comes at a price. The storytelling isn’t safe exactly, but it’s far from personal.

The result is that The Rise Of Skywalker is supremely entertaining—especially on repeat viewing—and it has a big heart. I just wish it had more guts.

Cat encounters

The latest episode of Ariel’s excellent Offworld video series (and podcast) is all about Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

I have such fondness for this film. It’s one of those films that I love to watch on a Sunday afternoon (though that’s true of so many Spielberg films—Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T.). I remember seeing it in the cinema—this would’ve been the special edition re-release—and feeling the seat under me quake with the rumbling of the musical exchange during the film’s climax.

Ariel invited Rose Eveleth and Laura Welcher on to discuss the film. They spent a lot of time discussing the depiction of first contact communication—Arrival being the other landmark film on this topic.

This is a timely discussion. There’s a new book by Daniel Oberhaus published by MIT Press called Extraterrestrial Languages:

If we send a message into space, will extraterrestrial beings receive it? Will they understand?

You can a read an article by the author on The Guardian, where he mentions some of the wilder ideas about transmitting signals to aliens:

Minsky, widely regarded as the father of AI, suggested it would be best to send a cat as our extraterrestrial delegate.

Don’t worry. Marvin Minsky wasn’t talking about sending a real live cat. Rather, we transmit instructions for building a computer and then we can transmit information as software. Software about, say, cats.

It’s not that far removed from what happened with the Voyager golden record, although that relied on analogue technology—the phonograph—and sent the message pre-compiled on hardware; a much slower transmission rate than radio.

But it’s interesting to me that Minsky specifically mentioned cats. There’s another long-term communication puzzle that has a cat connection.

The Yukka Mountain nuclear waste repository is supposed to store nuclear waste for 10,000 years. How do we warn our descendants to stay away? We can’t use language. We probably can’t even use symbols; they’re too culturally specific. A think tank called the Human Interference Task Force was convened to agree on the message to be conveyed:

This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

A series of thorn-like threatening earthworks was deemed the most feasible solution. But there was another proposal that took a two pronged approach with genetics and folklore:

  1. Breed cats that change colour in the presence of radioactive material.
  2. Teach children nursery rhymes about staying away from cats that change colour.

This is the raycat solution.

Summer of Apollo

It’s July, 2019. You know what that means? The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission is this month.

I’ve already got serious moon fever, and if you’d like to join me, I have some recommendations…

Watch the Apollo 11 documentary in a cinema. The 70mm footage is stunning, the sound design is immersive, the music is superb, and there’s some neat data visualisation too. Watching a preview screening in the Duke of York’s last week was pure joy from start to finish.

Listen to 13 Minutes To The Moon, the terrific ongoing BBC podcast by Kevin Fong. It’s got all my favourite titans of NASA: Michael Collins, Margaret Hamilton, and Charlie Duke, amongst others. And it’s got music by Hans Zimmer.

Experience the website Apollo 11 In Real Time on the biggest monitor you can. It’s absolutely wonderful! From July 16th, you can experience the mission timeshifted by exactly 50 years, but if you don’t want to wait, you can dive in right now. It genuinely feels like being in Mission Control!

Movie Knight

I mentioned how much I enjoyed Mike Hill’s talk at Beyond Tellerrand in Düsseldorf:

Mike gave a talk called The Power of Metaphor and it’s absolutely brilliant. It covers the monomyth (the hero’s journey) and Jungian archetypes, illustrated with the examples Star Wars, The Dark Knight, and Jurassic Park.

At Clearleft, I’m planning to reprise the workshop I did a few years ago about narrative structure—very handy for anyone preparing a conference talk, blog post, case study, or anything really:

Ellen and I have been enjoying some great philosophical discussions about exactly what a story is, and how does it differ from a narrative structure, or a plot. I really love Ellen’s working definition: Narrative. In Space. Over Time.

This led me to think that there’s a lot that we can borrow from the world of storytelling—films, novels, fairy tales—not necessarily about the stories themselves, but the kind of narrative structures we could use to tell those stories. After all, the story itself is often the same one that’s been told time and time again—The Hero’s Journey, or some variation thereof.

I realised that Mike’s monomyth talk aligns nicely with my workshop. So I decided to prep my fellow Clearlefties for the workshop with a movie night.

Popcorn was popped, pizza was ordered, and comfy chairs were suitably arranged. Then we watched Mike’s talk. Everyone loved it. Then it was decision time. Which of three films covered in the talk would we watch? We put it to a vote.

It came out as an equal tie between Jurassic Park and The Dark Knight. How would we resolve this? A coin toss!

The toss went to The Dark Knight. In retrospect, a coin toss was a supremely fitting way to decide to watch that film.

It was fun to watch it again, particularly through the lens of Mike’s analyis of its Jungian archetypes.

But I still think the film is about game theory.

Thanos

I’m going to discuss Avengers: Infinity War without spoilers, unless you count the motivations of the main villain as a spoiler, in which case you should stop reading now.

The most recent book by Charles C. Mann—author of 1491 and 1493—is called The Wizard And The Prophet. It profiles two twentieth century figures with divergent belief systems: Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. (Trust me, this will become relevant to the new Avengers film.)

I’ve long been fascinated by Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution. It is quite possible that he is responsible for saving more lives than any other single human being in history (with the possible exception of Stanislav Petrov who may have saved the entire human race through inaction). In his book, Mann dubs Borlaug “The Wizard”—the epitome of a can-do attitude and a willingness to use technology to solve global problems.

William Vogt, by contrast, is “The Prophet.” His groundbreaking research crystalised many central tenets of the environmental movement, including the term he coined, carrying capacity—the upper limit to a population that an environment can sustain. Vogt’s stance is that there is no getting around the carrying capacity of our planet, so we need to make do with less: fewer people consuming fewer resources.

Those are the opposing belief systems. Prophets believe that carrying capacity is fixed and that if our species exceed this limit, we are doomed. Wizards believe that technology can treat carrying capacity as damage and route around it.

Vogt’s philosophy came to dominate the environmental movement for the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s something I’ve personally found very frustrating. Groups and organisations that I nominally agree with—the Green Party, Greenpeace, etc.—have anti-technology baggage that doesn’t do them any favours. The uninformed opposition to GM foods is a perfect example. The unrealistic lauding of country life over the species-saving power of cities is another.

And yet history so far has favoured the wizards. The Malthusian population bomb never exploded, partly thanks to Borlaug’s work, but also thanks to better education for women in the developing world, which had enormously positive repercussions.

Anyway, I find this framing of fundamental differences in attitude to be fascinating. Ultimately it’s a stand-off between optimism (the wizards) and pessimism (the prophets). John Faithful Hamer uses this same lens to contrast recent works by Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari. Pinker is a wizard. Harari is a prophet.

I was not expecting to be confronted with the wizards vs. prophets debate while watching Avengers: Infinity War, but there’s no getting around it—Thanos is a prophet.

Very early on, we learn that Thanos doesn’t want to destroy all life in the universe. Instead, he wants to destroy half of all life in the universe. Why? Carrying capacity. He believes the only way to save life is to reduce its number (and therefore its footprint).

Many reviews of the film have noted how the character of Thanos is strangely sympathetic. It’s no wonder! He is effectively toeing the traditional party line of the mainstream environmental movement.

There’s even a moment in the film where Thanos explains how he came to form his opinions through a tragedy in the past that he correctly predicted. “Congratulations”, says one of his heroic foes sarcastically, “You’re a prophet.”

Earlier in the film, as some of the heroes are meeting for the first time, there are gags and jokes referring to Dr. Strange’s group as “the wizards.”

I’m sure those are just coincidences.

2001 + 50

The first ten minutes of my talk at An Event Apart Seattle consisted of me geeking about science fiction. There was a point to it …I think. But I must admit it felt quite self-indulgent to ramble to a captive audience about some of my favourite works of speculative fiction.

The meta-narrative I was driving at was around the perils of prediction (and how that’s not really what science fiction is about). This is something that Arthur C. Clarke pointed out repeatedly, most famously in Hazards of Prophecy. Ironically, I used Clarke’s meisterwork of a collaboration with Stanley Kubrick as a rare example of a predictive piece of sci-fi with a good hit rate.

When I introduced 2001: A Space Odyssey in my talk, I mentioned that it was fifty years old (making it even more of a staggering achievement, considering that humans hadn’t even reached the moon at that point). What I didn’t realise at the time was that it was fifty years old to the day. The film was released in American cinemas on April 2nd, 1968; I was giving my talk on April 2nd, 2018.

Over on Wired.com, Stephen Wolfram has written about his own personal relationship with the film. It’s a wide-ranging piece, covering everything from the typography of 2001 (see also: Typeset In The Future) right through to the nature of intelligence and our place in the universe.

When it comes to the technology depicted on-screen, he makes the same point that I was driving at in my talk—that, despite some successful extrapolations, certain real-world advances were not only unpredicted, but perhaps unpredictable. The mobile phone; the collapse of the soviet union …these are real-world events that are conspicuous by their absence in other great works of sci-fi like William Gibson’s brilliant Neuromancer.

But in his Wired piece, Wolfram also points out some acts of prediction that were so accurate that we don’t even notice them.

Also interesting in 2001 is that the Picturephone is a push-button phone, with exactly the same numeric button layout as today (though without the * and # [“octothorp”]). Push-button phones actually already existed in 1968, although they were not yet widely deployed.

To use the Picturephone in 2001, one inserts a credit card. Credit cards had existed for a while even in 1968, though they were not terribly widely used. The idea of automatically reading credit cards (say, using a magnetic stripe) had actually been developed in 1960, but it didn’t become common until the 1980s.

I’ve watched 2001 many, many, many times and I’m always looking out for details of the world-building …but it never occurred to me that push-button numeric keypads or credit cards were examples of predictive extrapolation. As time goes on, more and more of these little touches will become unnoticeable and unremarkable.

On the space shuttle (or, perhaps better, space plane) the cabin looks very much like a modern airplane—which probably isn’t surprising, because things like Boeing 737s already existed in 1968. But in a correct (at least for now) modern touch, the seat backs have TVs—controlled, of course, by a row of buttons.

Now I want to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again. If I’m really lucky, I might get to see a 70mm print in a cinema near me this year.

The Last Jedi

If you haven’t seen The Last Jedi (yet), please stop reading. Spoilers ahoy.

I’ve been listening to many, many podcast episodes about the latest Star Wars film. They’re all here on Huffduffer. You can subscribe to a feed of just those episodes if you want.

I am well aware that the last thing anybody wants or needs is one more hot take on this film, but what the heck? I figured I’d jot down my somewhat simplistic thoughts.

I loved it.

But I wasn’t sure at first. I’ve talked to other people who felt similarly on first viewing—they weren’t sure if they liked it or not. I know some people who, on reflection, decided they definitely didn’t like it. I completely understand that.

A second viewing helped to cement my positive feelings towards this film. This is starting to become a trend: I didn’t think much of Rogue One on first viewing, but a second watch reversed my opinion completely. Maybe I just find it hard to really get into the flow when I’m seeing a new Star Wars film for the very first time—an event that I once thought would never occur again.

My first viewing of The Last Jedi wasn’t helped by having the worst seats in the house. My original plan was to see it with Jessica at a minute past midnight in The Duke Of York’s in Brighton. I bought front-row tickets as soon as they were available. But then it turned out that we were going to be in Seattle at that time instead. We quickly grabbed whatever tickets were left. Those seats were right at the front and far edge of the cinema, so the screen was more trapezoid than rectangular. The lights went down, the fanfare blared, and the opening crawl begin its march up …and to the left. My brain tried to compensate for the perspective effects but it was hard. Is Snoke’s face supposed to look like that? Does that person really have such a tiny head?

But while the spectacle was somewhat marred, the story unfolded in all its surprising delight. I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of having the narrative rug repeatedly pulled out from under me.

I loved the unexpected end of Snoke in his vampiric boudoir. Let’s face it, he was the least interesting part of The Force Awakens—a two-dimensional evil mastermind. To despatch him in the middle of the middle chapter was the biggest signal that The Last Jedi was not simply going to retread the beats of the original trilogy.

I loved the reveal of Rey’s parentage. This was what I had been hoping for—that Rey came from nowhere in particular. After The Force Awakens, I wrote:

Personally, I’d like it if her parentage were unremarkable. Maybe it’s the socialist in me, but I’ve never liked the idea that the Force is based on eugenics; a genetic form of inherited wealth for the lucky 1%. I prefer to think of the Force as something that could potentially be unlocked by anyone who tries hard enough.

But I had resigned myself to the inevitable reveal that would tie her heritage into an existing lineage. What an absolute joy, then, that The Force is finally returned into everyone’s hands! Anil Dash describes this wonderfully in his post Every Last Jedi:

Though it’s well-grounded in the first definitions of The Force that we were introduced to in the original trilogy, The Last Jedi presents a radically inclusive new view of the Force that is bigger and broader than the Jedi religion which has thus-far colored our view of the entire Star Wars universe.

I was less keen on the sudden Force usage by Leia. I think it was the execution more than the idea that bothered me. Still, I realise that the problem lies just as much with me. See, lots of the criticism of this film comes from people (justifiably) saying “That’s not how The Force works!” in relation to Rey, Kylo Ren, or Luke Skywalker. I don’t share that reaction and I want to say, “Hey, who are we to decide how The Force works?”, but then during the Leia near-death scene, I found myself more or less thinking “That’s not how The Force works!”

This would be a good time to remind ourselves that, in the Star Wars universe, you can substitute the words “The Force” for “The Plot”—an invisible agency guiding actions and changing the course of events.

The first time I saw The Last Jedi, I began to really worry during the film’s climactic showdown. I wasn’t so much worried for the fate of the characters in peril; I was worried for the fate of the overarching narrative. When Luke showed up, my heart sank a little. A deus ex machina …and how did he get here exactly? And then when he emerges unscathed from a barrage of walker cannon fire, I thought “Aw no, they’ve changed the Jedi to be like superheroes …but that’s not the way The Force/Plot works!”

And then I had the rug pulled out from under me again. Yes! What a joyous bit of trickery! My faith in The Force/Plot was restored.

I know a lot of people didn’t like the Canto Bight diversion. Jessica described it as being quite prequel-y, and I can see that. And while I agree that any shot involving our heroes riding across the screen (on a Fathier, on a scout walker) just didn’t work, I liked the world-expanding scope of the caper subplot.

Still, I preferred the Galactica-like war of attrition as the Resistance is steadily reduced in size as they try to escape the relentless pursuit of the First Order. It felt like proper space opera. In some ways, it reminded of Alastair Reynolds but without the realism of the laws of physics (there’s nothing quite as egregious here as J.J. Abrams’ cosy galaxy where the destruction of a system can be seen in real time from the surface of another planet, but The Last Jedi showed again that Star Wars remains firmly in the space fantasy genre rather than hard sci-fi).

Oh, and of course I loved the porgs. But then, I never had a problem with ewoks, so treat my appraisal with a pinch of salt.

I loved seeing the west of coast of Ireland get so much screen time. Beehive huts in a Star Wars film! Mind you, that made it harder for me to get immersed in the story. I kept thinking, “Now, is that Skellig Michael? Or is it on the Dingle peninsula? Or Donegal? Or west Clare?”

For all its global success, Star Wars has always had a very personal relationship with everyone it touches. The films themselves are only part of the reason why people respond to them. The other part is what people bring with them; where they are in life at the moment they’re introduced to this world. And frankly, the films are only part of this symbiosis. As much as people like to sneer at the toys and merchandising as a cheap consumerist ploy, they played a significant part in unlocking my imagination. Growing up in a small town on the coast of Ireland, the Star Wars universe—the world, the characters—was a playground for me to make up stories …just as it was for any young child anywhere in the world.

One of my favourite shots in The Last Jedi looks like it could’ve come from the mind of that young child: an X-wing submerged in the waters of the rocky coast of Ireland. It was as though Rian Johnson had a direct line to my childhood self.

And yet, I think the reason why The Last Jedi works so well is that Rian Johnson makes no concessions to my childhood, or anyone else’s. This is his film. Of all the millions of us who were transported by this universe as children, only he gets to put his story onto the screen and into the saga. There are two ways to react to this. You can quite correctly exclaim “That’s not how I would do it!”, or you can go with it …even if that means letting go of some deeply-held feelings about what could’ve, should’ve, would’ve happened if it were our story.

That said, I completely understand why people might take against this film. Like I said, Rian Johnson makes no concessions. That’s in stark contrast to The Force Awakens. I wrote at the time:

Han Solo picked up the audience like it was a child that had fallen asleep in the car, and he gently tucked us into our familiar childhood room where we can continue to dream. And then, with a tender brush of his hand across the cheek, he left us.

The Last Jedi, on the other hand, thrusts us into this new narrative in the same way you might teach someone to swim by throwing them into the ocean from the peak of Skellig Michael. The polarised reactions to the film are from people sinking or swimming.

I choose to swim. To go with it. To let go. To let the past die.

And yet, one of my favourite takeaways from The Last Jedi is how it offers a healthy approach to dealing with events from the past. Y’see, there was always something that bothered me in the original trilogy. It was one of Yoda’s gnomic pronouncements in The Empire Strikes Back:

Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.

That always struck me as a very bro-ish “crushing it” approach to life. That’s why I was delighted that Rian Johnson had Yoda himself refute that attitude completely:

The greatest teacher, failure is.

That’s exactly what Luke needed to hear. It was also what I—many decades removed from my childhood—needed to hear.

Getaway

It had been a while since we had a movie night at Clearleft so I organised one for last night. We usually manage to get through two movies, and there’s always a unifying theme decided ahead of time.

For last night, I decided that the broad theme would be …transport. But then, through voting on Slack, people could decide what the specific mode of transport would be. The choices were:

  • taxi,
  • getaway car,
  • truck, or
  • submarine.

Nobody voted for submarines. That’s a shame, but in retrospect it’s easy to understand—submarine films aren’t about transport at all. Quite the opposite. Submarine films are about being trapped in a metal womb/tomb (and many’s the spaceship film that qualifies as a submarine movie).

There were some votes for taxis and trucks, but the getaway car was the winner. I then revealed which films had been pre-selected for each mode of transport.

Taxi

Getaway car

Shorts: Getaway Driver, The Getaway

Truck

Submarine

I thought Baby Driver would be a shoe-in for the first film, but enough people had already seen it quite recently to put it out of the running. We watched Wheelman instead, which was like Locke meets Drive.

So what would the second film be?

Well, some of those films in the full list could potentially fall into more than one category. The taxi in Collateral is (kinda) being used as a getaway car. And if you expand the criterion to getaway vehicle, then Furiosa’s war rig surely counts, right?

Okay, we were just looking for an excuse to watch Fury Road again. I mean, c’mon, it was the black and chrome edition! I had the great fortune of seeing that on the big screen a while back and I’ve been raving about it ever since. Besides, you really don’t need an excuse to rewatch Fury Road. I loved it the first time I saw it, and it just keeps getting better and better each time. The editing! The sound! The world-building!

With every viewing, it feels more and more like the film for our time. It may have been a bit of stretch to watch it under the thematic umbrella of getaway vehicles, but it’s a getaway for our current political climate: instead of the typical plot involving a gang driving at full tilt from a bank heist, imagine one where the gang turns around, ousts the bankers, and replaces the whole banking system with a matriarchal community.

Hope is a mistake”, Max mansplains (maxplains?) to Furiosa at one point. He’s wrong. Judicious hope is what drives us forward (or, this case, back …to the citadel). Watching Fury Road again, I drew hope from the character of Nux. An alt-warboy in thrall to a demagogue and raised on a diet of fake news (Valhalla! V8!) can not only be turned by tenderness, he can become an ally to those working for a better world.

Witness!

A minority report on artificial intelligence

Want to feel old? Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was released fifteen years ago.

It casts a long shadow. For a decade after the film’s release, it was referenced at least once at every conference relating to human-computer interaction. Unsurprisingly, most of the focus has been on the technology in the film. The hardware and interfaces in Minority Report came out of a think tank assembled in pre-production. It provided plenty of fodder for technologists to mock and praise in subsequent years: gestural interfaces, autonomous cars, miniature drones, airpods, ubiquitous advertising and surveillance.

At the time of the film’s release, a lot of the discussion centred on picking apart the plot. The discussions had the same tone of time-travel paradoxes, the kind thrown up by films like Looper and Interstellar. But Minority Report isn’t a film about time travel, it’s a film about prediction.

Or rather, the plot is about prediction. The film—like so many great works of cinema—is about seeing. It’s packed with images of eyes, visions, fragments, and reflections.

The theme of prediction was rarely referenced by technologists in the subsequent years. After all, that aspect of the story—as opposed to the gadgets, gizmos, and interfaces—was one rooted in a fantastical conceit; the idea of people with precognitive abilities.

But if you replace that human element with machines, the central conceit starts to look all too plausible. It’s suggested right there in the film:

It helps not to think of them as human.

To which the response is:

No, they’re so much more than that.

Suppose that Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell weren’t people in a floatation tank, but banks of servers packed with neural nets: the kinds of machines that are already making predictions on trading stocks and shares, traffic flows, mortgage applications …and, yes, crime.

Precogs are pattern recognition filters, that’s all.

Rewatching Minority Report now, it holds up very well indeed. Apart from the misstep of the final ten minutes, it’s a fast-paced twisty noir thriller. For all the attention to detail in its world-building and technology, the idea that may yet prove to be most prescient is the concept of Precrime, introduced in the original Philip K. Dick short story, The Minority Report.

Minority Report works today as a commentary on Artificial Intelligence …which is ironic given that Spielberg directed a film one year earlier ostensibly about A.I.. In truth, that film has little to say about technology …but much to say about humanity.

Like Minority Report, A.I. was very loosely based on an existing short story: Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss. It’s a perfectly-crafted short story that is deeply, almost unbearably, sad.

When I had the great privilege of interviewing Brian Aldiss, I tried to convey how much the story affected me.

Jeremy: …the short story is so sad, there’s such an incredible sadness to it that…

Brian: Well it’s psychological, that’s why. But I didn’t think it works as a movie; sadly, I have to say.

At the time of its release, the general consensus was that A.I. was a mess. It’s true. The film is a mess, but I think that, like Minority Report, it’s worth revisiting.

Watching now, A.I. feels like a horror film to me. The horror comes not—as we first suspect—from the artificial intelligence. The horror comes from the humans. I don’t mean the cruelty of the flesh fairs. I’m talking about the cruelty of Monica, who activates David’s unconditional love only to reject it (watching now, both scenes—the activation and the rejection—are equally horrific). Then there’s the cruelty of the people of who created an artificial person capable of deep, never-ending love, without considering the implications.

There is no robot uprising in the film. The machines want only to fulfil their purpose. But by the end of the film, the human race is gone and the descendants of the machines remain. Based on the conduct of humanity that we’re shown, it’s hard to mourn our species’ extinction. For a film that was panned for being overly sentimental, it is a thoroughly bleak assessment of what makes us human.

The question of what makes us human underpins A.I., Minority Report, and the short stories that spawned them. With distance, it gets easier to brush aside the technological trappings and see the bigger questions beneath. As Al Robertson writes, it’s about leaving the future behind:

SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.

Mistakes on a plane

I’m in Seattle. An Event Apart just wrapped up here and it was excellent as always. The venue was great and the audience even greater so I was able to thoroughly enjoy myself when it was time for me to give my talk.

I’m going to hang out here for another few days before it’s time for the long flight back to the UK. The flight over was a four-film affair—that’s how I measure the duration of airplane journeys. I watched:

  1. Steve Jobs,
  2. The Big Short,
  3. Spectre, and
  4. Joy.

I was very glad that I watched Joy after three back-to-back Bechdel failures. Spectre in particular seems to have been written by a teenage boy, and I couldn’t get past the way that the The Big Short used women as narrative props.

I did enjoy Steve Jobs. No surprise there—I enjoy most of Danny Boyle’s films. But there was a moment that took me out of the narrative flow…

The middle portion of the film centres around the launch of the NeXT cube. In one scene, Michael Fassbender’s Jobs refers to another character as “Rain Man”. I immediately started to wonder if that was an anachronistic comment. “When was Rain Man released?” I thought to myself.

It turns out that Rain Man was released in 1988 and the NeXT introduction was also in 1988 but according to IMDB, Rain Man was released in December …and the NeXT introduction was in October.

The jig is up, Sorkin!

The Force Awakens

You can listen to an audio version of The Force Awakens.

I’d like to talk about The Force Awakens (I mean, really, how can I not?) so there will be inevitable spoilers. Bail now if you haven’t seen the film.

Star Wars was a big part of my childhood. By extension—and because I’ve never really grown up—Star Wars has always been part of my identity, at least in the shallow sense of what I’d list under “hobbies and interests” on a theoretical form. Still, I could relate to Michael’s feelings in the run-up to the new film’s release:

Despite much evidence to the contrary, I don’t hang too many of my wants and needs on Star Wars or its continuing life as a franchise. I’m the fan-equivalent of a deep history archeologist, not a pundit or an evangelist.

While I’ve always been a big fan of Star Wars: The Films, I’ve never cared much about Star Wars: The Franchise. When my local pub quiz for nerds—The Geekest Link—has a Star Wars night, I enter with a prayer of “please no ‘Expanded Universe’, please no ‘Expanded Universe’.”

When I heard that Lucasfilm had been sold to Disney, I was intrigued—this could get interesting! When I heard that J.J. Abrams would be directing Episode VII, I was pretty happy—I like his work, and he’s a safe pair of hands. But I didn’t want to get too excited. Partly that’s because I’ve been burnt before—although I’m something of a prequels apologist in comparison to the hatred they inspired in most people. Mostly though, it’s because I’m aware that when it comes to something that doesn’t yet exist—whether it’s a Star Wars film, a forthcoming album, or an upcoming project at work—the more hope you place on its shoulders, the more unlikely it is to be able to fulfil those over-inflated expectations.

But as The Force Awakens drew closer and closer, despite my best intentions, I couldn’t help but get excited. Jessica and I watched and re-watched the trailers. The day that tickets went on sale, the website for my cinema of choice crashed, so I picked up the phone and waited in a queue to secure seats for the minute-past-midnight first showing (if you know how much I dislike telephonic communication, you’ll appreciate how unusual that action was for me).

I began to literally count down the days. In the final week, Jessica and I re-watched the Star Wars films in Machete Order, which I can highly recommend. That culminated on the evening of December 16th with a gathering ‘round at Andy’s to eat some food, watch Return Of The Jedi, and then head to the cinema before midnight. By the time I was sitting in my seat surrounded by equally enthusiastic fans, I was positively aquiver with excitement.

When the fanfare blasted and the Star Wars logo appeared, I was grinning from ear to ear. Then I experienced something really wonderful: I had no idea what was going to happen next. Going into this film with no knowledge of plot details or twists was the best possible way to experience it.

I didn’t know what the words of the opening crawl would be. I didn’t know who any of the characters were. I didn’t know what anybody was going to say. I know that sounds like a weird thing to fixate on—after all, didn’t we get that with the prequel films too? Well, not really. Because they were all backstory, there were clearly-delineated constraints on what could and couldn’t happen in those films. But with these new films, anything is possible.

I really, really, really enjoyed watching The Force Awakens. But in order to truly evaluate the film on its own merits, I knew I’d have to see it again in more normal circumstances (and who am I kidding? I didn’t need much of an excuse to see it again).

I’ve seen it three times now. I loved it every time. If anything, the things that slightly bothered me on first seeing the film have diminished with subsequent viewings. It stands up to repeat watching, something that isn’t necessarily true of other J.J. Abrams films—I enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness when I first saw it, but with every time I see it again, it grows a little weaker.

As I said, there were things that slightly bothered me and I’ll get to those, but my overwhelming feelings about this film are very, very positive. I think the world-building is really good. I think the film itself is superbly crafted, as described in this excellent point-by-point analysis by Chris Dickinson. But above all, what I love the most about The Force Awakens are the characters.

Rey. What can I say? She is quite simply a wonderfully-written character brought to life by an astonishingly good performance. And of course I’m going to join in the chorus of people who are glad that we finally get a lead role for a woman in this galaxy. Granted, Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t exactly Mad Max: Fury Road, but still, how great is it that 2015 has given us both Rey and Furiousa?

(You know what it is? It’s a good start.)

Likewise with Finn: great character; great performance. Throw in Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron and even BB8 …I’m sold. I’m invested in their stories now. I want to know what happens next. I want to spend time with them.

But The Force Awakens wasn’t just about new heroes and villains. As audacious as it would be to start from an entirely clean slate, it also needed to tie in to the beloved original films. On the whole, I think this film did a good job of balancing the past and the future.

Paul came along to that midnight viewing; a ticket became available at the last minute. But he was prepared not to enjoy it, or even understand it, given that he’s never really watched Star Wars.

“Actually”, I said, “I’d be really interested to find out what you think of it.”

I’m too close to the source material; I can’t objectively judge whether the new film could stand on its own, as opposed to be being the latest episode in an existing saga.

As it turned out, Paul really enjoyed it. Sure, there was stuff he was aware he was missing out on, but interestingly, there was even more stuff that we were all missing out on: the script is filled with references to events that happened in the intervening decades between the old films and the new. I liked that a lot. It helped solidify this as being simultaneously a brand new chapter and also just one sliver of a larger ongoing narrative.

The Force Awakens is very much a bridging piece between the old and the new. The torch was passed on with dignity, and surprisingly, it was Harrison Ford’s Han Solo that made it a convincing handover.

I say “surprisingly” because remember, we had just watched Return Of The Jedi before The Force Awakens and it is so clear that Harrison Ford really didn’t want to be in that film. I know Han Solo is supposed to be somewhat sarcastic, but it was dialled up to 11 for Jedi, and I’m pretty sure it was a very, shall we say, “naturalistic” performance. But here he is over thirty years later, really breathing life into the character.

Through the stewardship of Harrison Ford, we were lovingly taken from the original films that we know so well into a new story. Han Solo picked up the audience like it was a child that had fallen asleep in the car, and he gently tucked us into our familiar childhood room where we can continue to dream. And then, with a tender brush of his hand across the cheek, he left us.

In many ways, Han Solo in The Force Awakens is Ben Kenobi in Star Wars …but with a much more fleshed-out history and a more interesting personal journey. Now he’s the one saying that the Force is real (and he does it in the very spot where he originally ridiculed Kenobi). It’s as if Scully were to slowly come around to Mulder’s worldview and finally intone “I want to believe.”

The biggest gripe that other people have with The Force Awakens is how much the plot resembles that of the original Star Wars. It’s undeniable. The question is how much that matters, and a result, how much it bothers you. It really bothered Khoi. It somewhat bothered Andy. It didn’t bother me much, but it was definitely an aspect that prevented the film from being a complete triumph. But it’s also one of those issues that diminishes with repeated viewing.

Those bothered by the echoes between Star Wars and The Force Awakens are going to be really pissed off when they find out about World War One and World War Two. “Britain and America fight Germany again? Really!?” (Probably best not to even mention any of the Gulf wars).

I get the feeling though that the people who are bothered by the plot are perhaps overplaying the similarities and underplaying the differences.

So yes, in one sense Rey in The Force Awakens is like Luke in Star Wars—a young person on a desert planet far from the action. But then there are the differences: where Luke was whining about his situation, Rey is mastering hers. And of course there’s the fact that he in 1977 is now she in 2015. “That doesn’t make any difference!” you may cry, and you’d be exactly right: it shouldn’t make any difference …so why has it taken us four decades to get to this?

The casting of Rey and Finn is simultaneously unimportant and monumental. It’s unimportant in that it makes no difference to the story whether Rey is a woman or Finn is black. It’s monumental in that they are the main characters in what everyone knew would be the biggest film of the century so far.

One of the other complaints that people have with The Force Awakens is the unclear political background. Here’s Michael again:

The rebels killed the Emperor and won, but now they’re ‘the resistance’? Why? They’re backed by the republic, so why aren’t they just the armed forces of the republic? The First Order strikes against the republic (looked like Coruscant, but apparently wasn’t). How big is the First Order? Big enough to build Starkiller Base, but what does that mean? Do they control systems? Do they have support inside the republic? Is this like a separatists thing? How long have they been around? How are they funded?

This certainly bugged me. It was the kind of issue that could have been fixed with one explanatory scene. Sure enough, it turns out that such a scene was shot but then cut from the film. Mostly that was to keep the film’s running time down, but I suspect that after the dull talkiness of the prequels, there may also have been some overcompensating course-correction away from anything with even a whiff of politics. Alas, that phobia of trade routes and senators resulted in an unclear backstory. It wasn’t until my third viewing that I realised that Hux’s speech is the closest thing to a blackboard scene for the galactic geopolitics: there’s a proxy war between wannabe extremists looking to set up a caliphate (think ISIS) and a resistance (think the Kurds) being funded by the dominant power (think America) …up until The First Order carry out a 9-11/Pearl Harbour/Vulcan scale attack, leaving the balance of power wide open—the next film could take it in any direction.

One of the most impressive achievements of The Force Awakens is that after seeing it, I didn’t want to think about how it tied back to the original films, as I expected I would want to do. Instead, I was entirely preoccupied with questions of what’s going to happen next.

Everyone is talking about Rey. Where is she from? What is her parentage? The most popular theories are currently:

  1. She is Luke Skywalker’s daughter.
  2. She is Han and Leia’s daughter, the secret sister of Kylo Ren.
  3. She is Ben Kenobi’s granddaughter.

Personally, I’d like it if her parentage were unremarkable. Maybe it’s the socialist in me, but I’ve never liked the idea that the Force is based on eugenics; a genetic form of inherited wealth for the lucky 1%. I prefer to think of the Force as something that could potentially be unlocked by anyone who tries hard enough.

But there are too many hints at Rey’s origins for her parentage to go unexplained. All the signs point to her having some kind of connection to existing bloodlines. Unless…

Lawrence Kasdan has been dropping hints about how odd Episode VIII is going to be, mostly because it has Rian Johnson at the helm. He gave us the terrific Looper. One of the most unsettling aspects of that film was the presence of a child with buried potential for destruction through telekinetic powers. For everyone’s safety, the child is kept far from civilisation.

Okay, I know it’s a stretch but what if Rey is on Jakku for similar reasons? Her parents aren’t Skywalkers or Kenobis, they’re just scared by the destructive episodes they’ve experienced with their Force-sensitive infant. With enormous reluctance—but for the greater good—they deposit her on a faraway world.

No?

Okay, well, if you don’t like that theory, you’re going to hate this one:

What if Rey is the daughter of Luke and Leia?

Eww! I know, I know. But, hey, you can’t say the signs weren’t there all along. And the shame of an incestuous union could be the reason for the child’s secret exile.

It’s preposterous of course. Even in a post-Game Of Thrones landscape, that would be going too far, even for Rian Johnson …or would it?

Now I’ve planted the idea in your head. Sorry about that.

Still, how great is it that we we’re all talking about what’s going to happen next?

Some people have asked me where I think The Force Awakens ranks in comparison to the other Star Wars films, and I wasn’t prepared for the question. I honestly haven’t been thinking about it in the context of the original films. Instead I’ve been thinking about the new characters and the new storyline. As Maz Kanata would say:

The belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead.

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I’ve noticed lately that my experience of films is lasting long after leaving the cinema. I end up reading opinion pieces and listening to podcasts about the film for days or even weeks afterwards.

Interstellar, Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road …I enjoyed each of them in the cinema, and then I enjoyed thinking about them again by huffduffing related material to catch up on.

Sometimes I find myself doing it with other media too. I finish a book, and then listen to reckons about it afterwards.

I guess this is the water cooler effect, but extended to the internet.

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Today was tiring. I didn’t do anything too strenuous—I was in the office in the morning and then up in London in the afternoon, but for some reason I just felt very tired out. Travelling to London and back will do that.

So when I got home, I had a nice relaxing evening. After dinner, I opened a bottle of Dark Star Sunburst ale, made some popcorn, and put on Interstellar.

This was my third viewing and it was just as gripping as the first two.

It’s a film that’s really divided opinion but I’m most certainly a fan.

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Jessica and I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road at the Dukes At Komedia last week. We both thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s the instant thrill of being immersed in a rollicking good action movie but this film also stayed with me long after leaving the cinema.

This isn’t really Max’s movie at all—it’s Furiosa’s. And oh, what a wonderful protagonist she is.

Max’s role in this movie is to be an ally. And for that reason, I see him as a role model—one who offers a shoulder, not to cry on, but to steady a rifle’s aim.

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I enjoy a good time travel yarn. Two of the most enjoyable temporal tales of recent years have been Rian Johnson’s film Looper and William Gibson’s book The Peripheral.

Mind you, the internal time travel rules of Looper are all over the place, whereas The Peripheral is wonderfully consistent.

Both share an interesting commonality in their settings. They are set in the future and …the future: two different time periods but neither of them are the present. Both works also share the premise that the more technologically advanced future would inevitably exploit the time period further down the light cone.

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I measure transatlantic flights in movies watched. Yesterday’s journey from London to Seattle was four movies long.

  1. The Imitation Game: a necessarily fictionalised account of Turing’s life (one of the gotchas about top-secret work is that it’s, well, secret). But couldn’t Tommy Flowers have been given at least a walk-on part?
  2. Fury: Brad Pitt plays Lee Marvin in a war story told through the eyes of the naive rookie as seen in The Big Red One and Saving Private Ryan.
  3. Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part One: The Hungering.
  4. Paddington: just right for the end of a flight.

Interstelling

Jessica and I entered the basement of The Dukes at Komedia last weekend to listen to Sarah and her band Spacedog provide live musical accompaniment to short sci-fi films from the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries.

It was part of the Cine City festival, which is still going on here in Brighton—Spacedog will also be accompanying a performance of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, and there’s going to be a screening of François Truffaut’s brilliant film version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in the atmospheric surroundings of Brighton’s former reference library. I might try to get along to that, although there’s a good chance that I might cry at my favourite scene. Gets me every time.

Those 100-year old sci-fi shorts featured familiar themes—time travel, monsters, expeditions to space. I was reminded of a recent gathering in San Francisco with some of my nerdiest of nerdy friends, where we discussed which decade might qualify as the golden age of science fiction cinema. The 1980s certainly punched above their weight—1982 and 1985 were particularly good years—but I also said that I think we’re having a bit of a sci-fi cinematic golden age right now. This year alone we’ve had Edge Of Tomorrow, Guardians Of The Galaxy, and Interstellar.

Ah, Interstellar!

If you haven’t seen it yet, now would be a good time to stop reading. Imagine that I’ve written the word “spoilers” in all-caps, followed by many many line breaks before continuing.

Ten days before we watched Spacedog accompanying silent black and white movies in a tiny basement theatre, Jessica and I watched Interstellar on the largest screen we could get to. We were in Seattle, which meant we had the pleasure of experiencing the film projected in 70mm IMAX at the Pacific Science Center, right by the space needle.

I really, really liked it. Or, at least, I’ve now decided that I really, really liked it. I wasn’t sure when I first left the cinema. There were many things that bothered me, and those things battled against the many, many things that I really enjoyed. But having thought about it more—and, boy, does this film encourage thought and discussion—I’ve been able to resolve quite a few of the issues I was having with the film.

I hate to admit that most of my initial questions were on the science side of things. I wish I could’ve switched off that part of my brain.

There’s an apocryphal story about an actor asking “Where’s the light coming from?”, and being told “Same place as the music.” I distinctly remember thinking that very same question during Interstellar. The first planetfall of the film lands the actors and the audience on a world in orbit around a black hole. So where’s the light coming from?

The answer turns out to be that the light is coming from the accretion disk of that black hole.

But wouldn’t the radiation from the black hole instantly fry any puny humans that approach it? Wouldn’t the planet be ripped apart by the gravitational tides?

Not if it’s a rapidly-spinning supermassive black hole with a “gentle” singularity.

These are nit-picky questions that I wish I wasn’t thinking of. But I like the fact that there are answers to those questions. It’s just that I need to seek out those answers outside the context of the movie—I should probably read Kip Thorne’s book. The movie gives hints at resolving those questions—there’s just one mention of the gentle singularity—but it’s got other priorities: narrative, plot, emotion.

Still, I wish that Interstellar had managed to answer my questions while the film was still happening. This is something that Inception managed brilliantly: for all its twistiness, you always know exactly what’s going on, which is no mean feat. I’m hoping and expecting that Interstellar will reward repeated viewings. I’m certainly really looking forward to seeing it again.

In the meantime, I’ll content myself with re-watching Inception, which makes a fascinating companion piece to Interstellar. Both films deal with time and gravity as malleable, almost malevolent forces. But whereas Cobb travels as far inward as it is possible for a human to go, Coop travels as far outward as it is possible for our species to go.

Interstellar is kind of a mess. There’s plenty of sub-par dialogue and strange narrative choices. But I can readily forgive all that because of the sheer ambition and imagination on display. I’m not just talking about the imagination and ambition of the film-makers—I’m talking about the ambition and imagination of the human race.

That’s at the heart of the film, and it’s a message I can readily get behind.

Before we even get into space, we’re shown a future that, by any reasonable definition, would be considered a dystopia. The human race has been reduced to a small fraction of its former population, technological knowledge has been lost, and the planet is dying. And yet, where this would normally be the perfect storm required to show roving bands of road warriors pillaging their way across the dusty landscape, here we get an agrarian society with no hint of violence. The nightmare scenario is not that the human race is wiped out through savagery, but that the human race dies out through a lack of ambition and imagination.

Religion isn’t mentioned once in this future, but Interstellar does feature a deus ex machina in the shape of a wormhole that saves the day for the human race. I really like the fact that this deus ex machina isn’t something that’s revealed at the end of the movie—it’s revealed very early on. The whole plot turns out to be a glorious mash-up of two paradoxes: the bootstrap paradox and the twin paradox.

The end result feels like a mixture of two different works by Arthur C. Clarke: The Songs Of Distant Earth and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001 is the more obvious work to compare it to, and the film readily invites that comparison. Many reviewers have been quite to point out that Interstellar doesn’t reach the same heights as Kubrick’s 2001. That’s a fair point. But then again, I’m not sure that any film can ever reach the bar set by 2001. I honestly think it’s as close to perfect as any film has ever come.

But I think it’s worth pointing out that when 2001 was released, it was not greeted with universal critical acclaim. Quite the opposite. Many reviewers found it tedious, cold, and baffling. It divided opinion greatly …much like Interstellar is doing now.

In some ways, Interstellar offers a direct challenge to 2001—what if mankind’s uplifting is not caused by benevolent alien beings, but by the distant descendants of the human race?

This is revealed as a plot twist, but it was pretty clearly signposted from early in the film. So, not much of a plot twist then, right?

Well, maybe not. What if Coop’s hypothesis—that the wormhole is the creation of future humans—isn’t entirely correct? He isn’t the only one who crosses the event horizon. He is accompanied by the robot TARS. In the end, the human race is saved by the combination of Coop the human’s connection to his daughter, and the analysis carried out by TARS. Perhaps what we’re witnessing there is a glimpse of the true future for our species; human-machine collaboration. After all, if humanity is going to transcend into a fifth-dimensional species at some future point, it’s unlikely to happen through biology alone. But if you combine the best of the biological—a parent’s love for their child—with the best of technology, then perhaps our post-human future becomes not only plausible, but inevitable.

Deus ex machina.

Thinking about the future of the species in this co-operative way helps alleviate the uncomfortable feeling I had that Interstellar was promoting a kind of Manifest Destiny for the human race …although I’m not sure that I’m any more comfortable with that being replaced by a benevolent technological determinism.