I enjoyed this documentary on legendary sound designer and editor Walter Murch. Kinda makes me want to rewatch The Conversation and The Godfather.
Thursday, April 2nd, 2020
Thursday, January 2nd, 2020
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 have to admit that my first reaction was …ambivalent. I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either.
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.
Sunday, April 15th, 2018
Some colour palette inspiration from films.
Friday, April 6th, 2018
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.
Tuesday, December 26th, 2017
The Last Jedi
If you haven’t seen The Last Jedi (yet), please stop reading. Spoilers ahoy.
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.
Saturday, September 2nd, 2017
George Lucas, Ted Chiang, Greg Egan, Stanley Kubrick, Tom Stoppard, William Shakespeare, and Ridley Scott are all part of Matt’s magnificent theory that the play is the thing.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are replicants.
Characters look like people, except they exist for only the duration of a movie — only while they are necessary. They come with backstory and memories fully established but never experienced, partly fabricated for the job and partly drawn from real people known by the screenwriter. At the end, they vanish, like tears in rain.
Sunday, January 17th, 2016
I think I’ve shown great restraint in not linking to loads of think-pieces about Star Wars and The Force Awakens, because believe me, I’ve been reading—and listening to—a lot.
What Jessica has written here is about The Force Awakens. But more than that, it’s about Star Wars. But more than that, it’s about childhood. But more than that…
What I’m saying is: if you only read one thing about the new Star Wars film, read this.
Friday, January 8th, 2016
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:
- She is Luke Skywalker’s daughter.
- She is Han and Leia’s daughter, the secret sister of Kylo Ren.
- 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.
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.
Monday, June 8th, 2015
100 words 078
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.
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.
Tuesday, November 25th, 2014
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.
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.
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.
Thursday, March 7th, 2013
A magnificent piece of writing from Michael, examining the influence of Sergio Leone on George Lucas.
Friday, January 4th, 2013
Ostensibly about gaming (and written by Matt Colville who works in the games industry), this blog actually has a lot of interesting observations on sci-fi cinema. I like it.
Wednesday, September 28th, 2011
This blog by the visual effects supervisor on Moon is packed full of wonderfully geeky sci-fi movie stories.
Sunday, September 25th, 2011
Much as I enjoyed myself in Tennessee, it was shame to miss some of the Brighton Digital Festival events that were going on at the same time. I missed Barcamp and Flash On The Beach. But since getting back I’ve been making up for lost time, soaking up the geek comedy at The Caroline of Brunswick last Wednesday with Robin Ince and Helen Keen.
I also went along to the Improving Reality conference on Friday, which turned out to be an excellent event.
The title was deliberately contentious, inviting a Slavin-shaped spectre to loom over the proceedings after he closed dConstruct with his excellent talk, Reality is Plenty wherein he placed his boot on the head of Augmented Reality, carefully pointed his rhetorical gun at its temple and repeatedly pulled the trigger.
But AR was just one of the items on the menu at Improving Reality. The day was split into three parts, each of them expertly curated: Digital Art, Cinema and Gaming. In spite of this clear delineation of topics there were a number of overlapping themes.
I’m somewhat biased but I couldn’t help but notice the influence of science fiction in all the different strands. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Science fiction sets expectations for technology and culture …and I don’t just mean flying cars and jetpacks.
Mind you, this is something that cinema has always done. Matt Adams from Blast Theory asked:
How many romantic kisses had you seen before you had your first romantic kiss?
Or, on a more pedestrian level, everyone in the UK knows what an American yellow school bus is, even though they’ll probably never see one. It’s part of a pre-established world that needs no explanation. In the same way, science fiction is pre-establishing a strange world that we already inhabit.
We also heard about the Tower of David in Venezuela. Intended as a high-rise centre of commerce but bankrupted before completion, it is now the world’s tallest favela.
He describes his work as “jamming with reality”—much like Mark Shepard’s Sentient Cities
But Julian Oliver is at pains to point out that that it’s not just about messing with people’s heads. He’s attempting to point out the points of control that might otherwise go unquestioned. There’s also an important third step to his process:
- Identify the points of control in the infrastructure.
- Hack it.
- Show how it was done.
This stands in stark contrast to the kind of future that Aral outlined in his energetic presentation. He is striving for a world where technology is smooth and seamless, where an infrastructure of control is acceptable as long as the user experience is excellent. It’s Apple’s App Store today; it’s the starship in Wall·E tomorrow (or possibly the Starship Opryland)—a future where convenience triumphs over inquisitiveness.
As Marshall McLuhan put it “there is no augmentation without an amputation.” In Charles Stross’s Accelerando that is literally true: when the main character—exactly the kind of superhuman cyborg that Aral envisions—has his augmentation stolen, he is effectively mentally and socially retarded.
Julian Oliver’s battle against a convenient but complacent future is clearly shown with Newstweek where William Gibson, Umberto Eco and Philip K. Dick collide in a project that skirts around the edges of morality and legality, hijacking wifi connections and altering news headlines for the lulz.
Then there’s Blast Theory’s current work on the streets of Brighton, A Machine To See With. It’s ostensibly another locative art piece but it may have more in common with a cinematic work like David Fincher’s The Game.
It’s all part of a long tradition of attempting to break down the barrier between the audience and the performance, a tradition that continues with the immersive theatre of Punchdrunk. This reminds me of the ractives in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a form of entertainment so immersive that when a troupe attempt to perform a traditional theatrical piece, they run into problems:
The hard part was indoctrinating the audience; unless they were theatre buffs, they always wanted to run up on stage and interact, which upset the whole thing.
It’s a complete inversion of the infamous premier by the Lumière brothers of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat where, so the myth goes, the audience ran from the theatre in terror.
It’s probably a completely apocryphal story. But as the representative from Time’s Up said at Improving Reality: “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Stories were at the heart of the gaming section of Improving reality. Stored In A Bank Vault, which is currently running in Brighton, was presented as part of PARN: Physical and Alternate Reality Narratives. These are stories where the player is empowered to become the narrator.
Incidentally, it was refreshing to hear how much contempt the game designers like Tassos Stevens held for the exploitationware of “gamification”—a dehumanising topic that was explored in Stross’s superbly damning Glasshouse.
There were plenty of good stories in the middle section of Improving Reality too, which began with a look at the past, present and future of cinema from Matt Hanson. Matt’s own remarkable work A Swarm Of Angels bears a striking similarity to “the footage” in Gibson’s Pattern Recognition—both are infused with a spirit of fushigi.
Micropatronage can be very impowering. Where once we were defined (and perhaps judged) by the films we chose to watch and the books we chose to read, now we can define ourselves by the films and books we choose to fund. Instead of judging me by my what’s on my bookshelf or my Last.fm profile, judge me by my Kickstarter profile. Kickstarter is one of those genuinely disruptive uses of the network that’s enabling real creativity and originality to come to the surface in projects like Adrian Hon’s A History Of The Future In 100 Objects.
This change in how we think about funding feels like the second part of a revolution. The first part was changing how we think about distribution.
Jamie King, director of Steal This Film, hammered home just how powerful Moore’s Law has been for film, music and anything else that can be digitised. Extrapolating the trend, he pointed to the year 2028 as the media singularity, when it will cost $5 to store every film ever made on a device that fits in your pocket. He evocatively described this as the moment when “the cloud settles at street level.”
It’s here, at the point where anything can be copied, where the old and new worlds clash head on in the battle for the artificial construct that has been so inaccurately labeled “intellectual property”.
Once again we were shown two potential futures; one of chaos and one of control:
There’s the peer-to-peer future precipitated by Bit Torrent and Pirate Bay where anyone is free to share their hopes and dreams with the entire world …but where no distinction is drawn between a creative work of art and a hate-filled racist polemic.
Then there’s the centralised future of the iPad, a future where people will gladly pay money to climb into a beautifully designed jail cell. You can have whatever you want …as long as it has been pre-approved. So you won’t, for example, ever be able to play Phone Story.
This second future—where your general-purpose computing device is broken—promises to put the genie back in the bottle and reverse the disruptive revolution in distribution and funding.
Thinking about it, it’s no surprise that payment systems are undergoing the same upheavals as distribution systems. After all, money is just another form of information that can be reduced to bits.
The much tougher problem is with atoms.
Until recently this was entirely the domain of science fiction—the post-singularity futures of replicators and cornucopia machines. But even here, with the rise of
3D printing, our science fictional future is becoming more evenly distributed in the present.
We’re making a new kind of toy: customisable, 3D-printed, locally made, and internet-enabled.
Just as Makie Lab envision a game that’s an infinite loop between the network and the physical world, I think we’ll continue to see an infinite loop between science fiction and reality.
Friday, January 7th, 2011
A nice website for Brighton’s own Duke of York’s cinema, which will celebrate its 100th year of continuous operation.
Tuesday, December 1st, 2009
I'll take any excuse to watch the opening of Touch of Evil — I don't think it'll ever be topped.
Thursday, November 26th, 2009
Remy recounts the Jedi mind trick I used to get him to move Full Frontal to the Duke of Yorks cinema.
Wednesday, September 16th, 2009
This is wonderful, just wonderful; an in-depth piece on corridors in science fiction movies. Swoon!
Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
The manager of Brighton's Duke of York's cinema has a blog.
Friday, April 3rd, 2009
Let the right tweet in
As with most twittering organisations, the stream has news of future events, such as the impending visit by Charlie Kaufman. But rather than simply using Twitter as another channel for announcements, the people behind the account are using it to have a proper conversation with the cinema’s audience. Hence the requests for movie marathon suggestions or late night shows.
A couple of weeks ago, they posted this irresistible tweet:
anyone that fancies seeing Let The Right One In at a spooky late night screening on Thursday 2nd April DM us for tickets
So I did. That’s why I found myself in the Duke of York’s cinema at 11pm last night, sitting on a comfy sofa up in the balcony, drinking a (free) Swedish beer, watching a mesmerising, beautiful, frightening film (imagine if Twilight had been directed by Bergman).
Watch this film. If you live in Brighton, you know where to go.