Movies


As good a place as any to die

Dunkirk is not a war movie. It’s a movie about staying alive in the places between the world, a kinder of Stranger Things set in the strange space between France and England. This is why there are a million reviews comparing it to Brexit (or saying it has nothing to do with Brexit). Of course it has nothing to do with Brexit, because it’s about an entirely different kind of catastrophe, the catastrophe of young men – themselves still embedded in a kind of in-between place, not yet adults but no longer children – being forced to survive in a space outside of human experience, created by humans and populated by humans but having nothing in common with everything we know as we grow up human. This movie attempts to depict war as a kind of empty, in-between place, where death and struggle are everything to the people trapped in that space, but the broader metaphysics of its structure are unknown and unknowable.

Aside from a few moments at the beginning, where we see the main character of the movie pushed out of the normal human world and onto the beach, and the last few minutes when he returns to a normal railway siding in England[1], this entire world happens in in-between spaces. There are long scenes on the beach, as soldiers wait helplessly for evacuation; scenes in the air, as fighter pilots completely cut off from home do battle with unknowable enemies in empty spaces between the countries; scenes in the water, as the small boat goes about its difficult work on the channel; and scenes at the surface of the sea, between deadly deep blue death and the open sky, as soldiers struggle to stay alive after their sole chance to escape this horrible purgatory is suddenly and horrifically sunk. Everything happens in the Upside Down, trapped between the world we know and hell, or fighting to get out of the gap between France and England. Occasionally we hear people yell names of places, like stone markers in the void – “out of Dartmouth!” – but mostly we are lost in this tiny slip of water and beach and deadly sky, trying to find our way back.

The scenes in the air, in particular, are like battles in the Astral Plane. Is Christopher Nolan a D&D player? We have these two adventurers, flying through a vast blue space, fighting faceless demons that come out of nowhere, going to a specific mission in a far place somewhere abstract inside that blue vault. They are tied to their origin by a thin silver cord, in this case the fuel in their tank, which gives them just 40 minutes of combat time over their destination. Any mistakes, any deviations, any conflict they aren’t expecting, and they risk snapping that thin silver cord and being lost in the blue. Crashing out here means a slow, awful death in nowhere, unless another Astral traveler – one of those small boats “out of Dartmouth” – happens upon you in that vast, empty limnal space between the worlds. We watch people fall slowly and gracefully out of that sky, their power in the Astral plane broken, and we know they are gone forever, slowly and horribly. One person disappears without any word as to how or why. We’re out of time and place, trapped between the worlds, and these things happen. No one comments on it, and the mission continues.

The sense of dislocation is heightened by the arbitrariness of death in this cruel space. No one here wins by being brave or decisive – death happens in a moment, out of nowhere, or comes screaming down out of the sky and there’s nothing you can do except crouch down and hope it misses you. This is not a war of brave men and heroes, but of ordinary men trapped in horrific circumstances, hoping that the terror will fall on someone else. Even their grift is meaningless – our hero and his French mate find a man on a stretcher and run him to a ship, hoping to get on board and escape with the ship, but as soon as their hapless charge is on the deck they are booted off because there is no room for worthless people. But then they watch as the ship is sunk by a random Stuka, and their lucky break and the cunning scheme that followed is revealed to be just another lottery, that this time they fortunately didn’t win. There is no working this scene, no winning, just the random luck of death or salvation. This limnal space has its own logic, and its own justice, and watching this movie we know we aren’t here to understand it or change it, just to witness it.

This emptiness and arbitrariness lends the movie what to me is its most powerful political message: a story about war as a destroyer of ordinary lives, and the importance of remembering that it is ordinary people who suffer in war. Most of the people in this movie don’t have names – they line up like ants on the beach, they die when the Stukas come, they flee on ships and die when the Heinkels come, they hide in abandoned boats and die randomly for no reason at all, and all the time we understand that they are just ordinary people with no special story or purpose. This sense of war as destroyer of ordinary people is reinforced with the few scenes that connect us to the world outside the channel. The boy in the rescue boat who dies was always a loser at school, and had no special future or dreams; the navy men watch as the rescue boat slides away, no navy men on board, almost dismissive of the efforts of the captain and his crew, strangely uncaring that he has left without his navy attachment; no one believes the small boats will survive in the war zone; when our hero returns to England he gets no fanfare and speeches, but a bottle of brown ale through the window of his train and a simple cheer from a few people on the platform[2]. Even Churchill’s speech is not read by Churchill, but by a boy returning from war, who strips it of all of its import and reads it as if it were a simple statement of narrative fact. There is no moment in this movie where we see the war or the policies that drive the war through the eyes and voice of anyone except a normal, ordinary British person, who of course had no control over the course of political events that led to this nightmare and has no control over the policy that will throw him back into it. There is only one officer in the whole film, and he does nothing to convey the views of the higher-ups except their desperation in the face of the catastrophe unfolding in France. This is a war movie about how ordinary people struggle and die, not a movie about glory, heroism or leadership. Of course there are other war movies that purport to do this, but Dunkirk doesn’t have the sensational gory violence of Saving Private Ryan, or the cruel authoritarianism of Letters from Iwo Jima, stripping the war of all that gore and higher purpose and reducing it to these people trapped in the in-between, looking for a way out.

This kind of work would be a boring two hours’ struggle if it weren’t for a few elements that keep the film going and make sure you the viewer stay on the edge of your seat. The plot is a carefully layered series of interlocking stories that only meet near the end and keep you guessing where you are and what is happening all the way along, without gotchas and without detracting from the overall purpose of the movie. The soundtrack is beautiful and nuanced and carefully balanced to keep you engaged with both the tension and the beauty of the setting, which is very well filmed. The sounds of the sudden violence are also visceral and gripping – the Stukas are especially alarming but the sounds of water and the particular noises of sinking ships, the ticking clock, the horrible sound of the Heinkel’s cannon and the strangely unreliable sputter of Spitfire engines are all designed to keep you on edge and completely engrossed in the experience of being trapped in this world between worlds. The only normal sounds here are men’s voices and our men don’t speak much – and when they do it’s often to tell someone to fuck off, to get off their boat, to get out of their way, to turn around, to stop. It’s one of those movies where the soundtrack, the sound effects, the acting and the setting all work together to produce a powerful and absorbing epic.

If you are into survival horror this is definitely a movie you should watch, and if you’re into classic stories of heroism in war it’s probably not going to appeal. It also won’t work for people who looking for trenchant critiques and political statement. But if you want to see a movie that grabs you at its start, drags you out of your world into a strange other dimension, keeps you tense and terrified until the end, and at least shares a little hope with you in its last breaths, then this is definitely worth seeing. And for its soundtrack and sound effects you need to see it in the unrestrained setting of a large and powerful cinema. It is a beautiful movie with a powerful message subtly delivered, and a unique addition to the war movie genre, and it stands alone in that genre for its unique artistic intensity. An epic achievement by Christopher Nolan, and I heartily recommend it.


Picture note: The photograph is by Morgan Maassen, who I follow on Instagram. If you’re looking for someone to add to your feed I definitely recommend him. Also Tomoka Fukuda and all the free diving instagram accounts related to either of these people.

fn1: Spoiler alert! Most of the soldiers get evacuated by a fleet of small ships.

fn2: This is a simple and yet very moving scene, which leads to him reading Churchill’s speech in the newspaper. It indicates a determination to separate the fates of the men depicted in the movie from any of the great political debates surrounding the key events of the war – very different to a Vietnam or Gulf war movie, which will always have some reference to its own unpopularity buried there.

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So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
– The parable of the old man and the young, Wilfred Owen

Last weekend I watched Guardians of the Galaxy 2, the highly-rated sequel to an excellent original movie. I went with high expectations because I read some good reviews and because the first movie was so great, but I was let down by this one. It was still fun, but it suffered from some deep and fundamental flaws, including that most basic flaw that spoils so many American movies: Daddy Issues. I’m so over putting up with the blatant, sentimental moralizing of modern American movies, and this one really really laid it on thick. So here is my brief review of the many problems of this movie, followed by an analysis of one possible interpretation of the bad guy’s evil plot, and how it can be read. This review has spoilers.

The daddy issues are laid on pretty thick from the start of this movie. The fundamental plot entangles the same characters from the original story in a madman’s attempt to turn all the planets in the galaxy into a model of his home planet, probably eradicating all life on those planets in the process (this isn’t clear). Of course Quinn, the idiot dude from the first movie, is central to this plot because the bad guy is his dad, and we have the classic American trope of discovering that your dad is not the great guy you believed he was when you were five, but is actually just a dickhead with an oversized ego who will never ever listen to you because you’re his son and therefore nothing you say is important. If you go by American movies, this completely ordinary run-of-the-mill discovery is a deeply traumatic experience for American men, who then (I guess because, pace that classic Monty Python sketch, Americans just won’t shut up) have to go and make multiple movies about it. Perhaps if they didn’t fridge their mothers in every single action movie, they would have a countervailing voice to explain that there’s nothing unusual about finding out your dad is just a paunchy dude who has no power and has some sketchy views about black people.

So then the group of heroes have to spend an inordinately long period of time trying to kill Quinn’s dad, which is cute because this movie combines daddy issues with patricide, which is actually a really pretty seedy basic structure for a movie: Dad had a bad idea, so instead of reasoning him out of it and coming to a better plan, you murder him. Although his bad idea involved serial infanticide, so make no bones about it (there are a lot of bones), he really did deserve to die. Credit where it is due, this movie strips back all the bullshit about daddy issues and gets back to basics: You gotta kill papa before he kills you.

Outside of the toxic daddy issues the movie is fun, packed with the same slapstick and chaotic banter as the first movie. The opening 10 minutes is a joyous rampage, worth paying for even if the rest of the movie lets you down, and some of the characters really live up to the high expectations they set in the first movie – especially Rocket, Draxx and Yondoo (as in the first movie Quinn is just a boring jock). The movie also introduces a girl called Mantis, who is well placed right in the uncanny valley, as well as being gloriously stupid and honest and sweet, so she’s a great new cast member. Unfortunately these great characters are merely support to the two boring white dudes fighting their existential battle. The key bad guy – Quinn’s dad – has a plot to destroy the galaxy which has depended on him womanizing his way around it, then consuming all the by-blows of his unions with many different aliens in a desperate attempt to destroy the galaxy. Quinn’s dad is a kind of a god so killing him is tough, and the second half of the movie involves an inordinate amount of flying and fighting and dodging and trying to blow him up. This is unfortunate because both Quinn’s dad himself and all attempts to kill him are just boring. This means that every time the main bad guy is on screen you just want him to go away, he’s so boring, and you just don’t have anything invested in the team’s efforts to beat him. He’s just some philandering idiot with a big ego and you can’t bring yourself to care. This bad guy is no Magua, no Imortan Joe. It’s like if Homer and Bart Simpson were in a fight to the death over who gets to destroy the galaxy. You want to care – your life depends on it – but really? Really? Is this how it ends?!

Which brings me to Trump, and Imperialism. It strikes me as not much of a coincidence that this particular variant of daddy issues – a daddy who is so stupid and dangerous you have to kill him to save the galaxy – comes up now, when America is ruled by the ultimate useless dad. Over the past year of being subjected to daddy issues movies and seeing the way that Americans respond to their presidential candidates, I have started to think that the US president is a kind of embodiment of the same cultural daddy issues that Americans are so obviously desperately expressing through their bloated action movies. I don’t know what is going on in US culture but the entire nation is obviously on a desperate quest to find a decent daddy, and the President is the ultimate embodiment of that. This time around they got a gaslighting, domestic abusing dickhead for a daddy, or as one Facebook meme had it, “It’s like our cool dad left and mum has taken up with a jock driving a trans am” or something similar. This president beats his (metaphorical) kids and is letting the house go to ruin, and the kids are having a huge argument about whether to leave or kick him out or kill him and bury the body under the floorboards, while the neighbours look on in horror. And so it is that this movie comes out that is about a dude who finds out his dad is a murderous arsehole whose plans involve sacrificing his own son to take over the world. Right! No coincidence at all.

Furthermore we learn that this daddy – just like Trump – is a womanizing fool, who has been running around the galaxy impregnating as many women as possible, then luring the offspring back to his home and destroying them in an attempt to take over the world. This is such a transparent play on male sexual insecurities that it’s hard to believe it’s not deliberate, but then Quinn is such a silly useless character that it’s possible to believe that the writers really didn’t get where they were taking this. On another level it could be that this is actually some kind of deep, devious critique of imperialism, because a classic feminist critique of modern imperialist politics is that it consumes the flower of its own male youth to ensure that the older men get to rule over a wasteland. Under this critique the young men are also victims of Imperialism, though some lucky few of them from specific classes get to rise up and rule the roost later, if they can survive the slaughter. The first half of this critique was expressed often by the world war 1 war poets, who saw the destructive half of this sexist order up close in the trenches of the Somme and Ypres. In this movie our hero completely rejects the imperialist order, killing his cruel and destructive dad and destroying the means of domination then disappearing into the horizon with a rat[1] and a foreign woman. Revolution, man! Did the writers intend this as a super-subtle critique of Trump and the general republican politics of wars of choice and infanticidal consumption of their own children that has come to dominate US politics since world war 2? Or did their own overwrought daddy issues lead them to this allegory by accident, as a side effect of their desperate attempts to slay their own useless dad in a movie?

That was a rhetorical question: I don’t care. I just wish these people would get their daddy issues out of otherwise perfectly good movies, and find a better way to humourously critique the current order. Avatar provided a critical analysis of colonialism without daddy issues; Mad Max 3 managed to offer up a perfect piece of savage ecofeminism without any daddy issues. Why do we need to resort to such cheap and boring plot devices as “ooh daddy hates me” or “oooh daddy disappointed me” (or both) in American action movies. Please, please stop it. This could have been a great movie, but it was let down by a boring bad guy in a boring, hackneyed emotional dynamic with a callow main character. It’s still worth watching, but only so you can watch the supporting cast shine. That’s poor movie making, and it’s an insult to me the viewer that I once again have to sit through the same emotional baggage every time I watch an American action movie. It’s not even original emotional baggage.

American movie makers need to grow up. But despite that, go and see this movie for the first half. You won’t miss much if you walk out once Quinn meets his dad, but it’s probably worth sticking out to the end. Unless you get even madder than me at being forced to swallow this horrible medicine just to make the sugar go down, in which case I recommend rewatching the first one.


fn1: Sorry, not a rat. A trash bear.

Someone has been reading the Star Wars RPG opening adventure

Laser from space!

Rogue One is a great movie. But more importantly, it’s a movie that brings the original Star Wars feeling back to life. It is a lively, intense romp through the Star Wars universe, replete with all the things that made the original movies so enjoyable: characters you really want to win, a plot that unfolds at the speed of light and keeps you on the edge of your seat to the end, stunning settings, space battles, and valiant heroism and sacrifice. The main characters are constructed quickly and smoothly at the beginning in broad brush strokes, which waste no time establishing who they are but get you engaged with them early on. The plot is driven by the same tense, demanding deadlines that we are used to from the original movies: an impending doom, a crucial space battle that depends on a small insurgent team to rescue it from catastrophic failure, and a taut race against all the resources of the Empire to snatch victory from them against impossible odds. The story unfolds over several planets, all presenting very different settings and ending in a beautiful archipelago that offers great views for the astounding slaughter unfolding in and above it. The fundamental driver of the plot – the need to get the plans to the Death Star – demands valiant action, heroism and sacrifice from a band of people thrown together by a mixture of desperation and idealism.

Still, we know from bitter experience that it’s possible for a Star Wars movie to appear to have all these elements, but to submerge them in plots designed by the marketing department, a sea of CGI, and limpid acting that makes you forget whole scenes. We don’t see any of that in Rogue One – the plot isn’t just tight and well worked, it makes sense within itself and does not demand that we regularly suspend our sense of disbelief or our understanding of what makes stories work in order to accept the sequences of events unfolding before us, and although there are several points in the movie where disparate forces come together to create chaos, the mechanism of their having been brought together makes sense and doesn’t stretch our credulity. There’s plenty of CGI but it’s used sparingly, giving us what we need and no more – none of those classic sci-fi disasters of filling the screen with spaceships because you can – and the CGI doesn’t ever serve to distract us from bad dialogue or bad acting. The dialogue is, apart from one bad joke, very well crafted, and just as in the original movies a droid plays an essential role in establishing the best repartee. And the acting is great.

Of course there was a time when these would have been considered baseline standards for a good movie, but in modern science fiction movies you’re lucky if you get to see all these basic conditions met, so we must remark on them as if they were unlocked achievements. Rogue One goes further than just unlocking these achievements, however. It also presents us a moody feeling of loss and threat throughout, it gives us fine cinematography and some stunning set pieces to make us marvel, and it is picture perfect to the original movies. If you watch Star Wars Episode 4 immediately after this movie (as I essentially did) you will see a seamless flow from Rogue One to A New Hope. Better still, Rogue One’s story offers an explanation for a core problem many people have with the fundamental plot of Episode 4, effectively saving that movie from itself and improving the original offering. It also is about more than just stealing the plans for the Death Star – it is the entire first two sentences of the opening text of Episode 4, fleshed out and with a rollicking ending that explains everything and leads you straight to A New Hope. As a result this movie, much more than anything that was made since Return of the Jedi, deserves to be considered canon, even if Disney are trying to present it as a sideshow. This movie is a genuine improvement on the Star Wars universe, a real core offering, and has much more to add to the story we grew up with than any of the flaccid bloatware that has been released in the past 20 years.

The movie does have its flaws, of course, but they’re not serious. At one stage near the end the heroes are presented with a series of seemingly insurmountable challenges to achieving their task, which of course they overcome, but this turns a small section of the movie into an action platformer, or some kind of sci-fi version of that Ninja Warrior game show. That lets it down a bit and I think this part could have run more smoothly without pushing our heroes to be super-human to no particular plot purpose. Also this movie suffers the same problem as Episode 7, where hyperspace travel now happens at the speed of plot rather than any coherent actual time frame – we no longer do the Kessel run in 12 parsecs, we do it in however long it takes to get our spaceship to the next scene on time and in position. Of course there’s no reason not to have hyperspace travel be near-instantaneous, since it’s hyperspace, but in the original story they at least had time for a highly fraught game of chess and some jedi training before they rocked up into a meteor shower. Now it appears we can get an entire fleet of battleships from quiescent to the other side of the galaxy, in battle formation, in the blink of an eye.

Aside from those small flaws though, this movie was brilliant from start to finish, and for me at least it restored my faith in this once-great series. If we’re lucky the producers and directors of Episode 8 will learn from this and try to get the whole carnival back on track – or we will see more spin-off movies that add more to the Star Wars mythology than the core movies ever do. Or, ideally, both. But just in case this is the last good thing ever to come out of Star Wars, I recommend seeing it as soon as you can – the ending of this movie is absolutely ruined if you hear any spoilers, so get down to the cinema and see it as early as you can, before the best thing to happen to Star Wars in 30 years is ruined by its own success!

Two great characters on the edge of chaos

Two great characters on the edge of chaos

On the weekend I saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the new offering from JK Rowling. This movie is set in the Harry Potter world before the events of the Potter books, and I guess is intended to flesh out that world for a new generation of audiences. The movie itself is great and I strongly recommend seeing it, but the implications of some of its content for the broader world that Rowling has built, and for the viability of her vision of the world outside of the Potter stories, are dire. This movie raises some serious problems both about the structure of the world as it appears to have been envisaged, and also about the nature of the “good guys” in this world, and it rubs up against some of my complaints about the lack of imagination in modern fantasy. I’d like to talk a little about that and in doing so I’ll throw in a couple of minor spoilers, but first the movie itself.

This movie is set in New York in 1926, in the same world as the Harry Potter books. The main character, Newt Scamander, turns up just as a series of magical terrorist attacks are happening across Europe, blamed on some dude called Grindelwald. Scamander is carrying a suitcase full of magical creatures that he has collected for study, and by dint of a major series of accidents he ends up embroiled in a battle to save New York and a single child from a monster. In the process he gets caught up with a muggle (in America, a “no-maj”) called Jacob Kowalski, and two witches (sisters) called Tina and Queenie. he has to simultaneously protect his monsters from the US law that forbids all magical creatures (on pain of death apparently) and protect himself from the machinations of a sinister senior wizard called Graves. The result is a classic Rowlingesque rollicking adventure which in my opinion is in many ways superior to the Potter movies, primarily because it doesn’t involve children and doesn’t have the same weight of world-ending seriousness. It also lacks the stuffy public school atmosphere of those books, instead having a louche American roaring twenties atmosphere that makes it much more relaxed and fun. The setting, although completely different from the Potter stories, is seamless with them, and the movie manages to evoke the exoticism with which America was viewed by Brits back in the 1920s without deviating at all from the sense of the setting. In particular, the two women, Tina and Queenie, were genuinely exotic, in a very 1920s American way, and in my opinion Queenie in particular worked really well to separate the American setting from stuffy British Potter without in any way undermining the context of the original stories or this movie. The monsters were brilliant, either awe-inspiring (the Thunderbird, the Obscurus) or engagingly cute (the Niffler) and were true to the design principles and style of the original movies. Some of the interactions with them, especially the Niffler and the Thunderbird, were vintage Potter, and even if the movie had been in other ways second rate the rich scenes with the monsters would have saved it. But this movie is far from second rate: the action scenes are excellent, the pace is good, and the plot is a simple, coherent and believable story that comes to a quite well executed finale. It is internally consistent and doesn’t depend on the audience forgiving mistakes or suspending their disbelief, and has that feeling of a plot pared back to its essentials to make sure the viewer doesn’t have to do double takes or try to hold together a bunch of leaky ideas at once to accept the conclusion. It’s a big story but a tight, believable arc that holds the action together and keeps you engaged and enjoying it without thinking. It’s one of those movies which you know you would still have enjoyed even if the monsters were second rate – but they most definitely are not. The main characters are also great – Scamander, Queenie, Tina, the Niffler, and Graves are all excellent characters well acted. Scamander really comes across as the gentle well-meaning misfit that he is, as does Queenie, and Tina the slightly tragic investigator who hasn’t quite got it together. The only let down is the brief appearance of Johnny Depp at the end – I’m completely over Johnny Depp’s acting, though I used to like him, and I don’t want to see another one of his supposedly fresh and original but actually completely cookie-cutter eccentric performances outside of a Tim Burton makeover (which I won’t watch). I certainly don’t want to see it spoiling an actual decent movie. But besides his brief annoying cameo, everyone else was great. The movie has minor flaws, as most movies do, but they’re not worth even documenting. It’s great. See it. You will love it.

So what’s wrong with this movie? The first big flaw was the fact that this movie comes straight to the point about the magical administration ruling the parallel universe of witches and wizards in the Rowling setting: it’s straight-up fascist. Now I missed some of the Harry Potter books and movies (skipped the middle 77 and saw the underwhelming final two), but my impression was that in the modern era the magical administration is overtaken by a kind of military coup near the end and turns kind of nasty, but based on Fantastic Beasts it appears that the administration that was taken over by this supposedly nasty military emergency government was actually – well, not really any different to a military emergency government. Particularly striking was the ability of senior figures in the administration to summarily execute other wizards for minor crimes, without evidence or trial, to confiscate property and to invade people’s minds. Indeed, the person who gets the execution order is then put to death by one of her good friends in the administration, who seems to think the whole idea is fine, which suggests that there is a level of brainwashing going on in this organization that is up there with North Korea. Meanwhile this Grindelwald dude is running around the world trying to undermine the administration and blow the wizards’ cover and get them noticed by muggles – but when I see people being executed without trial by the wizard’s rulers I am not inclined to think he’s wrong. If it’s Rowling’s intention to flesh out the world of Harry Potter, she needs to be careful that she doesn’t flesh it out in a way that makes Voldemort seem like the good guy, because I was only a few minutes into this movie before I thought the forces of wizarding administration were the bad guys, and certainly halfway through I was assured of it. I should add that this seems to be a trend in movies recently, that the administrations of the “good guys” are way too evil to be good – I saw this also in the Bourne Legacy (awful movie, don’t bother) and pretty much any of the Avengers-type movies that I have been able to stir myself to watching. It’s really hard to convince myself to appreciate the good guys when the people they’re working for are, well, dictators and war criminals.

The other aspect of the movie that bothered me – and that dovetails with this fascist administration – is the callous difference between the wealth of wizards and the poverty of muggles. The movie starts with the no-maj, Kowalsky, going to a bank to get a loan to open a bakery. He needs a loan because he has no money, but the bank won’t give him one because he lacks collateral, and they don’t have infinite resources so they don’t want to risk some of their finite stock of cash on this dude with no money. This is classic scarcity economy stuff: nobody has enough resources. The bank dude points out to Kowalsky that there are machines that can produce a hundred doughnuts a minute, and Kowalsky replies by pointing out that his doughnuts are better because they’re hand made. Then halfway through the movie, Queenie bakes him a strudel that is better than anything he can make – and she does it in a moment, without touching it. Then at the end some wizards wave their wands and repair shattered and crushed buildings across New York[1] in a matter of minutes. We are repeatedly told that the wizards can’t allow their secret world to be discovered by muggles because this would spark a war – and you can see why. These wizards are sitting on power so great that they can rebuild shattered city blocks in a moment, and they’re hiding this power from their fellow citizens in a society that took years to build a single skyscraper. At the end of the movie Scamander leaves Kowalsky a suitcase full of silver eggs from one of his monsters, as collateral for his bakery loan – Scamander’s rubbish is worth more than anything Kowalsky owns. Yet these wizards and their fascist society refuse to reveal themselves to the normal people struggling all around them, for fear of starting a war.

They’re not the best people, are they? They could lower the veil, reveal themselves, have access to the institutions of a society of 3 billion people, and the cost for them would be that they might have to donate an afternoon a week repairing inequality and solving world hunger – but they are desperate to hide themselves from this society. It’s a deeply cynical view of who these people are – but these people are the people we’re meant to be sympathizing with. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I can’t. The only wizard who has anything good to say about this is Grindelwald, who wants to reveal the existence of wizards and make them deal with the human world. I think he kind of has a point, though he probably advocates slavery or something.

I don’t know where Rowling is going with this new series of stories – based on the first movie, it appears she’s going somewhere fun, which will be spoiled only by the presence of Johnny Depp – but if she doesn’t fix this little issue I can see it becoming increasingly difficult to paper over as she explores the context and social structures of Harry Potter’s world. I’m not convinced she can – Harry Potter, remember, is fundamentally a story about a boy who is born rich and receives everything he needs for nothing while those born poor struggle to get half of his benefits, even though they’re way better at what they do and work way harder – and although she’s probably a good enough story teller to get around it, for me this huge and glaring problem at the heart of the Potter world is going to only grow bigger as we see more of it. Harry Potter was a movie about the triumph of inherited wealth, in a class-based society (of the haves – mages – and the have nots – muggles – in the classically classist setting of England and public schools) and this movie is a story about the 1% – people so rich they can ignore the law of conservation of energy, and so idle and feckless that they refuse to share this power with the rest of society in case they might have to do a day’s work putting their powers to the service of those beneath them. But I am expected to side with the 1% in these movies. I don’t think I can do it for long.

But I could for this movie, which was fun. So watch it, enjoy the chaos and the sadness, and try not to think about the huge inequality at the heart of this fun and extravagant world.

 


fn1: Why do American movies love destroying their own cities? Is it a deep psychological scar?

 

Today I saw Independence Day: Resurgence, because I wanted to watch something stupid with big explosions and I have forgotten enough of the original to make it feel like I was doing something novel. Of course it was fun – big things got blown up, there were tidal waves and monstrous destruction, heroic fighter pilots taking on the behemoth, etc. But it was also, pretty much from the start, a showcase for everything that is wrong with modern action movies. Except that it’s fun to watch shit blow up, this movie was a completely execrable effort.

It had the usual problems one learns to live with in modern action movies: speeches that are meant to be stirring end-of-the-world heroic efforts but are actually just kind of lame; random shifts in timing that mean that a 4 minute countdown to human extinction takes an hour, but a day-long trip to the moon happens at the speed of plot; American triumphalism that is so common and boring now that it might as well be part of the scenery; and military dialogue that is meant to be snappy and jocular but just comes across as wooden (everyone wants their soldiers to be like Aliens or Dog Soldiers but they just come across as macho try-hards). This movie struggled under the additional burden of occasionally being a bit top-gun like, and having a bunch of relationships between male leads that were way too closet-homosexual (a problem since Top Gun, I guess). I’m pretty sure that two scientists were meant to be gay (one gets killed of course because that’s the rule for same sex relationships) but I don’t want to impugn the actors – they may just have been terrible actors whose ineptitude came across as camp.

But one learns to live with this kind of thing. This movie was weighed down by bigger problems than these – the kind of problems that are too common in modern action movies, and really ruin them. Here are some of these problems, with spoilers (which I hardly think you need to care about – if you go into this movie thinking any of the non-gay heroes are going to die, or that the human race was ever under any real threat, you really do deserve a medal for your naivete).

The pointless alarms: I think there were at least three points in the movie where a major character has a breakthrough of some kind – usually, in this movie, because they have some deep connection to the alien mind – that enables them to realize that there is a big problem coming up, such as a major attack or a trap. Their discovery/revelation of this big issue is a major scene in the movie, and they rush to tell everyone, but in every instance they’re too late. Everyone finds out at exactly the point that the character reveals the issue, because the issue happens right then. There’s a whole subplot of this movie about how some humans were affected by contact with the alien hive-mind and they get insights into the alien’s plans from this contact, but every single time they rush into the control room to yell “it’s a trap!” or appear on the podium to say “they’re coming!” or whatever, it’s irrelevant – the trap springs a moment later, or the shadow of the spaceship is already overhead, or the top secret weapon is activated by someone else who has no connection with the aliens whatsoever. But of course none of our heroes (except the gay one) are allowed to die, so then we are treated to this ridiculous series of complications and implausible events that enable the heroes to escape the trap, or survive the sudden arrival of the alien spaceship, or whatever. The movie would be so much simpler and less irritating and more coherent if these realizations – and all the backstory necessary to support them – were stripped away; or, so much more tense and self-consistent if the warnings came in time to change the course of the story. Instead, since the story writers are complete idiots, the plot is constantly annoying you with this irrelevant backstory to justify urgent warnings that make no difference.

The bad guy’s plans are just dumb: All too often this kind of movie has a bad guy who could win everything by sticking to a simple plan that works, like flying a 3000 km long spaceship over the Atlantic Ocean, blowing up everything in your way, and then sucking all the molten metal out of the earth’s core. Instead, the bad guy does stupid shit that doesn’t make any sense, either from a practical planning point of view or within the framework of the particular form of implacable evil that the bad guy represents. Sometimes the problem is just that the bad guy’s overall plan for world domination is such obvious bullshit that it should be comedy, like when the Joker (or was it the Penguin?) planned to put hallucinogens in the Gotham City water supply and then rule the world (?!). In this movie though it’s the more common problem that the evil bad guy has a simple plan that doesn’t require any embellishment, and so the embellishments don’t make any sense; and then at the end the bad guy does something completely irrational that obviously is high-risk and doesn’t match the bad guy’s personality at all. In this case, having proven that the 3000km long spaceship can destroy every orbital defense in a second, control gravity sufficient to tear entire cities into the sky, and drill a hole to the earth’s core in a day, the bad guy has to lay some kind of trap to lure a few of earth’s bombers inside its 3000km long spaceship and then blow them up. Why? Why doesn’t it just wipe them all out in a millisecond and keep on about its business? And how does this trap in any way relate to its subsequent ability to destroy all the earth’s satellite communications? (The movie suggests that they are linked somehow). This is just incoherent. Of course then subsequently, having proven that it has a spaceship capable of destroying any opposition and protecting it from any harm, the evil bad guy decides to depart in a much smaller ship and attack the main human base, which is heavily defended, rather than just sending minions. Suddenly the bad guy goes from being an implacable insect mind of infinite evil and cruelty to a vengeful viking with no common sense. This kind of sudden change in behavior really obviously was just done to make the plot work, and when the writers betray the principles of the characters so that they can make a story, you just find yourself thinking they’re arseholes with no respect for their audience.

The pointless sacrifices that don’t matter: It’s apparently impossible to send a guided missile through a hole the size of a large crater in this super-technological future, so instead a bunch of brave dudes have to commit to a suicidal run to get that weapon in there, and then of course it doesn’t work anyway because the whole thing was a trap. This might make sense except that moments earlier we’ve been told that the air force will use drones to break down the 3000km long spaceship’s (previously impervious!) shields. I’m sorry, but if you want me to place some value on a person’s self-sacrifice, you actually have to give me a reason why they should kill themselves.

Being a dickhead idiot jock never has consequences: Apparently when you work on a top-secret high-value moon base that holds a weapon so powerful it can destroy massive alien spaceships, that is the prize of earth’s fleet, you can just steal a spaceship, go to earth, pick up a couple of guys you think you might need (who incidentally never told you where they were) then return to the moon and be given no punishment. You can also nearly destroy that weapon by your own stupidity, then do something really reckless to stop it being destroyed, and be grounded for a day. Even though it’s your third offense, and your first offense involved destroying an experimental jet and nearly getting your buddy killed. Here’s the thing, idiot hollywood writers: jocks aren’t cool. They’re bullies and dickheads. You don’t make them cooler by making their bullying, reckless, stupid behavior consequence-free. When you do that you just make most of the audience like them less, and wonder why they’re cheering these people on.

The cataclysms that don’t: This 3000km long spaceship settled over the Atlantic and created a tidal wave so great that it washed away Florida, and hurled cargo ships around like matchsticks; but a tiny salvage ship full of dodgy dudes out in the middle of the Atlantic, a mere kilometre away from the source of the ship’s death ray, was completely untouched and not even rocked by a wave. In case you’re thinking “oh but that was just the eye of the hurricane, right?” the writers are sure to make it clear that this is the only ship left in the area. Similarly we see these ordered refugee columns fleeing the destruction and leaving a lane of the road open for people to pass them by, and we see a rain of destruction in which one city is dropped on another city but our heroes’ valiant spaceship is completely undamaged by being in the middle of it all. This kind of thing is really annoying because it tells you immediately that all the death and destruction you’re going to see is not a threat to your heroes – they’re immune to everything and anything, and the story will make this clear repeatedly, so that by the end you’re bored of the supposed “challenges” they get caught in. Why should I invest any energy into supporting the struggle of a bunch of dudes who I know are going to make it out no matter what, because they’re jocks?

Once, just once, I would like to see one of these movies go through all these stupid errors and then in the last 20 minutes wipe out the earth and kill all the heroes because they’re reckless fools. That, of course, is never going to happen. So instead I have to sit through these movies full of shlock in order to see a few things blown up. I guess if writing these kinds of stories were difficult this might be okay, but I’m a GM and I know how to make a simple plot that involves lots of violence for a good purpose; plus I’ve seen movies like Die Hard, Aliens, Starship Troopers and Dog Soldiers which are able to make a simple story hang together in a believable way, even though every aspect of every one of those movies is completely unrealistic.

This shit is really not difficult to get right. Why is it so hard for modern Hollywood blockbusters to make a decent action movie?

Be sure to return your books before the due date ...

Be sure to return your books before the due date …

I’m in grim London for a week, doing some work at Imperial College while the looming skies glower down on me. One great thing about flying ANA to London is you get to see Japanese-language movies with English subtitles, something that’s almost impossible if you live in Japan. Since my Japanese is not yet good enough to properly understand TV (except, strangely, Darwin ga kita), I like to take this opportunity to enjoy a movie I wouldn’t otherwise understand. This time around I stumbled on Library Wars: The Final Mission, a hilarious movie about librarians at war with the state that ultimately made no sense and was vaguely unsatisfactory.

The basic premise of Library Wars is that the government has set out to censor all published work through the Media Betterment Act, but after a violent battle in which 17 people died the Librarian association declared themselves implacably opposed to censorship and established a Library Defense Force that responds violently to attempts to censor books. Naturally in the ensuing years things have escalated, and now there is this kind of hyper-violent kabuki drama in which the Media Betterment Committee turn up to a library and declare that they will inspect it; then the Library Defense Force refuse on the grounds of the Libraries Freedom Act Clause 33; then the Media Betterment Committee tells them they will attack the library for a period of one hour; then they shoot each other for an hour; then everyone goes home[1].

How this makes any sense to anyone is a complete mystery to me, but that’s the background. The movie follows a junior member of the Library Defense Force (LDF), a girl called Kasahara san who is (secretly) in love with her instructor, Dojo san, and is also a klutz and a ditz in a very charming way. She is based in the main base of the LDF, at Musashino (which is near my home), along with Dojo and random other characters. They are charged with escorting the original copy of the librarian association’s statement of principles to an exhibition on freedom at Ibaraki prefectural museum, where they will guard the book at any cost. As they prepare for this mission we see that the older brother of one of the LDF members, Tezuka san, is involved in a cunning scheme in conjunction with the Ministries of Education and Justice to destroy the LDF and end librarians’ independence.

The first half of the movie sees this scheme played out, largely pointlessly, and involving Kasahara san in a random kind of weird plot. Then the second half is an extended battle between the LDF and the Media Betterment Committee soldiers at the Ibaraki Prefectural library. This extended battle is a bit boring since it largely involves lines of soldiers with shields shooting at each other but it’s also hilarious because it takes place in a massive library, so there’s lots of shooting of books and stuff. Also Dojo and Kasahara san end up behind enemy lines so there’s a bit of skullduggery and hand-to-hand violence. There is a surprising amount of brutal slaughter by the end of it, certainly sufficient to convince me that being a librarian is a tough job. To me the ending of the whole thing didn’t make any sense, but then I didn’t really expect it to because how can a story involving a war between librarians and the government have any resolution that makes any sense? It’s madness.

The movie has several good points: the acting is good, Kasahara’s character is really cool (though why she likes grim arsehole Dojo is a mystery to me) and the scheming older brother Tezuka is a good evil dude. Some of the battle scenes are entertaining for either their stupidity or their brutality. But overall the movie suffers from a completely incomprehensible justification, an increasing chain of implausibilities that inevitably get built on top of this background, and a few sections that are emotionally overwrought but probably make sense if you’re into the valour and self-sacrifice aspects of war movies (I’m not; I just keep thinking to myself “this shit is not worth dying for”). Also, the link between the plot to undermine the LDF in the first half and the big battle in the second half is tenuous and not really even attempted, so it’s like a movie with two unrelated stories squished together for no apparent reason.

Like almost every Japanese sci-fi I have ever seen that is set in Japan, the movie also suffers from the tired “Agency A is in conflict with Agency B and they’ll kill anyone to win” basic narrative hook. You see this all the time going as far back as Ghost in the Shell, and I think it’s really boring and often incomprehensible (later Ghost in the Shell instalments have so many mysterious and poorly-explained organizations competing with each other that I just can’t be bothered). I see this plotline, along with the inevitable sacrificial near-total destruction of the good guys that happens in so many Japanese sci-fi movies, as an unresolved trauma from World War 2, where the Japanese defeat was at least partly due to conflict between Army and Navy and the war probably wouldn’t even have started if the idiots in the army had been willing to work with their own government instead of trying to overtake it. I also find this plotline annoying, boring and often incomprehensible, so I’d like to see it just dumped and some other kind of idea take its place. Of course that’s not going to happen for a Library Wars movie, since the Librarians Militant need someone to fight against and it wouldn’t be cool if they were murdering people who return late books (although a spin-off assassin movie on this theme could be fun I suppose). I probably should have thought of this before I turned on the movie, but it was fun fluff for a 12 hour plane trip.

In summary, I don’t think it’s a great movie but some of the characters are nice, it’s smoothly done, and if you want a fun two hours that you don’t have to think about too much that involves a lot of killing and shooting, I can recommend it.

Also return your books on time, or Kasahara san will break your arms.

fn1: More background can be found in the description of the novels on which this movie is based.

[This review contains SPOILERS so please don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film].

I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Sunday, and really enjoyed the spectacle and the homecoming feeling of it, but reflecting on some of the things that niggled at me during the movie, I have decided now that it wasn’t a very good or indeed necessary addition to the series. There were many things to like about it: the first battle of the TIE fighters with the millenium falcon, much of what Kylo Ren does and his velvety Sithlord style, the spectacle of the space battles and the pace were all great. I must confess to nearly shedding a tear when Han Solo and Chewbacca emerged, and I thought it nicely reproduced the riotous colour and fantastical nature of the original series without overdoing CGI or grotesqueness. I thought all the main characters were great, really enjoyed Han and Leia’s gentle brokenness, and appreciated BB-8. I also appreciated the modernization and diversification of the cast, with a lot more women in positions of power and influence and a wider range of non-human races in the Republican forces, and I thought a lot of the dialogue hewed closer to the original spirit, without the heavy doom-laden pretentiousness (and humourless weakness) of the prequels.

In short, on a superficial level it was a great Star Wars movie and it seems to have earned great reviews (and a metric crapton of money) from a wide range of sources on that basis. But on reflection, there were a couple of major flaws with the movie that left me disappointed. Here I will present my main three criticisms of the movie, summarize a few more minor complaints with the content, and give my final feelings about this new series of three movies.

There was no narrative purpose.

Why was I in the cinema watching this thing? The prequels had an obvious purpose, which was to tell the story of the rise of the Empire and overthrow of the Republic, track Vader’s fall from grace and the destruction of the Jedi, etc. In a narrative sense it was necessary, though obviously once we had watched these crawling abominations we all agreed that from an artistic perspective these movies were not only a disaster, but risked wrecking the legacy of the originals. So in this new set of movies, we need a reason to be watching. But what is that reason? At the end of Return of the Jedi we are led to believe the Empire is broken, peace has been won, and the order restored, but at the beginning of this movie there is some sinister new evil force afoot that isn’t just a remnant of the old Empire – it is much more powerful. Our escaping stormtrooper makes it out to be some kind of panopticon in its powers, and it seems to be able to build a death star that dwarfs even the supposedly unprecedented engineering feat of the last one. It appears that in a short space of time everything that happened in the original movies has been not just undone but seriously stomped all over, and yet still this time there is a Republic (not a Rebellion) and the war is ongoing. We are given no reason to understand how this happened, or why we should be throwing in our lot again with the same crew of people who somehow allowed this to happen. Implicit in this collapse of the Republican peace is a big question – will this galactic war ever end? When we joined the original crew in A New Hope we did so on the assumption that somehow they would prevail, as good always does in these kinds of movies, and there would be an ending. But now that victory is not just under threat, it has been comprehensively undone. So why should we suffer through all this stuff again – just to see it fail again? What are we doing here …?

It feels like a family story

I hate the way the prequels decided to keep everything in the family, and even though they preceded the original movies they still managed to find ways to include people connected to those original movies – C3PO, Boba Fett’s dad for Christ’s sake – rather than finding a new cast and drawing them together into the story of Vader’s downfall and the rise of the Empire. It’s even worse in this new movie – we get the entire original cast back, Kylo Ren is Han Solo and Leia’s son, and the entire movie is structured around the quest for Luke Skywalker (who I bet turns out to be Rey’s dad). Also, Kylo Ren is a Vader fanboy, even though he is not related to him, which undermines his character by making him into some kind of pimply evil boy wannabe rather than a serious threat, but also reminds us that nobody in this story can be independent of the originals. Couldn’t we have an evil guy who didn’t give a toss about Vader, and who was not related to the original cast, so that those cast members could just do a cameo to anchor us to the previous stories before we go off on our new journey? There are stars without number in this galaxy, and more humans than grains of sand on Dune, yet somehow the same four people really count for the entire future of the galaxy? This risks turning the whole thing into a sitcom or soap opera, rather than a galaxy-spanning epic.

It copied too much from the original

Sometimes it’s a good idea to copy the plot for a sequel from the previous movie. The best example of this is Terminator 2, which is an excellent movie that basically precisely follows the plot of the original movie, with The T-800 in the role of Kyle Rees. Even attacks on police stations and overturning trucks occur in the exact same sequence – you’re watching the same movie, but loving its freshness and brilliance anyway. But this doesn’t work in The Force Awakens, somehow. It has a lot of similar scenes and the key details are the same. For example: A droid lost on a desert planet brings a plea for help to a young dreamer desperate to escape; they escape from the desert world in the Millenium Falcon, chased past star destroyers by TIE fighters; everyone is looking for a lost, old Jedi who is hiding from responsibility in shame at his failed pupil; Han Solo and his young supplicants make their plans in a pan-galactic bar; there is an attack on a death star, including x-wings flying down a tunnel to put precision ordnance on a weak spot; a major planet is destroyed by that star destroyer simply to send a message; while the young idealist looks on, her elderly hero is killed in a sacrificial scene by an evil sith lord. The only thing JJ Abrams really did was change the faces, and move the elements around a bit. But while the power of the scenes copied for Terminator 2 was in their visual impact and style, the power of many of these scenes in A New Hope is in their emotional impact and freshness. We don’t get that same impact the second time round, because they aren’t fresh anymore. Sure Solo’s death is pretty shocking, and the lead up is visually cool, but the rest of these moments don’t hold the same power the second time.

How this is all going to go wrong…

None of these aspects of the movie would be a problem in isolation – they might even be good points – but in total they give the impression of a movie that has been made more so that we can wallow in the past glories of the original series, rather than that we can carry that series forward. It’s a homage to the joys of the original more than anything new, and worryingly it is in its newest elements that it is weakest. Of course I’m happy to see a well-constructed homage to the original series, but there were many aspects of this new movie that weren’t well done. For example, in the original Millenium Falcon traveling at light speed takes time – long enough for a game of chess and a bit of Jedi training – but in this movie people zip about the galaxy as if they were popping out to the shops; in the original Vader was an indestructible, intense and unstoppable force for evil who cut his own son’s hand off, but in this one Ren can be taken on by some random stormtrooper who picked up a sword. In the original the Empire can make a death star that is capable of destroying planets but is vulnerable to a carefully-placed proton torpedo; in this one the death star is the size of a planet and actually channels the raw power of suns, but is just as vulnerable as the original; in the original the Millenium Falcon is picked up by a Star Destroyer because it was on its way to Alderaan, but in this one it is nabbed by Han Solo’s freighter because even though it had been lost for 10 years he got an alarm as soon as the engine turned on and was able to instantly get to the right place at the right time to find it. We overlook these weak points because they’re being blasted at us at a million miles an hour by JJ Abrams’ tight-paced directing, but there are a whole series of major flaws in the story that bode ill for the future of this series. In combination with the nostalgic turn through memory lane and the dependence on scenes and tropes from the original, it makes me think that this movie is more a series of set-pieces tied together by a weak plot than a legendary adventure. If so, once Abrams’s homage shtick starts to wear thin, I fear things will unravel badly. Remember, this is the JJ Abrams who made the absolutely terrible Star Trek reboot with the flamingly bad time travel story; if you doubt that his directing is weak, you can check out the long list of problems with the new Star Wars movie here. This doesn’t bode well for the next two movies.

My hope is that for the next two movies we will follow a dark and bitter story in which Skywalker’s anger at Solo’s death leads him on a path of ruin into the dark side and out again, perhaps redeeming himself and uniting dark and light side at the end. I don’t think that’s going to happen, though: I think JJ Abrams is going to come unstuck once he runs out of nostalgia to back him up, and is going to make two increasingly woeful and hole-filled movies that betray the original three movies just as surely as the prequels did. Of course I’ll watch them anyway (or at least, the next one); but I wonder if perhaps it might have been better to take this series out the back and put it down long before now.

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