Movies


Best not annoy the PLA!

Wolf Warrior 2 is an entertaining Chinese action movie set in Africa. It is the story of Leng Feng, a former special forces soldier in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army who lost his job after killing a corrupt gangster in China (in front of about 10,000 cops, natch), and ends up working in Africa, possibly as a mercenary and bodyguard. Things go wrong for him though when some random bunch of western mercenaries team up with local rebels to try and overthrow the government of the unnamed country where Feng is working. These guys are bad news, too – they don’t have any scruples at all, and are happy to do things like fire rocket propelled grenades into buses full of civilians, and destroy a Doctors Without Borders hospital after executing all its staff. As the rebellion grows in force all the international militaries leave the region, leaving just a couple of Chinese navy ships offshore – but they are unable to interfere because they are not allowed to intervene without UN authorization. China, good global citizens!

This is disaster for a small bunch of Chinese workers left inland, cut off and surrounded by bloodthirsty rebels and their nasty western backers. Fortunately Feng is there, so he grabs a truck and heads inland to save the day. He is accompanied by an American nurse who speaks perfect Chinese (and who knows the Americans will save her because she “tweeted at them on Twitter” haha), a retired Chinese soldier, and a spoiled Chinese boy who comes good at the end. Saving the Chinese workers means a long series of brutal battles with the African rebels and their western paymasters, which includes a pretty cool tank battle and a lot of slaughter of innocents (by the thoroughly reprehensible bad guys).

This is actually an excellent movie. It got a 70% critics review on rotten tomatoes, and an 80% audience review, and it deserves the 70%. The action scenes are well executed, the cinematography is good, the scenery and sets are great, and it has some big set pieces and novel ideas that take the action genre forward a step, to the extent that such a narrow and limited genre can progress at all. It also has a reasonably good sense of humour, decent dialogue and okay acting, which is actually more than one can expect from all but the best action movies. The plot makes sense, though some parts of it are thrown in without much explanation or build up so that they seem more like devices to make the violence hang together rather than a fully developed story. It doesn’t mess around with nuance – Feng isn’t an anti-hero or a conflicted reluctant hero – but in my opinion this is a good thing in action adventure movies. Those grim and conflicted action heroes are just embarrassing, generally – simple, straightforward heroes who do what they have to do and do it well are what we want, and Feng definitely does what he has to do very well. Like most modern action movies it’s too long, and could probably stand to lose a few scenes and be about 20% shorter, but I’m starting to accept that short movies are a thing of the past – 2 hour bloat is just normal in modern cinema.

So overall it’s a fun romp through Africa with a driven and determined Chinese dude on a kind of revenge kick (he has a refrigerated ex who is somehow connected to these mercenaries, presumably from the first movie that I never saw). It’s also interesting because it obviously shows a clear sense of how the Chinese government and leadership want their country’s position on Africa and overseas military intervention to be depicted, and overall it’s a fairly positive story. Unlike the Rambos of American cinema, the Chinese military strictly won’t interfere without UN authorization, and unlike a lot of western heroes Feng didn’t blow in with the latest military adventure to sort out some trouble – he lives in Africa and is doing a good job there minding his own business until African trouble sweeps over his home. When we visit the Chinese factory whose workers he is rescuing, we discover that many of the Chinese workers have African wives and family, and when the Chinese factory leader tries to make the Africans stay behind to be murdered while the Chinese flee, we are clearly meant to understand that this is a terrible thing to do – and Feng steps in to make sure everyone can be helped. The movie has more of a sense of Chinese people embedded in Africa, engaged with it and part of its troubles, rather than swinging in to do a bit of wetwork and swing out again. This is very much in keeping with China’s vision of itself as a neutral mercantile nation with a strict non-interference policy, and it certainly is nice to see a movie where the action hero has to go off alone to do his work because the military that backs him up refuses to do anything illegal – a very different kind of situation to Rambo. This isn’t to say that the movie is free of militaristic propaganda, because in fact it’s up to its neck in pro-PLA propaganda, but the slant of that propaganda is very different to American action movies. There are more action movies coming out of Mainland China, and this story of China as a responsible global citizen is also in the upcoming Operation Red Sea. Chinese militarist action movies are a new thing to me, and it’s interesting to watch them and see how they present China and Chinese strategic interests to the world, and what kind of vision of themselves the Chinese are projecting to the world. And it’s certainly different to the American vision!

So if you want to see a good action movie, I strongly recommend Wolf Warrior 2. You’ll find it doubly enjoyable if, like me, you’re interested in how these kinds of movies reflect and project the culture that made them, and like to try and see the national story that the action is trying to tell. You an also enjoy it as guilt free militarist action, since it’s not set in anything that resembles a real geo-political situation, and every bad guy who gets killed in this movie thoroughly deserves to die. Guilt-free, entertaining militarist action with a fresh worldview – what’s not to like? So if you’re into explosions and insane solo bad-arsed action hero madness, get out and see it!

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The internet is all abuzz at the moment with the proud news that a men’s rights activist (MRA) has produced a woman-free version of Star Wars’ The Last Jedi, based on a low-fi cam recording from a cinema somewhere in Asia. The stated reason is to (amongst other things) cut out all the scenes which involve women “commanding people around/having ideas” and to get rid of the “girlz powah and other silly stuff”.  This dude’s problems with The Last Jedi seem to be the same as some of the douchier commenters on my (much-read!) review of The Last Jedi, which primarily seem to be that “diversity ruined the movie” and “there were too many women in charge.” These complaints are always associated with some kind of whine about how this insistence on diversity has ruined the original series. For example a random reviewer at Rotten Tomatoes says:

With the clear intention of moving away from the Lucas Legacy, this Director has consumated the machiavellian Disney’s plan of turning SW saga in one size fits all current tendencies: ultra-feminism, anti male, ultra-diversification, pro-millennial ranks…

Suggesting, very strongly, that the original movie did not have a political stance or pro-diversity ideal, and that to do so must ruin the original movie. There’s also no evidence that the bigger plot and consistency problems identified by so many commenters on my blog are of great interest to these MRAs – they don’t complain about the acting, only the fact that the actor is a woman, and (for example) the execrable hyperspace weapon is still in the MRA cut. So it certainly appears that their sole and only concern is that the movie features a) too many non-white male actors and b) too many chicks in charge.

Which gets me wondering – exactly what version of the original series did these dudes see, and what exactly did they like about it? For example, A New Hope has a core cast of five people – Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi, Princess Leia and Darth Vader. Of those one is a woman who is introduced as a leader in the rebellion, and another is black and a leader of the Empire. Now, you might dispute that Darth Vader is actually black since in the middle of The Empire Strikes Back we see a brief shot of his white head (as we do at the end of the Return of the Jedi), but when you and I went to see A New Hope as callow youths in 1978 or whenever it was, having not yet seen The Empire Strikes Back, we watched a character dressed entirely in black, with a black face mask, voiced by a black man, and we loved him. How is this character not black at the time we saw the movies? We might have imagined he was white under the mask but in doing so we were explicitly disavowing everything the movie itself was telling us. To all intents and purposes Darth Vader was black. But even putting aside that little note of controversy, we still have 20% of the cast being a woman, and she’s in charge – when Luke is going down the death star canyon to stick a photon torpedo up Vader’s arse, he is being directed by Leia from the command center of the rebel base, because she’s in charge. The same rule applies in The Empire Strikes Back, where our cast is further diversified by the inclusion of Lando Calrissian, and in Return of the Jedi we are introduced to Mon Mothma, a middle-aged woman with short hair who is the leader of the rebel alliance (and there are female fighter pilots in the briefing room, to boot).

Then of course there is the small issue that C3PO is super camp, and would be interpreted as a gay stereotype if he weren’t a robot. I’ll forgive MRAs for missing this, since they’re mostly NFL fans which probably means they think high camp is super macho, and misinterpreted C3PO as a football player or something. Also in the original movie we are meant to identify most with Skywalker, which means we’re meant to want to fuck Leia as he does, but in Empire he gets friend-zoned, which is a move that MRAs hate more than almost anything else on earth.

So what about the original movies gets a pass? They’re just as diverse as the Last Jedi, with just as many women in charge, and the key heroes in both sequences are firmly under the control of the chicks: under Leia’s command (Wookiepedia lists her as the leader of the battle of Yavin, for example) and then Mon Mothma’s, while in the Last Jedi they’re under Leia’s command and then Holdo’s. The hero is generally and universally admitted to be a snivelling idiot in the first movie, outshone by Han Solo – who, we are regularly reminded, is a rake and a criminal – and in the subsequent movies he gets friend-zoned and becomes your classic beta cuck, doing all the serious hard work while the rakish fuckboi runs off with the girl we’re all supposed to want.

What exactly in the legacy of the original movies does the Last Jedi betray by having a woman in charge or a black dude in a key role, and how does its pursuit of diversity make it different from the originals in any way?

This matters to me for two reasons: 1) that MRAs suck and I hate that I might be on the same side of them in any debate, regardless of whether our reasons are 100% different; and 2) it’s affecting critical reaction to the backlash against the movie. While 1) might be just a petty personal foible, I think 2) is important. The critics were all wrong about this movie, which was shit, but it wasn’t shit for the reasons that the stupid MRA idiots are ranting about. But the very public, sexist and gross response of MRA manbabies to this movie means that the critics who were so terribly wrong about it can dismiss the backlash against their terrible performance as the disaffected whining of a bunch of MRAs, rather than a genuine critical disagreement. Consider this response to the MRA cut from the website Junkee, which usually does quite entertaining discussion of internet phenomena, in which they say that

a vocal minority of manbabies detested it, mostly because it’s full of women.

A great example of this is the targeted attack on the film’s rating on the review site Rotten Tomatoes, which led to a 40% discrepancy between the critic and audience reviews, and which was later claimed by the “alt-right” as a manufactured backlash

This makes it seem like the continuing decline in the movie’s ratings on Rotten Tomatoes[1], and all the critical backlash against it, are driven by a small number of MRAs, and manages to escape any kind of serious discussion of what was wrong with this movie. This kind of thing was also visible in other responses (e.g. Vox’s) which dismissed it as due to a sense of entitlement among fans, or grown men being uncomfortable with the diversity of the movie. Given that the movie is no more diverse than the originals, and given that there are serious major problems with the rest of the movie (the casting being the least of them, I would have thought), this means that the critics avoid responsibility by pinning the whole thing on MRAs, and Rian Johnson – and the Disney crew generally – can avoid putting any thought into what they’ve done wrong, and what they need to do right to fix their mistakes in episode 9. Given the response of critics and the director himself to criticisms of the movie, I think we can rest assured there’s no point in expecting episode 9 to be anything less than a shithole. And to the extent that this is because the whining and posturing of MRAs created a false narrative of increased diversity, and saturated debate with their stupid whining about chicks in charge rather than genuine complaints about this woeful movie, then I’m comfortable with blaming MRAs for the death of star wars.

Get back in your basements, you grommits. But before you go I have two questions I’d like you to answer in comments here: 1) how on earth did you ever enjoy the originals when there was a woman in charge and 2) how do you enjoy science fiction at all given that movies like Terminator, Aliens, Mad Max, Ghost in the Shell etc. are full of strong female characters, often in positions of authority? Why do you bother going to science fiction movies at all? Also 2a), how do you watch porn?

Answers in the comments, please! And try not to use pointless MRA jargon like SJW, blue pill, or cuck!


fn1: it’s down to 49% now, from 56% at the time I wrote my review. Well done Rian Johnson!

Not what you remember

There’s a moment in Netflix’s The Mist that I think summarizes the rot at the core of modern American TV and cinema. The main characters are Eve and Kevin Copeland, a preposterously young couple with a teenage child, who seem like a nice enough couple though they are struggling with the conflict between Eve and her daughter. At one point near the beginning of the series Kevin’s brother visits them, and we discover something about Eve. It turns out Eve used to be a slut – the town bike, as it were – and Kevin’s rough older brother was a member of the group that she used to hang with. Nothing is made clear, but it is implied pretty strongly that she has slept with Kevin’s older brother. After the brother leaves Eve is unsettled, and so when Eve and Kevin are having sex she demands that he fucks her as roughly as he can. This is funny because the sex they’re having before then is super gentle, and his “hard” fucking is pretty average, but we’re meant to believe that he’s being super rough. Anyway when it’s done there is an air of dissatisfaction, and he asks her “what was that about”, and she does that stupid thing that girls in American movies do where she’s obviously upset about something but pretends everything’s okay.

The upshot of this scene is very clear: that women who sleep around a lot are bad people with problems; that these problems never really go away; that women who like being fucked hard must be sluts with problems; and that to want to be fucked hard is bad.

The executive producer of The Mist was Harvey Weinstein. It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that a TV show produced by a serial rapist and sexual harasser would have a scene that carefully boils down every misogynist idea about women who enjoy sexual freedom into a mess of accusations, but some people seem to be surprised that the kind of movie world that could produce this scene would be occupied by people like Harvey Weinstein. At the time that his predations became public knowledge and the #metoo movement started there was a general upsurge of shock at both the banality of predatory behavior in Hollywood, and the extent to which that predatory behavior was enabled and supported by so many people. For people on the right this manifested as a kind of jaded relief, a sense of “oh look these liberal Hollywood types don’t believe in any of this equality stuff, it’s just a pose they adopt to appear cool to each other.” For the rest of us, and especially for mainstream media critics, there was an atmosphere of surprise at how “liberal” Hollywood was actually a nasty network of sexual predators and bullies, its supposedly famous values of liberal tolerance and equality betrayed by its own members.

I wasn’t surprised by any of this, because I’ve never seen Hollywood as “Liberal”, and I’ve always thought a lot of its politics was pretty dire, most especially its sexual politics.

We see the same thing in the reactions to fan disappointment over the Last Jedi. I have read many articles now in Vox, the Guardian and the Washington Post about how this reaction is partly due to fanboys being disappointed in the “diversity” on display in the movie (i.e. there are two female leaders and a couple of non-white characters), and the idea that this focus on diversity distracted from the production values of the movie (or something – I can’t quite figure out how these points are supposed to link together). This has been a controversy since The Force Awakens and Rogue One, both of which featured strong female leads, and we also saw it with the Ghostbusters remake and the latest Mad Max. I think these debates, rather than being a sign of how “liberal” Hollywood is, are really a sign of how incredibly conservative it is and has been. Consider movies and tv shows like Ghost in the Shell, Gunnm, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Appleseed, Bubblegum Crisis, and pretty much any early work from Studio Ghibli. These are all movies from the 1980s and 1990s in Japan, and female leads were a routine part of that world. Nobody questioned whether Major Kusanagi, Alita, Nausicaa or Deunan had a right to be where they were, and nobody thought diversity killed those movies – female leads in Japanese sci fi and fantasy are a pretty standard part of the picture (and this isn’t limited to anime – consider Library Wars, the recent excellent live action Gintama, or Attack on Titan as examples of live action movies with important female characters in main parts). But in America in 2017 the decision to cast a single woman in a lead role, or to have a team of women doing a job, is controversial and a sign of political correctness gone mad. If Hollywood is being castigated for finally doing something Japan was doing in the 1980s, I think we can say it’s not very forward thinking.

Hollywood’s diversity problem is not the only example of its persistent inability to be anything except thoroughly reactionary. Here are some others.

  • The lesbian always dies: It’s pretty reliable that if there is a lesbian character in a major movie or drama, she’s either a fucked up person or she dies, or both. Usually she’s in a couple and the other one survives to suffer the grief, but one has to die. This fate also often befalls the fat chick, or the gay dude (it will probably not come as a surprise that the “gay” dude in the Mist is a psychopath, or that I guessed this in the first episode simply because of his implied sexuality)
  • Black dudes are always a stereotype: The dragon in Mulan, the black dude who briefly surfaced in Angel, almost every character Eddie Murphy has ever played … they’re almost always a stereotype, either a gangster or a magical negro. Despite the fact that a sizable proportion of American people are black, and they have been clamouring for better representation forever, it is impossible for an American movie maker to portray one in a sensitive way, except perhaps in a character piece about slavery or oppression
  • Sluts are always bad: If you are a woman who has lots of sex for fun, you are either psychopathic or severely emotionally damaged. Eventually you’ll grow out of it but you’ll never forget it
  • The goth secretly wants to be normal: See for example the horrible betrayal at the end of The Breakfast Club, which is a model for how alternative sub-cultures are treated in Hollywood
  • All women come by being fucked: And it would be completely impossible to show a woman getting licked. True love means that two people can come together and instantly have perfect sex just by fucking, and no man wants to lick a woman, and no woman cares to be; though women love to suck dick, usually on their knees. This is particularly infuriating because there’s a whole branch of American feminist criticism of porn that says it’s an unrealistic depiction of sex, but at least in porn the women actually get licked and the men actually enjoy doing it! It’s also really frustrating in Sex and the City, which is supposed to be about how the main female characters are completely empowered, but every sex scene I saw in the one episode I watched was them selflessly sucking cock
  • America’s latest geopolitical concern is your enemy: Something really jarring in Blade Runner 2049 was the casual insertion of Russian into everyday scenes. There was no Russian in the original, and no hint that Russia was relevant. Why? Because now Russia is a big geopolitical issue for America. It’s not only pathetically insecure, and it doesn’t just make every movie dated, but it also shows really obviously that Hollywood serves primarily to manufacture propaganda for the US as a whole, not to tell interesting independent stories. You can see this in so many action movies, that the enemy du jour is simply whoever happens to be in the American political consciousness at the time. Pathetic.
  • They cannot cover Global Warming: In Blade Runner 2049 it was snowing in Los Angeles. How can it be snowing in California in 2049? We know that is not going to happen! In almost every movie set in the near future in America, global warming is not depicted – it doesn’t form the theme of the movie but it doesn’t figure in the backdrop either. Florida is unchanging despite global warming, and if the weather enters into it it will be weird but it won’t be warmer. This wasn’t always the case – Soylent Green is set in a warmer world – but it is now. Hollywood will not touch the political realities of the future or of America now, only the fantasies Americans have about themselves. America produces a bunch of disaster movies every year, and none of them ever cover anything caused by global warming. Of course global warming is politically controversial in America (and only in America) – so Hollywood simply won’t touch it.
  • Guns are wonderful: Every American movie with even a hint of action has a gun fetish. There is a very simple truism of previews at movies in Japan: If it’s a live action Japanese movie, someone in the preview cries; if it’s a live action American movie that isn’t a rom-com or a human drama, everyone pulls a gun. This wasn’t always the case – watch old episodes of Knight Rider (haha) or CHIPS (hahaha) and you won’t see anyone – even the cops! – wield a gun. But now guns are fetishized. Top tip for people considering whether this is good or bad: guns are not cool, and you can enjoy action without them. See e.g. anything made in the UK, and Jackie Chan.
  • Violence against women is casual, brutal, and full frontal: There are so many crime movies on American TV, and in so many of them women get treated horribly. There is even a very long-running show about a team of cops that only deal with sex crimes (featuring Ice T as a cop, haha show us your principles Ice T!). And in recent movies especially killing women in horrible ways that are shown fully for our viewing pleasure is a real thing. If you look back at the original Blade Runner, for example, the sex scene between Deckard and Rachel is very very rapey, and it really didn’t have to be. This kind of thing is a feature of Hollywood movies
  • The criminal is often a woman: In a lot of the crime shows the murderer often turns out to be a woman, which is likely way above the actual probability that a murderer would be a woman (they’re almost always men). I think this happens because the directors want a twist, and the obvious twist in a crime show is that the killer wasn’t the dude you thought he was. But it’s interesting that when violence against women is too excessive the film makers will argue they’re being honest; but when they could be honest about how almost all murderers and sex criminals are men, they suddenly plead fantasy. It’s as if every single aspect of the film making process is set up to make women look bad!
  • Workplace sexual harassment: This is especially common (though not limited to) TV shows, where women in the workplace routinely get subjected to comments about their gender and their sexuality, jokes about dating co-workers, and suggestive comments about what they should be doing. The really disturbing thing about this is that the jokes are not presented as transgressive, or risque – they’re just facts of the workplace. Is this what it’s like to work as a woman in America? Or is Hollywood just trying to remind women they shouldn’t really be there?
  • Everyone’s home is perfect: Even people on minimum wage have perfect houses. While you, you peon, live in shit. Do you feel like a loser now?
  • Whitewashing: Do I even need to say anything on this topic?

This isn’t even the whole of it. But when you put all of these things together what you are really seeing when you watch material from Hollywood is often an intense barrage of reactionary ideas, combined with a wilful resistance to some of the core challenges facing modern society, and a stubborn refusal to look at the ways that the world has changed. For example, Hollywood in general absolutely will not allow any ideas from pornography into its sex scenes. Sex scenes in major movies in Hollywood have not changed since Sarah Connor and Kyle Rees came together in sudden intense love in Terminator (though that scene was way more consensual than some others I guess). Thirty years later and still it is simply impossible for Hollywood to update its love scenes. We all know that everyone’s watching porn, but nobody in Hollywood will admit to the fact that sex is about more than dicks in cunts. This is just one example of the many ways in which this image factory is still stuck in the 1850s.

We in the rest of the world put up with this, and of course we watch our own cinema which has its own problems and its own reactionary issues, its own humour and its own misogyny, so it’s not like anyone is perfect. But the difference is that nobody in Australia wastes time claiming Australia’s movie scene is relentlessly liberal, then feigns shock when it turns out that the dudes making all these rapey creepy shows were actually sexual harassers. It’s a uniquely American problem that everyone thinks Hollywood is liberal, when it’s really really not.

So don’t be surprised when the people who make this destructive shit turn out to be destructive shits; and don’t buy into all this hype about representation and diversity. Hollywood is not your liberal friend, and because Hollywood is not liberal and not feminist and not interested in equality at all, it has attracted power hungry shits like the Weinsteins. That doesn’t mean we have to credit this industry with being a force for good, even as we pay to watch what it produces. It produces images of America for America, and I really hope America is not as conservative and reactionary as the images it produces, but one thing you can be certain of is that those images are not intended to support any radical ideals – quite the opposite.

Hollywood is not your liberal friend.

Two days ago I wrote a scathing review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and since then I have been digging around for others’ views on the matter. The Guardian has an article giving some fans’ reviews, and the below the line comments are suitably critical of this awful movie. Meanwhile Vox has a pathetic, self-serving article by a film critic attempting to explain why so many people have such different views to the critics. This article includes such great insights as “critics don’t really care about plot” which is dismissed as a “nitty gritty detail” of a movie – they’re more interested in themes and emotional struggles, apparently, which suggests they’d be more at home at a My Chemical Romance gig than a decent movie. How did they get the job?

In amongst the complaints on the Guardian‘s article, and at the centre of the Vox piece, is a particularly vicious little dismissive claim: That a lot of the negative reaction to the movie arises from long term fans[1], who cannot handle what Rian Johnson did with their cherished childhood movie, and are unrepresentative of the broader movie-going public. In the more vernacular form of some of the BTL comments on the Guardian article, fanboys are pissed off because Rian Johnson didn’t make the movie exactly the way they wanted. This, apparently, explains the difference between the critics’ view of the movie and the people giving a review on the Rotten Tomatoes website.

I thought this sounded fishy, so I decided to collect a little bit of data from the Rotten Tomatoes website and have a look at just how far fanboys typically deviate from critics. I figured that if fanboys’ disappointment with not getting a movie exactly as they wanted it was the driver of negative reactions to this movie, we should see it in other Star Wars movies. We should also see it in other movies with a strong fanboy following, and maybe we wouldn’t see it in movies that don’t have strong preconceptions. I collected data on critics’ and fans’ aggregated review statistics for 35 movies from the Rotten Tomatoes website. For each movie I calculated a score, which I call the Odds Ratio of Critical Acceptance (ORCA). This is calculated as follows:

1. Calculate an odds for the critics’ aggregate score, O1, which is (score)/(1-score)

2. Calculate an odds for the viewers’ aggregate score, O2, which is (score)/(1-score)

3. Calculate their ratio, ORCA=O1/O2

I use this score because it accounts for the inherent limits on the value of a critical score. The Last Jedi got a critics’ score of 0.93, which is very close to the upper limit of 1. If the viewers’ score was, for example, 0.83, it is 0.1 lower than the critics’ score. But this 0.1 is a much larger gap than, say, the difference between a critics’ score of 0.55 and a viewers’ score of 0.45. Similarly, if critics give a movie a value of 0.1 and viewers a value of 0.2, this means viewers thought it was twice as good – whereas values of 0.45 and 0.55 are much less different. We use this kind of odds ratio in epidemiology a lot because it allows us to properly account for small differences when one score is close to 1, as (inexplicably) it is for this horrible movie. Note that ORCA scores above 1 indicate that the critics gave the movie a higher score than the viewers, and scores below 1 indicate that the viewers liked the movie more than the critics.

I collected scores for all the Star Wars movies, all three Lord of the Rings movies, both Ghost in the Shell movies (the Japanese and the western remake), both Blade Runners, Alien:Covenant, two Harry Potter movies, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Gedo Senki (the (filthy) Studio Ghibli version of A Wizard of Earthsea), as examples of movies with a fanboy following. As readers of my blog are no doubt very aware, the Lord of the Rings fanboys are absolutely filthy, and if anyone is going to sink a movie over trivial shit they will. Ghost in the Shell is a remake of a movie with a very strong otaku following of the worst kind, and also suffers from a huge controversy over whitewashing, and Gedo Senki is based on one of the world’s most popular books, by a woman who has an intense generation-spanning cadre of fans who are obssessed with her work. Harry Potter fans are also notoriously committed. I also gathered a bunch of movies that I like or that I thought would be representative of the kinds of movies that did not have a following before they were released: Mad Max Fury Road, Brokeback Mountain, that new movie about a transgender bull[3], Ferdinand, things like that. I figured that some of these movies would not get a big divergence in ORCA if the fanboy theory is true.

Figure 1: ORCA Scores for a range of movies, none apparently as shit as The Last Jedi.

Results of my calculations are shown in Figure 1 (sorry about the fiddly size). The Last Jedi is on the far left, and is obviously a massive outlier, with an ORCA score of 10.9. This score arises because it has a critics’ score of 93%, but a score from fans of 55%[4]. Next is Mad Max: Fury Road, which was not as successful with fans as with critics but still got a rating of 0.85 from fans. It can be noted that several Star Wars movies lie to the right of the pale blue dividing line, indicating that fans liked them more than did critics – this includes Rogue One and The Phantom Menace, showing that this phenomenon was not limited to the first generation movies. Note that Fellowship of the Ring, the LoTR movie most likely to disappoint fanboys under the theory that fanboys want the director to make the movie in their heads, had an ORCA value of 0.53, indicating fans had twice the odds of liking it than did critics. Gedo Senki also did better with fans than critics despite being a terrible movie that completely pisses all over Ursula Le Guin’s original book.

There’s no evidence at all from this data that fanboys respond badly to movies based on not getting the movie in their head, and there’s no evidence that Star Wars fanboys are particularly difficult to please. The ORCA score for The Last Jedi is at least 12 parsecs removed from the ORCA score for the next worse movie in the series, which (despite that movie also being a pile of shit) is not that high – it’s lower than Dunkirk, in fact, which was an awesome movie with no pre-existing fanbase[5]. Based on this data it should be pretty clear that either the “toxic fandom” of Star Wars has been hiding for the past 10 years as repeated bad movies were made – or this movie is uniquely bad, and the critics were uniquely stupid to give it a good score.

I’m going with the latter conclusion, and I want the movie critics to seriously re-evaluate how they approached this movie. Star Wars clearly gets a special pass from critics because it’s so special, and Star Wars directors can lay any stinking turd on the screen and get a pass from critics for some incomprehensible reason. Up your game, idiots.

A few minor side points about critical reviews of The Last Jedi

I’ve been generally shocked by the way in which this movie is being hailed as a critical masterpiece. I really can’t see how this can be. Even if it’s not as bad as I think, I can’t understand how it can get similar scores to movies like Dunkirk, Mad Max: Fury Road, or Titanic. Those movies are infinitely better crafted than this pile of junk, with tight and carefully designed plots that clearly hold together under extensive criticism. There is nothing extraneous at all in Titanic or Dunkirk, not one moment that you could say isn’t directly relevant to the unfolding story, and the acting in all three of these movies is exemplary. Worse still, the Guardian is now claiming that Star Wars is the most triumphantly feminist movie yet. This is utter bullshit on its face: The main male character, Po Dameron, repeatedly undermines female leaders, and their attempts to discipline him are ignored, ultimately leading to the death of probably 200 people in a completely avoidable catastrophe, and he suffers no consequences for his dishonesty and treachery. Furthermore, he takes over the main role from Finn, the black character, and Rei is sidelined into a supplicant to an aging white man. As a moral story for entitled white men who can’t bear to be told what to do by women it’s exemplary. But this is even more horrific when you consider that Mad Max: Fury Road is a savage eco-feminist masterpiece, and undoubtedly the most triumphantly feminist movie ever made. This is another example of the weird special pass that Star Wars movies get: they make piss poor tokenistic gestures towards diversity and the critics are claiming they’re the most woke movie ever made.

There’s a strange irony in this. Star Wars fanboys are being blamed for obstinately marking this movie down on the basis of silly stereotypes about nerds, when in fact it’s the critics themselves who are acting like Star Wars sycophants, giving one of the worst movies of the millenium sterling marks for trying. Unless of course the conspiracy theories are true, and they’re all paid by Disney.

I won’t be so cynical. They’re just stupid and wrong, and in future I recommend not listening to reviewers before going to see any movie. Trust the viewers, they have much better judgment!

UPDATE: I have swapped my shoddy figure with a figure supplied by reader frankelavsky, who apparently actually knows how to do visual stuff, so it’s now much easier to see how terribly wrong the reviewers were.


fn1: Which, inexplicably, the Vox article seems to view as Baby Boomers, which is weird since most people want to now pretend Star Wars is a kid’s movie (it’s not[2]). Many of the fans saw it as kids, it’s true, but that’s because we were Gen X, not baby boomers. More importantly, Star Wars fandom crosses three generations, and includes a lot of Generation Y. It’s just dumb to even hint that the themes in the movie pissed off the fans because baby boomers don’t like the idea of handing on the baton to a new, more diverse generation. Star Wars fans aren’t baby boomers, and why would baby boomers have a problem with this anyway?

fn2: How fucking stupid is modern pop cultural analysis of pop culture, and how far has it fallen, that people could say this?

fn3: This is a joke. See here for more details.

fn4: It was 56% yesterday. This movie is sinking by the day.

fn5: Barring UKIP, I guess

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens with Po Dameron pushing a ridiculous and unbelievable plan that gets a lot of people killed, and ends with him walking away a hero. He should have been killed in the middle of this movie as a consquence of a whole chain of reckless and stupid decisions but somehow comes out shining; I can’t say the same for my commitment to the Star Wars genre, after a similar sequence of staggeringly stupid decisions on my part. After sitting through five terrible movies even when I should have known better, I have given up on this whole thing. This fan is burnt out from all the bullshit, and this bullshit is nowhere better seen than in the latest putrid installment, a festering two and a half hours of stupidity, poor decisions, treachery to the original canon, and flagrantly bad movie making. Everything it could do wrong it did. It has a terrible plot; it can’t decide if it is a comedy, a human drama, a romance, a fantasy, a cowboy movie or a space opera, and it can’t do any part of its smorgasbord of genres at all well. It has awful characters: Po Dameron is an entitled little shit who needs to die; Rei has been drained of all her spark and vibrancy; Kylo Ren may have improved over his execrable performance in the previous movie but he is still a bullshit character whose motivations make no sense and who just cannot command any gravitas at all; and far from being the wise-cracking cynic I was promised Luke Skywalker is just a whingey old sad-sack hiding on an island, the central emotional hook for all his actions obviously transparent bullshit. Princess Leia, of course, has been hijacked and ruined in this movie. The technology is ridiculous, and the Star Wars universe has been transformed from one with cool but anachronistic tech to a series of penis-waving boys’ toys, everyone intended to outdo the previous one – perhaps in order to keep the viewer from noticing that this whole thing is a stack of steaming horseshit – in such a flagrantly obvious way that it’s kind of pathetic; and then anyway as soon as they introduce the new super powerful tech the writers do something dumb with the script that completely undermines everything that was great about the new tech. That’s bad screen writing. And did I mention the script? It’s appalling. As is the acting, the special effects, and the choreography. Also the jokes – which even if they were good serve simply to undermine whatever else is happening at the time – are genuinely lame. And what in this wide universe is going on with the PETA sub-plot? How did anyone think that was going to fit in? Or the stupid children in the stables – one of whom looks so much like Oliver Twist that I was sure he was going to burst into song. Is that meant to be inspirational, or is it a teaser to the possibility that Episode 9 is going to be an actual musical? Perhaps we’ll have to suffer through three hours of Les Miserables in space?

This movie is just a pile of junk, and a pitifully obvious attempt to milk the last loyal fans of this bloated franchise. The whole thing is kept going by fans who are too devoted to stop, and treacherous cinema critics who give the Star Wars series an easy pass because it is a fan favourite. The Guardian gave this waste of 2.5 hours of my life five stars. I’m sorry, I can understand having differences of opinion on the quality of a movie but this movie was not anywhere near five – I could forgive giving this obvious one star bloated carcass a three because you’re not a seasoned sci-fi aficionado, but five!? Anyone who gets their movie criticism so wrong should be sacked. Now you might say “All these critics say it’s great and just you faustusnotes say it’s bad, surely they can’t all be wrong”? And I reply: Yes, yes they all are. You can believe me, and not waste your money on this insult to our childhood memories, or you can burn a couple of hours of your life and come out angry at the director, and angry at yourself for not listening to me. Here’s my tip: Wait for it to come out on TV, and spend the money on having someone hammer your kneecaps with a mallet. It’ll be more rewarding.

— SPOILER WARNING —

[From here below are specific detailed criticisms, which include spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and are still dumb enough to ignore my advice, please don’t read further. I suggest you book mark this though so you can come back afterwards and curse yourself for ignoring my advice]

The central problem of this movie is that it’s poorly written, but there are some specific and serious problems that either really let this movie down, or serve to create further trouble for the entire Star Wars effort. These bigger problems are also the reason I’m not going to waste further time on the central movies of this whole dead horse series, because the willingness of multiple Directors to piss all over the original movies’ entire purpose shows clearly the contempt with which they view fans of these movies. It’s not just a question of not wanting to waste my money on movies that are going to be predictably bad – it’s also about not giving these people a reward for ruining something that was once great. And now these movies are becoming such a drag on the whole universe that I’m starting to question my love for the originals. When it reaches the point where these movies are – in typical JJ Abrams style! – reaching back in time to ruin your childhood memories, it’s time to cut and run. So here are some specific examples of the deep contempt with which Rian Johnson treated his viewers.

Po Dameron is a traitor who needs to die: In the very first scene of the movie Po Dameron – the shining white boy hope of this movie, apparently – goes on a reckless mission that is just patently obviously stupid, and refuses to follow orders and retreat. His mission ultimately succeeds so in the middle of the movie, certain of his own rightness, he launches an actual mutiny on a rebel ship, and sends Fin and Rose (a new character) on a mission that ultimately leads to the betrayal of the Rebellion’s plans and the death of most of its members. When his mutiny fails and he is recaptured he attracts absolutely zero consequences, when in fact he should have been spaced, and at the very end emerges with his reputation and rank unharmed by his treachery that directly led to the death of most of the entire fucking rebellion. This is an obvious flaw in the story, since the Rebellion is meant to be a military operation but here they are rewarding open traitors, but it’s also a sign of how desperately cynical these people are and how stupid the reviewers who watched this movie are. At a time when there is a mediocre – and probably treasonous – white man in the White House, at the time of the #metoo movement, we get a movie from the heart of the world of sexually harassing lazy white men, in which a lazy, stupid and reckless white man gets lots of people killed, and he gets no penalty at all for his actions, and gets hailed as a hero. As if this weren’t shocking enough, reviewers you might respect actually say that his character has really developed, and see him as a character worth engaging with rather than a flim-flam jock who should be spaced. Lots of reviews of this movie have mentioned that the entire Finn/Rose side mission is a distraction from the main point of the movie but as far as I can tell none have noticed that Po Dameron needs to be spaced. This is fucking shocking. This mission and Po’s actions had me absolutely seething. What do the script writers and the director take us for when they dump this crap on us? Have they no respect for their audience at all?

The movie doesn’t know what it is: The first third of this movie is basically a comedy, with a few asides to a supposedly serious drama involving Rei and Luke Skywalker, or Rei and Kylo Ren, which also include jokes that are supposed to be funny (I guess) but are just lame clangers. These jokes seriously let down what little gravity any other part of the plot is trying to develop, and really do give much of the movie a feeling of being a kind of Christmas Special, not a serious movie. Yes the original Star Wars movies had light asides, but a lot of it was actually genuinely funny ascerbic banter between Solo and Leia, that was in context and most importantly actually funny, not lame one liners or silly slapstick comedy involving really stupid looking aliens, or really weak attempts at humour that fall flat like Rei’s absolutely appalling “can’t you at least wear a cowl or something” to Kylo Ren when he’s half naked. The movie keeps flicking from these serious attempts at character drama to these lame asides, and it really ruins any attempt to set up a serious arc of character development. Star Wars is not a comedy, but it’s fast become laughable.

The core characters are weak: Rei had a lot of zest in the previous movie and was one of its few saving graces, but she has become an insipid weakling in this, a supplicant to the big men in her life. Her relationship with Kylo Ren – which by the way is utter bullshit, see my complaint below about the newfound powers of the force – and the way it is easily used to fool her into her own destruction is a complete betrayal of everything she stood for in the first movie, a backstabbing of every woman who had thought this series might move forward on the back of a strong female character. Her attempts to win over Luke Skywalker come across as weak, and just let her down as a character. Meanwhile the other two men in her life – Skywalker and Ren – are just terrible. First we get this speech where Snoke[1] basically acknowledges that the Kylo Ren of the Force Awakens was a pissy emo shithead, which has to be unheard of in modern cinema, the director using a character’s speech to admit that his critics were right and in the previous movie his character was a pissant. Then we get this weird emotional rollercoaster where Ren goes up and down between being evil and being good, where we’re meant to believe – I suppose – that he’s having some kind of crisis of confidence, then at the end the way it’s written we’re not sure if he was going through a crisis of confidence or if he was just being really super manipulative. And through all this he remains an emo shit, whiney and doing dumb and adolescent things like punching walls. He doesn’t project strength, just an overwhelming sense of insecurity. Then we have Skywalker, who one review describes as a cynical wise cracker, but who is actually just a whiney sad sack, hiding out on an island and running away from everything he is responsible for because he fucked up with Kylo Ren. The central idea here – expressed by Luke himself, not inferred by me – is that he believes he failed because he didn’t stop Ren from becoming evil. But this is obviously bullshit – Ren became evil by himself and his own choice, not because Skywalker wasn’t wise enough. Nobody believes for a moment that anything else happens, so why do the script writers and director try to convince us that this tired and pathetic guilt trip is either a) viable or b) noble? Someone needs to slap Luke in the face and tell him to grow the fuck up. Also, this movie is called the Last Jedi, and at the end Luke says “I’m not the last jedi.” Is this also a first in cinematic fuck ups, where one of the central characters admit that the movie has the wrong name? I don’t know, maybe they should have called it The Next Jedi. Or better still, the Whiney Old Sad Sack Jedi who Should Just Fucking Die Already. Which he does, voluntarily – I count three suicides or attempted suicides in this movie – why not just turn up and do it in person you coward, instead of projecting your image across the universe and doing it quietly at home? Talk about Millenials being lazy and cowardly … which brings me to …

This movie further wrecked the force: In the original movies the force is a quite constrained power that enables its practitioners to – with considerable effort – levitate objects near them, operate light sabers, achieve fairly impressive feats of physical acrobatics, sense each others’ presence within a reasonable distance (possibly planetary) and sense mass murder on an interstellar basis. In the three prequels we discover the force is a virus, but in the new movies we were promised that that dumb idea would be pissed down the memory hole. In exchange we discover that any unqualified dufus can operate a light saber, but now we also discover that the force enables its practitioners to do incredible feats of great power, such as make them almost super human. It enables Princess Leia to survive a direct hit from a photon torpedo, followed by being spaced, and to fly back into her spaceship. It enables Kylo Ren and Rei to communicate visually over interstellar distances – a feat, we should remember, that Darth Vader explicitly could never do, having to rely instead on holograms – and it enables Luke Skywalker to project his image with life size and lifelike perfection across the galaxy, and to manipulate it with such accuracy that another Jedi is tricked into thinking he is killing Actual Luke. This is the worst kind of grade inflation here, since we now know that basically you can do anything with the force. Why waste time on soldiers? Just send in a single illusory force dude from the other side of the universe! When will this inflation end? Will Kylo Ren be tearing planets apart with his mind by the end of episode 12[2]?

The power inflation of technology was ridiculous: First we see a Dreadnought, which is like a star destroyer on steroids, and we’re meant to believe it’s super scary, only within about 30 minutes this is outdone by Snoke’s personal star destroyer, which is like four times bigger again. Also, no actor in history should ever have to utter the phrase “Battering Ram Cannon.” You mean a really big gun? Why not just say it? What a joke!

The super powerful tech is betrayed by the writers: When the Dreadnought appears it certainly looks scary, and we’re led to believe it’s the most powerful star destroyer in the First Order fleet, but then Po Dameron goes on a solo run across the surface of this super star destroyer and blows up every single cannon, clearing a pathway for the Rebel bombers to then come in and destroy it easily. It goes down to a tiny rebel fleet with way greater ease than it took to even damage a smaller star destroyer in Return of the Jedi. To be clear, there’s no reason for this: The Rebels could have had a bigger fleet, or been chased by normal star destroyers, or had some other plan that wasn’t so obviously intended to make the Dreadnought seem like a pissy under-powered ship. Why introduce a super-powered ship and then have it undone by a plot involving a single x-wing, making it weaker than any previous ship in any previous movie? Answer: Because you’re a bad writer. But this isn’t the only example of this. When the First Order bring out their “Battering Ram Cannon” to break down the walls of the rebel base, all the rebels are super scared that if it gets put to use it will break down the doors and then they will have to fight the First Order troops. So what do they do to stop it from breaking down the walls and making them vulnerable to the superior first order forces? They go outside the doors to attack the first order forces! Furthermore, this super powerful cannon is so powerful that … Finn, flying in a rust bucket tiny vehicle with literal actual holes in it, can enter the beam of the cannon and take several seconds inside it and still not die – then moments later while still inside the beam, get hit by another rust bucket flyer and have his own flyer get torn apart by the impact. So the “Battering Ram Cannon” is … weaker than a shitty second rate flyer? And does less damage than a microwave oven? This is awful writing. But it’s far from the worst crime these writers committed …

The movie betrays core plot elements of the original movies: Picture the scene at rebel HQ in A New Hope as the death star is approaching the rebel base. A general makes a desperate plan and tells his colleagues about it: “We will send a small force of small ships that need to enter this tiny trench that is heavily defended, fly its whole length, and drop a photon torpedo into a hole no larger than a bantha. It’s the only weak point.” Someone at the back raises their hand, “Uh, sir?” He gestures for them to speak. “Well, um, we could just send a single cruiser into the system behind the death star, then have it jump into hyperspace through the death star at close range. It’ll tear the death star apart and kill everyone on board instantly.” General ponders. “Sure! Let’s do that!” Then looks at Leia and asks “Why did you waste your time getting the secret plans to the death star’s only weakness if we can just tear it apart by sending a cruiser into hyperspace through it?” Leia shrugs, and uses her enormous force powers to tear the general’s head off.

Doesn’t make sense? Well it should now, because both of those things happened in this movie. Apparently a single small cruiser can tear apart the biggest star destroyer the galaxy has ever seen by simply pointing at it and entering hyperspace. And apparently Princess Leia has incredibly force powers that enable her to survive a direct hit with a photon torpedo followed by being spaced, and fly through space back inside the ship she was just ejected from. Did you know that Princess Leia had such active force powers? Why didn’t she use them to escape the star destroyer back in A New Hope? Or to help Han Solo escape Boba Fett? Why, in fact, did any of the plots of the first three movies happen at all, when Princess Leia had Jedi powers and a single cruiser piloted by a single person can destroy a death star? The answer, my friends, is that none of these things used to be true but now they are, and if you aren’t able to employ the Doublethink required to align these two entirely different perspectives on the core characters of the canon, then you probably shouldn’t waste your money on any more movies in this series.

The weird animal rights sub plot: There is an absolutely appallingly bad seen in which Chewie roasts a space puffin over an open fire, and is about to eat the space puffin when these other space puffins turn up and make him feel guilty so he stops. Then there is another weird part of the whole Finn/Rose being traitorous sub plot where they go to a planet renowned for its horse racing and we get a little aside about how cruel the racing is, and the animals all get freed (after, weirdly, being raced which is not bad if Finn and Rose do it). Where did this weird animal rights sub plot come from? Did PETA sponsor this movie? Why is it in this movie? With 2.5 hours of this shit, do we really have spare time for a couple of asides about animal rights? Also, while we’re at it, the moralizing about arms dealers being the worse people in the universe, only to find out that they also deal to the rebellion, was just incomprehensible and weird. First of all, I doubt that the First Order – an organization so large it spans galaxies and is able to build a death star the size of a planet – buys its small arms from small independent dealers. I suspect the First Order have a full procurement system in place, and all major tech is – like the Death Star – made in house. So wtf is going on with this whole aside about the arms dealers? And also, if you want to make them seem like bad people, don’t immediately reveal that they also deal arms to the good guys. Doesn’t that just kind of mean that the whole thing is a wash? Or should the good guys not have guns? Because I didn’t notice them being very pacifist when they flew that cruiser at hyperspeed into that star destroyer and killed the hundreds of thousands of people on board. This kind of sub plot is just weird.

The special effects and choreography were awful: I mentioned that Chewie tried to eat a roasted space puffin. The roasted space puffin he was about to eat was so obviously plastic that it was distracting. Princess Leia’s flight back into the space ship after she survived being spaced (and hit with a photon torpedo) was such a lame piece of Mary Poppins-esque christmas card glittering over the top wank that I couldn’t believe I was watching it. And the fight in the throne room between Kylo Ren and Rei against the Imperial Guards was just terribly hamfisted. There was one point where one of the actors clearly stepped carefully under a pole arm and placed himself in the position of being throttled. Pathetic.

A brief note for the reviewers: Most reviewers gave this movie four or five stars. Why? This is a serious dereliction of your duty to the public. This movie was a stain on cinema, and you gave it top marks, said it was the best yet. Why did you do that? Aren’t you serious about your job as a reviewer? I am deeply disappointed in these people. How can I judge whether to bother seeing a movie if the reviewers are going to straight up lie to me about how good it is? At least I now know one form of quality control for movie reviewers – I can check how many stars they gave The Last Jedi, and judge all their other reviews accordingly.

Other minor details: How come nobody knew the planet was there? How do you hide a fucking planet? Why did the lasers fired at the rebel cruiser arc through space – were they not light? If they were not light, where was the gravitational force so powerful that it could visibly blend them? When did fucking fuel become an issue in any scene of Star Wars ever? This was the central issue driving the tension of the entire movie and it’s never been raised in any of these movies ever before! Why did nobody listen when Princess Leia demoted Po Dameron, and he remained “commander” for the rest of the movie even after he led a fucking mutiny!? Why didn’t Admiral Holdo tell anyone about the invisible fucking planet and her actually quite smart plan of hiding out there? When Luke Skywalker projected himself onto the invisible fucking planet to act as a distraction for the rebels to get away, did he know that there was no other exit? If he did know, why did he go? And if he did know, why didn’t he move the rockfall before he went to confront Kylo Ren? How come even though in every scene where Sith and Jedi meet, the Sith can sense the Jedi, on this one occasion when Luke wasn’t actually there Kylo Ren couldn’t sense that and if he couldn’t sense him why didn’t he think that was weird? How actually stupid, on a scale of 0 (incredibly fucking dumb) to 10 (of star-collapsing levels of fucking stupidity) is Kylo Ren and can someone please, please kill him? How the actual fuck did the scene with Princess Leia becoming a Jedi get through any kind of quality control process? What were the producers thinking putting in an actual literal comedy conversation with that stupid little douchebag having an armed union dispute? Did they think that a straight segue from a desperately tense survival situation to a straight comedy conversation would somehow improve the movie in any fucking way at all?

And finally, and most importantly, how stupid do these people think we are to keep watching this unmitigated shit? And how stupid are we, to keep watching this shit when we obviously should know better? Well, I’ve been fooled five times in a row by my own commitment to this universe, and by my foolish belief that reviewers would write an honest review about a major movie, so that’s it from me – I’m checking out of star wars. I will watch spin-offs if they seem like they might have a chance of being good, simply because the universe is a fun universe to watch, but I’m not burning any more of my money or my rapidly dwindling life span on the main series. It can go and die in a ditch.

UPDATE: I have now analyzed Rotten Tomatoes data to show that the movie critics were uniquely out of sync with public opinion on this issue, and that I am right and the movie critics are wrong: This movie is unmitigated shit, and everyone agrees with me.


fn1: Which, btw, should be the name of a bad guy in a Harry Potter movie, not Star Wars

fn2: I read a part of an interview with the director, Rian Johnson, which mentioned that he has been given a whole extra trilogy of his own. Fuck no.

Imagine if you will an anime set in the immediate aftermath of World War 2 about a man called Mr. Stonewell, a former soldier from Unit 731 who has returned to Japan and is having difficulty fitting in. He bears a terrible secret about the involvement of senior military figures in the murder of many of his comrades to cover up a heinous crime. The crime in question was a major antiquities theft ring, which was operating in occupied China and smuggling ancient Chinese artifacts to collectors in Japan and other parts of South East Asia. Now the war is over, and Mr. Stonewell has lost his family and many of his friends as a consequence of his superiors’ efforts to cover up the smuggling ring. Fortunately Mr. Stonewell is a master of biological warfare, and has killed off everyone involved in the cover-up and subsequent murder of his family and friends, though he has never seen the people involved brought to justice, and the crimes have been buried, hidden from history. In this show, called the Avenger, we encounter Mr. Stonewell as he attempts to fit into ordinary society after his demobilization. He and his former comrades feel misunderstood and abandoned, nobody understands the things they had to do, or how much they suffered, they are on the fringes of society, abandoned and rejected. We see Mr. Stonewell lurking at a support group for ex-soldiers, we see his flashbacks to the terrible things he had to do and we understand how he suffers under the burden of the tasks he undertook for the freedom of his country. Meanwhile some of the loose threads of his military past are being tugged, and we discover that perhaps that heinous crime – the murder of soldiers to cover up a corrupt trade in antiquities – hasn’t been fully buried. We can expect in later episodes of this show to see Mr. Stonewell using his chemical and biological warfare skills to kill a sequence of bad military leaders in inventive and disturbing ways, it’s going to be great. In episode 3, with this groundwork laid, the anime takes us on an extended flashback so we can see exactly what terrible deeds Mr. Stonewell had to do in defense of his country. We see the briefing at the formation of his new unit, where one of his fellow soldiers makes an off-the-cuff comment about how their work isn’t exactly going to abide by the hypocratic oath; then we see him vivisecting American soldiers, conducting horrific experiments on them to develop better weapons so that his army can win this terrible war against this implacable foe. We understand he didn’t want to do these awful things but he had to, because it was a war and he was told to. We come to appreciate his moral struggle, but we accept that he is a good man because he is Japanese, and all Japanese soldiers are by necessity good people. This is why the murders of his comrades to cover up mere smuggling are such a heinous crime.

Do you think that this show would be popular in America, and non-controversial? Do you think it’s an acceptable moral frame for your hero? Because in episode 3 of Marvel’s The Punisher we see its putative hero, Frank Castle, shoot a suspected Iraqi terrorist captive in the head, killing him in cold blood in direct contravention of the laws of war, but we move on to discuss the more important issue of how this was wrong because Castle was inadvertently doing it to cover up a heroin smuggling ring. The fact that he just committed a crime for which, in America, he should receive the death sentence, is just irrelevant to the story. This happens in the context of his and his friends’ struggle to deal with the terrible things they had to do for the war effort, and after one of them makes an off-the-cuff reference to Operation Phoenix, so they know they’re doing things against the law of war but they, the directors of this shitshow, and we are meant to not care about that. Castle’s moral struggle and flashbacks have nothing to do with that, although sure he didn’t like killing people. Castle’s real problems are all to do with the real crime at the centre of this show, the heroin smuggling ring which he bravely – and morally – lost everything to break.

Frank Castle is a war criminal, and this terrible tv show is a paean to war criminals. There’s a heirarchy of moral ills in this show, with killing your own soldiers to cover up a crime right at the top, and murdering a captive in cold blood right at the bottom. Even the special agent trying to find out about the crimes Castle committed isn’t interested because there was a clear and extensive violation of the laws of war – she’s interested because one of the victims was a friend of hers, and he was innocent. The implication here is obvious – that these wouldn’t be considered crimes at all if the people who suffered them had all been guilty. Here we see the insidious effect of 15 years of wars of aggression, extra-judicial killings and egregious violations of the Geneva convention on the mentality of ordinary American producers of culture – they have lost their understanding of what a war crime is, and of how Americans can be guilty of … well, of anything at all really. And so it is that Castle sails through this show bearing the scars of everything wrong that was done to him, and blissfully free of any guilt, trauma or even recognition of all the things he has done to people.

It’s worth noting that there is a controversy attached to the Punisher, but this controversy is all about the timing of its release, and how its gun violence might be triggering for many Americans after the Las Vegas mass shooting. The valorization of a war criminal isn’t mentioned, and although some reviews dwell on the trauma he experienced, none seem to have noticed that he’s a war criminal. It’s remarkable that this central part of his background is completely missed in favour of the wrongs done to him. Have Americans managed to completely insulate themselves from the consequences of their own wars? Are they now completely morally impervious?

Another aspect of this show that is tired and boring and that I am completely over in American TV is the stereotype of the neglected and abandoned veteran. This is heavily present in the first three episodes, as we see Castle lurking around a support group for veterans, and hear their complaints about how they have been abandoned on their return, how the world doesn’t understand them and hasn’t made a place for them, they’re alone and lost in the world. This overdone stereotype is, frankly, complete bullshit. Returned veterans get access to a nationwide network of socialized medicine, they get discounts on student fees for retraining, they get two weeks of NFL games devoted to them, there is a transnational sports event for disabled veterans with very senior political figures as its patrons, and they get a plethora of TV shows about their struggles and issues. Where and how exactly are these people being abandoned and neglected? Like every other show that ever dwells on this issue, we hear lots of vets saying it’s an issue, but none of them actually tells us what was done to them, or what happened to them. This is particularly insulting in a show that is devoted to exploring the trauma issues of a returned vet, while ignoring the fact that he’s a criminal who should in be prison for life (at least). It’s right up there with right wing talk show hosts using their nationally syndicated tv show to complain about how the media is censoring them – a show about a vet’s trauma, complaining that vets don’t get enough attention to their trauma. Just drop it already. Or better still, make a TV show about a vet returning to America proud of his contribution to the army, counting the notches on his belt of the enemy he has killed, willing to defend his actions in a foreign war he didn’t choose. This story would be much closer to the truth of life for a returned vet, but for some reason we have to be subjected to its exact opposite, this boring trope of the vet who can’t get a break.

This show could have had other stories, that would have kept Castle’s background intact but given a more realistic and sensitive approach to the war. The detective pursuing him could be pursuing him for his war crimes, not because her friend was an innocent victim; he could be seeking redemption for his crimes instead of vengeance for his trauma. Someone, somewhere in all this mess could have just tried to at least talk about this aspect of his back story. We could see an arc which ends with him finding redemption for what he did, through extreme violence of everyone else who ever does anything like it. Or he could have refused to be part of that torture and murder network, and all the trauma visited on him could have been a consequence of his principled stand against war crimes. That would make his punisher stick way more believable and way more moral than this elaborate refrigeration of his entire family, with detailed and boring flashbacks, and no real explanation for why he is so uniquely traumatized compared to everyone else (those hammer scenes are really, really overdoing it). We could have been watching a show that once, just once, in the history of American TV since Rambo, actually tries to tell the truth about returned vets and makes some tiny effort to explore America’s war crimes. But probably that would have been even more controversial than the gun porn.

I really wanted to like this show. I like the actor playing Castle, I love vengeance as a theme and I enjoy watching bad guys get their comeuppance, as brutal as you can. So I was looking forward to a long arc of redemptive violence. But I can’t accept this redemptive violence for this reason, when really the first person who should be getting a dose of it is the guy who casually shot a prisoner in the head because he was told to – the Punisher, indeed. So much of everything that has gone wrong in the world for the past 30 years is the fault of America’s policy adventures, and so much of its current mistakes can be laid at the feet of its ordinary citizens and their foolish misguided self beliefs. A million people died in Iraq, and four million were displaced, because American politicians decided to launch an illegal war of aggression, but none of it would have been possible if people like Frank Castle had refused to break the laws of war. It’s an insult to those million dead to make a show about one of their murderers, to gloss over all the bad things he did, and then whine incessantly about how this man who signed up for an illegal war is the real victim. Obviously everyone has their breaking point, and this is mine. I’m not going to watch a show about a war criminal who doesn’t even have to redeem himself, simply because he’s an American. You can keep your war propaganda, and I think Marvel I can’t be bothered with you anymore.

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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