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Star Wars Episode VII: your republic is my empire

The teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode VII is out and it is causing much excitement, ridicule and exasperation at all the excitement and ridicule (delete as applicable):

One of the things that has got a lot of people buzzing is the presence of stormtroopers, albeit Apple circa 2001 stormtroopers. Wasn’t the Empire destroyed at the end of Return of the Jedi? How can they still be around?

It strikes me that there are two possibilities. One is boring as all hell. The other is much more interesting.

The boring option is the one they went for with the now defunct Expanded Universe (disclaimer: I haven’t read much post-Jedi EU; I just didn’t like what I did read): after the Emperor was killed a breakaway group of Admirals split off to form their own Imperial Remnant who continued to bother the good guys for years afterwards. This is sort of how I would have imagined things when I was nine and presupposes a simplistic goodies vs baddies approach. And while it’s true that George Lucas himself rather encourages this with his focus on the dark and light side of the Force, in reality there is a lot more ambiguity even in the original film series, with bored stormtroopers having casual conversations and careerist generals doing their best to manage Darth Vader’s mood swings in Empire Strikes Back. The implication that there are enough true believers in the Imperial Navy to break off and form a significant threat to the New Republic just doesn’t make any sense to me. There isn’t much of a (real world) historical precedent to suggest that this is what is likely to happen either.

What is more interesting to me is this: after the fall of Palpatine, the entire galaxy is likely to erupt into civil war. After all, immediately preceding his rise to power, the galaxy bubbling under with petty disputes and this was stoked by Palpatine and Dooku which lead to the Clone Wars. It is unlikely that after 20+ years of oppressive dictatorship that the Empire would simply turn into a happy clappy New Republic, much more likely that the vast majority of planets will either declare independence or form new alliances of their own. It is very unlikely that even after 30 years there wouldn’t still be tensions and trade disputes across the galaxy.

The people taking over the New Republic, who we might speculate are lead by Mon Mothma and Princess Leia, are unlikely to dismantle everything they’ve inherited. Whoever takes over as Commander in Chief is going to have to immediately make some very difficult decisions: do we let planet X invade planet Y or do we try to maintain the peace? Are these people really freedom fighters or are they pirates? Democratic ideals only get you so far. There are going to be a lot of people who, having won the war, are going to be deeply disaffected by the subsequent regime and its tough choices.

So while I think it is very likely that there will be some stringent measures to de-Sithify the Imperial armed forces, at the end of the day they are unlikely to be decommissioned. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise to people: after all, during the prequels the stormtrooper’s predecessors the clone troopers were the good guys (gliding over Order 66 for a second there).

George Lucas got an awful lot wrong with the prequels, but much of the world building was spot on. People derided the focus on politics and trade disputes, but that made it feel much more real to me. Scratch behind the surface and the prequels aren’t a simplistic battle between the light and the dark, but a much more subtle tale of a decadent republic reaching the end of its usefulness, dominated by a religious order, the Jedi, who had become horrifically complacent and meddling in political affairs they should have left well alone. These themes are all there in the films and explored in greater depth in the Clone Wars (the irony of this being achieved in a watchable kids’ show is not lost on me).

The key thing that concerns me about these new films is that they will look at the criticism of the prequels and seek to simplify that political situation. If they do, my suspicion is that the films themselves will feel quite vacuous and empty. I’m not suggesting that the films should be about affairs of state and politicking in the way that I would agree that the prequels focus too much on scenes from the Galactic Senate which would have been better relegated to the background and opening crawls. But if they open with Luke and Leia doing everything right and bringing back and idyllic New Republic that only starts to go wrong when a new bad guy emerges, I will be deeply disappointed.

So, to summarise, I’m hoping those Stormtroopers are under the command of Leia who, if not an actual villain, is certainly worn down after decades of making hard choices and not getting everything right. That’s drama right there, that is.

The Disney Star Wars films could at last bring a balance to the force

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NaBloPoMo November 2012My initial shock of discovering that George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm to Disney has given way to contemplation about what a post-Lucas Star Wars universe might look like.

For many people this is bad news; it simply means more bad films cashing in on the goodwill of a dwindling generation of fans who are destined to be disappointed. Sometimes I think Star Wars fans have very selective memories, choosing to forget not only that Star Wars all but invented film related merchandising as we now understand it, but that they lapped it up as kids as well. Would either Empire or Jedi had been anything like as successful as the were if their prospective fan bases hadn’t spent the previous three years tirelessly playing with their action figures and dreaming about what might happen in the next sequel? I doubt it.

The prequels failed for several reasons: bad scripts, an over reliance on CGI, poor directing and poor continuity with episodes 4-6. Most of the problems can be laid at George Lucas’ own door. If he had recognised his limits and handed directorial duties to other people – precisely as he had done with both Empire and Jedi – we would almost certainly have ended up with better films. Both iterations of the Clone Wars animated series have been both superior to the prequels and felt more Star Wars-y and it cannot be a coincidence that Lucas has been for the most part at arm’s length from them.

But there’s a more fundamental problem, and that is that they were prequels. Prequels are inherently problematic because you always know how they’re going to end – and what might make for satisfying backstory will often fail to work as drama itself. So, for instance, Padme always was a doomed character and making her more interesting would have been problematic in terms of tying into the later episodes (which isn’t to say that pretty much anyone could have done a better job with her than Lucas managed). To make things worse, the episodic format meant that they were stuck with telling a linear story that couldn’t really reference anything which we knew was to come later (see the Godfather Part 2 for an example of how a less restricted prequel could work – I understand there’s a TV edit somewhere with the story of both Godfather films put in chronological order; it sounds like an utterly awful idea).

And finally, you have the problem that, more than 30 years ago, Lucas chose rather arbitrarily to make A New Hope episode 4. The series could have sustained one prequel – two at a push – but it is pretty hard to deny that there simply wasn’t enough story to sustain three films (this is one of the reasons why I personally feel that Attack of the Clones is a worse film than Phantom Menace, but I won’t get into that right now).

In short, the two biggest handicaps of episodes 1-3 – the fact they were prequels and George Lucas himself – will not apply to episodes 7-9. It is hard to imagine how they could in any way be worse. And we should also be a little fair here: I would regard Attack of the Clones at its worst to be light years (never mind parsecs) ahead of a film like the latest Total Recall or any of the Twilight films. The Harry Potter films at their best fall far short of episodes 4-6. So the idea that making new Star Wars films will lead to a new dark age of commercial cinema is simple nonsense.

So, with that out of the way, what are my hopes for episodes 7-9? Well, for starters, I’m hoping they’ll be a continuation of episodes 1-6, not just a sequel. For me that means two things: it has to be about this whole “balance of the force” thing, and it has to feature Anakin/Vader as a significant character. However tempting it might be to simply ignore episodes 1-3, ultimately the final three films have to reflect on the prequels’ ideas – especially if they are to be in keeping with Lucas’s idea about repeating motifs and themes throughout the films as if they form an overall symphony (I might not like Lucas’s execution, but I’ve always thought he had some great ideas behind his films).

I’m not terribly familiar with the Star Wars New Republic expanded universe beyond the Dark Empire comics – and since there’s so much of it (and since no one will buy me the encyclopaedias – I probably never will). Generally though, I think they should avoid adapting anything which might have been written before. I also think they ought to resist the temptation of featuring the cast of episodes 4-6 too heavily, leaving them instead as mentor figures. The focus should instead be on a new generation of Skywalkers/Solos.

I said it should reflect on the balance of the force. This prophecy was discussed a lot in episode 1 but was barely touched on in the later films, except (and my memory may be flakey here), when it is announced that the prophecy is clearly wrong because Anakin has turned to the dark side. But it has long been speculated that, in fact, the prophecy was true. Anakin brings balance in two ways: firstly in bringing down the Old Republic, which has become infantilised by its over reliance on the Jedi (and here, Ryan Britt’s recent article about illiteracy is particularly instructive) and secondly by being instrumental in bringing down the Emperor. So we’ve seen him redress the balance, but what we haven’t yet seen is him restore some modicum of equilibrium.

The agenda of episodes 7-9 therefore must surely be to recount how that equilibrium was eventually achieved. Possibly this means getting to the roots of the Sith-Jedi conflict (and even how the Mandalorians fit into that).

As for Anakin himself, both 3 film cycles thus far have focused on his life as a Jedi Knight and as a Sith Lord. Both cycles end on him transforming into something new. The Revenge of the Sith states at the end that the blue glowing “life after death” form that we see both Obi Wan, Yoda and Anakin eventually become is a relatively new innovation discovered by Qui Gon Jinn, but this is thrown in as an almost throwaway line. For me, the films have to ultimately be about how Anakin in this new incarnation somehow plays a decisive role in restoring this final equilibrium.

Episode 9 therefore needs to be a real resolution in the way that episode 6 never was. That isn’t to say there can’t be any Star Wars films after that – indeed, by all accounts it is Disney’s plan to keep churning out Star Wars films after that for as long as they keep making money. But these films can be set in other times or focus on other characters.

Anyway, that’s how I see the films developing. I may well find myself disappointed, but I’ve never really understood why Star Wars has been treated as a a sacrosanct film series which should have a finite number of films, while it seems fine for other franchises to continue to churn out sequels endlessly. If this move to Disney means slightly less reverence, the franchise can only benefit.

UPDATE: I also wrote this for Unlock Democracy today, about the parlous state of democracy in the Old Republic: Unlock the Galaxy.

Dark Knight Rises: the threequel we needed but not the threequel we deserved (SPOILERS)

Let me begin by saying that, on balance, I quite liked the Dark Knight Rises. Overall, I think it stands up and has something interesting to say. I don’t agree with its politics (which are not that coherent in any case as I will explore), but you have to be fairly insecure in your views to not like a film simply because you don’t agree with the ideology behind it. A well executed film has a point of view, even if that point of view is tosh. The Dark Knight Rises certainly has one, which is better than most Batman stories which simply glide over the pro-capitalist, authoritarian wish-fulfilment which is at the core of the character.

As a geek, the film was also fun in terms of spotting all the references. One of the most fun aspects of the Nolan Batman films is spotting all the references and nods to some of the best strips we’ve had over the years. Batman Begins mashes up Year One with Ra’s al Ghul lore and some of the Long Halloween; The Dark Knight has a lot in common with Dark Victory (especially the fall of Harvey Dent), but with lots of nods to The Killing Joke and the other better Joker stories. The Dark Knight Rises, of course, is a mash up of Knightfall and The Dark Knight Returns. But for me, the nods I most enjoyed were references to lesser known bits of the canon such as the underrated No Man’s Land and Year Three (the bit when Blake declares he as always known about Bruce Wayne being Batman is clearly a nod to the revelation by Timothy Drake, the Robin he most closely resembles in terms of temperament).

Threequels which satisfyingly tie up the series are a distinct rarity (yes Spider-Man 3, I’m looking at you), so the fact that this film manages to take the series back to the beginning, as well as satisfyingly coming to a full stop, is something to be grateful about. Ra’s revelation in Batman Begins about wanting to revenge the death of his wife now looks, in retrospect, as if the Nolans had planned this all along. The direct comparison to the prison and the old well Bruce falls down as a child, was also particularly enjoyable. Overall, I can’t say I was disappointed; this is a solid piece of work I’m sure I will get more out of on repeat viewings.

And yet.

I can’t help feeling it missed a few tricks. It was a worthy follow up to Batman Begins, but as the sequel to the Dark Knight it was fairly underwhelming. We get to see that Gotham has prospered under a lie (that Dent is a martyr and Batman a traitor), but the film utterly fails to spell out how that decision leads to Bane’s eventual success. The Dent Act would appear to be some way of keeping the gangbangers under some kind of permanent detention, horrific from a liberal point of view but also quite expensive and impractical. Are we really meant to believe that this hasn’t lead to lots of innocent people being locked up and that, with all this unaccountable power, the police have become less corrupt, not more? It’s a situation that doesn’t satisfy either the liberals or the authoritarians: the authoritarians can’t be happy that this approach is seemingly responsible for the eventual destruction of the city; the liberals can’t believe it could possibly have lasted as long as it did.

I didn’t like the way they handled Bruce Wayne at the start of the film. Part of the problem was that they were going, very self-consciously, for a mirror image of the start of the Dark Knight Returns. While the Gotham of Returns has sunk to a new low, the Gotham of Rises is experiencing a renaissance. Similarly, while the Bruce Wayne at the start of Returns is a philandering playboy, the Bruce Wayne of Rises has become a recluse (both of which evoke different faces of Howard Hughes, but that’s another matter).

I understand why they took this choice, but it didn’t work for me. Essentially, we are being asked to buy into the idea that Bruce Wayne has sat in the same room for eight years; it doesn’t ring true, and it makes it pretty likely that Wayne is Batman (even if you hadn’t figured out that he must be a billionaire with access to military technology by that point). This isn’t a fallen Dark Knight, this is a Dark Knight in suspended animation. Worse than being unconvincing, it’s boring.

Because his fall from grace amounts to little more than a stumble, it makes his rise far less interesting. Indeed, it’s barely noteworthy at all. Possibly, this is deliberate because Nolan wanted to make the broken bat subplot that much more impactful later on, but it means the first act never really gets moving.

The film’s portrayal of Catwoman is… mixed. On the plus side, this is clearly relatable to the Selina Kyle of the comics. However much I might love Batman Returns (and I do), Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman takes as many liberties with the source material as, well, Danny DeVito’s Penguin.

It is interesting that they chose to dress her in the same way she is depicted by Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt and Lee Merriweather in the 60s TV series and not, say, as designed by Darwyn Cooke in the iconic 2004 reboot – a vastly more sexy (and less exploitative) version. As it stands, at time her character seems quite out of place in a film which is struggling to retain a cynical and gritty vibe: I kept expecting the POW!!s and WACK!!!s to appear onscreen the first time she fights Bane’s henchmen with Batman.

Anne Hathaway’s casting made people nervous, even 7 years after Brokeback Mountain (if you can’t get over the fact she was in the Princess Diaries, that’s your problem), but she delivers all anyone could have expected of her. The problem is, she isn’t given much to do, and this is a real problem for me. Given the very obvious influence the Jeff Loeb/Tim Sale iteration of Batman has had on the films, it was surprising they didn’t tie her back to the Falcone family who were such a central part of Begins and the Dark Knight. Without such an arc, she ends up as a femme without the fatale – indeed, someone who is destined to become little more than Bruce Wayne’s wife (I’ll come back to that ending later). In this respect, the Catwoman of Batman Begins is a far more interesting character, one who has far more less reason to walk away and yet does anyway. It was downright cruel to offer us the glimpse of an interesting, kick-ass Catwoman only to spend three hours taking her away from us in slow motion.

I read a lot of people say that Gotham is a character in her own right in Nolan’s films; personally, I’ve always been disappointed by his portrayal of the city. Admittedly, to an extent I just have to get over the fact they didn’t reuse Anton Furst’s designs or get another artist in to reimagine the city from the ground up. But for me, Nolan’s Gotham just looks like a generic urban sprawl: on location shots of New York and Chicago with all their iconic buildings strategically avoided or digitally removed (which is exactly what it is). If you want to give a city a personality, you have to give it a face.

But more than that, the populace of Nolan’s Gotham don’t seem to have much of an identity either. The Spider-Man films invest New York with so much personality that the point in which the ordinary people help Spidey out has become a cliche (it was quite wearisome in Amazing Spider-Man – you could see it coming a mile away). The people of Gotham, by contrast, are just used as fodder in this film. At least at the end of the Dark Knight, the people on the ferries have a Noo Yawk moment of their own (oh yeah, about that bit when the prisoners refuse to kill the citizens: how does that square with the city going on to pass the Dent Act); in Rises they don’t do anything at all.

Again, as a sequel to the Dark Knight, this sucks. We are invited to think of the Joker’s reign of terror as a sort of 9/11, so why doesn’t Rises explore that at all? Instead, once again we’re in suspended animation territory, with the huddled masses sitting around waiting for either the police (who spend three months underground yet emerge neither deranged or even noticeably unshaven) or Batman to come and save them. Are we meant to believe no one, apart from the police and a few business executives, would do anything to resist Bane? It is at this point that the film slips from authoritarian wish fulfilment and into swivel-eyed Atlas Shrugged territory. As I said, this doesn’t fit with the setup of the Dark Knight at all.

I’ve been harsh here. I’m not a fan of Bane, but I did like Tom Hardy’s portrayal and the way they integrated his backstory quite cleverly with Ra’s al Ghul’s. Anyone who knew the comics could see the Talia reveal coming a mile away, but even with that said it was well done. If you focus on the Batman bits, and ignore the frankly confused story about Gotham, it’s a neat little story. The only bit that really struck a wrong note for me in terms of the Batman story was the final shot in the film, which had been foreshadowed earlier in the film, in which Alfred spots Wayne and Kyle in a Parisian bistro.

This was a horrifying way to end the film, and quite odd for Nolan, the king of ambiguity, to finish off his series. It is a bit like him deciding to end Inception with the spinning top falling over. If the film had ended with a close up of Michael Caine’s face, his eyes lightening up, I would have been entirely happy. But that final shot of Bale and Hathaway diminishes their characters. The strong implication was that, after an adventure, they were looking forward to a life of conventionality and mediocrity. I know they could have just been dressing up for Alfred’s benefit and that in reality, Wayne was now Selena Kyle’s gimp who she lead around on a leash, but that final shot meant the film ended on a full stop and not a question mark. However much Nolan wanted to make it clear he would be making no more Batman films, this was a bad note to end it on.

So in the end, while the Dark Knight Rises delivers in ending a series in a perfectly workmanlike way, it is clear that it could have been so much more. The politics, as rightwing as Batman has ever been, ultimately undermine a film that had a lot of more interesting avenues to explore than this frame could allow. The quest for the perfect threequel continues.

The Profound Problem with Prometheus [SPOILERS]

Sean Connery wearing an orange nappy in ZardozThere are a lot of things to like about Prometheus. The set design is very beautiful and feels real and physical for a film made in 2012 that is quite so reliant on CGI. Most of the performances are fine, some excellent. The world it creates is clearly much larger than the film itself, and it feels very much as if we’ve only seen a part of it. And while it does (sort of) serve as a prequel to Alien, it is similarly quite refreshing that it doesn’t tie itself too closely into lining itself up seemlessly to end where that film begins.

None of that is to say that there aren’t problems, but most of them would have been fixable if they’d taken the trouble to get a half-decent script editor to take a look at it. This is a real shame. A line of expositionary dialogue here, deleting a line of dialogue there (the attempt to over-egg Noomi Rapace’s “pregnancy” by revealing she was infertile was especially clunky), and most of the truly facepalm moments would have simply vanished. But the fundamental problem with the film was in the concept itself: “meeting God” films never work.

There are two problems with “meeting God” films. The first one is: they all end up resembling the Wizard of Oz. In the case of Zardoz, that is of course deliberate, but the trope runs the same way throughout. Essentially, the protagonists set themselves the task of meeting God, “God” turns out of have feet of clay, everyone gets upset and we have a stunning anti-climax. It wrecked Star Trek V. It fucked the Matrix franchise (thanks to my wife Alex for that one). Name me one film with this premise is loved and respected or has stood the test of time. They’re doomed to failure because the premise always promises more than any film can deliver, no matter how good the special effects. And if you don’t go for the cynical, God-ain’t-all-that, route, you will have to contend with the audience – who will either be profoundly sceptical themselves or, worse, declare you to be a heretic and decide you should be burnt at the stake. It is a dramatic dead end.

Architect from Matrix ReloadedBut this links to the other problem. Fundamentally, nobody wants to actually meet God. I mean, not physically, actually meet him (as opposed to some metaphysical, spiritual, vague, non-specific communion with God in this life or after). The problem, at its heart, is the cosmological argument. Once you’ve found “God”, the first question you have to ask yourself is “who created him/her/it?” At best all you’ve discovered is the latest in a long line of “creators”: it is literally turtles all the way down.

As a good Catholic, this argument should have been very, very familiar to Noomi Rapace’s character; yet it is never even touched upon in the film itself. The film makers are simply too in love with the idea to see past its inherent nonsense. Instead, what we get is a bunch of people spouting about Däniken theory as if it is holy scrit on the rather shaky basis that they “choose to believe it”. It is a caricature of a scientist with religious sensibilities (and what odd, blasphemous religious sensibilities to have?), that I doubt even Richard Dawkins actually believes really exists.

If we assume for a second that Däniken is right and that space astronauts came to earth and engineered the human race, that would throw up all sorts of philosophical issues for us as a species were we to find tangible proof. There’s a lot of potential for great drama there. But it wouldn’t disprove the existence of God; nor would it, as one character mentions in the film, disprove “300 years of Darwinism” (which, said in the year 2093, doesn’t even make sense on a basic arithmetic level, unless you’re talking about Erasmus). We have already moved on as a species in terms of the philosophical questions this film throws up; it is unlikely – more unlikely than being able to perform feats of athleticism hours after having your stomach split open and stapled together following a c-section – that we are suddenly going to forget all that and go back to asking questions that Aristotle wouldn’t have lost any sleep over.

Perhaps the biggest sin the makers of this film committed was to make a film which purports to be profound but merely going over ground already covered by AvP, with a heck of a lot more pretension in the process. And that brings us back to the Wizard of Oz; because the Dark and Terrible Scott is looking remarkably mortal right now. The only thing preventing me from feeling like I’ve been lead up the yellow brick garden path is that I had rather low expectations in the first place. That, post-Phantom Menace, so many people appear to have had such high expectations may be rather touchingly naive, but a lot of people seem quite peeved out there nonetheless.

I’m almost intrigued to see how this plays out in the sequel that they quite explicitly set up at the end of Prometheus. Let’s face it; I’m going to go and see it if it ever gets made, but I’d rather see the Guillermo del Toro adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness which, we are to understand, this film effectively blocked. H. P. Lovecraft’s story and prose are not without problems but for all that it had the potential to serve as a basis for asking some much more interesting questions than Prometheus ends up delivering (and when you meet God in a Lovecraft story, it doesn’t disappoint even if it is the last thing his protagonists intend to go looking for), and I can’t help but feel that del Toro was the right man for the job. Now we’ll presumably never know.

UPDATE: As ever, I forgot to include a couple of rather fundamental points:

Firstly, I should have pointed out that David, the android played by Michael Fassbender, more or less undermines the whole premise of the film early on by demonstrating just how absurd it is to attach such mystery and profundity to one’s maker by pointing out that he was only created because mankind could. Yet while acknowledging the mundanity of humanity’s ability to create life, the film persists in suggesting that its own creators might have some grander plan.

Secondly, I should also have pointed out that Blade Runner itself serves as an anti-Wizard of Oz plot, in which the “wizard” is known to be all-too-mortal from the beginning and that the character arc of Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) focuses on his own disillusionment with “touching the creator” and eventual redemption. In doing so, Scott managed to make a film packed with far more profundity than Prometheus came anywhere near to. On that level it is startling to think the two films were made by the same person.

EDIT: As a troll has helpfully pointed out, I inadvertently changed Guillermo del Toro’s name. Now corrected.

Avatar: did Jim Cameron rip off 2000AD’s Firekind?

firekind2Heavy.com has illustrated the uncanny similarities between 2000AD strip Firekind (1993) and Jim Cameron’s Avatar (apparently in development since 1995). I have to admit that when I first saw the trailer for Avatar I did notice the similarities, but dismissed them on the basis that a few superficial resemblances could easily be down to coincidence and as the hype for the film began to build I forgot all about it. But the list on Heavy.com was intriguing enough to make me sit down and reread the thing this morning (while it was originally printed in 2000AD progs 828-840 it was reprinted in a collected edition in 2005).

Despite Heavy.com’s table of similarities being quite extensive, they actually missed a couple of things out. In both stories the indiginous population have a profound ancestral link to certain trees and in both they don’t merely ride dragons but are psychically connected to them. The plot also has a remarkably similar structure Firekind even features something which is described as “the avatar of violence and retribution” (although the Hronoth is a very different beast compared to Sam Worthington). In many respects however, Firekind contrasts strongly. It could be described as the Anti-Avatar, a peek of what might have been if Cameron hadn’t stuffed his film full of Hollywood conventions and Western chauvanism.

firekind3Aside from the blue skin and hunter-gatherer nature, the Kesheen are very different to the Na’vi. The former are small and weak and no match for the average human. Yet they are also more in control of their own destiny. Protagonist Hendrick Larsen doesn’t lead a rebellion against the human invaders but merely helps. They also don’t fit quite as snugly into the noble savage stereotype; Hendrick is at one point saved by a colony of Kesheen who have been exiled from the tribe for their ‘deviant’ sexual practices (writer John Smith states in an interview in Thrill Power Overload that he was disappointed by the lack at outrage to the fact that in Kesheen society incest is considered normal and anyone who doesn’t indulge in it is cast out). While both stories feature kinky sex (in the case of Avatar we’ll have to wait for the DVD for the full USB-on-USB action), Firekind is devoid of romance. And while Avatar ends in victory, the survival of Larsen and the remaining Kesheen at the end of Firekind is far from assured.

Firekind isn’t perfect by any means; much of it doesn’t quite hang together and a great many of the ideas in it end up trailing off. The eponymous dragons barely feature and they certainly don’t breathe fire. But it has a freshness which still holds up 17 years later and it is certainly less clichéd.

firekind1Are the two stories similar enough to suggest that Firekind has influenced Avatar? I certainly think there are more than enough similarities to suggest it may be the case. The killer, for me, are the flying stones (which admittedly look quite different). There is also the fact that Cameron is a known comics buff (he spent most of the 90s trying to get his hands on the Spider-Man license and is now working on Battle Angel Alita) and has past form in terms of being caught out ‘borrowing’ his ideas from elsewhere (Harlan Ellison successfully sued Cameron for lifting ideas from Ellison’s Outer Limits episodes for The Terminator). Indeed, 2000AD has been successful in pursuing court cases of its own, with the short strip SHOK! now acknowledged as the main inspiration behind the film Hardware. And no-one disputes the influence Judge Dredd had on Robo-cop.

I wrote back in 2006 that I’d like to see a Firekind film “before, hopefully, someone goes and makes an Anne Macaffrey film (God help us!).” With Avatar now out, that would appear to no longer be a commercial proposition. So it might be an idea for Rebellion, who are indeed moving into the movie making business, to at least have a quiet word with their lawyers about whether they have a case.

Get the 411

My old landlord has launched a new project which I have to admit I am very impressed with.

The 411 Show is a new online magazine show, mainly about independent and unsigned music acts, but with an interest in other things such as independent filmmaking and modern art. There’s even a bit of politics.

The second episode came out last week and features, as well as some great music, Sunny Hundal from Liberal Conspiracy talking about Form 696 and artist Sarah Maple.

You can watch the first part here:

Go here for the second part and all the accompanying videos including live sessions and a selection of imaginitive short films by Robin King.

Enjoy!

Terminator: Salvation – Some things I need to get off my chest (SPOILERS)

I saw Terminator Salvation on Saturday. What can I say? I had time to kill. Anyway, here are a few things I really need to get off my chest. Don’t read anything else if you’re planning to watch this pile of poo:

  • If you are about to coordinate an assault on the enemy, don’t blab the plans out on unscrambled longwave radio.
  • If SkyNet is so great at taking normal human beings and turning them into Terminators, why spend all that time and energy building hoofing great big Terminators that all look like Arnold Schwarzenegger? As an infiltration device, Marcus Wright is a much better tool than Arnie will ever be. He’s a better actor, for one thing.
  • Why, in 2018, does SkyNet give a flying monkey’s about either John Connor or Kyle Reese? How does it know that Connor is going to become a great leader at that stage? How does it know that Kyle Reese is going to be his father?
  • Why are those Terminator bike things designed so that humans can ride them?
  • Why, if Connor clearly has this messiah thing going on, do the resistance keep him on the front line? And how does this messiah thing start in the first place – does he go around bragging about being the future leader of mankind?
  • Why does SkyNet – a computer – feel the need to explain all its plans in detail to Marcus Wright? Why does Marcus get repaired? Why is he allowed to escape? Why not just wipe his memory?
  • Why, at the end of the film, does Kate Brewster cold bloodedly kill Marcus Wright by removing his heart and giving it to John Connor? In what way is that ethically defensible? How does she even know it will be compatible? Since when can vets perform open heart surgery on humans anyway?

There was at least one other major plot hole that really annoyed me but thankfully it is all starting to fade.

UPDATE: Slow on the uptake I know but it has just occurred to me: why does Marcus Wright need a heart anyway? All his other organs have been replaced by machinery so why does he need a circulation system and why does he die (albeit temporarily) when the T-800 punches his heart?

In The Loop Review (spoilers)

This is magnificent — and it is true! It never happened; yet it is still true! What magic art is this?
Robin Goodfellow in Sandman #19 by Neil Gaiman

In The Loop was generally what I expected and hoped it would be – a hilarious, somewhat unsettling satire on how we managed to stumble into the Iraq War. But I also got a little bit more, partly due to accident and partly due to the film’s reception itself.

It’s always weird to watch a film when recent events give it a disturbing extra resonance. I saw a preview of the first Austin Powers on the day Princess Diana died. The joke in it about forcing Prince Charles to have a divorce was greeted with total, uncomfortable silence. Then later, watching the news reports, the friend I saw it with and I were grimly amused by the lack of information about the bodyguard who had been involved in the crash and the film’s ironic refrain of “no-one thinks about the henchmen.”

In The Loop had a sort of opposite effect. On the one hand, the joke about hotel porn got an extra yelp of laughter from the audience due to the proclivities of Jacqui Smith’s husband. On the other, it seemed that little bit more chilling in light of Damogate.

The revelations about Damian McBride and the growing awareness that he is part of a wider, endemic culture within Downing Street and the Labour Party went some way to dampening the criticisms of the film’s most damning critic, Alastair Campbell. It would be tempting to respond to Campbell by paraphrasing Carly Simon (“you’re so vain, I bet you think this film is about you”) but in fairness to him, the theory that Malcolm Tucker = Alastair Campbell has done the rounds for quite some time. Iannucci himself has repeatedly stated that Tucker is not an essay of Campbell himself. McBride this week, and the appearance in the film of another, equally odious press office, makes it clear that what Iannucci is doing is reflecting on a much wider phenomenon.

What I find most fascinating about Campbell’s criticisms though however are, ironically enough, how they parallel a crucial part of the film itself. Because ultimately the film is a study of Tucker and ultimately at what a wretched, pathetic character he is.

Tucker starts the film at the height of his powers, striding into 10 Downing Street and very quickly swooping down on International Development Minister Simon Foster for a gaffe in a radio interview. He bullies, cajoles and manipulates Foster and his staff throughout the film but at one pivotal moment it is revealed that he is ultimately as emasculated as all the other characters in the film. Having been put in his place by John Bolton-alike Linton, for a brief moment we are given a glimpse behind Tucker’s mask and get to see his fear and panic (it only lasts for a couple of seconds but here Peter Capaldi demonstrates what a great actor he is as well as a terrific ranter – I still always think of him as the blue eyed boy in Local Hero).

He pulls himself back together of course and over the course of a couple of hours manages to fake the intelligence necessary to persuade the UN to approve the war. But having done so, he goes back to Linton and attempts to publicly humiliate him in the most cutting and hurtful way he can think of. He calls him boring. Yet, while earlier on the film conspires to make you actually admire the savage nastiness of Tucker’s attacks (like all good movie monsters), by now we realise what a broken character he is. Far from cutting, the remark just comes across as sad.

And how does Alastair Campbell describe the film? He calls it boring.

My Watchmen Review (SPOILERS)

For me, there was one scene in the new Watchmen film that summed up its inherent wrongness (spoiler alert): if you’ve read the comic you will know that Rorschach is thrown in jail and escapes (with a bit of help from Dan “Nite Owl II” Dreiberg and Laurie “Silk Spectre II” Juspeczyk) during a riot. As he is about to escape, Rorschach spots Big Figure, the equally imprisoned diminuitive crimelord who had earlier tried to kill him, dart into a toilet. In the comic, you see Rorschach follow Big Figure into the loo, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre exchange a bit of dialogue, and then Rorschach leaves. What exactly happens to Big Figure is left to our imagination, although we are to understand that “bumping” is involved and it is implied in a bit of gallows humour that he “dived head first” into something. It is a tiny, witty scene of the type that the comic is full.

What happens in the film? Well, Big Figure goes into the toilet, Rorschach follows him citing a need to visit the “men’s room” and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre wait outside. But very little is left to the imagination as we see Rorschach descending on Big Figure. The scene ends with blood pouring out of room. Some of the humour is retained, but for the most part it is replaced with horror and gore.

In a nutshell, that sums up Zack Snyder’s approach to the source material. The wit and humanity is pared down to the bone and replaced by a heightened level of gore. In the previous scene where Big Figure’s henchmen are attempting to kill Rorschach, an out of shot throat slit is replaced by a man having his arms chopped off with an electric saw. Earlier still, a scene in which Rorschach sets fire (out of shot) to a child molester is replaced by him hitting the man repeatedly through the head with a meat cleaver. Only Doctor Manhatten is supposed to have superpowers (even if Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt is understood to have achieved near-physical perfection) and most of the characters are meant to be out of shape and retired, yet when they fight they can break bones and walls with their punches, land on their feet from three storey falls and take the most incredible amounts of physical punishment – all in lingering bullet-time (so 1999 – the Matrix was literally a decade ago for Chrissakes).

In short, this is more of a caricature in the public’s imagination of “comic book” violence than the actual comic book. At one point this is made explicit. In the original comic, Ozymandias says at one point: “Dan, I’m not a republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome?” In the film, “republic serial” is replaced with “comic book” – in other words, two fingers to the source-medium. Comics don’t tend to have villains explaining their plans, at least not to the heroes – that is cinema (c.f. a typical James Bond film). It is one of those odd libels that persists, and disappointing that an apparent fanboy such as Zack Snyder chooses to join in with the conspiracy. Still, you’ve got to show loyalty to the tribe I suppose (slight tangent, but I remember reading a review of Road to Perdition in which they slagged off Jude Law’s rather obtuse character as “betraying its comic book origins” – that character didn’t appear in the original comic and was created specially for cinema audiences).

My ultimate beef with the him however isn’t that it strayed from the original, but that generally it has blindly gone along with it. The annoying stuff is what they have kept. Why, for example, is there so much in the introductory sequence about the forties costumed vigilante Solitaire being a lesbian? It doesn’t add anything to the plot, that particular revelation isn’t even in the comic (it is relegated to a footnote in the text backup feature), yet we get a scene of her snogging her girlfriend and another scene of the two of them having been brutally murdered. If you are desperate to cut stuff out, why keep that? The only apparent reason seems to be some fanboy frisson about lesbians – which creeps rather uncomfortably towards misogyny. Why, in fact, is there so much about the forties vigilantes at all, given that – for example – the death of Hollis Mason (the first Nite Owl) is not shown and the relationship of The Comedian with the Sally “Silk Spectre I” Jupiter is simplified to the point that we are to understand she was raped but loved him anyway. This is yet more misogyny; in the comic he certainly attempts to rape her, but it is made clear that she is ultimately made pregnant by him by consensual sex.

The different ending is, I have to admit, a slight improvement on the original. It never did quite make sense that you could achieve world peace simply by teleporting a big lump of meat in the middle of Times Square, giving everyone in the vicinity a lethal headache in the process. But changing it creates its own problems. For one thing, if artist Max Shea didn’t help design the “squid monster,” then how is this all tied in with his creation Tales of the Black Freighter (on sale in all good DVD shops soon)? Similarly, if Ozymandias isn’t working on a masterplan that requires genetic engineering to work, then why does he walk around in the last 20 minutes of the film with a hoofing great GM lynx. It is a total non-sequitor, a kewl-looking thing you can pay a CG-artist to animate, but something that otherwise has no relevance to the plot.

Even more problematic is the murder of Edward “The Comedian” Blake at the start of the film. He’s killed because the discovered Ozymandias’ plans, but he only discovers these because he is a spy working for the CIA who is sent to investigate what he believes is a Sandinista Base on a desert island. If there is no desert island, there is no rationale for him to have made the discovery. No discovery, no murder. No murder, no plot.

The main thing that is stripped out of the adaptation is humanity. The reason you care at the end of the comic when New York is wiped out is that for eleven issues you have got to know a small cast of characters who gravitate around a completely unremarkable newstand. It is upsetting when they all die at the end. In the film version, they are just cyphers. We don’t get to know the cops, or the staff at the New Frontiersman. We get to see Nite Owl and Silk Spectre have some really bad movie sex (in far more lingering detail than the comic), but we don’t get to see them cathartically make love at the end. At the end, we see Dan and Laurie grinning ear to ear as if they have somehow won something – they haven’t even had to change their identities as in the comic – but not the poignant moment at the end when we see Sally Jupiter, alone, kissing Blake’s photograph.

The final thing the film gets wrong is the pacing. Time is a constant motif – the atomic clock, the “Minutemen”, the “Watchmen”, Doctor Manhatten’s father’s career as a watchmaker, etc. Its famed nine panel grid works to mark time, with pretty much every frame indicating a similar time period. When larger and smaller frames are used, they are used very deliberately. It is a textbook masterpiece in graphic storytelling.

The film, by contrast, has very little in terms of pacing at all. It retains the episodic nature of the original but because so much is chopped out some of those episodes are very long indeed while others are shortened down to a single scene. As such it all feels disjointed and random where it should feel measured with the scenes following each other in a logical progression. Could this have been fixed? A TV mini-series might have worked better. But ultimately it rather shows film up as a flexible medium. You can tell a different story in a comic simply by changing the shape of the pictures and varying them throughout the story (see Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for much more on this). With cinema, you have widescreen, very widescreen and very little flexibility within each film (interestingly, this is something that Ang Lee at least experimented with in The Hulk, but that film is not generally regarded as a great success).

Ultimately, Watchmen is a comic about comics. Originally based on the Charlton superhero universe, the decision to not use these characters themselves ultimately freed Moore and Gibbons up to tell a more universal story. So it is that Rorschach is not just a reinterpretation of The Question, but a satire on the oddness of his creator (and Spider-Man’s), Steve Dikto. Making Captain Atom Doctor Manhatten enabled them to explore wider themes about how superpowers would change the world if they really existed – not necessarily in good ways. The Tales of the Black Freighter interludes, aside from containing yet more nods to Steve Ditko and his contemporaries, explores the essential randomness of how superheroes came to dominate the medium. Stripped of all that, you can still tell a story but you lack much of the essence of the tale that Moore tells.

The Watchmen film isn’t a total disaster. As a tribute to the original it is very flattering. Much of the set design is fantastic. There are little snatches of brilliance here and there where you just wish they’d gone down more in that particular direction. Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of Rorschach is inspired. I’d rather a film maker treated the source material with reverance than with contempt (as is the case of From Hell and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). But V for Vendetta, by no means a great film, was better and more memorable than this because it was ultimately prepared to take more risks with the source material.

Is respectful-but-not-slavish to the original too much to ask? The trail of good comic book adaptations is growing quite long now so the answer is surely “no”, yet the quest for a good Alan Moore adaptation remains elusive. My personal tip for a good Moore adaptation? Skizz directed by Danny Boyle. I’d really like to see that.

UPDATE: Andrew Hickey points me to an article by screenwriter David Hayter which sums up what a misogynist little turd he is, and at least partially explains the thoroughly negative attitude to women in the film.

The Watchmen parodies are coming!

With the Watchmen film coming out (cunningly timed to coincide with Lib Dem Conference – cheers!), I thought I’d run a couple of films by you.

Firstly, with the film itself cutting the story to the bone, if you want an even semi-complete Watchmen movie experience, you have to buy the DVD of Tales of the Black Freighter – an animation about a bloke running away from a big pirate ship. Can’t work out what that has to do with a film based on a superhero film? Clearly you haven’t read the original – it is this sort of juxtaposition that makes Watchmen the classic it is. Essentially, the story in TBF parallels the main narrative, while the pirate theme is an illustration of how in a world with real superheroes the comics industry is likely to be flogging some other genre to death. A bit like how, um, the movie industry is currently flogging the whole supernatural pirates story thing to death at the moment. Go figure.

Anyway, here is the trailer:

Meanwhile, Happy Harry has produced this “reimagining” of Watchmen as if it were an 80s era Saturday Morning Cartoon. Fantastic stuff, although the Simpsons sort of got there first with the Watchmen Babies:

Finally, this Mac/PC parody (part of a Marvel/DC series) hits several nails on the head, even if it does lapse into fandom on occasion:

Can’t get enough? You could always track down Watchmensch. Oy vey!

I won’t get to see the actual film until Monday, and even then I’ll probably hate it. Bah.