Awaiting Awakens


It’s been hard for me to focus today.

Technically it’s a work day — the place I work for doesn’t close down for the Christmas break until December 23. For better or worse, though, the primary element of my role — teaching — wrapped up at the end of October. Grading assessments brought me up to mid-November, but then it’s been working through a random assortment of things I’d been putting off for the rest of the year. Largely research and getting on top of reading for supervisions.

Which means I’ve had a lot of thinking time. Probably too much.

Today is December 16. Midnight tomorrow (12am December 17) sees me enter a cinema, don some 3D glasses and strap in for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Those who know me know that I’ve been a fan of Star Wars forever. I wore out the Special Edition VHS tapes as a kid, then bought up each new iteration as it was released (warts, badly-composited womp rats, NOOOOOOOOOO’s, and all). I’ve written elsewhere about how Star Wars was an escape, and it was. It helped me through a lot. It was that escape, that fantasy, that security blanket, that everyone needs and deserves.

As I’ve gotten (a little) older, I’ve become more invested in how this pop culture behemoth has taken over the popular consciousness. While I would never ever consider authoring anything academic about the franchise (though I have mentioned it on occasion, only as an example), it’s been really great to see that excitement about these films that are so special to me has not waned in some 40 odd years.

I’m not particularly concerned about the new film. I have a lot of time for JJ Abrams as a person and a director, which might shock some of my students. I have next to no expectations, beyond my wish for a good time. You’d think I’d expect more, given my extended fanship, but honestly I am a little over the whingers. Han Shot First, fan theories, despecialized editions, the list goes on. A great deal of George Lucas’s pain over the last thirty years comes down to fans thinking they own the franchise when, honestly, they don’t. They never have.

Now, let’s be clear: I think a lot of the changes Lucas has made over the years have resulted in poorer films. But jumping up and down won’t change anything. Sadly, said jumping up and down has resulted in an entire social network: Tumblr. I like Tumblr, it’s a fun place to be, but it can also be exhausting.

Tangent time: in the last 24 hours I’ve listened to the entire run of the podcast Limetown. It’s a fictional story in the style of investigative/story-based podcasts like This American Life and Serial (though there is speculation Limetown was produced before the latter was release). It’s a short and engaging story (six episodes of about 25 mins each) in the vein of Fringe or The Twilight Zone, and makes exceptional use of the format in order to develop characters and tension. After some discussion with the good friend who put me on to the show, I decided to investigate a little further into some of the unresolved story threads. Reddit didn’t let me down. Hundreds of seemingly unimportant references and words are ripped to shreds by fans who have listened to each episode ten or more times. While there is a tendency to label uber-fans as obsessives or ‘weird’ (per Jenkins), I can’t help but admire their dedication to this thing that they’ve found that they love. Some of the discussions, though, led to some fans defending an idea that was entirely based on speculation. Fans of podcasts are generally a genial bunch, so it never got nasty, but there were moments where, with other cultural artefacts, it’s gotten very ugly.

Again, it comes down to ownership. I see no harm in throwing theories out there, speculating on what might happen, or collectively bemoaning adjustments to a beloved franchise, but adoration/love/fandom does not equal ownership. Limetown and Star Wars do not belong to us. They are the genuine artistic creations of a series of individuals who should be praised for having the skills and the guts to put it together and put it out into the world.

It was gratifying to read that George Lucas had received a standing ovation at the premiere of The Force Awakens earlier in the week. And in the latest episode of Imaginary Worlds, Eric Molinsky dissects the Han Shot First debate, couching it in not dissimilar terms to those I’ve used above. One quote really stuck with me, and in many ways inspired this epic rant of mine:

“We shouldn’t be too proud of this technological terror we’ve constructed, and by that I mean Twitter. Because at a certain point filmmakers need to have leeway to make bold creative choices so the franchise can breathe and grow and not be just a big nostalgia trip.”

I had a lot of feels about Jurassic World. But, in hindsight, kudos to the rights-holders for giving Colin Trevorrow the go-ahead to introduce new characters and stories (and, sadly, dinosaurs) into this world we know and love. Jurassic World was a failed experiment, but without failure there would be no success. I think The Force Awakens will prove that such revivals, reawakenings, and reboots, can be successful.

GI No: The Rise of Nope-ra

A bout with an entirely new illness (to add to my five-week-long tussle with sinusitis) has left me with little desire to do anything productive with my time (to be fair, this illness is partly defined by severe lethargy). Thus I’ve taken time to catch up with a few movies and TV this weekend (including a sizeable chunk of Season 5 of Castle).

I could wax lyrical about the moral cesspool of How To Sell A Banksy. I could reminisce about the very first time I saw GoldenEye (aged about 8: a very eye-opening experience). I could even deconstruct everything that’s a little off about Marcus du Sautoy’s pseudo-mathematic miniseries The Code. Instead, a brief disquisition on the other high art piece I was fortunate enough to catch up on this weekend: GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Continue reading “GI No: The Rise of Nope-ra”

Spared no expense on everything but story

This is not the most unbelievable thing about Jurassic World. At least mosasaurs actually existed.
This is not the most unbelievable thing about Jurassic World. At least mosasaurs actually existed.

There are lots of things you can do with collaborators. Build a house, manage some kind of project that synergises all the paradigms, play sports. There are even things you can do with collaborators in film production: set up lights, operate cameras, run cables, produce. I am of the very strong opinion, though, that there is one thing you can’t do as a team: write a script. And if you need an absolute case-in-point as to why this is now indisputable fact: go watch Jurassic World.

I had very low expectations of this film going in, but there was still a part of me that really wanted to get swept up and then blown away. I wanted to rekindle some of that magic from that moment in Jurassic Park where Alan Grant turns Ellie Satler’s head so she can gawp at the brachiosaurs. The thing with Jurassic Park, though, is that they were restrained by technology. Time and time again, this restriction has led to some of the most innovative — and believeable — filmmaking. The combination of early CGI with models, miniatures, and animatronics, had the audience holding their breath with every T-Rex footstep. The other Spielbergian touch that really worked in the original is the idea of hiding the monster. This is something he started with Jaws (for budgetary reasons), but which ended up being so very effective. If you hide the monster, you can build the script and the characters around that suspense, such that when you do reveal the demon in full, it becomes a focal point: the final conflict, which ultimately leads to resolution.

This sense of wonder mingled with deft suspense, this ability to suspend disbelief, this logical story progression, was entirely absent from Jurassic World. Instead we get Male (Chris Pratt) off-handedly flirting with Female (Bryce Dallas Howard) while the genetically-modified hybrid dinosaur runs amok in an inexplicably fully-functioning dinosaur theme park. If the story were that simple, the film may have worked (or had a fighting chance). Instead, you’ve also got Kid 1 and Kid 2 embroiled in the chaos, military contractors led by Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) wanting to use dinosaurs to overthrow ISIS or whatever, oh, and Male (Pratt) has actually been training velociraptors to do tricks for park visitors. Also there’s 21st century Denis Nedry (played by New Girl guy) and his coworkers in Mission Control at NASA watching everyone die on big screens. Also this film is apparently a subtle dig at consumer culture and the film industry.

My biggest problem with Jurassic World isn’t the sheer amount of groundless, physics-defying CGI (at one point a velociraptor glides across the ground as though animated by me with my crappy After Effects skills). My biggest problem with Jurassic World is that all these characters I’ve mentioned are supposed to be human beings. They’re meant to have backstories and lives and motivations, and all of these things are meant to be apparent to us as soon as we meet them, because we know we won’t have enough time with all of them across the length of the film. My biggest problem with Jurassic World is that it fails so spectacularly at what Jurassic Park did so well: tell a story with a sizeable ensemble cast, and get you seeing what they see, feeling what they feel, wanting what they want. And so much of that empathy is down to the script. Shoehorning expositional shortcuts into dialogue is not the way to create empathy with characters: showing us how a character we’ve prejudged based on appearance reacts in an extraordinary situation is. To be fair, there are moments in Jurassic World like this, but they’re so few and far between that these actual character development/storytelling ‘bits’ are lost in a sea of hokiness.

These characters were profiled by committee, and their stories were written by different people in different rooms, and there was no meeting between that process and filming. The clunkiness of the script is even further exacerbated when your film does not have any acts: the audience is left with no time to breathe, and there is no logical escalation of action. Storytelling was farmed off here, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it writ so clearly on the screen. Almost every line of dialogue in the first half of the film made me cringe. I think I only stopped cringing in the second half because the final build-up of action was distracting (and my shoulders were sore).

The biggest hurdle that Jurassic World faces is that it’s part of a franchise that began with one of the most beloved films of the 1990s. It doesn’t hurt that the original film is one of the finest action-adventure films in cinematic history, with believeable characters, with pacing, and with some of the most innovative visual effects ever put on screen. Jurassic World fails for the very reasons that it attempts to satirise: it ignores its audience, giving them what it thinks they want, rather than attempting to engage them on a meaningful level.

Suffice to say this new franchise will likely not, uh, uh, find a way.

I jumped a shark and I liked it


I really liked this film, and it’s really hard to articulate why. I’d seen all the criticism, read all the accounts of the demise of storytelling, character development, and good taste: hell, even the blaming of this movie for the single-handed demolition of the popcorn movie.

Somehow, though, five minutes in, I forgot all that. I didn’t find the story hard to follow. I didn’t find it particularly dumb (and certainly not intellectual). I enjoyed all the characters, including Ultron. The Romanov/Banner subplot was oddly sweet. Thor was, well, adorable. Hulk was hulkey. And yep, it still hit all the touchstones (pardon the pun) for the next few movies and, yep, I’ll probably go see them too.

Of course it’s not believable. Of course it’s not pristine storytelling. It’s got lots of stupid action in it for no real reason. There’s no time for real character development.

Reason? It’s a comic book movie. Go in with sub-zero expectations, like I did, and you’ll have a ball.

P.S. Fun fact: beyond this blog post, I have no desire whatsoever to write about Age of Ultron, certainly not from any academic perspective. Heh, maybe that’s why I liked it.

Gone Girl


What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

About a month ago, I smashed through Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl in a few days. I came away from the book feeling dirty: sullied somehow. My first words to my partner were, “I think I need a shower.” It’s hard to define why this is. I enjoyed reading the book. I was hooked the entire time, utterly engrossed in this deep character study of two seriously messed up people. The book was very well-written, a literary thriller of the first degree, and mesmerising in its wit and structure. The book was funny, at times, too. Continue reading “Gone Girl”

Hit/Miss: Evolving Narratives and the Semiotics of the Blockbuster


The high-budget, visual-effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster film is among the most popular entertainments of the modern era. While viewing practices continue to change and evolve, the major studios still push out some twenty or thirty films each year with budgets exceeding US$10 million. The blockbuster film is often pushed to the boundaries of film studies as populist escapism. This paper seeks to position the blockbuster film as the ideal indicator of cinematic trends, demonstrating that these films are changing the very nature of narrative. Continue reading “Hit/Miss: Evolving Narratives and the Semiotics of the Blockbuster”