Sunday, 25 December 2016

Spirit of the age

Just watched the (flawed, and, in retrospect, surprisingly lopsided, structurally-speaking) Yuletide classic, It's a Wonderful Life.

When George Bailey gets his wish and the snow stops falling and his lip stops bleeding the twelve-year old pipes up: "Does that mean that he's invincible?"

Bloody DC and Marvel have a lot to answer for.

Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Star Wars part three and a half

Contains spoilers

Well, somebody didn't obey orders, did they?  What was billed as a separate, standalone tale from the Star Wars storyverse turned out to be the full-blown missing link between parts three and four.  And no bad thing, even if we know, by implication how things turn out.  Plus there's an added structural challenge: classically act two would all be about stealing the plans of the Death Star, and the final act using them to destroy it.  But, no: that all has to happen in A New Hope.  Indeed, Gareth Edwards deserves praise for ensuring it doesn't feel like it's come to a shuddering halt, as if somebody's lost the final reel, a la Empire.  And not just for that; overall it is helmed with aplomb, helped by Felicity Jones and Diego Luna showing the am-dram of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega for what it was.

What I particularly liked was, rather than taking JJ Abrams' approach of creating a narrative doppelganger of an earlier story, Edwards captures the aesthetic of the 1970s/80s movies, which themselves took the vacuum tube-punk of 1930s Flash Gordons et al as their kicking off point.  There were particular scenes, shots, angles that felt like old friends.  That tunnel entrance on Scarif?  Think of the jungle battle at the end of the Teddy Bear Movie (retitled, I think, in some territories as Return of the Jedi).  A uber-liftshaft with challenging access issues?  Check.  Even an R2 unit skating across the screen from middle distance right to foreground left - I'm not going to search through the movies, but that wasn't accidental.

And, thankfully, no sodding cantina with a jazz band who are all alien but essentially bipedal and vaguely humanoid in scale and proportion, even if they are encumbered with what are obviously rubber heads.  Plus, another layer of dirt on those first three parts isn't a bad idea; bury them deep, deeper, until no living soul remembers their names.  All in all, quite a triumph.

However, I do have a sense of unease about the ending.  About Scarif.

Not the obvious one: that what is essentially a big filing cabinet, an interstellar Hayes repository, appears guarded by the SAS.  No, my concern runs much deeper.  It is a metaphysical - possibly ontological - concern, no less.  About the nature of data.

You see, the plans of the Death Star are a Maguffin; the object of the hunt, the thing people are prepared to sacrifice themselves for.  For this to work it has to be a single physical object.  It makes no sense otherwise.  But the Star Wars storyverse admits of digital data: Director Orson is ordered to check the records and content of messages sent by Galen Erso; the plans themselves are broadcast to the ships.  This is digital data and the great thing about digital data is that it is infinitely replicable and, in theory, remotely accessible.

You want a digital file?  Don't leap into your spaceships (without even grabbing a water bottle - seriously; fail to prepare, prepare to fail); no, get a hacker on the case.  But that wouldn't have made for a big battle scene at the end, would it?

Plus - let's stop a moment and consider this - we are to believe that the Death Star has one set of plans?  You can find the plans for the remodelling and extension of our house, digitally and physically, in the filing cabinet next to where I'm typing, and in the offices of the local Council (planning and building control), our architects, the builders (both the ones we used and unsuccessful bidders), the company that designed our underfloor heating, plus probably a few other contractors I can't think of at the moment.  And that's just a £180k domestic building project, not a space-going, planet-sized, planet-destroying vessel.

It's a small story point, but I'd be prepared to believe that the plan showing the flaw in the Death Star's structure was too valuable to be trusted to a digital plan and was held as a single, encrypted physical version, impossible to reproduce or transmit.  Even show us a failed attempt to access them remotely.  Then all the palaver to get them makes sense.  Otherwise I'm constantly being pulled out of the story, my mind constantly asking 'Really?'.

This is where the worlds of sci-fi ancient and modern, Flash Gordon and the X-Men clash unsuccessfully.  I've never had a sense of a film being so easy to parody, the hurdles that a story of stealing digital data creates for itself coming down essentially to issues of buffering and broadband speeds and getting up on the roof to align your aerial.  Scrolling yellow text?  I wonder if the next movie will have it as a never-completing blue bar?

Thursday, 8 December 2016

There'd be an app for that

Caught the ever so slightly very minor sci-fi movie The Final Cut the other night.  A fine understated late Robin Williams performance, even if the story revolves around a plot point so half-baked it was like the script had been developed out of a chimp's finger-painting that only coincidentally resembled contentful language.

Anyway, that's not what I'm here to talk about.  In the story recording implants are available to anyone with the cash to pay, to be downloaded and edited post mortem by 'Cutters'.  Highlights of a life are then played as an eulogy at the funerals, if the noise of protesters at the practice doesn't drown out the resulting home movie.

There are elements of this that I see being worryingly prescient.  Why should we not, in the next two or three decades, be able to take a feed off the optic and auditory nerves, to be stored and played?  We may not even have to do that - how about smart lenses recording our lives?  Or smart tattoos?  Maybe that'll be the real role of smart clothing?  There are probably a myriad of ways of constantly monitoring and recording our lives that I haven't thought of in the thirty seconds I gave it.

But there's one aspect that seems antediluvian, retrograde, pre-decimal: The Cutter.

The Cutter is a privileged specialist, a wizard class for the world of 'Zoe chips'.  Only Cutters are able to extract the images; only Cutters have the rights to put together the visual tribute to the late great dearly departed.  Only Cutters have a monopoly over the magic.

This strikes me as a major dropping of the ball, 
a failure to think through.  We live in a world of increasing democratisation of information.  The medium is being put in our hands to broadcast our message, authority is increasingly being questioned.  Maybe you could argue that the world has changed radically in twelve years, and how could they have predicted, (oddly, The Final Cut debuted at the Berlin Film Festival a week after Facebook was founded), but we got rid of the chauffeur, the typist, and the housemaid long before 2004.  Functionality has been flowing towards users for a long time.

In short, there'd be an app for editing the footage of your own life.  And if the makers of the Zoe chips didn't provide it, somebody would.  There'd be too much of a hunger to post video in real time, to manipulate and control, to lay down for posterity a record of your life in real time.

Maybe they didn't see it that way.  Or maybe they saw it and didn't like the questions it threw up.  Some movies move in a zippy enough way for you to forget to ponder the readily ponderables.  But not The Final Cut.  Like, wouldn't all of this data be useful in a court of law?  Or when writing an autobiography (although it would mean we would never have been treated to Jeffery Bernard's delicious letter to the New Statesman in July 1975 stating "I have been commissioned to write an autobiography and I would be grateful to any of your readers who could tell me what I was doing between 1960 and 1974.")

However, the real issue for me is that there simply isn't enough hours in the day to review video, if video covered... well, every hour of the day.  We seem perplexed that our technological leaps forward haven't led to any corresponding leaps in productivity.  Hardly bloody surprising when we spend our time tweeting pictures of our dinner, or consuming pictures of other people's dinners.  No time to forge more steel, or whatever it is that keep GDP pointing skyward.

If we were able to have a stream of our own experience on (digital) tap 24/7 then, for me, the real issue is one of addiction to reviewing your own life.  And this really, really does throw up a dystopia, a heroin that makes kitten videos on YouTube seem like Babycham in comparison.  I see a subclass springing up overnight, like mushrooms, winding and rewinding their lives, watching their pasts in slow motion, making the hikikomori look like speed-daters when it comes to interacting with the world.

If The Final Cut had covered that angle then it would have been a braver and, possibly, a more prescient story.

One of the many days that I hope I'm wrong...