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How the original Westworld got robots right (and why HBO’s show might have them wrong)

October 6, 2016


HBO’s new version of Westworld debuted this week. The pilot episode featured the kind of nuanced take on the sentience and sensibility of robotic people that you’d expect to find at the head of a popular culture that’s been fascinated with the subject for over forty years. Are they alive? Are they sad? Is it wrong to look at them naked, about five times an episode? The new Westworld’s machines are complex, Turing test-acing fascinations, their bodies caught in gameplay loops that their Shakespeare-quoting souls can’t sustain. They are ethically, spiritually and psychologically mysterious, new beings tip-toeing to consciousness in the shadow of man’s hubris. But for all that, are they any better than their big-screen counterparts, from 1973’s comparably clunky original film?

There is a strength in the original Westworld’s straightforwardness. The last two things Yul Brynner’s glassy-eyed gunslinger would have contemplated indulging himself in are an existential crisis, and the meaningful quotation of Shakespeare, especially not Romeo And Juliet (“These violent delights,” spit the gunslinger’s reality-spooked descendants, “have such violent ends.”) From our post-Terminator, post-Matrix vantage point, Michael Crichton’s film is almost quaint, an off-shoot of 1970s paranoia that looks bitterly back on post-war promises of American idealism just as much as it looks forward to the coming age of tech cynicism.

It is, in other words, as much about leisure and lifestyle as it is about technology. Westworld and the wider Delos resort hold a mirror to contemporary American amusement park culture – echoes of imperial indolence float over from Westworld’s sister park, Roman World, while Medieval World offers a TV dinner of gallantry and wenching. If the plastic utopian trip of Disney’s parks are the target here then it’s appropriate that Disney should have its own, copyrighted term for this rigorous real-world fictionalising: Imagineering. The official definition of Imagineering is “letting your imagination soar, then engineering it back down to earth,” which speaks to the technological heavy lifting required to suppress reality, though the experience of actually passing through these ostentatiously sustained illusions is more like willingly slipping into a cheerful dream. I have seen the glow of Radiator Springs under the Californian night, and it’s as beautiful as anything you’ll see in Yosemite – but it requires a form of buy-in, a subscription to a processed version of existence that’s incompatible with Westworld’s Nixon-era anxiety.

The point, aside from the fact that even a movie as disappointing as Cars can make for a great theme park, is that Westworld is a nostalgic sort of dystopia, and as such it’s tempting to think of take on automation as unsophisticated. It’s a bonus, really, a framing device for the primary attack on grotesque consumerism. That’s perhaps why interactions with the robot hosts of Westworld seem so much like real-world encounters with the euphemistically-titled Cast Members that staff Disney Resorts. Richard Benjamin, who in the film is timidly visiting Westworld for the first time alongside a brash James Brolin, isn’t sure what’s real once they pass the threshold (“Was she a…?”) the same uncertainty that comes from looking into the eyes of a young performer and seeing only Cinderella or Snow White staring back.

In the end, though, the distinction between man and machine is clear. They may look alike, but the robots are all surface – Brynner’s black-clad antagonist is the visual twin of the star’s character from The Magnificent Seven, an unreal image dislocated from its human host. What sets Westworld apart from so many science fiction warnings, adventures and even romances that have arrived since, is that its machines are and remain totally inscrutable. Even wearing an image of himself, Brynner is a blank – we don’t know why he malfunctions (aside from smart genre talk of virus-like symptoms) or what he’s after. The film might offer us a pixelated perspective shot from the gunslinger’s point of view, but there’s never a suggestion of an interior life, or a motive beyond the malevolence of the robot’s original programming.

HBO’s version of Westworld sets out to be different. The opening of its pilot episode is an exercise in disorienting perspective shifts. James Marsden’s handsome newcomer arrives on a train full of chattering guests, just like Benjamin and Brolin, while Ed Harris’ dead-eyed man in black echoes Brynner-echoing-Brynner. When the pair meet, though, it’s Marsden’s bullets that bounce of the – surprise! – human Harris. This time, the show is telling us, the roles can be reversed. Sympathy is relative. Humanity is ambiguous.

This is in part down to the structural differences of making a film and making a television show. The job of HBO’s Westworld is to turn the relatively simple one-shot worry of the original – what if robots, but bad? – into a complex tension capable of sustaining at least one and, with Game Of Thrones ending soon and no other hits in sight, preferably several seasons of programming. But it’s also down to our cultural familiarity with the subject matter. We’ve been dealing with machines that think for decades. We’ve been wondering if they’re good or bad for almost as long, and we’ve been wanting them to be our dads since at least Terminator 2. The idea of returning to a premise as simple as “Yul Brynner wants to shoot you because his circuit boards tell him to (also this is a metaphor)” is impossible at this point.

But there’s a danger to our perceived sophistication. In Blade Runner we are in awe of Roy Batty’s profundity as he laments his own passing. In AI we pity David when he’s rejected by his family. In Short Circuit, we agonise over the naivety of Johnny Five. And in each case, we are extending sympathy to machines that by definition cannot feel emotions, based upon the emotions that their human-like appearance makes us expect them to have. We are primed to interpret their physical responses as indicative of underlying emotional ones and, by making machines look human, we trick ourselves into feeling sorry for something that might as well be a spoon, or a clever hammer.

This, really, is the central hook of Ex Machina, a film ostensibly about a series of tests administered to an artificial person, Ava, to see if she has developed consciousness. At the end of the film, after a proxy war has been fought over Ava’s unethical treatment at the hands of her inventor, she leaves for dead the man who tested, fell in love with and rescued her – not because Ava dislikes him, but because she has no feelings for him whatsoever, cannot fathom what feelings are, and because she’s not a she but an it, a spoon, a hammer. The coldness of it is spectacular – the same coldness that is in Brynner’s glassy eyes, a coldness at the heart of both our most rudimentary and most articulate responses to the issue of thinking machines. HBO’s Westworld has a great deal of unravelling and growing to do – coming episodes acknowledge a lot of these problems, makes them central even – but is still based upon a lingering dalliance with the tempting fallacy that machines might just be as human as us after all.


Oh, Hell – Some Thoughts On Not Loving New Doom

June 6, 2016

doom-2016_005I first noticed I wasn’t enjoying the new Doom as much as I’d originally thought when I stopped playing it for weeks and the idea of starting again made me slightly sad.

It’s obvious in hindsight, but it was easy to miss those signs because I was – and still am in many ways – convinced that I love this new version of Doom, and all the ways it’s like the old Doom but is also new. Oh, the allure of the same-but-new-but-same.

And in many ways New Doom, or as people are already refusing to call it, Noom, is very much the same-but-new-but-same. I wrote a piece effectively saying this but longer for RPS after the first gameplay reveal a year ago, all about the urgency and grace of moving sideways, and how the constant motion combined with how the demonic enemies attack you – essentially a process of constantly constructing a 3D maze of dodgeable fireballs – captured a central, important thing about what old Doom did very well.

I think that’s there, still, in the playing. 2016’s Doom is best in its early stages, bursting from a stone sarcophagus desperate to run down corridors and pull jaws from the demonically compromised. This is a great example of a update seeming like a faithful translation of then into now, despite all the intangible subjectivities by which this process is governed. There was no real melee system in classic Doom, but the glory kills which have modern us performing trauma circus finishers when in range of weakened enemies feels classic all the same, full of the same performance fury and adolescent righteousness.

So I was enjoying the new Doom and was, as I say, surprised when the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to me having stopped enjoying it after all. Here are some potentially boring reasons for this having happened that I have only bothered to think about and write down because I love the old Doom a great deal.

At some point new Doom stops being about shooting things with a shotgun and occasionally beating them into whatever world comes next if you’re from actual Hell with their own arms, and becomes about cuboid staging grounds filled with power-ups, waves of enemies, and the strategic possibilities of setting one against the other. The exits are sealed, rooms become killboxes, and our job becomes to survive and exterminate.

The problem is partly philosophical, a sense of enclosure versus the original’s speedy perpetual motion, but it’s also one of simple fun. A foundation of classic Doom is that most enemies are easy to kill, and only particular situations require the use of anything meatier than a shotgun or chaingun. These situations, once the levels are committed to memory, can be plotted out and saved for – rockets here, plasma there – while the rest of the game remains an angry burst. New Doom, once it introduces its tougher demons, becomes a series of encounters with a stacked pyramid of damage absorption. Being trapped in those cuboid staging ground becomes about dealing as much pain as possible towards giant, hurt-sponge enemies who can only be retreated from in a constant circle.

Even then I suspect I might be suffering from playing on PS4. Instant access to the 0-9 weapons menu might give these encounters more fluidity – but, on the other hand, it still wouldn’t solve my BFG problem. This is a small thing I feel disproportionately. In old Doom the BFG used energy cell ammunition, just like the Plasma Rifle. Using one weapon or the other was a choice, meaning the game had no firm say on whether you had the ability to use the BFG at any given moment – the joys of plotting out and saving for. Now the BFG is rationed using bespoke ammunition in the form of green pills. When Noom wants you to use the BFG, it gives you pills, a form of managed mayhem that makes you feel leashed at the point of greatest release.

All of which is why new Doom, a game I like in lots of ways, felt at the end and for a while before like something I was full of, like a rich cake. I finished it tonight, after a few weeks of playing a level every few days. I’m glad I played it, but I’m also glad it’s done.

The Oscars 2016: What Do They Tell Us?

February 27, 2016

The Oscars are happening! Hooray for the Oscars, even if the theme chosen by the Academy this year is institutional racism.

The Oscars are happening! Have you seen all the best picture nominees? Probably not, as the Academy still seems to think two hours is the minimum amount of time it takes for a movie to be important. But for once maybe you should have – the 2016 line-up is remarkably full of socially engaged, politically conscientious filmmaking. Here’s a short guide to the contenders, and what we might learn from their nominations.

Bridge Of Spies

In Which We Learn: That Tom Hanks is still the onscreen embodiment of American values, and that Hollywood is far more comfortable endorsing those values through the prism of the past than trying to impose them on whatever the fuck mess we’ve made of the present.  

Bridge-of-spiesBridge Of Spies is an obdurate moralist – a film about stubborness and standards, with Mark Rylance’s standout performance as a cold war spy an exercise in dowdy minimalism. It’s also, quietly, one of Steven Spielberg’s most relevant political pictures – with actual fascists marching the presidential campaign trail, and with swathes of the American public lit up by promises of state-sanctioned religious intolerance, Bridge Of Spies calmly and with Tom Hanks’ face insists that justice isn’t relative, and that a true test of our values is how far we extend them to our enemies. It is, in other words, the kind of sense the world urgently needs, which is why it’s a slight shame that it ducks the complexities of current conflicts and lives instead in a cosy, detached pocket of cold war simplicity, and a time of unquestionable American virtue.

The Martian

In which we learn: That Ridley Scott now makes better sci-fi movies without aliens than with them.

martian-4.0The Martian is like Don’t Starve On Mars, which is a joke only people who’ve played Don’t Starve will get but is still worth making because it really is like that except with fewer pig men. It’s also a movie that’s good mostly because it stars Matt Damon, one of the few performers engaging enough to make his co-stars shine even when they are potatoes and red sand.

None of this is why The Martian has been nominated for best picture, which has more to do with the fact it plays like a speculative Apollo 13 sequel. It is a film about NASA and the American capacity for greatness which, Like Bridge Of Spies, flees the present in order to stage a state-of-the-nation discussion on neutral ground. It’s also a well-paced disaster film directed by Ridley Scott, who’s made several films long enough to qualify as Academy-standard Important, although not one set on Mars that’s as good as Total Recall, which is still unironically the most culturally and politically relevant film ever set on the red planet.

Mad Max: Fury Road

In which we learn: That George Miller still makes blisteringly weird films about Australia and mankind.

mad-max-fury-road-charlize-theron-furiosa-tom-hardy-action-movie-reviewMad Max is a really good action film, that’s basically made of fire. It’s also a kind of miracle. George Miller, who sandwiched Babe and Happy Feet into a career bookended by apocalyptic revery, has returned to Mad Max and somehow invested it with the same angry sense of the fallen and the grotesque as he did 40 years ago. This is the kind of comeback that the failures of people like George Lucas and John Carpenter have taught us through brutal disappointment to be unthinkable, and it raises the possibility that maybe Miller’s just really fucking good at making films.

Supporting this theory is how Miller seems to appreciate that the very idea of Max – the violent traumatised loner, for so long Hollywood’s dysfunctional masculine default – is exhausted. In Fury Road Miller slots Max into a support role to the actual protagonist, Furiosa, on a mission to free a group of women from sexual slavery and search for a matriarchal utopia. In other words, while most action films struggle to find a space for women’s tits on the poster, Mad Max is, somehow, an impossible spectacle of neverending speed and violence and a critique of reproductive exploitation and the inherent destructiveness of patriarchal political discourse. Bring Happy Feet 3 the fuck on.


In which we learn: That nominees can still be unremarkable if they are about Important True Things.

spotlight-movie_FotorSpotlight is the kind of good that makes it hard to get worked up about in any particular direction, a take on widespread child abuse in the Catholic Church that contributes another perspective to this year’s general theme of “Ways groups of men really fuck things up”.

It’s also a better conspiracy thriller than it is an enlightening treatment of abuse – the response the film provokes most effectively isn’t horror or sympathy, but excitement. And Spotlight made me feel significantly less excited than, say, Creed, which is a masterclass in emotionally involving its audience in the specific ways men should punch each other. Of course men punching each other is less important than uncovering decades of abuse – and that’s the point. Spotlight is here not because it’s a great film – it’s a good one – but because it wears its subject matter like a big badge of mattering (and also, if we’re being +1 skeptical, because the Academy has extra sympathy for a story about print newspapers and – specifically – the importance of paying for quality content in a digital marketplace.)

The Big Short

In which we learn: That at this point laughter is the only sane way Hollywood has of responding to the decadent sophistication of the financial crisis.

1401x788-BGS-02959R__The Big Short is a swaggering look at the 2008 global crash which – appropriately enough – borrows both the grammar and charismatic attraction-repulsion of Goodfellas, sweeping through institution-thick greed and systemic swindling with a wink and a flashy smile. If this year’s nominees add up to a collective anxiety dream about the contemporary crisis of American-ness, then The Big Short’s woozy “What the fuck?” is the part where you’re chased by dollars signs with teeth and your house is made from weevils.

As with Spotlight there’s an element of looking around the disaster rather than directly at it – this is, after all, perhaps the most American way of examining the crash, through the eyes of WINNERS, dreams coming true in the midst of capitalist nightmare. Other problems include wretched fourth-wall chicanery which operates under the delusion that acknowledging your break with convention makes it not shit, and everything Christian Bale does as a somewhere-on-the-spectrum investor with shoeless social skills but – wow! – a visionary bent for numbers. It’s affliction acting at its most mindlessly transparent, which probably why it’s earned him another acting nomination.


In which we learn: A sustained look at various forms of male violence is probably the unconscious theme of this year’s awards.

room-movie-fiveExcept of course the male violence here is direct and obvious, at least eventually. Initially the film could be almost anything – science fiction, post-apocalyptic mystery, a single space drama lit up by the tender naivety of a small child (Jacob Tremblay, who could almost fit inside the Oscar he should definitely win but somehow hasn’t even been nominated for). Yes, this is the Hollywood version of being kept in a shed for years and raped every day – there is humanity here reality might not permit – but at least we have a Hollywood version.

I like Room for two main reasons: because its shrunk-universe opening manages to convey the galactic fragility of childhood through the non-use of definite articles, and because – Hollywood version or not – it plots itself out of a happy ending, giving half of itself over to the untidy and permanent consequences of trauma.


In which we learn: It’s a real shame the Oscars is so racist this year, because in loads of other ways they’re doing great work.

ronan-4-xlargeBrooklyn is about the distance and draw of America at time when world was still an inhumanly big place, and about the tiny, immense things that anchor and rock our lives. It’s also a romantic film full of near-perfect people acting out a drama of unreal selfessness and dignity without being totally unfuckingbearable, which it pulls off largely thanks to Saoirse Ronan. Much of the film is spent watching her face barely move, the kind of face you’d believe no matter what kind of story it was telling.

Brooklyn is also a minute redress of Hollywood’s historical imbalance in the telling of immigration tales, and it’s probably revealing that rather than empire building and dream chasing the story here is about constructing a modest, happy life, all the space and potential of America barely able to pry open the trap of custom and expectation. These confines don’t hurt the film, though, which makes beautiful moments from the small and the quiet – a letter, a look, a word – all with more impact than a franchise of detonations and empty pryotechnics.

The Revenant

In which we learn: That suffering is, like, meaningful.

Screen-Shot-2015-09-29-at-6.44.47-AMWhile the other films in the best picture race this cross-reference conceptions of America with male power and violence, The Revenant is about headbutt-strength masculinity. The very kind, in fact that Mad Max left behind – raw and basic, trembling over the nobility of suffering like there’s no higher calling in existence than out-manning other men by enduring more pain, bears and outside than they can and then making a hole in them with a bullet or a stick.

The Revenant is probably brilliant, even if an age of digital augmentation had me doubting the truth of every grand landscape with which is pushed its profundity. But it’s also FUCKING BORING, unquestioningly celebrating an empty and destructive model of manhood that confuses pain with profundity.

A Savagely Partial Look At The Films Of 2015

December 28, 2015

Welcome to a round-up of ALL THE FILMS OF 2015 – that is, all the films of 2015 that I, a human man with a job that does not require me to watch films and two children who positively prevent it, have seen this year. It’s myopic to the point of irrelevance, but I’ve been doing it for years and momentum carries me onwards like time to the abyss. Also, spoilers: Star Wars is the fucking best.


WhipJanuary retained its regular air of parochial self-importance – the greasy manager of a second-run fleapit, probably played by Michael Palin – as a well-dressed set of Oscar hopefuls arrived weeks after their American release. These latecomers varied from the politely empty – The Theory Of Everything was the second film in as many months to celebrate a Cambridge man doing maths – to the actually evil, as American Sniper uncritically flag-waved remembrances of a life spent ending others, and couldn’t have celebrated America’s erection for technology and killing any more gratuitously if it had simply featured Bradley Cooper fellating a .300 Win Mag for two hours. Better was Foxcatcher, another true story digging into dark American pathology – this time “letting rich white dudes do whatever the fuck they want even when they’re fucking crazy” – which sadly mistook flat storytelling for a gripping stillness, and better again was Birdman, a film which, among many other things, pitted our current age of superhero mythologising against wrinkling mortality and an urge to do something meaningful while we can. Best of all, though, was Whiplash, a film ostensibly about drumming but which used the fitful dramatics of rhythm to say something primal about compulsion, potential, and – like Birdman, which slithered to its own frantic drum score – performance.


Ex-Machina-Download-Wallpapers_0Outside of the awards crowd Enemy was a controlled and atmospheric tale of dopplegangers with the slightest tang of dystopia, and Taken 3 continued to be a series in which women can only be owned and men can only do violence or – at a push – cry when they can’t do violence fast or good enough to stop their women being dead. In contrast Ex Machina was a piercing piece of science fiction that not only dismantled the construction of femininity in both literal and theoretical ways, but also featured Oscar Isaac, a man who spent 2015 being in really great films, another of which was A Most Violent Year, a New York crime drama just surehanded enough to stay afloat amid the flood of classics it conjures. The month was seen out by Kingsman: The Secret Service, which had a certain swagger but was also an extended rimjob of institutionalised privilege, so fuck it in the eye, Inherent Vice, which was vague and vacant enough to be nothing in particular, and Big Hero 6, which might have been about robotics, Blade Runner-esque cultural fusion and a conspicuously marketable novelty character, but was nevertheless a more convincing embodiment of traditional Disney values – family, hope and friendship – than we’ve seen for ages.


Duke Of BIn February Jupiter Ascending was a terrific throwback to the age of true fiascos – an over-exuberant dazzle of preposterous science fiction and runaway production that resulted in the nearliest blockbuster since Dune (I loved it, but then I love all films in which Sean Bean plays a bee. Bee-n). Further Oscars overflow arrived in the welcome shape of Selma, a determined if slightly staid civil rights drama that broke all irony meters everywhere when it was accused of not giving white lawmakers a fair shake. The Shaun The Sheep Movie was bright, eager and able to have fun without making fun – a fading art – while Coherence was a people in a room sci-fi thriller with a low budget and a big enough imagination to stop me from describing it as a “feature-length episode of the Twilight Zone with swearing” even though it basically was. Blackhat was the application of Michael Mann’s towering boner for all things man and manly to the world of cyber espionage, a film which essentially just added an extra bullet-point to the CV of the same hero that he’s been making films about for 30 years: “Professional, straight-talking, emotionally unavailable, great at shooting, can program a little”. The fractured eroticism of The Duke Of Burgundy prised open a world of poised power relationships and meaning and then – like Strickland’s previous, Berberian Sound Studio – lacked the smarts to do anything with it except to point and say “look”. Predestination was a strange, circular time-travel drama that might be a complicated way of calling Ethan Hawke a wanker, Catch Me Daddy was a grim and probably over-brutal story of honour killings in bleakest Yorkshire and the only film I saw this year in which someone gleefully pisses over their own hands, and Focus was the movie made by God to convince me that Will Smith really isn’t watchable in anything, especially if that thing is a Vegas day-tripper’s conception of a convincing con-artist drama in which aside from the Olympic-standard acrobatics deployed to simply lift fucking watches nobody mentions that stealing things is a bit of a dick move. Luckily the month was seen out by It Follows, a horror of spare style and insistent anxiety that riffs on the ever-present Jungian fuck-yous of the genre – sex, death, and the urge to do one even while the other watches from a dark corner.


chappieSome really fucking stupid films were released in March. Chappie put another dent in the idea that Neill Blomkamp is a lo-fi sci-fi visionary, a clumsy bit of existential philosophising that basically amounts to thinking about batteries running out and screaming “WHY?” Insurgent continued the vapid Divergent series, a self-deconstructing YA dystopia that lays bare the cycle’s tropes through uncushioned exploitation (“I’m different! I’m special! I’m DIVERGENT!” – fuck off). Slightly less worse was Run All Night, a daft tough-talking gangland thriller that at least gave Liam Neeson a chance not to be in Taken for a while, and then there was Home, an aliens-on-Earth story starring an entire race of rubbery, calculatedly mis-speaking stress toys I would happily genocide in a vat of pure fuck.


End of F7April brought with it Fast And Furious 7, the latest in a blockbuster series that has thrown off the prevailing laws of Hollywood and indeed reality so completely that this most recent instalment plays like a lunatic’s daydream of how it might feel to be Vin Diesel while simultaneously over- and under-acting in the role of himself. It’s strange, awful, fun and touching, and has tapped into something so inexplicably lucrative that it’s unlikely to ever stop – this is, after all, the film that digitally resurrected Paul Walker in order to have him perpetuate the very speed, cars and hard-ons culture that killed him. Speaking of killing, Keanu Reeves did lots of it in, John Wick, which is similar to the Fast films in that it’s rubbish for long stretches but has its star do the thing the audience will forgive most other things to see (fighting and acting spaced out, in the case of Keanu). And finally The Avengers: Age Of Ultron did not repeat the glorious synthesis of the first film, suggesting that we might be desensitized to scale and novelty and that some new escalation is needed to keep Marvel’s balloon expanding.


Mad MaxFor my birthday in May I got Top Five, a walk around New York with Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson that has a mix of contrivance, romance and light intellectualism that might make you think of Woody Allen if thinking of Woody Allen wasn’t really fucking depressing these days. I also got Pitch Perfect 2, a competent sequel to a brilliant film that adds nothing except a few low-hanging fat gags, Tomorrowland, a lovingly over-ambitious interrogation of the faded optimism of Disney’s 1950s, and Mad Max: Fury Road, a film which somehow recaptured the peculiarly Australian grotesque of the original trilogy and packaged it in an action film that was relentlessly and repeatedly right, like having an amazing conversation with somebody awesome who keeps saying brilliant, world-altering things you agree with, and the things are on fire.


ENTOURAGE-facebookJumbo-v3Spy arrived in June not only to remind everyone that Melissa McCarthy is brilliant, but that when he isn’t headbutting thought itself Jason Statham can be really funny. Jurassic World followed soon after and, if the original film was an investigation of provocative speculative science constructed from a classic cinematic vocabulary, then this was a parade of growling action figures justified by idiot size and Hollywood’s enduring belief that just because it can remake things with better effects it should. It wasn’t the worst film of the month, though, because also released was Entourage, the empty howl of five awful men trawling through the cloudless hell of LA for fame and money, a deathless worship of skin and status where the purpose of consciousness is reduced to  successfully convincing people to touch your cock. In contrast Minions was a Bergmanesque essay on virtuous mortality, although really it was a set of yellow bollocks with funny voices taking money from your children, and so thank rigorous fuck for Slow West, which arrived at the end of the month, a meditative and wry odyssey across the plains that was reminiscent of the Coens without really trying to be.


TerminatorIn July Arnold Schwarzenegger was allowed to age, twice: first in another retread of Terminator, a series so full of cynical revisionism that Terminator Genisys basically feels like playing skip-rope with timelines, and then in Maggie, a zombie drama apparently starring Arnie as a weathered, plaid-wearing dad protecting his infected daughter from the apocalypse, but which was actually just him watching her die slowly for a couple of hours. Ant-Man was the smallest and best Marvel film of the year, Inside Out was the best thing Pixar have made for several years – layers of fantasy deployed to give an honest account of how it feels to grow up – and Mission: Impossible 5 – Rogue Nation passed like pleasant scent of millions of dollars on the air, a huge production that folded away into nothing as soon as it was seen.


UncleAugust brought its own remake of a ‘60s spy show, The Man From UNCLE, in which Henry Cavill displayed the obscene looks and suited sophistication that should have made him a brilliant Clark Kent, while the film itself played period charm against a knowing irony to be – what? – quite good. Not good were either Fantastic Four – hardly the cosmic catastro-wank billed, but a stroppy teen drama filmed in a tin can – or videogame invasion comedy Pixels, which pulled its arcade characters into reality with unexpected imagination but needed more from Adam Sandler than whatever the fuck this was in order not to be awful. Seeing out the month were two films about love and life: Diary Of A Teenage Girl was a dark film brightened by the energy of its adolescent, comic book-inspired presentation, a story of the excitement and inequalities of sex; and Trainwreck was lust on a more equal footing, Amy Schumer writing and starring in the kind of autobiographical, pop-psychological romcom that director Judd Atapow regularly turns out with samey men, here sharper, fresher and funnier from the less-seen perspective.


MartianThanks to September’s Building Jerusalem I have cried at every film I’ve seen featuring Jonny Wilkinson, a record unlikely to be broken any time soon. Legend, meanwhile, was a flaccid celebration of charismatic violence, a dwindling sparkler jammed into the cock hole of Tom Hardy’s affliction acting and bravely helicoptered to underwhelming effect. Much more enjoyable was Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, another contrived YA prison of tests and status mutated into an unexpectedly not-shit zombie thriller, while gardening sci-fi The Martian proved Ridley Scott still knows when less is more, even if he forgot while he was making Prometheus.



We are nearly finished. In October I saw Sicario, a drugs war drama that’s sleek and nasty like a shard of glass between the ribs, and then I saw Crimson Peak, a beautiful ghost story from Guillermo del Toro that was an authentic piece of Gothic fiction, in as much as it featured oppressive architecture, inscrutable spirits, and I was bored way before the end. I nearly loved The Lobster, which presented a desparing, absurdist satire of the tyranny of both being in and out of a relationship, and then ludicrously gave up on it halfway through and sat in the woods in a mac.


Star WarsIn November I only saw one film, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies, which re-re-re-reconfirmed Tom Hanks as our Jimmy Stewart, and Steven Spielberg as our Steven Spielberg. And then Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrived in December, giving me back a piece of myself I’ve gotten used to pretending I didn’t mind was missing.


And that’s everything. The things I feel stupidest for not having seen are Force Majeure and Brooklyn, and the most fun I’ve had at the cinema was either seeing Blade Runner at a near-empty late-night screening, or High-Rise at the Bath Film Festival (or actually it was walking out of Star Wars – my second time – with my children alight with excitement like I’ve never seen at the movies). The best TV I watched this year was probably The Jinx, the extraordinary HBO documentary about Robert Durst which edged its way slowly into the story it presented, and Netflix comedies The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Master Of None, which is patchy but beautiful.

Gascoigne – The Construction of a Fallen Hero

July 13, 2015


(Gascoigne, Jane Preston 2015)

At the beginning of this documentary about Paul Gascoigne, released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Italia ‘90, the tournament in which his career was played out in implosive microcosm, Gary Lineker observes that Gazza the player and the person is defined by vulnerability. It’s a point that’s both so right it’s disarming to have it dropped it so early – everything about the way Gazza played and lived was enabled and destroyed by a doomed emotional naiviety – but also one that the film clings to so firmly that it fails, in the end, to look into the consequences of this vulnerability for anyone except Gascoigne himself.

Still – there are things the film does well. It allows Gascoigne to talk, and in talking to remember with a clear and still-ringing incomprehension the miracle journey from back-alley obscurity to global stardom. Watching his interviews catches you in a double-bind of pity – for the bright, impulsive talent incapable of grasping the enormity and potential of his situation, and for the damaged, reflective survivor looking back on a player who is both him and not him, who was something great and far from all he could have been.

There’s plenty of straightforward nostalgia at work, for an English man in this 30s – me, essentially – looking back on a pre-Premier League landscape of football and footballers. In this tight-shorted era England make the closing stages of major tournaments despite – or because of, in rigid defiance of Murdoch-dollar hype – uncomplicated non-stars like Walker, Pearce and Platt, and the head of England’s most expensive player can be turned by the offer of a house for his parents (this detail, which sealed Gascoigne’s move to Spurs, sets out the galling inevitability of his trajectory, given his starting position).

This somehow adds up to more than just a pleasing look at probably-better (or at least younger and keener) days. The way I experienced these tournaments in ‘86, ‘90, ‘96 – the way we all experienced them – was as a burst of hope, as if the efforts and contortions of young men hundreds of miles away engaged in a sport that’s important only because we have decided as much could really improve the way we felt and treated each other. If the film has a trick it’s in pulling Gascoigne into meaningful focus as a great cypher of English football, recognising that his bluster and impact – those tottering runs, a rolling contradiction of balance and delayed catastrophe, those strikes that look like an impossible collection of repeat-flukes – were an embodiment of how football could, on those rare occasions, make us all feel: a fleeting, fragile touch of promise.

Maybe simply watching Gazza play says all this anyway – the romance of the unachieved, the righteousness of trying so hard you break yourself. He became, for a generation that included me, a model of athletic ambition – if not to win, then to lose gloriously, exhausted, battered and honourably bewildered in the face of opposition who had found some more nefarious path to victory than brute force or emotional investment. Gascoigne played football with all the insight of a man who wore fake plastic breasts to a national homecoming held chiefly in his honour, a tragic figure of unguarded striving whose undoing – the image-fixing yellow card which led to celebrated tears, the career-defining injuries which led to depression and addiction – was to overstretch, quite literally, and to want more than he could do.

The film’s key achievement, in other words, is to recognise self-defeat as the motif of Gascoigne’s career, and to see the terms of his talent – raw and, as Lineker observes, vulnerable – as the mechanisms of its collapse. But what it fails to do entirely is extend this observation past the valiant losing semi-finalist – Gazza, the emblem of English football – to his private life, to Gazza the domestic abuser. While the highlights of Gascoigne’s England career are recounted blow-by-blow, his ex-wife Sheryl (who still supports a perpetually-recovering Gascoigne, while campaigning for victims of domestic abuse) is excised entirely.

It’s an unforgivable omission, from a film willing to explore the damaging dysfunction of Gascoigne’s talent and exposure only to the point of constructing a wistful image of an excruciating almost-man. The loss can be football’s, it can be Gascoigne’s, and most selfishly it can be ours – but it can’t be the loss suffered by a beaten wife, or their scared children.

Admitting their relationship to this history wouldn’t even contradict the film’s portrayal of Gascoigne the self-saboteur – it would only deepen it, forcing a reckoning of how a man capable of these inspiring acts can be capable of these inexcusable others, and asking what the connection between the two might be. And the film already has half the answers, drawing attention to our need to find heroes like Gazza and live in some orbit of surrogate glory around them. His most touching memories are of scoring specific goals, not for the technique or skill involved, but the crowd’s surging response to them. The film’s most astonishing scenes are of Lazio fans, after his transfer to the Rome side, swarming his car in a frenzy of uncomprehending proximity.

And yet the final connections aren’t made – between a mode of embattled masculinity cheered by a crowd, a community, a nation, and the violent misogyny that masculinity spawns. There is no irony perceived, even when discussing Gascoigne’s disgraceful treatment by the tabloid press, of the need to grant our heroes certain flaws and cleanse them of others. It leaves Gascoigne the film telling a narrative of Gascoigne the man that fails to challenge or even acknowledge the cultures and entitlements that made him want to be a footballer in the first place, that valourize endeavour and glorious self-destruction, and turn a blind eye to abuse when it’s inconvenient enough not to take place on a football field.

The Last Guardian – as seen in 2011

June 30, 2015


I found this write-up of a visit to see The Last Guardian I did for Edge Magazine in 2011 while digging through some emails. Given how similar the game looked when it resurfaced at E3 this year, I thought I’d post this for fun. Some of it’s not too bad! I’m sorry about the rest.

There’s a moment in the 15-minute gameplay demonstration of The Last Guardian in which the boy – a colour-coded echo of the horned protagonist of Ico – cups his hands and calls out to his giant feathered companion. And, for no obvious reason, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Partly it’s the animal’s indifference (this is early in the game and their emotional bond is still forming) and partly the bracing resolve shown by the boy himself, cajoling the beast into action alone among haunted stone ruins, too much responsibility heaped on slender, accepting shoulders.

This is the magic of Team Ico, the Sony Japan studio we’re here to visit in Tokyo. The studio is also responsible for PlayStation 2 titles Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus, a back catalogue of unusually sophisticated, artistic games, which share with The Last Guardian minimalist visual design, a pale palette of light and shadow, and a pervading atmosphere of thick, creeping quiet.

Thanks to Team Ico’s small numbers and lengthy production cycles this is its first PlayStation 3 title (Sony Worldwide Studios head Shuhei Yoshida calls them his “Olympic Team” as they produce every four years – this time it’s been five). Having made the most beautiful games on PS2, there is much interest in what the team’s latest will coax out of PS3. As soon as the demonstration begins it’s obvious it will be something special.

20081231203718The boy is creeping up on the sleeping creature – called Trico, both as a nod to Ico and a portmanteau of the Japanese words for bird (tori) and cat (neko) – on the ground-floor of a ruined greystone castle. Sun breaks through the broken floors and absent roof, creating a glowing patch of bright green grass at the centre of the room’s dark shadows. The whites are over-saturated, the blacks impenetrably murky, the effect like bleary eyes opening against bright daylight. Into the murkiness float luminous butterflies and sparkling specks of dust or pollen, giving a tangible, textured quality to the air.

The boy tries to wake Trico, whose head stands a little taller than he does. He tugs on the beast’s folded dog ears, but has to shout before the animal slowly stretches, yawns and rolls to its feet. It looks simultaneously realistic and unrealistic – uncannily natural in motion, but at the same time a physically impossible amalgam of parts. Trico is both alien and familiar, a feline body covered in feathers, with webbed feet and a canine head rounding out into a beak-like snout.

20090102203021He’s also huge, a factor that’s crucial to his relationship with the boy. At the controls for the demonstration is Team Ico’s chief creative director, Fumito Ueda. It’s easy to marry this quietly intense 41-year-old with the games he’s masterminded – he is focused and softly-spoken, but also authoritative. He explains that the dynamic in The Last Guardian is an expansion on those found in his earlier titles. Because of their differing size and abilities, Trico and the boy must find different paths through certain areas like Ico and Yorda, and their growing relationship mirrors Wander’s attachment to his horse Agro in Shadow Of The Colossus.

For now, though, Trico looks decidedly disinterested. The challenge in this opening area is to aid the boy’s ascent past balconies, suspended chains and walkways, to a switch mechanism on one of the higher levels. To do that, he needs Trico’s help. Ueda explains how certain items in the world act as bait for the creature as the boy waddles into a corner and picks up a steaming vat of purple liquid, his bow-legged heave recalling Ico’s strained steps while carrying barrels and bombs. There are gasps of delight from assembled journalists when the boy turns back toward Trico, whose massive head is now poking eagerly through an arched doorway, clawed paw reaching around the side, trying to get close to the boy and whatever he’s holding. And next the logical implementation, very much in the style of Ico’s satisfyingly rational problem-solving – the boy climbs a set of stairs and throws the bait over to a balcony on the other side of the room. Trico turns and rears up, putting his front legs onto the balcony, hunting for his treat. Suddenly, he’s a feathered ladder, and the boy is on his way.

20081231211734As Ueda notes, all of his games have featured a strong relationship with a non-player character. But this one is different. Where Ico and Wander were protectors and aggressors, The Last Guardian’s boy is too small to fight. The room the boy now comes to demonstrates this. It features a guard in thick, intricately pattered body armour which covers the face. The boy adopts a stealthy approach, crouching behind a low wall as the camera leans in so he fills the left side of the screen. The gameplay here looks simple – the guard patrols, the boy looks for a pattern and evades. If he’s spotted – which in this instance he is, and it doesn’t look like Ueda means to have been – he runs. The boy is faster than the guards, his white one-shouldered tunic flapping and his body leaning forward as he flashes through the dimly lit room, searching for small openings or climbable chains to help lose his lumbering pursuer.

cut_B11_01To dispose of guards more permanently the boy relies on Trico’s strength and size, introducing a powerlessness which makes just watching the game emotionally taxing. It’s a reversal that forces player engagement with Trico, to see him as more than a tool or a mechanism. You need him to like you. Ueda says that as the relationship develops Trico’s expressions and mannerisms change, something which gives new significance to the handful of The Last Guardian trailers teased out over the last two years. At last year’s Tokyo Game Show crowds saw Trico bowing his head as the boy patted his nose, and earlier, at E3 2009, the two were wrapped up together in a warm, sleeping heap.

As he plays, Ueda stresses that he wants this relationship to be natural and direct, for players to respond to the needs and understand the mood of Trico through facial expressions and behaviour alone. Recent games have featured heart-tugging human/animal interactions, such as keeping adopted stray Dogmeat alive in Fallout 3, and enjoying the unconditional love of your canine companion in Fable II (did anyone choose not to resurrect him at the end?). But these are one-sided exchanges and, crucially, superfluous to the main thrust of the story and gameplay. Even in Red Dead Redemption, in which horses not only become loyally bound to hero John Marston, but he relies upon them in the game’s wide open spaces, the animals are replaceable, interchangeable objects. The Last Guardian is attempting something more.

It’s probably no coincidence that Red Dead is one of a handful of games found in a stack beside a television in a corner of Team Ico’s unusually barren single-floor studio. Ueda has confirmed that his team are in full production now ahead of the game’s end of year release, after a long period of planning and design. But that team still only numbers around 35 (less than half that of most big console games), and the office is remarkably unremarkable. There are no desk-sprawls of toys and posters, no splashes of promos and posters on cubicle walls. The calm of Ueda seems to have filtered into his surroundings and staff. Scanned from the doorway this could be any open-plan, strip-lit office. Instead it is where they’re making one of the most eagerly anticipated games in the world.

Back in the demo room downstairs, the boy is nearing his goal. He tiptoes across a thin plank laid over a large drop, and clambers up a clanking chain. The animations are vivid but fluttering, the game’s dreamy lighting effect making his motion look almost like a hand-cranked silent film. The cloth wrapping his body flaps gently until he runs, when it moves like a kite caught in the wind. He finally makes it to the large round switch at the top of the room and presses it. Second later Trico bounds to the same level, his bulk collapsing wooden beams and partial floors in a dusty cacophony, taking just seconds to complete what took the boy several minutes. It strikes home the miscommunication which will underpin The Last Guardian – if only the boy could speak to him, make him understand – and which will make it  such a unique adventure.

Los Angeles – the city that lies for a living

June 21, 2015


Los Angeles is a strange place I’ve been trying to understand for ten years now.

Across that decade I’ve been to the city – I’ve just checked in the two passports I still have handy from my last visit – nine times. Each time something happens to my understanding of how Los Angeles works – who lives there, how the different concentrations of people coalesce, how the city functions.

My first ride from LAX into the city, all I can remember is driving over a storm drain on the freeway and thinking about Terminator 2. This is in February 2005, on a trip that also took in New York, a city I understand much better and primarily through these cinema screen references. New York is a condensed grid of angles and architecture that, when you are at it and inside it, looks like it does in the movies, and is compact enough, within the rigid borders of Manhattan island, to feel recognisably like what I feel a city should be: a layered, designed burst of too-much-humanity.

Los Angeles isn’t like this. That snapshot feeling (I actually got my camera out, if I remember rightly) happens once every few miles, not every few blocks. Most of Los Angeles is made up of a material and a living experience I can’t comprehend. What are these boulevards that stretch for miles with plant shops and tyre workshops and taco stands? And what pattern of life would bring anyone to them, in this unwalkable cross-section of endless sprawl, to buy anything in particular?

Over the years I’ve gotten to know small areas of the city, starting with Santa Monica, which despite being surrounded on all sides by either more of the city or the ocean isn’t really part of the city at all, only the county of Los Angeles. Santa Monica has landmarks (primarily the pier, which was in a film with Judge Reinhold) and shops that are arranged all together on both sides of the road in a way Santa Monica itself calls a Promenade but I would describe as a High Street. I’ve stayed up on Sunset Boulevard, which is a mile or so of things that look like they were put together on purpose. I’ve enjoyed the faded art deco grandeur of Hollywood and the old theatres downtown, a style that always strikes me as the native architecture of the city – a city built upon an industry of illusion – and which always restores me after miles of gaudy haphazardry.

Recently, after years of crawling along at ground level and peering out of cab windows, I’ve had added new perspectives on the city. I’ve cycled from Santa Monica up to Mulholland Drive – a Lynchian pilgrimage, and the more I ponder the city the more appropriate I think it is that it ended at a road rather than a place, and so didn’t really end at all – and up to the Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood Hills, from which on one side I saw the Hollywood sign, as close as I ever will, and the other an aerial view of downtown Los Angeles, a ripple of rise at the end of a flat, wide expanse. Finally, on my last trip, I ventured up one of those rises, the US Bank Tower – three elevators to the 72st floor like a vertical tube journey – and saw everything at once, from the mountain to the oceans, miles of stretching nothing and whatever stretching up to grey smogged borders that made it feel as though we were trapped in a huge baking snowdome, the edge of our universe clear and manifest.

All of this means that Los Angeles is at once a bitter disappointment and an object of endless, perfect fascination. Two years ago I visited the Walk Of Fame for the first time, moving past the costumed street performers and tracing the stars for names I knew for two blocks, three, when suddenly the glamour was gone and the streets, still studded with stars and undimmed memories of the screen, were dirty and bare, the tourist nexus dissipating into endless sub-suburbia. That this can happen within sight of the city’s bustling glow seems totally apt, somehow, the immaculately dressed set just a stride or a shift of perspective away from image-shattering reality.

I guess what I’m saying is that I have tried – am trying – to understand Los Angeles as a place that lies for a living and lies to itself. Its natural resource is light, and you can read for years about Hollywood being an industry of light, of images and ideas, without ever taking in what it means to be stood on a street corner in cloudless, unflickering day in the middle of what should be a desert and to be struck by the somehow solid near-tactile ubiquity of this resource. Los Angeles is luminous in a profane way, that makes it necessary to wear sunglasses if you want to see and that makes the air smell of burning on your hotel roof at midday. It’s a place made possible by stolen water and diverted rivers that specialises in a culture of self-deluded surface. Nothing there looks like the movies, really. The city is one giant, rolling backstage.

The thing that makes me think I’m wrong about Los Angeles – that there must be something here other than a trail of empty promises – are the people. The work that brings me to the city means the people I meet there fall into two main camps – unnervingly clean and symmetrical would-be actors working in hotels and restaurants, and cab drivers with humbling life stories and more perspective than can be snatched in a decade of detached bemusement. This year the cabs I travelled in were driven by a man from Ethiopia who was thrilled when he realised he’d visited London before I was born (“1976!”) and sad when I said I didn’t believe in God (“You lose nothing”). A Korean guy in his 60s drove us from downtown to Sunset and was delighted that we were British because the woman who taught him English – very well, it seems, in Canada in the 1970s – was also British. And, in a discombobulating twist as I was preparing myself for the foreignness of the city, the very first cab we got into at the airport was driven by a terrifically English man from Basingstoke. He told us about a youth spent riding his motorcycle knee-to-knee around the ring road roundabouts, so that when he got to Los Angeles and up into the mountains “Nobody could touch me.”

These cab drivers, and all the cab drivers who drive me on these hour-long jaunts through a city I can’t understand, have a few things in common. They’re always men, they’re always in their 50s or older. They’re never from the States, not originally, and they unfailingly remember the year they arrived. Most confoundingly they’re always happy – about the weather I can’t live with, about the years they’ve spent driving cars in a city throttled by traffic, about whatever promise Los Angeles delivered to them that I can’t perceive. And though I like to think about this as a city of untruth, the centre of an industry of make-believe manufactured using illusory raw material, I’m willing to concede that Los Angeles might not lie to everybody.