Saturday, 24 May 2008

Review - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

It seems that Steven Spielberg can’t simply crack open his Indiana Jones box set when he gets nostalgic. Maybe sitting and watching ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ isn’t good enough. Apparently when Spielberg gets nostalgic for everyone’s favourite improbable archaeologist adventurer, he decides to create a superfluous fourth film. But despite its unnecessary status, its unfortunate lack of Sean Connery, and its robbing the third film’s title of the clever double meaning, ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t half bad.

The film demonstrates what Spielberg does best; corny, cliché-packed, traditional cinema fun. While it does come off as being very average, being average is what Spielberg films do best – they are the best average films there are. The story was interesting enough: it moved the trilogy (now quadrilogy, I suppose) from oblique references to the supernatural nature of God to oblique references to extraterrestrial life. It could easily have served as an allegory for the Church of Scientology if Tom Cruise had been involved. The story, while enough to keep me entertained, wasn’t that important; it was just a vehicle to drive the continual set-pieces forward. Every five minutes or so a car-chase broke out or a choreographed fight scene got underway. It did get a bit much and left me longing for a quiet character-driven moment like the one between Indy and his dad on the zeppelin in ‘Last Crusade’.

Speaking of the set-pieces, they were where the new technology available was really put to use. There were plenty of CG-moments and impossible camera angles. Some of them were interesting shots and some of them were just cinematic masturbation. The whole utilising of new computer-driven technology did seem detrimental to the quaint old, traditional-cinema style that the rest of the film did so well, although it was never as bad as George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’ prequels where every shot was packed to the gills with green-screen and CG. The scene with Indy and the nuclear bomb in particular was a great example of a nice, quintessentially-1950s scene – implausible but fun – and then right at the end it was ruined by the needless presence of a CG gopher. They should have stuck with traditional filming where possible.

The acting was fine: no complaints but no real highpoints either. John Hurt did give a striking performance as an insane old man (a satiric glimpse into Indiana’s own future?) which made a change from his usual roles of ‘eccentric old man’ or ‘despotic old tyrant’. Some of the cameo actors seemed totally pointless though – Alan Dale (who is in absolutely everything that’s on at the moment) took the time to film a two-minute scene. It was as if his presence was only required to give me and my friends - avid ‘Lost’ fans - a quick moment of excitement. It might have been better to break out some new talent instead of having Jim Broadbent, Charles Widmore, and the Janitor from ‘Scrubs’.

As a geeky fan of Spielberg films, I confess to being very slightly disappointed. As soon as the alien plot points started to appear I hoped that this would form the basis for Spielberg’s ubër-story: a connecting web tying all his films together in a mass of sticky filmic continuity. In my vision, the skull would have turned out to be the skull of an ET and then the saucer at the end would have been the ship from ‘Close Encounters’. The presence of Nazis already links ‘Indiana Jones’ to ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’, and all he’d need then is for ‘Jurassic Park 4’ to have Sam Neill and Indiana Jones travel to Isla Nublar and shoot dinosaurs... and Jaws... while playing ‘Boom Blox’.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

"I didn't even know there could be such a thing as 'passive drinking'..."

I was in Manchester yesterday amidst the throngs of people who descended upon the city to watch what I understand was a rather large footballing event: the UEFA final between Glasgow Rangers and Zenit St. Petersburg. 200,000 Rangers supporters and several hundred Russians crushed the city under a wave of dark blue and a slightly lighter blue. At 12 noon yesterday almost every person I saw on the streets of Manchester wearing a blue top had a drink in their hand, fully prepared to wait seven hours and drink for seven hours.

Yesterday I wasn’t particularly perturbed. It was strange to hardly be able to move in Piccadilly but I generally thought it was kind of sweet – just like it is sweet to see birds travelling in tightly-knit herds and sheep following one another across a field. It was nice in a way to see the camaraderie and excitement that this sporting event caused even if all the stirring of emotion was caused by something so amazingly pointless and banal. I didn’t begrudge them their simple happiness although I will never understand the mentality that causes someone to travel hundreds of miles (thousands in the case of the Russians) to watch a sporting event that you don’t even have tickets for and you could easily watch from home.

This morning I was not so tolerant. Piccadilly Gardens looked like a rubbish dump; broken bottles were piled in every corner, plastic bags blew across the pavements, bus shelters were damaged and bent, the smell was disgusting. The air itself had the smell of stale alcohol like the constant stench of a pub and when you breathed you could almost taste it in the back of the throat. It was noxious and foul, exacerbated by the piles of rubbish that surrounded your every step. The concrete pavement itself felt sticky like the floors at the cinema. More than once I saw blood-encrusted tissues strewn over the roads. According to the local newspaper’s account of what they’ve called (rather dramatically but I like it) “the Battle of Piccadilly”, the giant screen in Piccadilly Gardens broke down leading to riots. Deprived of their entertainment the mass of football supporters proceeded to shake about the bars of their crib and wail plaintively. Fights broke out, riots broke out, and the city wept. This video shows animals as far as I'm concerned.

Manchester was left in a horrendous state. I recently read “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman in which he concludes that the world by and large would not miss us and that life would go on in the manner it always has done. Plants would recover the urban areas, megafauna would return, and our legacy would be our nuclear waste dumps. Having witnessed yesterday’s particular aspect of human nature and the unfathomable behaviour of the masses in this instance, I can fully endorse his conclusions and his radical solution of one child only per human female until the population is a more reasonable size. When we are left with 250,000 tonnes of refuse after a simple sports game, something is desperately wrong with the species. There is no plastic that is biodegradable: having only been around for less than 100 years, the material is simply indigestible by microbes. The best plastic labelled as ‘biodegradable’ is only able to break into smaller and smaller pieces which then linger in the ecosystem for years and years. The remains of the plastic in Manchester will haunt the environment for centuries.

Due credit must be given to the Mancunian clean-up teams. I entered Manchester at 9am this morning, stared open-mouthed from the bus at the carnage inflicted on the city, and then was inside a building until 12 noon. By then most of the rubbish had been cleared; an impressive achievement for the dozen or so clean-up people I saw working.

Still, I’m once again reminded that the term ‘human civilisation’ is a misnomer. The planet really would be better off without us.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

"The Amphitheatre and the Torches."

She saw it every time she closed her eyes.

At first there had been nothing but the familiar absence of perception and a gentle sense of emptiness. There had been the old sensation that she’d often felt; the feeling that a simple lowering of skin insulated her from the entire world. The simple act of shutting her eyelids provided her with a cosy refuge from the absurdity of the world at large. Every liar, every cheater, every injustice, every fight, every war, every evil, every weakness. When she closed it eyes, it all went away.

Then the vision came: it had started three months ago randomly and inexplicably. Since then it had repeated itself consistently. She closed her eyes to escape and there it was: a sudden picture formed on the back of her eyelids that now she could not fail to see. Although she longed for her comforting refuge - longed with all her alienated soul - all she could see now was the amphitheatre. Closing her eyes no longer transported her to the private lounge in her head but instead to a sprawling stadium-sized arena; the most public place in imagination.

Every time she saw it her perspective was the same. She stood on the top row of seats looking down on the rest of what she’d come to think of as The Amphitheatre. It was like the arena where the Roman Emperor would watch slaves fight in those old gladiator films. Or like where Christians had been thrown to the lions and not rescued by their god. It was dark – almost totally dark; no stars shone over head and no moon cast a silvery glare. The only light came from weak torches held by the hundreds of thousands that stood on the rows below her.

It was these throngs of people that really got to her. She couldn’t see them but she knew them by their torches: sputtering wisps of flame permeating the darkness. They appeared as small and indistinct as stars except they lay below her feet rather than above her head. There were always thousands of them moving and jostling against one another, guided by the veiled hands beneath as the people of the darkness moved and jostled for some position of their own. It made her sad.

Although The Amphitheatre was a plethora of people and their weak torches casting spheres of light, the real mystery remained hidden in the impenetrable darkness that characterised the realm behind her eyelids. In the centre of the arena, many rows beneath her, there was a wide open space – ‘sandy’, she thought of it as a wide sandy space, probably the effect of psychologically embedded movie clichés – and even though she couldn’t make out what was there she could feel it. Just as the Earth must feel the Sun’s massive presence, she could feel the raw power and magnitude of what lay in the centre of the Amphitheatre. She felt it as a vast bulk hidden just out of reach. The people below clamoured to shine their torches on it, each one approaching it from a different angle. If they saw anything, they saw only fragments: singular perspectives, each one part of but not representative of the whole. She had no communion with the people below and yet she thought that no-one down there knew the truth in the centre. Not one of the hundreds of thousands of people knew what lay shrouded in the darkness just beyond the reach of their feeble clearings of light.

No-one knew and it made her sad.

Every time she closed her eyes it was the same. The same circular arena. The same people, crowded and confused. The same mysterious presence in the centre. The same truth denied. She couldn’t do anything and she was sad.

She was sad because she knew what it meant. She was sad because she knew there was no escape from the world’s absurdity, either for her or the world.

Monday, 12 May 2008

"However I am opposed to lion-goat-snakes..."

The House of Commons are currently debating some changes to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill 1990. The principle concern of campaigners against the changes to the bill is the change to ‘chimera’ legislation. A so-called chimera is an embryo created from human and animal DNA. These embryos are only ever kept for fourteen days and so have no chance of development at all. The reason for their creation is to harvest their precious stem cells – cells which can then be used to create virtually any kind of tissue we need. The benefits to these stem cells go without saying.

Opposition to chimera-creation occurs chiefly for moral reasons: protesters cite issues with human dignity, the creation of life for our own egoistic purposes, the subsequent disposal of them, and a general concern that medical science goes too far. The Catholic Church especially has taken issue with the bill for reasons of morality specifically their Western-based morals of Christianity.

The phrase ‘human dignity’ is thrown around a lot in this debate. It presumably means that human life is too precious to mix with animal DNA or that human cells should not be used so glibly by scientists. Putting aside the debates over whether humanity has earned the mantle of ‘dignified’ and how anthropocentric it is to implicitly assume that humans are of more worth than animals, the phrase can be used in a different sense. One has to remember that these chimeras (along with unborn foetuses) are not humans and so, by definition, cannot have human dignity – foetuses are more contentious but chimera embryos are definitely not human. Humans are the poor people suffering from ailments that could be cured if only certain medical research was allowed. The humans who lose their dignity are the ones who suffer day-to-day with diseases that could be eradicated if only a few people set aside their discomfort at the idea of embryonic stem cell research.

Morality is a tricky concept and sadly a great deal of the time hard and fast rules don’t work. A lot of the time moral choices come down to a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis and, in this particular case, the suffering of humans around the world with debilitating diseases vastly outweighs the non-suffering a non-human embryo. The moral choice is obvious and advancing scientific research by allowing changes to the bill is the most reasonable option. From my understanding the only moral imperative that really matters in Christianity is the traditional Golden Rule laid down by Jesus himself: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Nothing else matters morally – especially not the stuff handed down from the Old Testament. If I was suffering I would want to allow non-harmful research that could save my life. The least I can do for someone is to not stand in the way of medical advancement.

This is not to say that scientific bodies should not be regulated: it’s the job of scientists to do things and advance technology, not to ask ‘why’ or ‘should we’. Someone else needs to do that for them. While we need to make sure that is done and that animals or humans are not made to suffer unduly, we only need to step in with genuine moral concerns; not mere squeamishness about stem cells and embryos. That is why opposition to these changes for the sake of an ancient and arbitrary morality is immoral itself and detrimental to the whole species.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Review - Grand Theft Auto IV

It’s said that William James never really knew what to do with his life because he had the unfortunate ability to see the myriad possibilities of existence. Every day a human is confronted with thousands of choices and yet most of the time we just go for the same choices over and over: the innate conservatism of the human comes forward and, afraid of change, we do what is comfortable and easy. James was able to see the choices that his life offered both short-term and long-term, and so struggled to make decisions; every choice seemed as amenable to him as any other. Eventually he became known as a philosopher but despite that classification he flailed about a fair bit, writing on topics as diverse as theology and psychology.

This kind of constant unlimited freedom is what becomes apparent after playing some ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’. The huge sprawling living game-world is rivalled in its realism and complexity only by actual real life. It’s like being thrown into an only slightly exaggerated version of New York City and the feeling of freedom is palpable. Racing, eating, drinking, driving, shooting, darts, bowling, pool, watching TV, watching a show, helicopter flying, following the storyline, dating, surfing the internet, exploring, sight-seeing: they’re just some of the things you’re free to do. If you want to be a violent sociopath - as the media believes the game will make you - then feel free to hang out at the subway station and push pedestrians in front of oncoming trains. Alternatively if you want to settle down as an unlicensed New York cabbie and watch TV with your girlfriend in the evenings, go ahead.

While the über-realistic city is the real draw, everything else in the game is polished to a shine. There’s such complexity in everything, from the internet sites to the radio stations: the game feels... complete. The physics engine that runs things in the background is superb as well; when it’s doing its job you don’t even notice ie. when you’re hurtling down the freeway with the police behind you and your car slams into the divider, propelling your car into a spin through the air and smashing every window. It’s all portrayed as perfectly as in any big-budget movie (I’m looking at you, ‘Die Hard’!). The car crashes and the driving feel more authentic than in previous GTA iterations. This authenticity unfortunately means that most of the cars have poor sluggish handling, a fact most readily apparent whenever you’re on a timed mission.

The characters and the story are great as well. I personally haven’t got far enough into the story to comment on it as a narrative but it’s off to a good start and while not all the twists thus far were unexpected, they’ve been entertaining enough. As far as characters go, it’s the usual GTA menagerie of freaks and dregs of society – they all have some eccentric personality quirk and are all larger-than-life. Being a completist, I feel compelled to unlock all my ‘friends’ special abilities (mobile gun stores, chopper rides, etc.) and so I sort of resent having to spend time with them and play numerous games of pool and darts. But, like I say, the freedom of the game is such that you don’t have to call your friends at all if you don’t want to.

All in all, it’s a game that would have petrified poor William James. The amount of choice and freedom in such a vivid metropolis can be terrifying and it presents to the unwary player Sartre’s existentialist feelings of anguish, abandonment and despair. But in the end, like Sartre’s edict, it forces a person to choose and thus ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ provides a good example of existentialism as a ‘way of life’ philosophy. As for me, between GTA IV and exam revision, all my free time is swirling into these twin black holes and I stand helpless to resist.