At time of writing, I’ve just come home from watching Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s recent space-set thriller. And my immediate reaction can be essentially summed up in three words: holy f***ing shit.

OK, OK, I’ll fill in a bit; if you weren’t already aware, Gravity tells the story of a space shuttle mission gone disastrously wrong whilst in orbit, leaving just two survivors: George Clooney playing essentially a spacegoing version of himself as the suave, talkative veteran Matt Kowalski and Sandra Bullock as the inexperienced, depressive and perpetually scared Dr. Ryan Stone. With their craft destroyed, both are faced with the daunting prospect of trying to return to earth alive- without the luxuries of a ship, communications, equipment or much ability to control their own movements. And that’s all I can really say without giving away spoilers- indeed, I feel like the rest of this review may end up giving away a fair few details. However, since the main thrust of what makes the film such an experience is not contained within its plot, so unless you have a burning desire to see Gravity completely unspoiled you’re probably not going to lose out on much by reading on.

The result is something pretty amazing, but Gravity is not flawless by any means- I doubt any film ever was. I don’t know whether the story of former astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield getting thrown out of a Canadian cinema for shouting about the film’s inaccuracies at the screen is true or not, but if so I can see where he’d have been coming from- I am no astronaut, but I know enough about space to say that communications and spy satellites operate at completely different altitudes, neither of which are in the range depicted by the film, and that during re-entry there should not be random objects floating around the cabin like it’s in zero-g. Those are only the more obvious errors- the film does a grand job of delivering the general gist of a spacial environment, but had I so wished I could have spent the entire film pointing out minor inaccuracies or inconsistencies. But then again, I’m no astronaut- and besides, Gravity is hardly the only film to take some rather serious liberties with the laws of physics.

It’s not only in terms of its scientific accuracy where the film has flaws. Its characterisation is almost non-existent, the plot is as stripped-down and oversimplified as it could possibly be whilst still existing, multiple story elements seem decidedly contrived and the whole thing has precisely zero thematic complexity between the tried & tested ‘indomitable human spirit’ arc. But that’s all kinda the point. Gravity is not an actor’s film, nor indeed a writer’s- indeed I have a sneaking suspicion that Cuaron may simply have done three days filming, then locked himself in  a room with his cinematographer and CGI person for a few months putting together the rest of it. The result is nothing less than a jaw-dropping spectacle of a film, something genuinely amazing: to be honest, I’m not even sure that’s even a compliment. It feels more like a simple description of the film’s nature- even if this had been the background setting for something written by Ed Wood, the sheer amazement factor of how the film presents itself would still have left me sitting back in my seat mouth open like a goon.

I mean, just consider the visuals. Alone, they would be enough to make watching Gravity a special experience, capturing as they do both the scale and beauty of the view from space alongside the strange unreality that is sitting in a tin can hurtling at unimaginable speed thousands of kilometres above the surface of our mother earth. The film’s extensive use of CGI (because seriously, how else do you create an action set piece around a ****ing space station) is noticeable, but by keeping the visual style very consistent the film avoids drawing attention to it and maintains a highly immersive experience. Then there’s the cinematography; from the early outset Gravity sets a baseline for weirdness and confusion as a constantly moving, rotating camera reminds us of the nature of space, and the total lack of a reference frame that one has in it. There is no up or down- there is only ‘over there’, and when ‘over there’ is flying around madly as you tumble uncontrollably towards it, as happens frequently during the action set pieces, the whole thing gets decidedly disorientating. I’m rather glad I don’t get motion sick, or indeed scared of heights once the film decides to point out that space flight is, in fact, nothing more than falling very, very quickly.

But what makes Gravity really work is how it creates an atmosphere. The whole thing seems specifically designed to make space seem as utterly, utterly terrifying on all levels to make our hero’s struggle seem that much more daunting and amazing, and the film pulls off on that spectacularly. A key part of its toolbox is its use of thematic contrast: the huge, jaw-dropping visual spectacles that are the action sequences keep the danger and blind terror foremost in our mind, but are offset by the near-silent intimate moments that both give the audience time to process the beautiful insanity playing out in front of them and to remind us all that, surrounded by airless wilderness, ‘in space, nobody can hear you scream’. Cuaron deserves particular credit for his use of music in this regard- it’s one of those things you almost don’t notice, but every set piece is built up slowly, cranking up the tension, before launching into a booming orchestral inferno of noise as the action gets into full flow. And then- silence, save for our protagonist’s terrified breathing. I don’t think any film has ever made me feel a character’s emotion quite so much, and certainly none has done so to a faceless spacesuit.

Ultimately, I’m not sure me spouting words can really do the film justice- it’s one of those things where I could describe the entire storyline, down to the last scene, and it’d still be the barest shadow of what viewing the film in all its glory is. Just let me put it this way: Gravity is an hour and a half of watching people falling out of the sky through the most hostile environment in the universe amidst a chaotic firestorm of broken metal and machinery. And it is every bit as terrifying, jaw-dropping and downright awe-inspiring as that sounds.


An Opera Posessed

My last post left the story of JRR Tolkein immediately after his writing of his first bestseller; the rather charming, lighthearted, almost fairy story of a tale that was The Hobbit. This was a major success, and not just among the ‘children aged between 6 and 12’ demographic identified by young Rayner Unwin; adults lapped up Tolkein’s work too, and his publishers Allen & Unwin were positively rubbing their hands in glee. Naturally, they requested a sequel, a request to which Tolkein’s attitude appears to have been along the lines of ‘challenge accepted’.

Even holding down the rigours of another job, and even accounting for the phenomenal length of his finished product, the writing of a book is a process that takes a few months for a professional writer (Dame Barbara Cartland once released 25 books in the space of a year, but that’s another story), and perhaps a year or two for an amateur like Tolkein. He started writing the book in December 1937, and it was finally published 18 years later in 1955.

This was partly a reflection of the difficulties Tolkein had in publishing his work (more on that later), but this also reflects the measured, meticulous and very serious approach Tolkein took to his writing. He started his story from scratch, each time going in a completely different direction with an entirely different plot, at least three times. His first effort, for instance, was due to chronicle another adventure of his protagonist Bilbo from The Hobbit, making it a direct sequel in both a literal and spiritual sense. However, he then remembered about the ring Bilbo found beneath the mountains, won (or stolen, depending on your point of view) from the creature Gollum, and the strange power it held; not just invisibility, as was Bilbo’s main use for it, but the hypnotic effect it had on Gollum (he even subsequently rewrote that scene for The Hobbit‘s second edition to emphasise that effect). He decided that the strange power of the ring was a more natural direction to follow, and so he wrote about that instead.

Progress was slow. Tolkein went months at a time without working on the book, making only occasional, sporadic yet highly focused bouts of progress. Huge amounts were cross-referenced or borrowed from his earlier writings concerning the mythology, history & background of Middle Earth, Tolkein constantly trying to make his mythic world feel and, in a sense, be as real as possible, but it was mainly due to the influence of his son Christopher, who Tolkein would send chapters to whilst he was away fighting the Second World War in his father’s native South Africa, that the book ever got finished at all. When it eventually did, Tolkein had been working the story of Bilbo’s son Frodo and his adventure to destroy the Ring of Power for over 12 years. His final work was over 1000 pages long, spread across six ‘books’, as well as being laden with appendices to explain & offer background information, and he called it The Lord of The Rings (in reference to his overarching antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron).

A similar story had, incidentally, been attempted once before; Der Ring des Nibelungen is an opera (well, four operas) written by German composer Richard Wagner during the 19th century, traditionally performed over the course of four consecutive nights (yeah, you have to be pretty committed to sit through all of that) and also known as ‘The Ring Cycle’- it’s where ‘Ride of The Valkyries’ comes from. The opera follows the story of a ring, made from the traditionally evil Rhinegold (gold panned from the Rhine river), and the trail of death, chaos and destruction it leaves in its wake between its forging & destruction. Many commentators have pointed out the close similarities between the two, and as a keen follower of Germanic mythology Tolkein certainly knew the story, but Tolkein rubbished any suggestion that he had borrowed from it, saying “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”. You can probably work out my approximate personal opinion from the title of this post, although I wouldn’t read too much into it.

Even once his epic was finished, the problems weren’t over. Once finished, he quarrelled with Allen & Unwin over his desire to release LOTR in one volume, along with his still-incomplete Silmarillion (that he wasn’t allowed to may explain all the appendices). He then turned to Collins, but they claimed his book was in urgent need of an editor and a license to cut (my words, not theirs, I should add). Many other people have voiced this complaint since, but Tolkein refused and ordered Collins to publish by 1952. This they failed to do, so Tolkein wrote back to Allen & Unwin and eventually agreed to publish his book in three parts; The Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of The King (a title Tolkein, incidentally, detested because it told you how the book ended).

Still, the book was out now, and the critics… weren’t that enthusiastic. Well, some of them were, certainly, but the book has always had its detractors among the world of literature, and that was most certainly the case during its inception. The New York Times criticised Tolkein’s academic approach, saying he had “formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself”, whilst others claimed it, and its characters in particular, lacked depth. Even Hugo Dyson, one of Tolkein’s close friends and a member of his own literary group, spent public readings of the book lying on a sofa shouting complaints along the lines of “Oh God, not another elf!”. Unlike The Hobbit, which had been a light-hearted children’s story in many ways, The Lord of The Rings was darker & more grown up, dealing with themes of death, power and evil and written in a far more adult style; this could be said to have exposed it to more serious critics and a harder gaze than its predecessor, causing some to be put off by it (a problem that wasn’t helped by the sheer size of the thing).

However, I personally am part of the other crowd, those who have voiced their opinions in nearly 500 five-star reviews on Amazon (although one should never read too much into such figures) and who agree with the likes of CS  Lewis, The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times of the time that “Here is a book that will break your heart”, that it is “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century” and that “the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them”. These are the people who have shown the truth in the review of the New York Herald Tribune: that Tolkein’s masterpiece was and is “destined to outlast our time”.

But… what exactly is it that makes Tolkein’s epic so special, such a fixture; why, even years after its publication as the first genuinely great work of fantasy, it is still widely regarded as the finest work the genre has ever produced? I could probably write an entire book just to try and answer that question (and several people probably have done), but to me it was because Tolkein understood, absolutely perfectly and fundamentally, exactly what he was trying to write. Many modern fantasy novels try to be uber-fantastical, or try to base themselves around an idea or a concept, in some way trying to find their own level of reality on which their world can exist, and they often find themselves in a sort of awkward middle ground, but Tolkein never suffered that problem because he knew that, quite simply, he was writing a myth, and he knew exactly how that was done. Terry Pratchett may have mastered comedic fantasy, George RR Martin may be the king of political-style fantasy, but only JRR Tolkein has, in recent times, been able to harness the awesome power of the first source of story; the legend, told around the campfire, of the hero and the villain, of the character defined by their virtues over their flaws, of the purest, rawest adventure in the pursuit of saving what is good and true in this world. These are the stories written to outlast the generations, and Tolkein’s mastery of them is, to me, the secret to his masterpiece.

The Power of the Vote

Winston Churchill once described democracy as ‘the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried’, and to be honest he may have had a point. Despite being championed throughout modern culture and interpretations of history as the ultimate in terms of freedom and representation of the common people, it is certainly not without its flaws. Today I would like to focus on just one in particular, one whose relevance has become ever more important in today’s multi-faceted existence: the power of a vote.

Voting is, of course, the core principle of democracy, a simple and unequivocal solution of indicating who most people would prefer as their tyrannical overlord/general manager and representative for the next five or so years. Not does it allow the common people to control who is in power, it also allows them control over that person once they are in that position, for any unpopular decisions they make over the course of his tenure will surely come back to haunt them come the next election.

This principle works superbly so long as the candidate in question can be judged against a simple criteria, a sort of balance sheet of good and bad as directly applicable to you. As such, the voting principle works absolutely fine given a small enough situation, where there are only a few issues directly applicable to the candidate in question- a small local community for instance. Thus, the performance of the incumbent candidate and the promises of any challengers can be evaluated against simple, specific issues and interests, and the voting process is representative of who people think will do the best for them.

Now, let us consider the situation when things get bigger- take the electoral process for electing a Prime Minister, for example. Now, a voter in Britain does not directly elect his or her PM, but instead elects a Member of Parliament for his area, and whichever party he is in affects who will get the top job eventually. The same thing actually happens in the US Presidential elections to help prevent hung parliaments, but the difference in Britain is that MP’s actually have power and fulfil the roles of Representatives/Congressmen as well. Thus, any voter has to consider a whole host of issues: which party each candidate is from and where said party stands on the political spectrum; what the policies of the various competitors are; how many of that myriad of policies agree or disagree with your personal opinion; how their standpoints on internet freedom/abortion/whatever else is of particular interest to you compare to yours; whether they look like they will represent you in Parliament or just chirp away party lines, and what issues they are particularly keen on addressing, to name but a few in the most concise way possible. That’s an awful lot of angles to consider, and the chance of any one candidate agreeing with any one voter on every one of those issues is fairly slim. This means that no matter who you vote for (unless you run for office yourself, a tactic that is happily becoming more and more popular lately), no candidate is ever going to accurately represent your views of their own accord, and you’ll simply have to make do with the best of a bad job. The other, perhaps even more unfortunate, practical upshot of this is that a candidate can make all sorts of unpopular decisions, but still get in come the next election on the grounds that his various other, more popular, policies or standpoints are still considered preferable to his opponent.

Then, we must take into account the issue of ‘safe seats’- areas where the majority of voters are so set in their ways when it comes to supporting one party or another that a serial killer wearing the appropriate rosette could still get into power. Here the floating voters, those who are most likely to swing one way or the other and thus affect who gets in, have next to no influence on the eventual outcome. In these areas especially, the candidate for the ‘safe’ party can be held responsible for next to nothing that he does, because those who would be inclined to punish him at the ballot box are unable to swing the eventual outcome.

All this boils down to a simple truth- that in a large situation involving a lot of people and an awful lot of mitigating factors, one candidate can never be truly representative of all his constituents’ wishes and can often not be held accountable at the ballot box for his more unpopular decisions. Sure, as a rule candidates do like to respect the wishes of the mob where possible just on the off-chance that one unpopular decision could be the straw that breaks his next re-election campaign. But it nonetheless holds true that a candidate can (if he wants) usually go ‘you know what, screw what they want’ a few times during his tenure and get away with it, particularly if those decisions occur early in his time in office and are thus largely forgotten come the next election- and that can cause the fundamental principles of democracy to break down.

However, whilst this might seem like a depressing prospect, there is a glimmer of hope, and it comes from a surprising source. You see, whilst one is perfectly capable of making a very good living out of politics, it is certainly not the best paid career in the world- if you have a lust for money, you would typically go into business or perhaps medicine (if you were really going to get cynical about it). Most politicians go into politics nowadays not because they have some all-consuming lust for power or because they want to throw their country’s finances around, but because they have strong political views and would like to be able to change the world for the better, and because they care about the political system. It is simply too much effort to try and work up the political ladder for personal and corrupt reasons when there are far easier and more lucrative roads to power and riches elsewhere. Thus, your average politician is not simply some power-hungry arch bureaucrat who wishes to see his people crushed beneath his feet in the pursuit of making him more cash, but a genuine human being who cares about making things better for people- for from this pursuit does he get his job satisfaction. That, if anything, is the true victory of a stable democracy- it gets the right kind of people pursuing power.

Still doesn’t mean they should be let off the hook, though.

Way more punctuation than is probably strictly necessary*

I am not a ‘gamer’. Well, certainly not one by the popular, semi-obsessive, definition- I like computer games, sure, and I spend a reasonable amount of my time playing them, but they’re not a predominant weekend pastime, and they are far from being a focal point of my existence.

However, part of the reason I am wary to get into games is because I have an annoying habit of never wanting to let an argument die, and given the number of arguments I see online and elsewhere on the subject of gaming, its probably best for all concerned if I give in to my better judgement and give myself no reason to join in (I could spend an entire post talking about arguing online, but that’s for another time). Gaming is a topic that causes far more argument and controversy than it appears to warrant, both within the gaming community (which is normal for any modern mass media- film and TV fans argue among themselves too) and, more interestingly, between the gamers and the ‘rest of the world’. For such a rich and massive medium, this, frankly seems odd. Why such argument? Why so much worry from parents and politicians? Why are gamers always thought of as seemingly laughable, the stereotype being an overweight nerd cocooned in his basement at 3am fuelled by Mountain Dew and chips? Why, basically, do people not like gamers?

I should pause at this point to say two things- firstly that the image I portray here of the prevailing attitude towards gamers is just what I have picked up from my (actually pretty limited) interactions with the non-gaming community, and second, that this is probably going to have to be a two parter. The first will aim to lay out the complaints lain at gaming’s feet by the main protagonists (and a few other things besides while I have the opportunity), and the second will go into my favourite question: why?

So, what exactly is it that people seem to dislike about gaming? The list is quite substantial, but can basically be broken down to (in no particular order)…

1) Modern gaming encourages violence/desensitises people to it
This is probably the biggest one, and the one to which politicians and such make the biggest deal over, and it’s not hard to see why. The hypothesis seems perfectly reasonable- modern games such as Battlefield and Call of Duty are violent (true), and the general lives of everyday people aren’t (true). Thus, the only exposure gamers have to this level of violence is through these games (basically true), and since this violence doesn’t hurt anyone real (true), they subconsciously think that violence isn’t actually that harmful and this desensitises them to its effects (okay, here we’re getting into speculation…)
There is some evidence to support this idea- watching people playing FPS’s and similar can be a quite revealing experience (next time you’re watching someone else play, watch them rather than the screen). Sometimes there are smiles and gentle laughs as they’re playing for fun (evidence point 1- the violent acts they are performing onscreen are not really registering with them), sometimes there is a quite alarming sense of detachment from the actions they are performing on screen (evidence point 2- the sign of conscious realisation that what they’re doing doesn’t really matter), and sometimes people will get seriously aggressive, gritting teeth, shouting and swearing as they bite the dust once again (third, and most compelling, point of evidence- people have gone from being ambivalent about the consequences in a scenario in which, let’s face it, there are no consequences, to getting genuinely aggressive and yet simultaneously compelled to play by such action sequences)
The fundamental flaws in this idea are twofold- firstly there is the simple “Well, DUH! Of course they’re lackadaisical about all the violence- THEY KNOW IT’S NOT REAL, SO THEY DON’T CARE!”. Plonk the average person, even a game-hater, in front of an FPS, and their prevailing emotion will not be the writhing under the chair screaming in abject terror that they would most likely demonstrate if they were really suddenly transported to a gunfight in Afghanistan or somewhere. The second flaw is based more upon the fundamentals of human psychology-  people and animals, at a fundamental level, respond well to action and violence. It’s in our nature- in the distant past it was necessary for us to prompt us to go out and hunt for food, or to make us run rather than go rabbit-in-headlights when the lion appeared in the path ahead. Plus… well even before games, guns and swords were just damn cool. Thus, you cannot complain at a person getting really into a violent game (which, by the way, has had millions poured into it to MAKE it compelling), to the point where they start to feel it is semi-real enough to make them slightly aggressive over it. With a world that is nowadays largely devoid of violence, this is about their only chance to make contact with their inner hunter, and unleash the adrenaline that entails. This is why a soldier, who gets plenty of action in his everyday life, will not relax by playing CoD after his patrol, but a suburban child will. People are not, from my point of view, getting aggressive from playing the game too much, but merely during the experience the game provides.
The case study that always gets quoted by supporters of this argument is inevitably ‘The Manhunt Murder’, referring to an incident in 2004 when a 14 year-old boy (Stefan Pakeerah) in Leicester was stabbed to death by a 17 year-old friend (Warren LeBlanc). While the authorities put the motive down to attempted theft, the victim’s parents insisted that their son’s murderer was obsessed by the game Manhunt. The game itself is undoubtedly bloody and violent, rewarding particularly savage kills, and so too was the murder- Stefan was repeatedly stabbed and beaten with a claw hammer, a method of execution the game features. The event has since be seized upon by those worried by the the violence in modern gaming and has been held up repeatedly as an example of ‘what can happen’.
However, the link is, according to many, a completely invalid one. The only copy of the game found at any point of the investigation was found in Pakeerah’s bedroom (his parents claim it was given to him by LeBlanc two days prior to his death), so if his murderer was ‘obsessed’ by the game, he didn’t play it for at least 48 hours previously. Perhaps more importantly however, only two people involved in the scenario blamed the game itself- Stefan’s parents. His father described the game as: “a video instruction on how to murder somebody, it just shows how you kill people and what weapons you use”. However, the police and legal authorities, at all stages of the investigation, said that LeBlanc’s aim and motive was robbery- gaming did not come into it.
This ties into the results of several research studies that have been made into the possible link between virtual and real-world violence, all of which have been unable to come to any conclusions (although this may partly be due to lack of data). My thoughts on the matter? Well, I am not learned enough in this field to comment on the in-depth psychology of it all, but I like to remember this: as of 2009 (according to Wikipedia, anyway), 55 million copies of Call of Duty had been sold, and I have yet to hear of anyone getting killed over it.

Okay onto part two… actually, 1200 words? Already? Ach, dammit, this is looking like it’s going to be a three-parter at least then. Saturday I will try and wrap up the complaints levelled at the games industry, the Six Nations series will continue on Monday, and Wednesday I’ll try and go into whys and wherefores. See you then

*Now let’s see who can get the gaming reference I’ve made in the title…