Gravity

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.

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Aging

OK, I know it was a while ago, but who watched Felix Baumgartner’s jump? If you haven’t seen it, then you seriously missed out; the sheer spectacle of the occasion was truly amazing, so unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. We’re fairly used to seeing skydives from aeroplanes, but usually we only see either a long distance shot, jumper’s-eye-view, or a view from the plane showing them being whisked away half a second after jumping. Baumgartner’s feat was… something else, the two images available for the actual jump being direct, static views of a totally vertical fall. Plus, they were so angled to give a sense of the awesome scope of the occasion; one showed directly down to earth below, showing the swirling clouds and the shape of the land, whilst the other shot gave a beautiful demonstration of the earth’s curvature. The height he was at made the whole thing particularly striking; shots from the International Space Station and the moon have showed the earth from further away, but Baumgartner’s unique height made everything seem big enough to be real, yet small enough to be terrifying. And then there was the drop itself; a gentle lean forward from the Austrian, followed by what can only be described as a plummet. You could visibly see the lack of air resistance, so fast was he accelerating compared to our other images of skydivers. The whole business was awe-inspiring. Felix Baumgartner, you sir have some serious balls.

However, I bring this story up not because of the event itself, nor the insane amount of media coverage it received, nor even the internet’s typically entertaining reaction to the whole business (this was probably my favourite). No, the thing that really caught my eye was a little something about Baumgartner himself; namely, that the man who holds the world records for highest freefall, highest manned balloon flight, fastest unassisted speed and second longest freefall ever will be forty-four years old in April.

At his age, he would be ineligible for entry into the British Armed Forces, is closer to collecting his pension than university, and has already experienced more than half his total expected time on this earth. Most men his age are in the process of settling down, finding their place in some management company and getting slightly less annoyed at being passed over for promotion by some youngster with a degree and four boatloads of hopelessly naive enthusiasm. They’re in the line for learning how to relax, taking up golf, being put onto diet plans by their wives and going to improving exhibitions of obscure artists. They are generally not throwing themselves out of balloons 39 kilometres above the surface of the earth, even if they were fit and mobile enough to get inside the capsule with half a gigatonne of sensors and pressure suit (I may be exaggerating slightly).

Baumgartner’s feats for a man of his age (he was also the first man to skydive across the English channel, and holds a hotly disputed record for lowest BASE jump ever) are not rare ones without reason. Human beings are, by their very nature, lazy (more on that another time) and tend to favour the simple, homely life rather one that demands such a high-octane, highly stressful thrill ride of a life experience. This tendency towards laziness also makes us grow naturally more and more unfit as time goes by, our bodies slowly using the ability our boundlessly enthusiastic childish bodies had for scampering up trees and chasing one another, making such seriously impressive physical achievements rare.

And then there’s the activity itself; skydiving, and even more so BASE jumping, is also a dangerous, injury-prone sport, and as such it is rare to find regular practitioners of Baumgartner’s age and experience who have not suffered some kind of reality-checking accident leaving them either injured, scared or, in some cases, dead. Finally, we must consider the fact that there are very few people rich enough and brave enough to give such an expensive, exhilarating hobby as skydiving a serious go, and even less with both the clout, nous, ambition and ability to get a project such as Red Bull Stratos off the ground. And we must also remember that one has to overcome the claustrophobic, restrictive experience of doing the jump in a heavy pressure suit; even Baumgartner had to get help from a sports psychologist to get over his claustrophobia caused by being in the suit.

But then again, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. Red Bull Stratos was a culmination of years of effort in a single minded pursuit of a goal, and that required a level of experience in both skydiving and life in general that simply couldn’t be achieved by anyone younger than middle age- the majority of younger, perhaps even more ambitious, skydivers simply could not have got the whole thing done. And we might think that the majority of middle-aged people don’t achieve great things, but then again in the grand scheme of things the majority of everyone don’t end up getting most of the developed world watching them of an evening. Admittedly, the majority of those who do end up doing the most extraordinary physical things are under 35, but there’s always room for an exceptional human to change that archetype. And anyway; look at the list of Nobel Prize winners and certified geniuses on our earth, our leaders and heroes. Many of them have turned their middle age into something truly amazing, and if their field happens to be quantum entanglement rather than BASE jumping then so be it; they can still be extraordinary people.

I don’t really know what the point of this post was, or exactly what conclusion I was trying to draw from it; it basically started off because I thought Felix Baumgartner was a pretty awesome guy, and I happened to notice he was older than I thought he would be. So I suppose it would be best to leave you with a fact and a quote from his jump. Fact: When he jumped, his heart rate was measured as being lower than the average resting (ie lying down doing nothing and not wetting yourself in pants-shitting terror) heart rate of a normal human, so clearly the guy is cool and relaxed to a degree beyond human imagining. Quote: “Sometimes you have to be really high to see how small you really are”.

Attack of the Blocks

I spend far too much time on the internet. As well as putting many hours of work into trying to keep this blog updated regularly, I while away a fair portion of time on Facebook, follow a large number of video series’ and webcomics, and can often be found wandering through the recesses of YouTube (an interesting and frequently harrowing experience that can tell one an awful lot about the extremes of human nature). But there is one thing that any resident of the web cannot hope to avoid for any great period of time, and quite often doesn’t want to- the strange world of Minecraft.

Since its release as a humble alpha-version indie game in 2009, Minecraft has boomed to become a runaway success and something of a cultural phenomenon. By the end of 2011, before it had even been released in its final release format, Minecraft had registered 4 million purchases and 4 times that many registered users, which isn’t bad for a game that has never advertised itself, spread semi-virally among nerdy gamers for its mere three-year history and was made purely as an interesting project by its creator Markus Persson (aka Notch). Thousands of videos, ranging from gameplay to some quite startlingly good music videos (check out the work of Captain Sparklez if you haven’t already) litter YouTube and many of the games’ features (such as TNT and the exploding mobs known as Creepers) have become memes in their own right to some degree.

So then, why exactly has Minecraft succeeded where hundreds and thousands of games have failed, becoming a revolution in gamer culture? What is it that makes Minecraft both so brilliant, and so special?

Many, upon being asked this question, tend to revert to extolling the virtues of the game’s indie nature. Being created entirely without funding as an experiment in gaming rather than profit-making, Minecraft’s roots are firmly rooted in the humble sphere of independent gaming, and it shows. One obvious feature is the games inherent simplicity- initially solely featuring the ability to wander around, place and destroy blocks, the controls are mainly (although far from entirely) confined to move and ‘use’, whether that latter function be shoot, slash, mine or punch down a tree. The basic, cuboid, ‘blocky’ nature of the game’s graphics, allowing for both simplicity of production and creating an iconic, retro aesthetic that makes it memorable and standout to look at. Whilst the game has frequently been criticised for not including a tutorial (I myself took a good quarter of an hour to find out that you started by punching a tree, and a further ten minutes to work out that you were supposed to hold down the mouse button rather than repeatedly click), this is another common feature of indie gaming, partly because it saves time in development, but mostly because it makes the game feel like it is not pandering to you and thus allowing indie gamers to feel some degree of elitism that they are good enough to work it out by themselves. This also ties in with the very nature of the game- another criticism used to be (and, to an extent, still is, even with the addition of the Enderdragon as a final win objective) that the game appeared to be largely devoid of point, existent only for its own purpose. This is entirely true, whether you view that as a bonus or a detriment being entirely your own opinion, and this idea of an unfamiliar, experimental game structure is another feature common in one form or another to a lot of indie games.

However, to me these do not seem to be entirely worthy of the name ‘answers’ regarding the question of Minecraft’s phenomenal success. The reason I think this way is that they do not adequately explain exactly why Minecraft rose to such prominence whilst other, often similar, indie games have been left in relative obscurity. Limbo, for example, is a side-scrolling platformer and a quite disturbing, yet compelling, in-game experience, with almost as much intrigue and puzzle from a set of game mechanics simpler even than those of Minecraft. It has also received critical acclaim often far in excess of Minecraft (which has received a positive, but not wildly amazed, response from critics), and yet is still known to only an occasional few. Amnesia: The Dark Descent has been often described as the greatest survival horror game in history, as well as incorporating a superb set of graphics, a three-dimensional world view (unlike the 2D view common to most indie games) and the most pants-wettingly terrifying experience anyone who’s ever played it is likely to ever face- but again, it is confined to the indie realm. Hell, Terraria is basically Minecraft in 2D, but has sold around 40 times less than Minecraft itself. All three of these games have received fairly significant acclaim and coverage, and rightly so, but none has become the riotous cultural phenomenon that Minecraft has, and neither have had an Assassin’s Creed mod (first example that sprung to mind).

So… why has Minecraft been so successful. Well, I’m going to be sticking my neck out here, but to my mind it’s because it doesn’t play like an indie game. Whilst most independently produced titled are 2D, confined to fairly limited surroundings and made as simple & basic as possible to save on development (Amnesia can be regarded as an exception), Minecraft takes it own inherent simplicity and blows it up to a grand scale. It is a vast, open world sandbox game, with vague resonances of the Elder Scrolls games and MMORPG’s, taking the freedom, exploration and experimentation that have always been the advantages of this branch of the AAA world, and combined them with the innovative, simplistic gaming experience of its indie roots. In some ways it’s similar to Facebook, in that it takes a simple principle and then applies it to the largest stage possible, and both have enjoyed a similarly explosive rise to fame. The randomly generated worlds provide infinite caverns to explore, endless mobs to slay, all the space imaginable to build the grandest of castles, the largest of cathedrals, or the SS Enterprise if that takes your fancy. There are a thousand different ways to play the game on a million different planes, all based on just a few simple mechanics. Minecraft is the best of indie and AAA blended together, and is all the more awesome for it.

The Curious Tale of Jack Dunlap

If, gentle reader, you happen to be from the USA, and especially if you happen to live in or in the vicinity of Washington, then you are likely to be more familiar than the rest of us with Arlington National Cemetery. This is a huge graveyard near the centre of Washington DC, and contains a number of war memorials and similar. It also contains the grave of John F Kennedy, whose final resting place it became 4 years after his assassination in 1963 (he had originally been buried in a small plot in the same graveyard, but was later moved to a plot containing a memorial). However, not long before Jack Kennedy was finally lain to rest, another Jack was buried just a little way away- one whose political significance was also huge, but went unknown to almost everyone. His name was Jack Dunlap, and his story is an extraordinary one.

In 1960, Dunlap led an unremarkable life. Married to an unworking wife and with five children, he was a sergeant in the US army with a distinguished record of service in the Korean war and the medals to show for it. However, now he was confined to more mundane work as a clerk-messenger, ferrying important documents around Fort Meade, the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Washington. This made him around $100 a week, which even in 1960 wasn’t much to feed seven hungry mouths.

However, in late 1960 Dunlap encountered a big slice of luck. A distant great-uncle of his died, and bequeathed him a plantation in Louisiana. Suddenly, the dough was rolling in, and Dunlap began living the high life. A new Cadillac, fine suits, smart restaurants, his own cabin cruiser, and his newfound passion for speedboat racing were now within his financial grasp, he told his friends, but he hung onto his job out of a sense that it was important. He didn’t tell most of them about the mistress he had set up in her own apartment, but to her he told a different story. He put on his swagger, and began to brag about how he ‘wasn’t what I say I am’, and all the top-secret stuff his job required him to handle, ending with the old line “If you knew what I actually did, I’d have to kill you”.

Still, the Louisiana story was enough for his NSA bosses, and he received red carpet treatment. Not only was he given days off to go speedboat racing, but after an accident in which he injured his back they sent an ambulance and transferred him to a military hospital. As Jack joked to his friends “They were afraid the sedatives might make me tell a lot of secrets I know”

But to find out the real truth, you’d have to know about a curious fact of his work.  Some of the documents and papers he was entrusted to deliver would turn up late. Very late in fact- nobody noticed, but it might take a day or so for an important paper to get to where it needed to when it passed through Dunlap’s hands. This was because it had taken a little detour- first up Jack’s shirt, then to a man in Washington who would photograph or photocopy them, before being taken back to their intended recipient. The man in Washington was a Soviet agent, and Dunlap was selling his country’s secrets to the USSR.

This was where his newfound wealth had come from- a $50,000 annual salary, around ten times his NSA one, had been offered to Dunlap by the agent in a meeting that autumn ‘to help him bear the expense of his five kids’, in exchange for the information he provided. And provide it he did. Jack Dunlap carried on playing his game of betrayal for nearly four years, on one occasion even bringing an unsuspecting mistress with him to a meeting with his Soviet contact.

However, all good things come to an end, and in Jack Dunlap’s case that end was rather abrupt. In March 1964 his NSA term had come to an end, and he was due to be posted elsewhere- somewhere he might not be able to continue his lucrative trade in information. To try and keep his position (and thus his illicit income), he said that his family were too settled in Washington to move, and asked that, if he could not work for the NSA as a soldier any more, perhaps he could resign and assume work as a civilian.

This would have been a great plan had it not been for one catch- the lie detector. Whilst Army personnel were considered safe, all civilian NSA staff were required to take a session on it before assuming work and, try as he might, Dunlap could not persuade them that his military record excluded him from that. He tried to persuade himself that four years of casual espionage had kept him cool, calm and collected enough to beat the lie detector (which was a fundamentally flawed and eminently cheatable device), but unfortunately it was not to be. Measurements of his muscle movements, breathing, perspiration and heart rate when answering rather sensitive questions altered the NSA opinion of him from a trustworthy, honest, efficient worker to a habitual sneak ‘capable of petty theft’. Whilst not a damning indictment of the high treason he was performing, it was enough to get Dunlap transferred to a desk job and to get his bosses asking around. The plantation in Louisiana was found to be bogus, and they started trying to find out where Dunlap’s wealth came from.

For Dunlap, this was a terrifying time. Without any secrets to ferry and sell, he was abandoned by his Soviet contact. He knew perfectly well that four years of betraying such sensitive information was more than enough to send him to the electric chair, or at least the rest of his life in maximum security without a hope of parole. His mental state began to unravel- he had paranoid fears of shadowy men in dark corridors asking him to ‘just come this way’, or a platoon of soldiers kicking down the door. Finally, it all got too much for him, and on July 22nd, 1964, he drove to an abandoned creek and suffocated himself with his car’s exhaust fumes.

During his time as a spy, Jack Dunlap ‘told’ the Soviet Union almost everything about the United States’ coding machines, revealed exactly what the US knew about Soviet military power, and handled some information concerning Oleg Penkovsky a Soviet double agent working predominately for the British that went straight back to the Soviets and almost certainly helped lead to the eventual capture and execution of one of the most influential intelligence tools the western powers had (Penkovsky was a Soviet colonel who, disillusioned with his country’s politics, had begun to play exactly the same treacherous game as Dunlap). And that’s only the stuff we know about- the KGB have (understandably) never released the information they got from Dunlap, so he could even have contributed to Kennedy’s assassination for all we know (far be it from me to add yet another string to that particular conspiracy theory). Many might consider him a traitor, a villain who gave up both his principles and his country for a couple of hundred thousand bucks- but then again, we might consider Penkovsky, playing the same game, a hero who died in the fight against communism. What we can all be sure of, however, is that Jack Dunlap almost certainly changed the course of history in his own little way- much like the other famous Jack spending his eternal slumber just a stone’s throw away.