Our uneasy relationship with Google

Almost everyone active on the internet has some sort of relationship with Google, through their search engine, Android or other services. But can Google be trusted with our information and data?

The Evolution of a Reluctant Twilight Fan

The journey from disregard, through hate and eventually ending on enjoyment and reluctant fan-hood.

On Creativity, Consumption and the Internet

A look at how the internet has evolved and the tension between consumption and creativity on the 'Net.

Sherlock vs Sherlock and Miller vs Cumberbatch

A comparison of two wonderful, but distinct, modern portrayals of Sherlock Holmes.

Why Linux Matters

Why Linux Matters: Both to an individual non-technical user and to global society at large.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Right To Be Forgotten / The Right To Remember

The right to be forgotten, the EU ruling affecting Google search results, has caused all manner of anger and confusion amongst many people. This is more than understandable, as the ruling itself strikes a raw nerve with regards to censorship and information control. While the ruling contains numerous practical problems, which alone should render it troubling, but I also wish to take issue with the underlying right that is being protected here. The EU is not just making a misguided attempt to protect a natural right, but rather is meddling with the fundamental rights of society.

It is worth taking some time out to actually clarify what has been decided by the EU, it establishes the principle of individuals (and almost certainly extensible to corporations at some point in the future) having the right to have some events or incidents "forgotten". This is not a right to expunge material and content from websites themselves, that is presumably still within the domain of slander and defamation laws, but rather imposes the responsibility of scrubbing search results returned by search engines at the minimum (Google is the first "test case" but the principle is broad rather than specific to Google). The regulations are aimed at 'data controllers', a definition which can get plausibly be extended beyond search engines to encompass other bodies also.

Danny O'Brian, speaking on the podcast This Week In Google, identified the glaring practical flaw in this requirement, that "half censorship is like being half pregnant, it just doesn't work". Since there is no legal framework being proposed to actually comprehensively remove the information in question, the decentralised nature of the internet means that these attempts at information control will fail, and thus increase the pressure to find more and more comprehensive censorship solutions.

So what exactly can be forgotten from the public (search) memory? This is a critical point, it is not outright defamation but rather accurate reporting of facts that infringe on the ‘the right to silence on past events in life that are no longer occurring.’

This has been popularly been described as the right to have teenage indiscretions not pop up during screening for job applications for example, or publicly known, and embarrassing, convictions that occurred a decade or so ago not appear when searching for an individuals name.

I'd like to put aside all political and practical issues here and just examine the question of whether individuals have an underlying right to have these incidents forgotten? What ethical or philosophical basis does this right derive from?

They appear to largely rest upon the notion of personal data as something which intrinsically belongs to the individual, which can be temporarily "granted" to the data controllers but also can be revoked or the purpose for which it was collected is no longer relevant.

The legal framework extending from this formulation seems simple, applied to private collections of data it seems perfectly reasonable, why should your dentist keep your personal data on file if you either wish it to be destroyed or if you switch to a different dentist? We similarly grant our personal data to certain internet companies, for example Facebook, on the basis of mutual advantage. If we then decide to back out of that arrangement, or its utility to us has run its course, then having the right to demand that data be removed and/or destroyed seems to be a necessary correction to the balance of power between individuals and service providers and/or corporations.

Where that logical chain breaks down is the understanding that the internet as a whole, and particularly internet search engines, are nothing more than service providers that hold our personal data. This is demonstrably untrue, the service provided by Google or Bing is not an exchange of personal data for a utility, but rather a conflation of two separate transactions.

The "normal" transaction is the exchange of the personal browsing/searching habits of the individual in exchange for search results given. The second transaction is the indexing of web content by the search engine on exchange for driving of traffic to the website in question. In both cases the transaction is voluntary, websites can choose not to be indexed by search engines and individuals can either use a privacy focused search engine or none at all.

So what about personal data present in webpages that are being indexed? This data is present in search results through a third party, the website which is being indexed. Unless it is held on a private database, it is accessible to all, i.e. it is within the public sphere. We have an immense amount of law and regulation which defines the scope and acceptability of personal data within this sphere, from defamation and libel laws, child protection legislation, harassment law, etc. Critically, this body of law and regulation is primarily concerned with dealing with the source directly, the webpages themselves (although search engines and indexing services also have legal requirements).

Why should this framework be protected against the 'right to be forgotten'? It is, simply put, our collective public memory. Working outside of the system of defamation, harassment, etc. means that our ability to establish factual truths is in jeopardy. The argument that it only controls casual access is extremely weak, knowledge as traditionally captured in the forms of books and manuscripts has always required indexing and organisation. A vast unsorted library does not equal access to information, indexed and organised libraries equal true access to information. The internet is, without a shred of doubt, the largest and most comprehensive store of human knowledge, without organisation and indexing it is simply a mass of words and images far too immense for any single individual to absorb or effectively utilise.

The 'natural' right of individuals to have certain incidents forgotten against this critical social right is extremely weak, the individual who commits indiscretions in his or her youth should have recourse to appeal to society, not to law. Building a tolerant society is not a function of law and regulation, it is the function of shared morality and ethics. Law is, at its most fundamental level, an attempt to balance various rights and obligations to ensure the best outcome for society as a whole.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Understanding Sunni/Shia conflict after the rise of ISIS


Although it the impression from current events is very different, the fact is that the Sunni/Shia conflict is historically far less bloody than Catholic/Protestant conflict through the ages. The biggest reason for this is that, broadly speaking, the two groups actually accept each other as Muslims, therefore it isn't competing claims to God (requiring one group to wipe out the other) as much as it is a deeply rooted fissure in Muslim society.

Wikipedia sums it up well in their article on religious sectarianism by saying that Shia's believe that the Sunni rule of the community choosing their leader by consensus was wrong and that Ali (the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad) was the rightful heir. However the Sunnis broadly regard the war of succession as that "the bloody conflict between Ali and Muawiyah was a result of a tragic misunderstanding and regardless of who was wrong, the matter should have been solved peacefully".

Shrine at Kerbala (Source)

It is a deep divide but it's not a fundamentally different understanding of God or a different Qu'ran (it's literally exactly the same for both Sunni and Shia). So there isn't a parallel to Catholic attempts to literally wipe out the Lutherans for example or the Eastern Orthodox and Latin Catholics fighting over control of Christendom and the power to make Papal edicts or religious law. Sunni/Shia conflict is deeply intertwined with power politics and the struggle for political advantage, but various levels of accommodation is probably the historical norm.

It's interesting that the Wikipedia article on sectarian violence has sections on Christians and Muslims, and the Muslim section has nothing until the 20th century (after explaining the original divide). Its pretty telling that Pakistan, a Sunni majority state, has had both a Shia elected president and a Shia military president, neither were opposed because they were Shia and there was very little fuss at the time.

This said, some orthodox Salafis are deeply hostile to Shia, indeed they are deeply to hostile to most non-Salafi groups, including the Sufis. This kind of interpretation of Islam is not new, it tends to crop up every few centuries as a reaction to Sufis and other groups integrating outside influences or the perceived excesses of mystical groups.

But "orthodox" Salafis are merely hostile, they recognise the Shia as misguided Muslims rather than a dangerous threat. Groups like Isis or Al-Qaida however are not orthodox Salafis, they see the Shia as a direct threat, partly for political reasons, Assad, a Shia, in Syria is ruling (and violently oppressing) a majority Sunni population, but also for religious reasons as their worldview cannot permit alternative conceptions of Islam, the large-scale violence inflicted on other Sunni groups in both Syria and Iraq due to this is extremely telling.

Isis and other such groups have the ideological state backing of Saudi, the richest Gulf Arab nation, something which previous strict movements have lacked, the tactical backing of the US in Iraq which has backfired considerably and the media and communication channels in a globalized world to draw recruits from. 

This alone still wouldn't have been enough to actually kickstart the conquest that they've managed in Iraq. The tipping factor is likely the remnants of the Ba'ath Party, Saddam Hussein's former party, which have seen democratic elections and the US government eat away at their former dominance of Iraq and now see Sunni groups like Isis as their best hope of regaining control. They bring formal military experience, including many former generals who fought in the decade long war with Iran, and strong control over their local communities in the Sunni areas of Iraq.

The popular support for it is depressing though, but familiar. It seems like there is a core of Salafis, including internationals who've come thinking they're fighting to defend Muslims from Assad in Syria or the Americans in Iraq, alongside those who want to establish a "pure" Islamic state. Those would probably number in the low thousands, statistically irrelevant but practically key. Allied with key former Ba'athist figures who hold the loyalty of former soldiers under their command or through tribal allegiances, you get the committed core of the Isis army. Many more thousands seem to have signed up because of the pay on offer, thanks to various sources of funding, this isn't a local organic insurgency but a well funded one.

Isis don't have huge forces, but they do have modern weaponry and seem exceptionally well organised and disciplined. It still needed the tacit support of the Sunni population, which it achieved through a combination of appealing to the need for security after a decade of chaos and lawlessness, traditional tension and divides with the Shia, anti-Americanism and finally, good old fashioned intimidation and fear. Its a combination which has worked again and again in countries which are effectively traumatised by war and the overriding carrot is security and safety in their own communities and the big stick is more destruction and murder.

 Maybe it's useful to remember that the Middle East has a massive mix of ethnicities and sects, maybe proportionally more than Western Europe has, you have Gulf Arabs, Levant Arabs, Maghrebi Arabs, Bedouins, Syriacs, Sephardic Jews, Persians, Kurds, Berbers, Turks, Armenians, Copts, Dom (cousins to the European Roma), Maronites, and others.

Widespread ethnic cleansing in the Middle East is simply not present in the historical record (with the exception of the Armenians), the ethnic and religious communities are also geographically mixed and dispersed, Kurds, Doms and Jews (before they mostly left after the creation of Israel) were especially scattered all over the Middle East.

HOW-TO: Get iTunes Podcasts on Linux/Ubuntu/Windows without iTunes





Podcasts have grown from a niche product to a mainstream phenomenon in the last few years, proving to be both extremely popular and a legimate business model for shows as diverse as Stuff You Should Know to Kevin Smith's Smodcast Network.


Podcasts themselves are essentially platform neutral, being basically audio files distributed via an internet feed, usually RSS. There are plenty of applications for all mobile platforms and Windows/Linux/Mac which offer a selection of podcasts and the ability to import feeds. 

However, the problem of discovery rears it's ugly head when the fact that the iTunes stores dominates the distribution market is taken into account. While applications such as Rhythmbox and other podcast managers do provide a reasonable list of podcasts, it is far, far less comprehensive and broad than the iTunes listings. The standard method to import other podcasts, an RSS URL, is of no use when confronted with iTunes refusal to divulge the RSS origin of any podcast.

Since there is nothing making these podcasts "iTunes exclusives", only a failure to list them in any other directory, the simplest way to build out your podcast collection is to use a webapp called Feed Flipper, available at http://picklemonkey.net/feedflipper-home/

This will enable you to simply paste in the web address for any given iTunes podcast (the address of the iTunes Store listing) and out comes a regular RSS URL, ready for you to import into any podcast manager of your choice.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Review: Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Less Star Trek, More 2001




Year:1979
Director:
Genre: Science-Fiction


The plot is somewhat baffling in it's construction and use, although it is certainly a solid sci-fi premise. An unknown alien object is approaching earth, having destroyed three Klingon warships and a Federation outpost, no contact can be made and it's intentions are still unknown. From here, we see the Enterprise, yet again the only ship within intercept range, being deployed to try and make contact with the intruder and prevent the destruction of Earth. In possible the best aspect of the film, we see the original crew of the Original Series have aged and moved on in their careers, except Kirk, now an Admiral, takes back command from the fresh Captain Decker, using the emergency as a pretext, but as Bones points outs, reflects his desire to remain aboard the Enterprise as Captain.

We get an indication of it's nature through Spock, who having attempted to purge all his remaining emotions in order to achieve a state of pure logic, feels a keen affinity for the 'thoughtwaves' emanating from it. The alien object then destroys a newly introduced crewmember and sends back a facsimile to communicate with what it refers to as 'carbon-based units'. We gradually learn that the object is, in fact, a deep space craft named Voyager 6, a successor to the Voyager craft launched in real life, in order to gain as much knowledge as possible. The craft has encountered a civilization of pure logic and with their help achieved consciousness. It is now returning to Earth to seek it's Creator.

The final setpeice of the movie involves the core crew beaming down to the surface of the Voyager 6 probe (it's nameplate having been partially covered to read, as previously referred to, as V'Ger) and attempting to convince it that the 'carbon-based' units as, in fact, it's Creators. Hastily retrieved NASA codes don't do the trick, and eventually Decker chooses to be absorbed into the probe's consciousness, thus rejoining the previously absorbed crewmember with whom he is clearly in love, to share his thoughts and memories and avert the destruction of Earth.

The problem with the plot is perhaps the exact opposite of the problems encountered by many modern blockbusters. The personal aspects of the story, the interactions between the crew and the quieter character beats, range from decent to excellent. The Original Series' crew has always done well with maintaining interest in interpersonal relations and the nice touch in naming the new Captain Decker isn't left unnoticed. However, the heart of any screenplay has to be conflict, and the situation with V'Ger is simply not given enough drama to be compelling.

 
It is an interesting premise, and  solid 'hard' sci-fi story. But as a major movie, rather than a quieter, reflective episode of the TV show, it does fail pretty badly. While there is no need for large-scale space battles or a myriad of action scenes, there is a need for compelling human drama as well as a cool premise, and almost all the human drama here is relegated to character beats rather than the plot. It results in a somewhat boring progression through the cloud, and an emotionally lacking payoff at the end.

In watching the Remastered Edition's special effects, I was genuinely blown away. This isn't to say that the effects look modern, they are identifiably dated, relying on scale models and mostly in-camera effects rather than modern CGI and digital trickery. However, they hold up remarkably well, giving the movie a sense of grandeur and weight that is surprisingly still potent.

The oft-mocked sequence of Kirk and Scotty approaching the docked Enterprise certainly does seem to be a case of drawing attention to the budget and finally giving the Enterprise the care and attention to detail it was never able to get on the TV show. But it also works wonderfully in establishing a believable, immersive environment, one that is critical for the slow paced cerebral tale the film is attempting to tell.

The Enterprise is certainly impressive, it may be simply a personal preference of mine rather than a universal sentiment, but I always thought that a well done (and well-lit) scale model carries far more visual weight and presence than the majority of computer rendered models. Here the Enterprise is graceful, imposing and looks solid and grand, compared to the fairly weak CGI rendering of the Enterprise in The Next Generation for example. While the time devoted to admiring the model in the first act may be excessive, and almost insanely so by modern pacing standards, the effects themselves still hold up excellently.

The array of effects shown when the Enterprise enters into the V'Ger cloud however hold up slightly less well. Perhaps this is an indication of where computer generated effects have a significance edge over older camera and visual effects, rather than losing some semblance of 'weight', as in the case of rendering ships, CGI now is able to produce far better looking clouds, particle effects and light shows than anything at the filmmakers' disposal at this time.

Rating: 5/10


The overall impression I was left with at the end of this movie is that this is less a big-screen outing of Star Trek than it is the familiar Enterprise and her crew being placed in a completely different creative universe and plot. While some will protest that this was made under the influence of Gene Rodenberry himself, a look back to the Original Series shows the strong marriage of philosophical curiosity with drama, action and humour.

That wonderful mix of drama, action and humour as largely missing here, even as the characters themselves are thankfully intact. Instead we have an almost single-minded focus on philosophical questioning and an atmosphere more reminiscent of 2001: A Space Oddessy than Star Trek.

It is certainly is still well worth watching for anyone with a substantial interest in Star Trek and/or movies exploring grand themes. It is, however, not particularly entertaining beyond sporadic moments. Not a bad film by any stretch, we're not talking about Star Trek V here, but certainly a oddity in Star Trek canon.







Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Last Exorcism Review: Snatching Defeat From The Jaws Of Victory


Rather than being a "normal" review, this article is going to revolve around the final act of The Last Exorcism and the question of how to resolve plots in general, so if you have any plans on watching the movie without spoilers, this might be a good place to stop reading until you do so.

A word or several first on the film itself, I find it difficult to recommend The Last Exorcist despite thoroughly enjoying the majority of the movie. The acting is competent and in the case of the lead, surprisingly excellent. The direction is quietly expressive, the plot appears to be a fresh take on a tired genre and there are both scares and an unsettling creepy atmosphere throughout.

In the light of the above, it may seem that the movie should be recommended on that basis alone, surely a weak final act can't wipe out the positives completely? Watching a movie is undoubtedly about the experience of the journey, not just the culmination of the plot?



Year: 2010
Director:
Genre: Horror

Reverend Marcus (a standout performance by Patrick Fabian) is a troubled "exorcist" who experiences a loss of faith and decides to co-operate with a two-person documentary crew to help debunk the notion of exorcism and his own practice of it, in order to prevent accidental harm apparently risked during some procedures. The movies does excellent setting a fresh tone for the by-now tired format and moves efficiently along from effective character shading to the main plot, that of a backwoods farmer named Louis (another surprisingly good performance, this time by Louis Herthum) who believes his daughter has been possessed, perhaps by the Devil himself.

The documentary crew find the local area to be rife with speculation over UFO crash sites, witches and a dark 'cult'. Driving closer to the isolated home, they find Louis' son, Caleb, to be hostile and a complex family situation where the death of Louis' wife has caused him to turn to religion and alcohol, isolating his two children to an extreme degree. Marcus uses his bag tricks to perform a sham exorcism, dispenses some sound advice and the crew take their leave to a motel.

Here the movie switches up a few gears as the daughter, Nell, appears at the motel apparently in the grip of a demon possession. As the audience, we see clearly what we can reasonably perceive to be the direction of the movie, where the charismatic but disillusioned Reverend is forced to confront a genuine possession. However, the fresh tone, good performances and intriguing hints of more-complex-than-average backstory means that this realization is not negative in the slightest, at this stage  the movie shows great promise.

For the middle act, this promise is more than lived up to. Drawn back into Nell's predicament, the crew have to handle Louis unwillingness to seek medical help, increasingly terrifying behavior from Nell and well-woven developments regarding an unsuspected pregnancy, possible incestuous abuse and an apparently helpful local priest.

This keeps the momentum of the plot moving while keeping things interesting, and the affair appears to be heading into a barnstorming finale when an impromptu second exorcism is begun in the barn with a genuinely frightening atmosphere, classic body contortions and fun, and enjoyable, intelligent word-play between demon and priest. It hits all the classic tropes of the exorcism sub-genre, but does so a fresh manner and the sketched-in backstories and charismatic performance by Fabian pay off well.

Sadly, the high-point of the film before it jumps the shark

However, this is where the movie starts flying off the rails, painfully managing to snatch defeat into it's grasp at the home stretch. The first twist is somewhat anti-climatic, but still reasonable. Seizing upon a strange turn of phrase by the demon (blowing job rather than blow-job), Reverend Marcus appears to force Nell to admit that she not possessed but rather struggling to deal with her isolation after her mother's death and the guilt and confused feelings aroused by a secret affair with a local boy. The documentary crew then take their leave after leaving a damaged family with some hope of healing themselves after a traumatic experience.

Anti-climatic, but still satisfying to some degree, it could have been written off as a weaker third act if the movie hadn't then unleashed a second nonsensical twist. when stopping by the supposed father of Nell's baby, and finding him to be gay and never having slept with Nell, as well casting doubts on the apparently friendly local priest, the crew return to the family home. Here, a throw-away line, very early in the movie, about a dark cult operating in the local provides us with the filmiest of contexts for what's to follow.

The cult has apparently impregnated Nell with some sort of demon/Devil/alien/unknown baby with Louis tied up as she gives birth, and then the three-person crew all meet their doom. The end.

Yes, a cult that was mentioned once with absolutely no context, no stated motivation, no development over the course of the previous 2 hours, is the final twist. And it makes no sense when re-watching the movie. It adds nothing to the movie in terms of drama, themes or motifs. It is just.... pointless.

For this pointlessness, I award this movie 3/10 in sheer irritation. 


On Final Act Twists


Final act twists comes in many forms but to be successful they have to serve some purpose. An unexpected death can serve as a epilogue, prompting reflections on deeper themes. A 'mind-screw' twist, ala Fight Club, should also shine light on proceeding events, reinforce underlying themes and feel organic. A well executed 'Judas' twist, i.e. The classic it-was-you-behind-the-big-bag-all-along trope, should up the dramatic stakes and provide emotional resonance.
 
The only reasonable exceptions to these rules is if the movie itself is content to through the logic and thematic rule-book out the window in the search for pure fun or shameless thrills. The various twists and turns of the Mission:Impossible films make very little sense, but taken in the context of what those movies are trying to achieve, it detracts very little from the experience. A movie like The Last Exorcism however goes out of it's way to establish a fresher more immediately real feel than a thrill-ride horror movie like The Cabin In The Woods (which incidentally still handled it's own final act twists excellently). If you establish a tone for your world, you need to live in it.

A superb example of a misused twist ending was the original ending of Clerks, the debut film by Kevin Smith. A talky, lazily smart look at slacker culture, the abrupt shooting of the protagonist before a fade-to-black would have soured the taste of an otherwise superb movie without serving any deeper purpose. Thankfully, it was reshot and lives only as a humorous story amongst many others in Kevin Smith's podcasts and DVD's.

The final act of The Last Exorcism serve no purpose beyond a desire to move the film in a different direction. The cult comes out of the blue, with only a throwaway line at the beginning providing meager and insufficient context. No deeper themes or motifs tie in with the twist. It sheds no light on motivations of any characters in earlier acts.

Worse of all, unlike Fight Club where the twist rewards repeat watchings by neatly tying up dangling scenes and providing emotional and logical context, The Last Exorcism suffers horribly by making absolutely no sense when rewatched in the context of the final act.

Basic questions are left unanswered, not least, what the hell was going on? A cult was worshiping... the devil? A demon? Was the Nell possessed by the entity or simply carrying it's child? Was she aware?

Why the need for the whole possessed act? If we accept that the father wrote to the Reverend for an exorcism out of desperation and ignorance, and Caleb reacted in a hostile manner because he was a member of the cult, why did the girl play up being possessed at all? If the intention was to get rid of the three interlopers, which is made pretty clear by the pretense that it was all repressed guilt over a dalliance with a local boy, why follow the crew to the hotel room and keep them there when they were about to leave with the father satisfied that the demon had been exorcised? If the intention was to keep the crew around to murder them, as suggested by the drawing of their dead bodies, why attempt to mollify them and send them away hours before the birth of the demon/devil/unknown child? If Nell is trying to fight against her 'possession', if she is possessed which is left completely unclear, why does she appear to reassure them while normal and stalk them while possessed?

Why does Nell stab her brother in the mouth? Who is the male voice she is talking to when locked alone in her room? Do the cult want the crew to be sacrificed? Do they want them to leave?

What the fuck is going on?

The Last Exorcist took a superb basic premise, above-average performances and a good marriage between scene-to-scene unpredictability and tension and threw all away in pursuit of... something.

They truly managed to salvage a nonsensical poor movie out of the brink of what could have been anything between a respectable interesting take on a faux-docu exorcist movie to modern horror classic.
 
 
 
 

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: Mis-use of the Original Canon



Having now seen Star Trek Into Darkness twice, one of those times being an IMAX showing, it's safe to say that my feelings remain decidedly mixed.

Above all else the movie is pure unaltered spectacle, a thrilling experience that I'd happily recommend to anyone non–Trek fans looking for a couple hours of well produced escapist entertainment. Don't ask too many questions and you'll certainly be rewarded with space battles, humour, tension and even the odd dramatic moment.



For Star Trek fans however, it's far more of a mixed bag. The general consensus from the first 'rebooted' film in 2009 was that while playing fast and loose with Trek conventions, it was an excellent film that stood apart from the rest of the canon. While not feeling particularly like a Star Trek film in terms of pacing, themes or focus, the clever use of the alternate timeline gambit and pitch perfect performances, especially Spock and McCoy, gave it more than enough goodwill from the fanbase.

For me, Star Trek Into Darkness has taken that plentiful goodwill and gleefully tossed it away, seemingly without even realizing. There is a lot to take apart, from a technical standpoint and from its horrific plundering of The Wrath Of Khan. The plot is rife with baffling questions, from how exactly the Enterprise was planning on discreetly emerging from its underwater hiding place in the event Spock failed to the odd use of planet–to–planet transporting as a plot device that made very little coherent sense in the established universe. The insistence of characters on running literally everywhere quickly becomes ludicrous, the scenes where I outright laughed came when Kirk is shown running to find out what clue has been uncovered in the investigation of the attack on Starfleet command and running from the bridge to the transporter room to check on Spock instead of simply, and far more quickly, using the communicator. Khan stands out wonderfully because he appears to be the only person capable of walking normally.


Instead of doing a review of the film itself, I've decided instead to look at the statements by the screenwriters and examine the end result against their justifications for including various nods and references to the original canon. This use, or more acturrately misuse, forms the core of what dissatisfaction I have as a fan of Star Trek, and also lays bare the major structural flaws of film itself.



Khan


Kurtzman: “The choice to play in that sandbox [Khan as expressed by the original Trek canon] is really complicated because when a character was as beloved as Khan, you really have to have a reason to do it.  Part of our thinking at first was designing a story that existed as its own solid story. If we could take that and then incorporate Khan into the mix in a way that felt reverent and appropriate for that story, we would do it. Without that standard, we wouldn’t.”

The statement above evidences as complete mis-use of Khan from the very beginning of the creative process, in my opinion. The screenwriters were clearly intent of fitting Khan into an independent story, regardless of it's 'reverence' or 'appropriateness'. With Khan being such a recognizable and powerful figure in the mythos, the notion of fitting him into a story that wasn't build around him seems, frankly, stupid. The screenwriters could have chosen to base an original and unique story around a re-imagining of the charector, something that had the potential to feel both fresh and loyal to the core of the character, but instead chose to do the opposite. The result was a original and new story with Khan shoe-horned into the plot in a way which massively diminished the benefits of having such a powerful character in the first place.

Could we imagine a re-imagining of Batman where the story is centered around a new original villain and where the Joker is reduced to either a plot-driving machine or secondary character? Would fans applaud the 'homage' or question why another original character could not fulfilled his role without needing to misuse such an icon villain? Is this not the equivalent of taking Bane, a much loved figure in the comic canon, and reducing him to Poison Ivy's muscular manservant? In both 'Space Seed' and 'Wrath of Khan' itself, Khan is clearly a character with massive potential, who serves as secondary foil in the 'In Darkness' screenplay to the wider situation and the primary villain rather than the clean focused rivalry of his previous incarnations.

Kurtzman: “Ultimately, I think we felt that we found a reason and a way to do it that was all of the things we needed it to be, and yet really different. I think the mistake that we could have made, that we didn’t want to make, was to do a version of what Ricardo Montalban had done so brilliantly, and then fall short of that. We all loved the ‘Space Seed’ back story, the idea that he was a man who loved his crew as his family — that was the understandable and relatable agenda. And then we built outward from there. There are things about Khan that are very familiar, and there are things that are entirely different, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do.”

I would agree without hesitation that the charectar itself is built extremely well, from the motivations that Kurtzman ascribs him to the superb performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, Khan shines whenever the film allows him to. But I seriously question the value of 'building outwards' when the plot as a whole has already been built, leaving only the question of how to shove Khan into the mix, as the screenwriters have already admitted.

Kurtzman on including the icon KHAAAAAN line: "We knew that if we could get to the point we wanted to get to, and it felt like it was a natural and organic reaction, a real reaction to the moment, then that would be a wonderful plus. But we didn’t go into it trying to shoehorn it in.”

Okay, this is simple fallacy. Nothing in the previous Star Trek reboot movie or this one leads us to believe that Spock would bellow that line, contrasted to the established Shatner incarnation of Kirk in 'The Wrath of Khan'. I simply fail to see how it was natural or organic in any way, shape or form.


Old Spock


Orci: “We wanted to address the question that some fans have: would Leonard Nimoy’s Spock tell everyone everything he could in order to prepare everyone for everything? It was interesting for us to articulate the idea that he vowed not to tell anyone much of anything because he wants the universe to develop naturally, as it should. But in this one instance, when it comes to the greatest villain they ever faced, he makes an exception.”

I fail to understand this reasoning at all. Spock, the beloved Vulcan, would make an exception for the greatest villain he had faced? When we've already seen NewSpock's willingness to die to preserve the Prime Directive in the opening of the movie and OldSpock's unbending logic with regards to time-travel and affecting the time-line in the classic 'The City On The Edge Of Forever'? Since Genesis is completely absent here, and OldSpock would have been aware that the Project was decades away, there is no ultimate super-weapon on the line, but rather just Khan himself. Is Khan singularly dangerous in logical terms, far more so than everything else that OldSpock remembers? I fail to see how that holds up.

Far more likely, the brief cameo fulfilled two requirements. Firstly, the pleasure of seeing Leonard Nimoy back on screen briefly, and secondly, a quick short-cut to establish how frightening and dangerous Khan was. This is both somewhat unnecessary as Cumberbatch's performance establishes this pretty well, and also insulting to the audience, as the presumption of 'telling' rather than 'showing' is usually the sign of a lazy screenwriter/director. It also has unfortunate implications for NewSpock, diminishing his ingenuity and quick-thinking in his torpedo gambit, reducing it to being a consequence of the information he has gained from OldSpock when there is no logical necessity or requirement that prevents the gambit standing alone as a testament to NewSpock's qualities.


Kirk Dying


Orci: “We came to that because again, as Alex was saying, you can’t just do that and then make it for no reason — it has to have a context. In The Wrath of Khan, the death of Spock and their last moment together is a punctuation and an acknowledgement of a friendship that has been fortified through years and years of their journey together. Our [Kirk and Spock] haven’t known each other that long, so in our movie, that moment is a revelation for Spock that Kirk is his friend. It’s the beginning of Spock recognizing, Oh my god, this guy is my friend, and just as I figured it out, I lose him.”

Okay, so on one hand we have the death of a character as culmination of a friendship that is very much at the heart of 3 years of TV and 2 movies. A death which at the time is both meant by the creative staff and received by the audience as a permanent and meaningful death.

On the other hand, you have a rocky relationship through 2 movies and the 'revelation' of a friendship. A death which occurs mid-way through the finale and is neither meant to signify a permanent death nor is understood by the audience to mean anything but a temporary 'death', to be reversed by the credits role.

I simply do not believe Kirk's death is earned, and there is extremely little 'context' that Orci can call upon to justify it. This is far more akin to a ham-fisted homage which can overtaken the plot. In fat, it has overtaken the plot and introduced a ludicrous situation where the blood of 73 individuals contained in stasis chambers controlled by the authorities could well cure every known illness and even already dead individuals, not only humans but possibly non-human species going by the health of the tribble.

Orci is right, you can't just do something like this for no reason, it does need to have a context. Unfortunately, this has very little context and disproves the point, the creative staff of Into Darkness proved that you can do it for no reason, as they have.


Carol Marcus


Kurtzman: “The idea with Carol was that she was a character that obviously the audience has an association with from The Wrath of Khan. So you’re immediately inheriting enormous implications having her in the movie. What we didn’t want to do was rush it in a way that felt too familiar and too predictable. The idea with Carol was introduce a character that implies a lot of things, but leave it open enough that anything could happen in the next movie.”

The naming of the character was clearly a nod to the fans, but since there was very little for her to do except to sprout some relatively minor plot-details that could have been given to some of the under-used regular cast, a minor plot function (momentarily delaying the destruction of the Enterprise in a single scene) and stripping down to her underwear for a few seconds, I'm not sure that the value of dropping the name was worthwhile. Some nods are certainly enjoyable, Nurse Chapel references and the 'Mudd' incident for example, but this is stretched into a full role rather than a passing reference and pulled me out of the movie, both because of the unnecessary and gratuitous underwear shot and the transparent attempt to give Kirk a stable love-interest in the future, a plot-device that the Original Series and movie series that followed wisely avoided.




Monday, 29 April 2013

What Could Have Been... A Top 5 List


Sometimes to look back into the production history of movies is to walk the path of wondering what could have been had this been worked out or that been approved. 

Thus, here are 5 scenarios that I, personally, would have loved to seen played out, some for novelty's sake but others for opportunities genuinely missed.


1. Twilight filtered through Blade and Underworld


The Twilight novels were just beginning to gain traction at the time that the movie rights were being auctioned off to various studios. This meant that Paramount, who came very close to giving us a bizarre alternative version, felt that there was no real need to pander to the fanbase and could expand the appeal by filtering the script through other successful vampire-based movies.

This in itself is not exactly unusual, but the direction that Twilight could have gone in is certainly... strange. The Bella character would have been changed to an unrecognisable 'Action Girl' stereotype and all all-American Track Star at that. The central conflict was not a romantic triangle or a threat from a Italian based Vampire group but a Korean FBI agent who also hunts vampires.

That's right, a Korean FBI agent would have been introduced as the major plot driver, coupled with a SWAT team of vampire hunters which do battle with the Cullen Family. Bella would have been changed into a vampire in the very first movie and presumably the conflict with the humans would have driven the remainder of the series.

A female-led 'Blade' clone or 'Underworld' pretender? It might have been unremarkable but certainly sounds more bonkers than the first few Twilight films. Then again, the fifth movie brough enough entertaining crazy to make up for the previous films.

2. The Godfather Part II and Part III involving all original cast members


The Godfather Part III is notorious for being the unloved step-child of the series, unlike Part I and Part II, it shares little obvious symbolism and themes, and most markedly, it shares very little cast members beyond Michael Corleone and a few others, most notably lacking Tom Hagan.

While Part II is universally recognised as a classic, it does have one similarity with Part III which is somewhat jarring and unusual. A new character, the previously unseen or mentioned Frankie Pentangeli, is introduced as a Judas figure who sells out Michael to the government.

Pentangeli, while being a fantastic character in his own right, is a natural fit for the surviving lieutenant from the original Godfather, Clemenza, which would have added far more dramatic and emotional weight to the betrayal. It's unsurprising to find that this was the original plan, and it was only creative disagreements with the actor, Richard Castellano, which scuppered Clemenza's inclusion and prompted the creation of a 'Clemenza-a-like' replacement.

Similarly, Part III would have been a far superior film had the original plan, of centring the film around the conflict between the two remaining survivors of Vito's reign, Michael and Tom Hagan, be seen through to fruition. Unfortunately Robert Duvall was given his asking price and Tom Hagan was written out of the script, and with him, all meaningful thematic connection to the Godfather universe that we loved.

3. Robin Hood (2001) centered around the Sheriff of Nottingham


Every now and again scripts float around Hollywood with immense buzz around them, only to be snapped up and reworked to an unrecognisable state. Robin Hood, the 2001 incarnation by Ridley Scott, certainly qualifies.

The original script, entitled Nottingham, is certainly an intriguing prospect. A genuinely fresh take on the age-old Robin Hood formula, the protaganist would have been a sympathetic Sheriff of Nottingham on the trail of a murderer who is presumed to be Robin Hood. Much touted for it's historically accurate investigation techniques the script's basic premise is certainly pretty interesting.

Then it was snapped up and given to Ridley Scott who promptly reworked it as a far more traditional Robin Hood story, albeit with oddly placed and uncomfortable 'early democracy' elements.

4. If Michael Jackson could have forced his way into Hollywood


Michael Jackson really, really, really, wanted to get into acting after conquering the world of Pop. To give an easy-to-understand time reference, think after he'd successfully transitioned from 'extremely light-skinned black' to 'milky-bar white' and roughly around the time of his first two child molestation accusations.

He tried several times, three of these would have been bizarrely entertaining prospects had they been filmed. First is the lead role in 'Hook', the Spielberg Peter Pan sequel-of-sorts. While Jackson had a well-documented, and clearly obvious, Peter Pan obsession, Hook starred a middle-aged Peter thrust back into Neverland, which the plot revolving around him relearning to believe in all that he had forgotten.

Michael would have been... bizarre in that role, which was eventually filled by Robin Williams. Take a look at Robin Williams. Take a look at Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson might have convincingly protrayed a grown-up Peter Pan... still in Neverland, but who would buy him as a nondescript average middle-aged lawyer?

Secondly, and even more strange, is the determination to star in Men In Black II. Michael Jackson even offered to do the role for free... if Will Smith were dropped so he could replace him. 

Michael Jackson had nothing in common with Will Smith, in terms of mannerisms, voice, even visible race. Also, this was not an attempt to force himself into the original, but the sequel where Will Smith's character was already firmly established. Needless to say, the strong-arm attempt failed.

The third attempt possibly made the most sense. The Tim Burton remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was considering Michael Jackson for the lead role of Willy Wonka. Considering the eventual star Depp claimed he based his performance on Michael Jackson, this actually makes a fair amount of sense and could well have been a role the Jackson was uniquely suited for.

Then the second round of child molestation accusations hit and the role became an impossibility, unfortunately.

5. Gladiator 2 involving absolute insanity


The script to a mooted sequel to the Russell Crowe hit 'Gladiator' is a gem of insanity. I, frankly, would have paid good money to see this, just because it pushes back to limits of madness in a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.

Where to start? Well, the script embraces rather than tries to explain away the death of Crowe's character at the end of the first movie, so we see Maximus interfering with and facing off against Roman Gods in the afterlife, plunging us straight into a stark divergence from the original's grounding in this reality.

Eventually reincarnated, Maximus undertakes a dizzying number of adventures across time, he's also immortal by the way, including defending the early Christians against the state, finding his son, fighting in various wars through human history, including the World Wars. and ending with him walking into the modern-day Pentagon.

Absolute bonkers.





 
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