Film

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 – the best MCU movie so far? (spoiler free)

I’m not ashamed to say I, along with many others, wept at the end of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Yep, I cried during a Marvel movie…the one about talking raccoons and baby trees no less. The general tone of a Marvel movie isn’t hard to predict, largely a lot of laughs and a little bit of ‘that’s awesome’ thrown in, but tear-jerking…I wasn’t expecting that!

Truthfully I’m not really sure what I was expecting. The first Guardians movie is my favourite of the MCU movies largely because it strays a delicate line of irreverent humour and absolute emotional sincerity perfectly, with a tonal dexterity that other Marvels tend not to have. Equipped with a killer retro soundtrack on top of that (which informs the emotion of the film as well as simply being great fun), the original flew its way straight into my heart.

The trouble is, a sequel to a movie that was essentially lightening in a bottle was always going to be difficult. On the one hand, if the sequel simply doubles down on the elements that work well in the original it’ll almost always be met with the accusation of diminishing returns. On the other, doing something completely different might risk losing the charm of the original and alienating the existing fanbase.

James Gunn, however, finds a steady compromise between the two approaches. Vol. 2 certainly does bring back everything people loved from the original (namely the humour, tone and retro soundtrack) bigger and better than ever before. As Baby Groot dances around to ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ during the opening as the Guardians fight a big tentacled monster, it’s pretty clear we’re in familiar territory (and, quite possibly, operates as a simple metaphor for the film’s focus throughout.)

Yet Vol. 2 does offer new experiences as well. This time around the team are broken up into smaller groups to pursue their own individual stories, which gives everything a slightly different flavour. It’s also a deeper and more personal movie than the first, with clearer and more thoroughly explored themes. It’s not quite The Empire Strikes Back or The Godfather Part II of sequels, but it’s certainly not a simple re-tread either.

It’s helped by different characters taking centre stage. Certainly Peter Quill is still the main character and it’s ultimately his story, but it does feel even more of an ensemble piece this time. Yondu, in particular, is given a lot more to do than in the first movie and I imagine he may well end up being many people’s favourite Guardian after this. New character Mantis is also an adorable addition to the team, forming a genuinely moving relationship with Drax – despite being the complete opposite in many ways.

Speaking of adorable, Baby Groot is insanely fucking cute. He really does steal the movie and just a tiny change in his expression can (and will) break your heart. As Guardians Of The Galaxy does best, Baby Groot isn’t just an opportunity for laughs (and merchandise), but actually works really well with the film’s focus on family and parenting.

The plot could be accused of being a little on the slight side. In fact it’s very much like an early series Star Trek story played out over two hours, but to say much more would be to enter into spoiler territory. I do think this gives us one of Marvel’s better villains, which is admittedly faint praise. It’s not quite Loki standard, but it’s a bit better than a lot of the other disposable villains Marvel has gotten through (Malekith, Ronan, Whiplash etc. )

There’s also mercifully little connection to the MCU at large, in fact I think this might be the most standalone Marvel movie yet. Whereas even the first Guardians movie was burdened with The Collector and explaining the infinity stones, Vol. 2 is given free-reign to tell the story it desires free of interference. Even the five (yes, five!) post-credit sequences don’t really inform on the MCU at large. Ironically, however, the little we do learn of Thanos (the MCU’s ‘big bad’) in a brief but powerful conversation between Gamora and Nebula actually does more to build him up as a horrific villain than all the hints and appearances of Thanos in the entire MCU to date. But this mention isn’t forced, it’s entirely organic to the story and very much important to the theme of family that Vol. 2 orbits.

The film also looks gorgeous. It’s an explosion of vibrant colours, psychedelic and vivid. For those who sometimes think Marvel movies look a bit bland (I mean I enjoyed Civil War, but did it have to be SO grey?!), then Vol. 2’s delightfully garish colour palette will be welcome (and it looks like we’ll be getting more of this beauty in the third Thor outing!)

Vol. 2 certainly isn’t perfect. By breaking up the team and focusing on the individual storylines it loses some of that leanness and simplicity which gave the first outing such a wonderful source of momentum. Equally, a cynical viewer might say some of the scenes exist to serve the soundtrack, rather than the other way around (parts come close to feeling like a music video). I also think a little more could be done with the sci-fi action aesthetic. I know the movie always has its tongue firmly in cheek (there’s an alien race who fly spaceships as if they’re arcade machines) and that’s all part of the fun, but I did sometimes wish for a little more weight to the space battles just so the action set-pieces don’t feel so disposable.

But the reason this isn’t a deal-breaker is no-matter how weightless the action may seem, James Gunn realises this and always keeps the characters front and centre – their journeys are what give weight throughout. And I really have to applaud this movie for ending in such an emotional and kind of downbeat way (yes, back to the weeping). When you think about it, nearly every MCU movie (with very few exceptions) ends in a way which could be summed up as ‘the hero’s ready to kick ass in the next movie’. That isn’t the case in Vol. 2, which instead ends on a moment of entirely earned emotional poignancy.

It’ll be interesting to see what the status of Marvel movies will be once the MCU reaches its inevitable end. Whilst most of the movies are good (some, indeed, are excellent), they are a bizarre blend of film and product, the likes of which cinema hadn’t really seen before. Marvel movies can virtually act as advertisements for future installments (Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron being notable culprits for this.) When there is no future, so to speak, will these films stand up as something that can be watched at any time (something I’d feel comfortable replying positively for in the case of The Dark Knight and the first two Raimi Spider-Man movies) or are they so of the moment that they will eventually fade into obscurity, like filler episodes of a TV show?

It’s hard to say, but I do believe that if any of the series are going to standout then it’s going to be the Guardians movies (based on the first two, at least.) They transcend the MCU in many ways, and operate on a total different level of quality. Largely free from the shackles of being an advertisement or having to reference events of earlier movies, they are able to be their own thing and do genuinely feel like the work of a visionary director as opposed to a studio committee. The ending of Vol. 2 really reaffirms my faith that this series has the maturity and freedom to tell its story with absolute integrity to the plot and characters, rather than service a franchise.

The next time we see the Guardians it will be in the eagerly anticipated Infinity Wars, teaming up with the Avengers. Whilst it’ll certainly be a treat to see them there, it doesn’t feel necessary – if the Guardians never crossed-over it wouldn’t matter a bit and that’s why these movies work so well, the continuity connection is an added bonus, not a pivotal part of their appeal.

With James Gunn having just confirmed he’s signed up for Vol. 3, we know these wacky bunch of space misfits are in good hands. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they get up to next.

Advertisements
Standard
Philosophy, religion

Fumblings in the dark (or the appropriate response to the limitation of human reason)

Imagine, if you will, waking up in a pitch black dark room. You don’t know where you are or how you got there, nor can you see what’s in the room because of the darkness. You fumble anxiously for your phone. You need a light source. Finally you hold the phone up, but the light is weak, barely illuminating what’s in front. You have absolutely no idea where the room ends.

Here’s a question for you; what’s at the end of the room? Presumably you’ll think the answer’s obvious – ‘I have absolutely no idea.’

Now, imagine the same scenario but this time you wake up with your friend, Doris (yes, Doris…it’s my thought experiment and I’m allowed to have anachronistic names.)
“Don’t worry,” she says, noticing your heavy breathing. “It’s quite alright.”
“How can you be sure?” you ask.
“At the end of this room is a little lamp and, sitting right next to it, a really cute little kitten. You’ll love it.”
You breathe a sigh of relief.
“Oh, thank goodness. How do you know all that?”
“I just do,” shrugs Doris.
Your body begins to go cold as the hope slowly drains.
“What do you mean ‘you just do’?”
“I have faith,” Doris replies.
“But you’ve got no evidence,” you say, staring into the dark abyss.
“No,” laughs Doris, “that’s why it’s called faith, silly.”
You shake your head, unable to believe what you’re hearing.
“Besides,” she continues, “do you have any reason to think there isn’t a really cute kitten at the end of the room?”

In this scenario, do you think Doris is being sensible in her assertion? Let’s come back to this later.

 

The limitations of reason

“I know one thing; that I know nothing”, the famous Socratic paradox goes. Indeed if there’s one thing we can be reasonably sure of, it’s that we know very little. And I’m not even talking about the big questions, think of all the many known facts you have no knowledge of. Think of everything in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, history, geography, astronomy etc. that you don’t know (of course most of the things you don’t know, you won’t know you don’t know.)

It’s likely that each of us, as individuals, know considerably less than even 1% of everything that IS known. Isn’t that humbling? Sometimes we’re so used to our own bubble that we forget how DEEPLY ignorant we really are as individuals. It’s for this reason that I believe so strongly in the necessity of experts when it comes to beginning to make sense of the world, even if appealing to authority is hardly foolproof. In a world of growing egos, ever more elaborate conspiracy theories and stupid world leaders, the collective good that comes from trusting people specialising in a field and becoming informed experts really is at threat.

But, deeper still, there are questions to which reason simply doesn’t seem to offer an answer. Is there a God? What happens when we die? Does life have a purpose? These ideas ask questions beyond the physical and are, perhaps by necessity, outside the capacity of either the scientific method or human reason (unless you’re clinging onto the ontological argument for dear life, but I’m guessing most of you aren’t.)

It’s absolutely necessary that we accept this limitation – there is no point in pretending otherwise. In this way we are like that person trapped in the darkened room unable to see what’s at the end (and of course, we don’t have the liberty of being able to walk up and take a look for ourselves.) But so few of us actually act in this way – instead will fill this gap of knowledge with gods and demons, ghosts and spirits, meaning and purpose. We ‘do a Doris’, so to speak.

 

Is this a responsible reaction to the limitations of human reason?

Regardless of whatever motivates us to fill these gaps, the question becomes is it responsible to do so? In the case of Doris and her cute cat, do you think she is right to believe in the moggy at the end of the room? Presumably not, because there is absolutely no reason to think there is a kitten there.

And what of Doris’ reply, that there is no evidence to the contrary? Well that doesn’t seem satisfying either, you could come up with just about any theory (there’s an alien, an old man, a rocking horse, a T-Rex etc.) and the same would still be true. As is widely agreed, the burden of proof is always on the person making the claim, batty old Doris in this case. If Doris can’t justify her belief in the cat then she can’t expect others to believe her.

It’s because this all seems so obvious to me, that I find it hard to understand why rationalists and those who ask for evidence are so often portrayed as arrogant. There’s a definite imagining of the stuffy-old sceptic who thinks he knows everything. In fact I watched The Conjuring 2 recently (which I rather enjoyed, even if it has cost me a few hours sleep) and they portray the academics who don’t believe in hauntings as closed minded fools who arrogantly refuse to look beyond their noses. But this is all very misleading.

A true sceptic or rationalist is not assuming they know everything at all, quite the opposite in fact. They are simply asking for evidence of these claims in much the same way you would ask of evidence from dear old Doris. In fact if Doris is really convinced of her claims and judges you for not believing them, it is actually Doris who is extremely arrogant, as she is making the claim that she knows something extraordinary that nobody else has been able to prove. It’s her making the big claims about what’s at the end of the room who is presumptuous, not the person simply asking for some proof.

And so, it seems to me, in the face of the limitations of human reason, the answer is not just to plump for whatever belief system you fancy, but to stop and humbly acknowledge we simply don’t know. What’s at the end of the room? I don’t know.

Now, that’s not to say that everybody’s view is suddenly equal. In the case of Doris, her prediction is very specific and therefore more likely to be wrong. Just in the way that saying there’s another living being in this room gives greater probability to her claim than specifically insisting it’s a cat, the same is also true when talking of a God –‘ there may be a conscious designer of the universe’ is more probable than talking about a specific God who has a problem with homosexuality or shellfish (of course in both cases you’d still need a reason to make any sort of claim like this at all.)

It’s also possible that certain claims become less likely in virtue of the absence of evidence. When Doris states there’s a kitten at the end of the room, it would eventually cause us to doubt her further if we never hear a ‘meow’ (or any sound at all.) Equally, whilst we can never say for certain that psychic powers don’t exist, the fact that no scientifically controlled experiment has ever produced evidence of psychic powers should cause us some suspicion. Absence of evidence might not be evidence of absence, but we should be alarmed when evidence we may expect to see isn’t there.

But, in many ways, they are nuances for a greater discussion. The simple point at this moment is the mature response to the limitation of human reason is not making something up, as Doris does, but instead remaining absolutely open to any possibility if the evidence presents itself. And, if the question is beyond the capacity of human reason, simply remaining agnostic altogether.

 

What about faith?

I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been having an interesting discussion with someone about their beliefs and suddenly it becomes a dead-end. Why? Well I’m fascinated by what people believe (that’s part of the reason I did Philosophy and Theology as a degree) but I’m even more interested in why they believe it, I think that’s the much meatier part of the discussion.

Yet, when someone evokes ‘faith’ as an answer it stops the conversation dead. In fact, often it’s said with a satisfied smile, as if faith is a virtue I haven’t quite ascended to yet. But in truth, if your definition of faith is ‘believing something for no reason’, that’s not virtuous, that’s ridiculous. Sorry, but it’s true. Faith, when defined in such a way, is just a crutch to hold onto beliefs that you know rationally you should do away with.

It’s not surprising we fall into this trap of using faith in such a way. For some time ‘faith’ has been defined as ‘believing without reason’ by certain religious groups and people mistake it for a supporting tenet of organised religion (ancient and, therefore, wise.) But, in actual fact, I remain far from convinced that this definition of faith is something the ancients would particularly recognise. It’s a big topic for another day, but I can’t help but doubt that the use of the word in an ancient world, pre-enlightenment and the scientific method, would mean the same thing as it does today post those movements.

Even a brief glance at the use of the word in the Abrahamic religions shows it unlikely was used to denote blindly believing something, in fact it seems largely about ‘faith in God’, not ‘faith in God’s existence.’ That’s a clear distinction. If I said I have faith in my parents, for example, you would presume I’m talking about trusting their ability to deliver, not blind belief in their existence. Throughout most the Hebrew Scriptures it’s taken for granted that God exists, so faith is almost always about trusting in his word as opposed to trusting in his existence.

And indeed, in the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:15 says ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’. Presumably this indicates some kind of rational persuasion, not an insistence on blind acceptance.

I do plan to one day look at this issue of faith in MUCH more depth, but a brief skimming of the subject indicates that calling on ‘faith’ to defend belief without reason is not some virtuous religious tradition but likely a reasonably modern definition of the word, re-defined for a post-enlightenment age where the existence of God is substantially called into question.

The true definition of ‘faith’ throughout religious traditions is likely going to be a lot richer and a lot more beautiful than the tacky gift shop version that is often bandied around today.

 

Why does this matter?

When all is said and done, you may wonder why any of this matters.

Well, I think we’re encouraged today to have opinions on things, and pushed not to ‘sit on the fence’ (which, I think, is often a perfectly fine place to be.) Plus there’s a natural human inclination to attribute meaning and a narrative to our existence. But to begin to adequately form a worldview, we need to make sure the very building blocks on which it’s formed is sound, yet seldom do we invest time analysing them.

And this is not a conclusion by the way, it’s very much just a beginning. You might think, based on this post, that I’m totally agnostic, but that’s not strictly true, I actually have theistic leanings. But it’s so important to make clear (to ourselves, if no-one else) our attitude to reason, to its limitations and our approach to evidence, before we can even begin to start making a positive case for any particular worldview.

So in conclusion…we need to be humble inquisitors, not a Doris.

 

Standard
Film

Why the prospect of Star Wars putting an end to the Jedi is so damn exciting

“I only know one truth, it’s time for the Jedi to end” says a much older looking Luke at the end of yesterday’s exciting teaser for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. For all the beautiful shots of Rey’s training, and the compulsory whizz-bang final shots of the trailer, it’s Luke’s line about the Jedi which is actually the most exciting.

Why? Well, the idea of the Jedi having to end or at least significantly reform would be a really organic, thematic culmination to the entire saga. One of the criticisms people have of the prequels is that the Jedi aren’t very likable, they’re not exactly the peaceful monks hinted at by Obi Wan in the original movie. But I’ve always thought, ‘yeah, that’s the whole point.’

From the moment we meet the Jedi Council in Episode One, their arrogance is on display. Mace Windu, one of the highest ranking Jedi, immediately doubts Qui-Gon’s assertion that he had battled a Sith Lord on the basis that if the Sith had returned, the Jedi would definitely have known (in this case, he was completely wrong!) Obi Wan is met with similar resistance in Episode 2 when he asks the librarian in the Jedi Temple about a planet he can’t find in their records. ‘If it does not exist in our records’ she says, ‘then it does not exist.’  Again, if people want to doubt this was Lucas’ intention, he writes a scene in Episode II where Yoda himself explicitly calls out the Jedi for being too sure of themselves, even the ‘older, more experienced ones.’

It seems like quite a statement Lucas is making that Qui-Gon Jinn, the Jedi most sceptical and rebellious of the Jedi Council’s authoritarian stance, is the first to learn the path to immortality.

Another troubling element of the Jedi in the prequel trilogy is their entanglement with the political structure of the time. From the moment we find them they seem a lot less like ‘the guardians of peace and justice’ which exist independently from the state for the good of the state, and instead much more like galactic police enforcing the laws of the Republic. I mean why on Earth are the Jedi sent as negotiators to the Trade Federation in Episode I, if not for the purpose of intimidating their opponents? It’s this entanglement with the political structure that makes them so ripe for Palpatine’s manipulation – by manufacturing a war between the Republic and Separatists, of course the Jedi are going to get dragged into the war itself, becoming generals and soldiers.

Further still, Palpatine suggests to Anakin in Episode III that the Jedi actually don’t trust democracy and are ultimately planning to take over the Republic. It’s not something we, as viewers, really see much of but there is one troubling scene in Episode III which gives this point a slight legitimacy. Some top ranking members of the Jedi Council are discussing what happens if they need to remove Chancellor Palpatine from power by force. It’s then Mace Windu suggests that the Jedi would have to take over for a short time to ensure a smooth transition…a line of thought Yoda immediately calls out as being dangerous. What’s so rich about all of this, and why I think the prequels are extremely underrated, is that this is really grey stuff. Of course the Jedi aren’t planning on a state takeover, but it’s certainly possible that a well-intentioned seizure of power could be hugely corrupting for the Jedi.

And when Mace Windu does finally go to arrest Palpatine after finding out he’s a Sith Lord, he makes the call at the end of the fight that the Chancellor is too dangerous to be left alive. Windu is prepared to kill Palpatine in cold blood because he simply doesn’t believe the Senate is sufficient to deal with him itself – this is really chilling stuff. This also goes someway in explaining why Anakin ultimately comes to view the Jedi as evil – after hearing concerns from his father figure, Palpatine, that the Jedi are plotting a takeover, he sees a respected Jedi master about to abandon the Jedi code and the rules of the Senate to kill the leader.

All these issues paint the Jedi as flawed and, perhaps, terminally so. But their single biggest weakness, and the flaw that runs across both trilogies, is their absolute belief in asceticism – no romantic involvement and no acceptance of grief. In the prequel trilogy Anakin’s biggest flaw is he’s highly emotional (and highly reactive). He feels love, anger and grief in the way most humans do. But, having been largely raised by the Jedi, he is given no healthy way of dealing with those emotions – he’s simply told not to have them.

His romantic involvement with Padme is entirely innocent, by all accounts it’s entirely right for these two to be together. But, knowing the Jedi council will never allow it, it becomes a cancerous barrier between him and the Jedi, even between him and his best friend Obi Wan. There’s then that haunting scene after Anakin’s mum dies at the hand of Tusken Raiders and he, in a burst of rage, slaughters them all. Padme says to him ‘To be angry is to be human’ to which he replies ‘I’m a Jedi, I know I’m better than this.’ I mean, geez, how emotionally repressed must you be to believe that grief is wrong!

This ultimately paves the way for his fall to the dark side because of his premonitions of Padme’s death. Not only is he unable to confide in anyone because the strict rules of the Jedi prohibit his attachment in the first place, when he asks Yoda about the premonitions he’s simply told he must ‘let go of everything he fears to lose.’ And so, in some perverse way, Anakin’s turn to the dark side is partly him just embracing and accepting his humanity and emotions. Of course it’s the wrong answer, but the Jedi offer absolutely no healthy alternative.

These themes continue (start? Stupid Star Wars timeline!) in the Original Trilogy. Luke finding out Darth Vader is his dad is an absolute game-changer – everything becomes more personal for him. Yet Yoda and Obi Wan are disappointed that he found out, precisely because they believe Luke having any form of emotional attachment will be his weakness (yes, they’re still spouting that bullshit 20 years after it cost them everything!) Obi Wan even says that if Luke can’t kill his father then the Empire has already won.

Yet Luke refuses to kill his father or to give up hope that there is any good left in him. And we see, bit-by-bit, the harder Luke outreaches to Vader, tiny moments of Vader’s humanity are revealed. When Vader is lying helpless at Luke’s mercy, the Emperor is urging Luke to kill him and take his place. What’s interesting is that had Luke kept an emotional detachment as the Jedi wanted him too, this could actually have made his turn to the dark side easier. Instead, Luke throws away his lightsaber (in contract to Windu’s actions in Episode III) and sticks by the Jedi code. As Vader sees his son being tortured, still crying out for help, still believing in his father’s capacity for good, he finally gives in and saves his son, destroying the Emperor in the process. It’s through Luke’s humanity, not his dedication to Jedi traditions, that Vader is redeemed and Luke survives.

That’s why I always find it funny when people say there’s ‘no grey areas’ in Star Wars. I completely disagree. Star Wars certainly believes in right and wrong as absolutes, but it is far less clear (particularly in the prequels) who actually is operating under those labels.

And, back to the original title, why is the idea of getting rid of the Jedi so exciting? Well, up until now, I’ve enjoyed Episode VII just enough, and I really liked Rogue One, but they ultimately felt like unnecessary add-ons. Episode VII in particular just looked to be putting all the same pieces into play as the original Star Wars but to diminishing returns. But, if they do look to reform the Jedi (and that teaser line isn’t just a really early ‘refusal to the call’) then it would make this next trilogy an organic extension and, indeed, the necessary modern thematic climax to the proceeding two trilogies. Character’s following their humanity and allowing for that ‘grey path’ that isn’t polarised by ‘light’ and ‘dark’ could be really exciting.

For example, as interesting as Kylo Ren is, I always thought it was a bit much that ANOTHER member of the Skywalker dynasty (the second in three generations) has turned into a dangerous psychopath. Yet if that turns out to be the whole point, (namely that repressive Jedi training leads to a disproportionately high number of dangerous, emotional, angry young men – Siths – in the same way the Catholic Priesthood has lead to a disproportionately high number of sex offenders), that would make Ren’s story an organic and important addition to the Star Wars universe.

Needless to say, this has all got me hyped for the next instalment of that story that took place a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…only have to wait until Christmas now!

Standard
Philosophy, religion

21 questions I would ask the Christian God

Imagine you could ask God anything…what would it be?

Here are my 21 questions I would ask the Christian God*:

  • Why does bad food taste so good? Why is chocolate so irresistible, whereas vegetables taste bland? If you made a carrot taste of chocolate, and chocolate taste of carrot, I’d be fit as a fiddle. Also, why does the nicest food in the world have to come from suffering dead animals and also give us cancer?
  • Why make your existence so ambiguous? If your aim is to get people to believe in you, just drop in and say ‘hey’ once in a while. Leaving the world to look exactly as it would if there were no God is a risky game.
  • Why are so many of your followers absolute bellends?
  • Do you actually have a problem with homosexuality? If so, isn’t it a bit creepy you care so much about what people do with their genitals? If you don’t have an issue with it, why not make that clear in the Bible instead of leaving ambiguous passages that would be used to oppress minorities for thousands of years? Same question for women and slavery.
  • Why have you allowed four Transformers movies to be made? You’re meant to be a loving God.
  • If we have freewill, and we act badly, isn’t that, well…a design flaw? Don’t want to point fingers or anything…
  • What’s the deal with the devil? Like…is he real? If so, it’s kind of super irresponsible to give him the kind of free reign he has. If he’s just a character, he’s a bland villain. What’s his motivation? To try and fight an all powerful God and be a general dick? I just don’t believe it, you know. Maybe a writers class would help…
  • On a similar note, if a thick person raised in a religious family never questions anything, he goes to Heaven, but if a smart person can’t find sufficient reason to believe, they go to Hell? Does that make being smart a hindrance and being dumb an advantage? Isn’t that a bit stupid?
  • Do you know what I’m going to pray before I pray it? If so, is there any point in me praying? Also, why don’t you just do good things without us asking? When you have the power to stop terrible things happening but don’t, that’s kind of being a dick. Like, watch Spiderman, that explains the whole ‘power and responsibility’ thing.
  • Speaking of which – spiders…what the actual fuck were you thinking?
  • Why evolution? That’s a really slow and cruel way to get to the point we’re at. More than 99% of species that ever existed are now extinct. Why not just make us as we are now and save a few billion years? Also, doesn’t evolution totally retcon Genesis?
  • Similar point, why make animals that rely on eating each other? Why aren’t we all made vegetarian? If animals have to eat each other, why make them conscious of their pain?
  • Have you ever thought about issuing a statement about all those things ‘done in your name’? Good PR I would have thought.
  • Will there ever be a sequel to the Bible? Sequels are all the rage these days. Don’t worry, it doesn’t even have to be as good…just needs to be bigger. Maybe you could build up to a Religious Cinematic Universe and have Jesus team up with other religious figures (not naming names because…frightened) to fight off immorality, or fig trees.
  • The Book of Revelation…what’s that all about? Can deities get high?
  • Why didn’t you send Jesus in a time when there were video cameras as opposed to a time when we have to trust written sources? That way intellectually challenged half-wits wouldn’t be able to deny there was at least ‘a Jesus’ (well, some of the loons might say it was holograms or staged or something, but you can’t convince everyone.)
  • Also, Jesus kind of thought the world was ending soon…he did, right? I’m not judging, we all make mistakes.
  • Do you actually care when privileged people in the West pray for trivial things? We would totally understand if you wanted to spend time helping out impoverished nations and fighting infant mortality instead. I imagine it’s like having one child asking for a loan for a lamborghini whilst you’re caring for his terminally ill brother!
  • Do you like being praised? People constantly telling you how great you are (and going pretty crazy whilst they’re at it) could get awkward, I imagine.
  • Bourbon or custard cream?

 

What questions would you ask God?

*These are, of course, tongue-in-cheek. I’m full aware that on coming face-to-face with an all-powerful being I would be awe inspired and probably shitting it. 

Standard
Philosophy, religion

Why conspiracy theories are usually nonsense

The older I get and the more thought I give the world, the more I realise conspiracy theories really irk me. Not because of the content, per se, but rather in the thought processes that generate belief in conspiracy theories. In fact, I think many conspiracy theories exhibit the absolute WORST in human reasoning (namely anti-intellectualism, disinterest in evidence, over-simplification and arrogance.)

Let me begin, however, by adding a caveat. A belief in a conspiracy isn’t stupid in virtue of itself, there may very well be good reasons to believe that a conspiracy has taken place. Heck, we can point to numerous examples throughout history whereby things we would call a ‘conspiracy theory’ have proven to be exactly as conspiratorial in nature as could possibly be feared.

No, what I’m talking about are the many beliefs that fall under the term ‘conspiracy theory’ that are entirely without merit. The beliefs where the ‘evidence is out there’ if you only ‘wake up and open your eyes’ – when conspiracy theorists say this, they seldom mean a peer-reviewed journal!

So let’s look, step-by-step, at the dangers of conspiracy theories and why they represent the absolute nadir in human critical thinking.

Firstly, conspiracy theories encourage anti-intellectualism. After the election of a president who doesn’t believe in global warming and who thinks women should be punished for having an abortion, now more than ever we have to fight against a sinister growing voice that encourages us to disregard experts and simply go with our gut. Conspiracy theories almost always rely on the complete disregard of the views of celebrated professionals in a field (someone who has worked hard and earned the respect of their peers) under the pretence that they’re part of the cover-up. Anti-vaxxers don’t trust medical health experts, global warming deniers don’t trust scientists, Jesus myth propagators ignore leading historical scholars etc.

And what is the voice of experts replaced with? Crappy, poorly researched websites and hours of mind-numbing YouTube videos by someone who is unlikely even to have a degree in the subject they are talking about (let alone be respected by experts in the field.) Under the guise of ‘free-thought’ conspiracy theorists open themselves up to a wealth of information which has had no validation from someone with authority on the matter, and the theorist themselves are almost always going to be unqualified to truly discern the reality from the bullshit.

Secondly, conspiracy theories are rarely supported by compelling evidence. I suspect this is where most contention will come in because for someone engrossed in the world of conspiracies and who consumes the conspiracy media, it probably looks like there is an abundance of evidence. Problematically, however, this evidence is rarely peer-reviewed or widely accepted by those in the know. Occasionally a professor in botany might come out as an anti-vaxxer and, despite 99% of scientists disagreeing, the theorists all of a sudden become interested in experts (whilst carefully ignoring the broad scientific consensus). However, in such a situation the evidence seems to be merely a nice extra and expedient as opposed to vital.

And, annoyingly, conspiracy theories are almost always impossible to prove wrong – they tend to just consume evidence. For example, there might be a wealth of evidence that global warming is taking place, but that can simply be hand-waved by ‘that’s what they WANT you to think.’ In Stephen Law’s excellent book ‘Believing Bullshit’, he explains how being an unfalsifiable belief is not a strength using the example of creationism and evolution. Creationism is essentially unfalsifiable because creationists always amend their beliefs to fit the evidence (which is distinctly different from amending their beliefs FOLLOWING the evidence.) Evolution could be proved wrong, however, simply by finding human remains in the wrong geological strata. The fact that no such thing has been found is a strength of the Theory Of Evolution, not a weakness. After all, I could say there’s an invisible, pink unicorn running around outside and I guarantee you, you won’t be able to ‘prove’ that’s not the case – but that doesn’t make it a reasonable thing to believe!

Thirdly, conspiracy theories tend to over-simplify complicated situations into easy-to-digest narratives. Why ponder the social and economic climates that lead to any particular class voting in a certain way at a general election, when you can instead just say ‘the illuminati did it.’ Why read through hefty scholarly articles on the historical Jesus to get a sense of what can or cannot be attributed to him when you can simply believe it as written or deny it as myth altogether. This broad kind of simplification is lazy and uninformed. It would be remiss of me (and rather hypocritical) to over-simplify why people believe in conspiracy theories, but one can’t help but feel that it attracts a certain kind of person who can’t make much sense of the world without the theories. In fact, one suspects for some people a crazy, purposeless world is so frightening that believing in an evil world order pulling the strings is more comforting. Believing that companies deliberately make us ill may be easier to accept than the fact that disease will always exist and affect us.

In fact, the simplification just leads to a complete lack of nuance. For example, I myself am very suspicious of the way some pharmaceutical companies are run and question just how much money determines how long we’ll live. Equally, I find myself rather unsettled by the current US Administration’s relationship with Russia. The world isn’t all sunshine and roses – money talks, power corrupts and it’s vital that we acknowledge that. However, we must do this in a reasonable, nuanced and mature way. Questioning how much money is a determining factor in our health quality is quite different from suggesting Big Pharma is purposefully giving us cancer. The latter is an unsupported gross oversimplification but, perhaps, an easier narrative to get our heads around.

Paradoxically, as well as over-simplifying, some conspiracy theories actually over-complicate issues – they provide an explanation for something that already has one. For example, one looks at the Brexit chaos of last year and it’s pretty clear what happened. A Conservative government, to ease party tensions, ran a referendum which everyone assumed they would win, then turned into a shock result which the politicians weren’t prepared for. That’s a pretty easy and obvious explanation for the momentarily destabilising events that followed the vote. However, if you believe in the Illuminati, you must now provide a further explanation as to why this series of events took place as they did – a series of events that already has an explanation now needs another! And, as most of us know, a rational conclusion would be to invoke Occam’s Razor and shave away the unnecessary explanation altogether. (Quick side note on the Illuminati – when conspiracy theorists constantly point to lyrics and symbols in music videos as ‘signs of the Illuminati’, I can’t help but imagine the strange circumstances of landing a job in the Illuminati PR department where your job is to get the message out there…but don’t be noticed. That’s one hell of a brief, right?!)

Conspiracy theories can also be extremely dangerous. An obvious example would be failing to get your child immunised against a life-threatening disease, but there are less obvious examples too. For instance, if you believe that the President of the United States is just a puppet for some grand shadowy organisation, then that may well make you apathetic to voting. After all, what does it matter, they have the same agenda anyway. However, as we have recently had the misfortune of finding out, electing the wrong President can have huge ramifications for people’s lives and indeed the preservation of the planet for future generations.

Finally, conspiracy theories, from my anecdotal experience, seem to foster a strange arrogance in its followers. I guess it’s a fundamental problem of any belief system which sees itself as significantly more ‘enlightened’ than the dumb masses, but it really manifests itself with conspiracy theorists. People, many of whom may have had no further education at all, keep bemoaning the ‘blind sheeple’. In fact one gets the sense that this too is part of the appeal of conspiracy theories, it’s rather soothing to one’s ego to think you’re in a significantly more informed place than the rest of the world (it’s essentially like getting stuck in a teenage mentality forever).

It also can create a strange mindset whereby a conspiracy theorist starts believing conspiracy theories simply because they are conspiracy theories. At that point you know that all reason is out of the window and the person has succumbed to an almost religious-unquestioning (all, ironically, in the spirit of so called ‘free-thought’.)

Conspiracy theories are also dangerous because they can often be deceptively compelling. In fact, Stephen Law describes conspiracy theories as an ‘intellectual black hole’, ideas that once you believe, are very hard to shake off. And let’s be honest, if you watch hours of YouTube videos propagating this or that conspiracy theory, it’s likely to eventually become convincing, assuming you don’t have the relevant knowledge to question the claims. A good example is a conspiracy video called ‘Zeitgeist’ which suggests, among other things, that Jesus was a myth. If you watch the video completely uninformed on the study of the Historical Jesus, it’s likely to be very compelling. There’s a clear narrative, patterns are shown and before you know it, you’re sucked it. In this particular instance, however, I did my dissertation on the Historical Jesus and was, thankfully, informed enough on this issue to realise that a lot of Zeitgeit’s claims aren’t just wrong, they’re positively ludicrous.

But it does raise an interesting question; how does one seek to determine truth in this confusing world? Learning what sources to trust is a fundamental rite of passage if you want to understand the world at all. Ideally we would all become experts on every issue but due to the lack of time and, perhaps, capability, that’s off the table. So, instead, we are forced to trust the word of others on most issues we believe, and we’re all acutely aware that this is not a foolproof system. After all, what if Galileo had trusted the consensus of his time?

There is no easy answer I can think of, but I will say this – Galileo thought critically and used evidence to challenge the prevailing views of his day. He was using reason and applying the scientific method to change minds. This attitude to me seems much more in spirit with the scientists and experts of our day, than of conspiracy theories. We have to ask ourselves this question: Are we to become so cynical and shaded that we disregard all expert opinion under the belief that everyone is coerced and has an agenda, so our only refuge for information is unqualified internet bloggers? Or can we maturely do our best to humbly accept the expert advice of those we have no reason to distrust, always with a healthy dose of critical thinking, to come to a nuanced and informed view of the world? I know which I’d prefer.

Standard
Film, Musicals

La La Land Review: Is it possible to be in love with a movie?

La La Land isn’t just a great movie, it’s joy encapsulated. A beautiful piece of art which is romantic and uplifting, finally chiming with a melancholic poignancy that doesn’t betray its spirit of optimistic escapism, but is happy to have a modern understanding of what this means. In essence, it’s a ‘feel good’ movie that doesn’t suffer from the ailments that label usually entails.

La La Land is the kind of movie if you told me you liked it, I would struggle to forgive your apathy. For me, it isn’t just the best movie I’ve seen for a long time, it might even be my favourite movie I’ve ever seen. This is a fairly bold claim for a film I’ve only watched twice, but the mixture of charm and technical proficiency makes it an irresistible delight, medicine for the soul in an otherwise depressing world climate.

Nominated for a staggering fourteen Oscars, La La Land is the story of two struggling artists, one an actor, one a musician, both looking to achieve their dreams in a world where the odds seem stacked against them. The story of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) taps into universal themes which we can all relate to – who hasn’t struggled with balancing real life whilst yearning for the childhood dreams we grew up with? Although harkening back to the golden days of Hollywood, it’s a message that may well resonate with millennials acutely.

The magic of La La Land is that this story takes place in a musical. Not, however, the self-aware sort that is fun but trashy (Mamma Mia, Rock of Ages etc.) but instead an unapologetically old fashioned singing and dancing marathon. From the very first opening number it’s not demanding a ‘knowing smile’ but expects you to accept it and come along for the ride. In that sense it’s not going to convert non-musical lovers but why should it? The fact La La Land doesn’t think it needs to justify the magic of musicals is one of its most endearing traits. It’s in love with cinema, every frame attests to that, but its particularly enthusiastic in its love of musicals of the past and that passion oozes off the screen.

And what a musical it is! Each number is memorable, perhaps not in a show tunes way, but in how it propels the story forward and in how exquisitely the cinematography and choreography come together to make the most magical cinematic sequences. The film is packed with stunning set pieces – a Broadway like opening during a traffic jam, a whimsical dance among the stars and a seven minute montage to name but a few – and if just one had appeared in a lesser film they would elevate it considerably. But, put together, it’s an embarrassment of riches, sequence after sequence of pure silver screen delight.

Yet, to the film’s credit, it’s the emotional journey of its lead characters you are left thinking about by the time the credits roll and that’s down, in huge part, to the film’s two actors. Ryan Gosling is charming and reserved as Sebastian, completely selling his character’s obsession with jazz. And Emma Stone…she is out of this world. I’ve always thought of Stone as a good actress, heck she’s even good in those otherwise shitty Amazing Spiderman movies, but in La La Land she gives a career defining performance. During several moments her acting broke my heart, perhaps best demonstrated during her solo number towards the end of the film which, in both screenings I saw, had the cinema in complete silence, hanging on every line. The fact that director Damian Chazelle is clearly passionate about the story of these two characters’ lives is part of what elevates the film from pure homage to something with its own soul and purpose.

And then of course, there’s the ending. I’m going to get into spoiler territory now so if you haven’t seen it and you want to remain unspoiled, go and see it (seriously, you won’t regret it!) and then come back and read the rest.

Still here? OK.

So La La Land is essentially a movie of two halves. The first is pure romantic fantasy, the kind of ‘boy meets girl’ love story that we expect from an old fashioned musical. The second half is something a bit more real as we see the pressures of everyday life test and strain the relationship. It all ends five years later with both having achieved their dreams. Mia is now an actress but is married to another man with a child, and she accidently stumbles into Sebastian’s club which the two had discussed during their relationship (he even calls it Seb’s, as she had suggested.)

There’s then a seven minute musical montage where we see the fantasy ending had they stayed together and grown old. Once the fantasy is over we see Mia leave the club, but not before exchanging one final glance at Sebastian. Geez, I get emotional just thinking about it – it’s kind of soul wounding. But it’s what this sequence means that is so powerful, and puts a whole new light on what proceeded it.

At first it feels like a ‘life’s a bitch’ ending, they achieve their dreams but miss out on the ‘love of their life’, but actually I think it’s a lot more nuanced than that. The ending doesn’t undermine the beauty and romance which proceeded it, it just doesn’t pretend those things can always continue. Those moments the characters shared were important and wonderful at the time, and nothing can change that, not even now it’s over. In fact, during that time, both had encouraged each other to achieve their dreams – their relationship provided the matrix for both of them to go on and succeed, and perhaps it ended exactly when it needed to. Even during the fantasy of the musical montage, Sebastian doesn’t own his club when he stays with Mia.

Are their dreams and relationship mutually exclusive? Maybe. It’s kind of beside the point. Sometimes relationships break down and it’s not easy to see why. The point is what they had was magical but it didn’t work out. However, that doesn’t take away from what it was, and from those times something wonderful flourished. It perhaps solves the problem I have with a lot of romance movies. I would consider myself a romantic person, sure my love life isn’t anything to boast about, but I always enjoy the portrayal of love onscreen. The problem, however, is often love is portrayed as the only goal – romantic love is the only truly happy ending. You can see this in something like Beauty and the Beast (a film I love almost as much) in the journey of Belle. At first she begins with these huge ambitions that the people around her can’t understand, she wants adventures in the great world out there, but because she falls in love with the Beast that’s all put aside as if it was merely wrong-headed – she’s in love now, that’s all that matters.

La La Land manages to provide the perfect answer to this problem. It’s romantic but not delusional, capable of exploring the single power of love without demeaning every other goal. As the two characters look at each other for, perhaps, the last time there’s no signs of bitterness. Sadness and regret, maybe, but both of them know what they shared hasn’t been and cannot be undone. For a brief moment their love was the axis of the world, the most important thing in all creation, and the fact it is now over doesn’t make it untrue.

It’s the perfect melancholic ending, one far easier to relate to and, perhaps, more important than ‘happy ever after’.

 

Standard
Film

‘Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them’ – Review

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is a charming slice of whimsical magic, beautiful and engrossing from start to finish, and probably my favourite ‘blockbuster’ this year.

Deadpool movie reviewThis surprises me, more than anyone, because I’m not really much of a Potter fan…never have been. I appreciate the movies, don’t get me wrong, and I totally understand why a whole generation fell for them, but I didn’t start watching the Potter series (for various reasons) until film six, which rather left me feeling that I was a bit too late to the party. Plus I always found the stories a little derivative of other fantasy fiction with a few too many MacGuffins for my liking.

Fantastic Beasts is, on the other hand, a different…well…’beast’ altogether. Whilst it certainly expands the Potter universe, it is also very much its own film. There are really obvious similarities to be made with The Hobbit trilogy in that both have a unique story to tell but are also products created for clear commercial gains. Yet whereas The Hobbit trilogy often felt like ‘Lord of the Rings but not as good’, the twenties setting, new characters and general tone of Fantastic Beasts means it doesn’t feel like an imitation of the Potter movies before it, but a movie very much with its own groove.

The similarities between Fantastic Beasts and The Hobbit trilogy also extend to their structure – both have an original story to tell but also surround that story with world building to tie their mythology more deeply into the movies that proceeded them. For Fantastic Beasts, the unique story is that of Newt Scamander and his suitcase full of fantastic creatures.

I’ve heard a fair amount of complaint about Newt, claims that he isn’t really a character and there’s not much too him, but I disagree profoundly. Newt Scamander isn’t provided a tragic origin story, nor is he the ‘chosen one’, he’s just a kind-hearted, slightly eccentric, often awkward character trying to do the right thing because that’s what he believes in. I’m not really that much of a Eddie Redmayne fan, but he completely won me over as Newt and I found myself totally endeared to his character. He’s certainly not devoid of motivation or depth, there are various references to his past that help form his character, but they are refreshingly simple and not overblown. To my mind at least, he’s every bit as fleshed out as Harry Potter himself was in his own movies, if not more so!

This particular story thread also risks feeling kind of slight – ‘his magical creatures have escaped and need to be found’ doesn’t scream high stakes – but Rowling’s screenplay squeezes out every bit of wonder from this concept. The high point is a trip into the magic suitcase itself which reveals the whole world which these imaginative creatures inhabit. The scene is played for full awe and there’s a sense of innocent, imaginative, child-like magic which transcends anything even the early Potter movies could capture. It’s in these scenes that you also get a sense of exactly who Newt is, and just how much he cares for these creatures.

This storyline is also helped by three great supporting characters; Tina Goldstein, her sister Queenie and Jacob Kowalski. The sisters complement each other because one, the good-natured Queenie, is very much defined by her femininity whilst the other, Tina, is more conservative and geeky (that’s probably too strong a word, but she’s certainly a ‘focused’ character.) Jacob is another great addition because he’s a muggle (or nomaj) and is able to offer a completely human pair of eyes to the strange workings of the wizarding world. What’s particularly refreshing about this group of characters is there is nearly no ‘wisecracking’ at all. In today’s superhero dominated landscape, heroes seem to fall into two categories; ‘constant wisecracks’ or ‘brooding’. These heroes, on the other hand, are neither, they are chipper but behave like people, not gag machines. They all, particularly Jacob, essentially feature as Newt’s companions throughout the film.

And I use the term ‘companion’ quite particularly because there’s no denying Newt Scamander’s story shares a considerable chunk of its DNA with Doctor Who (which, if you don’t know, I absolutely adore.) Redmayne’s eccentric British Scamander smacks of Matt Smith’s magnificent Eleventh Doctor (my personal favourite incarnation of the beloved Time Lord) and his suitcase that is bigger on the inside can’t help but bring the TARDIS to mind. I’ve always thought Potter and Doctor Who have a similar lineage, both are full of British eccentricity and world build in a way that avoids taking themselves too seriously…apart from when they need to. But Fantastic Beasts has more similarities still, heck even the eventual fate of Jacob feels distinctly Doctor Who in its execution. There were rumours that director David Yates was interested in making a potential Doctor Who movie and, whilst little more has been said on that, this is the closest we’ve got so far to a big budget Doctor Who movie.

The second plot thread is the one that must do the world building and is considerably darker in tone. It involves the Magical Congress of the United States, The Second-Salemers and Grindelwald. Whilst the Newt story is breezy and light, this plot thread explores child abuse and the terrible effects of suppression and denial of one’s own identity. This thread is probably the one that’s going to provide the momentum for the four (yes, four!) sequels to the movie and will almost certainly bring in a younger Albus Dumbledore not too far down the line. Thankfully this ‘B plot’ doesn’t jar with Newt’s, but instead provides the film a tonal dexterity that enriches every aspect of it.

It’s certainly this part of the movie, however, that brings the flaws that Fantastic Beasts does have to the table. There is a twist at the end involving Grindewald (and an actor who is fast becoming infamous) which both fails in execution and cheapens the development of one of the film’s main characters. It’s also the threads of this storyline which take over for the film’s third act and provides a largely consequence free, CGI laden final showdown which rivals some of Marvel’s laziest efforts and mostly sidelines Newt.

Yet, much like Doctor Who, Fantastic Beasts get so much right and is so endearing that it largely bypasses my critical faculties. On several occasions this movie made me feel, not just sadness (the ending has just the right kind of sentimental ‘farewells’ for my liking) but also awe at some of the amazing creatures and the imaginative ideas behind them. Sure, you feel the studio pressure now and then, but it’s still tangible that Rowling is passionate about these stories and still loves telling them, a passion which is infectious.

Fantastic Beasts ultimately benefits from not being based on a book, paced more like a film without a long middle which has largely nothing to do with the first or final act, a problem for most of the Potter movies.  Rowling’s first screenplay is a real triumph and proof, if proof is needed, that the Potter universe still has plenty of magic left up its sleeve. It also achieves the impossible and makes the prospect of a further four films not just seem bearable, but something to look forward to. If the future films in this saga are as fun, charming and magical as this one, then consider me a full convert to the wizarding world of Harry Potter.

Standard