Review: Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049

Trailer

BR201493

Pretty.

Confession time: I’m not a huge fan of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Maybe it’s the excessive length, maybe it’s the inevitable drudgery of the “Is he/Isn’t he a replicant?” subtext, maybe it’s how Harrison Ford is one of the least interesting characters in the actual story, maybe it’s that the film appears largely famous for its opening shot and a finale monologue, maybe it’s that I could never get into the book the film is based on. Either way, while I acknowledge the films visual acumen and its undoubted impact on the sci-fi genre, it isn’t a movie I have ever been fond of.

Enter Denis Villeneuve, Ryan Gosling and the recent swell of nostalgia in Hollywood. The early trailers for Blade Runner 2049 certainly looked impressive, but like others I was also struck by Gosling’s blank face, the feeling that we were seeing something that was essentially just an updated version of what came before, and that Harrison Ford is going for the Trinity of continuing on past glories decades after he first played the roles. I was going to give it a miss. But then came the critical avalanche of praise, fawning over every other part of the production. Suitably intrigued by the idea of a nostalgia-driven continuation done correctly, I gave 2049 a go, all two hours and 44 minutes of it. So, was it a suitable continuation of a largely acclaimed sci-fi classic? Or was it, instead, just another attempt to reinvigorate something that would be better left untouched?

In a dystopian future where the world is afflicted by over-population, crumbling eco-systems and nuclear fallout, artificial life is used for a variety of unpalatable but necessary jobs, such as “Blade Runners”, those tasked with tracking down and “retiring” rogue replicants. When one such LAPD member, “K” (Ryan Gosling) discovers the remains of a once-pregnant replicant, he is tasked with hunting down the unlikely child and destroying it before its existence can prompt a war between the biological and artificial. His investigation draws in megalomaniacal corporate owners (Jared Leto), holographic companions (Ana de Armas), replicant assassins (Sylvia Hoeks) and leads inevitably to a Blade Runner (Harrison Ford) who disappeared 30 years previously.

As a change of pace, I thought I would frame this review in line with my criticisms of the original, as outlined in the first paragraph above, to see if the continuation has truly managed to improve on the original.

Excessive length – Oh goodness me, no. 164 minutes of a grim dark future is pretty much too much, though I should be careful, I feel, to couch my words somewhat. 2049 isn’t a padded movie, that is, a film where the production team have just crammed in as much as they can for some nefarious reason. It is, simply, a patient film, from a cinematography and editing stand-point. Villeneuve, with Roger Deakins, are, on the basis of this, some of the most patient filmmakers around, and Sony were, against form, seemingly happy to let them at it. The end result is a film where every scene, every transition, every beat, is given a lot of time to breath. At times, and more frequently as we head past that two hour point, this gets needlessly excessive: whenever K goes anywhere, we have to see at least some bit of every part of his journey, most notably when he slowly descends into a boiler room from his past. And that’s connected to:

“Is he/Isn’t he a replicant?” drudgery – 2049 sidesteps this barely five minutes in by revealing openly that K is a replicant. Indeed, the reveal is done in a very clever way, as he unexpectedly holds his own in a vicious brawl with another replicant (an excellent Dave Bautista, making the absolute most of his limited screen-time). The drudgery comes from later plot points that the film is willing and able to leave dangling for a large amount of time, that aren’t especially difficult for the audience to puzzle out. Thus, 2049 becomes, for significant stretches, a game of waiting for the characters you are watching to reach a narrative point that you arrived at a half hour previously. There are game attempts to subvert such problems with a twist/double twist aspect to the central crux of the plot, but these only go so far, and in the end I didn’t find either especially satisfying. A mystery only works if you can keep your audience engaged, and over this kind of running time, it is especially hard. In the way that, say, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy erred a bit in presenting a mystery over a long time with excessive complication, 2049 errs in undue simplicity that any viewer should be able to figure out too quickly.

The main character not being interesting – Oh boy. Ryan Gosling’s character is an openly replicant cop, despised by many of his fellow officers, adding a sort of racial commentary element. He is trying to replicate humanity with a holographic girlfriend, in scenes that veer between achingly pathetic in their quest for an unattenable normality and twistedly erotic in later moments, probably the films best “sci-fi” element, and more in line with the source material’s tone than anything else really. And he deals with the simply reality, so omnipresent across sci-fi, that the artificial slave race are inevitably going to rebel, and that he may have a difficult choice to make very soon. K is undoubtedly a very interesting character. The problem is not the character. The problem is Gosling, and the larger cast.

BR201492

Very pretty.

This is not an actors movie. Everyone seems to be in a race to under-act each other, between the largely expressionless Gosling, the stern-faced Robin Wright, the intentionally vacant Jared Leto, the wearied Harrison Ford, and pretty much everyone bar de Armas, and her character is a computer program designed to be spunky. Gosling’s blank-facedness has a point – he is an artificial life-form after all – but other replicants have personalities, facial expressions, a bit of verve. Dave Bautista has less than five minutes here, and out-acts Gosling. The main characters lack of expression must be a deliberate choice, notwithstanding my own belief in Gosling’s over-ratedness, but it doesn’t fit what we are seeing at all. Even a slow (and it would be slow) transformation of a kind from the robot to a more human being would be appropriate, but that just doesn’t happen. K is a terminator, and the director/writer just sort of hope we’ll remember that he might have a soul in there somewhere.

Famous mostly for opening shots/closing monologues – This will be a bit lengthier. I suppose to clarify what I mean by this, is that Blade Runner was the kind of film that I felt nailed something significant in its opening and ending, and the two respective poles tend to stick in the memory. 2049 tries to do this at the start, and actually largely succeeds, its opening shots being a look at a future agricultural sector that has had to adapt to a global collapse in eco-systems: what appear at first from a distance to be segmented farms turn out to be pale looking buildings (wherein maggots are bred en masse for the purposes of “protein farming”), split up only occasionally by the monstrous solar panel structures. It might not have quite the impact of the hellish LA cityscape that Blade Runner opened with, but it is suitably mesmerizing. Shortly after, 2049’s look at LA focuses on its mass over-population, in its rows and rows and blocks and blocks of seemingly endless buildings, a Megacity of potentially billions, that ends abruptly where a massive wall keeps out a surgingly violent sea (presumably much higher than it should be owing to climate change).

But 2049 carries on with this theme, and it is on the visual side of things that the film succeeds most amazingly. It’s a beautiful looking movie, even if at times the locales – like Wallace’s set-piece arena, dubbed “Pond office” by some friends of mine – stretch the bounds of believability. The dirty slums of LA that give way to holographic entrancements, the familiar blending of advanced technology with basic necessities, the mass dumping ground of metal and machine that San Diego has become, an irradiated and lonely looking Las Vegas. A suitably sized cinema screen allows 2049 the scope to showcase these massive and intricate environments to the full.

Other visual tricks and cues prove their worth. Of note are things like the initial fight between K and Sapper Morton, wherein the power of the replicant is demonstrated by him slamming K repeatedly into a crumbling wall, only we see the effect from the other side. Joi’s various holographic depictions allow varying hues and colours to be brought into play, in a way that toys with different emotions. K has a tete-a-tete with another Blade Runner to the strains of a malfunctioning Vegas showtune display. And the female form is utilised repeatedly in different ways, both as a means of channelling the films central thesis of artificial motherhood and what it means, alongside aforementioned futuristic eroticism and as monuments to a time long past. Please don’t mistake me as excusing female nudity when there is none of the male variety, but it never felt excessive, exploitative or titillating in 2049 (while the film is undoubtedly driven by male characters, there are plenty of meaty female roles, at least): rather, it felt like someone was using it for a point.

But is the film over-reliant on the visual? Absolutely. Overall, it does feel like it is trying to capture the same kind of thing that Blade Runner did with its opening and closing, but it can’t quite pull it off to the same genre-defining extent. Aside from the deficiencies in acting – one feels that the cast must have felt rather lost in trying to project to the non-existent CGI environments around the, no matter how well they were later realized – the script isn’t all that great either, basic to the point of irrelevancy in large stretches, and maybe trying a bit too hard elsewhere. No “tears in rain” this time (the violent finale is largely absent wordplay) just Jared Leto’s mumbling about his God complex in his brief and largely frustrating scenes. It’s only when artificial life is talking to other artificial life that things pick up: Luv’s unsubtle insinuations to K, K’s whole twisted and evolving relationship with Joi, and when K inevitably meets up with one Rick Deckard.

I don’t want to make it feel as if the film is a write-off on every level other than the visual. As mentioned, the K character is a fascinating sci-fi story in his own right, and the way he reacts to the different interpretations of Joi is an effective sub-plot on its own. There are glimpses of interesting people elsewhere: Dave Bautista’s isolated colony replicant, Wright’s hard-nosed and depressive LAPD lieutenant, Mackenzie Davis’ the prostitute who has a growing obsession with K. The music is great, on a par with Vangelis’ initial score, while having enough scope for change.

I just only wish that the rest of the film had been able to excel as well, with some tighter narrative pacing, some freer use of the editing knife, and greater freedom for the actors to breath some life into their characters. Blade Runner 2049 is worth seeing, and I mean just that: it’s a film to be enjoyed predominantly for what there is to see, and to lesser extent what there is to hear. It’s an experience. But the potential depths of its sci-fi themes and portents are lost however, in the films under-reported flaws. Is it better than the first? I suppose, but for someone like me, that isn’t saying much. Partially recommended.

BR201491

Standing by for 2079.

(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures and Sony Pictures Releasing).

Posted in Reviews, TV/Movies | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ireland’s Wars: Mesopotamia And The Siege Of Kut

If there is a forgotten campaign of the First World War, a forgotten army on par with the forces that fought for the Allies in Burma a few decades later, it may very well be those forces that fought in Mesopotamia, a lesser known front of a lesser known front. But fight there they did, and the Irish were there too.

The war in Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq – was an extension of the larger war against the Ottoman Empire, that would see larger scale fighting – and attention – to the battles taking place on the Gallipoli peninsula, in the Caucuses and eventually in Palestine. But another side of the conflict was along the course of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in a land that the Ottomans barely controlled themselves.

Mesopotamia was nominally Ottoman, but in reality the Empire had been military occupiers of the region for as long as they had held it, dealing with the rebellious natives near constantly. But the region was worth fighting for, for much the same reason as great powers consider it fighting for nowadays: its oil supplies. In an industrial world, controlling a vital source of oil could be important, not only for keeping your own machines and ships of war going, but for denying them to the enemy.

Before the war, the British were the main commercial players in the region, with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company being state-funded. When the war began, but before the Ottomans had officially entered the conflict, the British had sent troops to garrison oil refineries in the region. The soldiers were mostly Indian, a recruiting area that routinely goes little-noticed in popular histories of the war. The Ottomans, for their part, had little regard for the region or the possibilities of fighting over it: when they did enter the war officially, what troops their were in Mesopotamia were actually reduced, sent to fight on other fronts considered more important.

In early November 1914 the British enacted their own plan to secure their strategic interests in the region, landing an army of Indian soldiers at Fao, on the point where the Shatt-al-Arab meets the Persian Gulf. They were briefly held up dealing with the few hundred Ottoman troops there, before they were able to consolidate their beachhead and strike out for Basra, the first major town in their path. This fell to the Allies by the 22nd of the month, with the Ottoman’s barely putting up any resistance, preferring to flee several hundred miles back, to Baghdad.

Fighting in the region, which was mostly desert, was dependent on the rivers. What civilisation existed in Mesopotamia was connected to the course of the Tigris and the Euphrates, and armies needed to be connected to them too, as the primary source of water and as a very important means of transportation. The Mesopotamian Campaign would be one fought as much in terms of correctly implemented logistics as it was with guns, and so the early successes of the British were not the death blow they could otherwise have been.

Throughout the course of 1915, it still seemed as if the British held the initiative in the region. Ottoman efforts to counter attack the British positions failed in April, and the British then advanced in turn, with a small army, under the command of a Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend, sent along the course of the Tigris, with its eventual aim being the town of Kut, with the possibility that it could go even further, and onto Baghdad, if the opportunity was there. Townshend’s force made steady progress, repulsing a slew of Ottoman counter-pushes, but its advance became steadily more difficult to supply the further it got from Basra. On the 28th of September, they took Kut.

They should probably have left well-enough along with that, but the decision was taken to attempt an effort at Baghdad, even if the British would have to abandon the city after its capture. By then, the Ottoman’s had decided Mesopotamia was worth fighting over after all, and troops had been pulled from other fronts to serve there. Townshend’s advance ran into trouble at the Battle of Ctesiphon in November, just 25 miles from Baghdad, and he was obliged to retreat back to Kut. The newly re-constituted Ottoman armies followed, and by December Kut, and the 30’000 Imperial soldiers there, were besieged.

The following months of the Mesopotamian Campaign were centred on the relief of Kut, and it is here that Irish troops enter the story. Repeated efforts were made to break through to Kut, at the end of 1915 and into 1916, and among the soldiers that attempted to do this were elements of the Connacht Rangers.

The first battalion of that regiment was now in the Mesopotamian theatre, following its merger with the second. The second had suffered cruelly on the western front, and a lack of recruits coming from Connacht had necessitated the combination of the two, who arrived into the region in January 1916. There, they became part of the “Tigris Force” under General Fenton Aylmar, the ramshackle force that was put together with the aim of liberating the besieged Kut.

This force had already suffered some setbacks by the time the Rangers were put into the firing line. The Battle of Shiekh Sa’ad and the Battle of the Wadi were failures, as the Tigris Force attempted to break through to Kut but found themselves unable to breach reinforced Ottoman defences. The Rangers missed these encounters, as they were taking the 100-mile trip upriver to join the larger force, but were in place on the 21st January, when another breakthrough was attempted in the Battle of Hanna. By then, they had been obligated to take on several hundred men from the Territorial Army to fill in holes in their ranks, though fresh drafts of Irish troops would take over eventually.

At Hanna, a defile on the way to Kut, the Tigris Force advanced into the teeth of Ottoman defences. The Ottomans picked their ground well, placing their lines with impassable marshland to one side and the swollen Tigris to the other. It being winter, the harsh desert sun had given way to violent rainstorms and low temperatures, and it was in such conditions that Aylmar ordered elements of the Tigris Force forward, among them the Connacht Rangers.

The attack – little more than a full-frontal assault with little in the way of tactical ingenuity – foundered quickly. Indian troops went ahead first and were thrown back. The Rangers were among those sent in as part of a second wave, but the terrible weather made for poor visibility, and their momentum was hopelessly lost as they struggled through the flooded ground and the retreating Indian troops. Finally breaking clear and approaching the enemy, the Rangers took 280 casualties, including their commanding officer, and were thrown backwards just like those that went before. The action at Hanna was another failure, that ended with 2’600 casualties incurred, and the situation was compounded by the relentless weather which exasperated the plight of the wounded, and ensured that the relief force itself was in trouble with its own supplies.

Another desperate effort was made to break through to Kut after, at Dujaila Redoubt on the 8th of March, a fight in which the badly hit Rangers were kept in reserve. Despite heavy casualties to the Ottomans, their line held, and the Tigris Force had to retreat to maintain its own tenuous line of supply. At a position called “Thorny Nullah”, the Rangers were involved in a brief, bitter encounter with Ottoman troops wherein they successfully held quickly set-up defence lines, part of a larger effort wherein Aylward was able to maintain the possibility of his army striking one more time at Kut.

On the 17th April, the Rangers were again in the sights of the enemy, as the Ottomans launched a surprise pre-emptive assault on the Tigris Force, as it massed on the right bank of the Tigris in preparation for an assault on the village of Beit Aissa. The Rangers were part of a force that was briefly assailed from three sides in this night attack, but they held their ground. Another 187 men became casualties though, stretching the possibilities of the battalion continuing to function to the utmost.

With that, Kut had to be left to its fate, with future efforts at relief or resupply largely impossible. On the 29th April, Townshend surrendered, with over 13’000 British Imperial troops going into captivity, a disaster that was among the worst calamities that the British military suffered in the course of the war. Thousands of the PoW’s would never make it home.

It was undoubtedly a major Ottoman victory, but in some ways, it merely poked the bear. Many in British politics were ambivalent about the Mesopotamian operation – Bonar Law would famously later say “I wish we should never have gone there” – but the defeat at Kut and the loss of so many troops galvanised opinion to a certain extent, and insured that the British presence in the region would not be withdrawn, but instead reinforced in preparation for future campaigning, now with the twin goal of securing the oil fields and gaining revenge.

As was common throughout the British Army, Irishmen served in numerous regiments and units, not just the “named” Irish ones. One Corporal, from Killorglin, County Cork, first saw conflict serving in Mesopotamia with the Royal Field Artillery at this time. While he was firing artillery at the Turks, he first heard about a sudden and dramatic rebellion at home, a moment that would awaken a hither-to dormant political consciousness. For Tom Barry, the Iraqi desert would be the start of a battlefield career that would eventually lead to the Cork countryside.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Villain Checklist: Equal With The Hero

This should be a short enough one, because the implantation of it in some form is so obvious that is almost defies the alternative. We’ve talked about how the hero and the villain should be a contrast in some way, but in another way, in at least one way, they have to be equal:

Equal With Hero – The adversary should be, whether physically, mentally or in some other way, on a par with the hero.

This is dirt simple stuff really, and ties into the villain as a threat to the hero, as a person with capability and credibility. When the hero goes up against the villain, there has to be a sense that the villain can hold her/his own, and won’t be a complete pushover.

But it is important that it be like-for-like: if the hero if a hulking barbarian warrior, then the villain can be an evil hulking barbarian warrior, able to swing a sword or an axe just as well as the protagonist. It can be something different to the hero’s skill, but no less effective: if the hero is a guy who likes to swing his fists at his problems, then maybe the villain is a woman who has a much higher intelligence, and can use that to her advantage to avoid physical confrontations.

I say “equal”, because I am talking about parity: maybe the villain has much more aptitude at a certain thing than the hero, but there needs to be equality somewhere else. In some respect, in other words, the hero and the villain need to evenly matched.

So, the con-man scamming the old lady should really be as smart as the detective trying to stop him, or if they come to blows he should be as strong. The supervillain trying to take over the world should command the same kind of resources as James Bond will. The galactic emperor with the planet killing weapons should have the same skill with the laser sword as the plucky young protagonist trying to overthrow him. And so on and so forth.

Let’s look at a few examples.

In A New Hope, even by the end of the film, Vader is on an equal footing with Luke a few levels. They’ve both demonstrated impressive use of the Force -Vader to choke a man, Luke to hit a bullseye in exceptional circumstances – and they’ve both demonstrated that they are respectively excellent fighter pilots. Nothing major in the larger context of the film, but its enough.

Kick_Vader

Not sure Luke would ever do this…oh wait.

In The Phantom Menace, Maul doesn’t demonstrate much in the way of equality with the heroes, save for the real sole stand-out thing about his character: his lightsaber skill. He goes toe-to-toe with Qui-Gon around the mid-point, and then later there is the famous triple-threat that also includes Obi-Wan, wherein Maul more than holds his own against two quite skilled Jedi Knights. One-on-one Maul proves superior to Qui-Gon, and it is only a somewhat contrived circumstance that allows Obi-Wan to defeat him. Maul has so little going for him in character terms, but at least that sense of threat is evident with his equally exceptional skill with lightsabers.

Kick_Maul

That must be hard to use as a single blade.

Silva, in Skyfall, is of course an equal of James Bond. He has all the resources of his own secret organisation at his disposal. He’s suave and charming to a certain extent. He’s isn’t unwilling or incapable of getting down to some hand-to-hand fighting if the need is there. And he’s his own kind of ladykiller. Indeed, the whole point of the character is to be a twisted sort of take on Bond himself, with the two being the “children” og M, equal, just on diverging paths.

intro_silva

Good dressers each too.

The mostly terrible Dominic Greene has, just as in Silva’s case, the same access to resources from a large underground organisation. Where Greene is portrayed incorrectly is in his efforts to go toe-to-toe with Bond, when they are nowhere near being physically equal. This is when the checklist number is applied wrongly, in an effort to make a bad guy much more effective and threatening than he actually is.

Consistency_Greene

It will never stop being stupid.

The world of superheroes is littered with this kind of trope, especially in the first film of a serious, where the antagonists tends to be little more than a reflection of the protagonist. Take Thor and its villain Loki. Where the title character is a boorish grunt, more likely to throw his hammer around then form any kind of artful plan to enact his goals, Loki is the iconic trickster, who does things a bit more subtly, whether it is through intrigue or magic. These makes them a contrast, but where they are equals is in, somewhat surprisingly, their respective love for their father, shown in different ways, in their determination to strike at the Frost-Giants, and even in hand-to-hand as is exhibited in the finale, albeit very late. The film succeeds in making Thor and Loki out to be brothers, raised the same but following different paths.

Credibility_Loki

Both good dressers too…sort of.

Most of the other MCU films struggle along with this concept though, caught in a constant cycle of overly focusing on the hero in lieu of anything else. Take Yellowjacket in Ant-Man, who is essentially just the opposite of the title character, with the same powers and abilities, just he happens to be evil/crazy. Yes, they are equals, so the trope is ticked off, but it isn’t done effectively enough for the character to be improved by it. It hurts that Yellowjacket is only shown very late on in his full garb (and with the ability to use it to the extent that Scott does): there’s equality as such, but it doesn’t feel earned.

intro_yellowjacket

Meh.

The previously mentioned Half-Life 2 is an example of this not working. Breen and Freeman are so distant from one another throughout the course of the game that it’s hard to draw any semblance of equality between them. Breen controls legions; Freeman is a lone man who eventually has a ragtag resistance following in his week. Breen starts and ends the game in a position of near Godlike power, and it is, perhaps, only at the very conclusion that Breen and Freeman reach a position of parity. It isn’t a terminal problem, but it is there.

Define_Breen

Hard to get equality when he’s looming over you like that all game.

Lastly, as is my tradition, I’ll talk about the last film I watched, or re-watched: Muppets Most Wanted, whose antagonist is the suitably named Constantine, a doppelganger for Kermit the Frog. Here, the equality is fairly obvious: there are identical frogs after all. They also both have a bit of a persuasive streak to them: Kermit in a positive “follow the leader” kind of way, and Constantine in a much more negative manipulative sense. Hey, it’s a kid’s movie. You can only analyse so much.

Equal_Constantine

Not the best Muppets film.

That does it for the relationship of the villain with the hero. Next, as we round the final turn and go into the home stretch, we have to go into the specific path of the villain within the narrative, starting with the moment that they escalate their actions.

Posted in Reviews, TV/Movies, Villain Checklist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ireland’s Wars: The Macedonian Front And Kosturino

The First World War had begun on the borders of Serbia and Austria-Hungary, even if, in the aftermath of the Great Powers all throwing their lot in, that theatre of the war had become almost a sideshow in comparison to the more titanic clashes on the western and eastern fronts, not to mention the drama in Gallipoli, the growing colonial struggle and the war underneath the waves. But still, even as the Irish regiments were having their first bloody taste of combat in Belgium and France, and even while they were being dashed to pieces on the beaches and hills of the Gallipoli peninsula, Serbia was continuing its own war with Austria-Hungary.

And, expectations to the contrary, they were doing quite well. The initial Austrian invasion had taken the capital, Belgrade, but a determined Serbian counter-attack had sent the Austrians reeling backwards, though not without significant loss. Austrian commitments elsewhere, against the huge Russian armies on their eastern frontiers and then the Italians to the south in 1915, meant that the Serbian front was locked in stalemate for most of the second year of the war. The Germans was desperate to open a land route to the Ottomans, and the Austrians wanted to re-focus elsewhere: together, the two scored a diplomatic coup by getting up-to-then neutral Bulgaria to join the Central Powers. Bulgaria had grudges over losses of territory in the Second Balkan War of 1913, and was unmoved by Allied entreaties to join in on their side. A new offensive was launched on Serbia in October 1915, with the Germans, Austrians and Bulgarians attacking from multiple sides.

Serbia had repeatedly requested assistance from the western Allies, to shore up its defences and to rejuvenate its battered army. But France and Britain had delayed at every turn, reluctant to send troops to the Balkans when they were so badly needed on the western front and then Gallipoli. Greek (they were divided between a pro-Allied government and a pro-German monarchy) and Bulgarian neutrality complicated Allied ability to intervene (or at least that was the public line) and up to Bulgarian entry to the war, France and Britain still hoped they may never have to land troops in the area.

The new invasion of Serbia changed that, and soon an Allied force was landed on the Greek port of Thessaloniki (also known as Salonika or Salonica). It consisted of a French force and the “British Salonika Army”, that would eventually consist of three corps. Commanded by the recently “promoted” (because it was more of an upward demotion) General Bryan Mahon, the expedition included the 10th (Irish) Division, straight from the Gallipoli campaign.

The 10th was in bad shape, having lost a significant amount of men in Turkey, and the rest being exhausted from that battle and under-supplied. Transfers from English regiments were necessary to keep the individual units of the 10th in a workable condition, and they were dumped into the Balkan theatre without adequate preparation for the oncoming Balkan winter. The cold, and disease, were soon going to be terrible problems.

The western Allies arrived too late to adequately help Serbia. At risk of being encircled by the Austrian, German and Bulgarian armies, the Serbian military was forced to endure a gruelling retreat southwards, through soon to be conquered Montenegro and into Albania, where whoever was left was evacuated by Allied navies into Salonika. Serbia itself was occupied.

For their part, the western Allies did advance from Greece towards Bulgaria, engaging in combat along a line in the Macedonian region, a theatre where they would remain embattled for the majority of what was left of the war. But they did not do so on an even keel. With the collapse of Serbia the British government were reluctant to commit fully to the fight, and a withdrawal from the entire region was considered. So, the French pushed on alone, until they finally got into a full-scale engagement with the Bulgarians at Krivolak late in October, from which, outnumbered and outgunned, they were eventually thrown back. They bought time for the ongoing Serbian retreat, and for the British to dig in on a ten-mile front, along the high-ground at the strategically vital point of the Kosturino Pass.

The terrain was part of the Rhodope Mountains and so was difficulty for military forces to operate in at the best of times, but this was made worse by the terrible weather, with wind, rain and snow making the roads and passes inoperable. It rained non-stop from the 26th of November to the 3rd of December, destroying coats and other equipment, and leading to alarming spikes in instances of frostbite evacuations, with the 10th badly affected. The majority of troops were still kitted out for a summer campaign in Gallipoli, and only a few had the newer, more appropriate, woollen uniforms. Clean drinking water was also in short supply, with dysentery looming its ugly head.

From the 4th to the 6th, the British withstood a fierce artillery bombardment in their makeshift trenches. By then the French were in retreat, and the British defence was largely a holding operation to assist their allies, before an inevitable withdrawal themselves. In the coming battle seven Bulgarian divisions would smash into the 10th, focusing especially on “Rocky Peak”, a well-named outcropping that jutted ahead of the main line. A general Bulgarian assault was thrown back on the 6th, with the Irish largely relying on rifle volley fire and flanking support to get the job done. Elements of the Connacht Rangers, Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were all heavily engaged. But they held.

On the following fog bound morning, the Bulgarians took advantage of the conditions to launch a surprise attack on the peak, sending the Royal Irish Fusiliers there reeling backwards. The Bulgarian taking of the height allowed them an excellent vantage point to rain havoc down on the rest of the British line, with the 5th Connacht Rangers especially beset, dealing with machine gun fire from the peak and constant forward assaults. In the afternoon, having largely run out of ammunition, a few of what were left of the Rangers engaged in a brief bayonet charge before withdrawing, having lost 450 men.

The Rangers’ retreat was the signal for a more general withdrawal to a newly prepared defensive line at a place called Crete Simonet, where the 10th dug-in on December 8th. Retreating French troops, and retreating French artillery, helped stem the Bulgarian tide for a period, but the writing was on the wall. Badly outnumbered and running short on every kind of supply, the 10th was soon obliged to retreat again, with the 7th Dublin’s one of the last units to take some shots at the advancing enemy.

The British and French stumbled back over the Greek border and eventually into Salonika. The Bulgarians, respecting nominal Greek neutrality, did not pursue beyond the border. The British had lost 1’209 clashes in the course of the three days fighting and retreat after, the majority coming from just two regiments, among them the Rangers. The French lost more still, and the Bulgarians likely matched or exceeded them both.

The Allies – French, British and what was left of the Serbian Army – were now bottled back up in Greece, awaiting a possible Bulgarian invasion, with many there and at home wondering what the point of the entire exercise was. But there was a point: while Serbia had fallen, a viable new theatre had been established in the Macedonia region, and the Serbian military had lived to fight another day. Within six months, it would be in a position to resume offensive operations. The brief advance into the Balkans had been hamstrung by numerical inferiority and supply difficulties, but it had managed to prop up on of Britain and France’s key allies: an ally that would be marching with them to victory in the region eventually.

In the short-term though, it was a most definite success for the Central Powers, who cut open a path to the Ottoman Empire, got Bulgaria on their side, and bottled up their opponents in the region inside a nation whose own allegiance was very suspect.

The British Salonika Army were in for the long haul, and Irish troops would remain there with them. As 1915 came to a close, it was clear that something earth-shattering would have to occur for the Allies to make headway against their opponents, on any front, be it France, the Balkans or anywhere else soldiers were engaged against the Central Powers.

The big push and the major baptism of fire for Kitchener’s new legions was still to come. Before we return to the grim and grimy world of the western front, we must turn instead to the ongoing battle with the Ottomans, and Irish soldiers engaged in Mesopotamia, a struggle that was truly showing the conflict as the “world war” it was.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review – Gaga: Five Foot Two

Gaga: Five Foot Two

Trailer

gfft2

A perfect illusion?

 

Ah, the musician documentary. Which musical talent, once they have reached a certain level, hasn’t gone this route? Kate Perry, Taylor Swift and Black Sabbath are some of the varied acts that have undergone the “concert movie” in recent years. In truth, I’ve always found them drab, predictable affairs: the mad fans, the lonely hotel rooms, the bandmate grumblings and the heroic uplifting ending. Perhaps it’s because This Is Spinal Tap lampooned the concept so brilliantly, but it’s always been difficult for me to get engaged with such projects. But what about Lady Gaga? She could break that trend, right?

If she isn’t the most famous musician on the planet, then she is probably very close. Stefani Germanotta has come a long way from her Manhattan roots, turning into someone who is simultaneously considered one of the greatest singer/songwriters of the modern age as well as being a veritable renaissance woman in other fields, dipping into acting, fashion, art and other ventures whenever the desire seems to take her. But it doesn’t come without cost, as her somewhat recent hiatus from music demonstrated. Chris Moukarbel takes a behind the scenes look at Gaga’s life from around the summer of 2016 to the half-time show of Superbowl 51 earlier this year, in this Netflix offering, released recently. As the film begins, Gaga is at a low creatively – Artpop was poorly received a few years earlier – and personally – she breaks up with her fiancée around the same time as the start point – and it remains to be seen whether she can make her way back to the top again.

The opening shot sort of frames the story in much the same way as Gaga tends to frame herself, taking something predictable and putting a shocking, sometimes zany, but always interesting spin on it: in this case, looking at her from below as she prepares to be hoisted into the air ahead of the Superbowl 51 show, shot in just such a way that for a few seconds, it looks like someone who has just decided to hang themselves. That’s Gaga for you, a woman who has spent her professional career confounding expectations at every level at every turn.

But does this make for an interesting documentary? This is certainly a cinema verite style affair from the somewhat unknown Moukarbel (recognisable for a controversial low budget aping of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre and a sexual documentary series on HBO) who turns on the camera at various points of Gaga life – putting the final touches on her fifth album, Joanne, dealing with her chronic pain issues, hanging out with her family, interacting with the endless parade of fans and fanatics – and essentially lets her at it, to demonstrate her talents, expand verbally on numerous topics and to just go wherever her heart takes her. The end result is a very disjointed affair, barely held together by the somewhat linear nature of what it is showing, but, as stated, this does sort of fit with the helter-skelter personality at the heart of it all.

This is Gaga as a musical prodigy, almost effortlessly switching from editing room genius to quiet, acoustic wunderkind. This is Gaga as actress, as philosopher, as poet. This is Gaga as an icon, to people looking at what she wears to what she says, to what she supports. It’s almost strange, the laundry list of celebrities who come in and out of screen, treated with a casualness that belies their own stature in the public eye: musicians like producer Mark Ronson and Florence Welch, style icons like Donatella Versace and actors like Cuba Gooding Jr. Barbara Bush is seen in one section, just in Gaga’s general vicinity, Tony Bennett and Martin Scorcese are referenced. Gaga talks about being in a movie with “Bradley”…Bradley Cooper that is. They all just seem to revolve around the sun-like Gaga.

And this is also Germanotta, the person, who suffers from debilitating pain of both physical and mental kinds, and whose turbulent romantic life hangs over much of what she is doing. At times, she comes off as almost whining in her self-pitying nature, and one cannot help but notice that Gaga has an undeniable talent for making any problem, any situation and any question all about her, her experiences or her opinions, something that is a tad grating at times. When Joanne is released, she badgers Walmart employs to stock more copies, and seems to glory in being recognised as the creator.

You have to remember that she is presumably being out on the spot by the director constantly in the footage being filmed, and must also bear in mind searingly memorable moments, such as the singer screaming into a pillow as a physiotherapist attempts to alleviate the pain from her fibromyalgia. More endearing is when she discusses the intensely personal nature of Joanne, inspired by her aunt who died tragically young, most notably when she plays a song from the album to her elderly grandmother.

gfft3

Nah nah nah nah

On the other hand, Five Foot Two has Gaga saying that family is the most important thing to her, but it only rarely showcases this explicitly, and this is indeed a flaw. When Gaga talks about how she wants to demonstrate how women don’t have to conform to what men expect of them, the absence of discussion on her upbringing is a tad strange: her mother, sisters, and grandmother are here, but mostly background.

For someone not altogether familiar with Gaga outside of her music and clothes, its almost refreshing to find that she is as kooky in “real life” as she is on the public stage, even if, at times, it really does seem a tad forced. In other words, there are times when it seems “weird for the sake of weird” as opposed to being true inspiration. The director plays into this a bit, like in one scene that seems to exist for the sole purpose of showing Gaga as a woman comfortable with taking a bikini off on the front lawn. But, most of the time, Gaga comes off as illuminatingly, frighteningly, genuine.

Genuine too is her apparent desire to get away from “Artpop” Gaga, and just be a public persona that doesn’t take quite as much work. “I don’t need to have a million wigs on to make a statement” she says at one point, and claims to look forward to being an “old lady rocker” that ages along with her fans. A good sequence contrasts the current Gaga passing through a paparazzi/fan frenzy with how she used to do it, and an underlying theme of sheer exhaustion is certainly evident, with being surrounded by people that want a piece of you, physically and mentally, then suddenly being alone. She struggles with being a role-model to legions of “Little Monsters”, expressing embarrassment when filmed suffering from another bout of debilitating pain. “Do I look pathetic?” she asks. One feels that a positive answer is a fate worse than death.

Is it an advert for Gaga? In a sense. While the film is at pains almost to draw a line between the Gaga of now and the Gaga of a few years ago, the one who wouldn’t step outside her door if she wasn’t wearing something altogether crazy, it still features plenty of product aggrandisement, constant references to the “Haus of Gaga” fashion line and certainly carries an overall feel of positivity towards the subject: perhaps, I regret to say, an inevitable result of Gaga herself being an executive producer. Moments of negativity here are few and far between, and all excusable: even when she blows up in rehearsal she does so in a manner that really makes her seem like the lone genius surrounded by dunces.

But then again, one cannot help but be affected by some of the lows here: Gaga gets her make-up done ahead of a medical procedure to tackle her debilitating pain problems, all while reacting to the fact that Joanne has been leaked early and downloaded by hundreds of thousands; while filming a music video, Gaga reflects on how every major professional moment in her life has had a corresponding romantic disaster; when prepping for the Superbowl, she has to make people understand that a complaint about a jacket lining is more than a diva moment, and a flaw that could sink the show.

Most of the cinematography here is handheld and acceptably basic, though there are a few moments of exceptional focus, such as the films sole example of letting Gaga sing a song to completion, a piano only version of “Bad Romance” at Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday. Other than that, it’s Gaga front and centre, allowed to talk as she wants. Five Foot Two has to be compared to Madonna’s Truth Or Dare, made around the same period as that singer’s career (Gaga’s comments on Madonna and their feud ring a little hypocritical at times), but there is a certain divergence in aim between the two productions: Madonna’s film is all about empowering the subject, Five Foot Two is a bit more obtuse.

It’s a perfectly watchable affair I suppose. If its goal is to give you an insight into how Gaga’s life is lived and how her process works and how she reacts to the fame, fortune and setbacks, then Five Foot Two does what it sets out to do. But, it could have gone further, done more, been a little less in love with the title character. Just like all concert/musician docs I suppose. Still, worth watching. Recommended.

gfft1

Rara Oh lala

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

Posted in Reviews, TV/Movies | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ireland’s Wars: The Lusitania

With the start of the First World War, many were expecting a titanic clash of the German and British navies, the race between the two for sea supremacy being one of the myriad of factors that the war had begun over in the first place. The commencement of hostilities had led to widespread fears that British maritime shipping would be easy prey for a ravenous German fleet, and that the sustainability of Britain as an island nation would be under threat.

Of course, this didn’t really come to pass. Despite German advancements in the size and scope of their fleets, the Royal Navy was still the predominate power of the waves, and it soon became clear that German naval leaders were uninterested in testing the might of their primary enemy. By November, the Royal Navy had begun a blockade of German sea ports that would eventually be a major factor in Germany collapsing in late 1918. It seemed as if the Kriegsmarine was unable to respond. At least, not traditionally.

Instead of the battleship, the Germans turned to the U-Boat, their version of the submarine. The Imperial Fleet had been experimenting with submarines for a while, and the first of their newer “U” models had been built in 1906. By 1915, it was hoped that the U-Boat fleet could do what the surface ships could not, engaging and destroying targets without ever being in danger of discovery themselves.

The faith in the U-Boats was somewhat misplaced. They carried with them inherent risk in their operation, and if successfully spotted in the process of attacking a ship, just about any vessel large enough could send it to the bottom of the sea with a speedy enough ramming, something the British military overtly encouraged civilian ships to do if they could (the Olympic, a sister-ship of Titanic, famously would do so in 1918). In other words, even a completely unarmed merchant ship could easily kill a U-Boat.

And merchant ships were on the target list. In early 1915 the German admiralty declared the entire area around the British Isles as an active war zone, meaning any British ship, military or civilian, was a fair target in their eyes if it was operating in the area. For a time, the Germans stuck to the old “cruiser rules”, whereby if a civilian ship was targeted, it’s crew were notified and given the chance to evacuate before the submarine opened fire. Neutral shipping was to be avoided if at all possible, especially American vessels: the last thing the Germans wanted was to antagonise the remaining neutral great power into joining the allies. The U-Boats commenced a campaign that would soon be sinking 100’000 gross tonnes of British shipping a month, and just around two ships a day, operating out of forward bases in Ostend, Belgium.

The RMS Lusitania was a Cunard ocean liner, laid down in 1904 and launched in 1906. It was one of the largest ships of its day, albeit not as large as, say, the White Star Olympic-class ships like the Titanic, though the Lusitania was designed to be faster. With crew and passengers, the Lusitania was the kind of ship that could carry nearly 3’000 people back and forth over the Atlantic, in trips of around five days each. The Lusitania was a busy ship, undertaking the crossing over 200 times in its eight-year career.

With the start of the war, the Lusitania had initially been pegged to be converted into an armed cruiser by the British government, who had helped offset the cost of her construction for just that reason, but her coal requirements and noticeable profile eventually made the Admiralty change their minds. She was re-painted to help make it less conspicuous on the waterline, but with the might of the Royal Navy showing, things became more relaxed as the crossings continued, albeit with business much slower. At times, the Lusitania was escorted by military ships inside the “war zone”, but was left to fend for itself elsewhere.

On the 1st May 1915, the Lusitania left New York on its 202nd crossing. 139 of it’s 1’265 passengers were American citizens. The German embassy in the States placed a newspaper notice warning any potential passengers of the dangers of travelling on the British ship, hoping, with a degree of prophecy, to avoid controversy if the ship did end up getting sunk.

The Lusitania was carrying over four million rounds of ammunition and a compliment of fragmentation shell casings, all declared on the manifest and all perfectly legal under American maritime law. Claims that the ship was carrying other explosive cargo for the British war effort have never been adequately proven. Shortly after the ship began the crossing, three German-speaking men were found hiding on board, and were detained on suspicion of spying on the ship’s cargo.

While the Lusitania went east, the German U-20 of Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger was on patrol around the British Isles, sailing around Scotland, into the Irish Sea, and then onto the south of Ireland. They found success on the 5th and 6th of May, sinking three merchant ships with a total tonnage of over 10’000. On the 7th, while sailing for home, they crossed paths with the Lusitania.

It was sunny day with good sailing conditions. The Lusitania crossed U-20’s path in the afternoon, and was recognised by its captain as a ship from the British Fleet Reserve. Around ten minutes past 2pm, he ordered one torpedo to be fired.

It struck the Lusitania on its starboard side, underneath the bridge. Another, larger explosion followed, the source of which has never been conclusively identified. Accusations that U-20 fired again are as uncorroborated as accusations that secret explosives in the cargo hold went up.

The reason that I am talking about this at all of course, is the location of the Lusitania when it was hit, which was little more than twelve miles from the Old Head of Kinsale on the Irish coastline. It was towards Ireland that the Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner, ordered the ship to be steered following the attack, but the ship was in no condition to sail anymore, losing power rapidly before sinking in quick fashion, barely 18 minutes after the first explosion. The crew and panicking passengers had barely anytime to organise the correct launching of lifeboats before the Lusitania went to the bottom, and so, whichever of the near 2’000 strong crew/passenger compliment made it to the outside of the vessel mostly wound up in the sea, as U-20 sailed off.

The nearest ports were on the Cork coast, and heard the Lusitania’s desperate last SOS messages. The problem was that most of boats in the nearest vicinity were local fishing vessels, most of them operating only an oar power. The few with motors were soon speeding to the scene, but for the majority the calm day proved a detriment to rescues efforts. The Irish sailors, joined by others from the Isle of Man, did what they could for those floundering in the sea and in the few lifeboats that had got underway, piling the injured and other survivors as much as they could and heading for shore, in some cases handing their passengers off to Royal Navy vessels also in the area.

But there was only so much they could so, saving 764 of the 1’962. Among the dead were 128 American citizens, and the three suspected spies, the truth about their presence on the Lusitania never to be found out. In the following days, Irish sailors had the grim job of fishing the dead out of the water, paying paid in cash by the Cunard line for the task. 289 bodies were eventually recovered, most being buried in Cobh.

The aftermath was messy. The British board of inquiry initially targeted the Lusitania’s captain for negligence in not following directives to avoid submarine attack, but he was eventually exonerated. Instead, the German government was given the blame, with accusations that two torpedoes had been fired being bandied about, thanks to suspect testimony from pressured crew members. American courts carried the same line, with neither London nor Washington choosing to make waves about the ammunition the Lusitania had been carrying. The Germans, naturally, denied any claims of war crimes or inhumanity, insisting that the war material the Lusitania was carrying, and its status as an “Armed Merchant Cruiser”, made it a legitimate target, and that the warnings previously made to passengers in New York left the German Empire blameless for the deaths of American citizens. Reactions among more left circles in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey were much cooler.

US President Woodrow Wilson was pressured from some quarters to immediately declare war on Germany, a result that British propagandists certainly wanted, using the sinking of the Lusitania for all that it was worth. But Wilson, reluctant to get the United State involved if it could be avoided, refused, instead following diplomatic channels to vent his own form of fury, essentially demanding that Germany alter its submarine strategy, something the reluctant Germany Navy acquiesced to later in the year, promising to refrain from attacks on vessels flying neutral flags. They would reverse this policy in 1917, one of the last blows on the road to the United States joining the war.

As for Schweiger and the U-20, neither would survive the war. Schweiger was pilloried by the international community following the sinking, and was killed in action on U-88 in 1917, while U-20 was beached and blown up on Danish shores the same year.

As for the Lusitania, the wreck remains around 12 miles off the coast of County Cork. Debate remains about that second explosion, what exactly the ship was carrying and whether the Royal Navy subsequently attempted to destroy the wreck. Regardless, the ramifications of what happened on that sunny May afternoon off the coast of Ireland, were felt for years to come.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Villain Checklist: Contrast With The Hero

We’ve had a look at various facets of what makes a good villain, but for the next two entries, we need to shift the goalposts a little bit, and take about the most important relationship that the antagonist has: that with the hero. And up first, we need to discuss the crucial things that differentiate the bad guy/girl from the hero. We need to talk about that necessary contrast:

Contrast With Hero – The villain must in some way, major or minor, be a direct contrast to the hero character.

This is, once again, story-telling 101, but you would be surprised how easily people mess it up, either through inability to understand what the contrast is important, or from a lazy effort to make blindingly clear that the two characters are different.

Suffice to say that it isn’t enough for, say, the hero to be poor and the villain to be rich, a common fall-back. It isn’t enough that the villain be a person of power and privilege, and the hero a lowly peasant. It isn’t enough that the villain control legions of pawns, and that the hero is alone in the world. Sure, these things can help, but they are a starting point for actual characterisation, not a substitute for it. The con-man is opposed by the detective. The supervillain is opposed by the superhero. The galactic dominator is opposed by the plucky farmboy freedom fighter.

The true contrast should be in the finer details. If the hero is an impulsive do-gooder, then the villain should be patiently intelligent, (what should we call that, the “Ned/Littlefinger” dynamic?). If the hero is a womanizing/man-eating Lothario, the villain should be cold and distant to the opposite sex. If the hero is a fundamentally decent person at heart, then the villain should be fundamentally indecent. And it doesn’t have to be something that speaks ill of the villain either. The detailed-oriented con-man is opposed by the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants detective. The supervillain with chip on his shoulder is opposed by the zen-like superhero. The galactic dominator with the abusive childhood is opposed by the plucky farmboy freedom fighter backed up by his loving family.

These are all just examples of course. But the key point is that, however major the contrast in personality and circumstances, the key contrast should be a little bit more small-scale and focused.

Let’s look at a few examples.

In A New Hope, the hero is Luke Skywalker and the villain is Darth Vader. The obvious contrast is that one is a backwater moisture farmer, and the other is the black clad Lord of the Sith. One is inherently good, the other seems inherently evil. But on a deeper level, we can also see a better contrast. Luke is somewhat innocent, naïve and trusting: he hooks up with Obi-Wan on a whim and a prayer, becomes obsessed with saving the princess, and only wants to be a hero and bring an end to the evil empire. Vader, on the other hand, in his torture of Leia, subterfuge in allowing the Falcon to escape and general scheming nature, showcases himself as someone both more conniving, and as someone much more experienced. That’s a good, deeper, contrast.

Consistency_Vader

Nice colour contrast in this scene too.

In contrast (ha!), Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace is a nothing character, and so it is hard to draw an effective contrast between him and the heroic characters (there being no single antagonist in Menace, one of the films key structural problems). Obviously, he wears black, looks scary and has a different lightsaber to Obi-Wan and Qui Gon, but what can we say about a deeper contrast? That Maul is impulsive and angry where the Jedi are not? Obi-Wan’s actions at the end don’t back that up. That Maul is submissive to Sidious, a tool, where the Jedi are not? But the Jedi are tools, of the Jedi Council, just a different kind of tool. When characters are this paper thin, there is little to contrast.

Goal_Maul

Good contrast here too. Consistency!

One of the greatest contrasts in comic books can be seen in The Dark Knight, where we have, on one hand, the grim serious dark-clad caped crusader, committed unerringly to his war on crime and the pursuit of justice. And, on the other, we have an insane clown, with a commitment only to chaos and his own twisted gratification. But the contrast goes deeper still, to the way that Wayne and the Joker respectively treat the people around them, and how the Joker uses that against Batman. For the Joker, everyone around him is either a fiddle to be played or a target to be hit, while Batman defines himself in the film by his efforts to help others – Reese, Dent, Rachel, Gordon, to name a few – a sort of dichotomy between civic duty and pointless manipulation.

intro_joker

Nice focus in this one.

Compare that to, say, Ronan in Guardians Of The Galaxy and the titular Guardians themselves. The immediate contrast is obvious enough: the dour, Gothic galactic overlord and the diverse superhero team with a penchant for glib humour and dancing. One’s a serious political player in the universe, and the other are just wanted criminals. But what’s the deeper contrast between, say, Quill and Ronan? Is it, again, that one uses people for his own ends and the other doesn’t? It’s not as pronounced or as cleverly done as it elsewhere if so. Is it the contrast between Quill’s concept of family and Ronan’s? In a way, though it’s really Thanos who is the more effective contrast in that regard.

distinct_ronan

No great contrasts here.

In the world of video games, consider Breen in Half-Life 2. On the face of it, the player character, Gordon Freeman, is a lone wolf-style freedom fighter compared to Breen’s planet-wide “administration”. Freeman is a man of direct action, Breen sits in his literal tower and sends other people to do the wet work for him. But the contrast goes deeper than that, to the simple fact that Freeman is a mute warrior who lets his guns and crowbar do the talking, while Breen does nothing but talk, his weapons being words, that he uses, at length, throughout the course of the adventure. In that, the creators of Half-Life 2 take one of the key traits of their hero, and use it a set-up to make a contrasting key trait for their villain.

Define_Breen

Technological contrasts!

On the other hand, take Fallout 3, that I recently finished (the main plot line anyway). You can argue about who the main villain in the game is, but for a karmically positive run, it’s President Eden and his subordinate, Colonel Autumn. Neither are especially well-presented and neither make for a good contrast with the kind of player character a karmically positive run will throw up. The Lone Wanderer wants to find his father and help the people of the Wasteland, the Enclave wants to enforce their will and wipe out those who suffer any kind of mutation. But what is there beyond that? Nothing much really. One of the two games discussed understands that even characters distant from each other can be effectively contrasted, whereas Fallout 3 they are just props to throw off each other.

Contrast_Autumn

Ugh.

For our last two, let’s look at a few things I have seen recently. In What Happened To Monday, the bad guy is Glenn Close’s “Child Allocation Bureau” head, who takes illegal siblings from their families and puts them into cryogenic storage as a sort of a plan to stop overpopulation. It’s…a bit silly. And Close’s character isn’t a good antagonist, and she doesn’t contrast well with the sisters who end up opposing her. She’s a power-hungry hypocrite and the sisters are more reserved, hoping only to survive. But beyond that, Close is in the film so little that there is hardly any chance to form any other kind of contrast, especially one of any deeper level.

WHTM3

Hila…I mean…

Lastly, I recently had the chance to re-watch X-Men: The Last Stand, that disappointing conclusion of the original X-Men trilogy. The film is so narratively incoherent that it’s a bit hard to seperate the heroes out to find one clear antagonist, but I guess that it really should be Wolverine, opposed by, naturally, Magneto. Magneto wants a future for mutant-kind, even if takes force to achieve, and Wolverine wants to…save Jean Grey I guess? As part of that weird romantic triangle sub-plot those first three films were blighted with? And sure, the cult-like leader Magneto and the lonesome Wolverine have that natural contrast, but the film isn’t interested in doing much exploring of other, deeper, contrasts, at any other point in the production.

Contrast_Magneto.png

“Ahhhhhhh”

So, that’s contrasts. But of course, in order for this relationship to work, there can’t just be contrasts, there must also be a level of parity. And that equality is what we will discuss next.

Posted in Reviews, TV/Movies, Villain Checklist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment