Firefly: Exposition Done Right (And Wrong) In “The Train Job”

“The Train Job”, as most Firefly fans know, had a troubled genesis.

Whedon and Tin Minear, naturally, wanted what became “Serenity” to be the show’s first episode. Fox, unhappy with the finished product for whatever reason, disagreed. And so, Whedon and Minear were forced to essentially write another pilot, one that had to be half the length of the first, in a rapid space of time.

The result of that process was “The Train Job”. It’s a good episode – hell, is there a bad episode of Firefly? – but the patchwork is evident all over the place, the signs of rushed writing and rushed production. As a new pilot, it works, but there are still a few problems evident.

One of these, ditched on the DVD edition but preserved on Netflix, is the opening narration. Over random shots of the series, Ron Glass utters the following:

After the Earth was used up, we found a new solar system and hundreds of new Earths were terra formed and colonized. The central planets formed the Alliance and decided all the planets had to join under their rule. There was some disagreement on that point. After the War, many of the Independents who had fought and lost drifted to the edges of the system, far from Alliance control. Out here, people struggled to get by with the most basic technologies; a ship would bring you work, a gun would help you keep it. A captain’s goal was simple: find a crew, find a job, keep flying. 

Glass is a good actor, but his delivery here is with all of the verve and enthusiasm of Harrison Ford on the infamous narration of Blade Runner, most notably the “There was some disagreement on that point”, a line clearly meant to be a little blackly comedic, but which actually sounds terrible in reality. A different version, narrated by Nathan Fillion, exists as well, but is little better.

One of the problems with it is that it’s just patently unnecessary, especially for a pilot episode. It’s flat-out telling you stuff about the universe that could be shown to the audience more subtly. Whether this was a Whedon idea or a studio requirement, it just simply does not belong.

And that’s even more obvious when you look at what directly follows this abomination, the opening scene of “The Train Job”, wherein Mal, Zoe and Jayne get into a bar fight on some backwater moon in the process of getting a job. Taking each line of the above as a reference point, I’d like to demonstrate how the same point is made in the actual show.

After the Earth was used up, we found a new solar system and hundreds of new Earths were terra formed and colonized.

In the course of the opening, it’s established that we are in the future – with Mal being thrown through a holographic window and the spaceship appearing – and that we are on a new world, by repeated references to the fact that the crew are on a moon of some kind. That, and the planets in the background of the outdoor shots. It’s done in a more natural fashion, with no attention being drawn to the plot points.

The central planets formed the Alliance and decided all the planets had to join under their rule.

The drunken bald guy at the bar makes the point about the Alliance far better. We know through his rant that a war was fought by an entity called “the Alliance”, and that it was fought for “unification”. The scene trusts the audience to get the picture, the narration doesn’t. In the context of it being “U-Day”, and this moron being a veteran of some kind, the set-up and the information flows better.

There was some disagreement on that point.

Ugh. Baldy makes clear that a war was fought, and it was against those who seemingly did not want “unification”.

After the War, many of the Independents who had fought and lost drifted to the edges of the system, far from Alliance control.

Baldy lets the audience know that the Alliance won the war, and Mal’s reaction to the “toast” lets us know that he was one of the losing side. The surroundings are enough to let us know that we are on the outskirts of civilisation, what with the sheet metal buildings and all. The brutality of the ensuing argument, where Mal, Zoe and Jayne come close to being murdered out of hand, and are able to scare off their attackers, also does the job of showing a place far from authority.

Out here, people struggled to get by with the most basic technologies…

While it is established that we are in a version of the future, the bar itself is a dimly lit ramshackle place, dark and dirty. Even Serenity doesn’t look all that great, a far cry from the sleek and shiny sci-fi future of something like Star Trek.

…a ship would bring you work, a gun would help you keep it. A captain’s goal was simple: find a crew, find a job, keep flying. 

As the opening scene attests, Mal has a ship, and he’s in the area to find work. In order to get out of these with said work, he has to be a little punch happy, though, of course, he is the one who initiates it. As the few moments before the opening credits show, as Mal takes on the bridge with the crew, here is a man and his workforce on the edge, happy to take an illegal job in order to make some money.

So, the opening sequence of “The Train Job” does the narrations job far better. But on top of that, it does a tonne of other stuff too. What is established, in order:

-The Asian/eastern influences in the society of the show (with the bellydacing, music, accoutrements of the bar, Chinese Checkers, and the use of the Chinese language).

-That the Alliance friendly people are the bad guys, at least relative to Mal and co (“Lund” and his behaviour)

-That Mal is the Captain of the group (Zoe calls him this).

-That Jayne is not very smart (“What month is it?”)

-Six years have passed since the war, and the Independents were “Browncoats” (“Six Years today, the Alliance sent the Browncoats running…”)

-That Mal is a smart Alec (“Your coat is sort of a brownish colour” “It was on sale”)

-That Mal has a certain way with words that might not be immediately obvious (“And I’m guessing you weren’t burdened with an overabundance of schooling…”

-That the crew are happy to be devious and underhanded (Mal distracting Lund so Zoe can brain him from behind).

-That Jayne didn’t fight in the war, and it isn’t super reliable (“Hey, I didn’t fight in no war. Best of luck though…”).

-That Wash is the pilot of the ship (Mal radios him to make a “grand entrance” with Serenity).

-That Mal, Zoe and Jayne can all fight with the best of them (holding off a large crowd and giving as good as they get for the most part).

-That the Unification War has obvious American Civil War allusions (“I’m thinking we’ll rise again”).

-That Serenity is an unarmed cargo ship (…can’t even tell a transport ship ain’t got no guns on it”).

-That Kaylee is the mechanic/engineer/tech person of the ship (she’s working on a console, and has the appearance of a grease monkey).

-The ship has additional crew we haven’t seen yet (“How are the passengers?”).

-That Kaylee’s a little idealistic and naive (the way she says “Was there a terrible brawl?”).

-That Zoe and Wash are married (“Are you getting my wife into trouble?”)

-That Mal has a chip on his shoulder over the war (the brawl, and Zoe’s reveal that Mal always looks for one on “U-Day”).

-That the crew are, happily, criminals (“…got us some crime to be done”).

Look at this list. Look at the extraordinary power of “Show, Don’t Tell”. It’s astounding, and what’s more, Whedon will basically do it again for the film, which I’ll get to in time.

But “The Train Job” does go back the other direction on more than one occasion. Shortly after the opening credits, Mal and Book share a conversation that is more obvious in its exposition and characterisation, especially for Simon and River. They had a nice scene just beforehand which helped set them up with a bit of subtly, but then you have Book pointedly stating why Simon should be sympathetic (to the audience, if it wasn’t obvious). From there, he probes Mal directly about his moral values in a rather clumsy way, before being as vague as he can be about his own reasons for being on the ship. At least it ends well, with a more natural sounding reveal of Mal’s antipathy towards religion.

Later, we get introduced to Niska who, while being fairly stand-out, is probably Firefly’s weakest villain in terms of characterisation. He’s essentially a Nazi, and with a lack of time to make him  a complete character, Whedon and Minear jumped straight into a brutal glimpse of torture and basic philosophising about reputations. And we never see him again in the episode, instead being relegated to the even emptier Crow as an antagonist. Whedon would get the chance to come back to Niska in “War Stories” of course, but in “The Train Job” he’s rushed.

Later still, right at the end of the episode in fact, there was another moment that I felt got fleshed out to an unnecessary degree. As Mal and Zoe bring back the stolen medicine, the local Sherriff essentially puts the full stop at the end of the episodes’ moral dilemma by enunciating it clearly, too clearly for my liking, when no words really needed to be said at all.

So, “The Train Job” has its strengths and it has its weaknesses. Considering the studio interference and very brief time the Whedon/Minear duo had to write the episode, the end product is still sterling work, but it is certainly in no way a better introduction to the series than “Serenity”.

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Review: Mr Holmes

Mr Holmes


Ian McKellen portrays an elderly version of the famous detective, and plays him well.

Ian McKellen portrays an elderly version of the famous detective, and plays him well.

I don’t think it is actually possible for the human race to become sick of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth, the most famous detective, fictional or otherwise, to have ever graced the pages of a book, or the small or big screens. Just as it seems that Holmes and Watson are no longer as culturally relevant as they once were, they pop back up in new and interesting ways. Within the last few years, Robert Downy Jr’s pugilist action hero raked in big bucks, Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern day incarnation made him a megastar, and Jonny Lee Miller’s New York based Holmes remains a staple of American network television.

Into the mix of these adaptations, all outracing the other to try and alter Holmes in different ways, comes Bill Condon and Ian McKellen, teaming up for the second time after 1999’s acclaimed Gods And Monsters. Though the tale of an elderly Holmes approaching a last mystery is not new, it is not something that has been tackled in a while, and in a world that has become seemingly obsessed with modernising Sherlock, I looked forward to an attempt to place him in a more appropriate time and place, and to the performance of the ever-great McKellen, an actor who rarely does any wrong. Would Mr Holmes prove itself an exception to his usual stirring record, and to the generally high quality of recent Conan Doyle adaptations?

In 1947, the 93 year old Sherlock Holmes (McKellen) has retired from his former life of solving mysteries and pursuing criminals, to focus on the apiaries of his countryside house, which he shares with struggling housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her precocious young son Rodger (Milo Parker). Returning from a trip to Japan with a rare plant he hopes will jog his failing memory, Holmes desperately tries to remember his last case, and what he must have done, or failed to do, that caused him to quit detective work altogether.

This isn’t your typical Sherlock story, as is made clear from the outset, as the elderly Holmes upbraids a young boy on a train for not knowing the difference between a generally peaceful bee and a much more dangerous wasp. Screen depictions of Holmes often portray him as separate from others and aloof, but not mean. But here is the very definition of a cranky old man, being bothersome for the sake of it, and seemingly annoyed with everything in life, save his bees.

Indeed Mr Holmes is at pains at times to mock those very portrayals of the famous detective, with Holmes decrying Watson’s imaginative retellings of his adventures and the various eccentricities – the pipe, the famous deerstalker, even the iconic address – as things her merely put up with that were very far from the reality of the actual PI. This is a story both different and similar to the sleuth we know and love, a film that shows a very different side of Holmes as we constantly look back to a more familiar figure.

Beyond anything to do with solving long forgotten mysteries and analysing clues, Mr Holmes is simply a story that is well trod but very emotive: that of an old man, once in proud control of his faculties, now slipping towards an inevitable and terrifying senility. Losing one’s mind is a terrible thing, and it is, perhaps, even worse for Holmes, having possession of one of the finest minds of his generation. There are many of us, myself included, who have suffered the heartache of seeing an elderly relative or friend go through this process, losing who they were because of the advance of age, and Mr Holmes will speak to those people, through its simple portrayal of a geriatric man scared of an encroaching blankness. Some of Mr Holmes’s best scenes are simply Holmes dealing with this problem, as he tries to remember his last case, or simply struggles to get out of bed without falling.

None better perhaps than Ian McKellen to play that role. His Holmes retains some of the key characteristics of other versions, old and more recent, but the McKellen stamp is also clearly to be seen. The Gandalf comparisons are unavoidable, and there is something a bit wizard-like in the knowledgeable but gruff Holmes, but McKellen gives him the right dose of desperate humanity at other moments, whether he is urging Rodger to treat his mother better or contemplating his infirmness.

Condon’s direction does a stellar job of letting McKellen do his thing. Condon has a gift for getting Holmes to dominate the frame, be it in medium or close-up shots, and some of best visual moments are when we really get to explore the aged Holmes’ face and the changes that are taking place there. No one else gets to challenge Holmes’ domination of the camera, but that fits with the kind of titanic persona that Condon is trying to create. But it always comes back to that frailty that is becoming apparent, like a statue of Ozymandias crumbling to dust in the desert.

But he is still Holmes, even if he is going to the ends of the earth to find ways to make sure this remains the case, his obsession with Japan’s “prickly ash” plant a recurring plot point. He can still, as young Rodger puts it, perform his “thing”, that fascinating talent for visual analysis and deductive reasoning, which makes Holmes Holmes. But determining why bees are dying, or where his housekeeper has been from the soot on her dress is one thing. That’s mere filler. What the audience wants from a Holmes story is genuine mystery, and Bill Condon supplies this through a series of flashbacks.

The relationship between Holmes and Milo Parker's Rodger is at the heart of the film's depiction of a detective trying to finish his life "with a sense of completion".

The relationship between Holmes and Milo Parker’s Rodger is at the heart of the film’s depiction of a detective trying to finish his life “with a sense of completion”.

One of Mr Holmes’s great strengths is how these flashbacks, to a dark case involving a grief stricken young wife and her aggravating husband, props up the plot, teased out to the appropriate degree, skilfully worked into the larger narrative as Holmes tries to piece together his failing memories, having to stop the retelling whenever the lights in his mind grow dim, usually at just the right point to hook the audience in a bit more. Those seeking the more traditional Holmes will find it here, that confident condescending private eye, investigating a seemingly disturbed woman with murder on her mind, with all of the associated flourishes and tricks, as Holmes finds reams of explanation and exposition in  the simplest details. But those wary of seeing the same old thing, as I was, will not be disappointed either. Because this is the case where Holmes did or witnessed something terrible, bad enough that it made him retire: the real mystery is in figuring out what this thing was, and in that exploration, Holmes’ last case takes a much darker and more philosophical tone, making it a true thinker by the time all of the secrets are revealed. Holmes presses on with his tale of this last case as a desperate search for himself, but it is clear long before the finish line that he may not like what he finds.

A secondary mystery revolves around another set of flashbacks, from Holmes’ time in a Japan just starting to recover from World War Two. Again, there is more than meets the eye to the offer of finding a plant famous for its medicinal qualities but frustratingly rare, and while much of this section of the narrative seems a bit sideshow upon reflection, there is still a fascinating contrast to be found between the iconically western Holmes and the land of the rising sun.

Much also comes back to Holmes and his bees, the insects sometimes being the only things that Holmes seems to profess any attachment towards. He seems to keep them just for the royal jelly harvest, to help with his senility, but there is a deeper obsession there. The apiary is like a portion of the world that Holmes still has a major stake in, treating the appearance of dead workers like a grisly murder that is of the utmost importance to solve.  Like the worry of his last case slipping away from his mind while remaining resolutely fixed there, the bees buzz around the outskirts of the narrative, a constant presence that must be cared for and maintained, lest they be lost forever.

The bees also allow for the evolution of the relationship between Holmes and Rodger, which is the cornerstone of the whole film. It’s fairly stereotypical stuff of course, the old man not far from death finding solace and companionship with a young boy. Rodger adores Holmes and see’s his history and his modern day apiary training as an escape from a humdrum existence under his widowed mother, who wants to move away from the area and seek opportunity in the city. So, a simple and natural conflict is created between the three. Holmes happy for an unlikely friendship and a chance to teach, Mrs Munro wanting her son to acknowledge more of the reality of the world, and Rodger stuck in the middle, being vied over by these contrasting viewpoints. This is Milo Parker’s first serious run out on the big screen, and is indicative that he might have good things to perform for us in the future. Child actors are too often unable to “bring it” when it counts, but Parker does, in a performance that lacks any OTT elements, but seems a much more realistic depiction of a prepubescent boy in such a time and place, caught between the last vestiges of childhood and the troubling onset of adolescent rebellion.

While it is nothing new to screens, the relationship between Holmes and Rodger evolves nicely, a paternal thing that stops short of all-out sentimentality. Holmes doesn’t want to be a father to Rodger, but he is lonely, a situation made clear in subtle tones and suitable dialogue. The relationship with Rodger also allows for a decent contrast with Mrs Munro, a woman who grows increasingly embittered with Holmes, who seems to represent the awful certainty of where she is stuck in life, caring for others who do not appreciate her.

If there is a strength to Jeffrey Hatcher’s adapted script and his direction in Mr Holmes, it is the way that this threefold path – between the primary flashbacks, the secondary flashbacks to Japan, and the “present day” interactions between the three principals – are balanced with each other. Condon seemingly has a knack for proper pacing and knowing when it is best to leave off one plot and jump to another. Mr Holmes contains no clipped moments, but takes its time with each scene and lets the characters and the setting breath, and with a contained enough running time, manages to blend everything together into an enjoyable whole. The film is a slow burner, as any good mystery story has to be, but not too slow. The revelations in the mysteries will satisfy, and while certain elements of the last act become a bit too expected and by the book, all the way up to the very ending, I don’t think audiences will be disappointed by the way that Mr Holmes turns out. Even in a tale that is showing a darker shade to the Holmes story, Mr Holmes remembers that it is still about that stirring central figure, and the best traditions of how his tales usually end.

A rich colour palette and some breathtaking wide angle shots bring this little strip of the English countryside to life, and do the same for flashbacks sequences sent in metropolitan London, its neatness belying its appearance as an untrustworthy memory, or ramshackle Japan, where the fires of Hiroshima are still burning. Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler’s work is exceptional throughout. The set construction is immense, with the little details, be they books, scientific instruments, clothes, writing materials or anything else, fill the background and make everything seem that much more vivid. With the buzzing of bees in the countryside or the bustle of crowds in London or the keening of survivors in Hiroshima, the places of Mr Holmes seem very much lived in, a triumph of “period” replication.

No text messages on the screen here or more hockey ways of showing the Holmes method, just old fashioned detective handiwork and workarounds, shown off with simple angles, quick cuts, reflective surfaces and passing trains and people. The hustle and bustle of these days is contrasted sharply with the solitude of the present day, where the main three characters are sometimes the only people onscreen. The “younger” Holmes in the flashbacks is created really well, standing as a marked contrast to the more ruined man that exists in the present day.

Mr Holmes also deserves some kudos for its two key female characters. Mrs Munro isn’t just a Mrs Hudson stand-in, she’s a three dimensional character with worries, cares, dreams and regrets, who wants desperately to craft the best life for her son and to keep him from any harmful dreams, haunted by the memory of a husband who stepped too far beyond his sphere. She’s a compelling woman, whose morose demeanour and parenting struggles adds a welcome dimension that was unexpected to Mr Holmes. Laura Linney’s role is less prominent than the promotional material made it seem, but she, like McKellen, has long moved past the point when she had to prove herself as an actress. Desperate, fearful and with a a certain air of sadness that must be so hard to find, Linney’s Munro serves as a suitable contrasting presence to Holmes.

The flashbacks to Holmes last case finish on a note largely unfamiliar to Holmes stories, but is satisfying nonetheless.

The flashbacks to Holmes last case finish on a note largely unfamiliar to Holmes stories, but is satisfying nonetheless.

And, in the flashbacks to his last case, there is the unfortunate Ann Kelmot, a woman left devastated by the medical failings and societal unfeeling of her time, that Holmes must investigate and, ultimately, attempt to save. While it is impossible to elaborate without ruining the true revelation, it is enough to say that Kelmot has hidden depths in  her plight, that are quite unexpected, with Hattie Morahan’s performance reaching a very noticeable height in her last scene. Mr Holmes is a film where women are secondary characters to be sure, but they are not placeholders or living props either, and showcase a humanity and believability that other recent Holmes adaptations have often failed to achieve.

Jeffrey Hatcher’s script, adapted from a novel by Mitch Cullen, is an understated but strong one. From the moment Holmes admonishes his young train passenger that wasps are “a different thing entirely” to bees, Holmes is written with power and purpose. Mr Holmes is a tale where Holmes, and not Watson, gets to narrate one of his mysteries, and the differences are subtle, but still noticeable. Holmes thoughts on the limits of fiction, the vulgarity of his imaginative persona and the tragic lessening of his mental prowess are all wonderful moments, but the script is perhaps at its best whenever Holmes is breaking out of this section of his personality, as he carefully explains the realities of detective work to Roger (“When a man comes to see a detective, it’s usually about his wife”), or playfully informs Mrs Munro that he has “never been bit” by teethless bees. The dynamic between Holmes and Rodger is a verbally strong one, as is that between Rodger and his mother, a decent replication of a fretful parent and a son on the verge of teenage years, clashing for the first time in a way that they previously had not.

Some brief spoiler talk follows.

-The contrast of an elderly Holmes with the aftermath of Hiroshima was inspired. You could really sense the feeling , as Holmes surveys the ashes, of his world fading away, to be replaced by a much harsher one. Late on, as Holmes arranges the stones to commemorate his deceased friends, it is very much like the closing of a chapter, and in a larger sense than just this story.

-I’m sure Holmes purists won’t be too enthused by the resolution of the primary mystery. That Homes should fail in that matter might rankle. But it made for a really fascinating character angle, the detective having to confront his own loneliness and mortality for the first time, and balking at a chance to alleviate them. A choice which, naturally, just leads to more disasters.

-I did like that tertiary mystery, with the attack on Rodger and Holmes figuring it out before Mrs Munro destroyed the insects out of rage. While hardly on the level of Moriarty, it was still a nice round question mark to be explored, and tied into the larger narrative nicely.

-Very enjoyable was the sequence featuring Holmes watching a filmed adaptation of his last mystery, where the title role was played by Nicholas Rowe, who played the lead in Young Sherlock Holmes back in the eighties. Very Basil Rathbourne.

-That one of the films key closing points should be discussing the true worth of fiction, as a source of escapism and comfort, was surprising, but provided a nice cap to the mystery regarding Umezaki’s father that comes up late enough in the film. Holmes is a man defined entirely by his fictional alter-ego, as Watson wrote it, and, in part, Mr Holmes is a story of how Holmes comes to recognise that the eccentricities he was imbued with aren’t such a bad thing really.

-The film has a fairly by-the-books happy ending, though of course Holmes is still an old man facing into his final days. But it is something he has come to accept, with his life’s work finished and still some things to live for. And that’s a nice happy message to go out on.

Spoilers end.

Mr Holmes seems very much a film about the difference between Holmes the legend and Holmes the man, with Condon wanting to explore the dissecting point of myth and memory. Holmes, in Mr Holmes, is a man who does not seem to be quite sure who he is anymore, or if, after his adventures started to become well known, he was ever the same person. For someone in that position, fiction becomes a monstrosity, a demon to be battled.

But the film then becomes the story of how Holmes realises that such a battle is an unwise one, especially as his current woes come from having rejected the reality of his last case.  Fiction has its many uses, myth is sometimes preferable to hard fact. In this, Condon crafts what I think is a very effective meta-narrative on Holmes and fiction. Sure, this is a tale about the “real” Holmes dealing with harsh realities. But in telling that tale, Condon seems to be urging his audience to have greater love and appreciation for the “popular” Holmes, the legendary detective, whose stories might be over the top and fantastical at times, but are ultimately a joyful example of the imagination doing good works.

On his own merits, the Holmes presented here, significantly different to other incarnations, stands up tall, in no small part to McKellen’s performance and the strong script attached. He’s a nice diversion from the usual Holmes depictions, one whose design will make deerstalker wearers appreciate their fictional hero all the more. Mr Holmes is a strange love letter to Holmes I guess, one that works when, in other hands, it might not have, with its cinematography and supporting cast aiding significantly in that effort. An enjoyable Conan Doyle style yarn mixed with a deeper analysis of the title character and his legacy, Mr Holmes can take a high ranking place in the larger canon of Sherlock Holmes works. Recommended.

An enjoyable take on an arguably over-used character.

An enjoyable take on an arguably over-used character.

(All images are copyright of Miramax).

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Ireland’s Wars: Wild Geese And Broken Treaties

Firstly, before discussing what came after, we need to look at the military situation, in Limerick and in the larger conflict, if we are to understand what occurred there in late September and early October.

The facts are simple: Ginkel’s Williamite army surrounded Limerick City from both sides of the Shannon River, covering all approaches, bridges and gates. They had a sizable enough force and a large amount of artillery. Inside Limerick, a large garrison, one poorly supplied with arms, powder and training, held the city still, with enough numbers to man most of the defences. Further, they had additional cavalry forces based northwards in County Clare.

The season was rapidly moving on, and poor weather was already having an effect on the siege. Ginkel’s Williamites would not be able to stay in the field for much longer: maybe as a short as a few weeks, or maybe a month, between the threat of rain, mud, disease and lack of supplies.

So, the question then becomes why, as so many Jacobite sympathisers have bitterly asked since, was Limerick surrendered?

The answer isn’t simple, but the reasons can be seen.  In the immediate context of Limerick, the Williamite crossing of the Shannon, the disaster on Thomond Bridge and the terrible relationship between the officers in charge of the garrison, not to mention its poor supply of guns and training, were all combining to destroy Jacobite morale, which had already taken a hammering over the previous few months. The Williamites kept winning success after success, and the Jacobite cause seemed hopeless.

In a larger sense, resistance could only be justified if there was a larger chance of victory. Yes, the Jacobite could have held out in Limerick that year, and forced the Williamites to extend the fighting into 1692. But to what end? More French reinforcements and supplies? They had not proven the gamechanger many had thought they would be before, and were in no way guaranteed.

The Jacobite cause was in bits. Its figurehead had fled the country, its armies were destroyed, and most of its territory lost. Extending resistance only made sense if the situation was recoverable and, more and more, the people left in charge of the Jacobite movement did not view it as such. In that case, would it not be getter to enter into peace negotiations before their last fortress was taken, before the last of their armed forces were killed or captured, so that they had something to bargain with? After all, the war was fought, largely, over the rights of Catholics in Ireland as much as putting James back into power. If there was still a chance to fight that battle, why not take it?

Many commentators then and since, have questioned why Limerick surrendered when it did, but it simply comes down to lack of belief that further fighting would have any productive end, for Ireland or for the people fighting. Personally, I can lay little criticism on the heads of those who had such a belief. The Williamite war machine was not something that the Irish could beat on their own, and the support they had taken from France had not been enough to balance the scales. It could have been different, but for a twist of fate at Aughrim, but counter-factual history cannot cloud reality.

In the aftermath of Thomond Bridge, a change in leadership occurred. Some sources paint this as a sort of coup, perpetrated by Irish officers over French, but it seems like the French were happy to relinquish responsibility for the defence into the hands of those who now sought a way out. Chief among those was Patrick Sarsfield, who would take a leading role in what would follow. On the 24th of September, shortly after taking command in Limerick (whether it was by force or not) he raised a white flag and arranged a ceasefire with the Williamites, in lieu of more complicated negotiations.

Those negotiations would eventually become much more than the surrender of Limerick, but a larger peace agreement to bring the war to a close. The talks lasted for over a week, between various Irish Catholic nobles and clergy on one hand, and Ginkel on the other, with all manner of issues, civil and military, being discussed. Forces on both sides held their breath, fearful of the talks breaking down and the fighting being resumed.

The eventual end product of these negotiations was what became known as the Treaty of Limerick. In military terms, it offered the remnants of the Jacobite military, those from ordered regiments anyway, the opportunity to leave the country with their arms and flags, to take Williamite arranged ships to France to continue serving James II there, an article that was even extended to rapparees. They could also take the opportunity to join the Williamites, which a minority did, or simply disband and head home. Those who choose to do so, and would submit to the rule of William and take an oath to that effect, would be free from persecution or land claims, or any prosecution for actions during the war. All prisoners of war, from both sides, would be released, and the surrender terms would be extended to every garrison still held by Jacobites.

The civil articles were just as lenient, to a truly surprising extent. Rights for Catholics to worship freely as they had under Charles II were upheld, along with protections from land seizure and prosecution. A new Parliament to make this all legal was ordered to be assembled, merchants had their livelihoods guaranteed, and a general pardon was offered for all who would submit to the terms of the treaty. Ginkel was desperate, for reasons previously discussed, for the fighting to stop, which might explain how generous the terms were. On paper, they were no less than what many Jacobites had been fighting for the whole time. The only problem was that it all depended on the victorious Williamites for implementation.

Signed on the 3rd of October 1691 by the leading figures of both sides, the treaty marks the end of the War of the Two Kings.

An overall death toll for the conflict is a little hard to find, as records for this war are especially negligent. Gigantic battles took place, but more lives were lost in sieges and in guerrilla warfare, not all of which was properly recorded. With the relatively short length of the war and small number of large scale engagements, it is not improper to suggest that the overall tally was not especially large by the standards of the wars fought in Ireland during the 17th century. Looking over battle and siege losses, I can give a very general estimate that somewhere in the region of 25’000 to 30’000 people died in the fighting, but this must be added to by the accompanying factors with war: disease, starvation from bad harvests, civilian atrocities etc. With those added, it is possible that the true cost of the war might have been double that number. We’ll never really know for sure, but Ireland avoided the demographic catastrophe of the last bout of political violence.

Thousands of Jacobites, maybe as many as 14’000 along with scores of women and children, took boat for France, among them the likes of Patrick Sarsfield, in an event known afterwards as the “Flight of the Wild Geese”, these men to take up arms in the service of many foreign Kings, chief among them Louis XIV and his recently formed “Irish Brigade”. Like the “Flight of the Earls” just under a century previously, it was watershed moment for Ireland. Here was large proportion of Irish Catholic gentry and manpower leaving the country, never to return. Those that were left, the disbanded Jacobites and Catholic civilians, now had to live under confirmed Williamite rule, as what garrisons and lands still in Jacobite control – large parts of Mayo, Cork, Kerry and Limerick primarily – changed hands.

Limerick was forever bound up in its history with the War of the Two Kings, the two sieges contested there among its most famous moments. Indeed, the city’s modern nickname, “the Treaty City”, its population known sometimes as “Treatyites” (maybe just for GAA season though) comes from that period, and one of its most enduring symbols is the Treaty Stone, the large rock that the treaty itself was allegedly signed on, which still lies placed near Thomond Bridge.

Of course, Limerick has another nickname, one less used, but no less notable: “the city of the Broken Treaty”.

Because the treaty was broken, and quickly too. Elements of the English Parliament were outraged by its leniency, and worked against it from the start. When the Irish Parliament was resurrected, dominated by Protestants who had little time for Catholic rights and land protection, most of the civil articles were never ratified, and Catholic representation was gutted by an insistence that an Oath of Supremacy, as well as Allegiance be taken, essentially an oath that called for the taker to renounce Catholic teachings. The early days of this Parliament were full of dispute, suspensions and sectarian back and forth, with the end result being the beginnings of what would be known afterwards as the “Penal Laws”, a set of legislative decisions that upheld the largely already existent Protestant ascendency, stripped rights and legal protections from Catholics and did as much as the previous years of war in creating an atmosphere of ever-lasting animosity between the Christian divide.

But this series is about military affairs, and the effects of the Penal Laws on Ireland are for another conflict and another post. For now, it is enough to offer a brief biography for the key surviving figures of the War of the Two Kings, in the aftermath of the conflict.

Richard Hamilton, one of the leading Jacobite officers early in the conflict, had been captured before the end of the war, travelling to France to join the exiled court of James II when the conflict was over. Caught up in numerous plans for James’ restoration and other schemes, he eventually fell out of favour, dying destitute in a convent in 1717. Conrad de Rosen, the French general who had been unable to make a dent in Londonderry’s defences, returned to France, fought more campaigns, gained more promotions, before dying at the ripe old age of 87 in 1715. James FitzJames, the Duke of Berwick, followed his father into exile and spent decades fighting in the armies of Louis XIV, winning many battles and creating a tremendous martial reputation in numerous wars. He was killed by cannon fire at the Siege of Phillipsburg, Germany, in 1734.

Patrick Sarsfield joined the army of Louis XIV and fought in Flanders for a few years, before being mortally wounded during the Battle of Landen in 1693 while leading a cavalry unit. Dying a few days later, his final words are often held to have been “Oh, that this were for Ireland”. He was 33.

Percy Kirke, who led the relief fleet that saved Londonderry, died campaigning in Flanders in 1691. Charles Schomburg, who taken the place of his deceased father, continued to fight for William in Europe after his time in Ireland came to an end. Like his father, he died in battle, at Marsaglia, Italy, in 1693. The Duke of Marlborough would go on to become one of the most famous soldiers of his time, and an icon in British military history. Fighting in Europe against France numerous times, his most famous victory might be that of Blenheim in 1704. Endlessly controversial, he fell in and out of royal favour over the course of his career, and died in 1722.

Godert de Ginkel received a cavalcade of praise for his role in closing out the war in Ireland, from both the King and Parliament, despite some apprehension over the Treaty he helped to craft. Granted large estates in Limerick as well as the titles “Earl of Athlone” and “Baron of Aughrim” in recognition of his services, he went on to serve the Williamite cause again in the Low Countries numerous times, dying in 1703.

Louis XIV, “the Sun-King”, is one of the most famous monarchs in history, reigning for an astonishing 72 years, up to his death in 1715. Under him France was, perhaps, the greatest power of its day, and Louis himself has become the poster-boy for absolutist rule during the period.

And then there are the two men who give their titles to the War of the Two Kings. William would reign as King of England, Scotland and Ireland for another 11 years. His war with Louis in Europe, that always dominated his thinking, was brought to an end in 1697, though conflict flared again between the two a few years later. His wife and joint monarch, Mary, died of smallpox in 1694, and William’s popularity suffered somewhat as a sole ruler, though he was able to create a working relationship with Parliament. In March, 1702 he suffered a bad fall from a horse that had tripped over a mole burrow – an animal Jacobite supporters toasted ever since –breaking his collarbone and then coming down with pneumonia, from which he died, aged 52. Lacking any children, he arranged for the crown to pass to his sister-in-law, Anne.

And what of James? He continued to live in exile, on the charity of Louis XIV, assembling a court and continuing with efforts to achieve a restoration, though none were successful. Following the peace agreed between William and Louis in 1697, the French King ceased pushing James’ claim to the throne of England, but agreed to let James live in France, and even tried to get him elected as the King of Poland. In his final days, James lived as an penitent, and spent much of his time advising his eldest son, James also, on how to properly govern England when and if he regained the crown for the Stuart line. James suffered a brain haemorrhage and died in September, 1701. He was 68. The Jacobite cause would long outlive him.

A summary of the War of the Two Kings will come next week.

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

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, Limerick, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Firefly: Mal And Simon’s Heroic Journeys In “Serenity”

If I had to pick the two central characters of Firefly’s pilot, they would be Mal (obviously) and Simon, though Simon doesn’t really come into his own until the second half of “Serenity”. The two share numerous scenes and moments of verbal sparring, coming to blows twice, and face their own mini-arcs into becoming heroic characters. Both of these arcs share a common trait, which is that of a rising hero: Mal and Simon are initially presented as men more inclined to reasonable act than pulling guns, but eventually face unavoidable fight or flight instances that showcase some of their inner assets.

When the second half of “Serenity” kicks into gear, we’re somewhat established with both Mal and Simon. Mal is a haunted war veteran, bowed under with the pressure of offloading an illegally salvaged cargo and keeping his ship flying. Three times, we’ve seen him run away from trouble without offering much fight at all. Simon, a more mysterious figure, is a man with a dark secret, willing to barter the life of Kaylee to escape from Alliance justice.

As previously discussed, Simon is quickly made into a more sympathetic figure, with the reveal of River and his monologue on her story, escape, and the siblings’ hope of finding a safe place to get away from the Alliance maniacs who messed with her brain. Mal, not terribly impressed, describes it simply as “a tale of woe. Very stirring.” The two men were already cast against each other because of Kaylee, and Mal isn’t letting go of that, threatening to murder Simon if Kaylee doesn’t pull through.

This decision doesn’t sit too well with anyone on the ship, and numerous conflicts bubble to the surface in the babble that follows: the things left unsaid between Mal and Inara, Zoe’s loyalty to the captain and how this doesn’t sit well with Wash, Jayne’s general stupid bloodthirstiness, Book’s refusal to stand by and see killing happen.

Mal walks away, running from conflict again, but is accosted by Simon. This scene in the hallway is an odd one, which I guess was shot early in production. The dialogue isn’t delivered as well, the camera is weirdly shaky and the whole scene itself seems rather unnecessary, just a rehashing of the Mal/Simon conflict, complete with Mal laying him out for the second time in ten minutes. Simon is full of bluster and bravado here for a moment, taunting Mal to an extent that is both uncharacteristic and sort of crazy, but is put in his place firmly.

There follows a cooling off period. Mal leaves Dobson to Jayne’s whims, and later has a passive reaction to the Reaver ship that comes perilously close. Neither moment is untoward or unwise – the first planned, the second the optimum reaction – but again shows Mal as a man seemingly unlikely to be proactive in his own defence. Simon is much the same, having nothing to do but stand by River during the Reaver moment. Later, the first hints of the cooling between Mal and Simon are borne, and by who else but Kaylee, who in an adorably drugged up state, insists that Mal remember that Simon would never have actually let her die.

The second confrontation occurs in the next scene, a sequence that has a very noticeable swing between drama, maudlinity and comedy. This time it’s Inara getting between the two men, much to Mal’s annoyance. On the catwalk, Mal is suddenly letting loose in a more emotional way, demanding answers of Simon about the fate of Dobson, before dropping the horrifying news that Kaylee has died, heavily implying that Simon is next. Cue Simon’s slow-mo rush to the infirmary and the sad music, only to discover Mal has been playing him for a chump.

It’s a weird practical joke, and maybe I don’t think it works as well as I used to. Mal and the crew are in a dire situation, so you’d think they wouldn’t have time to be pulling this sort of stuff off, but I it does show the more overtly lighter side of Mal and the other chief crewmembers, hamming it up in the bridge afterwards. This second confrontation between the two men could also be seen as a test of Mal’s for Simon, whom he is starting to acknowledge in friendlier terms already, noting the fine job he did patching up Kaylee. Maybe Mal wants to question Simon’s mettle with the talk of Dobson, though the results are iffy.

Anyway, Mal has other things to think on, namely making the deal with Patience. It all goes swimmingly. Too swimmingly, leading to Mal’s outward show of frustration with the ships’ current run of luck. Mal could still walk away, dump the cargo and try to find other means of employment, but he won’t lower himself to “begging for Alliance make-work”. You get the sense of a man who did not buy this ship just to be a criminal, but has been forced into it by necessity, and now even that isn’t working out, much to his irritation. All Mal wants is to do the job and get paid. The plan is going ahead, indicating a more proactive, in-your-face style of leadership from Mal.

The finale of the episode then takes place both on Whitefall and on Serenity, with both Mal and Simon showcasing a more obvious kind of heroism and courage. For Mal, just making a stand is enough, as Jayne openly questions whether he will actually refuse to flee in the face of Patience’s likely assault. Mal is poetic in this moment, remarking that the reason why they are special is because everyone else always has an advantage over them. The resulting deal, in a place that looks an awful lot like Serenity Valley, perhaps meant as a tie-in, perhaps just budget constraints, is a tense one.

Meanwhile, back on Serenity, Dobson gets free and takes River hostage, directly threatening Simon’s very raison d’être and forcing him to be more of a direct hero than before, with the added spice of a Reaver induced time limit on everything happening.

The deal with Patience predictably goes south, and there is a moment, between Mal throwing the money back to her and the shooting actually starting, that you think Mal might actually leave it be and walk away again. Certainly, the man that we have seen thus far, choosing discretion over valour numerous times, we might well expect to not force the confrontation.

For Mal, killing is the breaking point. He openly tells Patience that there is no need for it, essentially implying that they can all go their separate ways. But Patience isn’t going to settle for that. That last constraint removed, Mal happily initiates a gunfight, firing the first shot, and refusing to be pushed around anymore.

The resulting battle is short and to Mal’s advantage, though he is careful not to go too blood-crazy, shooting bad guys in the leg, and looking rather annoyed when he is forced to shoot Patience’s horse to take care of her. But at the end of everything, all he does is take his money and leave, Patience granted her life. Mal enunciates his feelings clearly, with sarcasm mixed in:

Now I did a job. I got nothing but trouble since I did it, not to mention more than a few unkind words as regard to my character so let me make this abundantly clear. I do the job. And then I get paid. Go run your little world.

If Mal has another defining statement, one for the end of an episode, this is it. This is all that he wants out of life.

Back on the ship, Simon performs a death defying leap from Serenity’s catwalks in order to get the literal drop on Dobson, a moment of unabashed physical courage and danger that is an unexpected as it is thrilling. The Simon we’ve seen so far is no action hero, but still flings himself into the fray willingly. The man willing to do this is no measly antagonist, it’s someone that we can get behind.

Held at gunpoint, Dobson tries to talk Simon down, and it’s here that some of Simon’s established weaknesses do start to show again. In the spur of the moment, he can make brutal decisions, but with his enemy given the time to speak, Simon starts losing his resolve, reminded that he comes from the core of civilisation and doesn’t have it in him to be a killer. This weakness – because it is a weakness, out here on the edge of the universe – allows Dobson to get the upper hand again. So, while Simon might be a slightly more heroic person than he was a moment ago, he’s still the same established character.

And just in the nick of time comes Mal up the gangway, shooting Dobson in the eye before the lawman can even finish his sentence.  The casualness of this moment is meant to be more than a little comedic, an Indiana Jones reference of sorts, but also carries a deeper meaning. The proactive heroic and “shoot first” Mal that came into being before our eyes in the showdown with Patience is here now, and he doesn’t have time for this nonsense in his cargo bay, lawman or no lawman. Down goes Dobson, an inconvenient problem that has to be dealt with, and fast, what with the Reavers swooping down any minute. No more Mr Nice Mal. Here is the deadly, uncompromising protagonist of Firefly, still sympathetic (because who is going to sympathise with Dobson?), but a man we now know is not to be messed with.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if it might not have been better for Simon to kill Dobson, even if it was more a reflex pulling of the trigger than a cold-blooded decision to open fire. That could have marked his transition into uncivilised territory, while tying back into Mal’s probe of earlier as to whether it would be Simon “taking care” of the Dobson problem. But maybe it’s better this way. Simon is no killer, but Mal is, and in a way Mal’s shooting of Dobson adds an additional layer to this. Mal deals with Patience and her gang with violence because he is forced to it. Dobson isn’t directly threatening Mal when he dies, but he is threatening innocents. Mal isn’t going to stand for that.

Mal and Simon, their respective journeys having intertwined significantly throughout “Serenity” share the final scene of the episode on the bridge. Mal offers Simon, and by extension, his sister, a place on the crew, crucially noting that, while Simon’s intelligence is still up in the air as far as he is concerned, he isn’t weak. This is something that Simon has proven, not least with that leap onto an armed Dobson. Mal is a man who, while he might not like Simon very much, can appreciate strength in numerous forms.

Simon remains suspicious, that Mal is going to turn around and kill him someday when he isn’t looking, a declaration that is surely fed by Mal’s shooting Dobson in such a cold fashion. Mal isn’t having any of it, confidently declaring that if he ever shoots Simon, Simon will be facing him and armed, a moment that seemed, to me anyway, to be foreshadowing something in the future, though we never got to find out.

Both men then leave this last conversation satisfied. Simon has found a relatively safe place for him and River, Mal and his ship are “still flying”, something Mal declares to be simply “enough” just before the credits roll. It’s the simple rewards for Mal and Simon then: a roof over the head and the ability to keep moving forward.

Here are Firefly’s two primary heroes then, one a space cowboy gunslinger with a conscience, though it won’t trouble him too much on occasion, the other a civilised man on the run, and experiencing a very different world. In the course of “Serenity”, especially it’s second half, we see them grow into those hero roles in different ways, through physical courage and mental resolve, and prove themselves the kind of protagonist that Firefly can base itself around: compelling, understandable, sympathetic, brave in the face of villainy and danger, and, most importantly of all, through the confluence of all these things, human.

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Review: Jurassic World

Jurassic World


Guess who the better characters in this scene are. The answer might surprise you.

Guess who the better characters in this scene are. The answer might surprise you.

Should I start by listing off a cavalcade of praise for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park? Is it really necessary? It should suffice to say that it is one of the few films that genuinely earned the moniker of “iconic”, a 5-star storytelling effort, which mixed the best parts of a monster movie with fascinating characters and emotive script.

And the resulting franchise wasn’t too bad either. The Lost World took things in a dark direction but proved a satisfying sequel, and even the maligned Jurassic Park III, in my opinion, was a nice jaunt through the territory of modern day dinosaurs. But with that film the pre-historic animals went silent again, and have for 14 years, while a fourth instalment struggled through development and pre-production hell, undergoing a large amount of re-tooling (I believe the original idea was for an adult Lex from Jurassic Park to face an breakout of dinosaurs on mainland America).

The end result is this, with Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Trevorrow at the helm, with the writing team behind the recent Planet of the Apes reboot/prequel series. Trailers were easy targets for mockery and generated a sense of dread in me, but could Jurassic World prove itself a worthy addition to a franchise that, like the dinosaurs it contains, should perhaps have been left alone?

Decades after the disastrous end of John Hammond’s vision, “Jurassic World” is a functional theme park experience, giving thousands of people daily a look at genetically engineered dinosaurs, run by icy career women Claire (Dallas Bryce-Howard), who views the arrival of her nephews (Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson) as a distraction from pitching to investors about the park’s latest “asset”. After “Indominus Rex”, a gene-spliced creature with abnormal intelligence and abilities, gets loose and starts wrecking havoc, Claire turns to Owen (Chris Pratt), an animal handler working with the island’s velociraptor population, to get a handle on the situation, while militant Ingen rep Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) plots a more extreme solution.

I think I have stated before, in the case of reboots/sequels/remakes etc, that it is important not to go too overboard in comparing the newer film with its predecessor, since this often results in skewed perspectives and staked decks. But, it is also fair to do some amount of comparing and contrasting, because that is the nature of franchises, where later films attempt to build on what came before.

There is a scene in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, where the Alan Grant and Ellie Satler characters first see the dinosaurs that John Hammond has created. It’s a powerful moment, where the CGI gets shown off for the first time, and John Williams’ majestic score adds something remarkably important. But, more than that, the scene resonates strongly for other, simpler reasons. Sam Neill’s Dr Grant is almost moved to tears by the sight of some herbivore behemoths, and how their unlikely existence allows him to answer questions that have focused the entirety of his academic life, summed up in those two beautifully delivered lines: “They’re moving in herds. They do move in herds.” The scene then works on a spectacle level, with the introduction of the dinosaurs, and on a very human, character-driven level: we see how much this means to someone like Grant, and so the existence of the dinosaurs has a much bigger impact on the audience than “Oh, cool!” Throw in the score, and you have something truly iconic. It is one of those few scenes that might actually be perfect.

Jurassic World, in its entire 130 minute running time, cannot even entertain the slightest possibility of creating a similar moment. And when it comes to comparisons, I suppose there is no greater blow I can deal to the film. We are looking at an addition to a franchise that is so empty, so hollow, when it comes to crafting such majestical moments of visual story-telling, that even I, loath to fall into such sentiments, could only feel briefly annoyed that Jurassic World was even made in the first place.

I mean, this is a film that, right from the off, is overly concerned with both satirising itself and in mocking the very audience who have given it such a gigantic box office opening. Early on, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character expands on the philosophy of both the titular park and the film itself, actually looking right into the camera at one point, as she talks about the necessity for bigger, scarier dinosaurs, more teeth, more claws, more “Wow factor” because people just aren’t interested in humdrum normal prehistoric beasts anymore, they want spectacle, they want explosions and CGI armies and women in their underwear and camera panning around characters and…

Whoops, went off track there. But that’s the impression Jurassic World gives, of both satirising and excusing itself, by throwing the blame for what is to follow back at the audience who is paying for the privilege of watching it. If only the visitors to Jurassic World would be happy with normal dinosaurs. If only the people in the theatre would be happy with normal dinosaurs. Those stupid tourists. Those stupid film watchers. This is the second film recently, after Brad Bird’s similarly distasteful audience haranguing in Tomorrowland, to take a few shots at the punters, and it’s as insulting this time around as it was then.

There he is, looking all cool.

There he is, looking all cool.

With its philosophy and opinion of the audience laid bare, Jurassic World proceeds, lifting elements from Jurassic Park at every turn and acting as if they are different. The park is back, and no one is being careful enough. Disaster occurs. Dinosaurs run amok. Two adorable siblings are caught up in the middle of it. Drama in the “control room”. The T-Rex stand-in doing T-Rex things. People get chomped on. The velociraptors are smart. An Ingen employee sabotages things. The old park and its logos, jeeps and banners is stumbled upon, for added nostalgia goodness. Jurassic World gives things a fresh coat of paint and alters elements here and there, especially in its last act, but never gets away from the plain reality: it is less a sequel than a soft reboot, appropriating whatever it can from the Spielberg masterpiece and passing it off, unsuccessfully, as its own, be they plot points, characters or visual shots. It’s clear that Trevorrow loves Jurassic Park. The problem is that he loves it too much, and just wants to recreate it, and so the chance for a more worthy production, one that takes the franchise to new places, is lost. At least The Lost World and Jurassic Park III played around with different premises.

There are a lot of problems to Jurassic World beyond that though. A key one, something whose importance I have only recently come to understand, is that it lacks a clear main character (What shall we call this, “The Phantom Menace Problem”?). Owen, Claire and the kids all stake a claim to the top spot, but notwithstanding the promotional material that gave Chris Pratt most of the focus, the actual film can’t decide who its main character actually is, screen time and presence split between them all nearly evenly. That’s OK for a TV show, but not for a film, where narrative strength and audience engagement suffers greatly when you try and make sure everyone gets equal time, especially in an action adventure. The end result is that everyone just seems emptier. Pick one: the boss, the animal handler or the kids. Alan Grant was the main character of Jurassic Park, with everyone else and the plot revolving around him. Sure, Spielberg cut away at times to Hammond or Muldoon, but it always came back to “Grant encountering the dinosaurs”, “Grant saving the kids”, “Grant getting back to the visitor centre” Grant escaping the velociraptors”. Then Jeff Goldblum took up the mantle for The Lost World, and Grant returned for III. It can be done, and Trevorrow didn’t do it, and part of me must wonder whether this basic failure of story-telling might have a bit to do with his very short CV.

Let’s have a look at the character journeys as they exist, starting with the top billing. Chris Pratt’s Owen is a rather lifeless action hero, rugged looking and only occasionally charming, his personality failing to mesh at all with the Claire character, even as they bait each other over an aborted romantic entanglement sometime earlier in their lives. There was nothing about Owen that made him all that noteworthy: his back-story is drip fed to the audience and altogether basic, and he is defined almost entirely by his relationship with the velociraptor pack, who bizarrely become more interesting characters than him. His training moments with those animals were the only times I was interested in Owen, but it didn’t amount to that much in the end. Owen is in the film to occasionally look cool, pull off an action stunt and be the voice of reason when things get more militant, but there was nothing he did in plot terms that made him extraordinarily vital.

As a comparison, think of the introductions of Owen and Alan Grant. Owen barely stares down some velociraptors when they nearly kill a park employee, and that was fine. But Grant? He gets a moment where his authority as a subject on dinosaurs is made absolute, his presence over others, in that case an obnoxious kid, is made crystal clear and where he can outline why velociraptors are terrifying without them even being onscreen. Further, we learn that Grant dislikes children and technology, and it all happens naturally. In Jurassic World, Owen has to have an exposition filled conversations with the Hoskins character to make similar points.

I’ll limit the comparisons from now on. But you start to get the message.

The Claire character is a bit more interesting, but had the potential to be more. OK, she’s a bit of a stereotype, this career woman with the icy demeanour who has no time for family when there is business to be done, etc. But Jurassic World at least propelled her on a character arc where she changed, unlike Owen. Now, the change was largely hackneyed or convenient, but at least it occurred. On the face of it, Claire is a strong female character, a competent executive and later a capable woman who aids in the fight back against the rampaging dinosaurs, albeit without the same level of pro-active participation as Owen.

But man, there is something deeply unsettling about other elements of the Claire character and her arc. Trevorrow and his film are at pains to present Claire in a negative light when it comes to her prioritising her career. She ignores her nephews and her sister, and later, shock horror, expresses resistance to the idea of having children herself. Later, ignoring the actual people dying, her maternal instinct seems to be jolted by the sight of dead diplodocuses, and the fact that her nephews are in peril. That, and disaster-fuelled romance with Owen helps this whole thing along.

I don’t think you have to be a rabid feminist to roll your eyes at this kind of thing, it’s far too simple and basic. But the subtext is actually worse than that. Not counting the dinosaurs themselves, Jurassic World has two other additional female characters. Claire’s sister is another business woman, late for meetings and stressing out, while prepping for an imminent divorce. Uh huh. And there is another, an employee of Claire’s, another woman with a job who seems disdainful of children (and who bitches on the phone about her fiancée). Sorry to spoil, but she meets a rather terrible fate.

Colin Trevorrow, what the hell? Of all the sexist messages to imbed in the narrative, “Woman shouldn’t have careers” is the one that sticks, repeated three times over, too many times for it to just be coincidence. Seriously, what the hell? How was that allowed to happen? The warped gender politics on display here, where women having careers and not being capable of “having it all” is portrayed unquestionably as a negative, and that gets punished, dominates the Claire arc and the larger film, and its abhorrent.

Owen and Claire share a very worthless romance plot, which seems to exist, in the finest Hollywood tradition, because it just sort of has to. Only, you know, it doesn’t. Jurassic Park didn’t have a love plot, it had Ian Malcom flirting openly with Ellie Satler and her playing along without anything developing, you know, like believable characters. The Lost World had a more overt one, but it didn’t dominate proceedings in any way. III ditched it. And guess what? None of those three films desperately required a love plot. But Trevorrow and his scriptwriters tossed one in, and it’s so formulaic, from the catty bitchiness and recalled meet cute, to the ending you can all already envision in your minds, that it’s very existence drags Jurassic World down yet another notch.

Business Heels herself.

Business Heels herself.

So, Jurassic World won’t be winning any awards for its female characters, and that goes double for Claire. Much has been said, usually mockingly, of the way she goes through the entire film, jungle and all, in high heels, which is stupid enough. But I’m surprised people have been willing to ignore the moment when, as Owen questions her attire for a trek through said jungle, she proceeds to take off her nice jacket and wrap it around he waist. The decision changes nothing really, save that it, and the camera position at that moment, make Bryce Dallas Howard’s breasts more prominent, causing me to scoff so loudly in the theatre I’m surprised no one shushed me. It’s not Star Trek Into Darkness bad, but it is in the same area.

But it is genuinely not all bad, with the third major thread, that of the two kids, being a bit more enjoyable, even if it is largely a rip-off of Jurassic Park. Gray and Zach have a nice changing dynamic as the film progresses, Zach being the distracted teen more concerned with chatting up girls and Gray being the precocious, awkward kid, who is perhaps the only character genuinely wowed by the dinosaurs.

That’s all boilerplate, but the good thing is how things change. Zach becomes enraptured by the dinosaurs too. Gray expresses fear over his parents divorce, in what might have been the film’s best character driven scene. Zach changes his attitude and tries to cheer his brother up (you know, like a three dimensional character would). They become closer through the resulting crisis. There isn’t anything revolutionary in any of this, but it’s in comparison o the other characters of Jurassic World and their lackadaisical journeys that it actually happens to shine. Weirdly, unexpectedly, I feel like Jurassic World would have been a much better film if the two kids had been made the main characters, lost in the park gone awry, and trying to survive until rescued. They were the characters who I actually became engaged with, and the two actors helped immensely, having a much better fraternal chemistry than Pratt and Howard had romantic.

But once you get beyond these three central arcs, it’s back to the stupidity. Jurassic World, in its second half especially, pivots around Hoskins and his rather mental series of decisions and mistakes. Trying to wrap my head around his plans and expectations didn’t just suck me out of the film, it landed me in the car park outside the cinema. Hoskins dream is to replace US military drones with velociraptors, which are clearly superior. Why? Well, they can’t get hacked, and are scary looking. Unfortunately, no one points out that raptors also need to be fed, can’t fly, and can’t fire missiles. Oh, and that Hoskins, from the moment he opens his mouth, is a clownish moron, with no genuine sense of menace or peril created.

His antagonist role and the stupidity surrounding it – “Weapons! Progress! I set my pet wolf on my bitch of a wife once! Bibble!” – is only the most obvious problem with the minor characters and supporting cast, who pop up as required and disappear just as quickly. The park is owned by a billionaire made to be described as “eccentric” because he flies a helicopter and thinks normal dinosaurs are cool. Henry Wu, the only returning character from Jurassic Park, is transformed into a shadowy antagonist, and the two share some bizarre dialogue at the mid-point. The control room is staffed by guy and girl geeks that you’d expect. Owen has a black sidekick. And on and on we go. None of them add much, unless it’s to confuse the audience more (namely, when Wu tells the CEO of the company that elements of his dinosaur creations are “classified”).

I suppose it is the dinosaur characters that somewhat save things. The raptors are interesting enough, though the characterisation for them reaches absurd proportions by the time the credits roll. But the main attraction is surely Indominus Rex, this T-Rex/Frog/Cuttlefish/??? hybrid, that forms the main crux of the entire plot. In the end, the Indominus isn’t actually all that impressive, it’s just a slightly bigger T-Rex that shows off some snazzy abilities whenever they are called for, and only once for each one. It does all the T-Rex things, and Owen’s lame attempts to gift it some personality though a diatribe on animal isolation falls well short of what is required, more a message to real-life zoos in the air of Blackfish than a well executed effort at gifting the Indominus some life.

Jurassic World proceeds much as Jurassic Park did, with a cascade of disasters bringing more and more problems, the human characters trying to keep up with the dinosaur ones. Amid the violence, there are occasionally diatribes on the nature of control and respect for nature, with career woman Claire admonished for considering the animals “assets” first and living creatures second, and any attempt to get a handle on the situation and reassert control ending in disaster, like Jurassic Park on steroids. As an action film, the tempo is good enough, the film being patient in its beginning and then escalating things gradually, all the way to an extremely over-the-top finale. But its everything surrounding that which is the problem.

Because the stupid just builds up and up and up. I can’t go into it too much without spoiling the entire movie, which even for a film I disliked I am loath to do. But I want to be clear: the crazy dialogue, gaping plot holes and ridiculous elements that infest Jurassic World, especially in its last hour, are so numerous and distracting that the film actually manages to pierce the threshold of “good bad”: becoming enjoyable insofar that it is unintentionally comedic. Claire talks about creating spectacle in the opening scenes, and that’s what Jurassic World is: a ridiculous, loud, occasionally oblivious spectacle.

Jurassic World reaches its finale at breakneck pace, and it is only here that I could say that I was in any way “wowed”, and only briefly, as Trevorrow sets up a titanic clash to go out on. But even that is full of problems, and the finale is only satisfying insofar as it makes you laugh, witnessing such a potent franchise desecration, one so obvious at times it seems like it is the director’s intention.

The kids are the best the film has to offer, but even they suffer from lifting from the original.

The kids are the best the film has to offer, but even they suffer from lifting from the original.

Chris Pratt is strangely underwhelming in this, though I am confident enough that it is largely due to issues beyond his control. Owen’s words are dreadful on plenty of occasions, and the same man who charmed audiences in Guardians Of The Galaxy and probably will again just doesn’t have the right material to work with here, with precious little verve or humour to be found in his portions of the script. So Pratt is left to look cool and action-hero-ish, to bounce off Dallas Howard like a Muppet, and do basically nothing else.

Dallas Howard isn’t much better. Her character in the first half seems so put upon that it’s distracting, and she fails to sell the transformation into a more emotive person later. Her chemistry with Pratt is DOA, and at no point would I see that she imbues Claire with the sort of compelling emotional power to make the audience really engage with her.

Nick Robinson, so like James Franco I had to look up whether they were related, and Ty Simpkins are the stand-outs in the cast, brining a warmth and a believability to the brotherly relationship between Zach and Gray. Simpkins is probably the more notable, managing to avoid the very real possibility of being an annoying dinosaur expert kid, and you can actually feel his inner terror as he starts blubbering about his parents divorce, contrasted nicely with the immediate deflection and detachment of the teenaged Zach. But the two change, and exhibit a great sibling relationship as the film progresses. While they might be playing the same roles that Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello, they at least make them their own. And I have a feeling that Simpkins, who was also decent in Iron Man 3, could be huge if his career is managed right.

Oof, but the rest. Vincent D’Onofrio, fresh off his much more intimidating and interesting role as the Kingpin on Netflix’s Daredevil, just hams it up as Hoskins here. It’s a terrible character, but D’Onofrio deserves some credit for not even trying to play it straight, diving into the cartoonish villainy so that Hoskins is at least memorable in some fashion. Irrfan Khan pops up as the park’s new owner, little more than a younger John Hammond. Omar Sy, B.D Wong, Judy Greer, Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkis round out the supporting cast, with none of them really given the time or the quality of material to imbue their characters with anything special.

OK, so how about them visuals? Jurassic Park is often lauded as a film whose effects “hold up”, as well as being simply spectacular for the time it was made, and that’s all true (to an extent. I saw Jurassic Park in a theatre a couple of years ago, and its important to note that flaws are evident). How does Jurassic World compare?

Just fine really. There is the expected over-emphasis on CGI, especially for up-close shots, that Spielberg made sure to shoot with physical models whenever possible. 20+ years later, such restraint has vanished in the tide of advancing technology, and the end result is hit and miss. Sure, the dinosaurs all look good, from the big Indominus, to the pterodactyls, to the raptors to the Mosasaurus in the lake.

But that difficult quality to capture – that some describe as “feeling real” – is not accomplished. In Jurassic Park, thanks largely to the use of physical models and puppetry, the dinosaurs felt real. You thought you could reach out and touch those leathery monsters. They moved right, they fit the image in your brain. Lacking the same ratio of physical to computer generated, content to focus on entirely CGI based monster making for large sequences, Trevorrow’s offerings don’t feel real. They look good, but they don’t have that same effect. Competent CGI work is to be noted, but in an era when every other blockbuster features component CGI, Jurassic World isn’t creating any “Wow factor” to the required degree. The Indominus goes invisible, the raptors streak by the bike (not as bad in context as it was in the actual film), the lake monster eats the Great White (I see what you did there Trevorrow) and only on a handful of occasions will the viewer fee like any of that really matters.

From a shooting stand-point, Jurassic World and its cinematographer John Scwartzman aren’t up to all that much. Sequences and shots are recycled from Jurassic Park frequently, not least the T-Rex attack on the jeeps for a moment with the Indominus finds the two brothers in a hamster ball (yeah…). Other films get the same treatment, with a hunting parties attempt to bring down the Indominus taken straight from Aliens, and much of the action direction having a certain Michael Bay-feel to it – perhaps not surprising, given Scwartzman’s work as the right hand of “Bayhem” on films like The Rock, Armageddon and Pearl Harbour. Swooping pans and dramatic “Get the leads in the centre of the frame looking seriously at something off camera” shots are the order of the day.

The action is at least entertaining, even as it goes increasingly over the top. There is more overt violence in Jurassic World than in previous additions to the franchise, more blood-letting and open sights of people getting devoured, which I will admit rankles just a little, as a case when “less is more” should have been followed. Remember Nedry’s fate in Jurassic Park, or Muldoon’s final moments? Remember how the camera cut away, leaving it to the imagination? That’s classic Spielberg, and if Trevorrow was so intent on lifting whatever he could from the master, why couldn’t he have lifted that? Jurassic Park worked really well on a horror level, but Jurassic World doesn’t even try to be so subtle.

Product placement abounds, to an extent that gets truly garish. It starts off as almost an in-joke, with Claire talking about how the “assets” need corporate sponsorship to be created, as tourists mill around the Samsung visitor centre. But then it just keeps coming and coming, from the drinks, to the cars, to the electronics, logos front and centre. I’ll reiterate my opinion that product placement is a necessary evil, but when it goes overboard it’s a terrible detriment to a film.

Hoskins, the films truly laughable villain.

Hoskins, the films truly laughable villain.

But man, that script. I’m given to understand there is some sort of dispute over who exactly wrote this film, and I’m surprised that the dispute isn’t about people disassociating themselves from it. This is the team that brought a great deal of life and verve to the soft reboot of Planet Of The Apes, so on paper they were the perfect pair to bring it to Jurassic World too. So what happened? With the exception of the siblings, everyone in Jurassic World speaks like a caricature of the character they are playing. Claire’s speech to potential investors about bigger badder dinosaurs reads like it was written by a first year college liberal. Diatribes on control come out as the most pretentious bleeding heart nonsense possible.

Claire and Owen go from sharing cringey romantic dialogue (“Who brings an itinerary on a date!” complains Owen) to sharing dull clichés (“We’re talking about an animal here!” says Claire in a monotone without genuine worry or resolve). Characters repeat things constantly, perhaps extending that disdain for the audience to expectation of their attention levels. “You created a monster!” was a line so inevitable, my girlfriend whispered it to me a half hour before it happened. Hoskins won’t shut up about raptors as weapons, pondering “Imagine if we had some of these at Tora Bora!”, like a character from one of Michael Crichton’s worse novels, as opposed to his masterpiece.

No “They’re moving in herds” or “Spared no expense” simplicity here, no iconic sound bytes like “Life finds a way” or “Clever girl…”. Just noise. With the exception of the brothers, aimless, dull noise. This script is actually amateurish, “good bad” in the truest sense of the term, as if the people writing it took leave of their senses for large sections.

Michael Giacchino’s musical score is fine. He is, by and large, just taking John Williams’ previously impeccable work and adding a few flourishes here and there, a simple piano rendition of the main theme being probably the best twist on the original formula. But it’s still just the same music, the main difference being in the way that it is frequently misused in this instance (see below).

Some brief spoiler talk follows.

-The “bigger dinosaurs” angle, Wu’s explanation for why the dinosaurs don’t have feathers, the nerd guys “Jurassic Park” shirt: it felt like Jurassic World spent too much time trying to be cute about its flaws and explaining away minor holes than it really needed to. It had much bigger holes it should have been focusing on.

-And with the Jake Johnson character, a slob nerd in  Jurassic Park t-shirt, playing with dinosaur toys, and complaining about product placement and genetically altered dinosaurs, we had the film’s “satire” of some of the people that its creators knew would criticise it. And look, he gets turned down by a girl at the end. Subtle stuff Trevorrow. It’s a shame you aren’t as good at making movies as you are at mocking your audience.

-I think they were going for some kind of Han/Leia thing with Owen and Claire, but it just doesn’t come off, in that first scene anyway, as uncomfortable and inappropriate.

-Holy God, what was with that security guard at the Indominus pen? He was a plot beat away from slipping on the jam from his burst doughnut. “Aw jeez…”

-Who names a dinosaur “Untameable King”? That’s just asking for trouble in my opinion.

-Simpkins’ breakdown as he starts talking about his parents’ divorce really was the best character scene, because it felt really real, just how a kid that young and isolated would react to such a scenario. He isn’t just sad about it, he’s terrified.

-It really is amazing how Claire can act so cold and emotionless as the park staff and visitors are chomped on, but a dying diplodocus can make her feel all maternal. Obviously they were trying to lift that brilliant triceratops scene from Jurassic Park. It didn’t work.

-Claire’s PA, Zara, the film’s third career woman, has to suffer through the most awful death scene, tortured by pterodactyls for a while before being devoured whole by the mosasaurus. Yikes. Guess she should have been nicer to the kids, eh Colin? It’s a very weird scene, maybe because Trevorrow actually follows her, away from the central action, to watch her get killed, which is odd for this franchise. This article does a good job at picking apart the flaws of that whole sequence. Long story short: the scene itself is way too much, and doesn’t fit into the rest of the film well.

-Hoskins death at the hands of a raptor was an inevitable as the tides, from the moment he opened his mouth about them in his first scene. I did find it very odd that Owen makes no attempt to try and save him though.

-To my genuine surprise, Omar Sy’s black sidekick survives the film. So I guess I can’t accuse Jurassic World of racism at the very least.

– Didn’t take a genius to figure out that Indominus was part raptor, the trailers all but said it was a T-Rex with the brain of a raptor in it. But the scene where Indominus “turns” Owen’s raptor pack was hilarious, because the cut aways between the Indominus and raptors made it look like they were having an actual conversation in a different language, and the subtitles had just been left out. That effect, comical to the extreme, occurred several times over in the finale.

-Part of the tension in Jurassic Park was how undefended the people actually were, only one character had an actual gun and he got outsmarted by the raptors before firing a shot. Big contrast then with Jurassic World, where machine guns, miniguns, pistols, RPG’s and all manner of explosives get brought out, for some all-out dinosaur warfare. That’s not a bad thing – it was different at least – but rapidly reached a point where it became cringe-worthy and ridiculous, with dinosaurs blowing up left and right.

-Howe can anyone not laugh when they see Owen try and turn the raptors back to his side and succeeding? “Come on Blue, I know you’re still in there!” Definitely needed subtitles for the following. Indominus: “Fool! How dare you disobey me!”

-When that hologram of the diliophasaurus shows up, I wanted to throw something at the screen. Enough Trevorrow.

-The only genuine “Wow” moment for me was the unveiling of the T-Rex, which comes marching out of its dark pen, eyes almost glowing, with an anticipatory slowness. That was a decent tribute/call back to nostalgia. But even that is quickly soured, as high heeled Claire is able to outrun the beast.

-The finale then is this weird combat, almost like a WWE PPV with dinosaurs, as the T-Rex and Blue tag team the Indominus, showing a level of cooperation and understanding that simply up’d the ridicule, as Jurassic World crossed into the realm of cartoon. Obviously Trevorrow loved the finale of Jurassic Park, and wondered “Man, what if, instead of fighting, the raptors and the T-Rex joined forces!?” Because that is something apex predators do.

-Note that this franchise already did the “Massive carnivores fighting each other” thing in III, with the T-Rex and Spinosaurus. That film erred with it being so sudden and quickly finished, but it’s nothing new.

-The T-Rex and Blue actually nod at each other after Indominus is taken care of, before going their separate ways. What nonsense is this?

-The love plot of Jurassic World had me thinking of an exchange in Speed, a far superior action film. At least there, the Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock characters had the grace to openly acknowledge their attraction was based solely on living through a traumatic incident together, so they should probably base it on sex. Jurassic World plays it far more straight, and it’s just hapless by its conclusion. Claire didn’t even like him!

-Not the first film to do it, even in this blockbuster season, but Jurassic World also slams down hard on the “Divorce halted by traumatic incident” trope at its conclusion, something that is as played out as it is emotionally manipulative.

-The T-Rex roars over Isla Nublar as the film comes to a close, another lift from Jurassic Park. I couldn’t get into it though, too busy thinking that she’d probably die from the wounds sustained fighting the Indominus soon.

-Let me put on my Red Letter Media “Black Goo” hat for a sec. Khan’s character is fulfilling John Hammond’s “dying wish” to look after his park, even though Hammond didn’t even endorse his own park by the end of Jurassic Park? How is InGen still functioning after the events of the first two films? People in the hamster balls can just ride anywhere they want? Couldn’t they cause a stampede or something? There’s no override? How does covering yourself in motor oil hide you from the thermal sensing Indominus? How does no one involved in its creation know the abilities of the Indominus? Haven’t they been studying it since birth? How do the old Jurassic Park jeeps still function? The fuel didn’t degrade? Why is Dr Wu now basically evil? How can he justify having “classified” secrets being kept from his actual boss? How does said boss not have a handle on this seemingly gigantic military division of his company? Could no one else have flown that helicopter? How come no one sends for help from the mainland, they have phones this time? How come no one questions the basic flaws of “weaponising” velociraptors, instead focusing purely on the moral dimension? Why did Owen suddenly agree to let the raptors hunt the Indominus? How does the isolated Indominus know how to communicate with the raptors it has never seen before? How did Owen not get affected at all by that raptor being blown up right next to him? Why is the T-Rex paddock a short jog from the main thoroughfare of the park? Why would the T-Rex even fight the Indominus? Because it was just there? How the hell do the T-Rex and the raptor coordinate a battle plan so effectively?

-The point of all that being, well, my “Inception Test”: a film can survive confusing elements and plot holes if it’s other elements, like acting, direction and script, are good enough. Jurassic World fails spectacularly.

-What’s next for this franchise then? I mean, Jurassic World made enough money to have an impact on the global economy, so there will inevitably be a fifth film, but where do they go? Not back to another island presumably. I would imagine we’ll be looking at a “Dinosaurs on the mainland” thing, like the end of The Lost World with a Planet Of The Apes feel. That, or human/dinosaur hybrids, because of course they’re going to end up doing that. I’m not sure I’ll be in line though.

Spoilers end.

And so, to conclusions. At the top I talked about a scene in Jurassic Park where the music adds something very important, Williams’’ score soaring high to add the right type of emotion. It’s used during our first glimpse of these great and terrible creatures, and the effect is pronounced.

In Jurassic World, the same musical moment is used early, in our first glimpse of the park itself, its buildings, its corporate sponsorship, its thoroughfare. And it’s a very nice looking park, but it’s not a dinosaur. It didn’t deserve that fanfare.

I mean, it's a nice park and all, but it's not a dinosaur.

I mean, it’s a nice park and all, but it’s not a dinosaur.

In many ways, the flaws of Jurassic World can be summed up by that moment, because much of the film feels like it is child dressing up in its grandfather’s stylish jacket. OK, the child can put its arms in the jacket and give a semblance of wearing it around, but it still fits horribly and the whole thing looks sort of stupid.

And that’s Jurassic World. It’s addicted to nostalgia so much that it isn’t its own thing, Trevorrow completely unwilling it seems to craft his own vision and make something unique. And with all of that lifting, with all of the poorly developed characters, the terrible script and recycled musical notes, the final product that comes out at the end of the conveyer belt is just soulless. That word is over-used in film criticism I think, especially when it comes to blockbuster sequels and reboots. But it really does fit here. Beyond its blatant sexism, beyond its crazy elements, beyond its numerous and unavoidable plot holes, Jurassic World is just empty. 22 years on, we’re still talking about Jurassic Park, and we’re still going to be talking about it 50 years from now. Jurassic World will struggle to make even a small fraction of the same impact on the popular consciousness.

I know what’s going on here. The timing is apt for a soft reboot, with the people who were so entranced by Jurassic Park having reached that age where they have their own kids, who they want to have a similar experience. Call it “The Transformers Equation”. Its nostalgia repackaged for profit, and sometimes that does work. How can you not go and see Jurassic World?

Well, I went to see it, and while the film was so braindead that it actually got enjoyable at moments – “good bad” can save the day occasionally  – a large part of me still regretted seeing it. If you want your kids to have that experience, show then Jurassic Park. Don’t show them this. Don’t reward the mediocrity, anymore than it already has been rewarded. Not recommended.

One to avoid.

One to avoid.

(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).

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Ireland’s Wars: The 1691 Siege Of Limerick

The last act in the War of the Two Kings was about to begin. The army of Godert de Ginkel made its final approach on the last enemy stronghold of significance, while the Jacobite defenders of Limerick made their last preparations before the fighting began in earnest. For the Williamites, the goal was simply to take the city, neutralise its garrison and bring the war to an end. For the Jacobites, the goal was to hold out until the coming bad weather made the siege untenable, and then to reassess the situation, possibly with French reinforcements to swing the scales back towards their favour.

And the possibility of the Jacobites actually making it that far was not unlikely. The defences of Limerick had actually been improved significantly since the previous year’s assault, one of the only places in Jacobite territory to have received upgrades to its bulwarks and walls, thanks in no small part to French engineers. The breach that the Williamites had created in 1690, then failed to take, had been fully repaired. Earthen embankments had been piled up next to the walls, to limit the damage that cannon could do to them. Forts outside the walls had been upgraded, and connected with trenches, some of them first built during the Parliamentarian effort to take the city decades before. The city had stockpiled an adequate amount of supplies that starvation would not be an issue in the medium term. The garrison, while in many respects under-trained and poorly equipped, was sizable enough that no part of the city’s defences was under-manned or ignored. Additionally, cavalry units were kept on hand over the River Shannon in County Clare, to be called upon if needed.

Added onto that were the defensive properties that we have already covered in previous entries, but which might bare a little going over: Next to an awkward bend of the Shannon and straddling the Abbey River, with “English Town” or King’s Island to the North and “Irish Town” to the south, Limerick had thick walls, a sizable internal fortification in the form of King’s John’s Castle and a location that made encircling the entire city a very difficult thing to accomplish. In sum, Limerick was an ever harder position than it had been the previous year, despite the many military setbacks that the Jacobites had suffered in the intervening time.

Its command was a bit more complicated. Tyrconnel had left several Chief Justice’s to act in his stead after his death, but in military terms the French remained, nominally at least, in charge, with officers like the Marquis d’Usson among their highest ranked. However, their enthusiasm for the fight was rather suspect, and as things continued, it would be Irish officers, like Patrick Sarsfield, making more and more command decisions. The relationship between these two groups was already difficult though, not least due to a difference in how to approach the fighting. Some wanted to fight in till the end. Others wanted to negotiate a settlement then and there. For the meantime, there was enough of an agreement to defend Limerick militarily, but to what extent remained up in the air. What occurred between the opening of the siege and its end was a defence that was largely reactive rather than proactive, and the narration that follows reflects that, as events were dominated by what the Williamites were doing, be they failures or a successes.

Troubling for the Williamites was the state of their own forces. While the Williamite army remained, man for man, superior to their equivalents fighting for King James, they were numerically inferior to the army that had tried and failed to take Limerick in 1690. They had been marching and fighting for some time now, the campaign having been spend several months ago, so fatigue was starting to become a factor. And with the campaigning season inevitably coming to an end soon, as the weather began to worsen, they had a very clear time limit to their activities.

In terms of supplies, Ginkel at least had less to worry about. The march south, crossing the Shannon at Banagher and taking a lengthy route through Offaly and Tipperary, had been required so that a supply train from the east could be more firmly established. The Williamites, at least, would not starve to death themselves. A delay did have to be borne for that though, which was added to by the need to arrange for the transportation and guarding of siege guns, Ginkel unwilling to risk a repeat of the Ballyneety raid.

Artillery remained one thing that the Williamites had an unquestionable advantage in, but it remained to be seen if that kind of firepower would be enough to take the city. Ginkel approached through County Limerick, content to take on the city from the south-east. An approach from both sides of the River might have been possible, but would have meant splitting his already reduced army in two and leaving one half to march through enemy held territory in County Clare, potentially easy prey for Jacobite cavalry ambushes. With an English fleet having parked in the Shannon estuary to aid in the effort, blockading that route and offering supplies, Ginkel did not have to worry too much about any imminently arriving French reinforcements.

The early plan to take the city then involved probing its defences for weak points, initiating a bombardment of the city itself and possibly making arrangements to cross the River and began a blockade from both sides. But there were other matters to attend to first.

The 1691 siege is held to have begun on the 25th of August, when Ginkel’s army encamped outside the walls. The first goal was to clear the way to the city itself, with the outlying forts a serious problem. But, to the surprise of the Williamites, both Cromwell and Ireton Forts fell remarkably quickly after early assaults, the defenders offering only slight resistance before retreating back inside Limerick proper. Whether it was a calculated move or a lack of will in the soldiers assigned the job, the Williamites gladly took this early bit of luck, before settling in to the monotony of siege work: digging trenches, finding suitable ground for artillery batteries and wondering how much it was going to take for the city to capitulate.

The weather had already begun to turn by this time, Ireland never being too famous for its summers, and it took time and much effort for suitable ground to be discovered for the artillery to be effective, which mostly arrived a week after the rest of the army. Too soft or muddy, and the guns couldn’t be moved or set up properly. In the early stages of the siege, such as it was, only limited amounts of firing were possible, the opening bombardment directed mostly at Irish Town.

It didn’t take Ginkel long to realise that this wasn’t working. His opening moves had been directed at the south of the city, where the breach had been made the previous year, but this wasn’t having the desired effect. Better ground and better targets would be available if a switch was made to English Town, and so Ginkel went about moving his artillery in early September, situating it as close to the river on the southern side as he could, so that a clear shot could be found at places like Thomond Bridge and King John’s Castle, a citadel that could prove a formidable obstacle in any assault on the city.

In the end, the targeting of these two points achieved little. With more artillery arriving by the day and more effective batteries being set-up, the Williamites were soon able to send a more steady fire onto the city. The bombardment would never be as intense or devastating as that which had wrecked a large part of Athlone a few months previously, but still did a great deal of damage in the city of Limerick, civilians and soldiers scurrying to avoid mortars and cannonballs. The Jacobites were not totally impotent in this regards themselves, and fired back with their defensive guns as best they could, but they would never be able to match the amount of fire coming at them from outside the walls. But with the improvement in the defences, it didn’t really matter.

Ginkel soon switched targets again, setting up new batteries to the east of the city. Eventually focusing fire on a selected portion of the walls, Ginkel’s artillery was able to create a breach, in a section that covered present day Island Road, which eventually was grown to quite a large size, maybe 40 feet across. The masonry, while thick and high, remained relatively ancient in comparison to the guns firing at it. Such a wide breach would have proved a tempting target for any commander, but there was a very significant problem: the Abbey River, which separated the Williamites from the breach.

Ginkel had chosen that point because intelligence had informed him the wall was weaker there, and it was, but the water defences would still have to be navigated. The Abbey was neither large nor wide, but it was still in the way. But with the breach now made, Ginkel hesitated. Boats could be acquired that could ferry troops across for an assault, but this added an additional layer of danger and complexity to an already perilous task, a task that the Williamite army had failed to accomplish the previous year, something the common Williamite soldier must have been all too aware of. A Jacobite sally around that time destroyed a few boats, creating further doubts.

In truth, the Williamite options were painfully limited, and more than one subordinate suggested that the siege should be called off altogether. A direct assault at the city had a high chance of failure with bad casualties being incurred. Instead, the Williamites could withdraw into winter quarters, and use the time to devastate areas like Clare, Kerry and County Limerick, places that the Jacobites were reliant on for foodstuffs and additional support. With the navy preventing French reinforcements, the Williamites could return to Limerick in 1692 when the weather was better and the campaign season just beginning, then to starve the garrison into surrendering.

Ginkel, a cautious enough man, must have considered the possibility seriously but eventually discounted it. His army was getting smaller day by day, the war in Europe beckoned, and his orders were to put an end to the conflict in Ireland that year. I’m sure the idea of having to come back to Limerick a third time was also galling. The created breach might not actually be tenable, but additional possibilities to put the squeeze on Limerick still remained to him. And, after all, he might not have to actually assault the city. Morale among the defenders was hardly sky-high, and numerous officers were already seeking a way out of a lost cause.

Ginkel decided that, if the siege was to have any chance of success going forward, then it would have to be enacted from both sides of the river, not just the south. If Williamite soldiers could be placed to the north, they could bar the way to Limerick from that direction, spread the garrison out even more and potentially force the defenders to consider terms before they were cut off completely. And of nothing else, a successful crossing would also allow him to begin an offensive in Clare from that direction, if it came to it.

Crossing the river was no easy task though. It was wide and deep all around that area, and bent around Limerick so that the city’s garrison could keep a close eye on any attempt to ford it. Further, the cavalry units on the north side were bound to interfere with any crossing attempt. If it was to be successfully, a hard and easily defended beachhead would have to be established quickly.

The plan went ahead on the night of the 15th of September. Despite nearby Jacobite cavalry being alerted to the danger, the crossing was made without any resistance, a crucial failure of the Jacobite military machine, which allowed a few hundred engineers and a hundred grenadiers to secure a pontoon bridge over the river, and a landing zone that could then be easily defended. Accusations of incompetence and treachery abound, but the most important thing was that the Williamites were over the river, the opportunity missed to inflict a potentially fatal blow to their plans.

With this success, Ginkel pressed ahead with the new plan, to cross the Shannon in force, swing around the bend, and approach Limerick from the western side, where Thomond Bridge provided its main line of communication with Clare. Ginkel devoted a huge portion of his remaining army, ten regiments, most of the cavalry and his own personal command, to the operation, though he made sure to strengthen his own siege lines to the south, lest an attempted Jacobite breakout hit him while he was occupied elsewhere. It was still a big gamble though, but the potential rewards were great. Up to that point, the siege had been a problematic affair, with Ginkel’s indecision and constant changing of targets evidence of a man who was unsure whether the entire campaign had any realistic goal. Now, Ginkel smelled an opportunity to actually win the fight outright. After preparing for a week, and having a summons ignored, Ginkel moved off on the 22nd of September, crossing the Shannon at a point further downstream, where the pontoon bridge had been moved.

With the other bank secure and the Jacobites unwilling to try an assault, the Williamites got over the river without too much trouble, before beginning their march, easing around the bend and then turning south, heading straight for Thomond Bridge.

It was there that a Colonel Stapleton commanded a brief resistance, in charge of a small Irish force and a few rudimentary defences. What his goal was is not exactly clear, but it is likely that he intended to offer only a brief impediment to the advancing enemy, a skirmish line to inflict a few casualties and then retreat. But the Williamites, perhaps happy to have a more conventional fight, came on stronger than expected, and soon the Irish soldiers were running pell-mell back to the safety of the walls.

The Williamite cavalry, released from the main force, was right behind them. And there, with both armies converging on the bridge, was where perhaps the most controversial incident of the war, In Jacobite terms, occurred. A French major raised the drawbridge upon seeing the flight, convinced that the Williamites were too close, and that they would enter and take the city if the way was left open for the retreating Jacobites.

The action resulted in a slaughter on the bridge, as the Irish, trapped, had nowhere to go. Some were killed by the oncoming Williamites. Some were crushed under the feet of their fellow soldiers in the panic that followed. Some, voluntarily or not, went into the river, and drowned. Some, the very lucky, were taken prisoner or somehow managed to escape. The actual death toll of Thomond Bridge is very much in dispute – one Jacobite source claims just 80 or so men died there, others say 800 – but the numbers must have been high enough, enough to justify what followed. With this action, the Williamites completed a ring around Limerick, but they had won nothing yet really.

The Jacobites still held Limerick, but were now surrounded on all sides, cut off from their Clare based forces. Morale had been low enough already, because of the many defeats, lack of offensive action or proactive command and superiority of the enemy. They still had the defences of Limerick, but the will to hold them was fading away. The relationship between Irish and French officers within the city had grown rancorous, and the incident at Thomond Bridge proved a final straw.

Outside, Ginkel waited, his gamble paying off despite his numerous disadvantages. The end was coming.

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

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

Firefly: Jeepers Reavers

The Reavers hang over Firefly and Serenity, like a shadow creeping along a wall. They are described as “campfire stories” come to life, a savage and mysterious entity, made up of nothing but violence, brutality and an overriding need to destroy. Though they only affect two episodes of Firefly – the pilot and, later, “Bushwhacked” – we never actually see one of them, just their ships and the “second generation” victim left behind from one of their raids. And yet, their effect, per the brilliant writing work of Whedon, is out of all proportion to their direct screen time. Despite being an unseen villain, they form a gigantic and important part of the overall mythos of the show, the mystery surrounding them forming a natural central plot arc for Serenity.

In terms of Firefly being a futuristic re-telling of the Wild West in the 19th century, it’s not hard to see where the Reavers lie when it comes to inspirations. The Reavers are the future’s version of “Injuns”, “Redskins” or any other derogatory term you want to use for the Native Americans or “First Peoples”, driven westwards and away from their lands by the manifest destiny of the growing United States. They were easily painted as uncivilised savages, with all manner of atrocities and brutalities attributed to them, not unlike the Reavers of Firefly, who are almost a caricature of the racist perceptions of the earlier age.

The Native Americans were an easy bad guy or background element in the western genre, only rarely being approached with anything like nuance or respect. Firefly jumps over this hole by making the Reavers a racially neutral menace, and one that is no exaggerated tale of propaganda and bigotry: in fact the Alliance goes the other way, insisting that the Reavers are a non-existent myth, until they can’t deny it any more. If the Reavers and the real Native Americans share anything, it’s simply that they are two different groups of innocent people whose nature was changed by the intervention of others, both becoming more warlike and violent than before. But that is a simple analysis, which does a disservice to the complex nature of western and Native American interaction.

But I’m not here to talk about Reavers and Native Americans, I’m here to talk about the building of an antagonist, when the antagonist is never actually seen: how Firefly, in the second half of “Serenity”, introduces the Reavers and, in a masterpiece of suspense, makes it abundantly clear to the audience the threat that they pose and the hideous nature they exhibit.

Before this scene, Whedon has only made a brief reference to the Reaver threat, Mal noting that a, now deceased, former acquaintance was killed when his “town was hit by Reavers”, to which a worried looking Jayne declares that he won’t go anywhere near such a place, as Reavers “ain’t human”. The bit of dialogue is fleeting, and immediately the crew are moving on with their own issues, the Reavers forgotten, the audience left to ponder.

It isn’t until much later, after Kaylee has been shot, River revealed and Mal’s mission to sell his stolen merchandise to Patience on Whitefall elaborated upon, that we come up close with the actual Reaver threat. A ship approaches Serenity in the vastness of space. Mal and Wash are the first to confront it, an old model of vessel that doesn’t even run anymore. Wash notes with grim horror that the ships engines are running “without core containment”, some engineering speak easily explained as being “suicide” for any normal people. Before we catch sight of the Reaver ship in a moment, we’ve already learned much: they are a menace that’s been around for a while, and are made of people – or things – that have precious little regard for their own physical well-being.

And then we see the ship. The contrast with Serenity is deliberately jarring. The Reaver craft is an ugly, mutilated, graffitied thing, covered in spikes and with hideous looking arms that crackle with electricity. Its red glow is imminently threatening. But what really makes the impression is Greg Edmonson’s score, this percussion heavy track of a sort of metal variety, bringing to mind a factory line and clanking machines, something impersonal and inhuman. It’s got a steady beat, like a war march. The audio and the visual merge together seamlessly, as the Reaver ship approaches Serenity like a hunter going after its prey, the music doing the rest. Just a nice addition is Wash’s disconcerting, yet darkly humorous “Oh God. Oh God, oh God, oh God…”

An act break occurs, a brief moment to exhale. A lot has been done without any overt discussion of what the Reavers are or why they are dangerous. We know the Reavers are bad news, we know they are people to fear going by Wash’s reaction and, from the appearance of their ship and the music that comes with them, we know they must have little but ill-intent.

The actual confrontation with the Reavers will come at the end of the episode, and Whedon certainly didn’t have the time, or likely the funds, to have an action sequence in this portion of the episode. Instead, the “action” comes entirely from the tension, the fear that something truly awful is going to happen. And the creation of that tension and that sense of imminent catastrophe, is done throughout the scene that follows, as each member of Serenity’s crew faces the possibility that they are about to be attacked by the kind of menace one can only find out on the edges of space. With the exception of Kaylee and River, both asleep, and Dobson, restrained, the reactions serve both to maximise the fear of the Reavers, and show us a little about the characters we are still getting used to.

Mal stays on the bridge of the ship, in command, where he has to be. His narration over the intercom is painfully nervous: it’s a credit to Fillion that you understand that Mal’s plea for everyone to remain calm is also being said to himself. But, we understand that Mal is not an easily panicked man. He keeps his emotions in check, and gets ready for whatever is coming, asking only that Zoe come join him on the bridge. The plan is just to drift on by, since running would only make the Reavers give chase, cementing their apparent status as a lower form of life, animal-like.

Across the ship, the reactions come. Inara, in her shuttle, opens a box with a syringe and a strange black substance inside, contemplating its use. This was a plot point that was never revisited, and the interpretations are many. The obvious answer is that Inara, rather than face the assault of Reavers, one whose focus will probably be sexual, will choose an easier way out. But Whedon, though no definite plans were made, actually had a much darker direction in mind, which I will not get into. It suffices to say that Inara’s reaction makes clear the kind of threat you can expect from actual Reavers.

Jayne was the first one to talk about the threat of the Reavers, and when the news of their passing comes, he moves to the only thing he can: his very sizable gun collection, part of which he is later seen nervously loading. That’s Jayne: unlike Inara, he will never take the easier way out, and will go down with as many of his enemies as he can take with him.

In the infirmary, Book stands over Kaylee, and River, praying. His part in the scene is wordless, and even fearless, like a man who has seen all of this before, and isn’t all that shocked to be witnessing it again.

Simon and Zoe share some of the only dialogue of the scene, where the threat of the Reavers is made overt, for the only time. Simon demonstrates his own greenness, babbling about how Reavers are just a myth to him, poetically described as men who went mad on the edge of populated space. Zoe is blunt: “They’re not stories”. Her follow-up line, when Simon inquires as to what will happen if they board Serenity, is one of the shows most famous moments:

If they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it that order.

Like the viewer, Simon is left gobsmacked and silent by this terrifying vision. Zoe’s utterance is shocking for some many reasons. The imagery is so revolting, and the idea that this is the “lucky” way of things underlines the peril the crew are facing. The Alliance could have imprisoned them, Dobson could have killed them. But the Reavers are something else. The point is powerfully made by Gina Torres’ delivery, which is matter of fact and rehearsed. Some might see this as a negative, but in this instance, I think the opposite: it fits that this is rehearsed, because this is a threat that people like Zoe just have to live with out on the rim. She’s thought about this before, this horrible fear, and so is ready to enunciate it in clear terms. There’s also an element of not wanting to mollycoddle Simon, the coreboy raised so far away from such dangers, to any degree.

Zoe departs to the bridge, where she wraps her hand in Wash’s. Simon goes to look over River, dumbfounded and uncomfortable by his lack of anything to do. Every character the camera has flashed over has gone to something dear to them at this moment, be it a way out, a weapon, a book, or a loved one. We’ve seen a darkness in Inara’s choice, a typical avenue in Jayne’s, an expected one for Book, and a sentimental one for others.

The strained violins keep the audience on the edge as the Reaver ship glides past Serenity, huge in comparisons. Part of me now thinks of the comparison between the Galactica and the Pegasus in Battlestar Galactica, two ships whose design reflected so clearly the inner aspects of their crews. The comparison is even more taut with worry here, as the point is made, visually, that Serenity is an undefended ship, a vessel with no guns, dwarfed by this deadly looking behemoth, shark-like in its design. As Wash trembles at the sight of the “magnetic grappler” the Reaver ship is stocked with, Mal cuts him off, wanting only to know if the Reaver ship alters course, staying on track and refusing to allow any fear to take over.

The tension is drawn out to a torturous degree, but the Reavers do not alter course. Everyone, audience included, breaths, with Mal left to simply ponder that it’s “gettin’ awful crowded in my sky”.

The plot quickly moves on, but the work has been done and the point has been made. The audience does not know everything about the Reavers, beyond the rather wistful explanation of their origins offered by the, it is severely implied, unknowledgeable Simon. But they know enough, enough to realise that the Reavers are a very deadly problem to be faced by Serenity out in the less civilised portions of the universe. In the process, we’ve learned a little bit more about the ship’s crew and how they respond to such situations, what they value most. When the Reavers return for a more traditional showdown at the conclusion of “Serenity”, it will be very different, but the tension of that chase will be the pay-off for the structure of this scene, where the Reavers are able to scare the hell out of the audience.

Posted in Firefly, Reviews, TV/Movies | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment