Extreme Ways: A Deep Dive

An anti-establishment hero, trained to perfection, betrayed, left without gainful employment, in the midst of an identity crisis? Jason Bourne is the prototypical millennial. And in each movie, as Bourne makes it through insurmountable odds only to turn the table on his enemies in the final seconds, we hear the same refrain:

Wree! Wree! Extreme ways are back again, Extreme places I didn’t know…

That’s right: Moby’s Extreme Ways. It’s been with Bourne, and with us, for an entire five-film series. Join me on a journey back to the pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, prehistoric days of 2002…

The Bourne Identity (2002)

Look at that young scamp

Despite its hyperkinetic violence, The Bourne Identity reminds me more of arthouse European cinema more than anything else. That may be why Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone all turned down the role, leaving it to comparatively-unknown Matt Damon. Who knew it’d become a franchise?

The choice of Extreme Ways as the end credits song seems fitting — Moby was very popular at the time, and it had an appealing euro-electronica-dance vibe going on.

That original Extreme Ways does not sound like a movie soundtrack in the slightest. It may start like a soundtrack, but as soon as the lyrics kick in, you realise that it’s something very different — especially since the lyrics are monotone.

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

“Get some rest, Pam. You look tired.”

One would have forgiven Paul Greengrass, the movie’s director, if he ditched Extreme Ways in favour of something more conventional. After all, the massive success of The Bourne Identity demanded a new approach…

Or not.

The ‘Supremacy’ version of Extreme Ways initially sounds identical to the original version, but as you rummage around for a final piece of popcorn, you realise something is different. Something more… orchestral?

Yes, this version takes a full 24 seconds longer to get to the lyrics than the original song. You only hear Moby’s dulcet tones until 53 seconds in — long enough for most viewers to exit the theatre remaining under the impression that they were, in fact, listening to a conventional movie soundtrack.

It’s possible that Greengrass stuck with Extreme Ways because he liked it, or because he didn’t want to mess with the movie’s formula too much. However, since Supremacy was released a mere two years after Identity, I wonder if they just didn’t have the time to find anything else.

And yet on such casual choices, empires are built.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

“Jesus Christ, that’s Jason Bourne!”

It’s a new Bourne
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

The Bourne Ultimatum was spoiled for me. Not the plot, but Extreme Ways’ appearance during the credits.

I consider Ultimatum to be the pinnacle of the Bourne saga, and the ‘Ultimatum’ Extreme Ways as a reasonably good variation on the original. It’s more up-tempo, and someone’s clearly told Moby to make more of an effort with his singing.

Arguably it’s a bit too fussy with all the wailing, but the introduction of the strings towards the end makes for a good orchestral-feeling, while not losing the essential eurotrash-dance nature of the endeavour.

Time to lyrics: 46 seconds (-6s from Supremacy) Continue reading “Extreme Ways: A Deep Dive”

Artificial Intelligence: Another Inspection

Film critics were not kind when A.I. Artificial Intelligence was released in 2001. A.I. was directed by Steven Spielberg but originated from, and was made with, Stanley Kubrick, up until his death in 1999. A lot of reviewers accordinly blamed Spielberg for pretty much everything they disliked about the film, notably its final 30 minutes which appeared to be overly sentimental.

I enjoyed the movie when it was released. Admittedly, a lot of that was because I’d played the associated ARG, which also provided more context for the final 30 minutes. But it was hard to convince my friends that it was a good movie, especially in the face of critics.

In the past five years, prominent critics have begun reappraising A.I., to its benefit. A better understanding of the ending, and the relationship between Spielberg and Kubrick, sheds much light on the intention and message of the movie. In short, Spielberg didn’t write the ending, Kubrick put the teddy bear in, the aliens are actually machines, and the ending isn’t happy:

Roger Ebert: Great Movie: A.I. Artificial Intelligence Movie Review (published 2011). See his original review for comparison.

Watching the film again, I asked myself why I wrote that the final scenes are “problematical,” go over the top, and raise questions they aren’t prepared to answer. This time they worked for me, and had a greater impact. I began with the assumption that the skeletal silver figures are indeed androids, of a much advanced generation from David’s. They too must be programmed to know, love, and serve Man. Let’s assume such instructions would be embedded in their programming DNA. They now find themselves in a position analogous to David in his search for his Mommy. They are missing an element crucial to their function.

Robbie Collin at The Telegraph: AI revisited: a misunderstood classic (published 2014)

When the epilogue begins, it’s Kingsley’s voice that explains the ice age and the passage of time. Does that mean David’s story – ie AI – is itself a creation myth, told by these futuristic mechas about the making of their kind, as an attempt to understand the elder beings that made them?

“Human beings must be the key to the meaning of existence,” the Kingsley mecha tells David, and the line sounds odd until you realise these creatures hold humans in the same awed regard as humanity holds its gods. Dr Hobby’s son died so that David might live, and these new mecha are descended from David’s line.

In that light, AI’s ending isn’t twee, but wrenchingly sad. The love we’re seeing, between a mecha and a clone, is a simulacrum, as manufactured as a movie. But if it feels like the real thing to us, what does that tell us about the real thing? In that moment, Spielberg shows us real fear and real wonder, knotted together so tightly it becomes impossible to tell the two apart.

Jesse Hassenger at the AV Club: Contrary to popular opinion, Spielberg found the perfect ending for A.I.

Unpredictability, though, is not necessarily what audiences want, which brings us to the focal point of controversy over A.I., and a major reason the movie is more of a cult item than a confirmed modern classic: the film’s ending. Initially, David’s drive leads him to the bottom of the ocean, staring at a statue of the Blue Fairy, convinced that if he waits long enough, she will work her magic. You may have heard, or even subscribed to, the belief that this moment, with David waiting underwater indefinitely, is the “correct” end to the film. But the movie presses on past this neatness, jumping forward thousands of years. The Earth has frozen over, and an advanced race of mecha-beings (not aliens!) uncovers David. Through a process that is, admittedly, a little drawn out with explanations (including, essentially, two different types of narration), the mecha-beings, eager to learn from a robot who knew humans, agree to revive Monica for David. In this form, though, she’s more of a ghost; she can only stay revived for a single day. She and David spend a perfect day together before she drifts off to sleep, accompanied by her mecha son, essentially a dying ember of human life.

It’s understandable, then, that so many backseat directors would dutifully follow that program. This is not, however, Spielberg’s obligation. The film frequently adopts a robot’s point of view, but was not made by one. By sticking with David after thousands of years’ worth of waiting, Spielberg stays true to a robot perspective while also deepening David’s sadly close connection to human experience, a far trickier balancing act than having David dead-end at the bottom of the ocean. The actual and vastly superior ending of A.I. is more than a bleak kiss-off; it imagines humanity’s final moments of existence (if not literally, certainly metaphorically) as a dreamy day of wish fulfillment. David wants to be a “real boy,” and the scenes with the ghostly Monica turn his desperation and sadness from an imitation-human abstraction to a desire with an endpoint, which in this case coincides with, more or less, the end of humanity as we know it. As such, the sequence also turns the comforting idea of dying happily into something pretty fucking sad. Spielberg hasn’t grafted a happy ending onto a dark movie; he’s teased the darkness out of what his main character wants. David’s artificial intelligence has given him the very human ability to obsess, and then to take solace in his own happiness above anything else.

Mark Kermode at the BBC: AI Apology (published 2013)

And finally, Steven Spielberg in conversation with Joe Leydon:

In 2002, Spielberg told film critic Joe Leydon that “People pretend to think they know Stanley Kubrick, and think they know me, when most of them don’t know either of us”. “And what’s really funny about that is, all the parts of A.I. that people assume were Stanley’s were mine. And all the parts of A.I. that people accuse me of sweetening and softening and sentimentalizing were all Stanley’s. The teddy bear was Stanley’s. The whole last 20 minutes of the movie was completely Stanley’s. The whole first 35, 40 minutes of the film – all the stuff in the house – was word for word, from Stanley’s screenplay. This was Stanley’s vision.” “Eighty percent of the critics got it all mixed up. But I could see why. Because, obviously, I’ve done a lot of movies where people have cried and have been sentimental. And I’ve been accused of sentimentalizing hard-core material. But in fact it was Stanley who did the sweetest parts of A.I., not me. I’m the guy who did the dark center of the movie, with the Flesh Fair and everything else. That’s why he wanted me to make the movie in the first place. He said, ‘This is much closer to your sensibilities than my own.'”

Ridiculous Movie Ideas #1 and #2

1)

Meet Maddie, and her very own invisible guardian elf, Gerry, one of Lapland’s finest. But when Lapland’s new CEO buys a new robot named SAFETY (Substitute Autonomous Friendly Elf TechnologY) to reduce staffing costs, Gerry’s decides to defeat the robot in a head-to-head trial, no matter what. Disaster ensues, and Gerry, Maddie, and the robot are stranded in a remote island in Finland. Only by working together can they return home in time. Fasten your seatbelts, because Elf ‘n’ SAFETY are coming!

2)

We pan down past a blue sky, past the dreaming spires, to a beautiful, peaceful river. Willows droop lazily over their reflections, and blue-shirted boater-hat wearing students guide their punts downstream.

Brr–br-br-br-boom! Dubstep. A fleet of jacked-up punts with LED lights, spoilers, massive motorised punt poles, etc, slide into view, complete with gyrating dancers in skimpy outfits. One deep-black punt is the centre of attention; it’s Dominic Thatcher, with a first-class degree in engineering. And here’s the young turk, Brian Connor-Smythe, a fresher studying fluid dynamics. They draw up beside each other.

“I live my life a quarter mile at a time. Nothing else matters: not the college, not the department, not my lab and all their bullshit. For those one hundred and twenty seconds or less, I’m free.”

Who can make it to Iffley Lock in time? Will Brian discover the secret of Dominic’s illegal success in research? You’ll only find out, in The Fast and the Furious: Oxford Drift.

Boy With Apple

I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel again tonight and was reminded of the story behind the film’s McGuffin, a fictional priceless Renaissance painting named Boy With Apple.

As you’d expect from a Wes Anderson movie, the painting was not made by a merely talented set painter, but by an acclaimed English painter, Michael Taylor. I love it when creators imbue their works with such meticulous attention to detail — it makes it worthwhile imagining what other things lie within their universes — and I love it just as much when audiences and critics go along with the game.

'71, Big Hero 6

Saw two very good movies recently:

’71 is a fantastically tense and beautifully shot thriller about a British soldier stuck behind ‘enemy lines’ during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I was particularly impressed by the economy of the script; the writer clearly – and correctly – trusts the audience to figure out who the characters are and what it is they want.

Big Hero 6 was a lot better than its initial kid-tastic trailers let on. Sure, it was obvious that the San Fransokyo was going to be amazing, but thankfully my fears about stupid fart jokes were, for the most part, allayed. Instead, I got a tremendously exciting and often quite emotional movie where a bunch of grad students save the day by doing scientific research. Sequels please, Disney!

Interstellar: Two Movies in One

I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of Interstellar tonight, courtesy of BAFTA. Christopher Nolan surprised the audience by introducing the movie with a few words, comparing-but-not-comparing it with 2001.

It’s not as good as 2001 – but you could say that about almost any movie. Is it a great movie, though? No. Is it a good movie? Maybe. If you like Nolan’s other movies and you like science fiction and incredible visuals, it’s certainly worth watching Interstellar; there are many moments and entire sections of the movie which are absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, they’re marred by an often plodding and predictable story, flat characterisation, and confusing cinematography.

There is an excellent 90 minute movie hiding in Interstellar, and probably another very decent 30 minute short film. Unfortunately, you’ll have to see the whole 170 minutes to get to them.

2001 and Master and Commander

Next month, the BFI is releasing a new digital transfer of 2001. I will be there.

Quite apart from the fact that even a big TV can’t replicate the ultra-widescreen experience required to properly appreciate 2001, I think that most normal people – myself included – are incapable of paying sufficient attention to the movie unless forced to do so in a dark cinema. It’s not just that I’d want to check my phone during some of the slower bits (which, to be fair, is most of the movie); it’s that it’d be near-impossible to avoid interruptions like noise from outside, or phones ringing, or people coming and going, and so on. So, see it at the cinema. Also, live in the UK, because if you don’t, you’re out of luck.

2001 is one of the two movies that I rewatch every year or two. Specifically, the flight to the space-station, and then to the Moon:

(didn’t I tell you not to watch this at home?)

What’s the other movie? Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Here’s the opening sequence:

It’s beautiful, and slow. The movie features few battles other than those against the weather. Like 2001, there is much “competence porn” wherein smart and experienced people concoct clever plans. Like 2001, it is a journey into the unknown, on board a state-of-the-art vessel with serious technical problems.

They’re both – mostly – contemplative movies punctuated by moments of sheer terror, providing an enjoyable mix of ASMR-like relaxation with adrenaline that keeps me awake. And once I’ve finished, I feel like I’ve grappled with weighty questions that concern the future of humanity. What more could you want?

KILLER APP: The Movie

We open on two college students driving through the woods at night. One is peering at the bright screen of their phone, giving directions.

“Can’t this piece of junk go any faster?”

“If you want to get out and push, you’re welcome.”

“I heard that if you get to the party before anyone else, you get, like, a lifetime supply of everything.”

“Yeah, well, I haven’t seen any other cars for the last twenty -”

The phone starts beeping.

“Holy shit, it’s here!”

The car screeches down a narrow track. They arrive at a clearing where a very expensive, very high-tech tent has been set up.

“Looks like we’re the first!”

They high-five, and sidle in.

“Hey, we’re here for the app, is there -”

Screams begin.

Smash cut to –

“KILLER APP”

We pull out from these words projected onto a massive screen. It actually says “Clear’s next Killer App” where Clear is a logo for an internet company. The screams turn into rapturous applause. We’re at a press conference, a cross between an Apple keynote and an interview.

A young Cillian Murphy is on the stage.

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“Now, did I hear you say two *billion* users?” asks the interviewer?

“Two point *one* billion users,” corrects Murphy, with a twinkle in his eye. Everyone chuckles.

“What’s the secret of your success?”

“It’s simple. We created an app that helps people help each other. These are hard times, and I believe that we should always be there for our friends and family, whether that’s doing work for each other or just throwing a party together.”

“But it doesn’t hurt that you take a cut of every transaction made on the app, does it?”

“Not much,” he admits, twinkling again. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We’re providing a valuable service and the revenues let us improve the product and reach more and more people.”

“Earlier this year, you acquired Twitter. Everyone wants to know, who’s next? Microsoft? Facebook? Apple?”

He looks thoughtful. “How can I put this? We’re a forward-thinking company. They aren’t. I don’t want to be dragged down with dead weight.” Continue reading “KILLER APP: The Movie”

Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 1

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be posting about my 11 night Mediterranean cruise on the Disney Magic, and other Disney-related thoughts. I’m also (slowly) uploading photos to my Flickr.

On a Disney cruise, you never stop hearing about the fantastic time you’re having. Wasn’t last night’s Captain’s dinner just delicious? Didn’t you love Naples? The movie tonight is going to be simply stunning! Let’s give another round of applause to our cast for such an amazing show!

Most passengers on my cruise did, in fact, think that the dinner was delicious; they did love Naples; and they were more than happy to give a standing ovation to the cast for every show. It’s not as if they needed to be reminded of this, so why were the Disney cast members so insistent that everyone know they’re having a great time?

Here’s why. Try this experiment – find a pen or pencil, put it in your mouth and bite it for a minute.

How do you feel? A bit foolish or embarrassed, probably – but maybe a little happier, as well. The simple act of making yourself smile can actually improve your mood. It won’t take away a bad mood, but it can tip the balance from feeling indifferent to feeling happier. It can turn an indifferent or sulky teenager into a mildly impressed one, and of course, it can turn the average Disney fan into a devoted follower.

Docked in Malta

Disney understands the secret of great advertising. They don’t just want people to buy Disney products – they want them to be happy about what they’ve already bought, so they’ll buy more in the future. And a Disney cruise isn’t just a way to make money, it’s a brilliant opportunity to sell more Disney products – including movies, DVDs, games, toys, theme park tickets, clothes, and of course, more cruises – to a captive audience.

This may sound awful, but here’s the thing: the food on a Disney cruise isn’t bad. The ports – and the shows – range from average to amazing, the cast members are pretty good, the service and facilities are excellent, and the ship is by far the finest-looking cruise ship I’ve seen. Disney has plenty to be proud of. And so, just as Steve Jobs is fond of describing the iPad – a very good device, though not without its flaws – as ‘magical’, ‘revolutionary’, and ‘unbelieveable’, Disney wants you to believe that its cruises – very good, though far from perfect – are just as magical.

(While plenty of other brands regularly exaggerate the quality of their beers, cars, soap, underwear, etc, in their life-changing abilities, people seem to be less bothered by them than by offenders like Apple and Disney. I think there are two factors behind this: firstly, unlike most other companies, it really does seem like they mean it when they say their products are magical. Secondly, there are an awful lot of people out there how really do believe these claims. These two factors combined are enough to enrage millions of anti-fanboys around the world).

The Beginning

The cruise I went on with my girlfriend was an 11 night tour of the Mediterranean on the DCL Disney Magic, departing from Barcelona and visiting Malta, Tunisia, Naples, Civitavecchia, La Spezia, Ajaccio (in Corsica), and Villefranche.

Screen shot 2010-06-01 at 00.37.20

A basic cabin costs around $2000 per person, but thanks to a tip from HotUKDeals, we found tickets for half the price – a great bargain (probably due to the recession). We’d only been on one cruise before, with my parents to Cork (yes, in Ireland) last year. I found it to be a pretty interesting experience – after all, any ship with 4000 passengers and its own rock climbing wall, ice skating rink, and countless restaurants and pools, is bound to be interesting from at least a logistical, engineering, and cultural perspective. Plus it was pretty relaxing. So I wasn’t turned off from the idea of cruising. Continue reading “Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 1”

Neal Stephenson on Science Fiction

I took the afternoon off today to attend a symposium on Science Fiction as a Literary Genre at Gresham College. However, the main reason I went was because Neal Stephenson (author of Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, Quicksilver, etc) was the keynote speaker. Aside from being one of my favourite science fiction authors, Neal is also an excellent speaker. I last saw him give a talk at Trinity College in Cambridge a few years ago, and since he rarely makes public appearances, I was looking forward to today.

Having gone to many conferences in recent years, on subjects varying from neuroscience to space exploration to game design, I’ve seen an awful lot of bad talks, and some very good talks. The good talks tend to fall into two broad categories. The first are given by highly charismatic speakers who have spent a long time perfecting a visually rich and witty presentation, in the sense that the words and the slides merge into one. If you couldn’t see the speaker and their slides, you’d lose a lot. These guys tend to come from the technology world.

The second are those in which the speaker has more or less memorised or pre-written the entire thing, and works without any slides whatsoever. They might consult notes, or even read from them directly, but their words are so engaging that you don’t care. If you could listen to these guys on the radio, you wouldn’t lose anything – in fact, it might actually be better that way. These guys are often from the academic world.

Now, this is obviously an approximation and there are people, myself included, who fall in between these categories. One of the best talks that I ever saw was by Leon Lederman, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, and he was of the second category; a master story-teller if there ever was one, even if he does give the same talk again and again. I became convinced that this was the way to give a good talk – no slides, just words. Unfortunately I was only 18 at the time and I just didn’t have the chops to pull it off.

Over the next few years, I went to a lot of technology and gaming conferences, and saw lots of well-produced presentations. I then concluded that, since I couldn’t just rely on words alone, I had to bolster my talks with images; game design is, after all, quite a visual subject. This worked fairly well and most of the presentations I gave about Perplex City had quite a lot of slides.

Still, I wasn’t entirely happy about this; I had the niggling feeling that I was just telling people stuff rather than making them think. I also remembered how enraptured I could become in just listening to the words of a good speaker, and how that’s much more difficult to do when you’re being distracted by visuals. So I backtracked a little and that’s where I am now.

Neal Stephenson is not only a science fiction author but also an insightful writer on technology and computers; In The Beginning Was The Command Line is a very highly regarded essay on computer operating systems. You might therefore expect him to be of the first, visually-rich type of speaker. However, he is not the sort of person who keeps a blog or writes frequently on technology; perhaps tellingly, both his parents were hard scientists. And so, Neal is a speaker of the first second category – he clearly prepares his talks in detail beforehand and has few to no slides.

The title of Neal’s talk at the symposium was ‘The Fork: Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture’. The subject was essentially about what makes science fiction different from, well, everything else. ‘Everything else’ used to be called ‘mainstream’, but that term is basically meaningless today. Some science fiction fans call non-fans ‘mundanes’ and so that’s the term Neal used (in an obviously joking manner).

Now, I normally don’t take notes at talks any more. I find it distracting, and generally pointless since I never read the notes again afterwards. I didn’t intend to take any notes here either, but Neal said a few things that I found so original that I had to write them down. As usual, these are imperfect, etc. Continue reading “Neal Stephenson on Science Fiction”