Revisiting my predictions for 2015

At the start of last year I made some predictions for the coming year and assigned them percentages based on how likely I thought they were. So now the year is nearly over, I can now see how I did?

The short version? Not so great.

The UK general election will result in a hung parliament (80%). I’m reasonably sure about that but not much else.


If I had to take a stab in the dark I’d say that we’ll end up with a minority Conservative government (40%).

OK at least I was bullish about the Tories’ chances. Though if I genuinely thought this was ‘a stab in the dark’, I’m unsure why I assigned it a probability that implied it was almost as likely to happen as not.

Ed Miliband (60%) and Nick Clegg (90%) will not survive as leaders of their parties and will be replaced by Chuka Umunna (30%) and Tim Farron (50%).

This is probably the only section where I did well. Miliband and Clegg are indeed gone. Farron has taken over. And while Corbyn became leader rather than Umunna, I don’t think anyone including Corbyn was predicting that back in January.

In the event, David Cameron ceases to be leader, I would think that Theresa May is his most likely replacement (50%).

We’ll never know about this one.

Hilary Clinton will announce she’s running for President (90%).

I managed to score in an open goal.

Greece will exit the Eurozone (60%).

Not only was I wrong here, I was wrong about why I might have turned out to be wrong. If Greece stayed in I assumed that would mean one of the following:

1) New Democracy remained in power by scaring voters about the consequences of Grexit;

2) Syriza was elected and the creditor nations made concessions; or

3) Syriza was elected and a standoff dragged on past the end of the year.

Syriza taking over and implementing an even tougher austerity program than the one they inherited was simply not an idea that would have occurred to me.

The highest grossing film globally will be Avengers: Age of Ultron (60%). However, in the US it will be Star Wars: the Force Awakens (60%) and in the UK Spectre (50%).

Which I immediately wound up having to correct because:

When I made the predictions regarding the highest box office takes I did so under the misapprehension that the Force Awakens was being released this summer. In fact, it’s not out till the final week of December. Therefore, I now think there’s a 70% probability that the Avengers will top the US box office and am prepared to raise the probability that Spectre will top the UK box office to 70%.

I really disliked Jurassic World for quite a few reasons: its lame script, boring characters and terrible gender politics. Now I have another one: It messed up these predictions. I can’t actually remember if at the time I wrote that post I knew there was going to be a Jurassic Park sequel coming out in 2015. As it happened it topped the box office both in the US and worldwide. To make matters worse, Age of Ultron was not even the 2nd highest grossing film worldwide; that was Furious 7 another film I’d barely considered!

I was right that Spectre would top the UK box office but probably only because I was wrong about when the Force Awakens was coming out. Given that the later film is breaking box office records in the UK as well as the US it seems to have a good shot at making more money than Spectre here.

So of my 11 predictions: 5 were right,6 were wrong and 1 was null.

Probably my main consolation is that I gave predictions that came true an average probability of 73% and those that were wrong an average 58%. That would appear to indicate I do have some sense of when I might be wrong.

Nonetheless, I wouldn’t bet on it.

My 5 most read posts of the year


I tell myself I write this blog solely for my own amusement and without any expectation it will be read. But that’s clearly not true. One way I know is that I spend time looking at the statistics bit of WordPress to see if anyone is actually reading, and am delighted when it becomes clear quite a few people (and an awful lot of spambots) actually are. So if you are one of those people, thank you for making my hobby worthwhile.

As a way of saying cheers, here’s a roundup of the posts you seemed most interested in reading:


“The New York Times spoke to a number of paleontologists who explained that raptors were about the size of a turkey with the feathers to match, lacked the facial muscles to snarl and had to contend with with overflexible wrists and tails. Indeed, the article quotes one paleontologist saying:

“If you had a good pair of work boots you could kick it in the head and it wouldn’t be frightening”.”


“….far from there being a visual/auditory/kinesthetic divide, it’s actually the case that we absorb information better if it’s presented to us in ways that engage multiple senses rather than leaning on our preferred one.”


“….the reason that the British electorate keeps electing broadly centre-right governments is that it is itself broadly centre-right. The Labour Party either needs a plan to change that fact or to win in spite of it. Wishing it away is not a sustainable strategy.”


“….the reason that the Greens have not let the people who vote for them down…is that, outside Brighton, they’ve not had the chance yet. I strongly doubt that given power at a national level they would be able to deliver their pledge to bring down the deficit without cutting public spending. It would require them to raise vast amounts of extra tax revenue while doing a lot of things that would probably reduce the size of the economy from which they are trying to extract that revenue. In short, we should treat claims by Green politicians that they would end austerity with the same scepticism we would any other political claim.”


“The Soviets had three times as many soldiers as the Finns, thirty times as many aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks. Yet the Red Army was weakened by Stalin’s purges that had killed most of its officers. In addition, many of its soldiers came from warmer climates and were not used to the kind of brutally cold weather they would face in Finland. Nor did the Soviets have enough cold weather equipment. As a result despite their numerical advantage the Soviets made slow progress against the Finnish forces and wracked up casualties as they did it. By the wars conclusion the Red Army had lost 300,000 men – more than 4 times the Finnish losses.”

My favourite indie, arthouse etc. films of 2015

So yesterday I wrote about my favourite blockbuster films of 2015. Today, I’m looking at smaller budget [≤$30 million] fare.

Of the two lists this one is going to be more constrained by what I have and haven’t seen. There are simply more low budgets films out there. To complicate matters further only a small proportion of them are released in Vietnam where I’ve been living for most of the past year. So this really is a personal and idiosyncratic list. Indeed it’s really five films from the past year I’d recommend than anything else.

So with that in mind….

Honourable mentions:  Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass, Carol, Shaun the Sheep.

#5 Brooklyn

This tale of a young Irish immigrant feeling the competing pulls of her new life in 1950s New York and her family back home. This would be run of the mill period fare but for a great lead performance by Saoirse Ronan, whose ability to convey complex emotional states entirely through her eyes is remarkable.

#4 The Theory of Everything

Another potentially pedestrian film that’s elevated by its acting. It touches on Hawking’s theories and his disability. But the heart of the film is the relationship between Hawking and his first wife, Jane, as played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

#3 Steve Jobs

The combination of Danny Boyle directing, Aaron Sorking writing and Michael Fassbender as the lead actor produces the impressive results you would expect. But Steve Jobs is as notable for the pitfalls it avoids as the things it achieves. It’s neither a hagiography nor a hatchet job: Fassbender’s Jobs is someone you can empathise with even when you can’t sympathise. It avoids being trapped by its central characters obsession with electronics, finding human drama among the technology. And while the focus is on Jobs his personality isn’t allowed to crowd out a rich cast of supporting characters.

#2 Amy

Through a combination of archive footage and interviews, director Asif Kapadia traces Amy Winehouse from being a precocious teen singer to her death of alcohol poisoning.

Kapadia realises that no one can more powerfully narrate Winehouse’s story than the singer herself. Her songs are intimate and autobiographical, which allows Kapadia to structure his film around them. That turns it into something I’ve never seen before: a documentary musical. It’s not an easy film to watch and all the worse because the audience knows the hopeful moments will not last. But a woman as badly treated as Winehouse, deserves an advocate as articulate as Kapadia to speak for her now she no longer can.

#1 Sicario


[I’ve not included the trailer for this one because it’s too spoilery for my taste but it’s here if you want to see it.]

This is film is essentially the soul of a John Le Carre novel inside the body of a Harrison Ford vehicle from the 1990s. It’s the story of an idealistic young FBI agent (Emily Blunt) being drawn into a hidden and disquieting scheme to bring down a Mexican drug cartel. Not only does it feature career best performances from Blunt and co-stars Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin but it is probably the best looking film of the year and has the most eerie soundtrack since Jaws. This craft is used for a purpose: Sicario is the best indictment of the war on drugs since the Wire as well as a universal story about walking alone through a moral abyss. None of which negates the fact that it’s a ruthlessly effective thriller.  This is especially true of an electrifying sequence in which a convoy of Federal agents take a senior cartel figure from Juarez – until recently the ‘murder capital of the world’ – to the US, while desperately trying to spot the ambush they know is coming.

My top 5 blockbusters of the year

This time last year I did a list of my favourite films of 2014. I’ve decided to make that a tradition of that but with a tweek: I’m going to do two lists. I find blockbusters hard to compare with arthouse and indie films. So I’m doing a separate countdown for each.*My list of favourite smaller films will be along shortly but to start here are my top blockbusters.

Obviously, this is a subjective exercise and my list is only going to include films released this year that I’ve actually seen. That’s much less of a constraint with this list than it will be when we come to arthouse stuff. I’ve seen most of the year’s ‘big’ movies – Furious 7 and American Sniper are the most conspicuous exceptions – and I can venture a guess that the ones I haven’t seen probably weren’t going to appeal to me enough to make the list.

Last year, I felt that the big budget action films I saw were rather dependable. This year, by contrast they’ve been patchy and unpredictable. Back in January, I would have given you long odds on my preferring Ant Man to Age of Ultron. A fair number of films were disappointing – Spectre being the worst example.  And a lot of films that wound up being much discussed – though not necessarily liked by me – were things like Fury Road, Kingsman and above all Jurassic World were things that weren’t high on many people’s agendas at the start of the year. As a result my top 5 is quite an odd list.

Despite that it’s an impressive collection of films. When this year’s blockbusters have worked they’ve really worked. It’s just not necessarily been the films I was expecting that did that. However, I’m not going to be complaining about mainstream cinema surprising me once in a while.

Honourable mentions: Minions, Ant Man and the Man from Uncle.

Dishonourable mention: the Fantastic Four

#5 Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

This wound up being considerably better than it was trying to be. Rogue Nation was a departure for the franchise. Previously a succession of directors were given apparently free reign to imprint their signature style on the different episodes. But Rogue Nation’s director Christopher McQuarrie blends the styles of his predecessors. So we get the ludicrously over the top visuals, stunts and banter of the third and fourth films. But that’s counterpoised with some of the darkness and pathos of the David Mamet penned first film. This balance exists largely because of Rebecca Fergusson’s performance. She’s a spy adrift in amongst a global conspiracy – sympathetic but definitely not trustworthy. She and McQuarrie manage to make a film that might be cartoonish fun seem like it has some stakes and emotional depth. And do it without sacrificing the fun.

#4 Trainwreck

Normally, I wouldn’t have gone near this one. But I was stuck on a plane for sixteen hours. Seeing it almost made the experience worthwhile. Not that it’s a film I would recommend watching on a plane. Unless of course you enjoy wondering how many of the sex scenes your fellow passengers have noticed.

It’s Incisive and funny. The opening sequence of a dad trying to excuse his philandering by telling his pre-teen daughters that monogamy is like being told ‘you can only play with one doll for the rest of your life’ is one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year. There are plenty of other great scenes along the way.

#3 The Martian

A film about the will to survive and the power of science could easily have been hideously sentimental. A witty script, a talented ensemble and a massive dose of disco music ensure that isn’t a problem.

#2 Inside Out

Even by the Pixar’s standards Inside Out has a strange premise but it’s genius. It allows for a story as mundane as a girl struggling to fit-in in a new town to be told as the most fantastic, exuberant colourful epic imaginable.

It’s remarkably profound. It touches on a lot of real psychology and neuroscience. Its touching conclusion is that all emotions, even sadness, are valuable. So ever so subtly it becomes a critique of the cult of positive thinking.

Also the running joke about the jingle from a gum commercial becoming an earworm is inspired.

#1 Star Wars: the Force Awakens

If there were an objective way to judge these things then that would probably reveal that Inside Out is better than the Force Awakens. But this is a list of my personal favourites and no other film has given me anywhere near as much joy as this one. That’s partly a function of the fact that I’m probably more emotionally invested in Star Wars than in any other franchise. But this was a film that knew how to put plentiful audience excitement to good use. Indeed the anticipation of this film, heightened by a staggeringly good marketing campaign that made it look awesome without revealing much, was more fun than actually watching 95% of films. It successfully harnessed the nostalgia for the original trilogy whilst creating its own immediately lovable cast of characters. And as you would expect of a film directed by JJ Abrams it looks amazing. It’s a year till Rogue One is released and I’m already bursting to see it.


*As a rule of thumb I am taking a blockbuster to be a film with a budget of more than $30 million.

11 barriers to a Lib-Lab pact

Why I think it would be so difficult to make happen (but think it’s still worth considering).

The notion of an electoral pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats is being discussed more widely than at any time since the Blair-Ashdown ‘project’. Admittedly that doesn’t mean it’s being that widely discussed. There have been some articles in the Guardian and a segment on the Daily Politics about the notion. So the discussion is at a rather low level but real nonetheless.

That’s still remarkable. British politics is a tribal business and such discussions are easily construed as treachery. But the sight of the Tories entrenching themselves in government for the foreseeable future and a shared sense of desperation has created a sense amongst at least some that this might be worth exploring.

However, the obstacles are pretty vast. The most important are:

1. Jeremy Corbyn is Labour leader

Don’t get me wrong, the new Labour leader has fans in the Lib Dems. A lot of party members were intensely opposed to bombing of Syria. And some joined with Labourites in being incredulous that men who had made statements expressing sympathy for terrorist groups were branded ‘terrorist sympathisers’.


Nonetheless, for a party with strong centrist tendencies he is a deeply unattractive figure. His economic policy seems doctrinaire and dangerous, his ambivalence on the EU and hostility to NATO jar with our internationalist instincts, and the reluctance to compromise that propelled his rise is so antithetical to a party that makes a positive virtue of it. So many (perhaps most) Lib Dems – including myself – would rather see the Conservatives continue to govern than see him become PM.

So from here on out I will be writing on the assumption that Labour moderates manage in the near future to rest back control of their party. I am unsure if that will happen but if it doesn’t the topic is simply academic: a party of the centre-left is not going to help the far-left defeat the centre-right.

2. Mutual antipathy

An ex-Lib Dem MP recently wrote of Labour moderates being branded Tories by the far left: “They can now get a taste of the shit they threw at us”. This visceral reaction is all the more striking because the MP in question is one whose personality and politics would make them a prime candidate to support an alignment with Labour.

One imagines that many right of centre Labourites had a similar reaction watching the party that had lambasted them for breaking a promise not to raise tuition fees, itself break a pledge not to raise tuition fees.

3. Genuine policy differences

The Labour right might agree more with the Lib Dems than they do with either the Tories or their own left-wing but there are plenty of substantive differences. Indeed, one major complicating factor is that the Labour MPs who are closest to the Lib Dems on economics are generally the furthest away on constitutional reform, law and order, and immigration.

There’s also the issue of trident to contend with. Lib Dem policy is against any renewal yet the maintenance of the system is of totemic importance for some Labour moderates.

4. Differences of style

The Labour right – at least in its Blairite iteration – is very focused on looking ‘tough’ and ‘credible’. By contrast, the preoccupation of the post-coalition Lib Dems is appearing trustworthy and compassionate. Hence our decision to elect Tim Farron as our leader.

5.What to do about the areas where the two parties are in direct competion

The number of such areas was dramatically reduced by the post-coalition collapse of the Lib Dems. Nonetheless, they do exist and they pose a dilemma. If the parties are trying to be in harmony nationally then fighting locally risks disrupting that. But calling a truce may turn activists in those areas against the bargain as a whole. And worse still if the two parties cease opposing each other in those areas then another party may come in and fill that void.

6. What to do about the Greens

Caroline Lucas has recently called for ““joint tickets” in some constituencies, with a representative from either Labour, Lib Dems or the Greens agreeing on key principles.” If we assume that Corbyn is gone and the moderates are back in control then her attitude would probably change. Nonetheless, if the Greens are not included then the anti-Tory vote is still split. But trying to include them makes it even harder to get everyone agreed on a policy platform.

7. Bad precedents

The SDP-Liberal alliance eventually turned into a near death experience for British Liberalism. The last Lib-Lab pact was followed by the Liberal’s taking significant losses. The brutal experience of coalition has not exactly enamoured Lib Dems to co-operation with other parties. And the various liberal splinter groups that have allied with the Conservative Party were eventually consumed by it. Lib Dems have reason to be wary of such arrangements.

8. How much do the two parties really have to offer each other?

Labour moderates might look at a party with 8 MPs and 7-8% in most opinion polls and wonder whether forming an alliance with them is worth the bother.

Conversely, the platter of warmed up SPADs the Labour right served up as potential PMs in their last leadership election will generate even less enthusiasm amongst Lib Dem members than they did among Labour ones.

9. Will Lib Dem voters play ball?

In 2015, quite a number of former Lib Dem voters seem to have bolted from the party in fear of the prospect of electing Ed Miliband prime minister. This illustrates one fairly major drawback of any alliance: the risk that it would lead to potential Lib Dem voters switching to the Tories. This is especially acute given that one impact of the coalition was to push the Party’s support base rightwards.

10. Might an alliance curtail the Lib Dems ability to take seats of the Tories?

There’s a strong argument that the best thing the Lib Dems can do for Labour is defeat the Tories in rural and suburban seats where the Labour Party itself cannot compete. And if you are going to being fighting in seats where the Labour Party is generally unpopular isn’t being in an alliance with it rather a handicap?

11. It doesn’t solve the fundamental problem

Add together, the Labour and Lib Dem votes in 2015 and they barely add up to more than the number the Tories achieved on their own. Now as we’ve seen you can’t simply transfer Lib Dem voters en masse to a Labour led centre-left alliance. Many would switch to the Tories or stay at the home. And the concessions Labour would presumably need to make to the Lib Dems would probably lead them to lose votes to the UKIP and the Greens. So in reality it is probably not possible for the centre-left to win simply by uniting its existing support, it needs to be attracting new voters.

To reinforce that point consider that the right-wing of British politics is at least as fragmented as the left and that the combined the votes of the Conservatives, UKIP and the DUP in 2015 amounted to an absolute majority.

The centre-left’s problem is not primarily that it is divided. It is that the electorate do not share its instincts on welfare, immigration and taxation. It either needs a plan to win under those constraints or change them. Forming alliances might make that easier but it doesn’t negate the need for it.


Having said all that I’m not prepared to totally dismiss the possibility because….well it’s an idea I feel the need to write a thousand words about in an analytical manner. When I hear other Lib Dems mention the idea I raise practical objections rather than questioning their intelligence and/or loyalty. That’s quite a change because I really don’t like the Labour Party. The majority of my time as a Liberal Democrat has been spent fighting it. Indeed, there have been stages in my life when defeating it was the main thing I got out of bed to do. Yet if Chuka Umunna or Stella Creasy were Labour leader I couldn’t honestly claim to be indifferent whether they or a Tory became Prime Minister. And if the Labour Party schisms – which is unlikely but nonetheless possible – then it seems a given that the Lib Dems will have to reach an understanding – tacit or otherwise – with one or other faction.

So as remote as the prospect of peace between Labour and the Liberal Democrats is it’s not one I feel able either to ignore nor oppose outright.

Force Awakens spoiler post

So I’ve written a spoiler free review of the Force Awakens, a post about why its better than the prequels and why its a step forward for women in sci-fi. But there is one scene I want to talk about but which demands particular care with regards to spoilers. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know which one. So before reading any further please be clear that:

  1. This post contains spoilers for the Force Awakens.
  2. If you read this post before seeing the Force Awakens you will learn plot points that will reduce your enjoyment of the film.
  3. The kind of things I will be revealing about this film are the kind people tend to be disappointed to learn in advance.
  4. I would advise not reading this post unless you have seen the Force Awakens.
  5. And just to repeat, this post will contain spoilers.

I expect that the most divisive scene will be Kylo Ren killing Han Solo. There’s probably no popular way to write out the most loved character in the franchise. However, it was probably necessary. The elder cast members will naturally move aside over time and the biggest star of them all is the most liable to outshine the new cast. It also wouldn’t surprise me if given Ford’s long standing antipathy to the series he may well have made it a condition of his return. I’ve seen some criticism that the scene was abrupt. On the contrary I would suggest it was four films in the making. His character has always been marked by a tension between rougish instincts telling him to run and a noble core calling him to greatness. He’s not called ‘Solo’ for nothing but he also can’t quite shake a connection to something bigger than himself.

In his death scene his noble side decisively wins out as he sacrifices himself to try and save someone else. And fitting also that it should be the family he has started with Leia that takes him to that place.

Oh and I think it provides the best illustration of well this new instalment fits with the rest of the cannon. Because of course Han and Leia would have named their son after Obi Wan Kenobi.

The Force Awakens is also a fitting valedictory lap for Han. It feels like Abrams has one won Ford over to Star Wars. And one can see why that might be. The man who reputedly told Lucas George, you can type this shit, but you sure has hell can’t say it is given the kind of sharp dialogue that Lucas wasn’t interested in but which Abrams clearly see the value of. And Ford seems more enthused in this role than he’s been in anything for a decade at least.

While we are doing spoilery stuff:

I like that Abrams managed to sneak Obi-Wan and Frank Oz in. Apparently when you Rey picks up Luke’s lightsabre you hear Ewan McGregor, Frank Oz and even Alec Guinness. That seems a good way to deal with the prequels: acknowledge the through threads that link it to the original trilogy and the new films like Yoda, Obi Wan and that sabre, but don’t remind us of things best left forgotten.

Equality in a galaxy far far away [Spoilers]


[Spoilers] The Force Awakens suggests that Hollywood is gradually learning that women can be heroes too.

In the run up to the release of the Force Awakens, a video popped up of all the lines from the original Star Wars trilogy spoken by women other than Princess Leia. It lasts barely a minute. The tendency of genre cinema to sideline women is not exactly unique to Star Wars. If you look at the top ten highest grossing films of the year at the US box office from the turn of the millennium onwards it is not until 2012, that a non-comedy with a female lead was among was them. In that year three films made it including the Hunger Games. Its sequel would go on to be 2013’s top grosser. The last time a female lead film managed that was the Exorcist in 1973.

Fortunately, 2012 does not look like an anomaly. The trend has been moving in the right direction for a while now. Star Wars itself was one of the first signs of this.  The frankly rather weird golden bikini scene in Return of the Jedi not withstand, Princess Leia was much tougher and more resourceful than the average female sci-fi character. She was allowed to, for example, take charge of her own rescue from the Death Star. She forms one of sci-fi’s triumvirate of iconic strong female characters: the others being Ripley and Sarah Connor. They were important characters not just in on and of themselves but as reference points for future writers looking to create tough female characters – indeed Riply and Alien probably only got made because of the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom. But these three characters were only a first step. They were still tiny minorities in their films cast. And only Ripley was a protagonist; Leia and Sarah Connor still fitted into the traditional love interest/damsel in distress role albeit in a decidedly non-traditional way.

More recently this trend seems to have accelerated dramatically. Women have moved from being supporting to lead characters. They save the day and may be helped or hindered in that mission by male supporting characters. The Hunger Games is probably the most prominent example of this but it extends to its imitators and now even into superhero films a domain in which there’s previously been great resistance to female leads. Ripley no longer seems so singular.

And fittingly the franchise that gave us Princess Leia has now joined that trend. When the Force Awakens begins it doesn’t seem that way. It first looks like Oscar Isaac’s dashing fighter pilot will be the hero. Then it appears to be Finn – the renegade stormtrooper played by John Boyega. But then Rey and Finn meet for the first time and it becomes clear that Abrams and Lucasfilm are doing something else.

Obviously the fact that such a massive franchise has as its two leads a woman and a person of colour is encouraging.* But what caught my attention was the film having a joke at Finn’s expense for mansplaining. He initially spots Rey as she is struggling with two thugs trying to steal BB8 and he rushes over to help. But before he gets there she’s already put her opponents on the floor. Then when stormtroopers show up and start blasting, he grabs her hand to dash away. This leads her to object that she “knows how to run” and it becomes apparent that his holding onto her is actually slowing them down. Then when Tie Fighters start attacking them from the air, she then has to lead him to the ship that will take them to safety!

I liked this scene because of its subtlety. Of late there’s been a lot of talk of ‘Everyday Sexism’. This seemed like an example of Everyday Equality. It wasn’t showy, preachy or given much weight but it nonetheless still made a point about the daftness of a man assuming a woman isn’t as capable as you are. And where better to place that than in a film with a disproportionate appeal to boys!

As the films progresses, it becomes an apparent that Rey is the hero and Finn is the love interest. She defeats Kylo Renn not him and in the final scene she’s the one who goes off to become a Jedi. But apart from the scene I describe above her being the hero and a woman is not really stressed. The film doesn’t high-five itself for having a female lead. It’s treated as normal – as someday it hopefully will be.

Indeed, I would suggest that Rey is excellently placed to be a role model for young fans. In contrast to the heroine of the original trilogy she’s not a princess but a very ordinary person – a scrap metal scavenger in fact – which should make her more relatable. I also imagine that she will ultimately be more impactful in this regard than the Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. That’s partly a function of the fact that Star Wars reaches children whereas the darker Hunger Games is not called ‘young adult’ for nothing. And Katniss is sometimes a difficult character to like – which is both intentional and a valid depiction of someone dealing with trauma. But nonetheless more people are probably are going to wind up dressing up as the more consistently appealing Rey.

My sense is that we’ve now probably reached a tipping point with female heroes. The Hunger Games has demonstrated beyond doubt that have a women in a lead role is not going to scare away audiences. Indeed, surprise surprise if casting choices don’t send women and girls subliminal messages that genre films aren’t for them, then they will start watching them and thereby grow the studio’s revenues.  An observation that’s going to become all the more obvious if, as seems quite possible, the Force Awakens goes on to become the highest grossing movie of all time.

I suspect that therefore the battles for feminists going forward will be on slightly different terrain. Firstly, there’s the question of what kind of female heroes Hollywood gives. Katniss and Rey are encouraging examples. But there are more concerning ones. In particular, the year’s other super huge hit at the US box office, Jurassic World took its heroine on an appropriately prehistoric journey. Through confrontations with dinosaurs, children and Chris Pratt’s macho man she discovers that despite her successful career she was a failure as a woman on account of her lack of procreation. Given that the audience probably didn’t notice she was the lead and that the Pratt centric marketing campaign did nothing to point it out to them, this example probably won’t way too heavily on producer’s minds. But nonetheless it is something to be vigilant for.

The next big step will I suspect be to start casting women in a wider and less clichéd selection of supporting roles. There are signs of this in the Force Awakens. We see a woman playing a menacing commander of the First Order and another mo caps the wizened voice of history. And of Carrie Fisher is now playing not Princess but General Leia. Nonetheless, when it comes to roles like villains, soldiers, mentors, thugs etc choosing men still seems to be the reflexive choice of casting directors. As long as that continues we will see many great female characters submerged in otherwise heavily male casts.

Nonetheless, the Force Awakens is clearly a step forward. It creates space for women both in its lead role and in supporting ones beyond those that would traditionally be given to women. And it allows those characters to be proper characters rather than stand-ins for their gender. I therefore think it is not only a good film but a film that will hopefully do good as well.



Note: At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m a man writing about the depiction of women. I don’t think that’s something men shouldn’t do – clearly because if I did I wouldn’t have – but it does mean that even more than usual this post is subject to someone coming along with a better arguments.


*If we count Oscar Isaacs – who’s Hispanic – as the third lead then even more encouragingly it’s a woman and two people of colour.

10 reasons why the Force Awakens is so much better than the prequels [Moderate spoilers]

It goes well beyond a lack of Jar Jar.


Just to reiterate spoilers ahead.

1. More careful casting

One of the most striking ways the prequels fail is that there’s a real dearth of good performances despite having some really great actors working on them. A lot of that is probably down to the fact the script is rubbish and the fact Lucas doesn’t really give his actors any direction. But the some of it comes down to a mismatch between role and performer. Indeed the casting for the prequels often seems more like fan casting than the work of professionals. Sure it sounds like Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi master would be cool but actually his charisma was wasted on an inert character like Mace Windu.

By contrast, one senses that there’s been quite a bit more auditioning and lateral thinking going on in the run up to the Force Awakens. Fresh talent has been favoured over big names. And even when well known actors were cast it seems to have been with more focus on what they could do in this film than what they had done in others. I doubt for example that many fans were asking to see Domhnall Gleeson as a villain but he’s great as a strutting, sneering imperial commander.

2. JJ Abrams gives actions scenes a focus

During even the biggest and most complicated action sequences in the Force Awakens, it is clear where you are supposed to be looking and what you should be paying attention to. The result is that all that action doesn’t simply become a blur.

3. The lightsabre fights are slower

There’s an in-universe explanation for why this is. Neither Rey nor Kylo Ren are as experienced force users as Obi-Wan, Anakin, Yoda, Grevous, Duku, Sidious and the other characters we see wielding lightsabres in the prequels. Plus Ren is wounded. But I suspect that the driving reason is (similarly to the previous point) Abrams wants to make these scenes legible to the audience.  And it works. Rather than looking like an overchoreographed dance with glow sticks, Rey and Ren battling gives you a real sense of two people trying to kill each other. A more human speed allows for more human emotion.

4. It manages to surprise us

Abrams deserves a lot of credit for forcing the marketing team to hold back spoilers. And while fans worked out a fair amount of stuff in advance, there were still surprises. There were precious few in the prequels as they had to tread a path that had already been laid out by the original trilogy.

5. It is not redundant

You remember how the first time you saw Darth Vader kill Obi-Wan you thought “this is alright but I need the back-story of these two spelled out in much greater detail before I can emotionally invest”. No? Me neither! Within its own parameters a New Hope had established the dynamic of that relationship. We didn’t need to see it spelled out. Indeed, the prequels never quite explain why they exist.

By contrast, the Force Awakens explores questions that the original trilogy left hanging. How would Luke cope with being the last Jedi? Could Han and Leia live happily ever after? Would supporters of the Empire just give up or would they keep fighting? The only way to answer those questions was to carry the story forward as the Force Awakens does.

6. Showing rather than telling

Honest Trailers make a running joke out of how much of the prequels consists of ‘people sitting in semi-circles’. Numerous talky council meetings have precisely the effect you would expect on the drama.

Abrams avoids this problem. Action and characters moments are interspersed and indeed often occur simultaneously. Even when he needs someone to deliver a chunk of exposition, he finds an interesting way to stage it. Take for example, the scene that features heavily in the final trailer during which Han reveals that the Jedi are real. The Galaxy shaking importance of this news is underlined by surrounding the characters with a holographic map of the galaxy.

7. Decent dialogue

Lines like “That lightsabre belongs to me. Then come and get it.” are not exactly Shakespeare. But they are perfectly adequate. They don’t take the audience out of the moment nor presumably do they make the actors saying them feel stupid. By contrast, Anakin Skywalker talking about sand more or less ruins the scene for everyone.

8. Better roles for women

I will blog more about this tomorrow but apart from Padme there aren’t really any notable roles for women in the prequels. And even she ultimately winds up being defined by her relationship with a man and rather boring.

There is no equivalents to Rey, Captain Phasma nor Maz Kanata. And of course Leia – the character Padme was an inferior substitute for – is back.

9. A real interest in its characters

This difference is a sufficiently pronounced that I spotted it even in the teaser trailer:

….Lucas was really good at coming up with cool things to fill a universe with but hopelessly inept at using them to build an engaging story. Watching the Phantom Menace one feels that not only were the special effects computer generated but that the plot and dialogue were too. It’s lifeless and lacking in pathos.

Compare that with the shot of John Boyega that opens the trailer:


His expression, the sweat pouring from his face and his isolation all combine to make one feel his utter terror. This single shot generated more empathy from than anything in the entire prequel trilogy let alone the Phantom Menace trailer.

10. Collaboration

It is easy to attribute the rest of these differences to Abrams being a better writer and director than Lucas. And there’s probably some truth to that and Lucas probably deep down knows that’s true. He allowed other people to direct the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and he appears to have approached Ron Howard among others about directing the Phantom Menace.

That still leaves open the question of why the prequels are so much worse than a New Hope. Part of the reason may have been that in twenty year gap between them CGI came along and allowed him to indulge himself. But that wouldn’t explain the differences in say casting.

A better explanation is provided by a ridiculously detailed and persuasive 70 minute video made by a random Star Wars fan. He tracks the problems with the Phantom Menace and attributes them to the fact that there wasn’t anyone at Lucasfilm who could tell Lucas when he was going wrong. It was his company, he was creator of the franchise and he didn’t have any proper oversight.

It seems likely that even had Abrams wanted total and unchecked control of the Force Awakens¸ Disney – who now own Lucasfilm – would have refused to give it to him. He therefore had to work and take ideas from a large team of people. And in interviews Abrams himself has praised the quality of that team.

We tend to think of art as the product of a solitary genius and criticise works that don’t appear to fit that mould. For example, Vox’s review of the Force Awakens complained: “[t]his film feels committee-approved to delight fans”. But film is an inherently collaborative medium. It takes a whole cast and crew to make not just some grand visionary. And I’m glad that ensuring audiences are delighted with the film is considered worthy of a whole committee rather than being left to the temperamental ego of a lonely individual.

The force is strong with this one


The first good Star Wars film of my life time has arrived!

It would be fair to say that not every Star Wars fan appreciated George Lucas’ decision to go back and redo the special effects in the original trilogy. Indeed ‘the special editions’, as they became known, were one of the reasons that Star Wars fans – uniquely among fandoms – talk about the creator of their obsession with derision. Yet for me ‘the special editions’ are Star Wars. Had they not been made I never would have gotten to see the Star Wars trilogy – at the time it was still the trilogy – in a cinema. And had that not happened I doubt it would have made such an impression. If you are eight then Darth Vader is probably scary on any size screen. But when he’s lifesize and Dolby surround sound makes it seem like he’s behind you, he’s terrifying. I couldn’t watch the scene from the Empire Strikes Back where he toys with Luke Skywalker. Yet I immediately knew I wanted to see it again.

That experience begat an obsession. First, I collected some Star Wars pogs. Then my parents bought me the trilogy on VHS and I rewatched them obsessively. And then I discovered the books that made up the ‘extended expanded universe’. Indeed for much of my teens I was writing what would now be called ‘fanfic’ – only being something of a slow adopter I wrote mine in notebooks rather than online. That doesn’t make me the ardent Star Wars lover by any stretch of the imagination but that just shows you how truly fanatical some fans are. For the formative years of my life when my mind wondered it tended to go to a galaxy far far away and the friends I made tended to be people with whom I could discuss the series.

Now those of you familiar with the history of Star Wars will notice there’s something I haven’t mentioned. My period of greatest devotion to the franchise coincided with the release of the first new films in a decade. This wasn’t quite the trauma for me that it was for some fans. I wasn’t yet a sophisticated enough viewer to digest quite how bad they were. And I appreciated the avalanche of new toys and books they precipitated. But I knew there was something missing. Whereas the original trilogy was endlessly rewatchable, the Phantom Menace was instantly forgettable.

Except geek culture has not forgotten that moment. The disappointment of waiting so long for something derisory has lingered over the run up to the Force Awakens. Sure the marketing campaign – which has been scarily effective – made it look awesome but was that just setting us up to be deflated again?

Having now seen the Force Awakens, I am happy to report there is little risk of that. It’s the best Star Wars film since at least the Empire Strikes Back. Perhaps even the best ever. As I see reviews and speak to others about it I may pick up on mistakes or missed opportunities. But walking out of the cinema I had no complaints. This was precisely the film I (and I suspect many others) had been hoping for.

After three sterile prequels we now have a Star Wars sequel with blood in its veins. There are glances in this film that convey more humanity than the entire prequel trilogy. It made me grin and gave me goosebumps more than any other film I’ve seen this year. A sense of joy permeates the Force Awakens much as the force does the fictional universe. But that is balanced by real moments of darkness and dread. So it gets big emotions but manages them without being mawkish or melodramatic.

It harnesses the mythology of the series rather than being bogged down by it. Instead of slowing down to justify itself it bounds along, and as it goes shows us the immensely rich universe in a way that feels familiar yet is still fresh. That extends to its use of the classic characters who are reintroduced but as supporting players to the new characters who will carry the series forward. And on the evidence of the Force Awakens I look forward to seeing a lot more of them.

So thank you J.J! All hail Disney! Roll on Rogue One and Episode VIII! May the force be with you each and every one!