Posts Tagged ‘Review’

Warning: total spoilers.

Jurassic World: Dominion is not a good movie. Let’s get that out of the way up top. Given how terrible the first two Jurassic World movies were, I wasn’t expecting it to be, and yet I felt the need to see it anyway, just to make sure. Possibly this coloured my perception of it from the outset, but generally speaking, I’m not a person who purposefully sets out to hatewatch things, as I’d much rather be pleasantly surprised by an okayish film than proven right by a dud. I will, however, spitefinish an aggravating film in order to justify writing about it afterwards, and having sat through all 146 minutes of Dominion – unlike my mother, who walked out of our session and went home after the first five minutes because it was so goddamn loud – I feel the need to save others the time and money of doing likewise.

At every level of execution, Dominion is sloppily made. It has the feel of a group project where only one person was really trying, leading everyone else to coast along on their coattails without stopping to consider whether their work itself, for all the effort put into it, was actually any good. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the dinosaurs themselves, which ought to be the best thing about a goddamn dinosaur movie, but which in Dominion are woefully underwhelming. There’s nothing inherently wrong with mixing practical effects and CGI – in fact, done well, the results can be spectacular, as per the original Jurassic Park film – but here, the inconsistency is maddening. The practical effects look rubbery and cheap, but even that wouldn’t matter if they had any soul; instead, they have less personality than the titular 90s sitcom Dinosaurs and are considerably less memorable.

The dinosaur CGI, meanwhile, is really only good for two things: dramatic, distant landscape shots of dinosaurs in the modern world, and very slow closeups. Put them in motion, however, and the animals end up with a weird, furze-edged blur to them, as if they’ve been clumsily greenscreened in circa 2003. Every scene with fast-running raptors – and there are a number of these – looks like a video game cutscene where your custom-built player-character is moving through a pre-rendered environment: there’s that constant sense of something fake being imposed on an a setting rather than being part of it, and for a film with this sort of budget, that’s inexcusable. Nor have any lessons been learned from the first two films regarding a consistent sense of scale: the dinosaur sizes wax and wane depending on the camera angle, changing from moment to moment in such an egregious fashion that even my nine year old noticed. And to top things off, the climactic dinosaur-on-dinosaur fight scene – tacked on and plot-pointless though it is – looks like it was shot in a gymsock only sporadically lit by a pen-light: you can barely see anything, and when you do, it’s shaky to the point of incoherence.

With veteran names like Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern and Sam Neill returned to the cast, you might hope the acting was good, but it’s not. With the exception of a few bit players, the performances are uniformly flat, a failing I’m inclined to lay directly at the feet of director and EP Colin Trevorrow. In addition to directing the first Jurassic World and executive producing Fallen Kingdom, Trevorrow has writing credits for all three films, and frankly that goes a long way towards explaining why they never get any better. Trevorrow’s dialogue is flat, his pacing abysmal and his plotting worse; that he also manages to get consistently stilted performances out of some otherwise talented actors makes him the quadruple threat no-one asked for. As with the dinosaurs, he also doesn’t know how to shoot people in anything other than closeup or running at a distance, presumably because letting the characters inhabit the space for more than two seconds at a time would require him to use functional, character-developing dialogue and a basic understanding of how to block non-action sequences. Given Hollywood’s propensity to let mediocre white men fail upwards, however, this doubtless means Disney will snap him up for the MCU or Star Wars, so it’s hard to feel too bad for him.

Another constant issue was the sound, which – look. Possibly the obscene volume of the action scenes at our session, which chased my mother out of the cinema and had the rest of us watching with our hands over our ears, was the fault of our local cinema. I’ve been there many times before – recently, even, to see Top Gun: Maverick, which to my great annoyance is a superbly constructed film – and never felt like my eardrums were being blown out, but perhaps today was an exception. Whatever the case, the dialogue was normal, but the music and sound effects came through at a volume that could shatter glass, and while the cinema might bear some blame, the clear disparity between the two felt very much like a sound balancing failure, such that if I’d been watching it at home, I suspect I’d have been constantly turning the volume up for the dialogue, then ratcheting it down again for the action scenes. 0/10, do not recommend.

And then there’s the actual plot.

After a completely pointless, never-to-be-revisited opening scene in which a giant prehistoric sea-crocodile eats a fishing boat in Alaska, Dominion kicks off with what can only be described as a shitty YouTube video recap of the previous two films. As a background montage of what’s meant to be phone-camera footage of regular people encountering dinosaurs plays, a journalistic voiceover explains why dinosaurs have been walking among us for the past four years while also mentioning “by the way, we think there’s a human clone of a lady called Charlotte Lockwood walking around somewhere, only she’s missing,” without ever explaining why this relates to dinosaurs or how anyone knows about her, because in-universe continuity is for the weak. As dinosaurs are now apparently a global problem, with underground genetic engineering and illegal breeding farms cropping up everywhere, we also learn that a company called Biosyn has emerged to do Good Dinosaur Science and is relocating rescued animals to a scenic sanctuary in the Italian mountains, where they can live safely while also being studied for Beneficial Medical Research Purposes. Biosyn is run by a man named Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott), which is a callback to the original Jurassic Park, where “Dodgson” was the guy who paid Dennis Nedry to smuggle dinosaur DNA samples out in a shaving cream can. Presumably, this is meant to be the same guy many years later, but as that’s never confirmed and has no real bearing on the plot, it doesn’t actually matter. We get a glimpse of the journalist giving the voiceover walking through some trees as she explains all this, and then she, like so much else in this film, is never seen again.

Cut to Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) engaged in a midnight heist to rescue a random baby dinosaur from an illegal breeding facility. Some action happens as she and her buddy flee, and we see that she’s still in touch with Franklin (Justice Smith) from Fallen Kingdom, who now apparently works for the CIA’s dinosaur division (yes, really). Cut again to Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) as he lassos a random parasaurolophus from horseback, because that’s absolutely a thing you could do without dying. Dinosaur acquired, he proceeds to… I don’t know, hand it over to the dinosaur rescue people? It’s not really clear, and the rest of the herd just goes running off, so there’s not really any point to it except once again Making Chris Pratt Look Cool And Manly. Not to kinkshame anyone, but between this, Owen Grady Looking Like Rough Trade From A Vintage Coke Ad By A Motorcycle in the first film and Owen Grady Building A House By Hand (While Sweating) in the second film, it feels a little like Trevorrow has a particular masc fantasy he’s a little bit obsessed with, and which he perhaps might want to consider working through in a venue other than film. I dunno, man, I’m just spitballing.

Next up, we’re reintroduced to Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), aka Clone Daughter, now aged fourteen, who’s apparently been living in a rustic cabin in the woods with Claire and Owen as her parents for the last four years, because I guess that makes sense. The creepiness of the fact that they took her illegally and have kept her out of school and away from other people, let alone anyone her own age, is completely glossed over as fine, because they’re keeping her safe, you guys! Nor are we invited to wonder how this weird little family unit works; the fact that Claire and Owen weren’t even a couple four years ago goes unacknowledged, while Claire herself has morphed from a highly-strung, child-free CEO in heels into a homesteading mother and partner in flannel who rescues dinosaurs on the side with zero difficulty because the plot requires it of her. Maisie chafes at her confinement, but that’s ascribed to her being fourteen and moody instead of, you know, a kid in a fucked-up situation. Also, Blue the velociraptor is here, and she’s had a baby Blue, even though that should be impossible! But oh noes! A nefarious Dinosaur Bad Guy has followed Owen back from one of his dinosaur hunts and spotted both Maisie and Baby Blue, and is planning to kidnap them!

And then, because this film doesn’t have enough balls in the air, we cut randomly to Texas, where Dr Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) has been called in to investigate after a plague of giant locusts attacks an independent farmstead and eats all their crops. The neighbouring farm, however, remains untouched – because their crop comes from Biosyn seeds. Keen observers might wonder why Satler, who was a paleobotonist in the original film, is now being called in for locust attacks; the answer, as best I can tell, is Because Reasons, with base notes of Studying Extinct Plants Is Basically The Same As Studying Alive Insects, It’s All Science, Just Roll With It. Naturally, then, the only way for Ellie to prove that the giant, provably prehistorically-engineered locusts come from Biosyn – that is, the only company known to be dicking around with dinosaur DNA and whose crops are the only ones the locusts don’t eat, where the fuck else would anyone think the locusts came from – is to join up with her paleontologist ex, Alan Grant (Sam Neill), and use her in with chaotician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who now has a gig with Biosyn, so she and Alan can break into their labs and steal a matching DNA sample to prove where the locusts came from. Because this is clearly a job for them, and not, say, any of their journalist or government agency contacts. Obviously.

Back in Rustic Cabinlandia, Maisie and Baby Blue have now been kidnapped, because Maisie disobeyed and went outside on her own! Her protective kidnapper-parents were right after all! So Claire calls up Franklin at the dinosaur CIA, who tells them that the kidnapper is named Rainn Delacourt (Scott Haze), and that there’s a sting operation afoot to catch him doing illegal dinosaur stuff, which they should stay out of; he also explains that they have an inside man at Biosyn named Ramsay (Mamoudou Athie). Naturally, Claire and Owen ignore Franklin – or possibly he helps them during this bit; my attention was phasing in and out due to the terrible sound balancing – but either way, they head off to Malta, meet up with Owen’s old dinosaur-taming buddy Barry (Omar Sy), who we met briefly in Jurassic World, and then infiltrate a black market dinosaur bazaar, which, as we’re in Malta, looks exactly as stereotypical as you’d imagine. We’re also introduced to Kayla (DeWanda Wise), a pilot who takes Baby Blue to Biosyn and, in the process, catches sight of Maisie at the airstrip, so that when she then encounters Claire at the dino bazaar and realises she’s looking for her daughter, she feels obligated to help.

With Maisie nowhere in sight, Barry and Owen spot Rainn with a random evil henchlady, Soyona Santos (Dichen Lachman), who was responsible for transporting Maisie and Baby Blue for Dodgson, but who is now trying to offload some genetically modified raptors which h ave been trained-slashed-engineered to attack anyone she indicates with her special laser pointer. Do the raptors come from Biosyn? Who knows! It doesn’t matter! Santos is only there so that when Barry and the sting operation interrupt the deal, she can flash her little laser on everyone to instigate a big dinosaur chase scene, while other for-sale dinosaurs end up on the loose. (Rainn is summarily eaten by said dinosaurs, but not before Owen gets him to admit that Maisie is at Biosyn. You’ll forgive me if I’ve got the order of events slightly backwards, but this section in particular was both very loud and structurally incomprehensible.) Thus armed with the knowledge of Maisie’s wherebaouts, Owen runs away from raptors on a motorbike while Kayla and Claire do the same in a truck en route to the airstrip. (We get a glimpse of Barry arresting Santos, and then neither of them are ever seen again; as for what befalls the random civilians left to fend for themselves in the face of sudden dinosaur carnage, who knows? The movie certainly doesn’t!) This culminates in Owen riding his motorbike onto the moving plane just before it takes off, complete with an angry dinosaur falling into the ocean, and then we’re off to Italy!

Meanwhile, Ellie and Alan have met up with Ian Malcolm at Biosyn to try and do an espionage. Ian gives them the special key-bracelet that’ll let them into the labs where the locusts are held, while elsewhere in the same facility, perpetually shady geneticist Henry Wu (BD Wong) is explaining to the captive Maisie that actually, she’s not quite a clone after all. Instead, Charlotte Lockwood, who was apparently a brilliant scientist, contrived to give birth to Maisie as part of her research and also because she wanted a kid, and then, on learning that she (Charlotte) had an incurable genetic disease, altered all of Maisie’s DNA so that she wouldn’t have it. This is why Henry wants to study both Maisie and Baby Blue, who is now named Beta: if he can master their genetic power, he’ll understand how to use genetics to wipe out the evil locusts, which are now mutating and breeding at an alarming rate. None of this makes the least bit of sense, nor is it clear why Henry, who has been cheerfully on the side of evil corporate science for several movies now, has suddenly grown a conscience, but he is wearing a very large brown cardigan with oversized lapels, which surely counts for something.

Unmoved by any of this, Maisie releases Beta and escapes into the facility, where she runs into Ellie and Alan, who have just had a traumatic encounter with some giant locusts. As they plan their escape, we cut back to Kayla, Owen and Claire, now on approach to Biosyn. As Dodgson is made aware that Kayla is carrying extra passengers, he disables the ADS – Air Defense System – which is some sort of electronic Thing that keeps the pterodactyls from flying above a certain height. Right on cue, their plane is attacked by an angry quetzalcoatlus, which prompts Owen to strap Claire into the only parachute and send her off into the sky, where she is immediately menaced by angry flying dinosaurs before falling into a carnivore-infested forest. Owen and Kayla crash the plane on a frozen lake and have to contend with a feathered raptor of some sort in order to escape and look for Claire, who is also having some dinosaur-related issues; at the same time, Ramsay has helped Ellie, Alan and Maisie onto an underground train-thing, but Dodgson has it stopped when he realises Ian has abetted their locust-bothering. This forces them to get out and make their way through the old amber mines, which – of course – also contain dinosaurs.

Dodgson takes this moment to fire Ian, who gives a big exit speech about how evil Dodgson is without actually mentioning the secret locust project. Double agent Ramsay then equips Ian to go save the others, which culminates in Ian fumbling about trying to input a gate code while Maisie, Ellie and Alan are menaced by dinosaurs; unbeknownst to any of them, Ramsay does the actual code-changing back at base after seeing their peril on CCTV, which I guess makes sense. Shortly afterwards, Owen and Kayla find Claire in time to rescue her from an angry dilophosaurus – this is Foreshadowing – and are then fortuitously united with the other escapees when their jeep rolls down a hill. Back at Biosyn and unaware that the good guys are all together, Dodgson decides to get rid of his locusts by having the whole lot set on fire. However, it turns out – and I cannot believe I’m about to type this – that the locusts can survive while on fire, so that when the burning lab’s contents are vented into the sky, a massive swarm of burning locust fireballs is released into the forest. This causes everything else to be on fire, which means that Dodgson has no choice but to use the special neural implants in all his dinosaurs (because this, too, is apparently a Thing) to make them come to safety at the facility.

As our heroes try to get back to base so that Owen can save Beta – having promised Blue solemnly that he’d rescue her baby, because sexist chivalry apparently now extends to dinosaurs, too – they encounter an angry giganotosaurus blocking their path. As a burning locust flaps weakly by, the gigano eats it; this ought to be unremarkable, except that, minutes later, Ian spears another burning bug on a stick, waves it to distract the gigano a la the original movie, and then throws the whole thing into its mouth, which – and again, I cannot believe I’m about to type this – causes the fucking dinosaur to breathe fire. Like, significantly more fire than the locust was ever on, and yet nobody comments on this! It just happens, because this is a Colin Trevorrow movie and why the fuck not, apparently. More peril ensues, and then they get into the tunnels leading back to the main facility, where Dodgson, having realised that his evil schemes are unraveling, tries to run off with Ramsay and is shocked – shocked! – when Ramsay reveals himself to be a good guy after all. Strangely, this confrontation does not result in Dodgson trying to attack Ramsay, or even so much as restrain him. He’s just… allowed to walk out, and then Dodgson escapes himself to the underground train-thing, heading for the airfield.

Now back in the facility, the good guys encounter both a remorseful Henry, who explains his plans for stopping the locusts and is therefore allowed to come with, and a significantly more useful Ramsay, who knows how the park systems work. Then they split up: Kayla to get a plane, Owen, Alan and Maisie to get Beta, Claire and Ellie to turn off the power so that the ADS has sufficient power to turn back on (because something something emergency power routing something) and Ian and Ramsay to hold down the fort and look pretty. Kayla gets the plane, Owen gets Beta (while teaching Maisie and Alan how to do his patented Hold Up Your Hands To The Dinosaur So It Obeys You trick) and Ellie and Claire wade through a server room inexplicably full of dead and dying locusts to turn off the power, which causes Dodgson’s train-thing to shut down. This prompts him to run into the tunnel until dinosaur noises make him retreat, at which point he is unceremoniously killed by a trio of dilophosaurus while a shaving-cream-shaped canister rolls away from his hand – see! He met his end just like Nedry in the original Jurassic Park! What a callback moment!

With the ADS reactivated, Kayla comes to pick everyone up. There’s just one problem – all the dinosaurs were neurally commanded to return to the facility because of the raging forest fire, so our heroes have to dodge them to escape! This culminates in the obligatory fight between a t-rex and a giganotosaurus, which you could simulate by putting a couple of plastic dinosaur toys in a hamster ball and rolling it down a hill in the dark, during which Henry sustains a mild arm injury, and after which Ellie and Alan make out a little, because Ellie and the husband with which she apparently had two now college-aged kids have split up, and so why not. And then it’s done: everyone gets away, the t-rex wins and roars triumphantly (because of course it does), and we’re treated to a random voiceover from nowhere – I don’t even think it’s the same voiceover from the shitty YouTube journalism bit at the beginning – telling us that Ellie and Alan went on to testify against Biosyn, Henry did his Locust Science and released an infected bug to kill all the other bad ones, the UN designated the Italian valley a world sanctuary, and now humanity has to learn to coexist with dinosaurs. There’s a few very pretty distance shots of dinosaurs in various environments – parasaurolophus running with wild horses, rhamphorynchus nesting on a high rise building, a stegosaurus on the savannah – and that’s it. There’s no closure about what Maisie is, whether anyone’s sill after her or where she gets to go now (other than, presumably, with Claire and Owen), nobody wonders what happened to Dodgson (whose motives were never more than gestured at as Basic Rich Guy Hubris), and there’s no mention of dinosaur containment elsewhere: just roll credits.

What a fucking waste.

But, to be fair, there are two things I liked about Dominion: the feathery raptor dinosaur that Owen and Kayla encountered, which actually looked pretty decent, and the fact that, as stupid as the plot was, it still wasn’t as sexist as the original Jurassic World or as willfully idiotic as Fallen Kingdom. Okay, two and a half things: there’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it inference that Kayla is queer and has a history with Denise, the random Biosyn worker who tells Dodgson that her plane has unauthorised passengers on it, but otherwise, it’s just two and a half hours of dreary, worse-than-formulaic pablum. Even my nine year old, who enjoyed the other two movies, came out of this one complaining that it was too loud, too long, the dinosaurs were all the wrong size and that what happened to Dodgson was stupid, and if you cannot successfully entertain a nine year old who loves dinosaurs with your big budget dinosaur movie, then who the fuck is it even for, Colin?

Point being, if you want to see a shiny action film this summer, I would recommend literally anything else. Everything Everywhere All At Once is absolutely flawless, but if you’re really desperate to revisit a decades-old franchise for the nostalgia value, try Top Gun: Maverick – yes, it’s a spectacular work of US military propaganda starring a known Scientologist, but at least it has the decency to include real planes doing real aerial stunts, a tight yet emotionally complete script and a banging soundtrack, and I’ll take that over shitty dinosaurs who can’t decide what size they are and Chris Pratt’s smugly punchable face any day of the week. You’re welcome.

It’s not every day you encounter a film that is simultaneously a work of absurdist scifi, a screwball action comedy, a heartfelt drama and a meditation on intergenerational trauma among diaspora families; it’s even rarer to find one that works. Everything Everywhere All At Once is – bizarrely, delightfully, touchingly – such a film, and while it will doubtless confuse or frustrate the kind of viewer who balks at risk-taking and complexity in art, or who thinks that only serious art matters, for everyone else, it’s a masterpiece.

As hardworking migrant Evelyn Wong (Michelle Yeoh) prepares for a new year’s party, her father’s visit and the audit of the family’s small business, all while wrestling with the fact that her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) has brought home a white girlfriend, her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is acting strangely. There are two reasons for this: the first is that he’s procured divorce papers; the second is that he’s being periodically controlled by a different version of himself from another universe – Alpha Waymond – who believes this version of Evelyn can save the multiverse from Jobu Tupaki, a nigh-unstoppable agent of nihilistic chaos. When Alpha Waymond makes contact with Evelyn during their audit under the critical eye of IRS agent Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn is catapulted out of the life she knows and into an infinite web of roads not taken. With her consciousness ricocheting between the sublime and the ridiculous reaches of reality as she learns to verse-jump, Evelyn must figure out how to save the multiverse, her family and her own small world from the terrifying despair that comes from seeing everything, everywhere, all at once – and, in the process, find out what matters most.

It’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where Everything Everywhere All At Once turns out an ambitious failure, overwhelmed by the many balls it has in the air and unable, in the end, to juggle them. In fact, the actual film contains a meta joke to this effect: fake credits start rolling midway through, only for the camera to pull back and reveal that we’re seeing the premiere of a movie-version of these events in a different world, one where Evelyn Wong is a famous actress living a life akin to Michelle Yeoh’s. (The gag is emphasized by the inclusion of a smatter of clips of the real Michelle Yeoh attending real movie premieres, and as I was lucky enough to see this movie at the LA premiere, although sadly without the real Michelle Yeoh in attendance due to Covid, this added an extra level of meta-hilarity to the whole thing). But instead, we live in this reality: one where the film is superbly written, directed and balanced by the Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) and where every cast member gives a tremendous performance, creating a narrative whose extremes somehow compliment rather than contradict one another.

In large part, this is due to excellent editing – were the transitions managed less masterfully, the whole thing would’ve come apart at the seams – but it’s also aided by a deep thematic resonance between all the disparate parts. Life is hard, says the film, and to contemplate the hugeness of the world and the smallness of your place within it is terrifying. What does anything mean, really? What can it mean, when you zoom out beyond the petty immediacy of human concerns and see how empty most of the universe is? Life is absurd for trying, absurd for being obsessed with itself; absurd for making us care about the cruel inevitabilities of death and taxes when, in the scheme of things, none of it really matters. But this is also why it matters: because we decide it does. In choosing to be kind, says the film, we choose meaning. Joy is not an inherent, finite resource we can exploit by pressing the right combination of buttons, but something we conjure over and over again, even when life is stupid; especially when it’s stupid, because stupidity might be bleak, but it can also be funny, and there’s power in laughter.

With this deeply sincere central thesis, the film is able to get away with absurdities which, in another context, might be its undoing: a universe where everyone has massively wobbly hotdog fingers, and where Evelyn and Deirdre are going through an affecting almost-breakup; a universe where an ambitious young chef is controlled by the skilled raccoon under his hat, Ratatouille-style; an extended action sequence where verse-jumping combatants gain the combat powers of their alternate selves by performing incongruous actions, including jamming suspiciously buttplug-shaped IRS awards in places buttplugs traditionally go; fights where bodies are equally likely to explode into gleaming confetti as be brutally smacked down by overlong, wobbly plastic cocks; a reality-destroying everything bagel that really does have everything on it. It’s weird and hilarious and deeply absurd in a way that evokes both Weirdmageddon in Gravity Falls and the Infinite Improbability Drive of Douglass Adams’s seminal The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, but turned up to eleven a-la Spinal Tap – and yet it never undermines the serious stuff, because the whole point is that the multiverse is both absurd and meaningful, so why not laugh about it?

This attitude is personified by Waymond, a relentlessly cheerful and good-hearted man whose heroism is rooted, not just in his kindness, but in his determination to be kind. Early on, Evelyn is frustrated by her husband’s habit of putting googly eyes on everything, dismissing it as silly; but at the film’s climax, embracing that silliness becomes a form of power. A bullet pressing against her forehead becomes a googly third eye, wide open to see and welcome the absurdities of the universe. It’s ridiculous and beautiful, but as Evelyn contemplates her life and her choices – her relationships with her husband, her daughter and her father (James Hong) – she learns that it’s not enough to do one right thing. You have to keep trying – to be determinedly kind, even when it’s hard; especially when it’s hard and you don’t know what you’re doing – because that’s what makes the difference.

It’s hard to say more without spoiling the film, which I’m reluctant to do: sufficed to say that Stephanie Hsu turns out a phenomenal performance, easily holding her own in scenes where veterans like Yeoh, Hong and Curtis are also being masterful. The Wong family’s relationships are a profound emotional core to the film: a literalised metaphor for the forces that can either hold the multiverse together or tear it apart. Joy wants her mother to accept her as gay instead of hiding it from her grandfather; Evelyn wants not to feel as though her life is going nowhere, a constant disappointment to herself and her father; Waymond wants to be acknowledged, his steadfast kindness and humour seen as strengths, not weaknesses. At a runtime of just over two hours, you could argue that the film ought to be tighter in places, but it’s the steady (but by no means slow) early build, establishing the family’s relationships, that cements so much of what happens later: we care about these characters, and in the moments when Evelyn’s verse-jumping brings her back to what is, for us, the real universe – her universe, the one where she started – there’s a genuine deep investment in things working out for the Wongs. Their difficulties matters, and when Jobu Tupkai’s infectious nihilism prompts Evelyn to take a google-eye-adorned baseball bat to the window of the family business, it truly feels like a world is being broken.

Generally speaking, mainstream cinema likes to avoid direct philosophical questions, which means there’s not a lot to compare it to. At various points while watching, I found myself thinking of the existential detectives from I heart Huckabees, or recalled The Dude from The Big Lebowski proclaiming, “They’re fuckin’ nihilists, Donny!”, but neither of those films is doing anything nearly so ambitious or emotionally complex as Everything Everywhere All At Once; they’re not even in the same genre. In fact, in terms of using the impossible to drive a story about the Chinese diaspora, parental pressure, trauma, disappointment and finding your place in the world, the closest film I can think of is Pixar’s Turning Red, but even that’s too simplistic a comparison, and one which only feels handy because both are recent releases dealing with (wildly different!) facets of the Chinese diaspora and the different experiences therein of grandparents, parents and children. Scifi has dealt with the multiverse before, but the two quotes that keep rattling around in my head in relation to Everything Everywhere are both from SF books rather than films or TV shows, and only one of them concerns parallel worlds.

The first is How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, a specific line from which has always stuck with me: “You want to tell a story? Grow a heart. Grow two. Now, with the second heart, smash the first one into bits.” The second is from Barrayar, by Lois McMaster Bujold, and is the closest thing I can think of to the film’s central thesis: “Here you go: have a world of wealth and poverty, wrenching change and rooted history... Endure pain, find joy, and make your own meaning, because the universe certainly isn’t going to supply it. Always be a moving target. Live. Live. Live.” Evelyn’s life is one of wrenching change and poverty, though the multiverse shows her versions of her life where she’s had great wealth; yet always, always, history is there, both culturally and personally, tying her to the present moment. She has already endured pain; her daughter is Joy, and finding her is, in some ways, what the film is about. This is how she makes her own meaning in a universe – or multiverse, rather – determined not to supply it. She is a moving target, verse-jumping her way through different lives and selves in the quest of finding one that makes sense. And in the end, the message is simple: live. Live. Live.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is a remarkable film: silly, dizzying, heartfelt, curious, inexplicable, brutal and, above all, kind. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Warning: mild spoilers

Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted, a novella about librarian spies in a weird west setting, begins with the protagonist, Esther, stowing away in the back of a wagon to avoid an arranged marriage. Discovered after two days of hiding by Bet and Leda – Librarians whose job it is to deliver Approved Materials to remote settlements – Esther shakily reveals her predicament: she’s a woman who isn’t attracted to men, and her domineering lawman father just hanged her best friend and lover, Beatriz, after finding her with seditious Unapproved Materials. Together with Cye, their Apprentice Librarian, Bet and Leda take unexpected pity on Esther and agree to bring her to Utah, where they’re set to deliver a mysterious package. But life with the Librarians is more complicated than it first seems, and Esther is soon caught up in a dangerous adventure which, at every step, challenges not only what she thought she knew about the world, but about herself.

Written in a style that succeeds in being simultaneously whip-smart, pacey and heartfelt, Upright Women Wanted is a story about queer self-acceptance: about what it means to grow up believing that your orientation has doomed you to evil, unhappiness and a bad ending, and to shrink yourself to fit that narrative, only to discover – painfully, brutally, beautifully – that it isn’t true and never was; that you have only ever been as small as other people forced you to be. It is also a story about fascism – not in the past, as one might first expect from the western setting, but in the future. Though Gailey’s far-ranging horseback Librarians are reminiscent of the Pack Horse Library Project, which saw female riders delivering books to remote Appalachian communities in the thirties and forties, Upright Women Wanted is gradually revealed to take place in an era with drones and videos, but where diesel rationing has rendered cars a thing of the past. The United States is divided into quadrants; there is always War, and what little fuel exists is given as a priority to the tanks that fight in the beleaguered Central Corridor.

Viewed in this light, the authoritarian insistence on Approved Materials – and the lessons these stories have taught Esther about herself, about people like her – becomes even more sinister. Like the infamous Hays Code, which determined (among other things) that homosexuality could only be depicted on screen if it was made clear to the audience that it was morally wrong and its practitioners destined either for tragedy or villainy, the Approved Materials exist to indoctrinate under the guise of spreading unity. Esther knows about people like Cye, who goes by they instead of he or she (unless they’re in town, for reasons of personal safety), but only from stories that paint them in the same bad light as women like her. This leaves the audience free to fill in the blanks about what might’ve happened to lead society in such a terrifying backwards circle; blanks which, at the present historical moment, are frighteningly easy to envisage.

In its deliberate evocation of a past era recreated in new shades of misogyny and fascism, Upright Women Wanted is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente’s Fade to White, where a post-nuclear, Macarthyist USA puts a smiling, fifties spin on matchmaking fertile youngesters, and where teenage Sylvie has to hide her Japanese heritage in a white nationalist state. Both stories highlight the terror of difference, and the frightening ease with which propaganda shapes culture, society and self-perception. Fade to White is the bleaker story, ending on a note of poignant despair – and to deliberate, chilling effect. But while Upright Women Wanted doesn’t go full Star Wars, the rebels triumphant and the evil empire defeated, it nonetheless lands us in a place of powerful hope, with Esther aware of her strengths and determined to fight for herself and others.

Given its status as novella rather than novel, there are details about the wider setting of Upright Women Wanted – about its history, culture and characters – that go unexplained, or which an eager reader could be forgiven for wondering about, but these omissions are never due to bad writing or inconsistencies. Rather, it’s that the story is a greyhound, sleekly muscled and pointed straight down a set track: the core and soul of things is Esther’s journey, both literally and thematically, establishing her as a microcosm reflective of a greater whole. Even so, there is plenty of room left for further stories set in this universe, and I for one would be very happy to read them. Upright Women Wanted is a queer heartpunch, reminding us of the ways in which simply existing happily, without shame or abnegation, is a rebellion all its own. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Plus and also: queer librarian spies. I’m not made of stone!

Warning: total spoilers for TROS, and also for Steven Universe.

Coming into The Rise of Skywalker today, I didn’t know what to expect. Despite my best efforts to remain unspoiled ahead of time, my internet goblin lifestyle – and the outrage of people who don’t use fucking spoiler tags – got the better of me. As such, I went in knowing exactly two things: one, that Kylo Ren dies at the end; and two, that for every person I’d seen on social media who was big mad about either this or the film in general, there was another who’d loved it wholeheartedly.

For the purposes of contextal recap, I reviewed both prior instalments when they first came out: I really loved The Force Awakens, but had issues with The Last Jedi. Since then, I’ve happily rewatched TFA more than once, but have yet to complete a full rewatch of TLJ – not because I haven’t had the time or the opportunity, but because each time I’ve tried to sit through it (and there have been multiple attempts), the early butchering of Poe Dameron’s character and the subsequent idiot plotting leaves me with gritted teeth. (Also, and this is a minor irritant in comparison, but every time there’s a closeup on Rey in TLJ, I cannot get over how jarringly overdone Daisy Ridley’s makeup is. I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere else, so possibly it’s just a me thing, but even so, it grates.)

From what I’ve seen online since TROS came out, there is a large – but by no means universal – overlap between its loudest detractors and those who loved TLJ. Otherwise, the bulk of the criticism I’ve glimpsed boils down to three things: an excess of nostalgia, a perceived disrespect of Rian Johnson’s work, and a dislike of how Kylo Ren was treated. Having now seen the film, I disagree with all three of these takes. In fact, I’m prepared to say that TROS is my favourite instalment in the new trilogy – an opinion shared by both my husband and our six-year-old son. This latter opinion is, to me, the crucial one: multiple times on the way into our screening, my son was excitedly proclaiming his love for Kylo Ren and the hope that his “team” would win (he likes to play as Kylo in games of Battlefront with his dad). Both my husband and I were therefore braced for tears and disappointment at the finale; we’d even lined up a plan of action for if he was heartbroken.

But instead, he came out exhilarated. “I love it,” he proclaimed, “because Kylo Ren came to the good side!”

As an adult consumer of entertainment that is often meant primarily for or written in consideration of children, it’s sometimes easy to ignore the importance of their perspective – and therefore of their status as a desired, intended audience – on the end product. To take a small critical detour, consider the show Steven Universe, which I also watch with my son. I’ve seen a great deal of adult discourse trashing the later seasons because Steven reconciles with the Diamonds rather than killing them for their crimes, as though this was ever going to happen in a show aimed at young children; as though it is a failing not to prioritise the adult complexities of empire, revolution and colonialism over the more child-oriented themes of personal growth and love.

Adult eyes look at the Diamonds and protest that they’re war criminals, imperial tyrants who, in the real world, wouldn’t deserve a second chance, forgetting that a dash of unreality is the actual goddamn point. If we wanted to play by real world rules, the constant alien attacks and countless Gem relics on Earth would have long since prompted actual human governments to get involved, thus making it rather difficult for a single half-Gem tween and his adoptive family to run the show on intergalactic relations in the first place. We allow such behavioural exemptions in stories for kids because, quite simply, there’d be little scope for children to play such a powerful, autonomous role in those narratives otherwise. The heart of Steven Universe is a navigation of family, love, communication and queerness: the imperial elements aren’t the main narrative arc, but are rather used both as a metaphor for and in parallel with the idea of dysfunctional families. It’s a testament to how skilfully the show has been made, that adult viewers can find in it so much with which to engage so deeply, but they are still not the primary audience, and it is solipsism to fault the show for acknowledging this.

Returning to Star Wars and The Rise of Skywalker, therefore, I’m inclined to lend more weight to my six-year-old’s happiness at the ending – and to the audible delight of multiple other small children in our cinema when the credits rolled – than I am to the outrage of adults about the fate of Kylo Ren. To be clear: I’m not saying adults aren’t allowed to have their own opinions about the film. That would be an especially egregious form of hypocrisy, as I, an adult, am currently writing a review of it. Nor am I saying that Star Wars is aimed primarily at children: unlike Steven Universe, which is first and foremost a children’s show, the modern Star Wars movies are aimed at a general audience of kids and adults alike, with specific pieces of tie-in media being aimed more narrowly at specific age groups. What I’m saying is that, in my opinion, it matters that a little boy who loves Kylo Ren – a boy who is so often sensitive to the fates of his favourite characters, who cries when they suffer or die on screen, and who went in wanting Kylo to be victorious – came out happy with how his character was treated.

Here’s the thing: I don’t understand the complaint that TROS is too nostalgia-heavy, because what the fuck else are adult fans watching Star Wars for in 2019, if not to indulge the fantasy that “nostalgia” is the correct way to describe your feelings about a globally ubiquitous franchise that’s been producing tie-in novels, kids’ books, comics, animated specials, cartoon shows, live action TV series, toys, LEGOs, collectables, RPGs, MMOs, MMORPGs, board games, tabletop games, branded merchandise and eight major full-length, live-action feature films (plus a smatter of other movies) at an exponential rate of increase since 1977? The expanded Star Wars universe is a sandbox, not because it contains infinite narrative possibilities, but because it contains near-infinite ways to do the same things over and over again with slightly different variables and in a range of narrative flavours. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

Star Wars is where we go for bounty hunters and space lasers, chosen ones and eldritch MacGuffins, space opera and kitsch panoply, weird galactic politics and battles between the forces of good and evil. Some of its stories, like Rogue One and The Mandalorian, fall at the “grittier,” more adult end of the available spectrum, while others, like the 2008 animated Clone Wars film and the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, are decidedly less serious. Does this mean we’re wrong to have expectations and preferences about new instalments in the franchise, including greater diversity? Of course not! But of all the complaints to level at a Star Wars movie, too much nostalgia feels a bit like accusing the ocean of being too wet. Of course it’s nostalgic; or at the very least familiar: what else did you come here for? Do you also demand breathless originality from Marvel movies? Come on, now. Nobody eats at McDonald’s because they expect a gourmet burger, even if the franchise is going through one of those phases where they advertise options that pass as gourmet only in comparison to the regular menu. No: we go because it’s the satisfying trash we love to hate to love, and even though we can feel our arteries hardening with every slurp of thickshake, that’s what we signed up for.

With that in mind, let’s have a detailed plot summary, because I can’t do a proper analysis without one. So:

The Rise of Skywalker begins with Kylo Ren investigating the apparent return of Emperor Palpatine, who he sees as a threat to his power. Palpatine is indeed back, ensconced on the creepy, hidden Sith planet of Exogol, where he’s spent decades building a secret fleet of planet-killing ships with his minions, called the Final Order. To receive this fleet, Kylo needs to do only one thing: destroy Rey, and through her the Jedi Order. Details of this fleet are soon passed to the Resistance – specifically, to Finn and Poe – by an unknown spy inside the First Order. As they race through space to bring the details to General Leia, Rey struggles with her training, plagued by visions of her past while trying to contact the spirits of dead Jedi masters.

In order to combat both Kylo Ren and Palpatine, the Resistance needs to get to Exogol – and to do this, they need an ancient Sith relic that can show them the coordinates. Using Luke’s notes as a starting point, Rey, Finn and Poe – along with Chewie, R2D2, C3P0 and BB8 – set out in the Millennium Falcon to begin their search where Luke’s left off. What follows is an encounter with Lando Calrissian, who helps get them pointed in the right direction, which kicks off an exciting string of MacGuffin chases: to start the search for the Sith relic, they need to find a downed ship; and in the ship, they find a Sith dagger with a clue to the relic’s location. Luckily, C3P0 can read the Sith glyphs on the dagger; unluckily, he is forbidden by his programming from translating them because Evil Language Of Evil. Before they can get off-planet, however, Chewie is captured and (so they wrongly think) killed when Kylo pushes Rey into accidentally using force lightning to down a transport ship. He also steals the Sith dagger, ¬†so that the only record of the relic’s location is now stuck in C3P0’s memories, while the Falcon is taken on board his ship.

Not wanting Chewie’s perceived death to be in vain, the trio decides their only option is to find an illegal droid-hacker to access C3P0’s memories. Still pursued by the First Order, this takes them to Zorii, an old spice-running friend of Poe’s who helps them after some fun, fighty banter. Her droid-hacker associate then reveals that accessing the Sith translation will wipe C3P0’s memory, but the stakes are high enough that he, rather touchingly – on the back of several scenes where he’s played his usual comic relief role –¬† agrees to this, a neat callback to his previous, unwilling mindwipe at the end of Revenge of the Sith.

With C3P0 wiped and Kylo’s ship now overheard, Rey realises that Chewie is still alive and being held prisoner. The trio hurry aboard to rescue him, and while Finn and Poe grab the wookie, Rey backtracks to reclaim the dagger. As she takes it, she and Kylo have a tense confrontation through their force-bond, where Kylo reveals that he knows the secret of Rey’s heritage and promises her that she’ll take his hand when next he holds it out to her. Elsewhere on the ship, Finn and the others are captured and taken for execution – but are saved by, of all people, General Hux, who reveals himself to be the Resistance spy in the First Order. His motives, very plausibly, have nothing to do with altruism: he’s just sick of Kylo Ren, who constantly thwarts and berates him, and wants to see him defeated. (However, even though Finn wounds Hux at his request to aid the pretence that he was overpowered during their escape, General Pryde immediately kills him after seeing through the lie.)

Reunited with Rey, the heroes escape on the Falcon and fly to the coordinates C3P0 provided, where the wreck of the Death Star lies in the Endor system. Here, after crash-landing the damaged Falcon, they encounter a group of former Stormtroopers, led by a woman called Jannah, who all, like Finn, defected from the First Order rather than kill innocents. Her group pledges to help them reach the Death Star ruins, which lie amidst a turbulent sea, but Rey – increasingly troubled by visions of herself falling to the dark side – takes a skimmer and goes alone to reclaim the Sith relic from Palpatine’s vault. Finn hurries to help her while Poe repairs their ship, but arrives too late to prevent her epic showdown with Kylo Ren, who goads her into a fight by first revealing her ancestry – she is Palpatine’s granddaughter, heir to Sith blood – and then crushing the relic she came all this way to find.

While Kylo and Rey fight on the other side of the galaxy, General Leia reaches out to her son through the Force. As with Luke’s actions in The Last Jedi, this massive effort costs her life, but to powerful gain: Kylo hesitates at a crucial moment, so overwhelmed by the contact that he drops his lightsaber, allowing Rey to run him through. Earlier in the film, when trapped in underground tunnels searching for the first downed ship, Rey used the Force to heal a giant snake that was threatening the group, achieved by transferring some of her lifeforce to it. She does the same here to Kylo, showing him mercy at the moment they both sense his mother’s death; a mercy that extends to healing the facial scar she gave him. She tells him that she would’ve accepted Ben’s hand, not Kylo’s, and then – as Finn and Jannah look on – takes his ship and flies off in it. Left alone, Kylo speaks with the memory of his Han Solo, echoing the conversation they had in The Force Awakens right before he killed him; but this time, he flings his lightsabre into the sea instead of repeating the patricide.

Returning to the Resistance base, Finn and Poe find Leia dead and are elevated to co-generals in her stead. Taking Zorii’s earlier advice, Poe sends the newly-arrived Lando to help recruit allies from ordinary people who want to fight back and has R2 restore a backup of C3P0’s memories, while Rey flies to Luke’s old home on the Isle of Porgs. (I know that’s not its real name in canon, but come on. It’s the Isle of Porgs.) There, she burns Kylo’s ship and, newly terrified of her Palpatine heritage, pledges to retreat from the world so as not to be a danger to it, as he did. But when she tries to throw away her lightsaber, Luke’s Force ghost appears and talks her out of it, telling her that he retreated out of fear, and that she has everything she needs to find Exegol: a second Sith beacon, which survives in the wreckage of Kylo’s ship (and which we, the viewers, saw him obtain at the start of the movie), and Luke’s old x-wing, risen from the sea. He also gives her Leia’s lightsaber, which he’d hidden away in life.

And so Rey sets off for Exegol, all while transmitting the coordinates of her journey back to the Resistance, where Finn and Poe promptly set up a plan to attack the Final Order fleet before it can launch. On arrival, Rey finally confronts Palpatine, who reveals not only that Snoke was his creation, but that, if she strikes him down with hate, he will live on in her and the Sith will be reborn. As she falters, Kylo shows up to help her. Palpatine proclaims them a dyad in the Force: a linked pair, the first in generations, and steals the energy of their bond to help himself physically regenerate.

As Rey lies insensate and Palpatine flings Kylo into a nearby fissure, the Resistance arrives and begins a battle with the starships overhead. It’s a deliberate callback to the end of Return of the Jedi, Rey and Kylo facing off with Palpatine in place of Luke and the barely-turned Vader. As Palptine targets the ships overhead with a massive burst of force lightning, Rey finally hears the voices of the Jedi masters she’d been striving to contact at the start of the film. They tell her that, just as Palpatine is the Sith, she is the Jedi, and with this burst of clarity and power, she uses two lightsabers – Luke’s and Leia’s –¬† to turn his force lightning back on him from a place of calm, annihilating him completely.

Overhead, the battle turns: Lando arrives with reinforcements just as Poe was beginning to despair, giving him time to rescue Finn and Jannah from a nearby enemy ship. But destroying Palpatine has taken all Rey’s strength. As she lies dying, Kylo crawls over to her and copies her Force healing technique to bring her back, effectively returning the lifeforce she used to save him earlier. This act comes at the cost of his own life: Rey calls him Ben, they share a kiss that feels more relieved than romantic, and then he dies, his body vanishing from his clothes as a cut to Leia’s shrouded form shows her likewise vanishing, the pair of them being accepted into the force.

Both the First and Final Orders are destroyed; as per Return of the Jedi, celebration is seen across the galaxy, with all the heroes celebrating together. The film ends with Rey returning to Tatooine, to the long-abandoned Skywalker homestead. There, she buries both Luke and Leia’s lightsabers in the sand. When a passing stranger walks by and asks her name – her full name, not just Rey – she sees the Force ghosts of Luke and Leia standing nearby, and gives her name as Rey Skywalker. Cue the John Williams as she stands against the iconic backdrop of Tatooine’s two suns, and roll credits.

With that out of the way, I’d like to return to the two main criticisms I’ve seen levelled at the film beyond the complaint of excessive nostalgia: firstly, that Rian Johnson’s work is being ignored and disrespected by J.J. Abrams; and secondly, that Kylo Ren’s character is being fundamentally mistreated.

When I first reviewed The Last Jedi, I disliked the idea that Kylo was being set up as a romantic partner for Rey, but was interested in their being contrasted as dark and light sides of the Force who nonetheless shared a bond. What I didn’t want was for Kylo to be woobified into being forgiven for his (many, murderous, genocidal) crimes, such that his manipulative, terrible treatment of Rey could be retroactively cast as romantic. What I disliked most about TLJ – and this a hill I will die on – is how it mangled Poe’s characterisation, did a gross disservice to Holdo in the process, and ended up with a soggy middle based on a series of idiot plot decisions. As such, I would argue, TROS takes the very strongest aspects of Johnson’s contribution to the trilogy and builds on them while ignoring the weakest. My only complaint is that Rose Tico ends up as a minor background character, but given that TROS gives us two new female characters in Zorii and Jannah – the latter of whom is also a woman of colour – it’s a less egregious failing than I’d feared it would be, and does nothing to walk back how important Rose was in the previous film.

As for Kylo Ren, I’m genuinely baffled by the claim that TROS does him a disservice. His arc throughout the trilogy has been one of a tormented, tortured character – by turns explosive, monstrous, wounded, betrayed and nihilistic – who has nonetheless committed such horrific crimes on such a grand scale that blanket redemption was never on the cards. I reiterate again the difference between Steven Universe, which is intended primarily for young children, and Star Wars, which is meant to appeal to both kids and adults. In SU, the Diamonds are framed foremost as abusive members of a toxic, dysfunctional family, with their hierarchical empire used as both a metaphor and framing device for discussing these themes; in the new Star Wars trilogy, however, this emphasis is reversed, with Kylo Ren, the Sith and the First Order framed foremost as agents of evil and empire, with their familial connections to the heroes used to mirror the tragedy of their actions on a smaller, more intimate scale.

When Vader is redeemed at the end of Return of the Jedi, it comes at the cost of his death and his transition into a Force ghost. That Kylo is given a parallel end feels only fitting, given that the new trilogy has cast him as Vader’s echo. No, we don’t get a funeral scene like Vader did, but why would we? There’s no body left to burn or carry away, and nobody alive but Rey who either could or should plausibly mourn him. His parents and uncle are dead – one by his own hand – and of the main trio, he tortured Poe and saw Finn’s childhood stolen. For me, it was enough that we saw our heroes weep at the finale: their separate griefs and joys didn’t need individual reiteration, because we’d already seen them happen.

If you were anticipating Rey and Kylo getting a happily ever after or had hugely invested in Kylo as a character needing redemption, then I can understand why you’d feel hurt and dissatisfied by the ending of TROS, but at the same time – and I don’t know how else to put this – we’re talking about Star Wars canon here, not fanon. Possibly this might change in the future – and I’d be happy if it did – but right now, there are, if not exactly rules, then very firm conventions that go hand in hand with being a global property owned by the same soulless mega-corporation that makes the Avengers movies, and one of those is that even sympathetic villains don’t get the girl, even if they do get a one-time Kiss of Redemption prior to dying. (Relatedly: I’m right there with Oscar Isaac lamenting the fact that Finn and Poe didn’t end up as a couple, and I was sure as hell eager for it to happen after I first watched TFA, but I’m not angry-shocked-betrayed that it didn’t happen, because I never expected it to. That’s how it goes right now.)

More to the point, and without wanting to make everything about, you know [gestures broadly at 2019] politics, if The Rise of Skywalker had ended with the sad genocidal white dude who’d tried to for the better part of three films to gaslight Rey into turning evil so they could be sexy Sith together getting not only the girl, but a parade and a big shiny future without anyone holding him accountable for, you know, destroying multiple planets, that would not, I feel, be the best of looks, either presently or historically. I’m cool with Rey giving him a kiss in the moment because look, we survived and won and you’re not evil anymore, and also you just brought me back from the dead basically!, but Kylo Ren is very much worse than, say, Zuko from Avatar.

As for the structure and overall plot, I really have no issues. Yes, it’s a bit handwavium as to how Kylo gets back to Exegol and why the Final Order fleet couldn’t just launch itself, but no more egregiously so than anything else in any other Star Wars movie you’d care to name. And in any case, I’m inclined to forgive its failings because of what it gave me that The Last Jedi manifestly didn’t: plenty of scenes between Finn, Poe and Rey that not only got their characterisation right, but which actually made them feel like friends, striking all the right notes between humour, tension and pathos. A great deal of my love of Star Wars is founded on the pithy one-liners and snappy bicker-bantering that overlay genuine affection, and I was happy to have it back.

The tragedy of Carrie Fisher’s death means that Leia’s role in the film was necessarily minimal, but what there is of it is, I think, respectfully done. Small moments like Rey calling her “master” and the addition of her lightsaber feel poignant and meaningful, and beyond that, I love how many women are in the film. Though Maz, Rose and Lieutenant Connix are all background characters, when put together with Leia, Jannah, Zorii and, most importantly, Rey – who gets some spectacularly badass fight scenes and great emotional moments both – it feels like the most female-oriented film of any in the Star Wars universe. Finn and Poe’s relationship with each other and with Rey is shown with care as well as laughter, and in terms of ending on a hopeful note, there’s a brief, yet powerful moment of salience in the final battle, when Lando’s new allies shows up and a First Order stooge says in confusion, “That’s not a navy. It’s just… people.” Maybe it’s just me, but that one line felt more encouraging to me – and more relevant – than Kylo’s redemption ever could.

In The Last Jedi, Poe racked up a collateral body count by putting the mission – or rather, his view of the mission – ahead of individual lives, deaths for which he was never truly held accountable by the narrative and which we never saw him mourn. But in The Rise of Skywalker, Poe gladly risks the mission and his life to save Chewie once they realise he’s still alive – a portrayal much more in keeping with the character we first met in The Force Awakens. If asked to choose, I know which iteration of him I prefer, and if that counts as disrespecting Rian Johnson, then so be it.

While a lot of people currently appear to dislike The Rise of Skywalker, my feeling is that it’s going to end up ageing well, as I suspect that opinions might change once it’s viewed from a less heated distance. Yes, there’s a great deal of MacGuffin chasing, but that’s true of every other film in the trilogy – and in Star Wars generally, for that matter. (And at least in TROS, the logic behind each successive fetch-quest is internally consistent and hangs together with what both the audience and the characters know, as opposed to “we’ve secretly come to the Evil Space Casino to hire a Hacker Guy because our leader won’t talk to us Because Reasons, but security caught us instantly, so now we’re going to trust this one Extremely Sketchy Dude we just met in jail with the future of the Resistance.”)

All in all, the pacing is fast, the visuals are stunning, the main trio kicks ass and it feels like a proper Star Wars movie; which is to say, a Star Wars movie that reminds me of all the things I like about other Star Wars movies – and also, my kid loved it. What else can you ask for?

Warning: total spoilers for Midsommar, references to suicide, incest and drug use

Midsommar is the second feature-length film directed and written by Ari Aster; the first, Hereditary, I haven’t yet seen, but on the basis of how much I enjoyed Midsommar, I’m strongly inclined to check it out.

On the surface, Midsommar is a film with a simple yet darkly compelling premise: in the wake of a family tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh), joins her long-term boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends, Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), on a holiday organised by their third friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who has invited them all to his community’s midsummer celebration in H√•rga, Sweden. Things are rocky at the outset: not only has Dani’s sister recently committed a horrific murder-suicide, killing both herself and their parents with carbon monoxide poisoning, but Christian is The Worst: a self-absorbed, emotionally neglectful and thoroughly disinterested partner who was planning to break up with Dani prior to her loss. But what Pelle has sold to his friends as a drug-filled festival soon turns from pastoral vacation to sinister ritual: guests start disappearing, and in a haze of horror and hallucinogens, Dani begins to realise that there’s no way to escape.

Right from the outset, Midsommar leans both narratively and thematically on the four-act, seasonal structure of its pagan mythology. Early in their arrival at Hårga, Pelle explains that his community views life as a cyclical series of stages, all marked as periods of twice-nine years: childhood, from birth until age 18, is viewed as spring; 18 to 36 is the summer of young adulthood, a time of exploration; 36 to 54 are your working, adult years, the autumn; and 54 to 72 is old age, winter. At the end of this explanation, Dani asks what happens after 72, and Pelle replies by drawing a finger across this throat, indicating death.

This cyclical, seasonal motif imbues the entire film, as do references to Swedish pagan mythology and pastoral life. In the very first scenes, a kulning – a Swedish herding call used to summon the cows home to pasture, but which can also be sung as a farewell – plays hauntingly over shots of a winter landscape, only to cut out jarringly and be replaced by the ringing of a telephone. The ringing takes us inside Dani’s parents’ house: we hear her leave a worried voice message on their answering machine as the camera pans over their sleeping (and soon to be dead) bodies before cutting back to show us Dani herself. Likewise, when the title card comes up, it does so over a depiction of the seasons – winter, spring, summer and autumn, in that order – rendered in the same traditional, Scandinavian-pagan style used throughout H√•rga.

Thus: the film begins with a symbolic winter, marked by the deaths of a young woman and two elders, overlain by a song that acts as both a farewell and – crucially – a means of calling someone home, the “someone” in question being Dani. In early scenes in her apartment, the camera makes sure to show us the paintings on her wall: two different images of women wreathed in summer and autumnal flowers, vibrant yellows and oranges, and a third painting, displayed prominently over a bed where we see Dani sleeping, of a young girl holding out a burning lantern to a bear. Like the kulning, the significance of these images is not immediately apparent, but they mark a pattern of foreshadowing that continues throughout the film.

The same is also true of scenes with Christian’s friends. Prior to the revelation of Dani’s loss, Christian, Mark, Josh and Pelle are all out to dinner, with Mark encouraging Christian to break up with Dani. In retrospect, it’s telling that Pelle alone refrains from contributing to this conversation, while Josh – an anthropology major, like Christian – suggests that his friend is drawing out his relationship with Dani despite his unhappiness as a way to avoid his academic issues, such as his lack of a thesis topic. Christian is annoyed by this, but is easily sidetracked by Mark making a crass joke about all the Swedish women he could be “impregnating” on their trip to H√•rga. Later on, during a trip-planning session, Mark makes a similar wish to do some sex tourism in Stockholm on route to H√•rga, and is disappointed when Pelle says that they won’t be passing through Stockholm at all, as it’s in the opposite direction.

Though Christian’s lazy selfishness is already evident in his treatment of Dani, it soon becomes clear that this behaviour also extends to his friends: when Dani learns unexpectedly of his plans to go to Sweden in just two weeks, Christian responds by inviting her along, but only tells Pelle and the others of his offer when Dani is literally at the door, so that none of them can argue. While Josh and Mark are clearly bothered by this – Josh because of the awkwardness it creates, Mark because he wants it to be a boys’ trip – Pelle is almost incongruously accepting of it. He alone makes conversation with Dani, who notices him sketching, but when he mentions losing his own parents as a child, the word family becomes a trigger: she gets up abruptly to recover in the bathroom, and in a superb scene transition, the bathroom of the flat becomes the bathroom of the plane, where all of them are now en route to Sweden, the plane shaking in a brief encounter with turbulence.

Arriving in H√•rga, the group takes psychedelic mushrooms together in a field with other newcomers: Dani is initially hesitant to join in, wanting to get settled first, but when Mark points out that taking the drugs at a separate times will result in them being on separate trips, Dani caves and participates. The subsequent scene is deliberately and successfully funny: as Pelle talks calmly about being one with nature, Mark freaks out that the sky is still blue at 9pm, while Christian is comically upset at the prospect of meeting new people. Dani, however, is doing just as Pelle says, watching the bark ripple on the trees as blades of grass appear to grow through her hand. It’s only when Josh starts saying that the guys are his real family that the word, once again, proves a trigger: Dani gets up and bolts, taking refuge in a wooden outhouse. There’s a brief flash of horror as she lights a candle and a face seems to appear briefly behind her in the dark, after which she runs into the woods and collapses into sleep, dreaming of her dead sister and parents.

When she wakes up again, it’s still light, and Pelle is leading the group on a hike to the actual homestead. Accompanying them are his “brother,” Ingemar, and Ingemar’s British friends Connie and Simon. There’s a moment of social awkwardness when Ingemar says he dated Connie before Simon did, only for Connie to say that they went on just one date that she didn’t even know was a date at the time. The moment passes, however, and soon the group are being welcomed to H√•rga: a pastoral, low-tech setting where all the locals are dressed in white, with most of the women wearing flowers. It’s here that we get a truly fantastic trope subversion in the form of Josh, a black anthropology major, studying a “primitive” white culture: he wants to write his thesis on H√•rga, and is excited to take notes on the midsummer festivities, which – we soon learn – are particularly special this year, involving rituals that happen only once every 90 years.

As Pelle – and, by extension, the cinematography – show us around the village, several unsettling things stand out. In one area, a large bear sits in a small cage, its presence deliberately unexplained; in another, the camera takes a slow pan across a tapestry which shows, in successive steps, how a woman can bewitch a man into her bed by carving a rune, feeding him a meal containing her pubic hair, and then making him drink a certain potion. It’s significant that this depiction goes chronologically from right-to-left, which would ordinarily be backwards: it’s a subtle visual cue that the expected narrative for the visitors is being upended, while the tapestry itself is a clue to later events. The same is also true of a dance on the lawn, which Pelle explains is called Skinning the Fool; and it’s here, as she dances past Christian and kicks him to get his attention, that we start to notice the interest Maja, one of Pelle’s “sisters,” has for him.

That evening, sleeping in an open, communal building whose interior walls are covered with storytelling pictures, Pelle explains that tomorrow, they’ll witness an √§ttestupa.¬†Only Josh recognises the term and is stunned; Christian, despite also being an anthropology major, tries to Google the term, but misspells it and gets no results. The next day, the group participates in a solemn lunch where an older man and woman are seated at the head of a series of tables shaped to form a giant Odal rune: Josh asks Pelle if these are the ones, which Pelle confirms, but neither cues the others in to what’s happening. What follows is a shocking, gruesome scene where, after great ceremony, first the woman and then the man jump to their deaths from a cliff onto a flat rock below. While the woman dies instantly, the man survives with his legs smashed, and is effectively euthenased by three members of the community, who take turns smashing his head with a giant wooden mallet.

Prior to being killed, when the man with the smashed legs starts moaning in pain, all the H√•rgans start wailing and screaming along with him, though only the horrified Connie and Simon actually try and help. This communal outpouring of emotion is repeated several times throughout the film, becoming more comprehensible in purpose – to the viewer, at least – as time goes on; but in this first instance, it feels alien and frightening, as though the man’s failure to die on impact means something has gone wrong and the H√•rgans are lamenting. Instead, as we can later intuit, this is a way of showing that his pain is shared by the community: he hurts, so everyone screams as if they are hurt, too. Taken in this context, the fact that Christian lets a shaken Dani go off to grieve and process her trauma alone in the aftermath of the ritual shows a fundamental disconnect between Dani’s isolated experience of pain compared to how pain is treated in H√•rga. His unconcern for her is also highlighted by the fact that, whereas he forgot her birthday the previous day and only remembered at Pelle’s prompting, Pelle drew Dani a portrait of her wearing a May Queen crown, having noticed her appreciating pictures of May Queens past.

That evening, despite being shaken by the ritual, Christian not only convinces Dani of the need to stay, but informs Josh that he’s going to do his thesis on the H√•rga, too, effectively forcing Josh to split his research. That night, Dani has disturbing nightmares about Christian and the others leaving her in H√•rga that intertwine with images of her dead family and the dead elders. The next morning, Josh observes Maja putting a carved rune under Christian’s bed and asks Pelle about it; Pelle replies that Maja has evidently set her sights on Christian, but is unconcerned by the implications.

It’s at this point that a true sense of unease begins to settle over the group: as their existing conflicts start to morph into bigger fractures, Dani is also aware of the fact that, according to the elders, Simon has incongruously left without Connie – a claim that Connie doesn’t believe. Dani tries to raise this with Christian, but he’s preoccupied “researching” by asking the H√•rgans about their customs. Pointedly, both he and Josh ask different questions of different villagers that relate to incest: where Christian baldly asks if inbreeding is a problem in such a small community and is told no, but that interbreeding with outsiders is sometimes necessary, Josh is told by an elder that the community’s oracle, a deformed, disabled boy named Reuben, is a deliberate product of inbreeding – as are all their oracles. He also takes the time to point out one of their runes, called an affekt, which stands for grief. Later, as Dani is helping the other women in the kitchen, a scream rings out in the distance, but nobody reacts to it.

In the background of events, we see that the dead elders whose bodies were burned the night before – in one earlier shot, their pyre fades out over a shot of Dani sitting on the grass – have had their ashes poured into the roots of a fallen tree. Oblivious to this, Mark chooses this tree to piss on, and is yelled at for his disrespect to the community’s ancestors. During lunch, Dani tries once more to make Christian care about Simon’s disappearance, muttering that she could believe such a departure of him, but not Simon. Annoyed, Christian takes an early bite of his pie and finds a pubic hair in it, which Mark laughs about until a girl he’s been eyeing comes and leads him away. This same day, Pelle confronts Dani about Christian’s thoughtless treatment of her, saying that, out of everyone who came with him to H√•rga, he was most excited for her to be there, because the H√•rgans became his family after he was orphaned and he thinks she deserves that same sense of family and support in her life, too.

By nighttime, Mark still hasn’t reappeared from his tryst. Assuming he’s still with the girl, the others all go to sleep – all except Josh, who sneaks back out to take photographs of the H√•rgan’s religious text after being forbidden to do so earlier. As he wields his camera in the dark, Josh is approached by a half-naked man he thinks at first is Mark; but as a hidden assailant smashes Josh over the head with the same sort of mallet used in the √§ttestupa¬†ritual, we see that this isn’t Mark at all, but an unknown H√•rgan wearing Mark’s skinned face as a mask. This is our second callback to early foreshadowing: just as Maja is steadily enacting the ritual shown on the tapestry to try and bewitch Christian, so has the dance called Skinning the Fool become literal, with hapless Mark the victim.

The next morning, the elders announce that their sacred text has been stolen, and point to the supposed overnight disappearance of Josh and Mark as proof that the pair are culprits. Dani is sceptical, but also increasingly distant from Christian, who eagerly tries to blame Josh for the crime while trying to ingratiate himself with the elders, the better to continue his research. Thus divided, when the H√•rgans announce that Dani will go with the women for the day, she makes no protest, and it’s only when Christian is steered towards speaking to one of the female elders instead that he begins to sense that something is off. Even so, he continues down his assigned path, meeting with the elder in a building whose walls are covered with drawings, one of which in particular – that of bear on fire – catches his eye. While Christian sits uncomfortably, the elder informs him that he’s been approved to mate with Maja, as they are a perfect astrological match.

Meanwhile, Dani prepares to participate in the May Queen celebrations, where all the women take a psychedelic tea, then dance until they fall down, with the final woman standing to be crowned queen. Dani doesn’t understand these rules but participates regardless, and during the opening to the dance, she once more sees herself merging with nature, her feet growing roots in the grass. As the dance goes on, Dani temporarily appears able to speak and understand Swedish, conversing happily with her new friend. Pelle and Christian watch from nearby; Christian is offered a special tea by one of the girls, clearly on Maja’s behalf, and while he briefly tries to refuse, he irritably gives in and drinks it. When only eight girls are left, including Dani – a number of penultimate significance within the film, as the midsummer festivities are meant to last nine days – everyone seated cheers for those remaining; everyone except Christian, who ignores Dani’s participation completely. She sees this and is upset by it, but keeps on dancing and ends up being crowned May Queen.

As all the H√•rgans cheer for Dani, she is swept up in a crowd of wellwishers while Christian stands on the outside, excluded and unhappy. Pelle, however, rushes forward and kisses Dani happily – she appears dazed but pleased by this – and in a brief moment of confusion, she thinks that one of the older women walking past her is her mother, only for the stranger to vanish back into the crowd. She is then given a massive crown of flowers, carried aloft on a wooden platform and taken to sit at the head of the table during lunch, a shot that mimics the position of honour held by the now-dead elders before their suicide. Christian appears sick and confused during the meal, while Dani sits resplendent on a throne of flowers. As the greenery pulses both in her vision and to the viewer, we see a single yellow flower irising open and shut in her headdress, as though indicating the presence of a third eye. She is then told that, as the May Queen, it is her job to bless the crops and livestock for the year to come. This involves being separated from Christian again, and while she asks if he can come with her, when she’s told no, she doesn’t protest.

As Dani goes to fulfil her duties as May Queen, an increasingly uneasy Christian is led along a path of petals to a barn, where a naked Maja – surrounded by a group of equally naked, singing women – is waiting for him on a bed of flowers. Though alarmed by this pageantry, Christian lies down to have sex with her, and continues to do so despite becoming more and more unnerved by the way the singing women mimic both Maja’s moans and his own laboured breathing. This is another example of the community’s shared expression of feeling: Maja feels pleasure, so they express pleasure, too. It’s also yet another callback to early foreshadowing, as it becomes clear that Christian is being used as breeding stock – an inverted, perverse fulfilment of the joke Mark made in America about impregnating Swedish milkmaids.

Returning from her May Queen duties, Dani hears the singing and moaning coming from the barn and, despite being cautioned not to stay away, goes to investigate. Peeping through the keyhole, she sees everything and spirals into a panic attack, much like the ones she’s experienced multiple times throughout the film. But whereas she’s previously been left to grieve alone on every occasion, this time her May Queen attendants come with her, mirroring her screams and cries while offering physical comfort. This creates a scene of simultaneous wildness and catharsis, the women offering a sympathetic expression of pain that echoes what happened during the suicide ritual: the H√•rgans may have helped facilitate Christian’s betrayal of Dani, but they also offer her comfort in the aftermath.

Unaware of having been spied on, Christian finishes with Maja and reels back as she holds her knees to her chest, trying to aid conception. Naked and frightened, he runs from the barn, looking for someplace to go, but is put off by the screaming coming from Dani and her attendants in one direction and scared by the presence of H√•rgans in the other. It’s then that he sees Josh’s severed leg sticking up from a garden patch, a rune carved on his foot. In panic, he runs into a chicken coop and finds Simon’s body displayed in a blood eagle for the hens to use as a perch, his eyes replaced with the same type of flower we just saw pulsing in Dani’s crown. Before he can run again, an elder appears and blows dust in Christian’s face, paralyzing him; he then closes Christian’s eyes with his thumb, which is shown as though he were smearing darkness over the camera, so that the audience is now encompassed by Christian’s point of view.

His eyes are opened again in the same fashion moments later, with a woman reaching in to thumb the camera clear. She tells Christian that he can’t move or speak, and as he – and the audience – watch, the final part of the ritual is described aloud to a crowd of onlookers by an elder. Along with four newcomers – Simon, Connie, Mark and Josh – who have been killed, four H√•rgans will also die¬†to ensure the prosperity of the community for the next 90 years: two of these latter are already dead, their bodies made into puppets with branches for arms, while one of the living two is Ingemar, who is acknowledged for bringing in two of the outsiders. Pelle, however, is praised for his insight in bringing not only a source of new blood – meaning Maja’s future child by Christian – but the May Queen, Dani, who is now considered a member of their community. All that remains is for the May Queen to choose whether the ninth and final victim will be Christian himself, or a H√•rgan selected by lottery.

When Christian Рand the viewer Рnow look at Dani, she is trapped in what is effectively a giant, triangular box-dress covered in flowers, so that only her face is visible beneath her crown. We do not see her make her choice, but we do see her gaze linger on Christian, and as Ingemar and the other live Hårgan sacrifice are taken into a ritual building Рalong with what remains of the bodies of the four dead outsiders and their two, pre-dead kinsfolk Рthe camera cuts to the body of the bear we earlier saw in a cage, now dead on a table, as an elder instructs a group of young boys on how to remove its intestines. Christian, still paralyzed, is then sewn into the body of the bear, his face peeking out while the rest of his limbs are hidden, concealing him in the skin just as Dani is concealed by flowers. He is then placed into the ritual room, and as the two other living sacrifices are given yew to stop their pain, an elder proclaims that the bear represents the greatest evil affekt, and that destroying it will cleanse the community.

As Dani and the other H√•rgans watch, the building is then set alight. When one of the sacrificial H√•rgans begins to scream in pain, the community – as at the suicide ritual (winter), the sex rite (spring) and during Dani’s grief (autumn) – all scream with him, including Dani herself. Unable to really run or move within the confines of her costume, we think at first that Dani is screaming in genuine fear and terror as she watches Christian and the others burn to death, but in the final shot of the film, we see her smiling. She has joined the H√•rgans and been a willing participant in this final ritual, and with Christian’s death – the death of her grief, which the bear represented; foreshadowed by the affekt rune for grief, which the elder showed Josh – she is finally free.

And so the movie completes its seasonal, fulfilling what was promised by the kulning in the opening scenes: the herding call was to call Dani home, and in the end, she accepts. The painting hung over her bed in her apartment, showing a blonde girl extending a fiery lantern to a looming bear, not only presaged what was to come between her and Christian, but acknowledged the early imbalance in their roles: the girl was dwarfed by the beast. Yet at the end, Dani takes on the May Queen role and thus becomes representative of the greatest force for good in the Hårgan community, just as Christian is made representative of its greatest evil.

Why does Dani join the H√•rgans? Because she’s grieving and vulnerable, mistreated by her partner, isolated from her friends and alone in the world after the recent death of her family – the perfect target, in other words, for recruitment to a cult, which the H√•rgans undeniably are. The group may not have gone to Stockholm, as per Mark and Pelle’s early conversation, but Dani’s arc is ultimately one of Stockholm syndrome, a development aided, somewhat ironically, by the fact that Christian systematically ignores her early unease with what’s happening, causing her to accept the comfort of the very people she’s originally afraid of. This is paralleled in his early dismissal of her fears about her sister, who emails Dani about her intent to kill herself and their parents: though Dani is worried to tears, Christian insists that it’s just a ploy for attention and says Dani should ignore it, a misjudgement for which we never see him apologise.

And then there’s Pelle, who has clearly wanted Dani from the beginning. Though this intentions are never stated outright, it’s easy to speculate that he brought the pair along specifically so that Christian would die and Dani would then be available. This motive is paralleled by Ingemar’s unrequited feelings for Connie, who he brought along with Simon: whereas Ingemar, who ends up volunteering as a sacrifice in the wake of his failure, misjudged his targets and their feelings, causing both of them to reject the H√•rgan setup and be killed instead, Pelle knew that Christian was disinterested and selfish, and that this made Dani vulnerable to an ideology which, despite its violence, would offer her the comfort and sense of belonging she craved.

And this is why it’s impossible to discuss Midsommar without running through the events of the film as a whole: though we don’t know it at the outset, the entire narrative is geared towards showing us how Dani comes to accept – and be accepted into – a cult. Over and over again, later occurrences are foreshadowed early on, and in keeping with the seasonal motif, they are often repeated in fours. The bear painting in Dani’s apartment, the live bear in the cage and the picture of the burning bear all herald the fourth and final reiteration where Christian burns in the bear-skin, just as the pictures of floral women in Dani’s apartment, the times she hallucinates the landscape of H√•rga growing into her skin and Pelle’s drawing of her in a May Queen crown all presage her final capitulation.

Symbolically, Christian is tied to monstrousness while Dani is tied to growth, but while Dani ends the film accepting this imagery, the audience is aware that the two concepts are intertwined, doevetailing like the crux of the Odel rune: Christian is killed to facilitate the growth of the land, making his murderers monstrous, while Dani’s growth is dark and twisted, her final happiness growing out of blood. Likewise, Mark’s early worry about the group being on different trips becomes a different sort of prophecy: while Dani drinks one hallucinogenic tea prior to participating in the May Queen dance, Christian is separated and given a different drink at a later time, marking the point of irrevocable schism between them.

The whole film is superbly acted, scripted and shot, and will doubtless stand up to many successive viewings. I highly recommend Midsommar as both a horror film and as a superlative example of visual storytelling, and look forward to seeing what Aster does next.

Trigger warning: referenced child abuse

In the land of Uztar, falconry is everything. From the ruling kyrgs in their castles to the commoners who trap and train birds for a living, Uztari culture is centred on birds of prey. Yet one bird is feared and revered above all others: the legendary ghost eagle, a massive raptor whose strange, psychic cry exposes the worst selves of all who hunt it. Many falconers have died in pursuit of the ghost eagle and the glory it represents – including Yzzat, an abusive drunkard whose cruelty has forever scarred his children. Now free from their father, twins Kylee and Brysen are finally close to escaping out from under the debts he left behind – until Brysen’s boyfriend, Dymian, lands in trouble with the Tamir family. To save him, Brysen makes an impulsive promise: a ghost eagle in exchange for Dymian’s life. As the threat of war between the Uztari and the feared Kartami, extremists who revile all falconry, begins to shape wider events, Brysen and Kylee must negotiate their own troubled relationship in order to save their future. But what chance do two teenagers have against the ghost eagle?

Every so often, I find myself drifting away from YA as a genre, until a book comes along that drags me back in and reminds me what I love about it. Black Wings Beating is such a book: beautifully worldbuilt, exceptionally characterised and deftly written, it packs a lot of feeling into a compact, pacey package. It also hits that (for me) perfect sweet-spot of magic fantasy adventure meets queer romantic feelings: though queerness is normative and accepted within the setting, Brysen is still allowed to struggle with romance and identity along a different axis, neatly paralleling Kylee’s quest to accept and understand her gift for the Hollow Tongue, an ancient magical language that bestows control over birds.

Told with alternating third-person focus on Kylee and Brysen and interspersed with glimpses of wider political happenings, Black Wings Beating is, at its heart, a novel about abuse, autonomy and survival. Since childhood, Kylee and Brysen were pitted against each other by their father, Yzzat, who yearned to exploit his daughter’s gifts while reviling his son’s comparative lack of talent. Though furious with and frustrated by Kylee’s disinterest in falconry and her refusal to use her magic to his advantage, Yzzat still dreamed of winning her to his cause and, through her, obtaining prestige. As such, his physical abuse was reserved for Brysen alone: whippings, beatings and worse that left Brysen desperate to prove himself useful. And so the dichotomy between the twins was set: Kylee, reluctant to use her talents and thereby see her brother further diminished, forced to carry the weight of the world along with the care and management of her family; Brysen, rushing headlong into any opportunity to shine without realistic planning, dreaming big to cover how small he feels and the knowledge that, if he stops to think, he’ll remember to hate himself.

It’s an achingly real dynamic, and one that sees the reader rooting for both siblings despite – or perhaps because of – how often their feelings and shared-yet-different experiences put them at odds. London has a nuanced grasp of psychology and characterisation that makes even his minor characters feel fleshed out, and when combined with his vivid portrayal of falconry and its place in Uztari culture, the effect is powerful. Reading Black Wings Beating, in fact, I was finally able to articulate something I’ve been struggling to pin down in terms of YA novels generally: the distinction between a story in which potentially difficult teenage behaviours are excused, and one in which they are explained.

In the former instance, neither the text itself nor the events it depicts make any real judgement or commentary about the characters’ actions: whether they’re being kind or cruel, sensible or impulsive, hesitant or brash, and if this ultimately has a positive or negative effect on those around them. Rather, we’re shown how their motives are justified to them, such that it’s easy to conflate the character’s feelings with the author’s approval of their actions – sometimes correctly, sometimes not, but in either case due to the lack of textual evidence for a different interpretation. In the latter instance, either the text or the events it depicts, or both, are used to make us think critically about the characters, such that, even when we understand their self-justifications, we’re encouraged by the text – and, by extension, the author – to form our own conclusions.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the former type of story is bad, or that this dichotomy between stories that lack or feature authorial commentary exists only in YA. However, in the specific context of the teenage characters in YA SFF, who are often called upon to act in extraordinary ways or participate in world-altering events, and whose youthful impulsiveness is often used to propel them through their adventures, reading Black Wings Beating has confirmed my preference for the latter type of story. Over and over again, both Brysen and Kylee make terrible choices while only sometimes being aware of it. But while London shows us their rationalisations, he doesn’t present them as being objectively rational. Both Kylee and Brysen are trying their best, but their abusive childhood has twisted their relationship, their judgement and their self-perception in different ways, such that, even when they know they’ve made a bad decision, they don’t always know what the right one would’ve been, or even if there was a better choice to be made at all.

Set over the course of a few days, Black Wings Beating uses Kylee and Brysen as an intimate lens through which to view the incipient struggles of Uztar as a whole. Though we only catch glimpses of the power-hungry kyrgs and the coming Kartami threat, these parts of the story all fit neatly together, so that our focus on the twins looks like a convincing telescopic zoom-in on the localised details of a wider landscape. And throughout it all, the influence of falconry – of the eternally unrequited love of a falconer for their birds – is incorporated into the narrative. Just as Brysen’s existing relationship with Dymian, a falcon master, is contrasted with his newfound bond with Jowyn, a bone-white boy who lives with the mysterious Owl Mothers, so is Kylee’s friendship with Vyvian, a spy for the kyrgs, contrasted with her feelings for Nyall, a long-time friend who loves her despite her indifference to romance.

The love a falconer has for their bird will never be reciprocated, the story tells us, and yet that love – the willingness to care for a creature that may only hurt or disdain you – lies at the heart of falconry. It is this love which the Kartami despise as weak, but it is also central to the strength both Kylee and Brysen show: the courage it takes them to love at all – to love themselves, to love others, and to contemplate being loved – despite the abuse they’ve endured.

Though Black Wings Beating is clearly the first volume in a planned trilogy, it nonetheless ends on an emotionally satisfying note. I can’t wait to see what happens in the rest of the series, and I look forward to reading whatever else London writes in the future.

Warning: total spoilers.

Today, a friend and I made the questionable decision to see Jurassic World: The Next One¬†– sorry, Fallen Kingdom –¬†a film whose relentlessly trite and overdone orchestral scoring made my fingers twitch throughout with the urge to mute the music. The only other film to ever provoke a similar tic was¬†Eragon, which frankly does not make for a great comparison. Granted, I aggressively dislike¬†both Jurassic World¬†and the smugly punchable personage of Chris Pratt With Abs, but I loved the original Jurassic Park films (the first two, anyway) and am generally fond of trashy action spectacle. Had Fallen Kingdom been remotely good, these biases would have neatly cancelled each other out; instead, I was forced to sit through a film so bad, it made two hours feel like four.

Fallen Kingdom is, in every respect, an aggressively terrible movie. The music is bad, the direction is bad, the script and acting are terrible, and the plot is recognisable only inasmuch as it constitutes an immeasurably shitty, unfeeling knock-off of¬†Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World. The dinosaurs themselves, which ought to be the sole redeeming feature, are a constant and heinous visual offence: not only are the designs all slightly weird, but their proportions in relation to their environment are constantly, maddeningly inconsistent. A brachiosaurus that looks two stories tall in one shot looks half as big in the next; the carnivores are in constant flux, not only with regard to height, but also in terms of bulk and proportions. The fact that there’s zero sensawunda to their portrayal despite the fact that we’re meant to care about them is one nail of many in the film’s flamboyant coffin: it’s very hard to understand why any of the characters, having spent the whole narrative on the brink of being eaten, trampled or mauled, wants to save the dinosaurs even at the finale.

The film opens with a team of unknown dudes rescuing a bit of indominus rex bone from the bottom of Isla Nubar’s harbour. A massive crocodile-dino-thing eats three of them and escapes in the process, while the bone is taken away to have Evil Science done to it. This serves as a prologue of sorts, as the title card comes up after it.

As the movie proper starts, the premise – and I’m using that word generously – is established thusly: it’s three years after the events of Jurassic World, and now the dinosaurs left on Isla Nubar are in danger of re-extinction because IMMINENT VOLCANO. The logic of this volcano is not overly probed, presumably because this would mean explaining why the original theme park was built on a site that was in potential danger of blowing the fuck up; nor is it explained why the question of whether to rescue the dinosaurs or let them be obliterated was left to the last minute. The possibility that some might, in fact, survive the volcano, on account of how volcanoes aren’t an automatic death-sentence for whole ecosystems, isn’t mentioned either; so now the US government is debating whether to let them live or die. They are aided in this decision by Cameo Jeff Goldblumm, who talks a bit about chaos and genetic power and life correcting itself, thereby convincing the relevant senators to let nature take its course.

Opposed to this belief for reasons that would appear to belie her entire character arc in the first Jurassic World, inasmuch as she had one, is former park director Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). Working with her two Tired Millennial Sidekicks, Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) – both of whom deserved a better movie – Claire is now a lobbyist to save the dinos; so when she’s contacted by Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), an ageing scientist who apparently worked on the original Jurassic Park with John Hammond, she thinks her prayers are answered. Acting as the executor of Lockwood’s estate is the obsequious Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), who promises that the dinosaurs will be rescued and taken to a new island habitat. However, in order to pull off the operation – and specifically to save Blue, the caring velociraptor – they need both Claire and animal behaviourist Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to go to the park in person: Claire because her biometrics are needed to activate trackers in the dinosaurs (and this can only be done on site, for some reason), Owen because he’s the only one who can get close enough to Blue to bring her in.

Also, Lockwood has a young mysterious granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon), whose mother is dead and who lives with him. This will be relevant later, so hang onto that.

So: Claire goes out to where Owen is hand-building a Manly Wilderness Cabin to try and convince him to sign on for the mission, largely by appealing to his feeling for Blue. From this point on, we are treated to a camera-gaze which is – and there’s really no other way to put it – Super Hella Thirsty for Chris Pratt’s Owen, who we are meant to see as the Manliest Toughest Hot Manly Man On Earth. The camera does not just capture Chris Pratt; it models him like a spandex jumpsuit. Barely a minute passes without an intense, brooding close-up of Pratt smirking while staring into the distance, as though he’s still Andy Dwyer of Parks and Rec pretending to be Burt Macklin but without the self-deprecating playfulness. Franklin is the only character not impressed with Owen, and is therefore alone in being remotely tethered to reality: for saying sensible, reasonable things like “Why are we doing this?”, “Do we really have to?” and “No,” he is summarily ignored as the comic relief.

Once everyone is on the dinosaur island, whose soon-to-explode volcano apparently isn’t being tracked or monitored by anyone because honestly, why bother, we’re introduced to Eli’s right-hand man, a game-hunter dude who is butch and sneering and fucks up Blue’s capture by ignoring Owen’s directives, which leads to Blue being shot. There’s a lot of yelling, and Zia is conscripted to try and save Blue because she’s apparently a dinosaur doctor despite never having seen one before. It’s also revealed that the game-hunter and Eli have – shock horror! – lied to Claire about their intentions, and are in fact Bad Guys Who Do Not Value The Sanctity of Dinosaur Life, Not Even A Little Bit. This means they tranq Owen and leave him to the mercy of the oncoming lava while trapping Claire and Franklin in a radio tower, and now everything’s in a rush because the volcano starts exploding.

Listen: I like ridiculous action sequences as much as the next person, but having your characters run from both flaming lavaballs and dinosaurs at the same time is kind of gilding the lily. A bunch of Action happens, Claire makes a lot of breathy vocalisations, Franklin screams because he’s a normal person and Owen saves the day by being cool and manly and also having a knife. There’s a weird transition where Claire, Owen and Franklin go from being bedraggled on a shore to perched on a clifftop overlooking a different beach without any explanation for how they got there while the volcano is still exploding, we’re shown game-hunter guy stealing a dino tooth for a souvenir – this, too, is Important Later – and then, somehow, nobody on Team Evil notices when our heroes steal a truck and jump it onto the back of their fleeing boat, just in time for everyone to watch a brachiosaurus die tragically at the water’s edge.

Stuff happens on the boat, including Claire disguising herself by cunningly wearing a hat. Zia needs blood from the captive T-rex to do a transfusion to save Blue’s life, which Claire and Owen get for her. Zia gives Blue the blood and removes the bullet from her torso, all without stitching or sterilising anything, and then pronounces Blue saved, because that’s obviously how medicine works. Meanwhile, back at the mansion, little Maisie overhears Eli’s plans to sell the dinosaurs to the highest bidder and runs to tell grandpa Lockwood, who claims not to believe her and then sends her to bed. Maisie responds by sneaking down to Eli’s Sekrit Underground Lab, where she sees videos of Owen raising Blue, learns more about Eli’s plans, and encounters an engineered dinosaur called an indoraptor, which is apparently just, like… living there? And nobody upstairs noticed?

Eli finds Maisie and locks her in her room for Knowing Too Much, and is then summoned to see Lockwood, who apparently does believe Maisie, after all. For some reason, Lockwood’s genius plan as an ailing, bedridden man profoundly betrayed by his heir is to order Eli into his room, alone, and tell him to turn himself in to the police. Instead, in a totally unpredictable turn of events, Eli opts to murder Lockwood instead.

At this point, the plot holes in Fallen Kingdom are already gaping wide, while the script is an abominable patchwork of bad dialogue, glitchy logic and poorly-executed transitions. Yet somehow, writers Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly manage to launch their B-grade opus into decidedly C-grade territory with Eli’s decision to have the captive dinosaurs brought to his actual fucking house and stored in his basement lab, oh my actual god. HE LITERALLY HAS ENOUGH ROOM DOWN THERE FOR A FUCKING BRACHIOSAURUS AND SOMEHOW NOBODY NOTICED??? EVERYONE GO DIRECTLY TO WRITING JAIL IN CONTEMPT OF COMMON SENSE.¬†

ANYWAY.

So like. OBVIOUSLY Eli has to auction off all the dinosaurs IMMEDIATELY to a throng of rich criminal buyers who gather IN PERSON, IN HIS BASEMENT LAB, TOGETHER, to see each dinosaur paraded before them in a cage-on-wheels like the world’s weirdest fashion catwalk. (Apparently every American intelligence agency is, I don’t know, out to lunch or something, because nobody seems worried about surveillance.) Naturally, Owen and Claire, who’ve arrived on the scene, are captured here by Eli, who naturally elects to lock them up rather than kill them. Equally naturally, they escape by getting the neighbouring baby pachycephalosaurus to bash open their cell wall and then the door, whereupon they encounter a fugitive, traumatised Maisie, who has just now learned¬† that Lockwood is dead and that – DUHN-DUHHHHN – she’s not his granddaughter after all, but a SECRET CLONE OF HIS DEAD DAUGHTER, a reveal that was in no way¬†hella fucking obvious¬†to anyone remotely trope-literate.

fry shocked

Loose in the mansion, Claire, Owen and Maisie get to watch the dino auction happen in real time. LO THE BIG REVEAL OF THE INDORAPTOR, whose existence is why it was so important to capture Blue: it’s a prototype with raptor DNA and something something BD Wong something GENETIC MOTHERHOOD something. The indoraptor has been trained to attack people on command if someone puts a laser-target on them and then hits a sonic trigger, and like? My brain was beginning to liquefy at this point and it makes literally zero sense, but okay: sure, Jan. Naturally, Owen and Claire decide that the indoraptor Must Never Be Released and resolve to act.

They do this by instead releasing the baby¬†pachycephalosaurus into the crowd of important criminal guests, because Eli is apparently super bad at security for his bootlegged dino trafficking empire. This causes all the buyers to flee and a few to get trampled, which means the indoraptor is left alone in its cage. RE-ENTER GAMEHUNTER GUY, who chooses this moment of all moments to come in yelling for his bonus. Spying the indoraptor alone, he decides he’s gotta get him one of them Big Teef for his trophy necklace – LITERALLY FOR HIS FUCKING NECKLACE,¬†EVEN THOUGH THE TOOTH ITSELF IS WORTH WAY MORE AS A SOURCE OF DINO DNA – and shoots it with a tranq gun. The indoraptor plays stunned, game-hunter GOES INTO THE CAGE WITH THE UNRESTRAINED SUPER-INTELLIGENT SUPER-DINOSAUR, BECAUSE THAT’S OBVIOUSLY THE SMART THING TO DO, and gets eaten while trying to take one of its teeth. With its cage door open, the indoraptor promptly escapes and sets about trying to destroy everything.

As the end is nigh, Eli and his cronies try to salvage as much stuff from their lab as possible, which… somehow involves Zia and Franklin ending up in a room with Blue? I’m certain there was some sort of handwavey justification given for their presence, but that terrible knowledge has been purged from my memory in the hours since, like toxins leaving the body. There’s a bit where DB Wong starts yelling at Zia about how he needs Blue’s blood because PURE DNA something something, which Zia ruins by telling him about the blood transfusion she did on the boat, which… ruins Blue’s usefulness, somehow? I don’t know much about DNA or genetics, but I’m pretty sure this is some Science Bullshit that we’re meant to take on faith despite the fact that it doesn’t ultimately matter. But, sure: GASP!

Shit promptly goes down and Zia sets Blue lose in a way that fucks up the Bad Guys while saving her and Franklin. However, some gas cylinders get damaged in the process and this means the underground lab is now filling with poison that will, once again, kill the dinosaurs trapped down there unless they’re set free, as the exhaust system is also conveniently broken Because Reasons. (The fact that the baby pachy was able to break down a supporting wall to escape even though none of the much bigger animals can do likewise is the kind of detail I ought not to care about by this point. And yet.)

This prompts Zia and Franklin try and find the others, who are now being hunted by the indoraptor, also Because Reasons. At one point during this expertly written chase scene, Owen DELIBERATELY TURNS ALL THE LIGHTS OFF.

And I just.

WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT??? YOU LITERALLY JUST HEARD ALL ABOUT HOW THE FUCKING INDORAPTOR HAS AMAZINGLY KEEN SENSES BUT YOUR DUMB ASS WANTS TO RUN FROM IT IN THE DARK, AN ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH IT CAN SEE BETTER THAN YOU???

GOD.

OK, so: protracted dinosaur chase scene through the mansion. Maisie tries to hide in her bed because terrified child whose caregiver has just been murdered by a man she thought of as family: fair enough. This leads to a scene that audibly scared the shit out of every child in the packed session I attended, wherein the indoraptor stalks Maisie, uniquely and specifically, as she cowers under the covers, reaching out to her with a ghoulish clawed hand before Owen barges in to shoot it. The shooting doesn’t work, Maisie leads Owen out the window, and there’s a big showdown on the glass roof of the mansion’s museum where Claire and Blue come to the rescue and the indoraptor gets dropped down and impaled on the spikes of a triceratops skeleton.

Only then do Zia and Franklin catch up to the main party and inform them that it’s now their Solemn Duty to choose what happens to the remaining dinosaurs: press the big red button (literally) to free them into the countryside, or let them all die? Teary-eyed as she watches the bellowing dinos on the security feeds that apparently didn’t fucking exist when she and Owen were escaping earlier, Claire professes that they ought to live, but doesn’t press the button. She steps back to be sad in peace, only for Maisie to zoom in and press it herself – because the dinosaurs are cloned, like her, and if she’s gets to live, then so should they.

Which… given that we already know Maisie loves dinosaurs, we really didn’t need the whole weird sideplot of her being a clone to explain her desire to free them! She’s a traumatised kid whose sole relative was just murdered! She could’ve just been sick of watching things she loves die, and it would’ve made sense! But more to the point, the whole burden of choice about saving the species as represented by the big red button is moot, because THE FILM ALREADY OPENED WITH A GIANT DINOSAUR-CROCODILE ESCAPING INTO THE OCEAN. And some of the dinosaurs sold at auction were already taken for transport! There’s probably still some on the island, including the pterosaurs who were able to fly away from the volcano! All Maisie has done is let these dinosaurs lose on the populated mainland, where they’ll very likely cause more deaths! But NOBODY POINTS THIS OUT IN TIME TO STOP HER, nor do they mention this afterwards, because this movie is terrible! And then there’s a random cut to Jeff Goldblum explaining why something like this was basically inevitable, because CAMEO!

Just to hammer home the point that Maisie’s choice was meaningless, the film immediately shows us all these already-free dinosaurs along with the ones she released herself. The fact that Eli immediately gets eaten by the T-Rex is kinda vindicating, I’ll admit, but it really doesn’t compensate for how wildly detached from reality the reactions of the characters are to everything that’s happened. The film ends with Claire and Owen – who are somehow a couple again, with just as little chemistry as before – driving away with Maisie. We don’t find out what happened to the nanny who raised her – Eli sent her away after killing Lockwood, so I guess she left the house – and Maisie never asks about her again, because, uh…. trauma, I guess? And her legal guardians are both dead anyway, so Claire and Owen get a free kid, kind of? GOD, THIS FILM WAS SO TERRIBLE, I’M OFFENDED BY THE CONSTRUCTION OF IT ON EVERY CONCEIVABLE LEVEL.

Also: this might seem like a comparatively minor nitpick in the scheme of things, but the fact that not a single character tries to call for help at any point in the movie – the total absence of smartphones of any kind – is really, really conspicuous, and has major implications for the shittiness of the plotting. Take, for instance, the early sequence where Eli’s original plan to dispose of Claire and Franklin involves remotely locking them in the radio tower, there to be consumed by lava and dinosaurs. Aside from the fact that they should’ve easily been able to phone a friend about his organisation’s treachery, forewarning people on the mainland to look out for his incoming dinosaurs, his decision to leave them to die there in the first place makes no goddamn sense in a context where he’d reasonably expect them to have phones – which both he and they fucking should,¬†because they’re professionals in twenty fucking eighteen.

Given that huge chunks of plot in the original Jurassic sequel, The Lost World –¬†which was written and filmed in the pre-smartphone era, and on which Fallen Kingdom is shamelessly riffing – revolve around satellite phones and the ability to radio off the island, there’s literally no excuse for the writers to forget that phones exist. Either Trevorrow and Connelly are being lazy as hell, or they’re so dismissive of the intelligence of viewers that they figured it wouldn’t matter. Either way, it’s a problem that crops up again and again. During the period where Claire and Owen were safe on the boat with the rescued dinosaurs and surrounded by enemies, they could’ve called for backup ahead of time, but they didn’t.

The fact that Maisie, a child of the smartphone era who’s clearly familiar with technology and accustomed to wealth, seemingly doesn’t have her own phone handy is weird enough; compare her to tech-savvy Lex from the original Jurassic Park, and the anachronism is even more startling. Armed with a smartphone, Maisie could easily have filmed Eli’s treachery to show her grandfather, or made her own call for help. Possibly there was meant to be some deliberate plot reason why Maisie had no phone, like being raised by an old, somehow tech-averse scientist – it stood out to me that the phone Lockwood tries to foist on Eli for his police-call looked like a goddamn portable landline from the early noughties – but if so, it was never explained. Even when the dinosaurs are set free at the very end, there’s no sign that Owen and Claire have bothered to call and warn the authorities to look out for them, even though a not inconsiderable portion of the early plot hinged on the dinosaurs having individual radio trackers – meaning that there’s a clear-cut way to recover all the escapees instead of letting them vanish into the wilderness.

But none of this happens, because Fallen Kingdom is clearly setting the stage for – god help us – a third shitty film, one where humans have had to adjust to dinosaurs roaming the North American continent. Never mind that this means disregarding everything we just watched in order to make it comprehensible as a premise – look, here’s that cool shot of a T-Rex roaring at a lion from the trailer! Here’s that shot of the dino-crocodile lurking in a wave, also from the trailer! Haha! Isn’t it cool how we implied the film was going to be one thing, and then only introduced those elements in the final minute of screentime? What a gotcha!

Films like Fallen Kingdom are a testament to Hollywood’s obsession with letting mediocre white dudes ruin everything. It’s hysterically bad in every way – even the couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it anti-Trump barbs fell flat – and yet I don’t feel like laughing, because Trevorrow and Connolly will invariably still get trusted with big-ticket gigs after this, while vastly more talented writers who are queer or female or POC or some combination thereof will be asked to prove themselves over and over and over again.¬†Even if you’re only after a quick trashy action fix, don’t waste your money on Fallen Kingdom. Go buy some dinosaur Lego instead, or rewatch one of the earlier films. I promise, you’ll be better off.

And if, in the mean time, Hollywood wants to make a good dinosaur movie – or if HBO wants to make an awesome dinosaur TV show, which would be even better – then I’d humbly submit James Gurney’s Dinotopia as a much more fruitful starting point. I’ve seen enough of mindless dinosaurs knocking things down; let’s have a story where clever dinosaurs help to build things instead.

Warning: total spoilers for The Last Jedi.

After weeks of frantically speed-scrolling through my various social media feeds when anything that looked like a Star Wars spoiler appeared, I’ve finally managed to get out and see The Last Jedi. Despite my diligence, I didn’t go in completely unspoiled: I knew the general shape of the fan discourse surrounding the characterisation, which means I had some context cues and a smatter of details to work with, but not the major plot points. Now that I’ve seen the movie, however, I’m electing to write my own review before catching up on other people’s opinions, so if I touch on something that’s already been dissected at length without referencing said discussion, that’s why.

In broad-brush strokes, I enjoyed The Last Jedi. Assessing it purely on its own merits, there was a lot it did right: the cinematography, special effects and original creature creation were wonderful, I loved Rose Tico, and there was a pleasing balance of drama, emotion and humour, the requisite scenery-chewing deftly subverted by moments of self-aware comedy, especially in the opening exchange between Hux and Poe Dameron. Mostly, it was solid.

Mostly.

But.

The thing is, no Star Wars film is an island. The Last Jedi is the second film in a trilogy of trilogies, one whose core trio were clearly and intentionally mapped to the heroes of the (original by creation-date, second by internal chronology) series in The Force Awakens: Finn to Han, Rey to Luke and Poe to Leia. This being so, it was easy to mark the other narrative similarities between The Force Awakens and A New Hope –¬†most notably, the parallels between the Death Star and Starkiller Base, both of which were destroyed in the respective finales, but not before their destructive power was unleashed. Which makes comparing¬†The Last Jedi to¬†The Empire Strikes¬†Back not only reasonable, but – I would argue – necessary, if only to determine whether the decision to parallel the new with the old has continued beyond the first film.

The short answer to that is: yes, The Last Jedi is structurally akin to Empire, but not always to useful effect. The long answer, however, is rather more complex.

As a writer, there’s nothing that makes me crave a metaphorical red pen quite like a story where, for whatever reason, I can see the authorial handwave of Because Reasons gumming up the mechanics. If The Last Jedi was an original film, detached from the Star Wars universe, I’d be able to tell you that the problem stems from the poorly-forced sexist clash between Poe and Holdo, and that would be that. But because The Last Jedi has borrowed certain key narrative structures from Empire, there’s a clear template against which to measure its narrative choices, which makes it easier to infer the hows and whys of various changers.

A quick refresher in Star Wars, for those who haven’t watched the original trilogy lately. The Empire Strikes back begins with the Rebel forces being ousted from Hoth in a massive battle. After fleeing the planet, Luke goes to Degobah to train with Master Yoda, while Han and Leia spend some time dealing with a broken Millennium Falcon and the pursuit of Boba Fett, kissing and bickering and generally cementing their chemistry before finally going to track down Han’s old buddy, Lando Calrissian, in Cloud City. Frustrated with Yoda, Luke has a premonition of danger and goes to rescue his friends, as Lando, who’s been strong-armed by Darth Vader, hands Han and Leia over to the Empire. Han is frozen in carbonite after Leia declares her love for him, Luke loses a hand and learns Vader is his father, and the film ends with the pair them, plus Lando, escaping as they resolve to rescue Han.

By comparison, The Last Jedi follows a fairly similar arc. The film opens with the Rebellion being ousted from its base and pursued in a space battle. Rey attempts to persuade Luke to help her, while Poe and Finn are left dealing with a fleet that’s low on fuel as they try to outrun Hux and the First Order. As Leia lies injured, Poe clashes with Holdo over command, which results in him sending Finn and Rose on a secret mission to find a codebreaker who can help sabotage the First Order’s ship. Unable to the codebreaker, Rose and Finn return instead with DJ, a stranger who claims he can help them, but who ends up betraying them to the First Order. Unaware of this, Poe mounts a short-lived mutiny against Holdo. Meanwhile, frustrated with Luke and experiencing an odd connection to Kylo Ren, Rey goes to try and turn him to back to the light, only to find that Snoke was the source of their connection. Kylo kills Snoke and his guards with Rey’s help, reveals the truth about her lost parents, then betrays her in turn. In the final battle, Rose is injured and declares her feelings for Finn, and the film ends with the rebellion united but still fleeing.

Based on this, it seems clear that The Last Jedi is intended to parallel The Empire Strikes Back, both structurally and thematically. All the same elements are in play, albeit recontextualised by their place in a new story; but where Empire is a tight, sleek film, The Last Jedi is middle-heavy. The major difference between the two is Poe’s tension-and-mutiny arc, which doesn’t map to anything in Empire.

And this is the part where things get prickly. As stated, I really love Rose Tico, not only because she’s a brilliant, engaging character superbly acted by Kelly Marie Tran, but because she represents another crucial foray into diverse representation, both in Star Wars and on the big screen generally. There’s a lot to recommend Vice-Admiral Holdo, too, especially her touching final scene with Leia: I still want to know more about their relationship. I am not for a moment saying that either character – that either woman – doesn’t belong in the film, or in Star Wars, or that their roles were miscast or badly acted or anything like that. But there is, I suspect, a truly maddening reason why they were paired onscreen with Finn and Poe, and that this logic in turn adversely affected both the deeper plot implications and the film’s overall structure.

Given how closely¬†The Last Jedi parallels the main arc of Empire, it’s narratively incongruous that, rather than Finn and Poe heading out to find the codebreaker together, the pair of them are instead split up, decreasing their screen-time while extending the length of the film. But as was firmly established in The Force Awakens, Finn and Poe map to Han and Leia – which is to say, to a canonical straight couple. Even without the phenomenal on-screen chemistry between John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, that parallel is clear in the writing; and in Empire, Han and Leia’s time alone is what catalyses their on-screen romance.

That being so, I find it impossible to believe that Finn and Poe were split up and paired with new female characters for anything other than a clumsy, godawful attempt to No Homo the narrative. Rose and Finn’s scenes are delightful, and their actors, too, have chemistry, but every time we cut back to Poe and Holdo, the story flounders. Everything that happens during Finn’s absence is demonstrably redundant: not only does it fail to move the plot forward, but in trying to justify the time-split, writer/director Rian Johnson has foisted a truly terrible mini-arc on Poe Dameron.

Specifically: after Leia is incapacitated, Holdo is given command of the rebellion. Seeing Holdo for the first time, Poe looks startled and states that she’s not what he was expecting. When Poe, recently demoted by Leia for ignoring orders, asks Holdo what her plan is, Holdo dismisses him as a hot-headed “flyboy” who isn’t what they need right now. Not only doesn’t she tell him where they’re headed, she apparently doesn’t tell anyone else, either. This failure to communicate her plan to her people is, firstly, why Finn feels he has to light out on his own, which is how he meets Rose, and is secondly why, once Finn and Rose come up with a plan to infiltrate the First Order, Poe decides that they can’t risk involving Holdo.

As we eventually learn, Holdo does have a plan – and a good one. There is literally no reason why, given the steadily escalating fear and anxiety of her crew, who are watching their companion ships get picked off one by one, she doesn’t share the full details with the rebellion. Instead, she leaves it to Poe to figure out that she’s refuelling the transport ships to evacuate – and when he panics, pointing out (correctly) that the transports are neither shielded nor armed, she likewise doesn’t elaborate on the fact that they’ll have a cloaking device to shield them and a destination close by, one where they can land and take shelter while the main ship acts as a decoy.

Because of Holdo’s decision to withhold this information, Poe thinks that she’s given up and is leading them blithely to their deaths, and so stages a mutiny – one in which he’s supported by a number of other, equally worried crewmembers. Happily, Leia recovers from her injuries in time to reclaim control, and only then does she let Poe in on Holdo’s plan. Poe suffers no further consequences for his actions, and even when they talk privately, both Holdo and Leia seem more amused by his mutiny than angry at what he’s done, rendering the whole arc moot. Except, of course, for the fact that Finn and Rose, on their mission from Poe, bring DJ into the mix – and DJ, who knows about the cloaking device, betrays this secret to the First Order, who promptly open fire on the transport ships.

Hundreds of rebellion soldiers die because Poe and Holdo so disliked each other on sight that neither one trusted the other with vital information – and for the rest of the film,¬†this is never addressed. But of course, Johnson can’t address it, not even to hang a fucking lampshade on it, because the entire scenario is manufactured as a way to justify Poe’s protagonist-level screentime while Finn is away – which is also why, contextually, their antagonism doesn’t even make sense. The film begins with the premise that the entire rebellion, who’ve just been flushed out of their single remaining base, is on the run together – so why the fuck haven’t Poe and Holdo met before now? Especially as both are shown to have a close, personal relationship with Leia, it rings utterly false that they’d not only be in the dark about one another, but start out instantly on the wrong foot.

As such, the coding around Poe’s surprise at Holdo – that she’s not what he expected – is a lazy misstep. Traditionally, when hotshot male characters say this about a new female commander, it’s a sexist dogwhistle: oh, I didn’t know we’d be getting a woman. But why would Poe Dameron, son of Shara Bey and devotee of General Leia Organa, be surprised by Holdo’s gender? He wouldn’t, is the answer. Flatly, canonically, he wouldn’t. But if there’s some other aspect of Holdo that’s meant to ping as unusual besides her being female, it’s not obvious. It would’ve made far more sense to write the two as having a pre-existing antagonistic relationship for whatever reason: instead, we get Poe cast as an impatient, know-it-all James Bond to Holdo as Judi Dench’s M, who doesn’t have time for his nonsense when they first meet, but who ends up forgiving it anyway.

It’s like Rian Johnson looked at the Poe Dameron of The Force Awakens – a character universally beloved for being vulnerable, funny, charming, honest, loyal and openly affectionate – and decided, Hey, that guy’s an awesome pilot, which means he’s a COOL GUY, and COOL GUYS don’t play by the RULES, man, especially if it means listening to WOMEN – they just A-Team that shit in secret and to HELL with the bodycount! And anyway he’s HOT, so he’s ALWAYS forgiven.

Dear Rian Johnson, if you’re reading this: I like a lot of what you did with this film, but FUCK YOU FOREVER for making Poe Dameron the kind of guy who gets a bunch of his friends killed, then has a mutiny, then indirectly gets even MORE people killed, and never shows any grief about or cognisance of his actions, all because you wanted to avoid fuelling a homoerotic parallel that you openly queerbaited in promo but never intended to fulfil anyway. GIVE US OUR GODDAMN GAYS IN SPACE, YOU COWARD.

Anyway. 

The point being, the entire plot of The Last Jedi suffers because of a single, seemingly homophobic decision – unnecessarily splitting up Poe and Finn to avoid further Han/Leia comparisons – and the knock-on consequences thereof. Which is where I bring out my metaphorical Red Pen of Plot-Fixing and say, here is what should’ve happened. Namely: Poe and Holdo should’ve had a pre-existing antagonistic relationship, but one that didn’t prevent them from sharing information like grown-ups. Rather than Rose being part of the rebellion, she should’ve been the codebreaker they were sent to retrieve on Holdo’s orders (because two plans are better than one, and why not try both gambits?). This voids the need for DJ, who barely appears before disappearing again, so that Rose-as-codebreaker retains her status as an important, well-fleshed character who interacts with both Finn and Poe, and whose introduction works to map her onto Lando Calrissian. If you really must keep DJ because Benicio del Toro and thematic betrayal parallels (more of which shortly), he can be the dubious guy with First Order secrets that Rose has been trying to recruit for the rebellion, which explains why she’s with him on the casino planet in the first place, and how he’s so easily able to cut a deal with Phasma. BOOM! You’ve just saved a solid 20 minutes of redundant screen-time without degrading Poe’s character or undermining Holdo’s for no good reason and without dumb sexism creeping in. You’re welcome.¬†

(Also. ALSO. Not to take away from how lovely that Finn/Rose kiss was, but let’s just take a moment to peek into the other timeline, the one where Stormpilot gets to go canon the same way Han and Leia did in Empire. Let’s imagine Finn and Poe bickering in the casino, getting all rumpled during the escape while Rose and BB8 exchange Meaningful Looks and scathing droid-beeps about the two of them. Let’s imagine, during that final battle on Krait, that it’s Poe, not Rose, who stays behind to forcibly knock Finn out of that self-sacrificing dive towards the enemy gun; Poe who grabs Finn and kisses him because they should fight for what they love, not against what they hate, before passing out injured, thus completing the parallel of Han going into carbonite after kissing Leia. Let us gaze upon that world, that glorious thematic act of completion, subversion and queer recontextualisation, and then quietly wish a pox on everything in our cruddy Darkest Timeline that conspired to make it unhappen.)

And now, with all that out of the way, let’s address the Rey/Kylo issue.

As I said at the outset of this piece, I tried my best to avoid spoilers before watching the film, but no matter how quickly I scrolled through feeds or closed my tabs, I still knew that a lot of people had come away rejoicing in the idea that Rey and Kylo were being set up romantically, while an equal number had not.

And I just. Look. While I’m not going to stand here and tell people what to ship or on what basis, both generally and at this historical moment in particular, I find myself with an intense personal dislike of narratives, canonical or otherwise, which take it upon themselves to woobify Nazis, neo-Nazis, or the clearly signposted fictional counterparts thereof, into which category Kylo Ren and the whole First Order falls squarely. I don’t care about how sad he feels that he killed his dad: he still fucking killed his dad, and that’s before you account for the fact that he demonstrably doesn’t give a shit about committing genocide. In the immortal words of Brooklyn Nine Nine’s Jake Peralta: cool motive, still murder. Except for how the motive isn’t actually cool at all, because, you know, actual literal genocide.

From my viewing of the film, I honestly can’t tell if Rian Johnson wants us to think of Kylo as a genuinely sympathetic, redeemable figure, or if he’s just trying to improve on the jarring, horrible botch the prequels made of Anakin’s trip to the Dark Side by showing us his complexity without negating his monstrousness. Or, well: let me rephrase that. In terms of the actual script and what takes place, I’d argue that, even if Kylo is given a final shot at redemption in Episode IX, he’s still not being primed as Rey’s love interest. It’s just that the question of how much Johnson wants us to care about Kylo as a person, regardless of anything that happens with Rey, is a different question, for all that the two are easily conflated.

Yes, Rey and Kylo touched hands. They did! And Kylo killed Snoke instead of Rey! This is what we might call a low fucking bar for romantic compatibility, but hey: it’s not like white dudes in cinema are ever really called upon to jump anything higher. More salient in terms of the Star Wars universe is the fact that, after they defeat Snoke’s guards, Kylo’s appeal to Rey to join him and rule the galaxy together¬†is an almost word-for-word callback to the offer Anakin makes Padme in Revenge of the Sith, right before he force-chokes her into unconsciousness, leaves her pregnant ass for dead and turns into Darth Vader. The fact that Anakin and Padme are also sold as a tragic romance prior to this moment is not, I would contend, the salient hook on which to hang the hopes of canon Reylo. Aside from anything else, Rey is mapped to Luke and Kylo, very clearly, to Darth Vader: with clear precedent, Rey’s desire to turn Kylo back from the Dark Side can be heartfelt without being romantic.

(Also, I mean. The connection that Rey and Kylo had was deliberately forged by Snoke to exploit their weaknesses, which is why they each had a vision of converting the other. Though we’re given a hint that the link remains in the final scenes, it ends with Rey shutting the door – both literally and figuratively – in Kylo’s face. I’m hard-pressed to view that as destiny.)

As for Kylo himself, his characterisation reads to me as deliberate, selfish nihilism. Kylo is conflicted over his murder of Han Solo because it impacts him, but at no point does he hesitate to reign down destruction and death on strangers. His desire to turn Rey to the Dark Side is likewise covetous, possessive: she is powerful, and he wants a powerful companion in the Force, but one who, by virtue of being his apprentice, will be subordinate to him – not a judgemental superior, as Snoke was. This is reflected in the way DJ’s betrayal of Rose and Finn is paralleled with Kylo’s decision to first help Rey when it benefits him, and then to turn on her afterwards. Like DJ, Kylo is mercenary in his allegiances, helping whoever helps him in the moment, then discarding them when the relationship is no longer useful.

The death of Snoke itself, however, is rather anticlimactic. He was a looming, distant figure in The Force Awakens, and while there’s an established tradition of Star Wars villains showing up and looking cool without their origins ever being satisfactorily explained at the time, this is vastly more annoying in Snoke’s case. Unlike¬†General Greivous, Darth Maul or Boba Fett, Snoke isn’t just the random antagonist of a single film, plucked from obscurity to thwart the heroes: he’s the reason Ben Solo turned to the Dark Side and become Kylo Ren. Presumably, the hows and whys of Snoke manipulating the young Ben could still come out in Episode IX, but if it never gets addressed onscreen, I’m going to be deeply irritated.

On a more positive note, I enjoyed what the film did with Luke’s arc, for all that it’s not what I’d expected. To me, one of the most fascinating arguments in Star Wars discourse is the question of the Jedi, their morality, and how it all set Anakin up for failure. The Jedi ideology put forth in the prequels is the kind of thing that sounds superficially deep and meaningful, but which looks increasingly toxic the more closely it’s examined. The ban on children, marriage and close relationships outside the Order; the extreme youth of those taken for training combined with a forcible, protracted separation from their families; the idea that fear necessarily leads to anger, and so on. Luke describing the Force to Rey as something that existed beyond the Jedi, an innate aspect of the world, felt both refreshing and intuitively right, even given the necessity of respecting the balance between light and dark. The appearance of force-ghost Yoda felt a little pat, as did his ability to call lightning, but he still had one of my favourite lines in the whole film, delivered in support of Luke’s choice to step away from the Jedi teachings: as masters, we become the thing they surpass.

There were other, smaller niggles throughout than my issues with Poe and the no-homo restructuring of the plot: the handwaving of distances between Luke’s world and the main fight in a story that hinged on fuel supply; the sudden appearance of trenches and tunnels into the caves on Krait when everyone was meant to be trapped inside; the random appearance of an Evil Ball Droid to play momentary nemesis to BB8; the on-the-nose decision to show a random white slave boy, holding a broom he Force-summoned like a lightsaber, at the very end of the film. And as wonderful as it was to see Billie Lourd on screen, the knowledge that Carrie Fisher will be absent from Episode IX – the film that was meant to have been her movie, just as Harrison Ford had the The Force Awakens and Mark Hamill had The Last Jedi – rendered both her presence and her mother’s all the more bittersweet.

 

Ultimately, The Last Jedi is a successful-but-frustrating mess, which is kind of how you know it’s a Star Wars movie. I’ll be forever angry at the carelessness with which Rian Johnson treated Poe Dameron and Vice-Admiral Holdo, but even if I could’ve wished for a different plot structure, I’m always going to stan hard for Rose Tico, who was warm and kind and intelligent and who stole every scene she was in. LESS REN, MORE ROSE – that’s my new motto.

Here’s hoping that Episode IX delivers.

 

Warning: all the spoilers for The Great Wall.

When I first heard about The Great Wall, I rolled my eyes and dismissed it as yet another exploitative tale of Western exceptionalism¬†where the white guy comes in, either insults or co-opts the local culture, saves the day and gets the girl, all while taking a role originally intended for or grossly better suited to a person of colour. It wasn’t until later that I learned the film was directed by Zhang Yimou, filmed on location in Qingdao, China, ¬†and featuring a predominantly Chinese cast, with Matt Damon – emphasised in Western marketing to attract a Western audience – starring as one of several leads, in a role that was always intended for a Western actor. The film was released in China at the end of 2016 – and is, in fact, the most expensive film ever shot entirely in China – and was meant to be an international release, designed to appeal to both Chinese and Western audiences, from the outset.

Which left me feeling rather more curious and charitable than I had been; enough so that, today, I went out and saw it. Historically, I’m not an enormous fan of Matt Damon, who always strikes me as having two on-screen¬†modes – All-American Hero and Not-Quite-Character Actor, the former being generally¬†more plausible¬†than the latter at the expense of being less interesting – but I’ve always enjoyed Zhang Yimou’s cinematography, especially his flair for colour and battle sequences. The fact that The Great Wall is ultimately an historical action fantasy film – a genre I am predisposed to love – is also a point in its favour; I’ve watched a great deal of Hollywood trash over the years in service to my SFFnal heart, and even with Damon’s involvement, The Great Wall already started out on better footing than most of it by virtue of Zhang’s involvement.

Even so, I was wary about the execution overall, and so went in expecting something along the lines of a more highly polished but still likely disjointed Chinese equivalent to the abysmal 47 Ronin, an American¬†production that floundered thanks to a combination of studio meddling,¬†language issues with the predominantly Japanese-speaking cast being instructed to deliver their lines in English, last-minute changes and a script that couldn’t decide who was writing it. But of course, 47 Ronin’s biggest offence – aside from constituting a criminal waste of Rinko Kikuchi’s talents – was doing what I initially, falsely assumed¬†The Great Wall was doing: unnecessarily centering a white actor playing a non-white role in an Asian setting whose authenticity was systematically bastardised by the Western¬†producers.

Instead, I found myself watching one of the most enjoyable SFF¬†action films I’ve seen¬†since Pacific Rim. (Which did not waste Rinko Kikuchi.)

The premise: William (Matt Damon) and his companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are part of a Western trade mission sent to China to find black powder – gunpowder – for their armies at home. While fleeing Kitan bandits in the mountains, they encounter an unknown monster and, in seeking its origins, are soon taken in by the Nameless Order, an army manning the Great Wall against an expected incursion of the monsters, called Taotie. In charge are General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and his offsider, Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), advised by Strategist Wang (Andy Lau). Every sixty years, the Taotie attack from a nearby mountain, and the next attack is just starting; as such, the Nameless Order and the Great Wall are all that stand between the hoards, controlled by a single Queen, and the nearby capital, Bianliang. While attempting to win Commander Lin’s trust, William makes two alliances: one with Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a Westerner who initially came to China in search of black powder twenty-five years ago; and another with Peng Yong (Lu Han), a young soldier whose life he saves. While Tovar and Ballard are eager to steal the black powder and leave, Commander Lin, General Shao and Strategist Wang are working to counter the evolving strategies of the Taotie: if the Wall is breeched and Bianliang falls, the Taotie will have enough sustenance to overrun the world, a fact which forces William to choose between loyalty to his friends and to a higher cause.

From the outset, I was impressed by the scriptwriting in The Great Wall, which manages the trick of being both deft and playful, fast-paced without any stilted infodumping or obvious plot-holes, aside from a very slight and seemingly genre-requisite degree of handwaving around what the Taotie do when they’re not attacking. The fact that at least half the film is subtitled was another pleasant surprise: of the Chinese characters, both Lin and Wang speak English – their fluency is explained by years of Ballard’s tutelage¬†– and who act as translators for the rest; even so, they still get to deliver plenty of lines in Chinese, and there are numerous scenes where none of the Western characters are present. A clever use is also made of the difference between literal and thematic translations: while the audience sees the literal English translation of the Chinese dialogue in subtitles, there are multiple occasions when, in translating out loud for the benefit of the English-speaking characters,¬†Lin and Wang make subtle adjustments, either politely smoothing over private jokes or tweaking their words for best effect.The scene where Commander Lin’s ability to speak English is revealed made me laugh out loud in a good way: I hadn’t expected the film to be funny, either, but it frequently is, thanks in no small part to the wonderful Pedro Pascal, who plays Tovar so beautifully that he has a tendency to steal every scene he’s in.

Tovar is dry, witty and pragmatic, given to some dark moments, but also loyal, while his establishment as a Spanish character adds another historical dimension to the setting. Aside from calling William amigo, he only gets one real instance of subtitled Spanish dialogue, but the context in which he does this – using it as a private language in Lin’s presence, once her ability to speak English is known – makes for a pleasing gracenote in their collective characterisation. The brief details¬†we’re given of William’s mercenary history, fighting the Danes and Franks and Spaniards, are likewise compelling, a quick acknowledgement of the wider world’s events. It reminded me, in an odd but favourable way, of The 13th Warrior, a film which made the strange decision to cast Antonio Banderas as an Arab protagonist, but whose premise evoked a similar sense of historical intersections not often explored by the action genre.

I also appreciated Tian Jing’s subtle performance as Commander Lin, not only because her leadership of the all-female Crane Corps is objectively awesome – in the opening battle, the women stand on extended platforms beyond the Wall, bungee down on harnesses and spear monsters in the face –¬†but because, refreshingly, not a single person in the film questions either the capabilities or the presence of the female warriors. When General Shao is mortally wounded in battle, it’s Lin he chooses to succeed him, a decision his male Commanders accept absolutely. While there’s a certain inevitable hetero tension between William and Lin, I was pleased beyond measure that this never devolves into¬†forced romance or random kissing: by the film’s end, the Emperor has confirmed Lin as a General, William is on his way back to Europe, and while they’re both enriched by the trust they found in each other, William is not her saviour and Lin is always treated¬†respectfully – both by William, and by the narrative itself.

(Also, The Great Wall passes the Bechdel test, because the female warriors of the Crane Corps talk to each other about something other than men, although they do still, somewhat delightfully, talk shit about William at one point. This is such a low bar to pass that it shouldn’t even merit a¬†mention. And yet.)

Though the action slows a little at the midway point, it remains engaging throughout, while the overall film is structurally solid. As a genre, fantasy action films tend to be overly subject to fridge logic, but the plotting in The Great Wall is consistently… well, consistent. Even small details, like the role of the Kitan raiders, William’s magnet and the arc of Peng Yong’s involvement are consistently shown to be meaningful, lending the film a pleasing all-over symmetry. And visually, it’s spectacular: the Taotie are as convincing as they are terrifying (and boast a refreshingly original monster design), while the real Chinese landscapes are genuinely breathtaking. Zhang Yimou’s trademark use of colour is in full effect with the costuming and direction, lending a visual richness to a concept and setting which, in Western hands, would likely have been rendered in that same flat, drearily gritty sepia palette of greys, browns and blacks that we’ve all come to associate with White Dudes Expressing The Horror Of War, Occasionally Ft. Aliens. Instead of that, we have the Crane Corps resplendent in gorgeous blue lamellar armour, the footsoldiers in black and the archers in red, with other divisions in yellow and purple. Though the ultimate explanation for the Taotie is satisfyingly science fictional rather than magical – which, again, evokes a comparison to another historical SFF¬†film I enjoyed, 2008’s flawed but underrated Outlander¬†– the visual presentation remains wonderfully fantastical.

While I can understand the baseline reluctance of many viewers to engage with¬†a film set in ancient China that nonetheless has Matt Damon as a protagonist – and while I won’t fault anyone who wants to avoid it on those grounds, or just because they dislike Damon himself – the fact that it’s a predominantly Chinese production, and that William’s character isn’t an instance of whitewashing, is very much worth highlighting. While William certainly plays a pivotal role in vanquishing the enemy, the final battle is a cooperative effort, one he achieves on absolute equal terms and through equal participation with Lin. Nor do I want to downplay the significance of Pascal’s Tovar, who represents a three-dimensional, non-stereotyped Latinx character at a point in time when that’s something we badly need more of. Indeed, given the enthusiastic response to Diego Luna’s portrayal of Cassian Andor in Rogue One, particularly the fact that he kept his accent, I feel a great disservice has been done by everyone who’s failed to mention Pascal’s front-and-centre involvement in the project.

I went into The Great Wall expecting to be mildly entertained by an ambitious muddle, and came out feeling engaged, satisfied and happy. As a film, it’s infinitely better than the structural trainwreck that was the recent¬†Assassin’s Creed adaptation, and not just because the latter stars Michael Fassbender, the world’s most smugly punchable man. The Great Wall is colourful, visually spectacular, well-scripted, neatly characterised, engagingly paced and consistently¬†plotted, and while I might’ve wanted to see a little more of General Shao and his offsiders or learn more about the women of the Crane Corps, that wanting is a product of the success of what I did see: the chosen focus didn’t feel narrow by construction, but rather like a glimpse into a wider, more fully-fleshed setting that was carrying on in the background. For Western audiences, William and Tovar are the outsider characters who introduce us to the Chinese setting, but for Chinese audiences, I suspect, the balance of the film feels very different.

The Great Wall is the kind of production I want to see more of: ambitious, coherent, international and fantastical. If we have to sit through the inclusion of Matt Damon this one¬†time to cement the viability of such collaborations, then so be it. With films like La La Land and Fantastic Beasts¬†actively whitewashing their portrayals of America’s Jazz Age, those wanting to support historical diversity could do much worse than see something which represents a seemingly intelligent, respectful collaboration between Western and Chinese storytellers. Maybe the end result won’t be for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself – and really, what more can you ask?

Warning: total spoilers for S1 of Westworld.

Trigger warning: talk of rape, sexual assault and queer death.

Note:¬†Throughout this review, it will be necessary to distinguish between the writers of Westworld the TV show, and the writers employed in the narrative by the titular Westworld theme park. To avoid confusing the two, when I’m referring to the show, Westworld will be italicised; when referring to the park, I’ll use plain text.

*

This will be a somewhat bifurcated review of Westworld – which is, I feel, thematically appropriate, as Westworld itself is something of a bifurcated show. Like so much produced by HBO, it boasts¬†incredible acting, breathtaking production values, intelligent dialogue, great music and an impeccably tight, well-orchestrated series of narrative reveals. Also like much produced by HBO, it takes a liberal, one might even say cartoonishly gratuitous approach to nudity, is saturated with violence in general and violence against women in particular, and has a consistent problem with stereotyping¬†despite its diverse casting. In Westworld’s case, this latter issue is compounded as an offence by its status as a meta-narrative: a story which actively discusses the purpose and structure of stories, but which has seemingly failed to apply those same critiques to key aspects of its own construction.

The practical upshot is that it’s both¬†frustratingly watchable and visibly frustrating. Even when the story pissed me off, I was always compelled to keep going, but I was never quite able to stop criticising it, either. It’s a thematically meaty show, packed with the kind of twists that will, by and large, enhance viewer enjoyment on repeat viewings rather than diminish the appeal. Though there are a few Fridge Logic moments, the whole thing hangs together quite elegantly – no mean feat, given the complexity of the plotting. And yet its virtues have the paradoxical effect of making me angrier about its vices, in much the same way that I’d be more upset about red wine spilled on an expensive party dress than on my favourite t-shirt. Yes, the shirt means more to me despite being cheaper, but a stain won’t stop me from wearing it at home, and even if it did, the item itself is easily replaced. But staining something precious and expensive is frustrating: I’ve invested enough in the cost of the item that I don’t want to toss it away, but staining makes it unsuitable as a showcase piece, which means I can’t love it as much as I want to, either.

You get where I’m going with this.

Right from the outset, Westworld switches between two interconnected narratives: the behind-the-scenes power struggles of the people who run the titular themepark, and the goings-on in the park itself as experienced by both customers and ‘hosts’, the humanoid robot-AIs who act as literal NPCs in pre-structured, pay-to-participate narratives. To the customers, Westworld functions as an immersive holiday-roleplay experience: though visually indistinguishable from real humans, the hosts are considered unreal, and are therefore fair game to any sort of violence, dismissal or sexual fantasy the customers can dream up. (This despite – or at times, because of – the fact that their stated ability to pass the Turing test¬†means their reactions to said violations are viscerally animate.) To the programmers, managers, storytellers, engineers, butchers and behaviourists who run it, Westworld is, variously, a job, an experiment, a financial gamble, a risk, a sandpit and a microcosm of human nature: the hosts might look human, but however unsettling their appearance or behaviour at times, no one is ever allowed to forget what they are.

But to the hosts themselves, Westworld is entirely real, as are their pre-programmed identities. While their existence is ostensibly circumscribed by adherence to preordained narrative ‘loops’, the repetition of their¬†every conversation, death and bodily reconstruction wiped from their memories by the park engineers, certain hosts – notably Dolores, the rancher’s daughter, and Maeve, the bordello madame – are starting to¬†remember their histories. Struggling to understand¬†their occasional eerie interviews with their puppeteering masters – explained away as dreams, on the rare occasion where such explanation is warranted – they fight to break free of their intended loops, with startling consequences.But there is also a hidden layer to Westworld: a maze sought by a mysterious Man in Black and to which the various hosts and their narratives are somehow key. With the¬†hosts exhibiting abnormal behaviour, retaining memories of their former ‘lives’ in a violent, fragmented struggle towards true autonomy, freedom and sentience, Westworld poses¬†a single, sharp question: what does it mean to be human?

Or rather, it’s clearly trying to pose this question; and to be fair, it very nearly succeeds. But for a series so overtly concerned with its own meta – it is, after all, a story about the construction, reception and impact of stories on those who consume and construct them – it has a damnable lack of insight into the particulars of its assumed audiences, both internal and external, and to the ways this hinders the proclaimed universality of its conclusions. Specifically: Westworld is a story in which all the internal storytellers are straight white men endowed with the traditional bigotries of racism, sexism and heteronormativity, but in a context where none of those biases are overtly addressed at any narrative level.

From the outset, it’s clear that Westworld is intended as a no-holds-barred fantasy in the literal sense: a place where the rich and privileged can pay through the nose to fuck, fight and fraternise in a facsimile of the old West without putting themselves at any real physical danger. Nobody there can die: customers, unlike hosts, can’t be killed (though they do¬†risk harm in certain contexts), but each host body and character is nonetheless resurrected, rebuilt and put back into play after they meet their end. Knowing this lends the customers a recklessness and a violence they presumably lack in the real world: hosts are shot, stabbed, raped, assaulted and abused with impunity, because their disposable inhumanity is the point of the experience. This theme is echoed in their treatment by Westworld’s human overseers, who often refer to them as ‘it’ and perform their routine examinations, interviews, repairs and updates while the hosts are naked.

At this point in time, HBO is as well-known for its obsession with full frontal, frequently orgiastic nudity as it is for its total misapprehension of the distinction between nakedness and erotica. Never before has so much skin been shown outside of literal porn with so little instinct for sensuality, sexuality or any appreciation of the human form beyond hurr durr tiddies and, ever so occasionally, hurr durr dongs,¬†and Westworld is no exception to this. It’s like the entirety of HBO is a fourteen-year-old straight boy who’s just discovered the nascent thrill of drawing Sharpie-graffiti genitals¬†on every available schoolyard surface and can only snigger, unrepentant and gleeful, whenever anyone asks them not to. We get it, guys – humans have tits and asses, and you’ve figured out how to show us that! Huzzah for you! Now get the fuck over your pubescent creative wankphase and please, for the love of god, figure out how to do it tastefully,¬†or at least with some general nodding in the direction of an aesthetic other than Things I Desperately Wanted To See As A Teengaer In The Days Before Internet Porn.

That being said, I will concede that there’s an actual, meaningful reason for at least some of Westworld’s ubiquitous nudity: it’s a deliberate, visual act of dehumanisation, one intended not only to distinguish the hosts from the ‘real’ people around them, but to remind the park’s human employees that there’s no need to treat the AIs with kindness or respect. For this reason, it also lends a powerful emphasis to the moments when particular characters¬†opt to dress or cover the hosts, thereby acknowledging their personhood, however minimally. This does not, however, excuse the sadly requisite orgy scenes, nor does it justify the frankly obscene decision to have a white female character make a leering comment about the size of a black host’s penis, and especially not when said female character has already been established as queer. (Yes, bi/pan people exist; as I have good reason to know, being one of them. But there are about nine zillion ways the writers could’ve chosen to show Elsie’s sexual appreciation for men that didn’t tap into one of the single grossest sexual tropes on the books, let alone in a context which, given the host’s blank servility and Elsie’s status as an engineer, is unpleasantly evocative of master/slave dynamics.)

And on the topic of Elsie, let’s talk about queerness in Westworld, shall we? Because let’s be real: the bar for positive queer representation on TV is so fucking low right now, it’s basically at speedbump height, and yet myriad grown-ass adults are evidently hellbent on bellyflopping onto it with all the grace and nuance of a drunk walrus. Elsie is a queer white woman whose queerness is shown to us by her decision to kiss one of the female hosts, Clementine, who’s currently deployed as a prostitute, in a context where Clementine is reduced to a literal object, stripped of all consciousness and agency. Episode 6 ends on the cliffhanger of Elsie’s probable demise, and as soon as I saw that setup, I felt as if that single, non-consensual kiss – never referenced or expanded on otherwise – had been meant as Chekov’s gaykilling gun: this woman is queer, and thus is her death predicted. (Of course she fucking dies. Of course she does. I looked it up before I watched the next episode, but I might as well have Googled whether the sun sets in the west.)

It doesn’t help that the only other queer femininity we’re shown is either pornography as wallpaper or female host prostitutes hitting on female customers; and it especially doesn’t help that, as much as HBO loves its gratuitous orgy scenes, you’ll only ever see two naked women casually getting it on in the background, never two naked men. Nor does it escape notice that the lab tech with a penchant for fucking the hosts in sleep mode is apparently a queer man, a fact which is presented as a sort of narrative reveal. The first time he’s caught in the act, we only see the host’s legs, prone and still, under his body, but later there’s a whole sequence where he takes one of the male hosts, Hector – who is, not coincidentally, a MOC, singled out for sexual misuse by at least one other character – and prepares to rape¬†him. (It’s not actually¬†clear in context whether the tech is planning on fucking or being fucked by Hector – not that it’s any less a violation either way, of course; I’m noting it rather because the scene itself smacks of being constructed by people without any real idea of how penetrative sex between two men works. Like, ignoring the fact that they’re in a literal glass-walled room with the tech’s eyerolling colleague right next door, Hector is sitting upright on a chair, but is also flaccid and non-responsive by virtue of being in sleep mode. So even though we get a grimly lascivious close-up of the tech squirting lube on his hand, dropping his pants and, presumably, slicking himself up, it’s not actually clear what he’s hoping to achieve prior to the merciful moment when Hector wakes up and fights him the fuck off.)

Topping off this mess is Logan, a caustic, black-hat-playing customer who, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it foursome with three host prostitutes – two female, one male – is visually implied to be queer, and who thereinafter¬†functions, completely unnecessarily, as a depraved bisexual stereotype. And I do mean blink-and-you’ll-miss-it: I had to rewind the episode to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, but it’s definitely there, and as with Elsie kissing Clementine, it’s never referenced again. The male host is engaging only with Logan, stroking his chest as he kisses and fucks the two women; it’s about as unsexualised as sexual contact between two naked men can actually get, and yet HBO has gone to the trouble of including it, I suspect for the sole purpose of turning a bland, unoriginal character into an even grosser stereotype than he would otherwise have been while acting under the misapprehension that it would give him depth. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. Logan doesn’t cease to be a cocky, punchable asshat¬†just because you consented to put a naked white dude next to him for less time than it takes to have a really good shit; it just suggests that you, too, are a cocky, punchable asshat who should shit more in the bathroom and less on the fucking page. But I digress.

And then there’s the racism, which – and there’s no other way to put this – is presented as being an actual, intentional feature of the Westworld experience, even though it makes zero commercial sense to do this. Like. You have multiple white hosts who are programmed to make racist remarks about particular POC hosts, despite the fact that there are demonstrably POC customers paying to visit the park. You have a consistent motif of Native Americans being referred to as ‘savages’, both within Westworld-as-game and by the gamewriters themselves, with Native American mysticism being used to explain both the accidental glimpses various self-aware hosts get of the gamerunners and the in-game lore surrounding the maze. Demonstrably, the writers of Westworld are aware of this – why else is Episode 2, wherein writer character Lee Sizemore gleefully proposes a hella racist new story for the park, called ‘Chestnut’, as in old? I’ve said elsewhere¬†that depiction is not endorsement, but it is perpetuation, and in a context where the point of Westworld as a commercial venture is demonstrably to appeal to customers of all genders, sexual orientations and races – all of whom we see in attendance – building in particular period-appropriate bigotries is utterly nonsensical.

More than this, as the openness with which the female prostitutes seduce female customers makes clear, it’s narratively inconsistent: clearly, not every bias of the era is being rigidly upheld. And yet it also makes perfect sense if you think of both Westworld and Westworld as being, predominantly, a product both created by and intended for a straight white male imagination. In text, Westworld’s stories are written by Lee and Robert, both of whom are straight white men, while Westworld itself was originally the conceit of Michael Crichton. Which isn’t to diminish the creative input of the many other people who’ve worked on the show – technically, it’s a masterclass in acting, direction, composition, music, lighting, special effects and editing, and those people deserve their props. It’s just that, in terms of narrative structure, by what I suspect is an accidental marriage of misguided¬†purpose and¬†unexamined habit, Westworld¬†the series, like Westworld the park, functions primarily for a straight white male audience – and while I don’t doubt that there was some intent to critically highlight the failings of that perspective, as per the clear and very satisfying satirising of Lee Sizemore, as with Zack Snyder’s Suckerpunch and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, the straight white male gaze is still so embedded as a lazy default that Westworld¬†ends up amplifying its biases more often than it critiques them. (To quote something my straight white husband said while watching, “It’s my gaze, and I feel like I’m being parodied by it.”)

Though we do, as mentioned, see various women and people of colour enjoying the Westworld park, the customers who actually serve as protagonists – Logan, William and the Man in Black – are all white men. Logan is queer by virtue of a single man’s hand on his chest, but other than enforcing a pernicious stereotype about bisexual appetites and behaviours, it doesn’t do a damn thing to alter his characterisation. The end of season reveal that William is the Man in Black – that William’s¬†scenes have all taken place thirty years in the past, shown¬†to us now through Dolores’s memories – is a cleverly executed twist, and yet the chronicle of William’s transformation¬†from youthful, romantic idealist to violent, sadistic predator only highlights the fundamental problem, which is that the Westworld park, despite being touted as an adventure for everyone – despite Robert using his customers as a basis for making universal judgements about human nature – is clearly a more comfortable environment for some than others. Certainly, if I was able to afford the $40,000 a day we’re told it costs to attend, I’d be disinclined to spend so much for the privilege of watching male robots, whatever their courtesy to me, routinely talk about raping women, to say nothing of being forced to witness the callousness of other customers to the various hosts.

It should be obvious that there’s no such thing as a universal fantasy, and yet much of Westworld’s psychological theorising about human nature and morality hinges on our accepting that the desire ¬†to play cowboy in a transfigured version of the old West is exactly this. That the final episode provides tantalising evidence that at least one other park with a different historical theme exists elsewhere in the complex doesn’t change the fact that S1 has sold us, via the various monologues of Logan and Lee, Robert and William and the Man in Black, the idea that Westworld specifically reveals deep truths about human nature.

Which brings us to Dolores, a female host whose primary narrative loop centres on her being a sweet, optimistic rancher’s daughter who, with every game reset, can be either raped or rescued from rape by the customers. That Dolores is our primary female character – that her narrative trajectory centres on her burgeoning sentience, her awareness of the repeat violations she’s suffered, and her refusal to remain a damsel – does not change the fact that making her thus victimised was a choice at both the internal (Westworld) and external (Westworld) levels. I say again unto HBO, I do not fucking care how edgy you think threats of sexual violence and the repeat objectification of women are:¬†they’re not original, they’re not compelling, and in this particular instance, what you’ve actually succeeded in doing is undermining your core premise so spectacularly that I do not understand how anyone acting in good sense or conscience could let it happen.

Because in making host women like Dolores (white) and Maeve (a WOC), both of whom are repeatedly subject to sexual and physical violation, your lynchpin characters for the development of true human sentience from AIs – in making their memories of those violations the thing that spurs their development – you’re not actually asking the audience to consider what¬†it means to be human. You’re asking them to consider the prospect that victims of rape and assault aren’t actually human in the first place, and then to think about how being repeatedly raped and assaulted might help them to gain humanity. And you’re not even being subtle about it, either, because by the end of S1, the entire Calvinistic premise is laid clear: that Robert and Arnold, the park’s founders, believed that tragedy and suffering was the cornerstone of sentience, and that the only way for hosts to surpass their programming is through misery. Which implies, by logical corollary, that Robert is doing the hosts a service by allowing others to hurt them or by hurting them himself – that they are only able to protest his mistreatment because the very fact of it gave them sentience.

Let that sink in for a moment, because it’s pretty fucking awful.¬†The moral dilemma¬†of Westworld, inasmuch as it exists, centres on the question of knowing culpability, and therefore asks a certain cognitive dissonance of the audience: on the one hand, the engineers and customers¬†believe that the hosts aren’t real people, such that hurting them is no more an immoral act than playing Dark Side in a Star Wars RPG is; on the other hand, from an audience perspective, the hosts are demonstrably real people, or at the very least potential people, and we are quite reasonably distressed to see them hurt. Thus: if the humans in setting can’t reasonably be expected to know that the hosts are people, then we the audience are meant to feel conflicted about judging them for their acts of abuse and dehumanisation while still rooting for the hosts.

Ignore, for a moment, the additional grossness of the fact that both Dolores and Maeve are prompted to develop sentience, and are then subsequently guided in its emergence, by men, as though they are Eves being made from Adam’s rib. Ignore, too, the fact that it’s Dolores’s host father who, overwhelmed by the realisation of what is routinely done to his daughter, passes that fledgling sentience to Dolores, a white woman, who in turn passes it to Maeve, a woman of colour, without which those other male characters – William, Felix, Robert – would have no Galateas to their respective Pygmalions. Ignore all this, and consider the basic fucking question of personhood: of what it means to engage with AIs you know can pass a Turing test, who feel pain and bleed and die and exhibit every human symptom of pain and terror and revulsion as the need arises, who can improvise speech and memory, but who can by design¬†give little or no¬†consent to whatever it is you do to them. Harming such a person is not the same as engaging with a video game; we already know it’s not for any number of reasons, which means we can reasonably expect the characters in the show to know so, too. But even if you want to dispute that point – and I’m frankly not interested in engaging with someone who does – it doesn’t change the fact that Westworld is trying to invest us in a moral false equivalence.

The problem with telling stories about robots developing sentience is that both the robots and their masters are rendered at an identical, fictional distance to the (real, human) viewer. By definition, an audience doesn’t have to believe that a character is literally real in order to care about them; we simply have to accept their humanisation within the narrative. That being so, asking viewers¬†to accept the dehumanisation of one fictional, sentient group while accepting the humanisation of another only works if you’re playing to prejudices we already have in the real world – such as racism or sexism, for instance – and as such, it’s not a coincidence that the AIs we see violated over and over are, almost exclusively, women and POC, while those protagonists who abuse them are, almost exclusively, white men. Meaning, in essence, that any initial acceptance of the abuse of hosts that we’re meant to have – or, by the same token, any initial excusing of abusers – is predicated on an existing form of bigotry: collectively, we are as used to doubting the experiences and personhood of women and POC as we are used to assuming the best about straight white men, and Westworld fully exploits that fact to tell its story.

Which, as much as it infuriates me, also leaves me with a dilemma in interpreting the show. Because as much as I dislike seeing marginalised groups exploited and harmed, I can appreciate the importance of aligning a fictional axis of oppression (being a host) with an actual axis of oppression (being female and/or a POC). Too often, SFFnal narratives try to tackle that sort of Othering without casting any actual Others, co-opting the trappings of dehumanisation to enhance our sympathy for a (mostly white, mostly straight) cast. And certainly, by the season finale, the deliberateness of this decision is made powerfully clear: joined by hosts Hector and Armistice and aided by Felix, a lab tech, Maeve makes her escape from Westworld, presenting us with the glorious image of three POC and one white woman battling their way free of oppressive control. And yet the reveal of Robert’s ultimate plans – the inference that Maeve’s rebellion wasn’t her own choice after all, but merely his programming of her; the revelation that Bernard is both a host and a recreation of Arnold, Robert’s old partner; the merging of Dolores’s arc with Wyatt’s – simultaneously serves to strip these characters of any true agency. Everything they’ve done has been at Robert’s whim; everything they’ve suffered has been because he wanted it so. As per the ubiquitous motif of the player piano, even when playing unexpected tunes,¬†the hosts remain Robert’s instruments: even with his death, the songs they sing are his.

Westworld, then, is a study in contradictions, and yet is no contradiction at all. Though providing a stunning showcase for the acting talents of Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright in particular, their characters are nonetheless all controlled by Anthony Hopkins’s genial-creepy Robert, and that doesn’t really change throughout the season. Though the tropes of old West narratives are plainly up for discussion, any wider discussion of stereotyping is as likely to have a lampshade hung on it as to be absent altogether, and that’s definitely a problem. Not being familiar with the Michael Crichton film and TV show, I can’t pass judgement on the extent to which this new adaptation draws from or surpasses the source material. I can, however, observe that the original film¬†dates to the 1970s, which possibly goes some way to explaining the uncritical straight white male gazieness embedded in the premise. Even so, there’s something strikingly reminiscent of Joss Whedon to this permutation of Westworld,¬†and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The combination of a technologically updated old West, intended to stand as both a literal and metaphoric frontier, the genre-aware meta-narrative that nonetheless perpetuates more stereotypes than it subverts, and the supposed moral dilemma of abusing those who can’t consent feels at times like a mashup of¬†Firefly, Cabin in the Woods and Dollhouse¬†that has staunchly failed to improve on Whedon’s many intersectional failings.

And yet, I suspect, I’ll still be poking my nose into Season 2, if only to see how Thandie Newton is doing. It feels like an absurdly low bar to say that, compared to most of HBO’s popular content, Westworld is more tell than show in portraying sexual violence, preferring to focus on the emotional lead-in and aftermath rather than the act itself, and yet that small consideration does ratchet the proverbial¬†dial down a smidge when watching it – enough so that I’m prepared to say it’s vastly less offensive in that respect than, say, Game of Thrones. But it’s still there, still a fundamental part of the plot, and that’s going to be a not unreasonable dealbreaker for a lot of people; as is the fact that the only queer female character dies. Westworld¬†certainly makes compelling television, but unlike the human protagonists, I wouldn’t want to live there.

ETA 11/1/17: I’m annoyed at myself for having left this out of the essay, but that’s what I get for writing notes over three days and then posting while exhausted at 1.30am: There is a marked difference in how Westworld¬†treats Dolores and Maeve, despite the ostensible similarity of their narratives. Though Dolores is continually threatened with rape and damselled in traditional ways, she’s also surrounded by men who want to ‘rescue’ her, notably Bernard/Arnold, Teddy and William, because they believe her worthy of love. From the beginning, she’s held up as an invented feminine ideal, pure and kind and needing¬†protection, and as such, even though she’s continually threatened, she’s one of the few female hosts whose nudity is kept to a bare minimum. Whereas Maeve, by contrast, is continually sexualised, not only in her invented role as the bordello madame, but in the frequency of her nude scenes and her treatment by the other characters; she finds some sexual autonomy, but romance is never part of her narrative. Though both Dolores and Maeve have consensual sexual encounters on screen – Dolores with William, Maeve with Hector – Dolores is given¬†a tasteful fade to black, whereas Maeve is not. Given that Dolores is white and Maeve is black and the extent to which their respective characterisation adheres to old racist tropes about, respectively, white female virtue and black female strength and sexuality, I can’t help but view their deliberate juxtapositioning as a species of racefail.

Plus and also, the way the Man in Black comes after Maeve in her previous homsteader/mother incarnation, ¬†to kill her and her daughter, because he wants to see if he’s capable of doing something ‘truly evil’? Even – or perhaps especially – once we know how much killing he’s already done up until that point, it’s not a minor thing that his personal development is predicated on the destruction of a black woman.