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2018 in Review

To keep up an ancient tradition, I figured I’ll keep up my review of the past twelve months in consumed media goods. So following on from 2015, 2016 and 2017, the first wrap-up on the new forums! (I normally draught these things and write them over a series of days, but since this software doesn’t seem to offer draughts, I’ve penned this in one sitting and it’s probably riddled with typos. 🙂 )

Summary

PC games played: numerous

Best PC games: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, HELLDIVERS, Transistor, Quake Champions, Bomber Crew

Worst PC games: Stardew Valley, any Battle Royale title

Board games played: 88 plays (48 games)

Best board games: Exit (series), Azul, Goa, Magic Maze, Terraforming Mars

Worst board games: T.I.M.E. Stories, Naufragos, Sebastian Fitzek Safehouse

Films watched: 47

Best films: Shaun the Sheep: The Movie, A Man for All Seasons, Trainspotting/Requiem for a Dream, Zodiac, They Live, Frost/Nixon

Worst films: Four Brothers, Total Recall,

Books read: 45

Best books: The Selfish Gene, I, Claudius, Memoirs of Hadrian, Master and Commander, Wesley: The Remarkable Story of an Owl

Worst books: The Infinities, JavaScript in Ten Minutes, The Shortest History of Germany

Countries visited: UK, Austria

A Year in Gaming

Just re-reading my round-up from last year and it all sounds very familiar. While I keep meaning to play through some of the many titles littering my Steam list, most of my gaming time involves returning to those few favoured watering holes of old. Or new! This winter I decided to try out the ranked games in Heroes of the Storm and am actually rather enjoying it. Apart from my very first placement match, where I was presumably thrown in with all manner of pillock, the games have been pretty relaxed and now I feel like I’m definitely in the right league for my skill level, the games are fair and rarely snowball, and the draught is usually where the weaknesses show.

Quake Champions has obviously been another highlight these past months. For a few weeks I was fair addicted to it, there’s something about the instant gratification and low downtime that I really enjoy, particularly standard deathmatch or instagib. It was also nice to see my stats improving a little as time went on, gradually my average deaths dropped and my damage increased slightly, though sadly that didn’t actually help my victory stats. I think I had multiple DM games where I’d top the scoreboard in damage, alive time, accuracy and K:D ratio, and still come 7th of 8 players! However I seem to have broken the addiction now, not having played for about a month. I’m sure I’ll return to it to try out CTF, but I dunno if it’ll have the same relish as a few weeks back.

In terms of solo gaming, I did manage to get into a couple of little titles. Bomber Crew was one which showed a lot of promise in the premise, and it definitely scratched an itch which FTL left throbbing all those years ago. Basically you pilot a bomber during the Second World War, taking it out on various types of missions, earning money and slowly gearing up your bird. There are the same kind of calculations to make, with more action stations than crew members, things like fires and broken equipment to repair, ammo to restock, and the same trade-offs in terms of whether you should upgrade the guns or the armour etc. Unfortunately it never got quite as intense as FTL, especially as you could crash your plane and continue with a new one, so progressing through the main storyline ended up becoming a question of grinding repeatable missions to earn enough money so you could afford an all-singing, all-dancing beast on your factory bombing run, and then to hell with the crew after that.

For games with actual storylines, Alan Wake is one I’m still trying to play a bit of but kinda have to force myself to bother. It’s fairly enjoyable in terms of the story – a horror writer with writer’s block ends up living out his nightmares on a holiday retreat, very Steven King – but the game itself just feels a bit dull, gradually bungling through the levels, fighting lack-lustre enemies. In particular I was annoyed that you’re supposed to pick up pages of the novel and discover the story that way, but I’m sure I missed some of them in the levels I’ve played through, and there’s no way I’m going back looking for them. Maybe I’ll carry on at some point, but probably not.

Another I’ve been trying to play recently is Transistor, which is a seriously delicious game from the polish and visuals, but in terms of gameplay just hasn’t really gripped me yet. The skills seem to all chain onto one another, so a bit like Magicka there’s a large number of potential ways to use those abilities, and I’m not really interested in experimenting with them, although I presume that’s a large part of the appeal. The storyline so far has been pretty intriguing though, so maybe I’ll stick at it.

A couple of honourable last mentions: Papers, Please has been on my list for long enough and I finally got around to giving it a run. A couple of hours with it was enough for me, but it’s a superb idea and really well implemented. Sit in your customs booth checking the papers of all people trying to cross the border, gradually ramp up the difficulty, include a few little subplots with certain recurring characters and decisions to make – do you take the bribe and let the criminal through or call security? Brilliant. The only problem I had was that I played it in short bites, half an hour here and there, and since each level adds an extra layer of complexity, I never got proficient enough to feel like I was learning anything. Maybe playing the game in one sitting makes for a more enjoyable experience.

I can’t say that for my final pick, where you definitely feel the improvements as the game continues, and that’s in Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes! A really fantastic idea for a game, we played a fair bit over Christmas with Steffi’s parents. Basically only one person can see the screen and has a bomb in front of them with various wires, buttons, batteries, symbols and the rest of it, and the other player(s) in the game have a manual of how that all fits together. The defuser has to explain exactly what they see in front of them, while the others have to work out what the defuser has to do, which wires to cut, which buttons to press etc. At the beginning you’re figuring out how to defuse a single module with loads of time, but gradually you get familiar with how they work and so the time starts ramping up, the number of mistakes you’re allowed is reduced, and we’ve got to the stage now where there are additional elements the defuser has to attend to to stop the thing going off. For a family game it was probably a bit too complex, and certainly gave Steffi’s parents headaches, but it actually helped in a way that the game is only in English, as some of the modules are designed to cause confusion in what information you give, but the homophones and potential misunderstandings are lost when you’re using German pronunciation. I guess Steffi and I will soldier on with the game as a twosome, but I may be roping in you guys to help when it gets really hard!

I didn’t really play any stinkers this year, but the one thing that just doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest is this whole Battle Royale fad. I already wrote about that in another post, but whichever version we’re talking about, whether Fortnite, Blops IV or the shitty CS:GO version, I find the whole concept boring. The scale of those games is nice, the idea of large battles certainly appeals to me (and I always thought it’d be cool to have a big 100 vs 100 on something like Operation Flashpoint), but Battle Royale is more like a big game of hide and loot. I can’t be arsed opening boxes to find guns, especially not opening ten boxes to still have nothing more than a shitty pistol. I don’t get any real sense of achievement for killing someone, in comparison to say vanilla CS or Quake, so there really isn’t much left to appeal. The recent CS:GO version feels like a particular waste of time, we’ve won a few rounds on there and most of the time you’re still sporting a pistol with three bullets at the end. Just not my flavour at all.

Finally, a game which I thought I’d take a look at and almost immediately gave up on for the sheer time-sink factor was Stardew Valley. I thought it might be a nice relaxing "farming sim" of types, but no, it’s an entire microcosm you could probably spend hundreds of hours in and still be none the wiser. I’m sure it’s amazing if you’ve the time to kill, but I don’t.

A Year in Boardgaming

Back to the analogue world and we spent about the same amount of time around the table as usual. Most of our gaming has been relatively light, though we did try out a few heavier games, including some real stinkers.

First up has to be the Exit Games series I mentioned last year. I think we’ve now played all of these, at least all which aren’t ranked ’easy’, going through them with different people. For a short little adventure which takes about an hour to ninety minutes all in one small box, you really can’t knock them. The only couple of criticisms I would have is that you’re supposed to ’destroy’ the contents when you play it, which is totally unnecessary and really just serves to waste paper and force you to buy the game new. In fact we just photocopy the few things you’re supposed to cut up and then pass the games on to friends when we’re finished. The other is that the clues can get fairly samey, which is understandable enough, but even within the same game sometimes they rely too heavily on a certain mechanism.

Another light game, and this year’s Spiel des Jahres, was Azul. Dead simple to play, I’d say fairly similar to Splendor, it’s one you can break out with just about anyone and they’ll soon get a feel for it. I don’t think it’s particularly strategic, particularly with four players there seems to be a lot of randomness to the scoring, but for a quick starter or as a family game, I can’t knock it.

In terms of heavier titles, we got around to playing the two games I bought alongside Caverna last year. One of those was Goa, which felt a bit like a light version Puerto Rico. Instead of trading goods back to the Old World for points, you ship them back to upgrade your skills, and like most games of that ilk you always run out of turns before you can really achieve what you wanted. There’s also a nice auctioning phase at the beginning of each round to add some player interaction which is kinda missing from Puerto Rico.

Another heavy title is one currently ranked very highly at BGG and that’s Terraforming Mars. We only played it once, so we were kinda just getting familiar with the rules after the first playthrough, but I can certainly see the appeal. Most of the game is based around playing out unique cards, similar to something like Seasons, so it’s a lot about maximising your hand to get the most out of your cards, and each player is playing their own game to some extent. But what was particularly cool is that there are some basic parameters for Mars itself which the players can influence through their actions and which affect everyone equally, such as the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. In order to play your card, you might need the oxygen content to rise to X, but if that happens, another player won’t be able to play card Y. Obviously that means you need to be familiar with what’s available in the deck to really plan your strategy well, but otherwise that meant it was a nice mix between complex solitaire and interactive strategy title.

I think my favourite new game of the year was a surprising coop game our friends borrowed from the library called Magic Maze. Super simple, four players control four mice, directing them around a maze where they have to collect their weapons and get out of the labyrinth before the time runs out (if memory serves, maybe the goal was described differently). Every player can move every mouse at any time, the trick being however that the players can only move in one direction (e.g. only south, only north) and they cannot communicate! The maze itself is modular, being built up of smaller cards which add on as the mice explore the boundaries. The game then gets more complex as you work your way through the mazes, but that’s all there is to it in principle, and it’s surprisingly challenging and fun at the same time. Since the goal is almost always obvious, you don’t need to communicate (there are a few ’breaks’ where it’s allowed), but because you’re concentrating on four different mice, it’s easy to overlook the fact that everyone is waiting for you to move that one mouse one bastard square north!

Sadly, there were also a few tripe games this year. We went to our local little gaming convention again in winter and got a few things to the table, one being Sebastian Fitzek Safehouse. Having his name on the front (German thriller author) probably doubled the game’s price, because the game itself was pretty awful. It was like a cut-down and weak game of canasta against the clock, ostensibly you’re running through town being chased by a murderer and have to make it back to the safehouse before he does, and… yawn. Totally forgettable.

Another which was disappointing but for other reasons was the other game I’d bought together with Caverna, called Naufragos (or Castaways). Basically it sounded like a neat coop survival game, the premise being similar to Robinson Crusoe et al, where you’re stranded on a desert island and have to work together to escape. Fair idea for a game, but the execution was just terrible. First of all, the rules were so badly written my copy came with a second revamped versiom, and even they were so incoherent I had watch a video online to work out how to set the damn game up. But I could overlook that if at least the game mechanics had been solid. The game was basically divided into two halves, one part was kinda organising, the second part adventuring. The large island was divided into three parts, and the idea was that by adventuring through the deck, you would progress from the beach, through the interior, to the uplands from where you could spot ships or planes and get rescued, something along those lines. But the adventure cards were 90% of the time either ’X happens to you’, or ’roll a dice, if you get a 6 X happens to you’. There was no way to actually plan ahead or make proper decisions, and sometimes you’d just find yourself rolling over and over again just to survive. And that was the ’exciting’ bit of the game! The bookkeeping part sounded all well and good, placing workers on the board to harvest food, build shelters, chop wood, tend to the campfire, all things which made sense for the theme and should’ve been fleshed out more. Unfortunately it basically meant that one/two people simply spent their entire time moving wood from the forest to the basket and from the basket to the building site/campfire, while the other players rolled their way through a deck of cards. Yay. Given the fact that I couldn’t follow the rules, I couldn’t even recommend it as a light family game, it was way too dense for that, yet far too boring for adults.

But the most pathetic game of the year goes hands down to T.I.M.E. Stories! I am seriously at a loss as to how this game can be currently ranked 60th on BGG. We’d seen the name a few times and heard a few things about it, so when a colleague at work sold his copy, I thought it’d be worth a whirl. I suppose you could call the game a ’system’, where each mission is a deck of cards which uses the basic components of the game. There is no real board per se, but rather you travel back in time, taking on the bodies of four ’hosts’ in the past, each with their own special abilities/traits, and then explore a location to find whatever it is you’re supposed to fix. In the mission in the main game, you’re back in a French asylum in the early twentieth century investigating the disappearance of some patients. We’d read the one major criticism, that you generally fail on your first attempt(s) and have to start again and go through the same steps, but that didn’t sound that bad until we actually had to do it ourselves. Honestly, the entire concept of the game seems to be that you’re to work your way through each location through trial and error, finding out what you’re supposed to do in what order. That’s it. There’s no logic to your choices, no way of knowing or even guessing beforehand whether what you’re doing is correct, you just plough on through and find out which cards you need to look at, which rooms to visit and what to ignore. Boring as sin! There was one fairly decent puzzle in our mission, but even that we failed to crack because we just didn’t expect there to be anything like that as the rest of the game had been so asinine. And at full price it would’ve cost something like €50 for ONE adventure! Each expansion costs another €25 or something daft, so in comparison to one of those Exit games mentioned above, it just doesn’t bear even the slightest comparison. Obviously a lot of people have found something enjoyable about this title, or it wouldn’t be ranked so highly, but for me it felt like a waste of time and money, and I’m only glad I didn’t pay full price for it!

A Year in Cinema

After last year’s pitiful 16 films, this year’s haul of 47 films looks very healthy indeed. Steffi and I have made Tuesdays our film night, and we take turns choosing a title to watch. She’s a big Marvel fan, so we’ve gobbled up most of that series so far.

Just to pick some of the highlights, we saw Frost/Nixon earlier in the year, about the interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon following his resignation and withdrawal from public life. Obviously a pretty slow film, and with a fair amount of dramatic leniency, it was still really interesting to watch and the two main actors did an awesome job, especially in trying to mimic their ways of speaking.

We had a bit of a drug-themed season with both Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting, both really cool films for different reasons. Requiem is pretty hard-hitting, but beautifully put together cinematographically, its acts divided into different seasons with a chilling soundtrack, I loved how it explored the nature of drug abuse and addiction from different perspectives. Trainspotting is obviously an entirely different kettle of fish. I saw it years ago, and it scores high on the nostalgia points for the fantastic soundtrack, but it has a much more up-beat vibe than Requiem while still being a pretty dire portrayal of the dangers of addiction.

Sticking on the serious side, I watched Zodiac for research purposes, the Fincher film about the Zodiac killer in California, one of those uncaught serial murderers of which America has so many. The fact that the resolution to this story is known from the outset is what made it interesting to watch from my perspective, how to build suspense and tension when the information is already out in the open. I only felt the film was a bit on the long side, since it covers the case from three different perspectives over a period of several decades.

A Man for All Seasons is a 60s film which has I think been on my "to watch" list since Dr Holland mentioned it in an English class. Basically about Thomas More and his inability to accept Henry VIII’s divorce on account of his religious conviction, it’s an excellent period drama with some awesome performances, showing its clear theatrical origins. A slow watch, but very enjoyable.

Slightly more tongue-in-cheek, we also watched They Live this year, an 80s Carpenter sci-fi thriller about aliens who have infiltrated society and the down-and-out hobo who saves the world. It’s suitably cliched to be something of a bubble-gum film, but there are a few scenes which really make the film memorably stand out. Definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it before.

The major disappointment of the year was hands down the 2012 Total Recall remake. I’m a big fan of the original, and I have nothing against a remake adding a new twist to the story or bringing something fresh, or even just a straight remake of the original movie with a few fresh ideas. But no, they managed none of the above. They rewrote the story but placed it in a world even more absurd than the original, taking the over-the-top characters and trying to play them seriously, and yet somehow even less convincingly. It’s not really Total Recall, and it doesn’t try hard enough to be something new either, so about the only moments in the film which end up being enjoyable are those which directly cite the original (e.g. three-breasted prostitutes and exploding head masks).

But Total Recall gets points for at least trying. Scraping the bottom of the barrel was Four Brothers, a film which had me muttering "fucking Americans" under my breath for about two hours. Loud, stupid, unrealistic, violent, vigilantist bullshit. Somewhat akin to Pain & Gain, I guess this is one Benno would enjoy!

A Year in Books

I managed to munch through another 45 books this year, roughly on a par with previous years for number of pages. One theme recently seems to be an interest in Roman history, with two of my favourites being I, Claudius and Memoirs of Hadrian, two extremely well researched and fascinating books written from the perspectives of the two emperors, the first as a kind of history of the Julio-Claudians, the second in the form of a letter to Marcus Aurelius. Both are fairly dense to read, not exactly page-turners, but very rewarding.

Slightly more exciting perhaps was Master and Commander, the first book in Patrick O’Briain’s nautical series which was turned into the film with Russel Crowe. It’s often compared to the Sharpe series in terms of being a series of multiple books on an English hero in the Napoleonic Wars, but judging from this first volume that’s pretty much where the comparison ends. Based on historical events, the book goes into some nauseating detail about ship’s rigging and the like, which leaves your head spinning if you’re trying to follow along, but otherwise it was a highly enjoyable read and is probably a rewarding series.

In terms of non-fiction, I’ve read a fairly eclectic mix again, though a couple are worth mentioning. The Selfish Gene is one of those classics of evolution which seems just as important to read today as on its publication in 1976, looking at evolution from the perspective of the gene rather than the organism. It’s the kind of thing that is barely even touched on in schools but really deserves more consideration. I’m currently reading The Righteous Mind which is more about moral psychology, but interestingly covers some of the same topics from the angle of the group.

Another random read, but one which pleasantly surprised me, was Wesley: The Story of a Remarkable Owl, recommended to me I believe because I read Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? last year. Basically this short memoir is the story of an owl taken in by the author, and their relationship together over the course of nearly two decades. The author turns from surrogate mother to life partner for the owl, and becomes a mass murderer of mice for good measure in the process. While not scientifically written, there are tons of fascinating titbits and anecdotes, along with touching observational insights.

A weird book I read this year was The Shortest History of Germany. One of Steffi’s colleagues leant it to her to hear her opinion, but she didn’t have any time so I gobbled it down one weekend. While there’s nothing particularly surprising about what you’d find in there, it’s seriously amazing how twisted the agenda is inside. Basically he puts forward the theory that any time Germany’s east gets the upper hand, things go awry. Everything west of the Elbe is okay, between Elbe and Rhine suitably westernised under Roman influence, but everything else is danger zone. That’s where the Prussians came from, the Nazis, the Stasi and now the AfD. Maybe an interesting gedankenexperiment for some folks, but it seems odd coming in a book with such an innocuous title. Maybe the author’s just a raging Catholic, I can’t tell.

My worst book of the year however has to go to The Infinities. Not sure where I got the recommendation, but I wish I knew so I could block them in future! The plot sounded interesting enough – a man lies at death’s door when his family flock around him, as do the Greek gods, the perfect setup for some antics and mischief – but basically nothing at all happens of any consequence. I ploughed through it because it’s short enough my frustration was never bigger than my ambition for finishing it, but the taste in my mouth never got any sweeter. I guess Banville is one of those writers who are praised for their elegant prose by other thumb-sucking navel-gazers but who remain beyond comprehension for ordinary folks. And to be honest I didn’t even find his writing worthy of a letter home.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife’s Head for a Hat

What happens when we are no longer able to recognise objects, but there’s nothing wrong with our ability to see? When we lose our sense of self and no longer feel the body we’re in? When the concept of ‘leftness’ is severed from our reality?

Oliver Sacks describes cases involving all these issues and more in a classic survey of ‘losses’ and ‘excesses’ in the human brain. The patients are a fascinating array of characters each suffering from such unusual problems that the symptoms seem almost comical. The eponymous man who failed to identify his wife’s head suffered from a form of visual agnosia, leaving him incapable of identifying objects, although his visual acuity was not impaired. Another sufferer had lost all ability to form new memories, and indeed was stuck at some point in his past, incapable of progressing past that point.

In a similar vein to Phantoms in the Brain, these eye-opening cases teach us much about the inner workings of the brain, they also encourage reflection on what it really means to be human, how our sense of self and perception is far more illusory than we really feel comfortable believing, and how little we really understand about how our cranial chemical factories really work.

If there’s one major detraction from this book in my eyes, it’s probably the fact that it’s written in English. The neglect the language has been shown by science leaves it so singularly pathetic at describing medical issues that we’re left with a gobbledegook of foreign words, even where Sacks tries to make the subject digestible for the average reader. Proprioception, for example, is a fascinating concept, and one so familiar to all of us that it’s amazing we don’t instinctively expect it to belong to that elite club of five senses, yet you won’t find me slipping the word into casual conversation any day soon.

On a side note, his descriptions of aphasia rather reminded me of my own feelings when learning a foreign language; that severe headache caused when trying to ram an idea down a set of neural pathways far too small to accommodate it.

[Photo by Jens Kreuter on Unsplash]

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Maths is a powerful tool, but in the wrong hands it can be pointless at best, dangerous at worst. Unfortunately, most human beings are a wrong pair of hands. We weren’t designed for handling numbers of any complexity, and tend to be out of our depths once they go beyond single digits. But a basic knowledge of numbers makes us overconfident and keen to interpret figures and statistics we don’t really understand as if they were cold hard facts. You only need to watch someone trying to work out which packet of washing powder presents the better deal when the supermarkets add a few percentages to the labels, or our reactions to opinion polls or the latest cancer-scare headlines.

Which makes books like this important, at least superficially. Ellenberg covers a lot of ground, explaining various ideas and highlighting common fallacies and paradoxes caused by our general weak understanding of basic statistics. He uses some excellent real-life examples to highlight what the numbers can teach us, but also what they can hide. Like how someone tasked with studying how to improve aircraft survivability in the Second World War realised that they were only analysing the bullet holes on the planes which made it back; the answer to this survivability bias was to increase armour to the places the raw data wasn’t showing them.

Another case in point is the classic disease afflicting the scientific community, that focus on statistical significance (and the Whorfian perversion of calling it significance at all). Papers tend to be published when they prove a point; negative science, for all its benefit, doesn’t enjoy the same kudos. Which fact alone means that many statistical outliers get published where the overwhelming unpublishable results tend to indicate the opposite. And that’s before taking into account how the researchers massage their results to hit the threshold of significance. After all, a few small tweaks here and fortuitous rounding decisions there can make all the difference for publication.

Aside from headline-grabbing scientific papers, Ellenberg uses other real-world examples to highlight his points. A large amount of space is taken up with the risks of playing state lotteries or the pitfalls of various electoral systems. Yet despite numerous practical applications, it remains a difficult book to recommend. For all its interesting asides, the title is just too schizophrenic to ever come to any real conclusions. Often it’s as if the author got carried away guiding the reader into some favoured corner of the mathematical jungle, only to forget why he ever led us there in the first place. Certain ideas are explained in fairly pedantic fashion, taking it a few steps further than even this particular pleb needed to grasp the concept. Other times it’s as if the target group has switched and the details become more turgid and difficult to follow.

[Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash]

Wesley: The Story of a Remarkable Owl

Doubtless recommended to me because I enjoyed Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal, this story was at first somewhat disappointing in the sense that it is to a greater extent a personal memoir rather than an investigation of animal intelligence. I had been expecting a heavier, more science-laden account of their relationship, but once I’d adjusted to the style and tone of the book, I found plenty here to enjoy.

In the mid-80s, Stacey O’Brien took it upon herself to adopt a young barn owl and started what became a relationship lasting nearly two decades. She packs a lot in this short and compact volume about their life together, which is filled with anecdotes and fascinating titbits, as well as a fair few fundamentals of owl biology and psychology. Stacey progresses from surrogate mother to partner for life and mass mouse murderer for good measure. While not offering the scientific rigour of a book like de Waal’s, there is still plenty of observational evidence. Aside from which it’s a touching story, with a predictable end, but one which offers a fascinating insight into the nature of owls and the intelligence and individuality of animals.

[Photo by Doug Swinson on Unsplash]

Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi

I’m clearly getting too old for blockbusters. Seriously, I walk out the cinema wondering what it was the scriptwriters wanted to show me in their cobbled together action flick, and search in vain among the sea of beaming faces for someone who shares my lack of enthusiasm. ‘It was entertaining,’ is what most of them defensively tell me, usually suffixed with ‘but I’m not a Star Wars fan,’ presumably when I don’t respond the same way, as if fearing I’ll proceed to bombard them under a geeky tirade of lore and canon.

Granted, I was a fan of the original trilogy which I devoured in my youth, but I wouldn’t rank myself among the Empire’s legions of loyal nerds. And while some of my annoyance with The Last Jedi certainly based around how it interacted with what we know of the existing universe, mostly I was disappointed with the film in and of itself. Just because you’re not a fan of the series, does that mean you don’t care about watching a flimsy script? Can you enjoy this flick more if you don’t watch any of the previous outings? Or do I just need to learn to disengage my brain before entering the cinema?

Warning: spoilers ahead!

I wasn’t a fan of the previous episode. Far too many parallels with A New Hope, far too many far-fetched plot points and chance encounters, far too many overt crowd-pleasers. In my eyes, The Force Awakens was like the original trilogy on steroids, everything was bigger, better and ultimately faster than everything which went before it, all wrapped up in a storyline that didn’t only seem unnecessary, but entirely inexplicable. Despite the obligatory rolling credit introduction, I was left as clueless after walking out of that film as when I walked in. To all intents and purposes, The Force Awakens was like a series reboot with everything set to hard mode. Aside from the few interesting new characters introduced, the whole the film fell flat with me.

Fast forward a few years and the next episode is out of the stable doors. The overarching story remains as illogical as ever, but the problems with The Last Jedi are even greater in that the film doesn’t seem to have anything to tell us. That’s largely embodied in the opening volley of scenes which sets up the backdrop for the film. The rebels or resistance or whatever it is they’re calling themselves now – I gave up trying to follow any semblance of logical politics in the previous film – escape from yet another base just in the nick of time, with almost certain annihilation waiting in the skies above them. Apparently the ability to bombard the planet falls on a special Dreadnought ship, which is conveniently destroyed in the ensuing conflict (we’ll need this later!). Its destruction comes down to a bit of insubordination from rising star Poe (we’ll need this later!) who orders an attack using, err, bombers.((Seemingly defenceless lumbering hulks which issue explosives from a bombing bay which wouldn’t look all too out of place in a WWII drama and seem to have no problems ‘dropping’ things in space.)) Fortunately, to keep us on the edge of our seats, the mission almost goes belly up were it not for some last-minute self-sacrificial heroics from the final survivor of the bomber wing (we’ll need this later!).

So much of what follows seems like an exercise in pointlessness except when viewed through the prism of the scriptwriters’ checklist. The rebel fleet is pursued through hyperspace only to find itself running out of fuel and unwilling to jump again (previously on Battlestar Galactica…). Fortunately, Finn bumps into the dead bomber pilot’s sister who works out in a flash what secret technology is in play and how to stop it (deus ex machine room). Meanwhile Vice Admiral Holdo gives Poe good reason to continue his insubordinate streak by deliberately pretending to be doing nothing about the dire situation, allowing him to send the other two off on a wild goose chase. And the destruction of that Dreadnought in the opener forces the First Order to repeat the Hoth landing in the finale, launching a land assault against a knock-off Helm’s Deep in a salt crystal desert. Poe’s earlier insubordination gives him room for some character development when he later calls off the suicidal attack against said landing party.

The scriptwriters have littered enough of Chekov’s pistols throughout this script to fill a small arsenal. Knowledge about technology which shouldn’t exist gives Finn and Rose a random mission to accomplish and occupy a bit of screen time. Their docile mission is only pepped up by them getting a parking ticket, which apparently is sufficient offence to lock them up and bother initiating some hare-brained helicopter chase when they break out of prison. Although it comes to naught, the situation is sufficiently contrived to allow Rose to show her dedication to the cause and give up her medallion, and Finn has an opportunity to take on Captain Phasma for a little grudge match. Those scenes could’ve wound up on the cutting room floor just as easily, and the film wouldn’t have been any the poorer for it.

Unfortunately the absence of meaning to the film leaves the characters treading water for lack of purpose. General Hux is relegated to comic relief as the very angry henchman™, who wouldn’t look out of place in an Austin Powers film. Supreme Leader Snoke fulfils his mission of bringing Rey and emolord Kylo together before snuffing it in a scene which suggests the authors don’t even care about the characters they’re creating. Meanwhile the scriptwriters missed a trick for killing off Princess Leia after jettisoning her into space, only to have her finally use the Force and rescue herself. Presumably she’ll have to succumb to her ordeal before the next episode, unless the CGI lobby is particularly vocal.

Or how about Holdo? What purpose does she serve apart from being a foil for Poe’s character development? Her saying nothing provides the excuse for half of the action in the film. Even her demise is one of the most heavily regurgitated tropes, straight from the recipe book. When all others evacuate the ship, she stays behind on the bridge to ‘pilot’ the cruiser. Which makes bugger all sense, but, you know, drama. Unsurprisingly, when the time comes for her big sacrificial moment, we see her stood on the bridge twiddling her thumbs before she turns the cruiser around and hyperspaces it through the pursuing enemy fleet. How convenient! It’s a dramatic scene, a great idea, but surely if that were possible it would’ve been weaponised decades ago?

Which brings me to a personal peev, but just what’s going on with the physics? Dropping bombs in space? Laser beams which dip like artillery? Massive steel doors protecting a base built into a brittle salt mine? Even the entire fleet chase around which this film is built doesn’t stand up to any kind of logical scrutiny. Why is the fleet running out of fuel when it isn’t doing anything? Why can’t the Imperial First Order’s fleet catch up to inert objects in space? But who needs Newtonian physics when you can have ships dramatically tilt after running out of fuel? And what’s surprising about tracking a ship through hyperspace? Isn’t that what happens in A New Hope? Aren’t they holding a tracking beacon for Rey? That would surely be their first suspicion when followed, rather than assuming some newfangled technology has been developed.

Sure, there’s nostalgia and pink goggles clouding my judgement of the original trilogy. There’s plenty to detract from the fantastic reputation those films earned, including clunky dialogue, nonsense science, cheesy plot devices and Ewoks. But the story Lucas told in those films was tightly constructed and worthy of telling. The latest incarnations don’t seem to know where they’re heading or what to do with the passengers on board. Kill ’em off, send ’em round in circles, does anyone really care? The whole situation portrayed begs far more questions than it can ever answer. By now I’ve given up trying to find any answers. But no doubt I’ll be here again in twelve months complaining about the next encounter, because of the few things we can be certain about, The Last Jedi won’t be The Last Star Wars Film.

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