Movie Title Mash-Ups

I’ve got a new favourite game, this week: Movie Title Mash-Ups (with thanks to Cougar Town). Ruth and I sat up far too late last night, playing it. Here’s how you do it:

Cougar Town characters playing Penny Can.
Cougar Town characters playing… no, wait… this is that OTHER game they play.

Movie Title Mash-Ups

Take two movie titles which share a word (or several words, or just a syllable) at the end of one and at the beginning of the other. Shmoosh them together into a combined movie title, then describe the plot of that movie in a single sentence by borrowing elements from both component movies. See if anybody can guess what your mash-up movies were.

Here are some examples. The answers are ROT13-encoded, but if you’re reading this post directly on my blog, you can click on each of them to decode them (once you’ve given up!).

Zombies claw their way out of a graveyard, and Batman spends most of the film hiding in the attic.
Gur Qnex Xavtug bs gur Yvivat Qrnq

While trapped in an elevator at the end of October, a superficial man is hypnotised into murdering a bunch of high-school students with knife.
Funyybj Unyybjrra

A crazy professor and a kid travel back in time in a souped-up car, where local bully Biff cuts off the kid’s hand and tells him he’s his father.
Gur Rzcver Fgevxrf Onpx gb gur Shgher

Bill Murray has to live the same day over and over, until he can survive the zombie apocalypse by escaping to an island.
Tebhaqubt Qnl bs gur Qrnq

A pair of alcoholic, out-of-work actors stay at the countryside house of a Monty, dangerous robot who has learned to override his programming.
Jvguanvy naq V, Ebobg

An evil genie who maliciously manipulates words and misinterprets wishes opens a portal between Eternia and Earth, which He-Man and Skeletor come through.
Jvfuznfgref bs gur Havirefr

A bunch of outlawed vigilante superheroes fight shapeshifters and werewolves as they investigate a mystical curse which threatens to shatter the fragile cease-fire between Dark and Light forces in Russia.
Avtug Jngpuzra

Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer hold a seance to communicate with subterranean humans who worship a giant bomb.
Jung Yvrf Orarngu gur Cynarg bs gur Ncrf

A lion cub born to a royal family grows up, climbs the Empire State Building, and fights aeroplanes.
Gur Yvba Xvat Xbat

James Bond is sent to investigate the murder of three British MI6 agents, who turn out to have been killed using a military satellite that concentrates the sun’s rays into a powerful laser. (hint: both films are James Bond films)
Yvir naq Yrg Qvr Nabgure Qnl

Your turn!

So, what can you come up with?

A Three-Sentence Review Of Looper

Looper is a time travel movie of the “self-healing timeline” mechanic (a-la Back To The Future, although Looper “fixes” itself faster and changes to the time stream can be observed and remembered by everybody affected by them). As a result of this, and a few other issues, it suffers from a handful of plotholes and internal inconsistencies: however, it’s still an enormously fun film that I’d recommend that you see.

Looper.
Looper. The second-best film of its category. For a given definition of “category”.

Looper is the second-best of all three movies that feature Bruce Willis travelling back in time and encountering a younger version of himself – and now it’s going to bug you until you work out what the other two are.

Three Films I’d Watch (if anybody made them)

Here are three ideas I’ve had for movies recently. If only the movie studios would stop making pap like Dredd 3D (or as I call it, Judge Dreddful) and take on some of my ideas, perhaps I’d find myself at the cinema more often.

So here are my three pitches:

Knights of the Living Dead

A twist on the Arthurian legends. With zombies.

King Arthur’s trusted White Knight (Lancelot) on a “routine” quest to oust Brandin, a corrupt ruler of a nearby township, who is accused of evil sorcery. Lancelot rallies the townpeople but Brandin escapes to his lair in a cursed cemetery. Lancelot slays Brandin, but – an an effort to decode a riddle Brandin made about the source of his power – lifts an enormous metal plate over a mysterious tomb, exposing the world to a dangerous plague that turns those affected into monstrous zombies.

Knights of the Living Dead
Knights of the Living Dead

Under instruction from the Church, Arthur and his knights set out to find the Holy Grail, which has the power to defeat the curse, questing through zombie-infected lands. There’s lots of hacking and slashing and eating of brains, Lancelot shags Guinevere, Arthur dies a heroic death to let the others escape (hinting at the time that he knows about the affair and wants them to be happy together), and ultimately the knights use the Grail to save the world from the zombie plague.

My Daughter’s Hand

A tale of love, homophobia, and the meaning of family, inspired by a true story.

In the news this week, a Hong Kong businessman has offered the equivalent of £40M to the man who can woo and marry his daughter. The problem? She’s a lesbian, and is already married (although same-sex unions are not recognised in Hong Kong) to her girlfriend of many years.

My first thought when I heard this news story was that she should find a man who’s willing to “marry” her, and split the money between the two of them. Hell: for £20M, I’d fly to Hong Kong and marry her for a fortnight. Where’s my plane ticket.

Hong Kong corporation heiress Gigi Chao (right) with her wife Sean Eav.
Hong Kong corporation heiress Gigi Chao (right) with her wife Sean Eav.

But then I thought of an even better variant on the story. In my version, a (disowned, unless she recants and marries a man) lesbian daughter has her partner dress as a man and pretend to be a suitor. There are slight overtones of the story of Hua Mulan, a legendary Chinese heroine who pretended to be a man in order to take her aged father’s place in the army, during a conscription drive.

In any case, the partner, disguised as a man, succeeds in impressing the father, and the father eventually comes to admire this young “man” and gives his blessing to marry his daugher. But as the wedding approaches, their secret is exposed when they’re caught having sex. However: after much soul-searching the father sees that he liked his daughter’s partner as a person when he believed that she was a man, and so he agrees to accept her into his family as a woman, too.

It’s a story about combating homophobia with deception, I guess.

The Bone Wars

Back when Richard Owen and Gideon Mantell  and were rocking up the early British palæontology scene, in the late 19th Century, their USA contemporaries Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh were embroiled in a bitter rivalry of dinosaur proportions.

Marsh and Cope.
Marsh and Cope.

These gentlemen were in such a rush to get the fame of collecting the most dinosaur bones, that they resorted to ludicrous (and somewhat shocking) measures: using dynamite to blow away hillsides (probably destroying many fossils as they went), spying on one another (to such an extent that they would sometimes operate through fake companies to try to evade each other’s spies), and bribing people to keep quiet about the locations of big finds.

Their rushed efforts led to some ludicrous mistakes. Cope – a neo-Lamarckist – famously assembled his Elasmosaurus skeleton backwards, with the head on the “tail” end, among other mistakes (Wikipedia even has a tag to label naive Victorian-era drawings of dinosaurs, I recently discovered).

I have a vision for a film in the style of A Dangerous Method, which I enjoyed earlier this year, telling the dramatised story of these men and their rivalry. There’s already been a comic book and even a board game about them: isn’t it time for a movie, too?

What do you think? Would you watch these movies?

Quiet On Set

Before I started working for the Bodleian, I’d never worked somewhere where there was a significant risk of a film crew coming between me and my office. But since then, it seems to happen with a startling regularity.

This morning, I was almost late for work as I fought my way past a film crew shooting The Quiet Ones, some variety of supernatural thriller B-movie.

This guy. That bridge. Listen.
This guy. That bridge. Listen.

So, when you end up watching it: wait until you get to the scene where this guy walks under the Hertford Bridge, and listen carefully for the sound of somebody walking across gravel just off camera. That’s me, putting my bike away having finally squeezed my way past all of the cameras and equipment on the way to my office.

Worst Weekend Of Cinema – Part 2

This weekend was the worst net weekend of cinemagoing experiences that I’ve ever had. I went to the cinema twice, and both times I left dissatisfied. An earlier blog post talked about the second of the two trips: this is about the first.

You know what – 2012 has been a pretty shit year, so far. We’ve had death (my father’s), more death (my partner’s grandmother’s), illness (my sister’s horrific face infection), and injury (a friend of mine lost her leg to a train, a few weeks ago, under very tragic circumstances). We’ve had breakups (a wonderful couple I know suddenly separated) and busy-ness (a cavalcade of day-job work, Three Rings work, course work, and endless bureaucracy as executor of my dad’s will).

But it gets worse:

Piranha 3DD. Twice the terror. Double the D's.
Of all the things that have gone horribly, tragically wrong so far this year… going to the cinema to watch this film was the worst.

On Friday night, I went out with my family to watch Piranha 3DD.

This is one of those bad films that falls into the gap of mediocrity between films that are bad but watchable and films that are so bad that they wrap right around to being enjoyable again (you know, the “so bad they’re good” kind of movies). To summarise:

[one_half]

The Good

  • Lots of nudity, all presented in 3D. If there’ll ever be anything that convinces me that 3D films are a good idea, porn will probably be it. Boobs boobs boobs.
  • Fun cameos from Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown!), David Hasselhoff, and Ving Rhames, along with enjoyable accompanying pop culture references.

[/one_half]

[one_half_last]

The Bad

  • 3D films remain a pointless gimmick, still spending most of their time playing up the fact that they’re 3D (lots of long objects, like broom handles, pointing towards the camera, etc.), and still kinda blurry and headache-inducing. Plus: beams of light (e.g. from a torch) in 3D space don’t look like that. The compositor should be fired.
  • The cameos mostly serve to show off exactly how unpolished the acting is of the less well-known actors.
  • Plenty of less-enjoyable pop culture references: if you’re not going to do the “false leg is actually a gun” thing even remotely as well at Planet Terror, don’t even try – it’s like trying to show a good movie in the middle of your crappy movie, but not even managing to do that.
  • Unlikeable, unmemorable characters who spend most of their time engaging in unremarkable teen drama bullshit. Same old sex joke repeated as many times as they think they can get away with. And then a couple of times more.
  • Lackluster special effects: mangled bodies that don’t look much like bodies, vicious fish don’t look remotely like fish (and, for some reason, growl at people), and CGI that would look dated on a straight-to-video release.

[/one_half_last]

So yeah: give that one a miss.

Worst Weekend Of Cinema – Part 1

This weekend was the worst net weekend of cinemagoing experiences that I’ve ever had. I went to the cinema twice, and both times I left dissatisfied. This blog post is about the second of the two trips.

Avengers Assemble.
Man, this movie looks good. Wish I was watching it and not, say, a black screen.

The less-awful of the two trips happened on Saturday. Ruth, JTA and I turned up for the 20:10 showing of Avengers Assemble at Oxford Vue. We were quite surprised, entering the cinema right on time, to find that they weren’t already showing adverts and trailers – the screen was completely dark – but we found our way to our seats and sat down anyway.

A little over 20 minutes later, nothing had happened, so I went out to where the ticket collectors were doing their thing, down the corridor, and asked if they were planning on showing a film in screen six at some point this evening. “There’s a technical problem with the projector,” I was informed, “We’re trying to fix it now.”

“When were you planning on telling the audience who are all just sat there in the dark?” I asked. There were mumbles of concern, but they were half-hearted: these people were paid primarily to tear tickets, not to deal with irate customers. The stub collector apologised, and I returned to the cinema to feed back to the others. Sensing the dissatisfaction of the other audience members, I briefly considered making an announcement to them all: “Ladies and gentlemen: I regret to inform you that Vue Cinemas doesn’t care about you enough as human beings to tell you themselves, but there’s a technical fault and they’re working on repairing it.” Instead, I grumbled to myself in a British fashion and took my seat.

“I could have downloaded a pirated copy by now,” I joked, “But then I wouldn’t be getting the real cinema experience.”

“For example, it’d start when you pressed the play button,” replied JTA.

(for those of you who know the story of his employment there, you might be unsurprised to hear that this was the very Vue cinema at which Paul worked, very briefly)

An audience falling asleep.
"Is the film on yet?" / "Nope; still just a black screen."

A little while later – still with no announcement from staff, we got sick of the whole thing and went and demanded a refund. The manager – when we finally got to see him (apparently he’s also the guy who was fixing the projector: I guess the cinema must be run on a skeleton staff) – was suitably apologetic, offering us free passes for our next visit as well as giving us a full refund. Another staff member apologised for the delay in sorting out the refund, explaining that “it always gets busy, especially on Orange Wednesdays.” I’m not sure why he told us this, given that it was now Saturday. Perhaps there were still patrons from the previous Wednesday, also still waiting to see their film, too.

As we explained to the manager, it wasn’t the wait that bothered us so much as the lack of information about the reason (or an estimate of the duration) of the delay. All it would have taken would have been a staff member to turn up at five or ten minutes, apologise, and explain, and we’d have understood: things break sometimes. All we wanted was a little respect.

Star Wars – Machete Order

This weekend, Ruth, JTA and I watched the Star Wars films in a single sitting, in Machete Order. What’s Machete Order, you ask? Well, assuming that you’re too busy to click the link and find out, the short summary is that you:

Machete Order. The way Star Wars should be enjoyed.
Machete Order. The way Star Wars should be enjoyed.

This is a remarkable and unusual order in which to watch the films, but it’s not without its merits, especially compared to the two most-common alternatives: Release Order and Episode Order:

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Spoiler Alert! The remainder of this article contains extensive spoilers about the Star Wars universe. If you haven’t seen the films yet, go watch them in the order specified above and then come back. It’ll only take you about 11 hours; I’ll wait.[/spb_message]

  • Release Order – IV, V, VI, I, II, III – has the problem that you either watch the original cut of Return of the Jedi, and see Sebastian Shaw playing the ghost of the “unmasked” Darth Vader at the end (and then go “that doesn’t look anything like him!” when you get to Attack of the Clones), or you watch the 2004 edit of Return of the Jedi, in which they inserted Hayden Christensen in his place, and you go “who’s that guy? we’ve never seen him before!”, because he hasn’t been introduced until the next film that you’ll watch.
  • Episode Order – I, II, III, IV, V, VI – should fix that problem, but it introduces an even worse problem: it completely ruins the surprise that Luke’s father is Darth Vader (and as a result, also ruins the surprise that Leia is Luke’s sister, and results in more “eww” moments when we see them kiss in The Empire Strikes Back).

Machete Order fixes those problems. The new films become a “flashback” in a longer ongoing narrative, and the timing couldn’t be better. At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke has just learned that Darth Vader is his father, and so we zip back by about 20 years and see the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. You couldn’t plan it better.

Darth Vader
Darth Vader. You probably knew that already.

You lose The Phantom Menace, but seriously, you’re not missing much (and you can always go back and watch it later): a surprisingly dull podrace, an incredibly annoying alien, “midichlorians”… all of these are dropped. You get to start and end with the strongest movies. And the continuity is actually pretty beautiful, seeing Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith as a flashback rather than a series in their own right.

JTA tweets about Star Wars: Machete Order
JTA tweets from the front lines about Star Wars: Machete Order

So what did we learn:

  • This is absolutely the way to watch Star Wars. If I ever come across somebody who’s never seen any of them films, this is the order that I’ll recommend that they watch them.
  • It takes a surprising amount of energy to sit and watch 11 hours of a story in a single sitting. Make sure you’ve got plenty of booze and snacks lined-up, and are ready to sacrifice a day, if you want to do this in one stretch. It wasn’t quite as hard as when we watched all of the Lord of the Rings movies (Directors’ Cuts, no less) back to back at a Troma Night many years ago, but it was still a bit of a marathon.
  • The model shots (IV, V, VI) have aged, but they still look okay. The CGI effects (II, III) have aged, and they look awful. Watching a mixture of old and new films in this way exaggerates this.

If you’d like to learn more about why this is such a great way to watch these films, I’d highly recommend that you read the original article that inspired us. And then – whether you’ve seen the films before or not – you should totally go and do this too.

The Artist

Ruth and I went out to the cinema last night and saw The Artist, and I’m inclined to agree with the critics: this film is spectacular.

For the benefit of anybody who hasn’t come out of hibernation yet, The Artist is a modern film whose production is heavily influenced by the cinematographic style and technology of the late 1920s movie industry. It’s shot in black and white and is, almost without exception, silent apart from the musical soundtrack. Title cards provide explanation of plot-critical dialogue, but for the most part the story is told through the (excellent) visual performance of the actors.

But there’s a warning – this is not a happy film. To go in expecting something dramatic-but-fun, as I did, then you’re in for a shock. This film is deeply tragic, incredibly sad and moving. On at least two occasions during the more despair-ridden parts of the story, I found myself begging the movie to find the twist and lighten up… and on both occasions it responded only by becoming more doleful still.

Beautiful, mournful, sometimes meta and fourth-wall-breaking, and a testament to the writer/director’s ability to work with the incredibly challenging constraints imposed by a now-archaic medium… well worth a look: in the cinema, if you get the chance.

On This Day In 1999

Looking Back

On this day in 1999 I sent out the twelfth of my Cool Thing Of The Day To Do In Aberystwyth e-mails. I wasn’t blogging at the time, although I did have a blog previously, but I felt that it would be nice to do something to help keep in touch with my friends and family “back home”, so I came up with Cool Thing Of The Day To Do In Aberystwyth. I’ve written about it a little in a previous On This Day post.

On this particular day, I’d just finished downloading a copy of The Matrix, that fantastic cyber/action movie that spawned a huge string of memes and won the love and praise of geeks and action-flick junkies everywhere. The movie remains a pinnacle of great filmmaking, with its’ adventurous direction (remember when bullet time was still new and exciting?), funky soundtrack, and cleverer-than-average twists… for a film full of guns.

I’d not been at the University long, and I was making the most of the huge amount of bandwidth that seemed to be available: for the first time ever, I was able to download music (of a appreciable bitrate) faster than I could listen to it (the boundary at which “streaming” becomes feasible). Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet splashed out on new hardware, so downloading a 1.4GB film quickly became a drain on my hard drive, which will have probably been in the region of about 20GB total. But it didn’t matter, because it was cool. “Look at me, I’m a l33t haxxor like Neo!” I never actually uttered those words, but I might as well have.

I soon went and bought a copy of The Matrix – one of the first DVDs I owned – if only to save on hard drive space. I also burned my second ever student loan cheque on a beefy new computer of a specification so high that nobody I knew had even seen such a thing before: including a massive 500MHz processor (or as we’d call it nowadays, a “half-gigahertz”).

Later, friends and coursemates Rory, Huw, John, Dom would join me in producing a 15-minute spoof of The Matrix as part of our entry for the University of Wales, Aberystwyth’s Student Skills Competition. We won best presentation. This in gave me the opportunity to help out with the Student Skills Competition and networked me to the person who eventually introduced me to the guy who would eventually become my boss at SmartData. It’s amazing how these little things link together, isn’t it?

Looking Forward

Later still, no sequels were made to The Matrix, thankfully. You heard me: no sequels were made. Especially not Reloaded. Okay, okay: they made The Animatrix. But they certainly didn’t make any video games.

Nowadays, I keep a little over 2TB of storage space in my primary computer, but I still manage to fill it somehow – one of my drives ended up with only 5GB of free space just the other month, and needed a big tidy-up. Or, as they’ll call it in another twelve years: 0.00005PB.

This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years gone by.

First Class Film

Last week, I saw X-Men: First Class at the cinema with Ruth. The film was… pretty mediocre, I’m afraid… but another part of the cinemagoing experience was quite remarkable:

There’s a bit in the film where Xavier, then writing his thesis at Oxford University, and a CIA agent are talking. As they talk, they walk right through the middle of the Bodleian Library, right past my office. It’s not just Morse and Lewis and the Harry Potter films that make use of the Library (at great expense, I gather) for filming purposes! “That’s my office!” I squee’d, pointing excitedly at the screen.

Needless to say, the student-heavy audience cheered loudly at the presence of parts of Oxford that they recognised, too. It’s been a while since I was in a cinema where people actually cheered at what was going on. In fact, the last time will have been in the Commodore Cinema in Aberystwyth. But cinema-culture in Aberystwyth’s strange anyway.

Beware: Necrophiliac Paramedics!

A conversation I had this morning with JTA, via text message:

I sent:

Boiler update: this is getting silly. The probability-weighted Markov-chain based predictive text system I’m using this morning saw me type “boi” and suggested “Boiler update:”? /sighs/
On the upside, I’ve successfully arranged for the new distributor valve to be installed on Friday, when I’ll be around.

To give a little background, we’re having trouble with the boiler on Earth. You may have observed that it broke last year, and then again this year: well – it’s still broken, really. Nowadays it’ll only produce a little hot water at a time, and makes a noise like that scene in Titanic where the ship begins to tear in two. You know – a bad noise for a boiler to make. Over the last two or three weeks we’ve repeatedly fought to get it repaired, but it’s been challenging: more on that in a different blog post, if JTA doesn’t get there first.

JTA replied:

On the plus side, at least this saga is overriding your phone’s memory of your previous life as a male prostitute. :-)

I was once mistaken for a gay prostitute, actually – by a gay prostitute – but that’s another story, I guess. In any case, I responded:

Until now! you’ve just mentioned that again, which means it’ll be the “last message received” when the paramedics go through my phone if I’m killed on the way to work this morning. And they’ll say, “yeah; I’d pay to have sex with him.”

Quickly followed by:

And his mate will say:
“Now he’s dead, you don’t HAVE to pay.”
If my corpse is raped by a paramedic, I’m blaming you.

To which JTA said:

You’re talking about people who drive blacked out vans full of drugs. I’m pretty sure they never pay.

From prostitution to necrophilia to date rape over the course of only a handful of text messages. What a great start to a Wednesday morning. I do like the image of an ambulance as “a blacked out van full of drugs,” though…

A Video Game Movie I’d See

Video game movies are notoriously bad, no matter how awesome the game that inspired them. Wing Commander took a classic video game series and completely ruined it. Doom was incredibly dull, even though it was based on one of the most popular game series that have ever exited. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time had so much potential and the chance to draw from the multi-rebooted Prince of Persia video games, but in the end its only redeeming feature was that it co-starred Richard Coyle, whose earlier appearance in hit comedy series Coupling lead Ruth, JTA and I to rename the film after his character from that series, calling it The Legend of King Jeff, which would honestly have been a better film.

And let’s not forget the truly dire Street Fighter: The Movie, which ultimately lead to the short-lived arcade game Street Fighter: The Movie – The Game, attempting to cash in on the film before the developers realised that this wasn’t actually a very good idea. And it’s only the eighth-worst video game movie of all time, according to this video on GameTrailers. Let’s face it: video games don’t convert well to films.

That said, I’ve had an idea for a video game-inspired film that I think could really be good. Or, at least, so awful it’d be good.

Asteroids: The Movie

Don’t you dare tell me that you wouldn’t go to the cinema to see Asteroids: The Movie: CGI like this just has to be enjoyed on the big screen.

The plot is as follows: Earth governments have been secretly tracking an enormous asteroid for many years. Under the cover story of satellite launches, they’ve been firing nuclear weapons at long distances to try to destroy or deflect the mass, but all they’ve managed is to break it up into many hundreds of smaller (but still devastatingly-huge) rocks, many of which are still headed towards our planet.

We’re introduced to our main characters: a cocky ace fighter pilot who’s just been expelled from his wing group for being too cocky and ace, a young and immature geek who spends his life playing retro video games, and a love interest who spurns both of them and is probably employed by the shady government agency. Early in the film, she acts professionally and doesn’t approve of the other main characters’ respective aggressive self-confidence/childish behaviour, but eventually the three become closer as they work together (and probably save one another’s lives a few times).

Recruited for their various “talents” they’re recruited to pilot an experimental spaceship right out into the asteroid field and fire their cannons to destroy them. All is going well, but there are occasional sightings of fast-moving metallic objects around the edges of the field. These turn out to be aliens (in flying saucer like spaceships) who had originally propelled the enormous rock towards Earth in an effort to wipe out humankind, who they – as a result of their warlike culture – perceive as a threat to their galactic dominance. Earth has been on the brink of cracking faster-than-light travel for a while now, as evidenced by secret test flights of the ships which preceded the vessel used in the movie, and this makes the aliens twitchy.

There’s a fight, and it momentarily looks like the aliens stand to destroy the human ship. “This isn’t a video game: we don’t get extra lives!” shouts the love interest character, at one point. “No,” agrees the geek, “But we do have this…” He engages the highly-experimental “hyperspace jump drive” and the ship disappears just seconds before the alien missiles destroy it.

While drifting in hyperspace, the crew find evidence of the aliens’ culture and history, and the other planets they’ve destroyed. They also discover a possible weakness. They’re just beginning to understand what they have to do when they reappear in normal space, apparently only a split second after they disappeared. The chase is on as the aliens pursue the humans through the asteroid field in an exciting chase scene. Finally, the humans discover what they need to do to penetrate the alien shields, and fire upon them. They rush away as the alien ship explodes, vapourising the remaining asteroids as it goes.

The crew return to Earth as heroes.

Now: isn’t that at least as good as whatever Hollywood would come up with? And it’d certainly be far better than the Super Mario Brothers movie.

Hmm. Further research indicates that this might be already going to happen

Women in Movies

Spoiler alert: this blog post contains significant spoilers about WALL-E, and contains minor spoilers about Salt (although these shouldn’t be spoilers to anybody who’s ever seen an action film before).

The Bechdel Test

I’ve talked to some of you already about my thoughts on the Bechdel Test, which aims to illustrate the under-representation of women in contemporary film. I first became aware of the test when I saw this video by YouTube blogger “feministfrequency”, earlier this year. If you can’t be bothered to watch the video, here’s a summary:

Alison Bechdel is the author of a long-running comic strip, Dykes To Watch Out For. In 1985, one of the characters in the strip states that she only watches a movie if it meets the following requirements:

  1. It has at least two women in it, (some later versions of the test require that the women be named characters)
  2. Who talk to teach other,
  3. About something besides a man.

feministfrequency goes on to show that the problem is endemic by flicking rapidly through a list of films that “fail” the test (she skips over the part of her argument where she demonstrates that this is a problem, presumably because she feels that this is obvious and, besides, YouTube’s consumers will often have too short an attention span to take in a proper argument anyway).


In the snapshot above, we can see her explaining how WALL-E fails the test.

Whoah, hang on a minute. WALL-E? Are we sure?

The Problem with The Bechdel Test

Let’s have a look at WALL-E. Here’s a summary of the plot, in case you’ve been in a coma for the last few years and the first thing you chose to do when you came around was to read my blog:

  • Runaway consumerism and lack of ecological foresight results in Earth being too polluted to live on.
  • The humans all evacuate to space, leaving behind an army of trash compactor robots, “Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth class”.
  • After centuries, only one of these survives, and has achieved sentience.
  • A robotic probe sent down by the humans, an “Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator” (EVE) probe and the surviving WALL-E unit form an emotional bond.
  • The EVE is called back to the mothership with evidence that Earth is becoming livable again. The WALL-E comes aboard as a stowaway.
  • Meanwhile, on the spaceship, the human captain (male) is in conflict with the ship’s computer, which hides evidence of Earth’s livability in order to keep the lazy, dis-focused space-dwelling humans under its authority.
  • Through a series of scrapes and adventures, the WALL-E unit and the EVE manage to survive the ship’s computer’s attempt to kill them and present the evidence that Earth is becoming habitable to the humans, who land the ship.
  • Finally, in a heartbreaking moment, the WALL-E appears to have been reset to its factory configuration, losing its intelligence and self-awareness, until an electrical spark passed during a “kiss” from the EVE causes the WALL-E to jump-start back into being its usual, quirky, self.

So there’s WALL-E. Does it pass the Bechdel Test? No. Well, I guess I’m wrong, then.

But the problem is: I only feel that a failure to the Bechdel Test is in any way significant if the film would pass its male-centric analog. After all, we can all say that the world is unfair because we haven’t personally passed the “Lottery Jackpot Test” – winning millions of pounds – but if only a handful of people ever do pass that test, then it’s not fair to say that I personally am unlucky: I’m pretty much just as unlucky as everybody else.

I propose a male-centric analog to the Bechdel Test. To pass this test, a film must have at least two male characters (ideally named), who talk to one another about something other than a woman. It may seem like I’m being facetious – after all, virtually all movies will pass this test – but I don’t feel that it’s appropriate to comment on the fact that a movie fails the Bechdel Test unless it also passes the male analog, for the same reason that I don’t feel it’s fair to use the fact that any given person has failed the “Lottery Jackpot Test” as evidence of anything in particular either.

So, here’s my Revised Bechdel Test. To pass this test, a movie must:

  1. It has at least two women in it,
  2. Who talk to teach other,
  3. About something besides a man.
  4. AND it can not fail the test unless it has at least two men in it who talk to one another about something besides a woman.

So does WALL-E fail the Revised Bechdel Test (i.e. fails the Bechdel Test, but passes the male analog): I don’t think it does, but it depends, perhaps, on how you choose to define gender. Many audience members will choose to identify the protagonist WALL-E unit as male, for example, despite the fact that it is clearly a robot manufactured in a way that makes gender irrelevant. They choose to do this because of their conditioning:

  • Lead characters in films are frequently male, so – in the absence of any evidence to the contrary – an audience will associate masculinity to a genderless character presented to them.
  • WALL-E units are dirty, engaged in manual labour, and with “rugged” square corners; these are characteristics that audiences will readily assume to be masculine traits because of the stereotypes within our society.
  • The WALL-E unit engages in a romantic relationship with a robot that – for similar stereotype-based reasons – the audience will often designate as being female. Our culture of heteronormativity means that when we discover that a character of a suspected gender forms a romantic relationship, that the subject of that relationship must be of the opposite gender.

Here are the options, then:

  • We assume that all robots in the film are genderless. If this is the case, the film fails the Bechdel Test, but passes my Revised Bechdel Test. Note that the same would be true of March Of The Penguins (this also fails the Bechdel Test, but I doubt that any feminist could rightly claim that women are under-represented in it).
  • We assume that all the robots in the film are of the same gender that their voice actor (please note that I don’t feel that this is a fair way to assign gender to characters: at least six of the recurring male characters in The Simpsons are voiced by voice actress Nancy Cartwright), with the exception of the ship’s computer, which – voiced by a synthetic algorithm called MacInTalk – remains genderless. In this case, the film still fails the Bechdel Test, and still passes my Revised Bechdel Test.
  • We assign arbitrary genders to the robots in order to make our argument fit. Only in this case can we pass the Bechdel Test or can we fail my Revised Bechdel Test.

The Revised Bechdel Test I propose solves the greatest fundamental problem with the Bechdel Test: that it discriminates unfairly against films where gender is not an issue. In most films involving nonhuman characters, the Bechdel test doesn’t provide sufficient granularity to tell the difference between “women being underrepresented” and “gender being irrelevant to the story”. Note that “nonhuman characters” is still an ambiguous term, for there exist characters with sufficient anthropomorphism that they can be treated as human analogies, like the stars of the original Toy Story, which fails both the Bechdel Test and my revised test, and rightly so.

The Problem with The Revised Bechdel Test

I’m not claiming to have fixed the Bechdel Test completely, though, as a measure of the representation of women in films. Last night, I watched Salt.


I first became aware of this new film when I saw a trailer for it at the cinema when watching Inception (doesn’t pass either the Bechdel Test nor my Revised Bechdel Test, although this isn’t a measure of how good a film is, and Inception is fantastic). Salt is a very typical modern action flick in many ways. Here are some of the common tropes of a modern action film, that Salt also has:

  • The lead character is a secret agent, spy, assassin, detective, mercenary, or similar “cool” profession that entitles them to carry a gun.
  • The lead character exhibits an almost-superhuman ability to withstand pain and torture, fight with a variety of weapons or barehand, learn multiple languages, pick locks, hack computers, and so on.
  • The organisation for which the lead character primarily works is of dubious trustworthiness.
  • The lead character is betrayed by somebody once trusted to them, and is on at least one occasion described as “rogue”.
  • A major motivation of the lead character is the liberation of their primary love interest.
  • The whole movie is full of badass fight scenes and explosions.

You get it? I could be describing almost any James Bond film, the Mission: Impossible series, Minority Report, Robocop, the Bourne film series; even The A-Team! But in this case, I’m describing Salt. And there’s one particular thing that Salt does that none of these other films did: the lead character is a woman.

From a point of gender equality, this film does a really, really good job. It would be perfectly possible to change the gender of any of the major characters and still have movie which remained perfectly intact. The lead character’s femininity is part of the plot, certainly, but not in a way that makes mockery of it or belittles her for her gender. Not once does the lead female require the lead male to come and “rescue” her, or she is disadvantaged by her gender. Even the scene in which she disguises herself as a man is done not because a man would have been required but because it was the most effective disguise that she could have used, at the time: one that completely changed her appearance.

But guess what: this fantastic (and undeniably-feminist) film… doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. It doesn’t even pass my Revised Test! Why? Because despite the fact that it represents women equally and counters the culture of male leads to action films (without making a point of doing so – gender is not a factor)… it doesn’t have a second named female character for the lead female to talk to (about something other than a man). Men talk together during the film about something other than a woman (although not much – a lot of their discussion is about the lead female, but they do on occasion talk about other things during the set-up), but it’s somehow a failure in the Bechdel Test simply because the film spends most of the time, without dialogue, watching the protagonist be a awesome gun-toting badass.

The Bechdel Test is too coarse. My Revised Bechdel Test improves its biggest failure, but still fails to detect films like Salt as being a good representation of women in movies. And if anybody’s got any suggestions about how we could refine the test any further, I’d love to hear them.

A Primer Puzzle

There’s a film that I’m a huge fan of, called Primer. Since I first discovered it I’ve insisted on showing it at least twice at Troma Night (the second time just for the benefit of everybody who didn’t “get it” – i.e. everybody – the first time). If you haven’t already seen it, this post might be a little spoilery, so instead of reading it, you should warm up your time machine, go and watch the film, turn off the time machine, get into the time machine, come out again right now, and then read its Wikipedia page until you understand it. Then come back.

Time Travel in Primer. Click to embiggen.

Still with me? Right.

Why Primer is awesome, and why you should care

In Primer, the protagonists accidentally stumble across the secret of time travel and use it to cheat the stock market. The film isn’t actually about time travel or science-fiction: it’s actually about the breakdown in the relationship between the protagonists, but it’s got some pretty awesome science-fiction in it, too, and that’s what I’d like to talk about. The mechanism of time travel in Primer, for example, is quite fascinating: the traveler turns on the machine using a timer switch (turning it on in person risks the possibility of meeting a future version of themselves coming out of the machine). They then wait for a set amount of time, then they turn off the machine, get into it, wait for the same amount of time again, and emerge from the time machine at the moment that it was turned on.

This is a lot weaker than many of the time travel devices featured in popular science fiction literature, films, and television. It’s not possible to travel forwards in time (except in the usual way with which we’re familiar). Travelling backwards in time takes as long as it took the machine to travel forwards through the same period, making long journeys impossible. The machine has to be strategically turned on at the point at which you want to travel back to, reducing spontaneity, and it can’t be used again in the meantime without resetting it. Oh, and the machine is dangerous and causes long-term damage to humans travelling in it, but that’s rather ancillary.

There’s a certain believability to the time travel mechanic in Primer that gives it a real charm. As far as it is explored in the film, it permits a deterministic universe (so long as one is willing to be reasonably unconventional with one’s interpretation of the linearity of time, as shown in the diagram above), provides severe limits to early time travel (which are great for post-film debate), and doesn’t resort to anything so tacky as, for example, Marty McFly gradually “fading out” after he inadvertently prevented his parents from getting together in Back to the Future.

Marty begins to disappear. I love this film, too, but not even slightly for the same reasons.

Experiments in the Primer universe

I’ve recently been thinking about some of the experiments that I would be performing it I had been the inventor of the Primer time machine.

First and foremost, I’d build a second, smaller time machine of the same design. We know this to be possible because the first machine built by the protagonists is smaller than the ones they later construct. I want to be able to put one time machine inside another. Yes, yes, I know that this is what the protagonists do in the movie, but mine has a difference: mine is capable of being operated (power supply only needs to be a few car batteries, as we discover in the film) within the larger time machine. That’s right, I’m building a time machine inside my time machine.

  • Experiment One attempts to explore the relativism of time. Start the larger time machine and warm it up. Stop the larger time machine. Start the smaller time machine. Get into the larger time machine, carrying the smaller time machine, and travel back. Once back, turn off the larger time machine. Experiment with sending things forwards in time using the second time machine (which has traveled backwards in time but while running, from our frame of reference). If objects inserted into it come out in the future, before it is picked up, this implies that there might be a fixed frame of reference to chronology. It also indicates that it is possible to build a machine for the purpose of traveling forwards in time, too, although only – for now – at the usual rate.
  • Experiment Two attempts to accelerate the rate at which a traveler can move forwards or backwards through time. Based on the explanation given in the movie, the contents of the time machine oscillate backwards and forwards through the period of time between their being turned on and being turned off, for a number of repetitions, before settling. If we are able to synchronise the oscillations of two time machines, one inside the other (by turning them on and off simultaneously, using timers attached to each and their own distinct, internal, power supplies), might we be able to set up a scenario that, in X minutes, switches off, and we can get inside the inner machine and travel back to the switch-on time in X/2 minutes? If so, what happens if we send such a two-machine construction back in time as in Experiment One – do we then have a “time accelerator”?
  • Experiment Three takes advantage of the fact that for an object within the field, an extended period of time has passed (during the oscillations), while from the reference point of an external observer, a far shorter period of time has passed. Experiment with the use of an oscillating time period field to accelerate slow processes. Obvious ones to start with are the production of biologically-produced chemicals, as is done in the film (imagine being able to brew a 10-year-old whiskey in a day!), but there are more options. Processing time on complex computer tasks could be dramatically reduced, for example. Build a large enough time machine and put a particle accelerator in it, and you can bring masses up to relativistic speeds in milliseconds.
  • Experiment Four is on the implications on spacetime of sending mass back in time. As we know, flinging mass in a direction of space produces an equal and opposite acceleration in the opposite direction, as demonstrated by… well, everything, but let’s say “a rocket” and be done with it. Does flinging mass backwards through time produce an acceleration forwards through time? This could be tested by sending back a mass and a highly-accurate timepiece, removing the mass in the past, and letting the timepiece travel back to the future. The timepiece is checked when the experiment starts, when the mass is removed, and when the experiment ends. If the time taken for the second half of the experiment, from the perspective of the timepiece, is longer than the time taken for the first half, then this implies that Newtonian motion, or something equivalent, can be approximated to apply over time as well as space. If so, then one could perhaps build an inertia-generating drive for a vehicle by repeatedly taking a mass out of one end of a time machine, transporting it to the other, and sending it back in time to when you first picked it up.

The scientific possibilities for such a (theoretical) device are limitless.

But yeah, I’d probably just cheat the stock market, too. At least to begin with.