Is Obi-Wan Kenobi not the hero we think he is?

Good, evil and moral relativism in Star Wars

I’ve certainly established myself as a defender of the Star Wars prequels, and by extension a defender of George Lucas. I keep on defending those films for their artistic merits – even if a majority of fans disagrees with me. However, over the past two and half years, a lot has changed in my outlook on life and this has affected the way I look at Star Wars and in particular my favourite film in the series, Revenge of the Sith. There are some things that trouble me.

Really, the problem I encountered all comes down to this line:

“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

This line is said by Obi-Wan Kenobi to Anakin after the latter has fallen to the Dark Side and taken on the name of Darth Vader.

It was a sudden, unpleasant shock to me when I realised that the movie I had so passionately defended for the past eleven years actually seemed to espouse a philosophy I cordially and utterly despise: moral relativism, which I hold responsible for a lot of the mess the world is in today.

Relativism and absolutism

Of course it’s hardly even necessary to point out what is wrong with this line. Its fallacy is self-evident: to say that only the bad guys deal in absolutes is itself a form of “dealing in absolutes”. To condemn moral absolutism is itself absolute. And yet, it sounds good and wholesome, doesn’t it? It sounds open-minded, tolerant, nuanced and critical. It sounds that way, but it isn’t any of those things. The idea that moral absolutism is bad comes from a misinterpretation of what moral absolutism means. Very often, we think it means judging people as either wholly good or wholly evil, but that is a huge mistake. In fact, moral absolutism is not really about judging at all. It is about submitting one’s self to something greater. It is the acceptance of an unchangeable moral law. The moral absolutist holds the imperatives of this law in higher regard even than desirable consequences. Moral absolutism implies principles of justice and mercy that apply to everyone, everywhere. It recognises vices such as greed and pride and honours virtues such as compassion and self-sacrifice. It frames morality not just in terms of consequences in the outer world, but also in terms of what certain behaviours and attitudes entail for the moral agent. As such, it calls murder evil because it violates a person’s right to live and because murder stains the soul of the murderer. It calls forgiveness good because it grants a new chance to the forgiven and because forgiveness cleans the soul of the forgiver.

Moral relativism on the other hand, makes everything murky. Under moral absolutism, murder is always wrong because it is murder. Under moral relativism, it can be okay, depending on your point of view. Moral relativists generally believe that people are allowed to craft their own morality and that different rules apply to different people. Moral relativism can very, very easily be used to move the goal posts and change the nature of good and evil according to the agent’s wishes. It is a philosophy that was favoured by people like Benito Mussolini, chairman Mao and Joseph Stalin.

Unfortunately, moral relativism is also very popular among nice, well-meaning people of today who sincerely intend to be decent folk. This is simply because popular culture has embraced this philosophy for its perceived (but false) promises of neutrality and open-mindedness. In practice, it’s actually impossible to be truly morally relativistic. The same person who will say that it is okay for them to commit act X because they have their own private moral outlook, will depend on an absolute moral code to denounce the actions of another person.

Anakin is not Jesus

Going back to Star Wars, let’s look at the placement of that troublesome line in the dialogue. Obi-Wan responds to Anakin, who says: “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy”. This is the “absolute” that Obi-Wan refuses to accept. Others than I have pointed out that Anakin’s words echo the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:30. Of course, we have to take into account that Anakin is nothing like Jesus (despite Anakin’s virgin birth). Christians believe Jesus is God, and God is the source of the very moral code I was defending here. Therefore, Jesus has every right to say these things. In Star Wars, there is no Jesus speaking. It’s Anakin who is speaking. And he is a very flawed human being who is making himself the moral centre of the universe, which is precisely what moral relativism does. With that in mind, Obi-Wan is absolutely right to denounce Anakin’s words.

The problem that I had with the line is the way Obi-Wan refutes Anakin. “Only a Sith deals in absolutes” implies that anyone who compels a choice for or against themselves is a Sith, the Star Wars equivalent of a devil. I don’t think that’s true. Plenty of good people have spoken this way, leaving no room for middle ground. It goes for a lot of issues in real life. Let’s take a very simple one: if you’re not against terrorism, then what are you? I know there are people who have a self-styled attitude of “understanding where terrorism comes from”, but does that mean they are not against it? Sometimes, there simply is no middle ground.

Enter the Dark Lord

The question remains: is George Lucas’ intent here really to denounce moral absolutism through the mouth of the movie’s hero? If it is, I am disappointed. However, let’s look at some of the other evidence. In the duel that ensues (still the greatest duel ever filmed), there is another exchange between the battling heroes:

  • Obi-Wan: “Anakin, chancellor Palpatine is evil!”
  • Anakin: “From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!”
  • Obi-Wan: “Well, then you are lost!”

I can think of no clearer rejection of moral relativism than this. It’s very clear that Obi-Wan at last gives up on Anakin precisely because his former pupil takes his own viewpoint and establishes it as an objective moral reality. This is the darkness of moral relativism at work. Where does Anakin get such a terrible idea? Well, let’s rewind a bit to an earlier point in the film: the wonderful scene at the opera, when Palpatine first starts to lure Anakin to the Dark Side. There we find this exchange:

  • Palpatine: “All who gain power are afraid to lose it, even the Jedi.”
  • Anakin: “The Jedi use their power for good.”
  • Palpatine: “Good is a point of view, Anakin. The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way… including their quest for greater power…”

Here, the Luciferian arch-villain of the entire saga is clearly using moral relativism to lure Anakin to the Dark Side. It returns again later in the film, when Palpatine reveals himself to Anakin:

  • Palpatine: “My mentor taught me everything about the Force. Even the nature of the Dark Side…”
  • Anakin: “You know the Dark Side?”
  • Palpatine: “Anakin, if one is to understand the great mystery, one must study all its aspects, not just the dogmatic, narrow view of the Jedi. If you wish to become a complete and wise leader, you must embrace… a larger view of the Force.”

The evil one represents goodness as narrow-minded, unsophisticated, unadventurous and dull. This is very seductive, very effective. I don’t think George Lucas is on Palpatine’s side here, but he seems to understand quite well how evil thinks.

So what about Obi-Wan?

Still, this leaves us with the troubling line “Only a Sith deals in absolutes”. Could it be that Obi-Wan is not the flawless hero we took him for?

Let’s flash forward in narrative time to the original trilogy, more precisely, to Return of the Jedi. There is a scene in the first half of the film where Obi-Wan’s ghost actually turns into a pretty troubling figure, and I don’t just mean that from the viewpoint of moral philosophy; he’s simply an all-around jerk here. At this point in the story, Luke has learned that Darth Vader and his father, Anakin Skywalker, are in fact one and the same, even though Obi-Wan had told him that Anakin had been murdered by Vader. The jerkiness starts when Luke confronts Obi-Wan’s ghost with that lie:

  • Luke: “Why didn’t you tell me? You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father.”
  • Obi-Wan: “Your father was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.”

You know, if I were Luke, I wouldn’t be satisfied by that pathetic excuse at all. It’s actually pretty galling that Obi-Wan doesn’t even hint at an apology, even in death, but instead turns to a half-assed defence of his deceitful words. Luke’s expression doesn’t seem all too satisfied either when he replies:

  • Luke: “A certain point of view?”
  • Obi-Wan: “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

So again, instead of saying something like: “I know, I should have been a bit more clear, but I wanted to protect you from disappointment” or something like that, Obi-Wan addresses Luke in a high and mighty tone with a condescending bit of lecturing. And not only that, but it’s a worthless lecture to boot. What does that line even mean? If only Luke’s point of view had been a bit different, Darth Vader wouldn’t have been his father? Anakin’s fall suddenly turns into being murdered by another man because “point of view”? What nonsense! Can Luke’s point of view change anything? I don’t think so. I have to say, this line really angers me. It’s pompous and stupid at the same time. But the scene goes on. A few lines later, Luke tries to suggest a non-violent solution to dealing with Darth Vader.

  • Luke: “There is still good in him.”
  • Obi-Wan: “He’s more machine now than man, twisted and evil.”
  • Luke: “I can’t do it, Ben.”
  • Obi-Wan: “You cannot escape your destiny. You must face Darth Vader again.”
  • Luke: “I can’t kill my own father.”
  • Obi-Wan: “Then the Emperor has already won.”

What?? So after lying to Luke and then arrogantly pretending it was all some sort of wise lesson, Obi-Wan is now manipulating the poor boy into murdering his own father?

This entire sequence actually makes me doubt if Obi-Wan really is the heroic figure we thought he was. I have to be honest, I always really liked Obi (particularly the version we see in episodes 2 and 3), but perhaps he was never meant to be someone to look up to. Perhaps Lucas wanted him to be a deeply flawed character, misguided in his own way, stuck in a philosophy full of holes and pathologically unable to admit to any fault of his own. Who knows, that might be the reason why he returns as a ghost, rather than becoming “one with the Force” and moving on to greener pastures? Maybe Obi-Wan still needs to learn a few lessons? I don’t know. Considering the noble and heroic spotlight that is shone on the character, maybe George Lucas actually does agree with Obi-Wan, in which case he isn’t really the purveyor of wisdom that Star Wars fans across the world have made him out to be.

George Lucas isn’t Jesus either

While I think Lucas has some positive themes in his movies, I wouldn’t take him or Star Wars itself too seriously. Listening to some interviews with the man has convinced me that Lucas’ philosophy is a shaky amalgamation of superficial aspects of various religions. It lacks any real substance and doesn’t dare to really take a side beyond the obvious stuff that hurting people is bad and being compassionate is good. Still, there are moments of real brilliance and insight sprinkled throughout the Star Wars saga. And in the end, isn’t Obi-Wan proven wrong? Vader can be redeemed and it happens through the love between him and his son. Now that is a theme I can get behind, and it saves Return of the Jedi for me, even if it is at the cost of Obi-Wan’s status as “wise mentor”.

In the end, I’m afraid that the Star Wars saga has simply become too big for its own good. George Lucas is a visionary filmmaker with some great ideas, but he is also a muddled philosopher and he has some obvious problems as a storyteller. There are amateurish turns throughout the saga that could have been easily fixed if he had had a tighter plan from the beginning. For example:

  • The whole business with master Sipho-Dias and the clone army in Episode II was vague and confusing and it never really got explained;
  • It was a strange idea to introduce Obi-Wan as the mentor figure in Episode IV, only to kill him off and replace him with Yoda in Episode V;
  • Lucas played out the big climax of the Death Star too soon by putting it at the end of the first movie. As a result, the second Death Star in the last movie is much less impressive or scary.

Those things don’t bother me all that much because they only show that Lucas is just a guy telling his story, adjusting it as he goes along. Like The Lord of the Rings, this tale clearly grew in the telling. It actually kind of adds to the charm that there are some obvious flaws in the storytelling resulting from that. The problem is that Star Wars became so big and so popular that people started taking it very, very seriously. The irrational hatred of the prequels is closely tied to this. People expected Star Wars to give them something that no movie can give: a substitute for religion. And that, it simply isn’t. Star Wars is an amazing movie series and an exciting universe full of wonder and adventure, but not something to base one’s outlook on life on.


“Mature, dark and gritty” is nonsense

“Mature, dark and gritty.”

I’m going to be up front about this: I don’t like this cluster of words, especially when applied to fantasy. Whenever I hear a movie or a game described in this way, I can’t help but cringe.

The reason why I don’t like these terms when they are put together is because they are always held up as some kind of standard of excellence for entertainment to live up to. In this article I want to explore why the thirst for “mature, dark and gritty” is misplaced, particularly when it comes to fantasy storytelling.

What is mature, dark and gritty?

In order to make my point, I’ll have to settle down and define what I think these terms are meant to convey. I’ll start with the easiest one: “dark”.

Superman darkified by making him frown and adding rain.

The term “dark” has been applied to everything from Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas to realistic tragedies about drug abuse. It covers a huge range of moods and it can be applied to the plot, the characters or the setting of a story. On the whole, I think people use the word “dark” mostly to describe an overall oppressively unhappy mood. In fantasy, a dark story is usually told in a setting that conveys that darkness outwardly. In dark fantasy settings, the weather sucks, people have dirt on their faces and it’s often literally dark.

I love dark fantasy. I have absolutely no problem with it. In fact, I write dark fantasy myself. It’s only when “dark” is attached to “gritty” and/or “mature” that I start rolling my eyes.

“Gritty” is a tougher one to define, but I think it’s usually related to characters’ behaviour. Applied to video games, I think that Castlevania and Dark Souls are clearly dark, but they aren’t gritty, whereas The Witcher is perhaps less dark but definitely grittier. I’ve heard people describe a gritty setting as one where the darkness is more realistic, hits closer to home and is more relatable. I disagree. I can easily think of a few stories that deal with very real-world situations such as loneliness, death and disease in a realistic way without being gritty. The way I see it, gritty stories insist on showing things in a dirty, ugly light. They tend to include things that were traditionally shunned in high culture such as graphic depictions of sex and ugly language. They leave at least part of the audience with a general feeling of wanting to wash their eyes and ears afterwards.

I generally don’t like gritty fantasy. I think it pulls fantasy down, out of its naturally lofty sphere of myth-making and into the filth and muck of daily life. I’ll come back to this topic later, but first I want to address the final word: “mature”.

This is the most contentious of the terms because what exactly is a “mature” story? I think everyone will agree that mature storytelling is intended for mature audiences. Now the question becomes why it’s reserved for such audiences only. Is it because the themes discussed are too intense and complex for younger minds? Or is it because there are elements in the story that are so shocking that we want to spare kids from them? If it is the former, I think that the term “mature” is well chosen. If we mean the latter, I think we need a new word for that.

My biggest gripe with the word “mature” is that it is often used for things that try really hard to appear mature by including elements that are not family-friendly. Very often, they aren’t actually mature in the way they handle that content.

It’s not necessarily better

What annoys me most of all is when people say things like “Game of Thrones is like Lord of the Rings but it’s a lot more mature because it’s dark and gritty”. What they mean is that they think it’s better because it contains graphic sex, extreme violence, morally ambiguous characters and a nihilistic outlook on life. And they don’t mean better because they personally prefer the grittiness. They mean truly more elevated and closer to the Platonic ideal of a fantasy epic.

To my personal taste, The Lord of the Rings is better, in part because it does not contain such elements, but I also realise that this is not an objective criterion. If I want to uphold The Lord of the Rings as objectively better than Game of Thrones, I know I should use very different arguments, like Tolkien’s wise approach to human nature in his characters, his beautiful language or his powerful themes. The amount of content that is only suited for a mature audience has little bearing on objective quality. And that goes in the other direction as well. The film Devil’s Advocate contains a good deal of sex, profanity and violence, but I think it’s a great movie. I will not for a moment claim that the similarly themed Brendan Fraser comedy Bedazzled is actually better simply because it manages to avoid adult material. I also understand that the grittier elements of Devil’s Advocate were there to convey the film’s central themes.

This is what a great director looks like.

But there is this attitude in the air that adding adult-only material to a story somehow increases its prestige and its legitimacy as serious art. This is totally unwarranted. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are perfectly acceptable for a twelve year-old to read, even if the average kid probably wouldn’t understand a lot of it. There is not much “gritty” about a celebrated film like Citizen Kane or a novel like Pride & Prejudice. Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan, two of today’s most beloved filmmakers, tend to avoid graphic sex and foul language in their films, even when they depict characters and situations where that would be appropriate, like the scummy villains in the Batman trilogy. I would say that in most cases, graphic sex, gory violence and cursing are really not necessary to make a work of art great. Don’t take this to mean that I feel it should never happen. I believe this is the artist’s prerogative. But I personally don’t care for it and in many cases, I feel it’s a cheap way to appear edgy and “mature” without doing the much harder work of having those qualities come out of the actual plot, characterization and themes.

As for maturity in fantasy, I will not say there is no place for it, but I believe fantasy is at heart a progression of the older genres of myth and fairy tales. These stories were powerful because they embodied the inner, spiritual world outwardly. The monsters and the magic are really portrayals of intangible qualities like moral virtues and vices. Because of that, a certain level of simplicity is appropriate. Tolkien’s Orcs should never have complex, understandable motivations because they are simply depictions of evil. On the other hand, Tolkien’s heroes include flawed, complex people like Boromir and Théoden. It is precisely the struggle of real, flawed men against pure, simple evil that makes The Lord of the Rings powerful, because we all have evils in our lives, so we can all relate. The Orcs are simply a way of showing that evil in a clear and recognisable way, and the battles that ensue show the courage and self-sacrifice that is needed to confront those evils. When confronted with our own vices, it helps to be reminded of Frodo’s heroic journey to muster the courage to deal with them. “Mature” themes in fantasy are usually understood to entail moral ambiguity and speaking of good and evil in murky, muddled tones. I believe there is already too much murkiness in our thinking about good and evil. Fantasy can help us make the distinction clear again.

I do think there are places for dealing with morally complex issues in storytelling. But fantasy is precisely that genre that is least suited to it, in my opinion.

Why it’s worse in video games

The clamour for “mature, dark & gritty” has become huge in video games recently, and developers happily answer that call. Dark and gruesome settings full of extreme violence have been around for a long time and have become even more popular of late: Doom, Dark Souls, you name it. In the case of those games, though, there is no pretence of delivering a “mature”, thematic story that touches on real-world issues in a thought-provoking way. These developers know what their audience wants: a scary, challenging adventure that delivers the thrills of destroying all the horrible enemies coming at them. This is nothing new. What is new, is this strange mutation that has come up lately. Developers are now trying to find ways to deliver an emotional experience through their games, like a great movie or a book. Older roleplaying games started doing this by telling stories of sweeping, epic quests: Baldur’s Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic come to mind. These games often include moral choices. Originally, those moral choices used to be pretty straightforward: you could either become a cartoonishly evil Sith or a noble Jedi Knight. I’m going to say something very unpopular but I preferred it that way.

Baldur’s Gate.

With the franchises of Mass Effect, Dragon Age and The Witcher, roleplaying games on PC and consoles have moved more in the direction of truly difficult decisions where the outcome isn’t always clear. In the first Mass Effect, an important mission goes haywire and you can only save one of your two team mates. The other one will inevitably die in a fiery explosion. When I first played that game, I thought it was absolutely amazing, but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed that moment. I get that it’s not supposed to be enjoyable, but rather heart-wrenching. I did appreciate what Bioware did there and I thought it was a fine experiment in interactive storytelling. But it’s not something I wanted more and more of. Of course, that did happen. The Dragon Age and The Witcher series take the concept much farther. The world is bleak and depressing, people are nasty to each other, and you as the protagonist are constantly faced with gut-wrenching moral decisions where there really is no clear answer what the best choice is – sometimes there are only bad ones. Gamers laud this development as “realism”, but I wonder… At what point does this tangled moral mess stop being realistic and start becoming parody? It’s like the show Game of Thrones. At first, audiences were shocked to find out that this was a fantasy world where good guys could die and bad guys could proceed unpunished. Realism, right? But then it just went on and on, killing off likeable and villainous characters indiscriminately in a completely amoral, indifferent universe. I know a lot of people have stopped watching because after a while, it just gets dull. I also don’t believe it’s necessarily realistic. After a while, you just start feeling that life isn’t really like that. We know life is tough and bad things happen to good people, but it’s not pointlessly, relentlessly cruel all the time.

Going back to video games, there is a paradox when that kind of brutal naturalism is combined with the traditional trappings of gaming. In Dragon Age: Origins, you’re agonizing over the right choice in a situation where a possessed little boy with magical powers is an immediate threat to everyone around him. Can you kill a child to save a large group of people? Is there another way? Serious, brooding moral discussions… followed by video game combat where you’re blithely chopping off the heads of your enemies and cheering as you pick up loot from their dead bodies.

The possessed boy terrorizing Redcliffe castle in Dragon Age: Origins.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with viciously slaughtering your foes in a video game, because it’s super fun and in the end, it’s “just a video game” – a phrase many gamers hate. I understand why they hate it. They want the artistry behind their entertainment to be recognised and I agree with them. On the other hand, you can’t have that artistry be mostly about spectacularly cool fights with bad guys and then expect to be taken seriously as thoughtful, subtle drama at the same time.

It’s perfectly possible to appreciate the masterful craftsmanship that goes into the graphics, the gameplay mechanics and the questing of a video game without the need to justify it as “serious drama about real life issues”. I don’t think “serious drama about real life issues” is in any way more important or superior to fun, exciting escapism with some clever challenges and beautiful visuals.

My point is that video games don’t really need serious quests about the haunting mistakes of the past, the disappointments of life or the difficulties of choice in complex ethical issues. Non-interactive entertainment is usually a much better platform for that kind of dramatic storytelling. Is there room for it in video games? Well, I’m not going to say it’s not allowed, but this gamer is not that interested. Novels generally aren’t as good for blood-pumping action scenes as movies are. Movies are not as good at conveying the inner psyche of their characters as books are. In the same way, video games aren’t as fit for “mature” themes as other media are. Sex and romance in video games usually come across as puerile and pubescent and I don’t think the technical evolution of the medium is going to help very much to change that.

I’m not ashamed to say that I play video games for fun. I think they are a great platform for fantasy world-building and telling stories of survival, heroic conquest, fighting against insurmountable odds and other old-fashioned macho stuff like that, because you get to experience the thrill of accomplishment as the player. For this reason, I can enjoy some darkness in a game à la Diablo, Batman or the dungeons in Skyrim, but I don’t care for “mature” and “gritty”.

I love how this game did “dark”.

I’m one of the few players who don’t seem to want more complex moral choices. I liked it fine when the Star Wars games gave you the option to choose the heroic or the evil storyline. I love that I can choose to join the profoundly evil cult of the Dark Brotherhood in Elder Scrolls games, or I can become the noble chosen hero of the world. I don’t want to be presented with heartbreaking choices or social commentary in my epic fantasy world. That’s not what games are about for me, and there is nothing inferior or “guilty pleasure” (a term I hate) about that.

Aristotle said that entertainment and friendship are more elevated and valuable than work, because they are things we do for their own sake, whereas work is something we do for an ulterior motive. In the same way, I think appreciating a well-crafted fantasy world and having fun in it is more valuable than using it for the ulterior motive of confronting harsh reality or mulling over political philosophy. Besides, it’s fantasy. Why are so many people so adamant about pulling down the magic, grandeur and beauty of fantasy and have it wallow in the drab and ugly realities of the most downtrodden parts of real life? Don’t we have enough of that already?

By Clark Kent Without Glasses

The Warcraft movie is awesome

My background

I never played World of Warcraft but I did enjoy the strategy games they made way back in the nineties, when I was a kid. The Warcraft I remember most playing looked like this:

stunning graphics in 1995!

So my understanding of the lore of the Warcraft universe prior to this movie is extremely basic at best, even though I am all about epic fantasy.

I wanted to see the Warcraft movie, not because I’m a connoisseur of that universe, but because it was the first fantasy movie since The Hobbit trilogy ended in the kind of style that I always want to see. What I mean is the kind of epic fantasy that is set in a completely different world, featuring elves and dragons and mighty armies clashing. That’s the kind of material I want to see most in a big blockbuster movie, and despite the huge success of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth adaptations, it’s still extremely rare, and it’s even rarer to see it done well.

I guess I was feeling a bit starved, because I have to admit that the trailers for the Warcraft movie only looked mildly interesting to me, but I was so ready for this movie, just because of the genre it represents. On top of that, I’ve always had a thing for Orcs the way they were portrayed in the Warhammer and Warcraft settings: big, hulking, green guys with massive tusks and huge weapons. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. I just like them, okay?

The movie

So I finally saw this movie the other day, going in with enthusiasm but low expectations. Video game movies have a terrible track record, as everybody knows, and I was prepared for this being another kitschy, braindead action spectacle. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised!

The Warcraft movie is awesome! Not only does it look amazing, boasting some of the coolest CGI creatures and sets I’ve ever seen, but it’s actually a really, really good story. And I say that as one who is not immersed in this particular lore, but who simply loves good epic fantasy. In the first 15 minutes of the movie I had a little bit of trouble keeping up with the rather large amount of characters being introduced, particularly on the human side, so I got a little bit worried that this was going to be for hardcore fans only. Luckily, that fear subsided pretty quickly as it became clear who the most important characters were and their names were thankfully repeated enough times for my tiny brain to remember them for two hours.


Even as something of an outsider, I could tell that writer/director Duncan Jones really loves and respects the lore of this universe. The movie made no attempts to dumb down or commercialize the storytelling. The plot isn’t reduced to noble humans fighting evil Orcs, but it shows nuance and subtlety, with heroes on both sides trying to navigate a difficult conflict. It treats the thematic material with respect, such as the addictive and corrupting influence of unbridled power, even on those who mean well. The movie never tried to win over the sneering hipsters by being edgy or ironic or self-aware or forcing modern sensibilities into its fantasy world. Instead, it took the world and the characters seriously and presented an actual earnest tale of heroism, adventure and tragedy.

And this is precisely why critics hated the movie and audiences loved it:


You see, audiences are still just normal people who love a good tale. And movie critics are apparently still the same boring, snobbish, pseudo-intellectual hipsters they were back in the nineties. I haven’t really paid attention to them for years, but I had kind of hoped that some evolution would have occurred. With the rise of genre movies (particularly superheroes), you would expect to see a change of attitude in reviewers. Since a huge part of moviegoing audiences obviously loves escapism and special effects, it would be normal for the press to respond to this by hiring some writers who share this enthusiasm. Instead, the press once again proves its arrogance and elitism by basically sneering at the tastes of the common man.

Well, let them. As audiences grow more confident in what they want, Hollywood will be forced to respond by giving it to them, and the obnoxious snobs will either have to capitulate or fade away. I for one am happy that at least one filmmaker dared to make the decision to believe in this material and not treat it as a joke or a platform for social commentary because it’s “just a video game movie”.

Well done, Duncan Jones!

The Witcher 3 is not that great

Disclaimer: if you are a really devoted fan of this game, just don’t read this article. You won’t like it.

I admit I use this blog to vent a bit, or to put it more mildly, to express some of my less popular opinions on geek culture. It’s not intended to be contrarian per se, because there are times when I agree with the majority. Rather, from time to time I want to write what I feel isn’t being written or said enough. There will be articles where I just gush all over a movie or a game that doesn’t get the respect it deserves, but there will also be times that are the opposite of that: when I want to knock something down from its undeserved pedestal. This is one of those times.
Last year there was a lot of talk about a certain video game involving a white-haired protagonist with a gruff voice. “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” has received mountains of praise and awards. Many say it’s the greatest video game RPG of all time. One of my best friends is a massive fan of the Witcher franchise and he shares this opinion.
For a long time, I was very resistant to the game, but I finally did succumb and decided to give it a fair shot. I played the first Witcher game back in 2008, although I never finished it. I found it a very frustrating experience, beautiful to look at but horrible to play. I tried a demo of the second Witcher game and decided it was a continuation of those same trends.
Now in 2016, a year after the original release, I have finally played The Witcher 3 (partially).
Do I think it’s a good game? Well, objectively, it has enough good qualities to give it a passing grade. Calling The Witcher 3 just plain bad across the board is unfair. It has too much to offer and it was clearly made with too much love and effort to simply bash it like that. Nevertheless, I really don’t think it is at all the masterpiece so many people have made it out to be. I would say it’s a rather mediocre game that gets some extra points for effort and good customer relations on the part of developer CD Projekt Red.


Here are some quotes I pulled from Metacritic:

“Witcher 3 is a masterpiece”
“the best fantasy RPG I have played to date”
“one of the best games I have ever played in my entire gaming experience”

Those first two quotes are from official reviewers, by the way.
Call me stupid, low-brow or, heaven forbid, “casual”, but I really don’t see it. The Witcher 3 just barely makes it to “adequate” in my book, and it definitely won’t enter my top 10 list. It’s not exciting enough for me to finish playing, not because it’s a completely horrible playing experience, but because it’s not good enough to justify the enormous amounts of time that it demands.
First of all, you should know that a late medieval, heavily European dark fantasy setting with grim fairy tale-like aspects sounds exactly like my kind of thing. It’s actually a description that applies to a good deal of my own work as a writer. This is partly why I’m so conflicted about The Witcher 3. I probably would have just shrugged and moved on if there had been nothing about it to appeal to me. As it is, the environments, the clothing, the creatures, even the colour palette, are all so finely tuned to my personal tastes it’s almost weird. And I’m the kind of player who is primarily into gaming for the chance to be immersed in another world. It’s certainly not the aesthetics of The Witcher 3 that put me off. If anything, they were what drew me in and kept me playing for as long as I did.

peopleThe character of Geralt is growing on me, but I feel extremely confined playing as him. Geralt is an established character I don’t particularly like. It feels weird playing a roleplaying game and not having any say over your character’s personality. The dialogue system is great and allows players to showcase different sides of Geralt’s personality, but he is still Geralt, the taciturn, sarcastic, womanizing witcher. He is a well written version of that type, I suppose, but it’s just not a type I want to embody.
The setting is great, but the whole thing is brought down by how it is handled. The creators of this game have tried to combine mysterious tales of the grim and supernatural (orphaned children in the forest playing with a ghostly friend who lives in a cave and has lost his voice to evil magic) with realistic politics (a war with no clear good or bad side) and even a good dash of the kind of bleak social realism that reminds me of Belgian movies (drunken deadbeat father tries one last time to gain the respect of his family). I suppose to many people this cocktail is precisely what makes it work. Me, I adore the dark fairy tale stuff, I don’t care very much for the politics and I actively despise the “social realism”. I play video games precisely because I don’t want to see that kind of “Belgian movie” material in them. This opinion of mine extends to the entire fantasy genre itself. If you’re going to paint a somber, naturalistic picture, make a movie set in the slums of Dublin or something. This is not what the fantasy genre is for, as far as I’m concerned. Much like award-winning movies, this kind of grit tends to manipulate the audience by tricking it into perceiving an aura of quality and respectability that isn’t really there. It’s just bleakness and social issues, which in themselves have no actual artistic value.

bloodybarronTo illustrate this point: The Witcher 3’s most praised questline was the one involving the Bloody Baron (the aforementioned deadbeat father). Almost every single review and comment I have read about this questline says that it is the narrative peak of the game and the most emotionally powerful quest ever put in a game. For that reason alone, I felt I should at least persevere through this questline, and so I did. After finishing it, I decided to put down the game. I concluded that if this was the best part, I don’t see the point of continuing for another 70 or 80 hours. It wasn’t bad or anything, but it just left me stone cold. By general video game standards, it was a decent, well-structured quest but I didn’t think it was very emotionally engaging and I certainly don’t think it set some kind of new benchmark for in-game storytelling. It’s often over-the-top gloomy while simultanously treating a huge tragedy in a bizarrely careless fashion (I won’t spoil which one) which reeks of amateurish storytelling to me. This tone of extreme gloom mixed with laconic cynicism runs throughout the game and – pessimistic as I am about modern society – I fear this is probably a big part of why the game is so beloved.

On the whole, the storytelling in The Witcher 3 (so far) ranges from adequate to good with frequent dips into the boring and the silly. It certainly feels needlessly stretched, which became obvious to me pretty quickly even though I never even got that far into the game. Point and case: in order to find someone dear to me I need to talk to a character who will tell me where she went if I first find his wife for him. He then sends me to another guy who has seen his wife. That NPC will tell me where the the previous NPC’s wife went, if I first find… his goat! The quest-in-a-quest structure, with each additional layer becoming more banal than the last, borders on self-parody.

In addition, there is a big problem with the pacing and the structure of the storyline. The writers seem to forget that what might work in a Christopher Nolan movie doesn’t necessarily work in a game. The narrative jumps around in time and place in ways that just don’t fit the medium. For example: the game opens with a pre-rendered cinematic that shows a flashback of Yennefer (whom you do not know if this is your first experience with the franchise) on the run from a battle. The scene is intercut with Geralt looking for her the next day (very reminiscent of Aragorn tracking the hobbits in The Two Towers). The game then opens with an in-game cinematic of Geralt sleeping, followed by … another flashback? No, apparently, it’s a tutorial in the form of a dream, involving Geralt in the Witcher stronghold with his true love Yennefer, Geralt’s friend Vesimir and a child, Ciri, in there. You later find out that this doesn’t make sense because Yennefer was never in the Witcher stronghold and Ciri is actually an adult now. The dream turns bad, Geralt wakes up, and then we find out that he’s actually looking for Yennefer, not Ciri (ah yes, that opening cinematic!) but now he’s also worried about Ciri because of the dream. But first he has to find Yennefer. Getting a headache yet?
Okay, so the actual game begins with a long sidequest involving a griffon that has nothing to do with Yennefer or Ciri. Then you meet Yennefer… And you have to go look for Ciri. It’s a very clunky structure for a story by any standards, but especially for a game. Players with no knowledge of the backstory will be particularly confused.

As you are playing, Geralt’s adventures are often intercut with flashbacks where you get to play as Ciri. A terrible idea if ever there was one, for a variety of reasons. First of all, Ciri shows herself to be infinitely more powerful than Geralt ever was. Playing her feels like cheating. This makes the whole idea of rescuing her feel completely unnecessary. Secondly, the sequences involving Ciri really amount to nothing more than glorified cutscenes, where the playable parts are actually quite annoying because they are pointlessly easy and – what’s worse – the cause of more lengthy loading screens. Finally, these sequences take away the feeling of roleplaying and dampen the urgency of the narrative. You’re yanked out of your experience of “being Geralt” and given insight he shouldn’t have. It would have been better if Geralt had simply heard about Ciri’s whereabouts and that’s it (even though the game is already far too verbose).

That brings me to the next issue: the dialogue. I suppose it is well-written, but it feels too much like the writers are patting themselves on the back for how smart and snappy their writing is. I personally prefer the silly faux-Arthurian language of older RPG’s, which is much more charming to my ears. This feels a bit too much like HBO for my tastes. For the record: I adore Tolkien and I don’t give half a crap about Game of Thrones. That should say something about my preferences in style.

Anyway, despite these qualms, the story was still enjoyable enough, albeit far from amazing. I would probably have continued playing if the game had been, you know… fun.
And this is my biggest gripe with The Witcher 3. It’s simply not fun to play. Granted, the awards and the praise this game has received probably tell a different story, but as far as I’m concerned, they should have just made it into a movie or a TV series and it would have been much better (still not quite my cup of tea, but at least something that could have worked). As a game, to me it was actually a dry, joyless experience that demands to be taken seriously while simultaneously holding your hand like you’re a toddler.

abilitiesYes, this game, which had so many fans exclaim “finally, a true RPG!”, stifles and restricts the player in ways no other RPG in my memory has ever done… which kind of defeats the point of it being an RPG if you ask me. Not only are you restricted to playing as Geralt, but Geralt’s abilities are also very narrow and predetermined. He’s a swordfighter who uses alchemy and a staggering repertoire of no less than FIVE magic spells! Sure, you also get a crossbow at one point, but that’s more of a fun little accessory than anything else since it’s so weak. Everyone in the world who plays The Witcher 3 is playing the same character and probably with a very similar build, not only because the amount of abilities and weapon choices is so limited, but also because some abilities are clearly overpowered compared to others. For example: Quen is a magic ability that makes Geralt completely invulnerable for a while. Obviously, upgrading this ability is going to pay off much more than investing all your points in Aard, which is simply a telekinetic blast.

On top of that, leveling up is a gruelingly slow process, even early on. If it’s anything like other games, the pace will only get more glacial as you play longer.
The game also really holds your hand in the bread and butter of the gameplay. It’s like one big tutorial. You’re always following on-screen instructions. Most quests require you to go look for something or someone. This is when you get to activate your Witcher Senses, which amounts to pushing a button that lights up important clues in red. Simply follow the clues and click on them. Geralt will then mumble something to himself like “Blood’s still warm… Can’t have gone too far…” or “Hmm, small print… Must have been a child” or something like that. It’s a fun little gimmick at first but it quickly becomes mind-numbingly boring.

Gameplay is constantly interrupted by cutscenes. Sure, they look great, but they take me out of the game the whole time. See someone waving at you in the distance? Approach them and there will be a cutscene, I promise you. There’s a good chance Geralt will also be saying a bunch of dialogue you never chose to have him say, but don’t forget, this is a “true RPG”!

The “open world” is to be taken with a planet-sized grain of salt, by the way. Everything in the game is locked to a specific level, so it actually plays out more like an MMO where you move from one zone to the next. Sure, the zones are relatively big and there is “much to do” in each zone, but in practice this really amounts to little more than a few bandit camps and monster nests spread out over an otherwise featureless, boring map. Look, I love forests. I really do. And at first I liked walking around in The Witcher 3’s pretty woodlands, but they became extremely dull and repetitive very quickly. There’s just no real sense of discovery in this game, especially when compared to Skyrim but frankly, even Guild Wars 2 does it better. Don’t expect to get sidetracked by spontaneous adventures in multi-layered dungeons or discovering unique fortresses, statues, strongholds, hideouts, shrines, lakes, waterfalls or anything actually interesting like that. Don’t think for a moment that you will be rewarded for venturing into the wild by finding an awesome ancient treasure. Don’t think you will meet lonely travellers who can teach you a skill or sell you a unique trinket. The Witcher 3 offers only a pale shadow of the sense of freedom you get in Bethesda games.

Now, the worst part of The Witcher 3 is the combat and the movement. Others have remarked this, but Geralt is kind of hard to handle and his horse is even worse. Unfortunately, moving around and fighting are the two most important and common things you’ll be doing in the game (well, after watching cutscenes, that is). Fighting is simply a very poor version of the kind of combat you see in action games like the Batman Arkham series, Dark Souls or Kingdoms of Amalur. It’s actually reminiscent of older European RPG’s like Gothic. Geralt dances around like a ballerina, swishing his sword in ways that stop looking cool after the second fight, so you’re really just making a fool of yourself prancing around like the Witcher fairy princess. With every attack, the guy just has to make a twirl. He must get really dizzy and disoriented during these fights, which is one thing the controls emulate perfectly.

There are lots of other little annoyances and bits of criticism I could add, like the absolutely horrible “item degradation” mechanic, by which I mean the fact that your weapons and armour break down after a while and become useless until you repair them. This mechanic was in Oblivion (a game I still love and play) and I hated it there. In The Witcher 3, it bothers me even more because everything involving repairing and crafting is such a chore here. But the truth is I probably would have shrugged at this and other complaints and just enjoyed the game anyway if, at its core, it had been a fun game. The big problem is, there are times when it barely feels like a game at all. To me it’s like the developers are so sure of their artistic vision and storytelling skills that they expect the player to just go along and let them take over the controller. I really, really miss some real player agency. “What do you mean, player agency? No other RPG gives you so many choices with such real consequences!”

on the road
See, I don’t really care about those “choose-your-own-adventure” type consequences that everyone’s always talking about. Sure, we get to make choices in the quests which lead to different outcomes, but I honestly don’t care all that much about that. Besides, what does it matter if you cannot predict the outcome anyway and quests end in some form of tragedy no matter what you do? That kind of “choice” is not what I mean by player agency in an RPG. What I want is the ability to have some input into what the experience is to begin with. I don’t want to just make reactive decisions based on situations that are forced upon me. I want to be able to use my imagination. I know very few games outside of The Elder Scrolls series really give you that option, but at least Bioware’s games allow you to craft your character’s personality and abilities according to your own preference. CD Projekt seems to be proud of taking away your ability to make the game your own. The Witcher 3 feels like going to a restaurant where there’s no menu because the chef is so amazing he’ll make what he wants and you’re going to like it! Except I don’t like The Witcher 3’s food all that much. The whole thing feels shoved down my throat. And that, more than anything, is what makes it ultimately a rather dull and oppressive experience, in my opinion.

By Clark Kent Without Glasses Tagged

The prequels were better than The Force Awakens

First, my review

Initially, I had intended to just write a review of The Force Awakens but as the internet is already bursting with those, I’ll do it from my very specific viewpoint as a fan of the prequels.
When it comes to The Force Awakens, I am of two minds. My inner 13-year old says “that was awesome” while my older, wiser, but unfortunately more cynical self says “ooooh dear, they really messed it up”. In short, I enjoyed the experience, but I also disliked a lot of it.

What I liked: I thought it was a thoroughly enjoyable movie. In terms of pure popcorn entertainment, it certainly delivered. I also want to express my admiration of the new protagonists, Rey and Finn, both of whom turned out to be awesome, relatable and fun characters.

What I didn’t like: all of the concerns I expressed in the article I wrote in May have not only been realized, but surpassed. Visually, the film’s appeal is almost entirely based on nostalgia rather than imagination. Even the new creatures felt like inferior versions of old ones. For example, the new Stormtroopers look less intimidating than the originals and Kylo Ren looks like an early rejected draft of Darth Vader. Nothing was specifically improved upon in the design department. It felt like the designers were so insecure about what exactly a Star Wars movie should look like that they just stuck with what they already knew. In fact, this is CONFIRMED by art designer Doug Chiang’s earlier remark that, quote, “the terrifying part is we don’t have George”.

I also didn’t like the much-ballyhooed return to ‘practical effects’. The puppets and rubber masks were frankly embarrassing in this day and age, when CGI can bring creatures on screen that are so much more believable than Admiral Ackbar. In fact, even this movie itself contains some CGI creatures that obviously looked better. But, hey, most of my friends keep telling me that the 1980 rubber Yoda puppet was more expressive and realistic than the 2005 CGI version. Clouded their judgment, the Dark Side has, if you ask me.

But in particular, the plot of the movie is more derivative than I had even thoug2554663369761914ht possible. The story is so blatantly unoriginal my jaw dropped at times. Every element was a direct copy of something from the original trilogy. The worst offense was Abrams’ insistence to return to the Death Star plot device for a third time! People complained when that concept was rehashed in Return of the Jedi, over 30 years ago. They even complained how the droid control ship in The Phantom Menace echoed that story thread too much. Now they’re doing it again?
Even the one ‘shocking’ event that everyone is talking about (I won’t spoil it here) is really just a spin on an event that occurred in the original Star Wars film.

J.J. Abrams is a genius at making movies that make you go “wow, awesome!” while you’re in your theatre seat, but as soon as you start thinking about it afterwards, you find all kinds of things wrong with them. The Force Awakens is definitely in that category.

I’m not going to be cynical, I’m not going to be cynical, I’m not going to be cynical…

Ohhhww… Okay, it’s pure nostalgia-pandering. The story doesn’t matter, it doesn’t have anything to say, it doesn’t have anything to add to the Star Wars universe, it’s just a fun thrill-ride in which nostalgia plays the same role that over-the-top CGI effects play in Michael Bay’s Transformer movies: a straightforward way to make your movie cool and get bums in seats. In itself, that doesn’t offend me, because it’s harmless and it is fun.
But while it’s a fun movie and I had a great time with it, at the same time, there is something about the whole event that really annoys me. It’s not so much the film itself, but the fans’ reception of it.

What I miss about the prequels
The ubiquitous bashing of the Star Wars prequels has become practically unavoidable. You just can’t have a conversation about these movies without someone bringing up the same old talking points that I’m not even going to repeat here because if you are the kind of person to read this blog, you know what they are. So don’t expect me to go into Jar Jar or the acting style of the prequels, because frankly I’m done with those topics.


I will only briefly state that I find nothing wrong with Jar Jar, and if there is one character that is both pointless and annoying that tags along with the heroes, let me just say it’s Chewbacca in the original trilogy. Seriously, he just roars and complains and doesn’t do much more than that.

Anyway, while this universal prequel-hating is all the rage, The Force Awakens is getting rave reviews across the board. People are hailing it as some sort of masterpiece and, frankly, it shocks me. Are people that easily manipulated? I understand that if you’re a fan of the original trilogy and you don’t care for the style of the prequels, you’ll prefer this one. I get that. But the sheer lack of criticism here is frankly hypocritical when you take into account how these same people picked apart every little detail of the prequels.

Well, I prefer the prequels over The Force Awakens. In fact, seeing this movie has cemented in my mind that I generally prefer the prequels over all the others. That is because The Force Awakens delivers an updated remake of the original trilogy and does it so well that it makes it painfully clear how the prequels differ from the other Star Wars movies. And in doing so, it is brought home to me why I miss the whole tone and feel of those films.
So what is it that I love so much about the prequels that this new movie doesn’t have?

Well, let’s start at the beginning. This movie opens and you find out that there is a New Republic, there is a First Order and there is a Resistance. The First Order are the remnants of the Empire and the Resistance are the good guys who fight them. That is all the politics we ever get in The Force Awakens.saucer1

I’m absolutely no fan of political messages in movies (especially since they tend to be crappy messages), but I loved how the Star Wars prequels handled politics because it was done with style and dignity and it added an enormous amount of depth to the plot and to the universe itself. In Episodes 1-3, I get a real feel of the galaxy, its culture, its customs, its inhabitants. We see how people live, how they form societies. We see how the Jedi Knights interact with the Republic, we learn about the way the Force works and we see enormous amounts of new creatures, locations, vehicles in every single scene. These films are bursting with clues about the universe.

Not only that, but the way the politics worked in the plotline was brilliant. The galactic senate was a beautifully condensed version of an entire civilization that had become decadent and corrupt. The way Darth Sidious played into that was executed with careful intellect, nuance, subtlety and interesting historical echoes. When the Sith’s plan finally comes together in Revenge of the Sith, there’s a real sense of payoff to years and years of evil planning and scheming. That makes it powerful and heartbreaking and I think it speaks to our times as well.


Politics are really just one facet of world-building. The prequels are a brilliant exercise at that. It goes beyond the workings of the Republic. Sprinkled throughout the trilogy are little hints at a vast and epic timeline of history, full of grand deeds and terrible betrayals. In the original trilogy, the word Sith wasn’t even really used outside of the novelizations. Darth Vader and the emperor were just bad guys with Force powers. The prequels gave rise to the whole concept of the Sith. heir history, their philosophy, their modus operandi… Sure, many of those things were really fleshed out in the Old Republic games and books, but the prequel trilogy planted the seed and gave those ideas a legitimacy within the Star Wars canon. This created the feeling of the Star Wars galaxy being a story on a truly epic scale, with much more going on behind the scenes.

I remember when I visited the Star Wars exhibition in Brussels some years ago. Near the entrance to the exhibition, there was this giant timetable chronicling the history of the Star Wars galaxy: the discovery of hyperspace, the founding of the Republic, the wars between the Jedi and the Sith, etc. It saddens me to think that Disney has really just thrown all of that out of the window. Sure, there was crap in the Expanded Universe, but I think most people will agree that the real crap mostly came from the stories set after the movies. The Old Republic era is beloved by prequel fans and OT purists alike. The reason for that is that these stories provide a backbone to the Star Wars universe. They’re like The Silmarillion of a galaxy far, far away. To me, that’s important and exciting. Far, far more so than whether or not Han shot first.

The Force Awakens seems averse to the very concept of world-building, making it more of an adventure movie, but less of a fantasy movie. The movie feels very small-scaled, even more so than the original trilogy did. It felt like the universe really only consists of little groups of good guys fighting little groups of bad guys, but none of it has a sense of grandeur. By contrast, the prequels felt like history and prophecy unfolding before our eyes. There was a grand, epic scale to the Clone Wars and the fall of the Republic and a larger-than-life, operatic feel to Anakin’s fall in the midst of all this. All of that is completely lost in the new movie.

The prequels get a lot of hate for their perceived over-reliance on CGI. Other people than I have pointed out with empirical evidence that there were tons and tons of practical effects in the prequels, but I think that’s beside the point I want to make. I’m opposed to this idea that practical effects are inherently better, and I say that as a huge fan of eighties fantasy films. In fact, I think The Dark Crystal, Legend and The Neverending Story are all better films than the original Star Wars, at least when looked at purely from a present-day standpoint.

My point is that George Lucas was always about pushing the technological envelope. In the original trilogy, he did things with special effects that nobody had ever seen before. That is part of the reason why people were so impressed with these movies. When he made the prequels, George didn’t decide to sit on his laurels and simply continue on in the same vein. Instead, he went out to push the envelope even more with the greatest tool that was available to him at that time: digital technology. It only makes sense that he would do that: he’s a risk-taker, a visionary and an experimenter. The prequel trilogy did wonders with pixels. They were among the very first movies shot on digital cameras. That in itself was a bold move.
What does JJ Abrams do in The Force Awakens? He deliberately decides to shoot it on 35mm film. In this day and age, the only reason why a director would do that is because he’s a technophobe who can’t stand the fact that the technology of the medium is moving on (sorry, Christopher Nolan, but it’s true). Digital cinema today simply looks better than 35mm does. That’s a self-evident and objective statement. Maybe in 2002 it didn’t, but surely today it does. As soon as The Force Awakens opened, I noticed the slight grain in the picture. It wasn’t bothersome, but it was so unnecessary. Why would you move back in progress when you’re making a Star Wars movie, of all things?

Lightsaber duels
The prequels had lots of imagination and creativity on display in their designs of creatures and ships. By the way, people complain that the whole “used future” ethos was lost, but that is not true. It is absolutely there on Tatooine and Mustafar, whereas Coruscant and Naboo look appropriately clean and pretty, and so do the designs of royal ships and senator’s apartments. That only makes sense.


In the same way the designs became more ambitious, so too did the whole take on lightsaber combat. The lightsaber fight in A New Hope was downright pathetic and even the most ardent fan will have to admit that. I love the duels in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but mostly because of the emotion of what’s going on. In terms of the actual fight, I think the duels in the old trilogy looked pretty clumsy because they were wielding the lightsabers like they were heavy medieval swords. I think that’s wrong. Lightsabers are energy weapons. They’re supposed to be incredibly lithe and quick.

In the prequels, lightsaber combat was taken to a level nobody could even anticipate. The three-way fight between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan and Darth Maul was a magnificent setpiece that combined impressive acrobatics and choreography with interesting set design and the most exciting music track of the entire saga. Then the confrontation between Yoda and Dooku surprised us again in Attack of the Clones, and the duel in Revenge of the Sith is probably one of the great visual masterpieces of our time. Famous art historian and critic Camille Paglia — an actual intellectual — has said as much.

Watch that little video, it’s not long. I agree completely with Paglia in this regard. By contrast, I hardly even noticed there was a lightsaber fight in The Force Awakens. There was one, but it was pedestrian and boring and even clumsier than the ones we used to get in the older films. It didn’t bother me, but boy, do I miss Mustafar.

Something to say
As I wrote in my article back in May, one of the reasons I love the prequels was the fact that Lucas didn’t fall into the trap of superficial nostalgia, but took risks. He did this with all the unique characters, creatures and locations ILM conjured upon the screen, but he definitely did it with the story.
You can go and nitpick every little detail about the plot and complain how this doesn’t make sense or that is contrived, but when it comes down to it, the truth is that every one of the Star Wars prequels had a unique and original story to tell within the framework of the larger saga, and when taken as a whole (as the haters are wont to do), the prequel trilogy actually tells an incredibly ambitious and fascinating tale. It’s mythology, mystery and tragedy in a space fantasy setting. If you feel it wasn’t executed well, I think that’s fine (although I would obviously disagree) but anyone has to admit that at least it was different and personal.
rotj-endThe stories in those movies were part of a mythological project, just like they were in the original trilogy. When you put all six of them together, you get a grand arc: the story of how one generation goes through life and screws up, and the next generation faces the same challenges and finds a way to repair it. All of this is expressed on both the intimate scale of the Skywalker family, and the galaxy-spanning epic scale of the fall of the Republic and the war with the Empire.
What does The Force Awakens do? It doesn’t continue that grand arc. It doesn’t take it to a new place or comment on it. Instead, it just repeats the most popular part of it. That’s why I say this film has nothing to say except that Star Wars is cool.

It’s strange. Everyone complains about Hollywood’s sequel/remake mentality, but when an auteur like Lucas comes out and actually does something personal and different with his intellectual property, everyone rushes out to bash him long and hard enough until he retires. Then when an obviously corporate remake of their beloved original is released, suddenly that’s a masterpiece. I guess it makes sense that if you revere A New Hope in a religious way, you’ll see The Force Awakens as the second coming, because that’s exactly what it is: the second coming of A New Hope.

By Clark Kent Without Glasses

My take on the new Star Wars

As any readers of this blog may know, I’m a big Star Wars fan. Unfortunately, we have a climate where I have to clarify this by adding that I love the Star Wars prequels as well. I dislike having to do that, because it implies the assumption that most Star Wars fans do not love the more recent films. Well, I do. I love them a great deal, perhaps even more so than the original trilogy, although I admire those as well.
In short, I think George Lucas is an underappreciated genius and a true artist and nowhere is this more obvious than in his magnum opus, Revenge of the Sith, which is in my opinion the most effortlessly magnificent entry in the Star Wars saga. But in this article, I want to talk about something else.

Recently we got the second trailer for The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars film outside of Lucas’ influence. Once again the internet is abuzz with merry anticipation and near-drunken excitement. There seems to be a palpable sense in the online community that this new film is going to signal the dawn of a new era in Star Wars fandom – one where everyone is happy and we can all get along, whatever our differences of opinion regarding the existing six films may be, because Disney will bring us something wonderful for everyone. I’m afraid this position is very naïve. No matter what we get to see come December, some will love it and others will hate it. That’s simply inescapable.
Remember, back in 1999, everyone went crazy over the trailers for The Phantom Menace. Hype-o-meters around the world exploded months before the film even came out. People were practically ready to quit their jobs just so they could see that movie. Suffice it to say that not everyone was equally pleased with how it turned out (again, for the record, I love that movie). I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade but I just hope that fans aren’t getting overly excited again because that level of anticipation can backfire on you.
Personally, I’m not worried about disliking The Force Awakens. I’ve got a blu-ray set containing six amazing films that tell a satisfying and complete story. Even if the follow-up to that set ends up sucking, I’ll always have episodes one to six to enjoy.

That said, what’s my take on what we’ve seen so far?
Well, I don’t think the film will be bad. Disney’s a very professional company and they make good stuff. J.J. Abrams is a very competent director and Lawrence Kasdan is obviously a great choice for the screenplay. If they produce something objectively awful, I’d be very surprised. And the trailers look cool. They have a great “feel” to them. They feel very much like Star Wars. So much so, in fact, that I’m a little bit wary precisely because of that.
When Star Wars came out in 1977, it was something like no one had ever seen before. Today, that film is no longer the dazzling display of visual fireworks it used to be. It’s still very enjoyable, but no one will say it’s particularly fast-paced or overwhelming. I think today, people’s love for that film mostly stems from an appreciation of its story and its themes, sure, but let’s not kid ourselves. The real excitement has to do with the huge gooey pile of nostalgia involved. And while nostalgia is a nice, fuzzy feeling (one that I’m very prone to myself, incidentally) it is dangerous business. It’s at least as good at clouding people’s judgment as alcohol is, perhaps better, since the effects of alcohol at least wear off after a while, whereas nostalgia only grows stronger over time. I think it’s clear that Disney is VERY aware of this human trait and that’s what has me furrow my brows a little bit.
Everything we’ve seen so far of The Force Awakens has included: a dusty desert planet, old-school vehicles, Stormtroopers, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Is it cool? Of course it is. When I saw those trailers, I loved them, but once the delirious excitement cooled down a bit, I realised that everything there was basically nostalgia with better visual effects. The final part of the latest teaser, showing Chewbacca and Han Solo saying “Chewie, we’re home” made the message extremely clear: fans are made to feel safe and comfortable in the presence of characters they’ve known and loved for over 30 years.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, but to my feeling, there is a certain manipulative quality to it that has nothing to do with storytelling. This is fine for a trailer, of course. After all, the whole point of it is getting people to watch the movie when it comes out and I’m sure nostalgia is a very, very good way to do it. What makes me feel a bit sceptical is my (hopefully wrong) suspicion that the film itself will be built on three ingredients: nostalgia, nostalgia and nostalgia. With J.J. Abrams as the director, this is not an unreasonable suspicion. Super 8 was basically that. I enjoyed that film a great deal but it was a pure throwback to the Spielberg movies of the eighties. That’s nice, but I don’t want a new Star Wars film like that. I don’t want Star Wars to be “nice”, I want it to be visionary.
While we may disagree about George Lucas’ choices, I think it’s fair to say he always surprised us and did something new and different with each film. He was always exploring the boundaries of his imagination. Looking back now, I think the trailers for The Phantom Menace really had more originality and imagination to them than the ones we’ve seen for The Force Awakens so far. There were unusual creatures we hadn’t yet seen like Watto and Jar Jar, there was this amazing queen in her fantastic geisha-like outfits, an underwater city, giant fish, a Sith warrior who looked like a medieval demon,… It was unique!

The most unique thing in the trailers for The Force Awakens was that little ball droid. I loved that. But everything else was kind of very, very predictable for a Star Wars title, wasn’t it? Again, I’m not saying the film will be bad and I know it can still be very surprising, but I’m a bit wary.
One of the reasons why I loved the prequels was precisely that Lucas didn’t fall into the trap of superficial nostalgia, but took risks. In doing that, he gave us a new vision of the Star Wars saga. Sure, a lot of people hated it so much they still can’t shut up about it 15 years later, but I applaud George for this. The prequel trilogy wasn’t there to have older fans relive the magic of their youth, but to tell its own story and shine new light on its universe. This is something only an auteur like Lucas can do. In many ways, he was Star Wars up until very recently. Now that George Lucas is no longer the defining factor, what will it become? It can no longer be one man’s vision. I hope Disney somehow succeeds in honouring what Lucas did. The best way to do that, would be to show some imagination, like he always did.

By Clark Kent Without Glasses

Witch Hunter: Dramatized Audiobook

As you may or may not know if you frequent this blog, I am also the writer of Audio Epics’ fantasy audio drama The Witch Hunter Chronicles. It’s an epic story set in a fictional renaissance city called Sevenpeaks. All portents say the end of the world is coming and that witches are to blame for this. And so, the dreaded Witch Hunters are told to hunt down and kill all witches. One hunter, a fiery-eyed man named Ludlov, refuses to participate in the slaughter. He believes the dark cult that killed his wife is to blame and the only person who can help him find the truth is Samina, a beautiful gypsy girl with magical powers…

Released in 2010, The Witch Hunter Chronicles won an Ogle Award (for fantasy audio drama). Four years later, the story has been turned into a novel, simply titled Witch Hunter.

Witch Hunter is the deeper, more epic and more thoughtful version of that story. It’s a 90,000 word novel and it’s our intention to turn it into a 10-hour audiobook. Not a dry audiobook like there are so many out there, but an exciting sonic experience full of sound and music that brings this epic story to life.

To be able to complete this ambitious project, we have launched a crowdfunding campaign, which is in full swing right now. Have a look!



As a lover of traditional fantasy and fairy tales, I was intrigued by the prospect of Disney’s newest film Maleficent. Simultaneously, I also had fairly low expectations of it. After all, re-imagined Hollywood blockbuster versions of classic fairy tales are a subgenre on the rise and previous entries have certainly entertained me, but failed to light a real spark in my response (Snow White and the Huntsman, Jack The Giant Slayer). So I went to Maleficent expecting it to be a fairly enjoyable fantasy adventure like those other films were to me. To my surprise and delight, the film not only far exceeded my expectations, but actually turned out to be one of my favourites in a long time.


Maleficent is an alternative take on the tale of Sleeping Beauty, drawing on the superb animated Disney version but at the same time offering a completely different version of the story. This is, according to the narrator who opens and closes the film, what really happened. It is the story told from the viewpoint of Maleficent, known to all as the evil fairy who curses the princess. In this version, we get to meet her up close and learn why she did what she did and why she’s actually a very relatable and humane character and not simply a villain. I suppose she’s a bit of an Anakin Skywalker.

To me, this was one of the most gorgeous-looking special effects films in recent memory. In the beginning of the movie, we get to know Maleficent as a child in her natural habitat, the magical kingdom of The Moors. The designers who created this really understood what makes such an environment work. It’s a vibrant, sprawling universe of pixies and goblins where surprises lurk behind every tree, while at the same time it’s deeply grounded in nature. Later on, this organic environment turns dark, but it still retains an ethereal beauty. The human world feels more toned down, but it’s not a jarring contrast. In fact, the kingdom’s castle is quite beautiful in its own right.


To compare with a recent release, Snow White & The Huntsman was also a very beautiful-looking film, which, like Maleficent, managed to delve a bit deeper into the characters it was about, but what that film didn’t really understand as well about fairy tales is that a huge part of their magic actually comes from their morality. A great fairy tale contains a great moral lesson. This is something Maleficent does take to heart and it makes it a much more poignant and powerful film. In fact, there are several moral themes to be found in the film. One of them is moral redemption. This is an important theme that’s welcome in today’s society, where we like to think of those on the other side of things as inherently and irrevocably evil. Another theme in the film has to do with the meaning of true love. That may sound incredibly worn and cliché, but this film actually deals with it without any whinging, preaching or cheesiness. It’s impossible not to mention another very recent Disney film that turns out to have the same idea, but doing so means spoiling the plot to some extent. If you’ve seen both films, you’ll know which one I mean, and in my opinion, Maleficent manages to say the same thing in a much better way. This is because Maleficent doesn’t contrast true love with simple evil, but rather with the budding of a love that actually may yet become true love. That simple fact makes the message much more powerful and meaningful in my opinion.

I’ve never been a big fan of Angelina Jolie’s, whom I always thought of as having a fairly cold and distant sort of charisma. In Maleficent, it’s actually this quality of hers that makes her so suited to the part, but more surprisingly, she also manages to convey a subtle sense of vulnerability and soft edges to an otherwise hard persona, which makes her performance very rounded. Elle Fanning plays Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty, and really evokes the genuine radiance and sunniness you expect from that character. This is another area where the film contrasts with Snow White and The Huntsman, where Kristen Stewart felt painfully miscast. Elle Fanning actually feels like the kind of girl animals would flock to in adoration. I also liked the fact that both Aurora and the prince really looked and felt like very young people, as they should. They portray the innocence that these characters are all about.


I was surprised to find out that this film was the directing debut effort Robert Stromberg, whose career so far has always been in special effects. Unlike Empire magazine, I don’t feel at all that he directed it like a special effects guy, but really upholds the story and the characters throughout the film. The acting is great and the pacing is solid, as well. What did not surprise me was that the screenplay was written by Linda Woolverton, whose work on Disney classics such as Beauty and the Beast and Mulan was entirely in the same vein as this one.

I also really loved James Newton Howard’s score, which portrayed a thematic richness and an appropriate sense of subtlety at the same time. The only part that made me scratch my head was Lana Del Rey’s unnecessarily dark and disturbing rendition of Once Upon A Dream in the end credits, which felt more like Requiem for a Dream.

Films such as Maleficent and The Hobbit really hearten me because they prove that there are still big films being made that understand fantasy in the same way I do. Many sophisticated people today feel that stories, even fantasy, should be complex and have all kinds of sociological and political layers. I think that fantasy is a genre that manages to remind us of universal truths more convincingly than other stories do, in part because there is a beautiful simplicity to them. As Maleficent shows, this has nothing to do with black and white morality, but with straight and honest storytelling without a hint of cynicism.


P.S.: I think this trailer shows far too much of the film, but other than that it is a good trailer:

By Clark Kent Without Glasses

The Desolation Of Smaug

I’m a huge Tolkien fan who has read The Hobbit many times, listened to the BBC radio drama more than I can remember and even read John D. Rateliff’s two-volume History of the Hobbit, a very detailed recounting of how the story came to be, including the original draft where Thorin was still called Gandalf. So obviously there was one film this year that I was really, really, really looking forward to and it has finally been released! The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second part of the trilogy and this is my review of it!

You can read my thoughts on the first part in my earlier review of An Unexpected Journey, but to recap, I thought the first film was brilliant and an awesome Christmas present for this Tolkien fan. But to my amazement, The Desolation of Smaug manages to be even better.

Other reviewers have pointed out that the tone darkens in this second chapter, but I would qualify that. Yes, this middle part is more serious but in no way is it any less fun. There is still quite a bit of humour and swashbuckling adventure in this chapter, even while some of the character arcs start moving in a grim direction.

Bilbo has grown more confident and starts to embrace his role in the group but already the addictive lure of the Ring is starting to influence him and even though we know that he will eventually give the Ring away, it is still suspenseful and disturbing to see how it sometimes already subtly invades his psyche, particularly in Mirkwood. Still, he retains his purity and remains the same decent, wholesome figure that we know and love. As the journey enters a crucial stage, Bilbo’s courage and inventiveness impressed me as much as it did the Dwarves.


I loved Balin in this movie. He was already my favourite Dwarf in the book and in the first film, but here his kindly manner and wisdom really offers a much-needed counterweight for what is really a group of hot-headed, impatient and increasingly obsessive Dwarves, particularly Dwalin and Thorin. The latter, while still oozing the charisma of a true once and future king, starts showing cracks in his nobility, stating multiple times that he will not risk the fate of his quest for the sake of one companion. He is becoming desperate to succeed and there is a tangible sense of danger emanating from Thorin as he comes closer to his goal. The acting on display here is of the highest quality. Some of the other Dwarves are coming more to the front, as well. While Bombur is still just “the fat one”, he also has one of the most entertaining and hilarious action moments in the movie. Most importantly, though, it’s Kili who starts a new subplot that really makes his character much more interesting.

The company’s stay in Mirkwood is made more personal by fleshing out the character of the Wood Elf king, Thranduil, and including two other characters. One is Thranduil’s son, our old friend Legolas. Since Tolkien’s lore does mention that Legolas is Thranduil’s son, it was a logical decision to bring his character into The Hobbit film, linking it more to The Lord of the Rings. Besides him, though, there is also an entirely new character, imagined by the writers of the film: Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lily. Her character is very much a fighter and a protector of the land, but she is also a bit more open-minded, a bit more inquisitive and a bit more innocent than some of the other Elves. She forms a bond with Kili. It’s a subplot completely made up for the film version that was never in the book, and for that reason it may have some Tolkien fans worried. Personally, however, I found that the tone of this side-story was very much in line with Tolkien’s own. It echoes Gimli’s adoration for Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings to some extent and includes a scene that is reminiscent of something that happens when Frodo meets Arwen in the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring. It was actually a very satisfying yet subtle storyline that makes the interaction between the Dwarves and the Elves much more interesting and rounded, and also adds more emotional connectivity between the various stages of the journey, allowing the story to feel a bit more like a cohesive whole than just an episodic series of fairly unrelated events. This is one of many subtle reasons why the tone of the film is shifted a bit from An Unexpected Journey, giving it more urgency and danger.

As the company leaves the woods behind and enters the floating city of Laketown, we actually meet humans for the first time in this trilogy. Laketown is superbly realised, bathing in a very strong Warhammer-esque atmosphere. The presence of Stephen Fry as the ultra-corrupt Master of the town brings an element of British absurdity and darker humour. It’s not a serious comment on politics (it’s far too over the top for that) but it does help a great deal to make another character from the book stronger: Bard the bowman. In the book, he sort of pops up at the end to take on the dragon with his black arrow. Here, he is given much more to do. The screenwriters were clever to introduce Bard much earlier in the story and introduce his ancestral connection to Dale long before he meets Smaug. He is also an idealist and a protector of the common folk, but not in that annoying preachy way. He is simply a very responsible, hard-working and serious single father. The fact that the Dwarves act like ungrateful louts when he helps them out helps to foreshadow important events that will occur in the third film.

And so, our friends set off to the Lonely Mountain. This last third of the film was the most exciting to me. The build-up to the opening of the door is handled with a lot of tension in vintage Jackson style. When at last Thorin and company do manage to enter the mountain, it is a genuinely moving moment and one where the deep camaraderie between these Dwarves can be felt. Yes, they may be boorish, paranoid and ridiculously proud, but they are stout, loyal friends who stick with each other through thick and thin. They really are an exceptional collection of characters, especially when you consider how different they all are in their collective “Dwarvishness”.

As in the book, Bilbo is the burglar and so he is the one who has to go down into the treasure halls to look for the Arkenstone on his own, hoping not to wake the dragon. Of course he does wake the beast. And what a beast it is! Oh my, Smaug is huge. The most impressive part about Smaug, apart from his appearance and his booming voice, is in fact how cunning he is. This is not just a big monster like Jaws, but also a highly intelligent psychopath with uncanny intuition and insight. He taunts Bilbo, he even forces him to take off the Ring through sheer power of will, and he figures out exactly what’s going on entirely on his own. This makes him even scarier than his teeth and his claws.


The finale of the film deviates from the book quite a bit, in that the Dwarves aren’t content to just sit there and wait until Smaug is gone. Instead, they decide to go after him and actually kill the dragon. Let me repeat that I am a big fan of the book, but… THIS IS MUCH BETTER IN THE FILM. The Dwarves get to be heroic, to actually fight back and really reclaim their homeland, or at least make the effort. It’s desperate, it’s stupid and it’s so right! Like Gimli said in The Return of the King: “Certainty of death, small chance of success… What are we waiting for?” This is the Dwarven spirit! I suspect it’s based on the New Zealand spirit. Then what they actually do to trap Smaug is so inventive and just so damn cool (even though it does involve furnaces and rivers of molten gold)… Well, you’ll just have to see it… And then… Just when Smaug gets really, really angry and he’s about to take revenge on the poor people of Laketown… The movie ends. Aaaarrrrrgghhh! A whole year! A whole year of waiting!

Nevertheless… I left the cinema absolutely stunned. I loved the first film, but this… This blew my mind. There are so many wonderful elements in there: the interaction between the Dwarves, Bilbo’s evolution into a real hero (while still retaining his ultimate “Hobbitness”) and the many, many clever ways in which the filmmakers have managed to make this story larger, more epic, more in line with The Lord of the Rings and more cohesive, by weaving story threads in sometimes surprising ways that really make characters stand out more and make their motivations stronger… It’s baffling. And all the while you feel that everything is slowly moving in the direction of a huge climax in There And Back Again. And I haven’t even mentioned Gandalf’s “side quest”, which was alluded to in the book and is fully fleshed out here. Suffice it to say that Dol Guldur is an amazing location and Gandalf has to really work hard at being the best wizard he can be here.

I know a lot of people will be upset because this film is in many ways quite different from the book it was based on, but I, who read The Hobbit many times since I was little and who have devoted my life to fantasy storytelling because of Tolkien, I say that when it comes to The Hobbit… The film is, in my humble opinion, a lot better than the book. I know, it’s the ultimate blasphemy, but that’s how I feel. There is raw storytelling power, much deeper characterisation and a greater sense of a cohesive vision here. And that’s absolutely no criticism towards Tolkien. After all, he only wrote this book for his own children back in the 1930s. It was only much later that he decided to really bring it much more in line with his larger mythos. He never really got round to fully incorporating it by rewriting the original story, but if he had, I suspect it would have been somewhat similar to these films, at least in some important regards. But even if I’m wrong about that, I can’t imagine a better cinematic version of The Hobbit.

By Clark Kent Without Glasses