While walking in a desert, in the river of shade flowing between two dunes, you find a shape in the sand: a long stroke, capped at both ends by a much shorter stroke. What is it? Hard to say. It could be many things.
Then you find a second shape, a circle with a short, right-leaning stroke bisecting the lower right edge. It’s obviously the letter Q. Remarkably, you now recognise the first shape: the letter I. One shape is meaningless: two causes meaning to flood into your head.
The Harry Potter books were like that. Written by a single mother drawing a £70 a week welfare cheque, they weren’t an overnight success. You probably only heard of them after Book 3 came out, by which point it was impossible to not have heard of them.
Even after it became a global phenomenon, Harry Potter confused a lot of people, particularly your parents, teacher, and youth pastor. What sort of book lurked between the covers? The premise was easily understandable – boy discovers that he’s a wizard – but were they children’s books? Young adult adventures? Fantasy stories? Gateway drugs into black magick and the occult? Did you file Harry Potter next to Roald Dahl, The Saddle Club, or Aleister Crowley?
The first book’s marketing reveals this confusion. Would children buy books written by a woman? Better initialise her name, just to be safe (Harry Potter fans used to lord over the rubes by saying “Joanne Kathleen” as loudly as possible). Her American publisher thought that Philosopher’s Stone was dry and static, and released it as Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. They probably expected a turkey: the book was of near-unpublishable length (kids don’t read books that are 300 pages long) and it was also too British (American children won’t understand arcane Limeyland terminology like “ice lolly”, et cetera).
By Book 4, Harry Potter made a lot more sense. It was a heroic coming-of-age epic with elements of the fantastical. Being a new Harry Potter fan at this point was like tuning in to a song partway through the chorus – you tried to enjoy the moment while hastily backfilling your knowledge about the first three books. But for most of us, it was entertaining backfilling. Virtually everyone who reads the Harry Potter books all the way enjoys them greatly.
But to break butterflies under the wheel…what’s good about them, exactly?
JK Rowling has weaknesses as a writer: virtually every “he/she said” has an adverb clinging to it like a parasitic tick (“she said sharply”, “he said heavily,” “Harry said desperately”). When she describes something she provides cliche: eyes like dark tunnels, legs as thick as tree trunks. Her books (including this one) are often plotted around some piece of secret information that, once revealed, isn’t as interesting or important as its place in the story would suggest. Her worldbuilding is fun but unserious – nobody in a world of magic would need to wear glasses, for example, nor would they use flaming torches for light.
But she has strengths, too.
She has Evelyn Waugh’s ability to make anything funny or interesting: even if a character is sitting alone in a room, we get a wry observation about the room. Some passages are hilarious: I enjoyed rediscovering all my favorite lines in a recent re-reading. “Scars can come in handy. I have one myself above my left knee that is a perfect map of the London Underground.”
She also possesses Waugh’s talent for effortlessly establishing character. Sometimes it takes her a single sentence – “Mr. Dursley hummed as he picked out his most boring tie for work” – while sometimes she takes a little longer, like a boxer wearing down an opponent. The headmaster Dumbledore is a good case. When we first meet him, he seems like God, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-benevolent. But in later books (and even a little in this one), his benignity is tempered with slight dishonesty. He is a man who might tell a lie, if he decides the truth is not in your best interests.
Much of Philosopher’s Stone takes place in a classroom, which enables JK Rowling to kill two birds with one stone (we get exposition and worldbuilding from a teacher, while whispered conversations among students advance the plot). The classroom scenes are the workhorses of the Harry Potter books, a delight to read, and it’s always a shame when one ends. Harry’s first encounter with Severus Snape, the sinister Master of Potions, is a masterclass in character dynamics: we clearly see his resentment of Harry, his desire to publicly humiliate him, and a shuttered past that Harry can’t possibly know about but has to bear the brunt of anyway.
“We clearly see” applies to most things in Harry Potter, because JK Rowling writes some of the clearest prose I’ve ever seen. Despite the convoluted plots, you always know what’s happening in Harry Potter. Granted, it might be “something mysterious” or “something Harry doesn’t understand”, but we always, always, always understand the action described on the page. George Orwell compared prose to glass: stained glass windows are pretty, but you can’t see through them. Good writing is like transparent glass, providing a clear window into the action. JK Rowling’s prose is 99% transmittance 9H tempered glass.
The first book is the roughest, and tonally the most unique. There’s more whimsy than the later ones, more surreality, and less adherence to logic (certain elements, like ghosts and paintings that talk to you, would hang uneasily in dramatic stories were death is supposed to be final). You can see all the roads the Harry Potter books could have gone down, from Dahl to Amis to Milne. Perhaps JK Rowling herself was still uncertain about what Harry Potter was, but it was very clearly something.
Have you ever read a book or watched a movie that was edited by a machine?
I don’t mean “edited by a human using a machine”. I mean the technology itself decided which parts to excise, which parts to keep, which parts to change and how.
I once backed up an old hard drive which had begun to demagnetize. The photos are still viewable, but many are corrupt. Lines of pixels rip my face to pieces. Family photos are half-submerged in a fluorescent vomit sea.
The music files are worse. Many mp3s cannot be opened. The handful I can still play are filled with crackles, pops, squalls, and static. Sometimes I get halfway through, and then VLC Media Player crashes.
It’s a reminder of just how much is possible in the universe, and how little of it makes sense to the human mind. A couple of random edits on my hard drive transformed the familiar into the alien. We have used machines to reshape the world and make it comfortable…but what happens at the margins, when machines obey chaos and entropy instead of us? Will we survive, with our fragility? Will we want to?
Machines don’t just alter pictures, they also alter bodies. Car crashes sever limbs, blunt-force trauma breaks bones, bullets spin red helices through flesh. Tetsuo – The Iron Man is an intense Japanese experimental film, directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, about a man whose body seems to be turning into metal. It is often called “cyberpunk”, but that evokes images of neon-lit bars and chrome-hipped razorgirls. Instead, it’s more about the fragile, brief period where humans still rule and machines still don’t…yet.
Tetsuo is overtaken by a sense of fatalistic doom. The man’s fate is hopeless. He’s transforming, turning to metal like a junkyard Midas, and so’s the world around him. Tokyo used to have buildings made of cypress. Now, skyscrapers stand everywhere like tombstones. There’s no going back.
Even the human scenes have a lingering impression of the mechanical. The protagonist receives a phone call that consists of him and a woman saying “Hello?” meaninglessly at each other, like two modems failing to connect. As he does so, he awkwardly “reads” a newspaper by holding it an inch from his face, like a robot over-literally following instructions on how humans read. These are dramatizations of the 21st century, where we are so entwined with our tools that they hardly feel like tools. Soon, the tail might be wagging the dog.
Like David Lynch’s Eraserhead (probably a big influence), it’s shot in black and white, filling the frame with a chiaroscuro of palpitating metal. The editing is kinetic and violent, ratcheting from cut to cut. The soundtrack sounds like a set of Ginsu blades spinning inside a tumble dryer. There’s liberal use of stop-motion animation, which gives the special effects shots an epileptic jerkiness.
Tsukamoto directed two films before and two films after – all variations on the same theme – but Tetsuo: The Iron Man seems to have stuck around the longest. Its filming was a bad experience for him, marked by many production difficulties and most of his crew walking out. Maybe he wants to forget he made it. I won’t forget seeing it. You do not watch this film. It rams itself through your head with the force of a diamond-tipped drill, flinging corkscrews of brain matter out of the exit wound. The ultimate machine edit.
“Commencing countdown, engines on (five, four, three)
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you (two, one, liftoff)”
There are no American flags on the moon.
The crew of Apollo 11 placed six on the lunar soil. They were symbols of hope. They meant things to people. But in the end, they were just cheap flags bought at Sears. After fifty years, harsh ultraviolet rays have bleached them entirely white. All the vexillological meaning they once possessed is gone, blasted away by the hateful sun.
David Bowie was like those flags. He seemed to transcend humanity, but he didn’t. He was made of flesh, and in 2016 he died. Four years later, the phrase Dead David Bowie still seems fundamentally and grammatically wrong, like a modern age Paradox of Zeno. He cannot be dead.
Blackstar entered the world two days before Bowie left it. He surely suffered through its recordings, but this can’t be heard in his vocal performances, which are powerful and strong, or his arrangements, which haven’t been this detailed since the Brian Eno years.
The most noticeable thing is the musical approach, which is different to anything he’s tried before. Station to Station might seem like an obvious comparison. There’s a long song at the beginning, and some pop songs at the end. But musically it represents a clean severance with the past. He’s gone more epic than the title track, denser and more literary than “Sue (or in a Season of Crime), catchier than “I Can’t Give Anything Away”, but there never was a Blackstar before.
It has no nearly rock influences whatsoever: when electric guitars are heard, they exist as pure tones – a vaccuum cleaner or AC unit could have served the same function. I only place hear distorted guitars is on “Lazarus”, where dirty chords smoulder like hot coals on grass that’s slightly too damp to catch fire.
Instead, Blackstar is an album of jazz, electronica, pop, and perhaps three or four genres that only exist in New York. This ambitious approach is seen most clearly on the nearly 10 minute long “Blackstar”, which is propelled by shuffling snare beats and strings, and sounds both final and uneasy, like a monument built on a crumbling cliff. “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” has a deranged energy not unlike the Manic Street Preachers, although without as many layers of guitars. But there’s an element of quasi-improvisational looseness that’s missing from past Bowie classics like Low, which are the result of perfectionism. “Whore” and some of the others sound recorded quickly (I have no idea whether this is actually the case), as though there was a spontaneous energy that Bowie wanted or needed to capture.
The album trails off in quality a little towards the end, and at times Bowie seems a distant presence among the instrumentation. But the great songs truly are great, both for their music and what they portend. Despite his passing, Bowie was a blessed man: he got to write his own legacy. Few encomiums have Blackstar‘s directness and connection to the source.
Earlier, I described the sun as hateful for destroying the flags. But is it really? The flags got there because men put them there. Men who traveled by a rocket powered by compacted algae. Algae that fed upon photosynthesis provided by…the sun. Everything exists as transformation of the sun’s energy. You can’t curse the sun for erasing the past, because it also creates the present. Bowie understood this. He knew that someday he’d be a long dead icon, his humanness erased and forgotten as new days come and new legends get to walk in the light. This was fine. All he could do was try to have the final word.
The Elton John song “Candle in the Wind”, which (after a dead princess and a meretricious rewrite) became the biggest selling single in history, purports to be a memorial of Marilyn Monroe. I always found it disingenuous and creepy. Norma Jeane Mortenson inhabited roles created for her by men all her life, and now here were two more men, asserting their right to write the definitive story of who she really was. Maybe Elton John and Bernie Taupin meant well, but the song makes my skin crawl. Shouldn’t Marilyn Monroe herself be the one writing this song?
Blackstar is exactly that: a self-describing legend who doesn’t need interpretation or reification. Not that people like me don’t try, but we do so at our peril. Bowie has told us exactly who he is here: and if it’s a confusing picture, maybe that was the truth all along. Musically, Blackstar is good and debatably great. But as a final album, it virtually couldn’t have been better. He may have wanted to write more songs, but at least he got to write the last one.
An old story: an art professor split his class in two, and assigned each a task. The first group was to make a piece of pottery each day until the end of the year. The second group was to spend the entire year making a single perfect pot. At the end of the year he compared their work: the first group’s daily pot looked much better.
Bowie became distant from public life after his heart attack in 2004. He never formally announced his retirement, but sometimes people don’t. In 2013, with no warning or notice, he released an album: his first in 10 years. All of the eleven classic Bowie albums (TMWSTW to Scary Monsters) came out in a similar block of time.
It was called The Next Day, and it had an aura of artistic disrespect, from the “vandalised” cover to the lack of pre-release publicity. This approach was becoming trendy in 2013 (just a year ago, Death Grips released an album with the drummer’s penis on the cover). Albums like Ziggy Stardust sometimes seem to creak under the weight of their own heraldry: clearly Bowie’s approach was to release music free from all that. A few years later and TND would have been dropped straight to Soundcloud, along with a fire emoji.
But it’s casual release barely disguises an album that’s fraught with labour. This statue bears its chisel marks: these songs were written and produced over long periods of time, and sometimes sweat with indecision and self-doubt. The Next Day is never more compelling than in the moments when you realise that Bowie must have come close to scrapping the entire thing.
It’s produced by Visconti, and features an impressive lineup of Bowie Band Members from Christmases Past. Gail Ann Dorsey, Sterling Campbell, saxophonist Steve Elson, Gerry Leonard, and David Torn. Perhaps most plangent is the presence of Earl Slick, who provides a crushing single-coil riff on “(You Will) Set the World On Fire” as well as a link back to the glory days of Station to Station. I really enjoy Slick. He might not be as technically capable as Mick Ronson, or as colourful as Carlos Alomar, but he outlasted both of them.
The Next Day it offers music drawn from one of two wells. The first is heavy rock, the second is vaguely U2-ish light rock with ambient and jazz influences. The title track is the most bombastic and magniloquent of the rockers, containing abrasive riffs and lines like “they know God exists for the Devil told them so”. It’s followed by “Dirty Boys”, which is slower but equally savage, its disembowelling stabs of brass pierce the listener like rusty switchblades.
On “The Stars are Out Tonight”, Bowie offers his most coherent thoughts yet on artifice and illusion. The public’s obsession with celebrities seems vapid and awful, but not having celebrities at all might be even worse. His vocals sound querulous and thin, but powerful when they need to be. This is classic Bowie: he sounds weak, but then casts weakness aside like an ill-fitting cloak.
Other tracks are musically indistinct and lyrically indecipherable. On “I’d Rather Be High”, “How Does the Grass Grow”, and “(You Will) Set the World On Fire” he mixes apocalyptic fervour with introspection and perhaps autobiography. Ever since “The Bewlay Brothers”, Bowie’s listeners have known not to take him too seriously (or too lightly), and TND contains reams of lyrics in that vein.
I don’t think it’s a great album. Despite its lengthy gestation it sounds like it could have come out in 2003: as with Reality most of the songs go in one ear and out the other. There’s no spark. “Valentine’s Day” is just mush, “I’d Rather Be High”, “Where Are We Now?” is a ballad so weak it sounds like it could be extinguished by the draft of a shut door, and “If You Can See Me” is a triage squad of musicians furiously overplaying to compensate for the deadness of the music.
It’s over fifty minutes long, and has forty minutes of hooks. The material soon overstays the listener’s patience: even the furious title track just sounds toneless and dumb after a while, like we’re listening to Tin Machine again. TND has many great moments, and even a few great songs, but as a whole it’s exhausting and overlong. It’s like what they said about Wagner: sixty great minutes and a poor hour.
Can it be called a return to form? What form? Bowie has many. There’s vague echoes of the a better past, but also lots of modernistic touches. This is a latter day Bowie album, with influences from some of the worst parts of his catalog. If it’s interesting, it’s for the truly terrified moments, with Bowie just not sure of what comes next. He is a man not prepared for the future, but nevertheless having it bear down on top of him.
For over eleven years, Reality wore a title it was never meant to bear: that of Last David Bowie Album.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Bowie had every intention of continuing recording and touring. But in 2004 (near the end of the grueling 112-date Reality World Tour) he collapsed on stage in Germany, evidently from a heart attack. The beautiful statue that had worn countless layers of paint had suffered an interior crack.
There were no more tours, no more albums. For over ten years, Reality was the end. It never felt like one: it was a small, transitory album, trivial at times, and lacked an identity. It wasn’t a grand, towering tombstone, with HERE LIES DAVID BOWIE etched in stone.
Maybe its battlefield promotion helped it, giving threadbare songs like “She’ll Drive the Big Car” and “Looking for Water” more attention than they deserved. But after The Next Day came out in 2013, Reality fell into its correct place. It’s in the lower half of Bowie’s albums, which is no demerit. It’s also in the lower half of Bowie’s post-70s work, which probably is.
It has good songs, as they all do. “Pablo Picasso” takes the Modern Lovers’ one-chord pony on new and surprising adventures. “The Loneliest Guy” is very unsettling, like a taut and humming spiderweb of Mike Garson’s reverb-soaked piano and Gerry Leonard’s vibrato-drenched guitar. Bowie seems to be drawing from Scott Walker’s approach to songwriting here, turning the soundscape into a huge blank space that crashes sea-shell-like with the sound of its own emptiness.
“Fall Dog Bombs the Moon” is like the last Tin Machine song, very dry and underproduced. The lyrics are both cryptic and heavy-handed, clearly exculpatory of George Bush while not really naming him. I sort of like it.
“Try Some, Buy Some” was originally produced by Phil Spector, and sounds like Regina Spektor. I’ve only listened to it once or twice – a little of this stuff goes a long way.
“Reality” is noisy and quickly becomes unwelcome: it’s like a jam session that nobody has the courage to end. But closing track “Bring Me the Disco King” is another album highlight. It’s another powerful minimalistic song, consisting of Bowie’s voice, Garson’s jazz-influenced piano playing, and Matt Chamberlain’s drum loops. The result is enchanting: it has some of the same magic that “Lady Grinning Soul” had, all those years ago. But then Garson starts vamping all sorts of neo-tonal stuff over the outro (as if trying to recapture “Aladdin Sane”), and a lot of the magic leaves.
And then Reality ends. It was supposed to be yet another stone in a road with no clear end or destination: the road of life. The trouble with such a road is that it can just stop at any moment, without warning, and you have to accept that the final moment has come. For a while, Bowie fans had to accept that this album was his Abbey Road. But eleven years later, a new stone appeared.
In 2002, Bowie submitted this application for the tiny pool of Rock and Roll Comeback stories.
The grunge and noise rock inclinations of the Reeves Gabrels era are scaled back. The music that came before was like an overgrown forest, while Heathen has strip-cut and burned out areas of emptiness. If nothing else, the album has space.
It labours mightily to recapture the magic of 70s Bowie. The lead single “Slow Burn” is reheated “Heroes”, a song that captures distance and time with reverb-soaked guitars and a vaguely motorik-inspired drum performance (and a Pete Townsend guitar solo, too). The Pixies cover “Cactus” strangely echoes the jangly, raw Mick Ronson era.
And there’s one song that blends past and present bewilderingly: a cover of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s novelty song “I Took A Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” (Bowie, in a decision that will never be explained, changed the title to “-Craft”.)
The “Ledge”, incidentally is an odd character from Lubbock, Texas, briefly famous in the 60s (he inspired Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” name) and then forgotten. Bowie had heard that he was complaining of never making any money from Ziggy Stardust, and figured out a way to make him whole!
“Everyone Says Hi” and “A Better Future” are charming and innocent, but thin starvelings of songs. “5.15 The Angels Have Gone” is heftier, and has better hooks. The title track “Heathen” is wonderful, containing lumbering guitars, and lonely saxophone lines (which evokes “Heroes” once again).
I like a lot of Heathen, but I prefer the baroque side to the efforts at writing hits on the first half of the album. I’m also surprised by how good the covers are. Normally, covers are the weaknesses of Bowie’s albums, not the strong parts.
Radio personality Ron Bennington described comedy as a game of “tell a joke, or become the joke”. Audiences view their interest in you as an investment; fail to reward that investment and they exact their reward with tar and feathers.
John Romero, bad boy game designer, quit id Software (which he had co-founded) in 1996 to launch a new company, Ion Storm, under the mantra “design is law”. It was supposed to revolutionize 3D gaming. Instead, he became a joke. Daikatana was planned to ship with the 1997 holiday season, but instead it came out in 2000 in a plague field of negative publicity, after going through two engine upgrades, a full dev team, and thirty million dollars in funding.
What went wrong is a fascinating story (told here by Gamespot’s Geoff Keighley) which has become an industry cautionary tale. It ended Romero’s career as an A-List game developer, and he’s spent twenty years bouncing from company to company, leaving a shallow strew of indie and mobile shovelware. Assuming you’re immune to the charms of Gunman Taco Truck and Pettington Park, Daikatana will likely remain Romero’s last hurrah as a game dev.
Was it any good? Well, that depends on what you want. If you’re eager to play four badly designed half-a-games at once, with a graphical engine years out of date, it’s quite good.
It’s a first person shooter featuring “RPG” “elements” (LEVEL UP flashes on the screen occasionally, and this apparently does something.) Things start off with a cutscene: an old man dying of polygon deficiency explains the plot to you. It goes on for quite a while, and the developers must have decided it was static and dull, because they have ninjas jump out of the shadows, beat the shit out of the old man, and run away…after which he continues explaining the plot to you. A mood is created. I don’t think it’s the mood the developers intended.
The story is confusing and lacks direction: it reminds me of a ten year old boy’s narrative about Spiderman fighting Sonic in Fraggle Rock, or whatever. It has no setting except the collision of random cultural debris. There’s time travel, ancient Greece, a black sidekick called Superfly (note the spelling) and an Asian female sidekick who’s into martial arts, a giant sword…
The game has massive “depth”, but so does the Marianas Trench. Eleven thousand meters of water and squidshit isn’t interesting, and nor is Daikatana’s huge stack of poorly-integrated, half-tested features.
Why did they shove in RPG-like stats when they have no visible impact on gameplay? Why is there an XP system? What does it do, and why do I care? Why design unique enemies for every level when they all feel like variants of either “annoying fast flying enemy” or “enraging slow ammunition-sponge”?
None of the weapons obey logic. There’s a double-barrelled shotgun that fires six shots at once (???), a rocket launcher that shoots two twisty rockets that hit everything except the enemy you aimed them at, etc. This is MC Escher with a gun catalog. The titular weapon, the Daikatana, proves to be a gigantic sword that blocks a large portion of your screen when you have it equipped. It cuts everything in half, starting with your own vision!
But worst part is the sidekicks.
They have the worst AI I have ever seen. They run in front of your gun. They get stuck on corners. They get crushed by elevators. They ignore weapons on the ground and charge heavily-armed enemies using their fists. When they die you lose, and they exist at all times in a state of permanent about-to-die. They are comprehensively broken.
Daikatana off the box is unplayable because of the sidekicks. Unplayable. I recommend you download the patch that deletes the fucking sidekicks from the game, thus rehabbing it to “barely playable”.
The graphics are visually interesting at times (how often do you see the colour purple in FPS titles?), but mostly dull and ugly. There’s no vibrancy. Why did they upgrade from the Quake engine when the colour scheme recreates most of Quakes excesses?
What else was happening in 2000? What did the market look like? System Shock 2, Perfect Dark, Deus Ex, Half Life, Unreal Tournament, NOLF, and two Quake games. Next to these titles, Daikatana just looks dated and old. Daikatana isn’t as bad as people say: it’s worse.
Paralysis based on traumatic shock lasts for a few minutes. Careers based on cultural shock last only slightly longer. Irvine Welsh, Bret Easton Ellis, Clive Barker, and Will Self gained fame through transgression and then lost it, with the world moving on and forgetting them.
Chuck Palahniuk is still toiling on in 2018, though his 1996 book Fight Club increasingly resembles a tombstone. Adjustment Day tries to recapture Fight Club’s urgency, along with trying many other things. It’s a confused book, windmilling punches in all directions.
It begins as a parody of generational aggrievement. A surplus number of young men threatens to disturb the global order, and so the ruling classes plot a staged war to dramatically thin their numbers. But, at the urging of a tract by the Big Brother-esque figure of Talbott Reynolds, the young men rise up and eliminate the ruling class first, seizing control of the United States.
Adjustment Day is somewhat successful here, because Palahniuk manages to hit some socially relevant points (the young men share a list of names of people to kill and vote on them, like a Reddit thread). And the revolution, when it comes, is entertainingly ultra-violent.
But the book then shifts to a parody of cultural balkanisation. The United States splits into three nations, the exclusively homosexual Gaysia (which is run like a continent-sized bathhouse), the white ethno-state of Caucasia (which is like A Handmaid’s Tale), and the black ethno-state of Blacktopia (which is like Wakanda).
One of Adjustment Day‘s many weaknesses is that everything in it is exactly like something else. It doesn’t have an identity, it steals existence from other things. “Remember this? Were you aware of this? Remember the emotions this piece of media made you feel?” In a moment of desperation, Palahniuk even name-checks Fight Club, which feels like a musician trying to rouse a tepid crowd with an old hit.
The prose is spare and minimalist, but hard to read. Adjustment Day feels like eating a huge urn of light whipped cream. The characters are spasming balls of angst and introspection, none of them seeming like real people. The book soon collapses into broad farce before the ending occurs, which is so dull that I’ve already forgotten what happens.
I didn’t like it much.
Waterworld is a dystopian film that came out in 1995, stunning audiences around the globe with half-empty cinemas and poor box office profits.
The film depicts a future where water covers the entire planet, and mankind survives on bolted-together rafts and floating cities. The nameless protagonist (played by Kevin Costner) has gills, allowing him to swim to the ocean floor and retrieve dirt and other artifacts.
Waterworld relies on TVTrope’s Rule of Cool, meaning its setting is dictated by aesthetic concerns and not realism or logic. In order to make sense of Waterworld, you must assume that large amounts of information presented in the film isn’t true. But some of it’s interesting to think about – for example, the gills. How realistic are they? Would (or could) a population of humans living on an endless sea evolve gills?
First, we need a time-frame: how far in the future does Waterworld take place? We aren’t told, but probably decades to centuries. Long enough that humans have forgotten civilization, but short enough that artifacts of 20th century civilization remain. The base of the villainous “Smokers” is (in a heavy-handed touch) the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker, and it’s still floating. Production designer Dennis Gassner stated that the film is set in the year 2500. Let’s assume this is true.
Already, there are insurmountable problems. 500 years is equal to only twenty human generations, not nearly enough time for complex new adaptions to appear in the human genotype. In evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski’s famous experiment, it took twenty thousand generations of e. coli  before a useful novel trait emerged (the ability to metabolize citrate). Considering a human generation length of 25 years, an equivalent time-span would be half a million years. We aren’t even within the right three orders of magnitude!
Evolutionary traits emerge slowly, through a grinding process of random mutations which appear at a rate of approximately 0.5×10-9 per basepair per year. Even if the mutation rate in Waterworld was ten times the current rate (through elevated background radiation or whatever), that’s still only 0.5×10-8 per year. Virtually all of these mutations do nothing, the ones that do something typically cause a loss of function (it’s easier to break something than accidentally improve it), and the ones that do help have a 50% chance of vanishing in a child of the next generation anyway.
It gets worse when you consider that the gills are clearly not a de novo mutation. The men on the atoll instantly recognize the slits behind Kevin Costner’s ears as gills, and they even have a name for him (“Icthyus sapien”). They have seen men like him before. The gill trait has existed for a while, and might be under a (insert joke here) Fisherian sweep, thus cutting the timeline further still: the gills might only be ten or fifteen generations old!
It is vaguely possible that humans could evolve to be aquatic. We have examples of land-based mammals returning to the sea, the most famous being the cetacean order (whales and dolphins), which evolved from an amphibious ancestor not unlike the modern hippopotamus. But this process took millions of years, and cetaceans never evolved gills. They kept the respiratory method they already had. Gills, it appears, evolved only once (4), and the creatures that evolved an alternate method never went back.
And this leads to the second issue with humans evolving gills: we already have lungs.
Virtually every single thing about our respiratory system and upper-body bone system would need to change to accomodate them. We wouldn’t even look human. The men of the atoll wouldn’t have needed to check behind Kevin Costner’s ears to confirm that he’s a mutant. It would have been obvious at a hundred paces.
Fish require special bone structures called branchial arches to support their gills. The tetrapod lineage (which humans belong to) has long since repurposed those bones to make the thyroid gland, part of the jaw, the larynx, and the bones in the ear. If Kevin Costner magically evolved gills, he would suddenly be unable to talk (no larynx), unable to hear (no inner ear), and unable to eat (parts of his jaw and hyoid structure wouldn’t exist!).
Truthfully, gills probably wouldn’t evolve in humans given any length of time. We’ve gone too far down a different path. Evolution would have to awkwardly walk back many millions of years of development to our chest cavities.
Even if gills were a desirable method for breathing in humans (which they probably aren’t) evolution is highly limited by the fact that it’s step based, with all intermediate forms needing to be viable. In other words, humans can’t halfway evolve gills. Imagine a toy model of gills that relies on five traits. 1) a Branchial arch 2) a transport mechanism for moving oxygen around the body 3) a filtering system for elimination of waste 4) the gill tissue itself 5) and a gill spiracle, or slit. All of these would need to be present for the creature to survive. Suppose a creature miraculously evolved 1-4, but not 5. It would instantly suffocate, as it couldn’t expel water.
Truthfully, gills aren’t even the wackiest stuff in the movie. There’s an embarrassing part where Kevin Costner fights a Resident Evil 4 boss. Where did this thing come from in 500 years?
You might ask “are these even gills? Or are they some weird new breathing method that everyone calls gills out of convenience?” Good questions, which I’d answer “no” and “yes”.
These things look and behave nothing like gills.
1) they’re too small. Costner’s ear-slits are just a few inches long. Compare with how big they are on fish, and consider that humans are endotherms, regulating their own body temperature, with significantly higher oxygen needs.
2) They’re ridiculously efficient, to the point of breaking the laws of physics. An adult human land aspirates about eight liters of air per minute – hold your hand over your nose, and feel how much air you’re pumping and out of your body. Water only has about 5% as much oxygen by volume as air, so if we assume that gilled humans have similar oxygen needs, Kevin Costner would need to “breathe” one hundred and sixty liters of seawater every minute just to survive. (There’s even less dissolved oxygen in the deep oceans where the Mariner dives).
By way of comparison, the fog nozzle hoses used by firefighters typically discharge 60 litres of water a minute. Each of those tiny slits behind Kevin Costner’s ears is ejecting nearly half again as much water as a firefighter’s hose, every minute. Even if he could do this, he’d rapidly exhaust the local environment of oxygen and suffocate. The gills could only be used for brief dives, not lengthy underwater swims as shown in the movie.
3) Visual evidence is…incompatible with gills. Here’s a screen-capture of Kevin Costner underwater. There’s a massive problem – can you see it?
His mouth is shut! How is oxygenated water entering his body? Through his nostrils? Those tiny openings that are designed to keep water getting in? Are those tiny holes sucking in a hundred and sixty liters per minute?
Or this shot, where we see bubbles appearing from Costner’s…mouth? Shouldn’t they be coming from behind his ears?
Most damning is the mouth to mouth resuscitation scene with Jeanne Tripplehorn. There’s no air in Costner’s lungs! How is he doing this?
I have no clue how he’s breathing. But he is absolutely not using gills.
Given the confused terminology used by the characters (one asks if the gills are fully functional or merely “vestigial”, which makes no sense – a vestigial part is a functionless organ left behind by evolution, not a new trait), it makes most sense to assume this is a totally novel breathing mechanism that’s everyone calls gills because they don’t know any better.
Given all of the above strangeness, how does Waterworld waterwork?
There are two theories:
1. Waterworld is set on alien planet. This would solve many plot issues (such as how the melting of the polar ice caps covered the entire world), but create many bigger ones. We see countless terrestrial artifacts: crayons, cigarettes, bottles of Jack Daniels, and even a photograph of Joseph Jeffrey Hazelwood (the captain of the Exxon-Valdez). The film is absolutely set on Earth.
2. Waterworld is The Truman Show.
Let’s ignore the opening narrative (who is this person, and why assume they’re truthful?). Suppose that a futuristic government cordons off a large area of ocean, fills it brainwashed or deluded people, and allows them to think that the ocean covers the entire world. How would they ever know otherwise? The occasional sailors who reach the shore could be turned back (after being brainwashed again).
This provides explanations for the “gills” (genetic engineering), the sea monster (genetic engineering), the fast-decaying tobacco and oil (discreetly supplied by the government to add excitement to the game, like a weapon at a WWE event), and a host of other problems. (It should be noted that in 1997 Acclaim published a four-issue comic series which tried to address some plot problems. For example, the main character is explicitly genetically engineered.)
But it would have made for an unsatisfying story. Trick endings only work if the truth is more interesting than the illusion (Psycho, The Usual Suspects, and The Sixth Sense), and if it’s not (The Village), the audience feels cheated. “It was all a lie” would be a troubling note to end on in a movie devoted to heroism and bravura spectacle, and the screenwriters were probably wise not to go down that route.
And despite the film’s problems, the ending rings true. Everyone thinks Costner’s character is crazy for wanting to go back to the water, but if we take the film at face value, he’s the only sane one there. The future of humanity isn’t on a tiny, plague-ridden island, it’s in the ocean, and he is one of the first of a new race.
1. The Making of Waterworld by Janine Pourroy (August 1995). Production designer Dennis Gassner states: “The date was 2500.”
2. Blount, Lensky, et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0803151105)
3. Scally A (December 2016). “The mutation rate in human evolution and demographic inference”. Current Opinion in Genetics & Development. 41: 36–43. doi:10.1016/j.gde.2016.07.008. PMID 27589081.
4. Origin of Vertebrate Gills, Nature 2017/02/22
Reviewing games in 2019 is impossible. You’re shooting at a moving target: every game in 2019 is a weird quasi-finished v0.5 Pre-Release Early Access Beta, requiring a 24/7 internet connection so it can stream five gigabytes of updated content each day.
Once, a game was a $60 box with a CD in it. It was finished. It did not change. But now, a game is a spewing open sewer on your hard drive, fountaining out a never-ending deluge of shit: new characters, new mechanics, new loot boxes, new collectible cards, and new internet memes.
The ever-changing nature of modern games makes them difficult to talk about. It’s like reading a book with George RR Martin yanking pages out and gluing new ones in, or watching a movie while Peter Jackson is still directing it.
Apex Legends is the new contender for the battle royale throne. It features the genre’s standard game mode (a huge number of players, vying for dominance on a map that shrinks in size), merged with the team-based heroism of Blizzard’s Overwatch. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds asked “where will you go?” Apex Legends asks “where will you go, and with whom?”
The game leaves an indelible visual impression. Every battle royale game has a launch sequence, but this is the most visually stunning one yet, with the screen wracked by bloom and lens effects and your characters quipping as they skydive. I enjoyed the way everyone leaves coloured trails of smoke (so you can guide your team away from groups of players…or towards them, if you like living dangerously).
When you land, you loot. Your first port of call should be a gun (or two guns): the characters are absolute bullet sponges, and it’s frustrating to empty a full magazine into someone’s chest and have them continue charging at you.
It also takes time to learn the idiosyncrasies of each weapons – for example, the Peacemaker shotgun has such a tight spread that it can be almost used like a rifle, and the Mozambique is laughably underpowered, to the point where it’s better to use your melee attack. The Devotion energy rifle has a “spin-up” (the longer you fire it, the more damage it inflicts), which in practice means the enemy takes a weak shot or two, runs away, and the powerful end of the burst splatters uselessly against a wall. The gunplay as a whole, feels slightly underdeveloped.
So, too does the much-hyped character-based element.
Before each game, you choose your “legend”, each of whom has different tactical abilities. Unlike Overwatch, these are fairly subtle and seldom game-changing. Bangalore can throw smoke. Pathfinder can set up a zipline.
The number one reason to choose one legend over another is their hitbox size – Wraith is the current favorite among the Twitch elite, because her tiny size makes her difficult to hit. You will have a miserable time playing as Gibraltar and Caustic: their massive hitboxes attract every bullet on the server, or so it seems.
So there are balance issues between weapons, and balance issues between legends. I’m sure these will be rectified – hence why reviewing games is pointless. Anything I can criticize might be completely different tomorrow.
One thing that deserves unreserved praise is the pinging system. In other games, communication with your allies is difficult: you either have to type a message, or get on voicechat and entrust your teamplay to pubescent voices and $5.00 microphones. Not anymore. Apex Legends allows you to rapidly ping locations on the map, indicate supplies for your team, flare enemies, and even cancel the last message you sent in the case of a false alarm. They really did think of everything, and a good team can execute complex strategies based on two seconds of pinging.
I also must praise something that isn’t in the game – there are no emotes for dabbing, or floss dancing, or any of that shit. Good.
But overall, the game needs more content. There’s still only one map, and eight legends, two of which must be unlocked (didn’t Overwatch launch with 21?). There’s a lavish assortment of paid skins – the game is free, and this is how they plan on making money – and it’s clear that a lot of effort that could have made Apex Legends a stronger game instead went into creating fluorescent blue Mirage vests and sparkly glitter covers for guns.
On balance, I had a good time with Apex Legends. I hope it gets better, but what they gave us isn’t bad. The battle royale genre is now out of its formative stage, and into its development stage. Genres are being mixed up and recombined, in the hopes of scoring the next crossover hit. I have no idea whether Apex Legends will still be the state of the art in six months, but it’s clearly the state of the art right now.