Monday, 20 August 2018

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (dir. Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)

Contains spoilers for Mission: Impossible - Fallout and probably all the previous Mission: Impossible films as well - I don't know, I've only seen Rogue Nation and Fallout!

I've been listening to the Empire Podcast's extraordinary 3-part Spoiler Special on Mission: Impossible - Fallout, which features over 5 hours of in-depth interviews with writer and director Christopher McQuarrie on the making of the movie, plus a discussion of the film with Empire magazine's staff. It's a fascinating insight into the movie-making process and a must-listen for anyone with any interest at all in the art and the practicalities of film-making, so (as long as you've seen the film, or don't care about spoilers) I'd highly recommend heading over to listen to it. Part 1 is here. If I ever meet Chris McQuarrie, I'll have to thank him for taking so much time to explain how this process has worked for him and for being so enthusiastic about doing it!

During Part 2, Chris Hewitt, Helen O'Hara, Nick de Semlyen and James Dyer talk about the film's early scene set supposedly in Belfast (though, as Hewitt and O'Hara point out, it is clearly not Belfast as there is not a Tayto in sight), in which Tom Cruise's lead character Ethan Hunt is reading Homer's Odyssey. They talk briefly about how the Odyssey links to some of the themes of the film, but point out that the film's plot doesn't really resemble that of the Odyssey in any substantial way. I thought the choice of book was really interesting - and there's a lingering shot of it, so it's clearly meant to mean something - so here's my take on it.

There are a few over-riding themes in the Odyssey:
 - A difficult journey, specifically by sea.
 - Numerous adventures. However, please note that this bit occupies only three 'Books' (i.e. chapters) of a 24-Book poem, and there's a good chance Odysseus is making it all up to impress King Alcinous and his pretty daughter Nausicaa anyway.
 - The homecomings of veterans returning from a long war (not limited to Odysseus himself).
 - Marriage and the joy of coming home to a faithful wife (as opposed to an unfaithful wife whose lover murders you, like Agamemnon).
 - Kingship and the importance of not letting the plebs take over your kingdom while you've been away for 20 years fighting someone else's war and then shagging a sea goddess. This part tends to get brushed aside by modern versions!

Safe to say, it's probably 'long and difficult journey' and 'homecoming of veterans' that McQuarrie and the film-makers are going for here!

As Team Empire point out, the plot of Fallout ends up going in rather the opposite direction to the Odyssey. Ethan is reunited with his wife, but she has left him and married someone else, and the film clearly implies that this is a good thing, that she is happy, and that Ethan should (as he has done) let her go. So why the Odyssey flag at the beginning of the film, if this Penelope has gone off and married one of the suitors?

I'd suggest that the Odyssey reference is implying the search for a home, including a partner of the desired gender (in this case a woman). OK, Ethan's Penelope has left, but there is another woman with him at the end of the film. Indeed, the reminder at the beginning of the film of Odysseus' desire to return to his wife plays into the scene near the end when Ilsa sees Ethan talking to Julia. She is concerned that, like Odysseus, Ethan will want to return to his lost love - but unlike Odysseus, Ethan is able to move on.

Both Rogue Nation and Fallout play with the idea that Ethan could, if he chose to, retire from his lifestyle full of dangerous adventures and create a more stable home with Ilsa, who is a veteran just like him, who shares his experiences and understands them in a way Julia never could, but who doesn't actually want to live that way. There is just a hint of a suggestion that perhaps, eventually, Ethan could finally come 'home', in the sense that he could create a home, instead of sleeping alone in a dark room with a sad lack of cheese and onion Taytos (the best flavour).

Northern Ireland take their devotion to Taytos crisps very seriously - this is the actual taxi rank shelter at Belfast City Airport, reminding everyone to buy Taytos immediately

There is another inversion of the plot of the Odyssey in this film as well. Odysseus famously manages to lose his entire crew over the course of his voyage, largely due to their own stupidity and inability to follow simple instructions. Ethan Hunt, on the other hand, is motivated throughout the film by his desire not to lose any of his crew, and is criticised for caring too much about their lives instead of his mission. In this way, his reading of the Odyssey at the beginning of the film acts as a warning, and a reminder of how important it is to him to avoid Odysseus' fate in that respect. Both inversions are reminders of what could have been - a happy ending denied (possibly prompting him to look for a new one), and a tragedy avoided.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Xena Warrior Princess: The Deliverer

This post contains spoilers for Xena: Warrior Princess season three as a whole, not just this episode - if you're watching Xena for the first time and haven't finished season three yet, stop reading now!

I'm watching my way through all of Xena at the moment - I'll catch up on blogging it all eventually! For today, continuing the Roman Britain theme, I'm going to concentrate on the first episode set in Roman Britain (otherwise known as Britannia, or 'the island north of Gaul'), season three's 'The Deliverer'.

One of the core arguments of the monograph I'm working on about screen depictions of Roman Britain with Antony Keen is that there are a few core plots that come up time and again - the invasion of Julius Caesar, the rebellion of Boudicca, the 'disappearance' of the Ninth Legion beyond Hadrian's Wall, Arthurian legend. Xena's going to get to Arthurian legend in the next episode - for this one, the writers decide to go two for one and throw Boudicca's rebellion and Julius Caesar's invasion together, regardless of the teensy issue of the 110-year time gap between the two (but then, Xena's lifetime has already encompassed the Trojan War, the reign of King David and Julius Caesar's early years, so by Xena's standards this is closer than usual!).

Xena has always been deliberately ahistorical, of course. One of the joys of the show is the way it throws together whatever stories take the writers' interest in whatever way they want, using history as inspiration for a fantasy world. It's not dissimilar to Game of Thrones, really, except that Xena doesn't bother changing anyone's name, and in fact relies on a certain amount of recognition for its twists on some stories to work. (Julius Caesar's introductory episode, intriguingly, is based in a lot of real history, but I'll get to that when I get to blogging it!).

I wonder if this deliberate playing with history is why Boudicca here goes by the name 'Boadicea'. By the 1990s, most people had settled fairly firmly on 'Boudicca' as the version of her name closer to ancient British (these days, 'Boudica' tends to be preferred, and there's some debate over whether it's a name or a title). 'Boadicea' was popularised by the Victorians, but by the 1990s was broadly considered to be 'wrong'. And yet that's the name Xena goes for - in what I think is a deliberate nod to the re-writing of history in the episode. This is a fictional character who embodies tropes associated with 'Boadicea', not a real British woman.

The episode doesn't really do much with Caesar or Boadicea in the end, though, because it's interested in the development of an entirely different story - Caesar and Boadicea are just the way we get there. This story is heading in a very different direction, which will determine the course of the rest of season three.

The episode sets up a major mis-direct leading up to a huge twist well into the episode. From the moment we meet Martin Csokas' Khrafstar, we're encouraged to think that his cult of the one god is our introduction to Christianity in Xena's world. We've already met the Israelites in 'The Giant Killer', and Hercules has taken part in the Christian Nativity story in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys' 'A Star to Guide Them'. There's clear precedent for including Christianity in a series set in any version of the ancient Roman world, where Christianity originated, even an ahistorical one. A cult of the Son that was a clear reference to Christianity appeared, for example, in Star Trek's Planet of the Romans episode, 'Bread and Circuses'.

Everything seems to be leading up to a positive depiction of Christianity, which is what might be expected (especially in those pre-Supernatural, pre-Luther days). Ares and Discord are worried about the cult, fearing it means the end of their worship (as Christianity eventually would). The god has a name but they aren't allowed to speak it. Direct confrontation is discouraged. We meet the cultists carrying cross-bars for crosses over their shoulders (in a random moment of historical accuracy) and Khrafstar and Gabrielle are crucified at one point, Xena rescuing them just before their legs are broken (which speeds up the suffocation that is the cause of death in crucifixion). Ares is obsessed with destroying the one god's temple (as the Romans would destroy the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, dedicated to the same God, in AD 70).

We realise something different is going on when the cult tricks Gabrielle into killing for the first time, so they embrace both human sacrifice (the priestess basically goes into this as a suicide mission as it's all clearly planned) and deliberately forcing Gabrielle into something that will traumatise her. Ares was right when he told Xena to trust him after all, which is an interesting twist in itself. At this point, the show makes it very, very clear that this is not, in fact, the Christian God. We discover the god is called Dahak (guess they could say his name after all). He is 'the dark one', the dark force who will sweep the world with war. Xena specifically says 'this is not the One God of the Israelites' and Khrafster says no, their dark god will 'take care of' the Israelite God later. Dahak 'appreciates rage'.

And then we see him, claiming to be the Deliverer, and of course, he's the Devil, horns and fire and all. This development gives the world of Xena a truly evil antagonist (as opposed to the love to hate him, conflicted relationship she has with Ares or the coldly human villainy of Caesar). Probably more significantly, this will lead to a Rosemary's Baby style plot development that will have all sorts of dramatic repercussions over the whole course of this season of the show.
This is not going to end well

Aside from being an effective plot twist, this is a really interesting take on the material. The cult sounds so much like Christianity and like something good when Khrafstar first explains it to Gabrielle, which is why she trusts him and ends up playing into his hands. In some ways, this plays into ideas about devil worship that were current in the 1990s and can also be seen in X-Files episodes like 'Die Hand Die Verlezt'. But it's also a reminder that sometimes, something can look and sound like Christianity, but at its heart, can be something very different indeed, and much less loving.

This episode is much more about setting up the rather grim arc plot of the third season than it is about Caesar, Boadicea or Britain. However, it's worth noting that Xena rescues the cultists and goes to Britannia in the first place out of sheer personal hatred for Caesar. The dark turn Xena and Gabrielle's lives are about to take, and Gabrielle's loss of innocence (established firmly as essential to her character) is all, ultimately, brought about by Xena's desire for revenge on Caesar - that desire for vengeance becomes the start of all sorts of darkness and suffering.

The episode stops being about anything resembling Roman Britain pretty quickly as it gets caught up in these bigger issues. The view of Britain it offers is unusual, though. Screen depictions of Roman Britain are usually produced by British people, in British television shows and films. Every now and again, Hollywood creates a character from Roman Britain to accommodate a British actor (as in Spartacus and Pompeii, though this is really unnecessary, considering how many British accents are all over Rome most of the time!), but most have their roots in modern Britain.

Because Roman Britain usually appears in British productions, it is usually depicted in a positive way. Granted, the weather is always awful, but the people are usually hardy, resilient, plucky fighters, while the occupying Romans are often beleaguered, suffering from colds, trying to do their best in a difficult posting. Both sides are usually presented broadly sympathetically, because modern British people tend to see themselves in both the native Britons and the occupying Romans.

This production, almost entirely lacking in British input, is very different. Our national heroine is suddenly French! (Xena knew her in Gaul and she escaped to Britain). British productions depict Boudicca as the ultimate British freedom fighter, especially following World War Two - she embodies the idea of plucky little Britain (enormous British empire notwithstanding - that gets left out of the British narrative) standing up against the Nazi invasion. Here, however, she just turns up after being in Gaul, fights a bit, and disappears.

In this episode, Britain is the home of literal devil worship, and one of British prehistoric ancestors' greatest achievements, a World Heritage Site, is a temple to the Devil himself that must be destroyed - Dahak's temple, once the main building is burned down, looks an awful lot like Stonehenge (which is in reality, of course, a deliberately open-air structure that's thousands of years older than the Roman Empire).

This sort of reflects Roman attitudes towards Britain in a way. The Devil is a medieval Christian concept, but Pliny the Elder, while claiming that everyone agrees magic comes form Persia, said Britannia was so full of magic it might even have been the Britons that first brought it over to Persia (how they bypassed Rome and the rest of Europe on the way, he doesn't say!). Even the Romans didn't think Britannia was literally the home of evil, but they weren't all that keen and were pretty suspicious of it, and of the Druid culture Britain shared with many other parts of Europe, beyond complaining about the weather.

Overall, a really unusual take on Roman Britain - and not just for the mashing up of history! This is a good episode, though, with a genuinely unexpected twist, and a grim plot that sets up more than a year's worth of story-telling across both Xena and Hercules.

Some other random thoughts:

 - This part of New Zealand, as is well known from The Lord of the Rings, looks a lot more like Britain than it does like Greece or Italy!

 - Of course, in the world of Xena, Julius Caesar looks a lot like Cupid, but that kinda works in its own weird way! He was a man fond of a lively sex life. And we get to see two very different sides of Karl Urban.

 - The boobs on Boadicea's breastplate are really distracting, they look like saucepans.


Xena: You half-witted toady to a third rate god, come and get me!

Gabrielle: Everything's changed. Everything.

Disclaimer: Gabrielle was slightly well done during the filming of this motion picture. However, the producers would like to recommend a zesty barbeque sauce to bring out the full flavour of this episode.

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

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