Tuesday 17 July 2007

Film review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The fifth Harry Potter book has a bad reputation amongst fans. You'd be hard pushed to find anyone who truly enjoyed the first third of the book (which is slow and uninvolving), and even when it breaks free of its badly executed beginning, the ending it presents is not as much of a revelation as the author seems to wish we'd find it, either.

The good thing about movies though, is that the old maxim "bad books make great movies" is very often true, and so it is here. While the original book isn't necessarily "bad", it's probably the least loved, and once it's stripped of the unnecessary bits, what's left is quite an interesting political thriller, of sorts. Ignore the critics who have moaned about "Harry Potter losing its magic"; its supposed lack of "magical" qualities is directly down to the original book, and a deliberate decision by Rowling. The story is a slow, but tense exploration of the self-blinkered behaviour of people who refuse to accept an ugly truth, and would rather turn the harmless into a threat, than have to face up to what they fear most.

I wish I could say that directorial newcomer, David Yates, is instrumental to the film's successes, but sadly the film appears to show a director unsure of himself. This isn't to say that the film is poor; far from it, Yates is just extremely lucky that everyone else working on Harry Potter knows exactly what they're doing. It's the little in-between moments, where the director should be making sure that everything feels coherent, that his failings are visible. From the badly explained and confusing plot points (why not just use the mind scanning spell, seen later in the film, to prove that Harry had seen Voldemort?), to the poor performances from those who are clearly in desperate need of some direction, to the film's awful opening sequences and final battle (both only being saved by the special effects).

Thankfully, as I've already said, the producers of the film clearly were happy to take a chance on a cheap, inexperienced TV director, because they were well-aware that everyone else involved knew precisely how to do their jobs: The main cast is excellent, it looks fantastic, the editing, while slow, brings wonderful tension, the special effects are great (I've never seen Hogwarts look so perfect) and the script is as lean as it needed to be.

It's a little sad, though, after hearing so much about how Evannah Lynch characterised her character, Luna Lovegood, that all the lines that explain her character are completely missing. In fact, I'll bet her presence in the movie is a complete mystery to those who haven't read the book. I'm not sure why her character defining moments were removed, but I'm guessing it was either time constraints or a poor performance (or maybe just bad editing choices). Again, it's hard not to fault the director.

Thankfully for every poor moment, there's a slew of great ones to make up for it, and one of the film's happy highlights is unquestionably Imelda Staunton, who brings a wonderful dimension to her character that I don't remember even being in the original novel. She portrays Dolores Unbridge as someone who really believes she's doing the right thing. In the book I remember her being, well, just evil, (I could be wrong in my memories) but through Staunton's performance, the same dialogue reveals a character much more dangerous; someone who is doing wrong in the name of something right. She, along with the pace and plotting of the film, are easily its most enjoyable and successful aspects. In fact, it's partially Staunton's performance that makes the political elements so successful.

Of course, political tension and the necessity to concentrate throughout the film, don't always make for happy children, and, like the books, this is the first film to truly indicate the darker and more mature areas the story is about to explore.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a different type of Harry Potter film. It's not as "magical" or filled with adventure as the previous instalments, but it was never meant to be (and if it had been, it would have failed the greater story). Because of this, if you're not familiar with the books, be prepared for a different take on the world of Harry Potter. If you are a fan of Rowling's work, you'll probably be very satisfied with this latest effort.

Don't let the critics put you off, this is a very enjoyable Potter film, which given the source (perhaps the least enjoyable Potter book), is a very nice surprise. Recommended.

- "Good"

Explanation of my unusual rating system: 'No stars' = Average/missable, '1 star' = Has some merit, '2 stars' = Good, '3 stars' = Excellent, and finally '4 stars' = A milestone of the medium (very rare).

Sunday 1 July 2007

The Selfish Gene: That difficult first chapter

Richard Dawkins seems to enjoy ruffling feathers. Recently he's appeared to especially enjoy it when they're feathers belonging to someone who considers themselves religious. If it's not the brazenness he displays at writing The God Delusion, a book which, according to the introduction, was written in order to, um, "save" people from some sort of religious enslavement, then it's the vocal complaint that he was nominated for a book award alongside the Christian comedian Peter Kaye ("How can you take seriously someone who likes to believe something because he finds it 'comforting'?").

Back in 1976, with the publication of the highly acclaimed The Selfish Gene, he didn't focus entirely on the religious, but he still had an extremely unapologetic writing style; "keep up or tough luck" seemed to be his attitude. It's this attitude which I think might be partially responsible for The Selfish Gene developing its controversial reputation: If you miss something, it's easy to get the wrong end of the stick, especially with the book's potentially confusing first chapter (not to mention its title).

Is Dawkins really arguing that all humans are fundamentally selfish, and perhaps even that being selfish is 'natural', or worse, 'right'? For some reason, the intentions of the first chapter eluded me the first time around, so, with this in mind, I've decided to explain what I misinterpreted and misunderstood, assuming that, as Dawkins suggests in his endnotes, that I'm not the only who has ever gotten the wrong end of the stick. I hope it helps others besides me!

This is what Dawkins appears to be saying in no uncertain terms in the first chapter of The Selfish Gene:

People are "born selfish". This is the same for all of us. Our own survival is of the utmost importance. Above all else, in fact. Our genes, and by extension, 'nature', tell us not to help others if it is at a potential detriment to ourselves. This is the 'natural' state for human-beings.

It's very harsh sounding isn't it? It comes across as a bit of a grim look at humanity and it has upset a few people over the years, but is it really that controversial? Let's put it into the context that Dawkins seems to have well, almost deliberately, skated around: We're not talking about lending people money. We're not talking about letting them borrow a DVD. We're not talking about giving them a lift to the airport or donating to charity. We're talking, in simple terms, about life and death.

In a life or death situation, our genes tell us to high-tail it out of there and survive. So ingrained and recognisable is this trait within us, that we praise those who fight this instinct and risk their own lives to save others. We call them heroes. It's the highest praise that most of us could probably imagine giving anyone. We all know the potential sacrifice, we all know how brave and selfless a person needs to be in order to risk their own safety in order to save someone else.

When you think about the above, initially harsh-sounding, paragraph in those terms - in terms of throwing yourself in front of a bullet to save someone's life - it doesn't sound so explosive, does it?

If you're still not convinced that the above paragraph is true, then Dawkins offers a scientific theory as an example: If a community made up entirely of altruistic (pre-)people was attacked by a neighbouring community, the first ones to be attacked would stay and fight in order to let the others get away. They would automatically lay down their lives in order to ensure the other members of the community lived on.

What if, however, over thousands of years of genetic mutation, someone was born into the community who was fundamentally selfish in the way described above? That is to say, that this person, upon fearing attack, would immediately try to save their own skin, regardless of the rest of the community? Someone who would immediately flee at the first signs of danger, instead of staying and fighting in order to increase the chance of other's safe escape? Provided that person was the only person in the community with such selfish attributes, they would always survive attacks, as the altruistic members would sacrifice themselves in order to save those who could escape. By doing so, they would be ensuring that that selfish gene within that person would always survive, or at least, survive for some time.

Over that time the person could proliferate, spreading their "selfish gene" around the tribe, and creating more "selfish" members of the community. These people would, in theory, be more likely to survive attacks, as long as there were altruistic members willing to fight for them. Eventually, the altruistic genes within the tribe would begin to decrease in number, and the "selfish" ones would dominate.

You may be thinking, "ah, but that's when the community would fail" and you're possibly right, but, of course, things aren't really so black and white and our genes don't always control our behaviour. Dawkins doesn't offer a counter-argument to the idea that the important benefits of living as a community might be negated by being comprised of entirely selfish members, except with the implication that, over a long enough period, genetic altruism would essentially "die out", meaning it couldn't survive.

All of this isn't to say that such altruism doesn't exist in nature, or in humans. It does. That's also not to say that we don't have control over the urges of our genes. We do.

Altruism can be seen, for example, in animal behaviour; many species of bird, once having spotted a predator, will start making warning noises in order to alert other birds in the vicinity of the imminent danger. By doing this they're also making themselves a much more likely target for attack. In other animals, mothers can be observed deliberately attracting the attention of a predator in order to draw it away from their defenseless young, obviously at great personal risk. (Dawkins promises to explain such examples of altruism in nature in later chapters.)

We also have control over our genes. As Dawkins points out, we foil our gene's desire to replicate every time we use contraception. Another example of humans fighting their genetic instinct are the firefighters of 9/11 who went back to the Twin Towers in order to try and save stranger's lives. These brave people must have had an incredible desire for their own safety and security, but overrode those feelings with a conscious decision to help others. As I said before, we see these people as heroes (and rightly so), because we know how much sacrifice, will-power and bravery it must have taken to do such a thing.

So, the next time you read Dawkins arguing that our genes tell us all to be selfish, hopefully now the context in which he actually means it, will make his point a little less abrasive.