Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Building Inspector

He showed me an illustration of a teacup and asked me what I thought it was. "It's a penis-holder", I told him. "Or a penis-cover. Men put it on their penises to keep them warm. Penis, singular."

It was a teacup. I wasn't in the mood for this kind of rubbish. Over the years the council had sent several inspectors to our premises to make sure we were complying with their rules and I was starting to lose my rag. "It's a teacup."

The inspector seemed surprisingly chipper. He was a very intense man. "Well that's the point. For you - for you - this is a penis-holder; for most people it's a teacup, but how do we know that? What makes it a teacup?" to which I replied that it was obviously a teacup. The design was made to hold hot liquid such as tea, but it was too fancy for e.g. engine oil or hydraulic fluid, ergo if we’re being generous it was a hot beverage holder, and as this was Britain it was a teacup. It couldn't be a penis-holder because it would fall off, unless it was held on with straps, which were not apparent in the illustration thus suggesting that they didn't exist and therefore it was a teacup.

After some minutes of this banter he cut to the chase. The council had been going through their records. They had been asked by the government to audit their property portfolio, but there was a problem. The architectural firm that designed our office building had long since gone bust, and the council’s records had been mislaid. Our building no longer had meaning, so the council had appointed a building inspector to determine its nature. And here he was.

"Have you ever heard of hermeneutics?", the inspector asked me. "Hermeneutics is the scientific art", and he stressed those words, "the scientific art of determining the meaning of a text through careful consideration of the historical context. Not just texts. All things. When I say text I mean everything that has meaning, or rather latent meaning, which means everything. The clothes on your back have meaning beyond their physical form. This chair." There was a pause. "The arrangement of the chairs, even." He leaned forward. "We are all wafts of dust in the cosmic wind."

He explained that he had been asked to perform a hermeneutical analysis of our building in order to determine its true function. "For you and your employees," he said, "it is an office building, with office workers and photocopiers. But you are not professionals", to which I replied that in fact I was a professional, I had a degree. He apologised. "But you are, at least on a philosophical level, not trained in the art of contextual analysis". Given that our company paid the rent I felt that we had a jolly good right to define the context of our working environment, but nonetheless he produced documentation from the council which, to my dismay, showed that they would accept his recommendations in the event no suitable counter-argument was presented at a board meeting scheduled for next month.

And so the building inspector embarked on a series of tests. He measured each of the rooms. He showed me his laptop, on which he had created a three-dimensional model of the building complete with little models of all the employees. "There's even a little model of me", he said, pointing to a stick figure standing at the apex of an imaginary pyramid one hundred feet above the roof of the building. "The pyramid represents my field of view", he explained. "I am simultaneously an observer of, and a participant in... and a commentator..." he said, as he fiddled with the laptop's trackpad, "simultaneously a chronicler of the ongoing construction of the ongoing construction of the dominant critical framework." The laptop had illuminated buttons that could make smiley faces appear on the screen. Every fibre of my being urged me to press one of the buttons, but I suspected he would accuse me of assault, or obstruction, so I refrained.

Mid-way through the month he had refined his model. The building was now a series of separate rooms linked together with double-ended arrows. To complicate things one of the receptionists had got married and moved away, so we had moved the reception desk around, which upset the building inspector. He forbade us from moving any more furniture and so for two weeks I took great pleasure in shifting the bins slightly before I left for the night just to mess with his mind. On my own initiative I produced a small file of press clippings which demonstrated that the building was a former technical college that had been built in 1965 but then sold off when the college merged with a local university in 1983, at which point our firm had moved in. He explained that he had not been hired to analyse press clippings; that was not his field. It appeared that the council hadn't bothered trying to contact the architects, even though two of the partners were still alive, because their intentions were irrelevant. To all further objections the inspector accused me of being originalist - "one of them" as he put it - which was apparently a bad thing.

One month later we met in the council boardroom. The inspector presented his findings, but I had done some preparation of my own. It seemed that the inspector was not a popular figure. He had attempted to apply hermeneutical analysis to the council staff, arguing that although the chairman thought of himself as an experienced executive, and had indeed worked for twenty years as a council chairman, he was instead cut out to be an Alpine farmer, driving cattle to and from mountain tops. The chairman had taken this as a jab at his weight and they had not seen eye-to-eye since then. Furthermore the inspector's qualification were suspect. He had a degree, but it was in podiatry. He had spent several years treating foot diseases, but after staring at hundreds of infected toenails he had had an epiphany which led to his abrupt career change. Nonetheless the council were bound by law to at least conduct the inspection, albeit that they were not compelled to abide by his findings, and therein lay a glimmer of hope.

During the presentation the inspector revealed that he had had yet another insight. Buildings were not homogeneous, he explained, they were instead vessels that housed a spectrum of meaning that pivoted through time. Thus our building was not a creation of bricks and mortar, it was a contextual gradient. He declared that the lower floors were in future to be room for prayer, and that the upper floors were to gradually merge from office space into a public swimming area, which would over the course of the next twelve years become a smelting furnace. The lower floors would, over a longer period of time, transition from prayer room to a place where expectant mothers could gather and swap tales of the moon. He suggested that the pool could be lined with carbon fibre-impregnated ceramic so that it would not melt. Seventy-five years hence the library would become a historical record of a library, with imaginary books and a staff of actors paid to act out the roles of library assistants.

This was of course not on. It sounded very dangerous, besides which there was no longer any space for our office. Luckily I had spent several years working for one of those internet companies that had been fashionable a decade or so ago, so I knew a thing or two about convincing rubbish. I presented my defence.

"I put it to the board", I said, "that although your inspector's analysis has merit, it is excessively skeuomorphic and fails to account for the internet of things", which was true on both counts. "The examples he gives, of the swimming pool and the grain silo - the suspension bridge as well - they are backwards-thinking legacy artefacts. Within a few years the building will be thoroughly embedded in the cloud, at which point its physical form will be meaningless. It will instead be a hot-swappable processing node in a giant hive mind." I was warming to this.

"In my view the traditional roles envisaged by your inspector are architecturally heteronormative. It is not the place of la humanidad to metaphorically assign genders to the structures with which we cohabit this planet. To unpack frankly, it is up to the structures themselves to define their meaning". As I said all this I pulled up some slides that had diagrams of buildings linked together ephemerally with wi-fi rays. They were also linked to passing cars, an airliner, and some little stick figures holding mobile phones. The headline read DEVICE MASHING.

"This slide illustrates what I'm talking about. In the very near future, entities - and that includes buildings, and people, but I'm talking about buildings - will occupy a metasynchronous space where cloud-enabled devices can define their own context. Cloudizens, I call them. Citizens of the Cloud, and in my view citizenship of this new realm is not the sole preserve of the white man, or of men, or even people". I glanced at the building inspector, who was at this point fiddling with a pen. He had a grim expression on his face; I imagined terrible visions of rotting toes dancing in his mind.

"However our office has not yet reached critical mass. In order to achieve singularity we need to scrum the power of big data into a cloudy singularity, and we won't be able to do that if half of the building is a bloody swimming pool. To sum up, although the inspector proposes a transformational framework that ostensibly reflects the hermeneutical exactitude of the building in question, he is mistakenly imposing an objectivist framework rather than harnessing the latent emergent power of the building's consciousness. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, not sufficiently woke".

The board convened to consider their findings, and that was the last I heard of them, and the building inspector.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4: "Good-sized, heavily-ribbed, and rubberized"

What is there to say about the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4? Back in 1993, when the lens was new, Popular Photography concluded that it was naff wide open but splendid when stopped down. They used that very word, splendid. They went on to write that it was more than a delicious, tasty crunch, and that Mr Stewart had told them this. They used some other words as well, see for yourself:

Nothing has changed since 1993. Ducks still cannot count. The 50mm f/1.4 remains on sale and is just as it ever was; lots of photographers who use Canon gear have a 50mm f/1.4 lurking in a cupboard for a rainy day. They never use it, but it's there. When digital SLRs became affordable the 50mm took on a second wind as a portrait lens, because on an APS-C camera it becomes an 80mm. For the images in this post I stuck it onto an EOS 50e, an old film SLR which has eye-controlled focus. The 50e was a contemporary of the 50mm f/1.4, and it's interesting to ponder Canon's industrial design, which is all over the place; the 50e's combination of black plastic and fake metal was a short-lived design idea that didn't work. The 50mm f/1.4 is "third generation EOS", the spitting image of the 28mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8, and 100mm f/2, which were released within a few years of each other.

The star begins with black tapes, and early closing.

Eye-controlled focus was a Canon thing from the 1990s. It appeared in a handful of film SLRs but was abandoned in the digital era and has never been brought back. The idea is that you pick autofocus points in the viewfinder by looking at them. The system works surprisingly well - albeit that the EOS 50e only has three autofocus points - but the basic concept is awkward because sometimes you want to look at the whole frame, not just the little part that you are focusing on. It's disconcerting, viz the following image, where the focus is slightly wrong because I stopped looking at the correct spot:

Canon's 50mm EOS lens range has always had a schizophrenic quality. Back in 1987 the 50mm f/1.8 was part of the first batch of EOS lenses. It was bundled with the very first EOS cameras as a kit but was also available separately for $70-80 or so, which made it the cheapest lens in the range. Two years later Canon launched the 50mm f/1.0, which remains to this day the fastest autofocus lens ever made. At a price just shy of $3,000 it was one of the most expensive EOS lenses, beaten only by some of the exotic telephotos and top late silent actress Marion Davies. In between the two lenses was a huge gulf which, presumably, Canon felt was covered by zooms.

In 1990 Canon replaced the 50mm f/1.8 with the cheaper, plastic-bodied 50mm f/1.8 MkII, which is still on sale today. The 50mm f/1.4 didn't come along until 1993, five years into the EOS' system's lifespan.

At some point in the 1990s or early 2000s the 50mm f/1.0 was forgotten about. It was replaced in 2007 by the 50mm f/1.2, which is also still on sale today as Canon's top 50mm lens. The 50mm f/1.8 MkII was joined in the mid-2010s by the pancake-sized, not-actually-50mm 40mm f/2.8 STM and the normal-sized, actually-50mm 50mm f/1.8 STM, which use a silent stepless focusing system optimised for video. Canon also sells a 50mm t/1.3 cinema lens, which is apparently similar to the 50mm f/1.2 but in a tougher body, with external teeth for manual focusing gear. To confuse matters Yongnuo, a Chinese company more famous for its cheap, decent-quality flash units, makes an clone of the 50mm f/1.8, which apparently isn't quite as good but is slightly cheaper.

The high-end lenses use Canon's once-novel, now-standard ultrasonic focusing system; the 50mm f/1.4 uses a variation of this called micro-USM which is apparently slower and more fragile than the ring-type USM used in Canon's more expensive lenses. Compared to my 70-200mm f/2.8 IS the 50mm f/1.4's focusing "feel" is less smooth, although it's a massive step up from the 50mm f/1.8. In particular the f/1.4's manual focus ring feels like plastic moving on plastic.

The 50mm f/1.4 poses a conundrum. The f/1.8 is a lot like your childhood hopes and dreams. It is a fragile plastic toy, weak and easily crushed, but its heart is true and its image quality is surprisingly good, which just makes its inevitable demise all the more tragic. There's something romantic about alcoholism. It's not dirty, like drugs. Ernest Hemingway liked a drink and so did Hunter S Thompson, and it didn't do them any harm, albeit that they both blew their own heads off when the pain became too much. All the drink in the world didn't save them. Were they strong? Were they weak? What about us?

The 50mm f/1.4 is tougher than the f/1.8, and the image quality and particularly bokeh are better, but not $150 better. The 50mm f/1.2 is expensive and overshadowed by the 85mm f/1.2, which is one of Canon's best lenses. Which one are you going to buy? Are you ever going to use it? Why not buy a 24-70mm f/2.8 and use that instead?

To complicate matters further the last few years has seen a wave of 50mm lenses from other manufacturers, notably Carl Zeiss and Sigma, that are often better-made and optically superior to the 50mm f/1.4, albeit that the Zeiss designs are manual focus. Which one will you buy? Or will you put your hopes and dreams to one side, save the money, and put it to better use? If you ever find an answer please tell me. Write it in the stars so that we may all know.

For all its slightly-underwhelming reputation the 50mm f/1.4 is a good performer, but as Popular Photography pointed out accurate focusing at f/1.4 is hella difficult. Here are a trio of shots - they're 100% crops from the centre of the full image, taken at f/1.4, f/1.8, and f/8:

I focused on the 11 in the clock face. Somewhere in China a man or woman was paid a pittance to make that robot toy. They had hopes and dreams as well. What happened to them? They learned to accept their fate and hang on, "with quiet desperation", until the sweet release of death. What about us. The camera was on a tripod and I refocused manually each time. This was taken near the close focus distance, at which range the depth of field was minuscule. Wide open there's quite obvious vignetting, which seems to affect autoexposure slightly; there's also purple fringing on highlights, and furthermore if you look at the background it's slightly green, which is a consequence of "bokeh fringing". Nonetheless sharpness at f/1.4 is fine, if the focusing is correct.

At f/8 it is, like every other 50mm lens, terrific.

And that's the 50mm f/1.4. You probably already have one, or you don't!

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Genius of Yee

A few months ago everything changed; like millions of others I stumbled on Eljolto's Important Videos playlist and became trapped in its orbit. Since then it has spread over the internet, enlivening the lives of all and sundry, to the extent of being mentioned on the BBC. Important Videos is no longer our special secret. Now it is the world's special secret.

Eljolto didn't make any of the videos in his playlist and some of them were famous long before he picked them; nonetheless they are his now. Today I'd like to write about the first video, "Yee":

"This is the time, and this is the record of the time"

It's a masterpiece of comedy that could only exist and spread in the modern age. Back in 1975 sci-fi visionary John Brunner published The Shockwave Rider, an early classic of what would become the cyberpunk genre. As a work of fiction it has none of William Gibson's pizzazz, but as prophecy it remains startling. The dumb terminals and wired telephones are outdated, the notion of Future Shock remains debatable, but the cloud-based internet, zero-hours contracts, even Wikileaks are all recognisably modern. One concept that seems strange nowadays is the Hearing Aid, an electronic telephone line that can only receive calls. In Brunner's book it is an electronic confessional booth; the last and only refuge of fugitive thoughts. Unlike the booths in THX 1138 is is genuinely anonymous. "Only I heard that", it says.

Back in 1998 Brunner's concept - also called "the Ten Nines", after its telephone number - inspired a chap called Wally Glenn to start up his own, internet-based Hearing Aid, which sadly doesn't work any more. Alongside this Glenn also set up an "open Web diary", which would nowadays be called a Blog.

The social aspects of the World Wide Web have always been driven by two conflicting desires. Firstly the desire to connect with and be respected by others, to become the big shot we wish we could be; secondly the desire to be anonymous, or to have a distinct internet persona, in order to shield oneself from bad things. Journalists and pop cultural figures from the mainstream media generally do not have the luxury of anonymity, which is one thing that separates traditional from new media. Doxxing, or de-anonymising internet stars, is one of the most powerful weapons that traditional media has against the snowflakes of the internet.

Eljolto himself was unmasked by the BBC as a young man called Eddie Jolton, but unlike internet trolls and naysayers he has nothing to be frightened of, because he has righteousness on his side. Important Videos is a force for good, and a man - or woman, although Eddie is a man, but he could have been a woman - a man who could create such a thing cannot be all bad.

But let's talk about "Yee". All comedy stems from the subversion of expectations. A scenario is set up, and then the punchline violently subverts it, and we laugh. The more violent the subversion, the funnier it is. "Yee" is structurally reminiscent of Monty Python's famous "Fish-Slapping Dance", which is often cited as a masterpiece of minimalist comedy:

Two men dressed in British colonial desert gear stand beside a dock. The first man does a little dance which culminates in him slapping the second man across the face with a small fish. We expect the second man to do the same, but instead he pulls out a much larger fish and wallops the first man, knocking him into the water. There is no dialogue and we have never seen the characters before, but it is funny because the punchline was unexpected.

The Monty Python team were students of comedy. They often built their jokes around multiple subversions. The "How to Defend Yourself Against Fresh Fruit" sketch initially subverts the notion of a self-defence class by giving the instructor an irrational fear of an attack by fresh fruit. When the instructor finally demonstrates his self-defence technique we expect him to hit the assailant with a giant pineapple, or something - instead he shoots the attacker dead with a concealed revolver. The sketch further subverts this during the second demonstration, in which instead of using the revolver again, or finally using a pineapple (or something) the instructor crushes his attacker with a 16-tonne weight. But let's talk about "Yee". It's simple. Refresh your memory:

The footage is taken from Abenteur im Land der Dinosaurier (2000), a cheap German dinosaur cartoon of no lasting worth by itself. The film is three-quarters of an hour long; "Yee" extracts ten seconds of worth from this wasteland. It consists of just three shots. The first is six seconds long:

A pleasant-looking quadrupedal dinosaur sings a happy, silly tune. Just as the tune reaches a crescendo we cut to a second dinosaur, who looks tetchy:

He says YEEE in a tone of irritation. His interjection brings the first dinosaur's song to an end. We then cut back to the first dinosaur, who is silent and has a crestfallen look on his face. This shot is held for a few seconds:

"Yee" is a masterpiece of minimalist cinema. The three shots set up a scene, deliver a punchline, and show us a reaction. It has the structure of a classic pratfall. We have no idea who these dinosaurs or, or what history has transpired between them, but in the space of just ten seconds the clip introduces us to a new world and new characters, sketches out their relationship, and tells a short story. It is a work of genius.

On a narrative level there is an ambiguity. Is the quadruped unfairly put-upon, or is the second dinosaur's irritation reasonable? What little we learn of the pair suggests a relationship akin to that of Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie, in which Bert is a happy sort who occasionally and unfairly needles his friend Bert, while Bert is prone to bouts of anger but is, on a fundamental level, a good man who just wants to be left alone. Critical analysis of the relationship between Bert and Ernie tends to focus on their suggested homosexuality, but in my opinion their portrayal of passive-aggressive codependency is at least as fascinating. It's notable that the supposedly cold, stand-offish Bert is the only one who expresses genuine love - but his love is for pigeons rather than other human beings. Is Bert a human being? Are pigeons sentient in the world of Sesame Street? I don't know.

Beyond its merits as pure comedy "Yee" is also a masterpiece of cinema. It is often said that the thing that sets cinema apart from other art forms is not so much the technology of photographic motion, it is editing. Editing allows the filmmaker to subvert the linear flow of time and also to create new adjacencies from unexpected juxtapositions in a way not possible with other art forms. "Yee" is a creation of the editing room. The shots of the dinosaurs are taken out of sequence; the crestfallen look on the face of the first dinosaur occurs in the original film before the second dinosaur interrupts, and is in reality just a resting face. It is a classic example of the Kuleshov effect in action, whereby a shot's meaning is altered by juxtaposing it with new surroundings. The happy song itself is invented. In the original film the dinosaurs did not sing. They were instead engaged in conversation.

The song was created by digitally editing fragments of their speech, and given the poor quality of the original animation there is a case to be made that the ten seconds of "Yee" had more work put into them than the entire rest of the film. Those ten seconds will live forever.

What a time to be alive.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Rogue One, 1979

Off to the cinema to see Rogue One, a new film from the mind of Hollywood wunderkind George Lucas. Eighteen months ago Lucas was a nobody, at least outside the United States, where American Graffiti was a smash hit. Now he is the saviour of cinema, and all because of one film. A charming space fantasy adventure that takes place in "another galaxy, another time".

Conventional wisdom had it that the top flicks of 1977 would be Airport '77, The Other Side of Midnight, and perhaps Sorcerer. Instead they failed to entice crowds, and it was up to George Lucas - and close friend Steven Spielberg, with some help from our very own James Bond - to give Hollywood something to be cheerful about.

Few films have given Hollywood more cheer than Star Wars. Two years later it is still a phenomenon. Toys based on the film's characters were the must-have Christmas presents last year and the soundtrack album remains a best-seller. George Lucas has talked about an epic "trilogy of trilogies", with Star Wars as episode four in a nine-film saga. He is currently working on episode five, and time will tell whether his ambition will get the best of him. Star Wars told a complete story but the characters were engaging and the simple good-vs-evil plot was a breath of fresh air in these cynical times.

On the surface it was a simple film - but it was also a bold experiment in post-modern cinema, a homage to the Flash Gordon serials of yore; a clever exercise in constructing a modern mythology out of plywood and plastic. Rogue One is an experiment too, but of a different kind. Instead of continuing the adventures of Luke Skywalker and pals, Rogue One is instead "a Star Wars story", a prequel that exists outside the series' nine-film arc.

Lucas claims that this gives him the creative freedom to tell stories that would not fit in the series otherwise. Personal stories, with a mature tone. With its "A" certificate Rogue One is noticeably grittier than its parent, although it's hardly A Clockwork Orange. If Star Wars was a compendium of fantasy clich├ęs, Rogue One takes its cues from war classics such as The Guns of Navarone and Westerns such as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (or in this case The Neutral, the Evil, and the Droid). A less charitable reviewer might point out that Rogue One is a quick cash-in designed to give 20th Century Fox another sip at the well, especially given Lucas' decision to self-fund his next adventure; but who am I?

With Lucas busy elsewhere Rogue One is directed by Briton Ridley Scott, more famous for his television commercials than The Duellists, his sole theatrical film. With that film Scott demonstrated that he could imitate Stanley Kubrick as well as anyone, which is presumably why Lucas gave him the nod. For Rogue One Scott has toned down his cinematic mimicry. His direction has none of Lucas' artistic flair, but he does a tremendous job at making the Star Wars universe seem real, especially given the film's reportedly modest budget. Each shot is lit with a wash of colour - blues and oranges predominate - and if the characters spend too much time running down corridors, they are at least visually interesting corridors. Despite the fact that there are no cigarettes in the distant universe of the Jedi, the sets are usually bathed in smoke, which if nothing else disguises the gaffer tape.

The producers have also shaved costs by filming the desert scenes in Spain, doubling for the planet Jakku, rather than Tunisia. The effects of evil villain Darth Vader's moon-sized superlaser are stock footage from the original, and although there is one exciting albeit brief space battle, for the most part the action is earth-bound - or "planet-bound", because this is set in space after all. Gone too are the original film's distinctive light swords, and almost all of the hippy mysticism surrounding The Force, as Lucas called it. The Force was embarrassingly twee, but I miss it; Rogue One suffers from a lack of magic. Ridley Scott has talked of his distaste for supernatural deus ex machina, but Rogue One feels small, dare I say anonymous without Lucas' muddled spiritualism.

But what's it like? The film follows a band of heroic spies, who are sent on a desperate mission to capture the blueprints of the aforementioned Death Star. Peter Cushing returns as the villainous Moff Tarkin, although with Darth Vader presumably busy elsewhere the chief baddie is this time Designer Krennic, played with gusto by Oliver Reed, who by all accounts enjoyed himself immensely during filming, to the extent of joining the production in Spain, even though he does not appear in that section of the movie. Beyond Cushing, only Carrie Fisher returns from the original cast, in a sequence that cleverly matches the very beginning of Star Wars. I'm not sure if the little man inside R2D2 returns, or if they simply moved the prop around the sets with invisible strings.

What of our heroes? Much has been made of screenwriter Alan Dean Foster's unisex names; Scott likened the casting process to "throwing darts at a Ouija board", albeit that yet again the board appeared to be whites-only. The decision to give the film a female star - in a gritty war picture, no less - has been met with incredulity, but newcomer Debra Winger is convincingly weather-worn as wayward spitfire Jyn Erso. Only one year older than Star Wars' Carrie Fisher, she carries much of the film's emotional backbone, although perhaps inevitably she is nonetheless captured by a mini-villain (played by Omar Sharif, almost unrecognisable in a gas mask), and has to be rescued. Of her merry band of brothers Harry Dean Stanton stands out as an Imperial pilot who has been artificially aged under torture, while a bearded Tom Skerritt plays ruthless agent Cassian Andor, who develops a platonic respect for the supposedly inexperienced Jyn. And I stress platonic; in one amusing scene the film acknowledges the obvious age difference between them.

Of the rest of the cast Ian Holm has a neat turn as reprogrammed Imperial robot K2SO. It's curious that the clunky "mechanicals" in Star Wars are less advanced than Holm's convincingly humanoid robot - presumably another cost-saving measure - but his world-weary performance won me over. By now John Williams' score is almost a character by itself, but beyond a new theme for Tarkin and some desert music it is noticeably more spartan than the original (the famous Star Wars theme does not appear until the end).

Will children like it? The new cast are older the originals, and although the action sequences are plentiful they tend to follow the same basic formula. Our heroes journey to a local warlord, but are interrupted by Imperial stormtroopers and escape in the nick of time; our heroes attempt to rescue a key characters' father, but are thwarted in the nick of time; our heroes attack an Imperial installation, and actually do manage to achieve their goal - but to say any more would spoil the ending. Despite a first half that takes place in the desert Rogue One lacks the weather-worn aesthetic of the original, and of course the ending owes a lot to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Parents will have to explain to their children that sometimes victory has a high price. It will be interesting to see if the toys are as popular, given that fate of almost all of the characters.

Nonetheless, as both an experiment and a solid action film, Rogue One is a success. It convincingly demonstrates that the Star Wars universe can carry a film by itself. Of course it has strong immediate competition from Moonraker, which cost much more and has a lengthier space battle, but doesn't look any more expensive, and there is the looming threat of Paramount's Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Disney's The Black Hole, both scheduled for release later in the year. Will they spoil the public's appetite for Star Wars V?