Welcome to Sea Wolf

Hi there. My name is Robert Selth, and I’m a writer from Canberra, Australia, currently living and working as a teacher in London. This is what used to be the blog where the reviews I wrote for my student newspapers ended up. Now, it’s essentially just an archive. For my current work, please check out my Twitter @RobertSelth. If you’re a teacher looking for my new secondary school History textbook, Knowing History: Twentieth Century World, it’s available for pre-order here.

(The common query: why was the site called Sea Wolf, you ask? It’s explained in this post.)

Alien: Covenant

The movie Alien: Covenant has two main villains, and it is less intelligent than either of them. That’s the problem with trying to write formidably smart characters: if you are to represent them convincingly, you need to either be formidably smart yourself, or work damn hard at your script to make up the deficit. The script of Covenant, it pains me to acknowledge, lets its villains down. Not only that, it lets its rather less intelligent heroes down. This is the sequel to the thoroughly dire Alien prequel Prometheus, and though it’s a much better film than its predecessor, it suffers from the same essential flaw: its plot relies on supposedly smart characters periodically making arbitrarily stupid decisions. Covenant leans on this prop far less frequently than Prometheus did, but the bitter aftertaste of lazy writing still lingers. And yet, to this movie’s credit, it more often than not rises above this admittedly quite profound limitation. Covenant is a handicapped but functional action-horror flick, and when it’s in gear, it packs a solid and grisly punch. Continue reading

Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica, and Why It All Matters

Over the past several months, a series of three articles by a journalist named Carole Cadwalladr have appeared in the Guardian. These articles detail the connections between the US billionaire Robert Mercer (now notorious as the money behind Trump), the data firm Cambridge Analytica (which he owns), and a vast, extraordinary campaign of psychological profiling and manipulation, conducted over the internet, and intended to alter beliefs and voting behaviour on a massive scale. The articles touch on a remarkable range of problems and questions, from the probability of large-scale intervention in the Brexit referendum and 2016 American election by a small nexus of reactionary individuals centred around Mercer, to the landscape of international cyberwarfare and how cutting-edge technology is evidently being used to sway elections in unprecedented and frightening ways. Continue reading

The Contradictions of Dylan: A Primer for the Unconvinced

There is perhaps no figure, in all the popular culture of the modern Western world, who simultaneously combines such dizzyingly high critical esteem with such capacity to bemuse and underwhelm those many, many people who do not connect with him. Bob Dylan is an unassailable musician, and yet to many people – and not people from dramatically divergent cultural backgrounds either, but people who often tick all the other boxes of middle-class good taste – people, in other words, who are expected to like Dylan, who learn that they should like Dylan – his appeal is simply a puzzle. They have resigned themselves to being told all their lives that Dylan is a genius, but they know, through often arduous experience, that he simply will not speak to them. This is not because he is so complex or so challenging that they do not understand him (artists who need to be defended on those grounds are rarely worth the trouble). They understand him just fine. They just fail to see what all the fuss is about. Continue reading

P. J. Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

01-177814Wilfully, earnestly, and with great conviction, Polly Jean Harvey continues to follow her own star. However much she is placed on a pedestal, the veteran English singer-songwriter remains the real thing: a musician of major talent, capable of striking originality, and sincerely concerned with using music to make important statements, both personal and political. Her newest work, The Hope Six Demolition Project, is explicitly and uniformly political; and in an age when most rock musicians have abandoned the attempt to offer serious social commentary, that alone makes it stand out. All the more disappointing, then, that the album turns out to be an awkard affair. It has its strengths, but this one will not be taking its place among the major successes of P. J. Harvey’s career. Continue reading

The Hateful Eight

There has always been a magic in Quentin Tarantino’s way with words. He has the gift of being able to write textured, beautiful dialogue that somehow sounds both earthily naturalistic and completely unlike anything you’ve ever heard anybody say. His newest film, The Hateful Eight, ought therefore to be the film that foregrounds and celebrates this talent to the fullest extent; for it is a three-hour character drama consisting almost entirely of a small group of people talking to each other. And yet instead, tragically, The Hateful Eight marks the moment when this director’s talent fails him. The characters in this movie talk in a kind of baroque, overwrought, and yet weirdly stilted parody of the distinctive speech we know and love. And what is more, they talk interminably. Tarantino indulges his every whim here, stretching out into the most twisted fever dream of his dizzily feverish career. Because he is a consummate filmmaker, his whims are still interesting enough that they add up to a watchable and sporadically enjoyable movie. But it is a flabby, sprawling thing nonetheless; and if a sensible editor had taken the knife to it, it could have been a much, much better film. Continue reading

Hollywood and Space Exploration: The New Optimism

Something odd is happening in the world of American blockbuster filmmaking. Two years ago, the Oscars were swept by a film that presented itself as a simple, fundamentally realistic, and resoundingly positive – even triumphalist – take on contemporary manned space exploration. That film was Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. The year after, Hollywood’s most ambitious celebrity filmmaker, Christopher Nolan, offered us Interstellar – a movie which suggests that the ultimate solutions to the Earth’s ecological and political problems might lie in a renewed and far-reaching initiative in space travel. And now, in 2015, The Martian teaches us that there is no problem – neither in space nor, by implication, on Earth – that cannot be solved by human ingenuity and intelligently applied scientific understanding. In all three films, we are invited to feel exhilarated by the sheer, glorious potential of human endeavour in space. Optimism about space exploration has soared back into fashion at the top of the film industry. Continue reading

Crimson Peak

It can be a fascinating thing when a very talented artist creates something genuinely and uninhibitedly bad. Watching such imaginative potential being so spectacularly misdirected can be perversely entertaining, even while it is also, of course, saddening and eventually tiresome. Guillermo del Toro is a man with an immensely fertile visual imagination: this is a fact that only those who are thoroughly without imagination themselves could sincerely deny. He is also, we know, a screenwriter and director capable of staggering originality and power. We know this because he made the enduringly mighty Pan’s Labyrinth, which is not a subtle film, but which interweaves its bold strokes of horror, tragedy, and enchantment with perfect balance and gut-wrenching immediacy. And yet with the arrival of Crimson Peak, it is hard to resist the terrible suspicion that this might have been an unrepeatable success. The audience with whom I saw Crimson Peak spent much of it in giggles and some of it in outright laughter. We were lucky that the film is extravagant enough to be enjoyable as an accidental comedy, because we certainly weren’t going to find it enjoyable as the Gothic horror-romance that it’s intended to be. Continue reading

Skyfall, Spectre, and the Politics of Bond

A British flag flutters in the wind against a grey sky. It is weary, but resilient, and in the face of everything, it is still flying. This image appears towards the end of both the last two James Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre. Of course, the Bond franchise has always been suffused with British patriotism. But in their latest incarnation, the films have come to embody a more specific strain of British pride. The spirit on display in the two Sam Mendes-directed instalments is defiant, independent, and conservative to the point of being reactionary. In the wake of Spectre, it is worth reflecting once again on the political agenda that is being subtly and not-so-subtly promoted by these movies. Continue reading

Jurassic World

Early in Jurassic World, the film’s heroine Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) makes a trip to visit the raptor handler Owen (Chris Pratt), who for reasons best known to the filmmakers lives in a small hut miles from anywhere in an empty part of the island. Claire holds a PR-focused managerial job in the titular dinosaur park, which does a roaring trade exhibiting twenty different species of prehistoric beastie to the global public. She seems to pretty much run the show, but the owner of the park has specifically instructed her to get Owen to take a look at the containment facilities for the park’s newest attraction. The crowd-pleaser in question is Indominus rex, a genetically engineered super-dinosaur designed to be bigger, faster, and smarter than the stodgy old Tyrannosaurus (which is, like, so twenty years ago). Claire tries to explain to Owen than the idea behind the new creation is to up the wow factor. But Owen is scornful: “They’re dinosaurs, wow enough.” Continue reading

Gaga and Swift: The Unlikely Inheritor

Last week, Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” landed with a thud in everybody’s news feed. The typical blizzard of unrestrained hysteria, intermingled with the typical eye-rolling from those not yet converted, blew around the internet as per usual. Because after all, we love Taylor Swift. “Serious” pop music critics (what does this term even mean anymore?) talk about her with a level of respect and thoughtfulness usually reserved for the darlings of the indie circuit. It’s all a bit reminiscent of that time last decade when Pitchfork, arch-elitist stronghold of ultra-serious music journalism, randomly decided to get really passionate about Justin Timberlake. But this time it’s broader. What other teen-pop star commands the kind of attention that Swift routinely receives from the musical establishment? Slowly but surely, she has become an institution. And everybody loves her. Except for the haters. But the haters are gonna … you know. Continue reading