Gosh, they made some good films when I was young. I can measure out my teenage years in them: Star Wars, Close Encounters, Alien, Excalibur, Blade Runner, Brazil… It’s no wonder that I ended up writing sci-fi and fantasy, or that half those titles are still generating sequels, spin-offs and reboots forty years on.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has been so influential, and ripped off so frequently by other films, that it’s probably hard for younger viewers to imagine how startlingly new and real it looked when it was released in 1982. Before that, the futuristic cities I’d seen on screen tended to look shiny and super-modernist: pale concrete, spotless pavements, plate glass walls. Blade Runner recognised that the architecture of the future won’t simply replace the architecture of the past, it will be built amongst and around and on top of it. It also understood something that SF writer William Gibson (whose own work was strongly influenced by Blade Runner) put neatly into words; the street will find its own uses for new technology. It’s an extraordinary urban vision, made up of layer upon layer of detail, and every time you watch it there are new things to notice.
Of course, the version of Blade Runner I first watched back in ’82 isn’t quite the same as the one that’s now available. The producers had insisted on adding a voice-over, and a happy ending where Harrison Ford drives Sean Young off into lovely mountains (hastily tacked-on out-takes from The Shining, supposedly). Both these elements were disowned by Ridley Scott and removed from his later director’s cuts, but I think the producers had a point. The escape from the city into big skies and mountains at the end may not have made much sense, but it worked on an emotional level, and Blade Runner is not a film that makes a lot of sense anyway. The voice-over wasn’t a very good voice-over, and most of the things it told you can be worked out just by watching the images, but it helped tie together scenes which, without it, feel more like a lot of loosely connected set-pieces. It was also a sonic reference to the 1940s thrillers which are such an important part of the film’s visual DNA. (I was just discovering Chandler and films noir when it came out, so that link was a big part of its appeal for me.) When I saw the director’s cut, I liked it less.
Another thing which bothered me a bit when I first saw it (and a lot more when I re-watched it in later years) is its quite extraordinary sadism. This is a violent movie, and a lot of its violence is openly misogynistic. When men are killed it’s done quickly or off-screen (it took me several viewings to work out what had even happened to J.F.Sebastian) but the deaths of the women are explicit and elaborately drawn-out. I suppose fans may argue that Scott was making some feminist point about women’s bodies as commodities, but it ends up looking as if he just got a kick out of semi-naked ladies being gunned down in slow motion. The love scene is staged like a rape. I don’t know if this aspect can be described as a flaw – it’s clearly deliberate and the seedy nastiness is an important part of Blade Runner’s unsettling mood – but it certainly makes me less able to love it.
So, as an admirer rather than a fan of the original, I went to see Blade Runner 2049 with a fairly open mind…
Blade Runner 2049 has had an interesting reception. The first wave of reviews was spectacular, praising it as an improvement on the original and one of the best SF movies ever made, but once the film actually opened, a backlash set in, with viewers complaining about its slow pace and the fact that it’s really, REALLY long.
Oddly enough, my own opinion went through a similar shift. On a first viewing, BR2049 was hugely impressive. Ryan Gosling is great as replicant Blade Runner K, and the world of the original is cleverly expanded, and it’s a proper sequel rather than a Force Awakens-style reboot. (I guess it’s a sequel to the director’s cut, since Deckard and Rachel seem never to have reached those snowy mountains, and once you get outside of LA you’re into a landscape of dreary protein farms, gigantic scrapyards, or the orange smog of abandoned Las Vegas.)
The big difference is that it’s not meant to be the future any more, or, at least, not our future. The 1982 Blade Runner was set in 2019, and I watched it feeling that the actual 2019 might well look something like this. The new one takes place in a parallel world where 2019 featured flying cars and replicants and no mobile phones. Perhaps that’s one reason why it feels slightly less real, slightly more dream-like.
Still, it’s a beautiful dream. The city is bigger and colder than before; the rain turns frequently to snow, and huge new structures tower above the Tyrrell Corporation ziggurat which previously dominated the skyline. The score emphasises the wintry mood, constantly starting to quote the original’s Vangelis theme but never quite doing so until one delicate piano piece near the very end. There are some glorious panning shots across vast, foggy skylines, and several memorable versions of that trademark Denis Villeneuve sequence from Sicario and Arrival where a formation of helicopters (or flying cars in this case) rushes over an endless landscape while the music goes BuuhhWHAAAAA, BuuhhWHAAAAAAAA… (In the Exeter Picturehouse the bass notes made the whole screen ripple like a vertical pond.) There’s a curiously sweet relationship between K and his holographic girlfriend Joi, an interesting ambivalence about whether their feelings are real or just the result of programming. There’s a scene where 2017 Harrison Ford encounters 1982 Sean Young which is genuinely unsettling. The sadism is back (there is a lot of needless pain and gratuitous killing; a newborn female replicant is stabbed to death for no reason that I could discern) but it’s less glamourised than before. The questions about What Makes Us Human which the first film raised almost in passing are brought to the centre of this one, the thriller elements used as a framework to hang them on.
But although in many ways it’s smarter than the original, it doesn’t stand up nearly so well to a second viewing. Almost every frame of the first film is stuffed with visual detail. The second is much cleaner, and while that’s often very beautiful – the huge, empty chambers of the Wallace HQ, filled with shifting, rippling golden light – there’s less to look at, less to build a world from. There is nothing here to match the bustling street scenes of the first film, packed with punks and traffic and Hare Krishnas and scurrying pedestrians with neon umbrellas, and annoying traffic lights shouting DON’T CROSS! and CROSS NOW! This city has the same Kowloon vibe, but it doesn’t feel nearly so lived in. Nor do the interiors, which tend to feature blank grey or white or amber walls rather than the gnarly future-deco of the first film (an exception is the old casino, whose decaying grandeur is a nice call-back to the building where the climax of Blade Runner takes place).
And without that visual clutter to keep my mind busy, I started asking awkward questions. If Tyrell/Wallace can make replicants which are effectively fully functioning human beings, why would they have any trouble making one which can reproduce? If this society has huge numbers of unwanted children, and so little humanity that it consigns them to slave labour in ghastly ‘orphanages’, why is there a market for artificial people at all? Does Dr Stelline have a receptionist? How was she set up in her hermetically sealed bubble, and by whom? And does the LAPD headquarters have a receptionist, or security cameras, or some other system which might make it difficult for the same person to walk in and murder its employees TWICE? Is Wallace lying when he suggests that Deckard was only given his mission in the first film so that he would meet Rachel, because that would be a really strange way to get them together – why not just set them up on a nice dinner date? What keeps all the hovering vehicles up? Is the dreary final punch-up in the surf ever going to end? WHAT ARE THE BEES LIVING ON?
Most films (and most novels) have gaps in their plots. It’s not a big deal. The trick is to make them interesting or exciting or pretty enough that the viewer doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care. The original Blade Runner pulled off that trick quite a few times for me. Blade Runner 2049 managed it only once. But once is better than nothing.
So I was keen to see The Force Awakens, and prepared to forgive it quite a lot. (I’m glad that I was able to do so before I read any spoilers. If you haven’t seen it, I’d strongly suggest you read no further…)
Actually, the big surprise about The Force Awakens is that it’s not really a sequel to the Star Wars films, more a kind of reboot, which repeats all the major plot elements of the first film. So there’s another droid carrying secret data, pursued by the usual bad guys, rescued by another young protagonist on another desert planet with the help of another wise-cracking hero who claims to be out for himself but ends up joining the Rebel Alliance – sorry,’the Resistance’. There’s no attempt to explain what happened after the end of Return of the Jedi – the Star Wars universe has just been reset. The evil Empire, which we’d thought had been defeated, turns out to have just changed its name, like a dodgy roofing company, and is now trading as The First Order. The New Republic is presumably the government formed by the victorious Rebel Alliance, but it doesn’t seem to have a military, and instead just ‘supports the Resistance’… oh, I don’t know, none of it makes any sense at all, and the lack of any context for the action is one of the things which eventually makes the film so oddly unsatisfying.
But for the first thirty minutes or so I didn’t care, because, from the instant the yellow Star Wars logo appeared and John Williams’s score kicked in, I’d sunk happily into a warm bath of nostalgia. There’s a moment when good stormtrooper Finn drops into the gun turret of the Millennium Falcon and the old retro targeting system lights up which made me feel eleven years old again. (It didn’t look retro when I was eleven – it looked like The Future.) And another a bit later, when a door opens and Han Solo and Chewbacca stroll in as if they’ve never really been away…
The new characters are mostly good, too. New droid BB-8 is cute and ingenious and fits straight into the Star Wars universe (though I can’t understand why he’s being used to sell oranges when there’s another character, voiced by Lupita Nyong’o, who basically is an orange.) Desert scavenger Rey perhaps remains slightly too much of a mystery (her background will be explored in future episodes, no doubt) but petulant teenage Vader-wannabe Kylo Ren has potential, and I liked John Boyega as good Stormtrooper Finn; he’s slightly goofy and instantly likeable in the same way that Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford were in the original Star Wars. I suppose you could argue that he’s also surprisingly articulate and sociable for someone who has been raised from birth to be a faceless minion, and that he switches sides and takes to slaughtering his former friends with very few moral qualms, but Star Wars was always painted with a broad brush, and that’s the sort of nonsense you have to overlook if you’re going to enjoy the ride.
But pretty soon (about a third of the way into the film) a bit of nonsense arrives which is so big it can’t be overlooked, and my happily suspended disbelief gave up the effort and crashed to the floor. The nonsense in question is called ‘Starkiller Base’, and it’s basically a planet with a laser cannon the size of Greenland built into its equator. Now I like a laser cannon the size of Greenland as much as the next man, but I have no idea how this thing was supposed to work, and the film offered very few clues. It gets its power by draining all the energy from its own sun, then unleashes a pretty red death-ray which can blow up five planets in one go. Then, presumably, it moves on to another sun to start recharging. I know Star Wars has never claimed to be hard science fiction, but Starkiller Base might as well be magic. As far as I could tell (since there’s never any explanation as to where it actually is in relation to anything else) it can hit targets instantaneously in other solar systems. If that can happen, then the internal logic of the Star Wars universe has been bent to the point where anything is allowable.
It isn’t even bedded into the plot properly. You’d think the action in The Force Awakens would be All About That Base, but in fact it makes no difference to the story whatsoever. The first Death Star was fairly silly too, of course, but it was completely integral to the plot of the original Star Wars – almost everything that happens in that film happens on or because of the Death Star; it’s mentioned in the opening title crawl, and the climax is built around its slow, menacing advance on the rebel stronghold. In contrast, Starkiller Base feels like an afterthought. You could cut it out of The Force Awakens completely and still tell the same story. Maybe someone will do a fan edit – Finn and Han Solo could still launch a reckless mission to spring Rey from some conventional base, and you could still end with the same climactic duel. It’s a lousy piece of storytelling, and I don’t think it can be blamed on the writers or director; I reckon it was shoehorned half-heartedly into the script on the orders of studio executives who think a Star Wars film has to end with X-Wing fighters battling their way down a fortified trench.
Once you realise that, you can see the same mindset at work all through the film. Some of the concept art (from the Art of The Force Awakens book) has been appearing on the internet, and it shows landscapes which look far more interesting than the desert world on screen. Who looked at pictures like the ones below and said, ‘We can’t use this stuff. It’s a Star Wars film. It has to start on a desert planet.’?
The thing is, Tatooine wasn’t just some pretty dunes: the first 30 minutes of the original film manage, in a few brisk scenes, to sketch in a whole fragile economy; the nomadic scrap-dealers, the farmers they trade with, the bandits who prey on both, and the long trek to the grubby local spaceport. That’s what grabbed my imagination when I first saw it. Jakku has entire starships buried in in the dunes instead of the alien skeletons we glimpsed on Tatooine, but we never sense how it works. It’s just the backdrop for a theme-park ride (as I write this, Disneyland is presumably importing many tonnes of sand.)
The second big surprise about The Force Awakens is how quickly and how completely people have invested in what looks to me like a fairly cynical corporate rebranding exercise. Fan art based on the film is everywhere, and a lot of it is gorgeous. Some viewers seem to see great emotional or political depth in Rey and Finn. Emo Kylo Ren on Twitter is far smarter than the movie which inspired him. There’s a second-string character called Poe Dameron, who I barely noticed – he seemed to be just a device to get Finn into the plot (I half thought he’d died when their TIE fighter crashed on Jakku, and felt it was a slight cop out when he turned up again later). But lots of people did notice him, and are busy creating whole stories of their own about him. Why?
Perhaps it’s a generational thing. While eleven-year-old me was gawping thunderstruck at Star Wars, the older generation were bewildered by its popularity. Michael Moorcock grumbled that it was ‘a compendium of other people’s ideas’. ‘Totally unoriginal, feebly plotted, instantly forgettable, and an acoustic nightmare,’ sniffed JG Ballard. But to me, that first Star Wars feels like a fairly solid bit of Hollywood storytelling. Now I, in my turn, find myself bewildered by the trend Star Wars has spawned; echoingly empty tentpole movies which sling some beautiful design work and good-looking actors on the screen and leave it to a worldwide web of willing fans to fill in the plot-holes, and write extra jokes, and project personalities and motivation onto underwritten characters. Maybe that’s more democratic, in a way – big films have become just raw material, out of which fans can build their own stories. Maybe that’s why The Force Awakens and most of the other big movies that I see these days always feel like the trailers for something else…