I’ve waited 35 years for this, and it is good;
Otherwise known as the sequel with the annoying sidekicks. It was inevitable that Raiders Of The Lost Ark would return as a franchise given its box office obliteration and its origins in serial cinematic storytelling, with Harrison Ford’s imimic inhabitation of the distressed jacket and battered fedora ensuring that Indy would return for further swashbuckling adventures. Three years on however and George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s domestic arrangements had simultaneously soured, and wounded through the process of scathing divorces both their pessimism allegedly bled through to the DNA of Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, the so-called ‘dark’ film of the quartet. ‘Dark’ is a subjective term, and for Spielberg during this period ‘dark’ isn’t exactly a trawl through the visceral horrors of the D-Day landings or the Eastern European holocaust, its more akin to some shadowy photography, an emphasis on claustrophobic interiors and the odd glimpse of PG sanitized violence, but for an ostensive Children’s adventure movie this is quite a sobering affair. Of all the films in the franchise I remember being quite fond of the film, as a kid who tended to cheer the Stormtroopers and boo the Ewoks I embraced the darkness, giggling along to a plot which orbits industrial child kidnapping, ritualised religious abuse and live human sacrifice – perfect for a child. Infamously Tarantino has argued that it’s the strongest picture in the series, frequently airing his personal 35mm print at the New Beverley in Los Angeles, while other voices such as Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish seem to have joined their voice to the contrarian chorus. During this double bill I have to say I did find the picture lacking during some of its mid-peak longueurs and the cringe worthily Orientalism and bumbling racism is all quite despondent, with the addition of Kate Capshaw as Indy’s screeching love interest hardly equates to a Bechtel balance. But like any Spielberg film it has its moments, the glittering jewels scattered amidst the swine, if we take a very careful scalpel to the Temple’s trembling exo-skeleton…
Like Raiders before it I’m guessing you know the film intimately through numerous TV screenings, even if you weren’t treated to a big screen banquet back in those ancient Orwellian days of 1984. We’ll come into the structure and style shortly but the most glaring garments of the film some thirty years hence is the rather high racism threshold, as if this film was released today you could be sure of a storm controversy. You can’t avoid the white savior elements, with Indy literally falling from the skies in order to bring Western civilization and leadership to those poverty-stricken peasants, apart from the ruling caste of the colony who just happen to be heathen child sacrificing maniacs. The banquet scene is distasteful on a number of levels, with some exaggerated baiting of foreign cuisine and customs, although Spielberg plays it as affectionate romp it oozes from the screen like inebriated uncle lecturing you on how Brexit has given him his country back. – not even the effusive Delbert Grady can provide some much-needed decorum. Maybe this makes me sound like a hypersensitive member of the SJW brigade who is reading too much into a film of three decades vintage which in turn was playing on the common social perspectives of the 1930’s, but by any standards Doom has some cringe worthy contours, which isn’t exactly suppressed by the appearance of Indy’s love interest as a haughty, ditzy, shrieking blonde, a perpetual one-dimensional damsel in distress played by Spielberg’s second wife Kate Capeshaw. It’s a dramatic reversal of Karen Allen’s strident strength in Raiders, so you can’t help suspect that both George and Steven’s dark opinions of the opposite sex may have been bleeding in from the real world. Or, y’know, they’ve always been sexist jerks…..
As a villain Molar Ram, despite sounding like a particularly agonizing dental procedure is given short characteristic shrift, he’s quite clearly just a foreign devil with his unchristian heathen ways, and you never really get a sense of his motivations or ultimate purpose. So he’s stolen the mystical stones from the village and is sacrificing to appease Kali but to what end? It’s never particular clear nor why he has enlisted his child slave army to dig for…well, what? For all these diminutions the film like all of Spielberg’s superficial yarns has a pneumatic pace and energy, cribbing from the holistic cliché rulebook of good American guys and bad outsider guys, of swashbuckling swerve and exotic locales. It’s a fine technical achievement for the era, with a reasonable mixture of stunt, design and location work, moving down to the microscopic level with the miniature and model work not overwhelmed with CGI conjurations which had just started to emerge in the industry. I’ve never quite understood why some of the key and high-profile films of this period, including the Star Wars pictures for example were soundstage shot in the UK rather than in Hollywood. Sure the craftsmanship of the British crews was and remains legendary in the business, but it still seems rather expensive to house, feed and shift your entire crew across an ocean, so are the UK’s tax incentives just as attractive then as they apparently are now? If so then why wasn’t Blade Runner for example shot at Pinewood or Elstree? Alien was, so did specific studios have specific resources and deals embedded here? Answers on a postcard please…..
After thirty years of intervening on-screen adrenaline the calm construction of Temple Of Doom seems almost quaint, as it etches the contours of modern action blockbuster model just like Raiders before it, with a setting that is just a little more confined and constrictive. The open Club Obi-Wan sequence – jeez I wonder where that bludgeoning reference is culled from – is a lot of fun with the poison antidote / diamond / double crosses diptych, the inflatable dinghy escape from the abandoned plane as ludicrous as say, squatting inside a lead-lined fridge to survive a thermonuclear obliteration. The film does drag for a little as it desperately tries to force some slapstick romance on Indy and Kate, before the discovery of the Kali crypt and possession sleight of hand. I was dozing a little here, even during the PG perverting beating heart evisceration, but then a step on the accelerator spurned me to action as Steve does manage to set the film back on track with the mine-car chase and the rope-bridge gambit affecting a fine end to a intermittently successful picture. He’s on record as viewing the film as his least favorite of the franchise, citing it as being ‘too subterranean’ is an interesting turn of phrase, but perhaps it also raises the specter of a difficult period in his life which founds its way through into the eaves of the finished adventure. It does feel rote, as I said the banquet sequence is embarrassing and it has little of the charm of its predecessor, but Capshaw isn’t as quite irritating as I suspected, and Short Round does get one good line. So that’s two more key Spielberg’s finally covered, with one more slightly left field effort to examine which has become one of his most challenging curio’s, I don’t think any regular readers will have much difficult in predicting what intellectual and interpretative Matterhorn I decided to scale next. So until those oft-mooted rumors of Indy V coalesce into something more concrete we’ll let our weather-beaten hero ride off into the sunset, the unruly depraved runt of the frenetic franchise;
Chances are, if you’re of the same generation as me who grew up in the 1980’s then when it comes to your formative cinema heroic idol you have two titans to choose from – Han Solo or Indiana Jones. Both are swashbuckling, cheeky, self-confident rogues with an eye for the ladies, nesting within a rather indiscriminate and suspect moral codex. Solo of course was not averse to cold-bloodingly murdering a rival in a crowded bar, with plenty of witnesses and damn the consequences – what’s that? No, LALALA I can’t hear you. The other is less bloodthirsty but equally ruthless, effortlessly dispatching hordes of heinous henchmen and gormless goons as he prances across the world stage, obliterating numerous priceless archaeological sites in order to glean the glory of the international adventuring community. The other connection of course is Harrison Ford, one of the most beloved and popular Movie Stars that emerged with the rise of the blockbuster era, a more slightly more humane and relatable idol than the cartoon caricatures of Ahnoldt or Stallone whom men and women of whatever orientation would like to emulate or fuck. Being the contrarian that I always equate Ford as Deckard, but that didn’t stop me being enticed to take in a pulse-pounding double bill at the BFI, as one of the more gruelling grimoires of their celestial Spielberg season – all four Indy movies, back to back, from midday to midnight. It’s been a long running Menagerie ambition to cover Raiders Of The Lost Ark as a key post-war American film, and I assessed that I could commit to two films in the franchise and then bow out gracefully, having already seen the following instalments on the silver screen – Crusade during its initial theatrical run in 1989, and Skull way back in an already historic 2008. Suffice to say I will deny controversy and assert that this first film in this incredibly popular series remains the pulsating pinnacle, a clear bridge between Hollywood old and new, with a captivating cartography which remains the template of major action adventure releases to this day.
So we’re back in the cinematic realms of wide-eyed, beguiled characters staring off-screen to some scintillating marvel, as the camera slowly tracks in to an enraptured close-up as the John William’s score crescendos in the background. This was Spielberg’s first official collaboration with his old friend George Lucas, he sandwiched between the intergalactic successes of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, when during a well deserved vacation they came up with a character cloned from the Republic Serial avatars of their cinema-going youth. Both men were struck with the archetype of an indestructible, lantern-jawed fortune hunter whom defies certain death at every turn of their globe-trotting adventures, through a combination of athletic pugilism, chaotic chutzpah and ingenious improvisation, a hark back to a simpler media time before those pesky adult themes and ambivalent shadings crept into the American cinema of the 1970’s. Raiders was a smash, the biggest film of the year which ushered in one of the most recognizable and beloved franchises of the modern era, a stalwart of Bank Holiday TV and big screen revivals which still generates feverish speculation on any new instalment to conclude this phase of this character. Although I’m guessing that you can predict and mumble through every scene and story-beat the films remains as entertaining and energetic as it ever has, unlike some of its brethren which do look geriatric compared to today’s CGI catastrophes. The first thing that struck me was the sheer pace and design of the film, opening with a now iconic set-piece to establish the tone, followed by a long and talky exposition scene – we need to get this MacGuffin in order to prevent the antagonists from taking over the world – before setting out on a metronome sequence that oscillates between character beats and actions sequences, all the way through to it’s strangely inanimate finale. Well, I say inanimate but I mean that in a protagonist sense, but we’ll come back to that…….
It’s the combination of spectacle and spectator that has carried it through the years, the sheer energy and drive coupled with Ford’s charismatic exhaustion which has reverberated over thirty-five years of entertainment. Indy arrives as a fully formed hero as if we’ve seen him in numerous tales beforehand (which in a sense we have of course, in archetype) whom undergoes precisely zero development or learning throughout his globe-trotting trials and adventure. However he isn’t a dyed in the wool American screen Übermensch of the era as screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan has given Indy some human frailties, his fear of snakes may seem trivial but in fact becomes a clever plot point to provide some humanist empathy, and Ford’s constant expressions of surprise, bewilderment and exasperated exhaustion all add to a human figure prospering through extraordinary circumstances, lightening the tone with a zephyrous comedic tilt. This time around I just thought it a little weird that for a man so driven with the thirst for knowledge and the protection of sacred ancient treasures Indy was not exactly averse to utterly demolishing numerous ancient dwellings and site of spectacular archaeological interest, but I guess a two-hour, $80 million translation of Time Team might not have had the same universal appeal. At least he does get to do some intellectual detective work, a quality which seems sorely absent from the latter instalments, giving a chance to slow the pace down a little and reveal in a little mystical adventure and wonder, a natural fit with Spielberg’s cinematic raison d’être. Alongside Ford the films secret weapon is Karen Allen, a spirited damsel in distress to be sure which is a shame given that her initial, memorable introduction, but she remains a major character throughout the movie with occasional shards of her own agency, constantly striving to extricate herself from her circumstances, and isn’t afraid to give Indy a smack in the chops when he deserves it.
Although this was a digital print, another factor which teased my antipathy it was one of those transfers which has been carefully balanced to align modern clarity with ancient grain, retaining a period visual sheen which seems a perfect marriage to the 1980’s imagining the 19330’s source material. Now I suppose you’d like some of the trivia, huh? Well, I haven’t bothered to do any research and I’m sure given the fanbase that plenty of excavations of the film’s production have made to a forensic detail, but I do recall that Klaus Kinski was first offered the creepy Tott henchman role, and the prospect of seeing that psychopath screaming through a Spielberg production could have been quite a historic treat. Tom Selleck was a major TV star during the production and he was first in line for the fedora, and if I recall correctly there was some apprehension that Ford could be typecast given his explosive fame as a certain Correlian scoundrel, but he won the part and the rest, as they say, is history. Some of the matte and compositing work has naturally dated but not to any major disruptive degree, what really pops on the big screen is the astounding stunt work, knowing that this was all conducted for real really makes you nervously grip your seat-arm, despite sitting through the film numerous times. This wouldn’t be the Menagerie without some tenuous Kubrick link, so I’ll just report that it was during the filming of the Well Of Souls sequence for Raiders that Steve met and made friends with Stan who was shooting his horror masterpiece on an adjoining Elstree stage, shortly before his Overlook Hotel stage burnt to the ground in suspicious circumstances, necessitating an expensive and exacting reconstruction which pushed his production back for weeks. I also had to chuckle at the film’s most glaring logical failure, when in the immediate pre-climax scene Indy cautiously boards a diving submarine, followed by one of those cartographic montages which details its re-emergence on the a remote Aegean island many hundreds of miles hence. So how, exactly, did our hero manage to hold his breath for what, three or four days in the churning chaos of the South Atlantic?
Another point that is buried beneath the films pyrotechnics is an odd secular dichotomy. At one point the great Denholm Elliott, Indy’s sober academic colleague ominously warns of the perils of toying with forces beyond our feeble comprehension, as the biblical power of the Lost Ark is more dangerous that mortal imagination. Indy replies that it’s all mystical mumbo-jumbo, and he’s only in it to rescue a treasured artifact so it can be properly be preserved and examined. During that memorable climax that induced a thousand hours of adolescent nightmares there seems to be a change of faith in our hero, as he instruct Marion to close her eyes in a last-minute conversion to the holy vengeance of these terrifying, devastating djinn. Raiders is an umbilical link from ancient to modern as it connects the silver screen idols of yesteryear, the Errol Flynn’s and Douglas Fairbanks’s to the more modern action hero, still much far more charismatic and charming than the current crop of identikit french-cropped robots. Oddly, I don’t own any of the films in the franchise but I grew up them on constant rotation, I guess they’re on TV so much I never feel the pressing urge to fire up Temple Of Doom or The Last Crusade, but they never fail to make a couple of hours fly by in a throughly entertaining fashion. I will resignedly go and see the BFG despite the middling reviews because hey, it’s Spielberg, and my tradition of following certain influential entities must be maintained to retain some long cherished traditions. His latest films haven’t exactly set the box office alight, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone waiting in the wings to inherit his mantle as we move toward more augmented reality for our leisure pursuits. I’m clearly getting older and older as it’s taken me a few days to divulge why various social media streams have been so choked with Pokémon related paraphernalia, until I understood that this new game heralds a definitive new charge into virtual interaction while Minority Report’s predictions seem increasingly medieval, maybe that glum assessment of cinema being an increasingly marginalised experience are all too true. But we’re not quite riding off into the triumphantly John Williams scored sunset just yet, as the next stop on our journey will take us to the mysterious Indian jungle for one of Steve’s rare ‘dark’ movies….
For some years now I have been nurturing something of an exasperated antipathy of Star Wars, well before the likes of this was inevitably commissioned*. This position isn’t due to some pathetic notion of Lucas ‘raping my childhood’ with the prequels, nor is it some contrarian impulse to assert alternative credentials and dislike a popularly loved media entity. No, I’m just kinda exasperated of its permanent perch on the pedestal of the greatest trilogy of all time©, when by any objective notion they are fantastically entertaining adventure movies which pushed the boundaries of popular cinema, subsequently marred by their creators constant meddling and psychologically telling insistence on suppressing the original release versions. It was not always thus, I am of course of that exact generation which grew up utterly indoctrinated and fascinated with this universe as a child, although I don’t recall my first viewing of A New Hope I fondly remember queuing for Empire in my home town for many hours, my head spinning with the excited chatter regarding that revelation which provoked such an audible gasp in the auditorium. It was also the toys, comics, bed-spreads, t-shirts, posters, tie-in novels and paraphernalia which ultimately sealed the deal of course, the powerful tractor beams trained firmly on my pocket money, alongside such other magical worlds as Indiana Jones and Marvel Comics, Dungeons & Dragons and Battle of The Planets. Time passes, new obsessions come and go, yet a mild rush of apprehensive glee erupts at the re-release of the films before the new prequel trilogy is unleashed in the late 1990’s. When it comes to that sector of the legendarium there is absolutely nothing that needs saying other than RLM’s perfect deconstruction of that phase, so we’ll just leave that trilogy alone. Due to that disappointment my sensors and shields were up when the inevitable was announced, although my resistance slowly began to crumble when original Empire and Indiana Jones scribe Lawrence Kasdan was appointed as wordsmith, and further eroded by the rumblings coming from the camp about how they wanted to ‘move away from explanation and back to the emotion’ of the series. That factor alone perfectly encapsulates what went wrong with the prequels, and the fact that J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy immediately seized upon that for emphasis was an extremely positive signal. Then we learned of the commitment to practical SFX elements, the decision to shoot back in London, and then that spectacularly executed excitement campaign which culminated in that superb trailer back in October – say what you will about Disney but that mouse knows how to market the fuck out of a property. Now, after a simmering volcano of anticipation finally erupts we are here for the seventh film a mere decade after the last languid instalment, and just to be absolutely clear there will be mild plot SPOILERS, not major plot turns or anything but some general commentary on character canon appearances and some nerdy gnawing on the movie, so consider yourself warned. I liked it a great deal, it was a colossal supernova of fun but c’mon team, this ain’t no five-star work of towering genius nor should we have expected it to be.
As you may have inferred from the trailer The Force Awakens is essentially a two hander in which the mythical baton is handed to a new breed of heroine and hero. First up we meet John Boyega’s exiled stormtrooper FN 2187 or Finn as he is soon anointed, after he assists ace resistance fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to escape from the clutches of the fascistic First Order, the latest iteration of the galaxy’s darker forces that have arisen from the smouldering vestiges of the Empire thirty years ago. After fleeing to the desert planet of Jakku Finn makes a tentative connection with vagabond scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley – an instant megastar), a mechanical protégé with a mysterious, abandoned themed past. Rey has recently acquired the spherical droid BB-8, an unassuming and unthreatening unit which secretly holds valuable information of the whereabouts of a certain Luke Skywalker esq., the last remaining Jedi whose disappearance has caused much consternation among the rebellion and their struggle against the ascendant First Order. Alongside Supreme Leader Snope (Andy Serkis with some horribly rendered CGI motion capture, one of the films major stumbles) the evil guys are tyrannically led by the mercilessly threatening Kylo Ren (a petulant Adam Driver), a tempestuous devotee of the dark side who frantically seeks the droid in order to locate and obliterate Skywalker, leaving the galaxy at the mercy of their new, ominous, planet vaporizing super-weapon.
As we all know the primary influences on Lucas alongside the teachings of Joseph Campbell were chanbara Kurosawa pictures, childhood Republic serials and allegedly some French manga may have been a inspiration, a conflagration of sources which magically touched an entire generation and has defined a major pinnacle of our shared cultural landscape. There are some glaring failures and frustrations in J.J. Abrams near Xerox retread of A New Hope which cast such a spell back in 1977, but despite The Force Awakens broad lack of originality it somehow retains that mystique of wonder and adventure, and there are shards of brilliance littered along this familiar path. Through the desert planet bazaars, cosmopolitan populated alien cantinas, trench-run dogfights, droids harbouring clandestine critical information and sneaking around enemy bases we know we’ve been here before, but in a reassuring not repetitive way, the cinematic equivalent of a safety blanket that you can wrap yourself in and fondly purr with childhood nostalgia. Casting a woman and a black dude as your main players in this new phase of the franchise is quite a statement, and lavishing character development on these potential role models is a welcome 2015 update. Both Boyega and Ridley work, they have chemistry as characters in their own right and together as a team, and like millions of others I can’t wait to rejoin them on future adventures in 2017 and beyond. Boyega is epically charming, boisterous, hapless and amusing in equal measure, he gets most of the best lines in what is a surprisingly amusing script, while they teasingly withhold some elements of Rey’s patronage and destiny which confirms that Kasdan and co. have already sketched out the full new trilogy arc. The crucial family dynamics play front and centre as the nexus of character and plot, awarding the picture a purpose and drive beyond the CGI pyrotechnics and set-pieces which veer from the satisfying to the strained.
At its best the Star Wars series was always about fulfilling your potential, of the family ties that bind and the weight of expectations and destiny. Lucas obliterated these core elements, the essence of what made these films so universally appealing across cultures and generations with his trite midi-chlorians concept, a who shot first? level stake through the heart of the franchise on every possible level in those execrable prequels. The notion of the Force™, an ethereal essence that ‘binds us and the universe together’ always had vestiges of some rather irritating Californian new-age, yoga, finding-your-inner-strength crystal shaman worshipping nonsense but it still worked as a magical ideal in the best of the films, as a unifying propellant of the characters evolution and turmoil. One major achievement of The Force Awakens is to restore some balance to this concept, injecting a level of emotional heft and magical wonder that was suffocated in the prequels green screen paraphernalia and dreadful scribing. This instalment culminates in a genuinely thrilling duel between the new characters which has genuine dramatic heft, is beautifully rendered in a stark, petrified snow draped forest, with a brutal and aggressive density that is the equal of the pivotal melee’s in Jedi or Empire. However in terms of pacing and structure I felt that The Force Awakens only really gets blasting in the final act, while it champions a quivering conclusion, one crucifix symbol arrangement of lightsabres reflected on a characters eyes during a key moment an example of the mythic invocations that the film wields with confidence.
That takes us neatly to a final positive before the movie’s grievous faults struggle to the surface. Adam Driver may have been blessed with the most complex villain in the franchise, sinking his teeth into a juicy role with furious aplomb, bringing to mind obvious quips like We Need To Talk About Kylo due to his adolescent tantrums.His intemperate and fluctuating broadsword says as much about his position and control of his world as any dialogue splutter could hope to imagine, and reminds us of the importance of these phallic tools in this psychic universe. Wretched though was Domnhall Gleeson’s General Hux who was so good in Ex Machina, an almost Spaceballs parody of an EVIL VILLAN, further demystified with the horrendous introduction of the poorly rendered Supreme Being who oozes about as much dark charisma as a Hoth chilled lettuce. There is no grasp of the SF political framework which Episodes IV – VI easily mustered, and the reveal of yet another Death Star 3.0 clone induced a shrug rather than a symbiotic shudder. Gwendoline Christie from Game Of Thrones barely registers as Captain Phasma, I guess maybe they’re saving her for the sequels, and while Oscar Iassc’s Poe Cameron is a likeable new roguish inclusion (‘Who’s going to speak first?’) his disappearance and handwaved reappearance is just ugly and incompetent screenwriting.
Most regrettably the old gang, when they finally appear should be a major movie moment, right? We’ve waited to see this since we were little kids haven’t we? To me they all looked kinda uncomfortable with some terminal line readings, although Han and Chewie do grow into the movie after a very flat introduction that feels like it escaped from one of Abrams Star Trek reboots. Carrie Fisher was especially wasted as the newly promoted leader of the resistance, would it be too much to ask to have at least two or three scenes with Han and Leia interacting and emoting? Nevertheless like other Abram’s joints you roll with the punches as it hyperdrives along with barely a chance to catch your breath, the old school wipes and John Williams score papering over the narrative cracks, robustly retaining that sense of swashbuckling adventure which follows a familiar template – land on planet, exposition chat then oh no an Empire attack!! Flee to planet, mess about, oh no a
Empire First Order attack! Some of the major plot turns are clearly telegraphed and don’t feel particularly earned through structure, intellectual investment nor symbolic strength to earlier episodes – without getting into spoiler territory some montage flashbacks could have supplied some sense of the events of the intervening three decades that would have successfully cemented the scale of the current crisis and peril. Nevertheless these characters are so iconic, there is so much affection for them that certain events still retain a powerful charge, and Abram’s milks them for all they’re worth on simultaneous narrative and thematic levels which should be interesting to contemplate as the new guard replaces the old.
The Force Awakens is a reformulated rollercoaster of a film, drenched with enough universe detail and callbacks which don’t overwhelm the new inclusions, and its clear that if we didn’t like spending time with Rey and Finn this project would have been scuppered from the start. Technically it musters a formidable array of designs, creatures, vehicles and weapons which are enough of a pleasure to wallow within, although the emphasis on practical effects diminishes into the usual CGI maelstrom in the final act, but in broad brushstrokes the series and franchise seems to be heading in the right direction now that the property is free of George Lucas’s tyrannical, controlling clutches. Here is a fine primer and here is the legendary Marcia Lucas article, arguing that her enormous influence on the original movie has been criminally airbrushed from history, while this is a perceptive but spoiler tainted review. Alas we have an agonising wait until Episode VIII drops, helmed by the talented Rian Johnson in the summer of 2017, but until then we have a side universe film next Christmas, and no doubt every year from now until the end of time. I enjoyed The Force Awakens a great deal, I’ll buy it when it hits shelves but I wasn’t immediately inclined to go and see it again. That initial reaction has waned since Thursday so I’m up for a revisit once the queues have quieted down. Like millions of others I had that shared weird sensation as the lights dimmed and the opening crawl blazed across the screen, sans the famous 20th Century Fox logo which we all know signals a pavlovian twinge of childhood nostalgia, while both the things I admired and disliked about this long-awaited picture have both amplified and aligned. The last word is this, and you’ll forgive me as we don’t get many chances to fully embrace the cliché but fuck it I’m going there, as in the final analysis yes, the force is strong with this one;
*David Thomson, for the uninitiated is one of the worlds leading cinema commentators / critics / writers, so that’s not just the hack attack piece you might think at first glance. Although this is the guy whose writing has become increasingly personal about his subjects personal lives rather than the work itself over the past fifteen years, and whom hilariously boldly predicted that Avatar would be a monumental Ishtar level flop back in 2009…..
To celebrate their 75th anniversary the magnificent National Film Theatre held a poll to determine which one film their panel felt most appropriate to share with future generations, a nice alternative to the usual ‘Best Film Ever’ tradition and I think a sign of our entrenched, forward looking cultural temperature. It wasn’t a huge shock to see the mighty Blade Runner steal the top spot, it regularly and appropriately gets nominated as one of the most intriguing and prescient movies ever made, as the years slip away and the inexorable march to 2019 continues it seems that more and more of its 1982 predictions come incrementally closer and closer to realisation. I was naturally overjoyed at the award to one of my favourite films and couldn’t wait to see the arrangement of events the NFT had programmed, it was quite an agenda which I’ll outline for you here. After the Kubrick retrospective and this event I wonder if I’ve accidentally sold my soul or something, if a John Carpenter season emerges toward the end of the year then I will run shrieking to the nearest cathedral. Again.
The day kicked off with a screening of the superb Mark Kermode narrated documentary On The Edge Of Blade Runner (it’s been pulled from Google Video I’m afraid) which is always worth a look, it’s an ideal primer which delivers all the essential details of the movies tortured production history, its genesis in the amphetamine addled mind of Philip K Dick through to the release of the films directors cut in 1992. It’s one of the better documentaries on the movie with some insightful observations, this moment got a huge laugh (1:28) from the terrific M. Emmet Walsh. I also love the story of David Fincher going to see the legendary screening of the recently unearthed pre-director cut print in LA back in 1991, (the reaction to which prompted Scott and Warner Brothers to work on the Directors cut), Fincher attending the screening with the editor on his then current project Alien III, Terry Rawlings who of course was also the editor of Blade Runner and, um, the first Alien which of course was directed by Ridley. How’s that for the incestuous world of film-making?
The documentary was followed with a lengthy panel discussion of the film including producer Michael Deeley, academic Will Brooker (curator of the recently released ‘The Blade Runner Experience‘) and probably the worlds foremost authority on the movie Paul M. Sammon, author of Future Noir which I strongly urge any film fan to pick up not simply for its comprehensive coverage – Sammon was actually on set for 75% of the film’s shooting schedule – but also for a prime exemplar of the very best of film writing, at least from a production and trivia modus operandi. Sammon has spent years trying to identify who in the art production department came up with the films specific marketing font used in the poster art and VHS packaging, that’s just one example of the obsessive level of research. The first section of the panel discussion was a little idiosyncratic, focusing on the projects financial construction, the $21 million budget parsed equally between domestic theatrical US rights for Warner Brothers, foreign theatrical territories resting with Sir Run Run Shaw and the peripherals, the VHS, merchandising and TV transmission global rights resting with the idiots Jerry Perenchio and Bud Yorkin who are entirely responsible for the production difficulties, the constant heckling and interference culminating with the sacking of Scott and Deeley once the film went $1 over budget and the subsequent poor quality releases of the film over the intervening twenty or so years. Deeley outlined exactly how they are essentially the archetypal Hollywood money men, utterly uninterested in any artistic merit who only invested in the film as a complex tax evasion strategy. Responding to the inevitable sequel questions Deeley remarked that those rights now rest with Yorkin due to a complex sequence of legal manoeuvring which gives them preference over any new material, according to recent lore his son is in the midst of writing Part 2. Yeah, can’t wait for that…
Every film fan loves a tale of their beloved artists pitted against the philistine executives who fuck up a potentially outstanding piece of work by constantly turning the screws to make a project more ‘commercial’, more marketable with more merchandising opportunities however Deeley quite rightly conceded that sometimes that sense of pressure and conflict on set can actually push people to produce even more outstanding work, a peaceful and harmonious production environment sometimes resulting in bland and tepid films. A fair point I think, nothings changed in the past 25 years it seems. Some more specific anecdotes and general observations were then discussed including the films title being culled from a William Burroughs story, the antipathy between Ford and Scott, the outstanding model and effects work and other well known facets to the film that I won’t regurgitate here. I did enjoy Brookers observation that one of the alluring facets of the film beyond its core as a movie itself is the existence of the many different versions of the film, the inconsistencies (the differing number of replicants in many of the versions for example) and amendments that occur in each incarnation reflecting back on the films central themes – a detective story within a detective story – making it a truly meta-textual post modern masterpiece. Heh, yes I guess he is an ivory tower academic but what can I say, I unapologetically love that kind of observation. As you’d expect the discussion concluded with the most obvious question, is Deckard a replicant or not? Does he even know he is if he is? Does he think he’s a replicant even if he isn’t? The usual arguments were expressed, I prefer to keep it ambiguous and treat it as a logical reaction to the films intrinsic depths and strengths.
In the interim between the discussion and next event I rushed to the NFT bookstore and picked up a hardback copy of Future Noir and got it signed by Sammon, (he quite amusingly penned ‘Have A Better One’ before his signature which may raise a knowing smirk amongst you fellow fans out there) along with a copy of Brookers book, some photos of the set-up from a fellow blogger
here (EDIT – Alas the link has been updated to the homepage). I’m a nerd I admit when it comes to certain films, I was in amused awe however at the fellow attendees who produced some truly remarkable pieces of Blade Runner memorabilia such as Roy Batty action figures, original UK story annuals and most impressively in front of me one acolyte unfurled a perfectly preserved original movie poster signed by at least fifteen people (including Scott, Ford, Hannah and screenwriter Hampton Fancher from what I could see) for Deeley to add his autograph too. That’s far beyond my level of obsession I have to add, I have never been in the least bit interested in the (for me) irrelevant action figure Otaku sub-culture that coalesces around these events, I will however confess a secret ambition to one day develop an expensive film poster acquisition obsession but that’s just me. Whatever floats your boat I guess, using my ESPER I’ve located some links to deleted and alternate scenes of the film that may interest you.
Naturally such an event would have to include an actual screening of the film, right? I’ve seen the movie in its various incarnations around a half dozen times on the big screen but the pristine digital screening of the Final Cut version that followed in the enormous NFT1 was something special, far and away the best screening I’ve enjoyed. When I first saw the Final Cut version of the film it was at the cosy Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton which was fine, you may remember my previous report on that event which I’ve already published on this blog but the scope and scale of the image and sound coupled with the electric atmosphere in this auditorium was quite a different experience, especially since I wasn’t distracted by geekily identifying the slight changes to the film that dominated my previous viewing. Every time, without fail that opening sequence as the music swells up and the Los Angeles hades of 2019 materializes on screen I’m in total and utter cinema heaven, simple as that. The sound of the Spinners reverberating around the theatre, the crystal clear fascinating imagery and the now defunct practice of presenting the credits for a good two minutes before launching into the movie itself, acclimatising the viewer to the cinematic experience and the future world we will be exploring are all unbeatable to me.
How do you beat that? Well, you have an interview and Q&A with Roy Batty of course. The event was appropriately chaired by Sammon, Hauer was thoroughly charming and very, very funny. Sammon had a curious tendency to begin talking about himself and his history with the film during the interview which was fine for the panel discussion but I and the audience begin to feel impatiently uncomfortable with his recitals as hey, we’re here to see Rutger and get his perspective and recollections of the film not your admittedly impressive but inappropriately timed recollections. When one anecdote relating to Sammon’s close relationship with Philip K. Dick started to trail on and on and on Rutger cheekily interrupted his speech with the question ‘Let me tell you about my mother‘?, you can imagine the reaction:
Once the crowd had stopped laughing we got some insights and further anecdotes, how he and Ridley envisioned the replicants as being essentially children (‘wow, you’ve good some really nice toys here…’) coupled with adult senses of mortality given their four year life span which informed his approach to the character. Roy’s unusual tattoos seen during the final scenes were never explained by the production designer or make-up artists, it was concluded that they may be the results of the gene bank style birth of the replicants rather than some adolescent stab at individuality. On the production side Rutger explained that he became increasingly aware of the outside pressures on the film which centred around the ‘hero’ – Deckard – being essentially an impotent, incompetent jerk who ‘ends up fucking a washing machine’ as the emphasis began to turn on the replicants and the themes surrounding their existence and experiences – he barely spoke to and never connected with Ford.
Finally of course the discussion turned to that scene. Quite honestly I always believed until relatively recently that the story of Rutger conjuring up that speech himself, independent of the screenwriters was one of those myths that actors sometimes verbalise, especially when talking about film moments that enter public consciousness and can effectively build an actors future career. Well, another slice of humble pie was choked down by the Mint when I saw this confirmed a few years ago, Rutger explained how he calmly developed the speech himself as the shoot came to its close, called Ridley into his trailer and delivered his soliloquy which resulted in Ridley pausing for a moment, looking down in a pensive fashion, smiling and enthusiastically murmuring ‘Lets shoot it now’. That’s how film history is born.
Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get tickets to the final event, an interview and discussion with none other than the great Sir Ridley Scott himself which given his commitments (he’s got two movies on the go and of course is based in LA) was quite a coup for the NFT. I’m in two minds on missing out on this one, on the hand I was furious with the NFT for once again releasing tickets for anyone, members and non-members alike at 11.00am on a phone line when the event was announced – I spent half an hour on the phone trying to get through to the Box Office without success whilst simultaneously attempting to book on-line (yes, I can multi-task) with a system that crashed every couple of minutes before you could get through to the payment section. Absolutely useless and I ask again, why do I pay my £40 yearly membership subscription again? A fair crack of the whip with other BFI members would have been fine, that’s life but such an approach to ticket allocation is not ideal. On the day however since I hadn’t had the chance to catch anything to eat since breakfast due to running around to buy books and signatures between events I was quite happy to slip away although I’ve had trouble tracking down any coverage of that interview since. C’est la Vie.
I’m normally a glass half empty kind of guy but given the pedigree of the previous segments of the day I had a fantastic time, I got some pointers on new avenues of exploration regarding the film – apparently there is a wealth of outstanding mash-up cuts out there on bittorrent (the ‘white rabbit‘ edit allegedly being the best) which normally don’t interest me but hey, this is Blade Runner. I’ve made a promise to visit LA ten years hence to see how things turn out, a pilgrimage I’m sure which won’t be unique amongst us film fans and new devotees who fall in love with this remarkable movie over the next ten years. Lets finish with a potentially controversial clip of the original ending to the movie, famously culled from out-takes of Kubrick’s opening scene of The Shining. I love the fact that some filmmakers still trumpet the original ending, Del Toro is on record for actually preferring the original theatrical noir voice-over and ‘bad ending version’, of course I agree that the re-dux versions are superior and the happy ending is nonsensical, however there is just something about this sequence that I will always love and enjoy. ‘Have a better one…..’
After much speculation, after much anticipation, after much conjecture and some early negative reviews, ‘Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull‘ (after typing that out twice its only just occurred to me what a unwieldy title that is) is here. As it coincided with a best friends birthday, I booked us tickets front and centre at Odeon Leicester Square for this one, quite apt since I’d seen ‘Crusade’ with the same friends wwwaaayyyyy back in 1989 in the slightly less ostentatious Odeon Peterborough. How times change eh?
So, does it live up to the hype and fan-boy anticipation? Well, let’s give you a spoiler free brief synopsis first. As the film opens Indiana Jones and his pal ‘Mac’ McCale (Ray Winstone) find themselves in the clutches of the evil communists led by Irina Spalko (a hammy but amusing Cate Blanchett) as they infiltrate Area 51, the American government’s repository of its most dangerous secrets and devices. The dirty commies are on the hunt for a mysterious otherworldly artefact, a device of incalculable power that will enable the Soviets to win the cold war and overwhelm the forces of justice and freedom. Escaping their clutches (c’mon, its Indiana Jones so I’m not giving much away) in a truly spectacular fashion Indy finds himself expelled from his teaching job back in the states (some sly 50’s McCarthy criticism here) and is compromised by friendship and duty into hunting down the titular crystal skulls before they fall into the hands of the red conspiracy. Along the way he is joined by the rebellious whippersnapper Mutt Williams (a tolerable Shia La Beouf) and some blasts from the past as he races to an ancient temple in deepest South America to complete his quest….
For the most part I thought this was absolutely terrific. All I wanted from this was, well, an Indiana Jones movie – some quips, some pulse racing action sequences, a bit of Republic Serial derring-do and a little bit of self referential fan-boy gestures all of which the film delivered in spades. With one exception the first thirty to forty five minutes were quite disappointing to me and you could clearly see Lucas’s fingerprints all over them – the unfunny meekrats, the focus on 1950’s Americana, the bloody obvious referencing to this all triggered warning signals that the negative reviews may well have been accurate. Once the action shifted to South America however the action was fully unleashed and the next two acts were overwhelming, fantastic adrenaline fueled fun. Ancient ruins concealed by waterfalls, creepy crawlies, cartoon bad guys, swordfights, air travel montages of our heroes traveling to foreign climes, booby traps and blowdart wielding savages – it’s all here. Considering the schwaltzfest this could have degenerated into I was hugely relived to see some of the atypical Spielberg family structure background material being pretty much sidelined – no vomit inducing tearful reunions or life lessons here which can wreck his films (SPOLIER ALERT as it’s the final scene but A.I anyone?)….
People have complained that the film feels like a computer game level, comments similar to my observations on ‘Apocalypto‘ a while ago but I think they’ve really got this the wrong way round. Indiana Jones was obviously a huge influence on the likes of ‘Tomb Raider‘, ‘Prince of Persia’ or ‘Pitfall‘ and naturally Spielberg has reverted to the same structure that the Indy films helped template back in the 1980’s – lets face it, it’s not really in anyone’s interest to experiment with some daring narrative structure or tamper with the formula when all you need is a macguffin, some quips, some superbly designed and executed action sequences coupled with a palpable sense of wonder and adventure which the film generates and certainly climaxs with. It’s also interesting to see the Soviets as the bad guys again which seems apt considering the sabre rattling that has been occurring over the past couple of years – I’m not in any way suggesting that this was deliberate on the part of Lucas or Spielberg as I’m sure as soon as they decided years ago to shift the story from the 1940’s to the 1950’s they really only had one tyrannical empire around who was bent on world domination – it’s just another intersection of film and the ‘real’ world in my book.
The BBC have shown the original trilogy of films over the last three successive Sundays and I caught ‘Raiders’ and ‘Last Crusade’ to whet the appetite as it were. Although ‘Raiders‘ is of course a classic and the opening of ‘Doom‘ is terrific my favourite remains ‘Crusade‘ which I thought stood up pretty damn well for its twenty year vintage. Yes, some of the interactions between Indiana and his old man are tiresome especially as I have personally always held a mild dislike of Sean Connery but the action scenes are far more exciting and well choreographed for me and the gags are better. More films are apparently in the frame although Spielberg quite effectively answers some of the speculation and rumour that Shia Lebouf is being groomed to replace Ford in the franchise in ‘Skulls’ final shot – nice touch.
At last. Finally the ‘Final Cut’ of the classic SF film ‘Blade Runner’ hits London. If there is one film I consider myself to be something of an expert on then it’s this one. I must have seen it well over 100 times, in my mis-spent youth I’d watch portions of it every week and can pretty much predict every line of dialogue, every edit, every sound cue…..I’m also good fun at parties. Therefore be in no doubt that this will be a particularly nerdy fan boy type post – you have been warned. Naturally, major spoilers also abound so go see the movie if you haven’t already. Do you really need a plot synopsis? Oh, OK then. Los Angeles, 2019. An unspecified environmental disaster has rendered the earth almost uninhabitable with many of the planet’s wealthy citizens emigrating to off world colonies leaving a predominantly East Asian miasma of citizens to survive in the cluttered West coast metropolis. Harrison Ford is Deckard, a policeman in the Blade Runner unit whose responsibility it is to tracking down and exterminate (or ‘retire’ in the films parlance) any rogue replicants – synthetic, engineered human like androids who are used as slave labour, for military or pleasure purposes in the new frontier of the outer colonies. These ‘Nexus 6’ replicants have a mere four year lifespan installed by there corporate masters and as the film opens we learn that a squad of six replicants have escaped their servitude, murdered their human masters and returned to earth in an effort to eradicate their impending death sentence.
This is a film which you simply have to see at the cinema. I literally had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up as the film dissolved in after the opening crawl to present the inferno of future-noir LA as the Vangelis score echoed around the auditorium. The new digital print is exquisite – the neon illuminations blaze through the omnipresent rain, smoke and shadows. The Final Cut really is a perfect example of seeing films on the big screen as intended – seeing the movie again I was reminded of the horrendous pan & scan versions circulating on VHS in the 1980’s and those being screened on TV, those transfers essentially lose 30% – 40% of the image and dramatically reduce your appreciation of all the efforts that Scott and his Production Designers Syd Mead and Lawrence Paul laboured over.
Right then, the changes but quickly I’ll nod to some nice references to Von Sternberg in that article, very insightful. The film is essentially a hybrid of the US Domestic so called ‘gory’ cut (a moniker coined due to the extended scenes of violence such as Pris being shot an extra time, more inserts and lengthy shots of Roy’s murder of Tyrell and his impaling a nail through his hand during the finale) and the 1992 Directors Cut which exorcised the pointless voiceover and eliminated the ludicrous happy ending. I noted two new lines of dialogue and two amended lines of dialogue, one of which corrects a long standing plot hole in the film concerning the number of adversaries that Deckard faces and another which occurs toward the end of the film that I’ll come to later. There are two inserts at the start of Deckard’s chase of Zhora and Zhora’s death has been partially re-shot with Joanna Cassidy replacing the obvious stuntwoman crashing through the glass in previous versions of the film. Scott has tidied up some of the special effects, erasing some of the spinner cables all inserting some CGI spinners to blend some of dated Matte shots more seamlessly into the image – this all works superbly, we’re not talking Lucas style visual pollution and the efforts enhance the vision. Oh, and the symbolic release of the dove after Roy’s death speech has also been treated. Stop sniggering at the back, I told you I know this film.
And so, alas we come to the change that essentially rendered the final cut as deeply flawed for me. Full disclosure, I got my first and only A+ of my academic career for writing a dissection of the scene where Roy visits Tyrell, his maker and master, for my A Level way back in the early ninties. They have changed the opening dialgue of the scene from Roy’s assertion that ‘I want more life….fucker’ to ‘I want more life…..father. Now, this still makes sense in the context of the scene but it just seems…..wrong. I honestly can’t imagine why they felt they had to do this – I doubt it was to placate any censororing authority given the very limited nature of the re-release so why screw with this pivitol encounter? Perhaps I take these things too seriously but this essentially ruined the cut for me. I have a solution though – I am getting to gips with the media software on the new top range imac I recently treated myself to so I could conceivably upload the film and with the careful application of the editing software restore the line and produce the ultimate Minty cut of the film !! Seriously though, it warrants progression if only for my education of the software and who knows where that may lead….
Normally I have a strong dislike of tampering with films, the so called re-dux and director’s cuts (surprise surprise, Minty’s a pedantic purist – who’d have thought) but given the studio and focus group test screened imposed first cut I can just about forgive Scott – we’re not talking Greedo shooting first or FBI agents being neutered from wielding shotguns to walkie talkies in the re-release of ‘ET’ for example. The Vangelis score. The density of themes and ideas coupled with the incredible projection of a gloomy and uncertain vision of the future – it is a seminal film of the 1980’s and has influenced every worthy SF film since. I also admire the lack of explanation for some of the sub-texts in the film such as the apparent extinction of animals which is never telegraphed by a character speech and gives the film an ambiguous edge. On another note, Sean Young had quite an impact on my adolescent ‘development’ – I don’t think I need to elaborate any further on that….
I’m not going to regurgitate any of the hundreds of academic analysis of the film, many of which I studied at college – the post-modernists loved this movie so it was always a quick fix to cite this film as a source of ‘intertextuality’ or the ‘homogenous discourse of late period capitalism’ when writing an essay and it enabled me to then incoherently bang on about the film for the next 300 words. 25 years later the film still holds some clear contemporary resonance and has ultimately proven to be chillingly prescient in a number of ways. We do seem to be sliding toward an environmental catastrophe. The films theme of the advance of capitalism to it’s ultimate, logical (and ironically) inhuman conclusion of ‘human’ beings themselves being the apotheosis of commerce has it’s echoes in the advent of globalisation and connects to the third and developing world sweat shops that keep us ‘off-worlders’ in the west in our Prada, our Gucci, our Dolche & Gabbana.
For any fan of the film, this is an essential purchase. I’m still quite surprised at how cheap this is, I was expecting and prepared to pay more than double that for this wonderful looking package. I had to exercise astonishing self control in HMV yesterday to not pick it up but since it was my brother who turned me on to the film and it was his copy I wore out with repeat viewings it seems appropriate that he gets me this ultimate release for Xmas – I hope you’re reading this !! I can’t wait to see the work print cut of the film, a holy grail amongst us film geeks As well as five distinct cuts of the film you also get three commentaries, a three hour documentary, various deleted scenes <wipes tears from eyes…..> Man, Christmas is going to be memorable this year…