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A New Hope for an old saga: the return of Star Wars.

23 Dec

Christmas is now almost upon us (or has been, if you’re late reading this), and I’m determined to experience some cheer and thought for my fellow man and woman, despite some of the horrors occurring elsewhere in the world. Sometimes, part of that approach can involve a little bit of escapism as well. You know, a good book or a film, transporting you to a world so well realised and self contained, for two hours you can forget. That was essentially the idea director, producer and writer George Lucas had in the mid ‘70s and the end result, of course, was his third film, Star Wars. A more escapist fantasy you would have struggled to find in 1977, when science fiction and fantasy fiction were not fashionable cinema draws, which may explain its huge success. After all, science fiction and fantasy comic books and novels had been selling huge quantities for years, but no one had had the guts to give a comic-book style fantasy film the time and money to make those ideas work on the big screen. Odd exceptions had dented the usual industry reserve about the science fiction and fantasy genres (2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes both came out in 1968 and were both imaginative and cerebral. However, that year’s Barbarella, a comic-book style film done on the cheap, was perhaps more typical of what was expected and was often what we got, whatever its charms).

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So, if the success of the new Star Wars film is partially due to nostalgia, and the love of a long standing fan base, it’s worth noting that Star Wars and its success was reliant on nostalgia from the beginning. 1977 audiences would have correctly recognised Star Wars as a deliberate reworking of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the ‘30s, but George Lucas made Star Wars more than just a vintage sci-fi pastiche. The original film practically remakes Korusawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress and owes much in its content and structure to Joseph Campbell’s book Hero with a Thousand Faces, evoking every adventure archetype we’ve seen since storytelling began. Add spaghetti westerns, World War II dogfights and Ken Adam’s designs for various Bond villain bases to the mix and Star Wars was a mongrel mix of nostalgic influence from the very beginning.

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My main concern about the new film, The Force Awakens, isn’t obviously related to nostalgia, but may still be rooted in it. My childhood love of the series may be the source of my adult argument. The argument I have is that this story (in what is now episode 7 of the saga) didn’t really need telling, but I’m hoping to be proved wrong, or specifically be shown a new story that was worth telling. We’ve been here before, of course, with the much maligned prequel trilogy (The Phantom Menace,  Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith). Lucas had included an intriguing and inventive back story to his saga, as far back as the 1976 publication of the original novelisation (ghost written by the prolific Alan Dean Foster). “The old Republic was the Republic of legend”, wrote Foster, “no need to note where it was or whence it came, only to know that…it was the Republic”. He then detailed the protection of the mystical Jedi knights, who served the senate, the betrayal of a senator called Palpatine, whose Machiavellian pursuit of power led to his eventual election as Emperor. It was a grand, epic history, to serve this new fictitious universe. Did we need three films about it? That’s debatable, and while I know the films charted the fall of Anakin Skywalker and rise of Darth Vader, we could argue that the prequels failed to give either story its best showing.

Perhaps one well written preface and various expository dialogue was all we needed in the end, as the original trilogy gives us the memorable characters, action and strong narratives that the prequels tend to lack. The reality of showing us (instead of allowing us to use our imaginations) was a big let down in the prequels; none of it was as marvellous, grand and epic as the stories promised. Bogged down with concerns over trade federations, charmless robot armies and stiff political exchanges, the prequels floundered in their own self importance. Flash Gordon this wasn’t; more like Question Time, which for a fantasy adventure saga, isn’t such a good thing. The Phantom Menace looked great, for sure, but was it as great as Foster’s preface promised, all those years ago? Additionally, Star Wars was starting to look tired and uninspired, like a cynical marketing exercise. When the glorious masterpieces that are The Lord of the Rings films were released, Star Wars looked inconsequential and shallow in comparison, not the immersive fantasy world experience the Peter Jackson directed Rings films were. Two different entities, of course, and Tolkien’s Rings trilogy had been another nostalgic influence on Star Wars in the first place. Star Wars needed to get back to being Star Wars; not necessarily with the depth and grandeur of Tolkien, but rather back to the swashbuckling panache of the originals. To reclaim its rightful place in the general public’s affections, alongside the likes of Rings and Harry Potter. As director J.J . Abrams had helmed the last two Star Trek films, and invigorated that franchise, his choice as the new Star Wars director seemed a good portent.

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Am I glad to see Star Wars back on the big screen? Yes, I am. But I ceased being a fan a long time ago, in the way I was when I was a kid or a teenager. The prequels admittedly sullied my memory and enjoyment of those originals. Now, with reports that this is perhaps the best Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi, in 1983, the bar has been raised very high. The Force may be strong in this one, but can it defeat the memory of the inferior prequels? Disney didn’t pay $4bn for Lucasfilm so they can dwell on the past; of course they want new product. But as I’ve said, I hope these are strong new stories, worth telling. The film is currently delivering commercially, but I’ll tell you what I think of it later.
To paraphrase Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original film, “…they’re taking an awful risk here, this’d better work”.

I have a good feeling about this.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened at British cinemas on 18 December.

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Ghost Light: The Doctor Who serial that can still leave you in the dark.

30 Jun

Now, although everyone is talking about Game of Thrones, as good as I think it is, my favourite tele-fantasy will always be Doctor Who. So, having avoided any Who related blog articles for quite a while, I did get thinking about some of the more interesting stories to grace the series over fifty years. One in particular came to mind, mainly because it’s an excellent example of the series doing what it does best (and also perhaps worse) all in the same few episodes. It is not my favourite story by far, but it’s certainly one that requires multiple viewings to appreciate and proves itself a rewarding viewing experience. So, I give you:

Ghost Light (written by Marc Platt, directed by Alan Wareing; 3 episodes, 1989)

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Under the Skin: a disturbing statement of what it means to be human.

6 Apr

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If you’ve ever seen and enjoyed Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie, or the work of Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick, you might like the film I saw last night. It was a last minute decision, as a Saturday night plan had fallen through; I ran over to the cinema and got a ticket for Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, and based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, published in 2000. It is a film from director Jonathan Glazer, whose only other two major cinema outings have been Sexy Beast and Birth. As Birth was released in 2003, you can see that Glazer spent a long time getting Under the Skin just right; apparently the final idea for the film came to him quite quickly and significantly late on, and is a much stripped back and intense vision than the one we may have got (which Brad Pitt was signed up for at one point, or so the story goes).

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Under the Skin was the most intense cinema experience I’ve had in years. I’m still thinking about it. Some parts of the film are so genuinely uncanny, and really disturbing, that I did stop to wonder what I’d just spent my money on. Yet because of that, and not in spite of it, I was engaged throughout. Also, it looks marvellous; not pretty, but always coldly beautiful. The cinematography brings the bleak Scottish countryside into the film as almost a separate character, who dominates most scenes with her lonely presence. Every scene seemed to have something to say.

Johansson is presumably an extraterrestrial on some ambiguous mission to harvest humans (which she does in a siren-esque way, picking up blokes in her transit van). How they are transported to a surreal other world of blackness is never explained, sinking as they do into some form of preserving liquid, as Johansson’s succubus steps ever backwards, unaffected by the trap; leading the men trance like to their doom. Lust as a weapon. However, she appears to develop a conscience about half way through, and abandons her predatory assignment, disappearing into the Scottish countryside, with her ‘minder’ trying to find her, perhaps before she does anything stupid.

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There is a lot I had to presume in Under the skin, as the film offers no certain answers.  It does clearly present a creature sent to take advantage of us, who then becomes first fascinated by us and then eager to experience what it might be like to be us. Her attempt to eat Black Forest gateau in a roadside restaurant is amusing and strange; she cannot physically swallow the food and coughs it up. Here, as in her many moments of dispassionate blankness, Johansson is a marvel. Whatever being she is meant to be, and wherever she is from, I never loathed the character. Rather, her alien qualities, as a fish out of water, and the very fact she looks like Scarlett Johansson, seemed to make her all the more alluring; but surely that was the point. Who expects to see Johansson in Glasgow?

Honestly, it was brilliant, but a real mind messer. I’m still thinking about it today. The part where Johansson’s ‘alien’ takes her ‘human skin suit’ off is genuinely jolting; it is that not often experienced place between the visually captivating, and the simultaneously strange, that is actually slightly terrifying; a true moment of the uncanny. Throughout, Mika Levi’s minimalist and experimental score lifts the strangeness further, and is the other notable star of the film.

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Under the Skin is not for everyone; at least two people left the auditorium long before the first hour was through. Essentially static images of snowfall and trees may not engage a more restless action seeking audience, and surreal existential imagery blending sex and death aren’t for everyone on a Saturday night, that is for sure. But it is bleakly beautiful and unnervingly fascinating, and stops us to ponder what it means to be human. It made me think and feel, and that’s as good a reason to see any film.

‘Dune’- Great book, a shame about the film.

15 Oct

The 'Dune' film poster- it doesn't get much better than this. No, really, it doesn't get much better than this....

Sometime, not so long ago, I was meant to go out to the pub and meet a close friend but something personal came up and he had to cancel. With no other social arrangements to fall back on, I thought I’d spend an alternative night of indoor entertainment. Cut to Blockbuster, and what do I see on the sci-fi shelf? Dune, that’s what! After double checking that it was in fact the David Lynch film and not the later TV mini-series, I paid my money and went home to watch it.

Cup of tea made and biscuits out, I settled down to watch it. It all started quite promisingly with some P rincess Irulan giving a monologue about the future of mankind and the spice called malange (Virginia Madsen I believe!). Very engaging and imaginative, and not completely unlike the intro to The Fellowship of the Ring in the feelings it aroused (although nowhere near as emotive).
At that point I was quite excited, especially as I didn’t really remember any of it and it was looking very promising! About 15 minutes in and the script had (quite literally) lost the plot for me. On one hand I really felt I was watching a future, alien society, which was good, but as a piece of entertainment it was almost ignoring the fact it had an audience- characters came and went with little or no introduction or motivation, lines were delivered with little context, scenes were obviously there for exposition and to just drive the plot (but seemed to be failing at both) and some of the acting was particularly poor. Despite great veterans like Max Von Sydow and Jose Ferrer. Although to be fair I’m not sure if that was more to do with the style of the production and the lines they were given as to the actors themselves. On the plus side, Patrick Stewart equips himself well and is one of the few characters to displays any convincing emotion. A lot of the characters also have a corny voice over, which goes some way to explaining what is going on (and confusing things in the process- quite a feat!) Then another character will come in and explain what is happening out loud anyway!…and it still makes no sense! A lot of things happen without much rational explanation (in the context of the universe it’s set in) and I almost got used to wondering what the hell was going on!

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It looks fantastic- all sumptuous Boroque- but while I appreciate it’s a complex story, it’s not that complex! In other words, the narrative should have been clearer. As it was, I found a lot of it a muddled mess that was extremely hard to follow. Too much occurs with no decent explanation. I don’t want to be spoon fed at all, but how they thought this would appeal to the toy buying kids is beyond me; maybe Dino de Laurentis didn’t know what kind of film Lynch would give him. Continue reading