Many of Robert Zemeckis’s films derive their energy from a technical challenge: how to combine real people with cartoons (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), how to reconfigure human bodies (Death Becomes Her), how to depict an alien world (Contact), how to make a fictional hero interact with news footage (Forrest Gump), how to put the same actor in the frame twice (Back to the Future Part II, an authentic piece of American weirdness and a movie that deserves better than to be lost in the middle of a popcorn trilogy).
35 years after the original Blade Runner changed the landscape of big screen science fiction, Blade Runner 2049 (2017) dared build on the dystopian portrait of the ecologically devastated urban imaged on screen by director Ridley Scott and his team of designers and artists. Just as in the original, this film is as much about the texture of the world on screen as it is the story of the Replicants (artificially manufactured humans created as slave labor) decades after Deckard first strolled the mean streets of L.A.
Ryan Gosling is K, the Blade Runner of this story, a next generation Replicant whose job it is to “retire” the last of the old models, the ones created with a more flexible will that led to rebellion. His new assignment unearths artifacts that leads directly back to the story of Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachel (Sean Young) and the legend of a Replicant child, a messiah myth for the Replicant underclass not unlike the Christian virgin birth: the first non-virgin birth of a race genetically designed in a lab. It’s a story that Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the techno-industrialist who took over the collapsed Tyrell Corporation, will do anything to bury and he sends his own Replicant enforcer, Luv (Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks), to eradicate the evidence.
This is science fiction spectacle and futuristic detective story as art movie tone poem, a conspiracy thriller with flying cars, blaster handguns, and big brawling fights that defies the breathless pace of the action genre.
[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
American Graffiti begins with a shot of Curt, a recent high school graduate, driving up to Mel’s Drive-in, and it ends with Curt watching a white Thunderbird from his airplane seat as he goes off to college. Structurally speaking, therefore, the film revolves around him and his problems as he tries to decide whether or not he’s really going to get on that morning plane and leave behind him his familiar southern California hometown and its ways of life. But in between these two structural goalposts, it’s very hard at any given moment to assign Curt or anyone else the role of principal protagonist, since Lucas deliberately and very effectively plunges us into the seethingly mobile and unstable world of smalltown late adolescence à la 1962, whose coalescence and flux he creates through dispersion of characters and intrigues, crosscut to join them back together. The method is both daring and difficult since so many sets of characters pursuing their various goals could very easily get out of hand, resulting in real narrative chaos. But Lucas and his editors triumph handily over the perils and end up creating an admirably controlled narrative that describes a chaotic evening without ever descending into chaos itself.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Walt Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) – J.J. Abrams takes over the reins of the Star Wars franchise with what is technically a sequel (“Chapter VII: The Force Awakens”) but is just as much a course correction, a reboot, and a return to the source. It’s been called a shameless remake of the original Star Wars and refreshing return to the innocence and energy and pulpy fun that first entranced a generation of fans. I lean toward the latter, but even for those who find it rehash, I would point out that The Force Awakens is not aimed at the adult fans who grew up on the original trilogy all those decades ago. I’m one of those who saw the film on its first run and was thrilled by it. I think that Abrams is trying to recreate that experience for a whole new generation eager to be captured by the charge and action and exotic Amazing Stories covers come to life in a fairy tale space fantasy that takes place long ago and a galaxy far, far away…
To that end, this installment (set 30 years after Return of the Jedi) picks up with another scrappy kid from a desert planet who finds a runaway robot with secret plans and escapes from the resurgence of the Republic with a hunk of junk ship that just happens to be the Millennium Falcon, teams up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who are still smuggling and scamming through way through the galaxy well past retirement age, and joins the resistance under the command of Leia (Carrie Fisher). This time, however, the kid with the essence of the force within is a spunky, inventive young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her running buddy is a former Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) who goes AWOL after his first mission, which turns into a pitiless massacre of innocents.
[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]
Relevance has always been the great bugaboo of science fiction film. Among film genres, sf (“sci-fi” is a flippancy coined during the Fifties by people who took the genre less than seriously; those who know and love science fiction call it sf) has been a distinctly poor relation for the last several decades, sharing with hardcore pornography the obligation to have redeeming social value in order to be acceptable. Even when Westerns, swashbucklers, historical epics, war films, romances and those most improbable of fantasies, musicals, were allowed to justify themselves for entertainment’s sake, or for the sake of a well-crafted work, meaning and social relevance aside, the sf film had to teach a lesson if it was not to fall under suspicion of rotting young minds. It’s as if all those scientists existed to show us that we must not meddle in things man was not meant to know, and all those monsters and invaders came to teach us that we must use science wisely, or that we must trust in God, or in love, or in each other, or remain eternally vigilant against those who would destroy us from within.
The extent to which George Lucas’s StarWarsliberates an entire film genre from this stigma is signaled by the film’s tagline, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” It’s a way of saying that this film has nothing whatsoever to do with human life on earth, now or in the future. In making that clear, Lucas sets his film apart from every other science fiction film. But in setting aside the sf film tradition until now, and returning (might one call it “pre–Flash Gordonism”?) to the aboriginal wellsprings of mythic art, above the watershed where social relevance diverges from the course of pure fantasy (many call it “escapism”), Lucas nevertheless has had to acknowledge the influence of several generations of motion picture genres and styles on his new adventurism. If StarWarscelebrates its own freedom from the generic restrictions of Metropolis, Things to Come, The Thing, This Island Earth, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it also commits itself to the tradition of Tarzan, Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, James Bond. Lucas uses opticals that place us squarely in the world of the Republic serials; and an analysis of the structure of Star Wars reveals a seemingly insoluble crisis about every ten or twelve minutes, with appropriate combat scenes in between (it would be interesting to see how easily commercial breaks could be spaced into Star Warsfor a TV run). The message, if there is one, is nothing more than that adventure is fun;exhilaration of the human spirit is enough to justify a work of entertainment or of art.