1970s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

The Land That Time Forgot (1975) / At The Earth’s Core (1976) / The People That Time Forgot (1977) / Warlords of Atlantis (1978)

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Director: Kevin Connor
Screenwriters: Michael Moorcock, James Cawthorn, Milton Subotsky, Patrick Tilley, Brian Hayles

By Roderick Heath

Movies like Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) stand large as templates for contemporary blockbuster cinema, for better and for worse. But I’ve long thought of them rather as a culmination in popularity for a neo-pulp movement in cinema that sparked to life in the midst of a moviemaking era generally celebrated today for its tough and arty sensibility, a time when doses of pure escapism and wonderment were sometimes hard to come by, especially for young moviegoers. The neo-pulp mode was initially sparse but doggedly popular, and was practiced by some old stalwarts of the movie industry. Neo-pulp was distinguished by a cheery but essentially deadpan take on material more often played as outright camp during the late ‘60s pop sensibility. Roger Vadim’s film of the naughty comic strip Barbarella (1968) adopted a pseudo-camp attitude but also purveyed pure pulp imagery, and might well have started the movement. Ray Harryhausen kept his brand of retro sci-fi and fantasy going with entries like The Valley of Gwangi (1968) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974). George Pal’s final film as producer was a slightly tongue-in-cheek revisit to pulp fare, with Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975). Robert Stephenson’s The Island at the Top of the World (1974) saw that old-timer concocting Jules Vernian adventures for Disney, in the process laying down a blueprint Disney still refers to and detectable in the likes of TRON: Legacy (2010) and the revived Star Wars films. Not every contemporary special-effects-driven epic counts as neo-pulp but some certainly are, like John Carter (2012) and Pacific Rim (2013).
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Edgar Rice Burroughs, a master of the old school, passed away in 1950, having lived long enough to see his most famous character Tarzan become a pop cultural legend. By the 1970s his kind of fiction was generally written off as an archaic embarrassment as science fiction, fantasy, and the other genres that had flowered in large part thanks to writers like Burroughs were getting all grown up and self-serious. One of the loveliest flowerings of the neo-pulp cinema started in 1974, however, when British director Kevin Connor joined forces with producer John Dark to make three adaptations of Burroughs’ works, The Land That Time Forgot, At The Earth’s Core, and The People That Time Forgot. The appeal Connor’s films wielded for young viewers who might have caught them in the movie theatres at the time of their release or on video years later (as I did), their proliferating populace of dinosaurs and monsters, is today serviced in that regard far better by the Jurassic Park films and their ilk, but without the charm or, frankly, the ideas; struggling through the tepid franchise expansion of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) made me long for these films.
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And not just for nostalgia; they’re lovingly crafted little odes to a modestly executed but pure and wholehearted variety of fantastic cinema and their literary roots. The big difference between Connor’s films and those of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and their inheritors was less one of sensibility than one of budget. These were films too cheap to afford Harryhausen’s exacting, laborious stop-motion techniques, and far too early for CGI, so Connor’s crafty special effects teams, led by stalwarts like Derek Meddings, made use of models, puppets, and animatronic effects. Also, there was a certain pride exhibited by such straitened inventiveness that felt motivated by a slightly different spirit to the drive towards greater realism in special effects Connor’s Hollywood heirs wielded. Connor’s works insist on a certain delight and sense of aesthetic fertility in artifice rather than realism. In that regard they feel just as anticipatory of self-conscious artists of falsity like Terry Gilliam and Michel Gondry as they do of Guillermo Del Toro and Peter Jackson.
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Connor still directs movies for television today and has known a long and hardy career, but he’s nonetheless a filmmaker who I’ve always felt might have become much more. He’s also never really gained any kind of due, despite making these several dogged cult works, including these films, the black comedy horror film Motel Hell (1980), a work that replays The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) as a more overt and stridently freakish lampoon of fast food industry aesthetics, and the memorably bizarre miniseries Goliath Awaits (1981). If Connor had an identifiable interest in the fantastical projects he took on, it was his delight for worlds in miniature, characters cut off from the greater continents of humanity and obliged to adapt quickly and fiercely to harsh terrain and weird social outgrowths. Connor worked his way up in the British film industry, becoming a sound editor and working with a swathe of great directors, before making his directing debut for Amicus Productions, a film company set up in Britain by American impresarios Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, best-known for a string of anthology horror movies. Connor debuted with one, From Beyond the Grave (1974), before Amicus made a play for a bigger audience by backing Connor in making The Land That Time Forgot.
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The adaptation arrived with a stamp of genre literary cred. Moorcock, one of the most colourful and prolific figures of contemporary sci-fi and fantasy, had gained his first writing jobs penning Tarzan stories, and eagerly paid tribute to his roots by penning the script for the film along with James Cawthorn. Moorcock’s surprisingly sober, literate contribution to the film backed up Connor’s energy and skill in stretching a tight budget a long way. The Land That Time Forgot also gained an unexpected boost from obtaining American star Doug McClure, who name remains a byword for good-natured cheese. McClure had a brief spell of attention as an ingénue in movies in the late 1950s but had mostly found a niche in TV. After initially hesitating, McClure eventually signed on for Connor’s movie, only to find he’d gained a whole new niche playing two-fisted heroes fighting off rubber dinosaurs. McClure brought an open, straightforward quality to his heroic characters that was ill-placed in the more shaggy and eccentric ‘70s but turned out to be perfect for this kind of movie.
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McClure plays Bowen Tyler, doyen of a shipbuilding family from Santa Monica, who finds himself shipwrecked after the British passenger ship he’s aboard is torpedoed by a German submarine, the U-33, in 1916. Cast adrift in a lifeboat along with shell-shocked fellow survivor Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon), Tyler soon links up with another boat filled with British sailors from the ship. They successfully board the U-33 when it surfaces and surprise the crew, managing to take it over. The submarine’s captain, the intelligent and gentlemanly Von Schoenvorts (John McEnery), is locked away, but his wily, malevolent second officer Deitz (Anthony Ainley) sabotages the sub’s compass, fooling Tyler into sailing the sub close to a rendezvous point with their supply ship. After seemingly being outwitted by the Germans, Tyler and the sailors are imprisoned, but Lisa breaks them out and Tyler vengefully torpedoes the supply ship. This saves Tyler and the rest from being shot as pirates, but also leaves the sub lacking food and fuel. Drifting with the current into Antarctic waters, the U-33 encounters a fringe of ragged cliffs. Von Schoenvorts believes this must be a land first reported by a Italian explorer, who named it Caprona after himself.
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Taking a chance by sailing the sub up an underground river, they soon discover the island’s interior is a lush and fertile space heated by volcanic activity and inhabited by an astounding array of organisms, from microbes to massive dinosaurs to stages of human development. The various nationalities from the sub agree to work together to escape the island. Lisa and Von Schoenvorts, who share a passion for scientific enquiry, tackle the mysteries of Caprona’s abundant and perplexing life forms. Tyler and the sailors set themselves to the more practical tasks of finding food, drinking water, and a source of oil they can refine into fuel. They’re helped in this by Ahm (Bobby Parr), one of the hominids of Caprona, who also guides their understanding of what’s happening on the island through his own belief he will spontaneously pass into a higher stage of human development, moving from the primitive state of Bo-Lu to the more sophisticated Sto-Lu and then the superior Ga-Lu. The castaways are obliged to fight off hungry dinosaurs, but find the various hominid tribes more dangerous and deadly. A volcanic eruption finally destroys the equilibrium between species and tribes. Deitz seizes a chance to grab control of the U-33, imprisoning the Brits, shooting Von Schoenvorts, and stranding Bowen and Lisa on the island, only for the submarine to explode and sink as he tries to sail it away across Caprona’s boiling central lake.
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The film’s opening commences an ouroboros-like storytelling conceit that links to the narrative concerns, as Bowen hurls a canister containing his testimony from Caprona’s cliffs into the ocean. Connor tracks the canister on its voyage across dark rolling oceans under the credits, ending when the canister is retrieved from rocks by an old salt. Connor weaves a marvellous sense of atmosphere throughout The Land That Time Forgot, with the early scenes conveying a sense of lonely, near-numinous isolation for the warring parties and their oceanic adventures, believably transporting them from realistic immediacies of seagoing warfare to a place of sequestered wonder. Bowen and Lisa are first glimpsed resolving out of a dense fog bank, bedraggled and stunned by their sudden plunge into a world of hurt. Connor’s background in handling movie sound makes itself apparent in the subtlety with which he purveys the film’s first third, emphasising the omnipresent thrum of the submarine’s engines, avoiding incidental music during fight scenes, lending proceedings a tense, intimate feeling. The early fight scene where Bowen and the sailors try to take over the sub gains for this approach, punctuated by the sudden bark of a gun that saves Bowen’s life, which proves to have been fired by Lisa, roused from her daze to snatch up a dropped pistol and intervene in a struggle.
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Moorcock wasn’t happy with the film – what sci-fi writer ever is? – but his influence on the script is plain in touches like making Lisa a potent intellectual, and the odd dashes of intelligence apparent in the dialogue, as when Lisa asks Von Schoenvorts if his proposal the microbes in Caprona’s streams have a purpose could be construed as indulgence of German metaphysics, only for the Captain to retort it’s his version of British empiricism. Moorcock also preserved the most intriguing aspect of Burroughs’ book, the aspect that most distinguished it from a precursor like Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which was Burroughs’ depiction of Caprona as a land where every organism is connected to each-other and to the land as a kind of colossal, animate, metamorphosing entity. Connor and his special effects team wring as much flavour and piquancy as possible from the elemental appeal of World War I-era technology clashing with dinosaurs, and museum diorama-like depictions of a carnivores and horned herbivores clashing. At one point the sailors try to fend off a pair of hungry Allosaurs stalking their number, and elsewhere Bowen and Von Schoenvorts stand off a pair of bullish Styrachosaurs to give their fellows time to reach the sub, and menace turns to pathos as the sailors loose the sub’s deck gun on the animals, killing one. Von Schoenvorts warns Bowen that their own fate might be connected with the natural processes at loose on the island, a warning underscored by the sight of a tear slowly leaking from the eye of the dead animal.
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There’s a great sense of humour, too, in moments like when the crew sit down to uneasily make a meal of a plesiosaur they were obliged to shoot dead when it tried to eat Bowen. Somewhat jarringly, McEnery, a well-known actor, was post-dubbed by Anton Diffring; one reason for this I saw somewhere was that the producers felt McEnery overacted outrageously, but I suspect it was rather because he didn’t play the part as sufficiently Teutonic. Connor’s excellence as a scene builder is repeatedly demonstrated during sequences other directors might have thrown away. The U-33’s gruelling underwater voyage to penetrate Caprona sees the craft slamming against stony walls and struggling against a seemingly malign current. The faintly spacey, eerie quality that defines a great deal of mid-century British sci-fi mates surprisingly well with Burroughs’ American gusto via Connor’s sense of staging and atmosphere. When he surveys the ape-men hiding in the long grass and watching the interlopers, and contemplates the lonely camp fire of the sailors amidst a grand and primal Capronan night, Connor conveys a sensation that recurs throughout the movie, that of something balefully and patiently lying in wait. That lurking force that proves to be nature itself, noting the competition of species and tribes with a detached eye and then rebooting the whole process with intermittent gotterdamerungs.
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The last section of the film deals out some pretty familiar adventure movie shtick as Bowen saves Lisa from some Galus who take her captive, and the island begins its great convulsion: papier-maché boulders tumble and two-fisted gallantry proliferates. But there’s still a strange intensity to the epic finale, in which the island convulses with metaphysical rage: Connor’s careful construction in slowly ratcheting from a whisper to a scream is fulfilled as the tale reaches explosive crescendo, the submarine meeting its fiery end imbued with tragic gravitas by composer Douglas Gamley, amidst scenes of lava consuming the dinosaurs and decimating the seemingly stable and fecund life. Burroughs’ idea, which was to dramatise evolution as an idea, is well-sustained by The Land That Time Forgot, into its last moments as Bowen and Lisa give themselves up to the unique logic of the island, trekking north according to the flow of all life, last glimpsed clad in furs and hurling their missive to the waves on the way to becoming Adam and Eve for a smaller, more volatile world. The film’s concluding images of survival and surrender to a new yet familiar logic of life have a haunting patina that’s very rare in the genre, a quality bound to be despoiled by revision. Sure enough, Connor later made The People That Time Forgot, a sequel roughly based on Burroughs’ two follow-up novels, didn’t follow immediately. Despite the success of Connor’s films, Amicus folded during production, so the film was bought up and released by AIP.
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The People… is a much lesser affair all round, entirely lacking Moorcock and Cawthorn’s touch in the script, if still a moderately entertaining outing. This entry depicts a rescue expedition mounted by Bowen’s friend Ben McBride (Patrick Wayne), in the years following the war’s end, following the recovery of Bowen’s manuscript. The expedition is bankrolled by a newspaper magnate, which means Ben is obliged to bring along the magnate’s journalist daughter Charly (Sarah Douglas), as well as his own wartime pal and plane engineer Hogan (Shane Rimmer), and inquisitive scientist and fellow veteran Norfolk (Thorley Walters). Brought close to Caprona on a ship by the hardy Captain Lawton (Tony Britton), the adventuring quartet board an amphibious aircraft and fly over the great ice-clad cliffs, only to be attacked by a pterodactyl, which dogs them until it catches its beak in their propeller, forcing a rough landing. Whilst Hogan remains with the plane to repair it, Ben, Charly, and Norfolk start inland. They soon encounter Ajor (Dana Gillespie), a Ga-Lu who belonged to a tribe Bowen and Lisa made friends with and helped advance into bronze-age civilisation. But this stirred the anger of another advanced tribe, the Nargas, who wiped out the tribe, spirited Bowen and Lisa to their citadel. After a regulation series of tussles with the island’s men and monsters, Ben, Charly, Ajor, and Norfolk are captured by the Nargas. They find Bowen also imprisoned there, with Lisa having since been sacrificed to the Nargas’ volcano god, a fate Charly and Ajor are quickly doomed to as well.
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The People… mostly leaves behind the inquisitive aspect and moody evocations of The Land… in favour of very straightforward action-adventure shtick. A theme mooted in the early scenes, the process of recovering from the war for Ben, Hogan, and Norfolk, who find a much grander stage to be heroes on, is not invested with the same pertinence the war background of The Land… achieved. The notion that Caprona is alive and working to prevent anyone escaping is reiterated but otherwise new ideas and enlarging concepts are mostly absent. The title’s promise to venture into a more sociological wing of this fantastical creation goes no further than offering the Nargas, who dress like samurai and have a deadly religious fixation, with the elided irony that in this clash of modern rationalism and atavistic faith, the faith has a point, as Caprona starts erupting in a hissy fit when it doesn’t get its sacrifices. Certain recent exercises in franchise expansion have learned little from its demonstration of the desultory effect of bringing back beloved heroes of earlier instalments only to serve them poorly and kill them off with little gravitas. Dinosaur action is minimal and the production team had been reduced to recycling models. Where Moorcock had simply made Lisa the smartest person on the island, The People… dedicates itself, like a lot of genre films from the time, to mediating the women’s lib movement by having proto-feminist Charly squabble with he-man Ben, at least until she gets freaked out by a spider. Gillespie, better known as a pop singer, had appeared in a very similar part a few years earlier in Michael Carreras’ delirious The Lost Continent (1968), is an adolescent boy’s wet dream with her pneumatic physique encased in leather garb.
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The People That Time Forgot occasionally feels like a rough precursor to the spasmodic craze for sword-and-sorcery films the early 1980s would see with the likes of Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster (both 1982). Still, despite the lack of ambition and wit, it flickers with moments of jaunty good fun, like Norfolk intimidating a hulking Nargas opponent with some expert fencing skills, and one of Connor’s well-sustained suspense sequences as the plane struggles to take off in the midst of an exploding landscape. Wayne is a toothpaste smile and Ken doll physique without a personality to match, but Douglas, who would later usually play villains in films like Superman II (1980) and Conan the Destroyer (1984), gives a breezily charismatic performance as a heroine who seems a bit like Peanuts’ Lucy grown up and tossed in with giant lizards. Once our heroes stage an escape, dump the Nargas’ evil high priest (Milton Reid) into the volcano, and flee across country, Bowen dies standing off the Nargas warriors long enough for the others to get away, allowing a sliver of effective pathos when Bowen admits he’s always been trying to live up to his fondness from childhood games with Ben for playing the hero. The rest of the heroes manage to escape at least, and Hogan delights in the notion of introducing a bewildered Ajor to the exotic climes of Cincinnati.
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In between the two Caprona films, Connor and Amicus made another Burroughs adaptation, At The Earth’s Core, this one tackling another of the author’s fantasy zones, the world of Pellucidar, a great cave deep in the Earth inhabited by humans and strange life forms. Burroughs wrote many Pellucidar novels, including one where Tarzan descended to the hidden realm. The script, written by Subotsky, briskly and efficiently gets through the business of introducing heroes David Innes (McClure) and Professor Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) as they embark upon testing their huge experimental drilling machine, the Iron Mole. Financing the vehicle’s construction has been David’s gift to Perry for teaching him and his father geology, an education that’s made the Innes clan rich in mining. David and Perry take the Mole for a test voyage in Wales, but find it works too well, as they can’t turn it around before they’ve descended deep into the Earth’s interior, and crash out into the Pellucidar cavern.
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The duo are pursued by a colossal bird monster and then captured by a gang of chattering subhumans called Sagoths, who oppress the humans of Pellucidar on the behalf of the more monstrous rulers of the land: the Mahars. The Mahars are a race of psychic, anthropomorphic ramphorynchus, who like being fed human sacrifices and need an army of slaves to maintain their city, which is built over volcanic channels to exploit the great heat, vital to incubating the Mahars’ spawn. Perry is put to work transcribing ancient Mahar tablets and gains knowledge of their society and weaknesses. After falling for the captive princes Dian (Caroline Munro) and accidentally spurning her in a faux pas, David breaks out and forges an alliance with Ra (Cy Grant), a hunter belonging to one of Pellucidar’s many, disunited tribes, convincing him to try bringing together the humans to battle the Mahars.
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Connor’s films weren’t the first to purvey the joys of reviving an older tradition in genre storytelling. Richard Fleischer’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) had kicked off a run of retro adaptations including Byron Haskin’s From The Earth to the Moon (1958) and William Witney’s Master of the World (1961). But Connor’s films revolve around the luxury of evoking a bygone era’s idea of technological accomplishment and discovery with a sense of awareness of how they graze against modern concerns, an approach that feels like particularly vital stepping stones towards today’s steampunk mode. The Iron Mole in At The Earth’s Core, has an aspect of super-futurist technology realised with the polished brass and plate iron charm of Victoriana. The wonderful opening credit sequence depicts the construction of the Iron Mole from its beginning as a stream of molten metal to the final technological monster being wheeled out of the assembly plant, a grand statement of scientific faith. The music score, by former Manfred Mann member Mike Vickers, expertly evokes the dichotomous spirit apparent in Connors’ films by alternating passages of weird, throbbing synthesiser music, giving his score accord with the contemporary modes in prog rock and early electronica as well the spacey, eerie vibe of the BBC TV sci-fi tradition, and big, garrulous orchestrations that anticipate John Williams’ work for Lucas on Star Wars in evoking vast horizons and adventure.
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At The Earth’s Core was my favourite movie ever when I was seven years old, but it’s long had a bad reputation otherwise. Both reactions are due, I think, to the fact it’s probably the purest entry any filmmaker has managed in transposing the feeling of the classic pulp sci-fi and fantasy magazines onto the big screen. Most other films in this mode are pallid pretenders compared to Connor’s sense of illustrative verve and punchy action set-pieces, and the ever-so-faint way the film acknowledges its own absurdity whilst playing things, generally, dead straight, outwitting the likes of Flash Gordon (1980). In contrast to the sober, location-shot approach of The Land That Time Forgot, At The Earth’s Core instead aims for and squarely hits an atmosphere of hallucinatory colour and strangeness achieved on the sound stage. Cushing, who would go on to bridge traditions by appearing in Star Wars a year later, gives a peach of a comic performance as Perry, a gangly, punctilious savant who finds himself initially overwhelmed by Pellucidarian peccadilloes but soon enough fashions himself a bow and arrow with his spectacle cord used as a string and sets to work bringing down fire-breathing toads.
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At The Earth Core wields a wry sense of humour about the old-fashioned values at play as David is obliged to play by Pellucidar rules in matters of courtship, which means he has to battle Dian’s rival suitor Jubal, “the Ugly One” (Michael Crane): “Never mind the Queensbury rules!” Burroughs’ imperialist sensibility, wherein good-looking white guys arrive in strange lands and set about setting things right, is mediated through a more contemporary sense of fellowship as David convinces Ra to try and unite the fractious human tribes and realise their own strength before the insidious evil of the Mahars. Perry commands David during the fight. Connor’s direction is at its most inventive here, in sequences like one in which David and Ra spy upon the Mahars as they mesmerise their sacrificial victims before pouncing upon them, conveyed in intense zoom shots upon blank beatific faces and beady saurian eyes with piercing electronic whines on the soundtrack. The special effects are particularly, happily cheesy throughout, but loaned a peculiarly tactile intensity in scenes like the battle between two hulking horned monsters who fight over a human snack.
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Another quality of this series all the entries shared was being photographed by the great Alan Hume, who worked wonders won a low budget, often utilising hand-held camera effects to give the films their muscular, immediate look. At The Earth’s Core also deploys some time-honoured fantasy adventure canards like the compulsory arena battle where David and Ra are chained up to be devoured by a pet monster, only for David to break loose and slay the beast in a goofy tussle, whilst Ra strangles a vengeful Mahar with his chains. Connor articulates the straightforward, cheer-along simplicity of the liberation-and-overthrow fantasy exceptionally well but shades it at the very end as the victorious humans survey the exploding Mahar city with the knowledge it cost the life of Ra and other brave souls. The melancholy streak continues as Dian declines to go with David and Perry to the surface world for fear she won’t thrive there, but the very last shot, under the end credits, strikes a cheery note as the Iron Mole drills its way up through the White House lawn and sets two guards scurrying about in Keystone Kops-style panic.
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Warlords of Atlantis, the last of Connor’s weird fiction series, stands apart from its predecessors in not being a proper adaptation of Burroughs. It is rather a newly-concocted tale in a mould that could easily have been penned by Burroughs, Abraham Merritt, or a swathe of other writers of their time. The storyline was instead written by Brian Hayles, who’s best remembered to posterity otherwise for creating canonical Doctor Who antagonists the Ice Warriors, and indeed the film itself strongly resembles a lot of early Doctor Who. Connor opens with a vision of a fiery red comet plunging into Earth’s atmosphere and frightening the Neolithic human inhabitants before plunging into the ocean. Around 1900, a ship called the Texas Rose steams out into what is called the Bermuda Triangle, nominally to test a bathysphere built by Greg Collinson (McClure yet again) and designed by his scientist friends, Professor Aitken (Donald Bissett) and his son Charles (Peter Gilmore) for underwater exploration. What the Aitkens aren’t telling Greg, or the rather scurvy crew of the ship, is that they’re hunting for signs of the lost civilisation of Atlantis, and Greg and Charles recover a remarkable relic made of solid gold when they take the bathysphere down. But when it’s hoisted aboard, the relic sets the minds of the crew towards mutiny and homicide, and the Professor is shot in the back.
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The appearance of a giant octopus from an underwater prevents further violence, as the monster snatches most of the crew from the deck and drags the bathysphere with it into an underground system of caves where the inhabitants of Atlantis live. They meet gold-haired guardian Atmir (Michael Gothard), who escorts them through the underworld, bypassing cities that have fallen prey to decay over the centuries, before reaching their capitol. Charlie is taken in hand by the statuesque Atmir (Cyd Charisse – yes, you read that right), who wants to add his great mind to the pool of their knowledge. The Atlanteans prove to be Martians trapped after their attempt to migrate from their dying planet and so have been steadily manipulating the evolution of human society in a warlike direction, anticipating the eventual creation of technology that will allow them to move on at last. They’ve been capturing and enslaving humans to upkeep their crumbling cities and battle off the hordes of mutant monsters spawned by their energy sources, gifting them surgically-provided gills to survive their rigours, and our heroes encounter the lost captain of the Marie Celeste, Briggs (Robert Brown) and his daughter Delphine (Lea Brodie).
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Hayles’ script gives the established formula a shot of new ideas and some depth of concept and hints of parable. The Martians are portrayed as effetely detached aristocrats enabled by an enslaved underclass, and paranoid concepts like the notion the rise of Nazism and the Cold War are devices to service the needs of a hidden ruling class. Charlie’s tour through the high echelons of the Martian society seems him encountering levitating meditators and granted a terrifying vision of the future when he has a crystal helmet placed on his head that shows him the Martian-engineered horrors of Nazism and nuclear war the oncoming century hold in store, whilst draining off his mind to make him a part of the Martian gestalt. Such ideas offer a different perspective on the retro adventure ideal: where writers like Burroughs, Merritt, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and their like had found cogent ways to express delight and disquiet in nascent modernity, Warlords of Atlantis betrays a slightly heavy contemporary heart over where it all led. The simple liberation fantasy of At The Earth’s Core is swapped out for a more forbidding sense of evil forces at work in human history, and our heroes are happy merely to escape the Martians’ clutches.
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Warlords of Atlantis is a frustrating attempt to expand the series’ scope, however. The underground cities, the Martian tech, the colossal monsters which nudge closer towards Toho kaiju this time around – all have a splendid vividness and flavour in their threadbare hype. But where the Burroughs adaptations were distinguished by their ability to both provide a rollicking pace and relax within their little constructed worlds, Warlords of Atlantis rushes through its most interesting concepts and images, and clumsily drags out climactic action scenes, as in a scene where Atmir bombards our heroes with energy bolt after energy bolt without quite managing to hit their big, fat target of a bathysphere, and then the octopus returns to the surface to torment them some more. Connor’s next film, Arabian Adventure (1979), saw him move properly into outright fantasy for an enjoyable, if minor, adjunct to the series before he headed for Hollywood. Films like these are generally a punchline today. They’re tacky and goofy and soft targets for lampooners, and the sort of bad-old-days fare genre fans tend to cringe at. But to me, they contain far, far more of the essence of the fantastical than so many of their inflated children.

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1960s, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Scifi

Planet of the Apes (1968)

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Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenwriters: Rod Serling, Michael Wilson

By Roderick Heath

Although overshadowed in appreciation amongst high cinephiles by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2018 brings the fiftieth anniversary of another hugely popular and influential science fiction film: Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. 1968 was a pivotal year for sci-fi cinema, as the success of the two films coincided with Ralph Nelson’s Oscar-winning Charly, helping to make a genre which had known a vogue in the 1950s, but remained generally regarded as trashy and negligible, suddenly gain a level of respect. These films also helped inaugurate a new phase in the genre, and Planet of the Apes arguably had the greatest impact on the following decade or so of sci-fi films. Thanks to its heavy emphasis on satirically tinted speculation about where the human race had come from and where it was going, the film helped provoke an age of allegoric, often dystopian sci-fi that was to a certain extent drowned out by the arrival of Star Wars (1977) but which has never really gone away. The Apollonian, transcendental fantasia that was 2001: A Space Odyssey gained its shaggy, cynical sibling in Planet of the Apes, a more overtly popular approach to genre that nonetheless squarely struck the zeitgeist and proved a huge hit, spawning four immediate sequels, a 2001 remake helmed by Tim Burton, and then a new series of acclaimed variations on the original film’s string of sequels, inaugurated by Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).
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Planet of the Apes owes its status in turn to the peculiar battery of creative hands who made it, and the way it remixed some familiar genre modes into something new. Author Pierre Boulle was best-known outside France in the 1960s for penning the novel Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, a book based loosely on true events and inspired by Boulle’s own time as a prisoner of the Japanese military during the war. The novel provided the basis for David Lean’s 1957 epic film The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which Boulle himself was awarded an Oscar for its screenplay, although the script had actually been penned by blacklisted writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. In spite of the seemingly wide conceptual gulf between that novel’s recent, worldly concerns and the fantastical territory annexed by Boulle’s 1963 book La Planète des singes, the similarities are telling in the emphasis on captivity, mutually uncomprehending cultures, and shoe-on-the-other foot reversals of imperialist domain and dominance. Boulle took on a basic sci-fi what-if conceit, in this case, the notion that the relative place on the power scale of homo sapiens and other great apes was reversed.
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Rod Serling, who had gained rare standing as a TV dramatist even before he created and hosted the weird fiction anthology show The Twilight Zone, loved those kinds of inverted familiarities, and his famous show is still a by-word for ironic, sting-in-the-tail narrative punch-lines. Arthur P. Jacobs, an up-and-coming producing talent at Twentieth Century Fox, had seen potential in Boulle’s novel and hired Serling to adapt it. Serling’s unique ideas were retained although Wilson was later hired to revise the script, in part because Serling’s script reproduced Boulle’s concept of a sophisticated ape society, which would have been too expensive to film. Wilson’s revisions strengthened the project overall, however, in part because he found clever ways to dovetail the mercenary needs of budget with the conceptual grafts Serling had made to Boulle’s basis. Charlton Heston, looking to escape the treadmill of outsized historical epics he had become synonymous with, became interested in the project, and he recommended Schaffner to helm it, as he had directed Heston in the sober, dramatically intimate medieval tale The War Lord (1965). Schaffner had served in World War II and was an unlikely filmmaker to appeal to the counterculture-inflected pop culture of the era. But his fascination and affinity with characters violently at odds with a greater society was another factor that allowed him to put Planet of the Apes across to the crowd. Most of his subsequent films revolve around prickly protagonists who have become detached from civilisation around them due to a blend of both exterior hostility and interior rebellion, and who are left trying to knit together their identity and sense of meaning in the face of ruination.
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In Planet of the Apes, Taylor (Heston) perfectly exemplifies this figure, a misanthrope who ponders at the outset whether “Man still makes war upon his brother” and who ventures into space in search of “something better than Man.” A prologue strikes a meditative, even dreamy note, as Taylor prepares for his great trip, that is, about to enter cryogenic stasis to sleep away his craft’s long voyage through space, along with three other astronauts, Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton), and Stewart (Dianne Stanley). “Time bends,” Taylor notes: “Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely.” Taylor, as we learn in good time, is a man both at odds with his world, his species, his nature, and an apt representative of such; his reaction against a universe that weighs upon identity and a rival species that denies it is to kick back with ripe arrogance, all the traits he condemned coming out with instinctive readiness. The space voyage, unfolding behind credits in pulses of energy and colour, betrays an impulse identical to that shared by 1968 brethren 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barbarella, in conflating space travel with psychedelic voyaging. Here it’s most explicitly treated as a trip into the self, to emerge in what Taylor will eventually call a madhouse. The astronauts have been sent out to colonise the stars with their mobile, in-the-name-of-science orgy: “She was to be the new Eve,” Taylor later states, “With our hot and eager help of course.”
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Awakening is rude indeed. The spaceship plunges into the atmosphere of whatever planet it’s stumbled upon in its wanderings, and crash-lands in a lake, in the heart of a desolately beautiful landscape. Stewart is dead, a withered corpse thanks to a crack in her cryogenic capsule: the sight of her ghastly remains is accompanied with a weird screeching sound, and for a split second we’re in one of Roger Corman’s Poe films, the encased body of the departed feminine emitting a creepy memento mori. But the sound proves to actually be a different malediction, as seals fail and the lake water comes pouring in: the oneiric is invoked only to be displaced by the palpable. The three men paddle ashore after watching their last link to the world they’ve left sink, and begin a trek across lifeless and barren surrounds. Taylor is quietly exultant to be at loose in the great unknown and teases the all-American Landon, whilst Dodge “would walk naked into a live volcano if thought he could learn something no other man knew.” Eventually the men encounter a beautiful totem, a single growing plant, close to where menacing scarecrow-like figures have been set up, confirming something intelligent lives on the planet and wants to defend it domain. The astronauts enter the fringe of a verdant tropical area that might as well be Eden. Eden has its inhabitants, wild, harmless-seeming, mute humans who steal the astronauts’ clothes as they bathe. “If this is the best they’ve got around here, in six months we’ll be running this planet,” Taylor announces.
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Famous last words. The humans stand still and listen as if alerted with some preternatural instinct. A strange and terrible sound echoes out of the underbrush. A wild and violent hunt begins. The hunt sequence is a masterful bit of cinema, tying together the graphic clarity of Leon Shamroy’s photography, Hugh S. Fowler’s editing, Jerry Goldsmith’s percussive, jangling scoring, and Schaffner’s shaping. The first half-hour’s general air of ambling mystery and punch-drunk discovery, where the framing of the three survivors often sees them threatening to ossify into the landscape of jagged stone like Tolkien’s trolls, gives way to a sudden assault of precise violence and surging threat: the shock of fight-or-flight necessity gives new, ironic potency to the question of survival where before the trio of discoveries barely knew whether it was worthwhile staying alive. The sequence builds to its big reveal, the sight of an anthropomorphic gorilla riding on horseback, armed with a gun, captured in a zoom shot reproducing Taylor’s viewpoint with both a sense of conveyed shock as well as iconic exactitude. Dodge is shot dead, Landon hauled away in a net, and Taylor shot in the neck. “Smile!” one of the gorillas tells his fellows in the hunt as they pose for a photo, provoking ironic laughter as the inversion is complete, the dead humans trophies for smugly triumphant hunters. Taylor’s bedraggled shorts, made of strange material, attracts assessing eyes, saving him from the usual fate of captive human specimens: gruff, workaday doctor Galen (Wright King) saves his life by giving him a transfusion from a human female, at the request of inquisitive scientist Zira (Kim Hunter).
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Part of the success of Planet of the Apes, in terms of audience appeal, lies in its familiar aspects. High-minded notions and stinging satirical ideas are grafted on a narrative that has obvious affinities with any number of exotic adventure tales by the likes of H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. A heroic explorer is plunged into a strange land and tormented, and must survive with his wits and forge alliances to survive. Many such stories already had a faint through-a-glass-darkly qualities as they zeroed in on fantastically framed metaphors for social structures, with heroes who encounter fanatical high priests or swaggering warmongers, often in a way that caricatured “primitive” civilisations being encountered by imperial colonisers but which also attempted to comprehend the similarities and often arbitrary differentiations between different societies’ ways of knowing. Planet of the Apes satisfies on the basic level even as it tries to be more rigorous and overt in presenting the ape society as a mocking mirror of familiar things. This is partly justified by the way the ape society is defined on a most fundamental level entirely by reaction.
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Planet of the Apes has an evident basis in a very European style of satirical comedy, one that revels in perversions of social practices and expectations: there is, for instance, a certain similarity in effect to Luis Bunuel’s surrealist comedies where a bourgeois family might invert habits of eating and defecating, or the tradition of Rabelais where priestly orders could be founded to explore sin in all its most delightfully vulgar dimensions. Serling and Wilson’s revisions and Schaffner’s visualisations didn’t just make the tale more cinematic and popular, however, but also repositioned it in a more distinctly American tradition. Indeed, they helped create perhaps the best-known and popular version of a theme that had been explored in Thomas Cole’s “Course of Empire” series of paintings which depicted the rise of a society from aboriginal hut dwellers to high civilisation to decaying, shattered ruins. Cole helped defined a peculiar brand of morbidly ecstatic fascination with the notion that national greatness was a finite thing, a state of mind that dogs the American political imagination (tellingly, the film’s sequels extended the Americanisation by rendering them more and clearly as parables for race). Planet of the Apes hit upon a narrative structure that allowed all stages to be seen at once: the prelapsarian simplicity of the humans, the inquisitive, Aristotelian minds of Zira and her husband Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), the hypocritical self-righteousness and stolidity of most of the mature ape society, and the mocking, burned-out husk of the old world Taylor stumbles upon, that singular, crystallising image which makes sense of everything that has come before.
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The ape society is explored in quick, deft strokes, but solidifies to the point where it quickly begins to feel intimately familiar, in its prejudices, its outlook, its wilful blind spots and its sophistications. The apes are defined by a general blend of accomplishment and strange lacks – the apes are superlative at surgery and ballistics but believe flight impossible and maintain intense taboos, like their avoidance of the wasteland the astronauts landed in, which the apes call the Forbidden Zone, ostensibly because of its desolateness but also because the bones of the past poke out of the ground there. Their chief scientist, Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans), is also their “Defender of the Faith,” a priestly enforcer of orthodoxy. The apes’ stature as cruel masters of the apparently simple and harmlessly devolved humans is not just reflexive arrogance but an official aspect of their communal identity, defined by their legendary Lawgiver who handed down his Sacred Scrolls, filled with imprecations against man and unhealthy forms of knowledge. Cornelius, an archaeologist, is already flirting with blasphemy when he’s confronted with Taylor, as his ventures into the Forbidden Zone to make exploratory digs have turned up the remains of an advanced civilisation filled with to obscure relics. When Taylor finally sees these, he recognises the craftsmanship of his own species, defined by both its arts and its weaknesses. One of the film’s longest, drollest sequences sees Taylor, Zira, and Cornelius hauled before a panel of officials, all staffed by pompously mandarin orang-utans including Zaius and a chairman (James Whitmore) who orders Taylor gagged when he tries to explain himself.
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Sequences in which the apes use both overt physical brutality and a battery of cultural and linguistic cudgels, like the extended use of circular logic from a state prosecutor, to keep Taylor silent reveal the film as still razor-sharp in analysing and depicting the manner in which hegemonies are enforced over subaltern voices, and closed loops of pseudo-logic wielded to dismiss disturbances to them. The scene’s punch-line, improvised by Schaffner on set, sees the orang-utan adjudicators reproducing the proverbial figuration of the three monkeys who hear, speak, and see no evil. Taylor suffers for some time before he can even compel his captors to that degree, as his injury leaves him mute for a time, trying to communicate with Zira, who dubs him “Bright Eyes” for his eager, communicative expressions. Taylor’s efforts to establish contact include writing his name in the sand when he’s jammed into an exterior pen, only for his fellow humans to foil him in their clueless mimicry and ready violence. Zaius completes the act by erasing a remaining portion of Taylor’s words, a clear signal that he knows a lot more about Taylor and what he represents than he’s letting on. Zaius, nimbly played by Evans, plays Grand Inquisitor protecting his kind from transgressing in the same ways that humans have, when they progressed out of what Cole called the “Arcadian or Pastoral State” stage of civilisation, the one considered ideal by many Enlightenment thinkers. The Lawgiver stands as a Moses figure wielding stern and intractable laws, although the film’s sequels would eventually circle around to a point where Cornelius and Zira’s son Caesar would emerge first as a Maccabee and then as a Christ figure, embodying the chance of reconciliation and evolution, and also the eternal pain of the idealist before the persistence of base instinct.
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Cornelius and Zira are two of the best-realised characters in sci-fi cinema and one of the most appealing couples in movies in general, with McDowall and Hunter ingeniously projecting enough intelligence, humour, and foibles onto their characters to render them more human than human. Many kids who love this film, like myself back when, perhaps did so because they’re almost a perfect concept of what you hope your parents might be like – open, eternally curious, loving and, whilst hardly unafraid of the expectations of the world beyond, nonetheless finally sufficient unto themselves in their convictions and will. They appeal through their curiosity, their openness to where thought and experience lead them, their familiarity as a loving couple – constantly bickering and yet gripping each-other’s hands in moments of fate – and as individuals facing severe crises in facing breaks with their society. Zira is the more intransigent of the pair, the bolder, the one whose outspokenness Cornelius is compelled to try and dampen down: they’re conceived as a pair of young campus academicians where the wife’s attraction to radical causes is counterbalanced by the husband’s circumspection. His very reasonable anxiety gains political inferences as they’re both faced with punishment for taking their mutual discoveries to logical conclusions, evoking both the bygone days of religious heresy tribunals and the much more recent phenomena of McCarthyism. Cornelius is both a bold and visionary being in his field but also one with a notably timorous anxiety, an awareness of how one wrong word or gesture could trash his and Zira’s future together.
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Speech is a afforded status as a weapon of power and identity with singular force in the film: Taylor’s famously outraged cry as he dangles in a net, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”, are his first since being taken prisoner. The cry shocks and astounds his captors and rocks the very presumptions their world is based on to their foundations, and similar moments resounded through the follow-ups, like Nova crying out Taylor’s name, suggesting when it’s already too late that humans can rise again from their waned and pathetic state, and Cornelius recounting the fateful moment when an ape slave emitted the word “No” to his human masters. Taylor forms an attachment with the human woman whose blood he received when Galen saved his life, dubbing her Nova (Linda Harrison). Nova is a mute and uncomprehending yet expressive being, fluidic in her in reactive empathy. Confronted by the unexpected annoyance of a man of her species speaking, she presses her fingers to his lips. Of course, power is measured by more direct scales too. Taylor is beaten, netted, shackled, stripped. His understandable response is nonetheless tinged with aspects of hypocrisy, as he takes Zaius captive and painfully binds him, stoking protest from Zira and Cornelius, on the grounds that Taylor was assumed to be inferior whereas Taylor knows well Zaius is a very intelligent being. Then again, real hate and real contempt can only be evinced between the intelligent, and Taylor knows something Cornelius and Zira do not, that Zaius knew well what he was, and did not care.
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When he manages to stage a breakout from the holding pens, Schaffner uses the ensuing chase scene not just to give the film’s long middle act a jolt of action, but also to give further insight into the ape society, as Taylor crashes a funeral for “an ape to remember” and eludes pursuers in the halls of a museum where stuffed humans are set up in illustrative dioramas, and Dodge’s body is now one of the exhibits. The style of the ape city conflates Mediterranean city-state acropolis and adobe architecture, suggesting a sophisticated, intimate society that has remained purposefully close to roots in natural forms, and Schaffner’s camera explores it with dynamism, dollying and weaving its way along with his actors through columned spaces and striking vertiginous angles in observing the frantic tussles of bodies, human and ape. Part of the success of Planet of the Apes, of course, stemmed from the groundbreaking prosthetic makeup created by John Chambers. Where Kubrick’s labours on 2001: A Space Odyssey invented a newly convincing argot for portraying space travel, Chambers managed something similar on a far more intimate scale, creating a convincing non-human set of characters that nonetheless allowed the actors to mediate and transform their performances: although today the media has advanced to the point where the makeup looks a bit rubbery in blu-ray prints, it’s still invaluable in creating the context of this illusion, the feeling that Zira, Cornelius, Zaius and the rest are real and palpable beings.
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Schaffner’s work on Planet of the Apes vaulted him into Hollywood’s upper echelons. After making the interesting if facile political study The Best Man (1964), a film that might have earmarked Schaffner for a career similar to John Frankenheimer’s, Schaffner revealed here a great eye and talent for evoking space and scale on the cinema screen that soon earned him comparisons to David Lean, although his approach to dramatic essentials remained rather more conventional. His 1970 Best Picture champ Patton (1970) is dotted with moments of raw visual power achieved with fearlessly wielded big movie infrastructure, but more often feels like the kind of TV play Schaffner had begun his career making, greatly inflated. Soon he was helming big-budget epics like the unwieldy Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Papillon (1973), which rivals Planet of the Apes as his best film. Schaffner’s stature as a maker of big-budget epics and studio flagship films during an unsettled, rambunctiously creative era in Hollywood earned him a critical lethargy that’s never really dispelled, and it is true he settled into making entertaining but heavy-footed prestige pictures like his academic take on Islands in the Stream (1976) and the fun but lumpy thrillers The Boys From Brazil (1978) and Sphinx (1980).
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And yet Schaffner earned his stature marrying the lightest edge of New Wave-era and pop art-influenced optical inventiveness to the familiar, architectural solidity and straightforwardness of big-budget Hollywood film on Planet of the Apes. This is evident in its opening scenes, with visions of deep space and time travel expostulated through vaguely trippy light and colour effects, a crash-landing that’s depicted in a series of dizzying, spiralling, point-of-view shots, and of course the very last shot, an encapsulating visual ideogram that functions as a perfect pop-art emblem. Something of the same spirit is also visible in Patton’s famous opening with its hero presented as a free-floating placard before a colossal American flag. Schaffner’s energetic camerawork here is another plus, like the spectacular helicopter shots that punctuate the crash scene, wheeling away from the downed spaceship as it sinks into the lake, its metal hull a glistening obelisk of manufactured beauty in the midst of a red, rugged landscape of great rock forms, an image that locates the nexus between the western, as Schaffner evokes John Ford’s vistas, and sci-fi. The film’s connection with the western genre, just beginning to wane at the time precisely because the revisionist urge taking hold of academia and culture creators was starting to press some uncomfortable points in the genre’s basic appeal, is an aspect of Planet of the Apes signalled in Schaffner’s annexation of Ford’s landscapes. In keeping with the film’s cinematic translation of Cole into genre film terms, Planet of the Apes portrays what could be called a radical decolonisation of the American landscape, delivering it up to the apes who, as the series continued, became a catch-all metaphoric emblem, ranging from Catholic dogmatists to black power militants.
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The casting of Heston as Taylor was one of the film’s great coups, and not just because as a big, strong, intelligent actor he could retain bristling force even when his character is voiceless and unclothed. Heston brought with him a strong association with a squarer genre of film he was trying to get out of. By this time in his career every step he took carried with it the memory of Moses and Judah Ben-Hur and El Cid, titanic protagonists who stood as interlocutors between the human and divine and the individual and the historic. Heston had been trying to work his way around this image, playing a very ordinary man caught up in big events in 55 Days in Peking (1963) and crumbling he-man in Major Dundee (1965). But none of those roles quite played on it as deftly and cruelly as Planet of the Apes, where Taylor is eventually compelled to see his own powerless triviality in the face of biblical-scale evidence of Armageddon and reapportioning of Creation. Taylor’s swaggering arrogance at the outset stems not from certainty that he’s a fit representative of a noble race but rather his status as self-appointed rebel and critic. It requires being treated like chattel to move him to defend his species: “He was here before you – and he was better than you!” he accosts Zaius as they explore the relics of the old civilisation – only then to be forced to behold just how right he was at first, victim of a cosmic-scale joke. Taylor’s various eruptions of rage, including his climactic bellow of “Damn you all to hell!”, hinge upon Heston’s ability to play great twisted masses of muscle and emotion right out of a Michelangelo painting. Heston had just played Michelangelo, in Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1966), and several scenes here almost play as parodies of that film and Ben-Hur (1959). Where the great artist travelled out alone into the landscape in Reed’s film and saw the elements of his great artistic parable etched out in the sky, communicating divine will to a translator Genesis, here Taylor beholds rather the wreckage of his own civilisation, the rescinded will and proof of his own, perfect impotence.
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The Planet of the Apes series stands out as perhaps the most pointedly and thoroughly misanthropic major sci-fi property proffered by a major Hollywood film studio. The series was driven along by the conviction that humankind is doomed not merely to destroy itself but then repeat its mistakes when given the chance to avoid them, whilst the apes are our possibly, morally superior inheritors, but still evince the same grim traits even after all efforts to suppress and retard them. Although the series eventually circled around to a point of ambiguous optimism, the problems of will to power are diagnosed as the true original sin, something generations and species try to claw out of their makeup without sure success. The series leavened the bitterness by several means. The apes are usually attractive in their ability to seem both rather cute and nobly charismatic even when they’re being obnoxious or destructive, whilst the first film in particular offers a lot of humour. The more self-conscious comedy injected into the script, with dialogue like “Human see, human do,” and introducing Zira’s hippie nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner), who throws out lines like, “You can’t trust the older generation!” and “Beards? I don’t go in for fads,” was reportedly provided by uncredited writer John T. Kelley. These supply the film with a self-lampooning edge, and although it nudges it towards flippancy now and then, it might well have helped to sell it to a mass audience in taking care of the humour value inherent in the storyline on the film’s own terms, as well as giving the film extra appeal to the young audience of 1968. Superior jots of humour come more from the fruitful coincidence of character and situation, as with Zira’s admission that Taylor is “so damn ugly” before allowing him to kiss her in gratitude – and the hiss of jealousy Cornelius gives as they do. Or my favourite off-hand moment, the ape priest officiating at the funeral Taylor crashes, left staggering in bewilderment as all hell breaks loose in the midst of a solemn ceremony.
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The darker aspects of the tale are hardly obscured. Humans are ruthlessly slaughtered, vivisected, and grotesquely maimed by the apes. Even kindly Zira makes a living cutting up specimens, her humanitarian interests placed nonetheless at the service of a genocide-minded, theologically-justified state program. Taylor is appalled when he finds Landon has been rendered an idiot by Zaius’ brain surgery, a deft move by the Chief Scientist and Defender of the Faith to get rid of a troubling specimen after another makes himself known to the whole city. Taylor himself is aware his attraction to Nova could be considered something close to bestiality as he tries to puzzle out just how awareness is left in his species (“Do you love, I wonder? Can you love?”), whilst his caging and separation from Nova, the closest thing he has nonetheless to a companion, wickedly reproduces the state of general alienation (“Lots of lovemaking, no love.”) that is his recollection of his own world. Zaius is at once aggravating in his stiff-necked self-righteousness and magnetic in his assured authority, thanks in large part to Evans’ canny performance. The upshot of the entire storyline eventually demonstrates that he is, if not right, then operating from a very reasonable point of view: there really is good cause for the apes to fear humans, to maintain a regime of wilfully repressed knowledge in the fear that one day apes will follow in their footsteps, like a medieval theocrat frightened of what new fields of horror new worlds and new ideas will open up.
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Taylor helps Cornelius and Zira prove their notion that the planet was inhabited by a human civilisation before apes as they flee authority and enter the Forbidden Zone’s wastes, pursued by Zaius and his gun-wielding fellows. He even manages to outwit Zaius and use him as leverage to ensure his own escape. But Zaius calmly reclaims authority and condemns his young colleagues to trial and disgrace anyway, in the belief that he might just be saving their future. Meanwhile Taylor rides away with Nova into the sunset, only to be confronted a great, rusted, blasted hunk of metal that mocks everything he’s done: the Statue of Liberty jutting from the beach sand. This was hardly the first time such an image had been deployed, but it still wields incredible power thanks to the way Schaffner deploys it, leaving it until the very last shot until just what has humiliated Taylor so vividly is seen, and seen, tellingly, through Nova’s blank, estranged gaze, before the fade-out comes with only the sound of breaking waves playing on the soundtrack, evoking one of those counterculture-era albums where the band mockingly remains silent “on the anniversary of World War III.” It’s one of those rare twists that makes perfect sense of what has been seen before – really, Taylor was pretty thick not to realise it before – and also an improvement on Boulle’s ending, an ending which Burton restored to his remake only to be met with dim stares of bemusement.
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In the days before franchising became so common in moviemaking, Planet of the Apes spawned a string of sequels fuelled by a fervent fan base. The first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), takes up where the first film ends. Although entirely watchable, the whole project has a rushed and clumsy feel, as if the film was shot before anyone thought it out properly, whilst Ted Post’s direction lacked personality. The episode’s best aspect was its most novel, offering a society of terribly scarred, psychic human mutants who live in the ruins of old New York and whose literal worship of the atomic bomb presented a clever tweak on the apes’ abhorring theology. Heston’s limited involvement saw James Franciscus cast as Brent, a bland fill-in for much of the running time, and Cornelius and Zira only feature briefly (with David Watson filling in for the absent McDowall). The nihilistic climax has a certain aptness in taking the series’ themes to their grimmest possible consummation, whilst restaging the end of Bridge on the River Kwai on an apocalyptic scale, as Taylor avenges the murdered Nova and Brent and dies cursing Zaius by igniting the mutants’ cherished doomsday bomb. This conclusion also took to a limit the apocalyptic note found in immediate precursor films of the age like The Wild Bunch and Castle Keep (both 1969). But it all plays out in a rushed, impatient manner, like the production ran out of time and money, and the filmmakers just decided to kill everyone, whilst the ban-the-bomb motif swallowed up all dramatic and satiric nuances.
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The third episode, Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), was faced with the unenviable task of giving the series new life. The British screenwriter Paul Dehn, who had written Beneath…, brought something of the British sci-fi tradition with its distinctive fascination for social dynamics to the series, and he managed to extend it through the clever ruse of having Cornelius (played again by McDowall) and Zira revealed to have escaped the Earth’s destruction thanks to a fellow savant, Milo (Sal Mineo), who found and repaired Taylor’s spaceship, and accidentally travel back in time to the human age. Competently directed by former actor Don Taylor, Escape… is good fun as it observes the impact of the two simian harbingers upon 1970s Earth society, with great jokes like Zira finding accord with feminists, and Eric Braeden’s villain mirrors Zaius in his conscientious but covertly hysterical choice to perform monstrous acts. The film turns tragic as the beloved couple are murdered in the name of heading off ape dominance, although the impact is blunted by the rather predictable way it all plays out, in an entry that fails to wield anything like the conceptual breadth of the first two entries. The final reveal that their infant son Milo has found haven with a kindly circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) opened the door for a fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), which saw hardy old pro J. Lee Thompson take over as director and bring some real muscularity to proceedings, and Dehn filled out a scenario sketched out in the previous film describing how apes came to be first domesticated, enslaved, and then quickly evolve into thinking beings and begin revolting.
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Although lacking the furtive wit of the earlier movies, Conquest… proves perhaps the ballsiest and the most urgent: Thompson’s energetic direction subversively recreated news footage of urban riot and revolt and links it justified rage over the legacy of slavery and oppression. The now-grown Milo (also played by McDowall) rechristens himself Caesar and leads his fellows in insurrection after Armando is killed by an increasingly fascistic state. A reshot finale took some of the edge off, but did again allow a fifth episode to be made. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) is set after war has devastated the old human cities: now Caesar oversees an uneasy cooperative commune peopled by both apes and put-upon humans. As thuggish gorilla warrior Aldo (Claude Akins) stirs up prejudice and conflict, a gang of armed, radiation-scarred human survivors attacks the commune, sparking a fight that feels, very appropriately, like an attempt to portray the last war of history as looking a lot like the first, a tribal squabble fought with any weapon at hand. This under-budgeted entry tries to ply an okay script in the face of a scrappy production, with a rushed climax. The grand narrative ends on a note of tentative optimism, as Aldo’s carnage convinces Caesar that apes share the same dark heart as humans, denying any species’ exceptionalism. Centuries later, the Lawgiver (John Huston) is seen speaking to an audience of both species, suggesting that the timeline has been successfully deviated. But the ultimate weapon still lies in the hands of the mutants (as shown in an initially excised, later restored scene), and the last shot depicts Caesar’s venerated bust releasing a solitary tear, in fear the warlike impulse will never be entirely extinguished. This very capstone to the series is a bit corny, but does finally annex the metaphysical zone the series had long evoked. Whilst the individual entries were certainly uneven, as a whole the Planet of the Apes series still stands as near-unique in mainstream sci-fi cinema, as a cycle that stood assured on very human foundations whilst following its ideas through with weirdness, toughness, and intelligence.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Film Noir, Scifi, War

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

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Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriters: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan

By Roderick Heath

From the moment it was announced, Solo: A Star Wars Story was dogged by ill omens, and the feeling it would prove the runt of the revived Star Wars litter. The troubled production, which saw initially commissioned directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller sacked and Ron Howard hired in their place, seemed to confirm it. Lord and Miller had proven their way with zesty, rapid-fire action comedy on the surprisingly good animated hit The Lego Movie (2016), and were undoubtedly hired to give the franchise a jolt of unruly humour and scruffiness in comparison with the core new trilogy, which has been unfolding with a stately gravitas that feels increasingly strained and lacking a real storytelling compass. The fact that Solo: A Star Wars Story signed up Lawrence Kasdan, who worked on series classics Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) as well as helping out with the first of the new films, Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), was at least a promising move, for Kasdan, as well as being a fine screenwriter, is a talent who knows the full lexicon of classic movie references that form the series template, and like the property’s creator George Lucas, made films like Body Heat (1981) and Silverado (1985) that paid tribute to such classics but also reflected an independent, modernising spirit. Kasdan was joined in writing duties by his son Jon, a move that only fleshed out a feeling of continuity.

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There was also a certain sense of aptness in Howard stepping up to the plate, as he had starred in Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) long before he started directing in his own right, and directed the Lucas-conceived and produced fantasy epic Willow (1987). Nonetheless, the fact that Lucasfilm turned to Howard to save their film excited few. Where Lord and Miller had the aura of fresh, exciting talent, Howard has proved one of Hollywood’s true survivors, one who every now and then makes a strikingly good movie like Apollo 13 (1995), but more often turns out bland and indifferent fare. His tepid Oscar winner A Beautiful Mind (2002) made him a prestige filmmaker, and the price everyone paid for that was a string of clumsy movies like The Missing (2003) and Cinderella Man (2004). His 2013 racing biopic Rush was a surprise that confirmed Howard still had some verve and, moreover, authentic visual flair, but his In the Heart of the Sea (2016) was a clumpy melange that betrayed Howard’s tremendous technical craft remained in thrall to wayward scripting and ill-focused impulses. The sense of sustained legacy evinced in teaming up Howard and Kasdan was fitting at least for a project that, like Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One (2016), casts its mind back to the epoch in this legendarium between the end of Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and the start of Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), the high-water time of the evil Galactic Empire, and the early days of a beloved figure.

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Han Solo, as a character, was always the figure that kept the first Star Wars trilogy anchored in both a more recognisable sense of reality and also in a slightly different fantastical universe to the high fantasy and space opera realm the rest of it belonged to. The figuration of Luke Skywalker and Han was a little reminiscent of Raphael’s depiction of Plato and Aristotle, with budding Jedi and dreamer Luke cast as Plato with finger pointed to the heavens, and Han as Aristotle, pointing to the ground and the way things actually are. Luke was cast in the mould of classical knights errant and saga heroes; Han was the more quintessentially American and modern figure, sly, worldly, cynical, sceptical, a creation in the mould of hardboiled figures from the pen of writers like Hammett and Hemingway and splitting the difference between the urban warriors of Humphrey Bogart and frontier sentinels of Gary Cooper. Han brought to Star Wars a quality of contrast, in his values and outlook, that sharply reflected not just a sensibility within the series, as the living by-product of the Empire’s diminution of wonder and hope following the extermination of the Jedi and the old Republic, but also offering the more sceptical audience members their surrogate, and their gateway, through which they could enter this realm without feeling twee. In this regard, Han remains a figure somewhat without parallel in the saga, with some troubling impact upon subsequent films, where everyone is expected to be a true believer.

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Recounting the adventures of young Han was, then, a good idea, but also one that posits its own specific challenges, not least of which was finding a star who could match Harrison Ford’s blend of flinty attitude and supine cool in the role. Ford was 35 years old when the first film was released, and had already in his life veered from early promise to dismissal and resignation. He had been tested like his character, and found ways to survive under a hard shell. Lucas had first cast Ford as the cowboy hat-wearing-dude who arrives in town to challenge his rivals to a drag race in American Graffiti. Casting Alden Ehrenreich, a discovery of Francis Coppola who cast him in his little-seen but impressive personal drama Tetro (2009) and since gained notice in films like the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016), was one of those moves that felt remarkably right. He’s certainly no lookalike for Ford, but he held the promise of bringing something like Ford’s cocksure sturdiness and bruised joviality to the part, and whereas many actors today specialise in seeming boyish into middle age, Ehrenreich suggested remarkable maturity even as a teen. Solo: A Star Wars Story initially quotes both of Lucas’ first two features, THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti, in synthesising a suitable biography for Han.

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Han is introduced as a youth leading a hardscrabble life on a kind of space Detroit, the spaceship-building planet Corellia, a world of grand, grey metal monstrosities, labyrinthine in both geography and systems of oppressions. Here Han both subsists through and finds self-realisation in his gift for speed, jacking speeders and valuables under the nominal patronage of the grotesque alien crime queen Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt). Han however is dreaming of escape, and during a scam enacted on Proxima’s behalf has obtained a vial of refined hyperfuel, the hugely valuable, potent stuff that drives the engines of the Empire’s fleet. Han plans to flee along with Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), a fellow street criminal and his first love. First the duo have to slip Proxima’s clutches, when they’re caught by her goons and accused of hiding her share of their loot, and then the Imperial functionaries who check all people leaving the planet. Han’s deft exploitation of Proxima’s dislike of sunlight and his great, if slightly overconfident, ability behind the wheel get them to the brink of triumph. But Qi’ra is snatched back by Proxima’s heavies just after Han has passed through a security barrier, and her screamed demands for him to keep going are matched by Han’s resolve to return and fetch her once he’s hit the big time.

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Han signs up to the Imperial military, hoping to become a famed pilot, but three years later he’s found serving as a foot soldier in a grim and incoherent campaign on a planet called Mimban, a giant ball of mud. Han encounters a team of criminals, led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his partners Val (Thandie Newton) and Rio Durant (Jon Favreau), posing as soldiers, and begs to be included in their plans and help him get off the planet. When he goes a step too far in threatening to blow their cover, Beckett has him arrested: Han is sentenced as a deserter to be thrown into a pit with “the beast,” a hulking, bedraggled monstrosity that we all recognise as, of course, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Han wins over the mistreated and enraged Wookie by proving he knows a little of his language, and they break out, chained together Defiant Ones style. Rio talks Beckett and Val into delaying their departure with their loot long enough to pick them up, more for the potential muscle a Wookie can bring to their team.

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The gang’s raid on the Imperial arsenal proves to have been a stepping stone in their efforts to steal a big load of coaxium on the behalf of Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) from a moving train shipment on the planet Vandor, but the mission goes awry as the gang is attacked mid-mission by a team of rivals, led by the masked and menacing Enfys Nest, a foe who constantly harries Beckett. Rio is killed and Val blows herself up in her determination to see the plan through. Han is pressed into saving Beckett and Chewbacca’s lives with his piloting skills even as he earns Beckett’s enmity by dumping the coaxium load to avoid hitting a mountain. Han agrees to help Beckett ward off Dryden’s wrath, and they improvise a new scheme the gangster approves: they plan to head to the planet of Kessel, where unrefined coaxium is mined, steal a quantity, and transport it as quickly as possible to a friendly refining concern before it degrades and explodes. Because they need a ship capable of making the dash, they approach charismatic corsair Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and Han attempts to beat him in a card game to obtain his ship, the Millennium Falcon. After Han fails thanks to Lando’s gifts at cheating, Beckett agrees to cut Lando in on the profits, so Lando and his droid co-pilot L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) join them on their mission.

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I’ve been intensely frustrated by the revived Star Wars franchise. J.J. Abrams’ energetic but enervatingly slavish series opener and Rian Johnson’s perversely glum, twitchy Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) were lovingly produced, highly watchable films, but seemed determined to strip out all remnants of colour and originality from the series and replace them with dull technocracy, televisual dramatic precepts, and ever-narrowing horizons of imagination. Rogue One wielded some tremendous imagery but floundered with a lukewarm script and forgettable protagonists. Here, something of Lord and Miller’s pointillist sense of detail and lampooning sensibility are still apparent in touches like Lando narrating self-mythologising memoirs, and Han’s attempt to fool Lady Proxima with a thermal detonator, only for her to announce he’s actually holding a rock and making clicking sounds with his mouth. Solo: A Star Wars Story has fun remixing and calling back to vital, previously glimpsed junctures in Han’s life, like a moment of passion inside the Falcon, interrupted in a manner recalling Han’s first kiss with Leia in The Empire Strikes Back. Early in the film, Han glimpses an animated recruiting poster for the Imperial services which blares out a version of John Williams’ immortal Imperial March reconfigured as a heroic anthem. There’s a quality implicit in this flourish that struck me as more genuinely understanding and simultaneously witty yet reverential in its intrinsic delight in the Star Wars universe than anything that’s appeared in the series since Disney took it over.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story also makes some real effort to try and bring back some ingenuity of spectacle and background liveliness to the franchise. Where Abrams’ regulation cantina scene in The Force Awakens was remarkably flavourless, Howard and the production team here locate Lando in a frontier saloon festooned with the bones of massive animals, drenched in shadow and smoke with polymorphous aliens hovering the margins, a bustling, genuine dive that recalls the kind found in 1970s western films but revised into something stranger for a film that mediates science fiction with the western just like Lucas’s long-ago opener. The environs of Corellia and Mimban, which resembles a World War I battlefield, are grimly beautiful and feel right as forges for Han’s dexterity as a survivor, negotiating a criminal overlord deliberately reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt and contending with Imperial officers who direct him on to attack trivial and obscure targets, a notion that unexpectedly also nudges Han into territory shared with literary figures like Yossarian and Gunner Asche. Whilst Rogue One strained to offer a novel perspective on the Empire, this manages the trick much better, perceiving the age of the Empire and its labours as an absurdist enterprise based on propaganda and degradation, its fringes devolving into fiefdoms controlled by organised crime and fractious rebel organisations.

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The film manages a feat Rogue One here didn’t quite pull off, which is to entertainingly illustrate the start of the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire, envisioned at first as a set of robotic tantrums from droids, and gaining dizzy fervour as Chewbacca is reunited with fellow Wookies, enslaved in the Kessel mines; revolt and collapse are incipient, old crimes set to be repaid, renegades forged by a once-mighty society’s breaking down into corrupt fascism now defining their own realities. Long before this film came out, jokey memes were circulating online about the compulsory points the film would have to touch upon in regards to the dribs and drabs of backstory known about Han from before his fateful encounter with Luke and Obi-Kenobi. Sure enough, we get all of them: here’s Han’s first meetings with Chewbacca and Lando, here’s his first sight of the Falcon, here’s the Kessel Run and why doing it in “twelve parsecs” was a big deal (explaining along the way what this means as it refers to units of distance rather than time). Han’s connection with the Falcon is revealed to be based in personal nostalgia and class pride, as he mentions his father used to build this model of spacecraft “before he was laid off.” We get an aside explaining just how our hero earned his peculiarly descriptive surname, given to him by a patronising Imperial recruiter who notes the young recruit’s lack of family or identity.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story moves at such a rocketing pace that some of these episodes inevitably seem a little compressed and robbed of the titanic stature they seem to have when wielded as suggestive history, which is a problem backtracking preludes often face. Compared to the leisurely evocations of masculine interaction and ratcheting tension Howard Hawks and screenwriter Leigh Brackett could evoke on the likes of El Dorado (1967), what we get here is so rapid-fire there’s little chance for a real sense of solidarity and frenemy intensity to grow between the characters. Glover’s Lando in particular seems ill-served by this, reducing Billy Dee Williams’ great portrayal of a slick, shifty, but hearty and ultimately decent rascal to a rather thin foil. Although Glover is one of the most engaging and multifaceted presences on the contemporary scene, and he masters Williams’ dazzling bullshitter’s smile, he eventually feels more than mildly miscast. On the other hand, Han’s fractured relationship with Qi’ra, who he finds to his surprise is now one of Dryden’s associates as members of the crime family called the Crimson Dawn, plucked from the dregs on Corellia, is the most interesting Star Wars has offered since Anakin and Padmé, particularly as it faces the thorny problem as to how it relates to Han’s growth.

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The flourish of killing off a female true love as a defining moment in a male hero’s life has become a noxious cliché, although it can be hard to separate from the traditions and demands of basic storytelling precepts of emotional involvement, and realistic and urgent motivation. I’ve seen that done well before, particularly in Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1986) (a film that’s feeling increasingly like a template for the whole of current pop culture), but Howard and the Kasdans manage to sidestep this trope whilst still adding the finishing touches to Han’s sourly expectant worldview and eventual comfort with separateness. They do it not by killing Qi’ra off but revealing her as finally choosing another destiny for herself as Dryden’s successor, a criminal queen who makes her play to rise to the top of her chosen heap rather than subsist on the margins like Han. There’s a smart echo here of another retro template, films like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) where the two kids from the wrong side of the tracks choose their mutual paths, given a modern tweak where the love interest is the femme fatale and the friend to whom bonds linger across vast gulfs of morality and expectation.

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It helps that Ehrenreich and Clarke have something like the bodied allure of proper movie stars. Han and Qi’ra’s kiss isn’t the only romantic moment the franchise has seen since its revival, after whatsit and whosis were at the end of Rogue One and Finn and Rose in The Last Jedi. But it is the first to make a real impression, even if the romance is necessarily defined and retarded by inevitable transience. Howard has sometimes been a little too eager to pick up modish directing habits, like the irritating action scenes in The Missing, and Solo: A Star Wars Story is replete with some excessively fast editing that feels alien to the Star Wars style guide. One would expect that Howard would wield little grasp on the faintly poetic, dreamlike edge that defines the series at its best. He evinces a real eye, however, for serving up the sorts of landscapes that evoke Lucas’s creation in its scenes of civilisations clinging onto the edge of vast abysses and hewn out the matter of a harsh universe, littered with traces of vanished forebears in signs like unknowably old standing stones, and the detritus of a vast galactic network of industry, war, and crime. Best of all, Howard restores some authentic Saturday matinee energy to the brand, and builds sequences with classical rigour. The train heist is the best action set-piece this series has seen since the finale of Revenge of the Sith, a tremendously well-sustained and visualised episode blending frantic swashbuckling and vast landscapes as the conveyance rockets along mountain flanks, pivoting on its axis in a way no familiar train does, constantly threatening to hurl our heroes to their doom even as Stormtroopers rain blaster bolts on their heads, with Nest’s band of aerial pirates in pursuit.

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Compared to the flatness of Abrams’ thin, hurried recreations of Lucas’ situations and Johnson’s tony approach, Howard proves himself, for all his air of practiced and familiar competence, simply better at this sort of thing. Likewise the extended movement in which the gang wreak havoc on Kessel and then make their flight to immortality of a kind offers real delight in pure movement and exponential absurdity. Helping give this great movement thrust is the inspired character of L3, a droid who’s passionately involved in preaching rights for robot kind and in love with her charming boss despite her protestations. Unleashed upon the unsuspecting Empire, she inspires all the droids on Kessel to rebel, in the sort of sequence, rowdy and crowd-pleasing and child-like, Star Wars was built on. L3 is shot down in battle and Lando uploads her memory into the Millennium Falcon’s shipboard computer to make use of her navigational knowledge, offering an ever so slight wisp of strange spirituality and sexuality to both Lando’s and Han’s relationship with the ship, and contextualising the Falcon’s virtual personality and spasmodic quirks. The Kessel run is a loopy episode that pays overt tribute to the asteroid field chase in The Empire Strikes Back, with snatches of Williams’ score heard on the soundtrack, but complicates it as a charge into murk and chaos where colossal tentacled monstrosities hide and holes in the fabric in reality wait for spaceships lurk in wait.

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The Kasdans’ feel for the root genres at play here is genuine, transmuting regulation scenes from westerns, including a confrontational card game and a train robbery, into the fuel of fantastical imagery. The elder Kasdan was credited as co-screenwriter on The Empire Strikes Back with Brackett, a writer who made her start penning pulp sci-fi and noir tales in magazines and then became a noted screenwriter for the likes of Howard Hawks. Brackett helped impose upon Lucas’s evolving property some authentic old-school flavour and sense of legacy. Kasdan repays the favour here as he works in an elaborate tribute to Brackett’s most famous sci-fi story, Black Amazon of Mars, as Solo: A Star Wars Story works up to a revelation Nest is actually a woman. Han forging a rough alliance with her offers another echo of an influence, positing Solo: A Star Wars Story as the outer space equivalent of Rick’s history of gunrunning for the good guys mentioned in Casablanca (1942), an act of nobility evinced even in an officially cynical resume. The gang’s encounters with Dryden in his roving nightclub-cum-spaceship belong more properly to noir films where the nefarious kingpin lurks behind a classy front. Han’s fractious relationship with Beckett and Lando exacerbate the resemblance to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) as a seriocomic riff on genre clichés, and the final confrontation between Han and Beckett as friends who nonetheless must face each-other’s guns recalls the climax of Vera Cruz (1954).

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Arch deployment of referential touchstones are of course not new to Star Wars, but what’s particularly interesting here is that whilst Johnson’s nods to Kurosawa and film noir undoubtedly reflected personal interest, they sat hovering in quotation marks whilst refusing to click into gear with an overall story thrust that didn’t have much to do with them. Howard and the Kasdans actually make their fetish points operate in coherent genre narrative terms, making Han not merely a dramatis persona and archetype but a knowing condensation of multiple strands of pop culture history, a creature who breathes the atmosphere of a certain danker, darker fictional sensibility, whilst still making them all serve a hard-charging storyline. Bettany offers an elegant performance as the smooth, gentlemanly, yet utterly ruthless criminal overlord, another nexus of sci-fi and noir: the final battle that defines the film unfolds not on a grand landscape but in the confines of his office, played out in terms of intimate violence in a manner that remains very true to this inspiration.

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This finish helps lay down a blueprint for a new wing of the franchise that presents a peculiar new bridging point between the underworld and the metaphysical power of the Force. It’s revealed the mysterious chieftain of the Crimson Dawn is Darth Maul, the bifurcated henchman last seen plunging into a shaft at the end of Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), now a part-android crime boss. This twist makes for gratuitous fan service, of course, granting new life to a spikily memorable villain who many felt never got to strut his stuff as much as he deserved. By the time Han confronts Beckett, who betrays him and still intends to kill him and yet still represents the closest thing to a family he has left, the man Han becomes is clearly nearly complete, with a tense smirk and poised readiness. A shoot-out is imminent, except that Han shoots Beckett before the older man can do it to him. The gag here is obvious as a play on the infamy resulting from Lucas’s revision of his original film from 1997, which altered Han’s confrontation with Greedo, where he shot the bounty hunter from under a table. Lucas’ change was in line with his increasingly strong intent to remake the series in a more responsible, family-friendly mould, but it offended fans who felt the whole point of Han as a character was his canny, unsentimental toughness.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story restores the roguish side to Han’s character, but the script doesn’t simply play this pivot for a nasty joke. It is rather the moment in a tale that’s as much the tragedy of a valiant young man’s education in the cruel necessities of surviving a corrupt universe as it is the origin story of a hero: Han holds the hand of his dying father-enemy and Han watches Qi’ra fly away to her own chosen fate, as he faces a future of improvised exile. The film ticks off the last two necessary stages in Han’s journey as he journeys to lay claim to the Falcon for keeps and plans taking up a job offer from Jabba. It’s telling that in contemporary screenwriting patterns the shyster side of Han’s character, glimpsed fleetingly in the original character, is now very much a cosmic state of being in contemporary pop culture, and his cool, insouciant aspect, the aspect of Han that was most in touch with the older models, now feels so alien even Kasdan can’t quite bring it to bear. So, does Ehrenreich succeed as a Ford stand-in? Not really. But what’s important is that Ehrenreich is entirely persuasive and potent in his own right. It does seem unlikely given all the stumbling blocks it faced, but to my mind Solo: A Star Wars Story proves easily the best film yet from the Disney-managed franchise, the first to feel at all authentically grounded in Lucas’s sensibility and also to really enjoy itself as a pure, unselfconscious piece of pulp moviemaking. Not every choice and flourish is an act of genius or great creative originality. Like the Millennium Falcon herself, it’s a hunk of junk, cobbled together through expedience and flashes of inspiration, and somehow all fits together in a way that’s a total blast.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

Ready Player One (2018)

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Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

It must be a strange feeling to live in an era you played a part in inventing. Steven Spielberg is one of the few people who might claim it, when regarding today’s pop cultural landscape. And how frustrating, to feel the same desire to create with the same old fervour and retain eminence when so many imitators and acolytes are pounding on the gates. Lately Spielberg has been contending with a host of wannabes eager to claim his mantle, and the jarring flop of his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG (2016) raised the possibility his days as a maker of big popular hits might finally be over. Maybe it was time to sell out like his pal and collaborator George Lucas, or perhaps settle for making more of his modestly popular, smartly if cosily-done, mid-budget dramas like Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017). Ready Player One signals this is far from his intention, a film that is at once a work of startling energy and brashness from a seasoned talent, but also one that fits with surprising elegance into the director’s autumnal phase, a contemplation of the notion of legacy in terms of a receptive and interacting audience and also in personal reckoning.

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The source material, Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, is somewhat divisive as the “holy grail of pop culture,” as the film’s trailer proclaimed it. Cline’s book churned together a manic panorama of geeky emblems, conjuring a narrative that also worked as a literary equivalent of an online listicle, rattling off a swathe of appreciations and appraisals of various properties for a specific generational sensibility, in his fantasy world where the expanse of human imagination often boils down to repurposing myriad popular movies, shows, games, and books. To a certain extent Cline was only continuing a practice begun forty years ago by Spielberg and his generational fellows of the Movie Brat generation like Lucas, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma and others, with their early intimations of the post-modern sensibility incorporated into mainstream storytelling. They amalgamated genre tropes and narrative forms they found cool and felt other people dug too, whilst working in a personal sensibility. It’s in this last part of the process where the trouble lies: what if you don’t really have a personal sensibility, other than the various wares you’ve bought and used to furnish your mental space?

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Most people aren’t artists or creators, and happy instead to wield the fare they love as a kind of livery, a phenomenon that’s easy to see all over our contemporary online lives, for everyone who clips out some screencap or piece of artwork to make use of an emblematic figure and infer to all and sundry our allegiances, self-concept, and ambitions. The setting of Ready Player One is one of near-future dystopia, one that could well be unfolding down the road from Spielberg’s last venture into this territory, Minority Report (2002). After a series of broadly described calamities, including “the corn syrup drought and the bandwidth riots,” Columbus, Ohio has become the world’s fastest-growing city, with most of the populace subsisting in crudely assembled slums called The Stacks. But many don’t care too much about their living circumstances, as they spend most of their lives immersed in an online virtual reality world called the Oasis, the brainchild of the late tech wizard and uber-nerd James Halliday (Mark Rylance).

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Wade Willis (Tye Sheridan) is one of the natives of this timid new world, a prodigious young talent in the digital world and, outside of it, the barely-tolerated ward of his aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) and her sleazy boyfriend Rick (Ralph Ineson). Wade, who goes by the online moniker Parzifal, is one of a cadre of seekers who call themselves Gunters, or egg hunters, dedicated to the great quest Halliday built into the Oasis before he died: Halliday has placed an Easter Egg, coder slang for a hidden object, somewhere in the Oasis that will allow whichever intrepid and inspired soul can unlock it first to take control of Halliday’s company and the Oasis itself. Inevitably, this has spawned “clans” of unified competitors to dedicate their efforts to cracking the clues, and also corporate rivals in the form of the Sixers, an army of nameless, numerically designated gamers employed by IOI, a company founded by one of Halliday’s former employees, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).

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Although intended as a vehicle of fantastical release, Halliday also built the Oasis to operate by certain rigid rules of cause and effect as well as be a zone of fair competition. Success in the Oasis depends entirely on the individual’s level of skill, and unlike the real world cannot by manipulated by other forms of influence, guile, or trickery. Certain extremely popular objects and effective tools can only be purchased with amassed credit, and to fail at a feat or die in the online world results in bankruptcy, and the player must start from scratch. The trouble with Halliday’s great quest is that nobody has ever managed even to surpass the first stage in the game, a colossal street race where the Gunters must attempt to outrace each-other and dodge ferocious threats, like breakneck plunges and a marauding King Kong, in order to reach the first of three promised keys that will grant access to the Easter Egg. Parzifal obstinately studies the assembled recordings of Halliday’s life, and races in the DeLorean from Back to the Future (1985).

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Parizfal belongs to a subset of solo Gunters who disdain clans, but he does engage in friendly competition and downtime banter with Aech (Lena Waithe), who he only knows online as a hulking green mutant version of Vin Diesel and who’s a wiz at reconstructing virtual machines, and the dashing duo Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki), who appear as a kung fu master and a samurai warrior with Toshiro Mifune’s face, respectively. There’s also Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Parzifal’s greatest rival and an enigmatic figure of legend in the Gunter community, a sleek, colourful, dazzling cavalier who competes in the race riding the red motorbike from Akira (1988). Parzifal saves Art3mis from her own bravado as she tries to leap over Kong, and begin to form a rugged alliance in attempting to plumb the mystery of Halliday’s quest once more. Parzifal finally unlocks the puzzle of the race in listening to Halliday’s testimonials and his wish to rewind, to go backwards, which proves to be exactly the right way to win the race. Parzifal becomes an instant celebrity and is courted by Nolan to help IOI unlock the rest of the puzzle. When he refuses, Nolan hires two potent heavies to try and nail Wade and associates, the enforcer F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), who rounds up debtors for the loyalty centers in the physical world, and the accomplished virtual goon I-R0k (T.J. Miller), who appears online as a walking heavy metal band album cover.

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To peel away the elaborate referential superstructure of Ready Player One is to find a straightforward story, pitting its young faithful against the forces of cynical exploitation, albeit traversing both the colourful digital universe and the grotty, dilapidated real world. Mendelsohn’s Nolan is revealed as someone who studied at the feet of the master Halliday but who even as an awkward whelp wanted to subdivide the Oasis experience according to real-world wealth, a notion explicitly at odds with Halliday’s meritorious world-building. There’s a damn clever reason behind the film’s pop cultural lexicon, as Halliday, a Gen Xer, made the Oasis an open zone for immersion in any lifestyle people desired, but structured his quest specifically according to his own proclivities as a nerd, and so to master the Easter Egg hunt demands mastering both his obsessions and his biography: the journey into the works is a journey into the creator. It’s believable when you consider the way nerd references are implanted in contemporary computing, like the phrase we use to refer to unwanted emails taken from a certain beloved Monty Python gag. The lexicon of a certain variety of entertainment has been hardwired into the technology created by its fans in the same manner as the classical education of the Victorian era’s inventors and entrepreneurs inflected their terminology and wares.

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It’s tempting nonetheless to describe Ready Player One as the ‘80s retro bar glimpsed in Back to the Future Part II (1989) transmuted into an entire movie: harvested, essentialised images from a time now fading into a similar status the 1950s had for the characters in Robert Zemeckis’ beloved trilogy, as a time of dogging nostalgia and niggling regret. Part of that lustre was of course the result of a general agreed contrivance, as filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, and Zemeckis projected their own ‘50s youths onto the ‘80s whilst taking a half-suspicious sideways glance at the promise of Reaganism to restore that lost Eden, but constantly suggesting the new forces in play. I fit the generational template for this film pretty squarely, and although I have no desire to remain living in a perpetual bubble of 1985, I also don’t mind appreciating and celebrating the best of the age, particularly when much of it still has to fight for a seat at the table as far as critical standing goes. Not that the ‘80s is the only frame of reference: much more recent video game characters are also in the mix.

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Cline’s plot draws on a host of models – there’s the idea of the video game as a version of the sword-in-the-stone task from The Last Starfighter (1984) and the quest to assume the mantle of a mysterious and tricky creator from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, whilst the conflict in the digital realm obviously echoes Tron (1982). I could compare Ready Player One to some other films that have similarly contended with the splintering of reality and the looming possibility of life lived in proxy, movies like David Cronenberg’s ode to digital dysmorphia, eXistenZ (1997), Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006), Zack Snyder’s level-up dark fantasy of Sucker Punch (2011), Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2011), Wong Kar-Wai’s dreamy emotional biography 2046 (2004), and the movie adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ thematically similar The Hunger Games books. It almost goes without saying that Ready Player One is far lighter and more pop in tone than some of those, although it manages to ply the same imperatives without succumbing to the leaden self-seriousness of the Hunger Games films in particular: Ready Player One aims, and succeeds effortlessly, in recreating the old, jaunty mood of ‘80s pop movies whilst still analysing the new anxieties of the present. It also lacks the dreamlike conjurations and shifting sense of self Kon was able to articulate in his alternate reality journey through the mind and the furnishing provided by formative fixations and the imaginings of others. And yet it manages to contend with the same reservoir of fixations and concepts on its own terms.

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The very premise of Ready Player One is the sort that tends to instantly polarise and inflame sensibilities, veering between delight and exasperation, and depending very much on one’s age and sensibility which. Some adverse reaction carries a strong whiff of generational prejudice: it was all right to remix old serials and pulp tales into the Indiana Jones films or churn together a host of references in the Gremlins movies because they were artefacts of baby boomers’ fond remembrances, but to remix more recent fare is to appease younger people who are all, if you were to believe some journalistic voices, boors, sexists, and racists. It’s true that the nerd creed long sported a proud badge of innocence as one fit for outcasts, oddballs, misfits, and proud weirdos to coexist harmoniously in a zone outside the competitive realms of other pastimes, but of late, as it’s become cooler to be considered geeky, an unpleasant side to this world has been growing, the vicious and competitive gatekeeping and internecine strife. Spielberg and Cline, who co-wrote the script with Zak Penn, emphasise the positive side, as Wade’s progress is one of forging amities that bleed into the real world and bond together people who are on the surface rather different but who share a deeper essence.

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The way we consume pop culture has changed tremendously since Spielberg and the other Movie Brats started. Back then, except for TV showings, it was very hard to access older movies and TV shows. Pop culture of the moment was more definite, more enveloping and defining. Today, it’s very easy to live in a self-curated bubble totally different to the person next to you. There still are and always will be shared generational touchstones, but pop culture is far more of a bricoleur’s state now (although that might be changing again now that streaming platforms are effectively sequestering whole realms of culture and tightening the scope of interest to what services and sites choose to drip-feed their subscribers). Ready Player One’s survey is attuned to this phenomenon. All our concepts, all our pet fantasies, are a mask for something else, and the film’s human story is very much a tale that should be familiar to many of us, as the various young online swashbucklers become fretful about transferring their chemistry into the real world.

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Parzifal falls in love with the glamorous Art3mis, who warns him about the dangers inherent in blurring the Oasis life with the real world, a warning echoed by Aech, as they exist for the most part in a world that allows them to distort or even abandon their real-life identities: “You only see what I want you to see,” Art3mis tells Parzifal. As they’re forced to attempt to save each-other and beat IOI, the digital heroes are obliged to try and meet up in real life and fend off physical threats. Aech proves to actually be Helen (Lena Waithe), a black lesbian, Sho is an 11-year-old, and Art3mis is a young punkette belonging to an alt-culture clique dedicated to resisting IOI, trying to hide a birthmark on her face behind a lick of red hair.

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The game of spot-the-reference is certainly fun, and sometimes pays off in some blissfully silly conjunctions, as in the great climactic battle when Nolan as Mechagodzilla battles Saito in the form of the first real “mecha” hero Gundam, the evil, possessed doll Chucky from the Child’s Play horror series goes on the rampage, and Ted Hughes-via-Brad Bird’s Iron Giant recreates the salutary thumbs-up of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The telling aspect to all this lies in the recognition that all these avatars plucked from pop culture are masks of various principles and ideas and projections of our interior selves and collective sensibility that long precede these various figurations, and also their role as tropes connecting to various roles. Even if you’re not a fan of these various properties, what they mean to others is made instantly apparent, and play their role in the story rather than being the story. Most cinema people react to video game associations like they’ve taken an acid burn, but Spielberg seems entirely Zen about it, although he might be better positioned to given his influence on that realm too. What is the Tomb Raider franchise but a distaff, simplified version of his Indiana Jones films?

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Most computer games are built around figurations taken from the essentialised studies of mythology of Jung and Joseph Campbell, systems of progression through to an innermost cave of achievement, ideas Lucas and Spielberg did much to popularise. A major motif in the story zeroes in on the legacy of Warren Robinett, whose game Adventure involved locating his own hidden name in a secret bole, the first ever Easter Egg that entwined the act of discovery and curiosity for its own sake with the pride of creating. Spielberg has never been a meta filmmaker, preferring instead to comment via sideways inferences and likenesses. Ready Player One is nonetheless perhaps the most overt work of self-analysis Spielberg’s made since Jurassic Park (1993) provided a vehicle to explore his pride and unease as a creator of wildly popular entertainments that sometimes provoked unwanted responses and challenges. The tepid response to Lucas’ later Star Wars films as well as his and Spielberg’s return to the Indiana Jones series, and works of retro tribute like The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) and The BFG, revealed a looming generation gap, one that’s been nimbly exploited by the likes of J.J. Abrams, for whom pop culture dates back no further than the first Star Wars.

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was vital and fascinating, but also restlessly received, in very large part because it was a generational statement from Spielberg and Lucas, attempting to introduce Jones, the mythical avatar of their parents’ generation, into the world of their own youth, a world where Howdy Doody, I Like Ike, the Atomic Café, hot rods, Elvis and scares over lead-lined fridges and Nigel Kneale’s sci-fi were mixed in with ancient idols and primeval myth, all artefacts in a madcap cultural centrifuge. Ready Player One is an attempt to offer an equivalent for a generation that followed, the one Spielberg helped foster, but also one that reflects the change in experience, casting Wade/Parzifal as the geek-culture inheritor of Jones. There’s an interesting gap between Spielberg’s ode to the ‘80s and his own style: back in the ‘80s, of course, he made movies that moved majestically on the strains of John Williams’ scores rather than pop hits like Van Halen’s “Jump” and Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True” as pop up on the soundtrack here (scoring duties are taken by Alan Silvestri, who drops in hints of his Back to the Future theme at appropriate moments). But, of course, the point here is curated culture. I liked the fact that not all the geekery is too popular, either: the film spares space for cult anime and David Lynch’s Dune (1984) as well as more imposing landmarks like King Kong (1933) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).

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The major irony here is that for the most part Spielberg has erased his own work from the matrix, except in the form of Jurassic Park’s tyrannosaur. But, of course, he’s everywhere in it; he’s creating the amphitheatre for all of this, just as Jaws (1975) is often cited, with a certain degree of accuracy, as the birth of the modern blockbuster style. All through the film I couldn’t shake the feeling it was a response in part not simply to Spielberg’s current assessment of his place in the pop culture hierarchy, but also to the great crisis facing that world, its abandonment of new ideas – a problem the film seems on the face of it to be perpetuating. But it’s also a prod, not simply to sometimes look past the comforting womb of favourite things to look at the way things are actually run and served up to us, but also to recognise that those things are all the product of a creator, who is in turn inspired by another creator. One of the later images in the film sees Wade confronted by the image of the young Halliday, a kid playing video games, destined to fashion great things but in turn just another fan. Spielberg might even be commenting on Lucas abandoning his intellectual property to Disney. To watch the Disney-shepherded Star Wars films is to no longer see an artist, however commercial and populist, responding to their own shifting identity and sensibility over the years but to see carefully screened, hired talents presenting what are at their best glorified fan fiction and at worst corporate franchise protection.

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Ready Player One is certainly a hymn to popular iconography, and rather self-evidently a commentary by Spielberg on his own career as an artist who’s managed to win a rare place for himself inside a system and an industry but who never quite feels comfortable in that system. It’s also an attempt to sensitise the audience into greater awareness that iconography can persist beyond its creators but the creators are still vital not just to the process of genesis but for the audience’s understanding and sense of affinity with the work – the notion that artist and audience are connecting on levels both overt and subliminal, the concerns and emotions they share. The in-built irony here of course is that to put across its theme Ready Player One engages in this practice at an extreme – the rights clearances alone surely needed an army of lawyers as thick as the avatar horde Parzifal unleashes upon IOI. Spielberg has Cline and Penn swap out one of the books reference points for one of Spielberg’s own favourite films. The heroes venture into an unnervingly fetishistic recreation of the environs of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1981), where the elevator filled with blood and the taunting call of the twin girls unsettle and terorise, and the naked ghost lady tantalises Aech before trying to kill her. Nolan meets I-R0k on Planet Doom under the wreck of a Martian machine from The War of the Worlds (1953), another lightning rod for the director.

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The recourse to Halliday’s records and attempt to parse the mysteries of his life recalls another founding text of modern cinema in general, Citizen Kane (1941), complete with a twist on the idea of Rosebud as raw material for communal dreaming: the absence of Halliday from his own life, his emotional failures, like his inability to kiss his great love and failure to take her dancing, incorporated into the stuff of his art and his message. Halliday had fallen for Kira (Perdita Weeks), but their one date was a flop, and she eventually ended up marrying his business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), an event that left Halliday perpetually lovelorn and also seemed to push him to force Ogden out of his company, and to reach the secret of the second key Parzifal, Art3mis, and their pals must understand Halliday himself, his regrets and mistakes. Parzifal is gifted with a token from the archive’s snooty custodian as the first person to ever grasp the significance of Kira’s name in part because of its general absence from the database, a subject of such special pain that it could only be retained is a singular totem and clue. Parzifal/Wade’s insight comes from his identification with Halliday as he’s faced with his own moment of romantic truth with Art3mis/Samantha.

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The flaw of the creator is the flaw of the creation, the dead points and blind spots in a conjured world reflecting the problems of growth found in turn in its architect – one reason why no single act of creation can embrace and speak for everyone. Spielberg’s collaboration with Rylance reaches its third instalment here, and it sees the hints given by his earlier roles for the director that Spielberg’s been using Rylance as a stand-in become more definite. In Bridge of Spies, he played a man caught between political blocs nominally in service to one who’d rather be painting, and the bullied, ageing hermit in The BFG whose truest connection is still to children. Here he’s glimpsed as Halliday, a droning savant both proud of his works but also diffident about their meaning in the face of looming mortality and handover. Of course, Nolan could also be read as another face of self-assessment, the mogul who’s clawed his way to the heart of a large industry, relied upon to keep small armies of passionate people pointed in one direction and expected to deliver profits as well as art with gruelling consistency. But Ready Player One is a great movie experience because a lot of the referential and theoretical stuff is rich and fun, but also supernal to the basic thrust of the plot, which is something both more essential and entirely apt, as the young heroes try to stick it to The Man and claim a legacy for themselves, as well as fighting for, well, net neutrality, open-source culture, and creative rights.

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Spielberg’s vision of a not-too-distant dystopia is effective in its own right in a way that sharply contrasts the delirious colour and spectacle of the Oasis because it feels recognisable. His vision of the Stacks as a high-rise mating of favela and trailer park, the general air of rundown infrastructure and shortage in life made up for by the fantastical plenty in the Oasis, the omnipresent drone surveillance, cunningly tweaks the familiar and pushes it to an extreme. The early surveys of the Stacks see Spielberg’s roving camera peering through windows at the absurdity of people in their various situations, enacting their online fantasies in the physical world, the kind of extended, diorama-like shot Spielberg used a lot in Minority Report and purveys in a similar fashion here with a puckish sense of humans in their various spaces, viewed as slightly absurd phenomena in their little boxes and tailored experiences in a future where nobody can quite escape reality but can’t face it either.

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A scene reminiscent of Wayne’s World (1992) sees Nolan carefully coached by earpiece on his small army of advisors as he tries to win over Wade by posing as a true-blue geek. But IOI’s meanness is not simply virtual: the basis of the company’s business method is buying up people’s virtual debts and forcing them into “loyalty centers,” essentially a form of virtual indenture. Samantha hates IOI for shoving her father into one of these, and follows in his footsteps when she allows herself to be captured by IOI goons to give Wade a chance to get away. She’s chained in a cabinet with a virtual reality helmet locked on her head, forced to toil in the Oasis for the company, in a scene that’s actually rather more effectively nightmarish than many a more overt act of cruelty on screen. Natch, her pals soon get down to trying to rescue her. A great little joke early in the film, the sight of Nolan’s Oasis password written on a post-it note in his fancy VR pod to aid a dodgy memory, proves to be a plot key, as Wade’s sharpness for remembering such detail lets him and his cadre hack Nolan’s feed and fool him long enough to think he’s at their mercy, obliging him to help free Samantha.

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Samantha in turn infiltrates the Sixers’ ranks and starts harming the IOI operation from within. Meanwhile Nolan is trying to ensure none of the Gunters can beat him to solving the last problem to get at the Easter Egg by sealing off the citadel Halliday built on the Oasis realm called Planet Doom with a magical device, set in motion, amusingly and inevitably, with an Elvish phrase out of The Lord of the Rings, and Samantha sets about trying to find the key to lifting the shield whilst Wade-as-Parzifal lays siege to the citadel with an army called forth from the eternal realms of nerddom, leading to the hilarious spectacle of 3 or 4 generations’ worth of beloved trash icons doing battle out in Mordor. Such is the film’s affection for the loves of its characters that even the Sixers and IOI’s small army of geeks are given their own heroic lustre as they dedicate themselves to thrashing out the conundrums and solving the unsolvable gameplay, and watching their joy in seeing Parzifal, just another one of them on the truest level, winning out.

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Perhaps the most charming aspect of Ready Player One is that it taps a vein of romanticism that Spielberg too often keeps under wraps, particularly in the sequence of Parzifal and Art3mis begin to fall in love in a zero-gravity disco where couples spin in weightless joy and the Saturday Night Fever (1977) dance floor can be summoned with a click of the fingers. The lively musical sensibility Spielberg was able to animated in 1941 (1979) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) manages to free itself again, if briefly, here. Sheridan, who first caught eyes as a kid in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and who’s all grown up now, and Cooke, who’s quickly proving herself one of the most engaging talents around after transcending weak vehicles like The Quiet Ones (2014) and The Limehouse Golem (2017), pull off the film’s quietest but most emotionally vital bit as Wade draws aside the hair Samantha uses to hide her birthmark, and pronounces it unimportant. It’s a lovely little moment keen to the ebb and flow of strength in people, as Samantha, who specialises in seeming like a chitinous being chiselled out of raw confidence online submits to her ultimate fear, and Wade, who’s been longing to prove himself as a real person, doesn’t fail her. It charges the rest of the film with freewheeling humanist energy.

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Amongst contemporary filmmakers, few have the gift to make a movie where you go in to see Voltron battling Mothra or something, and have you come out thinking about the first girl you kissed. But Spielberg still has it, and that’s what turns Ready Player One from a potentially tiresome, gimmick or throwaway bit of nonsense into one of the most surprisingly galvanising and entertaining movies I’ve seen in the past few years. Ready Player One builds to a scene where anointed inheritor encounters the digital ghost of his hero, and recognises part of his own responsibility is to evolve past Halliday, to face the real world and the consequences of living in it as well as celebrating the joy of creation, and obliges to make everyone get some sort of a life and start dealing with the problems before them, as well as the pleasures. Here Ready Player One reminded me of another Movie Brat’s more thoroughly anarchic, if less well-orchestrated, poison pen letter to his art, industry, and audience, John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. (1997), where Snake Plissken plunged the world into pre-modern darkness to cleanse its soul and mind. Spielberg is more reasonable. How about two days a week, just for a trial?

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

Predator (1987)

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Director: John McTiernan
Screenwriters: Jim Thomas, John Thomas

By Roderick Heath

The great days of 1980s genre filmmaking produced a clutch of classics that are today readily recalled totems of shared meaning for a couple of generations of movie fans. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s string of action flicks from the decade, kicked off by Conan the Barbarian (1982) and extended by The Terminator (1984), Commando (1985), Predator, and The Running Man (1987), retain a cherished lustre for fairly good reason. Although probably the most limited actor ever to become an A-list movie star, Schwarzenegger’s presence seemed to galvanise a film style in the way Fred Astaire signified the maturation of the musical in the 1930s or Charlton Heston embodied the epic in the 1960s. Films had action before Schwarzenegger, but they weren’t action films; that genre was born anew in the 1980s, rising like Venus from a sea of cocaine excess, Nautilus-machine-made muscle, and Hollywood’s new predilection for producing B-movie fare with blockbuster budgets. Predator upon first release scarcely earned a second glance from critics and whilst it did great box office, it was on video that it really came into its own. Like many of its beloved generational fellows, Predator was perfect product for the burgeoning age of home viewing, when movie fans could at last latch onto a movie that perfectly suited their sensibility, shove it in the VCR, and get the same high again and again.

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Those halcyon days eventually met their climax and wane, like any great imperial moment. Schwarzenegger and Predator director John McTiernan would reunite for Last Action Hero (1993), an attempt at self-reflexive satire and high-concept ingenuity that would prove a mammoth bomb, signalling the end of an era, leaving filmgoers defenceless before Michael Bay and superhero movies. Whilst Schwarzenegger eventually turned his hand to politics McTiernan, who seemed for a time like the essence of a stylish Hollywood hit maker with his chitinous visual textures and gift for propulsive pacing extended on Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990), would falter and decline before meeting legal disgrace. When he made Predator, McTiernan was just another young gun, coming off his little-seen but stylish and eerie supernatural thriller Nomads (1985). Predator’s script, written by brother screenwriters Jim and John Thomas and polished by David Peoples, conjured a classic brand of star vehicle by mashing together successful recent hits into a chimera that became in itself a new design classic to be filched, fusing together aspects of Schwarzenegger’s previous hits with a little of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) thrown in.

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But Predator also had deeper roots. The storyline’s basic motif inverting the role of hunter and prey stands as a sci-fi take on Richard Connell’s legendary short story The Most Dangerous Game, first filmed in 1932 as a precursor to King Kong (1933) by producing team Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper and directed by Irving Pichel. The narrative form however more clearly recalls John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934), an essential work of early sound-era adventure filmmaking that, whilst set in the desert and depicting a French Foreign Legion squad’s slow decimation by Berber assassins, similarly turned the shadowy threat into a virtually existential enemy and left a solitary, stalwart hero to outwit his foes. The opening shots, featuring swaggering military hardware and bulbous ultra-masculine bodies filmed against blazing sunsets, push the idealising high-style tendency of recent movies like Top Gun or To Live and Die in LA (both 1986) to a comical extreme, and for a purpose. McTiernan lumps the official paraphernalia of the evolving ‘80s aesthetic into one place and then sets about demolishing it. To watch Predator these days is to be struck by all the over-achievers in the cast: two future state governors and two notable directors emerged from the carnage.

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Schwarzenegger plays Major Alan ‘Dutch’ Schaefer, head of a Special Forces unit who specialise in rescue missions, also including Blain Cooper (Jesse Ventura), Mac Eliot (Bill Duke), Jorge ‘Poncho’ Ramírez (Richard Chaves), Billy Sole (Sonny Landham), and Rick Hawkins (Shane Black). One of Dutch’s former comrades in arms, George Dillon (Carl Weathers), now works for the CIA, and he and Maj-Gen. Phillips (R. G. Armstrong) want Dutch to take his men into the jungle, crossing the border of an unnamed country, to extract a cabinet member whose helicopter crashed there and now might be threatened by contras. Dillon joins the team, who are flown into the rough vicinity of their target, but find the lost chopper wrecked and empty. Pushing on into the jungle, they soon come across an incredibly strange and appalling find: three skinned and eviscerated bodies hanging from a tree. Dutch finds dog tags and realises that one of them was a soldier he knew named Hopper, but Dillon denies any knowledge of this unit’s deployment. When the unit comes across a contra base, they attack and wipe out the enemy soldiers, taking only one captive, a female, Anna Gonsalves (Elpidia Carrillo). Dutch realises Dillon used him to wipe out the command of an intended invasion of a neighbouring country with a ruse. Dutch is furious, but the unit resolves to get the hell out of dodge before any reckonings. They soon realise something far stranger and more terrifying than any guerrilla fighter is tracking them, and it begins killing them one by one.

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McTiernan had some claim to being, amongst the relatively small gallery of notable Hollywood directors to debut in the 1980s, the filmmaker best equipped to carry the mantle of rigorous, muscular shot-for-shot style inherited from the likes of Ford, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, and all their breed. Indeed, his career’s decline can be tethered to his increasing fondness for a more gimmicky, less visually fluid photography and editing style evinced in the likes of Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) and The 13th Warrior (1999), as his action became maddeningly hard to track, presaging the cubist aesthetics of Bay and his ilk. McTiernan made initially striking use of zoom lenses to create shots with perspective collapsed to increasingly disorientating degrees, rendering his films flat and pictorial in a glassy and glistening fashion. Predator went one up on The Terminator where the hulking enemy’s viewpoint was a red-drenched field: here the mysterious enemy’s peering vantage comes in fluorescent shades via an infrared camera. Both films owed a little something in this interest in an alien visual syntax to Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973), a movie which has never quite gotten its due for deploying many aspects of pop movies future, also including the unstoppable and remorseless killer and deadly cyborg disseminated through the horror and sci-fi films of the late ‘70s and ‘80s.

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Predator might be regarded as the squarer companion piece to Paul Verhoeven’s more overtly satirical RoboCop of the same year, with its excoriating portrait of corporatism and urgent theme of loss of identity demanding self-reclamation from social brainwashing. By comparison Predator ultimately might seem to affirm a chauvinist creed after testing and teasing it, and its political sideswipes reflect a confusion of impulses. Initial visions of sleazy Latino cadres beating and shooting prisoners fit perfectly into a Reaganite vision of what political and military conflict in South America looked like, ready to be cleaned up by this idealised set of emissaries for America, fuck yeah. Yet this is accompanied by a condemnation of covert operative skulduggery reflecting the last, lingering hangover of ‘70s cynicism, a mood that also affirms the conviction the little guy will always get screwed by the Man even as he tries to clean up his messes. Stephen Hopkins’ hilariously hyperbolic sequel, Predator 2 (1990), would greatly inflate the satirical aspect in a manner closer to RoboCop, encompassing a vision of a near-future America cast entirely in the mould of an ‘80s thriller and dominated by trash-TV aesthetics.

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And yet Predator essentially pulls off the same joke of self-deconstruction as Last Action Hero would make a big show of doing, but in a far better-contoured and more efficient vein. The first act sets up the essentials of a classic war-adventure movie and a James Bond-influenced brand of action filmmaking, one in which the omnicompetent heroes are in such control of their derring-do they can toss smart-assed quips at their enemies in the midst of combat, taking the sting out of the post-Peckinpah realism in the violence as squibs erupt on the bodies of the decimated soldiers. Thus the first third of Predator is a wry parade of knowingly bombastic moments from its cast full of brawny protagonists, particularly Ventura, with his immortal announcement that “I ain’t got time to bleed.” The early scenes set up the dynamic as one of macho contest: Schaffer and Dillon meet an immediately engage in an arm-wrestling bout, biceps bulging under a patina of perspiration, cocaine buzz lighting up the stars’ eyes. The celebration of inflated masculine bodies kicked off by Sylvester Stallone, Schwarzenegger’s rival and Weathers’ costar in the Rocky films, had become essential to the action movie. Here the biggest source of cruel mirth is the sight of all these variously pumped bods displayed and fetishized only to then be outdone by a bigger, badder bod, who then sets about slicing these human fleshbags into constituent parts. Superman (1978), one of the progenitors of the ‘80s action movie style, had come at a point when the superhero’s body was pointedly resistant to all the forces of slaughter and decay celebrated in the grittier climes of ‘70s thrillers and horror movies. Predator found a more immediate way than the Alien films to infiltrate and subvert the action movie in this manner.

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Predator also shows off its generic roots with pleasure, the core unit a set of types who’d be at home in a World War II movie – a survey of ethnic exemplars and styles of swagger. They run the gamut from classic he-man redneck Blain with his love of chewing tobacco (“This’ll make you a goddamn sexual tyrannosaur, just like me!”) to nerdy Hawkins, who digs comic books and keeps bombing with his pussy-related humour, and Billy, whose native American canniness makes him specially aware of the lurking danger hovering in the trees. The tensions noted between the members are purely supernal, fading away entirely in combat, and the men of different races and creeds and humour styles all function perfectly when faced with a proper enemy: Blain and Mac, who would be instinctive enemies on a normal cultural level, are instead fused at the hip as warriors. Of course, Hawkins is the first member of the team to get iced, a blurry figure lunging out of the bush as he tries to catch an escaping Anna, leaving her sprayed with Hawkins’ blood. McTiernan casually pulls off virtuosic feats of camerawork, like an endless-feeling crane shot rising up through the jungle canopy as the team tramp on, to eventually locate Hawkins’ naked and bloodied corpse dangling from high branches.

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The fraternity of soldiers is of course stressed throughout Predator. The nobility of these dedicated warriors, this thin camouflaged line of defence, who, tellingly, only perform missions of swashbuckling mercy now, is never questioned. Only Dillon has fallen from the true faith because of his choice to move on to a more political vantage. It’s an elaborate version of the belief amongst many that Vietnam was lost because of excessive obedience of political niceties. Mac and Blain have both been fighting together since ‘Nam and their camaraderie is so traumatically broken when Blain is killed that Mac flips out, muttering monologues at the moon and planning bloody vengeance upon their mysterious assassin. Anna warns them of the folklore of the local villages, speaking of the “demon who makes trophies of men” that visits in particularly hot years. What exactly is that demon? McTiernan’s already given the game away in that regard in a pre-credits vignette strongly reminiscent of that in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), depicting a spaceship flashing out of the void and passing by Earth, one small craft peeling away from it and heading down to the ball of blue. The Predator (Kevin Peter Hall) is glimpsed in tantalising snatches – a pair of glowing eyes in the midst of a green jungle setting, the sight of reptilian hands operating sophisticated medical equipment, the speeding blue flashes of its energy weapon and phosphorescent glow of its blood, all evoking the presence of something alien, ferocious, extremely intelligent, and worst of all, as indifferent to other life forms as humans themselves.

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It’s odd to think now that Predator was made a mere 13 years after the end of the Vietnam War, less time than the War on Terror has been unfolding. Today, concerns of the post 9/11 age echo through a vast swathe of popular entertainments, but for a long time, understandably, Hollywood was more set on re-fighting Vietnam. It’s there in embryonic form in the despair of Jaws (1975) in the incapacity of technology to defeat primal fear and an enemy in its home turf, and in the scrappy outsiders versus the great technological empire of Star Wars (1977). But it bloomed properly with Aliens and Predator, tales of hapless warriors confronting their own impotence before an enemy that understands environment better and obeys a simpler impulse driving their defence of it. Predator outdoes Cameron’s film at least on the level of transmuting the imprint of that conflict on the modern American military mindset into a rough-hewn but entirely coherent little myth and then pointing the way forward to a new attitude.

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The popular perception of the war is played out: firepower-packing Yanks arrive, clean up the regular fighters easily, but find themselves up against a foe that can hide and plays a game they’re crucially ill-equipped to deal with psychologically as well as in method.
Blain carries a version of the Gatling gun, a weapon that carries historical associations dating back to the Civil War, and also connects again to ‘Nam where was mounted on a plane dubbed Puff the Magic Dragon, used to devastating effect. And yet, like Hopper’s crew before them, who stand in for the lost patrols of ‘Nam, Dutch’s team finish wasting vast amounts of ammunition and muzzle velocity firing blind into the trees, hoping to hit something, fighting their own magic dragon. The team make an increasingly desperate trek to try and reach safe ground where Phillips’ helicopters can extract them, an extraction that has to wait because of the potential political furore that would explode if any US choppers were downed on the wrong side of the border. Hawkins’ death is followed quickly by Blain’s, felled by even bigger firepower, sparking the maddened wastage of ammo from his fellows. Trying to secure a position for the night, the team set traps that are deliberately triggered by the Predator with the ruse of driving a colossal wild pig through them, a beast Mac slays in the dark believing it’s his mortal foe, whilst the alien snatches away Blain’s body to use in its trophy-making habits.

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Part of Predator’s punch lies in its indifference to the pretences of its heroes, who mostly die in various postures of surprise. Mac’s purpose of revenge, which might in another narrative have posited him as the natural hero, sees him merely and casually killed whilst making an attempt to sneak up on his opponent. Dillon dies more spectacularly, going out on his feet with such a display of manly fortitude as he tries to gun down his opponent with one severed arm that he redeems himself, but really gives his opponent barely more trouble. Billy’s decision to strip off his fatigues and weaponry and meet the monster with machete in hand points in the right direction, but his choice of stand-up courage is just as quickly fatal. The film even subverts the basic appeal of Schwarzenegger as a movie star, to a great extent: his evocation of the human body at its strongest and most perfect – not for nothing had he made his film debut playing Hercules – is still dwarfed and outmatched on a sheer pound-for-pound level. The team slowly glean the nature of their enemy and start to adopt the right tactics, but one effort to entrap the alien only gets Poncho badly injured, and he’s later killed by a bolt from the Predator’s weapon as Dutch and Anna try to carry him out. Dutch sends Anna on to meet the rendezvous (okay, here we go…three…two…one…“Get to da choppa!”) whilst distracting the Predator. Dutch only escapes the fiend’s clutches because he falls over a waterfall and then propitiously discovers the chief weakness in his opponent: mud clinging to his body retards the Predator’s heat-sensitive vision, a discovery that allows Dutch to invert the terms of the struggle. The Predator’s strengths, its capacity to detect the abnormal, its feel for a natural landscape, are finally turned against it.

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The Predator’s alienness is conceived and mediated in terms of devices of technological augmentation. His lysergic-hued point-of-view was achieved by radically employed new filmmaking tech whilst his habits of recording and looping back fragments of the human conversations he hears, render him an insidiously witty alien mixmaster. He is, at first, a stand-in for the audience as a fetishist enjoying the sounds and textures of the humans in all their homosocial habits as well as fascinated by their strange physiognomy, a strangeness conveyed to the audience through the transforming prism of his infrared sight. He also stands in for the filmmakers, trying to understand individuals as collectives of information, little catchphrases and earworms, accents and modes of expression, the things that make them distinctive but also knit them into a unit, a species. By the end the Predator has learnt enough human expressivity to laugh with mocking pleasure at the expectation even in death he can defeat his enemy. The Predator itself was subject to changes in look and concept during the shooting, shifting from a faintly biomechanical creation emphasising agility over bulk (played initially by Jean-Claude Van Damme), but soon revised into a hulking humanoid with crocodilian skin, spiky tendrils on its head that resemble a Rastafarian hairdo, and a crablike face sporting mandibles. McTiernan could get away with this shift because of his smart appropriation of Jaws’ policy of slowly revealing the monster, which depends on its sophisticated camouflaging, its ability to see prey who cannot see it in turn.

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Dutch’s disarming of the Predator in this regard stirs the Predator’s own pride, inspiring it to strip off its weaponry and armour and meet Dutch on exactly the same level of pure physical force and guile. McTiernan’s immediate follow-ups, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, would both revolve around conflicts defined by arts of eluding and utilising landscape, but which eventually devolve eventually into traditional tests of strength between personally offended and challenged antagonists. The latter film would prove Hollywood’s half-accidental farewell to the Cold War with its eventual détente of technological advancement: when everyone can hide, no-one can, something Dutch and the Predator have already discovered. Dutch’s adoption of bushcraft offers an answer to the Vietnam problem, as Schaffer strips off all technological pretence and remakes himself as a guerrilla warrior, armed with tool gleaned from the environment he must disappear into. But the greatness of Predator is that it finally goes much deeper than such recent psychic horizons. By the time Schaffer announces his resurgence to his foe in a rite of fire and a howl of prehistoric violence, we’re back in the dimmest recesses of the human imagination, struggling for survival in some post-Ice Age landscape against the deadliest beast in the forest.

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The first two-thirds of Predator are in this regard mere curtain-raiser, a programmatic disposal of various trappings to get at this basic fantastical perfection, a situation of which Jung could only approve and stuff his face with popcorn. Predator wouldn’t be the movie it is without two invaluable behind-the-camera contributions, from DP Don McAlpine, whose crystal-clear images render all these absurd events hyper-real, and composer Alan Silvestri’s career-best work. The film’s high-point where McTiernan, McAlpine, and Silvestri’s work comes together in perfect unison isn’t the climactic fight between man and monster, but the montage sequence of Dutch preparing for that battle, a succession of shots that depict the ritualised stripping away of modernity, even identity, as Dutch remakes himself as primal warrior, with weapons and disguises won out of the jungle, the only way to take on his sophisticated enemy, representing the species. Predator is one of those movies which remains palpable as a pillar of today’s blockbuster ideal, and yet this sequence, the essence of the movie’s awesomeness, is also the sort of moment that’s all too often missing from its progeny, present only to beef up the film’s rhythmic intensity, to create a mood of epic largesse and titanic events looming.

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The finale sees hero and dragon pound on each-other, Schwarzenegger’s ponderous bulk reduced to an impressionistic blur in the Predator’s vision spitting out blood under the blows of his fists, the alien’s blood providing a tell-tale trail: ways of seeing are ways of battle. Dutch’s final outwitting of the Predator comes after underestimating his enemy’s cunning but improvising enough to still win in dropping the counterweight for a trap on its head. The mutual incomprehension and awe of the two species – “What the hell are you?” – is not the gateway for understanding but instead a cue to take things to a higher, nihilistic level of gratification. The Predator enacts a hawkish nightmare of taking the nuclear option to avenge itself, a dishonourable yet cruelly apt reductio ad absurdum of the duel. This feels like a variation on the climactic joke of one of the most cunning yet innocent-looking satires on Cold War exigencies, Chuck Jones’ Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1952): this planet ain’t big enough for the both of us, buster. Dutch however manages to run far and fast enough to escape, and looms out of the smoke to be picked up by Phillips and Anna, enshrined as the iconic survivor, the man who emerges from the wastes. The last shot revises the concluding image of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) from a hymn of haunted failure to one of boding triumph. It’s very easy to see the pieces that make up the film in this way. But the final beauty of Predator is one it shares with any accomplished work of fantasy: much as its title monster discovers in dissecting its human prey, the essence of it remains impossible to reduce.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

Black Panther (2018)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Ryan Coogler

By Roderick Heath

The hype for Black Panther was rather daunting, to say the least. If you wanted to buy into Disney-Marvel’s carefully cultivated marketing hullabaloo and attendant word of social media mouth, you might reasonably expect Black Panther to singlehandedly reshape western history and count as a major act of social justice, every righteous minute spent watching it the moral equivalent of an aid dollar to Sierra Leone and a vote against Donald Trump. It is true that after seventeen films and billions upon billions of dollars reaped at the box office, Disney-Marvel have finally dared to put some of their fortune towards making a film with a black superhero front and centre, two decades after Spawn (1997) and Blade (1998). More noteworthy, it’s a film with a mostly black cast and a black director, a work carefully tailored to fit our oh-so-woke times. Blockbuster land has now been colonised by personnel forged in the new black independent cinema, which is genuinely cool and stirring, but which also carries the wince-inducing hint that a lot of viewers will feel relieved from any urge to actually watch some of that new black independent cinema, particularly at a time when the Marvel creed feels close to the last true religion in terms of moviegoer appeal, beloved for its ability to generate revenue by making variations on the same two films over and over again.
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Ryan Coogler made his name with Fruitvale Station (2013), a piercingly realistic depiction of the last days of police shooting victim Oscar Grant. Surprisingly for such an earnest-seeming young tyro, he quickly revealed readiness, nay, eagerness to go Hollywood, but also seemed determined to try and bend Tinseltown’s gravity to suit himself. He next took on Creed (2015), a generation-change take on the storied Rocky franchise. A lot of people really loved that one, but it left me only mildly buzzed. It badly lacked the kind of melodramatic, frankly plebeian zest the genre has long prized. I didn’t particularly care about poor little rich boy Adonis Creed, who seemed better defined by all the things Coogler didn’t want him to be than a really galvanising protagonist. Coogler’s filming was flashy, but like many contemporary filmmakers, he he had me wondering if he deployed long-take shooting in some of his boxing scenes to avoid constructing a proper editing rhythm for action scenes, a suspicion borne out when he reduced the climactic fight to an extended montage. I rather guiltily enjoyed Antoine Fuqua’s near-simultaneous Southpaw more: it was shamelessly manipulative and corny, but as such understood the essence of the boxing movie intuitively. Nor is Coogler the first black director to helm a superhero franchise. Apparently I was perhaps the only person who liked Tim Story’s Fantastic Four films from the mid-’00s. Story never got any props for those because he never tried to make his movies cool, but they were genuine in their comic book inspiration precisely because they were broad, naive, and accurate in their cinematic adaptation of the flatly illustrative on-the-page style.
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Still, my reservations about Coogler’s evolving talents weren’t urgent, and I looked forward to Black Panther with measured expectations, chiefly because I’ve long wanted to see a decent Afrofuturist film, a cinematic realisation of the kind of fantastic landscape Octavia Butler wrote about, Miles Davis would spread across his album covers, and Parliament Funkadelic, Jimi Hendrix, and Sun Ra used to compose in mind. Black Panther delivers this, as far as it goes. Although mentioned in some of the earlier Marvel entries and glimpsed briefly at the end of Captain America: Civil War (2016), this is the first time the remote, landlocked, self-sufficient African nation of Wakanda has been depicted in any depth. The nation hosts a sprawl of supertechnology enabled by the Wakandans’ control of the rare and endlessly exploitable metal vibranium, long the McGuffin enabling the Marvel universe. The conceit here is that although Wakanda entered and surpassed the general state of modernity far earlier than the rest of the world, it’s remained a very tribal society with primeval rituals of leadership and social relations, and has prospered at the cost of remaining sealed off from the outside world, neither troubled by neighbours and empires nor doing anything to help.
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The history of Wakanda is explored at the outset in the regulation quasi-mythical narrated prologue, exploring the landing of a vibranium meteorite in the territory, and the rise of the first Black Panther, a warrior-king with superhuman strength imbued by a flowering plant mutated by the vibranium and a suit forged with that metal. The latest Black Panther is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), inheriting suit and throne from his father T’Chaka (John Kani), who was assassinated in Civil War. T’Challa has to pass through various obliged rituals before he takes the crown, including a challenge for the right to rule that’s a pure test of martial strength. He gains one challenger, M’Baku (Winston Duke), chieftain of the Jabari, one of the Wakandan tribes that remains aloof to the rest of the nation, living in high mountains, and manages a narrow victory over the hulking and vehement foe. T’Challa is then free to pursue more urgent matters. Nefarious character Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), glimpsed in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), stole an amount of vibranium from Wakanda in conspiracy with T’Chaka’s brother, Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), and after losing that trove to superhero enemies, seeks a new source of the ore to market. He works with a former American soldier, Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), to steal a misidentified Wakandan relic, a war axe with a vibranium head, from a London museum.
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Klaue tries to sell the axe head on the black market, attracting interest from the CIA, with Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), another Civil War alumnus who’s aware of T’Challa’s secret identity, leading the buying team in a South Korean nightclub. The Wakandans want to punish Klaue for his transgressions, which include killing the father of one of T’Challa’s tribal chiefs, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). T’Challa and his most trusted companions, Amazonian chief bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and former girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), arrive to foil Klaue’s sale. They capture him after a careening street chase and deliver him into Ross’s hands. Klaue is soon rescued by his allies, but then learns he’s a mere pawn in someone else’s game. Erik is actually N’Jadaka, son of N’Jobu, and intends to claim the throne for himself as part of a plan to conquer the world with Wakandan technology. Erik, also dubbed “Killmonger” for his gleeful dispensing of death on the battlefield, kills Klaue and arrives to challenge T’Challa.
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T’Challa and his world were created by the two grand-old creative forces of Marvel comics, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, although the property has been augmented over the past fifty years by many writers of colour who have interrogated its ideas, including the undemocratic hierarchies of Wakanda. Like the X-Men, Black Panther and his universe was conjured to fill a gap in the market and appeal to kids and teens pining for greater representation and easy identification figures, but he also became the first African superhero with the lead role in a fixture franchise. The notion that an African country has achieved a great level of advancement entirely independent of western influence could be taken as a fun and clever inversion of racist cliché, and even more so in the late 1960s when the comic first appeared. But it also has overtones of the kind of lost kingdom seen in many a pulp novel and movie, the kind where strange mores rule and the outside world is seen through a distorting lens. When he first appeared on screen in Civil War, Black Panther was sleek, tough customer carrying a load of melancholic resolve well-conveyed by Boseman, an actor who so far in his career has proven near-infinitely malleable. Here he is finally arrested into a certain amount of stolidity in dutifully embodying a hero whose heavy lifting of character was already disposed of in that movie. Like too many movie heroes, he threatens to disappear at the heart of his own vehicle.
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Coogler tethers the remote and haughty Wakandan abode with the mean streets of Los Angeles using an introductory sequence taking place in 1992, the year of the LA riots. N’Jobu lived there as one of Wakanda’s international spies with his pal, James (Denzel Whitaker), plotting violent revolutionary action, only to receive a surprise visit from T’Chaka, alerted to his brother’s joining forces with Klaue, and also revealing that James is actually Zuri, another Wakandan sent to keep an eye on N’Jobu. N’Jobu’s attempt to kill James in a spasm of rage instead provoked T’Chaka to slay his brother and abandon his young nephew to grow up in American ghettos. Coogler suggests some visual wit in the way he parlays young Erik’s glimpse of the glowing Wakandan hovercraft that portends his father’s death and the suggestion of an alien and inhospitable culture that reached down and changed his life, in a manner that hints at a police helicopter, a vision of authority as an anonymous assassin in the sky. The promise of a superhero film that unfolds in a Blaxploitation key is dangled tantalisingly, only to be snatched away, as Coogler and coscreenwriter Joe Robert Cole dodge both this mode and their own sociopolitical inferences by sticking almost entirely to Wakanda as a setting. Social relevance and metaphor are reduced to a series of placards inserted into what is otherwise a pseudo-hip Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy camp.
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Wakanda’s big city, hidden behind holographic jungles, looks like just about every other CGI burg in a recent blockbuster, although the towering skyscrapers have some vaguely tribal hut-like features. Some sub-Peter Jackson-does-Tolkien forays into the Jabari territory with fancifully jutting statuary-structures are purveyed in fleeting fashion, but without any sense of real spectacle or discovery. Those demand a directorial touch attuned to the quality of awe, but the lack of it isn’t just Coogler’s: an authentic sense of the fantastical is an ore that’s proven rarer than vibranium for the Marvel imprimatur, apart from flashes in the Thor films. More enjoyable are the animal-like designs of their aircraft. But Coogler displays no gift for evoking place: his Africa is relentlessly manicured and depicted as an assemblage of culturally backdated accumulation of tropes out of an old Tarzan movie. The visions of the local culture, like the ritual singing and dancing before T’Challa’s challenge battle, are brightly hued and suitably exotic in a manner that suggests the kind of tourist-board kitschiness (or Disneyfied appropriation, a la The Lion King, 1992) one might expect Coogler to be taking aim at. I couldn’t help but start mentally quoting the Rifftrax lampooning team’s great ridiculing of the little-known Blaxploitation film The Guy From Harlem (1977), with their quips about “your native country of Africa.”
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Nor has the Disney-Marvel imprimatur’s well-developed gift for redeploying successful blueprints been seriously revised. Just as Doctor Strange (2016) slightly rewrote the Iron Man (2008) template, so Black Panther is essentially the Thor films in cod-Bantu drag, complete with contests between jealous relatives over the throne, a grand but morally flawed patriarch, a hero briefly exiled and robbed of his powers, some star performers of the ‘80s and ‘90s cast as the old guard, and a final fight on a long, flat concourse. The older Zuri is played by Forrest Whitaker, who also helped produce Fruitvale Station, which gives an amusing subtext to the inevitable moment of oedipal trauma when Killmonger slays him. T’Challa’s mother Ramonda is played by Angela Bassett, still an incredibly striking presence and still incredibly wasted. Early in the film T’Challa goes out to fetch Nakia from her self-imposed mission to infiltrate and break people-smuggling rackets, and Nakia’s bold efforts to perform positive actions where her once and future lover wrestles with a tradition of detachment would make for an interesting schism if it was deployed with any dramatic weight at all. The separation of Wakanda from the everyday flow of modern African life entirely anesthetises any chance for commentary on the progress or lack of it in the post-colonial age; what few glimpses and hints are offered about the world beyond Wakanda ironically seem to bear out Trump’s opinion that they’re all shitholes desperately in need of some intervention from an abiding superpower. Or at least in Erik’s framing of them, which, as Ross cogently notes, perfectly reproduces that of his US military training.
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It also verges on quasi-racist to present a vision of an African utopia that can develop to such a degree in one sector of its life, but whose social institutions remain utterly primitive, to the point where the country can be taken over by some random dude who turns up and beats up the reigning ruler, and everyone feels obligated to follow along. Of course, these are problems inherited from the source material and its roots in a different time, but I’m surprised no-one seems to have thought them through that hard in updating it all. The never-never quality to Wakanda doesn’t entirely retard the opportunity for a little commentary, it must be said. As a free-floating metaphor for the problem of first world responsibility, it retains some kick, particularly as Killmonger takes it over and attempts to turn it into an engine of world-correcting might-as-right. He intends to follow his father and Klaue’s original plan of sending weapons out around the world to spark international revolution, at once fulfilling a radical creed but also reproducing the guiding principles of the white man’s burden. But this is all entirely subsumed into the kind of lightly purveyed political inference the Marvel style has been leveraging for a while now with its not-quite War on Terror commentary. The franchise gets to subsume a patina of relevance whilst never quite challenging or offending anyone. The mentions of slavery and police brutality scattered throughout the film are bracing in their own right, but shouldn’t be congratulated as particularly radical, seeing as they’ve been long rendered into pop tropes by thirty years of hip-hop lyrics and movies, and won’t be considered even faintly controversial except to the most strident right-wing voices, who won’t be cueing up anyway.
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Perhaps it’s a bit churlish to overemphasise this aspect of Black Panther, in a film that mostly wants to be a jaunty, entertaining piece of fantasy-action absurdity with just a light glazing of positive social import. And for the most part Coogler barrels along with a reasonable sense of fun and energy, if with very little originality and only a few fleeting moments of true style and wit of staging. The set-piece car chase sequence in the middle is well-done, distinguished less by the often-annoying camerawork and the seen-it-all-before backflips and smashes, than by little flourishes of Coogler’s humour, like having Nakia slide to a halt still strapped to her car seat with the rest of the car fallen to pieces about her, a gag straight out of an old Buster Keaton two-reeler. But my reservations about Coogler’s gifts as a formalist were confirmed by the preceding stab at one of those grandiose one-shot action sequences in the night club, where the camera movements and staging lack any sense of pictorial impact. Coogler seems more at home in the sequences of close-quarters combat in the challenge battles, which he stages on a shelf above a chasm, ribboning mists and thunderous waterfalls all around. There’s real visual drama and a sense of intimate violence in these battles, particularly as the challenge between T’Challa and Killmonger turns into a spectacle of brutality that leaves T’Challa’s family and comrades distraught at the sight of their great hero taken down by a psychopathic interloper.
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A lot of Black Panther stoked contradictory responses in me. It’s yet another recent movie that manages to be too talky but where relatively little of substance is said, where the characterisations are stated rather than felt and their dramatic interrelationships fail to connect meaningfully. The cast’s general energy and comic timing alternates between charming and slightly tedious in parlaying dialogue that rocks on with a fast rhythm and yet which retards the dramatic weight, particularly with the proliferation of overripe Affreekahn accents. One of the reasons why Jordan feels particularly potent in the film is precisely because he’s free from this. His Killmonger speaks in precise, venomous articulations of anger. Jordan acts better than any actor since Toshiro Mifune with his teeth as he looks like he wants to take a bite out of everyone, and he brings basic melodramatic juice to a degree that feels unworthy of his standard-issue angry-usurper villain character: he deserves a more substantial film. We get Marvel beats that are becoming stultifying in their familiarity, like extracting humour from a hero who’s omnicompetent as an ass-kicker but awkward as a romancer, doomed to freeze “like an antelope in headlights” when he sees Nakia in the midst of battle. The last third in particular feels dashed off by Coogler, who can’t be bothered building much of a sequence around T’Challa’s recovery and restoration. Remember how well-done that was in Superman II (1980)? Ah, dear. The days of such storytelling patience are long gone.
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Coogler offers some flashes of visual lustre here and there, particularly in the mystical sequences that seemed composed of one part Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982) and one part Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973), via some funny-mushroom colour tricks. But for the most part Black Panther is a remarkably dull-looking film, often underlit, dully designed, and failing utterly to capitalise on the expansiveness of the setting. Where Black Panther really works is in terms of the cadre surrounding T’Challa, which is, peculiarly, almost entirely female, in the form of Shuri, Nakia, and Okoye. Wright’s Shuri is one of the film’s best facets, filling the role of James Bond’s Q except in the key of a bratty little sister, a long-bow wish-fulfilment figure for the younger audience members who is nonetheless a source of real entertainment, lurching between patronising her brother and propelling his adventures with all her absurd inventiveness and outsized enthusiasm. She’s stuck with the job of healing Ross, who requires her special gifts when he’s shot taking a bullet meant for Nakia, an act of altruism that makes him the – heh heh – token white guy. Shuri reacts suspiciously towards the interloper at first but soon finds him receptive in fascination for her technological creations. Gurira’s Okoye gets one priceless comic moment when she has to wear a wig over her shaven pate to pass amongst nightclub patrons. Otherwise she’s expected to stand around and look badass, something well within Gurira’s range after years playing the katana-wielding Michonne on The Walking Dead TV series.
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It’s peculiar that Nyong’o, who, since capturing an Oscar as a still-fresh face in 12 Years a Slave (2013), still can’t find a part to match her aura as a total package after being wasted egregiously in the Star Wars revival. Here she’s trapped in the straight-arrow part as Nakia, who operates by an independent moral compass, a trait that’s interesting but with counts for little. She fulfils the role of Love Interest with some added action moves, but remains shoehorned in between the Tough Lady and Girl Genius, leaving her to join that roster of ill-served major female talents swept up in this franchise including Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman, Rachel McAdams, Hayley Atwell, Evangeline Lilly…but hey, they’re all getting a decent pay cheque. Meanwhile Freeman’s Ross gets to follow in the noble footsteps of Marlon Wayans in GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) in landing the dullest of heroic jobs, piloting a plane sent out to go and shoot down…well, they’re not missiles or machines of destruction, but…planes carrying arms to be delivered to someone with the possibility of being used at some point. My god, the tension. Ross has to use Shuri’s remote piloting system to do it, so to introduce physical danger and tension he’s being threatened by some kind of hovering insectoid craft trying to blast its way through to him in Shuri’s lab and…yeah, just stick him in the plane next time.
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The final battle sequence is cliché stuff that degenerates into a jumble of silliness, but at least it’s a wholehearted silliness that knows it, with armoured rhinoceroses charging into the fray and a sense of childlike giddiness to the sight of the three heroines launching at Killmonger. As with the fight between Gamora and Nebula in the first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), there’s a flicker of an actual thrill in this. A postscript sees T’Challa opening a Wakandan outreach centre based in the building where his uncle died, flying in a Wakandan hovercraft to dazzle the local youth. I liked the nod to a long tradition of pedagogic righteousness in comic books that’s been largely missing from the great craze of adaptations of late. It’s also great to see Serkis relishing his part as second-fiddle bad guy, vibrating with suppressed energy and askew attitude, as when he sings Haddaway’s “What Is Love?” strapped to a chair. The best quality of Black Panther is that it feels genuine and unforced in its liking for its cast and honest in its desire to entertain. I’m sure for a lot of people the specific quality of Black Panther scarcely matters; the event itself carries a lot of import, and I hope at the very least its success provokes a new generation of black screen heroes. Personally, I’d love to see some more authentic African mythology brought to the screen. But in itself, Black Panther’s just another drop wrung from a rapidly drying sponge.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Epic, Scifi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

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Director/Screenwriter: Rian Johnson

By Roderick Heath

Although primed as the eagerly awaited follow-up to a hugely successful blockbuster and instant pop culture fixture, Star Wars: The Last Jedi had a daunting job of work ahead of it. If J.J. Abrams’ franchise-reviver The Force Awakens (2015) proved as tepid as often as tantalising in its effort to give fresh impetus to George Lucas’ canonical science-fantasy series, it did at least manage the task of introducing a new, appealing selection of heroes, and set them up as focal points for a grandiose cosmic drama, conveyed in lovingly produced and crafted cinema. But these exciting qualities weren’t particularly well-served by a new plotline that seemed determined to scrub the series blueprint down to its most simplistic outlines, and recycle familiar and comfortable looks and sounds from Lucas’ first trilogy without bringing any fresh ideas or conceptual zest to the table.
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New helmsman Rian Johnson took on the challenge of dragging this new trilogy, laden with expectation and the inertia of franchise property protection, into richer, more novel, more genuinely epic territory. Johnson, a very talented filmmaker, turned heads with his 2005 gambit Brick, a film with the memorable conceit of having high schoolers play the protagonists of a noir film, a unique way of mediating the thrilling intensity and melancholy of teenage life. His second two films, The Brothers Bloom (2008) and Looper (2012), were entertaining but flawed attempts to expand his palette, radically different in tone and style but linked by efforts to blend his love of bygone ephemera and old movies with authentic efforts to tap the wellspring of emotions they stir in him, and his delight in telling tales of labyrinthine cunning. His best work post-debut was actually on several episodes of the TV series Breaking Bad, including “Fly,” a memorable instalment regarding its antiheroes’ efforts to catch a dogging fly in their underground meth lab, provoking all their festering anxieties to hatch out, as well as the pivotal episode “Ozymandias” where their lives actually fell to ruins. The Last Jedi actually takes on themes similar to those episodes, as it puts the Star Wars characters old and new in a pressure cooker and slowly but surely forces them to make choices regarding their lives, their beliefs, their loyalties, whilst their world topples.
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In the wake of the briefly operational but catastrophically effective Starkiller’s destruction, the pulverised remnants of the restored Republic government and their Resistance warriors are forced to flee base after base, pursued by the First Order, the ruthless renascent offspring of the old Imperial forces led by the malformed but immensely powerful Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Famed Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leads a determined attack on a formidable First Order warship of a “Dreadnought” class, sporting giant energy weapons, to give time for Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the rest of the Resistance leaders to flee. Poe ignores Leia’s commands to abort the mission, and instead calls in a flight of heavy bombers to pound the Dreadnought until the determined, self-annihilating efforts of one bomber pilot, Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo), succeeds in destroying the craft. Poe is put on the carpet and demoted for wasting too many good fighters and ships by Leia, and the Resistance fleet eventually finds itself crawling through deep space with the First Order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), in close pursuit.
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Desperate to come up with a way to get the First Order off their tail, Poe and pal Finn (John Boyega), who’s just awoken after spending months in care having terrible wounds repaired, team up with Paige’s low-ranked, hero-worshipping sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who has a brainwave about the method the First Order is using to track them, and decides they need to sneak aboard their command ship and shut it down. Together, Finn and Rose take a fast, small ship to a nearby planet, Canto Bight, a playground for the super-rich, to find a codebreaker who might be able to penetrate First Order security recommended to them by Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o). Thrown into prison for a parking violation before they can make contact, they encounter in their cell the scruffy, nefarious DJ (Benecio Del Toro). DJ casually breaks them all out of their cell to demonstrate his own talents at subverting authority, and soon they form a pact and flee the planet after raising some hell. Meanwhile, budding Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to leave his hermit existence in a remote Jedi temple on a lonely island and return to breathe new hope into the Resistance cause. But Luke is filled with regret and self-recrimination after his failure to revive the Jedi order and loss of young Ben Solo to Snoke’s influence and the mantle of his assumed evil guise as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rey finds herself dogged by unexpected moments of psychic connection with Kylo, whose conflicts after killing his father Han seem to be boiling over.
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If the most interesting subtext of The Force Awakens was its “tell me a story, grandpa” angle in contemplating chains of storytelling and their personal meaning, be it old war stories in the context of the on-screen drama and in meta terms the movies and other artworks you loved as a kid, The Last Jedi makes it clear that ardour for things wrapped in the comforting lustre of legend and period glamour must yield to a new and often dismaying reality. So Johnson commences with a mischievous assault on Abrams’ nostalgia, as he returns to the momentous final gesture of the first film, with Rey holding out to Luke his old lightsaber, that technocratic Excalibur: Luke takes the weapon, gives it a cursory look, and then tosses it over his shoulder in contempt. This is a great moment that signals Johnson’s theme, worked on several levels in the movie that follows, that his characters and their hopes can no longer be sustained by stale myths and old paradigms, and must jettison all that baggage to start again from scratch, to cleanse their temples and reinvent their institutions. It’s an intelligent and appropriate and, dare I say it, timely theme. It’s also, unmistakeably, a message aimed at the franchise itself. If Lucas’s prequels chased the ye-olde-timey ring of courtly sagas and his original trilogy evoked ‘40s screwball spark in their romantic scenes, Johnson’s dialogue and humour style here bring the series to a more definitely current, fashionable style. A joke early in the film sees Poe mock Hux by pretending to have him on hold on a speaker phone.
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This is a funny moment that also signals, a touch annoyingly, that the Star Wars universe is being more exactingly annexed by a certain glib contemporaneity. Star Wars is no longer a legend of dreamtimes past; it’s a wing of modern pop culture founded by the likes of Joss Whedon. I suppose that’s inevitable to a degree, given that Lucas’s shift to set his tales entirely in a pseudo-historical zone with the prequels was the most fascinating and most ruthlessly rejected of his efforts. The opening sequence with the bombing raid is both thunderous spectacle but also rather senseless – the series has long been sustained by the unlikely notion of WW2-style aerial dogfights in space, but Johnson takes that here to a perfectly improbable extreme by reproducing that era’s style of bombing, with bombs dropped straight down with the use of gravity that doesn’t exist in space. On the other hand, the film’s central movement involves the agonisingly slow chase through deep space between the Resistance and First Order fleets, the latter maddeningly unable to catch the former at subspace speeds but only seeming to fend off the inevitable, in a plot motif bizarrely reminiscent of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) in imposing clear physical limitations and cold equations upon the spacefaring (there are many yawning plot holes in the story, but I won’t carp on those). After Leia is almost killed in rocket attack on her ship, tensions mount in this agonising situation. As there doesn’t seem to be any way out save his friends’ risky plan, Poe feels provoked to rebel against acting fleet commander Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) when she seems to be intending a dangerous evacuation upon shuttle craft.
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Star Wars has always been a bricoleur’s assemblage, defined by the ingenuity with which it mixed and matched classic film and pulp literary genres and a trove of mythological motifs. Abrams clearly worshipped at the altar of Lucas’ 1977 series foundation, but that seemed to be the limit of his referential frame. Johnson, on the other hand, is the sort of creative hand hip to Lucas’ method, at least to an extent, as Looper spliced incongruous motifs – time travel and psychic powers, gangster and hitman melodramas, old Hollywood and Anime – into an impressive if lumpy chimera. His preferred modes are classic noir and expressionist dramas rather than the swashbucklers, war movies, westerns, and sci-fi flicks Lucas took most inspiration from – screwball comedy is one significant overlap in their lexicon. This new influence is immediately apparent in the scenes on Canto Bight, where the grand casino inhabited by the smug-ugly has a veneer of ritzy glamour that proves instead to be a den of iniquity in a manner reminiscent of something like Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941) or Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946). A pivotal incident in the past that caused Luke and Kylo’s break and the destruction of the fledgling Jedi renaissance is seen three times in revised flashbacks, a touch that echoes many a noir film’s sublimation of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), and Kane and Welles are more clearly echoed in a sequence in which Rey attempts to confront her own nature as a creature of the Force and instead finds herself confronted by an endless hall of mirror selves, threatened like Welles’ antiheroes with mistaking her own ego for the state of the universe.
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Johnson also emphasises the inequality and sleaziness pervading corners of this universe. Lucas’ vision for his future-past was always one of a society with a cynically profiteering sector – witness Han’s travails with Jabba the Hutt and Anakin’s lot as the slave of businessman Watto. Johnson tries to indict the forces at the centre of the Galactic community and their willingness to make money out of war. DJ highlights for Finn and Rose that the fortunes of Canto Bight’s denizens have largely been made selling arms to both the First Order and Resistance. The visit to Canto Bight finds Finn and Rose observing the brutality towards both animals engaged in racing, and the young human thralls used to prop up the lifestyle of the rich and famous, and the plucky Resistance warriors make common cause with both. The sequence in which Rose releases the racing animals is both fun but also a little too Harry Potter-esque for this imprimatur, whilst Johnson’s attempts to work up some of the sort of resurgence-of-the-repressed drama Lucas was so fond of – see THX-1138 (1971); Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – manifests in offering up a few waifs straight out of ‘30s Our Gang shorts making gosh-jeez faces. Johnson wants these kids to represent the notion that the Resistance instils hope and the basis for future resurgence, blended once again with the notion of loving this fantastical material as a viewer for its uplifting and dream-stirring cache, and the film’s very ending points directly to this process taking root in the minds of these young people.
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This notion doesn’t land nearly as strongly as Johnson intends it, however. He wants us to feel the illicit rush of this rebellious spirit in his tale and also the daring in his lack of cool. Given that Lucas was flayed alive by the modern cool police by his choice to move entirely into the imaginative realm of kids on The Phantom Menace (1999), Johnson’s efforts feel only crudely calculated and tacked-on in skirting the same territory. Where the film is on surer ground is Rey and Luke’s tetchy, mutually frustrated relationship, which evokes but also revises Luke’s encounters with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Luke is a shambolic, self-exiled husk of his former self, detached from the Force and subsisting with hopes the Jedi way will die with him. Confronted by Rey’s raw natural power, he’s both impressed and terrified, as he’s already seen the same abilities in former pupil Kylo. Rey attempts to prod the Master back to action provoke scorn – “Did you think I was going out to take on the whole First Order with my laser sword?” Luke questions in derision. Hamill, whose performance is often taken as a weak link in the original trilogy, nonetheless matured into an excellent character actor in the course of his spotty career. He’s very good here, better indeed than Harrison Ford’s much-hailed equivalent turn was in The Force Awakens, as he invests his aged and haggard Luke with glimmers of his old, dreamy romanticism even as the damage his life failings have done to him gnaws incessantly at his core being. Of course, the question as to whether Luke will return to the fight isn’t really a question, only how and at what suitably dramatic juncture of the story.
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One sharp failing of The Force Awakens was Abrams’ neglect of coming up with any genuinely inspired new technology or alien species. Johnson is more vigorous with the aliens, particularly on the temple island where Luke takes milk from giant, lolling walrus-like creatures to drink, and the Porgs, a race of small, furry, but relatively aware critters who object with memorably abject horror when Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) proposes to eat one of their fellows. But there’s still a notable failure to do much that’s interesting or properly, dramatically engaged with the new alien characters. Even Chewbacca, who has long stood vitally on the divide between sci-fi grotesque and beloved supporting character, is marginalised here, and his reunion with Luke is a paltry scene. Johnson does offer up one lovely dollop of fan service as Yoda (Frank Oz) appears to Luke when he’s determined to destroy the last of the Jedi’s founding texts. Rather than try to stop him, Yoda brings down a bolt of lightning to do the job for him, and patiently instructs him in the film’s theme, that faith has to be in the living avatars of the creed rather than relics of the past. Kylo, confronting Rey, makes the same point, encouraging to spurn her past and claim the future as her rightful possession.
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This endlessly reiterated message feels as much like a poke in the ribs to cranky old fans like me as a dramatic imperative, and it might have had more impact if the film wasn’t trapped resolutely within the resolutely unimaginative framework Abrams and Lucasfilm-Disney provided. The new series has not just paid attention to all the criticisms aimed at the prequel trilogy but taken them so deeply to heart it’s caused creative rictus, in stripping things back to essentials: although there are little flourishes in the margins here, it’s still basically just an extended chase movie. The First Order, whose resemblance to a Khmer Rouge, Taliban, or Daesh-like force of fanatical opportunism has faded to leave them purely as Empire wannabes, represent the biggest failure in this regard. There’s still no inkling given of their aims, their credos, other than being the Bad Guys. Snoke is the Emperor without Ian McDiarmid’s wit and relish in instilling dimensions of Machiavellian smarts and rancid perversity in his character; Hux and Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) are still just sneering snobs. One quality that distinguished the Star Wars series under Lucas’ hand was the way it steadily evolved, accumulating lore, complexity, and emotional heft, even whilst maintaining an open, light touch for the broadest possible audience. Yes, the original film was a fleet, glib space western, but it laid groundwork quickly and deftly to suggest greater dimensions to everything we saw and felt, and then each of the following five films added something new. But in spite of Johnson’s calls to bring something new to the table and forget the past, he resolutely avoids the hard work of actually doing this.
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Johnson indeed seems plainly impatient with much of the infrastructure he inherited from Abrams and Disney’s focus groups – very early in the film, he has Snoke mock and Kylo destroy the incredibly uninspired mask Kylo wore in The Force Awakens, and the path Johnson’s storyline cleaves through the set-up he was stuck with is similarly dismissive. One great task always facing Johnson was to try and come up with a twist as memorable as Darth Vader’s great reveal in The Empire Strikes Back. Johnson does provide a twist; several in fact, but not only do they not approach the momentousness of the model, they don’t really add up to much, in large part because they eventually cancel each-other out and leave the story precepts pretty much what they were at the outset. Much like Rey in her hall of mirrors, Johnson falls into the trap of merely deflating or offering slight tweaks on familiar moments. The flight to battle in rickety spaceships proves a tragicomic joke. The bad guy who becomes a good guy proves then to still be a bad guy – not once but twice. The pivotal scene here involves Kylo’s assassination of Snoke, a gleefully nasty if not total surprise, and one that concedes Snoke was just a ranting placeholder in the role of ultimate evil. Johnson’s staging of this sequence, and Rey and Kylo’s subsequent battle with Snoke’s bodyguards, is definitely the highpoint of the film, one that seems finally to engage with the sheer swashbuckling verve and operatic swerves of human nature of the series. And yet Johnson quickly undercuts its impact by having Kylo prove to be merely calculating rather than complex, and he ascends to the status of unchallenged bad guy, one who is apparently still enough of a sucker to not notice the difference when someone is projecting themselves on the astral plane.
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The major subplot involving Poe’s clashes with and eventual mutiny against Holdo is another potentially intelligent story thread that doesn’t quite work, particularly as its raises a worthy and legitimate new theme about types of leadership. Poe, used to command and chafing against his reduction, becomes increasingly angry with the taciturn Holdo, and both fail to a certain extent in arguing for their positions. Johnson seems to be pitching here to launch a thousand think pieces on female leadership and male intransigence, which feels in a way a bit treacherous to the series’ comfort with women as leader figures (Leia, Mon Mothma, Padmé Amidala), which means ironically he’s had his talking point theme at the expense of this creative universe’s established, blithe indifference to contemporary gender politics (none of Padmé’s soldiers questioned her commands). Dern also feels rather miscast in the role, too, as it seems to demand someone with thorny hauteur and icy-eyed determination along the lines of Kristin Scott Thomas. That said, Holdo’s climactic act of vengeful self-sacrifice, ramming her space ship into Snoke’s at high speed, shattering the First Order fleet to smithereens, is a great piece of spectacle, made more effective by Johnson’s removal of all sound, simply observing the surge of pulverising energy and splintering metal. Here he really grips the quasi-Biblical scale of action and destruction matched to grandiose human will in the series forebears by the throat. And yet, again, Johnson doesn’t follow through with any clear depiction of the effect this has. Indeed, it has none on the First Order hunt and core villains.
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Ridley and Boyega are still real finds for this series, and both of them display a developing touch in making their roles effective audience stand-ins who nonetheless have properly defined characters. But the way Finn and Poe are handled here makes them feel increasingly like fifth wheels. Finn is proved a dupe who flits about the margins and Poe’s struggles lead him into a position of new authority by the end that feels more accidental than earned. Finn’s final battle with Phasma aboard a disintegrating Star Destroyer is effectively melodramatic, but proves a little scanty. Johnson sets up a romantic triangle of sorts between Finn, Rose, and Rey – or rectangle if one counts Rey’s fleeting if finally extinguished attraction to Kylo. But it’s a long way from the smouldering love-hate of Han and Leia or the guilty, transgressive passion of Anakin and Padmé. Now we’ve got the adorkable pairing of Finn and Rose, which does lead into a gripping sequence in which Rose performs a staggeringly risky manoeuvre to save Finn from his own kamikaze gutsiness, but otherwise feels entirely too cute. Lucas’ characters were archetypes and naïfs, but they were also solid adults who had sex and dashed and dazzled. Everyone in this seems restricted, repressed, stymied. Part of what made The Empire Strikes Back as beloved as it is in spite of its nominally downbeat narrative of calamity and mutilation, was because it was the most authentically dreamlike of the original trilogy. The cavernous spaces and hovering beauty of Cloud City, dragon-riddled asteroids, haunted swamps, and spaceships roaring through twilight skies burned with ardour in authentic fantastical horizons. Nothing here even approaches, at least until the very end when Johnson evokes Lucas’ crucial images of setting suns and dissolution of the flesh, such a state of transcendental beauty.
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Rey was and remains the best new character – I’ve heard many invocations that hold her as the sole real achievement and best reason for loyalty to the new series from fans both casual and hardcore – and The Last Jedi does drag her evolution to interesting new places. She’s the voice of a new and ardent breed who craves leadership and direction, appealing to a crusty old warhorse in the form of Luke in a manner that feels true to a real-world context today where the young have looked to older voices of undiluted radical vision. Rey is also beset by her mysterious bond with Kylo, with glimmers of erotic interest and tactile communion as they try to connect psychically (including Rey being distracted by the sight of Kylo sans shirt, a funny moment that also conveys a blessed note of the erotic, otherwise desperately missing from Disney Star Wars) coexisting with fierce antipathy. The film’s ultimate solution to the raised mystery of her parentage feels like another dodge, as her parents were just wastrels who sold her for coin, and her abilities are purely her own provenance. This is neat on a symbolic level, as it underlines Rey as the embodiment of the new and of re-founding rather than legacy, but it’s also rather, well, lame and anti-climactic. Luke reiterates a belief that the Jedi must end, but what exactly what might take the creed’s place, and what Rey in particularly could bring to it, again isn’t given any thought.
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The Last Jedi does give Fisher a strong last go-round as Leia, who stands alone as a figure of stature and authority for the first time, running the Resistance cause with a sinking heart and guttering fire of determination. Leia gains some appropriately great moments, including one in which she utilises Jedi gifts surprisingly to save herself from a seemingly inevitable death. She also has a funny exchange with Holdo as they both admit their simultaneous irritation with Poe but also common love for his kind of bad boy. A running joke about Rey’s belief that the Force is the ability to make rocks float builds to a punch-line at the end involving her do just that. That’s about it. And this moment crystallised the way Star Wars has been vampirised by those pretending to reinvigorate it. There’s painfully little wonderment or fantastical beauty left in this universe. Johnson’s film looks good in a way, chasing a quality of desolate, dusky beauty, but too often it looks rather too often grey, dusty, and more than a little dolorous. Compared to the astounding opening sequence of Revenge of the Sith (2005) with it monumental, intricately staged, kaleidoscopically colourful space battle, Johnson’s paltry fleets slowly chugging through space are clunky and dully pseudo-realist. Of course, The Last Jedi is supposed to be set in a different, more run-down and wearied age, but that only covers a genuine paucity of real layering and ingenuity in effects and world-building so far.
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The mantle of the Jedi no longer carries with it the scent of green bamboo shoots they inherited from their wu xia and samurai epic models nor the red petals of chivalric romance, and with them goes the very element that elevated Star Wars above its rivals in the modern special effects cinema arms race. And as dynamic as these cinematic inheritors try to be in filling its place, this absence of an elevated plane to the drama, a yearning for higher ideals and the resonance of myth, never mind Lucas’ attempts to encompass his ideas on history and society and the linkages of both to identity, depresses me deeply, as does the refusal to engage in the creative universe beyond the immediate survival drama beyond canards like some of the rich are bad. I might seem to be castigating The Last Jedi more harshly than it perhaps warrants: it’s still easily the best of the three entries (which also includes Gareth Edwards’ mediating one-off Rogue One, 2016) in the reinstituted series. It boasts a handful of powerful sequences, and although it features a finale that goes on a few scenes too long and tries playing the same hand over and over again, and builds to a properly momentous confrontation of Luke and Kylo, it’s only to, once again, reveal itself as a kind of a cheat, failing to deliver Luke to a consummation even close to what he (and the audience) deserves. The universe should shake to its foundations when Luke Skywalker dies. Instead, Johnson merely has him run out of puff. The new series has closed The Last Jedi tells me the series has plateaued in terms of what it can accomplish and how it’s going to do it, and that reasons why I’ve loved this material in the past are slowly but surely being neutered. Where the prequel trilogy has only doggedly and insistently earned my admiration for their achievement over the past decade or so, these new films lay all their cards on the table instantly.

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