I never felt so old as the day when I was walking through Liverpool, near the Cavern Club, where the Beatles began their career. Among the numerous music pubs and themed bars, there were 60s bars, 70s bars, 80s bars….90s bars. That’s just wrong. Actually, the venue called ‘The Cavern Club’ isn’t even the real thing: it’s a replica built one door down from where the original was filled in decades ago. But if it looks like the original, maybe it fulfils the purpose for the Beatles tourists coming to see it?
I got another shock of generation gap angst when discussing ‘Alien: Covenant’ with a friend who’s in their twenties. His knowledge of the Alien films began with seeing ‘Prometheus’. As we discussed the tropes of the series, it became clear that he’d never seen the 1979 film, or any of the sequels. This is anecdotal evidence, but some more investigation online showed me that more and more, the current cinema audience haven’t seen ‘classics’ of my generation and feel no need to catch up with them via rentals. My immediate reaction was to goldfish for a moment then recommend/insist they watch these seminal texts of genre cinema. But even as I was saying it, there was something that felt like your grandad trying to get you into his Fats Domino 78s.
The summer blockbuster was invented in the seventies, first with Jaws, then Star Wars. Together with Alien and Blade Runner, George Lucas’ magpie impression of the Saturday morning matinee completed a triumvirate of films that defined SF cinema for decades since. But perhaps they’re now reaching a point of exhaustion. Their sheer age, invisible to the original audience, has taken its toll on their influence and relevance. Perhaps to present day cinema-goers, watching something from the seventies would be like my ten year old self watching 1920s silent films.
Thanks to the internet, and video hosting sites in particular, the target audience for the current Alien series consume cinema history differently. They can cherry-pick the image systems and pivotal scenes that these films added to the lexicon of cinema. The battered star fighters, and dented androids of Star Wars, the smog-laden techno-noir of Blade Runner, the dank, dripping spaceships and perverse machine eroticism of ‘Alien’, they’ve been blended into a soup of visual DNA for current genre cinema. Or put another way, they’re part of the geological strata now, not the forest growing on top.
All of this raised for me (retrospectively) the questions why anyone would try to make a sequel to ‘Blade Runner’, why make it now and whether someone should really stop making sequels to ‘Alien’. That said, Denis Villeneuve has produced a second episode to the Blade Runner story that shares the individual spirit that James Cameron brought to ‘Aliens’, honouring the original but taking firm control of the property. At the same time, that balancing act puts the director on a hiding to nothing: having to communicate the selling points of the original idea to an audience for whom its visual language is no longer novel, whilst also keeping on board first generation fans by not straying too far from the canon, something ‘Star Wars – The Last Jedi’ struggled with.
‘Blade Runner: 2049’ is too long, but at the same time I felt it carried most of its running time with a self-assured grandeur. I’d be interested to see a ‘Director’s Cut’ that’s about half an hour shorter. It’s a bit like the difference between listening to The Doors (look ’em up, kids!) on record or on stage: excellent at writing tight pop songs, which played live, include an ages long instrumental solo, before diving back into the tight pop song structure at the end. The running time of ‘2049’ may be excessive, the tempo of scenes slow and meditative, but the rhythm of the film is like an oil tanker at top revs. The sheer bulk of the enterprise, its gravity draws the viewer in.
As in the original, ‘2049’ starts with a massive ECU of an eye, this time of replicant K’s, rather than Deckard. As the supposed window to the soul, something K’s boss thinks he’s been getting along fine without. His arc through the film is of Pinocchio having an existential crisis. Where things start to wobble is with K’s nemesis Wallace (Jared Leto). If the hero is only as good as his antagonist, then 2049 doesn’t give K much to kick against. Wallace’s casual brutality and slaughtering of his own replicants delivers an initial shock, but it’s a very crude way to communicate that he’s Not A Nice Person. Tyrell in the first chapter was far more ambiguous and therefore interesting. Together with the standard bad guy logorrhoea and Conspicuous Physical Deformity, Wallace comes across on a par with a mediocre Bond villain.
Even so, 2049 succeeds in illustrating a fictional world with aesthetic tools apart from the screenplay itself – rather like the original in fact. The space and silence of monumental settings allows the senses of the audience to expand and absorb the created world and be absorbed by it. Characters are dwarfed by man-made edifices and vast, ruined landscapes. Washed in saturated colour or obscured by veils of fog, smoke or rain, the epic sprawl of solar farms, slums, cities and fields of junk are themselves humbled by decay and pollution that eats them in turn. In contrast to the noir chiaroscuro of Blade Runner, 2049 presents more daylight, albeit washed out greys bound by fog or tinted by red desert dust. The Hans Zimmer score riffs on Vangelis’ analog whale song but with a louder, serrated edge. It sounds rusty and distorted, as if coming from a blown bass cabinet. The decay of the first film has truly set in.
After the disappointing response to both ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Alien: Covenant’ , even Ridley Scott seems to be coming round to the idea that the innovations of ‘Alien’ have a shelf life. The irony is that the diehard fans of the series and its iconography demand that each new chapter contain repetitions of the scenes that made the first film so shocking and new. The brutal life cycle of the alien and the uncanny iconography of HR Giger have been steadily diluted ever since 1979. The life cycle of the alien now takes place with impatient haste, second-guessing the attention spans of the audience who have already familiarised themselves with chest burster, face hugger et al on the internet. Meanwhile the diehard audience expects a female hero, but only because in the 70s Scott took a risk and cast against the scripted gender. The fact that this made both Warrant Officer Ripley and Sigourney Weaver icons ought to have pointed the way for Scott when questioned recently about the issue of diversity in casting. He saw it as a purely financial issue – studios will always prefer to cast an established box office draw – completely forgetting that those names on the marquee aren’t born, they’re created by directors like him making a deliberate choice.
During the intervening decades, studios have taken the risk out of sequels by designing them into the filmmaking process right from birth. The production line of DC and Marvel superhero films is planned well into the next decade, and the characters will be put through as many iterations as is necessary to get them to fit with the nature of their particular franchise. The Incredible Hulk took three goes, IRCC. The first ‘Iron Man’ film is now a decade old and in the style of ‘Logan’s Run’, the Avengers franchise seems to be heading for one last party before being retooled, upgraded and replaced for a new viewing generation. Maybe then I should be less precious about Alien and Blade Runner. My instinct is that having just about got away with one workable sequel, Denis Villeneuve should remember ‘Aliens’ and quit whilst he’s ahead. Ridley Scott it seems, may have other ideas.
I’ve still got my VHS copy of the unaltered ‘Star Wars’, but I can’t remember the last time I watched it…..