Category Archives: The 4th Wall

Netflix & Nolan

During a recent interview with Indie Wire, champion of traditional cinema and auteur of our age Christopher Nolan attacked streaming giant Netflix and its approach towards the traditional theatrical distribution of films. Netflix is meeting opposition from the film establishment, shown by the negative reaction and booing that flagship film Okja received at Cannes.  Nolan’s words could be dismissed as part of this knee-jerk reaction from the cinematic old guard loathsome towards change.

In reality, Nolan is right to call Netflix’s strategy to disrupt traditional cinema absurd’. Nolan may not realise it in his interview, but he touches upon some deeper issues with both Netflix and the film industry today.

Fighting a content war

In Nolan’s own words, Netflix’s extensive investment in original content, along with liberal control afforded to writers and directors;’would be more admirable if it weren’t being used as some kind of bizarre leverage against shutting down theaters’. Netflix, successful in revolutionising television, perceives cinema as an extension of that industry, and the company says as much in its quarterly shareholder letter this July . Cinema and television are similar but distinct visual arts that need different approaches to conquer. Netflix won over television so quickly because an episode of an original series is far shorter than a feature length film. People are more willing to gamble twenty to fifty minutes on a show recommended by a friend than sit down and dedicate up to two hours to an unknown film which has few reviews from critics or approvals on Netflix.

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An early rise has become mandatory for my summer job. In the mornings before I tackle the commute I watch the business reports while sipping coffee and pretending to be a grownup. Last week CNBC Europe’s Squawk Box had a heated discussion about booming tech shares. One of the presenters quipped that both Amazon and Netflix are locked in a content bidding war. I nodded along with the other hosts in approval.

Threatened by Amazon, Netflix has turned to cinema to retain existing subscribers and grab new ones from abroad. It is not suprising that after expanding into South East Asia last year, Netflix heavily invested into Okja, a Korean- American film directed by Bong Joon- ho, a South Korean directot with a strong appeal in the West and in the South East.

Unlike Amazon, Netflix sees cinema as a territory to be conquered for spoils, rather than an ally. Cinema and Netflix could certainly prosper together. For far too long cinema has been constrained by the ball and chain of the blockbuster and its inevitable franchise, leading to a torrid cycle of hollow superhero sagas, action flicks and CGI puppet shows of monsters and robots. Netflix is an outsider to the film industry, its independence and cash could have freed up film from some of the commercial demands placed upon it. Amazon Studios, as Nolan points out in his interview has taken a more tactful course, debuting films in cinemas before releasing them to its Amazon Prime subscribers 90 days later. Through this, Amazon Studios loses nothing and gains everything, it keeps cinema and critics happy, while generating revenue from film viewers and subscribers.

Where is Buster’s Mal Heart?

Over the last year there have been more films that I have wanted to see than films I have seen, not due to bad luck or poor time management, but because many of the films I anticipated never appeared. From the Lost City of Z to Song to Song and Buster’s Mal Heart, there have been a slew of films which I have highly anticipated, only for them to have minimal runs at local cinemas or no screenings at all.

Cinema is art and art always needs to be championed. Making cinema or any other form of art more accessible or available does not equate to a larger audience for that art, after all people need to know about a museum before they will ever visit. Netflix has assumed that once it makes its original films available, subscribers will flock to them but the opposite reaction is more probable.  Okja was lavished with media attention and an advertising campaign, but so far I have found the smaller independent films created by Netflix to be far more enjoyable. Okja often felt like the director was trying to spend the leftovers of his enormous budget. Whole scenes in Okja were unnecessary and some of the major actors in the film, especially Giancarlo Esposito of Gustavo Fring fame, had minimal roles which would not have been missed. Opposite to Okja have been Win It All and Shimmer Lake, small independent films with a few substantial stars which shine with fantastic plots and performances. Both of these films have been starved of attention from critics and Netflix alike, but overshadow Okja with their ingenuity and realism.

The current situation with on-demand screening of films is exactly the same as how Nolan depicts the horror in the 1990’s of your film winding up with a direct to video release. Deprived of the fanfare of a theatrical release, a film would be at the mercy of luck to find an audience strong enough to champion that film until it became a success. Direct to video and on-demand release have the veneer of choice and accessibility, but viewers will not choose a film which they have heard nothing about, especially as a non theatrical release remains a sign of poor quality.

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The strongest example of on-demand screening’s shortfalls are independent films like Buster’s Mal Heart. Shining with originality and starring Raimi Malek, Buster’s Mal Heart seemed filled with the soul wrenching eeriness of a Cormac McCarthy novel. I had been anticipating the film for months until I recently checked for screenings and found none. Buster’s Mal Heart received a brief, flickering presence on U.K. cinema screens before disappearing onto the internet. I am hoping to watch the film through You Tube Movies this week and a review will be linked here. While the internet seems to provide salvation to the overlooked and underappreciated films out there, I am someone who loves cinema and will seek out films that interest me. I am an exception amid the general audience. Unless a film is placed on the big screen either at the local art house cinema or multiplex, most people will not look for them. Even my local art house cinema in Manchester has reduced the availability of independent films in favour of commercial blockbusters. Song to Song, a Terence Malick film, only received a week slot before being removed. I do not know why cinemas both big and small, seem to be showing fewer films for less time. Part of me believes its a rationalisation that if the audience misses one film, they can catch it online.

Art needs to be championed, it needs to be given attention and granted the venue where it can best appreciated. Cinemas are and will continue to be the exhibition halls of film. While online streaming  has a place in film, it would rob the art of its vibrancy if it supplanted cinemas outright.

By Saul Shimmin

 

Dunkirk

Leaving the cinema after watching Dunkirk, I was compelled to write this piece; to write about the importance of what Christopher Nolan has created.

To know Europe, you must understand The Second World War. My parents grew up in the 1960’s playing in bombsites: open wounds across Liverpool even 20 years on. Joy Division and New Order took their names from Nazi projects. My father sometimes recalls neighbours who were veterans of the World Wars, men who left legs behind on a beach during D-Day and others whose minds cracked like china under the strain of trench warfare in France and Belgium. Travelling across Europe for the first time at 19, the Nazis haunted every nation I visited, from Anne Frank’s safe-house in Amsterdam to the crumbling ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. The First World War razed the old Europe, but the pain of the Second World War forged the new.

Since the Ancient Greeks first told myths, the past has been the anchor which moors identity in a sea of clashing collectives. Across Europe, our anchor is weakening as the Second World War ebbs away from living memory onto the shores of textbooks and academia. The train from Birmingham back home stops at a particular station.  Built into the station wall is a memorial to the men from the Railway line who fought and died in both World Wars. The names of the dead stack up to the ceiling, but no one stops to read them.

Dunkirk is a gift to the future, a grain of bottled time giving meaning back to the marble names that dwell in railway stations, parks, monuments, and statues across Europe. When watching Dunkirk we can live in that unfiltered speck of memory. We can experience a time of survival where there is no good or evil, only the enemy who is everywhere yet nowhere, toying with the British as they scrabble for their lives while bombs fall, snipers fire, and submarines sink hospital boats. When death comes, there is no quiet reflection or glory, it is quick and uncaring. Pilots simply disappear and soldiers, flung into the air by Stukha bombers, with their Jericho horns deafening all,  never return to ground. The characters utter little dialogue as few words are needed: the story speaks through Hans Zimmer’s score and Nolan’s vision.  The tale of Dunkirk told in words of sight and sound, is hope in the face of horror. It is the ringing notes of stoicism, the images of heroism, of ships silently sailing to shore and pilots sacrificing themselves which kindled hope for the men trapped ashore, caught between the ocean and the German tide. Hope saved our men, hope saved us.

When the civilian boats quietly prevail and reach Dunkirk’s shores, Zimmer’s rendition of Elgar blares as red sails flutter in the cold Atlantic wind. I was moved. I felt proud  of my country. In a present where Britain seems lost inside itself, we needed the pride Dunkirk brings to remind ourselves of a moment when we stood alone, and vowed to return to our European brothers once more.

Hopefully we will return to Europe again one day.

Hagood’s review of the Dunkirk will be available soon.

By Saul Shimmin

 

 

Looper: The endless circle

For his trickery, the Greek Gods condemned Sisyphus to the underworld. For his punishment, Sisyphus was tasked to push a rock uphill. No matter Sisyphus’ efforts, the rock would roll back down the hill before Sisyphus reached the summit, leaving him no choice but to start the task anew.

In The Terminator, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehl) and The Termintator (Anrold Schwarzenegger) are sent back to the past from a future where robots have risen up against mankind. The presence of both Kyle and The Terminator create the future apocalypse for different reasons. Kyle’s romance with Sarah Connor, whom he has been sent from the past to protect, leads to Sarah bearing their child, who becomes the future resistance leader, John Connor. The Terminator’s remains, following its destruction, are obtained by the U.S. government, leading to the creation of Skynet, the computer system behind the robotic uprising.

Time travel stories are a realisation of fate. Characters travel backwards in time, hopeful that they can change their path, only to find that like Sisyphus’ rock rolling back down the hill, their actions in the past perpetuate their future, binding them to an infinite struggle to reach the summit, their infinite loop.

At its heart, Looper is about a man’s inability to escape his destiny of becoming a monster.

The world of Looper

Set in a quietly dystopian vision of Kansas City in 2044, Looper exists in world where time travel is invented in the 2070s and exploited by criminal syndicates who send their victims back 30 years, where assassins, called Loopers, dispatch them.

Looper‘s main character, Joe (Joeseph Gordon-Levitt), is a Looper, and like all other Loopers, will one day be forced to kill his future self from the 2070s. This act, called ‘closing your loop’, was created by the crime syndicates for fear of the unforeseen consequences if a Looper, later in life, interacted with his victims from the 2070s thereby endangering causality. Nor do the Loopers know when they are about to kill their older self, as their victims arrive from the future with their faces covered by sacks.

The plot begins with the Loopers around Joe closing their loops with increasing frequency, on the command of a mysterious new figure in the 2070s who has taken over all five crime syndicates, known simply as The Rainmaker.  Old Joe quickly arrives and escapes, hell bent on killing The Rainmaker; who in 2044, is a child living in Kansas City. Joe attempts to hunt down and kill Old Joe or face a gruesome death at the hands of the crime syndicates.

‘I could see how you turned bad’: What Joe becomes

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(Old Joe becomes what he is meant to be)

Before Old Joe arrives, local crime boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) reveals what Joe would have been if he had not become a Looper. Speaking with fatherly affection, Abe recalls recruiting Joe as the youngest Looper ever, after he caught Joe robbing one of his fronts.

‘This kid, like an animal…. you looked at me and I could see it…the bad version of your life… I could see how you turned bad. So I changed it, I cleaned you up and put a gun in your hand…I gave you something that was yours.

Abe’s prophecy sadly rings true after Old Joe’s arrival. We witness the timeline Old Joe comes from, where Joe kills his older self and embarks on his retirement. Joe heads to Shanghai and falls into the bad path of his life which Abe foresaw. Squandering his retirement fund in 7 years, Joe becomes a psychopathic assassin and gang leader, spreading violence and spilling blood across Shanghai.

Old Joe appears reformed when he meets up with Joe in their favourite diner, condemning Young Joe as ‘A killer…a junkie. A fucking child mentality…what’s mine, my life…you’re so self-absorbed’. Yet Old Joe has only worsened, willing to kill children he suspects might be the Rainmaker so that he can still meet his wife and never lose her.

The inevitable bad path

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(The Eiffel Tower behind the needle, a sign of what could have been and what will always happen)

Joe’s work as a Looper and his wife are both a temporary leash restraining the monster he is. Once back in the past, Old Joe completes his transformation when faced by Abe’s gang, butchering them while he takes on the air of a demonic figure, bloodied and silent staring back at Abe’s security camera before killing him as well.

Before his death, Abe recognises that Old Joe was destined to descend into the bad version of his life, shouting out to Old Joe that

‘I guess I put the gun in that kid’s hand, huh? I guess everything comes back around.’

Sisyphus can push the rock each day, straining to reach the summit, but every day will begin anew, with Sisyphus still struggling uphill. Joe, like a figure found in Greek myth, is predestined to follow ‘the bad path’.

When we witness Old Joe’s timeline unfold, a model Eiffel Tower is briefly glimpsed in the background as Joe spirals further into addiction. The tower evokes an alternative life for Joe, where he would have gone to his original retirement choice of France instead of China. A needle lays before the tower dominating the shot, symbolising that Joe’s choices throughout life have no weight. The needle would have still been there even if he had moved to France, leading Joe down the bad path Abe foresaw. It is inevitable because of one moment which shaped Joe forever, the loss of his mother as a child.

‘What’s mine’ and ‘What’s yours’

Joe perceives himself in Cid, Sara’s troubled young son and revealed to be the future Rainmaker. When asked about his mother by Cid, Joe reveals that she sold him for drugs. Joe escaped and in his words,

‘I saw myself over and over again, killing those men that bought me and got my mom on what she was on, until I met a man in the city (Abe) who put a gun in my hand, gave me something that was mine’.

The loss of Joe’s mother forges his looping destiny of ‘the bad path’. Fending for himself, Joe becomes like the gang members and drugs who forced his mother to abandon him, adopting their mentality of ‘what’s mine’, even praising these men to Cid as ‘the only kind of man there is’. Thrust into a life with no one to guide him, Joe walks through life fending for himself at the cost of anyone who crosses him, be it his friend Seth, his victims from the future, or the children he believes to be The Rainmaker.

Joe learns to change

Joe appears just as selfish as Old Joe, displaying no remorse for betraying his friend Seth and hunting Old Joe in order to save himself from Abe. Joe begins to change once he meets Cid, seeing himself in the troubled boy as they share their traumas with each other. Despite discovering that Cid is the future Rainmaker, Joe spares Cid, realising that unlike himself, Cid still has his real mother Sara, offering Cid the chance of being nurtured and guided away from his destiny of becoming the Rainmaker.

By sparing Cid, Joe rejects his ‘what’s mine’ attitude, recognizing in his final meeting with Old Joe that his selfishness will cause him to become the monstrous Old Joe. When faced with the opportunity from Old Joe to walk away from Cid and Sara and live your life’ Joe rejects the offer, screaming ‘Your life, my life, becoming you!’.

The rock rolls back

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(A constant loop)

Realising that Old Joe’s actions in the past will perpetuate Cid becoming the Rainmaker, Joe kills himself to prevent an endless loop of Old Joe and Cid both trying to kill the other to save their loved one.

Yet without Old Joe’s presence in the past, none of the events leading up to Joe’s death can happen. Once in the past, Old Joe irrevocably changes future events, not only creating the Rainmaker, but causing Joe to sacrifice himself for Sara and Cid. Joe may remove Old Joe from existing in the past, but the events in Looper are permanently changed by Old Joe’s presence. Old Joe’s sudden absence in the past causes a paradox in the past, resetting the timeline.

A loop can be a single circle, or two circles conjoined at the hip. Old Joe’s hunt for the Rainmaker causes one circle as Joe foresaw, with Sara’s death and Cid becoming the Rainmaker. Joe’s sacrifice causes a second circle. His death leads to a paradox, resetting the timeline we witness in Looper . The two circles feed into one another like a loop, with Old Joe returning after living his life, desperate to save his wife,  while Joe realises what he will become and resets the timeline. If the timeline resets, Old Joe does not change the timeline. Thus Joe will still lead the life that Old Joe had lead, becoming the monster we witness in Looper. 

 

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(Old Joe’s loop, gagged and dead)

Over and over again, Joe has lived the bad path, returning as Old Joe, creating the Rainmaker as he constantly fails to save his wife, while the Rainmaker searches for Old Joe. Looper concludes with Joe making the only choice he can, to reset the timeline and to refuse his task of pushing the rock back uphill in an infinite loop. Looper concludes with Cid still bearing a scarred jaw like the Rainmaker, a hint that Cid is still destined to become a monster, despite Joe’s efforts and that ultimately, Joe and Cid are two men both walking the bad path towards each other.

Joe may change as a person and sacrifice himself but his actions change nothing, just merely reset the loop like Sisyphus’ rock rolling back down.

By Saul Shimmin

Looper is available now on Netflix in the U.K. It has been available for a while, so watch it before it goes!

Rian Johnson’s next film, a little piece called Star Wars: The Last Jedi is quickly approaching its Christmas release date. Read Hagood’s thoughts about the recent behind the scenes video from Disney here.

 

 

Ridley Scott and the value of life part two: Life, replicated

 

This article is part of a mini-series exploring the themes and ideas in Ridley Scott’s Sci-Fi films; for the first part click the link here.

*Spoilers ahead for Alien and Blade Runner*

Blade Runner, based on the seminal novel Do androids dream of electric sheep? is a futuristic world sculpted by the Cold War. By 2019, the Tyrell corporation has created humanoid androids. The androids, called replicants, look like humans and surpass us in intelligence, speed, and strength. Despite their similarities to us, replicants are treated like tools, exploited as slave labour across the solar system and forbidden from coming to Earth.  Blade Runner begins after a group of escaped replicants arrive on Earth, which prompts retired Blade Runner, Deckard (Harrison Ford), to return to his old profession and hunt down the replicants.

Alien challenges our position in the universe and our assumptions about intelligent life. In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott turns his gaze from the stars to earth, providing a condemning account of human society from the bottom-up. The replicants of Blade Runner are humanity in the neo-liberal age, dehumanised and robbed of an identity. They are the low-wage worker of today, an expendable commodity sacrificed for the benefit of the elite. The only difference is that replicants do not get a zero-hours contract but only four years to live.

Beyond our present day, the replicants represent ‘the other’ in society. They are the oppressed elements within every nation and culture branded as lesser and promptly exploited. The plight of the replicant parallels the medieval serf, the slave trade and the colonial subject. Despite its futuristic setting Blade Runner biopsies how society quietly exploits those at the bottom while we individuals, just like Deckard, look away.

Replicants: Machine or human?

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(Tyrell in all his glory)

Tyrell (Joe Turkel), wearing an imperial purple suit and thick glasses, is the god who underpins Blade Runner‘s society through his knowledge and technological prowess. The escaped replicants’ leader Roy (Rutger Hauer) even address Tyrrel as ‘The god of bio-mechanics’. Tyrrel’s apartment, guarded by an owl, symbol of the wise goddess Athena, is an Olympian temple supported by classical pillars, swathed in golden light from the sinking sun atop the pyramid superstructure witnessed in Blade Runner‘s introduction.

Deckard indulges Tyrell’s request to use the Voigt-Kampff test on Rachel (Sean Young), a supposed human. Deckard confronts Tyrrel after the test stating that Rachel is a replicant and asking, ‘how does she (Rachel) not know what she is?‘. Tyrell’s response is ‘commerce’. To Tyrell, replicants are a faulty product, becoming increasingly unstable as they develop memories and emotions. Rachel is ‘an experiment’ embedded with memories to believe that she is human, making her a more stable product.

Rachel reveals to Deckard that replicants are not just machines, but are parallel to regular humans through her morality and emotions. Ironically, it is Rachel, not any human, who questions Deckard about the moral and philosophical dilemmas of his work, asking him whether he ‘ has ever retired any humans by mistake?‘.

During Deckard’s attempts to chase and kill his replicant targets he begins to see them as increasingly human. At each encounter with an escaped replicant, the story shifts to their point of view, rendering Deckard and the human world around them to be cold, machine-like killers.

Challenging our assumptions

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(Our first encounter with Leon)

Leon is the audience’s first introduction to replicants when he is questioned by Dave Holden, another blade runner.  Leon is unstable from the beginning, his rage and confusion building until he abruptly shoots Holden in his stomach. Leon’s actions panders to the widespread view of replicants, repeated by Tyrell himself, as a tool that becomes a menace if they run amok. Later on in Blade Runner, Leon toys with Deckard after capturing him, stating to Deckard ‘painful living in fear isn’t it?’.  Deckard’s torture by Leon is Leon’s attempt to make another understand his suffering and pain.

Leon creates and later destroys the audience’s perception of replicants though his character arc. Leon transitions from a pyschopathic machine to a slave resisting his masters through the language they taught him, which was violence. Blade Runner uses Leon to challenge our own assumptions about ‘the other’ within society, by underlining how our opinions, just like Deckard’s can be unwittingly formed by convention. When given the chance to speak, the replicants, and ‘the other’ within our own society are exactly like us.

Violent recognition

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(Tyrrel’s death)

Both the audience and Deckard slowly begin to recognise the replicants as equal to humans. Then why does Tyrell, god of Blade Runner and father of the replicants still perceive them as below human?

The answer is found in Hegel’s philosophy.

According to Hegel, self-consciousness is not only the recognition of the self, but the recognition of that self by another self-conscious being. In human society, there exists a dominant and subservient consciousness with each recognising the other. This is what Hegel calls the master-slave dialectic.  Over time, the slave, having laboured for the master for so long, recognises his position as the inferior and demands the level of superiority enjoyed by the master.

Yet In Hegel’s words ‘Each (consciousness) wants to be securely recognised- has its certainty, but yet not truth.’ 

The master and the slave both want their identity to be recognised as superior. The master perceives his superiority due to his independence and power over the slave. The slave gains their own sense of superiority through the skill and hardship of their labour. Neither side will compromise and recognise the other as equal, causing as Michel Foucault states, a continual ebb and flow of power between one group and another within society as different identities emerge and conflict.

Tyrrel is the master and the replicants are the slaves.  He cannot recognise his own creations as more than human for fear of losing his own position. Tyrrel’s very identity and status in Blade Runner is literally built off the replicants and like the ancient Pharaohs he mimics, Tyrrel cannot be a god without an army of slaves beneath him. Roy’s quest to meet his maker Tyrrel is a struggle for identity, to climb the pyramid and be recognised by the master. Roy finally meets Tyrell, who continues to treat him and the other replicants as objects, calling Roy ‘a prize‘. Roy, disastisfied by Tyrell’s rejection, gauges Tyrrel’s eyes out.

At Blade Runner’s beginning, a superimposed eye blinks and dilates, reflecting the hellish cityscape of 2019 Los Angeles before it. The eyes in Blade Runner represent our own individual struggle with self-consciousness and recognition. The Voight-Kampff test, used to sniff out replicants, revolves around pupil dialation while the sodium orange flare of certain characters’ pupils teases who may be a replicant. After all, it is through our eyes alone that we perceive and recognise world, just like the eye gazing at 2019 Los Angeles. Roy’s gauging of Tyrrel’s eyes is the literal destruction of a worldview that rejects the replicants. Leon, in revenge for Zhora’s death, tries to do the same to Deckard before Rachel intervenes.

What about J.F.Sebastian?

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(J.F. being manipulated by Pris)

Perhaps the most unfortunate character in Blade Runner, J.F.Sebastian (J.F.), played by William Sanderson. He is a brilliant genetic designer who helped create the nexus 6 model of replicants. Befriended by replicant Pris (Daryl Hannah), J.F. is manipulated and later killed by Roy as part of his plot to meet Tyrrel. Afflicted by a genetic disorder accelerating his ageing, J.F. is denied ascension to the heavens and life among the solar system. Instead, J.F. dwells alone in a hellish derelict apartment block slowly succumbing to flood water.

J.F. blurs the artificial boundary between replicant and human. Deemed a faulty product, J.F. is valued for his productive capability like the replicants, while his desires are ignored and he is reduced to living alone. J.F’s plight is each our own tragedy, although the humans of Blade Runner are supposed to be superior, J.F. has been exiled and ignored by his fellow man. Strip back the scapegoat of today; be it the banks, the immigrants, or the replicants and we are only valued by society for our economic output while we each in turn dismiss the hardship of others. In a way, we are all replicants without realising it.

Writing about J.F. has made me excited for Blade Runner 2049 From the glimpses given in the reveal trailer, Blade Runner 2049 will witness the crumbling of the artificial line between replicant and human which J.F. straddles. Whatever happensI am more excited about Blader Runner 2049 now than when I reviewed the trailer.

By Saul Shimmin

Ridley Scott and the value of life: part one

Alert: Spoilers below for Alien, Blade Runner and Prometheus

Science-fiction is a genre which invites writers and directors to explore deeper topics and philosophical questions. No other director working today has better used Sci-fi for this purpose than Ridley Scott, renowned for AlienBlade Runner, and Prometheus. 

We see the human race as the world’s axis.  Our species continues to grow and consume at an unsustainable pace, placing our demands above all other forms of planetary life. Western religion claims that we are the pinnacle of creation, moulded in the image of God. Outside the West, other philosophies and religions share the belief that humanity alone has been imbued with a soul, placing us apart from the rest of creation.

AlienBlade Runner, and Prometheus are each a different premise where Scott questions our beliefs, and our hypocrisies about the value of human life.

Alien and ‘intelligent life’ 

Around 400 years ago, people still believed the solar system revolved around the Earth. Humanity has moved on since then, but we still perceive the universe from a self-centered perspective.

Today the world balances on the axis of humanity, and the universe revolves around our pull. In popular culture our forays into space commonly belong to three types: conflict, contact or isolation. In film, typically, humanity is found by another species with a familiar system of civilization and technology to our own. The arriving species may invade our planet, or guide us, or we attack them. The final two types are contact and isolation. Humanity comes into contact with something incomprehensible like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey or we wander the galaxy, completely alone.

Few have depicted a universe where humanity is inconsequential, even unnoticed. These works belong to Cosmic Horror, a genre formed by H.P. Lovecraft. Cosmic Horror topples the assumption we have held, from biblical times and beyond, that we have some measure of control on the world. Western thought has developed the idea that we were designed for a purpose, that we can master everything both tangible and intangible. Plato’s The Republic is the earliest work I know that claims we will eventually understand everything, becoming gods in our own right. Plato’s concept of the Philosopher-King, just like Nietschze’s Ubermensche, shares the belief that humanity’s pre-destined superiority over the world, and the universe, will arise.

Cosmic Horror challenges humanity’s sense of purpose and superiority. Across Lovercraft’s works, in the Universe beyond our understanding, characters come across forces far more powerful than ourselves. Humanity’s divine trajectory to masters of the universe is shattered, our species is shown to be at the whim of random, and often chaotic forces beyond our grasp.

Alien and Prometheus both draw from Cosmic Horror, although in different ways. Prometheus upends the Christian belief that humans were purposefully created. Instead humanity, just like Frankenstein’s monster, is the product of an experiment gone awry, feared by our creator, who is bent upon destroying us. While Prometheus challenges humanity’s purpose, Alien questions our superiority.

Alien exists in a future where space, the last frontier, has become tamer than a front lawn. The crew of the Nostromo are not daring adventurers, but space truckers who want to get home and get paid. The Nostromo’s crew stumble upon a life form that is the polar opposite of human beings. It makes no attempts to understand the crew, the alien is designed to kill and is driven to survive, at the cost of all other life. 

The alien is not a monster, but the first intelligent life this universe has come across. The most chilling scene in the film is when the android Ash, gurgling from his detached head, admires the alien as superior to humans. To Ash, the alien is not a monster, but the ‘perfect organism… designed to survive… unclouded by delusions by remorse… or delusions of morality.’

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrf0cH4o_g4

Ash’s final words reveal the true horror of Alien. A being emerges from the depths of space, shattering the belief in our own dominance in the universe. Despite our technology and brainpower, the lifeform butchers the Nostromo’s crew in a few hours. By the end of Alien, humanity is no longer the masters of space, but weaklings in a universe where darker beings, just like the Alien, may be lurking on forgotten planets. Space no longer tanatalises us with the chance of discovery and progress. The optimism we held for space in the 1960’s has been replaced, with a dread of what lies beyond our planet.

The alien is, like Ash states, intelligent life. If a being like an Alien did exist, it would challenge what we consider to be intelligent alien life. It does not have our intelligence, or social structures, but it lives and strives to survive above all else. How would we value such a being, and more importantly, how would we deal with it?

By Saul Shimmin