Tag Archives: Film Theory

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

Fullscreen capture 08072017 192741.bmp

(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

Fullscreen capture 08072017 184203.bmp

(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

Fullscreen capture 11072017 004051.bmp

(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. 

 

Fullscreen capture 17072017 222212.bmp

(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?

Fullscreen capture 08072017 122651.bmp

(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

Fullscreen capture 08072017 121634.bmp.jpg

(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

Fullscreen capture 08072017 214246.bmp

(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?

BladeRunner_113Pyxurz

(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