Raiders of the Lost Ark

17 01 2008

Raiders of the Lost ArkIn 1981, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were two of the hottest names in town: Lucas had made American Graffiti, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back; Spielberg, meanwhile, had directed the blockbusters Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A film produced by Lucas and directed by Spielberg would almost certainly be money in the bank.

Enter Harrison Ford as the globetrotting archaeologist Indiana Jones in the Lucas/Spielberg collaboration Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Set in 1936, Raiders follows Jones as he attempts to retrieve the lost Ark of the Covenant (on behalf of the U.S. government) before the Nazis get a hold of it — it seems the Ark may contain the power to make any army who possesses it invincible. Along the way, he teams up with former love interest Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who owns a medallion which could uncover the location of the Ark, and Egyptian digger and friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies).

The plot, however, serves more as a framework for a series of cliffhangers in the style of Saturday matinee adventure serials, and in that sense it’s cut from the same cloth as Lucas’ own Star Wars. For example, the film opens in the jungles of South America, and by the end of the sequence, Jones has faced tarantulas, snakes, dart-blowing natives, rivals, traitors and cunningly constructed booby traps (including the famous rolling boulder — an iconic image that encapsulates the film in only a handful of shots). As he continues to face increasing dangers in Nepal and later Cairo, each sequence seems deliberately designed to end with the audience wondering, “How will he get out of this one?!”
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Blade Runner

15 01 2008

Blade Runner1982 was a good year for science fiction on film: on the one hand you had Steven Speilberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which was one of those inescapable blockbusters that was as much an event as a film; on the other hand we were given John Carpenter’s The Thing, which seemed to be the cinematic inverse of Spielberg’s offering. Transcending that dichotomy, however, was Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a futuristic film noir that is arguably the most important science fiction film of the 1980s — certainly, it was one of the most influential.

It is Los Angeles in 2019, and within the urban decay are four rogue “replicants” — sophisticated androids that are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a former blade runner — a detective charged with tracking down and “retiring” (i.e. killing) rogue replicants — and he’s brought back on the job to retire the current four who are still on the loose.

Blade Runner is an important film for a number of reasons. Firstly, it helped to define the “cyberpunk” subgenre: its world was a grimy, sprawling urban landscape fused with high-tech industry, and this became the paradigm upon which so much science fiction was later built. Secondly, its themes of humanity, creation and the nature of memory are dealt with seriously but never in a heavy-handed manner. And finally, it’s yet another case of a film that was relatively unsuccessful at the time of release but whose influence was so marked that it’s now regarded as a classic almost by default.
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Star Wars

27 11 2007

Star WarsIt’s hard to overemphasise the impact that Star Wars has had on modern cinema. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws laid the groundwork, but Star Wars became the prototype for the effects-laden blockbuster. That countless imitators (and the imitators of the imitators) often missed the point when it came to the success of Star Wars was a sad but inevitable outcome.

Director George Lucas, who had great success with American Graffiti just prior, filled his screenplay with everything swimming around in his subconscious from childhood entertainment: westerns, adventure serials, comic books, fairytales, samurai films, war films, pulp science fiction and anything else that sprang to mind. Yet everything in Star Wars seemed to exist in a coherent universe, where princesses could exist alongside bounty hunters and fighter pilots. In short, he concocted the most delicious blend of fantastic imagary that bounces around a ten-year-old boy’s head and then splashed it on cinema screens everywhere.

The plot, furthermore, followed closely the monomyth as detailed by Joseph Campbell but never felt written-by-the-numbers. Instead, the audience seems to be partaking in a ritualised retelling of an ancient story dressed in the tropes of 20th century pop culture, and it’s this dual nature of the film — contemporary, yet timeless — that no doubt lead to its massive popularity and longevity. We all knew the sources of inspiration and so it was immediately familiar without being strictly derivative. This was the Hero’s Journey for pop culture junkies.
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