Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Mixed Bag of Sci-Fi Nostalgia: Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner

(NewsRadio was originally going to be my next post, but I decided to postpone that and write something a bit more relevant since Blade Runner 2049 is coming out this week. NewsRadio is written and will be posted in a week or so.)

Nostalgia seems to be fueling the biggest movies and TV shows recently, and that is not going to change anytime soon thanks to the popularity of Star Wars returning to the original trilogy characters. Star Wars didn't start this trend or anything, but the massive success likely led to the greenlighting of new entries in other older properties. I can't help but think that Alien: Covenant was able to be made because of a promise to be more like the original Alien than the recent, divisive Prometheus. And based on the previews of Blade Runner 2049, it looks like the studio provided a huge budget; it's not a stretch to assume this is because of the Star Wars effect. While I love the resurgence of all these films I loved growing up, the nostalgia factor makes it a mixed bag (though I'm crazy optimistic for Blade Runner 2049). So is nostalgia helping or hurting the integrity of these franchises? Let's start with Star Wars.

The Force Awakens, many claim, gave the fans what they wanted whereas the prequels gave them what they didn't want. Not to get into a prequel vs. original trilogy debate, but one thing that can be said for the prequels is that they are different. For a lot of fans, that means they're terrible (I happen to hold them in the same regard as the original trilogy, but that's not the point). So when The Force Awakens came out, there was this collective sigh of relief: Star Wars was truly back. 

I enjoyed The Force Awakens, but the more I watched it, the more the nostalgia wore off. I still like it, but I also realize that it is an unapologetic rehash of A New Hope. People have pointed this out, but it seems like most give the film a pass. "Yeah, it's basically a remake, but, man, it really felt like Star Wars!" In other words, "Yeah, I've seen this movie before, but, man, it's a really good movie!" 

This is where I disagree with fans of The Force Awakens. Nostalgia is all about feeling, but I didn't think The Force Awakens felt like a Star Wars movie. It had all the right parts and whatnot, but it felt different. Not bad, just different. It's to the point now that I don't even consider that film's success the product of nostalgia; it was successful simply because of recognition. 

This is where the Alien and Blade Runner franchises come into play. Obviously nostalgia and recognition are part of the appeal (hell, Harrison Ford returns in Blade Runner, just like he did in Star Wars [PS - it's my theory that Ford is going through his most iconic characters and killing them off one by one; Deckard is probably going to die in the new Blade Runner, and he could also kill off Indiana Jones in the announced fifth film]), but one major difference with these two properties is that the original director, Ridley Scott, is heavily involved. Meanwhile, George Lucas, to the delight of most fans, has almost nothing to do with the new films. 

Scott's involvement is so important because he's not a fan. Everyone working on the new Star Wars films are fans, so, in essence, all the new stuff is fan fiction. Fan fiction can be good, but it will always feel a step removed. Just like Lucas was willing to do something vastly different (even if a lot of fans hated it), Scott can do whatever he wants with Alien and Blade Runner.

This has happened a bit already. The Alien prequel Prometheus, while certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, received a lot of negative blowback online. The film, in my opinion, has been nitpicked excessively possibly because it didn't deliver enough answers and/or the same experience of the first Alien film. The issue here is that Scott didn't set out to do either. Prometheus is not technically an Alien film as Scott has been following a multi-film plan to lead up to the original Alien. That's why there isn't a proper xenomorph in the film, and it's also why there are plenty of unanswered questions.

The more recent Alien: Covenant is different. It's as if Scott listened to the upset fans of Prometheus and tried to do two separate things: continue his multi-film plan and give the audience something very similar to the original Alien. I think the film accomplishes that, but that makes it the lesser of the two new films. I enjoyed the xenomorph sequence at the end of Covenant, but I was much more interested in the continued story from Prometheus. Pleasing fans is important, but when you give into them, it's like giving into a child who wants candy for dinner. Sure, the child will be full, but it's empty nourishment. Here's hoping that the next Alien film leans more towards Prometheus than Covenant. (To be clear, though, I really liked both movies.)

One thing that is undeniable about the Alien prequels is that Scott is still able to create the Alien atmosphere. Rewatching Alien recently, I realized that the atmosphere is why I love that first film more than Aliens. It's slow and brooding and effective. It also took what the original Star Wars presented (a futuristic sci-fi that looks lived rather than shiny and new) and perfected it. I recall Alien being described as truckers in space, and that's exactly what it is. This is best exemplified by the great Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton (R.I.P.). How often in a film set on a spaceship do you have characters arguing about wages? All of these elements add up to a nearly perfect film. A film that could not be replicated today because of pacing alone. Look at Covenant; they essentially remade Alien in the last twenty minutes. Audiences don't have time for slow burn tension these days.

Perhaps Blade Runner 2049 will prove me wrong, though. With a running time nearing three hours and a director (Denis Villeneuve) who specializes in mood, this could be the film that gets it right. Blade Runner 2049 could placate fans and retain the atmospheric feeling of the original. 

Blade Runner 2049 may have found the perfect formula for nostalgic filmmaking. Rather than shutting out the original director, allow him to be involved in the process (as Scott is on 2049 as a producer) without giving him total control. Star Wars could benefit from George Lucas's input, as blasphemous as that might seem to certain fans. Don't let him go full prequel with it, but let him in on the process. The guy who started it all just might have a few ideas for where the story can go.

Back to Blade Runner, what made me fall in love with this film over the years was the mood and atmosphere. Judging it on face value, it's a boring film. (SPOILERS throughout the rest of this paragraph.) Deckard is very low energy and is no match against a replicant in a fight, and he only survives at the end because Batty lets him. It's not meant to be much of an action film, though. It's an atmospheric consideration of what life is, especially in a technologically advanced world. It's slow and beautiful. I don't rewatch it at least once a year for the badass action sequences; I watch it because I want to revisit the world of the film.

Of course, simply wanting to revisit the world of a film is what led to some of the problems with nostalgic filmmaking in the first place. I guess the best way to describe it is that The Force Awakens felt like I was looking at a picture of the Star Wars universe, and I hope that Blade Runner 2049 feels more like a return to the world. 

Based on early reviews for 2049, it appears that they got it right with this one. I hope so. Because nostalgia will continue to drive the content of Hollywood as long as it's profitable. Nostalgia doesn't have to be a bad thing. When done right, filmmakers might be able to recreate the magic of the past. I'll find out this weekend when I watch Blade Runner 2049.

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