My Robot Occupation Movies #5 – Star Wars Trilogy

Fifth in a series – Imagine for a moment that the world has been invaded and occupied by an army of robots, and you could only grab a handful of DVDs before you were incarcerated… what would they be?

Is there really any more you can say about Star Wars? Type those two words into Google and you get “About” 1,110,000,000 results. That’s roughly a third of the number of stars in our galaxy. And I’ve already written about how it changed me when I first saw it, so what’s new?

This Robot Occupation Movies thread is, let’s be honest, a thinly-veiled rip-off of Desert Island Discs. A radio show where you tell your life story through 8 pieces of music. And I couldn’t tell my life story without referring to Star Wars. Slice me in two and you’ll see this logo running through me like a stick of rock:

Daaaaa! Dun-dun...
Daaaaa! Dun-dun… dun-dun-dah-dah-dah-d-d-dun-dah-dah-dah-d-d-dun-dah-dah-dah-bu-bu-bum-ta-da-da-bum-bum…

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of RETURN OF THE JEDI, which made me think back to when I first saw it at the Odeon in Hastings. I was on holiday, it was quite late in the summer, I still hadn’t seen it, and was panicking that I might never. My mum was more of a Coronation Street fan and didn’t want to watch it, so, after checking with the lady at the box office that someone could keep an eye on me (oh, mum!), she paid for my ticket and I went in alone. The cinema was far from full; just a handful of people scattered around the auditorium, and so I found a quiet row and settled in. The sense memory from that first screening is still with me now, the thrills I got from watching Luke and Vader duke it out still resonate, and I have to confess that there were a few tears. It was over. Oh, there were rumours of more films to come, but I somehow knew that this would be it.

Of course, now we know that it wasn’t the end. But here’s a quick timeline of my Star Wars experience. Starting before the dark times… before the Jar-Jar…

A long time ago...

My fifth birthday. Dad taking me to see it for the first time. I’m pretty sure it was at the Odeon in Woolwich.

Now a church... pfft...
Now a church… pfft…

The next film I went to see was a re-release of Disney’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. As queued to get in, we stood by lobby cards showing scenes from Star Wars. It was still showing! I remember being annoyed that we couldn’t go and see it again.

So, I begged and begged until mum took me to see it again. I remember boasting to a lady on the bus that I was going to see it for the second time.

For my next birthday I got the film score: Star Wars highlights on one side, and Holst’s Planets suite on the other.

Collecting the trading cards, playing flicksies and winning more, chewing on the rock-hard pink, powder-dusted gum.

Bad guys! Boooo!
Bad guys! Boooo!

Being friends with Gregory, the kid next door, because he had a cool Stormtrooper gun.

Going to the Brent Cross shopping centre to blow my birthday money on figures and an X-Wing. Reading the Marvel comics every week and loving that Han was fighting alongside a giant green rabbit called Jaxxon…

Only 10p!
Only 10p!

Feeling betrayed and disappointed that suddenly everyone in my class was now into this Superman film! I thought we all loved Star Wars!

Buying a second-hand hardback copy of the Star Wars novel at the school jumble sale (which I still have!) and reading it again and again and wondering why it wasn’t exactly the same as the film – Luke is Blue Five?!

Being told by my uncle that a friend of his played a Stormtrooper! (I never verified this, but he did know a stuntman called Nosher Powell who is credited on IMDb).

Watching the Star Wars Holiday Special at Christmas in Ireland and getting cross with my granddad who kept switching over to the horse racing (of course, I now realise he was doing me a huge favour).

Mum and dad calling me downstairs to see a clip from the new film THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK on TV – it was the “I love you… I know” bit, and I recall welling-up and being terrified that Han was going to die.

Dad taking me to see TESB at the Odeon Leicester Square. We were in the front row of the balcony, and he ripped my bag of popcorn open, spilling it on the poor people below. Sorry if you were one of them.

Being in a daze afterwards, wondering if Darth Vader was lying out of his arse, or if Ben was the fibber.

More comics, though of course, they didn’t have Han in them any more. People moan about Ewoks, but we had Hoojibs…

hoojib

The longest wait between films ever.

Trying to use the Force one day. Didn’t work. The day I discovered disillusionment.

Watching a trailer for Return of the Jedi on the Jonathan King‘s show Entertainment USA and nearly exploding with excitement.

That screening of Jedi in Hastings and thinking it was over forever.

Years of keeping the faith, reading and re-reading the comics and the books. Watching the movies on VHS again and again and again.

Reading the Timothy Zahn novels and liking that the franchise had grown-up a bit. The characters still felt alive.

Thinking about having the Throne Room and Finale cue for our wedding march music, deciding against it and later regretting it.

Working at Unity Theatre with the wonderful Declan Mulholland – the original Jabba the Hutt! – and learning that Harrison Ford loved a pint with the cast and crew.

Hearing rumours of a new movie. Maybe episodes 7-9!

A prequel, you say? Hmm… interesting…

Hearing the title THE PHANTOM MENACE for the first time, and not being too worried that it was silly. All the titles are a bit silly if you think about it, aren’t they (the years of denial began here).

Seeing the trailer on The Big Breakfast and sharing everyone’s excitement.

Listening to the soundtrack in the car with friends and liking Duel of the fates.

Watching the Phantom Menace and, honestly, being okay with it. The anger came much later.

Watching ATTACK OF THE CLONES when holidaying in Spain so I could see the Obi Wan headbutt that was removed in the UK to get a 12a certificate (it lasted little more than a second). And Yoda in Spanish is always fun…

Being late for a screening of REVENGE OF THE SITH and not really minding.

Giving my nephew my old Star Wars figures, which he then eventually gave to his younger brother, who then handed them back down to my kids.

Watching the movies with my kids, and making it clear that any preference for the prequels over the originals will result in immediate ejection from the home.

Writing a movie with so much Star Wars in its DNA that… well, we’re back to the rock analogy again.

And now we have the new movies on the horizon, with that guy from the Big Bang Theory directing them…

Well, I've never seen them in the same room together, have you?
Well, I’ve never seen them in the same room together, have you?

So it looks like Star Wars will always be with me. It’s affected some people so much that they dress up as characters (cool)…

Hey, we were in a rush, okay?!
Hey, we were in a rush, okay?!

…or even declare it as their religion (crazy).

I wouldn’t go that far, but for a movie about knights, scoundrels, droids, princesses and dark lords, it’s had a pretty profound affect on my life. I didn’t name my kids Luke, or Leia, but I did become obsessed with its making, and through it discovered how movies were created. I started reading Science Fiction and Fantasy literature, I fell in love with film scores and classical music. Through its contemporaries I found Coppola, Spielberg, Hammer Horror, David Lean, Ridley Scott, Peter Weir, Kurosawa and so many other artistic avenues that I might never have found without it nudging me in their direction.

So, thank you Star Wars. It’s been and up and down relationship, but I wouldn’t be the same without you.

And may the force be with you… always.

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My Robot Occupation Movies #4 – Reservoir Dogs

Fourth in a series – Imagine for a moment that the world has been invaded and occupied by an army of robots, and you could only grab a handful of DVDs before you were incarcerated… what would they be?

“When I’m getting serious about a girl, I show her RIO BRAVO and she better f-ing like it!” says Mr Tarantino of his prospective dates. Now, putting aside whether or not someone should “test” one’s sweetheart, or indeed what that says about your attitude to relationships, the desire for the film fan to share their favourite films with those close to them is a strong one. And we’d be lying if we didn’t judge people based on their responses. It’s entirely wrong, of course, but I’m sure sports fans do the same when they take their beloveds to the big match (do they still call it that? Who cares…).

Then, imagine my trepidation when taking the girl I loved to see RESERVOIR DOGS for the first time. Our first date film had been HOOK, a crashing disappointment, and so a lot was riding on this exciting debut that I’d read about in Empire. I’d like to pretend that I was cool and knew all about the Hong Kong movies that had inspired Reservoir Dogs, or that I was entirely cognisant of how he was subverting the genre, but I didn’t. All I knew was that this was the film that everyone was talking about, and I just had to see it. Also, he worked in a video rental store and so did I, so maybe there was hope for me yet. Back then, an indie film like this rarely got a chance to be seen outside of London (actually, that’s pretty much the same now), but the UCI cinema chain used to run Director’s Chair screenings of foreign and indie films on Tuesday nights, and Dogs was showing for one night only. The lights went down and we sat through 99 minutes of mayhem, violence, betrayal, torture, and the finest on-screen swearing since GOODFELLAS.

And she hooted with laughter throughout!

It was then that I knew I had met the woman I would marry. Not only could she tolerate A-grade film brutality but she also knew that what we were watching was essentially a black comedy with great dollops of psychological drama. At the time we were both auditioning for drama schools, and we were in awe of the acting chops on display. I asked Claire about it today (yup, we’re still married!) and she said that she’d never seen a film like it before. She’d always seen nice family movies like ET and BACK TO THE FUTURE, so what Reservoir Dogs was, as she just put it, “Opened her up to new experiences…”

Which is why our next date movie was BASIC INSTINCT. But that’s another story…

My Robot Occupation Movies #3 – Life Is Sweet

Third in a series – Imagine for a moment that the world has been invaded and occupied by an army of robots, and you could only grab a handful of DVDs before you were incarcerated… what would they be?

It was the 90s, and poster budgets were smaller then...
It was the 90s, and poster budgets were smaller then…

“Mum! Mum! You have to see this!”

Have you ever watched a film that was so uncannily like your own life that you were convinced that the film-makers were monitoring and recording your every move? For me, LIFE IS SWEET was that movie.

I’m not talking about the events in the story, but all the way through there were little character moments that chimed so precisely with the world I lived in (still living at home with mum, dad and sister, in a house too small for us all) that once I finished watching it, I rewound the tape, dragged my mum and sister into the room and made them watch it too.

They did so, with wide eyes and open mouths. One scene in particular had them screaming with recognition…

We were used to seeing a sort-of hyped-up reflection of reality in soaps on TV, but they were always done in such a rush, with such a sense of melodrama, that it was hard to take them seriously. But Life Is Sweet is a Mike Leigh movie. The actors spend weeks, if not months, working on their characters, rehearsing and refining them through improvisation. It’s a fairly unique method of film making, but gives the dialogue a naturalistic rhythm that would look impenetrable on the page.

To say that this film was a major influence on my early writing, especially my first play, would be a massive understatement. It gave me licence to write characters that sounded like people I knew.

Leigh gets a lot of flack for being patronising to his audience, characters and even the working classes*, but in Life Is Sweet, and the better-known SECRETS AND LIES, I saw truthful representations of ordinary people I recognised, and the trials they faced. Not epic struggles against monsters or aliens, but just people coming to terms with life in an ordinary suburban world. I’m learning that story is all about characters discovering who they are, reconciling the conflicting parts of their own selves. If you can pull that off, whatever the setting, you’ll have the ingredients of a great drama. And Leigh’s films have this in spades.

*Though I only ever see this criticism from middle class journalists, so…

My Robot Occupation Movies #2 – Psycho

Second in a series – Imagine for a moment that the world has been invaded and occupied by an army of robots, and you could only grab a handful of DVDs before you were incarcerated… what would they be?

Psycho_(1960)

Psycho was the first film that I ever studied in any kind of depth. Up till then, films were just films to me. Good, escapist fun, but nothing I ever thought about in any kind of academic sense. I’d seen Psycho on TV. My dad, just leaving the house for a night out, saw that it was on, ‘Psycho. You’ll like that,’ he grinned, leaving me alone in the house and possibly scarring me for life.

It was unlike anything I’d seen before. I’d enjoyed horror movies with my friends, but they were always in glorious technicolor, never black and white. This one felt slow and talky, and there were only a couple of murders. To this teen, it was okay, but I preferred a bit more claret with my horror. But, that aside, there was definitely something odd about it. It made me think, for a start, which no other horror movie had achieved so far.

Then one of our teachers announced that he would be running an after-school film club and Psycho would be our subject. By now, I’d seen a few more of Hitchcock’s movies and was aware of Psycho’s importance, but I hadn’t seen it since that original TV viewing.

Well, we took that baby apart. We analysed everything: shot composition, shot lengths, the importance of light and shadows, the motif of birds – Crane, “Eats like a bird”, Phoenix, the positioning of the stuffed birds in shots – the abundance of reflective surfaces throughout, and even the colour of Janet Leigh’s underwear before and after she steals the money.

And the shower scene? Took it apart shot-by-shot. All 3 minutes and 50 cuts.

From then on, I would never look at movies in the same way. It made me aware of symbolism, motifs, music, casting, lenses, lighting, sound – all the building blocks of a movie. And, most of all, it had me hooked. Movies were now my thing. More than music. More than books.

Not long after that, my friends and I made a short movie for a national schools competition. Fresh off our Psycho experience, we thought we knew it all. Of course, the end result was mostly dreadful, but there was one scene where dozens of kids came charging out of their classrooms into a hallway (our film was about a revolution in a school), and seeing that cut together – the doors crashing open, the feet pounding, the kids running – was the first time that anything we’d done actually looked like a movie. The stuff we’d learned watching Psycho had, for a few seconds, paid off. We can do this, I realised.

Despite ripping its guts out, Psycho is still fun to watch. My sister and I still talk about it (it’s one of her favourites too), and its power hasn’t been diminished by the 1998 remake, or the poor sequels (though Psycho II isn’t that bad!).

The original was on TV just this week, and I subjected my 13-year-old daughter to it. She talked over the shower scene, ‘That’s what you get for using all my hot water!’, but stuck with it till then end. And now she’s asking questions… That’s what the movie does. Provokes dark and disturbing thoughts. Some have been explored in documentaries, films and books, not least Stephen Rebello’s excellent Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho, but the mysteries of the human frailties of jealousy and murder will always remain. So let’s leave the last word to the master himself…

My Robot Occupation Movies #1 – Blade Runner

My son is at an age where rating things is all-important. The most common question I get from him after we watch a movie is, ‘How many stars would you give that?’ This in turn has led to an extended ‘What’s your favourite movie?’ conversation.

Well, he’s got me thinking. Just what are my favourite movies? And why? So, over the next few blog posts I’ll be putting these thoughts into some kind of order. So, imagine for a moment that the world has been invaded and occupied by an army of robots, and you could only grab a handful of DVDs before you were incarcerated… what would they be?

These have to be the movies you simply couldn’t live without. They don’t have to be the best films ever, just the ones that mean the most to you. The ones that tell your own story.

So that’s what I’m going to do. And I’m going to start, as all good stories should, in the middle somewhere…

I first saw Blade Runner at my friend Kristian’s place. It was his birthday, and I’m guessing we were 11/12 years old. The room was full of boys expecting a kind-of Indiana Jones in the future. That’s what the VHS cover art promised, and that never lies, right?

In stereo!
In stereo!

What we got was something that split the room. Most of the group found it boring. Just me, Kris, and another kid called David Snell thought it was cool, though if you asked any of us to explain it, I doubt we could have managed anything more articulate than “There’s this bloke who has to hunt these robots – no, replicants! – and there’s a cool bit where this guy gets his eyes gouged out, and it was all very dark…”

But then the Marvel comic adaptation started appearing in the back of my weekly Return of the Jedi comic, and the story started making more sense. I read this again and again, then rented the movie, and there was definitely more than first met the eye with this film.

Too late for my GCSE English (and probably just as well) I found a film tie-in copy of Blade Runner in my local second hand bookshop. Only it wasn’t a mere tie-in, this was an original book by some guy called Philip K Dick (snigger). This would surely answer all my outstanding questions! Oh boy, was I wrong. Dick’s incredible book, with its meditation on identity and reality, just brought a million more questions flooding to my brain.

Then, on my 18th birthday, I went alone to the Odeon on Shaftesbury Avenue to see the legendary director’s cut (yeah, I know how to party!). To see that grand opening on the big screen with Vangelis’s score turned up to 11 was just amazing, though – to be honest – I missed the much-maligned voice-over. And to fully understand the whole meaning of the unicorn footage, I had to read Paul M Sammon’s excellent book FUTURE NOIR.

Since then, I’ve bought various VHS and DVD special editions and box sets. It’s bloody exhausting trying to make sense of this film. I’m now not convinced that Deckard is a replicant. That whole backstory now feels like Ridley retconning, and I still miss that voiceover.

My wife has yet to see the film all the way through without falling asleep. I have younger colleagues who can admire the film, but wouldn’t rate it as a classic, and I firmly believe that this is because you had to make the journey with this film for it to have its full impact. From first viewing, to comic, to book, to more books, director’s cuts and final cuts, to box sets with little dinky toy Spinners in them.

It is imperfect, but its riddles will never fully be resolved, and that’s one reason why I love it.

Here’s the orignal trailer. In keeping with the film’s history, it’s terrible:

PS. My friend Kristian also introduced me to Mad Max 1 & 2, various horror movies, and Firefox, and for that I shall always be grateful.