Tolkien

I was almost put off going to see this biopic because of Mark Kermode’s review, which made it sound like nothing more than a series of crudely-drawn parallels between Tolkien’s life and his work. But I found the film far more subtle than that, perhaps because I already knew those parallels — the way the Fellowship of the Ring could be seen as owing something to Tolkien’s close friendships with his fellows in the “Tea Club and Barrovian Society”, for instance, which only ended with their deaths in the First World War, or the obvious influence of the war itself. The way that dark figures like dragons and Black Riders form from the smoke, fire and devastation of a First World War battlefield — as seen through a trench-fevered Tolkien’s eyes — wasn’t just a nice touch, I thought it was the whole point of the film.

(It even managed to convince me of one more parallel, though I don’t know how factually accurate it might be: as the fevered Tolkien searches the trenches for his friend, Geoffrey Smith, he’s made to seem like a ring-weary Frodo being supported by his Sam Gamgee-like batman, Private Sam Hodges, struggling through Mordor.)

I think part of the trouble any Tolkien biopic will have is that the image we (I, anyway) have of him is as an old, betweeded, pipe-smoking don, mumbling to himself in Elvish and very much not writing about women. It’s a point emphasised by Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, where, once Tolkien is ensconced as a professor at Oxford about a third of the way into that book, Carpenter says: “And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened.” And it’s the “nothing else really happened” Tolkien I tend to think of. The fact that Tolkien was, at one time, passionate about changing the world, and deeply in love with the woman he married — the fact that he was, at one time, a young man — seems difficult to grasp, so any film of his life can’t help but feel an exaggeration or romanticisation. (This film surely owes a lot to John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, much more so, I’d think, than the Carpenter biography.)

But biopics have to work as stories at the same time as they’re serving as biographies, and Tolkien is an origin story, not a full biography. It’s about the experiences that led up to the writing of The Lord of the Rings — or, rather, The Hobbit, because it ends with him writing the famous opening sentence to that book. I think, overall, the film makes a good artistic point about the formation of Tolkien as a writer, and though by no means a definitive biopic — I really wanted to see Tolkien at the end of his life, bothered by hippies turning up on his lawn, brandishing copies of the Ballantine paperback whose cover he hated — it was certainly more than the TV movie style box-ticking exercise Mark Kermode implied.

Blade Runner 2049

One of the things that really impressed me about Blade Runner 2049 was its soundtrack. I love the score to the 1982 original, and was pleased that, though 2049’s soundtrack quotes it at moments, it doesn’t try to imitate Vangelis’s lush romanticism. It even sometimes seems to be doing the opposite, feeling, at times, like an oppressive aural assault, particularly when it brings in that alarming, motorcycle-like roar. The different ways the soundtracks work says a lot about the two films.

Vangelis’s soundtrack provides a necessary counterpoint of emotional texturing to the 1982 film’s noir-ish future: it conjures the suppressed, battered emotional lives behind the characters’ cynical facades in an otherwise dehumanising world. Although electronic, it isn’t bleakly electronic; it’s awash with melody and (oddly, for something so technological and futuristic) with nostalgia, too. That nostalgia is for a long-gone romanticism, the sort of thing to be found in the likes of Casablanca or The Big Sleep, as if Blade Runner’s world is so dystopian, it looks back on even the dark, psychologically twisted worlds of film noir with longing.

In a way, then, the 1982 film’s use of an electronic score could be seen as highlighting how its future is a debased imitation of a more authentic-feeling past. But at the same time, Vangelis’s score used its electronic instruments to point out how human emotion could still come through an electronic device, be it a Yamaha CS-80 synthesiser or a replicant called Rachael.

Vangelis’s soundtrack being electronic was unusual for the time — particularly after Star Wars set the rule that what science fiction needed was the warmth and familiarity of an orchestra to ground it in a recognisable human reality. But nowadays we’re used to technology; what we need is to be jolted with a reminder of how dehumanising it can be. This seems to be the purpose of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score to Blade Runner 2049, which doesn’t attempt to mimic or outdo the Vangelis soundtrack, but quotes it, as though it were “quoting” moments of humanity amidst what is otherwise a wash of very dark and jarring electronic whooshes, roars, jangles, groans, screeches and rattles.

The 2049 soundtrack’s first task, perhaps, is to make sure there’s no chance the viewer is going to watch the film thinking something like, “Oh, how nice, a sequel to that lovely film Blade Runner.” It’s there to remind you of the danger of the future. Just as Vangelis’s score worked to humanise its film’s technology, this score is there to remind you that this is an oppressive, dehumanising world, and that technology is part of that oppression. We’re too used to seeing modishly dystopian futures in movies, and need to be reminded how closely linked this future is to our present, and just how bleak a thing it would be to live in.

There’s still a longing to the score, but its longing is that much more distant. It longs for something human, something real, in a world where it’s difficult to tell what is human, what is real. As Police Lt. Joshi (a human) says to our replicant protagonist K: “We’re all just looking out for something real.”

Voight-Kampff in the 1982 Blade Runner

So how do you tell what’s real? Both films have sequences where non-human characters are put through a procedure to test their humanity. In Blade Runner, it’s the Voight-Kampff test, which measures levels of empathic response to determine whether the subject is a human (empathic) or a replicant (not). In Blade Runner 2049, it’s the far more brutal “baseline” test, a rapid-fire verbal assault designed to ensure a replicant’s emotional responses remain within acceptable (i.e., tightly controlled, and far below human) limits. In 2049, passing the test is not about proving empathy, but lack of it.

The baseline test in Blade Runner 2049

But is this the definition of “humanity”, and therefore “reality”, we should be using? After all, our replicant hero K fails the baseline test, which means he’s starting to become insufficiently inseparable from his human masters. How else, then, do we determine what’s real, in a world of replicants and 3D holographic AIs?

Joi and Joe

At the heart of it is K, a replicant, and Joi, his holographic AI home-companion, and the question of whether what they feel for each other could be described as love. Neither is “real” (i.e., human). The advertising slogan used to market the Joi AI is “Everything you want to hear. Everything you want to see.” So, she’s designed around the idea of self-gratification and imitation. When she decides K is “real” and ought to have a name, she chooses “Joe”, the same name a giant, billboard version of her uses later as part of its advertising spiel, so is “Joe” a term of Joi’s affection, or a result of her programming? And what about when she says “I love you” — programming or genuine? How can we tell?

Perhaps it’s Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace who provides the answer, in amongst all his other tiresome verbiage: “Pain reminds you the joy you felt was real.” So, the thing you don’t want to hear, don’t want to see, and don’t want to have to feel; the opposite of self-gratification.

Prismatic Marilyn Monroes — now, there’s a Ballardian image

Blade Runner 2049 seems to be saying what’s real can still be found even in the midst of the unreal, like genuine human emotion coming through Vangelis’s synth sounds in the 1982 film. After all, Deckard, grizzled and battered by love and loss, is clearly (replicant or not) “real”, but where is he found? In the home of unreality, Las Vegas, whose lack of reality is heightened by the presence of a jittery 3D holographic Elvis. But Deckard likes the song. And he has his own test for what’s real. When asked if his dog is real, he says, “Ask him.” And I feel the same applies to K as he wanders the streets of 2049 LA near the end of the film, bereft. Was the love between him and Joi real? Ask him. That does seem to be real pain he’s feeling.

And I think this reality-unreality comes through in the score, too. It’s in the moments where Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s music quotes the Vangelis original, harking back to that film in the same way that film harked back to the days of black & white Hollywood romance — days of unreality, yes, as they’re films, but within their reality, perhaps, something human, something real, can be found, however artificial it might appear to be.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Just what is the aliens’ plan in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? We know they’ve come to Earth in the past and kidnapped a random selection of people — some of them military personnel, others just ordinary folks — along with, in the military cases at least, their vehicles. Now they’ve come back, but to do what, exactly? First, they leave those captured vehicles in random, out-of-the-way places, such as a ship in the middle of the desert. Then they zip down from the skies and buzz aircraft or swoop along US highways, causing all sorts of poltergeist-like electrical disturbances as they go, including shutting off the power to whole towns (including hospitals?), incidentally causing skin burns in those who see them too close, and resulting in at least one policeman crashing through a road safety barrier and down a (fortunately not too steep) incline beyond. They kidnap a child whilst terrorising its mother; they induce a mental breakdown in the lead male character who, as a result, loses his job and then his family.

The odd thing is that, throughout, everyone seems to feel this is all to some ultimately benevolent end. Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) wants answers, and Jillian (Melinda Dillon), who had her child ripped from her hands after having a selection of kitchen knives thrown at her, wants her child back, but both seem more angry at the government for refusing to admit anything’s happening, than at the aliens, who are the cause of it all.

And what do the government know, anyway? (And it’s not just the treacherous post-Watergate US government. At some significant meeting before the film begins, it’s said to have gone very well for the French in some way, meaning François Truffaut’s Claude Lacombe is in charge of the whole official response. His speaking French to the US military and government implies that the difference between their attitude and his is a question of people speaking, metaphorically as well as literally, entirely different languages.) The most the government seem to do is rush around ticking off vehicles as they’re returned, and listening to a crowd in India enthusiastically chant a five-note melody then pointing at the sky. Associating this melody with a series of hand signals gets Lacombe a round of applause, as though translating this message from one abstract form to another were some sort of breakthrough. Later, while the other government scientists are getting excited over the idea that a series of numbers being beamed at them from somewhere within the solar system might be map coordinates, Lacombe shouts at them to listen, then once again picks out the five-note melody, as though he’s only just discovered it.

This welter of strange phenomena — electrical disturbances, lights in the sky, sunburn at night, random kidnappings, lost military vehicles reappearing in desert locations, obsessive visions of a mountain landmark, a five-note musical sequence — feels like one of those “terminal documents” J G Ballard’s near-to-breakdown protagonists from The Atrocity Exhibition insist on making: fragmented lists of specific-but-random images or objects they nevertheless assert “all make up one picture”. (At one point, Roy, tearing apart his and his neighbour’s gardens for raw materials to build a living-room-sized sculpture of Devil’s Tower, says, “You ever look at something and it’s crazy, then you look at it another way and it’s not crazy at all?”) Like The Atrocity Exhibition, and Garner’s Red Shift, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Wilson’s The Outsider, Close Encounters is crisis literature, but it’s not an individual going through a crisis, it’s an entire world, even though it occurs as much at a domestic as an international level. (Roy’s wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr), on the poltergeist-levels of disruption of Roy’s UFO obsession: “It’s turning this house upside down.”)

Heaven or Hell?

But where does it all lead? What are the aliens doing? It’s as if they’ve come, not to reassure humanity there’s a greater power up there in space that’s looking after them — they’re not, it turns out, the sort who disarm our nuclear weapons and wag an extraterrestrial finger at us, as in The Day the Earth Stood Still — but, rather, they’ve come to reassure us that the world is far stranger than we’ve become used to. Our world, the aliens seem to want to say, is capable of turning upside down, of breaking apart, of having things disappear then reappear thirty years later for no apparent reason, of having the sun come out in the middle of the night, of interrupting your normal, humdrum life with disruptive artistic visions, devastating losses, and wonder-inducing bright lights. One of the government men says, at one point, “There’s so much we don’t know.” He, it seems to me, is the one who sums up the aliens’ message. Not that they’re some vast benevolent force who are going to intervene in the course of human history and save us from ourselves, but, rather, that they’ve come to remind us of chaos — creative chaos, but disruptive and often painful chaos all the same — to remind us that this is what life’s about. Unpredictability. Incomprehensibility. Then they go away, taking another human with them, as though to say, “Don’t think this is over.”

Raiders of the Lost Ark – a Nazi film crew

Close Encounters – a government film crew

The end of Close Encounters (1977) is oddly similar to the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). In both cases, we have a remote, rocky location where a film crew — an actual film crew in the case of the Nazis in Raiders, a government crew of scientists in Close Encounters, though one equipped with a host of cameras, bright lights, and even a musical instrument, therefore much closer to a film crew than your usual group of government scientists (it’s even, to underline the analogy, presided over by a real-life director, François Truffaut) — attempt to record the unrecordable: a meeting with the supernatural. (Which ties both films in with all those ghost stories where scientists try to understand the supernatural with a host of electrical measuring devices, as in The Stone Tape or The Awakening.) Clouds gather, and wonder-inducing lights weave among the watchers — angelic ghosts in the case of Raiders, UFOs in the case of Close Encounters — before the main visitation itself. This, of course, is where the two differ. In Raiders, the angels turn to demons and everyone who’s been watching gets melted, burned, or zapped; in Close Encounters, everyone gets a milder-comeuppance: a dose of benevolent awe and bewilderment. The worst that happens is a window gets shattered and a man has to rush to the toilet.

An adult’s fear, a child’s wonder. Which is the right reaction?

The key to Close Encounters is probably in the way the kidnapped child reacts to it all. He’s not scared of all that poltergeist activity (just like the young girl in Poltergeist (1982), in fact) — the eerie wind-up monkey that springs to life in the middle of the night, the vacuum cleaner that begins hoovering the carpet on its own, the kitchen knives that launch into the air — he just accepts it as part of how the world is, sometimes. (He also almost gets run over by standing in the middle of a bend in the road. Childlike wonder is no defence.) And the aliens themselves, even those who aren’t child-sized and child-proportioned, look more like childish drawings, with ill-shaped potato heads, round starey eyes and shapeless mouths, can’t-be-bothered-to-draw-it-right long-fingered hands and vague, oval bodies. “It’s like Halloween for grown-ups,” says Jillian, in the early days of waiting for the UFOs to reappear. Lacombe, shouting, “Écoutez”, as he picks out a five-note melody on his toy keyboard, and who brandishes crude paintings as evidence before the military, is like a child who insists on taking his own games as seriously as the adults take things like bills and work and national security. But, at the same time as all this child-like wonder and awe, there’s also a feeling of childish self-involvement which, however unintentionally, hurts others. It all starts to feel a little like that Star Trek plot where the god-like alien is just about to kill the crew of the Starship Enterprise when his parents turn up and tell him to stop being such a naughty boy. Are we dealing with grownup aliens, here? They certainly don’t behave that way.

Close Encounters is, at its most boiled-down, a film in praise of awe and wonder. Made as it was in a post-Watergate, post-1960s age of increasing cynicism, it duly acknowledges the adult complications of awe and wonder: mental breakdown, paranoia, governmental attempts to return things to a point of control and secrecy, and the possibility of real, irrevocable loss on a human level. But ultimately it waves its hands over those things. We see Roy ascending to the skies like a child being taken, finally, to the ultimate Disneyland; we don’t see his wife and children living with the aftereffects of his breakdown and abandonment. Also, perhaps too obviously, it’s about the most cinematic aspects of awe and wonder: bright lights, close-ups of wide-eyed human faces, strange and awful things you’ve never seen before (and wouldn’t really want to see, outside of a cinema), and wonderfully convincing special effects.