The word ‘retrofitting’ in SF film criticism is usually found in the context of the rich and detailed depiction of the future in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). For those unfamiliar with the term, it means the addition of new technology to existing objects to give them longevity and a continued purpose in the present. In Blade Runner, this meant the addition of neon signs, moving adverts and other modern artefacts to the archetypal art deco landscape of Los Angeles, which made the future look both modern and retro – a futuristic dirigible floats above iconic LA landmarks such as the Bradbury Building while Union Station houses a busy Police Headquarters.
Scott’s retrofitting, which he borrowed from French sci-fi comics from the 1970s, became a template for the renewal of science-fiction films themselves from around that point on. In 1980, Steven Spielberg had released his Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in a new ‘special edition’, which included seven minutes of new scenes and special effects. As the 1990s saw collectors buying films on DVD with the earnest intention of keeping them forever, Spielberg released a ‘collector’s edition’ in 1998, which was a remix of the two earlier cuts. We can only hope that he won’t feel compelled to reframe each shot for smaller screens in an ‘I-Pod edition’ for the 2010s…
In a similar way, George Lucas’s endless tinkering with his Star Wars franchise is common knowledge – from the addition of the subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope to the first cinematic re-release of the original 1977 film in 1981, through remastering of the soundtrack into various new surround sound formats over the next decade and a half, to the addition of new computer-generated effects in 1997, and again in 2004. Lucas claims that each of these additions are to make the film closer to his original vision, though one might debate whether he has yet to decide what that original vision was, as a 3D version is threatened a couple of years from now. You might also argue that each version was intended to match each decade’s audience perception of what films should be like, first with regards to sound, and later, visual effects.
Science fiction as a genre is often concerned with the future, and at the risk of stating the obvious, the future should always look as futuristic as possible. The problem with envisioning the future is that the world you try to predict is always based on extrapolation of the present, and so 1970s SF looks like a futuristic version of the 70s, 1980s SF looks like a futuristic version of the 80s, and so on. The most extreme 1980s remix of a classic sci-fi film was the 1984 release of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which added a contemporary pop music soundtrack and comic-book-style colour-tinting to an edited version that was more than an hour shorter than the original.
What Scott got right with Blade Runner was to make a film in 1982 that looked like a futuristic version of 1932, and for that reason has aged as well as any classic film noir. Unfortunately, Scott himself disagrees, and he too tinkered with his film, releasing a ‘final cut’ last year, in which he unnecessarily added a little CGI here and there and reshot certain scenes. I hope he’s happy with the result, but can’t help but worry that he’ll end up in a George Lucas-style loop, making new ‘final cuts’ every decade from now on.
While 1980s special effects have a certain classic appeal, coming towards the end of a century of ‘practical’ special effects on screen and being therefore the product of a refined and specialised industry at the height of its powers, modern special effects are almost entirely reliant on CGI. Unfortunately, bad computer graphics – and by that I mean CGI that is intended to recreate a solid object in a live action film, but is rendered at a time when the budget or the technology was unable to match the demands of the production – date quicker than any other kind of FX, as Lucas himself found out in his first attempt to make a CGI ‘Jabba the Hutt’ in the 1997 special edition of Star Wars. ‘Good’ CGI has existed for as long as the technology itself, as for example in Tron (1982), where the depiction of a virtual world set inside a computer is as visually stunning now as when it was first released, due to the aesthetic acumen of the filmmakers. But even CGI that is used ‘non-realistically’, i.e. in films that are entirely animated or in scenes that are intended to look animated, can age as badly as any other form of animation.
In spite of all this, other filmmakers have followed Lucas’s example and used new CGI to augment existing films. One example of this is the newly released and confusingly titled Ghost in the Shell 2.0, a reworking of Mamoru Oshii’s original Ghost in the Shell film from 1995. Not to be confused with the same director’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), Ghost in the Shell 2.0 is a re-release of the original film in which several scenes have been replaced with CGI versions of the original cell animation. The original version of Ghost in the Shell already included CGI in among the traditional hand-drawn animation, which worked well as it was often used to depict computer animation itself in a world where people interact with computers for work, leisure and out-of-body experiences. In the 2.0 version, additional scenes are now also in CGI, so that it is no longer just used functionally, but also aesthetically. If Ghost in the Shell had always looked like this I wouldn’t find the CGI scenes objectionable, as overall the 2.0 version is a beautiful movie. However, as with some of George Lucas’s additions to the Star Wars franchise, much of this new CGI is simply unnecessary as there was nothing wrong with the original animation. In some respects, version 2.0 of Ghost in the Shell is a better film than the original; in other respects it is a worse film, particularly when the new CGI is distracting from the storytelling.
One of Oshii’s stated reasons for the changes to Ghost in the Shell is that the overall look of the 1995 film doesn’t match the look of his 2004 sequel. The original film was made in the 1990s as the first great realisation of the cyberpunk movement in fiction and manga, reflecting the cool, mirrored glass aesthetic of the genre – a future world illuminated by the blue / green phosphorescence of computer displays and neon light refracted off the soda-lime glass that lines office buildings. By the time Innocence was released, that look was passé; the world of the future is now a burnt orange, reflecting a more autumnal planet that sees humans shedding their bodies for cyberspace like leaves falling from trees. In some respects, Oshii’s motivation is more objectionable than updating special effects to match the presumed expectations of the audience, as this is revision as fashion accessory.
Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone is another ‘new’ animé film that blurs the distinction between remake and update. The latest version of the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise, the film is a reworking of the original animation with the same voice cast, storyboards, writer and director and condenses the first five episodes of the TV series into a 98-minute movie. Revolving around humans who put on giant robot suits to fight gigantic alien monsters called ‘Angels’ who intend to destroy the latest rebuild of Tokyo, Evangelion 1.0 is a very watchable film, although the plot seems occasionally hurried. Like Evangelion, other sci-fi TV shows are being remixed for potential new audiences. The pilot of Stargate: SG1, itself a follow-up to a much better movie, has been just re-released on DVD with new special effects and a new score. The most extreme and absurd, but slightly charming example of this trend is the DVD release of a Doctor Who TV serial from 1964, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, which was remade in colour for the cinema in 1966 – the DVD contains new CGI effects added to black and white footage shot 45 years ago!
In the case of Evangelion, the move from TV to higher-resolution cinema screens at least justifies the redrawing and augmenting of the animation with CGI, even though it means that the makers of the franchise have spent the last 14 years revisiting the same material over and over again. For a series that translates from the Greek as ‘New Beginning Gospel’, its audience’s obsession with seeing different versions of the same material verges on religious fanaticism. Following the completion of the TV series, feedback from the audience made the creators realise that fans of the series were unhappy with the dénouement, so they remade the final two episodes as two movies. Not only did these movies repeat episodes from the series, but the second film – End of Evangelion – also reprised the only new material from the first film – Death and Rebirth. Further DVD releases of both these films and the original series saw still more tinkering with the material. Evangelion 1.0‘s proposed sequels will remake later episodes, with changes to the series varying from a redrawing of the original animation to entirely new interpretations.
This is a fascinating idea that takes the concept of a remake or a remix to a meta-textual level – appropriately the new releases are called ‘rebuilds’, adding an architectural nuance to the idea of a remake – where the original plot of a work of fiction is so ambiguous that both the fans and the makers have to keep going over the same material again and again to find some kind of solution that suits everyone. Indeed, each of the new Evangelion films contains a word in brackets within their titles, displaying the ambiguous nature of their themes. This could be the ultimate expression of the trends discussed above – filmmakers keep revisiting the same material and carry the audience along like passengers on a bus, with people disembarking with a version that makes them happy, until there is no money left to be made from the journey or the tyres wear out.
Evangelion 1.0 screens as part of the Anime All-Nighter at the Sci-Fi London’s Oktoberfest, which takes place on Oct 23-24 in London. Other events include an Aliens and Predators All-nighter, Sci-Fi Stand-Up and a very exciting event at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. More details on the Sci-Fi London website.