Sunday, 20 August 2017

Into the Unknown: The best show going

The day after I waited and waited and waited to see Star Wars Identities I saw the Barbican's sci fi extravaganza Into the Unknown; A Journey through Science Fiction. There was less waiting. The Barbican is much nicer. And the show was one of the best I have ever seen.

Into is a history of our imagined future. It begins with early examples of science fiction with exhibits from as far back as the 17th century, then moves on to explore the genre through themes rather than a straight chronology. Thus 1930s comics rub shoulders with modern concept art and Bladerunner stills sit alongside edits of the 70s Wonder Woman TV show. I sometimes find that organising things in such a way can lead to bafflement on my part and an inability to grasp the bigger picture, but not so here. And I didn't have to work to ignore an 'experience' the likes of which Identities forces down your throat.

So; on to the good stuff:

One of my favourite production designers, Patrick Tatopaolos, had lent a good deal of his work to the show. I've blogged before about my love of the original Stargate movie design and OH MY GOD they had all three masks there. Their detail was stunning and I had no idea that even the fabric hanging doo-dahs were superbly made and delicately weathered. I took loads of photos of them and got odd looks as I pressed my face to the glass for ages.

This chap needs no introduction. I am pretty sure he is one of the stunt heads from Aliens (and not a 'hero' head). I had read before how the paint scheme on these was deliberately high-contrast so it had a chance of registering on camera under the low-lights. This prop seems to confirm that fact. I still prefer the clear-domed first movie version though. There was also the painting of the road to the Harkonnen palace and the Harkonnen chair from the Giger estate on show. Que second nerdgasm.

Just to be clear - this guy was up high, not lying down. This is Kane's space suit from Alien and what a piece! The fabric work is insane and testament to Ridley Scott's attention to detail. It put the rather dull suit from Interstellar, also on show, to shame.

It was a crap movie, but in the 90s Species was the only way geeks could see new work by Giger on screen. I think this might have been a piece from one of the sequels. The most interesting thing about Sil is that she represents what Giger originally intended for the finish of the skin of the Big Guy in Alien. The 70s production methods couldn't handle his desire for translucent skin, and it eventually took a rubbish and mildly pornographic franchise to make this a reality.

I wet myself again when I saw these. They are props of trippy-VR games from David Cronenberg's eXistenZ. They deliberately channel the (awful) design of tech packaging I remember from the 90s.

A rare example of the curators really dropping the ball on lighting. This is an actual Speeder from Empire Strikes Back (probably about 1:50 scale, no not large). It was almost impossible to see, being underlit in a dark room.

The final room was devoted to evolution, the nature of humanity and robotics. Twiki from Buck Rogers stood alongside robots from AI, but it was a cute array of Japanese tin toys which caught my attention.

It was clear that the curators have a great love and knowledge of sci fi. I was really impressed with the breadth of the exhibits and the obscurity of some (like the eXistenZ props). The tour is finished by two conceptual pieces - a film and a kinetic sculpture which are quite at odds with the body of the show. You can take them or (as I quickly did) leave them. Don't let this put you off though - this is one of the best curations of sci fi artifacts you're going to see in a long time. If you can combine it with Identities you're on for a double win!

Monday, 14 August 2017

Star Wars Identities - a show worth waiting for

I've just returned, tired and satisfied, from a weekend of exhibitions in London. The first one I caught was Star Wars Identities at the O2. It started off badly but eventually won me over with its amazing collection of original props, models and costumes.

As I get older I've come to realise I'm now fairly grumpy and dislike being told what to do. The trend of exhibitions wanting to 'take you on a jouney' just irritates me. When you add in dodgey audio guides, they make me feel like I'm locked to an on-rails shooter that won't allow my head to turn. After way too much waiting, poor crowd control and some unhelpful staff, off came the audio guide and I headed for the fun stuff, resolutely ignoring the rather strange meta-narrative of the show.

This 'story' behind the exhibition panders to a culture obsessed with social media. The curators clearly thought that the viewer needs to be at the centre of everything. Hence the tour is broken up by way stations where you get to make choices and learn about how identity is constructed. While I found this distracting, baffling, and creepy (coming from the multi-billion dollar corporation that is Disney), folk seemed to enjoy it so I shouldn't be too harsh on the creators. I was there for the props and costumes, and - oh boy - was I not disappointed. There are originals from throughout the canon including a load from the pre-production of A New Hope. Here are some of my favourites, which included the more obscure stuff.

The original Ponda Baba mask from the Canteena. This thing is nearly 40 years old and I was surprised at how well the latex has lasted.

A Sandperson. The attention to detail on this costume was quite stunning and at odds with many of the New Hope costumes. He also had his gaffie stick, which was a solid affair made of metal.

This guy needs no introduction.

The show's lighting was pretty awesome and in the last room the engineers really went to town with the Death Star-style neon tubing. There was only one 'fail' where a case containing lots of star ship models wasn't working, so the things annoyingly remained in the dark.

I had seen reproductions of this Ralf McQuarrie painting many times before. What I didn't know was this it actually dated from a brief period when Lucas was thinking of making Luke a girl - hence 'his' lithe silhouette in this drawing.

One of Jabba's eyes. The detail on this thing is stunning.

Concepts for Yoda (then called 'Minch') and his house. Many of the hut drawings reminded me of the work of Roger Dean, with a 70s vibe to the silhouettes.

I spent ages looking at these helmets. The prop makers seem to have made the insignia in a variety of ways - some were stencilled on, others were hand painted but many of the small icons seem to be self adhesive stickers which have since peeled a bit.

An interesting behind-the-scenes chart made to keep the fx crew on track when it came to ship dynamics.
 
Concepts for a really wacky abandoned scene where the Emperor appears to Vader in a form that keeps changing - at some moments appearing like a woman (with hindsight, perhaps Padme Amidala?)

In contrast to the Sandperson costume, it was interesting to see how many parts of the New Hope outfits were pretty basic in their construction. This arm detail from Luke's flight suit is a good example, being roughly painted vac-formed plastic. Boots were another instance. In the 70s costumes existing boots seem to have been used, but by the time of Empire the budget allowed for custom-designed footwear.

Star Wars Identities doesn't have much longer left to run so get down there by the 3rd of September if you want to see it. If you're a fan of props, costumes or the IP you won't be disappointed. Just be prepared for some annoying waiting before you go in.