Jalopy Spaceships and Malfunctioning Androids: The “Used Future” in Film (U-Joints, 2022)
By Joanne McNeil

"The trouble with the future in most futurist movies is that it always looks new and clean and shiny," George Lucas told American Cinematographer magazine[1] in 1977. “What is required for true credibility is a used future.” Lucas was inspired by the Apollo space capsules as they returned from the moon littered with “candy wrappers and old Tang jars, no more exotic than the family station wagon.” Star Wars, he decided, had to look like an “inhabited and used place where the hardware is taken for granted.” The movie blended elements of the fantastic with recognizable mechanical assemblies and signs of wear. The Millennium Falcon spacecraft could travel faster than the speed of light but it was also a jalopy that might be repaired with a common screwdriver. The “used future” was relatable; the concept invited audiences to better imagine living in the imaginary world on screen.
The last major motion picture set space before it, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), had offered a vision of life onboard a ship with pristine Djinn chairs and milky white sterile interiors. Stanley Kubrick’s film premiered before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969. By the time George Lucas made his movie, space travel wasn’t just the future—it had a history. 

    Blade Runner in 1982 and Brazil brought the “used future” down to earth in 1985, but the aesthetic is most closed associated with movies set in outer space. The reason is clear: you can’t easily trade-in or upgrade devices above the Kármán line. Whatever hunk of junk gets you up to the stars is going to be your habitat for the long haul. Dark Star (1974), Solaris (1972), and Silent Running (1972) independently parted ways with Kubrick’s vision of life in space, while Lucas’ ideas about the “used future” directly influenced Alien in 1979. In these science fiction classics, a spaceship is human-operated, lived-in, and deteriorating. Objects are well-worn, various mechanisms are corroded and greasy, lights and knobs in the flight deck might appear to be malfunctioning. Sound effects suggest fans whirling, gears grinding, and rusty motors humming underneath plate steel panels.The “used future” production design establishes a tension between homesickness and homeyness. It also reminds the viewer that the setting is one that demands constant monitoring and upkeep. Amid mechanical props with duct-taped edges and walls with exposed bolts and springs, the characters on the ship appear as additional moving parts—the innards of the machine. 

    Ripley Scott was “stunned”[2] when he saw Star Wars. A few months later, the director who might have otherwise forged a career making period pieces, received Dan O'Bannon’s script and signed on at the helm of Alien. Studio executives greenlit the project based on the breakout success of Star Wars and its influence can be seen both in what Scott integrated and what he rejected of it. Alien had “dirty spaceships in space, used craft that were no longer spanking new and no longer futuristic,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2019[3], but space was not romanticized in his film; the characters in Alien were scruffier. They weren’t Star Wars heroes, but ordinary people—exploited laborers. “I thought I better push [the “used future” concept] a bit further and make them truck drivers,” Scott said[4].

    Sigourney Weaver is an intelligent and commanding presence as Ripley, the film’s protagonist. It was an unsentimental role—gender-swapped late in development; forward-thinking not only as feminist cinema, but as a matter of class. Ripley’s a blue-collar worker in space. Her workplace, the commercial towing starship Nostromo, is no more prestigious than a terrestrial freight carrier, although she is high ranked among the seven crew members. Lowest on the chain are Parker and Brett, the underpaid technicians played by Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto. They work below the deck in a dank, industrial environment loaded with ducts and pipes as H. R. Giger designed it. In one of the film’s lighter moments, Ripley checks on the technicians amidst steam blaring out of various pressure valves. When she walks away, Parker fixes a valve with a simple twist; revealing that part of the commotion was just for show.

    There are no characters like Parker and Brett in the original Star Wars trilogy. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker maintained and hot-rodded their own ships; they had no underpaid and technically-skilled underlings to recondition shock absorbers or seal any blown gaskets. But Scott’s “truckers in space” vision of the “used future” has circled around to return to the George Lucas franchise. A recent character addition, Rose Tico, as played by Kelly Marie Tran, is a below-the-decks mechanic. Debuting in The Last Jedi (2017), one of her first lines gently mocks the aristocracy sanctified in the Star Wars universe. “I’m sorry, I work behind pipes all day. Doing talking with Resistance heroes is not my forte,” she says in an awkward exchange with Finn, the “Resistance hero” played by John Boyega. There’s an unmistakable nod to Ripley Scott’s antiheroes in the Star Wars universe-based television series The Mandalorian. Amy Sedaris plays Peli Motto, a mechanic on the show. With a well-worn jumpsuit and a head of floofy curls, Sedaris as Peli looks like she’s dressed up as Ripley for Halloween. On break, she plays a poker-like game with her service droids using common objects from the shop. She bets three bolts and a “motivator”—the mysterious fictional device that gives Star Wars robots energy. True to the “used future” aesthetic, the motivator looks like an antiquated spark plug; hardly a supernatural creation.
Star Wars was George Lucas’ third film and it blends the futuristic and gearhead aesthetics of his earlier work. His 1971 debut, THX 1138, is a stylish twenty-fifth century-set dystopia of empty white rooms and android police with silver blank faces and leather uniforms. American Graffiti, Lucas’ follow-up, set in the 1960s, is fetishistic and nostalgic for the hot rod culture of his youth (not unlike Grease, the musical, which debuted on Broadway the year before.) By 1973, when his second film debuted, automobiles were more reliable than the decades before. Ordinary drivers didn’t have to tinker around as much under the hood. That Han Solo would pick up a screwdriver himself, rather than call up someone like Peli or Rose, seems like further lament for the time of mass DIY-repairs in American Graffiti. As vehicle technologies grew more stable and expert on earth, the Star Wars spaceships were the opposite of a black box. It was the villains on the Death Star who had the immaculate 2001-style innovation and surroundings, where nothing seemed to break and no elbow grease was needed. Lucas “gave us a slapdash world of knuckleheads pursued by industrial-scale minimalists,” is how the artist John Powers put it in an essay for Triple Canopy.

    Given how George Lucas depicted the Death Star, Star Wars is as much a critical homage to 2001 as Ripley Scott rendered of his work in Alien. Lucas certainly respected Kubrick’s eye for talent. Members of the original Star Wars crew were nicknamed “The Class of 2001” because he hired so many people who had worked on Kubrick’s film[5].

    The world of Star Wars looks constructed because its own set was a feat of design and carpentry: props and environments were built rather than CGI-animated. The mechanical parts and components in the movie were constructed with a utility knife, precision screwdriver, wrench, and all other essentials in a toolkit. The production team developed intricate exteriors kitbashing scale models of spaceships and other vehicles. The film was made with a relatively small budget; some of the junk is real junk—salvaged airplane parts and scrap metal. Likewise, Silent Running—another key Star Wars influence—was shot on a derelict Korean War aircraft carrier.
For all his perfectionism, young George Lucas really let his android cops swing their hips all over the place when they walked in THX 1138. The performers in silver masks have relaxed postures and joints that splay with human irregularity that no algorithm could fake. I only noticed their utterly human motion because nowadays actors play androids with more control. On television like Westworld and in movies like Ex Machina (2014), performers are neither stiff nor slack; but balletic and deliberate. Gemma Chan, who played a “synth” android on the British television series Humans, worked with a choreographer to develop a “physical language” for the character. “We didn’t want anything typically robotic—like the typical head-cocking, or the jerkiness—we wanted something that looked very graceful, but was just not quite human,” she told Elle magazine[6]. In Westworld, a mechanical prop offers an evocative reminder of all the cold parts under an android’s skin. A player piano—an early 20th century invention—is a spectral presence as it produces classic songs. The keys move with no fingers on the keys.
Ian Holm plays a stealth android in Alien. He is a  guarded, gnomic presence with no sense of humor. The rest of the crew discovers his difference after white liquid sputters from his body where there should be human blood. In the movie, even androids can be repaired easily. When she has to ask the  annihilated android questions, Ripley grabs a soldering iron and cobbles together some wires in order to revive it. Holm’s android has no “motivator” part, but it isn’t hard in the world of Alien to hack together something that resembles human life.

    Star Wars was never a story of the future, but, as the now famous words in the opening scrawl announced, from a“long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” The movie, and other rusty spaceship classics, looks like it was set even longer ago, now that Silicon Valley has consciously adopted 2001-style minimalism (complete with sinister Death Star implications.) Apple in particular, has a build a trillion-dollar empire—$2 trillion, to be exact—with the sale of pristine gadgets that discourage tinkering. Its products break regularly, but the company works hard to project an image of design and operative perfection. In 2020, the New York Times reported[7] that executives for the Apple TV+ network censored a scene that involved damage to a phone (presumably an iPhone). The “used future” of repairs and hackable gadgets might be rarer in our digital world, but as a depiction of democratized control over technology, the concept hasn't shown its age.



[1] “Behind the Scenes of ‘Star Wars.’” American Cinematorgrapher. American Society of Cinematorgraphers. Archived as “A young, enthusiastic crew employs far-out technology to put a rollicking intergalactic fantasy onto the screen.” https://theasc.com/magazine/starwars/articles/starwars/behind/pg1.htm Accessed on December 20, 2020.
[2] Scott, Ridley. The Force is With Them: The Legacy of Star Wars (Star Wars Trilogy DVD box set, featurette), 2004. Lucasfilm Ltd. and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Inc.
[3] Weiner, David. “Ridley Scott on the Hard Road to 'Alien'.” The Hollywood Reporter, May 24, 2019. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/alien-ridley-scott-reveals-how-iconic-scene-went-wrong-1213109.
[4] Scott, ibid. Full quote “Within the context of that fantasy [George Lucas] said people still have to wash behind their ears at night. That was another wonderful touch. It influenced me when I did Alien. I thought I better push it a bit further and make them truck drivers.”
[5] Powers, John. “Star Wars: A New Heap .” Triple Canopy, 2008. https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/star_wars__a_new_heap.
[6] “Gemma Chan On Her New Cult TV Show Humans.” ELLE. ELLE, February 16, 2018. https://www.elle.com/uk/life-and-culture/news/a25999/gemma-chan-humans/.
[7] Smith, Ben. “Apple TV Was Making a Show About Gawker. Then Tim Cook Found Out.” The New York Times. The New York Times, December 13, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/13/business/media/apple-gawker-tim-cook.html.