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The eternal menace: back to the same tired old future

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It is sad but true that not a thing in our universe is new, not the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, not even the future.

Even the story lines that reach us from distant galaxies are practically worn out by the time they get here, having played their opening nights millions of years ago and washed up here on tour in the suburbs of the universe because our planet got in the way of their feeble thespian ripple.

The exhibition 'The Art of Star Wars' at the Barbican Gallery (closes 3 September) proves it. It reveals just what scrap-heap sources are used by those who would boldly go where no man has gone before: if only to make moving pictures of our most fantastic visions. Thus what appears to be a vast roving space city is conjured up by nothing more than a glued and painted Zaha-style cardboard raft called the Executor.

In the same way an intergalactic Olympic Games reveals itself to be no more than a fight scene taking place in front of thousands of painted matchsticks glued to a paper diorama. Even the much admired creatures - 'creatures are the trademark of the Star Wars movies' - all turn out to be erectile bipeds at heart. The superficially interesting Jabba the Hutt, for example, turns out to be no more than a fat man whose movements have been digitally traced using the software that designs the hulls of supertankers.

Well, perhaps this last is not so bad but, as we used to say, God is in the details. What seems to be the sound of a light sabre firing up turns out to be the sprocket chatter of an old 16mm projector crossed with the hum of a microphone stuck behind a television tube. The awesome sound of an Empire TIE fighter is in reality the trumpeting of an elephant plus the hiss of a car's tyres on a wet road.

The sound of advancing battle tanks in The Phantom Menace is a clangour of clashing pots and pans in a restaurant kitchen. The army of incompetent and expendable robot infantrymen (battle droids), destroy themselves to the accompaniment of the ballistic abandon of grand prix cars squeezing through the first corner.

But what about the intergalactic built environment, surely there is novelty here? Alas, despite having had four goes at it, George Lucas has never been as influential as Ridley Scott's one shot Blade Runner, which still vibrates drawing boards to this day.

When it comes to architecture the Star Wars collection is downright bourgeois. The interior of the Death Star is like the departure lounge in an airport. And when Luke Skywalker finally comes face to face with Darth Vader and Boba Fett in Cloud City, the building modelled is clearly a late work of Sir Basil Spence - with its dining room interior, right down to the silver tableware executed in the style of Otto Wagner.

What then of the other Star Wars civilizations? There are the hirsute Ewoks, who achieve miracles of military engineering with tree trunks and vines, but don't know much rocket science. Then there is the underwater city of Otoh Gunga, at first sight a mass of illuminated bubbles set among giant rocks that have somehow been eroded into the shape of the Bertelli bust of Mussolini. But on closer acquaintance it too cleaves to the past, its bubbles giant habitable carriage lanterns cupped in nineteenth century ironwork in the style of the Bishopsgate elevation to Broadgate.

So there we are, storylines, models, sounds, sports, cities.... Is nothing new?

Well there is one thing: the integration of computers into clothing. Still worth a Tomorrow's World today, but there it is, effortlessly done in 1977.

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