I am not into overly-computerised, state-of-the-art special effects. They leave me cold and I tend to lose concentration when a director is trying to ‘wow’ me with an abundance of CGI visuals. In all honesty, I would much rather watch a slightly ropey physical effect and do the rest of the work with my imagination. Seeing the strings has never bothered me.
Let me clarify; blue lightning is my way of describing that particular light blue animation that forks its way through the night sky in times of dramatic tension, or crackles around characters of great power, or forms a soft and spooky illumination in times of magical transformations. It is my favourite special effect; it makes me feel all fuzzy and nostalgic for a decade I don’t even remember; a time of trench coats, and permed hair and awesome soundtracks. I am talking, of course, about the great science fiction films of the 1980s.
My first case study is The Terminator (1984) directed by James Cameron back when he still cared about character and plot and stuff like that. Or at least accidentally seemed to care. It’s a film that flags up just how eighties it is from the very start; the opening is heavy with stirring synth music, that distinctive Terminator drum beat and that unmistakable 1980s ‘vision of the future’ computer typeface.
As the time portal opens and spits out Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), tendrils of blue lightning shoot forth and crackle down onto the garbage-strewn sidewalk. The first thing Reese does upon his arrival into the eighties is to steal a trench coat; so the full look of the period is complete. In case you didn’t know the premise; Kyle Reese has been sent from the future to find and protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). This is because, very soon, there will be a war between man and machine, and Sarah’s son, John Connor, will play a vital part in stealing victory from the metallic jaws of the machines. The machines have sent a cyborg (a cybernetic machine with organic material on the outside) to go back to the past and terminate John’s mother.
Sarah’s initial hiding place from the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzeneggar) is a night club called Tech Noir; full of strobing disco lights and a neon red facia proudly bearing the club’s name. Reese steps in to save Sarah just in time, uttering the line, “Come with me if you want to live” and whisks her off into a waiting automobile. Incidentally, the leading female character being driven around in haste and getting hysterical is something this film has in common with my next blue lightning film!
The flash-forward to the future scene depicts blue and purple laser blasts shooting from unstoppable mechanised juggernauts. The Terminator himself sees in red-filtered cyborg vision, uses a gun with a red laser sight and, when damaged, we see the exposed red of his mechanical eye. I adore all of the beautiful stop motion animation of the exposed cyborg skeleton. The stop motion Terminator is a real physical object; far more threatening in that it’s not just composed of pixels. Its jagged movements make it all the more sinister; and the torso scrabbling towards Sarah in the last moments of their conflict is terrifying. As the Terminator is finally irreparably crushed, blue lightning snakes outward and the red light of its visible eye finally goes out.
Running close alongside The Terminator in terms of these visual motifs is Highlander (1986) directed by Russell Mulcahy. The narrative of Highlander follows – not a time-traveller as several hapless TV guides would have you believe – but an immortal, Connor McCleod, played by Christopher Lambert… “I am Conner Macleod of the Clan MacLeod. I was born in 1518 in the village of Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel. And I am immortal.” The immortals are to fight it out until only one remains.
From the opening scene, where a brooding McCleod squares off against another immortal in the car park under Madison Square Gardens; the blue lightning touches are evident. They fight under strip lights flashing white into blue, set off the sprinkler system and the battle rages on. Whenever there is a victor from each immortal battle (you kill an immortal by cutting off his head), the body of the fallen rises from the ground and floats, illuminated with dusty animated smoke. Some kind of otherworldly light illuminates the victor’s face and, in this initial face-off, the dingy headlights of the assembled cars illuminate and then blow out.
There are other classic eighties science fiction traits; the grimy hotel rooms where characters hide out in secret and the battered looking police stations, both of which are also seen in The Terminator. Likewise are the seemingly mandatory shots of silhouettes conversing with frayed eighties hair, raised eighties collars and those moodily lit sex scenes. Poodle-haired Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), the love interest in the film, can certainly give Sarah Conner a run for her money in terms of 80s styling, though she isn’t a patch on her in terms of being an all-round awesome, kick-ass chick.
When two immortals come together, they feel something called The Quickening, and this is usually signalled to the audience by lightning streaking through the sky, for example as the Kurgen’s (Clancy Brown) army and Conner’s clan meet and prepare for battle. In the meantime; the film continues to be populated by exploding neon signs, lights shining through blue-grey street smoke, imploding windows and bodies that rise into the air suspended by thinly disguised wires (you can forgive a cult classic these flaws.)
The final set-piece is the prime example of blue lightning delight. The giant ‘Silvercup’ sign becomes the site of the last great battle between the two remaining immortals, Connor and the Kurgen. As the electrified sign crashes down onto the flooded rooftop, sparks fly and blue lightning crackles, the current visibly bouncing back and forth in the electrified water, swords clashing and sparks flying. They tumble through the glass ceiling, into the warehouse below and when Connor finally gains the upper hand and manages to decapitate his foe, a triumphant blue volcanic eruption rages from the stump of where the Kurgen’s head used to be. As Connor finally claims ‘The Prize’, he rises into the air and is taunted by nightmarish-looking creatures, not unlike those animated demons in Ghost (1990). He cries out, “I am everything, I know everything!”
There’s another, much less widely admired film I’d like to introduce now. I remember watching Masters of the Universe (1987), directed by Gary Goddard a lot on TV as a child, and I think this has definitely helped encourage my fondness for it, but I don’t think it repeats at all badly, either. Following the epic story of the eponymous He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) in his good-and-evil quest against Skeletor (Frank Langella), it’s a film that borrows a lot from other big round-about-the-eighties-films. The opening music is definitely not the Superman (1978) theme, but it certainly owes a lot to it. Skeletor’s henchmen, who attack in their Samurai-style helmets, also look to be a strange cross between Darth Vader and his storm troopers. Their weapons feel not unlike Star Wars light-sabres and blasters, coloured fuzzy red and lightning blue.
A disarmingly juvenile Courtenay Cox (Julie) and Robert Duncan McNeil, of Star Trek: Voyager fame (who plays Kevin), find a science fiction-fantasy style key, a shiny metal device covered in blinking lights, which issues dancing blue lights when activated. Fleeing from Skeletor’s lackeys who have come in search of the key, Julie is chased into a warehouse, where He-Man steps in for another warehouse-or-factory-based fight (as in The Terminator, Highlander). There are certainly other blue lightning touches; characters travelling through swirling smoky portals, shimmering force fields constructed around kidnapped sorceresses, lots of blue-lit night-time scenes and facial prosthetics so rigid that Frank Langella is fighting to make his Skeletor sneer.
I wouldn’t change anything about these films. I don’t understand why so many film-makers (I’m looking at you, George Lucas, especially, and I’m shaking my head slowly…) feel the need to go back and diddle with the special effects in their wonderful cult-status creations. A lot of these effects feel more physical and somehow more real for their cheaper-looking quality; I can’t explain why, they just do. There’s a difficult to replicate quality about these films; almost noir in their use of light in dark places. There are certainly other classic examples of blue lightning movies; Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) for example, where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is tortured by the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid). There’s also the neon-at-night look of Blade Runner (1982). The first Back to the Future (1985) relies very heavily on the plot device of an actual lightning strike. There are also the red and blue flashes and lightning forks from the time-travelling phone-booth in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). I’m sure I’ve neglected to mention several iconic blue lightning films, but I’ve certainly gone into enough detail with my chosen few… feel free to comment and pass on your own recommendations. Thanks for reading.