John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson radiate effortless cool.
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Twenty years on, it’s time to admit that Pulp Fiction is a bad film

It’s time we recognised that Quentin Tarantino’s much-lauded movie is about nothing, says nothing and makes you feel nothing.

Twenty years on and it’s still hard to separate Pulp Fiction the film and “Pulp Fiction” the pop culture phenomenon. 1994 was the year when Pulp Fiction stormed its way to the Palme d’Or at Cannes and sent the American public into raptures. Everybody wanted to see the film that saw John Travolta and Uma Thurman boogie and made a man faint during its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival.

Nobody seemed to have ever seen anything like it. It received extravagant rave reviews unlike anything in immediate memory. No film arrived with more hype and no film lived up to it the way Pulp Fiction did. The critics fawned over Quentin Tarantino, their new favourite auteur, and the masses had been given a European arthouse film they could quote until the end of time.  But 20 years later, just what is Pulp Fiction?

It’s undeniably one of the most popular and influential films of all time. It’s still being shamelessly imitated to this very day, yet Pulp Fiction the film is about nothing, it says nothing and it makes you feel nothing. It has an adolescent aesthetic and some of the dialogue could be from an early draft of Clerks, yet it is just so irresistibly “cool”. Travolta and Samuel L Jackson in matching black suits; Harvey Keitel as Mr Wolf (now ruined thanks to Direct Line); the dance in the diner; Ving Rhames being mean – all so hip, all so enchanting, but none of it adds up to anything. And that is Tarantino’s biggest flaw as a filmmaker. With the exception of the glorious Jackie Brown, all of his movies amount to nothing more than a few good scenes, while the overall narrative gets lost in his indulgence. Pulp Fiction is not a good film, though I may have believed it was in my younger, more impressionable days, when you had to like the film. On each re-watch, it lost a little more of the magic I thought was there the first time I saw it.

Of course, the biggest issue with Pulp Fiction is its racism and homophobia. Tarantino’s flippant and excessive use of the n-word and fetishisation of black people is well-documented. There are nasty jokes and unnecessary prejudices in this film, but Pulp Fiction has never really been taken to task for it, mainly because the racism and homophobia gets laughed off with a joke or obscure pop culture reference. Hiding nastiness behind perverse laughter is a disconcerting trait of Tarantino’s cinema and has only worsened over the 20 years since this film was made.

The critical and commercial success of Pulp Fiction, virtually unprecedented for an independent film at the time, cannot be undersold, particularly in terms of how it changed the movie industry. Tarantino became a household name overnight. He would never have to fight to get a movie made again and he was afforded the most golden of privileges by long-time backer Harvey Weinstein – complete creative control and final cut. For better or worse, it’s a pop culture landmark, ripped off and parodied by everyone from The Simpsons to Community. Its dialogue is known by even the few who haven’t seen it. It has become inescapable. An entire generation of movies wouldn’t have happened without Tarantino and the remarkable success of his second feature. Studios now wanted a piece of the cool indie pie and without Pulp Fiction turning into a phenomenon, maybe we wouldn’t have seen the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze getting a chance. If Pulp Fiction had never happened, American independent cinema wouldn’t be the great, big thing it is now.

At my kindest, I could describe Pulp Fiction as an adrenaline shot, an endlessly exciting sugar rush that combines Jean-Luc Godard with American postmodernism, but after 20 years, I’m just tired of it, and I’m tired of Tarantino and how he still acts, writes and directs like a 15 year-old boy yet to get a girlfriend. Pulp Fiction’s impact on cinema has been good, really it has – so many young American directors found a home on the independent circuit as the big studios veered more and more towards superhero films. Yet it’s exhausting to think you can still walk into HMV and buy a poster of the film or stumble across an episode of Family Guy and see the millionth homage or parody. Pulp Fiction isn’t a victim of its reputation, it’s a victim of being a bad film.

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder