[Ed. note: This is the 10th in a series of essays by the @U2 staff about U2-related visuals and videos. Some essays may be informational and educational, while others may be more personal.]
"The Unforgettable Fire" is one of those U2 songs I've always found to have a beautiful structure; from the opening notes, so delicate and quiet, to the moment when the drums kick in, the crescendo of the bridge, and then the music that slowly fades away again. Although the video is probably not a masterpiece among U2's videos, it does use some interesting creative features.
One thing that strikes me in the video is the interesting use of light and colors. Like many U2 videos, most of it is in black and white, with contrasts between the dark images of cityscapes and Bono against a black background on the one hand, and the white snow present in other parts of the video. Aside from black and white, not many other colors are used; it's mostly the primary colors of blue, yellow and red that appear. Each carries its own significance.
Let's start with blue. Most of the blue parts are scenes of Larry and Adam walking in a building with machinery in it, resembling a sort of cellar. The blue shades create a cold, distant atmosphere. Other blue parts in the video are images of band members playing.
Yellow is for the most part made up of the light on Bono's face, the flames that appear in the dark around him, and the streetlights that are found throughout the video. I find it interesting that the fire doesn't appear to give off a very threatening or hostile aura, even though that would be expected.
Then there's red, which is not the most prominent, but probably the most important color. At the start of the video, you can see a red sun rising – a reference to the Japanese flag, and a first indication of the inspiration behind the song. Most of the other red parts are made up of traffic lights on a road, but the most important part features a carnival ride called the Waive Swinger. At first there are brief shots of people enjoying the ride, but at 3:10 the top of the construction shoots upward and starts spinning like crazy, turning into a bright red mushroom-like cloud. It's an interesting way to make something as innocent as an amusement park ride into an icon of war and destruction. The "violence" in this part of the video is emphasized by the bridge in the song, which coincides with the spinning of the carnival ride.
Another theme in the video is the contrast in different speeds. Much of the video is in slow-motion, which evokes a bit of a dreamy atmosphere. The images of the walking band members slow down. Then there are the light trails of the cars on the streets. Because of the way this is filmed, it seems to unite both speed (cars going by fast enough to create a light trail) and slowness (the long stream of light seems to move in slow-motion).
Most of the video is shot with a very serious undertone, seen in Bono's and Edge's faces, in particular Edge's face as he trudges through the snow. Larry and Adam also have almost solemn expressions on their faces, which certainly fits the inspiration for the song. But then, suddenly, a beautiful smile appears on Larry's face. Now, as a Larry fan, that has of course always been my favorite part of the entire video. Since a smiling Larry doesn't happen often in U2 videos, I'm inclined to interpret that as a sign of this moment being a special scene. One could argue it is a contrast with the earlier spinning scene at the carnival ride: two people standing at the fair, in daylight this time, the threatening red gone. All is normal once more. One can see encouragement, a sign of hope.
(c) @U2/Meijer, 2012