Blade Runner (1982)

zgfn3sotgl60bay4ftdnzqcxyiqWhen Ridley Scott’s dystopian neo-noir sci-fi opus opened in 1982, it was overshadowed at the box office – along with a number of other worthy films – by the juggernaut that was Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”  Consequently, it was deemed by the then-reigning Hollywood pundits to be a misfire, and critics seemed to echo that sentiment; though praised for its imaginative visual design – now regarded as influential and iconic – and its provocative thematic explorations, it was greeted with middling reviews that, taken together, marked it as an “interesting failure.”

This lukewarm reception came at the end of a tense and difficult production process in which Scott, who had been far down the list of preferred directors for this long-awaited adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” went severely over budget and seriously past due – eventually losing creative control of the final cut and being forced to bow to studio executives’ demands to cut the running time by nearly half and add a voice-over narration to clarify what they felt to be a confusing plot.

Despite its painful birthing process (and perhaps, in part, because of it), “Blade Runner” went on to become a cult favorite, with an ever-growing legion of fans, and to be re-evaluated by critics – even making appearances high on their lists of the best science fiction films of all time.  Ultimately, thanks to its growing reputation, Scott released a series of alternate versions, culminating in “The Final Cut,” released in 2007, which restored several minutes of previously deleted material and dispensed with the much-hated narration, and which stands today as the definitive edition of the film.

To those new to it, “Blade Runner” is essentially a police procedural set in a future Los Angeles.  The title refers to the name given to special officers whose job it is to track down and eliminate “replicants” – artificial humans created as an off-world labor force who are now outlawed on earth.  One such officer, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), is tasked with tracking down and killing a renegade group of these beings who have defied the ban to come in search of answers from their creator.  Constructed as a pulp-fiction detective story in the nostalgic vein of Raymond Chandler, the plot winds its morally ambiguous way through a shadowy underworld – replete with femmes fatale, corrupt officials, secret alliances, and deep conspiracies – towards a final showdown that forces Deckard (and the audience) to question what it means to be “human.”

Revisiting this seminal work over three decades later, those who grew up with it may find it challenging to separate its authentic merits from their fond memories; likewise, those new to its affected mix of high-concept style and gritty action may fail to recognize its impact on a genre whose subsequent development owes it so much.  There are also those, in both groups, who might find its slow-moving plot and relative lack of action sequences less appealing than the genre’s bigger, splashier counterparts.

Nevertheless, there are a number of good reasons why “Blade Runner” has had staying power.

To begin with, there’s the incredible, immersive reality that Scott (along with production designer Laurence G. Paull and special effects supervisor Douglas Trumball) so painstakingly assembled to represent the Los Angeles of then-distant 2019.  Densely overpopulated with an ethnic blend of citizens (predominantly of Asian descent), lit by garish neon, and dominated by advertisements projected at massive scale in every available space, it’s a claustrophobic metropolis that is at once dazzlingly futuristic and depressingly familiar – the logical extension of corporate consumerism run wild and rampant urban decay left unchecked.  Though the causes for this state of affairs are never specifically addressed within the dialogue, the world of the film needs no words to express the volumes of social criticism inherent in its design.  It’s a magnificent example of one of science fiction’s primary functions – to serve as a warning against the worst tendencies of our own world – executed to perfection, and it has justly become a blueprint for world-building in countless films within the genre, ever since.

Then there’s the way it addresses the subject of artificial intelligence.  “Blade Runner” was certainly not the first movie to introduce the notion of an A.I. becoming sentient or developing emotion, but in its deeply philosophical treatment of the idea – and its portraits of its remarkable anti-hero, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his sidekick/lover, Pris (Daryl Hannah) – it goes beyond the usual cautionary approach to address the ethical dilemmas presented by drawing a line between human and non-human life.  These characters are vicious, violent, cruel – but they are not unsympathetic, nor are they without justification.  Rather, their behavior is easily understood as the result of exploitation, mistreatment, and disregard by a system that presumes their lives have no inherent value.  That they rebel against their oppressors is not only understandable, it is unsurprising; and the fact that, in their suffering, they have developed a sense of loyalty to each other and empathy towards others (whether or not they are governed by it) places them in stark contrast to most of the “human” characters we see in the film.  This concept of the misunderstood creation at odds with its creator hearkens back, of course, to that ancestor of all modern sci-fi stories, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but by placing it in the context of this grimly foreseeable future, “Blade Runner” reminds us that the questions it raises are perhaps more relevant than ever.

There are many other factors that contribute to the film’s lasting impact.  The commitment to its noir milieu is not only consistent, but brilliantly apt for a story set within this world of shadows (both actual and metaphorical), and the way this cinematic conceit is meshed with the stylish visual influences of the era in which it was conceived is, at times, breathtakingly artful.  Electronic composer Vangelis envelops the action (and the audience) with his lush, moody, and elegiac score, which evokes the epic scope of both the story’s setting and its philosophical ambitions.  Perhaps most importantly, the screenplay, by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, provides a solid base for the entire package; it weaves complex ideas and implications into a story which both expands upon the source material and remains essentially faithful to it, and it does so through dialogue which echoes the hard-boiled style of the cinematic movement to which it pays homage.

Of course there are also the performances.  Ford, fresh from his first appearance as Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and in between his second and third turns as Han Solo in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, was at the peak of his appeal and popularity when he stepped into the title role of Scott’s movie (thought he, like the director, was nowhere near the first choice for the project); though at first his cocky persona seems somehow out of joint with the dreary world portrayed here, it is this that makes him a perfect fit for a character whose experiences will awaken the humanity buried beneath his cynical exterior.  Deckard is the direct extension of every smart-ass gumshoe portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the classic film noir of the forties and fifties, and Ford – who rarely gets the credit he deserves for his acting skills – brings that same diamond-in-the-rough essence to the role.  His performance here may not be as iconic as the ones that cemented his status as one of his generation’s biggest stars, but it is just as engaging – and considering the complexity of Deckard’s emotional journey, maybe more impressive.

Sean Young, another star whose acting talents are often overlooked (particularly in the wake of the career-stifling reputation she earned – fairly or unfairly – in the years following her appearance here), is equally well-matched to her role.  More than just a love interest provided to add obligatory romance to the plot, Rachael turns out to be an important element in the film’s brooding meditation on the nature of sentience and humanity; revealed early on to be an advanced replicant herself, the attraction she shares with Deckard becomes central to the self-discovery that parallels his investigations, and much of what makes it believable comes from Young – ethereal yet grounded, distant yet warm, fragile yet confident, she provides a perfect complement to Ford’s energy and gives their pairing a resonance that reinforces its ultimate significance to the larger saga.  She deserves as much credit for the depth of her performance as she does for the stunning beauty she brings to the screen – particularly in her signature look, the forties high-fashion ensemble she wears in her early scenes, which has become emblematic of the film.

As Batty, the replicant ringleader bent on confronting the man who made him, Hauer – previously acclaimed in his native Netherlands – became an American movie star in his own right; his intelligence, intensity, and charisma burns from the screen, putting the audience on his character’s side from his first entrance despite the seemingly thoughtless brutality of his actions.  His climactic confrontation with Deckard, which ends in the sort of Messianic epiphany that might be a difficult sell for many actors, is electric – a powerfully moving star turn that gives “Blade Runner” its greatest weight and ensures its status as a work above the level of many more ambitious science fiction dramas than this one.

Another star-making performance comes from Hannah, whose portrayal of Pris – less advanced than her cohort Batty, but every bit as remarkable – conveys the perfect combination of little-girl-lost naïveté and subtly gleeful sadism, making her as appealing as she is lethal.  As the other two replicants on the lam, Brion James and Joanna Cassidy each have unforgettable scenes of their own.

William Sanderson is heartbreaking as the haplessly unwitting ally enlisted to aid and abet the fugitives in their quest for answers.  Joseph Turkel (as Eldon Tyrell, the powerful genius behind the creation of artificial humans) captures the aloof benevolence of the untouchable elite; a major player in two of the film’s key scenes, his performance makes them all the more memorable.

Though his role is a small one, Edward James Olmos also makes a deep impression as Gaff, the police lackey who serves as a watchdog for the chief (M. Emmett Walsh, also memorable, as always); speaking mostly in a hybrid street slang – derived from different Asian languages – and occupying his hands by making origami figures that provide mocking commentary of Deckard, his sinister presence exudes the hunger of a jackal waiting for its opportunity to pounce – yet he remains inscrutable enough for us to believe that he just might, in the end, turn out to be an unexpected ally.

Whether or not he does, of course, is one of the most enduring questions generated by “Blade Runner” – alongside the possibly related one of whether or not Deckard himself may unknowingly be a replicant.  The answers to those, and myriad others which arise within this unlikely jewel of eighties popular cinema, are ultimately left to the viewer.  This tantalizing ambiguity leaves us, like Batty and his cadre of artificial soul-seekers, with a powerful yearning that has proven strong enough to justify a sequel, 35 years later.

It’s also what has ultimately made Scott’s “interesting failure” an enduring legend that can stand alongside- and, in most cases, overshadow – many of the better-received films of its era.

Prometheus (2012)

Today’s cinema adventure: Prometheus, the 2012 sci-fi thriller that marks the return of director Ridley Scott both to the genre and to the film franchise that made his name. A prequel of sorts to his 1979 classic, Alien, it follows the fate of a late-twenty-first-century space expedition which journeys to a distant planet in search of answers to the secret of human origin, revealing (partially) the background of the terrifying race of creatures that inhabited the earlier film and its sequels- but also establishing its own internal mythology, with a plot and a purpose completely independent of its predecessor, and tackling deeper, far-reaching philosophical themes along the way. Indeed, director Scott makes it clear from the very first frames that he has greater ambitions than just making a straightforward science fiction adventure: the opening shot is a direct copy of the one used by Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey– in fact, the entire credits sequence is reminiscent of an important scene from 2001, and throughout Prometheus there are countless echoes- some huge, some tiny- from that venerable masterpiece. This is appropriate enough, given that Scott’s film shares many of the central themes from Kubrick’s landmark opus, such as man’s continuing quest for knowledge and his uneasy relationship with the technology he has created to aid him in that quest; indeed, the central plot (the discovery of artifacts from earth’s ancient past leads to a space mission and a confrontation with the mysteries of our creation) is essentially the same in both films. Scott, however, working from the screenplay by John Spaihts and Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, offers his own interpretation of these ideas; his is a much darker vision of our species and its place in the universe, and one which reflects the change in our collective consciousness in the 45 years since Kubrick made his film. In place of Kubrick’s somewhat ironic vision of a future shaped by nuclear age optimism and practicality, we are given a universe more closely resembling the one seen in Scott’s earlier visits to this genre: a place in which human flaws such as ego, greed, hostility, mistrust and duplicity run rampant; and where these qualities not only threaten to undermine the greater purpose but are seen to be shared by the very creative forces that shaped us. Not that Scott gives us a universe without hope- far from it. In Prometheus, hope is arguably the central issue, and holding onto it in the face of bleak nihilism can be seen as the one saving grace of our species- coupled with undying curiosity and armed with the knowledge of what has come before, it can keep us going even when there seems no purpose for doing so. In a way, Prometheus offers us an even more inspiring conclusion than 2001, suggesting that the secret of man’s creation and continuing renewal lies within ourselves, alongside the very seeds of our own destruction- no matter what our origins may be, we are self-determining creatures and not just pawns observing a cosmic waltz in which we may be a mere side effect.

All this conjuring of the spirit of 2001 may be justified by the needs of Scott’s intellectual premise, but it also serves as a means to pay homage to his cinematic influences; the visual and thematic reflections of Kubrick’s film are just the most obvious of his tributes to the works of those who have shaped his own vision, from the overt use of Lawrence of Arabia as an inspiration for one of the central characters to the more subtle nods in the direction of such diverse movies as Citizen Kane and Forbidden Planet. With such a pedigree, it would be nice to say that Prometheus is a worthy successor to the masterworks tagged within it; but despite its lofty goals, it is a film which suffers from the all-too-common malady of formula. The cinematic building blocks so reverently placed by Scott seem to promise a work of intelligence and depth- which, for the most part, he has given us- but as the plot unfolds towards its predictably cataclysmic conclusion, his movie falls into the familiar repetition of patterns we have seen ad infinitum: the characters’ fates can be foreseen from their virtues or flaws in the same way we can tell that the bad girls are going to get offed in a slasher film, pivotal plot elements are introduced with so many red flags we can instantly see where they will lead, and, of course, anyone familiar with the original Alien and its sequels will know from the outset where the story is headed, reducing the entire experience to a detached exercise in answering questions left over from the previous franchise entries. In addition, the level of tension, so expertly built and maintained by Scott in his original film, is here allowed to rise and fall so often and with so little payoff, that by the end we are not so much excited as we are mildly curious to see how things will finally play out. Furthermore, the insistence on maintaining a rigid connection to the concrete realism dictated by its cookie-cutter storyline prohibits the director from diverging from his linear plot into the absract flights of fancy that made 2001 such a groundbreaking work and prevents him from taking his cosmic themes into an esoteric realm where they can be more fully explored.

Don’t get me wrong: by any standards, Prometheus is a well-above-average film, an ambitious labor of love by a director of considerable talent; considering that its development and production history reads like an indictment of all that is wrong with the Hollywood process today, the fact that it offers so much substance along with its profit-minded formulaic plot is a miracle in itself. Scott has always been a director with remarkable gifts, particularly in visual terms, and this film certainly lives up to his reputation; it combines the immediacy of Alien with the elegiac reflection of Blade Runner; and, like both those examples, creates a stunning, immersive world for us to experience. Superbly photographed in 3-D by Dariusz Wolski, Prometheus presents a brilliant blend of its own shrewdly futuristic design and the H.R. Giger-inspired bio-technical look of the original Alien; and, to draw another comparison with 2001, it sets a new standard for special effects, with a look and a feel derived from dedication to the artistic purpose of the whole, not merely from a desire to dazzle us. This accomplishment is achieved, under the supervision of production designer Arthur Max, by a seamless blend of CG, traditional camera trickery, and live action footage, and it yields countless examples of big screen imagery which are surely destined to become iconic. All this technical wizardry is not wasted, notwithstanding the quibbles which mar the film’s narrative: Scott rises to the occasion throughout, creating moments of breathtaking beauty and visceral terror- in fact, the film’s most effective scenes (particularly a medically-themed sequence near the climax) are those which resurrect the creepy, primal body-horror around which the original was based and the fear of which is never far from our minds from the moment the exploration team lands. Aiding him in his struggle to rise above his mundane material is a fine cast which includes superb work from Charlize Theron (proving once again that she is Hollywood’s reigning ice queen), Idris Elba and Guy Pearce; standing out above the rest is the hypnotic Michael Fassbender, who provides further evidence of his substantial talent as the film’s most memorable and enigmatic character; and in the central role, Noomi Rapace makes a convincing transition from idealistic scientist to determined survivor, stirring favorable comparative memories of the franchise’s original heroine, Sigourney Weaver. The one sour performance comes from Logan Marshall-Green, whose hot-shot demeanor and club-rat looks make him not only unconvincing as a world-class scientist but also unlikable as a hero and poorly matched with Rapace’s much more sympathetic personality.

Prometheus has been anticipated as one of the year’s biggest film events, with much hype and secrecy surrounding its content and high expectations for both critical and commercial success. With all that pressure, it is not surprising that it has met, so far, with mixed reaction: hardcore fans of the genre have expressed disappointment with its emphasis on esoteric elements instead of on providing concrete answers to the mysteries it presents- many of which are left unrevealed, begging the development of a sequel despite the insistence of its makers that it is meant to be a stand-alone project- and serious-minded filmgoers have complained (as I did) of the reliance on cliché and formula in a plot which keeps it from fully realizing its higher goals. In the long term, who can really say where it will stand in the estimation of future cinemaphiles? What is certain now is that audiences seem to love it or hate it, which for me has always been the surest sign of artistic success. Summing up my own opinion, I would have to say that I loved it- with reservations. I can’t guarantee that you will share that view, but I can tell you that it’s worth a trip to your local theater to find out for yourself. You may not be satisfied, but you will almost certainly be stimulated and provoked, and isn’t that what art- and cinema in particular- is all about?