Friday, May 11, 2012

DIrector Spotlight #7.3: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 98 (A)

By this point, the story behind Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner is just as famous as the film itself. Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the film shows Scott at the height of his creative powers working with a terrific script by the poetic Hampton Fancher and the grittier David Webb Peoples (also known for his scripts for Unforgiven and Twelve Monkeys). But the shoot was grueling, the director often clashed with his crew and disagreed with his cast, and Scott was convinced by the studio that narration was required to clarify the story. Blade Runner was a commercial disappointment, but it built up a major cult audience over the years. It is now considered a classic of the genre, and the most influential and greatest science-fiction film in the post-2001: A Space Odyssey era*.

NOTE: Ridley Scott has become the de facto father of the term Director’s Cut because of the Blade Runner situation. There are five available versions of the film. The original Theatrical Cut is brilliantly directed, looks gorgeous, has great performances, and is thematically rich, but features thudding, painful narration that spells out the film’s themes, kills some beautiful wordless moments, and removes any ambiguity. It also features a final scene for a tacked on happy ending that feels completely out of place. The International Cut features the same strengths and weaknesses, but with added bits of violence. The Workprint Edition, which was shown in test screenings and later released in theatres in the early 1990s, removes most of the narration and the happy ending but has a weaker, more ostentatious opening titles sequence, a number of missing scenes and shots, choppy and rough editing, and a number of terrible temp tracks. The 1992 Director’s Cut does away with the narration entirely, removes the original happy ending, and adds in an extra sequence that has been hotly debated by fans of the film. Scott didn’t have enough time to finish the 1992 version exactly the way he wanted it, so the 2007 Final Cut was put together. The film features all of the updates of the Director’s Cut, plus the added bits of violence of the International Cut and a handful of unobtrusive digital corrections to some of the more famous goofs of the film, all while being painstakingly re-mastered. The Final Cut is Scott’s preferred version, and mine, so that’s the one I’ll be covering, but in case you’re curious, here are the grades for the other versions- Theatrical/International (A-), Workprint (B), Director’s Cut (A).

Los Angeles, 2019- the Tyrell Corporation, led by Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), produces androids, or replicants, for slave labor. The latest series of replicants, known as Nexus 6, are stronger than their human counterparts, equally intelligent, and virtually identical. Only through a series of tests (Voight-Kampff, as they’re called) can it be determined whether someone is a human or a replicant. In addition to this, Nexus 6 replicants have the ability to develop their own emotions. The Tyrell Corporation has created a series of precautions to keep replicants in order (four year life-spans, fake memories to keep them emotionally attached), but after a group of Nexus 6 replicants killed a number of humans on an Off-World colony, replicants were outlawed on earth under penalty of death. Police officers with the job of killing replicants on earth are referred to as blade runners, and the killing process is not referred to as execution, but as “retirement”.

Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a former blade runner bullied by his old superior Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh) and new blade runner Gaff (Edward James Olmos) into chasing after four Nexus 6 replicants. There’s Leon (Brion James), a man with superhuman strength; Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), a woman whose beauty is matched by her deadliness; Pris (Daryl Hannah), a “pleasure model” who’s deadlier than she looks; and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), their leader, a charismatic man of incredible intelligence and strength. They’ve come back to earth to find Eldon Tyrell and demand more life; it’s Deckard’s job to hunt them down, but things get complicated when Deckard becomes emotionally attached to Rachael (Sean Young), a young woman who doesn’t know she’s a replicant.

What immediately overwhelms the viewer is the look of the film- Blade Runner features some of the most striking visuals of any film ever made. The film features no major digital effects, but rather relies on stunning practical effects from special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (who also did the effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life). The result is stunning- from the flying “spinner” vehicles tfly to the bursts of flame that shoot throughout the skies, the Los Angeles of Blade Runner is visually arresting. It doesn’t hurt that Scott’s command of the film’s production design is incredible. A former production designer, Scott had a very hands-on approach to the look of the film.  Every frame of Blade Runner brims with detail and vitality. Neon lights illuminate the city. The technology has very clear reasons why it works. Garish advertisements light up the monolithic buildings. Interiors are crumbling and decaying. It’s one of the most visually dense films ever made, and from scene one, we’re seeing something we’ve never seen before.

Scott’s own command of the camera was never more assured than it was on Blade Runner. Working with master cinematographer Jordan Cronenworth, Scott brought the atmospheric touches he used in The Duellists and Alien to their peak effect here. Shafts of light illuminate darkened rooms. Heavy fog and smoke flows throughout the city. Cigarette smoke gives a hazy quality to interrogation scenes. Fans are spread throughout, adding to the atmosphere. Rain and mist flow throughout the air, giving a moody quality the world of the film. Scott’s expressionistic lighting feels more purposeful here than ever, whether it’s to illuminate the film’s antiheroes, darken the mood further (one scene features a literal excuse to call attention to Scott bringing the lights down), or show how the brightest lights of the film’s world are invasive advertisements and spotlights that cut through the privacy of the characters’ homes.

Scott was always just as heavily influenced by art as he was by film, and appropriately, each shot feels like it could be framed on a wall and look absolutely beautiful (his control over nearly every aspect of the film contributes to this). Scott brings in the two biggest reoccurring influences in his early filmography, Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles, to the fray. The Douglas Trumbull connection to Kubrick is clear (reliance on practical effects over digital), but there’s also deliberate pacing, scenes of astonishing and inexplicable weirdness a la 2001 or The Shining (from which Scott borrowed a few unused shots for the theatrical cut’s tacked on happy ending), a look at a dystopian, futuristic wasteland a la A Clockwork Orange, and an overarching question of what makes us human that 2001’s HAL 9000 highlighted. From Welles, Scott still borrows his signature look of atmospheric lighting, intricate crane shots and long takes, and moody atmosphere.

Blade Runner is often contrasted to lighter, more escapist films of its time, but Scott borrows a few things from his blockbuster-making contemporaries. Scott’s densely packed frames, intricate production design, and solid through-line in his storytelling (despite a more leisurely pace) compares to George Lucas’ Star Wars, whereas his use of untrustworthy authority figures (cops and companies) mirrors that of Steven Spielberg. Scott also takes Harrison Ford, the heroic figure of Lucas and Spielberg’s hits (Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark), and subverts his heroic journey (more on that later). Scott has also compared his use of imperialism to Orwell’s use of communism in 1984- the new omnipresent, all-seeing villain is the corporation, just in time for the 1980s. It’s also worth noting that Scott abandoned an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune shortly before Blade Runner, and he brings a sense of exoticism to many of the street and club scenes that likely carried over from that dead project.

The biggest and clearest influence on the style of Blade Runner, however, is the film noir genre. Blade Runner may be a science fiction film primarily, but its plotting and structure resembles The Maltese Falcon more than Close Encounters. The hero wears a trench coat, drinks heavily, and lives in a shabby apartment. He’s morally ambiguous, just as stained with sin as anyone else. There’s a number of femme fatales, most notably Rachel (whose Old Hollywood looks resemble Vivien Leigh), and a domineering big business controlling everything in a morally hazy L.A. setting. The terrific electronic score by Vangelis could be best described as tech noir (a term James Cameron, a Scott disciple, coined in The Terminator). The lighting is dark, the mood melancholy, the bit supporting characters (genetic designer Chew, doomed blade runner Holden, sleazy bar owner Taffy Lewis) eccentric, the authority figures questionable, and the fall guy a total patsy.

The patsy in question is William Sanderson’s J.F. Sebastian, a genetic designer suffering from Methuselah Syndrome (advanced aging). Sanderson’s sad eyes and aged face make him an easy mark for the replicants, who use him to get to Tyrell. He’s a poor schlub who never had a chance- he’s going to die young, his health problems ensure that he’ll never leave the wasteland of modern L.A., and he has no real friends outside of the walking toys and robots he builds for his own companionship. When he meets a group of replicants with a similar problem of “accelerated decrepitude”, he sympathizes, and the poor schmuck gets used.

There are three amoral authority figures- Bryant, Gaff, and Tyrell. Bryant is a fascistic cop (“if you’re not cop, you’re little people”) with no empathy for the replicants (which he refers to derogatorily as “skin-jobs”). Legendary character actor M. Emmett Walsh brings a sleazy, arrogant charm to the character. Gaff is a political animal whose use of cityspeak (a combination of Hungarian, English, and other languages) whose creative taunts involve origami animals (a chicken to mock Deckard’s reluctance to return as a blade runner, a man to mock the limited humanity of the replicants). The cityspeak element could be incomprehensible, but Olmos has worked it through to the point where it makes sense even as we don’t know everything that’s being said. Tyrell, meanwhile, is a man whose need to control his creations is so great he’s willing to kill them to keep them under his power (Turkel brings a patrician creepiness to Tyrell). The former two are classic untrustworthy cops of the noir type; the latter is the big bad at the center of it all.

Pris, Roy, and Rachael are the central replicants- the first two are lost and angry souls looking for answers to questions without any. The latter is a woman in existential crisis following the knowledge of her artificiality. Daryl Hannah and Sean Young are both actresses of extraordinarily limited range, but they’re both at their best here, no doubt in part because Scott brings the best out his actresses with a continuing presence of strong female roles. Hannah sells Pris’ waifish sadness well enough to make her a sympathetic character in the early going- she’s a big-eyed lost girl in a big bad city, and Sebastian takes pity on her. But she’s not a complete innocent, and her later scenes show an ability to scheme and evil kill if necessary. She’s fighting against a dirty system, but she’s still fighting dirty. Rachael, meanwhile, initially seems so cold and uptight that it’s easy to guess that she’s a replicant. As her world comes crashing down, however, she becomes a melancholic presence in an already dark film- the sci-fi equivalent to Chinatown’s Evelyn Mulray.

Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty is one of the most dynamic villains of all time. He’s immediately sinister when he’s first introduced, showing an apparent lack of empathy for humanity that one might expect from an android. He menaces those close to Tyrell in order to get close to him, and his later murder of Tyrell is savage in its violence. Yet Roy isn’t an unsympathetic character- he’s been marginalized his whole life, and he’s running for his life in more than one sense. His grief after his friends (Zhora, Leon) are killed is palpable. When Pris meants her ugly end, he’s outright distraught. And of course, there’s the film’s justly famous climax, where Roy’s actions become simultaneously more understandable and more sympathetic as he gains empathy for humanity.

Deckard, meanwhile, is a tricky hero in a time where “tricky” and “hero” rarely go together. Harrison Ford had brought a jaded sensibility to Han Solo and Indiana Jones, but here his mission is completely nonheroic. He’s killing people (replicants, but that difference grows less pronounced as the film progresses). He might have been forced back into being a blade runner, but he’s doing horrible things nonetheless. When he shoots Zhora in the middle of a crowded street, there’s no feeling that he’s the hero of the situation- it’s an ugly act, and the look on his face shows that he knows it.

Ford brings his swagger and charm to the role (a scene where he pretends to be a nerdy character to gain leverage is a nice humorous touch), but we’re constantly reminded of how nasty Deckard (and, by turns, Ford) can be. He proves to Rachael that she’s a replicant by recounting her untold memories, only to dismiss her memories as being “implants…Tyrell’s niece’s”. He shows remorse, but the damage to Rachael’s already fragile sensitivity is done. This is a pure act compared to the love scene between the two, where his compassion doesn’t necessarily mean tenderness, and his dominant form of love has rape-like tones. He’s fallen for her, but she’s not human, and he doesn’t always treat her like one (this becomes more purposeful by the end). Ford keeps us invested with his minimalistic performance that shows why back in the day he did the “action hero” thing better than anyone, but Deckard’s moral ambiguities make the already morally ambiguous Indiana Jones look like a saint.

Deckard is stuck between a battle between two major forces- Tyrell and Roy. As with many Ridley Scott films (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven), there are strong father-son complexes here, but more specifically the characters represent pitch black God and Christ figures. Tyrell is framed like an all-knowing god- the creator of all. He takes pride in his superb craftsmanship (“and he saw that it was good”, one might add), but it’s hardly an altruistic sense. He’s created them for his own satisfaction (rather than out of loneliness like Sebastian), and he wants to control them at all costs. He shortens their lives, plays with their emotions, and expects devotion. Tyrell has so much power that it’s hard not to imagine that the ban on replicants on earth might have been motivated out of self-preservation- he doesn’t want angry replicants to come after him. He expects them to be satisfied with what he’s given them.

Roy Batty and his followers aren’t going to have this. The duality of Roy is an interesting one- he’s a messiah to the replicants who follow him, and a devil or antichrist figure for the “benevolent” god Tyrell. He’s a true believer in Tyrell’s powers, yet a heretic for wanting more than Tyrell can give. Roy compares himself and is friends to fallen angels (“fiery the angels fell…”, he quotes William Blake), while Tyrell refers to him as the Prodigal Son. As Roy and Sebastien approach the Tyrell Corporation late in the film, the monument is framed like the Holy Temple- heavenly yet unholy, godly yet monstrous. Depending on the version of the film, Roy refers to Tyrell as “fucker” or the more appropriate “father” (this is in the Final Cut). The maker cannot provide satisfactory answers to his creation. He made them as well as he could, “but not to last”. This isn’t good enough for Roy, who confesses “questionable things” to Tyrell, but also gives him the kiss of death before he brutally murders Tyrell (and, it’s implied, Sebastian). When we next see Batty, he’s framed like the Angel of Death in an elevator, descending from heaven. Yet Scott turns this idea on its flipside later when Roy is forced to stick a nail through his hand to keep himself going. The stigmata is a pretty easy symbol- he’s dying for humanity’s sins, not his own- but an effective one nonetheless.

Tyrell as a God-figure fits with Scott’s vision of a hell-on-earth future. Los Angeles is as much of a character in Blade Runner as any of the humans or replicants. It’s a total wasteland filled with foggy pollution, constant acid rain, ethnic conflict (the replicants as second-class citizens), racist and fascist cops, and violent crime. Several references to  the mass extinction of animals are made- the owls and snakes are artificial, real animals are too expensive, Leon has “never seen a turtle”. There’s constant advertisements for “a new life in the off-world colony” that gives hope that there’s an escape from this wasteland, but it’s unlikely that it’d be free. Politicians no longer have control, only corporations. Tyrell is the clearest example, but the creepy, invasive advertisements for sushi and Coca-Cola help bolster the idea that the world is now corporation-owned. Deckard’s dream best indicates what the people of this world yearn for more than anything else: he dreams of a lush forest, a clear sky, and a unicorn galloping throughout the plains. A unicorn might not be a real animal (we’re still looking, I think), but it’s as real as any other animal Deckard has ever seen, and far more beautiful (parallel’s could be drawn to his attraction to Rachael, a gorgeous “more human than human” replicant, as well).

The film features several references to eyes. Scott makes reference to the idea that the eye is the window to the soul, and that’s the key to understanding their significance in the film. An early shot of an eye is described by Scott as an Orwellian “ever-watchful eye”, but another way to see it is as a first look at a city that’s full of destruction and pollution- flames and smokestacks rise and are reflected by the eye. The Voight-Kampff machine tests if people are human or replicants by looking into their eyes for subtle changes. There’s something not quite right in the eyes of the Replicants (and artificial animals)- flashes of an inhuman quality that’s unnerving (and that becomes more purposeful in the end). When the replicants kill or try to kill people, they almost invariably try to gouge out the eyes. It’s as if they’re removing their humanity and their souls. Yet the replicants aren’t soulless, whatever that means in this context. They feel, they yearn for answers, and they just want to live. Many of their personal experiences involve being forced to do inhumane things, and when Roy gives his famous final speech, he begins with “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”

At the end of the day, the replicants are given a raw deal. They’re created as close to being human as possible so that their creators can brag that they’re “more human than human”, but at the same time they’re constantly reminded that they’re not human. They’ve been made into slaves, and their execution is referred to as “retirement”, almost as if they’re animals being put out to pasture. That they even have to be executed is disgusting. It’s often described that the replicants have no empathy for others, but it’s hard to have empathy for people constantly trying to kill you, have provided you with limited life-spans, and have doctored your brain to give you false memories and make you easier to control (if they develop their own personal emotional responses they become difficult to control). Scott’s films often feature references to mother figures (Alien), but here the knowledge that Leon and Rachael’s mothers weren’t real is devastating. Leon is angry that his “mother” was even referenced. Pris is “sort of an orphan”. Deckard treats Rachael as less than human at first, but his empathy starts to show through when he realizes how terrible it must be to find out that you’re not real.

What makes them “not real”, anyway? The replicants seem just as emotional as the humans. They bleed the same, and their deaths are just as ugly. They’re “not computers…we’re physical”. “I think, therefore I am”. Their anger at the “good” men hunting them is justified. They’re described as lacking empathy, but Rachael and Roy save Deckard at different times, and Roy’s grief over the deaths of his friends (particularly his lover Pris) is agonizing. They’re just as fearful as the humans of being enslaved, and, most importantly, of dying.

“What makes us human” might be the most prominently debated theme in Blade Runner, but if Ridley Scott’s filmography is obsessed with one overarching theme, it is mortality. This is clearer in Blade Runner than in any of his other films, and it’s hard to not take into account that Scott’s older brother had just died of cancer. Holden’s near-death scene in the beginning is quickly-paced with a  great quick cut, but its effect is brutal. Deckard’s reluctance to return to being a blade runner is at its clearest when he’s forced to kill Zhora- the soundtrack wells with her fading heartbeat while the camera goes into slow motion as she stumbles, cries, and finally dies. It’s ugly stuff. Just as ugly is Pris’ death, where her screams and convulsions overwhelm the soundtrack and the picture, as if Veronica Cartwright and John Hurt’s deaths in Alien were combined. As for Tyrell’s death- the protracted violence as his head is crushes and his eyes are gouged out is terrible. Death is an ugly thing, whether you’re human or replicant, and its weight is felt. But the fear of mortality is just as palpable. Both the replicants and J.F. Sebastian suffer from “accelerated decrepitude”, but the replicants are less comfortable with it. They haven’t had much of a life- they’ve been enslaved and persecuted- and looming death and its inescapability is overwhelming.

It all comes together in a glorious climax that shows all of the film’s virtues- Ford and Hauer’s phenomenal performances, Trumbull’s exquisite effects, the awe-inspiring production design, and Scott’s atmospheric use of rain and smoke on camera. Roy’s final chase after Deckard ends with him saving Deckard’s life. In his final moments, he lets it all loose- his ultimate compassion for humanity, his extraordinary memories, and the reality that when he dies, it’ll all be forgotten. “All those moments will be lost in time…like tears…in the rain…”; and as a dove flies into the sky (cloudy in the Final Cut, where it’s the only light thing around) and Roy’s “soul” leaves him. Roy had the same fear that's at the center of grappling with mortality: the fear of being forgotten. Deckard finally realizes his humanity: he’s “finished” as a blade runner.

But of course, that’s not the end. Gaff finally speaks English for once and congratulates Deckard, while adding about Rachael “it’s too bad she won’t live, but  then again, who does?”. There’s a brief fakeout that Rachael could be dead, but it’s ultimately just her accelerated decrepitude that’s rapidly approaching. Deckard only has a certain amount of time with her. And then, as Deckard and Rachael flee the apartment together, they find one of Gaff’s origami animals- a unicorn. Like in Deckard’s dream. In the theatrical cut, this could have meant little more than “she’s special”. In the later versions of the film? A final suggestion: Deckard is a replicant.

Or he might be, anyway. The film exists in such a horrifying dystopia that it’s not out of the question that whoever’s watching Deckard (Bryant? Gaff? Tyrell?) could actually know that much about him, and not everyone behind the film believes Deckard is a replicant (Ford argued strongly against it). Scott believes Deckard is a replicant, however, so all of the sudden more questions are brought up- is this why he took so long to develop compassion towards the replicants? Is this why his eyes showed the same unnerving flash as Rachael in one scene? Are all of his memories and dreams implants? Is he an earlier model than Nexus 6 (likely, as he doesn’t have their superhuman strength)? Does he have a four-year life-span as well? Was he designed specifically to hunt replicants? What does this say about other blade runners (although it is stressed that he’s the best, which might answer that question)? As with many of the all-time great science-fiction films (2001, Brazil, Total Recall, A.I.), we’re not provided any easy answers, but dozens of questions we’ll be asking for as long as we’re watching the film. In Blade Runner’s case, it’ll likely be as long as movies are around.

*Note that I prefer Steven Spielberg's E.T. to Blade Runner, but don't count it as science fiction. Its tone and story are a lot closer to fantasy, alien aside.

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