Thursday, August 13, 2009

I'm Only Human

Cult movie Blade Runner was last week named the best sci-fi film of all time by an on-line poll, which is a timely reminder of a prophetic and emotional tale that stands out as one of the most original and intelligent science fiction films ever made. Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer, Blade Runner successfully combines and transcends the sci-fi and detective genres to forge a serious drama that is complex, thought provoking and sophisticated. Although over twenty-five years old, the movie has aged exceptionally well, thanks to the most remarkable, brilliantly imagined and visualised panorama. Yet while the depiction of a futuristic, neon-lit Los Angeles is still breathtaking, the film is backed-up by a real sense of sadness, fear and longing, thus retaining its awe-inspiring power. It is arguably the most influential science fiction film ever made and these days it is almost impossible to find a gritty sci-fi motion picture that does not owe at least a small debt to Blade Runner’s visual style.

The irony, of course, is that the film was a box office failure when it was first released in 1982, receiving negative reviews from critics who called it muddled and baffling. Made in the shadow of Star Wars, Star Trek and E.T., Ridley Scott’s dark vision was apparently too dreary for the average moviegoer of the time, despite his previous success at the helm of Alien. It was probably not helped by Harrison Ford disparagingly quipping that, “It’s a film about whether you can have a relationship with your toaster.” Notwithstanding its financial failure, the film has since become a cult classic, its reputation further enhanced by the release of a Director’s Cut in 1992.

"In the city, there's a thousand things I want to say to you"

The film depicts a dystopian Los Angeles in 2019 where genetically engineered beings known as replicants have been created as slave labour on Earth’s off-world colonies. The replicants are androids of great strength and intelligence, virtually indistinguishable from humans except for certain emotional responses, but are given a life span of only four years as a safety precaution. Following several uprisings, the “skin jobs” are forbidden on Earth and specialist police called blade runners are employed to “retire” any escaped replicants.

The plot focuses on a cunning and brutal group of rebel replicants, lead by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), who have returned to Earth in an attempt to prolong their “natural” life. A semi-retired blade runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), reluctantly agrees to take on one final assignment to hunt down the escapees. In the course of his pursuit, Deckard meets and falls in love with Rachael (Sean Young), a new kind of replicant that is so nearly perfect that not even Deckard can distinguish her from a human at first. The film climaxes in an unforgettable showdown between Deckard and his nemesis Batty.

The movie is loosely based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, whose work was also the source for other sci-fi blockbusters like Total Recall and Minority Report. Although Dick criticised an early version of the script, after an initial screening he enthused that the world created for the film looked exactly as he had imagined it: “I recognised it immediately. It was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly.” Indeed, the look of the film has arguably become Blade Runner’s principal legacy.

"Have you got something to sell?"

Breathtaking visual effects, such as the opening, fire-belching cityscape, highlight the most richly detailed future ever seen on screen. It looks fabulous, even though it is set in malevolent darkness and almost constant rain, and is in direct contrast to the antiseptic appearance of Star Wars. Unimaginably tall skyscrapers tower over horrendously crowded streets. At ground level the city looks like Hong Kong on a bad day, an enormous third world bazaar. This is just one of the contrasts painted by the incredible production. Like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or even H.G. WellsTime Machine, the wealthy literally live above the desperately poor, as gleaming technological wonders exist side by side with the horrendous squalor of a decaying, old city. Gigantic neon advertisements loom large through the acid rain, the smog and the flying traffic with promises of a better life (clean air, blue waters and green grass) on the off-world colonies, while the diverse billions left behind squeeze through the dangerous, polluted remains of planet Earth. The atmospheric score by Vangelis complements the mood beautifully, while the pre-CGI special effects seem so much warmer than the rather sterile efforts prevailing today and refuse to look dated even now.

However, it would be wrong to focus on the aesthetics alone, as this might suggest that the film is all style and no substance, which could not be further from the truth, as Blade Runner contains acting as stunning as the impressive visuals.

"Pistols at dawn"

Harrison Ford gives one of his better performances as the reluctant, taciturn Deckard, a dark and noir-ish twist on his heroic everyman exploits as Indiana Jones and Han Solo. Coming off his success in Star Wars, he could have been forgiven for reprising the action hero role, but instead his deeds here are far from gallant.

Sushi. That’s what my wife called me – cold fish.

Christ, Deckard. You look almost as bad as that skin job you left on the sidewalk.

Although the four replicants he pursues are all “terminated”, the two that he kills himself are unarmed women that he shoots in the back; one is killed by someone else just as he is about to finish off Deckard; and one dies of his own accord, having just saved Deckard’s life. Hardly very heroic, but all the more realistic for that. Deckard is ultimately forced to confront painful questions concerning his own identity, namely whether he is actually a replicant too. Ridley Scott has since confirmed that in his vision, Deckard is indeed a replicant, but the controversy remains ongoing, not least because Harrison Ford himself does not buy it. Ultimately, the viewer must make his own mind up, which is always the best way.

Ford’s love interest, Rachael (played by Sean Young), is not so successful. Although she manages to project a certain humanity by portraying innocence and vulnerability, the love story just does not work, as Young’s icily cool demeanour fails to infuse the relationship with the necessary human dimension. This may not be surprising, given that she is a replicant, but with her implanted memories she is meant to believe herself to be human. In any case, there are few sparks flying between Ford and Young.

On the other hand, Rutger Hauer is triumphant as the powerful, charismatic leader of the replicants, Roy Batty. Although highly dangerous and prone to extreme violence, his thoughtful performance as a tragic replicant fighting against the ebbing of his life almost makes you prefer him to Ford’s more stolid hero. Philip K. Dick regarded Hauer as “the perfect Batty – cold, Aryan, flawless”. He convincingly portrays Batty’s desperation, while captivating us with some memorable, lyrical lines:

Tyrell: Would you ... like to be upgraded?

Batty: I had in mind something a little more radical.

Tyrell: What ... what seems to be the problem?

Batty: Death.

Batty manages to radiate danger, while maintaining a philosophical, almost child-like, air, making his character very alive. As his creator exclaims, “The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long - and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy”. Batty’s last moments encapsulate his existence: first, he plays cat and mouse with the outclassed Deckard, then saves his life before delivering a swan song that is perhaps the most touching in movie history, as he recalls the wonders he has seen in his lifetime.

"She's got Bette Davis eyes"

Although the female replicants come to a violent end, these are tough women along the lines of Ripley in Alien and could easily serve as the inspiration for Thelma and Louise. Played by Daryl Hannah, Pris is a basic pleasure model, but this is no “tart with a heart”. Joanna Cassidy plays Zhora, a trained assassin working in a strip club. As a police captain says, “Talk about Beauty and the Beast – she’s both”. When Zhora is finally gunned down by Deckard and sent flying through multiple plate-glass windows wearing little more than a PVC mackintosh, Scott fills his sex and violence quota in just one scene.

Although on the surface appearing to be an action movie, Blade Runner is a multi-layered film that speaks to a number of weighty issues. Technology has given mankind access to the stars, but there are bigger issues here on Earth.

"You better get it up, or I'm gonna have to kill you"

The central theme is an examination of humanity and what truly makes us human, exploring the notions of identity, memory, thoughts, feelings and mortality. As Pris says to the geneticist, “I think, Sebastian, therefore I am”. With all the humans in the film so flawed and downright unpleasant (“man’s inhumanity to machine”), the question is what is the difference between them and the replicants? Maybe just a few more years on Earth. Blade runners use an empathy test, including the emotional response to treatment of animals, as the basic indicator of someone’s humanity, but this does not really address the question of whether the replicants are “alive”. The androids are almost perfect replicas of human beings, but do they have souls? This is the nagging question that has led to Deckard’s burn-out, as he anguishes over whether he is merely consigning machines to the trash or actually killing. Even though they are artificial, are they any less human? In fact, Batty ends up behaving in a more noble and “human” way than Deckard, when he saves his life, even though he has every reason to let him die. Maybe he just does not want to die alone. Either way, his final actions, more than any other, argue for the “humanity” of the replicants.

Deckard: [narrating] I don't know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life - anybody's life, my life. All he'd wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?

If humanity is at the heart of the movie, it should come as no great surprise that religion is also a recurring theme with biblical references and images just about anywhere you care to look. As Batty nears death, he gains a few more minutes of life by sticking a nail through his hand, before releasing a dove as he dies. It’s impossible to ignore the symbolism here, nor when Batty meets the mogul behind the manufacture of the replicants:

Tyrell: I'm surprised you didn't come here sooner.

Batty: It's not an easy thing to meet your maker.

Later, Batty speaks to Tyrrell in an almost confessional tone, “I’ve done … questionable things”, as Tyrell welcomes home “the prodigal son”. Even Zhora performs on stage with “the serpent that once corrupted man”. Fortunately, Blade Runner is grand enough in scale to carry its holy imagery, while never feeling heavy or pretentious.

"This is what it sounds like when doves cry"

How could it be so, when at its core the film is little more than a film noir? In its soul, it’s a detective story complete with an alienated hero of questionable morality, a femme fatale, dark cinematography and a down-beat voice-over. Thematically, I suppose that you could also argue that it’s similar to the western High Noon with its story of a lone Marshall facing four outlaws.

It clearly draws on other literary sources such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which many centuries earlier had pondered the ethical question of what life is, and told the story of man creating in his own (flawed) image. There are also hints of George Orwell’s 1984, as a high level of paranoia exists in the manifestation of corporate power, omnipresent police, probing lights and the state’s power over the individual.

Incredibly, seven different versions of Blade Runner have been released, but the fact is that this movie is great in any version with every viewing bringing new discoveries. The original film was burdened by numerous studio impositions, including a happier ending and Harrison Ford’s voice-over. The tacked-on ending looked as if it came from another movie, mainly because it did with Warner Bros borrowing an aerial shot from The Shining, while both Ford and Scott never wanted the narrative. The Director’s Cut restored the film’s original bleaker vision by providing a more ambiguous ending and dropping the controversial voice-over. It also enriched the love affair between Deckard and Rachael, while adding more implications about Deckard’s past. At the same time, the Director restored some scenes of savagery from the replicants, which form an important counter-balance to the contemplative final scene.

All in all, these changes have turned this already great film into a genuine masterpiece. It is one of the most extraordinary films ever made. Not only is it a tough, idiosyncratic and highly original vision of a future that seems continually more real, but it also asks meaningful questions about life and humanity, ending with perhaps the most profound death scene of any film:

Batty: I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

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