Saturday, January 9, 2016

Future-Noir Watch: Blade Runner (1982)

I'm now old enough that the dates casually thrown around in the sci-fi of my youth are starting to show up on my wall-calendar at work.  Already we've passed the dates of Back to The Future 2, and - as was impossible to avoid online yesterday - the inception date of Roy Batty, the antagonist (I refuse to call him a villain) of the famed Ridley Scott sci-fi noir android movie, Blade Runner (1982).   While January 8th, 2016 is a few years prior to the events of the movie, it's also impossible not to note that in 1982, the idea that we'd have off-world colonies for the wealthy and healthy looking to get away from this back-water rock of a planet didn't seem that far-off.  Or that genetic engineering would advance to a degree that we'd be on a Nexus 6 version of artificial life-forms.

We do have some pretty good videogame systems, Google can find stuff for your computer and we can take pictures with our pocket computers, so I'm calling it a wash, technology-wise.

I was about thirteen the first time I saw Blade Runner.  I was aware of the movie prior to this time, and, rightfully so, it was considered a bit adult for me to check out and I self-selected against renting it until then.  Frankly, I wasn't expecting much, more of a Tom Selleck in Runaway or even a RoboCop sort of "we've sorta dressed up the present, put weird ties on people and called it the future" sort of movie.  And there's nothing wrong with that, but, much like Star Wars, part of what makes the thing greater than the sum of its parts is the fully immersive experience.  From retro-fitted buildings to flying cars sensibly limited to police prowlers, to overpopulated streets, class-based fashion and architecture, and the monolithic structures - the soaring hubris of progress and wealth.  All of it alien, all of it recognizable.  That was the work of the artists working on movies in this era, the Syd Meads, David Snyder, Lawrence Paull, Michael Kaplan and just countless others.

And don't forget that score by Vangelis.

That first shot of the Los Angeles landscape of 2019 tells you so much about the state of the world, the runaway industry, the crowding and pollution, all to serve the masters of the world living in those towers just over the smog line.  And, of course, if you've got the money, you've left Earth far behind.

The last time I actually read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I was 15.  I feel I've read better Philip K. Dick books since, and the movie has a weird relationship to the book, anyway.  Ridley Scott and company changed so much, they're different stories with echoes of the book scattered throughout the movie, sometimes as subtext and texture, some of it brought to the forefront by the 1990's-era Director's Cut.

As fans of the movie can attest, there are many cuts of Blade Runner, and the aficionado has seen them all.  At this point I stick to "The Final Cut" from 2007.  It's narration free, expands a few seconds of film here and there and if you have a BluRay, the picture is beautiful.   On this viewing I began with an International Cut from 1982, but couldn't do it.  While I appreciate narration as part of any Marlowe-esque detective story, I know how well the movie works without the V.O. (and for anyone hypothesizing Ford was "bored" or "not trying" during the V.O. sessions, have you heard Ford's usual line delivery?).

Speaking of the detective movie aspects of the movie, the throwback to Chandler and Hammett-style detective mysteries the film emulates -  I am aware that Ford criticizes the movie for being about a detective who doesn't do any detective work, but I don't buy the criticism.  The story is much more in line with the sort of interrogation and questioning of people, of looking at a few context clues you find in the pulps than it was ever going to a Sherlock Holmes-esque breakdown of physical evidence.  They're two kinds of detective mysteries, one being a lot more blue collar and about a detective reading people than it is about explaining the angle a pen was held and in which hand.

In the style of many of the detective stories, there's the meeting with the wealthy older gentleman, his icily sexy "daughter", her sudden appearance at a crucial moment and disillusionment with the life in the tower.  Were it not a movie with flying cars and robots, it would be almost pat.

We don't, however, have a mystery of a murder or stolen artifact.  Instead, our detective is an assassin, of sorts, but only because the walking, thinking, dreaming, sweating, sexing things we've made are still considered machines and property.  And, of course, this is where you acknowledge that the movie only hangs on the framework of a detective movie, the stylings and trappings of a Howard Hawks or John Huston men-in-hats crime picture.  Because what the movie really wants to ask - and the relevancy of the question will become more and more important in our lives - is "what is human?"

"More Human Than Human.  That is our motto," Tyrell informs us.  He's prideful, nearly boastful.  His humans are works of art.  He's broken them down into pieces, outsourcing eyes here, bio-design there like pieces of a car.  He knows what he wants and how to build it, and, in his own way - he's a nightmare of a father.  He's a father who plays god with his children, like subjects rather than people, cutting off their free will and true potential before their cells divide enough to form a being.  The worst thing Chief Bryant can imagine is that these things have a mind of their own - no matter how much they might be just like you and me for all intents and purposes.

There's an angry shout at our own deities echoed in Roy Batty's dissatisfaction.  He's been given so little time, so little control over his own fate.  His final acts are to show mercy and to have his memory live on in someone's mind, in the faintest of ways.  Had Deckard slipped and died, it would have been all truly gone.

Irony, of course, that one of the major changes between the original US theatrical cut and the Final Cut is that the Final Cut goes beyond hinting that Deckard, himself, is a replicant.  The hints are there in that US Theatrical cut.  The fact he and Holden look so much alike and act a bit the same.  The ambiguity of Deckard's background, Gaff's seemingly sneering attitude toward him - but it's just as easy to say "nah, he's a natural human".  But all that evaporates in The Final Cut.  We know as an audience what Deckard realizes.  The attempts to make a past with loose photos Deckard collects, the half-remembered piano, and the damn unicorn.

The Final Cut also gives no easy out, no happy ending.  It's only in believing the Voice Over of the original cut that you might believe they have any future.  And it's a comfort to think of it this way.  But the Final Cut provides no such safety net.  There's no promise that both have an unlimited lifespan, and, in fact, likely they're built just like all Nexus 6.  Four years, same as Roy, Pris and the rest.  That line about "It's too bad she won't live.  Then again, who does?" takes on all the more meaning.

If I refuse to call Roy, Leon, Pris and Zhora villains - it's because it seems antithetical to the point of the movie.  Whether grown in a vial or in a womb, it seems, we're all racing against the clock.  We're none of us born to the circumstances we'd choose.  We all have a right to fight for a life.  Yes, clearly the replicants pose a threat due to how we built them as weapons, but they're also a threat because we guaranteed their dissatisfaction.  This is the sort of hazy area the original novel explored, and it's the sort of thing Philip K. Dick mercilessly brought to his novels.  There are no easy answers.  The easy answers are placeholders for real questions.

I have no idea how many times I've seen the movie in its various releases.  It was in regular rotation for a long time, and eventually you move on to other things.  Back around 1999, I read Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner - and it kind of spoiled the movie for me for a while as it discusses in minute detail how the production was created - shot by shot.  And that makes it hard to watch a movie if you're thinking about "well, that looks like a car, but it's really a garbage bin with a paint job" or whatever trickery the book is exposing when you're trying to see the forest for the trees.

But it's been a while since I've watched the movie, and by now the book has faded from memory.  While I could have told you, beat for beat, what happens in the movie, this was the first time I think I watched the film without overwriting what I was watching with the memory of the Voice Over in my head, and, on this go-round, the film felt just terribly complete.

Rumors are that Ridley Scott wants to pick it up and make a sequel.  I can't say I love the idea.  It'd be nice to leave well enough alone and let Blade Runner just exist the way it has these past thirty-odd years.  Knowing what happened to Rick Deckard and Rachael can't improve the story.  I got what I needed, and I don't need an update of visuals or the ideas of the film.  It's a story that has burned so  very, very bright.  I'm not sure it needs to be any longer.

I guess, long story short - Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies.   Who knows what impact it had on me as a kid seeing a movie at a formative point in my youth?  It certainly was part of my expansion from enjoying the fun fantasy of Star Wars or the space exploration business of Star Trek and led me into a more adult world or moral ambiguity and questions, showed me a world of design and wild imagination so very few producers have had the guts to try for in their filmmaking.

And, of course, Sean Young in Joan Crawford shoulder pads is like as anything to have imprinted me on what makes for an ideal romantic foil for our hero in a movie.

Here's to Roy Batty on his birthday.  May those C-beams glitter brightly.


J.S. said...

Good post. One of your best, in terms of film criticism.

The League said...

Thanks, man! You were the one who wanted to rent it that first time. I didn't forget. And, if this was better than most - it kind of hits my sweet spot on almost every front. Sci-Fi. Noir. Sean Young...