Thursday, May 31, 2012

Film # 82: Brazil (1985)

Director: Terry Gilliam

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: twice; last time about 10 years ago.

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Lonely bureaucrat in an Orwellian alternate reality seeks to escape his society’s trappings to find romantic love.

Extended Summary (More detailed synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning.)

In an unspecified time, in an unspecified European country, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Price) is a mid-level bureaucrat working for the massive government machine. He works in a dismal factory environment crammed with pipes, papers, and employees who spend plenty of time shuffling around both themselves and various order forms. Amid all of this, Lowry has daydreams of flying among the clouds as an angel, seeking out a beautiful, unnamed woman who is trapped in gossamer netting.

One day, his office receives notice of an error made by one of the countless departments within the system – a typo has led to the brutal arrest, retrieval, torture, and death of an innocent man, Harry Buttle. Buttle has been mistaken for Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro), a known “renegade and terrorist” engineer who runs around the city, illegally fixing people’s electrical problems without the proper paperwork. Lowry recognizes the mistake and volunteers to bring a pittance check to the bereaved widow.

 Sam assists his lazy boss in sorting out the "error" that led to Buttle's death. This kick-starts Sam's quest for his dream girl, Jill.

At the Buttle widow’s apartment, Sam comes in contact with Jill Layton (Kim Greist), the Buttles’ upstairs neighbor, who also happens to be the very vision of the woman in his dreams. Since Buttle’s erroneous arrest and death, Jill has been working her way through the endless government channels to find who is responsible for her neighbor’s wrongful death. Her tireless pursuit of justice through these channels has also earned her status as a fellow terrorist aid to the renegade Tuttle. Sam tries to pursue her, but Jill offers no information and flees, fearing anyone from the government.

Back at his apartment, Sam runs into the real Harry Tuttle, who barges in so that he can fix Sam’s broken air conditioner. While efficiently fixing the problem, Tuttle explains that he was a government engineer, but left because the amount of paperwork. Before Tuttle leaves, Sam also helps him deal with a pair of government workers who show up (many hours late) to fix his air conditioner.

Now obsessed with finding Jill, Sam decides to take a previously-offered promotion into the Ministry of Information Retrieval, the department in charge of all information gathering. Sam had refused the offer, which was the result of the machinations of his image-obsessed and vain mother, due to his contentment with his low-level, low-stress job. Now, he accepts and becomes an Information Retrieval officer.

After obtaining some general information about Jill, he comes across her in the office building as she continues to seek justice for Buttle’s death. Sam finally reaches her. Jill at first tries to shake Sam away from her, but he eventually convinces her that he is, indeed, deeply infatuated with her. With government officers on her trail, Jill goes with Sam into hiding. Sam sneaks back to the Ministry of Information Retrieval and falsifies the records so that Jill shows up as “deceased”. He returns to her and the two share a romantic evening together.

 Though unglamorous and unassuming in real life, Jill is the object of Sam's self-destructive pursuit of love.

The next morning, the state police barge in and take Sam away. He is run through the draconian, yet clinically anaesthetized legal process, and ends up in a torture room. Just as he is about to be tortured (by his old “friend”, Jack Lint (Michael Palin) from his previous job), his torturer is shot through the head by Harry Tuttle and a gang of terrorist raiders. The raiders pull Sam out of the building, and he flees with Tuttle.

The world around Sam starts to become more fantastic and dreamlike during his escape. He and Tuttle run into a shopping center, where Tuttle inexplicably becomes shrouded by massive amount of flying papers. When Sam tries to pull the papers off, Tuttle seems to have vanished altogether. Sam runs into what appears to be a church, in which a funeral is taking place. The deceased is announced as one of Sam’s mother’s frenemies – a fellow plastic surgery addict who had been growing ever-more deformed through botched procedures. Next to the coffin is Sam’s mother, now transformed into a woman who appears to be in her mid-20s, and who looks exactly like Jill. She is being fawned over by eager young men, and she brushes Sam away from her.

Retreating outside, Sam is once again in a world even bleaker than anything we’ve yet seen – the buildings are cold, rigid, flat, gray structures that tower over him. A gang of policemen pick up their pursuit of him again, chasing him into a massive wall of the flex-piping that is ubiquitous in Sam’s life. After frantically digging through the pipes, Sam finds himself in a trailer being driven by Jill. Once again united with his lost love, the two drive off in seeming bliss.

However, this perfect happy ending abruptly ends when we see Sam back in the torture chair deep within the Ministry of Information Retrieval. In fact, the entire escape from the torture room was a pure fantasy brought on by the torture. Sam, now thoroughly insane, has sought refuge in his unrealistic and childish fantasies of escape from the system that has now effectively destroyed him.

Sam's destiny ends here - in the torturer's chair, completely insane and disconnected from his warped reality.

 Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any further research.)

A very brief history: I love Terry Gilliam. I’m not a blind worshipper, by any means, and there are a few of his films that have fallen flat for me (The Fisher King and Tideland, specifically). Most of his work, though, I find wonderful, in the truest sense of the word. From the moment I watched Time Bandits as an 8–year old child, I was hooked. With this movie, and others like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, I got a great combination of childlike wonder, fun adventure, and humor that magnificently ran from silly to wry.

With Brazil, it was only upon this recent viewing that I can say that I now fully appreciate it. It really is his best film, and it is not difficult to see just why it made the TIME 100 list.

Brazil is not Gilliam’s gravest or most serious work, but it is his most artful and will ultimately be his most lasting. By drawing from the more timeless themes of the human condition, namely individuality versus conformity, he sets this work above all of his others and makes a visually arresting statement about human psychology in the post-Industrial Age. It was something that writers and observers had been doing for decades prior to Brazil, but Gilliam was the first to express it so stunningly in cinema.

It’s not hard to see in the protagonist, Sam Lowry, the essence of George Orwell’s Winston Smith in the seminal novel 1984. Lowry, like Smith, is part of a totalitarian system in which a sprawling and invasive government has molded its citizens into a populace that has sacrificed its creativity and freedom for the “security” of bland superficiality. The various “Ministries” in Brazil are virtual parallel to those in 1984. The contribution that Gilliam made in his film is that we can now see the results in the form of revolting starkness. Between the towering grey buildings and the endless miles of piping in Brazil, a viewer feels totally crushed and hemmed in on all sides. As a viewer, I found myself yearning for the more colorful, fantastic dreams that Lowry would drift into, childish and unrealistic as they might be.

 Sam's dream self. These play out like the fantasies of a 13-year-old boy, which is what Sam is, emotionally.

It is this childishness of Lowry that was my grand revelation upon this most recent viewing. When watching this film times past, I never quite realized that Lowry is meant to be seen as completely out of touch with his own reality. This is something that, at one point, Jill expresses to him in those exact words. Once Lowry sees Jill for the first time, he becomes possessed of a completely juvenile mania to track her down, in the process destroying his own life and any chance of happiness. I realized that this is not due to a lack of intelligence on Sam’s part, but rather the fact that he has been so repressed by the hulking system around him that he is not capable of handling emotions such as love (or at least, infatuation) as a mature adult. Instead, he charges headlong after Jill and is inevitably crushed in all ways possible.

Someone who hasn’t seen the movie and reads my previous paragraphs would think that Brazil is a humorless slog through dour sociopolitical commentary. Far from it. As with all of his other films, Terry Gilliam gives us plenty of humor to carry us through. Gilliam was an original key member of Monty Python, and it’s not hard to see it in any of his films, including Brazil. No, there are no “Lumberjack” songs or overtly silly antics, but a certain “Python” tone is there. Whether it’s the goofy hats that the government electricians wear or the willful obliviousness of a professional torturer, there are plenty of comedic moments, light and pitch dark, alike. It’s not stuff of gut-busting hilarity; rather, it’s humor calculated for extreme effect. It all conveys just how unaware nearly all of the characters in the film are to their situation.

One of the best examples of this lack of admission is when Lowry tracks down the Ministry’s “Information Retrieval” department on his mission to find Jill. When he reaches the office, he hears the bloodcurdling screams of a “detainee” being tortured in an otherwise stately-looking office. Once the session is finished, Sam walks in to see the back of the torturer (the Jack Lint character played by Monty Python alum Michael Palin), hunched over as he sobs uncontrollably. Once Sam announces his presence, though, Lint turns and composes himself in a split second, utterly refusing to face just how horrific are the acts that he performs on a daily basis. This perpetual denial is arguably the most lasting notion of the entire film.

 Jack Lint, covered in blood from his latest victim, though putting on the eternal "good show" of a smile to others.

And it is scenes such as this one in which Gilliam’s humor is a tremendous asset to the movie. The entire tone of the scene is one of chilling horror, and yet you almost can’t help but chuckle when Sam confronts his former coworker. It is one of dozens of moments that elevate Brazil from straightforward social commentary into more Swiftian satire. It was this entire angle that had eluded me in previous viewings, and which I am very glad to have noticed this time around.

As you may glean, Brazil is not a barrel of laughs. Anyone familiar with Gilliam’s other more popular, much more “Python-esque” movies should not expect a sibling of Time Bandits, Holy Grail, or similar ilk. Rather, Brazil is those movies’ distant, dark cousin. A dark, brooding, and far more intelligent cousin whose somewhat silly gags can mask brutally sardonic observations.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research.)

The story of Brazil’s creation and execution is rather interesting, but nearly as interesting and highly publicized as its studio release.

When you watch Brazil, you’ll probably be highly amused, if not dazzled, at some of the brilliantly funny lines of dialogue. If so, then you probably won’t be surprised by the fact that one of the co-writers was Tom Stoppard, accomplished writer of witty gems like Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. As gifted as Gilliam is, he needed some help adding narrative cohesion and sharper dialogue to his tale, and Stoppard obliged.

Reading about Gilliam’s filmmaking reveals a few things. Often, his crew has nightmares about the scenes that he writes, due to their highly fantastic nature. One can easily say (as Gilliam himself probably would) that his artistic visions usually push or pass the boundaries of practicality, in terms of actual production. This is something that links to one of Gilliam’s favorite filmmakers – Federico Fellini. In Fellini’s 8 ½, the very subject is a talented director’s disconnection from reality and how this plays out in both his life and his films. While I can’t speak to Gilliam’s personal life, it is a problem that has almost always been a characteristic of his movies, which often get squeezed or completely crushed by financial backers who will not fund the grand designs of Gilliam’s dreams. When they do happen, though, the results are often magical.

 Executing shots like this has always been a nightmare for crews who work on Gilliam's films, but the end results are often stunning and impressive.

An interesting side note about Gilliam, based on past interviews – he has a real chip on his shoulder about certain directors, namely Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. He has considered them as panderers to the masses, and overly commercial. In addition, he sees Lucas as particularly personifying the uglification of movies through overuse of CGI. I have to agree, as my own sentiments echo Gilliam’s, regarding the StarWars prequel trilogy.

The eventual release of Brazil is probably the most interesting tale behind the finished product. To make a long story short, the studio executives did not see Brazil as “commercially viable”, being too long, too dark, and too quirky for a wider audience to enjoy. Gilliam, who had contractual final cut on the movie, staged something of a guerrilla war against one particular executive who stalled the film’s release and who pushed for a much-altered version of the film. A quick look at the two versions is very telling.

Gilliam’s version (as described above) is obviously very dark, making the point that the society portrayed in Brazil is so bleak and entrenched that a lone, unrealistic dreamer never stands a chance. It’s a bold and interesting, if not exactly uplifting, statement. The studio, and one man in particular named Sid Sheinberg, had the fantasy sequences almost completely eliminated, pared the film by over 40 minutes, and gave the film a happy ending with Sam and Jill living on a “happy valley” farm outside of the totalitarian city in which they had lived. This is interesting since it is almost exactly what was encountered by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner several years prior.

 One of the final shots of the legitimate Gilliam ending. The serene landscape in the background contains the "happy ending" that Sheinberg wanted to release. If he had had his way, Brazil would not only have been forgettable, but also probably a plain old, bad movie.

Gilliam flipped. He refused to put his name on any such film, as it so distorted the story that he was telling. What followed was a drawn out back-and-forth between studio, Gilliam, and a gaggle of lawyers. In the end, Gilliam’s version of Brazil was released, much to the delight of certain parties who were fighting for its artistic integrity.

The critical reaction was actually rather mixed upon its release in late 1985. Some hailed it as a masterpiece work, and it won several regional awards. Other groups of critics all but ignored the movie, or gave it lukewarm reviews. Commercially, it managed to just break even.

In the 17 years since its release, Brazil’s stature has grown impressively. While no one is going to call it the greatest movie of all time, it is widely considered exceptional, and is easily one of the most singular and interesting films of the 1980s. It also served as a clear inspiration for later films, such as the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy and others. The “retro-future” designs of the costumes and sets, which blend older Victorian-era styles with hyper-Industrialized and futuristic elements, has also been seen as an inspiration for the “steam-punk” sub-culture.

Gilliam himself looks back at Brazil with overall fondness. Despite the insane headaches that its final release caused, and the fact that he shot himself in the foot, in terms of Hollywood, he still sees it as a success for “the little guy”. Ultimately, it was an off-kilter movie that was made and shown as he intended. It’s not hard to see the parallels between his fight for his movie and his character Sam Lowry’s pursuit of his own dream. The difference is that Gilliam got the satisfying ending that he denied Sam.

That’s a wrap. 82 shows down, 23 to go.

Coming Soon: The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Woody Allen makes the list. The neurotic little New Yorker is hit or miss with me. The one and only time I watched this movie, it was a miss. I’ll try again very shortly. Come on back to see if I change my mind with this little historical flight of fancy.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Film # 81: Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: twice (last time about 12 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

In the future, a bounty hunter of androids has his hands full with a gaggle of hyper-advanced targets. Trudges through rain, gets beat up a lot.

Extended Summary (More detailed plot synopsis, spoilers included)

*Note: This summary and the “Take 1” Review are based on the original, theatrical cut released in the United States in 1982. There have been several other versions of the movie, which will be discussed in “Take 2”.

**Note #2: Summarizing a complex sci-fi tale is no short task. If you’re not interested in all of the ins and outs, jump down to my “Take 1” for my basic opinion of the movie.

In a slightly alternate Earth in the year 2019, space travel has become a reality. To facilitate space travel, exploration, and colonization, androids have been developed to the point so as to be nearly indistinguishable from humans. However, a handful of extremely advanced androids have attempted to escape their labors, even sometimes killing their human controllers. Thus, they have been banned from Earth.

On Earth, at the massive Tyrell Corporation, an interview is taking place. Tyrell is the premier manufacturer of androids used in space, but they fear that they may be infiltrated by a small group of rogue androids who have killed their human owners and returned to Earth. An employee named Leon is called in for the interview with a man named Holden. Holden is what is known as a “blade runner”, a bounty hunter who tracks down and kills rogue androids. He prepares some instruments and begins to interview Leon, using analysis equipment and a series of pointed questions to elicit an emotional response, together known as the “Voight-Kampf Test”, to determine whether Leon is human or android. After a few bizarre and evasive answers that all but prove Leon to be an android, Leon pulls a gun, shoots Holden, and flees the building.

On the dark and rainy streets of Los Angeles, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) sits and enjoys a meal at a Japanese lunch truck. Amidst the lights, crowd, and hustle of the hyper-industrialized city, he is approached by a strangely-dressed man speaking odd street slang. The man, Gaff (Edward James Olmos), is a cop under the supervision of officer Bryant, who demands to see Deckard. Deckard is a retired blade runner who reluctantly goes to Bryant. There, he learns about Holden’s shooting at the hands of Leon, who is part of a sextet of highly dangerous androids who are in Los Angeles for unknown reasons. All six are of the “Nexus-6” model type, the most modern and advanced android produced (by the Tyrell Corporation). The Nexus-6es blend in nearly perfectly with humans, and they are faster, stronger, and impervious to physical pain.

Roy Batty, the deadliest and most eerily developed of the escaped androids that Deckard must hunt down.

Of the six escaped Nexus-6es in question, two have already been killed trying to break into Tyrell Corporation. Leon is another. The other three consist of Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), Pris (Daryl Hannah), and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Roy Batty is the leader of the androids, a strangely charismatic soldier. On top of their basic functions, Bryant also informs Deckard that the Nexus-6es may have begun developing emotions, something unheard of in any past android models. This also makes detecting Nexus-6es far more difficult. Because of this, the Nexus-6 designers built a four-year lifespan into the model. Now knowing the danger, Deckard is all but forced to take the assignment of hunting and “retiring” (the word used instead of “killing”) the rogue androids.

Deckard first goes to the Tyrell Corporation headquarters, where he meets the founder himself, Tyrell, and his personal assistant, a beautiful young woman named Rachel (Sean Young). Deckard wishes to use the Voight-Kampf test on a few Nexus-6es in order to prepare for the quartet that he will track down. Tyrell, after asking some questions about the test, demands that Deckard test it on a human first, to prove that it will not give a false result. He nominates Rachel, and Deckard agrees. It takes many more questions than normal, but Deckard comes to the correct conclusion that Rachel is, in fact, an android of the Nexus-6 variety. Tyrell proudly explains that the Nexus-6 design has the added feature of implanted memories, which make detection significantly more difficult than previous models.

Deckard first goes to Leon’s house, where he finds a set of family photographs – further proof of the implanted memories that Tyrell had explained – as well as an odd animal scale in the bathtub. Outside, Leon himself meets with his fellow android Roy, explaining that a cop (Deckard) is there, so they can’t retrieve the photos. Roy leads Leon to a strange lab, where an old scientist named Chu works on genetically engineering and growing eyes for androids. Roy and Leon terrorize Chu and ask him questions about inception dates and their four-year lifespan. Chu claims to know only about eyes, but explains that Tyrell himself would have the information. Tyrell being exceptionally difficult to reach, Chu is further pressured into giving the name of J.F. Sebastian. Sebastian is a top-level android designer who would stand a better chance of reaching Tyrell.

After leaving Leon’s apartment, Deckard returns home to find Rachel waiting for him. Rachel, it seems, was unable to talk with Tyrell after their earlier meeting. She seems confused about her own identity, and Deckard does little to help. He coldly explains and proves to her that her childhood memories are false, implanted by Tyrell based on his own niece’s real memories. Obviously hurt, Rachel quickly leaves. After a rest, Deckard returns to his hunt. In analyzing a few of Leon’s photos, he notices a woman with a prominent tattoo of a snake on her neck. This woman is Zhora, another of the four androids.

The beautiful yet deadly Zhora, the android which, for some reason, finds a job as an exotic dancer. She is the first escaped android that Deckard confronts.

In a beaten down part of L.A., the android Pris walks the streets before lying down underneath some newspapers on the ground. She is soon awoken by J.F Sebastian, seemingly on accident, as Sebastian rummages through the trash. Appearing frightened at first, Pris is soon soothed by Sebastian’s gentle nature and invitation to return to his home for a warm meal. Pris goes with him and discovers Sebastian’s genetic engineering workshop, filled with all sorts of android toys and human replicants.

Back on the streets, Deckard tracks Zhora via the scale that he had found (it turns out to be artificially manufactured snake scale) to an exotic nightclub where she works as a dancer. After a drink, Deckard attempts to call and apologize to Rachel, but she hangs up on him. Deckard approaches Zhora in her room, assuming the identity of a government official. Zhora quickly senses something amiss and attacks Deckard. After a struggle that spills out onto the streets, Deckard shoots Zhora dead, “retiring” her for good.

Bryant arrives on the scene, congratulates Deckard, but also informs him that he must now add Rachel to his list of androids to be retired. Rachel, it seems, has disappeared from Tyrell altogether. After Bryant leaves, Deckard sees Rachel across the street. Before he can approach her, though, Leon ambushes him. Just as Leon is about to kill Deckard, Rachel shoots Leon, retiring one of her own kind. Deckard recovers and returns to his apartment with Rachel.

At Deckard’s apartment, the two decompress from their experiences. Deckard has now softened on his view of Rachel, and he behaves much more sympathetically towards her. To the point, in fact, that he admits that he will not retire her, even though it is his job. Even more, Deckard makes physical advances on Rachel. She rebuffs him at first, but gives over and the two have sex.

Back at Sebastian’s home/workshop, Pris awakens and talks with Sebastian. He is a lonely genius who has affection for his creations. Pris has called Roy, who appears and tells Pris about Zhora and Leon’s retirements. Pris and Roy then reveal their nature to Sebastian, and they persuade/strong-arm him into helping them get to Tyrell himself. They wish to find a solution to their four-year lifespans, and Sebastian is a close enough colleague of Tyrell to get close to him.

Roy at Sebastian's apartment/workshop. He works his strategy for reaching Tyrell to demand an extension to his very short life.

At Tyrell’s impressive mansion, Sebastian gains entry, with Roy accompanying him. Tyrell, at first surprised by Roy’s presence, is forced to engage him in conversation about nullifying his short lifespan. After some scientific tête-à-tête, Roy kisses Tyrell and then kills him by crushing his skull. He then kills Sebastian, who has been paralyzed by fear.

Deckard has now left his apartment and is on the androids’ trail. Once informed of Tyrell and Sebastian’s deaths, he goes to Sebastian’s apartment. Once there, he is attacked by Pris. After a brief struggle, he shoots and kills her. Roy then appears, making for a much tougher fight. Not only is Roy built specifically for battle, with enhanced strength and speed, but his behavior has become erratic. He strips down to his underwear and pursues Deckard, toying with him rather than simply killing him.

Roy’s pursuit of Deckard leads them onto the ledge of the building, several stories above the ground. Deckard struggles to escape, and Roy seems to be showing signs of imminent shut-down, the end result of his short lifespan. Roy continues to chase Deckard across a rooftop, with Deckard at one point hanging from a ledge, precariously close to falling off and dying. Rather than let him drop, Roy inexplicably pulls him up and sets him on the roof. Roy, no longer trying to kill Deckard, explains a few of the wonders that he has seen traveling in outer space. He finally expresses great sadness about how, upon his death, all of these amazing memories will die with him. With Deckard looking on, Roy slowly shuts down, now “dead”.

Shortly after, Gaff meets Deckard at the scene. Deckard explains that he is, once and for all, finished hunting androids. As Deckard walks away, Gaff yells, “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”, clearly referring to Rachel.

Deckard and Rachel reunite in the end and ride off into the sunset.

Deckard returns to his apartment, where Rachel remains and is still alive. The two leave together. Some time shortly after, we see the pair flying in Deckard’s hover car through a beautiful forest landscape. In a voice over, Deckard explains that he has learned from the Tyrell Corporation that Rachel, unlike her Nexus-6 brethren, does not have the built-in four-year lifespan. Her lifespan is as unknown as any human.

Whew! Tough to concisely summarize a science-fiction movie of this sort.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any further research).

I’ll be very curious to watch the director’s cut in a few days. The original theatrical release of Blade Runner that I watched shows itself to be a sometimes brilliant, sometimes awkward piece of cinema. Mostly, though, it’s brilliant.

What’s awkward? First of all, the attempt to make this a classic-style noir film. While some of the noir elements – the detective, the crime, the chase, the dark tone – are welcome and well-done, others feel clunky and out of place. Primarily, the narration is a detriment. While voice-over narration is a standard of noir films, it only seems to fit true, classic noir. Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, and their ilk benefit from the stoic narration of their doomed protagonists. In Blade Runner, the narration by Rick Deckard is invasive and seems rather forced and out of place in such a futuristic setting.

Another, lesser, complaint is about the music. The group Vangelis created a moody, atmospheric soundtrack which, at times, works incredibly well. It may have been the way it was mixed or pumped out on my speakers, but there were times when the music seemed out of place. During moments when silence would have allowed more tension to build, the music score was thrumming along. I found it distracting.

There are also a few plot points that are not completely fleshed out. Most are minor, but the primary one to me is exactly why Deckard develops an affection for Rachel. I suppose that perhaps this is meant to be vague, allowing us viewers to come to our own conclusions. Still, it seems odd when Deckard begins making sexual advances on an android when we have no solid basis for why he would feel this way.

By missing just enough emotional context, this seduction scene can come off as a bit uncomfortable for viewers. It did me, anyway.

Aside from these elements, it’s easy to see why this movie is considered a classic. Ridley Scott’s vision for the setting is incredible. The Los Angeles that he created for the screen has been imitated so many times that it’s hard to comprehend it. Virtually every science fiction movie that takes place in a large city has copied Scott’s style for the “worn down metropolis”, in which technical wonders threaten to bury still-extant, eroding architectural styles of the past. The mish-mash of street-level international cultures, ubiquitous neon advertising, and familiar human character archetypes is blended amazingly well. The effect is so powerful that it has carried over (and will continue to) into endless films.

But there have been more than a few films that have shown great visual style. What sets Blade Runner above nearly all others are the high-minded speculative fiction themes. We can credit the source material author, Philip K. Dick, for this. I will explore this further down the post, but Dick was an incredible science fiction mind. While Blade Runner takes great liberties with Dick’s source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a fair bit of the meat is still there.

The point of interest is the question about artificial intelligence and what happens if it becomes so advanced that it begins to mimic human emotions. How do we proceed? Blade Runner takes this question and uses it to tease you through what, on the surface, seems to be a basic tale of cops-and-killers. By the end, though, you’re left to wonder if the androids’ motivation is any different than any human being – the urge to live. Not only that, but also the sense of tragedy that comes from death and its robbery of our experiences. Considering just how quickly our technology is developing, these questions may not be as far fetched as they first seem. If a machine can develop and express what we call “emotions”, does it cease to be a machine? This movie can make an amateur philosopher out of many of us.

While it is clearly the visuals and themes that make the movie, I would be seriously remiss if I didn’t mention the cast. The acting is certainly not the most important element of a movie like this, but the key players all do fine work. Harrison Ford as Deckard is spot-on, though the script can be a bit inconsistent at times. The lesser roles played by Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, and others are also solid. Of course, Rutger Hauer is the reason to watch. His bizarre facial contortions may seem odd at first, until you realize that he is experiencing a bevy of raw emotions condensed into his short life. Watching him work through Roy Batty’s cool rage and desperation, and then his final resignation is hypnotic.

Despite how terrifying he is throughout the movie, Hauer's final death monologue is downright heartbreaking. With a few poignant lines, you actually feel sorry for the loss of him.

Next, I’ll be watching the “Final Cut” version of the film, which has some drastic alterations:

Take 2: “The Final Cut” Version

Between my writing “Take 1” and now, I have watched the “Final Cut” version of Blade Runner. This was the version that Ridley Scott wished to be shown, but was not due to studio interference (again).

If you’re going to watch Blade Runner, be sure that it’s the “Final Cut” version. It is easily superior to the theatrical version. If you’re not paying attention, you may not notice the changes. If you do notice them, you’ll never be able to watch the original again.

The first change is that Rick Deckard’s narration is gone. Perfect! This is one of my gripes about the theatrical version. As many other viewers and I agree, the voice-over is wholly unnecessary, and without it, we can be drawn into the setting and the minds of the characters more easily.

Another change was that Ridley Scott remixed the sounds a bit. I can’t be sure, but it seemed that the music score by Vangelis was less intrusive. This was another of my mild complaints about the theatrical version.

One of the two biggest changes is the famous “unicorn scene”. A little theme in all versions of the movie is the character Gaff’s habit of making origami animals and leaving them around Deckard. When Deckard is first about to refuse the hunting job, Gaff makes a chicken. After Deckard and Gaff leave the meeting with Tyrell and Rachel, he makes a little human man with an erection. At the very end, when Deckard retrieves Rachel from his apartment, he finds an origami unicorn just outside of his door. In the theatrical version, we might just look at these as Gaff busting Deckard’s chops a little bit.

In the Final Director’s Cut, however, we have an extra scene in the middle of the film. As Deckard is drifting into a drunken sleep, he has a half-waking vision of a unicorn running through a forest. This additional scene leads us to wonder just how Gaff might have known about it. The obvious and most intriguing answer is that Deckard is, himself, an android and that Gaff knows what his memories are, much as Deckard knew what Rachel’s embedded memories were. So this one little scene, lasting less than ten seconds, adds another whole layer to the notion of identities and existence in the film. It’s a great addition, and it’s also no mystery as to why Scott wanted to keep it in the film.

The little folded piece of paper that has generated no end of debate and discussion about the protagonist's true nature. The dream sequence added in the Final Cut gives it far greater significance. 

The other major change is the ending. The theatrical version has Deckard and Rachel driving along a verdant, forested road. We get Deckard’s voice-over also telling us that the Tyrell Corporation has informed him that Rachel does not have the built-in hour year lifespan. We can assume that they live happily ever after. In the Final Cut, though, there is no idyllic ending. The movie ends just after Deckard ponders Gaff’s unicorn and then joins Rachel in the elevator. Personally, I love the vagueness and uncertainty of the Final Cut ending much more.

Take 3: Movie versus Book

A bit of a change-up here. Rather than the normal fact-digging that I do for the films on this blog, I read the source novel before I saw the film. If you’re curious about how they compare, here you go:

Firstly, I’ve come to learn that many, many people are unaware of just how many excellent science fiction movies have been based on Philip K. Dick short stories or novels. Total Recall was based on We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and The Adjustment Bureau were from stories of the same name. There were also some mediocre-to-poor adaptations of Paycheck and others. The reason for all of these adaptations is that Dick was a brilliant ideas man, and this is clear in the inspiration for Blade Runner – the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

So how similar are the film and the book? Not all that much, really. In the book, the earth is a different place. The people still left on the planet are living in a dusty, perpetually overcast world in the wake of “World War Terminus”. Most humans have fled to colonies on Mars or other planets; those left on Earth are often there only because they have been labeled somehow defective. This is rather different from the thriving, hustling and bustling city that we see in Blade Runner.

Also, in the novel androids are not incredibly strong soldiers. They are simply manufactured as basic labor for off-world colonists, and they are given away as incentive to get more people off of the choking Earth. While the Roy Baty (they changed the spelling in the movie, I guess for ease of pronunciation) and Pris characters are in the book, they do not come off as being nearly as menacing as their portrayals in the film. In fact, the final showdown between the pair and Deckard is quite underwhelming in the book. They meet briefly, they get killed, and the story moves on.

Philip K. Dick (and unknown cat) - an author under-appreciated in his time and whose fertile mind forged dozens of fascinating tales. Part Jules Verne and part William S. Burroughs, his stories fluctuated between surreal and profound with unmatched nimbleness. 

Despite these obvious differences, the key element to the novel is the central theme of the film – empathy. This theme is explored much more deeply and extensively in the book, but it is still the heart of the film as well. In the novel, nearly all of the humans we meet use something called a “mood organ”, which is a device that uses sound waves to alter moods. It’s as if their world is so depressing that pleasure can only come from artificial stimulation.

On top of the mood organ is another device called an Empathy Box. People can grab hold of the handles of a Box and are immediately thrust into a first-person experience with a figure called Mercer. Mercer is a sort of messianic tragic figure who preaches about compassion, empathy, and accepting that life is an endless struggle. Deckard’s wife, Iran, is a complete addict to the Empathy Box, while Deckard has little to do with it until the end of the story.

One other way that empathy is highlighted in the novel actually makes its way into the film, though in a far lesser role. In the novel, one of the most respectable things that a person can do is own a living, biological animal. Since World War Terminus and the ever-present gray dust have killed many of Earth’s species, protecting life has become an expectation and a badge of honor. This is so important, in fact, that Deckard’s main reason for taking the hunting job is so that he can afford a real sheep to replace the android sheep that he and his wife have maintained for years (android animals being made and bought for people who want to keep up appearances). We do see some android animals in Blade Runner, but they are little more than window dressing.

Though the film clearly has to discard many of the great literary elements, for the sake of the demands of the medium, it made sure to utilize Philip K. Dick’s most lasting questions about identity. He used the science-fiction convention of androids, but his real dilemma is how to deal with people who have no empathy. In other words, sociopaths.  Can a person who does not and cannot understand others’ fear and pain truly be considered a human anymore? It’s a frightening and difficult question to ponder, and it’s the one that any thoughtful reader of the book or viewer of the film can come away with. For these reasons, anyone would be well served to do either, or both.

That’s a wrap. 81 shows down. 24 to go.

Coming Soon: Brazil (1985):

 From one semi-gloomy sci-fi future to a no-doubt-about-it, full-blown dystopia. I’m a big fan of Terry Gilliam, and this movie is often considered his strongest work. Come back and see what I think of my latest viewing of his mid-1980s masterpiece.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.