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.