Thursday, January 3, 2008
"I'm Not In the Business; I AM the Business."
Just finished with the ultimate version of director Ridley Scott's seminal 1982 futuristic film noir, Blade Runner. (There's a boatload of information about the film over at Wikipedia.)
I loved this movie from its initial release, though even at the time there was a lot of chatter that the release we got was not what the director wanted. The director's cut, released a decade later, seemed to confirm that rumor. I remember being a bit mixed at the re-release, applauding the decision to axe the sunny ending where Deckard and Rachel drive off into the sunshine (it seemed clumsy and contrived and just wrong), but lamenting the loss of the voice-over, which seemed a lovely film noir touch (even if it wasn't strictly necessary). This new re-release, a 25th year aniversary ultimate version gives us four different cuts of the movie, including what director Ridley Scott is now calling The Final Cut, his preferred version. I haven't watched the original 1982 release (with voice-over and sunny ending) yet, and I've become so accustomed to the director's cut--having owned the DVD for years--that I wonder whether my memories of it are even reliable. For now, we have the newest version to mull over, which seems pretty much the same director's cut which has been available to us for 20 years, but remastered and with a few feet of footage rescued from the cutting room floor.
It's amazing how well the film has aged. Ridley Scott's vision of the future still seems edgy and modern (mostly), and the oppressive noir-ness of the film's overall look now seems brilliant. The story is of a Los Angeles police detective in 2019 who must hunt down and kill four human androids--called replicants--creatures created for labor and pleasure purposes, but outlawed on earth--who have illegally come back to earth from the "offworld colonies" and infiltrated the population. The concept comes from a book by Philip K. Dick called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but the book and movie are apparently very different.
The film is fabulously cast, with Harrison Ford in the title role as Blade Runner Rick Deckard (the term Blade Runner refers to the special police units who are tasked with "retiring"--with a gun--the rogue replicants, called "skin jobs" by the cops). Ford was cast fresh off his successes in Star Wars and the first Raiders of the Lost Ark film. He's not Robert Mitchum, but he seems well-chosen for the role as a skilled but worn cop who must fight to keep from being overwhelmed by an ugly and difficult job. (In one of the movie's first scenes he is coerced out of retirement by a police captain played by M. Emmet Walsh. Deckard is unconvinced that the situation of four loose replicants in Los Angeles is grave enough to warrant his coming back to the force. "Give it to Holden; he's good." To which Captain Bryant replies, "I did. He can breathe OK as long as nobody unplugs him.")
There are great performances all around, but especially by the replicants, who must dance around the human / android line in a much subtler way than, say, the Terminator movies.
The mysteriously-vanished Sean Young seems especially compelling as the replicant who doesn't know she's not actually human; she's given a tormented emotional journey to traverse while being given only a handful of lines; her interaction with Harrison Ford's Deckard represents the fleshy pulp of the movie. And hanging over their interaction further is the question of whether Deckard himself is or isn't a replicant, and whether he even knows. The special features of this release devote some time to this question, with many firm--and contradictory!--statements from people who ought to know. But in the end it's the question that's interesting and not the answer.
And that's really the film's greatest pull: in addition to giving us a can't-take-your-eyes-off-it vision of the future, it raises so many questions about humanity and human nature. The Blade Runner is tasked with being able to spot the non-humans mixing within the population, a skill no living person has yet had to cultivate. The head honcho of the corporation which designed the replicants, Elden Tyrell, is enthralled with this deadly cat-and-mouse game of the blade runners, watching enthusiastically while Deckard tries his detecting machine on Rachel at the corporation's headquarters. Tyrell, after Deckard determines (barely) that Rachel is not human, is thrilled that his handiwork has very nearly foiled the detective. He refers to his work--Rachel--as "an experiment, nothing more." He has no regard for her concerns and feelings at all; after all, she's not human. But in what particular does she differ, and especially such that her torment does not matter where a human's would? The other replicants on Deckard's list are thought--and shown--to be violent and dangerous, but Rachel is another matter.
This is a situation which will face humanity eventually, and it's fascinating to see one person's take on what dilemmas we will be confronted with when the time comes. What makes them non-human? Replicants have been declared illegal on earth; why? Because they're violent? Couldn't they be made otherwise? And what of Deckard falling in love with one of them? What is it to love them when their feelings aren't supposed to matter?
Beyond the story itself, it's Scott's vision of society in the future that keeps us glued to the screen. The poor live down below, with old cars and crumbling streets and collected garbage, while the better-off live high above and use their flying cars to avoid the riffraff below. Little details: the shoe shiner down in the middle-of-the-night grime, just out of the dirty rain under a canopy; the open sidewalk Chinese food counter; the choking pollution. It's all close enough to what we know and can imagine to be believable, but far out enough to fascinate.
It's a really fabulous journey. A visionary film that has stood the test of time, now looking better than ever in this new remastering.