Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Fast Film Review - Blade Runner (Director's Cut)

  It is hard for me to write a review of Blade Runner.
  No, for a funny reason. I picked the director's cut of Blade Runner as my thesis topic for my Film class in college. I've already written about 250 pages on this sucker and I just want to post the papers as PDFs!
  But I recently watched it with my older kids and wanted to write about it, so....
  Quick review follows.



The Good
  Blade Runner is #135 on IMDB's list of highest rated films (as of when I write this). It is a hugely influential film. So it has a lot of good points.

Production Design: Sweet Mercy, is it gorgeous. From Zhora's pit of a changing room with the built in, ceiling-mounted hair dryer to the random small fire burning in a gutter you get this fascinating combination of 'Wow!' futurism and 'collapsing society' decay everywhere. According to geek lore William Gibson was writing what became Neuromancer when he saw this film and was weeping when he left the theater because the world he was trying to imagine was on the screen.

Acting: Rutger Hauer was made famous by this film, and deserved it. His portrayal of Roy was incredible. He wrote the basics of the "tears in rain" monologue and then improvised what was put on the screen;


  When he finished this scene and the director yelled cut most of the production crew there applauded Hauer. Some were crying.

  Daryl Hannah gave maybe the best performance of her career as Pris. Watching her meet and manipulate J.F. Sebastian is chilling and inspiring in how well she uses subtle expression and quick transition to show, not tell, that her character is merciless and cruel.

  Sean Young was excellent as the unknowing replicant Rachel. Confused, adrift, and yet clinging to humanity, all conveyed very well and in a wonderfully naturalistic way

  Harrison Ford. Ah, Harrison. The first 15 times I watched this movie (I watched it 45 times just to analyze it in college) I was convinced he was pretty good. The next 20 times I was convinced he was dialing it it. Now I am convinced he nailed it with a great internalization of Deckard that he portrayed in his best ever performance.

Cinematography and Editing: This film is used to teach these topics at UCLA film school, and others. The use of images is literally sublime. Watch this and pay attention to the use of angles, lighting, movement, and framing (where things are);


Now - how many times have you seen a character walk into frame such that they begin as a full body shot and walk into a closeup? And are in the right 1/3rd of the screen as they begin and the left 1/3rd as they arrive? Rachel is different and we know this because of where the camera was and what the camera did and how the scene was cut. The camera looks up at Tyrell, down at Deckard as they speak showing the difference in power. I could go on many pages about this scene alone.

The Not So Good: Blade Runner is not just a fun film but an impactful film because it was experimental. This means some things don't work that well.
  The writing is a bit odd. Here's my favorite example - the scene with Zhora.
  Deckard has seen Zhora's file with picture. he's seen Leon's pictures of Zhora. He has the physical evidence to show that this is, yes, the Zhora he recognizes. He uses a wacky, affected persona to get close to her where she is alone and vulnerable and....
  Stands around until she damn near kills him.
  Sure, he wanted to know where the others were, but he had her 'dead to rights' and could have easily tailed her, killed her and waited, etc. all without standing alone with a robot designed to assassinate people within arm's reach.
  A minor quibble? Sure. But the film is certainly not perfect.

Themes:
Who defines what is 'human'?:  The replicants are so very close to human that only a specific test of their mental and emotional state can tell the difference. Not a blood test! Not fingerprints! Not any physical test, only an empathy test. It is obvious that most replicants can simply walk among people and not be noticed. In the end, in the universe of Blade Runner you can be executed without trial or appeal because you "don't have enough experience to be 'a real person' yet". The replicants are genetically human (if a bit different than other humans) or else a simple blood test would reveal them.
  While the Nexus 6's of the film are obviously 'cutting edge' it appears from dialog that their less-advanced fellow replicants are just as indistinguishable from 'real' humans, they just aren't as strong, tough, and smart. Tyrell explicitly states that given time they would develop normal human reactions and emotions, thus making them completely indistinguishable from humans and that is why they aren't allowed to live very long.
  In short:
  Q: Why can you execute a replicant without trial?
  A: Because they may be human but they aren't "persons"
  Q: Why can they only live 4 years?
  A: Because if they lived longer they would become "persons".

It is an amazing Catch-22. If you don't recognize where else you routinely see the argument 'they may be human but you can kill them because they aren't a person' in the Real World, ask me about it.

If empathy is so important, why do we demand it be turned off?: The replicants are identifiable as replicants because they don't have enough/the right qualities of human empathy. Yet Deckard's role is to ignore his empathy so he may kill. Roy is doomed to die because he 'doesn't have empathy' but he cries over his dead companions. Deckard is the executioner because he 'has empathy' yet he murders without pity.
  If Man is differentiated by mercy, why is modern society so merciless?

We are as defined by the metaphysical as we are the physical: Roy Batty holds a dove as he dies; the dove then flies away and we have our first glimpse of the sun. Doves represent both God in the Person of the Holy Spirit, and the soul. Roy saves Deckard's life, then his soul ascends - was his last act of mercy, of empathy, in saving Deckard redemptive?
  Humans have empathy; those who lack empathy are not human even if they are human in every other way.
  Memories make a person who they are, even if they aren't real.
  "I wasn't sure I could play. I remember lessons."
  Deckard 'remembers' a unicorn. Too many people think this means "he's a replicant!".
  What? Why would they implant something impossible as a memory? The dream of the unicorn proves Deckard is human because it is not real, an invented image, an act of creation and mythology. The image of the unicorn, symbol of purity and fantasy, means Deckard must be real because the unicorn is only real metaphysically. Just as a lot of Rachel's memories are rather banal and predictable because they are false, Deckard's are irrational and fantastic because they aren't.

  But if 'real' humans can believe false things, can remember things that never happened, and can 'turn off' empathy, what difference is there from them and a replicant?

Living in Fear is a symptom of slavery/tyranny: The replicants mention this very directly. First Leon,
"Painful to live in fear, isn't it?"
And Roy,
"Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave."
  But Deckard knows a taste of that, himself.
  Deckard: "I was quit when I walked in here, I'm twice as quit now."
  Bryant: "Stop right where you are! You know the score, pal. You're not cop, you're little people."
  Deckard: "No choice, huh?"
  Bryant: "No choice, pal."
Deckard is being forced to do this or face harassment or prison himself. While nowhere near the level of control and danger the replicants face, he is also in the grip or larger forces.
  The entire movie is gripped with a sort of pervasive paranoia - omnipresent propaganda, searchlights constantly probing every space, police floating in the sky - watching.  There is a sense that all the 'decent' people have already left for the colonies. All that are left are the poor, the unfit, the broken... and their guards. Oh, perhaps a few ultra-rich industrialists in their fortified castles with guards, but everywhere else? A dark, smoky prison.

Fear of Death: J.F. Sebastian is aging twice as fast as normal. J.F. Sebastian, Tyrell, and Roy's chess moves are from the Immortal Game. Roy has taken all of these chances, risked death for all the people he cares for, killed many, many people, all so he and those he loves may live a few more days together.
  Lacking a sense of metaphysical existence, lacking religion, to Roy all other lives are worthless next to his own and the lives of those he cares for.

Hubris: Tyrell lives in a pyramid, like a pharaoh. His company motto is 'more human than human'. His bedroom is set up like a Catholic altar. He very literally meddles in God's domain.
  Tyrell knows just how tough Roy is. He knows, for a fact, that Roy has killed innocents. And yet, he tries to reason with Roy, an act of hubris equal to his others. In the end his death is from his own overweening pride.

Observations:
Film Noir and Deckard: Like any good film noir detective Deckard is very flawed. He drinks a lot, he is dismissive of others, he is rude, etc. And in the best traditions of film noir you get the sense that his cynicism is born of self-loathing. This sense of a lack of personal worth is probably best shown in how he forces Rachel to say she wants him. He doesn't really want sex (at least not by itself), he wants to have someone see him as desirable, valuable, of worth. He knows what the replicants are likely to do because he also feels constrained, limited, of lesser value, and is searching for personal meaning.
  Also like the best of hard-boiled detectives and the film noir tradition Deckard's foes and putative allies are richer, smarter, tougher, faster, and know more than he does. But everyone seems to forget what it is that Deckard really does, and that is hunt and kill creatures that are faster, tougher, stronger, and smarter than himself. And he's good at it, the best. How?
  He is merciless and relentless because he wants it over.

Film Noir and Rachel: While the tropes of film noir (corrupt police captain; alienated, bitter detective protagonist; urban setting; rampant cigarette smoking; powerful industrialist; bloodthirsty adversary; dark lighting, etc.) are all there in Blade Runner, played straight, and done very, very well there is one that is completely subverted: the femme fatale.
  Rachel, as introduced, is set up to be the femme fatale; she is beautiful, cold, she smokes a lot. She is dressed very fashionably. She is confrontational, antagonistic, and smart.
  And then - she isn't. In one moment, the revelation that she is a replicant with false memories, the character begins a total inversion of the femme fatale ideal. She is then innocent, vulnerable, and uncertain. Rather than placing the protagonist's life at risk, she saves his life. Rather than seducing him and then abandoning him, he seduces her and becomes her only protector. Instead of being introduced as perhaps a romantic interest and then becoming hard and cruel she is introduced as distant and becomes tender and loving. Rather than being worldly and jaded, it is implied she is a virgin.
  It is my opinion that this reversal is what makes Blade Runner great. By using Rachel to turn the femme fatale on its head Blade Runner becomes a movie about realistic hope and how hope triumphs over cynicism.
"Too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?"
Is about how hope wins. You could die tomorrow. So could the person you love. To live your life in fear of death is to be a slave.