Monday, June 25, 2012

IN RETROSPECT: Blade Runner (1982... and into the future))

Harrison Ford does what anything does with an ounce of humanity in a mechanized future: He dangles for his life. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner turns thirty.
Today, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is thirty-years-old. Today it is also regarded as something it wasn't on the day of it's release: A great movie. Blade Runner suffered at the box-office, wasn't well reviewed, and was easy to overlook during the cluttered year of cool movies, 1982. Young geeks of the time were understandably impatient for this meditative approach to the sci-fi genre amid all the sensationalistic thrills they could get from other movies during the Star Wars era. Critics were right to be put-off by the films awkward film-noir narration combined with a lack of substance and a bad ending scene that attempted to be uplifting. It wasn't till it hit video, that it became a must-own for collectors of the new home-viewing format. It seemed that people felt like it was a movie worth watching multiple times even if they didn't like it at first.

A fan-base for the film grew over time and it wasn't until a rare work-print (lacking most of the narration and the stupid ending) was accidentally screened at a festival, that people saw a possibly superior design for how the movie could be cut. This inspired Scott to release The Directors Cut in early nineties that followed the work-print's alternate editorial design. Sci-fi fans and critics gave it a second look and it became something more of a classic.

The Directors Cut has become the standard version of the movie we know today and a few years ago it was given a high quality digital remaster with subtle computer-generated alterations.  This was titled, The Final Cut. It was an example of how to visually improve a classic film without pissing off your fans. It also gave Roger Ebert the opportunity to give the film a final consideration.

I first saw this movie when I was in middle school in the form of a pan & scan VHS which was the international cut. This contained the narration and a few extra shots of graphic violence. I was turned-off by the movie. Probably because it was too dark for my taste at the time. I also didn't find the story to be engaging. 

When I was older, I found an interest in the work of Philip K. Dick who I learned was a great inspiration for science fiction films I liked. I found myself reading his book which inspired the film, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Shortly after, I watched the movie again (This time, The Director's Cut) and was amazed at what a selective and altered adaptation this movie was. I also liked it a little more this time around. Then I was lent the book, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner by Paul M. Sammon and found myself reading it's extensive coverage of the film's making during a summer family vacation. The book gave me more appreciation not just for the film but for the process of every aspect of filmmaking. 

My current love for Blade Runner isn't about the story it tells, it's for the movie's undeniable power as a testament to great film production. This is a film that is vague in message, character, and narrative but atmospherically captivating. The cinematography, special effects, and music create a theme, which is dehumanization through technology.

Style-over-substance isn't always a bad thing. Style against substance is. Getting an audience invested in the substance of a film and having a style that doesn't blend well with it is a problem. Just watch the medieval fantasy Ladyhawke and try putting up with the Alan Parsons soundtrack. Blade Runner, like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (both films had the same genius special effects artist, Douglas Trumbull), is strong because it's environment and theme created by style transports us to a place that feels very real. If it had more defined characters and story it would rob us of that feeling. Shifting constantly between the internal and external is jarring. This is why the original cut never worked for me. Harrison Ford's narration doesn't only sound unenthusiastic, but it's an inept attempt to make the film feel personal. 

This footage is from the epic documentary, Dangerous Days: The Making of Blade Runner, which is one of the most extensive 'making-of' works I've ever seen and proof that this film was beyond ambitious. It's included on current Blu-ray and DVD versions of the film

Leaving out the narration does so much for a movie that words can't define. Fans of this film who are more devoted to it's story than I am, may argue with certainty that there is definite meaning to the film. Stylized atmospheric films can be powerful because they allow people to bring what they want to it. Even Ridley Scott in interviews seems back and forth when it comes to how his films are supposed to be interpreted. He's really smart but I've always thought of him as a director who gets off on ideas flowing out of a movie even if they don't mesh with the narrative structure. Without spoiling anything, a lot of fans obsess over a subtle suggested twist at the end of the film involving Ford's character. Scott, years ago confirmed that their suspicion was correct. But it really isn't something to dwell on because it doesn't work as well with the film's story as it does with the theme.

This is Ridley Scott's masterpiece, because it shows the best of his ambitious craft as an atmospheric filmmaker. He started off doing television commercials and that is enough to tell me his focus is on pushing the envelope of cinematic aesthetics. To this day, it is a movie that has a unique look that is fantastic, even by today's standards. It's thought-provoking, visually astounding through special effects and cinematography, contains great -even if mysterious performances, and has done something that only great movies do, it's aged well.

For those who have never seen it, this is the film's opening scene:

No comments:

Post a Comment