Classic Review: Blade Runner (Final Cut)

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Brooding, foreboding, brutal, and brilliant.  A culturally significant picture not quite like any other.

I know it's nothing like the film, but my head gets the image of Harrison Ford shooting thousands of robots, as he runs across giant knives, from seeing this poster.

I know it's nothing like the film, but my head gets the image of Harrison Ford shooting thousands of robots, as he runs across giant knives, from seeing this poster.

Review:  Similar to my review of ‘Citizen Kane’, I ask this question: How can I begin to review one of the most influential films of all time?  Many science fiction films, some worth their own salt, have directly taken inspiration from ‘Blade Runner’.  This is, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, Ridley Scott’s magnum opus.  The film’s own inspiration comes from film noir, and of course the dark, hard science fiction of novelist Phillip K. Dick.  It was Dick’s popular work of sci-fi philosophy, ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’, that formed the basis of the screenplay.  Humanity, in the future, creates extremely close replicas (or, “replicants”, as they are dubbed) of themselves, putting them to work.  Suddenly, slavery is again acceptable, because these androids aren’t really human.  Right?

I mean, right?

If the influential philosopher Descartes is to be believed, if we think, that is how we know we are a thing.  “I think, therefore I am”, it is commonly translated, though that popular phrase is slightly off, but that’s beside the point.  The point is, how does this apply when so-called strong AI becomes frighteningly human-like?  Do we grant our machines equal rights with us, as a kind of offspring of the human race?  We have not yet devised a machine that blurs the lines between us, so all arguments over this question have remained theoretical.  Currently, we still put artificial intelligence against something called the Turing test, which so far has concluded that true strong AI is years, maybe centuries away, if at all possible.  But in the future that Phillip K. Dick and Ridley Scott transport us to, the Turing test has been passed by the replicants.  The Tyrell corporation, responsible for their creation and management, now has a “Voight-Kampff test”, which initially seems effective at identifying them.  But science marches on.

The film opens with two men in a darkened room.  One, a Blade Runner; that is, a policeman tasked with hunting down rogue androids.  The other, we don’t know.  The Blade Runner is giving him the Voight-Kampff test, but before a solid conclusion can be made, the replicant — ’cause that’s what he is — shoots him dead and flees.  A short time later, a former Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), is called by his old boss and set on the case.  There are four possibly dangerous rogue replicants on the loose, and it’s up to Deckard to hunt them down.  Teamed with Gaff (Edward James Olmos), he travels to meet Tyrell himself, hoping to find that the Voight-Kampff test still works on this latest batch of replicants, of which the rogues are members.  While at the Tyrell corporation, Deckard is surprised to find that they have just perfected — but not released — a type of android that can pass the test.  The first of her kind, Rachael (Sean Young) and Deckard form an uneasy attraction to one another, but Tyrell tells him to avoid revealing her identity as a replicant to anyone — especially her.

Without spoiling the rest of the plot, here’s my summary of the action.  Things are bleak throughout.  Many of the replicants act more human, more alive, than Deckard ever does.  The whole city seems dead, machinist, a necropolis of impostors.  The only people who care to challenge the status quo are — you guessed it — the escaped replicants.  Though their actions are indubitably brutal and hateful against the rest of humanity, it’s because they are escaped slaves without a guide.  Their “father”, Tyrell, is quite wicked.  They find no solace in him.

Now onto the question of Deckard.  If you’ve looked into this film, you’ve probably heard of the common theory that he is himself a replicant.  This is never stated, not even in the Final Cut version that was released on DVD/Bluray.  But it is a quite reasonable assumption.  Gaff, who basically disappears about halfway into the film, would seem to be the actual Blade Runner, the guy in charge of watching over him.  He seems like a guardian angel figure, and doesn’t really take sides.  He seems strangely aware of Deckard’s activities and location at all times, even of his secret romance with Rachael.

The violence of the film is very shocking, especially in the Final Cut.  A man’s skull is crushed with the bare hands of a replicant.  People are shot, stabbed, and otherwise bloodied.  Yet, despite the title and the R-rating for violence, this is not an action movie.  It’s a mystery thriller, a very slow burning, intentionally depressing contemplation.

The cinematography is amazing, and with it, the special effects.  They work in nearly perfect union to create a completely believable, nightmarish, and sometimes beautiful world.  The futuristic technology, remaining without enhancement even in the latest home video release, is seamless.  You will believe a flying car can in fact fly.

Philosophical and unquestionably adult, ‘Blade Runner’ has proven to be an elegant masterpiece.  It’s too bad that most science fiction pictures won’t approach its excellence… but then again, who does?

Classic Review: Alien

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★☆☆

Inside that egg theres a facehugger even a mother couldnt love.

Inside that egg there's a facehugger even a mother couldn't love.

The nineteen seventies was a dark time for many.  The economy was bad, morality was degrading, and the United States had been cursed with a string of sub-par presidents, not to mention several global wars and conflicts.  In this dark and grim decade, therefore, it is no surprise to find a string of pioneering horror films, including ‘Jaws’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, ‘The Omen’, and ‘Halloween’.  These films were darker in tone and more serious than previous horror films, and they are largely responsible for helping to modernize and reinvigorate the horror movie genre.  The last entry in this line of horror films is ‘Alien’, in 1979.  Despite praise from many a critic, this cosmic odyssey lacks the elements which make it truly great, and more importantly scary.

After the title assimilates across a panorama of outer space, we are shown the Nostromo, a rather gothic looking mining ship slowly drifting through the cosmos.  Its seven crew members are suddenly and abruptly awakened from long-term hibernation by the ships computer, dubbed MOTHER, and are ordered to investigate a strange S.O.S. signal from a nearby planet.

Upon landing on this strange, dissident sort of world, they discover the ruins of a gigantic and long crashed alien ship with an enormous chamber of eggs inside.  One of the eggs unleashes a strange hand-like creature that attaches itself to a member of the crew, putting him into a coma.  After bringing him back to the ship and unsuccessfully attempting to control or even understand this life form, the “hand” all of the sudden falls off, and all is at peace.  That is, until another creature bursts out of the man via chest in a now iconic movie scene.  The remaining part of the movie chronicles the crew as they attempt to combat and kill “the eighth passenger”.

For what it’s worth, the plot is an intriguing one.  It’s sort of a 50’s B movie on steroids.  There is also an interesting implied message on workers rights in this movie, as this crew finds its life being compromised by the desires of a company-controlled computer, perhaps a nod to the tough economic years of the seventies.  There is also a kind of sexual undertone that is inferable from this movie, as much of the artwork and even the look of the alien are reminiscent of human sexuality.

However this story carries with it an inordinately large amount of shortcomings.  The most notable and most important flaw lies with the acting.  It is difficult to tell what makes for a bad performance in a movie, whether it be the performance itself or the writing.  It seems that a little bit of both is at fault here in ‘Alien’.  For the first 45 minutes of the movie or so, nothing anybody utters possesses a trace of emotion.  It’s all bland scientific terminology and company policy.  This is only worsened by the actors, who evidently were told to deliver every line in a lifeless manner.  Unfortunately, this is not good for creating horror.  I cannot feel much fear for characters who don’t seem human.  When they did start showing real emotion, a whopping hour into the film, I could have cared less if they lived or died.

There are other problems with plot.  There are inconsistencies or questions left unanswered at the end of the film.  For instance, why show literally thousands and thousands of eggs if only one of them proves to be a threat.  Or why show a bizarre alien skeleton in the old ship?  Just so the characters can spend one minute examining it before proceeding onward and completely forgetting about it?  Or why bother to let the audience know halfway through the movie that MOTHER wants the alien unharmed without telling us why.  It feels unfinished, unpolished.  Sure, some of these questions are answered in the sequel, too bad it took seven years to make.  Lastly, this movie is just too slow going.  An early trailer for the movie indicated a rather frantic pacing for this movie, but that’s really not the case.  It’s close to 45 minutes before the audience actually sees the eggs and about another 30 minutes before the true Alien makes its appearance. Even after that, the creature just makes short cameos interspersed by boring dialogue.

Other aspects of this film are hit and miss.  The set designs are perhaps the most elaborate and well done I’ve ever seen.  They don’t feel like gigantic movie sets, they feel like real places, real confined spaces, which is good for making claustrophobia.  Also, this movie is notable for its heavy use of handheld camera work, which adds, at times to the lost and confined feeling of this movie.  The special effects in general are pretty good for 1979, but they tend to slump in key places.  Take the famous “chest burst” scene.  From a believability standpoint, it’s absolutely brilliant—until the creature runs across a table, fully revealing that it is being pulled across on a metal track.  This sort of flaw is a disaster for this movie, because it so easily undermines credibility, which is not something that this film can afford to lose if it wants to be affective.  Another example is the alien suit.  It was wise for the filmmakers to cast a 7-foot Kenyan in the role of the creature, because it helps to make him appear less human when in full attire.  However, a man in a suit is just that, and at the end of the day it simply is a little too noticeable that this is a stuntman walking around the set.  Again, complete and total belief in this creature is crucial to making this film work, but they didn’t quite get it, and it compromises the whole premise.

Lastly there is Jerry Goldsmith’s score.  It’s interesting in how unnoticeable it is.  There is no real strong theme holding it all together, and it is altogether too sedated to make much impact.  Not only that, but often at what are presumably the scariest points in the movie, the music is simply stopped.  This is a bad idea, because, coupled with the issues with special effects, it doesn’t quite pull of fear as well as it should.  It’s a shame too, because Goldsmith has proven on other occasions how capable of creating a mood he is.

In conclusion, ‘Alien’ simply does not support its own premise well enough.  Its not that it couldn’t have, but it doesn’t.  A few key rewrites would probably have saved it, but as it stands, it is simply an average film.  At times it can scare, but it’s rarely for a better reason than for shock.  However, if there is one good thing that came out of ‘Alien’, it’s the other movies it had an influence on.  For instance, the sequel, 1986’s ‘Aliens’, was a much more balanced and entertaining affair.  Also, Ridley Scott, the director, would go on to refine his bleak-future style with the classic film ‘Blade Runner’, while a group of other filmmakers would create the masterpiece known as ‘The Thing’—a much better update of science-fiction horror—just three years later, borrowing elements from this film.  ‘Alien’ serves as an important lesson to filmmakers: Don’t let a film be overshadowed by its legacy.

Classic Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  A splendidly photographed parable that would go on to set the standards for sci-fi films for decades.

This scene never happens, but that what 21st century fan fiction is for.

This scene never happens, but that's what 21st century fan fiction is for.

Review:  Military officials throughout the world track an unidentified object in Earth’s upper atmosphere, which is speeding in for a landing.  The United States deals with panicking citizens as the vessel from another world lands in Washington D.C.  The military creates a perimeter, and just in time; an alien emerges, claiming to have come in peace.

It all sounds so… cliche.

Robert Wise’s ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ created this formula, which would be imitated and aped by inferior directors with inferiors stories ever since.  Though suspenseful, ‘Day’ is not a horror movie.  It is intelligent, thoughtful, slow-paced science fiction, its focus on character, not carnage.

The film opens in what I just described.  What happens next is simple, but interesting.  The alien- a very human-like being named Klaatu -is shot by a nervous soldier, bringing the wrath of his robot protector, the now famous Gort.  The machine unleashes a ray that vaporizes many of the soldiers’ weapons, until Klaatu orders him to stop.  He then allows the military to take him in for medical treatment and examination.  At the hospital, he meets with a government official, attempting to convince him to arrange a meeting of all the world’s leaders.  Due to the Cold War attitudes, the official laments, this will be impossible.  Klaatu insists.  When nothing is done, he escapes military custody.

The film chronicles his attempts to accomplish his mission on Earth, namely warning the world of some danger.  Eventually he works with Gort to cut off all the world’s power for a limited period of time, hence the title.

The cinematography and editing is very easy on the eyes.  There seems to be little about the photography that is special, but it is very pleasant to watch.  The special effects, though, are truly innovative.  The shots of Klaatu’s saucer landing and taking off are impressive, as are the various effects of Gort.  The ship design is elegant and utilitarian.

Bernard Herrmann, famous for his work on ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Vertigo’, and ‘Psycho’, among many others, composed the music.  Utilizing the eerie, ethereal sound of the theremin, he created a signature soundscape that is pulsating, emotive, iconic and unsettling.  The themes would go on to be parodied and imitated like every other aspect of the film.

The acting is not striking, but workable.  The lead, Michael Rennie as Klaatu, surpasses all the others.  He carries both the warmth and wrath of his character equally well.

The film is in direct response to the Cold War.  Klaatu’s mission, it is revealed, is to warn Earth’s nations that they must give up their violence, or at least severely limit it, or else the federation he represents will be forced to intervene.  The execution of the final scenes, though memorable, seems forced and contrived.  Nevertheless, the message he brings raises several questions.  Is it ethical for a third party, such as Klaatu’s federation, to enter into a strange conflict and dictate terms?  Isn’t Klaatu’s threat of annihilation just perpetuating the same ideas that were fueling the Cold War in the first place?  After all, isn’t he taking the position that the U.S. often takes, being the nation with the bigger guns?  What makes his message, from a more advanced civilization, so much more progressive than our own collective culture?

The film suffers from a dated feeling in some cases, yet it is still a breath of fresh air.  I gave it three stars for its ideas, but I removed one for a contrived ending and a dragging second act.  All things considered, if you are a fan of sci-fi, this film is required viewing, and if you are a film buff, this is a guilty pleasure.