A Bleak Future Worth Going Back To
Sunday, May 4, 2008
It is strange to step out of the AFI Silver's showing of Ridley Scott's great "Blade Runner" (this edition subtitled "The Final Cut") and into downtown, "new" Silver Spring, where the film has returned by popular demand after a week's run earlier this year. You find yourself on the fracture line between dystopia and utopia. Scott's famously picturesque 1982 portrait of a gloomy future of decadence, drear and squalid hubbub cuts like a knife against the "new" town's mall-like atmosphere of consumer potential amid chrome-plated franchise restaurants, endless sheets of glass, capsule elevators, soaring balconies and ample parking.
That may be the difference right there: I had no trouble parking in Silver Spring (I have seen the future! It works!) and you couldn't park in the Los Angeles of 2019, or 2008 for that matter, with a bazooka.
But the deeper theme of the movie is a comment upon the town: It is to say that things don't usually work out as planned, and unforeseen circumstances sink the noblest of ambitions. This is not to argue that the new Silver Spring will end up a rainy, foggy neo-Tokyo of freaks, mutants and killer androids, but rather that all dreams, being human in origin, must tarnish.
That theme emerges more clearly now, seen exactly as the director himself imagined it before (an old story) the studio took it from him, re-cut, chopped, added voice-overs and otherwise managed to blur its greatness for nearly three decades. Over that span, at least four versions have emerged, each with a little more or a little less, each a little clearer, a little more powerful. This variant, if it is the last, is surely the best and I've seen them all.
Simply as a moviegoing experience (emphasized in the art moderne cathedral of the restored Silver Theatre, a great setting for any movie but particularly this movie, with its love of the retro-future) it's as close to pure bliss as you can get, especially if you can manage to see it, as I did, alone, without mutants, freaks, killer androids or, best of all, any actual people. I even got the guy to turn it up all the way to 10 so I could hear it real good!
As I say, the film's theme is the tarnishing of dreams, the failure of plans, adapted (loosely) from a Philip K. Dick novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" In the Scott version, written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, the Tyrell Corporation has come up with an idea for cutting the alarming human cost in space colonization; instead of risking humans in terrible jobs of building (and fighting) in the "off-world," in the film's terminology, the corporation has fabricated androids, called "replicants," which act and talk human but are, underneath it all, machines. Alas, what seems to happen to them is that after a while they come to believe they're human, acquire emotion and refuse to accept their programmed four-year life spans. They turn homicidal and return to Earth.
The narrative arc of "Blade Runner" follows a burned-out but still proficient cop, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), as "blade runner" in pursuit of four "skin-jobs," as the replicants are called, up, through and around Scott's L.A. of 2019. Deckard's job is to "retire" them, usually with a bullet right in the electrodes. Funny, they bleed when shot, scream in pain and, like most of the rest of us, die hard.
There you have it: Meant as lifesavers, these things have become life-takers. Meant to help, they must be hunted down. They were meant to save humans from doing dirty jobs, but to deal with them, the dirtiest job of all comes into play.
It was Scott's third film, after "The Duellists" and his 1979 breakthrough American hit, "Alien," and it presaged what was to become surely one of the more interesting and long-lived careers any director had since the end of the contract system in Hollywood ("Black Hawk Down," "Gladiator," "Thelma & Louise" and last year's "American Gangster," among others). He brought to "Blade Runner" what would color his work; that is, an English advertising pro's sense of the detail available within the frame.
Up until then American movies were largely characterized by a kind of purity of image, so that nothing in the margins competed with what was in the center of the frame. Scott, by contrast, used every possible inch, crammed it with information, so that you could watch a movie four times, it seemed, by watching different quarters of the frame and emerge feeling you'd seen four different movies. So loaded with info was the movie that a whole culture has grown up devoted to the decoding of its references and cross-references galore.
Still, what was so wondrous about this visual gift was that it never interfered with and perhaps amplified his gifts as a storyteller. What this version makes most clear is that Scott's story sense never abandoned him. The many reviews that characterized "Blade Runner" in 1982 as visually stunning but slow and tangled and difficult to follow were really indicting the studio that took over, not the visionary who knew best.
His work in restoring this version also results in a rarity: a director's cut that's remarkably, not just barely, better than the original. Some are even worse, because directors -- and writers and anyone trying to tell a story -- need an editor other than themselves, else they tip off into self-indulgence. Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" and "Major Dundee" have both been re-released in director's cuts and neither was as good as the original studio release. That was also true for Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." Though you can never tell; for example, the director's cut of Antoine Fuqua's "King Arthur" was much better than the studio cut.