Sunday, January 6, 2008

Sometimes They Come Back

Much of the current fuss over Blade Runner isn't really about the film's quality, but rather, it's mostly about how much it feels like the studio and producers are milking admirers of the film ever since it achieved cult status, guaranteeing its perpetual presence in the annals of film history and marketing.

I, myself, have lost track of exactly how many different editions and versions of the film there are altogether, especially with the latest blitz that includes a "briefcase edition" that comes with not just the different cuts of the film, but also a model of a Spinner and an origami unicorn. That's, of course, only for the most hardcore of fans (ie. those who can recite, in its entirety, Roy Batty's rooftop lament about "shoulders of Orion" and "tears in rain"), because even I had grown weary and wary of the new releases, having seen the original theatrical version, then the version on laserdisc, then on DVD. Now comes the Final Cut (is it really final, Mr Scott?), and I opted for the two-disc version now finally available in the stores here.

When I first saw Blade Runner as a kid, I was almost as confounded by it as 2001: A Space Odyssey. But like everyone else, I had the futuristic, dystopian landscape of rain, grime and orbs of light and lens flares stuck in my mind. Those images just refused to go away. The most memorable sequence for me at the time, wasn't Roy Batty's final, rain-soaked hours, but, strangely enough, Rick Deckard's encounter with Pris in the old abandoned apartment. It was memorable because it was the most bizarre thing I had ever seen, and still is, when I see it again now on DVD. The whole idea of toys of the future being completely life-like, is already very strange. Pris's sinister, child-like personality, certainly makes her the creepiest and most dangerous replicant in the film, not to mention also the most erotic. But the most memorable role in the film has to be Edward James Olmos's Gaff, a character whose gait, wardrobe and speech were almost exclusively developed by Olmos. Here's one of the greatest minor characters in a film that somehow feels more major because it's so well-conceived and real.

Like Ridley Scott's Alien, Blade Runner is also largely a brilliant exercise in art direction. I've always regarded both these films as thin on excitement and plot, even meandering at times. It's the magnificent visuals that keep you riveted. Blade Runner is essentially about a detective who hunts down some wayward replicants who have escaped the off-world colonies. That's it. The story is imbued with some philosophical undertones about what it means to be human, about the egotistical tendencies of human beings to exert superiority in self-destructive ways. There's almost no character development, as Deckard is thrown right into the thick of things, swimming solely with Harrison Ford's magnetic charisma and impressive acting chops. Blade Runner is neither plot-driven nor character-driven. I would argue that it's visually-driven. Despite its earnestness to rest its axis upon the love affair between Rachael and Deckard, the film still fails to elicit the required emotions, unlike the poignancy of the human-robot relationship in, say, A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

The most interesting thing about this latest Final Cut, for me, was to see whether Scott has managed to make the story more interesting, or as interesting as it could be if it were standing alone apart from the arresting visuals. It was a little disappointing to find that much of the work on this latest version was mostly to clean up technical flaws. The shadow of the cameraman on the walls next to Deckard as he is being chased by Batty is gone, and so is the wire raising the Spinner in one scene. The shot of the dove flying out of Batty's dead hands and into a blue sky has been replaced by a more appropriate, wider shot of it flying into an overcast sky. The inexplicable hand on Batty's shoulder as he rides the elevator alone has also been removed from the scene. The unicorn dream sequence has also been extended by a few seconds, as are some of the violence. If there are any other changes, I haven't picked up on them because this is the first time I'm seeing the film again since the Director's Cut some years ago.

Apart from those changes and the remastering, not much else is different from the previous Director's Cut. But strangely enough, the Final Cut does somehow come across as more cohesive and the pacing more concrete. If Scott had done something there, it's surely not visually noticeable, but felt. I'm hard-pressed to attribute this slight, cerebral improvement to anything in particular. It's another one of those mysteries, but perhaps the answer lies in why the film only gradually gained popularity after it flopped at the box-office. It grows with time. Perhaps it's also grown on me over time. It would be interesting to see how we'll view it in another 10 years.

The Final Cut two-disc edition comes with a second disc of the three-and-a-half-hour long documentary, Dangerous Days: The Making Of Blade Runner. There are no surprise revelations here if you've already read the brilliant book, Future Noir: The Making Of Blade Runner. But bringing back the cast and crew after more than two decades to talk about the film is something the book can't have, although much of what is said is known history in the Blade Runner cult circle. The budget and schedule problems, the animosity between Scott and his crew, the terrible shooting conditions of smoke and rain - all of them are here. Then there are the outtakes, screen tests and deleted scenes, including the "difficult" love scene between Rachael and Deckard, and the alternate ending of the theatrical release with footage from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

The most interesting bits are of how the special effects were done, because this was before the advent of computer graphics. The SFX guys had to rely on their ingenuity and techniques such as forced perspective, multiple exposures, matte paintings and the old way of using motion-control cameras which took hours. Here, the revelations are more jaw-dropping than in the book because you get to see how it was all done, how a whole city was created (they literally threw the kitchen sink in there, because one of the miniatures was indeed a kitchen sink!). And it certainly puts to shame a lot of the current CGI work, because back then, effects were done in-camera and therefore, looked more real.

It's a long and arduous journey through the long and arduous history of the film, starting from the very day someone decided to buy the rights to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?.

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