Archive for Ridley Scott

Skin Jobs

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2017 by dcairns

I turn fifty on the tenth of this month (accelerated decrepitude), which makes me the perfect age to have enjoyed BLADE RUNNER when it was brand new — it played at the Edinburgh Film Festival, which sounds like quite a coup now, but of course the movie went on to perform poorly on first release. It’s nice to hear the sequel is getting lots of favourable attention, and I think we shall go see it. So to limber up, we revisited the original — actually, the first time we’d watched Ridley Scott’s 2007 Final Cut.

“Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER is a cracker,” said the first line of The Scotsman’s review, as I recall.

I also remember a schoolfriend continually saying he was excited to see that new film, “RUNNER-THE-BLADE.”

And I remember when ITV showed the film the first time there was a warning that it was hard to understand nd you had to pay attention. The newspaper listing siad you needed to watch it from the beginning. The next day I heard two fellow students discussing it (I was at college by then): “How was it?” “I missed the first half, I couldn’t really understand it.” And this was the version with the over-explanatory VO.

H.F. giving it plenty of ‘tude. Not my fave close-up of him. But hands up if you enjoyed his Paul Linde impression when he visits Joanna Cassidy’s dressing room. Do you like it better than his Scotsman in LAST CRUSADE?

Part of what’s good about BR, arguably, asides from the sheen, is the muddled storytelling, which feels very seventies. You could make the dialogue hard to hear, like in THE FRENCH CONNECTION or HEAVEN’S GATE, and/or you could bury the essential plot info and make crucial character points impossible to visualise. Like, the replicants aren’t robots, they’re biological, but nobody comes right out and says that. Science fiction fans understand from the talk about genetic engineering that this is what’s going on, but non-nerds may be puzzled that the androids bleed.

But I want to talk a little about other, less deliberate and less reasonable muddle in BLADE RUNNER’s exposition. If you don’t like the film you’ll agree these are problematic. If you do like the film, you’ll hopefully find it striking that a film can be compelling even with such nonsensical elements in its storytelling.

The pencil-point next to the eyeball is a smart way to make the audience feel obscurely uncomfortable.

In the opening scene, we see a blade runner administering the Voight-Kampff test to Leon, a fugitive replicant. Replicants are apparently so identical to humans, despite being super-powered and having a four year lifespan, that the only way to spot one is by testing their emotional responses. This is exactly like the fabled psychopath test, with aspects of the polygraph thrown in for colour. Original author Philip K. Dick’s idea is that androids would be like psychopaths, emotionally defective copies of human beings. In came out of his researches into the Nazis for The Man in the High Castle. He claimed to have read a letter from a concentration camp guard, complaining to his wife, “We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.” Dick said, “There is something wrong with the mind that wrote that sentence.” Dick was thrilled when he saw the film pre-release, particularly by Rutger Hauer as replicant leader Roy Batty (cool that they have human names). Hauer looked a lot like a Nazi superman.

But why is it necessary to give Leon the Jon Voight Test? Later, police chief M. Emmet Walsh shows Harrison Ford photos of the replicants. They know he’s a replicant! Instead of testing his pupillary dilation, shouldn’t they just show him his photo and say, “Isn’t this you?” Or else just shoot him. It’s weirdly bureaucratic — which brings us back to the Nazis again — the movie actually makes the state and humans more Nazi-like, and there were plans to show replicant corpse-mountains at one point…

Dodgy vertical hold on shot of Rutger spinning on a swivel chair.

When Walsh shows the slides (looks like they’re on a big TV screen, but there’s a projector beam), he also explains to Ford, his top former blade runner, exactly what a blade runner does and what replicants are, and how they don’t have emotions… but Ford will later be seen administering the Jon Voight Test to Sean Young (he proves she’s not Jon Voight) so he must already know this. Theory: in films where audiences struggle to follow the plot and comprehend the story world, sometimes the confusion is actually heightened by scenes where characters tell each other things they should already know. Or DO already know — the infamous and deadly “As you know…” formulation, which is still very common in British TV and Harvey Weinstein productions. “As you know, I’m your father…” Improbably exposition throws everyone off-balance.

A lot of the off-base exposition could have been slipped into BLADE RUNNER’s opening crawl, I think, though you again have to be careful when feeding an audience info they haven’t any reason to be curious for yet. And it really helps when you swiftly follow the text info with visuals illustrating the point. STAR WARS does this. BLADE RUNNER doesn’t mention emotional tests, and talks sympathetically about the killing/retirement of replicants, whereas in the next scene its a blade runner who gets shot. (Also, strangely, the crawl is written in the past tense, unlike STAR WARS. Maybe the crawl-writer is looking back from 2049?) But of course one of the intriguing things about that first scene with Leon is that we don’t really understand what this test is. It’s a great hook.

Non-sci-fi types (muggles, mundanes, the unnerded) often have trouble with science fiction because they overthink it. They hear the jargon and believe they’re supposed to understand what it means, which is rarely true or important. They should really just ask who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. In BLADE RUNNER, for the purposes of telling this story, we are to accept Ford as the hero, even though analysing the ramifications of the story world points towards a reading where Batty is a bit of a Spartacus figure and the blade runner is a sort of government hitman empowered to kill people for racial reasons. Sort of like a Florida policeman.


In the most recent editions of the film, the who-does-what-to-whom is very clear, but the first release version wasn’t even clear about how many replicants there were supposed to be on the loose. The excellent making-of book documents all this production muddle. You had two writers who didn’t meet until the premiere, where each thought the other was responsible for the awful VO. You had a director who hadn’t read the book: “I couldn’t finish it. It’s very densely written.” It’s 224 pages and was probably written in a week. One of the screenwriters didn’t get a chance to read it because he was bunged a copy of the script and ordered to start at once. He was probably correct to assume that any elements of the novel that hadn’t been included were left out because the producers didn’t want them.

Neither of the talented screenwriters felt he was terribly good at writing clues — a fairly important element in most detective stories. In the finished BLADE RUNNER, Ford’s stand-in finds a snake scale in Leon’s bathtub, in a scene shot back in the UK after the main shoot had finished. Then he does a scan of a photo found in the flat, eventually printing out a Polaroid (!) of Joanna Cassidy as Zora, another replicant. It isn’t clear in the super-grainy snap, but I think it’s her facial tattoo of a snake that causes him to realise that what he’s found is a snake scale. But then he goes to the market and asks if it’s a fish scale. So, if he doesn’t know what it is, what was the purpose the elaborate photo analysis? What information is gained?

Wait, i think I have it. I guess he finds Zora in the bath, thus associating her potentially with the scale, so the scale might lead to her. Whereas if the scale was Leon’s, it wouldn’t have been a useful clue.

But you see, that’s me putting this all together thirty-five years after seeing the movie. Though admittedly I haven’t spent all of the intervening time trying to figure this out.

Still, I’m pleased with my Eureka! moment in Leon’s bathtub.


The Look 3: McDowell Toasts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2016 by dcairns


Since Donald Benson helpfully mentioned the starchild/space baby’s look to camera in the final shot of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, (comments section, here) I’m following on with the opening shot of Kubrick’s next film, CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which seems to answer that cool gaze.

I like it when films join up like that. Just think, if Kubrick had made NAPOLEON in 1970 as originally planned, this wouldn’t have happened, or not so neatly.

The film’s aren’t as directly successive, but it’s kind of neat the way Fred Gwynne finds some chewing gum stuck under his balcony railing in Bertolucci’s LA LUNA — Marlon Brando’s last act in  LAST TANGO IN PARIS was to stick his gum under Maria Schneider’s railing (and no, that’s not a euphemism for something beastly).

But back to this look. As Kubrick’s camera withdraws from closeup, via a zoom and a dolly back, Malcolm raises his glass to the audience. The next day, after seeing the rushes, Kubes rushed up to him and congratulated him on that detail. He hadn’t noticed. Despite the fact that he was operating the camera himself.

This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. A camera operator, during a moving shot, tends to concentrate on the edges of the frame more than the subject, checking the composition is working and that no unwelcome boom mic or tracks or, god forbid, crewmembers, have come into shot. This is why Harrison Ford was displeased to find Ridley Scott handholding the camera in BLADE RUNNER — he knew the director wouldn’t be watching his performance. (But Richard Lester speaks of his great pleasure at precisely the act of watching a great performance being delivered into the lens, while operating — but Lester would tend to operate on the wide shot, which wouldn’t require him to adjust so much for movement, leaving most of his great brain free to watch and assess the acting.)


In fairness, the “toast” is a little tiny micro-pause as the glass rises to the lips. Still, Kubrick’s failure to see what his leading man was doing in the centre of his opening shot could be seen as another welcome dent in the myth of Kubrickian perfection. I’m campaigning to have Kubrick’s reputation altered from obsessive perfectionist to amiable bumbler.


Watney’s Red Planet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2015 by dcairns


Matt Damon as Mark Watney became the second ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS in my birthday treat movie on Saturday, which turned out to be a bigger treat than I’d expected, and quite possibly Ridley Scott’s best film since the eighties.

THE MARTIAN — filmed in all three dimensions of outer space! 3D seems to be something directors get better at on repeated exposure — Fleischer, Dante, Arnold. Scott, speaking of PROMETHEUS actually said, “The 3D was no problem at all. We actually see in 3D all the time,” which one might charitably interpret as a senior moment, but Fiona says, “Ridley would still have said that in 1979.” One worried that he hadn’t given the matter sufficient study.

In THE MARTIAN, there’s far more exploitation of the gimmick, but not in a chuck-spaceships-at-the-lens way. PROMETHEUS’s best quality was its vivid and immersive environments, and here the planetscapes are more shapes and multi-leveled, with aerial shots that let the dunes and buttes roll past the lens. But Scott also gets great value out of little sprouts poking through topsoil, and the multiple rows of screens and workstations in NASA HQ. And in the Hermes, he’s gifted us a gyroscopic spacecraft that’s a sheer joy to observe as we fly past it or through its rotating rings. The sensual pleasure of moving through a deep environment becomes as rich as the use of smoke, rain, multiple little light sources, widescreen composition, long lens ECUs, and all the other features of the Scott visual style.


The dumbness of PROMETHEUS, its bad dialogue, and its mainly dopey, inconsistent and unappealing 2D characters, have all been replaced here with an intelligent scenario by Drew Goddard from Andy Weir’s novel, full of nice people working together to help each other. It’s astonishingly positive. This, along with the NASA mission control setting, has led to a lot of comparisons with APOLLO 13, which is a very good film, probably Ron Howard’s best, so the likening isn’t an insult, but I think this one’s better, because it has the same virtues plus some extra ones, mostly audio-visual.

Scott’s always been rather good at casting, though his background in ads would seem to equip him solely to flick through Spotlight and pick out faces he liked. But look at ALIEN — every one of the Nostromo’s crew is a wonderfully quirky thesp. When ill-health forced Jon Finch to drop out, Scott replaced him with John Hurt, which shows flexibility as well as excellent taste. For BLADE RUNNER, Scott’s masterstroke was Rutger Hauer, but he also saw something in Darryl Hannah that nobody else had recognized, and was one of very few directors to have tapped the potential of Joe Turkel (basically Kubrick and Scott are his whole career).

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Here, Damon is a personable everyman, onscreen solo for most of 140 mins, and neither bland nor irksomely quirky. The quirks are left to the supporting cast, all briefly sketched in but suggesting the possibility of greater depths. For a while it feels like Kate Mara is going to do nothing but punch computer keys, but some more stuff eventually happens. Jeff Daniels, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover and of course Kirsten Wiig are often associated with comedies, which I guess equips them to be likable. Sean Bean seems like a stand-in for the director. And Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña… it’s just such lovely company to be in.


In Bunuel’s THE ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE, when Dan O’Herlihy leaves the island he hears his dog bark — a dog that had died some years before. This is something I sometimes quote to students as an example of the poetic power of surrealism. Nobody needs to have the moment explained, yet it comes from a place beyond the rational. There’s nothing as elegantly imaginative as that here, but there is the power of realism. The design and performances and writing create a conviction that carries us along. We don’t need interpersonal conflict hyped up when the central situation works as a magnificent plot motor.

Robinson Crusoe is a tricky figure to make work on screen, since fictional characters feed off their interrelationships with one another to become real and engaging. Someone else has to care about them before we can. Watney is alone for ages, and we get very little interaction with his team-mates, but what makes us go with him is his relationship with US, via the vidcams dotted around his Martian “hab.” Implausibly, these all provide a 3D image, something I guess you just have to go with, but it’s worth it.

Saw the film with an actual botanist, who thought it plausible enough except that Martian sunlight would be rather weak for growing veg, and Damon should have swept the red dust off his skylight to help things along.