Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Watcher - The worlds of Philip K. Dick - Blade Runner

Next Monday, July 4th, sees the DVD/Blu-Ray release of the 12th feature film based on the works of Sci-fi icon Philip K. Dick. While ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ has earned mostly positive reviews, critics have noted the film’s divergence from the source material, Dick’s 1954 short story ‘The Adjustment Team’. As such, the finished movie retains only the story’s core concept of a "shadowy team of G-Men type spooks who make tiny adjustments […] to our lives to make sure the future plays out as it should (SFX issue 211)." But with the exception of 2006’s excellent ‘A Scanner Darkly’, adaptations of Dick’s writing usually take only the core sci-fi concept and run with it, often jettisoning the title itself together with subplots, twists and more philosophical themes.

Nowhere is this more true than the very first adaptation of Dick’s work to hit the silver screen, 1982’s ‘Blade Runner’. Directed by relative newcomer Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer, it was, at the time, a relative flop, but has since become regarded as a classic, and marks something of a career high for almost everyone involved.

‘Blade Runner’, based on Dick’s 1968 novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ is the story of Police bounty hunter Rick Dekkard, who hunts down dangerous ‘replicants’, genetically enhanced humanoid slaves, through the streets of a decaying future society. This is where the similarities to Dick’s story end, but at the same time, the world evoked by Scott is unmistakably that of the original author, who having been privy to the filmmaking process, happily acknowledged the truth that "A movie moves and a book talks." (Lee/Sauter: ‘What if our World is Their Heaven?’ Overlook, 2000, p.33)

Fittingly, ‘Blade Runner’ is remembered first and foremost for its stunning depiction of the future city-scape of Los Angeles circa 2019. From the opening shot of a dark urban sprawl lit by neon light and flaming spires, to the rain drenched streets and smoke filled offices, Scott crafted a cohesive, atmospheric world that mixed film noir with futurist style. His insistence that the visuals take equal place alongside the drama ensuring the film’s legacy in a whole new sub genre of ‘neo-noir’ visuals in films and animation.

Legacy aside - simply watch the opening few minutes of the film for yourself. Some scenes are so well constructed that they belie their sheer complexity. In one, Dekkard and colleague Jaff fly through the city as various shots seamlessly mix live action, miniatures and matt paintings to stunning effect. It took about twenty years for the film industry to produce anything else so detailed and visually cohesive, and even then it was with the aid of computers (*cough* George Lucas *cough*).

At its heart though, there is more to this film than simple looks. It’s also a decent thriller where the action is never gratuitous and a story that doesn’t completely ignore the more interesting questions thrown up by the source material. Again, at Scott’s insistence, we not only see how Dekkard’s quest to ‘retire’ the rogue replicants highlights his own brutality and seeming lack of empathy, but ultimately the film makes you doubt whether there are any real humans left at all.

Which leads to the performances. Harrison Ford, no stranger to leading man duties by this point, takes a risk and ditches the easy going charisma of Han Solo and Indiana Jones for something altogether more hard boiled and tortured, and is all the better for it. The two leading ladies, Sean Young and Daryl Hannah who both play replicants, bring a perfectly nuanced physicality to their roles that is at once human and yet slightly alien to our senses.

Rutger Hauer though, as replicant ’big bad’ Roy Batty is, ironically, the film’s beating heart, a tortured soul, and awesome physical presense, who reads his lines with all the passion of a man about to die, and the grace of a classical actor reading Shakespeare. The rooftop showdown between Ford and Hauer at the film’s finale gets the heart racing, before leaving you staggered with its sheers beauty. The flowing soundtrack by Vangelis might also be classed as a performer, perfectly mirroring the emotional beats and even providing them completely during the film’s more stark moments.

All in all, watching 2007’s ‘Final Cut’ version of the film, its hard to believe that ‘Blade Runner’ is pushing thirty. Sure, there are moments, such as the smoking, the flying cars and the lack of digital photographs in the film’s future world that betray its 80s roots, but one still can’t help but conclude that Blade Runner was so cutting edge that it wasn’t so much ahead of its time, but that it simply took the rest of the film industry about thirty years to grow up around it.

And as if that was enough... Edward J. Olmos, with a ’tache and a bow tie. Bow ties are cool. Eddie Olmos is cooler. ’Nuff Said.

Robert Barton-Ancliffe has seen things you people wouldn't believe...

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