21 February 2008

Classic Film Opening #3: Blade Runner

"My mother? Let me tell you about my mother."

From a film which has a hundred brilliant moments the opening is pure class. Setting the scene perfectly with Vangelis' perfect, haunting electronic music, to visuals that have never been surpassed in this era of CGI. The last of the great "in-camera special effects" movies, Blade Runner is the last great film of the old techniques in visual effects.

The opening credits slowly feed us into the film, via rolling text explaining the Blade Runner, a law enforcer who searches and destroys "replicants", genetically created humans. That music setting the pace and menace. On a beat an extreme close-up of an eye, reflecting a burst of flame. We don't know to whom this eye belongs but the film uses eyes as a motif throughout. In hindsight, is it Tyrell's (Joe Turkell), Deckard's (Harrison Ford), the interviewer in the up coming scene, even Batty (Rutger Hauer).

We cut to a cityscape, like nothing around today (or in 1982 when the film was released). We are told that the year is 2019 and this is supposed to be Los Angeles, it's unrecognisable. The scene is a mass of sprawling super-highrise buildings, stretching out into the smog. The souce of eye's the reflected flame was from the multitude of oil refinery type structures, beltching their pollution into the acrid atmosphere.

The scene has been dubbed the "Hades shot", a masterful track across a forced-perspective model and glass-seperation paintings, shot up to fifty times on the same piece of film. Motion control camera (invented only 5 years before) repeating the camera moves as the shutter is opened to capture seperate real world effects. If just one went wrong the filmmakers would have to start again. Millions of tiny fibre-optic lights creating the look of millions of windows, as the orange light of the dawn struggles to penetrate the smog. Flying vehicles flash past the camera, floating like neon illuminated insects.

The camera tracks slowly towards the biggest structure amongst the cityscape. A huge pryamidal building, hundreds of storeys high. We zoom towards one of the thousands of windows, where we can see a spinning ceiling fan and we start the opening scene proper...

Now, you must remember that the smokey room, ceiling fan and heavy lighting streaming through windows was a new look in cinema. Ridley Scott brought an incredible eye from his time as a commercials director. Copied a million times since this aesthetic was no cliche though it almost came to define the following decade. The room is an interigation room and on the desk still a strange machine, we later learn it's a Voight-Kamph machine). It seems to be alive, breathing like a futuristic iron lung.

A working class janitor type, Leon (the late Brion James) enters and is asked to sit by the man in a smart suit (Morgan Paull). He explains that this is a test and Leon is going to be asked questions designed to provoke an emotional response. A viewfinder raises from the machine and a monitor focuses on Leon's nervous eye.

After a number of strange questions, Leon is confused but answers the questions nervously and as best he can. We are not spoon fed everything, questions are posed, who is this man, what is this building? What is this test from this strange machine? A few clues to the state of this future Earth become apparent, such as the fact animal life is very rare if not completely extinct. The future is not a nice place.

Then Leon is asked about his mother and the violent end of the scene blasts us into this amazing movie with a bang.

I haven't given away too much about the film (in fact, if you haven't seen it, it's quite ambiguous!) but it's definately in the list for films you should see before you die. Blade Runner (1982) was directed by Ridley Scott and based on the novella by Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. If you've never seen this film go see it now. In my opinion it is one of the best science fiction films ever made. It IS an aquired taste, with it's slow pace and noir storyline. It was a relative flop at the time of release and went through a number of edits because of negative test screenings and studio interference. The visuals are stunning though and it's theme of "what makes us human?", thought provoking.

Treat yourself to the Final Cut Ultimate Collector's Edition on DVD, an amazing account of the making or this stunning film and the film itself in it's many incarnations. Don't bother with the "briefcase" version unless you're a completist, because it's what's on the five discs that count. Also worth a look is Future Noir, a brilliant book by Paul M Sammon, that covers much of the same ground. "If only you'd seen what I've seen with your eyes."


Anonymous said...

Didn't know that about the Tyrell replicant! Very interesting.

Yeah, the 5 disc DVD is great... still making my way through it.

Jocelyn said...

You know, you visited my blog and noted that you couldn't relate to my post (hahaha) 'cause you're not a chick. I have to say, right back at ya, that a devotion to BLADE RUNNER is something I tried, twenty years ago, to understand. But I never got there. I can respect the film-making, but mostly I was like, "Okay, so..., is it done yet?"

Heresy, I know.