Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981, Graham Baker)

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Note: The on-screen title is simply The Final Conflict, and indeed that’s how the film was initially promoted.

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Damien Thorn, now 32, arranges it so he can have his stepfather’s old job: American ambassador to the UK. He needs to be on the spot because the Second Coming has been forecast as taking place in England…

Best performance: No one especially stands out. Sam Neill is fine if one-note as Damien. So for a laugh I’ll pick Ruby Wax, who has an uncredited cameo as a secretary at the US embassy. She unknowingly sets off the device that kills the ambassador, therefore freeing up the job for Damien. (The best performance certainly isn’t from Mason Adams, who plays perhaps the least presidential President in cinema. Incidentally, an establishing shot of the White House is stock footage bought from Superman II.)

Best death: The wife of Damien’s second-in-command is tricked into believing her newborn baby is evil. So she burns him to death with an iron. (The close-up of her nightmarish vision was slate 666 – ie, the 666th different camera position used during filming.)

Review: Even more so than the last film, this retcons the timeline. Despite being a child in a movie released five years earlier, Damien is now in his early 30s – approaching the age Jesus was when killed, in fact. Sadly it’s rote, unsubtle storytelling with little momentum.

Five Nazarenes out of 10

Damien: Omen II (1978, Don Taylor)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Now a boy of 12, Damien Thorn is living with his uncle, Richard Thorn. But the strange deaths continue…

Best performance: Lee Grant, the second ever killer in Columbo, plays Damien’s sympathetic aunt, Ann. It’s a decent bit of acting, which throws you off the scent of what’s actually going on.

Best death: Bill Atherton (Lew Ayres), a manager at Thorn Industries who opposes plans for expansion. At a winter barbecue, a big group is playing ice hockey on the frozen lake. Presaged by incidental music with overtone singing, Bill falls through a crack in the ice. He bobs in the water for a moment, then sinks. “The current’s got him!” someone cries as Bill reappears at various points, banging on the solid surface and being pulled to and fro. Then the would-be rescuers lose sight of him…

Review: A sequel with only one returning cast member. The story picks up a week or so later and Leo McKern reprises archeologist Carl Bugenhagen in a prologue. (His beard has grown a lot fuller since we last saw him.) After he learns that the Antichrist is still alive, Bugenhagen is killed and we cut to seven years later. Damien Thorn is now a tweenager played by Jonathan Scott-Taylor, who’s appropriately unsettling in the role. It’s probably best not to question when these films are meant to be set: in the real world, it had only been 24 months since The Omen came out! But we might ask why this sequel ignores the obvious plotline of having Damien living with the President, who took him in at the end of film one. Anyway, as the story develops, threats to Damien’s Satanic destiny are met with macabre deaths (“spectacles of big-screen gore!” the making-of documentary calls them with relish). Sadly, the ambiguity of the first film has been dropped – the lad is now actually evil and has magic powers – but there are political machinations in Richard’s company and power struggles at the military academy where Damien is a pupil and Lance Henriksen is a secret ally. The story definitely falls into the basically-the-same-as-the-first-film camp. The trappings have been moved around a bit, but the structure and themes are repeats from 1976, while there are equivalents of Jennings the photographer and Mrs Baylock the nanny. It’s all a bit functional – you just wait for each inventive death scene to come along – but is a competent enough horror film.

Seven crows out of 10

The Omen (1976, Richard Donner)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After a series of strange deaths, the American ambassador in the UK fears his son, Damien, may be the Antichrist…

Best performance: Gregory Peck holds the whole thing together, playing Robert Thorn as a man emotionally tortured into thinking the unthinkable. But it’s a notably strong cast, with terrific turns from David Warner as suspicious photographer Keith Jennings, Patrick Troughton as troubled priest Father Brennan, and Billie Whitelaw as Mrs Baylock, the terrifying nanny.

Best death: Keith Jennings, who’s decapitated by a sheet of glass that’s been flung sideways off the back of a truck. The stunt is shot from numerous angles and the edit shows us the impact four times. The fake head then spins off almost poetically, while behind Keith a shop window breaks and red wine is symbolically thrown up into the air.

Review: The really smart thing about this film is – to use the director’s term – its verisimilitude. Everything is played absolutely for real. It’s a horror film seemingly about the son of Satan, yet nothing inexplicable or supernatural actually happens. A nanny hangs herself, there are some tragic accidents, a child throws a tantrum or two… The horror instead comes from these plausible events mounting up, the way they’re centred on a creepy little boy, and – most effectively – the fact a father allows himself to be convinced that his son is evil. But is he right? One interpretation of the story is that Damien is just a normal child and Robert has gone mad. It’s a fascinating idea. The Omen is a great movie, helped by some terrific incidental music by Jerry Goldsmith, fine location filming at the genuine American embassy in Grosvenor Square, and an all-round excellent job of directing by Richard Donner. Superb.

Nine armies on either shore out of 10

Young Dracula: series one (2006)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The modern day in a town called Stokely, seemingly in Wales.

Faithful to the novel? No, not really. It’s a CBBC sitcom based on Young Dracula and Young Monsters, a 2006 children’s book by Michael Lawrence. In episode one, Count Dracula (Keith Lee Castle) moves to Britain with his two children, Vlad (Gerran Howell) and Ingrid (Clare Thomas); his servant, Renfield (Simon Ludders); and a sentient stuffed dog called Zoltan (voiced by Andy Bradshaw). They’ve been chased out of Transylvania by a mob of peasants. Dracula and Renfield are characters from Stoker’s book, of course, while the family’s car is called the Demeter in reference to the ship from the novel. Vlad is the series’s lead character – he’s 12 and, despite being Dracula’s heir, doesn’t want a vampire life. Instead, he joins the local school and tries to be a normal kid. Older sister Ingrid, meanwhile, prides herself on being evil – she *doesn’t* want to join the local school but has to. Both siblings are still young vampires, so can go out in sunlight and don’t need to feed. Vlad soon meets and befriends a fellow pupil called Robin (Craig Roberts), who has a fascination with vampires – in fact, an early episode suggests Vlad and Robin might have been swapped as babies – and wants to be one himself. Robin also has a pair of dim parents, a pair of dim brothers and a wise younger sister called Chloe (Lucy Borja-Edwards). Episode two introduces teacher Eric Van Helsing (Terence Maynard), who is secretly a self-styled but hopeless vampire slayer. He spends the series suspecting Dracula and his family of evil; his suspicions are finally confirmed in the final episode. Johnathan Van Helsing (Terry Haywood) is his son and goes the school but is constantly frustrated by his father’s obsession. (In another nod to the book, the little-seen headmistress of the school is called Miss Harker.) Vlad and Ingrid’s mum – the arch, camp Magda Westenra – shows up for the first time in episode three.

Best performance: Terence Maynard, who went on to play Tony Stewart in Coronation Street, is quite funny as the hapless, deluded, earnest Van Helsing.

Best episode: The final part, Countdown, has the Count host a vampire ball in order to find a new wife. But Van Helsing sneaks in and tries to kill him. Scarier than the other episodes, it also sees the plot finally move on after a lot of water-treading.

Review: Series one of this likeable show contains 14 half-hour episodes. It’s in the vogue of The Sarah Jane Adventures (which began the following year), though is not as emotionally rich. But it’s also not as cosy and has a more earthy sense of humour. It can be limiting: the self-contained episodes are mostly set in the Draculas’ castle or at the school, while there are few guest characters. But the regulars are quite fun. A good running gag has Dracula blatantly favouring his son over his daughter. Sadly the actor playing Vlad is not that great, but overall the series is diverting enough.

Seven blood tests out of 10

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007, Ridley Scott)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Twenty-five years after its release, director Ridley Scott returned to Blade Runner and oversaw another new version – this one was touted as the last one ever, definitely, we promise. As well as reversing changes he’d been forced into making in 1982, Scott took the opportunity to carry out numerous other tweaks. The film and soundtrack were also digitally remastered. Scott considers this the definitive version. As I’ve already written about the original movie and its 1990s re-edit, this is a discussion of the notable changes made in 2007. It’s far from a full list – just those that I spotted and thought interesting.

* This version uses the ‘International Cut’ as its basis, so contains the shots of violence missing from the 1982 US edition and the 1992 Director’s Cut.
* The whole film has been graded more brightly, which allows us to see extra detail in the glorious production design.
* The voiceover is absent.
* During the briefing scene, a plot hole has been fixed. Originally, Bryant told us that *one* escaped replicant was killed while trying to break into Tyrell’s headquarters; now, he says two. It was a genuine mistake in 1982 that the ‘one’ line was used. It was filmed that way because there was going to be a fifth rogue replicant in the story. Actress Stacey Nelkin was even cast as Mary, but the scenes were dropped before she filmed anything.
* In the same conversation, Bryant now goes into more detail about Leon.
* The first shot of Roy Batty is a close-up that was actually stolen from a different scene – and in the earlier versions of the film you can see Tyrell’s thumb on Batty’s shoulder! For this Final Cut, the thumb has been digitally removed.
* The unicorn dream is included, but in a different way from the 1992 Director’s Cut. It’s now clear that Deckard is awake and specifically thinking about the unicorn. We cut between reality and dream a couple of times. The sound mix of the unicorn shots has also been redone.
* A photograph we see of Zhora now features Joanna Cassidy, the actress who played her, rather than whoever-the-fuck-it-was in the 1982 version.
* The scene between Deckard and snake-seller Abdul Ben Hassan has had its lip-syncing issues fixed. In both the original version and the Director’s Cut, Deckard’s voice doesn’t match his mouth movements *at all*. Now it does, thanks to some astonishing moviemaking magic. The lower portion of Harrison Ford’s face has been digital replaced with newly shot footage of his son Ben’s mouth saying the dialogue! Talk about attention to detail.
* There are some extra shots of the LA streets. Amongst them, we see two near-naked women dancing in a plastic tube. They’re wearing hockey masks for some reason.
* When Deckard is searching for nightclub owner Taffy Lewis, he now asks a cop for directions.
* Perhaps the most famous goof in Blade Runner has been corrected. In Zhora’s death scene, the head of the obvious stuntwoman has been digitally replaced by new footage of Joanna Cassidy shot 25 years after the fact.
* When Roy Batty confronts Tyrell, he now says, “I want more life, father!” rather than “I want more life, fucker!” It’s a toss-up which version is better. The new one speaks to the theme, I suppose, but I miss the punk attitude of the original.
* Originally, the shadows of two crewmembers – said to be Ridley Scott and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth – could be seen on a wall during Deckard’s chase of Batty. They’ve now been silently erased.
* When a dying Batty lets go of the dove he’s been holding, the shot of it flying away has been changed. Originally, it was a jarring image of a drab warehouse wall and a daytime sky – no one was happy with it. Now, the architecture and mood of the shot match the rest of the scene.
* As in the Director’s Cut, the ‘happy ending’ scene of Deckard and Rachel driving off together has been dropped.

Review: Sumptuous. This is the version to watch.

Ten skinjobs out of 10

Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut (1992, Ridley Scott)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In 1982, during post-production of Blade Runner, a work-in-progress edit was shown to preview audiences in Dallas and Denver. Negative feedback led to numerous changes for the release version, such as the addition of both Deckard’s voiceover and a ‘happy ending’ scene of Deckard and Rachel escaping the city. Eight years after the movie came out, a 70mm copy of that early rough cut (known to Blade Runner fans as the workprint) was found and screened at film festivals. A buzz quickly grew, so Warner Bros decided to cash in. Despite its name, Ridley Scott was too busy to oversee this ‘Director’s Cut’ for its 1992 release, though it was an attempt to restore more of his original vision. As I’ve already reviewed the 1982 version of the film, this is instead a discussion of the changes made a decade later.

* The Director’s Cut uses the US theatrical version as its base, so it’s missing the 16 extra seconds of violence that were seen in other countries. A shame.
* Deckard’s narration has thankfully been completely removed. Early in the film, to plug a gap where voiceover used to be, we hear a longer Tannoy announcement coming from the massive blimp flying above the city.
* As Deckard sits at the piano in his apartment, he now has a 12-second daydream about a unicorn running through the woods.
* The film ends one scene earlier than before, with the lift doors closing on Deckard and Rachel. So the daytime shots of them driving into the countryside are missing.

Review: At the original film’s climax, Deckard finds a small origami unicorn outside his apartment. The fact it’s a unicorn is neither here nor there; it’s simply a tip-off that Gaff tracked down Rachel but let her live. However, the Director’s Cut introduces the daydream mentioned above, which gives the story new meaning. Now we must ask: is Gaff actually revealing that he knows what Deckard has been dreaming about? If so, does that mean Deckard himself is a replicant? Of course, a unicorn is a mythical, fictional creature: in other words, not real. The dream also acts as a magnet, pulling other pre-existing clues into focus:
* When asked if he ever took a replicant-spotting Voight-Kampff test, Deckard doesn’t answer.
* Deckard’s eyes glint in the light at one point, in the same way replicants’ eyes do at various times in the film. (Harrison Ford says this was an accident when he stepped across Sean Young’s mark – but of course the fact Ridley Scott used the take is significant.)
* Deckard’s apartment is littered with photographs. Not only are they mostly old-fashioned and black-and-white, so therefore seem to be from someone else’s life, but we’re told that replicants collect photos as a way of forming their own histories.
* When Deckard is briefed about his mission, his boss tells him that six replicants have escaped and that one was killed trying to infiltrate Tyrell HQ. That leaves five: Roy, Leon, Pris, Zhora… and Deckard? Could he actually be one of Roy’s gang reprogrammed to hunt them down? (Again, this plot ambiguity is actually a mistake: the line should have been that two were killed before the film began, but the wrong take was used and no one noticed the mathematical error.)
Pleasingly, the film never comes out and says for certain either way. But on balance, the Director’s Cut suggests that Deckard is a replicant. This was the first version of Blade Runner I ever saw, on VHS in 1992 or so. Perhaps that means I’m biased, but because it erases the dreary voiceover and adds ambiguity via the daydream I’d say it’s even better than the original.

Ten attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion out of 10

Next time… Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Ten Things I Love About Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

1. The script.
Los Angeles, November 2019. Six replicants – strong, skilful, synthetic humans – have escaped and are on the run. So a detective called Deckard is pulled out of retirement to hunt them down… Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a thoughtful book set in a post-apocalyptic world and is full of complex sci-fi ideas. However, in adapting it for the cinema, writers Hampton Fancher and David Peoples unashamedly stripped the story down and repurposed it as a film noir. There’s a world-weary detective on one last job, a gruff boss who wants results, a classy broad with a secret past, a dark, rain-sodden city… Despite being about robots, it’s a pleasingly old-fashioned plot. And it’s remarkably simple: detective Deckard simply moves from A to B, following clues and tracking down the ‘bad guys’. There’s virtually no intrigue. Director Ridley Scott’s previous film, Alien, was about a dispassionate creature killing a group one-by-one. Here’s the same concept, but from the killer’s point of view. But with so much going on visually and thematically, the story needs to be linear and clear. (The combination of sci-fi concepts and film-noir conventions resulted in a new sub-genre called Tech Noir, named for a nightclub in 1984’s The Terminator. Blade Runner is its definitive text.)

2. Deckard.
This is Harrison Ford in the middle of one of the *the* great CV runs. For a decade or so from 1973, he appeared in American Graffiti, The Conversation, a Star Wars trilogy, Apocalypse Now, two Indiana Jones movies and Blade Runner (and was cut out of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial). Not too shabby. Philip K Dick certainly approved of the casting, calling Ford “more like Rick Deckard than I could have ever imagined… Seeing him as a character I created is a stunning and almost supernatural experience to me.” Here, Ford’s hair is closely cropped rather than Han Solo shaggy, while the Indy charisma has gone too. It’s a terrifically controlled, unshowy performance. Deckard is a classic film-noir gumshoe – he works reluctantly for the police’s Blade Runner Unit (what the name means is never explained), is a loner (the droll voiceover tells us he has an ex-wife) and barely raises a smile. The character’s name is a pun on René Descartes, a philosopher whose most famous maxim was “I think therefore I am.” And that rings with the film’s central question: what does it mean to be alive? Deckard is initially cruel to Rachel, the first robot he meets, because he doesn’t see her as a genuine person. But he gradually grows fascinated by her, falls in love, and this helps with his mission: he only starts finding the rogue replicants once he accepts they have emotions and personalities… In one scene, Ford gets to step outside the private-eye persona. When he meets Zhora, he pretends to be an unctuous union rep with a whiny voice. It’s a better bit of acting than Harrison Ford’s Scottish accent when does a similar thing in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (Note: because it’s less relevant to this version of the film, I’ll save discussion of who Deckard really is for the next review.)

3. Futurism.
When released, the movie was set 37 years into the future – a date we’re now only 36 months away from hitting. But like all the best science fiction, it looks back as much as it looks forward. This is not a Star Trek world of gleaming perfection and utopian lushness. The city still has garish 1980s commercialism, such as billboards for Coke, Atari and Pan Am; there are flying cars, but they mostly have the silhouette of vehicles from the mid-20th century; and every street is full of bustling, chaotic crowds. There’s just as much decay as there is progress. As a fictional setting, it’s *totally* convincing. (It’s also constantly raining. This helps with the relentlessly gloomy vibe, but Ridley Scott had a more prosaic reason: the water disguised how small the exterior sets were.) Blade Runner is also the key example of cinematic cyberpunk, which is perhaps surprising given that it pointedly sidelines computers and has little concept of a digital world. Machines here are functional and analogue. (Check out Deckard’s chunky, juddering photo scanner!) But the clash of ‘high tech and low life’ is what cyberpunk is all about – the more advanced the technology gets, the more rotten the society becomes. And Blade Runner’s world is built on that conflict.

4. The design.
The aesthetic of the sets, costumes, vehicles, props and locations is *extraordinary*. Numerous cinematic geniuses worked on the film’s physical look, among them concept artist Syd Mead (Tron, Aliens), production designer Lawrence G Paull (Back to the Future), special-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (2001, Close Encounters, Silent Running) and of course Ridley Scott. Their Los Angeles is a masterpiece. From a wide shot of the city, we see familiar sprawl – but with additional power plants, flaming towers and flying vehicles. Thick smog hangs over the whole area. Then when we go down to ground level, everywhere is busy, textured, overflowing with people and vehicles and activity. Again, it’s about imagining a future culture by using what’s gone before – specifically the early 20th century. To suit the story’s film-noir mood, sets and costumes (including men’s hats) often feel like they’re from the 1940s. Meanwhile, because he’s detached from the rest of the population, Tyrell’s office building is shaped like a pyramid and has a vaguely Egyptian feel inside (another logical throwback: after Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, a streak of Egyptology ran through American theatre, film and fashion). The 1920s and 30s are also evident in the flashes of Art Deco architecture and the decadent nightclub where Deckard finds Zhora. But playing on the rise of Japanese technology in the early 80s, the city has been laced with an Asian influence – colourful neon signs pop out of almost every exterior shot, many in eastern languages, while fast-food stalls sell noodles. Ridley Scott mostly used sets, including a heavily redressed section of a pre-existing fake street, but there are also carefully chosen real locations: the cavernous Los Angeles Union Station for the police HQ, the Bradbury Building for Sebastian’s apartment, a glistening road tunnel… All of these elements build a stunning universe for the story to take place in. There is enormous detail – extras, shop fronts, stalls, vehicles, signage, screens, umbrella, bicycles, hovering sky-ships – but it’s never overwhelming or cluttered like a lumbering CGI blockbuster. Instead, the world feels alive and vibrant and menacing and fresh and dangerous and seductive. On each viewing, I want the camera to follow every single extra to see who they are and where they’re going.

5. Lighting.
Let’s not equivocate. Blade Runner is the best-lit film there is. The director of photography was Jordan Cronenweth, who was responsible for two hours of sensationally beautiful images. Not one single frame is boring or ugly. There’s a lot of smoke and shadow, flares and florescence, Venetian blinds and fan blades. Almost the entire film is set at night, yet for such a dark film there’s beauty, atmosphere and texture in *everything*.

6. Rachel.
A dame right out of the 1940s – clock her vintage outfits and victory-rolls hairdo! – Rachel is introduced with an archly lit shot where she walks into a spotlight. The camera loves her. When Deckard realises that she’s actually a replicant, he starts referring to her as ‘it’. Sean Young is maybe not the strongest actress, but you can’t help but feel the character’s pain when he then rudely confirms her fears that she’s not real. Sadly, Rachel later drops out of the story while Deckard hunts down Roy Batty. She returns for the ending, though: Rachel escapes the city with Deckard and they drive off into the countryside. For the first time in the film, it’s daytime. Ridley Scott hated being forced to include the scene, and it’s been dropped from subsequent versions. But I’ve never had a problem with it. It’s not a cosy happy-ever-after; it’s a brief glimpse of hope…

7. Music.
The famous score is by Vangelis. It’s electronica with Pink Floyd prog-rock grandeur. Elegant, seductive, hypnotic. Later, it turns appropriately grubby when Deckard’s detective works leads him deep into the bazaar-like streets. (The whole sound mix is generally terrific. Multiple viewings keep throwing up new details.)

8. Roy Batty.
We first see the film’s antagonist on a computer screen. A caption tells us that his ‘incept date’ – ie, his date of birth – is 8 January 2016. Billy Idol blond, he’s a combat model and is the leader of the replicants who have got loose. In some ways, Roy is the most human character in the story. He certainly has the biggest lust for life. His tragedy is that he’s fatally aware that his time is running out – and that means he appreciates experiences more vividly. Roy isn’t actually in the film very much, but like any great ‘villain’ he’s really charismatic. You can’t take your eyes off him. His pre-death soliloquy – partly written by actor Rutger Hauer – is rightly lauded. An action film where the climax is the baddie saving the hero’s life, sitting down, and quietly dying? That’s a pretty decent trick.

9. The rest of the cast.
We meet three other replicants… The kooky and sweet Pris (Daryl Hannah) has a punk look and is euphemistically called a leisure model. Ironically, her incept date is 14 February 2016. Tough guy Leon (Brion James) is uncovered in the opening scene, so attacks his boss and later tries to kill Deckard. The youngest of the gang, his incept date is 10 April 2017. And the beautiful Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) is hiding as an exotic dancer at a seedy nightclub. Her incept date is 12 June 2016. Sadly, her death scene features a very obvious stuntwoman in a very bad wig. Roy and Pris befriend a nervous, naïve man called JF Sebastian (William Sanderson), who lives with a gaggle of animatronic toys. They force him to take them to their creator, Tyrell (Joe Turkel), who lives in a palatial apartment of drapes and candles. Meanwhile, Deckard has two colleagues of note. His boss is Bryant (M Emmet Walsh), while a man called Gaff (Edward James Olmos) seems to have a watching brief over the Blade Runner agents. The latter uses a cane, enjoys origami and talks in Cityspeak, a mishmash of various languages.

10. Cuts.
One of the minor reasons Blade Runner has such a lasting legacy is that there are five different edits available, some with really interesting differences. For a kick-off, there were two versions released in 1982: in the rest of the world, we got 16 seconds of violence that had been trimmed from the US print. This review is based on that slightly longer ‘international version’. The bits not seen in America come during Tyrell’s murder, Deckard’s fight with Pris, and a moment when Batty pushes a nail through his own hand. I’ll discuss the other versions in the next two reviews.

Review: There’s a recurring motif of eyes in this movie. A close-up of a pupil is one of the first things we see; the machine that assesses replicants uses an iris-scanner; Leon threatens to poke Deckard’s eyes out; an ocular technician gives Roy some vital information; Batty pushes Tyrell’s eyes into his head; replicants’ eyes sometimes glint red in the light… The eyeball is a product of evolution, but is so complex and useful that many assume it must have been designed. That tension – evolution vs design, human vs replicant – runs through the whole film. Nominally a standard manhunt movie, Blade Runner is a discussion of what it means to be alive. Are the humans (evolution) any more ‘alive’ than the replicants (designed)? Do they have more right to life? The film’s biggest achievement may be that it’s so stylised, so constructed, so designed, yet feel totally organic and real. Just like a replicant. It’s also, as mentioned, the best-looking movie of all time. The craft on show in the design work, the photography and the special effects has yet to be bettered. Unfortunately, before the film was released, poor audience reactions at test screenings led to a voiceover being added against the wishes of the director and star. As a storytelling device, it’s fine in concept – it really does fit the Sam Spade idiom – but is just bad writing. All it does is spell out things we would rather be left to infer. The crassest example comes just seconds after Roy has died: the narration cuts in, spoiling the moment, to tell you the bleeding obvious. Make no mistake: this film is a masterpiece. It’s one of the most imperishable examples of popular culture. But that voiceover, man… I just can’t justify a 10. Let’s cheat:

Nine and a half Voight-Kampff machines out of 10

Next time… Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut

Blackadder: Back & Forth (1999, Paul Welland)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Cast: Rowan Atkinson plays a modern-day Lord Blackadder (later King Edmund III), while Tony Robinson plays his manservant, Baldrick. They also appear as Roman equivalents: Centurion Blaccadius and Legionary Baldricus. Blackadder’s dinner-party guests are played by former regulars Tim McInnerny (as Archdeacon Darling), Miranda Richardson (Lady Elizabeth), Stephen Fry (Archbishop Melchett) and Hugh Laurie (Major George). The four actors also appear as various historical ancestors – McInnerny is always said to be a member of the Darling dynasty rather than a relative of the Lord Percys from earlier episodes. Patsy Byrne is in the Elizabethan segment, reprising Nursie from series two. Colin Firth shows up playing William Shakespeare, Simon Russell Beale as Napoleon. Rik Mayall appears as a very Lord Flashheart-like Robin Hood, while Kate Moss pushes the definition of acting to cameo as both Maid Marian and the Queen in an alternative 1999. Jennie Bond, then the BBC’s royal correspondent, plays herself in voiceover.

Best gags:

On 31 December 1999, Lord Blackadder plans on conning his friends into thinking he can travel through time. However, manservant Baldrick has built the time-machine prop so convincingly, they actually get sent into the past…
* Blackadder meets Shakespeare, gets his autograph, and then punches him to the ground as revenge for 400 years’ worth of bored school kids.
* Robin Hood: “Well, well, what have we here, my tough band of freedom fighters who have good muscle tone and aren’t gay?”

Cunning: When all looks desperate and it seems he and Blackadder are fated to be lost in time, Baldrick declares he has a cunning plan: deliberately drown himself so his life will flash before his eyes and he can recall where the time machine’s setting need to be. Later, Blackadder says he has a very, very cunning plan: change history for his own selfish benefit.

History: The sketch-show format sees Blackadder and Baldrick briskly visit the time of the dinosaurs, the Elizabethan court (ie, the setting of Blackadder II), the far future, the Sherwood Forest of the 12th century, the Battle of Waterloo (1815) and Roman Britain (AD 43-410). The time machine is built to specifications written by Leonardo di Vinci (1452-1519). The Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) is in the Waterloo sequence – he’s played by Stephen Fry, who sadly goes for a blander characterisation than in series three. Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and Emperor Hadrian (AD 76-138) also crop up.

Review: Sigh. What a flat ending. This 45-minute special has a strange providence. It was commissioned to be shown in the then-new Millennium Dome from 6 December 1999 and throughout the year 2000, and only later shown on television (on Sky in 2001, on BBC1 on 21 April 2002). Perhaps this explains why it feels so designed-by-committee. Not so much a comedy, more an exercise in box-ticking. All the big regulars pop up, there’s puerile humour and fancy location filming. But being shot single-camera with no studio audience gives it a very strange tone. It’s superficially similar to a comedy, but gags about Baldrick’s smelly underpants are played to stony silence.

Five large orange hedges out of 10

Blackadder Goes Forth (1989, Richard Boden)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Regulars: Captain Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) is in the trenches during the First World War. He’s selfish and arrogant, but is a notably less cruel creation than his ancestors. His batman is the dim Baldrick (Tony Robinson), while his second-in-command is perennial public-schoolboy Lieutenant The Hon. George Colhurst St Barleigh (Hugh Laurie). Thirty-five miles behind the front is the British HQ, where the potty General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmany Melchett (Stephen Fry) is assisted by the sycophantic Captain Kevin Darling (Tim McInnerny, back as a regular after taking a series off).

Notable guests: Episode two has Jeremy Hardy as Perkins the jailer, while Stephen Frost and Lee Cornes are members of the firing squad. (About 10 years ago, I did a pub quiz in Dulwich and Frost was in the team at the next table.) Gabrielle Glaister returns to the show for the first time in 15 episodes, playing male-impersonating driver ‘Bob’ Parkhurst in both Major Star and Private Plane. Double act Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson appear in episode four – Mayall is reprising his series-two persona as Squadron Commander the Lord Flashheart, while Edmonson’s only Blackadder role is a cameo as Baron Von Richthofen. Miranda Richardson guests in the penultimate episode as nurse Mary Fletcher-Brown; Bill Wallis has his third Blackadder character in the same storyline.

Best gags:

Episode one: Captain Cook (28 September 1989). When he hears that being a talented artist will get him out of the trenches, Captain Blackadder passes off one of George’s paintings as his own…
* “Tally-ho, pip-pip and Bernard’s your uncle!” “Round here, we say ‘good morning.’
* When George was at school, “education could go hang as long as a boy could hit a six, sing the school song very loud, and take a hot crumpet from behind without blubbing.”
* EVERY SINGLE TIME SOMEONE REFERS TO CAPTAIN DARLING BY HIS SURNAME. (They struck comedy gold when Stephen Fry suggested this joke in rehearsals. The character’s original name had been Cartwright, not Percy as we might reasonably assume.)
* “List of personnel cleared for Mission Gainsbrough, as directed by General CH Melchett. You and me, Darling, obviously. Field Marshall Haig. Field Marshall Haig’s wife. All of Field Marshall Haig’s wife’s friends, their families, their families’ servants, their families’ servants’ tennis partners, and some chap I bumped into in the mess called Bernard.”
* George reveals that he’s an excellent painter. Blackadder excitedly says it could spell “my way out of the trenches.” “Yours?” asks George. Blackadder, after a pause: “That’s right, ours.”
* George tells an incredulous Blackadder to undress before he poses for a portrait. “You mean you want me ‘tackle out’?!”
* “The King & Country cover story was just a cover story.”
* Blackadder gets George to fake a painting of enemy positions. When they show it to Melchett, Blackadder has to admit that there may have been more armaments factories and fewer elephants.
* “Permission to shout ‘bravo’ at an annoyingly loud volume, sir?”|
* Baldrick offers to cook dinner: rat-o-van, which is a rat that’s been run over by a van.

Episode two: Corporal Punishment (5 October 1989). When avoiding communications from HQ, Blackadder shoots a carrier pigeon and eats it – but the bird turns out to be Speckled Jim, the beloved pet of General Melchett…
* “When are we going to give Fritz a taste of our British spunk?”
* Blackadder fakes a bad phone connection when Darling calls with orders: “Schnell, schnell, kartoffelkopf!”
* Blackadder has asked Baldrick and George to tell anyone who asks that he didn’t “shoot this delicious, plump-breasted pigeon.” So of course the first time either is asked any question, they trot out the pat answer.
* In jail, Blackadder sends two letters: one to Bob Massingbird, his lawyer, asking for representation; one to George asking for a sponge bag. Baldrick sends the letters to the wrong people. (Perkins the jailer wonders how good Massingbird is. Blackadder suggests he ask “big, butch, bonking Oscar Wilde.”)
* George reckons Blackadder is as guilty as a puppy sitting next to a pile of poo.
* “The case is the Crown versus Captain Edmund Blackadder… the Flanders pigeon murderer!”
* When asked if the charges against Blackadder are true, defence counsellor George says, “Oh, yes! I was there!”
* Darling lists instances of Blackadder ignoring orders: “May the 16th, 9.15am… 10.23am… 10.24am… 11.17am…” George, who’s looking at the same piece of paper: “You’ve missed one out there.” Darling: “10.30am, thank you. 11.46am…”
* Walking to the witness stand, Baldrick is told by Blackadder to deny everything. George: “Are you Private Baldrick?” Baldrick: “No!”
* George’s closing statement ends: “Captain Blackadder is totally and utterly guilty!” He then sits down triumphantly. Slowly, Blackadder turns over George’s paper. George then sees more writing: “–of nothing more than trying to do his duty under difficult circumstances.”
* Melchett on the witness stand.
* Perkins brings in some men to meet the condemned-to-death Blackadder, who politely asks who they are. “We’re you’re firing squad, sir.” Blackadder then asks if the leader can leave a pause between the words aim and fire. “Thirty or 40 years perhaps.”
* “I must say, Captain, I’ve got to admire your balls.” “Perhaps later.”

Episode three: Major Star (12 October 1989). Captain Blackadder is given the job of producing a morale-boosting show for the troops…
* “Bob?”
* Melchett says, of the clearly female Bob, that *he* has a splendid sense of humour. “He, sir?” asks a stunned Blackadder. “He?! He?!” Melchett: “You see, you’re laughing already.”
* Melchett suggests to Bob that she have a smoke with Blackadder, who has “rather a good line in rough shag. I’m sure he’d be happy to fill your pipe.”
* Bob: “I want to see how a war is fought, so badly!” Blackadder: “Well, you’ve come to the right place, Bob. A war hasn’t been fought this badly since Olaf the Hairy, high chief of all the Vikings, accidentally ordered 80,000 battle helmets with the horns on the inside.”
* Blackadder dictates a telegram. “Mr C Chaplin, Sennett Studios, California. Congrats, stop. Have discovered only person in world less funny than you, stop. Name: Baldrick, stop. Yours, E Blackadder, stop.” He then asks Baldrick to add a PS: “Please, please, please… stop.”
* George in drag as Gorgeous Georgina. (In a subplot not a million miles away from Some Like It Hot, Melchett falls in love with ‘her’.)
* When Blackadder is trying to maintain the illusion that Georgina is real, he warns Melchett to tread carefully. “I don’t think you need to be quite so protective,” the general says. “I’m sure she’s a girl with a great deal more spunk than most women you find.”
* Blackadder’s advice for George, who’s about to go on a date with Melchett: “Never remove your wig… Never say anything… Don’t get drunk and let him shag you on the veranda.”
* After the date, George says their conversation covered the war, marriage and proposed changes to the LBW law.
* George’s coy look when he has to admit Melchett asked Georgina to marry him.
* Told that Georgina has died, Melchett is inconsolable… but then shakes it off and says, “Oh, well – can’t be helped.”
* Blackadder says they’re in the stickiest situation since Sticky the stick insect got stuck on a sticky bun.
* “Care for a liquorice allsort?”

Episode four: Private Plane (19 October 1989). When he joins the Twenty-Minuters – a Royal Flying Corps squadron with short life expectancies for pilots – Blackadder is shot down behind enemy lines…
* During an air raid, Blackadder phones the Royal Flying Corps and leaves a message for the Air Chief Marshall: “Where are you, you bastard?”
* “I don’t care how many time they go up-diddly-up-up, they’re still gits.”
* As in Blackadder II, everything Rik Mayall does is hilarilous – Flashheart crash-lands into the episode and *takes the fuck over*.
* “Mind if I use your phone?” asks Flashheart. “If word gets out that I’m missing, 500 girls will kill themselves. I wouldn’t want them on my conscious. Not when they should be on my face!”
* Blackadder is unimpressed with Flashheart: “Most of the infantry think you’re a prat. Ask them who they’d prefer to meet, Squadron Commander Flashheart or the man who cleans the public toilets in Aberdeen, and they’d go for Wee Jock ‘Poo-Pong’ McPlop every time.”
* Flashheart reckons Bob Parkhurst is saucier than a direct hit on a Heinz factory.
* Darling: “I wasn’t born yesterday.” Blackadder: “More’s the pity. We could have started your personality from scratch.”
* Melchett unrolls a map and declares it’s a barren, featureless desert. Darling then tells him to turn it over.
* “Let’s doooooo it!”
* Flashheart says a pilot should treat his kite like he treats his woman: get inside her five times a day and take her to heaven and back.
* “Goggles on, chocks away, last one back’s a homo!”
* Melchett finds George and Darling arguing. “Now, then! Now, then! Now, now, then, now, then, now, then, then, now, now, then! What’s going on?”
* “Permission for lower lip to wobble, sir?”
* Melchett has a map of the territory taken from the Germans. It’s in a one-to-one scale: 17 square feet.
* Baron Von Richtoven gives a long, portentous speech about finally coming face to face with the famous Lord Flashheart. So Flashheart shoots him and shouts, “What a poof!”

Episode five: General Hospital (26 October 1989). George is hospitalised at the same time that Blackadder is tasked with finding a German spy…
* George and Baldrick’s game of I Spy.
* Nurse Mary says, “If I can’t give my brave boys a kind word and a big smile, what can I give them?” Blackadder: “Well, one or two ideas do suggest themselves but you’d probably think they were unhygienic.”
* “My name is Meeester Smeeeth.”
* “Security isn’t a dirty word, Blackadder. Crevice is a dirty word, but security isn’t.”
* Blackadder wonders whether the army’s plan is to continue the slaughter until the only survivors are Field Marshall Haig, Lady Haig and their tortoise, Alan.
* Nurse Mary hopes Blackadder will conduct himself with more decorum. He replies: “No, I’m going to conduct myself with no decorum. Shove off.”
* Blackadder interrogating Darling. Among numerous great lines, Darling says he’s as British as Queen Victoria. Blackadder: “So your father’s German, you’re half-German and you married a German?!”
* Blackadder thinks the spy might be as hard to find as a piece of hay in a massive stack full of needles.
* “Oxford, Cambridge, Hull…”
* The punchline of how the Germans are actually getting their information.

Episode six: Goodbyeee (2 November 1989).
* It seems wrong somehow – reductive, unfair – to mechanically list the best moments of this episode. I may as well just cut-and-paste the entire script. The whole thing feels more like a Play For Today than an episode of a chaotic sitcom. It’s tightly written, based on characterisation, and becomes increasingly serious as it goes along. (You can sense the humour quietly taking a step back as the climax approaches.) But that’s not to say it isn’t funny. It is. Brilliantly so. Highlights include George’s story about his tiddly-winking pals, Blackadder’s attempt to be found insane, Baldrick’s coffee recipe, the discussion of how the war began, Baldrick’s poems, talk of the 1914 Christmas truce and Geoffrey Palmer’s cameo… But it’s far more than the sum of its parts. A triumph.

Best episode: Well, it’s Goodbyeee. (Private Plane is probably the *funniest* episode, though. Christ, I miss Rik Mayall.)

Cunning: In episode one, Baldrick cites two cunning plans within the opening few minutes. (The first time is perhaps the clearest example of Tony Robinson knowing he’s got a catchphrase and is guaranteed a laugh.) Blackadder catches him carving his own name onto a bullet. Baldrick’s theory is that if there’s a bullet in the world with his name on it he may as well own it. Baldrick then suggests that he and Blackadder get jobs as chefs at HQ in order to get out of the trenches. In episode two, Baldrick visits Blackadder in his cell with a cunning escape plan: it involves a bag containing a wooden duck, a pencil, a miniature trumpet and a Robin Hood costume. The following week, Baldrick appears dressed unconvincingly as a woman and asks, “May I present my cunning plan?” (It’s to marry General Melchett.) In General Hospital, Baldrick has a cunning plan to find the German spy: go round everyone and ask them, “Are you a German spy?” In the final episode, Baldrick has two cunning plans. The first is that Blackadder should phone Field Marshall Haig and ask to get out of the trenches. The second comes just as the regulars are about to go over the top – sadly, there isn’t time for him to elaborate.

History: As well as general First World War conventions and cliches, the series makes specific reference to the Royal Flying Corps (a precursor of the RAF), the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the USA joining the war soon afterwards. Field Marshall Douglas Haig (1861-1928) appears briefly in episode six, played by Geoffrey Palmer. Historical figures who get mentioned include Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).

Review: Wow. This is machine-gun comedy, which rattles off joke after joke at an amazing rate. Similes continue to dominate, but they’re all very funny. It’s also largely a Porridge-style sitcom about characters trapped in a confined location. Superbly entertaining.

Ten clucking bells out of 10