My 10 favourite Ridley Scott films

la_ca_1017_exodus_gods_kings

To celebrate the 80th birthday of visionary film director Ridley Scott, here is a list of what are – in my opinion – his 10 best movies…

10. Black Hawk Down (2001)
It might be a bit one-note, and too long, and too quick to paint foreigners as evil, but Scott’s based-on-a-true-story war movie is incredibly well staged.

9. Hannibal (2001)
A decent-enough sequel to an admittedly better film (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991).

8. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Ridley’s Crusades epic was cut down by studio executives before its release, but was still a good film, full of rich imagery and historical context. Thankfully, the director then released his edit on DVD – running at three hours, it’s much the better version and adds back in some necessary character detail and subplots. Only the blank central performance from Orlando Bloom disappoints.

7. Black Rain (1989)
Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia head to Japan in this fish-out-of-water cop thriller, which is stylish and thoughtful.

6. Gladiator (2000)
Made on the cusp of the CG revolution, this movie uses still-impressive computer graphics to extend its huge physical sets and the result is a totally convincing historical world. Russell Crowe, as a Roman general forced to become a gladiator, has rarely been better.

5. Thelma & Louise (1991)
Despite its serious subject matter – oppression, misogyny, death and rape – this is a huge amount of fun, thanks to a smart, witty script, two world-beating central performances from Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, and Ridley Scott’s visual panache and sense of pace.

4. The Martian (2015)
Superbly charming and likeable sci-fi disaster movie with a sense of humour. It’s based on a really good book, and carries over its playfulness and droll line in comedy. Matt Damon’s excellent, the supporting roles are really well cast, and the situation is genuinely affecting.

3. Robin Hood (2010)
One of Ridley’s most maligned movies, this does have one significant flaw. At various points of his career, lead actor Russell Crowe has attempted a vaguely English accent – see Gladiator, Master and Commander, Man of Steel, The Mummy… Nowhere, however, is it quite as ear-scrapping as in Robin Hood. The actor once walked out of an interview when a journalist suggested he sounded Irish. I’d go more for a mix of Irish, East Midlands, Cornish, Australian, Geordie, Welsh and Dick Van Dyke. But this is just a blemish on an otherwise excellent piece of work. Basically Robin Hood: The Origin Story, the movie ticks the usual boxes – the Crusades, King John, Marian, the sidekicks – but also weaves Robin’s story into a tapestry that involves palace intrigue, civil rights and a coming war. Beautiful to look at, well cast, exciting, funny, and with a fascinating backstory informing everything, this deserves to be much more liked.

2. Blade Runner (1982)
See full review for more, but basically it’s a masterpiece.

1. Alien (1979)
Beating Blade Runner by a Jonesy the cat’s whisker, Alien is not only one of the best science-fiction films ever made and one of the best horror films ever made, it’s one of the best films of any description ever made – see my full review for more.

 

Alien: Covenant (2017, Ridley Scott)

alien-covenant-trailer-breakdown3

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

On 5 December 2104, the crew of the spaceship Covenant are awoken early from their hibernation. Spotting a nearby planet, they land and explore, hoping to start a new colony. But the planet is not uninhabited…

The cast: The opening scene is set before Prometheus, the previous film in this series, and features two characters from that movie. Peter Wayland is younger than we’d previously seen him, so actor Guy Pearce has shed his old-man prosthetics, while the android David (Michael Fassbender) is being switched on for the first time. We then cut to around 10 years after the events of Prometheus and Michael Fassbender appears again. But it’s not David. He’s now playing another android called Walter. (This one has an American accent.) Walter’s keeping an eye on the spaceship Covenant as its human crew and 2000 colonists are in stasis. Then a plot device wakes the crew up unexpectedly and we start to meet them. Here lies a big problem: the cast is just too big. The first Alien movie has only seven people in it, and all were vivid and vibrant characters. Its immediate sequel had many more, but focused on a select few and made sure the others were memorable. Here, we’re bombarded with *15* really bland people we’re supposed to know and care about, and not one of them is given a memorable introduction. It could have been even more, but the captain is killed before he even wakes up. (Oddly, James Franco – often a leading man – was cast for this perfunctory character.) Some come across better than others. Katherine Waterston as Daniels is the closest thing to an Ellen Ripley type: a strong-willed woman who survives until the end. Billy Crudup gives an okay performance as Oram, the second-in-command who has to replace the captain. Comic actor Danny McBride wears a cowboy hat so you can always pick him out as Tennessee. But most of the characters are dully dull. Several of the crew are also paired off into married couples – all straight, mind – and it’s a tiresome struggle to remember which one is wed to which, even with people crowbarring phrases like ‘my wife’ into their dialogue. Much later in the film, after the crew have landed on a planet, they meet David. He’s been stranded there for several years. The movie then heads into batshit-crazy territory as Fassbender has some risible, tedious, two-handed scenes where he plays both David and Walter at the same time. (“Watch me, I’ll do the fingering.”)

The best bit: As in Prometheus, the film comes alive when it feels closest to the original Alien. The first burst of xenomorph action comes after 40 minutes or so. One of the group has been infected by microscopic bugs and starts convulsing and then vomits. He’s taken by two female colleagues to a medical bay aboard the ship and shakes violently; then an alien bursts out of his back and attacks the women. The cutting is good, the music is tense, there’s some smart handheld camerawork, and we even get a couple of moments of black comedy as people slip on pools of blood. You really feel the dread and panic and terror. The film then goes back to being sluggish and underwhelming.

Review: It’s happened before. Someone has a huge success, but then misunderstands why people liked it so much. For example, when George Lucas returned to the Star Wars series in the 1990s he seemed to be under the impression that the world had been charmed by the earlier films’ diplomacy drama and clunky religion. No, George. We liked the swashbuckling and comedy and action-adventure. And now we have Ridley Scott, the visionary director who recalibrated what science-fiction cinema could achieve with 1979’s Alien… who’s under the impression that the monster would be more terrifying if we understood its origins. Um, no. It was so frightening because we *didn’t* know what it is or where it comes from. Alien: Covenant continues Prometheus’s quest to ask big questions about God, the universe, creation and the origins of life – but in such hamfisted ways that it starts to feel like a soppy Christian film. “All these wonders of art, design, human ingenuity,” ponders Peter in the opening scene. “All utterly meaningless in the face of the only question that matters: where do we come from?” Oh, grow up. An even bigger issue, however – as it was in Prometheus – is the stupidity of the characters. In order to believe in and root for fictional people, we have to have confidence in them and yearn for them to overcome obstacles. That’s how storytelling works. But it all falls apart if the characters are so dense they actively create their own obstacles. Here’s a sample of cretinous behaviour:

* The crew change a meticulously planned and researched mission just because they spot a new planet.
* An officer objects to people holding a brief memorial service for their dead friends.
* We’re told the company don’t trust people of faith… by the man of faith who’s in charge of an enormously important mission.
* A soldier wanders off on his own while exploring a virgin planet and seems utterly bored by everything.
* People shove their faces right up close to never-before-seen forms of life.
* The leader of the team is told to hurry back to the ship in an emergency and walks slower than an elderly woman with some heavy shopping.
* A woman puts her naked hand on a man’s bloody scar.
* Characters meet Walter’s doppelganger and don’t comment on it.
* A husband learns his wife is dead and gets over it within two scenes.
* A young couple are so traumatised by their colleagues being brutally killed they go and have a sexy shower together.

Of course, there are some positives. A few of the performances are interesting and the film looks amazing. (Ridley Scott movies always do.) The score also echoes Jerry Goldsmith’s music from the 1979 movie. But overall this is such a disappointment. People get picked off one-by-one and it’s impossible to care about them. The creepy, enigmatic David turns out to have a secret agenda (just like last time). And the film ends on one of cinema’s most see-through-able plot twists ever.

Five flutes out of 10

Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott)

prometheus

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A distant moon is identified as the home of the aliens who seeded life on earth. So, in 2093, the Weyland Corporation sends a ship of explorers and scientists to investigate…

The cast: The best thing in the whole movie is Michael Fassbender’s eerie, creepy yet oddly charming performance as the android David. He’s a fantastic creation; pleasingly, we’re never entirely sure of his motives. (Incidentally, he’s the fourth android in the Alien series, after Ash, Bishop and Call – ie, it’s following an ABCD pattern.) The closest thing to a lead character is Dr Elizabeth Shaw played by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace. Rather than a redhead from Cambridge (I MADE A DOCTOR WHO REFERENCE!), she’s a wishy-washy archaeologist from… Well, to be honest, reading up about this film after rewatching it was the first time I’ve realised she’s meant to be English. Also in the phoney-accent club is Idris Elba playing Janek, the captain of the Prometheus. He at least has a rakish attitude to go with the cod-American drawl. Guy Pearce shows up as Peter Weyland, the boss of the company funding the expedition. He’s a very old man so Pearce has to wear prosthetic make-up. Oddly, he’s never seen young, the reason one would guess a 45-year-old had been cast. (Can we assume Peter Weyland is the son of Alien vs Predator’s Charles Weyland? The dates match, and Charles’s death in that earlier film would explain Peter’s obvious daddy issues.) Other members of the scientific crew include Shaw’s boyfriend, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green); geologist Fifield (Sean Harris with a bonkers hairdo); and biologist Milburn (Rafe Spall, who’s also got an unconvincing American accent). The mission supervisor is Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, doing her best with a bland role).

The best bit: Impregnated by alien DNA, Shaw has to perform an emergency caesarean on herself. In this body-horror sequence the film suddenly feels like an Alien movie: it’s urgent, gross, unsettling, twisted, gripping, and it thrusts a character into a terrifying situation. (Sadly, the tension doesn’t last. She’s soon racing around like nothing’s happened. And takes a strangely long time to put some clothes on.)

Review: Well, expectations were high. A science-fiction movie directed by Ridley Scott? And not just any sci-fi but a prequel to Alien?! Scott had been saying for years that he wanted to see the backstory of the dead ‘space jockey’ creature glimpsed in the original film. Sadly, maybe inevitably, Prometheus can’t match the hype. It’s not a total failure, and is an intensely *interesting* film. But as a piece of entertainment it’s a real dud. For every intriguing idea or nice visual, a muddled character beat or sloppy line of dialogue makes you groan. Let’s start with the positives. Firstly, as mentioned, David is a fascinating character. In a nice contrast to the humans and their idealistic search for answers, he’s someone who already knows everything about his creators… and, frankly, is a bit disappointed. The scenes of him on his own before everyone else wakes up from cryogenic sleep are really nicely done. We see him learning things, playing basketball and watching an old movie – all with childlike wonder. Secondly, the film is tackling some weighty issues, such as the origins and nature of life, while religion keeps cropping up in interesting ways. The characters are, in effect, searching for God and as the ship arrives on the moon it’s Christmas. However, the date is marked only by a tatty fake tree and no one gives it much attention. Shaw’s crucifix necklace, meanwhile, acts as a nice metaphor for her power within the story. (The similarity of ‘Vickers’ and ‘vicar’ is probably a coincidence, though!) And finally, the design work of the ship’s interiors is spectacular. In fact, all the environments – both indoors and out – looked really superb in 3D when I saw this at the cinema in 2012. However… (Deep breath.) The longer the film goes on, the more the problems mount up. Front and centre is the issue of stupidity. To be interested in and care for characters we need to have confidence in them. Prometheus, though, presents some of the most idiotic scientists yet seen in SF cinema. Honestly, there’s some really awful behaviour on show here. Shaw’s character beat about ‘choosing to believe’ in things is laughable enough, but then Holloway sarcastically teases her about being a sceptic. (Surely *every* scientist should be a sceptic?!) The team’s geologist gets lost in some caves, while the biologist shoves his face close to a creature that’s clearly going to bite his head off. Shaw also runs the wrong way when a massive space ship is about to flatten her. Put some comedy music on it and you could be watching a spoof. An even bigger problem is the film’s general lack of oomph. You get no kick to the stomach; feel no dread or tension. The CGI Engineers are bland and uninteresting. The weighty thematic issues rarely lead anywhere. Some of the supporting actors are terrible. Dialogue can be blunt and functional. In short, the big-picture stuff is not bad at all – but everyone knows the devil’s in the detail…

Six clips of Lawrence of Arabia out of 10

Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)

John-Hurt-in-Alien-1979-006

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Nostromo is a spaceship heading back to earth with 20 million tons of mineral ore on board. However, the crewmembers are woken from their cryogenic sleep when the ship detects a strange signal…

The cast: There are only seven speaking parts in the whole film. An early ensemble scene sets up the class struggles within the team as mechanics Parker (Yaphet Kotto, a former Bond villain) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton, who mostly just says, “Right!”) argue with the officers over money. The vibe is truckers in space who live a functional, mundane, earthy life. This isn’t a Flash Gordon space opera; it feels real. The underplayed group dynamic helps hide the fact that Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, fantastic) will be the one character left standing. Early on, she’s just part of the team. Due to a miscommunication, Veronica Cartwright thought she was playing Ripley until she turned up in London for filming; she then reluctantly moved to the role of Lambert, who does a lot of crying. Tom Skerritt has a quiet authority as Dallas, while John Hurt was a late replacement for the role of Kane (John Finch began filming but was then taken ill, so Hurt was cast overnight). The best of the cast by a smidgen might be Ian Holm as Ash. Watching the film knowing that he’s actually an android with a secret mission is a joy because the clues are there in the performance. The subplot ups the ante for Ripley at the worst possible time, and also has a perverse psychosexual twist when a deranged Ash rolls up a porn magazine and attempts to thrust it down her throat.

The best scene: Well, it’s the obvious one. This film was released in the year of my birth; I didn’t see it until about 1990 when it was already a ‘classic’. How wonderful must it have been to see Alien and *not know* what happens to Kane? He’s been attacked by a ‘facehugger’ – a small alien that clasps itself around your head – and fallen into a coma. After the creature detaches itself, Kane eventually comes round. He seems fatigued but otherwise okay, so joins his crewmates for a meal. He then starts to convulse violently. His pals hold him down, but his chest explodes. Blood goes everywhere, and an alien creatures climbs out of his corpse and scuttles off. The shocked looks on the actors’ faces are partly genuine: they didn’t know exactly how the effect would be achieved. In some ways it’s a shame that the moment has become such a cliché (even being spoofed in Spaceballs), but that’s only happened because it’s so good in the first place.

Alternative version: Ridley Scott oversaw a new edit of the movie in 2003. He actually trimmed out a few shots but also added some new footage. It’s not a hugely different experience from watching the original. The most significant change is the addition of a scene near the end where Ripley discovers Dallas cocooned in alien goo. He’s still alive but in terrible pain and begging to be killed.

Review: Ridley Scott has said he was only fifth choice to direct this film. Can you imagine? It’s a world-beating performance, talking a simplistic B-movie script with a couple of decent ideas and turning it into something extraordinary. On the surface, Alien is just a haunted-house horror set in space. If made today it would no doubt have romantic subplots and hackneyed back-stories for all the characters. Not here, because Scott knew you don’t need them. The film begins deliberately slowly, with elegant titles, superb music and some brilliant model shots. When we go inside the Nostromo, the camera slowly creeps around empty sets. The ship interiors are lived-in, distressed, believable. And there’s some lovely attention to detail – a gust of wind accompanies an airlock opening, for example. Even as the crew awake and investigate a strange planet, nothing much happens in the first third. But it’s gripping stuff because of the strong cast and the textured world they inhabit. The slasher-movie format then kicks in – Scott was aware of comparisons with And Then There Were None – while the final 20 minutes feature just Ripley with virtually no dialogue. As usual with Ridley Scott, the unobtrusive camera feels like a character in its own right. It’s often our POV, moving gracefully and slowly when the scene is cautious; going handheld when it’s manic and panicked. A scene of Ripley, Dallas and Ash searching the medical room is played in a static, low camera angle, as if from the monster’s point of view, and it’s almost unbearably tense. Meanwhile, the design work of the sets and props is astonishing – again, a Ridley Scott trademark. You want to freeze-frame the movie just to check out the typography on wall panels. (The only flaw might be the Flash Gordon computer room, which feels too sci-fi for the industrial mood of the ship.) We famously never get much of a look at the fully grown alien, but the ideas behind its life cycle are horrific. This is all-out body horror where the victim is raped and forced to go through a violent labour. Terrifying.

Ten clinking chains out of 10

Next time: Ripley returns to the planet of the aliens…

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

Blade-Runner-LARGE

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)

blade-runner-art-roy-pris

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)

RoyBatty

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* 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