A Bel Canto Bonanza — The Met Presents Bellini’s ‘La Sonnambula’ and ‘I Puritani,’ Rossini’s ‘La Cenerentola,’ and Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’

Diana Damrau (center) and Javier Camarena (left) in La Sonnambula (Photo: Jonathan Tichler / Met Opera)

Diana Damrau (center) and Javier Camarena (left) in La Sonnambula (Photo: Jonathan Tichler / Met Opera)

Figaro Here, Figaro There, Figaro Everywhere

How much has the modern operatic repertoire changed over the years? How about the last half-century or more? Consulting one of my prized possessions, the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s 1948 edition of the Opera Lover’s Companion, I was astonished to find the list of bel canto pieces produced by the Met during the postwar years to be almost nonexistent in comparison to present-day offerings.

Back when this book was compiled, the sheer number of operas that could be classified as belonging to the bel canto repertoire was undeniably miniscule. The mainstay for this category was held together by a handful of works, primarily Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, albeit in greatly truncated and/or reduced forms.

On occasion, one might be privileged to hear L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”), also by Donizetti, or his comic masterwork, Don Pasquale. Fans eagerly awaiting something more besides The Barber would be treated to Rossini’s other rollicking farce, i.e., La Cenerentola, based on the Cinderella story. Of course, when a vocal attraction of the Gina Cigna or Zinka Milanov variety could be found, Bellini’s Norma would invariably be dusted off and trotted out for audience appreciation. And that, opera lovers, was that!

Some say the war years had shattered what little taste was left for the lost art of “beautiful singing.” As we entered the 1950s, things started to look up for bel canto, thanks in large part to several factors. First, this happened to be a most fertile period of rediscovery and revival, where a studied musician of the quality of conductor and author Vittorio Gui, for example, would champion such neglected Rossinian staples as the aforementioned La Cenerentola, Il Turco in Italia, Mosè in Egitto, and L’Italiana in Algeri in their original (or as close to their original) form as was humanly possible.

In the case of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, the coloratura role of Rosina would be sung not by a chirpy soprano, as was the norm, but by the lower-voiced mezzo or contralto, and performed — and this was the main ingredient — in the original key by artists more or less capable of executing the rapid runs and stylistic flourishes associated with the part. Another crucial element was the restoration of previously excised material. Such was the situation with, say, Count Almaviva’s Act II aria, “Cessa di più resistere,” which had been cut even in Rossini’s day and partially recycled (as was the composer’s wont) as “Non più mesta,” an elaborate showstopper for the character of Angelina in the finale to La Cenerentola.

Still another factor was the arrival of stereophonic long-playing records, which touted the ability of this new-found technology to capture and preserve uncut presentations of operas that had been previously decimated in stage performance. A great example of this were the first “note complete” albums of Lucia di Lammermoor: the 1959 RCA Victor recording with Anna Moffo, Carlo Bergonzi, Mario Sereni, and Ezio Flagello, conducted by Georges Prêtre; followed by the 1961 Decca/London version, with a young Joan Sutherland, Renato Cioni, Robert Merrill, and Cesare Siepi, with maestro John Pritchard on the podium. Both albums can be commended for presenting Lucia in a way most listeners had never experienced before.

Today, we take projects such as these for granted. We should consider ourselves lucky, then, to have heard many of these cherished operas in as close an approximation to the accepted bel canto style as the human voice was then capable of – given the right type of artist, that is.

Trouble in Paradise

Maria Callas as Anna Bolena

Maria Callas as Anna Bolena

But there was a problem with bel canto when it reemerged in the early 1950s. Part of the concern was that few singers at the time had the vocal agility or requisite technique to give life to the long lines and ornate passages these operas demanded of them. While it was true that an insightful interpreter such as Maria Callas might have coped, dramatically and vocally, with the requirements of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Bellini’s Norma, or a Giulietta Simionato may have tackled Angelina or Rosina with the assurance and aplomb of a pro, not every cast member was up to the challenge.

However, let it be said that once opera was graced with the presence of Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Leyla Gencer, Beverly Sills, Marilyn Horne, Teresa Berganza, Fiorenza Cossotto, Alfredo Kraus, Luciano Pavarotti and others, bel canto took a major turn for the better.

Looking at the male side of the equation for a moment, while such lighter-voiced artists as Luigi Alva, Nicola Monti, Renato Cioni, and Cesare Valletti were fine as far as they went (we may add the more robust tenor tones of Mario Filippeschi and Gianni Raimondi to the roster), other categories involving baritones and basses had more than their share of difficulties. A Tito Gobbi or a Gino Bechi, for instance, may have been perfectly suited to Verdi and Puccini, or to the heavier verismo repertoire. But in bel canto, where lightness of tone, care for the legato line, and vocal dexterity were the order of the day, with few exceptions they would be basically at sea.

Once in a while, a singer would come along, i.e., Rolando Panerai, Enzo Sordello, Piero Cappuccilli or Renato Bruson, who could manage to “get by” and eventually acquit himself bravely, if not nobly. But the likes of the steely-voiced Ettore Bastianini (in Donizetti’s Poliuto, opposite Franco Corelli and Maria Callas) and others from their generation would more often than not encounter the greatest of hurdles in performing such flowing parts as King Alfonso in Donizetti’s La Favorita, Riccardo in I Puritani, or even Enrico Ashton in Lucia di Lammermoor.

To site one more case in point, let’s take the luxurious basso cantante role of King Henry VIII from Anna Bolena. Who did opera houses have in the fifties and sixties to properly portray the randy English monarch, both vocally and physically? To my knowledge, there were Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and, most passably, Cesare Siepi. Not to take anything away from these outstanding singing actors, but bel canto fireworks (with the paradigm of Siepi’s Don Giovanni and Marriage of Figaro uppermost in our thoughts) was most definitely not in their natural makeup.

The Three Musketeers of Opera

Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

Which brings me to the veritable feast of “beautiful singing” listeners were treated to in the various Met Opera broadcasts of Bellini’s La Sonnambula (March 29), the same composer’s I Puritani (May 3), and Rossini’s La Cenerentola (May 10), the last broadcast of the 2013-2014 radio season. To the above list, let us also mention the Live in HD rebroadcast of Donizetti’s perennial Lucia di Lammermoor from March 2011, which aired during August 2014.

Still, if you’re going to discuss the bel canto era with any authority, you must first bring up the incomparably talented Vincenzo Bellini. Born in Catania, Sicily, in 1801, Bellini was without a doubt the quintessential bel canto composer. What Chopin did for the piano, Bellini had done for the voice. During a ten-year period between 1825 and 1835, he produced no less than five major stage works (Il Pirata, La Sonnambula, Norma, Beatrice di Tenda, I Puritani) and six minor ones. Sadly, he was struck down in his prime by general peritonitis, not two months shy of his 34th birthday, indeed a tragic blow to opera.

Be that as it may, the acknowledged elder statesman of the art was the congenial Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). A man of voracious appetites and sensual tastes, Rossini was a natural-born tune spinner. His “calling card,” as it were, was his ability to compose at a hurried pace, and at every opportunity apply the crescendo to his musical output. Practically all of Rossini’s best-known overtures, along with his inspired ensemble displays — from his earliest operas La Cambiale di Matrimonio (“The Marriage Contract”), Il Signor Bruschino and Tancredi, to the immortal Barber of Seville, La Gazza Ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”), Semiramide, and his final statement on the subject, Guillaume Tell (“William Tell”) — featured this signature technique.

Gioachino Rossini (Photo Etienne Carjat)

Gioachino Rossini (Photo Etienne Carjat)

Bellini was still a young boy when Rossini was receiving wide acclaim throughout the theater world of Venice, Naples and Milan. In fact, prior to the advent of Bellini’s mature oeuvre — the first of which was the successful Il Pirata, given in 1827 (to be exact, his first operatic attempts, Adelson e Salvini from 1825 and Bianca e Gernando from 1826, were fair to middling efforts) — Rossini’s only active competition came from his contemporary, Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), from the province of Lombardy, a composer just as prolific if not as insanely driven as his foremost rival.

We’ve touched upon the distinctiveness of both Donizetti and Rossini’s artistry in previous posts (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/lelisir-damore-the-elixir-of-love-old-wine-in-a-new-bottle/). Let it suffice that Signor Gioachino was the uncrowned king of comedy (Beethoven had famously charged the Italian with providing the world with “more Barbers”), whereas the bulk of Donizetti’s endeavors effectively traversed the realm of tragedy.

Readers may or may not be aware that after the gala debut of his masterpiece, the French grand opera Guillaume Tell, in 1829, the thoroughly sated Rossini brought his operatic career to an end. With the exception of his Stabat Mater, a religious choral work begun in 1832, and completed in 1841, in addition to several salon pieces written for his own amusement, Rossini put down his pen and retired to Paris, France, to the life of a gourmand and master chef. Bon appétit!

Bellini’s premature passing and Rossini’s abdication should have cleared the way for the last of the towering figures of Italian bel canto, Donizetti, who conducted the 1842 premiere of Stabat Mater in Bologna. There, he finally met his illustrious compatriot, Rossini. By the way, the two gentlemen hit it off smartly. After receiving the master’s blessing, Donizetti traveled to Vienna where he assumed the post of Kapellmeister, or “house composer,” to the Austrian court.

Gaetano Donizetti (portrait by Giuseppe Rillosi)

Gaetano Donizetti (portrait by Giuseppe Rillosi)

Regrettably, the syphilitic and manic depressive Gaetano soon became incapacitated by his many ills. In declining health, Donizetti had been diagnosed in Paris with mental instability and was urged to relocate to Bergamo, the place of his birth, where he died on April 8, 1848, at age 50. By sheer coincidence, Donizetti had been privy to more than a few productions of the seminal works of a young composer named Giuseppe Verdi.

Verdi was deeply influenced by all three geniuses, but his greatest inspiration was drawn from close contact with Donizetti and Rossini’s finest creations, most notably Lucia di Lammermoor and La Favorita, as well as Guillaume Tell. Can anyone not see the similarity between Lucia’s opening scena, “Regnava nel silenzio,” and Leonora’s “Tacea la notte placida” from Il Trovatore? Or Arnold’s air, “Asile héréditaire” and rousing cabaletta from Guillaume Tell, with Manrico’s lovely “Ah, si, ben mio” and exhilarating call-to-arms, “Di quella pira,” also from Trovatore?

And if any composer was capable of rescuing opera from total oblivion, surely Verdi was that man. He became, in quick order, the literal embodiment of the very best of bel canto formerly represented by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the trio that developed and preserved Italian opera for posterity.

Sleepwalking with the Stars

So what made bel canto so special? That would depend on who was doing the composing. With all three composers, it was a singular marriage of text to song, the way the emotional content of these works was expressed not just through the music or voice but through words as well. With Bellini, it was what has been termed his “three-part invention” — that is, a healthy dollop of orchestra-supported recitative, a slow-moving cavatina of achingly lovely melody, and a fast and furious final stretch called the cabaletta.

These seem like the standard bel canto construction for any number of set pieces, one which Bellini particularly excelled at. The task of, and challenge for, any singer who undertakes a Bellini role is to capture the many nuances called for in the text and to effortlessly transition from one emotional content to the other in as smooth a manner as possible. Furthermore, the seams that bind these transitional passages must never be shown. If they are, then the musical line is ruined, and the effect that bel canto composers have so carefully and artfully constructed goes for naught.

To further illustrate our point, we need only site the Saturday Met Opera broadcast of La Sonnambula, on March 29. One could hear, in the performances of the titular sleepwalker, Amina, by German soprano Diana Damrau (previously heard at the Met as Gilda in Rigoletto and Violetta in La Traviata, both by Verdi), and Mexican star tenor Javier Camarena as Elvino, a bravura display of coloratura high-wire antics blended with artistry and élan.

Camarena & Damrau (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

Camarena & Damrau (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

To find two such fabulously gifted singers who can overcome most, if not all, of this opera’s many vocal hazards, was both a pleasure and a privilege. As expected, Damrau was superb throughout, flawlessly shaping the line and caressing the notes for greatest dramatic impact, in addition to perfectly executed cadenzas. Similarly, Camarena received the loudest and most sustained applause of the afternoon for his sparkling rendition of Elvino’s high-lying music. He also sang softly when called for, a major plus. Physically, the pair was well-matched. As Count Rodolfo, Italian bass Michele Pertusi’s dark-toned portrayal fulfilled all the requirements of his role with poise and grace. The opera was presided over in fine fashion by conductor Marco Armiliato, the Met’s resident expert on all things Italian.

Moving on to the May 3 broadcast of I Puritani, the listener was amply rewarded with an all-star lineup of talents. Starting with debuting Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko as Elvira, one of those flighty Romantic heroines who go in-and-out of madness (in the mold of Donizetti’s Lucia, but without that opera’s tragic consequences), and continuing with the amazingly adept Lawrence Brownlee in the near-impossible role of Arturo, followed by Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as Riccardo, and our friend Pertusi as Sir Giorgio. The conductor for this performance was Michele Mariotti.

I must say that I have never heard Arturo sung in the way that Brownlee had delivered it. My word! It started with a heavenly “A te, o cara,” and continued on to his duet with Enrichetta (voiced by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop). As we approached the finale, not even the late Pavarotti could have managed that fiendishly difficult third act aria, “Credeasi misera,” on stage, what with its inaccessible high F (sung either falsetto or “in the head”), not to mention those high C’s and D’s! That Brownlee made it and survived was miraculous in itself; that he acquitted himself well in almost all aspects of the part speaks highly for his abilities. His was a performance where every syllable was lovingly shaped, every word intelligibly and thoughtfully expressed, and every sound emitted a throwback to the golden age of bel canto singing. Bravo, bravissimo!

Lawrence Brownlee & Olga Peretyatko in I Puritani (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Lawrence Brownlee & Olga Peretyatko in I Puritani (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Soprano Peretyatko’s Elvira was new to me. In voice and looks, she reminded one of Anna Netrebko, the Met’s reigning queen of opening nights. There is much to be said for that resemblance, but at this early stage in her career Peretyatko needs more stage experience to be able to compete on a level playing field with her Russian counterpart. With that said, I heard many good things in her recent assumption — nothing spectacular, to be truthful, but the raw material is there: carriage, phrasing, expressiveness, and care for note values. Olga must strive to overcome any tendencies that would make her a mere “clone” of the more established Netrebko. In all, we can expect great things from this comely newcomer. I’m told that Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manger, believes it as well.

As for the others in the cast, Kwiecien had come off a recent bought of the flu. Still under the weather, he missed (or ducked) the high note usually called for in the stirring duet, “Suoni la tromba intrepido,” with bass Pertusi that closes Act II. Otherwise, I got the feeling Kwiecien’s voice can no longer sustain the agility demanded of the part of Riccardo. The ease of flow with which he formerly produced his long lines, combined with a lightness of touch, is a thing of the past. This is not necessarily bad news for his fans (me being one of them), just a realization that Kwiecien has matured as an artist, vocally and tonally; that he should consider taking on other assignments apart from bel canto. That is, roles that complement his current vocal state. Again, this is merely an observation colored by what was heard on this occasion.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes


‘The Graduate’ (1967) — Mike Nichol’s Homage to Wayward Youth

The Graduate (1967)

The Graduate (1967)

Note to readers: In homage to director Mike Nichols and his recent passing at age 83, I am re-running one of my earlier blog posts concerning his fabulous comedy-drama The Graduate.

Never had poster art so succinctly summarized the essence of a motion picture. The raised leg forming either an arch or a bridge to unimagined pleasures; the low camera angle reflecting the seriocomic situation at hand; the shot of a smirking, incredulous college graduate named Benjamin Braddock; the rhetorical and self-fulfilling query uttered by him (“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?”); and, of course, the half-mocking, self-implicating laughter by the cynical Mrs. Robinson.

And then, there is the music:

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sounds of silence

The first musical strains of director Mike Nichols’ screen adaptation of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate come from “The Sounds of Silence,” written and performed by singer-songwriter Paul Simon and his partner, Art Garfunkel. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the song was unrelated to Nichols’ iconic feature, but only became part of the finished soundtrack as an afterthought — a soundtrack that spoke to a generation of disgruntled youth.

At the time, The Graduate seized upon the prevailing mood of the period, i.e., the mid- to late 1960s, which reflected the angst, the awkwardness, and the uncertainty of modern life, as well as the feelings of impending doom that the Vietnam War (and other crises) would soon bring to the fore. What Nichols brought to the material (an opening salvo in the so-called Hollywood “New Wave” of contemporary productions) was a biting wit and satiric edginess that captured the essence of the turbulent sixties as few flicks of the era could.

Not to say there weren’t other, equally absorbing glimpses into sixties pop culture (for example, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night were among the better ones); but this film, which made stars of its leads — and a household word out of Simon and Garfunkel – was the hands-down popular favorite.

The sexual revolution is about to kick into high gear when Benjamin Braddock (a perpetually befuddled Dustin Hoffman, in his first major screen role), the clueless graduate of the title, comes home after four years of undergraduate studies in the East. Benjamin has no idea what to do with his life; his rich, upper-class parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) provide little guidance, as do their unhelpful neighbors:

“I just want to say one word to you,” the kindly Mr. McGuire advises him. “Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.” Benjamin no more cares for that tidbit of information than he does for the other mindless indulgences of the Southern California lifestyle.

Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) brooding about life

Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) in his room, brooding about life, in The Graduate

Unable to face up to the challenge of life away from school, Benjamin isolates himself in his room, brooding and reflecting upon his worthlessness. Into his dreary world walks Mrs. Robinson (a supremely self-possessed Anne Bancroft, who was only a few years older than Hoffman), the alcoholic wife of his father’s best friend and law partner (delightfully underplayed by the laid-back Murray Hamilton in an array of coordinated cardigans).

Mrs. Robinson initiates the young fool into the pleasures of the flesh, which boosts the ungainly Benjamin’s confidence level to no end. A hilarious hotel rendezvous notwithstanding, wherein the utterly bewildered Benjamin almost loses what’s left of his bearings (and his sanity), all goes well with the illicit affair. That is, until he is introduced to Mrs. Robinson’s strikingly attractive daughter, Elaine (angelic-looking Katharine Ross). When Mrs. Robinson hears of the couple’s budding romance, she decides to take matters into her own hands, to disastrous but ultimately comic effect.

Many of the film’s most memorable moments, including Dustin’s head-banging episode in the hotel room, were spur-of-the-moment inspirations, as recounted in Mark Harris’ tell-all book Pictures at a Revolution (Penguin Books). Besides the other Simon and Garfunkel hits scattered throughout the story (“Mrs. Robinson,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” and “April Come She Will”), the remaining music was supplied by jazz artist Dave Grusin.

Calder Willingham and Buck Henry wrote the riotous screenplay, with Buck playing it straight as the deadpan Room Clerk. There are many priceless vignettes by an army of featured contract players, including (try to spot them all) Alice Ghostley, Marion Lorne, Norman Fell (“I don’t think we’ll have any more of this agitation. Will we, Mr. Braddock?”), Mike Farrell, Richard Dreyfuss, Elaine May (who partnered with Nichols onstage in the fifties and sixties), Jonathan Hole, Noam Pitlik, and Kevin Tighe.

Even approaching “middle age,” the film is still as fresh, funny, and sharp as it was back in 1967. Our favorite scenes are Benjamin’s disruption of Elaine’s wedding (with Benjamin rattling the doors of the church at back and on high, and shouting “Elaine! Elaine!” to the startled onlookers), and the iconic last shot of the two of them in the back of the bus with a look of “Now what do we do?” on their faces. This one scores a perfect 10 in my book. Millennials, take note: you are not the only ones who’ve gone through difficult days!

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Alien’ Trilogy — The Stuff of Nightmares and Wet Dreams (Part One)

image alien faceThere comes a point in every monster movie — and we’ve been privy to a spate of them in recent years — where the monster shows itself to its intended victim. We cringe as the look of utter horror ripples across the victim’s face. In the next instant, the loathsome beast is about to pounce on our unsuspecting innocent. Yikes!

In Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien (1979), much of what we’ve come to expect from screen monsters has been turned (quite literally) from the inside out. From the moment this monster appears on the scene — and by now, viewers engrossed in the saga know precisely when that moment arrives — our surprise and revulsion are such that, considering the wild ride the movie ultimately takes us on, we can never be sure where or when that beast will turn up next.

As any horror/science-fiction fan will tell you, it’s those unexpected moments audiences crave for and find the most absorbing. The tension that’s been building never lets up: your heart races, your head spins, and the person sitting to your right knows their forearm is about to get bruised before the flick is over.

That’s how it’s been, ever since the original Alien made its feature “debut.” It’s a movie that’s been defying audience expectations for well over three decades. The other films that make up the so-called Alien Trilogy — James Cameron’s Aliens and David Fincher’s Alien3 (discounting the fourth vehicle in the franchise, Alien Resurrection, as beneath contempt and even further below the level of consideration) — have provided similar fodder, but in their own gut-wrenching style.

We’re talking about three individually tailored visions here, and from three different directors with their own distinctive approach — a concerto for sci-fi lovers, each one comprised of a single movement, with variations on a main theme that in almost every respect translates to survival of the fleetest.

Alien: First Movement (Adagio)

Alien logo and poster art

Alien logo and poster art

Rather loosely based on the hoary B-picture, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, with action sequences borrowed from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, plus such classics of the genre as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars (its immediate predecessor at Twentieth Century-Fox), The Exorcist, and, most logically, The Thing from Another World, this space opera-cum-creep show combines chest-bursting excitement with solid shock-value for the buck, albeit in slow, agonizing doses.

In addition to the obvious horror elements there is plenty of artistry to admire, with a good deal of the credit going to two-time director Scott for his fine sense of the subtle: few filmmakers of his stature (at that point in their careers, at any rate) have used silence to such a nerve-wracking degree. When the thrills do come, they literally jump out at you, thanks to a photogenic feline named Jonesy.

To let readers in on a poorly kept secret, Alien is much more than your average monster-on-the-loose epic. Indeed, with its gleaming slickness, oozing drool, and acid for blood, the Alien takes on undeniably sexual overtones. Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s horrific phallic symbol is so grotesque and so disgusting, it’s actually quite beautiful.

Penetration (yes, in all its myriad forms) is taken to the ultimate extreme — but that’s the whole “point” of the picture! It’s what our not-so-friendly neighborhood Alien represents, the creature’s menacing presence standing in for warrant officer Ripley and the doomed crew’s scariest and most nightmarish wet dream. Quite fittingly, it soon becomes the audience’s wet dream as well.

Fear of the enigmatic other, specifically of the one committing the violation, and its intrusion upon our person (call it “intergalactic rape”) epitomizes the unnatural force behind this thriller set in the outer reaches of space — a contradiction in terms when applied to the confined spaces of the cargo transport Nostromo, or the tighter quarters of the shuttlecraft Narcissus.

Like everything else in this dark, moody work, the violations occur in unique, often bizarre fashion: at times, they’re overt; at others, merely hinted at. But no matter how they occur, they’re committed by the Alien (along with a few others) in constantly shifting forms and in ever-more-ghastly situations.

Likewise, each form the Alien takes on comes with its own set of problems, which the ill-prepared and inadequately-equipped crew members slowly come to appreciate. Their collective battle will bring to fruition the movie’s advertising tag line:

“In space, no one can hear you scream.” AAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRGH!

Adventure Time

The commercial starship Nostromo

The commercial cargo transport Nostromo

The crew’s “adventure,” such as it is, begins shortly after awakening from deep-space hibernation to find Nostromo completely off course. Light years from its destination (i.e., Earth) and hauling a huge and “terribly expensive” payload, the cargo transport intercepts an alien distress signal, resulting in its setting down on a stormy, uncharted planetoid. Their plan is to fulfill what the crew members perceive to be a rescue mission. In truth, they will be the ones in need of rescue!

All told, there are seven crew members, everyday working stiffs very much like ourselves. Indeed, our complete identification with these characters — “truckers in space” as Scott once referred to them, who undergo a traumatic readjustment of their priorities — lends credence to this stark tale of space travelers stranded in a hostile environment competing to overcome it.

What we have, then, is a manifestation of the fight-or-flight phenomenon, pitting an all-too human task force — first Kane (John Hurt) and Dallas (Tom Skerritt), then Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), followed by Ash (Ian Holm), Parker (Yaphet Kotto), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), in that order — against an amorphous and ostensibly invincible adversary embodied by the Alien (six-foot, ten-inch Nigerian design student Bolaji Badejo).

Once on the surface of the planetoid, three of Nostromo’s crew (Dallas, Kane, and Lambert) are dispatched to check out the alien spacecraft from whence the distress signal originated. Dwarfed by the gigantic vessel, they scramble about precariously in an attempt to gain a foothold alongside the outer hull. Finally, they are able to enter through vagina-like apertures. (Note: This is the first of several violations, as previously indicated). Their smallish size, in contrast to the enormity of the craft, gives the crew members the semblance of invading sperm cells, unintentionally “impregnating” the vessel’s interior with their seed.

Alien space jockey

Alien space jockey dwarfs the humans at left

No sooner has their investigation begun when it becomes all-too apparent they have stumbled onto something out of the ordinary: a once living and breathing entity, now hollowed out and wholly abandoned. Groping their way in the darkness (as if gingerly stepping in a dream), they come across the massive, fossilized remains of one of the ship’s former occupants, a gigantic alien life form still strapped to its navigator’s chair. The creature’s ribcage has exploded, but from the inside — an ill-fated omen of things to come.

Not only does the ship contain a skeletal inner structure — scenes of the interior reveal a grotesquely shaped backbone or spinal column of some kind — but there are other clues scattered about that indicate something terrifying must have happened to these beings. (The mystery of the alien vessel and its inhabitants was explored — rather unsuccessfully, in our opinion — in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus from 2012.)

To get at the source of the signal, Kane is lowered into an inner chamber. At the same time, Ripley, the senior officer in charge, informs Nostromo’s secretive science officer Ash that their computer (whose name happens to be Mother) has analyzed the alien transmission: it’s not a distress signal at all, Ripley advises, but a warning. Of what, is still unknown.

The Better to Hug You With, My Dear

The Face-hugger

The Alien face-hugger on Kane’s kisser

Shifting back to the alien craft, Kane has managed to slip through a laser-like force field that blankets the egg chamber — an intriguing, blue-beamed hymen of sorts that alerts the sleeping eggs an intruder is present. Could this be what the distress signal was warning them about? Perhaps, but the damage has already been done. Kane’s involuntary act, i.e., his accidental penetration of the chamber’s “womb,” starts a chain reaction of events that will bring about his downfall and, it should be noted, that of Nostromo’s crew.

In the past four or five years, I’ve seen this picture at least a dozen or more times. That’s an average of two or three viewings per year. Part of the fun of watching Alien on DVD or Blu-ray is the pleasure I get out of discovering new and hitherto unperceived actions I never had the chance to appreciate before now. One can linger over the smallest details, and on every facet of the production — a freeze-frame here, a line of dialogue there — that, in a cursory screening, would be completely lost on the first go-around.

Take, for example, the sequence in which Kane’s curiosity about the egg chamber gets the better of him. The object that shoots out after one of the eggs splits open and attaches itself to his face resembles a sliced fillet of sole blended with horseshoe crab innards. Its tail tightens around Kane’s neck, while it keeps him alive via an organic breathing tube inserted inside his throat (one more example of penetration).

Ugh! You can’t help clutching your own throat as you witness this highly impressionable scene. That disgusting “face-hugger,” as it’s known to film buffs, reminds us of a large and extremely gaunt, almost skeletal claw grasping at someone’s features. When it does finally detach itself, the crab-like creature expires but its reflexive grasping mechanism is still active. God help the person who comes near that thing!

The same grasping mechanism is alluded to again, but under a different set of circumstances. In the bizarre scene where Ash freaks out and tries to shove a girlie magazine into Ripley’s mouth (still another act of violation), he’s accosted by Parker. Ash reacts to his attack by placing his hand over Parker’s chest (where his heart would be) and squeezing it tightly (is this what they call “copping a feel?”). That reflexive action, whereby Parker is clutched by Ash’s vice-like grip, mirrors the face-hugger’s grasping mechanism to a “T.”

Ash (Ian Holm) attacks Parker (Yaphet Kotto)

The “heart” of the matter: Ash (Ian Holm) attacks Parker (Yaphet Kotto)

I never noticed it before, but Ash, who’s obviously gone haywire, was instinctively mimicking the Alien’s face-hugger stage that, only minutes later (with cyborg head neatly detached from his torso), he would be praising: “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” And further: “I admire its purity. A survivor … unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality …” No wonder Ash admires it: he’s just described himself!

Remorseless, unconscionable, and patently amoral, the Alien’s only thoughts are for the preservation of its kind. It’s reasonable to assume that of all the crew members Ash is the only one who does not meet his end in the Alien’s double-jaws of death. How ironic, then, that Ash’s own demise by decapitation (he’s a robot, so we may presume that he lacks a functioning male organ) is a form of emasculation of the sole crew member incapable of reproducing himself.

In the above instance, Ash poses no direct threat to the Alien, which is why the faceless corporation (Weyland-Yutani, or just plain the “Company”) has instructed the science officer to “Bring back alien life form. All other priorities rescinded. Crew expendable.” Hmm …

Another observation: moments after Ash forces the magazine down Ripley’s gullet, Parker disrupts the proceedings by whacking him hard on the shoulders. This sends the science officer spinning about the room and spewing forth a liquid that, to the average viewer, resembles a milky-white substance we might equate to ejaculate. Parker then delivers the coup de grâce to Ash’s head which subsequently severs his noggin from the rest of his body. Youch!

This unfortunate episode illustrates just how deranged the cyborg has become, and how like a praying mantis (or the HAL-9000 computer?) Ash’s natural predatory instincts have taken over his sick mind. At the first sign of a breakdown, he bounces Ripley about the spaceship’s corridor as if she were a stray beach ball. His eyes begin to twitch and a bead of white sweat runs down his brow. This is followed by the business with the girlie magazine.

Ash's severed head

Detached from reality: Ash’s severed head

Since Ash is basically a neutral being (neither male nor female, one would gather), this incident is as close as he’ll ever come to experiencing sexual pleasure from a human. It’s also among the last things Ash does before the plug is finally pulled on his circuits.

Gender Bending

The birthing scene (Photo: Allstar/20th Century-Fox)

The birthing scene (Photo: Allstar/20th Century-Fox)

Needless to say, the traditional roles of men and women are, to put it bluntly, indelibly reversed and reassigned in Alien. For instance, that notorious chest-bursting scene is one that not only gives women the willies, but us men, too. And with good reason: it’s a birthing scene, plain and simple, with copious amounts of blood splattering about, and all the yelling and screaming and carrying-on generally associated with live delivery.

Just to be clear, Kane is carrying an Alien fetus to term — that is to say, one that grows at a tremendously accelerated rate. And to make the comparison even more odious, after Brett is seized and killed by the Alien, and Parker blubbers on in a state of shock re: his late partner’s ordeal, he voices serious concerns about finding and destroying the creature: “This son of a bitch is huge! I mean, it’s like a man; it’s … it’s big!”

And what is Ash’s response? “Kane’s son.” Oh, yeah …

The last sequence is the most “revealing,” in more ways than one, of the entire Alien series. Believing she is finally free of the vicious intruder, Ripley, the “last survivor of the commercial starship Nostromo,” prepares herself for deep-space hibernation. She starts to undress and winds up stripped down to her undies and a teasingly petite T-shirt. This is woman at her most vulnerable state.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in panties

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in petite panties

Throughout the course of the film, Ripley is seen as the most competent, the most level-headed, and fiercely determined member of the crew — the word “macho” readily comes to mind. She takes over the normally (for 1979) male leadership role on Nostromo, and resumes the methodical search for the Alien, after Captain Dallas disappears within the airshaft. (In a deleted scene, Ripley finds Dallas in one of the corridors. Barely alive, he is being used by the Alien as sustenance.)

Taking off her “dog tag,” Ripley flips on, or off, a series of switches. She then does an about-face, bending down slightly as she continues her task, thus giving the movie audience a sneak peek at her rump. This is director Scott’s little in-joke, telegraphing to viewers that the film is about to “end” (get it?). It’s also a clever way to throw us off the track by diverting attention away from the slate-gray row of tubes and pumps that line the shuttlecraft wall where Ripley is standing.

The reason for that diversion becomes clear: it’s where the Alien is hiding. He announces his presence by flicking out a hideous six-fingered hand, which makes both the startled audience and Ripley jump about twelve feet in the air. Ripley runs for cover, to the safety of Narcissus’ locker at back where she finds a handy pressure suit and helmet.

Ripley then slowly steps into one of the suits, all the while keeping a cautious eye on the fearsome beast, whose huge, metallic-colored head and tube-like appendages gleam in the shadows. We do not need to linger over the particulars, since most fans of the film know how the story ends: Ripley manages to flush the Alien out of the shadows and open the shuttlecraft’s door; this action is followed by her firing a spear-gun into it, which knocks the Alien out of the craft. Undeterred, the wily creature tries to latch onto the shuttlecraft’s engine, but Ripley turns on the juice in time to fry it into oblivion.

Ripley manages to harpoon the Alien

Ripley manages to dispose of the Alien

One need not be a disciple of Freud (or even a Jungian acolyte) to discern the symbolic nature of the individual elements that make up the above sequence of events. In not so many words, it’s payback time! So let’s quickly go over them, one by one: Ripley’s stripping away of her garments indicates a casting off of her soiled past to face a clean and wholesome future; her fear of impregnation by the Alien leads Ripley to flee to the safety of the locker; her seeking of shelter there represents a ritual return to the womb; her wearing of a pressure suit inside the locker suggests she’s surrounding herself with a layer of protection akin to amniotic fluid; her shooting of the Alien with a spear-shaped weapon is her way of completing the act of penetration — you might say it’s her tit-for-tat moment (“You did that to them, so I’m going to do it to you!”); etc., etc., and so forth.

At the time, Ripley’s fight for survival against an unconquerable foe, her mano a mano battle to the finish, proved once and for all that women — even one as tall and elegant and efficient as warrant officer Ripley — could be just as successful at depicting the action hero as any man could. Sigourney Weaver, who played Ripley, was so identified with the role that she continued to portray the character in the next three installments of the franchise. And her director on Alien, Ridley Scott, went on to film the critically acclaimed Thelma and Louise (1991), with an Oscar-winning screenplay by Callie Khouri that’s been described as a veritable treatise on feminism.

Origin of Species

On an unrelated matter, Roger Ebert, the popular movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, used to throw a fit every time he was forced to debate the efficacy of the Alien’s morphology. His pet theory was that whenever the Alien opened its jaws, it would reveal a second set of jaws; and that second set of jaws would, in turn, open up to reveal … yet another set of jaws! And so on, all the way down to a miniscule pair of tiny little tweezers at the end — much like what happens with those Russian nesting dolls, but with plenty of drool and razor-sharp teeth.

Lt. Ripley on board Nostromo

Lt. Ripley on board Nostromo

It seemed trivial at the time to have made this observation. And, surely, if memory serves me, Ebert must have been the only critic around to have brought the matter up. Still, he had a point to make: if you’re going to show a creature with a twofold set of mandibles, there should be a perfectly logical explanation in nature for their existence. Roger’s reasoning was this: why would a creature such as the Alien, who supposedly clawed its way to the top of the evolutionary food chain, even need another set of choppers in the first place? As Ash inquired of Ripley, “What’s the point?”

As for me, I was more concerned with how an extraterrestrial of the Alien’s shape, size, and strength was never once shown chowing down a meal, or even taking a drink to quench that monstrous thirst of his. One gets awfully dehydrated in outer space, you know! It could be that his extra pair of jaws got in the way every time the Alien tried to get near a water cooler. Whatever!

Not to make light of this argument, but if the Alien really had molecular acid for blood, as Captain Dallas theorized early on about the face-hugger, then how could the creature prevent its veins and arteries, not to mention all those internal organs, from dissolving through its own bone and tissue? Now that’s a subject I’d like to hear more about. Hopefully, it will be tackled in the next iteration of director commentaries. For now, we’re left with good ole Roger.

(End of Part One)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Blade Runner’ (1982) — Windows to the Soul: Thoughts on Being Human in a Postmodern World

Blade Runner - The All-Seeing Eye

Blade Runner – The All-Seeing Eye

Early in the 21st Century, THE TYRELL CORPORATION advanced Robot evolution into the NEXUS phase — a being virtually identical to a human — known as a Replicant..

The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them.

Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets.

After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on Earth — under penalty of death.

Special police squads — BLADE RUNNER UNITS — had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant.

This was not called execution.

It was called retirement.



 *               *                 *

With the scrolling of Blade Runner’s opening title-sequence above, the stage is set for one of science fiction’s most intelligently written and elaborately conceived screen epics. Since its initial 1982 release, director Ridley Scott’s vision of an over-populated Los Angeles (“Hong Kong on a very bad day”) has been widely emulated but never “replicated,” if you’ll pardon the expression.

Stunning production design, concept art, and exemplary art direction, that’s Blade Runner for you, a film that’s been influencing the look of sci-fi fantasy flicks — and those with apocalyptic impulses — for more than a generation, to include the likes of cyberpunk (The Matrix series), crime drama (Se7en), action-adventure (Cloud Atlas), Japanese anime (Akira, Ghost in the Shell), Pixar animation (Wall-E), video games (Cypher, Rise of the Dragon), and other forms of mass entertainment.

Warner Bros. had a tough time figuring it all out, though. Amazingly, the studio marketed the picture as a combination murder mystery-cum-film noir detective story, with Harrison Ford’s monotonous voiceover as a perfunctory commentary on the action. The redundant narration was later dropped, much to everyone’s relief, as were a few reshuffled scenes, for the re-released 1993 director’s cut. Blade Runner was later restored to its present glory between the years 2002 and 2007, which is now the preferred way to see this mind-boggling spectacular.

Based on Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it’s set in a rain-drenched, futuristic Los Angeles in which, among other things, the denizens have adopted a newfangled street slang (anyone for Esperanto?).

We will attempt to examine this highly influential and ground-breaking production through its concept of the eyes as windows to the soul, and how this concept correlates (or not) to both the human and non-human experiences depicted in the story.

Hell on Earth

Blade Runner - Opening Scene: Los Angeles, November 2019

Blade Runner – Opening Scene: Los Angeles, November 2019

In the director’s commentary and making-of features that accompany the deluxe Final Cut edition of Blade Runner, the consensus of all those talking heads was that the all-seeing, all-knowing eye is everywhere at once, one of many deliberate references to George Orwell’s 1984 that present themselves throughout the picture.

From the opening panorama of a postmodern Los Angeles skyline, with its gargantuan flames and shafts of blast-furnaces that billow up from below ground — a frightening apparition of an earthbound inferno — to the aerial view of flying cars, or “spinners,” encircled by beams of light that stream by the endless landscape, we’re in the presence of a vastness of scale unimaginable to the mortal mind.

In the scene immediately following, those red and yellow flames are reflected, left to right, inside the backdrop of an enormous eye, a stupendous close-up shot that encompasses the entire length of the widescreen field. They speak of dreams kept carefully under wraps, burning desires still raging within the eye of the beholder. Is this beholder Big Brother himself, watching cautiously from a vantage point atop what looks to be a pyramid-like structure? No, he’s only human, an ex-Blade Runner named Holden (Morgan Paull), a functionary of the massive Tyrell Corporation which the structure represents.

From the safety of his office window, Holden peers out into the distance at the spectacle of fireballs and spinners. He is smoking a cigarette, his contribution to the city’s already polluted environment. Ceiling fans circulate the smoky air above him. Holden is about to administer the Voigt-Kampff test, a type of empathy assessment given to all new Tyrell Corporation employees, one of whom enters the room. The employee’s name is Leon (Brion James).

Sitting down at the table opposite his examiner, we see a glimpse of Leon’s enlarged eye, distended by the Voigt-Kampff machine to almost half the size of Holden’s initial gaze (the distinction between Leon’s smaller eye and Holden’s larger one also indicates the lack of something extra: a human soul). The machine measures the reaction of its test-subject through a series of questions designed to provoke an emotional response. Depending on the degree of emotion recorded, one can determine if the individual is a synthetic android (i.e., a Replicant) or a human being.

What it records as well is how humanity remains separated into first- and second-class citizens, despite the progress that human rights advocacy has made. Because of the deteriorating climate, the elite of humanity have departed the planet. Those unable to leave and who remain behind are from the lowest echelons of society and, ergo, are treated as such. They are carefully watched over (or spied upon) by the ever-vigilant police force.

Leon (Brion James) taking the Voigt-Kampff test with Holden (Morgan Paull)

Leon (Brion James) taking the Voigt-Kampff test with Holden (Morgan Paull)

As the test progresses, Leon becomes more and more agitated. His evasive comebacks to such trite queries as “You know what a turtle is?” and “You like it there?” — referring to his shoddy place of residence — provide Holden with an opening: “Describe in single words the good things that come into your mind about your mother.”

“My mother?” Leon inquires, his eyes narrowing in focus. “Let me tell you about my mother …” He then fires a pistol pointblank at Holden from underneath the table, and finishes him off just as the examiner goes crashing through the wall (one of the deleted scenes shows Holden in a hospital isolation ward, still alive but experiencing agonizing pain and suffering).

Leon is one of four escaped Replicants — the others are Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), and Pris (Daryl Hannah), a “basic pleasure model” — who have fled their Off-world confinement in a slave-labor camp to make the dangerous trip back to Earth. Originally there were six Replicants, but two lost their lives during the escape. The four remaining Replicants are on the run, as the opening titles suggest, and have been dutifully marked for “retirement.” We learn, too, that because of their four-year life span the only hope they have is to return to their point of origin, to find the Maker and convince him to extend their lives.

Befitting the dark themes associated with “urban film noir,” the principal action takes place primarily at night and during a perpetual rainstorm. For all we know, this could be fallout from acid rain or the early stages of a nuclear winter (e.g., the scene of Zhora’s shooting and death). But no matter what the weather conditions seem to dictate, they occur within a blighted megalopolis where, despite all those blast furnaces, the sun never shines.

Implicit as well, in the perceptive screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, is a hint of Schopenhauer’s philosophy whereby nighttime becomes the realm of intrinsic reality.

In the Land of the Blind

Leon links up with Roy Batty, his fellow Nexus 6 runaway, and together they begin their search for the Maker. They pay a visit to Hannibal Chew (James Hong), the Chinese craftsman who plies his eye-making trade in a frosty deep freezer.

Chew (James Hong) is questioned by Roy Batty

Chew (James Hong) is questioned by Roy Batty (left), while Leon rips open his coat

Toying with the old man, Leon places cryogenically frozen eye samples on Chew’s shoulder — the point being that Chew may have missed detection before now, but he won’t escape their notice this time around, another analogy to the Big Brother theme, as are the enormous digital faces on the ever-present billboards of oriental women popping treats into their red-lipped mouths.

The trio’s dialogue is clipped and dry. Chew is unable to assist them in prolonging their lives: “I don’t know such stuff, I just do eyes,” he insists briefly, with teeth chattering as he speaks. Chew then asks a question of Roy: “You Nexus, huh? I design your eyes.”

“Chew, if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes!” Batty confides. From their conversation Roy learns of the existence of J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), a soft-spoken genetic engineer who could lead them to the elusive Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the head of the corporation that bears his name — the Maker and all-mighty father figure.

Tyrell is holed up in his office, which happens to be the master bedroom in which he lives, works, and sleeps. The décor is ancient Egyptian. In one corner sits an artificial owl who blinks with luminous eyes; they impart the outward show of wisdom, as in the saying, “As wise as an owl.” Wisdom, however, has eluded the Maker, for Tyrell sports impossibly thick spectacles. Was his purpose in wearing them to make his eyes more prominent, or merely to boost his image by giving the appearance of greatness?

Paradoxically, the Maker is myopic, which betrays his lack of understanding for the biomechanical beings he has created. He is blind to the inevitable truth: that one day the Replicants will insist on living beyond their four-year span. This is why the pyramid-shaped edifice that houses the Tyrell Corporation, reminiscent of the Masonic temple of the all-seeing eye, is lopped off at the top: it’s only partially formed and, therefore, lacking in completeness — much as the Replicants themselves are incomplete. They have superior bodies and minds, but lack the necessary longevity.

Of what use are brains, looks, and brawn if they’re gone in the blink of an eye? “The light that burns twice as bright,” Tyrell declares to Batty, “burns half as long.” His efforts at comforting the Replicant, however, fall on deaf ears. Still, the Maker’s own lack of completeness is reflected in his creations, be they office buildings or artificial beings.

Early on in the film, Tyrell summons Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a hunter of Replicants, to the front office to perform the Voigt-Kampff test on his latest creation: the beautiful Rachael (Sean Young), an advanced model and possible Nexus 8 series but introduced as Tyrell’s niece. Once again, we look deeply into the test subject’s eyes (to wit, her soul) by way of a question-and-answer session — this one taking over a hundred questions to get to the desired outcome.

Tyrell Corporation building

Tyrell Corporation building

Since Tyrell lives and works in his office, his bedroom can be both symbolic of sleep and, in many instances, romance and love. It can also represent a place of procreation — specifically, the act of procreating. It was here, in his bedroom office, that Tyrell created the Replicants. And it’s here that the strongest and most intelligent of the lot — Roy Batty — returns, much like the Old Testament Prodigal Son, to his place of origin, in a showdown with the Maker: Roy, the embodiment of the fallen angel Lucifer, in direct opposition to Tyrell, or God the father.

But Roy needs direct access to the Maker, an extremely difficult man to “get” to (there’s a double meaning implied in his choice of words), especially after Leon is shot through the head by Rachael, who upon being told that she herself is a Replicant has fled the Tyrell Corporation and followed Deckard to a crowded street.

Prior to Leon’s demise, the Replicant attempts to dispose of Deckard by putting his fingers into the bounty hunter’s eye sockets, thus telegraphing to the viewer Batty’s immediate intentions for Tyrell, as well as his eventual fate. Similarly, Leon also spouts the same last words — “Time to die” — that Roy will use in his death scene at the end.

In the meantime, Pris is sent on ahead to gain Sebastian’s confidence. She meets him in front of his apartment complex, the stately Bradbury Building in downtown L.A. Once he’s accepted her as his friend, Pris and Sebastian are joined by Roy, who pops in “unexpectedly,” so to speak.

Sebastian is only 25, but he looks much older than his years. He tells the Replicants that he suffers from the Methuselah Syndrome, a degenerative disease that involves rapid aging. The irony here is that a human has undergone biological transformation via an altered or deformed, or even malfunctioning gene, which renders him old before his time; conversely, the artificial beings, the Replicants, have been purposely bred to have shortened lives, but with no apparent signs of aging.

Pris (Daryl Hannah) with Sebastian (William Sanderson)

Pris (Daryl Hannah) with Sebastian (William Sanderson)

Replicants are former test tube babies who have outgrown the test tube and are now seeking knowledge of the world on their own. But the only knowledge they’ve gained in their shortened existence is that life is hard, all labor is drudgery, and that it will end for them at age four (“Built-in fail-safe device”). The following dialogue encapsulates all the sadness, anguish, and poignancy shared by both humans and Replicants:

Sebastian: “My glands. They grow old too fast.”

Pris: “Is that why you’re still on earth?”

Sebastian: “Yeah, I couldn’t pass the medical.”

And then, a little while later, when Roy Batty enters the picture:

Roy: “We’ve got a lot in common.”

Sebastian: “What do you mean?”

Roy: “Similar problems.”

Pris: “Accelerated decrepitude.”

Sebastian: “I don’t know much about biomechanics, Roy, I wish I did.”

Roy: “If we don’t find help soon, Pris hasn’t got long to live. We can’t allow that.”

(From the Blade Runner movie screenplay – Final script: February 23, 1981)

Roy picks out two large glass eyeballs and places them over his own eyes (in imitation of the Maker, it is presumed). It’s his version of the Voigt-Kampff test. He is now the one peering into Sebastian’s “soul” for a response to his request for aid. Through a pickup game of chess in which Roy discovers that Tyrell is Sebastian’s opponent, he convinces the young man, who’s become sympathetic to their cause, to pique the Maker’s interest in an unusual chess move. This is enough to allow the two of them entry into Tyrell’s inner sanctum. Tyrell expresses surprise that his creation didn’t come sooner.

Significantly, Batty kisses the Maker before he kills him. Those familiar with Shakespeare’s Othello may recall the Moor’s final speech that closes the tragedy: “I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this. Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.” Of course, Batty has no plans to “kill” himself. That would go against his nature, as well as the raison d’être for his visit to Tyrell: to prolong his existence.

“I want more life, fucker,” he snaps at the Maker, visibly disturbed (this was later changed to “father”). “You were made as well as we could make you,” answers Tyrell. “You’re quite a prize. Revel in your time.”

Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) meets his Maker (Joe Turkel)

Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) meets his Maker, Dr. Tryrell (Joe Turkel)

Tyrell’s fate at the hands of his greatest creation is the most significant episode in the drama: it’s the highpoint of their confrontation, and a sweeping arc that takes us directly to the Maker’s execution (or the death of their God) by the plucking of his eyes from their sockets, followed swiftly by the crushing of Tyrell’s head. He will no longer see, he will no longer think; he’ll be blinded, as Oedipus was blinded by his own hand, for his numerous faults (Samson, too, was blinded after he lost his strength, a physical representation of his having lost his way).

There will be no more Replicants, no more slave labor by second-class citizens once the last of the artificial humans have outlived their usefulness. The Maker’s pet owl, synonymous with Wotan’s ravens, watches silently close by. Powerless to intervene, the owl can only blink its huge orbs at the murder of its master: they can no longer see or even comprehend the significance of Roy’s act. This definitive end to the Maker, however, and his capitalistic schemes neither fulfills nor satisfies the desperate Batty. Instead, it horrifies an innocent onlooker, Sebastian, who makes a move to flee the terrible scene. Roy corners and murders him, leaving the corpse behind as evidence of his foul deed.

The Man with One Eye is King

Sebastian was the only person allowed to accompany Roy on his way up to Tyrell’s office. But now, Roy is the lone occupant of the elevator that takes him down to street level and away from the scene of the crime: first, his lofty ascent to Heaven; and then, his descent from the heavens back down to Earth, and to an earthly Hell of the humans’ making. The image of Dante’s Inferno runs rampant throughout Blade Runner, and returns again for one last go-around.

Blade Runner billboard

Blade Runner — spinner and billboard

With its promise of a hopeful future, Off-world becomes the new Paradise, which we hear about constantly in the background and foreground of shots that defy the imagination. Immense flying advertisements, bloated dirigibles, and billboards with digital screens broadcast the wonders of a new life in distant, Off-world colonies. Let the biomechanical Replicants slave away for the limited time they’re on the planet’s surface; as for the “real” humans, i.e., those few with means and the wherewithal to leave this nightmare, they will live out their existence somewhere in Paradise (or Paradise Lost, whichever comes first).

Turning to Roy’s final speech, I don’t know of a more fitting end to all that has gone before than this poetic farewell to life. The entire film’s themes are summed up in his brief apotheosis to an undeserving mankind. It begins as soon as Deckard takes his first potshot at Roy’s form. Having wounded him, Roy reacts by letting out a wolf’s howl. Baying at the ceiling, one last song before dying, he grabs hold of a rusty nail and thrusts it into his right hand. Can he still feel pain or hurt? Can he experience sorrow? He runs down the hallway, occasionally poking his head through the wall to spout a few pearls of wisdom: “Four, five, how to stay alive … Six, seven, go to Hell, go to Heaven.” When you have only minutes left to live, you make the most of what little time remains.

In a way, Roy sacrifices what life he has left to save Deckard, the bounty hunter, or “Blade Runner” of the title, who’s been on the lookout for him since the beginning. A life for a life: “Kinship,” Batty shouts triumphantly, as he suddenly grabs hold of Deckard’s arm with his own impaled hand. Seconds before, Deckard had spat at him in rebuke. Yet he prevents Deckard from taking the “fall” for Roy’s crimes. Batty’s piercing blue eyes now glower at Deckard: they are lit from within, with the flickering flame of life ticking by. Only seconds left to his redemption, and he’ll be no more.

Roy Batty glowers at Deckard

Roy Batty glowers at Deckard

Roy acquires his humanity by empathizing with mankind. He first learns about empathy from Sebastian’s example, who unfortunately had to die after witnessing the murder of the Maker. He next mourned Pris’ death, fingering her wound and smearing her blood on his lips. Indeed, the entire film is an homage to humanity, represented by its eyes, the organs by which humans (and their human imitators, the Replicants) reveal themselves to the world, learn from the world and, in the final analysis, grow to attain the knowledge required to survive in the world, while passing on that knowledge to those deemed worthy enough to benefit from it. This is what humans do, and this is the omnipresent theme of Blade Runner: the exploration of one’s humanity and its eventual attainment:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe …” Roy announces descriptively to Deckard. “Attack ships on fire off the shoulders of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments … will be lost in time, like … tears in rain … Time to die …”

Roy has “seen things,” which indicates he has personally witnessed, and experienced, these marvels. “I watched c-beams glitter in the dark” is a phrase that encompasses an image of the night sky, enveloping the massive horizon with flashes of light, a metaphor for death as it makes its stealthy approach.

Finally the last phrase, “all those moments will be lost in time,” indicative of time running out: “tears” can obliterate sight, since one cannot see when one’s eyes are filled with tears. This is the physiological manifestation of blurred vision — “seeing” equates to “knowing,” or gaining the knowledge of things … of the world … and of miracles (such as those Roy describes above). Tears mixed with rain, tears in rain. The rain continues to pour down over Roy’s face, washing the tears away. Again, the analogy is to Roy’s accumulated knowledge, now irretrievable, being lost forever.

His sins have been washed away, a purging of his tortured soul. These words from Ezekiel 18:20, in the American Standard Version of the Bible, read as follows: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die: the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son.” Both Roy’s and Tyrell’s misdeeds have been forgiven. The sins of the father will not be passed on to his son (or sons), and vice versa.

Our final glimpse of Batty is the closing of his eyes and the ritualized lowering of his head, both an unconscious act and, quite possibly, a deliberate bow to Deckard, a nod of understanding that knowledge has been passed on from Roy to Deckard, a human being (or so we believe), who can learn, perhaps benefit from his proximity to this most extraordinary of beings: Roy Batty, a “human” at last through empathy; and Rick Deckard, the pure fool made wise through pity and compassion for a non-human, Roy.

"Time to die..."

Roy Batty: “Time to die…”

No more tears, no more seeing, no more watching. He’s asleep now. The spontaneous release of the dove Roy carries with him flies away to the sky; it’s the launching of Batty’s soul — or whatever it is that Replicants have that equates to a human soul, leaving the physical boundaries of terra firma and flying upward to freedom. Perhaps back to the Tannhäuser Gate.

But the story does not end with Roy’ death. There’s one more Replicant to go: the beautiful Rachael. She waits in Deckard’s apartment, but is she alive, is she dead? Did the lame Blade Runner with the walking cane, Gaff (Edward James Olmos), who revels in making matchstick figures and animal origami, dispose of her body before Deckard’s arrival, before he’s had a chance to save her life?

In Ridley Scott’s Final Cut of the film, there is no “happy ending” for the lovers, only the expectation that by running away the former Blade Runner can have a life outside his distasteful profession, i.e., that of a killer of runaway androids. Having been redeemed by Roy’s death, Deckard embarks on his own journey: to freedom, to liberation? To one of the Off-world colonies? We can only surmise.

But before he and Rachael can get away, Deckard spots something on the floor. It’s a tinfoil figure of a unicorn, the same mythological creature that appeared in his dream. The voiceover reiterates Gaff’s spoken lines, heard on the rooftop of the Bradbury Building where Roy Batty ceased to exist: “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”

Gaff (Edward James Olmos): "It's too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?"

Gaff (Edward James Olmos): “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”

Deckard nods in agreement (giving back to Batty the nod he just received from him), crushes the unicorn in his hand, and takes off with Rachael for parts unknown. The window into men’s souls has been opened. Deckard peered into it, and was changed by what he saw. Like Roy with Sebastian, he and Batty are so alike, yet so different. They’ve seen things, they’ve done things: “Questionable things,” according to Batty, before he blinded and killed his Maker.

But the questions remain: who is more deserving of a future, the human or the Replicant? What did Deckard learn from Roy about life and living? Does this mean Rachael has a limited life span? And is Deckard himself a Replicant?

We aren’t told any of the answers, nor are we assured the couple will have a blissful, carefree future together — or for how long. There is no formal ending to the story, and those familiar yet comforting words that bring this and other twice-told tales to their logical conclusion are never spoken: “And they lived happily ever after.”

Did they? Really? We don’t know the answer. But then again, who does? Ω

Blade Runner (1982)

Produced by Michael Deeley; directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples; based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick; cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth; edited by Terry Rawlings; production design by Laurence G. Paull; art direction by David Snyder; concept art by Syd Mead; special effects supervised by Douglas Trumbull and Richard Yuricich; costume design by Charles Knode and Michael Kaplan; music by Vangelis; starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Joanna Cassidy, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson, Edward James Olmos, Joe Turkel, M. Emmett Walsh, James Hong and Morgan Paull. Color, 116 min. (Final Cut), the Ladd Company, distributed by Warner Brothers.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes