Classic Sci-Fi

‘It Came from Outer Space’ (1953): Strangers in a Strange Land

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The discovery of the alien craft in It Came from Outer Space (Universal, 1953)
The discovery of the alien craft in It Came from Outer Space (Universal, 1953)

An imaginary Arizona locale and desert town is the eerie setting for science-fiction author Ray Bradbury’s story of alien visitors from another world who, on their mission to a different part of the galaxy, accidentally crash land on planet Earth.

Writer and amateur astronomer John Putnam (sci-fi stalwart Richard Carlson), a recent resident of the aptly named Sand Rock, is sharing a cozy, romantic evening with local girl Ellen Fields (beautiful Barbara Rush), a grade-school teacher by profession. Suddenly, the couple witnesses a fiery meteor (or something close to it) streak across the nighttime sky.

Wasting no time, the curious pair drives out to the nearby crash site. As Putnam approaches what he believes to be a spacecraft of some kind, an unexpected landslide buries the contents within — but not before he (and the viewer, ostensibly) get a glimpse of what lies inside.

Hideous and horrible, the aliens are not your garden variety space invaders, but are instead intelligent and, it is later learned, benign beings with expansive minds and souls of their own. Unfortunately, they also have single bulbous eyes, amorphous, gelatinous bodies and the ability to assume the identity and appearance of the local populace.

Ellen (Barbara Rush) & John Putnam (Richard Carlson) through the looking glass
Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) & John Putnam (Richard Carlson) peer through the looking glass, or telescope in this case

Even worse, not everyone shares Putnam’s interest and curiosity about the alien visitors, especially after several of the town’s citizens mysteriously disappear and the only hardware store in sight is robbed of its electrical supplies. Hmm …? What could those pesky aliens want with electrical supplies? Maybe, repair their damaged ship? Or get going with their interrupted mission?

Fear and paranoia soon grip the dusty abode, which is patrolled by chain-smoking Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake). An old boyfriend of Ellen’s, Matt is overly protective of her and skeptical of Putnam’s crackpot theories about aliens. He’s not too keen on strangers either, benign or otherwise.

“Why don’t they come out into the open?” Matt asks Putnam.

“Because they don’t trust us,” Putnam replies. “Because what we don’t understand we want to destroy.”

“I kill only what tries to kill me,” Matt fires back.

Putnam tries to talk some sense into the highly strung lawman. He points to an approaching arachnid. “That spider. Why are you afraid of it? Because it has eight legs? Because its mouth moves from side to side instead of up and down? If it came at you, what would you do?”

“This,” as the sheriff crushes the spider under his boot. Point taken, point made!

Despite this seeming setback, Putnam is able to convince Matt to give him and the alien visitors more time to repair their ship. The aliens eventually release their captives and, returning to their original disgusting forms, leave the Earth in the same manner in which they approached, spewing forth a fiery trail in the sky.

Alien spacecraft from It Came from Outer Space
Alien spacecraft crashes to the Earth in It Came from Outer Space (1953)

A true classic of the genre, It Came from Outer Space tries to live down that egregious title and live up to its well-deserved reputation as one of the few soberly-minded and intelligently conceived sci-fi flicks of the 1950s.

Originally filmed in the 3-D process (though always shown flat in its television screenings), It Came from Outer Space was Universal-International’s first foray into the science-fiction field. In fact, the 3-D effects are rather subdued and less “in-your-face” than other examples from the period. For pure shock value, a creepy film score (credited to Irving Gertz, Henry Mancini, and Herman Stein) penetrates the soundtrack whenever the aliens are caught looming about. You may remember this theme from the old Saturday night Creature Features showcase from the 1960s and ’70s.

One of the unfortunate aspects of this and other similar releases at the time was the studio’s bowing to Fifties convention, whereby the men are given the decisive, upright role as defenders of the realm — true movers and shakers, for good or for bad (see Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World).

This attitude relegated most of the women’s parts to pure window dressing or easily excitable observers. The scene in which Barbara Rush, as Ellen, answers the doorbell and screams her fool head off as she spots a boy decked out in a space invader’s outfit (with toy ray-gun in hand), is a good example of old-fashioned female hysterics.

Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) screams for her life in It Came from Outer Space
Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) screams for her life in It Came from Outer Space

Curiously, in another scene, the behavior of a sobbing Mrs. Frank Daylon (Virginia Mullen), the wife of one of the missing telephone linemen, contrasts sharply with that of the other missing lineman’s floozy girlfriend, Jane Dean (Kathleen Hughes). While Mrs. Daylon expresses spousal concern that Frank (Joe Sawyer) had skipped his meal and hasn’t been “himself” of late, Jane is more flippant about Frank’s partner, George (Russell Johnson): “His landlady told me he skipped dinner. That ain’t like George, not with his appetite.”

I’ll bet!

At 81 minutes, the film is compact and concise. The special effects (done via mirrors, split-screens, double exposures, swirling mists, and such) are state-of-the-art, for the era. And despite the description of the scene with Ellen, the acting is relatively low key. Subtlety and nuance, an inescapable feeling of being watched, and an uneasy atmosphere of impending dread are underscored in the thoughtfully developed dialogue, courtesy of screenwriter Harry Essex. The black-and-white cinematography (by Clifford Stine) stresses the silvery noir elements. The picture was partially filmed on location in the surrounding Mojave Desert area of California, which lent a good deal of authenticity.

Poster art for It Came from Outer Space, in 3-D
Poster art for It Came from Outer Space, in incredible 3-D

The movie also boosted the career of veteran documentary-maker and director Jack Arnold. Arnold went on to lend credibility to the burgeoning sci-fi arena with his subsequent outings, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), with Carlson again in the lead, Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula (both from 1955 and both starring John Agar), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), a classic among classics, and the underrated The Space Children (1958).

In many ways, It Came from Outer Space is as rich and timely today as it ever was. Its lessons about reaching out to those in need, who may be as different from us as night is from day; to extend a helping hand and grasp the thing we’re most repelled by — by learning to overcome our basest fears and instinct for survival, while trying to understand the abnormal ways of others — continue to fascinate as well as entertain.

As the bulbous creatures fly off into the night, Putnam looks back at them in wonder and awe: “It wasn’t the right time for us to meet,” he contemplates solemnly. “But there’ll be other nights, other stars to watch. They’ll be back.”

Indeed they will — and quite a different message from the earlier The Thing, where audiences were issued a dire warning to keep watching the skies for trouble, or the one delivered by the cultivated Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, about our bringing violence to other planets: “The Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.”

We need only examine another “alien invasion” feature in French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated Arrival (2016), which starred Amy Adams in a glowing performance as a linguist charged with translating an indecipherable alien language that could save the world from unintended destruction.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951): A Message for Mankind

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Klaatau (Michael Rennie: "We come in peace and with goodwill" in The Day the Earth Stood Still
Klaatau (Michael Rennie) speaks: “We come in peace and with goodwill,” in The Day the Earth Stood Still

The eerie sound of the theremin (two of them, in fact) begins this early fifties feature. The instruments are accompanied by two groaning Hammond organs and bass-pedal notes in the lower strings. Next, the brass section takes over with a muffled fanfare, suspiciously reminiscent of the opening theme to Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, famously used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968.

The sensation we get is of being taken for a ride through the vast regions of space. Slowly approaching what appears to be the Earth, the soundtrack starts to fade away, leaving behind a staccato accompaniment for piano. The music now follows the trajectory of a mysterious craft hurtling itself toward our atmosphere at tremendous speed.

All the while, the spacecraft is being tracked by military intelligence and radar. Foreign countries are also monitoring the ship’s progress, as its final destination is revealed: the city of Washington, D.C., capital of the United States of America — the bedrock of freedom and democracy in a troubled world.

Almost immediately, newspapers and radio and television commentators from around the globe broadcast the event in cautious but barely controlled concern for what this might mean. One radio personality boasts of the lovely spring weather amid the burgeoning tourist season.

Klaatu's ship circles over Washington, D.C.
Klaatu’s spaceship circles over Washington, D.C.

Without warning, the brightly lit form of the spacecraft hovers into view. It flies directly above the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, and the castle-like structures of the Smithsonian Institution. This startles the gathering crowd who follows the ship as it lands softly on a grassy lawn.

Army and military personnel, as well as tanks, jeeps, guns, and soldiers, have been dispatched to the scene. They assemble and surround the craft in nervous anticipation of what is to come. After a few tense moments, a walkway juts out from the body of the craft. An invisible door slides opens and out pops what looks like a male figure in silvery spacesuit and bubble helmet.

The visitor is an alien emissary from space who has come to Earth bearing only peace and goodwill. His sign of friendship and understanding, however, are taken for aggression when he draws what may be a weapon from inside his suit. An anxious soldier opens fire, hitting the helpless visitor in the shoulder, who instantly falls to the ground. The other soldiers approach the wounded visitor reticently, but just as suddenly Gort, a metallic eight-foot tall robot, comes into view. The soldiers and crowd are aghast at this incredible sight. The robot’s visor slowly opens and a powerful, laser-like beam is thrust upon the military’s tanks and weapons, immediately disintegrating them.

The giant robot Gort (Lock Martin)
The giant robot Gort (Lock Martin) aims his light beam at the military

Struggling to take control of the situation, the visitor halts the onslaught with a few carefully chosen words to the gigantic being. Recovering from the fall, he rises to his feet and retrieves the damaged “weapon.” The visitor then tells an uncomprehending soldier that it was a gift for the U.S. president. “With it, he could have studied life on the other planets.” So much for friendly greetings!

He also brings with him a dire warning which he intends to deliver at a proposed mass meeting of Earth’s leaders. But his intentions are misunderstood by a paranoid society unwilling to listen or to compromise. Impatient with the usual authority figures, including the president’s cynical secretary Mr. Harley, the gentlemanly alien named Klaatu escapes Walter Reade Hospital and his Washington, D.C., confines to learn for himself what makes these mysterious Earth creatures tick.

Michael Rennie is the cultivated, intellectually superior (and veddy British) Klaatu. He’s joined by sympathetic office worker Patricia Neal as Helen Benson — not exactly a love interest, but someone to play off of; Billy Gray (before his Father Knows Best period) as her inquisitive son Bobby; and soon-to-be popular sci-fi staple Hugh Marlowe (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) as Tom Stevens, who later fingers the alien for capture by the U.S. Army (darn those pesky diamonds!).

Mr. Carpenter (Rennie) & Bobby (Billy Gray) at Arlington National Cemetery
Mr. Carpenter (Rennie) & Bobby (Billy Gray) at Arlington National Cemetery

This is science fiction film noir at its finest, and one of the very best of its kind. Twentieth Century-Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still became an instant movie classic upon its release, which, despite the Cold War origins, has not aged a single day since its premiere.

Compare this flick to RKO’s The Thing from Another World, also from 1951, which took a more skeptical view of science by giving the “grunts” the last word. Here, military might bows to sheer brainpower in the person of the seemingly benign Klaatu. The central section has Klaatu rendering the Earth helpless by literally stopping it dead in its tracks — everyone and everything, that is, except planes in flight and ships at sea, along with hospitals, emergency wards, and the like.

The film gathers strength when Klaatu, after calling upon the friendly but eccentric Professor Barnhardt (the “smartest man in the world,” according to young Bobby), becomes a hunted fugitive. Gunned down while trying to make his escape, Klaatu charges Helen Benson with the survival of mankind. The fate of the world rests on her remembering three words: Klaatu barada nikto.

Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) speaks the immortal line: "Klaatu barada nikto"
Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) speaks the immortal line: “Klaatu barada nikto”

Veteran character actor Sam Jaffe plays the scholarly Professor Barnhardt in a proto-Einstein hairdo. His initial meeting with the alien, as well as Klaatu’s growing (but unrealized) friendship with Mrs. Benson and especially her son Bobby, are the movie’s closest encounters. However, jealousy and suspicion permeate the ethos where Mrs. Benson’s self-centered boyfriend Tom is concerned. Tom is representative of humankind as a whole, i.e., always in a hurry to move on and get ahead, but failing to look at the damage being done to those who fall behind. Sadly, this movie’s tenets are as true today as they were over six decades ago.

Others in the cast include Frank Conroy as Mr. Harley, Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee in the Andy of Mayberry series), Olan Soulé, Carleton Young, Fay Roope, Freeman Luske, and real-life news personalities Elmer Davis, Drew Pearson, and H.V. Kaltenborn. The role of the menacing robot Gort (a truly awesome creation) is played by seven-foot-four-inch Lock Martin, who was an usher at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He had to wear two different metallic costumes, one for the front view and one for the back, due to a conspicuous, non-photogenic zipper running down the length of each costume.

Former movie editor Robert Wise directed in clinical, almost documentary-style fashion, while film composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) provided the spare music score. As indicated above, his and fellow colleagues Miklos Rozsa and Dimitri Tiomkin’s use of the theremin gained widespread exposure for this exotic-sounding instrument.

Keep alert to the many Christian and allegorical references spread throughout the script — for example, Klaatu’s untimely death and miraculous “resurrection” near the end, and his earthly alias (“Mr. Carpenter,” get it?). The original short story, “Farewell to the Master,” by Harry Bates, was considerably altered for this movie adaptation, which is credited to screenwriter Edmund H. North (Flamingo Road, Young Man with a Horn).

The basic plot was semi-reworked for the excellent 1999 animated picture The Iron Giant, directed by Brad Bird and released by Warner Bros. Do stay away from the hopelessly inept 2008 Keanu Reeves/Scott Derrikson remake, or face obliteration! Late in his career, Michael Rennie made a well-received 1966 comeback in the two-part “The Keeper” episode for the Irwin Allen-created Lost in Space. Prior to that, Rennie starred as Harry Lime in the Anglo-American series The Third Man (1959-1965).

The film dares to ask: What is man’s place in the universe? And how can his destructive nature be contained? At this stage in our development, Klaatu’s apocryphal sendoff is worth repeating: “Should you extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. We will be waiting for your answer.”

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Thing From Another World’ (1951) and ‘The Thing’ (1982): Who Really Goes There?

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The iceman Cometh: Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World (RKO Pictures)
The Iceman cometh and went: Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (RKO Pictures)

One is an old Cold War relic, the other a modern-esque tale of paranoia run rampant. Which is “better”? And which is the more “relevant,” in terms of translating the original source material into a viable shocker for present-day movie audiences?

These are good points to ponder, but do we have an answer? No, but it’s worth spending a little time on the relative merits of these two equally effective science-fiction classics: RKO Radio Pictures’ The Thing From Another World released in 1951, and Universal’s The Thing from 1982. Both pictures address the theme of overly-aggressive visitors from outer space; both attribute their themes to issues prevalent at the time of their release; and both require their ensembles casts to come up with ingenious solutions to the problems presented by unfriendly aliens.

In addition to the above criteria, there is the presumption throughout that science, for all the sanity and wisdom it has imparted to explaining the unexplainable, is simply incapable of overcoming the complexities that humanity will face when confronted by factors beyond their knowledge or control.

The Thing From Another World (1951)

"Keep watching the skies" - The Thing From Another World (1951)
“Keep watching the skies” – The Thing From Another World (1951)

The premise: A flying saucer is found frozen in the Arctic Polar Region. Alerted to its presence, a salvage team of American research scientists, along with various military types, head out to the icy tundra in order to intercept and retrieve it.

In attempting to free the saucer from the permafrost, the military accidentally destroy the ship, only to discover that the alien passenger onboard has been flung into the ice. Instantly frozen by the subzero temperatures, the alien is rescued, in a manner of speaking, and brought to the scientists’ compound, with an around-the-clock guard keeping close tabs on the block of ice.

Unfortunately for the guard on duty, he places an electric blanket over the block so as not to gaze at the loathsome visitor’s creepy eyes, not realizing that the blanket’s warmth melts the surrounding ice. Within hours, the creature escapes the compound and goes on a violent rampage in order to preserve its kind.

A quintessential fifties sci-fi thriller, The Thing From Another World eerily mirrors the gathering Communist storm — and existential threat of that era — by echoing the American response to it. In addition to which, it took into account the increasingly frequent UFO sightings made after 1947. The film is in director Howard Hawk’s inimitable “chatty” style, i.e., abounding in overlapping dialogue with staccato delivery, spoken by a predominantly male cast and the lone wise-cracking female scientist (now there’s a modern angle to boast of). Although the direction is credited to Hawks’ assistant, Christian Nyby, the style is unmistakably that of the veteran of such classic pictures as The Big Sleep, His Girl Friday, and Red River.

The film provides a fair amount of suspense — the creature’s nighttime attack, and its being doused with flame throwers and gasoline buckets, as well as the claustrophobic surroundings, are major assets —but it’s too timid in its execution to furnish more than casual thrills.

Certainly the Frankenstein-monster getup for the alien invader is an egregious faux pas. The Thing, played by six foot seven inch James Arness (Them, Gunsmoke) in his salad days, is nowhere near as frightening or repugnant as it ought to be, considering the source material, John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story, “Who Goes There?” and how it’s described on the screen. Apparently, the less one sees of The Thing, the scarier and more intense things get (no pun intended).

The camaraderie and forced bravado of the military men, for example, along with their testosterone-fueled tendencies toward combating the wily creature, are, quite naturally, understandable, in view of the times in which the film was made: science takes a back seat to sheer bluster and Yankee gung-ho ingenuity in addressing the impending peril. Just the thought of a blood-sucking alien vampire on the prowl, turning humans and sled dogs into lifeless carcasses in order to sustain a growing brood of “super carrots,” was enough to send movie audiences into a tailspin.

It's the little "Things" that count: scientists inspecting Dr. Carrington's findings
It’s the little “Things” that count: scientists inspecting Dr. Carrington’s findings

Carlos Clarens, in his An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films, came up with a novel theory regarding his interpretation of The Thing from Another World: with reference to the creature’s intellectual superiority over his human counterparts, Clarens postulated that “omniscience does not mean human feelings, generosity, or understanding. In this respect, the film is something of a parable: superior science unencumbered by moral scruples will bleed us to death” (Clarens, p. 124).

He cites the example of chief scientist, Dr. Carrington (he’s very “caring,” if you know I mean), who argues for opening up communications with the alien being, only to be brushed aside not only by his fellow scientists and those itchy-trigger-fingered military men, but by the creature itself (violently so). As a matter of fact, the military treat Dr. Carrington a helluva lot better than The Thing does, which only proves the point.

The Thing (James Arness) meets the Scientist (Robert Cornthwaite)
The Thing (James Arness) meets the Scientist (Robert Cornthwaite)

The great ensemble cast mentioned earlier features many familiar faces, among them the reliable Kenneth Tobey as Captain Pat Hendry, Margaret Sheridan as Nikki, Dewey Martin as Crew Chief Bob, Robert Cornthwaite as Dr. Carrington, George Fenneman as Dr. Redding, James Young as Lt. Dykes, John Dierkes as Dr. Chapman, William Self as Corporal Barnes, Eduard Franz as Dr. Stern, Paul Frees as Dr. Voorhees, and Douglas Spencer as “Scotty” the jocular newspaper man, whose final call to “Keep watching the skies” is a none-too-subtle alert against future Red menaces.

The eerie theremin-based film score is by Dimitri Tiomkin, and is in a category all its own. Although in our opinion it’s not the “classic of classics” some critics have made it out to be, I regard it as being very much like Puccini’s opera Tosca: it’s a “shabby little shocker” that still packs a tremendous wallop — when the titular Thing is out of plain sight, that is. And remember this, folks: Keep watching those not-so-friendly skies…!

The Thing (1982)

Kurt Russell as Macready in John Carpenter's The Thing
Kurt Russell as Macready in John Carpenter’s The Thing

With Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) having rejuvenated the vogue for chest-bursting monsters, doomed crew members, and outer-space horror flicks, director John Carpenter (Halloween, Escape from New York) undertook to remake that old fifties staple The Thing — this time with modern cinematic elements.

Carpenter returned to the original idea (the script was written by Bill Lancaster, actor Burt Lancaster’s son) of a shape-shifting alien being, suggested by sci-fi writer John W. Campbell’s short story, “Who Goes There?” (written under the pseudonym of Don A. Stuart). It told a terrifying tale of paranoia and loss of identity, long before the threat of Communism and invaders from Mars would “bug” us out.

However, after the real-life horrors of the Vietnam War, the ensuing Watergate scandals, and the revved up military spending spree vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, the 1982 remake of The Thing spoke solemnly to audiences of the mistrust inherent when individuals, charged with the responsibility of working together as a functioning unit, drop all semblance of so-called “civilized” society (see William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies for a similar viewpoint) to let mindless fear, panic, and isolation seep into their existence.

The story takes place at an Antarctic research facility (scene of the original tale, by the way), where American scientists are investigating the strange deaths at a nearby abandoned Norwegian installation. An Alaskan malamute appears to be the only survivor. Taking the dog back to their compound, one of the scientists, Clark, pens it up with the other sled dogs — but they sense this is not one of their own. Before long, the Thing they have brought back gets loose and starts to take over the minds (and bodies) of the individual researchers. In no time, the researchers turn on one another until in the film’s final frame only two “survivors” are left to toast their troubles away.

A cold day in hell: Kurt Russell (center) as MacReady in The Thing
A cold day in hell: Kurt Russell (center) as MacReady in The Thing

While faithful to the original work in cast and story line, and besides possessing top-notch special FX by the talented team of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston (using stop-motion techniques and animatronics), the film is so enamored of gore and viscera that it forgets to keep its mind on the main plot. The elements of fear and suspicion are present throughout, but there’s so little insight into the characters (and little if any background to them) that they serve as mere backdrops for the real showcase, i.e., those amazing transformation sequences.

Indeed, the creature that erupts all over the screen is without a doubt the vilest, most repulsive-looking Thing imaginable. It reminds one of a giant Venus flytrap. After a while, though, it even starts to take on the comic mannerisms of Audrey II, the “mean green mother from outer space,” in the hit musical The Little Shop of Horrors, which robs it of its ferocity.

Despite this mild handicap, in recent years the film has taken on the status of a cult favorite. At the time of its release, The Thing was in direct competition with the more benign E.T. the Extraterrestrial and Blade Runner. Movie critics eviscerated the work, which while tailored to mature audiences, is really an FX connoisseur’s dream come true (more like a nightmare).

The rugged, all-male cast is headed by Kurt Russell, at his swaggering best, as R.J. MacReady, Wilford Brimley sans his walrus mustache as the paranoid Blair, Richard Dysart as Dr. Cooper, Donald Moffat as Garry, Keith David as Childs, David Clennon as Palmer, Richard Masur as Clark, T.K. Carter as Nauls, Charles Hallahan as Norris, and Peter Maloney as Bennings. Gut-wrenching scenes, along with a dynamic, pulsating electronic score by composer Ennio Morricone, are the main pluses. The final confrontation between MacReady and Childs leaves it up to the viewer whether this Thing has been vanquished or not. It’s one of those truly nihilistic endings.

Keith David as Childs in the final scene of The Thing (1982)
Keith David as Childs in the final scene of The Thing (1982)

Strictly for lovers of elaborate effects, the Howard Hawks-produced version was much more fun than this deadly-straight, coldly distant, starkly dark rendition. But be warned: do not, by any means, let your kids see this alone (heck, I wouldn’t see it alone, either).

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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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.

LOS ANGELES

NOVEMBER, 2019

 *               *                 *

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