Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Seeing is be/live-ing

From its opening scene, Blade Runner declares that it will be a visual movie. Aerial shots of flying cars speeding over a lit-up futuristic cityscape tell us that we'll have plenty to look at. But the following shot, an extreme close-up of erupting flames reflected in a human eye, shows that the movie will be about what and how its characters see. Indeed, the film is replete with eye imagery. Here's a look at some of that imagery and thoughts about how it defines some of the film's themes.

Replicant eyes glow

Rachael during her Voight-Kampff test
Roy kills Tyrell
Tyrell's artificial owl
The Replicants' eyes are often shown with a reflective glow not seen in the humans' eyes. This proclaims their difference (at least to us; Deckard does not appear to see the glow as a distinguishing feature, if at all), and also supports a metaphor used by Tyrell: "The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long," he says, "and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy."

This notion that Replicants are "more alive" than humans is developed throughout the film, as Roy determinedly seeks out Tyrell and a way to extend his own life. During the climactic chase, Roy gives Deckard a head start and repeatedly lets pass opportunities to kill the Blade Runner. He is less toying with Deckard, however, than teaching him — teaching him to recognize the value of life and to fight for his own. After Deckard hits Roy in the head with a pipe, the Replicant exclaims "That's the spirit!" perhaps seeing in Deckard for the first time some of the spark that shines in his own eyes.

Visual aids

Tyrell's large eyeglasses
Chew's goggles and microscope
Abdul Ben Hassan's glasses
and microscope
Those who create Replicants appear to have failing vision, or at least require optical tools to perform their work. Tyrell wears very large eyeglasses, Chew and Abdul Ben Hassan wear goggles and magnifiers and rely on microscopes, and the woman at the artificial fish shop uses a magnifying screen to examine Deckard's snake scale. This implies an impairment which may inspire these engineers to create beings that are impervious to such defects, but it also suggests a symbolic nearsightedness. Focused so much on the minute details of artificial life, these humans are seemingly oblivious to the grander issues with which the Replicants are preoccupied: existence (Pris: "I think, Sebastian, therefore I am"), mortality (Roy seeks to extend his life), ethics (Roy: "I've done questionable things"), kinship (Roy's group is a kind of family), freedom (Roy: "That's what it is to be a slave"), art (Roy quotes William Blake).

Tyrell's glasses make him look like his pet, the owl, a symbol of Tyrell's wisdom. It is telling, however, that Tyrell's owl is artificial, for despite all Tyrell's technical knowledge, he is unable to extend Roy's life or to offer any comforting or "real" wisdom to the murderous creation that has escaped his control.

"Seeing" machines

Rachael's eye on the VK screen
Holden's Voight-Kampff machine
Deckard's photo machine
Blade Runners can't visually distinguish Replicants from humans without the use of the Voight-Kampff machine, which scrutinizes the subject's eyes for inhuman reactions to questions posed by the operator. Deckard uses another machine to see details in photos taken by Leon; he needs special equipment to look through Leon's eyes, to see what Leon has already seen.

Despite this visual assistance, humans are slow to comprehend. During Leon's examination, Holden is tipped off by Leon's reaction to the question about a tortoise, though does not act quickly enough to avoid being shot. He may see Leon as a Replicant, but he does not perceive the immediate danger. Similarly, it is not until the end of the movie that, after being saved by Roy and then watching him die, Deckard is able to glimpse the Replicant's motives, his "point of view."

The eye shop

"If only you could see what I've seen with your eyes."
Roy and Leon enter the eye shop
Chew works on an artificial eye
Leon taunts Chew with his own eyes,
mocking his lack of "vision"
"I just do eyes"

Nowhere are eyes more emphasized than in the eye shop, where Roy and Leon confront Chew, a genetic engineer specializing in eyes. Chew recognizes Roy as a Nexus 6, the most advanced Replicant model, and explains that he designed Roy's eyes. "If only you could see what I've seen with your eyes," Roy says in response.

Not only has Roy seen different, presumably spectacular off-world things that Chew could not have seen, being stranded on Earth, but Roy may also be referring to an ability to see — Roy has "seen" the value of life, and his drive to preserve his own demonstrates a passion not apparent in the humans. Chew, not being a Replicant with such a limited life span, could not have "seen" the same things because his perspective on life is so different — his mortality does not hang over his head as ominously as Roy's hangs over his.

Roy plays with artificial eyes at JF's place. While comical,
the large eyes suggest Roy's great capacity for "seeing."
Roy's words also hint at the idea that Replicants are extensions of their Earth-bound creators. J.F. Sebastian, deemed too ill to leave the planet for a better life on an off-world settlement, marvels at Roy's perfection. Explaining that he worked on the Nexus project, J.F. later tells Roy, "There's some of me in you," and asks Roy and Pris to "do something" spectacular, something that he would be incapable of doing not only due to his illness, but to his being human. So while their mortality may not preoccupy these engineers as much as it does the Replicants, the humans are at least aware of their shortcomings and strive to overcome them vicariously, but in so doing create beings that have to bear greater amounts of fear, stress, uncertainty, and captivity.

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe."

The difference between what Replicants and humans "see" and value is emphasized in Roy's dying speech, when he tells Deckard, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe." On the surface it seems that Roy is referring to amazing visions — "attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion," "C-beams glitter[ing] in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate," things that Deckard and other Earth-bound humans could not see from Earth, yet which they would nonetheless find too spectacular to comprehend. Or perhaps the attack ships and C-beams wouldn't be such spectacle to humans after all, but to Roy and other Replicants with a looming death sentence, these visions — any visions — would be worth treasuring, as Leon treasures his photos, as Roy treasures the memories that he fears will be lost like "tears in rain." Seeing is reassurance to Replicants that their experiences are real, not artificial like the memories implanted by Tyrell, but things they have "lived." Seeing validates their existence and makes them feel alive.

(Of course, it is not certain that Roy has seen any of these things. Like Rachael's childhood, Roy's recollections may be implanted memories of things he has never experienced. If Roy has considered this, it is likely that what he has "seen" is instead metaphysical, something he has realized and which he knows has not been understood by the humans of his time, by Tyrell and the society of Frankensteins that have created artificial life without fully considering the consequences. Or perhaps Roy is unaware of the use of implants and accepts his memories as experience, or perhaps more interestingly accepts them as experience while knowing they are false, as Deckard chooses to accept Rachael as human...)

Loss of sight equals death

The end of Tyrell
Leon tries to kill Deckard
Zhora's lifeless eyes

If seeing is necessary for a Replicant to feel truly alive, then loss of sight is equivalent to death. It is fitting, then, that when Roy kills Tyrell he does so by pushing in Tyrell's eyes, inflicting on him the highest penalty, the loss of sight/life. This punishment makes certain what Tyrell's large eyeglasses have suggested all along — that despite his scientific ability, he lacks vision. He, like all the visually impaired genetic engineers, is unable to see what consequences his work has on the work itself, on the Replicants.

The half-blind bartender
After killing Zhora, Deckard explains in voice-over that even though Zhora was a Replicant, he still found it unsettling to shoot a woman in the back. Ostensibly wanting to numb the impact of that sight, he buys a bottle from a bartender with a patch over one eye. Her state of half-blindness ("half-death") suggests the state she dispenses: the inebriation Deckard wants to feel. While the Replicants treasure their experiences and the memories of them, Deckard seeks to forget.

Pris' eyes (de)emphasized


Rolled back
During her stay with J.F. Sebastian, Pris' eyes are highlighted in several ways: they are accented by a line of black paint that Pris sprays across them, which contrasts the white makeup covering her face; they display the Replicant glow; they are lit by a directed light when she peers through one of J.F.'s instruments; and during Deckard's arrival they are veiled and momentarily rolled back into her head, concealing the iris and pupils and showing only the whites. This white-on-black calls attention to the eyes but also conceals them. "Then we're stupid and we'll die," Pris tells Roy in an earlier scene — her blackened and pupil-less eyes illustrate this prophecy moments before she is killed by Deckard.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Remembering the Doolittle Raid, Hollywood-style

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, the first U.S. air strike against Japan during World War II. The raid was conceived and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle and was full of aeronautical challenges: B-25 bombers were launched for the first time from an aircraft carrier on one-way flights over Japan, carrying barely enough fuel to attempt risky landings in occupied China. While the damage to strategic targets was minimal, the mission was a moral boost to Americans eager for retaliation after Pearl Harbor, and it damaged the credibility of Japanese leaders who had told their people Japan was untouchable. Here's a look at three movies that commemorate the raid.

Spencer Tracy as James Doolittle in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
Van Johnson stars in this 1944 film, which depicts the raid from conception through execution and follows Johnson's Ted Lawson as he attempts to escape from Japanese-occupied China after a crash landing. Spencer Tracy appears sporadically as Doolittle.

A B-52 bomber leaves the deck in Pearl Harbor (2001)
Pearl Harbor
On the whole, this 2001 film directed by Michael Bay is a rather overdone melodrama with laughable dialog and a confounding romantic triad between lead actors Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, and Josh Hartnett. Its take on the raid is hurried, but the big budget is nice to look at. Alec Baldwin plays Doolittle in a relatively small part.

Cary Grant in Destination Tokyo (1943)
Destination Tokyo
The actual raid is not shown in this 1943 film starring Cary Grant, nor does Doolittle appear. It's an exciting submarine movie, though, about a crew tasked with infiltrating the Japanese mainland to gather information vital to the first air strike against Japan.

See also:
Remembering D-Day, Hollywood-style
Remembering Pearl Harbor, Hollywood-style

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What's in a title: Blade Runner

Blade Runner (1982)
In a dystopian Los Angeles of 2019, special police officers known as Blade Runners are tasked with killing renegade "replicants," artificial humans virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Blade Runners need to recognize razor-thin distinctions between what is human and what is not; an error in judgement could mean the death of a real human. Because these decisions often need to be made quickly, before the sometimes-dangerous replicants can cause any harm, there is a narrow window of opportunity and little room for error. These officers, therefore, must metaphorically run along the "razor's edge," the edge of a blade.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Into thin air . . . VERY thin air

Movies set in outer space have a built-in method of creating tension: the ever-present threat of exposure to a near-vacuum. There seems to be little consensus, though, among the films that exploit this danger as to what really happens when a body is exposed to such conditions.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
2001: A Space Odyssey
After retrieving the body of a crew member whose oxygen line was cut during an EVA, astronaut Dave Bowman returns to his ship only to be locked out of the shuttle bay by the ship's HAL-9000 supercomputer. Unable to convince HAL to open the door, Dave manually unlocks a hatch and prepares to be thrown from his shuttle pod into the vacuum of the empty airlock — without a space helmet.

Length of exposure:
  • approximately seventeen seconds
  • Dave bounces around a bit in zero gravity while holding his breath, but otherwise shows no symptoms of exposure.
  • Dave survives the experience, then suits up to confront the homicidal HAL.

Total Recall (1990)
Total Recall
After activating a mysterious machine deep beneath the surface of Mars, Douglas Quaid is blown to the planet surface and exposed to the thin, oxygen-starved Martian atmosphere.

Length of exposure:
  • approximately three minutes
  • Quaid's face, neck, and tongue swell and his eyes bulge almost out of his head as he thrashes around on the ground.
  • The machine begins to generate massive quantities of oxygen and a breathable atmosphere quickly forms. Quaid's face returns to normal, and despite some traces of blood there are no visible signs of permanent damage.

Event Horizon (1997)
Event Horizon
Justin, a crew member apparently possessed by the evil spirit haunting a derelict spaceship, steps into an airlock and begins the automated and irreversible process of opening the external door.

Length of exposure:
  • approximately 104 seconds
  • The veins in the Justin's forearms bulge and eventually tear through the skin. As blood spurts from his eyes and mouth, he convulses and loses blood pressure rapidly.
  • The ship's captain, outside the ship at the time and wearing a spacesuit, catches Justin as he floats into space and returns him to the ship. The ship's doctor patches him up offscreen and later states, "He won't be pretty, but he should live."

Mission to Mars (2000)
Mission to Mars
During a spacewalk in orbit around Mars, mission leader Woody Blake misses his target and begins to fall toward the planet. Realizing nothing can be done to save him and not wanting his wife to die trying, Woody removes his helmet.

Length of exposure:
  • two seconds until death, indefinite exposure afterwards
  • Air escapes from Woody's helmet and appears to crystallize as Woody's face freezes instantly.
  • Woody's lifeless and frozen body continues to fall toward Mars while his crewmates watch in disbelief.

Outland (1981)
A worker at a mining facility on Jupiter's moon Io inexplicably locks himself in an airlock-protected elevator. The lift lowers the man to the moon's surface, shedding air pressure as it goes.

Length of exposure:
  • at least 47 seconds
Effects & Outcome:
  • While we're not shown the gruesome demise, we do see the final result: the elevator door opens to reveal the man on his back, dead, with what look like intestines on the outside of his body and a laceration on his leg. Blood is splattered over the elevator walls.