Unbreakable (2000, Directed by M. Night Shyamalan) Great Movie

A man with no purpose knows only stagnation, and to strive with no purpose is like running in place. Eventually the heart runs out. It’s even worse if you feel that you have potential. Such a man might get existential. He might begin to distance himself from the life that he’s built and all the choices that he’s made. If he has a family, he might begin to resent each member. It’s a bleak reality for many people in society, but not one that’s often visited in film; certainly not in mainstream Hollywood cinema. But in the year 2000, off the heels of his massive, and to this day, greatest success in The Sixth Sense (1999), M. Night Shyamalan made Unbreakable, a film rooted in middle aged angst made digestible by its comic book, superhero trappings. A film about David Dunne, a forty year old security guard unaware that he’s special- that he’s superhuman-and Elijah Price, a man who finds his purpose in showing David his.

When we first meet David, he’s aboard a train failing painfully to flirt with a pretty passenger in an adjacent seat. We see him remove his wedding ring, and I’m thinking, this is our protagonist? Next, he’s sitting in a hospital bed talking to a baffled doctor. Shyamalan films this scene with David in the background and a patient in a more critical condition being operated on in the foreground. David is told that he’s been in a train accident, and only two people have survived. One, is the patient that we see being worked on (minutes from death) and the other is himself, with no scratches or broken bones. Thus setting in motion his encounters with Elijah, a comic book dealer obsessed with the idea that super-humans are not just in comics, but walk the Earth as he does. Elijah suffers from a disease that makes his bones especially brittle and he believes that there must be people on the opposite end of the spectrum in that they are unbreakable. The film follows David as he moves from no purpose to having purpose and examines the effect that has on his family-a wife that he can’t talk to anymore (played by a very moving Robin Wright) and a son who hero-worships him beyond what David feels he can deliver.

When you have the kind of success Shyamalan had with The Sixth Sense, you are in a position to do almost whatever you want. Studios want what you have, which could easily be an invitation to up the scale, and indulge. Shyamalan, instead, works in the same milieu as his previous film. He takes a B-movie genre in the comic book movie and elevates it to a work of art, first by taking it seriously, and second by grounding it in the themes of disillusionment spoken of earlier. As for the comic book element, he explained his vision for the film as basically revolving around the first act of a superhero’s arc in his story. Every superhero story works in three acts essentially: one) the hero discovers their powers two) the hero uses and develops those powers three) the hero faces off against his nemesis. How can you make a movie about the first, and usually most boring, aspect of a hero’s story work with an audience? Many filmmakers have noted how sequels in hero franchises tend to be better because the origin has already been established and they can approach more interesting territory. Shyamalan does something no other filmmaker has done with an origin story by truly capturing how frightening, mysterious, and life-altering this realization can be. He does so by making it a process rather than a epiphany. David survives a wreck. David sees that he has never been sick. David tests his strength. Etc. David is a complete enigma. To himself and to us. The entire film is David and Elijah attempting to solve this enigma. Why when David wakes up does he feel this inexplicable sadness? Why has he never been sick? How did he walk away from that train crash totally unharmed when no one else even survived?

Bruce Willis, reteaming with Shyamalan after The Sixth Sense, gives his strongest career performance as Dunne. Shyamalan repeatedly frames David Dunne in the background, or obscured. This style isn’t seen very often as actors love close-ups. This style adds to the effect that Dunne is a mystery. We cannot read him.  Samuel L. Jackson, with his crazy do, is perfect in creating sympathy for this mostly unrelatable character and delivering some very out-there dialogue. His performance is crucial, because if we don’t believe him, then the film becomes unintentionally funny as we’ve seen in some of Shyamalan’s later works.

Unbreakable is made up of what feels like ten scenes. Ten extended, involving scenes that make the hour and forty minute runtime fly by. A recent development has come up that makes this great film-my choice for best superhero picture, tied with The Incredibles (2004)-worth revisiting. It wasn’t a runaway hit the way The Sixth Sense was, and it will never achieve mass appeal. Often when people go in to a movie with certain expectations, they’ll be disappointed if those expectations aren’t met, affecting their opinion of that film. But sometimes on second viewing, they can realize that what the film reaches for is actually better. I think Unbreakable can be this way for most viewers.

-Walter Howard

 

Straw Dogs (1971, Directed by Sam Peckinpah) Great Movie

Sam Peckinpah-director of such great films as The Wild Bunch (1969), Ride the High Country (1962), and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)-didn’t care about things most filmmakers care about. He was never very interested in character development, and he never bothered with subtlety. His films are primal. Supporting characters are paper thin. Plot is undemanding. Dialogue is filler. All that is generally associated with depth, in his films, is reduced to white noise. He makes his point with the superficial. The remarkable thing then is that he is still to this day recognized as amongst the most provocative and controversial filmmakers of all time. He doesn’t have a movie in his filmography that holds a universal opinion or that’s interpreted in the same way by all. The favored way of analyzing a Peckinpah film, judging by reviews and articles, is to head straight for film theory. None of his films can be considered dramatic character pieces in any traditional sense, but to dismiss them as insubstantial or simplistic is, in film circles, to go the way of the philistine.

In 1971, he released his most inscrutable and polarizing film, Straw Dogs, starring Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman plays an American academic, David Sumner, who resettles in his English wife’s hometown only to find the locals hostile and the outcome violent. On the surface, the story portrays Hoffman, a civilized male, and Susan George, his supermodel of a wife, under attack. Their lives, their house, their marriage, and their happiness are all under attack, because his prosperity and her beauty stand out amongst the local mundanity, and make them targets. Eventually they are both besieged. First, she is raped, and then, his home is invaded.

The setting in a Peckinpah film is always crucial with the depraved west being his most common choice of location. In Straw Dogs, a picture that thematically and stylistically encompasses  ideas the director explored throughout his work, the director sets his story in small town England; in a village masked in fog and moors. The main thing here is that it’s unfamiliar; specifically, unfamiliar to the protagonist. Hoffman’s character is anomalous in his new residence. We don’t get a good look at anyone else’s home, but we know they’re not living as well as he is. Peckinpah also liked to work with stars, and instead of lengthy character development, he used precise casting. Hoffman is a short man. At 5″5, he is towered over by the supporting male characters. Their threat to him is immediately rendered physically by their mere presence. The implication that he cannot protect his home or his wife, the film’s most evident theme, is clear.

 Straw Dogs’ narrative is brutal, and watching it unfold, is trying, but,  I believe what bothers viewers more, and what established the film’s controversial status, more than just the savagery on display, are the thorny questions underlying the action. There has been much written about Straw Dogs, various takes on the material, but no one can completely pin down what the film is meant to say. What is Peckinpah’s point? Even the leading actor’s opinion, that the character David Sumner was subconsciously provoking the violent conclusion-a valid and interesting take-was repudiated by the director. Much of the disparate opinions and controversy derives from the notorious rape scene itself involving Mrs. Sumner. Most of Peckinpah’s films depict violence and violence towards women, but never more uncomfortably than here, where the female victim is raped by an ex-boyfriend, and though a convincingly violent experience, appears to enjoy it. After the ex is through, she is raped a second time by his friend. Meanwhile the scene is intercut with her husband wandering haplessly through the woods, holding a shotgun, looking useless. The next scene shows her crying in their bedroom while her husband walks around the room clueless.

The film’s climax revolves around their house being broken into, which is why Straw Dogs is considered a home invasion film. Hoffman gives refuge to a mentally retarded man who a group of local brutes-including the two rapists-desperately want hanging from a rope. They storm Hoffman’s house on the hill, and the calm, impotent milquetoast of a man he was at the outset of the film suddenly becomes a savage vigilante. He kills them all in true to Peckinpah fashion-blowing legs off, pushing a man’s neck to broken glass, decapitating a man with a bear trap. In the process, he slaps his hysteric wife around a bit, and grows more violent than any of the men invading, who in an easier film would be clear cut villains. The home invaders are guilty of murder and two are rapists, but their reason for wanting the mentally retarded man? He murdered a girl who was one of their group’s daughter; one of their group’s sister. All the violence and guilt seems to run in circles and all the men are culpable, which is ultimately, my view of the film’s themes. Straw Dogs was decried as a mysoginistic fantasy, but I see a film where the two main female characters are the only sympathetic ones, and the men are complicit in violence towards these women. Critics point to the skimpy clothes Susan George wears as Mrs. Sumner. An early shot shows her walking out in public very conspicuously not wearing a bra. To me, her appearance and how it influences her attack critiques how certain women aren’t protected. Both Mrs. Sumner and the teenage girl who is murdered are, I guess you could say, coquettish women, and that factors in to their victimization. I don’t think Peckinpah depicting how this happens means he’s defending it.

My last note in attempting to tie my thoughts about the film together is that Hoffman’s character clearly takes too much for granted. He fails to notice his wife and fails to notice his prosperity, which culminates in him being reduced to the surrounding barbarism. The film ends with him driving the mentally retarded man aimlessly, with the man saying, “I don’t know my way home,” and Hoffman replying, “That’s okay. I don’t either.”

-Walter Howard

Warlock (1959, Edward Dmytryk) Great Movie

With today’s climate of mistrust and the apparent gulf of recent history that separates police and our black community heavy on my mind, I watched, or rewatched rather, Edward Dmytryk’s little seen western classic, Warlock. Though his credits cross into all corners of genre fare, the director is probably best known for his film noirs; Crossfire or Murder, My Sweet for example. B pictures. Mysteries. Crime stories. Films that depict and stylize their urban setting and characters. I believe it’s an urban sensibility that Dmytryk brings to Warlock, and that makes it so unique despite familiar trappings. Through a slight spin on the archetypal outlaw heroes coming to the rescue of a beleaguered town narrative, Dmytryk probes the complicated symbiotic nature of society’s need for authority and its resentment towards that same authority.

The film starts out as many westerns do. Small, dusty town. Violent gang rides in. The only law and order present comes in the form of a sheriff who now wishes he was anywhere else. I could be describing any one of dozens of westerns you’ve seen. The violent gang tie and drag the weakling sheriff by his horse, before murdering him. They get the town’s barber too for good measure. This story has been told so many times, its formula recycled, precisely because it is so satisfying and exciting for the viewer. But Warlock isn’t one of those movies that simply rehashes the formula, and its unique perspective on the genre starts to materialize in the next scene. The town folk meet and discuss a plan of action, with the majority agreeing they should hire Clay Blaisedell, a vigilante lawman to come and protect their town. However, there are opponents. While many suggest Blaisedell as a savior, a judge calls him a vigilante, gunman, gambler. Already we see our film’s protagonist not as a clear cut hero but as a subject of controversy. Eventually, they decide to bring Blaisedell in, and, with that, we see our star, Henry Fonda riding in, cloaked in black, accompanied by Anthony Quinn. Fonda plays Blaisedell and Quinn, his sidekick, Tom Morgan, a notorious gambler and cripple. The two are clearly modeled on Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and adding to this effect is Fonda’s previous iconic portrayal of Earp in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine. The two actors must have starred in a few dozen westerns combined. Seeing them ride in on horses seems no promise of new material, but seeing the two play off and distort their personas is one of the film’s chief pleasures. Immediately, the judge confronts Fonda, and calls the nature of his work, murder. Fonda smiles and blows him off. He then addresses the town in the saloon, so that he can give his terms, and they can give theirs. Again, we see dissension where we usually see accord in these type of films, as the town folk quarrel over how they want the villains handled. “Get rid of them,” says one. “Wait a minute, they’re not all bad,” says another. They’re not so sure they want Tom Morgan hanging around, and finally a schoolmarm chimes in that she doesn’t approve of Fonda’s status, but she’s in the minority. Fonda starts in. “You won’t be in the minority very long. People generally begin to resent me. It’s part of the job. It will happen. I come here as your salvation at a very high wage. I establish order. Ride rough shot over offenders. First you’re pleased because there’s a good deal less trouble. Then a strange thing happens. You begin to feel I’m too powerful. You begin to fear me. Not me, but what I am.” And from this point forward the film’s main theme has been set up. Juvenal’s “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies” or “who will watch the watchmen.”

There are three key male figures in the film. One, we’ve already mentioned, is Anthony Quinn’s Tom Morgan, an outlaw with a crippling condition. Quinn is a two time Oscar winner and he should have won a third Best Supporting Actor here. Known for playing tough, vigorous characters, Quinn here is an introvert. A man who worships his partner to the point that he values Blaisedell’s life over his own. There have been readings that have suggested an early subtext of homosexuality in this relationship, where Tom Morgan harbors unrequited feelings for his running mate, and there are scenes that one can point to. When Blaisedell is shot, Morgan grabs his arm tenderly. A female character in spite threatens to stand laughing over Blaisedell’s dead body because, as she says, she knows that would hurt him worse than if he was dead. Most significantly, Tom Morgan reveals late in the film that Blaisedell is the only person, man or woman, that looked at him and didn’t see a cripple. You could also alternatively  call this relationship a symptom of severe hero worship, but back to the original point, we see in him a distorting of the western sidekick. A repressed deputy. A dangerous man. Tom Morgan is a sympathetic figure…at times. He’s also a pimp, a murderer, and a violent alcoholic. He convinces Blaisedell to kill an innocent man out of jealousy.

The second key male figure is Johnny Gannon, a young delinquent, played by Richard Widmark, who actually received first billing. I find this significant, in that it establishes whose perspective we are meant to engage with. All three of the male protagonists share close to the same screen time, but instead of the town saviors, we are asked to view a member of the outlaw gang, who feels guilty for his way of life, as the hero. Gannon’s a young man who’s fallen in with the wrong crowd. This characterization points to the urban sensibility of Dmytryk I spoke of earlier.

Finally, we have Henry Fonda, who received second billing but is really the soul of the picture. At the time the movie came out, western heroes were stoic saints. John Wayne and Fonda were unimpeachable. Here, Fonda is as able and cool as ever, but he’s also a man who makes his living in violence, and there is a toll that’s represented in this film. He’s not above attention, as he wields his golden handled guns, and sells tickets to watch him essentially kill outlaws. His word is law. It’s his way or the highway, as it had always been for Wayne and Fonda, but for the first time, we see that aspect of their persona affect others. In one of the final scenes, Fonda and Widmark have a confrontation, and Fonda comes across as a last word freak, to borrow a modern expression. That he can balance these flaws with his original persona, and still maintain a believable hero is to me an achievement of supreme acting. He’s still a hero, just a flawed one. This performance bridges the gap between the Fonda of My Darling Clementine and the vicious Fonda of Once Upon a Time in the West, and it’s been said that Warlock was, the latter film’s director, Sergio Leone’s favorite film. As said before, the Earp and Holliday story has been told so many times. Even by 1959, it had fallen into the category of myth. But what if the ones saving the town become as oppressive as the original oppressors? With that angle, Warlock sets out to chart new territory. It’s a psychological western, a harbinger of the much more appreciated Unforgiven, and, in its own right, a masterpiece.

-Walter Howard

 

Apocalypse Now Redux (1979) Great Movie

Apocalypse Now in its own abstract way shows the horror of the Vietnam War as a symptom of human darkness. Scene after scene demonstrates the idea of nobody being left untouched by the war, and yet the film never lingers on any individual or setting long enough for us to feel any real heaviness towards what we are watching. The violence seems gratuitous, which is odd in a war movie. When a character is killed, we sense that it wasn’t supposed to happen, or that it didn’t have to happen. And there aren’t any abiding sentiments from the protagonists signaling us to care about the carnage and death occurring on screen. Everything that happens, just happens, and our guide through this hellish odyssey, Captain Willard (played perfectly by Martin Sheen), has long since given up trying to do anything about it. When a young sailer under his command gets a little too gung-ho and guns down a local family, killing two, and wounding a third, Willard finishes the job and essentially tells the crew to get back to work. He has a job to do. He must find a wayward Colonel (Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando as almost a boogie man) who has set himself up as a god in Cambodia. Willard has no interest for the majority of the film in distractions. He calmly sits and waits while the crew busies themselves with Playboy bunnies that are flown in for military enjoyment. All of these elements, I believe, are to serve the narrative’s ideas of disenchantment, apathy, and, principally, chaos. Clearly, critical things are happening constantly, and yet, nothing really matters. The consequences are quiet, emotions are muted.

There are a number of supporting characters, memorable characters at that, but most of them are one dimensional. Again this serves the narrative in leaving us with the stoic, contemplative Willard as our key. The beginning scene illustrates his loss of stability and perhaps sanity. He has fever dreams, and shadow-boxes the demons in his empty hotel room, wearing only his skivvies. He is no longer fit for anything but battle. During his journey he meets several characters that are used more to represent an idea than to act as believable human beings. We are introduced to Robert Duval’s character (Kilgore) as he looks to, but never actually does, give water to an enemy soldier with his guts hanging out. Kilgore just wants to surf. Willard’s narration lets us know that Kilgore is the kind of guy that you know will survive the war. Laurence Fishburne, is a black teenager that dances to the Rolling Stones on the way to battle. He dies listening to a tape-recording of his mother’s voice as she wishes him safety. The  naval leader of the boat voyage (another stoic type and everyone’s image of a chief) is killed by, of all things, a spear. These parts serve to underline the madness of it all. I spoke earlier of disenchantment, because no movie makes clearer the disenchantment of the United States towards our first real military failure. In the film’s most famous scene, evoking a sense of ambiguity, Willard hops along for an invasion of a Viet Cong base as Kilgore leads his men in helicopters across picturesque skies blaring Wagner’s Rise of the Valkyries. It is a glorious image. The music is triumphant. The violence is exciting and beautiful. Is Coppola glorifying war? It’s been said that the scene was used by military for troop morale. I believe though, that in the context of the film, the scene serves as another piece of absurdity to an abstract picture. When you consider that the whole reason for the air strike is basically so that Kilgore has a nice place to surf, no amount of excitement or beauty could justify the violent means to his ridiculous end. Politically, the film is very ambiguous. Does war turn men into Kurtz?  When Willard finally makes it to Kurtz, the latter makes a sort of crazy man’s sense to Willard. And when Willard completes his mission and kills Kurtz, the natives bow before him; he has taken Kurtz place. Willard and Kurtz appear to be two sides of the same coin as the expression goes. Both resigned. Willard resigned to do his job. Kurtz resigned to the Godlike status bestowed upon him, and finally to his assassination.

There is a scene of Willard walking through a massive forest completely dwarfed by nature, and I wondered about man’s significance. Kurtz does not put much importance in the life of an individual, but in the forest scene, I wondered if the film was making the same point: we are all just dust in the wind. What does Willard go back to? With redux opposed to the original, I like to imagine him going back to the French woman, but again we are left with more questions than answers.

-Walter Howard

Being There (1979, Hal Ashby) Great Movie

Peter Sellers, one of the great film comics of all time, built his persona on being the versatile fool. The bumbling French detective. The sage foreigner crashing a Hollywood party. Whatever the premise, whatever the accent, the joke was on him, and he was loved for it. But he saved his best performance right up until the end, as Chance the Gardener in Hal Ashby’s Being There, released in 1979, just one year before his death. While the role is somewhat of a departure for Sellers, it still works largely because of our knowledge of his star image going in. The big difference is that this time instead of us laughing at Sellers’ foolishness, we are laughing at every one else for not recognizing it.

Being There, adapted from a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, concerns Chance, a man we gather who has worked as a gardener for a wealthy man his whole life. Who his parents are, we’re not told. We also learn pretty early that Chance is unintelligent. After his benefactor dies, Chance is forced out of the house and onto the street. He apparently has never left the house, and we hear from a maid who also worked in the house that he cannot read or write. How can he survive in the world with no skillset outside of gardening, no intelligence, and advanced age? Fate puts Chance in the home of another wealthy man. A woman’s chauffeur hits the simple gardener. As an act of decency or perhaps just to avoid a lawsuit she takes him to her mansion and has her doctor look at him. Eventually he meets the influential Ben Rand, the head of the house, the woman’s much older husband, and adviser to the president. Suddenly Chance the Gardener becomes Chancey Gardiner and an instant star in the political world. His common advice about gardening is perceived as profound statements about the United States political landscape. This premise is the basis for Peter Sellers’ best performance and the most personal project he ever worked on. He fought for years to get this film made.

It sounds like a premise for any one of Seller’s previous broad comedies. An idiot becomes political adviser to the president; a perfect setup for buffoonery. But Being There is not that film, and Peter Sellers does not give that kind of performance. Instead we are given a profound and gentle satire. There are layers to it.  One level on which the film works is similar to say The Party, another film in which Sellers’ starred in. A sincere if simple-minded fool earns the respect of his peers through no effort on his part. The deeper level and the great thing that happens in the movie to me (and not everyone may feel this way as the film is very much open to interpretation) is that it sets Chance up as a comic figure- we laugh at how the sophisticated, brilliant upper-class society is taken in by a simpleton, believing him to be a wise man-but eventually I came to view him as a wise man myself. He does not pretend to know things he doesn’t. He only talks when he has something to say. When at the end, Chance walks on water, I am surprised and then not surprised. Again there have been many interpretations of this scene, but my feeling is that because he doesn’t know that human beings can’t walk on water, he just does it. He almost literally knows no limitations.

So what drew Peter Sellers to this character? Why did he feel he had to play this character? He once said, “Most actors want to play “Othello”, but all I’ve really wanted to play is Chance the Gardiner. I feel what the character, the story is all about is not merely the triumph of a simple man, an illiterate. It’s God’s message again that the meek shall inherit the earth.” I think there is a general feeling of comedians being part of the meek. It is not the popular, great looking men or women who make us laugh in film typically. I can see why Sellers would be drawn to that aspect of the story. He said of himself, “I writhe when I see myself on the screen. I’m such a dreadfully clumsy hulking image. I say to myself, “Why doesn’t he get off? Why doesn’t he get off?” I mean, I look like such an idiot. Some fat awkward thing dredged up from some third-rate drama company. I must stop thinking about it, otherwise I shan’t be able to go on working.” Also, and this idea was probably not conscious on his part, but there is somewhat of a parallel between Chance, apparently an unfeeling fool who proves to be incredibly sensitive and wise, and Peter Sellers, seen as just a clown and rumored to be a hard, cold personality. Sellers gives Chance a very bland appearance and plays him like a blank slate that slowly becomes a beautiful mystery. Again Sellers said this about himself, and I see it manifested in Chance, “If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am. There used to be a me behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed. To see me as a person on screen would be one of the dullest experiences you could ever wish to experience.” As the last film of his career while he was alive, Sellers gets to play the Scaramouche for a final time, and then leave us thinking he wasn’t what he seemed, as he walks across the water, more than just a buffoon.

-Walter Howard

Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott) Great Movie

Science fiction can take the concerns of its time as well as timeless concerns and present them to an audience in a unique way as to appear innocuous. British novelist H.G Wells played a huge role in jumpstarting this tradition. His works dealt with themes as diverse as man’s struggle versus technology, man’s fear of the unknown, and identity crisis like The Invisible Man (1897). Jules Verne successfully foretold of the submarine, man’s ability to fly across the world, and space travel. E.M Forster in his novella, The Machine Stops, rather sagely wrote about a future society that would rely so heavily on technology that it would eventually be unable to function without it. The works of the early science fiction writers bore a complexity and a weight that made it a premier genre for boundary pushing and exploration. Great science fiction has always challenged what society accepts, explored what is impossible to explore, and posed questions that aren’t often asked.

Science fiction film had its holy grail as early as 1927 in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In its dystopian contours, we have a literal embodiment of high class to low class society; the haves and the have-nots. Following its protagonist, Freder, from the high class pleasure garden to the oppressive urban sprawl of low society as he searches for the women he’s infatuated with, Metropolis introduced both political (social injustice, societal hierarchy) and philosophical (the nature of men, what separates man from machine) themes to science fiction film, and became the benchmark for all the films that followed.

This is where Blade Runner, with its vast urban dystopia, picks up, reflecting a sort of decline of human emotion. Based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it was the first of Phillip K. Dick’s novels to be adapted for the silver screen. The novel, like classic works of noir, both in the form of literature and film, dealt with issues of identity, and the filmmaking team spotlight this aspect of it through noir-fused sets and style; venetian blinds, hardboiled detective, dames who mean trouble but also have a soft side, and even voice over depending on which version you watch.

Dick’s story of a seemingly obdurate cop seeking to kill six near-perfect androids would become a film marvel in the hands of director Ridley Scott (fresh off of his first sci-fi hit, Alien), and, despite many glaring changes in the book’s transfer to film-the significance of animals is made vague and the principal character of J.R Isadora is lost completely-the main theme or question of what it means to be human is captured beautifully and provocatively. Blade Runner is a heavily philosophical film with undercurrents of the religious coloring its quiet moments. Is it any wonder then that upon release, the movie saw middling returns at the box office and was misunderstood by many prominent critics? Famed film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “It forces passivity on you,” in her review for The New Yorker. Janet Maslin for the New York Times opined, “A film that has neither strong characters nor a strong story.” And Roger Ebert said of Ridley Scott, “He seems more concerned with creating his film worlds than populating them with plausible characters, and that’s the trouble this time. Blade Runner is a stunningly interesting visual achievement, but a failure as a story. The movie has the same trouble as the replicants: Instead of flesh and blood, its dreams are of mechanical men.” Twenty five years later, however, Ebert re-reviewed the film adding it to his canon of “Great Movies”, remarking on his earlier quibbles, “This seems a strange complaint, given that so much of the movie concerns who is, and is not, human, and what it means to be human anyway.” I believe this point is where any analysis and discussion of Blade Runner beyond the spectacular superficial elements should begin. While many of the themes of Do Androids Dream of Sleep are still present within Scott’s text, the latter feels more concentrated compared to the former which felt to me like a self-published work; brilliant but without the mark of a real editor.

Blade Runner stars Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a former detective with Los Angeles’ Police Department, who is brought back to expose and hunt down five replicants (androids bioengineered to perfection). Deckard gives every indication of being the hard-worn but duty bound cop; incorruptible and without any apparent life outside of being a cop. On the trail of the replicants-Leon, Zhora, Pris- led by the charismatic and uber-Aryan Roy, Deckard is soon corrupted by Rachael. He knows she is an android, and finds himself increasingly drawn to her against his better judgment. Deckard finds and terminates Zhora, Pris, gets help from Rachael with Leon, and meets up with Roy on the rooftops in an extended climax with bizarre spiritual implications. He then runs off with Rachael into the unknown, and the credits roll over the uncertainty of our first viewing.  But Blade Runner gets better every time you watch it. It is the greatest embodiment of the question, what makes someone human?

Before looking at how the film addresses this question with the replicants and Deckard, I’d first like to point out its use of men and women in broad strokes to convey this theme. For one thing, the humans in the movie are highly individualistic, and that is a generous way of describing their solemn, lonely existences. Consider the character of J.F Sebastian (played by William Sanderson). As a genetic designer, he is one of three men responsible for the creation of the replicants. Pris accompanies him to his home, which is filled with animated toys that keep him company. His lone source of human contact seems to be the occasional chess game with the boss, Tyrell. He works constantly. Consorts with inanimate objects. Plays chess. Sits alone his massive apartment. This hardly feels like the life of a flesh and blood man. His appearance too lends itself to conspiracy theories of him being an android. The blood in his cheeks feels painted on and he wears the same clothes in the few scenes he occupies. But I interpret his solitude as an example of how isolated humanity is, and how the androids have picked up where humans have dropped the ball.

Similarly, there is the master himself. The grand designer, sitting alone atop his own private tower of Babylon. Again we have the motif of humanity isolating itself; cutoff from other humans, cutoff from relationships, cutoff from emotions. Dr. Elden Tyrell is the creator; the life-giver. Before I get to the religious connotations of that, let us first look at him as simply another human in the story. No wife; no children; no house pets. He is married to his work, and I believe he says something about Rachael being like a daughter or something. What does it say about humanity when people are seeking artificial means of forming relationships rather than organically finding love and companionship? That is if they are even seeking, which most characters are not. How many married couples are seen in the film? How many children? I don’t remember any, and I would guess the notions of family and togetherness have migrated to Off-world colonies along with the people of means. Sci-fi films have long envisioned nightmarish futures and dystopias, but Blade Runner’s vision isn’t as off-kilter visually compared to the present. Its nightmare concerns the muted emotional aspects of humanity under the influence of some unknown conformity. The third human responsible for the androids is Hannibal Chew. He rounds out and drives home the point about the characters we can most safely assume are humans, as he too is seen working robotically at his work designing the eyes of the androids. Is there nothing left for humans but their work? We don’t get any sense of three dimensionality out of any human characters. We get no sense of them aspiring to anything.

Now we come to Rick Deckard, who I like to believe is a replicant, but will read as a human for this discussion. He lives to work, and the only hint of extracurricular interests come about halfway through the film when we see he has a piano in his apartment. Deckard in that same scene quite cruelly breaks down Rachael’s faith in her own memory and identity; memory and identity also being crucial themes. He proves to her that her memories are manufactured, and the film later whispers questions about his memories when another cop leaves an origami folding of a unicorn that harkens back to Deckard’s dreams on the subject. How much can anyone trust their own memory?

Deckard has a fool proof way of identifying androids. No matter how convincing, how thorough the established illusion, he can identify a replicant based on their inability to empathize. To this effect, he administers the Voight-Kampff test described in the film’s original press kit as, “A very advanced form of lie detector that measures contractions of the iris muscle and the presence of invisible airborne particles emitted from the body. The bellows were designed for the latter function and give the machine the menacing air of a sinister insect. The VK is used primarily by Blade Runners to determine if a suspect is truly human by measuring the degree of his empathic response through carefully worded questions and statements.” He needles his subjects about various strange things happening to animals and gauges their response. This sets up a very convenient line between humans and androids-humans can empathize, replicants cannot. Except this delineation falls apart throughout the film. Take the scene where Zhora is retired by Deckard for example. She is gunned down in the street with dozens of people breezing by. They keep moving. Most significantly, at the film’s end Roy saves the man who killed his friends, and tried to kill him. Is this a sign of grace from a being that has killed its creator and become its own judge of life and death?

In the novel, maybe the movie as well, Tyrell asks Deckard if he has ever used the Voight-Kampff test on himself. Aside from just being another occurrence where the text plays with our conception of who is and isn’t a human, the moment also points to a level of reflexivity that is lacking in the human characters but present in the androids. In essence, does Deckard ever question? Does he ever doubt? Apparently not for much of the film, until Rachael introduces it to his life. We see Deckard struggle with his emotional ties to someone he needs to kill, plus the physical aspects of that situation. Then, in the love scene in the apartment, he struggles to remain detached while convincing her that she is not human. He appears to waver a little as a result of his action, and I think we can see him empathize with her and her newfound knowledge. The combination of these doubts and frustrations lead to him taking her forcefully. It is an unusually attractive, aberrant, problematic, enigmatic scene as at a base visual level we have an attractive male movie star forcing his way with an attractive woman that raises all kinds of questions of consent and misogyny. For me the scene represents Deckard’s awakening, wherein you have a male character flooded with an overwhelming load of novel feelings not knowing what to do with them, and trying to convince himself that she is merely a tool that can be used as needed. You can see how that comes close to not distant enough levels of misogyny present in films past, but here, I feel there is dire subtext that makes the segment absolutely necessary. First, as repulsive a notion as it may be depending on your reading of the scene, this is the first time where we can begin to empathize with Deckard. He is flesh and blood after all, and he accepts her gift of love (albeit in a brutal manner) at long last. The scene also harkens back to classic noir where women are constantly getting pushed around, and having to prove their angelic interiors to violent brooding male protagonists. We like those male protagonists and begin to like Deckard precisely for those flaws that are so apparent, because it makes the characters more human.

Next, we have Roy, the super being/replicant/more human than human/Christ-figure.“We’re not computers, Sebastian, we’re physical,” he says. He is dying. He feels his time coming to an end and wants more. This is a deeply human trait, and because his time is so finite, he searches for his maker for answers. The implications of this are readily apparent and separate the androids from the humans in a way that feels inverted. His sporadic utterances throughout the film move between ominous and wise, when he says things like, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” I could picture him easily having followers in our society. There is the crystal clear subtext in the film of Roy being a Christ-figure. Not a metaphor or a direct representation of Christ but someone who has a certain resemblance. His creator, Tyrell, informs Deckard that the motto in making the replicants was “more human than human,” which itself bears an apt description of the Christian conception of Christ. He experiences high levels of pain, sees the worst men have to offer, inspires others to follow, and ultimately allows his worst enemy to live, before he, himself, dies. For Roy, it is not a question of can he do what humans can, because he can do anything a human can better and to the extreme.

John Salzi, in his Rough Guide to Sci-fi Movies, talks about science fiction’s ability to blend genres, styles and subgenres. He says, “Science fiction does not contain itself to neat categories, and science fiction fans do not content themselves with one genre of film.” This points to what makes science fiction a genre capable of immense depth. Blade Runner at once rediscovered and reset the mold, and in its wake we’ve seen other great films like AI: Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001), Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), and Ex-Machina (Andrew Garland, 2015) explore this issue of what constitutes being human. Rick Deckard, talking about his enemy Roy Batty, summed up this theme in the end monologue for the original version (read without remembering Harrison Ford’s performance of this dialogue), “I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life – anybody’s life; my life. All he’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die.”

-Walter Howard

Zootopia (2016, Byron Howard and Rich Moore) Great Movie

The Story goes that when John Lasseter (one of the great pioneers of computer animation and Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios) was presented with the idea of Zootopia, he responded by hugging the man behind its conception. That man, writer/director Byron Howard imagined a city of anthromorphic animals that looked as if it were designed by animals. The city has different areas and neighborhoods that reflect the different climates animals are able to inhabit. And in this city, he populates his creation with animals that reflect human characteristics. This is of course a perfect setup for an adorable animal adventure movie, had Howard and his team at Disney decided to settle, and indeed there is plenty of cuteness present within the film, but this film does something unique with the classic animation trope of anthromorphic animals in that the animals reflect some of the darker sides of human nature; not just the cute or the charming. There is a timely and provocative theme of prejudice coursing through the narrative of an adorable country bunny (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) moving to the big city to fulfill her dreams of being a top cop. She meets the slick and jaded street hustling fox (voiced by Jason Bateman), and sees firsthand how prejudice can shape a person’s life as much as anything. She’s even forced to confront her own prejudices that she didn’t even know were there. But this is a Disney movie and a great one at that, so the bunny and the fox find on their way to stopping a city wide conspiracy that you can overcome other people’s prejudices by never buying in and believing in yourself.

-Walter Howard