Three Sci-Fi Classics

A disclaimer: I’m not nearly the movie buff I used to be. In fact, I haven’t been to a theater in over six years, nor rented anything in almost as long. There are several specific reasons for that, but suffice it to say that one too many Hollywood atrocities pushed me over the edge, and the constant marketing on every avenue keeps me antagonistic. (So don’t expect more movie babble on this website.) Regardless, the advent of DVD in the later ‘90s did spur me into a couple years of heavy film study – directors’ styles, screenwriting, cinematography, f/x techniques, etc. I was, at least for a while, interested in the craft behind the final products.

I recently rediscovered three of my favorite films via special edition DVD sets, and I’m glad to have them back on the shelf. SPOILERS EXIST below, even though I try to be vague about specific plot points.

Blade Runner - Four-Disc Collectors Edition

At long last, all of the main cuts of this 1982 future-thriller are available together. There’s even a five-disc edition that includes the workprint version, but I saved forty bucks on the hunch that any notable elements of the workprint would be included in the new Final Cut and/or the supplementary materials, and that hunch paid off.

Briefly, the story involves a detective/hunter in future Los Angeles on the trail of a handful of replicants (androids who are “more human than human”). Based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, the movie takes enough liberties to become its own work of art. And art it is, from Syd Mead’s futuristic designs to Doug Trumbull’s effects to Jordan Cronenweth’s amazing cinematography to Ridley Scott’s direction. And don’t forget the Vangelis soundtrack that fits so beautifully with the visuals. Plotwise, it’s a bit thin; the Blade Runner himself Rick Deckard (played subtly by Harrison Ford) does little detecting and not much retiring of the replicants, either. But Deckard is ultimately just another face lost in the smoky neon sprawl, as are the replicants, whose four-year lifespans are on the verge of running out. Blade Runner is really a mood piece above all. Both the love interest and the final showdown would seem to be conventional inclusions but have a unique effect in the story’s context of what it means to be human, or artificially so.

Surrounding the characters is just about the most visionary art direction you could ask for. The streets of this overpopulated, dark, rainy, retrofitted city are as much a star of the film as any of the actors. Ridley Scott is known for attention to detail and none is omitted here. Blade Runner’s sets are so layered that you could almost step into the screen and see all the smaller bits the camera missed. The special effects (airborne craft, vast industrial landscapes, and so on) enrich the story and atmosphere, and unlike CGI, these models, opticals, and matte paintings never feel fake.

Blade Runner’s genesis and production were not without interference, thus the handful of various versions. The 1982 US theatrical cut included an infamous Harrison Ford voiceover that to this day splits viewer opinion; it also grafted on a happy ending. The International cut retained the voiceover and added a few moments of extra violence. In 1992, a so-called Director’s Cut emerged, which removed the voiceover and reinserted a bit of unicorn footage that a) the suits originally banished because they didn’t know what it meant, and b) is necessary for the real ending of the film to make any sense! All three of these older versions are included in the collectors set.

The main attraction is the new Final Cut personally remodeled by Scott. The narration is still absent, while the rest of it is an amalgam of all the previous cuts (minus the happy ending), including certain shots from the workprint. There aren’t many major changes to the ’92 cut, though a few scenes are trimmed and/or re-edited (such as the unicorn daydream), and the sound mix has some differences. I can only gripe about two minor changes too trivial to mention, but this is pretty much the definitive version in my opinion. It looks and sounds fantastic. A couple of minor CGI tricks were used to correct tiny bloopers, such as visible cables on one of the floating police cars and an obvious stuntperson in one scene. The extraordinary in-camera effects are left in all their original glory. Three separate commentaries accompany the Final Cut.

Extras? My goodness. The main supplemental feature is Dangerous Days, a 3-hour-plus making-of documentary that gets its own disc. Split into several digestible sections, Dangerous Days interviews lots of participants about the screenwriting, the casting, the shoot, the post, etcetera. Intercut with the talking heads are some fascinating clips from the production – outtakes, effects tests, and so on. This is a marvelous documentary, though it gets a tad repetitive at times, and none of the interviewees who weren’t directly involved with the film have anything useful to say. Except for Frank Darabont’s assessment of the voiceover, but that could have fit into a different “outsiders” feature that exists on Disc 4. Nevertheless, Dangerous Days makes very informative viewing. It pulls no punches on the troubled post-production, even including some candid outtakes from one of Ford’s narration sessions. If you thought the voiceover in the theatrical cut was clumsy, you’ll gag at this stuff.

Another supplemental disc includes info on Philip K. Dick and his original novel, fashion design, trailers, some vintage 1982 on-set featurettes, a nice tribute to Jordan Cronenweth, and most notably, a truckload of alternate and deleted scenes. One of the more famous missing scenes not included in the Final Cut is Deckard visiting his peer Holden at the hospital. This didn’t belong in the movie anyway, thanks to the distracting baby-bonnet garb and actor Morgan Paull playing Holden with a lot less cool than he did in his earlier interrogation of a replicant. Anyway, after this and Dangerous Days, the viewer will learn plenty about BR that they may not have known, BUT there’s still plenty of exclusive information to be found in Paul Sammon’s book Future Noir – The Making of Blade Runner. I cannot recommend that book enough.

One of the final supplements in the BR collectors set is a short feature on (SPOILER ALERT) whether or not Deckard is a replicant. Or might be, may be, could be, whatever. The film makes the answer clear enough to me, and some of the supplemental material adds even more clues. I can’t believe people are still in denial about it.

Overall, this package was worth the wait.

Alien - Collectors Edition

Oh look, another Ridley Scott movie. This 1979 thriller is a lot like the later Blade Runner in that it has a dark, visionary design and a slow enough pace where you can savor the details. In the story (written primarily by Dan O’Bannon), a cargo ship returning to Earth stops to check out an unusual signal from a planet and takes on board an alien creature that soon begins stalking the crew. To me, Alien is more than just a future-horror flick; it’s a multi-layered painting come to life, and this film wouldn’t be half of what it is without H.R. Giger’s design of the derelict ship and the alien itself. Even having seen it however many times over the years, I can still get immersed in its claustrophobic creepiness. I’m always on the edge of my seat when ship captain Dallas tries to flush out the alien in the air ducts. That scene is so well set up and edited that its climax never fails, and Tom Skerritt acts it with a great blend of outward authority and inner fear.

Good ideas being “intellectual property,” the powers that be couldn’t resist turning the Alien idea into a few sequels, and I’d prefer that they never existed. Yeah, the second Aliens (under James Cameron) was a great action picture, but that’s the rub – the original was not an action picture. When you come in with guns blazing, hammy acting, and blockbuster cliches, you kill the goose in a big way. Cameron’s Aliens could have been made with any characters and any monster, but of course they wanted to trade on the premise of a certified hit. The sad thing is that people see the sequel(s) first and then see the original and say, “it’s so slow and low-key and nothing much happens.” That’s exactly why I prefer it.

The latest DVD transfer (2004) of Alien contains two cuts of the movie: the original theatrical release and a new Director’s Cut, which Ridley Scott (in the liner card) admits was done for marketing purposes. The DC adds a couple of unneeded scenes and excises a couple of others. Take your pick, but I’ll side with the needs-no-fixing original. Both are on the same disc with gangbang commentary from Scott, a few actors, the writer, and more. I prefer the Scott-only commentary of the first Alien DVD release. This one jumps from person to person and annoyingly repeats some of the same information covered in the supplemental material. (And if I never have to hear Dan O’Bannon talk about anything ever again, I’ll be okay. Good writer, though.)

Further content on Disc 2 includes featurettes on design, casting, and shooting, photo archives, alternate and deleted scenes, and the complete first draft of O’Bannon’s screenplay. The one theme that keeps cropping up is “it was potentially a B-movie but soon we all knew we were working on something special.” These extras will pass an evening enjoyably, but I found myself wanting more technical detail and less fluff. (I don’t care that Giger wore all black – tell me something about airbrushing or whatever. Show me more of the model work, etc.) Bottom line is that the classic movie looks and sounds excellent on Disc 1.

2001: A Space Odyssey - Two-Disc Special Edition

I first saw 2001 about a dozen years ago, and it was the very film that interested me in Stanley Kubrick (my favorite director) and moviemaking in detail. It’s such a subjective experience; some people love it, some hate it, and some are baffled by it. I think the underlying premise – that an unidentified extraterrestrial presence is responsible for leaps in human evolution – is silly, but I’m willing to put logic on hold as 2001 is so marvelously crafted and open to interpretation. Kubrick and screenwriter partner Arthur C. Clarke intended it to be that way, and rather than provide definite answers, they focused on definite settings, like the space station ballet, the routines of interplanetary flight, and the conflict between human and artificial intelligence. The movie plays in symphonic order: there’s a primitive beginning, an expositional discovery upon Earth’s moon, another expositional drama between the HAL computer and astronauts en route to Jupiter, and a fantastic “new beginning” at the end. What it all means leaves much to the viewer’s imagination (unless you’ve read Clarke’s novel, which fills in some gaps).

2001 centers on a particular artifact (the black monolith), and having been released in 1968, the film is now an artifact itself. Its depictions of the slowness of space travel and quiet drama of the unknown are still much more realistic than a lot of space movies. Some of the peripheral predictions about attire, company names, and timelines missed their marks, but that’s forgivable. Who knew back then that the real 2001 would find us still not having our earthbound act together. Mired in tribal conflict, and with all of our current toys aiming mirrors at trivialities and ourselves, how could we strive for Jupiter or “beyond the infinite?”

The orderly environments of the two central portions of 2001 illustrate the meticulous picture sense Kubrick would bring to his successive films. It was already present to some degree in Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, but 2001 takes advantage of color and is more composed as a whole. The special effects were superb for the time and still are today, like the weightless illusions (achieved in part by strategic camera placement in a large centrifugal set), the modeled space movement, and the hypnotic slit-scan “stargate” at the end. 2001 could be called slow and sterile, yes, but this leads to its ultimate majesty.

Now the DVD set. For picture, sound, and presentation, the 2007 release is pretty dandy, even more so than the edition of six years ago. The only commentary track is by actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, both of whom are personable but cannot cover every angle alone and thus leave of lot of observations unsaid. Unfortunately, the separate disc of bonus material doesn’t examine the film’s production in much depth either. There are several featurettes of varying interest, including a cheeky, vintage making-of documentary and some “looking back” moments that judge the film’s visions of the future. Given that 2001 took a few years from conception to completion, with several brilliant minds involved, you’d hope for a serious, comprehensive documentary (maybe some day), but this stuff is rather thin compared to the subject. One source to consult for more behind the scenes information is Piers Bizony’s book 2001: Filming the Future. It’s currently out of print, but perhaps the library will have it. After that, try The Making of 2001, a collection of essays, articles, and interviews. The two of them provide a fuller understanding of how 2001 was written and produced. And if you really want to know how much thought went into all of SK’s movies, Thomas Nelson offers very keen analysis in Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze.

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