The topic has been making the rounds in cinéaste circles, and on Thursday it reached the cafeteria at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. Three of the studio’s directors — Oscar winners Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E”) and Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”) and Oscar nominee Bob Peterson (“Up”) — sat down for lunch and began chewing on a Hollywood mystery: the Ridley Scott Exception.
“We started talking about it because Lee mentioned how he had just shown both ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Alien’ to his teenage daughter and that she loved both of them,” Stanton recalled later that day. “Certainly story and character must be king for a movie to stand the test of time, but typically every [science fiction] movie, no matter how good it looks, is ultimately betrayed in the end by the limitations of whatever current technology was used.
But ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ are the exceptions to the rule. On every level of aesthetics, they defy Father Time.”
The riddle of Ridley is timely again with the release of “Prometheus,” Scott’s 20th feature film but only his third set in a sci-fi universe. It’s a somewhat familiar corner of the galaxy this time too: “Prometheus” is a quasi-prequel to “Alien” (1979), and both stories follow a human crew (accompanied by an android with an enigmatic agenda) to a planet that holds dark secrets that are coveted by the rapacious Weyland Corp.
“Alien” was Scott’s international breakthrough and he followed it up with the futuristic film noir “Blade Runner,” starring Harrison Ford as a retired L.A. cop hunting down a renegade cell of synthetic humans known as replicants. “Blade Runner” was a dud upon release, but now, as it reaches its 30th anniversary this month, the movie and its influence are more alive in the pop culture conversation than ever.
That influence can be traced through dozens of films, among them “Terminator,” “The Matrix,” “Brazil” and “Inception” — and the upcoming “Looper” and a new “Total Recall” are also candidates for the list. Christopher Nolan cites “Blade Runner” as his favorite film and Duncan Jones (“Source Code,” “Moon”) has described his next movie as “a valentine” to the 1982 Scott film.
Then there are video games, TV shows and music videos, as well as echoes in fashion, advertising, design and architecture. One other place you can find “Blade Runner”? It’s under the artificial skin and philosophical sinew of “Prometheus.” The new film is a hybrid of Scott’s past sci-fi films, and it appears that he just might keep the laboratory open for business this time — he says a “Blade Runner” sequel is moving forward in development and will again search the souls of creators and creations.
“God is in the details,” Scott said. “Who bothered to create people who look like human beings? Why do that? It’s really going into that and answering the big, broad strokes of it.”
In “Blade Runner,” one memorable scene presents the rogue replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) reaching his expiration date as the rain in L.A. falls — he’s a synthetic man giving up the ghost in an existential downpour: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe … all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
Humans, aliens and replicants must someday die, but most sci-fi films have simply faded away in moviegoer memory. One reason: Nothing looks more dated than yesterday’s version of tomorrow. To appreciate “Alien” (which won the visual effects Oscar for Swiss artist H.R. Giger and four collaborators), take a YouTube spin through the jumpsuit cornball of movies such as “The Black Hole,” which was released the same year with twice the production budget. And the aesthetic achievement of “Blade Runner,” meanwhile, seems unearthly when you consider it was released a month after the “Mork & Mindy” series finale and the same year that “Pac-Man Fever” hit the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100.
“Unlike other films of the period, no amount of digital manipulation would have improved Scott’s two seminal genre films,” says author Scott Essman, who teaches cinema studies at Cal Poly Pomona. “In this way, Scott’s work stands among the best that the genre has ever produced.”
The film, from a screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, is loosely based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by author Philip K. Dick, who died shortly before the movie was released. That tragedy is deepened by the fact that Dick’s work became a favored fount for Hollywood after the Scott film, which movies such as “Total Recall,” “Minority Report” and “Paycheck,” and the troubled author who toiled so long without great fanfare is now viewed as prescient dreamer.
Late-arriving acclaim was also the story of “Blade Runner.” It just finished first in a SFX Magazine readers ranking of the 100 greatest sci-fi, fantasy and horror films; the movie also edged out the venerable “2001: A Space Odyssey” in similar sci-fi lists by a diverse trio of outlets: the Guardian of London, IGN and New Scientist magazine.
Critics didn’t love “Blade Runner” at first. “The end of the film is both gruesome and sentimental,” Janet Maslin wrote in a New York Times review in 1982. “Mr. Scott can’t have it both ways, any more than he can expect overdecoration to carry a film that has neither strong characters nor a strong story.”
Only Scott knows if such reviews affected his career course: The former commercial director and fine arts student left sci-fi after “Blade Runner” and turned toward historical epics and contemporary tales of honor with films including “Thelma & Louise,” “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Body of Lies.”
“Prometheus” began as a pure prequel to 1979’s “Alien” — the script by Jon Spaihts was called “Alien Zero” — but that changed when Scott brought in Damon Lindelof, co-creator of “Lost.” Over three weeks, the two would met in Scott’s office for long sessions on specific story points or meandering discussions (one time they watched Kubrick’s “2001” with Scott explaining it scene by scene, a dizzying experience for Lindelof, who recorded it all on his iPhone).
Lindelof then took and began transforming the screenplay into a different creature, one tethered less tightly to “Alien” (which had been written by the late Dan O’Bannon, whose credits also included Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall”). As Lindelof took more of Scott’s new ideas and put them under his own “hammer and chisel” he could see the new film would be sharing circuitry with “Blade Runner.” The writer’s own passion for the 1982 film is imprinted in all of his own work, too, pushing the project in that direction.
“I think one of the reasons that ‘Blade Runner’ didn’t make a lot of money when it came out is the same reason that it has endured; there are multiple interpretations,” Lindelof said. “That’s frustrating for some, but it’s the kind of storytelling I love. … One of the things I loved about this new movie is that it isn’t going to do the math for you. It sort of gives you all the pieces of the equation and you have to put it together. And in the first ‘Alien’ movie, there is no time spent by the crew of the Nostromo trying to intuit what happened; all of that is eclipsed by what is happening.”
“Prometheus” stars Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron and Idris Elba, and the pathways back to “Alien” are in plain sight (Guy Pearce, for instance, plays Peter Weyland, the founder of the corporation that sent Sigourney Weaver and company on their fateful mission). It’s a rough and tumble crew, and they question the plan of seeking out their creator — the same could be said of the replicants in “Blade Runner.”
The “Prometheus” mission is funded by the withered old mogul Weyland who — like the defiant Batty in “Blade Runner” — isn’t ready to shed his mortal coil. Lindelof said that parallel was very much on his mind as he wrote through scenes that arrive late in the film.
Fassbender also looked back to 1982 to find bread crumbs for his portrayal of David, the android among the human crew in “Prometheus,” who might be an ancestor of sorts of Ash (Ian Holm) from “Alien.” Despite that, it was actually the work of Sean Young as a forlorn replicant in “Blade Runner” that Fassbender used as a compass point for “otherness” (along with HAL of “2001” and David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth”).
“I liked the idea of David being a sort of walking question mark,” he said. “You just never know if he’s following programming or if he’s developing his own motivations. I don’t always have the answers myself. Sometimes I’m just messing with myself and the rest of actors and the crew members on board the ship. But I found things in ‘Blade Runner.'”
To Scott, now 74, “it was simply the right time” for him to the return to deep space with “Prometheus,” and he was especially invigorated by the prospect of shooting with 3-D cameras. The public responded: “Prometheus” took in $143 million worldwide in its opening weekend, the second best of Scott’s career behind “Hannibal” in 2001.
It was certainly better than “Blade Runner,” which finished its opening weekend with an anemic $6.2 million, partly because it arrived when “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Poltergeist” all were at theaters.
One person who did see “Blade Runner” in theaters was author William Gibson, whose “Neuromancer” (1984) is viewed as one of the two or three most important sci-fi novels of the past 50 years. The author almost shelved his novel after he sat down in the dark with “Blade Runner.”
“About 10 minutes into ‘Blade Runner,’ I reeled out of the theater in complete despair over its visual brilliance and its similarity to the look of ‘Neuromancer,’ my [then] largely unwritten first novel,” Gibson told Details magazine in 1992. “With time, as I got over that, I started to take a certain delight in the way the film began to affect the way the world looked. Club fashions, at first, then rock videos, finally even architecture. Amazing — a science fiction movie affecting reality!”
Scott’s plan to add a new chapter to “Blade Runner” has stirred up excitement as well as anxiety — many sci-fi fans view the movie as the “Casablanca” of futuristic films — perfect in its place and something close to sacred. But Fassbender said there’s no reason to doubt that the Ridley Exception would hold in the 21st century.
“The thing Ridley does is that he can put you in these fantastical worlds, but you always relate to the people there,” Fassbender said. “You feel you’re in the shoes of the characters that are walking through these places. Or maybe that you’re in Ridley’s shoes.”
— Geoff Boucher
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