Old masters' new tricks

second take
Last Updated 09 June 2012, 13:05 IST

Ridley Scott’s first sci-fi movie in many years, Prometheus, opens soon. Will it redefine how science fiction movies will look in the future the way his Blade Runner once did? Critics have already weighed in: apparently not.

It’s great looking but not cutting edge. I revisited Blade Runner and found the movie still had it all: atmosphere, mood and heart-stopping visuals. Scott’s unforgettable sci-fi noir cult classic is ultimately moving and hopeful, not cynical and bleak as many think it to be.

Los Angeles in the 21st century looks permanently drenched in fog and drizzle, everywhere bathed in neon, and a sky claustrophobically encircled by flying cars, towering skyscrapers, and giant billboards.

Even in that most noir-ish of noir classics, The Third Man, only the dark, crooked streets were attired noir-style, in Blade Runner director Scott and production designer Syd Mead go one step further and make an entire city shimmer noir-ishly. And all of it to Vangelis romantic soundtrack.

Harrison Ford is Deckard, a hard-boiled detective in the Bogart tradition, except in the future they are called “blade runners”. Deckard’s new assignment is to hunt out and kill five “Replicants” (robots with human bodies and human memory, played by Rutger Hauer, Joanna Cassidy, Daryl Hannah and Brion James) who have begun to rebel.

Replicants are allowed to live only so long, when their services are no longer required, they are ‘retired’ by blade runners like Deckard. But these Replicants have fallen in love with life and with each other and don’t want to die.

The inevitable happens: like all hard-boiled detectives, Deckard falls in love with a replicant, Rachel, played by the eerily beautiful, magnificently attired Sean Young.
Ford looks great in the part, the wry, cynical, laconic Bogart-ish voice-over becomes him.

The Director’s Cut, which was released a few years ago, drops the voice-over and has a bleaker end — it’s hinted that Deckard himself could be a replicant! But Blade Runner may be the only case in Hollywood where the studio version is actually superior to the director’s. This great looking sci-fi thriller has one of the saddest, most moving climaxes: it comes out of an act of heroism .

But the heroism is not Ford’s, it is something that the ‘villain’ does: Hauer gets a chance to kill Ford, instead he saves our hero saying, “I’ve come to love life. Not just mine, anybody’s. Even yours.” And with that he closes his eyes in the drizzle.

It’s a great scene that has you shaken and in tears. Another veteran filmmaker’s magnum opus is also around the corner: Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby in 3D. Will it redefine how 3D cinema will look in the future (something Avatar set out to do but failed)?

I revisited Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge which redefined the modern musical and found it just as alive as the day it opened. “It was 1899, the summer of love...” the voice-over begins, as Ewan McGregor, a penniless writer, tells you how he came to Paris and becomes entangled in a web of tragedy and loss as he falls in love with Nicole Kidman, a showgirl at the Moulin Rouge.

On re-seeing Moulin Rouge, I realised what Baz Luhrmann’s musical was really about: pop consciousness. The movie is not so much a celebration of love and romance as much as it is of pop sensibility. It gets you dizzy and drunk on romance through ‘silly love songs’.

It must be the first movie to pay tribute to middlebrow pop music, though there is nothing middlebrow about the movie itself. “Freedom, Beauty, Truth and above all, Love!” Christian, the penniless writer, cries out the bohemian creed of Toulouse Lauterec and gang. To which Satine, the courtesan, smirks.

“But a life without love!” goes on Christian. “Love is like oxygen, Love is a many splendored thing, Love lifts us where we belong!” And what Christian says sounds familiar till you realise they are all famous lines from different love songs. “Oh, don’t give me those silly love songs” says Satine. “They are silly love songs” shoots back Christian, “so what’s wrong with them?”

Parts of Moulin Rouge are like things we fantasise about: to take strands of song-lines and knit them into one song, like the Elephant Love Medley here which has ‘All you need is love, I was made for you, One more night, Pride, Don’t leave me this way, Silly love songs, Up where we belong, Heroes and  I will always love you’.

And all of them are belted out by Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. It’s pop raised to operatic heights. Luhrmann takes contemporary pop songs (like Nature Boy, Rhythm of the Night, Smells like Teen Spirit) and has the characters sing them in their own voices. Except this is Paris at the turn of the century and what are these people doing singing Nirvana? But that’s the fun of it all and it works fabulously.

As with his cutely titled, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet”, Luhrmann pushes the concept of the musical the way he pushed the Bard, risking ridicule. But he is reckless and bold and passionate and the result is a film that will not be liked by many, but will have its own fans.

Luhrmann exults in these songs and knows when to make fun of them as with Jim Broadbent’s hilarious version of Like a Virgin. And he knows when to be funny and adoring of a classic like Elton John’s Your Song.

When Ewan meets Nicole to read his poetry (another love song, really), he begins to make up one on the spot. “It’s a little bit funny…huh…this feeling inside. Not one of those you hide. Don’t have much money but..but..but boy if I did! I’d buy a ..a..a…big house!

Where we both could live, etc.” And then comes that most beautiful cover version (though a friend feels they killed it) of Your Song. Beautifully sung, beautifully picturised with a big, white whiskered moon joining in a resounding, operatic baritone.

If Prometheus couldn’t be the sci-fi movie landmark we wished it to be, let’s hope The Great Gatsby will become one for three dimensional cinema.

(Published 09 June 2012, 13:05 IST)

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