Holy Motors

Holy Motors (2012)

Dir. Leos Carax

Written by: Leos Carax

Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob


I’ll never forget my initial attempts to see Holy Motors, a movie that I knew nothing about from a French filmmaker whom I’d never heard of, at the Three Rivers Film Festival in 2012. The film festival, organized by Pittsburgh Filmmakers every October, is an event that I look forward to as an opportunity to catch up on the year’s small indies, arthouse releases, and foreign films that didn’t find their way into wide distribution. I often go into these movies blind, choosing from the three dozen odd films based mostly on their paragraph-long blurbs on the Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ website, and this was certainly the case with Holy Motors. The promotional image chosen, of Edith Scob’s Celine donning an unsettling mask meant to be a direct homage to the French horror classic Eyes Without A Face, was enough to sell me on Holy Motors as the one movie that I absolutely had to see at the film festival that year. I tried twice to make that happen, and twice my screening had to be aborted due to projection issues. Each time, I got far enough into Leos Carax’s surrealist fairytale for it to fully sink its claws into me, and, each time, I was disappointed when I couldn’t experience the ending of this one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. I had to purchase Holy Motors on DVD a few months later when it was released just so I could see the movie in its entirety, and it is one of the most satisfying movie purchases that I’ve made in the last decade. Holy Motors is nothing short of a masterpiece of absurdity, with Carax proudly bearing the surrealist torch. It’s a unique movie experience, and one that might not be easily digested by many or most audiences, but it is, nonetheless, one of my favorite films of the 21st century.

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Holy Motors begins in a place of incoherence, with its opening scene featuring a character named “The Sleeper (Carax),” who rises from his slumber, approaches a hidden door in his bedroom wall (which resembles a forest), and opens it, stepping into a crowded cinema. The Sleeper looks down from the cinema’s balcony, where he stands alone, observing a small boy and a giant dog who prowl the aisles, as the film begins. We then meet Mr. Oscar (Lavant) who exits his home, a brutalist compound patrolled by armed guards, and is picked up in a stretch limousine driven by Céline (Scob). As the two drive away, Céline reminds Mr. Oscar of the number of appointments he has that day, and refers him to a dossier which contains the details thereof. When he arrives at his first appointment, Mr. Oscar emerges from the limousine wearing heavy prosthetics, dressed like a crone, and walking, stooped, with the assistance of a cane. On this assignment, he begs for a while, lamenting the status of the old beggar woman, forgotten and ignored by all who pass, and then returns to the limousine where he removes the false nose and teeth, preparing for his next assignment. In this assignment, Mr. Oscar accesses a high security facility, donning a motion-capture suit, and performs a seductive dance with an actress, which is revealed to be the basis of a computer animation that has turned them both into water dragons. The film continues in this way with Mr. Oscar going from assignment to assignment, assuming various roles and performing a series of vignettes, many of which are absurdist or surreal in nature. While the film continues to defy strict narrative continuity, a thematic coherence begins to emerge, with Mr. Oscar’s assignments standing for film genres and his job emerging as that of the actor and audience surrogate.

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I’ve written before about my love for movies about movies and movie-making, but Holy Motors is a tour de force of meta commentary and heady, involved film theory. This is a movie made for those who love to speculate about the role of art and media, and film, specifically, in the life of the individual and within society. It’s a veritable buffet of sumptuous imagery and provocative narrative posturing. Carax, who is importantly positioned as The Sleeper in the film’s first scene, seems to be casting his gaze across the spectrum of visual media and casting a judgment upon society’s use of film as a distraction and as a communication medium. It’s a movie that I didn’t completely understand when I first saw it, and one that I still don’t claim to have mastered. I could go to its deep well of philosophical import a hundred times and find myself drawing new insights. I think that this mystery is what made me want to go back after my initial screening cut the film off before its end, and then made me want to purchase the film after my second screening experience was botched, as well. I didn’t need to go back to Holy Motors to gain some sense of narrative completion, but rather to wash myself in its utter strangeness time and time again, and to see how Carax would tie all of these disparate, surrealist threads together in the end. I was less interested in figuring out the film’s story as I was in exploring its philosophical home base. Carax’s film opens itself up to a wide number of interpretations from a film theory standpoint. It’s just as easily read as a treatise on screen theory and the role of the spectator as it is an examination of film genres, or on post-modernism and the role of the traditional film in 21st century society, at all. As a critic, I love to wrap myself in the film’s layers and feel its all-encompassing content engulfing my brain.

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Holy Motors is an invigorating and rewarding deep dive for theory nerds, but it still retains the pleasures of watching a breezy, if sometimes inscrutable, piece of entertainment. While the film’s structure and loosely-plotted nature might turn off some casual viewers, I think that most people would find quite a bit to like about Holy Motors. For starters, Lavant puts in a great, understated performance. Though he doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue, he provides a blank template upon which the various “assignments” that Mr. Oscar acts out can exist, and those “assignments” leap into life on the screen. One early role, M. Merde, stands out as particularly memorable, with Lavant ditching the elegance of his choreographed motion capture lovemaking in favor of the animalistic, gestural M. Merde who arrives into the film as an agent of chaos. Clad in a shabby green suit, his skin and shockingly orange hair covered in filth and grime, M. Merde crawls out from a sewer, and shambles his way through a cemetery, where he feasts on graveside flowers and assaulting mourners before stumbling upon a fashion shoot. He crashes the photo shoot, kidnapping the model (Eva Mendes), and secrets her away to his subterranean lair where the two smoke cigarettes, and M. Merde eats various non-food substances, including money and the model’s hair. He then fashions her dress into a burqa and leads her deeper into the cave where he strips naked, climbing into her lap and reclining in a pose that is not dissimilar to Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” The scene is profane, perverse, and purposefully obfuscates meaning, but there is obviously some deep theological and artistic significance to this reference, and it is also absurdly comical in its trashy nature.

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Contrast this moment with one later in the film in which Mr. Oscar meets up with a former scene partner (and perhaps lover) on the way to one of his last assignments. In this scene, Lavant plays Mr. Oscar naturalistically, free of any of his previous affections. He has been aged up for the role, but otherwise isn’t heavily made up. He and Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue) reminisce about their work and time together as they leisurely explore an abandoned and crumbling hotel. The faded opulence surrounding the characters reflects the maudlin song that Eva Grace sings, the refrain of which, “Who were we when we were who we were back then?” in turn reflects the shifting nature of these characters’ identities. Who, indeed, were they when they were important to one another, and what weight does that importance really carry if they were only playing out roles. The camera largely follows Eva Grace with Mr. Oscar following behind her, somnambulant, reticent. It’s a far cry from the aggression and grotesquery with which Lavant played M. Merde. It’s fitting, though, and shows off his range well. Though little is made explicit about their relationship in the scene, the tenderness with which Mr. Oscar holds Eva Grace, and the devotion in his eyes when he watches her perform the song tell the tale well enough.  Minogue’s windswept performance is every bit as dramatic as something from a Hollywood musical, and the brief scene gives the film its heart, without ever delving into the details of the pair’s history. Carax is able to create a swell of feeling by manipulating a combination of these great subdued performances, Minogue’s expressive singing voice, a beautiful swell of well-timed strings, and a deeply evocative setting. It’s movie-making 101. Coming near the end of a film that has so wildly veered into experimental territory, this conventional scene surprisingly doesn’t feel out of place, but on the contrary provides the film with its emotional climax.

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Though its surrealist veneer and artsy trappings would likely prove difficult for many viewers to overcome, Holy Motors is the type of varied movie experience that anyone who likes movies should be able to draw some enjoyment from. It contains a handful of moments of high drama, a lot of absurdist comedy as well as sharp satire, and it borrows liberally from science fiction, horror, and action films. It’s a broad and multi-faceted piece of art that seeks to examine why people choose the distractions and the entertainments that they do, and whether film as an entertainment has the hold on the collective imagination in the 21st century that it did in the century before. In addition to being so rich with meaning for cineastes, the film is well-acted, visually sumptuous, and thematically engaging. While not every viewer might respond to the film’s metaphor of the cinema as an aging and dying art form, surely most can relate to Mr. Oscar’s concerns about his own obsolescence as he transitions into middle age, or to Céline’s obvious care and concern for Mr. Oscar, a man who she can never really know. If nothing else, its individual vignettes provide brief moments of engagement that, when taken separately, don’t add up to much, but prove that even the most esoteric of films is an entertainment, because the process of engaging with movies is fun. What makes Holy Motors successful is that even its most absurdist moments are grounded in a bedrock of strong realism, and that as convoluted as its structure and narrative might become, it continues to draw inspiration from the familiar tropes of genre films. It’s a reach for me to say that Holy Motors is accessible, because it really isn’t, but it’s so richly rewarding that I just want more people to see it. It’s the type of movie that reminds me why I fell in love with movies to begin with. It’s a big, all-encompassing, genre-bending work of art, and I want it to get as much admiration as possible.

District 9

District 9 (2009)

Dir. Neill Blomkamp

Written by: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James


District 9 is a film that I don’t watch particularly often, but every time I do watch it, I find myself wondering why it’s been so long since my last viewing. It’s a thoughtful, stylish exploration of social themes wrapped up in the guise of a sci-fi action film. It was an instant addition to the sci-fi canon upon its release, loved by critics and audiences alike. It was also one of the few movies that I saw in 2009, a year when I was almost completely disengaged from the cinema after having dropped out of graduate school. After some subsequent legal issues, I found myself changing jobs, fighting with severe depression, and I simply lost interest in going to the movies because they seemed so ancillary to the issues that I was dealing with in my own life. District 9 didn’t entirely reawaken my serious interest in movies, but seeing it on Christmas day that year did remind me that watching a good movie can be a soothing and restorative experience. Spending a couple of hours in this alternate version of South Africa, one which is inhabited by strange space aliens, was just what I needed at the time, and I find a similar sense of comfort every time I watch this movie.

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In the film, an alien spacecraft arrives on Earth in 1982, and begins hovering over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. After some time with no successful attempts to communicate with the spaceship, and with the world’s population fervently awaiting first contact, an investigation team cracks the ship’s hull, revealing a crew of sick and dying alien lifeforms. These aliens, derisively called “prawns,” are corralled by the South African government into a slum outside of Johannesburg, referred to as District 9, where they live in an uneasy and tenuous peace with their terrestrial neighbors. After nearly 30 years of this uncomfortable arrangement, the South African government hires a private security corporation, Multinational United, to relocate the aliens to a different internment camp, further away from human civilization. Leading up the relocation effort is Wikus van de Merwe (Copley), a bumbling bureaucrat placed into a job he’s totally unsuited for by his father-in-law, who happens to be the head of MNU. During the relocation effort, Wikus meets Christopher James (Cope), an alien who, along with his young son and friend, has been stashing away alien technology for 20 years, hoping to one day repair the mothership and return to his home planet to lead a rescue mission for the rest of his kind stranded on Earth. During a search of Christopher’s home, Wikus finds a canister of fuel that Christopher and his friend have been distilling from their scavenged materials, which he confiscates. However, when trying to open the canister, Wikus accidentally sprays himself in the face with the fuel, which immediately begins to have a violent effect on his physical person. Wikus quickly realizes that his exposure to the black liquid is causing his human tissue to be replaced by alien tissue, and that he is gradually transforming into a prawn. When his condition becomes public, Wikus becomes a figure of universal scorn, while also being hunted by MNU mercenaries, who are hoping to capture him and study the only existing human/prawn hybrid. Wikus is forced to return to District 9 and seek out Christopher, hoping to find answers about his condition.

I think that my favorite thing about District 9 is Blomkamp’s choice to present his story in a pseudo-documentary style. This grounds the film’s fantasy premise in a realistic setting, giving us all the tropes of a nonfiction film, and also allows an unfettered amount of access to the few central characters in the film. By framing the narrative as a documentary, we get early moments of Wikus performing for the documentary camera crew, revealing key pieces of the character’s personality. The style makes the film feel ripped from the headlines while it’s obviously dealing with a farfetched science fiction premise. This verisimilitude is reinforced because not only is there a documentary crew filming the process of the relocation of the prawns outside of District 9, but several later developments in the film are revealed through news broadcasts, screens, and security camera footage. I’m often skeptical of films that try to bridge the gap between found footage, documentary, and narrative filmmaking, because often the narrative device is stretched beyond the point of plausibility or just used as a gimmick, but Blomkamp does a great job of walking the tight rope and meshing the film’s disparate styles together.

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The other aspect of District 9 that keeps me wanting to watch it over and over again are the great performances by Copley and Cope as Wikus and Christopher, respectively. The movie was Copley’s feature debut, and his performance as Wikus catapulted him into international stardom. As the film’s only non-alien protagonist, and as the subject of the faux-documentary that is being shot, Wikus is in nearly every scene in the film, and Copley rises to the occasion admirably. He is at times funny, pitiful, sad, and fearsome, as he turns himself into a reluctant warrior by the film’s end. The range that he shows in the film is impressive, providing genuine humor with the early portions of the film requiring a slapstick type of performance while later scenes find Copley evoking deep pathos as he portrays Wikus’s gradual understanding of the plight of the aliens whom he had never considered before. Copley became the film’s breakout star, but I think that Cope’s performance as Christopher is equally as memorable, in a much different way. Cope did the voice work for all of the prawns in the film, and the series of clicks, whistles, and skittering noises that they produce is actually emotive, even divorced from the context of the film’s subtitles. His performance as Christopher Johnson is the film’s emotional center for me, and it’s impressive that an actor can convey that level of emotional commitment while performing as a CGI character. Christopher Johnson feels every bit as real, and deserves every bit of pathos and sympathy that Wikus does, and Cope’s mostly improvised performance is to credit for that.

I think that District 9 is one of the more emotionally resonant science fiction movies I’ve ever seen, and I imagine that that is likely due to its obvious close association with the actual political history of South Africa. The film is a clear allegory for Apartheid, the legislated, state-sanctioned brand of segregation that was law in South Africa for much of the latter half of the 20th century. The prawns are very obviously stand ins for black South Africans, who were subjugated under minority rule by white South Africans until the early 1990s. The political practice had its roots in Dutch colonial rule of South Africa, and the descendants of the colonizers simply continued enforcing this form of white supremacy through legal actions and force, when necessary. Blomkamp’s personal history growing up in the final years of Apartheid undoubtedly had an influence on District 9. Though they’re shown to be mistreated by both white and black characters alike, the othering of the prawns has a distinctly racial feel to it, and though the film’s message could be applied generally and broadly to any class or racial divisions among society, its context as the work of a South African filmmaker make its cultural allusions obvious. While it would stand out as a great modern sci-fi film based on its intriguing premise, great effects and action sequences, and memorable aliens alone, the real world resonance of District 9’s narrative with the recent history of South Africa gives the work that much more artistic integrity, and pushes it over the top into “great film” territory.

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While Neill Blomkamp’s stock may not be as high now as it was after the release of District 9, with his proposed Alien spinoff series never coming to fruition and his subsequent films suffering both critical and commercial failure, District 9 still stands out as one of the early 21st century’s great films. Its successes have bought Blomkamp enough good will with me that I’ll consider his next film or two must see material unless they disappoint me as much as Chappie did. I’m even still holding out some hope that the sequel to District 9 that Blomkamp has teased at various times may eventually appear. But even if it doesn’t, and if Blomkamp doesn’t fulfill on the promise of his debut, nothing can diminish the initial rush that I felt on first seeing District 9. It was such a fun and original premise, presented in an action style that seemed both over the top and practical. The film’s world was engaging, both familiar and alien, but overall wholly formed. It arrived at my life at a perfect time, when I needed to remember the entertainment and distraction that a really good movie can provide, and I’m reminded of that every time I pull it off the shelf for a rewatch.

Blade Runner

Blade Runner (1982)

Dir. Ridley Scott

Written by: Hampton Fancher & David Peoples (from the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick)

Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos


Blade Runner is, without doubt, my favorite film that I have so far reviewed for this project. By now, my affinity for science fiction is probably apparent, and I believe that Blade Runner is the finest modern science fiction film ever made. It carries on the traditions of genre classics, both in its style and in its themes, while also breaking new ground and introducing new tropes that would become staples of the sci-fi film for years to come. The film introduced the trappings of cyberpunk to the screen, and its dystopic vision of a future in which advanced cybernetic technology and artificial intelligence exist alongside the crumbling ruins of a once-proud earthbound 20th century society has informed the style of science fiction ever since. Without Blade Runner there is no Robocop, no Matrix, no Ghost in the Shell. Its importance in the history of the genre can’t be understated, and, to me, it is a perfect film.

The film’s opening title roll succinctly and directly introduces the film’s themes, as well as the future world of 2019 in which it is set:

“Early in the 21st century, the Tyrell Corporation advanced Robot evolution into the NEXUS phase – a being virtually identical to a human – known as a Replicant. The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth – under penalty of death. Special police squads – Blade Runner Units – had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant. This was not called execution. It was called retirement.”

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Rick Deckard (Ford) is the titular Blade Runner, who is coerced to take one final assignment before his own retirement. A group of Replicants have escaped from one of the Off-world colonies, murdering over two dozen humans in the process, and Deckard is tasked with finding and retiring them. While tracking Pris (Hannah), Batty (Hauer), and the other Replicants, Deckard meets and falls in love with Rachael (Young), an advanced prototype Replicant who has been implanted with a human’s memories. Deckard’s relationship with Rachael causes him to question the nature of humanity as well as the moral implications of his hunt for the Replicants.

The film’s premise is simple, but its presentation is incredibly complex. Scott packs the frame with visual information, introducing details about this world through a unique and unmistakable aesthetic. The film is unrelentingly dark, borrowing and updating the aesthetic of the noir film. This dark, gray color palette is reflective of the fact that though Blade Runner presents a high-tech future, this is no age of enlightenment. It seems that society has regressed rather than progressed in spite of the strides of science and technology, with all but a few people living in relative squalor, scraping just to get by. The benefits of technology are reserved for the wealthy, like Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) who lives in a penthouse atop the massive Tyrell Building, which houses his corporation and which towers over the slums where most of the film’s action takes place. The shadowy streets below the Tyrell Building are lit up by crisscrossing search lights, and characters’ faces are illuminated by the flashing lights of the omnipresent flying police cruisers, giving the world a paranoid sense of constant surveillance. The only steady sources of light are the glowing neon billboards, advertising products like Coca-Cola and Atari. In the future that Blade Runner imagines, it would seem that traditional nation-states have been abandoned in favor of an overarching corporate hegemony.

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Blade Runner is as dense symbolically and textually as it is visually, with Scott drawing on a history of literary and filmic influences to further his film’s themes. One of the most obvious parallels in the film can be drawn from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Arguably one of the first works of science fiction, the tale of man’s quest to play God and create life has its fingerprints all over Blade Runner. All of the Replicants are, in a way, spiritual cousins to the famous Monster. His body, constructed as it was from corpse parts, was a reminder of man’s mortality, just as the Replicants’ built-in four year life span is a constant reminder of the fleeting nature of life on earth. And just like the Monster, the Replicants never asked to be created, but now that they have been given the gift of life, they naturally begin to seek out meaning in their existence. Theirs is a tragic case of an unfortunate being that was given all of the capacities to question their existence, but none of the means to truly enjoy it or make it meaningful. The film also takes several cues from Fritz Lang’s sci-fi classic, Metropolis, which concerns itself with widening class inequality in a seemingly Utopian future. In both its themes and its art design, Blade Runner owes a deep debt of gratitude to the earlier film. These literary and cinematic callbacks help to align Blade Runner in the larger history of science-fiction, and align its themes with the ur-questions that sci-fi has been asking since its inception: “What is Man’s place in the Universe?” “What, if any, is the will of our Creator?” and, ultimately, “What does it mean to be Man?”

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These questions are most directly brought up in the character of Roy Batty, leader of the rogue Replicants, and his quest to meet his maker. Religious symbolism is prevalent throughout the film, but the most obvious religious motifs and iconography are associated with the character of Roy Batty. His character is the most fleshed out of all the Replicants, and he seems to be the only one with a concrete goal in mind after their mutiny and escape to Earth. He is on a quest to meet Dr. Tyrell and inquire as to the purpose of his short life. Batty is the prodigal son, returned to his father to be celebrated as a crowning achievement, but he’s also the avenging angel, bringing Tyrell his comeuppance in the form of a swift and brutal death. Later in the film, Scott makes a more direct religious allusion when he has Batty drive a nail through his palm while he is chasing Deckard through the abandoned hotel at the end of the film. The gesture has major significance in the context of the larger scene – Batty uses the nail to stabilize his malfunctioning hand as it becomes apparent that he is shutting down – but when coupled with Batty cradling a dove while he gives his final soliloquy, the symbolic meaning is even more apparent. All of the Replicants, but particularly Batty, are Christ figures. They were created to save humanity from the hardships of labor and war, but most importantly, like Christ, they were created to die. They were also created as an Other, something for their human counterparts to hold up as an example of non-life, non-humanity. However, unlike Christ, their suffering and death is as robbed of meaning and permanence as their short lives. Like Batty says before he dies, all of the wonderful things that he has seen, things that no human will ever experience, will be washed away, “like tears in rain.” If the measure of humanity is one’s capacity to empathize and value the experience and the life of one less fortunate that oneself, then the humans in Blade Runner have failed the test spectacularly.

Of course, it is really the tragic figure of the doomed Replicants that the audience is meant to pity by the film’s end. Their circumstances, being brought into a cruel world that seeks to use them for slave labor and then discard them after four years of life, is naturally pitiable enough, but the performances of the actors portraying the Replicants, particularly Hannah and Hauer, breathe humanity into these robots and give them an emotional depth often unseen in films about androids. Brion James and Joanna Cassidy are both good in their roles as Leon and Zhora, respectively, but these two Replicants aren’t given nearly as much screentime as Pris and Batty. All of the actors play the Replicants with a kind of savagery that’s bubbling just underneath the surface. Hannah plays Pris like a wounded dog in her first appearance in the film. She beds down under some trash outside Tyrell Corporation geneticist, J.F. Sebastian’s (William Sanderson) home. When he discovers her, she’s initially frightened, shying away from his gaze before she reluctantly agrees to come inside and be his friend. Of course this is all a canny set up, a ruse to gain Batty access to Dr. Tyrell, but Pris is convincing enough for the naïve, lonely Sebastian. To this point, it seems that the Replicants are prone to lash out violently when backed into a corner, programmed to focus on short term survival, but when Batty and Pris are reunited at Sebastian’s, they exchange a series of small glances that make the audience aware that this was all a part of their cunning plan.

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Eventually Deckard tracks Pris down at the dilapidated hotel that Sebastian has taken over as his home. Pris gets the better of Deckard, getting the drop on him by pretending to be one of Sebastian’s harmless animatronic creations and then showing off her advanced athletic prowess as she does back handsprings across the room, grabbing Deckard in a choke hold with her legs. Rather than killing Deckard, she goes back for another gymnastic run across the room, giving him time to recover. Deckard shoots Pris down and she dies, screaming and writhing on the floor. There’s both a mechanical and an animalistic quality to the way that she twitches on the floor before dying. In one sense, she seems to be malfunctioning, but in another she seems to be a panicked animal, caught in a trap, trying desperately to free itself when it’s already too late. In this brief scene, Pris encapsulates the experience of being a Replicant so well. She lures Deckard in with her cunning, and overpowers him with her superior physicality, but her downfall is her innate desire to show off. She could have easily killed Deckard, but Pris instead opts to give another display of her power and it ultimately costs her her life.

The most advanced Replicant, of course, is Batty. He’s the oldest of the four, only a few months away from the end of his four-year life span, and he has had the most lived experience and learned the most about mankind and what it means to be human. Rutger Hauer is a tour de force in the film’s final scenes, playing Batty as both Id and Ego as he pursues Deckard to the rooftop of the hotel. The hunter has become the hunted, as Batty attempts to give Deckard a taste of the fear that the Replicants must feel every day. Batty, like Pris, displays animalistic qualities, howling and barking after Deckard and running lithely through the crumbling building. This is, of course, only one side of his personality, as he also repeatedly goads Deckard with quips about fairness, competence, and humanity. He seems omnipresent as his voice projects from the walls, crashing through the plaster on occasion to remind Deckard that his pursuer is just on his heels. Batty’s manic pursuit of Deckard is one of the film’s most memorable sequences, with Hauer’s intensely blue eyes and menacing smile popping off the screen. He plays the doomed Replicant with malice, but never lets the audience forget that Batty is a tragic figure.

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Batty’s final soliloquy, which Hauer wrote himself on set, gets to the crux of the film’s argument about humanity. In just the four years that he was given to live, Batty has experienced and seen things that no human ever will. He has developed a personality, emotions, and, most importantly, a set of memories that are uniquely his and a bit of life experience from which he can draw. These are the qualities that make Batty a human being, even though he is not designated as such. When he is no more, all of those experiences will be lost. Being granted life, Batty’s desire was to live it, freely, to gain experience and knowledge, but his creators had another plan for him. When Batty saves Deckard from falling off the roof, he passes the ultimate test of his humanity, ironically a test that none of the film’s human characters seems possible of passing. Batty has developed empathy, and by allowing Deckard to live, and explaining to him that the fear that he is feeling at that moment is akin to the fear that the Replicants feel every day of their existence, Batty is passing that lesson on. Before he dies, Batty releases a dove which flies skyward. The camera follows it up and gives the first glimpse of a blue sky beyond the smokestacks and fog of Los Angeles.

I haven’t even touched on so many things that I love about Blade Runner, but to try to fit everything in to one post would be a fool’s errand. I called it a perfect film, and I feel it is that because it’s more than the sum of its parts. It works on both an ethical level and on a strictly narrative level, leaving the audience with questions to ponder about both. The film contains great performances, a fantastic score, a visual aesthetic that helped to influence and define an era of science-fiction filmmaking. It asks heavy philosophical questions and largely lets the audience fill in their own answers. The basic question that viewers of the film tend to ask, namely “Is Deckard a Replicant?”, can be answered by posing another, more important question: “What does it mean to be a human when the most humane characters in the film are the Replicants?” It ultimately doesn’t matter whether or not Deckard is a man or a machine, because in Blade Runner humanity is not strictly defined by the presence or absence of mechanical parts. It’s defined by what the characters do with the life they’re given. It’s defined by their desire for “More life, fucker/father.” It’s defined by a striving to be and do more, to consume experience with a voraciousness and to give meaning to that experience.


Alien (1979)

Dir. Ridley Scott

Written by: Dan O’Bannon

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm

Imagine being in one of the first audiences to experience Alien when it was released in 1979. The film’s opening credit sequence cues that this is going to be a different sort of space adventure. The only sound on the soundtrack at the opening of the film are low strings, mimicking wind howling in the vacuum of space, as the letters of the film’s title slowly begin to reveal themselves. The word “alien” not only refers to the monster that will soon be unleashed on the crew of the Nostromo, but also to the fact that this film must have been fairly alien to the sensibilities of a viewer in 1979. It isn’t that Alien is without filmic precedent. Some of its DNA can be traced back to 1951’s The Thing From Another World, and it also borrows heavily from the newly established slasher genre, particularly sharing a tonal similarity to John Carpenter’s Halloween, released just six months prior to Alien. It’s the way that Ridley Scott combines these disparate influences to create one of the first true sci-fi/horror hybrids that makes Alien such a unique experience, and a seminal classic in both genres.

From the start, Alien takes its time, lulling the audience into a false sense of security as it spends the first half hour of its runtime detailing the fairly mundane activities of the crew of the Nostromo who have been awakened early from their hyper sleep to investigate a signal of unknown origin. Instead of forcing the pace early in the film, Scott lets the film’s set design build up a sense of foreboding in the audience, particularly after the Nostromo touches down on the alien planet and the crew begins to explore the ancient alien ship. The sheer size of the ship and its strange biomechanical construction, where the walls seem to ooze and breathe, seemingly aware of the presence of the exploring crew members, is inherently unsettling. The film’s opening half is a master work in building and releasing tension, using tone and pace to create nearly unbearable suspense that is paid off with some famously gory scenes later in the film.


One of these gory scenes, featuring the film’s famous chest-bursting alien, is the only thing I can remember from my first time ever watching Alien. I went to a friend’s birthday party in elementary school and we were going to watch monster movies all night, so his parents had rented us an assortment of classics, including Alien. I don’t actually remember watching the rest of the film, but the scene where the alien bursts out of Kane’s (John Hurt) chest was forever etched into my mind after that night. I had already seen Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs, so I knew what was coming from the parody, but I still wasn’t prepared for the visceral intensity of the scene. By today’s standards, the scene is actually fairly tame, but my ten-year-old mind was not ready for something so shocking and violent, and I imagine that I don’t remember anything else about the rest of the movie because I actually checked out shortly after seeing Kane’s ribcage explode as the infant xenomorph is born.

Since that initial introduction to the world of Alien, I have seen the original many, many times and have also seen all of its sequels and related spin offs. Up until this rewatch, I likely would have said that my favorite of the series is Aliens, the James Cameron directed sequel that expands on the original film’s mythology, introducing new characters and cementing Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) role as the franchise’s central hero, and as one of the most important heroines in all of film history. The sequel jettisons the original’s horror elements in favor of a faster paced, more dialogue heavy, run and gun action film. It opens up the mythology, firmly cementing the Weyland-Yutani Corporation as the real evil of the series, as it remains insistent on bringing a xenomorph to Earth for study and potential weaponization, despite Ripley’s vehement protests. Simply put, Aliens is bigger, more bombastic, and, often, more fun than its predecessor. However, after watching both films in the same afternoon for the first time in years as I prepared to write this post, I have to come down in favor of the original. Aliens is a great film, and unquestionably one of the best sequels of all time. I wouldn’t question anyone who told me that they preferred it to Alien, as I once did, but for right now, I just find the original film to be more fully realized and interesting on the whole.

I think the biggest reason for my new preference for Alien over Aliens is the former film’s deliberateness, in its construction and its pacing. The slower pace and extended introduction of Alien allows for more discovery, whether in the film’s early tracking shots that explore the Nostromo before her crew awakens in their pods, or the aforementioned highlighting of the set design on the alien planet and in the alien ship. Alien is a film that wants its construction to be noticeable and appreciated, and through highlighting that construction Scott and Giger’s effects team create a fully realized world, which raises the stakes on the terror that is unleashed in the second half of the film. The slower pace of Alien also allows the audience to get to know the characters a little better than the characters of Aliens. I care a lot more about the intergalactic truckers who crew the Nostromo than I do about the space marines who populate the sequel.


One thing that I really enjoy about both of these films, though, is their class sensibility. In both films, the heroes are simply working class people who are doing a job, particularly so in Alien. My favorite character in Alien is Parker (Yaphet Kotto) because he voices the crew’s class concerns. He has one of the first lines in the film, and he uses it to express his dislike for the inequity in the bonus structure for the crew. He and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), the ship’s mechanics, have to split a share while the rest of the crew each gets full shares. Parker is also the one who reminds the rest of the crew that the Nostromo is not a search and rescue ship when their mission directives are changed to investigate the mysterious distress signal. Parker just wants to do his job, get back to Earth, and get paid. This class consciousness extends to the presence of Weyland-Yutani Corporation as the series’ overarching villain. The corporation’s desire to obtain a xenomorph for study trumps all other concerns, including the safety of the films’ protagonists who are often corporation employees, throughout the series. This positioning of corporate interests or meddling corporate scientists as evil is not uncommon in the sci-fi genre, but it makes for a nice subplot in the Alien films.

Whatever genre you decide to classify it in, whether sci-fi or horror, Alien is undoubtedly near the top of the pile. It launched an iconic franchise of films with variable results. Its influence extends beyond these direct sequels to dozens of sci-fi and horror films that have come since, but none have been able to top the original for innovation and sheer terror. Alien is a timeless classic for that reason. When talking about the history of films, you can’t ignore the xenomorph in the room.